“W-when do you think she’ll be back?” Spike asked. Fluttershy sighed softly.
“I’m not sure, Spike. I’m...I’m sure she’ll be fine. I’m sure they’ll both be fine. It’s probably not as bad in Cloudsdale as it is here!” the yellow pegasus answered with a certainty that wasn’t exactly felt. Spike made a face that conveyed the same notion. Fluttershy reached over with a hoof and gently stroked the spines on his head.
“There, there,” she cooed. “Don’t worry, Spike. Twilight always knows what to do when things get really bad. She’ll be back soon, I just know it!”
“What about...Rarity? Rarity and the others? Do you think they’re ok, too?”
“I certainly hope so, Spike.”
She sighed. Girls...where are you?
“...ah don’t like the look o’ that fire.”
Flames danced and wood crackled as what had once been Ponyville’s commercial center was plunged into a burning miasma of destruction. It had been a little over an hour since Pinkie Pie and Applejack had braved the hordes of the undead outside to reach Sugarcube Corner. After a light snack, served by the aforementioned pink earth pony with a noted lack of her patent carefree flair, the six ponies had separated themselves into groups of three; the Cutie Mark Crusaders fell into a hushed conversation at the far end of the room closest to the rear entrance whilst the other three had gathered around a single table near the front.
Pinkie Pie and Rarity trotted up alongside Applejack and chanced a glance outdoors, the ebb and flow of the inferno casting flickering light across their faces which poured inward from the barely-opened curtain.
“I don’t suppose anypony is around to put it out...” Rarity mused, frightened eyes betraying her calm, analytical tone of voice.
“What about the weather team, guys?” Pinkie asked. “Couldn’t they just pull a few rain clouds together and start a shower or something?”
“I don’t reckon that they’re in any condition do be doin’ anything of the sort,” Applejack replied dejectedly. “What with ‘em having wings an’ all, they probably flew up inta’ the clouds and hid when this mess all started. Can’t say I blame ‘em.” A structure on the far side of the square had caught fire moments prior, the thatched roof feeding the greedy blaze as the flames hungrily devoured all that stood in its path. As far as the three could tell, there were none left alive in the marketplace - now that there was a lack of mortified, screaming pony victims to attack, the trotting dead shambled aimlessly to and fro, apparently wholly uninterested in the fire that threatened to consume the entirety of the square.
“How long do you suppose we’ll be able to remain here?” Rarity asked her two friends. Even though they were indoors, the air within Sugarcube Corner had a slight, smoky tinge to it.
“Don’t rightly know,” Applejack replied. “S’hard to tell, really. Maybe another hour, hour and a half, tops ‘fore that fire spreads and we need ta’ find someplace else to hide. Say, Pinkie, come to think of it...just what is this here building made outta, anyway? It ain’t really made o’ gumdrops and candy canes an’ the like, is it?”
“Oh, Sugarcube Corner? Nah, it’s just wood painted to look like candy and treats and stuff. I mean, duh! A building made out of candy? The architectural implications for erecting a structure from such materials are staggering!”
“...arch-a...what?” Rarity and Applejack stared at the pink pony incredulously. Pinkie shrugged.
“Twilight gave me one of those ‘word-a-day’ calendars. It’s making my vocabulary adjective-iriffic!”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, three small fillies sat in the muted glow of a few lit candles. The dull roar of the fire that raged just outside served as a constant, niggling reminder of horrors already transpired. Scootaloo sniffled occasionally under the comforting hoof of Applebloom; Sweetie Belle stared blankly at a corner, having tried and subsequently failed to make sense of the situation that they now found themselves in.
“Don’t worry, Sweetie Belle. Applejack was right - I’m sure yer mom’s doin’ ok out there.” Applebloom offered, softly breaking the tense silence that had besettled the three. Scootaloo gulped, suppressing a whimper that threatened to escape her pressed lips.
“I know, I know...but what if she’s wrong? What if something did happen to her? A-after...after dad left, she’s the only family I have. If something happened...if she got hurt, or turned into one of those things...I’d be all alone.” Sweetie Belle’s ears perked up as she turned and looked at the other two.
“Scootaloo...” she began hesitantly, “...you never really told us about your family or anything like that. What...what was he like, your dad?” Scootaloo’s eyes shrunk down to little pinpricks, as if recalling a sour memory. “I-I mean, you don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to! I was just curious-”
“No, no...it’s fine, Sweetie Belle.” Scootaloo gently shrugged off Applebloom’s foreleg and rose to her hooves. She took a few steps away from the two, took in a deep breath, and let it out.
