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“This is boring.”
Piro lounged on a large, fluffy pillow as he stared at Twilight's library from the second floor of a two-story house. Just beside him was a chessboard, where an epic battle of light and dark was taking place. He turned to his right to address the speaker. “The game, or the work?”
“Both,” Ace said with a yawn. He scrutinized the board before a piece hovered forward in a green aura. “Pawn to E3. It's no fun getting destroyed all the time.”
“Then you should start winning.” Piro moved a piece to the newly occupied square. To his delight, there were currently more black pieces than white. “Knight to E3. Check.”
Ace muttered a curse. “Maybe you should start letting me win! Or at least give me some tips on what I'm doing wrong.”
Where would be the fun in that? I love trouncing amateurs like you. He watched Ace squirm in the silence as his eyes bored holes in the chessboard.
“Queen to E3,” he finally said, moving the large piece.
Piro laughed. “Rook to A1. Checkmate.”
Ace's jaw dropped. He searched for any possible means of escape. After a moment, he hung his head and sighed heavily. “Yep, that's definitely checkmate. Guess I'm not very good at following your advice.”
“You'll have to work on that.” Piro cleared the board with a sweep of his hoof, then extended it towards him as if asking for a dance. “Would you like another thrashing?”
Ace looked up through his eyelashes. “Have you always been this irritating, or is it just my imagination?”
Piro gave a half-smirk. “You're not the only one who's bored. You just happen to be the only outlet for my frustrations.”
He asks questions he knows the answers to, and he wonders why I treat him like an idiot. Piro picked up the black Queen with his magic. He tapped it against his temple, then nodded at Canterlot Castle, visible on the cerulean horizon through the window.
Ace picked up the white Queen and held it up to his eye. “You still don't trust her, do you?”
Piro closed his eyes. A stone, roofless room littered with death. A twelve-sided array blazing with multicolored light. A broken unicorn mare in the corner, gasping for breath as she sat in pool in her own blood.
The shadow of regret gnawed at his mind as he stared hard at his partner. “The last time we trusted her, we woke up in a room filled with burnt corpses.”
Ace covered half his face with a hoof. “For the last time: That. Was. An accident. Nopony meant for that to happen, least of all the Princess.”
“She didn’t tell those researchers the dangers of the ritual.” Piro threw the black Queen into the box. “And now she tells lies to her own personal student.”
Ace slammed the chesspiece back on the board. “Why do you keep saying that?! She's not lying to anypony!”
The loud noise caused Piro's own anger to surge to the forefront of his mind. “She's withholding the truth!” He pointed out at the library. “What else do you call that? Who's to say she's not doing the same with us?!”
Ace crossed his hooves and glowered at Piro. “It’s not the same thing. She’s being considerate of their feelings. How would you feel if you were their age, and you were suddenly burdened with this kind of responsibility?"
Why did I have to get stuck with him? Piro felt a dull pressure building inside his head. He fought back the urge to rub his eyes as he took a breath through his nose.
Ace rose from his pillow. “We’ve been gone for one thousand years, Piro. A thousand years! I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to live that long. How can we understand what kind of plans or goals the Princess has?”
Piro regarded both him and his words, sneering with a note of disgust. He still thinks of her like a Goddess. They all do, but Ace has always been the worst. I suppose I can try to give him a taste of reality, but I doubt he will like it.
He rose to meet Ace's eyes. “Did it ever occur to you, that if you were to live that long, you might have a different perception of the passing of time?”
Ace said nothing, but a flicker in his eyes and a slight twitch in his right eyelid was all Piro needed to see. He broke his gaze and turned away into the living room.
“Of course you didn't. You just said you can't imagine what it's like. Which is pretty sad, considering the imagination you have at your disposal.” Piro nodded to an easel on the far wall, which displayed a half-finished painting of masterwork quality.
Piro turned to his partner. His face was calm, but his voice was like a dagger. “You can't imagine what it's like to live for one thousand years? Maybe you should try. You'll find yourself seeing another point of view.”
Ace rolled his eyes and waved a fawning hoof. “And what view is that? Please tell me, oh all-knowing one.”
Piro looked up at the ceiling, smiling at the attempted insult. “Celestia obviously has the best interests of Equestria at heart. The nation wouldn’t be peaceful or prosperous if she didn't. But in order to maintain that peace and prosperity, she has to play a long game.” A black pawn flew over to him in a bloody glow. “And in a long game, the pawns are the first and most readily sacrificed.”
Ace picked up a piece of his own. “We’re not pawns. We’re Knights.”
“Indeed we are!” Piro tossed the piece back into the box. “But do you think the Princess sees us that way?”
“Of course she does!” Ace said hotly. “How could she not, after everything we’ve done?”
“And there you reveal your ignorance,” Piro said with a jab of his hoof. “Think about it. What are we to someone who's lived for a thousand years?”
Ace flinched like he’d been slapped. He tried to hide the motion by looking at something in the corner.
Didn’t like that, did you? Probably won’t like some salt in the wound, either. Piro’s voice dropped to a whisper. “We’re like matchsticks to her, Ace. Matchsticks before the Sun. Fragile and weak, not even able to stand against a brisk wind. And while we may burn brightly for the swiftest of moments, we then wither and die, leaving nothing behind but a husk."
Piro’s eyes took on an odd glint. “Celestia has seen countless generations born, come of age, perform feats of valor, then grow old and die. And she will see countless more before her time comes, if it ever does at all. She and Princess Luna are constants in a world of change. So if you think about it, in the grand scheme of their lives, we're not only quite forgettable, we're also quite... expendable.”
Ace’s ears flattened back against his skull as he turned a slight tinge of red. “Get to the point, Piro.”
