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The End of Ponies – by short skirts and explosions

Chapter One – From the Ashes

        The first thing she remembered was how scared Rainbow Dash was.  She could feel the blue pegasus' panting breath beneath her wing muscles as the young filly clung—trembling—to her backside.  Undaunted, Rainbow Dash flew the two of them over the panicked sprawl of Cloudsdale, darting every which way around herds of frightened and hysterical ponies.  There was a great shadow falling over the land of Equestria, as if some titanic curtain was being drawn over the noonday Sun, and the pegasi's home in the sky was the first to fall under the blight.

        As the chaos reached a deafening cacophony, the tiny pony buried her shaking snout into Rainbow's prismatic mane.  “I don't get it!” she shouted.  “Wh-What's going on?  Why's everyone so freaked out?”

        “I can't believe it.  Harmony was right!  She was right all along!”  Rainbow Dash's voice sounded strangely cold, contemplative, distant—like she was flying a million miles away from where the two of them were presently hurdling.  “I wonder who else knew about this!  Twilight?”

        “R-Rainbow, you're scaring me,” the filly murmured.  Tears welled at the edges of her eyes as she clung all the tighter to her sky-barreling protector.  “Who was right about what?  Where are you taking us?”

        As Rainbow Dash veered around a stampeding herd of rain factory workers, she daringly ignored the pony's first question and only half-tackled the second, “I'm taking you somewhere safe!”

        “M-Me?”  The filly blinked.  “But what about you?—WHOAH!”

        She shrieked as Rainbow ducked low beneath a falling column of skymarble.  Gasping, the little pony atop her looked back to see an entire cloudbed dissipating in a wisp of steam; every pegasus that was galloping across it floundered and flailed in the sudden plunge and all too tragically succumbed to the weight of several ivory structures overtaking them from above.  Far below the clouds, where the hapless pegasi plummeted, the great green expanse of Equestria shuddered and bulged as if a serpent of epic proportions was shredding its way upwards through the surface.

        More screams, and the young pony turned forward once more to witness a rainbow factory imploding as three whole levels of cloudbeds collapsed through it.  Before her trembling eyes, half of Cloudsdale was crumbling into a gigantic earthbound comet.  Streams of shattered rainbow patterns and marble shrapnel soared towards her vision.  Before she could scream, Rainbow Dash was banking hard to the left, yelling at the youngling to hold on tight.  She obeyed, and clamped her hooves around Rainbow's spine with an iron grip as the blue pegasus spun them around surging chunks of debris, falling droves of screaming ponies, and white-hot spurts of Cloudsdalian steam.  At the end of her acrobatic sky dance, Rainbow Dash heroically soared the two of them heavenward towards a patch of brown haze beyond the last wisps of evaporating clouds.  As the clouds gave way, the brown haze turned out to be a caravan of abandoned hot air balloons conjoined about a metal framed gondola large enough to fit four dozen ponies.

        Rainbow Dash effortlessly threaded the two of them through an open porthole in the side of the abandoned royal cargo vessel.  Touching down inside, Rainbow planted the young filly on her hooves.  The littler pony stumbled numbly across the interior of the gondola—ushered forward by her older blue friend—until she dazedly blinked at what she was being led to: a series of dark cubicles fashioned out of obsidian metal.

        “Arcane vaults?”  The filly blinked and glanced confusedly up at the pegasus.  “Rainbow Dash—Ponies are dying!  Why are you bringing me here?”

        “Kid, if I place my bets right—and I sure as Celestia wish I didn't have to—all of Equestria is dying.  There's no place in the sky or on the ground that's safe—except for here.”

        “Why here?”

        “It's what Harmony told me.  And so far, she's been right about a bunch of stuff,” Rainbow Dash's voice echoed once she had shoved them both into the hollow of one of the arcane vaults.  The great dying world shrieked and howled outside the claustrophobic interior like a reverse seashell.  “It all makes sense now.  I can't take any chances; You're staying here, alright?”

        “Staying here?” the filly squeaked in disbelief.  She trotted shakily around the interior, eyeing the floor, the roof, the two tiny windows of sickly pale sunlight growing dimmer, dimmer, dimmer.  “But Rainbow Dash!  What about our friends?  What about my--?”  There was a large metallic clang, and the girl gasped to find herself shut inside the box-like vault.  “Rainbow Dash!”  She ran up and scratched her hooves in futility against the thick black door.  “Let me out!  Wh-Why are you doing this?”

        “Because I'll be darned if I let you die!”  The colorfully maned pony stared from outside a barred vent in the door frame.  She reached a hoof down and playfully ruffled the filly's hair while sporting a brave smirk.  “Don't fret!  I'll be back in—like—half an hour, tops!  I just gotta find Harmony!  She'll know how to fix all of this!”  A not so stealthy gulping of a lumped throat:  “Sh-She has to ...”

        “Rainbow Dash, don't leave me!” the filly sobbed, all her tiny weight pressed against the door.  “Please—I don't want to be alone!”

        “I'll be back!  I promise!  Now you promise me something!  Promise me you'll not leave this airship until one of us girls comes to get you!”

        “Rainbow--”

        “Promise me!  Pinkie Pie Swear!”

        “I-I swear,” the filly hiccuped, fighting back her tears.

        “Everything's gonna work out.  You'll see!”  Rainbow Dash's hoof let go of the filly's head as she trotted backwards towards the porthole in the side of the gondola.  “Seriously, kid—Would I let the world be any less cool by disappearing?”  A wink, a flick of the tail, and she was gone.

        The little pony sat there—trembling—in the dark shadow of the arcane vault, with the penumbra of light from two opposite windows acting as her only view to an apocalyptic crescendo.  For what seemed like an hour of molasses creeping terror, she listened to the thunderous echoes of her own heartbeat.  A sour tumor formed invisibly in the base of her throat.  With a dry trembling tongue, she reared herself up and started calling—mewling—Rainbow Dash's name, then Fluttershy's, then even Applejack's.  And when nopony and nothing answered her foalish cries, she cleared her throat and—in a braver breath—she tried a name that she had barely come to comprehend, much less believe in.  “H-Harmony?”

        It was around that very moment that a tremendous shockwave ricocheted across the roof of the world.  The filly felt it, as the entire body of the gondola rattled like a ship dashed against a rocky seashore.  The pale bands of light from the opposite windows swam across the vault's interior, and the young pony realized to her horror that one or more of the balloons had exploded.  The entire body of the dirigible spiraled in a suicidal plunge earthward.  She was only faintly aware of a horrified little voice calling out all the names she had ever grown attached to in her abbreviated life.  Several more spins later, and her young body was thrown violently towards the side of the vault, forcing her to look out the barred window and see the entirety of Cloudsdale falling like a bag of ivory bricks towards an Equestrian countryside drenched in endless flame.  Droves of screaming pegasi fell towards the gaping maw of the burning abyss—until suddenly their airborne carcasses exploded in a hurdling wall of ash.

        Breathless, the filly's eyes tilted upwards to see the source of the holocaustal blast wave.  As a great shadow fell over the plunging vault, she saw the Sun being blotted out by a great circular phantom.  It wasn't until the pull of gravity boiled her blood from the inside out that she realized that this 'phantom' was the Moon.  The cold body completely eclipsed the burning one—creating a solid ring of fire for a few brief breaths—until the Moon itself exploded and covered everything everywhere in one thunderous scream that masked hers.


        Her scarlet eyes opened wide, twitching.

        Ash and snow danced across the field of cloudbeds, stretching dark and gray from horizon to horizon, as far as anypony could see... as far as only she could see...

        She sighed, her eyes thinning as they were encompassed once more by the perpetual grayness of that monochromatic world outside.  A hint of moisture sprang from the trembling edges, but they cleared in a huff as the frowning pony sat up straight in the cockpit's seat and flung a pair of amber-brown goggles over her optics.  The adult mare reached both hooves forward and pulled at a series of levers flanking the left and right sides of her seat, which was positioned in the center of a cramped airship.  Gazing forward across an instrument panel, she focused on the altitude meter as it ticked down a spinning scale.  The gears and servos within the dashboard hissed and puttered incessantly, speaking to the mare in a language of her own design.

        The entire body of the cabin rocked and veered as she navigated her way through a pocket of windy turbulence.  She tilted her gaze back towards the curved windows that stretched in front of the dashboard.  Beyond the copper-framed translucent sheets, the flurry of ashen snow kicked up.  The air was anything but calm here—a rock face had to be nearby.  It was time to stop relying on the instrument panel and instead trust in gut instinct.

        A deep breath, and the pony reached a brown hoof up and pulled at a chain-linked handle.  A whirring noise, and a great iron boiler positioned at the very rear of the cabin hissed and billowed hotly.  A series of brass pipes rattled against the curved walls of the gondola as steam throttled up through them and into a series of gears that controlled the exterior rudders of the airship.  The pony's hoof pulled at another chain—And a shrill whistling sound lit the foggy air as the vessel's lateral vents briefly opened.

        A ringing noise; the ship descended, rapidly.  The pony ignored the alarm and proceeded with her sharp plummet.  Her brow creased above her amber goggles as she squinted hard through the mist-laden windshield, the fluttering ash outside parting every which way to make room for the ship's piercing path.  The altitude meter was clicking like mad; the metal framework of the dashboard rattled and buckled.  Finally, as the centripetal force of the fall gave slack to the pony's seat harnesses, she spotted a break in the ashen blizzard.  A great black mass was surging just beyond the gray mist.

        She immediately reached her snout up and yanked at a chain-linked handle while simultaneously shoving two levers back with a pair of strong hooves.  Every dangling supply net and rattling cage inside the gondola swayed forward as the zeppelin came to a hovering stop then gently fluttered down towards a granite cliff jutting out from the mist like a great black knife.  Slowly, slowly, the pony piloted the dirigible downward one meter at a time, then one half meter at a time, then she cut all power and simply let the thing naturally drift until there was an inevitable thump of iron against rock.

        In one motion, she unclasped all of her safety harnesses and dashed towards the port side of the vessel.  Clad in brown leather armor from snout to flank, the agile pony raised her head towards a valve and grasped its handle in her teeth.  With a tightly held breath, she cranked and cranked and cranked the cylindrical device forward until—through the edge of her squinting vision—she saw a giant mechanical claw stretching icily outward from beyond the leftmost side of the great yawning windshield.  Once the claw was within reach of the rocky cliff, she let go of the valve and in the next breath pulled at two hooks positioned right next to it.  A hissing of steam and hydraulics, and she watched in deadpan satisfaction as the metal 'fingers' of the claw clamped down tightly onto the edge of the cliff.  Locking the fingers in place with a pulled lever, she then trotted to the starboard side of the ship and performed the same feat, so that an identical claw stretched outward from the right and similarly clasped onto the mountainous promontory—successfully anchoring the vessel in place.

        A solid breath, and the pony trotted over towards a supply locker on the port side.  Instead of a handle, there was a black stone within which a glowing rune was etched.  Reaching towards a work bench, she grabbed a leather bracelet within which half-a-dozen severed horns were interwoven with fine stitches.  After sliding the multi-colored band onto her right hoof, she cleared her throat and solidly throated one word:  “H'jem.”

        One of the many horns on the bracelet shimmered in a brief purple haze.  Immediately, the glowing rune on the supply locker faded to black, and the hulking metal cabinet opened with a resounding metallic ring.  Reaching into the locker, the pony grabbed and shouldered another thick layer of armor.  After donning the dull brown material, she then snatched two sets of saddle bags, followed by a pair of lanterns which she yoked over her neck.  Once suited, she procured a long collapsible cylinder of brass fused to a wooden stock.  She then made sure to grab two hollow metal magazines filled to the brim with faintly glowing runestones; afterward she slid the brass rifle into a sheath on the right flank of her armored shell and the magazines into the left side compartments.  Finally, she grabbed a tiny glass jar fitted with a runed cap.  The container was custom made, as was everything else on her and around her.  So adequately geared, the pony took a few backtrots from the closed supply locker and grunted a different word into the air:  “W'nyhhm.”

        The rune over the middle of the cabinet glowed once again, locking the doors with a magical seal.  The pony made one final check of her instruments, lowered the temperature on the boiler in the back, extinguished the lanterns lining the interior of the cabin, and made her way down a winding brass staircase towards the dark-lit hangar floor below.

        Strolling past several tables of chemistry equipment and engineering tools, she nonchalantly approached a widely yawning aperture of copper plates positioned towards the lower bow of her airship.  “H'jem,” the mare uttered once more.  The circular door in front of her opened from the inside out, its shiny metal hole pouring a gray spotlight of misty haze across her weathered features.  A deep breath, and she reached a hoof up to the side of her pilot's cap, dragging a cloth mask down so that it covered her mouth and snout.

        A flurry of bone-chillingly cold wind dotted with snow and ash, and she was greeted by the foggy wail of a dead world beyond.  Trotting forward, she hopped down onto the black rock of the cliff face—her brass horseshoes nearly slipping on the polished obsidian.  She hissed a muffled curse under her breath, groaned inwardly, and marched on past the gently swaying hull of her anchored airship and the faded letters of its name that had been half-heartedly spray-painted thereupon:  'HARMONY'.

        Pausing briefly to measure the direction and intensity of the wind, the pony reached a hoof up and parted the mask from her lips just long enough to throat:  “H'jnor.”  The entrance to the Harmony's hangar closed shut like a cats-eye.  “W'nyhhm.”  Six glowing runes positioned around the closed aperture suddenly lit up, encasing the body of the entrance in a thin haze of purple shielding.

        The pony trotted forward, marching across the glassy black surface of the mountainside.  Her clopping hooves were mere pin-drops in an endless howl of wind and snow.  Above her thickly armored neck, the sky swam infinitely across a ceiling of dark gray clouds, and beyond that souless mesh the pony knew only to expect the sputtering hint of starlight, or something halfway like it. Soon, the shrieking wind drowned away as she grew more and more distant from the Harmony and closer towards her goal.  It was a haunting silence, like suddenly being at the bottom of a magical well with no echoes.  But this hardly surprised her—after all, she had been there before, long ago.

        It took barely two hundred meters of trotting before she found the first signs of the ruins.  The softly falling snow gave way to a great white mass—an overturned cylindrical tower that had fallen thunderously on its crumbling side countless years ago.  Emblazoned across the shattered stalk of the lopsided spire was the faded image of a bronze Sun, splotched with ash and rusted streaks of long-lost life.  This same image blotted the sides of several more buildings—some collapsed, others in a perpetual state of decay—as the grand skeleton of a deceased city exposed itself coldly before her.  The pony had reached her destination: the elevated, unclimbable ruins of Canterlot.  She pressed on, in search of her target.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        The mountainous spires that shadowed Canterlot were natural weather breakers; they pierced the high clouds of ash like gigantic plows.  In brief spurts, the endless twilight of the sky glanced down in its dull gray glare, but the remaining towers of the crumbled urbanscape blocked even those meager attempts at 'light', so that the streets were reduced to veritable black chasms.  A dead-thick ink bled through the winding alleyways and sporadic courtyards and marble-stepped corridors of the granite maretropolis.  What was once the capitol city of Equestria and home to the Royal Equine had become what it was inevitably constructed to be all along: a grand mausoleum.

        Through this, the pony marched slowly, eyeing every shape and shadow beyond lingering corners.  Her snout twitched anxiously, ready to reach back towards the rifle on her right flank at any given blink.  Her hooves made lonely clopping sounds of crafted metal against decayed stone.  Her breaths—muffled by her cloth mask—came out evenly and calmly, howbeit balanced upon the precipice of caution, the sign of an expert explorer who had ventured through many an unwitting graveyard much like this one.

        Her amber shaded goggles reflected abandoned storefronts, their dangling signs and painted windows preserved icily through the death-blink of time.  She sauntered past lonely market vendors; the many fruits stacked inside had long-decayed into dry pits with hanging scraps of papery skin.  Tattered and tossed flags bearing the Celestial crest rested on either side of her as she ascended winding streets of mildew-stained cobblestone, pointing her way towards the palatial center of the cold granite labyrinth.

        A break in the spires, and a curtain of snow fell to greet her once more.  Soft flecks of ash settled on her armored neck and flank; she made no attempt to shrug any of it off.  The dead powdery substance had become like a second skin to her, a precipitation that never ceased to fall for any single moment of any single day ever; not that 'days' could any longer be quantified in the gray miasma that everything had become.

        Another row of steps, and a gaping wide entrance yawned before her, announcing the front half of a large ten-story structure built upon the highest point in Canterlot.  The Royal Quarters; she had made it there in record time.  Pressing onward, she twisted her snout left and right—nudging switches built into her yoke that activated a pair of spring-loaded flints which scratched each other inside of a pair of gas lanterns.  After a few diligent tries, the two lanterns were lit, and they shone a swath of light directly ahead of the pony in a golden halo as she ventured into the darkest part of her sojourn.  The last time she was here, she made the mistake of not crafting herself any form of light projection.  A near-plummet into a gaping hole in the floor that led into the heart of the mountain taught her a thing or two about such brainlessness.

        With the lantern light as her guide, the pony made her way through the former living quarters of Equestria's two crowned princesses.  She trotted over checkerboard tiles dotted with bits of gravel and debris, hopping over a collapsed coat of arms in order to make her way into the grand library.  The silhouettes of hundreds upon hundreds of collapsed books moved before her like shadow puppets as the  shuffling pony shone her light left and right, finally finding the detour she needed through the dining hall.  Tables and troughs were filled to the brim with clattered silverware, shattered plates, and bits and pieces of petrified fruits and vegetables.

        And it was here—finally—that she saw them: bodies, the hollowed out shells of ponies.  Either in a clattered sea of bones or in the seared cornucopia of plastered leather, she always stumbled upon them this deep into a fortified structure.  Any of the ponies that had been left out in the open air of Equestria had turned into ashes ages ago, to forever be lifted up by the cold winds of the plains and snowed back down onto the endless graveyard of Equestria.  Here, in Canterlot, in the heart of the Princesses' Palace, many of the remains were hidden in smokey heaps under helmets and saddles of armor, like worthless lint collecting under rusted dustpans.  The last time she was here, she confiscated a few of the brass horseshoes off of the guards' remains and smelted them to form new rivets for the Harmony's hangar extension.  It was almost worth the near-plunge into the heart of the mountain, almost.

        She had no need with horseshoes or armor this time.  She was here for one thing and one thing alone.  She pressed on, ascending several curved staircases lined with tapestries.  The woven illustrations divulged her lantern-lit waltz one historical lesson after another: of colorful ponies overcoming gray hardships before building a golden interwoven city under the watchful gaze of a silk-plastered Alicorn with a starlit mane.  The winding staircase was suddenly pelted with a flurry of cold ash and snow.  The pony found herself trotting onto an open balcony overlooking a great westward blight: a land of dead gray fields and exposed black earth, sleeping forever under a swirling bed of cold drifting mist.  She had seen it all before, from above and from below.  Intriguingly enough—to her at least—she found that the Equestrian Wasteland looked the same on either side of the clouds.

        Glancing right, she paused for the first time since she entered the ruins of Canterlot.  A three-story tall stained glass window stretched above her.  In its epicenter was the swirling infinitude of the Goddess of the Day and the Goddess of the Night in perpetual pursuit of each other; below and above them were joyous green mosaics of jagged equine figures in hoof-rearing reverie.  The tints in the segmented glass were amazingly well preserved; not a single chip of paint had faded from the artistic craftponyship, a work of art that was two Ages' old at least.  But the pony could hardly tell—or care.  Color no longer shone in Equestria; not like it used to.

        Lowering her snout—she gazed through amber goggles and was mutely pleased to see a loose panel of glass covering the flank of one of the prancing ponies beneath the twin Goddesses.  Pushing her leather-armored mane against it, she was able with minimal effort to push the panel off its frame and crawl through the pony-shaped hole.  Trotting softly through the stained glass window, she tilted her snout up and flashed her yoke-lanterns widely to reveal the cavernous hollow of Princess Celestia's Royal Throneroom.  A curved series of steps led audaciously towards the holy seat in question, still draped with rich purple banners, all emblazoned with the solar crest.  The gold plates below the throne had lost their shine, and the water fountains flanking the base of the seat had long dried up.  Otherwise, the place was well preserved with what could only be described as appropriately bitter irony.

        She gazed around, reaching a hoof up to adjust the apertures of her goggles.  The shadows of the room cleared before her engineered vision; and as she flashed her lantern light around she finally saw what she was looking for.  Trotting over for a closer inspection, the pony lowered her snout to study a series of blood-red feathers littered along the far side of the throne room.  Her goggled eyes wandered a little further; she spotted a large 'nest' of golden thatched threads, huddled just beneath a grand tapestry woven in the image of Princess Celestia herself.

        This was it.  This was its hiding place.  If the pony had any chance of catching it, she had to act soon; she had to bait it here before it was too late.  The window of opportunity was closing even before she had lowered the Harmony into its anchorage.  If she had any hope of getting paid—much less out of Canterlot alive—she had to act swiftly or lose ...

        What was there left to lose?

        She knelt down and reached a snout back past her yoke, yanking a string that loosened a pouch on the right side of her forward saddle bag.  Shaking to the side, she dropped loose a paper cylinder crafted onto a wooden block.  Tightening the pouch shut, she then propped the fireworks cannon up at the entranceway beyond the throneroom. Stepping back, she kneaded her hooves in counterclockwise twists.  With a metallic sound, cleated spikes shot out from the base of her front horseshoes.  Next, she scraped her cleats until sparks flew—which she then used to light the tiny cannon's fuse.  Swiftly retracting the cleats, she galloped back to the far side of the room and hid beside the throne, out of sight from the entranceway to the grand corridor.  Kneeling low, she squinted her eyes and reached a hoof up, dimming her amber goggles just in time for what was about to happen.

        A bright flash of light; the fuse burned into the cannon and the homemade pyrotechnics fired a flare ceilingward.  Here in the stone heart of the Royal Granite Castle, the burning plume of golden light shone like a beacon.  Its frothing core let loose an unearthly howl; a banshee scream that filled every abandoned corner of the Palace and its surrounding alleyways.  There was no way that a living soul in the catacombs of Canterlot could not hear this flashy desecration of silence, and the pony knew that there were only two souls to be had in the entire city: herself, and her target.

        The first minute of howling zoomed by like a skittering rat.  The second swum by with the delicateness of swarming moths.  By the third minute—a limping, shuffling, decaying minute—the pyrotechnics had begun to dwindle into a low groan, like a sea of dying cats.  The pony felt her heartbeat once again, and she grew increasingly anxious as the shadows of the throneroom recollected in the absence of her flickering distraction.  Taking a few deep breaths, she glanced right for any sign of her prey: none.  She glanced left—and her head did a double-take.  The dangling haze from her yoked lanterns had caught sight of an unmistakable silhouette forever etched into the surface of her starved eyelids.  It was the shape of a record player, and where there were record players...

        She trotted over swiftly, keeping one eye on her dwindling flare, all the while feeling the weight of the rifle on her armored flank.  Once she had reached the left side of the throne room, she exhaled at the sight of a series of supply crates, atop which was indeed a record player, its needle and crank having fallen off and dwindled into splinters long ago.  Energized with a seemingly alien euphoria, the leather-clad filly hoofed through the ashen mound of debris besides the crate—kicking up a few red feathers in the maddening search.  Finally, she found what she was looking for, hoping for:  a black disc encased in white shreds of tattered vinyl.  Hungrily, she rotated the record to its side and was astonished to see one particular name on the water-stained label.  For the first time in immeasurable 'weeks', a smile graced the last pony's masked lips—or something that skeletonously resembled a smile.  Her hairless tail briefly flicked.

        A thunderous roar; the floor and granite foundations of the throneroom shook.  Pebbles and precipitous bits of dust fluttered downward from the painted ceiling.  She gasped and immediately tossed her snout left and right, shoving tiny knobs in her lanterns and killing their golden glow in a blink.  With a single gallop, she slid back into place besides the throne with the labeled record in her gentle jaws.  Reaching back, she tossed the black disc into a safe pocket of her left rear saddle bag.  After tightening it, she flung her right shoulder forward and bucked her legs.  Her rifle was launched in midair like a spring.  She hoisted her snout up and grabbed its wooden stock in gnashing teeth and gave it a shake.  With a series of clack-a-clacking noises the brass cylinder extended and exposed its chamber.  Reaching back in a single breath, the pony unsheathed a magazine full of runestones and chanted breathily into them.  The armband of horns on her right leg flickered, and the stones glowed a bit brighter as she slapped them into place, cocked the rifle, and slid two hooves into a pair of levers welded into the weapon at ninety degree angles with each other.  Sliding into the triply dark shadows of the throneroom, she squatted besides the golden seat and waited, her goggled gaze locked down the sight of the rifle barrel aimed towards the entranceway beyond the smoldering fireworks.

        The strange roar cascaded through the stone hallways of the palace once again, rattling the royal seat besides her crouched body.  More dust and paint chips fell from the ceiling as the heat of the room increased by several degrees per minute.  Sweat formed in bulbs between the pony's brown coat and her thick leather armor as she waited on her prey.  She shook the fear off like she had trained herself to do long before, and her goggled eyes roamed the lengths and breadths of the hollow throneroom in mute anticipation of the inferno that was heading her way.  The temperature reached a fever pitch and a bright copper glow washed over the place.  But as the sizzling seconds piled up on one another, she could not tell from where the brightness was coming...

        The truth made itself evident to her very quickly as the pony spotted the circular image of the swirling Horse Goddesses swimming over the stone floor and towards the seat.  Blinking under her goggles, she craned her neck and turned around.  A brilliant cross of gold and scarlet light was billowing from just outside the stained glass window, illuminating the entire mosaic of Equestria in ghostly bright colors.  A pair of shimmering eyes flickered to life and glared straight through the etched surfaces—and found her.  A grand shriek—filling the Palace once more with a blood-curdling roar—and the great burning thing plowed straight through the window, shattering through a sea of stained glass shards as the flaming creature swooped down towards the figure hidden behind the seat.

        The pony held her breath and dove forward into a full-bodied roll.  Princess Celestia's age-old throne caught aflame as a pair of golden talons ripped through it with trails of seeping plasma.  The air of the room positively boiled, the distant ashes of dead guard horses evaporating in an instant.  Sliding to a stop against a far wall, the filly hissed as her leather armor positively steamed from the sheer heat.  She propped her brass rifle up over a supply crate and took aim.  From her vantage point, a giant flaming bird stared down her sight and shrieked its golden beak wide, a burning tongue lashing at the equine intruder.

        “H'rhnum!” She shouted into her mask.  Her bracelet of horns flickered; the first runestone inside the rifle's magazine burst in a puff of smoke.  A shot rang out as a manabullet throttled down the brass barrel of the rifle and soared across the room, finding its way into the avarian inferno's chest.  Chunks of plasma and plumes of scarlet feathers littered the floor as the thing shrieked and flailed its billowing wings up high, causing the paint on the ceiling to melt and curl.  Without a second's hesitation, the pony yanked at both levers of the rifle with alternating hooves, cocking the weapon.  It spat the smoking dead runestone out of its magazine and loaded the next one.  “H'rhnum!”  Another bang.  This time the manabullet screamed its way towards the nape of the flaming fowl's neck.  The creature intelligently dodged at the last second, and with a bubbling howl the phoenix dove its way at the rifler.

        A grunt—the pony scampered and dodged to the side just as the burning creature slammed into the wall behind her.  The supply crates burst into flames, spilling sparks and embers all over the mare's rolling body.  It wasn't until the pony stumbled back onto four hooves that she realized her mask was on fire.  Cursing, she tossed her snout madly left and right until the fabric was successfully flung from her sooted face.  With gnashing teeth, she cocked the gun and spun about, only to meet a flaming talon being flung into her chest.  Under the dull thunder that followed, she thanked her lucky stars that she had packed extra armor.  Though her brown coat was slightly singed, the smoldering husk of her chestplate remained in tact.  She realized this—of course—after only the third or fourth bounce off the palace walls.  Groaning, she got up and could tell from her dancing shadows that the phoenix was clawing towards her for another strike.  With a sharp breath, she flung her rifle once more over her shoulder—sheathing it—and broke into a full gallop in time to narrowly escape a snarling beak strike of the flaming creature, now hot on her hairless tail.

        The last pony ran, dashed, and scampered down a series of meandering hallways at full speed.  She had no need of the lanterns anymore, as the bright flare of her pursuing target lit everything hellishly for her.  She flung the heavy yoke off and leaped in time to avoid a plume of fire bursting at the top of some winding stairs which the pony then rapidly descended, sliding icily down the laminated banister.  Reaching the bottom, she dove with a forward flip, slid comically sideways on a loose rug, and regained her hooves in time to avoid the impaling beak of the dive-bombing phoenix scrambling murderously after her.

        Now on even ground, the lone pony made for a gray light at the end of a long passageway leading into the open courtyard of the palace's center.  The tapestries and portraits flanking her caught flame as she galloped past them.  Up ahead, the passageway yawned open to reveal a marble balcony, at the edge of which a brilliant purple banner hung.  Taking a wild chance, the pony jumped with all her might and grabbed the edge of the royal fabric in her teeth.  Using her momentum, she swung violently forward and leaped at the end of her self-imposed body toss.  It was just in time; the phoenix had burst out of the palace behind her—shrieking—and snapped at her flailing hooves with a surging beak.  The pony out-'flew' the flaming bird, landed her hooves in a dried up aqueduct, and slid down the mud-laden bridge until she cleared the palace gates and pounced full force into the snow-kissed blackness of the Canterlot streets below.

        Landing on a second-story awning, she fell through tattered fabric and awkwardly ragdolled through a wooden market stand, smashing it to splintery bits.  After scampering up to her hooves, she prepared to gain some bonus distance, only to gasp at the realization that her left rear saddlebag had flung open in the haphazard landing.  Glancing every which way, she froze jubilantly upon the sight of the black record disc she had swiped earlier; it was still intact.  She ran back, slid on four hooves, and snatched it off the street in her teeth.  A shrill shrieking noise.  She glanced up, and her goggles reflected twin golden comets sailing burningly down towards her.  A muffled squeal from within, and she barely dashed away from the phoenix's talons scraping the cobblestone street.

        The pony tossed the record back into her bag and galloped down the careening snow-laden avenues of Canterlot.  The pursuing phoenix lit the stone-dead blackness of the ruined City like a torch at the bottom of a deep grave.  As the seconds wore into minutes—the phoenix gave up running on its talons and took to the air.  It hovered a violent halo over the distant image of the scampering pony, all the while screeching angrily like the shimmering ghost that it was.  The filly looked up breathlessly to witness a veritable forest of scarlet feathers falling loosely from the lurching fowl's wings.  That was just the inspiration she needed to take a sharp left, leap over a rooftop, slide down its crumbling shingles, leap again, fall two stories, and cannonball weightedly through the balcony window of an abandoned hotel room across the street.

        Glass, wood, and bed stuffing flew through the air as the pony barreled over a mattress, tumbled across the floor, and somehow landed on her back with her shoulders pressed up against a wall.  A clack-a-clacking sound, and the leather-armored equine had her rifle aimed out towards the hole she had just made in the windows—peering through the softly raining ash beyond for any sign of her glowing target.

        “Come at me.  Come at me.  Just a matter of time.  Just a matter of time.”  She gulped, sweated, and hooked her hooves tighter in the levers attached to the rifle.  The foremost runestone in the magazine was rattling noisily.  Glancing briefly at her limbs, she realized that she was shaking.  A growling voice:  “Nuh uh, Philomena.  You're not scaring me!  There's only room in the Equestrian graveyard for one ghost, and it sure as heck isn't you!”  Her voice echoed loudly against the rattling halls of the shadowed bedroom, but no screeching response came from beyond the shattered window.  As the upholstery beside her started to sizzle and smoke, she gaspingly realized why.

        She barely had time to flip up onto her hooves and gallop away when the closet doors behind her smashed inward with smoldering splinters.  The phoenix's burning beak ate through the cramped hotel room like a hot knife through butter.  Snarling, the last pony spun, propped herself against another wall and took aim.  “H'rhnum--!”  The shrieking fowl rammed straight into her just before she could get a shot off.  The bullet flew pathetically into the floor as the two went smashing through the wall and plunged several meters into the corpse-strewn hotel lobby below.

        

        The pony collapsed under a rain of horse bones and petrified skin flakes.  The phoenix floundered and thrashed, raining fire and dead feathers all across the cold tile floor.  Bounding wincingly back up to her hooves, the filly limped over a chair and sofa, reaching back and grabbing at the other magazine of runestones.  These glowed with a purple aura as she shoved them into her rifle and galloped out into an open garden full of leafless, gnarled trees.  The hotel lobby imploded right behind her from the phoenix's violent thrashings, forcing the pony to collapse from the sheer heat of the shockwave.

        Crawling over the gray sand and dead grass of the garden, the last pony rolled to her side and finished clapping the magazine full of runestones into her weapon.  Pivoting so that she lay on her chest, she aimed her barrel at a pair of marble columns still standing in front of the smoldering heap that remained of the hotel lobby.  “H'rhnum!  H'rhnum!”  Despite the sheen of sweat and soot covering her goggles, her aim was true, and both manabullets embedded a runed dart into each marble column.  The darts continued to glow a deep purple, even as the pony watched the heap of hotel ruins bulge up from deep within and explode.

        The phoenix emerged—wailing—for it had lost a great deal of its plumage.  As a heap of its scarlet feathers had fallen loose, so had its flaming brilliance.  The fowl now stood—or more appropriately stumbled—as a three-meter tall creature with wrinkled skin and crackling flesh.  Its flickering eyes dimmed for a brief moment until it shook its snout and roared with a renewed burst of flames kindling across its body from wing to tail.  It scampered like a drooling flightless reptile the pony's way, passing between the two columns...

        The pony took a deep breath and shouted high into the broiling garden air, “Y'hnyrr!”  Her bracelet flickered.  In response, the purple glow over the twin darts faded as their runes died.  The  enchanted shields on them dissipated, and volatile chemicals stored inside each dart—otherwise magically separated—were instantaneously fused.  Dual explosions rocked the heart of Canterlot, utterly engulfing the phoenix in shrapnel and plasma.  By then, the pony had flung herself behind a thick bramble of thorns, using it as a shield.  By the time the thunder of the twin blasts had faded, she peered up to see that the briars had burst into flames, as did all the dead trees lining the garden.

        And sprawled out in the center of the courtyard of burning trees was the phoenix, trying breathlessly to hold its naked weight up on two quivering talons and a pair of withered wings, its feathers now black smoldering husks.  The flickering glow faded from its eyes, revealing two jaded red orbs of pale invalidity.  The creature hacked and wheezed, crying forth a warbling voice that barely mimicked its years of pride and royal ferocity.  It limped and lurched on the four shuddering limbs suddenly given to it, plowing its beak through the dead garden as the pony cautiously paced around the creature, her rifle propped on her shoulder.  As the trees' flaming 'leaves' died with several plumes of smoke, the phoenix's breaths grew further and further apart.

        The last pony eyed it knowingly.  The bird’s helpless gaze danced like dying twins in her amber goggles.  The mare had studied hard on the physiology of phoenixes.  In a dead world starved of magic, the creature's life cycle was far shorter than normal.  The pony had arrived at the precise time she needed to get the job done.  It wouldn't be long now ...

        Staring at her, the phoenix managed one last snarl.  Its gnarled flesh glowed from underneath and produced a few scant feathers of hot burning plasma.  The pony stopped pacing and immediately propped herself back against a dead tree, cocking her rifle towards the thing's snout until the avarian metabeast simply gave up.  In a sickly slump, the great bird's eyes closed with finality.  One lasting breath; just as it exhaled, its body dissipated into a brittle pile of obsidian ashes in the center of the garden.  Deafening silence returned ever so softly to the snow-kissed hovel of Canterlot.

        The pony wasted no time.  Leaning her rifle against a dried fountain, she slid down on two knees and reached back to her saddlebag, taking out the glass jar that she had procured from the locker on board the Harmony.  Carefully, she unscrewed the runed cap and lowered the jar down—scooping up every single speck of black ash from the garden floor.  This was it; everything counted on this moment and no other.  She sweated briefly, but was swiftly done with the task.  She slapped the cap back onto the jar, lowered her lips to within a millimeter of the thing, and softly-but-succinctly murmured: “W'nyhhm.”

        The rune lit up, and a purplish haze bathed over the jar, sealing the cap magically onto the container.  Not a second too soon; for within a blink, the ashes inside the glass jar sparked, sparked again, and lit aflame with such ferocity that the container nearly leaped out of the pony's hooves.  With a deep exhale, she gazed as the black ash inside disappeared, and in place of it there billowed a plasmatic core of crimson and gold energy.  The flames splashed and kicked inside the glass sarcophagus for a few moments, until the deep glow was finally still—and constant.  The phoenix was imprisoned, contained.

        “Welcome to my life.”  Sighing, the last pony stood on three limbs, juggling the glowing jar briefly before saddlebagging it and marching limply with rifle in tow through the dead streets of Canterlot.


The End of Ponies


        Several dozens of hours later, somewhere above the mountainous spires of the Northern Reaches, the Harmony came to a puttering hover in the midst of a great gray cloudbed, just one gray body in an endless sea of thousands more like it.  The vessel's spinning rear propellers came to a stand-still, and the copper rudders flanking the bulbous rust-red body of the miniature zeppelin pivoted back, slowing the airship's velocity to nil.

        Inside the cockpit of the floating vessel's suspended gondola, the goggled pony finished locking her levers into place.  She raised a hoof and hung it loosely from a chain-linked handle.  Taking a deep breath, she gazed sharply through the wide windshields of her vessel.  Once again, there was nothing to behold but endless gray mist and ash.  The filly raised an unamused eyebrow.  This was the agreed-upon coordinates for their rendezvous; she expected at least a mere hint of her client by this point.

        She sighed.  Undaunted, the filly unharnessed herself from the cockpit seat and trotted across the gently swaying lantern-lit cabin until she came upon a long wooden spout welded to an elaborate speaker system along the port side of the gondola.  With one hoof, she grasped a handle and viciously cranked it.  The spout glowed deeply from within as two teslacoils on either side of the device sparked to life.  A deep breath, and the pony spoke into the spout, listening passively as her own voice was broadcasted in loud crackling intensity beyond the hull of her hovering craft.

        “I know that you are out there somewhere, Gilliam!  I went through the gauntlet to get what you ordered.  Now show your smelly faces before I go and sell this to that baboon at the M.O.D.D.”

        She prepared to wait an hour for a response.  She only needed a few seconds; out from the thick soup of mist there boomed a voice on immense speakers that severely dwarfed those of the Harmony.

        “No need to get testy, pony girrrrl.  We have been expectingggg you.”  This, of course, was followed by a tumultuous rumbling sound as the clouds parted ways to reveal the thick black bow of a gargantuan airship lurching forward and above the Harmony.  The arrogant proximity of the giant craft forced the pony's vessel to rock back and forth like a foal's tiny balloon in the breeze.

        The last pony hissed and muttered foul things under her breath as she leaped back into her cockpit and grasped both hooves to a lever, glaring up through the dashboard windows as the massive cloud-ship elevated high above the local mountaintops.  Groaning inwardly, she pulled a chain-linked handle, adding more fuel to the boiler at the rear of the cabin, so that the steam vents pumped heated gas into the zeppelin's balloon and raised the craft's altitude to match that of the battle-cruiser.

        Both aircraft pulled above the highest cloudbeds, so that the ceiling of overcast transformed into a milky sea; and above, the dull gray sky twinkled with distant dying stars.  There was no Moon in sight.  In the dim everlasting twilight, the pony pilot could see 'Gilliam's' sky vessel in all its glory.  It was a long, narrow, iron-clad thing with six horizontal propellers constantly spinning and giving it lift.  The stern of the ship was slightly thicker than the rest, built to house innumerable bits of cargo, both nefarious and really nefarious.  The bow of the ship was a narrow stalk of a thing that flattened towards the front and acted as a runway, atop which several bipedal creatures were busily moving crates and equipment to make room for the Harmony's mooring.

        The filly lowered her tiny airship towards the bow with residual hesitance.  The huge looming vessel resembled more an upside down legless crocodile than it did a cloudship.  And yet, this was the only place where she wanted—or needed—to be.  Without the payment for this latest job, she wouldn't get the strips she needed to buy a flamestone.  Without a flamestone, she'd have to go for yet another consecutive stormfront without being able to fire up the signal.  And without the signal...

        “Park her in the same 'ol place, pony girrrrrrl.  Make yourself at home.”  The booming voice was punctuated by what sounded ever so briefly like a chuckling voice before it was cut short by the transmission's end.  If the pony was amused, she made no attempt to show it.  Touching down to the runway of the airship, she locked her vessel's claws in place, cooled the boiler, stocked up on a few necessities, and—last but not least—saddlebagged the glowing little jar that this entire exchange centered upon.  With a strong breath, she made her armored way down the spiral staircase, and stepped through the hangar's aperture.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        “Izzat—?”

        “Shhh!  The girrrrrl might hearrrr you!”

        “But izzat—?”

        “Shhh!  Of course she isss!”  Two smelly hunched-over shadows squatted behind a series of crates and watched with glued anticipation as the four-legged mare trotted out of the gaping exit of the Harmony's gondola.

        Three canine creatures greeted her with untraditional salutes and pointed towards the entranceway positioned halfway down the airship's bow.  She proudly lifted her snout and marched slowly towards her destination.  When her back was turned, one of the canines greedily rubbed his paws and made to peak inside the Harmony's hangar bay.  Without looking, the pony voiced two blunt words; the aperture shut loudly, shielded with glowing runes.  The sneaky dog fell flat on his stubby tail and shook an angry fist at the pony while its two companions snickered at him.

        The two hunched shadows shuffled to the other side of the crates and watched with panting breaths and wagging tails.  “Look how she walksssss!  So bizarrrrre!”

        “You dunce!  That's how all ponies walk!  Or at least how they usedddd to.”

        “Poniesss?  What are 'poniesssss'?”

        “Grrrrrrghhh—Silly, ugly, selfissssssh creatures who hogged the Sun and the Moon when Equestria had color!”

        “Hah!  Hahah!  Silly mutt!  The Moon is a myth!  It neverrrrr existed!”

        “Baaah!  Shows how much you know!  The night usedddd to have a Moon!  And there were living thingsssss in the sky as WELL as on the ground!”

        “On the ground?  You lie!  What happened to them all?”

        “They left when the poniesssss left Equestria.”

        “They all left?”

        “Mmmmm-Yes.  All died.  All exceptttt herrrrr.”

        “So izzat--?”

        “Yessss!  Don't you see?  She is the lastttt one.  The end of poniesssss.”

        “Ohhhhh.... Mmmmm—I bet her flankssss are scrumptious.”

        “Heheheh—I know, right?  What I wouldn't give to have one bite—”

        “BAH!  You two!  Back to workkkkk or Gilliam give no bone!”

        “Yes, boss.”  “Y-Yes, bosssss.”

        

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        The metal doors to the runway closed with a rusted thunder behind the pony.  The mist and ash of the Equestrian sky dissipated, giving way to an odorous brown haze that permeated the stuffy air of the battle-ship's interior.  Her goggles practically fogged from the stench as she gazed left and right.  Corridors bled rustily into haphazardly-riveted hallways full of bickering and brawling canines.  A few metal-helmeted guards leered and drooled at her.  Others poked sticks at rabid brothers rattling inside iron cages.  In mess halls, dozens of mangy bodies dug their maws into basins full of rum and laughed over crucibles of brimming incense.

        The pony's brow furrowed.  Clumps of panting creatures gathered behind her, watching with mixed curiosity and stupidity as she sashayed her armored self up a final flight of stairs and entered the command center, the ship's bridge, and the waiting presence of her client therein.  A pair of guards parted ways to grant her access, but growled sideways at her passing form all the while.  Once on the bridge, a wide panorama of glass windows and portholes bathed the black metal surfaces and instrument panels with an endless gray gleam.  At four windows towards the front of the bridge there were swivel chairs fixed to giant harpoon guns that aimed straight out into the clouds.  Standing around a broad table in the center of the bridge were several tall dogs, far bulkier and more intimidating than the grand pack of lackeys whom the pony had marched past on the lower decks.  They all muttered and clamored over an ugly-but-practical map of the Equestrian Wasteland.  Upon first sight of the pony's arrival, they parted ways to reveal one husky canine seated with his back to the mare-for-hire.

        “Hrmmm—Your swiftness is either a gift or a jokkkke.  I do hope you have brought evidence to disprove the latterrrrrr, Harmony.”

        The pony rolled her eyes.  “For the last time, Gilliam,” she muttered, “'Harmony' is the name of my ship.  Not me.”

        “Then what does that make you—I wonderrrrr?”  The figure swiveled around in his chair.  He was a stubby, stout excuse for a canine.  The upper right portion of his skull was substituted with a metal riveted iron plate.  His left eye housed a whirring aperture lense that pistoned slowly in and out, focusing on the lonesome sight of her.  “A mercenary with no name?  Perhaps you should just settle for 'pony'.  That's easy for all of us to remember, yes?  Even you?  Heheheh.”  Gilliam's fellow cabinet of airdogs chuckled in cadence with him, at least until he silenced them with a vicious pounding of his paw against an armrest.

        The pony took a deep breath, her goggled gaze fixated on the captain of the canine airship.  “Have you had your fill?”

        “Mmm... Of laughterrrr?”  He raised a clawed finger.  “Yes.  But—er—Of magic red flame?  No.  That is why I am—eheheh—droolingggg in anticipation of what you have brought us, lone pilot of the Harmony, infamous rogue of the sky.  Eheheheh.”  He leaned forward, grinning ear to metal plate with ruby-studded teeth.  “Did you gettttttt it?  Did you get the phoenixxxxxx flame?  Yes?  Y-Yes??

        The pony stared apathetically back at him.  She reached a hoof back towards her saddlebag.  A ringing noise; as every guard in the room took the sudden movement as an excuse to show off the lengths of their serrated polearms in her general direction.  She glanced at them with no less boredom, then proceeded to produce a glowing glass jar from the depths of her leather pouch.  A gold-and-crimson glow lit the room as the impossibly shrunk bird shimmered from deep within the tiny rune-capped prison.

        A deep howling chant filled the bridge from every canine's slobbering lips, most of all Gilliam's.  “Oooooooh—So beautifulllll!  And trust me, childdddd.  That's a compliment coming from someone who—like you—knows that there are very few beautiful thingssssssss left in this world.”  He scratched his scraggly chin as his one ear flickered curiously.  “Funny.  The burning bird is a lot smallerrrrrr than I had imagined.”

        “I have a Second Age Equestrian Rune Seal enchanting the container,” she explained matter-of-factly while gesturing towards the jar with professional nonchalance.  “Laws of mass and energy can be bent when magic is at play.”

        “Something you poniessssss were all good at, once upon a time, no doubtttttt.”  Gilliam hobbled up with the assistance of a diamond-studded cane, greedily eyeing the glowing item in the filly's grasp.  “You really should be proud of yourself, girrrrrl,” he slurred as his eyepiece pistoned her reflection in and out.  “In spite of everything that has happened, you are a shining—no—a radiantttttt example of true Equestrian grit.  Only someone of your—ehehehehcalibre could be so capable of ensnaringgggg such a creature, and in the dead heart of your much beloved capital, no lessssss.”

        “I didn't come all this way to be paid in compliments, Gilliam!” she snapped, her brow creasing over an angry amber glint.  “I expect strips.  Lots and lots of silver strips.”

        “Please, little girrrrrrl,” he smiled, his ruby-studded teeth glistening.  “Humor an old pooch—Yes?  After all, you are a very precioussssss specimen.  Why, it isn't just everyday that my fellow cohortsssss and I get to have dialogue with the only known pony in existence.”

        “The day I sit and have tea with diamond dogs is the day I know I've really sold my soul.”  She casually juggled the glowing jar of Canterlotlian essence to emphasize her statement.

        Gilliam jolted noticeably, pointing with his cane.  “Easy—Easy girrrrl!”  A brief frown.  “And don't call us 'Diamond Dogs'!  We are the 'Dirigible Dogs' now!  We have been called that for longer than you care to rememberrrr, I will bet!”

        “But you've got flippin' diamonds in your teeth, for crying out loud.”

        “Well, er, yes, but--”

        “And seriously...'Dirigible'?  You live in a giant metal suppository held in the air by propellers!  That hardly qualifies as--”

        “E-NOUGH!” Gilliam whined, his one ear sagging as he waved his diamond cane overhead.  “Yeesh—What would it take to gettttt you to show some respectttt?”

        “Strips,” the pony frowned.  “Lots of them, given to me, as agreed to.”

        Gilliam exhaled through two snorting nostrils.  He glanced at one of his closest advisers, and then nodded.  A return nod, and the taller canine produced a leather sack from a belt satchel and tossed it the pony's way.  She caught it, and with even less effort tossed the glowing jar straight at Gilliam.  The lead dog gasped and dropped his cane in order to catch the imprisoned phoenix in two floundering paws.  Panting slightly, he shook the slobber off his double chin and frowned the pony's way.

        “Always keeping things a centimeterrrr above unbearable, girrrrrl?”

        “You wouldn't keep hiring me if I didn't,” she retorted, counting the many silver bars inside the pouch.

        

        “Hmmmm—Or perhaps I just won't hire you from now on at all,” he said, picking his cane back up in one paw.

        “Keep trying to make me laugh, Gilliam,” she droned back.  “I need more things to keep my journal entries interesting.”  There was no response this time—only dead silence.  She was so engrossed in counting the strips in her pouch, that she didn't notice until the last second that several sharp glistening polearms were being raised towards the nape of her neck.  She squinted through her goggles at them, then glared cooly Gilliam's way.  “A double-cross, Gilliam?  After all we've been through??”

        Flanked by his smirking peers, Gilliam grinned within the purple haze of the jar's runed cap.  “Oh, no double-cross, pony girrrrrrrl.  We agreed that I would hand you the money for your job—And I didddd!”  He gestured with a slight chuckle.  “I did not, howeverrrr, guarantee that you would leave with the money.”

        The guard dogs surrounded the pony on all sides now, ensnaring the mare in a forest of sharp blades.  A deep breath, and she gazed over them at her sudden ex-client.  “Who was it?  The harpy pirates from Manehattan?  The Golden Gang?  It wasn't Gilda, was it?”

        “Mmm—Like you, I am also a dedicatedddd worker—And never give out the name of the wealthy mutt who paysssss me.”  He inspected the glowing jar up close and shook the frothing red thing besides his one good ear, chuckling.  “But, suffice to say—When I show up at their mountainside roost with both the red flame and the last tender side of horsemeat on Earth—well—maybe I'll have twice the richesssss to make us worthy of being called 'Dirigible Dogs' after all.”  He nodded his head towards the distant image of the Harmony hovering over the runway of the bow.  “Along with other fringe benefitsssss.  Eheheheh.”

        The pony glanced over her shoulder, then back towards the group of leering canines.  “Of course, I only have one word to say to all this.”

        “And what would that be—?”

        Hooves taut against the metal bulkheads, the pony bent her legs and grunted forth: “W'lynmh!”

        “What in the heck is that supposed to—Wait.”  Gilliam's eyes narrowed as he pointed with his cane.  “Did you just spout out one of your—?”

        The bracelet of horns on the pony's front right leg glittered, and a rune flickered responsively on the side of her armored leather.  In a sudden hiss, four metal studs popped loose from her saddle and a thick green gas filled the room from the uncorked vents in her armor.  As the surrounding guard dogs gasped and stumbled breathlessly away from her, she flicked her neck to the side—activating a trigger in her neckpiece.  In a series of metal clanking noises, a mouthguard extended downward from her pilot's cap and covered her lips—filtering oxygen through a series of tubes attached to a bottle at the top of her leathered neck.  With a blurring of hooves, she disappeared effortlessly into the rapidly expanding smoke.

        Hobbling back and falling into his seat under a storm of hacking breaths, Gilliam shook his cane in one paw and the glowing bottle in the other.  “St-Stop herrrr!  Kill herrrrr!  Skin herrrr!  But most importantly—Get me my silver backkkk!”

        Several guard dogs and military advisers held their breaths and stormed bravely into the thick of the haze.  Gilliam watched dizzily from his swiveling seat as a cacophony of metallic clanging sounds emanated from the chaotic emerald cloud bubbling before him.  A few shrill cries of pain later, and three guard dogs fell before his pawed feet in a groaning heap.  Another pair of snarling canines tackled themselves stupidly to the floor, mistaking each other for the rogue equine.

        “Curse you stupid mutts!  She's the only one of us with hooves!  Attackkkkk the one with hoovesssss,” Gilliam hyperventilated.

        “I see herrrrrr!”  A guard dog charged up from the side and aimed his spear at a shimmering glint of light from deep within the cloud.  A pair of goggles and a mouthguard hovered a few meters ahead of the nearest pack of clamoring dogs.  “Have at you, rockinghorse!”

        Gilliam's eyes twitched.  He realized what was happening and leaned forward on his cane.  “No!  Wait--!”

        The guard dog went charging in and slammed blindly at the goggles-and-mask with the full length of his polearm.  A few resounding thuds ricocheted off a helpless skull, followed by a groan.  Still hacking and wheezing from the smoke, a frustrated and perplexed Gilliam finally resorted to swiveling towards his 'war table' and slamming a paw over a yellow switch.  Suddenly, the many windows flanking the bridge pivoted open.  The low pressure of the high altitude outside forced the green smoke to billow out of the cabin and clear the room back to its usual gray gleam.  As the smoke  dissipated, the victorious guard dog stood with his battered polearm waving over the thoroughly bruised figure of one of Gilliam's most trusted advisers.  The goggles and mouthpiece had been slapped over the misfortunate canine's head amidst the blinding confusion.

        “What in the—?”

        “If that's nottttt the pony, then where did she go?”

        “Lookkkk!”

        “Over there!”

        “Woof!”

        Gilliam spun and looked.  At the far end of the bridge, towards the bow, the mare in question was in full gallop, abandoning a pile of freshly throttled and dizzy-eyed canines.  Sneering, the metal-plated ship's captain grinded his studded teeth until a diamond popped loose.  “NO.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        The pony dove clear through the window, sending glass shards flying in cadence with the fluttering ash and snow of the great gray sky surrounding the Dirigible Dogs' cloud-ship.  Skidding down a few lengthy bulkheads, she kicked to the side, performed a half-flip, and landed squarely on the flat runway of the ship's bow.  In full gallop then, she burned a straight path towards the spot where the Harmony was last moored.  Her scarlet eyes were exposed, along with a slender neck with a completely shaved mane, all the way down to its stubble.  Gripping the leather pouch of silver in her teeth, she glanced breathlessly from side to side as several metal hatches and trap doors lining the cloud-ship's hull opened.  Angry frothing guard dogs poured out with spears raised overhead.

        “Stop her!  Stab her!  Guttttt herrrrrr!”  Gilliam's voice crackled horrendously loud over the battle-cruiser's blasting speakers.  “Do not let the pony gettttt away!”

        Barks lit the air.  Foaming snouts howled against the wind.  Spears flew.  The brave filly dodged and skirted past them all.  Two bladed weapons barely missed her, shredding at her brown coat.  She galloped faster, eyes tearing into the cold winds of the high altitude as she spotted several mutts leaping out from behind piles of supply crates lining the flat runway.  She ducked two diving bodies, leaped over another, kicked two more charging from the side, and jumped high to dodge yet another cluster of spears.  Still airborne, she found herself sailing towards a ridiculously muscular guard dual-wielding a pair of axes.

        “I have you now, horse-meatttttt!”  He droolingly grinned and raised both weapons.

        In mid plummet, the frowning pony clapped her hooves together.  In a metallic ring, all four of her horeshoes extended razor sharp cleats.

        The guard gasped and dropped his axes, flailing.  “No-no-no-no-I didn't mean itttt—AAH!”  He let loose a blood curdling yipping noise as she landed square on his chest with the full force of her agile body. Retracting the pointed cleats, she kicked off him and barreled down the last half of the runway.

        “Cast it off!  Cast it off!  Don't let herrrrrr get back to her shipppp!”

        Glancing up in mid-gallop, the pony's scarlet eyes twitched.  She couldn't afford to gasp or else she'd drop the precious silver dangling from her mouth.  Several meters ahead at the end of the runway, half a dozen work dogs had pried loose the mooring clamps of the Harmony.  Now her zeppelin-and-home was drifting off into the great gray expanse ... without her.

        “Yes!  Yessss—Hahahaha! Stupid girrrrrl!  You are stuck with us now!  Hahahah!”

        Spurred on, she galloped even faster.  She skirted past three guard dogs, shoved another off his feet with a swinging snout, and side-bucked two more before zooming towards the very edge of the runway.  Squinting, she shuddered to see the aimless body of the Harmony floating further and further away.  Three meters' distance... four... seven... nine.  Before her scarlet eyes could blink, her body jolted hard from a thrown spear grazing her closely—slicing at one of the straps that held her leather-armored saddle in place.  Briefly stumbling, she bolted back into full gallop, chased by the roaring echo of over a hundred angry blade-wielding canines hot on her hooves.

        “Nnnnngh—Confounddddd it!  Stick her already!  Gut her ---Wait, where in the heck does she think she's—?”

        The Harmony was at an impossible leaping distance, but the pony still rocketed towards it.  The saddle sagged loosely from her flank, and with a few well-timed jumps, she effortlessly flung it off her, and then in an explosion of mighty brown feathers, she spread two wings majestically to her sides and caught a gust of wind.  Kicking off the last sloping length of the bow, she leaped gracefully into the air and coasted like a shimmering kite through the naked gray sky and towards the yawning entrance of the Harmony.  With two words shouted, she opened the aperture as it swallowed her hurdling body safely inside.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        “She's a pegasus...”

        Inside the airship's bridge, Gilliam's voice sneered, though the burning expression on his face didn't appear to register the finality of his own statement.  His snarl turned into a growl and he slammed his fist into the nearest metal bulkhead he could find.

        “The lasttttttt pony on the face of the earth and it's a god-forsaken Pegasusssss!  Rrrrrrrrgh!  Somedog!  Anydog—Arm the harpoons!  Shoot that miserable, silver-swipinggggg piece of filth out of my skies!”

        A guard dog coughed and wheezed as the last of the green smog dissipated from the lengths of the bridge.  “Y-Yes, sir!  Rightttt away, sir!”  He hobbled up to a harpoon gun and pivoted until he had the distant copper-red image of the Harmony in his sights.  “A bit hard to see through all this—KAFF!  KAFF!—sm-smoke though—”

        “I don't want excuses!  Now skewer her with a harpoon or I will make a collar out of your tail!”

        “Aye sir!  Consider her glue!”  The harpoon's barbed tip glistened in the twilight while every other dog ran to his post under a warbling chaos of battle-station alarms.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Scrambling up into her cockpit seat, the pony yanked at several levers at once.  Not even bothering with the seat harness, she raised her snout and pulled two chain-linked handles, one after another.  The boiler towards the rear of the cabin surged hotly as a rush of gas was filtered through the pipes and into the zeppelin balloon over her shaved mane.

        The entire gondola shook.  Even through the metal bulkheads and reinforced hull of the tiny Harmony, she could hear the alarms from the nearby airship.  Glancing out the cockpit windshields, she spotted the huge hulking bow of the Dirigible Dogs' battle-cruiser pivoting to face her, its six looming propellers kicking the air into a heated frenzy.

        It was only a matter of seconds before any one of the ship's innumerable guns fired a single zeppelin-dooming projectile straight at her vessel.  She could very easily outrun the mutts' battleship, but not any of their merciless harpoons.

        So it was with a breath of finality that the glaring pony lowered her brown face towards the bracelet of horns on her right limb and muttered into their mystical haze:

        “Y'hnyrr.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Back on the dogs' bridge...

        “Have you got a fix on her yet?” Gilliam growled.

        “Aye sir!  Just a matter of measuring for wind resistance--”

        “Less mumbo jumbo and morrrrrre blood!” the diamond-studded leader snarled, waving the glowing red jar in his paw.  “Bounty be cursedddd!  I want to smear the skiesssss with the the last pony's unholy juicessss—”  No sooner was this uttered, but the flickering rune on the cap of the bottle suddenly died, its glow fading in a blink.

        The tall cabinet of military advisers glanced fixedly at their leader.  The guard dogs shifted nervously, whining.  Suddenly, the jar began to vibrate as the red flame inside—no longer magically contained—began to buckle and expand.

        “Hmmmm.”  Gilliam blinked closely at it.  Then, an exhale.  “Oh.  Well ain't thattttt cute—?”  His voice was supremely cut short by a huge flaming explosion erupting point blank in his studded face.  Several howling voices barked but were just as quickly snuffed out as giant wings of lava-hot plasma expanded throughout the entire space of the bridge and melted the rivets off the black bulkheads and everything else in between.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        From her cockpit seat in the Harmony, the filly watched as a great winged beast of insufferable flame burst outward from the top half of the cloud-ship.  The ship lurched severely, then veered hard to its starboard side as three of its six propellers suddenly stopped working.  A series of heavy explosions ripped through the belly of the great black vessel in muffled chain reactions.  The hulking thing slanted northward towards an inevitable wall of granite mountains beyond the blinding mist that enveloped the plummeting carnage and all of its howling occupants within.

        Soon, she was once more awash in the gentle puttering rhythm of her steam-powered cabin interior.  A deep breath, and the brown filly juggled the pouch of silver in her hoof, gazing at it closely for a few emotionless seconds before tossing it expertly into a dangling hammock two meters behind her.

        “Hmmph... Should have just named yourselves 'Dead Dogs'....”

        That muttered, she pulled a handle down and shoved two levers forward, kicking the zeppelin into an accelerated gear, coasting her gently southward into the yawning void of the gray Equestrian Wastes.


The End of Ponies – by short skirts and explosions

Chapter Two – Of Hope and Harmony

        A brown hoof dusted off the glossy surface of the record picked up from the Royal Throneroom at Canterlot.  As the disc flipped over in the Harmony's cabin lantern-light, the white round label came into focus, and the name that was on it read:  'Octavia – Suites for a Princess – Sessions I thru IV'.  Gently, the fragile object was hoisted over the center spindle of a record player.  A cranking sound, and the glossy thing spun liquidly as a needle was lowered into place.  A pair of rusted speakers crackled and hissed for a brief moment, then a sweet melody of low bass cello strings bled through, dancing in the musty air of the swaying gondola.

        Under the softly lulling rhythms that kissed the bulkheads, the last pony hopped up to a hammock and layed herself down, rocking gently along the starboard side of the lonesome cabin.  She tilted one ear towards the music while another kept a diligent check on the hissing sounds coming from the boiler located towards the rear of the craft.  A prolonged exhale, and the filly's scarlet eyes poured over the curved ceiling of her floating home.  The mare let her gaze dance around metal beams and iron rivets in a synchronized waltz with the rise and fall of the age-old cello recording.  Finally, as the melancholic air around her succumbed to the peaceful melody, she permitted her eyes to shut and her body to drift with the sway of her own tiny world, her hooves resting behind her back and her hairless tail drooping over the side of the hammock.

        Outside, the great gray wasteland howled and spun its endless cyclone of mist and ash.  The Harmony hovered bravely in place, a lone copper ballast in a sea of oblivion and snow.  The stars above lingered on the edge of perpetual dying, and the black empty Earth below yawned for hundreds upon thousands of worthless kilometers.

        The world of nothing: Equestria, population one.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Journal Entry # 2,345

        I love music.  I don't care how many times I've written it down.  I don't care that I will be the only one to read it.  I love music; I love its sound, I love its tempo, I love its movements.  I love it when it begins, I love it when it ends.  I love knowing that there were ponies behind the strings who made this music; I love knowing that they recorded it solely for the sake of sharing their souls, their hopes and their dreams, their fears and their sorrows.  I love knowing that—in some way or another—these gifted and masterful ponies are sharing all that they know and love with me, even if it means that I am only having a conversation with the dead.

        

        A conversation with the dead is better than no conversation at all.  And the reason I think I love it the most is because—in a world where there's nothing left to lose—I can remember once more what it means to feel... sad.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        One night, the last pony marched up a snowy hilltop.  Behind her—through a sea of flurrying ash—the Harmony could be seen, moored to a trio of burnt-out oak trees.  Ahead of her, a mound of crumpled earth buckled under her hooves as she ascended it.  Panting, her breath fogging through the misty air, the leather-clad mare came to the top of the crest and gazed down.

        Her amber goggles reflected a wide graveyard of collapsed buildings and hollowed-out hovels of earth pony architecture.  In the center of the landscape was a clock tower, its circular face spilling rustedly out of the tallest point.  The minute and hour hands had fallen to the doughy gray earth countless years ago, forming two stabbing obelisks into the flesh of the dead world.  Taking little time to sight-see, the pegasus pony gently hovered down the slope on cold brown feathers.  Landing, she trotted her lonesome way through the ruins of yet another ram-shackled village.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Her name was Octavia.  She was the most gifted cello player in all of Equestria.  She performed her masterpieces live, before dukes and duchesses, queens and kings, even Princess Celestia herself in the Canterlot Concert Hall.  Her symphonies were recorded in mass—and to my delight, I have found discs of her exceptional talent almost everywhere: from the ruins of Cloudsdale to the sunken depths of Manehattan.  I have hoarded all of her stuff that I can find.  And when I listen to them, pricking my ear to hear beyond even the heavenly layers of her masterful strings, I think I can detect the breaths of the audience in attendance.  And when they applaud, and when they cheer—I am there.  I am with them.  I am in a concert hall surrounded by thousands of living, breathing, happy ponies.  And for a brief moment, I am alive as well.  And then the record player stops.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Inside a collapsed building, she poked through a pile of debris, overturning kitchen utensils, saucers, plates and other assorted dishes.  She briefly plowed a shovel through a pile of papery scraps and unearthed a soup can featuring the image of two smiling illustrated foals.  Several cockroaches scurried out of the hollow container and fled towards the ash-splotched walls that were still standing.  Ignoring them, she knocked the can upside down with the shovel until three lone beans spilled out.  A flaring of her nostrils, and she retracted the shovel back to her cylindrical hoof piece and extended a pair of metal claws in its place.  Grasping gently onto the beans, she lifted and deposited each of them into a leather satchel on her saddlebag.

        Tying it shut, she paced around and marched out of the dilapidated house, trotting slowly down the snow-laden stretch of the small city's main street.  The last pony's horseshoes made lonesome omega symbols in the snow as she padded her way towards a half-crumbled library.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        When I go hunting, I hear Octavia's strings.  Her music accompanies me on every trip that I make, on every scavenge that I do, on every deep dive into the darkest catacombs of Equestria.  Her majestic cello cries and sighs against the pale stone walls of my regular sojourn.  And sometimes, in my head at least, I do not feel like I am simply a ghost—the last haunting spectre of Equestria that this holy land has somehow forgotten to exorcise.  The world has forsaken me, and so I forsake it—with music.

        

        This, of course, is extremely helpful ... until I remember that the world doesn't care.  The only one who cares—or at least pretends to care—is me.  And that doesn't count for much.  It doesn't at all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Another night, the pegasus pony sat on the port side of the Harmony's cabin, her hoof bearing a cylindrical copper sleeve on the end of which rested a freshly inked pen.  Bending over her workbench, she proceeded to write her journal entry on the blank page of a dusty leather-bound book that she had found during one fateful trip to a half-collapsed book store in the ruined City of Torontrot.

        Halfway through her writing, she stretched her shaved mane and upper legs.  A long sigh, and she gazed with bored scarlet eyes out the front windshields of the gondola.  The world lingered in gray eternity, staring emotionlessly back at her.  Another breath, and she returned liquidly to her entry.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        I know that I have written enough about Octavia—about music, about the only thing that actually has any significance to me.  But today, nothing happened.  And when I write on the topic of 'nothing', I inevitably comment on yesterday while simultaneously predicting tomorrow.

        And yet I still write.  I'm sure there was a noble reason for why I began making journal entries in the first place.  Quite possibly, when I was still rather new to this whole routine—I had the naive hope that everything I put to pen would someday be read by other ponies.  But I know that's utter bologna; because I'm a pony and I can't bring myself to read the older entries I have made.  Still, I am what I am, and that necessitates that I produce something ... anything ... to prove that I exist.  It's the least and yet the most I can do with my presence here on this world, or so I try to tell myself.

        Thus, as always, here goes:

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        She trotted swiftly down a field of petrified trees, all bent backwards in the fossilized signature of a blast wave having seared them all to ash long ago.  A fine blue mist lingered coldly a few centimeters off the once-forested floor as the goggled filly shone a pair of glowing lanterns ahead of her.  She focused the hazy beams of gold past the gray husks of wood until she narrowed the light onto a pale chunk of stone embedded deep in the sandy black earth.  All of the trees leaned away from the alien rock as if it was something venomous.  Without a moment's hesitation, the pony galloped up to the thing, knelt down, produced a pick-axe from her saddlebag, and began chipping away until the cold white stone bled forth random nodes of muddied colors.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        I found several moonrocks this week.  Seven, to be exact.  From them, I was able to mine three more emeralds, two more sapphires, one topaz, and a ruby.  This fills my spectral stone quota for the signal over the next several stormfronts—with the exception of a flamestone.  The one I've got right now is almost out of mana, and I though I'm sure I've got plenty of reliable suppliers, payment is going to be something of an issue—considering that I've just recently lost one of my biggest clients, Gilliam.  Though, it is probably more accurate to say that he lost me... and most likely his life in the ensuing altercation.

        Finding creatures willing to pay me in silver strips for random tasks is going to be a bit difficult if I can no longer trust in Diamond Dogs to hire me.  I can only hope that many of the canines unaffiliated with Gilliam's 'Dirigible' crew are still willing to do business.  But I fear that the damage is done.  Tick off one dog, and you've likely petted the entire pack the wrong way.  That's what I get for trying to survive, at Gilliam's behest.  They say that history is made by the victors.  But, triumphant as I may have been as of late, I am still only one pony.  History only pays attention to those who survive by their seed, and on that front I am doubly screwed.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Minding the cockpit of the Harmony, the pony squinted hard at a leather pull-down map of Equestria, scribbled and painted over in several dozen places with apocalyptic alterations.  After gazing at a circle that had been scribbled next to an eastern mountain range, she snapped the map back up into its holster and lowered her amber goggles.  Shoving a pair of levers forward, she accelerated the zeppelin and watched as the mist beyond the windshields parted, timely revealing a horizon of shattered skyscrapers looming before her.

        Carefully, the filly pilot navigated the ghostly spires of Fillydelphia.  The copper-colored airship dipped low, passing between enormous building after building of the abandoned maretropolis, swooping briefly under a pair of crumbling towers that had collapsed into each other to form a quivering arch of steel and concrete.  Landing in a cobblestone town square filled with randomly overturned stagecoaches, the pony moored the Harmony and stepped out on hoof, holstering a rifle before exploring the ruins to her immediate north.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        I am always hunting, always scavenging, always clawing at the tomb of Equestria for things that I need.  I can't remember a time when I was not searching, fishing, or scrounging.  In this Wasteland, being still means being useless; and if there's anything I hate more than being alone, it's being useless.  I've broken into homes, kicked in the doors to shrines, broken into banks, smash urns apart, and even pilfered the storage lockers of hospitals.  Nothing can be overlooked.  Nothing must be wasted.

        I have to remember that there is one important thing, something that is more important than one's pride, something that is more important than one's ethics, something that is more important than learning to love or hate oneself when trying in vain to fall into the bitter arms of sleep.  And that something is my life.  Be it long or be it short, it is the only life that will ever mean anything to me.  It is the only life that matters in Equestria, period.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        A pair of lantern-lights shimmered over a brass pony statue, blindfolded, rearing its hooves and carrying a rusted pair of iron scales.  The leather-armored filly trotted slowly down an abandoned courtroom.  Her goggled eyes glanced back and forth.  She spotted a door behind the judge's seat.  The shadows of the courtroom seats bobbed and weaved as she strolled towards the far end of the room, nudged her way through the collapsed doorframe, and stumbled upon a musty office full of dust and sediment.  A gentle flurry of snow, and the pony was graced with a pair of shattered windows overlooking the dead lengths of Fillydelphian skyscrapers looming several stories below.  But that wasn't what caught her attention; the pony made a straight line for a pile of collapsed books lying beneath an overturned set of wooden shelves.  Flipping through the pages with a metal-laced hoof, she raised her goggles, squinted at the words, and proceeded to store a good chunk of the literature into her saddlebag.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Books.  Books are the hardest thing to salvage.  A part of me knows that I must do something—anything—to preserve as many written words as I can.  I'm not the only scavenging creature in the Wastes of Equestria, and I know that any literature of ponydom will be utter garbage to dog, goblin, or monkey-kind.  But I only have so much room in my saddlebags, and even less weight for the Harmony to handle.  On top of that, there is something that I know I need more than words, and that's warmth.  Tragically, many pages serve better use in the boiler.

        But the ones that are special—or at least the ones that I feel are most important to the history of the Equestrian Spirit—I keep.  That's a tough thing to think about.  All of our history, all of our lives, all that we've ever done or accomplished shall have its merit determined through the filter of my lonesome approval.  That's one thing that I never expected to have on my shoulders.  Then again, I never expected to have any of this on my shoulders.

        What I haven't gotten from experience, I have gotten from books.  How to keep a fire going, how to keep a healthy diet, how to maintain the structural integrity of a zeppelin, how to filter steam through a steady pipeline, how to do anything to keep oneself alive without anyone to tell me by ear—I have learned to teach myself by eye.  Books have been my greatest teachers in a world without mentors.  The writings of Aristrotle, Camule, Neightszche, Descanter—I have devoured all of their words, made many of them my own, developed a writing style so as to have dissertations with long dead phantoms.

