- - -
- - -
"Hey! Hey! How come you've got such a silly looking mask? Why does it have a frowny face? Wouldn't a smiley face be better? I know! After this, how about we go to the party store! I'm sure I can find a great smiley face mask for you to wear with your funny costume!"
Bounce, bounce, bounce.
"Oh! And I'm sorry I didn't get to throw you guys a party before! Every pony who visits Ponyville should have a party before they leave, but there were a who-ole lot of tourists in town and I tried to welcome all of them to Ponyville, but I guess I didn't notice you guys! Or maybe I did welcome you! I still don't know what you look like with those silly-billy masks on and -"
Yudachi, or as the ponies in this part of Equestria called him, Evening Squall, shook his head at the seemingly endless barrage of words invading his ears, planting a flag in his eardrums and claiming what was left of his sanity and patience in the name of crazy-mare-town. All courtesy of the bubbly pink pony who had picked him as an opponent. When he had seen her with Baroness Rarity crossing the bridge, he simply hadn't imagined she would be... like this. Noisy.
She was so noisy!
Cute, too, but even a cute chatterbox got old, especially when said chatter wasn't in your first language.
"You talk too much," he finally interrupted her, halfway through a one-pony treatise on party hats with horns. His horn glowed a faint orange and a circle appeared under his hooves.
A circle that fattened into a bubble.
Throwing the little orange sphere to the ground, he smirked as Pinkie Pie paused in her chattering to watch it with wide eyes. "OOoooOO!" she went, her mouth making a big O. She didn't even try and move or dodge. A moment later and the bubble hit the ground beneath her and expanded a hundred-fold. Just like that, the fight was over.
"Could you even call this a fight?" he asked himself, but then the silence hit him.
Pinkie Pie was within the shield-bubble, her mouth moving, but not making a sound. Not a sound he could hear anyway. Finally. Peace and Quiet.
Only then, too late to save herself, did the foolish pink pony realize that something was amiss. She poked the inside of the shield bubble with a hoof, her big blue eyes wide with almost foal-like fascination. She rubbed the bottom of her hoof against the glasslike inner surface of the barrier bubble then leaned in to peer at it with one big eye. Was she looking for a hole or a crack in it? Did she even realize the magic she had been trapped in?
Evening Squall doubted it. A part of him felt a little guilty for removing her from their duel so abruptly, without even a traditional word of warning, like "prepare yourself" or "behold, your defeat." He had planned to, but it was hard to get more than a word in with this crazy mare's stream-of-consciousness rambling. It was too late now.
Inside the bubble, Pinkie soon progressed from staring at the magical barrier to pressing one twitching ear up against it, to try and hear anyone outside. She could see him, just as he could see her, but it was only just then sinking in that the barrier was not sound-permeable. She opened her mouth, speaking words he couldn't hear, as she spun around in dizzy circles. She even tried to bounce up, only to hit her head.
Then her hooves hit the barrier, again, no doubt in some belated attempt to punch through. Evening Squall shook his head at her, lifting a hoof to shake back and forth. He didn't need to say the words. The gesture was enough to imply: "you're in time-out, young lady."
He'd expected her to get angry at that point, but instead the pink pony just backed away, her pretty blue eyes moving around as she took in her new magical enclosure. Her tongue stuck out as she tried to think of some means of escape. It was silly. Foalish. There was no escape. Evening Squall quickly put her out of his thoughts; there were more important matters to see to. It was just unlucky - for him - that he had ended up with such a joke of an opponent.
Yumi-hime wouldn't be impressed by -
"Wow that was neat-o! Like being in a big bubble! Hey! Can you make one that floats? Does it have to be stuck in place? Oh! Oh! You know what that spell would be great for? Surprise p-"
Evening Squall slowly turned around.
"How are you...?" He nearly jumped out of his intricate scale mail armor at the smiling pink face that filled his view. "Ga-ahha!"
Landing nimbly on his back legs, he pointed accusingly at the crazy earth pony.
"How...!" Just behind her, he saw the shield bubble. It was intact. "How did...? Can you...? But that's...!"
"Hey, did the game start already? I guess it did!" Pinkie Pie bounced up, whipping out something from behind her back. Some sort of attack! "TAG!"
Only a narrow dodge allowed Evening Squall to escape.
"Is that pie?" Spinning out of the way while deflecting the crazy mare's weapon the Neighponese unicorn got a good, clear look at said weapon in Pinkie's hoves. It was pie. She had tried to hit him with a pie.
"Where did you even get that? Wwoop!" Jumping to the left, he avoided the spinning pan, hurled like a discus. As it passed by, bits of custard and whipped cream flew free, making a mess of his nice clean armor despite the last second save.
"Where? I got it from Sugarcube Corner, of course!" Pinkie hopped forward, abruptly shooting up to avoid another orange shield bubble sent her way. "You should try some! It's super yummy!"
"Stand still, you loon!"
- - -
A pony could be forgiven for assuming that the pony who helped heal her wasn't really the fighting type. Doctors and nurses and Hippo-cratic oaths and 'doing no harm' and all that razzmatazz. Not that most ponies picked fighting over fleeing in general, but one would think a doctor would never willingly fall in the former category. So Applejack had thought. If White Dew had taken a vow of 'do no harm' he clearly hadn't sworn it to Celestia or taken it very seriously. The stallion could buck, and buck hard.
