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Strange Bedfellows, Chapter 1

The day had been busy—far too busy for Rarity’s tastes. Customers had been pouring through the door for hours, demanding that she craft them exquisite dresses and suits for what was said to be the greatest Grand Galloping Gala ever hosted in the history of Equestria! It had done wonders for Rarity’s sales. Despite that, she was stressed, her mane frazzled. On top of everything else, it was raining heavily.

Rarity’s sister, Sweetie Belle, had remained at her side all throughout the day, constantly offering her help and fetching items for her. While she was helping, her constant shouting got on Rarity’s nerves.

“Sis, sis!” she cried, trotting all around the inside of the boutique, “Do you need anything else? I can still go and get that silk from the back if you need it! I promise I won’t get it dirty like the last roll!” Rarity shook her head, her glowing horn bobbing as she manipulated a pin through the fabric.

“No, no, Sweetie,” she said, “that’s quite alright—I’m in control of the situation here, I assure you.” When the little unicorn pouted, her older sister sighed. “Sweetie, please, I do greatly appreciate your help, but if you stay around here when there’s nothing I need help with, then all you will do is bore yourself. Go home--mother and father are missing you by now, I’m sure.” When her little sister smiled and nodded, Rarity did as well, sending the foal on her way.

A few more uninterrupted minutes went by, and Rarity was nearly done with her latest creation when a knock came at the door. Irritated, the unicorn gently placed her needle back on her little table and trotted over, calling through the door.

“Who is it?” she called. She was surprised to hear Applejack’s voice.

It’s me, AJ!” she said. “Can you let me in, Rarity? It’s wetter than Winona’s nose out here!” Complying, the designer opened the door, allowing Applejack to trot past her, hooves muddy from the wet ground outside. Rarity bit her lip in distress, looking at the mess.

“Applejack,” she said, “please wipe your hooves off before you come in.” The earth pony glanced down at her hooves, cringed, and walked back over to the welcome mat, wiping off the wet dirt.

Sorry ‘bout that, Rarity,” she said when she was finished. “Guess I was a little more concerned about getting dry than about being clean.”

The unicorn shook her head, the snipe lost on her. “It’s no problem, darling,” she said, nodding towards her mannequins, “it’s just that my clients have been in and out all day, and I need the shop to look its best. Ponies won’t want to buy from me if they see mud on the ground.”

The orange pony nodded, raising an eyebrow. “Why’re you so busy, anyways?”

Rarity smiled, raising a hoof to showcase her many new clothing items. “They’re all being made for ponies attending the upcoming Gala!”

The orange earth pony chuckled, shaking her head. “I don’t know what in the hay all that is supposed to mean, Rarity, but I am glad you’re getting so much business. Sweet Apple Acres has been gettin’ ready for the Gala, too. We’re churning out more pies, fritters, and bushels of apples than I think I’ve ever seen!”

Rarity nodded, smiling. “Well, I am ever so glad to hear that things are going swimmingly for you, dear Applejack. But, if you will excuse me, I must return to working on my outfits. There’s plenty of time, but, as you know, I am never comfortable unless I’m working or being pampered.” She gave an airy laugh.

“But that’s just the thing, sugarcube,” Applejack said, nodding towards the door. “I came to grab ya for Twilight’s sleepover. Don’t ya remember when we planned it out? It was three weeks ago!”

The unicorn gasped. “Oh my! How could I have forgotten Twilight was having her sleepover today? Oh, how silly of me!” Rarity began hurriedly putting things away, stopping only for a moment to open the curtains of a window. The evening sun, orange and fading fast, peeked over the horizon at the pair of ponies. “Oh, it’s nearly dark! How upset she must be with me!”

Applejack rolled her eyes, trotting over to assist Rarity with her clean-up. “Don’t get your hair all in a twist, Rarity,” she said. “Twi’s sleepover don’t begin for another hour or so; I just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget, that’s all.” The white pony breathed a sigh of relief, her pacing slowing down a little.

Rarity sighed. “I wish you’d have told me sooner, saved me this panic.” She moved her hair out of her eyes. “That is alright, I suppose,” she said when she was finished, “I’ll have plenty of time to get ready now. Thank you for the heads-up, Applejack.”

“Right,” Applejack said. “Well, it looks like you’re about finished here, so I’m gonna head on over to Twilight’s. She’ll be happy if we arrive early, knowing her. I’ll see you there.” With that, she turned and left, the door swinging shut behind her.

“Right, right,” Rarity said, watching Applejack go. When she was gone, Rarity huffed and trotted over to a mirror. Applejack could be so rude sometimes! Barging in unexpectedly, not mentioning the time of Twilight’s sleepover until after Rarity had panicked; that pony rubbed her the wrong way.

For as long as they had been friends, there had been no small amount of vitriol between the two—Rarity was always too clean, well-kept, and prissy for Applejack, and Applejack had always been far too willing to lay down and roll around in the dirt, too willing to get her hooves dirty, for Rarity’s taste. Not to mention the awful way she spoke!

But even with all of their differences, Rarity and Applejack managed to coexist happily enough; they mostly stayed out of each others’ way, preferring the company of other ponies to each other. Rarity would have her spa days with Fluttershy, Applejack would get into little pow-wows and--in Rarity’s opinion--childish competitions with Rainbow Dash, and they’d continued to pretend that Twilight’s first sleepover had cured them of their distaste for each other.

Which, of course, it hadn’t. The two ponies still fought nearly every time they saw each other—today had been tame in comparison to past scrapes they had gotten into. Rarity shuddered at the thought of Applejack smearing mud in her hair again. But things were happy; the sun was going down on Ponyville, and soon, the stars would illuminate a night of fun for all over at Twilight’s house—even with Applejack there, Rarity was greatly looking forward to it.

When finally her hair was coiffed to her sky-high standards of perfection, Rarity smiled, grabbing a scarf; even with the sun out, it was still winter, after all, and one had to keep warm and fashionable until it was time for the annual Winter Wrap-Up which she loved so much.

“Oh, Rarity!” she crowed, admiring herself. “You always did have an eye for fashion, you lovely mare!” She giggled and, horn lighting up, swung the door open. Bracing herself against a shiver, Rarity stepped out into the chilly night air, the door closing with a click behind her.

As much fun as she tended to have at these things, the amount of tension between herself and Applejack made them quite stressful as well. Applejack always wanted to participate in something uncouth, like a pillow fight or—ugh—‘wrasslin’’, as she liked to call it; the white unicorn wanted no part of such things. She never could understand the pony’s brutish ways, and she didn’t much care to, either.

Tonight, however, promised to be extra fun—or so Rarity could dimly recall Twilight saying. The purple mare had said that she wanted Applejack and Rarity to help her practice a few spells she was trying to learn. It was an unusual request—normally Twilight was the sort of pony who preferred to practice her spells on her own. Why she would need the help of two other ponies was beyond Rarity, but because she asked, Rarity was of course willing to lend a hoof.

Rarity, lost in her thoughts, soon found herself at the entrance of the library. A cold breeze blew through her mane, and she shivered, quickly giving the door a few raps. A few moments passed in silence, but soon she heard muffled voices from within, and the door locks clicked, allowing the wooden slab to swing open, revealing Twilight’s smiling face.

“Rarity!” she said, stepping aside to usher the white unicorn in. “You made it! And you’re early, even!” Rarity tucked an errant bit of her mane back over her shoulder, smiling as she walked past Twilight.

“While there is such a thing as being fashionably late for parties, I would have felt just awful if I would’ve shown up late, darling.” Spying Applejack, who had obviously only arrived a few minutes ago—she was still hanging up her hat and getting settled in—Rarity waved. “Applejack, so good to see you again!”

The orange pony looked up from where she was arranging pillows and grinned, sitting down on one. “Rarity! Nice seeing you again, too! I wondered where you were.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, looking back and forth between the two ponies. “I think I’m lost,” she said. “Did you two meet up before you came over here?”

Rarity nodded. “Applejack was kind enough to stop by my boutique and remind me of the sleepover; I’ve been very busy making dresses for the Gala—and not only for us this time—and I’m afraid I simply lost track of time, not to mention forgetting about your party. I’m terribly sorry, Twilight.” The purple unicorn shook her head, smiling.

“It’s no problem, Rarity,” she said, levitating a book onto the stack of pillows Applejack had laid out for her. “What matters is that you’re here now, and we can get started on our fun! I put Spike to bed an hour or so ago, so we should be ready.” Rarity had to giggle at her friend; even after several sleepovers, the purple mare wasn’t accustomed to having guests over. She was a lot better about it now than she had been, but the naivety was still very much there.

“I been looking forward to this, actually,” came Applejack’s voice. “Sweet Apple Acres has been real hard at work making apple treats for the Gala. It’s gonna be nice to just relax with y’all for a bit.” Twilight wasn’t the only one who had changed; Applejack had, just as Rarity had, realized that work wasn’t everything, and that your friends were always there to take the edge off when you needed them.

And Applejack was not lying when she said the Apple family had been hard at work. For the last few weeks, Granny Smith had constantly been in the kitchen, baking trademark Sweet Apple Pies and Apple Crumbles for the Gala. Big Mac had been out in the fields with Applejack every day, helping her buck the trees in anticipation of the treats they would be used to make. Even Apple Bloom had been helping out—no doubt because she thought it would help earn her cutie mark—by bringing lemonade out to the applebuckers and helping Granny Smith with her cooking.

Or at least, that’s what Rarity had heard from the earth pony. In fact, it seemed everypony she knew was terribly busy preparing for the Gala. Pinkie had been busily planning how “the best party in Equestria” would play out this year, and apparently hoping it would really be more like a party this time. Rainbow Dash had been practicing a routine for the Wonderbolts, and Fluttershy would be providing the music this year, so she and her animal chorus were quite occupied as well.

“So, Twilight.” Applejack’s voice broke Rarity from her thoughts. “What’s all this about you needin’ Rarity and me to help you practice a spell? What kinda spell is it?” The purple unicorn smiled.

“I was wondering when you might ask me that!” she said, magically flipping through the books he had set down earlier. “It’s actually something I discovered in this book.” When both ponies cocked an eyebrow, Twilight elaborated. “It’s a teleportation spell. Should be pretty useful for getting myself and you guys around town when we need to get somewhere fast.”

“Uh, Twilight?” interrupted Applejack. “Beg pardon, but can’t you already teleport around? You were doin’ it when I was having trouble with the apples that first year you came to town.”

Twilight nodded. “Yes, Applejack, but that spell only works over a very short distance. This spell is a lot more powerful by comparison, and I think my magic has developed enough to handle it. Seemingly satisfied, Applejack sat back.

“Twilight, I don’t mean to sound, err...mistrustful of your abilities,” Rarity said, peering at what she could see of the book, “but I have heard that such spells are incredibly difficult to even attempt, let alone use correctly. There are…stories about what can happen when a spell like this is cast incorrectly.”

Twilight shook her head. “Rarity, I’ve been tirelessly practicing my magic under Princess Celestia’s guidance. If I wasn’t able to do this spell, she would have told me so in the last response I got from her.” When Rarity gave her a confused look, she continued. “I already cleared this with her. She’s totally confident in me. All it’ll take is concentration on my part--and yours.

Rarity still wasn’t comfortable with the whole thing, but she nodded. “Very well, Twilight. If the Princess herself trusts in your magical abilities, then so do I. Just tell us what to do.” Applejack nodded in agreement, standing next to Rarity.

“I just need you two to stay right there while I charge the spell,” Twilight said, placing a hoof on the book as her horn began to glow steadily. Rarity bit her lip, turning to whisper to Applejack.

“Applejack,” she said, “are you sure this a good idea? I mean, I don’t want to sound like a wet blanket, or a bad friend, but if something goes wrong…” She gulped.

Applejack smiled reassuringly. “Rarity, there ain’t nothing to be afraid of. Twilight’s Princess Celestia’s number-one student and, like she said, the Princess told her she could pull it off. I’m bettin’ everything’s gonna be just fine. Don’t be fussy about it.”

“I suppose you’re right, Applejack,” Rarity said, relaxing for a moment, allowing the first waves of relaxation to hit her since she’d woken up this morning. She watched Twilight’s horn glow, and was comforted by how in control the mare looked.

And that was when Twilight’s horn let off a spark and a very unsettling crackle.

Rarity’s eyes widened a little, and she turned back to Applejack. “I’m sorry, I know I said I was okay earlier, but those sparks are beginning to scare me. I really don’t think this is a good idea, Applejack.”

The earth pony turned to Rarity, her eyes narrowed slightly. “Rarity, I told ya it’s gonna be fine. Quit bein’ so worrisome.”

“But Applejack!” Rarity whispered, her tone urgent, “I’ve seen things like this before! Please, you have to listen to me!”

“Rarity, quit your fussin’ and stop bein’ so huffy, for Celestia’s sake, and the sake of my ears!” Applejack shot back, clearly quite annoyed with the unicorn.

“I am not being huffy!” the designer hissed, “I am just worried about my own well-being! I realize that, being raised like an animal, your instincts for self-preservation might be stunted, but I am not going to--”

“Aw, shut it!” Applejack hissed back. “You’re gonna upset Twilight if she hears you. And for your information, animals have better instincts than ponies do, so don’t go shootin’ your mouth off half-cocked.” Rarity’s eyes were ablaze with anger now, and she began to shout.


“Applejack, you are such an insufferable ingrate!” she cried, not noticing the magical glow around herself and her enemy. The earth pony was equally livid, and responded in kind.

“Well you’re just a fuddy-duddy fussybritches!” she yelled, butting heads with the unicorn, careful to avoid the sharp horn.

The shouting match continued for a few minutes, and it was quickly wearing Twilight’s nerves down--she could hardly concentrate with the two of them going at it! Her mind was scrambling, and she couldn’t think of a place to send the two bickering mares, other than away from herself, wherever that may be. Her horn sparked unnaturally, as though it were shorting out. This wasn’t good.


The two ponies stopped shouting for a moment, merely growling at each other, heads squished together. Finally, they both spoke up at the same time. “Well, you’re just an immature little--”

And then they were both gone, leaving only slight scorch marks on the ground.

“Oh no...” Twilight said, her voice small for a moment, “Oh no, no no no no no no! Spike, help! You’ve gotta help!”

The little dragon came down from the loft of the library, rubbing at his eyes groggily. “What happened, Twilight? Didja drop a book out the window or something?”

Twilight glared at her assistant. “Spike, this is no time for jokes! I just teleported Rarity and Applejack and I don’t know where they went!” Spike’s eyes went wide.

What?!” he practically screamed, the last vestiges of sleepiness leaving him at the mention of Rarity being in danger. “We gotta do something! Rarity’s in trouble!” When Twilight raised an eyebrow at him, Spike blushed and added. “Applejack too, of course. We gotta save them!”

Twilight shook her head. “Spike, we can’t exactly save them if we have no idea where they went! Oh, this is terrible! Princess Celestia’s going to be so disappointed, and Rarity and AJ will...who knows?! I could get banished for this!”

Spike was already on the book-ladder, rooting through the dusty old volumes. “Maybe there’s, like, a ‘return’ spell or something in here we can use to bring them back!”

Twilight gasped, running over to the shelves to join the search. “You’re right, Spike, that’s a great idea! If we can locate a return spell, maybe I can bring them back!” So the two tossed book after book aside, Spike hoping to reclaim his love, Twilight hoping to reclaim her friends.

Meanwhile, in a distant land, far across the mountains of Equestria, beyond the muddy Foggy Bottom Bog, and even past the capital city of Canterlot, Applejack and Rarity were just realizing what had happened.

Neither one knew exactly where they were at. It looked like a massive, dusty expanse of desert, with the sun dimly cutting through the layers of sand in the air. There was almost nothing around for miles, save lonely cacti. The earth beneath the two ponies’ hooves was cracked and worn by the lack of rain and constant sand blowing around. In the distance, mist-cloaked mountaintops peered down at the pair of ponies forbiddingly.

“Uh, Rarity?” Applejack asked, her voice abnormally meek. “You, uh…wouldn’t happen to know where we are, wouldja?”

Rarity was silent for a few minutes, but finally responded, “No. No idea at all, Applejack.” Her mind felt as empty as the desert around them.

“I reckon this means you were right,” she said, “‘bout Twilight and all. Good call, I guess.” Rarity’s tone remained even as she responded.


“Thank you. I thought this might happen.”

With that, everything around the pair settled into deathly silence, save the sound of the wind whistling through the air and the sand.


Strange Bedfellows, Chapter 2

It had only been a few hours, but as the sun continued to bear down on Applejack and her companion, Rarity, it began to feel like days had gone by—how much could there possibly be of this confounded desert, anyway? Upon realizing that the two of them were really stuck out here, all alone and with no idea of their location, the pair of ponies had decided to make for the mountains in the distance.

Rarity had complained a bit at first, wanting instead to search for a town, but Applejack had explained: getting onto a mountain, provided the caps weren’t excessively high, would allow them to see the surrounding countryside with relative ease. From there, it would be a simple downward trek to even ground, where they could begin the march to a city. Rarity had accepted the idea, impressed with the earth pony’s grasp on the situation.

“Applejack,” she said, surprise in her voice, “wherever did you learn such…well… survival skills?” The orange earth pony laughed, something she had not done in several hours.

“They ain’t fancy enough to be called that,” she responded, winking. “It’s just a couple of things I picked up from Big Mac when we used to get rowdy and run off.”

Rarity cocked an eyebrow. “Applejack!” she said, “Don’t tell me you were a troublemaker when you were a filly?” Applejack nodded, chuckling a little.

“I sure was,” she said, a dreamy look overcoming her eyes. “You wouldn’t think to look at us—the way Big Mac and I act now, responsible and all—but back then, we caused poor Granny Smith grief to no end.”

Rarity seemed quite shocked. “Applejack, I find that very hard to believe! You’re so…dutiful most of the time that I can’t even imagine you being hyper and getting into trouble.”

Applejack raised a hoof, pushing a few strands of loose hair back under the brim of her hat. “Believe it,” she said, lip curling back into a smirk. “But it’s not like we was trying to be bad. We were just curious, so we’d run off without permission and get into trouble.” Rarity giggled, not even noticing the desert around her anymore.

“That sounds a lot like me, actually,” she said, and when Applejack balked, she elaborated: “You see, I was a very curious child myself, and whenever the opportunity to make a new dress or design something for another pony arose, I was always eager to assist them—usually in ways which, to say the least, angered my parents."

“Uh, beg pardon, Rarity,” said Applejack, “but what sorta ‘assistance’ did you give these ponies, exactly?”

Rarity blushed, shaking her head. “Oh, I would do foolish little things: using father’s dyes—he was a tailor by trade, you see—to recolor other fillies’ dresses, using his sewing needles to craft new wardrobes for friends of mine...” She paused a moment, letting the information sink in. “They were never all that wonderful, really: patchwork designs, and I can’t count how many times my hair ended up bright red...” She smiled sheepishly. “You know. Little things.”

Applejack found herself laughing at Rarity’s story—this prim-and-proper mare used to get dirty with dyes? She used to make patchwork outfits and get her parents mad? The whole idea of it threw Applejack for a loop. “Well shoot, Rarity,” she said, “I guess there is a fun pony in there, somewhere.”

Rarity scowled, but a smile quickly overtook that, and she giggled. “Applejack, you give me too little credit; I’ve been known to ‘cut loose’ every now and again.” She shook her head. “Though, admittedly, I do it much less often these days—I have responsibilities to my clients, and you all as well. I have to fulfill those expectations in order to keep my business, and keep my friends.”

Applejack was beginning to tire of being serious—the situation they were in was serious enough without talking about such things. “Would ya like to hear a story about me and Big Mac back when we was just kids? I got a million of ‘em.” Rarity nodded with genuine interest.

“Well, first thing that comes to mind is the time me and Mac decided to see what the Everfree Forest was really like—we’d heard all kinds of rumors about the place, and eventually curiosity got the better of us.” Applejack chuckled, not noticing that the mountains were closer than ever now. “See, the weather ponies were just startin’ up a big storm when we went to the woods—we figured Granny’d think we were out playing in the mud or something. We used to do that a lot, too.”

“Applejack!” Rarity said. “You went out into the Everfree Forest? Alone?” The orange mare nodded. “Why, I can’t even imagine such a thing! It’s so dark and weren’t scared?” Applejack chuckled as a plume of dust welled from the cracked desert floor, collecting along the brim of her hat.

“Well sure we was,” she replied, “but we were too curious to just quit right there and then. Me a little more so than Big Macintosh—he came along with me, and sure he was wantin’ to find out and all, but I think he was just keepin’ an eye on me. Makin’ sure I actually came home at the end of the day.”

Rarity nodded. “Sweetie Belle may be much younger than me, but I’ve watched out for her in the same way for a number of years now. In any case, what did you find, Applejack?”

Applejack shook her head. “Nothin’ interesting, really. Big Mac and me got all excited about going into the forbidden Everfree Forest...and all we found was a bunch of trees and a couple plants we’d never seen before. ‘Course that was only our first time goin’ into the forest. Turned out to be so boring that we went back in a few more times tryin’ to see if there was actually anything neat in there.” A tumbleweed rolled past the pair, coming to rest against a cactus.

Rarity found that, as she listened, Applejack became more endearing to her—not only were her stories killing time in this horrible desert, but they were actually entertaining! She wasn’t sure how long this newfound truce would last, but for the moment she was enjoying it. She never liked fighting with Applejack, but they butted heads so much that it seemed like fighting was all they did sometimes. They’d learned from each other over the past year, but they were still stubborn about the way things should be. “Well,” she asked, “did you and Big Macintosh discover anything more interesting on your other trips?”

“Sure did,” Applejack replied. “When we started goin’ back, we found all kinds of stuff! Big birds’ nests, caves with all kinds of neat rocks in ‘em; and one time we went out and found a big bed of Poison Joke! Oh, that was a funny one. Big Mac started touchin’ ‘em, even when I told him not to, and he came back to the farm actin’ riled up and mad as all get-out. Whoo boy, I’ve never heard such language! Granny Smith ended up groundin’ him for it!” Rarity giggled, but cleared her throat and spoke up.

“Applejack, dear,” she said, “excuse me for asking, but why didn’t you recognize the Poison Joke when all of us were afflicted by it? After all, you must have seen it before, considering your brother was affected by it so profoundly.”

Applejack nodded. “You’d think so,” she said, “but it’d been a long time since I’d seen it, and my memory isn’t really all that great; when I heard the name, I kinda remembered what it was, but I wasn’t sure whether it was the same type of plant that’d messed up my brother’s attitude so much.” Rarity nodded.

“That’s understandable, I suppose,” she said, smiling. “I'm just glad we were able to get out of that situation with our pride intact—my hair looked so awful!”

Applejack snorted good-naturedly. “Says you!” she said. “All you had to deal with was a bad hair day; I got shrunk down to the size of a pea! If I recall correctly, y’all thought one of you’d sat on me! Now that woulda been a pretty embarrassing way to go, I tell ya.” The orange mare paused a moment, then shuddered. “Not to mention some of the other things that happened. I can still remember the way Apple Bloom looked down at me, like she was fixin’ to crush me underhoof or somethin’.” Applejack chuckled. “And I still remember havin’ to shake Dash’s spit outta my coat. Yuck!” The earth pony stuck her tongue out.

Rarity let out a small giggle. “Applejack, we’ve only known each other for a year, and the things we’ve done...” She smiled, a dreamy look coming over her. “I swear we could write a novel all about it. Fate seems to have a way of throwing us into these situations, does it not?” When Applejack raised an eyebrow, Rarity elaborated: “Well, what I mean is that you don’t hear about many ponies dealing with the sorts of things we have, you know? Sure, Berry Punch and her filly may throw a botched birthday party, or Lyra and Bon Bon may get into a fight, but we’re truly the ones with the stories to tell, at the end of the day.”

“I think I see what ya mean,” Applejack agreed. Then, suddenly, she stopped. “But, uh, I think the storytelling can wait till a little later.” Her eyes were forward, and seemed to be full of wonderment. Rarity was confused.

“Why is that, darling?” she asked, looking forward as well. “I don't see why...why...oh my...” She trailed off, raising a hoof to push a lock of hair from her eyes for a better view.

Before the pair of ponies was a sight one could only describe as hauntingly beautiful. It seemed that, caught up in their talking, neither pony had noticed the change in scenery from a harsh, dusty desert, through a small cove of trees, into a sparkling, misted valley. This could only be the entrance point for the line of mountains they’d seen earlier—the first leg of their journey, it seemed, was already over.

There were high walls of rock flanking them, and the nature-carved stone glittered and glistened with a light veil of dew as the sun, muffled by the clouds of mist blanketing the quiet little area, touched gently along it, shining through the drops of water to turn them into beaming pearls, multifaceted rubies, and twinkling sapphires. Below their hooves, the grass held these wondrous natural jewels as well, the green strands coated from stem to root with the mystical dew.

In the distance, they could hear birdsong, the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, and even bits of the mountains breaking off to skip down the jagged, ancient cliffs, clacking to the ground below; all the sounds were coming together, bouncing back and forth like a ball propelled by an overexcited foal between the thick rock walls.

Through the mist, Rarity and Applejack could see trees lining either side of the valley, creating a path inward and upward; the ground abruptly sloped up, signaling a climb into the time-worn paths of the mountains proper. Small animals—squirrels and the like—scampered about in the trees, looking for food, or perhaps shelter against the humid environment the sun was creating as it cut holes in the fog.

“It’s...amazing...” Rarity said, breathless at the spectacle. “I’ve never seen anything like it...even around the most prestigious, high-class gardens of Canterlot...”

Applejack nodded in agreement, a gentle smile coming across her features. “It really is somethin’ to see, ain’t it?” She scraped her hooves on the ground, thickening the air with light clouds of dust. “I remember seeing something like it once before, actually, during one of me and Big Mac’s trips to the Everfree Forest. We was looking for somewhere to sit down for a bit, and it started raining, and the rain ended up makin’ the whole forest was amazing.”

Rarity nodded dumbly, the sparkling dew and mist reflecting in her eyes, making them glitter like sapphires. “It’s unlike anything...” she said. Applejack chuckled.

“Nothin’ like it anywhere,” she said. “That’s what makes seein’ it so great.” A bank of dark clouds loomed in the distance, over the mountaintops—the first sign of a storm. The earth pony shook her head and tapped Rarity with her hoof. “Hey, we probably oughta get goin’ soon, sugarcube. If we stay here too long, it’s likely we’re gonna get soaked.” Rarity inhaled slowly, and let out a dreamy sigh, nodding.

“I suppose so,” she said. “It wouldn’t do for us to be caught out in the elements with no protection, especially as bad as that storm looks. The weather ponies in this region must need quite a downpour to make up for something.”

Applejack shook her head. “I don’t think it’s weather ponies,” she said. “Mountains like this usually ain’t got ponies around; I’ve heard ponies sayin’ that in places like this, weather just kinda...happens.” Rarity began walking forward at this point, and Applejack kept up with her, their hooves kicking small showers of cool water.

“Just...‘happens?’” Rarity asked. “How could that be? Weather isn’t stable or useful unless weather ponies are controlling it.”

Applejack shrugged. “I’m just tellin’ ya what I heard,” she said. “Can’t tell ya whether it’s true or not. Maybe there are some weather ponies up in these mountains—there’s no tellin’ till we get up there, so I say we pick up the pace.” A howling wind ripped through the stillness, and Applejack started walking faster. “Before that falls on top of us. I’m willin’ to bet there’s a forest, or at least another bank of trees, up ahead, if the ones flankin’ us go further up.”

Rarity bit her lip. “Applejack,” she said, “are you sure about that? What if we get all the way up the mountain and, well...there’s nothing?” Applejack rolled her eyes.

“You’re thinkin’ too far ahead, sugarcube,” she said. “We just gotta get up this hill and see what’s up there. Then we can worry about how the rest of the mountain is.” Rarity still felt hesitant, but nodded, placing her hooves down on the curve of the hill.

“I’ll follow your lead then, dear,” she said, trying to sound confident. The grass was slick with dew, and it was hard to find purchase anywhere on the hillside— like trying to walk on water! The slope was also much steeper up close than it had looked far away—the hill was lying at a forty-five degree angle. Applejack wasn’t having much luck, but she was able to slowly begin ascending the mound.

“Watch your step, Rarity,” the earth pony said. “I wouldn’t want ya to take a spill or anything!” Rarity smiled and nodded.

“Don’t worry about me, Applejack!” she called, her tone cheerful. “I feel right as rain on this slope; nothing to worry about!” She was lying, of course, and as she used a small bank of rocks as hoofholds, she couldn’t help but think of how difficult this climb would be. She could get very messy if she wasn’t careful, and that just wouldn’t do.