        It's funny, because I was never too keen on reading or learning when I was a little filly—and then when I was thrown into the world beyond the Cataclysm, it was a titanic struggle to teach myself the vocabulary that I did not yet understand.  I accomplished most of this by reading simple books and jumping immediately to the more complicated ones, so that the meanings of things bled their way to my mind between the cracks of definition.   Many things in my life like this I had to overcome by learning them on my lonesome.  In so many ways, it has always been like this, even before the Cataclysm.  Perhaps I was the most fortunate pony in all of Equestria to end up being so unfortunate.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        “H'jem,” she uttered.  A runestone dimmed, unlocking a sealed bookshelf lying against the Harmony's starboard side.  The compartment opened, revealing half a dozen rows of thick leather-bound books.  Still shaking the fresh ash and snow off her armored flanks, she reached into her saddlebag, grabbed a few new volumes in her snout, and shelved them with the rest.  Taking a breath, she stepped back and gazed forlornly at the quiet rows of tomes, until her goggled eyes rested on two large books—the largest of the library by far—resting at the toprightmost shelf.  Two crests were emblazoned across their spines, plastered in gold and silver respectively:  the Sun and the Moon.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Two books in particular, I know I will preserve with every fiber of my existence.  The sacred words of the Equestrian Princesses, journals kept by Celestia herself and a much similar diary maintained by Luna.  I found the two of them on my second trip to Canterlot.  Enough time had passed for me to embrace the present darkness, and I took it upon myself to commit the unthinkable; I looted the Royal Palace.

        What I once thought was a crime turned out to be the most noble thing I had ever done, because where is there a better place for the Exalted Family's Legacy to reside ... but in the safely flying hovel of their last royal subject ever?  Luna's book is barely filled—mostly blank pages, on account that she was bequeathed the journal shortly after returning from her imprisonment in the Mare in the Moon, which was ironically just before the Cataclysm.  But Princess Celestia's book—it is an indescribable masterpiece of poetry.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        As another record of Octavia's strings sang to the lantern-lit air, the pony squatted in her swaying hammock upon folded legs.  Celestia's golden book was carefully layed out before her.  With her goggles pulled up, the last pony's scarlet eyes liquidly melted over the finely woven starlit calligraphy.  A lump formed in her throat as she inhaled sharply and turned a page, a thick and focused pulse stretching visibly beneath her brown coat.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        She writes of joy.  She writes of hope.  She writes of royal subjects and their daily lives, of magical apprentices and their friendships.  Most of all, she writes of her sister, of the hole left in her life during Luna's thousand-year absence, and subsequently the immeasurable rapture of embracing her beloved sister's return.  In almost every entry that Princess Celestia had ever made, she was full of optimism, of anticipating the joy and prosperity that the next Sun-Raising would bring.  When I first read her works, I was hoping to find a sign—any sign—that would suggest that Celestia at least expected the coming Cataclysm that would end all of ponydom in Equestria—including the lives of her and her sister.

        What I found instead were a few entries of the deepest most overwhelming sorrow I could come to expect from anypony, much less the Goddess of the Sun.  I had always known that Princess Celestia was immortal; but what I didn't know was the repercussions that came with her long life, of loved ones beneath her protective wings who would die in waves over the passing centuries, of friendships and alliances that started, blossomed, and withered away in as little a time as it took the Royal Princess to blink.  I've read those entries of hers—the sad ones—thousands of times more than her happy ones, because I soon came to realize that I was the only pegasus pony in the history of existence who could, in some fashion or another, relate to her.  The only difference is, of course, nopony is going to read about my losses, like I have faithfully read all about hers.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Transcending the cloudy overcast of the world, above the ashen snowfall, the last pony clung to the outside of the Harmony.  Angling her wings back to steady herself in the high winds, she hissed through clenched teeth that tightly gripped a welding tool.  She expertly climbed the outer rungs encasing the copper leather body of the zeppelin's starboard side.  Finally, the pegasus zeroed in on the source of a loud rattling noise that had been bothering her for several days.  Tightening her goggles and tinting the lenses, she aimed the welding torch at the bulkhead and fused a new cluster of rivets into place.  Sparks fell through the bone cold grayness and fluttered past the swaying gondola of the Harmony below.  After the welding task was done, she re-gripped the welding tool and waved her wings into the air.

        Swiftly, she darted up to the very top of the zeppelin and hovered down onto the center of the balloon's chassis, where a pair of criss-crossing bulkheads had rattled loose.  Griping to herself, she grabbed a few more rivets from her saddlebag and welded them into the right places, tightening the outer framework of the copper airship and silencing the rattling noises for the time being.  A deep breath, and the pony briefly sat down on the 'roof' of her lone, hovering vessel.

        She had no reason to stay there—but something possessed her to delay flying back to the aperture entrance of her hangar bay below.  Gazing straight up, she briefly raised her goggles and gazed with naked scarlet eyes, watching as twinkling specks of sickly-pale light hovered far above the miasma of the dead globe.  A breath escaped the pony's nostrils, but try as she might—she could not tear her lonely gaze away from the horrendous abyss that perpetually engulfed her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        There is no Sun.  There is no Moon.  There is only ash and perpetual twilight.  It isn't day.  It isn't night either.  The roof of the world remains lit, but fails to snuff itself completely out.  It's as if the distant stars are half-heartedly attempting to make up for the celestial bodies that the Princesses used to maintain over Equestria, bodies that are gone forever.

        In the end, the result is a constant and unending haze of dimness, as if to gaze towards the sky is to look out through the eyes of an elderly mare on her death bed.  Any second, any heartbeat, and everything should go dark.  And yet it doesn't.  Sometimes when I sleep—or try to sleep—and the great gray glow continues its pale dance beyond the portholes of the Harmony—I beg for the darkness, I beg for the end of all things.  But I stop myself every time.  To ask for the end is to give up, and that is not a luxury that I can afford.  The darkness will come, some way or another, some time or another.  But until then, I can't even pretend to know the time nor the place.

        I can't even track time efficiently.  All I remember is that I was young when the Cataclysm happened.  Since then, there has been no Sun to rise or Moon to fall.  Hours are your only friend—everything else is just an imaginative figure.  In the land of Twilight, you have no definition of age.

        At some point, when I realized that lightning storms over the Wasteland transpired at regular intervals, it occurred to me that I should try and measure the passage of time.  After finding several miraculously preserved hourglasses in an abandoned Whinniepeg laboratory, I timed the number of occasions I had to rotate them between the regular lightning storms.  I found out that the time between these weather patterns averaged out to approximately one hundred and twenty hours.  If the average Equestrian day was as I read it was: twenty four hours—then that meant there were five days in between regular storms, almost enough to fashion a new 'week' by.  And if there were three hundred sixty five days in an Equestrian year, then that meant approximately seventy-five storms marked out a year.

        Since I began this experiment, I have counted a total of one thousand three hundred and fifty-eight storms.  Ultimately, that means that I have been living in the Wasteland for well over eighteen years.  I am certainly not a young filly anymore.  But, then again, I hardly remember how long I was 'young' for.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        After mooring the Harmony to a jutting spire of rock, the pegasus descended and trotted through a grand forest at the bottom of a snow-laden plain.  But the large gray bodies that drifted past either side of her weren't trees; they were mushrooms.  Giant six-meter-tall stalks of fungae swayed and bowed in the cold wind.  The last pony marched until she was within hoof's length of a knee-high mushroom.  After depositing her saddlebags onto a gray patch of earth and mulch, she produced a long blade from her pack, slapped it hard into the neck of the gigantic mushroom, and began viciously sawing through the body of the thing.

        After the structure fell loose, she quickly produced a sharp brass claw and approached the hollow of the thing.  Positioning a gas lantern to shine its golden glow into the cylindrical body of the mushroom's stalk, she dug her snout in—teeth gripping the claw—and began carving loose several rubbery flanks of fungal material.  These she stuck into a leather pouch, tied it shut, and dragged the sawblade towards yet another knee-high mushroom to repeat the entire procedure, all the while under a gentle rain of powdery snow.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        No Sun means no light.  No light means no plants.  No plants means I have to bend myself backwards to find the nutrients I need to stay alive.  As almost everything that was living before the Cataclysm turned into a grand heap of 'dying' afterward, the fungal population exploded through the roof.  The same cold winds that kicked the snow and ash around also gave lift to spores, and mystically large mushrooms spread thickly outward from the deepest caves of Equestria—no longer food for subterranean beasts and with no forested walls to impede their progress.

        If, when I was younger, I knew that some day I would be flying over an endless wasteland subsisting entirely on a diet of mold and mushrooms, I would have gagged myself to death.  In many ways, I still do—but it's what I have to do to acquire the energy I need to live.  But energy isn't everything.  In a green world vibrant with life, ponies could afford to grow beans, potatoes, carrots, and all sorts of plentiful plants that a healthy diet required.  Here—in the realm of oblivion—I've had to do away with conventional pony agriculture.  And also, as I would soon discover, I would have to do away with conventional pony ethics...

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Marching back towards the Harmony with saddlebags full of mushroom bits, the pegasus froze.  There was a vicious stirring of movement up ahead.  Crouching low, the last pony crawled her way through a field of fungal stalks and peered over a mound of flaking dirt.  She reached a hoof up and adjusted the lenses of her goggles.  Several meters ahead, blurring into focus, was a full adult cougar with tattered fur.  It snarled and hissed, digging its jaws into the scrumptious tendrils of a dead vampire bat caught in its maw.  Tearing the wing off its prey to expose more tender muscles, it was briefly oblivious to the four-hoofed survivor spying on it from several snow flurries away.

        A deep breath, and the pony shook her flank sideways.  Her brass rifle slid loose from its sheath and she caught it.  With gentle and silent precision, the pony extended the long shiny barrel, pulled the levers out, and loaded in a cold magazine of dimly glowing runestones.  She breathed against them, and the furthest stone in the magazine shone with a purple brilliance.  Cocking the wooden stock of the thing against her shoulder, she aimed the barrel icily across the hilltop until the sight of the weapon landed square over the image of the distracted feline.  A creasing of her brow, and with no hesitance whatsoever, the weathered mare whispered into the mystical aura of the runestone: “H'rhnum”.  The bracelet of horns on her right arm flickered.  Thunder roared across the dead landscape as the manabullet flew solidly, and the cougar's body fell flat into a crater of snow, moving no longer.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        I have eaten meat.  I have killed animals and consumed their flesh.  I know that these teeth of mine were not granted me by the Goddesses for partaking in anything other than plants and herbs.  I know that I was born with hooves instead of claws.  I know that every book of law ever written by any society in the history of ponydom can now brand me a savage and an outlaw.

        But I also know that I do what I do because the only Goddesses that have ever existed are now dead, and I am not.  And being alive has always meant—and shall always mean—doing so at the behest of other things that try to be alive.  In the past, I could afford to overlook what I now know to be a gritty reality.  Because resources were in abundance, civilization afforded me the ability to exist above the ranks of a common animal.  But I also know that—to preserve any scant trace of that same civilization—I must preserve myself by any means necessary.  To climb so high, I must fall so low.

        These are paradoxes that only I have to contend with.  Though it makes me wonder, if everypony who died could magically come back to life and see me eating meat in desperation for protein, would they be proud of me on account of all of my logical excuses?  Would they grant me pardon, even when they discovered that eating meat has been the least of my transgressions...?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        She covered the last few centimeters with a burning sweep of her blow torch.  Finally, after slicing the last sliver in a metal door, she cut the torch and pressed her entire weight into the entrance frame of a large marble building in the center of ruined Stalliongrad.  Grunting and sweating with her effort, she finally succeeded, her lithe muscles managing to rip the door off its foundation.  A large clanging noise, and a heap of ash lifted and spewed forth across the atrium of the unsealed building.  Not expecting that much dust, she coughed and raised a leather mask over her snout, just in time to shield herself against a rustic stench rising dreadfully from the interior.  Sparking the light on in her yoked lanterns, she trotted slowly into the domed building and was only briefly overcome by the melancholic discovery of what lay inside.

        The pegasus counted ten... fifteen... twenty five... at least thirty-five bodies.  It was a veritable pile of corpses, most of adult stature, some the sizes of young foals, and they all formed a circle around a bronze altar in the shape of Princess Celestia.  This was Stalliongrad's Temple of the Sun, and a good chunk of the neighboring populace had apparently flocked there in desperate prayer the very moment that the Cataclysm had hit.  The bodies were well preserved, right down to their dresspieces and horseshoes.  But it wasn't the metal of the shoes that the last pony had interest in, it was the unicorns themselves.

        A sighing breath, and she sauntered towards the closest body towards her, the first of two dozen salvageable skeletons just like it.  Flicking the metal band on her left hoof, she produced a tiny razor-toothed blade, and began sawing with expert precision at the top of the skull, severing the dead unicorn's horn from its cranium.

        An hour or so later, the pegasus trotted out of the Temple of the Sun and towards the center of Stalliongrad where the Harmony was parked.  She had hanging from her neck a bag filled to the brim with severed horns.  Stepping on board her airship, she went immediately to her workbench.  She produced a strip of tanned cougar leather; then she emptied the contents of the bag before her and began stitching together a brand new bracelet of unicorn horns.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        When the Sun and Moon disappeared, so did everypony—everypony but me.  What rendered all of my species to ash and dust—yet spared myself—I still to this day cannot fathom.  But whatever it was, it too brought about the end of Princess Celestia and Luna.  Somehow, that meant the magic that bonded them to the galactic elements was severed, and as a result I now hover above a dead carcass of a world, starved of the pools of mana that once animated it.

        But magic is a lot like normal mass and energy.  It cannot come from nothing, and likewise it cannot become nothing.  The magic had to go somewhere, and with everypony in Equestria dead, the world's magic had to collect around the one equine who was an exception: me.  Long ago, I learned that I could perform very minor magic spells—like the ones I learned in the books I collected.  But I could not perform the spells very well, no matter how hard I concentrated.  Even with all of the magic in the known universe, I wouldn't be able to do much.  It's because I am a pegasus, and much like an earth pony, my body is mostly inert in the realm of sorcery.

        But the unicorns; they were naturally gifted with being living magic batteries.  They could master all forms of enchantment, and when they called upon the holy power of Celestia and other Goddesses like her, they could even perform supernatural feats that rivaled the Creation of Equestria itself.  The matter in their horns was the substance of their mystical talent, and even beyond death the cyclical bone structure still acts as a conduit for magical energies.  My guess is that when the unicorns died during the Cataclysm, a piece of their life essence—the magical part—was retained in their horns.

        Though I am a pegasus, fashioning a bracelet out of unicorn horns has provided me a way to cheat the rules of magic, so long as I am the last pony left to act as a gateway between the physical realm and beyond.  With so many horns contained in one place, I can focus a magic spell through them, and perform all sorts of helpful tricks to assist me in my sojourns through the Wastes.  Though I cannot harness enough energy to levitate or transmogrify matter, the power granted me by these scavenged buffers have been immeasurably useful in finding, hoarding, and killing whatever the Wasteland randomly tosses my way.  But as grim a necessity as the bracelets are, I do not rely on dead bones alone.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        In the hangar of the Harmony, the pony leaned over an alchemy table full of bubbling glass jars and glowing vials of smoking liquid.  Wearing a chemist's pair of wide-lensed glasses, the last pony finished carving a chunk of white moonstone into an arcane shape.  Filing away the last jagged chips from the edges of the stone, she lifted the thing in a pair of forceps and dipped them into one steaming beaker after another.  Smoke of various shades filled the hangar in a mystic smog as she then cooled the stone off into a trough of water and sprinkled herbs over it.  Gazing into a tome, the pony chanted a few archaic words in deep monotone.  A glittering aura shone from a bracelet of horns over her right hoof, and the stone within the trough began glowing.

        After several minutes, the filly removed the cooled stone from its trough.  Staring at the glowing shard closely, she raised an eyebrow and experimentally stuck the letter-shaped chunk of enchanted moonrock into a matching hole in a square black tablet.  She then stuck the tablet into the toppiece of a magazine filled with identically crafted stones before finally loading the whole ensemble into her copper rifle.  Cocking the weapon, she removed her glasses and marched over towards the circular aperture of the Harmony and manually opened it.  A flurry of cold wind, and the pony aimed the glowing rifle out into the snowy overcast of the Equestrian sky.

        Her lips moved icily:  “M'wynhrm!”  Her bracelet strobed yet again.  The freshly crafted runestone burst in a crimson glow, and a bright red manabullet rocketed down the length of the brass barrel and flew deep into a cloudbank.  Half a second later, and a gigantic explosion of burning red plasma consumed one half square kilometer of misty sky, briefly lighting the dead twilight in a frothing haze, until all was once more ash and soot.  The pony steadied herself as the entire two-level gondola of the Harmony rocked and swayed from the explosion.  A whistle escaped her lips, and she patted the rifle with meager affection before returning back to her alchemy table.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Runestones: they are the centerpiece of a long-forgotten art of magic, with emphasis on mineral infusion and verbal enchantment.  The school of sorcery is almost as old as Celestial Alchemy, though it has always served far less benevolent functions.  The last time runestones were used—much less crafted—was in wartime, long ago, towards the end of the Second Age, when Nightmare Moon turned traitorous and led the armies of the Lunar Republic in a violent attempt to overthrow her sister Celestia. Warhorses marched into battle holstering explosives and ballistics armed with runestones as their triggers.  It was a strange and archaic time when focused mysticism was used almost entirely for bloodshed, unlike the subtler schools of Canterlotlian mysticism taught during the peaceful millennium that followed the war: otherwise known as the Third Age, the Age I was born in.

        This was to be the Fourth Age, the Age of Princess Luna's Redemption.  This was to be the Age when the Twin Goddesses oversaw the revolutions of the Sun and Moon, as they were naturally born to do.  The Fourth Age barely lasted one pathetic year—or so I assume.  I vaguely remember one Winter Wrap-Up, maybe two, before the Cataclysm happened.  Everything that made up the Fourth Age, including the inane necessity to chronicle the Fourth Age to begin with, was consumed in fire.

        How ironic it is, then, that I was fated to stumble upon a book in the ruins of the Royal Palace, explaining the intricacies of the forbidden art of Runestones; and that I adopted its practice for my own use—archaic words of the Lunar Tongue and all—with an abundance of moonrock strewn across the Wastes at my very disposal.  Perhaps there is a prophecy that foretells this, that speaks of an era when one pony resurrects the elements of a Great War that threatened to kill all ponies, only to use them in an Age meant to bless all ponies.  But in all of the books that I have scrounged up and read, I have found no scripture that hints of this apocalypse, of this lonely twilight, of this gray forever-after that dwarfs the brief and anticlimactic return of Princess Luna.

        The fact is, I don't need prophecy to explain this dead world to me.  I only need to open my eyes, to breathe through my own nostrils, and make do with what I have given to me, in flesh or in text.  I am the end of ponies; I am the Fourth Age.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Under the cadence of Octavia's strings, the pegasus sat at her workbench where she polished several multicolored stones, one after another.  There were seven stones total, magnificent translucent gems that shimmered from the distant boiler's burning light refracting prismatically through them: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.  They gleamed after each polish the pony gave them, rubbing them with a felt cloth made out of shaved mane hair.

        After making each of the immaculate stones sparkling clean, the mare turned her attention towards a lead box lying securely in a shelf just above the corner of the work bench.  Placing her cloth down, she reached a hoof over and dragged the lead box towards her.  Narrowing her eyes cautiously, she opened the container, bathing herself and the rest of the cabin with a bright red glow.  A crimson flamestone shimmered from its holding inside the box.  As bright as the thing was, it could have been brighter; the aging mare knew this, and she frowned.

        Still, she sighed away her disconcerted thoughts and closed the box before swiveling from her workbench and leaping towards the cockpit.  Climbing into the seat, she lowered her goggles and disengaged the autopilot.  Eyeing the puttering steam-powered gauges of her dashboard, she made an instinctual judgment of her location and pulled several levers and chain-linked handles, dropping the Harmony into a deep descent and angling her towards a wide plateau stretching beyond the gray mists below.  In the center of the plateau there was a pony-made structure: a circle of iron-wrought barricades.  And in the apex of the circle there rested a thick metal brace ... for the signal ...

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        What is my purpose?  I ask myself that in every journal entry I make—which is likely why I rarely go back and re-read them.  Because there is no answer—only the question, otherwise why would I still be here?  Why did the Cataclysm kill off everypony and yet I was spared?  Why were the beautiful equine of this world destroyed, and yet the uglier and more despicable creatures allowed to fester onward into eternity?  Why am I struggling so hard to stay alive day by day?  Why has anything ever lived, against all the odds of doing so, day after day in the great history of the world?

        Why do I kill creatures and turn their hides in for profit?  Why do I chop mushrooms to make stew and slay animals to cook meat?  Why do I hunt down sacred phoenixes and sell them to double-crossing Dirigible Dogs?  Why do I pilfer from Fillydelphian skyscrapers and rob from Stalliongrad tombs?  Why do I harness magic that isn't mine to toy with or fashion deadly weapons to carry with me into the ruthless abyss every waking moment?  How is it that I came to teach myself to read and write, to appreciate Octavia's music, or to build myself an airship when there was nopony to tell me how to weld steel, or to harness steam, or to even fly with my own naked wings?—For I was that young when this all started...

        Is it enough that I struggle to exist for existence's sake?  There are times when I have believed so.  But I've come to label such moments as 'defeats'.  It can't possibly be called a victory when I give into the nihilism that mirrors the opaque cloudscape that has constantly surrounded me these last two decades.  I wrote before that, on some level, I can relate to Princess Celestia.  And for all of her many reasons to lament the lonely immortality of her existence, Celestia was somehow convinced to see the silver lining in things, so much so that it constituted the majority of her own personal journal entries.  If Princess Celestia—the one and only pony responsible for bringing the Sun to this  world—could find a reason to be optimistic, then that means I, the last pony of Equestria, must also discover her reason to be hopeful and to focus on it.  Who knows?  I too may find my silver lining.  There certainly are enough friggin' clouds for that, at least.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        The Harmony was moored to the circle of rusted iron barricades—but at a ten meter distance.  Tethered by several thick chains hammered hard into the stony floor of the wide gray plateau, the airship drifted gently over the pony's shaved mane as the mare slid a heavy metal lattice into position, locking it into the thick iron brace at the center of the barricades.  Not wasting a sweating second, the brown filly reached into her saddle bag and produced all seven of the multi-colored stones.  Pulling a canvass tarp off the metal lattice, she exposed seven large spotlights to the gray ashen air.  One by one, she slid open the lenses to the spotlights and dropped the colored stones in—from Red to Green to Violet and everything in between.  Finally, she slid open a brass compartment at the base of the metal lattice.  Into this, she deposited the glowing red flamestone, shutting it tight with a metal clang.  On the outside of the compartment was the space for a runestone—which she aptly filled with a shimmering moonrock.

        The mare next paced around the lattice and rotated it until the lights were aimed directly skyward.  After a few precise tilts—with the ease of rotating valves and gear meters—she achieved the precise angle she traditionally desired.  She lowered her lips towards the compartment with the glowing rune, and raised her braceleted hoof at the ready.  For a moment she lingered, as if in solemn contemplation of an ongoing habit that was suddenly clouded by the gently falling snow settling around her.  But she shook this off, lowered her goggles protectively over her scarlet eyes, and throated authoritatively into the runestone:  “Y'hnyrr.”

        The rune's glow dissipated, and a bright ghostly fire billowed from within the embroiled compartment of the lattice.  The pegasus wrapped a hoof around a rusted metal lever and yanked at it.  The lights flickered and sputtered and died.  Cursing under her breath, the pony yanked and yanked and yanked again, grunting harder with each effort, until the last swing of the lever connected.  The enchanted flamestone burst through a series of built-in prisms until they connected with the lens compartments.  The seven multicolored rocks sparked, glittered, and lit up.  In a frothing hiss, the seven colors of the rainbow surged upwards and pierced the gray soupy sky, burning through the clouds, and impaling the twilight ceiling of Equestria with miraculous color and life—a prismatic beacon—the signal.  Everypony's signal.  Her signal.

        She took a deep breath, gazing up at the solid beam of artificial spectrum.  It was dimmer than the last two times she had ignited the signal, as the flamestone was jaded and needed to be replaced with one containing a stronger enchantment.  But somehow, less bright or not, the signal was worth the trip, worth the fuel to get there, worth the silver strips earned through scavenging to supply it, worth the restless lonely nights of self-doubt... just to see it.  The last pony took a deep breath, stared at the grand burning lengths of the conjured rainbow, and then closed her eyes in order to savor the frozen image as she stood there half-naked against the cold wasteland winds.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        There was a time when I used to dream in color.  I've read books where literary ponies philosophized over the nature of dreams—and that they were all 'in black in white'.  Perhaps, in another lifetime, that would be true.  But that's not the case for me.  My life is in black and white; it has been for forever.  But when I dream, I live the past; and the past was something of color, of warmth, of so many amazing and interesting shades that most of them are now eternally lost to me.

        That was a time of rainbows, when magic was a nature unto the world, not a resource for a scavenger to exploit.  Rainbows existed in a time of prosperity, when there would be a promise of another day with similar blessings, and even more to be had.  Rainbows were a sign of hope, of delightful and optimistic expectations for the good things in life granted naturally to everypony.  If it weren't for hope, why would ponies dream to begin with?

        In this world of ash and twilight, there are no rainbows.  There is no hope.  Perhaps that is why ages ago I concocted the idea of this signal: the artificial rainbow.  It was because I believed that the only place left for rainbows to go was in the world of dreams.  And if I could mimic that, if I could capture an essence of that in a bottle, with the best of intentions, I could provide a shining beacon for every living soul in Equestria to see.  And if there is even one single pony besides me left in the world; that would have to be a pony that dreams, like I dream—every day—that this is not all that there is, that there is a reason for why my fitful slumbers conjure up shades that contrast the endless gray of this nightmare land, that there is more to life than a single piece of meat with four hooves trying to scrape up a pitiful existence, that I am not the end of ponies.

        This is why I do what I do everyday.  This is why I exist to do more than existing; it's to produce this signal, to fire this beacon into the dead sky, to constantly beckon and wait for another Equestrian soul besides mine to come and find me, even if beyond the grave, for death has been defeated before during multiple miracles of the First, Second, and Third Age.  And maybe—just maybe—somepony, anypony, can come join me, and we can all be the Fourth Age, we can begin things again.  We can... begin things again.

        We can...

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Several hours passed, during which the lonely beacon of rainbow light started to dim and flicker into a dull pale beam.  The pony sat, hunched over, in a chair positioned atop a six meter tall tower that flanked the circle of metal barricades and the glowing lattices in the center of them.  The copper body of the dirigible Harmony hovered overhead, aglow in the dying rainbow's penumbra.  Snow fluttered through the soft air, insulating everything in a deathly silence.

        The pegasus lingered upon the precipice of consciousness, her hooves kicked up over the railed edge of the tower.  Her brown coated body rose and fell in gentle breaths as her head bowed towards her chest, the goggles fogged over with lazy condensation.  Moisture beaded off the barrel of the brass rifle propped to her side; the magazine full of glowing runes twinkled restlessly.

        After yet another long stretch of silence, a ringing noise filled the naked air.  Silence—then another shrill ringing, and the pegasus started, nearly pratfalling out of her seat.  Snorting to blinking wakefulness, she wiped the sheen from her goggles and leaned forward, peering across the gray lengths of the plateau.

        A dangling string was bouncing from where it stretched out from a rusted stake pounded into the rocky ground.  Ages ago, the pony had erected a complex web of cords and yarn in a spiraling formation from the epicenter of the barricaded signal location.  Those cords were equipped with custom-made cowbells at every three-meter intervals, all built to alert the pony of any incoming body on four limbs.  Right before her, the one ringing noise was joined by several identical clanging sounds, so that she was swiftly engulfed in a cacophony of bedlam zeroing in on her location.

        Her pulse raced.  With shaking hooves, she raised her goggles, reached back, grabbed a spyglass from her saddlebag, and peered down the extended length of it.  Through the dim porthole of light, the pony stared across the mist-laden horizon of the stony plateau.  The projected image bobbed and bounced with each throb of her lonely heartbeat.  Then—out from the shadows—she saw them.  Shapes, bodies—But not colorfully maned and hooved; instead leathery and sharp fanged... bounding towards her on all fours by the dozen.  A whooping noise filled the air as a pack of mangy, ink-dark creatures stampeded homicidally towards her elevated location.

        “Crud!” she hissed.  Grabbing her rifle, she pounced off the tower, grabbed a dangling chain tethering the Harmony to the earth, and slid agilely down the length of it.  Yanking hard on all the chains, she unhooked them from the airship's clasps above, then scampered over to the lattice where she hastily retrieved the seven colored rocks and the now-dim flamestone.  The earthen plateau beneath her shook fiercely, the rusted iron barricades rattling from the angry feet of the blood-thirsty marauders.

        Wasting no time, the pony mightily shouldered the weight of the hulking metal lattice on her back, clasped the rifle in a pair of angry teeth, and stretched her wings out, beating them ferociously against the combination of snowy air and ruthless gravity.  She somehow managed to lift the entire ensemble, herself included.  The pegasus levitated upwards just as the howling and drooling bodies hurdled their way over the first barricades and pounced at her.  Fanged teeth and razor sharp maws snapped just centimeters beneath her dangling hooves as she desperately hovered her aching body upwards, climbed the last few meters between her and the airship, and finally collapsed—sprawling—at the aperture entranceway of the Harmony's hangar.

        From there she cocked her rifle and aimed it cautiously down at the leaping, braying creatures.  They leered and spat up at her, their eyes like beady soulless specks that reflected the gray twilight.  As they watched their crafty prey rise ever so far away from the stone face of the plateau, they spun back into a slithering mass of herding leather and thundered, howling, back into the blanketing mists where they joined the ghostly hum of the dead Equestrian Wastes.  The pegasus took a long, long breath and leaned back against the round entrance of her airship, shutting her eyes and struggling to fight an impervious frown chiseled into her disappointed face.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Trolls.  Goddess, I hate them.  It figures that when all ponies disappeared from the face of the earth, these soulless beasts crawled out from the woodwork—no longer forced to hide under bridges and dank cave roofs, waiting for unsuspecting victims or passerbys.  More times in the Wasteland than I can count, I've had to deal with them.  They track one's scent from miles away; so I did away with the most fragrant part of an exposed pony, her hair.  They're attracted to wood-kindled flame; so I switched to using gas lanterns in all of my flashlights.  They stampede at cheetah's speed; so I never wear extra armor when I'm trotting across the Equestrian plains, so that I can fly away at the drop of a hat.

        But what I hate about them the most; what makes me wish that the Cataclysm had wiped them off the face of the earth instead, is that the last three consecutive times that I had lit the signal, it was them who I attracted, and for the briefest of moments every time my naive heart had leaped at the thought that the herd I had called was the one herd I was always looking for.  And every one of those times, I was severely disappointed, and rightfully so.

        What more can I expect?  There are so many ghostly creatures left haunting this world—from dogs to goblins to trolls to harpies—and almost every one of them has wanted me dead at one time or another.  Many of them blame ponydom for the great blight that has befallen the land, never mind the fact that it took the whole of ponydom with it in the process.  Many see me as a delicacy—an exotic edible or a future museum curiosity at best.  The closest thing I have for allies are soulless mercenaries who only need me for my talents, or begrudgingly register my existence at an exchange of silver strips over a bargaining table stained with dirty blood.

        It's when I go through the process of disembarking from the signal that my faith is the lowest, that the artificial rainbow dies away and I wake up once more to the monochromatic singularity of my existence.  What is there to hope for in a world where I am the only source of that hope?  There's a name for living within the repetitious prison of your own making: and that's 'insanity'.  These slobbering trolls—these creatures of the night that seek to rend me to ribbons; they are the sane ones.  Only a monster who embraces the savage wilderness of eternal twilight has any reason to hope for things in this world.  They will last longer, they will leave a deeper imprint, not by shining fake rainbows into the cloudy air, but by raking the earth with the claws of their nefarious passion, and soaking it with the blood of their enemies... as every civilization has done, including my own in Ages passed.

        I've been raised—delightfully sprinkled and polluted—with notions of peace, of tolerance, of friendship.  All of those values would have worked once, in a lifetime before I had to kill things to survive and make excuses for it afterward.  Maybe some day—maybe in a future journal entry—I will realize the one burning truth of who and what I am; that I cannot pretend to be friendly or hopeful in a world where everypony is gone.

        Just look at what I'm writing: 'everypony'.  Over two thousand journal entries into this nonsense, and I really shouldn't bother to write that anymore.  From now on, I think I should just chicken-scratch the term 'everybody'.  For that is all there is left in the graveyard of Equestria: bodies.  And I am their grave keeper, for as long as I live to absurdly shine rainbows into the Abyss.

        -End of entry.


The End of Ponies – by short skirts and explosions

Chapter Three – Creatures of the Overworld

        “Don't fret!  I'll be back in—like—half an hour, tops!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed from outside the arcane vault.  “I just gotta find Harmony!  She'll know how to fix all of this!  She has to!”

        “Rainbow Dash, don't leave me!” The young filly heard herself sob under the rumbling of Cloudsdale's demise.

        “Seriously, kid—Would I let the world be any less cool by disappearing?”  And then the blue pegasus was gone.

        In her absence, the young pony cried out her name, and then Fluttershy's, and then Apple Jack's, and then:  “H-Harmony ... ?!”

        The roof of Equestria exploded, reverberating a million times in the gasping pony's throttled head.  The royal transport she was in shuddered as the balloons deflated and the gondola began its hurdling descent towards the burning world below.  Outside the windows of the arcane vault, thousands of pegasi could be seen, screaming towards oblivion, until a wave of energy singed them to dust and pelted the collapsing airship with the mist of their combined effluence.

        Then there was an explosive jolt, a thunderous crash as the gondola hit the boiling skin of the earth.  The pony shrieked, her body surging forward as the arcane vault toppled and rolled and skidded to an ugly stop outside the torn iron belly of the collapsed airship.  The bitter cold silence that followed was haunting, leading the shocked filly to believe momentarily that she was actually dead.  Upon opening her twitching eyes, she wished she had been.

        The landscape of Equestria was a barren hovel of burnt trees and copper-brown grass.  The riverbeds had dried up, the hilltops had sunken, and the roadways had been entirely evaporated—all in a flash.  There was a crack in the arcane vault's door, where streams of purple magic hotly hissed off the bent surfaces exposed to the Cataclysm.  With a great deal of effort, the little pony nudged and nudged and finally broke the warped door open.  She was immediately pelted with a cold breath of ash and snowy soot.  Trotting out, she found the world slowly blanketed with an endless flurry of white powder, building up and up towards infinity.  The wheels in her young head turned faster than they ever had before, and she realized to her utter horror that the snow was none other than the petrified remains of every pegasus that had fallen out of Cloudsdale.

        And then... sparks lit the air.  Tiny hot pinstreaks of light bulleted downwards from the heavens.  In utter dread, the pony forced herself to look straight up.  She saw the twilight for the first time, its milky white grayness coalescing into an eternal miasma of dying stars.  In the foreground of it all was a shadowy mass, spreading, thinning, growing into a hot crimson as it burned into the atmosphere.

        The last pegasus gasped.  The moon had exploded, and its smaller parts were falling earthward.  The red-hot pinstreaks doubled, quadrupled—and suddenly the dead sky was bathed from east to west with shooting stars.  A murderous thunder rolled through the neck of the world as hot frothing meteorites of molten moondust soared towards the Earth by the hundreds, thousands, millions.

        A seething missile of rock soared past the pony, exploding a tree to her right flank.  Another slammed into the ground ahead of her, dousing her coat in lifeless gray soil.  She turned—shrieking—and flew back towards the collapsed airship as burning rocks leveled the world to shattering craters of glass all around her.  The shaking breast of Equestria knocked her off her hooves, so that she had to crawl—sobbing hysterically—towards a meager iron shell for cover.  Once inside, she huddled beneath one of the battered arcane vaults, still laced with the scent of Rainbow Dash, and screamed as a gigantic shadow encased her, and a kilometer-wide husk of moonrock hurled its way towards ground zero.


        A ringing noise...

        The last pony woke up, gasping in a cold sweat.  Octavia's record was looping with the needle bouncing repeatedly off the end of the disc.  The lantern light and the boiler of the Harmony's cabin exchanged pulses of gentle flame.  And through it all, a ringing noise permeated, rattling the windows to the gray expanse beyond the cockpit.  With twitching eyes, the adult pegasus glanced over to see a metal spoke vibrating offensively against the surface of a homemade cowbell.  Besides the alarm, a pair of teslacoils flickered and sparkled incessantly.  It was the zeppelin's proximity alarm; she was not alone in the clouds.

        Kicking out of the hammock, the filly limped towards the cockpit and checked the gauges.  Autopilot was still activated and the airship was set to the same steady hover as it had been when she went to sleep.  The young mare then hopped over to the port side, deactivated the signal, and flipped open the nearest porthole.  Peering outside into the ashen flurry, she spotted a floating black mass—the unmistakable outline of a sextuple-ballooned dirigible floating perpendicular towards her own.

        Frowning, she rushed over to her metal cabinet, diffused the runestone with a grunted word, holstered her rifle, and dashed over to her port side speaker system.  Cranking the valve, she sparked the device to life, pulled the spout closer to the porthole, and cocked the rifle out the window, aiming it at the offensive vessel.  In an air of menacing authority, she uttered:  “You had best turn around if you know what's good for you!  This is my cloud!  And if you don't agree, I'll be more than happy to reintroduce you to sea level!”

        Her broadcasted voice crackled like thunder across the snowy gray clouds.  For a second there, she wondered if perhaps her threat had been diffused amidst the blisteringly loud winds, or perhaps the strange pilot didn't pay her words any respect.  But soon, a pleasantly nuanced thunder returned, and she realized in the haze of her own pitiful grogginess that it was none other than a very familiar voice.

        “Ha-HA!  I knew I vould find you in dis neck of veather, pony!  It is I, Brucie!  You should fear nothing of kind friend who vants only to do business, da?”

        The brown pegasus rolled her scarlet eyes.  “Nnnngh...Bruce.”  She retracted the rifle and leaned an apathetic face back into the microphone.  “Bruce, this isn't exactly a good time.  I just finished a really tough job, and I need to make clear of the Northern Reaches.”

        “All better to make exchange of goods, then!  You are clever pony!  Best not to turn avay opportunity!  Vhat is old expression: 'Do not look in mouth of gift horse' ... ?  Ha!  Get it?”

        She took a long breath, her nostrils flaring slowly.  She glanced over towards her workbench.  The seven colored gems were locked safely away in their drawers.  But the red flamestone; she had left it exposed in its open lead container.  All the glimmer of the disenchanted rock was gone.  The signal, the ever important beacon, was currently a dead matter.

        Grinding her teeth slightly, she leaned her mouth with finality towards the spout.  “Alright, Brucie.  Bring her around, just like last time.”

        “There is good pony!  Smart pony!  I vill try and not drag mud across your carpet, da?  Bringing my port side to your bow!”

        Verily, the black silhouette of Bruce's airship pivoted to the right and descended so that a hatch on its port-side was level to the front of the Harmony's hangar bay.  With an inward groan, the pegasus strolled back to her cabinet and donned a jacket of leather armor.  She hoisted a khaki cap over her shaved mane and slid a pair of goggles over her eyes.  Just as the Harmony jolted from the flying merchant's ship docking with it, she retracted her gun and slung it over her shoulders, making sure it would be in open sight of her guest.  She descended the revolving metal staircase, trotted across the hangar deck, and spoke towards the runes lining the copper aperture entrance:  “Y'hnyrr.  H'jem.”

        Cold white sleet pelted inward as the catseye doorway slid wide, revealing a slick oblong ship of green bulkheads covered with an ageless mildew.  Six conjoined balloons bobbed and rattled above the awkwardly hammered-together zeppelin, sickly contrasting the degree of professionalism that embodied the Harmony.  A metal walkway extended from a square-shaped doorhatch in the merchant's ship and formed a bridge with the Harmony's entrance.  The doorhatch of the opposing vessel slid open with a rusted squeak, and a wave of smoke billowed out, partially shrouding a tiny furball of a figure that climbed out of the hatch upside down before fearlessly backflipping onto the center of the precarious plank.  With a bushy tail and gray skin flaps that waved like a flag in the high winds, a half-meter-high flying squirrel swaggered his way towards the hangar of the Harmony.  Clasped in his mouth was a cigar, which he absent absentmindedly flicked before exhaling a wave of putrid fumes that further fogged up his copper-green pilot's goggles.

        “Harmony!  As I live and die—hopefully quicker than you, my friend, for you are more priceless, da?  Heheh!”

        “Bruce, when am I going to get it through your thick skull?” the pony droned coolly, “'Harmony' is the name of my ship.  It has nothing to do with me.”

        “Comrade is much like ship!”  Bruce chomped on his cigar and patted the clanking bulkheads of the hangar entrance with a smile.  “She is unlucky without name!  You vould do vell to take advantage of dis!  Big reputation you have!  Rumor has it pony's client Gilliam had huge cloudship go down in flames!  BOOM!  Dogs dying in sky!  Vhat dogs vere doing in sky, Brucie vill never know!  Perhaps pony does?”

        She merely glared at him.  “No smoking near my ship.  Surely you learned that the last time.”

        “Vhat?  You mean dis cancer stick?”  He flicked the cigar again and leaned suavely against the edge of the aperture.  “Let Brucie worry about Brucie's own cancer.  Are squirrels extinct in Equestria?  Nyet, I think not!  So vhy should pony fret?  Heh!”

        Her goggled eyes narrowed.  In one motion, she flung her wings forward.  The resulting gust of air tore the cigar from Bruce's incisors, sending the nicotine cylinder sailing down into the endless clouds beneath their conjoined vessels.

        “Bah...” he waved an apathetic paw.  “Plenty more cancer vhere dat comes from!  Pffft!  Vhy so serious, pony?  Live some before you die, maybe?”  He nonetheless smiled and motioned with his webbed limbs as he sauntered back towards his ship.  “Come!  Come!  Look at my vares before you toss Brucie down as vell!  You obviously know vhat you vant and Brucie know vhat to give you!”

        She followed him, trotting across the metal bridge until she was inside the rodent merchant's foggy vessel.  Sickly green lights beamed through the nicotine-filled haze as she politefully held her breath and gazed closely at several racks of metal knick-knacks, gun stocks, ammo deposits, leather strips, holsters, kitchen utensils, rusted tools, sharp blades, chemistry sets, an array of expensive seedlings, salvaged artifacts, and handfuls of other assorted junks pilfered from the Equestrian Wastes.

        The flying squirrel scampered effortlessly around the cramped cylindrical hollow like it was the inside of a fallen oak tree.  “I have recently come across most exceptional scrap from Eastern Shores!  Not all of Ocean is dead.  You'd be surprised at vhat your seahorse cousins leave behind!”  He turned on a record player to give the sudden store a pleasant ambiance—but had to gruntingly kick the thing two or three times before the crumbling speakers half-heartedly played what sounded like a military funeral dirge in a thickly foreign tongue.  “My latest pride and joy is seedlings—From fresh patch of trees still thriving in squirrel motherland!”  He proudly waved his paws before an electrically illuminated array of vegetation, his bushy tail flapping in emphasis. “Da, the world may be in ashes but City of St Petersbrittle still stands!  You still vasting your harvest on bitter mushrooms, pony?  Don't lie to friend Brucie!  I can smell it on your flanks, and pony is only friend Brucie knows that still bathes!  Hah!”

        “I've found some beans recently.  I think I'm covered on that front.”  The pony's goggled gaze skimmed across the smoky interior, looking for the one thing she absolutely needed.  In the meantime, she nodded her head towards several brown bands hanging from a rack.  “How much for the leather?  I've need of some new armor and I don't have much time to go about crafting it.”

        “For you, pony, discount of friendship.” He leaned back against the waves of marching music hissing out of the bobbing vessel's speakers and made a figure with his paws.  “Twenty-strips per band.  Never let fine mare go naked in vilderness; a lesson from Brucie's mother, may god rest her fur.”

        “Always a charmer, Bruce,” she murmured.  She trotted over towards a hammer and chisel dangling off the corner of a metal rack.  “I see you have ramcraft.  Did you get these tools from the Western Peaks?”

        “It depends.  Does pony vant them?”

        “It's a simple question, Bruce,” she glared his way, “where'd you scavenge these from?”

        “Mmmm...”  He wrung his paws and gestured with an innocent smile.  “Lonely outpost along eastern slopes, below snow line.  Vas dirty run-down hovel, nothing sacred like mountain ram temple, if pony must know.”  He pointed knowingly.  “Though pony is no stranger to borrowing from Goddess' house, da?”

        She stared at him, but as the seconds ticked away, she realized she had no response.  So, sighing, she nodded her hairless mane.  “I'll take them too.”

        “Undoubtedly for chiseling pony's amazing runestones, da?”

        “Nothing amazing about what I do, Bruce.  But I'll buy them nonetheless.”

        “How many?  Brucie has spares in trunk below digging tools.  Harmony pony can make lots of vicked stones with ramcraft like dat.”

        “I can't go all out, because there's one thing I need more than ever.”

        “Name it!” The squirrel folded his arms and smirked, his green goggles glinting.  “Let Brucie be cursed first day I let down favorite Equestrian customer!”

        “Flamestones.”  She glanced at him with an arched eyebrow.  “Any and all that you may have.”

        “Flamestones—I ... erm ...”  He suddenly sweated, wringing his paws and chewing on his lower lip with a jagged incisor.  Finally, he cleared his throat with a surprise show of strength and changed his expression.  “Nyet!  Impossible!  Pony asks for impossible!  I am completely out of flamestones!”

        The pony stared boredly at him.  In one movement, she produced a leather pouch full of silver strips from her saddlebag and held it in front of the squirrel.

        

        He blinked and raised a pointed paw.  “I am not completely out of flamestones!”  Smiling sweatily, Bruce scampered over towards his pilot's chair, lifted the seat, and unraveled a tarp full of bright red rubies that filled the smoky corridor with a glittering kaleidoscope of crimson.  “Ta-daaaa!  Brucie delivers just in time, da?”

        “I'll always be impressed, Bruce,” the pony muttered as she trotted over to get a closer look over the much treasured gems, “so long as your stock of flamestones outlasts your honesty.”

        “Pony, you vound me,” he smiled while planting a melodramatic paw over his heart.  “Ve all have reasons for silver tongues.  Mine is because I bite it so much!”

        “Who's putting the pressure on you this time, Bruce?”  She raised one of the seven shimmering stones and refocused her lenses to study its enchantment closely.  “Harpy pirates?  The Dirigible Dogs?”

        “Bah!”  He spat into the floor, frowning.  “Golden Gang!  Vicked feather bullies badger and threaten Brucie within inch of incisors!  Vhat ever happened to friendly skies of death and gloom?  Now ve only have regular skies of death and gloom.”

        “I know all about the Golden Gang,” she grumbled.  Her goggled eyes thinned as the next words came in an otherwordly voice, “Almost too well...”

        “They may be bullies, but they give pony protection, da?”

        “My brown butt, they do!” she frowned suddenly, but shrugged it off in time to sigh, “these stones all look great, Bruce.  How about ... two hundred strips per rock?  I'll get them off your paws—Just like last time?”

        He shook with a shuddering hesitance.  “I vould be glad to—normally—pony, but dis Golden Gang; with flame are they obsessed.  Be it flamestone, flamespheres, red flame, yellow flame—Bah!  I vould imagine they have enough flame to burn Equestria three times more than than Cataclysm did!”  He suddenly blushed and smiled nervously in her presence.  “No offense does Brucie intend, of course.”

        “None taken,” she murmured.  She glanced at him, stared lingeringly at all of his clattering wears, at his pathetically warped record as it tried to spin on the player.  The chanting music came in ghostly howls that shook her soul, and soon she surrendered in a sigh.  “Fine, Bruce.  Gimme just two of them.”

        “Deal is most certainly done, pony!”  He grinned with a sudden euphoria as they exchanged silver bars and flamestones.  “Your grace exceeds you!  Fitting, perhaps; you are last and yet most polite of your hoofed kind!”

        “Don't rub it in, roadkill,” she grunted and tucked the stones safely into her saddlebag before marching over towards the leather bands that she had also purchased.  “You're my finest source of getting flamestones.  It'd be a shame to have you ripped apart by the Golden Gang before I have a chance to do business with you again.”

        “In speaking of flames, pony,” he remarked, pointing an excited paw from across the hazy cabin.  “Since you are so... erm...  invested in flaming stones, Brucie may have tip for vhere pony can get new contract!”

        “And lemme guess; this tip costs how much?”

        “No, pony.”  He shook his head solemnly.  “Consider it gift from old merchant's thankful heart.  You have made much profit from hunting and collecting magical flame, da?”

        “Yes, yes,” she groaned boredly as she picked out the leather bands she desired.  “Gold flame.  Red flame.  Blue flame—We've been through all of this, Bruce.  It's how I earn the strips that you keep gobbling out of my hooves.  Get to the point--”

        “Has Harmony pony in her travels ever stumbled upon green flame?”

        The pegasus paused.  She glanced back over her shoulder, her goggles curiously reflecting the double image of the grinning squirrel.  “Green flame?”  Her lips lingered, then creased into a frown.  “Green flame is a myth.”

        “Is only myth because it existed once!”  He scurried over and hung on the ceiling above her, gesturing.  “In pony land of Equestria, no less.”

        “Equestria is dead—and all that was magic died with it.”

        “Then vhat has pony harvested all this time?  And vhat makes runestones glow with such brilliance?”

        “Bruce, are you trying to tell me that you've gotten word of green flame somewhere in the wastelands?”  She stared cockeyed at him.

        “Brucie hears vhat Brucie hears.  And there is truth to rumors in sky, because no survivors are happy enough to bother inventing stories these days!  Funny tragedy, da?”  He touched down on the rack of leather and perched proudly before her, smirking.  “Vord is dat there is not only green flame in  vastelands, but it is salvageable!  And Brucie knows of spectacular hunter pony who can bottle it!”

        “Bottling green flame—if it exists—is nowhere near as easy as ensnaring a phoenix,” she sighed.  “And the latter isn't all it's cracked up to be either.”

        “I cannot pretend to know how it vorks, but Brucie can imagine filthy rewards of being successful--!”

        “There are creatures beyond the wasteland who would pay the souls of their mothers—Yes, I get it.”  She squinted at him.  “Where are you leading me with all this, anyways?”

        “Brucie cannot show direction, but even pony can suspect who does.”  He waggled his eyebrows above his green goggles in emphasis.

        The pony blinked, searched the fields of her mind, and all but sank at the prospect.  “Pitt.”  Her voice came out like a bloody bullet of spittle.  “I really, really don't want to go to the M.O.D.D. right now.”

        “Vell, good luck to pony's quest for strips!”  The squirrel shrugged, grabbed a fresh cigar from an overhead rack, and lit it casually, adding to the steam of the lonesome merchant's dirigible.  “But do not say that friend Brucie failed to lend vord of advice!”  He puffed a few times, and exhaled with grinning incisors.  “Plenty more flames in Equestria for Brucie's cancer stick, da?  Heh—Heheheheh!”  He laughed merrily, coughing and hacking briefly as he scampered past the last pony's flank.

        The filly stared into space for a short span in comprehension.  The sickly green haze of the smoky interior coalesced into a preciously impossible fire against the blackboard of her mind.  She found herself feeling with resounding disappointment the unwittingly light weight of the two meager flamestones hanging in her saddlebag.  Outside, she knew the gray world floated and flurried endlessly, and there were only so few phenomena in the wastes of Equestria capable of piercing it.  Somehow, one way or another—one chunk of the soul sliced off after the previous—it all transformed into the only substance worth anything anymore:  silver, and all of it in strips or bars.

        The filly sighed.  “Thanks, Brucie.”  And she sauntered back towards the bridge between their ships with her new purchases in tow.  “I'll have a talk with Pitt.”

        “Best of luck to you, Harmony pony.”

        “I'll need it,” she grunted.


        The neon sign spelled out 'M.O.D.D.' brilliantly, like a bright green beacon, shimmering outward from the mountaintop upon which a ramshackle three-story tall building precariously roosted, just at the peak of the clouds.  The structure was a bent and splintery wooden thing, sagging towards the east as if it could plunge off the jagged mountainside at any moment.  The bowing edges of the structure were supported by several forty-five degree angled struts that had been haphazardly hammered and re-hammered into place over the crumbling years.  But this easily noticeable structural mishap waiting to happen was hardly a deterrent, as several flocks of airships and hovercraft continuously hovered around the highrise rest stop, mooring and depositing pilots who came from all corners of the cloudy wasteland to eat, barter, trade... and maybe get into a 'negotiation' or two:

        With a resounding crash, a green goblin was kicked out of the swinging doors of the 'M.O.D.D.' labeled bar-in-the-sky.  Before he could scamper to his feet, four primates in blue fatigues leaped out after him and clamored all over the squealing figure, pinning him to the slick wet rock with their odorous weight.

        “Drink six pints and refuse to pay, will you?” one ape howled.

        Another whooped, “Since when did goblins bum around without money in their pockets?  Heheheheh!  What's the blown-up world coming to?”

        “Pl-Please!” the goblin stammered and struggled, his cold sweat reflecting the pale twilight above the mountainside.  “I was just a p-passenger on board the Diamond Dogs' skytanker, the 'Cloudfang'!  They robbed me blind and ditched me here an hour ago!  I-I didn't realize my m-money was g-gone until just a few seconds ago—”

        “You know what you are?” one of the primates hissed, grinning devilishly.  “You are Equestrian filth!  And we here at the 'Monkey O'Dozen Den' know just how to treat Equestrian filth!  The same way they always used to treat each other!  Heheheh!”

        Right on cue, a fifth monkey marched out the doors of the Den, wielding a red-hot branding iron in the shape of a horseshoe.  “Hot off the grill!  Where's the rum-guzzling punk, boys?”

        “Over here, brother!  Eheheheh!  Let's teach him a lesson he won't forget, or anyone else he meets, for that matter!”

        “No!  No!”  The goblin paled and struggled to scamper away.  The primates held him tighter, their whoops and hollers rising to a crescendo as their brother zeroed in with the steaming hot metal.  “Pl-Please!  Don't do this to me!  I'll never last a night in the wastelands if anyone sees me with—”

        “Shut up and take what's coming to ya, cheapscape!”  The monkey's eyes flickered red as he swooped low and swung the brand square into the goblin's exposed flank.

        Steam and burning skin kissed the air as the lowly creature howled in torment.  The primates huddled around him laughed victoriously while several patrons hung out the window of the 'M.O.D.D.', sipping their foamed drinks and pointing amused fingers at the tortured brandee's plight.  Once the horseshoe image was permanently fused to the goblin's smoking flesh, the five monkeys flung him like a sack of garbage into a splashing puddle on the far side of the mountain plateau.

        “Now go forth and gallop free, Equestrian filth! Hahaha!  Soon you'll be dead like the rest of the--”  The monkey holding the brand stopped in mid sentence, his mangy eyes dilating upon the sight of who was trotting past the dramatic scene.

        With the Harmony quietly moored to a lateral wooden strut of the 'M.O.D.D.' behind her, the last pony made her way towards the front steps of the building.  She glanced boredly at the whimpering figure of the still-steaming goblin while moving past him.  As she coasted by the monkeys, however, she gave her saddlebags a little shake, rattling her brass rifle for good measure.  Half of them gulped, the other half of them snickered, until the fifth raised his branding iron, threatening to smack the group into silence.  Gradually, the five watched with quiet amusement as the pegasus stepped past the gaze of the flanking patrons, and into the bright lantern light of the 'Monkey O'Dozen Den' interior.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Inside, the air had a sour smell to it; like fermented juices laced with buzzing flies, running down the walls and into the splintery corners of the gas-lit hovel.  Under lantern-laced chandeliers made from retired and rusted propeller blades, several round tables rattled with the clamoring rum jugs of dozens upon dozens of slobbering, rain-faced pilots at rest.  Diamond Dogs, ogres, goblins, wooly rodents, and other hunch-backed leathernecks of post-apocalyptic quasi-sentience muttered, hissed, sneered, and laughed at one another, filling the careening wooden bar with the infinite sway of drunken bedlam.

        Deep beneath the lackadaisical bodies of the many tipsy patrons, a fine cold mist had seeped in from the Equestrian miasma beyond the walls, so that every other lost soul inside the place ever so briefly hung his eyes in a stupor that betrayed the alcoholic reverie of the moment.  It was if someone had arranged an orgy on top of a mountainous grave, and already half of the bacchanalia had succumbed to the endless dirge that would soon call them lurching back towards the merciless twilight outside.

        By the time the pony had trotted only halfway into the Monkey O'Dozen Den, three fights had already broken out.  One was between two diamond dogs in the far corner of the room.  Another was between two goblins and a reptilian creature over a moth-eaten pouch of strips.  As for the third—

        “Glue Stick!”  A fisted paw slammed across the pony's face.

        She spat blood, briefly stumbled, then glared straight ahead of her.

        “Hrggh!”  A mangy raccoon—a bum—with one metal right foreleg and a body covered in sooted rags; he  balanced on the edge of a table in front of the pegasus, shuddering, nearly foaming at the mouth.  With clattering teeth and eyes wide as bloodshot saucers, he seethed and roared:  “You!  Nnngh!  Filth!  Glue stick!  Back to Sun Goddess womb! With glue stick!  Nnngh!  Filth!”  He snarled and swung a trembling paw at her again.

        She dodged this time, glaring at him as a series of chuckles rose in the air around the scene.  Brow creasing, she faked walking away—instead pivoting at the last second to swing her flank roughly into him.  The raccoon purposefully took the whole brunt of the blow, bouncing over two rum-filled tables before slamming upside down into an iron stove that singed his fur.  The half-sane varmint scrambled on the ground, fighting to put his tail out, before crawling pathetically towards a table full of battle-scarred ogres who laughed mightily at the scene, gave the pony several thumbs' up, and proceeded to pay up the bum for living up to their dare.  As the chuckles subsided, the raccoon-thing drooled at the fresh strips of silver lying in his paws, hyperventilated joyfully, and scrambled on all fours towards the bar counter for a much 'needed' pint.

        Swishing the collected copper fluid in her mouth, the pony exhaled hard and resumed her beeline towards the far end of the Den.  She felt countless bodies eyeing her, murmuring strange and presumably malicious things under their breath as the last pony trotted past them, having once again graced the filthy interior of the forsaken bar in the sky.

        On a shelf behind the Den's bar, a tight jar rested on a counter, inside which a spherical pastel-colored insect slept soundly.  A gnarled leather hand suddenly lifted the bottle, shaking it and forcing the four-winged creature to open its glistening eyes.  Forlornly, the lone parasprite gazed upwards as the lid of the jar unscrewed and the gnarled hand stuck a spoon in and savagely poked its bright exoskeleton.  “Come on.  Spit it up, ya little turd,” a voice raspily hissed, forming condensation on the jar.  The parasprite wilted, shuddered, wretched—vomiting up a large globule of brown matter.  Half a breath later, and the brown shell of the cocoon shattered with a brand new parasprite joyfully emerging—wings a'flutter.  This nubile infant reveled as it was raised by the spoon and introduced to a bright toasty world outside the jar.  “Therrrrrre we go, little one,” the hoarse voice briefly chirped.  Just then, a crunching noise, and the newborn insect's eyes crossed as the petite thing was skewered down the length of its body with a toothpick, which was promptly planted into the top bun of a toasted meat sandwich being slid across the bar counter towards a Diamond Dog.

        “There ya go, Fido,” grunted the gnarled bartender, a gray-haired baboon with a ratty tail and spreading bald spot.  “Try not to choke on it.”

        “Hmmmm—Delish, Delissssssh!”  The canine drooled and raised the sandwich for a first bite.  He hesitated at the last second, and glared the primate's way with an arched eyebrow.  “Hey, justttttt what kind of meat is this anywaysssss?”

        “It's nobody you know,”  the baboon throated, his red nose crests flaring.  As the diamond dog  proceeded to chomp away at the sloppy meal, the owner of the Monkey O'Dozen Den returned to polishing rum mugs and swatting random flies that landed on the shelves of exposed foodstuffs.  A petite shadow hoisted itself up to the counter.  Without looking, the baboon sniffed the air with his giftedly ugly nose and smirked into the bottom of a mug.  “I'm afraid we're fresh out of daisies, Harmony.  Though I could fill a trough out back with distilled bat sweat.  I've heard a few goblins tell me it tastes almost like Equestrian apple cider did, before the goblins keeled over and died, that is.”

        “We've been over this, Pitt,” the pony grumbled.  “'Harmony' is the name of—”

        “'Your ship'.  I know.  By the gods,” the mangy primate rolled his sickly eyes and spat into a mug before wiping it 'clean'.  “You're a galloping golden goose, and yet you keep your call sign anonymous!  I swear, that zeppelin is the only interesting thing about you, which is a crime; don't you think?  Harumph... I would have reckoned the last pony on the planet would be a heavy drinker.  But, alas, you've surprised me there!”  He put the mug up, hung the rag over his shoulder, and leaned against the bar towards her.  A smirk:  “Well, 'glue stick', if it isn't daisy sandwiches that you've come here for, then what?”

        At his pointed address, she glanced over her shoulder at the voraciously drinking raccoon several tables behind; she tongued her freshly bruised cheek from the inside.  “I never ask for the trouble this Den brings to the table each time I come here.  Trouble just comes to me.  All I've ever wanted to do is business.”

        “Ol' Bruce sent you again, didn't he?”  The aptly named Pitt smiled a row of yellow teeth.  “He's a sucker for charity cases, that bushy-tailed numb-tongued fruitcake!  Hahah—”  He blinked sunkenly at the glare she was giving him.  “—Erm, not that you're one to deserve pity.  You'd rather be paid in strips, I'm guessing.”

        “Running low on them.  As well as on luck,” she sighed, leaning sideways against the bar so that her sheathed rifle was furthest from the rest of the interior.  She eyed every guzzling patron one at a time, keeping an instinctual air of caution since the very moment she strolled in through the swinging doors of the Den.  “Bruce sold me a few things I needed, but perhaps the best thing he gave me was a tip.  Or at least he suggested you may have a tip.”

        “Keep saying the word 'tip' and I am liable to eat my tail in frustration,” Pitt chuckled, grabbing a customer's empty mug and refilling it.  “You know, you've never taken me up on the offer to start your own tab.”

        “I don't drink,” she grunted.

        “Why not?  The whole world's miserable!”  He winked at a droopy-eyed drunkard as he slid him a tall refill.  “Granted, it's always been miserable.  Only now it's miserable and in ashes.  That's a good combination for getting some joy juice down your gullet, if I ever heard one.”

        “Pitt.”  She raised her goggles and gazed coldly at him with twin scarlet marbles.  “A good third of your patrons are so drunk off their butts that they crash into the rocks the first second they undock their dirigibles from your little 'joy juice' stand.”

        His red-crested nostrils flared indignantly.  “That is an unfounded and seditious lie!”

        She gestured blindly with a hoof towards the Den's rattling floorboards.  “There's a pile of two dozen burnt-out zeppelins at the base of this mountain alone!”

        He shrugged.  “So?  What better way to attract new customers than to give them something to loot before dropping by?”

        “Nnnngh,” she groaned, facehoofing briefly.  “This is when I wonder why I'm the one who's endangered.”

        “That's the luck of the draw for ya, Harmo—er—'Miss Temperance',” he smiled, leaning over once more and whispering in a private voice between the two.  “Lots of these punks here; they read a little too much into that crud, if you ask me.”

        “What crud?”

        “Karma crud,” he whispered.  “Some of them think that Equestria bought it because your kind bought it.  Eheheh.”  He chuckled, walking his gnarled monkey fingers across the bar counter and soccer-kicking dead flies one after another.  “Now, I'm not the sort of baboon to suggest that ponies were in fact responsible for the mayhem that befell us all.  Heck, if it was—I sure ain't complaining!  When pegasi, unicorns, and the more boring horses fell off the face of the earth, my kind got the upper arm on the branch!  Granted, we've always bred like monkeys—heheh—but this was a new frontier!  I don't put much thought into who or what is to blame for... for... for all of this.  But if it wasn't for fate, my eleven younger brothers and I wouldn't possess the booming enterprise we have today!”

        She glared at him.  “I'm glad, Pitt, that the utter extinction of my flesh and blood has paved the way for you to poison deranged pilots to their death from your festering water hole in the sky.”

        “See!”  He clapped his hairy palms, grinning yellowishly.  “Even when you try to be angry, you sound like loose change at the bottom of the well.  Heheheh!  Why not just crucify yourself to the bow of your ship and make poetry out of your dull-as-nails life already?”

        She smiled icily.  “I couldn't give you the satisfaction.”

        “I kid you, pony.  I kid,” Pitt murmured.  With a wink, he planted a gnarled hand over his 'heart'.  “You should know by now that I'm a good monkey underneath this surly fur.”  Just then, the lights overhead dimmed and flickered.  Several of the patrons mumbled and growled their complaints.  Cursing, Pitt pounded the bar with his fist.  “Why, that insufferable useless limb!”  He turned, took three bold steps towards a door, flung it open, and shouted into the steamy corridor beyond.  “Willis!  Pssst—Willis!  What gives, ya melon fudge?!?”

        Inside the smoking claustrophobic room, a frighteningly emaciated chimpanzee was pumping his limbs on a rickety bicycle rigged in place to an elaborate gear system that powered several pumps aimed at a triad of boilers.  He sweated and strained and stammered through a permanently red face:  “I-I'm so sorry, brother!  It's the third time today that I've nearly passed out!  Can I-I please have some water, now??”

        “The only water you should care for is the type you make the moment I beat you within an inch of your life, ya good-for-nothing sissy!  Pedal faster or you don't eat tonight!”

        “N-No, Pitt!  Please, brother, don't leave me alone here another minute--!”

        The baboon slammed the door shut, dusted his hands off, and grabbed a glass on the way back towards the bar across from the pony.  “I swear, I only keep him alive because 'Monkey O'Eleven Den' doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well.”  Clearing his throat, he polished the glass and smirked the pegasus' way.  “So, enough monkey talk.  Eheheheh—Business?

        “Green flame,” she murmured.

        Pitt dropped the glass, shattering it.  He sweated nervously under the brief gaze of a few half-curious patrons, and swiftly leaned over the counter to whisper back at the mare.  “Uhm ... Who told you and under what kind of duress?”

        “Ol' Brucie,” she said, “and he told me to come seek you without asking for anything in return.  Sucker for charity, remember?”

        “Obviously.”

        “So, is it true?”

        “Is what true?”

        Her brow furrowed.  “Is there actually any green flame in the Wastes?”  She motioned towards the thickly populated bar behind her.  “Every creature that has enough intelligence to speak swaggers through your Den at some time or another.  If anyone would have heard word about green flame, it'd have to be you.”

        “Perhaps that's true.  But you know as well as I do, pony, that rumors stay rumors until one pilot actually has the coconuts to scrounge up something concrete.  Until then, it stays in the bag.”

        “Well, I'm here,” she said, staring at him fixedly.  “Mix and pour.”

        He squinted at her, gradually bearing a liquid smirk.  His red nose crests flared momentarily as he throated, “You're really not afraid of anything, are you, pony?  I wonder if that makes you desperate or if that makes you stupid.”

        “I'm hoping it will make me rich.”  She reached back into her saddlebag, produced an empty glass jar, and rotated it until the dull runed cap faced the leaning primate.  “You know how I do things, Pitt.  I find elements and essences of things. I capture them; then I seal them in something like this.  Everything I transport is protected by runestones: unbreakable, save for the sound of a word that only I have mastered uttering.  You remember—of course—the time I extracted orange flame from the hydra fossils of Froggy Bottom Bog.  That burning energy has been the sole source of the Iron Goblin Brothers' shipping barge for the last five years and running—”

        “You don't need to convince me of your professionalism, sweetheart,” Pitt muttered.  “I have full faith that you could put a cork over a floating fart of green flame,” he said, but then hesitated, “if you wanted to.”

        She raised an eyebrow.  “What do you mean if I wanted to?”

        He raised a finger, smirking.  “Here, I'll show ya.”  That uttered, the baboon sashayed back to the far side of the backcounter and rummaged through a wooden trunk full of cloth maps and leather atlases.

        The pegasus sighed, slumped against the counter.  She was only vaguely aware of a swaggering shadow scraping its obese way towards her side until a breath full of rum finally wheezed into her nostrils, slurring, “Well, if it isn't the last—HIC—manure factory in Equestria!  You've got some nerve—HIC—prancin' your frilly flank around these parts!”

        Bored, she gazed over at what turned out to be a rotund ogre with a mixture of alcohol, slobber, and dried-up vomit lacing his double chins.

        He gazed dizzily at her with a half-practiced sneer before planting a jar onto the counter and snapping his finger at a passing monkey.  “Double vodka!  Keep it comin'!”  Struggling to stay standing in one place, he balanced himself through the act of whipping out a cigar from his moldy pants' pocket and lighting it smokily in her face.  He hissed smokily in the pony's direction, “Didja hear me, Equestrian filth?  Or is there too much magic clogged up between yer ears?  Heheh—HICCC!”  He wretched and barely contained the energy to take a fresh puff of his cigar.

        The pony cooly glanced from him towards his table of stupidly drunk buddies laughing and swaying in the distance.  The raccoon bum was lying still and plastered between them as they made lewd gestures her way and goaded on their fat buddy's intoxicated ramblings.  She glanced stonily back at the fat creature who was presently belching smoke rings.  “Can I help you?”

        “Ssssshure ya can!”  He leered, teetered, all the while pointing with a flick of his cigar.  “Ya can start by telling me how the ponies—HIC—got off hogging the Sun and Moon all to themselves for—URP—thousandsssssh of years, and then taking it all away in a flash like it was garrrr-bage!  Heh—Hehhehehehhhh—Snrkkkt!”  He spat a nicotined loogey into the floor and waited on her reply with bloodshot eyes.

        “Look,” she sighed, “I'm just here to do business with Pitt.  If you have a problem with me, take it to him.  Cuz I'm sure he'd be as angry as I am that a random oaf who's too wasted to smell his own pee bothered to interrupt a lucrative deal in the making.”

        “Angry?  HIC—You think you'rrrrrrrrre angry?”

        “I didn't say—”

        “Before everythinnnnnng—ULP—blew up across the world, I was a resssssssshpected citizen of Mount Ogreton!”  The obese cretin slobbered.  A marmoset waiter flew by, dropping the requested glass of vodka down onto the bar counter beneath him.  He half-pawed it while poking the cigar into the pony's personal space.  “And then you magical froo-froo horsiessssh just up and drop the ball!  Hrckkkt—Ptooie!”

        “Nnngh... I don't have time for this,” she muttered into an exhausted hoof.

        “What wassssh th-that?  H-Huh?”

        In belated timing, Pitt returned with a leather map in his gnarled hands.  “Here we go.  Let's have a look, shall we... ?”

        “Hey Pitt!” the drunk ogre slurred at him, “I was talking to this hoofed freak!”

        “Can't you see we're in the middle of something?  Try preaching to your mug, bright eyes!”  The Den owner spread the map out before the pegasus, displaying a broad series of brown hash-marks that not-so-artistically represented the crumbled state of modern Equestria.  He murmured, “Okay, so here's the word.  A total of five groups of pilots showed up over the past week, claiming to have seen puffs of green flame.”  His gnarled finger drew invisible lines across the center of the leather map. “They were all flying identical routes at low altitudes.  Most of my patrons, of course, aren't brave enough to scavenge deep into the heart of the Equestrian Wastes like you, pony, but some of them can't resist a good flyby if they could chance upon something profitable, mostly natural gas reserves and the like.”

        “Can you get to the point, Pitt?  I think I'm suddenly in a hurry,” she said, shiftily casting a side glance towards the smoking ogre who hovered two spits away.

        “Right.  All five groups gave me nearly identical coordinates of the green flame sighting.  They described the sensation as 'bright plumes of emerald', large enough to see from half a kilometer.  Pretty brilliant stuff, if you ask me.  I think they were too frightened to check it out.  But then again, none of them are all that proficient in runestones.”

        “HIC—What're runesssshhtones?”  The ogre half-heartedly gripped his tall glass of vodka.  “Morrrrre pony hocussssh pocussssh?”

        The pegasus rolled her eyes and leaned forward.  “Just tell me the coordinates already.”

        Pitt stared steadily at her, closely studying her expression as his blistered tongue dripped forth the numbers:  “One Hundred and Five, Thirty-Two, Ten.”

        The pony's face paled.  She stared anxiously at the leather map as if it had suddenly transformed into a viper ready to leap at her snout.  She scooted back from the counter, cleared her throat, and in a shaky voice uttered, “You're right.  No deal.  I'm not going.”

        “But Harmony!”  Pitt hissed, suddenly desperate.  “Green flame--!”

        “I don't care!” she snarled back.  “I said I'm not gonna do it and I'm not gonna do it!”

        “Oooooh!” the ogre slobbered, grinning mockingly.  “Tough fillllly—”

        “Yo!  Can it, sardine breath!” Pitt briefly frowned at him and spun back the pony's way in a desperate bid to salvage the deal.  “Girl, there are clients who would pay out the butt for this stuff!  I ... would pay out the butt for green flame!  And that's coming from a red butt!  That's the exact kind of butt honest deals are made of!”

        “Save it—”

        “With green flame, my brothers and I could raise this business to new heights!  Why, we could magically teleport goods across kilometers!  We could banish thugs and harpy pirates with a flick of the wand!”  He smiled a yellow smile and rubbed his fingers together.  “You're just what we need, pony girl.  How does nine hundred strips sound?”

        “No.”

        “Eleven hundred bars—I'm desperate here!”

        “I am never—ever—going to those coordinates,” she seethed, her scarlet eyes burning like hot coals.  “Not for green flame, red flame, yellow flame, your mother's flame—Or anything else for that matter!”

