Hello! I'm an aspiring fanfic writer from southeast England. Hopefully, some of the stuff I post will not be a boatload of dross...
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She never heard the fall of the rowan tree.
The first that Applejack knew of the weakened, dead rowan tree that lined the path of the Running of the Leaves was when it smashed down atop her back. Despite her strength, which led the weevil-bored tree to shatter into splinters across her spine, her knees buckled and she was pushed into the soft Ponyville loam. This far out into the lead, beyond even Rainbow Dash, there was nopony to come to her aid. Not yet, anyway. She came to the conclusion that she had to dig her way out, even though the impact had done something very, very strange indeed to her head. Her vision blurred and greyed as she strove for traction on the wet soil, cursing the pegasi for scheduling a rainstorm the night before a race through the biggest forest outside of the Everfree. She swore without hesitation, deviation or repetition, and with every straining movement of her shoulders she could feel dead heartwood shards worming their way into her flesh, sap mingling with blood and ramping up the pain wherever it touched. Finally, it became too much. Her eyes spun like dust devils, then shut, and she lay still, as if asleep under the branches instead of unconscious under the broken trunk.
After what felt like an eternity, she awoke, with a great hue and cry from her assembled friends. Twilight was there, nose jammed firmly in a book on obscure ailments and the cures thereof. Pinkie Pie had put together a party, which seemed to be why her ears were ringing so loudly, and that in turn meant Fluttershy was busy tunnelling under a piece of furniture, hiding from a particularly terrifying subwoofer. Rainbow Dash was holding her close, which was pleasant in ways she didn't really want to discuss with anypony any time soon, and Rarity had somehow managed to procure a nurses uniform creaking from the weight of assorted rubies and diamonds, which was even more so. Her vision swam momentarily as a relax in Rainbow's embrace let her once again experience the joys of freely available oxygen, and then all her friends started making noises with their faces, of which there were apparently three per pony. She couldn't make head nor haunch of any of them and made to tell them all so, but her words were coming out equally incomprehensibly, and when you can't understand your own speech, you're either drunk or sick, and either one's a problem to the strongest mare in Ponyville. She gave up the fight and let herself sink back into sweet obsidian dark.
"Do you think she'll be alright, Nurse Redheart?" Twilight was almost as pale as Rarity, and had come out of Applejack's room at the local cottage hospital for some air and a break from watching Rainbow Dash trying very hard not to cry.
"It's hard to say. Normally, given the fact that it's Applejack, I'd be surprised that a fallen tree did anything more than give her another tale to tell. But then, there's all the splinters and the sap. Rowan sap does very odd things to earth pony magic, and I'll never be able to get the splinters out without invasive-"
"Wait, wait, back up. Earth pony magic? I didn't even know they had any."
"Think, Ms. Sparkle, use that brain of yours that the Princess seems to admire so. What are the three basic styles of magic?"
"Healing, Duelling and Transformation," said Twilight, the answer drilled into her head in her foalhood by rote-learning with the Princess.
"Right. Transformation, you see all the time. Who grows the food we eat, the flowers we love, the timber we build our homes with? Who mines and smelts and carves and quarries? Earth ponies. Have you met a unicorn or a pegasus working as a farmer? No, you have not, for the very good reason that they can't do it."
"That can't be right, though; Rarity and I helped out with the harvest last Applebuck season-"
"Anypony can harvest. Anypony can take from the ground, but it takes earth ponies to give life to the soil anew. Earth pony magic's all about life, when you get right to the bottom of it. It's even more suited to healing and rebuilding than unicorn magic."
"It makes sense... I guess," mumbled Twilight whilst thinking the exact opposite, "and that's presumably why you're a nurse, but why can you still get unicorn doctors and unicorn healing magic? If one was better, surely it'd edge out the competition..."
"It's... well, if I was a scholar, I could probably find you some neat little comparison to make you understand, but I'm not. The bottom line is, earth pony magic is subtle and it takes longer - a lot longer - but it sticks."
"That doesn't explain Duelling magic, though. Are you saying an earth pony could make a tree jump up and flatten a - sorry." Twilight shuffled her hooves and looked at the floor.
"Apology accepted, Ms. Sparkle. But no, the earth pony magic I know of can't do that. It could, but it hasn't for a long time, not since Nightmare Moon's rampage burned away so many secrets. But they could. Nowadays, though, it just makes ponies more alive."
"A building collapsed here a few years before you came. An earth pony's home. Mare came home from work and found her children trapped under tons of rubble. She dug them out in six minutes. She threw a roofing beam twenty yards away with her teeth. That's the duelling magic of an earth pony; they do not attack first, but they endure. They can always endure, until their time, anyway."
Twilight stared into space for some time, listening to the sounds of a cottage hospital at midnight. There wasn't much to hear. Finally, she spoke again, her voice high and quiet. "Is it her time, then?"
"... I don't know. Normally, I'd say no. Normally, an earth pony as powerful as somepony from the Apples would shrug this off without a backward glance. But rowan trees, and rowan sap... it can affect somepony badly. Best we can hope for is to keep the wounds clean and pray to the Princesses she makes it out."
Silence returned, for a few minutes, until Rainbow Dash bolted out of the room in tears pursued by the other standing Elements of Harmony. Twilight smiled apologetically at the nurse pony. "I'd best see to my friends. Sorry for badgering you about earth pony magic... it kept my mind off her. Thank you."
"No problem. Applejack needs rest, anyway, and so do your friends. Big Macintosh is there, he'll keep her safe. Go home."
With that, the two ponies parted, and the nurse was free to watch the strong young girl turn pale and strange in peace. At length, she sighed, and decided that resting her eyes for a moment would be fine. It's not like she was going anywhere...
The raven hopped onto the window just as the first dawn rays began to kiss the world. Most ravens can't speak, but this one was smart, and sent for a purpose by someone with a gift better than a hawk-proof nestbox.
"mner... go 'way, granny, ah doan' need me no schoolin'..."
"Whassat? Who're you callin' ginger, y'no-good varmint! Ah oughta tan yer hide... wait... hol' on jussa..." There was a noise very much akin to a bucket being filled up, that being what Applejack was doing with what she'd eaten recently, and the raven smacked its head into its left wing. Was this really what he had to work with?
"Look, love, I ain't got all day. You're dying."
"Well, ain't that a fine how-d'you-do. C'mere, ya sack o'-"
"And I can fix that."
