Secrets moved under Moon.
Twilight didn't know how Applejack was choosing their path and after a while, wasn't sure one had been chosen at all. The farmer, who had taken the lead, had led them out of the castle, moving as quietly as she could. They'd paused at one point -- or rather, there had been a pause right after Applejack had yanked Twilight into a shadowed alcove by her tail, and they'd hidden there until the confused servant had fully passed, unable to figure out just where the yelp had come from.
Once they were on the grounds, things had accelerated somewhat. They'd avoided the exposed surface of the sports section: Applejack had gone directly for the trees. And after that... she would take a few steps. Look around. Sometimes she would close her eyes for a moment, and her ears would rotate as if listening to -- nothing. Nothing Twilight could hear. And then they would keep going forward, or change direction, double back a little...
Twilight didn't know how Applejack was choosing their path and, after roughly ten minutes, wasn't entirely sure Applejack knew either. There was a chance they were moving more or less at random in an attempt to shake a pursuit which wasn't coming. But when the farmer stopped... when she seemed to be listening...
What are you listening for, Applejack? You said you talk to the earth, and that... something's saying yes. What else does it tell you?
She wanted to wriggle inside her own skin, the excitement of getting to learn building with every hoofstep she took, especially something no unicorn might have been taught for a very long time. She wanted to search every tree and bush for hundreds of body lengths around to make sure they were alone. She wanted her scrolls, with enough ink and quills to build a little library in the wild zone. She wanted...
...to not be afraid.
Applejack, picking out the path, rotated her ears left, right, went for the former. And they trotted through trees and grass and the sounds of a wild zone which never entirely slept, path partially illuminated by waxing, nearly-full Moon. There were times when that light made it easy to find a new way. There were others when the shadows formed the outlines of something which Twilight's mind was all too ready to see as ponies, and she found herself making little jumps away from threats which didn't exist.
She heard something small die, off to their right: the squeal, the snarls. Then something larger, lured in by the fresh blood.
No earth ponies in Trotter's Falls. If nopony followed us, then we're okay. But Ponyville... is a settled zone with an earth pony majority. When we get home...
She was going to be told a secret. Something every earth pony seemed to feel was so crucial that they spent their entire lives in keeping it hidden. What happened if they knew somepony had found out? What would be done to the one who had told?
Twilight shivered, deep under Moon, so close to rising Sun. (There was nothing reassuring about the approach of Sun, because it gave them that much more of a chance to be seen.) Applejack led her further into the darkness, towards that which was not promised to be light.
Finally, Applejack stopped. Her ears stilled, her eyes closed for a brief moment. And then she lowered herself to the earth, belly and barrel tight against old soil, which squelched slightly as her mass was brought to bear against it. Unbound tail draped across old fallen leaves, along with a few fresher specimens: fall was on the approach, and some of the trees had begun to acknowledge the change. There was one directly behind her, thick branches blocking most of Moon, dappling the farmer's body with shadow.
She silently nodded to Twilight, who slowly trotted over, then tried to assume a matching position. It wasn't a pleasant process: she didn't have Rarity's mild rupophobia, but she'd never liked being dirty. The humidity in the area was on the increase: pegasi gradually building up the air's moisture content in preparation for the storm. Added to the morning dew, it made the ground into something like exceptionally thick mud, and bits of it squelched up between the leaves to mat her fur. Applejack didn't seem to notice, much less mind. Twilight could barely stay still.
With the two of them right next to each other... Twilight was the smallest of the Bearers: the least height, the thinnest build. Applejack held down the other end of the bell curve, pinned under her solid mass. The tallest among them, a few hoof-heights larger than Twilight, with the single most muscular body. The very noticeable discrepancy wasn't something Twilight had ever found any level of threat in: it was just who Applejack was, and Big Mac made her (plus just about everypony else) look small. But now, being next to all that strength, knowing there was another level of power behind it...
When she was close to Applejack, she often had the sensation of being guarded. Twilight knew she wasn't the only one: Fluttershy had once confessed something similar, knowing the earth pony stood ready to serve as the final barrier between them and anything which might threaten. A barrier which... Twilight had seen as a rather ineffective one, for things would come along which couldn't be beaten with kicks and well-aimed lasso loops. Physically, Applejack was the strongest among them, with Pinkie rather close behind. It was just that the missions brought them to places where that kind of strength meant nothing.
Where the other strength had never been seen.
It was the mud which made it so hard to remain in place. It was... a lot of things --
-- Applejack was looking at her, and Twilight wasn't sure how long that had been going on. The farmer's expression was carrying a weak level of vague bemusement.
"What are you thinking about?"
"Twilight, we met each other a little over three years ago. We've had a lot of time together. We know each other, just a bit. Right?"
She thought about how little she'd truly known Applejack at all, and still went with "...right."
"So trust me when I say I know what your 'I'm kind of insulted by something and I don't want to tell anypony what it's about' face looks like." (Twilight blinked. Blushed deeply enough that she wondered if Applejack was feeling the heat.) "What are you thinking about?"
There was nothing for it but the truth -- that, and to get ready for the possibility of another fight. "The missions."
"What about them?"
"How you could do... what you do." Whatever that was. "And we were out there, in all that, we could have died, and you never --"
The green eyes widened, with the movement enough to make Twilight pause -- and then Applejack laughed.