        “Isn't it just like any of your other jobs?”

        “No, it's not.”

        “Why not?”

        “Because some things are still sacred in this world!” she shouted suddenly, shaking the air around their half of the bar and causing patrons' heads to turn.  “I can't expect a money grabbing, brother slapping, venom blooded simian like you to understand that!  Or any of these soulless vermin you call 'customers' for that matter!”

        “Live and learn, sweetflanks!” Pitt chuckled helplessly, shrugging towards the map.  “That's the kind of world we live in—”

        “Well maybe it shouldn't be!” she roared.  At the crest of her echoing voice was a sudden dip in silence, permeated briefly by a random cough or two from the rear of the bar.  She exhaled, fuming, glancing shakily at all the glaring eyes that were suddenly plastered on her figure.

        “Hmmmm-hmmm-hmmm... ,” the ogre chuckled breathily.  He took a wide puff on his cigar and breathed offensively into her snout.  “Ssssshoulda thought really hard about how much you loved your world—HIC—before ya trasssshed it, huh, Equestrian filth?”

        “Lay off, bucko,” Pitt defeatedly groaned.

        “Why shhhhould I?”  The ogre breathed into her again.  “She's the reason for all thissssh mess!  It's all her kind's fault!  HIC!—Why, if ssssshe had any real respect for the world, she'd just hang herself right here and now!”

        She thinned her eyes through the waves of the ogre's cigar smoke.  An artery pulsed at the edge of her cap and goggles.  A hissing voice bubbled up through her lips, “Do you know how much I hate smoking... ?”

        “Hmmmm-Eheheh.”  The ogre smirked drunkenly back at his distant companions and then sputtered her way, “Mmm-No.  Why don'tcha tell me?”

        She smiled, “Gladly.”  With one hard swat, she slammed her hoof into the ogre's blubbery backside.  The fat patron instantly spat the lit cigar straight into his glass of vodka.  Flames burst out from the alcoholic beverage, which the pony viciously flung straight into the ogre's girth, dousing his torso with burning quaff.  The ogre howled, twirling and tossing his limbs as the flames covered him from head to toe.  With a silent sneer, the last pony pivoted her hindquarters, reared her hooves, and bucked him burningly across the bar.

        Patrons gasped and dashed out of their seats as the ogre's hulking, flaming body sailed across the Monkey O'Dozen Den and landed hard through a splintering table of wood and mugs.  The singed drunkard's companions and a dozen other angry pilots jumped up to their feet with a flurry of various blades and knives kissing the Den's air.  In one savage line, they marched forward to converge on the pony.

        Eyes aflame, the furious mare flung her rifle free from her sheathe.  Against Pitt's panicked protests, she slapped it full of glowing runestones and cocked the copper barrel ceilingward as she snarled at the entire room, “What of it?!?”

        Before anything exploded, the double-doors flew wide with a flurry of white snow... and feathers.  Golden beaks, glinting goggles, and razor-sharp talons lit the room, followed by a cackling voice:  “Whoahhhh-ho-ho-ho!  What's all the commotion about?  Is there some trouble in my favorite watering hole?  H-Huh?  Huh?  Pitt, what gives?”

        Pitt, sweating bullets, gave the pony a sideways glance before murmuring under his breath, “'Trouble always comes to you', h-huh?”  Clearing his throat, he leaped over the bar and spread his monkey arms wide with a voice of forced cheerfulness, “Welllll—If it isn't the Golden Gang!  My favorite customers ever—WHOOP!”  He wheezed as he was forced into a half-nelson in one of the griffons' feathery grasp.  “Eh-heh-heh-heh-Why, we're all one happy family today, aren't w-we?!”

        “Abso-positiv-olutely, Pitt ol' pal!  Cuz if we weren't a happy family, I might have to clean shop!  You wouldn't like me doing that, wouldja?  I mean, it is your shop, after all!”

        “I-I would certainly hope so... Eh heh heh... Oh, and my brothers' too.  The smart ones, at l-least.”

        “Right—Like I said.  It's your shop.  Heheh!  Everyone calm down!  Take it easy!”  The head griffon ruffled the hair around Pitt's bald spot and grinned at the group as she waved her majestic wings and sauntered across the hazy interior on all fours.  “It's been a long and crazy week of navigating the wastelands!  Take a chill pill and enjoy your drinks!  The Golden Gang's here to party like it's the Third Age all over again!  Don't stop the rum, barkeep!”

        By this time, the pony had retracted her rifle, sheathed it, and slumped herself lethargically back against the bar.  The angry fire in her eyes had long sizzled out.  She watched with a forlorn breath as the burnt and wincing ogre struggled to get up.  His friends lifted their buddy from the pile of sparkling splinters, leading him—limping—towards the Den's half-hearted excuse for a lavatory.  They glanced back over their thick shoulders and frowned at the pegasus, muttering a crazy assortment of obscenities her way.  The other patrons were likewise glaring at her, but under the sudden beaks of the Golden Gang, they reluctantly returned to their tables.

        A long breath escaped the mare's lips.  She glanced down at the bar counter, at the leather map that Pitt had rolled out.  There was still a scratchy impression in the dead center of the illustrated brown Wastes from where the baboon had excitedly marked out the infamous coordinates of the Green Flame—

        A crown of feathers blocked the image of the map.  Looking up, the pony found herself staring into the grinning beak of a tall, muscular griffon.  Like her six other companions, the half-avarian creature sported a leather brown bomber jacket splayed over with the totems of her fallen enemies, bounties that she and her loyal gang of feathered kin had expertly chased down.  Nobody dared question their skill or their tactful mercilessness.  They were the esteemed bounty hunters of the Equestrian wastes, the mavericks of the twilight.  They were the Golden Gang, and this towering figure lurching in front of the pony with a swagger and a grin was the squadron's self-appointed leader.

        “Well – Well – Well,” she chuckled, a pair of silver goggles glinting in the lantern light.  “If you ain't the last pony on Earth!  Why's it that I'm always stumbling in on you when you're about to have your head ripped off by all things that live and breathe?”

        The pony exhaled long and hard, suddenly staring at the floor as she muttered, “Then maybe you shouldn't bother with 'stumbling', Gilda.”

        “Ohhh ho ho ho—A little spitefire tonight, aren't we?”  The adult griffon grabbed a random mug from a dizzied patron, back-handed him to the floor the moment he protested, and took a big swig.  Gulping, Gilda exhaled, wiped her beak, and leaned with her back against the bar beside the pony.  “I've known you to take on trolls, harpy pirates, and gawd knows how many stormfronts to get what you need for your clients—But tossing around ogres three times your size in a bar crowded with drunken scallywags?  Now that's just silly, Harmony!”

        “My name's not—” The pony began, remembered who she was talking to, and deflatedly murmured, “Whatever.”

        “Why so glum, kiddo?”  With a single serrated talon, Gilda raised her silver goggles up to her headcrest.  An amused pair of amber eyes winked down at the last pony.  “You're alive, ain't you?”

        “If you could call it that.”

        “Well, that's all that matters, isn't it?”  She suddenly leaned in, forcing the blinking pony's torso into an iron-wrought sidehug.  “For you, that is.  Heck, if I died, the 'Golden' mantle would just go to Stowe.  But who would the mantle go to if you bit the oats?—Whoops, sorry.  Old expression.  Tough thing to kick.  But, hey, you get the idea.”

        “I... think...?”

        “Hehehe—” Gilda pinched the brown filly's cheek, her claws nearly breaking the mare's skin.  “You're so adorable when you're all confused in the head!  That's always been one of my guilty pleasures about your kind.  Y'all could be so gosh darn cute at the wrong moments, especially when you got angry.”  She cleared her feathery throat.  “If Equestria hadn't gotten the burn, I think all ponies would have gone extinct by always shoving their hooves into their mouths!”

        “I just came here to do business, Gilda.”

        “And look where it got you!  Seriously, Harmony, at this rate you'll be skinned and mounted in an exhibit by the next stormfront!  You gotta learn how to chill and know your role, girl!  In the meantime,” she murmured, nochalantly turning her gaze to scan the ceiling.  Her 'hug' of the pony tightened suggestively.  “I should remind you how important it is that you've always got good 'ol Gilda to cover your flank.  This place is filled to the brim with nasty no-goods who have all these cockamamie reasons to detest the existence of a sweet, innocent pony like you.  Y'know I can't always barge in at moments like just now.  But, you can still have the Gang's protection at all other times...” Gilda's voice oozed; meanwhile a prehensile lion's tail roped up from behind the pegasus and tightened mercilessly at the back of the mare's neck.  “... if you're smart.”

        The pony's scarlet eyes darted towards the living noose ensnaring her.  Caught between the bar, Gilda's tail, Gilda's talon, and Gilda's cold shoulder, the pony wilted from deep inside herself.  Unenthusiastically, she reached into her saddlebag and produced her pouch of silver, all the strips that she still had left from Gilliam's payment for the Phoenix fire.  She cast a look up at her griffon 'friend', and the amber glint that returned was colder than an iceberg.  Without a word, the pegasus dropped the strips into Gilda's other talon, turning her head to erase the silver bars from her mental sight.

        The Golden Gang leader brightened immediately.  “Clever girl,” she beamed.  Then, a shrill whistle, and another griffon around Gilda's height flapped serratedly over.  “Hey, Stowe—Be true to your name and stow these away into the vault on board the Raptor, will ya?”

        Stowe was a stone-gray feathered griffon whose beak resembled a perpetually grimacing mask.  A scar ran over her left eye, and her jacket was laced with fingerbones belonging to several questionable species.  Taking the silver, she launched a glare past Gilda and hissed at the pony, “You better not be holding out on us, blank flank!  Or I'll gut you in places you never knew you had—”

        “Stowe!  Shove off or shove it!”  Gilda snapped, kicking a lower talon hard into her second-in-command's gut.  “This is my good friend you're barking at, ya overgrown cockatoo!”

        “I don't see why you waste your frickin' time,” Stowe spat, gave the pony a lasting snarl, and stomped off.  “If ya love the glue stick so much, boss—Just marry it already.”

        “Yeah, and we'll mount the wedding cake with your gizzard—Ya loudmouth!  Take a hike!”  Gilda frowned, then chuckled helplessly as she patted the pony's shoulder.  “Pfft—'Blank Flank'.  Beats the heck out of me where that psychopath gets her insults.  Shoot, she couldn't have gotten it from me!  I had loads of fun hanging out with ponies back in the day!  But you know that, Harmony.  And you know that I'd never insult the hoofed pipsqueaks, even if they were friggin' lame-os from time to time.  But hey, that's the checks and balances, right?”

        “Right,” the pony sighed, stretching her saddlebags wider over her unmarked brown coat in an absent-minded gesture of yesteryear.  “Whatever you say, Gilda.”

        “Hey Barkeep!”  Gilda raised a talon as she swiveled around towards the counter.  “Two rum-and-coconuts!  On the double!”

        The pony droned, “I don't drink.”

        “Kiss my tail-feathers!”  Gilda stuck a tongue out.  “With me, you will!”

        “If you're so concerned with my protection,” the pony sneered at her, “you will let me pilot the Harmony sober.”

        “Fine—Fine.  You win.  Who am I to argue, huh?”  Gilda snickered, rhythmically clapping her talon fingers against the bar while smirking at her 'friend'.  “These are your last days, not mine.  Guess you're entitled to live out your life the way you want to, huh?”

        “I guess...”

        “Well, better get it straight, girl!  I mean, it's in your blood, right?”  She smirked and pointed.  “One of the things I always found quirky about ponies is that they constantly pigeon-holed themselves into doing one particular thing in life.  Seriously, I never understood your society, even when it was still standing.  It was like a frickin' caste system!  Remind me; what were those tattoo-thingies on your butts that y'all got so bent out of shape over?”

        “Mmmmmmngh...,” the pony snorted, “...cutie marks.”

        “Ha—Bwaaaaaa ha ha ha ha!”  Gilda pounded the counter with her fist and covered her cackling face until a tear or two shed from her squinting amber eyes.  “Haah haah haah haah—Whewwww—Oh wait, you're serious?

        “Why wouldn't I be?”

        “You ponies actually bent your entire civilization around a social strata called 'cutie marks'?  Pfft—I've heard some pretty sissy things back in my day, but that takes the cake!  Heck, no wonder your kingdom friggin' exploded.”

        Two mugs were deposited in front of the griffon; Gilda gladly swooped one up, took a swig, belched, and smiled warmly.

        “But not all of you were so namby pamby.  Why, a better part of my spritely days were spent flying with the best of y'all.”  The Gold Gang Leader exhaled in a sudden softness, choosing strategically to lower her pilot's goggles over her eyes.  “If it isn't the darndest thing that you're a pegasus.  Cuz those were always my favorites, the winged ponies.  While the unicorns were all sewing dresses and the earth ponies shoving plows, it was the pegasi who really showed Equestria a thing or two about being awesome.  They burned paths in the sky that mark the mists of twilight even to this day.  If ya squint at the swirling ashes just right after a stormfront's cleared, you can see their wingtrails still there.  Hmmmmph—Frickin' sky ponies; they would have made a good home in this upside down life we call the Wastes.”  She took another guzzling sip, breathed, and squinted the pony's way.  “Maybe that's why you've fought the grim reaper for as long as you have, eh kiddo?”

        “Don't be silly,” the pony murmured, then gave the griffon a postcard smile.  “It's all because of your expert protection.”

        “And don't ya forget it!”  The Gold Gang Leader pointed a talon, downed the last of her mug, belched, and clasped the second one.  This time, Gilda lingered with the drink at the edge of her break, her silver goggles fogging briefly in the Den's hazy light.  “You were young, kid.  Too dang young, if you ask me.  But—heck—those are the cards fate dealt.  I knew a pegasus or two who would have done even better than you if they were in your place, who wouldn't have needed protection, who would have done just fine... without m-me.”  Her feathers ruffled as she gulped hard, this time at the air.  “Just one—I remember just one pegasus, c-come to think of it...”

        The pony's brow withered as she breathed towards the floor, “I remember her too, Gilda.”  It took several seconds of silence before she realized how identically frozen the both of them were.  The haze settled between their cold bodies like mist in the twilight air outside.  Clearing her throat, the pony lowered her goggles over moist eyes and stepped away from the bar.  “Well, thanks for everything.  I've bothered Pitt enough.  It's time that I headed out.”  She trotted off.  For a moment there, she imagined she was in the clear—but then Gilda's voice called out—

        “Hey, Harmony.  Before you walk out on the Gang and I...”

        The pony stopped in her hooves.  She turned and glanced over her flank.

        Gilda smirked, her avarian head cocked to the side.  “I thought I'd mention that Stowe, the girls, and I ran into a friend of yours recently.”

        “A friend?  You do remember who you're talking to, right?”

        “Heheh.  Some toxic-lunged chipmunk named 'Bruce'.  Talks like there're marshmallows in his mouth.  We did a little... er... business with him the other day; did he mention that?”

        The pony stared fixedly at her.  She replied, “I haven't heard anything of the sort.”

        “Yeah, well, the little scamp gets around.  Not as much as you, of course; but when Stowe's scarred face freaked him out, he suddenly went on and on about some crazy nonsense.”

        “What kind of nonsense?”

        Gilda sipped from her mug, gulped, then uttered, “Something about a green flame.  Plumes of it, shooting up in random places across the wastelands.  From what I hear, the crud's really valuable.  Like, you might as well have a leprechaun pee gold right into a jar for ya!  Hah!”  Another sip, then a raising of her feather crest.  “You wouldn't happen to have seen this sort of stuff in your travels, huh?  Seems like something that would be right up your alley!”

        The pegasus looked Gilda's way.  Her goggles shielded the griffon from seeing her eyes dart from the Gold Gang Leader to the leather map left on the bar counter and back.  “I... will let you know if I hear anything, Gilda.”  She smiled briefly and waved a hoof.  “It's the least I can do for my best protector.”

        Gilda saluted back.  “Dang straight, kiddo.  Have a safe flight—And don't be picking fights with ogres, ya hear?”

        “Right...”  The pony turned around, trotted out, and muttered under her breath, “Ogres...”


        The pony pulled the lever once, twice, thrice—Finally, in a deep hum, the signal lit up.  The fresh flamestone burned prismatically into the seven lenses as the artificial rainbow surged high into the twilight, ten times brighter than before.

        It was several hours since her venture to the M.O.D.D.  The pony had returned to the plateau for her regular lighting of the spectrum.  But as she trotted back from the sight, breathing pantingly from the physical effort of forcing life into the machine, her expression waned into a wilting grimace.  As amazingly bright as the well-paid-for effect was, it somehow seemed dimmer.

        Perhaps it was the creaking noise of the chains moored to the hovering Harmony overhead.  Perhaps it was the harsh flurry of snow that dipped surprisingly low for that moment of time between stormfronts.  Perhaps it was the taste of blood that resurfaced in the pegasus' bruised mouth; but something was distracting her, so that after ten minutes of staring, she realized that her gaze was fixed on one color of the spectrum and one color only:  the green band.

        She exhaled in a gust of frustration; the multiple mishaps of her brief visit to the M.O.D.D. bled down through a curtain of numbness to pinprick her all over.  She kicked at the stony earth, and a few clumps of powder splashed unexcitingly across a rusted metal barricade or two, mocking her lonely ire.  The permeating silence of the abandoned plateau prophecied to her yet another fruitless night of guarding an unseen spotlight, so that she wondered if the only thing a rainbow dared to dance for was the creature that conjured the spectral band in the first place.

        Everything the pony struggled and suffered for—the strips and the flamestones and the lighting rig—all paled to a bone-white malaise, all except for one color.  It was the one color that she suddenly refused to look at, the one color that she hated, because she knew beneath all her pathetically collapsible layers of skin that she was afraid of it.

        “It's not worth it,” the last pony spoke directly to herself, something she hadn't done in years.  “The green flame isn't worth going back there.”  She clutched the rifle to her chest in what briefly looked like an infantile hug, before she rolled her scarlet eyes, slid her goggles down, and climbed lethargically up the guard tower where she knew she would sit for several hours, waiting for nothing.


        Long after, in the gently swaying haze of the Harmony's cabin, the pegasus was lying on her hammock, chest first, her head swimming in the rhythmic lulls of Octavia's strings.  Before her, bathed in golden lamplight, the pages of Princess Celestia's Diary spread wide, their ivory surfaces lilting under mighty golden penstrokes of a Goddess long gone.  The last pony dutifully read and re-read the same silkily scribed words as she had so many times before, committing the holy paragraphs to memory, turning them over in her mind, allowing the eloquent passages to sweep her away from the flurrying gray mist outside the airship's portholes.

        Halfway through the habitual read, a rough gust of turbulence struck the Harmony.  The vessel harmlessly buckled for the briefest of seconds, and in the ensuing jolt Octavia's record momentarily skipped with an offensive scratching sound.

        It was enough to snap the filly out of her umpteenth perusal of the Princess' journal, so that her eyes blinked and refocused squarely on one particular passage that suddenly stood out from the rest.  It was an entry dated from halfway through the middle of the Third Age, describing the death of the last noble member of the Honeytail Clan, an aristocratic family of unicorns whose great ancestors several generations before were loyalists to the Lunar Republic, having been given pardon by Princess Celestia following the banishment of Nightmare Moon.

        For several centuries, the Honeytail household had lived within the sacred protection of the Celestial Estate, barred off from the rest of the Equestrian population, many of whom were descendants of brave soldiers who died wastefully at the hands of the Lunar Republic, and who wanted nothing more than to strike vengeance at the Honeytail Clan for so much bad blood built up over the years.  The Honeytails were satisfied to stay within the confines of Princess Celestia's domain, and on account of their fear and hesitance, they died out as a hemophiliac strain of inbreds, fading into nothingness with little more than a passive epithet from their forgiving queen in a journal that only one lone pegasus would read after an apocalypse had long come and gone.

        The pony's scarlet eyes wandered across the ever-familiar bulkheads of the Harmony, across the windows stained with repetitious cyclones of snow, like her countless days were repetitious, bouncing back and forth between scavenging jobs while dodging murderers and monsters and only randomly communing with a flying squirrel that leeched off her, a monkey that swindled her, and a griffon that drove an invisible knife into her heart and twisted it.  Everything about her existence was like a flake of ash, lost in the twirling winds, disguising itself with the faux self-importance of a steam-powered zeppelin armed to the teeth with sacrilegious runestones.

        She was the last pony, and if this was living, she wasn't doing a very good job of it.  The filly briefly remembered what it meant to take chances before chances took her, what it meant to go for the gold before succumbing to a life that settled for silver, what it meant to fight gravity long before her wings ever paid heed to her audacity.  She never asked for Princess Celestia's protection before the cataclysm, and she sure as blazes didn't ask for Gilda's after it.

        The young mare clasped the Royal Book closed.  Bolting out of the hammock, she slapped the record player off, yanked a scroll from her workbench, and practically leaped into the cockpit seat.  Unfurling the map, she clasped a compass in her teeth and charted the distance between her present location, and the dead center of the Equestrian Wastelands, chiefly the coordinates: '105, 32, 10.'

        As soon as she mentally prepared the bearings in her head, she snapped the map scroll closed, spat the compass out, and sneered into the stuffy air, “Nopony lives forever.  Isn't that right, Princess?”  She grasped her goggles, slid them over her eyes, and yanked hard on the levers—banking the Harmony portside and veering the craft swiftly southward.


        It was several dozens of hours later when the Harmony touched down, and when it had finished mooring, the landscape beneath it couldn't have been a ghostlier sight.  Here, in the deepest valley of Equestria, the snow flurries blew savagely across the landscape like an ivory sandstorm.  Black stalks of petrified glass shot forth from the scorched earth in obsidian daggers, making it a tough feat in and of itself for the pegasus to land.

        Still, she descended bravely, and with a final flap of her wings the pony set hoof down on holy ground.  As soon as she landed, a deep shudder left her, as if she was giving up the ghost in her shell to rejoin this deathly graveyard.  She stared with chattering teeth, her snout bravely piercing the howling winds.  Try as she might to eye the northern horizon, nothing could be seen beyond five meters' distance.  All she knew was that this was the last hilltop before the northern dip where Pitt's coordinates pointed her.  Beyond the sloping terrain was foreboding obscurity, and it was about to brush bleeding elbows with the horrible shadows of her long forsaken memories.

        With a strong gulp, the pony stood straight and tall, feeling the weight of her leather armor, saddlebags, rifle, runestone magazines, and two pairs of rune-capped jars.  All of the defensive materials somehow didn't make the next few trots any easier.  She had her yoke of lanterns with her, but couldn't persuade herself to light them, not yet.  The filly knew that she wouldn't need them to find her way here.

        As the mare slowly trudged down the hilltop from the tethered Harmony, the flurrying wind spread the snow before her, revealing a pair of dried up riverbeds converging before a series of multicolored houses, collapsed buildings with their thatched roofs long blown off.  The skeletons of various oak trees lurched into view; and finally a deathly slumbering village bled forth from the gray expanse.

        One lone sign by a snow-laden path—bent at an odd angle—shuddered from the proximity of the pegasus' treading hooves; the powdery ash that had collected on its surface fell off, revealing the lonesome words:

        'Welcome to Ponyville.  Sanctum of Earth Ponies.  Population: 1,056'


The End of Ponies – by short skirts and explosions

Chapter Four – The Refoaling

        A crusted white glacier of frigid ice covered the glossy surface.  Under the constant howl of bitter winds, a hoof rose up and planted its metal sole against it.  A light scraping, a harder scraping, and the hoof carved a clear path across the surface; it was a curved line, a rainbow arch.  After a few more scrapes the glacier broke away and the last of the frost fell loose from the surface of the glass.  The reflection of a brown mare's face emerged, her goggles glinting unemotionally as she suddenly regarded herself.  Leaning in closely, the pegasus stared tightly past the window's reflection in an attempt to gaze inside, but she could only make out the vaguest shape of tattered velvet heaps piled up in the center of the building's sealed atrium.  With a fogging breath, the last pony stepped back and stared up at the crumbling height of the Carousel Boutique.

        The boutique's top spire had collapsed in on itself, and from the resulting implosion there lay a scattered ring of debris around the cylindrical clothing shop.  Both mahogany pony figures that had once graced the third story of the structure were miraculously intact; only now they were lying flank-deep in the snow by the building's foundation, several icicles hanging off their lifeless snouts as their wooden hooves struggled endlessly with decades' worth of piling ash.

        The mare took a deep breath.  Turning away from the building of former extravagance, she padded across a powdery wind-blown field towards the heart of Ponyville.  On either side of her, long-collapsed tents and storage huts lingered in the frosted mire, their canvass bodies forever flapping in the wind like war flags left behind a hasty retreat.

        In mid trot, the pegasus briefly raised a hoof to her goggles and refocused the lenses to a specific tint in order to highlight any hue of green that might show up across the barren landscape.  Part of her felt immensely silly; she had rarely used that specific lens setting before, and many times she wondered why she even bothered to possess it.  In the world of the Equestrian Wastes, the only green thing was the greed that bled out of the eyes of sky pirates and swindlers.  The only time she ever saw plants was in the miraculous cargo that Bruce somehow scrounged up from time to time.  In nature, the last time she saw vegetation was the first week immediately following the Cataclysm, and it all turned to the color of her coat faster than she could comprehend starving without it.

        Green flame, on the other hoof, was a whole different matter.  She knew that it existed, along with all of the other elemental fires that dotted the Wasteland.  Acquiring it was no easy task, not so much because of the danger involved but the scarcity of finding it.  Even if it did exist anywhere in the Wastes with salvageable deposits, it would be a miracle if such a source hadn't been tapped into already by any and all of the mercantalist factions that spun their zeppelins under the twilight.  The reason Pitt was willing to pay so much for it—she knew—was that even the tiniest fume of green flame would put the mangy baboon ahead of the pack when it came to economic competition.  Some things in the ruined world were actually capable of turning murder and bribery into a work of art, so long as the treasure was valued highly enough.  The one consolation the pony gave herself—aside from the incalculably grand score it would be to land herself some green flame—was the fact that she wouldn't have to be slaying or imprisoning anything to extract the substance this time.  In the history of Equestria, green flame was something akin to a magical essence, not a natural phenomenon.  So long as Canterlotlian magic existed, green flame did as well.  So when Pitt made it clear to her that green flame had been sighted—and in Ponyville of all places—it shook the ghosts in her attic twice as hard.

        She was prepared, doubly this time.  She wore two fresh bracelets of unicorn horns, one on each hoof.  If there was any green flame to be had in Ponyville, the magical bones tied to her limbs would find it, especially if her lenses failed her, which they very likely would.  The filly was prepared for a light, any light—be it from the horns or from the horizon—to alert her when she was near her goal.  Until then...

        Until then she had nothing but sacred ground to cover.  And with each hoofing step she took, she felt like she was driving a knife further down her own chest.  Gazing left and right, she shuddered to find the rows of houses doubling, tripling.  She knew that she was now deep into the thick of Ponyville, deep into the frosted mane of yesterday's shadow.  The wind settled suddenly in a calm gasp of irony, so that the bitter howling gave way to gently fluttering snow that punctuated the melancholy of the last pony's long delayed return to the land of her foaling—and dying.

        The pony softly pattered to a stop on the edge of Ponyville's former town square, now a scattered bed of random wooden shards sticking out of piled-high snow.  Bits and pieces of carts and wagons and merchant stands were splayed all around her, as if a vomit of petrified splinters had rained down from the sky.  She squinted her eyes through her goggles and made out what looked to be a bent metal arch.  Stepping slowly towards it, she realized it was the town's flagpole, a memorial established to the settling of the village by Earth Ponies twelve decades before the beginning of the Fourth Age.  At the base of the lewdly bent flagpole was a concrete slab, and in haunting legibility the pony could spot writing carved long ago into the dried surface with a haystalk: 'Faustmare and daughter'.  Alongside the cursive words of the village's founder were two hoofprints: that of an old mare, and a tiny mark belonging to a little foal.  The lone pegasus reached forward through the drifting snow, and instinctually placed her hoof over that of the foal's imprint first, quite visibly dwarfing it.  But that didn't induce her to sigh as much as when she next raised her hoof over the founding mare's imprint and found that her hoof was larger even still.

        Gulping, she shuddered to look up across the panoramic desolation of her former home, buried in time and ashes.  The post office had shattered in half, its eastern side crumbling and exposing a skeleton of ramshackled cabinets and billowing seas of papery scraps deep inside.  The town's central fountain with its life-sized statue of Princess Celestia had been bent savagely by age, so that the Royal Effigy leaned precariously towards the side, its perforated alicorn wings frozen in mildew and acidic deterioration.  Along a brick wall flanking a garden there fluttered a tattered poster featuring the ghosts of three goggled ponies garbed in blue, a discolored squadron of pegasi soaring impressionistically past their proud profiles.  The two-story bed and breakfast that sat, hunched and bowed, at the corner of main street still maintained an iconographic silhouette in the pony's mind.  She stared at it, up past it, and briefly blinked her eyes.  In that sharp blink, the sapphiric haze of Cloudsdale hovered in a sunny blue sky, just a nose's tilt above the roof of the inn and the lush trees waving gently beyond it.  Then the blink ended, and the northern sky was once more a gray madness, howling coldly over the frozen holocaust.

        A whining howl—like foals giggling;  the pegasus gasped sharply and flashed a look to her right.  A guild sign was hanging by one last rusted chain from the front entrance to a hollowed-out store.  The hinge upon which the sign dangled creaked and whined in the cold wind, piercing the pony's ears from afar.

        She exhaled long and hard, feeling a heartbeat ricochet up her armored chest and thrash against the sore lump in the scavenger's throat.  The filly paced her breaths, trying mentally to stitch herself back together.  She was here for the green flame, nothing more.  There was no point to this... to this lingering.  But as she padded down the abandoned alleyways and torn streets and shattered courtyards of her place of birth, her hooves slowed and slowed, as if the white fields she was wading across were really pools of ivory tar, weighing her down, forcing her to convulse and twitch until her neck craned about and fed her eyes more, more, more...

        The town library.  The tall and twisted tree was, miraculously, the most intact structure in the entirety of Ponyville.  In perfect irony, the only things devastated about the treehouse was everything pony-made about it.  The front door had long fallen off the thing.  The windows had been shattered.  The miniature observatory platform constructed at the apex of the tree had completely vanished.  The only thing in relatively good shape was a lower balcony ledge, now a gaggle of haphazardly angled planks struggling to stay aloft a widely stretching branch that stretched further than the pony remembered it.  It was almost as if the tree had still grown past the Cataclysm.  But no single leaf could be seen upon the gnarled burnt-black limbs of the thing.  And from a distant glance, the treehouse was about as hollow as the pony felt at that very moment of melancholic sightseeing.

        Sugarcube Corner.  Nestled in the thick of Ponyville, just north of downtown, was a jaded spectre of its former self.  All of the bright paint had been stripped from the building's siding, as if a giant hoof took a blow torch to the entire structure.  The ground beneath it was positively scorched, suggesting a horrible fire that had consumed the building, along with the rest of Equestria from the ground up.  The higher story windows had caved in, positively melted; and in place of shades of pink were instead brown fluffs of matter as several bits of tattered furniture leaked out from the second floor like a bursting bud of rusted cotton.

        The Toy Store.  The pony's heart started, for she had completely and utterly forgotten about the place up until that very naked moment of awestruck gazing.  Brief flashes of recollection pelted her mind, of a merry structure built into the absurd shape of a jester's cap with bright colors merrily criss-crossing the surface of the building.  It was now a tangled mess of exposed concrete and steel supports.  Trotting up close, the pegasus could spot a veritable sea of tin shrapnel, the remains of several hand-crafted wind-up toys that used to line the shelves of a musically enchanting store that toasted a young filly's coat as she once beat her infantile wings to get a bouncing look at the place's fantastic wares surrounding her.

        By the time another hour had passed, the pony found herself haplessly wandering the halls of collapsed hotels, navigating the run-down corridors of empty apartment buildings, shuffling through the gray-misted kitchens of darklit restaurants, infested with hives of pests and vermin.  She saw paintings, photographs, portraits of dead ponies from an Age forever gone.  And then, the very first moment those faces started to become familiar, she buckled under a sudden nausea and swiftly galloped her way back out into the blinding snow.

        Leaning against a collapsed wagon, its wheels still hauntingly spinning in the wind, the pony fought to catch her breath.  She knew that this was going to be an unpleasant sojourn, but the last pegasus in no way expected this degree of collapse, of the sensation of twenty-thousand atmospheres hammering into her lungs from all sides, of how torturously cold the world suddenly felt, even at sea level.  She was there in search of green flame—true—but unlike any other trip into the ruins of Equestria, she couldn't bring herself to pilfer anything, not even scavenging one speck of debris.  She could have sworn she strolled by a record disc or two in one of the apartments, but even that she refused to indulge herself in.  This was Ponyville; her saddlebags were empty.

        Glancing up from the wagon, the pony finally caught her breath, only to lose it again as she realized that she was no longer staring at Ponyville anymore.  The entire north side of the village, which should have been at least five blocks thick with buildings, was nowhere to be seen.  Trotting cautiously forward, the pegasus squinted through her goggles and glanced down past her hooves.  Indeed, as she discovered at the end of one last crumbling hoof-step, the landscape dipped down suddenly below the edge of a vicious drop.  The mist cleared momentarily in a harsh breeze of cold wasteland wind, revealing a gigantic ravine at least one hundred meters deep; and at the bottom of this inexplicable canyon was a splattering of demolished buildings that looked as if they had been thrown viciously straight into one another.

        The pony remembered, as she so often did, that the Cataclysm which consumed Equestria was not only a vanquisher of pegasi but of earth ponies and unicorns as well.  While Cloudsdale fell in crumbling chaos and ruin, the world buckled underhoof everyone else, so that whenever she swung the Harmony low enough to see the naked bosom of the Wastes she would occasionally stumble upon these terrestrial scars, these savage dips and breaks in the crust of the world.  And one such tremor had happened right there, in the heart of Ponyville, right under her nose.  There was no telling what the moonfalls did to the rest of the village that she had yet to see...

        But this wasn't bringing her anywhere.  She was losing her focus.  She lost her focus the moment she had set flight coordinates to these 'sacred grounds'.  What was worst—or perhaps best—was that she knew it.  Of all the unprofessional mistakes the last pony could possibly have made, coming to that nightmare afterimage of a life long gone was quite possibly her worst choice.  At that point, she told herself, actually spotting and getting green flame would be a consolation prize.  Walking out of Ponyville with her sanity would be the only true victory.

        With a hardened resolve, the mare turned completely around, her flank to the ravine, and trotted swiftly back in the direction from which she woefully came.  She would have made good distance between downtown Ponyville and the Harmony; only a bright strobe of light emanated suddenly from both of her hooves.  Gasping, she stopped in time to gape down at both of her front limbs.  The necklaces of horns were frothing with a fine purple mist, the brightest she had ever seen them glow in all her days of tomb raiding.  Something in Ponyville was emitting a magical surge so strong that almost every unicorn bone on the pegasus' articles overloaded at once.  The energy was of such intensity that twin ovals of snow melted beneath where her horseshoes had been planted.

        “What in the hay... ?” she obligatorily murmured.  “That can't be right!  The ravine must have ruptured and exposed a leyline--”

        Her exclamation was cut prematurely short at the sight of a winged shadow suddenly sweeping over the white snowbank within which she was stumbling.  A sharp gasp; she thrust her saddlebags forward, clasped her rifle while it was airborne, and extended it with a clak-a-clak and a glare.  Her goggled eyes scanned the snow-pelted horizon of Ponyville's ghostly buildings towards the south.  Squinting, she adjusted the lenses with one hoof while leaning against the rifle with her other.  Every possible shade and tint flickered across her gaze, bathing the Ponyvillean wastes in several different colors, until an aura appeared, faintly, then disappeared.  With a frustrated grunt, the mare all but tore her goggles off and blinked her naked scarlets at the source of the brief aura...

        The bold round structure of City Hall, the tallest building in Ponyville, stood straight before her.  It was amazingly intact, with only random sections of the uppermost stories crumbling off towards its west end.  Less than half of the windows were shattered, and the outer doors still hung perfectly in their frames.  With a steady breath, the pony lowered her goggles once more, keeping her eyes locked on the sight of the building.  She flicked one last time through the different lenses, and again she caught it, like a shadow of a hide-and-seeker peaking in and out from behind a huge tree stump.  An aura had faded from view, a green aura, and all was once again dull and clear, with City Hall at the epicenter of the passing phenomenon.

        The pony's brow furrowed.  In direct opposition with her throbbing pulse, she padded bravely forward, her rifle slung over her shoulder.  She shuffled up to the front steps of the City Hall building, stopping briefly to gaze from its dilapidated outer railings up to its grand height of half-shingled overhangs and peeling paint.  If there was a source of green flame inside this structure, she could detect no hint from that proximity.  But in the graveyard of a city where she didn't want to be, she didn't know any other place to go.  So, with a grunt of determination, she marched up to the double doors, protruded a golden blade from her left horseshoe, and pried into the space between the hinges, pulling with all of her might.

        After a strain, the doors flung open into a chasm of darkness.  Ash and dust scattered like a curtain, briefly blanketing her goggles.  She wiped them clean with the side of her hoof, glanced inside—and immediately wished she hadn't.  A painful wince ripped across the pony's features as she wrenched her gaze groundward.  A few shuddering breaths, and she bravely looked ahead, trotting forward as she approached a veritable heap of dead bodies—skeletons and husks and grainy piles of former Ponyvilleans, stretched across the floor like a necropolitan carpet.  She had seen sights like this in so many ruined cities: the Temple of the Sun in Stalliongrad, the University at Fillydelphia, even some of the fallen structures of Clousdale.  Dozens if not hundreds of ponies had run for cover under the roof of a large interior building where their remains would be petrified en masse by the blast wave of the Cataclysm.  But every one of those sights were mere curiosities, things to glance upon and then unemotionally rummage through for resources.  None of those sights, however grim, viciously gutted her—none like this.

        The air was filled with a perpetually sterile rust, and yet as she marched deeper into the cornacopia of bodies, so many haunting scents came to her, riding the flanks of hundreds of cheerfully giggling voices in the vestiges of her mind, recalling ponies going about their business in the warm afternoon breeze, of foals playing games with each other along the beaten path, of loved ones nuzzling in the park and families picnicking on the hillsides.  Against her better judgment, the pony found herself gazing down at the forms, her heart pulsing sharply with each successive body she glanced at, possibly seeing or possibly not seeing one tell-tale hint after another of somepony or something that she would recognize:  a hairbow, a lock of sapphires, a cowgirl hat, a mailbag, party streamers, or anything whatsoever.  None of these appeared to her, but the filly was too miserable to be relieved.  If anything, she felt a pang of shame wash over her because of her anticipation.

        There were several unicorn skeletons amongst the pile, more than she had ever expected for the likes of Ponyville.  In the cold pale light wafting into the dark cavern of the Town Hall, several fresh horns glinted before her goggled gaze.  She knew that the magical channeling of her two bracelets had almost entirely worn out, but she couldn't goad herself into sawing off new horns, not this time.  She trotted into the center of the room, above a peculiar pair of skeletons.  The body of a middle-aged pegasus—its skull still splotched with a faded mat of blonde straws—was cradling the husk of a tiny unicorn filly, barely past its foal years.  It had been so long since the lone survivor first began exploring the graveyards of Equestria, but it never ceased to amaze her how the landscape still provided snapshots of the Cataclysmic Horror.

        Gazing up, the pony stared into the tall stretching shadows of the Town Hall building, its balconies and upper floors reaching at least a dozen meters high.  She remembered another moment with another Horror: when Nightmare Moon returned to this very spot, promising an Age of endless night.  She remembered seeing the event with her naked eyes, and how her tiny body trembled upon the echoing cackles of the unholy harbinger of doom.  And yet it was a brief horror, an event that was resolved by the Elements of Harmony within the space of a day.  If there was a lesson in life that the last pony could etch into the annals of irony, it's that the true apocalypse is always, always unannounced.  Nopony could have foreseen the endless twilight, and in a matter of time nopony would ever know it happened.

        She sighed heavily.  All that the Town Hall building offered was memories and darkness.  There was no green flame.  Ever exact, the pegasus nevertheless reached a hoof up to her goggles and re-scanned the shadowy interior.  She looked for all possible flickering shades of her elusive target.  From the ceiling beams down to the floorboards and the platforms in between, she gazed at everything, but found nothing.  She was just about to turn and leave with a disgruntled breath when a rustling noise pricked her ear from the side.

        Jerking to her left, she blinked at a pile of bodies along the wall.  Everything was still, and then the rustling resurfaced.  Cautiously, the filly trotted towards the shadowy corner.  The rustling stopped, but there was definitely something ahoof.  The last pony's sight zeroed in on one skeleton in particular, an earth pony of elder years—judging from the brittle bone structure.  Aside from the usual ash and skin flakes, the skeleton was sporting what turned out to be a pair of eyeglasses and a faded white collar with a tattered green ascot.  Before she could reflect on the finer details of this corpse, the pegasus narrowed her goggled eyes and bent low to inspect it closer.

        The skull jumped out at her, and in place of its jaws was a foaming mouth brimming with razor sharp teeth.  A grand snarling, and a black creature exploded from beneath the skeleton and chomped its maw straight at the pegasus' unguarded figure.  By sheer reflexes alone, the last pony managed to jerk her body to the side, so that the teeth of the pouncing creature shredded its way into her goggles and not into her flesh.  The filly slid back, yanking her neck so as to uncoil herself from the goggles that were now in an inky shadow's claws.  She gazed with bright scarlet eyes as the four-legged cretin thrashed the article in its jaws, crunched them solidly, and hissed towards her.

        A troll.  She gnashed her teeth and reached back towards her rifle, only to experience a thick leathery weight diving into her from behind.  Several clawed limbs stabbed and groped at her.  In a gasp, she bucked and kicked the thing off into a crashing pile of splinters.  She spun a sweating face over her flank and saw three more shadows darting out from hiding and charging straight at her across the carpet of bodies.

        Trolls.  She yanked her neck down, grabbed the first legbone she could find in her teeth, and unceremoniously flung the entire half of a molding corpse at the advancing trio.  They collapsed in a pile of bones and soot as another scream filled the air behind the pegasus.  She blindly somersaulted in time to avoid the pounce of another attacker.  Rolling into the edge of the City Hall's front pulpit, she unsheathed her rifle and took aim, only to be staring down the sight at no less than four dozen trolls bursting darkly out of the woodwork, hissing and slithering hungrily towards their lonesome prey.

        An ambush.  They had waited for her.  In an age without ponies, they took claim of the homeliest village in Equestria and turned it into a death trap.  The earth belonged to the trolls, and Town Hall was their biggest snare.

        “By Celestia's mane, I've been gone for too long.”  Snarling, she breathed into the glowing runestones and cocked the weapon.  “H'rhnum!”  The first manabullet sailed into the chest of one of the advancing trolls.  As the one inky creature's body fell down with a splat, its uncountable rows of brethren scampered forward at full speed, claws raking the floor.  She barely got a second shot out when they were leaping upon her, beady eyes forming murderous starlight against the canvass of their leather black flesh.  She kicked up to two hooves and waved the butt of her rifle out, smacking two of the attackers with one throw.  Three more clamped their jaws over and wrestled with the brass body of the rifle.  The pony struggled and wrestled with them before hissing into the festering pile of sweat:  “H'rhnum!”  The rifle fired directly into the mouth of one of the creatures.  Warm musky liquid splashed through the shadowy air.  The pegasus roared and kicked back against the pulpit, shoving her entire weight through the rifle and plowing her way through a pile of shrieking and flailing bodies.

        She was crawling pathetically back to her hooves, her panicked eyes spotting the gray rectangular silhouette of the door.  Her entire mind and body were now pressed on escape.  But as soon as she started galloping over the bodies, something came down from the ceiling and impaled her.  The last pony screamed.  Her body throbbed under the most intense agony she had experienced in years.  A glint of twilight; and she snarled to see a troll squatting on top of her, having driven a meter-long beam of steel straight into the brown flesh just beneath her left wing.

        The hissing creature snarled and twisted its grip on the 'spear' for added torture.  Howling, the pegasus angrily leaped to the side, throwing the creature off so that it fell through a suffocating banner of tattered velvet.  She tried galloping away, but the impalement screamed into her flesh, melting her wings and legs into putty.  She groaned and slithered—one knee after another—towards the doorway, her breath coming out in awkward squeaks.

        Then the clawprints behind her increased to a deafening degree.  She spun to see four sets of glinting sharp teeth.  The trolls were dogpiling on her—impaled spear and all.  She thrashed and kicked and fought through waves of numbing agony to buck them off.  Only after four or five blinks of adrenalized horror did she realize that she was successful, and on ghostly limbs she summoned the strength to get back up and bolt out the door.

        The dull light of the snowy wasteland was like a cosmic blast.  Without her goggles, her twitching eyes had to deal with blinding snow and salty ash pelting her from all angles.  She didn't bother looking where she was going—so long as she was gone, limping at the fastest possible canter, putting as much distance between her and the Town Hall death trap behind.  Just as her breaths grew to their most ragged wheezes yet, she fell flat on her face, exploding through a snowbank as the intense burning of her torn flesh returned to her in a muffled scream.  Wincing, she glanced towards her left, eyes twitching over the glint of the metal beam lodged under her wing.  She heard the slobbering howls of the murderous trolls; she felt the powdery earth vibrating from their incoming stampede.  She had no time to hesitate.  Eyes shedding snowflake tears, she yanked her jaw back and clamped her teeth over the stalk of the beam.  After a few concentrated grunts under her throat, she pulled and pulled and yanked until the invasive object was ripped out from her coat, revealing to her dazed eyes a trail of crimson leaking through the white earth behind her... and then an inbound figure charging on four clawed legs.

        A muffled scream, and the filly rolled over onto her throbbing backside, spat out the beam, and lifted it with her front-hooves to take the charge of the first troll head-on.  The creature lurched, its eyes bulging as the beam found its way into its throat and came out through the top of its skull.  No sooner was this horrifying image burned into the filly's retinae; then two more bodies were upon her, snarling and whooping and snapping at any limb that presented itself.  She panted, and struggled, and kicked at her attackers before finally offsetting one's balance with her right wing outstretched, biting its front paw, and flinging it into the other.  Once they were tossed aside, she rolled back onto her hooves, literally bled into a full gallop, ascended the top of a snowbank, and leaped high, stretching out both wings.  She shrieked in mid-air, and fell stupidly back to the earth.  The pony whimpered; her left wing was on fire.  She could feel the blood pumping out of it, draining her, pinning her helplessly to the breast of the cold wasteland.

        She couldn't fly.  Gasping and wincing, she limped back up to her feet and stared ahead through the blinding mist.  The bulbous copper body of the Harmony lingered ahead, like a phantom in the fog, at the top of a hill that suddenly seemed pathetically impossible for any sane pony to scale.  She crawled and hobbled towards it, wheezing for breath, her leather armor feeling like lead weights that squeezed more and more of the blood out from her, forming a scarlet trail that even the dumbest troll could track.  The creatures' ravenous cries echoed like banshees, filling the barren alleyways and courtyards of Ponyville with a grim chorus of bedlam as they gained the distance and closed in behind her.

        “Stupid stupid stupid!”  She choked back sobs and gnashed her teeth with each limping bound.  “Should never have come!  Should never—”  Her voice was silenced when her face was suddenly shoved into a half-meter of powdery snow.  She felt a leather body pressed down on top of her.  The attacker's weight shifted, and the pony took a chanced and dashed her neck directly to the right.  The snow next to her face exploded as the jaws of the pouncing troll missed her by a few millimeters.  She twisted her face, bit into his ear, and—with the awful sound of snapping cartilage—flung his entire weight by it and off of her.  She rolled sideways in time to dodge another pounce, jumped to her hooves, rear-kicked the first body she could find and bucked away another, only to have two more from the impossibly large pack of monsters grab her by the legs.

        Synapses fired like they had never fired before in her mind.  The first thought was a realization that she had dropped her rifle several oozing seconds back at the Town Hall when she was stabbed.  The next thought was that she wasn't entirely defenseless.  Hooking her hooves with the attackers' limbs in order to offset their balance, she took the moment to reach back into her saddlebag and grab her second magazine of runestones.  Clamping them in her teeth, she roared mightily from beneath her ruptured gut and flung the entire purple-glowing ensemble behind her head, and as she did so she screamed mightily skyward:  “M'wynhrm!”

        The magazine flew directly into the meatwall of leather bodies, and as it did so the magical command caused the entirety of the runes to flicker, dim, then explode as one.  Bodies and shrapnel went flying under an explosion of white ash, and as the blast wave reached the pony's form she lunged mightily out from the grasp of her attackers.  Spreading both pained wings out, she rode the hot current of air and flew for a heart-stopping five seconds, only to slam hard into the crumbling face of central Ponyville's water fountain.

        “Unngh!”  She slumped down to her hooves, only to find that her two front legs were on fire.  The magic in the bracelets had overloaded and the horns had literally burst into flame.  Shrieking, the filly bravely flung the two articles off her steaming hooves.  She struggled on shaking legs to stand up, and at the sound of several whooping voices she looked up and paled to realize that she was surrounded.  The entire village's worth of ambushing trolls had formed a solid wall around the circumference of the fountain, and were slowly and menacingly closing in from all sides of the pegasus.

        Her left wing was a quivering mess.  Even if she could take to the skies right then and there, she might never fly again, and that would spell doom for whatever short life she intended to live in the twilight of the Equestrian Wastes.  But this was her home town, her place of birth, her only place of significance in a dead and lonely kingdom, and she was not about to let her existence end there under the fangs of these leathery freaks of the underworld.

        Frowning, she gazed up from the shrinking circle of foes.  With a hissing breath, she climbed up the alicorn statue, her body leaking red all over the stone wings of Princess Celestia.  With her teeth, she clasped onto the weathered horn and pulled... pulled... pulled.  With a snap, the alicorn's spike broke clear from its crown, and the pegasus hung off the Princess' effigy while raising the razor-sharp horn high and proud in her grasp.

        “You want the last horse flesh in all Equestria?  Huh?  Do ya?”  She shouted and spat blood at the surrounding creatures, her eyes aflame with scarlet fury.  “Come and get it!”

        They leered and hissed at her.  Smiling fangs and lashing teeth.  Beady eyes and snow-raking claws.  They clamored up towards the edges of the fountain, skittering and snickering and leaping towards her.

        “Come on!!!” She roared and raised the horn bloodily to strike...

        Then, straight from the zenith, a scaled foot the size of a tree trunk flattened four of the beasts in a blink.  Pulp and teeth clattered across the exposed cobblestone of the courtyard as a monstrous thunder resounded from the blow.  The pegasus gasped.  The trolls turned and shrieked as yet another foot—immaculate claws glistening—roared its way down and reduced several more leathery bodies to paste.

        The pony looked up, her eyes twitching at the sight of a hulking form blotting out the twilight.  From the dangling mists above, a thick armored torso bowed and a long neck hovered low to reveal a rigid jaw structure, titanium-solid crests that glistened from beyond the shadows, two slitted emerald eyes, and a pair of nostrils brimming with smoke.

        “Oh Goddess...” the last pony murmured.  “A dragon.”

        The aptly labeled monstrosity roared, rattling the buildings of ruined Ponyville off their hinges as the great winged beast reared up on its hind quarters, spun about, and flung its mighty lashing tail through the entire length of the courtyard.  The bodies of trolls went flying, shrieking, before they were clasped mercilessly in midair by draconian claws and flung earthward like shattered pebbles.  The leathery bodies ran and clamored each way, only to be pummeled and knocked aside one by one from the muscular limbs of the thrashing creature.

        The pony panicked.  Her bleeding flank was now an afterthought as she leaped off the fountain and ran for her life.  Trolls dashed left and right in front of her, being pounded and knocked aside by the fitful wrath of the sudden dragon.  The pegasus veered in a serpentine fashion, begging that her agile maneuvers could somehow save her from the menacing creature's mighty limbs.  To her utter shock and beating heart, she made it far enough to escape into the side alleyways of Ponyville.  With childish fright, she glanced behind her in time to see the dragon squat down beneath the mists, spread its leathery wings outwards, and spout forth a great plume of billowing flame—green flame—across the lengths of Town Square, roasting several of the squealing trolls in one horrendous breath.

        Looking ahead, the galloping pony cursed under her breath.  “Green flame!”  she hissed.  “Of course!  When it's not elementally occurring in Equestria, Green Flame comes from the organs of several species of dragons—Idiot!”  She barely had time to snap at herself when the air around her burst with gail winds, searing hot winds.  She looked up, and once again her scampering form was briefly covered by the darkening shadow of beating wings.  “Oh n-no...” she squeaked forth in foalish fright.

        Several hissing noises.  She glanced down and skidded to a powdery stop as she found her alleyway blocked by a line of razor-fanged trolls.  They leered at her and made to leap when—fatefully—the winged shadow swallowed up the entire alleyway, and four legs of iron-thick scales landed in the midst of them, smashing two rows of buildings into rubble.  The trolls collapsed in a blood-curdling pile of debris as the dragon lowered its sulfuric maw and finished off the last few screeching imps.  After the violence settled, the creature angled its draconian maw towards the young mare with a strong gust of exhaled smoke.

        She didn't dare look the noble monster directly in the eye.  She flung herself to the right and immediately burst into a run-down apartment building.  Panting and bleeding, she clamored over furniture and chairs and cabinets as the entire structure rattled around her with the rampaging footsteps from the dragon outside.  It was baiting her, keeping up with her, looming just beyond the rattling window panes.  It was a smart thing, and her life was in its hands—unless she moved, and she moved now.

        Shrieking, she burst out of a door and ran across a garden overrun with snow and thorn bushes.  Limping through several brambles, she stampeded her bleeding way through the kitchen door of a tiny cottage just as the dragon's footsteps smashed into the yard behind her.  With half of the building's foyer collapsed with clumps of debris, she numbly propelled herself up a stairway and bounded down a long hall upon the second floor. She was halfway towards the far side when a window right in front of her smashed open; a giant scaled hand reached in, grabbing for her.  The claws were retracted and the palm delicately felt around for any sign of the pony.  The last pegasus paid these details little heed, bounding over the hand and bolting towards a window on the far side which she promptly cannonballed her body through.

        With a shower of glass, the pony landed in the middle of Main Street, rolled forwards, and limped onto her hooves once again, just as the earth shook with the utter demolishing of the cottage behind her.  The dragon marched effortlessly through the building and stomped steadily, patiently, after the flightless pegasus, its four limbs sending great tremors through the bowels of Ponyville for the first time since the Cataclysm.

        The pegasus limped and crawled away from the creature with all her might.  As her scarlet eyes searched in vain for the sight of the Harmony, her heart sank under the numbing reality of her situation.  There was no way out of this.  This was a dragon chasing her.  She was dead—as good as dead; it would be a horribly bitter lesson learned for the inane stupidity and impulsiveness that brought her to those coordinates in the first place.  But as long as there was blood left in her coursing veins, she outran her destiny and bolted straight towards a ghostly familiar three-story building looming directly in sight.

        “Nnngh!”  She grunted as she rammed hard into the front door of Sugarcube Corner.  The frame barely budged.  The world shook and screamed as the dragon stormed on top of her.  “C-Come on!” she howled and shoved again; the doorframe gave way and she barreled inside, tumbling into a bloody heap against a shattered stand of petrified crumbs and bread flakes.  Waterlogged wooden architecture in the shape of candied sweets bowed on either side of the last pony as she shuffled towards the far corner on her knees, hyperventilating.  Then—in mid crawl—she froze, her scarlet eyes blinking under a matted coat of frost and bulbous sweat.  The rumbling had stopped.  The thunder was replaced with a deathly silence.  The dragon was nowhere to be found.  Had it gone away... ?

        A vicious tear; Cold gray twilight billowed into the room as a good half of the Sugarcube Corner's rooftop was literally torn from its foundation.  The filly gasped and covered her armored self as flakes of ash and splinters rained down on her.  She looked up—twitching—to see the iron claws of the dragon pulling the walls apart as its razor-sharp snout gazed down at her.  Smoke, glistening emerald eyes; and the dragon lowered its maw.

        The girl stifled a sob and flung her wing muscles outward in one last attempt to fly.  Her left feathers tore on their sockets, sending waves of paralyzing agony through her.  She reared up on her hooves, only to fall over pathetically and curl up against the corner, shivering and scrunching away from the reach of the leering dragon.  She wasn't ready for this—Wasn't ready for this utter failure that her life had become.  It wasn't supposed to end this way.  Not like this.  The legacy of ponydom, the last blossoming soul of Equestria, all of the Celestial Family's history and accomplishments; it was about to be snuffed away in the strangling jaws of draconian happenstance.  It was all her fault, and she shuddered and sputtered forth the most pitiable of voices, begging.  She begged:

        “Please.  Pl-Please don't do this!” the last pony sobbed through her last sweat and drops of blood.  “Have mercy!  You don't know what I am—What my life means!  I beg you; I'll do anything!  My fortune, my airship, my runestones—They'll all be yours if you just... let me live... please--!”

        The dragon paid no heed.  With a vicious slam, his left  hand clamped over her twitching body, pressing her against the tile floor of the Sugarcube Corner like a vice.  She gasped and struggled against his claws, watching in confused horror as he grasped a vial suddenly in his other hand, popped it open, and shook the jar over her.  In a sudden deluge, the pony was covered from tail to snout in a fine ivory dust, like soot from the bottom of a crematorium.

        She coughed and sputtered through the mess with horrified eyes.  “Wh-What are you doing--?”  She then buckled under his gaze as his jaws came down to encompass her.  “No....”

        His mouth opened, and the room's temperature increased as vaporous gases began expelling from deep within his glowing throat.

        “No no no no no--!”

        Green flame erupted, out over his tongue, through the gaps in his unbreakable teeth, and enveloped her.

        The last pony screamed.  The last pony burned.  Through billowing waves of emerald plasma, she felt her skin melt away and her bones dissolving with it.  But then something happened in the death-blink of utter howling that she did not expect; the pain underneath her left wing disappeared as well.  All pain disappeared.  A numbness cascaded over her limbs and she was surprised to blink and see a grand, winding tunnel of jade hues, dancing and vibrating like a birth canal stretching into infinity.  The only sensation was that of a centripetal force pulling at her extremities, like she was being flung backwards at impossible speeds along the tongues of emerald ashes.  The world was a rubber band, stretching and buckling at a fever pitch from beyond the forested miasma of flickering lights; and just as quickly as the whole confusing kaleidoscope began, it ended with a jolt.  The pegasus' body was flung towards the earth core at a million kilometers an hour, and yet she was lying perfectly still.  Under clenched eyelids she heard the miraculous sound of her heartbeat... alive and well.

        The first thing the pony felt was the warmth.  Soft, oozing, real warmth.  It kissed her from all sides, gently softening her already moist coat as she murmured into a forest of springy blades and stirred from where she sat.  A pair of eyes opened—groggily—and flashed a thousand reflections off shiny bulbs of dew strewn across a sea of harvest green grass.  Something fluttered across her peripherals.  She blinked wearily at it, then widened her eyes to regard a dangling insect of black and gold wings—petal soft—settling onto her nose, beating its plumage softly, then fluttering off into the golden aura beyond.  The pegasus marveled at the thing, until the dark recesses of her mind finally recollected the appropriate name for it: 'butterfly'.

        A chorus of happily mewling voices pricked at her ears.  She gazed across the forest of dew-laden grass as several bounding forms came into focus: with glistening bright coats and pastel colored manes, bright eyes and giggling wide mouths, hooves trotting gaily and tails a-swishing in a toasty warm breeze.  Ponies.  Dozens of tiny, bounding, laughing, living ponies.  They were foals, barely past the age of cutie marks, and they were chasing each other and cavorting, playing games in an open field that bordered a playground full of swingsets, slides, and climbing bars.  A scarlet red schoolhouse stood in the distance, and as the breathless pegasus tilted her snout up--

        She was blinded.  She exhaled sharply and shaded her eyes with an outstretched hoof.  She was ever so briefly stunned by the queer sensation of a long flowing mane billowing from her scalp—but she ignored it, instead sitting up on wobbly hunches to gaze dumbstruck at the horizon before her.  The twilight was gone, the fog was gone, the ash and snow had all vanished.  And there, in its burning glory, climbing majestically skyward, was a Sun.  The Sun.  Celestia's gift of life to all of Equestria.

        Equestria... with its brilliant white mountains cascading into a glittering lake of pure sapphiric blue that shimmered in the Sunrise.  Mist hovered gently over the placid waters at a meter's length, as flocks of geese cruised overhead and a random fish or two plopped playfully out of the mirroring surface.  The sky was a golden haze of crisp platinum hues, all melting together and forming a sheen of vanilla richness that breathed life into the throbbing, glistening world.

        The pegasus' lips quivered.  Her heart started as she heard a shrill bell ringing.  She tilted her gaze away from the blissful sunlight as she watched a fuchsia-haired mare sashay out of the entrance of the school, smiling and chirping pleasantly towards all of the foals gathered in the yard.  “Alright, students!  Time for class!  Hurry on, now!  There'll be plenty of time for play at recess!”

        “Ms. Cheerilee ...” the pegasus exhaled before she could stop the strange voice coming out of her.  She watched as the giggling children all lined up—tail to snout—forming a single file of bouncy souls that scampered joyfully into the rich atrium of the school building.  “Snails ... Silver Spoon ... Snips ... Twist ...”  Her eyes narrowed, and then a breath sharply escaped her shuddering jaw.  “...Apple Bl-Bloom?”

        Something sparkled in her eyes.  She looked up, and all of the years of nightmares left her in a single jolt.  The mist over the waters had cleared, evaporating into the crystal blue sky from the rising Sun's rays, and there, arched from the purple mountain tops to the rows upon rows of crisp emerald forests beyond, was a beautiful rainbow, lighting the golden morning hour with every color of the spectrum, reflecting off the lake's waters in prismatic glory.

        The pegasus hiccuped, her hooves covering her face as every feature she had melted into a tearful sob.  Between each sharp breath, her muscles forged a deeper and deeper smile, crackling around the edges as every bit of weight ever stacked on her shoulders shattered through her skin in an instant.  “Oh Goddess... Oh Goddess alive, it's so real.  I can't believe I forgot... I forgot how beautiful...”  She shuddered, sniffled, and ran her hooves through her flowing mane as her eyes remained locked on the rainbow, the wind blowing the Sun's kiss over her trembling body once more.  “It's real.  It is real.  Oh thank Celestia above... Thank—”

        Just then, everything flickered.  The playground buckled, the schoolhouse spread under a ripple of distorted light, and the cascading mountains peeled away, along with the glistening waters.  Finally, the rainbow itself shattered as bright green flames burned through the entire landscape—from horizon to sky—with the sizzling fury of a melting photograph in front of her.

        She gasped, her brimming eyes wide and ghostly.  “N-No...”  Then the erupting world burst through her as the fingers of emerald flame cradled her once more and throttled her forward along the dancing tunnel of green tongues.  “Nnnnngh--!”  Her mane disappeared, her coat bled, and a torturous pain knifed its way back into the muscles beneath her left wing as she was flung once again onto the cold ash-laden floor of Sugarcube corner.  “--NO!!!”  She slumped down onto the ground, twitching and hyperventilating, as the gray haze of the world snowed in everywhere from the dead Wastes of Ponyville.

        For what felt like an eternity, her pain-wracked body convulsed against the frigid tile, as every ounce of warmth that had ever so briefly kissed her body sunk away with each choked sob.  As she curled up into a fetal position, a gentle limb of purple scales reached down and stroked her, then palmed the stab wound under her wing.  A deep murmuring voice, and a cloud of green smoke billowed down and covered the injury.  An enchanted fume filled the room, and suddenly the knifing pain in the pegasus' flank dissipated.

        Shivering, she opened her eyes and gazed forlornly at her left wing.  She blinked in disbelief to see the wound slowly and magically closing up on its own, leaving dried blood and a pure brown coat in its wake.  The pegasus' breath slowed as her senses attempted to process all that was going on, and then a rumbling voice from above thunderously reminded her that she was not alone:

        “It's been a long time since you've been... home, hasn't it?

        The filly gasped.  Taking advantage of the healed wound, she leaped back onto all fours and looked up.  She immediately shrunk back, trembling from the towering sight of the dragon.  But before she could think of any way to escape, the hulking beast lowered its snout gently, revealing purple scales in the dim twilight, and a violet pendant hanging from a gold chain around his neck.  Green crests shook as his heavy bass voice drifted warmly into the hollow of the room.

        “Then again, did you ever really allow yourself a home to begin with?”

        She gulped and murmured confusedly towards the noble creature “Wh-What...?”

        The dragon cocked his iron head to the side and spoke knowingly, “It's time that you stopped running, Scootaloo.”

        The last pony gasped, her scarlet eyes wide and moist.  Her jaw hung in disbelief as she gazed over the length of the dragon's hulking presence and shuddered:  “What... Wh-What did you just call...?”

        His jaws locked into a soft grin; his razor sharp teeth were suddenly harmless and friendly.  “Simply a name, a piece of time forgotten, something that makes us both real, that makes us old friends, nothing less.”

        Her eyes darted back and forth.  Her wings wilted as a pitiable warmth washed up to her cheeks.  She gazed up at him and murmured:  “Sp-Spike?

        Smoke billowed from the purple dragon's nostrils as he raised a gentlemanly hand to his torso and half-bowed.  “Your ever-handsome devil, in the flesh.”

        She gulped.  Trembling, she made a few meager trots towards him, her neck tilted up to take in his impossible height.  She planted a hoof against his front hand, which was twice the size of her meager form.  The moment one of his claws welcomingly folded over her grip, she lost all composure.  Eyes brimming with tears, she tossed herself forward and hugged his chest, her lonesome body wracked with sobs as she buried her face into his warm scales.  He knelt down and wrapped his tail around, engulfing the two of them gently about her collapsing figure as his other hand stroked the small of her shaved mane.

        Her voice came out in indecipherable words beneath a cascade of much belated wailing.  She shook her face against him, struggling to smile as her tears coated his scales with a glistening purple shine.  “I never stopped hoping—I never... never never never...” She broke down once more, overcome with hiccuping convulsions.

        The elder dragon nudged her gently with the green crest of his chin and hummed:  “And your presence here is a testament to that, Scootaloo.  Be at ease.”

        For several minutes, they huddled together, in the gnarled sarcophagus of yesterday's memories, christened with the ashes of all their long dead friends.  After a heavenly blissful release, she sniffled, wiped her face with a foreleg, and gazed up in numbed amazement.  “But h-how...? Wh-Where was I?  Where did you just send me?”

        Spike's emerald eyeslits softly reflected her.  “To the past, child.”

        Her face curved in disbelief.  “To the past?”

        “Yes.”

        “But...”  Scootaloo gazed out into the snow-drenched ruins of Ponyville beyond.  Her moist eyes tried in vain to recreate the sunrise and rainbow that still burned blissfully at the edges of her soul.  “I-I don't understand.”

        “You will,” he smiled and patted her lovingly.  “You will.”  Uncoiling his tail and taking a bold step out of the hovel of Sugarcube Corner, Spike effortlessly lifted the breathless pegasus onto his back and spread his wings wide.  “Come with me, my little pony, and I shall give you healing.”


The End of Ponies – by short skirts and explosions

Chapter Five – Immutable

        It was a winter's night, or maybe a spring evening.  There were several nameless ponies gathered at the top of a hill under purple starlight.  Word had spread through town about a natural lightshow—an amazing meteor shower of sorts.  But Scootaloo could care less.  All that mattered was one pony and one pony alone.

        “Wow, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash smirked between bites of an apple picked up from a picnic spread.  “You're lucky to have such a rad assistant.  I wish I had someone to do whatever I told them.”

        It was right there and then that the orange foal strolled up, and at the sound of the blue pegasus' exclamation, the little filly ecstatically jump in place.  “Oh!  Oh!  Me!  Me!  Me!” she smiled warmly.  “I'll do whatever you want, Rainbow Dash!”

        “Oh yeah, pipsqueak?” the prismatically maned pony smirked the kid's way.  “How about taking out the trash?”  She tossed an apple core onto the grass.

        Scootaloo scooped it up gently as if it were made of gold.  “Yes, ma'am!”  She flurried over to a garbage can on the very edge of the park and hurriedly rejoined the party.

        Minutes bled into an hour as Scootaloo hummed pleasantly in the shadow of Rainbow Dash.  A hushed murmur hung over the crowd of Ponyvillean stargazers as the meteor shower began, lighting up the purple night with gentle pinstreaks of white and gold.  Conversations drifted back and forth, wavering from Twilight Sparkle's expert recital of trivial astronomical facts to Lady Rarity's sudden inspirations for 'star-studded' pageant-wear.  The only thing Scootaloo listened to in earnest was a certain pegasus' fanatical ponderings on the latest Wonderbolts airshow.

        When the orange foal attempted joining the conversation, she was inevitably drowned out.  But she didn't mind, so long as she was seated within the blue aura of the pony whose wings dwarfed her own.  With a deep inhale, she was only vaguely aware of a petite purple shape crawling over to a nearby picnic basket, curling his exhausted scaled self into the hollow of an empty punch bowl...

        And sleeping like an infant.


        “Reverse-time,” a ten meter tall Spike explained.  “It's the means by which I can send things into the past.  It's how I was able to transport you back to Ms. Cheerilee's schoolhouse.  And it is also the sole reason for all of my years of bold experimentation, deep introspection, and loneliness.  Until now.”  His snout melted forth a smile.  “Welcome, Scootaloo, to my laboratory.”

        The last pony's ears heard the elder dragon's words, but her eyes were still exploring the mesmerizing sights around her.  She rested, mending, on a granite laboratory besides the grown dragon in the belly of a cavernous hovel.  Under the gnarled roots of the late Twilight Sparkle's treehouse library, the basement had been expanded enormously into a subterranean dragon's roost.  Above a sparkling array of multi-colored gemstones was an elaborate assortment of alchemy tables, shelves upon shelves of  magical ingredients in glass jars, sparkling crystal balls, electrified tesla coils, elaborate brass-constructed rotating models of the Equestrian solar system, and then a rhythmic howbeit noisy assortment of dozens upon dozens of clocks—clocks of all shapes and sizes, of various copper instruments clicking and clanking and spinning with infinitely complex precision across the sparkling lengths of the cave.  A deep purple haze twinkled throughout the earthen interior beneath the heart of Ponyville, breathing a resurrected spirit of Equestrian sorcery into the air, making the wide-eyed pegasus' heart leap for the millionth time that eventful afternoon.

        “When the Cataclysm befell Equestria, I was a tiny dragon whelp, hardly possessing any more years than the foal that you once were, old friend.” The purple-scaled elder was applying the last of several bandages across Scootaloo's left side, patching the parts of her brown coat that were still sore, even after Spike's miraculous healing inside Sugarcube Corner.  “Just like you, I had to deal with a world deprived of everything and everypony I had ever loved.  Ponyville was a wasteland.  Canterlot was a ghost town.  Princess Celestia and Princess Luna fell into the same oblivion as did their Sun and Moon.  I was alone.  I needed help, I needed guidance, I needed wisdom; but when I cried out her name, drowning in the nubile fits of infinite sorrow, I heard no response.  My beloved mentor Twilight Sparkle was dead.”

        At the end of his last exhalation, a green fume wafted through the subterranean hideout.  Spike's emerald eyeslits faded slightly as a twirling violet pendant reflected the manalight that shimmered off of the hundreds upon hundreds of salvaged clockfaces.  The cacophony of the multiple antique time-keepers floated him back to the present, and he once again smiled softly at the last pony, all the while gently helping her down from the granite lab table.

        “My sole inspiration for living may have disappeared, but I would rather have been cursed than let Twilight's spirit die.  My desperate mind suddenly remembered an experiment that she and I had embarked upon barely six months before the Cataclysm.  The brilliant young unicorn had speculated that it was possible to send items through time via my green flame as we had always been able to send things through space, such as Twilight's letters to Princess Celestia.  Our exercises in chronological manipulation proved unfruitful, but like a good scientist I realized that they could be repeated.  My young self embarked upon a noble crusade; to see if it was possible to send messages—and perhaps even myself—back through time to before the Cataclysm happened.  I locked myself deep within the caverns of the Canterlotlian Mountains, and for years I wracked my draconian brain over every mathematical and magical formula that could make this dream come true.”

        Scootaloo limped aside, giving the large adult dragon room to saunter past the last pony and towards a granite stretch of wall.  With swift precision, Spike breathed hot green flame onto his finger's claw, rendering it to a literal firebrand which he proceeded to etch from left-to-right across the stone.  Upon finishing a crude diagram, the elder dragon gestured towards the smoldering illustration.  There was a straight horizontal line titled 'Past-Ponydom', and carved to the right of it was a crude 'X' labeled 'Cataclysm'.  To the right of this was a zig-zagged line which Spike simply marked 'Wastelands-Fourth Age'.

        “Decades passed since the Cataclysm, and finally I made a breakthrough.  I discovered reverse-time, a way in which the currents of chronology sink backwards via the same fluidity of forward motion, like waves upon the beach.  Excited and enthused beyond measure, I proceeded with great courage to perform the first trip back through time ever committed in this world.”

        Spike proceeded to draw a curved line leftwards from a point in the zig-zagged future all the way back to the 'X'.  There, his burning claw stopped, and he uttered in a cold breath:

        “Imagine my horrendous disappointment when I discovered that I could only go as far back as the first day after the Cataclysm.  The day that Princess Luna and Princess Celestia died had become an impermeable barrier.  The sundering of magic that marked the moment of their perishing acted as a solid wall against which my draconian self could not pierce through, no matter how much green flame I conjured.  Still, I refused to believe that all of my experimentation was for nothing.”

