The Cutie Mark Conspiracy
It was early afternoon in Ponyville, and the Lotus Luxury Spa was already doing brisk business when Twilight Sparkle arrived.
She wasn’t a frequent spa-goer, but once every month or so she made a point of tearing herself away from her books for a few hours of pampering, massage and styling. She didn’t yet have a personally monogrammed bathrobe, but she had been there often enough that the attendants greeted her by name and ushered her straight back to the baths.
The hot water inside filled the air with steam, turning every surface slick with condensation. Twilight had already shrugged out of her robe and slipped into the waters before she realized she wasn’t alone in the massive tub.
“Rarity!” she cried, delighted. “I didn’t see you there. How are… er, are you alright?”
The white unicorn looked frazzled. Her mane was rumpled where it wasn’t waterlogged, and her squinting eyes had dark, puffy circles beneath them.
“Twilight, darling,” she said. “How good to see you. No, I’m afraid I’m not alright.” She tossed her head back and let out a dramatic sigh.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” the lavender pony said. “Is something wrong?”
“Wrong? Why yes, you could say that.” She smacked the water with her hoof, sending a small splash across the bath. “Horribly, dreadfully wrong!”
Twilight knew from prior experience that Rarity’s sense of proportion was sometimes poorly calibrated. She had once refused to leave her home for a week after chipping a hoof.
“Well, maybe I can help?” she offered, sliding over to sit next to the other pony. “What happened?”
Rarity ground her teeth. “It was those girls, Twilight. And my sister, my dear little sister, was leading them!”
It took a moment for Twilight to figure out who she meant. When she did she winced.
“Oh yes! Those ruffians, they have no sense of shame! No sense of decency!” Rarity turned, folded her forelegs on the edge of the bath, and sulked.
Twilight let her be for several minutes, but curiosity finally prevailed. “So… what happened?”
“Do you remember that new dress I showed you? The one I made for the Summer Sun Celebration?”
“I do!” she exclaimed. It was a beautiful dress – powder blue silk, trimmed with shimmering gold lace and frilly white cotton shoulders. It looked like a summer day magically turned into cloth. “It’s your best outfit yet Rarity. You’ll look wonderful at the celeb—"
“They turned it into a kite, Twilight.”
There was a long pause.
Rarity sighed, burying her head in her hooves. “They cut it into a square, stapled it to some muddy branches they found outside, and were trying to fly it like a kite.”
Part of being a friend, Twilight had learned, was knowing the right thing to say at times like this. Should she sympathize, or try to offer a solution? Perhaps change the subject?
“So did they get their… you know?”
“No, Twilight, they did not get their cutie marks,” Rarity said, flatly.
The bath burbled and steamed around the silent ponies.
“Well,” Twilight finally said, “I’m sure it’s a beautiful kite.”
“I didn’t want a KITE!” Rarity screamed, standing and banging a hoof on the bath rim with a loud clang. “I wanted a DRESS! A beautiful dress! I spent days measuring and cutting and folding and sewing, and when I finally finished my most delicate, most exquisite creation ever, what happens?” her voice was rapidly approaching the point where only dogs would be able to hear it. “It gets turned. INTO. A. KITE!”
Spent, the white unicorn slumped back into the bath. “Besides,” she added, “it’s stuck in a tree now.”
“Rarity, they’re just fillies,” Twilight said soothingly. “Once they get their cutie marks they’ll stop all this silliness.”
She sighed. “I suppose you’re right. It’s just so frustrating…” she trailed off as the sound of two familiar voices intruded from the hallway.
“…ah’m just sayin’, if you treated her more like a sister, things like this might not a-happen,” drawled one.
“And I told you, she’s not my sister!” responded a voice scratchy from constant yelling. “Besides, Apple Bloom was the one who started… oh, hey, I think it’s this one.” The door swung open, and a pair of heads cautiously poked in.
“Applejack? Rainbow Dash?” Twilight said, surprised. The Lotus Luxury Spa was literally the last place in Ponyville she ever expected to see them visit voluntarily.
“Oh thank goodness,” Applejack said, trotting over to the side of the bath. “Rarity, we got a problem. I just got a visit from Snips and Snails’ parents. They caught the girls playing with their colts.”
“Well, obviously our sisters should be spending their time with a higher class of pony,” Rarity replied. “But that doesn’t sound like too much of a prob—"
“They were trying to get their ‘Doctor’ cutie mark, Sugar.”
There was another long pause. Twilight sank as far into the water as she could and still breathe. Rarity rested her forehead on the edge of the tub again.
Finally Rainbow Dash broke the silence. “I don’t see why we have to put up with this. Every week they do something crazy and we have to pick up the pieces.”
“Now Dash,” Twilight said, “they’re just young and adventurous. They don’t mean any harm.”
“Really? What about when they tried to get their Librarian cutie marks?”
Twilight’s ear twitched as she relieved the destruction they had wrought on her books. Spike still woke up screaming sometimes.
“Or when they tried to get their Hay Baling cutie marks,” Applejack said, her face growing pale.
“No one was permanently injured…” Twilight ventured.
“Let us not forget the Monster Taming,” Rarity quipped.
“Or Tornado Spotting,” Dash added.
“Or Fire Walking,” said Applejack.
“Or Explosives Disposal,” Rarity offered, shuddering.
“Okay! I get it, they’re annoying,” Twilight said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Yet another long pause. The girls exchanged glances.
“…or is there?” Rainbow Dash said softly, almost to herself.
Twilight shot her a sharp look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She waved a hoof dismissively. “I’m just saying, maybe it’s time they got a taste of their own medicine.”
“How delightfully devious of you, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity said, smiling for the first time that day. “What did you have in mind?”
