A rapid knock came from the cottage door. Fluttershy was shocked out of her reminiscing like a splash of cold water to the face. Quickly, but carefully, she closed her precious iron locket and tucked it away in the folds of her pink mane. Out of sight, but still on her person at all times. She hurried to her door and turned the knob...
“HI, FLUTTERSHY!!!” Pinkie Pie, abrasive and vociferous as always, sported an ear-to-ear grin and a pink envelope between her teeth.
“Oh... hi Pinkie Pie.” The canary pegasus whispered.
“I just came by because Mrs. Cake let me off the hook for now and I just wanted to give you this invitation to Ellis’s Little-Big Welcome Party! It’s my own invention ‘cuz I thought I should do something different for somepony SO DIFFERENT! And since he loves my cupcakes so much, I’m not gonna make him a cake, but a big stack of cupcakes! That’s why it’s called ‘Little-Big’ because it’s a big helping of little cupcakes...” Her voice trailed off. Fluttershy waited for her to go on, but she was only looking at her with a perplexed expression.
“Fluttershy...” She began. “Have you been crying?”
“Oh!” The caretaker exclaimed. Her eyes were red and puffy and the fuzz on her cheeks were still moist and darkened. She looked like a wreck, but she hadn’t been expecting company for the rest of the day. “It’s nothing.” Came her terse reply.
“It doesn’t look like nothing, girl!”
“I just... stubbed my hoof.”
“Ooh!” Pinkie winced for her friend. “Bummer! I hope you feel better soon, because I was gonna ask you to help me with the party preparations in Ponyville! Do you wanna come?”
She glanced back into her cottage. Nothing needed to be done for her animal friends until the next morning, so no worrying about that. Angel was napping upstairs, but he’d probably stay like that for the rest of the evening. She had no reason to stay in the melancholy of her lonely cottage.
“Sure, I’ll come help you.”
“YAY!” The sugar-fueled mare cheered. It was a good thing Fluttershy’s ears were folded.
“Oh! Just remembered!” She motioned the letter in her mouth. The pegasus took it gingerly. “It’s your super-special V.I.P. (Very Important Pony) invitation! It’s only for my bestest friends in the whole world!”
“Well thank you Pinkie, but how’s it different from the other invitations?”
“...Ok.” Fluttershy exited her home and shut the door behind her. The pink party-pony was already bouncing off towards the town.
“C’mon! Time’s a-wasting!”
“Coming!” She called after and followed her friend down the road, but not before wiping her eyes of soggy irritation and checking if the locket was still in place.
“Alrighty.” Said Ellis as he seated himself on a chair across from Cheerilee. “Ask away.”
The schoolteacher began with the usual questions that everypony had asked before. Things like “Where are you from?”, “How did you get here?”, “How do you walk on two legs?”, “Can I wear your hat?”. Ellis answered these with no problem. The purple mare buzzed with well-contained exuberance. She seemed to enjoy asking questions, a contrast from always answering them for the young ones. Speaking of which, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle seemed to have gotten into a scuffle about one of them accidentally using the other’s ball.
“Settle down you two! Don’t make me assign any more homework than I have to!” Cheerilee scolded. The effect was immediate; the fillies stopped their bickering and resumed their game.
“You were sayin’, ma’am?” Ellis motioned. She collected herself.
“Uh... I forgot what I was going to ask you, but I had another question that I’ve been meaning to ask. How did you come to meet Applejack?”
He adjusted his sitting position and rested his elbow on the table in front of him. “Well, as ah said before, ah ended up in her apple orchard with a headache an’ a face-full a’ dirt. By that time, ah was kinda hungry, an’ bein’ in a field fulla apple trees, ah couldn’t pass up the opportunity. She found me sittin’ on a branch eatin’ her apples. I swear, if ah knew ah wouldn’t have done it.”
She seemed to ignore his frantic assurance and instead pressed further for details on his story. “So, what happened next?”
“Well, eheh... it ain’t that important how it all went down,” He shifted in discomfort due to his injury he acquired from Applejack. “But we walked on back to her barn and...” He paused, unsure of exactly how much information he wanted to disclose. “And... well... I’m sure that whole thing yesterday kin fill ya in.”
“Hmm. I wasn’t in town that day. I was grading papers at the schoolhouse, but I heard of it from my sister. I didn’t believe her.”
“Did ya come to that meeting tah find out?”
“No. Didn’t bother.”
“You haven’t met my sister...” Cheerilee gave a frustrated huff. “It’s lucky, though, that you managed to meet the Elements first. Believe it or not, they’re probably the most sensible ponies in this town. Couldn’t imagine what it would be like if you got roped with-”
Ellis suddenly raised his hand, signaling a full stop to the conversation.
“Hold up now. What did ya call ‘em?”
“The Elements? The Elements of Harmony? Didn’t they tell you all about that?”
“‘Bout what?” Ellis had not even caught the slightest hint of the word “Elements” coming from Twilight or Applejack. By Cheerilee’s tone of voice, it sounded important.
“Twilight and her five friends are the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, a power created and sanctioned by the Alicorn Sisters themselves! They used the Elements to defeat Nightmare Moon and Discord!”
“Who?” Ellis replied, still not registering any of it.
“Did they really not tell you? Those six mares are probably the most important ponies in Equestria! They saved it twice using the Magic of Friendship!”
Ellis burst into a snickering fit.
“What? You don’t believe me?!” Cheerilee, at this point, was rapidly approaching full hysteria.
“Ma’am, no ‘fence, but just about everything ah’ve come across in this place is unbelievable. Ahm darn-near tired of constantly questioning mah notions of reality, so ah jus’ accept whatever ahm told. Lot easier that way.” He leaned back in his chair. “Ah take yer word for it, Miss Cheerilee, ah just thought the whole ‘Magic of Friendship’ thing sounded silly. Just one thing ah’d like tah ask: If Applejack and her friends are so darned important, why don’t they get much attention all the time?”