“It’s not really something I like to talk about, but I guess there’s no harm, right? I mean, what else are we gonna do, just sit here and feel sorry for ourselves?” She laughed bitterly, a mirthless sound that had a harsh tone to it. “My...dad. My dad. Right.” She paused for a moment to gather her thoughts, then began.
“I was born in Cloudsdale, and for the first few years of my life, that’s where I grew up. My parents both worked at the weather factory - my mom worked there during the day making snowflakes, and my dad had the night shift. I remember asking, once, why they both didn’t work during the daytime so that they could both come home for dinner; mom said it was because he was a janitor, and janitors only work at night. The first few years before I was old enough for flight school were happy enough...mom wasn’t really around a whole lot, and I missed her sometimes, but dad was always there to keep me company when she wasn’t at home. Plus, mom always made me get up really early to see dad when he came home from the night shift - not that I minded or anything. No matter how tired he was or how tough his night had been, he’d always have a smile on his face when he came through the front door. He’d bend down and pick me up, give me a big hug and a kiss, and ask, ‘How’s my little Scoot this morning?’ That’s what he’d call me, his nickname for me...’little Scoot.’ I remember giggling; I think I liked that name, at the time.
“My first year of flight school, things started to change. Mom had to work more and more shifts during the daytime, and I had to stay after school for these stupid afternoon programs until she was able to come and pick me up. Sometimes dad would be able to come and get me right after school let out, but he was working longer and longer hours at the factory that year. I asked my mom why the two of them had to work so much all of a sudden, and I remember her saying something like, ‘It’s just big pony stuff, it’s nothing to worry about.’ I did worry, though - one time, I overheard her gossiping with one of our neighbors about how ‘Cloudsdale is getting too damned expensive these days’ and how the family was ‘barely getting by’. She wasn’t as happy as she used to be...neither of them were, really. They started to fight a lot. At first, they tried to keep their arguments away from me by going into their room and locking the door, but I still heard them. Clouds aren’t exactly the most soundproof stuff in the world, I guess.
“Eventually, things started to get really bad. I hardly saw my dad anymore, and only got to greet him when he came home from work maybe once or twice a week. Mom said it was because he got a second job, but I knew that that was a lie; one of the fillies at flight school was teasing me and called my dad an ‘alkie,’ which I guess means alcoholic. When I asked my mom about it, she got really quiet and started to cry. I felt awful...I didn’t mean to upset her or anything, so I started crying, too. I said I was sorry, but she told me that it wasn’t my fault. We had a long talk about dad after that, about how he had started to go out with some friends from work just as the local bars were opening up for the day. He’d get really drunk and come stumbling home at two or three in the afternoon while I was still at school and mom was still at work; then he’d sleep until his next shift began, and start the whole thing over again.
“At that point, all my parents did was fight with each other. Sometimes I’d hear them going at it after they put me to bed...it was awful. I remember being scared all the time, but I didn’t really know exactly what I was afraid of...until it happened. He left. One day, he just left. He packed his things and walked out of our lives without so much as a good-bye. After the shock wore off, I hated him for it. I still do. I’ll never forgive him for what he did to me and my mom. After he was gone, mom couldn’t afford to keep the house in Cloudsdale anymore, so she got a job on the weather team here and we moved to Ponyville a couple of years ago. And...well...that’s it. My whole...sad...”
She was unable to complete the sentence with “story,” as she found herself overcome with emotion. Scootaloo didn’t even realize that she had begun to cry; the tears blotted out her vision, obfuscating the pastel figures of her two best friends as she collapsed and buried her head in her hooves.
“Damn it...d-damn it...” she choked out, trying her best to keep herself calm.
Applebloom and Sweetie Belle sat in stunned silence for a time, unsure of how to react. Their friend’s sobs, however, jarred them from their inaction; the earth pony and unicorn filly looked at one another, understanding apparent in each other’s eyes as they simply nodded, walking the few steps it took to reach the sobbing orange pegasus. Gently, they embraced their friend as her sobs intensified, wordlessly offering as much comfort as possible as Scootaloo unwillingly relived the darker parts of her fillyhood. Sweetie Belle began to brush Scootaloo’s dark purple mane absentmindedly, doing her best to calm her friend.
After a while, the three withdrew from the embrace as the pegasus filly’s sobs finally began to die down.
