Applejack's coat glistened with sweat as she walked through the orchard. One, two, three. The late-afternoon sun beat down on her back. Four, five, six. She stopped for a moment to wipe the sticky sweat from her brow, glancing up to the sky in time to see an eagle pass by. A small smile parted her lips; her teeth were barely visible beneath her gums.
She felt the crisp grass beneath her hooves as she walked past tree after tree laden with sweet-smelling apples. Nine, Ten—shoot. How many was it again? Applejack's brow furrowed as she tapped a hoof against her forehead. Her eyes lit up suddenly. It's thirteen, then Ah go left. She grinned, pleased with herself.
Eleven, twelve—and thirteen. She stopped at the thirteenth tree, making a sharp left turn, and then began counting again. Four down, then one right. A calm breeze swept through the orchard as she walked; it rustled the leaves, played with her mane. Thee—and four. She stopped again, looking up at the plump apples hanging from the tree. Hanging right around the fourth tree, she stopped at the next one.
Ah'm here. She approached the tree slowly, taking off her hat and holding it over her chest. A tiny smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she looked at the tree trunk. Carved into the bark were four letters encompassed by straight-edged heart: “AW+HC”.
“Howdy, Ma,” said Applejack quietly. “And you too, Pa.” She carefully set her hat down next the tree then brought her hoof up to the heart that encompassed the initials. She ran her hoof across the bark, feeling the grooves of both the tree and the carving. A gust of wind blew past her, ruffling her mane. She smiled.
“It's been awhile since Ah've come,” she said softly. “Ah'm real sorry about that. Ah've just been so busy around the farm,” she said apologetically. “Y'all know how that is.” She breathed deeply through her nose, allowing the scent of apples and tree sap to mix into a pleasant bittersweet combination. “Ah came to see y'all 'cus Ah almost lost myself today.” She placed her forehead against the tree; the rough bark brought a smile to her face and her eyes began to water.
“Ah don't know what Ah woulda done if it weren't for Twi.” Tears began to roll down her cheeks. They fell to the ground, splashing against the protruding roots. “She saved me. Heck—she saved all of us. She showed us what friendship truly means, and Ah can't thank her enough for that.” She took a few steps back from the tree. The leaves rustled, and the apples bobbed in the wind.
She stared at the carving, tears welling in her eyes. “Well, Ah guess that's all Ah had to say,” she chuckled softly. “Ah promise to come back and visit real soon, and Ah'll tell Big Mac y'all said 'howdy'.” She picked up her hat and turned to walk away, but an apple fell in front of her. She bent down to pick it up and examined it. A wide grin spread across her face. She closed her eyes and took a generous bite out of the side. The crunchy sweetness filled her mouth as she chewed.
She looked up at the tree and tilted her hat down, nodding her head. “Thank ya kindly.” Taking another bite, she turned around and walked away as another gust of wind blew past her, rustling the leaves.
“What are you—a chicken?” Scootaloo said in a mock sing-song voice. She was clambering her way up a steep slope, mumbling to herself. “Chicken, huh? I'll show them.” Her tiny hooves awkwardly grasped at rocks as she pulled herself up the mountainside. She grunted as she lifted herself onto a small plateau. The rock felt chill against her back as she sat on her haunches, resting.
Her breathing was ragged, and she was dripping with sweat. With one hoof to placed above her brow, she scanned the sky. There was not a cloud in the sky. She licked her lips as a toothy grin spread across her face. Taking a deep breath she stood and dusted herself off.
She heaved herself up and continued climbing. Her weak muscles strained under the pressure. Exhaling with each thrust, she moved slowly but surely, higher.
Within a few minutes, she had reached the penultimate rock. Its craggy surface was the last obstacle. She cracked her neck and ruffled her feathers. With the combination of her hooves pulling herself up and the beating of her wings to provide a small amount of lift, she was finally able to crest the massive stone.
When she had reached the top, she threw herself down, splaying out on the hard slab. She rolled on to her back and stared up at the sky. She closed her eyes and basked in the sun's warm rays for a few moments—her chest slowly heaving up and down—before rolling back over. Her rosy mane was sticky with sweat; it stuck to her cheeks like glue. She shook her head, showering the rocks with salty water.