“Well, first of all, they’re guardians, not celebrities. Also, when there’s no impending doom, they’re just normal ponies and they go about their lives in their own way. Most Equestrians respect their distances and leave them be.” Cheerilee glanced over to the Crusaders’ alley. Sweetie Belle was using her hoof and a soft cloth to spit-shine her ball. She grinned and made several comical faces in the ball’s reflective surface. Where was Scootaloo?
“That would make sense. Tah tell ya the truth, if that were me, ah would like all that extra atten-” His speaking was abruptly cut off as an orange blur came up from behind and latched on to the back of his head.
“Gotcha!” Giggled Scootaloo playfully. But Ellis reacted in a way that nopony would have expected.
“JOCKEY! JOCKEY ON ME!!!” He shot up in his seat, knocking it backwards, attempting to tear the filly from his skull. Scootaloo’s childish glee quickly transitioned into panic. She clung for dear life among the swaying, stumbling movements of the tall biped. It just so happened that she held on in such a way that it impaired Ellis’s vision. Cheerilee gasped. Everypony in the alley turned their heads to the commotion.
“GETITOFF GETITOFF GETITOFF!!!” His inner-ear functions went into overdrive as his feet took him in whatever direction required to balance himself. His rational thought had yet to catch up with him. Blinded, his imagination conjured images of his time back in southern America. He saw himself being ridden towards everything: from fire to acid, from fatal falls to a horde of angry zombies. Meanwhile, Scootaloo, still frozen in fear, did the first thing any pegasus would do when in danger. She fluttered her tiny wings as rapidly as she could, propelling her and Ellis backward.
“GET THE FREAKIN’ THING OFF MY BA- Whoa!” His legs caught on a low rail and he and his assailant went tumbling head over heels. He landed painfully on the ground.
“And what do you have to say for yourself?” Cheerilee chided, glaring to convey disappointment rather than anger. As a teacher, she learned that it helped children learn from their mistakes. Scootaloo fidgeted in place, eyes to the ground. She brought her head up slowly, attempting to meet her teacher’s scowling gaze. She opened her mouth and tried to force the words out without choking up. It took her a hoof-full of seconds before it came out in quiet croak.
“I’m... I-I’m sorry...”
“At least she regrets it.” Thought Cheerilee. The ruckus she cause brought the manager out of his office. He was disconcerted, to say the least. She had to explain the whole thing while most of the patrons of the alley looked at her and whispered behind her back. What they said she didn’t hear, but it definitely wasn’t something they would say to her directly. Sweetie Belle had nothing to add to the matter. She only remembered Scootaloo saying that she was going to the little filly’s room. The orange pegasus didn’t really have a reason, either. She just “thought it would’ve been funny”. Sometimes, kids do the stupidest things for reasons they could not cite. Not one of them was amused by her stunt.
Not even Ellis.
“Now apologize to him. Clearly, so everypony can hear you.”
Scootaloo craned her neck up to see the tall human’s face. He had his arms crossed and an expression of annoyance, but his cheeks were still hot. The ordeal was just as embarrassing for him as it was for her. Maybe even more. He let himself phase back to the apocalypse and made himself look like a looney. Lucky for him, Cheerilee was so preoccupied with reprimanding her student that she didn’t bother to ask why he reacted in such a way. He may have mentioned what exactly Jockeys are to Sawdust and Ball-Peen, so they might understand. Probably not, though. As beasts of burden by nature, they probably couldn’t comprehend just how jarring it is to have something suddenly hop on your back. It ain’t right for a man to be ridden like that...
“I’m sorry.” Were the words she pushed through her quivering lips. Ellis nodded.
“Jus’ don’t do that again, kay?”
“Ok...” Scootaloo let her eyes return to the ground.
Ellis released a loud huff. He dismally surmised that, when he became an old man, he would be one of those unapproachable war veterans that would have occasional episodes and convince themselves that they were still fighting the Charlies. Like his grandpa.
“Don’t think for a second that you’re coming back here anytime soon.” Cheerilee added. “You were in enough trouble as it was. You’d be lucky if you could come back here at all.”
“Ok...” She squeaked.
Ellis returned to his lane where his co-workers were sitting at the bench, waiting for the human’s return. He waved as he approached. Ball-Peen scooched over to make room for him as he sat down.
“Sorry ‘bout that. I really thought ah wouldn’t have to deal with any a’ that anymore.”
Sawdust leaned over. “So... that was-”
“Let’s just ferget about, ok?”
The unicorn raised his hooves in a gesture of non-apprehension and didn’t press the matter any further.
“What now?” Asked Ball-Peen.
Ellis was the first to reply. “I’m tuckered after that whole deal. Ah think it’s time fer me to head back to AJ’s. It was nice hanging with ya.” He lifted himself off the bench.
“Wait!” Ellis stopped at Sawdust’s request. “We were just about to head down to Rum’s place for the night.”
“Rum Run owns the tavern here. It’s called The Prancing Show-Pony, a rustic little place. Looks just like a tavern from a hundred years ago. Best place to go for a drink in Ponyville.”
Ellis blinked. “You mean you guys have alcohol here?”
“What made you think we didn’t?”
A shrug. “I dunno.”
“Well, do you wanna come with? I’m sure Applejack won’t miss you too much.”
It seemed to be a very likeable idea to him. An evening at the bar, hanging out with his new friends, and having a taste of the local brew while he was at it. That last prospect was irresistibly tantalizing. Since it came up in his mind, he was dying to know what beer made by ponies tasted like. Hopefully not like horse feed. But, as he contemplated it further, that guilty feeling came up again. He feared that Applejack, his gracious host, would not agree with it. To be fair, Ellis hasn’t known her for long, but his gut told him he would be letting her down somehow.