“Whoa, stop,” Twilight interrupted. “Applejack, help me out here?”
“Ah dunno Sugarcube,” she said. “Those three have caused so much trouble on the farm…”
Rainbow Dash flew over to the bath, perching on the rim next to the others. “Look, you know how Pinkie Pie and I like playing pranks, right?” The others nodded. “Well, she came up with a great one for those three. It’s just so elaborate we haven’t been able to do it yet.”
“No.” Twilight put her hoof down. “This is wrong. We’re grown mares, we should be acting responsible and mentoring them, not playing ‘pranks’.”
“Tell me, Twilight,” Rarity said. “Did they ever apologize for ransacking your library?”
“Or attempting to breed Owlowiscious with Fluttershy’s chickens?”
“Or turning your telescope into a centipede farm?”
Twilight huffed. “No, they didn’t! They didn’t even empty it out before putting it back! Have you ever had a centipede in your eye? It’s not fun!”
The others looked at her expectantly. She sighed.
“Fine. What did you have in mind, Dash?”
“This is the BEST SLEEPOVER EVER!” Sweetie Belle screamed at the top of her lungs.
“YEAH!” Scootaloo agreed, buzzing around Twilight’s library on her scooter with a casual disregard for furniture and other ponies.
“Maybe we’ll get our sleepover cutie marks!” Apple Bloom added to the cacophony.
“Cutie Mark Crusaders,” they shouted together, “YAY!”
The main room of the library had been cleared of books and other office supplies. In their place were balloons and streamers, tables with snacks and cakes, party games and sleeping bags. Spike had been locked in his room to keep from going insane.
“Thank you so much for letting us come, sis!” Sweetie Belle said to Rarity as she grabbed yet another piece of cake from the snack table.
“Oh, think nothing of it, dear,” Rarity replied, a suspiciously large smile on her face. “When Twilight Sparkle told me she was having a sleepover, I knew I had to invite you!”
“Yeah, these parties are 100 percent awesome,” said Rainbow Dash, who was resting on top of a nearby bookcase. “When I heard about it, I just had to bring the coolest pony I know.” She gave Scootaloo a wink and a nod.
Scootaloo gazed up at her hero with a look of sheer adoration.
“An’ I had so much fun during our last sleepover, I had to take my favorite lil’ sister!” Applejack said, ruffling Apple Bloom’s mane with her hoof.
“Who wants to play another game?” Twilight called with a sing-song voice. She levitated the Cockatrices and Ladders box over to the crowd.
“YEAH!” the Cutie Mark Crusaders screamed, and fell on the box in a whirl of white, purple and red manes.
Four hours and twenty-three minutes later…
“Whew, I thought they’d never go out,” Applejack whispered, looking down at the sleeping fillies.
Rarity waved a hoof. “Foals are all the same. Stuff them with enough food and put them in a warm room and they’ll go down for the count.”
“Gosh, they look so peaceful now,” Twilight said. “So innocent. Do we really need to do this?”
“Duh!” hissed Dash. “The moment they wake up they’ll be back to trashing things. It’s now or never.”
Twilight sighed. “Alright. Rarity?”
“On it!” she sang, darting into the kitchen. She returned a moment later carrying a massive latched case, which she carefully set down next to the sleeping girls. She popped open the latches and swung the top up, revealing an impressive array of dyes, paints, concealers, brushes and make-up.
“You know, Dash,” Twilight said, “this really is devious. How did you come up with it?”
“It was Pinkie’s idea, actually. We gave up on it when you mentioned that you can’t use magic to make fake cutie marks.”
Rarity chuckled. “Maybe not unicorn magic, darling.” She carefully selected a series of pastes and brushes, laying them out in front of her. “Let me show you true magic.”
The others crowded around as Rarity went to work, ooh-ing and aah-ing at her skill. The end result really was like magic, they agreed.
Twilight Sparkle woke with the sun. The room around her was still quiet, filled with the soft sounds of sleeping ponies.
She glanced over at Applejack, who was lying awake on her sleeping bag. She gave the earth pony a grin, and turned to see Rarity also awake, almost vibrating with excitement.
Rainbow Dash was, of course, still asleep.
After a few minutes the fillies began to stir, rolling over and opening their bleary eyes. This was the moment of truth. She started counting down from 10 in her head, wondering how far she would get before the chaos started.
Apple Bloom was the first up. She stretched and yawned, and gave the others a nudge with her nose. They opened their eyes and looked around in confusion for a moment, then looked at each other. Then looked again.
She had just reached 2 when the screams began.
Where just seconds before had stood three young fillies was now a blur of spinning flanks and wildly waving arms. They bounced into each other, the furniture, the walls, and finally came crashing back together for a group hug, all while screaming loud enough to wake ponies across town. Rainbow Dash woke and added her own brief scream before realizing what was happening.
Twilight gave them a few moments, then tried to interrupt. “My little ponies, what’s wrong?”
“TWILIGHT!” Apple Bloom shouted, shaking so hard she could barely stand. “WE! WE! WE! WE! WE! WE—"
“Breathe, girl,” Applejack said to her sister, putting a calming hoof on her shoulder.
Apple Bloom tried again. “WE! WE GOT! WE GOT OUR—" she almost finished before she was tackled by Scootaloo.
“WE GOT OUR CUTIE MARKS!” The orange pegasus filly screamed. The three resumed galloping around the library. Even Rainbow Dash was impressed with the speeds they reached.
Several minutes later they had calmed enough to stand in one general spot, though they kept spinning around to see their own and the others’ cutie marks.
“That’s amazing!” Twilight said, somehow keeping a straight face. The other mares all crowded around, congratulating the three on finally getting their marks.
