The marketplace was quieter than usual today. There must have been several hundred ponies bustling about the Canterlot town square, but the usual din of heckling and bartering was replaced by the shuffle of hooves on the stone-paved street and murmured exchanges between the shoppers and merchants. Pinkie Pie supposed it was the anniversary that had everyone in such dour moods. Today, the Changeling War entered its second year.
What these ponies need is something to take their minds off things, she thought, A good prank-- No, not after what happened last year. It's too crowded for a proper party, but maybe just-- Yes! Music! A concert would be perfect for cheering everypony up. I'll just need a harmonica, a trombone, an accordion, castanets, a viola-- Pinkie shook her head. Even after a year she still couldn't keep her mind from trying to make everything fun. But that wasn't something she could do anymore. Everything is different now.
Still, the pink mare couldn't keep from humming a little tune she'd just come up with while she nudged her way up to an unfamiliar fruit stall. The selection was already well picked over, but Pinkie managed to nab a good melon and a few bruised apples.
"That's seven bits please," the shopkeeper said. It was a good price. Pinkie couldn't abide by the merchants who took advantage of the refugees' desperation with higher prices. That was like watching somepony fall in a well and stealing their picnic basket before helping them out. She looked up at the shopkeeper, intending to memorize the face of this kind pony. It was an old stallion, his black coat gone dull with age, but whose emerald eyes still sparkled with strength and resilience that were uncommon these days. Pinkie gave him her best smile as she paid and thanked him sincerely.
"Well, aren't you a shiner," the shopkeeper remarked with a warm smile of his own. "It's not many ponies that give so much as a thank you, much less a smile as pretty as yours."
"Everypony enjoys a smile," Pinkie replied, "Making ponies just a little happier is the least I can do to help." The merchant chuckled at the mare's infectious enthusiasm. "So what's your name?" Pinkie continued, "I haven't seen you before, and I like to get to know everypony I meet, especially when they offer such good prices for melons."
The merchant paused. Pinkie knew what he was thinking. Because of the war, merchants often couldn't stay in one city for long before they could no longer acquire new goods to sell. There was a constant cycle of new stalls and faces as one group of merchants would be forced to look for better prospects and another would wash in to take their place. Most didn't bother to make friends in any one place.
But, with a resigned grin, the shopkeeper made his decision. "The name's Soot Streak. Pleased to make your acquaintance, miss?"
"Pinkamena Pie," the jovial mare said, offering her hoof, "But you can call me Pinkie."
"Well, miss Pinkie. Thank you brightening an old pony's day."
"Any time mister Streak." The pink mare turned to go and called back over her shoulder, "And when you leave, just remembers you've got a friend here, Okay?"
Soot Streak nodded and held up a hoof in farewell and Pinkie merged back into the crowd. The streets were packed with ragged ponies. Most were refugees from the camps that squatted in Canterlot's shadow. Princess Luna had decreed that the city could harbor no more refugees, but their numbers continued to swell. Although Luna had taken on much of the duties made necessary by the war, and therefore had every right to manage the movements of refugees, Pinkie was sure that Celestia was not enforcing her sister's decree. It wasn't surprising. Celestia might be too boring to allow chocolate milk rain, but Pinkie knew the strength of her sense of duty to her subjects. Such a ruler would never turn away anypony who came to her seeking shelter.
It was a strain on Canterlot's resources, but so far everypony's basic needs were being met. That would change if the war kept on going as it was though. The changelings were like parasprites: get rid of one and two more will pop up to take its place. They destroyed everything in their path, but for all their brutality, though, few ponies were ever killed in the changeling raids. Instead, they obliterated homes, farms, and shops in the smaller towns and villages. Thus, more and more refugees were constantly streaming into the major cities.
Pinkie sighed as she worked her way through the clogged streets. She'd been in one of the first groups of refugees to arrive in Canterlot. While most of her friends had opted to join the fight, she had stayed, taking advantage of their early arrival to procure an actual apartment to stay in. Any of the refugees currently living in the ramshackle camps would have said she was lucky. Of course, being one of the first refugees to choose living space also meant her home had been one of the first to burn. Pinkie shuddered as the memory resurfaced.
She had still been groggy from the party the night before and a nervous pit had formed in her stomach. Pinkie hated being nervous. She was never nervous, even on dangerous adventures. But something about this was different. Before, she'd gone out to the danger. Now it was coming to her. And it turned out that wasn't nearly as much fun. In fact, it was so scary that her knee was pinchier than ever before. She had already tried to make it go away by laughing, but everypony had said she was being inappropriate. They had all been so scared. They all pretended that they weren't but Pinkie could always tell.