“Well,” He thought. “We didn’t exactly agree on a time, jus’ as long as ah get back there.” An acceptable justification. If it really started to bother him, then he could always leave and head down the road to Sweet Apple Acres.
“Ah think ahm down.”
Sawdust grinned at his answer. “Awesome. Let’s give the house balls back and head out. It’s not too far.”
After returning the heavy bowling balls to the rack, the trio began to head for the door. Through the transparent surface of the glass door, the sun’s radiance was slowly transitioning to an orange glow as it sank into the distant mountains. Shadows grew longer, the air became cooler. The bustle of the streets was gradually waning. Ponies began returning to their homes for supper and a good night’s sleep. Sawdust pushed the door open for his friends, Ball-Peen quietly thanking him with a mutter and a nod. Ellis was about to head out the door with them when Cheerilee caught up with him.
He turned around. “Oh, hey! What’s up?”
She came to an awkward stop right in front of his legs. “I just wanted to thank you for the chat, and also apologize for the mess Scootaloo made.”
“It’s all behind us now, ma’am.”
“It was nice talking to you, we should do it again sometime. Where are you heading now?”
He pointed his thumb back at Sawdust, who was still holding the door, allowing a cool breeze to invade the alley. “Me an’ the guys’r going out to the bar.”
“Prancing Show-Pony, ‘er something.” He turn back to the unicorn. “Right?”
“Yeah, that one.”
“The rough and rowdy tavern where everypony consumes irresponsible amounts of alcohol and makes foals of themselves?”
“Uh... I think so.”
Her expression deadpanned. “Say hi to my sister for me...”
After a short, calm stroll through the streets of Ponyville (no running and chasing this time), they arrived at the tavern. Sawdust wasn’t kidding when he said it was rustic. A creaking wooden sign hung above the wooden door, gently swinging in the soft wind. It proclaimed the name of the establishment in archaic Equestrian lettering, which Ellis couldn’t read, of course, paired with a silhouette of a rearing earth-pony. The building itself was made from aged, but dense and robust wood. Warm candlelight flickered in the imperfect surface of the windows. Thumps of hooves on the hollow wooden floor could be heard even from outside, accompanied by the occasional burst of baritone laughter.
“Here we are, dudes.” Said the ochre unicorn.
Upon ascending the steps and pushing the door open, they were greeted by a number of heads turning their way. There was a few quiet gasps when some laid eyes on Ellis, but not enough attention was drawn to deter the clamorous ambiance. The interior looked cozy and inviting. In one end of the room was a burning hearth, which cast an orange glow. The floors, just like the walls outside, were sturdy, yet weathered. Oak tables of non-matching shapes and sizes were strewn artlessly across the floor. Ponies of all colors and professions either sat with their haunches on the floor or in low chairs. Iron-bound wooden tankards with handles big enough to fit a pony’s hoof through were tipped to the mouths of the merry drinkers while they spun out stories and dirty jokes. Oh look. There’s that brown, hourglass-cutie-mark colt again. That makes, what, sixteen times?
From behind the counter came a wave to the construction workers. Said welcomer was the bartender, Rum Run. She was a mid-aged mare, though a bit younger than the mayor. She had perky eyes, the color of her namesake. They shone with a youthful demeanor of a mare who chose to ignore the advancing of her age. Her jonquil coat was smooth and shiny. Her mane, which was a rich auburn, was fashioned into four tight braids, two on each side, matching her tail, which was one thick braid. Her cutie mark was an inverted rum bottle splashing out some of its bronze substance. Rum gave a smile, a thin line of ruby lipstick barely showing on her lips, as the three converged to the high bar stools and took their seats.
“Evenin’, mates.” She greeted. A shocking contrast to her sumptuous appearance, Rum Run had rough-and-dirty accent that hailed from the untamed Outback.
“Hey, barkeep. Brought a new patron for ya.” Saw tilted his head towards Ellis. The human was huddled over the counter, the distance between the seat and the table made to accommodate the dwarfish form of a pony. He gave a little wave. The bartender raised an eyebrow.
“My, you’re tall one. You’re also that new ‘Ellis’ fellow I’ve heard about. Of the hundreds of ponies ya could be with, how’d you get stuck with these two gits?”
“Nice to see you, too.” Sawdust sarcastically remarked.
“Ah got a job workin’ with these guys.”
“Oh. Lets hope you don’t have to be anywhere in the mornin’.”
“Tomorrow's our day off.” The unicorn interjected. “You know that, dude. We come here every week.”
“I ain’t a ‘dude’.”
“Dude, I call everypony dude. Heck, I call my mom dude.”
“Yeah, whatever.” She turned to Ellis and reached over the counter with her hoof. “I’m Rum Run.”
He took the hoof in his hand and gave a quick shake. “Ellis. Nice tah meet ya, ma’am.”
“See?” She said, looking back at Sawdust. “This here good fellow addresses me right an’ propah.”
He didn’t grace her with a response, only a roll of his eyes.
“So,” She uncorked a bottle of gin and spoke to Ellis. “What can I get ya?”
“What do ya have?”
Rum tilted the bottle to a hoof-made shotglass, carefully poured it, set the bottle down, and slid the glass across the counter to a pony to their right. He caught it with a nod of thanks.
She turn back to the human. “We have ‘bout every brain-killin’ booze under the sky, but none a’ the pansy stuff they have in Canterlot or Manehattan. Just got in a shipment of vodka, straight from Stalliongrad.”
“Ah’d rather start with the small stuff. Not much a’ hard drinker. A beer will do.”
She trotted over to a large barrel nestled in the wall’s alcove with a stein in her mouth. Placing in under a spigot, she cranked a lever, filling the container with foamy, amber liquid. She brought it back to the counter and set it in front of Ellis.
“You softies need love too, I guess. Some a’ the local brew for ya.”
