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96w, 1dWriting Gold
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6w, 1dAutumnal Derpinox 10 comments · 597 views
7w, 4dWe Have a Winner 15 comments · 691 views
Scootaloo was seventeen years old, but she didn't know it. All that the last pony knew was pain.
On three panicked limbs and a bloodstained hoof she limped madly towards the cliffside. Through gnashing teeth she hissed, her tortured breaths billowing out in frantic vapors that joined the gray mist wafting through the ruins of central Whinniepeg. The deep canyon that divided the city loomed ahead, and within the foreground of her bobbing vision there danced a bulbous copper shape in and out of focus. The Harmony hovered a mere seventy meters away. As Scootaloo limped and panted towards it, she could have sworn it was anchored to another continent.
Their howls: they split the streets of Whinniepeg like the savage ravine that had cataclysmically carved straight through the urbanscape. Stupidly, the young brown mare glanced back over her quivering flank. Through crooked goggles, she saw them: a wave of pale leather shapes that bounded after her, shaking the snow loose from the cobblestone with their ravenous stampede.
Scootaloo's breath shrieked against the cocoon of pain engulfing her. She hobbled and hobbled, every bone-crunching lurch spitting redder and redder blood against the monochromatic streets blurring underneath. A bright glint of steel laughed in the pale twilight; a crude metal weapon had been lodged into her left forelimb, and with each meter she traveled it bit and bit deeper at her muscles with rusted teeth. The leg would snap off at any moment; Scootaloo only galloped faster.
The Harmony tilted and spun gently on its anchored sway. Its copper frame blurred once more as the blood reached Scootaloo's scarlet eyes. The world crackled like a billowing stove beyond the veil of her throbbing skull, and she ran through it—she ran through the pain, her best and only friend in the Wasteland. And her friend caught her; in thorny gloves it hoisted her by the wings and yanked her off the cliffside, just as the leather bodies leaped screamily towards her hooves.
“H'jem!” the filly shouted in the death throes of weightlessness. The catseye aperture of the Harmony blindly flew open, and Scootaloo went crashing through, collapsing inside a womb of darkness. The last pony slammed against a workbench on the port side of the storage compartment. Runescaping tools and scraps of moonstone rained all over her as she sat up, eyes exploding through the veil to see the edge of the Whinniepeg ravine looming outside, and a solid wall of toad-skinned bodies flailing and rearing upon the precipice, their forest of beady white eyes locked on her. In their anger and hunger, several of the monstrosities jumped towards the Harmony—screaming—only to stupidly fall into the heart of a dead Equestria looming blackly below. The rest of them cursed and sneered at her, their fanged maws drooling, hissing, grinning.
The last pony swallowed down a rising geyser of bile. Sputtering, she finally managed a hoarse and whimpering “M'rhlym” into her quivering bracelet of horns. There shimmered a purple glow, and the magic incantation triggered a rune fastened to the Harmony's controls. With one simple directive, the airship magically lifted up, up, up towards the ashen gray miasma.
Scootaloo pivoted forward—collapsed to her agonized chest with a yelp—and desperately crawled towards the entrance of the hangar. The trolls whooped and cackled at her struggles from a distance. Before the airship could reach the length of its chains, Scootaloo stifled a howl and flung her one good forelimb towards the emergency release, severing all four anchor bolts with a hiss of steam. The gray snow outside billowed furiously as the ship's ascension reached a fever pitch, taking her away from the bifurcated graveyard of Whinniepeg and up into the cold embrace of the clouds.
Scootaloo quivered, cemented to the ground in the coalescing frost of her pulsating nerves. There was a fire inside her left front leg, eating her from the inside out. She didn't want to—she knew she didn't want to—but she had to see how bad it was. She prayed it didn't look nearly as massacred as it felt. “Mmmmnngh-Y-Y-Y-Y'lynwyn!”
Runes flickered on opposite sides of the storage compartment. Lanterns burned to life, casting a mournful glow over the swaying metal bulkheads littered with her tools... stained with her blood, hot blood, warm blood, pulsing blood. She no longer had a leg; it was a fountain. The fact that it still had the audacity to remain attached to her torso made the filly finally vomit into her mouth.
Spitting a green soup into the far corner, Scootaloo then rolled over with another shriek and took a quivering look at the invading metal shard. The trollish weapon sang a funeral dirge into the meat just above her knee, and the chorus was a crimson-soaked sea of copper barbs. No killing machine fashioned by trolls was ever meant to just break the flesh; the thing was undoubtedly brimming with some horrible poison or another, dredged up from the bowels of sundered Whinniepeg. The fact that it was hanging off Scootaloo's limb was not nearly as horrifying as the fact that it had to come out, and it had to come out now.
The sobs came sooner than she expected them to. She was stronger than this; she had prepared for this. She fought the tears as she fought to strip the leather saddlebag off of her. Pliable brown armor clattered apathetically towards the floor. Something rolled out—glowing sapphirically—a bottle of rune-capped blue flame that Gilliam had sent her there for, that he hadn't anticipated might kill her, that he probably didn't care about in the least.