Applejack stopped mid-expletive, which was usually about as likely to happen as Twilight Sparkle attending a book-burning rally or Pinkie Pie being lucid. "Fix what? Ah'm fi - oh, brother..." The bucket noises returned, and the splatter of overflow added a soprano harmony to proceedings. "Okay, now Ah'm fiuuurrrrrrk... y'know what, Ah'm not gonna say that agin. It's obviously jinxed."
"No, you're just dying of being alive too much."
"Uh... beg pardon? That sounds kinda... screwy."
"You're talking to a raven, numbnuts."
"Point, though y'all might care t'be a li'l bit less insultin'."
"Anyway. You got hit with a rowan tree and it's sent your magic into overdrive. Yes, you have magic. Don't talk, you talking makes me want to kill myself. My boss can fix you. One condition, though... you have to get to her within two days from this sunrise." Already the sun was creeping into the sky, dying it streaks of warm purple and orange in places. "And trust me, this'll be hard for you to accept, because technically where she is is... difficult to get to."
"What d'yall mean, technically?"
"My boss is the Witch of the Westmareland, and she's, well... there."
"WHAT? Westmareland's a fairy tale! Y'might as well try t'send me off to the Moon or sump'n!"
"If you can't do it, just say so..."
"Oh, Ah kin do it. Two days? Best set me a route."
"Well, not quite. You'll have two days of your natural magic boosting you to perfection. You'll be stronger and faster than anything else with four legs that's tied to the ground. After that, well... the rowan acts as an amplifier, so you'll sort of, y'know..."
"Ah will sort of what, exactly?" Applejack's eyes narrowed, the twin slits dangerous as a mother bear.
"Explode. And then the bits'll explode again. It's... not nice."
"Uh huh. Well then. Ah'd best git 'er done. Where do Ah go, mister raven?"
"Um... hold on... right. Take the first dog and the first flying creature you see. You'll need them. You'll see a glow and hear music."
"Do y'all count thar?"
"No, Applejack," said the raven with a sigh, "because I'm not really here. This is the Witch projecting her magic to speak with you directly, and she picked a form out of your mind."
"An'... she picked a miserable overgrown blackbird as hates me."
"No, you did. Which says a lot more about you than it does about her."
"Alright, fine. Gotta git up an' doin'. Thanks fer th'help... Ah think." Applejack hopped out of bed and managed to avoid waking either Big Macintosh or Nurse Redheart. Obviously, this being Applejack, it couldn't last. The stairs got the better of her slightly weakened body and she crashed down three flights before halting next to a peculiarly glowing Winona, who barked happily and licked her mistress' face. This must be what the raven meant, thought Applejack as she ran out of the hospital door-
-And found herself sent sprawling into the earth again. This was becoming something of a habit. She looked up, and saw the Ponyville mailpony known locally as Derpy Hooves, not always affectionately. She was grinning apologetically. She was staring at two things at once, as per normal.
She was glowing.
"Aw, what in the Sam hay're ya tryin' ta pull, Witch?"
"Oh, that's not nice... I am sorry, though. I'd offer you a muffin, but I, um... hehe... you're not gonna believe this..." It's quite hard to shuffle your hooves on thin air, but Derpy somehow managed it.
"Not you, sugarcube... well, kinda you, but kinda not-you as well... augh, stupid words, why can't y'all jes' be simple!"
"... If'n y'all say so, Der- Ah mean, Ditzy Doo."
"So, what's got you in such a rush? Is it muffins? Boy, I hope so! I love chocolate and blueberry and banana and hot sauce but my favourites where the ones with the big candy capital Ds on them that Pinkie Pie made my little Dinky for her birthday! Oh, and you're glowing. Is that normal? I wouldn't know..."
"Uh... listen, Ditzy Doo. Somethin'... weird's going on." With that, she related the raven's tale to the pegasus. One eye lavished attention on her, but the other got bored about halfway through and wandered off. By the time the story was told, the other eye had come back, presumably with its own songs to sing.
"So... you're on a quest! Oh, boy! If we find this Witch, can we bring her back to Ponyville? Only, I couldn't find Dinky anything for Show and Tell this week, and she said she didn't want muffins or another book on quantum electrodynamics, and this'd be really great! One of the early Maredieval legendary cycles revolves around the Westmareland, and proving her existence means there's a whole bunch of other stuff we might learn too, and then there's be a parade and the Princess'll be nice to me and I'll get to keep my little girl after all and there'll be muffins!"
Applejack stood there in slack-jawed amazement. She'd stopped trying to follow Derpy's supersonic rambling about two sentences in, and she was certain her brain was beginning to bleed. If the plan was to talk the Witch into submission then they were well away.
"Sugar, are y'sure y'all wanna do this? Ah mean... what if Child Services comes around agin?"
"DO NOT SPEAK THE NAME OF THE EVIL ONES!" Derpy roared, her eyes focusing on Applejack even as they boiled with rage. Applejack shied away despite herself.
"Okay, sorry Ditzy... Ah di'nt mean nuthin' by it. Anywho... we'd best be gittin' gone afore they miss me at the hospital. Now, accordin' ter this 'ere map, we needa head due east, t'wards Whitetail Wood, but afore we get there we'll find the Ullswater and then, well, ever'thing gets all fuzzy..."
"Uh, Applejack, you're not holding a map."
"Sure Ah am! It's right here!" AJ flourished the map.
"Who gave you the map?"
"Um, the raven who... doesn't... actually..." Applejack buried her head in a forehoof.
"Still, sounds like fun! Ooh, I've got some apple muffins in my bag, we can get going fastfastfastfastfast! Like Dashie!"
The pegasus took off again, racing towards Whitetail Wood. Applejack had to admit, the girl was fast, but she had to be faster. Her hooves pounded the dirt road to the wood and already she felt better than she had in years. She felt like every breath was the first of a brand new day, like her whole body was on fire... but in a good way. Which made absolutely no sense to the farm pony, but it felt right.
Winona was somehow able to keep up with Applejack and Derpy both, at times even running ahead of them for the sheer joy of it. It brought a much-needed smile to the farmer's face, as did the innumerable times that Derpy smashed into trees, hills, indignant local bears and so forth, however bad she might feel for doing so afterwards. The sun rose through the sky, arcing gently to the west on another of its many Celestia-powered journeys, and Applejack felt as though she was drawing energy directly from it, like the trees she'd loved back home. The rainstorm hadn't gone this far so clouds of dust rose at her feet with every pounding step of her gallop, making her easy to see from the air. This was probably the only reason why Derpy didn't get lost and end up heading north out of sheer instinct.