Applejack felt her hooves trying to slip—the loose plants or rocks provided few hoofholds. Her chin kept impacting the grass and rocks as she fell over again and again. The earth pony, strong as she was, found the climb extremely hard—more so because of the slippery dew beneath her hooves. Even so, with a dark bruise forming under her chin, she was making slow progress—about halfway up—and that was what mattered.

Rarity, on the other hand, was growing more distressed by the moment—Applejack was getting further away, while she seemed to stay in the same spot. The white hair around her hooves was now stained a bright green, and she squeaked in disapproval. But if she fell behind now, she’d get separated from Applejack and swept up by the storm. Her muscles ached—she was using all her strength to avoid slipping—but any rest could cause her to go careening down again. She was a quarter of the way up—no stopping now.

Applejack saw that Rarity was lagging behind—she was laboring to get up the hillside, her eyes shut tight as she strained and puffed, sparks of stress flitting from her horn. “You alright down there, Rarity?” she called, stopping briefly. “Y’need me to wait on you a bit?”

Rarity knew Applejack wasn’t trying to be inflammatory, but the comment still stung, and she responded, “No, Applejack, I’m perfectly fine, but thank you!” It was a lie, but the unicorn was blinded by her pride—she didn’t want to appear weak in front of Applejack, especially not after what had happened at that first sleepover of Twilight’s. Rarity struggled along, forcing herself to continue despite the increasing amount of mud as she scaled further up.

Applejack was now near the crest of the hill—this area was much rockier, and she had to take extra care. Her hooves made small squelching noises as she advanced up the soft ground; the rocks, unless they were flat or grouped together, were the worst—there was no way to get any traction, and slipping meant another bruise to add to the collection. But Applejack could see she was nearly there, and not a moment too soon—the wind was picking up.

“Rarity!” Applejack yelled, her hooves coming over the crest, where she could dig them in, “hurry! It’s not gonna be much longer before the storm’s on top of us!” Rarity was only three-fifths of the way up. Her shoulders and flanks burned, as did her lungs—her breaths were coming short, her lungs squished against the hillside. A gust of wind shot forth, sending the unicorn’s hair flying all about and threatening to blow her straight down. Rarity dug her hooves in, gritting her teeth and shutting her eyes.

“C’mon, Rarity!” Applejack hollered. “You can’t give up now! C’mon, get up here!” The wind was whipping around, and the earth pony had to hold her hat as she reached the crest, hauling herself up with a sigh of relief. She was worried for Rarity, though—if she wasn’t able to make it up the hill, they’d be separated, and that might get one of them killed in this unfamiliar territory.

“I hear you, Applejack!” Rarity screamed, wrenching her hoof into a collection of rocks so as to haul herself onto the final curve. It wasn’t a question of whether she could do it or not—at this point, it was that she simply had to. Her hooves were becoming inflamed and nicked, but she pressed on. Finally, as the first few drops of rain splashed down into the grass, Rarity crested the hill, digging her hooves into the side.

“There—see Applejack?” she said, smiling. “I’m perfectly fine. Now let me just—waugh!” As Rarity spoke, she tried to find a hoofhold and pull herself up, but her pained hooves clonked off a rock, causing Rarity to lose her balance and slip, crying out as she flipped head over heels.

Applejack acted fast—she dove forward, the air knocked out of her as she collided with the curve of the hill. Winded, she reached out with her hooves, snatching Rarity by her back legs. The unicorn gave a cry of pain as the strained ligaments and muscles stretched out fully.

“Sorry, sugarcube,” Applejack said, “but you’ll thank me for this later, I promise.” With that, she pulled on Rarity’s legs, dragging the pony back up the hillside. When Rarity flopped onto level ground, her white coat now patchy with grass stains, Applejack whirled around, looking behind them. Sure enough, there seemed to be a good-sized bank of trees ahead; Applejack tapped Rarity’s stomach to get her attention. “Rarity, get up, please,” she said. “We can take cover under those trees over there.”

The tap made Rarity jump, and spread prickly heat throughout her stomach, which made her shudder as she righted herself. “Sorry,” she said, trotting with her friend into the forest ahead.

The ponies walked for about an hour, huddled under the trees, tired and unhappy, before they decided it was bedtime. The ground had muddied fast, and Rarity flat-out refused to lay in the thick filth. “I will do no such thing!” she cried, “especially not with so many useable materials around to make a bed!” It seemed that, despite the exhausting climb up the hill, Rarity was still very much Rarity.

“‘Useable materials?’” Applejack replied. “Rarity, we’re in a dang forest! What the hay are ya gonna use to make a bed out here?”

Rarity giggled, her horn lighting up as she dragged a few leaves from the trees. “Applejack, when you have the eye of a designer, all materials are useable. Perhaps there are no goose feathers or any such things here, but give me thirty minutes and we will have ourselves a pair of beds.” She smiled, but it faded into a glower when a wayward drop of rain plunked onto her nose.

Rarity wasted no time getting to work—she tore leaf after leaf from the surrounding trees, arranging them in layers on the muddy ground. They were flimsy, and would sink a little in the mud, but they were better than nothing. When they were all arranged, the unicorn slipped a few layers of moss and lichen in between the leaves to provide padding. She had to hold the bed in place magically, as there was nothing to anchor it, and the wind was still high. The fashionista tore more moss from the trees, all of it coming together on top of the bed to form a grassy blanket.

“Shoot, Rarity!” Applejack said, whistling. “You sure do know how to put something together!”

Rarity giggled, nodding at the bed. “I’ve read about this sort of thing somewhere before. I believe it was in a magazine, an issue on home couture when nature was a necessary element. These beds are standard, though they are normally sewn together, you see.” Rarity was quite proud of herself for remembering the design off the top of her head. “Go ahead, lie down. I’ll get started on mine.”

Applejack did just that, getting under the mossy blanket and hooking her hooves around to hold it together and keep herself warm. The earth pony gave a small moan of happiness. “This feels amazin’, Rarity!” she said. “It ain’t a real bed, but boy does it feel good after that climb!” Rarity smiled.

“I’m glad you like it, Applejack,” she replied. “These should serve us well tonight.” Her own bed was nearly finished, and she went silent for the final touches.

When she was done, she kept her back to her friend.  “Applejack, I’m...well, sorry about what happened at Twilight’s house earlier. I acted rather silly, and it was wrong of me.” She waited a moment, but no reply. “AJ, dear, if you’re still angry, please tell me; I’d rather not be left in the dark.” When still no answer came, Rarity glared, her eyes twinkling with rage as she spun around. “Applejack!” she shouted, “I can’t believe you would be so rude as to…to...”

Rarity trailed off when she saw that Applejack had fallen asleep, her chest slowly falling and rising. Rarity let a smile spread across her face, her eyes softening greatly. Applejack had worked herself harder than she’d let on. The white unicorn lay down on her own bed, snuggling into the moss—the cozy, earthy smell was quite soothing, and she could feel her knotted muscles relaxing. It hardly took any time at all for her to fall asleep, her breathing matching Applejack’s.


Strange Bedfellows, Chapter 3

Rarity woke far too early for her tastes. The sun rose over the horizon, cutting through the green canopy of trees above, and its light forced her awake. Rarity huffed and sat up, looking over at Applejack. The orange pony was still slumbering away, not bothered by the first light of day. Rarity wanted to go back to sleep—to forget that they were stranded out here in the middle of nowhere—but she knew that there were much more important things at hoof.

“Applejack,” she said, leaning over to gently shake her friend’s shoulder, “Applejack, wake up! It’s morning; we need to get going.” Applejack stirred quickly, jackknifing up.

“Aw hay!” she shouted, rousing a few birds from where they’d been dozing in the trees. “I ain’t slept that long in...well...ever! Dang, how early is it?”

Rarity giggled. “Calm down, Applejack—it’s only dawn. Normally I’d be up a few hours after dawn, but we must have gone to sleep much earlier than we thought.” Applejack nodded.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s a good thing too—no tellin’ what might be out here. It’s probably best if we get moving before anything has the chance to show up.”

“Right,” Rarity said. She looked nervously into the deep forest. “How far do you think this stretches for?” Applejack cocked an eyebrow, her green eyes scanning the hazy forest floor.

“Hard tellin’,” she said. “But there ain’t no sense in sittin’ around wondering—if we’re gonna reach the peaks of these mountains, we need to get movin’.” The two began walking forward, though Rarity was a tad hesitant.

“Applejack,” she said, “if there is, well, no telling what might be in here, who’s to say there isn’t a manticore or something worse lurking in a cave somewhere nearby?”

Applejack chuckled. “Rarity, don’t get spun up about stuff like that. This forest ain’t given us a reason to worry—not yet at least—and if there is something nasty somewhere around here, it ain’t gonna go away because we’re scared of it.” Rarity nodded, stepping away from a low-hanging branch.

“I suppose,” she said, and they both were silent for a few moments, the walls of trees on either side seeming to go on forever. The sun beat down on them, cutting through the mist with a harsh, unforgiving light, making the entire area humid and uncomfortable. Applejack could feel beads of sweat collecting on her forehead and beginning to slide down her face—she reached up with a hoof and wiped away the offending beads, glaring up through the canopy of trees at the shining sun.

Rarity could feel the grass stains on her back and hooves moistening with the humidity, as well as her mane frizzing out. The fashionista gave a small sigh of dismay, knowing she couldn’t stop to fix her poor hair. The forest around them smelled earthy—like fresh-cut grass—and, combined with the humidity, Rarity could feel her pace beginning to slow.

“Rarity, don’t be draggin’ your flanks,” Applejack said. “If you can’t keep up, we’re never gonna reach the peaks!” The white unicorn frowned, trying to drag herself along faster.

“Applejack, please,” she said, “you know as well as I do that my body is not as conditioned as yours. We may just need to go a little more slowly. After all, it’s sunny out and there doesn’t seem to be much danger around—I think we can afford to take it slow, at least for an hour or two. This heat is making me faint.”

Applejack opened her mouth as if to rebut, but stopped. “You’re right, I guess,” she said. “Let’s take things slower for a couple hours; we should also try and find a lake or somethin’. I’m fixin’ to die of thirst over here.” Rarity nodded.

“I’m parched as well,” she said. “We must find something to drink, and soon, or else we might both pass out.” Though they now had a clear goal, it didn’t seem easy to accomplish—all around them was nothing but trees, with no way of seeing past them. Even if there was a lake nearby, there was no telling what would be living in it—lake-dwelling monsters like hydras tended to take up residence in mountain lakes. But even with the danger, neither pony could last much longer without something to drink.

Applejack looked around, the sheer size of the forest beginning to weigh on her mind: the trees were all ancient—and of a species she’d never seen before—the branches were gnarled and dripped with the heavy moisture in the air, and the leaves weren’t spear-shaped like the majority of local Equestrian flora. Wherever they were, it was definitely a long way from home.

But at least Rarity hadn’t been complaining as much as Applejack thought she would. Despite the mud and twigs in her hair, the grass stains encircling her hooves, and the long green-and-brown streak on her back, Rarity hadn’t said one word about how dirty she was getting—Applejack actually found herself impressed.

“Applejack,” Rarity said, breaking the earth pony from her thoughts, “you never told me about your parents, you know. I’d like to hear about them.” Rarity smiled genuinely, but Applejack frowned.

“Is now really the time, sugarcube?” she asked, nodding to indicate the landscape around them. “‘Sides, I ain’t all that inclined to tell anypony about my parents, even if y’are bored.”

Rarity was taken aback. “Applejack,” she said, ducking to avoid a low branch, “we’re going to have nothing to do for the next few hours! I don’t see what’s so wrong with telling each other stories. We did it in the desert, after all.”

Applejack sighed, looking over at the unicorn. “Look, Rarity,” she said, “I’m an honest pony, so I’ll level with ya. I ain’t tellin’ nopony about me and my parents. It ain’t a story worth tellin’ anyhow.” The farmer chuckled. “‘Sides, it’d probably bore you worse than just walkin’ around quietly.”

“If you say so, Applejack,” Rarity said with a sigh of concession. “But isn’t there anything you are willing to talk about right now?”

Applejack shook her head. “I ain’t much in the mood for storytelling when my mouth is so dry, Rarity,” she said, giving the unicorn a look.

Rarity bit her lip for a moment, then smiled. “Yes, you’re right, Applejack—it’d be silly of us to expend all of our fleeting energy talking about things that are so...trivial.” Rarity had to force the word out. She was upset that Applejack had shot her down.

The two continued on in silence for a few more minutes, Rarity’s mind swimming with questions. First of all, where in Equestria were they? For that matter, were they even in Equestria anymore? This could easily be one of the neighboring kingdoms which surrounded Equestria—if that were the case, it could take months of traveling to get back to Ponyville! Rarity had always been a bit of a thought-spinner, and with this prospect at hoof, she quickly found herself worrying a lock of her mane with her mouth—the poor, disheveled thing was already limp and hanging over one of her eyes.

What if the place they’d been zapped to was so foreign that nopony even knew it existed? What if all there was to find out here was a bunch of grass, dirt, and rocks? Rarity’s eyes darted around, looking at the walls of unfamiliar trees with distaste. What if they never found their way home, and had to live out here, in the wild, for the rest of their days? The thought made Rarity sick, and the feeling was made worse by what followed: What if they never got to seen any of their friends again?

Rarity didn’t want to bother Applejack with such childish concerns—the earth pony was probably thinking up a way to get them out of this—but she knew if she kept silent, she would dwell on it. “Applejack,” she said, frowning when her friend turned around with an annoyed look.

“What’s up, Rarity?” Applejack said, cocking an eyebrow. The unicorn swallowed softly, looking up at the sky. She squinted as light struck her eyes.

“Well, I’ve been wondering...” Rarity said, flinching as a drop of dew fell from a tree and plopped on her nose, “what if we never find our way back to Ponyville? What if we never see Dash and Twilight and Pinkie and Fluttershy again?” Rarity expected reprimand for getting so spun up, so she was surprised when Applejack sighed, shaking her head.

“I was just thinkin’ the same thing, actually,” she replied. “I’m hopin’ against hope that we can see Ponyville from the peaks. If we can’t, then we’re just gonna have to head to the nearest town and try to get everything sorted out from there. Without the rest of the gang, of course.” Rarity’s lower lip trembled.

“Applejack,” she said, “forgive me if I’m incorrect in assuming this, but you don’t seem fazed at all by the prospect of us never seeing our friends again! What will we do if we can’t get home? Just find a new village, settle down and try to forget everything?!”

Applejack wheeled around, her jaw set hard. “Rarity,” she said, “I’m just as worried about all that mess as you are, alright? I’ve just got the good sense not to talk about it, because I know all it’s gonna do is depress me. Now, enough fussin’, alright? It’s gettin’ mighty old, mighty fast.”

Rarity sighed. “Right, right,” she said, “I’m sorry, AJ. It’s just...well...I’ve always been a bit of a worrywart, even if I don’t show it on the outside much.”

Applejack chuckled, deadpanning, “Naw, really?’ She gave Rarity a good-natured smile and a wink, and the unicorn brightened.

“In any case,” Rarity said, stepping over a fallen tree branch, “I’m sorry if I was being a little...annoying.” Applejack shook her head, smiling at her friend.

“Rarity,” she said, “you and me don’t always line up, and sure you’re annoyin’ and all sometimes, but trust me, I ain’t gonna buck your head sideways just yet.”

Rarity giggled, playing along with the joke. “Applejack!” she cried. “How barbaric! Why, if you bucked my head sideways, I would have to give you quite a talking-to!”

The earth pony recoiled in mock horror. “I think I’d rather prance around town in a dress than listen to you talk about bein’ proper and not gettin’ into fights with other ponies! After all, I am a ‘brute’ if you’re to be believed! A dress’d make me a right ‘n proper pony!” The two ponies were tittering now, and Rarity had to force her joke out.

“Well, it’d suit the situation quite well—we’re already stuck out here, why not just swap roles? I’ll be the ‘ornery’ one, and you can be the fussy fuddy-duddy!” The two of them broke out laughing full-force; Applejack even fell over and began rolling on the ground, clutching her hooves to her stomach to try and catch a few breaths.

She wiped a few tears of mirth from her eyes, looking up at Rarity with a smile. “Boy, Rarity,” she said, “I think that’s just what we needed—a few good laughs to make everything seem a little better.” When she looked up at Rarity however, the unicorn was looking past her, shock on her face. “Rarity,” Applejack said, concerned, “you alright?”

Rarity simply raised a hoof to point east. “W...water...” she said softly, and Applejack whirled around.

Sure enough, there it was: a massive, misted lake, full of sparkling, fresh water just begging to be drunk. The crystal clear fluid shifted back and forth with the currents of the wind, forming miniscule waves along the otherwise-calm surface. Along the outer ring of the lake, lush vegetation grew in force, though neither of the ponies could recognize the plants exactly.

“Water!” Applejack cried. “Aw hay, I’ve been dyin’ of thirst! I can’t wait to get a drink!” She took off toward the lake at a strong gallop, Rarity following her silently at a trot. Had it just been Rarity’s imagination, or had she seen the water bubble?

Strange Bedfellows, Chapter 4

Rarity and Applejack had greatly enjoyed what the lake had to offer—the water was crisp, clear, and tasted absolutely divine! It was like drinking from a pool of pure delight to the two parched ponies. The vegetation growing along the shoreline was lush and flavorful, even by the standards that both ponies were used to. They ate and drank their fill, Rarity forgetting all about the bubbling she’d seen the lake doing earlier. In fact, she’d even forgotten about the predicament they were in—the food and water allowed her to drift into bliss. When they’d both finished, Applejack smiled over at Rarity.

“Boy, Rarity,” she said, “I’m sure glad you spotted this little lake—I was fixin’ to faint there for a few minutes.” Rarity took a short drink from the lake, sighing with pleasure.

“It was quite a find, wasn’t it?” she said. “I feel better than I have in ages!” The unicorn looked down at the water, rolling her neck. “Honestly, my muscles could do with some unknotting—since there’s no spa around, I suppose sitting in the lake for a bit will have to suffice.” She giggled. “It’ll be relaxing, if nothing else.”

Applejack gave her a look. “Sugarcube,” she said, “you sure relaxing’s what we wanna be doing right about now? We’ve still got a long way to go before we hit the peaks, y’know, and I’d like to get moving.”

Rarity pouted. “Applejack,” she said, “It doesn’t hurt anypony to take a few minutes out and relax. Pleeeeease? I promise you’ll enjoy it!” She gave Applejack her patented puppy-dog eyes, quivering her bottom lip.

Applejack faltered, looking between Rarity and the lake, before finally giving a sigh and smiling. “Your darn eyes,” she said. “It’s no wonder everypony in Ponyville talks about ‘em being irresistible.”  She paused, then chuckled. “I mean, y’know, in a begging kinda way.” The two ponies laughed, forced and awkward.

Rarity was the first to get in, and was amazed by how good the cool water felt on her tired muscles. She dipped her hair into the water, running her hooves along it a few times to try and knock out the dirt and grass that had been tangled in it. She could feel the dirt clumps in her fur being lifted out, and the grass stains disappearing. It made Rarity happier than ever to know she was slowly working her way back towards her famed perfect appearance.

Applejack was impressed by the feeling too—her muscles, though more conditioned than Rarity’s, tensed up at first, but once she’d gotten used to the cold, the feeling of them unknotting was really quite soothing. She reached back and undid the hair band holding her ponytail together, letting her long, frazzled locks of blond hair seep out along the water, clumps of dirt unlatching themselves. The earth pony removed her hat as well, not wanting to get it wet.

“Applejack,” Rarity said, her eyes shut in bliss.

“Yeah?” Applejack responded.

“I wanted to apologize if I’ve been, well…less-than-helpful thus far in our ordeal. I know it’s been very stressful for both of us, and I’ve just been bombarding you with my concerns the entire time. I’m sure it hasn’t helped much.”

Applejack shook her head. “Rarity,” she said, “you ain’t always been helpful, that much is true. When we first got to the desert, you whined about how the dust was gonna mess up your mane. When we climbed that hill, you lagged behind and almost got yourself hurt.” Rarity bit her lip, stung by her friend’s honesty. “But,” Applejack continued, “having you around is a lot better than bein’ out here by myself. Without you I woulda had to sleep in the mud last night. Plus you’re just saying the same stuff I’m thinkin’. If you want the honest truth, I’m worried about all this too—I just ain’t sayin’ it.”

Rarity was relieved, and moved closer to Applejack, wrapping her front hooves around her. “Oh, Applejack!” she said, giggling. “Without you I might have been seriously hurt on that hill, and I might not have even gotten past the desert—I’m glad you’re with me as well.” She smiled. “Give me just one more moment to wash my mane out and we’ll be off—like you said, we still have a good deal of ground to cover.” She ducked her head under the water, disappearing from sight.

Applejack leaned against the shore of the lake, letting out a yawn, and closed her eyes for a moment. A hot tongue brushed her legs, and she immediately scrambled backwards onto the shore, glaring down at the water. “Rarity!” she said, “This ain’t the time for any kind of foolin’ around!” Her cheeks grew hot. “Especially not that kind!”

Rarity rose from the water with a splash, confusion on her face. “Applejack, dear,” she said, “what are you talking about? I am most certainly not fooling around—I’m trying to clean my mane.”

Applejack wasn’t convinced. “Don’t try and be cute with me!” she snapped. “You were licking my legs!”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Applejack, I did no such thing!” she said, trying to keep herself from giggling. “That’s just silly. You must realize that.”

Applejack’s gaze softened. “Well, something was treatin’ me like a popsicle and I don’t much appreciate it. Though, uh…if it wasn’t you, then who was it?”

Rarity paused, pretending to let the dramatic tension sink in, then giggled. “Oh, Applejack,” she said, unaware of a bubbling behind her, “I’m sure you were just imagining it. This isn’t a horror show, you know—it’s not as though some horrible creature is going to rise out of the water behind me.” Just as she finished talking, a massive, five-headed hydra erupted from the water behind her, each of its glistening maws opened wide.

Applejack’s eyes went wide, and it felt like her heart would stop. “ might wanna rethink that, Rarity,” she said, raising a hoof to indicate the awful beast.

Rarity wheeled around and screamed at the sight of the massive, five-headed reptile leering down at her, each of its mouths slavering. She wanted to faint—her vision was blurring—but she knew if she did, she and Applejack would both die.

“Rarity, run!” came Applejack’s voice, snapping Rarity out of her stupor. The earth pony tried to shout again, but was drowned out by the hydra’s angry roar. The pair bolted as fast as they could, all the sounds around them drowned out by the blood pounding in their ears. They hurried to the cover of the forest.

Applejack had seen a hydra before—in fact, the whole group had, at Foggy Bottom Bog—but this one was much bigger, and much meaner-looking. Its eyes were a thick shade of yellow, and its skin was midnight blue. The first hydra had been, in a way, almost cute, with little teeth jutting out from its lips; this hydra had rows and rows of glinting, razor-sharp, murderous teeth. Its two tails whipped back and forth as it chased the two ponies, slamming into trees and scattering them like bowling pins. Every time its feet smashed into the ground, its thick yellow claws dug into the dirt, leaving ugly rake marks.

In short, it was a beast from any pony’s darkest nightmares.

Rarity could feel the ground vibrating underneath her as the hydra advanced, each footfall nearly sending her stumbling. The abomination slammed into the trees, snapping them in half—several pieces of bark thunked off of Rarity’s flanks and back, and she whined in pain, trying to keep pace with Applejack. Her lungs burned; it felt like the hydra had been chasing them forever! All she could see in front of her was more and more trees, along with Applejack, who was going full-tilt dodging the whippy branches above and tangling brambles underhoof.

Applejack could hardly see what was in front of her—every time the monster bellowed, her vision blurred and her heart hammered worse and worse in her chest, feeling like it would explode outwards. Her hat had fallen off in the chase, carried off by a wayward gust of wind, and now her hair, uncontained, fell into her eyes. The forest was beginning to thin out, and a gentle slope marked the edge of the woods. Light streamed onto Applejack’s face and blinded her as the pair of ponies left the forest. Her vision blurred as she tried to look at the terrain around them.

The forest emptied out into a mountain pass, covered in loamy, thick dirt, which spiraled upwards, deeper into the mountains. A highland, her brother might have called it. If her instincts were right, they could follow the trail to the peaks of the mountains.

The hydra roared in rage. Thinking the hydra had lost them, Applejack chanced a look backwards. She was only able to catch a glimpse of Rarity’s exhausted face before, with a yelp, she tripped on a rock, going head over heels into the dirt. She spat out a dirt clod and looked up. Her blood froze at the sight of the rampaging hydra as its five heads all snapped out, hoping to grab her up and make her a snack. Hazed by fear, Applejack froze where she lay, the hydra getting closer and closer…

“Applejack!” came Rarity’s voice, breaking the earth pony’s stupor. “Hurry!” Applejack scrambled to her feet, the loamy soil giving easily to her hooves, causing her to slip and slide all around. The hydra continued barreling toward her, letting out a chilling roar, knocking dust from the walls of the mountain pass. The earth pony, heart hammering in her chest, darted away, throwing herself full-tilt at the curving path just as the hydra’s jaws closed on the spot where she’d been seconds ago. The path was thin and bordered on both sides by the rocky walls of the mountain—it looked hoof-worn, as though ponies passed through often. Rarity ran between the walls for cover, calling Applejack’s name.

It was easy for Applejack to catch up—she was, after all, much more athletic than Rarity—and she didn’t dare look back again as she ran. Eventually, they put some distance between themselves and the hydra, and were able to slow to a walk. Once she had caught her breath, Applejack asked, “Rarity, you reckon that thing can follow us up here?” Rarity smiled back at her friend.

“Of course not, dear!” she said, indicating the path. “It’s far too narrow for that horrid thing to chase after us.” As she spoke, the beast bellowed in rage, its tails slamming angrily into the walls as its five heads snapped unsuccessfully at the two ponies. Rarity giggled to herself, slowing to a trot. “I’m certain we’re quite safe here,” she concluded, smiling.

Applejack’s eyes scanned the rock walls cautiously. “I ain’t too sure about that…” she said. “If this here path’s been used by ponies, then what’s to stop ol’ hydra from having a tunnel or something that empties out here?”

Rarity paused a moment. “I…suppose that’s a valid point,” she said, worried now, “but even if that were so, the hydra just can’t maneuver in here; it’d be useless to have a passage that doesn’t allow you to do anything.”

“Suppose you’re right,” Applejack replied, “but keep an eye out, all the same. I doubt that’s the last we’ll be seein’ of that thing; you remember how far that other one chased us, and this one’s twice as mean.”

Rarity nodded. “I’ll keep watch,” she said, “don’t you worry—I don’t plan on letting a hydra be the last thing I see. They’re so ugly!”

Applejack couldn’t help but chuckle. “Is that all you’d have to say about it? You’re about to die and the last thing you think is ‘Oh, it’s so ugly’?”

Rarity pouted. “Very funny,” she said, “but at least I’d be thinking something halfway sensible. You, on the other hand, would probably just be thinking, ‘This here critter reminds me of an apple tree—lotsa branches with big ‘ol bulbs on the end.’”

Applejack she glared. “Real cute,” she said, “Real, real cute.”

Rarity snickered. “I thought it was a rather good imitation, myself.”

Applejack looked around. “Well, imitate all you want, Rarity, but it looks like this place stretches on a good ways, and daylight’s startin’ to run out. Running into that hydra during the day was bad, sure—running into it again at night’ll kill us.”

Rarity nodded. “Right,” she said, “we’d better keep moving, I suppose.” With that, silence reigned over the pair as they walked, the pass stretching out before them for miles.

Overhead, the sun shone brightly, casting shadows and providing some cover from the heat. The path continued sloping up and curving all around wildly—whoever had worn this path down certainly couldn’t have had an easy time doing it—the terrain got rocky quickly as they advanced, leaving behind the easily-traveled, loamy soil. The air also began to thin out, and flecks of snow dotted the ground.

Rarity’s mouth had dried out once more, owing to the cold, sharp air, and every minute that passed felt like an hour. Without clocks, the only indication the two ponies had of the time was the rising and setting of the sun. Around the time the shadows were lengthening on the ground and the orange fingers of the sun were receding under the horizon, Rarity was hungry again.

“Applejack,” she said, “I know it may not be a very big concern right now, but how much further does this pass go, do you think? I’m thirsty, and famished…”

Applejack sighed. “Rarity,” she said with a small chuckle, “you sound like a foal, carrying on like that. I’m hungry too, and this cold air’s making me real thirsty, but we gotta just keep going. We’re closed in here, and if we start back now, it’ll take us a day to get back. We just gotta hope there’s something decent at the end of this trail.”