Soon, she was naked, save for the sliver of unsightly metal violating her body. She towed it as she towed her other quivering limbs—scuffling—towards a rack of runestones. She fumbled with one good hoof until she knocked a white-and-red painted moonrock off its shelf and into her lap. Reaching next to a metal first aid box, she produced a tight leather bag of medicinal herbs that she had bought off of a strange flying squirrel she had just met a few weeks ago. The thought of his smoke-stained incisors briefly distracted her from the hellish task at hoof; she never understood why some creatures of this Wasteland would willfully destroy themselves from the inside out... not until now.
Eyes tearing, she yanked the pouch of herbs open with her snout and spread them in a cinnamon shower over the pulsating sinkhole gouged in her limb. It scorched her like acid rain. She hissed and whimpered like she was foaling death itself straight out of her torn flesh. This was just the start of the flames.
As the teetering Harmony surged her upwards to the heavens, she slowed her hyperventilation until her body became a wind instrument, hissing in tune with the gray ash outside. She had to do this quick, quick like the Cataclysm. She was strong enough. She was strong enough. She was—
The mare whimpered as she clamped her teeth over the wooden handle of the weapon, gripping to it like a rudder. Her brown ears drooped numbly. Cold eyes shut hard to a colder world and dove slowly, hellishly into the burning crimson heart beyond it. “Snkkt-Nnnghhhh!”
She pulled it out; she tore it out. Her soul splashed inside-out after it. Her eyes screamed open, and she wished that they hadn't. Strands of meat, a flash of bone—white horror, and it filled her insides like a million ghosts bleeding thunderously out her neck. The last pony had every sound in the world to scream, but she forced her knife-licking tongue to let loose one word and one word alone:
Instantly, the white and red moonrock burned in a violet glow. The rune seared red-hot, and the pony slammed the tool straight into the sopping hole excavated from her leg. The unicorn bracelet burst in manalight, and the inflamed stone began cauterizing the wound. There flew a gust of steam; Scootaloo smelled her flesh burning. She would have choked, were it not for the unearthly howl bursting up the opposite end of her trachea.
She spat the weapon onto the floor with an offending clatter, and followed it up with an encore of noise, deathly noise, the only noise she had ever grown to know—her noise. She twisted her maneless neck. She slammed and slammed the bulkheads with her one good forelimb. Her hooves clomped and formed scarlet-stained dents in the floor as she tossed and turned underneath the cloud of her cooked flesh. Tears rolled down her orange-brown snout, outracing the blood trickling from her bit lips as she curled up into the torture, sputtering and hiccuping like the little orange foal that had suddenly bubbled up to the brown surface.
“... Nnnnghh... D-D-Dghh... D-Dash... Dashieeee...nnnghhhh-Dashiiiiee...”
She screamed and murmured through the searing hot length of her healing, her words lost to the lifeless clouds billowing outside, the embrace of an empty world, the trolls' home, her home, the only home.
Harmony's amber eyes remained locked on the bloody metal teeth of the pitchfork. She licked her lips—only to remember that they weren't her own. The Entropan flesh tasted numb, devoid of all copper juices. There was a warmth that was once again cascading over the filly's flesh. The alien kiss of distant morning sunlight cradled her to the surreal moment at hand. She wrapped herself inside the spaces between her breaths and glanced dazedly towards the rest of the Apple Family.
“It all started a little over a month ago,” Applejack murmured. She leaned back against the wooden railings of the Apple Family's household porch beside Harmony. A few hooftrots away, Granny Smith sat on the edge of a wooden crate, wrapping a white bandage around one of Macintosh's bruised legs. The cold curtain of night had long melted, filling the air with a dew-laden haze that magnified the exhausted tone of the farm mare's voice. “Big Mac and I were fixin' to dig ourselves a new well along the north side of the acres. That plot of land always gets dry this time of year, ya see. We figured that if we built a new ditch to hold moisture, we could make waterin' trips to the northern orchards a might less tedious.”
Macintosh sighed, wincing slightly as Granny Smith closed one bandage, sliced the slack of the gauze off with a green cutting knife, and then proceeded to wrap another strip around the opposite limb of the crimson stallion. She too listened intently as her graying eyes reflected the distant glow of morning haze coming up over the starry horizon.
“Well, wouldn't you know it?” Applejack continued, glancing sideways at Harmony. “We dug and we dug and we dug—And suddenly the earth gave way all muddy-like, and we found this deep cavern hidden beneath the roots of our apple orchards. It was no ordinary cave, mind you. I roped myself down and gave it a little look-see. I was startled to find a bunch of gray statues of these creepy bug-eyed creatures lyin' in the depths of the hole-in-the-ground. It scared me something fierce, but Big Macintosh thought differently. He said that we had stumbled upon an Ancient Wonder of the First Age or some nonsense. I seriously don't know where he gets those silly ideas of his. I mean, you let 'em open his mouth just once and he takes off!”