“My point is that you need to start thinking. For. Yourself.” He enunciated the words as clearly as he could. “Stop blindly following Celestia like a mindless lemming. As you said, we have no idea what plans and goals she has. You paint it in a positive light, but I’m saying that because of her nature, the truth may be a few shades darker.”
The white Queen fell onto the floor as Piro knocked it over with his magic. It rolled over to him, coming to rest at his hooves.
“And if that’s the case, we need to be prepared to act on our own.”
Ace looked at him incredulously. “You'd have us commit insubordination?”
He always jumps to such harsh words. Piro shook his head. “There's no reason to do anything yet. The barrier is stable for now, but if the Bearers still aren't ready when the Stasis spell ends, we need to do something.”
“And if that something is in direct violation of our orders?”
Piro walked back over to his pillow and laid down. “Best case scenario? We stabilize the barrier, and get brought before the Disciplinary Board. Worst case scenario? Same as if we don't try anything at all.”
Ace pursed his lips as his eyes shifted back and forth. He began looking around the room, focusing on distant objects.
And now to reel him in. “So, are you interested?”
Ace looked down to see that the chessboard was set back up, with Piro looking at him expectantly.
“In another game?” Ace asked. “Or in helping you with your plan? Because if I know you at all, you already have one.”
Perhaps there is an analytical side to that imaginative mind of his. Piro gave him a half-smirk. “Both.”
The Next Day-
Fluttershy stepped outside of her cottage into the crisp morning air, only to stop as she hit a wall of gray that limited her view of the world. She reached forward with a hoof and pushed at the barrier. It was soft and spongy, reluctant to give in to her prodding. She put her full weight into it, only to have it give way, sucking in her hoof and almost taking her with it. She gave a frightened meep and pulled back, retreating into her cottage and slamming the door.
Fluttershy skittishly peeked her head out through the curtains of her living room window. Oh dear. This is one of the few times where I wish I wasn’t a pegasus! This is really going to slow me down. I was planning on going to the market today to get more chicken feed, but I hate walking in the fog!
She sat down on her couch, weighing her options. As she did, the furry white head of a bunny poked out from between one of the cushions. He glared at Fluttershy through bloodshot eyes, but she was too busy staring out through the window to notice his irate expression. Grumbling, he hopped out from his sleeping place, climbed up the couch, and dove into the top of her mane, burying himself with a rustle.
Fluttershy unconsciously registered the extra weight on her head as her pet bunny, Angel. I guess I'll have to go. Now I wish I'd done this last night before dinner, but I was afraid I'd get back after sundown, and I didn't want to be alone on the path. Maybe I should’ve taken Spesci and Megnii up on their offer.
She gasped as she remembered the two pegasi guards. They were staying up on cloud tents above the cottage... I don't know how high up this fog goes, but if they weren't high up enough they might—
A knock caused her to jump. “Fluttershy?” a familiar voice called. “May we come in?”
That answers that question. Fluttershy walked over to the door. Spesci and Megnii walked in, their coats dripping wet from the combination of fog and morning dew. They shook themselves off as best they could before entering proper.
Concern flooded Fluttershy’s mind as she beheld their soggy state. “Are you all right? I'm so sorry! I didn't know it was going to be foggy today. I should’ve warned you that—”
“We're fine.” Megnii wiped his mane out of his eyes. “You don't need to be sorry for something you didn't know about. If anything, we should've paid attention to it ourselves.”
“Are you planning on staying inside today?” Spesci asked. His wings were fully spread out as he fluffed out his feathers to help them dry. “I'd recommend it. The fog goes up for several hundred feet.”
“Um, actually, I was thinking about going to the market,” Fluttershy said in a barely-audible murmur. “I'm out of chicken feed, you see, and I meant to go last night, but I was worried that I might not get back till after dark...”
Megnii sighed and swished his tail. “We offered to escort you there and back, if you’ll remember.”
Fluttershy looked away to hide half of her face. I know, but what if something happens and the two of you get hurt? It was bad enough that you ran after me into the Everfree. The least I can do is not put myself in any unnecessary danger, but now I don't have any feed for my chickens, and I can't let them starve!
“I-I'm sorry,” she managed.
Megnii looked back out to the gray fog beyond. “No sense in drying off if we're just going to get wet again. May as well go now. Do you at least have a pegasus poncho?”
She nodded as she went over to her corner closet. Inside was a rubber yellow coat with a hood designed to cover a pony all the way down to the hooves. She looked at the ground as she grabbed the garment. “I wish I had spares. It's going to be difficult for you two without any.”
“You tend to keep an easy pace,” Spesci said with a wink. “I think we can keep up with you.”
“Could use the exercise, anyway,” Megnii said. “Haven't had much since we first found you in the Everfree.” He shuddered and put a hoof to his stomach. “By the way, I've been meaning to ask: do you do that... kind of thing... often?”
Fluttershy cocked her head as she watched him grimace and turn a pale shade of green. Does he mean going out into the Everfree? Or—oh, that. I suppose that would be a little unnerving for somepony who'd never seen it before, but I never did understand why stallions in particular always seem to be uncomfortable talking about it.
“I don't normally act as a midwife,” Fluttershy said, “but that was an emergency. Mrs. Bear was having trouble with her labor, so Mr. Bear came to get me.” She rubbed her ears. “I don't go into the Everfree at all if I can help it. It's really dark and scary in there.”
Megnii watched her put on the coat. “Understandable, although I imagine it's not as scary when you have a twelve-foot-tall Grizzly with you.”
Fluttershy giggled. “Not so much.”
The door to the cottage opened a few minutes later. Fluttershy stepped out, wearing a cream-colored poncho that covered her from head to tail. She took a tentative step out, and found that the fog no longer hindered her movement. Satisfied, she trotted out into the mist, going out a few dozen feet before turning back to see Spesci and Megnii walking behind her, albeit with some difficulty.
