"Yeah, Sweetie Belle?"
"Can you sleep?"
"You too, Scootaloo?" Applebloom crawled out of bed and over to the window. The Cutie Mark Crusaders had given up their crusade for the evening and returned to Sweet Apple Acres for rest. However, the troubling revelations of that book Sweetie Belle had found were still playing through their minds. They weren't quite sure what to make of it, and they didn't even fully understand it yet, but when Sweetie Belle accidentally lapsed into calling the characters by the names of her big sister and her friends, and it still made sense, something struck deep with the little fillies. The young earth pony sighed and pouted, looking out the window. Dang ol' story... ah shouldn't let it get to me. S'probably nothin'. After all, ah still got to find big sis... hey, wait a sec... "Ah got it!"
"Got what?" Scootaloo sat up in the bed. Sweetie Belle rubbed her eyes and did the same.
"Ah think ah know where Applejack 'n Rarity 'n Rainbow Dash 'n all them went!"
"You do?" Scootaloo bounced out of bed excitedly. Sweetie Belle squeaked, pushed out the other side.
"What if they read the story and then went to Canterlot to beat up Princess Celestia or somethin'?"
"We need to get on it right a..." Sweetie Belle added, sitting up from behind the bed. Her sentence was interrupted by a yawn. "... right away."
"Yeah..." Applebloom crawled back up to the bed. "... just lemme git another coupl'a minutes o' sleep..."
Applejack ended up pulling Twilight's stretcher. Rainbow Dash was going to do it, but she found herself quickly succumbing to exhaustion too; the adrenaline was wearing off from the infiltration. Nevertheless, the tired ponies soldiered on, marching south through the night. As determined as they were, the return journey took two more hours than expected. By the time they reached Fluttershy's cottage, all of them weary, frostbitten and hungry, it was three o'clock in the morning. Applejack and Rainbow Dash passed out on the carpet, not even bothering to remove their respective payloads. Everypony else took a moment to find somewhere comfortable to curl up, but regardless, all were sleeping soundly within minutes of arriving.
The next morning, Fluttershy awoke to Angel's gentle prodding. Or, she felt it as gentle prodding, he was in fact trying his best at firm shoving.
"Wh... what is it, Angel?" She asked, blinking groggily. The rabbit held up a pocket watch and bounced up and down a little. "... you're late?" Angel whacked himself on the forehead with the watch, and held out the face of it again, pointing at it. "What's the time? The time!" She squinted at the clock, and then gasped. 1PM! She staggered to her hooves and hurried into the next room. "Oh my... oh my!"
She was able to rouse most of her friends in short order. After a good night's rest, Rarity and Pinkie Pie were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; Applejack and Rainbow Dash were still hurting, but awake nonetheless. Twilight, however, was still out cold. Munching on whatever flowers were left around the house and the remnants of the apples they brought on their trip, they discussed plans over breakfast.
"Okay, there's no point beating about the bush here. What now?" Rarity started.
"We ain't goin' nowhere 'til Twilight wakes up. An' who knows how long that could be..." Applejack shot a concerned look over to the stretcher.
"But we gotta do something!" Rainbow Dash added. "We can't just sit around while... while..."
"While what?" Rarity tilted her head.
"While... I dunno. I thought we were in a hurry, but I never knew why."
"Well, that's the thing. Ah been thinkin'..." Applejack frowned a little. "So we know this whole story thing is true. But do we really need to do anythin' about it? Ah mean, sure, there was all them horrible things that happened in the past, but that was the past. Life right now is... well, life is good. It ain't broke, do we really need to fix it?" She looked back around the room. The point struck chords with Rarity and Fluttershy, and putting them deep in thought. Pinkie Pie was just deep in a sandwich. Rainbow Dash, however, was fuming.
"'Do we really need to fix it'? Do we really need to fix it!" She started pacing frustratedly. "Of course we need to fix it!"