The red-coated stallion in question cleared his throat with a slight frown, motioning his blonde head towards Harmony.
Applejack smiled sheepishly. “R-Right. Sorry, Macky,” she murmured, kicking her hooves against the wooden floorboards of the porch. “So we figured we'd call in Twilight to take a look at what we found, and see if she could put that noggin' of hers to good use and figure out just what we found. We slept on it. But when morning came, we visited the hole once again—and all of the statues were gone from the cave! At first, we reckoned it was magic. Them were some pretty strange statues, to say the least. Who knows why they were left so deep in the earth to begin with—or just what they were capable of doing.”
The orange mare shot her green eyes emphatically at Harmony, her lips quivering in the fright that was aroused by the following memories:
“But as the nights went by, we found out pretty darn quick what happened to the statues. They had become those creatures that you saw attack us! At first, though, it wasn't all that bad. We had little bits of property damage here and there across the farm. We figured it was a bunch of foals pullin' pranks on us. But as the weeks went on, things got worse. Them thick-skinned varmints came prancin' out of the forest, whoopin' and a'hollerin', smashin' into our granary, runnin' off with our work tools, and even spookin' the livestock. Then, one day, they began gettin' into their thick skulls just what it was that meant the most to our family, and they started eatin' at the apple trees, desecratin' the fruit, even settin' fire to an orchard or two. It was positively dreadful.”
With a sigh, Applejack stepped down on all fours and strolled lethargically towards Macintosh and Granny Smith.
“So, we took to comin' out at night, formin' a tiny little militia: Macky and myself—and we tried scarin' em away. That didn't work. So we resorted to chasin' them back into the woods every night. The whole time, they were merely playin' games with us. Finally, we sharpened our pitchforks and shovels and plotted to get the stomp on them mangy creatures once and for all. They only laughed at us, and started attackin' in twice the numbers, even vandalizin' our farmhouse when we were too plum scared out of our wits to come out and face them. Poor Macintosh here almost got bitten on three different occasions before y'all dropped in.”
Applejack sweetly nuzzled Big Macintosh's mane. The large stallion smiled gently at her, exhaling as the last of his bandages were applied by the elderly mare seated aside him. Applejack turned around, standing next to her kin as she gazed with a twinge of shame Harmony's way.
“I've never had to deal with a pest of this sort in all my years of managin' Sweet Apple Acres. Well, true, the parasprite swarm was pretty bad, but at least them critters were forgiveably cute. These... These 'trolls', though—there's no doubt that they're after our blood. It only figures; they've done everythang else that is in their ability to make us miserable. But we soon realized it wasn't just the four of us livin' on the farm that they wanted to upset. They wanted to get us through our apples. At the rate at which we were battlin' them, it was only a matter of time before they stripped our orchards of everythang we held dear. So, between Macky and me, we made the decision to perform the Apple Buck Season harvest as early as possible. We even contracted ourselves to deliver on the date that happens to be a day and a half from now. We thought we could get a jump on them varmints by shippin' the apples out early, as if that would make 'em bored and they'd just go away. But... we were wrong.”
Harmony slowly nodded as she digested all of this. In a firm voice, she replied, “Miss Applejack, it was brave of you to do what you did. Obviously your family has undergone a great deal of hardship with these trolls. But did it ever occur to you that it might become an issue for Ponyville as well? About a year ago, Canterlotlian... uh... records—yes, Canterlotlian records chronicled an incident in your village's downtown where an Ursa Minor went on an inexplicable rampage and caused several cases of property damage. It goes without saying that this sort of a thing can instantly collect the attention of Princess Celestia—especially if it could have been stifled long before it became a threat.”
“Applejack, dearie...” Granny Smith placed the green cutting knife down onto a wooden crate before shakily swiveling her lime snout the orange mare's way. “You told me that you and Macintosh had a hoofhold of this situation! And look at you now! You've sparked the attention of the Canterlotlian Agricultural Committee or what-not!”
“And I thought that Macintosh and I had everythang under control! Honest, I did!” Applejack gulped and wrenched her shuddering gaze from Granny Smith and onto Harmony. “Miss Harmony, please believe me. We never meant to begin some sort of horrible incident. Truth is, we found them creatures when they were nothin' but harmless stone statues in the dirt. The next thing we knew, we were dealing with some mangy punks comin' out of the forest! We never realized they would be so blood-thirsty and dangerous! By the time we had gotten knee-deep in tusslin' with them, it became apparent just what kind of a mess we were in. But we had every intention of dealin' with it ourselves! We figured that once we got the apples away, they'd be gone! But... But obviously they don't fancy us getting' that far.”
