First Arc: Ponyville
C.1: The Escape from Canterlot
First, there was darkness.
Then, there was air.
Twilight pulled it into her lungs in one gasp the same moment she opened her eyes. She was probably in shock. She was lying down in what felt like a container, sealed from all light.
And just as suddenly as she awoke, it was unsealed. An unnatural light fell into the box over her, but it didn’t blind her and she didn’t know why. Pinkie Pie leaned over the box, one hoof on the upper panel that had been shoved off, and she was yelling down at Twilight.
Twilight couldn’t hear her; there was a shrill ringing obscuring all other sounds. Things were happening too fast. Pinkie yelled at her again, and her face was contorted in a look of fear Twilight had never seen from her before. Pinkie kept looking over at something outside of the box and yelling at it, too.
Twilight drew in further breath and asked, “Pinkie Pie, what’s wrong?”
She couldn’t hear the words come out of her own mouth. As soon as she tried, she realized she couldn’t even feel her mouth.
Twilight couldn’t feel anything. Not the box around her, not the air in it. Her fear came quickly, but not even that felt natural. Pinkie grimaced at whatever was still out of Twilight’s sight, but reached her hooves down to pull out her friend.
Pinkie, what’s wrong? Twilight wondered, processing the environment too slowly to react. She didn’t remember any reason for Pinkie to be acting like this, or for herself to be sealed in--
Remember? Twilight did remember. As her nearly limp body fell to Pinkie’s shoulder, her head tilted down naturally to see her container.
Written on it was Twilight Sparkle’s epitaph:
Twilight Sparkle / Who lived a legend in life and left a legacy in death. / A unicorn pony of renowned caliber in all her communities, / Held more highly esteemed only in our hearts. / She died young, and lived still more than most. / Rest in peace, our loving friend.
She finished reading it just as the ringing lessened enough for her to hear Pinkie cry out again.
“Fine, I’ll get her out!”
Twilight fell to the grass with a thump as Pinkie let go of her. The unicorn clutched her eyes shut in the--well, not in pain. There was no pain at all.
But you dropped me, Twilight thought.
Twilight opened her eyes again and found a field, or maybe a park, around the tomb. There were two more tombs next to hers, and Pinkie was pulling Rainbow Dash out of the second.
Half dragging the pegasus, Pinkie looked back down at Twilight. “You can move now! So get up!”
Twilight blinked twice, looking dumbfounded. She tried to move her forehooves again, and this time they responded. She picked herself up so slowly it was as if she was thawing.
As Twilight stood up fully, she could see where she really was. She recognized where she stood, though there was little recognizable in the fine city of Canterlot. Her mouth hung open limply. It was not a fine city anymore.
The towers she remembered, the beacons around the city with their beautiful architecture, were all obscured by smoke. All around the memorial of the saviors of Equestria, on those bright towers, there burned even brighter fire.
Pinkie was dragging Applejack out of the other tomb now. Twilight looked on with little comprehension, her memories returning still idly. She had died. She had been studying magic in her final years, but they shouldn’t have been her final years. She died young. Celestia was with her--
Celestia. Canterlot. If the city is burning, what’s she doing--
Pinkie interrupted Twilight’s line of thought as she turned back and yelled, “Zecora, hurry!”
Now their zebra friend in Canterlot? As Twilight tilted her head over to one of the streets leading out of the park, there she was. Zecora, looking older than when Twilight had last seen her, was pacing around the street, a speared tribal mask propped up on either wall beside her.
She was pouring a liquid on the cobblestones, a purple ooze, and it was spreading naturally. Though her mouth was filled by the vial of liquid, she waved a frantic hoof at the friends.
“Pinkie Pie?” Rainbow Dash said, groaning the same way as Twilight. They all had the same questions, Twilight realized. Pinkie was still alive at the time of her own death, but right now she looked almost the same age as before.
“Not now!” Pinkie said to all of them. “I know you have things to ask, but not now! We need to get out of here!”
She tugged Applejack up to her hooves and shoved Twilight forward, urging everyone to make headway. They went down the opposite passage from that in which Zecora was occupied, and as they began fleeing, Twilight looked back. She couldn’t make sense of the scene, but as she looked, she saw something even further out of place.
Unicorns she didn’t know, but they weren’t from Canterlot. Angry unicorns. They seemed not to have noticed her. She was too far away to hear what they were saying, but Twilight recognized what they were doing.
Another pony, fallen on the road, lay with half her stomach missing. The unicorns dipped into it face first, and when they pulled back, chewing crudely, blood splashed far down their bodies.
Twilight should have been compelled to vomit, but she wasn’t.
One of the unicorns looked back and saw Twilight. Twilight couldn’t pull her gaze away as she kept stumbling along with Pinkie, Applejack’s hoof still propped over Pinkie’s shoulder. The nameless unicorn moved away from her victim. She began coming closer, the unicorns around her noticing and moving with her. Hooves met cobblestone quicker with each step.
Zecora was still in between the two groups, emptying the remnants of her vial. She tossed the empty vessel into the mixture. A whole section of the path was covered by the liquid now, but the unicorns didn’t pause. Zecora turned and ran the same way as she had directed Pinkie, and only Twilight saw what happened to their pursuers.
The first in the group ignored the mixture completely, staring right at Twilight. Twilight could see her clearly now, despite the distance. The nameless unicorn didn’t look undead. Her expression wasn’t one of savagery, just rage. She roared. She didn’t sound insane, just... angry.
She took a galloping step into the mixture, and her expression changed as her hoof disappeared. Her roar turned into a scream, and the fury she had displayed dissolved into the most horrible, pained face Twilight had ever seen.
She stumbled and fell into the ooze, her hoof unable to support her now. The mixture ate right into her hooves, melting them, melting everything else as she landed with a splash and sizzle.
The other unicorns followed suit, moving too fast to slow down. Their screams were worse than when they were charging. As Twilight and her group nearly rounded a corner, all she could turn her gaze to was Zecora. The zebra’s teeth were gritted and her brow furrowed. No remorse, and no explanation.
Pinkie, ahead of the pack, had let go of Applejack so she could keep her own pace. As she dashed ahead to inspect their path, she said, “Just keep running! Don’t stop for anypony, no matter who it is!”
Twilight looked back to her and said, “What happened to this place?”
Pinkie didn’t respond. She stopped running as she reached a grate in the road, leaning down and pulling it out of place. She turned and motioned for her friends to enter it.
Applejack entered first, meeting worried gazes with Twilight as she climbed down. Twilight started to go next, but Rainbow drew her attention upward as she asked, hoof pointed to what she saw, “And what happened to them?”
Several pegasi were flying over the towers, just coming into sight from beyond the smoke. Twilight still didn’t cringe, but the one in front looked nearly as bad as the wounded pony she had seen on the street. The red splotches on his wings were not his natural color. One of the ponies chasing him had clutched in her mouth what looked to be a net. The net sparkled in the sun, sprinkled with glass.
The numb feeling inhibiting Twilight had faded almost completely. She saw them perfectly, and saw the same anger on most of their faces as the scene before, and she thought the same pressing question as before.
Where did all this come from?
Before she died, the world did not work this way. No pony would hurt another pony so much, and no pony would be so nonchalant about it.
“Get in!” Pinkie said, waving her hoof in circles.
Twilight obliged her. She climbed down the ladder quickly but carefully, only torchlight at the bottom when she touched down upon it. Rainbow and Pinkie followed, as Zecora went down last. The zebra eyed the upper surroundings carefully, flames starting to encroach, and pulled the grate back.
In the sudden quiet, Twilight spoke up first. “Pinkie Pie, what happened to us? What happened to them?”
Pinkie glanced back at her from investigating their new environment. “What do you mean?”
Twilight met her gaze with somber eyes, putting a hoof to her chest. “We’re dead, and they’re dying.”
“Oh, yeah, you are,” Pinkie said. “You were buried here almost twenty years ago, Twilight. Rainbow Dash and Applejack kicked it after you did, and I died just after Rainbow!”
Zecora spoke up, though she was still paying attention to their group’s flank. “It was Pinkie Pie’s wish to be buried outside Ponyville. I was able to get to her much easier than all of you.”
Applejack said, “But how are we alive?”
“It is a taboo ritual from my people,” Zecora said. “One I do not take lightly.”
“Taboo ritual? This is necromancy!” Twilight said, her voice reaching regular levels again.
“It is voodoo,” Zecora answered. “If you stop looking at me with such mistrust, I will explain.”
“And if you be more quiet!” Pinkie tried to whisper, failing. “Zecora, which way?”
Pinkie, in what little light torches on the walls gave, guided the rest of the party down the sewers. Echoes that were not theirs constantly met them in the corridors. Zecora, in back of them, began explaining in a slow, hushed tone. “Most of you heroes died in the past two decades. This is true. Twilight Sparkle, you were the first to die.”
Twilight tried to meet her gaze, but had to keep looking to her front for cause of tripping in the dark. Zecora continued, “Then, the rest followed. While your bodies held no life, a terrible condition infected Equestria, the effects of which you have seen today.”
“That’s not any infection I’ve ever seen,” Rainbow mentioned.