'Why did that sound so dirty in my head just now?' Applejack wondered, shaking out the cramp from her left front leg.
The point was that White Dew was clearly no pacifist doctor, healing magic or not.
"Is there a problem, Miss Applejack?" The Neighponese stallion sounded calm and in control. Unlike Antlers, he didn't seem inclined to tank whatever his opponent hit him with, abusing some kind of weird earth pony invulnerability. White Dew was just that nimble and quick on his hooves.
A fact he aptly demonstrated by dashing forward, twisting around while balanced on one back and one front hoof, and kicking at her. It wasn't like an apple buck, where a pony set her front half in place to transfer as much force as possible into her rear legs. White Dew didn't need to hit hard. Even a glancing hoof left a strange stinging magic.
Ducking, Applejack avoided his back leg, braced her own hindquarters and lunged with her front hooves. He felt a glancing hit, but then White Dew shot into the air over her, using her legs like a springboard. He passed out of her sight and, before she could turn around, one of his hooves connected with the back of her head. Grass filled her vision and dirt shot up her nose.
"You can hit hard, Miss Applejack, but almost any earth pony can do that."
Snorting blades of grass from her nose, Applejack pushed herself back onto her hooves.
"If you could see and feel where you were hitting, then you would be much more formidable. That you can't... it is strange for a relative of our famous Fuji Apple Clan." White Dew rushed her, the moment she got on stable footing. "As it is, you can't beat me, and you're years away from facing Master Shigure or Yumi-hime!"
Applejack spun around, as if to kick, but instead aimed low for his legs. He jumped, but only enough to avoid the blow. A blindingly fast hoof came around and down, hitting her just behind the shoulder. A wave of force shot painfully through the farmer's body, making her teeth rattle. She was barely in any kind of condition to feel the kick that sent her tumbling across the ground, grass staining her coat green.
Her back hit something familiar as she came to a stop.
Groaning, Applejack propped herself up against the oak tree. It was one of hundreds planted strategically and scenically around Ponyville. Touching it helped her steady herself, but it also reminded her of the farm, and her wounded pride. These foreign ponies knew her distant cousins in Neighpon, they knew about apple bucking, but twice now they had compared her to them and found her wanting.
It was galling. Apple bucking was her trade. Her life.
'Are the Fuji's just... that much better than me? Than us?' She covered her face as White Dew's armored form jumped at her. His bare hoof hit her leg, sending an electric shock across half her body. 'I know Big Mac is a stronger apple bucker than I am, but...'
A kick to her stomach doubled her over, and Applejack had to think quick to roll out of the way.
'Big Mac's older. Bigger. Of course he'd be stronger. It makes sense the Fujis could be, too. So where does that leave me?'
White Dew's blow passed over her, hitting the tree -
The impact, hardly on the level of a good solid buck, still dislodged a dozen or more acorns. The small nuts bounced off the Neighponese fighter's armor and a few landed in Applejack's mane. She kicked up at him to try and take advantage of his miss, but he batted aside her hoof and stomped down. Only pushing off the trunk of the tree with a kick saved her from being stamped.
Applejack rolled away and bounced onto her hooves. White Dew snorted behind his mask, shaking his head to dislodge an acorn that had gotten stuck between his ear and helmet. Applejack tensed to try and charge in.
But then she stopped.
She stopped to stare at the tree. Reaching up to pick one of the acorns out of her blonde mane, Applejack stared at it. The way he had knocked those acorns out of the tree...
"Apple Bucking isn't just about strength, Applejack. Kick the tree too hard and you'll hurt yerself or you'll hurt the tree, and we don't want that, now do we, Sis?" Big Mac hadn't been that long into his teens when he'd explained it to her. She had only just gotten her cutie mark and returned to Ponyville from Manehattan, determined to master the family trade.
"Ya gotta hit it just right," he had said, smiling around the stalk of long grass in his mouth. "Find that sweet spot and give it just enough of a kick ta get the job done. No more, no less. Just enough."
"I expected more," Yumi's mocking voice came back to her. "This is like watching a donkey kick a wall."
"It isn't about strength," Applejack whispered to herself. "Or hittin' hard..."
"If you could see and feel where you were hitting," her opponent had said, sounding disappointed. "Then you would be much more formidable. That you can't... it is strange for a relative of our famous Fuji Apple Clan."
Dropping the acorn, Applejack looked up to see White Dew right in front of her. The stallion already had one leg tucked in and the other extended in a flying kick. Like Rarity's fancy stay-in-shape martial arts. For once, Applejack tried not to dwell too much on that fact, which was to say, the imminent kick she was about to feel. Instead, she thought back to the tree. White Dew had only tapped it... but he had knocked those acorns loose.
She saw the hoof, just a half second from hitting her in the chest.
In her mind, she tried to picture it as a branch; she tried to imagine White Dew as a tree. An apple tree. Uncooperative apples were nestled among the canopy of his mane, tangled in his armor, along the branches of his raised forelegs. She saw green apples still too ripe to easily fall. They had fields of greens like that. They were the hardest ones on the farm to buck. Until only a few years ago, Big Mac had been the only pony to work them. In Applejack's mind, White Dew's green apples called to her.
And she saw the sweet spot.
His kick sent a numbing shock across Applejack's body when it hit, the force of it knocking her back and off her hind legs. Still, she reached out, grabbed hold of his shoulder armor with one hoof, and struck with the other. That sweet spot! That apple bucking sweet spot!