“Even if you can get the harvest done on time, all that's going to do is save the apples,” Harmony said. “I know how much your produce means to you, Miss Applejack, but I also know that your family and your land means so much more. And I hate to say it—but the trolls aren't interested in your land. They're interested in you.”
“Us?” Applejack, Granny Smith, and Macintosh blinked as one.
“Your misery, your suffering, and your sorrow,” Harmony spoke as she paced before them on steadily clopping hooves. “There's a reason why trolls naturally live underground, under bridges, or in the shadows of forests. They were such a murderous blight upon the primordial landscape of Equestria, that Princess Celestia locked them away in Tartarus long ago, even before the First Age had ended. At the first exposure to sunlight, they turn instantly to stone. This is the sort of curse that can only be countered by exposure to twilight, which history can thank Discord for.”
“D-Discord?” Applejack blinked innocently. Macintosh was similarly scratching his mane with a confused hoof. Granny Smith sat gravely still.
Harmony blinked, briefly seeing the many golden words of Princess Celestia threading across immaculate ivory pages that shimmered in the Harmony's lanternlight. The time travelling pegasus swiftly explained, “Discord was a powerful, malevolent entity that poisoned the earth during the Second Age, following the Sundering of the God Consus and the Goddess Epona's Exodus into the Cosmos. Canterlotlian history books blame Discord for the Chaos Wars, during which time trolls—as well as other monstrosities—murderously skittered across the fertile landscape, doing Discord's bidding, biting into and shredding apart every living thing that they could see. Miss Applejack, when you dug up the hole with the buried statues inside, you incidentally gave these creatures a chance to be exposed to twilight once again. They must have risen out of the well during the night and made a home in the forest. Even ten thousand years of being encased in stone can't drain these freaks of the will-to-mayhem that Discord enhanced within them. All they know is that earth ponies gave them freedom once more, and they will stop at nothing until they have caused those same ponies—until they have caused you—as much misery and suffering as possible.”
“But... But why?” Applejack exclaimed with a disgusted expression.
“Just because, Miss Applejack,” Harmony muttered. “They're trolls.”
“Yer book smarts on these varmints is impeccable,” Granny Smith stammered. “They really do teach ya a lot in the Royal Court of Canterlot, now don't they?”
Harmony smiled, but with subtlety. “Many things I have simply taught myself, ma'am. You'll be surprised how much a good grasp of history can help you...” Her lips trailed and her eyes briefly darted towards the dawn's horizon. “...in the future.”
“I just feel so plum horrible,” Applejack exclaimed. She sniffled slightly, then leaned over to nuzzle Macintosh once more. “If I had known that Macintosh here would nearly have bitten the proverbial poison apple, I would never have considered trappin' those varmints from the get-go!”
“Don't be so hard on yourself, Miss Applejack.” Harmony walked over and gently smiled at her. “Nopony this side of Equestria has dealt with a band of trolls like this in centuries—millennia, even. I don't think any citizen—farmer, magician, or flier—could have dealt with what your family has gone through all this time.”
“And it would have killed us too.” Applejack gulped. “But then you showed up. Because of you, Macintosh and I are still alive. Miss Harmony, I-I don't rightly know how I can thank you enough.”
“I didn't come here to make anyone indebted to me—To be perfectly frank, I'm just as surprised as you are.” Harmony sighed as she rubbed her chin and murmured into the quiet air surrounding herself: “Why are they here, Spike? Why now?” A deep gulp, and she added. “Why am I here...?”
“You...” Applejack bit her lip. “You reckon that you'll be flyin' back to Canterlot and callin' in the Royal Guard? I mean—on account of the mess we've made and all?”
Harmony looked up at her to say something, but her mouth lingered in a numbing gape. She gazed briefly past the three sets of eyes being thrown her way. All of that strength and earth pony pride crumbled in an instant, like famined horses shrinking into a deep corner for fear of a great hammer being thrown down upon them. It was such a sickly pathetic sight that Harmony almost wished that the green flames had yanked her back to the future right then and there.
Beyond them was another sickly sight, one that still reverberated across the hollowed-out spirit of the thirty-three year old time traveler. She saw a lone filly bleeding against metal bulkheads, curling into a pathetic fetal position under cauterizing steam. Somepony's named was called out, a whimper that was as immutable as time, but everything was all too quickly crumbling under the emotionless hiss of a gray world enshrouding her.
Right there, on the front porch of the Apple Family, twenty-five years before a pegasus would stand bleeding atop a fountain in the middle of a Ponyvillean graveyard surrounded by her eternal enemies, that same grayness was spreading—like a cancer—and its pale leathery roots were twisting about the eye sockets of all three ponies staring her way. The trolls were invaders from the past, but Harmony knew better. They brought with their teeth and claws the bitter poison of an unbearable Wasteland beyond. Their sheer presence on the farm was too timely, too sadistically and maliciously appropriate for the last pony's infinitely unpredictable arrival then and there.