It was soft. There wasn't all that much actual humor in it. Disbelief, mostly, and a rather significant portion of insult returned. But there was laughter.
"Oh, for... Twilight, think."
Confusion. "What am I supposed to be thinking about?"
"You're upset about the missions? Because you think I never... Twilight, think. Run through everything in your head. Walk around it in a circle until you wear the forest into a groove. But when you're thinking about that, think about this: earth ponies have more than the Effect. Look at it that way, in all those memories. And when you're done? Tell me what you saw."
The orange body shifted a little, leaves breaking under badly-repressed frustration. "Think, Twilight. It's what you're good at, right? Just take everything you thought you knew, and then add one -- extra -- fact..."
Twilight stared at her. Applejack, silent, stared right back.
"Your mouth just dropped open." There was a tiny smile lurking in the words. "Y'know that, right?"
There is a bare plain full of rough-dug holes, and those holes close as they watch, as they race towards them, trying to get through before the last one is filled with fresh-dug earth. They fail, again and again as their friend's captors torment them, with legs tripped, tails yanked, attempts made to pull them in. They fail until they can fail no more, with Rarity trapped underground and no way to reach her --
-- except for one hole.
One still-open tunnel which, with all others closed off faster than they'd been able to respond, had no reason to be open.
"The Dogs..." Twilight whispered.
The smile came out into the open. "Jus' figured that one out, huh? Luna's tail, I thought I was pushing my luck there, and I had to keep fighting them all the way. It's like Rarity said: they've got magic of their own, and that tunneling's got some power behind it. They were trying to fountain up from below, I was asking the earth not to let 'em, and I was staying right on top of the thing just so I could try to talk louder than they could. And when they pulled us in... if you hadn't tried using Rarity's gem-finding spell and had it actually lead us to her, I was gonna have to get in front of you and... well, I was hoping I could pick her out down there. Never had to try it before, not underground with that kind of range. Finding four legs instead of two. And then when the Dogs jumped on our backs and tried to rope my mouth... I guess they sort of remember about truespeech, a few of them. They just think it involves actual talking. And --" a snort of derision "-- they couldn't even get the loops right..."
But the next memory was already coming forward.
They are climbing what will eventually be known as Dragon Mountain, and there is a rockslide in progress. Boulders are crashing down all around them, and she cannot think. There is too much happening, too much chaos, no pattern she can perceive, much less work with. Far too many targets to field-effect at once, she cannot yet teleport fully on instinct and to do so would mean abandoning her friends. So she gallops, unable to focus, unable to think, as masses large enough to kill them all mercilessly impact their area, there is a shadow rushing towards her and she will be crushed -- but then the hard head goes into her saddlebag, drives them both out of the way, there is a tremendous cloud of dirt kicked up from the ground and then it's over. The boulders have stopped falling, and the largest ones have become embedded in the huge pile of earth before them, the thing they must now climb over in order to reach the cave. None of them are hurt.
Except that there had been no dirt falling. Just the boulders.
"Thanks to you I am."
She'd nuzzled. One of the first times she'd ever nuzzled anypony, the nuzzle she thought was meant for friends. And there had been a look of purest gratitude on the farmer's face, of acknowledgment, and she hadn't understood. Why would anypony seem so grateful just to be mentioned when they'd just --
" -- thanks to you. Thanks to you I... Sun and Moon, the rockslide, Applejack, what did you do..."
The smile was a little bit rueful, but still bore a touch of weary pride. "Can't do much 'bout gravity. It's not levitation, Twilight: I can't ask something to not fall once it's gotten started. And honestly, I got lucky, working on the gallop like that, and it was pure luck, nopony getting hit in the first stages. Took a few seconds to set up the ridges along the impact and bounce lines which sent everything away from us at the end. But there was only a couple of places I could try to have it all land, and... well, the most natural direction was in front of us. Sorry about the climb, but... it was patchwork. I was yelling questions as loud as I could while I was still trying to be polite -- and I had to keep an eye on everypony at the same time, then I saw that one heading for you... I'm still not sure how Fluttershy got buried like that. I thought I'd gotten it about as wrong as I could have, right up until she popped out -- seriously, close your mouth already. You're gonna let the flies in."
She couldn't seem to manage it, not for more than was required to produce what little speech could still emerge.
"For Dragon Mountain? The boulder at the top. That was hard. I'm not a rockbreaker. Never did it before and haven't been able to do it since. But when we got knocked towards it, I knew if our backs went into that, it was it or us, and -- maybe I screamed."
Twilight swallowed. "You told me... it was a mineral-glued collection of clumps which only looked like a boulder, and we just hit the fault lines -- that's what I told the others..."
"Yeah. That's what it was. After I screamed." This smile was purely rueful. "I kind of wish I remembered exactly what I said..."
Moon was being lowered now, and the shadows shifted as the sky began to lighten. Not too much, though: Sun was still some distance away, and the increasing humidity also meant a thickening blanket of clouds. It was still more than enough to let Twilight see Applejack's smile fade away.
"Whenever I could, Twi," she softly said. "Every time. Because it's not that we're not supposed to use our magic. It's that we're not supposed to use it in ways where we get caught. It's got to look like luck, coincidence, and that ain't always easy to come up with on the gallop. But I did what I could for everypony, and I swore I was doing too much sometimes, that somepony was gonna figure it all out. But when you know a secret... part of you is always wondering if somepony else knows it too. Might be looking for it, or just put it all together, and to me, it felt like I was giving you so many pieces for the puzzle, when all you do is try to put things together, get them in order... But you never did."