“I’m so sorry, Scootaloo...” Applebloom said. “I had no idea.”
“That’s really rotten, how your dad just left like that,” Sweetie Belle added. “I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for you...”
“What’s done is done,” Scootaloo replied. “Mom has a saying, one of those prayers to Celestia...I can’t really remember the whole thing, but it’s something about having the peace of mind to accept the things you can’t change, being brave enough to change the things you can, and being smart enough to know the difference.’ I never really used to know exactly what it meant, but after dad left, I think I began to understand. He’s gone, and the smartest thing I can do is be brave enough so my mom and me can have a happy life here in Ponyville.” She stopped short, her train of thought derailed once again as the horrors of the evening seeped into her mind. “Mom...”
“Scootaloo, I think that you’re really brave.” Applebloom said. “And I know that your mom thinks so, too. But, ‘member that thing you said earlier? About your mom being the only family ya got? Well, I reckon that’s where ya got it wrong, sugarcube.” Scootaloo, shocked, turned to look at Applebloom. Sweetie Belle, sensing the look in the earth pony’s eyes, nodded, catching on.
“Even though we’re not related, even though we’re not pegasi...you’re our sister, no matter what. The three of us have been though so much together, and I think that we’re much, much more than friends. We’re always there for each other. We’re always hanging out together, trying to find our cutie marks. We’ve shared our deepest secrets with one another, we’ve laughed, we’ve played, we’ve cried...through it all, we’ve been together. That’s what a sister is. That’s what a sister does.” Applebloom nodded in agreement.
“You girls...t-thank you. Thank you so much. I’m proud to call you my sisters...I know we’ll get through this. Together.”
“Sound familiar t’you, Pinkie? Rarity?” Applejack asked. The three fillies were so caught up in the moment that they hadn’t noticed their audience. There was not a dry eye in Sugarcube Corner at that point; every now and again, a moment comes to pass that shocks and awes with its purity.
“I am so proud of you three...” Rarity began, “...you have a very special friendship.”
“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie chirped. “It’s really, really sweet. Maybe even sweeter than my super special double sugar sugar cookies!”
“Ain’t nothin’ more honest than a friendship like that. Gives me hope that maybe something good can come outta this.” Applejack said, soberly. The six enjoyed the moment for just a little while longer, before the inevitable question was asked.
It was Sweetie Belle who stepped up to the plate. “Big sis? What are we supposed to do, now? We...we can’t keep hiding here, can we? I can smell the smoke.”
“It stinks,” Scootaloo assented.
“Well, accordin’ to Rarity, Fluttershy, Spike, Angel and Owloiscious are hunkered down in the library. Twilight’s went to Cloudsdale to find Rainbow Dash and bring ‘er back here so she can put out the fire.”
Rarity nodded. “She told me that we will more than likely need the Elements of Harmony to combat this horrific virus, whatever its origins may be. She wasn’t entirely certain just what we’re up against when we last spoke, but reminded me that the Elements are among the strongest magics known to ponydom.”
Pinkie Pie, with a reserved tone to her voice, asked, “What could be so awful that it turns ponies into monsters like that? Nightmare Moon wanted eternal night and that big meanie Discord wanted chaos, but who could be so...so evil? Ponies have died...”
“We’re not even sure if it’s a who,” Applejack said. “For all we know, it’s probably somethin’ worse than them two, whatever it is.” The six thought on that for a moment.
Scootaloo spoke. “That still doesn’t answer the question, though. What are we supposed to do?”
“We can’t stay here, that’s fer damn sure,” Applebloom offered.
“Applebloom! You watch yer language, missy!” Applejack scolded. The filly rolled her eyes.
“I think we got bigger things to worry about ‘n bad language, sis.” Applebloom deadpanned.
“Huh. That’s the second time that’s been said tonight,” Pinkie remarked to nopony in particular.
“Huh?” three fillies and two mares asked in unison. Pinkie shrugged.
“Well, then. I, for one, don’t fancy the idea of staying here much longer,” Rarity said. “As much as I hate to admit it, we need to go out there once again.”
“But where will we go?” Sweetie Belle asked.
“What about Sweet Apple Acres, Applejack?” Pinkie offered. “It’s far enough from town that it’d probably be safe, right?” Applejack shook her head.
“I really wanna find out how Mac and Granny Smith are doin’, but I reckon it ain’t safe for all of us to be travelin’ so far.”