“Those are beautiful,” Rarity said, trying to keep the quaver out of her voice. “I’ve never… never seen anything like them!”
“They certainly are unique!” Applejack added, covering her mouth with a hoof.
The fillies barely heard them, so absorbed were they with admiring their new marks. Slowly their expressions relaxed, elation being replaced by confusion. They finally turned back to the mares, puzzled looks on their faces.
“Ah don’ know what this means!” Apple Bloom said, looking up at Twilight with huge eyes.
“Me either!” Scootaloo said, spinning around again to see if the mark on her other flank made any more sense.
“Or me!” Sweetie Belle added, rubbing at her mark with a hoof.
“Well,” Twilight said, slipping instantly into her librarian mode. “Not all cutie marks are obvious in there meaning. Fortunately I have a book that explains them!” She levitated a large tome off a nearby shelf toward the group. If anyone noticed that the book was curiously new looking, they didn’t say anything.
“Let’s start with you, Scootaloo,” she said, opening the book. “Show me your cutie mark?”
Scootaloo turned obligingly. “It’s some kind of squiggly cloud, I think!”
Twilight opened the book to a page that was already marked with a piece of ribbon. Again, if anyone noticed anything odd about that, they didn’t say so.
“Here we are. Is that it?” Reproduced on the page was an exact replica of the mark on Scootaloo’s flank, a series of blue lines curved like waves approaching the shore.
“That’s it! What’s it mean?” Before she could get a closer look at the page Twilight pulled it away from her, reading from the description below the image.
“Oh, this is very special,” the lavender pony said. “These lines represent the motion of waves on water, and indicate that a filly’s special talent is swimming!”
“Awesome!” exclaimed Rainbow Dash, hovering above the crowd. “I always knew you’d be a great swimmer, champ!”
Scootaloo stared at them, mouth open in shock. “But… I’m a pegasus pony!” She flapped her wings for emphasis and stared at them, as if pleading her case.
“Sorry Scoots, that’s what you’re best at,” Twilight said. “I’m sure you’ll be a great swimmer! Apple Bloom, you’re next.”
The yellow filly bumped Scootaloo out of the way and hopped in place. “I’ve got an apple!” she cheered.
“Hm, not quite,” Twilight said, flipping the pages to another curiously convenient bookmark and rotating it to face the filly. “This is what you have.”
On the page was a four-pointed star inside a circle. Just outside the circle, above the top point of the star, was a block letter N.
Twilight pulled the book back and read. “The Compass Rose is a very rare and special mark, reserved for ponies whose special skill is cartography!”
Apple Bloom gasped. “Ah knew it! Sis, ah knew it!” She paused, and asked “So what’s cart… cartogaffy?”
“Cartography,” Twilight gently corrected, “is the act of making maps. Some ponies think it’s a very tedious and boring skill, but I’m sure you’ll find it exciting!”
“Oh Apple Bloom, this is wonderful!” Applejack added, hugging her sister. “We’ve always needed someone to survey our orchards, and now you can do it for us! Granny Smith will be so proud!”
Apple Bloom just stared at them, as shocked as Scootaloo.
“My turn!” Sweetie Belle forced her way to the front. “What’s mine, Twilight?”
“Hm, that’s very complex,” the unicorn said, rubbing her chin with her hoof. “I’m not sure it’s even in this—oh! Here it is!” She stopped on the final bookmark, turning the tome around to show to the filly.
“It’s… some kind of blue cow?” She looked back and forth between her flank and the page, to make sure. The marks were identical.
“Almost!” Twilight sang. “It’s actually a blue ox, and it’s an ancient and mystical symbol for lumberjacking!”
“That’s unusual,” Rarity interjected, coming to stand next to her stunned and speechless sister. “Really, a lumberjacking unicorn? Well, if it’s your cutie mark then it must be your special talent.”
“This is certainly a special day!” Twilight said, closing the book and levitating it back to the shelf before anypony could inspect it more closely. “You’ve all got your marks, and now you know the only things you’ll ever be good at!” That last part was a little different from what the fillies had learned in school about cutie marks, but they were too stunned to notice.
The three fillies looked at each other numbly. Finally, they raised their hooves and ‘cheered’ in unison.
“Cutie mark crusaders…” they choked out, “yay.”
“Ah dunno, I feel kinda bad now,” Applejack whispered. “Did you see how sad they looked?” The Cutie Mark Crusaders were eating breakfast together in the kitchen in startling silence.
“I know! It was awesome!” Rainbow Dash said. Her capacity for remorse was significantly lower than the earth pony’s.
“It’s just for one day, darling,” Rarity added. “Like all punishments, it hurts us more than it hurts them.” She glanced into the kitchen and stifled a giggle.
“We’re just trying to teach them that cutie marks will come in their own good time,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Maybe after they recover from this incident they’ll realize how silly this whole ‘Cutie Mark Crusader’ thing is.”
Applejack sighed. “Fine, fine. Jus’ for one day, though.”
Twilight nodded. “Good. Now then, I’ll stay here and clean up. You three take your sisters to practice their new ‘special skills’.”
“I told you, she’s not my sister!” Dash grumbled. The others just rolled their eyes.
“Ahem,” Twilight continued, “we only get one shot at this. Try to make their practice as, uh, ‘educational’ as possible. Questions?”
Nopony had any. The four trotted into the kitchen with smiles on their faces, ready to take on the day.
“Here we are, sugar!” Applejack said to her sister. They were in the far, far northwest point of Sweet Apple Acres, where the corner of a barley field butted up against the road to Ponyville and a pastoral forest.
Apple Bloom was already sweating. Although the day wasn’t very hot, she’d been in charge of pushing the cartography cart all the way from the barn to their present location. The cartography cart looked much like the regular carts her family used to transport produce, but instead of apples it had sheaves of paper, ink, rulers and other tools of the trade.