The first hints of birdsong. Enough light to let her pick out the colors of the naturally-fallen leaves around her hooves.
"Why is it a secret?"
It might have been the biggest question, and so the soft words had been at the very top of the checklist.
Applejack closed her eyes.
"I don't know."
The tree above them shed a few more pieces of its unneeded burden, and little bits of beautiful death drifted down around them.
"...you -- you don't know --"
A hoof came up. Twilight stopped.
"There's stories," Applejack quietly said. "That's what we're told: stories. About... ponies who talked, mostly, or wanted to, and... maybe a lot of them are just to scare us, so we won't. Or they're things which happened and got turned into stories, and our mommies and daddies never wanted to hear them told about us. But if you listen to enough stories... there's one which you know, Twilight, which just about everypony knows. The one about the first Hearth's Warming Eve. What are the earth ponies like in that story, Twilight?"
She winced. "One's... a puddinghead."
"Yeah." Darkly, "I felt so good when I didn't get that role. And then I felt lousy, 'cause Pinkie got stuck with it. And the other one's not so bad, but... what do the earth ponies in the story have to do?"
Too slowly, "...kick over their food."
Applejack nodded. Her head went down, and for a moment, her chin was resting on her forelegs.
"There's some folks who say 'earth pony' and mean 'dirt' or 'mud'," she quietly said. "And some of them just say those words, to save time. You don't get it much in Ponyville, not where we're the majority. Canterlot, you might hear it once in a while. Here... yeah, I know there's a few here: you didn't catch everything they were saying after we left the bar, but I did. It was slurred, here and there, but I know when somepony's calling me a clod. All we're good for is food. Can't say it too close, of course, or we might kick you -- but hey, they've got magic, they can probably beat it. That's what they believe, and they just keep believing it right up until..."
Her head came up again, and those green eyes quietly regarded Twilight.
"There's a true story," she said. "True enough that it made it into a few of the history books -- just not with everything intact. And when you worked in the Archives, you were in the Ancient History department, right?"
"With a little time in Rare Documents," Twilight slowly nodded. "Why?"
"So maybe you know about it," the farmer softly said. "Tell me a story, Twi, if you can." A slow breath. "Did you ever read about The Great Nearly War?"
"An' that's a yes."
Instinctively, "I... oh, Applejack, I'm -- I'm sorry --"
"Why? Wasn't you. You weren't there. You didn't do it. Ain't nopony alive who was part of it. So tell me about it."
It wasn't something most ponies studied. You had to be at the postgraduate level before you even started to spot hints that it had happened. And if you were a unicorn, once you knew, you never wanted to talk about it.
But Applejack was talking, when it was so hard for her. When she might have been the first to do so in a very long time. It gave Twilight no excuses for not matching a fraction of her, for something that was no true secret at all. She just wished it was. That the world could forget. That she could.
Even so, she still tried to shield herself.
"-- no such thing. It happened. Go on."
"After the Unification -- that's when the Princesses were still trying to put Equestria together, bring everypony in -- they never fully succeeded, that's why we've still got Prance, but honestly, if you've ever met somepony from Prance --"
"-- you're stalling, Twi."
"I know." The next two gulps brought down air. "Okay. The short version is that there were a bunch of unicorns who didn't want to be part of Equestria, and they finally declared they were breaking away, making their own nation. I sort of got the impression that they might have held some power before the Princesses appeared, and they didn't want to give it up. They really didn't want to do much of anything except order everypony else to do things for them. But that meant... getting other ponies -- and they -- they hired a lot of mercenaries, they put themselves on the front lines because maybe they thought nopony else should be giving any orders, they just weren't going to fight, and they -- marched on the biggest earth pony settlement they could find, because they were... they were going to..."
The green eyes were patient.
"...take slaves. Make the earth ponies work for them and grow food and do everything they didn't want to do, everything their own magic couldn't --"
Which was when the next words in the book raised themselves in her mind, floated at the forefront of inner vision and shone with the light of revelation.
"But there wasn't a war, was there?" Applejack quietly asked.
"...because there was an earthquake. The whole invading camp just -- dropped -- Sun and Moon, Applejack, the books just thought it was the worst luck ever -- you -- you can --"
"Naw. Not by myself. Not something that big." A slow breath, which didn't make up for the one Twilight couldn't seem to take. "Unicorns... from what you've said, it's almost impossible for you to work together, right? Two, maybe three, and that's it. Pegasi... y'heard Rainbow. Too many, and it can all get out of control. But with us... we're voices in the orchestra, Twi. And when a bunch of us all sing the same thing, at the same time... we can get loud. There were hundreds of earth ponies in that settlement, and every last one of them asked the same question at the same time. They asked the earth to make it stop. And it did. A few of the ones at the edge of the camp cleared the hole before it dropped down all the way, and they're the ones who put it in the books. But the luck stuff... I kind of figured there's earth ponies working on some of the books, in the schools... It's hard to make something completely disappear, a lot of the time. But you can make it look like something else, if you've got a lot of time and nopony left who could say different."