The Apple Family had become victims of a battlefield drawn up in a limbo of irony before the dawn of time. This farm was now the unwitting site for a clash between the chaos of the past and the misery of future. The sinister presence of those creatures had infected the farm ponies, had leeched their souls of their Elektran spirit. Harmony could see their faces awash in hopelessness, like dried-up bone, and before ghostly black hollows threatened to burrow outward from the centers of their skulls, Harmony prayed for something—anything—that might cosmically salvage that pitiful moment, as she in all her Entropan charisma had utterly failed to do thus far.
Before Harmony could formulate a much-needed response to Applejack's statement, there was a creaking noise just behind her. The heads of the Apple Family turned, and the pegasus swiveled as well. She froze in place, as if a burning hoof had clasped firmly over her heart.
A tiny pale foal with a fountain of red hair stood, blinking dazedly in the frame of the half-opened screen door of the porch. Her hooves were clad in dainty pink socks and her mane was a tussled, crimson mess. “Mac? AJ? Granny? What's goin' on out here? Have the scary things come back t'haunt us tonight?”
“Nothin' that yer older brother and sister can't tackle, Apple Bloom. Go back to bed—T'ain't mornin' yet.”
“But you guys are makin' such a racket—” The blank-flanked filly yawned her petite mouth and teetered where she dazedly stood. “I was havin' a dream that I got my cutie mark.”
“Then go lie down and you just might get it: A big fluffy pillow laced with sparkles—Now git!”
“Mmmm—alright.” The child was about to slink back into the house when her thinned eyes caught hold of Harmony's frame. She looked up at her. “Wh-who are you?”
Harmony's chest thundered. She stood frozen in place like she was a statue herself, and she was too far gone from the twilight of the Wasteland to melt back. All she had was this burning naked now, and it terrified her as much as it enraptured her.
“This here's Harmony, Apple Bloom—darlin',” Granny Smith interjected with a sweet smile. “She's here to help us with the farm. Everything's alright, though. Just adult pony business: that's why we're all up so early.”
“Oh, okay.” Apple Bloom smiled tiredly. “Hello, Miss Harmony.”
Harmony's lips gently parted, a soft smile melting forth as she forced her head to tilt down towards her old, old friend. “H-hello there, Apple Bloom.” She swallowed something sore down her throat and breathed, “You have really gorgeous hair, sw-sweetie.”
“Mmmm...” The yellow-coated foal blushed slightly and reached a hoof up to her cowlicked mane. “If y'all say so.” A slight smile. “You should see me when I'm wearin' a pink bow in it.”
“I... I-I imagine that would be quite a sight.” Harmony nearly choked, keeping her hooves steady. They felt like they were three meters off the ground, and numb.
“Well, so long, Miss Harmony.” Apple Bloom adorably yawned yet again, swiveled around, and padded her way into the shadowed depths of the house towards her bedroom.
Harmony gazed into the varnished foundation of the farmhouse, her brow cascading weakly over her eyes as several memories of treehouse escapades, musical rehearsals, and mid-afternoon wagon rides flickered across her weathered mind like so much ash and snow. The thoughts sunk away at the speed of light, only to bounce back to the mind's surface with all of the combined smells, sights, and sounds of that thickly real farmland surrounding her—and suddenly her time traveling soul self trembled, as if suddenly aware of a thousand razor-toothed bodies closing in from all sides.
The trolls would rip and tear Sweet Apple Acres to the ground, and Apple Bloom along with it. No amount of metal traps, no multitude of stampeding hooves, no army of warhorses in all of Equestria could stop this bright green earth from suffering the molestation that was coming to it. The spilling of blood and the sundering of the land: these heartless monstrosities had already set it all in motion long before the time traveler had even arrived there.
The Cataclysm could not be avoided. Harmony knew this. The trolls, however—they did not belong to this world. They belonged to the Wasteland; they would inherit it. Everything about their presence in Applejack's warm and lovely time felt wrong, just like Harmony in the numb shell of her Entropan projection felt wrong, though she hesitated to stop savoring the warm breath of the fleeting moment to admit such nausea.
Harmony had suddenly and unwittingly acquired the means to contact Princess Celestia, but such a victory could only come about after riding the crest of a bloody melee that would take several ponies' blood, if not their lives. The trolls were none of Harmony's concern; they shouldn't have been her concern. Still, they were there; and she was there. A coincidental juncture of several souls possessed with violence and one shadow of a soul tempered by violence was too miraculous to overlook, too significant to ignore, and too shameful to toss frivolously into the authoritarian hooves of a long-dead Princess, even if for the sake of scrubbing clean a future that only one pony could ever see, even if for a fleeting few years of lonely misery that mimicked the poison that dripped off the fangs of those sick and viral beasts.