Gingerly, Ellis gripped the handle and brought it up to his face. He took a long, skeptical look at the drink; sloshed it around, sniffed it. Rum Run became impatient.
“Drink the bloody thing, will ya? I haven’t been in this business for half my life to poison some random sod.”
“Sorry.” He tipped the cool drink to his mouth and took a slow swallow. The boldness of it made his eyes go wide for a moment. He set the stein down with a sigh.
“Still stronger than what ah usually drink.” He commented.
She seemed to be taken aback. “And what the hay do you drink? Water?”
“Ah can take it all right, this is just different for me. It’s like the real expensive beer.”
“I only serve quality stuff, mate. Wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t.”
“It’s good.” Ellis took another sip. “An’ it doesn’t taste like alfalfa, thank God.”
“What about you, Saw?” She addressed the unicorn.
“Probably some of the cider.” He said, staring off into space for a bit. Then, he jumped in his seat and groaned in dismay. “Crap! Forgot my coin at the alley! I need to go get it before it closes.”
“I think it’s about time you started using that brain of yours.” Teased Rum Run. Sawdust ignored her and hopped off the bar stool. He turned to Ball-Peen, who was sitting on the other side of Ellis.
“Peen, I need you to watch the big guy while I’m gone. Shouldn’t take too long.”
“Alright.” He replied, yet not really sure of himself. Sawdust took no notice and hastily left the building. A moment of silence for the three hung in the air as Ellis gradually sipped down his ale. Rum was the one to break it.
“So, Ellis,” The one in question looked at her and acknowledged her with a brief “Hmm?” “What would you call yourself?”
He set his mug down. “Uh... human. That’s what yer lookin’ fer, right?”
“Yeah, human. I just gotta know; are all humans this pansy, or is it just you?”
Ellis scowled. “I jus’ have a preference for the light stuff, ok?”
“I’ve heard that fifty bloody times before. First time we Ponyvillians get an alien and he can’t even hold his liquor. Why, I think whitey there can take more than you.” She challenged, referring, of course, to Ball-Peen. Said pegasus stiffened. He really wished Sawdust was here.
The human sized himself up to the brash bartender. “Listen, sister, ahm a big guy, an’ ah kin hold it alright. Ah kin take anything you kin throw at me.”
Rum Run cocked a mischievous grin. “That so?”
Since time immemorial, labor has always been the well-known creed of the earth-ponies. It was a part of them as strongest and most enduring of the three races of Equestria, and they took pride in it. They were not able to fly or use magic like pegasi and unicorns, but this did not put them at a disadvantage. They earned and maintained their equality through the sweat of their brows and their near kinship with all things that grew in the ground. Ask any earth-pony elder and he would tell you the same saying, word for word, that had been chanted by their ancestors for as far as anypony could remember:
Work is the greatest consultation to the soul. It hardens the hooves and strengthens the bones. It burns the idleness from the muscle and cleans the mind of doubt. Work gives purpose to a pony; with purpose comes accomplishment; with accomplishment comes happiness, and happiness is the key to a long life. Those who work hard shall live it well.
Applejack did not feel consoled. She did not feel strong. She did not feel clean or accomplished or cathartic.
She did not feel happy.
Empty eyes fixed to the dirt, Applejack limped towards the farm with a full cart in haul. The wooden wheel hit a small divot, causing the cart to bump. The orange earth-pony grunted as a lance of stinging pain stabbed her legs. A group of apples tumbled out of their buckets, but she didn’t even notice the lengthy trail of apples she was carelessly leaving behind. She merely continued to trudge on thoughtlessly, with the occasional shimmering droplet falling from the rivers on her cheeks.
Applejack could not recall exactly when she gave up. Maybe when fighting the nightmarish visions became too much. Maybe it was when she hadn’t the constitution left to stop them. Maybe it was when she realized that, the more she fought, the faster they came, so she accepted the hopelessness of her efforts. Whatever the reason, the haggard mare allowed the corruption to invade her mind. Each image of horror and butchery struck her mind until she was numb; until her conscience was saturated with blood, grim, spittle, and vomit. They all blurred together into a thick screen of revulsion and gore-filled profanity. And all she could do was work. The instinctual action that has been carved into her very bones from years of her routine. Her mind was too chaotic to think. She could hardly remember what her friends looked like back when they were alive...
Applejack blinked away the blurriness of her vision, inhaling a cool gasp of reality before expelling it in a moaning sob. They were still alive. Right? Right? She was not sure. The white-hot malevolence had charred every corner of her brain, leaving nothing but a blackened blemish on her innocent mind, so utterly undeserving of this torment. For a while she could not feel anything but pain and sorrow.
Now, she could not feel anything at all.
After what seemed like several eternities, she arrived at her destination, the barn. The doors already swung wide open, Applejack carried her burden inside and unhitched the cart. She failed to hang her yoke on the wall mount; it thumped to the ground and tossed dust into the air. She didn’t care. She was too tired to care.
It was only when she reached the front door of her house when it clicked in her mind that it was already dark outside. She had ignored the passage of time during her day out in the orchard. The significance of it did not register, though. She told herself that she just worked a bit too late. Nothing unheard of. Applejack opened the door and hobbled inside. It was dim in the living room, but she could hear a snore and soft creaking coming from the direction of the rocking chair. She felt relieved knowing that she was not alone with her revolting thoughts. She was reminded that she had her family, her friends. They would not leave her anytime soon. It did not put her mind completely at ease. The sickening sensation of having to endure all that torture still festered inside her belly. Applejack concluded that she only needed sleep, which she hoped would be dreamless.
She was halfway across the room, planning on heading upstairs, when when all the sound in the room halted abruptly. The earth-pony stopped in her tracks. The snoring and the creaking were absent, which could have only meant one thing.
“Sweetie, yer late. Ya missed supper.”
Applejack lowered her head. “Ah know, Granny.”