As usual, the magical aspect was foremost on her mind. "Automatically... automatically additive --"
"-- goes both ways," Applejack stopped her. "I ask for something. Somepony else asks for it not t' happen. If we've got the exact same strength, we'll cancel. The earth listens to all of us, and it doesn't feel like dealing with any arguments." This breath was even slower. "My Daddy... he told me about the Great Nearly War, and he had this idea. Most earth ponies think the Secret is about keeping ponies in the dark. So that if anypony ever goes after us again, they won't be ready for what happens. But my Daddy... he thought it could be more about everything else. About the monsters, about stuff like the Nightmare and things that might be bigger than that. Because when you're going to attack, you find out what the enemy can do, right? Your brother must have said something about that. You get information. Every time any other nation's taken on Equestria, they knew they had to watch for workings and techniques, knew how to stop them. So if there was anything really big... there would be one last surprise. And maybe that would be enough. Except --"
Her head went down again and this time, her chin touched the dirt.
The words were nearly lost, absorbed by the damp soil. "-- it didn't work."
The earth pony wouldn't look at her. "'My horn!' 'Your horn!' Twi, did you really think he didn't do anything to me? There was a light, and... I couldn't hear anything. I tried to scream and it was like somepony had torn my throat out. Everything we'd done, all the earth ponies, everything I hadn't said, and he just snapped his talons and it was all gone. I held it together until I got in the maze, or at least I made it look like I was okay. But I was shaky, I wasn't thinking straight because I was still screaming inside, trying to make any sound come out. And then when... when it all started, I... the inversion, and..."
They seldom talked about it, any of them, and even Twilight had known that the worst thing she could ever possibly do to Fluttershy was press her too closely about the moment Discord had gone directly into the yellow head. Twilight had projected resonance, pure resonance, the emotions behind each Element, and that had been enough for restoration -- but not for healing. Luna had visited them in their nightscapes for moons after the statue had been returned to the garden, and that had only started after the town-wide battle over an old doll had told the palace there was something which needed to be treated.
They had healed, in time. All of them had. But they still hated talking about it, especially in the days since Fluttershy felt herself to have acquired a friend.
"He's old," Twilight offered, as gently as she could. "If there was a time before the Secret, he probably remembers it. So he was ready --"
"-- doesn't matter," the farmer miserably replied. "Didn't work. I went down, like everypony went down. I fell for the lies. And after it all ended... I went to Pinkie, I told her I was sorry, sorry because I knew what it was like to be her and I'd never known how miserable it was, how much it hurt, when you can hear the music and it all goes away... and you know what she did? Just adjusted my Daddy's hat for me, then said I had it worse. Because I'd heard it, and then I lost it. Smiled when she said it, said she couldn't really miss what she'd never had. Pinkie smiles when she's trying to make me feel better. Smiles when she's telling lies that she thinks are gonna help..."
The sky was beginning to grey now, and the hues muted the world.
"Pinkie's got it worse," Applejack sadly said. "Always has. And she keeps going. Deaf and mute and just keeps going. She's stronger than me, sometimes, in a lot of ways, especially after what she came from, what she survived. But she should have been so strong, being a rock farmer, and she's deaf and mute and..." She trailed off, but in a way which said there would be more coming, after a little more strength was found.
It seemed to be a morning for explanations, and Twilight was starting to wonder why.
"You're -- telling me a lot."
There should have been a smile, and there was not. "Can't keep half a secret. Not most of the time. And with her around... I already did it. I already betrayed. So there ain't much point to holding anything back, not when the one thing I don't answer could be what we needed."
With the desperation fully in the open, "Applejack, you didn't --"
Sharply, "-- don't tell me what I did or didn't do. I was there. I can't take it back. I can just keep going forward and hope there's something at the other end. Something which isn't a noose. So keep talking, Twilight. Ask whatever you need to. We're both in this now and one way or another, we're going to hang together."
It took forty long seconds before Twilight could make herself speak again.
It had been nagging her since her second week in Ponyville. "What the buck is rock farming?"
The left side of Applejack's mouth quirked up.
"This one's probably gonna sting a little," the farmer predicted. Twilight waited. "Okay. Rock farmers are... they're some of the strongest, usually. They've got tools nopony else can master -- tools, that's what you usually call a category of requests."
"So you can't learn them all? Like pegasi can?"
A low-lying shrug. "Some families just have different kits. I can learn, but... some stuff just never came. And it's not like Pinkie could let me listen in on her."
It brought Twilight to what she thought was a natural digression, something she suddenly wanted to get out of the way before what seemed to be promised as a major impact kicked her in the face. "Applejack? How -- how strong are you?"
"I ain't you. I ain't bad either," was all she got. "We don't have meters, Adjusted or otherwise. Rock farming?" Twilight forced a nod. "I'll make the charge line straight and fast. Rock farmers make gems."
Twenty seconds of purest silence.
"Yeah. Don't ask me how: it ain't my tool and Pinkie can't do it, so I've never heard it being done. But from what she said, they just -- talk. To the rocks. To the inside of the rocks. It's slow... takes a day to do the smallest one, years for something big. But the insides just -- shift around. 'course, you need the right kind of rocks --"
"-- rock. farmers. make. gems."
"Rainbow's right. You really do repeat stuff a lot."
And in a casual offhoofed manner which Twilight (much) later realized was put on just to see her reaction, "Oh, they're for the dragons..."
Twilight won the world championship of Shh, set the all-time record, and then kept right on going.