Rarity whined. “I really hope there is…” she said. “I’m starting to miss Pinkie Pie more and more…I’d give anything for one of her cakes right now, fluffy and covered in yummy icing…” She blushed. “Oh dear, I must sound awfully piggish, but I think I could eat one of those all by myself!”

Applejack smiled. “I know what you mean; Big Mac’s probably sitting down right about now and stuffing his face on one o’ Granny Smith’s apple pies, or maybe some apple brown betty, or—”

“Applejack, do you see that?!” Rarity cried, starlight glinting off her eyes. “I think we’ve almost reached the end of the passage!”

Applejack’s head snapped forward, and she gasped at the massive snowfield in front of her. “Rarity, I think we just might be outta this place!” The ground beneath them was covered in snow, and it crunched beneath their hooves as they raced forward.

Rarity was smiling. “I’m so glad we made it, darling!” she cried. “I was beginning to worry we’d never reach the end! We can finally see the surrounding area!”

Applejack nodded. “It’s about darn time somethin’ went our way, I figure,” she said. “Better sooner than later, too!”

The pass emptied out onto a large, flat part of the mountains—a plateau, not quite a peak. The entire area was covered in pillowy snow, though now it was half-melted, sloppy and slippery; Rarity and Applejack had trouble getting purchase. To the south, long jagged cliffs overlooked the bottom of the mountain, as well as a massive, uncultivated expanse of grassy flatland. The rest of the plateau flattened out further away from the cliffs, and was easier to traverse. In the distance, they could see the moon over their heads.

Applejack moved towards the cliffs, looking over the edge at the ground below. There was nothing to catch a fallen pony except jagged, unforgiving rocks. Seeing no settlements on the flatland, Applejack sighed, shaking her head as she turned back to Rarity.

“Rarity, there ain’t nothing on this side—it’s just a big ‘ol meadow that stretches for miles. Let’s go check out the other sides.”

Rarity jumped when she heard Applejack’s voice, lost in the spectacle. “Oh, right,” she said. “Yes, we do still need to look for a village…after all, we’ve already seen possible signs of civilization—the hoof-worn path, especially.”

The earth pony nodded. “I’m willin’ to bet there’s a town or something around here somewhere.” She trotted past Rarity, towards the opposite set of cliffs. The earth pony looked up at the clouds, which were beginning to gather in the absence of the sun. “But we’d probably better hurry—looks like it’s gonna start snowin’.”

Rarity followed close behind, looking around. In the distance she could see a long, craggy rock wall, a large cave dimpling the outer edge, near the cliffs. The unicorn shuddered at the look of it, but shook it off and continued forward.

The snowfield made for easy going—thankfully, the snow got thicker and easier to walk on as they went—and soon the two mares were staring out over a huge savannah, with towns spread out across the surface. Applejack and Rarity’s eyes widened, joy welling up in their hearts; it was impossible to tell how well-developed the towns were from here, especially with the snow, but they were looking at the first sign of civilization for days!

“Applejack,” Rarity cried, “I think we’ve finally found some sign of hope!”

Applejack smiled in return. “Looks like it, Rarity,” she said, “but don’t be gettin’ too excited just yet—we can only hope they’re ponies, and not something else that won’t take kindly to us bein’ around.”

Rarity nodded. “Yes, I suppose you’re right, Applejack,” she said. “But still, they’ve made villages! They must have some kind of civilized minds.”

Applejack shrugged. “I guess—just don’t be huggin’ ‘em or anything.” The two ponies laughed.

Rarity smiled. “Alright, alright,” she said, “I’ll refrain from giving anypony one of my signature hugs.” She tried to say more, but stopped short, her mouth going dry as a massive, angry roar flew from the cave they’d passed.

Neither pony could speak. “Applejack,” Rarity said finally, “that isn’t what I think it is, right?”

Applejack turned slowly, seeing a huge black shadow through the snow. “I think it is, Rarity…” she said. “I told you that hydra wasn’t gonna give up…”

Rarity swallowed hard. “He seems to have followed us up here through a passage inside the mountain—I guess we should be thankful he hasn’t seen us yet. We should get going before he does.”

Applejack nodded. “Good thinking. There oughta be a way to get down from here, if there was a way up—start helpin’ me look.” Quietly, the earth pony began to sidle to the left, her eyes sweeping along the craggy cliff face for a path. Applejack felt her hooves trembling as she walked. Her breathing sped up alongside her heartbeat, and she silently wished the beast wouldn’t find them..

Rarity began searching as well, biting her lip as her blood ran cold. She stopped. “Applejack,” she said, “what if the hydra knows where the way out of here is?”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “What’re you talkin’ about, Rarity?” she asked.

Rarity bit her lip. “Well, what if it’s hunted ponies up here before? It’d have to know where the path out of here is! After all, I’m sure it’s gotten evaded by many ponies using that path in the past. And if it can’t see where we are…”

“It’ll have to assume we know the way out!” Applejack grinned, “Nice thinking, Rarity! If we lay low for a little bit, that monster might just lead us to the exit!”

Both ponies dropped down on their bellies, watching the beast intently as it walked, two of its heads sweeping along the ground, sniffing for prey. Slowly, Rarity and Applejack crawled, praying not to alert the monster. It meandered along, allowing the ponies to keep up with relative ease. Across the snowfield, near the edge of the cliffs, the hydra stopped, looking around intently.

Rarity poked her head up, staring through the hydra’s legs. Between them, she could see a gap in the rocks which seemed to darken and get lower. “Applejack,” she hissed, pointing, “I can see the pathway—it’s much wider than the other one. I think the hydra can fit inside.”

Applejack nodded. “I see it too, and probably so. Do you wanna just make a run for it, or try to sneak around?”

Rarity gritted her teeth, weighing the options. Running would draw the hydra’s attention, and they might both get killed by it if they didn’t maneuver correctly. On the other hand, if they snuck around, they could get spotted by the hydra too early and be forced to run along the snowfield—it’d easily outsprint and kill them both. There was only one way around the hydra.

“Applejack,” Rarity said, “I think we’re going to have to sneak around. If we run, the hydra might get us both.”

Applejack nodded. “Agreed,” she said, “just go slow, and I’m pretty sure the hydra won’t even know we were here.”

With that, the pair slunk low along the ground, eyes riveted to the hydra. The monster’s heads swept along the ground, puffs of snow rising as it snuffled, searching for the ponies. Anxious now, the hydra’s tail kicked snow up as it swept back and forth.

Applejack and Rarity made progress quickly, coming up next to the entrance of the mountain pass in mere minutes. Both ponies stopped breathing as the hydra’s heads hovered close to them.

“Rarity,” Applejack whispered, “do we run for it?”

Rarity gulped. “I’m not sure. Its heads are blocking the dang entrance…if we run for it, it might just snap out and get one of us.”

Applejack shook her head. “Granted,” she said, “but if we sit here any longer, that thing’ll probably find us. Ain’t a whole lot of choices left.”

Rarity hesitated, the sighed and nodded. “Alright,” she said, “we’ll make a run for it. On three?”

Applejack grinned nervously. “On three.” She looked up at the hydra as a head shifted out of the way, revealing the passage behind it. “One…” The hydra stomped backwards a bit, staring down around itself. “Two…” It snorted, incensed at not finding its prey. “Three!”

Both ponies took off, the hydra’s roar exploding in their ears as they ran past it. One of its heads swept down, slamming the ground in front of the two ponies. They skidded to a halt as their route was blocked, doubling back towards the cliff overlooking the villages.

“Think we can outmaneuver him?” Rarity shouted, the ground shaking below her as a head smashed down behind her.

Applejack shook her head. “Too big; he’ll just smack one of us straight off the cliff! Hate to say it, but we gotta grit our teeth and fight it!”

Rarity didn’t have time to respond; the two ponies whirled around to face the hydra as they reached the edge of the cliff, the beast’s heads each giving a toothy smirk. Rancid breath sprayed into the ponies’ faces as the hydra let loose a deafening roar.

“Rarity, ain’t you got some kinda magic or something you can use on it?”

The unicorn’s mind raced, searching for a spell that could help them here. “I can’t think of anything!” She screamed, the hydra getting closer by the second, “All I can do is illusions and light shows!”

That was when it hit her; illusions and light shows! Rarity closed her eyes, her horn glowing, trying to force magic out despite her fear, her horn fizzing and popping in protest. Applejack glanced over at her, her heart hammering in her chest.

Time seemed to stop as Rarity’s horn erupted with the hydra inches away. A blinding flash of light exploded from Rarity’s horn, and the hydra bellowed in pain, stomping back several feet. Adrenaline flooded Rarity’s veins, and she screamed above the din. “Run!”

Applejack and Rarity bolted from the spot, past the hydra; the beast hissed loudly and whipped its tail around. Applejacked whooped, smiling at Rarity.

“That was definitely somethin’, Rarity!” she cried, “You made that hydra lo—ungh!” Applejack was flung through the air as the tail smacked into her, and she thudded down next to the cliff, groaning in pain.

“Applejack!” Rarity cried in horror, rushing over. “Applejack, are you alright?!”

The earth pony waved a hoof at Rarity. “I’m fine, I’m fine…” she said, forcing herself up, “He just got a good hit on me—couple bruises, nothing else. Now then, let’s—wagh!” The ground shifted beneath the two ponies as the hydra angrily stomped the ground, thick cracks running through the surface. The cliff nearly split in half with the pressure, and the hydra refused to let up.

“Run, run!” Rarity cried, and the two ponies tried to navigate the rough, cracked ground, tripping and stumbling, unable to get away quickly enough as the cliff cracked and split from the mountain, big pieces crashing on the jagged rocks below.

Applejack, thinking quickly, grabbed Rarity by the hoof and made for the hydra.

“What are you doing?!” Rarity screamed, gasping the cliffs behind her crumbled into nothing. The hydra struggled to keep itself righted.

Applejack pulled Rarity over to the hydra’s tail. “Jump on!” she cried, doing just that and scrambling up onto the hydra’s back.

Rarity had no time to argue—the cliffs were going down, and the hydra with them, so she jumped up alongside Applejack, clinging on for dear life as the hydra went over, spilling headfirst over the side of the mountain, straight towards the field.

Screams ripped from Applejack and Rarity’s throats as the unforgiving ground rushed up to the meet them. The hydra joined the ponies on its back, a throaty cry of dismay filling the air for a few spare seconds.

And then everything went black.                                        

Strange Bedfellows, Chapter 5

Applejack was the first to wake, squinting as sunlight filtered in through windows and onto her face. She felt warm, though her whole body ached and she could barely move. Her eyes fluttered as she looked around, spotting Rarity next to her, in a fluffy down bed. The white unicorn's head was wrapped in bandages, with just her horn, bits of her mane, and her eyes sticking out from between the folds. Her chest rose and fell slowly—she was still unconscious. Applejack reached up and felt around her head despite the pain in her foreleg—no bandages at all. She looked around, trying to get her bearings.

The room that they were in was nondescript, to say the least. The floors and walls were made of dense wood, and shined spotlessly. The windows were hung with thick, tan-colored drapes which snuffed any possibility of looking at the outside world. Applejack tried to move, tried to get up and move those curtains aside, but her body screamed in protest any time she tried to.

Applejack craned her neck down as best she could, trying to shift her body to move the covers up. She managed at least this much, and got a look at her own body. It seemed that whereas Rarity's head had been damaged, Applejack's body had suffered the brunt of her injuries. Her stomach and back legs were swathed in bandages along with her forearms—likely she'd gotten terribly bruised in the fall. Applejack's head began to swim—clearly she hadn't been meant to wake up just yet. She tried to keep it together and stay awake, but her bruises ached so badly, and all she wanted to do was take a nap and let the pain ebb away...

Neither pony woke for several more days, and mysterious figures slipped in and out of the room, watching over the injured ponies carefully, always making sure to take special care of them. The two friends slept soundly, their injuries healing under the attentions of their enigmatic caretakers.

After nearly a week, Applejack's eyes finally opened again, and movement came much easier to her. The bandages had been removed from her stomach and back legs, leaving only the foreleg bandaging as evidence of her injuries. As her eyes adjusted, Applejack got out of the bed, taking a few cautious steps towards the window. She pulled the curtains back, foreleg throbbing dully, and took a look outside.

Wherever they were, it was definitely a step up from the cold, barren mountain. The sun cut through awnings, casting multicolored murals over the ground thick green grass of a marketplace. Ponies walked back and forth in the crowded center, jostling for position as they bought groceries. Mixed in with the ponies were several zebras, each bearing a heavy load strapped to their backs. All present smiled, waved at their friends, and chatted animatedly with strangers.

"Rarity," Applejack said softly, turning from the window, "Rarity, wake up—we gotta get out there and figure out what's going on!" Rarity stirred with a dainty yawn, rolling over. Her purple mane fell down around her face. She reached up and moved it aside with a hoof, smiling.

“Oh, Applejack!” she said happily, “I had the most wonderful dream! I was—”

“Rarity,” Applejack interrupted, “you can tell me all about that later. Right now, we gotta find out where the heck we are! Did you black out when we hit the ground too?”

Rarity nodded, grimacing. “How could I not?” She asked, “It was such a terribly long fall—I was afraid we were both going to die!”

Applejack nodded. “Same,” she said, “but it looks like somepony musta picked us up and carried us here to fix us up. Good thing too—I woke up a couple days ago and doubt we’d have made it far in the state we were in.”

Rarity’s eyes widened and she reached up to touch her face, making sure everything was okay. “Thankfully, it doesn’t look like we’re worse for the wear,” she said, smiling.

Applejack was about to nod in agreement and suggest they get moving when the door swung open, revealing several ponies with medical caps on. Behind them was a large griffon whose golden eyes swept along the two ponies discerningly. He was dressed in what could only be described as medical regalia—atop his head was a cap with a red cross emblazoned on it, and on his body was a thick white medical coat, with the name Faust embroidered along the breast. Rarity and Applejack were awestruck by his countenance.

The ponies filed in, quickly making room for Faust. He walked up to the pair, looking both of them over intently. “You two,” he said, voice deep and striking, “what are you doing out of bed? Your injuries were far too extensive for you to be up.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Uh, beg your pardon, doc, and we really appreciate your help and all, but we feel fine, don’t we Rarity?”

Rarity nodded. “Yes sir,” she said, smiling, “in fact, I feel much better than I have in days! We thank you very much for your assistance, but we have to be going now—we’re homeward bound, you see, and just don’t have any time to stay anywhere. I’m sure our friends miss us very much.” She took a few steps forward, but Faust’s wings shot out, and he gave the unicorn a hard stare.

“The way your friends feel is of no concern to me, little pony,” he said, “get back in bed and rest up—I will personally clear you to leave when I feel you’re ready.”

Applejack snorted, annoyed. “Now listen here, big guy,” she said, stepping forward, “you can see as well as anypony that we ain’t hurt anymore.” To illustrate her point, she wiggled all of her limbs and jumped up and down. “See? I’m moving just fine! Now make way—we gotta get back to Ponyville.”

Faust’s hard look changed to one of bewilderment. “Ponyville?” he said, blinking, “You ponies are from Ponyville, that little village down by the royal city of Canterlot?”

Applejack nodded, glaring. “That’s right,” she said, “I’m a Ponyville native—Applejack’s the name. I help run Sweet Apple Acres, y’know.”

Rarity smiled. “Yes, and I am Rarity, the proprietor of the Carousel Boutique! You may have heard of it; it’s only Equestria’s hottest fashion store! I’ve sold to such famous ponies as Hoity Toity and Sapphire Sh—”

“Enough,” Faust said, cutting Rarity off, “that’s all we needed to hear.” He turned to his assistants, waving a claw at them dismissively. They quickly left the room. Faust turned back to the two ponies. “Seeing that you are indeed physically healthy, I give you clearance to leave. Do not cause any trouble while you’re here, or I will be the one to dispense justice as the Elder’s enforcer.”

Rarity frowned. “But, Mr. Faust, if you don’t mind me asking, where exactly is here? And who is this Elder you’re talking about?”

Faust raised a claw to indicate the window, finally letting a small smile pass. “Welcome to Derby, a humble village in the southern reaches of Equestria, located directly across from the Hydrian Range.” He chuckled. “Though I’m certain you’re both acquainted with its namesake—those peaks are infested with hydras. No one has been up there in some time.”

Applejack snorted. “Wish we could’ve known that to begin with,” she said, “never woulda gone up there if we’d have known.”

Faust nodded. “The mountains are a nightmarish network of tunnels which house dozens of hydras. The fact that you two escaped with severe bruises and nothing more is a miracle. That you took a Greater Hydra with you when you fell is something else altogether. In any case, I’m Faust, chief physician and Elder’s enforcer, and I offer you a warm welcome.”

Applejack smiled. “Good to meet you, Faust,” she said, “but something’s been bugging me: Why’d we get excused anyway? Just a couple of seconds before, you were blocking our way out and saying we had to stay.”

Faust chuckled. “I can see that you are physically healthy—no trouble walking or anything of the sort. In truth, I’m only that severe around my assistants to keep them in line—the rules of the village are somewhat carefree, and it’s unlikely we’d get any work done if they had free reign. I apologize if I worried either of you.” Faust paused. “And, well, the Elder may not like Ponyville ponies much, but they do plenty for Equestria, so I’m happy to overlook that fact.” The griffon looked around. “Just don’t mention it. Walls, sensitive ears and all that.”

Rarity shook her head. “No trouble at all, Faust,” she said, “I’m just glad we’re getting out of here after all.” She cocked her head. “But why would the Elder not like Ponyville ponies?”

Faust shook his head. “No telling. There are rumors she was greatly wronged by a group of ponies from Ponyville a few years ago, but those have no credence. Come on, let’s get you out of here. I’ll show you around.” The griffon turned to leave, and the two ponies followed.

“Wronged by a group of Ponyville ponies?” Rarity whispered to Applejack, “That doesn’t make any sense; what pony has been to Ponyville who could’ve been wronged?”

Applejack shrugged. “Hard tellin’” she said, “it could be anypony—probably somepony from before our time, though, so I don’t think we got anything to worry about, really.”

Rarity bit her lip, looking around at the town as they exited the clinic. “I’m not sure,” she said, “what if it’s not even a pony? I can think of one particular griffon who we’ve personally ‘wronged’ before…”

Applejack’s eyes widened. “You don’t think it could be…Gilda?” She asked, grimacing. “If it is her, I suspect we’re in more danger here than we were with the hydra…”

Rarity smiled nervously. “I don’t think so,” she said, trying to disperse the heavy feeling in the air even as ponies and zebras greeted them left and right, “I mean, Gilda would make a dreadful leader! I don’t know anypony insane enough to let her be in charge of anything!”

Applejack sighed. “I hope you’re right,” she said, “and hopefully it ain’t anypony we’ve run afoul of in the past…”

Faust’s wings twitched and he turned around, eyebrow raised. “I’m sorry; did either of you say anything?”

Rarity shook her head. “Er, yes, we were just discussing the, uh…multiculturalism your town seems to display! I’ve never seen quite so many species all in one place.”

Faust smiled. “Yes, here in Derby, it takes all kinds to get our work done. Many of our pegasi do weather patrols—griffons mostly handle jobs that require both muscle and wings, as well as village-defense. Earth ponies grow crops on the outskirts of town, and unicorns handle various other tasks, depending on their magical abilities.” The doctor swept a claw through the air. “Really, we’re quite well-organized for so recently gaining a new Elder.”

Applejack cocked her head. “Recently? How recently, exactly?”

Faust tapped his chin in thought. “Not sure, actually,” he said, “I arrived fairly recently myself—the new Elder was already in place when I showed up. I’ve been living here about a year now.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “You’ve only been livin’ here a year now and you’re already in the second-most powerful position this village has to offer? Well, forgive me askin’, but don’t you figure that the pony in charge would promote somepony a little, well…closer to home or somethin’?”

Faust shrugged. “I thought the same thing, but making a habit out of questioning the Elder isn’t good, so I kept quiet about it. I migrated here from further south, in the next kingdom over—I’m sure you’ve heard of us. Avania?”

“Hmm,” Rarity said, “I think they taught us about Avania in one of our school lessons.” She smiled sheepishly. “Though I can’t say I paid much attention in school, myself—I was more concerned with my fashions than anything else.”

Applejack chuckled. “Same here, only I was too focused on work to get any proper schooling at all, y’see. But I get by well enough.”

Faust blinked. “Yes, well…in any case, I moved from there to escape political conflicts. On my way, I found Derby, was treated very well by the Elder and, before I knew it, she was asking me to be her chief medical officer and enforcer.” He smiled. “Well, I’d fallen in love in little Derby in that time, so I agreed wholeheartedly.”

Rarity looked around. “To be honest, Faust,” she said, “this really doesn’t seem like the kind of place that needs medicine or enforcers. What do you do when those things aren’t needed?”

Faust sighed. “Truthfully, no, neither service is especially necessary—I’ve had to go high-order on citizens only twice so far, and you ponies are the first with actual injuries—the rest have been colds and bellyaches.” He nodded towards a large, multi-windowed building. “In the large amounts of downtime I have, I visit Dog Ear, our resident historian and librarian. He’s rather eccentric, but he’s a good pony at heart—been here since the creation of Derby. You two should pop over and visit him while you’re here—I’m sure he won’t bite.”

Applejack shook her head. “Honestly Faust, we really appreciate everything y’all have done for us, but we’d just like to give our thanks to your Elder and be on our way. I feel more than rested enough to make my way back to Ponyville.”

Rarity nodded. “So do I. Thanks for all your help Faust, but we have friends and families to get back to.”

Faust looked the pair over, unsure. “Are you sure? After all, you both just got here! Why not stay a while, talk to the citizens, maybe talk to Dog Ear? It just seems odd for you both to leave so soon.”

Rarity smiled. “Derby seems like a lovely village, Faust, and you’ve all been very accommodating to us, but with all due respect, we’ve been here a week as it is, correct?” Faust nodded. “Well, I think that’s more than enough time spent resting, even if we were unconscious. If we don’t get back out on the road, we may never make it back!”

Faust paused, looking between Rarity and Applejack, before looking down and sighing. “Very well,” he said, “you know, it’s not often we get visitors, and when we do, they never stay long. I apologize if my insistence annoyed either of you.”

Rarity shook her head. “It’s no trouble at all Faust, we assure you. We understand perfectly well.” Applejack nodded in agreement.

The griffon gave the ponies a gracious bow. “Please allow me to pack both of your saddlebags with some supplies—Ponyville lies far to the north, you see, and the road gets rough in spots.” He gave a beaky smile. “But, honestly, now that you’re both out of the mountains, the going will be much easier—there are actual roads to follow.” He turned to leave, but stopped, looking over his shoulder. “Go have a chat with Dog Ear while I pack. I’ll also arrange an audience with the Elder before you depart.”

Rarity called out, halting Faust’s exit. “Wait, Faust! Before you go, can you tell us a little about the Elder? What’s she like?”

Faust thought a moment, then nodded. “She’s hard to describe. She’s very arrogant on the outside, but on the inside one can tell she cares very much for the inhabitants of this village. I don’t know how she found her way here, or why she stands by this village—after all, from what I’ve heard, she used to be a famous performer—but she does a good job of it. She’d never admit it, but if you ask me, she’s a big softy on the inside, despite her abrasiveness. There were rumors that she wanted to be named something silly instead of the traditional title of Elder; something along the lines of The Mystic and Wonderful or something like that. Couldn’t tell you exactly what off the top of my head.”

Rarity and Applejack exchanged worried glances. “What does she look like?” Applejack piped up.

“She’s blue with big purple eyes and silver hair,” Faust said, “rather striking in that royal purple cloak of hers.”

Rarity’s eyes widened. “Did she happen to have a matching hat, Faust? It might be important…”

“Hmm…no, no hat. Just the cloak. But she cuts a very memorable figure in it.”

With that, Faust walked off, leaving Rarity and Applejack to exchange worried whispers. “Rarity,” the latter said, “if the village Elder is Trixie, well…dang, I totally forgot about her! She hates us!”

Rarity bit her lip. “I know what you mean, AJ,” she said, “with Trixie in charge of everything, we may never be allowed to leave!”

Applejack shook her head. “Maybe she’s changed,” she said, “I mean, there ain’t no statues around here or anything—maybe she ain’t as arrogant anymore.”

Rarity pouted. “Or maybe she just didn’t want everypony to realize how crazy she was in her egotism,” she said sullenly. “Sorry if I’m being pessimistic, Applejack, but I don’t have much faith in Trixie.”

Applejack sighed. “Can’t blame you for that,” she said, “Trixie’s a sidewinder if I ever saw one—I wouldn’t be surprised if we had to run outta here with a bunch of angry villagers tailing us.” She looked over at the old building which housed Dog Ear. “Might as well go talk to that pony,” she said, “Faust didn’t sound he’d be done packing for a while.” Both ponies walked over, pushing the door open with a creak.

Dust motes wafted through the stale air inside, the light filtering in through the windows dulled, making everything within look gloomy and dark. Old books, the spines long broken and the pages ragged, lined the dozens of shelves. As Rarity and Applejack stepped inside, dust rose from the carpet underhoof, and Rarity recoiled, her snout wrinkling in disgust.

“Ugh,” she cried, “didn’t Faust say this was someplace he liked to visit in his spare time? How could anypony possibly enjoy coming to a disgusting, dusty place like this? It’s simply hideous!”

Across the room, behind all the shelves, an old pony’s ears pricked up at the sound, and he placed his hooves on the desk, shoving away from it to stand. Blowing a few locks of grey hair from his eyes, he turned around, glaring at Rarity as he approached the front.

“Disgusting?” he snorted incredulously, “Hideous?! How dare you call my collection of tomes and histories such awful names! Just who do you think you are, missy? Sure, you look a little more fashionable than our standard fare, but that doesn’t give you right to criticize us! You should be ashamed for your thoughtlessness!”

Rarity’s eyes widened—she hadn’t been expecting such a vehement reaction, and she stammered. “Uh, well, sir, I apologize if I have offended you, it’s just…doesn’t anypony dust in here? You have to admit that it’s dirty.”

Dog Ear shook his head, and a cloud of dust erupted from his head, settling on his cutie mark—a dust-covered book. “No time,” he said, tone impatient, “no time at all. I oversee the library alone, you see, and there’s much history to be recorded—each day much be accounted for in our records, and those records must be sorted on a daily basis. No time to clean.” The old pony smirked. “Besides, I like it better this way. It feels more authentic—like the legendary local history halls of bigger cities.”

Rarity stuck out her tongue. “I can’t imagine liking all this dust,” she said, “it’s just so…icky.”

Dog Ear shrugged. “Complain if you want,” he said, “my history, my decision how to manage it. In any case, I’m sure you two showed up here for a better reason than insulting the local history hall and being chastised for it. What is it you needed?”

Rarity fumed at the way Dog Ear was practically ignoring her, even making fun of her, and was about to rebuke him when Applejack clapped a hoof over her mouth, giving her a warning look before turning back to Dog Ear with a smile.

“Nothing in particular,” she said, “Faust said that we should pay you a visit while he packed some saddlebags for us and arranged a visit with the Elder.”

Dog Ear smiled. “Ah, yes; Madame Hortensia. Lovely griffon, you know—she’s this village’s sixth Elder, and I must say, she runs the place better than the last five. Always firm when it’s needed, and certainly intimidating to transgressors, but she has this quiet sort of intimidation—like a look she gives ponies that always—”

Applejack piped up, confused. “Uh, beg pardon for the interruption, Dog Ear,” she said, “but Faust told us that the Elder was a pony—a blue one with long silver hair.”

Dog Ear blinked, bewildered. “A pony?” he asked, turning to snatch a book from the shelves and hurriedly flip through it. “Pony…pony…ah, yes! How could I have forgotten?” He chuckled, shutting the book and replacing it. “Poor Hortensia was killed defending the village from a hydra, you know. She took the beast with her, Celestia bless her, but she went far before her time…”

Rarity stared and, when Dog Ear didn’t respond, she spoke up. “Um, sir,” she said, “if you don’t mind, just who is the new Elder anyway? What’s her name?”

Dog Ear smiled. “She is young, but very fierce and big-hearted. Lovely mare—she showed up from the north, you know, with a big, loud stage show.”

Applejack grimaced, seeing that the old pony’s “eccentricity” was really “senility”. “Dog Ear,” she asked, “please, what’s her name? How long’s she been here?”