She inched towards the edge of the cliff, peering over the precipice. Her heart skipped a beat. The ground seemed so far away. The trees were merely green sticks in the distance. She felt a lump in her throat. She swallowed hard, taking a few steps back. “I came this far,” she said firmly. Her face contorted into a look of determination. Her brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed. She bit her lip, shuffling her feet. “Okay,” she said finally. “I'm ready.”
Clenching her eyes shut, she galloped towards the edge, flapping her tiny wings as hard as possible.
For a brief moment, she felt as if she were floating. She opened one eye slowly, then the other. Looking around, she saw the vast blue sky in front of her. A smile cracked across her face.
As quickly as her joy had come, it left her, replaced by sudden fear. She flapped her scrawny wings with all her strength. Her heart raced as she plummeted towards the ground. She shut her eyes fearfully, turning her body in a futile attempt to cushion the impact. She waited for the inevitable, wondering what it was going to feel like. Tears flew past her in the wind.
She felt herself stop suddenly. She opened her eyes slowly, sure that she had hit the ground by now.
A multitude of colors waved in front of her. She could feel soft, blue fur beneath her. She no longer felt as though she were falling. Rather, she felt as if she were rising.
“Rainbow—Dash?” she said slowly.
Rainbow glanced over her shoulder, a smirk adorning her muzzle. “Don't worry, squirt,” she said reassuringly. “I've got you.”
Scootaloo's eyes watered; tears streamed down her cheeks moistening her fur. She leaned down wrapping her hooves around Rainbow's neck. She nuzzled her warmly.
Twilight trotted down the streets, her mane and tail bouncing gleefully. The sun shined through the clouds, and all of Ponyville seemed to be out and about enjoying the weather. Spike rode on her back holding a checklist in one claw and a quill in the other.
“Okay,” said Spike. “We got quills.”
“Check,” responded Twilight and Spike scratched check mark onto the paper.
“And we spoke to Cheerilee about getting chalk.”
“Check.” Spike made another check mark.
“So that just leaves...” His voice trailed off as he read the list. Rolling his eyes, he said: “Get more owl food.”
“Check. I mean, right,” Twilight giggled.
“Uh huh,” Spike said slowly. “So, where are we gonna get owl food?”
“There's a place—” Twilight was interrupted by a sudden hissing from behind her.
Twilight spun around. Her and Spike's heads swiveled as they searched for the source of the voice.
They craned their necks, looking up to the second story window where Pinkie Pie was hiding—just barely—behind the curtains.
“Pinkie?” said Twilight as she tilted her head to the side.
Pinkie inched out from behind the curtain and whispered down to them: “I need you. You have to come up here right now.”
Twilight glanced over her shoulder at Spike; he shrugged. She rolled her eyes then trotted up to the door. They stepped inside and headed upstairs. In the room furthest from them, they found Pinkie backed against a corner. Twilight's lips pursed, and her eyebrows rose. “Pinkie, what are you doing?”
Pinkie pointed to the door across from them. “There's something under the sink. I keep hearing scratching sounds coming from it,” she said, holding the curtain up to cover her face.
Twilight sighed. “I'm sure it's nothing,” she said plainly. “I'll show you.” Spike hopped off her back, and she approached the door slowly. Her horn began to glow as she turned the handle and slowly pushed the door open. Inside she could see a sink with a cupboard below it. She stepped inside and leaned her head down so that it was level with the cupboard.
“See,” she said, nodding her head towards the cupboard. “Nothin—”
She was interrupted by the sound of something scratching the wood. She jumped back, hitting her head against the edge of the sink. Twilight rubbed her head as she said: “What in Celestia's name was that?”
Pinkie, curtains still covering all of her face, responded: “I told you.”
Twilight backed away slowly. “Okay, we need a plan.”
Several minutes later, Spike, Twilight, and Pinkie stood in a semi-circle around the cupboard. Each of them clutched a different weapon. Twilight raised her frying pan high as Spike readied his tennis racket and Pinkie's grip tightened around her oven mitt.