"Rainbow, will you just think for two seconds? We can't just go around banishin' demons for the heck of it. This is a mighty big issue! We might know the whole story, but there's a whole nation o' ponies out there who don't, and can't know until it's too late. If we keep going down this road, then mah life, our lives, everypony's lives are gonna change forever..."
"Forever!" Pinkie Pie popped her head down from the ceiling.
"... and that's somethin' ah don't think we should take lightly."
"I never said I wasn't taking this seriously!" Rainbow protested.
"She's got a point though, it's not like anypony's been left wanting as it is..." Rarity chipped in.
"Rainbow, all ah'm sayin' is that we need to give this some thought first. We got a pretty good life right here, and ah don't know if I'm as ready as you are to throw it away." Applejack looked sternly over to the pegasus. Dash returned her gaze.
"I think you should think about how this 'pretty good life' is a lie." Dash didn't take her eyes off Applejack for a second. Applejack had initially returned the gaze, but soon found the fire draining from her side of the argument, reflected in her increasingly crestfallen expression. "I thought the element of honesty would see that from the start." They kept their eyes locked for another few tense seconds, before Applejack broke off and sighed. Dash sat back down, her point made.
"Ah guess ya got me there... but we still can't rush it. For starters, we don't even know what 'it' is."
"Well, why don't we try some of that 'deductive reasoning' thing, then? The thing that Twilight's always going on about?" Rarity smirked. Applejack stuck out her tongue to the unicorn.
"Whaddaya mean?" Rainbow tilted her head.
"You know! Looking at the information available to us and trying to figure out something from that, since Twilight's not really in a state to that for us right now. Like... ah! Take, for example, those old weapons you keep picking up. What do we know about them?"
"Well..." Dash pulled over the sling with the spear, and began to inspect it. "I know Gilda gave it to me, and... and it looks like Spectra's spear. A lot like it."
"Say..." Applejack fumbled with the other sling for a moment or two, before managing to pull out the sword. "There was another one o' these in the palace, Dawn had it."
"Now the ideas are flowing!" Rarity chuckled. "What else do we know?"
"Uhm..." Applejack and Rainbow Dash looked at each other.
"That the weapons were one of the things left behind when they... uhm... we... were banished?" Fluttershy added.
"Correct! So putting two and two together?"
"That means these are the exact same ones they had!" Rainbow blurted out.
"... And we gotta find the rest of 'em?" Applejack ventured.
"Bingo! Or at least, I think they might be significant, I'm clutching at straws here. But, if all else fails, it'll at least give us something to work to. What else?"
"Hmm..." Rainbow pressed her hoof to her chin, thinking. "If the ponies in the story are really us... then that means I'm the only pony ever to do the sonic rainboom!" She bounced a little, grinning giddily. Rarity quirked a brow.
"Good for you, darling. What else that's significant?"
"Ah just thought o' somethin'... if these things are over a thousand years old, then how come the wood in this spear ain't rotted away?" Applejack asked, taking a mouthful of hay.
"That's..." Rarity levitated the spear in front of her to get a closer look. "... a good question."
Fluttershy had slipped out of the cottage to get some fresh air. Being a pegasus, she didn't mind the cold, even if the icy conditions exacerbated her weak flying - in winter, with all the water locked up in snow, it wasn't unusual for her to be ground-bound. It was getting a bit loud back at her house - Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Applejack's increasingly heated discussion was going nowhere fast, and Pinkie seemed content to prance about without a care in the world. She felt that at least out here she could think, and process some of the last two days' revelations, or failing that, distract herself. There was bound to be a robin around she could talk to. She crossed into the edge of the forest, making sure to give the poison joke patch by the stream a wide berth. She wasn't about to let that incident repeat itself. With a bit of strain, she found a perch on one of the bare trees nearby, where, sure enough, a robin was tending to its nest. The branch was small and icy, but she could just about hold herself steady on it.
"Hey there little guy..." she smiled and leaned over to the nest. Its occupant looked up and chirped happily, and hopped from the nest on to her nose. She giggled, closed her eyes and flicked an ear. That's better. None of this running around dark tunnels at night silliness...