“Now then, git your paper ready.” She helped her sister place a single sheet of parchment on the flat surface of the cart, and handed her a quill with her mouth. “Now, the job of the surveyor,” she paused to read from the tiny manual Twilight had given her, “is to accurately record the top… topography, terrain, landmarks, and borders of a parcel of land.” She put the book on the cart. “Got it?”
Apple Bloom stared up at her. “Ah don’ wanna!”
“Ahm sorry sis, but this is what yer cutie mark says yer best at. Now, put a mark on the map for the corner here, and we’ll start walkin’.”
They moved forward a few wagon lengths. “See anything?” Applejack asked.
They moved forward again. “How ‘bout now?”
“Ah see a weed.”
“Well, that’s sumpthin’. Go ahead an’ mark it.” She waited while Apple Bloom drew a tiny weed on the map.
“Should ah pick the weed?” the filly asked.
“Nope. Yer a cartographer, not a weed picker. ‘sides, then yer map would be wrong.”
Apple Bloom seethed and pushed the cart again. By the time they reached the end of the row she had a tiny but startlingly accurate map of all the weeds, twigs, gopher holes and stones they had run across.
“Are we done yet?” she begged her sister.
“What? Course not! That’s just one row!” Applejack swept a hoof across the rest of the field. “An’ this is just one field! We haven’t even started on the Orchards!”
Apple Bloom’s scream of frustration could be heard all the way back at the barn.
“Are you sure this is safe, Dash?” Scootaloo asked. She stood at the edge of a scum-covered pond just outside Ponyville. The cyan pegasus lounged on a cloud overhead.
“Of course it’s safe! You’ve got your wings, and your other wings!” Dash barely held in a laugh.
Scootaloo frowned at the inflatable plastic ‘water wings’ Twilight had insisted she wear around her forelegs. They felt… demeaning.
“Can’t you teach me to fly instead?”
“Sorry champ! Cutie mark says you’re a swimmer!”
The orange filly stared at the traitorous cutie mark, then stomped her hoof in frustration. It sank into the squishy mud, releasing a noxious odor that sent her reeling.
“Can’t I swim in a real lake?” she tried.
“Gotta start small, Scoots. Maybe some day. Now, get in there!”
Scootaloo sighed and stepped into the water. It was uncomfortably warm, and she could feel her hooves sliding into deep muck as she moved. The pond was also surprisingly shallow – even at the center it barely came to her shoulders.
“I don’t think I can swim in this,” she called up to Dash.
“Not with that attitude! Come on, be the cutie mark!”
Scootaloo waded around the pool, her thoughts growing as dark as the water beneath the surface scum. Overhead Dash laughed to herself, and settled into the cloud for a long-overdue nap.
“Now then, I know this may seem unusual, but when presented with difficulties a true mare always rises to the occasion.”
“Mrph g’lrfm rgknady!”
“Oh, sorry, let me hold that.” Rarity levitated the hatchet out of Sweetie Belle’s mouth.
“I don’t want to be a lumberjack!” the tiny unicorn spat.
“Now, Sweetie, I know it may seem that way now, but cutie marks are never wrong. I’m sure you’ll eventually find that this is indeed your special skill, the one thing you are destined to be great at.”
Rarity tsked. “It’s no use arguing with destiny, dear. Some ponies are fated to be glamorous artists,” she paused and preened, “while others perform… manual labor.” She said the last two words slowly, as though they tasted bad in her mouth.
Sweetie Belle stuck her snout in the air, ignoring her sister.
They continued walking along the edge of town in silence, until finally Rarity stopped them at a stand of small saplings that had sprung up along the forest behind her boutique.
“Now, let’s see how you do. Give one of those trees a swing.”
Sweetie Belle muttered something Rarity couldn’t make out, and then grabbed the hatchet out of the air with her mouth and swung it at one of the saplings. The tiny tree shook from the blow, but when it came to rest the only sign of her attack was a slight scratch on the thin green bark.
“Ooh, that’s very good,” Rarity said, doing her best not to giggle. Sweetie Belle glared daggers at her.
She cleared her throat. “Well, I can see you need a bit of practice.” Glancing up at the rising sun, she fanned herself with a hoof. “And it’s getting dreadfully hot out. The heat does terrible things to my complexion! If you don’t mind I’ll go inside while you work on these weeds.”
Sweetie Belle glared at her again, and went back to whacking futilely at the saplings, pretending they were a certain older sister.
Three hours later Apple Bloom had a precise map of the barley field and an intense, burning hatred of cartography. Applejack had long since returned to her other duties, not wanting to antagonize the filly any further.
This wasn’t how she had envisioned life after her cutie mark. Other ponies seemed so happy with their marks, like some long-hidden piece of their soul had finally surfaced on their skin. Cartography felt… wrong. Stupid and wrong.
She trounced around in the dirt for a while, occasionally stopping to try and buck the cartography cart over. It didn’t budge. She tossed her pencils and rulers all over the field, then went and picked them up when she realized she’d have to add them to the map. She stomped on the freshly plowed rows, to make the soil feel her pain. Finally, with all her other options exhausted, she stopped to think.
Maybe, just possibly, cartography wasn’t the problem. After all, it was her cutie mark, and cutie marks never lied.
The problem was the boring barley field. Her map, although exquisitely detailed, was just a square if you didn’t look very closely. What was needed, she realized, was something more fun.
She hopped up onto the cart and grabbed a few sheets of paper and a spare quill. Tucking them into her saddlebags, she paused long enough to dash off a quick note for her sister, then jumped to the ground and began trotting toward the woodline. It was time to really earn her cutie mark.