“Are you sure you'll both be all right?” Fluttershy asked as she watched them struggle to put one hoof in front of the other.
“No problem at all,” Spesci said with a fake smile. “Truth be told, it's not that bad.”
“Feels like we're wading through molasses,” Megnii whispered.
Spesci smacked him upside the head as Fluttershy looked away to get her bearings. She walked down the path, and the two guards trudged on.
The three of them reached the outskirts of town twenty minutes later, which was twice the amount of time it took Fluttershy at her normal pace. She turned back for the dozenth time to check on her struggling guards. Spesci and Megnii were both completely soaked, their sides heaving with exertion.
“We're here,” she said.
“Where’s... the shop... you need?” Spesci gasped.
Fluttershy winced. “On the other side of town.”
A small whimper escaped Megnii’s lips as he stared out into the bleak, fog-filled streets.
They're going to collapse at the rate they're pushing themselves. I can't have them doing that for my sake! I've got to make some kind of excuse to stop so they can rest. She looked around. To their right was the post office.
Fluttershy walked over to the small gray and white building. “I just remembered that I actually have another errand to run first. It's been a while since I've checked for any packages, and I was expecting something from my parents soon! Why don't you two keep watch out here while I check and see if it's here?” She didn't give them a chance to reply as she inched away, backing through the door.
The soft tinkling of a bell reached her ears as she entered. She turned to see a vacant, sterile room divided in half by a desk that vaguely smelled of paper and ink. A gray pegasus with blonde hair and mismatched eyes meandered in from the back room.
“Fluttershy!” the pegasus said in a sluggish alto as one eye focused on her. The other seemed to be interested in something on the wall. “Nice coat. Annoying fog, eh?”
Derpy! Perfect. “Hi Derpy,” Fluttershy said with a smile. “I take it you can't deliver packages?”
Derpy shook her head. “Nopony can fly in this. Can't see well to begin with.” She smiled sadly and pointed at her wandering eye. “Headquarters messaged me, cancelled deliveries for today.”
“I suppose you’ll be having a slow day, then,” Fluttershy said.
“I wish,” Depry said with a laugh. She held up her hoof, which was covered in ink. “Cancellations mean paperwork. Not so bad, though. Can do that here, and spend time with my Muffin.”
“How is little Dinky doing?” Fluttershy looked at a small picture of a purple filly on the desk.
Derpy beamed. “Not so little anymore.” She began to go into detail about her daughter.
Fluttershy sat on her haunches with a warm smile of her own. Give any mother the opportunity and she'll talk your ear off about their kids. This ought to give them some time.
Fifteen minutes later, Fluttershy exited out of the post office with a head full of knowledge about Dinky and a packet of stamps. Spesci eyed her with suspicion. “I take it your package wasn't there.”
“Um... no, it wasn't.” Fluttershy put the packet in her bags. “Sorry for the wait. I'm friends with our mailmare, and I wanted to catch up.” She looked at the two of them. While they were still soaking wet, they weren't gasping for breath anymore.
“Are you ready, then?” Megnii asked.
Better question is, are you ready. Fluttershy walked forward. “Yes, I think so.”
The three of them continued across Ponyville at an easy pace. Fluttershy was in front, with Spesci and Megnii just far enough behind that they could still see her through the fog. A few minutes later, they arrived at the animal feed store and she made her purchase.
Now I just need to find an excuse to let them stop on the way back. “I got what I came for,” Fluttershy said to the two of them.
Megnii nodded his head back the way they came. “After you.”
As they began the walk back, Fluttershy could see the vague, formless shadows of other ponies walking to and fro, just out of her field of vision. She thought she could guess who some of them were based off their color and body type, but nopony came close enough for her to be sure. She only saw two other pegasi, similarly clad in ponchos.
I hope Spesci and Megnii aren't mad. It's a shame they don't sell pegasus ponchos here in Ponyville... I wonder if Rarity knows how to make them? I'm in town now, should I go see her? No, I've already put them through enough as it is, and I wouldn't want to put her on the spot. I know- I can ask her when we meet up at the spa! Ooh, and I can give her cat Opal a checkup in excha—
She squeaked as an earth pony burst out of the fog. She barely managed to get out of the way as he dashed across the street. She jerked her head back and forth to make sure there wasn't anyone else following.
“Is something wrong?”
Fluttershy turned back to a yellow blob that she recognized as Megnii. “Somepony just almost ran into me.”
“Are you all right?” he asked.
This was a bad idea. I'm just making things worse and being a burden on them with my nerves. I wish I wasn't such a scaredy-pony all the time!
She looked down at the ground and stamped her hoof delicately. “I'm fine, but... I just hate the fog. You can't see where you're going, and there are scary shadows, and I can't fly, and I'm always afraid that something's going to zoom out and carry me away!”
Megnii laughed. “I can understand your frustration with the fog, but you're perfectly safe. We're in the middle of town. You're not in any danger of being—”
A dark blue blur zoomed out from their left and snatched Fluttershy, heaving her on its back and disappearing into the mist. Her terrified scream faded away as she was carried off into the distance.
For the briefest of moments, the two guards stood in dumb surprise. They then sprang into action, pursuing as fast as they could.
Fluttershy was carried at a full gallop through the mists. Her eyes filled her head as she tried to face the nightmare-made-manifest. Oh dear oh dear oh dear! I have to do something, have to try and get away! Come on legs, work! She tried to move off the pony's back, but was paralyzed bjy the cold grip of terror, and couldn’t do anything more than twitch. The assailant continued to run for a time, then abruptly swerved into an open building and shut the door.
“You okay, Fluttershy?”
Her anxiety subsided at the sound of the voice. She looked into the face of her foalnapper: a wall-eyed pegasus wearing a dark blue poncho.