The Ullswater was soon before them, drifting slow and languid over the chalk downs of Trottinghamshire's southern border. It didn't so much flow as roll down the dales, cutting its own way through the white rock with nary a care in the world. The locals, Applejack learned when they trotted into the nearest hamlet for lunch and to restock on Derpy's muffin supply, called it the Peace River. One gigantic farm colt, who introduced himself as Mendel and gave them a hearty meal of sweet pea soup and the local black bread, said that if you followed it against the flow - which, thankfully, Applejack had been doing - you could come across a set of hills and ruins that rivalled the Everfree for sheer nocturnal creepiness. Before she could be silenced by an orange hoof, Derpy asked whether or not the river led to the Westmareland. He laughed, and said it did, but that it lay beyond a pass with a fearsome guardian, a shamaness of terrible power. His words were chilling but his eyes had mirth, and soon everyone was laughing with them.
Applejack and her companions trotted on, waiting for the soup to digest before hammering away at the dales at their previous pace. As they did, they noticed how odd the landscape seemed to get as they moved south along the river's path. The grass here was a peculiar shade of blue, and occasionally the white of the chalk showed through on the crests of the hills. The effect was beguiling from the ground and beautiful from the air, and Applejack found herself wishing she'd let Fluttershy give her that old Super 8 camcorder she'd had from her photography phase. She loved the land in general, and though nothing would ever come close to her beloved Sweet Apple Acres, the Ullswater dales came a very respectable second.
Hours trailed by the runners at a laggardly pace, but soon they felt the sun drifting away below the horizon. Luna's magic coursed through the sky, dyeing it indigo and lifting the moon up again, and the summer night came upon them, warm and humid as a Louisiana bayou, or indeed anywhere else in Louisiana if the air conditioning packs up, something this narrator has learned through the bitter experience of the less fortunate. Derpy landed and cantered alongside Applejack.
"Why'd y'all stop, Ditzy?"
"The little owl told me she didn't like it. Did you, Missus Owl?"
"... Ditzy, ya do know owls can't talk."
"Noivurr can ravens, moy lovarr, an' it never stopped'ee."
"WHAT?" Applejack slammed on the brakes and ground to a halt. Her convoy followed suit, Winona using AJ's flanks and Derpy using a nearby piece of ruined masonry. The owlet perched happily on a shrub and grinned beakily at them.
"Now y'all listen here. Ah'm a dyin' mare, an' even Ah know birds can't talk. So you're obviously here 'cause o' tha Witch, an' therefore y'all are gonna tell me the next bit of this 'ere puzzle."
"And why do you sound like you're from Devon?" Derpy piped up.
"Roight then. 'Twere a long ol' poke ago, so 'twere. The Westmarelanders sided with Princess Celestia against the Dark Ones an' their ilk, but they wuzz all kilt boi Noightmare Moon 'ersel' at Kirkstone Pass."
"Oooh, like it said in the Chronicles of the Abbot of Aberfan!"
"Zactly, moy dear. Zactly so."
"Where in the hay are y'gettin' all this, Ditzy Doo?"
"I learned it! I am a clever pony! Just... weird."
"That thou be, tharrrt thou be. Oi'm ter take the 'ole boilin' of yerz ter the Pass. Great big rocky mountain, looks like it's been split wiv an axe, carn't miss it. The Witch lies beyond, but... thar be the very sloightest of little niggly difficulties afore y'get through."
"And that would be," said Applejack, certain she'd regret asking.
"One o' the most powerful ponies o' the Westmareland Volunteers didn't die a thousand year ago, on account o' makin' 'erself too aloive ter do so. Roight cross about it she wurr too. Misty Brakefern, 'er name is... she'll challenge yer t'pit yer earth magic 'gainst 'ers. An' you ain't 'ad no trainin'. Yer'll be cut ter ribbons if'n yer can't foind yersel' an edge."
"... Y'know what? Fine! Ah jes' plum don't care anymore! Find somepony else ta do all this, Ah'm gonna go home an' die in a nice, quiet, peaceful-"
"Shaddup, Derpy, y'all ain't makin' this any easi-" The rest of her sentence was abruptly cut off on account of Derpy's hoof slamming into her left earhole. She rolled with the blow, currently half-deaf, and steeled herself to counterattack. The next attack never came. Derpy had collapsed sobbing onto the riverbank, salt tears mingling with the clear river water.
"Ditzy Doo... Ah'm sorry. Ah didn't mean ta call y'all that. Jes' kinda slipped out. Ah'm real sorry."
"I..." Derpy sniffled in between heaving sobs. "I thought you were different, Applejack. I thought you l-l-liked me... guess you're just another pony I can't look in the eye any more. Figuratively speaking, that is."
"Ditzy... Ah do like ya. You're mah friend. A lot of ponies like you, and you're a friend to almost everypony you ever met. You're kind, you're generous, you're a hard worker, you're a real great mom to Dinky. So what if a couple mean ponies can't see beyond your eyes? Ah can. The people who matter can. That's what counts."
"... I'm sorry for shouting at you, Applejack..." she sniffled again. The owlet made a face. "I just... I just have a problem with that name. I'm a clever pony, on the inside... but hearing how stupid I look on the outside hurts." With that, Applejack couldn't take any more and wrapped up the grey pegasus in a tight hug.
"On the other 'and," said the owlet as the goldenrod lining the banks shot up towards the heavens, knotting and twisting into geometrically precise patterns, "thar moight just be 'ope for'ee yet..."
Applejack, being wrapped up in both her own problems and Ditzy Doo's forelegs, didn't reply.
When Applejack finally awoke, the owlet was giving her a knowing look. When she wondered why, she felt a comfortable nuzzle on her neck. Purring like a cat in a sunbeam, she rolled over and was greeted by one of Derpy's eyes at its most, well, derped. It span like an old seven-inch single, and the other eye shot open shortly afterwards as their owner leapt into the air.
"You're not Dinky! Where's my Dinky? Where did you take her, government mare?"
"Ditzy Doo, it's me, it's Applejack... y'all told Dinky you'd be away with me for a few days. She's safe, back in Ponyville."
"Oh... sorry. I was not a clever pony. Hey, how about I give you a crash course in quantum physics to apologise! Knowledge is a gift best given, as the philosopher Sueponius said."
"Quantum physics, Ditzy?"
