The clock seem to tick very slowly in the quiet bedroom. Mort risked one glanceconfirming it was almost time for the sunrisebefore returning his focus towards the spell book in front of him. He read the instructions for the illusion spell over and over again, mentally going over each step. The Candy Mountain game board was laid out next to the bed, its cards scattered on both sides, filled with descriptions that were both saccharine and lurid, written by a bored princess and an indifferent pony shade a thousand years ago. He briefly looked over the top of the book, seeing Luna looking at him with eyes that were patient, eager and drowsy.
The two of them had been going over the same spell nearly all night, having to break the sessions up with little breaks to get his mind off magic for a moment to focus on other things, such as simple manners and how to act while tangible. Mort had never been with more than two ponies at a time, much less while keeping his real nature secret. There were things he couldn't do not just because it would be rude, but also because it would draw attention he didn't need. He couldn't, for instance, move through a group of ponies while they spoke to one another, but at the same time he couldn't simply float over them, either.
General movement, in Mort's opinion, was going to be hard to keep in check; he was so used to gliding and floating everywhere, that it would take actual effort to stick close to the ground. He had suggested that he just keep his wings out, but Luna then reminded him that it would mean losing his horn, and as a result not be allowed to use magic. There were only two alicorns in Equestria, she reminded him. Not to mention getting his wings to look properly organic would take time they didn't have. Ultimately, he decided that it'd be better to use a little magic and no flying then vice versa.
The other difficulty would be staying completely solid. He had a habit of becoming amorphous when he wanted to go somewhere quickly, and his thoughts and moods would occasionally alter his very shape. Something the very physical ponies didn't experience. It wouldn't be as difficult as "normal" movement, but if he tripped or lost his concentration, there could be problems.
Mort cleared his head of those thoughts, focusing on the problem at hoof; the illusion spell hadn't been going well. It had taken a couple hours just to attempt it, but the previous attempts thus far hadn't been too successful. The trickiest part was wrapping the magical field around his head, one that hid the details of his face. Most of his other attempts had failed, some rather miserably. (One attempt ended with him sporting a rainbow-colored afro, and not even Luna could explain why.)
"Okay..." At his voice, Luna perked up, watching intently. Controlling his nervousness, he concentrated, feeling the magical energy form inside him. He tempered that magic, forging it into a spell that, if properly realized, would subconsciously dissuade anypony from remembering anything but the most basic of details.
With the spell formed, he begun to carefully control the flow and amount of magic released into his horn. Too little and the spell would fizzle, too much and the magical energy could explode. The latter had happened more than once, as Mort soon realized that the magic needed was significantly more than the telekinetic magic, but at the same time much less than what his scythe required. Finding the proper balance was arduous, and he likened it to getting an exact cup of water from a fire hose, without spilling a drop in the process.
He felt his spirits rise as the magic stabilized in his horn, and steeled himself for the next, trickiest part. Now that the magic had been formed, it had to be unwound like a ball of yarn, and woven around Mort's face. The magic would then begin to flow across Mort's head, his horn providing the extra charge needed to keep the magical current flowing. For normal unicorns, the spells duration could leave them feeling lightheaded and drained, the illusion getting weaker over time. Luna, though, seemed confident he could keep the spell going with little, if any, side-effects.
He unwound the magical energy, weaving it around his head. He watched it as it crossed his eyesight, looking like a green, translucent fabric, brimming with sparks of light. But as the magic begun to bend and waver, he realized he was getting distracted, and redoubled his efforts to maintain it, correcting its shape and movement.
Soon, it seemed like a green, sparkling filter had been placed over the entire world, and just as Mort was wondering if he was almost done, the world suddenly grew brighter than any sun, before the glow dissipated. As it did, he saw that the green magic had gone, and he was looking straight at a gawking Luna.
"D-did I do it?" he asked, tentatively. Luna scratched her chin, looking curious, and leaned forward, her horn glowing. Mort fidgeted as he waited, wondering if simply nothing had happened. He certainly didn't feel all that much different. If it hadn't worked, he had no idea what he'd do.
As he wondered if Twilight Sparkle would buy a story of him really, really liking skull masks, Luna broke into a wide smile, jumped off the bed and hugged him with her forelegs.
"You did it!" she squealed jubilantly, twirling the two of them. "You did it! You really did it!"
"I-I did?" Luna let go, and Mort had to regain his balance before tumbling over. He felt so many emotions at once he couldn't decide how to feel. He finally settled on a very simple one: happy. "I-I mean, yes! I did it! Woo! Yeah! Heck, that wasn't too bad! I'm..." He trailed off as his eyes landed on the mirror, seeing his face stare back. His red-eyed, skull face. "...I'm not any different from before," he deadpanned.
"Well of course you'll be able to see yourself," Luna said, walking next to him. "You know who you are. And your mind isn't like a pony's anyway."
"Oh, okay," he said, a little relieved. "What do you see?"
She gave him a tentative look. "It's...not quite that effective on me," she admitted. "The spell blurs details, but I know that's you under the hood, so my mind fills in most of the gaps anyway."
That wasn't the answer he was hoping for. "How do you know if it even worked, then?" he anxiously asked.
She tapped one hoof on her horn. "I can feel the spell wrapped around you, Mort. You did a great job on it!" She rubbed his back with a wing reassuringly. "It'll be fine. Trust me."
Mort breathed deeply, a habit he picked up from watching other ponies doing it. "Okay, well, you are the expert here."
The top of the mirror shined brightly, and Mort turned to see it was from the first rays of sun, peeking out from behind the mountains. It rose steadily, lighting up the landscape as it ascended.
"It's dawn," Luna said. She gave a quick look at the clock. "You should probably get going, Mort."
"Are you sure?" he asked. "I mean, it wouldn't take that long for me to fly over there. We can probably finish up Candy Mountain, I could tell you about the more interesting ponies I met, uh..." He trailed off as he noticed Luna shaking her head, her midnight hair swinging back and forth.
"I'd love to, Mort, really," she said apologetically, "but you need this time to practice walking. Real walking, I mean."
"Oh..." Mort was used to walking, in the sense he moved four legs in a locomotive fashion. He wasn't, however, used to walking while his cloak was completely physical, and not something that could part against his hoofs if they moved too far out. Nor had he ever focused on making sure each hoof touch the ground with actual weight, and not just float a little above it.
