Chapter 7: Like a House of Cards
The night air in Sweet Apple Acres was filled with the sounds of shouting stallions, clanking armor and thundering hooves.
Beams of magical light cut through the darkness ahead of unicorn guards, searching for even the faintest sign of their quarry. Dozens fanned out across the ordered rows of trees, hot on the tail of two earth ponies and a pegasus, who were in the process of running for their lives.
Applejack tore through the moonlit orchard as fast as she could go. Her sides burned more than they had at any point that night, but she pushed it to the back of her mind. There’d be time enough to worry about that once she’d gotten away.
Out of nowhere, a golden-clad pegasus dropped out of the sky right in front of her, hitting the ground with an audible thud.
“Hold it right –”
The hoof of a blindsiding pegasus mare cut his declaration short.
How exactly Rainbow hit him would never be discovered – she just zoomed by so fast that it left little more than a rainbow-hued streak across Applejack’s eyes, and suddenly the guard was spinning in place one-two-three times before collapsing in a discombobulated heap, a hoofprint embedded in his jaw.
“Ha! In your face,” laughed Rainbow as she zipped away through the trees in a hectic zigzag, two more pegasi in hot pursuit.
Applejack didn’t have time to gloat, too. There were a lot more royal guards behind her. A lot more. And they were gaining.
Applejack heard a loud thud to her right, followed by a whole string of curses and grunts. The odd thing was that they were keeping pace with her.
Baffled, she turned her head and about missed a step out of shock. “Uh… Big Macintosh?”
The stallion turned towards her questioningly, totally oblivious to the armored pegasus currently hanging off his backside, hind legs locked and digging into the dirt in a desperate attempt to stop the massive red stallion. He was failing spectacularly.
“Ya got somethin’ on ya.”
Big Mac blinked, then glanced over his shoulder.
“You’re… coming… with… me…!” growled the guard through clenched teeth as he heaved for all he was worth against the farmer’s unyielding strength.
He failed to notice Big Mac miss a step, but he didn’t miss the one-legged buck he caught dead center on his chest.
The victim of that buck was sent careening back the way he came so fast that he bowled over two or three of his companions, judging by a sound similar to pots and pans banging together in the distance.
Even as bad as things were, Applejack couldn’t hold back a chuckle at how petulant he sounded.
She was distracted by a sudden whoosh of air, and turned to find her other companion once more flying at her side.
How and when exactly Rainbow managed to acquire a royal guard’s helmet was beyond Applejack. Yet there she was, wearing the crest-adorned armament like she didn’t even know it was there, despite it being several sizes too big for her.
“You know, as fun as it is beating up Equestria’s finest, I’m starting to hope you have an plan for getting out of here,” Rainbow said, cruising along backwards almost nonchalantly.
She hardly looked winded at all, completely contrasting with the state of her singed coat.
“’Bout all we can do is make fer the Everfree,” Applejack responded. “Only way we’re gettin’ round this.”
Rainbow very nearly fell out of the air in shock, her eyes shrinking a bit. “Are you crazy? The Everfree at night?”
“Got any better ideas?”
Rainbow glared at her. “Between getting eaten by Manticores and clobbering some changelings…?”
Applejack opened her mouth to respond – perhaps snidely – but was interrupted by catching sight of a golden glint off to her right.
She didn’t need to see it to know that it was a royal guard.
“Halt!” he cried, legs surging for all they were worth.
Applejack’s response was knee-jerk. Without even thinking twice, she jumped, caught a thick branch in her mouth and bent it back with her momentum.
The limb bent back so far that it almost touched the trunk of the tree it was attached to, wood groaning and popping under the strain. Just as it started to whip back around, she let go, rolling once in the air before landing on her hooves again.
With a horrific swishing sound, the limb snapped back around faster than a lightning bolt.
Applejack never saw the tree branch connect, but she certainly heard the loud crack of an impact.
Rainbow glanced over her shoulder, then winced.
“Uh… I think that one was a pony.”
“We ain't got the time to be choosy, RD,” Applejack snapped in exasperation.
She could tell the small army of royal guards – both fake and genuine – was closing the distance. The sounds of their shouts were getting closer and closer. And they were still a very long way from the Everfree.
And to compound the issue, her sides were starting to bother her even worse. Splinters of pain were running up her ribs and back, with each one making her feel just a little more out of breath every time.
Almost there… just gotta keep goin’…
All three charged forward, ignoring the daunting silhouettes of so many hills yet to be climbed. Just the sight made Applejack feel more tired.
That was when trees they’d been using as cover dropped away. They burst out onto a clearing, devoid of any cover or feature.
Save, of course, for the line of unicorns standing at the other end. And at their head stood Vigil.