Applejack flew back, her hoof still holding onto White Dew's rectangular shoulder armor, the steel scale and red stitching bunched up in her hoof. It had been torn completely free. White Dew himself arched through the air, almost ten yards, before slamming into the ground near the acorn tree.
Applejack's right hoof still shuddered.
"What... was that?" She rolled off her back and onto three hooves. "Did I just... apple buck a pony?"
"Aaauh...!" White Dew moaned, flipping nimbly back onto his hooves as well.
Bits of armor tumbled from the hole hammered against his chest.
"I guess I was wrong," he said, brushing damaged scraps of cloth and armor away from beneath his neck. "You do have the power of the Fuji Clan! Were you holding back this entire time?"
"Can't say ah was," Applejack admitted, honest as always. "Ah only just now got it. Thanks to you, actually."
"I suppose it would have been wiser to say nothing," White Dew wondered, but shrugged. "Too late now. In fact, I'm happy. Your best will bring out my best!"
"Did it hurt?" Applejack had to ask before she tried it again. "Hittin' ya like that?"
"Worry about yourself, Miss Applejack!" the earth pony from Neighpon announced, breaking into a gallop. "I won't hold myself back either!"
- - -
Cool Breeze inverted in midair, wings flapping as she circled her unicorn opponent. This Baroness, this Rarity, didn't seem like a particularly impressive specimen in her opinion. It was hard to believe that she was the mare Yumi-hime had traveled from one end of Equestria to the other to fight. To hear some speak of it, Ponyville's new titled noblemare was either some sort of idiot savant or pint sized powerhouse. By Celestia's flowing mane, she had even defeated Lady Antimony, a task even the Garland Princess had failed at.
Clearly, this 'Rarity' had some kind of trick up her sleeve.
Cool Breeze was not about to let her use it. Gusts of wind trailed from her right wing as she cork-screwed around Rarity, the friction in the air creating sparks of electricity. A smarter pony, like Yumi-hime, would have prevented her opponent from accelerating. Most pegasi required a good head of speed to pull off their tricks. A pegasus that had been immobilized was only fighting at a fraction of her real power.
This foalish mare didn't seem to know that! This 'Rarity' circled around dizzily, trying in vain to keep Cool Breeze in sight. It was already too late for her.
A crack of lightning erupted from the churning storm that had been conjured around her. Rarity narrowly avoided being hit, squeaking and jumping away from the blasted scorch on the road. Cool Breeze scoffed to herself. By the look in the unicorn's blue eyes, she had no idea what was happening to her or what to do.
'You can't even teleport, can you?' the Neighponese pegasus thought, amused. 'Do you even know any barrier spells? You can't hit me when I'm circling you like this. How pathetic!'
Rarity yelped as another lightning bolt singed her, missing by just an inch or two. Her horn glowed, desperately, as she ripped up a few pieces of roadwork, hurling them into the stormy circle that surrounded her. Cool Breeze laughed, her voice echoing from several angles.
"Were you even trying to hit me?" she asked, flexing her wing to trail along the stormcloud ring. The friction trigged another vicious lightning bolt. "I'm over here, Baroness! No! Over here!"
Another speedy projectile passed close, zipping through Cool Breeze's tail.
"Your eyes are too slow, my Lady!" she chortled, getting a good feel for the ripeness of her storm circle. "Cloud pressure: good. Wind speed: good! Static electricity: good!"
Both wings angled, and the charge in the air multiplied.
"Here it comes! My Electrical Storm!"
The ring of clouds sparked and a dozen bolts shot out, both inside and outside the circle. It was difficult to aim lightning from a personally manufactured and charged cloud. Most pegasi used regulation clouds, and most of those were stamped and mass produced in Cloudsdale's weather factories. Those were useless to a fighting pegasus. Only military-grade clouds could do more than give a pony a mildly painful shock. To be a real master of lightning fighting, a pegasus had to learn to make her own.
From there, it was a matter of quality versus quantity. Cool Breeze's preference was for quantity.
Bolt after sizzling bolt shot into the center of the ring, filling the space with a crisscrossing web of high intensity electrical arcs and discharges. It was probably overkill. A normal pony could well be killed in the barrage. That worry prompted Cool Breeze to slow and level out her wings, ending the electrical assault. If the local Baroness was killed... there would be Tartarus to pay. More importantly, Yumi-hime wouldn't forgive it, either. They were here to humiliate the dam, not to kill her.
Smoke curled up from within the barrage ring and Cool Breeze exited the toroidal cloud.
"Hmf! Some Baroness!" Blue-green wings flapped, keeping Cool Breeze aloft.
"Yumi-hime!" she called out to her mistress, still seated and watching from her blanket on the hill. "I apologize, but it seems I may have-"
The strange sound draw Cool Breeze's attention back down to her cloud ring. There, in the center, something blue and egg-shaped seemed to be unwinding. There were scorch marks on it from where lightning bolts had hit. The pegasus blinked, not quite sure what she was seeing. It wasn't an egg, not really. It was spherical.
A barrier then? But she hadn't felt any magic like that, and she'd worked and trained with a barrier-specialist for years. Even if this was a barrier, her lightning had a magical component; it could cut through magical energy.
"What...?" she hissed. "What is that?"
With a sound like a cracking whip, the blue barrier came apart into long reams of... cloth?