"Don't worry," she said, "we'll finish that game someday soon. I can keep it out until then." She bounded up onto her bed, blinking her eyes tiredly. "I'm..." She gave a big yawn, her wings stretching out. "I'm...sure you'll be fine. You're a nice pony deep down. I'm sure they'll see that."
"If you say so..." He looked out one of the windows in the room. The sunlight was just now reaching a particular small town, situated almost precariously close to the Everfree forest. "Though, I'm not really a 'pony.' I mean, I can sorta look like one, sorta act like one, maybe sorta talk like one, but...I-I don't know, what if they just kinda sense something wrong? What if..."
He stopped himself, shook his head and steeled his eyes. "Y-you know what, no. No! This isn't a time to be negative. I just gotta be confident! If I can collect dozens of souls, on time, twenty-four-seven, I can definitely have a good time with a few ponies! I mean, a lot of them do it every day! It can't be that hard. I can do this. I can DO this! I CAN-"
His speech was interrupted by a gentle snore. Mort silenced himself immediately, and turned around. Luna had curled up near her pillows, fast asleep.
"...I can do this more quietly," he finished. He silently moved towards the bed, his horn glowing. A few pillows were moved underneath Luna's head, a some more under her body. The alicorn snuggled against them comfortably, murmuring softly.
Mort watched her contently for a moment, then used his horn to draw the curtains across the windows, darkening the room. "Have a good day, Luna," he whispered. "Sleep tight."
Without saying another word, his body became intangible, and he shot through the curtains and windows, towards the outside, where he saw the rest of Canterlot, it's roofs glimmering in the morning sun. The sight of the sun tempted him to see Celestia for perhaps a last minute pep talk, but he felt that if he didn't get going now, he might not go at all.
He did a little backflip in the air, and then rocketed straight down, his form going straight through the castle, passing through brick and mortar walls, marble columns, water pipes and the very foundations of the castle itself. Soon the castle was behind him, and he was then flying through Canterlot, seeing its citizens waking from their beds as he passed through their homes, before twisting himself around to fly through the very mountain that Canterlot was built on. On an impulse, he begun to corkscrew through the mountain, for no other reason than he thought it could be fun.
After traveling through almost half-a-mile of solid rock, he finally swerved himself upward as he reached the base of the mountain. A moment later he sprouted from the ground, and lowered himself onto a level, dirt road. He glanced behind himself, and saw the city of Canterlot high above, hanging over the mountain side. He had always questioned the reason behind such a construction, but at the same time, the sight always made him look at it in awe. And perhaps, he sometimes thought, that was reason enough.
"Okay, let's get moving..." He took his gaze away from the city, and looked down the dirt road, where some distance away lay Ponyville. He concentrated, becoming tangible again, and then went further. His cloak became completely solid, and his hooves settled on the ground. Despite some earlier practice, it still felt incredibly unusual for him, and even clunky. Still, he knew he had to fit in, and only hoped he would grow used to it.
"A wise pony," he begun, sagely, "once said, 'The journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step.'" Holding his head high, Mort put one hoof forward.
Almost immediately, it got caught in the cloak, and Mort cried out as he fell, practically burying his face in the ground. Groaning, he got back up on his hoofs, and righted himself with a sigh. He shot a disdainful look at the long cloak.
"Wise ponies must not wear cloaks," he muttered.
Spike let out a battle cry. His fists flew at lightning speeds, landing hundreds of blows in the blink of an eye. Scores of diamond dogs howled and whined as they were flung into the air, the lucky ones landing in dazed heaps, the others propelled into great, wooden pillars and stone statues.
With the last diamond dog down, Spike observed his handy work: an entire regiment of diamond dogs littered the throne room, their armor battered, their weapons broken, and their spirits crushed. He dusted off his orange gi, bearing the symbol of his master's school, and looked towards his ultimate goal.
In the center of the throne room, surrounded by pillars bearing dragon carvings, sat the most beautiful unicorn in the world, her baby-blue eyes looking at him sadly behind a luxurious, violet mane, her fur as white and flawless as alabaster. She wore a kimono that was the color of sakura flowers and lotus petals.
His heart begun to pound, and he felt it would burst at any moment. "Rarity! You're safe!" He dashed towards the golden throne, weaving around the mounds of diamond dogs.
"Not one step closer, fool!" a snobbish voice rang out from behind the throne.
Spike slid to a halt, his spines bristling. "You!"
From behind the throne that Rarity sat on, another unicorn appeared, giving the dragon warrior a haughty look. He wore a kimono that was a gaudy array of bright colors, his filed horn jutting out of a golden mane that had a closer relation to cosmetics than actual hair. He levitated a fan over his face, waving it briskly.
"Blueblood!" Spike shouted, his fists clenching in anger.
"My oh my, you certainly take your time, Dragon Warrior," he said, haughtily. "For a minute there I thought you would never show up."
He pointed accusingly at him. "Prepare yourself, Blueblood! Tonight you will pay for kidnapping Rarity, for hurting my master, Twilight Sparkle, and for hording all the gems in the kingdom!"
The stallion chuckled, an irritatingly high-pitched noise. "Oh, you misunderstand, Spike! It is not me you'll be fighting, but my apprentice!" He closed the fan dramatically, and as it snapped shut, a dark figure dropped to the ground, landing between the dragon and unicorn.
Spike's eyes narrowed. "Trixie!"
"That's The GREAT and POWERFUL Trixie to you, lizard!" the unicorn declared. She was wrapped in a lavender, star-spangled ninja outfit, her silver man tied back into a ponytail.
Blueblood laughed again. "Oh, you've finally met your match now, Spike. Trix-I'm sorry, The Great and Powerful Trixie, has studied every martial art known to pony! She can counter any move you make! Even you don't stand a chance against her!"
Spike crossed his arms, a cocky grin on his face. "Oh, is that a fact?"
"Do not doubt my skills, gecko!" Trixie performed a series of kicks and punches, smiling self-assuredly at the dragon. "This fight will be over before you can throw even a single punch!"
Not bothering to wait for a response, the boastful unicorn leaped into the air, did a somersault, and somehow managed to rocket downwards, one leg extended. "Take this! Trixie's Flying Crescent Ki-"
Her next words were drowned out as a blinding, burst of flame erupted from Spike's mouth, enveloping the unicorn. When the fire died, Trixie was still in midair, her uniform crumbling to ash before she herself fell the ground in a sizzled heap. Up near the throne, Rarity squealed in delight as Blueblood gaped in horror.