Fluttershy blinked. “D-Derpy?”
Derpy gently put Fluttershy down with an expression of concern. “Are you okay?” she repeated.
“Y-Yes, I'm fine,” she managed. It felt like her heart was trying to escape her chest. “Why’d you—”
“Two stallions,” Derpy interrupted. “Following you. Saw them after you left. You looked upset.”
Oh no, that's right! Nopony knows about the guards! This is bad, I have to tell her!
Before Fluttershy could say a word, the same earth pony that nearly ran into her dashed into the house and slammed the door.
“Good, you got her,” he said. “I missed on my first pass. Did you lose the stalkers?”
Derpy nodded as she closed the window curtains. “Pegasi. Not wearing ponchos.”
“In this weather?” The stallion shook his head as he walked past Fluttershy to look out the window. “They're either daft, or extremely strong. In either case, I'd rather not associate with them.”
Fluttershy stared incredulously at the stallion’s hourglass cutie mark. The Doctor, too? Ahhh! Derpy must have gone to him when she thought I was in trouble! Get a grip, Fluttershy! You have to explain!
“Um, about those stallions…” Fluttershy began.
“Not to worry, my dear,” the Doctor said, turning back from the window. He gave her a comforting smile. “You're safe here. We'll just have you lie low until they're gone.”
That's not the problem! You just foalnapped me from my guards! They could raise an alarm! They could alert the Princess, and you could be thrown in the dungeon! You've got to listen to me!
Fluttershy's frantic thoughts went unheard as her panic attack allowed her only to whimper. Derpy gave her a pitying glance as the Doctor warily kept watch out into the fog.
“Sorry about this,” Derpy said to him.
“Think nothing of it,” the Doctor replied. “I owe you a favor or two, anyways. By the way, you didn't tell me what the strangers looked like.”
“One yellow, one purple,” Derpy said. One eye was looking to the left while the other was watching the right. “Seemed like thugs. Couldn't tell much else, fog's too thick. Came to you.”
“And it was a good thing that you did,” the Doctor said. “Who knows what kind of motives they h—”
“Horseapples!” Derpy interrupted. “They're outside! Must’ve followed us!”
Fluttershy was on the verge of hyperventilating. Her mind was racing as fast as Rainbow Dash, but her mouth still refused to move. You need to stop! They might hurt you! They don't know you're my friends!
“What?!” he said. “How could they? You can barely see in front of your own nose in this fog!”
Before anypony could say anything else, the door was bucked open by two pairs of hooves. Megnii and Spesci ran in, soaking wet and irate. They saw Fluttershy standing in the center of the room, then looked at Derpy and the Doctor, who had just rushed to stand in front of her.
“Now look here,” the Doctor declared. “I don't know who you two are, but you've got no business breaking into other ponies’ homes, or stalking innocent mares!”
Megnii’s voice was as cold as ice. “Step away from Fluttershy.”
“Get lost!” Derpy snapped. In a rare occurance, both of her eyes focused with precision accuracy on the two menacing guards. “Fluttershy stays with us!”
“This is your last warning,” Spesci growled as he took a threatening step forward. “Move away.”
“And what're you going to do if we don't?” the Doctor challenged.
Megnii and Spesci charged at Derpy and the Doctor.
The shout cut through the air like a blade. The guards came to a screeching halt as Fluttershy jumped between the two conflicting parties.
She cleared her throat and straightened to her full height, hoping nopony would notice her shaking legs. “Derpy, Doctor? This is Megnii and Spesci. They're soldiers from the Royal Guard. The Princess sent them here to protect me.”
Derpy’s and the Doctor's eyes went wide. “Royal... Guard?” the Doctor said.
Fluttershy nodded. “They're supposed to stay out of sight, but they had to be closer to me today because of the fog. That's what I was trying to tell you.”
“Protect?” One of Derpy’s eyes looked down for a moment before both of them lit up. “Nightmare Moon...”
“You know these two?” Spesci said in a wary tone, still glaring at the duo.
Fluttershy sighed in relief. “Let me explain...”
A few tentative minutes later, the air had been cleared, and the two groups were exchanging apologies. Fluttershy stood miserably to the side as she watched Derpy shake Megnii's hoof.
Can't I do anything right? Even when I'm trying to make things easier for everypony, I just make them worse! That could've gotten ugly... I really need to work on speaking up more. Somepony could've gotten hurt,and it all would've been over nothing! She sank to her knees as her conscience tore at her.
A weight on top of her head disappeared as Fluttershy's vision became filled with white fur. Angel now stood in her face, staring at her with his black, beady eyes. She cocked her head.
What are you—
Angel pointed at the two parties, then at her. He made his eyes go wide and innocent before burying his face in his paws in mock sadness. He calmly looked up, shook his head, and waggled a reproachful paw at her.
It took her a second to interpret his pantomiming, but she got the gist. You always can tell how I'm feeling, can't you? She closed her eyes and pushed away her guilt. He's right. I can't blame myself for this. It's not like I can tell what other ponies are thinking. I should just be happy that nothing bad came of it.
“Thanks.” She nuzzled the side of his face. He returned the gesture with a soft grunt before hopping back into her mane.
“No ponchos,” Derpy observed. She raised an eyebrow at Spesci and Megnii. “You masochists?”
“Not quite,” Megnii said with a laugh. “We forgot to pack some when we left from Canterlot. Don't get a lot of fog in the city.”
“Get a lot down here,” Derpy said knowingly. “I have spares. You'll need them. Should fit you.”
“Madam, you don't need to—”
Derpy held up a hoof. She pointed at herself, then at the two of them. “Government is government. Can't do your job without.” Amusement danced in her mismatched eyes. “Outran you pretty easily.”
Megnii looked to his partner. “She's got a point.”