The Apple Family had given all of their lives to the earth. In just one day, Harmony had arrived, and all she had managed to give the land was a fleeting respect that rode the coattails of a desperate experiment that wouldn't be concocted until twenty-five years from then, where a purple dragon stood side by side with the last pony—swimming helplessly in the all-encompassing hollow of a farm mare's skull—pondering over the depths to which this green flamed scavenger might dip into the golden moments of Equestrian innocence, but never once anticipating to what degree she might pollute it.
“What good would Celestia do us now, Spike?” she murmured silently to the air. He didn't answer her, but her voice came back to whisper above any hint of the notion. “What good could I do now?”
A veritable eon of contemplation was really just a naked seven seconds, at the end of which Granny Smith's voice could be heard gently shaking the silence. “There's only one thing that should be done at this point,” she said in perfect somberness aimed Applejack's way. “We should let Miss Harmony here contact them guard ponies from Canterlot. They can certainly take care of the trolls.”
“But Granny!” Applejack's voice hissed. “What would become of the farm?! The Canterlotlian Court would slap our name onto a list of Equestrian laughing stocks! Nopony would want to buy from our harvest next year! Heck—if it turns out that we just plum resurrected the chaotic army of some nasty feller named Discord, I rightly wouldn't blame Celestia for wantin' to banish every single one of us to the moon!”
“AJ, darlin'—I've been living on this farm a long time. And I know more than anypony how important it is to give to the earth. But it so happens that this very same land gave me you, Macintosh, and lil' Apple Bloom. And I'd be plum sore if I went to my dyin' stable knowin' that I allowed the three of you to suffer from these horrible creatures because you were so gul-durn concerned about making sure the apples were delivered. We need Canterlot's help!”
They all looked Harmony's way. “M-Miss Harmony...?”
“Ahem...” Harmony cleared her throat, blinked her eyes dry, and spun around to gaze at them firmly. “What I mean to say is: No, seeking Canterlot's help isn't the best option right now, at least if you want to keep your farm—and your lives in check.”
“Are ya serious?” Applejack squinted through the haze of the coming dawn. “Ya mean to say that after all this time of badgerin' me and Macky here to play along with yer chivalrous routine—You've got the gall to say we shouldn't contact yer Royal Court over this troll nonsense?”
“It's because there's an extent of truth to your concerns here, Miss Applejack.”
The farm mare blinked nervously. “Th-there is?”
Harmony took a deep breath. The sunrise was blossoming behind her. She knew it; she could feel it, but for this suddenly brave and shamefully dashing moment she refused her Entropan self the chance to turn around and bask in it. A daring breath was bubbling up through her, and if this coming slight of hoof did not pass the lucid scrutiny of the Element of Honesty before her, she might as well have returned to the future and told Spike to suck in the rest of his green breath, for there would be no more use of time traveling after this.
Navigating the thorny labyrinth of a split second gambit, “Harmony” authoritatively spouted forth: “Trolls are as old as Equestrian Civilization. As a result, there has been... litigation that has lasted as long as Equestrian Civilization.” Harmony eyed the curves in Applejack's face like she navigated the crumbling fjords of her conscience, speaking, “Namely, if anypony or ponies are discovered to have been harboring the living refuse of the Chaos Wars—in any fashion—they and all of their assets will be immediately seized by the Royal Court of Canterlot... indefinitely.”
Applejack and Macintosh immediately paled, as if having stared down the incoming kiss of a deathly locomotive.
Granny Smith spoke up, tossing a quizzical squint at the pegasus. “What is the name of this here fancy litigation?”
Harmony fearlessly stared back at the graying mare. “It's called the 'Act of Accord,' and it's as harsh a regulation at it is ancient, though no less impermeable. In her long life of ruling over Equestria, Princess Celestia has seen to it that no mercy is granted to the proliferation or preservation of yesterday's weapons of chaos. The penalties for crimes committed under the 'Act of Accord' are far too devastating to imagine befalling a quaint and well-to-do farm as what your family has grown here at Sweet Apple Acres.”
“But... I've met Princess Celestia!” Applejack briefly removed her hat and murmured from a deepening shadow. “Surely Her Majesty could see that what's happened here has been purely an accident!”
Harmony shook her head with carefully constructed moroseness. “I wish that were true, Miss Applejack, but it's not. When it comes to the 'Act of Accord,' even the Princess must work against her typical spirit of mercy. The last time she had shown leniency to transgressors was just prior to the Third Age, and it resulted in Nightmare Moon suddenly acquiring new legions to the Lunar Republic's Army. There is no feasible way that the Canterlotlian Court will simply overlook the waking of the trolls that has happened here. To so much as breathe a word to my superiors about this would mean the utter end of this farm, and everything you've ever worked for.”
The silence that followed Harmony's brash proclamation was deafening. She watched with muted anxiety as the wheels turned in Applejack's mind from afar. To her somber relief, the heinous weight of a week's load of bucking apples and battling trolls had softened the hardened edges of Applejack's suspicion, so that the intravenous fabrication fluttered down and enshrouded the farm mare like a gentle melancholic cloak.