The sight of him sent a cold chill down Applejack’s spine.
The masquerading changeling merely stared back at her with merciless eyes, raised a hoof, and uttered a single word.
A dozen guards lowered their heads, horns presented. Each horn erupted with a sickly green crackle of light.
Applejack veered wildly, throwing herself to the side just a split second before a wave of emerald magic lit up the night.
Spells whizzed and hummed over her head, missing her by centimeters and leaving her coat on pins and needles where they passed over.
Within moments, she was back in the cover of trees, but she didn’t slow down. Spells were still flashing through the air all around her, some striking trees with an angry hiss, others kicking up dirt as they connected with the ground.
Suddenly, the shouting voices all around her morphed to alarmed cries and yelps, spells finding their way to unintended targets.
Applejack chanced a glance over her shoulder, and sure enough, she just caught the glimpses of emerald flashes in the night, momentarily outlining the profile of another royal guard.
Their ranks quickly devolved into panic, ponies diving for cover where they could or even scattering as their comrades dropped like flies under the magical barrage.
This, Applejack realized, would likely be her only chance to get away. All she had to do was –
She felt the bolt of magic strike her on flank for but a second – a pinching sensation not unlike getting poked by a needle.
And then her whole left flank went completely numb.
Suddenly minus one working leg, she missed her stride and tumbled, end over end.
Once the world stopped spinning, she found herself lying on her stomach, head reeling.
She glanced up just in time to see a helmet-wearing Rainbow Dash screech to a halt on the ground in front of her, eyes filled with concern.
“Are you okay?”
“Of all the… Ah think so,” the farmer grunted, half to herself, before staggering to her hooves. She almost immediately fell over again when her numbed hind leg refused to take any of her weight, very nearly toppling her.
“Ponyfeathers… Ah can’t feel my leg…”
Both Applejack and Rainbow threw a glance over the farmer’s shoulder towards the source of the problem.
There was a tiny singe mark on her exposed flank, just barely below her cutie mark. The whole limb was as flaccid as a wet noodle and about half as controllable.
Applejack tried to move it, but all she accomplished was a disconcerting flop or two. Both mares couldn’t help but wince at the sight.
“Come on, we gotta move,” Rainbow said, but her features were etched with worry, “while we still have the chance.”
“Ah’m goin’,” Applejack snapped, putting her three remaining good legs to use.
She couldn’t move anywhere near as fast as before, but she was moving.
The look of worry on Rainbow’s face deepened for a moment. She knew that the guards had been outpacing the earth pony before, even if only barely.
Now, though, there was no way her friend would be able to outrun anything with a decent set of hooves under them.
So, she resorted to the one thing she could think of, and the one thing she knew she was going to hate herself for resorting to.
Before Applejack knew what rightly happened, she suddenly found her hooves off the ground and a pegasus beneath her, a rainbow mane hitting her in the face.
“Rainbow, what in tarnation are ya doing?!”
“Just shut up and hold on, cowgirl!” Rainbow barked. Applejack had about half a second to clamp her three good hooves down around her friend’s shoulders and side before she tore off into the night at full speed. “And if you tell anypony I let you ride on my back, I’ll kill you.”
But Applejack wasn’t listening. “Turn around, dagnabit! We’re leavin’ Macintosh behind!”
Rainbow looked over her shoulder at her friend – perhaps not the safest thing to do at flight speed – and gave her an odd look.
“Uh, I don’t know if you noticed, AJ, but Big Mac wasn’t back there to begin with.”
Applejack tensed, her eyes shooting open wide. “What?”
Vigil surveyed the chaos in the orchard with disinterest. At least two platoons of royal guards lay in comatose heaps scattered about the trees. Dozens of survivors were calling out in panic, scrambling to organize as they fell back.
“Well, that went better than expected,” he remarked to himself.
Vigil turned his gaze just as a vermillion pegasus alighted on the ground beside him and threw a sharp salute. “The ponies are falling back to the perimeter to regroup.”
“Good,” Vigil responded. “I expect they will be quite disorganized and in a panic for some time.”
His lieutenant hesitated, his expression falling. “Sir… should we really be making such a scene? It’s only a matter of time before word reaches Canterlot.”
“That is why we replaced the couriers,” Vigil stated. “By the time a message does get out, we will be long gone without them being any wiser to our true objective.”
He turned his head to stare out towards the front of the farmland, eyes trained on the torchlight just visible through the trees.
“Get back to the blockade, Moth, and organize a defensive perimeter. No one is to come in or out. And make sure Twilight and her friends don’t do anything rash. Understood?”
Once more, the lieutenant gave Vigil a quick salute before bolting off into the sky, vanishing within moments.