“It is not a real infection. No pony or other creature knows what it is. But a decade ago, ponies in this land started doing things no one has ever seen before. It is difficult to explain in a way that you will accept by word alone, even with sights seen already--but they became violent in a despicable way.”
“Wait,” Twilight said. “Just tell me two things right now--”
Everyone turned their attention from Zecora to Twilight.
“What exactly is that infection, and where has it hit?”
Zecora sighed and lowered her eyes from meeting Twilight’s. Only half her face was lit now, and she spoke even softer than before.
“It is called the bloodlust. Over the past ten years, it has spread across all Equestria.”
Her voice raised a note higher again as she continued. “No one has had the chance to examine what it is. No one has cared. I have seen with my own eyes the terror on a pony’s face as she is attacked by an infected pony, unable to understand what is assaulting her. I have seen ponies look on to such attacks with no disdain, and no care to stop it.”
Twilight still felt no despair, but she knew something was welling up within her. “Who has it gotten to?”
“Everypony,” Zecora said. “Everypony on the ground, in the skies, and in the soil.”
“Are you trying to say we’re infected?” Applejack asked, putting a hoof to her chest as if to defend herself. “How could you even figure that?”
“The Twilight I knew decades ago would not watch without recoil or aid as a pony is devoured alive.”
Zecora looked at Twilight again, and Twilight looked back to her. There was silence between them.
“That’s a good catching-up start, I think,” Pinkie Pie said, “but we should be out of here in another minute. Stay nice and quiet.”
Twilight frowned, but kept moving. She could only wonder what Rainbow and Applejack wanted to ask about.
The loudest scream yet came down the tunnels, one of fright and pain. All the ponies turned back to its source, but they could see nothing that far back. The only further sound was a dripping into the sewer water. Pinkie ushered the party onward, a hint of that fear she had earlier spreading across her face again.
They hurried to what was finally an exit out of the sewers, a large black gate holding sway over it at the end. Pinkie hopped her forehooves onto it and shoved, but the door held firm against her.
She glanced back at the other ponies and said, “All right, now for a little teamwork. Help me out here!”
Rainbow stepped forward to help, but Applejack held out a hoof to stop her, the earth pony’s expression in a downward tilt. “Hold on. I think we need to know what in the hay it is we saw going on out there before we venture out to it again.”
Pinkie looked back to her to reply, a pleading whine in her voice. “Answers, I know! But don’t you think now is a really, super terrible time for them?”
“I agree with Applejack, Pinkie,” Twilight said, still keeping her attention between her pony friend and the zebra behind them.
Pinkie sighed quickly, rolling her whole head with her eyes, but it was Zecora who spoke. She cleared her throat loudly, taking everyone’s attention, and began explaining.
“Canterlot has been under siege for two years. After the bloodlust took every town and valley, Canterlot was barred to prevent its final spread. It remained sealed for these two years without fail. We don’t know what went on in this city for that time, and can’t find out right now.”
Twilight frowned. Zecora sighed, and hurried her speech. “This is the day its gate failed. The bloodlust got through, and took the ponies guarding it. I and Pinkie Pie were there; we have been visiting the gate constantly since the city was barred.”
“But why did you get us back?” Twilight asked. “If we’re already infected, what are we supposed to do?”
Zecora’s voice took a darker tone.
“There are forces moving on Equestria. That are already inside.”
Another scream, this one of rage, chased down the tunnels and met the group.
“Now we get out of here!” Pinkie said, splashing her hooves in the water as she shoved her whole body against the door.
Twilight’s brow furrowed. She still wasn’t satisfied. “Why aren’t the princesses doing something about all this?”
“They didn’t do anything for a decade, Twilight Sparkle. I do not know why,” Zecora answered.
“Now, now, now!” Pinkie pleaded, giving a headbutt to the gate with each word. Applejack lowered her hoof from Rainbow’s path, stepping forward with her.
All three positioned their hooves against it, and on a count of three, slammed it open. Rainbow started to hurry out first, but Pinkie then held out a hoof in front of her. The pegasus dug her hooves in as she looked down.
Their tunnel ended at the very base of Canterlot, the exit hanging out over the mountain the city was built on. Twilight and Applejack squeezed next to Rainbow, peering down as their expressions unified.
“How are we supposed to get out this way?” Applejack asked, tapping her head for a moment as she realized she didn’t have her hat anymore.
Pinkie Pie stepped just behind the three other ponies. She raised her hooves, grabbed hold of their rumps, and said, “Sorry, maybe I should have mentioned this sooner!”
She shoved. Their hooves left solid ground. Twilight screamed louder than any of the ponies they had heard earlier. The others fell beside her, the earth coming closer to them again at an alarming speed.
“Oh, shit! Oh, shit!” Rainbow said, flapping desperately. Twilight, now hyperventilating, looked over to her. She couldn’t fly; she was missing her right wing.
Falling still above, Pinkie yelled, “Twilight, this is all you!”
Twilight swallowed hard, failing to let the incidentals stop distracting her. Calm, calm, calm, calm, but holy word that Rainbow said!
She had trained for things like this. She could do this. She needed to stop panicking and focus.
Her horn glowed distinctly, one of the brightest times it ever had. Then the whole group glowed.
They were still falling. Twilight increased the glow, clutched her eyes shut, strained her muscles, but their velocity remained.
“Stop making it such a big deal--slow us down already!” Applejack said, flailing beside her.
“Come on, you’ve got this!” Rainbow chimed in.
Twilight opened her eyes again and glared at them. “I do have this, so shut up for a second!”
Something seemed to fall into place within her; she didn’t know what. The glow turned a dimmer purple, and as the flat ground became a visible reality, they started slowing.
But the ground wasn’t flat. They landed with a thud at each of their rears, but didn’t stop tumbling until they careened into rocks at the bottom of the hill. Twilight stopped before the others, head first.
She pushed herself off the stone, improbably larger than every other one in the field beneath Canterlot, and shook her head back to proper senses. Rainbow rolled right back into her, flattening her against the rock again.
Hind hooves hanging over the rest of her body, Rainbow demanded, “What in the hell is an exit like that doing at the edge of Canterlot?”
As Applejack started sorting out how to untangle each leg, she looked over to the pegasus. “Shame on you for cussing, Rainbow!”
“Fuck that,” Rainbow retorted, getting up. “If I’m dead now, I can say what I want.”
Applejack scoffed at her, but raised her eyebrows and changed her attention a moment later. “Wait a minute--where are Fluttershy and Rarity? Are they still up there in those tombs, too?”
As Zecora got up, she said, “Fluttershy was still alive, and quite old, when I last saw her some years ago.”
The zebra said nothing more than that.
Before Applejack or Twilight could ask again, Rainbow tossed her mane back and said, “Rarity died just before me. But she didn’t want her body rotting in the ground, so... she was cremated.”
The others stayed silent. Pinkie didn’t react at all.
“Come,” Zecora said. “We should continue our escape. We must make haste, before others leave the city.”
Twilight frowned again, not with fear or pity, but a grievance. She turned straight to Zecora and said, “No. You still haven’t answered what I really want to know. Why did you bring us back to fight something out of our time?”
Zecora glanced back at her, face tight and words clear. “Because of your deaths. Under the voodoo, you will never eat, sleep, or tire. Your eyelids will never carry weight, your bodies will never feel pain. You will keep walking ahead as those following you fall. You friends alone, I believe, can do this.”
“So, we’re probably just up to the task? What about regular ponies, just standing up for themselves?”
“They’re all too weak, too placid, or contributing to its destruction,” Zecora said. “That’s the most why. See the land for yourselves and discover these reasons.”
Rainbow interrupted Twilight’s further protests and said, “Sure, I can be a hero, but there’s one more thing I want to know.”
Zecora raised an eyebrow at her.
“What happened to all your rhymes?”
Zecora answered, “They left.”
Rainbow rolled her eyes, and Twilight shook her head. Applejack said, “Well, infection, inshmection. I’ll help because I never like seeing a pony get hurt.”
Interrupting her, an earth pony crushed against the land behind them, rolling down the same way they all did, but her body flailing a little bit more. She flopped to a stop just behind Applejack, unmoving, leaving an uncomfortable smear in her wake.
All of the ponies around said nothing, but looked down at the body. Applejack’s mouth laid into a straight line before she glanced to her back.
“That is not funny.”
In front of Applejack, Pinkie Pie had placed a hoof over her mouth. The escaping giggles didn’t go unnoticed.
Twilight glanced between Applejack’s turning back to scoff once more and Pinkie barely quieting herself. She wasn’t sure what she felt again. She gave in, and sighed, “We should go.”
First Arc: Ponyville
C.2: Finding Sweet Apple Acres
“You never fail to surprise me at your dinners.”
A pony shut the door as he said such, walking into a dim room with pristine wallpaper. Despite the lack of lamps, an uncovered window allowed some light in. The pony said, “I’m afraid no feast will ever be able to match what we just had.”
The other pony in the room waved off the compliment with an upper-class smirk and a brush of his hoof. “Oh, my chef will think of something new by the time you get back from Fillydelphia.”
Both ponies stood, though seats were plenty available. The first pony said, “He’ll have more time than he needs. I’ll only know when I can return after I’ve surveyed the city personally. Lately, it’s had just the most aggressive populace.”