Dog Ear started. “Sorry?” he asked, “Her name? Why didn’t you just say so in the first place?” he picked up the same book as before, flipping through it again. “Ah, yes, here she is. Madame Trixie, Great and Powerful The; originally of Hoofington, child of…well, there’s no record of her birth or her parents. She’s been Elder for three years now and, I must say, she’s done better than the last six, despite her arrogance.”

Rarity was becoming more and more irritated with Dog Ear by the second, and glared even as her stomach flipped over with the news. “But I thought you said she was big-hearted?”

Dog Ear chuckled, shaking his head. “Child, you need patience,” he said, “She is both arrogant and big-hearted. Madame Trixie is a mare of many traits, and few of them coincide, but I believe that, at heart, she truly cares about the ponies, zebras, and griffons of Derby. She rarely makes public appearances, not counting shows, and when she does, she tries to be cold and aloof—if you ask me, she’s not fooling anyone. Though, I can tell you that she’s far too ambitious. It always seemed to me like presiding over a village might not be enough for her.”

Applejack cocked an eyebrow. “You say she’s been here three years?” Dog Ear nodded. “Well, if she’s been here that long, what’s she done to help the village?”

Dog Ear grinned widely. “Madame Trixie,” he said, “had revitalized the economy of this village by opening trade routes with the neighboring towns. She is a shrewd negotiator, though she may not seem like it when you meet her; I swear it must be all the time she spent performing.”

Rarity opened her mouth to respond when the door creaked open and Faust walked in, smiling. On his back were two sets of saddlebags, each filled to the brim with supplies.

“Applejack, Rarity,” he said, “I trust Dog Ear hasn’t given you too hard of a time?” The griffon winked, and Dog Ear smiled.

“Oh, away with you, Faust,” he said, “you know I haven’t scared anypony away for many years now. In any case, I’ve simply been sharing the wonders of local Derbian history with them.” He grinned at the two ponies. “Did you know that this village is actually only sixty years old? Why, I’m older than this place is!”

Faust rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Oh, blow away you old windbag,” he said, dropping the bags. “You’ll bore them to death with all your stories.” The doctor nodded at the bags. “Thank you both for waiting; these bags are for you to take on your journey back to Ponyville. There is a map in each bag, as well as ample food. The Elder will be waiting for you in her cottage at the north end of the village, next to the main road’s entrance. Good luck to both of you.” With that, the griffon bowed and disappeared through the curtains.

Rarity turned back to Dog Ear, finally smiling—maybe this day wouldn’t turn out so badly after all! “Thank you for your time, Dog Ear,” she said, “and I’m terribly sorry about the things I said. You do a very good job for being only one pony.”

Dog Ear nodded graciously. “And thank you two for gracing me with your visit. I get far too few visitors these days; in fact, sometimes it seems like that whippersnapper Faust is the only one…” For a moment, the old pony looked sad, but it left as quickly as it came, and he grinned widely. “I wish you both luck on your journey. Don’t forget about us!”

Applejack beamed. “Wouldn’t dream of it!” she cried as she and Rarity left.

The walk down the road to Trixie’s cottage was fairly long, and left the duo plenty of time to think about everything that could go wrong. Trixie could rally the villagers against them, she could force them to stay in Derby forever…with power over this many ponies, there was no end to the things she could do them! But Faust and Dog Ear seemed to trust her, they figured, so maybe she really had changed after all. Hopefully that was the case.

Trixie’s cottage was a humble little thing—a simple wood-and-stone building built near the edge of the town, just as described. Rarity knocked on the front door tentatively.

“Enter,” came an all-too-familiar voice. Rarity placed a hoof on the door and swung it open, the old hinges creaking. Inside it was light, and at the other end of the cottage, sure enough, was Trixie, using her magic to fill out paperwork. She didn’t bother looking up as she spoke. “I am very busy at the moment,” she said, “what is it you require?”

Rarity cocked an eyebrow, noticing that Trixie had stopped using the third person. “Faust said he set up an appointment,” she said, “Applejack and I wanted to thank you for providing us care and safety after we fell down the mountain. We might not have survived without you.”

Trixie snorted, finally glancing up. A small pair of reading glasses sat perched on her nose, and Rarity finally noticed she wasn’t wearing her hat—it sat next to the desk. “Oh, it’s you two,” she sneered, voice dripping with venom, “come to gloat about what happened back in Ponyville, have you? I haven’t forgotten, you know."

Rarity sighed. "Trixie, please, we're not here to feud with you. We simply wanted to inform you of our gratitude."

Trixie smirked. “A shame that Trixie, er, I want none of your thanks,” she said, and Rarity snorted. "I control an entire village now; your Twilight can’t claim that. I have allowed this village to prosper under my hoof; your Twilight, I imagine, is still just a little filly who pretends to be special because she is the Princess’ apprentice.”

Applejack wanted to rebuke Trixie, but she tried to stay calm. “And just how’d you end up here anyway, Trixie?"

The magician snorted. “I travelled south after you and your gang kicked me out,” she said, “I could not stand to be in your company any longer. There’s no need to go into much deeper detail than that—I simply travelled south. When I arrived in Derby for a show, the Elder, a griffon named Hortensia, had to deal with a hydra incursion.” She smirked, removing her glasses. “I, being brave as well as Great and Powerful, accompanied her. While I dazzled the monster with my awesome magical abilities, Hortensia attempted to strike it down. Frankly, she was sloppy about it, and the beast, as it died, fatally wounded her. With her dying breath, Hortensia named me her successor for my bravery in the face of impossible odds.”

Though Applejack knew that was a load of horseapples, she didn’t bother calling Trixie out on it. “Interestin’,” she said, trying not to sound sarcastic, “Never woulda thought you to be much of a leader, honestly.”

Trixie shook her head, clucking her tongue. “My natural talent may be performing,” she said, “but I’m not stupid, you know. I’ve negotiated all sorts of trade contracts with neighboring villages.”

Rarity smiled, unable to resist a jibe. “But settling down, Trixie?” she asked, pretending to be shocked. “I never would’ve thought you’d stay in one place.”

Trixie scoffed. “Your attempts to rile The Great and—I mean, me up are in vain, little one,” she said, “I am perfectly capable of running this town, and it’s certainly better than having to deal with foolish ponies in every town I come across. Those here are still foolish, and certainly stupid, but they listen to me, and that is all one could ask for.”

Rarity sneered in return, opening her mouth to say something, but Applejack's hoof clamped over it. "Well, I'm sorry to see you ain't changed much, Trixie. But if you got any information for us, we'd be much obliged."

Trixie sighed. "Information? What sort of information are you looking for? Can't you see Trixie..." she paused. "I have too much paperwork as it is?"

Applejack nodded. "Well of course we can. But it's gonna be a long road back to Ponyville, and we'd appreciate it if you could fill us in on what we might see between here and there."

Trixie shook her head. "It's a road, you two. I assume you're accustomed to following them? Ponyville has roads, if I remember right."

Applejack's patience was beginning to wear thin, but she kept her composure. "But what about forks? What about forests or things like that? All I'm asking is for you to give us a little info on how to get there."

Trixie's eyes narrowed. "And all I'm asking you is to leave me in peace, because I'm very busy and expecting other visitors. Are you deaf?"

Applejack took a deep breath. "Trixie, please. I'm really asking for your help, here."

Trixie ran a hoof through her hair and sighed dramatically. "Very well. The road from here to Ponyville is relatively untouched, very hilly and long, but for most part, you shouldn't have any problems." She glared. "There, is that enough information for you? Now please, Trixie is extremely busy."

Applejack felt Rarity straining against her and finished up quickly. "Well, we appreciate the information, Trixie, and thanks for your hospitality."

Trixie smirked. "Well, Trixie, er, I was happy to provide, I assume you." She pointed to the door. "I have plenty of work to be doing, so if we're quite finished, you may leave the village as you please. I'm sure the maps Faust provided will be of use."

As the blue unicorn spoke, Rarity caught something odd-looking in what she was writing--it looked like a series of arrows leading to a certain point. She'd seem something like that before, she knew, and leaned in a little closer to look.

Trixie looked up from her work with a cocked eyebrow. "Did you misunderstand me?" She shook a hoof at them. "Shoo."

Rarity and Applejack hurried out, closing the door behind them. The earth pony gave Rarity a look.

“That was close, Rarity. I mean it--things could've gotten sour quick."

Rarity apologized, both for her staring and her near-slip of the tongue, and the two continued on.

Before them, everything was awash in orange light—the sun was setting, and the dust in the air glimmered like airborne pearls; it seemed that the road ahead would be brighter and more promising than ever.

Behind them, everything was awash in dank shadow—it seemed gloomier and deader than ever.                                        

Just as Faust said, the road made traveling much easier for Rarity and Applejack—there were hills and valleys here and there, but for the most part, everything was grassy, loamy flatland and blue skies. The sun shone overhead, bright and warm during the day, and at night, the moon would rise and light their humble campsites as they set up. All in all, the trek had been going well.

So they walked for two days, practically in silence, only speaking when the matter of directions came up—in the hills, the roads tended to become meandering, though not labyrinthine like the mountains they’d come from. Whatever “other towns” Faust had been speaking of, none of them were visible throughout the trek, though it was possible that Rarity and Applejack were just underestimating the distance between them.

Coming to a fork, Applejack reached into her saddlebag and pulled out the map. Looking it over, she found this particular road was in one of the worn spots. She put a hoof to her forehead and sighed. “Dang it,” she said, “the map’s worn out here. Guess we’re gonna have to just pick one of the paths and follow it.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “And Faust told us that the maps were reliable. We should have known better—they’ve been around for ages.”

Applejack shrugged, stuffing the map back in her saddlebag. “I guess so,” she said, “but he was nice enough to give us these saddlebags and the supplies. We owe him for that.”

Rarity sighed. “I suppose,” she said. “I’m sorry; I’m just frustrated.”

Applejack nodded. “I’m frustrated too—we ain’t seen a town in days, now. I’m startin’ to wonder whether there’s anything out here at all… Anyways, I think we ought to take the left fork.”

Rarity thought a moment, looking between the two paths. Even with her gut telling her to go right, Rarity nodded. “You’re probably right, Applejack,” she said with a thin smile. “We’ll go left. You haven’t steered us wrong so far.”

The road seemed to stretch forever into the forest, the low-hanging vines getting tangled in the pair’s hair. The shadows here didn’t seem inviting, either.

Rarity shivered, feeling like she was being oppressed by them. For every inviting sunspot shining through the canopy overhead, there was a sea of darkness, almost hungrily surrounding the light as if to swallow it. As they got deeper in, the foliage seemed to get thicker and thicker around them, with the road becoming more narrow and overgrown.

Applejack was feeling quite uncomfortable, too. She looked back and forth, trying to see through the tangled plants, but it was impossible—no matter which way she turned, a bush blocked her sight, or a patch of undergrowth threatened to trip her, as though forcing her to keep her eyes forward. She could barely tell what time of day it was in this gloom!

In spite of this, they pressed forward, helping each other clear out the bushes and pass through. Once the sunspots completely faded from the forest floor, the two ponies made camp by stamping down a few of the thickest spots and perching the supplies in a tree.

In a few minutes, the two mares had a fire burning in a clearing, both of them rubbing at bloodshot eyes. The journey was beginning to show on them—Rarity, in particular, looked worse for the wear: her hair was ruffled and her white coat was stained with grass and mud. There hadn’t been a stream or a lake for what seemed like ages in the vast reaches of hilly grassland.

Applejack looked over at Rarity and raised an eyebrow. “You doing alright, Rarity?” she asked.

Rarity shook her head. “No, Applejack,” she said. “We don’t know where we are, there’s barely enough light in here to read the map…and I look horrible, to top it all off. Wherever Twilight threw us to…” She sighed. “It’s an awful place.”

Applejack looked up at the impenetrable canopy, trying to catch the twinkle of stars, or at least glimpse the moon. “I know, Rarity,” she said, “but think about it like this—a month or two of bad traveling is going to seem like nothing when we make it back to Ponyville and all our friends.” She looked over at the white mare and smiled. “Trust me. I’ve gone through stuff like this before.”

Rarity closed her eyes a moment and smiled. “Yes, Applejack, you’re right. Thank you.”

Applejack smirked. “Besides, you handled yourself pretty decently back in Derby, with Trixie being so nasty and all. Even if you needed a little help from me.”

Rarity giggled in return. “Yes, I did, didn’t I?” She leaned against a tree, rolling her neck to one side. She felt lightheaded. “Applejack?” she queried, feeling a hoof on her shoulder. “What are you doing?”

Applejack broke out into a wide smile. “I just wanted to let you know, Rarity, since I haven’t yet, that I’m glad it’s you I’m stuck out here with. You’ve been a bigger help than I figured you’d be. That and you ain’t as fussy as I thought.”

Rarity nodded gratefully, her head movements slow. “Thank you very much, Applejack,” she said, “you have been quite a boon yourself. And you’re much more fun to be around than I’d thought, as well.”

Applejack chuckled. “Funny how it takes something like this to make two ponies like us get to know each other better, ain’t it?”

But Rarity didn’t respond, already asleep—her cheek rested against Applejack’s hoof. The earth pony smirked. “Can’t hang, can ya Rarity?” she whispered, gently extricating her hoof from its position.

Applejack lay down on the ground and looked up at the sky, her eyes blurring slightly as they readjusted. She scooped up a few clods of dirt and absently dumped them on the fire, trying to ignore the shock Rarity had sent through her hoof.

She started to question why she was really happy to be out with Rarity. She was resourceful and quick-witted, mostly, but…Applejack couldn’t help but feel there another, gnawing reason.

It was with that thought in mind that Applejack finally faded out of consciousness.

The next morning, Rarity’s eyes fluttered open quickly, not having much trouble adjusting to the darkness surrounding them.

With Applejack still asleep, Rarity busied herself making breakfast out of some of their remaining supplies—she restarted the fire and made haycakes, oatcakes, and coated them both in thick maple syrup. She was nibbling on one when Applejack stirred next to her, yawning and stretching out.

“Land sakes,” Applejack said, shaking her head back and forth to wake herself up, “how long was I asleep?”

Rarity smiled. “Not much longer than me. I wouldn’t worry about it much anyway—it’s impossible to tell what time of the day it is.” She offered an oatcake, which Applejack accepted gratefully.

“These are great, Rarity!” she said, taking a bite. “I didn’t know you knew how to cook!”

Rarity smiled. “I don’t, Applejack. Cakes like these aren’t particularly hard to make—I’m just lucky I didn’t burn them.” She giggled and took a bite of hers. “Call it beginner’s luck. I much prefer your cooking, but I was up first today, and since you’ve been doing so much, I wanted to pay you back.”

“I’m mighty thankful, but I ain’t that good either,” Applejack responded. “I just cook the desserts. It’s usually Big Mac or Granny Smith that does all the cooking in my house.”

Their meal finished, the two ponies rose and packed everything up, killing the fire.

“Where to now?” Rarity asked, looking over her map. “Are we going to try and work our way out of here?”

Applejack sighed. “That’s about the only thing we can do. As thick as this brush is, it might be tough, but if we keep going, we’re sure to make it outta here.”


The going was slow with all the brush that had to be cleared/cut away, and the hanging foliage greedily grabbed at the pair, catching in their hair and scratching both of them up. The air grew hotter and more humid as they progressed—each step felt like a journey and their coats were so matted and wet that it was like wearing a lead suit.

In spite of that, however, they pressed on, trying to make good time and get out of the area as quickly as they could. Applejack turned to Rarity, breaking the thick silence.

“So, Rarity,” she asked, “what’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get back?”

The white pony huffed. “Well, first of all, I’m going to head back to the spa and get my hair and tail in order! I can’t be walking through Ponyville looking like I just finished playing in the mud with you!” She paused. “Er, no offense.”

Applejack chuckled. “None taken. Me, I’m probably gonna give the family a big hug, and Apple Bloom’s gonna tell me, ‘Applejack, cut it out! You’re gonna embarrass me in front of all my friends!’” She raised her voice a pitch to imitate her little sister.

Rarity covered her mouth with a hoof as she giggled. “Oh, I’d love to see that! Sweetie Belle always gets upset with me when I bring her Mother’s cupcakes—she ices them with a smiling face in the middle—because she’s ‘too old to be eating mom’s cupcakes anymore.’ They can be such silly fillies, I swear.”

The two of them laughed for a little while, and when they quieted down, Applejack smiled. “Silly filly or not, I’m looking forward to seeing her again. She’s always trying so hard to earn her cutie mark…” She smiled wistfully. “No matter how many times I tell her it’s not worth worrying over, she still does. If you ask me, she’s trying to grow up too fast.”

Rarity nodded. “I know the feeling,” she said. “When I was her age, all I could think about was my blank flank. Silly, looking back on it, but I did more than my share of foolish things trying to earn it.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow with a smirk. “Yeah?” she asked. “Like what?”

Rarity blushed. “That…isn’t important,” she said. “Suffice it to say, I had my share of misadventures, just like our sisters.”

“Oh no,” Applejack said with a chuckle, “you can’t go saying something like that without telling me a story. ‘Sides, we ain’t got much else to do.”

Rarity stopped. “Applejack, do you see that? It looks like a bog.”

The earth pony gently pushed Rarity’s shoulder. “C’mon, now,” she said, “you ain’t gonna fool me with that old trick.”

Rarity shook her head. “No, really Applejack. There’s a huge pit of…” She shuddered. “Well, I have no idea what it is, but it looks disgusting.”

Applejack turned to look and, sure enough, a massive lake of sludge and filth, formed by years of soil deposits sloughing into the water supply, lay before them. The surface was coated by decaying plant matter, and the rim was lined with thick saw grass. Beneath the surface, fish swam back and forth, some preying on others.

“Goodness,” Rarity said. “I wonder how long this has been here?”

Applejack shrugged. “Hard telling, but we gotta get through it.”

Rarity made a horrified face. “Applejack, no!” she cried. “What if there’s something in there, like a hydra? We met our first hydra in a bog much like this one, after all!”

Applejack rubbed her chin with a hoof. “Good point,” she said. “Hate to run into one of them things again. Twice is two times too many, if you ask me.” She nodded. “Alright, we’ll go around. Just watch out for that saw grass—it’s got a reputation for cutting through just about anything. Follow my lead and we oughta be fine.”

With the deep mire bubbling as though disappointed, the two began to inch their way around the perimeter, careful to avoid the sharp foliage. From behind them, they could hear curious and perturbed animals whose homes were being disturbed by their passage.

 Once on the other side of the bog, with the road ahead of them, Rarity let out a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness,” she said. “I was worried the entire time I was going to slip and fall in.”

Applejack chuckled. “Still worried about getting your coat dirty?” she asked pointedly. “Not sure there’s time for worrying about things like that.”

Rarity huffed. “There is never a time when worrying about fabulosity isn’t important, Applejack!” She turned to face the bog. “Aside from that, falling into there…ugh! I shudder to think about the horrible things lurking in there, not to mention the germs and the grime—it would take forever to get clean!”

An idea snuck its way into Applejack’s head at the mention of that. “Oh yeah?” she asked, slowly sneaking towards Rarity, “about how long, you think?” She unhooked her saddlebag, and moved on to Rarity’s.

Rarity shook her head. “There’s no telling. With ages of waste in there… Applejack, what are you doing—Waahhh!” Rarity cried out as Applejack gave her a shove, plunging her into the muck.

The earth pony broke out into fits of laughter, rolling around on the ground with tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Rarity,” she said between bursts of giggling, “I just had to, I’m sorry.”

Rarity arose from the murk livid, eyes practically blazing. Her coat was covered with bits of plant matter and soaked through with grime. Her hair hung limp around her neck in much the same condition—even her cutie mark was so dirty that it couldn’t be seen.

“Applejack…” she growled, “You’re going to pay for that!” She snatched out and grabbed a hoofful of Applejack’s tail, yanking her down into the grime with her.

The two of them fought beneath the surface for a while, surfacing only when they needed air. The sludge roiled and ripped with their movement.

Rarity dragged Applejack through the water by her tail, smushing her face into the rich soil with her free hoof. Applejack retaliated by grabbing a clod of dirt and rubbing it into Rarity’s hair, who let out a squeal of distaste and surfaced to get air before being pulled under once more. She twisted around and wrapped her hooves around Applejack’s arms, yanking on them.

Applejack whirled around and whacked Rarity on the head, causing the white pony to let go. Neither of them was really aiming to do any damage—these were just pent-up emotions bubbling to the surface. Rarity swam back down and torpedoed into Applejack’s belly, shoving her up against the bank of the bog and rubbing her hair into the filth.

Applejack shoved Rarity off and swung her around by the hoof, coming up for air when she hit the mud. Her respite was brief, however, as Rarity emerged from the water like a shark, taking the earth pony down in her grasp, the two of them locked tightly against each other as they jockeyed for supremacy. Applejack gained a grip on Rarity’s front hooves just as she wrapped her back hooves around Applejack’s middle, the two of them squeezing.

The fish around them ran away in fear, the bubbles rising from both ponies’ mouths popping on the surface. Rarity reeled back and head-butted Applejack in the chest, who responded by hitting Rarity in the ribs with her own hooves. They rolled around in the water, exchanging positions, and ended up in a hoof-lock.

Rarity strained, as did Applejack, to force the other into the earth once more, the pair’s hearts thumping and minds exploding with fireworks. Eventually, Applejack started to gain ground, but Rarity broke the lock and whirled to the side, allowing Applejack’s momentum to carry her into the muck. She giggled and made for the surface, Applejack not far behind.

After a while of this, they both ran out of energy and dashed for the bank, splatting onto the soft grass a few feet away from the bog, panting and starting to sweat.

Applejack turned to Rarity with a smirk. “Good wrassle,” she said. “Didn’t know you had it in you.” She wiped some of the grime from her forehead.

Rarity chuckled. “Well, I had to get you back for that somehow. I’m quite fierce when you do things like that…”

The two of them lay there for some time, each trying to ignore the pervasive, tense feeling in the air, and ultimately rose, getting back onto the path without discussing it.

The walk continued for only a few more yards before the exertion caught up with the pair and they decided to make camp. Thankfully, with the bog nearby, Applejack knew there would have to be fresh water as well, and they got the chance to wash up.

As Rarity meticulously scrubbed the grime from her hair, she watched Applejack haphazardly knock chunks of sediment from her coat and hair. The white pony felt a heat in her belly at the sight of Applejack with her hair down, wet and carefree in the calming darkness. As the heat began to spread through her body, Rarity plunged below the surface and shocked herself back to reality, the cold water doing a perfect job of that.

Rarity’s mind was filled with images of Applejack’s toned back, her muscles gleaming, hair draped over her shoulder and resting on her chest; she knew it was wrong to think such things, but Rarity couldn’t help herself. Of course, it was probably just because she’d been out here with Applejack too long—with no stallions around, Rarity would of course have to turn to the only pony she was close to. She came back to the surface and resumed washing her hair, happy with the place her train of logic arrived at.

Applejack was just happy to get the chance to rest her tired muscles and get clean. As much as she liked playing around in the mud and other “uncouth” things, she liked the feeling of washing the dirt out almost as much. She turned and furtively looked at Rarity. She smiled at the sight of Rarity practically washing each strand of her hair; she’d always sort of admired how hard Rarity worked at keeping herself looking the way she did. Fashion and such didn’t matter much to Applejack, but she figured that, as pretty as Rarity looked, she took hours each day to look like that, not to mention her actual work.

And she sure did look pretty…

Applejack blinked, surprised that such a thought could even worm its way into her head. She shook her hair out, getting water everywhere.

“Oh! Applejack, please watch what you’re doing!” Rarity looked across the water at Applejack, her nose crinkled in annoyance and her blue eyes narrowed. Applejack tried not to think about it, but she looked cute like that.

“Er, sorry, Rarity!” she called, breaking the spell. She concentrated on her washing until she was finished, berating herself for thinking such terrible thoughts. Wasn’t right, thinking things like that, especially not about her friend.

The two of them spent the rest of the night in relative silence, each battling with her own mind.


In the deep darkness of the forest, Applejack’s hooves made little sound—the thick foliage under her muted her steps. She’d lost Rarity some time ago in the dense murk; she’d turned around at some point to find that her friend was just gone, like the unicorn was sneakily swallowed up by the forest.

Applejack wanted to look for her, but the darkness around her seemed to prevent her from backtracking, like chains attached to her hooves and neck that restricted what she could do. The forest was beckoning her, forcing her forward and deeper into its belly with no way back. She’d taken a deep breath and moved on, trying to ignore the way her hair stood on end.

No matter which way Applejack turned as she walked, the darkness would close the gaps, cutting off her sight. In the distance, Applejack could hear what sounded like some kind of unholy machinery, like materials unknown to ponykind rubbing against each other in a horrific facsimile of moving parts.

She tried to stop, to force her hooves into the earth and stop herself, but no matter how much she tried, Applejack couldn’t stop herself from moving forward—her legs were no longer under her control. When she tried to stop, the muscles in her thighs and flanks burned terribly, like somepony was reaching into her and twisting them into knots. It made tears spring to her eyes.

Thus her inexorable walk continued—she couldn’t see anything around her with the darkness closing in, and now when she tried to close her eyes, the ugly fingers of the darkness jammed themselves into her eyes, prying the lids open. As she kept walking, the sound grew louder, filling her up and leaving room for nothing else.

It was impossible to place what the noise reminded her of. She would have compared it to Flim and Flam’s terrible, ugly cider-making machine, but it was guttural, thick and hoarse, feral even. The very thought of what it might be made her heart race and her mouth go dry.

When the darkness finally cleared, Applejack breathed deeply and closed her eyes, stretching out every part of her body—she wanted the penetrating darkness out of her body. She was grateful to be rid of the blackness, but now the machinery was so loud that it drilled into her ears, seeping into her brain like the terrible darkness. She turned to look at where the sound was emanating from, but stopped dead upon seeing it.

Her mind couldn’t comprehend what she was seeing and blanked immediately, followed by her vision going white and her body locking up in fits. The pain rushing through her fevered body was like turning inside out. She screamed into the open air, but received no answer aside from Rarity, whose screaming drowned hers out.

Applejack felt like she was melting and exploding at the same time—her heart was in her throat, beating up a storm and threatening to burst right out of her. Her legs and back were twisting in ways that shouldn’t have been possible, and her eyes were filling up with fire, her white vision licked at the edges by flame.

Around her, shadowy figures oozed from the undergrowth like living blood, crawling across the ground to her, snatching up pieces of her greedily, yanking on them as though trying to claim her for themselves.

Limbs like fleshy tendrils wrapped around her hooves and neck while claws raked at her skin, leaving wide marks in their wake. The entire forest seemed to be laughing at her as tears filled her vision, leaving her unable to see. The appendages around her started to yank in different directions, and she screamed, feeling like she was going to be pulled apart at the seams.

Applejack’s eyes shot open in the darkness, rousing her from her nightmare. She rubbed her eyes and looked around, her vision blurry. The earth pony chuckled quietly, shaking her head. It was silly to even bother checking to make sure her nightmare hadn’t crossed over into the real world; after all, tiny shadows didn’t exist. But that didn’t change the way her body shook at the thought, or how heavily she was panting.

“Land sakes,” she whispered.

Applejack looked up through the broken spots in the canopy of trees, noticing stars twinkling against the black background of the sky. Her heart was still pounding, but now that she was awake it had a chance to slow down. She leaned back on her hooves and closed her eyes, listening to the blood pounding in her ears, steadying her breathing. Above all else, she kept telling herself that it was just a nightmare.

A breeze rolled through and made Applejack’s hair wave back and forth. She’d had nightmares like that before, of course, but never so lucid or vivid. She looked over at her sleeping companion; she wanted to hold her, ask her to explain why she had these dreams, tell her they weren’t real, but that notion passed quickly. There was no way Rarity would be able to figure out why she’d had such an awful dream, much less why she always got them when she was in situations like this.

Any time she’d gotten stressed to the breaking point throughout her life, these dreams cropped up. When Big Mac’s usual quietness had changed because of the Poison Joke, she had dreams about him emotionally abusing her. When she’d tried to harvest Sweet Apple Acres alone, she had dreams about being buried by apples.

It was easy to write them off as stress dreams, but somehow she felt that it was all connected to something deeper and more important than just a little stress—and with this dream being both the most horrifying and the most vivid, she couldn’t help but feel a deeper connection was present.

But for the moment, there wasn’t much time to think about such things. Applejack pulled herself to her hooves and shook her hair out. She didn’t want to wake Rarity this early, but she couldn’t get back to sleep. Instead, she trotted off softly, letting Rarity stay soundly asleep.

Although Applejack was used to getting up early and seeing sunrises, she liked the night and the blanket of stars almost as much. Sitting down next to the water where she’d washed off, Applejack looked up at the canopy of trees.