It then retracted like measuring tape, the long indigo wave zipping together into a spool. It was glowing a faint purple-blue with what could only be magic and floating protectively alongside the Ponyville Baroness, who seemed none the worse for the electrical storm she had been subjected to. It was clear she had used the cloth as a shield.
That was new.
"But if that's the only defense you have..."
The cloth shot out again, this time extending straight out and forward. It cut through the circle of clouds, turned ninety degrees, and then made a three-hundred-sixty degree circuit. With the flat of it pressed into the cloud matter, it shredded through and dispersed the ring, crackling bolts of static electricity scoring the ground as it died. The roll of cloth then retracted again with a whip-crack.
On the ground, Rarity turned and glared up.
Cool Breeze moved, as fast as her wings could take her, juking to the right as the bolt of cloth extended like the tongue of a frog trying to pick a fly out of the air. Eyes wide, she was still too slow to deal with the cloth as it whipped through the air, smacking her across the face and upper torso. The menpo of her helmet snapped loose and Cool Breeze tumbled through the air before righting herself, moments from hitting the dirt.
"So sorry, darling," a voice snapped Cool Breeze's head around. "Did I hit you too hard?"
Rarity still stood in the center of the now destroyed cloud ring, her spool of cloth retracted and floating by her side. Cool Breeze gritted her teeth, her pale blue eyes shooting daggers at the other mare. To think that she, Cool Breeze, retainer to the most honorable and noble Yumi-hime, had been swatted out of the sky!
'Hit me too hard?'
"Don't buck with me!" the Neighponese pegasus roared, ripping her helmet off entirely. Arching her back, her wings flapped with a fierce and painful intensity. Tail swishing back and forth, the enraged pegasus quickly surrounded herself with clouds and charged them with lightning.
"More! More! MORE!" she yelled, generating an ever increasing volume of cloudstuff. "MORE!"
The white vapor darkened with moisture. Small uncontrolled spikes of electricity crackled among the billows, trying to disperse the charged cloud. Cool Breeze didn't let it. The bigger and nastier the cloud, the bigger and nastier the lightning!
Rearing up, she viciously buried a hoof into the cloud.
"I see you have some kind of barrier," Cool Breeze said, grinning at Rarity's challenge. "Then try this! I call this my Electric Barrier Breaker!"
With a yank, she ripped her hoof back out and a white-gold bolt of light exploded from the angry cloud. Rarity didn't respond, not verbally. Her cloth spoke for her, winding protectively around her body and forming into a solid shell. The narrow beam of arc-light hit the indigo fabric with a thunderclap -
And then it punched through.
"Look at that!" Cool Breeze declared, laughing. "You see! You see? Like threading a needle through an egg!"
Sputtering, the lightning beam died down, the dark, furious clouds drained of electrical charge from that one, massive, piercing discharge. Cool Breeze licked her lips, wings still flapping slowly, the brume she had generated settling into a slothful fog around her hooves. She kept her eyes on the fabric-shield, a trickle of black smoke wafting out of the hole she had burned through the supposed barrier.
She had to be sure. Evening Squall would never forgive her if she ran into a magical barrier she couldn't pierce, not with how she had mastered punching through his energy bubbles. Even the famed energy barriers of Canterlot's Captain of the Guard were no match for her Barrier Breaker! This Rarity's cloth-defense was nothing in comparison!
"Like threading a needle?"
Cool Breeze spun around at the voice, her wings flexing to shoot her up into the air.
"Darling, take it from me," Rarity emerged from the dying cloudstuff to press a hoof to the pegasus mare's chest. "Your needlework needs more practice."
"Get away-" Cool Breeze gasped, feeling something move across her body, between her coat and her armor. Like a snake, it wound around her chest and found her midsection, growing longer and longer. With wide eyes, she saw it emerge from her wing-seam: a ribbon?
The blue ribbon uncoiled, wrapped around her wing, and bound tight and fast.
"W-what - what is...?!"
Cool Breeze felt her body hit the road, her wings unable to move.
"What are you doing?" she snarled, trying and failing to break free. "What is this?"
Rarity stared down at her with a placid, confident expression.
"Bust: 4.24 hooves," she explained. "Waist: 3.96 hooves. Hips: 4.52 hooves. Length: 3.1 hooves shoulder to flank, 4.4 flank to ankle. Inseam: 3.2 hooves, maybe 3.3" Rarity paused, looking down at the immobilized pegasus. "Oh. I'm sorry, you must be confused?"
Rarity leaned down, pointing a hoof at the ribbon binding Breeze's lef twing.
"Measuring tape." She stood back up, looking off at a nearby hill, and at the white earth pony seated there. "You have a wonderful figure, by the way. All that flying must make it easy to stay in shape."
Cool Breeze blushed, her face turning beet red not from the compliment, but from the humiliation.
"But I hit you... I blasted you and your shield!"
"Did you?" Rarity inquired with a friendly, uncomfortably familiar smile. "I seem to recall you assuming I was behind my Bombazine Barricade. I also seem to recall you calling my eyes 'slow.' You were mistaken on both counts."
"L -L - Let me go!" Cool Breeze screamed, bouncing and struggling on the ground. "Let me go! I will not be humbled like this! I will not! Yumi-hime!"
"Your Lady Yumi is next," Rarity told her, whatever civility had been in her voice turning ice cold. "I will not be attacked in my own home. In my own town. Not anymore."