Harmony's words had circumnavigated the fortress of the Element of Honesty. It deserved no celebration, especially as she saw a pair of gray eyes—suddenly piercing—hovering from behind the hung heads of the two younger farm ponies. Granny Smith was staring decidedly at Harmony, and Harmony stared back. In a pale and naked breath, the two souls shared a common gaze, and strategically kept the bridge silent in the advent of the morning sun.
“Then...” Applejack murmured like the helpless foal she suddenly was. “Wh-what do you mean to propose, Miss H-Harmony?”
A copper smile returned placidly to the time traveler's face as she flung her eyes back towards Applejack by the simple grace of Granny Smith's silence. “What I mean to say is a simple reinforcement of what you told me earlier, Miss Applejack,” Harmony said as she paced over towards the three of them. She stared decidedly at the two younger ponies as she spoke, “You have all done nothing but give to the earth. And it wasn't the Earth that gave you these trolls. Cataclysmic things happen in an unfair world. But, for once, I'm not going to buy it. Not this time. I'm not about to let strong and honorable ponies like yourselves be defeated so easily. What happens on your land stays on your land—but you can't do it all on your own like you've tried so far. You're going to need my help. And for once, it's time that I stated a fact. And that fact is that I am not—and I repeat—not going to take 'no' for an answer. You're going to let me help you, and together we will get the apples harvested in time for your client's delivery. All of the apples.”
Applejack gazed back at Macintosh and Granny Smith. Macintosh nodded helplessly, Granny Smith knowingly and solemnly. Gulping, the farmfilly nevertheless looked towards Harmony with a nervous expression. “B-but... What do you reckon about them varmints? We're helpless without the assistance of Canterlot, and yet we're doomed with them knowin' about it! Just what does that leave us with, Miss Harmony?”
“Let me worry about the trolls. I...” Harmony sighed and rubbed a hoof over an aching temple. “I-I'll think of something. Trust me, if there's one thing I've learned in my life”—she breathed with a gentle, weathered smile—“it's that I do my best thinking when I'm working hard to survive. And believe you me—I intend to do a lot of hard work, as soon as Her Majesty's Sun rises up over the horizon there. The question is, are you going to let me?”
Applejack swallowed, dusted off a lock of her blonde mane and flung it over her neck. Stamping her hooves down, she smirked Harmony's way. “Well, what are y'all waitin' for? Time to get them dainty wings of yers dirty, copper-bottom!”
Harmony's first breath of relief in hours came like an autumn wind. She smiled briefly at Applejack, but once more returned her gaze to the piercing gray eyes of an elder mare. With a polite nod, she murmured, “You and your brother should get prepared. I will join you briefly. There's a lot to be done. I should probably... uhm... m-meditate... or something first.”
“Suit yerself. I personally tend to meditate over a steamin' bowl of oatmeal.” Applejack swiftly trotted past the copper pegasus and whistled over her shoulder. “Big Mac! Let's get 'er done! Time's a-waistin'!”
The red stallion marched after her. The clopping sounds of the farm ponies danced in the echo of the nearby barn, followed by a rattling cadence of wicker baskets, wagon wheels, and farm tools. Harmony glanced over her shoulder, briefly worrying that her anchor might incidentally canter too far off. This anxiety was all too appropriately curtailed by a gray shadow that swallowed the golden rays of an invisible sunrisen. Granny Smith had waddled up and was gazing at the time traveler with a stern softness.
“Miss Harmony, there ain't no such thing as an 'Act of Accord'.”
Harmony took a deep breath, cowardly avoiding the elderly mare's gaze. “I know.”
“I've been around long enough to know what's what in the Court of Canterlot. Not only are you outright lyin' to my flesh and blood, but by decidin' to take on these horrible varmints on yer own, you're riskin' the lives of everypony I've ever held dear.”
“Miss Harmony, look at me.”
The pegasus bit her lip. She glanced up from underneath a mat of black mane hair and obediently made eye contact.
Granny Smith's pupils were like twin pools of acid, but a placid heart bubbled patiently underneath. Nevertheless, she silkily grilled the visitor. “What makes you think that you and you alone could somehow possibly... feasibly be the solution to this here troll problem?”
“An even better question,” Harmony bravely spoke, “is what inspires you to not raise a peep about this in front of your grandfoals, since you're obviously so concerned?”
“Faith, child,” Granny Smith murmured in a stale voice. “I still have faith in a gift, a gift that was given me by this ever-surprisin' world. It was a gift that saw me through the first winter of raisin' young Apple Shine. It was a gift that gave me hope and joy on his first foalday. And it was a gift that gave me rhyme and reason to walk today—unassisted by newfangled gadgetry—so that I strolled around the farm with an energy that I didn't reckon I still had. It was all because I saw you, and was overjoyed and inspired by you. But now I need to know—and you need to help this frail old lady know—whether or not her faith deserves to be where it is. Are you a gift, or are you a curse, Miss Harmony?”