That's not good... She looked over her shoulder. The robin was already flying away to safety. The frozen branch was brittle, and maybe a little too small to take a pegasus' dry-weather weight. She turned in place to get to the thicker part of the branch before...
Too late. The branch snapped in the middle, only a few woody fibres holding it on. There wasn't really anything she could do at this point - hooves don't have fantastic grip, especially not on ice; Rainbow Dash might have been able to kick into full flight in this cold, dry air, but Fluttershy certainly couldn't; and grabbing the branch in her teeth would have wrenched her jaw clean off with her full weight hanging from it. There were no two ways about it - she was headed for the poison joke.
She stood up almost immediately upon landing, shaking off the snow and petals. She didn't feel anything wrong... yet. However, she knew that it would kick in sooner or later if she just left it. Without a second thought, she took off towards Zecora's hut.
"Fluttershy! What a nice surprise. Tell me, what brings you before my eyes?" The zebra smiled, answering the knocking promptly.
"Oh, uhm... I was out for a walk, and... I accidentally fell in a poison joke patch. Could you... uhm... if you don't mind, uh..."
"Certainly, without delay! It would appear it's your lucky day..." Zecora backed out of the doorway to let Fluttershy in, revealing her cauldron bubbling lightly in the middle of the room. "It was not even an hour ago, that I myself had a run-in with the joke." She returned to the brew, lightly simmering over the fire. It was mostly clear, with a light froth on top; it looked like she was preparing to use the cauldron as a makeshift bathtub.
"Oh, I didn't mean to intrude or anything, uhm..."
"Do not worry about your call! You cannot always control where you fall. The bath will be a little longer brewing; tell me, how are your friends doing?" Zecora smiled warmly. The rhyming never failed to give Fluttershy the willies, but after a minute or two she usually got her head around it.
"They're... we're..." she hesitated. She wasn't sure whether to let Zecora in on their discoveries. Maybe she already knows? She has funny ways of knowing things. She'd certainly be a good friend to have on our side, but on the other hoof... "... fine!" she grinned back. Best to keep it under wraps for now. "Yep, super." She trotted up to the cauldron and sat in front of it. She didn't desperately need to keep warm, but it was still nice.
"Happy news is always good to hear, especially in this gloomy time of year!" Zecora, you have no idea. Fluttershy looked around the room idly, examining some of the decorations. She'd done a good job of patching the place up after the last time everypony visited. Rarity always thought this stuff was creepy, but Fluttershy kinda liked it - it was interesting and exotic. It could be a bit intense when every wall was covered in it, but it was fun to look at. Masks, embroidery, idols, sticks... wait a second, a stick? For some reason, this one stick caught her attention. It was just a straight, plain, slightly knobbly wooden stick, about a length long, hanging conspicuously on the wall. It stood out from all the gorgeously painted and crafted ornaments by virtue of its sheer austerity, and compounding this was the fact that something about it seemed familiar... "I see something has caught your eye! Pray tell what is it, Fluttershy?"
"Oh! Uh..." She is sharp. "That... that stick on the wall. I just..."
"Ahh, yes. There is something special about this stick, but I could never quite explain it." The zebra delicately lifted it off the wall with her teeth and laid it out on the ground between them. "The one thing I do know about this stake, is that try as you might, it will not break." She let Fluttershy take a closer look. No strikingly unusual details, nothing to back up that gut feeling, smoke coming from... Oh no! She squeaked and grabbed the stick in her teeth, pulling it out of the fire and whacking the flaming end against the ground. The fire went out easily, leaving that end thoroughly charred.
"Zecora, what... why did you..."
"Look!" The zebra brushed a hoof over the blackened end. The flakes of charcoal were just wiped off, like nothing had ever happened. There weren't even teethmarks where it was bitten. "Believe me when I say I've tried, nothing known to pony will make this staff divide." She chuckled.
"Hmm... now that is something..."