Spike strode forward, wetting his fingers to put out a little flame on Trixie's tail. "Well, looks like you were right! I didn't throw a single punch! Guess they should've taught how to counter dragon fire." He dusted his hands, then looked at Blueblood.
Blueblood shrieked, the fan in his hooves snapping in two. "W-wait! Let's be reasonable here! S-sure I kidnapped your lover, hurt your master, stole your gems, shut down the doughnut shops just to spite you..."
Spike gasped. "You did that?!"
The unicorn clopped his mouth shut, his eyes wide in fear.
"Oh, that is it! I was thinkin' of going easy on you, just because you're so, so pathetic, but shutting down Pony Joe?! That's just too much!" Spike tightened the belt on his gi, rolled back invisible sleeves and cracked his knuckles, focusing his eyes on Blueblood's quickly draining face. He raised one, tiny fist, its scales beginning to glow in what could only be a holy light. "Take this! My love, my anger, and all of my HUNGER!"
The dragon shot forward like a cannon ball, his fist aimed at the shrieking unicorn's face, closer and closer until
Spike's eyes shot open, the dream quickly fading. No longer was in the fortress of the nefarious Blueblood, but inside the Ponyville library. It was morning, if the low sunlight was any indication. And Twilight Sparkle was looking down at him with a pair of agitated eyes. It didn't take long for the dragon to figure out why.
He pulled his fingers out of her nose, and wrung his hands together, smiling sheepishly. "Um, sorry. I was trying to save Rarity."
"By picking my nose," she said, flatly.
"What? Ew, no!" He jumped to his feet, teetering as the last of his drowsiness left him. "I was totally doing a, uh...Draco Meteor Barrage! Hee YAH!" He punched at an invisible opponent, and then raised his leg to land a kick, only to quickly lose his balance. After some futile hops, he rolled backwards head over tail, stopping at the librarian's hoofs. He smiled at her, face flushed. "Uh, it's still a move in progress."
Twilight Sparkle rolled her eyes. "Fine, just go wash your hands, and help me get everything put away before Mort gets here."
"Mort?" Spike looked at her blankly. His eyes then caught something behind her, and he gaped at the sight of a table, overflowing with scrolls that had been unwrapped. "Holy guacamole! Are these all the friendship reports you've done?"
Twilight Sparkle nodded, her horn levitating the scrolls one by one as they were rolled up. "Yep, I've been studying them ever since we got that letter from the princess. Spike, your hands!"
"Oh, right..." He pulled his hands away from the scrolls, and walked to the sink, hopping on the stool in front of it. Washing his hands, Spike begun to recall the events of last night. He could only clearly remember being woken up by late night letter, after which things became a blur. He had curled up to sleep just as the first words of the letter were being said.
He hopped off the stool and went back to the table. "So, uh, run by me again what's happening?"
"Celestia has a special assignment for me," Twilight Sparkle said, distractedly, as she dropped the scrolls into Spike arms, almost causing him to fall over. "She's sending a pony here to teach him all about friendship."
"Wow, you must be pretty excited!"
"Uh, right, excited. Of course I am!" She laughed, at a pitch much higher than usual. "After all, it's a special assignment from the princess!"
"Uh huh..." Spike walked towards the stairs, struggling with his balance as he looked suspiciously at her.
Twilight Sparkle continued, pacing in one spot as her voice grew more frantic, the words almost tripping over themselves: "And not just any assignment, but an assignment to a special friend! A special friend who needs to be taught about friendship by me, who's only been studying friendship for less than a year! Who doesn't know a thing about this special pony, or what he likes, or what he's even like, but that's okay because I only need to teach him everything that it's taken me months and months and months to learn in a single day, and I can do that no problem! No problem! No..!"
Spike cried out as all the scrolls were suddenly torn from his grip, causing him to unceremoniously trip and roll down the stairs, landing in a heap. He rubbed his aching spikes, and glared at the unicorn as all the scrolls were once again unraveled across the table. It was then he truly begun to note the sorry state of the ground floor: books had been pulled out and piled up in front of every bookshelf, piles of notes laid everywhere, and a trashcan was overflowing with crumpled pieces of paper. A lavender cyclone had gone through the place.
"Uh, Twilight...?" As the dragon moved towards the table, he also begun to notice things about his caretaker. Things like her disheveled hair, her unkempt fur, and the baggy eyes that were scanning over the reports. "Have you slept at all?" he asked, timidly.
"Oh gosh, I did!" she distressed, floating several scrolls in front of her all at once. "What if I forgot everything I read last night?! Maybe I should read them all one more time, no, two mores times, no! Maybe if I rewrite all of them it'll help be remember-"
"Twilight!" The librarian looked at her assistant, and Spike took that moment to jump up, grab her by the ears, and pull her head down until her eyes were level with his. The shock of the sudden movement caused every, floating scroll to drop the floor. "Breath," he commanded.
She blinked in surprise, inhaled deeply, then breathed out. Spike gagged, waving away the odoriferous air. "Ew, morning breath!"
"Sorry..." Twilight Sparkle sighed, and slumped on her hindquarters, look dejectedly at the ground.
Spike scratched his head, uncomfortable. "Oh, uh, it's not that bad, I'm sure a quick brush can clear it right up."
"That's not it, Spike." Twilight Sparkle looked back up at him, her eyes tired and communicating a deep anxiety. It was enough to make the dragon a little fearful, and he unconsciously reached for his own tail, squeezing it.
"Twilight...?" He walked over and plopped down beside her. "Seriously, what's gotten into you? I mean, I know you always get a little frantic when Celestia's involved, but...you looked really scared this time."
She looked at him guiltily. "Oh, I'm so sorry Spike. I didn't mean to worry you or anything, it's just..."
She sighed again, and got up, levitating the scrolls that had rolled out across the floor. "I don't really know. I mean, the way she just had to send a letter last night, the fact she hasn't told us anything about this pony...I feel like she's trying to test me, and the more I think about it, the more worried I get."
Spike half-shrugged. "What's there to worry about, you just gotta help the guy make some friends. What's the big deal?"