        Spike's finger curved back towards the first time-jump at the right of the zig-zagging diagram, so that his etchings formed double ellipses between the 'Cataclysm' and the jump.

        “So, after several years of planning and calculation—all the while spent re-living the same lifetime in the hollow of the Canterlotlian Mountains—I again made a voyage back along the pathway of reverse-time, and again I struck the barrier.”

        Scootaloo's eyes watched dizzily as Spike's finger formed the loopty-loop course, an infinity symbol, always starting in the future and yet always stopping just to the right of the hash-mark labeled 'Cataclysm' in the center of his grimly etched diagram.

        “I repeated this desperate attempt over and over again,” Spike murmured, “everytime growing smarter yet every time growing more and more despondent in my endeavors.  After more than fifteen trips back into the past, I had to finally accept the grim truth: there was no going back to warn my loved ones of the horror that ended them all.”  He boldly circled the 'X' at the point of the diagrammed 'Cataclysm' and lowered his sizzling claw with bitter finality.  “Equestria was doomed to stay dead forever.”

        “Fifteen trips?”  Scootaloo finally spoke up, stammering.  “Spike—Just how old are you?”

        He took a weathered breath.  “Taking into account my rate of growth, cross-analyzed by a relativistic calendar that I manufactured for myself long ago, I would say that I am something close to three hundred and seventy-two.”

        “Spike!”  Her face grimaced.  “That's a long time...”

        “To ponder the fate of the only world I've ever loved,” he gazed deeply at her, “it's not been long enough.”  Spike's woe-some face aged one reflection at a time across a panorama of ticking clockfaces that flanked his reclining figure.  “Funny... My life as a whelp, frolicking side by side with close friends in the living green of Equestria, was a scant nine years.  And I've spent the better part of three centuries constructing a desperate appendix to what's ultimately been a very trite chapter in my exhausting life.  But it's the only chapter that holds any merit, that still makes my heart leap to remember the sound of Twilight's voice when she called for quill and ink from across the library, when she patted me on the back for an assistant's job well done, when she tucked me in at night as I gave into nubile draconian slumber, dreaming of the magical morning to follow.”

        Spike sighed thoughtfully, green fumes kicking into the air and brushing past a rotating array of brass planetoids.  A beat; and he turned to smile archaically in the last pony's direction.

        “I think that's the real reason why I locked myself inside the sarcophagus of the Eastern Mountains to do my experiments.  I refused to stare at the gray sky until I could somehow bring myself to see the Sun once more.  It's been over three hundred years, and yet I still hear her voice... and dream of the golden dawn.”

        Scootaloo gulped.  “Spike?”  She trotted limpingly up towards his towering figure and gazed forlornly into his eyeslits.  “Do you know how old I am?”

        He squinted at her, rearing his green crested neck back in thought.  “If my memory still serves me right, you had to have been eight years old at the time of the Cataclysm.  And at your chronological level, it has been twenty-five and a half Equestrian revolutions since the end of pony civilization.  So that makes you—”

        “Thirty-Three,” Scootaloo exhaled.  She blinked as the words left her in a misty sigh.  “I am thirty-three years of age.”  Her voice wilted as she avoided the gaze of the clockfaces.  She stumbled like a blind ghost towards the dead roots sticking out of the rooftop along the opposite side of the cavern.  “I-I remember when I was a little foal, and Apple Bloom's teacher—Ms. Cheerilee—told us how old she was: 'Thirty-Three'.  And I thought to myself how... how strange it must be, to be over three times as old as I was, to be three decades old, to be an adult.”  She paused to glance at the many chips and dents in her hooves.  “And here I am.  And those years have v-vanished in a gray bl-blink.”  She gulped, blushed, and gazed apologetically at the purple dragon looming behind her.  “I-I'm sorry, Spike.  I know th-that can't possibly compare to three hundred years.”

        “You would be surprised, child,” he nodded at her.  “Centuries all blink the same.”

        “And in all those centuries, in all of that time,” Scootaloo murmured, avoiding his face like she knew she was avoiding his coming response.  “You never saw another pony?  You never found another soul besides myself?

        Slowly, the elder dragon shook his head.  His voice came out like a funeral dirge, “When I wasn't time traveling or experimenting, Scootaloo, I was searching.  Searching for Celestia, searching for Luna, searching for... Twilight.  In all of my excursions, in all of my cold and lonely flights across this barren world, the only essence of ponydom I ever found was dead essence, until I found you.  The fact that you're alive is as much a joy as it is a puzzle, for what shattered the world wasn't a Cataclysm of physical means, but of magical means.  The ponies—earthen, unicorn, and pegasus—were all turned to dust by the sheer annihilation of their essence.  I am so sorry, Scootaloo, but you shall be the last friend I will have the grace to speak with again.  The day that you die will be the true end of ponies.”

        The last pony shuddered.  She clenched her scarlet eyes shut and bowed towards the ground, as if all of the years that had leeched the brightness from her body had suddenly crumbled all over her at once.  She fought the tears, but the sudden and gentle stroke of Spike's hand against her shaved mane told her there was no point in the struggle.  She sobbed quietly, shortly, under his soothing shadow, until she finally rediscovered the strength to speak:

        “Somehow I knew.  I knew it.  All these years, alone with my fears and my hopes, I knew the truth.  This lifeless world t-told it to me, with heartless gray eyes that flurried on forever.  Right now, I c-can't even begin to think of what it was that kept me going—that kept me living.  I think, in a lot of ways, I wanted a m-moment like this to come, a reunion with anypony, with anybody, even if it was a dead friend.  And as h-happy as I should be to see you alive and well, Spike, I can't be.  I want this reunion to matter.  It's something th-that I have always dreamed of, in the scant moments in my life when I've actually been able to friggin' dream.  And yet I can't hardly feel a th-thing.  It's all so much, Spike.  What this Wasteland has taken from us; it's so m-much that I can h-hardly feel anymore.  I hate it.  I hate it so dang much.”

        “I do too, child,” he murmured towards her.  The violet pendant dangled from his neck as he lowered his snout to gaze her lovingly in the eyes.  “If there's one philosophy that I've held strong to, that has kept me working so hard all of those time jumps in pursuit of the same impossible goal, it's that it is not always important to feel.  Sometimes you only have to be.”

        She inhaled sharply, gazing at him with brimming tears.  “That's just it, Spike.  That is my dilemma.  I'm the last pony—All I'll ever do is be, and someday that too will come to an end.”

        He squinted his eyeslits at her, bearing a brave and knowing smirk.  “You are more than just the last pony.  If I assume correctly, you are a scavenger, a hunter, and ultimately a preserver.  As you have traveled the skies from east to west, I have traveled the last two and a half decades from future to past.  And I too have learned a thing or two about preserving.  There's something quaint and amusing about time; if you know how to play with the streams just right, you can make a moment last forever.  Suddenly—having no choice but to be can provide an eternal practice, even for you, Scootaloo.”

        That uttered, the dragon gestured his clawed hand towards the far side of the laboratory.  Scootaloo's scarlet eyes dried in time to gaze clearly across the cave.  Hobbling over, she stood gazing in wonderment at a series of bright shapes resting beautifully in an array of glass jars.

        “Flowers,” the filly murmured disbelieving as she raised a hoof to gently brush the petals of the yellow and gold things blooming before her.  They were soft to the touch, just like the wings of a butterfly that danced before her during a phantom sojourn to Ms. Cheerilee's schoolyard.  “But—How did you find these?  They should be dead!”

        “All things should be dead,” Spike said, sauntering over onto a pile of rattling gemstones beside her.  He perched majestically and folded his wings about his purple self as he said, “But all things that have ever been—even the dead things—are alive forever in memories.  That's what's so wonderful about the past.  All things considered, history is nothing more than a pile of eternal memories.  To visit the past along the streams of reverse-time is simply a way to relive memories from the inside out, instead of from the outside looking in.”

        “But you can't go back into the past, Spike,” Scootaloo murmured aloud as she gently cradled a jar of daisies in her hooves.  “At least—You can't go past the Cataclysm.  You just told me that...”  Her voice trailed off in mid-speech.  A pair of wide scarlet eyes blinked at her from the sheen in the glass.  She spun around and nearly dropped the flowers as she gazed at Spike with a sudden breathlessness.  “But you can send me??  How, Spike?”  Her gaze darted nervously towards the burned diagram on the cavern wall.  The swirling infinity symbol brushed up against the 'Cataclysm' as it brushed up against her soul.  “How was I able to go visit Ms. Cheerilee when you couldn't?”

        “How is a pony capable of living so long in the absence of the Sun and Moon?”  Spike socratically returned.  “Why would a dark and dismal world, forever angry at the legacy of ponydom, fail in every aspect to slay its last living target?”  He smiled gently.  “It's all for the same reason that I have been enamored with equines since the day I was hatched.  It's your spirit.”

        “Spirit...” Scootaloo droned, gazing defeatedly at the flowers as they rattled in her cold shadow.  “Do I really have a spirit, Spike?”

        He reached over and planted a hand on her shoulder, smiling.  “I'll show you.”


        It used to be the Ponyville Skating Rink, a large warehouse of a building where weekend ponies would spend laughable hours rotating the elliptical arena on wheeled hooves in each others merry company.  Beyond the Cataclysm, under the careful alterations of a purple draconian steward, the place had transformed into something else entirely, something beautiful.

        Scootaloo stood in a gaping stupor, her eyes reflecting a veritable labyrinth of hanging plants, flower beds, blooming vines, fragrant wreathes, and bowing fruit trees.  The luscious vegetation grew joyfully in a naturalistic splash of life across the retrofitted interior of the warehouse.  In place of infinitely looping skating platforms there were now gigantic basins of granite that housed soil, moisture, and enough room for several hundred species of flora to flourish.

        The fragrant dew-laden Eden shimmered with green and pastel colors, all the while shimmering beneath one single light source: a gigantic mirror that hung on suspended chains along the ceiling.  The vertically hung sheet of glass was framed with gold and crested all along its circumference with ornamented bands of solar swirls.  To her heart's stuttering amazement, the last pony instantly recognized the looking-glass from an illustration she had seen in a book scavenged from the Royal Palace of Canterlot.  It was none other than—

        “Princess Celestia's chamber mirror,” Spike murmured as he strolled mightily past Scootaloo and raised his upper body to once more reignite the manatorches flanking the dangling artifact.  “For countless millennia, it served as the sole means by which a retiring Goddess could regard her blinding visage.  After so many Ages of basking in the aura of the Bringer of the Sun, it's only natural that some of her glory still resides in it.  And, when properly stimulated, it still resonates with her majestic glow—like an immaculate seashell having captured the heart of an ocean.”

        The dragon lowered and took a deep breath, gazing proudly as his indoor preserve basked in the gentle golden rays emanating from the spotless mirror.

        “It took several breathless moments—on multiple occasions between my time-jumps—to capture bits of the dying world on the day after the Cataclysm.  But everything I managed to salvage I brought here, and the mirror in turn.  It took the combined effort of over ten of my past selves to construct this terrarium, piece by piece, but I do believe the labor was worth it.  So long as I am alive, I shall look after this living monument to the past.  It's the least I can do; and I'm sure you can relate, Scootaloo, when I say that the least we can do for the Wastelands is ironically the most we can do.”

        “It's amazing, Spike,” she murmured breathlessly.  Her brown coat and scarlet eyes stood out like a pale shadow against the screaming colors suddenly engulfing her as she trotted across green ground and red mulch.  “Half of these things I've already forgotten about.”  She squinted as a bizarre insect surged past her, filling the air with a raspy buzz.  She squinted long and hard in confusion until she witnessed the thing nestle itself within the crimson bud of a rose.  “Bees,” she half-giggled in a queer breath.  “I've forgotten about bees...”

        “Don't agitate them, child, or else you'll learn that they've not forgotten you.”  Spike suddenly darted his snout every which way, looking desperately for something.  “Oh, blast, did I forget to bring a mana-prysm?  Where is my mind, these days?”  Suddenly, the elder dragon lurched.  In a wretching motion, he belched forth a plume of green smoke—and out from the flames there dropped a glass container magically into his palm.  “Ah!  Heheh—Well, that was awfully thoughtful of myself.”

        Scootaloo blinked.  “Uhm...”

        “I brought you here, old friend, to test something,” he strolled over towards her with the tiny jar in his scaled hand.  “Though I suppose one could say that the sudden trip I sent you on at Sugarcube Corner was a necessary test in and of itself—But right now I desire to perform an experiment that will hopefully illuminate our situation to a desired degree of clarity and... and...”  He blinked suddenly at his lone pony companion.  “Scootaloo?  Do you see something of interest?

        “As a matter of fact, I friggin' do,” the Wasteland wanderer stumbled up to something that stood out against the pristine oasis.  In the center of the transformed skating rink there rested a meter-high hourglass positioned atop a silver platform.  Inside the top and bottom glass cases of the thing a bizarre phenomenon was transpiring.  At one moment, there was a brilliant plume of violet-blue flowers in the bottom glass.  Then, in a blink, the flowers withered and faded to ash—while an identical pile of ashes in the top glass coalesced oppositely into another bouquet of violet flowers.  Another beat, and the top bouquet withered into dead matter as the ashes in the bottom half of the hourglass grew back at fast-forward.  This revolution would proceed infinitely, with opposite jars of the hourglass possessing interchangeably dying and growing flowers in a timely crafted cycle.

        “Do you like them?” Spike was suddenly standing above and behind her on his haunches.

        She jumped slightly, locking a trembling gaze on the hourglassed cycle.  “I'd pay a hundred thousand bars of silver to understand it before I even contemplated freaking out.”

        He smiled.  “I melted the glass out of Green Flame—the two halves at alternating frequencies.  The result is that both are balanced in a flux of time and reverse-time, acting off each other like opposite swings of a pendulum.”  The dragon pointed astutely with a glistening claw.  “The flowers in each jar are experiencing quantum shifts—forward and reverse—kept in flux by the equal energy of its sibling.  I could never have possibly conceived of manufacturing this thing when I first set upon my experimentations.  But by the ninth occasion that I rode reverse-time back to the Cataclysm, I felt it was appropriate to artistically express just how far I had come along in my research.  I frankly never expected to show it to anyone.”  A warm smile.  “But then you came along.”

        “And, what, this garden wasn't artistic enough?”  She laughed nervously, her eyes still locked on the immortal back-and-forth of the flowers and ashes before her.  A soft breath escaped her.  “They're... Th-They're beautiful, Spike.  Uhm...”  She bit her lip ashamedly.  “What are they?  The fl-flowers, that is.”

        “Lavenders,” Spike said.  “Very fragrant—As sweet smelling as they are for gazing at.”

        “Everything in this place is gorgeous, Spike.  But why frame lavenders?  What's so special about them?”

        “Oh...” The immense dragon's jaws curved into a gentle, iron smile.  “They were the favorite of one delightful pony I knew.  She was the most resplendent and elegant unicorn in all of Equestria, a filly who set this young whelp's heart a'flutter, long-long ago.”  His aged eyeslits narrowed on the dying-and-sprouting twin bouquets as they cast a faded blue hue across his scales.  “Having them here, in limbo like this, means that I can appreciate them forever, as I will appreciate her forever.  And, one day, when I am long gone, my ashes will dissolve; but these flowers will outlast me, and perhaps her memory will in turn.”

        Something long neglected inside the mare's iron-wrought heart fractured briefly, and she let forth a bursting sigh.  Making up for it, she smiled bravely up at him and murmured in a wavering voice:  “I am most certain she would appreciate that, Spike.”

        “Hmmm—She was always an avid appraiser of all things beautiful.”  A long breath, and he smirked down towards the pony.  “And she would thrash you within an inch of your life for so savagely curtailing your own gifts, child!”

        “My what-now?”  Scootaloo briefly blinked, then blushed.  “Oh.”  She ran a foreleg over the violet stubble lingering on the back of her mane.  “There aren't many frickin' beauty pageants in the Wastelands, not like I was ever into keeping my looks up when I was a little foal anyways.  Besides...”  She sighed.  “My hair has made far better use as insulators and filaments for chemical runecrafting.”

        “I completely understand,” Spike nodded.  “Though it makes my test here that much harder.”  He cleared his smoking throat and smiled politely.  “Would it be much of a bother if I asked you to part with one your eyelashes?”

        “I beg your pardon?”  Scootaloo made a face.

        “I promise it won't hurt,” the elder dragon bowed.  “And you've suffered enough lately for me to ever bother asking for a blood sample.”

        “Eyelash it is.”  Scootaloo stood up towards him and softly closed her eyes.  “Just be careful where you point those claws of yours.”

        “I always am, child,” his voice came closer as a pair of claws lit up under a green exhale.  Effortlessly, the gentle dragon plucked a hair from her face and dropped it into the jar.

        Scootaloo fluttered her eyes open in time to see the dragon breathe a plume of emerald fire into the glass container.  The bright green tongues billowed around the near-indiscernible eyelash as she swiftly closed the jar, twisted it shut, and raised the glowing thing up towards the center of Princess Celestia's mirror.  The glass at the top of the ceiling projected a beam of light through the jar—shining through the combined essences of dragon and pony—and out the other side of the prism there refracted a dazzling array of moving pictures framed by billowing green waves of magic.

        The last pony watched with mesmerizing disbelief as several memories of her life were being replayed before her in a spinning array of images.  A grand gray kaleidoscope of twenty-five years of Wasteland exile flickered before the two of them.  She saw a playback of a drunken ogre harassing her in front of Pitt at the Monkey O'Dozen Den, a goggled rodent smiling from across the hazy interior of Bruce's airship, even a lonely pony reading Princess Celestia's Journal in a swaying hammock under lanternlight.

        “Ah—So I was right!”  Spike suddenly beamed as he pointed his free finger towards the floating image of a pony lighting up a lattice of prismatic light beams.  “You were the source of that rainbow beacon!  What other creature in the Wasteland besides a pony would produce something so magnificent?”  He smiled and winked her way.  “It was in good faith, you see, that I erupted random bits of green flame over the rooftops of Ponyville, figuring that it would attract you in turn.”

        “Dang right it did...” Scootaloo numbly droned, still overwhelmed by the spinning kaleidoscope of her memories that were still rotating behind her.  There were so many moments, so many lonely scavenger hunts, so many gray trips into desolation, so many brushes with death—and yet they all looked the same, were colored with the same lifeless hue.  A lump formed slowly in her throat.

        “Hello...”  Spike's eyes narrowed on the cackling face of Gilliam.  The Dirigible Dog's metal-plated skull floated translucently between the two of them.  “Who's this handsome creature?”

        “More like who was that handsome creature,” Scootaloo spat.  A clearing of her throat.  “Uhm, Spike—Do you mind?  I'm not entirely enthused about looking at all of these... again.”

        “Oh, by all means,” he nodded and gave the jar a little shake as he lowered it from the shimmering face of Celestia's mirror above.  The images were replaced with memories from nearly twenty years ago.  A pony with a brighter coat and softer eyes was seen hammering together the pieces of the Harmony, crafting moonrocks, constructing the signal lattice, shaving the hair off her tail.  Another shake, and Spike lowered the jar further from the preserved Sunlight.  The spinning images flickered, flickered—then briefly roared with a red flame as Scootaloo's essence leaped the Cataclysmic bridge.  “Yes—There we are.”  Suddenly, all the images shone with vibrant color.  An orange filly with bright violet eyes rocketed across the shimmering lengths of Ponyville atop a scooter.  Dozens of colorful faces smiled into view, of crusaders, of mentors, of friendly strangers and bright smiles.  There were rivers, there were mountains, there were clouds—and there was a sky, a blue sky.  Finally there flickered forth the laughing and grinning faces of ponies, of foals and blank flanks, of a forest and a clubhouse, of blue feathers and a rainbow mane—

        In a flash, the lights all vanished.  Scootaloo sharply inhaled the vacuum left behind them, and her eyes twitched moistly to see the green oasis coalesce back into view, buckling slightly from the very real and gray world lurching outside.  She was almost too numb to register the words coming from Spike next:

        “It is as I thought.  The images conjured are brighter with you than they are with all the rest.”

        Scootaloo gulped, rubbed her face with a foreleg, and gazed at him.  “Th-The rest of what, Spike?”

        “The samples—The remains of all the ponies who have died before you, child,” Spike said.  He handed the smoking jar to Scootaloo, who merely gazed at the smoldering ashen bits of her eyelash inside the container.  “Using my green flame as a telescope, I've been able to look into the past beyond the day of the Cataclysm which I cannot time travel through.  To do this, I've required the essences and ashes of dead ponies as a reagent.  But your essence—that of a living pony—transcends the Cataclysmic blockade even further.  The memories you project are of a color and vibrancy that make the other ponies' images pale in comparison.  As of now, I have no doubt whatsoever.”

        Scootaloo gazed confusedly at him as he walked across the lengths of the garden.  “N-No doubt of what, Spike?”

        “That you can go where I cannot,” he stated matter-of-factly as he strolled over towards a crate full of gardening tools and other supplies on the broad side of the overgrown warehouse.  “Because you are the last living pony, I can send you back to a time before the Cataclysm by anchoring the essence of your soul—your soul-self—to the ponies that were just as alive then as you are now.  Granted, even that will have limits.”  He effortlessly opened a heavy crate with his massive limbs and rummaged through it.  “For instance, I will only be able to send you back to the years when I was alive, and within range of the ponies whose souls I was in constant contact with.  Ms. Cheerilee is one such example.  Because you're alive now, and she was alive then—your common pony essence can make contact, bridging the gap in magic that the Cataclysm sliced when it ended the lives of Celestia and Luna.”  He smiled victoriously as he produced a familiar looking glass jar from the crate.  With a hot breath, he covered the container in green flame, sending it back to five minutes ago.  “It's only fitting, Scootaloo, that you can venture back to a time where I can't.”

        The last pony glanced at the identical jar in her grasp.  In a nervous jolt, she dropped it to the garden floor like it was the plague and gazed shakily at the dragon before her.  “M-Me?  Spike, I-I don't know.  This is all too... t-too... Nnngh!”  She clasped her head in two hooves, fought away the urge to hyperventilate, and all but snarled:  “I mean, what the hay, Spike?!?  Suddenly I can go into the past?!?  Just like that?”

        “It's hardly a development that happened overnight, Scootaloo,” he gazed calmly at her as he strolled back on aging haunches.  “To come to this point of epiphany, I had to undergo countless years of magical and mathematical calculations.  You are quite simply the missing key I needed to make the journey complete.  How ironic is it that the last pony alive would fit into such a puzzle?”

        “Ironic?”  Scootaloo balked at him.  “Maybe it all fits together just fine for you!  You, who have spent eons lurking about in caves and laboratories trying to piece this whole mess together!  But I've spent barely a fraction of those years trying to deal with just how everypony I've ever cared for died, knowing full well that there was not a single dang thing I could do about it!”  She sighed heavily and rested a pair of hooves on one of his arms.  “Spike, you can't possibly ask me to do this!  Haven't I had enough weight on my shoulders?”

        “And what do you think it is that I'm asking of you, child?”

        She gulped and gave him a hollow expression, something of mix horror and excitement.  “Y-You want me to go back into the past... and change all that has happened, somehow, don't you?”

        The last pony was surprised to see how swiftly and solemnly he shook his head.  “No, old friend.  That is not what I am asking of you.”

        “It's n-not?”

        “Because the past cannot be changed, Scootaloo.  The Cataclysm—in all of its monumental horror and dread—must happen, no matter what you or I do.”

        The air of the garden collapsed instantly.  Not even the insects buzzed overhead.  Celestia's mirror seemed a lot dimmer as Scootaloo's tired scarlet eyes wandered the room in an aimless lurch.  Soon, her gaze fell back onto Spike and she murmured in a foalish whine:  “But why?”

        “Because time is immutable, child.”

        “Immutable?  How do you mean?”

        Spike inhaled deeply.  A gentle breath, and he clasped a hand softly over her shoulders.  “Here.  Walk with me.”


        

        Once more, the soft snow and ash of the wasteland fell coldly on Scootaloo's coat, christening her.  She sat her bandaged self atop Spike's broad backside, resting as he gently strolled through the decaying ruins and wounded vistas of Ponyville.  Shattered buildings and splintered trees drifted softly past them as the purple dragon carried the lone pony over the fossils of yesteryear.

        “Tell me, Scootaloo, with the knowledge from your years of roaming the skies and reading—Who are the Six Goddess Sisters?”

        “Seriously?”  She raised a humored eyebrow and smirked at his green neckcrests.  “You want me to recite that kindergarten lesson?”

        “Humor me, if you would,” he half-chuckled.

        The brown-coated mare took a deep breath.  Her scarlet eyes scanned an invisible book as she recited emotionlessly to the ashen air, “The Six Goddess Sisters—as everypony knows—are the divine Alicorn daughters of the Goddess Epona, who ascended to the stars in the Cosmic Exodus which brought about the end of the First Age.”

        “And who were these Alicorns specifically...?”

        Scootaloo stirred, then laid herself down atop Spike's bobbing shoulders and monotonously went on:  “The Goddesses of Revolution:  Princess Celestia and Princess Luna stayed on earth to oversee the rising of the Sun and Moon over the land of Equestria.  The other Four Sisters would leave halfway through the Second Age much like their Cosmic Mother Queen Epona, though their essences remained in the physical world.  The first two were the Goddesses of Elements:  Princess Elektra, the Goddess of the Land, and Princess Nebula, the Goddess of the Firmaments.  The other two were the Goddesses of Law:  Princess Gultophine, the Goddess of Life...”

        “And who else?”

        The last pony blinked, her brown ears twitching in sudden interest as she heard herself murmur:  “Princess Entropa, the Goddess of Time.”

        “Ah, so you do recollect her,” Spike's snout flexed as the result of a hidden smile.  “I'm proud of all the knowledge you've retained, child.  You're far from the upstart little foal that used to forsake trips to the library for zip-lining her way through the Everfree Forest.”

        Scootaloo produced a bitter smirk as she gently rested her cheek against his back.  “You're not the only one who's changed, Spike.”

        “Still—It is quite important that you understand the part Princess Entropa plays in the fabric of time,” the dragon spoke as he strolled the two of them across the shattered womb of Ponyville.  “She may be a Goddess in perpetual Exodus, like her mother Queen Epona.  But she is far from utterly detached.  Her essence still animates the flow of time, maintaining it as a law, but not just any law.  It is an immutable law.  Time cannot be changed.  It can be traversed, much like a sailor crosses an ocean.  But you cannot convert that ocean into something else.  Even when traveling the currents of reverse-time as I have mastered, there is no alteration to time itself.  As a consequence, there is no way to change the cause-and-effect of events as managed by time.  We cannot go back and prevent the Cataclysm from happening, for it was the tragedy of the Cataclysm itself that gave anyone impetus to time travel in the first place.  Changing the Cataclysm would not only be a paradox of logic, but it would be an abomination of Princess Entropa's sacred law.  What has transpired—no matter how tragic—must remain immutable.”

        “But if Princess Entropa's law is so sacred, why would she let something so horrible happen—And to her sisters of all ponies?!”  Scootaloo suddenly moaned.  “Wouldn't she want living things like us to—I dunnointervene on behalf of Equestria and stop the Cataclysm from ever happening to begin with?”

        “That's a very noble question, child,” Spike's neck bowed.  His shoulders briefly stopped lurching as his body came to a stop.  “Scootaloo, take a look before us.  Do you see where we are?”

        Blinking curiously, Scootaloo crawled up to her hooves and trotted a few meters along his neck.  As soon as her vision rounded the green crests of his skull, she froze.  The mare saw before the two of them an array of dull white stones splotched across a thick black mound of earth in the center of Ponyville.  For all of the cataclysmic horrors that shook the terrain of her home, she was almost as amazed as she was heart-broken to be presently staring at a remarkably well-preserved cemetery, a place that she had rarely ventured to in her foalish years.

        “There's always been death in Equestria,” she murmured educatedly into the misty air.  “I think I see where you're going with this, Spike.  Why didn't Entropa intervene on their behalf?”

        “Perhaps because it was Gultophine's job to monitor the passage of souls into the great beyond,” Spike somberly nodded.  “Or perhaps because Entropa—as a Goddess of Law—necessitated being a princess of neutrality.  Whatever the case, our mutual need to question her motive only highlights our mortal nature.  Earth ponies gifted in the knowledge of medicine and unicorns employing various talents in mysticism had struggled for millennia to construct countermeasures for death, but they could never in any fashion prevent it.  Otherwise, all of these stones here would have been replaced with immortals to this very day.”  He turned and gazed over his shoulder at Scootaloo with dim green eyeslits.  “Similarly have I—in three hundred years of optimistic searching—attempted to find a way to change the sway of time.  And like so many other Equestrian physicians before me, I have failed.”

        “But did you at least even try, Spike?”  Scootaloo gazed back at him.  “Granted, I know you couldn't go back far enough to experiment before the Cataclysm—But in this timeline?  In the Fourth Age, surely you had to have tried to change history!

        “An astute assumption on your part,” he nodded.  He turned away from the cemetery and marched back into the depths of Ponyville while the pony settled once more onto the square of his back.  “I did experiment, Scootaloo.  After my sixth and seventh trips on reverse-time, I performed many acts of blind sabotage on my past selves to see if my interference could alter my present condition in any fashion.  What I discovered was that on every single occasion some coincidental event would either catastrophically undo all of my manipulations or else ironically link my affectations to real circumstances that my past selves had chronicled as having happened.”

        “Were they all blind experiments?”  Scootaloo asked, all the while rubbing her aching head.  “Did you ever—Oh, I dunno—try talking to your past self?”

        “As a matter of fact, I did.”

        The pony blinked.  She nervously chirped:  “H-How did that go?”

        “Boringly, considering I remembered everything that was asked or answered.  A deep discourse with time's doppelgangers doesn't afford any deviance from the immutable truth that confounds us today, Scootaloo.  Though, I must admit,” he smiled as a whelpish shade of yesteryear bubbled briefly to the surface of his adult purple scales.  “You've never lived until you've played a game of hide-and-seek with your chronological double.”

        “So then, that proves it??” Scootaloo murmured defeatedly.  “After so many repeated experiments—This is what we have to work with??  Could... uhh... could the Cataclysm be somehow different, Spike?  Or could I be somehow different?—Because my pony essence allows me to go into the past further than yourself?  Maybe time won't be unchangeable for me!!  Maybe—”  Her voice cut off at the sight of him briefly twisting his neck about to gaze sadly at her with a shaking head.

        “What I calculated, what I tested, and what I experienced, Scootaloo, is something that can be explained, but never shared.  Not directly, at least,” he murmured and faced ahead once more.  “But, suffice it to say, it laid in concrete a truth that I could no longer deny.  The past can be visited, it can be witnessed, and it can even be supported—But no, child, it cannot be changed.  What dies must remain dead.  What lives must remain living.  It has been that way since the twilight years before the First Age, in the blossoming days of creation, when all that was One split into the forces of Harmony and Discord, and everything has remained necessarily dichotomous since.”

        “It's just so... so unfair,” the brown-haired mare murmured.  Spike brought the two of them into the skeletal hovel of an old garden behind a hollowed-out restaurant.  He let her down with a gentle arm as she trotted forlornly past a cluster of large mushrooms and gazed into a statue of merry foals frozen in mid-gallop.  “Why would we be granted the ability to move back and forth in time when we can't even make a difference from it?”

        “Why do things live to dream and desire—But only to have death as their ultimate fate?”  Spike socratically replied as he settled down against a wall overgrown with burnt brambles.  “These are the tests of mortals—We can only question them as we live them.”

        “Like I said,” she sighed and squatted down onto a cracked marble bench.  “It's unfair.”  Her nostrils flared as her scarlet eyes fluttered over the snowy ground.  “All I have from the past, Spike, are happy memories and regrets.  The memories are happy because they remind me that I used to be something that mattered in a living world.  The regrets are always there because I know that the memories will only ever be just that—memories.  But now that you and I have reunited, you're telling me that I can relive those memories?  Just why in the heck I would want to do that, Spike?  At least when I had the tiniest bit of hope that I might not have been the last pony, memories had meaning to them.  Now they're just the same dead end as the future is to me.  The past is meaningless now.”

        “I wouldn't go so far as to say that, child,” he smiled gently towards her.  His face and breath surged with a bizarre enchantment of pride and admiration, shaking her to her core.  “Something cannot be meaningless and yet hold so many answers.”

        “Like what answers?”

        “Answers to questions that are as lost to my three hundred years of contemplation as they are to your twenty-five years of courage.”  His eyes narrowed and his deep bass voice rumbled:  “What caused the Cataclysm?  What consumed the lives of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna?  Did anypony foresee the holocaust to come?  Why is it that all the ponies died, but there are still living creatures meandering across the shadows of the Equestrian kingdom?”

        “You had a good guess earlier, Spike,” Scootaloo murmured.  “If something attacked the essence of ponies, then maybe that's why they turned to ash.  But it doesn't explain why I'm here.”

        “You may yet be able to find out,” Spike said with a smile.  “We may both be able to find out.  But it involves a brave experiment, with journeys that I am not capable of taking—You are.  In the past, Scootaloo, there are more than memories and regrets.  If I may dare say so, there are answers.  But, most of all, there could be healing.”

        “Healing?”  Scootaloo raised an eyebrow.  With a bitter raspberry she shook her head and gazed up towards the dim twilight hanging like an ancient ghost above the dead world.  “Do I look like an expert on healing?”

        “There's always a place to start, child,” Spike said.  “If not for you, then for Equestria.”

        Her ears pricked at that.  She glanced aside.  “For Equestria?  How do you mean, Spike?”

        “If we can ascertain what it was that caused the Cataclysm—what it was that ended the Goddesses of Revolution—then we may be able in our time to find a way to reverse the damage that has been done.  Though ponydom is gone forever, Scootaloo, we may yet find a way to bring light back into this land of death and darkness, much like I was able to construct that fabulous garden that mesmerized your earlier.”

        “You mean there might be a way to bring the Sun and Moon back,” Scootaloo thought aloud, her eyes blankly wandering the garden around them.  “It would be a bright Equestria... only no Equestrians.”  She gulped.  “Is that really the best outlook we can afford ourselves here, Spike?”

        “I did say you could do with some healing, old friend,” he chuckled.

        She groaned.  “Spike, please—It's not my place,” she slumped forward on the marble bench and sighed.  “Not now, not then, not ever.”

        “Isn't it?”  He leaned his snout to the side and gazed at her sharply.  “You are an intelligent, crafty, responsible, and tender-hearted individual, Scootaloo.  Even underneath that rough, shaved exterior, you are everything your race has ever endeared itself through the Ages to be.  Do not let two and a half decades of tragedy and pain disguise the legend that you have become.  You are not only the end of ponies, but the epitome of them.”  A gentle exhale, and his face turned melancholic.  “Do I honestly, truly think that sending you back will absolutely grant us the ability to undo the curse that has robbed night-and-day from the wastes of Equestria?”  He slowly shook his snout.  “No, Scootaloo.  I do not.  But I do know this—You are the last pony.  And before you die—and you will someday die, like all of your friends and kin have done before you—would any other soul deserve no less a chance to revisit that which gave her breath, that which gave her purpose, that which gave her the memories of hope—and not regret—to become this amazing creature which you so mightily are right now?”

        “I can't say, Spike,” her voice choked as she struggled for an answer.  “What you're asking of me is to attend a funeral for which there will never be a eulogy—Even if I was the one to write it.  Because no matter what I do, it all ends with me.”

        “Which is why I advise this of you instead.”  He stood up on his haunches and paced across the garden.  “Leave Ponyville.”

        She blinked wildly.  “Wh-What?”

        “Leave,” he said, gazing softly back at her.  “Take off in your splendid airship, spend time inside the womb of Harmony, do what you normally do in the clouds above the wastes.  Live out your life like you've always lived it out these last two decades.  But most of all, do not return until the end of the next coming stormfront.  And then... you may come back to me, and—if you wish and only if you wish—I will send you back to the days before dying, and we can write that eulogy together, Scootaloo.”  He grinned warmly.  “What do you say... ?”

        The last pony stared back up at her old friend, at the purple shades of the past standing like a surreal ghost before her.  And for the briefest of moments, the snow cleared, and in his emerald eyeslits she saw the reflection of a tiny filly, its violet eyes bright and its pink mane fluttering in a draconian twinkle.  Something akin to a foalish smile, and Scootaloo breathed:  “I'm liking this idea.”


        Several  hours later, somewhere in the bubbling gray clouds of the Central Heights, the Harmony vibrated with the wilting chords of Octavia's melancholic strings.  The last pony sat at her work bench with her back to the crackling record player.  With her hooves entwined in cylindrical tool braces, she proceeded to fix and tinker the battered copper rifle that she had retrieved from the depths of Ponyville's Town Hall.  As one cello suite bled beautifully into another, she briefly looked up from her diligent engineering and spotted a blurred mirror hanging from a nob below the shelves where she kept her multicolored gems.

        Only the barest upper-left hoofed corner of the mirror provided a decent reflection.  From beyond a rusted fog, a thirty-three year old mare with a brown coat and tired scarlet eyes shyly came out from hiding.  She blinked at her weathered self, noticing the lines beneath her eyes, the nicked and bruised skin that flanked her ears.  Finally, she tilted her snout to the side and studied her neck, squinting at a thin forest of violet stubble that came out coarsely to kiss the lantern-lit air of the airship's cabin.  She ran a tool-braced hoof over the mane, feeling the tiny stalks, briefly imagining them giving birth to a long dead curtain of pink threads waving gracefully out from her slender form.

        But in a final blink, the shadow of Scootaloo disappeared, replaced once more with the last pony, her fine orange coat having bristled into brown ruggedness, her violet eyes having paled to a bitter scarlet.  The rusted air encompassed her like a dried butterfly in a specimen jar.  She sighed, and as Octavia's record began skipping at the end of its instrumental, she hung her head towards her half-built weapon and lingered on the images fluttering across her mind.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Journal Entry # 2,352

        Today... something happened.

        

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Scootaloo grunted and swung the axe in her teeth's grip one last time.  With a mighty crunching noise, the two-meter tall mushroom fell down into a flurry of powdery ash.  She dropped to her knees to scrape the edible material out of the hollow of the gigantic fungus, when a flurry of tiny insects swarmed over her in a skittering black blanket.  Yelping, she fell back and swung her hooves wildly, fighting a legion of shadowy trolls in her mind.  A gasp; her eyes opened wide to see once more a harmless forest of gigantic mushrooms waiting to be cut down.  The insects had all scattered, and she was once more alone... forever alone.  Sighing, she gazed into the hollow of the fungus, disdainfully observing the colony of paper husks that had long filled the spoiled stalk.  With a woeful groan, the pony dragged her axe towards the next giant mushroom, and in the shadow of the tethered Harmony she proceeded to hack away at the next structure.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        I have been made an offer.  I have been given an opportunity to literally go into the past, to venture into a warm and colorful world that my mind has preserved but my heart has forgotten over these many gray years.  And yet, there is no hope for changing anything with this 'gift' .  There is only the past, the damnable dying past.

        The best that all of this potential experimentation can do is end the twilight that hangs above the lengths and widths of Equestria.  The worst it can do is probably the only thing it can do—and that's reopen so many festering wounds hiding deep underneath my coat that I shudder to even contemplate them.

        What would it be like to see Fluttershy again?  Or Apple Jack?  Or Sweetie Bell or Apple Bloom or ... Rainbow Dash ...?

        In the days after ponies died, I've had my life saved twice  Once by Rainbow, and a second time just now by Spike—as he royally trashed the trolls that had ambushed me in Ponyville.  In many ways, my whole life—twenty-five years in the Wastes, so I've discovered—has been one gigantic service to the one blue pegasus who saved me, the one pony I have always believed in, and in some ways still do.  Does this mean that I owe Spike all the same?  I know he obviously doesn't mean to obligate me in such a manner—But how far is he willing to go compared to how far I am able to go?  Assuming, of course, I am going anywhere at all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        One day, Scootaloo tore her way through a splintering door.  She pierced the center of an abandoned apartment complex along the downtown stretch of Whinniepeg.  As gray filtered light seeped in through the mildewed windows, she spotted several equine corpses lying in a tight circle in the center of a living room.  Trotting over to them, she nudged a few bones with her hoof until she finally found what she needed—a unicorn skull.

        Squatting down besides the skeleton, she extended a blade from her horseshoe and planted it at the base of the body's horn.  It wasn't until half a minute later that Scootaloo realized she hadn't yet begun carving the dead stub off.  A deep pale glow washed over her, and she swallowed a lump down her throat.

        With a shuddering sigh, she lifted her goggles off her head and ran a hoof over her moistening eyes.  She stared miserably past the bodies and at a heap of belongings that had fallen out of a trunk, spilling onto the floor.  She saw scattered utensils, toys, Equestrian stationary, and—finally—a pile of faded photographs with several smiling and living faces poised eternally, staring back at her as she lingered over the same family's discarded husks a few meters away.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        The legacy of ponydom has given me so much that I have used over the decades.  It is only right that I find a way to give back to it.  But how does that stack up when all that could possibly change is the bright face of Equestria itself, an Equestrian future with no ponies in it?

        I only wished to be a survivor, and perhaps to reunite with some other stray members of my own kind.  Now that I know—thanks to Spike—that I am indeed the last pony that will ever breathe; what point is there in trying to bring light to a world with no pure eyes remaining to judge it?  It's like a tree that falls alone in the forest—But how selfish of a presumption is that on my part?  What right do I have—or Spike for that matter—to determine how we memorialize this world, when we've done so much to pilfer from it?  Does the fact that we're the last living things to care about it all excuse us being the last souls to make something of it all?—Even if for the sake of making something?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Scootaloo yanked on the lever and her signal fired its prismatic beams into the air above the stony plateau.  The multicolored spectrum pierced the cloudy overcast in a burning swath, but the lingering twilight above remained unphased.  The snow and ash was still falling, the mist still covering the  circle of metal barricades in an infinite rust.  Under the shadow of the Harmony, a disenchanted Scootaloo marched up towards the signal, propped herself onto two hooves with her shoulder leaning against her rifle, and stuck her left limb into the burning beams of light.

        The sky briefly strobed as her hoof floated lazily from red to green to indigo and softly back.  She watched with momentary fascination as the lights bumped and wavered with each other, but ultimately remained rigidly divided into the seven artificial hues, as directed by Scootaloo's flamestone that shot illuminescence into the strategically placed gems.

        The last pony tilted her snout up and watched with a sudden boredom, observing the glistening heights of her once-treasured beacon.  It was exactly what it always had been, a message to dead ponies.  Being the only one to read what the signal had to say made Scootaloo feel dead as well; because she knew where this rainbow began, and could spot with her naked eyes the lingering twilight above where it ultimately ended.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        I was sent back in time.  Ever so briefly, I tasted of the past.  I saw a rainbow—And it was real.  I could not see where it began, and I could not see where it ended.  I didn't care.  It gave me hope, like I always knew it would.  But only now do I really understand where that hope stems from.

        Hope is a disease, an affliction to all living beings.  The only thing sentient creatures such as ponies had ever accomplished was die, and yet we had always clung to hope.  This perhaps made sense in an Age when Goddesses walked the fields of Equestria—But now?  Princess Celestia's eternal life ran out.  When she and Luna vanished, all that was left was the decaying wasteland of mortality, forever festering in the unburied penumbra of her shadow.

        Perhaps that's the way it has always been, and what brought about the explosive end to the Goddesses of Revolution was not an unknown curse—like Spike suggest—but a self-destructing realization that the Goddesses themselves discovered when it was too late; that life is absurd, that it's always been absurd, even for them.

        And as much as I rationalize to myself the pointlessness of it all—painting a far bleaker picture than I had ever imagined in all of my most bitter of dark-lit scavengings—why is it that I cannot shake the rainbow out of my head, the real rainbow, the real rainbow that I saw with my own eyes?  If hope is a disease, and all it will ever lead me to is misery and self-annihilation, when why do I cling to it so?  Why does it make me excited, like I am starved.  Why does it always plant me steadily upon this knifing precipice of—dare I say it—joy?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        “Why so emoquine, Harmony?”

        Scootaloo stared listlessly through a green haze of smoke, her scarlet eyes unwavering.  There was a shuffling movement besides her, and a furred paw waved obligatorily before her face.

        “Hello??  Customer of most esteemed appreciation??  Is old Equestrian joke, da?  Vhy so glum, pony friend?”

        She snapped out of it.  She pivoted to glance across the merchant vessel and threw a faded smile the flying squirrel's way.  “S-Sorry, Bruce.  I've just got a lot on my mind, that's all.  What were you offering again?”

        “Is more than pony's mind.  Brucie thinks it is stomach—Or another organ close to it.  Hopefully not part of pony sensitive to cancer stick, nyet?”  He chuckled under green goggles, flicked his cigar some, and continued showing off a pair of leather bands as their dual ships bobbed in the air, docked to one another.  “Forty strips each—Dual reinforced dragonskin!  Finest from vhat remains of Zebraharan mountains—”

        “No—No!”  The mare briefly snarled, shook a shuddering breath off her, and paced across the racks of wares.  “Thanks, Bruce.  I know that I need new armor, but... anything but dragon leather, if you don't mind.”

        “Pray tell Brucie why?  Date with sky serpent, pony plans?  Bah!”  He tossed the thick bands into a pile of collapsing metal knick-knacks while snapping his tiny paws.  “Brucie can do something better!”  He kicked off a bulkhead, glided over to a coat of armor, and gruntingly lifted a breastplate in his quivering limbs.  “Nnnghh—Best in ramcraft!  Fashioned out of tempered titanium!  Brucie promises—hckk—no fire breathing snakes harmed in process of metallurgy—Ach!  Nyet, you overgrowned rust heap—Ugh!  Only takes getting used to hauling around!  Like you sporting pretty mane made out of iron, da?”

        “I know you're doing your best to help me out, Bruce.  But—seriously—all I need to do is browse quietly for a bit, and then I'm sure I'll find the... armor that I need,” she murmured, her eyes once again gazing into a grand nothingness beyond the shelves of rattling miscellany.

        The green-goggled squirrel saw it.  Scratching his forehead, he scampered up a metal shelf and perched above her.  “Kind of armor pony needs is something no strips could buy, Brucie thinks.

        She did not reply.

        He rubbed his chin some, then brightened.  “Perhaps you are nervous about stormfront?”  He smirked and gestured nonchalantly out a nearby porthole.  The gray clouds were darkening as several deep flashes of lightning started to bubble from within the wispy clusters herding punctually their way.  “Vell, pony should only fear for money bag, because Brucie has greatest lightning rod from motherland—Guaranteed to protect against any storm, but sure is not cheap!”

        “It's not that, Bruce.  It's...”  She bit her lip, shifted uncomfortably, and finally looked at him, naked eyes to fogged goggles.  “Bruce, let me ask you something—Pilot to pilot.”

        “To pony's question, Brucie has answer, possibly, maybe—If Harmony needs it.”

        She ignored the address and squinted, murmuring:  “Do you enjoy what you do?”

        “Selling to favorite customer?  Absolutely!  Brucie is always—”

        “No no no—I mean what you do,” Scootaloo emphasized.  “Your life, Bruce.  Do you...—Is this life all that you are willing to accept?  Would you be ready to... to change it into something happier, something brighter—If you had the ability to do so?”

        “Hrmm...” the overgrown rodent merchant rubbed his chin, puffing on his cigar.  “Philosophy is not one of Brucie's strengths; does not earn silver, only headaches, da?”  He smirked wryly and flicked his cigar with emphasis.  “If life vas so terrible, perhaps is reason Brucie smokes it away?  HaHA!”

        She sighed heavily.  “But if you could change this—All of this.  Would you be willing to do so?”

        “Life is life.  Sometimes life is too much life, sometimes too little,” he uttered as he squatted in his pilot's seat and propped a leg up, leaning back casually in the green haze of his cramped vessel.  “But rather than think of things dat need changing, Brucie likes to focus on things he is glad for and be thankful for them.”  A warm smile under his reflective emerald lenses.  “Like pony friend!  If dis life vas changed, vould not have you to look forward to, da?”

        She stared sadly at him.  “That's just it, Brucie.  The only thing you're guaranteed to run out of in life is friends.”  She swallowed sorely.  “The reason I know this is because there's so much magic lost from this world.  And eventually that too will be gone.”

        “Hmm...” he leaned further back and puffed.  “All better reason pony has to spend time vith friends...”  He smirked.  “Or make new ones...”

        “...or old ones,” she added in a low breath.

        “Vhat vas that, Harmony?”  No sooner had he asked, but a loud rumble filled the roof of the world, forcing the two ships to rock and weave from the thunderous vibrations.  “Mother Rushnut!  Is getting vorse, the storm!”  He kicked out of the seat and rushed up to a porthole, gazing out with a frown.  “Brucie is afraid that he and pony friend must cut transaction short!  You cannot outrun storm anymore than time itself!”

        “Perhaps somepony can,” she once again murmured, then nodded her snout towards a series of brown leather bands along the far end of the gondola.  “I'll take five of those over there.”

        “Twenty strips each.”

        “That works for me.”

        “Then done is deal, Harmony!”

        After the exchange of silver for goods, the mare trotted towards the metal bridge between his ship and hers.  She lingered in his windblown doorway.  “Again, Brucie, my name is not Harmony.”

        “Da, da!  Ve have been over dis!  Pony is anonymous!  Hilarious irony ensues—!”

        “'Scootaloo'.”

        He spun around and squinted at her through cockeyed goggles.  “Vhat vas dat?”

        “My name is Scootaloo,” she said, fidgeting.  “And... I am glad to have you as a friend too, Brucie.”

        The squirrel stared at her.  After a spell, he smirked, then grinded his cigar to death against a bulkhead.  “Another day vorth living, da?”  He waved her off.  “Off vith you, Scootaloo!  Storms of twilight have no friends!”

        She took a deep breath as the warmness left her cheeks and she marched outward to her hangar on the other side of the bridge.  “Don't I know it...?”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        It has been several invisible gray days since I last saw Spike, and I am no closer to an answer for his proposition than I was the first minute I flew myself away from the strangely inviting sights of Ponyville's ruins.  That place is once more a potential home to me, and yet it pains me to see it the way it is.  I'm reminded of something Bruce said without quite meaning to put much effort into it:  that life is sometimes 'too much life', sometimes 'too little life'.  But when I look out the portholes of my airship, and when I see the desolation all around, I realize that any creature that attempts to neutrally philosophize like that is only attempting to protect my feelings.  There is no life out here—only ashes.

        The fact is—when Equestria exploded, it had to have been ponydom's fault, in some fashion or another.  What Gilda hinted of and what most of the patrons who frequent the Monkey O'Dozen Den believe is at least partially true.  The Sun and Moon would still be here today if something horrible hadn't happened to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna.  Equestria was never a land that belonged to only ponies, and the fact that I'm the last living pegasus means that I, in some fashion, owe it to the world to get a second chance at seeing light once more, so that these perpetual shadows will no longer force otherwise harmless creatures into believing that 'life' is simply quantifiable.

        A month before now, the same pony who's writing this would never give this blighted world a second thought.  But as of a few days ago, I now know that I can potentially leave a mark, a very warm, golden, and glowing mark upon what would otherwise remain a world as grave if not even graver than what I now see before me.  For years, I gave my all to maintain a rainbow symbol to spark hope into the souls of ponies who I always hoped were alive... but secretly knew really weren't.  Now that I know what I can do and whom I can do it for—creatures like Bruce, Gilda, and even Pitt—could that change Equestria for the better?  Could it give hope—however absurd—to a new society that might transform it into something beautiful, as opposed to its present ugliness?  Can existence transcend essence, even when the likes of Spike and myself are long gone from this potential future kingdom?

        It's always been tough being the end of ponies.  And it's even tougher now.  If this stormfront I'm flying in doesn't kill me, I think my confusion will.  If there should be another entry, it will be by another pony, one who has transcended doubt, as Spike has transcended time.  This I promise—this I hope.

        -End of entryyyyyyyyyy---

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Scootaloo's last penstroke smudged across the page of her journal as the Harmony experienced another jolt.  The boiler at the back of the room flickered as it tried to maintain autopilot in the surmounting turbulence surging all around the craft.  A warning bell clamored as a couple of sparks flew from a tesla coil on the port side of the cabin.

        Cursing mutely, Scootaloo slapped the journal shut, swiveled away from her workbench, and all but pratfalled across the careening gondola, landing awkwardly in the cockpit's seat.  As she harnessed herself into place, a wide panorama of bubbling clouds and random bits of lightning surged from beyond the stretched array of windshields.  The world had punctually become an obsidian mesh of inky fog as a fresh stormfront rumbled across the rooftop of Equestria on the latest of its regular intervals.

        Yanking at a few levers to re-orient the bobbing vessel, Scootaloo flashed an angry glare towards her instrument panel.  A red light was flickering as a tiny brass pipe of steam blew through an alarm whistle.  Her elaborate warning system was attempting to convey that part of the zeppelin's lateral support struts had loosened dangerously.

        “Frickin' figures.  Can't ride a storm these days without it turning into a drunken Wonderbolts performance,” she snarled, then silenced herself by clamping her teeth over a hanging chainlinked handle.  She pulled hard and the boiler towards the rear billowed, pumping steam into the balloons over the gondola.  Slowly, the Harmony lifted above the crashing black promontory of the advancing stormfront, aimed towards the highest point it could go above the dark lightning-ruptured overcast.  A wayward cloudfront thundered angrily at Scootaloo.  She snarled back:  “Yeah, well, you look fat and ugly too!


        An hour later, safely above the rumbling overcast of stormclouds, the grunting and griping pegasus struggled with a loose set of rivets that she was presently attempting to tighten back into place along the starboard side of the Harmony's zeppelin chassis.  The black roof to the Equestrian Wastes groaned and roared beneath her, briefly flickering phantom illuminations of silver lightning hues across her blank flanks as she struggled to finish her task.  At one point, the wrench she was twisting flew loose; she inadvertently struck herself in the small of her left forearm.  A loud groan—something that mutated into a furious snarl—and she banged the rivets with an opposite hoof, half-shocked to hear them rattling back into stubborn looseness.

        With a huge deflating sigh, Scootaloo leaned her snout against the copper body of the zeppelin and hung there, brown wings fluttering in the brief winds, as the thunderous world gargled beneath her.  She clung to the bosom of the Harmony in a gentle and lonesome sway, for what had to have been the better part of an hour, until she finally opened her scarlet eyes to the ever-lingering twilight overhead.  Distant gloomy stars half-blinked down at her, never living and never dying.  There was no real light in this world, only the half hearted imitation of brightness, like Celestia's mirror in Spike's garden.  It almost looked pretty, but it was hardly the real thing.  Scootaloo was tired of staring, and yet a strange peace was wafting through her with as much electricity as the stormfronts boiled with far below.

        Hooking her wrench and other tools along the lateral struts of the airship, Scootaloo took wing, hovering down several dozens of naked meters below her hovering vessel.  She then did something that she hadn't done since she was a little foal; she touched down with pegasus hooves onto the wispy surface of the overcast cloudbanks.  Her legs made contact.  She was standing upon the dark beds of cloud cover.  What had been nothing more than a permeable mist of disgust for two-and-a-half decades was suddenly a grand wafting plain of opaque fog—like a phantom shadow of the Ponyvillean valley—and the twilight above impersonated a childhood sky.

        Peacefully—in a tranquil pose—Scootaloo slowly trotted forward across the blackened clouds.  With each shuffling hoof, a patch of dark mist brightened strobingly from the deep lightning below, illuminating Scootaloo randomly during her 'walk'.  She didn't notice, for she had her eyes shut and her snout tilted skyward.  With her brown wings meditatively outstretched, the last pony took several deep breaths, and opened an invisible third eye.

        She saw Ms. Cheerilee's schoolhouse—or at least an effluent crimson shade of it.  And beyond the schoolhouse was a misty lake of crystal blue water flanked by ivory mountains.  The world blossomed with green beauty, like hair that had been shaved for years but was suddenly given the chance to grow again; and it bloomed all around her, kissing her with soft blades that swayed in a deep earthen wind.  There were living things in this shady dreamscape, things that fluttered and danced in the breeze instead of slicing mercenary paths through it.  And the children—the foals flocked to her, smiling, inviting Scootaloo across the playground into a game of Red Rover.  Sweetie Bell's horn glistened in the morning mist, and Apple Bloom's drawling laughter filled the schoolyard with an undercurrent of static excitement, like being at the edge of a waterfall, or prancing along the fringes of the Everfree Forest, or gazing through the window of Sugarcube Corner while the sounds of streetside musicians reverberated off the freshly varnished wood of surrounding storefronts--

        --and the thunder swallowed it all once more, with misty black teeth that lurched and hummed dreadfully beneath the twilight expanse.  Scootaloo's scarlet eyes opened, and when they did they were not brimming with tears, but instead boiling with a steam of a different sort, a frothing burst of burning air that no amount of pressure forced upon the Harmony's boiler could ever hope to produce, a hissing outburst of blood-throttling menace that two and a half decades of levitating imprisonment had forged ever so demoniacally in the iron-wrought heart of one solitary hoofed creature doomed to aimlessly skim the gray leprous flesh of the planet.

        And she screamed.  All of her hate and all of her pain and all of her regret she screamed into the gray-on-gray horizons lingering before her, until her wailing voice outroared the great thunder booming from below and scared the strobes of lightning off into hiding, until all of the Equestrian Wasteland finally knew what it had taken from her, and that she was the only living being in the history of time that was capable of giving anything back.

        And when the scream was done, and her wings were still heaving as she stood shakily on the womb of the buckling cloudbeds, it was not a sob that graced her face, it was not even a sneer; it was a smirk.


        

        Spike was busying himself with a series of chemical vials in the center of his laboratory when the trap door to Twilight's former treehouse slammed wide open above him.  He turned calmly to see a breathless brown pegasus soaring down and hovering wide-eyed in front of the dragon.

        “Send me back, Spike!”  Scootaloo panted.  “Send me back in time!”

        “Now Scootaloo,” the sagely dragon pointed with a clawed finger.  “Have you adequately thought about what you're—?”

        “There is no thinking,” she glared at him.  “There is only now.  And I am sick to death of now.”

        He raised an eyecrest at that.

        She frowned and growlingly reiterated:  “I'm ready, Spike.  I'm ready to do this.  Send me to the past.”

        Gradually, he smiled.  A gentle nodding of his headcrests.  “As you wish, old friend.”


The End of Ponies – by short skirts and explosions

Chapter Six – Where You Lay Your Head

        “You will be sent to four months before the Cataclysm.  It's important, Scootaloo, that you get a lay of the land in advance of the destruction of Equestria, so that we may both in the present compile all of the things that you have observed, so as to determine what was the cause of the horror.”

        “But why bind me to Ms. Cheerilee?”  The last pony asked.  She stepped back and watched as her purple dragon companion moved several large bits of equipment with his iron-wrought limbs, making an open space across the floor of his cavernous laboratory.  “She's sweet and all—But wouldn't she be the least likely pony in Equestria's past to have an answer to what happened?  Why not just bind me to Princess Celestia so that I could talk directly to her and get this whole thing over with?”

        “That would be an extremely solid solution,” Spike nodded, his violet neck pendant dangling, “if it was possible.”  He brushed the rocky floor clean with a green-crested tail before producing a crystal vial of ashes from a nearby cabinet.  Using nimble fingers, he started drawing an alchemic circle across the floor with the powdery dust.  “Alas, though contacting Princess Celestia would certainly give us the best possible perspective on the eve of the Cataclysm, I cannot send you back in time bound directly to her soul.”

        “Why not?”  Scootaloo made a face as she watched the mystical designs take form under the dragon's careful motions.  “I thought you said that the ponies you could bind me to were friends of yours!  Didn't you brush tails with the Princess on multiple occasions as she mentored Twilight Sparkle back in Canterlot?”

        

        “To think of Princess Celestia as a friend of mine is most humbling,” he smiled.  “And undeniably true.  But no matter how attuned I may have been with the Royal Alicorns of Canterlot, I would be a fool to think that I could in any way target the essence of a Goddess' soul.  Even if I was the most powerful dragon that had ever lived, I would never be capable of binding any time-traveling creature to the life force of Celestia or Luna.  Once a mortal, always a mortal; three hundred years of experience is but a pindrop, you see.”

        “If you say so,” Scootaloo mumbled.  She gulped and glanced briefly about the colorful instruments and chemicals that sparkled across the laboratory, feeling suddenly like she was stumbling before the plank of a very intimidating launchpad aimed into a sea of green fire.  “But—still—Ms. Cheerilee?  How do I expect a lone school teacher to help us out after I tell her that her whole world is going to die?”

        “You don't.”

        Scootaloo's scarlet eyes bugged.  “I don't?”

        “Scootaloo, you are going back to be an observer.  It is you who must find out about the future, not them.”

        “You're joking!”  Her face contorted as she backtrotted in disbelief.  “Spike, if you and I are gonna be serious about unearthing the mystery of the Cataclysm, we're gonna need all the help we can get!  And I can't do diddly squat if I pretend like nothing is going to happen to all the ponies who I meet in the past!”

        “The fact that you know what is going to happen is certainly sufficient enough for you to accomplish your tasks, child,” Spike said, finishing the circle and sprinkling the remaining dust back into his crystal vial.  “But where your knowledge is an asset to you, I am afraid it will only be a deterrent to them.  If you arrive back in time as a harbinger of doom, you will not scrounge up information.  You will only arouse panic.”

        “But maybe that's the key!”  Scootaloo's eyes glistened as she leaned up towards him.  “Spike, if we tell everyone what happens, maybe we could—”

        “—stop something that will transpire anyways, as is in accordance with the immutable flow of time?”  He stared deeply at her, his eyes hanging like cold emeralds.

        She deflated, scruffing at the rocky floor with a wayward hoof.  “But... Something has to be done, Spike.  This... This just doesn't feel right.  There's so much pretense about what you're sending me in the past to do.  You know, I've done a lot of harsh things in the Wasteland to survive.  I've lied to many soulless creatures and I've cheated several mercenaries who I knew would only swindle me in the future.  But in the the living land of Equestria, all I will find are ponies.  And to me, any pony is a friend.  I don't think I can lie to friends like I've attempted to manipulate everything else within hoof of these Wastes.”

        “I'm sending you back in the past, Scootaloo, because I know that you are resourceful, intelligent, and brave.  But more than any of those attributes, there is one quality that you must master in order to succeed in your newest endeavor.”

        “And what is that, pray tell?”

        “Subtlety.”

        She frowned at him.  “I don't do subtle.”

        “Hrmmm...What a surprise,” he half-chuckled, nostrils fuming playfully.  “Well, I suggest you stretch yourself in that area, old friend.  Because where you are about to go, subtlety is richer than oxygen.  Once you've landed, I suggest you take many long even breaths before you so much as talk to a single pony.”

        “Just h-how long am I going to be there?”  She asked with a brief bout of nervousness.

        “I've stored up enough green flame in my enchanted fire glands to send you back for a period of five to seven days,” Spike counted his clawed fingers for emphasis.  “Remember, because you'll be bound to Cheerilee, it is important that you do not leave more than forty meters from her position—Or else your soul will no longer be anchored to its source in the past.”

        “What happens either way?”  Scootaloo blinked.  “If the five days run out or if I walk 'out of bounds' of the teacher?”  She gulped, “D-Do I die in a puff of smoke?”

        “If you call speedily returning to this laboratory in the presence of my wholesome company 'deadly', then certainly!” the elder dragon chuckled.  “Fear not, Scootaloo.  As you are not truly your physical self in the past, you will be oblivious to pain, hunger, and even exhaustion.  Your manifested soul-self will be akin to a projection of your essence—The only ones who will think that you are real are those in the past who observe you.  So try and make a good first impression.”

        “B-But what if they recognize me?”  She suddenly winced.

        “I seriously doubt you'll have to worry about that,” Spike stated matter-of-factly.  “You'll hardly resemble your past self.  For that matter, you'll hardly resemble anypony at all—HehehAhem...”  His face glinted at her in a sudden sheen of melancholy.  “And in speaking of your past self...”

        The mare stared up at him forlornly.

        He said, “Though we both know that bumping into your foalish copy will hardly have an effect on the immutable passage of time, I would still advise against it.  Meeting a doppleganger from the past is... existentially exhausting, to say the least.”

        “I-I'll take your word for it,” she said in a dry voice.  “I really have no intention of doing that anyways,” she murmured, turned, and trotted firmly into the circle.  “Now send my butt back already!”

        “Very well,” he nodded his green crested head, bounded around her, and perched on a mound of gemstones flanking the alchemic circles.  “Remember, Scootaloo, subtlety,” he gestured as his shadow stood over her.  Subtlety is the key to success—”

        “Yeah yeah—I get the picture—”

        “And patience, Scootaloo.  If you expect to be there as long as my flames permit, then you will make no progress by rushing things.  Once you've arrived back in time, try not to make any harsh decisions.  Be calm, be serene, be friendly, or just be silent if you wish.  Most of all, watch, listen, observe; and once you've made contact with Cheerilee or any of our other acquaintances, be discreet with them, be courteous, and after you have won their trust—Then and only then may you attempt to proceed higher among the Equestrian strata, and hopefully even contact Princess Celestia herself.  You will do well expecting this to be a gradual, systematic, and even relaxing process.  Who knows?  Perhaps you may even enjoy yourself,” he finished with a smile.

        “Enjoy myself?”  Scootaloo let loose a girlish laugh.  She stood boldly in the center of the circles as she balked at him.  “Now I know you're fooling with me, Spike.”

        “Hardly, child.  I do so sincerely wish for our 'experiment' here to succeed, for the sake of Equestria's future.  But, more importantly, I hope that you will earn from this something that will bring you both peace and contentment.”

        “Spike, I'll worry about closure when I'm dead.”

        He nodded.  “I was afraid of that.”  He pointed.  “Close your eyes, Scootaloo.”

        She squinted at him in brief perplexity, but ultimately obeyed.  With a shuddering breath, she allowed the world to turn dark around her.  Her coat's hairs stood on end as she felt the sterile cold air around her, expecting all of it to start burning off her body in the simple flash of a green torch.  Just as she began settling her trembling limbs, she sensed a dim aura spilling through her eyelids.  A high pitched vibration filled the suddenly static air.  Her heart started racing, and she clenched her teeth tight, preparing to plummet at any moment.  Instead, she was struck with a far more alien sensation, a wave of frosted powder billowing over her figure.

        Scootaloo couldn't help it.  Her scarlet eyes flew open, and she gasped to see a layer of dust blanketing her mane, forehead, and hooves.  The coarse gray filament matched the material that formed the now-green-glowing alchemic circles beneath her.  Jaw quivering, she gazed up at Spike.  “Wh-Whose ashes are th-these...?”

        His body was a somber shadow with cold marble eyes.  “Cheerilee's,” he said, closing a jar once more in his grasp.

        “Wh-What?” she stammered.

        “I'm sorry, Scootaloo.  It's the only way.”  He leaned forward, opened his mouth, and covered half of the room in vaporous emerald light.

        “Spike—!” she started, but suddenly saw his image slide away from her at two million kilometers a second.  She was screaming backwards down a quivering snake skin of hundreds of refracting lenses, eating away at her flesh and bone with acidic clouds of forest-green chaos.  The ivory band of Cheerilee's powdery ashes wafted off of her and coalesced around the pegasus' echoing heartbeat like a porcelain cocoon; and at the bottom of the typhoonesque collapse, the ashen egg broke away and deposited a grunting pony into a warm basin of color, smells, and life.  “NnghWait!” Scootaloo shouted, but her voice wasn't hers.

        Her eyes flickered under the curtain of a gasp, then squinted, for a very foreign beacon of light was once more slicing its way up an alien sky, cradling her in its solar arms.  Hissing, sputtering for breath, the mare wobbled up to her knees and stared up into the Sun, a thing she hadn't done in so many years that she briefly forgot what a danger it was.  And yet, as long as she stared, her eyes weren't burning, as if they were made of queerly stronger stuff than granite.

        She needed focus, so Scootaloo finally ripped her gaze from the Sun and looked around her.  She saw the porcelain Southern Mountains, the crystal-blue lake at the base of the hills, the billowing edges of the Everfree Forest, and—coasting over the edge of a warm and sizzling eastern horizon—the first of many gold thatched rooftops that prophesied the edge of downtown Ponyville.

        “Oh Spike...” she murmured in a whimpering voice, once more a breath that sounded alien to her, but she hardly cared.  “You didn't send me into the past, you sent me to heaven.”  She bit her lip and tried to steady herself as the emotions flooded back in a single overwhelming heap.  Scootaloo felt her lungs quivering, her pants coming out in tiny hyperventilating chirps.  She tried to remember something that the purple dragon had taught her, about taking steady breaths, about being serene, about blending in with her surroundings.  But as her eyes watered and her limbs quivered, she couldn't take into account any of those things, instead searching, gazing, piercing the sky for the one thing.  “The r-rainbow, wh-where is it...?”

        She looked once more above the crystalline reflective surface of the lake.  The prismatic band was gone.  There was a lot less fog and decidedly more heat than the last time Spike had sent her to this spot.  It took a few dumbfounded moments for Scootaloo to realize why; this was the afternoon, not the morning.  In two and a half decades of Equestrian grayscape, the mare had forgotten that there used to be a time cycle within the span of a day.  And yet, her heart rejoiced at the revelation; it was like riding her scooter again.

        Her scooter... her childhood... Equestria.  “Praise Celestia, it's all so magnificent,” the voice inside her half-sobbed.  She limped forward on stoned legs, nearly drooling.  “Now where's that dang schoolhouse?  I'm liable to kiss Cheerilee when I see—ACK!”

        She shrieked as she suddenly slid down a long incline of red wooden shingles.  Uncontrollably, she smacked into the belltower on the schoolhouse's roof, toppled over twice, and fell like an anvil off the side of the building where she had materialized back in time.

        “Ummmfff!”  She plunged into a wide drinking trough standing aside the playground, snout first.  “Blbllblllb—”  Scootaloo tossed herself out in a sputtering spray of water and plopped hard into the dirt, gasping for air.  Fully soaked, she instinctually shook her coat into a flimsy facsimile of dryness and shuddered:  “Wh-What did Spike say about taking deep breaths?  Oh yeah, duh.”

        She tilted her snout up to glance across the playground, and in so doing she peripherally noticed a wet mat of mane-hair curling over the side of her neck.  Blinking, she raised a hoof to push some of the threads into closer view.  What she saw was a soaked cluster of black threads, with the faintest hint of amber.  Her face scrunched as she glanced every which way, then ultimately turned to face the water trough.

        Trotting over and peering in, she watched as the liquid surface settled from her brief collapse into the basin.  As the water smoothed, the reflection of a strange pegasus came into being, a young filly with a rusted copper coat, like the color of earthen clay, from her hooves to her feathery wings, shining far brighter and richer than the dull brown coat of future Scootaloo, or even the orange sheen that she had as a foal.  And instead of violet or aged-scarlet eyes, there reflected twin marbles of bright amber, as if sculpted out of the vein of a tree in spring.  Finally, her mane flowed with an elegant sheen of black silken threads—with a thin streak of amber running down the middle that matched the color of her blinking eyes.

        “Well, hello there,” she murmured with drunken amusement into the bobbing reflection.  “Who are you?”  She finally took a moment to recognize the strange voice coming out of her.  Just like everything else about her 'projection', the voice was different, younger than her future self, but still laced with the same inflection and murmuring qualities of her experienced soul.  She judged that, whoever she looked like, she appeared no older than twenty-two winters, which—for the time—placed her about the same age as Fluttershy, Twilight Sparkle, and many of the older ponies whom Scootaloo looked up to in her youthful days.  It all seemed strangely, even fatefully appropriate; all fears about anypony recognizing her flew out an invisible window.  If she could somehow come back to the future looking and sounding like this, she was certain even Spike himself would scratch a scaled head in confusion.

        The transplanted mare ran a hoof one more time through her obsidian threads, before a sudden movement in front of her grabbed her attention.  Glancing up, she realized that she was standing in front of a window to the schoolhouse.  A veil of curtains hung over the pane, but there was a ruby shadow shuffling from within, followed by a muffled feminine voice and several young murmurs replying in cadence.  Twenty-five-and-a-quarter years into the past, school was in session; Scootaloo's heart skipped a beat.  She glanced at the warm landscape buzzing around her, she smelled the crisp spring air, she heard the singing of birds and the murmur of cicadas.  Spike's Ponyvillean terrarium was a pathetic pindrop in the great throbbing basin of life now encompassing her, hugging her.  She had every reason to stand right there and soak in that moment forever.

        She didn't.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        

        “Can anyone tell me what a harpy is?”  Several hooves lifted into the classroom air with mixed levels of enthusiasm.  A mare sporting a joyful mane of fuchsia looked over her students and picked out the most eager of the bunch.  “Yes, Snips?  Do you know?”

        “Oh—!  Uhm—A harpy is like that cutie mark on the lady who owns the music store downtown!”  A chorus of giggles lit the room.  The turquoise-coated unicorn in the center of the laughing circle sunk shamefully in his desk seat.

        The ruby-coated schoolteacher chuckled sweetly.  “No no, Snips—And for clarification, Ms. Lyra's cutie mark is aptly named a 'lyre', not a 'harp'.”  Cheerilee cleared her throat and smiled at all of the students.  “A harpy is a sentient creature that resembles a falcon.  It has the body of a bird of prey, including sharp talons and broad wings, but its upper half consists of the head of a simian.”  She trotted over towards a picture stand and unveiled a poster of the avarian monstrosity.  Half of the class gasped, the other half murmured 'ooohs' and stared forward with tilting interest.  “Over ninety percent of their population is female.  They feast mostly on the meat of rodents and smaller birds, and they live in nocturnal clusters along the bluffs of the Eastern Ocean Shore.”