“You fellows have to be heading out, or would you like something to drink?” the Doctor asked. “Least I can do after all this trouble.”
“That would be up to Miss Fluttershy,” Megnii replied as he looked over to her.
Fluttershy considered. Some tea would be nice, but I just want to feed my chickens and lie down for a while. I'll just brew some when I get home.
She shook her head. “Thank you, but I think I should be going. I just came into town on a quick errand and—”
“Say no more,” the Doctor said. He walked over to her and offered a hoof. “I daresay you've had enough excitement for one day.” She nodded as she took it and stood up.
“My office first,” Derpy said as she went to the door, looking at Megnii and Spesci. “Get you two fitted.”
Fluttershy walked on the path back to her cottage twenty minutes later accompanied by Spesci and Megnii, who were both now wearing dark blue ponchos emblazoned with the mark of the Equestria Postal Service. They trotted at a brisk pace through the fog, which was now reluctantly starting to lift.
“Of course now it starts to go away,” Spesci muttered as he rolled his eyes. “Remind me to get in touch with EPS District Manager for Ponyville. That mare deserves a raise.”
“I wonder why she speaks in such simple sentences?” Megnii wondered. “She didn't seem mentally disabled.”
“She's not,” Fluttershy replied over her shoulder. “Derpy has a condition where her brain processes information faster than she can speak, so it comes out as jibberish.” She cast a look back in the direction of Ponyville. “It was really hard to understand her before she started treatment for it. She has it under control now, though, and I'm really happy that she's able to live on her own.”
Megnii's mouth went agape. “I didn't think you’d actually know the reason. I was just thinking out loud.”
Fluttershy snickered. You shouldn't ask a question if you're not expecting an answer.
Spesci gave Megnii a reproachful glare. “Regardless of tact, or lack thereof, we should do something in return for her. It would've taken a few days to order pegasus ponchos from Cloudsdale or Canterlot.”
“Can’t even remember the last time we’ve been in fog like this.” Megnii looked to a field on their right. “I think it was back in the old city.”
Spesci shot him a look of warning. Megnii's eyes widened as he gritted his teeth and looked away.
“What old city?”
The two of them turned to Fluttershy, who had stopped. Innocent curiosity was etched on her face.
Megnii shifted and took a step back. “U-Um, well...”
“Las Pegasus,” Spesci said. “That's where Megnii and I are from. It's just an old habit of ours to call it that.”
Fluttershy frowned. “That’s really far west of here! I hope you get a chance to go back every so often.”
Spesci smiled. “We took our last leave there not too long ago.”
“That must have been fun,” she said with interest. “Are your families doing well?”
The shadow that fell over the two guards was hidden by the fog. Spesci's voice was strong as he replied. “As well as they can be these days.”
“We should be going,” Megnii interrupted. “Your chickens still haven't been fed yet.”
Her confusion was quickly replaced by her concern for her animals. “Oh, yes... right.” She turned and continued on.
The two guards slowed their pace, allowing Fluttershy to get ahead of them, but still in sight. “Sorry about that,” Megnii whispered.
Spesci shook his head. “At least one of us can think on their hooves.”
“How’d you come up with that so fast?”
Spesci looked at him with a sly grin. “The most believable lies are based off the truth.”
“Consarn it,” Applejack muttered through clenched teeth and she sized up the large yellow creature before her. “Get to the other side, Norric! Stop tryin' to hit it before we have it surrounded!”
Applejack, Norric, and Strauss were all standing around an imposing, lumpy, bug-like creature a head taller than a pony. It emitted a high-pitched chittering as it waved two long, fuzzy antennae around like whips.
“I can fight it off!” Norric said as he wielded a wooden staff in his teeth. “Just keep it distracted while I—”
The beast charged the three of them. Applejack and Strauss leapt out of the way in time, but Norric was hit in the side and knocked away. He crashed against a nearby fence and fell to the ground.
Danged fool! Applejack ran over to him as the creature ran off into the wispy fog.
The morning had begun just like any other, although a bit mistier than usual. Applejack had done her usual morning chores and had just finished a patch job on the barn roof when she had heard the telltale skittering sounds of the Rust Beetles coming in from the north. She had run to tell everypony, but in the time it took her to do that, one had already gotten into the yard.
Applejack examined Norric, who was groaning in pain. She checked where the creature had hit him and clucked her tongue. That's gonna leave a mark for sure.
“It's headed for the shed.”
She turned to see Strauss, who was standing next to her. He sighed at Norric. “Should've listened to her.”
Norric gave him a death glare as he used the fence as leverage to stand. “Shouldn't you be going after it?”
“We will be, “Applejack replied with a glare of her own. “Now that I'm sure you don't got a broke rib. You may know more about fightin' than me, but I've dealt with these critters before. Let me take the lead.”
Norric leaned against the fence and managed a nod. Applejack and Strauss turned and ran towards the shed.
“It'll have trouble getting in,” Strauss said as they ran. “I barred the door when you yelled.”
“That is if it don't just knock down the whole blasted thing,” Applejack said darkly. “Thing’s as old as Granny. Bet I could collapse it myself if I had a mind to.”
The skittering sound grew louder as they approached. The mists parted to reveal a rickety shed made entirely of wood with a red-shingled roof. The structure still stood, with a large wooden beam placed across the door. The Rust Beetle was on its hind legs, gnawing at the metal supports that the beam rested on.
Oh no ya don't. Applejack turned to Strauss and handed him her rope. “Get its attention and lure it around the corner of the shed. I'll do the rest.”
Strauss nodded and crept over to the beetle, which was still oblivious to their presence. As he did, Applejack stepped back into the fog far enough that she couldn't be seen.