“The weather, I hear, remains at its finest,” the latter pony said. “Once you control the city, I suspect you’ll rather enjoy it before you come back. Will you be taking your bride?”
“I would never leave her,” the first pony said. The polite smile he had maintained faded.
“It will give her a little time to herself, as well,” the second pony supposed. “She can see the sights. Swim the river. Be out of your concern for a little while.”
“Oh, yes,” the first pony sighed. “But really, you talk like it’s far away from you, too. As long as you keep things around here in tip-top shape, I’ll need you up there to help keep things steady after I stop them from swinging.”
The second pony took a turn to smile. He took a place next to the window, the glass still cold and closed.
“It really was a fine meal,” the first pony said as he levitated a shawl over his back. “But I’ll see you another day, Blank Virtue.”
“Good day and best of luck,” Blank Virtue said. The first pony gave no further farewell, but tightened the tie on his shawl and exited swiftly.
Blank Virtue barely heard the door shut again. He turned toward the window, pushed open the panes, and set his hooves on the sill. His smile was by now a devious grin.
He leaned his chin on one hoof. “Mayor Virtue of Ponyville. I could bring myself to do away with that.”
Far outside, far out of his sight, other concerns formed in the minds of other ponies. The skies were dry, despite dark clouds starting to form over the wall to the town. A guard stood low, crouched on the mighty wooden barricade, ever vigilant of intruders on his tiny, designated part of the land.
He guarded the north gate. He hated guarding this one. Such a mysterious direction, full of all the weird ponies. When he talked to the other ever vigilant guard ponies, they said they always got normal intruders. Sometimes, ponies who weren’t even intruding. Lucky bastards.
His gate stood watch over the fields leading out of Ponyville, a clear view of any who approached. A clear view of jack shit when nobody approached, especially today, when there was no rain to help convince himself how terrible his post was.
His eyes lowered as he peered out to the fields, and he grabbed a knife set next to him with his teeth. Now ponies approached. These ones looked weirder than usual, too; from what he could tell at such a distance, they weren’t armed, and they wore no cloaks to obscure their faces.
He drew a quick conclusion: they must have been hiding something.
The ponies coming closer were Twilight, Pinkie, Applejack, and Rainbow, and Zecora following at their flank. While the pegasus guard watched them from atop his wall, they noticed him at the same time.
Squinting, Zecora said, “I see only one guard atop the gate. Merely a watchman.”
Rainbow whispered, “Okay then, what’s the game plan?”
“We should bribe him,” Pinkie suggested. “I’m still a great baker.”
“We need to assess him first,” Twilight said.
“Not a problem,” Applejack said. “Just let me do the talking.”
As they came closer, the guard clutched his knife tighter. The encroachers weren’t going around the walls, like some of them always figured to do. He glanced down at his coat of fur, gray and matted, and was satisfied with its intimidating roughness. His hair jutted in just the right places to make him look like a real roughneck, like he was used to dealing with business.
In another couple of minutes, they were trotting right in front of the tightly shut gate into town. They said nothing, but the guard stabbed his weapon back into the floor beside him. He looked down at them.
Applejack stepped up in front of the rest, glancing up at the guard in return. She smiled cheerily at him, tapping one forehoof behind the other.
He spoke first. “You girls need an invitation to enter.”
Applejack said, “You just assume we don’t got one?”
“Yeah,” he said, perfectly still.
Applejack rolled her eyes widely, chuckling. Her smile remained. “Well, sure we don’t got an invitation. Somepony with one of them would be rolling it out and barking at you to just open the gate and shove off. I’m not that rude.”
The guard glared at her, tilting his head further down. “What’s your business in Ponyville?”
“Well, we’ve been looking for a friend of ours we got out of touch with. We think she still lives here, and we got real worried after all this trouble in Canterlot. You already heard about Canterlot?”
“Hard to miss the flames,” the guard said. “What’s this pony’s name?”
“You must be used to asking a lot of questions already,” Applejack said. “What’s your name?”
The guard blinked wide-eyed, his attitude set back. “What?”
Applejack giggled and said, “If you tell me your name, I’ll give you mine.”
The guard tried to sit straighter, but only managed to shift anxiously. After a pause, he said, “Bad Spot.”
“Applejack!” she replied. The other ponies were alarmed at her candidness. “You know, I think I heard your name before. Were you in Canterlot a few years ago?”
“No, I wasn’t,” Bad Spot said. “You’re very weird.”
“That’s all right,” Applejack said. “Listen, the pony we’re looking for is named Fluttershy. We heard from somepony on the road that she still lives here, and we’ve known each other for a long time, so we’re real worried after all the extra violence going on. You heard of her?”
“I know of her,” Bad Spot said, slouching a little. He didn’t glare so much anymore. “She’s still here, and safe. I don’t think she gets many visitors.”
“That’s really great to hear,” Applejack sighed, lowering her head as she nodded slightly. She looked back up at Bad Spot, expression franker, and softened her voice. “I know this ain’t such a good question to ask, but how much trouble would you get into if you let us in to see her?”
Bad Spot tightened his gaze again. “The mayor doesn’t allow anyone in that he doesn’t know. It might put the School at risk. Does he know you?”
Applejack’s expression brightened again, and she said, “I’d reckon he does. I was here some years ago visiting the School, and I remember leaving quite an impression on him. I bet you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” Bad Spot said, blushing while he nodded. His eyes darted to everyone behind Applejack. “And who are they?”
“I get to ask another question about you, first,” Applejack teased.
Bad Spot scratched his mane, hoping it looked like a natural gesture. He nodded again, quicker this time. Applejack smiled wider and said, “You’re not from here, are you?”
He shook his head. “Actually, I’m not. No, I moved here from Cloudsdale, for the School. Not much of a choice, in a place like that.”
Rainbow Dash shoved her way to Applejack’s side, giving away too much worry, and said, “What do you mean?”
Everyone on the ground glared at her slightly. Bad Spot glanced at Rainbow with little reaction and said, “Well, you know. What they do there... they don’t place any value in art.”
Rainbow raised an eyebrow, but Applejack placed a hoof on her back. “This here’s Rainbow Dash. She used to live there, too.”
She shoved Rainbow back a bit and pointed to the rest of the group. “And the rest of them--Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, and Zecora.”
Bad Spot looked over each in turn and nodded subconsciously. Applejack looked back up at him, grinning more casually now.
Weird, suspicious ponies. No one else talked to him like that. He got up, looking mighty impressive as he did by how much higher he was than them, and walked over to the crank centered over the gate.
As he began turning it, flexing slightly at each twist, the gate pulled open. He called down to the group, “Your friend Fluttershy lives on the opposite side of the School, right past it. And, since this is part of my job, make sure you come back out this way when you leave again. So the other guards don’t see you.”
Applejack winked up at him, and he rolled his eyes at her silly feminine wiles that were certainly not working on him. The party entered as the gate still rose.
While they walked under, Rainbow scoffed, “Element of honesty, my ass.”
Applejack ignored her and sidled up to Pinkie, whispering, “What in the hay is that School he was going on about?”
“You’ll get to see in just a second,” Pinkie said.
Bad Spot leaned over the other side of the wall and called down, “Make sure you see the mayor first. He needs to see everypony first.”
“Oh, he’ll be glad to see me again,” Applejack said to him. Bad Spot watched her only a moment with a still straight face, and quickly went back to his important duty which was the protection of the whole town.
He sat back down and sighed.
Below, Applejack and her friends had already halted in the middle of the street. They looked down the road, but up at what followed from it. They saw the School.
“Hot--damn--” Rainbow said.
In the center of Ponyville, town hall was no longer there. Within twenty years, the town had been nearly rebuilt. The houses surrounding their path were packed denser, and the road leading downtown was merely a street now.
All the ponies’ heads tilted up at the same time, staring. A more gigantic building was in the direct middle of town, sprawling, so tall it was a wonder they didn’t see it from behind the wall. Silver, marble walkways connected it to smaller buildings around, and a purple spire topped each one.
“That’s... what is that? Is that it?” Twilight asked, agape.
“It’s the School of Rarity!” Pinkie said, glancing up at its very top. Everyone looked back to her wordlessly.
She looked back to them. “It was founded after Rarity died, for artists of every stripe, banner, and color. I think it got a little bigger since I last saw it.”
Zecora glared at it. “Before, it was just an academy. Since it already had a force put together, it turned into one of the most organized, independent groups in the country.”
“But why are the streets so empty?” Rainbow asked.
“Hopefully that doesn’t matter, Rainbow; we’ve already got priorities,” Twilight said, reorienting herself. “We have a lot of friends to check up on, but we should visit Fluttershy first. Every element of harmony we have with us will help.”
At that, Applejack frowned and faced the rest of them. “Listen, y’all do what you want--but the first thing I need to do is find out if I still got any family alive. I’m going to Sweet Apple Acres.”
She didn’t wait for any response as she trotted down the road ahead of everybody else. Without looking back, as her voice lowered, she sighed, “I’ll meet y’all somewhere.”
Twilight had nothing to say in complaint. As her friend got further away, she said, “That’s a bad plan, isn’t it?”