“Ready?” Twilight said, looking around the group. They nodded. She nodded back, and her horn began to glow. “One, two, three!” As she shouted “three”, she threw open the cupboard doors. A tiny green alligator tumbled out onto the tiled floor.
“There you are Gummy! I was wondering where you went,” Pinkie giggled cheerfully. She scooped Gummy up and placed him on her head. Humming to herself, she bounced away.
Twilight's jaw dropped. Still holding the frying pan, she turned to Spike; he shrugged his shoulders. She tossed the frying pan aside and lifted Spike onto her back. “Come on,” she said. “Let's go get that owl food.”
“Why that little!” Rainbow Dash lifted into the sky, her face scrunched into a scowl. She beat her wings, ready to speed off, but Twilight stopped her.
“Just let her go,” she said calmly. Twilight looked up at Rainbow Dash and said coolly: “Maybe some day she'll learn her lesson.”
With a sigh, Rainbow floated back down. Twilight turned her attention to the two little colts standing a few feet away from her. “Now,” she said. “About you two...”
Twilight threw herself onto her bed, allowing herself to sink into its downy softness. Spike had fallen asleep in the other room as soon as they got home, but she had stayed up. Something in the back of her mind told her that she knew that mare. After several hours of scanning yearbooks, and photo albums, however, she had turned up nothing. Eventually, she had to give up the search until the next day. Now she lay in the warm embrace of her comforter.
She rolled over and lay her head against the pillow, dragging another over to cover her eyes. Sleep began to ease its way in slowly.
The sudden removal of the pillow yanked Twilight from her slumber. Her mouth hanging agape, Twilight looked up to see a mare leaning over her.
“Trixie?” She nearly stumbled over the last few letters as they spilled from her mouth.
Trixie's lips curled into a thin smile. She leaned in; her snout nearly touched Twilight's, and her eyes seemed to glint in the moonlight.
“I—I saw you leave,” Twilight said quietly.
“Did you?” Trixie asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“I don't understand.” Twilight's mane rustled as she slowly shook her head. “What do you want?”
“Ah,” said Trixie as she moved her hoof to Twilight's face. “Now that is an interesting question.” She brushed the loose strands of hair out of Twilight's eyes, causing her to recoil. “Are you afraid of me?” Trixie's smile turned to a simper.
One hoof on either side of Twilight's head, Trixie leaned in further; her mane flowed like a waterfall onto Twilight's chest. “I want what I've always wanted,” she said finally, running her hoof across Twilight's face. “Mom and Dad were always so proud of you,” she said. “You were Celestia's faithful student after all.” Trixie ran a hoof through Twilight's mane. “I guess I wasn't good enough for you,” she lamented with a sigh.
Twilight's eyes shot open. She turned her head to stare into Trixie's eyes. Her mouth opened slowly. “Lula—moon?” she said softly. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth with each “l”. “I—I thought y—you died...” she stammered as her voice trailed off.
Lulamoon's smile soured. Her face scrunched up. “Yes,” she answered evenly. “I suppose it would've looked that way.”
“I—I can't believe you're alive.” Twilight's eyes grew into saucers. “W—what do you want?”
Lulamoon's smile returned. “Your attention,” she answered smoothly. Her words seemed to flow out like water, drowning Twilight.
“Well, you have it now.” Twilight smiled uneasily.
“I'm sure I do,” Lulamoon replied sweetly. Her horn began to glow. A pillow glided gently through the air, slowly sliding across Twilight's face as her eyes grew even larger.
“N—” she started to protest before the pillow's smothering cut her off. A wicked grin came over Lulamoon's face as she moved her hooves over the pillow and pressed down.
Wind rushed past her as she soared through the sky on angel wings. It played with her mane, blowing it about. Her tail bobbed up and down as the air currents passed over it. Her eyes began to water from the stinging wind. She squinted but kept her speed up. Rivers, valleys, and fields passed below her at incredible speeds. The sun's rays beat down harshly on her.
A dull, lightning bolt-shaped ruby attached to a gold necklace hung about her neck. She could feel its weight as it bounced against her chest in the wind. Her fore-hooves were stretched out before her as her wings beat faster and faster, picking up more speed. The rhythmic flapping of her wings, and the rush of the wind were the only things she heard as she flew.