"The big deal?! Spike, this might be my one chance to prove to Celestia I can apply everything I've been taught! What if I screw it up? What if I can't help him make friends? What if..." She bit her lower lip, and blinked away moisture. "What if Celestia thinks it's all been a waste of time and makes me come back?"
The thought of being recalled back to Canterlot shook Spike, and a single look at the unicorn told him just how badly the thought was affecting her.
"Oh Twilight," he whispered. He put the scrolls on a nearby shelf, and scampered over, enveloping a leg in a tight hug. He peeked an eye up at her. "Come on, don't worry so much! I mean, who helped beat Nightmare Moon and save Luna?"
"Well, I did," she said. "But I couldn't have done it alone."
"Uh huh. And who helped get Winter Wrap Up done right on schedule?"
A small grin crept up on her face. "I...guess I did help out there. A little."
He crossed his arms proudly. "And who's friends with the five, most awesome ponies in Ponyville?"
The grin grew in a smile. "The are pretty awesome, aren't they?"
"Darn tootin'! You're brave, bright and have made some of the best friends ever! If any pony in this world's going to help this guy make friends, it's going to be you!"
Twilight Sparkle sniffed, and suddenly scooped the baby dragon up in a hug. "Oh, you're the best, Spike! What would I do without you?"
He smiled cheekily at her. "Clean up the library?"
"You're so awful!" she laughed. She put the dragon down and got back on her hooves. "And so right! So what if I don't know anything about him? I didn't know anything about Applejack or Pinkie Pie or everyone else, and that didn't stop us! This is going to be a piece of cake!" She struck a daring pose, holding her head up high. "I am ready for anything!"
And no sooner had she said that, their came a sudden knock from the door.
"Oh my gosh! He's here!" The brave unicorn from before crumbled into a terrified filly. Twilight Sparkle rushed towards the door, then towards the stairs, then towards the door. "What do I do what do I do what do I do?!"
Spike watched her pace back and forth, crossing his arms impatiently. There came three more knocks on the door, none of which the panicking unicorn seemed to hear.
He face palmed, groaning in annoyance. "Ugh, I'll get it!" he said, loudly.
Twilight Sparkle stopped dead in her tracks, and looked at him with wide, fearful eyes. "What?! Wait! The library's a mess, I'm a mess, if you open that door then-"
Spike ignored her. He reached for the door knob, and swung it open. "Hey there! How's it going...Applejack?"
The apple farmer stood in the doorway, bowing her head politely. "Mornin' Spike. Mind if Ah come in?"
"Huh? Oh, sure!" Spike stood back, and the orange earth pony strode in, taking in the state of the bottom floor.
Twilight Sparkle, her face turning red, smiled uncomfortably. "Oh, uh, good morning Applejack! I was just...uh..." She glanced around the room, too embarrassed to continue.
Applejack tsked. "Welp, looks like Ah was right. Awright, everypony, get on in here!"
"My goodness, Twilight!" Spike's heart nearly jumped out of his throat as Rarity trotted in, looking at the room with a mixture of shock and disapproval. "Just look at this place! I'm glad we came when we did!" Her eyes landed on Twilight Sparkle, and the fashionista recoiled. "And you look absolutely dreadful, dear! Did you get any sleep last night?"
"W-wait," the librarian stuttered, "why are you and Applejack-"
"Don't forget me! I'm here too!" Pinkie Pie bounded in right behind Rarity, and giggled as she looked around. "Wow, Twilight, did you have a party while we were away? What's with all the books?"
"Er, well, I was thinking that Mort could be from anywhere, so I was trying to study up on different cultures, customs, languages...wait." Twilight Sparkle stopped and looked at her friends questioningly. "Why are all of you right now?"
"Well, not quite all of us," Rarity said. "We're still waiting for Fluttershy to come back with Rainbow Dash!"
"I'm right here!" Spike had to duck as Fluttershy flew in, pulling something behind her. For a moment Spike thought it was a giant marshmallow with rainbow filling. Then he rubbed his eyes and realized it was actually a small cloud, with Rainbow Dash lounging on top of it, asleep.
Fluttershy gently landed on the floor, and spat Rainbow Dash's tail out. "I'm sorry, I keep trying to wake her up, but nothing's working!" She tried to shake the sleeping pegasus awake, and on a good day, it may have rattled a tea cup.
"Don' worry none, Fluttershy. Let me show you how we get them lazy bones up on the farm!" Applejack walked up to the sleeping pegasus, and turned her back towards her. "Rise 'n shine, sleepy head!" She bucked out with one leg, and the cloud burst on contact, sending the cyan pegasus to the floor with a yelp.
"Ow, hey! What's the big idea?!" The pegasus groggily got up to her hooves, and took one look around at her friends and the library. Recognition dawned on her face. "Oh, right! Uh, morning Twilight. Guess I slept in."
"Um, morning," the unicorn replied, a little perplexed. "Now, can somepony tell me what's going on?"
"Well isn't it obvious?" Rarity asked, cheerfully. "We're here to help you out today!"
Applejack nodded affirmatively. "Yep! We saw how nervous ya were last night, and we all know how strung up you get when Celestia's involved..."
"So we decided to come here before Mort, and help you out anyway we can!" Pinkie Pie poked one of the book stacks, and the literary tower toppled to the ground, sending notes everywhere. One paper landed on top of her head, and she blew it off. "And I think you need all the help you can get!"
Twilight Sparkle blushed again. "Um, sorry about all that last night. I didn't know Celestia would be sending him over soon, and, well..."
"Don't worry about it!" Rainbow Dash leaped into the air, and in one swoop, scooped up several books in her hooves. She flew up to a bookshelf and begun to slide them back in. Applejack and Pinkie Pie begun to do the same, putting books away and gathering up the papers on the ground.
Spike hopped onto Twilight Sparkle's back, and leaned towards her ear. "See?" he whispered. "Awesome friends." The librarian nodded, and it looked to the dragon her spirits were finally returning.
"Thank you, everyone," she said, graciously. "You don't know how much this means to me."
"Compliments later my dear, you look in dire need of a bath." Rarity walked forward and begun to usher the other unicorn towards the bathroom. "Fluttershy, be a dear and help me, won't you? We've got less than a hour to make Twilight here presentable." She then took a moment to look at Spike, fluttering her eyelids at him. "Also, Spike, would you be so kind as to help the others clean up? I would oh, so appreciate it."