“Whatever,” Rainbow replied, already trotting forward.
Zecora looked more uncomfortable than when they were still trying to get in. She took two steps back and said, “It is not a bad plan. We should group apart even further, so that we do not attract attention.”
Twilight rolled her eyes at the zebra. “Why should we be so cloak and dagger? There aren’t any ponies running out of their homes here, charging us down.”
“If you don’t determine a pony to be your friend,” Zecora said, “she is not.”
Twilight stayed in place, considering the idea with ill thought. She said, “Fine. Pinkie Pie, you come with me.”
“Hold on,” Rainbow argued. “What if I want to go with Pinkie?”
“Then I guess we’re going as one big group and drawing in everypony in town behind us!” Twilight said, rearing up and waving her forehooves in the air.
Pinkie raised a hoof and softly shushed Twilight. Zecora ignored her tantrum and started forward again.
“Rainbow Dash, come,” she said. Now Rainbow rolled her eyes and trotted on after her.
“Then we’ll go to the left!” Twilight yelled after them. Rainbow shrugged back at her, but kept following Zecora to the right of the School.
Pinkie glanced at Twilight and told her, “That’s the bloodlust, too.”
Twilight looked back at her, ready to say something at first, but stayed silent. She sighed, lowered her head, and started walking.
She muttered, “Whatever this is, it’s not going to be easy.”
Pinkie began bouncing along beside her, but soon restrained herself and walked as they passed a group of houses. All the curtains across the windows were drawn. At the end of the row, only one window had a parted drape, and a little filly watched them through the glass. Twilight and Pinkie both looked back at her, but none of them waved.
Twilight could only see her from the nose up. The filly just kept staring, the drape laying across the top of her head.
She was the only other pony they had seen in the town. Twilight glanced around again to make sure she hadn’t just missed someone.
She turned to Pinkie Pie, focusing on a bigger issue, and asked, “So, Pinkie--when did you die?”
Pinkie looked back at her with a grin. “That’s a really good question, Twilight. I never really counted how many years ago it was. It was after you, after Applejack, after Rarity, and I think just after Rainbow Dash.”
“You died last of all of us?”
“Except Fluttershy,” Pinkie said. “So, she’s technically the winner!”
Twilight hesitated asking further, but decided it was worth it. “Then, you know how Rainbow Dash lost one of her wings?”
Pinkie’s grin changed to a conscious frown, and she hum-hawed for a moment. “I kind of, sort of know, but I’m not sure if Dashie would appreciate me saying. It’s super personal to her. Why didn’t you just ask her on the way here?”
“I don’t know, I felt like it was almost a bad time to ask,” Twilight said. “Well, not that, exactly. I know it must be personal, so I didn’t want to put her on the spot if she wasn’t comfortable answering yet.”
“I mean, we were walking for, like, two hours,” Pinkie said, sweeping a hoof out in the air to illustrate.
Twilight released a sigh, but a small smile formed in its wake. “Okay, here’s a franker question: what about Zecora? What kind of ‘voodoo,’ exactly, did she use on us?”
Pinkie ho-hummed even longer. “Golly. I don’t know! She just set up a bunch of big tiki sticks with masks on them, and they had all sorts of color painted on them.”
She tapped her chin and started to bounce again. “You know what, there was a lot of hoof waving, too!”
“Pinkie, how did she bring us all back to life?”
Pinkie shrugged widely. “I don’t know. Like I said, she just waved her hooves a lot, and the sticks kept shaking without her touching them. All I really know is she took a long time to make sure everypony’s fur looked okay.”
Twilight glanced down at herself, rubbing a hoof over her chest. Her body was complete, and so was Pinkie’s, save for a dull sheen. “I guess necrosis does take a while to fix. Actually, didn’t she make us a look a little younger than when we died?”
“Sorry, you don’t look that good,” Pinkie said, giggling.
To her own surprise, Twilight also managed to giggle.
Applejack, already on the other side of town, had a distinctly different problem. She stood in front of another gate, erected right in the path to Sweet Apple Acres.
She tapped the ground several times, brooding in frustration and questions. She wondered quietly, “Why would my farm be sealed outside the walls?”
Another guard sat at the top of the wall, and quickly noticed her. He glared down despicably.
Applejack glanced up at him and smiled weakly. “Hey, there! Any chance you could just let me through for a minute?”
“Fuck off, citizen.”
She frowned again and decided against making a scene. Instead, she turned around and looked around elsewhere for aid. Her gaze narrowed on one of the taller buildings connected to the School.
She galloped away to it, the guard watching her leave warily. He, too, got up.
In a moment, Applejack had found an entrance to the building. She dashed past tables full of paper and scraps to the stairs on the other side of the room. After making it a couple of flights, she set hoof in a nearly empty room with one window, just where she needed it.
She trotted over to the window, looked out over the wall, and felt the greatest kind of fear she knew.
The whole farm, every acre of it visible to her now, was in cinders. The barn, the trees, the fences.
She felt she couldn’t move her gaze away from it, like it would get better if she just kept looking. She felt anger welling up inside her, a kind she wasn’t used to. She didn’t hear the hoofsteps coming up the stairs behind her.
She glanced back. The previous guard pony was on the stairs at the opposite end of the room, and in front of him stood a maroon colt. The new pony was smirking. Applejack said nothing.
The maroon pony said, “My name’s Five. And there’s no need to answer my question, actually. I know who you are. What I really want to know is what you’re doing up here.”
“My own business,” Applejack said, turning fully around to him.
Five slowly shook his head at her. “Don’t be coy.”
Some kind of anxiety was heightening in Applejack, but she held her place.
“Some little birdies already told me you came into town claiming to be Applejack,” Five said. “And you know what, you’ve got a serious pair of balls to impersonate one of Ponyville’s greatest heroes.”
Applejack said, “I really don’t.”
“Hey, you’re a comedian! That’s totally funny,” Five said, taking a step forward, “except that I’m not laughing. You, on the other hoof, are trespassing.”
Applejack tilted down her eyebrows. “You tell me what happened to my farm and maybe I’ll listen to one word you got to say after that.”
“The old farm?” Five said. “This town has sieges raised against it all the time. Enemies had taken the farm in one of them a long time ago. They were getting rations from it.”
His smirk turned into a malicious grin, and he shrugged. “It had to go.”
The world around him shut out of Applejack’s focus.
Five said, “Listen, I know about your friends, too. Come with me quietly and maybe they don’t have to get involved at all. The School doesn’t take kindly to interlopers who just--”
In two bounds across the room, Applejack had spun around, back hooves facing back again--she blasted into the side of his face with the force of her entire body channeled into her legs. Though he wasn’t a pegasus, Five flew at the wall. Applejack’s face, in the same moment, devolved into a soundless snarl.
The guard pony gaped, but as he moved too late to be of help, Applejack spun her gaze around at him. He stopped.
Five, decked out on the floor, wiped a heavy stream of blood from his lip and looked at the smear in disbelief. He looked back up at Applejack and said, “You don’t even know who I really am, do you? Do you have any fucking idea what you’ve just done?”
She clopped over to him slowly, and he tried in vain to pull himself away. Her rage only under control in her voice, she said, “If you don’t tell me where the ponies who owned that farm are now, I know what I’m about to do.”
The excitement wasn’t at such a high outside. Twilight and Pinkie had just met up with Rainbow and Zecora again, having rounded the various parts of the School. Rainbow looked even less attentive than before, mouth hanging ajar and eyelids weak not from being tired, but bored.
Twilight eyed only Zecora, but nodded. Zecora, though she looked still uneasy, gestured back the same.
An amicable feeling was finally taking over. Zecora spoke first as the parties’ paths converged and they walked side-by-side again. She glanced at the new district they had entered, and said, “Be aware that when we find our old pony friend, she will have changed more than the rest of you. Do not be surprised by her.”
Still bouncing, Pinkie disregarded the warning and cried, “And there she is!”
Everyone looked to where Pinkie’s hoof was pointed. Showing signs of age, outside of a new house quite unlike her old cottage, there stood Fluttershy. She was behind a kind of workbench set up in the yard, a chicken laid gently on it as she smoothed some of its feathers.
As the ponies started to smile and greet her, Fluttershy picked up a cleaver from the side of the slab, and between two hooves, swung it down onto the chicken’s neck. A spurt of blood eliminated the knife’s previous sheen. The chicken’s head rolled off the table.
Fluttershy looked up at her friends just as their expressions froze, hooves in midair. She left the cleaver stuck in the table, raising a hoof to her mouth as she gasped in subdued delight. “Oh, my.”
First Arc: Ponyville
C.3: Mayor of Very Little
“They are broken! You broke my legs!”
Five was on his back, getting pulled down the tower stairwell by his tail. Applejack had it clutched tightly in her mouth, ignoring his pain.
Through the grip, she said, “They’re not broken. You’re just--”
She yanked harder for a moment, dragging him down two steps at once.
His back struck the next step hard, and he grunted in pain. “Bitch!”
She stopped pulling and kicked a hard hoof into one his legs. He flinched and yowled, “Damn it!”