From this height, she could see Ponyville with its many little houses and numerous inhabitants milling about. She rose up higher, beating her wings harder to gain more lift. The vast expanse of clear blue sky spread out in front of her. There were no more than a handful of clouds in the sky; the sun was able to rain its light down freely.
She banked west, turning her body to glide smoothly on the wind. Just on the edge of her vision she could see it; her home lay just a few flaps of her wings away. She gritted her teeth, narrowing her body and picking up more speed. She could still feel the weight of the ruby, but she refused to look down at it. Her eyes were focused on the mass of clouds in front of her.
Tens of thousands of trees passed beneath her as she flew over a forest. A tiny stream was barely visible through the canopy of leaves. The tiniest smile began to break through her tightly pursed lips. It tugged at the corners of her mouth, begging to be freed. She pushed it back. The amalgamation of clouds before her coalesced into familiar structures as she neared her home. A few moments later, and she was bursting through the door of her home.
She breathed a silent sigh as she saw her home, just the way she had left it. The soft clouds beneath her hooves depressed in a sponge-like way as she walked through her living room and into her bedroom. Sweat trickled down her forehead, mingling with the tears forming in her eyes. She hurried to the nightstand next to her downy bed. With careful haste, she pulled open the drawer, and peered inside.
It was still there. She reached in and pulled out a thin piece of paper. Her eyes began to water as she looked at the six ponies in the picture. All five of them were there, along with herself, surrounding her. She placed a hoof on the photo, running it across the surface. She pretended to brush her violet mane as she stared fondly at her.
The photo shook as a teardrop landed on it, splashing across her face. Then another and another fell. They drowned the ponies. She clenched her eyes shut, forcing more tears out.
“I'm sorry,” she said softly. “I'm sorry.”
The road stretched out before her, twisting and turning like a great, earthy snake. Her eyes closed, she breathed in deeply, allowing the scent of warm summer air to fill her nostrils. Slowly, a thin smile spread across her face; it tugged at her cheeks, pulling them farther and farther back until a wide grin covered her face.
She glanced over her shoulder. Behind her, a small town lay nestled in an emerald valley. Her smile faltered for a half-second; she blinked back tears.
As she walked away, her saddlebags felt heavy on her back. They were weighed down with food and supplies, but also something else.
A faint, blue glow emanated from her horn as she opened the bag and removed a small object wrapped in soiled rags. She unwrapped it carefully, revealing a pewter locket attached to a silver-plated chain. Magic engulfed the locket as it rose daintily from the rags and placed itself around her neck. Teardrops rolled off her cheeks, splashing on the dry ground.
So this is how it begins?
Rain poured down in buckets as she galloped through the muddy streets. The cold penetrated her body like an icy spear, chilling her to the bone; it soaked her blue coat, her mane hanging limply about her shoulders.
As she barreled down the street, she glimpsed a sign hanging from one of the buildings.
“Emporium of Illusory”
She slid to a halt in front of the shop. The sign rocked back and forth in the wind as she gazed up at it. Mind made up, she scrambled into the store, eager to get out of the rain.
She was greeted by the chiming of a charming little bell as the door swung open. Cold water dripped from her as she stood on the threshold. It soaked the wooden floor and left a wet trail as she walked further into the shop.
She looked around in awe as she saw rows upon rows of shelves stacked with all sorts of magical paraphernalia. Far in the back, she could see a hat and cape resting on a musty old mannequin. As she drew closer, she could tell that the violet silk was embroidered with all manner of gold and blue stars.
Her eyes widened into saucers as a tiny grin crept across her face.
“I see you've found her old robes,” came a dusty old voice from behind, startling her. She whirled around to see an old stallion, with stark white hair, hobbling towards her. He wore a rickety smile that seemed about as stable as his legs. He nodded towards the mannequin. “Those used to belong to a great and powerful magician, you know?” His horn glowed as he lifted the hat and cape from the mannequin and into her outstretched hooves.
They felt soft against her skin. “They're beautiful,” she remarked, her eyes fixated on the silken material.
