-If Santa gets my letter, that's gonna change.-
The sun may have been in the pinnacle of its arc, but none of its warmth managed to penetrate through the thick, dark foliage of a particular section of Everfree Forest canopy. While a Pegasus passing overhead may have remarked the wood looked almost peaceful, appearances can be deceiving. Below the treetops, the forest took on a new visage. It was a whole other world compared to the land beyond its borders. Despite an abundance of undergrowth, a cold chill managed to permeate though everything, setting frozen talons into rock and plant alike. The lack of light encouraged more fungal forms of life to spring up, mushrooms being the most prominent. The few leafy ferns that had dared defy their handicap were sickly; their growth stunted. The tall, ancient trees were usually coated in strange growths of lichen. The few who bothered to venture into the forest at night claimed that the lichen glowed with a soft, ethereal light.
At the very center of the forest contained a spectacular castle, with spiraling towers and observatories seemed to scrape the sky. Forty foot walls surrounding the main complex deterred even the most aggressive carnivore. Spells cast onto the stones left any who approached with hostile intentions feeling weak and nauseous. This was not a place for the inhabitants of the Everfree. At the center of the castle stood a formidable bastion made from rock cut by a nearby mountain. Here was the Royal Castle, in all its glory, home to the two deities of the land, Princess Celestial and her sister, Princess Luna. The presence of the two goddesses also helped ward off the unnatural tendencies of the land surrounding their home.
The Everfree had been this way for as long as anypony could remember. Even the two Princesses could not recall a time when the forest hadn’t been defying the natural laws of Equestria. The princesses had been around since the beginning, so it was assumed that the forest was just some fluke leftover from the bygone days of the days of lore, when the world was much, much younger, back before the Royal Sisters had wrested control of Equestria from the malevolent spirit of chaos, Discord. For whatever the reason, his magic still lingered in this place, and even the Goddesses of the Sun and Moon were unable to cleanse it. The land beyond the Everfree was perfectly safe, and the only "safe zone" in the forest was that of the castle. The vast majority of ponies avoided the wood at any cost. More than one foal had wandered into the trees, never to be seen again.
A shape moved through the murky gloom, ominously silent because of the spongy forest carpeting. Sticking close to the trees, it slipped from shadow to shadow. Coming to the edge of a clearing, the figure paused. Often, such open places harbored danger; the larger predators of the Everfree tended to use sites like this for ambush. A few tentative steps into the light revealed a large, equine shape of a pony - a stallion, to be precise. The pony in question glanced around the dimly lit clearing one more time before melting back into the darkness. In a place like this, erring on the side of caution was always better than erring on the side of boldness.
Quite some time passed the stallion by in this fashion. Steal through the dense woods, check another clearing, and continue on. Eventually, after heading due east for a time, the stallion came across a new opening. Roughly the size of a town square, the gap in the canopy was evident; actual grass grew here, along with various flowers and small shrubs. After a quick perimeter check, the stallion stepped into the clearing and let the light wash over himself. It was a welcome sensation after the dank, moist terrain he had been traveling in.
As ponies go, he was rather large. His coat was a dark teal color that seemed unable to decide whether or not it was more green or blue. A long, shaggy dark brown mane hung slightly over heavy-lidded eyes of an emerald green disposition, giving him the appearance of boredom. The stallion wore a gold bandanna worn jauntily around his neck, covering part of his deep chest. Two dark metal bands were worn on each muscular hind leg. The cutie mark on his flank displayed an bright red apple encircled by a horseshoe.
The stallion picked his way through the scrub with ease, following a path that had been hammered into the loam by many a creature travelling through the clearing. At the end of the well-worn trail, he reached the object of his journey.
A tree, not too big, not too small, stood at the exact center of the clearing. It was a rather unremarkable tree, with the exception of a plethora of large apples hanging from its branches.
The dark teal stallion shrugged off the saddle bags he’d brought with him. He opened up both pockets and set it on the ground to his side. With a fluid movement that could only have been achieved through practice, the stallion reared back onto his hind legs. He sank down onto his haunches until his spine was angled towards the sky, and launched himself off the ground like a hairy rocket. He soared up a good ten feet, and grabbed three red fruit; one in each hoof, one with his mouth. A satisfying thud was heard as the large pony returned to the earth, landing solidly on his thick hind legs. He deposited the apples into the saddle bag, and repeated the jumping-and-grabbing process until the bag could fit no more. The stallion jumped one last time, and retrieved a single apple. With a contented sigh, he sat down and began munching on the fruit. A reward well deserved.