By the time she completed her fifteenth lap around the scummy pond, Scootaloo had made up her mind: Twilight Sparkle was wrong.
For the first fourteen laps she had resisted the idea. After all, Twilight was the book-smartest pony in all of Equestria. In all the time Scootaloo had known her, Twilight had never been wrong about something found in a book.
But during the fifteenth lap something snapped. She had cleared a path in the scum, forming a dark circle around the entire pond. Her wings were coated with stringy bits of algae and dead leaves, and the water that occasionally splashed in her mouth was foul, gritty and rotten. All this and more she might have tolerated, for Rainbow Dash if no pony else, but during the fifteenth lap a flight of pegasus ponies happened to soar gracefully overhead, sliding around the clouds, dancing with the wind. Their laughter fell from the sky to land to land in her mucky, scummy pond, and she finally snapped.
Twilight Sparkle was wrong about her cutie mark.
Scootaloo suffered the epiphany calmly. Everypony makes mistakes sometimes – this just happened to be Twilight’s time.
She waded to the edge of the pool and climbed out, water, mud and other filth dripping from her coat in streams. Her wings took a while longer to clean, but she found that rolling around in the grass got most of the scum off.
“Dash!” she cried up at the cloud overhead. There was no response from the napping pony.
What would Rainbow Dash do? she asked herself. Rainbow Dash was the awesomest pony in all of Equestria; somehow, she would find an awesome way to swim.
She flopped down on the grass with a sigh, letting the sun dry her while she tried to think of an awesome way to swim. None came to mind.
But then, if Twilight Sparkle was wrong, then maybe swimming wasn’t the answer. Maybe something else was her special talent. Something having to do with the waves on her cutie mark. Something awesome.
The answer came in a flash. She hopped to her feet with an excited gasp and took off for town.
There wasn’t enough water in the pond for what she was planning.
Sweetie Belle’s teeth were starting to hurt.
For three hours she had been whacking at the same sapling, holding the hatchet between her teeth and swinging her head around with all the speed and force she could muster. There were tiny indentations on the handle that neatly matched her bite pattern.
Worst of all, the sapling refused to fall. With every blow it flexed, then sprang back like nothing had happened. Aside from a few scratches on its waxy bark, she might as well have never struck it at all. She was pretty sure she could have chewed it down faster.
She gave the tree a final (and still useless) whack, spat the hatchet out, and sank to the ground in a mighty sulk.
“I don’t want to be a lumberjack!” she shouted at Rarity’s boutique, just a few dozen feet away. If Rarity heard her inside, she didn’t bother to respond.
Sweetie Belle was Rarity’s sister in every sense of the word. In addition to sharing coats and manes and horns, they shared the same attitude toward glamour and exertion: they loved the former, and despised the latter. And right now lumberjacking seemed to involve a lot of exertion and not much glamour.
This wasn’t what unicorns were supposed to do, she fumed. Earth ponies loved hard work and manual labor. Unicorns were supposed to be like her sister – elegant, refined artists! Craftsponies! Magicians!
She gave the hatchet a mighty kick. It slid an inch across the wet leaves. She stomped on it, to no visible effect. Finally, frustrated beyond relief, she used her weak magical powers to lift the hatchet up and fling it as far away as possible.
It flew several feet before coming to an abrupt halt, its blade buried halfway through a thick sapling. The tree shuddered, leaned, and collapsed with a surprisingly loud crash.
Sweetie Belle stared at the felled tree, mouth open in shock. She looked back and forth between the hatchet and the tree several times.
Maybe Lumberjacking wasn’t so bad after all.
“Well howdy, Twilight! You finish cleaning up that mess the girls left?”
“Good afternoon, Applejack,” the purple unicorn answered, walking into the barn where Applejack was sorting apples. “And I did! Well, technically Spike did most of the work, but I provided oversight and management.”
“You mean you bossed him around?”
Twilight let that slide, largely because it was true. “Anyway,” she started, “I came out to see how Apple Bloom is doing. Where is she?”
“She’s out in the northwest barley field.” The earth pony guffawed. “Oh Twi, you shoulda seen it. Ah don’ think I’ve ever seen her so angry!”
“Well, shall we go check on her?”
“Shore, maybe you can give her some tips on map makin’.”
The two went on a leisurely walk through the acres, pausing occasionally while Applejack inspected trees or spoke with family members working in the fields. Eventually they came to the most distant point on the farm, the northwest barley field.
“I don’t see her.” Twilight said.
“Aw, she’s probably just restin’ in the cart.” The two cut across the rows to the cartography cart, which was abandoned and alone in the center of the field. They reached it and stopped.
“Uh, AJ? She’s not in here.”
Applejack scowled at the empty cart, and then turned in place, scanning the nearby fields for her sister. “Ah dunno Sugar, ah told her to stay here.”
“Hey, there’s a note.” Twilight grabbed the paper with her magic and levitated it in front of her.
I am making a real map. I am in the Everfree Forest. Please save me some dinner.
PS Please take the cartogaffy cart back to the barn
XOXOXOXOXO Apple Bloom
They stared at the note for a while, much longer than it took to read. Finally, with a sigh, Twilight folded it and dropped it back in the cart.
“You know,” she said, “I think those three have spent more time in the Everfree forest than the rest of us combined.”
Applejack groaned. “Don’t ah know it. You’d think they’d have learned by now not ta go in there.”
“Well, at least I came prepared!” Twilight opened her saddlebag with her mouth and levitated out her pith helmet.
“Why do you always carry that thing, anyway?” Applejack asked as Twilight scrunched the helmet down onto her mane.
“Research of course! Now, let’s go find your sister before it gets dark.” The two started down the road to the Everfree Forest at a trot.