The guard that had first summoned him followed behind them, moving awkwardly as he figured out what to even do. Not willing to get too close, he called down to Applejack, “If you let him go, there’s still a chance for you to make it out of here in one piece! We can negotiate, we can--”
“Don’t talk for me!” Five seethed. He looked to Applejack in between bumps from the last set of stairs, and said, “I can feel broken bones better than you can. Now, if you’ll stop torturing me for a--damn it!--we can make an actual deal!”
Applejack looked back from Five to the stairwell as the sound of hoofsteps echoed up, another guard pony trotting up the steps to inspect the commotion. Applejack saw him the same moment he saw her. As his face drew to shock and he reached for a knife on his hip, she stepped to the side and whirled Five around her body, tossing him down the stairs.
The guard drew his knife just as Five crashed into him, the dagger knocked out of his grip as both of them toppled to the bottom of the staircase. Applejack tossed back her mane, ambling behind them as Five groaned even louder.
“Son of a fuck! You’re honestly trying to kill me now!” he whined.
Applejack glanced at the guard sprawled out on the floor beyond Five. He was scrambling back up and moving toward his flung knife at the same time. As he nearly reached it, Five looked back at him and spat, “Don’t!”
The guard had just grabbed it, spinning around to face Applejack. She met his gaze with the same anger as before, and said, “Just go.”
The guard glanced down to Five, who with wide but furrowed eyes nodded at him. The guard eyed Applejack again, but backed up and ran out the door.
Applejack watched him go. She then looked down at Five, not even tilting her head, and said, “I don’t need no deal. Just information.”
Five rolled his eyes and clutched one of his legs closer to his chest. “I said, those ponies were still on the farm when it burned.”
“If you didn’t find bodies, then they ain’t dead.”
“Well, they’re not in Ponyville!”
Applejack stayed calm, though her eyes narrowed further. “I ain’t leaving this town ‘til I learn that myself.”
Five glared at her. “I can prove it. There’s a pony in this town that knew the farm ponies better than any other. One even a psychopath like you should believe.”
“I suppose you’re talking about Fluttershy?”
Five’s grimace turned into a smirk. “One of those old elements of harmony, that’s right.”
Applejack said, “That’s good; I’ve got to see her anyway. You’ll come with me.”
“Can I at least be put over somepony’s shoulder?” Five complained.
“No. You can walk now.”
Five scowled again. While Applejack watched, he carefully rolled over and started pushing himself back up.
As he leaned on one of his legs, he glared back at his tormentor. “You know, you’re not even doing a good job of pretending to be Applejack. She wouldn’t act this bad under the bloodlust.”
Applejack looked back at him quickly, eyes flaring, but turned again to lead him out. Five limped after her, and while unwatched he glanced back to the guard pony, still at the edge of the stairwell. He nodded a gesture at him in between stumbles, and the guard nodded back.
Applejack stepped outside, and a drop of water fell right on her face where her hat would have covered. She glanced up, and found the rain beginning.
She closed her eyes for a short moment, and sighed even quicker. She kept forward. The rain was starting slowly, and it couldn’t even be heard yet from inside any of the nearby houses.
The rain was no one’s problem inside. In Fluttershy’s house, it was going unnoticed.
“I butch. I’m a butcher.”
Twilight and friends sat on the benches inside Fluttershy’s house on either side of a short dining table. There was little other furniture, little decoration, and only one window. Bird cages lined all the walls and ceiling, like old times, but there was silence from them.
Everyone had a drink in front of them, but only Fluttershy sipped on hers. She sat at the middle of the table, smiling like an old pony. “Well, I think that’s enough about me. It’s been so long. May I ask how you’re all holding up now?”
The expressions on their faces told most of what her friends thought. Twilight summed up the group’s collective thoughts and asked, “--But why’d you kill the chicken?”
Fluttershy put down her cup and said, “Oh, Tete was getting very old. I talked to her about it, and she was getting so uncomfortable that she was just ready to go.”
“So, you just--you just killed her, like that?” Rainbow sputtered.
“Oh, not just like that,” Fluttershy said. “She was in so much pain. She already understood what would happen to her body afterward, and she didn’t have any qualms about it.”
Twilight felt like looking away, but swallowed hard instead. “What exactly are you going to do with her body?”
“Well, these days income is tougher to get,” Fluttershy explained, “and food is much scarcer.”
All the other ponies stared at her intently. Fluttershy took another sip from her cup.
“So, I sell the stricken bodies of my older friends to the diamond dogs, who are actually carnivores. My son has a wagon he keeps taking out that way.”
Rainbow slammed her front hooves up onto the table, yelling, “What the fuck?”
Everyone else waited as Rainbow got off from the table wordlessly, crossing her forelegs. She stared at Twilight for a better response.
Twilight raised a hoof to her own forehead and pressed. “All right, I was pretty focused on the diamond dogs for a minute there, but how about you talk about that son first.”
Fluttershy still looked like nothing new had been presented. She looked more surprised than before, though, that her friends were so shocked now. She pushed away her cup.
She leaned her chin onto one hoof and sighed lightly. “I don’t even know where to begin talking about him. He’s so... nice.”
She ho-hummed a moment. “My. He’s only a little younger than all of you, at least by looks. He’s grown up so fast. When he was younger, he was a bigger hoof-ful than everyone else I took care of put together, and he always wanted to live outside of Ponyville. Now, he travels a lot--I’m still not sure which side he got that from.”
“Side--” Twilight interrupted, this time putting her hooves on the table. “Wait, then, who’s the father?”
The understanding of what Fluttershy had said sank into Rainbow at the same time, and she joined Twilight on the table again. Zecora rolled her eyes and turned her gaze the other way, and Pinkie kept grinning.
Fluttershy smiled sweeter and said, “Oh, I really can’t say.”
“You don’t even know?” Rainbow yelled.
Fluttershy didn’t even blush, but giggled. “Oh, my. No, I was still very timid when we married. So as not to attract any attention to me, he didn’t tell any of his friends who he was marrying until we were already holding the ceremony. After that, it became something we shared together, that we wouldn’t tell anyone who didn’t already know.”
“Come on,” Twilight said, half-cocking an eyebrow. “You won’t tell some of your closest friends who you married? We didn’t even get to be at the wedding.”
Fluttershy paused. She tilted her head up a bit, then back down. She finally said, “It’s one of the last little things I have of him.”
The mood dimmed. Twilight wasn’t sure whether or not to feel guilty, but her ears drew back on her head and she glanced to her cup.
Zecora pushed her own cup further away and leaned forward, taking reign of the conversation. “The wagon you told of. How does your son interact with the diamond dogs?”
Everybody glanced toward her, unsure whether she was trying to figure something out of if that was her attempt at small talk. Fluttershy was glad for a change of topic either way. She said, “He trades with them. The trip out to them is very long, so by the time he gets back he always has a fun new story to tell.”
“Diamond dogs, though,” Rainbow said, calm again. She rubbed the back of her head. “How does that work?”
“Not easily,” Fluttershy explained. “They’re very abrasive. They don’t like any pony entering their territory, even when they’re getting something out of it. I suppose that’s how the bloodlust affects them.”
“They’re affected, too?” Twilight asked.
Fluttershy took her cup between her hooves, almost surprised at the question. She said, “Well, they’re where the bloodlust probably came from. The diamond dogs have had it much longer than any ponies.”
Rainbow frowned at the news, but said nothing. She rocked her head around, trying to shake off a sort of frustration, and her mouth curled out into a line. Twilight took the lull this time and asked, “But bloodlust aside, how did Ponyville turn into all of this?”
Fluttershy sighed in minor distress at the memories. “It seems it happened while I wasn’t paying attention. There were always just little changes, the kind every town goes through. The real differences came when the bloodlust appeared. Every pony was just acting terribly to their own friends, and that’s when the School of Rarity took over everything but the mayor’s office.”
“And what did the mayor do?”
The door to the house banged open then, Applejack trotting in backwards as she pulled Five by his tail once again. The two of them were oblivious to the house’s occupants, and as Five dragged against the floor, he yelled, “I knew they were broken!”
Fluttershy got up as she saw who it was that had just barged in, delighted again. Applejack finally glanced inside, finding Fluttershy and the rest of her friends. She let go of her capture and grinned.
“Fluttershy!” she chuckled. “You got real old, didn’t you? It’s so great to see you again.”
The other ponies remained seated as Applejack and Fluttershy trotted up to each other and exchanged fond nuzzles. As they pulled apart, Applejack asked, “Gosh, I hope you’ve been all right lately; sorry I didn’t come straightaways. I can’t imagine you having to deal with all this yourself. You been okay?”
Rainbow coughed while Twilight breathed in sharply, looking away. Fluttershy smiled, saying, “I’ve been fine. I’ve just been doing the same old things as ever, really.”
Applejack’s grin turned solemn, and her tone changed. “Listen, about Sweet Apple Acres--that’s where I headed first, and what I really need to know right now is if you might have heard anything about Applebloom, or Big Macintosh. Maybe Granny Smith.”
Rainbow’s expression lit up again and she turned over to Fluttershy, interrupting, “Big Macintosh! Was it Big Macintosh?”
“You saw him?” Applejack asked, turning quickly toward her other friend.
“She means Fluttershy’s husband,” Twilight elaborated.