Immediately after the apple was finished, the pony stood up to leave. He dug a shallow hole in the ground with his front hoof and neatly deposited the apple core within. After covering up the hole, the stallion turned to where he’d set his saddlebag full of apples. A movement on the far side of the circle caught his attention. Massive, feline paws exploded into the clearing, followed by the bulky form of a manticore. Part lion, part scorpion, part bat, and one terrible disposition towards ponies served to make the manticore one of the most fearsome predators the Everfree had to offer.
And it was bolting straight for the dark teal stallion, claws out, stinger at the ready.
In a blur of speed, the manticore leaped up high for its traditional tactic: the pounce. Thundering downwards, the hybrid sank its claws and tail into the exact spot the stallion had been one second before. A sharp whistle pierced the air. The manticore, puzzled at the sudden dissapearance of an easy meal, turned its head to look at what had made the noise.
The stallion was standing roughly fifteen feet behind it, nonchalantly inspecting a hoof.
"G'day, mate. Didn't your mum ever tell you that its rude to sneak up on a bloke when he's got his back turned?" it said with a cocked eyebrow.
The manticore did not understand Equestrian, but it would have made no difference. This pony was now as good as dead. The beast jumped backwards towards the stallion, bringing it's fearsome scorpion tail into range. The stinger shot out with a woosh, only to be knocked aside by a hoof. The stallion grinned cheekily.
"No beans, mate! How 'bout another go?"
The manticore's eyes narrowed to yellow slits.
"Crikey, this liddle kitty has a bit of a tempah!"
The manticore roared in frustration, spinning around to rush forward, catching the cocky pony off guard and sending them both into a rolling tussle. Now in close quarters, neither foe could move enough to use any of their natural assets effectively. Regardless, claws met flesh, and hooves met face. The screeching mass of pony and manticore careened around the clearing for a good minute before slamming into the tree. The force of the impact knocked the two combatants apart. Several apples fell from the tree onto the manticore's head. The stallion looked at the tree quizzically.
"What the hay..?"
The manticore chose this moment to close the gap once more. It slid into a hunting crouch and leaped at the dark teal pony. The stallion pivoted on his front hooves, turning a sharp 180 degrees and swinging his hind legs into postion. The stallion used the momentum of his lower body's movement to add power to his kick. The manticore's short flight ended with two hooves cratering its face. It landed in a dazed heap at the base of the tree. Giving out a low growl, it began to get back up.
The stallion had an idea. He sprinted toward the fallen manticore and leaped over it, planting both hind hooves on the tree behind the beast with a solid thunk. The stallion then pushed off from the tree, flew back over the manticore, who was now halfway up, and landed several yards away.
The manticore looked at its prey, dumbfounded. The stallion grinned and pointed his hoof towards the sky, indicating the hybrid should look up. An avalanche of large, red apples was the last thing the manticore saw before it lost consciousness.
The stallion checked himself over. His left eye was swollen shut and he had a nasty scratch across his muzzle. He took a few steps toward his fallen saddlebag and winced. Maybe a few broken ribs, too. He picked up an apple from the large pile at the base of the tree and took a bite. The stallion's injuries began to feel better instantly. He rubbed a hoof across his face. The scratch was already gone, and his eye was slowly returning to normal. His ribs might need a few more apples, but it had been worth it.
He had been right. There was a magical apple tree. And now he had a bag full of its apples, inside which were seeds. The stallion let loose a deep laugh. He'd have a whole orchard of the trees in no time at all, each tree heavy with wondrous magical fruit. He glanced over at the pile of apples. He had a new way to pick them, too. He'd call it "applebucking". Fitting, considering the stallion's full name was Buck Apple. He prefered "Buckshot" though, after proving his kicking accuracy by launching a rock into a small bowl from three hundred yards away.
Buckshot turned from the tree and trotted out of the clearing. He'd been here too long, and needed to leave the forest before night fell. Princess Luna had been acting rather strange of late, and odd things had begun happening at night. Buckshot scratched under his bandanna self-consciously. Ever since the tournament at the castle a few weeks ago, he'd worn it as a token from the Royal Family for proving his worth as the Champion of Ponyville. But it was what was under the bandanna that was bothering him. He lifted up the golden-yellow cloth with his teeth.
Eeyup. Sill there. Crikey, didn't know it bloody lit up like that.
Slightly glowing in the fading light of the forest was a white crescent moon, emblazoned upon his chest.
I hope you knew what you were doing, Princess Luna.