The dirt trail twisted and turned through one of the many acres belonging to the Apple family. Rocks, grooves and the occasional tree stump decorated it, leaving no part smooth. Either side of the trail were trees bearing apples that didn’t limit themselves to lining the path but dominated the surrounding grassland. Daisies waved at the two ponies travelling through, their stems dancing in the morning breeze. Talons cupped around branches, birds sang a melody against the background buzzing of insects. Below them rabbits nattered away in their secret language, pink button noses twitching.
Everything was alive and the very essence of nature. Whilst most admired and enjoyed the scenery, this couldn’t be said for the strangers present. These strangers took in their surroundings with judgemental eyes and upturned noses. They picked their way through the dirt and didn’t care about treading on a few daisies here and there. They feinted, scaring the birds and sending rabbits scurrying to safety. Their whiny and high-pitched voices, spoiled by lenient parents, cracked the ever present peace.
Sweet Apple Acres had been graced with the presence of the two snootiest fillies in all of Ponyville.
“This is the place?” said Diamond Tiara as the clubhouse overhead loomed closer. For a bunch of talentless blank flanks, the Cutie Mark Crusaders did a pretty good job. Securely positioned on a wide apple tree, trunk like an arm and its branches loosely caging the building in like fingers, finding a better location would prove difficult. The clubhouse, painted neatly with a chestnut roof and desert sand walls, sat upon a platform bordered by straight wooden fencing. Engraved on the door and the exterior shutters of the window were hearts. Overall, it was cosy. Small, but cosy... something alien to Diamond Tiara.
Of course, she would never admit this out loud. Instead, Diamond Tiara stuck up her nose and snorted. Her violet mane quivered and the white streak in it imitated a snake. She only needed to clap her hooves once and her father would commission the best architects in Equestria to design something grander. Not that she wanted one, but hers would be much larger with a hot tub and handsome waiters. And she was sure everypony would beg to visit it, even if it wasn’t due to her personality.
Silver Spoon nodded, beaded necklace rattling. Her friend sped up without warning and Silver Spoon picked up the pace to remain by her side. “It is, Diamond Tiara! This is where those blank flanks go and like hang out and stuff. That time when you were off school because your cheeks went all puffy, I followed them here.”
Diamond Tiara boggled her eyes at her. “You like followed them here? Are you serious? Why would you want to stalk them when there are like a jillion better things you could do?”
“I.. I wanted to see the babyish things they do in their club,” Silver Spoon justified, face pinkening, “so we can make fun of them.”
“Oh yeah?” Diamond Tiara raised an eyebrow and her azure eyes flashed. They stood next to tree, not yet going up the ramp leading to the clubhouse. She gazed at Silver Spoon, smirking. “What do they do then?”
Silver Spoon rolled her head back and her plait followed suit. “You know... like, try and think of things they haven't done yet so they can get their cutie mark and stuff.”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. When will Applebloom realise she isn't good at anything?” Diamond Tiara trotted up the ramp with her follower right behind her, laughing. Silver Spoon echoed her amusement. Upon reaching the top, Diamond Tiara jolted to the window and peered through.
Applebloom lay on the floor, snoring. Her friends... who were they again? Sweetie Belle, Diamond Tiara knew the name of, because she was Rarity's sister and Diamond Tiara admired her work, and there was the loud orange filly that always sped past her on that scooter of hers and made her spin in a circle or become coated with dirt. They must have worn themselves out trying to find something they were good at, a waste of time in Diamond Tiara's opinion, and performed the walk of shame home.
Giggling, she elbowed Silver Spoon who just then arrived by her side. Silver Spoon clasped her hooves to her mouth, snickering.
Lying on a large map of Ponyville peppered with red circles, Applebloom’s front left leg twitched before she rolled over on her makeshift bed. This earned another harsh laugh from the fillies watching.
“She must have stayed up all night trying to find her special talent,” remarked Silver Spoon, pressing her face against the window. Her glasses clinked against it. “What a blank flank.”
Not hearing Diamond Tiara's approval, she pulled her face back and looked to her right. Then her left. Then her right again. “Uh... Diamond Tiara?”
Silver Spoon followed the sound of her voice and saw Diamond Tiara's tail disappear through the clubhouse's door. She dashed after her.
Slivers of tape held various pieces of paper to the walls- a photograph of the Cutie Mark Crusaders pulling silly faces, and another of Rainbow Dash lying on top of a cloud whilst Applejack, soaking wet, glared up at her. The rest consisted of drawings of their own creation: Scootaloo flying with Rainbow Dash, Applebloom racing against her brother and sister (winning, of course), and Rarity showing off a dress Sweetie Belle designed. By the window stood a small aqua table, and on top of it a stripy blue vase containing some flowers gifted to them by Fluttershy. An empty packet of marshmallows lay next to the vase, and a wobbly line of crumbs led from the table to where Applebloom rested.
Silver Spoon glanced at all these features that made up the homely interior before losing interest.
Diamond Tiara stood over Applebloom, red marker pen in her mouth. Her tail swished as Silver Spoon crept over, a bewildered expression on her face.
“What are you doing?” hissed Silver Spoon, looking at Applebloom and expecting her to suddenly wake up.
Rolling her eyes, Diamond Tiara shifted the marker pen to the side of her mouth.
“What does it look like? I'm doing Applebloom a favour.”
She knelt down, adjusting the position of her head as she viewed Applebloom’s flank from various angles. Silver Spoon tilted her head to one side. “A... favour?”
“Did I stutter? Applebloom is so devoted to getting her cutie mark, right? Why don't we just like give it to her and save her all that trouble? Now, what should her cutie mark be? A blank piece of paper? A grey blob? Or maybe a mouldy apple core?”
“I don’t think those markers are permanent.”
“It doesn’t need to be permanent. It just needs to like stay on her blank flank until we’ve had our fun.” Diamond Tiara slashed Silver Spoon’s front left leg with the marker’s nib, leaving a bright, crisp squiggle. “Perfect. Inspire me.”
Silver Spoon tapped her chin before saying, “I know. Why don't you draw a needle and thread?”
Diamond Tiara scoffed, “A needle and thread? Really?”
“Yeah, isn't that what Sweetie Belle wants? To be like her sister? Sweetie Belle would be so jealous.”
“Not only that,” Diamond Tiara grinned devilishly, “but resentful. Both her friends would be. And Applebloom can't be part of their club if she doesn't like have a blank flank. Hm, I knew I kept you around for a reason.”
Silver Spoon beamed. Diamond Tiara lowered her gaze, tracing over Applebloom’s flank with the pen without leaving a mark. She touched the nib down, hunching over and narrowing her eyes. A shadow fell upon her. Groaning, Diamond Tiara placed her attention on Silver Spoon, whose breath scratched at her neck.
“I can't think with you hovering over my shoulder!” The marker fell out of her mouth.
It landed on Applebloom. Their breath caught in their throats as she stretched her limbs and yawned. The marker rolled off her and clacked against the ground. Bringing her hind legs to her chest, she smiled blissfully. Neither pony dared move until Applebloom’s breathing steadied.
Diamond Tiara’s face thawed. She grimaced. “You nearly made me wake her up. Go on, shoo. I need thinking space.”
“Oh.” Silver Spoon backed away and sat down. She forced herself to smile. “Sorry.”
Bending her head forward, Diamond Tiara picked up the marker. Silver Spoon lay her chin onto the floor and waited silently, eyelids drooping. What did it take to please her? Finding a way into her good books proved difficult enough... staying there required some kind of miracle. Not that she expected any less... Diamond Tiara deserved the best, after all.
At one point, Diamond Tiara stood rigidly still, only continuing to draw once Applebloom rolled over. She moved an awful lot in her sleep. It wouldn’t be a surprise if she was dreaming about doing stupid things with her blank flank friends.
It didn't make sense. They should have been miserable, being outcasts. They were different. So why did the two bullies always see them around Ponyville having fun? And everyone liked them. Rarity always stopped to say hello. The librarian who used to live in Canterlot did too. Diamond Tiara dreamed of going to Canterlot, the IT place to go to. The Gala was held there each year and Diamond Tiara longed to attend it some day.
But no. Diamond Tiara never received a passing glance from any of those ponies. Diamond Tiara, the prettiest and best filly in her class- no, in all of Ponyville... being brushed aside for a farm girl and her sidekicks? Were they all blind? With a beautiful pink body and a tiara cutie mark, how could she not be destined for great things? She stood out even more next to Silver Spoon, a boring grey and had a spoon on her flank. Ponies should have been flocking to her, begging her to be their friend. Saying Diamond Tiara was synonymous with unpopular would be lying, but she still had a long way to go friendship-wise.
Applebloom was a wallflower. She wore a large pink bow and she lived on a farm. A farm! Farms were dirty. Farms were smelly. Diamond Tiara would simply die if she had to live on one and ‘buck apples’, as the commoners called it. The blank flank didn’t deserve any of the attention she received . Who knew having no cutie mark would make somepony so special?
“Voilà!” announced Diamond Tiara, spitting out the marker. Applebloom lay on her front, face directed away from them. “I have finished.”
Silver Spoon trotted over and studied Diamond Tiara's creation. She held in a disappointed sigh. “Oh, I thought you were going to draw a needle and thread.”
Diamond Tiara gawked at her. “What are you talking about? I did draw that.”
If Silver Spoon was perfectly honest, it looked nothing like what Diamond Tiara claimed it to be. She tilted her head to one side and squinted, trying to find an angle that would allow her to see how Diamond Tiara viewed her work. Diamond Tiara did a good job on making the two cutie marks identical, but Silver Spoon didn’t think that drawing such a simple thing twice would be hard to accomplish.
Flustered, Diamond Tiara huffed, “What do you know about art, anyway? Your cutie mark is a spoon.”
Silver Spoon looked down at her cutie mark. “What's the matter with it being a spoon? My parents have spoons as their cutie marks, and so do their parents, and so do-”
Applebloom shifted and the two stopped bickering, widening their eyes. Silence ensued for a few seconds before Applebloom stilled.
“What do we do now?” asked Silver Spoon. “Wait for her to wake up?”
Diamond Tiara bit her lip. On one hoof, she wanted to see whatever unfolded. On the other hoof, she didn't have the patience to sit around waiting for a baby like Applebloom to wake up.
“We'll throw a stone at the window, she'll go outside and look, and we can like talk to her and stuff,” decided Diamond Tiara. The two departed from the treehouse together and stood a few dozen feet away from the window, back on the ground. Looking around, for they hadn't thought past Diamond Tiara's initial idea, Silver Spoon found a stone half embedded in the ground. She extracted it and held it out for Diamond Tiara to take.
“Here,” Silver Spoon said after Diamond Tiara stared at her unresponsively.
“I'm not going to throw it!” snapped Diamond Tiara. “You have hooves, don't you?”
Silver Spoon bit in a groan and tossed the stone. It travelled a metre before hitting the ground.
Diamond Tiara scoffed, “That's the best you can do? I've seen stones throw themselves further than that.”
Silver Spoon clenched her teeth and picked it up again. She scrunched up her face, rising onto her hind legs. Then she threw it.
It landed four metres away.
Diamond Tiara burst out laughing. “This is priceless.”
Silver Spoon glowered. “Why don't you throw it then and show me how it's done?”
“Fine.” Diamond Tiara picked it up with her mouth and slung it.
It hit the roof of the clubhouse before sliding down it. Diamond Tiara smiled at Silver Spoon, who ducked her head.
“What in tarnation?”
The window opened and Applebloom poked her head out. Running her hooves through her scraggly mane, she blinked at the bright light pushing against her eyes. Snickering, the two bullies pointed at her and Applebloom woke up completely. Her eyes became slits upon seeing who had disrupted her nap.
“Oh, it's you two. What do you want?”
“We came to visit,” explained Diamond Tiara, stifling a giggle. “Were we like interrupting something?”
“I bet she was sleeping,” Silver Spoon jeered, “like a baby. We could hear you snoring all the way from the bath house.”
The two fillies laughed loudly.
Applebloom sulked, “Ah wasn't havin' a nap. Ah... Ah was just restin' ma eyes; that's all. An' ah don't snore!”
“Whatever.” Diamond Tiara smirked. She batted her eyelids. “Nice clubhouse.”
“Yeah, nice clubhouse,” echoed Silver Spoon. “It must be roomy compared to your shack on the farm. Is that why you slept here? Because your shack is too crowded? Do you have somepony over?”
Diamond Tiara snorted.
“Hey, ah don't live in no shack! Just 'cause ah don't live in some fancy smancy mansion like you two, don't mean ah live in a shack.” Applebloom groaned loudly when they just guffawed in response. “Why are you here, anyways? Haven't you got stuck-up thin's that need doin'?”
“Stuck-up? We aren’t stuck-up,” replied Diamond Tiara. “You're the pony that acts like she's better than everypony else”
Applebloom raised her eyebrows. “You're more self-centred than ah thought an’ that's sayin' somethin'.”
“Oh, enlighten us,” said Silver Spoon. “Tell us why we're wrong.”
“Ah don't act like ah'm better than any other pony 'cause ah ain't. You're the ones that go around like you're princesses just 'cause you're rich.”
Diamond Tiara waggled a hoof at her. “That's where you're wrong. You go around with your childish club, acting like you're better than everypony just because you're late bloomers. Ooh, look at me!” She preened, putting on a bad Southern accent. “Ah ain't discovered ma special somethin’; that means ah'm better than everypony else and deserve all the attention at other ponies’ cute-ceañeras.”
“Are you still sour about that?” asked Applebloom.
“And what about Twist? Remember her?”
Applebloom sniffed. “'Course ah do! She's in our class.”
“She used to be your best friend,” Silver Spoon stated. “Well, until she like got her cutie mark and wasn't as special as you.”
“Face it, Applebloom, you're elit.. el... elicit...” Diamond Tiara paused.
“Elitist?” finished Applebloom.
“You'd know!” Diamond Tiara shouted, pointing at her. “Not only that, but you're a bad friend too! I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a cutie mark of a knife for being a backstabber! What's going to happen when you get your cutie mark, huh? Are you going to leave your new friends behind like you did to Twist?”
“Ah didn't leave her behind!” Applebloom asserted, face reddening. “We're still friends! Best friends!”
“That's not what she said. Didn't you know?” Diamond Tiara couldn’t stop now. With an expression like that, Applebloom begged for it. She begged to be trodden further into the mud where she belonged. “Sunny Days is her new best friend. They go to each other’s houses all the time, doing each other’s hair and telling secret dumb stories... if you bothered to listen, you would have heard them.”
“She probably didn't know,” said Silver Spoon. “She's not interested in Twist any more. I'm surprised she even remembered she went to the same school as us.”
“You don't know nothin' about me!” Applebloom breathed in deeply before waving her hoof dismissively in their direction. “Ah don't have the time for this. Go find somepony else to annoy 'cause ah ain't listenin' no more.”
“And we don't have the time to talk to blank flanks like you,” Diamond Tiara retorted, tossing her mane to her other shoulder. “Come on, Silver Spoon. Let's go before Applebloom starts to cry.”
“Who said anythin' about cryin'? Ah ain't gonna cry!” Applebloom slammed her window shut. Fuming, she began pacing. “What do those air-headed ponies know about anythin'? Twist is still ma friend. In fact,” her eyes lit up, ”ah think ah'll go see her right now!”
She galloped out of her clubhouse, hoofsteps banging against the stairs. Running forward and past Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara, she heard them laughing but paid them no further thought. Proving those two were full of horse manure prioritised over some petty in joke. They were absolutely clueless when it came to friendship. Nopony else could stand their company unless it involved bribery, so why did they think they could educate her on maintaining relationships?
Of course she was still friends with Twist. Just because they didn't spend as much time with each other as they used to, didn't mean that they weren't as good of friends as before. Ponies could have more than one best friend. Those two fillies didn't know that because only they could put up with each other for extended- no, even short periods of time.
Applebloom arrived in the market place and tried to remember where Twist lived. She could see two ponies, one with a turquoise coat and another with a cream one. They were on a bench talking to each other, and the turquoise unicorn pony (Applebloom was sure her name began with an L) sat in a very peculiar position which involved her body making a right angle with the bench. Nearby, a white pegasus pony with cyan hair shook her head at a pleading Ditzy Doo: a fellow pegasus pony who delivered the mail to Sweet Apple Acres. The white pegasus pony was called Lightning Bolt- Applebloom knew her name because she was friends with Rainbow Dash, and Scootaloo took it upon herself to know anyone who was anyone to her idol. Lightning Bolt dug her teeth into her muffin, causing Ditzy Doo to flop to the ground.
Applebloom realised she was watching a pony eat a muffin. She shook her head. She couldn’t allow for any more distractions to postpone her mission. Ignoring all the other ponies going about their daily businesses, laden down with sacks full of groceries or just passing through, Applebloom tried to focus on the task on hand. Had it really been that long since she last visited Twist?
No. She couldn’t let what those bullies said affect her. They knew nothing. If she cleared her mind, she would be able to remember where Twist lived. Applebloom closed her eyes. Twist lived above the Florists and they were... she pointed her head in the right direction, eyes opening. That way!
She sprinted through the market place, nearly knocking somepony off her hooves. Voices honed in on her as she lost her balance.
“Sorry!” Applebloom shouted, but she didn't stop to check whether she had injured her victim. She rammed into a cart of cabbages, zooming off before its owner could rant at her and demand for her to pick them up. Many ponies stopped to watch her, but her absence allowed them to continue browsing through the various grocery stalls either side of them.
The pony Applebloom bumped into happened to be Twilight Sparkle. She narrowed her violet eyes and remarked, “Applebloom sure is in a hurry today.” Her dragon assistant Spike shuffled over, weighed down by a pile of scrolls.
“When isn't she in a hurry?” he pointed out. “I wish I had that much energy... then it wouldn’t be so hard to carry all these!”
“Good point.” Twilight chose to ignore his second remark. “I wonder where she's going.”
Spike shrugged his shoulders and dropped a scroll in the process. He bent his knees and tried to pick it up while keeping his other arm around the rest. “Maybe she's trying to get a cutie mark for being a hit-and-run pony?” He fell on his face, spilling the rest of the scrolls. Twilight rolled her eyes.
A fair distance away, Applebloom skidded to a stop. “Here... Here it is! Ah knew.... Ah knew ah remembered!” Flashes of afternoons with Twist entered her mind. All the times they watered the flowers on the windowsills, sometimes resorting to standing on each other to reach them. It often ended with them drenched in water, limbs tangled as their minds caught up with what happened. Then they laughed, shaking themselves dry before going inside to draw or play board games. Her chest pinged, remembering how she used to knock on this door everyday. Applebloom smacked her forehead. At one time in her life, she called this her second home. What did time matter?
She took a few deep breaths before rapping on the front door, humming as she waited.
“Oh,” greeted Twist as the top half of the door opened up. Applebloom sighed in relief. Twist was just like she remembered; she had a pale coat, a frizzy red mane and large glasses. Not that Applebloom forgot what Twist looked like- those two bullies acted like she wouldn’t recognise her at all. “Hello, Applebloom. What're you doing here?”
Not what Applebloom anticipated, but she brushed it aside.
“Oh.” Applebloom scuffed the floor. “Ah was in the neighbourhood an’, uh, thought ah'd pop by. So, uh, anythin' cool happen recently?”
Twist fidgeted. “No, not really. Just... the usual stuff. You know: making candy, homework, school...”
“School is so borin',” Applebloom piped up. “All we learn is stuff we don't gotta know when we could all be gettin' our cutie marks.” She paused. “But you already have yours.”
“Yep,” agreed Twist. “But school is fun because I get to meet all my friends... like you!”
Applebloom forced herself to smile. Why had Twist felt the need to include her specifically, as if it hadn't been obvious?
“Seeing as, you know, you spend the rest of the day with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle.” Twist averted her gaze.
Applebloom flinched. “That doesn't mean we're not best friends, right? We're still best pals, right? Right?”
“Why are you really here?” Twist narrowed her eyes.
Applebloom found it easier to look at the ground.
“Ponies sometimes just drift apart. They find new friends and move on, leaving their old ones behind. There's nothing wrong with it.”
The pale yellow foal stomped the ground. “That ain't always true! We're still best friends.. aren't we?”
“When a pony has to ask herself that question, you know there's something wrong. We're still friends, and we always will be, but it's just not like before. You have the Cutie Mark Crusaders and I have Sunny Days...” She winced. “Speaking of which, she'll be wondering where I am. We're making candy hearts!”
“Ah didn't mean for this to happen!” insisted Applebloom, her throat hurting. “Ah'm sorry!”
Twist waved a hoof. “These things happen, Applebloom. We went our separate ways when I got my cutie mark and you founded the Cutie Mark Crusaders...” She paused, blinking at Applebloom's flank. “Hey, what's that?”
“What?” Applebloom followed her gaze. Her heart nearly stopped when her eyes fell upon what caught Twist’s eye. A multitude of emotions that made her want to shriek with joy and burst into tears exploded inside of her. “Is... Is that... what ah-ah think it... it is?”
“It's a cutie mark!” exclaimed Twist. She squinted. “But what's it of? It looks kind of weird. No offence.”
“None taken,” Applebloom replied, scrutinising it. She couldn’t remove the large smile that had crept onto her face, despite the fact that her conversation with Twist and her lingering confusion were notable reasons to do so. The mere sight of her cutie mark gave enough reason for her to hide away these negative emotions at least for the time-being. She had a cutie mark. A real one. She wanted to scream for all to hear.
Even if Applebloom hadn’t been vibrating on the spot, it wouldn’t have made things any clearer. What WAS her cutie mark supposed to be? She had never seen any other pony with one even remotely similar. Applebloom made a mental note to ask Big Macintosh for his opinion when she arrived home. Well, assuming home was her first destination. The mental images of Diamond Tiara’s and Silver Spoon’s faces tempted her... but showing Applejack her cutie mark offered a prospect far better.
Proof. Proof she wasn’t a little filly anymore.
“Twist!” shouted a voice from inside. “What's taking you so long?”
“Whoops.” Twist turned away and called, “I'm just talking to somepony at the door! I'll be with you in a minute.”
Applebloom started to return to reality.
“I'll have to see it next time we meet each other, all right? Congratulations, by the way! I knew it was a matter of time before you got one. Ain't it swell?”
“Sure, yeah, okay,” said Applebloom, studying it. It looked like a grey line with a thicker red scribble coming out of the bottom. She expected it to have something to do with apples, just like the ones Applejack, Big Macintosh and Granny Smith had. Maybe she wasn't looking at it right. “Swell. Okay. Next time. Thanks, Twist.”
“No problem, old pal.” Twist looked both ways, sweating, before closing the door.
Applebloom closed her eyes and laughed, spinning in a circle. She had her cutie mark. Even if it looked nothing like her family's, she still had a cutie mark. Applebloom looked at it again, showing all her teeth. She had thought this day would never come, but there it was. On her flank. Her new cutie mark. No longer would Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon be able to mock her and call her a blank flank.
“Ah got ma cutie mark!” she told herself. She skipped in random directions before nearly ramming into Twist's door. From above her came some giggles and Applebloom's smile dimmed.
“Read my candy heart, Twist!” a voice rang out.
“Aw, I don't need a candy heart to know you're my bestest friend, Sunny Days!”
Applebloom, who had been gazing at their window, lowered her head.
Maybe, for once, possibly, perhaps, potentially, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had made a valid point. It sounded weird, but Applebloom couldn't help but bitterly accept this. Only they could taint what should have been the happiest day of her life. It was true. She left Twist behind to make new friends. They grew apart as soon as Twist received her cutie mark...
Applebloom widened her eyes.