His heart begun to pound in his chest, his body tingling all over. "W-whatever you say, Rarity..." He dropped off Twilight Sparkle's back, and watched the three of them ascend the stairs towards the second floor. His thoughts were on the divine way Rarity looked at him, fluttering those gorgeous eyes and...
A hoof poked him on the back, shaking him from his daydreams. He looked to see Applejack looking at him with a sly smile. "Come on, Rodeo. We got work to do."
With a blush, Spike walked towards the sink to find the cleaning supplies.
Mort half-walked, half-stumbled towards Ponyville, mumbling under his breath. It had been nearly an hour since he started, and actual walking hadn't gotten much easier. It wasn't just his cloak giving him problems, there still came the issue of balancing himself, and moving the hooves in a way that actually moved him forward and kept him upright. He even had to "cheat" a few times, gliding a mile at a time, just so he wouldn't spend all day on the road.
He thought it so silly that simply moving a few limbs could be so perplexingly hard."Stupid walking," he muttered. "Whatever happened to floating? Why couldn't the ponies just float? It's a lot easier than this. You're not tripping over yourself, or your cloak, or rocks, or holes, or-"
"Howdy, stranger," a deep voice said.
"Oh, howdy. Anyway, yeah, walking is completely overrated, I should just..." Mort quickly went silent as the previous few seconds replayed in his mind. He risked a glance to his left, and saw a tall and muscular earth pony pulling a wagon, filled to the brim with apples as red as the pony's fur coat. The pony gave a friendly smile.
Mort yelped in fright and snapped his head away, looking straight ahead. "Y-y-you can see me?" he stuttered, feeling silly after asking it.
The earth pony chuckled good-naturedly. "Well, you ain't exactly conspicuous with that get-up of yers." The earth pony slowed top a stop, and raised a hoof in greeting. "Anyways, th' name's Big McIntosh, though you can call me Big Mac if ya like."
"Oh, uh..." Mort kept his head down, trying to avoid the pony's gaze. "Uh, n-nice to meet you." He cautiously extended his own hoof in greeting.
"Same 'ere!" Mort gasped as the larger, earth pony suddenly grasped his outstretched hoof with both forelegs, shaking him so much that Mort was practically swinging in the air. When Big Mac had let go, the shade fell into a heap, his whole body feeling discombobulated.
"Heh heh, woops. Sorry 'bout that, Ah sometimes ferget my own strength." The earth pony extended another hoof, and Mort used it to raise himself back up, trying to gather himself.
"I-it's alright, really. Just remember not everypony's not as big as...uh..." Mort felt his voice leave him when he realized he was starting straight into Big Mac's face, and most assuredly giving the red pony a clear look at his own.
The red pony cocked an eyebrow, his eyes straining to see something. "Yer, uh...well..."
Mort felt himself tremble, wondering if this was how it was going to end, with him not even getting one hoof into Ponyville proper. "I-is something wrong?" he asked, his voice small.
"Huh?" The larger pony blinked as if in a daze, and shook his head. "O-oh! Oh, no! Ah'm sorry, Ah didn't mean to stare or nothin'. Ya just look a little pale, is all."
"Pale? You think I'm...uh..." It took Mort a moment to realize the earth pony hadn't seen through him. Luna was right after all. "I-I mean, yeah! Yeah, uh, the sun and me don't have the best of relationships. I mean, I'd be the shade and I get sunburned!"
"Yeah, o' course." Big Mac scratched his the back of his head, embarrassed. "Look, Ah'm might sorry 'bout starin' and everything. That was plain rude o' me. Granny taught us all better than that."
Mort shrugged, glad the first pony he met would be this hospitable. "Oh, well, don't worry about it! I guess I do look kinda unusual..."
"Nah, don' matter. Manners are manners. Here!" Big Mac shrugged off the harness, and walked over to the back of the wagon. He bit one of the apples at the stem, and brought it over to Mort. "Ere!" Mort looked at the apple, then at Big Mac, confused. "'Ake it!" the earth pony said.
"Huh? Oh!" Mort's horn glowed, and the apple floated away from Big Mac and over to Mort. "Uh, wow! Thanks a lot!"
"That there's on the house, to make up for earlier," he said, with a respectful bow. "Aside from that, you look like you could stand to gain a couple pounds. Yer practically skin 'n bones!"
Mort resisted a quip about how he didn't even have that, and looked at the apple. It was large, gleamed in the sun, and still held a little spark of life from the tree it was plucked from. "It's a very nice looking apple," he said.
"Eyup," Big Mac drawled, "'course it's even tastier than it looks. Go on ahead, give it a bite!"
"Oh, uh..." Mort stared at the apple, suddenly realizing that of all the things Luna taught him, she never spoke a word about eating.
"Somethin' wrong?" Bic Mac asked doubtfully. "I mean, I could give ya a couple more, or-"
"Oh, no!" Mort shook his head, now suddenly worried he'd hurt the other pony's feelings. "It's great! I just need to, uh..." Not wanting to insult the first pony he met today, Mort tossed the apple into the air, lifted his head, and swallowed the fruit whole. It flowed through his being to join all the other souvenirs he had collected over the centuries.
"Hmm, delicious!" he said enthusiastically, rubbing where he thought the stomach should be. "I mean, those are definitely some tasty apples! Yum! Nice and, uh...crunchy." He looked at Big Mac, and noticed with some trepidation that the earth pony was gawking at him, the stalk in his mouth almost falling out. "Uh...it was good?"
Big Mac closed his mouth, still looking a little shocked. "Land's sake, you really were hungry, weren't you? You even ate today?"
"Well, no," he replied.
"Well, yer gonna need more than an apple to fill that appetite! Promise you'll treat yerself to some food soon."
"Good!" Big Mac moved back to the front of the wagon, shouldering the harness again. "How 'bout you walk wit' me 'til we get to the fork. What's yer name?"
"Oh, uh, Mort," he said, suddenly feeling self conscious. "My name's Mort."
"Well Mort, how 'bout ya tell me about yerself?"
"Oh...um, well..." Mort shifted his gaze away, thinking of how to respond. "Well...I have a job."
Big Mac chuckled. "Well, everyone needs a job. What do ya do?"
