Chapter 2: Dire Straights
Why the buck did you get yourself into this?, Klein thought as he gasped for breath in the shade of an oak tree. You don't know how to play paintball! Indeed, he had about as much experience in paintball as most of the other contestants: that is to say, none. The fight had only started thirty seconds ago and already it seemed like all Tartarus had broken loose. He looked over his gray coat to make sure he hadn't been hit. Such an idiot. Letting yourself get caught in the open. He peeked around the tree to see a few hit ponies limping away from the town square. If you're going to survive, you can't make stupid mistakes like that. Just take a few deep breaths, relax, and think this through. He looked around the area in front to make sure no opponents would be waiting when he ran. Just get yourself inside somewhere and everything will be okay. He sighed. Okay. On three. One, two, THREE!
Klein bolted from the tree and swept his gun over the area in front, ready to shoot if anyone appeared. He reached the wall of a small house and peeked around the corner. Two earth pony mares were strolling along the grass, their guns hanging to their sides. Easy pickings. He fired two shots at the pair, but only one found its mark.
"Hey!" yelled the unfortunate pony. "No fair! I wasn't ready."
Her considerably more intelligent friend darted for cover behind a vegetable stand and strapped her gun onto her arm. She looked back to where her hit companion stood for signs of an ambush. "See anyone, Millie!?" she called out.
Millie groaned and said, "I think he's behind the house. I'll catch you later, Shoeshine."
Shoeshine waited until her friend left before she risked a glance over the stand. She couldn't see it, but Klein had already made his way to the edge of the house opposite her and was waiting to strike again.
Just wait, he thought. Soon as she pops her head up, take her down. He inched his face around the wall and saw his foe watching the right side of the house. Totally oblivious. Just one shot. He shifted his body to the right, shouldered his gun, and took a deep breath. Steady. Steady. He fired. The paintball soared from the barrel and impacted the side of the mare's head, splattering spots of green on her blue coat. She fell back onto the soft ground, screaming more in surprise than pain.
Shoeshine stood up and shook her hoof at the stallion who caught her off-guard. He stepped out from behind the wall and smiled in grim satisfaction. "Hehe," he said to himself. "One shot..." But stopping him mid-sentence was another paintball that seemed to fly from nowhere into his face.
Rainbow Dash, waiting all the way down the street in Sugarcube Corner's top window, flashed a wicked smile and said, "One kill."
Pinkie Pie pranced up the stairs and hopped over to Rainbow's side. "Ooh, did you get a hit?"
Pleased with her shot, the pegasus gestured to the street below like it was nothing. "See for yourself."
Pinkie squinted her eyes and saw a surprised-looking stallion wiping paint off of his mask. "Wow! Right between the eyes, too!"
"Poor guy didn't even know what hit him."
"So with you at one hit, that puts you in..." Pinkie paused for a moment to count in her head. Then a cheerful grin made its way onto her face. "Second place! That's amazing!"
The comment took Rainbow off-guard. "What're you talking about? Second place?"
"Yes, indeedy! Between the six of us, no one but you and Applejack have gotten anypony out!"
"Wha— what!? Applejack's beating me!? But the game just started! How in the world could she have scored more hits in just the last few minutes?"
Pinkie pranced back to the stairs and said casually, "Oh, she's out back. You really should see."
Rainbow Dash darted past her friend, accidentally spinning her into a small, pink whirlwind. Pinkie shook her head and looked around to find the anxious pegasus gone. She jumped up and made her way to the stairs.
"Hey, Rainbow Dash! Wait up!"
Applejack panted and checked from left to right to make sure all of her opponents had been taken care of. Three were limping away with their tails between their legs and the fourth was prostrate at her hooves.
"Please. Please don't hurt me." Lucky pleaded, his face barely above the grass.
"Well, well," Applejack responded in satisfaction. "Maybe you should've thought twice before tacklin' this country girl."
"Look, I won't tell anyone you guys're here, I'll help you out, I'll do anything. Just don't shoot me."
"Well, if I were holding a deadly weapon, I'd certainly not wanna put you in harm's way. But being this is an Equestrian Innovations V1 paintball gun, the least deadly hoofgun in the world, you've gotta ask yourself a question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya... sugarcube?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. But please, Applejack. Remember all the fun times? The... yeah?" Finally realizing his begging strategy wasn't exactly working, Lucky switched tactics. "Okay, I saw a small box of paintballs being stashed in the clock tower on the way over here. Now will you let me go?"
After putting her hoof to her chin in consideration, Applejack looked back down at the stallion. "I suppose just this once. But don't let me catch you tryin' to hit us from behind again."
Lucky nodded in fear and got up to leave. Laying on the ground next to a pond was one of his companions' guns. As he walked away, he quickly glanced behind to see Applejack slowly walking back inside Sugarcube Corner. Nervously biting his lip, he went over his options and came to a decision. He leaped for the gun and strapped it onto his right foreleg. He spun to shoot, but his orange opponent had already leveled her weapon at him. She fired and a lone paintball struck him in the chest. Recoiling in surprise, Lucky fell into the pond with legs flailing. Applejack lowered her gun and chuckled.
"Not so lucky after all."
Rainbow Dash sped out the back door and kicked up a cloud of dust as she skidded herself to a stop. Glaringly irritatedly at Applejack, she asked, "What in the hay is going on? How could you possibly be this good!?"
Noticeably confused, Applejack answered, "I dunno. I just kind of pointed and shot. Isn't that how it works?"
"Well, kind of. I mean, I guess, but I see three ponies walking away and another in the water. No one can shoot like that right out of the gate."
"Well, maybe you're just jealous I've gotten more hits than you."
"The game just started!"
Over the sound of their arguing, Lucky's nervous voice called out for help. "Um, guys? Not to interrupt or anything, but I'm kind of stuck."
Rainbow Dash groaned and flew over to pull him from the pond. A few tugs later, he was free from the mud and safely on dry land. "So, yeah..." he said simply. "Sorry." And with that, he trotted off to safety outside the town limits.
Rainbow Dash looked over her coat to see splotches of mud staining its brilliant blue. "Huh, this might actually make some good camouflage."
"Right, because brown on blue'll fool anypony," said Applejack as they made their way back inside.
"I'd like to see you try and spot me once I get a few lea—"
"Oh, goodness!" Rarity shouted from just inside the door. "Rainbow Dash, you look dreadful! Come inside, quickly." Not bothering to wait, she surrounded the filthy pegasus in a light blue magic field and shifted her inside.
"Hey, hey! Watch it!" Rainbow protested.
"Oh, come now. A few splashes and you'll be right as rain."
"I'll show you rain," Rainbow grumbled under her breath as Rarity lifted the spell. She fell lightly to the floor and crossed her forelegs when Applejack trotted by with a smirk.
Rarity, with a light and delicate step, approached her mud-caked friend with a bowl of water. "Now, this shouldn't take but a— Wah! Behind you!"
Rainbow Dash turned to see a violet pegasus pony with her gun shouldered. By a fraction of a second, she ducked as a paintball flew over her head and right into the side of the bowl. Almost in slow motion, water splashed onto Rarity's front, drooping her mane into an soggy, if strangely attractive, style. By the look on the wet unicorn's face, the shooter knew she was in for it.
"Oh, no. Look, I—"
Without thinking, Rarity called her paintball gun to her hoof and fired not one, not two, but three paintballs into her enemy's chest, sending the unfortunate pegasus tumbling. And without a word, she trotted to the door and slammed it shut. With a huff, she said to herself, "So uncivilised."
The soaked fashionista looked over her coat and said with a sigh, "Just look at me. I look almost as bad as Rainbow Dash. All that water everywhere. Why, I could have drowned in it." She stomped and fury took over her face. "Drowned in it!"
Rainbow Dash reached for a nearby notepad and quill and said as she wrote, "Note to self. Watch out for Rarity"
"Calm down," Twilight said with a hint of fear. "There's a bath upstairs. We'll get you and Rainbow Dash cleaned up real quick, I promise"
"Ooh!" Pinkie exclaimed as she hopped for the stairs. "And Gummy can help!"
Rainbow Dash and Rarity, both grumbling with frustration, followed her. Twilight, the last to go upstairs, called to Applejack and Fluttershy, "Can you two watch things down here for a few minutes?"
Applejack reassured her with a wink and said, "As sure day follows night, as sure as apples is apples, and as sure as every odd-numbered Daring Do is horse feathers."
"That's because she has horse feathers!" Rainbow Dash called from upstairs.
"That's still no excuse!" the earth pony answered.
"I'd better go help," Twilight said, smiling nervously. She quickly ran to help clean off their feathered friend and dry off the horned one.
Applejack walked toward Fluttershy, who was still frantically looking all over the street, not having budged since they arrived. "You know sugarcube, you—" Her words were cut off by a shriek as Fluttershy leaped into the air and shot several times into the ceiling. Applejack, a bit shocked at first, gave her a reassuring smile. "I'm sure that'll wash off. Anyway, how about I sit next to you so we can watch together?"
"Oh, Applejack," Fluttershy whispered fearfully. "I just don't think I'm cut out for this."
"Aw, shucks, you're probably better than me," Applejack responded with a pat on the head.
"Oh, no. You fought off those ponies like you weren't scared a bit. I couldn't do that if I tried."
"Hey, look! Sugarcube Corner!" a voice called out from the street.
"I think Twilight and her friends were in there," another said. "Let's charge it all at once, because that plan couldn't possibly fail!"
Amidst the cheers of their new enemies, Applejack whispered to her companion, "Looks like now will be your chance."
A few seconds later, the paintballs began impacting the windows. Applejack poked her head up to see three ponies keeping up streams of fire on all the front openings. Her one attempt to get a shot off was met with three lines of paintball fire flying past her head. "Not good, not good."
"What do we do?" Fluttershy asked desperately.
"All we really can do is hold out until Twi and Pinkie finish with Rarity and RD."
"How long could that take?"
"Well, this being Rarity..." She gulped. "Who knows how long?"
"But isn't she just getting dried off?"
"Clearly, you don't know Rarity as well as I do." She blind-fired a few shots in the enemies' direction, but the odds of them hitting were slim. "Just hold on, gal." She looked over to see Fluttershy slowly rising to face the window. "Gal?"
Fluttershy did a quick glance over the windowsill to see the three ponies approaching. She ducked down again and muttered, "Can't look. Can't look."
Scratching her head, Applejack questioned, "What in tarnation?"
Then, like lightning, Fluttershy sprang up and, without looking, fired a single round at each pony, hitting the mark every time. The shooting stopped immediately and everyone began staring awkwardly at each other. Fluttershy slowly and shakily turned her head to Applejack, as though she had committed a terrible crime.
"Land sakes, Fluttershy..." Applejack said in shock. "That was amazin'! It's like no power in Equestria can stop you!"
Looking more terrified than ever, all Fluttershy could say was: "Wha?"
"What's going on down here!?" Twilight shouted as she stumbled down the stairs. "I heard shooting and shouting and maybe even the sounds of epicness!"
"Just a brief attack," Applejack explained. "Nothing we couldn't handle."
"Maybe holing up in Sugarcube Corner was a bad idea. We've come under attack, three times now? This is just crazy. We need to relocate."
"How about the library?"
The very idea made Twilight visibly shudder. "I don't think I could stand the sight of books destroyed in a paintball war."
"Rarity might actually have a heart attack."
"The Apple family farm?"
"Wait, does that count? I mean, it's not really in the town, is it?"
"It's in the town limits and that's good enough for me."
"Me too. Let's go." She walked to the hoof of the stairs and shouted up to the bathroom. "Pinkie! Rarity! Rainbow! Hurry up, we're getting out of here!"
"Where are we going!?" Rainbow Dash called back.
"The Apple family farm!"
Rarity was the next one to pipe in. "We'll be staying on a farm!? That's even worse than staying in a tree... somehow."