- - -
Grunting in annoyance, Evening Squall spun around, releasing another bubble. Pinkie landed, flattened like an octopus, and scurried away as the bubble hit and expanded. Legs a blur, she vanished behind one of the bubbles and Evening Squall had to side-step to try and give chase, another shield forming and settling into the cup of his hoof. This mare... she wasn't that fast, not really, but ponies couldn't move like that, could they? It was like trying to hit a fly with a beach ball.
And then she was gone.
It was a stupid question, but still one he would have liked to finish. He wasn't able to. Something hard slammed into his flank, spinning him like a top. By the time he braced his hooves and regained control, his vision was filled with yellow and orange goo.
Ripping his helmet off, Evening Squall desperately threw the shield spell he had prepared while backing away. He heard a characteristic screech of static as it hit and stuck to one of the existing bubbles nearby, expanding on contact and producing a bubble-on-bubble. Good enough. It did the job of scaring off his loopy opponent and bought him a second or two to wipe the marzipan off his face. A flash of bright red and white focused his mind like only an imminent beating could, and his armored leg shot up to block.
A candy cane?
"Where are you getting these things?!" he roared, horn blasting light.
Hearing her squeak of surprise, he jumped and kicked, feeling his hooves connect, if only for an instant. Landing on his back legs, Evening Squall saw Pinkie lying on the ground holding her head. A comically large lump seemed to be sticking out between her right ear and her poofy mane.
"Owie!" she whined, rubbing the bump on her head. "That hurt!"
"Just stand still!" Evening Squall cast another bubble -
Pinkie reached a hoof deeper into her mane, and her leg shot out, releasing a quarter cup of... flour? The white cloud briefly obscured the pink pony, and by the time the shield bubble hit, she was gone. Again.
Eyes darting left and right, Evening Squall slowly made a three-sixty.
Only to find a rather conspicuous cardboard box with a 'this way up' arrow sitting a few yards away. One could almost - almost, almost - think it to be a clever trap. Except for the big pair of blue eyes peeking out from holes in the cardboard. One could almost even think that part of the same clever trick, except the eyes also blinked. Nevermind how this pony found a cardboard box to hide in out here.
"Do you really think that will work!" Evening Squall yelled, projecting another shield bubble.
This time he expanded and solidified it before Pinkie could dodge. A pink blur did shoot out from under the box before the expanding bubble crushed it flat against the ground but - too slow! The rapidly expanding barrier hit her on the side, knocking her out of the air to roll limply along the ground, blades of grass kicking up from the landing. She didn't stop until she bumped into one of the still solid barriers, sticking out of the ground like a garage-sized dome.
"I don't know how you got out of that first bubble I put you in... but this time...!" Horn flashing orange, Evening Squall created not one, but a half dozen shield bubbles. One for each hoof and four spares circling around his horn.
"This time you won't get away!" he yelled.
Hurling the first bubble, he smirked at the desperate scramble his opponent had to make to escape. She clearly didn't know it yet, but her seconds were ticking down. Shield bubbles and barriers were among the most unappreciated of unicorn magics. Most ponies only thought of them as defensive techniques, and while that was the primary purpose, they were really so much more versatile!
Pinkie 'eep'ed loudly as she bumped into a dome in her way, forcing her to bounce off in another direction. Predictably, she tried to jump upwards - he had a bubble there, expanding, waiting for her. Only her unusual and frankly fantastic body-contortions allowed her to escape. She slammed face first into another dome, now completely surrounded.
This was the trick.
A barrier wasn't just defensive. It was area-denial. It was foal's play to herd an enemy into an area using barriers they couldn't break or cast spells through or even teleport through. Then, when they were pinned in place, it was a simple matter to either trap them... or squash them flat. Finally, Miss Pie had no where to go.
"Wow-ie!" she chirped, catching her breath and looking around for some last route to run to. "I don't remember dodge ball being this hard!"
"Tired of running around?" Evening Squall asked, knowing she had exactly one last escape: forward. Right into him. And when she rushed him, he'd have her.
Pinkie was still smiling. "You're really lucky, you know that?"
"I am?" he asked, hesitating a moment in confusion. "Lucky?"
"I wish I could make bubbles and balloons with my mind." The party pony sighed, holding up a deflated yellow balloon. "That's the one thing I don't like about balloons. Having to blow them up, one by one."
Evening Squall raised an eyebrow at the silly mare. "I suppose I can see that being annoying."
"Hey! Hey! I just had an idea!" she exclaimed, the fight seemingly forgotten, "Can you make little bubbles like that instead of big ones? Little ones? It'll make setting up your party even easier!"
"Uh. Alright," he agreed. "Why not?" With a snap of his front leg, he threw the second to last of his shield bubble spells. "If you want to have a party so badly, you can celebrate Yumi-hime's victory!"
"Whoo-hoo!" Pinkie cheered, heedless of the bubble barreling down on her.
And then she ran forward, right into it.
With an audible POP, Pinkie triggered the barrier's trap. It expanded around her -
But still she continued forward, her pink legs a blur as she accelerated. The shield bubble became a giant rolling sphere. It hadn't had the chance to contact the ground. Pinkie had trigged it too soon. It wasn't rooted in place. It was... a giant rolling sphere... heading right for him!
Evening Squall bit back a snarl as he reflexively threw his last shield bubble to try and protect himself. It started to expand in front of him... But then, with a crackle, it stuck to Pinkie's rolling barrier, forming a bubble-on-bubble. It didn't stop it.