"Oh, uh, you know, public services and the like." His mind raced on how to build on that. "I pretty much have to be anywhere at anytime. It's kinda important."
Big Mac whistled. "Sounds rough."
"You have no idea," he said, with an exhausted sigh. "Somedays I find myself having to go to one end of Equestria and be back at the other end before nightfall."
"Wow," he said, his voice in awe. "How's one pony manage that?"
"Oh, well, I just fl...uh..." His mind race, realizing what he had also said. "W-walk. Yeah, I walk."
"Walk?" he asked, with a hint of skepticism. "From one end off Equstria to the other?"
He gulped. "O-okay, I guess it's more of a 'sprint' then anything. I can run pretty fast, you know."
"That a fact?"
"Uh, yep! In fact, once I really get going, my hooves hardly even touch the ground!" He chuckled nervously, double checking to make sure his hooves were firmly hitting the road.
Big Mac cocked his eye at him before breaking into another smile. "That's pretty dang fast, Mort. You a courier or somethin'?"
"Oh, well, sorta" he said, hesitantly. "It's more like I collect stuff to, well, send away."
"What kind of stuff?"
"Oh, you know, uh...one-of-a-kind stuff," Mort replied. "Stuff that can be here and gone in the blink of an eye."
"Sounds interestin'," Bic Mac said. "You must get paid a lot to do it."
"Nah, not really," he said, absently. "Don't get paid at all, actually."
"What?!" Big Mac came to a sudden stop, staring at Mort. "You get sent all across Equestria and you don't even get paid?"
Mort tensed, knowing he had just slipped up. "I-it's fine! Really! Uh, I don't really need the money."
"But what about yer home?" the earth pony asked. "How do you pay for it?"
"Oh, I don't have a home," he said, then quickly clopped his mouth shut.
Big Mac stared at him, stunned. "That's...that's just downright unfair!" he said, stomping one hoof. "Don't they give you anything?!"
"W-well, technically today counts as a vacation," he said, meekly.
"Uh huh. When was your last one?"
"Um..." Mort scratched the back of his hood. "I...don't know," he admitted.
Big Mac shook his head in disgust. "Now that's just ridiculous! I don't mean any offense, but it sounds like yer getting' a raw deal out of that gig."
"I-it's not that bad," he said quietly. "I-I mean, it's something to do..."
"Don't matter, no pony should have to put up with that treatment! You should just get another one."
"Sure you can," Big Mac said. "I'm sure plenty of places would need a fast pony to help 'em out. And actually pay you."
"Look, it's not that simple," Mort said, with an edge in his voice.
"Sure it is!"
"No, it's not!" he said, defensively. He darted in front of Big Mac, looking up at him. "I mean, this job is important, okay? And it's my job!"
"But it doesn't have to be!"
"Yes it does!"
"Why? I'm sure-"
"It's the only thing I can do!" he shouted, glaring daggers at Big Mac. The outburst caused the larger earth pony to take a step back, staring at the shade in shock. Realizing what he just did, the heat Mort felt cooled immediately, and his body sagged. "I-I'm sorry..."
"Uh..." Big Mac cleared his throat. "You okay?"
"I..." Mort moaned, turning away. "I don't know." He kicked at the ground, watching a rock roll across the road miserably. "Look, I'll just be on my way. Sorry for bothering you..."
Mort felt two, sudden pats on his back, and with it felt a life that was slow, but meticulous, tempered by bearing hardships and supporting others, with a dash of an easy-going nature. He glanced up to see the large, earth pony smiling sympathetically.
"C'mon now," he said. "Chin up. I'm sorry 'bout all that, I didn't mean to rile you up or anythin'."
Mort sighed. "No, it's alright. Just...my job's kind of a complex subject."
"Wanna talk 'bout it?" Big Mac asked.
"Not...really," Mort said, slowly. "I kinda came out here to get away from it. At least for today."
Instead of prodding him further, Big Mac only nodded. "Fair 'nough." Big Mac proceeded to walk again, and after a moment Mort followed silently, unsure of what to say.
"Uh, Mort," Big Mac started, glancing back at him. "I know you don' want to talk 'bout it, and Ah respect that. Ah also respect if you wanna stick with it for yer own reasons. But Ah'm just saying you need more to yer life then yer job.
"Take me for instance," he said, tilting his head towards his flank, where there was an inside view of a big, green apple. "Now, when Ah got my cutie mark, my first thought was Ah had to do everything to live up to it. Y'know, buck apples day in an' day out. Ah did that for a couple weeks, an' just 'bout rebuffed everythin' Ah used to do, like goin' to school, helpin' with the chores, an' even hangin' out with my friends.
"It was that last one that really got my pop sore with me. He told me he was proud of my cutie mark, and that I should be proud of it too, but not so much I put off everythin' else I had. He told me how all our foresires had made the mistake of dedicatin' every bit of their life to the apple orchards. Even their time with their sons and daughters was spent teachin' them how to buck apples and run the farm when they passed.
"He didn't think that was any sort of life for me or my sisters. He said that I should let my cutie mark guide me, not control me. An' that Ah gotta keep my life open for everythin' else it offers. He taught that to me, an' Ah made sure my sisters learned the same thing.
"Sorry for ramblin' like that," he said, laughing. "Point is, yer life's gotta be more than just yer job, y'know? You need some room for friends an' family. You got any family, Mort?"
"Kinda..." Mort thought of the multitude of shades that were scattered across the Equestria, never so much as even acknowledging his existence. "They're not the most...receptive bunch."
"How 'bout friends?"
"A couple," he said, "though they're busy most of the time."
"Even a couple's better than nothin'," Big Mac said. "Maybe you can arrange to get some more time off?"
"It's not that easy," Mort said, shaking his head. "I'm not even sure when I'll get another day like that after tonight."
Big Mac looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, and then turned his eyes back to the road, saying nothing.
The further they walked, the more Mort noticed the apple trees that surrounded them, their ripened fruit hanging over the road. It wasn't long before the road split, and off in the distance on the right road, Mort could make out a barn house and white, picket fences.
"Welp, this is here where I get off," Big Mac said, steering towards the barn house.
"Oh, okay," Mort said, a little disappointed. "Well, I'm sure you're really busy, what with all the apples."
"Well, once I get these all put away, I got the afternoon off." The earth pony turned to look at him, giving a warm smile. "In fact, how 'bout you swing by our place when you get the chance? Someponys gotta put a little meat on them bones."