Twilight had said they needed to evacuate Ponyville, that everypony had to leave. The thought of it rattled around in the pink mare's head like an extra-super-bouncy ball inside a parakeet shop. And, for some reason, she couldn't seem to keep every thought from pouring out her mouth.
"When we leave are we gonna be refugees? What do refugees do every day? Do they still get birthday parties? They should still get birthday parties. What are you supposed to pack if you're gonna be a refugee? Do we have to dress a certain way now? And where are we gonna get snacks and where where are we gonna sleep? Do we need money? How can we get money if we're not working cause we're refugees? And what if--"
"Take it easy, sugarcube," Applejack interrupted. The two earth ponies had been together in a flying chariot, rushing home to help with the evacuation of Ponyville. "Ah'm scared too, but everything's gonna be just fine. Ah'm sure Twilight's got one her clever plans to get everypony out safely."
"I don't see why it's such a big deal now," Pinkie said, "We fought off, like, a hundred changelings all on our own yesterday."
"This is a little different," her orange friend replied in a soothing tone, "The varmints were thinkin' they'd already won, so they weren't interested in destroying anythin' else. But now they know they're gonna have to fight if they wan' our land."
Pinkie glanced over at her friend. There was fire behind her green eyes as she stared toward home. "They ain't gonna hold back," Appljack had said with finality, "So neither can we."
Once the chariot landed, the earth ponies leapt out to rush to their respective homes. Everywhere, ponies were running to and fro. A few were hammering boards over their windows, but most simply grabbed whatever belongings they could carry and headed for the train station. The orange glow of the evening sun and the stillness of the air made for an eerie atmosphere as Pinkie hurried to Sugarcube Corner.
"Oh Pinkie Pie, there you are!" Cup Cake called as she entered the shop. "We're almost done packing, but you should go and get anything from your room you want to take with you."
Pinkie stood a moment in the doorway. "We're really leaving, aren't we?" she said.
"It isn't safe here," Carrot Cake said as he set an armload of baby supplies next to the door. Pinkie glanced over to where the twins sat, watching their parents uneasily. They don't even know what's going on. They're probably more scared than a torch bug whose night-light burned out..
Pinkie trotted over to the babies and nuzzled them both in turn. "Don't worry little guys. Auntie Pinkie is here. Lemme see those cutsey-wutsey smiles." The twins giggled at her voice. That should have made her feel better. It always made her feel better to make somepony smile. Especially foals! But making foals smile when they were about to leave home forever just seemed backwards. Smiles were supposed to happen after you're sad, not before. Pinkie Pie left the twins who were now making faces at one another and laughing loudly. She climbed the stairs to her room, feeling like a con mare who'd just tricked somepony into buying useless bobble.
It was odd seeing the familiar surroundings of her room with the knowledge that she might not ever see it again. She smiled sadly at her pet alligator who was napping on the floor. As she came in, Gummy came awake and greeted her with his traditional bites to her face and mane then curled up on her back to continue sleeping. She wandered back and forth, gathering the smaller trinkets that would be all she kept of her old life. In just a few minutes, she had her treasures gathered into her saddlebag. It seemed a pitifully small collection. Just some picture albums, party journals, Gummy's soft alligator food, and a few mini-confetti cannons, just in case.
Then her small room darkened as the remaining sunlight suddenly dwindled. Pinkie frowned. Sunset wasn't supposed to be for another hour at least. Her heart sank as she peered out her window. A massive smudge of black was blotting out the sun as it moved across the sky toward Ponyville. The swarm was coming.
After a moment of paralyzing fear, Pinkie snatched up her saddlebag and launched down the stairs. The Cakes were waiting by the door. Pinkie unloaded Gummy onto the twins' double sling that Carrot Cake was carrying. Pound immediately took the alligator in his tiny, vice-like grip and Pumpkin stuffed the tip of Gummy's tail in her mouth. Cup Cake handed off an extra bag to Pinkie and together they ran toward the train station. Pinkie couldn't help but look back one last time. Sugarcube corner, the building that had been home and livelihood stood, resigned to its fate. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she pulled away from that image and the full realization of what had happened struck her. She hadn't just lost her home and her job. She'd lost her purpose. Her passions in life, baking, parties, and friends, were all connected to Ponyville. And now she had to leave it all behind.
The platform at the train station was a scene of chaos. The entire population of Ponyville was gathered on and around the station's platform, slowly packing into the evacuation train. Extra cars had been added to accommodate the number of ponies in the town. As soon as each car was filled, the train would lurch forward, pulling the empty cars up to where the anxious ponies waited.
"Pinkie Pie! Mr. and Mrs. Cake! Over here!"
Pinkie looked around and spotted Spike, jumping and waving at them. There was no sign of any of her other friends. She trotted over to the dragon with a frown. "Spike, where's Twilight?"
"She went to help the guards hold off the swarm," the baby dragon replied, wringing his hands nervously, "I-I was supposed to get some of the books from the library, but when I saw all of those changelings heading this way . . . I guess I panicked. Do you know where anypony else is? I think I saw Rainbow Dash fly over a few minutes ago, but I don't know where Applejack, Fluttershy, or Rarity are."
"Well Ah'm right here," came Applejack's familiar drawl as she and Big Macintosh came cantering up, "Rarity an' her sister are on the train with Granny Smith and Apple Bloom. I haven't seen Fluttershy though. Maybe—"
A sudden flash of scarlet light interrupted the earth pony. To the west, a massive force field had sprung up. It spanned twice the length of the town and must have stood three hundred feet tall.
"Hoo-ee!" Applejack exclaimed, "Att'a girl, Twilight. Come on, y'all. They might need help keeping those varmints back."
"Hold on, Applejack," Cup cake said quickly, "We need Pinkie's help with the babies."
"I'm staying too," Spike chimed in, "I'm no good in a fight."
"Suit yourselves," the farm pony said with a shrug, "Good luck to y'all!" And with a whoop, she and Big Mac took off toward Twilight's barricade. Pinkie watched her friend go. Part of her was glad she was far away from danger, but she also yearned to be with her friends and make sure they were safe.
Waiting to board was agony. The train lurched by, the remaining cars filling steadily, and soon the final cars were pulling up to the platform. But there were still so many ponies who hadn't boarded yet. A steward leaned out of the caboose, ushering in a few more ponies.
"All right, that's it!" she cried, "Another train will be in to pick the rest of you up, please be patient!" Then she slammed the hatch shut before an angry outcry erupted from the crowd of remaining ponies.
Then the train was moving, leaving them all behind.
"What now?" somepony called.
"I hope Twilight's spell holds," Pinkie said, looking toward the scarlet glow of the barrier. The changelings were trying to fly over it, but several squads of pegasi were intercepting them. Pinkie thought she saw the flash of a rainbow trail, but it was hard to tell at that distance. The ponies seemed to be doing well. Every few minutes, a pegasus would drop from the sky, but none of the changelings made it through. It wasn't a pleasant distraction, but there was little else to do and the aerial struggle tugged at everypony's attention with its grim implications. If the ponies were defeated, there wasn't much of a chance that anyone left in town would survive.
A sudden shift in the battle caught Pinkie's notice. The changelings seemed to waver, then they withdrew entirely. The sounds of battle that had been echoing across the town ceased, leaving the crowd of ponies at the train station standing nervously in the silence. Had they won? Was Ponyville spared? Hope began to leak into Pinkie's heart, but was stalled by the fact that none of the pegasi she could see seemed to be letting their guards down. A flash of green light burst against Pinkie's vision, followed by the thud of an explosion. In rapid succession, a series of green fireballs detonated against Twilight's shield.
Pinkie flinched away from the intensity of the light and sound. When she cautiously looked back, the magical barricade was flickering and distorting. It deteriorated rapidly until it finally collapsed.
A murmur ran through the crowd. Nopony was sure what to do until a volley of green fireballs arced out over the town and landed with a WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP. Fire lashed out from the explosions, seeming to stick to any surface it touched. A few buildings toppled from direct hits by the explosive projectiles, while others went up in flames.
Then everypony was running. Most steered to the east, toward Canterlot and away from the incoming swarm. Pinkie was just leaping from the platform behind Spike and the Cakes when the fireball hit the train station. The force of the shockwave sent the earth pony somersaulting forward to land heavily beside her friends. The gout of green flame that followed nearly swallowed them, but the bulk of the liquid fire fell just a few feet short. A few globs fell threateningly close to Pinkie and one hit Carrot Cake's tail. The greedy flame immediately began consuming the stallion's orange hair.
The following seconds would be burned permanently into Pinkie Pie's memory. Carrot Cake let out a yell and began stamping at the eager flames. "The twins!" Cup Cake cried. Pinkie sprang forward as Carrot shrugged out of the foals' carrying sling. In one fluid motion, Pinkie slid under the sling and bounded back away from the fire.
"We have to get them out of here!" Cup Cake screamed, a tinny edge breaking her voice. She bounded over to help her husband and shouted at Pinkie, "Just run! We have to—" A flash of green nearly blinded Pinkie, and another shockwave slammed her into the ground.
Her ears were ringing. Everything was muffled, and there was a terrible pounding in her head. After a few moments of disorientation, the crying of the foals snapped her back to herself. She craned her neck to make sure they were alright. Pound clutched at Gummy with an iron grip and Pumpkin had her hooves to her ears, but neither of them seemed to be hurt. Satisfied, she looked around for her friends. Spike was staggering to his feet no more than a leg's reach away, but the Cakes were nowhere to be found.
Could they have been flung further away? Panicking, the young mare stood and turned a full circle. "CUP CAKE! CARROT CAKE!" She screamed desperately. The inevitable answer was right in front of her. A flaming crater, exactly where the two ponies had been standing. The Cakes were gone.
"Oh no," Spike said, limping over to the lip of the crater.
How could this have happened? How could everything fall apart so quickly. She wanted to give up. She wanted to sink to the ground and just wait for another fire ball. But there were foals on her back. Scared and helpless. They didn't have anypony to watch over them anymore. They would never have anypony to buy them birthday presents or make hot chocolate on Hearth's Warming Eve. Nopony would be there to pick them up after school or cheer them up when they are sad. No, that's not right, Pinkie thought, I'm still here. I can do all of that. I have to now. A steely pit formed in the pink mare's heart. Everything is different now. But it doesn't have to be the end.
"We have to go," she said hoarsely, "We have to get Pound and Pumpkin out of here."
"How?" Spike asked, looking up at her. The truth was plain on his face. They didn't have any transportation. There was no way they would outrun the swarm.
"We have to try," Pinkie said, kneeling in front of the dragon. After only a moment's hesitation, Spike climbed onto the pink mares back. Her legs trembled under the load of two foals, a dragon, and a baby alligator, but she told her rebellious limbs firmly to do as she wanted and she set off to the east at a gallop. It wasn't long before her legs and lungs were burning with the effort she was exerting, but somehow she kept moving. It seemed like she would be running forever, even though her tired mind told her that was impossible. Eventually her body would fail. Pinkie wondered what it would be like to die of exhaustion. It didn't matter. She would keep going, putting as much distance between the foals and Ponyville as possible. Then maybe Spike would have a chance to get them to the safety of Canterlot.
Ten minutes passed, and Pinkie was down to a trotting pace. Not far enough, she thought, Got to get further. The sun had long since set, but the light of a full moon illuminated her path. Suddenly, a shadow flickered over the trail ahead of her as something flew overhead. Pinkie froze. They'd caught up.
With a snarl, the earth pony rounded to see a figure drop to the ground and approach. She was about to tell Spike to take the foals and run, but an instant later the figure resolved into a familiar form.
"Pinkie Pie!" Rainbow Dash shouted, galloping up to embrace her friend. Pinkie leaned against her, unable even to bring her fore legs up to return the hug.
"Are you alright?" the rainbow-maned mare said.
Pinkie wanted to reply, but her mouth was dry. "She ran all the way out here, but we're okay," Spike assisted.
"Holy Hey! We're nine miles away from Ponyville. You must have had a few extra cupcakes to burn huh?"
Pinkie knew her friend was trying to boost her spirits, but everything that had happened suddenly came crashing in on her in a tidal wave of emotion. She sank to the ground, convulsing with dry sobs. . .
Her only other memory of that night was of rushing wind as a flying chariot carried her, Spike, and the twins to Canterlot. Pound and Pumpkin were asleep, exhausted after their ordeal. Pinkie was too, but sleep completely eluded her. She was tormented by the deaths of the cakes and what that meant for the two innocent foals that lay curled up against her side. But, at the same time, a steely resolve was creeping into her bones. She didn't think she was ready to be a mother, but she'd be damned if she would abandon her friends' children to a life as homeless orphans.
That night, Pinkamena Diane Pie had made a silent promise to the stars. Come what may, this war would take nothing more from these foals. Nothing.
Pinkie opened the door to the small apartment that passed for their home now. It may be shabby, but the sight that greeted her every time she came in this door made it that much easier to smile. Spike was sitting at his desk, scribbling yet another letter to Twilight. Pinkie knew he missed her. It made the fact that he chose to stay all the more meaningful. There had been times when she didn't know how she would have gotten through without the young dragon's help.
The twins sat together, babbling to each other over Gummy, who lay on his back between them. Pinkie swore some of the sounds coming from the foals were actual words. She shut the door behind her and placed her groceries on the small kitchen counter.
"Did you miss your Auntie Pinkie Pie?"
"Nah," Spike said in his customary, sarcastic tone, "You're around all the time. It's like you don't trust me with the foals or something."
"Well it's only because you're always showing off with your fire blowing. Everypony knows foals and fire don't mix." In response, the dragon gave a grinning snort and went back to his letter.
Pound and Pumpkin toddled over to bump against Pinkie's knees. She leaned down and took them both into a warm hug. She would never be able to forget the pain that had brought about this situation, but she couldn't let that ruin moments like this. Here, in her arms, was her new purpose in life. These foals deserved a childhood worth remembering. And nothing would keep Pinkie Pie from making that happen.