The incidents of the day before had come and gone. Many ponies wondered just what the commotion had been in the marketplace; it was not often that Pegasystems were brought out to apprehend a suspect. Nor did a suspect usually cause such a huge stir in the general area. Royal Guards, that were the actual authorities when it came to the street, not so much the metallic demons, told everypony that it was a demonstration of power. Most believed them. Those that didn’t were too frightened and too busy laboring to say otherwise.
One such pony was Sand Dollar, who left the ramshackle apartment he and his daughter stayed in to start his usual Weekend Labors. Two observers from a smoky alleyway watched as the stallion trotted off his rickety wooden steps, breathed a sigh of reluctance, and walked onwards down the street. The cart would be around to pick him up shortly, the one observer assured the other.
“What happens then?”
The shorter of the two shadows answered in a small, girly voice. “Simple. He’s loaded up with all the other slaves to go work for the day. Not as much today as on weekdays, though – it’s the weekend, and our King is very lenient.”
The other shadow somehow doubted their leader’s niceness, and would’ve raised an eyebrow at their shorter companion if it had been possible to see it. Instead, the observer shook its head, clearing their mind of the oddball statement. “Never min’ that. This cloak’s startin’ ta get itchy and I wanna take it off.”
“Don’t!” the other pony nearly yelled, putting her hoofs on her companion. “You absolutely cannot be seen. No doubt the kingdom’s on high alert for you, even if the Pegasystems have been put away. You need to stay highly under wraps.”
The cloaked one sighed. “Okay, then. But, can we at least hurry this up? Hey, what’s the whole plan, anyways?”
The smaller pony took a breath in. “Bear with me here, will ya? You’re already outside, after all.”
“What else am I gonna do, sugarcube?”
“Point taken.” The small filly waved a hoof around as she spoke, visualizing the whole scenario.
“I’m going to walk directly in front of you, and we’re going to take the backroads all the way to the Freight Depot. Going through the market would definitely be quicker, but Dad tells me the security’s probably extremely heavy, so we don’t need any of that. You’re going to walk slowly and very awkwardly behind me, as if you have a limp. Keep your head down, and let me be your guide. Don’t bump into any guards, and don’t say a word. That accent of yours will be a dead giveaway.
“If we meet any guards, let me do all the talking. I’m going to tell them that you’re my deaf-mute grandmother who’s going to the offices to receive her hay tokens, and I’m taking you so that you know where you’re going. If I tap you with my back hoof, cough. This way, it’ll make you look like you’re sick.”
“Wait, wait, hold on a second,” the second pony said, “Ya actually think this is gonna work?”
“Well, what else do we have?” she answered. “It’s only a matter of time before they start searching homes. And, if what you say is true, Sombra definitely knows you’re here. Now, just let me finish the plan, alright?”
The second pony sighed and nodded, listening intently. The smaller filly continued.
“Once we get past guards and the streets, we’re going to the Ration Offices. Or at least, it’ll look like we are. There’s a small gap between the Offices and the Freight Depot – when I say ‘go’, you’re going to run right into the freight car complex. Find the red one with all of the hay in it. Hide. And quick, too – I’m going to give you the signal right before the train leaves.
“Don’t worry about goodbyes or anything – I mean, if you were worried about them at all. Being a Second Spirit, you guys must be pretty busy saving the world – three hundred years ago, anyway – so, if you don’t have time for the little ponies, I get it. Just don’t look back when you get to the train – I won’t be upset over the lack of a goodbye, alright? Even if you are a Second Spirit and all-“
Without warning, the second shadow wrapped a hoof around the smaller one, pulling her in tight and nuzzling her. The filly was unable to speak. Her stomach was doing flips and turns the caliber of a world-class acrobat. Was this really happening?
With one hoof still on her shoulder, the taller shadow smiled. In a sentimental tone, the mare offered, “Goodbye, Seashell. And, thank you.”
The grin on Seashell’s face, if the other could see it, was impossible to put away. “No problem. Now, let’s get on outta here.”
* * *
Every breath that came out was a shaky one. Applejack’s nerves were on edge beneath the thick disguise, her every step nearly trembling. It hadn’t helped that the pain from having the glass shards pulled out of her still lingered.
Over the course of the night, the mare had really thought about what she was doing. It wasn’t so much for her as it was for all of her friends, all of her ponyfolk back home, all those centuries ago. If she could find the Princesses, she could fix everything. That meant not getting captured here. That meant not doing it how you would’ve liked to That meant not blowing everything and letting everypony down. As if she hadn’t already.
The farmpony let out the minutest of sighs. She was still having trouble grasping the whole scenario, let alone why she of all ponies, would be hurled into the future. She wasn’t magically powerful such as Twilight. Applejack didn’t have the sheer speed of Rainbow Dash (though she didn’t like to admit it), or the random magic that was Pinkie Pie. Why a working earth pony such as herself?
She was intently pondering this to the point of which she became completely unaware of her surroundings, including the stop in motion that had occurred. The tangerine pony bumped into Seashell.
