Entry 14 – November 21st, 1122, 07:00
I am tired, but I am anxious. It is perhaps for this reason that I finally remembered to get back to writing today. Today’s been a big day, but I’m not nearly contented enough to put off writing again. It used to feel like a compulsion or a necessity to daily living, but the severe changes of circumstance brought me away from the chronicling table. Maybe that’s not the best word for it, but I think that’s how Jackson would put it, at least.
I finished my tutorial task as of less than a week ago. I was never meant to be a teacher. The sheer importance of and my personal connection to the matter I had to teach my fellow alchemists brought upon me, while I was before these ponies, an anxiety I’ve never before experienced. It wasn’t so bad as to be debilitating, but even the prospect of death never intimidated me as much as the prospect of failing to impart the necessary information. There was hope deeply ingrained in that I’d discuss the intricacy of the procedure and meticulously perform the steps in front of my audience, and it held firm as it rung true.
Although there were more than enough misinterpretations of certain aspects of the process to be rectified, they became apparent in hilarious meltdowns upon my students’ attempts to replicate “The Solution,” as I’ve come to call it. These instances were straightened out immediately, and by the end of my teaching span there had already formed a student-led group at the Academy committed to understanding exactly how The Solution worked. I myself have an intermediate idea of what makes it work; otherwise, I wouldn’t have initially attempted concocting its ingredients together in the manner that I did, but they really want to figure it all out.
My Acolyte’s coronation and potion tutorial activities accomplished, I found myself at the Academy with no real purpose, so I promptly left the premises to return to the mansion to await further briefing from the Inquisition. I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to immediately take holiday with Starfall. I had thought about how she might be spending her time diverting herself in between giving lessons and how long she might spend sulking at the thought of being left to cool after having just been reacquainted with the forges of battle, but my conscience would always smite me with the fact that it really wasn’t my business. Or perhaps it was, but I didn’t ruminate on it for long in any case.
Being reincorporated into the educational facility I had once attended redirected my thoughts to my family back in Tailsbury. My folks don’t have any reason to suspect that I am alive or dead. Perhaps I am both at once to them. They were sad to see me leave even after the Academy, but I still have yet to pin down whether it was the fact that I was persisting in trying to join the despised Inquisition instead of trying to make amends for time I didn’t invest in them or the fact that I was simply going away again would, at best, continue to be present in their lives in a fleeting sense. They don’t know intimately the stallion I have formed to be, and they know full well that their family line could easily truncate with me. We may be villagers and far removed from nobility, but the familial line’s a thing we nonetheless esteem.
The possibility of my seeming to be a failure to them motivates me. Although I can’t fantasize that they know of what waves I’ve made in my persistence, I strive to achieve something that one day will be momentous enough to precede an unexpected arrival back to them.
I am thankful that I had an unexpected arrival at approximately 23:00 yesterday. I had fallen to such bored lows as to be trying to enjoy some of the Oatzart records when there was a pounding at my door. My curiosity was so aroused that I neglected to stop the gramophone before I opened the door.
Blending into the dim brown grimness of the surrounding autumnal wood and untouched by the half-orange, half-purple sundown sky overhead, a devil-red Starfall with supreme wings tucked at her sides stood.
“Come in, stranger,” I offered.
“Forgetting about the vacation was dense of you, but I thought I didn’t have to worry about you not being able to recognize me as your friend from a few weeks ago.”
She had taken it too seriously to not continue toying. “Oh? Let me get my reading glasses and get a good look at your face.” I made for to go inside, “You aren’t Sandra, are you?”
“Oh, shut it.” She had gotten that I was joking.
“If you say so.” I literally slammed the door shut. I turned off the gramophone and opened the door once again to find that Starfall hadn’t moved. Her expression was no longer indignant but rather merely unamused. Her one brow was raised.
“Maybe we could try this again.” I extended my hoof to greet.
She sighed, taking it, “I hope you don’t mean to carry that sarcastic air with you all evening.”
“I don’t. Being with a friend is a merry occasion. Why do you say?”
“Because I invite you to be with many friends this evening. None of us really got to celebrate our victory at the tower, so we planned a party this evening at a recreational center. We would just hate to miss you.”