Applejack turned back to Fluttershy and scoffed, “You saddled Big Macintosh?”
“And had a son,” Rainbow added.
“You saddled with Big Macintosh?”
Fluttershy still grinned, and raised a hoof to her face as she giggled, “Well, that may be.”
Five, in between his groans from the floor, looked up over to Fluttershy and grunted, “Just let her know they burned!”
Rainbow and Twilight lost whatever mirth they had for a moment, and Fluttershy stopped smiling. Looking between Applejack and Five, she said, “Applejack, what did you do to him?”
“He’s fine,” Applejack said. “I just need to know what happened to my family.”
Fluttershy still looked taken aback. “I’m sorry you’ve only gotten to hear this now, but Granny Smith passed away before the bloodlust.”
Applejack lowered her gaze, frowning deeply, but said nothing. Fluttershy continued, “Big Macintosh and Applebloom escaped the fire on the farm, but Macintosh still died some time after that. I’m not sure what happened to Applebloom afterward.”
Raising her head with sullen eyes, Applejack asked, “When did you last see them?”
“I talked with them after the raid was over. Applebloom left Ponyville after that, and I haven’t seen her since.”
She looked back down at Five, then back to her friend. She said, “But Applejack, do you know who that is?”
Five grinned at the remark, looking more comfortable quickly. “It’s about damn time somepony spell out how much trouble she’s getting in.”
“He ain’t nothing to me,” Applejack said.
Rainbow, glancing down at him, said, “Seriously, what’d you do to him?”
Applejack kicked some dirt on the floor at Five in response, and he growled back. Fluttershy looked straight into her friend’s eyes and said, “Applejack, he’s one of the top ponies in the School. Once they find out he’s been hurt, they won’t be nice about it.”
“Is the School of Rarity really that oppressive?” Twilight asked, catching Fluttershy’s attention.
“As oppressive as Applejack?” Rainbow asked, starting to grin.
There was a clatter raising outside as she spoke, the sound of several ponies coming down the street toward Fluttershy’s house. Everyone inside could hear it clearly now. Twilight, Rainbow, and Pinkie got off the bench. Zecora kept her seat. Fluttershy tapped her hooves on the ground anxiously, recognizing the noise, as she glanced uselessly between everyone gathered.
The clatter stopped right outside. Fluttershy held her breath, and everyone else waited for whatever would happen next.
A deep, calm voice called out, “Fluttershy, are you home?”
Five reacted before Fluttershy even could, pushing himself back up with only minor struggle and limping to the door with a vengeance. He slammed it open again, leaving the other ponies as he yelled, “She’s in there, mayor, with all of the trespassers! They’ve all met up in there!”
Twilight and Fluttershy looked between each other for a moment, and it was the latter who gulped. No one moved toward the door. The situation catching up to her senses, Twilight whispered, “Should we be ready to... defend ourselves?”
Fluttershy shook her head immediately, and she started walking gingerly toward the door. Back to Twilight, she said, “It won’t come to that.”
She exited, and the other elements looked between themselves before following her.
Though the sun was by now obscured, only small rain drops fell beneath it. They pelted Twilight’s body as she entered the street again, though she still couldn’t feel the sensation of the rain.
Ponies now lined the street, staring right back at Twilight as she quietly took her place behind Fluttershy. It was a force larger than she could put a number to, in various dress, and most of them armed, but all of them in the same position with the same dark expression. They simply watched.
Right in front of Twilight and her friends was the new mayor, a stallion separated from all the others inside a sort of tarp-and-awning carriage that looked only slightly less pompous than he. His mane was a beautiful silver, and his coat was snow white, groomed and dry. His cutie mark was that of a hollow, black square. The carriage was supported by four ponies, each one holding up a pole extending from each corner. They were all visibly exhausted.
The stallion sitting under the center of the tarp looked down at the friends inquisitively. With the same deep voice as before, he said, “Fluttershy, so good to see you again. I imagine you’ve been keeping well.”
Fluttershy reacted slowly and nervously, opening up her mouth slowly to speak, but Five broke in first. He shoved a hoof toward Applejack and seethed at the mayor, “That one assaulted and threatened me! The bitch--”
Applejack moved to act again, but the mayor held up a hoof and said, “Five, enough.”
Five stopped, startled, and looked up at the mayor as he started to pout. The mayor continued, “Every pony in town wants to assault you, dolt. It was bound to happen sooner or later. More importantly, I was talking to our friend Fluttershy, not you.”
He didn’t say it as if he were on her side rather than Five’s. Twilight felt ill at ease with the stallion. She frowned slightly and kept watching, as Fluttershy replied, “I’ve been fine, Mayor Virtue, thank you for asking. What brings you here?”
She smiled politely, but her eyes showed none of it. The mayor, before going on with the chat, looked back to his entourage and ordered, “Lower me.”
At the mayor’s words, ponies nearby raised their hooves and gently shoved the ponies baring the carriage, just hard enough to break their concentration and collapse them onto the wet pavement. Mayor Virtue ignored the bumping as they fell, poles now propped on their fallen bodies.
The mayor stood up, but stayed under his cover from the rain. He said, “One of these gentlecolts informed me of a scuffle Five had gotten into, but neglected to mention that it was Five who started it. He’s very poor at... proper socializing, I suppose.”
Five failed to hide or disguise his dejection, and what he meant to be a scowl was still just pouting.
Applejack stepped forward, and under narrowed eyes asked, “And he represents the School?”
The mayor stopped smiling. “No. He doesn’t.”
Applejack loosened up slightly, but Twilight kept studying the mayor. She wasn’t sure if he was matching her friend’s tone, or was actually annoyed.
He startled Twilight as he looked straight at her, smiling again in an instant. Through a thinned gaze, he said, “I apologize for what must have been some significant troubles getting into our town. You understand how careful we must be in these times. But, now that we’ve gotten the unpleasantness behind us, I notice you all look familiar somehow. Have you ever visited before?”
Twilight matched his gaze. She held her voice firm. “Yes, a long time ago.”
“Very nice,” the mayor cooed. “Oh, my manners have eluded me again--what were your names?”
Rainbow looked to Twilight without thinking, eyes widened. Twilight was caught off guard again, but turned to the others while she racked her brain for a good answer. She raised a hoof to her own chest before looking back to Rainbow, saying, “Oh, well, I’m Starswirl. And this is Cloudkicker.”
She moved on to Pinkie, who still maintained a grin, and fumbled. “That’s... Pink... Oven.”
The mayor raised a hoof to his chin and raised one of his eyebrows. Twilight kept going before he could think further, and pointed to Applejack finally. “And, as I guess you heard... that’s Applejack.”
“Applejack,” the mayor repeated flatter.
The pony in question tipped one of her forehooves in front of the other in as polite as a gesture as she knew, and anxiously chuckled, “Well, yeah, gosh. You know the ideas some parents get when it comes time to naming the children.”
Mayor Virtue nodded again, looking otherwise as though he wasn’t paying attention to the group anymore.
“Quite dangerous to be out on the road in such a small group, unarmed,” he quickly said. “And, that is, if you don’t mind me saying, it looks like you haven’t had the chance to clean yourselves up from your journey here.”
A smile was emerging from his lips again, as if he was congratulating himself as he kept considering.
The mayor quickly glanced aside and back, saying, “You came from the north gate, I believe. The direction of Canterlot.”
Were they discovered? Twilight barely dared wonder. The mayor narrowed his eyes straight at her as his smile grew thinner but more distinct.
“Were you in the city itself? It looked... well, quite serious from here.”
“We lived there, actually,” Twilight said.
“For a long time,” Pinkie added.
“And after we escaped the attack, the first place we thought of going was to our good friend Fluttershy’s,” Twilight finished, scraping a nearly pleasant tone into her voice.
“The attack by the corpse eaters, you mean?”
“That’s them, all right.” Twilight grinned as wide as she could.
The mayor’s slight smile broke. He suddenly raised his voice to a near shout and said, “I tried to be nice. The first visitors we’ve had in weeks, and by Rarity, I tried to be nice to them. But Fluttershy, your unicorn friend here was leading the corpse eaters right to us after their assault on Canterlot was finished. Purposely or not, I do not know, but this is not the thanks I should be getting after being such a fine host.”
Not leaving the flabbergasted Twilight even time to react, the mayor sighed. He raised his hoof to his forehead as he shook his head. Glancing first toward the rest of his entourage, he said, “Take them to the penitentiary. And ladies, please, don’t make this harder on yourselves.”
“They were not following us!” Twilight protested. “We didn’t see a single one of them outside the city.”
Five flailed a hoof in the air and pointed back to the house. “There’s a zebra in there, too!”
Mayor Virtue’s face lowered into fury. All of the elements froze in place. Snorting, the mayor started forward and walked briskly past the cluster of elements. He entered the house.
There was silence from inside, and no one dared peek. After a moment, he walked back out and looked directly at Five. “No, there isn’t.”
The elements subtly glanced between each other. Five gulped, and Mayor Virtue walked back under cover, mane damp now. Trying to calm himself, he said, “Fluttershy, we’ll discuss the situation away from these ponies. Come with me.”