She ran over to the position she’d indicated and waited. The air was silent, save for the gritty gnawing of the creature eating away at the supports. Giddy anticipation flooded Applejack's system, and she had to fight to keep it under control. Easy does it now... She flexed her legs and cracked her neck.
Applejack heard the whistle of a lasso in flight, followed by a high-pitched screech. Strauss appeared a second later, pulling hard on the rope in his mouth. He gave a mighty tug, and the rope went slack for a moment. He dashed out of the way.
The Rust Beetle rounded the corner on all fours, it's red, feral eyes contorted with blind fury as it prepared to give chase. It was completely oblivious to Applejack, who was standing with her back turned a few feet away, hind legs bent.
Surprise, bugboy! Applejack bucked the Rust Beetle. She struck true, nailing the creature straight in the jaws above its sensitive antennae. The creature let out a shriek of surprise as it reared back.
Bad idea! Applejack hopped forward on her front legs and bucked again, hitting it in the soft underbelly. The creature gasped as the wind was knocked out of its lungs and staggered back a few steps, staring at the sky.
The guard had now circled around. His head was lowered as he pawed the ground.
The two of them charged as one, shoulder-ramming the beetle from the front and side. It went flying from the combined assault, sailing off into the fog and landing with a crunch. They could just see its still, shadowy form a few yards away.
Strauss warily eyed the silhouette, tensed and ready for another assault. “Think we killed it?”
“Wasn't tryin' to kill it,” Applejack replied. The word left an unpleasant taste on her tongue. “I'd have done a whole lot more if I wanted that.”
The Rust Beetle rolled back onto its feet and ran off to the north, yelping like a wounded dog. Applejack gave a throaty chuckle. “Fortunately, they're as yellow as their hides.”
Strauss gave a sigh of relief. “That's that, then.”
“Don't think we're done yet.” Applejack peered into the mists. “They usually come in pairs, and I coulda sworn that—”
“Applejack!” Norric limped up from out of the fog. “Another one just ran into the barn!”
“Hayseed.” She turned and ran across the yard with Strauss close behind.
The large red barn loomed up before them, its wide double doors opened to reveal a yawning darkness beyond. Applejack winced as she heard the skittering of the second Rust Beetle inside.
No time to plan. One touch with those antennae will ruin any tool we got. Just gonna have to charge it before it can do any more damage! She prepared to tussle with the beetle, and crossed the threshold of the barn. As she did though, her path was blocked by a wrinkly green leg.
Applejack and Strauss looked at the owner as they skidded to a halt. Granny Smith stood just behind the door, sitting on her haunches beside a rope tied to the wall. She moved a hoof to her lips and shifted her eyes, slowly nodding at the center of the barn. There stood the Rust Beetle, its attention devoted to a large collection of scrap metal and old tools that lay on the floor. They could both hear the tinkling, crunching sound of the metal being turned to rust and eaten by the beast.
Applejack beheld the scene for a moment before turning back to Granny Smith, who now wore a devilish smirk. She lowered her right leg and raised her left, which was wearing a hoofaxe. The rope beside her was attached to a pulley, which hung in the center of the barn. A large net filled with crates hung in place just above the Rust Beetle.
With a deft motion, Granny Smith sliced the rope.
The crates came down on the Rust Beetle with a mighty crash, flattening the creature and spilling their contents. The oversweet smell of ruined, rotten apples filled the air. Applejack and Strauss stood dumbly at the wreckage, which showed no signs of movement.
Granny Smith gave a windy laugh. “That there'd be one squashed bug.”
Applejack shook her head and looked at her grandmother. “Did you set that up?”
“Course I did. Y'think that them pieces 'o metal were just sittin' there? I'da given Mac a right talkin' to if they were.”
“But that was dangerous!” Applejack protested. “What if you’d missed?”
Granny Smith poked Applejack in the chest. “That'd be exactly why I didn't. Don't need to be worryin' about me just yet, Jackie. Y'don't get to be as old as I am by makin' foal mistakes like that. Good lesson for ya here: You can still fight when you're old or weak. The rules just change a little, is all.”
A tumultuous storm of anger and concern formed in Applejack’s mind. Everypony makes mistakes. The Rust Beetle might’ve noticed her and charged! What would she have done then?
Applejack narrowed her eyes. “Do those rules tell you how to dodge with a bad hip?!”
Granny Smith slowly turned. She squinted ever so slightly, staring at her granddaughter with clear, intense orange eyes. Her aged face was like stone as she lowered her chin and spoke four authoritative words that every member of the Apple family knew... and feared.
“Mind your tone, child.”
Ahh, too much... too much! Applejack took a step back, cowering under the withering glare. “S-Sorry.”
Granny Smith’s voice took on a dangerous edge. “Sorry, what?”
“Sorry, ma’am!” Applejack blurted.
Granny Smith looked at her for a second longer before turning her attention back to the center of the barn. “As I was sayin', the rules change. They don't get more complicated, mind you, they actually get simpler. There winds up bein' only two.
“First is this: Make the first strike the last. Don't matter what kinda shape you're in if ya never get hit.”
The crates began to shift. The Rust Beetle emerged from the wreckage, covered in pulp, splinters, and rotten apple juice. It raised itself onto its hind legs and let loose a chittering shriek.
Granny Smith remained sitting on her haunches, continuing in the same calm tone as before. “And that leads me to the second rule: If'n ya can't do that, set it up so that somepony else can.”
The Rust Beetle eyed the three of them and took a step forward. Applejack and Strauss rushed in front of Granny Smith.
She gave them a small smile. “Macky?”
A massive red stallion standing a head taller than the Rust Beetle appeared from the shadows behind it. He chewed on a piece of straw as he regarded the beast, analyzing the best points of contact.