As she had spoken, I couldn’t help but entertain my eyes to her new eyes and teeth. I reached out to touch her new wings. She didn’t seem to mind me. I guessed she had anticipated censure from me instead of fascination. Her eyelids relaxed a little and she grinned, and I pulled away with a nervous laugh at having been unable to contain myself.
“It seems you have a newfound appreciation for—“
“Not in the sense you may suspect. They’re just a novelty. Smooth, not scaly like I imagined.”
“Uh, they’re neat. I mean, you’re neat. Uh. . .”
“I assume our mainly nocturnal outfit is the cause for the time of the engagement?”
“Good guess. Come along.”
We started walking down the path through the forest to the tracks. I soon realized that she was giving me an opportunity to begin catching up with her before we were to teleport back to wherever the recreational center was. I made sure to let her know that I was privy to the underlying purpose of our superfluous walk.
“I just want you to have this over with so that you can be social tonight with the others. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have practiced your small talk conversations before the event, especially if you’re as rusty as I expect you to be.”
We were having a good discussion when the caprice hit her to teleport us away. We stood before a dark treehouse with a few lights still on inside. It was wide and not very tall, and its bark was covered in places by sinister black moss.
“So this is where you stay these days?”
“Horse feathers. It’s Jackson’s place. I intend to stay here.”
I detected a shadow in one of the nearby windows, but Jackson’s voice resounded before I could acknowledge it.
“Fee Fi Fum Phonies: at my door I hear two ponies,” he called.
“Ponies whinny and ponies neigh. You’d do well to let ‘em finish what they say,” she called back.
I couldn’t bear to hold back my laughter for longer than a second or two. “That’s one way to greet!”
Jackson flung the door open, and he stood there, smiling with intent eyes. He was formally dressed, and Starfall perceived my concerned frown.
“Your lack of formal attire will be quite acceptable, Zeta.”
I could only find it in myself to apologize with a look.
“Seems like you would have preferred to leave on me a secondary impression equal to the one I’m leaving on you. It’s really better this way. Nopony who’s going to be there expects anypony other than me to put on this pretense.”
“It’s his way,” said Starfall in a bland manner that was still endearing to him.
“I’m confused. Are there going to be ponies there other than the ones from our outfit?”
There certainly would be. They had made a reservation at the entire recreational center for the party, and the ponies from our lot were permitted to bring guests with them.
“Every hunter has close comrades they like to bring to such occasions. It just happens to be that your best friends are also invitees,” Jackson remarked.
We resumed the conversation as we trekked to the recreational center for the party. We would be given access to all of the facilities for the evening, and there would be a buffet. I am really glad I got some sleep around noontime. We held a substantial conversation on our way there. We didn’t teleport there because of the location’s reasonable proximity. Jackson seemed to be especially interested in what I had to say about the lessons I had given. It struck me funny because he seemed to have no clue about alchemy whatsoever. I realized he was trying to make me feel important to him, and I acquiesced to his intention. I felt a little guilty trotting with them, though. They could have easily flown there, but I was tethering them to the ground. A pony usually tends to not feel this way, but, since I really cared about our being together at this outing, I just couldn’t help it.
We arrived about midnight, and by then all invitees were present. The recreational center was a huge building and very accommodating to flying ponies. We must have been in one of the communities mostly inhabited by Bat Ponies, especially considering they comprised most of the staff there. We decided to head to the buffet, which was located in a special room which seemed fit for no other purpose. The ponies who had not been present to greet us at the door had awaited our arrival in that room. It wasn’t a crowd, but it was sizeable, exceeding twenty.
Everypony seemed to be fuelling up for sporty activity. All around I saw Bat Ponies voraciously sapping various fruits. Chocolate Mane had apparently feasted himself sleepy, for there was some juice on his face, and he was napping in a corner. Sal was trying to strike up a conversation about fruit stocks with his friends. One mare stood in the back surveying the scene while she coolly bit into an apple. Jackson quietly appropriated a watermelon and proceeded to urbanely ingest its contents with a straw. Starfall held back pensively.
“I can’t believe you. Did you forget that there’d be food?”
From gazing at the feast Starfall turned to me. “I’m planning on swimming before I chow down.” She pulled my head in closer and whispered with both our faces turned out the door and into the hallway so nopony would hear, “Between you and me, my transformation was very recent, and my metabolic rate hasn’t reached the speed that most of these natural Bat Ponies have.”
I casually resumed my previous posture. “Don’t mind if I partake.”
She was a little more abrupt in recomposing herself. She snickered. “Of course. Oh, yeah! I remember: you can’t swim anyway.”
A Bat Pony named Steiner, a rambunctious one who had been flying during our first encounter at the hotel, had been gradually approaching us from across the room as soon as we had entered. From the way he stalked us, I couldn’t help but get the impression that he was likely a member of the pseudo-Vamponies. I pretended not to notice him before, but this time he gave himself up pronouncedly.
“Oh, no. You didn’t bring us another hydrophobe, Starfall?” It wasn’t exactly a reproach, but he sounded disappointed.
“What?! I belong here, don’t I? I’m not taking being ‘brought’ here lying down.”
“Chillax, dude. I was only saying.”
That was my first social blunder of the evening but certainly not my last. Fortunately, Jackson broke in to catch my fall from his station.
“I don’t believe Zeta has eaten anything yet. That might be what’s eating at him.” And he gave me that smile! What a guy.
I proceeded directly to a table with honeydew, which I had only read about in some of my alchemy books. I smelled it before picking a chopped chunk up. It had a pretty plain and faint melon scent. I took a whole piece into my mouth and bit down. It was the heavenliest thing! The texture and the underwhelming sweetness were superb.
Sheerly amazed, I pointed to it and shouted to nopony in particular, “This stuff!”
I received some strange looks from those who heeded my voice. I looked to Starfall and Jackson, and they simultaneously gave me a humored snort of acknowledgement.
So I helped myself to a whole honeydew. By the time I had finished it, so had the rest of the ponies finished their meal. They were practically zooming across the room from the natural sugars. Various groups formed to go to various facilities. I knew I was destined to drift among them this morning, but presently I hadn’t the courage to dislodge myself from my closest acquaintances. With a couple others we proceeded to the pool area.
The smell of chlorine in the air was not dense, but I found it atrocious nonetheless. I sat with Jackson on some bleachers. He didn’t intend to remove his outfit at all for our gathering. Starfall took to swimming laps in the pool. She had never told me she could swim, so I brought it up to Jackson after having sat in passive tranquility for several minutes as he beheld her admiringly.
“Who’d have thought it, huh? Isn’t she so graceful?”
In fact I did not think she was graceful at all. I had known a few swimmers at the Academy.
“To be honest, Jackson, I don’t think it’s really something you could boast about.”
He turned to me but did not seem hurt on her behalf. “How do you figure?”
“Well, she kicks up splashes like nopony I’ve ever seen, and furthermore, aside from her backstroke, she doesn’t seem to employ any particular stroke as she swims.”
I explained to him the source of my understanding.
“I bet you wish you could bring yourself to swim.”
He shocked me with his perspicacity. “An astute conjecture.”
He was back to smiling again and we were now looking forward but still talking. “I guess my wager’s not forfeit then. I’m not a strong swimmer myself, but Starfall can do laps like this for hours. I encouraged her to try her hoof at this new skill, and already she’s superseded me as teacher. I’ll have to get a book for her to improve her art – without mentioning your having inspired the purchase, of course.”
“Speaking of reception of credit, do you enjoy having your name ascribed to the creation of your elixir?”
“I don’t mean to sound more modest than I am, but I really can’t be certain. I didn’t do it for the fame, and I’m afraid whatever attention comes to me might make me a target.”
“Oh, yes. Starfall let me know you were a paranoid one.”
“I guess I am.”
“Well, I hope you don’t take pride in your paranoia. She says it mostly manifests itself in solitude of all places, and you’ll be in our company for a while yet.”
“I didn’t realize.”
“Not to call you a liar, but I don’t think any of us can be too far away from the other two from here on out. Luna watches.”
“You don’t honestly believe that slogan, do you?”
“I don’t, but, considering she mandated our vacations, she must expect something to come of our being together.”
The few who had followed us into the pool area were now engaged in some form of Marco Polo and were raucously splashing about. The vaulted room echoed their noise. I had fallen silent, trying to conceive a way to move about to the subject of my next scheme.
“Doesn’t the echo give you a headache?”
“Where would you get that idea?”
I turned to him and looked at his fuzzy ears. He took a second to realize that I was tacitly indicating my reason with my eyes. His grin reappeared.
“Good thought, but no. One learns to tune the reverberations out. Say, you’re awfully considerate of my batdom for a pony with an aversion to my kind.”
“Let me disallow my ‘aversions’ to come between myself and my friend.”
“Well put, and thank you for putting me in the place of greatest importance in that remark.”
“Perhaps we should lay out our baggage on the table for both of us to see.”
“You couldn’t be referring to. . .”
“Very well. Starfall told me what she told you about it. There’s little else to be said unless you have questions.”
“I would like to propose an idea to you that involves both your work and that recreation.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘recreation,’ but go on.”
“It’s just a theory, but it’s been simmering in my mind for a little while now. It’s not anything alchemically based and shouldn’t be abstruse to you.” I looked at him, and he seemed interested but unsure of where I was going, so I sighed. “To cut to the chase, I think that perhaps it may be deeper in your physiology, as Bat Ponies, to combat the Changelings than as far as your capacities as skillful night hunters go.”
“Oh, I forgot to mention to you. I apologize to interrupt you, but you may want to know that sometime before we hit December, all the waterways, rain clouds, and reservoirs shall be filled with your potion.”
“What?!” I didn’t know he had it in him to interrupt me, but I wasn’t just surprised by that.
“Yep. It’s settled. All those ponies you taught the potion to have been hard at work developing enough of the stuff to do it. The Changelings among us won’t be able to hide for long, and anypony who doesn’t drink the water will be suspect. You, me, Starfall, and the rest of us here are the only ones who won’t be on standby to investigate the flood of reports that shall come in. Her Majesty Twilight has apparently convinced Celestia and Luna that we cannot just put off drastic action for long.”
“It’s certainly a state of affairs. I hope hysteria doesn’t set in.”
“They can’t possibly augment the water all at once, but it’ll not be long before they have. Anyway, get back to what you were saying.”
“That’s insane. Perhaps I need to impart this a little more quickly to you. Okay. So, you obviously retain bat characteristics. Some bats eat fruit, yes, but you know what many bats eat: insects.”
“In essence I think you should try Changeling blood. I have a couple jars back at the mansion.”
He briefly looked disgusted, but he saw my reason, and his disgust melted, “Changelings do look quite like insects.”
“I’m really glad I didn’t offend you by suspecting you might try it if I brought it up.”
“It will take some adventure on my part, but I’ll do it mostly to humor you. I’m guessing that your conclusion is that, if you can get enough of us to push past our egos, the Bat Pony hunting force will fight our toothed Changeling foes with our own teeth.”
I shrugged. “Perhaps you may even find another form of sustenance in feeding off your foes.”
“That’s a perverse strain of thought.”
“You understand the honesty in it, though?”
His grin came back. “Certainly.”
“I’d actually like for you try some as soon as you can.”
“Get it in an opaque phial when we escort you back home this morning, and I’ll test it once Starfall’s left.”
“Likewise I don’t think she’d appreciate this development.” I looked over to her lane and found that she had joined up in the game in procession.
“I suggest you get yourself moving. We’ll join you when we’re ready, but find yourself a game you can participate in. I’m afraid your mind, without proper intervention from us, shall never be able to compartmentalize your work from your play.”
I stepped carefully to the pool deck. “We’ll see about that.”
I was certainly prepared to show him up on that matter. I was aware that one of the groups was going to play basketball, and another was set to play dodgeball in the gymnasium. I hadn’t played basketball in years, so I decided to go there first.
I walked in to find that there were about six ponies at play in a game of knockout. Not garnering their attention, I picked up a spare ball and began attempting some foul shots at a spare hoop. I kept overshooting them. My strength had augmented from then, but my muscle memory hadn’t compensated. I must’ve been twenty and still at the Academy when last I played. I tried performing layups, and this venture was more successful.
The ponies at play had tired of their game and invited me to play house with them, but, as I had seen them play quite skillfully, I was too ashamed of my meager skills and thus declined. I made excuse by saying I had to leave for another bite of honeydew.
“I might meet you in the weight room later. I know you can’t stay away from there for too long,” one of the hunters called.
“We’ll see you there,” I called back as I left the room.
I proceeded to the gymnasium. They were still in the middle of an intense game, I learned from Chocolate Mane, who was refereeing.
“You’ll just have to wait until the sugar in these jitterbugs runs out.”
Sal, who had been out when I arrived in, was spectating, eager to be back in the action.
I asked him how things were going.
“Pretty well, I guess, but my mind’s really in the game right now.”
“How’d you get out?”
“Steiner ducked the wrong way, caused me to face-shot him.”
“Would you mind running the rules by me for this game?”
Obviously, face-shots were grounds for getting out. In this game, the boundary line between the two teams was strictly enforced; if so much as a hair attached to your tail crossed the line, you were out. I had never heard of the boundary rule being enforced so punctiliously. If a pony caught a ball, the pony out the longest on the catcher’s side was to be brought back in, but the thrower was not out. If a pony was hit directly but the deflected ball was caught by a team member, he or she was still in, but another pony was not brought back in. One could deflect a ball thrown at them with a ball in one’s possession, but, so long as the thrower’s ball hadn’t touched the ground, a pony hit by the deflected ball would still be out. The other principal rules of the game were still set.
I wanted to join in badly, but I had to wait. Sal was back in soon after he had explained the rules to me. Steiner was a quick dodger, but Sal could throw fast if he got a running start to his pitch. His team utilized him by throwing volleys to distract various members of Steiner’s team while he would start running from behind them. It was a good game, and the rules pretty much set the stage for its interminability, I think, but I couldn’t bear to stick around.
Naturally, I secluded myself to the weight room. I performed my stretch routine before I began to have at it, and it was during this session that the pony from the basketball room entered. He was suitably warmed up, so, while he waited for me to finish, we talked some. His name was Cato, and he loved his position as hunter very much. Although he always knew he’d be good in a group and would not possess enough intrinsic value to become well known, he strove to be efficient in the roles he played. Subtlety not being his strongest suit, he could perform berserker raids at Changeling hatcheries.
He continued telling me about his exploits as we hit the machines. Cato and I were of about equal sturdiness, but he, being fresh out of a game, was quicker to wear out than I was. That didn’t really matter. All I had to do was continue to sing my praises to him in order to keep his mouth moving. He apparently appreciated esteem coming from somepony more famous than he. Our conversation was topical at its profoundest, but his voice was pleasurable.
When I was done, Cato and I vacated to the buffet room. Fewer staples were about this time, but they were fresh. I was good still, but he went about and took a little bit of everything. He bade me farewell, for he was to head back to basketball room.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I defaulted to singing. I just sang in that lonesome space. It maybe was an hour that I misspent in there.
Somepony who maintained the place happened to be walking by in the hallway, and she complimented me. That was nice of her as a stranger.
Not long afterward Starfall and Jackson returned to me.
“Not that I had missed it, but I had wondered if my absence had silenced your singing voice at all,” spoke Starfall.
“If a hunter sings in the middle of the forest, and nopony is there to hear it, does he really sing?”
This reminded Jackson, “Hey, isn’t there a fencing facility here?”
Chocolate Mane led the sweaty dodgeball ponies back into the room, “I’m afraid they’re renovating it.”
Upon the sight of the food most of the ponies reanimated and recommenced eating. In the munching din, Jackson approached me.
“Once they’re done it’ll be your final chance to speak with these ponies tonight.”
His words motivated me. The basketball group returned last, and I waited to descend upon them to make them my friends.
There was lots of good chitchat practice to be had. I didn’t soar in the ranks of conversation by it, though. It was especially nice to hear from the ponies from outside the Inquisition’s sphere, but they somehow could always tell that I was a hunter. Nothing I said verbally gave it away, as far as I could tell. I joined up with Jackson, who was hosting a neat conversation with the two card players. Methods of card counting were the topic, and I was keen to listen but not intrude. An outsider joined in, too, and the first thing she asked was what Jackson did for a living. When he told her, she expressed surprise. His solid smile could deceive a pony into thinking he was the only one who didn’t share jobs with the crowd of hunters enveloping him. There was no natural grimness to the face.
His love for life appears wonderful, and his smile gives this wondrously deceptive impression.
Jackson just came back to me. He says he’d like to try a little more of the Changeling blood I have stored.