Applejack’s vocal chords moved to say “Ooh, sorry,” but she forced them down with insane force and speed. She had almost forgotten she was a deaf-mute grandmother. And here she had just been telling herself that she wasn’t to blow her cover.
Seashell seemed to notice the guttural sound being made, and spoke a bit loudly. “Hello, Mr. Guardspony! What can I do for you this fine morn-“
“Who’s under the cloak?”
Applejack could only see the bottom of Seashell’s hooves and cobblestone; looking up anymore might risk her being seen by a guard or another pony. She had a feeling if she could’ve seen the guards face, it would’ve been as grim and scratchy as his voice.
“Why,” Seashell continued, “It’s my grandmother. She’s – “
“Can’t ya talk for yerself, ya old bat?”
AJ bit her lip. She had half a mind to slap the guard at this point for being so obnoxious. The imprisonment wouldn’t be worth it, though – well, maybe for a minute it would be.
“She’s deaf and dumb, sir,” Seashell explained, “Lost it in a mining accident.”
“Minin’ accident?” the guard inquired harshly, “How the hell do ya lose both yer hearin’ and yer talkin’?”
“She…” The filly paused for a bit, causing Applejack’s heart to momentarily stop. She didn’t have a cover story.
This was bad.
“Well?” The guard asked, “Answer the question, filly! Don’t stan’ there stupidly, ya half-wit.”
“She…she was born dumb, I think,” Seashell continued, unfazed by the comment, “I don’t know for sure, it’s just what my dad told me. Dynamite explosion blew her hearing out.”
There was a sustained silence. Applejack could just barely feel the eyes of the Royal Guards upon her cloak, inspecting her once more. He seemed to be contemplating something.
“Where’re you twos headed?” he finally spat out, crudely.
“The Ration Offices. She’s made her daily stub, but she obviously can’t make the trip alone anymore.”
The guard ho-hummed to himself. “Alright, whatever. Be on your way then. Shouldn’t have been wasting my time talking to buncha simpletons like you when there’s a real probem afoot. Apparently some – well, never mind, you mules don’t ‘ave the comprehension for somethin’ like that. Go.”
“Thank you, sir,” Seashell replied, “Come on, Grandma.”
Applejack followed with a slow march behind Seashell. The tangerine pony resolved to remain rock-steady in her disguise for the rest of the trip. No longer for her friends or for herself, but for Seashell.
If this was the type of world little fillies grew up in, then Applejack could fix it. She needed to fix it.
If she made it that far, anyway.
* * *
“The Offices! Almost there, Grandma!”
Applejack snuck a look from beneath the brim of her cloak, just so that she could see at Seashell’s eye lever. Just in front of them, amidst the fog, were two buildings – one looked to be an old barnhouse that was refurnished with steel plating, and the other had the feel of an Appleloosan General Store, though such places no longer existed.
In between two of these places, there was a small pathway of dead grass that seemed to lead into a train yard. Cabooses and rail cars were scattered all amongst the field, only two of which seemingly on a rail.
The better part of an hour had been spent getting here, and now it was finally time. Time to leave this Empire and get started on getting home. Now, Applejack really did have the desire to thank Seashell another time and give her and her father a final goodbye hug.
Judging by she saw so far, though, she noticed there’d be no time for that – once Seashell gave her the signal, AJ would be dashing towards wherever the red caboose was. That train was going to be heading out of living hell, and Applejack intended to be on it – she’d have to nix a final heartfelt goodbye. A tinge of sadness appeared in her chest.
At the same time the small depression appeared, she felt an odd throb from her side – just one. From the sheathed sword that still remained strapped to her flank. Something else she couldn’t do right now was check it – Applejack was fairly certain pulling out a magical weapon in a public place was suspicious anywhere, let alone in the Crystal Empire. That pulse was definitely something, though – not quite normal, but it felt like it was natural.
Seashell stopped walked, her blue hoofs stomping gently on the cobblestone. Applejack awkwardly stepped in place right behind her, waiting for the signal. The orange mare saw blue hoofs turn to the side, just so that they were out of the way if a pony wanted to make a 100-meter sprint right then and there.
“We’re here, Grandma,” Seashell said softly. Applejack tense her muscles, getting ready for the sprint. She closed her eyes, fighting back the touch of sadness that had already affected her heart.
I’m going to fix this for you. For everypony.
“You can…” the filly began, holding out the sentence so that the signal was nice and clear. “… go.”
As soon as the syllable left her mouth, Applejack tore like the wind. Within less than a second, her hooves had already left cobblestone behind in favor for hard, matted dead grass. The cloak whipped past her head, coming off the top of her mane and falling to the clump of fabric that marked where her Stetson was on her back. The wind in her mane was a welcome gift.
Time to find that caboose.
The tangerine pony zipped past the two buildings, heading straight for the heart of the train depot. A whistle sounded off in the distance, perking AJ’s ears up to their sound. Emerald eyes spotted a long line of freight cars past all the tossed and rusted ones that lied lethargically in the grassy field. Smoke began to billow from the engine. Her train. Her ticket out of here.