"Just finish cleaning off and get a move on! There's no telling when the next attack will—" Then she took a glance out the window to see over a dozen pegasi, sweeping over the street and picking off stragglers caught in the open. "Come." Her tone immediately became serious, starting with barking orders at Applejack and Fluttershy. "Get upstairs and get outside with the others! Tell them we have a whole group of pegasi on the way!"
Applejack gave a brief nod. "Don't be too long. You know we'll be waitin' for ya. Let's go, Flutters."
The earth pony galloped up the stairs with the pegasus trailing behind her, continuously spouting, "Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness."
Twilight took a second look outside to see the pegasi were clearly on their way to Sugarcube Corner. She rushed outside, gun at the ready, and took to the left side of the street. With the pegasi drawing ever closer, she would need to distract them from her friends' escape. It would be impossible to take on all one dozen of them without getting eliminated herself, but if she could Ah, she thought. That's it!
"Well, this game certainly has proven... interesting, to say the least," Filthy Rich said to the Mayor and the Cakes inside their "command center". It was essentially a trailer with multiple TVs installed, along with an old, red couch on which they sat and enjoyed nachos. "Especially around Sugarcube Corner."
The Mayor put a reassuring hoof around Mrs. Cake's shoulder and said to the couple, "I'm sure the damage is minimal. I mean, it's just paint, after all. But I agree. There is much more activity there."
"I'd say it's its defensibility and centrality to the town. An ideal choice at first, but a deathtrap in the long term. And it looks like Ms. Sparkle and her friends have realised this." On the largest monitor, Twilight could be seen crouched behind a table, a small swarm of Pegasi approaching from the distance. "But she may not last to find a new home. There's no way she can— Hold on." Twilight remained in place, but her gun was already several meters out in the street. It began floating in the air and suddenly the pegasi were being pelted with a disembodied gun. Two of their number were hit immediately, with three more falling as they scattered. The rest broke off and either hid behind roofs or flew back down the opposite end of the street. Satisfied the pegasi were defeated for now, Twilight stealthily moved back along the street's edge and around the other side of Sugarcube Corner. To the pegasi, it was as though she was never even there. Filthy Rich paused for a few moments, then finally said, "Well, shit."
Twilight circled around to the back of Sugarcube Corner when she heard a piercing crash above. The forms of five ponies were silhouetted amongst sparkling pieces of glass as they tumbled to the earth. The whole scene seemed to be occurring in slow motion before her eyes. Even her first thought seemed to be slower than usual. WWWHHHHYYYYYY?. The five friends crashed onto the soft ground and, amazingly, not one was injured. Twilight was unsure as to how this could be until Pinkie started licking at the shards.
"Mmmm, sugar glass!" she exclaimed. "Good thing I changed those panels this morning or that would've been one crrraaaazzzy fall!"
Twilight pressed her hoof to her face, but was happy her friends were safe. "Let's just get going, okay? I'd rather we not stick around a second longer than we have to."
The other five all nodded in agreement and set off for Applejack's home, where they would have protection, supplies, and a place to sleep. They encountered no resistance on the way out and avoided what few ponies they saw. They'd already done enough fighting for the day and were ready to get some rest. They had finally gotten outside the central area of Ponyville when Rainbow Dash dared to speak up. The sun was setting, but there was still enough light to be easily noticed. "Well, that wasn't so bad for you guys' first day."
"Have to agree with you on that," said Applejack. "We did mighty well for our first game. And who'd have guessed Twilight would be the one to outshine us all."
"Oh, it was nothing, really. A bit of magic was all," Twilight said sheepishly.
"And Fluttershy here? Well, let's just say I wouldn't want to cross her anytime soon."
Fluttershy merely smiled humbly from under her bangs and received a warm hug from Pinkie.
"Well, gang," Twilight began. "It's been a bit rough, but I think we have a really good chance of making it to the end, assuming the end is soon. Oh, and did anyone happen to see the carriage land?" They all shook their heads. "Oh, that's strange. I'll have to have Spike send—" She paused. Each pony immediately looked up and stared at each other in absolute horror. Then, in one mortified chorus, they all exclaimed, "SPIKE!"