Vigil watched him go for a moment, then turned towards the congregation behind him. “Find them.”
“Ah don’t think so.”
All eyes snapped around, including Vigil’s. But of all the things he’d expected to find, he hadn’t been anticipating a solitary stallion standing at the opposite side of Vigil’s forces.
He wasn’t even armored or armed. In fact, the only thing he had on him was a heavy wooden yoke and a deadly glare.
“Well, this is a surprise,” Vigil stated, fighting back his bemusement. “I was certain you wouldn’t leave your “sister’s” side quite this easily.”
Big Macintosh kept his eyes squarely on his target, seemingly oblivious to the large formation of armor-clad unicorns flanking him.
“You ain't gonna be layin’ a hoof on her,” he declared flatly.
“Oh, I beg to differ,” Vigil countered coolly. “After all the time and effort I’ve invested into capturing her, I won’t be letting her slip away this time.”
“Ah don’t think ya caught my meaning,” Big Mac stated, muscles tensing.
“No, I did,” Vigil replied. “But if you think you can stop me all by yourself, by all means – test your luck.”
Several of the guards at Vigil’s flank chuckled darkly, thoroughly unimpressed by the lone stallion standing before them.
Big Mac shared that look perfectly. “Ah just have one question, Vigil,” he said. “What did ya do with Miss Sparkle and Miss Rarity?”
“Nothing,” Vigil responded casually. “Though, I am sure they are feeling quite distraught after learning that their friends are being held under changeling influence.”
Vigil took his eyes off the stallion and cast his gaze out towards the light of the barricade once more, seemingly lost in thought.
“The bearers of the Elements of Harmony are not mine to harm. I believe Her Highness would be quite upset at having her own personal revenge taken from her, and as history has shown, meddling with those mares can be far more trouble than it's worth.”
Vigil returned his gaze back towards the lone stallion in front of him, a disconcerting glint in his eyes. “I was intending to use a stand-in for the real Twilight to draw you three out. Once I heard that my search party had been dealt with, I figured that you were the ones responsible, and that it would only be a matter of time before you tried to escape.
“Sooner or later, I knew Applejack and that friend of hers would reach out to try to warn their companion. It was only a matter of buying time until then. Of course, I was not intending to use such a ploy with the real unicorn, but it seems that things worked out perfectly regardless.”
Big Mac’s glare deepened, turning positively frigid.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Vigil said without inflection. “I knew better than to try to take Applejack in a fair fight. Her display of magic – no matter how unrefined – proved that she is quite a bit more capable than I'd expected. But I knew that she wouldn’t risk revealing herself to an actual pony. And that’s where the town guard comes in.”
“Ya sure like ta talk,” Big Mac shot.
“Do I? You must excuse me, but after all the trouble you and your companions have put me through, I feel a little gloating is called for.”
“Well the longer ya sit there, talkin’, the further Applejack gets from ya,” Mac pointed out.
“Hmm… I suppose you’re right,” Vigil remarked, completely unbothered. “Then I’d better dispose of you as quickly as possible. I have an errant queen to catch.”
And as one, the whole mob of royal guards erupted in an emerald inferno, reducing their forms to black monsters with icy blue eyes. Molten gold hissed and spat on the ground where it fell, shedding from the shape-shifting beasts like rain water.
Well over two dozen changelings stared back at Big Macintosh, teeth bared and hissing. At the throng’s head stood an armored changeling wearing an almost bored expression.
“Sergeant Carapace,” he said, raising his humming voice. “Deal with him.”
Out of the mob of changelings emerged what someponies could only dream of in their nightmares.
At first glance, he was just like any other changeling around him; jet black, icy eyes featureless yet glaring, twin vampire fangs adorning his mouth.
But this changeling was something else. He was covered in scars – brutal reminders of failures and accomplishments. His left eye was blemished by a vicious fissure in his chitin which dragged down the eyelid in one corner. His wings were especially ragged, the signs of being repeatedly torn apart and mended again and again.
Each step Sergeant Carapace took carried the weight of his experience and accomplishments, and as he moved, his fellows scrambled to vacate his path for fear of what he might inflict upon them.
He was the son of warrior parents, raised with warrior brothers and sisters, trained by warrior masters. He had prepared his whole life for the taking of others’, and that night would be no different.
He advanced towards his target, supremely confident in his abilities. After all, this was just one farmer, a laborer. He was nothing compared to Carapace’s pedigree – he, who could trace his own lineage to Queen Phantasma herself! This night, this pony would regret ever having crossed him or Her Highness.
He strode up to the stallion, ready to end his pathetic life with but a flick of his wrist.