"Breathe, Twi. Blink."
Steadily, "Yeah. The way the stories make it out... way back when, while Discord was still running things, it was kind of hard to survive, you know? Even dragons had trouble. You know Spike, better than anypony, and that means you know how his flame works. He uses gems for fuel. And it's hard to find gems in the ground when the ground could turn to water at any moment. A dragon who's out of flame... well, they're still big, for the adults, and they've still got the teeth, but it was Discord's time and they needed everything they could get. So the rock farmers made deals. One family, one dragon, back then. They made gems, the dragon ate -- and then if the rock farmers got in trouble, the dragon tried to get them out of it because without them, no more gems. And there were only so many rock farmers -- still aren't that many -- and just so fast they could work, so the dragon couldn't figure they'd just find somepony else. It was just fair trade." Thoughtfully, "I always figured that digging ground Rarity likes so much was where a rock farm used to be. Way too late to feel the traces, but with that many in one place..."
Blink. Breathe. Repeat.
"And -- now? With the dragons?"
A shrug. "They've still gotta eat. Some families, the really skilled ones, are doing more than one dragon, since the tool's so hard to find. Pinkie's folks are one of them. They've got money, her folks, and I think some of it's been sitting on that farm for hundreds of years: they just don't spend anything. But they're some of the best rock farmers in the world, from what she's always said. It's in their blood. Generation after generation, pony after pony --" and dead stop.
Twilight quietly finished. "Until Pinkie."
Sadly, "Yeah. And... her father..."
Applejack broke the world record, then created a new league just to showcase the higher level of talent.
"It's -- not my story. And usually, that means I wouldn't be the one who tells it. Shouldn't be. But Pinkie and I talked last night, while you were with Doctor Gentle. In case this came up. She gave me permission. And she said... the next time you see her... if you understand, you'll know what to do. So just let me talk for a while, Twilight. Just -- let me talk, because it's not my story, and it still hurts..."
She did one of the hardest things she could do. She made herself be silent.
"Pinkie's a rock farmer," Applejack slowly started. "From a family of rock farmers. A family that always married pure. They've got a system going, with some of the other families, making sure they keep everything together. That the kids marry the right ponies. But she never had any real Surges, and when her magic should have come in... she was deaf, Twilight, deaf and mute. Her father put her out there in the fields every day, pushing rocks with her head, and he screamed at her when she got back and hadn't done anything. Because his whole family for generations had the right feel, the right tool, and she must have had it, so she wasn't using it to spite him --" She saw the confusion. "Yeah, I know. Doesn't make any sense to think that way. So after a while, he started saying his wife cheated on him. Pinkie was somepony else's foal. Not like there's anypony out there to cheat with, but making sense isn't his strong point. He... hates a lot of stuff, Pinkie's father. Like just about everypony who isn't pure, and everypony who isn't a rock farmer, and... everypony, that's almost easier. He hates everypony. And with Pinkie being deaf and mute, he hated her..."
All Twilight could do was breathe.
"Started feeding her less, to motivate her," Applejack forced herself to go on. "Started... get right to it: he kicked her."
And wait for her own tears to stop.
"One day... it got bad. It got worse, and then it got worst. She had her mark by then, y'see. And it wasn't a rock farmer's mark, not even close. Pinkie said she threw a party for her family the first day after her manifest, and she got her parents to dance for the first time she could remember, but... it didn't last. She got one dance. And after that, her father... he started kicking her. Because he said she'd stolen from him. Taken money from the family." A snort broke through the misery. "Stolen. Seriously, Twilight, stolen. Even if she took the money, the rock farm's way out in the middle of nowhere. Where's she gonna spend it? She'd have to be gone for days just to do the simplest shopping. Did he think he was just looking at his own memories the whole time? That he had an earth pony filly who could teleport? Never found out what was going through that thick skull, even when I got to -- well, that's for later: just wait. But he said she'd stolen from him, and he kicked her, and -- she finally kicked back. Got away from him, got out of the house and off the farm, and she never went back. Doctor Gentle found her after a while, brought her to Ponyville, found somepony who would take her in, and the Cakes -- she's legally adopted, did you know that? She's their daughter in everything but the blood. And there was this weird little pony galloping around town staring at everything because she'd never seen a town, who didn't know what anything was or how anypony who wasn't a rock farmer behaved, talking in an accent weirder than anything Rarity's ever put on -- she got rid of that after a couple of years, she wanted to fit in -- and trying to make friends when she didn't know how. Lots of ponies at school took advantage of that, made her do things promising they'd be her friends if she did them, and then they just thought of more things... Blow your nose, Twi."
She did. It took several tries.
"I got sick of it after a while," Applejack said. "I had some words with them."
She had to talk. "You mean kicks."
"...yeah." Not without a smile. "And then we were friends. Me and the strangest earth pony I'd ever met, the one who couldn't... anything. But my Daddy loved her, and... we've been together for years, Twilight. It was just me and Rarity in town to start, and we never got close to each other when we were fillies. Then Pinkie came in. Fluttershy was a few years later. Rainbow right after she finished school. Then you and Spike. And over all those years, all that time we've been friends... I still can't ask her why it's Pinkie Pie. Not when it could be Pinkie Cake. I don't understand that, and... I can't ask. Not that. Maybe not ever."
And Twilight found she couldn't either.