'What? Did - did she... plan this...?'
Pinkie's shield hitched up as the bubble-on-bubble rolled under it, bouncing it into the air overhead. An ominous shadow fell over the unicorn's wide eyed form.
'Was I the one in her trap this entire time?'
"Ah. Ah." The Neighponese barrier specialist tried to shield himself with everypony's last resort: his hooves and his forelegs. "AHHH!!"
Evening Squall's view went orange and white as a Pinkie-powered barrier bubble filled his world.
And then that world ran him over.
- - -
White Dew planted his hoof against Applejack's shoulder, only missing her forehead by virtue of her twisting to the right at the last second. In return, she managed to plant a solid one-hoof apple buck into his chest. A blast of air shot out from the two earth ponies, ripping blades of grass into the air as they shot apart.
"Ugh!" Applejack winced, but resisted the urge to cradle her now swollen shoulder.
White Dew landed much the same, bits and pieces of his armor falling from his exposed shoulders, chest and front legs. She had mangled his once exotic apparel; it was clearly less able to stand up to her apple-buck strikes than his actual body. His helmet had similarly been blown off by a blow to the cheek... a blow that had left his face as swollen as her shoulder.
Looking at him now, she could see he had healed already.
"You heal pretty quick, sugarcube," Applejack said between breaths.
"You aren't like the mare who fought Master Shigure," White Dew replied, also breathing heavily. "I can't believe you weren't holding back so much." He started to pace off to his left. "You hit pretty well... Miss Applejack... but still not well enough to put me down."
He could well be right.
She had hit him a half dozen times, each one in a sweet spot. If this pony had been a tree, as she thought of him as, she would've bucked the apples out of his branches three times over. With the almost explosive reaction her apple-buck blows had on his armor, it had to be his healing that was keeping him in the fight. It was earth pony magic...
Applejack sidestepped to keep White Dew in front of her. He may have been lucky enough to master healing magic, enough to apply it to both others and himself, but she wasn't in that plot of dirt. Her entire body felt like it had been put through a taffy machine. And then chewed up by Pinkie Pie. She snorted, remembering Apple Bloom's story about how she and her friends actually had ended up in a taffy machine. At least somepony in the family would be able to sympathize.
'If he hits me two or three more times...' she thought, watching White Dew warily.
He was still so fast!
She had only gotten slower.
To top it all off, as much as Applejack hated to admit it, the foreign pony was a whole heckuva lot more skilled than her when it actually came to matching hooves. He wearing her down and he knew it.
"Hey," she called out, seeing him tense to jump. To her surprise, he paused.
"Ah wanted to thank ya," she said, smiling despite everything. "For healin' me before. Ah'm pretty sure I hadn't thanked ya properly before."
"There is no need for thanks. I was honored to do so." The Neighponese earth pony smiled at her, a bashful, amiable grin. "But you are welcome."
"Good! Ah'll return the favor when I knock ya out!" Applejack declared, legs kicking up dirt as she ran to him.
White Dew's smile didn't leave his face. He jumped, spinning in midair. Applejack momentarily lost sight of him as she turned to kick with both back legs. It was her strongest kick, but also her slowest. She felt one of his legs sweep down, kicking hers out of the way. Imbalanced, she fell onto her stomach, tucking in one leg so she hit her side.
White Dew passed over her, touched the ground and spun on a dime.
'Like some kinda fancy fightin' ballerina!' Applejack thought, rolling onto her hooves.
"Too slow, Miss Applejack!" With both front hooves, he pounced on her as she tried to get back up. She ignored it. Jumping, legs wide, she took the double blow for the chance to bowl right into him. A look of surprise on his face, caught balanced on just his hind legs, he was easily pushed onto his back.
"Finally!" Applejack placed her front hooves to the left and right of his upper body. "I got ya, sugarcube!"
He cocked a hoof back to knock her off.
"I don't see what-"
Applejack used ever bit of strength left in her legs to push off and into the air over him. Below her, she imagined an apple tree, not with one sweet spot to kick.
She was aiming for four.
As her body came back down, her legs - tucked in - shot out.
One. Two. Three. FOUR!
A quadruple-ponybuck! The ground beneath White Dew reacted, buckling, as the two earth ponies collided. A blast of natural magic rippled out from the impact, uprooting grass and snapping open acorns tossed into the air. The almost invisible green hue settled quickly into the earth, the blades of grass that had been torn up growing inches in the span of a few seconds.
In the middle of it all, Applejack stood over the still stallion from Neighpon.
Quickly ducking her head, she heard breathing, felt it across her cheek. White Dew was on his back, armor in shreds, alive but unconscious. Four orange hoof-prints stood out against his brown coat.
"Sorry 'bout that," she apologized, though she knew he couldn't hear her. He really hadn't seemed like a bad guy. "Ah'll make it up to ya."
Catching her breath, Applejack finally got the chance to look around without interruption.
Pinkie Pie was furthest away, bouncing happily on top of what looked like a giant carrot-colored bubble. Her opponent was nowhere to be seen, but Applejack figured he had to be out of the picture. Somehow. Rarity was by the road, closest to her, and standing over a struggling pony in armor. It was hard to see what the fashionista had done, but she appeared to be in control of the situation. Applejack shook her head; it was a little strange to see her old friend from filly-school like this.
The Rarity from their youth had been terrified of worms and snakes and dirt, and now she was... Baroness. Maybe even a formidable one. It was strange to see. Stranger still to think about.