“Nothing personal, pony,” he stated in a gravely baritone, “but I must kill you. If you’d like, I can make it quick and painless.”
To his modest surprise, he found his quarry unmoved. Either he was a master of his own emotions or just too stupid to feel fear.
“Ah’d like ta see you try,” Big Mac dared.
“Very well, pony,” Sergeant Carapace stated in a deadly thin tone. “Have it your way.”
And with that, he snapped his hoof up towards the big, dumb stallion’s throat.
Whack! Crack! Thud! Ker-Thwack!
“Wha, how did you—?!”
Crack! Thwack! Bam
“W-wait a minute, time ou—”
Crunch! Bam, Bam, Bam!
“Uncle! Uncle! My leg can’t bend that –”
Vigil winced with the last sickening impact of hoof-on-face, then looked down at the figure that’d come to a skidding halt on the ground in front of him.
“He’s wearing down,” warbled Sergeant Carapace, a punch-drunk grin on his face. “I’m positive he’s wearing down. I’ll leave the rest to you, Captain.”
Vigil sighed in exasperation before turning an eye towards the completely unharmed stallion still standing in the exact same spot as before, brushing some dust from his shoulders.
Vigil glanced over his shoulder towards the stunned – and slightly pale – formation behind him.
Despite their clear trepidation, every last changeling behind him vaulted forward, roaring and cackling as they surged towards the solitary red stallion in a murderous frenzy.
“Rainbow, you turn yer dang tail ‘round right this second!”
“Sorry, can’t hear you.”
Applejack gritted her teeth in frustration. Rainbow was moving way too fast for her liking, swinging between tree trunks like an obstacle course.
The fact that she was basically forced to cling to the pegasus’ sides for dear life made the situation even worse.
“The next chance Ah get, Ah’m buckin’ ya all the way to Canterlot,” Applejack snarled.
Rainbow threw a disbelieving glance over her shoulder. “You’re not really making me want to put you down… you know that, right?”
“Rainbow, put me down right—”
Applejack was cut off, however, by the sound of a distant shriek.
Considering how loud the wind was in her ears, it must’ve been quite the scream for her to catch it at all. even more perplexingly, it seemed to be coming from above her.
Applejack tilted her head back, just in time to see a little black figure cartwheeling uncontrollably through the air right before it collided with a tree with a wet splat, dislodging every leaf in its branches in one big mass.
Both she and Rainbow exchanged perplexed looks, unknowing.
“The hay was that?”
Neither Applejack nor Rainbow knew it, but not far away, there was a pitched battle being waged.
Changeling after changeling rushed forward, vaulting on powerful wings and sturdy limbs, fangs bared and horns crackling.
Big Mac just kept swinging.
Again and again he felt something momentarily resist his hooves, only to be batted aside a split second later. Such moments usually resulted in a pained shriek from an assailant as they went tumbling away.
Macintosh was no fighter. He’d never raised his hooves to do more than buck apple trees before. But few understood an Apple’s drive to protect family, first and foremost. An apple tree could be regrown. An Apple could never be replaced.
So while Big Mac may not have the experience of a trained soldier or guard, he had a fire in his gut and burly muscles to match, and he was only too happy to demonstrate that to every little black bug he could get his hooves on.
When the changelings backed away and lit their horns, Macintosh snatched up one of their fallen comrades and proffered him like a shield.
The changeling let out quite the undignified, high pitched shriek just a moment before intercepting well over a dozen stun spells. It’d be weeks before he ever woke back up.
But to say that Macintosh was fighting completely uncontested would be an exaggeration. He had the scratches, bruises and bite marks to prove that.
Another changeling sank its teeth into his flank, causing him to grunt with the pain.
But he just leveled a scathing glare over his shoulder, wound up a hind leg, and swatted the thing off like the pest it was.
Three more changelings, hoping to exploit his diverted gaze, leaped at his front.
Catching the sight of their glowing eyes in his peripheral, however, Mac placed one hoof against the yoke around his neck, and with one mighty shove, launched it off his shoulders like a missile.
All three changelings yelped in surprise as the yoke caught them all, pinning them together in a bundle.
Before they could start wriggling to get free, however, one of them noticed the huge stallion turn, cock a leg, and punt all three into the distant trees, leaving only the yoke behind.
But the changelings just kept coming. Even as the field filled up with unconscious and groaning black forms, still more seemed to materialize from the darkness.
Big Mac just kept swinging, no matter how heavy his limbs got.
He was in the process of using a changeling as a living and quite unwilling bludgeon when he spotted the glint of armor just off to his right. Swinging his shrieking weapon in its direction, he just barely missed the armor-plated changeling by centimeters.