"She's completely -- deaf?" She'd never heard of a pony who couldn't do anything with their racial magic: even the weakest unicorns could get a full water mug off the table, although it might quaver all the way to their mouths.
Applejack started to nod -- stopped. "Once at the end of a Wrap-Up, when it was down to just the earth ponies and the seeds were going down, with everypony talking at the same time -- I caught her tilting her head, twisting her ears. Like she could almost hear us. But then she stopped."
"The seeds --"
Applejack looked at her. Tapped an orange forehoof against the soil.
A pit opened, one hoofwidth wide, about half a hoof-height deep.
"You know," she casually said, "Spike's pretty good with his claws -- but seriously, Twilight, having everypony there -- you really slowed us down..."
Twilight stared at the little hole for a while, as Applejack watched her.
"What -- what's it like?"
Applejack didn't speak. She just snorted.
Twilight didn't understand. "Sorry?"
"Let's just say I've been -- waiting for that one. For a while. Twilight -- how would you explain music to somepony who can't hear? I tried to teach Pinkie, just in case it was only her family's tools. Nothing ever worked. And she grew up with rock farmers, the ones who know they're pure. She might have seen just about everything. Sometimes I think she knows more than I do about more than a few tools, even the ones I can use. But it's just -- knowing. Reading the music on a sheet, but not being able to play. She's never heard truespeech. She's just known it was there, all her life. How long have you known for? How am I supposed to tell you what it's like when all you know is workings?"
The answer came immediately. "Maybe the same way Rainbow's teaching me to fly."
Applejack's body heaved -- and then the larger pony was standing, staring down at Twilight. "Teach you? Twilight, do you understand what I did just by telling you? And now you want to try and do some of it? I don't know if that's even possible! And if you ever got caught -- you're a unicorn! You don't --"
"-- Rainbow said that."
Somehow, the soft words got through. "...what?"
"That I was a unicorn. That it was why I couldn't fly. Because I was still a unicorn in my head, no matter what my body looked like. But she also said that... part of me was pegasus now, and I had to try and listen to it." Carefully, gently, placidly looking up at her friend. "So part of me has to be earth pony too, doesn't it? I'm trying to listen to that pegasus inside, and it got me in the air, for a little while. Why can't I listen a little more?"
A lighter shade of grey now, thick clouds moving faster in the high levels. Humidity continuing to rise.
More than a little disbelieving, "You listened to -- the pegasus inside you."
"Well -- Rainbow told me to... um... pretend I was her..."
Solidly, "That's one of the stupidest things I've ever heard."
"It worked. Just for a few seconds, but I got in the air --"
"Stupid and it worked," Applejack snorted. "That's Rainbow all over. Twilight, the only time I asked you to think like an earth pony, work like an earth pony, you cheated. If you've got an inner earth pony, she's buried deep. And... teaching... teaching a..."
More leaves fell. One landed in the little pit.
"I've been thinking," Twilight eventually said. "About what happened at the lake. About -- what I said."
"Have you." There was something of a plain statement in that.
"Yes. A lot. It... hurts a little more every time I go over it. And I never really got a chance to say... I'm sorry, Applejack. I am. I shouldn't have said it. Even if you couldn't do anything except the Effect, it was still the wrong thing to say."
Several slow breaths, every one of which reminded Twilight of just how large the farmer was. "Ah -- I accept, Twi. Okay? I... ever since the ravine, I was just -- waiting, and -- I'm sorry for charging, I'm sorry for your ribs, and --"
"-- but..." She braced herself. "...it's not completely my fault."
Carefully, "Say what now?"
"It's the Secret. The Great Nearly War was the Secret. If those unicorns knew that attacking would get them wiped out, they never would have tried in the first place. If I knew earth ponies could do more, I wouldn't have said something that stupid about her in the first place. Some ponies use all those words because... Applejack, when you make yourself look weak... how much damage has the Secret done?"
Slowly, the farmer settled back to the earth.
"You've got a weird way of saying you're sorry. Blaming other ponies for what you said."
Quickly, "That's not how I --"
"-- I know." Applejack sighed, glanced up at the lightening (but not light enough) sky. "We don't have much time before we have to start getting back. Lost a lot to your nightmare. Anything crucial y'need right now?"
Unfortunately, the answer was yes -- and Twilight already knew Applejack was going to hate the question. "How do we stop you?"
"One more time," came the slow words. "Say what now?"
"Sorry," Twilight winced. "It's bad phrasing. I meant -- how do we stop an earth pony? If she gets scared when she's in that form -- how do we stop her? Unicorn: backlash, restraints. Pegasus: immobilize. With an earth pony --" she spread her forehooves "-- what do we do?"
With narrowed eyes, "I know you need this. I know we need this. But -- seriously, Twilight: do you go around telling everypony that if they hit your horn while you're casting something big, it could kill you?"
"I -- I grew up with unicorns --"
"-- doesn't answer it. Rarity didn't explain backlash until after the rams. I knew about it. Didn't know the differentiation stuff, but backlash... I knew about that. And you never brought it up. So if one of us had gone into you by accident during a fight..."
She swallowed. Hard.
"You keep your secrets," Applejack quietly told her. "Even when you don't have to -- any siblings coming to mind right about now? Even when you shouldn't. But we need this, because of her. So... there's four ways. We can't do two of them. One might not work. We've -- gotta count on you for the fourth."