There was no sign of old Antlers or the Royal Guard.
"No. No, this is unacceptable," the voice came from the hill, where one pony did not seem pleased by the situation before her. "This is unseemly. Embarrassing. I'm unhappy. Shiratsuyu. Yudachi. Suzukaze."
Next to Rarity, the downed pegasus cried out in despair. "Yumi-hime! Forgive me!"
"You three have shamed yourselves," the Neighponese noblemare repeated, rising from her blanket. "Worse than that. You've made me unhappy! All of you!"
Applejack, slowly walking over to Rarity and Pinkie Pie, wanted to scoff.
She was about to, in fact, except for the strange tickling sensation under her hooves. Looking down, not at the dirt, but at what grew out of the dirt - she saw the grass. It wasn't just waving in the wind. Every blade of grass was pointing in one direction. It was all pointing at the hill.
At this 'Yumi-hime.'
"Okay," she muttered to herself, running towards the road. Anything to get off the grass. "That's kinda eerie..."
Yumi continued down towards Rarity, her green eyes wild with outrage.
"I shall turn this field... this battle-field... into a Sea Of-"
She bit her tongue, as something landed next to her.
"Yumi-hime." It was old Antlers, looking none the worse for wear. He still had her hat. The tank of a pony was followed a moment later by a white blur that quickly stopped in midair.
The Royal Guard, Sir Mercury.
He, on the other hoof, did not look 'none the worse for wear.' There were dents and scuffs in his bronze and gold armor and dirt covering his pure white coat. Applejack could guess that he hadn't found a way to get around that troublesome invulnerability the foreigner knight seemed to have.
"Yumi-hime," he repeated, though Applejack could barely hear him. "Please forgive them and remember the rules of this realm. We should not be so indiscrete."
Yumi's face, in the process of contorting into a volcanic rage, slowly returned to calm.
"Quite right," she agreed. "I also see we have guests arriving."
"Guests?" Applejack asked Rarity, now close enough that she felt she could whisper without being overheard. Pinkie Pie bounded over a second later, all smiles and sunshine.
"Guests," Rarity confirmed.
A few seconds later, Applejack's curiosity was sated. Fast forms dropped out of the air, either to land on the ground or to hover just above it. There were more than a dozen of them: unicorns, pegasi, earth ponies. All wore the same intricate red and white half-plate armor and barding. All bore the sign of the cross and the dove.
The Free Company.
Applejack could see 'Yumi-hime' start to frown. Then her fan snapped out and she covered her face below the eyes, closing even those for good measure. The only one to have noticed the strange movement of the blades of grass, Applejack watched as it almost seemed to stretch and then contract. There was no doubt about it.
This Yumi pony... she was...!
"We should go, Master Shigure," she said aloud, opening her eyes just a crack behind her fan. "Lady Rarity. I must thank you for entertaining my retainers. I see Ponyville is... not bereft of capable and honorable individuals. I graciously congratulate you on your victory this morning, but sadly I must depart."
"As you wish, Lady Yumi," Rarity replied with a cordial smile, only skin deep. "I wouldn't dream of holding you up any longer. Please leave your retainers to me. I will see them returned to you once we check them for injuries."
One of Yumi's eyebrows twitched.
"How kind of you," she lied, "I would appreciate that."
"Yumi-hime!" the bound pegasus cried. "I am not injured! I can still-"
A silent glare from the Neighponese noblemare locked her jaws shut.
"I will return for them," Yumi said, and to Applejack, it sounded rather like a threat. The noblemare rolled up the sleeve of her white dress and a moment later a unicorn servant appeared, teleporting to her side. The newly arrived brown and yellow mare paused only a moment to collect herself, then a swirl of magic escaped her horn and she, Yumi and Antlers disappeared. The fields of grass settled, once again swaying peacefully in the breeze.
Applejack released a breath she had been holding.
"She seems nice!" Pinkie was grinning as always.
"Positively charming," Rarity agreed, laying on the sarcasm. "I swear I felt my mane stand on end. If there is any justice in Equestria, she will be the worst we have to deal with in the coming weeks."
- - -
Rainbow Dash cruised alongside her friend, keeping to the air as she ran.
"Okay!" Twilight said, craning her neck to check the clock on a the dilapidated town hall. "We're all set!"
"About time," Dash grumbled.
"What?" Twilight asked, heading into the town square.
Dash did an easy barrel roll to switch from her friend's left to right side.
"Nothing! Just you and that guy playing kissy-hooves. Didn't seem like the best use of time."
"He was just saying goodbye!" Twilight glanced away but Dash could see a faint blush on her cheeks.
"What'd you promise to give him, anyway? More money?"
"Something more valuable than money," Twilight replied, blush gone as she faced forward again.
The unicorn's half-lidded stare seemed in indicate that wasn't it.
"Because my IOUs are as good as gold," Dash reminded her.
"Sure they are," Twilight agreed, rolling her eyes. "No. I was talking about knowledge. I learned some interesting things about the dragon migration. Germoglio understands how important information is."
Rainbow Dash didn't necessarily agree, but: "If you say so."
"Once we get to the bridge," Twilight explained as they galloped through the town center. "We should-"
She abruptly came up short as a pony dropped to the ground in front of them. From the speed and impact, Dash immediately suspected it was a pegasus crash. The sight of two wings amid the quickly clearing dust only lent credence to that guess. Except - this pegasus had crashed on her hooves. Twilight backed up, her legs scrambling, as the gray pegasus rose to her full height, wings flared behind her like a wall.