She adjusted her sprinting, taking and releasing cold air as she ran in a dead sprint to the red caboose at the end. A large stack of hay was inside, just as Seashell had promised. At this point, AJ could hear nothing but the roar of the wind past her ears; she almost worried that somepony would call out to her and she’d never know.
She grinned to herself as she ran past another old rail car.
They still couldn’t catch me.
Using her apple-bucking legs, Applejack pushed off the ground and vaulted onto the surface of the caboose, diving into the hay. Alfalfa became her mattress as the sheer force of the jump ripped the cloak off of her back. It would’ve taken the hat with it if AJ hadn’t already bitten into it, aiming to keep her most prized possession.
When she opened her eyes from the jump, she saw nothing but hay in front of her. The steam whistle blew again from the front, and she heard the familiar metal clanking and grinding that’s associated with a train. The ground beneath her began to move.
She was out.
She was getting out of here.
With a delighted grin, Applejack perked her head up slightly in the hay, ignoring Seashell’s wish of “hide”, and placed the Stetson on her head. Knowing full well that nopony would be looking in the caboose, she took a final gander at the place she once tried to save with her friends, three hundred and two years ago.
Instead, she took a look at Twilight, who sprinted along side the train.
* * *
Applejack’s eyes bugged out of her sockets, her jaw dropping open completely. This couldn’t be happening.
But, there she was, Twilight Sparkle, in the flesh – same as she was when Applejack had seen her in the crystal prison. Her jog was slowly turning into a sprint as the train began to chug faster and faster out of the Crystal Empire, keeping up with the caboose.
With shaky breath, she turned her head towards the caboose and shouted, “Applejack, jump out!”
Meanwhile, AJ was still trying to process the fact that her friend was right there. Not in the crystalline prison, not in the high tower; right there. “Twilight? What’re you –“
“Never mind that!” Twilight yelled, pumping harder and harder with her legs. “I need you to jump out of the train! I only just got away from Sombra and I can – I can send you back! Quick, before he finds me!”
Applejack waved a hoof towards Twilight. “Come jump onto the caboose! We’ll do it once we’re out of the Empire!”
“I can’t jump at this speed!” she cried out, “And there’s no way I can teleport and have enough magical energy left to send you back in time. You need to jump out right now or you may never get home!”
Applejack merely stared at her friend, who was slowly falling behind the train. They had since passed the main part of the Crystal Empire and were now heading into the countryside. They would almost be out of Sombra’s domain soon. Surely, Twilight could wait until then.
But, what if she couldn’t? What if Applejack legitimately needed to jump out now or she’d miss her chance? The Princesses may actually be gone; Applejack knew in the back of her mind this was a very true thing. But, Twilight was right here, telling her that she had a way home. She could get home.
The farmpony took a deep breath, and, throwing hesitation out the window, jumped off of the caboose. Alfalfa soared into the sky as the pony curled up into a ball, tucking-and-rolling onto the grass to break her fall.
“Oomph!” Applejack said, as she hit the ground. Not nearly as painful as the last time she had jumped a gap, but she was still learning how to do it. It didn’t exactly come naturally.
She stood up on all four hooves and watched the train go off into the distance. The lengthy sequence continued chugging along the rail tracks, slowly becoming little more than a bit-sized dot on the horizon and disappearing behind a hill, completely gone from Sombra’s area of control.
Applejack turned to her friend, smiling. “Twilight, ya don’t know how glad I am ta see ya. Quick, let’s send me back before he finds us all!”
The tall, lavender pony smiled at Applejack – but, it wasn’t the warm, friendly one AJ had expected. It seemed cold, sinister. As if to prove further, Twilight’s eyes glowed a fluorescent green before a deep voice grumbled:
“Foolish pony. Three centuries and you still think you can outwit the King of Shadows.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow, reeling back a bit as her heart started beating faster. “Uh, Twilight? What’re ya…”
With a final bright glow of her eyes, Twilight disappeared. The wind rolled by and Applejack’s friend turned out to be nothing more than shadowy dust, carried away by a summer breeze as it lost coloration and warmth. In its place, about a dozen Pegasystems flew at unimaginable speeds towards Applejacks’ location.
In response, the orange pony just stood there, dumbfounded; unable to process what had just happened. She remained still even when the dozen robots encircled her, demanding that she drop her weapon. She remained still even when they grabbed her by her limbs and began to fly her away. She remained still even as the Crystal Palace came into view once more, their destination quite obvious.
It wasn’t until she was just floating there, in the arms of metallic pegasus replacements, staring face-to-face with the King himself in the throne room that it hit her; the cold, truth, far colder than anything the Frozen North could even think to come up with.
Sombra had captured her again.
“Indeed I have,” his booming voice trembled, lips turned up in an almost reptilian smile, “And this time, Applejack, I have plans to make sure you’ll never escape.”