Four? Twilight listened.
"The ones that I know won't work... first one's subtraction. Debating. She asks for something, I ask for the opposite. But that's strength coming off strength, and -- she's shouting. I've never seen somepony that strong, not one pony all by herself. Maybe only the Princesses could match her. Take my truespeech off her shout, and it'll still mostly leave a shout -- just one where the echo goes a few less body lengths. If we had more earth ponies, a lot of earth ponies... enough of us saying no all the time and we can shut anypony down. That's how we stop Surges from the colts and fillies born to pegasi and unicorns. We keep ponies in range, listening. Drop by a lot. But this is Trotter's Falls..." The name was nearly spat. "There's nopony to help out. Just me and Pinkie, and when it comes to debates, just me. I'm not enough, nowhere near."
"We could try to bring in reinforcements from another settled zone," Twilight pointed out.
"Go ahead," was the instant reply. "Baltimare's three gallops out. And when you get there -- what do you tell them?"
It was a legitimate (and legitimately depressing) point. "The other one that won't work?"
"Direct combat," Applejack said. "Asking for different things, instead of just trying to shut each other down. Striking against each other with whatever answers you get. She's too strong there, no matter how many tools she has or which ones: anything she shouts for is gonna hit too hard. And the one time I did it... I barely won. But I had to win, I did anything to win, and he wasn't ready for it --"
"-- you're not talking about Pinkie."
This smile was forced. "I said 'he'. Plus you might kind of remember I lost?"
Applejack was mostly watching the sky now.
"You don't tell her."
"She can't know, Twi. She doesn't know, because it was just me there that day, and I've never told her. She's -- got autophobia, you know that? I went into the library one day and looked it up, while the old librarian was in town. She's afraid of being alone, more than anything in the world, and when she thinks she's going to wind up alone... that's when things start to get bad. When she thinks she's been left behind, or that ponies are abandoning her, going away. But it'll be worse, so much worse, if she knew who wanted her..."
"Applejack --" hastily, as Sun was truly on the rise now, "if it's important, I won't tell her, but you're still not saying who I'm not supposed to be --"
"-- Pinkie. Her father."
"He -- came to town. Well, not to town. The Acres. About two years after my Mommy and Daddy... he caught me alone. He was looking for the Acres, for the Apples. Because he'd heard, don't ask me how, that we married just about as pure as any earth pony family which wasn't rock farmers, so we were the ponies he could just barely stand to talk to -- because we were so pure, at least by our standards." With a light shrug, "Well -- we've got one pegasus. But she's adopted. Anyway, he found out where Pinkie was. If I had to guess... maybe one of his dragons flew over during the migration, and he'd just asked them to keep an eye out. But he came to the Acres, because he didn't know Ponyville or settled zones or much of anything that wasn't rocks. And he thought... he thought the Apples would help him get his daughter back."
Twilight instantly committed to the promise, even as her voice locked into confusion. "But -- he hated her. You said he --"
"My turn for bad words, Twi. I said 'daughter'. He meant 'property'. Maybe he wanted to get his money back, somehow. Or figured that if he didn't love her, nopony ever should. But he came for her, and he wanted us -- me -- to help him get her out. But she'd told me about the rock farm, everything about it, and... I said no, he challenged in the old way, we dug out the fosse right there, and... I won. Still not sure how. Maybe because everything he said... I think he's kind of a slow learner. It felt like he'd lost that way at least once before, and he still tried again. Stronger than me, stronger than just about anypony -- but not too fast, and not even a little imagination in his questions. Sent him off the Acres with what was left of his tail between his legs, and because he'd lost an old challenge, he couldn't come back, not to Ponyville. I told him I'd kill him if I ever saw him again." Her gaze finally came down, focused on Twilight. "And you know I wasn't lying."
It took a little time before Twilight could make herself continue. "I -- I won't tell her."
Neutrally, "Good. Want to hear the two which have a shot?" Twilight nodded. "They're both the same thing. Get her out of range. I've got my own field, Twi, and it radiates. But take me far enough away from the earth, and I can't reach it any more. I know it's there. But we can't hear each other. So use your field. Lift her high. I just don't know -- how high. How far off the ground she has to be, strong as she is. Worst-case, that one might be able to stand in Cloudsdale -- well, fall through -- and still be shouting."
"It has to be Rainbow and Fluttershy," Twilight quickly said. "Projecting too high... it's hard to keep cohesion in my field, especially after she reaches the point where it starts getting harder to see her. I could push her up for a while, but if she needs to go really high, it'll take a pegasus. Even if I can get flying, I can't stay up for long."
It produced a slow nod. "So we'll tell them. But the last one is all you." And with a steadiness which felt all too close to a lie, "Teleport her."
The Hall Of Legends -- the ravine...
"...it hurt you," Twilight whispered. "Applejack, what does it do..."
"It -- broke the link. Just for a few seconds. Twilight, when we go up -- if I try to visit Cloudsdale with you using an air carriage -- eventually, I get out of range. But it's slow and steady, the ascent, at least where my magic's concerned, and I still know the earth's down there. It ain't comfortable, but I can deal with it. But if you teleport me -- it happens all at once, and in your between, there isn't anything. It's like yanking a plant out of the soil: even if you jam it into a pot, there's gonna be shock. The stronger the pony, maybe added to the further you go, the worse it's gonna be. Me... I couldn't focus the first time, I was throwing up the second, and it took more time to recover. Even Pinkie got rocked a little when Discord put us here. So teleport her, first chance you get, if we get a chance at all. Then keep doing it if you have to. Maybe it'll build up. And eventually, you just might take her down."