The front desk of the Lotus Luxury Spa was empty when Scootaloo arrived. A delicate sign on the counter announced that all staff members were busy with customers, and would you please have a seat.
Scootaloo did not require the aid of the staff. She trotted past the counter and sign without noticing either, straight down the hallway to the large communal baths.
As luck would have it the baths were not in use. She was prepared to explain her plan to anypony who asked, confident they would agree with its wisdom, but the opportunity never arose. As far as asking for permission to use the spa in such an unconventional manner, the thought simply never occurred to her.
The communal baths were located in a separate room from the rest of the spa, to keep the excess steam and humidity from leaking into other parts of the structure. Thick, waterproof doors helped keep the warm air inside where it belonged, and prevented water on the floors from leaking out.
The spa had a tremendous amount of water, fed by a cistern on the roof. More than enough to fill the baths several times over. Enough to flood the entire room, if one were so inclined.
Scootaloo was counting on it.
The doors swung outward, and could be secured from the inside with a tiny latch. It took all of her weight and strength to pull them shut, but eventually they closed with the soft *whump* of an airtight seal engaging. Satisfied that they would hold, she opened every faucet in the room as far as they would go, and waited.
This was going to be so awesome.
Sweetie Belle surveyed the carnage before her, and was pleased.
The stand of saplings had been deforested. Not a single baby tree survived her onslaught. They fell to her hatchet like wheat before the scythe. She was unstoppable.
When the last sapling toppled she felt a brief jolt of satisfaction, followed by a craving for more. These little trees were nothing – she was ready to graduate to the big leagues.
Fortunately for her there was an entire forest literally steps away. She hopped toward the taller trees, dragging the hatchet along the ground behind her with her magic.
What she needed, she realized, was a trophy tree. Something she could mount and hang on the wall over Rarity’s fireplace. The fact that any of the trees around her were several times the size of Rarity’s boutique failed to dampen her excitement.
Only a few feet inside the forest she found a suitable specimen. A mature Jackdaw Pine, it soared at least a hundred feet into the air, straight as an arrow, crowned with a house-sized canopy of needles and branches.
She planted her hooves and raised the hatchet with her magic. This was going to be a long fight.
“Hmm….” Applejack inspected the soft earth around them, looking for tiny pony tracks. “Nope.”
Twilight Sparkle kicked away a thorny vine that was trying to wrap itself around her leg. The Everfree Forest, as usual, was doing its best to trap, strangle, drown and consume them (sometimes all at once). Only Twilight’s magic and Applejack’s powerful kicks had kept them alive so far. How Apple Bloom or the other fillies managed to survive their regular excursions into the forest was a source of constant mystery to the mares.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” Twilight asked. They had left the main path a ways back, heading down a narrow game trail after Applejack thought she saw a hoofprint. The trees crowded ominously close around them, turning the trail into a dark and leafy tunnel which had no light at its end.
“Course I’m sure. I bet she’s right up ahead, waitin’ for us to find her an’ bring her back to the farm.”
Twilight sighed. “This is my fault, I should’ve known map making would be a bad idea for her.”
“No, it’s mah fault. I was supposed ta be watchin’ her.” Applejack pushed her way through a thick curtain of vines blocking the trail.
Twilight squeezed in after her. The trail came to an end in a small clearing, barely large enough for a pony to turn around in. More trails led off in several directions, each vanishing into the perpetual fog of the Everfree Forest after a few feet.
“So… ideas?” Twilight peered down one of the paths, jerking back when her snout tangled in an unseen spiderweb.
“Well, your guess is as good as mine.” Applejack said. Faint creases of worry were starting to appear between her eyes.
They stood in the clearing for a while, slowly realizing that Apple Bloom might not be the one who needed a rescue. Something moved through the trees overhead with a quiet rustling sound.
“I don’t think we should stay here,” Twilight whispered, turning her head to look over her shoulder nervously.
Applejack nodded and started down one of the paths, picking it apparently at random. Twilight followed close on her heels, trying not to shudder as they squeezed through a thicket of wriggling spiderbrambles standing in their way.
The trees shook as something large moved in the direction of the clearing they had just departed. A low, mournful hooting sound filled the air, startling unseen flocks of birds into flight.
“Move faster,” she whispered to Applejack. The orange pony didn’t need to be told twice.
They bolted down the path, galloping heedlessly around fallen trees and grasping branches, crashing through bushes of shivering starnettles and venomous brineberries (which fortunately are only poisonous if ingested). Eventually they came to an exhausted halt in another clearing, one much wider than before.
“I think… I think… we’re safe…” Twilight gasped. The new clearing was less foreboding than the rest of the forest. Polite, normal looking trees surrounded them. Actual sunlight broke through the canopy to cast dappled shadows on the forest floor. Birdsong echoed through the dark woods.
“Well, this ain’t so bad,” Applejack said, turning to inspect the clearing. It looked more like the woods around Ponyville than the Everfree Forest.
Twilight wanted to agree, but something about the clearing seemed off. It was impossible that such a clean, safe space could exist so deep inside the Everfree Forest.
The more she looked, the more unnatural the area seemed. A dozen oaks stood in a circle around them, all the same size, all equally spaced. No other plants grew within the clearing. In fact, there was nothing else at all within the clearing – the ground was bare dirt, uncluttered by twigs or leaves or other forest detritus.
She had seen this before in one of her books, she thought. The perfectly clear ground was mentioned several times, an important identifying feature. Scowling, she tried to remember something, anything about the book. It had been a field manual of some sort, filled with dire warnings and cautions. Her eyes grew wide as the book’s cover appeared in her mind:
The Field Pony’s Guide to Monstrous Carnivores, Fifth Edition.
“RUN!” she cried at Applejack, turning and bolting toward the nearest gap between the trees. She almost made it to the edge of the clearing when something caught her hoof, tripping her into the dirt.
“Twi!” Applejack shouted. She started to run toward the unicorn when the dirt around her exploded, revealing dozens of thin whipping tendrils that wrapped around her legs and dragged her to the ground.
Twilight yanked her hoof free of the thin roots that had snagged her, snapping them easily. Before she could stand, though, a dozen more erupted from the bare dirt to tangle in her mane. She bashed at them with her hooves, breaking enough to tear free with most of her mane intact. “Get out of the circle!” she yelled at Applejack, who was stomping and biting at the roots trying to grab her.
“What the HAY is this?!” Applejack yelled back, spitting out a still-squirming root. She slowly made her way to the ring of trees, tearing her hooves away from the roots with each step.
Twilight’s horn glowed as shed blasted away at the roots, trying to clear a path to the edge of the clearing. The roots were no longer tiny tendrils, she noticed, but longer and thicker, and much, much stronger. All around the circle the oak trees began to open, their roots unfolding to reveal cavernous dark hollows at their bases. The larger roots began to reach out to the ponies.
“It’s an Arbormaw! Get out of the clearing!”
Applejack took her advice. With a powerful buck she split the roots clawing at her and leapt clean out of the circle.
The larger roots were harder for Twilight to break. She lashed out with her hooves and teeth, managing to snap a particularly thick one tangled around her foreleg. Momentarily freed, she dove toward Applejack, making it to the edge of the circle before a vine as thick as her horn wrapped itself around her tail and yanked her to a halt.
So close! she thought. Her hooves scrabbled at the bare dirt, trying to get enough traction to drag her to safety. She slowly started to slide back into the clearing as the vine overpowered her.
Suddenly there was a loud *chomp* as Applejack leaned past her and bit the vine clean in half. Together they scrambled the rest of the way out of the clearing, collapsing in a heaving, exhausted heap.
Eventually Applejack found her voice. “Did… those trees just try ta eat us?”
Twilight took her time answering, trying instead to stop her body from shaking. “They’re not trees,” she finally managed, “It’s an Arbormaw. The whole thing is one creature. The clearing is its mouth.”
Applejack stared at the clearing, her eyes wide. “Then those trees were…” she trailed off.
“Its teeth,” she gulped, trying not to think about how close they had come to being pony snacks. “I didn’t know they were found in this part of the world – for a while everypony thought they were extinct, until a few specimens were found in the wild forests up north. It’s really amazing to see one this close to civilization.” She stopped as she realized she was babbling.
“So, what now?”
Twilight sighed, resting her head on her forelegs. “I don’t know AJ. I’ve never been this far in the Everfree Forest. I’m completely lost.”
They huddled together, shivering, thinking dire thoughts about their situation. Finally Applejack pushed herself away, and stared up at the forest canopy with an anguished expression.
“Twi,” she said, “this is all my fault. If we don’ get outta this, I just want you to know how sorry I—"
“Hiya Sis! Hiya Twilight!” Apple Bloom interrupted, standing right beside them.
The two mares stared at the filly, shocked into silence. Apple Bloom bounced in place, a wide smile on her face.
“Apple… Apple Bloom?” Applejack stammered. She rushed toward the filly and swept her into an exuberant hug. “Oh thank Celestia! How did you find us?!”
The filly squirmed out of her sister’s grasp. “Well, ah thought ah heard some ponies runnin’, so I followed that sound. Then ah heard ponies screamin’. Finally ah thought ah heard ponies cryin’, and here you are!” She beamed at them, then gave them a more concerned look. “Are you alright?”
Applejack and Twilight looked each other over. Both were filthy, covered in dirt and scratches, and part of Twilight’s mane was missing.
“Uh, we’re fine,” Twilight finally said.
“No, we’re not.” Applejack said. “We’re still lost, remember?”
Apple Bloom laughed. “Oh big sis, you can follow me home!” She opened her saddlebag and pulled out a scroll of parchment. “I got a map!”
An hour later the three finally made it back to Ponyville, just as the afternoon sun was beginning its descent into evening. Apple Bloom bounced excitedly the whole way, regaling the two with her map making prowess. Twilight Sparkle and Applejack limped.
“Now remember Apple Bloom,” Twilight said, “When we get back, there’s no need to mention the screaming or crying.”
“Or that we were lost,” Applejack added.
“In fact, we don’t need to talk about this to anypony, do we?” She gave the filly a hopeful smile.
Apple Bloom stared at them, squinting. She was about to ask some uncomfortable questions when a rainbow colored mane suddenly appeared between them, followed by the rest of a panicking pegasus pony.
“AJ! Twilight! I can’t find Scootaloo!” Rainbow Dash said, her scratchy voice an octave higher than normal. “I was watching her at the pond when suddenly she… what happened to you two?”
“Happened? Nothing happened!” Twilight gave a nervous laugh.
“Yeah, uh, we’re just fine!” Applejack agreed, giving Dash a strained smile.
Dash stared at them, then at Apple Bloom, who shrugged.
“Scootaloo?” Twilight asked.
“Oh, right!” Dash pressed a hoof against her forehead. “I can’t find her anywhere!”
“Maybe she just got tired a swimmin’?”
The pegasus scowled at her, then leapt into the air, resuming her patrol over the town for the missing filly. The three earthbound ponies watched her in bemusement, and then resumed their walk through the town.
“Ah wonder how Rarity’s doin’,” Applejack said.
“Well, we could go check,” Twilight said. “She’s probably with Sweetie Belle.”
She was not. Rarity was in her boutique when the three arrived, and trotted out to meet them.