Vigil darted back half a step, then swung in, lashing out with a hoof.
To his satisfaction, he felt his hoof come into contact with Big Mac’s shoulder. Unfortunately, he soon found out first-hand why the stallion wasn’t going down.
Macintosh’s muscle was as hard and solid as stone, almost making Vigil bounce right off the now-irritated farmer.
“That all?” Mac remarked coldly.
He snapped his head around, bringing his now-unconscious weapon down hard onto the ground exactly where Vigil had been.
Once more, however, he missed by only a little margin.
Vigil’s expression was in imminent danger of devolving into a hateful glare. “No,” he said icily.
And in a blinding flash, he changed. His form erupted upwards and outwards, muscles knotting and bulging as they
expanded. Red fur sprouted all across his now-burly body, his ragged mane becoming rough and hay-colored.
“I’m just getting started,” stated Macintosh.
Big Mac’s eyes got wide in shock. He staggered back a step, away from his new doppelganger.
He was so stunned at finding himself facing himself that, for a moment, his guard dropped.
The next thing he knew, the faux Macintosh lunged in as quick as a snake strike.
Mac felt a hoof connect with his chin in an explosion of pain. He toppled end over end nearly two who revolutions before coming to a skidding halt on his side.
Once the world stopped spinning, Big Mac heard the sounds of gleeful cackling coming from all around him.
The entire clearing was ringed in by what seemed like a sea of blue eyes and glinting fangs.
There were dozens of them – perhaps Vigils entire host. Even with so many lying in unconscious heaps all around him, there were still more than enough to form a living pen all around Big Mac and his adversary. There were just too many to fight.
Vigil was advancing towards him, rolling his shoulders in preparation.
Big Mac shook his head, clearing away the last of the popping lights.
“That’s more like it,” he grunted as he rose for round two.
The cold night air whistled in Applejack’s ears, biting at her eyes and cutting her to the bone. Her mane and tail whipped wildly in the wind, a sensation she wasn’t entirely used to nor fond of.
She gazed over the top of Rainbow’s head, right between her ears, but the pegasus was going so fast that the wind forced her to squint, reducing everything around her to indistinct blurs of grays and blacks. Only the sporadic flickering of moonlight was truly identifiable.
“So… Are you still mad?” Rainbow asked tentatively.
She winced. Applejack only devolved to a Macintosh-sized vocabulary when she was really angry. The fewer words she spoke, the angrier she was.
“Applejack, you know what Big Mac would say if we went back for him.”
Applejack pursed her lips. “…Ta get outta there…”
“Exactly,” replied Rainbow, her tone somber.
The apple farmer closed her eyes, her jaw taut. She’d known from the very beginning that going back for her brother would just take them in circles. The moment they saw him, he’d shout them in the other direction.
But knowing and accepting were too very different things.
She refused to think that she couldn’t help, but… the senseless limb flapping disconcertingly in the wind behind her would be a challenge to work around.
“…Look,” Rainbow said after brief silence, speaking slowly, “if it makes you feel any better, I’ll go look for him later, but I’m telling you he’s fine.”
Rainbow stifled a shrug. It was an improvement.
“Let’s just find someplace we can hide first,” she said, banking to pass through yet another row of apple trees…
Only to find the way blocked.
Rainbow only caught a glimpse of it, but she knew what it was. Years of nearly – and actually – colliding with ponies had taught her what to look for. And there was definitely a pony standing dead center on the row in front of her then.
She didn’t have the time nor space to brake. Out of pure instinct, she swerved left, narrowly avoiding crashing straight into a tree trunk by nanometers.
The air slipped out from under her wings. To her horror, she felt Applejack’s weight shift her center of gravity, twisting her still further sideways.
She’d hardly ever flown with anything on her back before, and now she was paying for it.
With Applejack crying out in her ears, she gritted her teeth and threw herself the other way, fishtailing from one side to the other before she could correct. A tree branch barely kissed the tip of one feather, but she didn’t flinch. She couldn’t allow herself to.
Rainbow knew she was going to crash. After doing it so many times, she’d developed quite the sense for them. But usually she just braced herself and tried to protect as much of her from getting hurt as possible. That wasn’t an option now, not with Applejack hanging on to her for dear life.
“Come on,” Rainbow growled, throwing her weight to the side again.
They were quickly losing what little altitude they had. Any second now and her hooves were going to start striking the very unrelenting ground.
She threw her all into stabilizing. Glimpses of the consequences of failure kept flashing across her mind's eye, keeping her from giving up.
She had to gain altitude, but in the narrow slit between apple tree canopy and the ground itself, rising too uncontrollably would result in a sudden stop, too.