The Rust Beetle went airborne, sailing out of the barn and across the yard at the force of Big Mac's strike. It crashed into the same fence as Norric, cracking the wood and bending the fencepost. Two large hoofprints were clearly visible on its back, oozing a dark pus. The creature yelped like the wounded animal it was and hobbled away to the north.
Another dry cackle escaped Granny Smith’s lips as she heard the Rust Beetle retreat. “That’ll teach ‘em not to come ‘round here. Nice kick, Macintosh.”
Macintosh gave her a slow nod, then turned and eyed the dark blood on his hind legs with a curled lip.
“Go and wash up,” Granny said as she followed his gaze. “Applejack and the others can take care of the mess in here.”
“Yes’m.” Macintosh walked out of the barn.
As he did, Norric limped inside, looking first to the center of the barn, then the trio beside the door. “What happened? I heard the Rust Beetle run off.”
“We took care of it, Mr. Guard.” Granny Smith took note of his limp. “Although by the looks of ya, one of ‘em almost took care ‘o you.”
Norric turned red. “I didn’t know that they charged. If I had—“
“But ya didn’t,” Granny Smith interrupted, “cuz ya didn’ listen. An’ fer that, yer an idiot.”
He started to retort, but her cold stare stopped him dead. Norric’s ears drooped as he hung his head.
Granny Smith eyes softened as she continued in a quiet, maternal tone. “Listen ‘ere: Greatest weapon ye can have against anythin’ is time n’ experience. You may be from the high-falutin’ Royal Guard, but I reckon you don’ get too many Rust Beetles up in Canterlot. We been fightin’ these things off fer years, and actin’ like ye know better’n us was the most foalish thing ye coulda done.”
She walked towards him and inspected the red spot on his side that was starting to form. She raised a hoof and gently pushed his side. He flinched, but did nothing more as she continued to poke and prod.
Granny Smith sighed and met his eyes. “You’re lucky. Only price you have to pay to learn that is a bruise.”
She turned away and walked towards the farmhouse with a limp of her own. “Celestia knows this family had to pay a whole lot more’n that.”
Applejack, Norric and Strauss were hard at work inside the barn, shoveling the ruined mess of rotten apples back into a new bunch of crates they had brought down from the loft. It was dirty, sticky work, and the thick odors of decayed fruit and sweat filled the air.
She looked over. “What is it, Norric?”
Norric paused in his shoveling. “I’m sorry about not listening to you. I shouldn’t have gone in alone.”
She snorted as she closed a filled crate and began to push it over to the side of the barn. “No, you shouldn’t have.”
He walked over and helped her push. “But you understand why I did, right? Strauss and I are supposed to protect you.”
“From conspirin’ forces or whatever, not Rust Beetles.” She turned to look at him as they finished moving the crate in place. “I appreciate the help you two are giving, the whole family does. But in case you didn’t notice, I’m not some delicate damsel in distress. I do some pretty hard labor every day.”
“I’ve noticed,” Strauss said with a grunt.
Applejack chuckled. “I reckon you have. That was some mighty fine lassoin’, by the way.”
“I’ve been practicing on barrels,” Strauss said with a grin. “It’s fun.”
“I’m not saying you’re weak,” Norric said, shaking his head. “I saw you buck that Rust Beetle. I don’t think either of us could stun it like that with just two hits.”
She rubbed a forehoof and looked away. Should I tell ‘em I was holding back? Eh, no point. Dunno what they’d say if they knew I accidentally killed one before.
“So I know you’re capable of taking care of yourself most of the time,” Norric continued. “But will you at least promise me one thing?”
Applejack rested her shovel in the crook of her neck. “Depends on what it is.”
Norric moved a new crate over to begin filling. “If something more dangerous happens, something that we were sent here to protect you from, will you let us do our duty?”
Applejack looked out the door into the fog beyond. “You heard what Granny said, didn’t you?”
“You’re not the first ones she’s given that speech to.” She sighed and pursed her lips. “Now, I’m sure that the two o’ya have been trained to fight and the like. Prolly know some pretty interesting moves and things that I’ll never know, nor do I really care to. I can send a Rust Beetle runnin’, but you two prolly know how to hurt a pony pretty bad, or worse. Not that I hold that against you or anythin'. You need to know how to do those things to do your job, and I’d be a foal not to realize that.”
Applejack gave them a slow smile. “So if a group of crazy ninja ponies or somethin’ comes in the night to try and steal me away, I’ll look to your expertise in crazy-ninja-fightin’ tactics. I won’t try to fend them off all by myself.”
Norric laughed, and they continued their work. The labor made the minutes pass quickly, and the crates filled back up as the mess disappeared.
“What about the other thing?”
Applejack looked up at Norric. “Hmm?”
Norric stopped as he seemed to reconsider. He looked down and resumed shoveling at a quicker pace. “Sorry, never mind,” he mumbled.
I hate it when ponies do that. A sneer twitched on Applejack’s lips. “You got somethin’ to say, spit it out.”
Norric ceased his work and reluctantly looked up at her. “The other thing your grandmother said; about your family having to pay a higher price.”
Applejack’s shovel clattered to the ground.
“I-I’m sorry,” Norric said as he raised a hoof. “I thought it might be a touchy subject, that’s why I didn’t want to bring it up and—“
Applejack winced as the words sliced open an old wound. She violently jerked her head to the side and took a step back as a painful memory oozed out and began to play unwillingly before her eyes.
Strange ponies stood in the living room of the homestead in the middle of the night. They were talking to Granny, who sat in her chair wide-eyed, jaw slack. A pile of blankets lay on her lap. Applejack lay frozen at the top of the stairs.
…so sorry, Mrs. Apple…
…down the canyon. Tried to warn them…
…suicide this time of year…
…got cut off, couldn’t get to them…
…found the bodies a few hours ago…
A tiny dot of emerald light awakened inside Applejack’s heart. It flickered once, and the ground beneath her gave a low rumble. She didn’t notice though, as she’d gritted her teeth and shut her eyes, trying to force the memories back with sheer will.