“Ah slave away all evenin’ cookin’ a good meal for ya, an’ you think dem apples are more ‘portant than yer poor ol’ granny?”
A tear dripped off her fur. She tried not to choke up. “A-ahm sorry, Granny.”
There was a silence, only filled with Applejack giving an occasional sniff. It may have been dark, but she could make out the outline of her wizened features straining to get at look at her grandchild. She could not see her expression.
“Applejack, what’s th’ matter?” She asked, all traces of disappointment and scorn gone, replaced only with worry.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong-”
“Dooohhn’t you give me that hogwash! Yer mah Lil’ Cauliflower an’ ah know you like the backside a’ mah hoof!” Her chair could be heard squeaking forward. “Mah eyesight’s not what it used to be, an’ it’s darker than th’ underside of a rock in Everfree yonder, but ah know when you’re feelin’ down ‘cuz ah feel it in mah heart! Right now, it’s achin’ somethin’ fierce, so tell me what’s goin’ on.”
Applejack looked away and clenched her eyes shut. “It’s somethin’ between me an’ mahself, Granny. No n-need to be c-concerned.”
Granny Smith sighed and slid off her rocking chair. Without hurry, she walked up to her granddaughter and gently lifted her chin with her withered hoof. Her green eyes were stained pink. The lines that dictated the path of her tears were clearly visible and it was apparent that she just let them run free off her face. Thin mucus trailed down from her nostrils. Applejack struggled to maintain her breathing. She hated being seen like this; not full of pride and confidence, but weakness and despondency. There was no way her image of strength and independence could be kept with crying eyes.
“Dearie, there ain’t no such thing as you an’ yerself. You got a granny who’s loved ya from the day you were born. Ya have a big brother who’d never think twice tah help ya when ya need it. Ya have a sister who’s always happy tah see you. Ya have five of the nicest girls in all a’ Equestria tah call yer friends. We love ya with all our might, Applejack. Sometimes, it’s hard tah see how that would help with yer troubles, but jus’ never ferget that there are plenty a’ ponies who care ‘bout you.”
The orange pony threw her hooves around her grandma and hugged her tightly, nearly knocking the wind out of her.
“Ah love you, Granny. Ah love ya... Ah love ya...” She held on like she feared that her benevolent guardian would be swept away at any time. The floodgates opened.
“Ah love ya too, Sweetie. Ah always will.”
Applejack continued to sob softly on Granny Smith’s wrinkled shoulder, letting the moment pass wordlessly in the darkness. The matriarch patiently held her cherished grandchild in her forearms and gave her all the time she needed. When her racking body finally calmed enough, Granny broke the silence.
“Don’t ever be afraid tah share yer troubles once a while, sugarcube. Sometimes, jus’ talkin’ tah ponies kin make ya feel right as rain.”
The cowpony gazed up with her blurry irises. She wanted to speak, but she could not find the proper words. Her grandma took the chance to talk instead.
“‘Sides, ya have that Ellis fellow, too. He seem like the kind tah talk to.”
Applejack’s lids flew wide open.
“Ellis? Where is he? Is he back yet?!”
Granny scratched her chin. “Ah don’t think so. There’d be a lot more noise comin’ from lil’ Apple Bloom if he did. She seem to think the world a’ dat stallion.” Apparently, she was still clueless to the fact that he was not a pony.
Applejack felt inexplicable terror clutch her heart. Her breath quickened. He wasn’t here. He hasn’t come back. A thought wormed into her mind. Something might have happened to him. She felt the paramount need to make sure he was alright. She couldn’t think of anything that might have happened to him, but the demons that had scourged her mind swooped at the opening, doing away with her rational thought and replacing them with harrowing and implausible conclusions. She didn’t want to lose her new friend, who deserved happiness and protections for all that he’s endured. Applejack was panting feverishly now.
“Oh ‘Tia... Oh ‘Tia... Oh ‘Tia...”
Granny Smith was confused. “Hold up, now! Where’s the fire?”
Fire?! An atrocious vision of Ellis being immolated into a charred corpse inside of a burning build conjured itself in her mind, all the while screaming in agony. Obsidian banshees cackled upon their twisted perches, watching, drinking in his suffering for their own evil amusement. Applejack’s worst apprehensions reignited, but so did her energy and determination. She grinded her teeth together. She would not allow anything to happen to him!
Without another word, she bolted out the front door and galloped down the path that led to Ponyville, leaving Granny in a daze among the turbulent gust that her grandchild just created. She went to the door and tried to call out to Applejack.
“Wait! There ain’t no need for frettin’! Come back here!”
She couldn’t hear her. She had already sprinted a lengthy distance between her and the house. Her soaked cheeks stung in the whipping wind. Eyes only looking forward, set on her lantern-lit destination, she ran on.
“Ahm-a comin’, Ellis! Don’t you worry! Everythin’ will be fine!” She yelled those words so she can hear herself say them, and prayed to Celestia that they were true.
Sawdust entered the tavern once more, now with the inclusion of his coin purse. Getting it back had been relatively short and not too frustrating. The owner was just about to lock up when he got there, but he was a reasonable pony, so he let Sawdust run inside and get his belongings without a question. He was thankful that karma had blessed him once again.
Upon walking in the door, it seemed that the merriment had reached full swing for the bar. The general air seemed charged with enthusiasm and the auditory ambiance was so loud that one had to shout to be heard. What put him off guard, though, was that Ball-Peen was waiting for him inside the door. His anxiety was plain to Sawdust.
“Peen? What’s up?” He vocalized over the dense noise of the room.
“Well... uh... we kinda got a problem.”
The problem became apparent with only a quick glance to the human sitting at the counter. His voice stood out from the others, since it was probably the heaviest southern accent in the room. His cheeks were pink and he swayed in his seat, a glass of sloshing whiskey held under his palm as he regained his compromised balance. An idiotic smile plastered itself on his face as he rambled on with the bartender.
“So you ever play Team Fortress 2? Awesome game-” His body convulsed slightly with a muffled hiccup, then he continued. “You kinda remind me a' the Sniper. Alls ya need is a hat an’ a vest. You’d be a perfect match.” He knocked back the rest of his drink and slammed it back down with a cough, followed by wheezing laughter. Rum Run had no idea what he was talking about, nor anything that he had said before, but she didn’t mind. She was too busy relishing in the glow of yet another flawless victory.
“What the hay happened, Peen?!” Sawdust exclaimed.
Ball-Peen shifted uncomfortably on his hooves. “Well, Rum Run gave Ellis a few free drinks to see how much a human could take. Turns out... not a lot.”
Both turned back to Ellis, who had an equally intoxicated purple mare careening in his arm on the seat next to him. The pair were engaged in an abysmally deep philosophical debate on the subject of the connotations of love and beauty, the likes of which had not been known for centuries since the legendary unicorn scholars of the Pre-Classical Era. Alas, our myopic, unsophisticated comprehension of linguistics and subtlety could only perceive these groundbreaking revelations as the following:
“No, you’re secshy!” Berry Punch slurred back.
“No, ah think yer the one that's sexy!”
“My sexynessh levels are not as good as yoursh.”
“Ah think you may be *hic!* slightly more sexy than me...” So on, so forth.
Sawdust could not be any more exasperated. “Dude! I was only gone for thirty minutes!”
“Yeah, and he’s only had three glasses so far.” He responded phlegmatically.
“You were supposed to watch him! Why didn't you stop Rum?”
Ball-Peen hesitated. His eyes darted around.
“Uh... well...” The achromatic pegasus stuttered. “Ya know... she’s not very approachable... ya know? And...” He trailed off, but Sawdust spied the redness surfacing on his face. Realization dawned upon him.
“Oh hay-freakin’-no, Peen! Don’t tell me that you have the hots for Rum Run!”
“What?! No!” He broke eye contact. “Well... maybe just a little...”
He was not convinced for a second. “Dude, she’s like... 20 years older than you!”
Ball-Peen stood there for a long time, looking at the ground, then to his friend, then back to the ground, then to his friend once more.
“Does that... does that really matter?”
“Oh forget it.” Sawdust pushed past him and strode to the bar where Ellis was blundering. He took his seat next to the human, clearing his throat.
Ellis swung around in his chair and grinned at the sight of his friend.
“Saw! How ya been doing?”
“Been better.” He replied.
“That’s great...” He tipped his glass up, but when nothing touched his tongue, he squinted into his raised shot glass and set it back down on the counter with an expectant look to Rum. She kindly obeyed with a smirk, pouring him another fill of whiskey. “Thank ya kindly.” He said before taking another drink.
“Your friend made a mule of himself, thinkin’ he could best me.” Rum Run boasted to Sawdust. He glared at the bartender, but let her continue. “Stinking drunk from the first three drinks. That’s almost a new record.”
“Hey!” Ellis spoke up. “I ain’t ‘too drunk’ ‘til ahm dead, kay?”
“How could you do this to me, Rum?” Sawdust complained. “I keep myself in good standing, I pay my tab, I don’t cause trouble... Then, I turn around for half-a-freakin’-hour, and what happens? You get the first human in Equestria’s head up his plot.”
“Oh no, oh no. He did that all by himself.”
“You provoked him!”
“I’m jus’ the barkeep, mate. I only gave him the drink, made a recommendation or two.”
“Well now we have to deal with him, so thanks a lot.” He snorted.
“Oh don’t be so glum. He’s doin’ fine so far, jus’ been sittin’ here chatting with that lovely mare.” She began wiping the counter with a moist cloth. Nearby, Ellis had resumed his conversation with Berry Punch, same subject. They were both starting to use terms like “times infinity” and “infinity plus one”. Ball-Peen, by this time, had quietly crept up and taken his place beside Sawdust. The timid pegasus gave a meek wave to Rum Run. She, in turn, gave him a wink.
Sawdust glanced about. “Has he said anything, ya know, strange or scary?”
The bartender displayed bemusement. “Strange, yes. He’s been talking nonstop ‘bout Celestia-knows-what. Scary? I don’t think I could even take the bloke seriously. Why do you ask?”
He sighed in relief. “Forget it. Can I get a cider now?”
“Comin’ right up, Ace.”
The unicorn received his mug shortly, topped with hay-colored froth. Contouring his foreleg around the tankard, he raised it to his lips. All of the sudden, Ellis sat up in his stool as if he had just been smacked hard with recollection. He nearly fell out of his seat. Sawdust coughed up the cider that he swallowed too forcefully due to the human’s impulsive action.
“Ah jus’ remembered!” Ellis exclaimed.
Half a dozen ponies turned their heads toward him. Rum Run raised her eyebrow.
“Ah jus’ remembered the time me an’ Nick found this store a’ *hic!* moonshine in this swamp saferoom!”
Sawdust’s stomach did a flip. He knew this story, he knew how it went. He also knew that the “z-word” would come up one way or another. He was not a pony to be troubled with apprehension, quite the opposite, actually. It has always been his personal principle to not worry about the future, to relax and let the currents of time gently float him wherever fate dictated. This was an exception. He did not have to have Pinkie Senses to know that what would happened next couldn’t be any good.
“So, we found like, what, three crates of this stuff packed in the bathroom, all sittin’ in glass jars an’ shit. Nick took a couple for himself, but the rest we didn’t want tah go tah waste, see? *hic!* So what we did was we tied gas-soaked rags to them, stuffed as many as we could in a backpack, an’ took ‘em with us as ammunition. Ah got tah carry it, though. *hic!*”
Rum Run leaned in to try and get a better understanding of what he was trying to say. With more or less 25 years of experience making drinks behind the counter, she had heard some fascinating stories coming from those too inebriated to tell up from down. A story coming from a non-pony intrigued her even more. This one was certainly odd, just like his previous dribble, but for the first time since he had become consciously drunk, this actually had some coherence.