She’d spent the last few days trying to figure the location out. Thick foliage, dense layer of trees overhead, bogs, and yet the whole place didn’t quite fit the image of a bayou or a swamp. She wanted to say it was probably just an abnormal place, but that was too easy—if they knew where they were geographically, they could plan out their next move according to that.

But, much like they’d been throughout this entire experience, they were lost with little indication to where they were. The map didn’t give this place a name, nopony was around, and the trees never seemed to let up. Briefly, visions flashed through Applejack’s mind of being forced to settle down here and live like a pair of forest hermits. It was simultaneously humorous and terrifying.

Hours passed like minutes while thoughts spun around in Applejack’s head, buzzing like angry hornets. The moon dipped down, the stars faded out of the sky, and birdsong started to drift through the area, soft tunes carried by the wind.

When the sun eventually rose, Applejack still didn’t have anything figured out. Defeated, she trotted back over to where Rarity was and sat down with her back against a tree, trying not to stare at her. She focused her gaze elsewhere—at the colors of the sunrise, on the trees, and along the curve of the water’s edge.

When Rarity stirred next to her, gentle sunspots lighting the ground around them and making the water sparkle, Applejack smiled.

“Doing alright, sugarcube?” she asked. “I woke up a couple hours ago, but I figured I’d let you sleep. I needed a little relaxing time anyway.” Rarity stifled a yawn and shook her head to clear the fog from her mind.

“Are you alright, dear?” Her voice was slow with sleep, but concerned. “It’s not exactly normal to wake up so early, you know.”

Applejack waved a hoof dismissively. “Ain’t nothing for a pony like me,” she said. “I’m used to getting up early.” A yawn slipped out, betraying her. “I think we’ve got some leftover food in the saddlebags if you’re hungry, but we gotta get going soon.” Her eyes narrowed imperceptibly. “I get the feeling we need to get outta here soon.”

Rarity stared at Applejack for a moment, but didn’t say anything. Odd as her statement may have sounded, Rarity wanted to be done with the forest just as much—the way the trees covered everything and how dead it sounded compared to other places made her hair stand on end.

The two ponies ate in silence—the only sounds in the clearing were the water moving through the dirt and the birds singing in the trees. Once breakfast was finished, and as they began walking, Rarity tried to broach the subject of Applejack’s anxiety.

“Dear,” she started, “why are you so on edge? I am rather mistrustful of this forest as well, but…you seem almost afraid.”

Applejack’s jaw clenched. “I ain’t afraid of no forest,” she said, “just don’t wanna spend too much time in here is all.”

“But Applejack, if you were up ‘for a few hours’ before me…that’s very, very early, even for a working pony like yourself.” She smiled gently, invitingly. “Please, darling, we’re good friends, aren’t we? You know that you can tell me anything.”

Applejack opened her mouth to rebut Rarity, but stopped. Would it really be so bad to admit that she was scared? That she just hated being here with every fiber of her being and wanted to be shut of the place as soon as possible? When she’d had so much trouble harvesting Sweet Apple Acres, she turned to her friends and they all had fun together—not to mention how much easier it made the work. She knew she could rely on her friends, and that it was usually easier to accept help from them. She mulled the thought over in her head, trying not to show Rarity how much she was struggling with the decision.

Finally, she nodded.

“Yeah, I guess I can,” she said. “I, uh, I had sort of a nightmare. I was here in the forest, ‘cept you weren’t around. Dunno where you went.” She licked her lips nervously. “All around me, everything was dark, and when I tried to stop walking, I kept getting pushed forward by some kinda force I can’t describe.

“Finally, I came to this little clearing, heard some loud noise, and when I turned to look where it came from, I blacked out and these things started pulling me apart.” She clenched her teeth and sighed. “That’s why I woke up early, and that’s why I wanna get the heck out of here. I’ve just got a bad feeling in my gut.”

Rarity touched Applejack’s shoulder. “Oh, dear,” she said, “that sounds terrible!” She furrowed her brow. “Truth be told, I haven’t liked this place since we entered, either. I keep hearing noises when I’m trying to sleep, and everything is disgusting and dirty…” She chuckled, a brittle sound. “I may not mind it so much anymore, but I’m getting tired of looking at shades of brown and dark green.”

Applejack nodded. “Truth be told, Rarity, this place scares the heck outta me. Bog in a forest? Weird sounds? No thank you.” She snorted. “It’s like the place is trying to mess with us.” Her volume dropped considerably. “With me.”

Rarity nosed her friend. “Well then, all the better that we get out of here soon, right?” She smiled. “Besides, we have friends and a home to get back to! There’s plenty of walking yet to be done, so we ought to go now, right?”

Applejack sighed and smiled weakly. “Yeah, I guess. Wondering if we’re ever going to get outta here, honestly.” She shook her head. “It’s like every time we make progress, there just turns out to be more of this forest. And my dreams keep getting worse and worse—I dunno whether it means something or not.”

Rarity was skeptical. “Darling, I’m sure you’re just stressed out. Perhaps there’s some connection, but even if there is, we’re not going to be able to avoid it—especially if it’s as powerful and, frankly, dreadful as you made it sound.” She trotted over to the water and dunked her head in, starting to mess with her hair. “Now, I’ve got to get my hair looking halfway decent before we get going.”

Applejack wasn’t going to get much more out of her, so she sat down and tipped her head back, closing her eyes and relaxing for a few moments. The two ponies hadn’t gotten much respite since they’d began the journey, so it was nice to just take a little time to sit in the (admittedly meager) sun and feel the grass.

A wet hug snapped Applejack back to attention.

“I’m sorry,” Rarity said. “I’m sure that your dream scared you very badly, Applejack.” She drew back and smiled widely. “If it makes you feel any better, you know I’m scared, too. But we can’t lose hope.” Her hair, soaked, hung around her neck, down to her haunches. Her blue eyes were full of gentle light.

Applejack grinned back and nodded. “Got that right,” she said. “I’ve got no plans to spend the rest of my life in this dang forest. And I’ll be darned if I never taste one of Pinkie’s cupcakes again.” She chuckled. “Thanks, Rarity. This dang place is getting to me more than I thought.”

Rarity shook her head. “It’s nothing, Applejack. You would do the same thing for me, were I in your position. Come on, let’s eat and get moving.” With renewed determination, the pair ate and set out—the road hadn’t let up yet.

The road did indeed continue on for some time—it was winding and meandering, but always seemed to stay on flat, solid ground. Rarity and Applejack made small talk as best they could, despite how scared the two of them were.

The bushes around them swayed every now and again, as though something was moving through the thick scrub. Branches creaked in the breeze, followed by the sounds of animals chirruping and slinking out of the way. Applejack knew what that meant—the animals and birds were being disturbed, somehow.

And of course, that meant they were being followed.

Without much to do but keep walking—there was no way they’d track down the myriad sounds around them—the pair of ponies soldiered on, their pace increasing with every wayward sound. Accompanying the rustling now was a soft squeaking.

“Applejack,” Rarity hissed, “what is that noise? Is it anything you’ve heard before?” The squeaking made her hair stand on end.

Applejack shook her head. “Can’t say I have, sugarcube.” She kept her voice low. “All I know is it can’t be good. Keep your guard up.”

The game continued for some time—bushes would rustle, the followers would squeak, all would fall silent, and the cycle would start again. Whatever was following them, it knew it was scaring them.

Applejack and Rarity, after what seemed like an eternity, came to a large, wide-open clearing in the trees, seemingly emptied of foliage specifically to herd ponies into it. Applejack bit her lip as she realized that the road led right into a trap.

She didn’t have time to think much else as a small figure zipped out from the brush, wrapping its strong limbs around her neck. Rarity got much the same treatment.

The two ponies fell to the dirt and began to writhe and squirm as the figures clung to their necks, steadily choking them into unconsciousness—there wasn’t much they could do, unfortunately, as several other little figures emerged from the undergrowth, wielding large, blunt instruments.

Applejack kicked out in front of her with her strong back hooves, catching one attacker solidly in the chest. The figure squeaked and flew back, crashing into a tree. She fought hard, smashing the shadow on her back into the ground over and over, lashing with her hooves. Figures went down all around her, but eventually she was overwhelmed, her body pinned under myriad assailants.

Rarity, for her part, tried to concentrate and utilize the magic she’d learned from Twilight. Her horn crackled and loosed a bolt into a shadow’s face—it reeled back with a screech and dropped to the forest floor. Another tried to grab at her horn, but found its appendage torn by the sharp end. A blow caught her in the temple and her eyes crossed.

The last thing the two of them saw was a thick bark club swinging into their vision.

A hoof slapped Rarity across the face, leaving her mouth hanging wide open and her eyes rolling around in her head. Applejack was still knocked out, it seemed. The unicorn looked around with a grimace as her vision came back into focus, spots dancing in her eyes. She and Applejack were tied to trees with strong vines—she couldn’t move a muscle in her upper body.

“Uhn…where am I?” she groaned. “What is going on here?” She looked forward and gasped at the sight of a collection of fillies and colts standing around her, their fetlocks unshorn and their manes in tangles, falling messily around their eyes as they glared at her. A unicorn filly, slightly taller than the rest, walked forward and bopped Rarity on the head with her hoof.

“Shut your mouth!” she cried. “Ponies not talk to us! We talk to ponies!” The filly turned away and waved at the other ponies. She seemed much thicker than a normal pony all over—heavier flanks, wild mane, bigger bones and a relatively chubby middle. She turned back to Rarity as her companions ran off into the woods, looking down her wide nose at the unicorn. White locks of hair covered parts of her face and ran down past her withers.

“You pretty unicorn—why you around here?” Her tongue darted across her teeth.

Rarity paused, searching for the right words. “Um, well, my friend and I were teleported out here by another friend of ours—I’m afraid she was casting a spell for us as practice and happened to lose control of her magic. We would very much appreciate it if—” The filly stuck her hoof in Rarity’s mouth—it tasted like dirt.

“Mmn. Yes. I see.” The filly’s words were slow and deliberate. “You ponies make mistakes all the time. Especially the unicorns.” She reached up and tapped Rarity’s horn a few times. “Not know how to use magic like me. Not good at it like I am.”

Rarity’s blood was rising, but she raised an eyebrow, trying to keep her voice even. “But, if you don’t mind me asking, what exactly are you? I have never seen fillies and colts like you.”

The filly’s eyes widened and she stamped a hoof in the dirt, grinding it back and forth. “Not ponies like you!” she cried. “Not ponies at all! And not children!” She panted for a few moments, and then said more calmly, “For a unicorn, you pretty stupid.”

Rarity gaped. “How dare you!?” she cried. “I am Rarity of Ponyville! I am a mare of extreme class, grace and civility! My ensembles have been spoken of throughout Equestria, even as far as Canterlot, as being some of the best designs ever created! Do not speak to me that way!”

Up came the hoof again—this time it left a red mark on Rarity’s cheek. “Shut up,” the mare said. “Not matter who you are. Not matter that you Rarity. Not matter that you famous. Not matter as long as you tied up here.” She grinned. “Not matter as long as your pony friends not around.”

Leaving Rarity shocked at her reaction, the mare turned to Applejack and slapped her as well, waking her up. The introductions went about as well for her as they had for Rarity.

“What in tarnation?” she asked incredulously. “Why am I tied up?”

“You tied up because I tie you up,” the mare said. “Why you think?”

Applejack snorted. “What I’m thinking is that you’re pretty dang rude for such a small pony.”

The mare’s eyes flared. “You not talk to me like that! You ponies tied up, make fun of one who tie you up!?” She shook her head. “Not know ponies so stubborn.”

Rarity chimed in. “We are most certainly not stubborn! We’re just rather upset because you knocked us out and tied us up!”

“No, you ponies stubborn,” the mare said, “more than I thought. And stupid. Real stupid.” She laughed. “Many unicorns in your villages. Bad. Dangerous. Stupid.” She turned away from them, her dew-covered fetlocks glinting in the sunlight breaking through the canopy. “Only one unicorn in each village here. Most powerful. More powerful than your common unicorns.” She turned back and shifted her frizzy hair aside, showing off her gnarled horn. “That me. I am Glow Star.”

Applejack was getting more steamed by the second. “Well, Star, sorry to tell ya, but there’s a unicorn in Equestria that I’m betting could whip you.”

Glow Star shrugged. “I not know that. They not here.” She laughed. “Not matter how powerful they are if they not here. Guess we never know.”

Applejack gritted her teeth, but fell silent.

“Now you two, I ask again, what you do here? I know you look for home. But you get lost here. You ponies stupid. Real stupid. But I not want to hurt you. Not shown me that you dangerous.”

Star stared at them hard for a few moments, chewing her lip. “Why you come through here? Why not take free path? No trees there. You have map, yes? You look, see this road no good for you.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Why would we know anything at all? We were transported to this area magically! We had no idea about the geography or the ponies living here, aside from Derby. All we had to go on was a worn-out map.”

Star shook her head and sighed. “Really not know much. Not know much at all.” She paused. “I know Derby. Good village, but ruled by unicorn. She very vain—when trade pass through here we protect because of last ruler, nice griffon.”

Rarity spoke up. “I apologize if you’d rather not say, Glow Star, but what species of pony are you, exactly? I have never seen anything quite like you.”

Star nodded. “We Shetlands. We from…not here. Not matter where we from. I said I Glow Star, not tell you what I am.” Her hoof swept through the air grandiosely. “I village elder here in Mire Woods. Most powerful mare for miles. Old. Very old.”

Applejack’s jaw dropped. “A Shetland? But when I was younger, they told me y’all didn’t exist!” She bit her lip. “Then again, they also told me things like Discord didn’t exist.”

Star nodded. “You told wrong. Like I say, ponies dumb.” She laughed. “I not speak right and you ones sounding dumb. Something wrong with that.” She crossed her hooves in front of her. “Anyway, yes, we Shetlands. We live in Mire Woods for generations, know it like back of hoof. I know much magic. Much, much magic passed down through other unicorns to me.” A smile crossed her face. “Very proud.”

Rarity wanted to rebut her, tell her that she was wrong and that Twilight could beat her any day, but she stayed quiet—getting her feathers ruffled hadn’t done them any good thus far. She did have a burning question, however.

“Pardon me for asking,” she said, “but if you know so much magic, why not use it to clean this place up a little? All this brown and dark green does nothing for me, dear.”

Star shook her head. “No. Not change nature. Cannot change nature like you ponies—it is a wrong thing to do. It was always a wrong thing to do. Changing nature? Why not go and declare yourself a Princess?” She snorted. “My magic for helping with tasks. Saving ponies in trouble. Not used for stupid things.”

Rarity blinked. “Well, if your magic is so useful, then why don’t you teach it to other ponies passing through here? I’m sure a mare as old and powerful as yourself would have to know some very powerful magic.”

Star glared. “Ask too many questions. You not seem like bad ponies, now I talk to you, untie you.” She snapped her head back and called out. “Let them go. They go free.” She turned back as two ponies emerged from the undergrowth and untied their bonds. “You two look useful, maybe. Help out around village some, then maybe I consider teaching fussy unicorn a thing or two. You show me you not dangerous—now show me I can trust you. Or you leave, like others.”

Rarity opened her mouth to protest being called fussy, but Applejack stuffed a hoof in it. They didn’t need to make Star any sourer than she was.

“Thank you kindly, ma’am. We’ll be glad to help you out some, if you’ll tell us what we need to do.”


Star nodded. “You get one spell each day. I decide which, not you. Today we just resting, so you help me with something slow.” She turned and started walking without any command to follow. After a few moments, Applejack and Rarity started to follow, looking around awkwardly at the Shetlands staring at them.

The village Star presided over was relatively small—ponies milled about in the area. They were chatting, laughing, foals running around and playing games. None of them seemed to mind it when Star berated them for being too loud or for bumping into her—then again, they were probably used to it.

The houses were all smallish and made primarily of sticks and mud, with long, supple leaves from the trees used as binding to secure the structures. There didn’t appear to be any flooring inside, nor was there any furniture to speak of—the most either pony could see was a little cot.

The Shetlands, on the outside, looked disorganized. Their hair was all terribly unkempt, and some of them had sticks and leaves erupting from beneath their dull-colored tangles. Their coats weren’t much better—all the same dull colors as their hair, but with patches of crusted mud and grass stains. Their hair seemed to collect everything they walked across. In the distance, ponies were busily working fields and making tools.

“Rarity,” Applejack said, “you sure you can even learn magic that ain’t about your special talent? What if the magic Star teaches you ain’t even something you can use?”

“Applejack, unicorns would be awfully useless if we couldn’t learn all different types of magic—it only takes concerted study and practice, not to mention honing of magical ability. My passion may be fashion, and everything related to it, but I’ve learned other magic—especially with Twilight around.”

Applejack pursed her lips in thought. “Is that why Twi has such powerful magic? Because she studied and whatever? Pardon me for not knowing too much about unicorns.”

Rarity smiled. “Not at all, Applejack. And as for Twilight, her special talent is magic, but she’s been studying the craft since she was a filly. It’s what she enjoys doing. I’m sure with a little practice, whatever Star teaches me won’t be out of my reach.”

Star stopped suddenly and whirled around in front of a much larger hut than the others. Bits of dust flew from her mane. “We here,” she said. “This my home. Where all knowledge of Shetlands is stored.”

Rarity blinked. “Star, does that make you the bookkeeper of this village or something along those lines?”

Star nodded. “Librarian, matron, on and on. I am village.” She smiled suddenly, revealing yellowed teeth. “Very proud. Great ponies we are. Not known by many—privilege for you. Come in, much work.”

Rarity and Applejack looked at each other, then entered. The inside of the hut was expansive, with thickly cut grass serving for carpeting and several mats made of softened bark scattered along the floor. On the second floor was a large bed crafted from birch and padded with hay. The whole place smelled like earth, and Applejack closed her eyes a moment, a good feeling running from her hooves to her ear-tips.

“Nice place,” she said, “who keeps it for you?”

Star snorted. “I keep house. I soften bark, weave grass. All me. Other ponies too busy.”

Applejack was shocked. “You keep this place looking like this? If you’re the matron of this here village, how’s that possible?”

Star chuckled. “I work hard. Sometimes harder. Not always easy.” She levitated a book from a shelf on the second floor. “This why I need your help.” She opened the book, revealing blank pages.

Rarity looked up, raising an eyebrow, but said nothing.

“You confused,” Star said. “Make sense.” She turned away from them. “New unicorn was born recently. Very recently. Bad news for me. Good news for village, perhaps. I am old, but that obvious. Not sure I live long enough to pass knowledge down to this new unicorn. She not even of age yet.”

Rarity spoke up. “Star, I know there are odd cases here and there, but didn’t you have any children of your own? From what I’ve seen, everypony else in this village is an earth pony. And aren’t they able to read and write in order to help you with this undertaking?”

Star shook her head. “Unicorn birth is foretold. Sometimes come late, sometimes early. Nopony knows why. All Shetland unicorns born without ability to make more Shetland unicorns.” She chuckled and looked out the window. “And for reading, writing, well, no other pony know how besides me. Not important for them. They know speech, know work, not much else. Unicorns village elders, need this knowledge. Not so important for others.”

Rarity paused. “And about everypony being an earth pony…?”

Star smirked mockingly. “You see Shetlands. Why you think no pegasi?” She wiggled her rather heavily-built body back and forth to illustrate the point.

Applejack, mostly silent until now, said, “Glow Star, pardon me for saying this, but I’m only decent at reading and writing. My special talent’s got more to do with farm work than with books.”

Star nodded. “Right, not much for schooling, like I say.” She waved a hoof dismissively. “Then you go. Help with farming, help with other things. Unicorn stays.”

It stung a little to be shucked so easily, but Applejack turned and left, making for the fields. Before she could get out the door, however, Star stopped her.

“You help Earthfruit. He good stallion, take my word for it. You know him by color—very red.” With that, she ceased speaking and let Applejack leave.

He He

Star turned and looked out the window, addressing Rarity. “Now I, of course, not trust you with our magic. Not tell you that part. Teach you one or two spells for work, not much else. Not matter if you know my life. Mistakes, not-mistakes. Not matter much to you. Magic already archived by other unicorns, history too.”

The unicorn sighed and turned back towards Rarity. “Not take much effort, sad as it makes me to say.” She smiled. “Life not interesting. Important lessons, but not big book material.”

Rarity blinked. “Star, excuse me for asking, but you’re sure you want to trust me with this information? I imagine some of it must be quite sensitive.”

Star nodded. “Sensitive, yes, but these not scabbed wounds—these scars. Scars not open back up. Not matter. Trust me.” Star twiddled her hooves. “I born. I learn magic. I go through ritual to sharpen horn. I gain Shetlands. Lose Shetlands. I take ponies in when they lost, send them on their way. Get betrayed once. Not exciting.”

Rarity wanted to follow up on that, but Star spoke up, stopping that idea dead.

“Right. We get started.”

Sent off to speak to the stallion named Earthfruit, Applejack didn’t waste any time looking for him. She searched through the village, asking ponies here and there where she could find him, and they all pointed her to the muddy fields used for harvesting potatoes. They all spoke with the same queer dialect as Glow Star, and rather loudly at that. She steeled herself for working next to Earthfruit who, the second she saw him, surprised her with his size—he was taller than all the other Shetlands, and thicker to boot.

“Howdy partner,” she called. She looked around at his working crew. “I guess y’all are working the potato fields? I ain’t too versed in how harvesting potatoes goes, but I’m a quick learner, so no worries about me getting it down.”

The stallion raised his head from a vine and stared intently at Applejack for a few moments before giving her a dismissive grunt.

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Uh, pardon me for asking, Earthfruit, but ain’t you supposed to tell me how to harvest the potatoes or something? I’ve only ever done it once or twice.”

The stallion shook his head with another grunt. Applejack narrowed her eyes—it was like they were playing some kind of trick on her!

“Well then, I guess I just gotta learn all by myself?” She snorted. “Your Glow Star sent me out here and you ain’t even gonna talk to me?”

Earthfruit closed his eyes, a look of annoyance crossing his face. When he reopened them, he tilted his head up and pointed to his throat a few times. It was only then that Applejack saw the terrible, ugly scars running across Earthfruit’s throat.

The ragged marks started above, near the left base of his jaw, running down and across his Adam’s apple, straight down to his strong collarbone. In the dim light filtering through the canopy, she could also make out another thick line of scar tissue which cut along his chest, and a matching line across his cutie mark.

“By Celestia,” Applejack whispered in disbelief, eyes widening. Without thinking, she also said, “What happened to you?” Earthfruit shot her a look, but another stallion, much smaller, stepped in.

“He can’t answer that,” the stallion said in a high, reedy voice. He held out a hoof, which Applejack shook. “I’m Blink. Three-quarters of the time, I’m Earthfruit’s right-hoof stallion and speaker, and the other quarter I’m Earthfruit’s scout and speaker.” He beamed. “Please to meet you, Applejack. I was told you were coming, and sorry I wasn’t here sooner—the left quadrant of the field needed work done.”

Applejack, trying to process the fact that Blink could speak normally at all, looked him over. He was thin and relatively tall, with only a passing resemblance to the other ponies around him—the closest thing to the Shetland stature about him was his untrimmed bangs. He also looked to be in his middle age.

Blink chuckled. “You’re wondering why I can speak normally, aren’t you?” He tapped his chest proudly. “I’m a fifth-generation Shetland, formed down the line from a progressive union of ponies and Shetlands.” He paused. “Not that Shetlands are born without speech, mind you. I just study the books that Glow Star lets me read, and take notes from the ponies passing through. When I’m not working out here, of course.”

Applejack nodded at Earthfruit. “If it’s not too personal, what happened with, er, you know.”

Blink raised an eyebrow. “He’s not offended by it, I assure you. His scars came from a Timberwolf attack on the village. Earthfruit was already big and very strong, but I must say, he’s lacking in tactical ability. That’s why he needs me, right Earth?” A sharp smack upside Blink’s head sent him reeling. “Well,” he slurred, eyes rolling, “maybe he doesn’t need me that badly.”

Applejack chuckled at the pair and smiled. “Well, I’m mighty happy to meet y’all, but if you don’t mind me saying it, time’s wasting.”

Blink shook his head back and forth, clearing the stars from his eyes. “Right, right. There’s plenty of time in a day and yet never enough, wouldn’t you say?” He turned to Earthfruit. “Tell me, big guy, what needs doing right now?”

Earthfruit raised an eyebrow, pointing back at the fields with a blunt hoof—practically every potato vine was already taken up by a Shetland, diligently harvesting.

Blink considered this for a moment, then nodded his head knowingly. “Right, right,” he said, turning back to Applejack. “The fields have more than enough ponies working them at the moment, so you’re going to be joining us out in the field to do a sweep of the village!” He beamed. “Won’t that be exciting?”

Applejack was confused. “Pardon me asking, Blink, but this village looks pretty peaceful to me—what kinda things are you used to seeing out there that could threaten y’all?”

Blink’s face darkened. “Plenty of things, sorry to say. A few weeks ago, Earthfruit was recovering from a fight with a manticore when a group of Timberwolves attacked us. The working Shetlands are strong, but the Timberwolves were so much faster than they were…” He shook his head. “We lost a few that day. That’s why we have to stay sharp. They need us.”

Applejack felt her heart jump into her throat. “Did you say manticores?” Sweat started to gather on the back of her neck.

Blink chuckled dismissively. “I wouldn’t worry much about that,” he said. “They’re uncommon at best, and we’ll be taking a well-traveled path, the one my father always used to use. They rarely attack out there—Earthfruit’s scuffle with that one happened to be an unlucky occurrence.”

The big stallion shot Blink a look, and he smiled nervously. “Well, I mean, maybe not just unlucky.” When Applejack raised an eyebrow, Blink elaborated. “We think it may have been led there. When I say a manticore attack is ‘uncommon’, I really mean that that’s the only manticore either Earthfruit or I have ever seen. They’re around, sure, but they almost always keep to themselves, way off in the reaches of the forest nopony explores.”

Applejack nodded. “Question is, who do you think might have led it here?”

Blink hesitated, but after a nod from Earthfruit, said, “Well, probably the same one who incited the Timberwolves once they knew that Earthfruit was injured. Probably the same one who, once those attacks subsided, sent in some kind of horrible flying creatures to attack us.” He sighed. “We keep beating these attacks back, but there’s going to be one that we can’t stop, eventually.”

Applejack stopped a moment, looking at the trees overhead. “You think we’ll get attacked out here? If these things keep happening all the time, ain’t that enough reason to be wary?”

Blink chuckled and waved his hoof towards the forest. “I doubt it. There hasn’t been any reason to think about things like that recently, what with quite a few of our workers receiving lessons from Earthfruit pertaining to wrestling and other methods of fighting. Plus, with you, a mare who, might I say, is extremely strong-looking, and that Rarity around, I doubt we have much to worry about.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Us? We’re just a couple of ponies from Ponyville. I’m a farm pony, not a big ol’ pony like Earthfruit. And Rarity’s a fashion pony, not a powerful unicorn like your Glow Star. Whatever we bring to the table can’t be enough to make a difference if there’s another attack.”

They were nearing the edge of the forest now—Blink tapped one of the trees. “Trust me on this—Shetlands are perfect in a forest. With you and Rarity backing us, especially if I teach you a thing or two about fighting in a forest and Glow teaches Rarity some more advanced magic, it’s unlikely anything can stand up to us.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Not that y’all haven’t been hospitable or nothing, but were you told that we’re not staying here too long? We got a home to come back to.”

Blink smiled. “I know. But it’s been a while since I’ve spoken to another pony who looks like me in quite a while, outside of business terms, so you’ll have to forgive me if I seem a little too excited. I’ve read a lot about other ponies from Glow’s books, but this is pretty much my first opportunity to work with one.”

That was good enough for Applejack and, with Earthfruit and Blink walking ahead, she followed. The forest was much less dark than it had been before, with a hoof-beaten path lined on either side by foliage. As a matter of fact, it was quite a pretty forest once the foreboding air was removed from it.

Light filtered in through the canopy, shining through leftover dew droplets floating in the air to create thick pearls of light. The grass curled in on itself and made a thick carpet everywhere except the main path. The trees were tall and verdant, with heavy green vines hanging from the branches to form curtains along the path.

As Applejack walked, a thought occurred to her.

“Blink, didn’t you say that you were bred down the line from a Shetland? How’re you so ponylike?” Blink shrugged.

“That’s not important really, is it?” He looked back at her, the light shining through his thick hair. “Pony genetics are crazy enough without further complicating things, wouldn’t you say? I’ve tried to study biology before and come to the conclusion that it’s not even close to worth thinking about.”