As a new set of ponies started lifting the mayor’s carriage, Fluttershy ambled toward him. She glanced back at her friends and gestured a hoof for them to not cause trouble right now. Applejack frowned, obliging, and Rainbow shoved away one of the guard ponies that tried to nudge her forward by her flank.
Pinkie, grinning as wide as usual, skipped along after Fluttershy before another guard pushed her back toward the others.
Twilight didn’t resist their enforcers, but turned toward all her friends and instructed, “If they take us separately, don’t answer anything they ask you. Wait until we’re back together.”
Applejack hardened her expression and said, “Torture us separate. Yeah, I got it.”
Five, leaning heavily on another pony, immediately scoffed at her. “We’re not like you dastardly bastards. Just move.”
Her gaze fell to the ground as she started walking with the rest. The rain was getting heavier.
It was quieter at the north gate in town. Black Spot was still watching over the empty fields that lay far out in the direction of Canterlot, dutifully ignoring the rain. Behind him, another guard pony slowly walked up the stairs on the inside wall, panting.
“Fucking stairs,” the pony wheezed.
He was Black Spot’s shift cover. Black Spot looked to him as he reached the top.
Without screwing up his face, Black spot said, “It’s because you’re fat.”
The other guard glanced back at him, surprised. “Hey, you’re not just... not just supposed to say that.”
Black Spot didn’t think further of it. The other guard trotted over to him to take his perch, but first stretched his back and yawned.
Black Spot stood up, taking one last sweep of the fields before leaving. The other pony started chatting him up about the weather, not as reclusive a pony as Black Spot, but Black Spot saw something that tuned out all else.
There was a unicorn on the most distant hill visible from the tower, only just distinct. Black Spot kept looking, but touched his hoof to his fellow guard’s mouth to quiet him. The fellow guard recoiled, blushing and stuttering out more obscenities until he noticed Black Spot’s distraction.
Black Spot squinted to make out the unicorn in better detail. Her face was expressionless. She looked filthy, not for the dirt on her hooves but from her whole body, covered in splashes of blood the rain couldn’t yet wash off.
He pointed the unicorn out to the other guard. “There.”
The two of them stared a moment longer as they reached the same conclusion.
“That’s what I think it is, isn’t it?” the other guard said.
“Should we tell the mayor?” Black Spot asked.
The other pony kept looking, making a worried face, but shook his head. “We’ll let one of the senior guards know first, and then they can tell him.”
They didn’t want to take their eyes off the unicorn. She looked back at them, able to see much clearer than the both of them. She licked her lips.
First Arc: Ponyville
Another pony approached Ponyville, his hat tipped low and his wagon piled high. He was whistling despite the increasing rain, he and his cart trudging up toward the west gate. The light that made it through the rain clouds seemed to fall just away from his mane, his silver hair kempt but dirty. His fur, for its dull yellow, caught much more of the light.
The hat he wore covered his eyes, and bangs covered his forehead. A round notch was cut into the hat’s brim, and an old hole was scorched into the back.
The wagon was hitched to his back, rattling constantly over the lack of a road. The rattling stopped as the pony slowed down, stopping just in front of the gate. He saw no guards at the top of the wall, but yelled up, “Hey, fell’s!”
His voice had an inconsistent drawl to it, as if he was trying to control the sound of his words. No one responded to him, and the pony yelled up again, “Fell’s! Open the gate!”
A bored, brown earth pony ambled into view at the edge of the wall. He slurred down to the visitor, “What do you want, Line?”
“What do you think I want? I want you to open the damn gate,” Silver Lining said. He sounded aggressive, but his face looked hopeless.
The pony above leaned on one of the wall’s parapets, putting a hoof to his cheek. “What you got in the wagon?”
“Oh, this?” Line bucked off his restraint and let the wagon handles knock against the ground. He pulled off a corner from the blanket protecting his supplies, and explained, “Narcotics, powder, explosives, and them dogs just came up with a nifty big bomb I brought back. I was goin’ blow up the town, I figured. All this food on top is just a disguise.”
Another guard arrived in sight, walking up beside the first. He peered at the fresh produce Line had brought and grinned, saying, “Toss us something good up.”
“Don’t be selfish. Rest of the School wouldn’t like you taking any,” Line answered.
“They don’t have to find out,” the first guard muttered.
“No, I mean I’d tell them,” Line said. “They’d definitely find out.”
He grinned up at them under the shade of his hat. Both guards frowned. Line called again, “Just open the gate. Let me in.”
The second guard pony glanced at the first, and said down to Line, “I think we’ll let you keep enjoying the rain. Maybe you can take a nap with all your fuckin’ vegetables.”
Line kicked his wagon and yelled back at the guards, “You guys know how much everypony in town needs these! Damn it, you know if you don’t let me in, somepony else will, and they won’t take nicely to your shenanigans!”
Line glared at them, but they only smirked back down at him and turned away to chortle with each other and revel in small talk. Line reached a hoof to his head and threw his hat to the ground, snorting. He shook his head in disgust and walked back to the front of his wagon, ready to try another gate.
He looked back up to the wall to reprimand the guards a last time, just for a piece of satisfaction he wouldn’t get, but stopped himself when he saw that the guards weren’t there anymore. Line’s cheeks flushed with color, and he backed up for a better view to no avail. He stomped the ground once and shook his head, closing his eyes for moment as he fumed.
He yelled, “Get the f--get back where I can see you, you f--you sons of--y’all are jackasses!”
As he huffed and glowered, a zebra walked into his view atop the wall. She stopped at the very edge, in between two parapets, and stared directly at Line as he looked back up at her.
“Are you Fluttershy’s kin?” the zebra asked.
Line stepped back again and felt an embarrassing self-awareness. His drawl faded noticeably as he stammered at her, “Well, I--who are you?”
Zecora grimaced, rolling her eyes and tilting back her head. “I will not harm you, but I will open this gate for you if you agree to aid me.”
“Lady, I don’t know you. If I may be so blunt, who the hell are you, and where are those two lunkers?”
“They are unavailable now. You do not like those ponies, correct?” Zecora asked.
Line smirked. “Them guards? Well, no, apparently we don’t get along.”
“Their ilk have taken your mother and her friends captive.”
Line’s face rose again and his voice became both sarcastic and accusatory. “Why the hell would they? What did she do?”
Zecora leaned down, her head just over the edge of the wall as all her face darkened but for her eyes. She said, “Help me free her and them. Listen to me, and do not speak while you listen.”
Line let his confusion take the place of talking further. Zecora leaned her head back slightly. “Things are happening quickly, and I have a plan. Many of them. This one, I need your help to put in motion.”
As Zecora finished, Line’s lips drew back in the same smirk as before. “Can I speak now?”
Line scratched his head and furrowed his brow, his drawl quickly returning. “Listen, I--obviously you’re not from around here. I guess it don’t matter how you know who I am, but do you got any clue what you’ve gotten into here?”
“This town is about to be engulfed in flame,” Zecora said. “I know better than you what is going on here.”
Line frowned. “Then open the gate, and I’ll lead us to the jail.”
Zecora shook her head. “That is not your part in my plan. Your mother has not been harmed, but all of your people are about to burn. Your part is with them.”
“You’re underestimating how important my mother is to me, zebra,” Line growled. “If Ponyville is attacked, the School’s goin’ handle that. I’m goin’ see that my mother is safe first, then I’m goin’ deal with whatever else is wrong now.”
“The cult’s forces have all but abandoned the town in search of something greater. They have left a militia to face an army coming soon in time. If you run straight to your mother, you will be imprisoned with her.”
Line kicked the dirt and shrugged widely in mock surrender. “Then why have you bothered telling me any of this?”
Zecora narrowed her eyes. “Your part is necessary. If you listen patiently to me and help me with my plan, I will open this gate for you, and we will save many of your people.”
Line looked to his left, past the wall of Ponyville. He peered up at the distant smoke still trailing up from Canterlot. “That army--is it the corpse eaters?”
Line grunted and shook his head, the rain starting to pour harder still. He squared his gaze back into Zecora’s.
“Tell me what you’ve got,” he said. “Then open the gate.”
Near the middle of town, Twilight and company were just finishing their passing tour of the jail’s exterior. Thunderclouds loomed overhead as they were escorted inside, stepping off the wet pavement into a short hall, at the end of which was a long row of cells.
They were led to the end of the row, where one guard stopped in front of a cell as another guard opened its door. Twilight was ushered in first; Applejack and Rainbow entered the same cell, but Pinkie was pushed farther down the row without explanation. The guards didn’t allow a moment for possible farewells.
Rainbow entered the cell last. As one of the guards clanged its door shut and locked it, the pegasus inside hopped up and stuck her forehooves through the bars, slouching onto them.
Two other ponies were already in the cell, though they both barely noticed the newcomers. Twilight tried not to stare at them, but did anyway. She quickly stared elsewhere as one of the ponies looked back at her, a brown colt laying on his side with his head propped up by his hoof. He tossed back his black mane from his face and eyed her up and down, his expression grim and flat. He asked, “What’re you in for?”
Twilight glanced again at him, and her cheeks felt just like they were blushing despite her lack of flowing blood. She raised her chin slightly and said, “A sort of misunderstanding.”
The colt closed his eyes and nodded slowly. “Insulting the School always has that kind of effect.”
“We didn’t say nothing,” Applejack added, plopping down her flank next to Twilight. “They just dang jumped to conclusions.”
The last pony in the cell, a butch, muddled pink mare leaning on two legs against the corner of their enclosure, added her own opinion loudly. “That’s not what it’s about. Fascism only survives by confusing and petrifying its population; they took you in, just like the rest of us, because you weren’t cowed into submission by their methods. Am I right?”
The other ponies stared at her for a moment without response. Twilight replied, “Not exactly...”
The standing mare frowned and crossed her forelegs. The colt on the ground chewed off a bit of his gums and played with it in his teeth, eyeing Twilight again. Twilight stifled a grimace and raised her voice more pleasantly, asking, “Why did you get put in here?”
The colt swallowed and grinned a little. “I just said the wrong thing to somepony, probably like most here. I’ve only heard of one pony that got into a fight or something.”
The mare in the corner turned her head with an audible swish back at the rest of them, jumping in, “I didn’t get into a fight; they got into a fight. I had enough of the shit conditions for the un-indoctrinated ponies in this town, and held a protest all by myself. After I fought off the first attempt by the guards at taking me in, the mayor himself came and called the reinforcements they needed to arrest me.”
“You didn’t say it was the mayor last time you explained,” the colt said. The mare shrugged and rolled her eyes.
“I guess it’s safe to assume this new mayor wasn’t really elected,” Twilight said.
The colt raised one eyebrow and bit off another bit of his gums. “What do you mean, new?”
Applejack beat Twilight to an answer and replied, “We lived here as foals, and this is the first time we’ve been back.”
The colt kept chewing. “Where’d you move to?”
Twilight said, “Oh, well, you know, just over to Fillydelphia.”
The colt frowned, and his chewing stopped. He looked at Twilight and questioned, “A unicorn in Fillydelphia? How’d you survive your whole life?”
Twilight and Applejack glanced straight at each other, expressing their confusion perfectly between themselves. A clang on the cell bars stole their attention back to the cell exterior, a guard pony scowling at those inside. “For the love of fuck, you fillies shut the hell up already.”
Rainbow looked from the guard’s hoof on the bars up to his face, and growled back, “Come in here and shut us up, bitch.”
The mare in the corner pushed off from the wall, looming and glaring the same as Rainbow. The patrol glanced around the ponies he had interrupted, removing his hoof from the bar a moment later. He grunted and walked onward.
Twilight glanced back to the colt on the floor. Before he could regain his bearings, her voice took a softer note as she said, “I don’t like to discuss what happened there. Anyway, what are your names?”
The colt looked back at her, then to the mare in the corner. He looked back at Twilight and pulled some hair out from over his face as it slid there again, and explained, “Doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, but the School still doesn’t know our names. Out of everypony in this cell, you mares are the only ones that can go named. I just can’t tell you until I know you won’t blab them somewhere.”
“Well, what should we call you?”
The colt nodded at the mare, and said, “She’ll be Rock. You can call me... I know, I’ll be Frills.”
“I want to be Frills,” the mare protested. “I’m sick of always being Rock. I want my name to be the better one this time!”
The colt rolled his eyes and waved a hoof at the mare. “Fine, damn, you’re Frills. I’m Rock. Call me that.”
Twilight ignored their argument and asked, “If you two don’t mind answering one more question, a really important one--do either of you have any idea why they took only one pony from our group, the other pink one?”
Rock scratched his chin and said, “When they bother separating prisoners, they generally interrogate the ones they drag off. That’s probably what’s going down right now, and she won’t come back pretty.”
Rainbow pushed herself fully off the bars, turning and joining the other ponies. She lowered her voice and whispered, “They won’t get the chance to torture any more of us. Now that they’ve left only one guard, we’re getting out of here.”
Leaning against the wall again, Frills said, “And what way out of here do you suggest?”
Rainbow pointed back to the door and scoffed, “Which way do you think? We wait until asshole pony comes back, and Twilight steals his key with her magic. We walk right out the front door.”
Rock shook his head and chewed another piece of his gums. “Like she’s the only unicorn pony they’ve ever locked up here. You really think that guard carries the key to any of these cells?”
Rainbow frowned. “Does he?”
Rainbow turned around and slumped back onto the bars, the guard pony approaching at the same time. He passed by their cell again, meeting Rainbow’s sneer for only a moment as he briskly trotted past.
“Hey!” Twilight said as she twisted around, catching his attention just as he was nearly out of sight again. “Do you accept bribes?”
The guard spit on the bars. Rainbow spit back just behind him, and Twilight sunk onto the floor with a pout. A chuckle echoed back down the cells as the guard kept patrolling, quickly leaving earshot. Twilight leaned against Applejack, and both of them sighed.
Without tilting her head toward anyone, Applejack asked, “I suppose they got a way to stop Twilight, here, from teleporting us out?”
Rock smirked at them. “Shit, try if you want. I really doubt they bothered with a safeguard against that; I can count how many unicorn ponies know how to do it with my forehooves.”
All the friends looked wide-eyed in unison to the colt. He glanced back between them, and his expression shifted to a cocked eyebrow.
“Fluttershy denied she knew anything about the zebra. I’ve served her tea in the lounge, and if my manners haven’t loosened her lips by the time we’re done here, Five, this may be the time that I have finally had it with you.”
Seated in a throne-like chair behind a nearly larger desk in his office was the mayor, and standing at attention in front of him was a humiliated Five. Beside Five was a dull blue earth pony, his entire head shrouded by a pitch black mask. The blue pony took advantage of Five’s silence to report, “Pinkamena Pie is undergoing interrogation. We just started, but we’ve already confirmed the old report. She’s undead.”
Five scoffed, his cheeks still flushed. His voice turned accusatory as he retorted, “I thought our higher echelons agreed that zombie-ism was a ridiculous idea.”
The blue pony shook his head. “She doesn’t feel pain; she doesn’t even bleed. She’s giggling at our attempts to get the whereabouts of the zebra out of her.”
Five grimaced and shuffled his hooves. Mayor Virtue glanced between him and the blue pony, narrowing his eyes.
“High Jump,” Virtue said to the masked pony, “stop saying ‘we;’ you’re not an interrogator. Take off that absurd hat.”
High Jump pulled the mask off his head and let it fall to the floor, pouting as his bland face became visible.
“Five,” Virtue continued, “what do you know of the group Pie was traveling with?”
Five glanced back at the mayor with a strained grin, his voice disingenuous. “Nothing that matters. They didn’t provide any real information about themselves when they snuck their way through our gate.”
“Tell me what they said, Five.”
“They only mentioned their intent to see Fluttershy. One of them made up a story about coming from Canterlot and knowing you personally.”
The mayor grunted, “How did Pie get past the guard unnoticed?”
“He’s a recent addition to the team,” Five said. “Pinkamena Pie and Zecora have been silent in all our outlying reports for so many years that... some of the senior lieutenants consider them old news. I can only assume the two aren’t pointed out to newbies anymore by those that should be mentioning them.”
The mayor scowled at Five. “If you mention the zebra necromancer again today, you damn well better have her. You made me look like a fool in front of the subordinates, getting worked up like that over thin air.”
Five nodded, refraining from further comment.
“What were the names they used?” the mayor asked.
“The intruders? Stupid ones,” Five muttered. “After admitting Pinkamena Pie’s name, they used an alias theme for the rest of their group. Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, and Applejack.”
Virtue didn’t respond. Five and High Jump glanced at each other, but said nothing to break the silence. Several more seconds passed before the mayor, his face oddly dire, spoke. “Have you tested yet whether they’re originally alive?”
High Jump stuttered, “Uh, no one has yet....”
Five was turning pale, but he insisted, “They look nothing like the old Elements! They share no resemblance at all, from what I remember in class.”
The mayor stood up, the angles of his face sharper. He growled, “Five, go to the jail and secure them. Then, find a fucking picture of them to compare.”
Five gulped loudly, but protested once more. “But the pegasus wasn’t even missing a wing! I think. You saw her; we can agree on that, right?”
“I didn’t notice, Five. It’s not my job to take inventory of the features of all who pass through our gates,” the mayor said. “Now go find out!”
Five turned and trotted out of the room quickly and quietly. High Jump glanced at Five’s exiting, then cleared his throat and looked back to the mayor. “Are you going to join Pinkamena Pie’s interrogation, or should I tell them to wrap it up?”
“Forget about her,” the mayor said. “I need you to live up to all that talk of your speed right now. Follow Five to confirm the identities of our prisoners, then report the findings to your headmaster in Fillydelphia.”
High Jump rubbed his head. “Even if those ponies are some old legends, why would the headmaster care?”
The mayor couldn’t hide a small, eager grin. He looked High Jump right in the eye, Virtue’s voice suddenly happier. “Just tell him we have the pegasus with a severed wing.”
The mayor turned away, walking back behind his desk. He leaned upward as he stretched his back, then sunk back onto the plush fabric of his chair like a feline. Before dismissing High Jump, his face softened in relief and he sighed, “Not only is the zebra unnecessary now, this means Sparkle isn’t a corpse eater. By Rarity, we’re safe.”