“Ya know what happened? Hunter pounced on me and tore the pack off before we got tah use any of it! He could probably smell them from a mile ‘way. Darn shame.” He looked at the mare across the counter, who had stopped idly cleaning a glass and stared back at him with stupefaction.
Ellis grumbled. “Ah jus’ gotta keep explainin’ an’ explainin’...” Slowly, and almost lethargically, he stepped off of his bar stool and shambled away with bouncing steps, thumbs in his pockets. Abruptly, he wheeled around with speeds Rum could never have expected from one with that much alcohol in his system and slammed his hands on the counter. Sawdust yelped, Berry Punch tumbled off her seat, Ball-Peen quickly dived to catch a glass that he had knocked off, and everypony in the room reared their heads to the source of the commotion. Nopony made a sound. All that could be heard was the crackling of the incandescent fire.
“Lemme tell ya what a Hunter is!” He raised his voice so everyone in the tavern could hear him. “A hunter is one mean sonuvabitch. He can leap 30 ‘er 40 feet into the air, pin you down, an’ rip yer guts out before you kin blink!” Without waiting for any sort of response, Ellis lifted his shirt for everypony to see. Some of them gasped at what they saw. Rum Run had seen lots of things in her days, but she had never been more taken aback by what she saw that night.
Scars. A messy criss-cross of puckering gouges and old lacerations covered his abdominals. It was a wonder how he could still move with that many cuts. His muscles should have all been torn beyond repair. He languidly rotated a full 360, vaunting the wounds to all of the onlookers. Even Berry Punch, still on the floor, caught a glimpse.
“Scars are sexy...” She thought quietly to herself.
“An’ that ain’t even the worst of it.”
He pulled up his pant leg to show them acid burns. “Spitter.”
He displayed the bruises on sides of his ribcage. “Charger.”
He traced a pinkish rash that circled his entire neck. “Smoker.”
“And Witch.” He grabbed the waistline of his coveralls, but then stopped himself. “...On second thought, probably better if ya didn’t see that one...”
He turned around once more and faced his captivated audience. “Now y’all may be thinkin’, ‘Ellis! Ya got more scars than th’ number a’ breaths ya took tahday! Why you still alive?’ Truth be damn-well told, ah should be dead six ‘er seven times over, but ah AIN’T!”
To escalate his speech, he bounded off and leapt up onto the nearest wooden table. The patrons sitting there jeered when their drinks were spilled. He swayed slightly on the uneven surface before continuing.
“Look at me now! Still livin’ an’ still in one piece! Ya know why? ‘Cause, them zombies, they tried tah kill me, ah jus’ killed ‘em back!” He stepped around the center of the table in his drunken showboating. “That’s right! Ahm Ellis, the one an’ only professional zombie killer! Ah take care of the monsters so y’all have a place tah come home tah,” He bent down and breathed his whiskey-saturated breath into the face of some random blue earth-pony. Said pony sunk into his seat. “So y’all don’ end up as some undead guy’s lunch.”
The pony gulped hard.
Ellis hopped off the table and took one last canter around the room. “Ah certainly don’t got nothin’ tah prove tah you folk. Ah certainly don’ gotta hold mah liquor tah show y’all that ahm ah man. Ah already paid for that with mah sweat an’ blood!”
“Imbecile!” Came a shout from the far end of the room. Everypony, Ellis included, turned their gaze to a table of four unicorns dressed in fancy clothing. From their posh appearance, all of Ponyville could immediately recognize that they are from Canterlot, more specifically, they were a group of unicorn fencers from Canterlot, ponies who used magic and traditional swordplay as their sport. The apparent leader of the group set his hat on the table and left his chair.
“You are an imbecile!” He repeated. “Ghastly creature, you may not be a pony, but you certainly are not a fighter! You lack the qualities and discipline required to even wield a weapon, let alone use one!” He addressed the rest of the room. “You don’t honestly believe him, do you? He is only a drunken foal, spouting off lies and tall tales!”
Ellis squinted to get a better look of his accuser. He was a reddish-brown unicorn with a tightly curled dark mane. In his stupor, he couldn’t clearly describe his eye color, but his cutie mark looked like two crossed sabers.
“So ya callin’ me a liar, are ya?” He challenged. The air choked with sweating tension, not a word came from the audience. The unicorn glared back at him with every bit of confidence that came with 3 gold dueling tournament medals. He was not intimidated by his size.
“I’m calling you on an outright fabrication! You insult me to say that you can ‘slay monsters’. You can barely stand!”
The mechanic narrowed his eyes. “What’s yer name?”
Ellis made a overly animated gesture and cupped his hand around his ear. “Didn’t catch that.”
“Curved. Swords.” He enunciated rather harshly.
“Well Mr. Swords...” He put his left foot past the right and balled his hands into fists. “If you think you kin go toe tah... hoof with me, then ah got no problem with that. We’ll see once-an’-for-all who’s right an’ who ain’t!”
Curved Swords tensed his muscles and scraped his hoof across the ground. “I accept your challenge!”
“Ellis! What the freak-all-out hay are you doing?!” Sawdust trotted up to the side of the tall human. Ready for fisticuffs, he only acknowledged his co-worker with a fleeting glance.
“Ah got this.” He said. The two brawlers began to circle each other.
“You’re drunk, man! You can’t win it!”
“That don’t matter none. Just you watch, I’ll have his ass on the floor in Ten. Seconds. Fla-”
*12 seconds later*
Ellis barely had time to give a yelp as he was tossed out the door and hit the dirt rolling. A fresh hoof-mark was stamped on his face. Standing in the doorway, Curved Swords spat on the ground in front of him and curtly turned around. The door slammed.