Applejack nodded. “And how can you talk like that? I only ever heard Twilight talking like that before, and it doesn’t seem like your village has much in the way of studying materials.”

Blink’s pace hitched. “Is that really important? The way I came by my manner of speech really isn’t that interesting, I assure you.”

Applejack felt like she’d been stung, and Earthfruit nudged Blink, giving him a stern look. A pang of hurt crossed Blink’s face and he sighed deeply.

“I’m sorry for snapping at you like that. I just don’t really like to talk about it.”

Applejack accepted that, going back to listening to the sounds of birdsong wafting through the trees—they almost sounded like they’d been trained. One warbled a tune that went up and down in pitch wildly, yet sounded so sweet and clear that Applejack felt relaxed almost immediately.

That relaxation died in her chest at the realization that one of the birds was singing a song she barely remembered. The mare skidded to a halt.

It was a tune she’d been taught by Granny Smith a very long time ago, when she was just a filly. It carried a dangerous and terrible message despite how upbeat it sounded. Blink and Earthfruit stopped and turned, giving Applejack confused looks.

“Are you okay, Applejack?” Blink asked. “We should probably keep moving, but if you need to take a rest, we can.”

Applejack shook her head. “Nah,” she said, her voice quivering, “it ain’t that. It’s just that I could swear one of those birds is singing a song I know. It’s supposed to be a warning for when one of the Everfree Forest’s most dangerous critters comes out.”

Blink waited a moment, looking around, then asked, “Well, what is it supposed to warn of, Applejack?”

Applejack’s voice was tiny as she said it, eyes going wide at the sight of a thick, barbed tail emerging from the brush. “Manticore.”

Earthfruit and Blink spun around, but not quickly enough to avoid the lashing tail, which took both of them in the chest with a wide sweep. The smaller pony crashed into a tree, slumping winded to the ground. Earthfruit whirled through the air and landed hooves-up, but lost his balance due to the momentum and skidded jaw-first through the undergrowth, only able to raise himself once the dirt cloud had subsided.

Applejack put her hooves to the ground and bared her teeth, a cloud of steam shooting from her nostrils. Earthfruit wiped a stream of blood from his nose and joined her, panting heavily.

The manticore sized them up, its dark, merciless eyes filled with thought. Finally, it raised a blunt paw and swept it towards Applejack, the smaller of the two. The mare skipped deftly out of the way and bucked the manticore’s slow paw, causing the beast to recoil in pain with a roar. Earthfruit and Applejack looked at each other, then at Blink, and split off, the larger distracting the manticore while Applejack got Blink back to his senses.

The smallest pony had a hoof on his chest, his stomach heaving as he gasped for breath. Applejack propped him up against the tree and raised his hooves above his head, opening up his airways.

“Thank…you…” He gasped between breaths.

“Hush up,” Applejack said, “that manticore’s got Earthfruit’s number right now, so you need to get back on your hooves before it realizes you’re easy prey, sitting here like this.”

Blink nodded, trying to control his breathing while Applejack spun around, checking how Earthfruit was doing.

The big stallion was definitely faster than the manticore, but not by much. He was having trouble avoiding its claw and tail swipes—the barb would rake his skin here, the paws would catch his heavy flanks there, and occasionally the manticore would get in a good hit that would leave Earthfruit reeling for a moment before the fight resumed.

But the stallion was gaining ground here and there—the manticore’s thick skull was bruised in several places from being bucked so powerfully, and several of its claws were scattered on the ground, shattered by Earthfruit’s hooves.

As Earthfruit dodged another swipe from the paw, the manticore saw an opening, bringing its barb to bear. The cruel point drove down and towards Earthfruit’s shoulder, but the stallion caught it in his hooves, muscles standing out in thick ropes on his arms as he forced up against it, sweat pouring down his face.

As the tail advanced inexorably downward, Earthfruit made one last push to try and halt its progress, his mouth opening wide in what was supposed to be a scream, but came out as a squeak. His right eye filled with blood as a vessel exploded. Despite his push, the manticore’s tail sunk deep into his left wither, and Earthfruit’s grip loosened enough that the monster could whip its tail up and outwards, tossing the bleeding stallion into the bushes.

Applejack was still blocking Blink with her body as the manticore turned to them, its white fangs dripping with thick saliva. As it neared them, Blink tapped Applejack on the shoulder.

“Go,” he said, “get out of the way. I’m more than quick enough for this thing.” She turned and saw a confident grin on his face.

“Alrighty,” she said, “but if you go and get yourself hurt for me, I’m gonna be mighty upset with you.”

The stallion chuckled. “Noted,” he said, standing as Applejack moved to the side. At the sight of a smaller, weaker meal, the manticore shifted its focus, raising a paw high over its head. Before it could even start to bring it down, however, Blink was gone, the undergrowth rustling with his departure.

Applejack watched in amazement as the monster swept through the bushes with its tail, searching for the little pony, but never once coming up with him. With it distracted, Applejack started to move back when she felt a hoof on her flank.

“Applejack,” Blink said, his eyes the only thing visible in the greenery. “Go check on Earthfruit—although I’m sure he’s fine—and then climb the tallest tree you can find. When I give you the signal, jump onto the manticore. Well, don’t just ‘jump’ on him, mind you—find a way to disable him from that height.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow, prompting a sigh from Blink.

“Elbow drop it or something.” His teeth showed in a smile. “And try to make up a cool name for it or something, like ‘Mare Bomb Supreme’ or ‘Shining Elbow Blast’, I dunno. All the stuff I used to watch as a foal had stuff like that.”

Applejack was utterly perplexed, especially considering he’d said “watch as a kid”, but Blink waved her away before she could think of anything. The small stallion slipped back into the forest and emerged several yards away from where Earthfruit lay, the manticore giving a roar of rage as it charged the spot.

Applejack’s mind was in a haze as she made her way through the bushes, sweat pouring down into her eyes at the merest movement. When she finally reached Earthfruit, she winced at the sight of his shoulder.

The puncture wound was deep, the only saving grace being that manticores weren’t poisonous. The flesh and hair around the wound was ragged, thick blood leaking from the area. Earthfruit looked up at her as she inspected the wound, shaking his head back and forth. To the mare’s surprise, he gave a shoulder a roll and grinned at her. She smiled back—apparently he was a lot harder to stop than most ponies.

With her help, he got to a standing position, making slow progress back towards the clearing, where the manticore’s frustration was apparent at the state of the torn undergrowth. Applejack thought hard on what to do next before remembering Blink’s instruction to climb the tallest tree she could find. She frantically searched for a few moments before locating a massive one on the edge of the clearing, and started towards it, keeping an eye on the pair of defenders as she inched up.

They weren’t having much trouble now that they could team up on the manticore, Blink flitting around it while Earthfruit delivered crushing blows to its legs and jaw—the monster was practically reeling now, but doggedly kept on the offensive, lashing out with every limb it could use.

When Applejack reached the highest point on the tree, she whipped her ponytail out of her face, staring down at the ground from her perch on a thick limb. She waved a hoof and Blink, barely a dot, gave an acknowledging nod, signaling Earthfruit.

The huge stallion snorted and reared back as the manticore lunged forward. Hooves slammed into paws and Earthfruit’s jaw clenched tight, his wound spurting a little blood at the strain. Blink desperately waved his hooves around and, taking a deep breath, Applejack lept from the tree, her elbow thrust outwards.

As she fell, one more thought came to mind, the ground rushing up beneath her giving her an odd creative spark. She opened her mouth and, into the whipping wind, issued a cry of,

“Earth-Breaking Applesmash!”

The impact shook the earth, clods of dirt flying up around them as the manticore was driven into the ground. Applejack herself was thrown from the beast as it thrashed about, spraying soil everywhere as its mind tried to cope with the intense pain radiating from its head. The mare landed in the soft grass, her arm smarting.

What came next, she couldn’t even believe.

Earthfruit jumped back from the manticore as it struggled to rise, thick liquid running down its shaking face as it delivered a bone-chilling roar of fury, though it was clearly on its last leg. Blink jumped up into his arms with a determined, grim smile, and rolled into a ball. As Earthfruit cocked his arms back, panting heavily, Blink screamed,

“Blink-And-You’ll-Miss-It Cannonball Special!”

With that, Earthfruit hurled the little stallion through the air. As the manticore tried to grasp what was happening, Blink smashed straight into his face, an ear-splitting crack resounding through the woods. The monster’s eyes rolled back into its head as a wash of red dripped from its mouth. Blink spun in place for a few seconds, in the curve of the manticore’s face, before sticking out his back hooves and shoving off, flipping through the air and landing with a thump.

He turned to Applejack, whose jaw was practically on the ground, and gave a triumphant smile, as did Earthfruit.

And, several yards away, the manticore gave its last breath.

Back in the village, Rarity was hard at work, diligently taking down everything Glow Star said verbatim—the old pony had told her that writing properly was going to make it far too difficult for anypony else to read the text. The mare’s life, despite her harsh words about it, was actually rather interesting for Rarity.

“Born in older time,” she said. “Much older. Nopony know how to speak like this—talk by grunts and signs, except for Elder.” She chuckled. “Funny, watch us talk back then. Elder was good stallion.” She nodded. “His name Firelight. We call him Pop, since fire pop when you listen to it.” Rarity paused to look up from her work.

“Glow Star,” she said, “I thought you said that Shetlands knew how to speak, somewhat. Why didn’t they know back then?”

Star shook her head. “I get to that, unicorn.” She turned to look out the window. “Firelight wary of ponies. Ones like you. He not hate them, but he think they out to steal our secrets, take from us.” She chuckled. “Not know what word you ponies use, but he right when I not believe him.”

Rarity saw a pang of hurt cross Star’s face and frowned. “The word is ‘irony’, darling.”

“Right, irony. But using my words wrong. He not right always.” She nodded towards Rarity. “He not right about ponies like you.” Her gaze darkened. “Right about ponies like Trixie.”

Rarity wanted to follow up, but let Star continue. “Anyway.” She cleared her throat, burying her dark expression. “When young, no more than your age, Firelight go to fight griffons that attack our village.” She snorted. “He right about them most times, too.” She sighed. “He not come back. Well, he come back, not how we wanted.

“They dump his body in front of us as warning. Tell us we not as strong as them, never will be. His horn gone. Griffon chief, cruel bird, name of Seth.” She snorted derisively. “Never understand how they name. Choose foolish names, expect others to think them great.

“Any case, there we were. No Elder. No direction. I step up, being village’s only unicorn, and say I now Elder. Ponies angry, not ready for new Elder so soon. Tell them I understand, but village need leader. Ponies not know how to run themselves, most times.”

Rarity chimed in. “Well, to be fair, Glow Star, the ponies of Ponyville often run themselves perfectly well!” She smiled. “Especially since Twilight Sparkle arrived. She helped us wrap up winter, plan for Hearth’s Warming Eve—she’s been a perfect help to the mayor ever since Celestia sent her. And of course, a dear friend to Applejack and myself.”

Star sighed. “You talk of Twilight Sparkle much, make me think she  good pony, powerful, too. Know none of this myself. Elder learn not to trust hearsay.” Rarity was stung a little, but nodded.

“Go on, now,” Star said. “So I become Elder. Learn much, perhaps learn it too fast, like drinking cold water too fast. Many lessons learned. Much magic—old arts of Shetland unicorns. Firelight secretive pony, not leave much—spells and life story. None else. So make do with what he leave.

“It not much. Three bolt spells, two spells on plant growth—which no use anyway—and account of spell he use when he go off, fight griffons, written before he go.” She frowned. “Look good, but he not say how cast it. Creates big explosion, but hurts user bad. But not important now. Weather turn harsh, we not know why. Not know how talk to Princess and ask for help.”

“But Glow Star,” Rarity said, “I thought that you didn’t agree with changing the weather to suit your own needs? Wouldn’t contacting the Princess with a cry for help break your principals?”

Star nodded sullenly. “Yes. But get weak. Scared. Not been Elder long then. You understand that no will perfect. No will perfect. No, stupidity break through every pony sometime. It only matter of when. Happen to Earthfruit when he attacked by Timberwolves.” She snorted. “Should have run. Should have come back. But he stay, he fight. Nearly leave us defenseless.” She chuckled, the sound full of bitterness. “I have to make Blink defender, in that case. Celestia help us all it come to that.

“But yes, bad weather. Floods, storms break trees in half, fires start even with wet wood—nothing make sense. Send out defender of that time, mare named Tuber, to look, find out what go on. Stupid. She leave village with ten ponies to look, all strong and smartest we have.” She glared. “They not know river swollen from rain, leaves cover water. Rain makes river rise, makes Tuber slip—she swallowed by water.

“Then lightning starts. Rain so thick, without Tuber, these ponies not know how survive. Usually not concern, even before my time, so we only teach defender, who give out knowledge. One climb tree, hit by lightning. Almost like lightning target him. Tree falls, crushes others. Some escape, others not.” Star sighed.

Rarity put a hoof to her mouth in horror. “Oh my!” she cried. “That must have been horrible, Glow Star!”

Star nodded slowly. “Yes,” she said, “but we move on. Dwell on things forever, end up going crazy. Move on too fast, seem cruel. Dwell just long enough.” She shook her head. “Finally take matters into own hooves. Leave all ponies in village and set out to find source of storms.

“Travel hard, conditions harsh and terrible. But go forward, know that safety of village up to me.” She looked at the ground. “Find things not want to find. Broken trees, broken rocks—broken Tuber. See her on shore of swamp, washed up, no breath. Then I see—well, explain swamp first. Swamp large, big island in center—animals sun there on good days.” Her expression turned grim. “What I see there, no animal.

“Pegasus. Never see one before, but Firelight share them with me during teachings. Not tell me much, but enough—easy to tell this pegasus one causing bad weather. Causing death. But he look familiar to me. I think hard and long, watch him. Then it come to me—I see ponies like him.” She chuckled. “They visit before. Give something.”

“How were they distinct, Glow Star?” Rarity asked. She gasped. “They weren’t like Trixie, were they?”

Glow Star broke into a fit of laughter, shaking her head. “That stupid, unicorn. Real stupid. No, know him by ticking legs. Eye swirling around in his head, other eye so normal.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Ticking legs? Swirling eyes?” It was her turn to smile with amusement. “Glow Star, now who’s being silly?”

The older unicorn shook her head seriously. “Not silly, unicorn. Tell you exactly what I see.” She tapped a bookcase with her hoof. “You write it.” Feeling the gravity of the statement, Rarity went back to writing. “Now, call out to pegasus, know he is one causing misery. Ask him what he doing, why he doing it.

“He answer me back in your speech—but different. That how I know he more than odd. Not from any place I know. Anyway, he tell me that he know what my village do, that we do things not good. Ask him what he mean—he fly, make circles around swamp. Not know what do now—see water rise from swamp.”

Rarity blinked. “But that’s not possible! We have a small reservoir back in Ponyville, probably a quarter of the size of any of your swamps around here, and it took every pegasus we could muster to raise the water from there to Cloudsdale!”

Glow Star put a hoof to her temple and sighed. “You talk about things, know nothing of much. Tell more.”

Despite being a little sore about the old unicorn’s tone, Rarity explained the process of lifting water from a city or village to Cloudsdale, and how Rainbow Dash had had so much trouble even getting the water there in the first place.

Glow Star nodded. “That exactly what this pegasus do. But this swamp, way you talk about your lake-thing, much smaller than that. Water fresher there than other places—we use it for drinking when rain not come often enough. It save this village more than once.”

Rarity shook her head. “But Glow Star, that isn’t the point. There isn’t a pegasus alive—not even Rainbow Dash—who could possibly have the wing power necessary to lift a body of water into the air single-hoofedly. It’s just too hard a task.”

Glow Star smiled and sighed wistfully. “Well, it happen, unicorn. I tell you this pegasus not natural. Ticking legs, remember?” She ran a hoof along her thick hair. “In any case, he not get the water far. Just enough to splash it onto me. Then he laugh and tell me that my kind even less natural than him. That nothing we do make any sense. That we all talk stupidly.

“I ask him where he get off saying things like that, that I never even seen him before, aside from trading, and he tell me that he watch our village, watch my ponies go about their work, listen to us talk. He decide that we not allowed to exist anymore. Talk about a new bunch of ponies, come from beneath the sea, to take Equestria from Celestia. I say he full of hot air, throw a rock at him. It miss, of course.”

Rarity held up a hoof. “Wait, Glow Star, is this the betrayer you spoke about? If it is, well—that doesn’t make any sense. You never even had any contact with him!”

Glow Star shook her head. “No, unicorn. He not betray us. He just crazy. Betrayer was an earth pony, like your friend. That story short—we teach him secrets of our tribe, allow him to see us grow and harvest, and he turn on us, try to burn our village to the ground so nopony else could have our knowledge but him—he wanted to be known as best farmer ever. Forgot about monsters in woods.” She chuckled. “We never find him.

“Back to pegasus. He get cocky, fly near me as I pick up another rock, so confident in his speed he ‘know’ that I would miss.” A small grin crawled across her face. “I not. Hit him in leg, hear awful sound like foals screaming. He scream, I cover ears and fall back, sparks flying everywhere from his leg. Once I get good look, I see that rock break his ticking leg. See entire thing come apart right in front of me while he try to pull rock out, screaming loud.

“When he finally get it loose, nothing work in that leg anymore. No more ticks, no more sparks, no more anything. He upset.” She grinned. “Tell me that I doom my village. I ask him what he mean, but he not answer, just leave.” She snorted. “Never hear from him again. Empty threats.”

Rarity opened her mouth to respond, but was cut off when a pony burst through the doorway and into the room, clearly out of breath.

“Star!” she cried, shaking her head back and forth, “Earthfruit, Blink!”

Rarity gasped. “Applejack was with them! Is she alright?”

The pony nodded.

Star’s expression darkened considerably. “What do it this time? Flying monsters again? Timberwolves?”

The pony shrugged hopelessly. “Help!”

The pony rushed from the building and Star followed, turning to Rarity. “You with me,” she said, “not waste any time. You know how to heal ponies?” When Rarity shook her head, Star made an exasperated noise. “Watch close,” she said, “maybe learn something.”

Blood pounded in Rarity’s ears as they rushed through the village, Star throwing orders this way and that to prepare defenses, get help to Earthfruit and Blink, and to keep eyes on the woods in case a follow-up attack came suddenly. All Rarity could think about was Applejack—even if she’d only suffered minor injuries, the thought of her being hurt at all made Rarity’s heart race. She wasn’t going to admit it outright, but she was growing more and more attached to Applejack—being away from her hadn’t been easy, even for a few hours.

As Rarity and Star reached the wounded group, Rarity couldn’t help but feel that Applejack felt the same way, considering the way her eyes lit up at the sight of her.

“Rarity!” the earth pony cried. “Boy am I ever glad to see you!” She trotted over before anypony could stop her, Rarity doing the same, and the pair embraced. Rarity smiled and sighed happily, feeling safe and secure.

“I missed you, Applejack,” Rarity said, pulling back to leg’s length. “Are you quite alright? I was worried when I heard you’d been attacked.”

Applejack chuckled. “Worried about me? Come on, Rarity, you know I’m tougher than that! Takes more than a little manticore to stop me.” The second she said that, the air around them grew completely still.

“Manticore?” Star was the first to break the silence. “A manticore attack you?” Her eyes narrowed dangerously, turning back to look at Earthfruit and Blink. “This true?”

Blink nodded. “Yes, Star,” he said, “hate to tell you it, but while we were out, just walking the normal path, Applejack heard a bird whistling a tune she recognized—supposed to warn of a manticore attack, I believe—and before the big guy or I could react, the monster was on top of us—it was quite a fright.”

Star bopped Blink on the head. “Still talk too much,” she said with a sigh. “But I get it. Manticore. Song. This not good news. You know what it means, Blink.”

The smaller pony looked down and away, his thick hair covering his eyes. “Yes, Star, I know. The attacks are escalating. I’m sorry that I didn’t run back to tell anypony, but it was a manticore. I was worried dragging it back to the village would cause more destruction.”

Star nodded. “Smart. Manticore hurt many ponies. This way it just hurt three.” She turned to Applejack and Rarity. “You know? Things not good.”

Applejack nodded. “I got most of the story, Star. Your village has been getting attacked by all kinds of different monsters and critters, and it’s starting to get to the point where y’all can’t defend yourselves anymore, so you gotta find out why this stuff is happening to y’all.”

“Good.” Star smiled. “There more than that, but you know most, and now Rarity too.” She turned and bent down, horn lighting up as she touched it to Earthfruit’s nasty shoulder wound. Immediately, the redness around the hole began to lighten, the edges becoming less ragged and the steady flow of blood staunching. Rarity’s eyes widened with amazement, which didn’t escape Star’s notice.

“That what my magic does—help ponies. Cannot make hole disappear—still must heal on its own—but it help.” She turned to Blink, an apologetic look on her face. “I sorry, Blink. My magic still cannot help your pieces.”

Blink shrugged. “It’s fine, Star, really. I can just wait for it to set itself back into place, and I’ll be fine.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “What are you talking about, Blink? What pieces?”

The small pony shook his head. “Now’s not the time to discuss that, sorry to say. There are much bigger concerns on the table. Like defending ourselves.”

Star shook her head grimly. “No,” she said, “no longer worry about defense. Not worry about stopping attacks anymore.” She bared her teeth aggressively. “Attacks hurt my villagers, hurt my crops. Hurt my friends. No more waiting, no more planning.” She turned to Blink with a smirk. “Now we put plan into action.”

Blink hesitated, but nodded. “Alright,” he said, “I guess I can agree. If we sit on our haunches forever and wait for the attacks to stop, we’re going to be worn down to nothing and wiped out eventually, which is exactly what they want.”

Star nodded, turning to Rarity and Applejack, who’d been mostly confused thus far. “Rarity, Applejack,” she said. “It been only one day. Not know each other at all. We give you guide and help you leave this place, get you on way to Ponyville—know where the road to it starts.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Nothing doing, Glow Star,” she said. “I can’t speak for Rarity, but I’m staying. Y’all need help with this plan of yours, if it’s gonna work, and doubly so if y’all don’t even know who’s attacking.”

Star narrowed her eyes. “Applejack,” she said, “this our problem. Not ask you to help.”

Rarity shook her head. “I have to agree with Applejack on this one, Star.” She smiled. “Good ponies like Applejack and myself cannot simply sit by and watch you charge into this blind.” Her smile turned sheepish. “And, if we help you, do you think you could teach me more magic? I know I’ve yet to learn any from you, but considering how absolutely insane getting back has been already, anything you can teach me will help.”

Glow Star paused, looking at the pair in disbelief, then smiled. “Yes,” she said. “You come back to my house with me. I teach you two spells today, as thanks, and then we sleep. Tomorrow we plan.” She turned back to Earthfruit and Blink. “And you two rest. Not exert yourselves with injuries.” She waves her hooves and everypony cleared out, save Rarity and Applejack. She grinned at them.

“I know you two care about each other. I give you some time to talk. Meet me in house when you ready.” With that, she walked away.

Rarity blushed as Star’s tail disappeared behind a house, looking over at Applejack. “Are you sure you’re alright, dear?” she asked. “It wouldn’t do if you were hurt more than you said you were.”

Applejack smiled softly, giving Rarity a playful shove. “Shucks, Rarity, I’m fine. Especially now that you’re around.”

The unicorn rolled her eyes. “Hush up, Applejack,” she said, hugging her. “I’m too happy to see you to call you out on being corny, but consider this a warning.” Her voice dropped. “I am very happy to see you again, AJ.”

The earth pony blushed deeply, then smiled, hugging Rarity tightly. “You too, Rarity.”

Just then, the sound of something crashing through the undergrowth caught their attention, and they pulled apart, both at the ready. Their eyes widened in shock at the sight of a rather large griffon stumbling towards them before going beak-first into the dirt, patches of red discoloring his feathers.


Shock was written on Applejack and Rarity’s faces as Faust hauled himself to his feet with a sigh, shaking his head back and forth. Blood dripped from a gash in his wing, explaining why he hadn’t flown here.

“Applejack, Rarity,” he said with a nod, a facsimile of his usual polite behavior. “Good to see you two again.”

Rarity was the first to speak. “Faust, what in Equestria happened to you? You look like you were attacked by a bear!”

Faust nodded. “Might as well have been.” He snorted when they tried to move to help him, holding up a clawed foot. “I’m okay,” he said, “the injuries aren’t half as bad as you think they are. I’ve just got to let this cut in my wing heal and I’ll be right as rain.” He smirked. “But that’s not what you two are really wondering about, is it?”

The pair nodded. “Faust,” Applejack said, “I’m just wondering what could’ve done this to you. You’re not a small griffon, if I do say so myself.”

Faust sighed. “It was more than one thing—that’s what I can tell you, for now. Is Glow Star around? I seriously need to talk to her.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Faust, you know Glow Star? She doesn’t seem like the most social pony.”

The griffon nodded. “Yes, I do. Listen, we can talk about all this later—I have to talk to her and get this injury patched up. Then I’ll play twenty questions with you, alright?”

The pair could tell he wasn’t trying to be rude—after all, he had probably slogged through a mile or two of swamp to get here, and injured to boot. They led him back through the village and to Glow Star’s hut. The unicorn was surprised to see him but, strangely, not surprised that he was hurt. The two retreated into the hut, leaving Applejack and Rarity outside.

“Things just keep getting weirder and weirder,” Applejack said. “What’s next? Gilda flying down out of nowhere in some kinda battle armor, declaring war on us?” She paused, then looked around. “Let’s just forget I said that.”

Rarity sighed and shook her head. “Things have been moving so quickly since we arrived at this village. First we’re captured, then the manticore, now Faust. Is it too much to ask that we be spared a few moments to relax?”

“You’ve got that right now.” From the side of the hut, Blink emerged. Bandages were wrapped around his middle and back, along with several stiches over his eyebrow. “And pardon me for saying this, but since you’ve got this time to relax, I have to wonder why you’re spending it lamenting the fact that you don’t have any time to relax.” He smiled cheekily.

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Blink, have you been back there the whole time?”

The stallion nodded. “I’ve been listening to them through the window. Normally I wouldn’t do something like this, but Star and Faust looked really serious. From what I could gather, they’re thinking that these attacks might be caused by The Great and Powerful Trixie, from the next village over—Derby.”

Applejack gasped. “You’re serious? But Trixie’s just arrogant—she’s not evil!”

Blink shrugged. “It’s not my place to say whether or not she is. I’m just telling you what I could gather. It’s also pretty likely that the griffons I mentioned earlier are behind some of this, too. They’ve been rotting from the inside out ever since Seth took over, not to mention since they started taking advice from that other griffon.”

Rarity’s breath caught in her throat. “Er, another griffon, you say? Who might that be?”

Blink shook his head. “We don’t know her name, yet. But trust me, she’s a nasty one. Rude, crude, and mean to the bone.” He snorted. “I’ve only seen her once or twice, but judging from her behavior then, there’s no reasoning with her.”

Rarity opened her mouth to inquire further, but Blink held up a hoof. “Look, I’m sure you have a lot of questions, and I’m more than willing to answer them, but not here, alright? I’m pretty sure Glow wouldn’t appreciate me spilling my guts to you two, so just follow me back to my hut.”

The three ponies made their way back across the village, trying to ignore the leaden air around them. Arriving at the hut, a tiny thing barely abler to fit them all, Blink’s demeanor turned serious.

“Alright,” he said, “you two need to know exactly how deep in this you are.” He picked up a book and flipped through it. “This is my personal log of the tensions in the village, alongside a verbatim account of everything I’ve been able to hear.” He stopped on a page and put his hoof down on it.

“Firstly, this hasn’t just started happening to us. That griffon I told you about? She got here some time ago, maybe a year and a half. We’ve always been pretty sure that she and Seth were causing the lion’s share of these attacks, but that never lined up. Seth’s perfectly capable of it, the other one honestly doesn’t seem like it. Like I said, she’s cold and rude, but to blindly attempt to massacre another species?”

Rarity piped up. “But Blink, how can you even have that theory in the first place? What attacks have been orchestrated on the village which would have absolutely required this other griffon’s help?”

Blink rubbed at the ground nervously. “It’s Seth that makes us think that, not the other one.” He flipped back through the book. “Seth is massive and powerful, several hundred pounds of angry muscle, but he’s not fast in the slightest. Before you two got here, there was an attack involving an extremely fast griffon zipping all around our village. We got out and threw rocks at her, since she was rending the trees and scaring the wildlife, and that’s when Seth and the others charged in through the brush, dragging several of us back with him ‘as a warning.’ It was sick.”