Harmony took a deep breath. The shadows shifted before Granny Smith's endless gaze, so that the pegasus briefly imagined a brown coat and a shaved mane flickering beneath a pathetic spectrum. She glanced once more over her shoulder, towards the reddening barn in the sunrise, towards the two young farm ponies beneath, and towards the rusted metal weathervane above it all... a sharp weathervane.
The time traveler blinked. The simplicity of what had to follow next was like the roof to Sugarcube Corner being raised over a bleeding scavenger. She sauntered past the lime-coated elder and immediately swiped the green cutting knife from atop the wooden crate.
Granny Smith blinked at her with sudden and unnerving fright. “Miss Harmony, what in tarnation are you—?”
“Be calm, Ms. Smith,” Harmony breathed in a low voice, “And watch.”
That said, the copper pegasus held the sharp blade high and fearlessly slammed it into the soft flesh of her left knee. The shattering noise that followed could have pierced eardrums; Granny Smith was too numb to even flinch. Anchored by bright eyes, she watched incredulously as the solid metal blade bent and broke into several indiscernible shards. As for the “Canterlotlian Clerk's” foreleg...
There was not a scratch on her.
“Ms. Smith,” a gentle voice entreated.
The lime-coated pony shuddered.
“Ms. Smith,” Harmony repeated, approaching her with gently clopping hooves.
“Oh G-Goddess,” Smith stumbled back and sunk deflatedly to her haunches. “Oh Goddess, Oh Goddess, Oh Goddess!” The shuddering gesture pathetically bled into something resembling a deep and frightened bow. “Epona, forgive me—!”
“Ms. Smith!” Harmony squatted down and grasped her hooves around the elder's. “Breathe with me. Just breathe. It's okay. Don't be scared.” She stared deep into the old mare's gray eyes, like navigating an ashen fog of tomorrow. Effortlessly, the last pony said, “I don't know who you think I am, or what you think I am. But let me assure you, I'm none of those things. I'm something different.” She took a brave breath and then gently uttered, “And yet I'm something more.”
The old mare trembled, struggling to stay still in the visitor's calm grasp. She rattled like a bag of half-buried bones, barely keeping within the gaze of those amber eyes reflecting her. “B-but how... But how... Wh-what are you made of, child? Your leg... Oh Elektra alive, your leg!”
“I have some of the answers, but not enough of them. That's more or less why I'm here, Ms. Smith. I can't pretend to tell you more, because I rightly don't know more. But I do know this—Something which you yourself know, because you yourself have told me.” She swallowed deeply and summoned the hardest smile of her life in order to pacify the shuddering soul before her. “I may or may not be a gift. I may or may not be a curse. But if there's one thing that I definitely am—it's timely. The trolls are here, and I am here, and it's too good an opportunity for me to pass up. I must take care of this, and it must be me alone. To let this go into any other pony's hooves—royal or not—would desecrate the opportunity here.”
“What opportunity?” Granny Smith stammered, though her shivers were fading in Harmony's immutable embrace. “Why tell me about this and not my grandchildren? Why show me and not Canterlot, child?”
“Because we have something in common, Ms. Smith, even if you cannot immediately fathom it. You and I—we both know what it means to lose things. We both understand the irredeemable agonies that the tragic lengths of life can unfold upon a pony. But your children, this land, this beautiful and spotless world—it's not ready for pain the likes of which these trolls bring. And while I have it within my power to put a stop to them, it would be a crime to fall short of that contingency.”
“But do you have the power to do such a thing, child?” Ms. Smith swallowed and murmured, “Your body is like the spirit of an Alicorn, but your voice echoes loneliness and despair. I can hear it now: it's like a dusty bell tower that hasn't been rung in forever. Can I have faith in... in something that doesn't have faith in itself?”
Harmony's amber eyes moistened slightly. She choked back something bitter and gently stroked the calming elder's cheek. “I'm starting to.” She painfully smiled. “Because a pony like you—however briefly—had faith in the first place. Where I come from, Ms. Smith, a living pony's faith like that could light my path for years.” The pegasus took a deep breath, blinked her eyes towards the ceiling of the porch until they were once more dry. She desperately murmured, “Please... please continue to trust me, Ms. Smith. I will make things work out. I may not know how yet, but time is on my side—on our side, in ways that neither of us can begin to guess, much less need to.” She cleared her throat and smiled with sudden bravery. “Your family has given so much to the Earth. Could it be possible that the Earth has given you me?”
Granny Smith had suddenly been drawn to the moist pools blinking before her. She reached a hoof out and stroked the unblemished coat of the pegasus' foreleg. “I had always dreamt of a gift... but never in such heavenly packaging.” She smiled like the proud mother she once was—and forever would be. “It's a wonder to be alive, child.”
The last pony blinked away the flames of the future and whispered, “I'll make sure of it.”