Coughing, he used shaky arms to roll himself onto his back and lay there, drained of the strength and motivation to get up. He merely stared into the stars, into the glowing crescent moon. He had no memory of the fight and nothing to show for it but a pounding braincage and a kicked ass. Ellis groaned and rubbed his hand over his face. The Prancing Show-Pony’s door opened once more.
“Quite a show ya put on in there, mate.” Rum Run coolly walked out of the bar and strutted around Ellis’s splayed form. “Kinda was wishing you’d put up a better fight with that stuck-up Canterlot sod, but I guess this ain’t a perfect world after all.”
“No, mate, think nothing of it. I like you. You’re a charming lad, a bit koo-koo, but you’re certainly the most interestin’ thing I’ve come across in a long time. Come back some other time, ok? Now, about that payment.”
She reached into his pocket and took out his pouch of gold. Opening the drawstrings, she scooped out a little more than half of its contents.
“My, my, a big tipper are we? I’m flattered.” She added the bits to her own coin purse and stepped back into the tavern. “Pleasure doin’ business with ya.”
Ellis sighed and continued to watch the somber night sky.
The oppressive stench of perspiration, clot, and tobacco mingled with the atmosphere of the confined saferoom. Howls and screeches, ever-present, pierced through the thick iron door. Ellis sat on an old, abused couch staring at his shotgun and pistols. The cushions, which had long ago lost its springiness, sank with his weight. Keith stood at the kitchen counter sorting through a large pile of miscellany for things he could use. He was speaking, a smoldering cigarette hung from his lip and bobbed with his moving mouth.
“...so then the dumb fucker tried tah grab me with his other arm, so I shot off that one too. He musta figured out he was fucked with both a’ his arms gone, so he tried leaping away. Missed by a mile and smashed his own face into a window. These zombies‘r a lot stronger, but they ain’t any smarter, ya know what ahm sayin’? Ellis?”
Ellis shook his head and cleared out of his daze. “Sorry, man, ah totally spaced out on ya.”
Keith turned back to the jumble of stuff. “S’fine. I was jus’ ramblin’ anyhow. Hey, how many do ya think ya killed?”
The grease-monkey scratched his hat. “Ah... might have lost track.”
They both shared a quiet laugh, but it petered out and Keith resumed sorting. Ellis picked up one of his pistols and scrutinized it in great detail for no particular reason, only trying to pass his time while they rested and waited for another round of zombie hell. For them, it was mostly a blast. Ellis had forgotten about all of his troubles as soon as he started shooting them. Fighting for survival wasn’t so bad when you have plenty of shotgun shells and your best friend at your side. With the help of Keith, he had quickly gained all the savviness he needed to defend himself from the hordes of monsters. The special infected are really the only ones they needed to watch out for. He said it wasn’t a regular zombie infestation like in the movies or video games, and that was why. One of those things could have wiped both of them out. It was lucky that they haven’t come across anything big yet.
Suddenly, Keith’s cig flew from his mouth as he pitched over in a loud coughing fit, muffled into his sleeve. Ellis stood up. They sounded painful.
“Jesus, man, you alright?”
Keith recovered with but a moment of time, just like he always has. “Yeah, man. It’s just these damn cigarettes. I know they ain’t good for me.”
“Ya quit a long time ago. Why’d ya go an’ start again?”
He shook his head. “I used tah be a heavy smoker. Even when ah quit, a bit of it stuck with me. That kinda stuff, man, ya think it’s gone, but it ain’t. That kinda stuff never goes away...”
Ellis nodded in understanding and sat back down. “Yer gonna have a hell of a time kicking it again after this.”
“Yeah... that’s gonna be a bitch... after all this...” Keith said with his head bowed. He hoped with all of his will that his friend wouldn’t see the dark stain on his sleeve that wasn’t there before.
He yanked out two items from the pile. “Hey, Elli.” With a gentle toss, they landed on the couch next to Ellis. It was a brand-new machete and a roll of tape.
“Found this stuff here. That’ll come in handy when ya run out of bullets. Ya kin wrap that grip-tape ‘round it, too. Should hold better.”
Unsheathing the tool, Ellis keenly inspected the machine-sharpened edge. The feel of the blade felt perfect in his hand. He smiled with the anticipation of using this against the next zombie unlucky enough to get within range of him. With his friend’s advice, he covered the handle in tape. It felt like he could never let go of the gift.
“Thanks, man. Ya remembered mah birthday.” He joked.
Keith chuckled. “Merry Christmas to you, too.” He grabbed his shotgun and pumped the slide with a satisfying *clack-clack!* “You ready tah kill some som’bitches?”
He grinned with mirth as he mimicked his friend’s action with his own shotgun.
“Ah was born ready.”
“Ellis? Ellis! Sweet Celestia, where are ya?”
Applejack galloped through the dank streets, bare hooves clopping on the hard, cobbled stone. Her vision was strained. The only source of light was the dim, flickering lamps from inside the buildings overlooking the roads, the number of which decreasing as the denizens extinguished them and went to their beds to sleep. Applejack had no time for sleep, even though her limbs threatened to give at any moment.
She saw it. A shape that could only be Ellis and nothing else lying on the cold ground in front of the local tavern, alone and unmoving. Her breath caught in her throat.
“Oh mah gosh!” She rushed to his side and nudged him firmly with her front hooves. He stirred, but Applejack didn’t allow herself any relief until she was sure that he was ok.
“Ellis, please! Say somethin’! Anythin’! Please be alright!”
With agonizing slowness, Ellis brought his arm up and put his hand close to Applejack’s face. Then, he grabbed her pony nose and squeezed it twice.
“Honk honk.” He snickered.
All the worry that the orange farmpony built up climatically pancaked into plain annoyance as she caught the whiff of whiskey on him.
“Wah do ah even bother...”