CHAPTER 1: THE FIRST CHAPTER
2013, Royal Equestrian Timeline
Apple Bloom sat in the tree house and leaned out of the window, gazing into the Equestrian night. She had just adjourned yet another unsuccessful meeting with her two fellow blank flanks, and another day had gone by without any cutiemarks. The Cutiemark Crusaders could celebrate almost a year of existence, yet poor Apple Bloom could only sigh at her misery. All she wanted in life was to find her special talent, but all three of them had tried everything and they were steadily running out of ideas; the other ponies in Ponyville also steadily running out of patience with them.
There was only one thing that she hadn't tried yet by now, and she had tried everything from weird potions to powerful spells. She pressed her hoofs together and shut her eyes in concentration for at just that moment, Apple Bloom had seen a shooting star, said to be Luna's way of granting the wish of the hopeful.
"I wish I may, I wish I might, I have this wish I wish tonight
I want that mark, I want it now, I want it all and I don't care how"
So sang Apple Bloom, remembering the nursery rhyme Applejack had always sung to her when she was smaller. But Apple Bloom had forgotten how the rest of it went. If she had remembered, she wouldn't have been so quick to ask providence for help.
"Careful what you wish, careful what you say
Careful what you wish, you may regret it
Careful what you wish, you just might get it"
She peered into the darkness and saw the star twinkle at her before disappearing somewhere over the hills of Equestria north of Ponyville. It was not that she expected a cutiemark to suddenly appear, but Apple Bloom was eager and very impatient by now to earn her mark. She checked right away and as always, nothing. Crestfallen, she crossed the floor of the tree house, trotted down the stairs and returned to the farm. She enjoyed a light dinner before going straight to bed. The day had been disappointing enough as it was.
Not even when she woke did she have a cutiemark. It could have been that the star just needed time to work, but there was nothing on her flank either when she woke up. She didn't feel like hooking up with her friends for another letdown search for their talents, but Applejack was insistent around the dinner table that she got out and played with her friends.
The other two were already waiting for her at their clubhouse, sitting on the rug in the middle of the small wooden box and vividly chatting about all the exciting things that they would try today. But Apple Bloom was still down from yesterday's bad experience and simply sat down between them glumly.
"What's gotten into you?" Sweetie Belle on her right asked and raised an eyebrow.
"What's the point, you guys? Every time we do this, it's the same result," Apple Bloom said and lay down with her head in her hoofs.
"Yeah, but... for everything we fail at, we get one step closer to our special talent!" Scootaloo on her left said enthusiastically.
"Blllrrgh." Apple Bloom stuck out her tongue in resigned defeat.
"But Scootaloo's finally found our talent!" Sweetie Belle said and tried to cheer Apple Bloom up.
"Watching paint dry?" Apple Bloom asked hopelessly, not even bothering to look up.
"What? No. Didn't you see the shooting star yesterday?" Scootaloo asked a little disgruntled.
"Ah did, and Ah still don't have mah cutiemark."
"But Scootaloo saw where the star fell down," Sweetie Belle said. "We're going to be astronomers!"
"No, astrologists," Scootaloo said.
"Can we agree to something?" Apple Bloom asked and cut their argument short. "If this fails, how about we just give this up?"
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo looked at each other in shock, then at Apple Bloom, unsure how to respond with their mouths open like guppies.
"Apple Bloom..." Sweetie Belle started, but didn't know how to finish.
"Ah'm tired of always getting kicked down doing this," Apple Bloom said and got up. She went over to the window and gazed up into the sky. She had been doing that a lot lately, simply staring off into nothing in particular. "Ah get the feeling our special talent is not to have any special talents."
"But if our special talent is not to have a special talent, how would we know that we our special talent is not to have a special talent?" Scootaloo asked. Sweetie Belle gave her a confused look for a moment before picking up the conversation.
"You're just having a bad day," Sweetie Belle said and came up next to Apple Bloom and put an arm around her.
"Yeah!" Scootaloo said encouragingly and came up on Apple Bloom's other side. "I guarantee you, this can't fail. The star fell down just outside Ponyville. If we're lucky, no other ponies have gone to expect it. Who knows, we might even get a reward for turning it in, if it's valuable!"
"Sure, why not. It's not like I have any ideas of my own," Apple Bloom said with no real enthusiasm and sighed, looking out into the sky that had betrayed her yesterday.
The Cutiemark Crusaders were once more off on another attempt at earning their marks, arguably with less gusto than usual. Apple Bloom was bumming down the whole team and they were all thinking the same. Not having your cutiemark would be okay for another while, but how about a year? Or two years? How much longer could they go on before having to face the fact that they would never get their marks?
But it was as Scootaloo said. Every little thing that they tried was one more thing that they could cross off their list. And if astronomer or astrologer didn't work out either, they would just have to try something else. The real problem here was all their possibilities. Being as blank as they were, their special talents could be just about anything! Why, it could be glue eating for all they knew.
The grasslands to the north of town were vast and stretched on as far as the eye could see, hemmed in by the mountains somewhere in the distance. Scootaloo had not been able to pinpoint more exactly where they were supposed to start looking. But the day was still young and most of the crusaders were eager in their pursuit. They decided to split up and meet back again in an hour, hoping fervently to get some result in the end.
Apple Bloom had not been convinced, and she still couldn't see how an extraterrestrial stone would be able to earn them their cutiemarks. And perhaps Scootaloo had been wrong? There were no signs that anything had landed here for miles; no smoke, no craters, no nothing. She went up a large hill from where she could see most of Equestria. Miles and miles of hills and grass and lakes further in the distance and mountains around them. Her two friends were doing the best they could, they actually believed in this ludicrous, self-imposed mission. Not Apple Bloom. She just lay down in the grass and indulged in her depressed thoughts.