And she had just received hers...
What was she going to tell Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle?
Applebloom didn’t move, contemplating her next course of action. Show Applejack? Diamond Tiara? Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo? They’d have to see it sooner or later. How long had her cutie mark been there for? It certainly wasn’t on her flank during the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ sleepover the previous night. The Super Awesome Official Cutie Mark Crusaders Sleepover. The event consisted of s’mores, containing blackened-in-places marshmallows, and scary ghost stories until Sweetie Belle stammered that they should do something else.
She definitely didn’t own a cutie mark then. The others would have pointed it out. It must have appeared recently... but when? Why? She didn’t do anything that morning other than talk to Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, go to Ponyville and chat with Twist. There didn’t seem to be anything she accomplished that warranted a cutie mark.
Applebloom jumped and whipped around, her mane and tail straightening out for a moment. She let out an involuntary ‘gah!’ as she landed. Her mane flattened around her head and neck once more while her tail curled, the tension leaving it as her body relaxed.
It was only Pinkie Pie, her face a mere inch from the filly’s own. Applebloom stepped back and forced herself to smile.
“Oh, it’s you, Pinkie Pie.”
She wondered Pinkie Pie managed to sneak up on her. The pony stood out against Ponyville’s modest backdrop. A light pink coat. A rose-magenta mane that looked like one of Twilight Sparkle’s attempts at making a bird’s nest. She didn’t hide behind Applebloom and impersonate a statue; she bounced and twitched and blinked her cyan eyes, acting as if she thought Applebloom knew of her presence the entire time. Even now she didn’t keep still, pushing her face forward and grinning.
“Of course it’s me! Who else could I be, silly?” She hopped in a circle around Applebloom, who eyed her cautiously. “I mean, I could pretend to be Rarity. Wanna hear?” She cleared her throat and said, “Oh, Applebloom, fancy meeting you here. Isn’t the weather simply diviiiiiine? Raaaainbow Dash has done a fiiiiiine job of clearing the sky today.”
Applebloom blinked a few times. Pinkie Pie, unfazed, continued bouncing.
“I was on my way to see Twilight when I saw you and thought, ‘hey, that’s Applebloom!’ So I decided to stop and say hello because I like stopping and saying hello to my friends, though that means it always takes ages to get to places because I have so many friends to stop and say hello to. Anyways, then I saw you looking glum and that made me frown, but then I saw your cutie mark and thought,” her eyes bulged out of her face a few times before returning to normal, “that’s so cool, but you’re still sad so it must have been something totally horrible that made you sad when you should be partying.”
Applebloom sighed and averted her gaze. “Yeah, you see-”
“Are you going to have your cute-ceañera soon? Ooh, it’s going to be a blast! Rarity can make you a really pretty dress and Fluttershy can ask the birdies to sing you a song and I can prepare the food and decorations and Rainbow Dash can do some tricks and-”
She stopped, catching sight of Applebloom’s face. Applebloom realised the ends of her mouth had drooped and grinned once more, but it was too late. Pinkie Pie lowered her head and looked Applebloom in the eye. Seeing Pinkie Pie so serious was like watching Rarity roll around in mud.
“Hey, there really is something wrong, huh?” she asked quietly.
Applebloom opened her mouth, and surprisingly loudly, she moaned, “Oh, Pinkie Pie, ah don’t know if ah want a cutie mark anymore.” She bowed her head.
A brief silence followed.
“Uh, hello?” Pinkie Pie rapped her gently on the head with her hoof. “Remember that club you started? The Cutie Mark Crusaders? And remember that you spend nearly every waking moment looking for your cutie mark? You’re such a silly filly. How could you forget?”
Applebloom gritted her teeth. She liked Pinkie Pie, she really did. She didn’t like it when ponies treated her like a moron, and Pinkie Pie wasn’t the only one guilty of this. Big ponies always treated smaller ones like they couldn’t distinguish fiction from reality, at least in Applebloom’s experience. Did it really look like she was in the mood for ponies pointing out the obvious when more pressing questions were roaming around her head?
“Ah didn’t forget.”
“Then why are you so sad?” Pinke Pie twisted her neck and looked at Applebloom with her head upside down.
“Because what am ah goin’ to do now? Ah have ma cutie mark so ah don’t have to look for ma special somethin’ no more.” A lump formed in Applebloom’s throat but she held whatever tears she had in. “Ah... Ah can’t be a Cutie Mark Crusader now! Ah can’t be friends with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle.”
Pinkie Pie moved her body so it was in line with her head. She hit the ground with a thud but stood up and acted like nothing happened. In a more serious tone, the she said, “Applebloom, everypony is different. It’d be really lame and boring and so, so dull if we were all the same. One of you were going to get her cutie mark first, and it happened to be you. You weren’t all going to get the same cutie mark in the same thing at the same time.”
“But ah didn’t want to be first!”
“Well, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s right there. Now, you can choose to be really happy about it.” Pinkie Pie beamed. “Or you can choose to be grumpy about it.” She frowned heavily. This expression vanished nearly instantly, consumed by curiosity. “What’s is it for, anyway?”
“Ah’m not sure.”
Pinkie Pie’s head twitched before a light bulb appeared over it. “It looks like a knife! Ooh, maybe you are good at cooking after all!”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a cutie mark of a knife for being a backstabber!”
Applebloom’s stomach dropped and a stutter slipped into her next sentence.“... Ah... Ah did make s’mores last night but...”
“I love s’mores! Shall we go make some now? We can serve them at your cute-ceañera.”
“Pinkie Pie?” Applebloom gulped. She couldn’t take her eyes off her cutie mark. “Can we... not tell anyone about ma cutie mark yet? Ah want to tell everypony when ah’m ready an’ ah don’t think ah’m ready yet.”
“Okie dokie lokie!” promised Pinkie Pie. “My mouth is ziiiiiped.” She mimed zipping her mouth closed.
“Thanks, Pinkie Pie. Ah’ll see you later.”
“Mm, hm!” went Pinkie Pie, waving as Applebloom scurried off. She mimed trying to unzip her mouth and widened her eyes. “Muh moh.”
“This ain’t no cutie mark for cookin’,” said Applebloom. She rounded the corner of a costume shore, stopping to study her flank. The grey squiggle looked awfully like something metal and the red thing a part of it. A handle of some sort. “It’s a...” The words didn’t want to escape her mouth but she forced them out regardless. “... cutie mark for backstabbin’.”
There were so many things she wanted her cutie mark to be. None of them were remotely similar to the cutie mark she had on her flank. Diamond Tiara was right again. Right about Twist and now right about this. What next, would she be right about leaving behind the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusaders?
Applebloom shook her head in an attempt to get rid of these thoughts by smashing them into pieces. Something must have went wrong. She was not a backstabber. She was not a bad friend. There had to be a way to fix things. But who would know about cutie marks? And where would she be able to find out about them?
First, though, she needed to hide her cutie mark. Applebloom didn’t fancy showing it to all of Ponyville. Living in such a close-knit community meant it would only be a matter of time before somepony told Applejack or one of her friends.
What could she use? Her Cutie Mark Crusaders cape? No, that was back at Sweet Apple Acres. Involved a trip across town. Besides, she didn't want to show anyone else her cutie mark, [i]especially[/i] her family. Not yet, anyway. Surely there were other options.
The Carousel Boutique? There would easily be some material she could use to disguise her cutie mark with, and she wouldn’t have to trek all the way home. Applebloom hadn’t noticed how draining the morning had been until then. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. She felt like she hardly slept the previous night.
Rarity would be sure to lend her something, what with her being a nice pony in general and Applebloom being best friends with her sister. The problem lay there. Sweetie Belle, when she wasn’t with the other Cutie Mark Crusaders, often ‘helped’ out. Applebloom didn’t want to risk bumping into her.
She grimaced, shaking her tail so a few coins fell out. Counting them, she used her mouth to toss them onto her back. Fairly confident she could afford something decent, Applebloom entered the nearby costume store.
Fake eyes greeted Applebloom as the door made a bell tinkle. Dotted around the compact store were mannequins that regarded her coolly, some from behind masks and others from beneath sagging hats. Applebloom didn’t keep eye contact with any of them for more than a second or two, passing the racks of colourful ensembles that weren’t elegant enough for the Carousel Boutique. DJ Pon3’s latest record shook the room and Applebloom’s hooves bobbed with the rhythm. She almost hopped across the carmine carpet and the tyrian purple walls pulsed in sync.
Distracted by the spots of light that danced around the room, Applebloom bumped into something. She bowed her head, wincing, before raising her chin and saying, “Ah’m sorry...”
She stopped. The orange pony in front of her, who Applebloom could swear had not been there when she entered, cocked an eyebrow. That was enough to steal the words out of Applebloom’s mouth. The other features just made it worse. The scraggly blond mane. The white freckles. The too familiar hat. Applebloom absorbed the information and backed away.
“Hey, hey!” Applejack spun in a circle, smothered with smoke. Applebloom coughed, shutting her eyes tightly as it knocked on her eyelids. Her intention to escape vanished and she shielded her face by directing it away. “You can open your eyes now.”
Applebloom obeyed. Applejack was nowhere in sight. Instead, a moss green unicorn wearing black sunglasses with tinted jade lenses stood before her. She smiled in what was most likely supposed to be a kind manner but it came across as creepy to Applebloom. Applebloom didn’t respond, staring at her. What was the matter with her today? First Pinkie Pie had popped out of nowhere, then Applejack and now this.
“Hey, that wasn’t meant to scare you,” the unicorn said in a rough voice. She held out a hoof. Applebloom copied the gesture and the unicorn bumped her hoof against hers. Applebloom breathed out. “The name’s Show Screen; I work here. Well, that was totally obvious. Some ponies call me Jokey but not as often as I’d like.” She laughed. It was surprisingly high pitched. “I saw you heading here and thought I’d surprise you! Applebloom, isn’t it?”
“What? Oh, yeah. That’s ma name.”
“You sounded like you forgot it for a moment. Sometimes, I get carried away with dressing up as other ponies but I can’t say that I’ve ever forgotten my name! Well, maybe once or twice, but only for a second.” She trotted to the wooden counter at the back of the store, staring. Applebloom remained where she was, wondering whether she should stay or go. Show Screen’s smile dimmed, making her look a lot friendlier. “You’re not still a sour apple about my prank earlier, are you? I promise I won’t do it again. Come on, if you stay there won’t be trouble.”
“Ah suppose if ah go there would be double,” said Applebloom, sighing. Show Screen’s grin returned to her face as Applebloom walked over. She bucked, tossing the coins onto the counter. The filly could have sworn she saw Show Screen’s eyes sparkle from behind her sunglasses. “What can ah get with these?”
“Ooh.” Show Screen rested her chin on the counter, sticking out her tongue. Then, like a cat spying on a mouse, she swiped the coins. She held them up and listened to them jingle, biting her lower lip. “Quite a few things. Anything in particular?”
“Somethin’ that would cover ma body... like a cloak or a cape or somethin.’”
“A cloak or a cape or somethin’, huh? I have loads of cloaks or capes or somethin’s. What about this?” suggested Show Screen, pointing at a nearby rack. Her horn glowed scarlet and a rosewood red cape drifted to them. It lay to rest on the counter and Applebloom studied it, lifting up a corner with her hoof. She could feel Show Screen’s eyes on her.
“It’s so your colour,” said Show Screen. “But if you want something else, that’s cool. The customer knows best, after all.”
Her eyelids fluttered.
“It’s fine, really!” Applebloom draped it over her body. Show Screen continued staring at her. Applebloom forced herself to smile, her eyebrows slanting into an upside down V shape. “Thanks.” She twisted her body around, cape fluttering. “Keep the change!”
Show Screen watched her hurry out and moaned contentedly, resting her face on her hooves. Then she rolled over, her back on the counter. Her front legs stretched out above her and she arched her back. “I love my job.”
The door opened and Show Screen jumped to attention, eager to welcome the potential customer. “How can I help...?”
A moss green pony with a scarlet mane smirked.
Show Screen blinked, her mouth flailing. She shook her head. “... me?” She took off her sunglasses and wiped them. “Whoa, I knew I shouldn’t have gone to Berry’s place last night. That was some party.”
“Oh, Show Screen, don’t tell me you’ve lost your touch?” In a flash of white light, Show Screen’s doppelganger was replaced by Princess Celestia. The white alicorn stood over her, a smile present on her lips. Her hair blew in a non-existent wind, its multitude of colours shimmying, and her mere presence stole the life from the outfits surrounding her.
Show Screen flushed, whacking her head against the carpet as she bent her knees. “Your- your royal highness! Why, I didn’t know you were coming... I might have cleaned up the place... or at least prepared a surprise for your arrival! What brings you to Ponyville?”
Celestia opened her mouth.
“Oh, right! Your assistant, Twilight Sparkle! Can’t you find her? Isn’t she in that library of hers, reading books? She was always reading books at school. She’d even read them under the table at lunch! My favourite study buddy of all time.”
“She wouldn’t be the Twilight we know and cherish if she didn’t, but no. I have come here for you specifically.”
Show Screen failed to not look smug.
“When it comes to costumes and disguises, not many ponies rival your talent. Nightmare Night was never dull with you in charge of the festivities when you lived in Canterlot.”
“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised,” said Show Screen, drawing her cornflower blue cape to one side to reveal her cutie mark. A white masquerade mask. "Canterlot was fun and all, but this town is far less uptight." She inclined her head to one side, eyes narrowed. “But I don’t think you’ve come to pay compliments!”
Celestia nodded once. “I was meditating when I felt a... disturbance.”
“Like what happened with Nightmare Moon?” queried Show Screen. “And Discord?”
Celestia didn’t answer at first. “It's too early to say. I have spoken to my sister about it and she told me she felt it too. I'm rarely wrong about these things as is she. Show Screen, you know all the ponies in this town, correct?”
“I pride myself on it,” said Show Screen, her smugness on the brink of returning. Her face fell when she caught sight of Celestia’s expression. “I have a costume for each pony. Pinkie Pie always alerts me when a new pony arrives. I wouldn’t be half as good at my job if wasn't for her. I've been here for a few weeks and I can already recite nearly everypony's name. Want me to do it now?”
“No, that won't be necessary," Celestia told her. "I need you to be on the lookout. Whatever this feeling is, I do not wish for it to get out of hand. You, as a master of disguises, should be able to spot any impostors.”
Show Screen saluted. “I’ll close my store for the day and get right to work. For royal duties! For the sake of ponykind! Are you going to tell Twilight? Because if you’re busy, I totally can.”
“... Not yet,” said Celestia. “I would like to find this entity with as little publicity as possible. I have more than enough power to deal with it- the only obstacle I face is locating the source. It might not even be anything worth worrying about. My presence may be enough to deter whatever it is."
"Right you are, Princess. You're really, really strong."
"Also,” Celestia hesitated, ”as much as Twilight means well, she isn’t exactly the most... well, she’s not the best at keeping secrets and she can get worried quite easily. Her and her friends have done so much already.”
Show Screen snorted. “Good point. Twilight is like the smartest pony I know... I mean, behind you, of course, but come on. I remember when somepony begged her to not tell he cheated on his assignment and soon the whole school found out about it. Who would confide something they want to keep secret in Twilight?”
“Twilight!” Applebloom stormed into the library, hoofsteps loud and uneven on the wooden floor. She skidded to a stop, a bright yellow speck amongst the dull bookcases that swamped the library. “Can ah confide somethin’ in you?”
A book soared past and nearly crashed into her head. Applebloom ducked at the right time and watched it whizz to the other side of the room where Twilight was standing behind a desk. The mulberry unicorn blinked a few times, ignoring the book now in front of her.
“Applebloom, you look exhausted!” she said, rounding her desk as she approached. “Are you okay?”
Spike, at the top of a ladder leaning against a bookcase, remarked, “Maybe it’s from all that running she did earlier? Remember, when she almost knocked you over and stuff?”
“Spike,” scolded Twilight. Her expression softened at Applebloom’s anxious one. “Of course you can confide in me. What’s troubling you?”
It was time to see whether being the youngest in her family would come in handy. She breathed in the scent of ink and paper.
“You’re really smart,” started Applebloom.
Twilight blushed. “Well, I like to think I am.”
“Yeah. You’re one of the smartest ponies ah know. Like when we first met Zecora, you an’ ah were the only ones that thought she wasn’t all that bad.”
Twilight’s eyes flickered and she laughed. “Yeah... that’s right.”
“You must have met an awful lot of different ponies, what with bein’ the Princess’ student an’ all. An’ all those ponies must have different cutie marks,” said Applebloom. “Ah have some questions about them an’ thought, no, knew you’d be able to answer them.”
Twilight grinned. “Well, I’ll see what I can answer. Ask away.”
Applebloom took a deep breath. “Are there such thin’s as bad cutie marks?”
The silence that settled between the pair did nothing to reassure Applebloom, and she half-expected Twilight to rip off her cape to reveal her cutie mark. She could see the events that would unfold. Spike dropping books, barricading her. Twilight writing to Princess Celestia, requesting she send her to where all bad ponies went. Scootaloo sometimes joked that bad ponies were sent to the moon, but it didn’t sound so funny now. Twilight’s eye twitched as she looked down at Applebloom, who considered bolting out of the library before she could be found out.
Spike watched the pair, as confused as Applebloom.
“What did you say?” Twilight finally said.
Applebloom blushed. “Ah asked if it’s possible to get bad cutie marks.”
“How... Why would you want to know that?” said Twilight, sounding suspicious. Applebloom’s legs wobbled. She knew it wasn’t a particularly innocent question from her perspective, but Twilight hadn’t sussed her out yet... right? Sternly, Twilight continued, “I hope you’re not thinking about trying to get one.”
“So it is possible!”
“Cutie marks reflect what somepony is,” explained Twilight, beginning to pace. “Take mine for example.” She halted so Applebloom could get a good view of it. “I am studious and from a young age, was intent on learning new spells. My cutie mark shows this; my special talent is magic. But look at this... the main star has five white stars around it. Each one symbolises one of my friends. I had always assumed it to be a random number but it isn’t.”
“Uh... no offence, Twilight, but what does this have to do with bad cutie marks?”
“Cutie marks show what kind of pony you are, even if you don’t totally understand what it means when you first get it. You aren’t a bad pony so you’re not going to get a cutie mark for something bad.”
“But what if you did get a cutie mark for bein’ bad? Does that mean you’re goin’ to be a bad pony?”
Twilight was flustered. “Applebloom, why do you-?”
She sighed. “I don’t think there is such a thing as a completely bad pony. They may have some characteristics they shouldn’t be proud of, but...”
“But if they had one, would they be bad for the rest of their life?”
“An’ there’s no way to change it?”
“You can’t change your cutie mark. Your cutie mark is predetermined when you’re born.” She narrowed her eyes at Applebloom. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“Uh, nope!” Applebloom began to back away. “Ah was... Ah was just curious, that’s all! Ah’m gonna go an’, uh,” desperation made something in her brain whirl, “tell Scootaloo that we ain’t gonna get cutie marks for bad thin’s. See, we were bein’ superheroes an’ Scootaloo wanted us to try an’ be villains. That’s why ah’m wearin’ this cape.”
Twilight narrowed her eyes. Applebloom started to sweat.
“Oh, that’s what’s worrying you.” Twilight giggled, rolling her eyes. “Why didn’t you just say so? No, you’re not going to get cutie marks for getting into mischief.”
“Ah thought so... just makin’ sure. Ah’ll be sure to tell Scootaloo,” said Applebloom. “Applejack nags me enough, you know? Ah don’t want her havin’ any more reasons to. Thanks, Twilight! I better hurry before Scootaloo does somethin’ bad!”
“It was no problem. Be caref-”
Applebloom closed the door behind her and exhaled loudly. Biting her lower lip, she looked at the bit of cape covering her cutie mark. Twilight confirmed her worries- she was destined for bad things. Her hoof crept towards it. Maybe it disappeared. Perhaps she imagined it. And so had Pinkie Pie. Show Screen paid it no comments, and none of the other residents of Ponyville stopped to talk about it with her.
She could feel the smoothness of the velvet material on her hoof. It would only take a moment. Then she could check whether she had just been-
The cape fell a short distance, returning to her flank. Applebloom looked up and caught sight of Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo.
Applebloom wondered whether she could get away before they reached her but quickly dismissed the idea. Scootaloo was faster and her brief spell of surprise disabled the use of her legs. She hadn’t noticed their presence until Scootaloo called her name, and Applebloom silently chastised herself for her lack of attentiveness.
By the time Applebloom recovered, they were directly in front of her. Scootaloo’s eyebrows lowered, a playful smirk on her face.
“You found her!” said Sweetie Belle. “Good job, Scootaloo.”
Scootaloo tossed her head back and a wave surged through her short pink mane, flicking the spiked tip at the front. She positioned her head forward and widened her smirk into a full fledged grin. “Told you we’d find her! Applebloom, we’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“Nearly everywhere,” piped up Sweetie Belle. “I mean, we didn’t look at the bottom of a river and some other places.”
Scootaloo glared at her. Rolling her eyes, she said, “Moving on. That sleepover was mega awesome and all, but we lost daylight so we’re gonna have to be like twenty per cent more efficient.”
“Twenty percent?” said Sweetie Belle, furrowing her brow. “How do you measure efficiency?”
Scootaloo glared at her again but concluded that it was something not worth bothering about. It was Sweetie Belle after all.
“So, Applebloom, what were you doing at the library?” Scootaloo peered over Applebloom as if that would answer her question. Applebloom shifted slightly and chanced a glance at her flank, which to her relief was fully covered. “We weren’t going to look for you here and were only passing...” Scootaloo paused. “What’s up with the cape?”
“Cape? What cape?” Applebloom looked at it and snorted. “Oh, that cape! Well, see... ah, uh...” Scootaloo raised an eyebrow. Sweetie Belle leaned forward with wide eyes. Applebloom hesitated, trying to make her voice less shrill. “Ah know! Ah thought that we could try and be superheroes! They do lots of fun stuff we could be good at.”
Scootaloo narrowed her eyes. Applebloom bared her teeth into an extremely toothy smile.. Sweetie Belle was cross-eyed.
“Hey, yeah!” said Scootaloo, bouncing like a pogo stick. “That’s an awesome idea, Applebloom! Me and Sweetie Belle need to get a cape too then, just like yours. I can’t believe we didn’t think of this sooner! Superheroes are only like the second coolest thing ever. Hey, Sweetie Belle, you can get us some capes, right? Your sister must have some.”
“Yeah, my sister has everything when it comes to clothes,” Sweetie Belle said. “But... don’t we need superpowers?”
“Not all superheroes have superpowers.”
“Then wouldn’t they just be heroes?”
“Batcolt doesn’t have superpowers and he’s a superhero.”
Applebloom left them to their bickering. Normally, she would have joined in, but now wasn’t the time to invite the possibility of a tussle. She needed to keep her new cutie mark as secret as possible. She needed to wait until... something. She wasn’t sure what something was, but Applebloom could figure that out later.
Applebloom looked up. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were a few feet away. Scootaloo’s tiny wings trembled whilst Sweetie Belle merely stared at her. It was a blank sort of stare that made Applebloom feel uncomfortable. It had too many interpretations, rendering it unreadable and inconclusive. Applebloom settled on the much more readable eyes of Scootaloo.
“Crime never rests,” Scootaloo remarked, “so we shouldn’t either.”
“Ah’m comin’!” Applebloom scurried over and the three friends made their way to the Carousel Boutique.
“Your head is higher in the clouds than Sweetie Belle’s today,” commented Scootaloo, giving Applebloom a sideways glance. It was said casually, further proven by her upbeat expression, but Applebloom didn’t want to let her guard down.
She chuckled. “Ah’m just in a thoughtful mood, that’s all.”
It seemed to satisfy Scootaloo, who raced ahead and invoked the other two to try and catch up. The lack of conversation on this occasion pleased Applebloom, who overtook Sweetie Belle instead of keeping her company. By the time she dashed around Sugarcube Corner, Scootaloo was at the beginning of the bridge near Carousel Boutique. Applebloom ducked her head and charged.
“Ooh, your cape looks like wings, Applebloom!” complimented Sweetie Belle.
Applebloom skidded to a halt and her cape descended. Sweetie Belle overtook her, skipping. Applebloom watched her, heart thudding, expecting Sweetie Belle to comment on her cutie mark. The white pony didn’t say anything else, only giving her a cheerful backwards glance. Applebloom pretended that her cape unravelled at the front and adjusted it, taking the string bow below her neck and shaking it.
She jogged the rest of the way. When Applebloom reached the bridge, she looked at her reflection. “It’ll be alright,” she told it and it smiled back.
“That wasn’t even a challenge,” complained Scootaloo as Applebloom stopped in front of her. “Applebloom, you so went easy on me. I mean, you didn’t even run most of the way.”
“Ah was, uh, enjoyin’ the view. The sky is so nice today.”
Scootaloo searched the sky before dropping her head, eyebrow raised. Sweetie Belle’s head remained tilted upwards and she burst out laughing.
“That cloud looks like a marshmallow!” said Sweetie Belle, pointing. “And... ooh, that one looks like a sheep.”
“Applebloom, when I said your head was higher in the clouds than Sweetie Belle’s...” Scootaloo headed over to the entrance of the Carousel Boutique, Applebloom beside her. “... Scratch that.”
“And that one looks like Rarity... no, wait, that’s the marshmallow one. But that one does! Hey!” Sweetie Belle chased after them, slipping through the open door behind them. “Wait for me!”
Scootaloo and Applebloom squinted at the sheer pinkness that greeted them. Soon afterwards, different colours entered their vision: vibrant costumes with differing shades of blue and green and purple and red and many others. There were also the beige gaps where bits of the mannequins could be seen where dresses ended before the hooves as well as glimpses of empty faces that hats and wigs didn’t obscure. To the left were mirrors that showed the fillies how they contrasted with their surroundings, with Applebloom’s simple bow and Scootaloo’s messy mane. The smell of roses wafted in their direction, enticing them to stay with its fragrance.
Ahead of them, with a hot pink curtain nearly going all the way around her, was Rarity. She had her back to them, preoccupied with sticking pins into her latest creation. It was a pale blue dress with darker blue seashell shapes decorating the edges, and Applebloom didn’t care to give it any more thought.
“She looks like she’s working,” whispered Scootaloo loudly.
Rarity somehow didn’t hear, humming under her breath as she adjusted her glasses.
“I’ll get her attention,” offered Sweetie Belle.
“No, that’s not what I-”
“Rarity!” Sweetie Belle bounded towards her sister. She tripped and toppled onto Rarity, who shrieked and automatically reached for something that would stop her fall. A loud rip greeted their ears as Rarity fell flat on her face. Scootaloo and Applebloom winced.
Sweetie Belle swiftly got up and waited patiently for her sister to follow suit. Rarity, however, chose to remain on her front and stare at the piece of material in her hooves. The rest of the dress clung crookedly to the now horizontal mannequin.
“My... My...” Rarity went. Her teeth ground together.
“Oops,” said Sweetie Belle. “Sorry, Sis.”
Rarity rose and towered over Sweetie Belle. Lightning struck behind her and Rarity twisted her head around, expression calmer. “I really need to fix that light bulb.”
“Will you be able to fix it?” said Sweetie Belle anxiously.
“Well, no, but I am sure I can get somepony to fix it. It’s only a light bulb.”
“I meant the dress. It was so pretty and I spoiled it!”
Rarity’s ears pricked up at the growing, mournful edge to Sweetie Belle’s voice. “No! It’s not spoiled! It’s nothing some stitching can’t fix. Besides, the ragged look is... in... this season. It gives it more of a castaway princess feel, you know?”
Sweetie Belle sniffed. “Really?”
“Yes? Why, darling, I think you’ve made it even better.”
“Really really really really?”
Rarity’s smiled dimmed. “Yes, now, do you need something? I apologize for being rash but I have to finish this by tomorrow.”
“The capes,” hissed Scootaloo.
“I knew that! Can we have some capes?” asked Sweetie Belle. “We’re going to be superheroes!”
“Superheroes!” Rarity pointed her horn at a nearby rail and extracted a blue cape from it with her magic. It floated over to Sweetie Belle, landing on her back. “Why, how quaint!” A green cape emerged from the same rail and came to rest on Scootaloo. Rarity made to get another one but stopped after glancing at Applebloom. “I see you already have one. And here I was, going to get you a lovely pink one!”
“I appreciate it, but ah’m gonna stick to this one.” Applebloom twirled, careful to make sure her cape didn’t rise up. “It’s... uh, been in the Apple family for years! Family tradition and all.”
It was hard to imagine that her sister embodied the element of honesty.
“But it looks so new!” Rarity stepped towards her, eyeing it. “It doesn’t look old at all.”
“Applejack takes good care of it.”
“Oh, really?” Rarity didn’t look like she believed her, but then she sighed. “I suppose if it’s a family tradition than Applejack would keep it nice and clean. Oh well. Goodbye! I hope you have fun!”
“Yeah, bye! Let’s go!” shouted Scootaloo as the three stormed outside. “Cutie Mark Crusaders, Protectors of Justice!”
“That cloud looks like a taco,” said Sweetie Belle, pointing up at the sky.
The other two sighed, repositioning their heads and feeling the grass tickle them. What part of the sky that wasn’t hidden by the clock tower contained a couple of clouds, none resembling anything like a taco.
“You’re right, Scootaloo. Crime doesn’t wait.” Applebloom exhaled. “It’s already gone without us.”
“We’re just looking hard enough,” snapped Scootaloo, getting off her back and looking around. “Come on, we can cloudgaze later. We’ve got ponies to save and baddies to stop.”
“Aw.” Sweetie Belle stood up shortly before Applebloom. “Can we get something to eat first? All those clouds are making me hungry.”
Scootaloo gritted her teeth. “No. No food. We spent the last half hour looking at dumb boring old clouds. Now I get to choose what we do and I say we go and find someone who needs our help.” She raised her hoof to her forehead and surveyed the area. Her eyes immediately fell on a cream pony who was shuffling along, grounded by two heavy brown sacks. “Cutie Mark Crusaders: Protectors of Justice! Move out!” Scootaloo hurried over to her with the others at her tail.
The pony stopped when they stood in front of her, taken aback by their eager expressions. “Um... hello?” she said.
“I like your mane,” commented Sweetie Belle.
“Why... thank you... I think.”
“I see you’re struggling with your bags,” said Scootaloo. Sweetie Belle blinked at her and the pony searched for a possible escape route. Applebloom drifted towards her bags. “We would be happy to assist you with your dilemma.”
“Well, that’s awfully sweet-”
The pony jerked her head towards Applebloom and widened her eyes. Applebloom’s face crinkled in confusion at the fear and rage on the pony’s face.
“It’s you!” She gasped, backing away with her eyes on Applebloom. “Stay away from my bags! Don’t... Don’t go near them!”
She hurried away. Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle went either side of Applebloom, who stared at where her cutie mark was hidden. That pony... why had she...? Was it because...?
No. Applebloom averted her gaze.
“What’s her problem?” asked Scootaloo. “Do you know her?”
“She seemed awfully scared of you,” Sweetie Belle chimed in.
“Uh... Ah think ah talked to her once, but ah’m sure ah didn’t do anythin’ wron’,” said Applebloom. “Let’s find somepony else.”
Scootaloo nodded. “Yeah, we don’t need her to help us have somepony to need our help! There has to be somepony that needs our assistance. What about Rainbow Dash? I’m sure she has some chores that need doing.”
“What about her?” Sweetie Belle pointed at the blueish grey pegasus situated several feet away.
“What? Derpy?” Scootaloo groaned, pulling her hoof over her face. “Seriously?”
“Superheroes don’t get to pick and choose,” said Sweetie Belle. “And Rarity says it’s not nice to call her that. Her name is Ditzy Doo Hooves.”
Scootaloo sniffed. “Rainbow Dash calls her Derpy.”
“If Rainbow Dash jumped off a cliff, would you?” asked Applebloom.
“... Rainbow Dash can fly.”
“Come on, girls!” said Sweetie Belle. The other two jumped and saw that Sweetie Belle was right in front of Ditzy Doo. They sauntered over. Ditzy Doo peered down at them and smiled in a friendly manner.
“Hello,” said Ditzy Doo.
The three fillies hesitated. Sweetie Belle whispered, “Is she talking to you or me?”
“I don’t know, her eyes are looking at both of us,” replied Applebloom. She raised her voice. “Uh... can we help you at all?”
“Nope, I’m absolutely fine!” said Ditzy Doo. “Thanks for asking!“
The Cutie Mark Crusaders sighed.
They leaned towards her. “Well?”
Ditzy Doo began treading on the spot lightly, head down. “There is maybe... one thing...”
“We’d be happy to help you with your problem,” Applebloom said before Scootaloo could come up with an excuse to leave. Anything that involved Rainbow Dash involved moving around, and Applebloom wanted to remain as still as possible. “What could we do for you?”
“I had something that needed doing but I can’t remember what it is,” Ditzy Doo explained. “It is something really important but my head doesn’t want to cooperate.”
“Argh! We don’t have time for this!” yelled Scootaloo. “We need to find somepony who needs real help.”
“It is real help!” piped up Ditzy Doo indignantly. “If it wasn’t then I wouldn’t have it.”
“She has a point,” Sweetie Belle added seriously.
Scootaloo groaned but Applebloom said, “We’d be happy to help you as protectors of justice and all that need helping.”
“Come on, Applebloom.” Scootaloo boggled her eyes and nudged her. “Superheroes don’t do this kind of thing.”
“I think we should help her,” said Sweetie Belle. “It’s really annoying when I forget things.”
“... Fine.” Scootaloo pouted. Emotionlessly, she said, “Did you lose a muffin?”
“I don’t think so,” said Ditzy Doo.
“Is it to do with Dinky?” asked Applebloom.
“Did you lose a muffin?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“I already said that,” Scootaloo pointed out.
“Oh. Did you lose two muffins?”
“Have you delivered all your mail?” said Scootaloo.
“Did you lose three muffins?”
“Yep and nope. Wait.” Ditzy Doo widened her eyes. “I just remembered.”
The three fillies jumped up. Scootaloo was an inch away from her face. “Yes?”
Ditzy Doo slapped herself on the forehead and stuck out her tongue. “I have to remember something important! Wow, how could I forget to do that? Thanks, girls! You really are superheroes!”
As Ditzy Doo skipped away, Scootaloo narrowed her eyes. Applebloom and Sweetie Belle looked at her and they burst out laughing at the same time.
“Okay... Okay...” Scootaloo wiped a tear from her eye with one hoof while the other clutched her stomach. “Now.” She straightened up and said earnestly, “Let’s go and find Rainbow Dash.”
Applebloom hurriedly scanned the area for a distraction. It came in the shape of a lime green pony with a straggly white mane.
“Hey, look! It’s Granny Smith!” Applebloom rushed over. “Hey, Granny Smith!”
Scootaloo moaned. Sweetie Belle patted her on the head.
Granny Smith plodded along, legs quaking and head downcast. When Applebloom stopped beside her, she ignored her and walked straight past. Applebloom didn’t say anything for a moment, but seeing that her grandmother was going to continue on her way, she jumped in front of her.
The pony in question squinted at Applebloom, frowning.
“It’s me, Applebloom!”
“Applebloom!” Granny Smith exclaimed, life coming into her eyes. She cracked a smile and laughed. “I thought you were with your little friends, getting up to mischief and whatnot.”
“Nope, we’re superheroes now! Do you need help with anything?”
Granny Smith closed her eyes. “Oh, I just want you to keep an ol’ pony company while she’s goin’ wherever her legs take her. It gets awfully lonely on my long, time consuming walks.”
“Uh...” went Applebloom. She could feel Scootaloo’s eyes shooting daggers into the back of her head. “Ah’d love to, really, but ah have thin’s that need doin’. See you later!”
For such a slow pony, Granny Smith’s hooves moved fast. Applebloom had lurched away when she felt a tug on her cape. Her grandmother let go nearly instantly, causing Applebloom to roll forward and across the ground. She came to a stop several feet away, face downwards. She spat out earth that her mouth scooped up and lifted her head. Everything remained dark, much to the filly’s confusion. For a terrible moment, she thought she had gone blind and threw her head to the right in a poor attempt to regain her vision.
Then, in a more terrible moment, smooth material brushed against her cheek. Applebloom shrieked and quickly pulled the cape backwards before standing up.
“Applebloom, what was-?” started Sweetie Belle, but Scootaloo interrupted with a loud, ‘are you okay?’ that drowned out the rest of her sentence.
“Ah’m fine.” Applebloom shook her head, dizzy. The world stopped spinning. She gave them a determined look. The last thing she needed was them checking her for injuries. Nearby, upon seeing that she was alright, Granny Smith waved and resumed her stroll. Slowly. “Ah can handle a bit of tumblin’. Ah mean, ah’m a superhero! So, how about we go see Rainbow Dash and-?”
The voice made the fillies’ eyes twitch and Scootaloo said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
The owner of the voice was a nearly-in-tears Silver Spoon, whose emotional state was enough to diminish the grimace on Scootaloo’s face. She emerged from behind Sugar Cube Corner, a hoof over her eyes. When she reached them, she looked up and wailed, “You have to help. It’s Diamond Tiara! She went into Everfree Forest all by herself. I tried to tell her not to but she didn’t listen... she never listens to me!”
“Why would she go into Everfree Forest?” asked Sweetie Belle. “Everyone knows that it’s really spooky in there.”
Silver Spoon sniffed, taking her glasses off and dabbing her eyes with a frilly handkerchief. “She... She wanted to get some poison joke for you three. I told her it wasn’t worth it but you know what she’s like.”
“She went in there so she could prank us,” stated Scootaloo. She cocked an eyebrow. “And you expect us to go get her?”
“Come on, we’re superheroes!” Applebloom reminded her. “We have to help everypony who needs us.”
“Remember the last time we went there? There was that cockatrice and we’d have been goners if it weren’t for Fluttershy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a forest doing nothing all day. Our superhero days are up.”
Applebloom couldn’t believe it. Scootaloo enjoyed going on adventures, particularly the scary kind, the most. Now wasn’t the time for her to suddenly decide they should weigh up the risks and benefits of quests. Most important of all, retiring from being superheroes meant that Applebloom would have no reason to wear a cape. Then it was only a matter of time before they realised something was amiss.
“Of course we’re superheroes!” Applebloom rolled her eyes, trying to keep her voice light and casual. “Cutie Mark Crusaders: Protectors of Justice! We have capes.”
Scootaloo looked her in the eye and for once, Applebloom had no idea what was going through her friend’s mind. Whatever it was, though, it made something unpleasant stir inside of her. Scootaloo, not taking her gaze off Applebloom, bit the string bow against her neck and pulled. It unravelled and with a shake of her flank, the cape slid off her and landed at her hooves. “Aren’t you the responsible one, Applebloom? This is serious.” There was a glint in her eyes. “Take it off.”
Sweetie Belle started to take her cape off. Applebloom glared and stomped her hooves.
“Ah say we are superheroes. Sweetie Belle, keep it on.”
Sweetie Belle shifted it to its original position.
“Off!” snarled Scootaloo.
Sweetie Belle, who had been fiddling with it, left it undone at the front but kept the cape on her body. She watched the exchange, frowning. Silver Spoon smirked but it went unnoticed.
“Why are you so intent on being a superhero, Applebloom?” asked Scootaloo coldly. “That is, unless you just want to wear the cape.”
Applebloom blinked. “What? Of course not...”
“It’s to hide her cutie mark,” interjected Silver Spoon.
Applebloom stared at her. “How’d you-?”
“I knew it!” shouted Scootaloo. “When you fell over, I thought I saw something on your flank. And Sweetie Belle told me she saw something while we were racing to Rarity’s. Show me.”
Scootaloo lifted Applebloom’s cape, dropping it shortly after. She backed away, head down. Applebloom gulped, raising a hoof.
“Ah... Ah don’t-”
“And you didn’t tell us,” said Scootaloo. “Your best friends. Why, Applebloom?”
Applebloom’s bottom lip trembled. “Ah, ah wanted to stay a Cutie Mark Crusader.”
“Well,” said Silver Spoon, “if you want my opinion, you can’t be a Cutie Mark Crusader if you’ve got a cutie mark. It kind of defeats the purpose, you know?”
“When did you plan on telling us?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“Did you plan on telling us?” added Scootaloo.
“Yeah!” said Applebloom. They looked at her. “Honest.”
Applebloom opened her mouth but only silence came out. She closed it again and threw her head to the side, unable to look them in the eye. “Soon.”
“More like never. Argh.” Scootaloo turned around.
“Ah thought we couldn’t be friends anymore.”
Scootaloo didn’t reply, trudging away.
“Where are you goin’? We’ve got to find Diamond Tiara! Sweetie Belle, you still want to be friends, right?”
Sweetie Belle looked between the two of them, uncomfortable. She smiled at Applebloom and Applebloom smiled back. Sweetie Belle sighed and ran after Scootaloo.
Silver Spoon sidled up to a downcast Applebloom. “Aw, don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll come around.”
Applebloom stepped away and growled. “How did you know about ma cutie mark?”
“Diamond Tiara told me. I have no idea how she knew.”
“It doesn’t matter. Ah’ll find out when ah find her.”
Applebloom shuffled away, hoofs too heavy to lift off the ground. “Ah’ll work that out later.” She looked up and glared at the ponies dotted around the square, staring at them. “What are you all lookin’ at?”
They coughed and continued their daily businesses.
Silver Spoon called after her, “You can’t go by yourself! Everfree Forest is full of monsters.”
Applebloom glowered. “Ah don’t need no pony but myself.”
Silver Spoon watched her go. She frowned. The prank had sounded far better in her head. Heck, it sounded better when Diamond Tiara described it to her. It actually sounded fun then, the thought of those blank flanks falling out because of a drawing Diamond Tiara made on Applebloom’s flank. She liked to think of herself as a smart pony, but beyond that she hadn’t given it much thought. She hadn’t thought to... or wanted to.
She didn’t notice Diamond Tiara come out from behind a nearby stall, but she heard Diamond Tiara’s fit of cackles.The pink pony appeared to have no worries or doubts like her friend, and Silver Spoon interpreted this as herself missing something rather than a fault on Diamond Tiara’s behalf. After all, it was Diamond Tiara. The funniest, prettiest, most popular filly in their class. If she had been none of these things then surely no pony would like her. There had to be a good pony beneath her surface for Diamond Tiara to have so many friends- far more than Silver Spoon.
Silver Spoon looked into Diamond Tiara’s wide, glittering eyes and wavered. Diamond Tiara closed the rest of the space between them with a jig.
“Did you see that?” Diamond Tiara wore a Cheshire Cat smile, rubbing her cheek against Silver Spoon’s. “It went perfectly! I was totally expecting them to fight but Scootaloo... ha! She nearly cried.”
Silver Spoon looked at the corner Applebloom had disappeared around. It felt like something was crushing her vocal cords, trying to stop her from saying anything, but Silver Spoon took a deep breath and forced her mouth to oblige. “Diamond Tiara, do you think that maybe we went a little too far? They were best friends... and they all seem really upset...”
“Oh, they’ll get over it... and even if they don’t, who cares? Don’t tell me you’re getting soft, Silver Spoon! It was only a bit of fun.” Diamond Tiara giggled. She nudged Silver Spoon and demanded, “Laugh! It’s funny.”
Silver Spoon joined in and the two strutted away.
The difference between the outskirts of Ponyville and the beginning of Everfree Forest was stark. One moment, Applebloom ran across a dirt path, bushes and azure flowers either side of her. The clouds above swirled and poorly veiled the brilliant blue sky, reaching to the filly with its warmth and gentle breath. Distinct voices of birds sang with a bug chorus and everything hummed with life.
Then it changed. The fluffy bright trees darkened and became gnarled, with scarred faces and arms that hung like vines. Saturated the grass became, merging with the shadows. There were still flowers, but they didn’t smile like Ponyville’s ones did. They sneered and stuck up their noses, thorned arms crossed. Applebloom ignored them and carried on. She had been in Everfree Forest enough to not be intimidated by its unkempt wilderness.
“Diamond Tiara?” called Applebloom. She slowed her jogging to a trot, peering either side of her. The trees grew closer and the light from above struggled to find gaps between the leaves and web of branches. The song of nature from Ponyville was no more; the bugs were silent and the birds didn’t sing. The only thing that resembled a bird that Applebloom knew to inhabit the forest was a cockatrice and she certainly didn’t want to meet one.
Applebloom bowed her head and sighed at the lack of response. She could visualise Diamond Tiara cowering amongst snaky grass, shaking as she invited predators with her fear. It was enough to make the filly carry on.
“Diamond Tiara? This ain’t funny.” She looked around upon hearing a twig snap. Applebloom waited for something to emerge, a hysteric Diamond Tiara perhaps, before rubbing her chin. “Maybe Zecora found her.”
Why are you so intent on finding her?
She shook her head, disposing the seemingly random thought. It was because she was a good pony. Diamond Tiara was a spoiled brat, but she couldn’t help but be stupid and reckless.
Applebloom arrived at a clearing. She jumped through the bushes in front of her that acted as a fence around the hut. The hut was actually a tree, and coloured bottles attached to black string hung from one of its bulky branches. They didn’t move in the still air, and the mask above the door stared at her with hollow eyes. Applebloom ignored it and knocked on the door.
She waited a few seconds before heading to the window.
Applebloom whipped around and saw Zecora appear from between two nearby trees. Her satchel beat in time with her footsteps, rapping against her grey body until she halted. The zebra blinked a few times as Applebloom greeted her and her mouth fell slightly ajar.
“Your visit to my home is a nice surprise,” said Zecora. She tilted her head to one side, her mouth closing briefly. Her earrings jingled. “But... I see worry in your eyes.”
Applebloom’s forehead creased.
“It’s Diamond Tiara... you know, that girl in ma class.” Applebloom started to pace. Zecora nodded. The two friends often drank tea together while Applebloom complained about the latest things the bullies had done. There was something relaxing about sitting at a small table drinking Zecora’s special tea, surrounded by sacks and decorations and various other things that would give most other ponies a fright. “She went in here and ah’m tryin’ to find her. Have you seen her anywhere?”
Zecora shook her head. “I’m afraid I have not seen her today, but I suspect that pony has not wandered too far away. In fact, I think she might have returned to Ponyville because this forest gives her a chill.”
“You know what? Ah think you’re right. I’ll catch you later!”
Zecora raised a hoof at Applebloom’s back.
“But wait... Applebloom.”
Applebloom hesitated. “Yeah?”
“Something does not feel right. Something.... changed, overnight.”
Applebloom gazed at her from over her shoulder. “Somethin’ changed? What?”
Zecora stuck out her neck, widening one eye. Applebloom cowered and Zecora lowered her voice. “Something about you, Applebloom...”
Applebloom lifted up the end of her cape, revealing her cutie mark. As secret as she wanted to keep it, she didn’t want Zecora to continue freaking her out. In any case, Zecora was smart. She wouldn’t tell anypony. She wouldn’t-
Zecora gasped, mouth twitching. She stepped away. “So that is causing this feeling of doom!”
“Doom?” Applebloom, who had dropped the cape back over her cutie mark, lifted it again. She peered down at it, something drumming in her head. Her eyes flickered between Zecora’s face and the mark on her flank. “It’s... It’s just a cutie mark!”
“Child, you speak those words without knowing the consequences consequently growing.”
“Consequences?” Applebloom paled.
Zecora sighed. “I have only seen a similar cutie mark once, long ago; and what happened because of it...” She lowered her eyelids. “... You don’t want to know.”
“Ah do want to know!” Applebloom begged. She slid forward on her stomach and pressed her front hooves together. She shook them. “Tell me, please!”
Zecora raised her chin and Applebloom stood up. Zecora shifted her head to the side, focusing on the trees around them. Her gaze washed over them, finishing on a gap between two of the trees.
“A pony was sent deep within this place, wishing to never again show her face.”
“A pony?” repeated Applebloom. “Why would somepony be sent here?”
Zecora didn’t say anything. She bowed her head, a shadow cast over her eyes.
“Zecora, why would somepony be sent here?”
“Everything was fine until she earned her cutie mark, then things became rather... dark.
One by one, her friends left her side, and soon her relationship with her home had died. They said she was a sneak, a liar and cheat, then they finally grew tired of her deceit.Their leader banished her and after journeying alone, she made this forest her new home.”
Applebloom looked at the trees and bit her lip. “Have... you ever seen her?”
“Only once when she shared her tale with me, when she told me how her new life came to be. Since then she has not come out, but she is still here that I do not doubt. The crack of a twig, the rustle of leaves, the ghouls of the forest in which someponies believe. The groan of the wind, the eyes just out of sight...”
Applebloom gulped. Zecora’s turquoise eyes burned like flames.
“If you think they are her, then you are right. Applebloom...”
“I can tell that you want to meet her, and I am sure if you go then this will occur.”
“But you said that she hides from all the other ponies.”
“Because they are not like her and she is afraid, but finding a pony like her will make her easily swayed.”
Applebloom had never wandered far off the dirt path alone and she wasn’t sure she wanted to. Yet... Temptation to run into the undergrowth burned inside of her. Something compelled her to.
“She will come for you as she did for I, and you will never know what will become of this if you never try. Go into the forest and walk about, and soon she will seek you out. There is nothing to fear, nothing to lose, the next thing that happens depends on what you choose.”
Applebloom shut her eyes. Then she darted between some trees and out of sight.
“Yes, Applebloom, you don’t want to be late...”
She threw her head back and her eyes glowed white. Smoke erupted out of her body and when the air cleared, a pale pink pony was the only one there.
A smirk graced her lips.
“Because for what is to come, I can barely wait.”
It was relatively quiet in and around the cottage on the edge of Everfree Forest. While the forest encompassed the unknown and difference, which many a pony feared, there was a sweet, gentle familiarity that gathered around the home of Fluttershy. Birds sang as they lined the branches of trees. Others poked their heads out of the many birdhouses. Beneath them, squirrels and bunnies played in the grass, rarely alone and if so not for long. They slid down rocks or scuttled over the bridge in front of the cottage, nattering away.
For many, the owner of such a calm residence would not be the first to come to mind when one wanted to enter Everfree Forest accompanied. And it hadn’t been, for the most part. Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle dismissed the idea of going into Everfree Forest by themselves immediately, having been in there before and remembering what happened all too well. They were explorers, but neither were keen on going in there as a duo.
The first pony they (though mostly Scootaloo) came up with was Rainbow Dash, and Scootaloo’s imagining of what would entail became crisp and elaborate. In fact, she rehearsed what she was going to say as they scoured Ponyville for her idol, taking into account all the possible things Rainbow Dash could verbalise and branching off from there. Sweetie Belle merely smiled, agreeing whenever her friend demanded she give her opinion on one of the many, many responses Scootaloo came up with.
It was all in vain for Rainbow Dash was nowhere to be found. It was rather jarring for Scootaloo, who prided herself on having made a timetable of Rainbow Dash’s week accurate to the hour. Other than helping keep the weather in order, she didn’t seem to have many other responsibilities. She wasn’t snoozing above a cloud, nor was she brightening the sky with her presence. She was gone.
This was merely the predictable yet unpredictable day of Rainbow Dash, who could and would on a whim change her plans even if she was in the middle of doing something. Pinkie Pie, when asked, mentioned something to do with visiting an old friend but didn’t or simply wouldn’t say anymore. She offered them a cupcake though, and that sort of made up for it.
The two fillies approached the stream in front of Fluttershy’s cottage. Scootaloo bent down and took a drink from it, slurping.
Sweetie Belle scrunched up her face. “Ew.”
“What?” Scootaloo raised her head, dribbling. She wiped her mouth with her tongue and gulped. “All this running around looking for Rainbow Dash made me thirsty.” She rolled her eyes at her friend’s expression. “You spend way too much time with Rarity.”
“Probably,” admitted Sweetie Belle, but there wasn’t any guilt in her tone. “It’s still gross.”
Scootaloo glared and took another sip. Sighing, Sweetie Belle surveyed the area, stopping when she caught of their next destination. Everfree Forest was fully visible from where they were, and only then was what they saw its skin. There were gaps between the branches and trunks, inhabiting green darkness and shadowy shapes that could have been the silhouettes of anything. It was much quieter than the world around the cottage, like the forest was sleeping... or waiting.
“Do you think Applebloom went into the forest by herself?”
A response didn’t come straight away. Scootaloo’s curt ‘yep’ was only preceded by a second, but Sweetie Belle picked up on it. She transferred her gaze from the forest to look at her friend, frowning. Scootaloo was still situated by the stream, too uncaring.
“Maybe we should have gone with her,” said Sweetie Belle.
There was no reply. Even when Sweetie Belle sat beside her, Scootaloo pointedly stared at the stream. Undeterred, Sweetie Belle gazed at her. Scootaloo’s attention flickered between Sweetie Belle and the stream a few times before she closed her eyes and groaned.
“What do you want me to say?” Scootaloo whacked her hoof against the grass. “We should have gone with her? Stopped her? What?”
“I don’t know. I feel funny, like something bad is going to happen to her.”
Scootaloo’s eyelids drooped. “So what? She can take care of herself.”
Nostrils flaring, Scootaloo rose to her hooves.
“Duh! But Diamond Tiara can’t, can she? All we’ve gotta do is get Fluttershy to go into the forest and find her, then we can get Applebloom and go home and... and... yeah.”
Scootaloo headed towards the bridge, not realising that Sweetie Belle hadn’t moved. The stream shivered, distorting Sweetie Belle’s reflection. She regarded it. “Do you think Applebloom will still want to be friends with us? I mean, she seemed really upset when we left.”
This wasn’t something Scootaloo wanted to think about. Her brief lapse of anger went unseen by the pony behind her. Gritting her teeth, Scootaloo snapped, “Stop fussing. Of course she’ll still want to be friends with us. We’re the Cutie Mark Crusaders! We’re awesome!”
Sweetie Belle opened her mouth.
Scootaloo raised her voice, sending animals diving for cover. “You can worry later! We need to get Fluttershy right now. And... And just drop it, okay?”
The fear in Sweetie Belle’s voice didn’t go unnoticed by Scootaloo, who was as anxious as she was. Turning her head so her smile could be seen, Scootaloo said in a calmer tone, “Come on, let’s go see Fluttershy. She’ll know what to do. She’s brave.”
There were many things Fluttershy was and wasn’t. She was kind, quiet, sweet and gentle. She loved her friends, both animal and pony. Before she arrived in Ponyville, Fluttershy had not had many friends. There was Rainbow Dash, but she hadn’t been a close friend. ‘Protector’ was a more fitting word to describe her with, but Fluttershy treasured any friendship. Her old room had been decorated with drawings of kind, pegasus ponies, stuck to her walls neatly and evenly. The variety of ponies present was rather limited, but the number of posters gave a different impression. It was like she had lots and lots of friends and sometimes, Fluttershy nearly believed that.
Imagining what it would be like to be popular and adored by everypony- what it would be like to be Rainbow Dash, was not a stray thought that passed through Fluttershy’s mind. Instead of flying through clouds, she often wondered what it would be like to not be a bumbling, clumsy pony that tripped over her words as much as she tripped over her own legs.
They were nothing more than questions with no real answers. Her room was a secret only she knew. Fluttershy would have died if anypony saw how babyish and pathetic she was. Those days harbored enough bullying.
Now that she was older, Fluttershy knew that the quality of friends was more important than the quantity. So there was only one photograph of her close friends in her cottage because she didn’t need any more. The rest of the cottage was very much Fluttershy. The zigzagging staircases for minute feet were her desire to help others. The birdhouses on her walls were her wish to look after those dear to her heart. Engraved around the front door were butterflies and on the ceiling flowers, and those were the things that had made her decide to stay in Ponyville.
Fluttershy saw her real friends often and at this time she was with Applejack. They were situated around a small table that had a puppy on its top. The puppy was mostly black, with a white snout and chest. Fluttershy stared into the puppy’s eyes while Applejack paced around her, throwing her head this way and that as she voiced her thoughts. Only half-listening to her friend’s vocalisations, Fluttershy’s cyan eyes held a deeper, silent conversation with the puppy.
“She’s been avoidin’ me recently an’ ah knew if there was a pony who’d be able to find out why, it’d be you.”
Fluttershy grinned. “Well, I do have a way with animals, if I say so myself.” She leaned towards the puppy. The puppy tensed but a bigger smile from the yellow pony relaxed her immediately. Barking, the puppy licked her cheek. It was rough and wet but Fluttershy didn’t mind at all, simply letting out a giggle in response. “There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong.”
“Well... there is!” Applejack stopped, peering at the puppy.. “Ah mean, Kekona ain’t bein’ disobedient. She does what’s she’s told but when ah ain’t tellin’ her anythin’, she’s hidin’ from me like she’s done somethin’ wrong. Ah didn’t have this problem with Winona.”
Fluttershy allowed her gaze to move. “And has Kekona done anything wrong?”
“A few times... like once, she spilled all ma apples an’ beat up ma cart a bit. But I told her what she did wrong and-”
“Did you reprimand her during or after this happened?”
Applejack blinked. “Well, after. I didn’t see her do it but ah came home from buckin’ apples later that day and...”
“You musn’t do that!” Fluttershy piped up, her pink mane trembling. “You’ll only confuse her. You can only reprimand her while she’s doing whatever she’s doing or just after.”
“But ah know it was her!”
“Even if you are very positively sure it was her, you can’t tell her off after such a long time. She won’t know why you’re cross with her...”
“... So she’ll try an’ avoid me!” Applejack laughed. “Ah get it now. Fluttershy, what would ah do without you?”
Fluttershy blushed and scuffed the floor with her hoof. “Oh, it was nothing. Really. Making you happy is more than enough-”
The door slammed open and Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle stormed in. Fluttershy squeaked but no one could hear her as the door smashed into her green wardrobe. Scootaloo’s hoof slipped under a rug and she fell on her face. Sweetie Belle tripped over her and rolled a few times, stopping when she crashed into a blue end table roughly two thirds across the room from the door. It fell over and with it a pot of flowers.
Kekona leaped off the table and skidded across the floor, catching the pot of flowers on her back.
“Oh, thank-” Fluttershy was interrupted by the table Kenona was just on toppling over and slamming into another table. The photograph on the latter table fell on its face. Fluttershy quickly set it upright, widening her eyes at the crack on its front.
Sweetie Belle coughed. “Um... hi?”
Fluttershy and Applejack stared at her.
Sweetie Belle looked around. “I... like what you’ve done with the place? Very modern.”
“What we’ve done?” Applejack stood over her. Fluttershy stood to her left, but she didn’t look anywhere near as intimidating. If Sweetie Belle hadn’t known Applejack, she would have been terrified. But this was Applejack, and she knew (or at least hoped) that there was nothing for her to worry about. “Ah hope y’all got a good reason for rushin’ in like that.”
“We do!” Scootaloo shoved her face into Applejack’s. “It’s terrible!”
Sweetie Belle’s face joined Scootaloo’s. “Horrible!”
“Oh my,” said Fluttershy.
Applejack grimaced, gently pushing Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle back. ”What happened? Did Granny Smith lock herself in the sheep pen again?”
“No,” said Scootaloo.
“Does Granny Smith think she’s a sheepdog?” asked Fluttershy.
“Again?” added Applejack.
“Even worse!” Scootaloo dragged her hooves down her face.
“Oh my!” went Fluttershy.
“Ah ain’t got time for riddles!” said Applejack. “What happened?”
Scootaloo breathed in. “Diamond Tiara’s somewhere in Everfree Forest...”
“And we think Applebloom went after her!” finished Sweetie Belle.
A pause. Then, Applejack sighed in relief. She mopped her brow with her hat.
“Y’all had me worried for a moment,” she said. “Applebloom knows how to take care of herself. Ah mean, ah used to think that she was just a li’l filly, but now ah can trust her to go an’ see Zecora. An’ ah doubt someone like Diamond Tiara would have the guts to go very far in.”
“Yeah, but what if Diamond Tiara got lost and tried to find her way out? And who knows how far in Applebloom could be!” Sweetie Belle pleaded with her eyes. “She might have got lost and gone really, really deep. She might have been turned to stone or... or worse! Like... she could have been turned into cheese and eaten by giant rats!”
“Then why didn’t you stop them from going in?” asked Fluttershy. She cringed. “I mean, if you could...”
Sweetie Belle glanced at Scootaloo. Scootaloo bowed her head. “We... had an argument. We were trying to find our talents when we saw Applebloom’s cutie mark. I thought she was gonna tell us about it but she didn’t and we only saw-”
“Hold on there.” Applejack blinked a few times. “Applebloom has a cutie mark?”
“Yeah. Anyways, Sweetie Belle saw it when we were going over to Rarity’s but we only mentioned it when Silver Spoon said she had one because we were hoping Applebloom would-”
“What does it look like?” asked Applejack.
“I don’t know. A sword? Best friends aren’t supposed to keep secrets and she’d told Diamond Tiara and who knows who else... it was like she didn’t want us to know and-”
“A sword? Are you sure it wasn’t a knife? Maybe her talent is choppin’ apples.”
“THEN ME AND SWEETIE BELLE WENT TO FIND RAINBOW DASH BUT WE COULDN’T FIND HER SO WE WENT HERE BECAUSE FLUTTERSHY HAS THAT STARE THAT COULD TOTALLY HELP US WHILE WE’RE LOOKING FOR APPLEBLOOM AND DIAMOND TIARA!”
Applejack winced. “I could hear ya before. There ain’t no need to try an’ blow the house down.”
Scootaloo narrowed her eyes. Sweetie Belle piped up, “We really need to find them. I mean, Diamond Tiara can be a bit mean at times, but she’s just a filly and Applebloom is our best friend!”
“Remember when Twilight went in there and got turned to stone?” Scootaloo said. Fluttershy nodded. “Who knows how long it’d have been until someone found her!
“They make very good points,” Fluttershy murmured.
Scootaloo’s and Sweetie Belle’s ears pricked up. “So you’ll go?” said Scootaloo.
“It ain’t a question!” announced Applejack. “Of course we’ll go!”
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle cheered, standing on their back legs and waving. “Cutie Mark Crusaders: Explorers of the Unknown!”
“Not so fast, you two,” said Fluttershy. “Going to visit Zecora is one thing, but going,” she gulped, “deep into the forest isn’t for small ponies like you two. I mean...”
“We can’t not go!” Scootaloo exclaimed. “We told you about this and we have the right to come along too! Right, Sweetie Belle?”
“Right.” Sweetie Belle nodded.
“Ah, let them go,” Applejack said, turning to the front door.
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo hi-hooved. “Yay!”
“But y’all gonna stay where we can see ya and do as yer told.” Applejack spun around, staring at them whilst squinting one eye. Now they were slightly scared. “If ah send ya back, ya have to go back no questions asked. Rarity would kill me if somethin’ happened to you, Sweetie Belle, an’ yer parents would kill whatever’s left. If you fool around an’ get into trouble, ah’ll double- no, triple the trouble afterwards. Got it?”
She glared at them.
“We’ve got it,” squeaked Sweetie Belle.
Scootaloo grinned. “Yeah, you’ll barely know we’re there!”
“Everywhere we go!” sang Scootaloo.
“Everywhere we go!” repeated Sweetie Belle.
“Ponies always ask us!”
“Ponies always ask us!”
“Who we are!”
“Who we are!”
“And where we come from!”
“And where we come from!”
“So we tell them!”
“So we tell them!”
“We’re from Ponyville!”
“We’re from Ponyville!”
“Mighty, mighty Ponyville!”
“Mighty, mighty Ponyville!”
“And if they can’t hear us!”
“And if they can’t hear us!”
“WE GET A LITTLE LOUDER!”
“WE GET A LITTLE LOUDER!”
“EVERYWHERE WE G-”
“That’s enough singin’ for now!” snapped Applejack, who was leading the group. Some leaves above them rustled and she froze. Each pony looked in a different direction, straining their ears. The forest fell silent and the ponies lowered their heads, directing their gaze away from the overhanging trees either side of them. A few seconds later, Applejack continued walking and the others followed suit.
“What was that?” whispered Sweetie Belle. They had only arrived in the forest a few minutes ago and panic already squeezed her throat. She couldn’t recall the forest being this unnerving in her last visit. It wasn’t even nighttime yet. Perhaps ignorance prevented her from being frightened before? She darted to Fluttershy’s side.
“It’s nothin’ to be scared of. Whatever it was, it was prob’ly just gettin’ away from all yer singin’. Ah’m surprised anythin’ is still anywhere near us.” Applejack wrinkled her snout. “Y’all’ve been singin’ the entire time we’ve been here.”
“But we want Diamond Tiara and Applebloom to hear us,” Scootaloo pointed out.
“You probably scared them away too.”
Fluttershy nodded. “Your singing is lovely... but loud. Very loud. We don’t want to wake everyone up.” She somehow lowered her hushed voice. “The animals here can be very cranky if they don’t get enough sleep.”
“But it’s like the middle of the day!” Scootaloo cried out. The sound of beating wings echoed and Fluttershy jumped, her gaze twitching as she showed all of her teeth.
“M-Many of the animals here sleep during the day,” explained Fluttershy. “They like to come out when it’s dark and quiet.” She looked up, focusing, and smiled. “Oh! I can see Zecora’s hut. How about we ask her if she’s seen them? Maybe we won’t have to go look for them after all.”
They sprinted to Zecora’s hut. Upon reaching it, they peered through the window. Even in the daytime the interior was dark, the coloured containers of various ingredients tinted grey and barely visible against the bark walls. The owner of the hut was browsing through her many jars and bottles, all arranged neatly on shelves, unaware of the other ponies’ presence. Her bracelets clinked as she shifted ones she didn’t want to the side. A gentle bubbling came from the cauldron in the centre of the room, with the occasional pop rising above the ever-present noise. It was peaceful, like a pool of untouched water, but ripples had to be planted in it sooner rather than later.
The door burst open and the ponies charged in. A combination of cinnamon and rosemary and something else wafted through the air, greeting their noses. Zecora chuckled and faced them, her turquoise eyes the brightest things in the room. She placed the jar in her hooves back onto its designated shelf.
“Hello, my dear friends, it is nice to see you four. Your company is something I truly adore.”
“Yeah, hello, Zecora,” said Applejack. “I don’t mean to sound rude or impatient, but have you seen Applebloom or a filly named Diamond Tiara today? Apparently, Diamond Tiara wandered into this here forest an’ Applebloom went after her.”
Zecora shook her head. “I’m afraid I have seen neither ponies today, but I am always happy to help look for those who have gone astray.”
“Oh, that would be lovely,” gushed Fluttershy. “I’m sorry if we interrupted anything. We’re just so worried!”
“I’m always free when a friend needs me, or a good friend I would not be.”
They departed from the hut, looking around. There were many ways the fillies could have gone; through the undergrowth, down the path they had come from... It was Applejack who noticed hoof marks in some mud near two trees. She approached them slowly, the others close behind her. Applejack bent down and examined them.
“Somepony’s been here,” she announced, straightening up. “Somepony small. Come on, girls!”
Applejack lunged into the gap between the two trees, breathing heavily. She could barely hear the others behind her; heck, she could hardly hear her own hoofsteps as she stormed through the trees. Branches, both drooping and low, whipped her with sharp cracks but Applejack carried on without a single stumble. Her hooves pressed into the wet grass, leaving a trail behind her that the others followed. She couldn’t wait for them to catch up. She had to keep going.
Applebloom could take care of herself... most of the time. Diamond Tiara was one of them fancy ponies and most fancy ponies wouldn’t venture far into the forest by themselves, especially if they were only young. Applebloom was headstrong like her sister, and that worried Applejack. Applebloom could walk into something that could overwhelm her. The braver she was, the more danger she was likely to be in.
“Look!” yelled Sweetie Belle.
Applejack skidded to a stop, finishing at the beginning of a clearing. Zecora promptly came to a standstill next to her, and they watched Fluttershy run out with an ‘eep!’ Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle emerged a few seconds later, the latter carrying something in her mouth. She spat it out onto the grass.
It was Applebloom’s ribbon. There were a few stray hairs wrapped around it like she had been running through the trees and hadn’t stopped to untangle it when it had got caught.
“Applebloom...” murmured Applejack. How could she have missed it? It was large and pink. She stared at them. “Where did ya-?”
“It was on a spiky plant,” replied Sweetie Belle.
Applejack returned her attention to the ribbon. She picked it up with her mouth and mumbled, “Applebloom doesn’t go anywhere without it!”
Fluttershy gulped. “I’m s-sure Applebloom is okay, I mean, she-”
“Yeah! Okay!” Applejack snorted. “She’s okay! I know that.” She laughed. The ribbon fell out of her mouth so she picked it up again, placing it inside her hat.
“It seems we are heading in the right direction,” remarked Zecora, looking around. “But we must carry on without any more hesitation. Come, my friends, let us journey further. The swifter we are, the sooner we will find her.”
“But which way do we go now?” asked Sweetie Belle. “She could have gone like... anywhere!”
“Why don’t we split up?” Applejack suggested. “Zecora goes one way, I’ll go another way and so will Fluttershy.”
Fluttershy didn’t look keen on going deeper into the forest by herself, but she didn’t say anything.
“Who will we go with?” asked Scootaloo.
“Y’all go back home,” instructed Applejack. “Tell the others to search for her an’ then find somethin’ to do in Ponyville.”
Scootaloo gasped. She shook her head and stared, eyes wide. “What? Why?”
“Ah don’t want whatever got Applebloom to get you as well.”
Scootaloo stomped her front hooves. “Applebloom is our best friend and you want us to sit at home worrying? You said that she was fine a few seconds ago!”
“Applebloom’s ma sister!” snapped Applejack. “Ah’m sorry, but I ain’t got the patience to debate right now. Fluttershy, take them back an’ then get the others.”
“No!” Scootaloo stomped her hooves again. “That’s not fair!”
“What if Applebloom’s already gone back?” Fluttershy said. “Don’t you two want to go see?”
“We went all around town for ages when we were looking for Rainbow Dash!” said Scootaloo. “No Applebloom anywhere. She’s in here somewhere and we’re going to look for her until we find her!”
Sweetie Belle nodded fiercely.
“Young ones...” Zecora stood in front of them. The rings around her neck made her look taller, and her striped Mohawk built upon this. She tilted her head forward and stared at them. “Your hearts are in the right place, I cannot deny. But your minds are not, and I think you know why.”
Scootaloo gritted her teeth. Sweetie Belle narrowed her eyes.
“Applejack, you carry on for do not forget that Applebloom has not been found yet. I will deal with these two and will start searching shortly after you.”
Applejack hesitated. The sound of ticking echoed in her mind. “Well... All right.” She darted to some trees and with a flick of her tail, she hurried through them.
“You can’t send us home!” Scootaloo said when Applejack’s hoofsteps faded away. “We won’t go!”
“Yeah!” Sweetie Belle chimed in.
Zecora’s eyes lingered where Applejack had disappeared to.
“Like I said, you are following your heart and not your mind. Many creatures that inhabit here are not like our kind.”
“But- But-” Sweetie Belle bowed her head. Scootaloo did as well.
“Yet your hearts are in the right place and that is why, I will let you tag along with Fluttershy.”
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle raised their heads, gawping, before laughing. Fluttershy smiled slightly. Zecora smiled once more before going down a small path between two trees. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo chanted ‘yay’ as they skipped around Fluttershy, who had been rather keen on getting some more ponies to help search so she could pair up with one of them.
Rainbow Dash would have scoffed at her apprehension and dragged her along. Twilight would have reassured her and explained what every shadow belonged to. Pinkie would have laughed and sang songs, and Rarity- her good friend Rarity- would have acted like they just were relaxing at the spa or strolling through town, talking about her latest dresses and how Fluttershy just had to see them.
“G-Girls?” Fluttershy examined the surrounding area. Nothing jumped out at them. “Maybe it would be a good idea to get some more ponies to look as well? I mean, Everfree Forest is very big.”
They came to an abrupt halt and stared at her. From their expressions, Fluttershy knew she wasn’t going to win them over. Before they had the chance to argue back, she gave in.
“Never mind. Let’s go, girls.”
They grinned and it made Fluttershy feel like there was a possibility that she had done the right thing. She let them go ahead so she could keep an eye on them. Then, allowing herself one final glance behind her, they left the clearing.
Eerie perfectly defined how it felt walking through the forest alone. How Zecora put up with living there, Applebloom didn't know. Granted, she was different to many a pony, but the forest succeeded in creeping her out even during the day. Somehow, it was both alive and dead. Alive things moved. Laughed. Played. It remained still when one was looking, but stirred when one placed their attention elsewhere. Every time she tried to confront any movement in the corner of her eye, everything around her froze as if nothing happened.
Applebloom’s breathing slowly returned to being as steady as her nerves allowed them to be. The only thing running accomplished was cause her to be even more scared and out of breath. It made her heart race and the forest become too animated for her liking. Branches leaned towards her, trees sneering at her immaturity. She lost her bow at some point- most likely at the start of her journey. Its absence only came to her attention when she slowed down and felt it missing. A part of her wanted to go back and search for it, but Applebloom didn’t want to encourage her fear. First it would be going back for her ribbon, then visiting Ponyville, and then she'd go back and see her friends for a final time, and then...
She shook her head. Finding this mysterious pony Zecora had mentioned was her first priority. Just... to talk to. She needed to focus on this first step and the others would follow.
Shivering, Applebloom stopped and looked around. A wide mud trail snaked through the trees. Trees that greatly outnumbered her, tightly knit for the most part though sparse in places. The gaps enabled smaller creatures, such as herself, to fit through and explore the forest with ease, but her line of vision remained devoid of life.
In hindsight, asking Zecora to elaborate may have been a good idea. The zebra told her that the pony would soon come to her. Now, Applebloom didn’t know how long 'soon' was, but it felt like not much time had passed despite her body giving a different impression. The sky was still pale in the sky, though not as pale as it could have been, and Applebloom’s legs ached. However, she knew better than to hang around in one place. That made her easy prey.
“Hello?” Applebloom set off. Her voice, although trembling slightly, sounded very clear and loud. Too clear and loud for her liking. “Anypony?”
Applebloom remembered why she had entered the forest in the first place.
Something rustled behind her. Applebloom spun around.
Nothing, apparently. Usually, Applebloom would conclude it was a bird or her senses playing up, but any wild animal she knew of would have fled. That sounded like something had fidgeted. Her imagination consisted of footsteps and the cracks of branches, not the sound of leaves moving.
Applebloom opened her mouth to call out when she realised she didn’t know what was there. Did she really want to invite who-knows-what to come out? It could have been practically anything. ‘Hey, ah’m Applebloom. Wanna see if ah taste as good as ah look?’
Whatever it was, it seemed disinclined to leave its hiding place. Suspicious, Applebloom stepped back only for something to swoop past several feet behind her. She turned around fast enough to see a lingering trail of silver glitter in the air. It seemed to originate from some trees to the left of her, the last of it fading away near the trees on the other side of her.
Applebloom knew that the pony Zecora had told her about was nearby. That, or it was the dandruff of a vampire pony from a book Rarity liked.
“Ah ain’t gonna hurt ya!” Applebloom promised. She lifted her cape to reveal one of her cutie marks. “See? Ah'm like you.”
Nothing happened but Applebloom wasn’t going to leave just yet. She puffed out her cheeks, eyebrows lowered. Energy surged through Applebloom’s eyes, ignited by her determination. She dug her hooves into the wet soil and waited. The stillness pressed against her but she retaliated with her own, willing the other pony to come out.
Something pink emerged from between the trees a dozen metres away. A pony. Applebloom blinked.
“Uh...” Applebloom smiled even though she felt uneasy. The pony didn’t go any further out, staring at her with large grey eyes. From the distance, it looked like the pony didn’t have any pupils. “Hello?”
The pony continued watching her. Applebloom tilted her head away and scuffed the ground with her hooves, struggling to maintain eye contact.
She tried again. “You-?”
“Your friend, Diamond Tiara, is in Ponyville. I sent her on her way and she was willing to comply.” The pony remained under the shadowy arch created by the trees, voice hushed yet somehow echoing. She tilted her head to one side and regarded Applebloom with empty eyes. “You should leave.”
The pony backed away.
“Wait!” Applebloom shouted. She shook her hoof, the corner of her cape nearly slipping off it. “Ah... Ah'm here to see you as well! Look!”
The pony hesitated, eyes shining. Applebloom tensed as the pony decided to approach her, only stopping when the gap between them was minimal. “You are like me,” said the pony. “My name is Innocence.”
Applebloom didn’t understand at first but then she noticed the cutie mark on her flank. It resembled Applebloom’s greatly, the only difference being that the blade of the knife on the other pony's cutie mark was surrounded by a faint whiteness.
“Yeah, ah got ma cutie mark today.” Innocence appeared interested in it, which was saying something as Applebloom didn’t see her as a particularly expressive pony. With her strange eyes on Applebloom's flank, the filly felt more confident. “Ah’m losin’ all ma friends and ah thought you’d understand, what with bein’ in the same position an’ all…”
Innocence’s ears drooped and Applebloom half-regretted bringing it up. Mane shivering, Innocence directed her face to the side. Applebloom noted that her mane was the same colour as the glitter she saw earlier. Long, messy and resembling a waterfall, Applebloom allowed herself to examine it before shaking her head. Pretty or not, things needed to be done.
“There is little that can be done, Applebloom,” said Innocence.
That was enough for Applebloom to cling onto. “Little? That means somethin’-“ She narrowed her eyes, mind catching up with her ears. “Wait, ah never told you ma name.”
“But I have heard it,” Innocence pointed out. She paced, looking sour. “I did exist before we met. I watch you and your friends whenever you journey into this forest, wishing to join you but forever cursed by my cutie mark.” She stopped, facing away. Applebloom, situated behind her, tried to rise as high as she could without leaving the ground. “But yes, something can be done.”
“What?” Applebloom only waited a moment. “What? What can be done?”
Innocence smirked before turning around and looking sad. “I can only tell you if you promise you will never speak a word of this to anypony else. Normally, I do not trust others with my knowledge, but never have I met a creature who can understand how I feel. The small, neglected part of me that was once the entirety of me, I long to share.”
Applebloom nodded. Innocence gazed into her eyes and Applebloom felt compelled to stare back. It felt like she entered Applebloom’s mind, spreading her presence through it. She didn’t like it but Innocence didn’t avert her gaze, even when she started to pace again. Walking in a slow circle around Applebloom, Innocence spoke.
“... In Canterlot, there is a secret garden that the princesses keep hidden from their citizens. Within that garden are some fruit. Fruit that could solve your problems. It grants wisdom far beyond the realms of mortals. If there is any way to change your destiny, it would enlighten you on it.”
Had it always been this cold? A gentle gust of wind made Applebloom tremble. “But ma friend, Twilight, she said-”
“She is a mortal.” The reply was instant.
Applebloom hesitated. She liked logic, but she struggled to find the pieces for this puzzle and where they went. It sounded almost too good to be true, yet Innocence’s expression didn’t waver. Either Innocence was a good liar, Applebloom was gullible or Innocence spoke the truth. Now, Applebloom thought of herself as mature for her age, so that left only two possibilities with one that could be eliminated with some probing.
“If it’s so secret, how come you know about it?”
Innocence sighed. “The city I was sent out of was Canterlot.”
Applebloom widened her eyes. “But... But… the Princess!”
Celestia had never talked to her before, but Applejack and her friends had. They spoke highly of her, about how kind and powerful she was. She sent Twilight to Ponyville to make friends... why would Celestia send a pony away to live in solitude?
“She was the one who ordered me to leave,” said Innocence. “I found out about the garden. I used to know her quite well but she couldn’t risk me telling anypony what I had discovered. And... I blew it.” She bowed her head. “I told somepony else about it. It was foolish, but I thought that what I knew would help me make friends. The pony I confided in turned out to be the Princess in disguise. I failed her test! I... lost... everything.”
Two glistening tears splashed against the ground. Innocence sniffed. When she raised her head, her face was devoid of emotion. Yet with so little expression she looked so strong. Such a young face seemed so aged.
“Wow,” said Applebloom finally. That sounded lame. “How long have you been here?” She winced. “If… If you don’t mind me askin’.”
“Too long,” said Innocence. Something stirred within her eyes. “Far too long.”
“Did you know Twilight? She’s ma friend. Or… was… Ah’m not really sure…”
“I know of her.” Innocence squinted. “She was my replacement.”
Applebloom gasped. “Your… Your replacement? Really?”
“Indeed; I was the Princess’s apprentice.” Applebloom opened her mouth. “I do not like being reminded of what I no longer have.” Applebloom closed her mouth and furrowed her brow.
Innocence studied the ground, scowling. Something touched her side and she flinched. Applebloom kept her hoof on her, looking her in the eye.
“Ah… don’t know what to say.”
Innocence emitted a sound that was a cross between a snort and a chuckle. She nearly smiled. “There is nothing to be said. I am to stay here for the rest of my days.”
“What about the fruit in the garden? You said they could help.”
“I do not dare wander out of this forest,” explained Innocence. “The journey would not do me well. I came here afraid to leave, and I have stayed like that. I have accepted my life here and so should you.”
Her tone was brisk, definite. Applebloom grew up hearing it, but she also grew up defying it.
“Ah don’t wanna live here for the rest of ma life and you shouldn’t have to either!” Applebloom stomped her front hooves. “You and me, Innocence, we could go to the garden and have some of the fruit! Together. You could get your life back… I could get mine back!”
Applebloom changed her expression to one younger siblings learned to do. “Please?”
“We could get caught.”
“And what? Be sent here?”
Innocence stared, showing a hint of teeth. Her pupils shook. Then she smiled. “Your bravery is enviable. Fine, Applebloom. We will go. Come.”
Leaping into the air, Innocence drifted away, heading towards some trees. A trail of silver followed her. She didn’t wait for Applebloom to follow and the filly had to run after her after she recovered from her trance. There was something mesmerising about how Innocence moved. It was elegant with a magical quality. Never faltering, Innocence simply rose off the ground whenever she met it. Applebloom dodged through the glitter, feeling nothing. Innocence continued bouncing, head poised forward.
“That’s so cool,” Applebloom said.
Innocence merely grinned.
“Hey, how are we goin’ to get to Canterlot?”
The only times Applebloom had travelled by train were when her family were attending a faraway family reunion or when her sister had business in Canterlot. She had never gone on a train with only a practical stranger for company. But... Innocence wasn’t a stranger; they were connected by their new bond and Applebloom trusted her.
Soon, they were back on the dirt trail that led to the entrance of the forest. Innocence walked the rest of the way. Applebloom stuck by her side, looking around. The forest didn’t seem so scary anymore. Coming to think of it, Applebloom hadn’t felt nervous about the forest since meeting Innocence. The trees were nothing more than trees. The noises that had made her jump before were now murmurs. She stared up at Innocence in awe.
Arriving at the forest's edge, Innocence hesitated. Applebloom nearly departed without her, breathing loudly. She hadn’t realised how cramped she felt until she was no longer confined in the forest. After taking a few paces, Applebloom looked back.
“Aren’t you comin’?”
“It’s so bright,” Innocence remarked. “So... happy. I’ve forgotten what it’s like.”
“I can show you around later,” said Applebloom. She frowned at Innocence's apprehensiveness. “Are you alright?”
“Yes! Of course I am.” Innocence caught up with Applebloom and the pair of them journeyed towards the train station. The grass here was softer and didn’t feel uncomfortable against their bodies. In the forest, the grass was either dry and itchy or wet and slimy. Applebloom allowed Innocence to absorb their surroundings, occupied with her own thoughts.
They were actually going to Canterlot to infiltrate the Royal Gardens to eat some fruit. Taking some Heart’s Desire was one thing but this was the Princess, not Zecora... It was a whole new level. Would they even be able to reach it? Wouldn’t there be guards? Would her family and friends find her before she could do anything? What would they do if they found out?
Peeking at Innocence, she pushed these troubled thoughts aside. They had to try. Applebloom would rather crash into the last hurdle than walk away from the first.
Ponyville was fairly busy, with ponies enjoying the last few hours of sunlight, though the number had dropped significantly from earlier. None of them seemed interested in Applebloom and her new friend. This surprised Applebloom; in Ponyville, everypony knew nearly everypony else and Innocence wasn’t exactly a native. Her mane sparkled nearly as much as the Princesses’ yet nopony gave her more than a passing glance. They must have become accustomed to unusual visitors.
Innocence bolted into an alleyway between two cottages and Applebloom followed. Most likely, something similar crossed her mind as well.
Reaching the other end, Innocence observed the area beyond. Applebloom checked it for anypony she knew. There were a few ponies she recognised the faces of, but none that she could recall conversing with.
“The train station is nearby,” said Applebloom. “In fact, ah can see it from here.”
There wasn’t a train there yet, but there were some ponies waiting by the railroad on a brown platform. They were all unicorns, and three of them possessed suitcases. It was apparent that they were heading back to Canterlot after visiting Ponyville, backed up by the fact that Applebloom didn’t recognise any of them. She shifted her gaze upwards to the ticket office’s hay-hatched roof, where there was a sign with a small picture of a train’s silhouette hanging on it.
“Wait! We need money to buy tickets!” Applebloom shook her tail. “Ah nearly forgot. Ah hope ah have enough.”
“We’re not buying tickets.”
“What?” Applebloom widened her eyes. “We can’t go on the train with no tickets. What if we get caught?”
Innocence looked at her sideways and said dryly, “We are going to Canterlot, breaking into the Royal Gardens and eating their fruit... and going on a train without a ticket is wrong?”
“Ma friends and family are more important than what’s right and wrong,” Applebloom told her. “They mean everythin’ to me but ah ain’t gonna break any rules if ah don’t have to.” Her tail rattled and some coins fell onto the ground. She counted them. “Ah’ve got enough... barely.”
Picking them up with her teeth, Applebloom hurried over to the train station. Innocence followed and they entered the ticket office together. Applebloom paid for two return tickets and took one from the counter, Innocence taking the other. The male pony behind the counter locked eyes with Innocence and she smiled. He blushed, holding a hoof to his mouth. Innocence chuckled and whipped around, tail swishing, before following Applebloom out of the building. Eyes glazed over, the pony flapped his hoof in front of his face and sighed.
Neither spoke to each other until they sat in the train. They settled in a corner opposite each other, away from the other ponies in their carriage. It was nearly empty, and the few ponies there were too wrapped up in their own conversations and their own lives to give the odd couple much thought. Their voices blended into static. Innocence lay down on her wide maroon seat, watching Applebloom. She had her face pressed against the window next to her, humming.
Even though they hadn’t left yet, Applebloom felt queasy. Was she homesick? That was ridiculous. They were still in Ponyville and it wasn’t like she was leaving forever. Her breath on the window made the exterior of the train appear cloudy, like she was viewing Ponyville in a memory. She rubbed at the condensation with her hoof.
“You are a good pony,” said Innocence.
Applebloom removed her face from the window. “Huh?”
“Doing this...” Innocence gestured to where they were. The walls of their carriage were burgundy, bearing posters of regulations and advertisements to movies Applebloom had little interest in seeing. Below, the sienna brown flooring had lines carved into it that created a pattern of rhombuses. It wasn't first class but it was, in Applebloom's opinion, pleasant nonetheless. The navy blue curtains were a subtle touch that added to the homely atmosphere, and the ponies’ presence in such a place felt like a feat in itself. “I don’t think I can express how thankful I am that you are here with me.”
“It’s no problem.” Applebloom smiled feebly. “Really.”
“This should only take an hour or so,” Innocence said. “Then...”
“Yeah, then... we do what we’ve gotta do.”
Innocence wasn’t much of a talker so Applebloom stared out of the window for most of the trip. The landscape passed by in a blur and she made a game of trying to find as many interesting things as possible. She hardly ever ventured far from Ponyville and seeing them go through so much land so quickly made her feel funny. What if the others were trying to find her now? No longer was the sky a pale blue; it wasn’t dark but it would be by the time they arrived in Canterlot.
A lilac pony whose mane was arranged on top of her head in a beehive came by partway through the journey with a trolley of food, but neither had enough money to purchase anything. Applebloom’s stomach rumbled and she realised that it had been some time since she last ate. The smell of coffee and chocolate settled in her nose.
“You poor thing,” cooed the pony with the beehive mane. She was supposed to look sympathetic but her irises were very dark, and her eyes heavily outlined with black made her look slightly psychopathic. “Where are your parents?”
“In Canterlot,” Innocence said before Applebloom could muster a response. “We went to visit relatives in Ponyville for the day. They had to stay at home to look after our sister. She’s very ill.”
Applebloom didn’t expect the pony to believe this as she and Innocence looked very different, and Canterlot was dominated by unicorns, but the food trolley pony let them each have a free celery sandwich. She smiled at them before crossing the carriage to where four unicorns were situated.
“You lied!” hissed Applebloom.
Innocence, who had been gazing at the unicorns, blinked and turned back to her. “So?”
“You didn’t have to.”
“I wasn’t going to tell her the truth, was I? Applebloom, you’ve got to stop fretting about trivial things like that. Eat.”
Innocence forced Applebloom’s sandwich into her mouth. Applebloom grumbled, words lost in her mouthful of food. She pointedly ignored Innocence for the rest of the journey, and Innocence made no effort to try and patch things up.
The train ascended as they climbed the mountain Canterlot rested upon. Applebloom watched, unafraid, as they got higher and higher. She had been to Canterlot twice before but hadn’t done any sightseeing. Most of what she knew about the city derived from her sister and her friends, but hearing was nowhere near as real as seeing. The city wrapped around the mountain face, white towers with gold and purple tops level with clouds. Attention captured, Applebloom barely noticed the train become horizontal and enter the city.
As soon as the train pulled into the station, Innocence nudged Applebloom with her snout and the pair got off. The train station here had a more modern feel to it than Ponyville's, with silver walls and a roof of shining purple tiles. There was a clock on the platform that said it was nearly six in the evening. Applebloom’s mouth hung open as Innocence led her away from the train station and into the main part of Canterlot.
Most of the buildings were either white, blue or purple, lacking the wooden colours commonly found in Ponyville. Nearly all the stores had coned roofs with small flags on top, which waved in a non-existent breeze. Speaking of stores, Canterlot had a vast number of streets dedicated to them. They passed a hairdressers and peering inside, Applebloom saw a mare with dozens of ribbons and clips in her mane. Innocence rolled her eyes and dragged her away. Applebloom placed her attention on the residents of Canterlot that ambled by, noses pointed upwards. How could they see where they were going with their heads directed skyward? Everypony gave an impression of being related to royalty, and it made Applebloom more conscious of her background.
Then there were the stares. They made little attempt to be discreet, regarding the two visitors with disgust and amusement. Applebloom tried to ignore them but unless she looked down, she caught somepony's eye. She didn't know why they were so interested in them; yes, her cape wasn't the most fashionable thing on the market, and Innocence...
Realising, Applebloom inclined her head towards her friend.
“Don’t you feel naked?” she whispered. The unicorns of Canterlot all seemed to wear clothes, uncommon in Ponyville unless it was due to a pony’s profession. These ponies liked short frilly dresses with bows. While Applebloom could understand the attractiveness of bows, she didn’t care for much else they wore. Innocence wasn’t wearing anything, and some of the unicorns had noticed and were talking to each other in high-pitched voices.
“Not really. Let’s go.” Innocence ran off and Applebloom followed her, face burning. This wasn’t the behaviour the unicorns were used to and many stuck up their snouts even further, making less of an attempt to hide their verbal complaints. Applebloom couldn’t blame them. This wasn't the sort of behaviour she expected of herself.
Was she doing the right thing? It had been easier to reassure herself earlier, but now that they were actually here, everything was too real. She didn't belong. The Applebloom she knew or at least thought she was wouldn't do something this crazy. Stopping at the end of an alleyway, Innocence spun around and made sure they hadn't been followed. Applebloom fidgeted. Even the alleyways were grand, with no rubbish or dirt in sight.
“Now we can talk without them listening in,” said Innocence. “It would be unwise to get into the gardens via one of the castle’s main entrances, so we’ll have to climb over its wall. The hard part is finding the garden itself... unless the Princess has done some interior decorating, she's sealed it off. That shouldn't be a problem though.”
Applebloom gulped, throat tight. “Ah... Ah’m beginnin’ to have second thoughts.”
Innocence turned her head slowly, staring at Applebloom. Her mouth thinned.
“Are you telling me, Applebloom, that you want to turn back? After all we went through... you want to give up? You gave me the confidence to leave that dreadful forest... you encouraged me to pursue my dreams... and... you want to go home.”
Applebloom shifted. “W-Well... You can go by yourself, right?”
“I knew it!” Innocence laughed curtly. “They all do this to me. I don’t even know why I tried and got my hopes up. This was going to happen. Maybe I thought... you’d understand.” Her tone became cold. “It looks like I was wrong about you.”
“Ah’m sorry! Ah... Ah don't know what came over me. Ah’ll go with you!”
Innocence ignored her. Applebloom didn't know whether to roll her eyes, sigh loudly or walk away. None of these seemed... not inappropriate, but tolerant. She drew nearer to Innocence and held her head an inch away from hers, looking at the ground.
“Ah'm... scared, Innocence.” She averted her gaze. “I want this as much as you, really.”
Finally, Innocence turned. Applebloom blinked and turned as well, the two locking eyes.
“I'll protect you,” Innocence whispered, and Applebloom found herself believing her.
“Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“I’ll meet you at the top.”
“The top? You mean the wall?”
Applebloom gazed upwards. The walls weren’t as high as she expected. She thought that the white walls, very much purple in the night sky, would end far beyond the limitations of her eyesight. That they would break through the clouds, their tips like icebergs in a sea of fluffy water. But no- she saw their jagged tops perfectly, square and regular. The walls were certainly high enough so a pony couldn’t simply jump over them, but a pegasus would have no problem flying over.
It was but another obstacle shoved in their path. Biding their time until the day ended invited the pair to a number of activities, but Innocence declined them all. Applebloom didn’t know how to feel about this- they drew enough attention to themselves as they journeyed through the city, but Applebloom wanted to explore what Canterlot had to offer. She yearned to have full reign of the city without having a sister or brother to pull her back whenever she drooled on the windows of candy stores. But Innocence took on the role of Applebloom’s siblings easily, pulling her along until they were hiding in some bushes just outside Canterlot. There, they waited until night fell, listening to the nearby city quieten. Its lights contrasted more in the darkness, but their number decreased. The waterfalls locking in Canterlot gushed, their consequent streams chattering, no longer background noise. Their intensity only shattered when one of the ponies spoke, though the water’s persistence never failed to take centre stage once they ceased talking.
No pony ever stopped to question them or ask who they were. Applebloom worried that the unicorns would gossip about their presence and Celestia would soon find out about it. Thankfully, none of the ponies seemed to recognise them, though Applebloom found this odd. If Canterlot had banished Innocence, wouldn’t they recognise her when she returned? Twilight was her immediate successor, but Applebloom supposed that Celestia may have gone a long time without having an apprentice. After all, if she had been betrayed by somepony close to her, then she wouldn’t be keen on getting a new apprentice anytime soon.
The more Applebloom thought about everything, the more cracks she started to notice. She had seen hints of them before but ignoring them became a struggle. As ridiculous as it sounded, Applebloom didn’t want to know how things didn’t make total sense. It just made her question what she was doing more and more. There were parts of what Innocence said that Applebloom could piece together very loosely, but she wanted a straightforward answer. If the garden was so secret, why did Celestia risk telling her? Why had Innocence been exiled from Canterlot for one mistake? Twilight caused lots of trouble when she enchanted her doll but hadn’t been punished. And how could she have been Princess Celestia’s apprentice if she didn’t have a horn?
Applebloom could guess why (except the last one), but she couldn’t say why. During their long wait, Applebloom tried to get some straightforward answers but Innocence danced around what Applebloom asked. How long had she been in exile? A very long time. Why did Celestia tell her about the garden? She trusted her. Where was her horn? It came with the banishment. It was obvious that Innocence didn’t feel like satisfying her with answers, and it didn’t boost Applebloom’s morale.
Dejected, she had to accept it. Innocence didn’t like talking about herself.
“There ain’t no way we’re gonna get over that, even with your bouncing,” Applebloom said, still looking at the wall. “We’ll have to find another way in.”
Innocence placed her head under Applebloom before raising her neck. Applebloom gasped as she rolled down her neck and came to rest on Innocence’s back. Smirking, Innocence turned away from the wall they were in front of. Meeting Applebloom’s stunned expression with smugness, Innocence bucked.
Applebloom flailed her legs as she soared upwards. She chanced a look at the ground below, where an ever-shrinking Innocence peered up at her. By the time Applebloom’s eyes honed in on what was Innocence and what was grass, she started to fall.
“Grab the wall!” Innocence commanded.
Not totally taking in what her friend said, Applebloom felt around for the top of the wall. Her front hooves swept across it, not clinging on, and she continued falling. Innocence groaned, leaping into the air and catching Applebloom on her back. The two descended together and Innocence bent her legs as they landed, still on the outside of the Royal Gardens. Neither said anything, preparing for guards to swoop down on them, but no one came.
“You were meant to hold onto the top,” scolded Innocence.
“It doesn’t matter,” Applebloom said, annoyed and embarrassed. “You would still need to get to the top anyways.”
“I was going to find my own way in.” Innocence tilted her body to one side, causing Applebloom to roll off. Upright, Applebloom gawked.
“You mean... you were gonna send me in by maself?”
“I would have been right behind you. It’s no big deal.”
“It is a big deal!” Applebloom stomped. “What if a guard saw me and asked what ah was doin’? What if he got the Princess? You think ah was gonna be able to talk ma way outta that?”
Innocence declined her head so her eyes were level with Applebloom’s. A spark crackled between their eyes and they simultaneously leaned towards each other. “What difference would me being there have made? Then we would both be caught.”
Red rushed across Applebloom’s face. “Seriously? That’s how important ah am to you? Ah thought we were in this together. You said you’d protect me, you... you promise-breakin’...” She scrunched up her face. “... Liar!”
Innocence averted her gaze and straightened up, anger draining away. Applebloom became aware of how heavily she was breathing and sighed, feeling guilty. How come that despite Innocence being the one who was so willing to put Applebloom into such danger, she ended up feeling bad after calling her out? Innocence had a knack for looking miserable. Her eyes would glaze over, blank to those who didn’t look closely, and the nothingness in her expression was like she had gone into a state of thoughtful shock.
“I keep forgetting that you want the best for us... for me.” Innocence looked at Applebloom. “I’m so used to disregarding others before they can do the same to me. It’s in my nature. It’s what I’ve been destined to do.”
“That’s no excuse!”
Innocence blinked, shocked.
“You shouldn’t try to live up to what you’re told you’re meant to live up to. You can make your own choices.”
“But... my cutie mark! Our cutie marks! We’re here to change them, remember? That’s why you wanted to come.”
“If you’re so intent on doing what it says, maybe you shouldn’t bother tryin’ to do somethin’ about it.”
Innocence opened her mouth and shut it a few times. “You’re right.” She grimaced. “I hate to say it but you’re right.”
“Right. Now come on.” Applebloom climbed onto Innocence’s back. Pointing towards the top of the wall, she added, “Seein’ as you can’t jump that high, we’ll have to think of another way in. Are you sure there aren’t any side entrances or anythin’?”
“Nothing that isn’t guarded,” Innocence replied. Her face darkened. “It looks like we haven’t got much of a choice. Hold on tight, Applebloom.”
Smoke erupted out of Innocence’s body as she jumped. Applebloom shut her eyes, flapping one hoof in front of her in an attempt to clear the air. Spluttering at the smoke rising towards her, she forced her eyes to stay open and tried to focus through a watery haze. Innocence descended, but just as Applebloom’s eyes started to readjust, another wave of smoke engulfed Innocence and clouded Applebloom’s vision.
Innocence landed, taking a few steps before coming to a rest. Applebloom clung onto her, face buried in her back even though that was where the smoke had come from. Allowing Applebloom to recover, Innocence surveyed the area. They were inside the castle grounds, standing by a flower bed of roses. Looking up, she located two nearby white pillars that had bushes with pink flowers on top of them. In fact all the pillars, seemingly randomly placed, were decorated with flowers. The plants wrapped round them, bluish leaves framing the cheerful petals tainted black in the night. Surrounding each pillar was grass, level apart from the odd, longer tufts.
The castle was in eyeshot, its doors shut at such a late hour. Surprisingly, Innocence couldn’t see any guards. Usually, they were positioned so there was always one in sight, but the area was deserted. More pleased than cautious, Innocence angled her body to the side. Applebloom’s grip loosened until she fell off.
Shaking her legs out, Innocence trotted over to where the main gardens were. Not hearing Applebloom’s hoofsteps, Innocence looked over her shoulder and called, “We need to make haste, Applebloom!”
“R-Right!” Applebloom chased after her and the pair walked towards the main gardens. They passed under a metal archway (unlocked) made up of multiple curls that met and parted at various points. Applebloom raised her head, admiring the roses intertwined with the arch. Then it was behind them and she turned forward. Their path was lined with hedges and bushes that were taller than her, simple blue flowers mixed into their leaves. Gulping, Applebloom slowed. They were getting further away from the subtle glow surrounding the castle, and Applebloom felt confined. The fireflies’ dancing did little to brighten up their surroundings and the inside of her.
“So, uh, this garden...” said Applebloom. “Where is it?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there,” Innocence said.
Applebloom, wanting to take in as much as possible, added a spring to her step. She could only catch glances of what was past the greenery either side of her. There were many gardens, with flowers and exotic plants and small fountains and benches to rest on. As well as this, there were clearings that, bordered by trees and flowery shrubs, were home to a range of animals, many of which Applebloom had never seen before. Small monkeys hung from trees, swinging as they nattered to their friends. Beneath them, deers galloped in circles, racing each other. It was more of a zoo than a garden, with rare birds squawking and trying to be louder than their rivals. It was a lot louder than the near silence Applebloom had been subjected to for the past few hours or so.
On one side of her, there was a wide gap leading into one of the clearings. Curious, she stepped towards the creatures, causing them to scuttle into bushes and up trees. The birds fell silent, watching her guardedly. She turned to Innocence, eyes wide.
“The animals here are shy,” explained Innocence. “They have always been like that. We are close. Follow.”
Innocence strode past the clearing, Applebloom in tow. They turned at the next gap between the bushes on their left side, entering an area that only had a fountain in it. It was white and quite low, low enough for Applebloom to be able to see the sparkling water within. In its centre were a series of stone goblets stacked on top of each other, the cracks in their rims letting water fall into the structure below them. Right at the top was a marble statue of an alicorn that Applebloom immediately knew was Celestia. It had the same crown, cutie mark and stature. Squinting, Applebloom studied it. One of the statue’s legs were raised, like it was about to step towards her.
“Hm,” went Innocence, circling the fountain. The water gurgled. Frowning, she peered into the fountain. Her shaky reflection looked back at her, its eyes sky blue with black snake-like pupils. Innocence broke eye contact immediately, looking up at the Celestia statue. Her mouth thinned.
“This ain’t exactly a garden,” Applebloom remarked, attention still on the statue. “Are you sure this is the right place?”
“The Princess wouldn’t keep the garden where just anyone could reach it,” Innocence scoffed. “I’m certain that this is the place. The fountain is the key. I just need a moment to remember.”
Applebloom pointed to the statue. “Ah think the statue might have somethin’ to do with it! Maybe we have to touch it?” She hopped into the lowest section of the fountain, splashing. The icy water stung Innocence and she pulled a face. Applebloom climbed up the fountain until she was standing in the highest bowl. Water poured out of the tip of the statue’s horn and Applebloom stared into its eyes. Up close, it was even creepier. Its eyes were so lifeless yet... it was like it was watching her, understanding her motives.
“Uh... now what?” Applebloom said, peering down at her companion.
“It was your idea to go up there, remember?” said Innocence. “Try... I don’t know, pulling it?”
Turning back to the statue, Applebloom put her hooves on either side of it and tugged. Nothing happened. She yanked harder, leaning as far back as possible. Innocence groaned.
“Come... on... do... something!” Applebloom came forward before throwing herself back, still holding on. A coin from her tail fell out and plopped into the water below. “How are we supposed to get into the garden?”
The statue’s eyes glowed. Applebloom let go and fell, drenching herself and Innocence with water. Innocence glowered at her for a moment before looking up at the statue at the same time as Applebloom.
“To get where you wish to go,” a voice frighteningly like Celestia’s said, “you must be more specific.”
“What? Oh,” Applebloom said. “We want to go to the garden with fruit that will give us lots of wisdom. You see, we want to know if we can change our cutie marks. We don’t want to be bad.”
No longer did the statue’s eyes glow. Applebloom turned to Innocence, opening her mouth, only for the ground to shake. Falling on her face, Applebloom’s body vibrated in sync. Innocence yanked Applebloom out of the fountain, the pair of them rolling away to a safer distance. Soon after, it collapsed in on itself, starting at the top before traveling down. When the trembling stopped, Innocence and Applebloom looked at each other. They crept over to the fountain.
Where it once stood was a hole. The goblets of the fountain were now steps leading down it. Wordlessly, they descended to the beginning of a pitch black tunnel. Shivering at the sudden temperature drop, Applebloom stayed close to Innocence. Innocence led the way. Their hoofsteps echoed. It sounded like they walking on something hard- not dirt. Not something that hadn’t been placed there by someone.
“This is it,” Applebloom whispered. Her heart raced and she laughed. “We’re gonna do it!”
“Yes,” Innocence replied. “Just a little further...”
The tunnel burst into light, torches attached to the walls burning. They hesitated. All of the tunnel was made of stone with carvings etched across the walls. Strange symbols ran up and down the tunnel’s length, separated by images of ponies. Ponies eating apples. Alicorns being worshipped. Then... as they went on, disaster. Ponies running from fire, ponies screaming. Ponies fighting. Innocence was unmoved but Applebloom couldn’t pretend that they weren’t there.
“Uh... Innocence?” Applebloom walked past a carving of an alicorn crying. “Are we headin’ in the right direction?”
“There is only one direction,” Innocence pointed out. “And yes. Why?”
Applebloom widened her eyes at a carving of ponies holding their heads, miserable and in pain.
“Are you seein’ what ah’m seein’?” said Applebloom.
“Wisdom can be a gift or a curse,” explained Innocence. “It depends what a pony wants it for. Do they want it to better their lives? Others’ lives? For peace? For revenge? It’s all how you handle it. Some so wise can be so short-sighted.”
“Can we handle it?”
Innocence snorted. “Of course! Look, we’re at the end now.”
Indeed, ahead of them was a staircase. Applebloom reached the top first, desperate to get away from the images of distressed ponies. They entered some grassland that was enclosed by silver walls. There were no stars- no moon- in the black sky far above yet the area was bathed in light. The only thing in front of them was a tree, apples in its leafy top. Red, glistening... Applebloom’s tongue fell out of her mouth. She grew up with apples yet the ones on this tree made her stomach tingle. Like a bee to a flower, Applebloom was drawn to it.
“There it is...” Innocence remained where she was, staring up at it. The leaves were a livid green, shining. They were almost as appetising as the apples. Almost. “Just one bite and...”
“And what? Please, do tell.”
Applebloom and Innocence froze. They had only heard that voice minutes ago. Innocence spun around and backed away. There, in all her glory, was Princess Celestia. Her multi-coloured mane and tail, which usually swayed in a non-existent breeze, now trembled with rage. Blue, green, purple, pink... the colours crashed together as she stepped out of the tunnel. Innocence remained where she was, unshaken by the sudden arrival.
“P-Princess Celestia!” Applebloom bent her legs and bowed, only just keeping her balance. She didn’t move, clenching her eyes shut and keeping her head downcast. “Ah... Ah...”
Celestia ignored her, eyes on Innocence.
“I thought you’d catch on,” Innocence said. “Anything in particular that gave it away?”
“You assumed the fountain wasn't enchanted to alert me of any visitors,” answered Celestia. “Not many know of this garden and for good reason.”
‘Then why have it in the first place?’ Applebloom asked in her head, peeking at Celestia.
“This is quite peculiar.” The Princess's calm voice contrasted with the expression she wore. “As far as I was aware, only two knew of this garden including me.” She raised an eyebrow. “The other was Luna.”
Applebloom didn’t like the sound of this. At all. Innocence had her back to her so Applebloom couldn’t see her face.
“You’re obviously mistaken,” said Innocence.
“Obviously,” agreed Celestia, tilting her head to one side. “Just who are you?”
Alarm bells rang in Applebloom’s head.
“You don’t recognise me?” Innocence looked down.“Oh, right. Let me make things clearer.”
In a puff of smoke, Innocence disappeared. In her place was a moss green unicorn that made Applebloom do a double take.
“Hi,” said the pony.
“Show Screen.” Celestia's tone lacked the kind of shock Applebloom anticipated and felt. This wasn't confusion: this was disappointment. A kind of shock one experienced when something bad but expected happened. "How?"
“Quite easily.” Show Screen flashed her pearly white teeth, lowering her eyelids. A big, twisted smile remained on her face. “Things have gone very smoothly.”
“How did you find out about this garden?”
“HOLD UP!” Applebloom held up a hoof. Celestia stared as if she hadn’t noticed her until then. Show Screen half-turned towards her, declining her nose so her sunglasses fell down slightly. Her eyes were a pale blue. “So, let me get this straight... Innocence, you’re Show Screen.”
“I prefer the name Jokey,” said Show Screen. “But yes.”
Applebloom furrowed her brow, studying the ground for a moment. Then, a spark igniting in her eyes, she glared at Show Screen and snarled, “You lied to me! You ain’t somepony who was cursed. You’ve been livin’ with pony folk all this time. Ah bet you were never the Princess’s apprentice either!”
“My apprentice?” Celestia blinked. “Show Screen, what were you planning on doing? Why did you trick her into accompanying you? Reaching here surely isn’t beyond your abilities.”
Innocence parted her lips but a different voice rang out.
“Zecora didn’t tell me to come look for you! You did!” Applebloom pointed at Show Screen, hoof quaking. Her voice cracked. “You turned into Zecora... You saw ma cutie mark at the store! You planned all of this, didn’t you? Ah thought we were friends.”
“Oh, but we are friends!” Innocence strode towards her. Applebloom flinched. This had been a face of trust to her minutes ago. Now she could barely stand to look at it. “I just had to twist some facts to make you come here. You wouldn’t have gone otherwise. I had to give you the courage to do so.”
“But why?” said Celestia. “Show Screen, this is nothing like you. And you still haven’t told me how you knew about this garden.”
Show Screen smirked. “Patience.” She turned back to Celestia. “I have been looking forward to-”
“And!” Applebloom shook her hoof. “You turned into a pegasus to get into the castle grounds!”
“... Yes, I did. Anyway, Celestia-”
“And you made me pay for the ticket here? You have a job!”
“That would kind of go against my disguise. Celestia, now it is-”
“This also explains why you knew your way around everywhere and-”
Show Screen spun around with the most terrifying expression Applebloom had ever seen. She still smiled but all her other facial features indicated rage.
“YES, APPLEBLOOM, I KNOW,” said Show Screen through gritted teeth. “I DID THIS FOR YOU. AND BEFORE YOU ASK, I MET YOU EARLIER AS YOUR GRANDMOTHER. I'VE BEEN WATCHING YOU NEARLY ALL DAY, BUILDING UP A STORY. I DID THIS ALL FOR YOU.”
“Ah’m supposed to believe anythin’ you say now?” Applebloom said. “Ah don’t think so.”
“What about your cutie mark, Applebloom? Don’t you want infinite wisdom so you can change it? The fruit here can do that. I didn’t lie about that.”
Celestia directed her horn towards Applebloom’s cape and made it rise, revealing her cutie mark. Pursuing her lips, Celestia used her magic to summon a wet cloth. It floated over to Applebloom’s flank, rubbing and smudging the cutie mark until it vanished. The cloth floated to the side and the cape fell down.
It took Applebloom a while to comprehend what just happened. She removed the cape. Stared at her flank. Blank. Her hooves dragged as she walked towards the discarded cloth, picking it up with her teeth.
One fake cutie mark remained, burning her. She attacked it. Scraped the cloth against what started it all. Celestia pointed her horn at the piece of material. It glowed, destroying the pen marks in three strokes.
Then Applebloom glared at Show Screen, who held up her hooves.
“Hey, that wasn’t me!” Show Screen said. “I thought it was real... I didn’t give it much of a look, all right? You should have been able to work it out. Psh...” She snorted. “What a fool.”
Applebloom sniffed, trying her hardest not to cry. But what Show Screen said stung and a single tear escaped her eye, rolling down her cheek.
“She isn’t a fool," said Celestia. “You took advantage of someone far younger than you.” Her horn sparkled. “You will tell me how you found out about this garden or else I will not be lenient with your punishment. Don’t think this is not hurting me... I trusted you, and you betrayed me. My first feelings of unease coincided with your departure to somewhere I couldn't keep a close eye on you. It was too early to make any solid connections but I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. Never did I expect you would go as far as this. I went to your store to heed you a warning. A chance. Why? Why did you do all this?”
Show Screen didn’t bat an eyelid. “I’ll answer a question if you answer one of mine. Where did you get the seed for this tree from?”
All of this was too much. Applebloom fell back, making to lie down, and hit the back of her head against the tree. An apple fell off and landed in front of her. She gazed at it.
“The seed?” Celestia paused. “It’s always been here, as far as I am aware.”
Applebloom leaned forward. The apple sparkled. She looked away. She wouldn’t eat it. Wisdom was great and all, but being tricked into it left a bitter taste in her mouth. It didn’t matter how inviting the apple looked and smelled... or how tasty and enticing it was... she looked at it again, mouth watering.
Show Screen nodded. “It was planted by your father. On his travels, he came upon a special apple tree in an unexplored forest. He was starving- he had been trying to find somewhere to hide in a time when Discord ruled Equestria. No mortal could resist the apples’ appeal. A single apple gave him, a simple earth pony, wisdom that outdid anyone else’s... and it also transformed him into an alicorn. But he didn’t want anyone else to find what he had found. He chopped down the tree, eating all of its apples and saving one seed, before heading to a nearby city... Canterlot. The unicorns there accepted him- they worshipped him- and he later married their queen. His wife gave birth to two alicorns- you and your sister. In the castle grounds, he secretly planted the apple seed and it grew into this tree.”
Bending forward, Applebloom picked up the apple. She was only protecting it from Show Screen, who would have used it for who knows what. Breathing deeply, Applebloom brought it to her face and smelled it. Its scent was overpowering, smothering her thoughts. She shuddered, pressing her hooves against it. Her tongue slipped out of her mouth, absorbing the coolness of the apple’s skin.
“How do you know this?” whispered Celestia.
“But it came at a cost, his immorality,” Show Screen carried on. “His wife was not immortal. He offered her an apple one day when she was very ill, explaining everything he knew about it, but she declined. She didn’t want to see all her friends grow old and die, and if she was to suddenly become an alicorn... well, ponies would get suspicious! I’m sure you remember what happened next, Celestia.”
Celestia said nothing.
“Your mother grew iller and your father told you about this tree before performing one final spell. The two of them ascended together to the great beyond, stars in the night sky. You and your sister became joint rulers. You decided to uphold your father’s wishes and never tell anypony of its existence.”
“Your retelling is very enlightening,” Celestia remarked, “but you did not explain how you knew about all this. It’s like...” She widened her eyes. “... You were there.”
Show Screen gave a wry smile. “The original tree was planted long ago- perhaps Discord made it to see how ponies would react to such a thing, but it may have been there before him, before many things... and your father killed it along with the spirit residing within. I spent much of my life researching, finding out everything I knew about it. Any hint of an answer I pursued, collecting anything I could get my hooves on no matter how ridiculous. Twilight was always willing to let me look at her books, never one to deny research. And neither did you. I created such a picture of the past... I don’t think any one living creature knows as much about it as I do.”
“It seems like a very specific field of study,” Celestia observed. “I've never known more than one pony to research this area at any given time, and there were gaps spanning generations where no pony offered this topic much thought. You're just creating more questions with your answers. Tell me, why did you bring Applebloom with you?”
Applebloom vaguely heard her name being said but took no notice.
“That would be telling,” Show Screen replied. “Your father killed the tree and with that, he tainted all its fruit. I’m sure you know what happened when your sister happened across this tree after an argument with you.”
Celestia averted her gaze.
“And now,” Show Screen closed her eyes, “it happens again.”
Celestia blinked before shouting, “Applebloom, don’t eat that apple!”
Show Screen exploded into a ball of black smoke, spreading out and circling Applebloom and the tree. Applebloom broke out of her trance and shut her mouth, choking, flicking her head upwards and watching the smoke that threatened to swallow her up. She coughed, spluttering and gasping as its blackness pressed against her body.
The smoke took the shape of an orb, constantly spinning and completely obscuring Applebloom and the tree from view. The immediate area darkened, purple and blue flecks of light dancing in the smoke. On the outside was Celestia. Rearing her head, she ran into it. An invisible force blasted her back and she skidded to a stop, horn glowing blue. The air fizzed, electricity crackling in the air.
Applebloom jumped to her hoofs, trying to find a gap that she could escape through. Above her, a wispy pony-shaped figure emerged from the smoke. It descended slowly, the end of its tail attached to the smoky prison. Coughing, Applebloom raised her front leg over her eyes, watching the figure fall and completely detach itself. With eyes like Show Screen’s reflection in the fountain, it regarded the trembling Applebloom emotionlessly as it landed. Its inky mane blew in random directions, a shaking backdrop to its skeletal face.
The apple floated until it was level with Applebloom’s eyes. The air rattled and whistled.
“No!” Applebloom answered, barely audible. She smacked the apple away and it fell to the ground some distance away. Her mane shook in the wind. “Ah’m not stupid! You’re evil!”
“I am neither good nor bad,” the pony replied in a voice vaguely like Show Screen’s, only more crisp and haunting. “I merely seek an eye for an eye.”
“But what have ah got to do with all this?” Applebloom said.
The pony didn’t respond, melting away until it was a puddle that sunk into the ground. Applebloom bit her lip, all alone. What was she supposed to do now? The smoky hurricane didn’t seem to be dying out, and Celestia was nowhere in sight. She looked around anxiously.
“Hello?” Applebloom called. “Someone, anyone... help!”
There was a flash of lightning and Applebloom screamed, covering her eyes. When she realised that she was unharmed, she removed her hooves from her face and caught sight of the two familiar figures standing in front of her.
“Sweetie Belle?” exclaimed Applebloom. She laughed. There was something suspicious about their presence, but she was far too relieved to worry about that. Anything was better than being alone. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, who were facing away, turned around and looked at her silently. “Scootaloo! What are you doin’ here?”
The two of them started to fade away, starting from the edges.
“No, look!” Applebloom directed her hoof towards her flank. “See? It was fake. Someone must have drawn it on. We can still be friends!”
“That doesn’t change what you did earlier,” Sweetie Belle replied in a deadpan tone. Her outline frayed further, flickering like a dying fire. The same was happening to Scootaloo, and the two of them became more and more shapeless and grey. “Face it, Applebloom, things can’t be like before. You broke our trust.”
“But ah didn’t mean to!” insisted Applebloom. She raised a hoof. “Don’t go! Please!”
“I’m sure that’s what Twist wanted,” sneered Scootaloo, whose colour had all but drained away. “But it’s not like you were there to hear her.”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “We aren’t choosing to go, Applebloom. We’re simply products of your memory. You’re beginning to forget us.”
“That ain’t true!” Applebloom concentrated, trying to conjure their faces in her mind. Try as she might, they weren’t any more detailed than the ones in front of her. Panic clouded her mind, rising higher and higher, until Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo disappeared completely. Crying out, Applebloom collapsed and whacked her hoof against the ground. When nothing happened, she started pounding it for a while. She did it one final time before leaving her hoof where it was, bending forward and sobbing.
Without her noticing, the pony reappeared by Applebloom’s side. It tucked its hoof under Applebloom’s chin and lifted it. Where her friends had been was the apple, radiantly red. Applebloom gritted her teeth.
“Ah told you! Ah ain’t ever ever EVER gonna eat it. You can play as many mind tricks as you want but it ain’t gonna work.”
The apple rolled over. There was a bite-sized chunk missing from it. Applebloom rose, backing away in horror. She quickened her pace as the apple rose and drifted towards her. She stumbled on one of the tree’s roots and tripped over. On her back, mouth failing to muster a response, she watched the apple hover over her face.
It had to be another of Show Screen’s tricks. She couldn’t remember taking a bite from the apple. Yes, she had held it, and yes, she had even put her tongue on it by accident, but she couldn’t recall ever eating any of it. Licking her teeth, Applebloom tasted apple.
Turning her head to the side and spitting as much of it out as possible, her stomach churned.
Show Screen exploded into a ball of black smoke, spreading out and circling Applebloom and the tree. Applebloom broke out of her trance and shut her mouth, choking, flicking her head upwards and watching the smoke that threatened to swallow her up. She coughed, spluttering and gasping as its blackness pressed against her body.
“No...” whispered Applebloom.
The apple fell onto her chest, sending a wave of pain over her body. Standing over her was the pony. They locked eyes, the pony’s eyes brightening while everything else darkened. Then, smiling, the pony lurched towards her and that was the last thing Applebloom remembered.
Celestia’s guard fell for just a moment. The aura around her horn started to fade at the first signs of breaking within the smoky orb, only for its glow to intensify as the orb fractured further. No. Why would Show Screen’s prison fall apart now? All of Celestia’s attempts to break through failed. Magic. Brute force. Only few possessed power that rivaled hers.
She had the feeling Show Screen knew more than she let on. In her eyes stirred something far greater than Celestia initially imagined. Not just hunger for power, but something else. Something raw. They weren’t the eyes of someone following something they read in a book. They followed something else, a force more powerful than second-hand experience.
The orb, weak and cracked, was translucent. In its heart stood a lone figure- a pony with blue eyes Celestia recognised immediately. Holding out for an alternative was useless. Celestia declined her head. It could only mean one thing and it made her chest ache. Into her mind poured images of her sister, lost and afraid, prey waiting to be consumed by the monster of... of...
“I understand,” Celestia announced, voice hushed.
The pony didn’t answer, only ambling towards her. Nothing but space separated them now. Celestia noted that the pony kept Applebloom’s height. No. This was Applebloom, only not as well. Just like it had been with Nightmare Moon: beneath all the hate and anger had been her sister. It didn’t matter that Applebloom’s coat was as black as the night, that she had a horn and bat-like wings. Her mane remained pink-red, retaining its shape. And when she pointed her horn at the discarded cloth Celestia conjured earlier, it floated to her and tied around her mane in a bow.
“I understand who you are,” articulated Celestia.
“You do?” Applebloom sounded older, colder but her tone’s foundation bore a familiar childlike quality. She stopped walking, leaving a gap so neither could touch each other.
“Not completely,” admitted Celestia, “but I think I may have a good idea. I’m struggling to find a way to phrase what I have concluded; however, I know that the tree my father cut down meant something to you. You said he tainted its fruit when he cut it down- when he killed it, and that’s why what happened to my sister happened. Why this happened to Applebloom.”
Applebloom glowered, casting her gaze downwards.
“The tree was alive, but not like how other trees are,” said Celestia. “It thought. It felt. It trusted. You shared a connection, a special bond with it. And my father broke it.”
Celestia held out her hoof. Applebloom studied it, puzzled.
“I am deeply sorry for what my father did. If he was still with us, he would be too. Perhaps he is sorry right now, wherever he is.” She bowed her head and shook her hoof. “Please, if there is any way for me to help you... I will do so. Healing may take time, forgiveness may never come. But you must leave Applebloom out of this... it won’t help. It will bring nothing but more pain.”
Applebloom looked up, eyes gleaming. “I... I...” She turned her head away.
Celestia approached her until she stood directly in front of her. Still Applebloom didn’t look up, didn’t meet her eyes. Her body trembled and Celestia became conscious of just how much taller she was than the filly. It was something Celestia had become used to, but the height difference was now starker than ever. Despite whatever- whoever Applebloom mixed with, she kept her youth. Her innocence. Even if Celestia couldn’t see it under her new coat.
Celestia lowered her head, touching the tip of her horn against Applebloom’s. She felt it shake.
“Will you let me help you?” asked Celestia.
Applebloom looked up and smiled. Celestia smiled back.
Applebloom’s horn glowed. “No.”
Cyan light burst out of her horn, clutching Celestia and lifting her off the ground. Celestia gasped, scratching in vain at the aura encasing her. The magic spread to her front legs, bending them and clamping them to her front.
Nothing in Applebloom’s face gave away what she planned to do next. Her eyes flared with anger, much like they did after the orb melted away. Whatever lay ahead, Celestia knew she didn’t want to see it. She aimed her horn at Applebloom.
The light spread to her head, finally consuming all of her. Celestia concentrated but nothing left her horn. She gritted her teeth, sweating, but her horn remained useless. She remained useless, hanging in the air. Applebloom continued watching her... waiting? What good would waiting do? It wasn’t as though Celestia could do anything. With power like that, Applebloom’s potential to wreak havoc had no bounds. Did she have to be in close proximity for the spell to function? Did her magic fail if she wasn’t close by? Then why imprison her in the first place?
Applebloom closed her eyes and her horn sucked the aura in. Celestia yelped as the entirety of her body prickled before exploding. She dropped, collapsing onto the ground. Standing proved easier said than done, her body heavy as she shakily stood up. Her eyes narrowed at Applebloom’s smug expression. Another wave of nausea swept over Celestia and she almost gave into it. But she couldn’t. Within her was strength Applebloom couldn’t remove.
“That’ll be all,” Applebloom announced airily, strutting past Celestia. Celestia turned and tried to follow but her legs gave way. She stumbled, just keeping her balance. “I have an entire land of ponies waiting for me.”
“What,” Celestia hissed, “do you plan on doing? Your vendetta is against my family, not them. Don’t you dare harm any of my subjects! Or I’ll...”
“I never said I was going to,” Applebloom replied, halting by the entrance of the tunnel. Celestia blinked. “Besides, it’s not like you’re in any condition to stop me. No, I have my eyes set on something far more important.”
“Which is what?”
Applebloom turned, about to say something. Instead, she shut her mouth and regarded the princess with a smirk. How the mighty had fallen. Once brave and powerful, Celestia was a ghost of her former self- what she had been just minutes ago. Her wings trembled but Celestia struggled to move them any further. Her horn could only summon a frail spark.
Celestia knew the thoughts that passed through Applebloom’s mind. What the princess’ heart wanted to do, what she needed to do, contradicted with what she was able to do. She was no longer a threat.
Applebloom’s eyelids drooped. “You’ll see,” she said and with that she departed from the ground, soaring upwards. Celestia’s attention trailed after her, face darkening with each beat of Applebloom’s wings. Watching this pained her but what else could she do? With no horn, deadweight wings... she failed.
But the princess would be damned if it ended this way, her wallowing in regret and shame while the world she loved crumbled. The fire in her rekindled.
Face poised upwards, Applebloom sailed through the air until she reached a height she deemed satisfactory. Celestia clenched her teeth and gathered enough strength to fly after her. As soon as she passed the top of the walls barricading the garden, the surrounding light vanished. The stars and moon twinkled while the distant glitter of the castle played in the corner of her eye. Nausea racked through Celestia’s body and she clumsily landed on the top of the wall. What happened to her? Nightmare Moon never weakened her like this.
Applebloom’s wings flapped and she hung in front of the moon, a silhouette. Her eyes pierced Celestia’s, waking her from her spell of dizziness. Applebloom raised her front hooves.
The moon shifted rapidly and the sun soon replaced it.
Laughter filled the air as Applebloom flew away. Reality whipped Celestia. She widened her eyes. “How did she-?” She looked down.
Her cutie mark was gone.
Celestia didn’t allow horror time to settle in her stomach and build its way up. Directing her horn towards the Sun, she found it stayed firmly in place. Just as she expected. She leaped off the wall and galloped towards the watch tower. Her sister didn’t need to spend the night there but chose to, and Celestia knew that was where she’d find her.
It was a habit Luna kept from before her banishment. Luna always prefered to be in the watch tower at night but now the occupation held more meaning to her. Until many weeks had passed after her return, she often dozed off by the time the sun rose. Now she could stay awake long enough to greet her sister, who checked up on her and told her when she could rest. Keeping guard wasn’t necessary as guards populated the area, but Celestia knew it mattered to Luna. Luna needed to make sure no dark forces returned to Canterlot... forces like Nightmare Moon.
And it was a habit that hadn’t died yet.
“Sister! Luna!” Celestia gasped. The drop from the wall to ground level took its toll on her body and she nearly tripped over. Her hooves dug into the ground and she panted, focusing on regulating her breathing.
No. Celestia didn’t have the time to sit around until she felt comfortable enough to continue. Canterlot- Equestria needed her.
Luna’s dark form stood out against the pale sky. The watch tower was situated on the other side of the castle but the abrupt change to morning gave a clear indication that things weren’t right. Celestia looked her in the eye, dropping her head as Luna joined her on the ground.
“Sister, what is wrong? Why did you lower the moon and raise the sun so prematurely? The night still has many hours remaining and-” Luna faltered out, forehead creasing. “Something is wrong.”
“I need you to listen carefully,” Celestia muttered, glancing behind her. True to her word, Applebloom had gone to greet Equestria. What else could she be doing? Celestia’s stomach churned at the thought of Equestria being in the hooves of a being able to remove cutie marks, even those belonging to royalty... but it was a blessing. She needed Luna fully functioning.
Luna nodded, masking her face with no emotion. The change in her since she returned was remarkable. It was hard to believe that she arrived back smaller and fragile, mane and coat pallid. Now she stood taller, though not as tall as Celestia, dark sapphire with a shimmering cobalt mane. She was strong. Able. Able to leave Celestia’s protective hold.
“Applejack’s sister took a bite from an apple from the Tree of Enlightenment. It gave her the ability to take away cutie marks,” stated Celestia.
Luna’s gaze flickered towards her sister’s flank. She did a doubletake. “Egad! Sister, thy cutie mark!”
“I know,” said Celestia, bitter. “She slipped away from me and plans on targeting our subjects. I need you to alert the Royal Guard while I gather the bearers of the Elements of Harmony.” She stumbled away and would have fallen face down if Luna hadn’t caught her.
“My sister... ‘Tia, thou...” Luna grimaced. “You are exhausted. Whatever Applejack’s sister did to you did more than remove your cutie mark. You alert the Royal Guard. I will depart for Ponyville and gather the new bearers of the Elements of Harmony. The Elements are in Canterlot Tower, are they not?”
“Yes, but I don’t know if we can take this big a risk... what if your cutie mark is taken? Who will maintain day and night then? I should go, I have nothing to lose.” Celestia backed away, wincing.
“There will be no one to do anything if we do not hurry,” Luna countered. “The journey would do you little good. You need rest. I will be fine, ‘Tia. Alert the Royal Guard and I will depart for Ponyville.”
Celestia laughed at her authoritative tone before inhaling sharply. The world spun and Luna had to catch her again.
Luna gave a wan smile. “Can I trust you to do this, ‘Tia? Or do I need to walk you there?”
“I’m fine,” insisted Celestia. She knew she lied and so did Luna, but what else could they do? Luna nodded before flying off. Celestia let herself stare after her before heading towards the castle.
“Spike, a letter!”
Spike, lounging in his basket with his hands behind his head, yelped and sat up. Twilight’s voice originated from the ground floor. Mumbling, he grabbed the blanket twisted around his body and lifted it to one side. Cramming it against the very edge of his bed, he stepped out and dragged himself to the stairs. As he descended them, Twilight’s hoofsteps grew louder.
As soon as he reached the bottom, Twilight turned to him. A quill and a piece of parchment floated over. He stopped stretching his arms and held out his hands to catch them.
“Spike, we don’t have time for naps!” said Twilight. “I need to send a letter to Princess Celestia urgently!”
“Nap? I wasn’t napping!” Spike huffed. “I, uh, was just... resting my eyes! All the reading and dusting made my eyes ache. And besides,” he yawned, “it’s getting late.”
“That’s just it,” said Twilight, jogging over to the window. Light spread throughout the room, rendering the lit candle sitting on the desk below the window useless. “It’s late yet outside you could mistake it for morning. I was reading when the sun rose... at nine o’clock at night!”
Spike wandered over to Twilight’s desk, which she must have moved after he had retired to his basket. Stacked on it were a dozen books. Trust Twilight to stock herself with enough literature to keep her up all night. He never understood why she did that. He couldn’t count the number of occasions he discovered her fast asleep, head against a book-made-pillow. It was one of the only times when he felt like the parent, exchanging her book for something softer and draping a blanket over her. Holding the parchment and quill under one arm, he reached over with the other and pinched the flame of the candle, extinguishing it.
The tomes on the desk caught his eye. Spike picked up the book on top of the pile, curious to know what tonight’s theme was. “‘The Unabridged Biography of the Great and Powerful Trixie’?”
Twilight used her magic to snatch it out of his hand. “Spike, stop snooping! This is important!”
“All right, all right! Geez,” he huffed. Twilight narrowed her eyes. Spike coughed, walking over to the writing easel on the other side of the room to the door. He spread out the parchment and rested the tip of the quill onto it. “I’m ready.”
“Dear Princess Celestia,” Twilight said, starting to pace. “I noticed that the sun rose far earlier than it should... No. That sounds like I’m telling her off. Let me start again.”
Spike scratched it out.
“Dear Princess Celestia, I couldn’t help but see, as I was doing some late night reading, that morning came surprisingly early. Wait, that doesn’t sound right either.”
Spike scratched it out.
“Dear Princess Celestia, usually the sun doesn’t come out at this time and its unexpected arrival has troubled me. That sounds too condescending. What about ‘I am not sure whether you noticed but it’s far too early for the Sun to rise’? Definitely not!”
Spike rolled his eyes and propped his elbow on the easel, resting the side of his head on his hand.
“Dear Princess Celestia, your decision to raise the sun has caused great confusion and I am unable to understand why you did this. No... don’t put that.” She cleared her throat, not noticing that Spike hadn’t moved. “Somepony raised the sun; I am not saying it was you, but I am informing you of this in case you didn’t notice. No, I can’t say that! Argh! Okay. Dear Princess Celestia, the Sun has risen at a different time as usual and I am unable to figure out why. I am not claiming anything or reaching any hasty conclusions, but this is something I can’t help but notice. There is a near-impossible chance that you did not intend this but I, as your loyal student, feel it is my duty to eliminate this small probability of inadvertence- no, that makes her sound careless. Get rid of it.”
Spike, who started writing out what she dictated partway through her second sentence, groaned before scratching it out.
“You know what, Spike?” Twilight stopped walking. “I think Celestia did this on purpose. Sending a letter to her may make it seem like I don’t trust her judgment, and that wouldn’t be good. Perhaps I shouldn’t send a letter after all.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Spike, rolling up the parchment and walking towards the stairs. “G’night!”
“... But what if that’s the test?” Twilight said. Spike lowered his foot. Twilight began to pace again. “To see whether I mindlessly ignore what happened or whether I check if this abnormality was premeditated. Maybe she wants to see how I deal with this situation?”
“Twilight, you’re overthinking things.”
“Right, because there is sure to be no consequences as Princess Celestia clearly meant to raise the sun and I shouldn’t question her motives because she knows what she’s doing.” Twilight turned to Spike, eyes wide, shoving her face into his. Spike let out a strangled cry. “Or what if there is something wrong? Maybe she didn’t mean this to happen. Okay, Twilight, calm down.” She rested a hoof onto her forehead. “Let’s use the Arousal: Cost – Reward Model.”
Spike removed the books from Twilight’s desk and placed them on the floor. He sat on them.
“Princess Celestia has not replaced the sun with the moon. I cannot leave the situation. She deserves my aid as she has helped me countless times. Costs of doing something can be embarrassment but not helping can leave shame. Benefits would be helping to restore order, praise and a lack of guilt. But if I do nothing and nothing happens, the benefit is avoiding shame. Now to weigh it all up.”
The library door slammed open and Princess Luna strode in, mane billowing behind her. It didn’t sparkle as much as it usually did, but Spike guessed that its radiance depended on whether the sun or moon was out. Twilight jumped, gawking at the new arrival. Spike slipped off the books and bowed, hiding his surprise. He raised his head a smidgen, peeking. Yep. It really was Princess Luna, crystallic shoes and all.
“Wait! Sister informed me about this.” Luna backed out of the building, gently closing the door. Spike and Twilight exchanged bewildered expressions, only breaking eye contact at the sound of knocking.
Twilight answered the door, stepping aside to let Luna in. She marched past Twilight, straightening her back to look as tall as possible. There was something on it.
“I thank you, Twilight Sparkle, and apologise for my uncivilised entrance a moment ago. There are many customs that have arisen in modern times I have not yet learned. Even now, I slip into the dialect of a time long ago if I do not consider each syllable.”
Luna tilted her body to the side. A dark blue chest fell off her back and onto the wooden floor. Twilight recognised it instantly, eyeing its golden edges. Spike walked over, mouth drooling at the various jewels decorating the container.
“The Elements of Harmony...” murmured Twilight. She looked up. “But... why? And why are you here?”
Luna sighed. “Twilight Sparkle, I bring terrible news. My sister sent me here to deliver these to you. Great danger has befallen onto Our home and We fear time is of the essence. A tragedy took place within the castle grounds, sure to spread to the remainder of Equestria with great speed. This occurrence requires the use of the Elements of Harmony. There is no time to dawdle, no time to waste. For every second is precious and We beseech thee-”
“What happened?” asked Spike loudly.
“Right.” Luna breathed in and out. She gazed at them sadly. “My sister and I felt a disturbance in the status quo and its source has just come to light. A young filly, Applejack’s sister, consumed an evil apple and it transformed her into a monster!”
“A monster?” repeated Twilight. “What do you mean ‘a monster’?”
“A monster much like I was once,” Luna explained, eyes dulling. “She encompasses the power to remove cutie marks and she stole my sister’s. My sister is unwell and I took it upon myself to alert you. The Royal Guard has gone after Applejack’s sister to try and divert her attention. She was headed for Ponyville and she will be sure to arrive very soon... most likely to target you and your friends! That is why we must hurry. Gather your friends! Quickly! We have no time to lose!”
“Right,” said Twilight, running to the door. Her face seemed almost vacant as her mind sifted through the information she had just received. “Princess, you stay here with Spike. It’s important you remain unharmed.”
“No!” Spike caught up and grabbed Twilight’s tail. She lurched away, falling over. “You need to be safe too. You're the element of magic, remember?”
“I know I am, but what does that have to do with-?” Twilight looked at her cutie mark before standing up. “Right! I possess the element of magic.”
“And if you lose your cutie mark,” said Spike, “that might take away your element! I mean, yours are the same thing... kind of.”
“He is correct,” said Luna. “It would be dangerous for you to go.”
Twilight groaned. “Point taken. That leaves you, Spike. I need you to get the others and bring them here. You don’t have a cutie mark so you should be fine.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Spike promised. He ran to the door and lingered there, allowing himself another look at them.
Luna stared at him with a frown. He could guess what she was thinking. A small, mulberry purple dragon who lacked the ferociousness of the creatures she typically encountered, venturing outside to perform royal orders. Twilight forced herself to smile. He found it easy to differentiate her expression from her actual mood in a way only family could.
“I’ll be back real soon, I promise,” he assured them. “You’ll be okay, won’t you?”
“The Royal Guard and Canterlot will delay Applejack’s sister and leave you hopefully enough time,” answered Luna.
“You’ll be okay, Spike, right?” said Twilight fearfully.
Spike grinned. “Duh! I’m your number one assistant.” Her smile became more genuine. ”And besides, I don’t have a cutie mark, remember? What could she do to me?”
As the door slammed shut behind him, Twilight whispered, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Spike’s feet slapped against the ground as he headed towards Sugarcube Corner. After he collected Pinkie Pie, he needed to go to... Carousel Boutique. Right. Then who? Rainbow Dash, followed by Applejack and finally Fluttershy. Despite not living in Ponyville for as long as many others, Spike knew the town as well as he knew Twilight’s hiding places for candy.
Though now that he thought about it, Rainbow Dash’s speed would come in useful. He had no idea how long it would take Applebloom to reach Ponyville. Whilst Spike commended the Royal Guard on their abilities, he didn’t like their chances against someone who could steal Princess Celestia’s cutie mark.
A brown stallion with a messy mane rushed past him, muttering something about time running out. Spike turned to address him but the pony had already disappeared down a side street. Spike scratched his head and regathered his thoughts. What had he...? Oh, right. How long could the Royal Guard keep Applebloom occupied?
It didn’t make sense. He saw Applebloom earlier that day. Twice. Spike doubted he would have readily accepted the situation if Luna hadn’t told them of it in personal. One moment Applebloom was asking about gaining cutie marks, and the next she was stealing them. There had to be a connection... right? This must have crossed Twilight’s mind.
Turning right at a junction, Spike almost ran into an olive-yellow earth pony. She huffed but Spike paid her no further thought. He was almost there. Did Pinkie Pie have to accompany him getting the others? What if Applebloom found him with them and stole their cutie marks? Should he send them to Twilight as soon as possible or bring them with-?
Spike threw his weight onto his heels as a pink pony with a yellow mane bolted in front of him. She joined a small huddle of ponies stationed outside a house. He pulled a face and jogged around them, cutting through two unicorns conversing nearby. Their indignant voices carried after him but swiftly blended into the surrounding chatter.
If only Twilight told him what exactly she wanted him to do. Her timesaving skills were unrivalled. It completely slipped his mind to ask in his rush to please her and save Ponyville. No. Not just Ponyville. Equestria. The fate of the entire everything lay on his shoulders. Everyone was counting on him and... and...
Spike scolded himself. Who was he, Twilight? Worrying about minor details wouldn’t help anyone. He’d go with the flow. The moment-
His heels dug into the ground, focus venturing out of his mind.
A moment containing madness.
Ponies filled the streets, more trickling out of the houses either side of him. Spike danced around them, abruptly halting whenever one blocked his path. Voices crashed into each other, ignorant of what approached. All just wanting to know why the sun rose. Those not standing still ambled in the same direction.
Spike found himself stopping more frequently as the number of obstacles blocking his path increased. Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted more ponies spilling into the street. Where were they coming from? Where were they going? Now wasn’t the time for a walk. He hesitated. A purple pony overtook him.
Her two-toned pink tail grabbed his attention. He knew who it belonged to. Cheerliee. She turned, grey-green eyes surveying the messy queue of ponies behind her. Alert. Years of teaching keeping her calm.
“Hey! Cheerilee!” Spike caught up with her, jogging to stay at her pace.
“Hello, Spike!” she said, slowing down slightly. “I’d love to hang around and chat, but the Mayor called for a meeting in the town square.”
“A meeting?” Did Mayor Mare already know what happened? But why would she want to gather everyone together? They should take shelter, not make themselves easy targets. Spike opened his mouth to query further when his next destination entered his line of sight.
Cupcake Corner was one of Spike’s favourite places. With a chocolate roof bordered with white icing, its resemblance to the Gingerbread House in Hoofsel and Gretel was uncanny. It made his stomach rumble despite him knowing the building’s materials weren’t edible.
It didn’t matter.The confectionery parlor looked delicious. He’d much rather stare at this, with its cupcake tower, than the boring timber-framed buildings surrounding it.
Cheerliee bid him farewell and trotted away. Spike realised he’d almost slowed to a stop. He shook his head and lifted his elbows, puffing out his chest. The stream of ponies didn’t look like it planned on slowing any time soon. They jostled against him and Spike had to keep moving to make sure he didn’t get knocked over.
At this rate, he’d end up on the other side of Ponyville. Time for some action. Spike waddled through, moving in a perpendicular direction to everyone else. Yelps and heys accompanied each misplaced step.
“Coming through!” he yelled. “Sorry. Whoops! Sorry!” Somepony trod on his foot. “Ouch!” He lifted it and bent his head forward. Ponies brushed past them, reluctant to bend their intended path. Wiggling his toes, Spike lowered his foot before continuing, trying to resist the flow of ponies. A lot easier said than done.
Spike inhaled before shooting forward onto his stomach. He slid under the bodies of seven ponies marching in a straight line. Crashed into something hard. Groaning, Spike rubbed his head and sat up.
In front of him was the first lavender step of Sugarcube Corner. Scabbling to his feet, Spike climbed them and reached his hand towards the door.
It opened. Spike overbalanced and toppled forward. Pinkie Pie stuck out her head, looked both ways, before directing her attention downward. “Spike! What are you doing down there?”
“Pinkie Pie!” He grabbed her front leg and tugged. “We’ve got to hurry! We need to go to Rarity’s right now!”
“Duh!” Pinkie crossed her eyes. “Why do you think I was by the door?”
She hopped down the steps, Spike still attached to her leg, and started to bounce through the thinning flow of ponies. Spike clambered up and sat on her back. Good thing he hadn’t eaten recently, or else she wouldn’t be Pinkie Pie. She would be... Stinkie Pie. Yes. Spike mentally patted himself on the back for such a clever name. Proud of himself, he opened his mouth to tell her.
“Hey, where’s everypony going?” asked Pinkie, who started hopping after them.
“The Mayor called for a meeting,” he explained. “Wait. I thought you knew?”
“Nope! I was in the kitchen helping clean up when my body began to shake, which means a doozy is going to happen. So I went to check on the twins in case they were the doozy but on the way my ear flopped, my eye fluttered and my knee twitched. So I opened the door and there you were!”
“... Right, your Pinkie Sense,” said Spike. “Listen, what I’m about to tell you is really weird but you’ve got to-” Was he seriously warning Pinkie Pie of potential strangeness? “Princess Luna showed up at the library to tell us Applebloom turned into Nightmare Bloom and she stole Princess Celestia’s cutie mark and now she’s on her way to Ponyville to steal all your cutie marks so you need to use the Elements of Harmony to stop her!”
Pinkie stopped. Her brow knitted together. Spike wondered whether she understood him. He had sort of maybe babbled it but Pinkie spoke babbling fluently. Or was this revelation peculiar to even her? It would be understandable, given the situation.
“Applebloom?” said Pinkie. “But... why would she want to do that? She already has a-” Pinkie slapped her hooves onto her mouth, eyes wide.
Spike blinked. “What?”
“It’s a secret!” Pinkie replied. “I promised not to say anything!”
“Anything about what?”
Spike held up a finger, mouth ajar, when a speck of cerulean overhead distracted him. His finger curled as the speck took the form of a pegasus. Her mane and tail left a rainbow streak behind her. Perfect. And she was headed their way. More perfect.
He laughed. “Rainbow Dash!” Spike waved his arms. “Hey, Rainbow Dash! Down here!”
“Spike? Pinkie?” She swooped down and landed in front of them. Her wings trembled. “What the heck’s going on? I was visiting some old friends when the sun just came up.” Two colts passed by. “Hey, where is everypony going?”
“The Mayor called for a town meeting,” said Spike. “But that’s not important. Listen. Applebloom became Nightmare Moon Junior, stole Princess Celestia’s cutie mark and is on her way here to take everyone else’s.”
Silence. Rainbow Dash stared. “What?”
“I said Applebloom became-”
“No, Spike, I got that. It’s just...” Rainbow Dash raised her right front hoof. ”Let me get this straight. Applebloom, Applejack’s pipsqueak sister, turned into Nightmare Moon?”
Spike and Pinkie nodded.
“Then she somehow stole Princess Celestia’s cutie mark?”
Spike and Pinkie nodded.
“And now she’s coming here to take ours?”
“Yep!” Pinkie grinned. “That’s why we’re on our way to Rarity’s. So we can use the Elements of Harmony and save the day.”
Rainbow Dash squinted. “You’re serious?”
Spike just resisted the urge to reach forward and shake her. “This isn’t a joke! Princess Luna is at the library right now waiting for us. We can go back so you can explain why we’re not getting the others if you want.”
“Hey, I believe you.” Rainbow Dash grimaced. “No need to get your scales in a twist. But do we really need to use the Elements of Harmony? I mean it’s only Applebloom.”
Spike crossed his arms. “Yeah. The same Applebloom that stole Princess Celestia’s cutie mark!”
“Probably because she had the element of surprise.”
Pinkie tapped one hoof against the other, counting under her breath. “Wait, there isn’t an element of surprise. There’s laughter, loyalty, magic...”
“We’re wasting time!” Spike checked the area. They were almost alone by now, and no one there paid them any attention. “Twilight is expecting us. Dash, you’re the fastest flier I know. Can-”
“- you get the others?” finished Rainbow Dash, taking flight. She stretched out her legs. “Piece of cake!” Pinkie’s ears pricked up at the prospect of cake. “Who do you want me to get? Rarity?”
“No!” Spike raised his hands. Pinkie’s ears drooped. “Go get Fluttershy and Applejack. They’re the other way so it’ll save us time.”
Rainbow Dash smirked. “Whatever, loverboy.”
She flew off before Spike realised what she said. He reddened. “No! I’m trying to-” He flapped his hand. “Never mind.” He slipped off Pinkie Pie. “Come on. Let’s go.”
The street had emptied. The red coned roof of the town hall stood tall behind the sea of straw-thatched buildings before it. Perhaps Rarity was in the town square already. Waiting. Wondering where the others were. What was happening.
No matter. They had to pass through it anyway.
Pinkie skipped while Spike stalked down the street. Rainbow Dash’s remark niggled at him. Yes. He cared about Rarity. A lot. Not that he didn’t care about the others. He did, and probably had room to say so more often, but she held a special place in his heart. With her beauty and her knack of finding beauty and creating beauty, she had a remarkable effect on someone like him. A dragon living amongst ponies. Different.
Applejack and Fluttershy didn’t live in Ponyville so were likely safe at home, but Rarity lived in the town. What if she was lost in the crowd? And then Applebloom arrived? And found her? And then-
No. Bad Spike. He slapped his cheek.
The town square was packed. Colours upon colours swam across his eyes. What chance did he have of finding her? He tried to find a white coat or a purple mane but came to no avail. Not that he would be able to locate her if she was situated in the heart of the crowd. Or hear her.
“Listen, Pinkie, I’m going to see if Rarity is at the Boutique. You stay and try to find her here. I’ll be right back, I promise!”
“Okie dokie!” Pinkie sprung into the air and pressed a hoof against her nose. She dived, landing several feet away from Spike and disappearing from sight. “Rarity? Rarity? Are you Rarity? That’s okay, take your time.”
Spike chuckled and sprinted around the crowd. Attempting to cut through would waste time. Still, he inspected them as he hurdled by in case he spotted Rarity.
Judging by the volume of the ponies’ voices, Mayor Mare hadn’t arrived yet. More importantly, Applebloom hadn’t either.
Spike yanked the door open. Unlocked. That meant Rarity was in. “Rarity?” He spotted her immediately, circling a mannequin sporting a pink dress.
“Mm?” She looked up. Needles, thread and a pair of scissors floated around her head. “Spike!” Rarity beamed. “Why, you’re just the dragon I wanted to see! Would you be a dear and help me ruffle this up a little bit?” She waved her hoof towards the dress. “The theme is ‘princess lost at sea’ but I can’t bring myself to give them that rugged, castaway feel.”
Taking a closer look at the dress, Spike noticed the few small, straight cuts on its edges. He averted his gaze. “I’d love to but now’s not a good time.”
Rarity coughed. “Yes, well... It was rather rash of me to assume you could just drop everything you’re doing to help little old me. Twilight is sure to have given you more than enough things to do. Here,” she tilted her head to the side, “I haven’t rewarded you for Tuesday when you went gem hunting with me. You were ever so helpful, Spikey-Wikey.”
A small sack rose from the table and floated into Spike’s arms. He salivated at the sparkling contents.
Rarity bowed her head, laying her sewing instruments to rest on the floor. “Oh, how rude of me! I never asked why you were here. Is Twilight sending you on some last-minute errands?”
Spike blinked, head jerking up. Rarity flinched. Her gaze wavered.
“Is... something wrong, Spikey-Wikey?”
“Yes!” Spike scrunched up the sack’s opening and shoved it under his arm. “We need to go!”
“Go?” Rarity repeated. “Is somepony is danger?”
“We’re all in danger!” When Rarity only stared back, he pointed to the open door. “Look outside!”
Rarity strode towards him, slowing down as her eyes honed in on the light behind him. “Is it...?” She hurried to his side, surveying outside with a dumbfounded expression. “Morning already? It can’t be!” Rarity’s voice hitched. “I still have so much left to do!”
“It’s not morning. That’s the point! I’ll explain on the way but we have to go right now!”
“You said that earlier but where to?”
“The town square. Listen...”
Rarity listened in silence as Spike recited what happened, starting with Twilight disrupting his sleep (though he decided to say he was reading a classic novel instead). She gasped after every other sentence and when Spike revealed who stole Celestia’s cutie mark, he could tell she was just stopping herself from interrupting.
“Applebloom?” said Rarity as they crossed the bridge outside her home. “Applebloom is behind this?”
“Yes,” Spike answered for the fifth time.
“But I saw her this afternoon with her friends. They wanted capes so they could play a superhero game.”
Spike frowned. Applebloom mentioned being superheroes at the library. How did that lead to her turning evil? Twilight specifically said she wouldn’t gain her cutie mark by being a villain.
“This is simply awful!” Rarity carried on. “Imagine losing your cutie mark... why, out of all the worst possible things this ranks incredibly high. It totally goes against what the girls are...”
“Wait.“ She widened her eyes and turned to Spike. “Where are Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo? They... No...” Rarity wobbled. Spike spread out his legs and extended his arms, but she didn’t faint into them. “They might be with Applebloom!”
“They don’t have a cutie mark. They’ll be fine!”
“But...” Rarity’s lower lip trembled. “But what if they are like her?”
Spike hesitated. This hadn’t occurred to him. It sounded plausible. Very plausible. Too plausible. “I, uh, I’m sure they’re all right. I mean... they would have been seen, right?” His stomach settled. “The Princess would have mentioned them if they were like that.”
“R-Right,” said Rarity.
“And... uh... even if they were, which they’re not, we can still save them.”
Rarity smiled. “Yes, yes. I apologise if I worried you. You’re right. Of course you’re right, the Guards would have seen them. Thank you, Spikey-Wikey.” She nuzzled his cheek. Spike grinned. “Oh!” She lifted her head. “There’s Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash! Yoo-hoo! Over here!”
Spike’s grin dropped. He watched the ponies in question dash towards them. One. Two. He counted them again. One. Two. There was definitely two of them.
“Where’s Fluttershy and Applejack?” asked Spike. “I thought I told you to go get them.”
“I did,” Rainbow Dash replied. “But I found a note on Fluttershy’s door saying she and Applejack went to look for Applebloom in Everfree Forest.”
“What? Seriously?” Spike’s eyes bugged out. “But... how...?”
“Attention, Ponyville!” interrupted a voice that barely punctured the present chatter. Mayor Mare.
Rainbow Dash took flight and the others accompanied her around the town hall. The residents of Ponyville had gathered in front of the Mayor, leaving a large space behind her. They circled it until they saw her. She had her back to them, leaning against a podium as she addressed her citizens.
“The library,” hissed Spike, gesturing for them to follow him. Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie nodded.
Mayor Mare’s presence only reached those nearby. She cleared her throat. Ponies in front of her turned and shushed those behind, spreading silence until no one spoke.
“I know everypony is wondering why morning has come early. I am wondering why as well, but I am sure the Princess will alert us soon as possible. There is no point in fretting and if we could all remain quiet and calm, I’m sure the reasoning behind such an event will be explained shortly. Ah, I was right!” She pointed to something beyond and above the crowd. “Here they come now!”
The crowd turned and looked up. Two white pegasi clad in golden armour descended from the sky, pulling a chariot. They pierced a cloud as they sloped downwards, wings pounding the air. As they skimmed over the tip of the town hall’s roof, Spike realised that it was not Celestia in the chariot, as he had assumed.
“Shining Armor!” Rarity exclaimed.
The chariot landed and the pegasi pulling the carriage swerved. Shining Armor jumped out and closed the gap between him and the citizens of Ponyville. Didn’t acknowledge his sister’s friends as he ran by, a pegasus either side of him.
He hadn’t spoken yet his arrival unsettled them. Mayor Mare stepped to the side as he took the podium.
“You’re all got to go home!” Shining Armor instructed. Murmurs met him. “This is serious. Any minute now, a pony with the ability to steal cutie marks will arrive. A pony able to take down Canterlot’s best guards. A pony able to take down Princess Celestia herself!”
“Is that possible?”
The voices built in volume and pitch. Mayor Mare patted the air, saying something no one could hear over Ponyville’s hysteria. Shining Armor’s horn glowed. A bang claimed their attention.
“I will create a shield to give you enough time to hide in your homes. Leave in an orderly manner!”
It didn’t have quite the intended effect but it was enough. The gathering dispersed as ponies departed for their homes, their shrill voices dying away as they sprinted off. Mayor Mare remained where she was and didn’t stir until Rarity broke away from her friends.
“Shining Armor...” Rarity hesitated. Shining Armor kept his back towards her. “How is everything in Canterlot?”
“Where’s Twilight?” he asked.
“At home,” said Spike.
“You shouldn’t keep us waiting,” Shining Armor said, still not turning around. “The Elements of Harmony are our only hope.”
Spike nodded. “Right.” And with that, they hurried past. Caught a glimpse of Shining Armor’s expression. Grim. Contrasted with the Mayor’s confusion.
None of them looked back. The same thought burned their minds. How could they use the Elements of Harmony when two of its wielders were missing? Each of them were necessary. Even if there was only one absent, the Elements wouldn’t work. But they didn’t have enough time to venture into the vastness of Everfree Forest. Shining Armor said they had minutes to spare, and these minutes were already being used.
Twilight nearly tackled them when they entered the library. The chest containing the Elements sat right by the door, and Spike knocked his foot against it when he stepped aside to let the others in.
“Are you all okay?” Spike opened his mouth. “What took you so long?” He shut his mouth and rubbed his foot, his sack of gems clacking as they hit the ground. Twilight looked at each of them in turn, her relieved smile fading. “Where’s Fluttershy and Applejack?”
“Somewhere in Everfree Forest, apparently,” Rarity said. “I’m sorry, but we couldn’t-”
“Sorry? How’s that going to help?” Twilight shouted. Everyone cringed. She sighed and bowed her head. “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t be mad at you. But what are we going to do now?”
“You are not all here?” came Luna’s voice. She stood on the upper level of the library. “The Elements are useless if there are absentees.”
“It looks like we’ve got no other option. We’ll have to go to Everfree Forest,” Twilight said. She crossed the room and pulled her satchel over her head. When she rejoined them, she transferred the Elements from the chest into her bag. “Princess, you stay here. Let’s move out, girls!”
“What about me?” asked Spike.
“You need to protect the Princess.”
Spike rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’ll put up a real good fight.” This seemed to satisfy Twilight for she moved towards the door. He stepped in front of her. “Please, Twilight, let me come with you.”
Twilight looked into his eyes. “I don’t want you to get hurt, Spike.”
“And I don’t want you to get hurt. You’re our top priority... if you lose your cutie mark, you’ll lose your element. You need all six of them if you want to save everyone.”
“And not only that, you’re... you.” He picked up his sack of gems and slung it over his shoulder. Spike nearly always missed out on his friends’ adventures, and his role so far today had spurred him on to achieve more. “Applebloom won’t know Princess Luna is here. Come on, Twilight.”
His eyes sparkled.
Twilight exhaled. “... Fine. We’ll be back as soon as we can, Princess.”
“And I await your return with anticipation. I wish you luck!” Luna replied. “Make haste.”
They opened the door and stepped out. Quiet. Spike left last, gently shutting the door behind him. The lack of activity was unnerving. Reminding themselves it meant everypony was inside remedied their unease somewhat.
Spike’s pupils flickered. No signs of evil Applebloom yet.
“This is creepy,” said Rainbow Dash. “It’s like a Ghost Town.”
“It is,” agreed Twilight. As they travelled through Ponyville, the silence started to take its toll. For every second they were safe, the chance of danger rearing its ugly head increased.
“Where is she?” asked Pinkie Pie. “She’s awfully tardy for a bad guy.”
“Sh!” hissed Rainbow Dash. “You say that and she’ll probably arrive right now!”
They all stopped. Looked around. Nothing. They continued, picking up the pace.
Rarity rolled her eyes. “You’re all getting into a panic over something so silly! Twilight’s brother said he was going to perform a shield charm, remember?”
“My brother?” Twilight blinked. “He’s here?”
“Yes. He seemed awfully down,” Rarity mused. “Understandable, really, when the rest of the Royal Guard lost their...” She shivered. “Lost.”
Rainbow Dash dropped to their level, wings still beating. “But wait, if Applebloom can’t get in... how are we supposed to get out?”
“It doesn’t matter because he hasn’t cast his charm yet,” Twilight said. “I would be able to tell if he had.” She stopped walking. “Unless...”
“Unless what?” said Spike although he knew the answer.
“Unless he did and she broke through!” Twilight ducked her head. Ran. Turned when she didn’t hear anyone behind her. “Hurry, we have to-!”
She skidded to a stop. They weren’t looking at her. They focused on something behind her. No. Twilight froze. Someone.
Her chest tightened.
“You said bad cutie marks didn’t exist.” The voice was cold. Tinged with anger. Hate. Things Applebloom wasn’t supposed to be.
Twilight’s friends stepped forward. Twilight shook her head. She breathed in. Turned.
Those weren’t Applebloom’s eyes despite the chilling recognisability of them. That wasn’t her coat. But her mane... the makeshift ribbon... how she had to tilt her head back to meet Twilight’s gaze... Twilight gulped.
“They don’t,” she replied.
“That is where you’re wrong.” Applebloom shifted a hoof towards her. Twilight backed away. The others caught up to her. “I had an epiphany. There is not one bad cutie mark. It is their existence which causes such cruelty. Isolation. Pain.”
“What are you talking about?” said Pinkie Pie, twisting around and showing Applebloom her cutie mark. “They’re totally amazing. They celebrate what’s special about everypony!”
“What’s different.” Applebloom sneered. “They cause segregation between those with them and those without. It even exists within those who have gained theirs. It marks some for greatness and others for less.”
“Cutie marks offer everypony equal opportunity,” Twilight said.
“You are wrong,” said Applebloom. “You are a clever pony, Twilight Sparkle, but you do not know what you’re saying. Your brother gave you all the company you ever wanted. You were gifted a powerful cutie mark. Living in Canterlot has limited your perception of reality. What of my family who have to work all day to get by? Who dedicate their lives to harvesting apples? Are you saying that their cutie marks are of an equal level to yours?”
“The Apple Family take great pride in their work!” countered Rarity. “Not that you would know, what with you not being a part of them.”
“Yeah, You’re not Applebloom!” Rainbow Dash pointed. “You’re... You’re...”
“Nightmare Bloom!” finished Pinkie Pie.
“Hey, that’s pretty clever,” said Spike. He frowned. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“We have to make do with what we have,” Applebloom retorted. “If we were given the chance to leave this life and enter one of luxury, all of us would gladly take it. Why should the Apple family work their lives on a farm, barely making enough to get by, while ponies like the Spoon and Rich family prosper just because of their cutie marks?”
“Because...” Twilight faltered.
“Exactly.” Applebloom aimed her horn at Twilight. “I plan to rid Equestria of cutie marks. Everypony will have equal opportunity to do whatever they wish.”
“By stealing their talents? The thing that makes them special?”
“Enough! No more talk! Your perceived intelligence is a nuisance. I think I will start with you, Twilight Sparkle, and put you in your place.”
Blue exploded out of Applebloom’s horn. It reached towards Twilight, taking the form of a hand. Twilight tried to move but legs refused to cooperate.
She clenched her eyes shut. Cowered. This was it. She failed. Failed Celestia, her friends, Ponyville... everyone.
A flash. A scream.
Twilight opened her eyes. Untouched. She looked up. Saw flailing limbs.
White and purple in a sea of blue light.