Granny was crying. Granny never cried. The strange ponies handed her a fuschia bow, a worn yoke, and a brown Stetson. The pile of blankets squirmed as a teardrop fell on them. Wrapped in them was a tiny yellow newborn foal.
…shouldn’t have gone with them in her state…
…water broke, went into labor…
…saved the foal… couldn’t stop the bleeding…
…named her with her last breath: Applebloom.
Norric and Strauss had stopped, looking at Applejack with alarm as her breath turned into quick, ragged gasps. The light in her core slowly inched out as she her heart beat like a jackhammer.
Silent tears streamed down Applejack's face. Granny was angry now, yelling at the ponies. The foal, her new sister, was crying.
…nopony will blame you…
…not takin’ the only blood I have left…
…can’t raise them at your age…
…tell me what I can or can’t do…
…newborns are a lot of work…
…grandmother for a reason, idiot…
…extended family is worried, three foals on top of the farm…
...need to remind all o’ ya who I am…
The rumbling of the ground was audible now. Strauss dropped his shovel and ran over to Applejack, putting a hoof on Applejack’s shoulder and shaking her. She didn’t react.
Applejack was in her room on her bed, her face buried in her pillow. The rain dashed against her window as the heavens wept along with her. She heard the door creak open, and felt a weight on her bed. She looked up to see a green, tear-stained face.
…I’m scared, Granny…
…I know, Jackie…
…never coming back, are they…
…’fraid not, just the four of us now…
…gonna happen to us?
…stayin’ here with me…
…don’t know what to do…
…keep livin’ your life, what they would’ve wanted…
…why does it hurt so much...
...love the most we give a piece of our hearts to...
...not gonna go too, are you…
...I’m not goin’ anywhere...
The rumbling stopped, and the light in Applejack’s heart shrank back to a dot. Her face was gaunt and pale as she opened her eyes, which were blank, emotionless slabs. She glanced once at Strauss before turning to Norric and staring straight through him.
“My parents. They’re dead. The room you’re sleepin’ in was theirs. We lost Grandpa Penny, too.”
“Oh,” was all Norric could manage as he was struck by the weight of her words. “I-I didn’t… Applejack, I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
Applejack took the shovel and drove it into the floor of the barn, burying the head and several inches of the handle. “That’s right, you didn’t! You didn’t know about the Rust Beetles, either, and you almost got killed not listening! Those varmints may be cowards, but if you get ‘em riled up, they’ll trample you flatter than a pancake! We don’t like seeing other ponies make that kind of mistake, Norric! That’s what tore this family apart!”
Norric recoiled from her outburst. “Applejack...”
Applejack’s voice became shaky in response to the old wound’s throbbing. “You only got one life, idiot! All it takes is one simple mistake, and it can wind up costing you EVERYTHING! Why’re you throwin’ yourself headfirst into something like that?! Are you tryin’ to get yourself—”
Applejack cut herself off. She closed her eyes, taking deep breaths. Stop it, you know better. It’s not their fault, or anypony else’s. You can’t stop angry thoughts, but you can stop angry words. Just relax.
“May I ask what happened?” Norric said.
She shook her head and stared at the ground. “I don’t hold it against you for askin’, but it’s hard enough tellin’ ya this much.”
There was an awkward silence, and they resumed their work.
“So you were raised by your Grandmother?” Strauss asked after a few minutes.
“All three of us,” Applejack said with a nod.
Strauss wrinkled his brow. “That's impressive. How old is she?”
Applejack’s eyes shone with fierce pride. “She’ll be turnin’ seventy-three here soon. For the last ten years, she’s kept this farm goin’ on top of raisin’ us, and Applebloom was a newborn when the accident happened. Granny’s the head of the whole Apple clan, one of the founders of Ponyville, and the inventor of Zapapple Jam. She's the strongest, wisest, most courageous mare I know, and you’d be hard-pressed to find somepony more worthy of respect.”
“She definitely has the presence,” Norric said with a wince. He then stopped and furrowed his brow. “Wait... I thought that Zapapple Jam was invented by a mare named Edith.”
Applejack’s face lightened with a hint of amusement. “Her full name is Edith Smith Apple. What, you thought her first name was Granny?”
“Well, that is…” Norric stammered.
Strauss gave him a slow smile. “That would’ve sounded pretty stupid before she had grandchildren.”
All three of them burst into laughter, brightening the dreary mood.
“I think that’s enough walkin’ down the darker side of memory lane,” Applejack said. “You two start takin’ these crates out to the trash heap, I’ll get this last one.”
Norric and Strauss nodded and began to take the crates out, each of them carrying two on their backs. They walked out of sight into the fog.
When Applejack was sure she was alone, she backed away into the shadows of the barn. She sat on her haunches, leaning back against a support beam with her Stetson over her face. She squeezed her eyes shut as her throat began to ache.
Get it together, Applejack. It’s been a while since you’ve thought about them, but this is never gonna go away. You’ve gotten better at talking about them, but that was too close. You've gotta be able to talk about this without breaking down.
After a few minutes, she managed to regain her composure. She put her hat back on and walked back over to the mess, now just a few pieces of scrap metal and rusted tools. As she shoveled it into a crate, she spied the handle of an old hammer. Curious, she turned it over. Scratched on the side, just barely readable, were the words ‘Jonamac Apple.’
Applejack’s eyes flickered. She reached up to the Stetson she always wore. Nah, this is all I need to remember you by.
Applejack picked up the handle and tossed it in the crate. She put the rest of the metal in as well, and closed it with a slam. With a practiced motion, she put the crate on her back and walked outside to the others.