Applejack didn't know how she got here, but she knew one thing - she was going to drown. She had been swimming before, of course, but that was different. This was... she wasn't quite sure what it was. A raging ocean, or maybe some violent rapids. All she knew was that every attempt to stay afloat had ended in failure, and she was sinking. Her own oxygen reserves were steadily running out, and her lungs were beginning to burn. Even as she continued to steadily disappear into the black depths of the water, she held her breath for as long as she could, somehow convinced that the situation would manage to turn itself around.
Unable to hold her breath any longer, the earth pony opened her mouth and took a breath, swallowing water and coughing it up at the same time. She began to panic, thrashing about as she struggled desperately for air, and her vision slowly began to grow dark. The last thing Applejack saw before losing consciousness was a shadowy form above her, and she mused that perhaps this was one of the mythical sea ponies she had heard about as a filly.
And then she blacked out.
"So your dream was about... you drowning? That sounds more like a nightmare, if you ask me."
Applejack sighed and shook her head. "Spike, didn' Twilight ever tell ya not ta interrupt somepony when they're tellin' a story?"
"Wait." The dragon blinked at her, then raised an eyebrow. "...you mean you weren't done?"
"No, I ain't done. Now lemme finish tellin' mah story. Like I was sayin'..."
When she awoke, the first thing she noticed was the feeling of grass beneath her, and the warmth of a fire. Applejack groggily looked around, taking in her surroundings - grass below her, trees above, and a camp fire. If this was the afterlife, it wasn't off to a bad start. The orange mare tried to sit up, but her attempt was met with a jolt of pain in her side. She grimaced and laid back down, staring at the fire. "Alright, if that hurt, I ain't dead. But... where the hay am I?"
Her ears twitched upon hearing the sound of hoofsteps, and she glanced around the camp to see a hooded figure approach her and sit at her side. The same figure gently levitated a bowl of water down to her, setting it down on the ground before her. Despite the light of the fire or the use of magic, however, she couldn't see the pony's face. She was definitely eager for answers, however. "Um... howdy there. I'm... guessin' yer th' one that saved me?"
"Oh. Uh, well... I 'preciate it. Do ya... mind tellin' me where we are, though?"
The figure sat in silence, maybe staring at her and maybe not. She didn't know for certain. It gave the bowl of water a gentle tap.
Applejack stared at the bowl of water momentarily, then looked back up at the figure. "...ain't ya gonna tell me where we are?"
Another tap on the bowl. It wanted her to drink.
"Alright, alright. I get it." It seemed rather odd, to be offered water after she had essentially drowned. Still, whoever this figure was had saved her life, and they were simply trying to aid her recovery. She slowly leaned over towards the bowl, carefully picking it up in her mouth and taking a few drinks. It was cool, crisp, and surprisingly refreshing. Despite feeling slightly better from the drink, she was still tired from the event, and the earth pony laid down and glanced up at the figure. "Thank ye kindly. Fer savin' mah life an' all."
The hooded figure remained silent and simply nodded, dragging a blanket over her with its magic, and she drifted off to sleep soon afterwards. All through the night, the figure remained at her side, never sleeping and never faltering from its unspoken duties. When she awoke the next morning, a small meal awaited her, and she ate after thanking her rescuer once more. She quickly regained her strength, and upon doing so, the figure lead her away from the camp and back to a small cabin within the forest. As much as she appreciated this figure's hospitality, she needed to get back home, and upon reaching the cabin itself, she asked about it. "Do ya happen ta know how ta get back ta Ponyville? Mah friends an' family are probably worried sick about me, an' I need ta get back home."
A shake of the head.
"Alright then, can ya at least show me where we are?"
Her savior lead her inside the cabin and pointed at a map posted to the wall - her heart sank upon discovering that she wasn't even in Equestria, and knowing that she might never see her friends or family again, she began to cry. The hooded figure took a seat at her side, offering a comforting hoof and keeping her company. As she cried herself to sleep, the figure resumed its watch over her once more, never sleeping and never faltering. Days flew by, and though she still wished she could return to Equestria, Applejack eventually accepted that this was her new home. She had even managed to befriend the hooded figure somewhat, though they hadn't spoken a word to the earth pony since meeting her.
Weeks began to pass as if they were minutes, and the orange mare finally had a semblance of happiness at her new home. Alongside the hooded figure, they both tended the land and took care of various chores, taking care of the cabin and one another. She was keenly aware at this point that the figure watched over her when she slept, but part of her appreciated such a thing - it made her feel safe and protected in this foreign land. On the day of her birthday, the figure presented her with a gift, despite her having never mentioned her birthday at all. How it knew about it was something she didn't know, but she accepted the gift nonetheless.
Within was a fruit, a single golden apple that softly glowed, and she immediately recognized it as the fruit she and Twilight had retrieved from their journey. But that fruit had been one-of-a-kind, and couldn't regrow for another thousand years. Applejack warily eyed it, unsure what to think as she turned towards the figure. "This... this can't be right. Me an' Twi got this fer mah Granny. There shouldn' be another one."
The figure stretched out a hoof from beneath its robes, and the the world outside the cabin shifted violently. What was once forest soon became desolate plains, and most noticeable was the inclusion of a very large tree - the Tree of Life. Applejack bolted out the door, staring up at the gargantuan trunk in shock. The runes engraved upon the bark had remained silent, but everything surrounding the tree when she and Twilight had seen it had been verdant grass. All that remained now was dry and cracked earth. The earth pony did her best to find a suitable explanation, but couldn't find any, and just when she had given up, a familiar face appeared.
We meet again, Child of Earth.
"He Who Watches?! But... where's th' ruins? I thought ya were bound to 'em?" She looked up at the golden figure, desperate for answers, and it would hopefully provide some.
These are special circumstances, Element of Honesty. You are lost in more ways than one, and you grow increasingly hopeless as you struggle to find answers. Tell me what you wish to know.
Applejack stood there momentarily, rapidly glancing about as she searched for questions she might ask. "Wh... what's goin' on? What happened ta all th' grass an' trees? Where am I, an' who is-"
The glowing specter held out a limb, and she quickly stopped talking. This is a scene of things to come. You have sacrificed much for the sake of others, and nothing for yourself. You have nurtured the growth of many, yet you remain withered and stunted. You walk a perilous path, Child of Earth, and only with the aid of another will you find what you need.
"An' then I wake up. Same place, every time. It's pretty darn weird, lemme tell ya."
Spike stared at Applejack, his mouth agape, and it took a few more moments for him to really register anything that had been said to him. "Wow, that's... yeah, that's some freaky stuff. I'll make sure Twilight sends over those books pronto, so you can get that crazy dream stuff sorted out."
"Thanks a lot, Spike. I sure do appreciate it." The earth pony gave the baby dragon a smile and wave, and she soon departed to return back to Sweet Apple Acres. It had been nice to get some of that dream nonsense off her chest, but it didn't solve things completely. She had been having this same dream night after night, week after week, and it was beginning to interfere with her applebucking and daily chores around the farm. It was frustrating, not only because it was getting in the way of her work, but because she still wasn't entire sure what kind of message the dream was even trying to give her.
Honestly - 'nurtured the growth of many', but I'm stunted or somethin'? What's that supposed ta mean? Is that some kinda insult? Or maybe...
"Bwuh?" The orange mare blinked and quickly shook her head, "Oh, howdy there Nurse Redheart. Sorry, I was... thinkin' 'bout somethin'."
"I didn't interrupt or anything, did I?"
"Naw, didn' interrupt anythin' important. Did ya need somethin'?"
The Nurse smiled and nodded, reaching back into her work bag and pulling out two small bottles, which she gently placed upon the ground. "Actually, I do. Those are for you and your brother, at his request."
"...pardon?" Applejack raised an eyebrow and looked down at the bottles with a scrutinizing eye.
"Well, Mister Macintosh requested something to help him fully kick his caffeine habit - said he wants to stop drinking coffee entirely. The other bottle has some sleep aids for you. He said you've been making an awful ruckus at night, and he thought it might help out."
"...thank ye kindly, Nurse Redheart." With a sigh, Applejack leaned down and grabbed both bottles in her mouth, giving the Nurse a brief nod before continuing her trip back home.
Sleep aids?! I swear, Macintosh, one of these days...
After a few more minutes of travel time, she managed to reach home once more and made her way into the farm house. Big Macintosh was seated at the table, currently enjoying lunch, and the orange mare expertly tossed one of the pill bottles out of her mouth, pegging him in the forehead. The stallion set down his meal and glanced over at Applejack with a raised eyebrow. "Well hello ta you too, AJ."
She quickly spat out the other bottle and turned to glare at her brother. "Honestly, Big Mac, sleep aids? I'm a grown mare! I can handle mah own problems! I don't need ya ta go blabbin' about stuff ta other ponies, just 'cause I ain't sleepin' well."
"Lemme just apologize fer bein' concerned about ya, then." Big Macintosh sighed and shook his head. "Besides, I got every right ta start blabbin' about stuff when it's affectin' others. Me an' Apple Bloom have had ta pick up yer slack with th' chores, 'cause ya always seem ta be out of it as of late. Yer not gettin' enough sleep."
Applejack hadn't really noticed any changes herself, but if it was having a big enough impact that even Apple Bloom was being forced to work harder, then something clearly needed to be fixed. She reluctantly picked up her bottle and made her way up the stairs to her room, giving her older brother an apologetic look as she left the kitchen. The earth pony quickly made her way into her room and gently shut the door, tossing the pill bottle onto her nightstand before flopping over onto the bed. In a way, she was somewhat disappointed that Twilight hadn't been around when she had stopped by the library. Ever since their journey for the fruit, they had been the best of friends, and it wasn't uncommon for them to spend a few hours a day with one another. Sure, the time was usually spent doing rather mundane things, like organizing Twilight's books or helping Applejack buck some apples, but it was still time well spent. They would talk and joke, and it made the most boring of tasks seem... well, fun.
She rolled back off the bed and undid the bands that kept her mane and tail tied up, chuckling softly as her hair sprawled out wildly. "Hoo boy, I 'spose I should probably get this mess trimmed some time." The earth pony walked over towards her dresser and grabbed the brush that sat on top of it, humming to herself as she brushed out her mane and tail. She didn't necessarily have to brush her hair, but she simply... felt like it. She was bored, and didn't exactly want to see Big Macintosh again just yet. It wasn't exactly difficult work, but with how long her hair had gotten, it was more trouble than it should have been, and she couldn't help but think back to when Twilight had brushed it out for her. The unicorn had done it so quickly and effortlessly, but that was just the magic at work. Everything was simple when you could simply make it levitate, instead of having to hold it in your mouth.
With every passing minute, Applejack became more and more irritated with how difficult it was to brush out her own mane, and she eventually sat the brush back upon the dresser as she placed the bands around her hair once more. It was way too much of a fuss, and she was tired of dealing with it. As she tied her hair up once more, the earth pony sat upon the floor and sighed as she glanced out the window.
"It'd be a whole lot easier if Twi were here."