        “Ewwww,” a pink coated pony with a tiara for a cutie mark made a wretching face.  “Like—Who in their right mind would actually eat meat?”

        “Yeah, that's so gross!”  A silver filly mirrored her friend's nauseated voice from one desk over.  “They'd might as well just chomp on each other!”

        “Hmmm... An understandable reaction,” Cheerilee nodded.  “Eating meat is very taboo in pony culture.  But, as a matter of fact, there are many sentient creatures in Equestria who eat meat on a regular basis, such as our allies, the Griffons to the North.  And they live out their lives in relative peace and tranquility.”  She motioned once more to the beastly picture propped before the class.  “Even many harpies today live a pacifist existence.  But that hasn't always been the case.  Equestria used to be swarming with violent flocks of the creatures, ruthless pirates who ravaged the countryside during the Chaos Wars that preceded the Second Age.  And—”  Cheerilee's gaze glanced up at the clopping sound of hooves, and her green eyes twitched.  Something of a grimace graced her figure, but she suppressed it at the last second, clearing her throat and smiling presently in the company of the little foals.  “Ahem—Erm... Why, h-hello there!  Is there—uhm—something I can help you with?”

        The faces of three dozen foals twisted confusedly.  With the creaking of wooden desk seats, they gradually turned around to see a curious sight at the back of the classroom.  A young adult pegasus stood, her long black mane a wet and tangled mess, her copper coat dripping a puddle of moisture over the floorboards.  The open doors basked her in a platinum aura, like a golden visitor from beyond.  Nopony knew any wiser.

        Scootaloo gulped, dumbly gazing at the forty-odd young sets of eyes blinking up at her, the first time in years that any ponies had stared at her ever.  Her heart was beating so hard, she had a difficult time standing.  To keep her legs from wobbling, she stepped a hoof forward, but jumped the first moment she saw the foals' bright eyes moving along with her.  Clenching her teeth, she leaned back into a row of bookshelves and gulped, exhaling in a wheeze:  “H-Hi...”

        “Hello.”  “Hiya.”  “Hi there.”  “Hello, ma'am.”  “Hello'm.”  “Hi.”

        “Hoboy,” Scootaloo shuddered, a sore lump forming in her throat.  So many eyes.  So many ashes.  A wave of gray overcast washed over her vision until her last blink ended, and the schoolroom was staring at her once again, the many young faces scrunching in confusion.  There was not a single frightened expression amongst them.  The last pony suddenly felt like hugging every single one—

        “Did you have a delivery of school supplies to make?”  Cheerilee's chirpy voice rocked Scootaloo back onto her hooves.  “The deposit box is out in the back.  I happen to... uh... to be teaching class at the moment.”  She cleared her voice and added with a wink.  “Unless you want to take a seat and learn about the carnivorous habit of harpies!”

        Rows of seats giggled amusedly.

        “N-No, I... I-I...”  Scootaloo murmured, trotting slowly around the circumference of the one-room class as the many heads swiveled innocently to follow her.  “Er—I m-mean yes.  I'm... a delivery pony... Or something like that... Y-Yes...”  Her voice deflated under a raspy air of nervous choking.  She coughed, shook her wet black mane a bit drier, and stumbled into a pole bearing the flag of the Celestial Crest.  She winced, jitteringly set the rocking banner still, and stood back on four hooves.  “J-Just, passing through... and... uhm...”

        “Who sent you?”  Cheerilee spoke in a suddenly hushed voice that was meant for the two of them alone.  She trotted over slightly.  “Do you have a working permit?”

        “I... uhm...”  Scootaloo turned and instinctively tilted her head up, until she realized she had to lower her face to stare Cheerilee eye-to-eye.  “Jeez, you're shorter than I remembered!”

        The schoolteacher's green eyes blinked crookedly at that.

        Suddenly, a filly gasped girlishly from the front row and pointed an excited hoof.  “Oooooh!  Look at her cutie mark!”

        “Wowwww!”  “That's so awesome!”  “Coool!”  “I've never seen one like that!”  “Pretttttty!”

        Cheerilee seized the moment, her face brightening as she stood aside the visitor's flank.  “Oh, yes!  It is a most splendid cutie mark, isn't it!”

        “Huh?” Scootaloo blinked at the teacher.  She glanced back at her hindquarters and did a double-take, her amber eyes exploding.  “Holy manure castles!”  Emblazoned across her copper coat was an elaborate masterpiece of magical branding.  A celestial ring of black and amber sunflares encircled an obsidian pair of loops, like a stretched-out figure '8'.  Judging from its sideways angle, it had to have been some natural version of the 'infinity' symbol, complete with what could be best described as an abstract mimic of the Celestial Crest.  Scootaloo performed a few dashing glances back and forth from her sudden mark to the flag in the corner of the schoolroom just to be sure, and there was no doubt about it.  “Well, if that isn't the most awesome thing ever that ever awesome'd...”

        “Class—Remember our lessons on the cutie mark last month?  Can anyone tell me what that crest on her flank means?”  A few hooves rose up.  Cheerilee pointed towards the center of the room.  “Yes, Twist?”

        “It means that she's in the Royal Service of Canterlot Court!”

        “Royal Service of What-Now?”  Scootaloo made a sweating face.

        “Absolutely, Twist!”  Cheerilee grinned, standing boldly next to the immeasurably confused visitor.  “All ponies born with that crest are lucky enough to become servants in Princess Celestia's Court!  It means they get to live out their lives as overseers and watchhorses, spreading the Sun Goddess' influence far and wide and maintaining order across Equestria!  We're very lucky to have this special guest here with us, today!”

        The teacher spun and grinned in Scootaloo's face with a sudden foalish giddiness as she hopped in place, whispering:

        “IsthisabouttherequestforthefieldtriptovisittheCanterlotlianGardens?”

        Scootaloo's copper temples lost grip of a sizable sweatdrop.  “I-I... Actually, I-I just wanted to—”

        “Most esteemed servant to her Highness, Princess Celestia...!”  Cheerilee proudly swept her erect snout towards the classroom, her voice like a sugar-coated megaphone.  “...why don't you grace the students with what exactly it is that you do for our Keeper of the Sun!”

        The copper mare's eyes bulged.  She glanced nervously across the rows upon rows of pastel colored eyes staring felicitously at her.  It was a veritable sea of infant lungs holding a giant breath in anticipation of Scootaloo's next charming words...

        “I... I-I deliver... P-Packages for the... Royal... R-Royal Office of... uhm...,” She blinked.  “Fl-Flamestones.”  She winced, but brightened slightly as the class murmured in awe at her fabrication.

        “What's a Flamestone?” a spritely redhead with thick eyeglasses gaped.

        “A flamestone...” Scootaloo exhaled, speaking suddenly with natural ease:  “Ahem.  It's a type of gem that has been enchanted with elemental red flame as a result of severe compression brought upon by the collapsing chunks of the moon that collided with the face of the Equestrian Wasteland immediately after the Caaaaaat-aaaaa-clyyyyyysmmmmm—”  Her face twisted into an endless wince as she swiftly registered the words that had been spat out of her mouth.

        The class stared prolongly at her, a mosaic of blank faces.  A long necked unicorn, his brown face scrunched, throated:  “Derr—What's a cat of clysm?”

        “It m-means a destructive event that forever changes the face of the Earth—Excuse me, class,” Cheerilee nervously spun around and looked worriedly in Scootaloo's face.  “Ma'am, is everything alright?  No offense, but you don't look or sound too well.  Are you feeling ill?”  Cheerilee's green eyes blinked.  “Ma'am?”

        Scootaloo was staring at the children, face after face, snout after snout, horns and ears and manes—But no hairbows.  “Wh-Where is Apple Bloom...?”  She murmured in a childish voice.

        “Erm—The Apple Family's daughter is home sick for the day.  Ahem—May I have a word with you in the atrium for a quick moment—?”

        “They're all going to die...” Scootaloo slurred, her eyes quivering at all of the happy, innocent faces.  “Every single one of them.”  She hissed through clenched teeth and tilted her wincing snout ceilingward in a maddening stupor.  “This building—I've seen it from the clouds.  Not one stone is lying on top of another...”

        “M-Ma'am!”  Cheerilee gasped, nervously glancing from the class to the pegasus and back.  She leaned into her, nudging a little.  “Please—Let's take this into the other room.  You'll scare the children—”

        At the word 'scare', Scootaloo's eyes flashed open.  Trailing on her lashes were scores of lantern-lit memories, of ink-leathery trolls thrashing at her through the darkness, of billowing stormfronts that threatened to tear her zeppelin apart, of lonely nights spent lying in a swaying hammock and reading about the immortal sorrows of a dead Princess.  A pained breath surfaced at the base of her lungs and came out in the form of a menacing snarl.  She had seen the world consumed in fire, and she had ridden the tongues of flames back to this shuddering moment in time.  The holocaust had to end somewhere.

        “I'm sorry, Spike.  But screw it.”  She spun and stared daggers into Cheerilee's eyes.  “You.  You need to contact Princess Celestia now.”

        “M-Me...?”  The ruby-coated teacher wilted backwards.  She chuckled nervously, “B-But I'm not the Royal Servant to the Court of Canterlot!  You're the one qualified to—”

        “Will you stuff it with this 'Royal Servant' nonsense?!” Scootaloo barked, eliciting several foalish gasps from the classroom.  She took a few vicious hoofsteps towards the teacher.  “The only business I'm here for is to send a message.  And it's a message that has to be sent to Princess Celestia!  Nobody else!  And I don't have much time—”

        “I-I can't be expected to leave th-this classroom now to deliver anything!”  Cheerilee briefly frowned.  “Even if I could contact the Princess—”

        “This is not a joke!”  Scootaloo snarled, her voice echoing across the schoolroom as she leered above Cheerilee.  “Something horrible is going to happen!  Something really bad!  Ponies are going to die—Not just some ponies, but everypony—”

        “Please—You're making a scene—”

        “Dang right I am!  Now let's stop beating around the bush and go see the Princess!  I'm not going to be here forever—Time is of the essence!  And, girl, you have no idea how true that statement is!”

        “Uhm...I don't know what you're—”

        “The end of ponies!” Scootaloo's amber eyes flared as she breathed in desperate heaves.  “A burning wave of magic that will render all of equine life to ash!  You have no idea—No clue what kind of devastation I'm talking about!  The Sun and the Moon—They will be gone!  Vanished!  Leaving nothing but endless twilight—”

        Scootaloo's voice stopped, her ear pricking for having heard something like a whimper.  She gazed aside and twitched to see the four-eyed redhead cowering behind her desk, her glasses fogged.  To her sides and behind her, several more students were trembling, scrunched away from the sight of the rambling stranger.  There were tears, tears...

        “No no no—It's... It's not so bad—I mean, yes, it is bad—” Scootaloo smiled crookedly, trying to straighten her frazzled black threads as she trotted towards the desks.  The entire classroom shrugged away from her in one fluid jolt.  She stopped in her tracks and gulped.  “Okay—So it's terrible.  But m-most of you are still young, so—Uh—You should be enjoying all of this while it lasts!  Everypony dies at some point, but it's just the nature of—”  A few more confused sobs filled the air.  Scootaloo snarled:  “Look, it's not like I brought the end of the world, okay?  So don't be scared of me!”  They still trembled and shivered.  She barked:  “I said don't be scared!”

        The foals winced, covering their eyes to avoid her snarling gaze.  She blinked at them, starting to hyperventilate as the impossible situation crumbled more and more.  There was a whispering sound towards the rear of the room.  She spun around to see that Cheerilee was no longer by her side; instead the jittery teacher was squatting besides the long-necked unicorn, murmuring into the colt's ear.

        “Snails, go to the corner of Fifth and McCracken, and fetch Officer Silvertrot.”

        “Y-Yes, Ms. Cheerilee,” the boy nervously jolted, bounded out of his seat, and galloped out of the school entrance.

        “Wh-What are you doing—?”  Scootaloo blinked wildly.

        Cheerilee motioned towards the doors, trotting over to shut them.  “Why don't you just calm down and have a seat—”

        “NO!”  Scootaloo rushed over, forcing Cheerilee to jump.  “Don't leave!  Don't—”  She nudged Cheerilee away from the door and smiled in a frazzled mess.  “G-Good.  Don't leave me—If you walk away too far, I-I might vanish and go back to the future—”

        “Th-The future?” Cheerilee gazed at her, dumbfounded.

        “It's a long story.  But that's not for you to hear,” Scootaloo patted the teacher's wincing shoulder.  “That's for the Princess.  She'll understand—Or at least she'd better.  She can't prevent the world from ending, but maybe she can help me figure out how it happened—”  She grunted at the sound of several sobs and flashed a frown over her shoulder.  “Stop crying!  It'll all be fine!  I just gotta talk to the Princess—”

        “Maybe you should just sit down and I'll prepare a letter—”

        “Not a stupid letter, girl!  I need to talk to Princess Celestia personally!”  Scootaloo exclaimed.  She suddenly started at a sight over Cheerilee's flank.  Through a sunny window, she could see the unicorn colt galloping back with two blue uniformed adult ponies in tow.  “Y-You fetched the police on me?”

        “I-I...” Cheerilee shivered, staring forlornly at the distraught classroom and then back at the raving pegasus.  “P-Please, just t-try to stay calm, Ma'am—”

        “No, that's good!”  Scootaloo beamed, clasping Cheerilee's wide-eyed face with a pair of hooves.  “Go on and call the police!  Fetch the Royal Guard while you're at it!  I need Princess Celestia's attention!  She's gotta know one way or another—Nnnngh!—Oh Goddess, this sunlight feels so good!” she briefly panted as she gazed out the window to happily watch the arrival of the police.  “It's like I'm on fire—but in a good way.  I wonder if I'll see the sunset?!  It's been ages since I've seen a sunset!  The world is so cold and dead and lifeless—I've forgotten just how... just how... Nnngh!”  She spat over her shoulder again.  “Stop crying already!  I thought ponies were stronger than this—!”

        “I-I got 'em, Mrs. Cheerilee!”  Snails panted suddenly from the back of the room.  He bowed out of the way as two tall colts marched in, gazing sternly in Scootaloo's direction.

        “Ma'am, is there a problem?”

        “Stallions!... Ha HA!”  Cheerilee guffawed and clapped her hooves, wide-eyed.  “Dang it to blazes—Where were you after I hit puberty?!”  She cleared her throat, straightened her lips, and strongly orated, “I need to see Princess Celestia right away.”

        One uniformed colt raised his eyebrow.  “Is that a fact?”

        “Absolutely.  I don't care if you need to arrest me or whatever—Just take me to her.  This can't wait.”

        “And what exactly is it that can't wait, ma'am?”  The two colts marched towards her.

        She eyed them warily, her wings flexing.  “How many times am I going to have to spell it out and to how many ponies?”  She furrowed her brow.  “Four months from now, the world is going to end in fire!  Every living pony is going to turn to ash while the Sun and Moon die!  I need to talk to the Princess and figure out how this is going to happen so I can undo the damage that will be done!”

        The officers glanced at the wilting sight of the classroom, then back at the pegasus.  “How about you just come with us—?”

        “Yes.  Fine.  Take me—But as long as we talk to the Princess!”

        “Th-Thank you, officers,” Cheerilee murmured, backtrotting towards the classroom.  “I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't—”

        Scootaloo gasped at her.  “Don't you stay here!”  She shouted and leaped towards her.  “We have to stay together!  Or else I'll be zapped forward in time—”  She jolted as the two police ponies suddenly grabbed her by the flank and tail.  “Nnngh—Let go!

        “Easy now—!”  The colts struggled and applied their weight.  “You've done quite enough—!”

        “Didn't you hear me?”  Scootaloo wrangled her wings under one of the colts with veteran tenacity and easily flung the surprised officer across the room so that he crashed into a filing cabinet, forcing the room full of foals to shriek.  “We have to stay together!  I'm not even going to pretend to argue with you!”

        “Ma'am!  If you don't calm down, we'll be forced to—!”

        “The world is going to die in flames and you're telling me to 'calm down'?”  Scootaloo snarled and lowered on her haunches, her copper wings pointed threateningly at the two officers as they stumbled back onto their hooves and circled her.  “I'm not going to ask this again, you good-for-nothing punks!  Take me to the Princess or I will—”

        “It's alright!”  Cheerilee suddenly ran in the officers' way, blocking the space between them and the menacing pegasus.  “Please—It's okay.  Th-There's no need for a struggle.”  She gulped.  “I'll go with her to see the Princess.”  She turned from the blinking stallions and smiled gently at Scootaloo.  Her coat was a ruby glaze of cold sweat.  “We're not going to get separated, okay?  Just stick with me—We'll go see the Princess together.”

        Scootaloo breathed easier.  She stood up straight and rode the cresting descent of adrenaline in her bloodstream.  “Whew... That's more like it!  Looks like at least one pony in Equestria gives a crap about the future!”  She trotted towards the schoolhouse entrance, pausing to look back and make sure Cheerilee was walking with her as well.  She smiled as the teacher strolled up.  “I'm so sorry to be such a bother, but you g-gotta understand how important this is...”

        “Oh, absolutely!”  Cheerilee grinned back.  “You've obviously been through an awful lot, and it's so very noble of you to give us this warning.  I'm sure Princess Celestia will be in your debt—Not to mention all of Ponyville.”

        “I'm not doing all of this for glory or fame—I just want to find a way to make my world sunny again.  You like sunsets, don't you?”

        “Indubitably!”  Cheerilee nodded, briefly glancing back and squinting at the two colts.  The officers followed as the four of them marched away from the schoolyard and towards the fringes of Ponyville.  “If you would follow me, ma'am, I know a place where we can send a telegram to Princess Celestia—”

        “I thought I frickin' told you I needed to speak to her face to face!

        “Oh, but of course!  But the telegrams are sent by pegasi like you—This will be the fastest we can get her to come see us!”

        “Oh, well that's just fine.  Yes, just fine—Nnnngh—Gawd, this grass is so amazing!  Isn't the grass amazing?  There's no grass in the future, y'know...”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        “And the birds?  Nope.  All dead.  Isn't that a shame?  Though, to be frank, I never cared much for chickens.  But that's a story that I won't get into.”

        “Uh huh,” Cheerilee nodded as the two ducked into the rear door of a two-story cinderblocked building on the edge of Ponyville.  The sounds of theirs and the officers' hooves echoed across brightly lit corridors as they took a left, a right, and descended a series of steps into a dimly lit basement.  “You certainly miss a lot of things where you come from.”

        “Pfft—I'm just rambling off a list of random crud that I see.  Do forgive me,” Scootaloo chuckled against her shadows on the walls.  “It's just been so long since I talked to another pony—What with them all being dead and stuff.  I'm amazed that I didn't take to talking to myself after so many years of being alone.  I used to always think that's what bums did.  But wait—Did Ponyville have bums?  I must be getting my memories mixed up with that one summer I spent at a foster home in Manehattan.  Boy did I laugh when I found that place flooded with sea water after the Cataclysm.”

        “Wow—That does sound funny!”  Cheerilee droned, her smile a plastic one as she finally stopped in her tracks, glancing over Scootaloo's shoulders and towards the officers.

        “Pfft—Why would you find that funny?”  Scootaloo smirked, blinked, then glanced stupidly around the basement.  There were several barred rooms lining the corridor.  “Wait, where in the hay are we—?”

        Suddenly, both colts gave her a vicious shove.  She stumbled—gasping—into one of the jail cells, collapsing onto the floor as the metal barred door was slammed shut behind her.  She sputtered, gasped, and clamored up to her hooves.

        “No—NO!”  She ran up and rammed the door with her full weight.  The bars clanged and rattled, filling the basement with a thunderous echo.  Even the officers jumped back at her unnatural strength, but breathed easier as the doors held.  “Don't do this!” Scootaloo shouted.  “I'm so close to contacting the Princess!  If you just allow me to speak with her—”  She blinked, and her eyes narrowed on the quivering face of Cheerilee.  “You lied to me, didn't you?”

        “Th-Thank you, officers,” the ruby-haired schoolteacher finally broke down, collapsing into the hug of one of the uniformed colts as he gently patted her shoulder.  “I-I didn't know what else to do.  She was sc-scaring the ch-children.  I... I-I was afraid that she was going to do worse!

        “You did the right thing, Ms. Cheerilee,” the colt said, settling her trembling form.  “Bluestone,” he motioned towards the other officer.  “Go and fetch Nurse Red Heart.  See if she can use her fancy schmancy degree in psychiatry to sort this poor soul out.”

        “Roger.  On it.”  The other trotted away.

        “You... Y-You think I'm crazy?” Scootaloo murmured.  She frowned, then snarled—Banging against the bars.  “Well maybe there's a reason to be crazy!  Did you ever think of that?  What if you were the last living pony stuck in a world full of endless destruction and blood?!  You'd go crazy too!  But—dang it—I'm trying to do something good here!  We can save Equestria!  We can figure out why all this death and destruction happened—If you would just let me talk to the Princess!”

        “You'll talk to someone alright,” the officer nodded towards her, his face emotionless and cool.  “Now calm down or Nurse Heart's gonna have to replace these bars with something more padded!”  He moved Cheerilee away from the raving pegasus.  “You, have a seat.  I'll get you something to drink.  I already sent Officer Haybreeze to watch over your class.  Everything's gonna be fine.  Your kids are okay.”

        “H-How could anyone j-just walk up to a classroom of foals and d-disturb the peace like that?”  Cheerilee shuddered and sniffled as the two walked towards a couch just around the corner from Scootaloo's vision.  “In all my years of teaching, nothing like that ever happened?  What c-could that poor soul have gone through to be so lost...?”

        “I don't pretend to understand the mind of a pony, Ms. Cheerilee.  My only interest is to keep the peace.”

        The word 'peace' rang through Scootaloo's ears, laced with the distant gasps of Cheerilee's sobbing voice.  The breaths mutated into an invisible schoolroom full of frightened, quivering foals, their eyes brimming with tears, their eyes wide and horrified, their eyes staring at her.

        “Why is everyone so easily scared?”  She slumped down to her haunches and plowed her hooves through her flustered black mane.  “They have to know.  They have to know what's going to happen,” she stammered and quivered, rocking back and forth in the center of the dimly lit jail cell.  “We're all going to die.  We're all going to die.  I just want to tell them all.  I just want...”  She clenched her eyes shut as the images of the foals' frightened faces flashed once more across her mind in a spinning kaleidoscope.  “Nnnngh—No-No-No!  You do not know the horror!  Not like I do!  Stop crying—Stop it... Stop it... Stop--!”

        Suddenly, the cell lit up in a green aura.  Scootaloo gasped.  For a moment, she thought that one of the police ponies had trotted back with a lantern in his grasp.  But Cheerilee and Officer Silvertrot were seated well beyond sight.  And then the emerald glow flickered again, burning from the barren cot to the floorboards to the cinderblock foundation of the place.  The copper-coated Pegasus stood up, shivering, and watched as a sea of jade flames curtained across the room, billowed around her legs, and wafted over her.  A sudden rising sensation, like riding the Harmony up through a cloudbed, and Scootaloo's copper body burned to brown, her mane melted down into tiny violet stubble, and her eyes blinked from amber to scarlet.  She was standing numbly in the burnt out alchemic circles drawn into the stone floor of a cavernous laboratory, under the the shadow of a calmly gazing, unamused Spike.

        “I...” the last pony blinked.  “I-I'm back?  Already?”  She gazed up at the purple dragon, her face pale.  “B-But... But I thought I was supposed to be in the past for no less than five days!

        He stared at her, his green-crested chin propped on a hand of serrated claws.  “I distinctly remember saying that I had stored enough green flame to send you back for a week.  However, I did not state that I was indeed going to give you that much.”

        “But... B-But why, Spike?” Scootaloo gulped, trying to make her voice sound strong.  It came out in a whimper, “I thought you were sending me back to get information.”

        There was a knowing glint to Spike's emerald eyes as the elder dragon murmured:  “You said it yourself, Scootaloo.  You 'don't do subtle'.”  He planted both hands down and bent over to stare deep into her soul.  “You didn't follow an ounce of my advice, now did you?

        She wilted from his gaze, her eyes wavering like so many images of frightened foals still burned into her vision.  Guiltily, she hung her snout towards the dull circles and muttered:  “How did you know?”

        “Because I know you, Scootaloo,” the noble dragon paced around her and came to a stop in the center of the laboratory.  He reached over and rested a gentle hand on her shaved mane.  “And though you've learned countless things in your years, read innumerable books, survived hundreds of horrors, outrun packs of bloodthirsty monstrosities—You are still, underneath all of that, the same dashing, bold, courageous, howbeit impulsive little foal that nearly ran over fellow Ponyvilleans in the road with her scooter.”  His lips curved slightly.  “Underneath all of your hardened exterior, you are still that spunky little filly who once beat up a pair of colts for making fun of me, even though you didn't know that we were just joking around one rainy afternoon in April.  And that little dragon, though honored by the way you tried to defend me, couldn't help but wish that she had thought a little more with her senses, at least as much as she did with her heart.”

        She gnashed her teeth.  She gazed up at him with moist eyes.  “I told them, Spike.”

        “Told who, Scootaloo?”

        “Ms. Cheerilee.  These two police officers.  The... The f-foals...” she shuddered painfully.  “Th-They all heard me talking about the end of the world.  They thought I was rambling...”  A wince.  “And I was.  Dang it, I was.  But... But...”  She shivered and buckled.

        “Don't hold back, child—”

        “Do you really realize what you're asking me to do, Spike?!”  She shouted up at him, a tear or two trickling down her cheeks.  “You want me to keep this awful truth built up like a raging boiler inside of me!  And yet, I'm somehow supposed get these ponies to help me figure out why the world dies?  I have to tell someone, Spike!  How else am I going to learn anything?”

        “And surely you can share the truth, but you have to do it tactfully,” Spike said, stroking her mane and leaning down so his large snout was even with hers.  “Subtlety, Scootaloo.  I cannot emphasize it enough.  These ponies have not been through all the turmoils and struggles that you have.  If you go prancing through the streets, screaming that the world is going to end, what else can you expect from them but disbelief or utter shock?”

        “I was standing in the warmth of the Sun...” Scootaloo hiccuped, wiping her tears away with a trembling hoof.  “And there was grass, and birds, and the children—Oh Goddess—the children!  I scared them, Spike—I shouted at them.”  She clenched her eyes shut and trembled.  “I don't know why!  It was like... It was like—”

        “You were angry at them.”

        Her eyes flashed open.  She gazed sickly up at her old friend.  “How horrible is that?”  She breathed.  “What did they ever do for me to envy them so much?”

        “They died, Scootaloo.  All of them died, as you and I will someday die,” he said.  “Whatever the disaster, whatever the Cataclysm, it is still our greatest commonality.  There will always be time for pity and envy, as they are often two halves of the same misguided coin.  But that doesn't mean you should announce their doom while they're standing right in front of you.  Epithets are meant to be engraved on ponies' stones, not on their faces.”

        She paced over limply towards a lone laboratory table and slumped down against it.  She nuzzled her snout tiredly into a pair of folded hooves.  “What use is any of that now?”  She gazed up pathetically at the burnt diagram of the past and future on the cave wall, jaded lines plastered to an encircled 'X'.  “I blew it, Spike.  The first trip back in time, and I've blown my cover.  I've made a mess of everything.”

        “I wouldn't be so certain of that,” he said in a slight smile, shuffling across the room.  “Yes, a mess you indeed made.  But you've hardly ruined things.”

        “Oh really?!”  She tilted her gaze up at him, frowning.  “So terrorizing a classroom full of young children doesn't qualify as 'ruining things'?  You've spent waaaaay too many centuries inside a mountain, Spike.”

        “Like a good lab assistant, I've done my homework,” the elder dragon remarked as he thumbed his clawed fingers through a shelf of parchments.  Finally, he pulled out a rolled-up scroll that resembled a flake of scrap paper in his monstrous palm.  Marching back on scaled legs, he knelt down and placed the document before her.  “While all things living have died in the hovels of Ponyville, the legacy they have left behind remains remarkably in tact, including the most inane bits of data that one with enough free time can scrounge up from the ruins of—oh, say—the Ponyvillean Police Department Records.”

        She raised an eyebrow at him.  Curiously, she slid the scroll towards herself, unsealed it, and stretched the quarter-century-old document open.  Her scarlet eyes sashayed down the rows of neatly scribbled words, and her optics brightened at the end of the perusal.  Her jaw dropped as she murmured:  “The report talks about a 'deranged pegasus' that was escorted to the jail cell for immediate psychiatric evaluation following an incident at Ms. Cheerilee's schoolhouse.  But as soon as the officers sent for the village nurse—The suspect disappeared...”  She blinked into the stone extremities of the cavernous lair.  “Spike, that 'deranged suspect' was me.”

        “An apt description, I would imagine,” he chuckled softly.

        “You... You knew about this?”  She squinted up at him.

        He innocently smoothed his green neckcrests back.  “I suspected it.  It wouldn't be the first occasion that I've witnessed time perform a perfect full circle before my eyes.  So it's hardly of any surprise to me.  If anything, it should be something of consolation for the two of us.”  He pointed with a clawed finger.  “Does it say anything about the fate of that certain pegasus?  Hmm?”

        Scootaloo glanced once more at the document, her scarlet eyes narrowing.  She murmured aloud:  “'Cheerilee and a few students were interviewed to compile a list of details to describe the suspect, but no matches were found in the immediate search.  Within two weeks, Sheriff Goldmane decided the case did not warrant wanted posters--',” she made a face.  “The heck—I thought I traumatized those kids!”

        “Do not be so quick to demonize yourself, child,” Spike said.  “If I recall correctly, Cheerilee's schoolhouse was no stranger to bizarre incidents.  In one winter month alone, the windows had to be replaced on three separate occasions from a single wayward postal deliverer flying far too low for pegasus standards.  You must realize, what made life in Ponyville exciting is far different from what makes existence in the Wastes exciting,” he smiled slyly.

        “Do...uh...” she gulped, sliding the scroll back towards him.  “Do you have any more written evidences of my time traveling self in your 'library', Spike?”

        He took the scroll, shaking his scaled snout with a dangle of his violet pendant.  “Negative.  But, if you ask me, that can only be a marvelous thing.”

        “Why's that?”

        “Because it means you'll be following my advice!” he grinned serratedly, shelving the scroll away and closing the cabinet drawers.  “And the next time you go to the past, you will try to do things with subtlety.”

        She blinked, eyes wide.  “Y-You're sending me back?  Right now?  Right after I just made a mule out of myself?”

        “Oh, I could very well send you soon,” Spike nodded.  “But it won't be so soon in the past.”  He marched over towards another cabinet and picked up a lead metal box in his clawed hands.  “For the sake of caution, I plan to send you a month after your—mmm—'Cheerilee incident'.”

        “So it will be three months before the Cataclysm,” Scootaloo remarked.  Her eyes narrowed knowingly on the purple dragon.  “You planned this from the beginning, didn't you?  Ms. Cheerilee was a test!

        “Indeed,” he nodded, shuffling over on iron haunches with the box in his grasp.  He placed it down onto the lab table just above Scootaloo.  “And where you'll be going next, you'll be facing another test, a test of your tenacity for blending in with the world, a test of your ability to adopt a face and a name—and even a backstory.  Because where you'll be going, your strength in finding truth will inevitably go through the crucible of bending it.”

        “Something tells me you're not stressing where you'll be sending me as much as who you'll sending me to,” she muttered, standing up alongside him and glancing briefly at the box.  “Is this someone's elses ashes?”

        “No, Scootaloo.  I do not have the ashes for whom we both seek.”

        “Y-You don't?”  Scootaloo blinked.  “H-How come?”

        “Though I may be the master of time travel,” he spoke as he undid the lock to the lead box and opened it with a rusted creak.  “I am anything but the Wasteland's chief scavenger.”  He reached into the box and pulled out several necklaces tied to tiny white shards of calcium.  “If you are truly committed to this experiment, Scootaloo, and if you are willing to go the lengths required to avoid an incident like what happened with Ms. Cheerilee from henceforth, then it will be up to you to find the lasting ingredients.”

        “How come everything is a test with you?” she smirked briefly up at him.  The pegasus then motioned her snout towards the shards dangling in the dragon's grasp.  “What are these?”

        “Baby dragon teeth, renown for their sensitivity to enchantment.”

        “Whose dragon teeth?”  Scootaloo blinked, then rolled her scarlet eyes.  “Lemme guess...”

        “Mine, of course,” he smiled, then melted his expression into a neutral sigh as he uttered, “I've stored them centuries ago for such a time when they could be of supreme use, and—alas—that moment has come.”  He danced the dangling tooths between his scaled fingers as they glistened in the purple mana lanterns lining the cavern.  “Each of them is attuned to a different soul, the soul of a pony who I knew in the past, and who I can anchor your soul essence to.  With these enchanted teeth, you can find the remains of our former friends among the Wastes of Equestria.  And once you do...”

        “...I'll have their ashes,” Scootaloo gulped.  “The ashes we need to perform the binding.”  She looked sadly up at the dragon.  “Spike—Why didn't you warn me about Cheerilee's remains before you sent me back?”

        His nostrils fumed somberly.  “I suspected it may have made you reticent to make the necessary first step.”

        “You can't protect me forever, Spike.”

        “A truth that I acknowledge whole-heartedly,” he nodded, then handed her a single dragon's tooth on an orange string.  “Which is why I believe you are completely and fully ready for performing this search; as it will prepare you for the next chronal leap at hoof.”

        She hung the orange-tinted tooth before her eyes, squinting at it.  “How do you know it'll work with me—The tooth that is?”

        “The same way I'm able to send you into the past beyond the Cataclysm while I myself cannot go that far,” he said with a faint, knowing smirk.  “The soul essence of ponies is the heart of the enchantment.  The dragon tooth will be able to take you straight to the target's remains, while it will be completely dull to me, even if the fang itself came from my whelpish body.”

        She stared intently at tooth, sweating.  “I... I-I'm not sensing a thing, Spike.”

        “Shhhh,” he exhaled calmly.  “Relax, child.  Do not stress—Only feel.”

        She took a deep breath.  She held the dangling tooth close to her heart and closed her eyes.  Through solid inhales, she tried to form a picture in her mind.  What she got instead was a scent—The fragrance of dry barn hay, of rich soil and dirt, of rusted plows and wooden yokes and rows upon rows of delicious red fruit—And then a panorama of luscious green trees flickered through her shut eyelids, and when she snapped her scarlet optics open, they were dilating under the persistent weight of truth.

        “Applejack.”


        Waves of gnarled skeletons swam out of the gray mist in droves, hundreds upon hundreds of gnarled black branches, charred into soot and cinders by the flames of the Cataclysm.  The leathery flakes of dead fruit hung off them as they came closer into view, their trunks hollowed out by the decay in time.  The soil between the lifeless trees had been blasted away to barren rock, with black powder randomly cycloning above the sterile landscape like brief spurts of volcanic ash, and then settling once more into the perpetual silence of the dead acres.

        Scootaloo leveled her descent and pushed at her cockpit levers, keeping the Harmony at a steady altitude as she skimmed the surface of the singed groves.  Her goggled gaze narrowed in on an opening in the wasteland where the gnarled branches parted ways for a few dozen meters.  Deciding it was the best location, she slowed the airship's speed and drifted the craft until it was nearly touching one large tree standing darkly above the rest.  When she attempted to extend the port-side claw towards it, however, the petrified stalk crumbled to ashes.  Sighing, she engaged the stabilizers, put the vessel into a permanent hover, and exited through the hangar's aperture.

        After twenty minutes of prolonged effort, she managed to moor the levitating vessel with four chains stabbed into separate black stumps.  Meekly satisfied with the anchorage, she gathered the rest of her equipment and stepped forward from the parked craft, heading southwest.  In mid trot, the last pegasus raised the baby dragon's tooth up to her goggles.  It hung from her neck by an orange string, and as her face stared closely at it, she felt a gentle aura pointing her forward and slightly toward the left.

        She marched appropriately, following the enchanted shard's cue.  On either side of her, petrified apple trees slunched over like rows of bound corpses, their limbs flaking off into ash even as she passed underneath them.  The stony earth was splotched every now and then with feathery-white scrapes, the quarter-century old effigies of fallen songbirds.  There was a sterile smell about this part of the wasteland, something deader than dead that permeated the shifting white mists that twirled tornadically through the hollow groves.  Even the giant mushrooms refused to leech off the petrified acres.

        At last, the ground gave way beneath her in a clawed slope, as if a huge canyon had been gouged suddenly through the belly of Equestria.  Scootaloo swiftly discovered the reason for the parting in the trees that allowed her to moor the Harmony so close to her destination; the mists cleared briefly to reveal that a gigantic sinkhole had consumed the heart of Sweet Apple Acres, reducing the land into a gaping hole full of gravel and shifting soot.  The upended bodies of long-dead fruit trees blanketed the open grave, their twisted roots scratching eternally at the gray fog.

        With a somber breath, Scootaloo took wing, her pegasus feathers flying her through the bitter cold winds as she hovered steadily over the inexplicable ravine yawning beneath her.  On either side of the trench petrified apple trees leaned inward at awkward angles, some of them looking as though they could fall into the jaws of the earth at any second, others having done just that over the past two decades.  Below her, bits and pieces of a faded red barn rested in splintery bits like a smashed coffin.  In the center of it all, a lone and rusted weather-vane spun its rooster crests squeakily in the endless gusts.

        In mid-flight, Scootaloo glanced once more at her toothy necklace.  The infantile dragon-matter was pointing her forwards, filling her senses with a nauseatingly sweet aroma of yesteryear.  Fighting a sudden chill, she glanced up and adjusted her goggles in time to spot a break in the mist.  The southern end of the sinkhole appeared in a sudden bluff, and hanging off its edges—barely intact—was the rickety wooden shell of the Apple Family's farmhouse.  It leaned sickly on its haunches, the upper floors having sagged several meters into its lower foundation as the whole thing leaned crunchingly northward.  A few paces to the east, a gazebo leaned precariously on the edge of the sinkhole, half of its floorboards having long fallen into the abyss.  A brown wooden fence dangled like an exposed bone in a similar fashion, and the hollow ribcages of pigs formed a pile beside a line of troughs overflowing with ashes.

        The last pegasus touched down on even ground.  She gasped to feel a chunk of black soil crumbling behind her and rolling its way down the cliffside of the ravine.  Recovering her senses, she slowly trotted around the edge of the house, her eyes peering through amber goggles for the one thing she did not want to see.  The dragon tooth urged her on, riding the pulsating throbs of her heartbeat, angling her hooves so that she rounded the last corner of the crumpled house—And stopped in a vibrating hum.

        A breath left Scootaloo.  Before her was the double-doored entrance to the Apple Family's storm shelter.  The entrance was closed with rickety wooden panels; and lying broadly across the foundation—its broad girth adding weight to the flimsy barrier—was the hulking skeleton of an enormous, broad-shouldered stallion.  Braced around the corpse's neckline was a mold-strewn wooden yoke, with rusted iron spikes penetrating the body of the mechanism.  The entirety of the colt's body was pressed to the door, its jaws turned aside with teeth forever biting into the finish.  Judging from closer inspection, the metal hinges of the storm cellar's door appeared to have been shattered loose.  The pony must have done all it could to keep the door shut, right up to the bitter burning end.

        With a somber exhale, Scootaloo trotted over and began nudging the body with her snout.  It wouldn't move.  She snarled, struggled, and strained with all of her experienced might, but even then it took her several minutes to finally disentangle the stallion's skeleton from its diligent post.  With the bones free, she effortlessly opened one door, only to watch both brittle panels crumble from their hinges.  A loud echo of splinters emanated from the pitch-black cellar stairway below, and then all was once more silence and mist.

        Slowly, Scootaloo descended the steps, lighting the yoke of lanterns around her shaved mane.  The cellar turned into a hollow tube of bouncing shadows as she scaled the steps.  Trotting down onto even floors, the pegasus navigated a forest of cobwebs and skittering little creatures.  She slowed to a shuffle, shining her halo of light left and right across the claustrophobic chamber of dust.  In one corner, a pile of decayed foodstuffs lingered in a mountain of soot and rat droppings.  In the opposite corner, a wave of earth had broken through the brick-laid walls and filled the room with the black dust of the sinkhole.  And in yet another corner—

        The dragon's tooth strobed once and was dead.  Scootaloo's eyes twitched, perhaps in an attempt to erase the image in her mind before it could be committed to memory.  Bravely, she stepped forward and knelt down besides a pile of three bodies, three separate skeletons of completely different make, all huddled together in an embrace of crooked limbs and ratty hooves.  One body was a mare of exceeding age with jagged joints and brittle marrow.  A second was a tiny foal with next to no muscle mass.  And the third...

        The skull was obscured by a circular halo of tattered brown felt, moth-eaten along the brim and laced with spiderwebs.  It took Scootaloo a few shivering seconds to move the hat before she was staring into the spaces of two hollow sockets that suddenly seemed livelier than her own.  In a strange breath of courage, she gulped and murmured:  “Hey, AJ.”  A brief beat; the sterile air of the room closed in around her, and she fought back the last drop of hesitance.  “N-No hard feelings.”

        That uttered, she produced a brass blade from her saddlebag, aimed it at the skeleton's spine, and began sawing.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        Scootaloo marched back up the rows of dead orchards, her face blank, her saddlebag hanging a little heavier from her flanks.  The mist cleared as she reached the Harmony.  But just as she flew up to the aperture entrance of its hangar bay, murmuring to the runestones to unlock—She froze.  Her gaze was aimed westward, just beyond a line of dead trees that curved in a direction opposite of the rest of the singed Acres.  Her heart was pounding anew, but this time the dragon tooth was no longer strobing, for she had already acquired what she had come there for.  Or at least, she almost had, Scootaloo suddenly realized.

        Removing the saddlebag completely from her brown backside, she slid the thing a few meters into the safety of the hangar bay, floated back out, and commanded the runes in the door to seal the ship tight.  She soared through the mists and touched down swiftly, trotting west from the moored Harmony, and piercing the line of awkward trees.

        A few branches hung low, along with thorny brambles that dipped at eye-level.  She pushed these clusters of dead vines away with medium effort, ducking low past a couple of gnarled limbs, and climbing over a heap of charred earth, until she finally came upon a clearing... and saw it.

        Immediately, she raised her goggles and exposed two pained scarlet eyes, staring in disbelief at the sight before her.  In a ghostlike trance, Scootaloo trotted forward into the company of a blistered wooden building, propped precariously two and a half meters from the ground in the cradled limbs of a burnt apple tree.  The clubhouse was remarkably intact, a feat it had rarely ever accomplished even in the years before the Cataclysm.  Its shingles were peeling and its windowpane had long fallen off in a heap; but the four walls were still carrying the weight of the tiny building, and the roof provided a dark shade from the blinking gray twilight above.

        With a lump in her throat, Scootaloo numbly approached the careening plank that formed a walkway up to the balcony of the clubhouse.  But with so much as one hoof placed down onto the wooden beam, the entire platform crunched into a belated pile of splinters.  She didn't gasp, as her somberness greatly outweighed her shock.  An exhale, and with wings that wouldn't possibly have lifted her when she was a foal, the pegasus effortlessly levitated herself to the balcony in a single bound.  The floorboards creaked and wheezed dustily under her weight as she sauntered into the hollow of the shack.

        The interior was nightmarishly quiet, like being inside a concrete block drowned in the center of the earth.  She couldn't have asked for anything more; she gazed silently as her eyes traveled the lengths of the room, observing tattered brown flakes of paper plastered to the walls, indecipherable illustrations of  crusaders from an age long gone, of dreams long woken up from, of friends long dead.  The floor was a sea of dust, with her fresh hoof prints looking bizarrely large to the scale of her wheezing recollection.  The place had a smell to it that brought Scootaloo instantly back to nights of songs, crickets, and fireflies dancing in the moonlight.  She ever so briefly wanted to scream.

        She was about to turn around when a glint of twilight shimmered off of something in the corner.  Turning in a blink, the adult pegasus narrowed her eyes and trotted over until something took form in the penumbra of gray dimness wafting in from the crumbled windowpanes.  The breath that left her was a wilting one, and she all but collapsed to her knees, her lower hooves folding numbly under her weight.  She shuffled two forelegs and shifted something out of a pile of dust, something long and weighted, something glisteningly sublime.  Its handlebars shone like polished cherries in the deep miasma of the doubly-dead world; its bent wheels squeaked like confused newborns that reflected her aged face.

        Scootaloo could no longer contain it.  She buckled, silently cradling the object in her lap, as she hung her head to the cadence of a haunting chorus in her lonesome ears.


        A young pegasus twisted the wrench around the spokes of her scooter's wheels, finally tightening them with expert craftsponyship.  Scootaloo tossed the wrench into a saddlebag resting against the log she was sitting on and spun the wheels for good measure.  They practically sung on their axes, a tell-tale sign that they would glide right for her over the next week of speeding across Ponyville.  Smirking, the winged foal gazed up across the flickering campfire as an orange-coated mare finished her exciting tale before the attendance of four other sets of ears.

        “And it was right at that moment, when the elements of Harmony were lyin' all shattered on the stone floor of the abandoned temple, that Nightmare Moon was fixin' to make true to her threat of Eternal Night.  When what would happen; but the five girls and I reunited with Twilight, and in her eyes there was a spark—a magical spark!  And wouldn't y'all know it?  She taught us right there and then that the true Elements of Harmony were restin' inside of us the whole time!  And all we really needed to defeat Nightmare Moon was our companionship, a joinin' of hooves if yer will.  In a heapin' flash of colors, these purdy sparklin' jewels formed on our necks, and a solid beam'o'rainbow light soared straight at Nightmare Moon, lassoin' her up like a startled hog, and purged Princess Luna of all the nastiness that had clouded the poor Alicorn's soul for a thousand long years!”

        “Coooooool,” Sweetie Bell and Apple Bloom cooed as one.  They squatted side by side with sparkling eyes lit alive by the night-laced electricity of Applejack's story.  A campfire crackled in the center of a crater of wooden logs, nestled in the front yard of the Apple Family's farmhouse under a purple curtain of twinkling stars.

        “I had no idea Nightmare Moon was defeated like that!”  Sweetie Bell beamed, balancing a roasted marshmallow on the end of a stick.  “I always thought that night was a whole lot scarier!”

        “Oh darling, of course it was a dreadful event up until that penultimate moment of victory!”  Rarity's operatic voice announced her presence.  The fashionista sat on a velvet pillow that she had hauled over to Sweet Apple Acres.  The ivory unicorn nibbled delicately on a silver platter of marshmallow bits, all the while regaling her younger sibling, “There were phantom pegasi, ghoulish trees, a raging manticore, and a most horribly distraught lake serpent!  If Twilight Sparkle hadn't had her mystical moment of sudden epiphany, I'm afraid your older sister and all of her companions would be rotting away in some unsavory dungeon made of moonrocks!”

        “Hey!”  Applejack briefly frowned.  “Were you tellin' this here story or was I?”

        “Please, Applejack,” Rarity smiled with fluttering blue eyes across the embers.  “Far be it from me to detract from your rightful place in the limelight, but your recollection of that night's events could surely use a bit more dramatic flare and suspension of disbelief!”

        “I reckon I told it just fine!  It's getting' late; so shoot me for not wantin' to scare the fillies something fierce!”  She upturned her snout, juggled a few marshmallows into her mouth, and downed them in a gulp.  “Mmmm—Besides, if I handed the reins of the story to you, the whole lotta of us woulda been put to sleep by you gabbin' forever about how plum dumbstruck yer were by them necklaces we were sportin'!”

        “But they were the most splendid pieces of jewelry, as if they were carved in the dawn of the First Age itself!—(Sweetie Bell, chew with your mouth closed, dear.  There's a good lady.)—Ahem.  But you were quite accurate towards the end, Applejack.  I'll give you that much merit.”

        “Did a rainbow really lasso up that nasty Nightmare Moon, sis?”  Apple Bloom blinked over twin sticks of marshmallows.

        “Heh heh!  That's right!  Slapped the gloominess square off her noggin'!”

        Young Scootaloo raspberried.  “How in the heck can a rainbow smack around a pony?”  She spun the wheels on the scooter she was examining and smirked.  “Much less a friggin' dark moon goddess come to enslave us all?”

        “It's not so much that the rainbow throttled Nightmare Moon within an inch of her life, but rather—”  Rarity began, but at the sound of an orange mare's throat viciously clearing, she shifted nervously on her pillow and smiled.  “R-Right.  Do carry on, Applejack.”

        “Ahem.  Much obliged,” she turned and gazed with soft green eyes Scootaloo's way.  “Y'all must realize that a rainbow means a lot more than just a fancy blendin' of lights—or whatever it is that they're teachin' you in them textbooks these days.  Nah, Rainbows are symbols of hope, of when good friends come together and make magic happen.  That's exactly what took place when the elements of Harmony came together with the six of us.  The fact that it produced a rainbow was just... just... erm—”

        “A matter of ironic theatrics,” Rarity said, smiling between marshmallow nibbles.

        Applejack grumbled into a mouthful of sugary dough.  “Mmmf... Showoff...”

        “Well, I think it's a great story!”  Apple Bloom positively squealed.  “Y'all were so brave, especially you, Sis!”

        “Awww, shucks, Apple Bloom.  Yer makin' me blush.”

        “Pffft—Of course she'd root for her sister the whole time!”  Sweetie Bell rolled her eyes.

        Apple Bloom stuck her tongue out at the unicorn.  “So what if I did!  Yer just bummed cuz AJ saved Twilight Sparkle from fallin' off a cliff and all yer sister did was dress up a giant snake!”

        “Hey!  She was showing generosity!  Go choke on a marshmallow!”

        “I would if I could somehow swallow ya!”

        “Girls—Girls!” Rarity tsk'd-tsk'd.  “Now what's so 'harmonious' about this kind of an attitude?  Why—Applejack, myself, and the rest of us would never have defeated Nightmare Moon if we carried on with such awful bickering!”

        “You're riiiiight,” Sweetie Bell sighed, shifted where she sat on her log and mumbled, “I'm sorryyyyy, Apple Bloom.”

        “Me too, Sweetie Bell,” Apple Bloom smiled sweetly at her.  “I think we both should be happy that we have such brave sisters.”

        “And such delicious marshmallows!”  Sweetie Bell's eyes twinkled as she beamed across the campfire at Scootaloo.  “Thanks for fetching these, Scootaloo!”

        “Yeah, thanks, girl!” Apple Bloom giggled.  “They really make a bonfire worth gatherin' wood for!”

        “Hey—It's my pleasure,” Scootaloo smirked rosily.  “Figured it'd be a crime to listen to an awesome story over a fire without something to snack on!”

        “Well I whole-heartedly agree; they are a finer delicacy than I normally give them credit for,” Rarity winked.  “Wherever did you purchase them from?”

        “Ohhh—Sugarcube Corner.  Mr. Cake makes them himself.  Not even the candy stores in Canterlot make 'em as tasty, I'm willing to bet.”

        “Ain't you gonna have a bite yerself, kiddo?” Applejack murmured through a mouthful.

        “Y-Yeah, Scootaloo!”  Apple Bloom guiltily frowned.  “We don't wanna be hoggin' them all!”

        “Pffft—I got them all for you to enjoy, so enjoy them!”  She leaned her scooter on the log next to her bag and reclined back.  “Besides, I get all the marshmallows I could ever want.”

        “Really?”

        “My parents give me this craaaaaazy awesome allowance,” Scootaloo rolled her violet eyes.  “Seriously—With all the nights my dad works to bring home the bits, I'm spoiled rotten!”

        “That makes the four of us,” Rarity hummed after another bite and cleaned her empty plate off daintily.  “Mmm—That reminds me.  Applejack, did you hear that Twilight Sparkle has begun a book of memoirs?”

        “A book of what-now?”

        “A collection of all her experiences in Ponyville as written from a first-pony perspective!”  Rarity smiled.  “It's been almost six months since she arrived in town, and she's already been inspired to write a personal summary of all her letters to Princess Celestia.  She regaled me about it this afternoon over brunch.  I think it's a positively splendid idea.”

        “Yer don't say.  What's she fixin' to name this thang?”

        “The Harmony Chronicles.  It has a nice ring to it, don't you think?”

        “Ugh—!”  Scootaloo clopped her hooves briefly against her forehead and cackled, “Seriously—What's the whole big deal about 'harmony'?  Not that your stories aren't awesome or what-not, but everyone uses that word like a social disease!”

        Applejack spat and choked briefly on a chunk of marshmallows as Apple Bloom blinked innocently.

        Sweetie Bell glanced crookedly up at her sister.  “Rare?  What's a 'social disease'?”

        “Erm—(I-I'll tell you when it's time to buy you a bridle, dear),” Rarity stammered and smiled nervously Scootaloo's way.  “Ahem—Colorful metaphors aside, Scootaloo, 'harmony' is the essence of friendship, at least when it comes to Applejack, myself, and our little circle of fillies.”

        “So that's all it is?”  Scootaloo raised a vexed eyebrow.  “Just a bunch of racket about 'friendship'?”

        “It's more than that, sugarcube,” Applejack remarked.  She cleared her throat with a gulp of apple cider, exhaled, and smiled the filly pegasus' way.  “'Harmony' means bein' at peace with yerself, as well as with those around you.  It's about finding that magical place in yer heart where you're no longer afraid of the little things—or the big things in life, cuz you've got everythang all together-like.”

        “So only when you have friends do you get to experience 'harmony'?”  Scootaloo made a face.

        “Mmm—Not necessarily, I suppose,” Applejack thought aloud, then smiled.  “I reckon even solitary ponies can be at peace with themselves.  Every soul floats through life a slightly different way, but the difference between those who are harmonious and those who are not is that the ones with harmony feel like they don't have to stress the weight of the world, because they can manage things just fine.  I reckon you could say 'harmony' is like a state of being.  It's like... It's like...”

        “It's like never being lost!”  Sweetie Bell hopped in her seat.  “It's like being at home, no matter where you are!”

        Scootaloo blinked jerkedly the young unicorn's way.  Her breath left her under a faltering heartbeat as her violet eyes wilted briefly towards the firelit earth.

        “Y'know what—That's a plum good way of puttin' it,” Applejack smiled.  “Kudos to you, Rarity, for polishin' your little sister's head up just right with them homeschool courses!”

        “H-Hey!” Apple Bloom barked, “I'm bright too!”

        “Of course yer are, darlin'.  Just don't be shocked when yer my age and you discover that bein' literate don't get no apples down from the trees!”

        “Pffft—Maybe I'll just move in with Aunt and Uncle Orange!”

        “Ha!  The day you do that is the day I grow a mule out my left ear!”

        Sweetie Bell and Rarity giggled at that.  Apple Bloom helplessly joined their cadence as the campfire crackled to a sudden dimness, so that the blue-maned fashionista suddenly sauntered up to her hooves and exclaimed, “Well, it has gotten exceedingly late, and I have many silk supplies to pick up from the next Trottingham shipment in the morning.  Sweetie Bell, honey, it is high time that we headed our way back home.”

        “Awwwwww—But can't we stay just a little bit longer?”

        “It's been fun, Sweetie Bell, but we have a strict lesson plan tomorrow and I shan't fail at my responsibilities to your future!”

        “What's so great about my future?  The next research assignment is about some dumb old fossils!”

        “Those aren't just dumb fossils!  They're the excavated remains of the Second Age's Lunar Dynasty—only the most influential designers of earth pony wear in millennia—Nnngh--Ahem, we shall talk about it in the morning.”

        “Yessssss, sissss,” Sweetie Bell sighed, finished the last of her marshmallows, and smiled Apple Bloom's way.  “Thanks so much for inviting us over!  I do hope we get to do it again sometime!”

        “I would love that!  So long as my sister and I still have wood to burn!”

        “Heh,” Applejack stood up and stretched.  “I'm kinda fancyin' this sort of communion myself, to be perfectly honest.”

        “And you always are honest, dear,” Rarity winked at her, then glanced Scootaloo's way.  “Scootaloo, darling, would you like us to walk you home?”

        The orange-coated pegasus snapped out of her stupor.  She looked up with a practiced grin.  “Hmm—Ohhh, nah.  That's awfully nice of you, Lady Rarity, but I'll be fine.”

        “Are you sure?  How in heaven's name do you manage to get around on that device at such dark hours of the evening?”

        Scootaloo stood up and kicked the edge of her scooter so that it dramatically bounced up, unfolded, and propped itself under her hoof.  “It's nature!  All pegasi have a built-in radar they use to navigate the world like homing pigeons.  'Wing sense'.”  She winked.  “Look it up!”

        “Well, if you insist, but the offer still remains.”  Rarity shouldered her pillow like a saddle and trotted off with her foalish sibling.  “Come along, Sweetie Bell.  Stay by my side.”

        “So long, Apple Bloom!  Scootaloo!  AJ!”

        “Bye Bye, Sweetie Bell!”

        “Y'all stay safe!  Don't walk into the Everfree Forest or nothin' goofy-like!”

        “Applejack!—What do you take me for, a plowhorse?  I certainly know my way home!”

        “Just don't get yer horn rammed into a tree!”

        “Oh puh-leeeease!”

        “Heh heh heh.”

        Scootaloo watched with a forlorn muteness as the party dissipated.  She liquidly mounted her scooter, wincing slightly as a deep bass sound obscenely emanated from her belly.  She hid it with a loud clearing of her throat.  A shadow before the campfire wafted over her.  She glanced up, blinking.

        Applejack smiled down at her.  “Yer sure we can't walk ya home?  I hate to think your parents fancy the Apple family to be irresponsible with their guests!”

        “Believe me—They rather not bother anypony this time of night,” Scootaloo grinned slyly.  “Besides, Mom's probably trying to sleep, and Dad's reading his latest issue of Equestria Daily.  They know I can look after myself.”  She bit her lip, her eyes glancing over a barrel just a few meters beyond the penumbra of the crackling fire.  A sparkling horde of delicious apples lingered from the latest harvest.  Scootaloo swiftly wrenched her gaze off and resumed smirking.  “It's the pegasus way, y'know.”

        “Mmmm... I reckon,” Applejack muttered, but she tactfully followed the line of Scootaloo's sight.  “But the leash I can do is offer a token of Apple Family hospitality.”  She then trotted over to the barrel, lowered her hat, grabbed three whole apples, and deposited the three of them into the little pegasus' bag.  “There ya go—Something for yer family to munch on.”

        Scootaloo gasped, “Oh AJ—I couldn't!  Besides, I spent all of my allowance on those marshmallows and—”

        “Oh go soak yer head!”  Applejack rolled her eyes and stuck her cowgirl hat back on.  “It's a gift, sugarcube!  Compliments of a family that appreciates yer good manners and friendship.”

        “Yeah!  Besides, those marshmallows were delicious!”  Apple Bloom trotted up, beaming.

        Scootaloo gulped, her face hidden in the shadows of the dying fire, so that the weakness of her smile was barely noticeable.  “Well... uh... I guess I could convince Mom and Dad to have these as dessert tomorrow night.”  She sealed the bag of apples and tools and slung it all over her shoulder.  “Th-Thank you.  Thank you very much.”

        “Mmmm--'Dessert',” Applejack thought aloud as she sauntered over towards the other end of the yard.  “Now there's a lick of sense—Focus more on advertising Apple Fritters and less on Apple Cider.  Especially with the holidays comin' around, that would positively roll in the bits!”

        Apple Bloom shook her head with a smile and trotted over, momentarily nuzzling Scootaloo.  “Stay safe, Scoots.  I'll see ya tomorrow, ya hear?”

        “Y-Yeah...” the filly pegasus strapped her helmet on and gripped her scooter.  She smirked at the hairbowed earth pony.  “Try not to wet your bed, Miss Cider!”

        “Try not to lay an egg, chicken!”

        “Ba-COCCK!—Eat my feathers!”  Scootaloo winked and blazed a trail down the stretch of night-kissed orchards, her wings beating her forward atop the scooter.  She rounded the hills overlooking Sweet Apple Acres, then took a sudden east turn and ascended a rise in earth bordering the Southern Forest.  There—she paused, and glanced down breathlessly towards the distant farmhouse of the Apple Family.

        The campfire sputtered and sparkled for a few lingering minutes, until the shadow of an orange pony finally extinguished it in a puff of gray mist that floated towards the heavens, dissipating against the purple haze of the Milky Way.  Two sisterly shapes sauntered up to the front door of the farmhouse, and in a matter of minutes every light in the building turned black.

        Scootaloo lingered there, leaning her upper body over the handles of her scooter in a melancholic slump.  Her curved eyes focused long and hard on the dark outline of the humble home, until the crickets hovering about the line of trees behind her dragged her back to the dark heartbeat of the moment.  She exhaled a weathered breath, spun about, and pushed her scooter into the forest, piercing the trees with the sluggish charm of a flightless bird.

        Less than an hour later, she arrived at a dark shape that lay in a heap at the center of a forested clearing.  It was the structure of a barn, constructed uncountable years before the colony that would become Ponyville spread north into the open riverbed beyond the trees.  The wooden beams and support struts of the barn were in decent shape—decent enough not to collapse at any given moment.  Scootaloo pedaled her way inside, skidded to an unenthusiastic stop, and propped her scooter up against an abandoned stable.  With flickering orange wings, she climbed a wooden ladder up to the loft of the splintery-roofed barn, where a month-old spread of crinkled hay and a tattered canvass sheet served as a bed.  She reached into a cluster of straw and uncovered a hidden suitcase, inside which were several basic necessities and mechanical tools, mostly crafted by the filly herself.  She opened her bag and produced the three apples, watching as they glistened in the purple starlight filtering down from the cosmos, unsurprised at a pair of reflected violets that watered half as much as her mouth did that very moment.

        She stuck two of the apples safely into the suitcase.  The third apple, she eagerly devoured, savoring her first meal in nearly two days.  The other fruits would have to be conserved over the course of the week, long after the lonely night had taken its course, long after she had tossed and turned in the straw under a futile search for sleep, long after the tears had redoubled—as they always did under the moonlight—but this time pondering a new question, a question that ached her head with enough pain to rival the perpetual pit in her stomach.

        Was this 'harmony'?


        “I'm sorry, Scootaloo,” Spike turned and glanced up from where he was reading an old journal of self-scribbled math equations.  “What did you say?”

        “You have a nice home,” the last pegasus remarked.  She sauntered down a series of worn steps from the first level of Twilight's old treehouse and removed her saddlebag.  “It's cozy, it's got everything you need, and it's so nicely decorated.”

        The purple dragon lowered a pair of large crystalline spectacles from his emerald eyes and smiled sagely.  “It is a gaping hole in the ground that I only carved wider with my bare claws a few scant years ago.”

        “Still—It counts for something,” she said, her eyes falling emotionlessly over the shelves of mystical ingredients.  “A long time ago, I came to believe that 'home' is wherever you lay your head.  But even that is a stretch.  I think the only time you're ever home is when you die.”

        Spike shrugged his aged arms.  “You've done well for yourself all these years, if I may say so.  You've always had the Harmony, yes?”

        “Who hasn't?”

        “Indeed.”  A deep fuming breath; he leaned forward with a sincere gaze, his violet pendant twinkling earnestly in the manalight.  “Did you find what you were searching for, Scootaloo?”

        The brown pegasus slumped the dull weight of the saddlebag onto a granite tabletop with a flurry of dust.  “She's here, Spike,” she throated.

        He slowly nodded.  Putting aside his journal, he slithered over and delicately opened the bag before examining its contents.  The pegasus strutted across the laboratory, gazing up at the lengths of the purple-hazed interior as more and more details revealed themselves to her with each passing visit.

        “It wasn't easy at first to sleep in my airship,” she rambled.  “What, with the gray world outside always being the same constant shade of ugliness, no day and no night.  There's no need for a cycle, because everything is so static.  So eventually, you're staying awake all the time, and when you sleep—it's only for pathetically short thirty-minute spurts every eight hours or so.  But then it's not really sleep, is it?  It's more like you're half alive, half awake, half dreaming—I dunno how to describe it.  But when you lie down, you know you're just fooling yourself.  All that matters is your next task, your next tomb raiding, your next run-in with a monster—thinking about all the ways you gotta keep yourself alive to keep yourself alive another dayless day... Heck, even now, I'm not even sure if I'm dreaming or if I'm thinking of dreaming.”

        “Which do you think it is, Scootaloo?”  Spike spoke in an absent minded voice.

        “I'll let you know the soonest I open my eyes,” she said with a bitter smirk.  She turned around.  “Hey, mister Triple Centenarian, do you still bother with sleep?”  Silence.  She blinked.  “Sp-Spike—?”

        “Please, Scootaloo,” the scaled friend murmured in a low voice.  “A moment, if you will.”

        She squinted curiously at him, momentarily numb to his solemnity, until she saw him hoist the hollow pony skull out of the saddlebag and place it gently onto the table.  She clenched her jaw and gazed towards the stone floor, drowning herself in a pool of silence for Spike's sake, and for the sake of another ghost that lingered dustily in the suddenly grave hole that surrounded them all.

        Minutes into the muteness, Spike's clawed finger was gently stroking the hollow at the base of the skull's nostrils.  Scootaloo trotted over as the dragon gulped his scaled throat and murmured, “I do not envy the task that I have set before you, Scootaloo.  It is one thing to know that the necessary ingredients for the green flame's binding are the ashes of our loved ones, but it's another thing altogether to dig them up, something that has been forced upon you no matter how many ways I wish to paint the truth otherwise.”

        “Jee, Spike,” she muttered.  “You're speaking as if I haven't done things as bad if not worse already.”  She pulled her goggles completely off and set them on the table besides the skull whose hollow she was being absorbed in.  “I've pulled things off of bodies.  I've pried teeth loose, sliced horns off of unicorns, carved rings off of fingers—”  She paused in mid confession, her face caught upon the precipice of a wretch as she dove deeper and deeper into the hollow, finding it incredibly hard to flutter her way back.  “...I-I've eaten meat, Spike.  I've murdered creatures in cold blood.  I've robbed from the halls of Princess Celestia and the graves of the innocent.”  She snapped her eyes in a concrete blink and cleared her throat.  “You shouldn't feel bad about sending me to do the unthinkable.  I've lived all my life with the intention that the ends justify the means.  Why should this moment be any different, when we've come this far, when we have an entire Equestria to bring beauty back to... s-somehow...?”

        “Because this isn't just our moment,” the dragon said, gently cradling the equine skull as his tired green eyes studied it like a lost limb.  “This is an entire sunken well of moments, strung together from eternity to eternity—moments that belong to all that has died, and all that will die again, no matter how many times we dive down into the warm currents of the past—Their past.”  He glanced aside at Scootaloo and motioned with his head towards the skull.  “She was having a family reunion when I first saw her.  There were nearly a hundred ponies in the Apple Family, and they treated me, a perfect stranger, like royalty the first moment Twilight and I set hoof on her property.  There was so much bounty—So much pie.  Heheh—Twilight's belly practically bowed from her obligatory indulgence.  I tell you, Scootaloo, there is no earth pony who absolutely loved, took care of, and relished in the fruits of the earth than Applejack.  And what should rightfully be buried in that earth, we must now disturb so that we might ascertain the truth of those last burning moments that only residually belonged to us in the first place.  Believe me when I say this, Scootaloo: this is a brutal irony that I had long hoped to share with myself alone.”

        “Save your apologies for when you've wet the bed, Spike,” Scootaloo blurted.  “Let's just do what needs to be done.”

        “Your impulsiveness for once has a twinge of wisdom to it, old friend,” Spike bowed his head and reached into a cabinet, from which he produced a tool that he proceeded to scrape edges of the skull with, forming a fine dust that he then shuffled into the hollow of a crystal vial.  “I've already prepared the alchemic circles.  You may take your place when you are ready.”

        Scootaloo nodded, stripping off her armor and gear as she sauntered over towards the space of stone floor in question.  “I promise that things will go much better this time, Spike, if not for our sake then for Applejack's.”

        “Of that I have no doubt.”

        “Though—There's one major detail that I'm curious about,” she remarked.

        “Hmmm?”  He finished gathering the necessary dust and planted the skull safely back down onto the tabletop. “And what is that?”

        She made a face, her brown snout scrunching.  “You said my appearance would look different when my soul essence manifested itself in the past....”

        “And did it?”

        “Yes.  I had a completely different coat.  It was—like—a rusted shade of copper.  And then my eyes resembled the colors of my goggles.  And then my hair—”

        “—was a black flowing mane with an amber streak to match the eyes?”  He smiled over his scaled shoulder at her.

        “ErYes.”

        “And I imagine, then, that you were also rather surprised to find the most remarkable emblem on your flank,” Spike strolled over towards the threshhold of the next time jump.  He suddenly coughed, hacking up a cloud of fumes that he nonchalantly batted away before stating, “A rather belated cutie mark, if I must say so.”

        “It's like nothing I've ever seen before!” Scootaloo breathlessly stammered.  “And I wasn't the only pony to think that!  Ms. Cheerilee's entire class was gasping at it.  And then she went on and on about how I'm some sort of 'royal member of Canterlot Court' or what-crap.”

        “Well, if I recall—It's a rather pristine solar crest that you are bearing.  And in the center of which is—”

        “—an infinity symbol,” she nodded, glancing once more at the etched cave wall before squinting at him.  “Just how in the heck do you know what it looks like?”

        “Because it isn't just any royal cutie mark,” Spike smiled.  “It is the very same mark worn by Princess Entropa.”

        “The Goddess of Time?”  Scootaloo's eyes twitched.  “But... B-But how is that possible?”

        “Simple—I am threading you back through time via a current of the Goddess' very own essence, yes?”

        “I... guess...?”

        “The way you look, and the way you appear to others, is the result of the fact that your projected self has become an extension of Princess Entropa's glory.  You are, in every sense of the term, made manifest in her image,” he said, then chuckled briefly.  “Though, I imagine, you are hardly an Alicorn.  You still are your own soul, pegasus guile and all.”

        “Huh... That's kind of nifty,” Scootaloo murmured, gazing down at the circles framing her.  “But with the crest and all, it’s like everyone assumes that I'm a servant or clerk of Princess Celestia...”

        “Something that you can take advantage of, no doubt.”

        “How do you mean, Spike?”

        “Simple—Our greatest goal here is for you to make contact with the Goddess of the Sun, yes?”  Spike smirked sideways.  “What better way to do that than to convince the ponies you meet that you are an ambassador visiting abroad on her behalf?”

        “Spike—You should know me by now,” Scootaloo boredly glared.  “The only thing royal about me is the way I burp after a broth of mushroom stew.”

        “Then perhaps you should perfect your fine art of belching,” he leaned broadly over her with the jar.  “You are going to a farmstead where there is much to eat.”

        She gulped.  “I hope to be doing much more than that, Spike.”

        The dragon nodded.  In a solemn tone, he murmured:  “Take care, Scootaloo.  Remember my words of wisdom—But more importantly, latch onto those of your own.”

        “The moment I think them up, I'll consider it,” she said with a lasting smile.  Then she sighed and shut her eyes.  “I-I'm ready.”

        “Very well, child.”  The dragon leaned over, anointing Scootaloo's forehead with the ashes of Applejack.  After the frozen pony's upper coat was succinctly doused, he took a step back, inhaled sharply, and managed in a fuming green breath, “Keep your hooves on the earth.”

        Scootaloo burned while all gravity spun around her.  As she felt her mane grow long and her eyes flicker from scarlet to amber under their lids, she nodded her head and deliriously murmured back to her friend, “I'll do my best.”

        She opened her eyes—and the blue horizon was upside down.

        “WHOAH—”

        She flailed, gasped, and clamored over a bouncing forest of brown branches and bobbing apples.  Green leaves and stems flickered past her lopsided vision, providing a crimson kaleidoscope of hundreds of thousands of dangling fruit across glistening orchards.  Another jolt, and she surged towards the ground for another meter before wedging her body obscenely through two scissoring branches, suspended like an awkward pendulum above a dirt path just beyond hooves' reach.

        “Oh yeah... This is fun,” she hissed, waved her hooves madly, and flailed wild copper wings in the leaf-littered air.  “Nnnnnngh—Ugh!”  She dangled, her amber-streaked hair forming a black flag beneath her twitching ears.  “Hoboy—Well, this couldn't get any worse.

        “There ya are!  I'm gonna rip yer gullet out, yer mangy varmint!”

        “Huh—?”  Scootaloo's dangling head spun and her amber eyes pulsed wide as a trio of serrated metal teeth sliced its way through the air and straight at her snout.  “GAHHH!”

        An orange mare in the glare of the noonday Sun froze in mid lunge, her pitchfork stopping a bare centimeter from the dangling pony's eyeballs.  “What in tarnation—?”  She glanced cockeyed as a red stallion marched up beside her, brandishing a likewise threatening spade in his strong teeth.  “Oh for cryin' out loud!  I thought yer were something else!”

        “You m-mean something other than a crucified pony?” Scootaloo hissed, caught her tongue—then rolled her eyes at herself.  “Ahem—I'm sorry.  My manners—You see, I kinda got stuck here—”

        A loud metallic ring, and the bladed pitchfork was once more vibrating point blank in Scootaloo's face.  “Which would never have happened if you weren't so dag blame'd beant on trespassin' like a freeloadin' mule!  I swear—pegasi think they own the skies!  Well, these here skies happen to be the roof of this land—Our land!  And if ya'll wanna come out of this with slightly less holes poked in ya—Ya better start singin' or Big Macintosh here will really give you something to write home about!”

        The red workhorse nodded, spat out the spade in his teeth, and opened his mouth to say—

        “Don't you worry, Macky.  I've got this,” Apple Jack frowned and poked the winged pony threateningly in the chest.  “Now spit it out!  What were you doin' in our trees?”

        “Yeesh—I don't ever remember you guys being this psycho!”  Scootaloo frowned.  “What gives?  What was this 'something else' you thought I was?”