Out of nowhere, a tree seemed to form from the darkness of the night itself, dead center on her path. Rainbow had no choice but to bank again, going almost vertical from wing tip to wing tip, or risk a grisly stop.
And Applejack’s ungainly weight did exactly what she didn’t want it to do.
Rainbow felt it dragging at her, pulling her over onto her back. She fought it the whole way… but there was no way she could correct anymore.
But just as Rainbow’s heart started to plummet, a shape emerged out of the darkness; one that was too massive to be a tree.
“Hang on, Applejack!” she shouted, just before doing the one thing she’d been fighting to keep from doing in the first place.
With all her strength, she threw her wings in the opposite direction as before. With the combined force of gravity and wing-power, Rainbow went into a death-defying barrel roll, corkscrewing straight towards her target; the barn itself.
If it was as close as she’d gauged, and if her luck held out just a little bit longer…
The last tree flew past her in a blur. And there was the barn, not fifty meters dead ahead. And the barn door was open.
Rainbow grit her teeth and closed her eyes, bracing. This is gonna hurt…!
She hit the ground with all the gentleness of a belly flop on concrete, cratering the hard-packed soil just inside the barn door. She bounced, limbs flailing wildly as she went end over end.
And with a muffled thump, she collided with just what she was hoping for. Hay went everywhere, exploding in a plume as the two mares crashed into a mound of it.
Rainbow’s eyes spun in her head. Her knees hurt quite exquisitely and she was going to have a nasty headache in a few minutes.
All in all, it was one of the best crashes of her life.
“Yep… I’m awesome.”
Applejack groaned beside her, sitting up.
Or… strangely, she seemed to be sitting on the roof.
That was when Rainbow realized she was currently upside down, her flank over her head.
“Never… flyin’… again,” Applejack grumbled. She seemed to be having some difficulty standing; her legs were wobbling too much, and the shadows all around her were spinning.
Rainbow giggled almost drunkenly to herself. “Don’t lie. You loved it.”
“Not... in the least,” Applejack grunted with all the honesty in her heart. “Now get up. We gotta –”
Both mares froze, their eyes on each other. Even in the total darkness of the barn, they both knew that they hadn’t been the ones to speak then.
No, that voice had come from outside.
Only then did Rainbow recall the reason for their harrowing crash landing.
Applejack stumbled to her hooves and hastily limped towards the barn door while Rainbow struggled to get the world right side up again. The earth pony peered out into the night while hugging the shadows next to the barn door, just in case.
The Apple family homestead was just across from her, clearly visible and yet oddly eerie in the total darkness. Never before had it looked so dark and lifeless, like it’d been abandoned for years rather than hours.
Beyond that, the yard was almost alarmingly still and quiet. Not even a breeze blew through the trees. Only then did Applejack realize that the sounds of shouting and detonating spells had ceased. The silence pressed down on her, making her somehow more edgy as she swept her eyes from one side of the yard to the next.
After nearly ten seconds of scanning, a shadow broke away from the nearby tree line and began to hesitantly make its way closer. It walked on four whole legs, which was a good sign. Yet, next to a royal guard, the pony was positively diminutive in stature.
A beam of light cut through the darkness, glowing from a unicorn’s horn. And as the beam swept past her, Applejack finally made out the pony on the other end, and her eyes shot open wide.
Twilight Sparkle flinched back half a step in alarm, her beam of light suddenly snapping over right towards the earth pony’s hiding place.
“Applejack? Is that you?”
Hearing her friend's voice sent a wave of relief crashing through Applejack, relief that she'd been sorely needing after so much chaos and stress. Just the simple fact that her friend was alright made it feel just a little less like the night was crushing down on her.
Applejack stuck her head out around the corner of the barn’s doorframe, motioning quickly towards her friend.
“Get in here quick, sugarcube,” she hissed, eyes scanning for any possible threats.
Twilight complied as quick as she could, clearing the distance between them in seconds. Much to her relief, Applejack saw that her coat was still unblemished, each hair where it should've been. She did, however, look nervous and even a little scared, but the important thing to the apple farmer was that her friend was alright.
The moment she was clear, Applejack slammed the barn door shut behind her and turned around, a smile blooming on her weary face. “Landsakes, it’s good ta see yer alright, Twi’,” she breathed in relief. “Ya gave us a real scare there.”
“Me?” Twilight replied, taken aback. “What about you? You’re a mess!”
Applejack grimaced, still a little unsteady on her hooves. “Don't you be worrin' about me. Ah just got a little overzealous earlier."
“Ya think?” Twilight said with a cocked eyebrow. “Anyway, where’s –”
“Over here,” Rainbow grunted, trotting over with a little wince.