"Well, it's that or a muffin, and, well, you know me! Also, you move around in your sleep a whole bunch so they're, um, kinda, you know... squished."
"Uh... that hasn't stopped you, has it?"
"Grnph nermphl," said Ditzy, which the astute reader will know is 'of course not' in conversational Muffin. Winona woke up at this point and dove into the river to wash off the cake crumbs.
"Righto, girls, when yer done." The two fillies stopped and looked at the little owl, who seemed in a better mood than he had been in yesterday. "Oi'll be arf. Applejack'll know where ter go, since Oi've been in 'er 'ead, an' a most fascinatin' place it be, oo ar. Especially all o' that repression, an' rainbows, an' a load of other stuff as begins wiv an R. Tatty-bye!" With that, the owl sped off and collided heavily with Applejack's face. Again, being hit there was getting to be a bad habit for the pony.
The three travellers trotted on, and the landscape became more in line with Mendel's dark stories of the Ullswater estuary. Though the river was broad now, it evidently had not always been so, for it soon lay deeper and deeper in a fog-strewn gorge. The flow of it was lined with willows as though mourning the passing of a close friend, and it was these that forced Derpy to the ground again, trotting beside her friend and giving her an interminable lecture on why electrons had mass with a couple of diagrams iced onto a particularly large muffin. Applejack wasn't really listening though. It was a real unicorn concept - Twilight Sparkle was forever banging on about how Equestria's magic was really the product of dark energy interacting with an ambient TP/K field, whatever the Sam hay that meant. Knowing how the universe worked was a hobby, not anything of import to a pony with a farm to run.
One day, thought Derpy as Applejack's eyes glazed over and sparked with the occasional bit of earth pony magical residue, you'll realise just how wrong about that you are, and how physics and magic will rule the universe like the Princesses rule Equestria. Oooh, we're coming up to the bit about Finemare's QED diagrams, they're iced on the banana ones! I like banana best, that's why the founder of quantum electrodynamics has her equations done on them in my super-special chocolate icing!
Eventually, after a few hours of hard cantering and a lecture that covered everything from the movement of charged particles on a subatomic level to the appreciation of Modernist sculpture, Applejack stopped in sheer amazement. Her eyes went wide and her hoof slammed into Derpy's mouth, forcing her to stop and stand. They'd arrived at the Kirkstane pass, and boy howdy, had it been worth the wait.
The gorge had gone downhill and levelled out onto a wide plain, covered in bluegrass and goldenrod. Rising up in front of the travellers, however, was a huge hill that looked like it'd had a plough driven through it by somepony with a really long-standing grudge against geography. And everywhere, quite literally everywhere, were piles of broken stonework.
History had been one of many subjects Applejack had had no time for as a filly; she'd used it to either practice her bookkeeping skills or catch up on sleep. However, even she knew of the Precursors, likely on the basis that if a teacher throws enough mud at a wall, some of it's bound to stick eventually. They were a strange race, one that stood upon two legs like a bird and had many little claws like a young dragon. They were a proud people, but had coexisted peacefully with the ponies of Equestria up until Nightmare Moon and her Dark Legion had fallen upon their cities like a pack of wolves on a henhouse. Their symbol was everywhere, in various states of decay - a vertical line with another line, this one much shorter, splashed across it horizontally. The largest such cross, and the one unbowed by the ravages of time and the Queen of the Black Nether, was slap bang in the middle of the gorge, supported by its stubby arms braced against either side of the hill it appeared to have cleaved in twain.
However, this was not the end of the story. In amongst the sundered stones and jagged reaches of metal, there stood a grove of trees. There were twenty-one trees in all - seven of oak, seven of ash, seven of hawthorn, all radiating out from a single dais of stone, upon which stood a slim, young-looking mare - or at least, the shape of one. The dais' top was shrouded in thick white fog that made Winona whine and rub against Applejack's legs. From within the fog came a voice, lyrical and beautiful and utterly, utterly terrifying.
"Why comest thou here, Dark One? Hast not the kingdom of the West suffered enough through thine hell-damned queen? Speak thy name and answer!"
"Um... Ah'm Applejack, this 'ere's Ditzy Doo, an' mah dog, Winona." Derpy gave a cheery wave, which elicited no response at all.
"Well then, Applejack, thy mistress hears all under the vale of her starlit shadow. So know this and know it well; shouldst thou come closer than thou art, the Nightmare loses another slave."
"Beg pardon? Ah ain't workin' fer Nightmare Moon any more'n Ah'm workin' fer the monster under the bed. Point o' fact, Ah'm an Element of Harmony. Honesty, since y'all asked."
"How DARE you insult the memory of the Elements, witchling! I saw thy queen lay waste to them, and I saw her shroud this good Earth in her beloved night eternal! Thou force my hand, worm! I will hear no more of your lies!"
"Uh, which part o' 'Element of Honesty' didn't y'all git?"
"You would say that, creature of foulness!"
"Well, yeah. 'Cause it has tha virtue o' bein' true-"
"I will suffer no more of your treachery! Nightmare Moon's darkness may have lasted a thousand years, but you will last no longer! I am Misty Brakefern and I am your doom!"
"But, but she lost! Celestia banished her to the - oh, horseapples, NOW Ah git it." The figure, apparently Misty Brakefern (as if that hadn't been obvious to anypony with an IQ in double figures), had come charging out of the fog, sensing the path to her foe with earth magic. She was tall and strong, but in a lean and wiry way that suggested it was born from the battlefield and not the gym. It was her face that was strange, though. Where the rest of the pony's body was teal and glowing softly with a white light, her head was pitch-black and expressionless. Applejack's eyes were sharp, though. She could pick out the stitching of the leather and the spatters of dried blood.
Misty Brakefern lived in darkness because Nightmare Moon had sewn shut her eyes.
The teal pony reared up and glowed brighter. As she stamped her hooves back on the alluvial soil, the bluegrass spikelets reared up, severed themselves from the roots, and fired themselves at Applejack, who dived out of the way barely in time. She picked up a few scores along her farming- and magic-hardened skin, but there was no blood. Yet.
"Look, Ah kin explain-" The farm pony stopped just short of being minced into burger meat by rippling, massive bluegrass spikes, and threw herself into reverse to avoid a collapsing statue. "If y'all would stop tryin' ta KILL me fer a li'l while, we could talk this out!"
"Oh, I bet you'd love that, wouldn't you?"