"S-swing by?" the shade asked, taken aback. "Y-you mean, like...you're inviting me over?"
Big Mac grinned. "You seem to be friendly enough, and we Ponyville folk are a mighty hospitable lot. Pride ourselves on it, even!" He patted where his heart would be. "Ain't no problem at all."
"Oh, uh, wow! I-I mean, thanks! Really!" Mort almost couldn't believe what he was hearing. He had been shouting at him only a few minutes ago, and he was already be invited over to their home. "I'll definitely consider coming over some time! I-I mean I kinda got things to do and everything, but-"
"Now, now, don' fret none. You just come on over when ya can. No worries." Big Mac turned back to walk towards the barn, waving back at him. "Try not to work too hard 'ere on out, okay? Remember, it's your life!"
"Y-yeah, definitely! Thank you!" he said, waving furiously at him. "Good luck with all those apples! I'll try to buy a few next time!" Mort kept waving at him at him, and finally stopped himself when he realized Big Mac wasn't looking back anymore. The little bit of embarrassment he felt had no effect on his spirits, though.
He proceeded down the road, a skip in his step. There was no longer any uncertainty in his movements, his hooves moving as if he had walked like this his entire life. Everything had gone so much better than he thought it would. Big Mac hadn't suspected a thing, and Mort didn't feel all that uncomfortable around him when they were talking with each other. If the rest of them were even half as friendly...
"I've been offered an apple and got invited to their house! And that was just one pony! I can't wait to see what'll happen when I get there!" Another impulse came to him, and instead of just walking, he begun to prance up and down in excitement, wondering how the day could get better.
He was so entranced about what awaited him he almost didn't see the tall, black mare that passed him by. "Howdy, stranger!" he said, imitating Big Mac's drawl with a giggle.
"Be wary of the path you tread, shade," the mare replied cooly.
"No worries! I finally got this walking thing down, and the roads are really-"
He gasped, his body stiffened, and Mort dropped to the ground like a lead brick. He spun around, only to see that the road was devoid of anything, except himself. His eyes darted into the trees that lined the road, but he couldn't see even a hint of movement. Not even the sky held anything in it, except the occasional cloud.
The mare's words echoed in his mind, sending shivers across his body. He shuffled backwards, keeping his eyes on the road, before finally turning around to continue on his way.
He was having trouble walking again.
When Twilight Sparkle had come out of the bathroom, the disaster area that was her bottom floor had been restored to its pristine state. The books were shelved, the papers gathered and thrown out when appropriate, and the wooden surfaces had a shine to them from some prodigious polishing. Some of the books were in the wrong spots, but she wasn't going to nitpick.
She was also feeling much better. Her mane and coat had been combed expertly by Rarity, and Fluttershy had given her a small massage, using techniques she had picked up from the Lotus sisters. All the tension she had before had been melted away, replaced with renewed vigor.
It also helped that her friends had decided to stay with her until Mort arrived. Pinkie Pie had brought over a tray of pastries after they finished cleaning, and they spent the rest of their time snacking, and also strategizing on what to do.
"So, 'ere's what we figured, sugar cube," Applejack started, swallowing a cupcake. "This Mort feller don' have many friends, right? He's been strung up with these 'duties' an' the like, whatever they are. So Celestia's sendin' 'im here to help 'im get out more an' make some friends."
"Remind of you of anypony?" Rarity asked, with a knowing grin.
Twilight Sparkle merely nodded, already seeing what they were getting at.
Applejack grinned. "Well now, way Ah see it, if we just show this pony 'round town, the same way we did you, he'll be learnin' 'bout friendship lickity split."
"It's going to be so much fun!" Pinkie Pie gushed. "Rarity's going to dress him up, Rainbow Dash is going to show off her killer moves, Applejack will take him to the farm, Fluttershy is going to show him all her cute, cuddly animal friends and at the end of the day, I throw him a PARTY!" She threw her forelegs in the air, so hard that she lost her balance and fell back with a giggle.
Twilight Sparkle was both impressed and grateful that her friends had thought things out so much. She had been so caught up on preparing for who Mort was, she didn't even think about what they would've done.
"Maybe...maybe I could show him around the library," she said, clopping her hooves together. "He might be an avid reader! Or have a scholarly side to him!"
"Oh yeah, books," Spike said sarcastically, with a roll of his eyes. "That'll be an ice breaker."
"Well, you never know," Fluttershy said, quietly. "I mean, if his job's dangerous, maybe some quiet time would be nice."
"Or you could talk to him about Celestia!" Rarity added excitedly. "Just think about all the things he could know!"
"Oh no," the librarian said, with a dismissive wave of her hoof. "I mean, it'd be nice to hear some stories, but I wouldn't want to pry or any-"
The ponies in the room instinctively ducked as Rainbow Dash flew in from the window, circling once before landing on the ground. Her hair was in disarray from the wind (though it was always in disarray) and she was panting fast.
"Just saw somepony walkin' towards Ponyville!" she said, breathlessly. "Should be here in ten, fifteen minutes top!"
"Is it Mort?" Rarity asked. "What did he look like? What kind of pony was he?" She paused thoughtfully for a moment. "Was he handsome?"
"Uh, not sure on all of those," Rainbow Dash replied, giving the unicorn a look. "Guy was wearing this black cloak all over him. I think he had a horn, but I couldn't get too close. Still, he's definitely the only pony I saw coming here!"
"A cloak?" Applejack took one look out the window, where the sun was shining down almost unimpeded. "That colt must be sweatin' up a storm by now!"
"We'll ask him about his clothes later," Twilight Sparkle said, getting up from the floor. "Places, everypony! We're going to give Mort a day he won't forget!"
Ponyville wasn't a town Mort had been too familiar with. While he visited most town several times a week, it was rare for him to visit Ponyville more then a couple times a month, mostly for older ponies who had lived their entire lives in the quaint town, or the occasional illness. As it was, while a number of ponies grew up in Ponyville, many of them would often move away to pursue future endeavors and dreams. Ponyville was simply a very peaceful, little town.
Well, not quite peaceful, he knew. It was next to the Everfree forest, which had its fair share of monsters and denizens that would be happy to make a snack out of a pony. Inspite of that, no pony in the town had ever died because of the Everfree creatures. More than a few close calls, but nothing fatal.
As he passed into the town limits, his mind was still lingering on the black mare, and the words she spoke. He knew she said "shade," but he had no idea how she could possibly know what he was. Shades weren't well know creatures, even in the most obscure circles. And even the stories that did speak of them usually described them as ghosts, ghouls or even demons.
What bothered him even more was that he could barely remember a thing about the mare. Her voice and her coat, of course, but everything else was a blur. Even when he thought back to that moment, dissecting the information his body naturally collected, he was disturbed to find not even a hint of the mare. As far as the data was concerned, he had spoken to and heard nothing.
He tried to remember a time when he hallucinated of ponies and other creatures that weren't there, but came up empty.
"I don't need this!" he moaned. "I've got enough going on, I don't need to be going crazy, too!" He breathed. "Okay, just calm down, Mort. You can worry about the creepy mare later. Right now you need to find the-"
He came to a sudden stop, and he swung his head up with a jolt, feeling his horn cut through something. He stared at a picture of an open book, a fresh cut carved into one of the pages. He glanced beyond it, seeing a large tree that had a door, windows and even a couple balconies, with a beehive buzzing away in a tree branch.
"Library." Mort gulped, the thoughts of the mystery mare fleeing immediately. His horn glowed, and from the cloak a stack of yellow note cards came. Luna had him write down a list of things to say when meeting Twilight Sparkle. Big Mac had been good practice, but he wanted this first meeting to be perfect.
"Okay, let's see," he started, looking at them. "Step one, be tangible." He glanced at a hoof, stomping on the ground. "Check. Step two, knock three times." He looked at the door, with its candle engraving, and after a moments hesitation, knocked on the door three times.
From behind the door, a voice wrang out, "Come in!"
"Uh, okay. Check." He breathed, his horn wrapping the doorknob in a green glow. "It's only Twilight Sparkle. She's only Celestia's most precious student, Luna's savior, and all-around nice pony. It'll be okay.
"Don't choke, don't choke, don't choke, don't...!"
He opened the door.
"Come in!" Twilight Sparkle stood tall in the center of her friends. They had all lined up on the bottom floor, looking at the door expectantly. Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy on her left, with Rarity and Pinkie Pie on her right. Spike stood in front of her, straightening his head fins.
"Everypony ready?" Applejack asked.
"You bet!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed, pounding her hooves together.
"Let operation Mort's Best Day Ever commence!" Pinkie Pie giggled, hopping up and down.
"Shh, here he comes!" Fluttershy pointed at the doorknob, which was starting to turn.
"Okay, fillies," Rairty started, "on the count of three, 'Welcome to Ponyville!' One, two, three...!"
The door opened.
Twilight Sparkle opened her mouth to shout the greeting, but her voice died when her eyes fell on the doorway. For a moment it looked like an empty void had taken up the entrance, and it was a moment later it was merely a cloak. Possibly the blackest cloak she ever laid eyes on.
The pony's face could be seen under the hood, and Twilight Sparkle had to squint her eyes to see a thin, pale face with eyes that were either a dark pink or a light red. Virtually everything else about the pony was obscured, save the unusual horn that stuck out from the top of the hood, looking vaguely like a blade.
It was one thing for Rainbow Dash to describe him. But with the pony here, directly in front of them, blocking the only exit (and she had no idea why she suddenly thought of it as an "exit"), the room suddenly felt very cold, and small.
Twilight Sparkle heard a squeak, and she glanced to her left to see Fluttershy edging away from the mystery pony, and behind Applejack. The apple farmer was nervously scratching at the ground, and Rainbow Dash's wings were outstretched in a vaguely intimidating fashion. On her left, Rarity seemed perturbed, and even Pinkie Pie was staring wide eyed at the cloaked pony.
"H-hello?" Twilight Sparkle gulped audibly, an unusual dread creeping into her.
The cloaked pony regarded them, frozen in the doorway. Moments passed, seconds stretching into minutes. Twilight Sparkle felt her heart beginning to beat faster, as the cold from before begun to claw its way throughout the rest of her body.
Finally, there came an almost ghastly, green glow from the cloaked unicorn's horn, and she found her body tensing up, just as it did when she saw the manticore and the hydra. Spike hugged Twilight Sparkle's leg, staring wide eyed at the cloaked pony.
Something enveloped in that same glow appeared within the depths of the pony's hood, and it slowly floated out of the darkness to stop in front of the pony's head.
The cloaked unicorn positioned the note cards in front of him, studying their contents. He cleared his throat.
"Uh," he started, "s-step one, become tang...no, wait. Step two, knock...n-no, uh..." He flipped through the note cards, giving one a brief glance before moving to the next one. He chuckled nervously, bringing to mind the scrawny, meek students that she saw all the time at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns.
The cold fear she felt before vanished as quickly as it came, to be replaced with incredible confusion. She looked at her friends and Spike, seeing similar, befuddled looks.
"O-oh, here we go." The cloaked pony settled on one card, cleared his throat, and begun to speak in a mechanical tone: "Hello, Twilight Sparkle. My name is Mort. It is a pleasure to-"
It was at that point that Mort took a step forward, got caught up the long robes covering him, and fell to the ground, the note cards scattering all over the place.
"Gah! Oh no oh no!" His horn glowed, grabbing each note card, bringing them down to him one at a time. "Uh, 'I am intrigued by your...' no, that's not it. 'I hope we can be...' no, I was saving that for the end! Why the heck didn't I number these things...?!"
Twilight Sparkle bit her lip, her eyes catching Spike, who seemed to be struggling to not break into laughter. The rest of her friends were sharing awkward looks.
"Okay, this goes here, no, wait, yes! No! Uh, maybe..." Mort's horn glowed brighter, and the cards suddenly stopped dead in space, before instantly reforming into a stack. A stack Mort proceeded to read through. Quickly.
"Hello Twilight Sparkle it is a pleasure to meet you Princess Celestia has told me all about you I am intrigued by your accomplishments and I wish to learn all I can from you andIhopewecanbetheBESTOFFRIENDS!" The cards suddenly exploded, their ashes settling onto the floor. Mort looked at the ashes, then at Twilight Sparkle, giving a little, nervous laugh.
She felt a tug at her leg, and looked down to see Spike giving her an exasperated look. "This is going to be a long day, isn't it?"