Each of her front knees were bruised and bloodied, and it was clear that putting any weight on them was causing her pain, yet she passed it off like it was nothing. She seemed to be recovering from the crash a lot quicker than Applejack was. whether that was a mark on how much she was used to crashing or that she crashed a bit too much to be strictly healthy remained to be seen.
“So, what’s up?” she asked casually. “How’d you get away from all those changelings?”
“When everypony chased after you, I slipped passed the guards,” Twilight explained. “I’ve been looking for you ever since.”
“What about Rarity,” Applejack asked.
“Oh, um… I guess she stayed behind,” Twilight responded. “I didn’t see anypony following me, anyway.”
Rainbow and Applejack exchanged looks. “That doesn’t sound like Rarity,” said Dash.
“Ah agree,” Applejack said. Sure, the fashion pony was all-but allergic to anything that might smudge her coat, but that hadn't held her back before.
“Well, maybe she got caught,” Twilight offered.
That made a bit more sense to the farmer. Rarity wasn't much of a fighter, after all. Nevertheless, it didn't do Applejack's stress levels any good knowing that her friend was pretty much captured by the enemy.
Still, something was nagging at Applejack - something she knew she should be considering - but her head was still too discombobulated to make sense of it. Never... flyin'... again...
"I'm sure she's fine," Twilight added quickly, drawing AJ's attention. She was looking between her friends in what was obviously meant to be a reassuring fashion, but a hint of confusion betrayed her anyway. "I mean, it's not like the changelings have her or anything."
"Yeah," Rainbow deadpanned. "How lucky."
Twilight turned a confused look towards her, obviously picking up on the sarcasm.
Applejack aimed a light kick at Rainbow's side, giving her an admonishing glare. “What she means ta say is we’re gonna go rescue her,” she stated pointedly.
Rainbow groaned loudly, smacking herself in the face with her hooves. “Are we ever going to get off this dang farm?!”
Twilight paused, doing a double-take. “Wait, what? You're leaving?”
Once more, Applejack met Rainbow’s gaze, this time to give her friend an unhappy glare, which she returned sheepishly.
“Yeah, about that… Ah gotta make myself scarce for a while,” she said slowly. “It’s… a long story.”
Twilight blinked, uncomprehending. “I don’t get it…”
“Come with me fer a sec, sugarcube,” Applejack said, not quite meeting her friend’s gaze. “Ah got somethin’ Ah need to tell ya.”
She glanced over her shoulder towards Rainbow, who was looking on carefully. “Can ya give us some space, RD?”
To her confusion, however, Rainbow paused, an odd look on her face. She regarded Twilight for a moment, frowning, before turning a questioning look towards the earth pony. "You sure?
"Positive, sugarcube," Applejack answered, then quirked an eyebrow in confusion at her. "Somethin' wrong with that?"
She hadn't meant it to be a challenging statement, but judging by the way her friend flinched, it'd come out as such.
“Don't worry about it,” Rainbow deflected. She took to her sore wings and hovered up towards the hay loft. “Just being paranoid. Anyway, shout if you need me.”
Both mares watched her go, Applejack biting her lip. In a way, she didn’t want to send her friend away. She could probably use her support. But at the same time, she deserved to tell Twilight what was going on and why this was happening one-on-one. That was only fair.
Twilight remained still beside her, her eyes turned up after Rainbow.
Applejack couldn't help but gulp nervously. Of all the friends she had, Twilight would undoubtedly have the hardest time accepting the truth. After what that queen did to her brother and sister-in-law, not to mention her mentor and very nearly all of Equestria, Applejack just couldn’t see her believing in the truth very easily.
But here AJ was, caught in the middle of Celestia-knows-what, with no other options but to trust their friendship was stronger than she was giving it credit for.
“You see, sugarcube,” she started hesitantly, scratching at the back of her head nervously.
Twilight turned towards her, the beam of light glowing from her horn very nearly blinding the apple farmer. “Yes?”
“…Gosh, this ain't gonna be easy ta tell ya… Ya see… Ah ain't no pony.”
Twilight blinked, still not comprehending.
“The truth, Twi’… is that... Ah’m a changeling,” Applejack said quietly, as if hoping to emulate Fluttershy and go unheard.
For a moment, she thought she’d pulled it off, too. Twilight blinked once more, her expression just the same as before.
Applejack did a double-take. “Do what now?”
“Of course I know, Applejack,” Twilight said, smiling benignly.
Applejack’s head was reeling even more now. “Ya… huh? How in tarnation…?”
Twilight’s smile grew a little more. She lifted a hoof to place it gently on her friend’s shoulder. “Why else would I be here?”