And within Twilight's imagination, a small purple unicorn stood in the center of an earth pony settlement, surrounded by nothing but earth ponies, who knew only that there were other unicorns coming for them, but just about nothing about unicorns, and this time, the Secret had to be kept -- with a unicorn standing among them who knew that Secret...
"Make them use magic. Stay at range, so they think they're safe and can't attack conventionally. Get them in a position where they have to use their strongest spells. Ignore the partial coronas. But as soon as you see a full one -- double would be better, and you need triple to be sure -- go for their horns. Hard, sharp contact. Single will wound. Double is an almost guaranteed knockout. Triple will kill. Wait for them to use magic -- and then use it against them."
She felt their phantom gazes as they stared at the traitor to her own race.
"Applejack... I --"
Softly, "-- we have to head back. Now."
She forced herself to stand and on the third attempt, Applejack got her all the way up.
There was nopony who needed his services that early in the new morning (although there was always the chance of an unborn foal deciding to make a change in the schedule), and it left him free to go back. To see if his attempt had borne results, or if...
He knew she was alive, and a location she had been in. He didn't know if she would have gone back to the orchard, not if she'd found another source of food, or simply gotten close enough to the heart of the settled zone to have seen Trotter's Falls and decided that she needed to avoid it in her failure. But it had been worth the chance, and so he'd planted the resonance bombs, charging it with the emotion he was desperately hoping would work, added that to the fainter hope that she would know how to find her way home if she somehow managed to trigger it and failed to fight it off...
With her strength, as best he could estimate it... yes, she could have bested his spell, unicorn against unicorn. But she had no experience of such an attack, and so it might have gotten through.
If she'd returned to the orchard.
If she'd stepped into one of the five areas he'd been able to charge before his strength had begun to ebb.
But there was still a chance. And so he fought to the last, and held out for a miracle as he entered her place.
Quiet. Dark. Nopony had activated the lighting devices, and the sounds of the world above could not reach them here. It made it easy to listen -- but it also made it easy to imagine, especially for a pony so desperate to hear. He wanted to hear speech, and so memories haunted his ears, so many of the discussions they'd had in the sitting room, over the dinner table, all throughout her place -- right up until the last, which had not quite qualified.
He wished to hear pages turning as she studied, pushing herself forward towards the conclusion of the Great Work, an effort which had failed in the most wonderful manner possible, and thus thousands of books rustled within his mind.
He wanted to hear her. To see, and he could almost see her, but... not as she was now. He so very badly wanted to see her now, to see if she looked at all like --
-- his ears twisted.
Again. More to the left.
He held his own breath, listened more closely, tried to fight through the fog of memory -- but in this case, there was almost nothing present which would have tried to force the illusion upon him. They had talked often, laughed sometimes, done so much together... but she had hardly ever wept.
Slowly, sliding his hooves, he moved through the dark, for to activate the lights before he saw her might be to alert her to his presence too early, make her fear his seeing the wondrous failure, and if his spell was not holding, she might flee again. She could teleport, and he would not be able to trace the destination.
Down the hall. (There wasn't much of a hall.) The sitting room, completely dark. The sound was still coming, and it felt as if the source was low. She might be on the floor. She might be -- all of two body lengths away. It was possible, just slightly possible, that another had found this place and set a trap, but... he didn't believe it. It certainly wasn't another pony who had triggered his bomb: the resonance would have sent them to their own homes. It...
...it had to be her.
She was alive, and she was right in front of him, in the dark, her crying slow and pained as she agonized over what she saw as her failure. He heard so much pain in her sounds. He knew the noises which emerged when agony and tears mixed, for it had come many times at the birthing table, and once from his own mouth.
His right forehoof came up, touched the device, and the light turned on.
The blue head lifted, startled. Afraid. The horn began to ignite with gold --
-- she saw him, and the corona winked out. Her eyes closed. She shuddered, with the pain of failure. But he could only stare. At how much taller she was, perhaps a near-match for the younger of the Diarchy when she stood. At the length of that perfect horn. At her. And he had to see the mark, he had to see what symbol represented --
-- he pulled back. All his experience, everything he had seen and done, and still he pulled back, just for a moment. (With her eyes closed, she did not see that.) He didn't understand the mark, the loops, the center, and --
-- the silver moved.
Her body convulsed. Muscles twisted. Joints revolted against each other. The horn shrank, just enough to see.
He pulled back even further. Almost half a body length this time. But her eyes were open now, forced to see him through the pain, she was staring at him with nowhere to run, and he started to understand the failure for what it truly was, what might have happened, what was still happening...
Another scream, which she tried to bite back as her hooves scrambled for purchase. She was trying to get up. Perhaps to get away. But her legs refused to help her, not with the pain still building, she collapsed back to the floor and --
-- he was pressed against her.
He would not leave. Nothing could make him leave her. He pressed his body close, felt the muscles writhing under the skin. Nuzzled her as best he could.
Her tears fell. Those, at least, were normal. His own soaked into her coat as the hue of her fur slowly began to shift.
He told her he loved her.
And in broken words, she did her best to say she loved him too.