        “You ain't knowin' nothin' about us because we ain't never met before, smart aleck!”  Applejack scowled.  “Now what's yer name?”

        “Uhhhh...” Scootaloo blinked, helplessly dangling.  “M-My name??”

        “You heard me!  Don't you know it's impolite to ignore a question when it's aimed at y'all?”

        “I... I'm... Uh...” the copper pegasus bit her lip.  She glanced past Applejack's glistening image in the noonlight.  She saw a hauntingly familiar ring of wooden logs lying in front of an upside down farmhouse.  Her amber eyes caught the distant bobbing figure of Granny Smith in a rockingchair.  Besides the deliriously smiling elder was a table, atop of which was a record player—playing faint music, like cello strings, like a lullaby, a hammock, a bobbing homeless home in the gray twilight...

        “Well...?”

        “Harmony...” the last pegasus smiled nervously and stammered the cowgirl's way.  “M-My name is H-Harmony.”

        

        

        


The End of Ponies – by short skirts and explosions

Chapter Seven – Give to the Earth

Special Thanks to Vimbert - Pre-Reader and Gentlecolt

        “That's a mighty purdy name you've got there, Harmony, but it doesn't do a lick of good excusin' you for poking yer wings through these here apple trees!”

        “H-Hey!  You asked me who I was, didn't you?”  Scootaloo hissed and wiggled, the faces of her two interrogators frowning upside down before her as she dangled from the upper branches of the apple tree.  “Whatever happened to country hospitality anyways?”

        “Y'all must be thinkin' about another country—a country full of hay-brained idiots!”  The orange mare leaned obstinately on her pitch-fork in front of the topsy-turvy pegasus and spat into the ground before slurring, “You think we're stupid?  In these parts, we don't take kindly to wayward leaf rummaging!”

        The time traveler's amber eyes narrowed.  “Did it ever occur to you that I might simply be a visitor?”

        “Front door's thattaway.”  Applejack lethargically pointed a hoof towards the Apple Family farmhouse beyond the red barn.  “But y'all can forget about droppin' in for a cup of tea.  Big Macintosh here and I have lots of work to do and we ain't gonna be makin' no progress on account of random ponies usin' our orchards for landing pads!”

        “I swear, this whole thing was an accident,” Scootaloo confessed in total honesty.  She tongued the inside of her mouth and shot her eyes towards the corners of her sockets in an attempt to scoop up something meatier, yet not nearly as honest.  “I-I'm not all that used to flying around this part of Ponyville!”  Then something half-true, at least:  “I'm a stranger to these parts, you see.”

        The farmfilly's eyes focused on the outsider's face with emerald squinting suspicion.  “I've never known a pegasus this far from Cloudsdale to have so much trouble navigatin' the treetops of Ponyville.  Don't y'all get grilled on a daily basis at them fancy schmancy flight schools of yers?  How could they let a winged pony as loopy as you get herself a diploma?”

        “Jee, I dunno,” Scootaloo frowned, reaching into the back of her blood-pumping mind and producing:  “They've let even loopier ones deliver the mail, haven't they?”

        A deep bass chuckling; the red colt aptly named Big Macintosh snickered before producing a smile and an “Eeeyup.”

        Applejack frowned at him, then gave Scootaloo a haughty glance.  “I swear, even when y'all are on the ground, you pegasi still have yer head in the clouds.”

        “Better than having our heads up something else,” Scootaloo grunted, flailed one last time, and sweated with a dull glare.  “Can somepony let me down now?”

        Applejack rolled her eyes, then whistled at Big Mac.  The colt nodded, marched up, and nudged half of the pegasus' body upwards with the back of his neck.  He then stretched a mighty leg out to half-buck the tree trunk.  The resulting impact expertly shook the black-maned visitor from the forking branches.  She spun in the air with a girlish shriek before being caught effortlessly across Big Mac's backside.  The colt lowered gently to his knees, and she stumbled off of him, reeling with dizzied amber eyes.

        “Ughhh... I've eaten mushrooms all my life, and now I'm seeing stars,” she muttered quietly to herself, shook the cobwebs out of her head, and gazed up at the stallion.  “Thank you very much, Mister—”  Scootaloo stopped in mid-sentence, for she realized that she was... gazing up at a stallion.  Not just any stallion, but a tall and concrete-built workhorse whom the chronologically displaced pony remembered, only none of those memories belonged to a grown mare.  Now, all of her foalish recollections of a softly-spoken, hay-chewing, freckle-faced farmcolt suddenly and frothingly melted under the reality of this razor-chiseled, earth-scented, blonde thoroughbred who was presently towering like a great crimson mountain of masculinity before her.  He blinked at her with quizzical green eyes that melted her to the lonesome core of her suddenly fluttering heart.  “—Mister Big... Mac,” she exhaled, her copper cheeks burning suddenly with an extra rust.

        The stallion's blonde sister rose into view, her frowning freckles occupying the entirety of Scootaloo's flustered eyesight.  “Had yer fill, yet?”

        “I... er... uhm...” Scootaloo gulped, shrinking back slightly towards the trunk of the tree she had been hanging from.  “Please, listen—There was a reason why I came here.”  The filly listened to herself begin, but winced at the thought of finishing it.

        “I reckon ya do—But ain't nothin' to it!  I've said it before and I'll say it again—There's work to be done around here, and the longer we have to deal with ya, the longer it's wastin' our valuable time!”

        “Care to be a little bit more specific?”  Scootaloo raised an eyebrow.  “Maybe if you gave me a chance, I could make it up to you for—y'know—committing the crime of flying into your precious apple orchards.  Or do you wanna keep treating me like a sack of manure?”

        “Don't tempt me!”

        “Why are you so off your rocker to begin with, Applejack?” Scootaloo exclaimed—but suddenly wanted to bite her own tongue off.

        “None of yer beeswax—!”  The orange mare began, then went cockeyed.  “Wait—How'd you know my name?”

        “Uhhh—”

        “Is this one of Rainbow's and Pinkie's pranks?”  She stomped her hooves.  “Gul-durn it!—I don't have time for this horse hockey!”

        Big Macintosh suddenly and explosively cleared his throat.  Catching his irascible sister's attention, the suddenly sweating stallion pointed a nervous hoof towards the edge of Scootaloo's flank.  Applejack took one glance, saw the celestially crested infinity symbol, and instantly covered her gasping mouth with two shaking hooves.

        “Mountains of Elektra!” the blonde mare sputtered, her knees suddenly shaking.  “A servant of the Royal Court of Canterlot ...!”

        “Huh?  Where?”  Scootaloo glanced stupidly around, blinked, then brightened.  “Yes!”  She caught herself, cleared her throat, and struck a haughty pose with her copper neck tilted upwards regally.  “Yes—That's right.  I'm here on official business of Her Majesty, Princess Celestia.  It's an honor to meet you, Applejack and Macintosh.  Your work here at Sweet Apple Acres is...”  She bit her lip momentarily.  “...uhh—Renowned over half of Equestria!”

        “I'm so sorry, Miss Harmony!  I had no idea!”  Applejack all but collapsed in her breathless attempt to placate the still-frazzled pegasus with the fabulous cutie mark.  “All this time, I thought yer were just a fence-hoppin' tramp!  We've had our fair share of monkey business lately around these here parts; it was a total misunderstandin', honest!”

        “And I believe you, Applejack,” Scootaloo smiled warmly, breathing slightly easier as she finally managed to get a hoofhold of the conversation.  “It's obvious that you—uhhh—hold so much pride and responsibility in your family farm.  It's not only natural that you defend it so rigorously, but it's also commendable.”

        Big Mac leaned in and whispered into his sister's ear.  Applejack nodded, gulping.  “Yer right, Macky.  She even talks like one of them fancy Canterlot folks.”  She cleared her throat and adjusted the brim of her hat, smiling nervously.  “What can we do yer for, Miss Harmony, representative of Her Highness?”

        “Well, you can—”  Scootaloo started speaking, but fell off the proverbial cliff of her brain.  She saw the immensity of the wide-stretching apple trees around her, blanketing the horizon.  Her skin sang under the bright glistening sunlight; her amber eyes wilted under the deep blue sky.  Everything around her was so overwhelmingly alive, and there she was under the gun of Applejack's trust, and she suddenly had nothing to deliver.  She floated with a sudden numbness, tangled in the gray webs of her ash-laden mind, and it took several seconds for her to plunge back to the blistering moment, struggling to bring her hooves back down to the earth.  She fell a few centimeters short and hovered in an invisible cloud that ultimately tripped her.  “Actually,” she coughed up the words and chased them awkwardly like a foal prancing after a rubber ball.  “I'm here for a check-up.”

        Macintosh and Applejack exchanged glances.  They squinted as one in the pegasus' direction.  “Ch-Check-up?”

        “You are the prime supplier of Canterlotlian apple goods, yes?”

        “Right as rain, we are!”

        Scootaloo exhaled victoriously at her memory and dove off the platform of it, “Well, the seasons are changing.”  In mid speech, she glanced her amber eyes around at the lushness of the Earth.  It was spring.  “The Summer Sun Celebration will be in three months.”  She looked into their eyes for an adverse reaction; there was none.  So she finished with, “And Her Highness Princess Celestia wants to be sure that there'll be plenty of fruit to go around for the annual event!”

        At this point, however, Applejack's vicious frown was resurfacing.  “Miss Harmony—correct me if I'm wrong—but the Summer Sun Celebration is at Stalliongrad this year, ain't it?”

        Scootaloo blinked, for she had suddenly remembered that.  With the warm breeze and fragrant senses of Sweet Apple Acres wafting around her, the mare's foalish memories bloomed at the surface of her brain.  She recalled several things in order:  a chilling autumn, the village's first successful Winter Wrap-Up, a warm spring, a strange creature falling into the Everfree Forest, sick foals visiting from a nearby rock farm, a horrible storm in the east, the curious absence of Sweetie Bell and her sister Rarity, a Summer Sun Celebration at Ponyville—without Celestia—and then ... Cataclysm.  For the first time in a quarter-of-a-century of navigating the perpetual gray twilight of a dead Equestria, the last living events of the Fourth Age came to her in bitterly blissful clarity.  The Cataclysm had immediately followed the Summer Sun Celebration, almost an exact year after the return of Nightmare Moon.  And here she was, three months until the Apocalypse, and she was stammering to make any sense of herself while a certain blonde farmfilly stared her down.

        “Yes—uhm—the Summer Sun Celebration is in Stalliongrad this year,” Scootaloo struggled to recollect her authoritarian airs.  “But since the marvelous turnout of last year's Celebration in Ponyville, Her Highness Princess Celestia desires to spread the wealth of her most beloved town of earth ponies to the far ends of Equestria.  In short, she would like to take a marvelous bounty of Sweet Apple Acres' fruit with her to Stalliongrad.  But before she can so much as propose that sort of an endeavor, she needs to... uhh ...give your farm a check-up!”

        Applejack raised an irate eyebrow.  “Don'tcha mean 'inspection'?”

        “Sure why not?”  Scootaloo muttered, winced, then said in a stronger voice:  “Y-Yes.  I am... here for the inspection, Her Majesty Princess Celestia's inspection.  So... let's inspect away, shall we?”  She smiled a plastic grin.  “How about them apples, huh?”

        Applejack's eyes were like emerald daggers.  She spat once more into the dirt and grunted her older brother's way.  “Macky, I reckon we have ourselves here a fibber.”

        “Eeyup,” he chirped throatedly with a disbelieving look cast the pegasus' way.

        Scootaloo blinked nervously between the two apple farmers.  “H-Huh...?”

        Applejack trotted towards her with a slow menace.  “This ain't about no cotton-pickin' Summer Sun Celebration, is it?”

        “Uhhh...” the copper-coated visitor stumbled back from her, wincing sheepishly.  “I... guess not...?”

        “It's about why me and Big Macintosh here have been settin' forth on collectin' apples so much sooner than traditional Apple Buck Season....”

        “Uhh... Y-Yes...?”

        “It's about all the commotion that's been botherin' the other farmers who border our Acres at night...”

        “Yes...?”

        “And it's about how last year's Apple Buck Season was a complete ramshackled mess on account of Macky bein' all hurt and me doin' my darnedest to buck all the apples on my lonesome, and how it was a hasty decision on my part that may or may not have led to a bunny rabbit stampede and several counts of food poisonin' in the heart of Ponyville!”

        Scootaloo backed up into a tree, her body scrunching up like a copper accordion as she sweated under Applejack's point-blank glare.  “Uhhh—Eheheh—Yeah.  About all that—”

        “I knew it!”  The orange mare stomped backwards, all but tossing her hat down onto the dirt path being kicked up beneath her.  “You ain't no freeloadin' pegasus!  You're a dang bureaucrat!  And of all the rotten timing—Y'all just have to come snoopin' around my farm this week of all weeks!”

        “I'm not here to snoop, Ms. Applejack!”  Scootaloo blinked and stood up straight, shaking the sweat off her black mane.  “This is just a cordial visit from the Royal Court of Canterlot!”

        “Cordial visit my flank!” Applejack hissed.  “I should expect more trust from the Princess!  Yes, I made a lot mistakes last year, but I turned a new leaf!  And with the help of all my friends—including her faithful student Twilight—I got all of the fruit harvested in time for the end of Apple Buck season!  So I rightly don't see why anypony at Canterlot has to be ridin' my tail this year!  Especially if I'm gettin' stuff done ahead of time!”

        “Miss Applejack, it's an investigation,” Scootaloo exclaimed.  “Not an inquisition.  And if I may be so bold, you two realllllly seem on edge.”  She smiled hopefully.  “Look at this whole thing as an opportunity to get an upper hoof on Apple Buck Season, aside from starting early.  I've only been sent here to help.”

        “If you wanna help,” Applejack spun and leered in front of Scootaloo, “Then get out of our mane!”  A long, deep breath, and Applejack took her hat off and fanned herself.  In a calmer voice:  “Look—Miss Harmony—I mean no direspect to the Princess.  But this is completely unlike her.  For the better part of five years, our farm has supplied Canterlot with all the apples y'all could ever need.  But to suddenly find out that I'm under some investigation—well, it sure don't float my boat nothin' proper.  If the Princess is so gul-durn worried about how I run my farm—then I politefully expect her to send me a written letter through Twilight—like she normally does!  But all of this 'Royal Court of Canterlot' investigation hogwash is angerin' me something fierce!  I don't have time for it, and I don't have time for you.  Now make like an apple tree and buck off!”

        As Applejack marched away in a huff, Scootaloo frowned at her backside.  “Hey!  I may not be Princess Celestia herself—But that doesn't mean you gotta treat me like some pitchfork you accidentally rolled onto this morning!”

        The orange mare paused to blink back at her.  “Like some pitchfork I what-now?”

        “I flew all of this way to help you and that's final!”  Scootaloo slammed her hoof down for emphasis, but to her misfortune her limb caught the open end of Big Mac's discarded spade.  The tool's wooden handle flew mechanically into the copper pegasus' snout, sending stars spinning around her skull.  “Unnnngh.”  Scootaloo teetered, the numbness of her projected self vibrating in and out of focus, and yet she wasn't feeling pain.  She should have been hurt, but she wasn't.  Only the flimsy, green-fuming facsimile of pain briefly jolted her otherwise bright Entropan senses.

        Applejack laughed pathetically, her eyes rolling back.  She waved a lazy hoof towards the visitor.  “Ohhhh, sugarcube.  Take a look at yerself, why don't ya?  Yer a clerk of the Court of Canterlot.  You ain't no workhorse!  So don't go writin' checks that yer flank can't catch!”

        “Blblbllb—” Scootaloo shook the cosmic rays of dizziness away and frowned bruisedly in the earth pony's direction.  “Are you suggesting that I don't have what it takes to work on a farm?”

        “Girl, you'd be lucky if you could work on a dinner plate!”

        An untested kernel of pride nestled deep in the icy heart of the last pony popped to the surface as she shook her mane and trotted furiously up towards Applejack.  “I'll have you know that I can handle anything and everything that apple bucking could toss at me!  The Royal Court of Canterlot doesn't hire ponies just for their good charm, y'know.”

        “I reckon that much is obvious.”

        “You got a test in mind?”

        “As a matter of fact, I do!”  Applejack trotted over towards a tree and bucked it lightly, forcing only two glistening fruits to fall out.  These she caught in nimble hooves before bearing a jester's smirk.  “I call this here the 'test of preservation'!”

        Big Macintosh instantly muttered something, rolled his eyes, and marched away with a humored expression.  Scootaloo blinked at him confusedly, but then found herself staring at a green and red reflection of herself.

        “The first and most important thing one needs to know about apple bucking,” Applejack glared at the pegasus from over the two fruit stems, “is that yer product is more important than anything else.  You can kick trees until the cows come home, but if you let a single one of these here apples bite the dust, then that translates to bits flyin' straight out of yer pocket!  T'ain't a good thing, ya hear?”

        “Is there a point to this brilliant platitude?”  Scootaloo squinted nervously at her.

        “The point, Miss Harmony, is that if y'all wanna help me buck apples, y'all gotta be prepared to preserve 'em!”  She juggled the green and red fruits in her hooves, winking slyly.  “If yer fast on them wings of yours, it should be no trouble performin' this here first test!”

        “Yeah...?”

        “I'll buck both apples high into the sky.  All ya gotta do is catch 'em.  So long as neither of them get smashed into little seedlings, then I'll employ your royal help, ya hear?”

        “Nnnngh...” Scootaloo rubbed her head as an artery pulsed at her frustrated temple.

        “Somethin' wrong, copper-bottom?”

        “This is silly and pointless!”  The black-maned mare frowned.  “Now you're wasting my time!  Let's just get to the point.  Do you want my help or not?”

        “Now yer soundin' like another stubborn pegasus I know.”  She smirked.  “Granted, she woulda been mighty fine at meetin' my challenge.  Lord knows what's chompin' at yer bits, Miss Harmony.”  She finished juggling the two apples and balanced them expertly on top of each other upon one hoof.  “What's the matter?  Yer chicken?”

        The time traveler's eyes narrowed.  In a hissing voice, she throated:  “Nopony—And I mean nopony calls me 'chicken'.”

        “That's a right mighty fine inspiration if I ever did hear it!”

        “You gonna toss your fruit or what?” Scootaloo struck her copper wings out with emphasis.

        “Go get'em, hot shot!” Applejack grunted and tossed both apples skyward.  Pivoting on her front limbs, the orange filly stuck her rear hooves up and knocked each apple towards opposite ends of the shimmering horizon.

        Scootaloo was airborne in a flash, forcing the green leaves of several bordering orchards to flail in the sudden breeze of her flapping wings.  Squinting through the flashing sunlight, she spun like a barreling rocket towards the first target as it reached the peak of its red arc.  “Gotcha!”  She effortlessly caught the thing in between two hooves, banked around, and throttled towards the second object that was already plummeting like a green meteor.  “Let's see a side of poultry do this!”  She smirked, twisted her dive at the last second, and clamped her jaws over the stem, so that the second fruit dangled victoriously in her grinning teeth.  “Hah-Hah!  Dhid youff thee dat, Mithh Applejag?”

        There was the brief sound of clopping hooves—growing faint—then dissipating into the green haze of springtime drowning beneath her.  The pegasus glanced down past her flapping wings and immediately dropped both fruits in a stupid gasp.  Applejack was nowhere to be found.  Even the pitchfork and spade left at Scootaloo's brief scene of awkward dangling had vanished.

        “She... Sh-She ditched me!”  Scootaloo gasped.  Then blinked, then yelped in sudden horror.  “Oh no—Oh no Oh no Oh no—I'm still bound to her!”  She panicked and flew circles down towards the green treetops, glancing through rows upon rows of reflective red apples, gazing desperately for any sign of the blonde soul whom she was anchored to.  “Applejack?  M-Miss Applejack?”  She flew, she zig-zagged around orchards, she circumnavigated wooden fences and water wells.  “Hey!  Prized Pony of Ponyville Award winner!—Grrr—Show yourself, you Celestia-forsaken corn-shucker!”

        Scootaloo's exclamations were cut short as she once again absent-mindedly hurt herself, this time colliding straightway into a tree trunk.  Her body swam through a soupy thick numbness, hauntingly devoid of any cyclonic currents of pain.  She was woken from this stupid lapse in comprehension by a half-dozen apples pelting her from above.  Instinctually, she rubbed her skull with a groan, gazing towards the red barn on the far side of the farm.  She saw an old-old mare, a lime-colored ghost of the past whom her foalish mind ambivalently labeled as “Granny Smith”.  The aged pony could be seen from a distance, sitting on the edge of her rocker, listening to a record player—But she wasn't alone.  In the mare's company, pleasantly sharing a conversation ... was a copper-coated pegasus.

        “H-Huh?”  Scootaloo awkwardly blinked through her dizziness.  But before she could even make sense of that unsightly sight, her amber eyes pivoted towards the side and saw the distant image of two siblings—an orange pony and a red pony—marching away at twenty meters... thirty meters... forty—

        Green tongues of flame started eating away at Scootaloo's peripheral.  She gasped and flailed her hooves through a curtain of emerald fire.  “N-No!  Not yet!”  She shrieked and tore through the air towards the terminally distant sight of Applejack.  “Gotta catch up!  Gotta—”  The entire green expanse of Sweet Apple Acres melted under a tunneling blaze.  “No-No-No-No-No!”  The filly hissed, rocketed forward, and broke through the flames...

        ...only to sail smack-dab into a granite laboratory table under purple manalight.  A resounding thunder filled the cavern.  A purple dragon stood up from closely monitoring a chemical experiment.  Turning his snout about, Spike narrowed his spectacled gaze on the collapsed time traveler.

        “Well, that was most certainly quick.”

        “Gnnnnghhh!” Scootaloo stood up, ignoring her suddenly throbbing bruises as she paced angrily around the stone floor of the bone-chillingly painful present.  “I swear to Epona!  It's like trying to talk a zebra into speaking out of rhyme!”

        “I can see that you're frustrated, child, but must we resort to stigmatic hyperboles?”

        “Spike—What gives?”  The adrenalized pegasus unceremoniously hopped up onto the edge of a lab table and frowned into his green-crested snout.  “I remember Applejack being the element of honesty.  Not stubbornness!”

        “When you or I  know what is truth, do we defend it with any less fervor?”

        “Only she's not telling me what that truth is!”  Scootaloo scowled.  “I dropped in on her and Big Macintosh, and out of nowhere they were pointing farm tools at me!”

        “Scootaloo...”

        “I didn't spout out anything about the end of the world this time!  I swear it!”  She crossed her heart and poked her left eyelid with separate hooves.  “Something's obviously rubbing them the wrong way, and it's so bad that it's making them tackle Apple Buck Season early!  Now they think that I'm some sort of nosy goody-goody-two-horseshoes sent from Canterlot to spy on them!”

        “Did you find this out before or after you flew out of the limit of the soul binding?”  Spike raised an eye-crest.

        “Huh?  OH!  Pffft—That was... UNGH!”  Scootaloo ran her forelimbs frustratingly through her mane hair, only to remember that she didn't have a mane.  She sighed and muttered in embarrassment:  “I was saying anything I could think of to get Applejack to let me stick around her longer.  She told me that she would let me help her on the farm if I could catch two of her apples from midair—”

        “Snkkkt—She did the 'test of preservation' trick with you?!”  Spike grinned wide.  “With the double-apple tossing, yes?!”  He yanked his crystal glasses off and laughed fumingly, filling the air with a green haze that betrayed the otherwise solemn complexion of the elder dragon.  The violet pendant twirled and spun from his cackling neck.  “Ohhh, that is most exceedingly rich!”

        Scootaloo slumped down on the edge of the table, folding her front hooves with a frown.  “I don't see what's so friggin' hilarious.”

        “Oh, child...” Spike wiped a tear, exhaled, and slid his spectacles back on as he lowered to her level.  “That's an old disappearing act that Applejack performed on anypony she deemed trespassing on her family's property.  She did it with Rainbow Dash quite a few times.  It almost became a game between the two of them.  You may not have the capacity to believe this in the midst of your current ire, but I would count what she did as a very subtle sign of your having won her respect.”

        “Well, the girl needs to work on her signs, or someone's liable to kick them over in the dirt,” Scootaloo muttered and rubbed her face with a hoof.  “I'm so sorry, Spike.  I blew it again.  You might as well send me back to Ms. Cheerilee, or let me find another pony.  Because, I swear, Applejack is a literal brick wall.”

        “Now, with that sort of attitude, you'll never get any information,” Spike said as he strolled across the laboratory.

        “What information?!?” Scootaloo cackled, waving her front limbs dramatically.  “Spike—She's obviously in a very bad mood!  I don't see how in the name of all that's holy I might possibly be capable of getting her to connect me with Princess Celestia, much less anypony else for that matter!”

        “I do believe the key here, old friend, is not to think of how these ponies can help us,” Spike said.  He coughed briefly, hacking up a cloud of fumes and waving them clear with a scaled hand.  The dragon grabbed the crystal jar of Applejack's ashes once more and sauntered back towards his tiny companion.  “But rather we must focus on how we can help them.”

        “I don't see how that's going to get us anywhere in our little 'experiment', Spike,” the pegasus grunted.  “Besides, the last thing in the world Applejack wants right now is help.”

        “It wouldn't be the first time she's refused any and all assistance.”  The dragon smirked at her.  “When Twilight Sparkle first came to town, Applejack had to tackle Apple Buck Season all on her lonesome.  That means she tried to harvest every single fruit from the entirety of Sweet Apple Acres without anypony else to lend her a hoof.  It was a severely impossible task, given her self-appointed deadline.  But she convinced herself and other ponies that it had to be done, at least until Twilight convinced her otherwise.”

        “Yes, I think I remember Apple Bloom telling me about that”  Scootaloo nodded, then squinted up at the purple dragon.  “Just how did Twilight succeed anyways?”

        “Persistence, my good friend,” Spike smiled.  “You'll find that it's an avid companion to subtlety.”

        “Ughhhh...” Scootaloo slumped down onto the floor, gripping her skull dramatically.  “Somepony, anypony, gag me with rusted stirrups...”

        “Right.  Let's send you back—”

        “What?!” she glanced up at him, bug-eyed.  “You're sending me back to Applejack?”

        “But of course.”  The dragon uncorked the vial and motioned her towards the alchemic circles.  “Applejack's penchant for honesty is easily masked by her stubbornness, both grayer shades of her immaculate sense of self-righteousness.  But all of those robust surfaces can be broken; all it takes is a kind and humble heart, and she will open up to you.  Of this, I can promise.”

        “I wish I had the faith in Applejack that you have in me, Spike,” Scootaloo murmured.

        “That too you can expose to yourself.”  He smiled.  “But do make it a commitment to not leave your anchorage to her this time.  There is only so much green flame I have available to give at a moment's notice.  Also, I cannot send you back to a single pony's soul too many times in a row without losing cohesion.”

        “Losing cohesion?”  Scootaloo blinked queerly at him as she trotted back over the circles.  “What does that mean?”

        “Simply that I would have to junction you to a completely different soul for a while before I could possibly send you back to Applejack again,” Spike explained as his shadow spread over her.  “So it would behoove you to make the most of this trip back.  Stick to Applejack like sawdust.  Be subtle—also persistent.  You are built of hardened stuff, Scootaloo, more than our late apple-bucking friend can possibly imagine.  The moment your own stubbornness exceeds hers—and I have every faith that it will—you'll find the task ahead of you to be a lot easier.  Then and only then will the floodbanks of her honesty open up, and mayhaps she can help us in the way that you'll help her.”

        “Assuming I survive the whole thing,” Scootaloo sighed.  She stood up straight and closed her eyes.  “I'm ready, Spike.  You're sending me back a day later or something—Right?”

        “Mmmm...” he dashed a sneeze of ashes into his scaled palm.  “I was thinking more along the lines of two minutes earlier.”

        Scootaloo's eyes reopened confusedly.  “Earlier?  But Spike, wouldn't I run into myself?”

        “Somehow, I doubt it.”  He anointed her with the ashes and lowered his fuming jaws.  “Think of it this way; Applejack just got through tricking you.  I think it's only appropriate that we get the jump on her.”

        “How so?”

        He answered her with a gust of green flames.  Scootaloo winced as she rode back on billowing emerald currents.  The flickering tongues solidified behind her scalp in the form of black mane hair, settling to her suddenly copper shoulders as she stood smokily besides the red barn of Sweet Apple Acres, serenaded by the sweet melody of a melancholic violin.

        “Mmmm...” she murmured aloud.  “Early Third Age... Stallionivarius?”  She spun a glance to her side, and was pleasantly amused to see a rustic record player crackling forth beautiful strings into the hay-scented air.  “I knew it!”

        A voice snorted to life beside her.  Scootaloo was suddenly made aware of a gray-haired, brittle-limbed mare squatting on the edge of a rocking chair, her clouded eyes flickering to life as she woke from a midday slumber.

        “H-Huh?  Whazzit—Who goes there?  Apple Bl-Bloom?”

        Scootaloo's heart jumped.  Following a foalish instinct, she curtsied politely with a bending of hooves.  “Granny Smith, I'm sorry to have woken you.”

        The lime-coated pony elder squinted the visitor's way.  “Eh???  D-Do I know you...?”

        “I... Er...” Scootaloo glanced over the horizon of orchards.

        She blinked suddenly to see two farmhorses marching towards her: a red stallion and an orange mare.  Far behind them, a copper-equine figure was surging through the air, only to be consumed in a puff of green smoke that nobody saw but the pegasus.  The sight sent synapses firing pleasantly in Scootaloo's mind, so that she managed a gentle smile and hummed Granny Smith's way.

        “Simply a fellow aficionado of good music, ma'am.”

        “Aficionado of what-now?” the senior pony shivered to say.

        Scootaloo gestured towards the crackling record player.  “Stallionivarius' Adagio for Princess Luna, if I'm not mistaken.”  She breathed the spring air with deep tranquility, feeling her projected body filled with a sudden easiness that sharply contrasted the bitter frustration of earlier.  It was a beautiful day, the greatest of days.  The trees sang around her.  “It's a classic piece,” she continued, “evocative of the Artistic Elegy of Mourning that predominated so many musical symphonies memorializing Princess Luna after Nightmare Moon's banishment at the start of the Third Age.”

        “Eh?  Eh heh heh—Now if that isn't somethin'!”  Granny Smith smiled with tired eyes.  “A filly your age, appreciatin' such fine tastes; now I've truly seen everything!  You've ever heard this rendition before?”

        “Erm...heh heh... No, to be honest.”  Scootaloo blushed slightly as she paced about and stood besides the gray mare's rocking chair.  “But I am familiar with Stallionivarius.  He pioneered the Canterlotlian violin for centuries of musicians to come.  I've got to say, as much as I love Octavia's composition, Stallionivarius' version of Adagio for Princess Luna sounds far more appropriately mournful.  I wish I had heard it sooner.”

        “Ah, yes, Octavia.  Heheh.”  The Apple family grandmother coughed briefly, then sat tall and proud at the edge of her rocking chair.  “She is all the rage with the nobility of Canterlot, these days.  However, like all young musicians, she has talent but the substance is plum missin'!  Bah!  Give me Stallionivarius any day!”

        “There's a lot to be said about Octavia's revolutionizing of the cello,” Scootaloo remarked.  “But it certainly can't replace the traditional strings of this version of Adagio.  But, then again,” she giggled in a sudden flighty breath at hearing herself say this, “with Princess Luna having just returned to her formal glory, what need is there for Equestria to keep mourning?”

        “Mmmm... How times have changed.”  The old mare gazed off into an invisible horizon beyond the red barn.  “I remember when I was a little filly, and Nightmare Moon was a name that invoked fear in the hearts of children everywhere.  I grew up, married, foaled, and retired under the shadow of the same blemished moon that haunted the entirety of the Third Age for centuries.  To think that in my time I would see things changin' so dramatic-like.  It is a wonder to be alive, young one.”

        Scootaloo took a deep breath, gazing at the spinning black gloss of the record.  “I wish everypony would live long enough to witness such wonders.”

        “Mmmm—Eheh—A most laudable desire, young'n.  But only reserved for the few.”

        The copper pegasus gulped and produced a bitter smile.  “Or the one.”

        “I'm sorry; do pardon an old farmer for makin' a necessary inquisition, but...”  The aptly named Granny Smith shuffled in her seat and squinted earnestly in the time traveler's direction.  “Have we met before?”

        Something that felt like a heart jumped in the center of Scootaloo's Entropan body.  The crystal clean joy of the moment briefly quivered, like a curtain of rain water dancing between the two ponies and their years upon years of distance and obscurity.  Two orange dots that resembled a bouncy foal shimmered in the graying eyes of the elder.  The ghostly scents of baked pies, tattered aprons, and wrinkled skin christened the air above them, and it hurt—for the first time since descending to the apple-kissed land of green it hurt to lie.  Scootaloo thought briefly of Spike's garden, of how his flowers and trees choked one limping stormfront after another under a siphoned sunlight.  The future was a barren graveyard that this glistening past—for all of its children and saints—could not comprehend.  For the first of many desperate occasions, Scootaloo gladly took the numbness of her Entropan body, wrapped it about her neck like a shawl, and danced a silver tongue directly in the elder's face.

        “No, ma'am.”  Her face was a concrete wall and the smile was still drying.  “We've never met before.  Why do you ask?”

        “Oh, it's probably just yer taste in music; but I could have sworn I've seen you before.  You have a shine to ya, darlin'.  Your coat is like a bright gold from yesteryear that this day and age rarely sees.”

        “Where I come from, Ms. Smith, my coat doesn't have a reason to shine,” Scootaloo said in a brief breath of honesty that she felt purified the moment.  A cheerful murmur, and her teeth mimicked the sudden twinkle in Granny's eyes.  “But I imagine your delightful farm here is giving it a good enough reason to as we speak.”

        “Heheh—You got that right, child.  Heheheh.”

        Scootaloo briefly couldn't tell what sounded more heavenly, the record player or the chuckling equine who was suddenly outshining it.  She smiled all the same, a chronological prisoner to the warmth of it all.

        Just then, the clopping hoofsteps of Big Macintosh and Applejack crossed over into the penumbra of the beautifully crackling strings.  “Heheh—Boy, Macky!  I'm tellin' ya!  You shoulda seen the look on that goofy pegasus' face when—”  She took one glance at Scootaloo, and in mid-laugh suffered a melting expression of her own.  “Now how in blazes did you get here so darn quick-like?”

        “Yeah—Uh—One moment, if you will,” Scootaloo waved the farmfilly off and smirked back towards Granny Smith.  “Have you ever listened to the compositions of Marezart?”

        “Hah!  Who hasn't, child?  But she is so supremely overrated.”

        “Yes—But one can argue that she paved the way towards the dynamic phase of Mid-Third Age Canterlotlian chamber music.  Without her, we wouldn't have the 'Celestial Medleys I – IX'.”

        “Oh those old ditties!  Why, those made great background music for tea ceremonies, at least before the Big Band phase that inundated Equestria during the Second Zebraharan Conflict.”

        “I didn't know that the Big Band phenomenon transpired simultaneous to wartime!”

        (“H-Hey!”)  Applejack noisily barked in the background, flailing a cowgirl hat in her hoof.

        “If you live long enough to notice it, dear, you'll find that the sweetest of music is enjoyed during times of great duress.”

        “Heheh—Don't I know it, Ms Smith.”

        “Hello?!  Uhhhh—Howdy?!?”  Applejack frowned and stood in between the pegasus, the grandmother, and the warbling record player.  She glared into the copper-coated visitor's face.  “I do believe I was callin' out to ya!”

        “Applejack!”  Granny Smith hissed, shaking a wrinkly lime forearm.  “Be polite!  I was just talkin' to our guest here!”

        Applejack did a double-take.  “Our 'guest'?”

        “Yes!  This fine filly by the name of... name of... Ehhh...” the mare squinted at the pegasus.  “I rightly apologize—What was yer name again?”

        “Allow me to introduce myself,” Scootaloo smiled gently and re-curtseyed.  “My name is Harmony.  And I am positively enraptured to meet someone who appreciates classical music like I do, if not moreso.”

        “She knows who Stallionivarius is, Applejack!”  Granny Smith beamed, her limbs creaking as she stood up from her rocking chair and waddled about the record player.  “I can't count how many times I've tried to get these here whippersnappers to listen to the greats.”  She winked Scootaloo's way.

        “Heheh—They sure don't know what they're missing.”  The visitor smirked back.

        “Granny, this ain't no simple guest!”  Applejack flung an accusatory hoof and sneered.  “This here's a nosy bothersome clerk sent straight from the—”

        “—Royal Court of Canterlot!”  Granny Smith suddenly gasped, holding a hoof over her heart as she regarded 'Harmony's' cutie mark with widening eyes.  “Now it all makes sense!  Why, I would recognize that celestial crest anywhere!”  She smiled warmly the pegasus' way.  “You know, it was a finely-trimmed pegasus much like you who came to do a census on Sweet Apple Acres several decades ago when I foaled these here seedlings' papa, Apple Shine; Goddess Gultophine rest his soul.  I was always entranced by just how polite and downright neighborly Princess Celestia's servants could be.  That same pegasus even came back for Apple Shine's first foalday!”

        “Well, isn't that quaint?” Scootaloo smiled and was subtly gazing Applejack's way as she added, “It's too bad politeness isn't as rich today as it was in the Third Age.”

        The orange mare fumed, a fountain of steam building beneath her twitching ears.

        “Why, whatever do you mean by that, child?”  Granny Smith blinked, then squinted confusedly Applejack's way.  “AJ, what's goin' on?”

        “Nothin', Granny,” she snarled.  “Just a simple matter of miscommunication—”

        “Out with it, girl!” Granny Smith stomped a hoof, bearing a wrinkled frown.  “I know when the apple has fallen far from the tree—Now do I?”

        Before Applejack so much as opened her mouth, Scootaloo strolled into view and smiled placidly the elder's way.  “I believe the fault is entirely my own, Ms. Smith.  I was clumsy and I flew awkwardly into one of your family's exceptional apple trees while on a mission for the Princess.  One rightfully can't blame your two strong grandfoals for getting the wrong idea about me from the start.  But I assure all of you—” She paced about and took in the three ponies with a smiling face.  “—I only wish to lend a helping hoof.  The Princess isn't so much concerned about this Apple Buck Season's bounty as she is about the morale of the equine tilling the land that so dedicatedly provides Canterlot with such delicious apples.”  She smiled with the barest hint of a regal sparkle to her teeth.

        Applejack's frown was venomous.  Macintosh was rolling his green eyes.  Granny Smith was electrified:  “Well, if that ain't just divine!  Any occasion we have to treat a guest visitin' on behalf of the Royal Family is a fine day to be alive, if I ever did see one!  On behalf of the Apple Family, I whole-heartedly welcome any assistance you have to give us!  After all, we did start out Apple Buck Season early, and it would be a shame not to use an extra pair of hooves, especially if it means that the Princess is smilin' on the whole lot of us in approval!”

        “But Granny Smith!”  Applejack began, her orange face paling with each centimeter of the situation slipping loose from her grip.  “Things have been hectic enough at it is at night!  At this rate, we can't afford t'humor her with—!”

        “Did I or did I not just welcome her on behalf of the Apple Family?  Hmm?  Carnsarnit!”  Smith shook a wrinkly hoof and all but trampled the obstinate mare at a bone-rattling twenty millimeters per hour.  “Now go out into them there orchards and find some work for her t'do!  Time's a'wastin', y'know!  Don't make me force Big Mac into talkin' some sense into ya!”

        Applejack glanced at Macintosh.  Macintosh glanced boredly back at her, shrugging.  A groan, and Applejack sauntered past Scootaloo.  “Nnnngh—Fine.  Get along, little doggies...”  The last exclamation came out like a dying cat.

        “Fantastic!”  Scootaloo hummed, trotted after the farmfilly, and called back to Granny Smith.  “The Princess will be most pleased at your limitless hospitality!  Oh—And don't forget to let me hear more of your records, Ms. Smith!  I'd love to know what your opinion is on Sebastian Buck or Prancerecki!”

        “Eheheh—A pleasure I hold most dear, child!”

        Scootaloo smiled and gazed towards the many rows of orchards as the three strolled along.  “An old copy of Stallionivarius!  Who'd a thunk it?”  Her pleasant expression was swiftly smacked away by a full blond tail swatting angrily across her face.  She shook her snout and glanced aside with a wary eyebrow.

        Applejack hissed at her, “I don't take kindly to yer sneakin' around the barn and persuadin' my own family against me!  It's downright dirty-like!”

        “You can't get stuff done without getting a little dirty,” Scootaloo winked back.  “Or is that not one of the traditional earth pony proverbs?”

        “Don't you mish-mash my own words on me!” the orange mare sneered.  “You took advantage of a frail old pony in order to get yer silly bureaucratic job done against our better wishes!”

        “Excuse me, Miss Applejack.”  Scootaloo spoke with narrow eyes.  “But that 'frail old pony', if I'm not mistaken, is as much a living-breathing member of your marvelous family as you and your handsome brother here.  She obviously knows that this farm needs some extra help during the Apple Buck Season, and if you had half the respect for her that you're so eagerly defending at the moment, then you would do well to emulate her natural gumption for generosity!”

        “This is why I hate havin' to deal with you red tape runnin' Canterlot clerks!”  Applejack snarled.  “Dang politics!  One way or another y'all are always spinnin' the argument around to yer favor!  Rest assured, I'm only lettin' you lend a hoof because Granny Smith told me to, and from the way I was raised; it's always the elders who have their say.”

        “You have a golden conscience, Miss Applejack,” Scootaloo grinned.  “Even if it is buried underneath the rigid exterior of an obstinate mule.”

        “Eeeyup.”  Macintosh strolled ahead of them with a sly smirk.

        “Don't you encourage her!”  Applejack barked at him and pointed a hoof at the infecting pegasus.  “As soon as it's sundown and Granny Smith is asleep, I'm bucking her clear out of Sweet Apple Acres!”

        “You make it sound like I'm a plague.”

        Applejack turned her nose up at the visitor.  “Say what ya fancy sayin'.  But I ain't lettin' you out of my sights for one second!  Heck, y'all will be lucky if I so much as allow you to buck one single tree!”

        “Pffft—Under those circumstances, nopony will get any work done!  All it takes is a leap of faith, Miss Applejack.”  Scootaloo then added with a mischievous smirk, “Or are you chicken?”

        Applejack stared back like a blank wall of stone.  She marched icily ahead, grumbling under her breath:  “Y'all just follow me.”

        “Heheh,” Scootaloo chuckled proudly and trotted after her.  “We'all intend to.”


        Along the east side of the acres, under a glisteningly warm Sun, Applejack finished nudging the last of many apple baskets beneath a tree full of glistening red fruit.  She took a deep breath of the rich earthy environment, smiled at the neatly arranged halos of baskets around every nearby orchard, and strolled halfway towards a dirt path cutting straight through the fields.

        “Alright.  Y'all listen up,” she spoke without looking at the 'Servant of Canterlot'.  “True apple buckin' takes several days, so it's important to plan out just right which field to tackle first.  A month and a half ago we had to gather a few bushels of apples early, on account of havin' to cater to the Ponyvillean Anniversary in April and all.  We took what we could from the west fields, but we spared these here trees in the east.  Reason bein' we wanted to give 'em a longer time to freshen up and bask in the glow of the late Spring Season.  And now that that the time has come for a total harvest, we thin out these here groves first and work our way west.  That way the youngest of fruit get all the time we reckon they need to bud up and become harvest-worthy by the time we buck'em down.”

        Applejack trotted around the tree and motioned towards it with a proud hoof while further delivering her speech.

        “Now when it comes to the buckin' itself, the key is not to sweat givin' it a might bit more force than you'd imagine was necessary for a tree.  The bark on these things is made out of stern stuff, as if Princess Elektra herself carved them out of the strongest iron.  I reckon you could trot all across Ponyville—or the entirety of Equestria for that matter—and still you wouldn't find a tree as versatile as what the Apple Family grows right here.  So, don't be afraid to kick the trees hard.  If they could talk, they'd just think we were lovin' on them, is all!  Now watch and learn—”

        Applejack snarled her teeth in a fierce grin, pivoted on her front limbs, expertly swiveled her rear legs, and catapulted her hooves murderously into the side of the tree.  The entirety of the trunk shook like a gigantic wooden tuning fork, and in a magical exploit of gravity every single apple from the branches fell expertly into the soft wicker baskets waiting for them below.

        Applejack let loose a satisfied sigh, dusted her hooves off, and trotted proudly around the containers now brimming with red fruit.  “The key is to make the orchards shake so much that the stems plum give up holdin' the apples in the air.  Mother Nature does the rest.  It takes a lot of effort and practice to get just the right aim and kickin' pose down pat.  But the most important thing is to put yer back into it and be firm with the tree!  Think of it like yer chastisin' the thang for making a mess on the porch.  Eheheh—”  She blushed and rubbed her head underneath her brown hat.  “—I reckon that sounds a bit silly—ahem.  But when you've lived your whole life around these here trees, you almost start treatin' yer crops like part of the family, especially figurin' that they've been around for more generations than most Ponyvillean citizens can count.”  She cleared her throat and glanced aside at a red stallion who was setting up the last of many baskets around another tree.  “Macky—Care to give it a go yerself?”

        He smirked at her, winked, and spun with a mighty arc of his kicking legs.  A thunderous clap filled the east end of the Acres, and the apples literally hovered above the branches—spinning—before falling like plummeting red and green gyroscopes into the wicker containers below.  Macintosh twisted the haystalk in his mouth and proudly bowed with a gesture towards the expertly filled baskets.

        Applejack whistled.  “That's my big brother, alright; always makin' me look bad.  Heaven help Apple Bloom when she gets to buckin' age.  She may just give up and resort to pie bakin' like her grandma.”  She turned and faced the visitor again.  “But you did see how Big Macintosh didn't hesitate none when he took a swing at the tree?  We ain't dealin' with stalks of celery here.  Apple Buck Season is like an endless Iron Pony Competition; you gotta give it yer all, through and through.  So, then, are y'all still bent on gettin' yer hooves dirty or what?”  There was no response.  Applejack squinted and tilted the brim of her hat up to get a better look...

        Scootaloo was basking in the warm sunlight, smiling drunkenly as she marveled at the feel of the green earth underneath her squirming hooves.  “Epona Alive!  I forgot how... how springy grass felt!  Heeheehee—Oooh!” She raised her hoof as several darting green insects waltzed across her limb.  “Aphids!  I found aphids!  Would you imagine that—?!”  She glanced at the two blanching farm ponies, blushed, and cleared her throat.  “Ahem—So, y-yeah.  Apple bucking; it's just like loving on a tree... r-really hard?

        Big Macintosh murmured something in Applejack's ear.  The orange mare nodded numbly and gave the pegasus a cockeyed loot.  “Why do we get the feelin' that y'all burn more than mana-torches over at Canterlot Court?”

        “I'm very sorry for being distracted.  It's been... er... a long week of flying around to random farms and being given the third degree by obstinate horses wearing hats.”

        “Hardy har.” Applejack rolled her eyes and backtrotted with a hoof pointed at an apple tree surrounded by empty baskets.  “Step up to the plate, sugarcube.  You've talked yer way this far.  Reckon we should see if yer hooves can dance as well as ya sing.”

        “Pfft—Why not?”  Scootaloo walked up and stared at the looming tree before her.  “I mean, how hard can it be?”

        Macintosh and Applejack exchanged amused smirks.  “Well, Celestia forbid that one of her ever respectful, ever dainty royal clerks should get her limbs dirty!”  The orange mare snickered.  “I bet y'all think that kickin' apples out of trees is just as easy as writin' letters and settin' up appointments!”

        “You really don't think Princess Celestia would have sent me to get a good idea of how you run this farm without expecting me to go all the way, do you?”

        “I may not be the charming country pony that you expected to gab with today, but I'd be lying if I said I actually wanted to see ya get hurt!”  She stretched a hoof out cautiously.  “Just tap it a bit, why don't ya?”

        “B-But I thought you said that true Apple Bucking required being forceful with the tree—”

        “I'd rather you not break anything, sugarcube!”  She smirked.  “Especially if yer expected to return to Canterlot in one piece!  Those are some pretty fragile lookin' wings yer sportin' there, after all!”  Big Macintosh snickered behind her and Applejack snorted to avoid breaking into giggles herself.

        Scootaloo rolled her eyes, spun her flank towards the tree, and raised her hooves.  “Right—Just a tap.”  With a girlish grunt, she slapped just one leg against the tree.  Suddenly, her ears popped, as if she was piercing the gray overcast of the Wastelands in the Harmony.  She blinked in sudden dizziness and let her gaze fall to the earth, spotting several apples rolling dirtily through the grass.  “Whoops—Dang it.”  She blushed under her copper skin and gazed up at the two farm ponies.  “I'm sorry.  Looks like I totally missed the baskets—”  She stopped in mid speech, squinting curiously at the two siblings.

        They were gazing up above Scootaloo's black mane with wide eyes and open jaws.  Macintosh's haystalk fell loose from his lips.

        “Wh-What?”  Scootaloo blinked up at the tree—and jumped back at the sight of it leaning forty-five degrees off its foundation and away from her.  “WAAAAH!”  She winced as the hulking trunk literally fell over with a thud, its exposed roots dangling nakedly in the air as the shaking ground loosened even more apples from the rattlings baskets surrounding the gruesome catastrophe.  She bit her lip, sweatdropping as she gazed back and forth from the tumbled tree and the gawking farm ponies.

        Macintosh's eyes were still wide.  Meanwhile, the sister swung her hat off, clenched her eyes shut, and slapped her skull with a right hoof a few times before shaking her entire snout and glancing once more at the sight with twitching eyes.  Slowly, the two swiveled their necks until they were gazing mutely at 'Harmony' with a blank plea for an explanation.

        The amber-eyed pegasus was no less confused.  “Eh heh heh... G-Guess that was a weak one.  My bad.  Uhm...”  She glanced left, right, behind her—“Oh, here we go!”  She marched over towards another tree she spotted and aimed her hind quarters at it.  “Ahem—Maybe if I just aim a little bit higher.”  She bucked it, once more with a 'tap'.  “Nnngh!”

        An explosion.  With a sound that mimicked several fireworks rocketing skyward, two dozen apples simultaneously lifted off the tossed branches of the kicked tree and soared clear across the east orchards, landing in a chicken coop behind the barn.  This ended with several thunderous claps, followed by a chorus of blood-curdling clucks that filled the otherwise tranquil air.

        Scootaloo bit her lip and glanced across the horizons of her mind.  She briefly remembered something Spike had told her about the durability of her projected self, that while her time displaced soul was wearing this “avatar” of the Goddess of Time—complete with a coat and mane painted in the image of Princess Entropa—she would be impervious to hunger, exhaustion, and thirst.  It suddenly occurred to the crafty survivalist inside that numb shell of a body that another 'benefit' to her chronological visitation was an unearthly strength that was variably related to her imperviousness.

        “So... Yeah!”  Scootaloo wasted no more mute seconds and hopped up to all fours, a bright smile plastered desperately across her face.  “Apple Bucking!  Maybe I should just... uhm... Do it the 'dainty' Canterlotlian way...”  She smiled sheepishly and marched off towards the next tree.  “I'll... Uhm... buck in the direction opposite of the chicken coop from now on...”

        Applejack gulped and slapped her hat back onto her mane.  “Macky, do yer little sister a favor; Next time I'm lucky to be invited to the Grand Galloping Gala, remind me to look into a Canterlotlian gymnasium.”

        “Eeeyup.”


        The warm afternoon carried on stunningly—or so Scootaloo felt.  The Sun sang overhead as the three ponies carried on with the dutiful task of apple bucking.  Their task hummingly floated from one cluster of trees to another, filling the air with falling fruit and the rich scent of settling green leaves.  With each bunch of baskets filled, there were more empty ones to replace them.  Scootaloo's head spun with the process, as her body itself spun, glancing back at one second to see so many trees picked of apples, but then glancing forward to see four, eight, sixteen times as many trees across the orchards that still needed to be bucked clean.  Applejack and Big Macintosh sweated and breathed evenly with the severe ritual of exercise.  It was more than obvious to the time-travelling pegasus that they were born and raised in this tradition of apple-lopping, which is why she felt all the more awkward and even guilty that she had barely broken a sweat since the beginning of the whole process.

        Scootaloo had found her 'tap'; she discovered the right force and pressure with which to kick the trees so as to make the apples fall off naturally without any unforeseen consequences.  This, of course, kept her preoccupied with getting as much apple bucking done as possible, for she was ever instilled with Spike's insistence that she 'help' the Apple family of ponies while she was there in the past.  But with each passing glance that she gave Applejack and her crimson-coated older brother, she took into account the severity of their exhaustion.  Solely for the sake of evading their suspicion, she slowed her effort of apple bucking, and even sullied her own attempts in order to maintain the airs of being a novice to farmwork.

        In reality, Scootaloo never expected herself to be a natural farmhoof.  She chalked up her ease of apple bucking to the rather unnatural state that she was in; as a projection of her soul self, she was merely a physical manifestation of her own essence from the future.  She wondered briefly what would happen if she had been impaled by a pitchfork when Applejack first met her—Would she even bleed?  More to the point—Would it even hurt?  The past was a place of color, of warmth, of life everlasting... until the Cataclysm would one day pull the earth out from underneath it all.  It was a struggle for the time traveler to feel like anything but a walking blemish from beyond, casting a gray shadow on the green land through the mere miracle of some purple dragon's transcendent research.  Spike undoubtedly thought that Scootaloo was “helping” the Apple Family by being there.  The last pony could only hope to be that enthusiastic.  As the day wore on and the farm ponies wore down, there was Scootaloo looking onwards, standing blissful and cool in the shade of her Entropan shell; yet in her heart of hearts she felt like a cheater.

        A legitimate challenge constantly hounding Scootaloo was the ever throbbing need to stay within “range” of Applejack.  The time traveler was constantly afraid of focusing too hard on the apple trees, only to look over her shoulder and see that her “anchor” had trotted off towards the barn to get supplies or take a break—and then the whole burning green world would melt hopelessly around the pegasus.  If worst came to worst, what would Scootaloo say to convince Applejack to stay within twenty-to-thirty meters of her copper self?

        It didn't help that Applejack had been relatively hostile to her presence since the first moment she arrived from the future.  So much of what the pegasus was witnessing didn't make sense to her.  Scootaloo's memories of Applejack consisted of a smiling, endearing, sisterly mare with a heart of gold and a voluntary desire to defend everypony she deemed a friend.  It was perhaps true that the politeness that Applejack exercised was reserved only for her loved ones, but even that Scootaloo doubted.  The Apple Family had built their legacy on the foundation of neighborly hospitality and generosity; strangers were no less embraced with tender-hearted kindness than close companions.  So why was it that Applejack's attitude all but threatened to tear “Harmony's” wings from her spine?

        Scootaloo imagined that there were ponies alive in Ponyville who legitimately had a problem with Princess Celestia or just Canterlot in general, but that didn't explain it to the last pony any better.  No—There had to have been a severe problem ahoof in Sweet Apple Acres, and the only thing Scootaloo could guess was that Applejack—the element of honesty—was hiding something.  She could imagine no better explanation for a respectable pony tripping over herself in such a bizarre fashion.

        If Scootaloo's presence could disturb Applejack so much, then she figured that it was only a matter of time before she unearthed exactly what the hidden truth was.  Suddenly, Spike's advice on persistence began to make sense, and as the thick afternoon of heated farmwork continued, Scootaloo began sharply observing everything around her.  But instead of focusing entirely on the expressions on Applejack's and Macintosh's sweating figures, she gazed about the orchards with the expert eyes of a Wasteland scavenger, taking notice of little details and bits of information that bled forth from the earth itself.

        It suddenly occurred to her that the apple trees weren't nearly as perfect and immaculate as Applejack had touted them as being.  As a matter of fact, there were several scars on the barks, scrapes and nicks and scratches that almost looked like claw marks.  What was more, Scootaloo noticed apples lying besides a few trees that hadn't been bucked, and a good many of the fruit had burst open as if obviously bitten into.  Then there were random bits of splintered wood besides the fences, shattered clumps of farm tools underneath the shade of orchards, and even more evidence of debris—all leading in a disturbed path towards a line of forested trees that bordered the far southeast side of the farmland.

        During the time it took Scootaloo to observe these things, it occurred to her that Applejack and Macintosh were acting stranger and stranger.  For instance, upon every moment Scootaloo took subtle notice of the half-eaten fruit, Applejack swiftly galloped over and scurried the ruined apples away into the high grass.  When the pegasus took a prolonged time staring at a scratched bark of wood, the two farm ponies would usher her towards the next row of trees to be bucked, even if the last job hadn't been thoroughly completed.  Finally, Scootaloo could have sworn she saw—from far across the orchards as she pretended to be engrossed in kicking apples loose—the sight of Big Macintosh setting up a metal caged structure or two alongside the fences bordering the farmland.  But as soon as her amber eyes narrowed in on the distant spectacle, Applejack's frowning face trotted into view, all the while the orange mare gabbed on and on about “lost time” and forced the two towards the next line of unbucked trees.

        Though the last pegasus was obviously occupied with this developing mystery, she couldn't help but get caught up in the mesmerizing hum of the moment.  As the minutes crept into hours,

her copper body sang with the thrilling sensations of sunlight, the intoxicating smell of grass, the fresh and pliable apples that bounced about the baskets she shoved from tree to tree.  A part of her almost wished that her projection was susceptible to wear and tear, if only for the feeling of sweating her muscles to a trembling lull, hunched under a sky that kissed her with warm rays instead of blanketing her with snowy ash.  Not even the brightest lit lantern or the hottest setting of the Harmony's boiler could make her feel as toasty as she did under those sky cooked apple trees.  If she could have Granny Smith's record playing within earshot of the dirt path alongside the orchards, Scootaloo would have been in absolute heaven.

        What was it that Spike had said?  Something about 'enjoying herself'?  She swiftly shook her head loose of that cobwebbed possibility and glanced over at Applejack once more.  The farmfilly was a sweaty mess, obviously urging herself to keep up with the “dainty Canterlotlian Clerk's” energy.  Scootaloo was almost tempted to slow her apple bucking down further, if only to give the orange mare some relief.  But—out of necessity more than cruelty—she kept her pace constant.  What mattered most was that she was wearing Applejack down in some way or another.  Hopefully, it would only be a matter of time before the Element of Honesty lived up to her title and treated the pegasus like the one friend she only ever meant to be.

        Some way or another, it always boiled down to time.  Scootaloo let the irony of that contemplation sink in as she rotated herself to another tree, lopping the redness off of the branches of Sweet Apple Acres slowly—from the inside out—like a healing salve that knew nothing of reluctance, but embodied everything about persistence...


        The Sun was starting to melt into a golden haze above the western horizon when Scootaloo first heard Granny Smith's sing-songy voice swishing through the green leaves.  She kicked the last of many vibrating trees and glanced over her shoulder to see the elderly pony cresting the top of a hill, pushing a wooden cart decorated with a pitcher of water and three tall glasses.

        “Break time, kiddies!” she chirped, a wrinkled grin plastered firmly across her lime snout.  “Hard-working earth ponies deserve a hard-worker's glass of water!  Pegasi too!”  She giggled with a bizarre youth, even for the rest of them.  “Get it while it's cold!”

        Macintosh hummed pleasantly, batting the sweat off his ears as he trotted eagerly towards the wooden cart.  Applejack stumbled less gracefully behind him.  “Th-Thanks, Granny...” the orange mare began, then did a double-take.  “Granny Smith!  You came all this way without yer walker?  What in tarnation were you thinkin'?”

        “I'm feelin' right as rain, girl!” the elder pony flexed a forearm, nevertheless wobbling slightly.  She chuckled:  “There's just somethin' so inspirin' about watchin' the whole lot of you gettin' so much accomplished.  I admit, I had my own reservations about the success of this year's Apple Buck Season.  But ever since Miss Harmony showed up, I'm startin' to have hope again.  Thank you once again for coming, dearie.”

        “Don't mention it,” Scootaloo smiled.  “I'm happy to help.  And I'm sure that—when it comes time for me to write Princess Celestia—I'll only have good things to say about how diligent your grandfoals are in their attention to the farm that you've so humbly helped raise.”

        “Unngh... Drag me to the woodshed,” Applejack muttered with rolling eyes.

        “What was that, AJ?”

        “Nothin', Granny.  Thanks for the water.”

        “Plenty more where that came from!”  Granny Smith made to walk back to the farmhouse, but took a second-glance at Scootaloo.  “Why, good heavens!”  She blinked.  “You hardly have a drop of sweat on you, darlin'!”

        “Uhm...” Scootaloo gulped and smiled nervously.  “It's a pegasus thing—On account of our feathers and all.  The oil we secrete hides our perspiration.”

        “Well, I'll be...”Granny Smith shook her head and chuckled as she sauntered slowly, slowly back to her rocking-chair on jittery haunches.  “Even in so many years, Canterlotlian Pegasi still amaze me.  Y'all are like gifts from the goddesses.  I'll be thinkin' of ya when I listen to Stallionivarius!

        Scootaloo breathed easier as she watched the elder pony trot gently away.  She had been called many things in life: “last pony” by Dirigible Dogs, “loyal customer” by Bruce, “glue stick” by M.O.D.D. Patrons.  The irony poisoned her as much as it tickled her; that it would take a twenty-five year backflip through time for any living thing to call her a “gift”.  The last pony would have felt special, if only this was her brown and weathered body bearing the warmth of the notion—and not some copper chronological carpet flimsily enshrouding her.

        “Yer still a rotten fibber,” Applejack muttered between heavy gulps of water.

        The stark, loveless honesty of the accusation carried a gray stale taste, like mushroom stew in the lonely sway of the Harmony.  The black maned pegasus glanced her way.  “I beg your pardon?”

        The orange mare drank heartily, swallowed, and exhaled, “Two of my best friends happen to be pegasi.  I've seen enough drops of sweat between the two of them to fill the Eastern Seaboard.”  She squinted in trademark suspicion.  “Just how come you ain't fazed none by all them apple trees you've hit so hard?”

        “Well, y'know—I do what you do!”  Scootaloo shrugged her shoulders and chuckled.  “I drink lots of water.” Her vision dripped aside and ricocheted off the chiseled muscles of Big Macintosh standing across the wooden cart from her, his sweat-stained crimson coat glistening over every veiny contour of his broad shoulders as he eagerly drank from a cup.  “Ahem—Lots of cold, cold, freezing-cold water.”  She clamped her hoof around the entire pitcher, doused her neck, tossed her black mane back, and exhaled loudly.  “Mmmm—Yeeeeha!  Heheheh...”

        “That refreshin' enough for y'all?”  Applejack bitterly smirked.

        Scootaloo instinctually wanted to explain that it tasted a great deal better than recycled urine.  “Oh, yes.  Absolutely—I thank you very much for... y'know... the cold water.  Eheheh...”

        Applejack took a last few sips herself, placed her glass down, and sauntered around the cart towards her.  “So, humor me, Miss Harmony.  What exactly have you gotten from this whole buckin' afternoon that is gonna make yer job for the Princess worth all the messin' around with our farm in the first place?”

        “Well... Uhm...” Scootaloo gulped and rummaged through the dirty alleyways of her synapses.  “You and Macintosh have to cover so much acreage, and yet the two of you alone make more progress in less time than an entire—uhm—commune of Canterlotlian sharecroppers!”

        “That's because the most Canterlotlian farmers ever worry about is potted petunias.”

        “Well, okay.  You got me there.”  Scootaloo cleared her throat and smiled hopefully.  “But still, you two are like a well-oiled machine.  A machine that feels, of course.  I was almost scared that I would be slowing you down for a moment there when I joined in.”

        “Well, to be perfectly frank—No, you haven't slown us down at all.”

        Scootaloo exhaled joyfully.  “See?  Was there really such a need to give me the third degree when I offered my assistance in the first place—?”

        “But it still doesn't mean that you have any business prancin' about on our lands!  You said it yerself—Big Mac and I are like a well-oiled machine.  And though I can't pretend to know half as much about mechanical engineerin' as unicorns and pegasi, I reckon yer words should speak for the whole of Sweet Apple Acres.  We're meetin' the schedule of Apple Buck Season just fine and dandy.”

        “Now, about that,” Scootaloo glanced sideways at the earth pony.  “Apple Buck Season normally happens later in the year, doesn't it?”

        “Actually, Apple Buck Season stretches from spring into early fall,” Applejack explained, trotting over and steadying a few baskets full of apples.  “The actual harvestin' is relative from farm to farm, as contractually arranged between producers and clients.”

        “Really?  In that case, when are you and Big Mac contracted to finish harvesting all of these apples, Miss Applejack?”

        The farmfilly's features sagged.  She stared down pitifully into a basket full of apples.  She murmured something underneath her breath.

        “What was that?” Scootaloo leaned in, curious.

        A furious sigh.  The blonde mare glared up at her with a shake of her hat.  “In two days.”

        “Snkkkt—In two days?!”  Scootaloo's amber eyes nearly bugged out.

        “Shhh—Hush, will ya?”

        “AJ—hrkk--Miss Applejack!”  Scootaloo nearly pratfalled as she rebounded from that blow of information.  “Well-oiled machine or not; the two of you have poured your hearts over the Eastern fields all afternoon, with my help to boot, and still not even half of this side of the Acres has been harvested!”  She took a deep breath, her wings fluttering in and out to assist her lungs in recovery.  “How in Celestia's sparkling mane do you expect to finish gathering the rest of the apples in two days—no—a day and a half at this rate?!?”

        She frowned back at her, “It's not like I didn't make it clear that we had no time to waste when y'all first dropped in on us!”

        “I don't see how I could have any impact on this situation whatsoever!  It's just that—nngh—if Princess Celestia knew this was the case, she would have sent a frickin' squadron of pegasi!  I may be a 'fibber' in your book, but even the both of us know that's true.”

        “Thanks for makin' my case for me!”Applejack growled and leaned against a tree, fanning her forlorn self with a hat.  “The last thing I wanted was for anypony to make a huge fuss about this.  But I assure you,” she looked up with a burning emerald gaze, “my brother and I will get the job done!”

        “How?—If I may ask?”  Scootaloo gawked as she paced around the earth pony.  “I've... er... studied up on Ponyvillean history.  You aren't adverse to requesting the help of your friends, Miss Applejack.  Why is this situation any different?  I mean—It's not like your brother is injured this year.  Surely history should teach you that--”

        “This has nothin' to do about history!  It's about tradition!  It's about land!”

        Scootaloo made a face.  “Land?”  She blinked confusedly at the pony.  “Sorry for sounding like a dense piece of wood, but what's that got to do with anything?”

        “Pfft—Everythang!”  Applejack gestured towards the wide expanse of red-glinted orchards.  “It's always about the land!  What it yields is equal to what a pony puts into it!  It's more than just karma—It's about treatin' the land responsibly, and takin' into account everythang you've contributed to the trees even long before the harvest comes!”

        “And this is something you guys can only do alone?”  Scootaloo squinted.  “Where's the logic in that?”

        “Unngh...Logic, Logic, Logic,” Applejack rubbed her head beneath her brown hat and muttered.  “Dang you one-track-minded Canterlotlians...”  She paused, glanced up at the tree, then over at Scootaloo.  She put her hat back on and approached the tree.  “Miss Harmony, sugarcube, I wantcha to do somethin' for me.”

        “Anything!”  Scootaloo nodded emphatically.

        Applejack reached her snout up towards a low-hanging branch and snapped an apple loose from its stem.  She caught it in her tail, juggled it over her rump, and elbowed it expertly in mid-air so that it flew and landed in the pegasus' jittery grasp.  “Take a bite out of that if yer would.”

        “Uhm...”Scootaloo raised an eyebrow.  “Not that I'm against the idea of a generous refreshment, but what for?”

        “Y'all supposed to be conductin' an investigation of Sweet Apple Acres!  Well, ain't ya?  Then investigate with yer full senses, girl!  Don't just calculate like a clerk—feel like a pony.  Take a bite!”

        Scootaloo stared at Applejack long and hard.  But under her stubborn gaze, she naturally relented.  It wasn't until her teeth were halfway through piercing the soft skin of the apple that the last pony finally took into account exactly what she was doing.  The next moment she knew it, she was being overwhelmed by a deluge of taste that nearly made her stagger from sheer shock.  Years of subsisting off of mushroom stew, reclaimed water, and bland Wasteland meats hadn't prepared her for this.  Taste buds that had been long retired in the back of her mouth exploded to life, throttling her brain back to the days when a pink haired foal shared cookies, cupcakes, and soda with two other blank flanks under a pink roofed Sugarcube Corner.  A fluttering of eyelashes, and she was also brought back to the hay-strewn loft of an abandoned barn in the middle of a forest, experiencing the week's first leap of euphoria under a starry night sky.  It was a sparkling sensation, the joy of filling a starved stomach.  It was the shimmering expectation of living for another scooter gliding day in Ponyville, of sharing the earth with so many colorful and friendly ponies, of pretending so much to be something that was loved that the little foal almost believed it was true.

        “Well?  Does it match yer royal seal of approval?” some strange voice drawled from beyond the nether.

        “It's... the absolute best thing I've ever tasted.” Scootaloo's voice came in a bizarre whimper.  She felt the moist apple bits sliding down her esophagus, warming her stomach like an inside-out hug.  A breath left her nostrils, and it was several seconds before she realized that Applejack was staring at her.  With a strange sensation alighting her cheek, the copper coated pegasus realized why Applejack was staring.  Scootaloo rubbed the left side of her face dry before uttering in a voice of forced composure:  “Most acceptable.  Ahem.  It's fresh, it's delicious—Undeniably healthy.  Princess Celestia would be pleased.”

        “There's a reason why it tastes so magnificently,” Applejack said, strolling from tree to tree as Scootaloo watched her, apple in hoof.  “The Apple Family has been workin' these here orchards for generations.  As a matter of fact, we colonized here barely a decade after Faustmare's caravan first arrived in the Great Equestrian Valley.  What we've put into the trees is more than just hard work—It's tradition.  It's heart.  All of our lives, we've poured into this land.  It's what we breathe for, dream for, and aspire to do—and nothin' else.  If that wasn't the case, a single cutie mark would have broken the line of dedicated Apple Family members a century ago.  And in all that time, nopony's branched off.  Not even one.”

        She took a deep breath, spun with a twirling of blonde threads and gazed at Scootaloo with a sweet face that rivaled the rich fruit still lacing the pegasus' twitching taste buds.

        “My Pa had a sayin', something that was hoofed down to him from his Papa and his Papa's Papa before him.” Applejack trotted gently towards “Harmony” and quoted:  “'Give to the Earth, and the Earth gives back'.”  She breathed in the air of the land and exhaled.  “This has been our family's motto for generations.  It's in our blood.  I don't rightfully expect you to understand the importance of it—what, with you bein' a pegasus and all.  And that's fine, but you have to trust me when I tell you it means everything to an earth pony.  We don't mind sharin' our produce.  We don't mind dusting off our front doorstep for visitors.  But when it comes to treatin' our land right and makin' do with what the land gives us back, it is our business and nopony else's.  We're responsible for givin' to the Earth, and we're accountable for what the Earth returns.  And when the time comes that our labors our finished and we have no breaths left in our bodies, we return ourselves to the Earth, as it gives us everythang for us to live off of to begin with.”

        “That's very noble, Miss Applejack,” Scootaloo gently replied.  “But if you respect the Earth so much, then you'll know that this land will mean nothing if something horrible was to happen that would cause you to lose claim to it.”  She motioned towards the rows upon rows of unbucked trees.  “So maybe you and Macintosh try to do all of this alone.  And maybe, Celestia forbid, you fail to get the Apple Buck Harvest done in two days' time.  I'm not sure what the immediate repercussions will be exactly, but I certainly can imagine.  It won't bode well for your farm—or any harvests you attempt in the future—if word gets around Equestria that you can't deliver on time!  And why?—Because you refused the help that was given you at the most opportune time?”

        Applejack sighed, hanging her head.  “Ain't nothin' to it.”

        “Why?  Could you at least explain to me why?

        “Yes, Big Mac and I made a contract with our clients...” Applejack gazed up at her.  “But first and foremost we made a contract with the Earth.  There are... mistakes that have been made.  And we've got to own up to it.  Nopony else.”

        “Mistakes?”  Scootaloo made a face.  “Is that why you started the Apple Bucking so early?  You're trying to make up for something that happened with the orchards that you feel responsible for?”  She glanced briefly over Applejack's shoulder.  Along a distant crest of a hill, she once again caught sight of a glinting metal cage, intended to be hidden alongside the wooden fence of the Acres.  “Miss Applejack, I'll buy that working the land has its own style of karma, but there are some things that even the Earth itself can't take into account.”  She gulped and murmured in a low voice.  “Cataclysmic things.”

        “In the end, all that matters is that we answer to the land.  The Apple Family.” Applejack trotted with sudden briskness towards the opposite rows of trees.  “To drag anypony else in—especially from Canterlot—is just muddyin' the issue.  Now come on.  If y'all ain't finished with yer hooves-on investigation, there's still plenty of apple trees to buck.  After all, the afternoon isn't dead until it's dead!”

        Scootaloo gazed after her, all of her pent-up frustration crumbling suddenly under a cascade of confusion and sympathy.  Helpless, she regarded the fruit in her hoof, and took another bite.  It somehow tasted less sweet, but she knew better.

        “Nothing ever dies enough,” she mumbled with a mouthful, then trotted off to join the rest of the day's work.


        The world no longer sang.  To perceive otherwise would be a travesty, or so Scootaloo felt.  The bright colors and springy warmth of the green land around her suddenly paled as what was once a task of joy had crumbled into a quagmire of desperation, squeezed between the jaws of a schedule that had broken the copper pegasus' brain as hard as it was currently breaking Applejack's and Macintosh's backsides.