He chuckled. “So they are.”
“I'm a traveling magician myself.” She stared transfixed at the robes. “Or at least that's what I want to be,” she added sheepishly.
“I might be persuaded to part with those”—he paused—“for the right price.”
She shrugged the saddlebags off and fished through them to find a small coin purse. She emptied the contents onto the floor and counted out the money.
“Eleven bits, that's all I have.”
He clicked his tongue. “I'm sorry, but that's not nearly enough.” The hat and cape were surrounded by a faint white glow as the lifted from her grasp. She hung her head. The locket, still hanging around her neck, caught his eye. “Perhaps we can make a deal,” he offered. “That locket—plus your eleven bits—for these.”
She bit her lip, looking down at the tiny locket. Tearfully, she removed it and hugged it close. Her eyes darted back and forth between the locket and the clothes. Finally, she clenched her eyes shut and handed the locket over.
He grinned toothily. “Excellent, we have a deal then!”
She took the hat and cape reluctantly and walked away. Tears fell onto the cloth, staining it. With one last look over her shoulder, she exited the shop.
After watching her leave, he looked down at the locket. White light consumed it as he pried it open. Inside he found a small picture of a smiling, sapphire unicorn; engraved on the side was a message: “Aim for the stars. Love always, Mom.”
My eyes open.
I am lying in my bed; sheets and comforter both caress me warmly. Shaking off the linens, I stand and a stretch out my limbs. I yawn once, a long, drawn-out yawn, and then head downstairs.
My family is sitting at the table. Breakfast has already been made, and they are waiting on me. Usually I'm the first one up, odd. I decide to ignore that thought and say good morning to Apple Bloom instead.
“Mornin', Apple Bloom; thanks fer the breakfast,” I say, only—no words come out. Instead, I hear nothing. I try to speak again and find that my mouth is closed. My hoof subconsciously moves to mouth. There's nothing there. I try to speak, but again—no words.
My eyes widen and I begin panicking. I look around frantically. Apple Bloom's head tilts and she gives me a funny look.
“Yer actin' kinda weird, sis,” she says.
“Weirder than a rattlesnake in a pickle barrel,” adds Granny Smith.
“Eeyup,” chimes in Big McIntosh.
“Y'all don't see what's happened?” I ask, knowing they can't hear me. But they do, and so do I. I open and close my mouth a few times and see that it seems to be fine. My mind races. “What was that?” I ask out-loud.
“What was what?” asks Twilight.
“Yeah, I didn't see anything,” adds Rainbow.
“Dear, I think you may need some rest,” says Rarity.
Apple Bloom, Big McIntosh, and Granny Smith stand in front of me with concerned looks upon their faces. Apple Bloom approaches me, holding a plate with a giant stack of pancakes. “Here,” she offers one of the pancakes to me, “take one of these. You'll feel better, I promise.”
“They'll totally make you feel better,” snorts Pinkie.
I take one of the apples carefully. Holding it up in the light, I can't see anything wrong with it; it's unbruised and perfectly green. I bite into the red delicious, feeling the warm juices spray across my lips. It tastes like iron.
Sticky red fluid drips from my mouth as I look at the heart. There is a large bite taken out of one ventricle, but it continues to beat—slowly, rhythmically. It emits a wet, thudding sound as I drop it to the ground. The apple rolls away, leaving a trail of blood.
I take a few steps back before bumping into something. I turn around to see Apple Bloom holding a plate of pancakes, a red smile across her face.
“Feel better, sis?” asks Fluttershy.
I back away again, slipping on some apple juice. As I land on the ground Granny Smith appears above me. Her head is turned all the way around, and her neck sticks out an odd angle.
“Don't hurt yourself now, dearie,” she laughs, her neck cracking as her head begins to spin around.
I scramble to my hooves and see Apple Bloom holding a plate of red delicious. “What's wrong?” she asks. “Didn't ya like my pancakes?” She offers me another apple.
I can see a gaping hole on the left side of her chest. She holds the apple out to me. It beats methodically. I knock the heart from her hoof, sending it flying across the room. It hits Big McIntosh in the chest, causing him to stumble backwards.