Applejack narrowed her eyes. “He sounds like bad news, alright. But what’s the other one’s name, Blink? I gotta feeling we know her.”

Rarity nodded. “Yes, there was a griffon who visited Ponyville several years back, named Gilda, who had the same kind of abilities that the griffon you’re describing does.”

Blink shrugged. “If her name’s Gilda, I don’t know that for sure, sorry to tell you. That’d be some coincidence if it was her though, huh? I mean, what’re the chances of meeting somepony you know all the way out here?”

The pair looked at each other. “Pretty darn good, actually,” Applejack said. “Trust us.”

Blink paused, “Okay, you’re gonna have to elaborate on that one. How can you have already met somepony out here you’ve met before?”

The two told him about Trixie, the matron of Derby, much to his shock.

“Madame Trixie, seriously? You knew her back when she was a performer?” His eyes were wide.

Rarity nodded. “We did, and she was as boastful back then as she is snippy now. Needless to say, she wasn’t happy to see Applejack and me—I fear that if we’d had Twilight with us, we’d have been kicked out instantly.”

Blink ran a hoof through his hair with a grimace. “Yeah, no kidding. I seriously can’t believe you two knew her back when she was still a traveling performer—most ponies only know her as being the best economic leader of Derby ever.”

Applejack snorted. “Yeah, well, it’s kinda hard to forget a nasty first impression like that.”

“I suppose so,” Blink said. “And I also suppose, with that in mind, meeting your griffon—Gilda, you said?—down here wouldn’t be so unlikely, either.”

Applejack’s eyebrow went up. “What makes ya say that, Blink?”

The little stallion jumped at the words. “Sorry, what? Oh, yes, right. Got a little lost in my own head, there.” He cleared his throat. “Well, this is just me musing, mulling around the possibilities, but what if—”

Hoofsteps from outside cut him off.

“Blink!” came Glow Star’s voice. “Blink, out now. Need you.”

The little stallion hesitated, but eventually nodded. “Alright, Star, I’ll be there just as soon as I say goodbye to Applejack and Rarity!” He turned back to them. “There’s more going on here than the naked eye would suggest, you two. I’d bet my left ear on it.” His eyes narrowed dangerously. “She wants me to help plan an attack against the griffons, I’m certain of it. Just stay here and talk. Don’t raise any red flags. I’ve got a bad feeling about all this.”

He walked out through the tent—Star berated him as they walked away, leaving Applejack and Rarity alone.

Rarity was the first to speak. “Applejack, if he thinks something isn’t right around here, well, do you really think we should stay? I understand that we already agreed to, but the fact of the matter is that these Shetlands are preparing for war! We still have to get back to Ponyville.”

Applejack’s jaw clenched. “Ain’t a good situation, that’s for sure. If these griffons are as tough as they sound, especially their big cheese, Seth, then we might not even make it back home.”

They sat in silence for some time, Rarity rolling a strand of hair between her hooves, Applejack lying back against the wall with her hair falling all around her.

“But he wasn’t lying when he said something ain’t right here.” Applejack’s eyes narrowed. “The whole village is worried, and I don’t blame them. They’ve probably never even heard of what a war is.”

Rarity’s expression grew somber. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing, isn’t it? Going to war.” She sighed. “I’m a lady of fashion, Applejack, not a lady of war.”

Applejack chuckled. “Yeah, and I’m a farm pony, not a fighter. Don’t mean we can’t hold our own when the chips are down.  Remember the Changelings? You knocked around your fair share of heads when it came to it.”

Rarity smiled. “Yes, I remember. And of course, there’s the time when Twilight fell over that cliff, and you had to hold her up until you could convince her to fall into Dash and Fluttershy’s hooves.” A small blush tinted her cheeks. “You’re very strong, Applejack.”

The earth pony looked up at the ceiling. “Thanks, Rarity. I’m mighty glad somepony out here has my back. And you ain’t weak, neither. Remember Tom? Or the Sisterhooves Social?”

Rarity frowned. “How many times must I tell you not to speak of that horrid rock ever again, Applejack? As far as I’m concerned, ‘Tom’ never happened. The Social, on the other hand…I displayed strength and agility that, to be perfectly honest, even I didn’t know I was capable of.” She grinned, determination glowing in her eyes. “And if it means getting back to Ponyville, I’ll do anything I need to.”

Applejack hauled herself up. “Darn right! If I gotta buck the beak off a griffon, then that’s what I’ll do to get back to Sweet Apple Acres and the girls.” She offered Rarity a hoof. “Now c’mon. How’s about we take a little time off from this dang place? Too depressing around here.”

Rarity gladly accepted, hoping she wasn’t turning bright scarlet again, and they set off toward a beautiful clearing filled with flowers to the south of the village.

Rarity lay back in the carpet of soft petals with a satisfied sigh, her hooves splayed out around her. It felt good to just be able to relax, for once.

She looked up at the canopy of trees, hoping to spot the sun shining through the leaves. Instead, she just saw dull green followed by dull green—the whole thing was impenetrable. She closed her eyes and thought of home, of Sweetie Belle and the spa, of Dash and Twilight and all the rest. Of her shop, her clients…

Rarity shot up.

“My clients!” she screamed. “I still have dresses and suits to make for the Gala! How am I supposed to do that if I’m stuck all the way out here? Princess Celestia is going to be so upset with me!” Her heart was racing—how had she not considered this before now?

Applejack stirred and stared groggily at Rarity. “Rarity, I know we both had jobs to do for the Princess and all—I mean, I’m missing out on a whole heap of bucking—but I’m willing to bet that she’s gonna understand that we got zapped out here.” A smile crossed her face. “There you go, frettin’ over nothing again.”

Rarity glared at Applejack, rising to a standing position. “Applejack, this is no joking matter! You may be getting paid by the Princess, but there’s no way I can get money from my clients without being there!”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “For pony’s sake, Rarity, we have to be focused on survival out here, okay? None of this stuff’s gonna matter if we don’t make it home. You’ll get all the time in the world to worry about that stuff when we get back home, alright? Plus, I’m pretty sure Celestia’ll give you some kinda extra money.” She tapped the grass next to her. “Lay down. Quit worrin’.”

Rarity paused a moment, just standing there as Applejack swept her bangs over her eyes to block out the sun. Then it hit her. Their hair was growing—now Applejack’s was so long that, lying down like she was, it reached the curve of her flanks.

The unicorn reached up and felt her own hair, flinching at the texture of dirt and dust gathering in it once again, at how it was starting to curl and tangle into itself, forming mats. Her hair never got long without plenty of teasing and straighteners, and it was starting to show—rather than coming down almost to the ground, it was starting to recede, curling along her neck and back. They’d been away too long as it was.

But watching Applejack lay there, her chest peacefully rising and falling, Rarity felt that it was silly to be so worried. All she really wanted to do was lie down with Applejack—and she did just that.

She didn’t want to wake the earth pony up, since she appeared to be sleeping, so Rarity carefully lowered herself to the ground and snuggled into Applejack’s side, laying her head on Applejack’s chest with care.

Her coat was surprisingly soft against Rarity’s cheek, and the unicorn could hear her heartbeat thumping in her ears.

Rarity sighed deeply and rolled her neck, wincing at the crack resounding from it. Yes, they had certainly been out here too long.

Rarity let herself start to doze off, her breathing slowing and her eyes fluttering. She reached up and, almost unconsciously, put a hoof around Applejack’s neck. She looked into Applejack’s eyes—and found them open.

Rarity’s eyes shot wide open. How long had she been like that? Had she been watching her curl up by her side? Rarity was frozen in her position for what seemed like ages, staring into Applejack’s eyes.

Applejack raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. Rarity felt painfully awkward staring at Applejack, neither of them able to come up with the words to break the silence between them.

Rarity tried to scoot away from Applejack, her lips pulled back in a nervous smile. Silence still reigned. They just sat there in the meadow, the air between them stale and thick.

Rarity was starting to wonder exactly how she felt about Applejack. There had been a stirring in her back in the forest, something that couldn't be written off as a random occurrence, but was it just friendship? She ran a hoof through her hair and shook her head, looking away from Applejack.

Rarity knew that she cared about Applejack--after all, if she hadn't, they wouldn't have gotten this far in the first place. But some of the things she was feeling were beginning to break past that layer.

The unicorn shut her eyes, not feeling Applejack's on her back anymore. This didn't bear thinking about right now. It was like Applejack said--survival was more important than anything else out here.

Rarity and Applejack laid back down and snuggled into the grass with a sigh, the former’s tail resting over her stomach.

Sometime later, Applejack woke up to the sound of birdsong overhead. She shook her hair out and ran a hoof through it with a sigh, looking over at the still-slumbering Rarity. Applejack wasn’t sure what Rarity had meant, cuddling up to her last night, but she didn’t want to think about it. There wasn’t time to take stock of any feelings.

Applejack rose to her hooves and shook Rarity awake—it was time to get back to the village before they were missed.

As they walked, Applejack struggled to get everything straight in her head—the griffons, Glow Star’s motives, where Trixie fit into all this, and perhaps most importantly, how this apparent aggression from the Shetlands was going to work out. Glow Star herself seemed like a decent pony, but there were two sides to every attack, and no matter who ended up winning, somepony had to lose.

“Applejack,” came Rarity’s voice, “about last night. I apologize if I was too forward. I was just cold, and—”

“Stow it, Rarity,” Applejack said, annoyed at the fact Rarity was bringing it up at all. She paused. “I’m sorry, didn’t mean to snap at you. I’ve just got a lot on my mind, and talking about all that ain’t gonna make it any easier to think about.”

Rarity was silent for a few moments, but nodded. “Very well, Applejack. Though, again, I apologize.”

Applejack shrugged. “No problem. Don’t worry yourself over something like that—my sister and I do it all the time.” She chuckled. “Well, when she lets me.”

The pair walked in silence until the curves of the huts showed themselves over the hills, mud-crafted structures peeking from behind the grass. The signs of an upcoming battle were rampant—thick-bodied stallions brought rusted sickles and jagged stones to a blacksmith, begging for adjustments and sharpening so that they could survive against the cruel talons of the griffons.

Most of them weren’t getting what they wanted. With only one blacksmith, only used to crafting crude instruments, it was impossible. Applejack tried to ignore it when some of them started shouting about how they’d leave behind families if the griffons got a hold of them.

Halfway through the village, the pair spotted Faust walking towards them.

“Rarity, Applejack!” he called. “Where have you two been? Glow Star and I need to fill you in on everything that’s going on.” He motioned for them to follow, going in the direction of Glow Star’s hut.

Arriving there, Applejack and Rarity took note of the array of bulky stallions outside—none of them were quite as tall as Earthfruit, who was standing in the center of them, guarding the door, but they were all just as thick and strong.

Once Earthfruit saw them coming, he stepped aside with a silent nod, allowing them inside.

The chaos was even worse inside than it was outside. Blink and Glow Star were bent over a large map of the woods, their eyes roving back and forth. Books and bits of paper were strewn about, random-looking scribbles covering most of them.

“Star, there’s no way that’ll work,” Blink said, shaking his head. “The griffons are just too powerful, and even with Earthfruit and his stallions, it’s just…” He ran his hooves through his hair. “There’s too many of them, and they’re warmongers to begin with. I can guarantee you they’re more prepared than we are, by leaps and bounds.”

Glow Star sighed. “What do, Blink? Wait? Die? They not wait. Not die.” Her gaze grew hard. “Let Shetlands die? That what do?” She grit her teeth. “Fight. Not give up. What you say? ‘Odds not good?’” Her words were slow and deliberate. “Not care. Better fight, die, not just die.”

Blink nodded. “I’m with you, Star, believe me, but we have to think about this. There’s a way we can do this without sacrificing too many of our numbers.” Pain crept into his expression. “But there’s no getting around the fact that we’ll have to sacrifice some of our numbers.” He paused. “The ones with the best chance of surviving—” He stopped when he saw Rarity and Applejack. “Oh, hello, you two. Sorry about the mess—the planning session hasn’t exactly, well, gone according to plan.” He smiled.

Rarity looked around, then up at Blink. “What were you saying about needing to sacrifice some of our numbers? I’m not sure I agree with that.”

Blink grimaced. “You heard that, huh? Well, I don’t agree with it fully, either, but…” He motioned to the empty seats at the table. “Come sit down, you two. There’s a lot to tell you, and we don’t have a lot of time.”

Doing as they were told, the pair took their seats and looked down at the map. Lines were traced all around the village, showing possible angles of attack, manticore nests, and the location of the griffon village, several miles away, by the looks of it.

Glow Star looked over at Rarity and Applejack. “Not good. Many griffons.” She made a sweeping gesture with her hooves to show that they had overwhelming numbers. “Many. Deadly.”

Blink nodded. “The griffons are more populous than us, you see, and since they’re naturally built to be killers, they’re better equipped than us, too. By the looks of it, we don’t have any choice aside from throwing Shetlands at them and then destroying the village in a counterattack.”

Applejack held up her hooves. “Hold on there, Blink. What’s all this about needing to attack the griffons? Have you tried just talking to them?”

Blink’s expression darkened. “We have, Applejack. The griffons are merciless.” He sighed. “Well, that’s a blanket statement. Chances are there’s a few good eggs in there, but for the most part, Seth’s got them all on a power kick, and I may be a decent negotiator, but that hasn’t stopped me from getting sent back here with a broken nose and wounded pride before.”

“But there has to be something we can do without resorting to violence!” Rarity said, eyes full of worry. “This is insanity! I’m sure that the griffons want nothing more than to live their lives, just the same as we do.”

“Rarity, Applejack, there’s something you two don’t realize,” Blink said. “Allowing everypony to live their lives in harmony and peace is fine—believe me, I’m all for that ideal. But when others’ lives, when others’ ways of life threaten our own constantly, then it only makes sense to take a stand against them. There’s such a thing as defending our right to live, too.”

The pair fell silent, and the air in the room grew heavy.

“Faust gave us some information,” Blink said. “That was why he showed up.” The stallion put a hoof down on the map. “He’s recovering from his injuries, so I’ll fill you two in.” The hoof moved to Derby. “Apparently, following your visit, the villagers of Derby became restless. Word spread to them about the upcoming war between the Shetlands and the griffons, and they’re arguing over who to support. We have the better traders, the better agriculture, but the griffons…if we lose, they’ll destroy anypony who didn’t side with them. Trixie is trying to hem the situation in, so we at least know she’s not against us.”

Glow Star shook her head. “Not like Shetland. Not side. Not enemy, not friend.” She turned to Rarity and Applejack. “You know her. What think?”

Rarity was the first to speak. “Trixie is a mare with unbridled arrogance, trust us on that. She does whatever she can—lie, cheat, steal—to reach the top of the pile, and she has no remorse about it.” The unicorn sighed. “But that doesn’t mean she’s suddenly going to turn into some evil overlord like you’d see in a book and try to take you all over. She’d need a push. Something to make her truly believe that whatever vision she has for the world is the right one, and whoever gives her the push would have to make her believe that they can make it happen. Or evidence.”

Applejack nodded. “Right. Unless your griffons have a real convincin’ argument, she ain’t gonna turn on you.”

Blink breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s good, that’s good. Too many times I’ve heard of arrogance breeding insanity—it’s comforting to know that Trixie isn’t like that.”

Rarity nodded. “Trixie is selfish and conceited, but not stupid. She’ll…oh no.”

Blink raised an eyebrow. “Something the matter, Rarity?”

Rarity’s eyes grew wide. “I did say that Trixie would need evidence as to who to side with during this conflict, did I not? That means that, if the villagers decided to side with the griffons for whatever reason, or if we started losing in this battle, she’d—”

Applejack slammed a hoof on the table. “Well that’s why we ain’t gonna lose, right?” A confident smile spread across her face. “We’re gonna fight until what we say is good and right, and Trixie’ll have to side with us. We ain’t gonna give her the chance to think anything other than ‘the Shetlands are gonna win, so I better back them up.’”

Blink shook his head. “That’s all well and good, Applejack, but if the villagers decide that the griffons have the winning lot in this conflict, then not only are we outnumbered terribly, but Trixie won’t back us.” The stallion sighed and rubbed his temples. “Much as I hate to say it, this war may be won with politics just as much as actual fighting, if not moreso.”

Applejack was silent for a few moments. “Consarnit,” she said quietly, “I don’t know the first thing about politics.”

Blink smiled. “That’s why it’s nice to have ponies like me around. From what I’ve heard, Trixie isn’t a fan of either of you, so it’s probably going to be up to me alone to win her over. Trust me, you two, we’re not going to lose this war if we play our cards right.”

Glow Star piped up. “Not forget Seth. He know Trixie. Trick her.”

Blink raised an eyebrow. “Glow Star, you can’t be serious. Seth is a savage—he has no idea how to manipulate a mare like Trixie.”

Faust sighed. “No matter how small the possibility, Blink, we cannot discount the fact that Seth is a major player in all this. Tell us everything you know about him.”

Blink bit his lip, hesitating. “Seth is a griffon of unmatched brutality. Strong, fast, supremely deadly, and with an attitude to match—I’ve seen him cut down a subordinate of his just for delivering information late. And yet, somehow, he possesses this unnatural charisma—no matter what he does or how cruel and outright insane he is, the griffons love him.

“From what I’ve seen, he has this sort of cunning brutality going for him. Thick-headed, rash, and a little stupid, yes, but with every griffon behind him and completely loyal, he can get away with that kind of behavior, and he knows it.” He paused. “But, again, I don’t think he’s well-versed in the ways of manipulation, nor do I believe he has the charm and substance necessary to sway somepony like Trixie. It would take something bold.”

“Like an attack.” From the doorway came Faust’s voice. “An attack on Derby. A show of overwhelming force. That would definitely sway Trixie, and it wouldn’t take any more than a flick of Seth’s talons.”

The entire room grew silent.

Blink was the first to break the silence. “Faust, aren’t you supposed to be resting?”

The griffon shook his head. “You can’t ignore what I said. I told you before, and I’m telling you again now—somepony has to go back and warn Trixie of that possibility. We can’t leave her out in the cold like this.”

Star narrowed her eyes. “Not happen. Bad thing to do. Hurt image.”

“True enough.” Blink’s eyes were pleading. “Faust, come on, seriously. If Seth did something like that, he’d never win the love and respect of the ponies of Derby—they’d probably stage an uprising.”

Faust shrugged. “Seth wouldn’t care—he’s insane. He thinks in the now, not the later. And as for Trixie, she wouldn’t have much choice—it’d be help him or die. As for the other citizens, they’d be too scared without Trixie’s charisma backing them to do anything against Seth.”

Glow Star shook her head. “Nopony goes. Need here.”

Blink sighed through his teeth. “We can’t send anyone to warn Trixie, Faust. We have to have everypony here so that we can survive if an attack comes.”

Faust narrowed his eyes in return. “You can’t spare a single Shetland? Really? My village is about to go up in flames, brought under the talons of a monster, and you can’t spare one pony to help us? After all we’ve done for you?”

Glow Star snorted. “Done? Done? Bad leader. That what you do.”

Faust’s beak hung open in shock for a few moments. “You can’t say those things about Madame Trixie, Glow Star. Some ponies may not care for her very much, but I’ll defend her to the last—she’s revitalized our village and helped your village grow by giving you extra supplies.”

Star stamped a hoof. “Extra? Little enough. We make due. Survive either way. Trixie help some. Not enough. Bad to say that.”

Blink nodded. “What she means is that whatever ‘extra’ you’re talking about, Trixie’s supplies were unnecessary to our survival, and that you shouldn’t be holding that over our heads when Trixie wasn’t willing to give enough in the first place to help us do more than survive. She never helped us prosper. The Shetlands stay here—giving up even one could mean the difference between victory and defeat.”

“And so could going to talk to Madame Trixie.” Faust’s eyes were steely. “She’s a much more powerful ally than you give her credit for, with an entire village at her back. Winning her over, getting her on our side, can only do good things for our cause.”

Star snorted. “You so worried, tell her. We not go. You can.”

“She means that you should just go yourself if you’re so worried about it, Faust. It’s your village—help defend it yourself.” He paused, clearly uncomfortable with speaking for his leader, now.

Just as Faust spoke up to respond, Applejack cut him off.

“I’ll go,” she said. “Trixie may not like me very much, but if all y’all are gonna do is sit around and argue with the griffons gettin’ ready to attack, then I’ll go.”

The room was silent for a few moments until Rarity spoke up. “I agree. You’re all acting incredibly childish, and since you can’t decide amongst yourselves, Applejack and I will be the ones to go in your stead. Faust is injured—he cannot go.”

Star seemed to be getting irritated, but Blink spoke before she could. “Are you two sure? You just came from Derby, after all, and if you go back, it’s going to mean a little walking, not to mention it’s backtracking.”

Faust concurred. “He’s right. How long did it take you to get here in the first place?”

Applejack chuckled. “Five days, but I think we’ll be fine.” She turned to Blink. “If, that is, one of y’all can guide us outta here.”

Faust raised an eyebrow. “Wait, it took you five days to get here?” He couldn’t resist letting a smile cross his face. “You two might be upset to hear this, but Derby is only about a day’s walk away from here.”

Rarity and Applejack’s jaws dropped.

“One day?” Rarity’s voice sounded far away. “One day?” She shook for a few moments, her rage building, then sighed. “One day. Good.” It was clear she wanted to break something in half, but was barely retaining her cool.

Applejack wasn’t doing much better. “You mean we spent all that time in the forest for nothing? You gotta be kiddin’ me!”

Faust blinked. “I have to wonder why you two showed up here in the first place. The left fork is usually avoided unless we’re coming out here to trade—it’s the right fork that continues on the road back through the highlands. Heck, if you’d taken that, you’d probably be halfway to Ponyville by now.”

Rarity turned to Applejack, her eyes crackling with anger. If looks could kill, Applejack would’ve dropped dead on the spot. The earth pony tried to change the subject.

“Well, anyway, our mistake I guess. All the same, we gotta get back to Derby and talk to Trixie, otherwise that village might be in a world of hurt. But we’re probably gonna need a guide.”

Blink paused, considering the request, but Star piped up. “No. Nopony goes. All stay. You go, go alone.” Her eyes were full of malice.

Faust glared at Glow Star. “No, they’re not going alone. We all know this forest better than they do by a mile, and after all they’ve done—or at least tried to do—we owe it to them to guide them through the quickest route available. It’s in our best interest, too—the quicker they get back, the quicker we’ll have an answer.”

Star stamped a hoof. “No. No go. No Shetland leave. I see to it.”

Faust breathed in deeply, then sighed. “Fine. I’ll go, then. I should be able to get them out of the forest and back on the road by mid-afternoon tomorrow, no sweat.” He flexed his injured body pointedly. “Give me some slack if I go slowly, you two. I’m just not in a good way right now.”

Rarity resisted the temptation to shoot Glow Star a look—she knew the old mare was only doing what she was doing to protect her village.

“That is perfectly fine, Faust,” she said. “Let us know if you ever need to stop and rest, dear—we’ll be more than happy to oblige.”

The griffon nodded. “Good, good. Well then, I suppose we ought to get some sleep, hmm? I think it’s nighttime.” He gave Glow Star a smile. “Goodnight Glow Star, Blink. I hope your preparations for defense go well, and I’ll help however I can once I return.”

Blink smiled in return. “See you tomorrow, Faust.”

And so they all split off, Rarity and Applejack in decent spirits, Faust and Blink quite pleased with themselves, and Glow Star fuming. Returning to their designated hut, Rarity and Applejack lay down on the straw mats with a sigh.

“Sorry for volunteering like that without even asking you, Rarity,” Applejack said. “I know you wanna get home, and so do I, but I think we gotta stay and help with all this—I don’t feel right leaving them high and dry, not after how they helped us out.” She paused. “And I’m powerful sorry I got us into this mess in the first place.”

Rarity shook her head. “Think nothing of it, Applejack.” She giggled. “When you think about it, it’s really quite silly. We spent five days wandering around a one-day walk! We must be just awful at navigating.”

Applejack chuckled. “Yeah, I was always good at explorin’ with Big Mac—never too good at gettin’ back home, though. One time, after I got us lost, we thought we were never gonna get back home. We walked around for hours and hours, crying and asking for help. Then Granny Smith heard us hollerin’ and stopped bucking apples to come get us—turned out we’d been walking in circles in a really thick cluster of trees.”

The two of them laughed loud and long, savoring this moment before things came to a head tomorrow.

“Applejack,” Rarity said. “I don’t know how everything is going to turn out when we talk to Trixie tomorrow, but I want you to know that I could not have made it this far without you.” She rolled over and hugged Applejack, the contact far removed from yesterday’s awkwardness. “Thank you for being here for me. You really are a great friend.”

Applejack felt a blush creeping into her cheeks as she hugged Rarity back. “You too, Rarity. And don’t worry—no matter what happens, I ain’t going back by myself.”

Rarity released Applejack and smirked. “That goes double for me,” she said. It was at this moment that Applejack could truly appreciate how pretty Rarity looked, even without pampering.

She saw the sparkles of hope in her big blue eyes, the playful curve in her soft lips. The warm breath coming from her nose lighted across Applejack’s face, and she could still feel Rarity’s heartbeat—her hoof was still on her friend’s chest. Quickly, Applejack pulled it away and turned back towards the wall, trying to disperse the heat in her stomach.

Rarity stayed there for a few moments, just staring at the back of Applejack’s head. Finally, she too turned back to the wall and closed her eyes, her thoughts drifting all around, until she slept.

The morning came too quickly. It seemed like Rarity had just fallen asleep when Blink entered the tent, tapping her on the shoulder and telling her it was time to get going. The unicorn rose slowly, groggily shaking the sleep out of her head as Applejack was roused next to her—the earth pony didn’t seem to be faring any better than her.

Exiting the hut, they found Faust waiting outside, a fresh bandage on his wounds. He smiled at them and waved a wing at the line of trees off in the distance.

“Are you two ready to go?” he said. “We’ve got some ground to cover to get you back on the road before the sun sets.”

Wordless from their sleepiness, they nodded and started walking—it seemed that none of the other ponies in the village had even woken up yet. Just how early was it? Curious, Rarity asked Faust.

“It’s around five or six in the morning,” he said. “Trust me, it’s early. You two are going to be very happy to see the sun again once we’re out of here, I imagine.”

Rarity nodded. “Oh yes. Don’t misunderstand me, this place is very quaint, but I’ve very much missed the sun and the bright green grass.”

Applejack nodded. “Yeah, and being so deep in the forest, you can’t hardly tell time! I gotta wonder how y’all do it at all.”

Faust chuckled. “Very carefully,” he said with a cheeky grin. “In any case, it shouldn’t take us more than a day to reach Derby—a half-day if you two move quickly once we’re out of here.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “How small are these woods, exactly? If it’s only a half-day’s trip in, they can’t be too large, I assume.”

Faust shook his head. “The forest itself is huge—it’s just that you two had the common problem of trying to stay on the road.” He smirked, knocking a bush out of the way. “See, the road that leads into here is extremely old, and it was used to avoid the Shetland village specifically. And from what I understand, there came a point where you stopped using it anyway.”

Rarity nodded. “Yes, that’s true. Applejack started having odd dreams, and we decided it was probably best to start avoiding the road.”

Faust shrugged. “Not the best reason in the world, you know. I’ve never known anybody who had prophetic dreams before.”

“Trust me, they happen,” Applejack said. “I been getting ‘em all my life.”

Faust shrugged. “If you say so. Let’s keep moving.”

Faust picked up his pace some while Rarity and Applejack started to lag behind. They’d both had the same idea—they needed to talk.

“Rarity,” Applejack said, keeping her voice low, “you think Trixie’s gonna listen to us? I mean, what if we go up there and out of our way to warn her and she don’t even bother to listen to us? The whole thing would be a waste of time.”

Rarity nodded. “I understand your concerns, Applejack, I really do, but I feel that, even as mean as Trixie is, it’s our duty as good ponies to warn her so that she has time to prepare her village for the upcoming attack. I only hope she doesn’t choose to evacuate them to the Shetland village. Glow Star would never allow it.”

Applejack snorted. “Glow Star’s an old battleax. She’s too busy worryin’ about herself to help anypony else out.”

“I don’t think that’s the case, Applejack,” Rarity said. “She’s just concerned about the safety of her village. Overzealous in that regard, yes, but that’s why she’s being so obstructive. She doesn’t want to jump in bed with Trixie if she doesn’t trust her—for all she knows, the second they finish shaking hooves, Trixie’s going to stab her in the back.”

“I guess you’re right,” Applejack responded, “but she could at least say that instead of actin’ all rude.”