"Yo," she said, her voice a husky mezzo-soprano.
"Excuse us," Twilight said, trying to get around the tall pegasus mare. "We're in a hurry, so..."
"Off to help fight Yumi?" the strange pegasus asked. "Sorry. But I don't want that. And don't try any magic... or you'll regret it."
Twilight seemed about to argue when her body tensed and she made some sort of realization or connection. Bunching her shoulders and leveling her horn at the pegasus, she slowly backed away. Her doing so only seemed to provoke the gray mare, eliciting a few amused chuckles. Her jagged tail whipped through the air behind her in excitement.
Twilight's eyes were narrowed as she tried to find a way around. "You're..."
"Ritterkreuz!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed, landing to stare at the other pegasus with wide eyes. "Oh my gosh! You really are her, aren't you! What are you doing here? Are you on vacation or something? This is so awesome!"
The grinning Wonderbolt turned her eyes on Dash. "You recognize me?"
"Heck yeah I do!" Dash excitedly clopped her hooves beneath her. "You buzzed the Princess and the stands in the derby, two years ago! You invented the Twisting Cloud Carver! I still remember the first time I saw you and Spitfire pull that off! SOOOOO Cool!"
"I remember that," Ritterkreuz said, still watching Twilight.
"I've always wanted to ask you if-"
Ritter took off, without warning, and Dash's multicolored mane caught in the sudden, intense wind that was her wake. It was a cool move, but it was followed by a yelp - a yelp that sounded distinctly like it had come from Twilight Sparkle. Dash pivoted, turning to see her friend pinned beneath the Wonderbolt's hoof. Twilight's face was pressed against the ground.
Ritter's hoof was on her glowing, sputtering, horn.
"Didn't I say: you'll regret it if you try any magic? Huh? Unicorn?!" Ritter's amber yellow eyes moved from Twilight to the still stunned Rainbow Dash. "You were saying something, kid?"
"What are you doing to her!" Rainbow yelled, taking to the air. "Get off!"
"And have her teleport away?" Ritter asked, chuckling. Beneath her hoof, Twilight's horn sparked but couldn't conjure up any coherent magic. "No. This is better for now."
"She's one of the mares after Rarity!" Twilight yelled, squirming to get free. Without her magic, though, there was little she could do against the large pegasus mare who had her pinned.
"One hundred percent correct!" Ritter confirmed, still bearing her teeth in an energetic grin. "You asked if I was here on vacation? I guess I am! I'm here in Ponyville to have a good time."
"You're like that Antimony pony," Dash realized, wary of flying too close. A crowd was starting to gather on the fringes of the town square, exchanging hushed whispers.
"Antimony?" Ritter asked, shaking her head. "Not really. I couldn't care less about politics or about being Duchess. Blueblood's a good lay and we've had some fun times, but that's as far as it goes. Being a Wonderbolt was boring, especially since they kept telling me what to do. So I quit. There are some strong ponies in this town and I wanna crush 'em. That's all there is to it."
"You... quit?" Dash could only hover in silence for a few seconds. "You quit being a Wonderbolt?"
"Ehh? That bothers you?" Ritter chuckled again. "They're a boring bunch, you know! All rules and safety and orders! Like being back in boarding school. I'm honestly amazed I stayed there as long as I did."
"Rainbow!" Twilight warned.
"If you want to join, I'm sure they'll be looking for members," the former Wonderbolt continued, responding to Dash's growing fury with a smile. "I've already taken out... what? Five of them? Or was it six? The stupid idiots just keep coming, wanting revenge for what I did when I left. Poor Captain Thunderhead. He must've been great in his prime."
Dash shook her head. She had heard about the news from Cloudsdale. "That was a training accident!"
"Was it?" Ritter asked, chuckling darkly. "There'll be a lot more training accidents in the papers tomorrow."
Still pinned to the ground, Twilight gritted her teeth to try and push a spell through her horn -
"Ah. Ah. Ahh." Ritter pressed down on her with a blast of wind, and the magical field turned to multi-colored sparkles. "The Wonderbolts aren't important anyway. What's important is that you two fillies don't go butting in with that bitch Yumi's fun."
"Are you working with her or something?" Twilight glared up with angry, violet eyes.
"Hardly," the vicious pegasus replied. "In fact, I was just over there, watching... and thinking: I bet I could wait till everypony's exhausted from fighting and then swoop in and wipe them all out. But...! But that would be boring! I'm not really interested in taking on somepony who isn't at his or her best."
"So then I asked: hey, aren't there two other Elements of Harmony running around in town? And a little bird who just happened to be on the same cloud... she told me where to find you. She even told me that one of you was the fastest, toughest, 'best-est' weathermare in Equestria. So off I went."
"I just couldn't help it," Ritter concluded with a feathery shrug. "So, Rainbow Dash, why don't we forget about Lady Yumi and all those silly unicorns and have some fun?"
The chromatic pony and Element of Loyalty had a deadly serious look in her eyes. "Fine by me!"
She blasted off in a streak of rainbow colored light.
Ritterkreuz whistled loudly as she flapped her wings behind her. "That's quick!"
Carefully, she removed her hoof from Twilight's horn, stepped back, and took off in a thunderous explosion. The race was on.