“Agreed, unfortunately,” Rarity said. “The library is probably the safest place for the six of us at the moment - it’s relatively close, easy enough to defend, elevated upper floors for surveying the situation, away from the fire...plus, I’m certain that Fluttershy could use the company, the poor thing. Besides, we cannot reasonably expect her to come to us, so...so, I suppose we’ll just have to come to her. That way, at the very least, four of the six Elements will be gathered together in one place.”
“So, our options are stay here and eventually burn to death, or go outside and risk getting eaten by zombie ponies?” Scootaloo asked flatly.
“...yep. That sounds about right,” Applejack sighed. “It ain’t gonna be easy, but as long as we all stick together, we’ll make it. We gotta make it. Together.”
“Together,” the Cutie Mark Crusaders whispered in unison.
“Okay!” Pinkie cried, trying to keep everypony’s spirits up. “To the library, girls! Uh, which way do you think we should go?”
“Well, you and Applejack used the back entrance, did you not? I’ve not been in the back alleyways behind the shops, so I don’t know the way...was it safe? Were there any-”
“-we didn’t see any, nah. Them things don’t seem to be the shiniest apples in the bushel, iffn’ ya catch my drift. S’long as we move quickly and quietly, we should be safe enough. Pinkie, do you know any shortcuts that’d get us to the library quickly?”
Pinkie thought on that for a moment. “Well, since we’re going in that direction, the back alleys are gonna end as soon as we hit Roseluck’s flower shop. We could probably cut through a few backyards, skirt around the edge of the park, and it’d be a short gallop out in the open to the library from there.”
“Hmm...out in the open, huh? Are ya sure there ain’t a way to avoid that?”
“Not unless we wanna take the roads, nope. Sorry...” Pinkie said.
“It sounds as though it cannot be avoided. We’ll have to be very, very careful,” Rarity mused.
“Don’t worry, you three!” Sweetie Belle cheered. “The Cutie Mark Crusaders will look after you! Right, girls?” She glanced sideways at her smiling surrogate sisters.
“Yeah!” Scootaloo cried. “We’ll be like...like...”
“-protectors!” Applebloom said.
“Defenders!” Sweetie Belle added.
“How ‘bout...uh...escorts?” Scootaloo tried.
“Hey, yeah!” Sweetie Belle and Applebloom agreed.
“I’d cover your ears, girls,” Pinkie warned.
“Huh?” Rarity and Applejack asked.
“CUTIE MARK CRUSADER ESCORT TEAM, GO! YAY!” The three fillies cried out in ear-shattering unison. An empty vase on one of the tables fell to the floor and shattered, having been blown backward by the concussive force of the shout.
After taking time to re-adjust her hat, Applejack suggested, “How ‘bout the ‘Exceptionally Quiet and Faithfully Obedient Cutie Mark Crusader Escort Team, hm?”
“Yeah...sorry about that. Won’t happen again,” Scootaloo apologized.
“I should certainly hope not!” Rarity scolded. “Listen carefully, girls. You need to stay close to the three of us, all right? Do not wander off, be as quiet as possible, and be certain to obey our every instruction without hesitation. We’d never forgive ourselves if anything happened to the three of you.” The three fillies nodded soberly.
“Ok,” Pinkie said. “Here goes nothing, girls. Are we all ready?” She was met with a few murmurs of consent.
Rarity, having been the only one among them to bring along anything but the fur on their backs, gathered up her saddlebags and situated them on her flanks. The six made their way to the door at the rear of the room, Pinkie gingerly nosing it open. Faint candlelight spilled into the open doorway, but it wasn’t much to go by - the flickering light barely illuminated the interior of the storage room. A few softly whispered instructions later, and the six formed an impromptu caravan as they made their way single-file through the dark room, Pinkie taking the lead with Applejack bringing up the rear. Pinkie cautiously opened the door leading into the back alley, glancing quickly to the left and right and nodding to the other five when she saw no immediate danger. They silently shuffled back into the night, the pungent tinge of smoke stinging their nostrils. Though they were a good thirty or forty feet away from the center of the marketplace, the grunts and groans of the living dead could still be heard over the fire, with the occasional scream in the far distance interspersed throughout. The Cutie Mark Crusader Escort Team gulped in unison, knowing that they had to remain brave. Pinkie Pie, Rarity and Applejack were having similar thoughts.