"Well, yeah. Ah mean, it's a choice between havin' a number done on me in this 'ere square dance an' not havin' it... wouldn't you pick the same outco-" Her word was cut off as a long iron pole, wreathed in crawling vines, slammed into her side at the behest of Misty's magic. She was sent flying and landed face down on the riverbank hard enough that Winona heard her owner's jaw crack, and hid behind a tree. Derpy stifled a sob and flew to the bank, where she whispered in her friend's ear before flitting off and alighting on a granite crucifix.
Misty trotted to Applejack's side and loomed over her. "I have three stands of holy trees behind me, little moonchild. A trinity of sevens, all lending me the strength of the earth itself. Did you really think you could beat me in these lightless, lifeless times? You? You are weak, weaker than a newborn foal. I'd pity you, but you condemned me to a millenium of darkness. Your mistress damned us all, you... silly pony."
That did it.
"Mah name is Applejack." A spike of goldenrod speared up underneath the teal shaman, throwing her into the air. Applejack's voice dripped with menace. "Ah run tha biggest, finest orchard in all Equestria." The branches of the weeping willow above the orange pony's head wavered and sprung forward, latching onto Misty's legs and rendering her completely motionless. "Ah've got rowan in mah blood an' apples in mah bones." Misty's desperate volleys of magic were deflected by the branches of her own oak trees, and the old mare felt the disruption in her power. "Ah'm a dyin' mare on a foalish quest with nuthin', absolutely nuthin' else left ta lose." A patch of bracken coiled and reared towards the paralysed teal earth pony, the thorns lengthening to foot-long, razor-sharp blades. "AND AH AM NOT A SILLY PONY!" The bracken flashed outwards and the blades hit home.
The tattered leather mask fell away, crumbling gently on the breeze before it could even hit the ground.
"Ah'm a good one."
Misty, completly unharmed, blinked several times. She shivered and shook as the pain of a thousand years without light slammed into her eyes and forced a moan from her lips. She collapsed to the ground as Applejack's magic left the plants that held her aloft, shivering in pain and sorrow.
"She blinded ya, Misty. She blinded ya, but she didn't win. She lost fer a thousand years, an' when she came back me an' mah friends got rid o' that mare fer good. Ah told ya I was the Element of Honesty. Now... Ah've got the rest of today to find tha Witch o' tha Westmareland... but Ah reckon y'all need mah help first."
The teal mare looked up at Applejack and smiled. "That will not be required of thee, Lady Applejack. Fare thee well, and catch the one who has your heart and ran so fast with it."
"Whaddaya mean, won't be required? Yer here, yer safe..."
"I'm old, my lady. I have been old for a very long time. Impossibly old... I remember the humans first hand. I remember when Canterlot was twinned with Canterbury. I remember when the flag of the Faraway Union rose above the Palace of Saint Augustine-in-Equestria, gules and azure and such prefect argent as you'd never seen, surmounted with Celestia's wandering flame. I remember when I first joined the River Patrol, aboard the Antelope under good Captain Barrett of the humans. I remember the good days... I forgot the bad. And now it is my time. Please remember those days for me... please remember me..."
And the last of the Westmareland Volunteers let age take her weary heart, and was gone.
It was only when she felt the grass upon her knees, and Winona's tongue upon her face, and Derpy's forelegs around her shoulders, that Applejack realised she was crying.
Applejack lay on the strange blue grass, the fight all but gone from her body. After a time, she fell asleep, despite is being the middle of the day, and dreamed. The narrative of the dream was confused and rambling as Pinkie Pie on a heavy dose of magic mushrooms, with pictures of her family's faces jumpcutting to visions of burning cities and strange creatures fleeing through a mountain pass atop equally strange machines. She saw black fire latch onto stone and melt it away into powdered darkness. She knew death and pain, and though they weren't her memories they still filled her sleeping eyes with hot, salt tears.
And yet, and yet...
However much she wanted to die right now, however hopeless it all seemed, she knew it wasn't. The memories were bad, but they were why she had to keep going - so that she could be with her friends and with her family and maybe, one day, even with her. Providing she was like that, of course. Which was by no means certain.
Eventually, she forced herself to her feet. The sky was the dull orange of evening, and the farmer knew she was running out of time. She knew what she had to do now.
"Ah hafta do this next part alone," she said as she picked a couple of goldenrod flowers. "Ah need y'all ta look after Winona fer me, until ya hear mah call, 'cause Ah reckon we're gonna hafta corral the Witch afore she heals me."
"I understand, AJ... Ooh, that reminds me! Somepony sent this to a filly I don't think even exists, so maybe you should call us using that! It's pretty loud, after all." She proffered the box to Applejack, who opened it and then sighed.
"Ditzy Doo, Ah hate t'be a bother, but this ain't exactly epic folk tale material."
"Well, we are on something of a budget."
"Budget schmudjet, Ditzy, it's a gosh-durned kazoo!"
"Hey, maybe you could call out Maxwell's equations! Those carry everywhere, since they affect the entire universe, I've gotta be able to hear those!"
"... Kazoo it is."
"We're a real two-bit operation here, aren't we..."
"Oh, Applejack, you're selling yourself short! You're worth three bits at least!" Derpy smiled winsomely and proffered Applejack the muffin bag. With a sigh, the farmer took a chocolate chip muffins Ditzy'd selected for her. She saw it had seven hearts iced onto it, one of each colour of the rainbow. She sighed.
"Am Ah that obvious?"
"Oh no, that was just chance. I mean I know you like fillies but I didn't know which, so I iced a few of them with hearts related to your friends' cutie marks. Rainbow Dash was the first one out of the bag."
"Uh... huh. Say, why does that one have all bubbles on it-"
Applejack facehoofed and cantered off to the pass.
The pass was very short and the setting sun still shone on the cross at its entrance, casting a long black shadow on the land before Applejack. According to Misty's memories, every tree here was purely to give power to the Witch. There were species she knew, species she'd heard of, and species she doubted even Twilight knew how to spell.
And far before her, on an overgrown path, was the rolling blue of the Ullswater Sea.
In reality, of course, it was a huge freshwater lake, stretching so far that Applejack couldn't even see it curve. The sun's light was just on the point of fading entirely as she stepped into the water, first casting in the goldenrod she'd picked earlier and then steeling herself.
C'mon, AJ, she thought, No pain, no gain... on three, one, two...