“She’s too prideful and stubborn.” Rarity stepped over a branch. “She could never admit to somepony else that she doesn’t trust Trixie because she’s afraid of her. Even if she has to be vague and rude about disliking her, she’ll do it to avoid admitting her real reasons.” Rarity smiled teasingly. “I thought that you of all ponies could understand that mentality.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I certainly can’t understand bein’ fussy like you all the time.” She gave Rarity a playful shove. “Anyway, I’m not too keen on talking to Trixie myself—that mare’s a sidewinder if I ever saw one, and you can bet on that.”

Rarity sighed. “I understand your concerns, Applejack, but the fact is we need her. Without Trixie backing us, Glow Star, Blink and Faust are going to have a much harder time planning out their next move—not to mention how much harder things are going to get for us.”

The earth pony gave a flick of her ears and looked up at the canopy. “Hard to believe we’re really doing all this, y’know?” She looked over at Rarity and smiled. “Fightin’ a war and all that. Think about it—what if we don’t make it? Our friends’ll spend the rest of their lives wonderin’ what happened to us. Twilight’ll probably never get over it.”

Rarity nodded. “It’s shocking, to think about everything ahead of us—and this is only a small-scale conflict, when you look at it. I’ve been thinking back on the wars Equestria has been through in its time and, to be honest, those were fought for much more important things than this.”

“Don’t say it ain’t important just yet,” Applejack said. “We got no idea whether this is gonna change somethin’ or not. Even if it ain’t a big war, it’s gonna affect something.”

“I suppose,” Rarity said. There was a long pause between them—the only sounds were the birds chirping overhead and the grass crunching beneath their feet. “I wonder if Twilight is trying to find us a way back,” she said.

Applejack shrugged. “I sure hope so, but chances are good we’re just gonna have to find our own way outta this mess. Sometimes I wish we hadn’t agreed to help—I’d rather be on my way home, back to Winona and my family, than messin’ around with all this.”

“I know how you feel. But it’s like you said—we have to help. It’s our duty as good ponies to try to resolve this conflict. Besides, I’m sure that both Trixie and Glow Star will remember us in the future, should anything come up that we require help with.”

The conversation died, and the pair’s eyes started drifting around to the scenery. The thick shrubbery and tall trees were as impenetrable as ever, and neither of them could tell one path from another—it was a good thing they had Faust guiding them.

The day’s travel was uneventful and, soon enough, Faust stopped in front of a collection of bushes, turning back to smile at them.

“Alright, you two—are you ready to get out there and convince Madame Trixie to help the Shetlands?” The griffon gave an uneasy smile.

Awkward silence reigned over them.

“Look, I know it’s sort of unlikely that she’s going to listen to you, but keep a stiff upper lip, okay? She’s definitely not going to hear you out if you go in there looking completely deflated.” His eyes roved between them for a few moments before he sighed and stepped out of the way. “I’ll see you when you get back,” he said with an air of finality.

Applejack and Rarity tried to keep conversation running, but it was to no avail—they were scared stiff. After all, they were basically the lifeline that could save the Shetlands from total extinction or the bumbling newcomers who would end up condemning them to a terrible fate.

And that was saying nothing of the fact that they were willing participants in a war. They’d been through plenty of terrible things before—three evil overlords barging in and making a mess of things, parasprite invasions, untold personal conflicts, and even another small-scale conflict over in Appleloosa. They’d watched the fate of the world fall into their hooves on more than one occasion.

And yet somehow, things seemed so much more dangerous here. The stakes seemed higher. After all, this was a monster not content with just throwing them around and laughing while they gathered their strength into some ultimate attack. This was a griffon whose only purpose in life seemed to be causing suffering and misery, and he was out for blood. Their blood.

At any moment during all this fighting, their lives could be callously snuffed out and forgotten, except by their friends. It felt like, at any moment, some terrible, dark being was going to envelop them in its talons and whisk them away, never to be seen again.

They looked at each other for a few moments. Even considering all that, they still had to try. They couldn’t go back home to Ponyville knowing they’d left an entire village full of mostly-innocent ponies high and dry in the midst of a war. No matter what the stakes were, they had to rise to them.

Derby was coming up fast, but they were ready.

In the village proper, Rarity and Applejack found things in a state of chaos. Ponies, griffons and zebras alike were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Hastily, they were stuffing things into bags and trying to round up children, most of whom were crying loudly at being uprooted.

In the chaos, Applejack managed to spot Dog Ear carefully picking his way through the crowd. She tapped Rarity on the shoulder and pointed to him, and the pair rushed over to meet him. When he saw them, his face lit up.

“Oh, it’s you two young mares again! I thought I might see you around these parts!” He gave them a toothless smile. “Getting a little of an evacuation going on, ourselves, so you’ll have to excuse us!” He laughed. “I’m afraid things have been a little wild around here!”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “A little wild? It looks like your whole dang town’s getting turned upside-down!”

The small stallion waved a hoof. “Nonsense!” he said. “It’s nothing that Madame Trixie can’t quell.”

Applejack shook her head as a zebra, screaming, ran behind her. “I’m powerful sorry to tell you, Dog Ear, but I don’t think Trixie’s gonna have an easy time with…whatever the hay’s going on here. You mind fillin’ us in on that, by the way?”

The old pony nodded. “Well, you see, Madame Trixie received a visit from a friend in the forest! Some big old griffon by the name of Seth, you know. Runs everything out there with the other birds.” He chuckled. “Big, big fella too, believe you me.

“So anyway, he comes strutting in here, telling Madame Trixie that he’s going to tear our whole village to the ground if she doesn’t back him in the upcoming war between the griffons and Shetlands!” He removed his glasses and shook them angrily. “Can you imagine? I swear that big bird had no manners at all.”

Rarity bit her lip—so Seth had been here already. He’d probably shown up right as the news reached them—in fact, he might have been the one to deliver it.

“Did he say anything else?” Rarity said, concerned. “What did Trixie say?”

Dog Ear chuckled. “Oh, Madame Trixie wouldn’t have any of his big talk—told him to head back to the forest so she could focus on running the town.” The stallion sighed. “Well, big old Seth didn’t care much for backtalk. He just roared in Madame Trixie’s face and told her that if that didn’t change her mind, he’d just stomp her under his talons and take control of poor Derby for himself!” Dog Ear polished his glasses. “So, for about a day now, Madame Trixie’s been trying to get her thoughts in order while the citizens of Derby have been trying to leave!” He snorted. “Bunch of scaredy-cats.”

Applejack was surprised. “Dog Ear, you ain’t scared? From what I been hearing, Seth’s a huge griffon and he’s got no problem blowing right through anypony who stops him gettin’ what he wants.”

Dog Ear’s eyes narrowed, and he spoke with more clarity than usual. “Seth is a tyrant. There have been tyrants before, and they all failed.” The pair raised an eyebrow.

“Tyrants?” Rarity asked. “What tyrants have there been in this area?”

Dog Ear shook his head. “There is too much commotion here, right now. Maybe I’ll tell you later. Is there something you needed?”

Applejack nodded. “We actually came to see Trixie, if she’s not too busy. Try and give her the Shetlands’ story in all this mess.”

Dog Ear seemed confused. “You two? Well, why wouldn’t Glow Star or Blink be the one to do that? They’re the representatives of the village.”

Applejack shook her head. “That ain’t gonna happen. Blink, Faust and Glow Star were a little too busy arguing to decide who was gonna come up here, so we decided to do it. Glow Star didn’t wanna get Trixie’s help.”

Dog Ear snorted. “That figures.” He narrowed his eyes. “That old mare will never understand what it means to come together for a common cause. Anyway, Madame Trixie should be in her cottage at the edge of town, same as before.” He pointed in the direction. “But I’ll warn you, she’s not all there right now. This mess has her scared, if you ask me.”

Rarity smiled widely. “Thank you for the help, Dog Ear. I do hope everything turns out okay for this fine village.”

Dog Ear returned the smile. “I got a feeling it will, young’n. I got a feeling it will. Now go on—Madame Trixie’s gonna get less and less likely to see you as time goes on.”

The pair trotted off, trying to ignore the tense feelings stirring in their guts. Something about all this didn’t seem right—why would Trixie be intimidated by Seth when she had powerful magic to fall back on? Why would she even consider siding with that bloodthirsty maniac?

Regardless of the reasons for it all, both of them could tell that something awful was brewing.

Arriving at the little house, they found the door open—Trixie was slumped over her desk, idly playing with a smallish figurine of herself. Spotting Rarity and Applejack as she looked up, her expression shifted from vague sadness to a glare.

“And just what do you two think you’re doing back in my village?” Trixie asked. “I was expecting to never see you again, once you’d left.”

Applejack took the lead. “We need your help, Trixie. From what Dog Ear told us, it sounds like your village is in a whole mess of trouble. We’re comin’ from the Shetland village to ask you to help us, and if y’all do, Seth ain’t gonna be able to get his claws on ya. We promise.”

Trixie eyed the pair suspiciously. “And why should I help your cause after the way I was humiliated back in Ponyville? After the way everyone laughed at me?” She brought herself to a standing position, hooves braced against the desk. “Why should I help you two when the threat of being skinned and hung from the trees is what I have to look forward to if I do?” Her dark eyes were burning.

Applejack drew back as though stung. “Trixie, can’t you just put all that behind you? And as for the threats Seth’s making, it’s like we said—the Shetlands ain’t gonna let anything like that happen to you.”

Trixie snorted. “You make promises with no evidence. How do I know Seth hasn’t been stringing up the Shetlands with impunity for the last several months, and they only want my help so that they can drag me down with them, so that at least they won’t be slaughtered alone?” Trixie shook her head. “And as for your claims that I should simply ‘put all that behind me’? No, I cannot.” Her eyes smoldered with rage. “You and your friends are the reason I’m down here!” She slammed her hooves on the desk, gritting her teeth. “Your precious Twilight is why I have spent night after night after night at my desk, falling asleep on my spellbooks!” Her tone dropped as she stared Applejack straight in the eye. “She is the reason I have become the powerful sorceress that I am.”

She panted for a moment, then drew back to a sitting position. “For that, I thank her. She showed me the power of true magic—of ability beyond parlor tricks.” The blue mare smirked. “I did not allow her soiling of my reputation to defeat me.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Trixie, that’s all well and good, and I’ll go around a time or two with you about why Twilight’s a good pony and why I’m bettin’ y’all could be friends, but this ain’t the time to talk about that. We just need you to give the Shetlands Derby’s support. They need it.”

Trixie scoffed. “You want to go home, hmm? Don’t we all?” She rose from her chair and went to stare out of the window, down the dirt road leading away from Derby. “I have two choices here. I can side with you and the Shetlands, ponies who I already dislike greatly—or I can side with Seth and his griffons, a group of monsters that I truly hate, and have no respect for.” She paused, letting the pair digest her words. “Siding with you brings you closer to home. Closer to being back with your friends and families. And it brings this village closer with the Shetlands, who have very accomplished farmers and tradesponies.

“Siding with the griffons means gaining an ally with numbers on their side, and ferocity, too. It also means I won’t have to spend the rest of Seth’s life wondering if I’m going to wake up with him standing over me. Not to mention they’re better equipped and better prepared.” She brought her front hooves together, resting her knees on the windowsill. “Put simply, it’s a choice between one-hundred-percent survival, or moral good.” The mare closed her eyes.

Rarity, having been silent this whole time to avoid upsetting Trixie, couldn’t stand it any longer. “Trixie,” she said, “please, a choice like that shouldn’t be a choice at all, for you. A group of peaceful ponies whose only goal in life is to survive and help others, or a militant group of horrible griffons whose only goal in life to make everyone miserable?” She put her front hooves together. “Please, Trixie. Applejack and I vouched for your good moral standing back in the Shetland village. We, along with Faust, convinced them to trust you. We said you were a good pony.” The white mare’s eyes grew desperate. “Imagined slights from Twilight or not…prove us right.”

Trixie dipped her head down into her hooves—the fading sun filtered through her hair, making it glow fiery orange. The minutes passed like hours. When she brought her head back up, her voice sounded far away and her eyes were glassy.

“I am a liar,” she said. “I cheat ponies out of their bits and humiliate them in front of all their friends.” She seemed to shake for a moment, but steadied herself with a grin. “But I am not a murderer like Seth. Not even by proxy.” She turned to face them. “Derby will fight for the Shetlands. I told Seth before to leave—now that he won’t, I will see to it personally that he does. I’ll defend my village.”

Applejack opened her mouth to affirm the good news, but Trixie held up a hoof. “Don’t. Just leave, now. Ask for lodging at the history hall—I know Dog Ear has spare beds for travelers.” Her eyes were shimmering, but strong. “Leave for the village tomorrow and tell them my villagers will be heading down there as soon as possible. I’ll need time to rally everypony.” A smile crossed her face, but didn’t reach her eyes. “Goodbye for now. And thank you. I was beginning to wonder whether the Shetlands remembered me at all.”

The pair nodded and, trying to contain their excitement, left. As Applejack looked back, she caught a last glimpse of Trixie slumping back into her seat, slowly nodding to herself.

Maybe everything was going to be okay after all.


Applejack stood alone, in a consuming and cramped blackness. She wasn’t sure why, just yet, but there she was, dust rising up under her hooves, getting in her eyes as she tried to assess her surroundings. Dimly, in the background, she heard the sound of pounding drums with a militaristic bent.

Nervous, Applejack reached up to fondle the brim of her hat—of course, it wasn’t there, considering she’d lost it at the start of all this madness. As she felt around the walls, the drums swelled in volume, becoming deafening.

Desperate to escape the horrible tattoo, Applejack turned and pounded on the inky walls around her, only managing to scuff up her hooves in the process. The drums continued getting louder, accompanied now by the noise of a crowd cheering, the sounds invading every bit of Applejack they could reach.

Just as Applejack began to think she was going to go crazy, the darkness lifted, exposing her to a painful burst of sunshine from overhead. Now the crowd was going into a frenzy—she could see that the majority of the onlookers were griffons, pumping their talons in the air with bloodthirsty fervor and chanting a name:

Seth. Seth. Seth.

Applejack looked all around her, but couldn’t locate the aforementioned griffon—all she could see were long, high walls of white marble, stretching on forever, with a never-ending sea of chanting monsters. Then, from behind, Applejack heard an earsplitting roar which silenced the crowd entirely. Applejack’s eyes widened as she finally got a good look at Seth.

He was three times as big as a normal griffon with a massive, murderous beak and a set of gleaming talons as large as Applejack. He looked down at her, standing mere feet away from her, and narrowed his eyes, grinning widely.

He laughed. The sound was unlike anything Applejack had ever heard, foreboding, like a breath from deep within the earth. Before she could react, he rushed forward and lashed out with his beak—a wash of blood splattered the dirt.

As Applejack tried to steady herself, pressing her hooves up against the gash in her side, Seth’s tongue darted across his beak. He spoke, but the words made no sense when they reached Applejack’s ears, sounding terrible and foreign.  He chuckled softly and floated forward, taking Applejack’s chin in his claws. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t move a muscle in response. The more he spoke, the more Applejack wanted to run, to escape the unearthly noise emanating from his beak. His eyes were glowing hot coals, burning right through the pony in his grip. He tossed her back like a ragdoll, the crowd swelling as he took to the air, pointing down at Applejack with harsh judgment in his eyes. Seth roared, the crowd breaking into a psychotic rumble around him.

Applejack tried to scramble away, calling for any help she could think of, and each name that left her lips was met with a limp body falling from the sky, crashing into the dirt and raising the volume of the crowd. No matter how fast she ran, Seth was always just a foot behind her, a toying smirk on his face, knowing that any time he wanted, he could snuff her out.

The walls around Applejack shrunk, and her pace slowed more and more as the arena narrowed. Eventually, the marble encased her on either side, nearly pinning her at the shoulders.

With nowhere else to turn, Applejack whirled around and put her hooves up, driving the crowd into screeches, feathers flying into the air and settling around them as Seth pulled back and rocketed with a flourish towards her, his beak aimed right for her belly…

It was an extreme pain in her belly that finally managed to wake Applejack up.

Bringing her hooves up to her face, Applejack panted as she tried to recover from the horrible nightmare. She was drenched in sweat from tip to tail—not to mention she was shaking. Beside her, Rarity stirred slowly, roused by her jerky movements. The unicorn rolled over to face Applejack with bleary eyes and a slightly tangled mane.

“Applejack,” she said, “whatever is the matter? You were tossing and turning all night.”

Applejack considered that for a moment. “I was?” she asked. “Well, I did have kind of a nightmare.”

Rarity blinked, staring at Applejack for a few moments, before she reached over and hugged her.

“Don’t worry, Applejack—I’m sure everything’s going to be alright.” She pulled back. “Trust me. We won’t let anything happen to each other. We promised.”

Applejack smiled and nodded. The flap at the front of their hut flew up, revealing Blink. He looked distressed.

“Rarity, Applejack! Thank goodness you’re awake. C’mon, we need to get moving, now. Glow Star’s just about to leave, and Trixie’s going with her.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Blink, what on earth are you talking about?”

Blink shook his head. “If I had to guess, Glow Star is probably so tired of being around Trixie—the second you finished your lessons, they started arguing and never stopped—that she just went ahead and mobilized.”

Applejack scrambled to her hooves, brushing her hair out of her eyes. “Just tell us what we need to do and where we need to go, Blink.” She gave him her best determined smile. “We’re gonna be right there with you.”

Blink nodded, waving a hoof out the door. “We’re going to be taking a side path through the forest to get around behind the griffon village—shouldn’t take more than an hour or so. I’ll wait for you at my house—don’t be long.”  

With that, the stallion let the flap fall shut, leaving Rarity and Applejack alone. The pair looked at each other, the obvious questions going unspoken. Instead, Applejack simply gave Rarity a confident grin.

“Are you ready for this, Rarity? Ain’t gonna be easy, that’s for sure—but after we beat that hydra, I’m thinking we take on anything.” Sureness shined in the earth pony’s eyes.

The unicorn nodded. “Of course, Applejack.” A small blush tinted her cheeks as she smiled. “I have you by my side, after all.” She rose to a standing position. “And you’re right, of course. Whether it was hydras, Changelings, Discord or Nightmare Moon, we’ve triumphed over it all. This will be no different, I imagine.” With that, they got on their way.


“Let’s not waste any more time,” Blink said, pointing a hoof at a small trail. “Glow Star and Trixie have already gotten on their way, and Earthfruit’s diversion is going to be sprung soon.”

Their plan was simple enough—while Glow Star, Trixie, and the main force moved toward the village, Earthfruit and his hoof-picked group of stallions, having already left, would charge for the left side of the village as a distraction. While that was going on, Blink, Rarity and Applejack would sneak around to the back of the village so they could remove the proverbial head of the snake—Seth.

Of course, while Glow Star didn’t know about any of this, she was getting ever more suspicious that Earthfruit wasn’t around, and it was likely going to hit her soon that Rarity, Applejack, and Blink were nowhere to be found in the ranks. There wasn’t any time to waste.

The group decided to remain as silent as necessary—stepping over branches, not speaking unless it was needed.

Though it was imperative to keep silent, the quiet was overwhelming and uncomfortable to Rarity. Sensing the upcoming strife, all the smaller animals and birds had flown from the area, leaving it soundless.

And it wasn’t just the silence that was unnerving Rarity—even if she’d said that she was at peace with everything they were facing, that should anything happen, she knew Applejack would protect her, in her heart she knew that they were up against a monster that lacked remorse entirely. Things could easily go wrong.

Perhaps sensing her discomfort, Blink turned to look at the pair, his eyes searching them for chinks in the armor. Finally, they settled on Rarity, one of Blink’s eyebrows raising analytically as he studied her. Without a word, his expression changed to a thin smile—it wasn’t very reassuring.

The forest around them had been oppressive and scary when they’d first arrived here, but now, having spent what seemed like weeks in it, Rarity found herself tentatively relaxing at the sounds of rustling leaves and the wind blowing through the branches overhead. If she could have, Rarity would likely have stopped right there and enjoyed the peace of nature around her for as long as she wanted. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The deeper they went, however, the more nervous Rarity became—everything was too silent, without animals or birds to fill the quiet.

The minutes seemed to pass like hours as they walked, the air thick with tension and fear. Every now and then, a patch of bushes to the sides of the trail would rustle, and all heads would snap in the direction of the noise, adrenaline pumping through their veins, only to find that it was just a breeze.

It was swiftly becoming too much to bear for Rarity—she was starting to think that if something didn’t happen soon, she was going to suffer a heart attack.

Thankfully for her, something did happen.

Blink suddenly dropped to his stomach, waving his hoof back at the pair to do the same. They slid up beside him as he parted a thick cluster of brush, revealing a massive hut. A trail ran from the entrance of the hut, past dozens of other, smaller structures.

“This is it,” Blink whispered. “I didn’t expect us to get here as quickly as we did.” He chuckled. “You two kept up a better pace than I’d hoped.” He moved forward, ducking his head through the brush; Rarity and Applejack followed suit.

“It doesn’t look like the griffons are here,” he said, an edge of worry in his voice. “That might mean Earthfruit’s already out there fighting them, or it might mean they went right over his head to destroy the village.” He chuckled nervously. “Let’s hope for the former. C’mon.” He stood slowly and crept out from the forest, moving silently toward the huge structure. Nervous as they were, Rarity and Applejack followed, eyes darting around for any signs of life.

Entering the structure through a window in the back, the ponies found themselves in what could only be described as a primitive mansion—the smell of rot filled the air. Woven furniture was present all throughout, alongside bowls of fruit.

Along the walls was a collection of ornate, patterned masks depicting a variety of faces, from angry to happy to expressions that defied description. Accompanying them were ten or so paintings of Seth performing inexcusable deeds, all of them made using an unidentified substance. To top everything off, at the foot of Seth’s bed (which was just as large and exquisite as the other items in the room) sat a massive chest, presumably filled with trophies of conquest.

All in all, the place produced a deep sense of dread in all three ponies.

“This is horrible,” Blink said. “I recognize some of these masks and paintings, too—they come from a zebra tribe that the Shetlands traded with for some years before the griffons wiped them out. I guess this is what became of them.” The room was silent for a moment. Blink shook his head.

“I guess Seth isn’t here. He must have already gone out to engage Earthfruit, along with his other griffons.”

Applejack nodded. “We better get out there after ‘em, if we wanna catch Seth.”

“I agree,” Rarity said. “We must keep moving, and try to find him before he can find Trixie or Glow Star.”

Blink nodded and looked around for a moment. “True enough,” he said, “Alright, let’s take a look around, then we’ve gotta leave. No telling how long Seth will be out there.”

Unfortunately, it seemed that no matter how hard they searched, Seth hadn’t drawn up any plans, prepared any kind of defenses should the griffons be forced onto their heels, even thought about making any notes about especially powerful or notable griffons in his group. Though she didn’t want to think about it, Applejack couldn’t help but recall her nightmare, where Seth wasn’t even capable of speech. All the group managed to find was a collection of extremely gruesome trophies, up to and including a few mangled bits scattered around.

“Can we leave now?” Applejack said, nauseated. “I think if I’ve gotta look at one more thing in this psycho’s house I’m gonna throw up.” With a silent nod, Blink agreed, and they stepped outside, walking down the dirt road between the huts. The going was slow, as the group was trying to avoid making any noise.

The terrain grew rougher as they pressed forward, with numerous claw-marks and gouges in the ground, some of them bigger quite large. Those, of course, had to be Seth’s, which brought to mind a question—if he was that huge, how were they going to fight him?

Trying to shake that feeling, the group began ducking into several of the huts, checking for any important clues about the griffons’ plans. Each time, they found nothing more than scuffed-up dirt and mutilated animals. This place was making them all sicker by the second.

With their grisly discoveries piling up, the silence around them exerted a kind of pressure, sapping the words from their mouths before they could even manage to speak them. The only sound as they walked was the quiet rustling of dirt beneath their hooves.

After what seemed like forever, the group came to a naturally-created arch, with a thick cluster of ropey vines hanging down over the entrance. Trying to look through them yielded nothing and so, tentatively, Applejack reached forward to move them aside.


All three ponies breathed a collective sigh of relief and walked through the vines—ahead lay another path, this one claw-worn rather than constructed. As they continued on, however, it became clear that if they were to get in a fight here, it likely wouldn’t go well for them. Not only was the forest getting darker and darker as they pressed on, but the worn-in path was getting harder to traverse as it wound over logs and up small hills—soon enough they’d have no idea where they were going.

With Blink leading the group, and Applejack right behind him, Rarity felt somewhat exposed—being in the back in those tales of horror always meant that you were the first one to get picked off.

Thankfully, if nothing else, the group’s light breathing was something of a comfort in the darkness. In fact, Rarity could almost feel herself relaxing a bit with every breath she let out, now that they were in a steady rhythm, and of course, hearing Applejack’s breathing helped her calm down as well. The breathing behind her was perhaps the most comforting of all—it provided all-around sound to help take her mind off the terrible blackness and the tangled plants.

A cold shiver ran down Rarity’s spine. Why was she hearing breathing behind her? She listened hard, her ears flicking back and forth, trying to locate the source of the sound—by the direction the noise was coming from, the one doing the breathing was above them.

There wasn’t a pony alive aside from Blink who could’ve climbed those high trees—Rarity knew exactly what it meant. She leaned forward to whisper at Blink.

“Er, Blink, dear,” she whispered, “we may have a bit of a problem.”

Blink turned around, halting progress and raising an eyebrow. “What’s the matter, Rarity?” he asked. “Did you hear some…thing…?” He froze, his slow, measured breathing immediately quickening to a pant as his eyes roved upward. As Applejack turned, her breathing mirrored the change.

Everything in Rarity’s brain told her not to turn around—so she didn’t. She just grabbed Applejack’s hoof and yanked her from her stupor as she bolted off, Blink following right behind them.

The group crashed through the undergrowth in flight, desperately trying to escape the monstrosity that was following them—the sound of tree bark being raked and brush being uprooted followed them closely, never more than a few feet behind.

Their speed was making Rarity’s eyes water, and her legs were burning, begging her to stop. Her lungs tried their hardest to supply her with enough oxygen, her throat ached, her brain shorting out from the fear.

And yet, in the midst of all this terror, despite the rent trees and the destroyed scrub, a thought crept into her mind.

This was exactly what they’d done when the hydra showed up, and it hadn’t worked then—why would it work now? They’d had to stand and fight the hydra to finally be rid of it.

No, in this situation, there was only one thing they could do.

They had to try and fight Seth.

“Applejack!” Rarity screamed. “We can’t run! We have to fight!”

The earth pony looked back at Rarity, trepidation in her eyes, but as they locked with Rarity’s, a fire seemed to light behind the green. She knew Rarity was right—it was time to stop running and stand up for themselves.

The pair skidded to a halt and dove to either side, a razor-sharp wind passing between them as they did so, the sound of dirt being upturned filling their ears. Up ahead, Blink stopped and turned, a look of horror on his face.

“What are you doing?” he yelled. “Run! Now!” Brushing themselves off, Rarity and Applejack shook their heads.

“Sorry Blink,” Applejack said, “but I don’t think that’s gonna do the trick. ‘Sides, if we ran now, we’d lose the chance to do what we came here for in the first place.” She winked at him. “I ain’t one to leave things unfinished.”

Rarity nodded. “She’s right, Blink. If we ever want this to be over, we have to make our stand here.” She smiled. “You are welcome to go on ahead—if you can find Earthfruit, Glow Star, or Trixie, bring them back here.”

Blink stood still for a few moments, visibly shaking as he stared at the slowly unfolding, feathery form to his left. He closed his eyes, making a sound of frustration, and took off through the undergrowth.

Rarity and Applejack watched as the massive griffon, half again as big as Celestia herself, rose from his curled-up position on the ground, revealing golden eyes filled with murderous intent. The black pupils narrowed as they caught sight of the pair.

This was Seth, the griffon they’d heard so much about.

Truly, he was massive. They’d all thought Gilda was big, but he was triple her size, with a wingspan bigger than any normal pony. His plumage stuck straight back, forming several small spikes of clumped feathers—the tips were colored red, though both ponies got the feeling it wasn’t dyed.

His powerful chest heaved as he stared them down, lethal beak curling back into a sick smile, one that seemed just a smidge too wide for his face. His talons scraped excitedly at the ground, gouging out the dirt beneath him—the hooked ends of those were red as well.

His tail shot through the air like a python, cracking like a whip with each stroke. Every inch of the griffon chief was muscle, pulsing with anticipation.

He didn’t speak—a roar that shook the heavens was more than enough to tell Rarity and Applejack know that, without a doubt, this was the most powerful griffon they’d ever encounter.

And now, all alone, they had to defeat him.