        The time traveler couldn't even write a novel on this laughable irony.  She and Spike possessed thirty-odd years of reverse-time to work with and enough green flame to dance merrily across the lengths of them, and here she was—thrust into this infinitesimal moment of all moments—and there were barely forty-eight hours at hoof for her to salvage anything from the Apple Family, before an apple-flavored train wreck encompassed the entirety of their livelihood, before there would be nothing at all left to be salvaged.

        Scootaloo's brain swam circles, mimicking the hard black lines of her cutie mark's infinity symbol as she blurringly bucked away under the melting red Sun.  She pondered over what possessed a full-grown pony like Applejack—in a world replete of color and happiness—to do something so self-destructive, to make a contract that was as impossible as it was daring, to risk her entire family's hard-earned work on a delivery that was too soon to be feasibly met.

        Absurdly desperate gambles belonged to creatures of the Wasteland.  Last time Scootaloo checked, Applejack was an organism of Equestrian splendor.  She couldn't possibly have been influenced by the future's gray psychosis, unless the time traveler's presence there had somehow tainted the sanity of that age, transmogrifying the “gift” that Granny Smith perceived into the “curse” that Scootaloo very somberly knew she herself was.

        No.  Scootaloo sighed and bucked on.  Applejack had been digging this grave for a long time.  Glancing across the lines of orchards, the last pony could see it in her eyes.  The farm filly and her brother were like ghosts, pale shades of themselves as they limped from tree to tree.  There was something that bled from their twitching irises, something that refused to reflect the rich red gloss of the apples, something alien that they must have seen which drained the love from their earthen passion.  In all of her foalish years, Scootaloo couldn't recall the Apple Family siblings having ever appeared so... hollow.

        Perhaps something horrible had happened recently.  In a sudden serrated backflip of the heart, Scootaloo realized that she hadn't even seen a blink of Apple Bloom since she had first arrived there.  A brief panic bubbled within her, like the rising crest of a Wasteland stormfront.  She swiftly calmed herself, panting between trees, realizing that if something truly terrible had happened to her childhood friend, then Applejack—the element of Honesty—would have definitely said something.

        Still, there was a true paradox transpiring on that farm.  Applejack was hiding something.  She had to have been.  Everything in her body chemistry spelled it out and spilled it out; from the breathless limping between trees to the surly grumbles in the penumbra of the copper pegasus, Applejack was losing her sensible qualities like the trees were losing fruit all around her.  Of course, Scootaloo knew that it would be an utter apocalypse before Applejack would admit to anything.  In a shuddering breath, Scootaloo hoped that such a presumption wouldn't translate literally.

        The melting Sun glittered orange between the trees in a bright flash that held foalish hues.  Scootaloo's twitching mind jolted back and forth, and she suddenly and forlornly remembered a storm cellar on the edge of a cliff that yawned into the ashen madness of tomorrow.  The last pony had the unfortunate curse of knowing that the Apple Family had died, and yet she had the fortunate blessing of knowing how.  In three months' time, the farm ponies—Applejack, Macintosh, Granny Smith, and Apple Bloom—would all be corpses.  It was the Cataclysm that finished them off, as their skeletal husks were just as lifelessly intact as the rest of the Wasteland fossils that the last pony had ever encountered.

        Were their lives filled with such anxiety as what clouded them now?  Even until the end of their beating hearts, did they breathe the air of their farm with pride?  Was it the same pride that struggled so hard to drive “Harmony” away?  Or was it something righteous, something that they were yet to find, something that Scootaloo was destined to help them find?

        It never occurred to the last pony before that there could have been a purpose to her presence there.  Lurching between trees in the suspended shell of Princess Entropa, the visitor expected only to be a witness.  She had plummeted there on the green flaming waves of reverse-time to find out what happened to Equestria.  Instead, she was learning a depressing truth about one tiny farm on a speck of land that dotted the incomprehensibly vast bosom of a doomed world, and she suddenly didn't know what was worrying her more.

        This past was too fragile, too alive, too perfect.  She couldn't be a mere witness any longer, at least not so much as she had simplistically assumed time travelers to be pariahs.  Nopony was ever foaled to be untouchable; Scootaloo had only survived her many years in the gray skies of desolation because she had known there was something better, something warmer, something hopeful into which she was originally born and out from which she forever bled.

        But here—damnably here—where the smells of childhood cradled the sobbing void of all she had ever lost or dreamed of, there was no desolation, there was no grayness, there was no pain.  With numb Entropan limbs, she punished hardened trunks of fruit plastered trees, fighting with every centimeter of her soul to preserve that painlessness, to impossibly salvage the soil from Applejack's grave, to scoop from the land whatever absurd principle the farm filly believed in, so that Scootaloo might cradle it, examine it, and scavenge forth what it was that Applejack held dear, so that she may understand it too—and endeavor to find a way to save her.

        Equestria would someday die.  There was a Sun and Moon somewhere to bring back to a sullen husk of a world.  The time traveler knew that she may have been failing Spike, she may have been failing the future, and she may have been failing herself; but she suddenly and inexplicably couldn't bring herself to fail Applejack.  Falling short of that would just be... painful.  So with a firm jaw and a quiet disposition, she bucked on.

        It would take the soft shuffling of lime hooves to briefly shake her from this suddenly noble exercise.  “Your stamina is inspiring, Miss Harmony.  It's nice to know that Canterlot is still made of stern stuff these days.”

        Scootaloo breathlessly glanced up in time to witness the silhouette of an elderly mare in the sun's collapsing glow.  “When was it not?” she mused with nonchalance.  “I heard Miss Applejack say that you use a walker.”

        “I use a lot of things.”  The gray-haired pony smiled.  With a wincing wheeze, she bravely lowered her body down onto folded hooves and sat upon the crest of gathering shadows before the time traveler.  “I just do my darndest to not let them use me.”

        “What's on your mind, Ms. Smith?” Scootaloo asked, casting a nervous glance over her shoulder at the mare's two laboring grandchildren.  The farm ponies were swiftly bucking down the line of trees.  If Scootaloo remained in one place for too long, the green flames could hoist her away from her anchor at any second.  “I k-kind of promised that I wouldn't rest until I've helped your granddaughter with all of these trees.”

        “Even if you bucked with the might of a thousand war horses, child, you wouldn't accomplish the task with any greater swiftness—at least not the swiftness that we desperately need at the moment.”

        Scootaloo bit her lip and peered up with soft amber eyes.  “So you know all about the crazy schedule, huh?”

        “I know everythang there is to know about this here farm,” Granny Smith said with a weathered expression that clung on the precipice of wakefulness.  “At least, I know more than them whippersnappers give me credit for.  Harumph.”  She briefly glared gray daggers the two ponies' way, but punctuated it with the softest of surrendering smiles.  “I couldn't love them for better gumption.  When I was their age, I reckon I assumed nopony else knew the ins-and-outs of the orchards but me.”

        “What do you think, Ms. Smith?”

        “I think that Octavia's music deserves a second chance under the needle.  There's a certain richness to her cello pluckin' that's missin' from the classics.  It's the vitality of youth, I reckon.”

        Scootaloo managed a chuckle, something that had been robbed from her for the past hour or so.  “That's nice to hear, Ms. Smith.  But what I meant to ask was—what do you think of the situation?”  She gulped.  “Have Miss Applejack and Big Macintosh really doomed this farm?”

        “Fillies these days; they are all about doom and gloom.  Please don't remind me of Miss Lily from the village.  If so much as an acorn hits the cobblestone, that sheepish pony screams bloody murder to the townsfolk—as if the world is coming to an end.”

        “When... or if that happens, Ms. Smith,” Scootaloo winced even as the sardonic words instinctually dripped out from her lips, “I assure you it won't be through an acorn.”

        “Hmm-hmm-hmm...”  The elder breathily chuckled.  Thin sweet eyes wafted over Scootaloo in a gray baptism.  “I have lived too long and seen too many things to focus on 'doom', child.  When you've gained as many years as I have... and lost as many close to you, you come to realize that things come and go.  Sometimes it's all for a reason; sometimes it's not.  But the coming and the going is just a matter of living and someday not living.  Being too desperately affixed to a worrisome dot in the whole confusin' length of it all is just not worth the sweat, in my books.”

        The last pony swam through the thick of Granny Smith's words, too terribly humble to bother vocalizing the familiarity of them all.  She cast a nervous glance in the direction of the two young ponies and caught them gazing with less enthusiasm back at the “Canterlotlian visitor”.

        “Well, your flesh and blood over there is focused on something,” Scootaloo said with a nod of her amber-streaked mane.  “I really wish I knew what it was.”  A beat; she glanced squintingly down at the seated elder.  “I don't suppose you could fill me in, any?”

        “That wouldn't be my place,” Granny Smith replied with a knowing smirk.  “I may be able to pull Applejack's ear from time to time, but it's AJ who runs this farm—not me.  I'm not always approving of her judgment, but I sure as heck respect it.  It was Apple Shine's wish, after all.”

        “What wish is that?”  Scootaloo asked.

        Either Granny Smith ignored that or she was too desperately sailing towards a distant thought.  She said, “You shouldn't be so hungry for facts, Miss Harmony.  You can't rightly be blamed for a code of conduct taught by them Canterlotlian nobles that makes you so bent on uncoverin' the truth in all of its raw numbers.  Instead, look towards the land.  Bear witness to the fruit that we've brought to blossomin' all healthy-like.  Isn't the quality of my grandchildren's work enough to impress Her Highness?”

        “I... Nnngh...” Scootaloo ran a tired hoof over her features, sighing.  “Ms. Smith, in all due respect, I need facts.  I need to know exactly what it is that's making Applejack push this farm downhill on a crashing wagon with only one wheel!  Otherwise, how am I... h-how am I going to be able to help her?”

        “Mmmm...” Granny Smith smiled placidly.  “I knew it.”

        Scootaloo raised an eyebrow.  “You knew what?”

        “Yer the selfless type, Miss Harmony.  That's a once-in-a-lifetime thang.  Well, twice-in-a-lifetime, I reckon.  H-Heh.  If I actually believed in reincarnation, then maybe I wouldn't feel so plum crazy,” the old country mare mused.  “But with each passing second, you remind me of that darlin' pegasus who visited me after Apple Shine was born.  She was so genteel and graceful in every respect.  Why—if Princess Celestia or one of her divine Alicorn Sisters had come to visit this here ranch, I would have been none the wiser.  In some ways, I used to think that all Canterlotlian clerks bore at least an ounce of royal blood, in that they performed their tasks in an gorgeous air that mimicked the Goddesses themselves.  Bein' around the farm during that year's census just gave the land that much more shine, that much more hope.  I couldn't have asked for a finer guest—and here I am again, blessed to be in the gifted presence of one of y'all.  Like I said, child, it's a wonder to be alive.”

        Scootaloo tried to smile.  It came across more like a wound.  Gazing at Granny Smith's gentle face, she somehow wouldn't be shocked if the lime wrinkles and gray hair were suddenly replaced by purple scales and green crests.  For yet another uncountable moment, the last pony felt loved and lonely at the same time.

        “You say that I'm a 'gift', Ms. Smith,” Scootaloo finally spoke.  “And I respect that.  I find it flattering—but I only wish it was true.”  A deflated breath, and she gazed across the labored lengths of the ill-fated apple bucking.  “A real gift wouldn't feel so useless.”

        “Real gifts take time to make themselves useful, and even more time for some lucky ponies to recognize what's fallen into their laps,” Granny Smith chuckled as her eyes regarded her descendants, bucking their way across the immutable lengths of orchards like so many generational shadows before them.  Her gray eyes turned grayer for a brief moment.  “Elektra built this earth out of her own hooves, and Gultophine gave it life with her own breath.  But it took time to make it grow into somethang as pristine and beautiful as the land I've been blessed to live on today... and to be buried in tomorrow.”  A deep breath, and the twinkle returned to her in double copper hues.  “I don't know where exactly you hail from, Miss Harmony, and can't rightly pretend to be understandin' how or why you're here, but all I can say is that you bein' here... is timely.”

        Scootaloo shivered on the edge Smith's words.  Something funneled through her, something cold, like the rancid teeth of yesterday's snowy rockfaces.  So she hid deeper beneath her Entropan skin and fled from the pain, reveling in the toasty mirage of the past that danced around the wrinkled elder's meditative pose.  Perhaps that far down, that deep into the moment, she might come to understand the living pony's words.

        “I can only hope you're right, Miss Smith.  For Miss Applejack's sake, for your family's sake, for—”  She jolted suddenly, her amber eyes twitching up as she was suddenly overcome with a great red hue.  The sky was bleeding, and for a feverish breath the last pony thought the Cataclysm was happening three months early.  “By Celestia's m-mane!  What's that?!?”

        Granny Smith blinked.  She stared up, her gray hairs fluttering in the wind.  A deep snort rose from her nostrils and bulleted through her lungs as she wobbled up on thin limbs.  “Good heavens, child!  Surely yer pullin' an old lady's tail!”  She winked and sashayed away.  “Why, that's the sunset!  What else could it be?”


        Two hours and hundreds of trees later, a good two-thirds of the Eastern Orchards had been bucked clean.  A veritable mountain of baskets bulged with apples, most of which were presently being loaded up into the back of a large wooden cart.  Big Macintosh harnessed himself to the wheels and marched firmly downhill towards the big red barn in the center of the Acres.  Along the path beside him, Applejack finished stacking several baskets aside for the brother's next trip back.  Wiping her matted blonde bangs with a foreleg, she glanced over her shoulder and saw a dark silhouette atop the nearby hill.

        Scootaloo stood frozen on a mound of black soil and bent grass, staring breathlessly into a great burning sight before her.  The sun was setting in the west—the first sunset the last pony had seen in decades.  It was a molten gold sensation, like being set ablaze from the inside out—hooves to mane—with liquid red fire.  The pegasus breathed bravely into the gentle crimson inferno, and as a brisk wind billowed over the hilltop, she shut her amber eyes and drank it in, settling down on her haunches in order to free her upper limbs.  She stretched them outward as if they were secondary wings, riding the heated breeze as it kicked through her black mane and dashed her amber streaks like hidden streamers.  The smells that wafted off the land were spiced with fluttering leaves and blossoming seeds, so that she felt like she was flying for once without her wings, navigating a bizarrely warm world that had somehow evaded her for years, hidden behind cold ash and even colder memories.

        “I reckon y'all Canterlot clerks don't get outside much.” Applejack's hoofsteps crunched up from behind.  “Surely there're sunsets that are purdy enough in yer neck of the woods.”

        The pegasus breathed shudderingly, opening her moist eyes into the melting horizon.  “The only truly pretty things are what you capture by accident.  They're the things that you'll forever fly away from, only to think back on how you'll miss them forever.”  Her wings shifted involuntarily.  Another breath, and she slowly spun a bitter sweet smile back at Applejack.  “I think I finally have a reason to envy earth ponies like you.  You know an awesome thing when you see it, and then you stick to it.

        “If I might make a lil confession,” Applejack smirked slightly and winked Scootaloo's way.  “I've always dreamed that I could fly with some fancy pegasus wings of my own someday.”  A slight, girlish giggle.  “Just a foalish daydream I used to have.”

        “Keep it a daydream,” Scootaloo said in a droning voice, gazing once more as the horizon ate up the last of the glistening golden Sun.  “The only reason anypony has wings is to escape things.”  She gulped.  “I wish I'd never have to escape this.”

        Applejack's green eyes softened slightly.  But—with a firm exhale—she nudged Scootaloo's mane and motioned southward with her snout.  “Come along, Miss Harmony.  There's somethin' I gots'ta show y'all.”  She trotted off.

        Scootaloo obediently followed, breaking into a slight canter to keep up with her orange host.  Applejack led her past the last edge of the orchards, through a metal arch enshrouded in vines, and straight into a lush grove of bright white flowerbeds.  The rolling expanse of Equestria lingered beyond a distant line of fences, the horizon turning purple under the advent of a cooly falling evening.  The copper pegasus was so engrossed in this equally mesmerizing sight that she barely noticed that Applejack had stopped softly in her tracks.  Glancing down in front of the earth pony, Scootaloo somberly realized why.

        There were gravestones.  Many of them.  Eight.. twelve... twenty... At least thirty that Scootaloo could immediately count.  They were bleached-white immaculate marble heads, with only slight aging noticeable in the stones that dotted the furthest distance.  Each row, Scootaloo realized, stood for a subsequent generation of the Apple Family, with far too many names than she could discern, except for the freshest stones that lingered directly in front of Applejack and the pegasus in turn.

        'Apple Shine – Devoted Father – Most Dependable Earth Pony'

        'Orange Blossom – Loving Mother – Ponyville's Pride and Joy'

        Scootaloo gazed quietly.  Her amber eyes fell over the fresh lilies that had been placed recently before the two graves.  In front of the mother's stone in particular she could spot a few foal-sized hoofprints that had been left in the soft earth.  There was so much beauty surrounding the place, from the lulling unplucked fruit trees to the shadowed beds of white flowers that fluttered in the settling evening's breeze.  For once, death actually looked peaceful to the last pony.  A part of her was almost envious.

        “I brought y'all here to show that I wasn't just blowin' hot steam with what I said earlier,” Applejack spoke in a hushed tone.  She knelt briefly before the two stones and brushed an orange hoof betwixt them, murmuring a few sweet words with her mouth closed.  She brought the same hoof to her lips, kissed it, and gently tapped both stones in turn.  Once finished, she gazed across the many white faces reflecting her from across the grove.  “We really do give everythang to the Earth—includin' ourselves in the end.  This land of ours is more than just soil and appleseeds.  It's flesh and bone.  Every piece of fruit we pick is a piece of us.  And—to be perfectly honest—I wouldn't have it any other way.”

        The earth pony stood up, trotted around, and paced towards Scootaloo.

        “When my Pa died, he managed to tell me somethin'.  He said: 'Always remember to be strong, Applejack'.”  She gazed at the breeze-blown apple trees in the distance.  “Celestia knows, after all these years, I've taken him up on his word.  I've been strong for him, for the family, for this here land.  I've been so strong for so long that I rightly don't remember what use it is to cry anymore; it's a waste of time as far as I'm concerned.  The rest of the family; they can afford it.  That's just the way things happened to be.  Apple Bloom was far too young and precious to be the strong one.  Granny Smith—Epona bless her heart—she's always been the spirit of the Apple Family, but she no longer has the bones for the job.  Big Macintosh has the muscle, but he's so sweet and soft-spoken.  He may not look it, but he ain't the one to bear the weight.  It all came down to me—And that's quite alright.  I'm happy to be spearheadin' the family.  It's my job and I'm stickin' to it.  These days, it means more than just livin' up to what Pa wanted of me.  I've seen what I can do for this land, and what it can do for me.  And I'm startin' to realize just what it must have felt like for Pa when he had to leave this world so soon, when everythang he ever cared about was snatched away from him and Ma in a blink.  I love this family with all my heart—but, just like Pa felt—I love this land all the same.  Because it's all the same, ya see?  The life, the legacy, the land—it all comes full circle.  And in my humble eyes, that's a finer poetry than even your finest writers nestled in Canterlot could ever hope to put to paper.”

        Scootaloo listened intently.  Even her heartbeat quieted to give air to Applejack's words.  Gradually, the orange mare turned her face to stare the pegasus straight in her amber eyes.

        “Miss Harmony, when mornin' comes, and the Sun rises once more over this land, you will be gone.  You will be back in Canterlot, deliverin' everythang yer reckon you've learned from today and today alone.”  She slowly shook her head.  “I'm sorry if this sounds all intimidating-like.  But what I'm stating is a fact; because if Big Macintosh and I wake up to do the rest of our apple buckin'—and we see you there waitin' at the front gate to inspect us some more—it will be I who will be writing a letter to Princess Celestia.  And I promise you—on the very graves that lie before us—it will not be a pretty letter.  The Goddess of the Sun may control the sky, but she sure as hay doesn't control the Earth.  Sweet Apple Acres business is our business, and that's the way it's gonna be, even until the end of time.”

        Scootaloo nodded, waited for several seconds of silence to ensue, then bravely replied, “That's the funny thing about time, Miss Applejack—the end of it, at least.  Nopony can know when it happens.  It could...” she fidgeted.  “It could be a lot sooner than you think.”

        “My statement is still final,” Applejack said.  “Even if the world ended tonight, I stand by my word—and my word is my flesh and blood.  I'm sorry to have treated ya so viciously earlier.  There is no hard work that isn't stressful work, and y'all caught us at a bad time.  You may leave now, Miss Harmony.  And if ever I see you in the future, that will be a future when all will be made right between the Apple Family and the Earth.  Maybe then you'll be lucky enough to see my friendlier side, and I can show you the gratitude that you deserve.”  She smiled sweetly.  “I don't fancy you a bad pony, just not entirely an honest one.  And that don't sit right with me.”

        “Naturally, it wouldn't,” Scootaloo defeatedly murmured.  She extended her wings and prepared to soar away—but paused briefly to glance back and utter, “But even you should realize, Miss Applejack, that a lie of omission is still a lie.”

        Applejack fidgeted, digging the edge of her hoof into the ground.  It was a gesture that appeared... anything but strong.  Rather than allow the awkwardness to go on for any longer, Scootaloo immediately took to the air and flew majestically towards the darkening horizon, disappearing behind a purple line of trees.

        The orange mare exhaled the entire afternoon's weight out her mouth.  Paying the graves one last bit of respect, she turned around and slowly trotted out of the grove.  She walked back towards the orchards alone... or so she thought.

        From behind a row of trees, unseen in the settling curtain of night, the silhouette of a pegasus stealthily danced across the blossoming stars.  With a pair of reflective amber eyes locked on Applejack, she hovered quietly over the treetops and kept within distance of the soul's anchor.

        “You might be strong—But you've got a lot to learn about persistence, girl.”


        The Apple Family had retired for the night.  After trucking in the last of the day's harvested apples and shutting them inside various woodsheds, Applejack and Big Macintosh tended to the last livestock chores before sauntering lethargically into the family farmhouse.  A few lights lingered pitifully through several windows of the humble abode until they too blinked away to match the sleepy darkness that had settled over the land.  For several hours afterwards, a tranquil peace wafted over the farmstead in a purple haze, accompanied by the chirping of crickets and distant hoots of owls.

        All of this, Scootaloo witnessed—of course—because she was stealthily perched atop the roof of the red barn sitting straight across from the Apple Family's house, stretching her soul to the furthest reach of her projection's binding to Applejack's sleeping form.

        “Hey, I just realized.  There is a bum living in Ponyville.  And it's me.”

        The copper-coated pegasus sighed and slumped down so that she was lying with her chin rested aside a rusted weathervane in the shape of a rooster.  Her legs were unenthusiastically folded underneath herself as she waited... and waited... and waited.

        She couldn't succumb to slumber.  It wasn't because of the nearly nonexistent sleeping schedule that she had developed from gray years of piloting the Harmony.  It wasn't because of some deep-rooted tingling of excitement billowing through her veins from being displaced in time.  It was simply because she... couldn't sleep.  She was incapable of it—so long as she was in this form, this materialized projection of her soul self.  She had briefly figured—from Spike's description—that this would be a blessing.  But suddenly, in the wake of having failed to pierce through Applejack's stubborn defenses, it appeared to be nothing more than a curse.  Scootaloo could just as well have been a ghost, an age old insomniac poltergeist forced to forever haunt the grounds of Sweet Apple Acres, beset with ponies who would very gladly ignore her existence.  It was a very surreal flip of the coin from her very real, very lonesome life in the Wastelands.

        “And just what is that smell?”  She sniffed the air while murmuring hushedly towards herself.  “I sure as heck don't remember that from visiting Apple Bloom!”

        The girl sighed.  Her head spun with all of the many things she would have to deal with in the morning.  There were still days left to her time travel, she figured.  Of course she couldn't quit on Applejack.  When the sun rose, she would have to plop herself down onto the earth in front of a startled pair of farm ponies and somehow convince them not to skewer her to death with pitchforks for having the audacity to betray their exceedingly solemn request for her to leave.

        And why shouldn't she leave?  Scootaloo wasn't entirely convinced that she knew what she was there to do in the first place.  All she wanted was to bridge a simple communication gap, to get Applejack to open up to her, to get her to trust her.  Then and only then she might proceed to come out with the truth, that she was there for reasons that exceeded the historically superficial issues of Apple Buck Season, that soon there would no longer be a season for anything, because all manner of measuring time and harvesting would utterly vanish along with the Sun, the Moon... and civilization.

        “Who am I kidding?”  The pegasus girlishly toyed with her alien mane of long black hair and gazed forlornly into the starlit haze of the Earth.  “So long as I'm not honest with the Element of Honesty, the Element of Honesty can't possibly be expected to 'fess up to me.”

        Perhaps that was the key.  Applejack was no Ms. Cheerilee.  She was strong, she had her faculties centered upon the rigid spokes of reality.  If Scootaloo dove in on Applejack and divulged her the horrible fate of Equestria, the wheels turning in the orange mare's head would be absolutely well-greased to spin true.  She would gladly do what she could to contact Princess Celestia.  She may even open up enough to Scootaloo to accept her help with the farm--

        Scootaloo went crosseyed.  She facehoofed with a groan.  “Dang it—That's not my concern!  It shouldn't be my concern!”

        The only reason Scootaloo came back in time to begin with was to find an answer to what caused the Cataclysm and the deaths of Princess Celestia and Luna.  That should have been on the forefront of her troubled mind—not all of this business with Applejack's stubbornness, her family's legacy, an impossible harvest that needed to be completed in less than two days, a farm's future that could be put in jeopardy if the two farm ponies didn't just give up and accept much needed help...

        Scootaloo sat up on her haunches, exhaling hard through her Entropan nostrils.  No matter how hard she tried to make herself think of something more important, the issue with Applejack and her Apple Buck Season fiasco constantly bubbled to the surface.  Even then and there, none of what she was doing made any sense.  How would helping the Apple Family with one measly harvest shed any light on the End of Equestria—or how to reverse the damage done in a wasted future to boot?

        A fit of anger reverberated through the time traveler.  Where there was anger, there was pain.  Where there was pain, there was ash.  Where there was ash, there was home, a forever after of forever afters—alone.

        Scootaloo didn't realize what she had done until a loud metallic ringing noise echoed across the lengths of the barn.  She blinked briefly, watching as the metal rooster that formed the weather vane spun offensively before her.  The pegasus glanced down at her hoof.  She had struck the metal figurine at full force, and she hadn't felt a thing.  It was a heavy weathervane—at least parts of her had to have stung from the contact.  Alas, everything was a numb cocoon of bewilderment.

        The last pony bit her lip.  Out of curious experimentation—as opposed to somber angst—she once more raised a copper limb and aimed the soft part of it against the serrated beak of the rusted rooster rotating to a stop.  She pressed her coat to the sharpest point; she pressed harder, until the skin bent and sunk under the menacing beak.  It should have hurt.  It should have broken blood.  But try as she might, Scootaloo could not pierce the outer shell of her Entropan form.

        So much of this projection was still new to her, from the amber streak in her black mane to the immaculate curves of her hooves.  Scootaloo felt like she had been encased in a reverse time capsule, a copper glistening thing that Spike had randomly shot backwards in time via a green sneeze.  If Scootaloo stuck herself inside a cannon and aimed it at the heart of the planet, she had no doubt whatsoever that the discharge would send her living brick of a body flying out the crust on the other side.  It all seemed too terribly convenient, and yet inconvenient.  Sent back to an era doomed to die, Scootaloo was temporarily immortal.  But could she feel?

        That day had been a warm day.  The grass had been green grass, the apples had been red apples, the fruit that had slid down Scootaloo's throat sent her on waves of bitter sweet euphoria the likes of which she had never experienced and would very likely not come close to relishing again.  Every succulent morsel that had clamored together to paint the luxurious canvass of Sweet Apple Acres had not been lost to Scootaloo's senses, such heavenly living senses that the ghostly gray future would stifle for so long.

        Here, atop the red barn's roof, in a settling splash of momentary anger, Scootaloo reached once more into the nebulous past dancing all around her on cricket-song, and she couldn't feel pain.  Or at least... she wouldn't.  After a day's worth of effortless, sweatless, tireless apple bucking; she had suddenly become the pariah she imagined time travelers to be.  Only, it was a different untouchableness, a cold and arrogant immutability, like time itself.  Beyond the dull bass hum of the night, Scootaloo imagined a voice—sounding mystically like Princess Entropa's—and it was laughing, hooting like an owl.

        A shuddering breath; and the pegasus gazed up at the stars in a desperate bid to distract herself.  She had been engrossed in such an act for the last three hours straight; as soon as the lights went out in the Apple Family's farmhouse, she had begun stargazing.  This was a far different sky than the twilight that infected the gray roof of the future.  It was dark—deathly dark—but the stars that twinkled beyond the curtain of oblivion were alive, blissful, and resplendent with the trailing Exodus of Goddess Epona.

        And in the center of such a gorgeous canvass, their hung the brightest jewel of all, the moon.  It wasn't just any moon, but the most precious of satellites, something that sat unblemished in the sky for no longer than a solitary year, when the shadow of Nightmare Moon had faded from its ivory body as a beautifully unassuming harbinger of the disastrous Cataclysm to come.  And here Scootaloo was, a detached soul from the future, the only lucky (or unlucky) pegasus in the whole of existence to be granted the chance to visit such an abridged page in history, the last page, the bitterly brief appendix of all things that would ever be.

        “I wonder... When Luna was up there for a thousand years, could she give to the Earth?”  Scootaloo murmured allowed.  A lump formed in her throat as her eyes melted away from the mesmerizing orb in the sky, and she uttered, “Spike, what kind of Earth will we have to give to when all is said and done?”

        There was no answer.  Instead, there was a noisy pattering of paws.  Scootaloo's heart jumped—for the only thing that the last pony expected to witness after that sort of sound was a flurry of glisteningly sharp polearms.  In a breath, she instinctually bounded up to her hooves and spun to face the other side of the barn, snarling.

        She was confronted with the gloriously stupid grin of a farm dog panting up at her, its tail wagging.  It was a rough collie, with gorgeous flowing calico fur and nimble limbs.  Scootaloo's perplexed eyes briefly followed a series of crates, outhouse rooftops, and rain gutters—until her mind explained to her exactly how the tiny mutt had managed to clamor onto the top of the barn without wings.  The cleverness of the creature struck her funny, until a foalish corner of her brain mumbled forth a name that had long been in hibernation:  “W... Wi-... Winona?”

        The dog barked once, grinned even more stupidly, and all but pounced on the copper-coated pegasus, giving her several slobbering tongue-lashes across her face and mane.  The pegasus hissed, growled—giggled once—and all but shoved the canine off her like she was a skunk.

        “Okay—OKAY!  I get it!  Not all of the Apple Family is angry to see a 'Canterlotlian Servant'!”  She settled back down on folded hooves as she amusedly watched the excitable collie jog four-legged circles around her.  “Just don't drool all over me.  Sweetie Bell's the one who tasted like marshmallows, not me—Remember?”

        Winona barked and sat before her, panting steadily as if attempting to relay some joyous secret code in tongued dribbles.

        “Heh, silly little fuzzball,” Scootaloo managed a slight smirk.  “It's an awful shame that your distant cousins will take to flying giant metal behemoths in the future and try to kill me.”

        Winona tilted her calico head to the side.

        “Meh—Gilliam was kind of cute, in his own disheveled, nauseating, predictably homicidal way.  But he didn't have your eyes though.”  She winked.

        The collie nodded stupidly—but then her head shot up and her ears perked.  A blink; and she snarled and faced southeast, glaring off the edge of the barn.

        “Hmmm...?”  The last pony raised an eyebrow.  “Now what's gotten you all spooked?”

        Winona barked loudly, snarled once more, and bounded fearlessly off the side of the barn.  Rolling down a mound of hay, the farm dog broke into a full sprint, rocketing towards the distant edges of night-drenched orchards.

        “What I wouldn't give to have a companion like that in the Wastes.”  Scootaloo strolled up to the edge of the barn, blinking.  “Eh, who am I frickin' kidding?  I'd probably eat her—Wait a minute.”  She squinted hard, nearly teetering over the edge of the rooftop.

        Two large shadows were galloping from the front door of the family farmhouse and darting their way southeast.  Moonlight glinted off a pitchfork in one of the ponies' grasp.  As they pierced the obscurity of the apple trees, a shrill ringing noise could be heard off in the distance.

        “Kind of late to be bucking apples, huh, girlfriend?”  Scootaloo's face was caught between a smirk and a frown.  She didn't think much of it; she took off and glided gently after the shadows, staying silently within the range of her anchor to Applejack, but most importantly staying silent.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

        “Just a few more meters, Macky,” Applejack murmured in a hushed tone.  She strolled hatless under several waving branches of apple trees as she snuck over a darklit hill with her pitchfork aimed serratedly ahead of her.  “I toldja that trap would be loud enough to wake a dragon from its slumber!  We got 'em this time!”

        The red stallion merely glared through the darkness as he shuffled alongside his younger sister.  He tried his hardest to pierce through the veil of night with his vision, but was only faintly aware of a glinting shape rattling due east of where they were presently sneaking.

        “You did wire that thing to snap shut at a feather's touch, right, Big Mac?”

        “Eeeyup,” he hushedly managed, suddenly stopping his sister's trot with a mighty forearm.  A tiny shadow had just darted straight past them.

        “What in tarnation—?” she gasped, then wilted in the moonlight at the sound of a loud chorus of barking noises.  “Awww shoot!  Winona!  We plum forgot to shut her in the barn!  C'mon!  Let's hurry it there before one of 'em hurts her bad!”

        The two rushed over rustling high grass and bushes until they were out in the open.  In the ivory glow of the waxing moon, the silhouette of Winona pranced and bounced viciously around a rattling cage lying just before the line of wooden fences that marked the edge of Sweet Apple Acres.  A series of bells suspended on strings rung loudly from the sides of the metal container that they were attached to—until the cage itself stopped shaking altogether.

        “Shhh!  Hold yer hooves!” Applejack hissed.

        She and her brother skidded to a stop, gazing with sudden trepidation at the stone-still cage.  The ringing noise had stopped.  The southeast end of the orchards was still, eerily cold and quiet.  Sitting inside the metal contraption, a black shape sat—sporting two beady white eyes that stared back at them.  Its body rose and fell slowly in dark leathery breaths.

        “What in the hay is it just staring at us for?” Applejack gulped.  Suddenly, Winona's barking stopped.  The collie paced nervously over towards the two ponies, her voice reduced to a deep whine as her ears deflated.  Applejack whispered:  “Macky, I don't like this—”

        Two shrieking figures dove in from a cluster of bushes and slammed Applejack to the ground.  Spinning, Big Macintosh gasped and galloped over to rescue her—but four more bodies jumped out of a nearby apple tree and wrestled with the stallion, weathering his snarling kicks and bucks as he struggled to shake them off.

        Applejack grunted and headbutted the first of the two leathery creatures clawing at her before reverse-kicking the second.  She limped up onto three hooves with the aid of her pitchfork.  “Darn Celestia-forsaken varmints!—They sprung a trap with our trap!”

        Macintosh shouted and backtrotted hard into an apple tree.  The entire thing shook, dropping heavy fruit down onto the heads of the various creatures clinging to him.  He managed to shake off three of them with his mighty limbs, but four more shadows scampered in from the underbrush and tackled him with a gasp.  They shoved him across the orchards until he spilled violently through the wooden fences bordering the farm.  Under the combined weight of the whooping leathery monstrosities and the collapsed beams, he was helpless to get back up to his hooves.  The creatures clamored all over Macintosh, bearing razor sharp claws and pointed fangs.

        “I'm a'coming, Big Mac!” Applejack fearlessly plowed her way through three creatures, leaped over a leathery sea of more ambushers, and galloped the last heartstopping lengths separating her from her encumbered sibling.  But before she could so much as get within a hair's length, the one creature inside the cage effortlessly snapped the bars open and pounced on her with a scream.  “Unnggh!”  She cried out as she was slammed hard to the splashing dirt.

        Her pitchfork tumbled uselessly to the side as she gazed up in horror to see a drooling face full of fanged teeth leering above her.  Winona suddenly dove into the scene with a growl, biting hard into the creature's shoulder.  The monster hissed, flicked its limb, and smacked Winona off of him.  The collie ricocheted across the earth's floor with a yelping cry as more leathery forms closed in from all sides.  Applejack and Macintosh were suddenly awash in a sea of mangy carnivores, and the air sang as all the abominations extended their claws as one and made to slash flesh from bone—

        A copper blur soared through the moonlight, and suddenly the monster straddling Applejack was gone.  “H-Huh?!”  The frazzled blonde mare blinked, rolled up to her haunches, and glanced breathlessly aside.

        A winged figure was stamping her hooves down into the side of the shrieking creature, filling the night air with the sickly crunch of bones.  Two more monsters leaped at the pegasus' backside, only to be effortlessly bucked hard through a row of exploding wooden fences.  With amber eyes flickering, the shadow of “Harmony burned across the inky black earth and bowled through the pile of bodies that had clamored over Macintosh.  Several thrashing hooves met hard leather skulls, and half of the creatures were already bolting off under a cadence of pained shrieks.  The other half closed in, spurred on by the sudden heroine's audacious attack.

        “Y-You again!”  Applejack gasped, scampering immediately over towards a dazed Macintosh's side.  “Nnngh—Carnsarnit, Miss Harmony!  Why can't I quit you?”

        “You're welcome,” Scootaloo blindly snarled.  Frowning, she spun about—eyed all of the surrounding creatures—and then flashed a look to the earth.  She saw the pitchfork lying dormant.  Scootaloo slammed a hoof down and spun the thing upwards until she clasped its wooden handle in her teeth.  In one roaring charge, the monsters converged on her, but the last pony was more than ready.  She swung her snout in a wide swath—her black mane flowing with an amber streak—and she mercilessly slashed the serrated length of the pitchfork's teeth across an advancing row of leather flesh.  Wet black juice splashed hotly through the night.  Several creatures retreated in a howl of pain and defeat; a last trio stupidly rushed Scootaloo from behind.

        The pegasus breathlessly kicked one creature, twirled on one hoof, smacked another monster skyward with the pitchfork, tossed the farming utensil onto her back, twirled it over outstretched wings, and kicked the base of the midair handle with one well-aimed buck.  The thing sang through the air before it sliced across the silhouette of a gasping monster's skull.  With a wooden thud, the pitchfork embedded into a tree trunk across the clearing—with a severed ear spinning to a stop on the leftmost tooth of the bloodied tool.  The last creature wailed, clutching its leaking head and hobbling off to join its scampering brethren just beyond the line of fences and into the pitch-black forest beyond.  A dizzied Winona limped up to her feet, shook her head clear, and ran up just to the edge of the fenceline, barking canine obscenities into the great beyond.

        Applejack panted, exhausted simply from watching the entire fight unfold.  She shook Macintosh's shoulders, gazing at him with mute concern.  He winced slightly but was moderately bruised, nothing more.  The stallion clamored halfway out from the pile of wooden fence lumber and paused to pat Applejack's arm with a reassuring hoof.  Gulping, the blond mare helped him to all fours and gazed forlornly Scootaloo's way.

        “Th-Thank you.  I m-mean it in all sincerity, Miss Harmony.  Thank you for saving our lives.  We've had all we can take from them nasty varmints over the past few weeks—”

        “Trolls.”

        “I beg yer pardon?” Applejack blinked in the suddenly blinding moonlight.

        “They're called 'trolls',” Scootaloo spat, facing off into the forest beyond Winona's furious barkings.  “And they're not gone.”

        “Th-They're not?!?” Applejack gasped.  Her and her brother's teeth clattered suddenly.

        Scootaloo shook her head and motioned towards the woods with her snout.  “They're still out there, in between the trees, watching us.  No doubt they want to stage another attack before sunrise—The Sun is their bane you see.  Uh uh—There's no getting rid of trolls, not easily at least.”

        “H-How do you know all of this?”

        “Because I know trolls, among other things,” Scootaloo said, turning to gaze down at the stumbling sight of the exhausted siblings.  She raised an eyebrow.  “All this time—That was it?  You've been dealing with trolls?”

        “It's n-not as bad as it looks—”

        “Miss Applejack, it's worse than it looks!  Trolls shouldn't be this deep in Equestria in this time period—er—in Spring, I mean!  Why haven't you asked for any help with them up until now?!”

        “Didn't y'all learn anythang from what I told you earlier?”  Applejack murmured melancholically.  She and Macintosh gazed sickly at the line of trees and the many pairs of pale eyes staring hauntingly back at them.  “We have to deal with them alone—It's our land.”

        “But why, Miss Applejack?”  Scootaloo exclaimed, but somehow she already knew the answer.

        “Because... Because we're the reason they're on our land to begin with.”


The End of Ponies – by short skirts and explosions

Chapter Eight – To Touch the Ground

Special Thanks to Vimbert - Pre-Reader and Gentlecolt

        Scootaloo was seventeen years old, but she didn't know it.  All that the last pony knew was pain.

        On three panicked limbs and a bloodstained hoof she limped madly towards the cliffside.  Through gnashing teeth she hissed, her tortured breaths billowing out in frantic vapors that joined the gray mist wafting through central Whinniepeg.  The canyon loomed ahead, and within the foreground of her bobbing vision there danced a bulbous copper shape in and out of focus.  The Harmony was a mere seventy meters away.  As she limped and panted towards it, she could have sworn it was anchored to another continent.

        Their howls; they split the streets of Whinniepeg like the savage ravine that had cataclysmically carved straight through the urbanscape.  Stupidly, the orange-brown filly glanced back over her quivering flank.  Through crooked goggles, she saw them, a wave of pale leather shapes that bounded after her, shaking the snow loose from the cobblestone with their ravenous stampede.

        “Hnnghh!—Snkkt...” Scootaloo's breath shrieked against the cocoon of pain engulfing her.  She hobbled and hobbled, every bone-crunching lurch spitting redder and redder blood against the monochromatic streets blurring underneath.  A bright glint of steel laughed in the pale twilight; a crude metal weapon had been lodged into her left forelimb, and with each meter she traveled it bit and bit deeper at her muscles with rusted teeth.  The leg would snap off at any moment.  Scootaloo only galloped faster.

        The Harmony tilted and spun gently on its anchored sway.  Its copper frame blurred once more as the blood reached her scarlet eyes.  The world crackled like a billowing stove beyond the veil of Scootaloo's throbbing skull, and she ran through it—she ran through the pain, her best and only friend in the Wasteland.  And her friend caught her; in thorny gloves it hoisted her by the wings and yanked her off the cliffside, just as the leather bodies leaped screamily towards her hooves.

        “H'jem!” the filly shouted in the death throes of weightlessness.  The catseye aperture of the Harmony blindly flew open, and Scootaloo went crashing through, collapsing inside a womb of darkness.  The last pony slammed against a workbench on the port side of the hangar bay.  Runescaping tools and scraps of moonstone rained all over her as she sat up, eyes exploding through the veil to see the edge of the Whinniepeg ravine looming outside, and a solid wall of toad-skinned bodies flailing and rearing upon the precipice, their forest of beady white eyes locked on her.  In their anger and hunger, several of the monstrosities jumped towards the Harmony—screaming—only to stupidly fall into the heart of a dead Equestria looming blackly below.  The rest of them cursed and sneered at her, their fanged maws drooling, hissing, grinning.

        The last pony swallowed down a rising geyser of bile.  Spitting, sputtering, she finally managed a hoarse and whimpering “M'rhlym” into her quivering bracelet of horns.  A purple glow, and the magic incantation triggered a rune fastened to the Harmony's controls.  With one simple directive, the airship magically lifted up, up, up towards the ashen gray miasma.  Scootaloo pivoted forward—collapsed to her agonized chest with a yelp—and desperately crawled towards the entrance of the hangar.  The trolls whooped and cackled at her struggling from a distance.  Before the airship could reach the length of its chains, Scootaloo stifled a howl and flung her one good forelimb towards the emergency release, severing all four anchor bolts with a hiss of steam.  The gray snow outside billowed furiously as the ship's ascension reached a fever pitch, taking her away from the bifurcated graveyard of Whinniepeg and up into the cold embrace of the clouds.

        “Hnnngh...” Scootaloo quivered, cemented to the ground in the coalescing frost of her pulsating nerves.  There was a fire inside her left front leg, eating her from the inside out.  She didn't want to—she knew she didn't want to—but she had to see how bad it was.  She prayed it didn't look nearly as massacred as it felt.  “Mmmmnngh-Y-Y-Y-Y'lynwyn!

        Runes flickered on opposite sides of the hangar bay.  Lanterns burned to life, casting a mournful glow over the swaying metal bulkheads littered with her tools... stained with her blood, hot blood, warm blood, pulsing blood.  She no longer had a leg; it was a fountain.  The fact that it still had the audacity to remain attached to her torso made the filly finally vomit into her mouth.

        Spitting a green soup into the far corner, she then rolled over with another shriek and took a quivering look at the invading metal shard.  The trollish weapon sang a funeral dirge into the meat just above her knee, and the chorus was a crimson-soaked sea of copper barbs.  No killing machine fashioned by trolls was ever meant to just break the flesh; the thing was undoubtedly brimming with some horrible poison or another, dredged up from the bowels of sundered Whinniepeg.  The fact that it was hanging off Scootaloo's limb was not nearly as horrifying as the fact that it had to come out, and it had to come out now.

        The sobs came sooner than she had expected them.  She was stronger than this; she had prepared for this.  She fought the tears as she fought to strip the leather saddlebag off of her.  Pliable brown armor clattered apathetically towards the floor.  Something rolled out—glowing sapphirically—a bottle of rune-capped blue flame that Gilliam had sent her there for, that he hadn't anticipated might kill her, that he probably didn't care about in the least.  Soon she was naked, save for the sliver of unsightly metal violating her body.  She towed it as she towed her other quivering limbs—scuffling—towards a rack of runestones.  She fumbled with one good hoof until she knocked a white-and-red painted moonrock off its shelf and into her lap.  Reaching next to a metal first aid box, she produced a tight leather bag of medicinal herbs that she had bought off of a strange flying squirrel she had just met a few weeks ago.  The thought of his smoke-stained incisors briefly distracted her from the hellish task at hoof; she never understood why some creatures of this Wasteland would willfully destroy themselves from the inside out... not until now.

        Eyes tearing, she yanked the pouch of herbs open with her snout and spread them in a cinnamon shower over the pulsating sinkhole gouged in her limb.  It scorched her like acid rain.  She hissed and whimpered like she was foaling death itself straight out of her torn flesh.  This was just the start of the flames.  As the teetering Harmony surged her upwards to the heavens, she slowed her hyperventilation until her body became a wind instrument, hissing in tune with the gray ash outside.  She had to do this quick, quick like the Cataclysm.  She was strong enough.  She was strong enough.  She was--

        “Hmrmfff--” the girl whimpered as she clamped her teeth over the wooden handle of the weapon, gripping to it like a rudder.  Her brown ears flicked numbly back.  Cold eyes shut hard to a colder world and dove slowly, hellishly into the burning crimson heart beyond it.  “Snkkt-Nnnghhhh!”

        She pulled it out.  She tore it out.  Her soul splashed inside-out after it.  Her eyes screamed open, and she wished that they hadn't.  Strands of meat, a flash of bone—white horror, and it filled her insides like a million ghosts bleeding thunderously out her neck.  The last pony had every sound in the world to scream, but she forced her knife-licking tongue to let loose one word and one word alone:

        “W'rhynnym!”

        Instantly, the white and red moonrock burned in a violet glow.  The rune seared red-hot, and the pony slammed the tool straight into the sopping hole excavated from her leg.  The unicorn bracelet burst in manalight, and the inflamed stone began cauterizing the wound.  With a gust of steam, Scootaloo instantly smelled her flesh burning.  She would have choked, were it not for the unearthly howl bursting up the opposite end of her trachea.

        She spat the weapon onto the floor with an offending clatter, and followed it up with an encore of noise, deathly noise, the only noise she had ever grown to know—her noise.  She twisted her maneless neck.  She slammed and slammed the bulkheads with her one good forelimb.  Her hooves clomped and formed scarlet-stained dents in the floor as she tossed and turned underneath the cloud of her cooked flesh.  Tears rolled down her orange-brown snout, outracing the blood trickling from her bit lips as she curled up into the torture, sputtering and hiccuping like the little orange foal that had suddenly bubbled to the brown surface.

        “Mmmmfff... Nnnnghh... D-D-Dghh... D-Dash... Dashieeee...nnnghhhh-Dashiiiiee...”

        She screamed and murmured through the searing hot length of her healing, her words lost to the lifeless clouds billowing outside, the embrace of an empty world, the trolls' home, her home, the only home.


        Scootaloo's eyes remained locked on the bloody metal teeth of the pitchfork.  She briefly licked her lips—only to remember that they weren't her own.  The Entropan flesh tasted numb, devoid of all copper juices.  There was a warmth that was once again cascading over the filly's flesh.  The alien kiss of distant morning sunlight cradled her to the surreal moment at hand.  She wrapped herself inside the spaces between her breaths and glanced numbly towards the rest of the Apple Family.

        “It all started a little over a month ago,” Applejack murmured.  She leaned back against the wooden railings of the Apple Family's household porch beside Scootaloo.  A few hooftrots away, Granny Smith sat on the edge of a wooden crate, wrapping a white bandage around one of Macintosh's bruised legs.  The cold curtain of night had long melted, filling the air with a dew-laden haze that magnified the exhausted tone of the orange mare's voice.  “Big Mac and I were fixin' to dig ourselves a new well along the north side of the acres.  That plot of land always gets dry this time of year, ya see.  We figured that if we built a new ditch to hold moisture, we could make waterin' trips to the northern orchards a might less tedious.”

        Macintosh sighed, wincing slightly as Granny Smith closed one bandage, sliced the slack of the gauze off with a green cutting knife, and then proceeded to wrap another strip around the opposite limb of the crimson stallion.  She too listened intently as her graying eyes reflected the distant glow of morning haze coming up over the starry horizon.

        “Well, wouldn't you know it?” Applejack continued.  “We dug and we dug and we dug—And suddenly the earth gave way all muddy-like, and we found this deep cavern hidden beneath the roots of our apple orchards.  It was no ordinary cave, mind you.  I roped myself down and gave it a little look-see.  I was startled to find a bunch of gray statues of these creepy bug-eyed creatures lyin' in the depths of the hole-in-the-ground.  It scared me something fierce, but Big Macintosh thought differently.  He said that we had stumbled upon an Ancient Wonder of the First Age or some nonsense.  I seriously don't know where he gets those silly ideas of his.  I mean, you let 'em open his mouth just once and he takes off!”

        The red-coated colt in question cleared his throat with a slight frown, motioning his blonde head towards Scootaloo.

        Applejack smiled sheepishly.  “R-Right.  Sorry, Macky,” she murmured, kicking her hooves against the wooden floorboards of the porch.  “So we figured we'd call in Twilight to take a look at what we found, and see if she could put that noggin' of hers to good use and figure out just what we found.  We slept on it.  But when morning came, we visited the hole once again—and all of the statues were gone from the cave!  At first, we reckoned it was magic.  Them were some pretty strange statues, to say the least.  Who knows why they were left so deep in the earth to begin with—or just what they were capable of doing.”

        The orange mare shot her green eyes emphatically at Scootaloo, her lips quivering in the fright that was aroused by the following memories:

        “But as the nights went by, we found out pretty darn quick what happened to the statues.  They had become those creatures that you saw attack us!  At first, though, it wasn't all that bad.  We had little bits of property damage here and there across the farm.  We figured it was a bunch of foals pullin' pranks on us.  But as the weeks went on, things got worse.  Them thick-skinned varmints came prancin' out of the forest, whoopin' and a'hollerin', smashin' into our granary, runnin' off with our work tools, and even spookin' the livestock.  Then, one day, they began gettin' into their thick skulls just what it was that meant the most to our family, and they started eatin' at the apple trees, desecrating the fruit, even settin' fire to an orchard or two.  It was positively dreadful.”

        With a sigh, Applejack clopped down on all fours and strolled lethargically towards Macintosh and Granny Smith.

        “So, we took to comin' out at night—formin' a tiny little militia: Macky and myself—and we tried scarin' em away.  That didn't work.  So we resorted to chasin' them back into the woods every night.  They were merely playin' games with us.  Finally, we sharpened our pitchforks and shovels and plotted to get the stomp on them mangy creatures once and for all.  They only laughed at us, and started attackin' in twice the numbers, even vandalizin' our farmhouse when we were too plum scared out of our wits to come out and face them.  Poor Macintosh here almost got bitten on three different occasions before y'all dropped in.”

        Applejack sweetly nuzzled Big Macintosh's mane.  The large stallion smiled gently at her, exhaling as the last of his bandages were applied by the elderly mare seated aside him.  Applejack turned around, standing next to her kin as she gazed with a twinge of shame Scootaloo's way.

        “I've never had to deal with a pest of this sort in all my years of managin' Sweet Apple Acres.  Well, true, the parasprite swarm was pretty bad, but at least them critters were forgiveably cute.  These... These 'trolls', however—there's no doubt that they're after our blood.  It only figures; they've done everythang else that is in their ability to make us miserable.  But we soon realized it wasn't just the four of us livin' on the farm that they wanted to upset.  They wanted to get us through our apples.  At the rate at which we were battlin' them, it was only a matter of time before they stripped our orchards of everythang we held dear.  So, between Macky and me, we made the decision to perform the Apple Buck Season harvest as early as possible.  We even contracted ourselves to deliver on the date that happens to be a day and a half from now.  We thought we could get a jump on them varmints by shippin' the apples out early, as if that would make 'em bored and they'd just go away.  But... we were wrong.”

        Scootaloo slowly nodded as she digested all of this.  In a firm voice, she replied, “Miss Applejack, it was brave of you to do what you did.  Obviously your family has undergone a great deal of hardship with these trolls.  But did it ever occur to you that it might become an issue for Ponyville as well?  About a year ago, Canterlotlian... uh... records—yes, Canterlotlian records—chronicled an incident in your village's downtown where an Ursa Minor went on an inexplicable rampage and caused several cases of property damage.  It goes without saying that this sort of a thing can instantly collect the attention of Princess Celestia—especially if it could have been stifled long before it became a threat.”

        “Applejack, dearie,” Granny Smith placed the green cutting knife down onto a wooden crate before shakily swiveling her lime snout the orange mare's way.  “You told me that you and Macintosh had a hoofhold of this situation!  And look at you now!  You've sparked the attention of the Canterlotlian Agricultural Committee or what-not!”

        “And I thought that Macintosh and I had everythang under control!  Honest, I did!”  She gulped and wrenched her shuddering gaze from Granny Smith and onto Scootaloo.  “Miss Harmony, please believe me.  We never meant to begin some sort of horrible incident.  Truth is, we found them creatures when they were nothin' but harmless stone statues in the dirt.  The next thing we knew, we were dealing with some mangy punks comin' out of the forest!  We never realized they would be so blood-thirsty and dangerous!  By the time we had gotten knee-deep in tusslin' with them, it became apparent just what kind of a mess we were in.  But we had every intention of dealin' with it ourselves!  We figured that once we got the apples away, they'd be gone!  But... But obviously they don't fancy us getting' that far.”

        “Even if you can get the harvest done on time, all that's going to do is save the apples,” Scootaloo said.  “I know how much your fruit means to you, Miss Applejack, but I also know that your family and your land means so much more.  And I hate to say it—but the trolls aren't interested in your land.  They're interested in you.”

        “Us?” Applejack, Granny Smith, and Macintosh blinked as one.

        “Your misery, your suffering, and your sorrow,” 'Harmony' spoke as she paced before them on steadily clopping hooves.  “There's a reason why trolls naturally live underground, under bridges, or in the shadows of forests.  They were such a murderous blight upon the infantile landscape of Equestria, that Princess Celestia cursed them long ago, even before the First Age had ended.  At the first exposure to sunlight, they turn instantly to stone.  This is the sort of curse that can only be countered by exposure to twilight, which history can thank Discord for.”

        “D-Discord?”  Applejack blinked innocently.  Macintosh was similarly scratching his mane with a confused hoof.  Granny Smith sat gravely still.

        Scootaloo blinked, briefly seeing the many golden words of Princess Celestia threading across immaculate ivory pages that shimmered in the Harmony's lanternlight.  The copper-coated pegasus swiftly explained, “Discord was a malevolent entity that poisoned the earth shortly before Epona's Exodus into the Cosmos.  Canterlotlian History Books blame him for the Chaos wars, during which time trolls murderously skittered across the nubile landscape, doing his bidding, biting into and shredding asunder every living thing that they could see.  Miss Applejack, when you dug up the hole with the buried statues inside, you incidentally gave the trolls a chance to be exposed to twilight once again.  They must have risen out of the well overnight and made a home in the forest.  All they know is that earth ponies gave them freedom once more, and they will stop at nothing until they have caused those same ponies—until they have caused youas much misery and suffering as possible.”

        “But... But why?”  Applejack exclaimed with a disgusted expression.

        “Just because, Miss Applejack,” Scootaloo throated.  “They're trolls.”

        “Your knowledge on the topic of these creatures is impeccable,” Granny Smith stammered.  “They really do teach ya a lot in the Royal Court of Canterlot.”

        Scootaloo briefly smiled, but with subtlety.  “Many things I have simply taught myself, ma'am.  You'll be surprised how much a good grasp of history can help you...” Her lips trailed and her eyes briefly darted towards the dawn's horizon.  “...in the future.”

        “I just feel so plum horrible,” Applejack exclaimed.  A slight sniffling, and she reached over to nuzzle Macintosh once more, half-hugging him.  “If I had known that Macintosh here would nearly have bitten the proverbial poison apple, I would never have considered trappin' those varmints from the get-go!”

        “Don't be so hard on yourself, Miss Applejack,” Scootaloo walked over and gently smiled at her.  “Nopony this side of Equestria has dealt with a band of trolls like this in centuries—millennia, even.  I don't think any citizen—farmer, magician, or flier—could have dealt with what your family has gone through all this time.”

        “And it would have killed us too,” Applejack gulped.  “But then you showed up.  Because of you, Macintosh and I are still alive.  Miss Harmony, I... I don't rightly know how I can thank you enough.”

        “I didn't come here to make anyone indebted to me—To be perfectly frank, I'm just as surprised as you are,” Scootaloo said with a sigh as she rubbed her chin with a hoof and murmured into the quiet air surrounding herself:  “Why are they here, Spike?  Why now?”  A deep gulp, and she added.  “Why am I here...?”

        “You...” Applejack bit her lip.  “You reckon that you'll be flyin' back to Canterlot and callin' in the Royal Guard?  I mean—on account of the mess we've made and all?”

        Scootaloo looked up at her to say something, but her mouth lingered in a numbing gape.  She gazed briefly past the three sets of eyes being thrown her way.  All of that strength and earth pony pride  crumbled in an instant, like famined horses shrinking into a deep corner for fear of a great hammer being thrown down upon them.  It was such a sickly pathetic sight that Scootaloo almost wished that the green flames would yank her back to the future right then and there.

        Beyond them was another sickly sight, one that still reverberated across the hollowed-out spirit of the thirty-three year old time traveler.  She saw a lone filly bleeding against metal bulkheads, curling into a pathetic fetus under cauterizing steam.  Somepony's named was called out, a whimper that was as immutable as time; but everything was all too quickly crumbling under the emotionless hiss of a gray world enshrouding her.

        Right there, on the front porch of the Apple Family, twenty-five years before a pegasus would stand bleeding atop a fountain in the middle of a Ponyvillean graveyard surrounded by her eternal enemies, that same grayness was spreading—like a cancer—and its pale leathery roots were twisting about the eye sockets of all three ponies staring her way.  The trolls were invaders from the past, but Scootaloo knew better.  They brought with their teeth and claws the bitter poisons of an unbearable Wasteland beyond.  Their sheer presence on the farm was too timely, too sadistically and maliciously appropriate for the last pony's infinitely unpredictable arrival then and there.

        The Apple Family had become victims of a battlefield drawn up in a limbo of irony before the dawn of time.  This farm was now the unwitting site for a clash between the chaos of the past and the misery of future.  The sinister presence of those creatures had infected the farm ponies, had leeched their souls of their Elektran spirit.  Scootaloo could see their faces awash in hopelessness, like dried-up bone, and before ghostly black hollows threatened to burrow outward from the centers of their skulls, Scootaloo prayed for something—anything—that might cosmically salvage that pitiful moment, as she in all her Entropan charisma had utterly failed to do thus far.

        Before Scootaloo could formulate a much-needed response to Applejack's statement, there was a creaking noise just behind her.  The heads of the Apple Family turned, and the copper-coated pegasus swiveled as well.  She froze in place, as if a burning hand had clasped firmly over her heart.

        A tiny pale foal with a fountain of red hair stood, blinking dazedly in the frame of the half-opened screen door of the porch.  Her hooves were clad in dainty pink socks to keep her limbs warm.  Her mane was a tussled, crimson mess.  “Mac?  AJ?  Granny?  What's goin' on out here?  Have the scary things come back t'haunt us tonight?”

        “Nothin' that your brother and sister can't tackle, Apple Bloom.  Go back to bed—It ain't mornin' yet.”

        “But you guys are makin' such a racket—”  The blank-flanked filly yawned her petite mouth and teetered where she dazedly stood.  “I was havin' a dream that I got my cutie mark.”

        “Then go lie down and you just might get it:  A big fluffy pillow laced with sparkles—Now git!”

        “Mmmm—alright,” the child was about to slink back into the house when her thinned eyes caught hold of Scootaloo's frame.  She looked up at her.  “Wh-Who are you?”

        Scootaloo's chest thundered.  She stood frozen in place like she was a statue herself, and she was too far gone from the twilight of the Wasteland to melt back.  All she had was this burning naked now, and it terrified her as much as it enraptured her.

        “This here's Harmony, Apple Bloom—darlin',” Granny Smith interjected with a shivering smile.  “She's here to help us with the farm.  Everything's alright, though.  Just adult pony business; that's why we're all up so early.”

        “Oh, okay,” Apple Bloom smiled tiredly.  “Hello, Miss Harmony.”

        Scootaloo's lips gently parted, a soft smile melting forth as she forced her head to tilt down towards her old, old friend.  “H-Hello there, Apple Bloom.”  She swallowed something sore down her throat and breathed, “You have r-really gorgeous hair, sw-sweetie.”

        “Mmmm...” the yellow-coated foal blushed slightly and reached a hoof up to her cowlicked mane.  “If y'all say so.”  A slight smile.  “You should see me when I'm wearin' a pink bow in it.”

        “I... I-I imagine that would be quite a sight.”  Scootaloo nearly choked, keeping her hooves steady.  They felt like they were three meters off the ground, and numb.

        “Well, so long, Miss Harmony,” Apple Bloom adorably yawned yet again, sauntered around, and padded her way into the shadowed depths of the house towards her bedroom.

        Scootaloo gazed into the varnished foundation of the farmhouse, her brow cascading weakly over her eyes as several memories of treehouse escapades, musical rehearsals, and mid-afternoon wagon rides flickered across her weathered mind like so much ash and snow.  The thoughts sunk away at the speed of light, only to bounce back to the mind's surface with all of the combined smells, sights, and sounds of that thickly real farmland surrounding her—and suddenly her time traveling soul self trembled, as if suddenly aware of a thousand razor-toothed bodies closing in from all sides.

        The trolls would rip and tear Sweet Apple Acres to the ground, and Apple Bloom along with it.  No amount of metal traps, no multitude of stampeding hooves, no army of warhorses in all of Equestria could stop this bright green earth from suffering the molestation that was coming to it.  The spilling of blood and the sundering of the land; these heartless monstrosities had already set it all in motion long before the time traveler had even arrived there.

        The Cataclysm could not be avoided.  Scootaloo knew this.  The trolls, however—they did not belong to this world.  They belonged to the Wasteland; they would inherit it.  Everything about their presence in Applejack's warm and lovely time felt wrong, just like Scootaloo in the numb shell of her Entropan projection felt wrong, though she hesitated to stop savoring the warm breath of the fleeting moment to admit such nausea.

        Scootaloo had suddenly and unwittingly acquired the means to contact Princess Celestia, but such a victory could only come about after riding the crest of a bloody melee that would take several horses' blood, if not their lives.  The trolls were none of Scootaloo's concern; they shouldn't have been her concern.  Still, they were there; and she was there.  A coincidental juncture of several souls possessed with violence and one shadow of a soul tempered by violence was too miraculous to overlook, too significant to ignore, and too shameful to toss frivolously into the authoritarian hooves of a long-dead Princess, even if for the sake of scrubbing clean a future that only one pony could ever see, even if for a fleeting few years of lonely misery that mimicked the poison that dripped off the fangs of those sick and viral beasts.

        The Apple Family had given all of their lives to the earth.  In just one day, Scootaloo had arrived, and all she had managed to give the land was a fleeting respect that rode the coattails of a desperate experiment that wouldn't be concocted until twenty-five years from then, where a purple dragon stood side by side with the last pony—swimming helplessly in the all-encompassing hollow of a farm filly's skull—pondering over the depths to which this green flamed scavenger might dip into the  golden moments of Equestrian innocence, but never once anticipating to what degree she might pollute it.

        “What good would Celestia do us now, Spike?” she murmured silently to the air.  He didn't answer her, but her voice came back to whisper above any hint of the notion.  “What good could I do now?”

        A veritable eon of contemplation was really just a naked seven seconds, at the end of which Granny Smith's voice could be heard gently shaking the silence.  “There's only one thing that should be done at this point,” she said in perfect somberness aimed Applejack's way.  “We should let Miss Harmony here contact them guardshorses from Canterlot.  They can certainly take care of the trolls.”

        “But Granny!”  Applejack's voice hissed.  “What would become of the farm?!  The Canterlotlian Court would slap our name onto a list of Equestrian laughing stocks!  Nopony would want to buy from our harvest next year!  Heck—if it turns out that we just plum resurrected the chaotic army of some nasty feller named Discord, I rightly wouldn't blame Celestia for wanting to banish every single one of us to the moon!”

        “AJ, darlin'—I've been living on this farm a long time.  And I know more than anypony how important it is to give to the earth.  But it so happens that this very same land gave me you, Macintosh, and lil' Apple Bloom.  And I'd be plum sore if I went to my dyin' stable knowin' that I allowed the three of you to suffer from these horrible creatures because you were so gul-durn concerned about making sure the apples were delivered.  We need to seek Canterlot's help!”

        “No.”

        They all looked Scootaloo's way.  “M-Miss Harmony...?”

        “Ahem...” Scootaloo cleared her throat, blinked her eyes dry, and spun around to gaze at them firmly.  “What I mean to say is: No, seeking Canterlot's help isn't the best option right now, at least if you want to keep your farm—and your lives in check.”

        “Are ya serious?”  Applejack squinted through the haze of the coming dawn.  “Ya mean to say that after all this time of badgerin' me and Macky here to play along with yer chivalrous routine—You've got the gall to say we shouldn't contact yer Royal Court over this troll nonsense?

        “It's because there's an extent of truth to your concerns here, Miss Applejack.”

        The farm filly blinked nervously.  “Th-There is?”

        Scootaloo took a deep breath.  The sunrise was blossoming behind her.  She knew it; she could feel it, but for this suddenly brave and shamefully dashing moment she refused her Entropan self the chance to turn around and bask in it.  A daring breath was bubbling up through her, and if this coming slight of hoof did not pass the lucid scrutiny of the Element of Honesty before her, she might as well have returned to the future and told Spike to suck in the rest of his green breath, for there would be no more use of time traveling after this.

        Navigating the thorny labyrinth of a split second gambit, “Harmony” authoritatively spouted forth:  “Trolls are as old as Equestrian Civilization.  As a result, there has been... litigation that has lasted as long as Equestrian Civilization.”  Scootaloo eyed the curves in Applejack's face like she navigated the crumbling fjords of her conscience, speaking,  “Namely, if anypony or ponies are discovered to have been harboring the living refuse of the Chaos Wars—in any fashion—they and all of their assets will be immediately seized by the Royal Court of Canterlot... indefinitely.”

        Applejack and Macintosh immediately paled, as if having stared down the incoming kiss of a deathly locomotive.

        Granny Smith suddenly and solidly spoke up with a quizzical squint aimed the pegasus' way.  “What is the name of this here fancy litigation?”

        Scootaloo fearlessly stared back at the graying mare.  “It's called the 'Act of Accord', and it's as harsh a regulation at it is ancient, though no less impermeable.  In her long life of ruling over Equestria, Princess Celestia has seen to it that no mercy is granted to the proliferation or preservation of yesterday's weapons of war.  The penalties for crimes committed under the 'Act of Accord' are far too devastating to imagine befalling a quaint and well-to-do farm as what your family have grown here at Sweet Apple Acres.”

        “But... I've met Princess Celestia!” Applejack briefly removed her hat and murmured from a deepening shadow.  “Surely Her Majesty has it in her to see that what's happened here has been purely an accident!”

        Scootaloo shook her head with carefully constructed moroseness.  “I wish that were true, Miss Applejack, but it's not.  When it comes to the 'Act of Accord', even the Princess must work against her typical spirit of mercy.  The last time she had shown leniency to transgressors was just prior to the Third Age, and it resulted in Nightmare Moon suddenly acquiring new legions to the Lunar Republic's Army.  There is no feasible way that the Canterlotlian Court will simply overlook the waking of the trolls that has happened here.  To so much as breathe a word to my superiors about this would mean the utter end of this farm, and everything you've ever worked for.”

        The silence that followed Scootaloo's brash proclamation was deafening.  She watched with muted anxiety as the wheels turned in the orange mare's mind from afar.  To her somber relief, the heinous weight of a week's load of bucking apples and battling trolls had softened the hardened edges of Applejack's suspicion, so that the intravenous fabrication fluttered down and enshrouded the farm filly like a gentle melancholic cloak.

        Scootaloo's words had circumnavigated the fortress of the Element of Honesty.  It deserved no celebration, especially as she saw a pair of gray eyes—suddenly piercing—hovering from behind the hung heads of the two younger farm ponies.  Granny Smith was staring decidedly at Scootaloo, and Scootaloo stared back.  In a pale and naked breath, the two souls shared a common gaze, and strategically kept the bridge silent in the advent of the morning sun.

        “Then...”  Applejack murmured like the helpless foal she suddenly was.  “Wh-What do you mean to propose, Miss H-Harmony?”

        A gentle breath.  A copper smile returned placidly to the time traveler's face as she flung her eyes back towards Applejack by the simple grace of Granny Smith's silence.  “What I mean to say is a simple reinforcement of what you told me earlier, Miss Applejack,” Scootaloo said as she paced over towards the three of them.  She stared decidedly at the two younger ponies as she spoke, “You have all done nothing but give to the earth.  And it wasn't the Earth that gave you these trolls.  Cataclysmic things happen in an unfair world.  But, for once, I'm not going to buy it.  Not this time.  I'm not about to let strong and honorable ponies like yourselves be defeated so easily.  What happens on your land stays on your land—but you can't do it all on your own like you've tried so far.  You're going to need my help.  And for once, it's time that I stated a fact.  And that fact is that I am not—and I repeat—not going to take 'no' for an answer.  You're going to let me help you, and together we will get the apples harvested in time for your client's delivery.  ALL of the apples.”

        Applejack gazed back at Macintosh and Granny Smith.  Macintosh nodded helplessly, Granny Smith knowingly and solemnly.  Gulping, the farmfilly nevertheless looked towards Scootaloo with a nervous expression.  “B-But... What do you reckon about them varmints?  We're helpless without the assistance of Canterlot, and yet we're doomed with them knowin' about it!  Just what does that leave us with, Miss Harmony?”

        “Let me worry about the trolls.  I...”  Scootaloo sighed and rubbed a hoof over an aching temple.  “I-I'll think of something.  Trust me, if there's one thing I've learned in my life,” she breathed with a gentle, weathered smile,  “it's that I do my best thinking when I'm working hard to survive.  And believe you me—I intend to do a lot of hard work, as soon as Her Majesty's Sun rises up over the horizon there.  The question is, are you going to let me?”

        Applejack swallowed, dusted off a lock of her blonde mane and flung it over her neck.  Stamping her hooves down, she smirked Scootaloo's way.  “Well, what are y'all waitin' for?  Time to get them dainty wings of yers dirty, copper-bottom!”

        Scootaloo's first breath of relief in hours came like an autumn wind.  She smiled briefly at Applejack, but once more returned her gaze to the piercing gray eyes of an elder mare.  With a polite nod, she murmured, “You and your brother should get prepared.  I will join you briefly.  There's a lot to be done.  I should probably... uhm... m-meditate... or something first.”

        “Suit yerself.  I personally tend to meditate over a steamin' bowl of oatmeal.”  Applejack swiftly trotted past the copper pegasus and whistled over her shoulder.  “Big Mac!  Let's get 'er done!  Time's a-waistin'!”

        The red stallion marched after her.  The clopping sounds of the farm ponies danced in the echo of the nearby barn, followed by a rattling cadence of wicker baskets, wagon wheels, and farm tools.  Scootaloo glanced over her shoulder, briefly worrying that her anchor might incidentally canter too far off.  This anxiety was all too appropriately curtailed by a gray shadow that swallowed the golden rays of an invisible sunrise; Granny Smith had waddled up and was gazing at the time traveler with a stern softness.

        “Miss Harmony, there ain't no such thing as an 'Act of Accord'.”

        Scootaloo took a deep breath, cowardly avoiding the elderly mare's gaze.  “I know.”

        “I've been around long enough to know what's what in the Court of Canterlot.  Not only are you outright lyin' to my flesh and blood, but by deciding to take on these horrible varmints on yer own, you're riskin' the lives of everypony I've ever held dear.”

        “I-I know...”

        “Miss Harmony, look at me.”

        The pegasus bit her lip.  She glanced up from underneath a mat of black mane hair and obediently made eye contact.

        Granny Smith's pupils were like twin pools of acid, but a placid heart bubbled patiently underneath.  Nevertheless, she silkily grilled the visitor.  “What makes you think that you and you alone could somehow possibly... feasibly be the solution to this here troll problem?”

        “An even better question,” Scootaloo bravely throated, “is what inspires you to not raise a peep about this in front of your grandfoals, since you're obviously so concerned?”

        “Faith, child,” Granny Smith murmured in a stale voice.  “I still have faith in a gift, a gift that was given me by this ever-surprisin' world.  It was a gift that saw me through the first winter of raisin' young Apple Shine.  It was a gift that gave me hope and joy on his first foalday.  And it was a gift that gave me rhyme and reason to walk today—unassisted by newfangled gadgetry—so that I strolled around the farm with an energy that I didn't reckon I still had.  It was all because I saw you, and was overjoyed and inspired by you.  But now I need to know—and you need to help this frail old lady know—whether or not her faith deserves to be where it is.  Are you a gift, or are you a curse, Miss Harmony?”

        Scootaloo took a deep breath.  The shadows shifted before Granny Smith's endless gaze, so that the pegasus briefly imagined a brown coat and a shaved mane flickering beneath a pathetic spectrum.  She glanced once more over her shoulder, towards the reddening barn in the sunrise, towards the two young farm ponies beneath, and towards the rusted metal weathervane above it all... a sharp weathervane.

        The time traveler blinked.  The simplicity of what had to follow next was like the roof to Sugarcube Corner being raised over a bleeding scavenger.  She sauntered past the lime-coated elder and immediately swiped the green cutting knife from atop the wooden crate.

        Granny Smith blinked at her with sudden and unnerving fright.  “Miss Harmony, what in tarnation are you—?”

        “Be calm, Ms. Smith,” Scootaloo breathed in a low voice, “And watch.”

        That uttered, the copper pegasus held the glintingly sharp blade high and fearlessly slammed it into the soft flesh of her left knee.  The shattering noise that followed could have pierced eardrums; Granny Smith was too numb to even flinch.  Anchored by bright eyes, she watched incredulously as the solid metal blade bent and broke into several indiscernible shards.  As for the “Canterlotlian Clerks's” foreleg...

        There was not a scratch on her.

        “Ms. Smith,” a gentle voice throated.

        The lime-coated pony shuddered.

        “Ms. Smith,” she repeated, approaching her with gently clopping hooves.

        “Oh G-Goddess,” Smith stumbled back and sunk deflatedly to her haunches.  “Oh Goddess, Oh Goddess, Oh Goddess!”  The shuddering gesture pathetically bled into something resembling a deep and frightened bow.  “Epona, forgive me—!”

        “Ms. Smith!”  Scootaloo squatted down and grasped her hooves around the elder's.  “Breathe with me.  Just breathe.  It's okay.  Don't be scared.”  She stared deep into the old mare's gray eyes, like navigating an ashen fog of tomorrow.  Effortlessly, the last pony said, “I don't know who you think I am, or what you think I am.  But let me assure you, I'm none of those things.  I'm something different.”  She took a brave breath and then gently uttered, “And yet I'm something more.”

        The old mare trembled, struggling to stay still in the visitor's calm grasp.  She rattled like a bag of half-buried bones, barely keeping within the gaze of those amber eyes reflecting her.  “B-But how... But how... Wh-What are you made of, child?  Your leg... Oh Elektra alive, your leg!

        “I have some of the answers, but not enough of them.  That's more or less why I'm here, Ms. Smith.  I can't pretend to tell you more, because I rightly don't know more.  But I do know this—Something which you yourself know, because you yourself have told me.”  She swallowed deeply and summoned the hardest smile of her young life in order to pacify the shuddering soul before her.  “I may or may not be a gift.  I may or may not be a curse.  But if there's one thing that I definitely am—it's timely.  The trolls are here, and I am here, and it's too good an opportunity for me to pass up.  I must take care of this; and it must be me alone.  To let this go into any other pony's hooves—royal or not—would desecrate the opportunity here.”

        “What opportunity?”  Granny Smith stammered, though her shivers were fading meltingly in Scootaloo's immutable embrace.  “Why tell me about this and not my grandchildren?  Why show me and not Canterlot, child?”

        “Because we have something in common, Ms. Smith, even if you cannot immediately fathom it.  You and I—we both know what it means to lose things.  We both understand the irredeemable agonies that the tragic lengths of life can unfold upon a pony.  But your children, this land, this beautiful and spotless world—it's not ready for the pain the likes of which these trolls bring.  And while I have it within my power to put a stop to them, it would be a crime to fall short of that contingency.”

        “But do you have the power to do such a thing, child?”  Ms. Smith swallowed and murmured, “Your body is like the spirit of an Alicorn, but your voice echoes loneliness and despair.  I can hear it now; it's like a dusty bell tower that hasn't been rung in forever.  Can I have faith in... in something that doesn't have faith in itself?”

        Scootaloo's amber eyes moistened slightly.  She choked back something bitter and gently stroked the calming mare's cheek.  “I'm starting to,” she painfully smiled.  “Because a pony like you—however briefly—had faith in the first place.  Where I come from, Ms. Smith, a living pony's faith like that could light my path for years.”  The pegasus took a deep breath, blinked her eyes towards the ceiling of the porch until they were once more dry.  She desperately murmured, “Please... please continue to trust me, Ms. Smith.  I will make things work out.  I may not know how yet, but time is on my side—on our side, in ways that neither of us can begin to guess, much less need to.”  She cleared her throat and smiled with sudden bravery.  “Your family has given so much to the Earth.  Could it be possible that the Earth has given you me?”

        Granny Smith had suddenly been drawn to the moist pools blinking before her.  She reached a hoof out and stroked the unblemished coat of the pegasus' foreleg.  “I had always dreamt of a gift... but never in such heavenly packaging.”  She smiled like the proud mother she once was—and forever would be.  “It's a wonder to be alive, child.”

        The last pony blinked away the flames of the future and whispered, “I'll make sure of it.”        


        The morning Sun was songfully bright.  The world bloomed one orchard at a time as the radiant dawn spread its rays over the treetops and across the manes of three ponies in the throes of deep labor.  On one row of apples, a red stallion and an orange mare bucked trunk after trunk with well-hardened precision.  Across another flank of trees, within a soul's anchorage, a black-maned pegasus filled basket after basket with red and green fruit, fighting steadily to ooze her way across the grand expanse of Sweet Apple Acres in a heroic race against time.

        In such mechanical precision, the allied equines completed the last of the East Orchards.  They stumbled breathlessly towards the Southern fields—or at least Macintosh and Applejack were breathless.  Scootaloo cringed to see the siblings' natural bodies wearing down under the persistent hurdles that they were scaling to get the impossible job done.  The morning's length of work had no effect whatsoever on the time traveler's projected limbs, and what she saw the previous day as an advantage in getting Applejack to open up had instead transformed into an obligatory crutch.

        She briefly considered coming out with the truth—not just the truth about the “Act of Accord”—but the total truth, something three hundred thousand times more palpable than the confidence she had constructed so belatedly between herself and Ms. Smith.  She imagined taking Applejack and Macintosh over into the shade and telling them all about the future, about the Cataclysm, about being the last pony, about how everything that the farmhooves saw and felt would someday end up in flames.  It would certainly dwarf everything that they were struggling to accomplish then and there.  But would it help them?

        The horrified faces of Ms. Cheerilee and her many foalish students flickered across Scootaloo's shuddering mind.  Somehow, her guilt over that circumstance had severely degraded over the last several hours of scavenging and time traveling.  But the prospect of seeing those same terrified faces plastered across Macintosh and Applejack—ponies whom Scootaloo especially knew—was something she never wanted to conceive.  And just what would knowledge of the future do for them?  The curse of the trolls had sapped enough color from them as it was.

        Applejack's farm was under attack by horrible monstrosities, and she was barely a day away from the biggest failure in apple bucking.  Scootaloo realized that the family of earth ponies presently had enough truth to worry about.  The gruesome future suddenly seemed like a very flimsy appendix to an ever prevalent, ever bleeding now.  Perhaps that is the way it had always been, Scootaloo wiltingly pondered, Lives are best lived without the knowledge of Death, and yet within Death.  Was that what Spike was trying to convince her?

        Scootaloo shook the shadowed clouds of doubt off her shoulders and bucked her worries away—forcing apple cluster after apple cluster to fall succinctly into the baskets.  It was such a simple, mechanical, yet trying exercise.  She could suspend herself into that task forever, and she knew very well that her two friends across the field could and would.  There might come a time when the visitor from the future would tell the Apple Family the worst news they could ever hear.  But right then—Celestia forgive her—her job was to help them, in the only way she was capable of, in the only way she was ever capable of helping them, though she knew not yet what that way was exactly.

        The memory of her “Act of Accord” fabrication was an ever present, ever guilty spur in her flanks, making her vibrate over the green landscape with a quickening pace of fear, panic, and desperation.  The colors and charisma of a living Equestria hummed about her.  She reveled in it; she had no choice.  It was in her pony nature to breathe and sing from the inside out with that magnificent garden of delight.  Yet, there was a numbness, a garrote wire of remorse that strung her—dangling—bare centimeters above the glistening grass that formed a springy soft floor beneath.

        Scootaloo was there in body and spirit—though they were a fake body and a courageously dishonest spirit—but try as she might, she could never truly get her hooves on the ground.  She didn't need wings to stay aloft the way she was; this farm... this home was not meant for her.  It was never meant for her.  Even as a filly, cradling a scooter along the fringes of a campfire, she refused herself relaxation like she refused herself the marshmallows that she herself had bought for all her friends.

        Applejack's strength had kept her from crying all these years.  In a dark-lit parallel, Scootaloo's foalish determination had kept her from sleeping, so that the childish filly had settled for nocturnal shivers of loneliness in the random vacant hovels that her nomadic scavengings could afford.  Scootaloo never needed a Cataclysm to be the last pony.  For as long as she could remember, the filly's years were carved by the cold claws of isolation, a self-imposed crusade that superseded cutie marks or even prismatic idol-worship.

        She never settled, never relented, never caved in to the invitation of another pony's bed to lie down in, for a dinner table to eat at, for a home to live, laugh, grow, and eventually die in.  There were, of course, exceptions: Cutie Mark Crusader sleepovers, rainy days spent at Fluttershy's place, a trip to Twilight Sparkle's library; but all of those were mere childish excursions through the nether of juvenile whimsy, and nothing permanent, nothing she could ever handsomely afford herself.  This was because—in all of her years of running and searching—Scootaloo could never be strong enough, or at least not so much that she figured she deserved any of those sweet and permanently endearing things.  As a result, she had always been on the go, a scooter-shoving blur of audacious delinquency.

        Even now—a dizzied and hapless time traveler who was rubber banded back and forth through the ages—she couldn't allow her hooves to touch down to the earth, to embrace something that was so warmly and invitingly offered to her.  In tiny samples, she tasted of it, only to fall back into the numb limbo that this Entropan body was temptingly granting her: a safe and relaxingly static flux.

        Spike had seen that in her, had plucked the thorns out from her frazzled brown body with those illuminating and wisened green eyeslits of his.  He had told her in the ruins of Sugarcube Corner that it was time that she stopped running, and yet here she was; having been thrown down a quarter-century's length of reverse-time, and the same creatures that had punctured her life to tatters—that had run all of her strength down into a paltry fetal sob against blood-stained bulkheads—were waiting for her once again.  Spike was right, she never had a home.  Until she could be sure that the Apple Family would, she couldn't pretend to make sense out of her being there, she couldn't tell Applejack and Macintosh the truth about the bleakness of it all, she couldn't touch her hooves down to the earth.

        As the Sun crept to a high noon and the heat rose in vapors off the thick green leaves of the orchards, the three ponies trudged their strained hooves across the trees, and yet they barely made it past one third of the Southern Field.  At that rate, success was not only difficult, it was inconceivable.  Sweet Apple Acres leaned on the precipice of a veritable Cataclysm of its own.  A lonely copper pariah found herself gazing forlornly at their home from a billion sighs away.  It wouldn't have been her first time.


        “I never thought I'd hear myself say this,” Applejack sweated through a damp mat of blonde hair as she slapped three stacks of burgeoning fruit baskets atop a wooden crate resting on a dirt path between apple orchards.  “But this is startin' to look plum impossible.”  She leaned against the cart and fanned her scalp with the whole of her brown hat.  “What in the hay was I thinkin' when I made this contract?”

        “You were thinking that your family needed to be rid of those horrible trolls once and for all, and in your desperation, this was your only option,” Scootaloo uttered as she stacked up a column of baskets herself.  “But regretting the past only drags time, and we don't have much to thank time for right now.”  She glanced briefly at the noonday Sun, then squinted her way across the horizon to where a thoroughly sweating Macintosh was slaving away at another row of trees with his kicking hooves.  “I don't know about you, but I've always held the past in high regard.  I think it makes for a healthier lifestyle.”

        “Yer philosophy is just as inspirin' as yer physique, Miss Harmony,” she winced against the fanning of her hat but nevertheless managed a gentle smirk.  “I swear—I wish I knew yer secret.  If I had bucked nearly as many trees as you, I would have died of heat stroke by now.”

        “Hey, I eat my oats.  So sue me,” Scootaloo mumbled as her amber eyes scanned the horizon.  An invisible line of leather bodies scoffed at her.  She shook it off and returned to the skin she was donning.  “Applejack, I might be a bureaucratic clerk of Canterlot, but I consider myself to be... an engineer by trade.”  She blinked at those words coming out of her mouth, but stammered on regardless:  “I really wish I could... I dunno... hammer together some device that could mechanize this whole operation and make it work a billion times faster for you.”

        “Nuh uh.  Nothin' to it,” Applejack upturned her nose and slapped her hat back onto her head.  “It's a trademark of the Sweet Apple Acres harvest that everythang is hoof-picked.  We never cater to none of them factory contraptions the likes of which you see all over cities like Stalliongrad or Fillydelphia.  With the way of progress and all, you witness less and less homely businesses like the Apple Family's farmstead across Equestria these days.”

        “Still, there's got to be a way to make this process faster!  If we could just do something grandiose yet organized—to fill all of these baskets with apples!”

        “Well...” Applejack rubbed her chin with an orange hoof.  “Hmmmm... nahhh.”

        Scootaloo squinted hard at her.  “Miss Applejack, I have more ears than you have corn.”

        “Well,” Applejack fidgeted, then nervously smiled.  “I was just recollectin' this one time my friends and I paid my cousin Braeburn a visit over yonder in his pioneerin' town of Appleloosa.  They grow apple orchards out in the desert and—to this very day—they cut harvest time in half by allowin' the local tribes of buffalo to perform their ritualistic stampede down the dirt roads between the rows of fruit trees.  The shakin' of the earth made by all them mighty buffalo's hooves cause the apples to fall off all proper-like.  Then the buffalo get a free share of the bounty!  The whole thang is what paved the way towards happy Appleloosan coexistence!”  She smiled proudly.

        Scootaloo stared at her with bored amber eyes.  She droned, “That is by far the stupidest thing I ever heard of.”

        Applejack cleared her throat and shrugged.  “Well, t'ain't like I thought of it or nothin'.”

        Scootaloo ran a hoof over her amber-streaked mane and scrunched her forehead in thought.  “But...”  She tongued her lips, blinked, then brightened with a goofy grin.  The wall of midnight trolls disappeared before the suddenly blossoming fields of her mind.  “I think I know of something stupider.”  She giggled.  “And it just might work!  Come on!”  She galloped towards a row of trees beyond Macintosh.

        Applejack stumbled to follow her in a swift canter.  “Whatcha got in mind, copper-bottom?”

        “Grab a bunch of baskets and I'll show you—And for the love of flamestones, stop calling me that!”


        Under the glittering afternoon Sun, Scootaloo finished setting down the last of many baskets up against two parallel rows of apple trees.  She stepped back besides a blinking pair of siblings and smiled at her own hoofwork.

        “Right—So here's the idea.”  She spun about and smirked at them.  “You guys know that I have this freakish stamina; am I right?”

        “Eeeyup.”

        “Right—Well, I think I can make use of it,” she twirled again and pointed a hoof at the trees.  “Rather then buck all of these trees one at a time, I'm going to shoot for hitting them all at once—or, well—close to it.”

        “And how in tarnation to you plan to do that?”  Applejack asked with a righteous lift of her eyebrow.  “I've seen you tackle trolls in the dark like nopony's business, but apple trees are a delicate matter!”

        “Are not!  You said so yourself yesterday, did you not?”

        “I... Er... Uhhh...”

        “Right—so, let's see if I can put these things,” she said while flexing her wings, “to use.  Applejack, I'm gonna be flying fast and low across these tree; so I need you to gallop quickly in order to keep up with me.”

        “To keep up with you?  Sugarcube, what in the hay do you need me runnin' along with yer for?”

        Scootaloo glanced at her.  She wanted to say she needed Applejack close by because she only had so much range to her soul's anchorage.  She wanted to say that she was awfully afraid that this stunt might accidentally fling her back into the future on green tongues of flame.  She said, “I need someone to spot me as I strike the trees, and I also wanna make sure that I'm not hurting the orchards any.  Deal?”

        “Mmm...Fine,” Applejack eventually grunted to Scootaloo's satisfaction.  “Let's just see how this goes.”

        “You do the sight-seeing,” Scootaloo smirked and hovered up into midair on copper wings.  “I'll do the rest.”

        “You've got my attention already.”  Applejack broke into a light trot.  Beside her, Macintosh stared with sweat-stained curiosity.

        Scootaloo took a deep breath.  “Here goes,” she gulped.  She reached her hooves up for her goggles, realized she didn't have any in this timeline, and rolled her eyes.  Regaining her composure, she flew towards the edge of the orchards, banked around, waited for Applejack to break into a full gallop, and then—“Nnnnngh!”—Scootaloo rocketed into a high speed glide down the 'trench' of apple trees.  She curved her wings, flexed her legs, and immediately veered to the left.  At high speed, she slammed hard into one wooden trunk hooves-first, flexed her knees, and bounced off at a seventy-five degree angle.  Spinning in mid lunge, she brought her hooves around and landed against the tree on the opposite side.  Another thud, and she bounded off, spun, flew across the “trench”, and landed against the next opposite tree.  This whole interchange of tree-bouncing proceeded at an alarming speed, so that in alarmingly swift measure, the copper coated pegasus had ricocheted against two rows of apple trees in a blazing pinball fashion, all the while the galloping Applejack on the ground gazed in blinking amazement.

        Her dizzying task done, Scootaloo landed, skidding across two and a half meters of splashing soil.  She exhaled hard, spun around, and inspected her work from afar.  To her dazzling joy, every single one of the trees that she had collided with had magically lost its supply of fruit—dropping them like an audience's roses into all of the neatly arranged baskets resting against the trunks.

        Macintosh whistled shrilly.  Applejack came to a sliding stop and marveled, “Son of a bridlemaid!  That's the fastest I've ever seen a non-magical pony pluck an orchard of its fruit!  I swear, y'all pegasi never cease to amaze me!”

        “To be honest,” Scootaloo dusted herself off and smirked through a frazzled spray of settling black mane hair.  “I wasn't all that sure it was gonna work until I tried it.  Pretty cool, huh?”  She blew an amber streak out from her brow and smiled the earth pony's way.

        “Miraculous is what it is!  Macky, what do you think?”

        The red stallion nodded in earnest, grinning.

        Scootaloo breathed momentarily as if she had come to the surface of a very numb lake for the first time in hours.  The world glittered around her with sudden dazzlement; the trolls ever so briefly returned to the gray malaise of yesterday and tomorrow, and all that stood before the last pony was the joyously vibrant now.  There was no better feeling than being useful, and for the briefest moment it excused every vicious lie she had forced herself to construct in front of Applejack.  Soon, though, that moment ended, and the time traveler was thrown back into the sweat-stained situation under the desperate ring in Applejack's voice.

        “Any chance y'all might be able to pull that trick off a few more times?”  Applejack stammered.  She gulped, “And when I say 'a few more times', I mean—like—a hundred more times?  Perhaps across the rest of the southern fields?  That is—if you're able.”

        “Does Bruce talk like he's got marshmallows in his mouth?”

        “The hay is that supposed t'mean?”

        “It means, simply, that I'm liking this idea.”  Scootaloo gave a trademark smirk.


        The rest of the afternoon blistered by with insanely mechanical precision.  Applejack and Macintosh would line up the baskets, '”Harmony” would concoct a flight path, the orange mare would get a galloping start—and together they roared down the rows of orchards, two columns at a time, with the copper pegasus breathlessly pinballing her way from tree to tree so as to drop the apples by the hundreds.

        The result was akin to mowing a large yard of all its red spots, so that the entire Southern Fields were harvested clean of fruit within the span of four hours.  As the Sun sloped its way down towards a darkening horizon, the hope within the hearts of the three equines brightened immeasurably.  There were still two whole quarters of the whole Acres left to cover, but if that day's unfolding held any legitimate prophecy of the next morning to come, the last day of Apple Bucking could prove to be a miraculous day.

        Scootaloo felt it, with the crisp golden hues of the coming sunset her projected self's eyes glazed to witness a day's work phenomenally accomplished.  She was a dizzy, loopy-brained, frazzled-winged pony from the twirling effort of it all, but somehow the numbness almost equated sore muscles, so that the time traveler nearly sensed—to her reverie—the signs of having done a fine day's job indeed.

        Applejack and Macintosh—of course—were at their limit.  This was no more evident than around the twentieth time of stacking baskets onto the back of a wooden cart.  Scootaloo hummed to herself and was ready to soar off towards another row of apples when Applejack all but collapsed directly in front of her path.

        “Sugarcube—Seriously—for all that is holy in this heapin' crazy world, let's take a moment's breather, ya reckon?”

        Scootaloo giggled foalishly, cleared her throat, and murmured in a more adult voice:  “Y-Yes.  Sure thing, Miss Applejack.  I'm... I-I'm really sorry.  I guess I just got carried away—”

        “Oh, heavens to betsy!”  Applejack slumped down onto a rich emerald hillside of green grass.  “Please, by all means, get carried away more often!  I haven't seen that much fancy flyin' and laborin' since Twilight Sparkle became All Team Organizer of last year's Winter Wrap-Up!”

        On a whim, Scootaloo feigned ignorance:  “This Twilight Sparkle must be some pegasus!”

        “Oh, shucks, no.”  Applejack laughed.  “She's just a fancy bookworm of a unicorn who really knows how to organize stuff.  But I do love her to death.”  She took a deep breath and gazed across the glistening, fruitless trees of the Southern Acres that remained from a long day's work.  “And just like you, she helped me when I needed it most.”  A soft, drunken smile and she rested her sweaty snout down over folded hooves.  “Mmm... This last year or two has been a true sight, to think that I would make such wonderfully fine friends.”

        “You're a lucky filly, Miss Applejack,” Scootaloo said, a touch of somberness returning to the last pony's voice.

        “Most of the time, I reckon,” the orange mare murmured.  She glanced the copper pegasus' way with a forlorn pair of eyes.  “I don't suppose the same brain noodle of yers that thought up that ricochet-apple-buckin' trick has also come up with a dazzlin' solution to our troll problem by now?”

        Scootaloo sighed long and hard.  The numbness returned and with it came a phantom sea of bright beady eyes.  The waning day was a living time bomb, and the shorter and shorter fuse sparkled with green flame.  “I'm very sorry, Miss Applejack,” the pegasus coldly murmured.  “I like to think that I'm pretty good at multi-tasking, but I've been so absorbed in getting all of those apples down—I can't say that I've managed to come up with a good plan.”  She squatted down in the grass besides Applejack as a lulling evening breeze drifted pleasantly across their manes.  “And even if I could headbutt my one-track-mind against it, I'm not sure I could come upon an epiphany any faster.”

        “Y'all have done some mighty fine work on our trees, Miss Harmony.  But in all seriousness,” she muttered in a sad face, “I cannot ask you to use yer same pegasus skills against those varmints after nightfall.  It just ain't proper.  Nopony is invincible.  Not even you.”

        Scootaloo thought of a rusted weathervane, a shattered green cutting knife, and Granny Smith's shuddering breaths.  Applejack was as lucky as she was thoughtful to have worried about Scootaloo's projected safety.  When Scootaloo briefly considered arguing against her, the frigid catacombs of her mind reminded her of a weeping teenage filly bleeding in the womb of the Harmony.  “Thinking I'm invincible wouldn't have kept me alive all these years,” Scootaloo murmured without thinking.

        “I beg yer pardon?”

        Scootaloo sighed into the breezy afternoon.  “Nothing.”  She smirked the earth pony's way.  “If Twilight Sparkle was here, what would the 'All Team Organizer' do to solve your troll problem, you think?”

        “Mmm—Twilight has a lot of talent, I reckon.  She's dispensed with an Ursa Major, a hydra, and a handful of parasprites.  But where she shines in craftiness, she loses out a tad bit in courage.  Not to pop her balloon or nothin', but if that Canterlotlian unicorn saw them beady-eyed trolls in the dark, she'd run straight back home to Spike.”

        Scootaloo squinted the orange mare's way.  “I'm from Canterlot.  Aren't I brave?”

        “Nah, yer just freakishly convenient.”  Applejack smirked.

        Scootaloo giggled, her laughter joined by the earth pony's.  Silence once more calmly permeated the hilltop as the two basked under the shade of a passing cloud.  The sun's rays burst through the wispy beds like golden harpstrings.  It was the second setting sun in so few hours, and Scootaloo's breath left her in no less swiftness as she drank it all in.  Briefly parting the curtains of Entropan numbness, she closed her eyes and rode an invisible green slide down past twenty-five years of nightmares, so that she sailed beyond it and landed on the same springy hilltop, only with tiny orange hooves, a flowing pink mane, and happy violet eyes that drank in the same memories that had suddenly melted into reality before the time traveling pegasus.  The surreality of it all gave her a runner's high, as if she was galloping at forty kilometers an hour inside the glass shell of her projected soul self.  Any second, she felt as if that glass would break—and she would be back in the land of ashen emptiness.  Upon opening her amber eyes, the same warm world blossomed gracefully around her, so that the last pony was divinely tempted to curl it all up like a blanket and sleep there forever...

        But this world—this past was not hers.  It belonged to the orange pony resting beside her, the same pony who was presently murmuring:  “I reckon my folks would be ashamed of me.”

        Scootaloo jolted, her mental hooves a scant centimeter away from having touched the ground.  She flashed Applejack a bizarre look.  “What gives you that infernal idea?”

        The farmfilly had taken her hat off and was absentmindedly bending the brim of it in a spinning circle as she solemnly gazed beyond the blades of grass beneath her.  “It's one thang to be strong—and I've always committed myself to that.  But I also know that the Apple family has had an age-old tradition of being dependable, of being honest.  Heck...” She glanced apologetically at 'Harmony'.  “...I was even fused to the Element of Honesty.  Did y'all know that?”

        Scootaloo opened her mouth to answer—blinked forth an image of a scoffing foal seated before a campfire—and eventually uttered:  “I don't get out of Canterlot much, Miss Applejack.  Maybe you could... fill me in?”

        “Hmmm—It's actually a very long and boring story for those who weren't involved.  I reckon I only recite it to my friends and their little siblings because it means so much to them.”  She took a deep breath and gazed off towards the goldening horizon.  “But let's just say that my honesty was once put to the test, not just as a piece of my character, but as a piece of something so amazingly magical that it shaped my very own destiny, a destiny that would unite me with the best friends anypony could ever have in the whole wide world.”  A strong, happy breath—and yet it faded as she dusted the hat off and planted it once more atop her blonde mane.  “Well, I sure as heck haven't been all that honest lately, what with me tryin' to drive you off my farm the very moment you showed up to help Macky and me and the rest of us.  I think my problem is that I get so wrapped up in the duty I have to Ma and Pa's legacy that I sometimes betray the gritty things about myself that makes me so valued among my friends.  Bein' truthful is a major part of that, and when I hide the truth, I just crumble in on myself.  Trolls are horrible things, but they're hardly an excuse for me to lose the one thing that makes me truly strong.”

        “Your commitment?”  Scootaloo asked.

        Applejack looked back.  “My character.”

        The pegasus smirked.  “Oh, Miss Applejack, I don't think you'll ever have to fear losing that.”

        “Everypony stands to lose somethin', Miss Harmony.  It's the facts of life.  At least when I'm honest, all I have to lose is all I have to give.  Truth works in a circle like that, ya reckon?”

        The time traveler held her breath.  A blistering opaque divide stood between her and this earth pony, an obstruction that she had fabricated to make this entire day possible.  Twelve hours into the exercise, and Scootaloo was nowhere closer to piecing together a solution to the Apple Family's troll problem.  It made simply sitting there an atrocious sin, and listening to Applejack's confessions a triply festering wound.  Scootaloo summoned the strength to speak from the one pit in her soul that could still shine; the part of her that respected, admired, and even loved this blonde shade of the past sitting before her.

        “If there's any 'truth' that's obvious to me right now, Applejack,” Scootaloo nudged her and smiled.  “It's that your parents would be proud of you, in spite of any glaring errors you think your character may have.”  She motioned towards the distant sight of Macintosh strongly drawing a wooden cart full of apples down a path and into the red barn.  “You've looked after your siblings with loving tenderness—Your brother is one of the finest specimens in all of Ponyville—”

        “You would think that, copper-bottom!”

        “Hehehe—I mean he's a strong and resourceful pony, an example to all other farmers and citizens who share this land with him.  You've also got an adorable younger sister, who's obviously well-mannered and well-to-do; which is another sign of your responsible care and attention.  And then your grandmother—such a wonderful soul—she's healthy, happy, and certainly very proud to be living on a farm that you have shouldered for all these years.”

        “Shoot, darlin',” Applejack lowered the brim of her hat some.  “Yer makin' me blush.”

        “What I'm trying to say, Miss Applejack, is that you should be happy and proud.  If not for your parents' sake, then for your own.”  Scootaloo smiled and waved a hoof across the green expanse of the Acres.  “You have a family.  You have a home.  You have...”  Her lips trailed as she blinked at her own words floating off in the golden breeze.  “...you have harmony.”

        “Heheheh—” The orange mare raised her hat back up to blink.  “I reckon we most definitely do have you in our company, sugarcube.”

        “That's not what I meant—”  The time traveler began, but felt her heart stop.  Somewhere in the nightlit recesses of her mind, a homeless foal shivered in the loft of an abandoned barn, blanketed with warm tears.  “...huh.”

        “I just want my folks to look down from Gultophine's bosom and see that I've done the right thang with this here farm.”  Applejack let loose a sigh and slid her hooves back and forth in lazy circles across the grass.  “But, I suppose if I stress that wishin' a mighty bit too hard, I'll never enjoy this life, this home, this... harmony.  That would be a mistake... an honest mistake.”

        Scootaloo gulped a lump down her throat and glanced curiously the earth pony's way.  “How...Erm—If you don't mind me asking—How did...uhm...”  She winced at her own audacity.  “I-I'm sorry—”

        “Hmm?  What?”  Applejack blinked innocently at her.  “Ya mean to ask how my folks died?”

        Scootaloo bit her lip.  “Look, seriously, I don't mean to pry—”

        “No, it's quite alright.  History is history, ain't it?”  Applejack smiled softly.  “I do my best only to sweat the future.”

        “A wise precaution.”

        “Ahem,” Applejack sat up straight, cracking the joints in her spine as she exhaled forth a story laced with years of repetition:  “Ma and Pa weren't just yer average farmhoofs; they were important members of Ponyvillean society.  Pa was the head planner of many local sharecroppers, and he also rounded up the Apple Family Reunions single-hoofedly every other year.  And Ma...” She smiled proudly.  “Ma was 'Ponyville's Pride and Joy'.  She didn't get that purdy title by pickin' daisies.  No, she was an important member of the town's cabinet.  Barely two years after marryin' into the Apple Family, she got elected to Head of Ponyville's Community Council.  For nearly a decade and a half, she overlooked every Winter-Wrap-Up and Summer Sun Celebration, as well as leadin' fundraisers for many local charities.”

        “Really?”  Scootaloo beamed, her face awash in joyous revelation.  “I had no idea.”

        “Of course you didn't—she was a celebrity by Ponyvillean standards.  She never did set hoof in Canterlot.”

        “Er... R-Right,” Scootaloo blushed.  She gulped and remarked, “I saw the dates on their graves.  They m-must have died around the same time.”

        “Mmm...Yup,” Applejack somberly nodded.  “It was a horrible accident.  So many ponies in town were affected.  Have ya ever heard of the Everclear Mine?”

        Scootaloo's breath left her in a gasp, all the while the pegasus grimaced as if a knife had been sliced down the center of her invulnerable copper chest.  Her eyes instantly rounded and she wiltingly murmured, “Y-Your parents were in the Everclear mine collapse?”  She swallowed something dry down her throat and gazed groundward.  Her heartbeat was nearly bursting through her neck as she shuddered to say, “Oh Miss Applejack, I-I'm so sorry.”

        “Oh, they weren't in the mine when it caved-in,” Applejack clarified, momentarily ignorant of her companion's sudden lapse in breath.  “That tragedy was reserved for several dozens of unfortunate workers—as everypony who's lived around here knows.  But my folks?”  She hesitated briefly, before summoning a courageous smile of pride from deep within her orange-coated frame.  “They were the first to arrive on scene the moment they caught word of the disaster.  Ma drew the relief wagon while Pa tried to clamor his way down into the ruined shaft in search of survivors.  Together, they managed to get at least eight workers out before more help came.  Of course, nopony quite realized that a huge underground node of infernite had been pierced in the depths of the Everclear Mine.  Nearly every worker pulled from the site died within a week from polluted lungs.”  A deep breath.  “Includin' Ma and Pa—Gultophine rest their souls.  Nopony could ever say they weren't the dependable types, down to the bitter end.  It's inspirin', really, even if it is dang tragic.  Later, they built a memorial at the site of the collapsed mine, and Ma and Pa are the first listed among the names of brave but ill-fated rescue workers.  The Apple Family visits it at every reunion, and our hearts have always gone out to everypony involved in the tragedy.”

        Scootaloo was hearing Applejack's account, and yet her mind was in another world, a very cold and lonely world that permeated her memories long before any single fleck of ash dotted the Wastes of Equestria.

        Applejack took one glance at her and raised a concerned eyebrow.  “Harmony?  You didn't... You didn't know anypony who was taken by the Everclear Mine, did you?”

        Scootaloo cleared her throat and bravely stammered, “In a manner of speaking, y-yes.  Yes I did.”  She inhaled sharply and smiled the best she could the farmfilly's way.  “But, like you said, Applejack.  It's only worth sweating the future, yes?”

        The orange mare smiled and stole a new friend's phrase:  “A wise precaution.”

        Scootaloo nodded.  A somber bowing of her snout, and then she remarked, “Now I understand everything.  Dependability, courage, and strength—It runs in your blood, doesn't it?  Somehow I wouldn't doubt that if a supply of infernite exploded underneath the very foundation of your barn, you too would be on the scene to help anypony out.  I know this may seem like a stretch, Miss Applejack, but I believe you can extend that same quality to the fervor with which you've tackled these trolls.”

        “Or attempted to,” Applejack remarked.  “Ma and Pa were courageous and selfless, but they never went in over their heads.  Nopony knew about the infernite.  But these here trolls...” she sighed, “I should have gotten the hint that they weren't ordinary varmints from the first day I layed eyes on them scary leather flanks of theirs.  Oh Celestia, what have I gotten my family into...?”  She briefly collapsed in a groaning heap.

        “Hey,” Scootaloo rested a hoof on her shoulder.  “Don't fret.  Neither of us may have an answer, but focus on the apple bucking at hoof, and I'm certain that a solution will come to us.”

        “Ya'll Canterlotlians must have faith that can move mountains.”

        “When we're inspired, you bet!”  Scootaloo smirked.  She rose to her knees and offered the earth pony a hoof.  “You said that your character of honesty fitted the destiny you have with your friends, right?  Well, I think the qualities of your life fall into a similar cadence.  You've got family, you've got a home...”  She smiled bravely.  “...and you've got yourself some Harmony—What's the worst that could happen?”

        Applejack gently grasped onto Scootaloo's limb and lurched up onto all fours.  “I reckon you plan to show me?”

        “If it's nearly as much as you've shown me, I would be happy to oblige,” Scootaloo said, then motioned with her mane towards the red-tainted fields under golden sunset.  “C'mon.  If we work together, I'm sure we could knock out a few more orchards.”

        Applejack trotted enthusiastically after her.  “Think y'all might do me a favor and knock my exhausted flank out in the meantime?”

        “Nah.  I might damage your hat.”

        “Pffft.”


        Barely half an hour later, Scootaloo was out of breath.  It was not her own exhaustion that spurred forth this lapse in energy, but rather the infectious weariness that had wafted off of Applejack and Big Macintosh had overwhelmed her.  She sat, slumped against a tree, watching and waiting as the two earth ponies set up another line of baskets beneath two rows of trees.  In a matter of minutes, the game of orchard pinball would resume.  Scootaloo expected it to be a numb and frivolous exercise, like the entirety of that day had become.  Still, even if she worked with the heated frenzy of the Harmony's boiling steam, the apple bucking would not go fast enough, and the howling night would not come slow enough.

        The copper pegasus shut her amber eyes, and as soon as she did the gray ash returned.  The twilight of the future had followed her back in time, limping, reminding her with every blink that she was just as much a creature of misery as the beasts that had so haunted the Apple Family's pristine home.  There was no fitting word to describe the irony of this bitter sandwich, of two groups of adversaries converging upon a single point in finite history that didn't deserve either one of them.  For the briefest of moments, Scootaloo wondered if Princess Entropa had planned this, had plotted and designed it from her lonely cosmic cloud of exile.  Perhaps this was revenge for the pegasus having so brazenly stolen her coat, for believing—even for a green-flaming millisecond—that she actually earned the chance to canter back and forth along the streams of reverse-time.

        But if the last pony in all of Equestria didn't earn this, if she didn't deserve the chance to transcend however briefly the chronological barriers that had imprisoned her forever under the cascading twilight coffin of isolation, then who did?

        Scootaloo tiredly opened her eyes.  Once she had done so, one image stood in the foreground of the glistening Acres.  Fatefully, it was none other than—

        “You don't look half as exhausted as you should be, child,” Granny Smith uttered.  “I've seen you makin yer fancy hoofwork across them trees.  It's by far the most amazing thing I've ever seen.”

        “I find that hard to believe,” Scootaloo said with a gently prodding smile.  “You've lived a long life, Ms. Smith.  I hardly deserved to be flattered that much.”

        “But y'all deserve it, nonetheless,” the lime-coated mare murmured.  On wobbling legs she strolled around the tree to which the time traveler was slumped.  “If we had yer lickety-split flyin' talents two days ago—or even yesterday for that matter—we may actually have had a legitimate reason to contract the apple delivery so dag-blamed early.”

        “It's easy to mourn the lengths of time we've failed to do proper things with,” Scootaloo philosophized out loud, “but all that will do is waste more time.  I like to deal with the situation in front of me as it comes into fruition.  Equestrian history was built by ageless ponies doing the exact same thing.”

        “You wear 'time' like a second skin, don't ya, Miss Harmony?”

        Scootaloo's copper nostrils flared.  “You have no idea,” she groaned.

        “Yer right.  I reckon I don't.”  Ms. Smith pivoted her gray head to gaze down at the filly.  “Tell me, if you would, Miss Harmony; do you enjoy Stallionivarius because his strings speak to yer soul, or is it because they speak to yer heartbeat?”

        “Where I come from, Ms. Smith, a heartbeat is something I force myself to imagine.”

        “Think you'll ever tell my family just where you do come from, darlin'?”

        “I...” Scootaloo's face wretched like a filly who had been stabbed in the leg.  The shattered image of Granny Smith's green carving knife appeared in a bodiless cloud, easing her spirit ever so slightly.  “I hope that I'll never have to.”

        “I reckon that's just up to us to discover,” Ms. Smith remarked.  The utterance was just as dry to hear as it was to produce.  “Hmmmph,” she smirked slightly.  “How goddess-like, to leave the likes of us to our own devices.”

        “Ms. Smith,” Scootaloo viciously sighed, shaking her copper head.  “I am not a—”

        “Of course not,” Granny Smith squatted down with a breath besides Scootaloo, eyeing Applejack and Big Macintosh from afar.  “But my family's future is cradled in yer hooves no less, hmm?”  Her gray eyes were half as piercing as they were warm, suddenly.  She said, “If time has afforded you any less wounds than it has thoughtlessly deposited on my lap, then heaven help us if you're any less respectful of the gifts you have to wield.”

        “Ms. Smith, even the greatest of gifts goes only so far,” Scootaloo said.  Once more, her mind's eye was assaulted by the gnashing teeth of a sea of pale leather.  She clenched her eyes shut and ran a hoof over her face.  “And so deep,” she added in a shudder.

        “It makes me wonder, Miss Harmony.”  Granny Smith's voice was like a gray cloudbed that hovered majestically over a jutting mountain.  “Just what depths have you gone?  What dark and winding chasms have you navigated to be here, and to be here so solemnly—that it makes an old lady such as myself amazed to hear it in yer voice.”  She gulped.  “You can't be this young filly sitting before me.  You just can't.  You're something different, something grander, something darker—my family doesn't have the gumption to comprehend it, and I suddenly think that all of the scholars of Canterlot thrown in a grand heap together certainly couldn't wrap their noggins around it either.”

        “What are you trying to say, Ms. Smith?”  Scootaloo finally surrendered with a wilted breath.

        “What I'm sayin', Miss Harmony, is that I forgive you.”

        Scootaloo blinked her eyes open at that.  She gazed at the lime-coated elder.  “You... f-forgive me...?”

        “AJ, my granddaughter, is an angel.  And most of that comes to her cuz of her natural well of honesty.  Honest creatures know how to take hold of this world's glorious light and shine it for all the gatherin' ponies to see it and marvel.  But you—you're a different kind of a creature.  You can see this world for its darkness, and you can see a whole lot deeper into them shadows than even my eyes can venture, and I've seen my fair share of darkness in this life.  Miss Harmony, I can't pretend to know what horrible shadows are haunting this farm, but deep in my heart I am glad—thankful and blessed—that you're here to do yer dangest to stifle it from us.  That's an amazin' strength—a separate strength, the likes of which even Applejack could respect, though I'm starting to reckon she won't ever have the grace to—nor I for that matter.”

        “Ms. Smith, please believe me,” Scootaloo stood up as the farm siblings trotted towards her from a distance.  The baskets were ready, the trees were ready, the ever dying afternoon was ready.  She only wished that she was ready.  “It is never, ever about grace.”  She gulped.  “It has always and shall always be about desperation.”

        “I reckon even a goddess wouldn't know about that.”

        “They don't have to know about it.  We do.”


        Another hour and a half of frenzied apple rattling, and the swathing band of harvested trees ended clockwise at the crest of the dipping western acres.  The three courageous farm ponies strained and struggled to the bitter end, only stopping their relentless pursuit of the hanging apples the very moment that they could no longer see the fruit, for the Sun had sunk below the crest of the amber horizon.  A sleepy darkness was falling over every contour of the orchards; bright green leaves dulled to gray foliage as “Harmony” finished her last sideways dance across a line of swaying wooden trunks, with Applejack breathlessly sprinting beneath her to provide a line of sight.  Granny Smith had wandered out of the farmhouse, shuffling westward on brittle bones in order to light several lanterns flanking the dirt path leading to the barn.  The final harvest wagon was being filled to the brim with baskets upon baskets of juicy bounty.  Big Macintosh took a swig of water from a nearby trough, tightened his muscles for one last daylit haul, and pulled the large wagon across the farm towards a woodshed where he had earlier crafted a complex locking mechanism to thwart trollish fingers overnight.

        The trolls...

        Even as Scootaloo fluttered wordlessly towards the wilting grass underhoof, she grimaced at the darkening sky, at the cooling breeze, at the spreading shadows from the forest wall beyond the fence, but most of all she shuddered at the grand void in her projected brain where she had long hoped a solution to the Apple Family's plight would present itself, a solution that she had fought for, bucked for, and outright lied for.

        The last pony had struggled long and hard with trolls over the years.  She had brushed elbows with the demons of the mist, had learned how to discern their cries from the generic howls of the wasteland, had earned several scars—on her flank and on her spirit—for having underestimated the violent and riotous abominations that infected the bosom of future Equestria.  For surviving trolls beyond the Cataclysm, Scootaloo's solution was—as a matter of fact—the utter lack of a solution.  The only way to deal with the creatures was to avoid them; which is why she ultimately took to airship.  The monstrosities had utterly robbed her of any semblance of a native land, long after horrific circumstance had utterly blasted that same earth under her hooves to ashes.  Trolls were undeniably stupid creatures, and yet they could thrive in lifeless oblivion; they would ultimately inherit the future.

        Before Scootaloo's curved eyes stretched the finest sample of land she had ever seen—in either lifetime, both joyous and joyless.  There was no other spot in Equestria that matched the lushness and purile beauty of Sweet Apple Acres.  It was the finest example of the juxtaposition of natural beauty and earth pony spirit.  While the rest of Equestria died under flame and ash, it would take a veritable sinkhole to wipe out the breath of life forever imprinted on that part of the world.  To see it all fall so mercilessly under the chaotic teeth of tomorrow's monsters was a travesty.  Fighting for the rainbow symbol or scavenging a ruined city for magic flame were the only excuses Scootaloo ever had to go to blows with these creatures, and on every occasion she had only survived by galloping cowardly away from the fiends.  But here, in the fertile crescent of Princess Celestia's homeland, upon the gracious land sweated, bled, and died for by generations upon generations of Applejack's family, where would Scootaloo find the excuse to run?

        “There's so many of them,” the copper-coated pegasus murmured.

        “What was that, sugarcube?” Applejack trotted around the shadowed edge of the wagon as Macintosh pulled it away.  She panted from a day's worth of galloping after the flying apple-bucker and straightened her hat while gazing at her curiously.  “You finally got an idea in that fancy noggin of yers?”

        Scootaloo wanted to tell Applejack that it was impossible.  She wanted to embrace a pony whom she trusted, sobbing to her all of her pain, agony, and sorrows of having to deal with those creatures, of having to shudder at their bounding steps when she was trying to signal kindred spirits with an artificial rainbow, of having been stabbed and skewered to a bloody mess in the center of a demolished Ponyville.  In the depths of her hardened soul, Scootaloo could not deny that her only salvation ever against the drooling menaces was none other than a miraculously rampaging dragon out of nowhere.  But this was not the Wasteland; this was the past, Sweet Apple Acres, and it was the end of the evening and the prelude to a sea of leathery bodies weaving their way out of the woodwork.  And Scootaloo was not the last pony; she was 'Miss Harmony', and Applejack was waiting for an answer.

        “To be honest, Miss Applejack, I think we've done all that we can possibly do,” she murmured, gazing aside with stone amber eyes.  “We've collected as many apples as we can.  I think the next step is to seal up the woodsheds, batten down the hatches, and keep a guard on what your family has harvested up until now.  So long as everypony's eyes are in the same place, the bounty just may survive the night.”

        “And what of the west and north fields?”  Applejack gulped.

        Scootaloo exhaled coldly.  “That will have to be tomorrow's concern...”

        Applejack rubbed her chin with a muddied hoof.  She paced a bit, smirked, and glanced up with a glint of hope in her green eyes.  “Them creatures' weakness is the Sun, ain't it?  Y'all reckon that lightin' a whole heap of torches might drive them off all scaredy-cat-like?”

        Scootaloo's vision twitched.  She remembered a lonely pink-haired filly in the moon craters of post-Cataclysm Equestria.  The last pony had made the same assumption as Applejack.  After lighting over fifty torches, she had created a burning perimeter around her shelter while starting work on her first zeppelin.  The long and short of it; she never finished that airship.

        “No, Miss Applejack.  Torches only serve as toys to trolls.  The next moment you know, they'll have your entire homestead burned to the ground in a blink.”

        “Shoot.  Yer sure about that?”

        “Trust me.”

        “Well...” Applejack took a deep breath and snapped a few cricks in her neck.  Her lips hardened into a rocky frown.  “Macintosh and I never rightly expected them traps of ours to work.  In fact, we knew it would come down to fistihooves at some point or another.”

        “Meaning?”

        “We've already been plannin' to come to blows with them varmints,” Applejack said with a tired smile.  “I reckon tonight may be the night we just try eliminatin' the dang creatures.”

        Scootaloo's eyes narrowed on the farmfilly.  “Define 'eliminating'.”

        “I'm sorry...?”

        “What do you and your brother plan to do with the trolls when you have them in your sights?”

        “Well, y'know—We'd thrash 'em mighty fierce!”

        “Just that?  You'd 'thrash' them?”

        “Erm...”

        “Would that be it?  You would smack them upside the head and expect them to walk away?  You'd expect all of them to walk away because they just got a bunch of bruises?”

        “Well, uh, no, I guess we would... you know...” Applejack shifted where she stood on all fours.  “...we'd have to put'em all out to pasture.  Literally.”

        “Miss Applejack, have you ever killed something before?”

        “K-Killed... something?”

        Scootaloo somberly nodded.

        “Well, shucks—Sweet Apple Acres has had a long history of dealin' with all sorts of pesky annoyances:  snakes, fruit flies, worms, possums, even a lone wolf here or there.  As a matter of fact, some of my earliest memories are of diggin' up these bothersome moles from the ground with my Pa.  Now there was a pony who knew how to work decently with indecent thangs.”

        “That's not the same, Miss Applejack.”

        “It ain't?” she blinked nervously.

        Scootaloo paced around the orange mare, icily staring her down.  “Would you be willing to kill something, Miss Applejack?  And I don't mean just anything—but thinking, breathing, crafty things—Things that know your fears and weaknesses, just as they have fears and weaknesses of their own.  I'm talking about things that, to eliminate them, you have to stare down the eye-twitch of their souls and witness as every waking breath of hate and desire is sucked from their memories, because you are taking it all from them against their will.  It takes more than a sharpened pitchfork or a heavy shovel to kill something that has sentience, Miss Applejack, because no matter how much you flatten a monster into pulp, you cannot deny—even in the most hidden part of your Epona-granted heart—that even that very monster had a home, had a mother, and that it was birthed into this world by the same breath of nature that gave ponies their song and dance.”

        Applejack bit her lip and gazed defeatedly into the shadowed soil of the land.  “N-No.  No, I reckon I-I couldn't do that, nor Macky for that m-matter...”

        Scootaloo smiled painfully.  “No pony should ever feel like they could.  We are creatures of life, Miss Applejack.  We thrive on peace, on friendship, on all the things that make this world good and magical.  The last major war of ponydom was one thousand years ago.  And there's a reason for that—It's taken Equestria that long to recover from the senseless wounds carved out of our civilization when the Lunar Republic took up arms against its brothers and sisters.”  She gulped hard and stared towards the last scant lines of golden light gleaming over the western horizon.  “It would be a dark day indeed when ponies could kill without remorse.  Something... Something earth-changing would have to happen...”  Her breath lingered in a bitter murmur.  Her nostrils briefly smelled a tinge of copper, and were normal once again.

        “Then if we can't wait them out, and we can't throttle 'em for good..” Applejack dusted her hat off and sighed, “...then just what in the hay do we do?!?”

        Scootaloo silently prayed—Not so much for an answer to Applejack's question, but instead for a reason—any reason—to not have to answer her right then and there.  The supernatural result was a pattering of foalish feet, and then a chirping voice that lit up the otherwise darkening air.

        “Wow!  You got all them apples bucked in one afternoon?  That's so amazin'!”

        “Apple Bloom!”  Applejack hissed.  “What have I been tellin' you all month about comin' out of the house on your lonesome—Especially after dark?!”

        “But I'm not alone!”  The crimson-maned filly shook her snout.  A girlishly bright hairbow adorned her head, brightening the scene like a newborn comet as her giggling voice carried on, “You and Miss Harmony are here with me!”  She winked at the visiting laborer and exclaimed:  “I saw all them fancy tricks yer were performin' in the fields, Miss Harmony!  Bouncin' around between trees like the livin' spooks; That was so cool!!”

        “Apple Bloom...” Applejack grumbled, rubbing her own face with a weary hoof.  “We're a tad bit busy here, sugarcube--”

        “Granny Smith says that you like her kind of music too!  I always thought everypony but her was far too young to enjoy all them wailin' strings,” Apple Bloom made a wretching face, then smirked, her bright amber eyes matching the pupils of the stranger whom she was staring at with amazement.  “Y'all ever heard of Vinyl Scratch?”

        Scootaloo fidgeted, making a great show of not noticing Apple Bloom's existence.  She shivered slightly.

        “Miss Harmony?”  The tiny filly raised an eyebrow.  “Are you feelin' okay?”

        “Come on, darlin',” Applejack half-trotted over and nudged the foal with her snout.  “Back into the house.  Git!

        “But Sis!  I was just askin' her about music—”

        “Don't you 'But Sis' me!  It's high time for supper, bath, and bed!  There's still a lot of apple buckin' to be done tomorrow, so Macky and I gotta hit the hay early.  And when we sleep early, that means you sleep earlier!”

        “Awww—But, AJ—!”

        Scootaloo cleared her voice.  The two siblings froze and glanced over as the pegasus bravely, bravely pivoted her face to look young Apple Bloom in the eye.  She smiled nervously—but steadily—and said, “Apple Bloom, you're never too young to appreciate a good symphony when you hear it.  Your Granny not only has good tastes, but she's got good memories to go along with it.  She only wants to share that kind of stuff with you and your brother and sister because it's like sharing a part of her as well.”

        “But it's all so boring and stiff-like!”  Apple Bloom wretched.  “Gimme a fast beat and something cool to dance to, ya reckon?”

        “You'd be surprised how 'boring and stiff' music could be a pleasant thing to dance to as well,” 'Harmony' grinned softly.  “Especially if it reminds of you good times...”  She gulped slightly but overcame it with a wink.  “...and good friends.”

        “Wow—Yer purdy deep, Miss Harmony,” Apple Bloom blinked, then grinned girlishly.  “Is that how you got yer cutie mark?”

        “M-My cutie mark?”  Scootaloo blinked at the tiny crusader in a brief bout of amnesia.

        “Don't mind her,”  Applejack sighed and nudged her little sister again.  “She's in that call of the cutie phase.  I bet even Canterlotlian pegasi can relate.”

        “Don't I know it,” Scootaloo smiled and trotted over before lowering her snout before the blinking foal.  “If you must know, Apple Bloom,” her mind hovered over the hoofsteps of Ms. Cheerilee's ghostly words as she uttered, “this mark of mine means that I am a Servant in the Royal Court of Canterlot.  I perform communicative and ambassadorial tasks for Princess Celestia.  Sometimes I even act as her direct messenger, flying across the lengths of Equestria, maintaining peace and order among all ponydom.”

        “Wowwwwwww...” the girl cooed.  A dreamy grin, near drooling, and she asked, “And just what is that dark loopy shape in the middle of the black crest?”

        “It's an infinity symbol,” Scootaloo breathed, blinked dumbly, and muttered, “It stands for... uh... infinity?”

        “How'd you earn that?  By talkin' around in circles?”

        “Apple Bloom!”  Applejack hissed again.  “In the house!  That's quite enough!”

        “But maybe if I started talkin' up a storm of fancy thangs, then I could get a cutie mark as amazin' as hers!”

        “Believe me, sugarcube.  If that was the case, you'd be covered from hoof to mane in tons of them black loopty-loops by now.  Now get along, little doggy!”

        “But I only meant to pay a respectful visit!”

        “Don't you have school to get rest for tomorrow, kid?”  Scootaloo smirked.

        “Pffft—As if!  It's a Saturday!”

        “Oh,” Scootaloo blinked.  The last pony narrowed her eyes and accidentally murmured aloud:  “What comes before 'Saturday' again...?”

        “Heeheehee!  Silly Miss Harmony!  Everypony knows that!”

        “Apple Bloom—”

        “I'm a'gettin'!  I'm a'gettin'!  Don't get yer hat in a twirl, sis!”  The foal scampered off, giggling.

        Applejack shook her blonde head and trotted back towards the pegasus.  “Don't mind her.  What—with her two bubbly 'crusader' friends and all—she's a regular hoof-ful.”

        “She's awfully sweet, though,” Scootaloo said in a melancholic breath that she tried to hide.  “I already see in her the same friendliness as her grandmother.”

        “And the same stubbornness,” Applejack rolled her eyes.  “But who am I to say?  Heheheh...”

        “Heehee—Gotcha,” Scootaloo breathed.  A scrunching of her brow, and she uttered:  “By the way, who's Vinyl Scratch?”

        “Beats me; one of them record scratchin' music banger-uppers that all the foals have gone plum loco for these days.  Don't care much for the tunes myself.  Only popular song these days I've come close to fancyin' is Buck to December by Trotter Swiftly.”

        “Yeah, okay, sure.”

        Applejack inhaled the grand darkening evening around them as she watched the distant form of Big Macintosh load the crates full of apples into a woodshed before barricading it up.  “Heavens to Betsy,” she groaned.  “I've about galloped myself to the bone with all of the day's apple buckin'.  Macky may not look it, but he's bound to collapse any moment too.  And yet—though I know we're both tuckered out like hungry snakes in a mice stampede—it'd be a sure-fire miracle if we get a single wink of sleep between the two of us.  Every night, it's the same dang thing.  Even if them trolls didn't want our blood, they whoop up something fierce.  I'm surprised downtown Ponyville hasn't heard all the hollerin' and racket these last few weeks.  There's no sense in hidin' it, Miss Harmony; I'm severely missin' any hope of the rest of them apples surviving by the time we try buckin' 'em loose tomorrow.”

        “Don't give up, Miss Applejack,” 'Harmony' said, gazing at the darkening treetops to the west and north.  “I'll keep an eye out.”

        “I beg yer pardon?”

        “It's the least I can do until we meet again in the morning,” the pegasus said.  “Somepony has to stand guard.”  Scootaloo dizzily teetered as she thought of so many pale bodies in the shadowed clusters of endless apple orchards.  It would be a long, long night indeed.  “I can't even begin to fathom the shame of leaving your family here on your lonesome.”

        “You ain't goin' back to Ponyville or nothin'?”

        “Ponyville?”  Scootaloo made a face.  “What do you mean...?”

        “I figured yer was stayin' in a hotel or something while you paid us a visit on behalf of the Court.”

        “Oh—Pfft,” Scootaloo smirked.  “I never went to a hotel—”  She caught herself in the middle of that, winced, then reiterated:  “That is, I'm fine, Miss Applejack.  I came here to Sweet Apple Acres to help you, and I'm not leaving until the jobs are done—Both of them: the apples and the trolls.”

        Applejack stared at her long and hard.  Slowly, a sweet smile crept over her orange features.  “My sweet suntanned flank!  I won't let you go floatin' around all night like some headless horse!  Come on, copper-bottom—”  She tugged at the pegasus' tail hairs.

        Scootaloo gave her a double-glance.  “Excuse me?”

        “Excuse yerself.  You're stayin' indoors.”

        “Indoors where?”

        “In the Apple Family Household, ya strawhead!”

        Scootaloo's heart skipped a beat.  The green world spun loops beneath her dangling hooves.  Instinctually, she barked:  “Oh no, AJ—er—Miss Applejack.  I can't.  Besides, somepony's gotta keep an eye out on the forest for when the trolls come out—”

        “Fat lick of good that'll do when you fall out of the sky in a dead slumber from overworkin' yerself!  You may have a talent at airborne apple buckin'—but every filly has her limits.  I'd never live right with myself if I left you out here in the cold to fend off them varmints on your lonesome.  Yer gettin' a proper meal and a bed to sleep in—”

        “Miss Applejack, I'm fine--”

        “Yer the one thing that's standing in the way between tomorrow and my family's farm goin' up in flames!”  Applejack snapped back.  Then, she blushed slightly, and added “Metaphorically speakin', of course.”  She cleared her throat and gazed at the black maned pony in earnest.  “I spent the better part of yesterday tryin' to shoo you away, not knowin' a gift horse when I looked her in the sweet face.  And yet, you stuck it out with us, Miss Harmony.  You saved Macky's life.  You saved my life.  My Ma and Pa would be rollin' in their graves if I didn't pay yer back with the best thang we've always had to give: sweet tastin' apples and a place to lay yer head.  Now are you our guest or ain't ya?!?”

        Scootaloo stared breathlessly at her.  In a hazed blink—under the phantom scents of crackling embers and melted marshmallows—she briefly saw a sisterly face gazing at her over an upside down hat bouncing with three juicy apples.  In an age long dead, the simplest of gifts had helped the foal last another shivering week on her own, spent liquidly in the warmth of delightful dreams, of having someponies to call a family, of having someplace to call a home, of the simple harmony of the fleeting thought, as her moments were always fleeting, as this moment right here was fleeting.

        The last pony bravely cut it off at the head.  She may not have been strong enough, but she certainly wasn't stupid.  “I would be honored to be your guest, Miss Applejack.”  She smiled savoringly, as if she knew she could never smile again.

        “Alrighty then!”  Applejack smirked and proudly nudged the stumbling pegasus towards the farmhouse.  “And if y'all don't mind me sayin' so, sugarcube, the first order of business is givin' you a bath!”

        Scootaloo blinked crookedly.  “Uhm... O-kaaay...”


The End of Ponies – by short skirts and explosions

Chapter Nine – A Place That Isn't Empty

        Special Thanks to Vimbert - Pre-Reader and Gentlecolt

Scootaloo immediately regretted every sin she had ever committed the very moment the pitcher of ice cold water came cascading over her backside.  An shriek from deep within—her face contorting like she was giving birth to an iceberg—and she clutched her shivering self in the sloshing waves of the ivory bathtub surrounding her.  Applejack paced across the second story bathroom of her house and placed the empty pitcher besides a gently flickering lantern.

        “Now don't go makin' faces like a frog left out in a snowstorm!”  Applejack chuckled under her breath.  “You ain't gonna suffer none.  Just relax, and let the cold waters drag the heat of the day clear off ya!  Nothin' finishes a long sore day of apple buckin' like a traditional Apple Family dip in the tub!  Cleans yer pores right out!  Bet you were wonderin' how come I've worked in the Sun all these here years and yet I don't look like a raisin-coated mule!”

        “A-A-Actually I-I-I was wondering if bl-bl-blood freezes at the s-s-same temperature as w-w-water,” Scootaloo hissed through clattering teeth.

        “Pfft—Go soak yer head—”  Applejack blinked at her own words.  “Uh... Eh, y'all know what I mean.”  She winked and motioned with an orange hoof.  “Soap's over yonder.  And I got some of the finest shampoo from Aloe and Lotus' Day Spa in downtown Ponyville.  Normally I don't subscribe to none of them froo-froo mane conditioners, but it was donated by Lady Rarity—now there's a pony who knows how to come out of a day's work lookin' as sparkly as Princess Celestia's lookin' glass!”

        “Th-Th-Thanks, Miss Applejack,” Scootaloo shivered to produce a smile.  “S-Sincerely... Y-Y-You are t-t-too kind.”

        “Call me 'AJ',” the farmfilly smirked and backtrotted out of the bathroom door.  “Just be sure to dry yer hooves after yer done.  And if you smell somethin' a wee bit spicy, that's just Granny Smith makin' her one-of-a-kind daffodil alfredo!  She only fixes it up once in a blue moon—on account of havin' a special guest and all.”  She smiled.

        “That... uhm...”  Scootaloo blushed to the core of her projected self's being.  “That's r-really sweet.”

        “No it ain't!”  Applejack blinked.  “It's spicy—”  She caught herself.  “Oh, heeheehee—Right.  Enjoy!”  She closed the door behind her, the mare's hoofsteps creaking straight through the wooden foundations of the old farmhouse.

        The copper-coated pegasus sloshed back in the tub, her shivers waning to a stillness under the gentle lull of the amber lanternlight.  She brushed a few slick black strands from her forehead and gazed at her own hoof up close.  Scootaloo knew that she was merely occupying the projection of her soul self.  Those were not her limbs dripping with moisture and those were not her senses shivering under the frantic thrill of the cold liquid.  And yet, she couldn't remember feeling more at ease, more royally pampered, more in tune with herself than she did at that moment—and it was nothing more than a humble bath.

        Scootaloo knew that in her lonely days before her lonelier days, she would have reveled in experiencing something half as wholesome as this.  In all the twilight days of navigating the Wastelands, she would never have foreseen a moment when she would feel this... clean.  It only took her a twenty-five-year ride on the back of reverse-time to experience it.  The surreality of the moment should have been suffocating, but with each centimeter that she allowed her soaking self to descend into the waters, she suddenly didn't care.

        The last pony closed her eyes, her body floating suddenly in a weightless pool of lucid cold.  Like always when her eyelids were shut, she saw the gray ash and snow stretching on into the horizon of her bitter consciousness.  But as her Entropan body settled warmly into the waters, the freezing mists faded away, and there bubbled to her mind's surface the wispy vistas of Cloudsdale, its blue beds and ivory buildings glistening under the gold bands of a lively Sun.  Hundreds upon hundreds of pegasi floated gaily in the electric air, their eyes as bright as their souls, and they all parted ways as Scootaloo floated through them, gently hovering to a stop before a wide bed of fog.  There was laughter, a deep chant of daily joy, and out from the blue-on-blue there soared a figure into crisp clarity, her mane and tail shimmering with every shade of the rainbow as she gazed down at the young foal and gave a devil-may-care grin.  But just as Rainbow Dash turned to fly away—a spicy smell filled the air, like a great valley of trees burning far below.  Thick iron bars  suddenly obscured the flight of the prismatic pegasus, and then the great ashen explosion roared through the sky on burning moonrocks that slammed into Scootaloo's face with the force of millions of screaming ponies.

        A loud splash.  The filly was clasping hard to the side of the tub, hyperventilating.  The flickering light around her wasn't Equestria in flames—but the gentle dance of a lantern in the corner.  The spicy smell in the air wasn't ash, but a delicious meal waiting for her and the Apple Family downstairs.  She was in the past, and the past was the here and now—but it all seemed so fake to her once again.  In the fading trails of a reborn epiphany, Scootaloo reminded herself that the only real things in this world were those that left fossils behind.

        It didn't mean that she couldn't enjoy the moment—like the fleeting phantom that she was—soaked from head to tail in an exiled Goddess' skin.  A mute curse floated towards the ceiling, seeking the forehead of a three hundred year old Spike.  Then there was the softest of smiles.  With a gentleness and grace that she only knew from reading books, Scootaloo reached for the soap and conditioner and bathed like a princess.


        Scootaloo couldn't take her eyes off the portraits.  There were dozens of them—black silhouettes of rural ponies, framed in dark ovals that swarmed gently past her one generation at a time as she sauntered slowly, pensively down the creaking stairs of the Apple Family residence.  She emerged upon a warm toasty world.  A fireplace crackled lazily at the far end of a den furnished with plush love seats and afghans.  As a blurred Apple Bloom scampered across the living room—giggling in a fit over one thing or another—Scootaloo glanced around the corner to see a brightly lit dining room, flanked by a kitchen where Granny Smith was currently growling at Apple Bloom to settle down.  The old mare wobblingly navigated her lime, wrinkled self around an eating table before placing down a steamy plate full of straw and daffodils, sprinkled deliciously with peppery oats.

        A barking nose.  The last pony briefly jolted, but relaxed as she saw Winona scampering up and running circles around her, a gleeful Apple Bloom hot on the collie's fluffy tail.  The two went cantering off towards another section of the house as Scootaloo's attention was drawn towards a wide portrait lining a distant hearth.  Within the wooden frame the happy image of six ponies stood in a familial pose.  Granny Smith was seated in the center, flanked by a red coated stallion with sharp green eyes and a mare of silken orange complexion.  The mare was cradling an infant foal with a light bush of red hair, while two adorable ponies—one crimson and the other orange—hugged her legs and faced the invisible portraitist.

        Scootaloo stood there, numbly suspended in the facade of “Harmony”.  Like the airship of the same name, she dangled loosely, a shameful puppet suspended into the deep well of the past via green flaming marionette strings.  This was a warm and toasty world that sang with a chorus that should have been forever lost after the Cataclysm, and yet there the last pony was, dragging her hooves a bare sneeze above the rock hard surface of it all, struggling to drag anchor but never quite touching down to do just that.  She didn't deserve to be there, not with her invulnerable skin and her scavenger's wit and her nefarious lies.  She couldn't possibly have been righteous enough to be as blessed as she was.  She wasn't respectful enough, she wasn't... strong enough.

        The cloud cleared just as thickly as it had coalesced.  The pegasus barely registered a porch door opening and slamming shut.  A hulking red form clopped on tired limbs as a sisterly shadow called in from the adjacent hallway:

        “Macky, didja finish barricadin' the kitchen door?  That's where they're likely to go bangin' them bony heads of theirs first!”

        “Eeeyup,” Macintosh strolled past Scootaloo.  He politely nodded his head—then jolted with a double-take at her mane.  A blink, and he suppressed a snickering smirk as he swaggered his way into the dining room.

        Scootaloo blushed slightly, her face awash in copper confusion.  Just in time, Applejack pattered up, tossing her hat onto a nearby wrack.

        “Whew-Wee!  I swear, sometimes I feel like Epona invented 'work' first and 'ponies' second to make an excuse for the former—”  She took one glance at Scootaloo.  “Oh, you're done, Copper-Bottom—”  She too jolted.  “Whoah Nelly!  Eheheh—Ya do know, sugarcube, that we've got a mirror in the bathroom, don'tcha?”

        “I-I don't read you, Miss Appleja—er—AJ,” Scootaloo's eyes narrowed.  “I almost passed out in the tub.  Did the trolls beat me with an ugly stick before I came down here or something?”

        “Nothin' of the sort,” Applejack pointed with an amused hoof.  “Didn't yer Momma ever teach ya how to brush yer mane proper?”

        “H-Huh?”  Scootaloo stupidly blinked and ran a hoof over her neck, only to feel a certifiable mountain of fuzzy tangles spreading upwards towards the ceiling.  “Holy cow!  Eheh—Oh yeah, th-that's right...”

        “There's a brush over yonder on the table.  Be my guest.”

        “Hmmm?”  Scootaloo only barely registered Applejack's offering.  “Oh—Uhm—To be perfectly frank, I've never... uh... Eheh.... How do I put this...?”  She bit her lip.  The only time the last pony had ever toyed with her hair after the Cataclysm was when she weaved the shaved pink strands into various rags, bindings, and insulators for use on board the Harmony.  There was a time, in her Ponyvillean childhood, when she once experimented with a rainbow assortment of dye... which ended with relatively hilarious results, not that she had anypony to share it with.

        “Pfft!”  Applejack rolled her eyes.  “What's this world comin' to?  I bet yer Canterlotlian citizens would just die without one of them servants waitin' on yer manes night and day!  C'mere—” She gently tugged on the pegasus' shoulder and planted her on a plush stool in the center of the den.  Seating herself on the edge of a couch, the earth pony snatched the brush from the table and proceeded diving into Scootaloo's forest of amber-streaked black threads.  “Now sit tight.  With the way y'all left it, this might smart a bit.”

        “This might what?—Gaaughh!”  Scootaloo winced, one eye tightly shut as several tangles were yanked clear, tugging at her roots.  She felt like a hundred thousand nooses were pulling at every inch of her neck.  “Snkkt—Y-You mistaking my skull for a tree you forgot to buck, AJ?”

        “Quit yer whinin', Harmony,” the farmfilly murmured, squinting at her work as she straightened the curls out into long onyx threads.  “I'm only doin' this cuz you got some really fine hair, if I do say so myself.  It's an utter shame to see it all in shambles like this.  The only other pegasus pony I've seen with a 'do this long is my good friend Fluttershy.  It perplexes me why she never flies.  She practically trips on her bangs everytime she so much as breaks into a canter—Tilt yer head down.”

        Scootaloo obeyed, her bobbing vision scanning the plush rugs of the den under the flickering fireplace.  “You seem to have a close knit group of friends,” the pegasus spoke through the lips of “Harmony”.    “So far I've heard about Twilight Sparkle, Lady Rarity, and now Fluttershy?”

        “Oh, we're a tight bunch—Us gals,” Harmony smirked as she threaded the amber streaks together and then shifted her concentration on Scootaloo's ends.  “Anypony who knows a thang or two about our brush-in with Nightmare Moon will say it's all on account of the Elements of Harmony—heh, now there's a smatterin' of irony for ya.  But I always liked to think that it was a great deal more heartfelt than that.  I was always well acquainted with Pinkie Pie and the Cake families over at Sugarcube Corner before fate flung the whole lot of us together.  And everypony in Ponyville knew about Fluttershy—well, relatively speakin'.  The pegasus has always lived in a lonely cottage outside of town.  She never really showed her face much until she became part of our little circle of friends—the 'Mane Six' as some gabberin' townsfolk like to call our little pow-wow.”

        “'Mane Six',” Scootaloo chuckled—wincing a bit as another tangle bit the dust.  “That's original.”

        “Nah.  Not really,” Applejack briefly droned.  “But still, there's something about my friends and I that is just so...”  She paused for a moment and chuckled.  “Oh shucks, I do sound like a braggin' fool, don't I?”

        “No, it's alright.”  Scootaloo gulped, suddenly feeling her heartbeat.  “Do go on.”

        “Well,” Applejack spoke and resumed brushing from behind.  “We all found out one day that we had a special connection.  As a matter of fact, we were destined to all find each other at some point or another—On account that when we were all little foals, one single event echoed across the whole of Equestria.  In some manner or another, it was responsible for all of us gettin' our cutie marks at precisely the same time.  Now what are the odds of that happenin'?”

      &nb