I rush over to him and see that he has a dark red spot, darker red than normal, on his chest. He moans as I pull the knife from his ribs.
“Eeyup,” he replies.
I toss the knife away.
“Watch where you're throwing those,” says Twilight, wagging her hoof.
“Twi, what's happening?” I ask frantically.
“Nothing,” she responds.
“I—I don't understand.”
“Understand?” asks Rainbow.
“Who said anything about understanding?” says Apple Bloom.
“Here,” she says, offering me a pancake. “These'll make you feel better.” Rarity holds out a dripping red apple. I clench my eyes shut and fall to the ground. I pull my hooves in close and rock back and forth.
My eyes open.
I am lying in bed; sheets and comforter both caress me warmly. I shake off the linens. They feel heavier than normal. I look down at my sheets and see dark red splotches all over them. My heart stops. I close my eyes.
My eyes open.
I am holding an apple.
Cold, hard light rains down from the florescent tubes hanging overhead. They bathe the entire laboratory in a bleak glow. They bathe my laboratory in a bleak glow.
I can't help but notice the one flickering light above me as I walk down one of the many rows of giant, water-filled, glass tubes. That will need to be fixed, I think.
In fact, this whole place could probably do with a little TLC. I had spent the better part of a year down here, but I had yet to finish my experiment. I was close, oh so close, but not quite there.
Originally, I had tried to recreate them from scratch; start with a blank slate, as it were. I glance to my right. My failures stare back at me. I shake my head. It was a shame I had wasted so much time on such a futile effort, and only to produce these... abominations.
They often had extra heads, legs, tails, horns, wings, eyes, snouts, even one with an extra brain, but no extra head. That one was rather fascinating. I tried to save it so that I could study the effects of—what presumably would turn into—hyper-intelligence. However, it—unfortunately—perished shortly after birth. It was quite a shame. Such opportunities don't come along all that often.
In any case, they were still excellent learning devices if nothing else. Were it not for them, I doubt I would have come as far as I have. Through them, I discovered that I needed a fully-grown host to start the process. An empty tube and a handful of cells won't do the trick. No to bring them back I needed living subjects.
Though that brought its own challenges to the table. I had to find living subjects first. Ones who were willing to be part of my research. As it turns out, no one was willing to volunteer. So I was forced to resort to rather drastic measures.
I only kidnapped a few at first, just five because I, foolishly, believed that would be all I needed. A month later I was fresh out of test subjects, but filled with more failures. Failures though they were, they did bring me that much closer to finally finishing.
I had successfully managed to replicate their basic features, minus a few minor hiccups such as missing eyes and such, but they still weren't perfect.
For example, I used an earth pony when trying to replicate a pegasus—and that hadn't worked quite as well as I had hoped. Rather than growing wings, like I had hoped, they grew these sickening, fleshy, masses that, if you looked at them right, kind of resembled wings.
Close, but not good enough. Of the five, four survived the first day, and only two the second day. By the end of the week. they had all passed. Regrettable as their deaths were, they were all necessary losses in the pursuit of something greater.
The next batch I brought in fared much better since by that time I, for the most part, knew what I was doing. I matched them up, pegasi to pegasi, unicorn to unicorn, and earth to earth. Finally, after much tweaking and fine-tuning I had managed to bring them back. Still though, my joy was short-lived as the subjects, again, died within the week.
I have to admit, I was angry. Over forty-six weeks of work lost because of their inability to cope. I was furious, but, as I said before, no loss is without a lesson. Through their deaths, I unlocked the secret to keeping them alive.
By the time I had acquired a few more subjects, I had already unfrozen their bodies. The accident had really done a number on them, but I was able to keep them mostly intact. Lifeless though they may be, I was still able to preserve their spirit.
Souls, apparently, were the missing element in my subjects. Well obviously they had their own souls, but they were not the souls I needed, so I had removed them. It's funny that I didn't see it before. It all seems so obvious now.
Now here I stand. My dream of restoring them about to come to fruition. In front of me are five tubes, five ponies, five Elements, five friends.
“Don't worry,” I whisper. “You'll be back soon.”