Apple Bloom looked around her to see if she could find the source of the voice calling her. She got up again and looked down at her friends, but they were too far away for their voices to be this clear. Instead, Apple Bloom looked around her but could find no one close enough to her to justify what she had heard.
"Apple Bloom, come to me," the voice said again, more insistent and a bit louder now that it knew that Apple Bloom was listening. She couldn't tell much about what she heard other than it was definitely a mare.
"Who's there?" Apple Bloom called out.
"You want your cutiemark, poing?"
"Yeah, but... where are ya? Ah cain't see ya," Apple Bloom pointed out and turned around frantically.
"Come and find me, poing poing. We'll be best of friends... poing," the voice said and sounded farther away. Apple Bloom was intrigued and started to follow the sound and ran down the slope and nearly slipped in the dew-wet grass.
"Ah don't understand," Apple Bloom said and darted purposefully across the meadow. "Who are ya?"
"My name is Poing, poing, and I'm just a lonely soul like you. No one understands me either, poing."
Apple Bloom constantly adjusted her direction according to where the voice was located, trailing it all over the hilly meadows. She didn't even understand herself why she was following this incorporeal mare, but perhaps it resonated with the loneliness inside her?
Applejack had never wanted to tell her where their parents where and she had no recollection about them either. She had grown up on the farm with only her sister and brother to play with. The other ponies her age had always teased her for being such a hick. In fact, the only true ponies she had ever considered friends were now Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle. Well, there had been Twist of course, but the two of them had never really clicked.
Yet, Apple Bloom did have two perfectly good friends. There was no reason for her to being enticed by the voice, yet she followed it obediently. It could be the promise of a cutiemark, or it could be something else...
"Very good, poing, you're nearly there, poing. Come a little closer."
The voice was getting clearer now. She still couldn't see any changes in the landscape however insignificant and she was starting to wonder if this was someone's idea of a prank. She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she didn't even notice the hole. What hole, you may ask? Why, the one she didn't notice of course!
Her hoof trod down in the indentation and sent her whole body careening through the air. Fortunately, she had the soft grass to cushion her fall. Still, she tumbled around for a bit and got up hurting. She hadn't broken anything, but she was covered in grass and dirt.
"Dumb grass," she muttered as she returned to see what had made her fall.
Unseen and shielded by the grass, she finally found the fallen star. It did not resemble any rock that she had ever seen or heard of before, but then again, she didn't have much experience with things from the sky.
It looked like a handle, or perhaps a staff. It was shaped as a small deformed orange hourglass with three spindly fingers grasping a pellucid orb the size of an eyeball in one end. Could this really be it? Or was this just something somepony had chucked away?
"Pick me up, poing," it said in its alluring voice.
Apple Bloom was wary about complying and she was starting to get an ominous chill down her spine. A cold breeze swept across the grass and rustled her coat and hair, making the otherwise fine day seem much colder.
"Come on, pick me up, poing," Poing said. "You want to get your cutiemark, don't you?"
"Will this really do it?" Apple Bloom asked.
"Ha ha ha ha, of course, poing! I wouldn't lie to you."
"Ah don't know," Apple Bloom said and tapped her chin in contemplation. The Cutiemark Crusaders had done a lot of strange and reckless things thus far, but nothing as simple as picking up strange objects hidden in the grass.
"I won't bite," Poing said. "You and I are going to have so much fun together, poing!"
"But what about mah friends? Ah also want them to get their cutiemarks," Apple Bloom said.
"Of course, poing! We're all going to be friends from now on, poing. Oh, but perhaps you and I will be such good friends that you won't need anyone else... poing."
Apple Bloom eyed the small thing down in the hole with some suspicion. But what harm could it possibly do? She reached down to grab it but nothing happened. It might have been a trick of her mind, or it might just need some time to work.
At first, it was a warm tingling feeling spreading from the hairs of her arm, then it rapidly engulfed her to the point that she could no longer feel a thing. Her vision faded, her hearing dulled down. She had lost conscience.
7 years later, 2020, Royal Equestrian Timeline
Lives are intertwined and fates tangled together. Outsiders and foreigners fight for control while Celestia desperately tries to maintain order. Among the many newcomers arrives a hero through space and time to pick up where others have failed. Though for what purpose he has come will remain to be seen.
Somewhere in the Everfree forest, a light flashed brightly for a moment only to instantly disappear. The remoteness of the woods and the briefness of the glimpse ensured that no one saw what was really happening, for now. A hulking pony shape crouched down from the strain of having jumped between dimensions and took a moment to rest, panting and sweating. He looked up into the sky and saw that it was getting dark. He didn't know where he was and he would have to find shelter soon. Whatever his job here was, it had to wait until morning. Had it been light when he had accepted his mission? He could not remember.
"Is this it?" he asked, walking out of the bush to a small trail. He was alone, and yet someone was answering him, someone only he could hear.
"This is it."
His was a deep voice with a slight hint of a foreign accept, possibly German or Scandinavian. The colt who answered had a lighter, more feminine tone to it.
"'Cause you know she would totally screw us over at any given chance," the deeper voice said.
"You're too harsh on her. She's doing her job, we're doing ours."
"Speaking of which, have you found "it" yet?"
"No?" the deeper voice asked and looked up and down the forest trail. "But if you don't know where it is, how do we know we're in the right place?"
"Because I can feel it. It's definitely here, but beyond that I don't know. It seems to have been deactivated."
"How is that possible?" the deeper voice asked irritably.
"Ara, you don't have to cut that tone with me. Why don't you worry about finding a place for the night while I search? There should be a town nearby."
"Very well, one last question then, Lohengrinn."
"Why am I a pony?"
"Apple Bloom, are you okay?" Sweetie Belle asked and looked down at her friend.
Somehow, Apple Bloom now found herself on her back, not quite sure what had just happened.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Apple Bloom said and got up on her hoofs again.
"Are you sure?" Scootaloo asked and raised an eyebrow. "We heard you scream and found you unconscious."
"And where did you get that armband?" Sweetie Belle asked.
She couldn't have been out for long. Her two friends were both here, standing on either side of her. They hadn't gone for help yet nor had they tried to carry her back to town. She looked down at her right arm and saw that the strange orange object was tightly secured there. It looked like a bangle since it now grasped around her arm with some white substance from end to end. It was neither warm nor cold to the touch, and while it felt like stone it looked like metal.
In a way, she wasn't surprised to see it. It felt like it was supposed to have happened, as if she had seen it occur in her dreams. It wasn't completely rounded, since the original hourglass thing had not changed its rigid shape.
"I found it in that hole over there," Apple Bloom said a little distantly.
"Somepony must have lost it," Scootaloo said, and then sighed. "Guess we won't find that star after all."
"Yeah, we looked everywhere," Sweetie Belle, putting emphasis on that last word. "Hey, since you found that thing, perhaps you're a thing finder?"
Apple Bloom looked behind to check her flank, but there still wasn't a cutiemark. Not as a thing finder, not as an astronomer, nothing.
"Sorry," Scootaloo said and looked away. "I really thought this was it."
"That's okay," Sweetie Belle said cheering. "I don't want to go around looking for stars anyway. Let's just go back to the boutique. Unless Rarity is too busy to sit us again," she said and rolled her eyes.
That's right; they were going over to Sweetie Belle's afterward for a sleepover. They would spend all night coming up with things that they should try their hooves and eat snacks and have a fun time.
"Don't worry," Scootaloo said. "I'm sure Rainbow Dash would if Rarity won't have the time."
"And how would we get up there?" Sweetie Belle replied. "If Rarity can't, we'll just have to ask Fluttershy again."
"Yeah, and get sent straight to bed," Scootaloo replied and crossed her arms.
Apple Bloom wasn't paying attention, though. She was more interested in her new accessory and spaced out watching it, especially how it wouldn't reflect her image, not even the sun. It was like it was there, touching her skin, yet not there at all.
"Are you coming or what?" Sweetie Belle asked. Apple Bloom looked up slowly.
"Maybe you hit your head?" Scootaloo suggested worriedly. "You know, rolled down the hill and landed on a stone?"
"No, I'm fine," Apple Bloom said and smiled.
She somehow felt that she couldn't, that she wouldn't talk with her friends about this. It was a strange feeling, but she felt insecure about betraying it. She kept up her appearance and followed her two friends back to town. That bracelet would be a secret that she would keep to herself. It would be best if no one knew the full extent of how it had come into her possession. *Poing.*
After a while, Maxwell finally emerged from the forest, twigs entangled in his blonde mane and tail. He tried to slick back his hair again but found it hard now that he had hoofs. He was curious to see what he looked like now and was delighted to find a small pond.
The water inside was crystal clear and undisturbed, safe for the small fish swimming around inside. He could see his reflection perfectly from the moonlight.
Maxwell was a big colt, taller than most others as he would soon find out. His coat was brown like clay with darker splotches like mud around his body, his mane was blonde like corn and waved down his back like a sea of straws dancing in the wind and his bushy eyebrows were like silk worms nestled above his eyes.
"Looking good," he said, to which he was repaid with a chuckle.
"You are gorgeous, hun."
"Can't imagine you would look any better," Maxwell said and grinned down at himself on the water. "I just hope this hasn't shrunk my pork sword. Where is it by the way? I can see that I'm naked, but where's my family jewels?"
He wasn't completely naked. A black backpack, which had accompanied him, had now turned into a pouch by side, wrapped around his belly.
"There they are!" Lohengrinn said laughingly. Maxwell couldn't see what the voice was alluding to, but when he turned around, he could see that the image of an emerald had been imprinted on his flanks.
"Hello, hello, what do we have here?" he asked. "Is this supposed to be a clan marking or a tramp stamp or what is that?"
"It looks good on you, Maxwell. No matter what shape you take, you're always handsome."
He chuckled to himself and looked up. He could not keep staring at himself like that, but who could blame him if he did?
The pond was connected with a little stream that ran across the grass-covered grounds to a small town not too far from where he had emerged. Not feeling like spending the entire night outside in the cold, he began to walk towards the bright lights.
He was quickly getting used to being a pony. He had his usual charms about him and he was as devilishly good-looking as always. The women of this place, if there were any, could only be promising as well. When this job was over, he might have to check it out, just to see what it would be like to do it in a shape like this. Wouldn't be the strangest thing he had done, stranger less when he was a horse himself.
The transition from nature to city was fluid and a small sidewalk emerged a small way away from the pond. It ran straight towards the town with no interference and cut through the houses where it got cemented and melted into the roads up there.
A blue telephone box had been placed on the road halfway between the pond and the city, in the crossing between grass and pavement. It was a curious sight anywhere, but even more so out here at the backside of this town between the lights and the forest. Maxwell, who was familiar with the concept of telephone boxes, was still puzzled at its placement.
Around it stood four ponies, chattering in agitated voices. They hadn't noticed Maxwell yet and managed to catch snippets of their conversation.
"But Doctor, how can there be another TARDIS here?" a stallion asked. He had a hunter green coat and well-trimmed, short black hair and wings folded by his side.
"I don't know, my boy." An older colt answered him; he with a coat of dark brown like chocolate and thinning, white hair combed back, also a pegasus. Both were standing in front of the blue box, but whereas the young one was surprised and frightened too, the older seemed to be more amused.
"Look, there must be an explanation." The third pony was a wingless mare with a bright red coat and a sixty's bobby hairstyle. She was talking to the younger stallion and smiled, trying to calm him down, but it was at this point that they noticed Maxwell coming towards them.
"Grandfather, someone's coming!" And lastly, a pale yellow pony, the youngest of the group with a head full of scarlet hair, alerted the others to Maxwell's presence.
"Hmmmm...?" the old pony said and looked up to where the young mare was looking. "Ah, yes, yes. I hardly think we have anything to fear from him. Just another resident of this city, are we not young man?"
Maxwell nodded, not wanting to throw people off this early on his assignment. Best case scenario, he would slip in and no one would ever notice that something had been up. Yet he got the distinctive feeling just from this odd bunch that things were perhaps not quite as they should be.
"I am actually unfamiliar with these parts in fact," Maxwell said. "Perhaps you can give me some directions?"
"Well, we're not exactly from around here either," the older mare said. "We were just admiring this strange thing."
Maxwell looked up at it. It looked like a normal blue telephone box that you might see in London if you travelled to the sixties. Did ponies even use telephones? He would just have to play along.
"You're right," Maxwell said and looked up at, feigning his ignorance and quizzical tone. "Wonder what it does?"
"I'm sure it's nothing," the younger colt said and wet his lips. "It must be a statue commemorating someon... somepony."
"Perhaps it's about time that we went back to camp?" the older mare asked and looked around first the younger stallion and then at the older one.
"Oh come now," the oldest pony said. "Ehehe, we still haven't explored the area yet. I daresay we might find something interesting, hmmm?"
"It is getting late," the young mare said. "We can go exploring tomorrow!"
Maxwell passed them again and left them to their discussion. What a curious bunch. He got the strangest sensation that they were not from around here, just like himself. And some of them had wings. Was that commonplace around here?
However, Maxwell had not gotten far before he stumbled into another pony outside at this hour. Stumble might not be the right word to use here, as it was more Maxwell that was discovered than the other way around. A young brown colt with darker brown mane called to him from behind the bush that he was crouching behind.
"Uhm, are they gone yet?" he asked and looked up at Maxwell with his bright blue eyes.
Maxwell looked behind him and saw that the group he had just encountered was slowly filing away. He looked back at the colt and nodded.
"Oh, good. I'd hate to have to explain myself to me... uhm, never mind that," the pony said and got out from behind the bush to the sidewalk.
"Say, are you from around here?" Maxwell asked and smiled.
"Not exactly no, but I've been living here for... well, quite some time now," the pony explained and looked away with a wrinkled face to recollect memories.
"Then you wouldn't mind showing me around?" Maxwell asked, throwing an arm around the colt.
"Well actually, I have some things I need to do."
"Nonsense! The night is still young; there must be plenty of things to do. What do you say we have a drink? You can tell me a little about the town and perhaps what's bothering you and maybe you can help me?"
"As lovely as that sounds, I really must -"
But there was nothing he could do. Maxwell was already dragging him into the city and laughing boisterously, like they were two old friends just catching up. The stallion was visibly nervous, perhaps because he was nearly half the size of Maxwell.
The town they were entering was like nothing Maxwell had seen in a long time, and the blend of new and old was something unique. The city had roads and sidewalks like so many others, but the houses were made of stone with plaster on the outside and hay for the roofs. Street lights illuminated the darkening city and large monitors were posted on many walls of public places, playing the same news over and over again.
"What a bizarre town," Maxwell remarked and looked around. As it was getting late, not many ponies were outside.
"Ah, yes... this is Ponyville. You should have seen it when I first arrived. Much more quaint and quiet," the pony said with some melancholy to his voice.
"Ponyville? Are you kidding me?" Maxwell asked and laughed. "It's a city inhabited by ponies and called Ponyville! What's next? Kittentown? Cow City?"
"I take it you're not from around here either?" the pony asked and looked up at Maxwell.
"Nope. I am Maxwell, Holy Avenger and the Saviour of Lost Souls!" he proudly stated. "And what about you?"
"You can just call me Doctor," the colt said and smiled.
This Ponyville, as he had called it, was a big place full of noise even at this hour, most of it from the many machines around here. There were steam engines with visible gears and many gauges for pumping up water from wells, there were alien factories towering up in the distance that looked like that couldn't have come from earth and shops where the light was still on had things that went ping.
"Say, is there not a watering hole in this town?" Maxwell asked and looked about curiously, having already passed shoe stores and candy shops and carrousel boutiques.
"Watering hole? Ah, you mean like a bar! Well..." the Doctor said and tapped his chin in contemplation. "I don't think there is any in Old Ponyville, but I'm sure New Ponyville must have one."
"Lead the way!"
The part of the city that Doctor had in mind was to be found off the main street and down an alley that seemed less travelled by decent citizens and more by people like Maxwell; ones seeking some new thrill. Hungry eyes watched them from the darkness and strange sounds carried with the winds. The Doctor was visibly nervous by the situation and glanced around quickly from side to side.
"Eh. This was not what I had expected," he muttered, but Maxwell was in a good mood and felt almost at home.
The alley opened up to a large district of the city where the houses had been placed in some arbitrary fashion, many of them pressed together, others opening up and allowing for a small path to cut through. There was not one identical building among them, and it was a strange mixture of stone, wood and glass.
It would be easy to get lost here, but that might not be such a bad thing. There was plenty to look at and there were food stores and clothing shops and even apartments for sale.
The Doctor wasn't sure where to go, but that didn't matter anymore. Like a bloodhound, Maxwell could sniff out a bar from miles away, whether it be the stench of blood, or beer, or shame.
From where the alley ended, half a dozen other roads took over and diverged into multiple arms. Maxwell went down the second on the left, running past doors, garbage bins and the occasional citizen. The Doctor was following close behind, he more out of intrigue and wonder than the prospect of quenching a parched throat. He nearly lost sight of Maxwell when he stopped to admire some curious shop or large building.
But Maxwell wasn't keen on losing sight of his newest friend and stopped here and there to allow the Doctor to catch up with him. Though they passed many bar-looking establishments along the way, Maxwell kept on going. He had his sights, or rather nose, on something in particular.
He stopped, finally, in front of small purple building with green and orange stained glass windows. It stood at the edge of the small alley with a musical store next to it. A small sign above the swing door simply read "Snap's."
The Doctor came up next to him, panting from having to keep up with Maxwell and was delighted to finally stop. They had come to a more rundown part of town where dogs were howling somewhere in the distance and a low mist hung from the heat vents. The houses were close together here and three ponies could just walk side by side.
Maxwell smiled widely. Even at this point, there was a bustle of activity. The shops were closed, but other establishments had just opened. From bars he could hear singing and from the apartments he could hear fighting. Enticingly clad mares winked at him from under streetlights and addicts scuffled about looking for a dealer to satisfy their next fix.
Of all the places Maxwell could have visited, he chose the shabbiest, seediest looking one out of them all. The interior was dimly lit from a grimy overhead lamp and there was little in the way of furniture and space. There was only a counter on the right, some booths on the left and pool table in the middle. The owner, Snap, was a surly-looking and rather ugly unicorn with black coat and curly, grey hair.
There weren't many other patrons here, just a noticeably tipsy dark purple mare with fruit on her flank and an overweight light purple pegasus with short, messy, brown hair. He burped loudly as Maxwell entered with the Doctor in tow.
"Ah, what a delightful place!" Maxwell exclaimed, completely indifferent to the sombre mood. Well, except for the aforementioned mare who seemed to have a fine time laughing at her own jokes.
"Ah, maybe we should find someplace else?" the Doctor asked, but Maxwell had already parked himself in one of the booths.
"Nimble Snap of Snap's Tavern, how may I help you?" the barkeeper asked.
"Barkeep, a mug of your finest ale!" Maxwell shouted.
"I got Duff and Duff light," Nimble Snap replied.
"Duff?" Maxwell asked curiously. "Well, we sure as Hel won't be having any light stuff."
"Two mugs of Duff coming up."
"Now then", Maxwell said and turned his attention towards the Doctor, "Perhaps you would like to explain to me why you were hiding from those ponies?"
"It's a long story," the Doctor said and took a seat opposite Maxwell.
"I guess you can say that," he replied and smiled sheepishly. "What about you? Why were you coming out of the forest?"
Maxwell leaned across the table and accepted the two foaming mugs that the black pony handed them.
"I'm looking for a dangerous artefact that has popped up here in the land. It looks sort of like an orange hourglass with a white ball at the end. You wouldn't have seen it by any chance?"
"Can't say that I have." The Doctor took the beer to his mouth and sipped. Maxwell grinned broadly at him. "What?"
"That's not how you drink a beer, lad," Maxwell said and took the mug and nearly downed it all in three gulps. He wiped the foam from his mouth as soon as he was done. The Doctor tried to emulate him and nearly choked on it, prompting Maxwell to laugh wildly.
The addition of beer served to grease their vocal cords and open up subjects that neither of them would ordinarily have talked with anyone else about. Especially the Doctor was starting to get slurry and though reluctant at first, now started blabbering about the subject that had brought these two unlikely ponies together.
"You know... you know who that old pony was?" the Doctor asked.
"Get out of here! How is that possible? I mean, that old geezer looked nothing like you."
The barkeeper came back over to their table with a sixth refill and took their empty mugs away again. Maxwell, who had not gotten used to grab around things like other ponies, had hitherto been content with dunking his head into the drink. Now that he had gotten a little under his vest, he was finally ready to try. With the following result that the mug slipped and crashed on the table so that its content spilled all over the table. Both of them snorted with laughter and the Doctor nearly choked.
He coughed violently which quickly turned back into laughter. "I'm a Time Lord," he finally managed to say. "Gosh, I can't even remember having visited this place when I was younger. Time sure is a fickle thing."
"A Time Lord?" Maxwell asked blearily. "Any relations with the Devil?"
"Oh good," Maxwell said and pressed his face against the table so that he could suck up the spilt beer, not caring about the shards of glass piercing his face. He looked up again, his face cut and bleeding. He simply brushed the pieces of glass away and his wounds seemed to close all at once. It was hard to tell with the blood and the diminutive size of the wounds. Not to mention the Doctor was getting rather inebriated.
"Hey... how come you didn't want to see them?" Maxwell asked and rested his head against the table again and slobbered up the beer like a lazy dog.
"Didn't you see them? Their camouflage was bloody terrible. That green shade was just sickly and the red was too bright," he said and hiccupped. "I can't believe I would have allowed my companions to choose such terrible colours."
Before they could ask for another round, they had both passed out in the booth. They slept for the next few hours, perhaps even more, since daylight would not shine through such dirty windows.
2020 RET, slightly later that day
"GOOD MORNING CITIZENS OF EQUESTRIA. 'TIS WE, YOUR BELOVED PRINCESS LUNA AND WE ARE HAPPY TO ANNOUNCE THAT THE FOURTH WALL BREACH SEVEN YEARS AGO HAS BEEN RESOLVED, ALTHOUGH YOU MAY STILL EXPERIENCE SLIGHT OOC TENDENCIES. THIS IS NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT AND SHOULD QUICKLY PASS. IF YOU ENCOUNTER ANY FOREIGNERS, REPORT THEM TO OUR STAFF IMMEDIATELY. HAVE A NICE DAY, EVERYPONY."
Maxwell was the first to wake and smacked his lips dully. He looked around to see what had disturbed his slumber and noticed that Nimble Snap had turned the TV on loudly. He just barely caught of a glimpse of a blue mare with wings and a horn, before the broadcast ended. Disoriented, he looked about him and saw the Doctor was still asleep and snored loudly in a little pool of his own drool.
"Oh yeah... still a pony," he said and looked at his hooves.
A young mare entered the tavern just at the moment, and she had roughly the same colours as the older mare sitting by the bar.
"Mom, we're going home," she said and tried to get the older mare up on her hoofs.
"Whazzat?" the older mare said, still tiddly from last night.
The younger one rolled her eyes and used her horn to levitate her mother up in a standing position. Berry then leaned up against her daughter for support.
"Ola chica," Maxwell said and flexed his eyebrows. "What say you and I go find an alley and play some sweet music?"
The younger one blushed and looked away while the older one was interested. She looked at Maxwell with a lecherous grin before the younger one dragged her out.
"Heh, heh, heh! Still got it," Maxwell said.
Without warning, clarity returned to him and the effect of the liquor from yesterday disappeared. Surprised, Maxwell looked up.
"And I'm sober again. What's going on?" he asked, but neither the barkeeper nor the Doctor answered him.
"I just found the artefact," Lohengrinn said. "There's something off, though. I can't tell you what, but it seems to have reacted to the transmission."
"And I was just about to have some fun. Oh well, work calls."
Maxwell stepped down from the booth and went for the door when the barkeeper stopped him.
"Hey, hey, who's supposed to pay for the beer and the broken glass?" he asked and looked at Maxwell with his troglodyte face.
"Put it on that guy's tab. I heard he wanted to pay for both of us," Maxwell said with a grin, alluding to the still sleeping Doctor.
"All right, Cutiemark Crusaders, what will our next objective be?" Sweetie Belle asked and took some candy from the bowl.
"Uhm," Scootaloo said and tapped her chin in thought. "I already thought of astronomy today, so don't look at me."
"Perhaps we could a start a fire?" Apple Bloom suggested and gazed at her new bracelet.
The other two looked at her suspiciously.
They had gone back to Rarity's Boutique. It was night, and the three fillies were huddled together under a blanket in Sweetie Belle's room. That was their secret hideout for tonight and Rarity had supplied them with a little glass bowl filled with sweets. They had quickly begun to discuss how to acquire their cutiemarks, but Apple Bloom had been acting strangely all night.
"I've always wanted to be a firepony!" Scootaloo said. "Until I found out they put out the fires."
"Listen guys, our special talent is not starting fires," Sweetie Belle said and stared hard at her friends.
"And how do you know?" Apple Bloom asked calmly, in a tone quite uncommon to her.
"Well..." Sweetie Belle started, unsure how to finish. "What would a fire starter cutiemark even look like? And what good could we possibly use that talent for?"
Apple Bloom smiled creepily and both the girls folded their ears back in stark surprise. "Who says we have to do good?"
"What a ghastly canyon," Maxwell said and looked down from the cliff top he was perched on. "Are you sure it's down there?"
"It's a gorge, sweetie, and yes, I am," Lohengrinn's silken voice said.
Maxwell trod carefully down the side of the rock; pebble and other objects coming loose at his touch and tumbling down ahead of him.
The ravine was placed deep in a forest with trees on both sides and steep walls that would be impossible to climb. Any attempts at doing so would result in a broken neck. A small river ran in the bottom, but nothing seemed to be growing down here. It was just a long stretch of barren land, a deep trench cleft into the soil by some unknown power a long time ago.
Once safely at the bottom, Maxwell looked around. "Any idea where I should begin to look?" he asked.
"I lost the signal again, but it ought to be somewhere in the middle."
"Great. It's not like this eerie, dangerous, monster-filled canyon stretches on forever or anything."
"Gorge, sweetie, it's a gorge."
It was a long walk through dangerous terrain. The first stretch was deceptively easy and filled Maxwell with a traitorous sense of security. The only sound down here was the babbling river as it snaked from the mountains behind him through the gorge, like a wet little companion. Maxwell had plenty of friends however and the river's inability to shut up began to grate his nerves.
He decided to use this long walk to test out his newfound equine form. He galloped and he trod and he frolicked, whipping his mane and tail every which way. The lack of anything happening made him lose sense of his surroundings and Maxwell could enjoy his newfound state for a while. He could hear a faint giggle in his ears and knew that Lohengrinn was enjoying the situation as well. But as with all things, his carefree stroll had to come to an end.
Right in the middle of the gorge was a large pile of rocks blocking the way. A tunnel had been carved right through it, but it gave him a foreboding feel of dread. He could feel a strong wind whistling through the debris, throwing with it smalls rocks and sand that made his eyes sting.
He stopped up and looked inside. The cave was too long for him to see the other end and he had absolutely no idea how long this cave would be.
"Is this where it is?" Maxwell asked hopefully.
"No. It's hard to ascertain, but I would estimate it to be beyond."
"Oh joy. There isn't a way around?"
"Do you see one?"
Indeed he did not, and Maxwell did search very carefully, very briefly, for a route that would bypass the cave.
It didn't take long before it got too dark to see a hoof around him. There were no signs of progress and soon even the entrance was gone from his view. All the while, the wind only picked up and halted him further. He could not tell if he had walked for miles or metres. The river was still here, but fortunately inaudible over the harsh breeze.
"You know, I get the feeling I'm not alone in here," Maxwell said after a while.
"Of course you aren't! I'll always be with you, sweetie," Lohengrinn replied teasingly.
"No I mean... I think there's something in here with us, something physical."
It was an odd premonition. It had started out as nothing more than a chill down his back, but it only picked up from there. When he looked around him, he always thought he saw something just outside his field of view. The crunching of bone under his feet didn't help either. Whether bones from animals or ponies, he could not tell, but the effect was terrifying. Our fearless adventurer pressed on nevertheless.
Nothing would deter him from his quest. He had a mission to accomplish, and by gum he would do it. Such bad feelings were nothing more than superstition, rising from man's fear of the unseen and the unknown.
He seemed to have walked forever when the exit suddenly flashed before him, like a little beacon of light in the distance. It was nothing more than a dot on the horizon, but seeing the end to this horrid cave urged him to pick up his speed. But... there were two of them now. Two little flashes of light, and not in the distance. They towered up before him and an indistinguishable stench of death followed it. He had walked right into the lair of some unknown beast.
He stopped up to see where this was going. He could see nothing but its eyes, but judging from their position, he was dealing with something big.
The beast had picked up a familiar scent of fresh pony prey. Although its eyes had gone milky white from disuse, its sense of smell had long since taken over. Since the wind was not in its favour, it had trouble picking up the scent trail, but Maxwell had quite literally stepped in it this time. The beast gave out a terrifying roar that sounded as it came from the bowels of Hell itself and not a living creature.
"Ha-ha, foul beast, what an unlucky day it is for you! I, Maxwell the Holy Avenger, the murderer of monsters and conqueror of creatures will put an end to you today! I, uh... huh?"
Maxwell reached into his backpack only to realise that there was something vital missing. He usually carried a sword around with him which seemed to be strangely absent right now. The large beast, now convinced that there was prey before it, swished out with its paw. Luckily it missed Maxwell, but only because he had started his withdrawing already.
He was plenty proficient with any number of weapons and even hand-to-hand fighting. Only problem was that he wasn't in possession of either weapons or hands. Dying always hurt, so rather than risk a painful death, he now chose a tactical retreat. The wind proved an ally now that he was running with it and it practically took him and blew him out of the cave. Thus, the return trip was cut short to mere minutes and Maxwell landed on his face on the ground outside.
The savage beast followed him outside, but its sensitive eyes could not handle the sun. It snarled angrily and retreated back into the cave. Before disappearing, however, Maxwell earned a short glimpse of whatever hellspawn he had encountered. Although it initially looked like a lion with a red mane, it had wings like a bat and tail like a scorpion.
"Thundering Thunor, what in Hel is that thing?" Maxwell asked.
"I believe it's a manticore," Lohengrinn replied, seemingly undisturbed by the monstrosity.
"Never mind that," Maxwell said and got up on his hooves. "More importantly, what did you do with my sword? Don't tell me we forgot it?"
"You've been here a whole day and you haven't noticed until now?" the voice said incredulously.
"That's hardly fair," Maxwell said defensively. "I came here at night, so it's only been half a day."
"You can't hold it probably and I don't want you to lose it. It wouldn't be a problem ordinarily, but we should exercise caution with this enemy."
"I see." Maxwell looked down at the ground, thinking. He looked at the cave again, his face wrinkled with the effort of thinking. "Very well, but how do you propose I get past that thing then?"
"You could always try sneaking?"
2020 RET, same time, slightly farther away
A young, yellow mare sat atop her throne made from darkest mahogany wood padded with red fabric. She was a tall beautiful earth pony and had long red hair with a bow attached to her neck. Her eyes drooped and her head was perched on her hoof, staring off into the distance.
There was a little camp in the middle of the gorge where ponies were gathering for some unknown objective. A platform had been constructed from wood and towered over them, and this is where we presently find Apple Bloom. As in, the same time as Maxwell and not seven years earlier. Many ponies milled around here, tending to campfires, cooking, chatting and otherwise enjoying themselves. Apple Bloom, on the other hand, was not enjoying herself and sat on her throne. She sighed, wishing that the preparations would go along faster.
A tall, orange robot resembling Scootaloo walked up the stairs behind the platform and came up next to the throne. A smaller, white and blue robot followed behind. This was supposedly Sweetie Belle, but there was little left of her appearance to indicate this. Her body had been reduced to a metallic cylinder with two legs in front and her mulberry tail acting as a third leg at the end. Her head was just a small dome with a horn sticking out.
"Master Apple Bloom, Master Apple Bloom," the orange robot said and walked stiffly towards the throne.
"Yes, Scootaloo?" Apple Bloom asked in a disinterested voice.
"Well, an intruder has been spotted in the gorge," Scootaloo said.
"So? Have the manticore deal with it," Apple Bloom said affronted. "I don't have to tell you to do everything, do I?"
Sweetie Belle made some more beeping noises. "It's as Sweetie Belle says, the manticore has already torn the intruder to pieces. We were merely wondering if you wanted to know more. Perhaps find out if he was alone or was sent by someone?"
"Don't bother," Apple Bloom said and waved her hoof in the air. Her eyes caught the bracelet and she gazed at it intently. "I don't care what the mane five is up to. They will not ruin my plans again, not when they are missing a key party member."
Scootaloo bowed and retreated again with Sweetie Belle.
"I think we've gathered enough here," Apple Bloom said, her eyes still fixed on her bracelet and her words directed to no one in particular. "It's time that we left for my new headquarters."
"As you wish, poing."
Apple Bloom smiled, too brief for any of the ponies beneath her to catch it. They didn't dare look into her eyes, knowing how changeable she was these days.
2020 RET, same time and back again
Maxwell's attempt at sneaking, as one might have guessed, did not end well. Unable to see where the beast was, Maxwell mistakenly stepped on its scorpion tail. The manticore sprung to life and slashed at our hero with its claw and despite given it his best, Maxwell was not a pony at heart and completely incapable of defending himself. He circled the monster in hopes of avoiding it and then go for the cave exit, but the tail wound around his legs and tripped him.
Even knowing the danger, Maxwell smiled to the last. He was a pony that knew no fear and braved all dangers. The manticore was coming up on him from behind, so he retaliated by kicked his hind legs as hard as he could, only hitting its deep red mane. The beast sunk its teeth deep into Maxwell's back flesh and he ceased moving.
The manticore now had time to leisurely kill him, tearing off pieces of him as it slowly feasted and gnawed on his bones. It disappeared inexplicably in a cloud of smoke that hovered for a moment under the ceiling before twirling towards an unseen pony, drawn towards her bracelet.
How long Maxwell lay there in the dark cave, we'll never know. When the second mysterious visitor appeared, however, Maxwell had long stopped bleeding and the frayed ends of his limbs had gotten oddly smooth. The silhouette of a unicorn grabbed the front end of Maxwell, while an earth pony companion grabbed the lower end.
2020 RET, earlier that day, checking back in with the Doctor
"Muh," the Doctor grunted and raised his head.
He had never felt this horrendous before, not as a pony or as a human. He tried to remember what he was even doing here in this rundown bar when he remembered that massive, mud-coloured pony he met yesterday. He was now alone in here, as it was too early for any new visitors and too late for anyone else to have stayed. He got back down on his hoofs and swayed towards the door, his head groggy from last night's drinking, when he heard the cocking of a shotgun behind him.
"Hey, HEY, where do you think you're going?" the barkeeper asked and pointed his gun at the Doctor.
"I-I'm going home," he replied nervously.
"Not without paying your bill you're not. Your friend is already gone so that leaves just you."
The Doctor wasn't too intimidated by this threat. Seeing as how the barkeeper was hoofed, like all other ponies, it was doubtful that he could pull the trigger. Still, the Doctor had left his sonic screwdriver and much of his courage back at the TARDIS. That was also the reason he had been so eager to get away from Maxwell yesterday and into his telephone box.
"I have a few bits on me," the Doctor said. "How much are we talking about?"
"Fifty bits for twelve mugs of beer and the broken glass."
The Doctor had at max gotten a single or two refills in addition to his first glass. That meant his friend had drunk around ten tall mugs of frothing beer. Blimey! It was not as much impressive as it was downright disturbing. Long after the Doctor had passed out, Maxwell had continued to drink and who knows what else.
"I don't have fifty bits on me! I doubt anyone would have," the Doctor said.
"Then we have a problem," the barkeeper said, his voice resolute and confirming that there would be no squirming out of this one.
That loud voice was unmistakable. But she couldn't possible have located him here of all places, could she?
Derpy crashed through the swing door and tumbled inside, slid across the floor and came to a halt right before slamming into the opposite wall. She quickly darted to the Doctor's side and embraced him with a big smile. He looked down at her, repaying the smile awkwardly.
"Hello, Derpy. I'm not even going to bother with asking how you find me, since you always seem to do that."
"Where were you all night?" she asked and looked up at him worriedly with a cross-eyed stare.
"I uh, heh," he said and looked upwards to find something to say. "I made a new friend, let's leave it at that. Derpy, I'm afraid I'm in a bit of a spot right now."
"Yeah, you're damn right you're in a spot," Nimble Snap said. "I don't work for free here, you know, so cough up."
"How much?" Derpy asked.
"Fifty bits," the barkeeper said.
"Why don't I pay that?" a new voice said with a Russian accent.
Having been so taken with Derpy's entrance, none of the two inside had noticed an elderly unicorn walking in after her. Oddly, he walked on his hind legs like a hunchbacked human and dressed in a long white lab coat with a light blue shirt underneath, dark blue jeans and an orange tie. His coat was dark, almost black but lighter than the barkeeper's. He had almost no hair left on his balding crown and only a ring of grey remained just above his ears. His short withered tail that just poked out beneath the coat had once been blonde like corn but had long since become grey like the hair on his head.
From his pockets, the old unicorn took a small leather pouch with nice clanky bits of loose change. He walked, crouched almost all the way down to the floor, but still walking rather quickly. The barkeeper accepted the money and the old unicorn led the Doctor and Derpy outside.
"Allons-y!" the Doctor said to the barkeeper who curiously opened the leather pouch and indeed found all of the bits needed inside.
It was morning outside and the Sun beamed down from a cloudless sky and cast the neighbourhood in a quite different light from yesterday. The Doctor placed a hoof on his brow to shield his eyes. The old unicorn stood with his hoofs behind his back, leering at the Doctor with a mouth missing many of its teeth.
"Phew, you really saved me there," the Doctor said, standing just beneath the windows of the bar. "Who are you? I can't remember seeing you before?"
"My name is Doctor B." the old unicorn said and took a strange black box from his pocket into his left hoof. It had a big red button on it and an antenna with a lot of coils around it at end.
Doctor B. pressed a large red button, the only button, on the device and was surrounded by a field of electricity. Only the Doctor was smart enough to take a step back whereas Derpy simply stood nailed to the spot, her face scrunchy and her hair standing up shocked. She didn't appear to be notice however and simply looked to the sides.
"What, what, what was that?" the Doctor asked.
"The pony you met yesterday, where can I find him?" Doctor B. asked, avoiding the Doctor's question.
"Oh Maxwell? I don't know. He just left me there with the bill."
"Maxwell... he did happen to tell you where he was going?"
The Doctor shook his head and Derpy rubbed herself affectionately up against him. The old unicorn nodded and walked off with his strange, crouched gait.