The hairs on the back of Applejack’s neck stood up. “What?”
Twilight’s smile grew even bigger. Without warning, the light on her horn evaporated.
And in its place was a sickly green glow.
Applejack only had enough time to feel her eyes widen, her heart missing a beat. Before she could react, green fire erupted all around them, trapping the two together in a ring of flame.
Twilight suddenly lunged, grabbing Applejack around the middle in a death-grip, pinning her forelegs to her sides.
And then the ground started to give way beneath her. It was like the hard earth beneath her hooves was turning to quicksand.
Applejack tried to throw the unicorn off of her, but all she ended up doing was losing balance and falling to one knee. With only one good hind leg, she couldn’t get the leverage to heave the pony from her. And she was ungodly strong.
“Rainbow!” she cried out in desperation, struggling with everything she had.
The pegasus appeared overhead, her eyes going huge in shock and horror as she saw what was happening beneath her.
‘Twilight’ had Applejack around the middle, a wicked grin on her face, an emerald glow encasing her horn. Worse, they were up to their waists in the floor, and sinking fast into an inky pit encircled by changeling fire.
“Applejack!” she cried in alarm, then immediately bent her expression into a fierce scowl. “Let her go!”
She threw her wings back, charging as fast as she could straight towards the two.
And that was when the wall right beside her exploded.
Shrapnel and green flames went everywhere, throwing her end over end towards the far end of the barn.
Within seconds, the hay that’d just saved the two pony’s lives was aflame, great tongues of fire licking up the nearby support columns and rafters overhead.
Another mighty detonation, another perfectly placed fireball, and suddenly the whole barn was ablaze.
Fire raced up each wall like it had a mind of its own, spreading rampantly from wooden beam to wooden beam. Within moments, the interior of the barn was choked with smoke and swelteringly hot.
Green mixed with orange all around Rainbow as she staggered upright.
She could just see her friend through the smoke, fighting and struggling for all she was worth.
But it was too late.
All Rainbow saw was one last terrified look in her friend’s emerald eyes just as she sank up to her neck into the ground.
Before she could even finish, Rainbow saw her blonde mane drop away like she’d just fallen off a cliff, and she was gone.
Immediately the circle of fire evaporated, leaving behind only a small circle of char as evidence it’d existed at all.
Darkness pressed all around Applejack, literally pressing against her like she was being squeezed through a tube. She couldn’t move, could barely breath, and couldn’t see a thing.
Without warning, she was ejected with a yelp from the darkness and into the open night air.
Before she could do more than begin to inhale out of shock, however, something hit her bodily. Then another, and another.
No less than six changelings latched onto her various body parts and pinned her to the ground, one for each leg, her chest and even her head.
Their weight crushed down on her like a press, not giving her so much as a nanometer to move with. She just lay spread eagle on the floor, her eyes forced to stare at the scene before her.
To her horror, she find herself back in that clearing.
Motionless changelings littered the area from one end to the other, and yet for every one lying on the ground, two more gazed right back at her, very much not unconscious.
And directly in front of her, two Big Macintosh’s were locked in a ferocious battle. Both were bruised and beaten, exchanging blow after blow with each other.
But as one rolled to the side to avoid a buck from the other, the one doing the bucking hesitated, his eyes locked on hers.
An emerald flash struck him in the back of the head.
Big Mac’s eyes widened in shock for half a heartbeat before rolling into the back of his skull, and with a heavy thud, the stallion fell to the ground in a heap, changeling magic still crackling over his coat.
“Macintosh!” Applejack screamed, her voice cracking. She struggled for all she was worth, but all she managed to accomplish was to shift her weight this way and that.
Big Mac stayed where he laid, out cold.
The other red stallion in the clearing blinked in surprise, taken aback by the stroke of luck.
“Are you alright, sir?”
Vigil turned towards the source of that voice – a voice that came from directly behind the fallen stallion. “Hyacinth.”
The lime green unicorn’s horn was still crackling with magical discharge, leaving no doubt in Applejack’s mind who’d sucker-punched her brother.
Vigil only stared at the changeling, momentarily lost for words. There were a whole slew of questions on his mind at the moment, but he never quite got to any first.
“I trust I’m not interrupting,” she said, glancing down towards the unconscious stallion at her hooves.
Vigil regarded her for a moment longer, his gaze unknowable, before huffing and turning away. “No. In fact, you have impeccable timing.”
Applejack shivered when he turned those familiar eyes towards her – eyes filled with an alien personality.
“Hello, Applejack,” he said in a tone that chilled her heart, “I’ve been expecting you.”
The barn was coming down all around Rainbow. Rafters were collapsing in great fiery plumes of flame and shrapnel. