Rarity strained as she set the crate down in the cargo bay. They didn't need to pack much for the journey to the pole, but food was still a necessity. Unsurprisingly, it consisted of mostly oranges, but other assorted fruits and vegetables were mixed in as well.
At least Twilight wouldn't succumb to scurvy. And speaking of Twilight, Rarity wondered where the unicorn had wandered off too. She had been helping them load up and refuel the Mooncatcher, along with her döppleganger, but she had vanished before they were complete.
Taking a quick break from the exertion, Rarity made a quick tour of the accommodations. She still couldn't quite get over how big it was. A pony could get lost in these walls.
She finally located Twilight in the spa, sitting on her rump in the middle of the room and staring at the tapestry, frowning. Rarity cautiously called out her friend's name, stirring Twilight from her revere.
"What are you?" she growled in frustration before giving up and greeting Rarity. "Sorry," she apologized. "I guess you could say I've been getting a little obsessed lately."
"I'll say," added Rarity as she joined her friend. "What is it, anyway?"
Twilight frowned and grumbled. "I don't know," she said. "But I've seen it somewhere before, I know I have. I'm losing sleep over this."
"Oh, dear," sympathized Rarity. "We don't want you to suffer, but darling, is this really worth giving up precious sleep over? You'll remember when you need to."
Twilight sighed. "But that's exactly the thing," she told Rarity. "I do need to. I can't explain how I know, but I do. It's just this sinking feeling that this tapestry is really important. Critically important for our success. Ponies are going to get hurt unless I can remember were I saw it before." She winced and held her head in her hooves. "And this headache isn't helping much either."
"You need rest, Twilight Sparkle."
Twilight had forgotten how insistent Rarity could be at times. It was nice to know that somepony was looking out for her. "I'll sleep on the ship," she told Rarity. "After I figure out why this thing is so important."
"Are you sure you know the way?"
Applebloom sighed. "'Course not, Scootaloo. But you said the grown-ups were talking 'bout how this place used ta be a castle. So I figure if we just follow the paths we're bound to stumble 'pon it eventually. Ah mean, where else are these roads gonna lead?"
Scootaloo wasn't certain about that logic, but she realized Apple Bloom may have had a point about the paths. Overgrowth had done their best to obscure them, but the fillies could still clearly see where the roads once were, long ago. Somepony had to have made them, for whatever reason.
“Hey, Applebloom,” asked Scootaloo, breaking the silence. “You think anypony famous walked down this road?”
“Ah dunno. What do you think, Sweetie Belle?”
Sweetie Belle, bringing up the rear, shivered. “I think we should just go back. It's getting pretty dark...”
“Don't be such a wimp, Sweetie,” said Scootaloo. “This could be how we finally get our cutie marks. Cutie marks for tomb raiding! How cool would that be?”
“I hope it's not a tomb...” muttered Sweetie Belle quietly, but she continued following her friends. Scootaloo had taken Apple Bloom's place as the leader of the expedition, but Apple Bloom kept noticing her pegasus friend making furtive glances off into the growth. She started to ask about it, but she was quickly shushed.
“Quiet,” ordered Scootaloo. “Just listen.”
Apple Bloom tried, but heard nothing.
“It's weird,” Scootaloo explained. “I keep thinking I'm seeing something. Maybe we're being followed.”
“Followed?” Sweetie Belle's nerves were beginning to get the best of her. She began to back away slowly but quickly realized that distancing herself from her friends probably wasn't the safest idea. She ran to catch up, hiding behind Apple Bloom and constantly shifting her gaze, searching for anything.
“Don't do that Scoots,” reprimanded Apple Bloom. “She's had enough.”
“No, seriously. And I keep hearing stuff too.”
“I mean it. Knock it off.”
“Come on, Apple Bloom. If there really is something following us, wouldn't you want me to tell you instead of pretending I didn't hear anything? I don't know what lurks in these woods, but if there's three of us and one of it, we can handle it. We just need to stay...”
Sweetie Belle screamed and pointed off the path into the trees.
“Calm,” Scootaloo finished.
The other fillies spun, trying to see whatever had startled her. Looking into the darkness, Apple Bloom saw movement, but it quickly flittered out of sight.
“Maybe this isn't such a good idea,” repeated Sweetie Belle, and to Apple Bloom the statement suddenly seemed a lot more agreeable. “We're just a bunch of fillies.”
Scootaloo, however, was still determined. “We are not fillies,” she told Sweetie Belle sternly, stepping toward the unicorn and backing her up against a tree. “Pumpkin Pie's a filly, and we're twice her age. That makes us adults.”
“Wait a tick,” muttered Apple Bloom, and she suddenly took off into the underbrush. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo heard the sounds of a brief scuffle before Apple Bloom returned, dragging a discriminative filly behind her. The filly struggled against her larger captor, attempting to free herself. “Lemme go!”, she cried. “Or I'll sock ya real good!”
Apple Bloom deposited the filly between them. “It this what you girls were all scared of?”
Sweeie Belle blinked away the forming tears and focused on the newcomer in front of her. “Pumpkin?” Her breathing slowly returned to normal as she calmed down.
Scootaloo was much less amused. “The hay are you doing out here?” she asked, pointing a hoof at Pumpkin.
The small filly refused to be daunted. “You're going on an adventure!” she said. “You can't leave me outa this! You gotta take me with you!”
“No, we don't,” countered Scootaloo. “Your parents would freak if they knew you were out here because of us.”
Pumpkin began to sniffle a bit. “But I want to find those element things you guys were talking about!”
“Sorry, Pumpkin,” said Apple Bloom. “Not buying it. I know ya too well.”
The tears stopped immediately. “Fine,” humphed Pumpkin. “But I'm still coming with you.”
“Wait a second,” interjected Scootaloo. “How'd you know what we were up to? You were spying on us, weren't you? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“But we were spying on the grown-ups,” Sweetie Belle offered.
Pumpkin's eyes lit up. “Yeah!” she said. “Exactly. So I didn't do anything wrong!”
Apple Bloom wasn't sure about that logic. “The answer's still no, Pumpkin,” she said. “Your folks are scary when they get mad. I don't want to be near either one of them if they find out.”
“Fine then,” said Pumpkin, acting dejected and submissive but overdoing it, making clear she was putting on a show. “You win.” Then she smirked. “So what're ya gonna do about it? Make me go back alone? Mum and Pa would tan all of your hides. You ain't got a choice but to keep me with you.”
“Or I could take her back,” offered Sweetie Belle. “Since I don't like it here anyway.”
“Chicken,” said Scootaloo.
“Look who's talking.”
“Enough,” interrupted Apple Bloom. “That's fine. Sweetie Belle will turn around and take Pumpkin back home. Don't worry, Pumpkin. We'll tell you all the details tomorrow.”
Pumpkin, although bitter, seemed ready to give up and accept her fate. “I never do anything fun.”
Sweetie Belle moved to sling a leg around the small filly's neck. “Come on,” she urged. “We can play a fun game or something when we get home.”
“Actually,” muttered Pumpkin, yawning. “Maybe we should just go to sleep.”
The dispute now settled, Sweetie Belle and pumpkin turned around, heading back the way they came, while Apple Bloom and Scootaloo continued onward. For a few minutes they walked in silence.
“Glad that's over with,” Scootaloo finally spoke up.
“Yeah. Hey, what do you think the palace is gonna look like?”
“I dunno, but I think I see it.” Ahead of them, the line of trees began to thin, opening up into a clearing. A building of some sort could be seen through the small gaps in the foliage. The fillies began galloping toward their destination, only to stop in confusion as a realization came to them.
Their path was blocked by an incredibly familiar fence. Apple Bloom realized that they had somehow wandered back to outskirts of the farm.
Scootaloo turned around, trying to look back into the darkness of the forest path. “We must have gotten turned around somehow. Do we go back in?”
“Nah. I got a better idea for what we can do tonight.” Apple Bloom explained to Scootaloo what she had seen in the forest the night before. “Pumpkin's Dad is up to something. Ah don't trust him. An' ah don't care how scary he is, we need to hero up and take matters into our own hooves.”
“What are going to do though? Warn Big Macintosh? He'd never believe us!”
“He would if we found the crate and showed them what's inside it.”
“What is inside it?”
“Beats me. But it sounded mighty important. We just need to figure out where he hid it.”
“Yeah,” said Scootaloo, still not entirely convinced and eager to go back to looking for whatever treasure the grownups had been discussing. “But what about Sweetie Belle and Pumpkin? We should go back for them!”
“They'll be fine. We found our way out without trying, didn't we? And even if we found them, we'd just have to leave again with them. Face it, Scoots, this whole treasure-seeking deal was a bust.”
Let's try this one more time. Eighty-five bushels of apples from the last harvest, divided by twelve ponies, thirteen if you count Applejack, strange case that she is, and considering that the corn harvest won't be ready for another three weeks, and if we want at least three different types of food available at any one time...
Rarity made a couple of quick calculations on a sheet of paper and compared the result to her previous measurements.
That can't be right at all... Why do I keep getting such drastically different results?
She turned back to the previous page of the record books and began totaling the different breeds of apples. She couldn't figure out exactly where the error was occurring, but she was determined to track it down. Somewhere she had made a miscalculation, and now it was coming back to bite her and deny her sleep.
She knew she should be resting. They would need to be alert and awake when they traveled into the forest the next day to help Applejack find the Elements of Harmony.
She didn't know why she was so willing to believe the mare's claim that she was from another reality. It could very easily be some sort of bizarre trap. But for some reason Rarity couldn't quite fathom, he trusted that mare. Something about Applejack just... what was the word for it? Rarity couldn't even begin to place it.
Of course, Pinkamena's account of Twilight Sparkle's story didn't hurt. These two strange mares, Applejack and Twilight, both seemed to know things that they had no real means of knowing. If they were spies, they had certainly done their research.
And then there was that even stranger mare that had shown up at Pinkamena's wedding. Rarity had a couple of questions for her too.
She finally forced herself to shut the book and prepare for bed. Finding the source of her errors was important, but sleep still needed to come first. Nothing was going to keep her from well deserved rest. Which was probably why she felt her frustration rise when Pinkamena came bursting through her door.
"Yes, Darling?" Rarity asked, trying her best to be cordial. She quickly became concerned, however, when she noticed that the pink mare seemed wide-eyed and out of breath.
"Where's Pumpkin?" she asked frantically. "She's not in bed. Have you seen her at all?"
"Stay calm, dear, we need to be level headed." Rarity placed her hooves on Pinkamena's shoulders, trying to get her to relax. She sympathized with the poor mare, of course. She could just imagine how she would react if Sweetie Belle were to go missing. But right now, at least one of them needed to think clearly, if not both of them. She watched Pinkamena take multiple huge gulps of air as she slowly settled and her breaths began to approach something remotely close to even.
"Now", she continued when Pinkamena seemed calm enough. "Have you checked the treehouse? You know how fond Pumpkin is of Sweetie and her friends. Maybe they decided to have a sleepover and neglected to tell either of us. Irresponsible, but perhaps a tad understandable."
Pinkamena shook her head. "I checked," she responded. "There's nopony there."
Rarity felt her heart seize up. "And you tell me this now?" she cried, losing all sense of calm. "We have to find them. Round up a search party!"
"That won't be necessary," said a gruff voice from outside, and the two mares watched Pumpkin Custard drag Apple Bloom into the house by the scruff of her neck, Scootaloo plodding along dejectedly at her heels. “I found these two fooling around in the fields. I'm pretty curious myself to hear what they've done with our daughter this late at night.”
“Well?” Rarity's stern question demanded an immediate response, and the two fillies began stumbling over each other's words in an awkward attempt to answer.
“She's safe, she's coming back...”
“She's with Sweetie Belle, and they're...”
“...right behind us, if they follow the path...”
“...out in the Everfree Forest...”
The awaiting adults, who had been attempting with difficulty to separate the layers of the hasty speech, understood the last part immediately. “Are you insane?” Rarity asked Apple Bloom, who had suddenly found the ground to be immensely fascinating. “Just leaving my sister and your cousin out in the forest to fend for themselves? I expect more responsible behavior from you. You should be a role model, somepony Pumpkin can trust and look up to. I promise you, your brother is going to hear about this as soon as he wakes up.” She turned to Scootaloo, adding the other filly to the tirade. “Now the two of you are going to stay right here and think about what you've done. I don't want either of you to move an inch until we get back with our missing family. Do you hear me?” She turned to the other adults in the room. “Let's go.”
The three grown ponies shuffled toward the doorway before Custard stopped them. “Stay here with the girls,” he told Pinkamena.
“No,” insisted Pinkamena defiantly. “I'm going with you,” she insisted. “Our daughter is lost somewhere out there, and if you think I wouldn't tear down every tree in that forest to keep her safe, then you're crazy. Nothing is going to keep me from her. Not the Everfree Forest. Not you.”
She stood her ground as Pumpkin Custard confronted her. “One of the two most important ponies to me may be in danger,” he told her. “I am not putting the second one in harm's way.” She knew that the words were supposed to sound empathetic, but she couldn't detect the compassion in them. Just orders.
“If you leave without me, I'll sneak out behind you and search for our daughter on my own. Where would you rather have me? With you and Rarity or by myself?”
Custard was almost fuming again when Scootaloo interrupted. “Nah, it's cool,” she said, catching the surprise and attention of the adult ponies. “She can stay. After you two leave, we'll just show her what we found in your shed.”
Custard froze, and his pulse quickened. He glared at Apple Bloom, trying to remind her of his threat.
“Custard? What are they talking about?” asked Rarity, confused.
“Nothing,” Custard stammered. “They're fooling around and wasting time, that's all.”
“Wow,” groaned Scootaloo, dragging out the word, “you really don't want Rarity to find out what's in your shed, do you? You don't want her to know that you went to that totally secret meeting.”
Rarity looked between Custard and Scootaloo, trying to comprehend what was going on. “Custard?” she asked again. “Explain what Scootaloo means.”
Custard groaned. “Later,” he told her. “We have more important issues to deal with.”
“Come on,” Scootaloo begged, “It'll be quick. And you really want to see this.” Before any of the other ponies could respond, she raced between them and out the door. With a startled cry, Custard was the first to follow behind her, the other ponies at his heels.
Custard, with his longer legs, caught up to Scootaloo at the edge of the Pumpkin family's home and grabbed her leg, tripping her. As the other ponies caught up to her, Apple Bloom shot past, continuing the chase. She sprinted to the shed, which had been left open in the haste of their previous conflict, trying to pull out the crate contained within. Struggling to force it open, she was eventually dragged off by Rarity.
“What has gotten into you two,” the unicorn hissed. “I have put up with your foolishness because you're a child, and a child needs to play. But you've put two members of this family in danger, so the least you could do is accept some responsibility and be a mature, well-mannered filly for once in your life. There is time to play around, but not here and not now. Do you understand?”
Apple Bloom relaxed and nodded. “You should go find Sweetie Belle,” she said. “This can wait.”
“I don't understand this,” pondered Rarity. “What is so important that you had to pull this ridiculous stunt? I trust Pumpkin Custard. Whatever he's holding on to, I believe he has a good reason for it. He doesn't have to explain anything.”
“So you don't want to see what's in the crate?” asked Apple Bloom. “Even though it's right here. If you trust him he shouldn't have to hide anything, right?”
Rarity paused. Behind them, the other ponies were approaching, and Custard called out to them, extremely agitated. “Look,” he said. “We really don't have time for this. Pinkie, take the kiddies back to their treehouse.”
“What? No, I said I'm going with you.”
The dispute behind her was enough for Rarity to make a judgment call. She tore the cover off of the crate and examined the contents within.
“What is this?” she asked quietly to herself. Custard, who had been approaching her, froze. She turned and repeated the question to him.
“Why in Equestria is this in your shed? You better have a really good explanation for this.”
“This is so awesome!” cried Pumpkin as the pair emerged into the clearing. “I've never seen a real castle before.”
The remains of what was once the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters towered menacingly over the two fillies, separated from them by a wide chasm. Pumpkin bounded up to the edge and peered over with a dangerous lack of caution, while Sweetie Belle stayed back.
“It's a long way down,” she remarked, and she giggled from the sound her voice made echoing off the walls. She spotted a bridge a little ways along the edge, but the ropes keeping it together had broken on the far end, resulting in the bridge dangling off the cliffside.
“Pumpkin,” asked Sweetie Belle cautiously. “Get away from there,” she commanded, although her voice lacked any sort of authority. “We must have gotten turned around somehow, but we want to get back home.”
Pumpkin turned and stuck her tongue out at the unicorn. “No,” she corrected, “you want to go home. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom want us to go home. I want to go exploring. I want to find these 'element' thingies you kept talking about. Come on, it's an adventure! Adventures are fun!” She laughed heartily.
“I think your white friend has the right idea, little lady.”
Both Sweetie Belle and Pumpkin began looking around them for the sound of the voice. It chuckled, watching them.
“Up here. Not seen many pegasi before, have you?”
He touched down next to Pumpkin, and the small filly looked up at her much larger new friend. She couldn't tell very much about what the stallion looked like, both due to the darkness and the uniform that obscured most of his body. The outift, predominately in black and dark purple, did an excellent job of obscuring him from view; he wasn't a pony as much as a pony shaped hole in the sky.
Still, while Sweetie Belle began to slowly back away, Pumpkin wasn't frightened at all. “So. Cool,” she muttered. “You can fly! That's awesome! Want to be friends?”
The stallion shook his head. “Sorry, little girl,” he said. “But my boss doesn't really like me making new friends. And you better leave before she spots you, or things are gonna get pretty hairy.”
Pumpkin was skeptical. “Hairy like in messy?” she asked. “Or hairy like in actually really hairy? Because then I should probably go get my dad. He could use some more hair; he keeps saying that he's losing his, and I'm thinking, well it shouldn't be hard to find more, should it? It's like, everywhere.” She laughed briefly at her own joke and then quieted almost instantly. “My dad doesn't think I'm very funny,” she quickly appended.
The stallion chuckled again, but this time it was forced, almost sad. “Listen,” he said, the urgency clear in his voice. “The two of you need to turn around and leave. Right now.”
“Listen to him,” warned Sweetie Belle. “I don't care about this adventure. Let's just go home.”
A fourth voice entered the conversation, the strong voice of a fully grown mare. “So many good ideas in this conversation,” she commented before landing right next to the stallion. She was wearing the same uniform, but her bright yellow coat and orange mane were clearly visible where they protruded from the costume. “You really should have listened to them.” She turned to the stallion. “Really, Soarin?” she asked. “You'd really try and betray us like that?”
“They're little fillies, Spitfire,” countered Soarin. “They're harmless. Just give them a little pat on the rump and set them off on their way.”
“Our orders are our orders. You know that.” She took to the air, landing behind Sweetie Belle, who shrieked and fell forward onto her stomach. “The agents of Twilight Sparkle keep getting younger, don't they?”
“For the Queen's sake, Spitfire,” roared Soarin, “they're not Twilight's spies! I bet they don't even know who she is!”
“You mean the enchantress from the mountains who eats ponies' souls?” interjected Pumpkin, desperate to add to the conversation and prove herself knowledgeable.
“See? She's a fairy tale to them.”
“No, we know her!” added Pumpkin, and Sweetie Belle stared, aghast. She began frantically motioning with her arms, signaling for Pumpkin to simply shut up. “She called herself Trixie when we first met her,” the filly continued, and the revelation made Soarin start laughing. “But I found out it was really her later when I overheard my mom talking about her.”
Spitfire began advancing on the pair, and Sweetie Belle backed up as quickly as she could until she was next to Pumpkin, flanked by the two pegasi. She looked up in time to watch Soarin mouth the word, “Sorry,” before the pegasi pinned both of them against the ground.
“You see, Soarin?” argued Spitfire. “These ponies are connected to Twilight. Trixie told us that they'd be coming, and we have a responsibility, a duty to the kingdom to stop them.” She leaned in over the two captives until she was speaking into Soarin's ear. “Or would you rather they do to you what they did to Surprise?”
“Don't try to act like that doesn't scare you,” said Spitfire. “Taking orders is what we're good at. We have the freedom to choose how we carry out those orders, but the second that freedom becomes a liability, she'll take it away. We're her slaves until the day we die, and the peace of death will be our final reward. Sure, what we do isn't always proper. But I'll pay for my crimes in the next life, not a moment sooner. And until then, we have a couple of foals to dispose of.”
Soarin examined Spitfire critically, trying to find a lingering trace of the pony he loved. “What has she done to you?” he asked despondently. “I barely recognize you anymore.”
“She made me desperate to live long enough to die a natural death. Now if you don't want to kill them, then I have another idea.”
At the mention of the word “kill”, Sweetie Belle froze, while Pumpkin began struggling harder.