The six, true to their plan, moved quickly and as silently as they could manage. At one point, a stray hoof accidentally brushed one of the many aluminum trash cans lining the sides of the alley. A sharp bang! rang out, stopping them temporarily in their tracks. Rarity cursed silently, berating herself for not paying attention to where she was stepping. They strained their ears to listen, expecting a series of shambling hoofsteps accompanied by those inequine murmurings...but they heard nothing. Sighs of relief were in order; after the brief scare, they pressed onward. Every block or so, the alleyway opened up on their right, revealing little snippets of the ruined marketplace. More than once, the silhouetted forms of zombie ponies could be seen in the distance, shuffling haphazardly to and fro while everything burned around them. After roughly five minutes, the narrow alley widened before them. Just ahead, an unpainted picket fence stood in their path, temporarily blocking further progress.
“This is the rear of Roseluck’s shop, is it not?” Rarity asked.
“Yup,” Pinkie nodded.
“How’re we supposed ta climb over that fence?” Applebloom whispered. Pinkie, saying nothing, simply walked ahead and reached forward with a hoof. There was a tiny clicking sound as the hoof found a hidden latch, and a well-hidden gate swung forward, opening up into the yard.
“How’dya know that there was a gate?” Applejack asked quietly. “Was that yer Pinkie Sense or somethin’?”
“Nope, it was a convenient plot device!”
“-c’mon, we should keep moving,” Pinkie interrupted. Applejack just shook her head, once again starting forward.
The far end of the yard was lined with well-maintained rose bushes, marking the border with the backyard adjacent. There were spaces in between the shrubbery that made for a tight squeeze, but the six managed to fit through without so much as a scratch. As they made their way further and further from the marketplace, an eerie silence washed over them, the only sounds being the dull thuds of hooves against grassy earth. Nights in Ponyville, the small town that it was, were usually pleasantly quiet; this silence, however, was unsettling. There were no crickets chirping, no gentle breeze rusting the grass and the trees...it was almost malicious.
“Why’s it so quiet?” Scootaloo asked, taking notice.
“It may have something to do with...whatever that is,” Rarity answered, motioning upward toward the translucent blue barrier.
“Just what the heck is that thing, anyway?” Applebloom asked.
“Before this all started, before the attack, Rarity and I got a message from Princess Luna.” Sweetie Belle said.
“What, y’mean like a letter or somethin’?”
“No, it was more like...a voice. Like she was talking in our heads. It was strange - it woke me up, and I couldn’t really move or anything. Princess Luna said that Princess Celestia qua-, uhm...quar...what’s the word again, Rarity?”
“Right, what she said. Princess Celestia ordered all of the major towns and stuff all over Equestria sealed so that the virus that causes all of this can’t spread.”
Applebloom scrunched her face. “That don’t make any sense. I mean, it’s here, yeah, but what if there’s a town somewhere that don’t have the virus? Why cut ‘em off from the rest of Equestria?”
“Maybe it’s so they stay safe,” Scootaloo offered. “Maybe some of ‘em got out before the...whatever that blue thing is went up.”
“But it also keeps ponies that aren’t sick - ponies like us - from getting out!” Applebloom said harshly, trying to keep her voice down.
“Simmer down there, lil’ sis,” Applejack shushed. “I’m sure th’ Princess had a good reason fer doin’ what she did...but ya make a good point, I reckon. There are a lotta things ‘bout tonight that don’t quite add up.”
“Maybe Twilight knows?” Pinkie asked.
Rarity said quietly, “I suppose we’ll find out when we get to the library - that is, if she’s made it back from Cloudsdale with Rainbow Dash by now.”
The next few minutes of their trek was made in a tense, contemplative silence. Few obstacles stood in their way; the backyards of Ponyville’s residences more or less blended together, allowing for easy access. Still, that uneasy quiet persisted - it put the six more on edge than anything, eyes constantly scanning for any signs of movement. Finally, the tree that served as Ponyville’s library came into view. Before them lay a wide open area that served as the edge of the park, the green grass separated by a small hoofpath that itself bisected with the road which lay directly outside of the library.
“All right, everypony,” Applejack said, “we’re nearly there. Stay alert and-”
Suddenly, a white flash of light poured through the library’s windows, bright as day and illuminating the surrounding area for a fraction of a second. The flash was so intense that, despite the distance, the six were temporarily blinded by its sheer brilliance.
“What the hay was that?!” Applebloom cried loudly, forgetting to keep her voice in check.
“C’mon, girls!” Pinkie shouted in reply, already galloping toward the tree. “Fluttershy might be in trouble!”