Four inches of rowan heartwood shot from between Applejack's shoulder blades. Its comrade, even longer, leapt from her side. More splinters came, each one making the orange pony shriek with pain and nearly collapse onto the coarse sand of the lake shore. Finally, with one massive effort, Applejack's magic ripped the last and longest splinter from the centre of her back, and her cry shook the birds from the trees for miles around. This time, she allowed herself to collapse and let the magic do the work, clotting over her perforated body and moulding the splinters into a pony-sized buckler, as the Rite of Summoning she'd learned from Misty's memories demanded. Grasping it with her teeth, she laid it upon the surface of the lake, put the goldenrod upon it, and waited.
She didn't have to wait long. With a great crash of sprayed foam, the Witch appeared, rising dripping wet from the lake in an elaborate gown of ice-blue material that matched her eyes, mane and tail and offset her jet-black coat to perfection. Applejack's weary body began to throb with magic as she prepared herself for the last challenge that this insane quest would throw at her.
"... Excuse me?" Applejack panted.
"I said you're late, Applejack. In both senses. You're a dead mare walking, even without the rowan in your system. You took too long to get here. Farewell." She began to dive back into the lake when a flat pebble bounced off her flank.
"Ah did not come... all this way... fer you ta tell me... Ah'm LATE!"
Turned away from Applejack's eyes, the black mare's features twisted into a warm grin. "Then call your allies and run." She took off, thundering along the shoreline with Applejack racing after her, blowing the signal note as long and loud as she could. Curious, the Witch turned around.
"A kazoo, pale rider? Really? A kazoo?"
"Yeah, yeah, Ah've had this conversation already. Now slow down an' lemme catch y'all afore Ah explode an' then explode agin."
"Oh, but where's the fun in that?" The Witch sped up, leading Applejack to pump more magic through her abused system and race after her. It was then she heard the beat of a set of strong, powerful wings...
Away from her.
"Land's sakes... of all the darned times ta git lost... DITZY! Ah'm over here!"
A distant cry of "Sorry!" and the wingbeats started coming towards Applejack. The Witch of the Westmareland was laughing now, long and hard as the trek she planned to run. After thirty minutes of hard galloping, Derpy pulled alongside the orange pony.
"Hey there, Applejack! I bought Winona along in my hooves so she could keep up with us! Boy, this sure is fun! I can't believe we never went on an epic quest before, they're so interesting!"
"Yeah, right, Ditzy. Ah need y'all ta drop Winona. Hey, girl..." This last was directed at the dog, who snapped to attention (insofar as a dog can snap to attention, especially when swaddled in the limbs of a fast-moving pegasus). "Ah need y'all ta corral that thar mare. C'mon, sweetie, Momma needs the mare... go fetch, g'wan, go fetch fer Momma." Winona gave a soft yip and Derpy let go. The collie hit the ground running and shot forward towards the black mare, paws gaining traction on the scree-slick open country where hooves sometimes could not. Applejack's attention turned back to Derpy. "Ditzy Doo, Ah need y'all ta do the same. Rise up over her an' then stoop, like Dashie did with the Sonic Rainboom."
"Like when I'm late with the mail?"
"Uh, yeah. Ah guess, anyway."
"You can count on me, Applejack. I'll get her done-"
The little grey pegasus smashed headlong into an Abponyginal baobab tree with what would at any other juncture have been a highly comedic BADOING! noise. Derpy's momentum sent her careening off into the upper air of the night and left Applejack's plan in ruins.
The Witch could only be caught if a hawk had her mane and a dog had her tail, and right now neither was occurring. She was pulling away, even though Applejack's body was so suffused with magic that her every step let loose a volley of bright white sparks, and Winona couldn't keep up. Derpy's muffled, Doppler-shifting cry of "I'M OKAY!" was all Applejack heard, and when the Witch pulled a tight turn and leapt into a gorge the pegasus vanished from sight.
Winona, visibly flagging, looked back at her owner with an air of desperation. Matching it exactly, Applejack let a little earth magic leave her body, flooding in as it was from the enormous groves of Sweet Apple Acres, and sent it into the body of her beloved pet. With that, Winona sprang forward in a last-ditch attempt and managed to latch onto the Witch's tail with her teeth, growling with effort as she clung on, feet and body dragged along the mercifully rock-free gorge bottom. The black mare cursed and leapt up the path of a long-dried tributary, taking her into open country. Fat, rippling heather swayed in an unnatural wake as Applejack leapt after her, and from the air it would have looked to Derpy like two speedboats upon some alien waterway, had speedboats been invented. As was, she swept down to Applejack's side again.
"Told you I was okay!"
"Ditzy, really, jes' do whatcha gotta do fer me, alright? We can talk later."
"I understand, Applejack, really... but listen, about the bubble muffin..."
"DITZY DOO! Now really isn't the-" Applejack suddently had a brainwave. "Ditzy... y'all love muffins, huh?"
"Really love 'em?"
"Nothin' y'all wouldn't do fer a muffin?"
"If you catch the Witch, she'll give you the biggest, tastiest muffin y'all ever did see- WHOA!" Derpy shot off like a hunting cheetah, rising high into the clear night sky before swooping down in an almost exact mimicry of how Rainbow Dash had gathered speed for her Sonic Rainboom. And she did it... well, sort of.
The noise of a sonic boom rocked the valley as Derpy streaked towards her prize, a huge tan ripple spreading out in mid-air studded with little mahogany-dark eddies. In the time it took Applejack to twig as to what it actually signified, the Witch of the Westmareland had been summarily dump-tackled by Derpy and was lying prone on the floor, pinned by the walleyed pegasus and guarded by the dusty-brown and battered-looking collie dog. Applejack pulled up beside her fallen quarry, magic boiling off her in great gouts of glowing white smoke and her wounds ripped open again by her exertions.
"GIMME MY MUFFIN, PONY! GIMME THE BIG OL' MUFFIN! GIMME GIMME GIMME NOWNOWNOWNOWNOW Oh, hey Applejack!"
"Please..." croaked the Witch as she summoned her magic, "it's over there... everything hurts..."
"YAAAAAAAY!" Derpy took off again, this time heading towards a rising mound of golden brown in the distance. Like the... well, what could one call it? Like the sonic boom's pattern earlier, it was studded with chocolate chips that were a yard across each.
"That's better... Now then, Applejack... you need healing, and fast."
"Um... well, Ah do."