“Hello girls! How has your day… oh my, what happened to you?”
“I’m not allowed to say!” Apple Bloom spouted before her sister could shush her.
“A ha ha. Hello Rarity,” Twilight said. “Just a little exploration! Nothing at all untoward.”
“Nothin’ at all!” Applejack added. “Where’s Sweetie?”
Rarity giggled. “Oh, she’s right over—" she turned toward the downed saplings, her words tumbling to a halt when she realized her sister was not in the picture.
“Hm, that’s odd,” she said. “She was right there.”
“Hey!” Apple Bloom said, bouncing and pointing. “There’s Scootaloo!”
The mares turned to follow her hoof to the Lotus Luxury Spa. Visible in a window high off the ground was Scootaloo. She was waving frantically, apparently trying to get their attention.
“Mystery solved!” Twilight said. “She probably just needed a bath after that pond water.” The unicorn flagged Rainbow Dash down and pointed to the spa. The blue pegasus landed and stormed into the building with an angry look on her face.
“Ah hope she’s not too upset,” Applejack said.
They never found out. A few moments after Rainbow Dash entered the spa, the entire structure shook ominously. A crashing rumble filled the air, and the front doors exploded outward, followed by a tremendous wave of water that washed across the street. Atop the crest was a tiny orange pegasus, riding a massage table like a surfboard.
The wave eventually petered out just a few yards from the stunned mares, depositing an ecstatic Scootaloo, a shell-shocked Rainbow Dash, and the entire contents of the Lotus Luxury Spa at their feet.
Scootaloo hopped off her makeshift board and ran to the group, vibrating with excitement. “Did you see me!” she shouted. “You were wrong, Twilight! It’s a surfing cutie mark!” She and Apple Bloom shrieked and hugged each other, bouncing around the street in joy.
“Wha…what?” Rainbow Dash finally managed. Her sodden mane hung like limp, colorful noodles.
“The spa!” Rarity cried, horrified. “The SPA!”
There was a long moment of relative silence, broken only by the babbling fillies and the shouts of concerned ponies, running to see what was happening.
“Well,” Twilight finally said, “at least this can’t get any worse.”
“TIMBER!” a high-pitched voice called from the woods near Rarity’s boutique, followed by a shrieking groan. Seconds later a tall Jackdaw Pine began to teeter and fall toward the ground.
And it would have hit the ground, had Rarity’s Boutique not been in its path. The tree struck the building a glancing blow, crashing through the edge of the roof and knocking away most of an entire wall. The pine came to a stop leaning on the structure, its trunk resting just above Rarity’s fireplace.
Sweetie Belle trotted out of the forest, dragging the tiny hatchet behind her. Ignoring the other ponies she ran to the fallen tree and jumped into the canopy. She emerged a moment later, pulling something with her mouth -- it was gold, square shaped, and seemed to have been stapled to a pair of muddy sticks.
“Girls!” she yelled to Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. “I got our kite back!”
The three fillies cheered and slapped their hooves together. “Cutie Mark Crusaders!” they cried. “YAY!”
The silence the followed was broken by a thud, as Rarity fainted dead away.
Two days later…
The mood in Twilight’s library was somber. Rarity was staying with her until the boutique could be fixed. Spike, at least, was happy with the arrangement.
“So what do we tell ‘em when their ‘cutie marks’ start to fade?” Applejack asked? The four mares were gathered in the main room for the evening, sipping on after-dinner ciders.
“I don’t know, Element of Honesty, what do you think?” Dash shot back.
“Girls, relax. We’ll think of something.” Twilight said. She turned to Rarity and asked, “How do you feel?”
“Miserable,” the white unicorn replied. “It will be weeks before the spa reopens. Don’t even ask about the boutique.”
“I don’t get it,” Rainbow Dash complained. “It should’ve worked! It was a perfect prank!”
Twilight sighed. “Sometimes things don’t work out like you expect,” she said. “Maybe cutie marks are more about attitude than destiny.”
The four sat in silence, sipping on their ciders. Finally Twilight spoke again.
“You know, that would make a good letter to Princess Celestia,” she said. The others looked alarmed as she levitated over a parchment and quill.
“Uh, Sugar, ah agree an all,” Applejack said, “but uh, Princess Celestia’s an awful busy pony.”
“And really dear, you write to her so very often,” Rarity added.
“And she’ll totally banish us if we tell her what we did!” Rainbow Dash said. The others stared at her. “What? She might!”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “I doubt that, Dash.” She paused, staring at the blank parchment. “...but maybe this can wait.”
Her friends relaxed. Outside the sun began to set, and life in Ponyville went on.
“...but explorers must take special care when travelling in the forested places of the world, for therein may be found that most vile of creatures, Locosylva gigadenta, more commonly called the ‘Arbormaw’ or ‘tree trap.’ They are identifiable to knowledgeable field ponies by the perfectly circular clearing and bare dirt floor that is its mouth.
“The full size of these creatures is not known to science, but it is believed their bodies extend many dozens of feet beneath the soil. The tree-shaped structures above ground are only a small part of this organism, and serve no purpose other than to trap prey that wanders into its mouth.
“Young Locosylva typically start with three to six ‘trees’, with mouths less than 10 feet wide. As they age they sprout more ‘trees,’ always an even number, and can grow to be nearly 500 feet across. Larger specimens feed upon larger prey, up to and including juvenile dragons.
“Fortunately for ponykind, Locosylva are largely extirpated in the civilized world. As their habitat shrinks, it is likely that they will join other monsters in extinction. For tips on identifying and avoiding Locosylvas, see Table 2 located in....”
Excerpt from “Arbormaws”
-The Field Pony’s Guide to Monstrous Carnivores, Fifth Edition
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