"Good. You earned it, too." The silver chain holding her dress together soon dropped off at the feet of an increasingly shocked Applejack. She felt something tighten across her wounds, and looked to see it was the goldenrod from her offering. The farm pony looked back up and found, to her great amazement, that she couldn't actually speak.
A kiss will do that to you.
Despite her pale flesh, her blood-flecked coat and her reek of sweat, the black mare kissed the orange one again, and then once more after that. The last of the three sealed the trinity needed for the earth spell to work, and Applejack felt the poison leave her body through her splinter wounds, the punctures and cuts sealing themselves shut as the magic of the Westmareland coursed through the Ponyville filly's body. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from Applejack's shoulders, and she fell upon the Witch's shoulder, soft tears of joy rolling down her face and darkening the pale mane of her prize.
"You get to learn my name, too..."
"My true name. There's only one group that learns it, same as there's only one group of people that sees my cutie mark."
"Uh, um, well, y'see..." Applejack's face was slowly going redder and redder, and it was only when she heard the thump of her flank hitting a tree that she realised she'd been backing away from the gently smiling mare before her. "Ah'm... er... miss Witch?"
"Call me Mairwyn."
The blue gown left Mairwyn's body, showing off her cutie mark, an intricate knotwork pattern picked out in ice blue. "Gleep," said Applejack, as her cheeks started to singe the surrounding greenery.
It was the last coherent thought she had that night.
It was late in the morning of the third day since Applejack's visitation from the raven, and she awoke feeling better than she'd ever felt before. All the little twinges and aches that a pony amassed over a life of hard graft were gone, and in their place lay the warm glow of, well, afterglow. Mairwyn's body was warm against hers, and the dark mare's head was resting on her neck in a way that caused blood to run to newly-familiar places. Soon the Westmare had also stirred, her eyes meeting those of the farm pony she'd sought out scant days before.
"Y'know, you move around a lot when you sleep, Applejack."
"... eeble..." eebled Applejack, remembering the previous night in exquisite detail and therefore not really capable of coherent speech. Gosh, she thought, this must be how Fluttershy feels all the time... only probably without the, well, y'know...
"Awwww. You're a cute one, you are. Rainbow Dash doesn't know what she's missing."
That woke the farm pony from her anxious semi-delirium. "How the heck d'y'all know about her?"
"Same way I know you like my tongue stud, sweetheart."
"Did everypony know about this afore Ah did? 'S'only recently Ah figured it all out mahself..." Applejack sighed, stretched, and got to her hooves. "An' Ah still ain't quite figured all tha small print."
"Best way to go about these is to be bold. Actually, I might be able to help you with that..."
"Y'already did, Mairwyn. It don't feel like Ah'm fightin' aginst mahself any more. Ah know what feels right an' Ah know ta go with it. Ah'm not hidin' mahself away no more."
"Actually, I meant teleporting you and your companions back to Ponyville."
"Uh... right. Totally what Ah thought y'all meant. Totally. Um... yeah." Derpy bounced into view at that moment, munching on what remained of Mairwyn's monumental magical muffin.
"HiApplejack! OhboyohboyohboylastnightIwaseatingabigbigbigbigbigmuffin! Itmustabeenthesizeofabigoldhouse! Somuchsugarsomuchsugarsomuchsugar! AndlastnightIdidathingwhereImadecoloursintheskybuttheyweren'tcolours! SoIneedsomeponytohelpmenameitandGOSHIfeelsohighrightnow!"
"You, y-you... you ate the whole thing!"
"Uh-huhyupyuppityyeppers! Icanfeelmyteethdissolving! Heyyouknowwhatwouldbecool? Ifweweren'tactuallyponiesbutlittleboxesbecauseIsowannabeinspacerightnow! Andyoucouldbeonethat'salllike'OneinsixchildrenwillbeabductedbytheDutch'andwhat'saDutch? GOSHI'msohighreallynoreallyreallyhighyepsohighhighlikespaceSPACE!"
"Ditzy Doo, Ah think y'all might needa calm down jes' a li'l bit-"
"Sugarcube, this is gettin' a mite creepy now-"
"SPACEPLANETSSTARSOoohmaybewe'renotreallyhereatallbutarejusthappylittleconstructs! ConstructscreatedbyacoltwhowantstobeafillyandiswritingwhatI'msaying! Andmaybewhateverypony'ssaying! Youwantthetruthponieswellyoucan'thandlethetruth! IbetIcouldhandlethetruthbecauseI'vehandledbigscaryrollercoastersbefore! ButDinkyDoodoesn'tlikethoseandI'magoodmommysoItakeheronthelittletrainrides! IwannagiveDinkyarideonatrainmadeofcandylikethatoneorthatoneorthatoneor-" Derpy bounced into the air, jerked around like a fish on a hook for twenty minutes, then fell to earth with a crash. Her flailing continued and soon she'd dug a hole ten feet deep by seven wide.
Applejack looked at Mairwyn. Mairwyn looked at Applejack. "SPACE!" said the hole.
"Y'all know that thar's yer fault, right?"
"I apologise. That was... pretty ruddy creepy, if I'm honest."
"Eeyup." Sometimes, Applejack copied her brother's favourite saying. It was a very convenient one.
"... Applejack, my tummy hurts."
"Well, that's because you had too much sugar, sweetie."
"Oh, okay. That probably explains why my eyes are bleeding, too. And why I have seventeen hooves on each of my forelegs. Ooooh, purple! I’ve not been that colour in a long time!" There was a noise like a mineshaft collapsing on a blancmange.
"Shouldn't y'all be gittin' down thar ta help 'er?"
"She scares me."
Applejack shunted the Westmare into the pit.
An hour later, with all parties hale and sound, Mairwyn escorted them to the Kirkstone Pass. The black, grim-looking rock stood out against the rolling grassland, as if it had been dumped there by some higher power. Applejack shuddered a little on seeing it - even now, the great stone cross creeped her out immensely.
"This is as far as I can go, Applejack, Ditzy Doo, Winona. The magic that kept me whole and young for so many centuries has bound me to this place... I'll earthslide you back to Ponyville from here. Before I do, three things. One, Applejack. Be proud of who you are; I've a feeling your heart will stay whole if you are brave. Two, Ditzy. Your daughter will need something for her show and tell... take this for her." Mairwyn deposited her silver chain into the pegasus' saddlebag.
"Thank you, Mairwyn!" Derpy gave a winning smile and hugged the black earth pony as tight as her strong legs could.
"You're welcome, sweetie. And finally, number three... you don't know if there are any underground caverns under Ponyville? I don't remember there being any, but it's useful to know because if you hit one things can get a little, well... have you ever dropped a pizza off a roof?"
"Uh, there ain't none as Ah recalls it, Mairwyn. And why do y'all needa-"
"Okay, we're good! Come and visit the grove sometime! Bye bye now!"
With that, the Witch of the Westmareland's magic pulsed, and the dog and ponies disappeared beneath the earth. The tunnel dug itself before them, always a foot in front of the accelerating travellers. They felt it begin to curve upwards, and soon-
Sunlight streamed into their eyes again as they burst out of the Ponyville town square. The pair of them arced over the town in a graceful curve, but while Derpy was able to pull up with her wings, Applejack crashed through a mercifully open window and embedded herself in a bookshelf. Derpy flew in after her, admittedly after a few goes, and helped the earth pony to her hooves.
"Ugh, Rainbow, what have I told you about using doors," said a familiar voice. "Any news on finding - APPLEJACK!"
"Yup, Ah guess y'could say Ah know where that dumb li'l filly got to."
Twilight sprinted over and grabbed her in a bone-cracking hug. "Oh, thank goodness you're alright! You were in the hospital and then you weren't and we didn't know where you'd gone and we were worried sick! Never, ever do anything like that again, do you hear me? Never!"
"Sugar... Ah... need... ta... breathe..." Applejack's orange coat belied the blueness of the skin beneath it. Twilight squeezed her one more time and then broke away.
"So where were you? You've got a lot of explaining to do, especially since the Summer Sun Celebration's underway and Sweet Apple Acres is doing the catering."
"Aw, heck, was that t'day.? Granny's done gonna kill me, ain't she."
"Not if Big Macintosh and Applebloom see you first. They've been working overtime to cover for your... whatever it was you ended up doing."
"Well, see, that's where it gets a mite strange, Twilight." And with that, Applejack launched into the tail, only to be cut off by a slim grey hoof.
"Applejack, not here. You need to tell all of your friends together, and we need to get to Dinky."
"Wait, wait. You went off for three days with your pet dog and the mailmare? Oh, this is definitely gonna be good..."
The Summer Sun Celebration, unlike the one last year, went off without a hitch. The party lasted from sunset, with DJ PON-3's set lasting until four in the morning, and Twilight and Applejack slowly gathered up the remainder of their friends, Derpy having elected to spend some quality time with her daughter in the baked goods tent. Applejack's ribs were tested to breaking point by a succession of delighted, angry and above all relieved ponies, and even though Granny Smith had clouted the little orange pony with her Zimmer frame hard enough to knock her granddaughter to the floor yet again, the family reunion was one of the very purest joy. Even Fluttershy had been excited, pouncing on the orange earth pony with many a happy nuzzle before retreating behind her bangs and blushing like a schoolgirl with a crush.
Applejack's grin seemed nailed to her face, and nothing could remove it, not even the sheer nervousness of being sat between Derpy and Princess Luna for the dinner - or possibly breakfast, depending on how you looked at it - after Celestia raised the sun. Derpy had been scribbling down notes on her side of the story, Dinky Doo having been long since packed off to bed with a tummy full of muffins and a heart full of love, while Applejack was telling the Princesses and her friends the whole story, right from the moment a raven had perched on her window and begun to speak to her.
"Ooh, Princess," said Derpy, just as the orange pony was getting to the chase scene, "has AJ told you about my Sonic Muffboom yet?"
Some ponies have natural comic timing. Some can combine this with masterful deadpan delivery. Derpy was able to combine both of those with sheer joyous whimsy, and from this perfect storm came Granny Smith's Summer Lightning apple brandy. Specifically, it came shooting out of Princess Celestia's nostrils and landed in a streak several yards away, where it burst into green and purple flames. The Elements of Harmony were blushing like mad, and Princess Luna hadn't even bothered to hide her laughter, all her energy being concentrated on trying not to actually asphyxiate from it as she pounded the table with a forehoof. Applejack shot an embarrassed look at the stunned Sun Princess and a death glare at Derpy, who grinned back, her left eye wandering carefree in its socket. Luna slipped off her chair, laughing like a drain.
The tension amongst Applejack and her friends was shattered when Princess Celestia started to laugh as well, though with much more decorum than her younger sister. After a mock threat of banishing the entirety of Ponyville to the moon, the entire dinner tent collapsed into a fit of the giggles. This was what Celestia had wanted at the Gala; to be amongst laughing, smiling ponies who were having a great time. This was, in truth, what she raised the sun for. It sounded trite, but it was what she believed.
After a few hours of tired ponies leaving in dribs and drabs, the only ones left in the tent were the Elements of Harmony and the Princesses. Applejack still hadn't properly talked to Rainbow Dash yet, so she sought her out and dragged her off to one side.
"You wanted to talk? Go ahead, talk." Rainbow tapped a forehoof and waited.
What Applejack wanted to say, what she'd planned from the outset, was a great speech. It was a long, almost poetic treatise on the nature of love and beauty. It would have won writing awards. What it wouldn't do was come out. The farm pony stammered and sputtered like a central heating pipe with a slow leak before giving up on it completely and starting over.
"Look... Rainbow Dash, promise y'all won't get mad."
"Uh, why would that - mmmmphl..." Rainbow Dash's sentence was cut off abruptly.
A kiss'll do that to you.
And as the cyan pegasus returned the kiss with the fire of the rising sun, Applejack caught a little bit of Mairwyn's voice in her head.
"There's none can harm a knight who's lain with the Witch of the Westmareland."
And Applejack knew, as the kiss broke and Rainbow Dash pulled her around to tell the rest of their friends, that she was right.
After Rainbow Dash and Applejack had come out of their completely transparent respective closets together and gone off to make up for lost time, Rarity looked around at her friends and the Princesses.
"Let me check my notebook... let's see... looks like the person who drew Rainbow Dash was Fluttershy! Everypony, ten bits to the lady in yellow!"
A surprised Fluttershy let out a tiny "Yay!" as the ponies paid up.
"Don't think you can sneak off either, Princesses! Come now, the treasury can afford to spare twenty bits." A grinning Celestia was overtaken by a positively bouncing Luna, who readily forked over the cash. Just as everything was settled, a loud, Deep South-accented voice came from outside the tent.
"Jes' so y'all know, Ah hates ya..."
Everypony collapsed into giggles. And that, dear reader, was the best night ever.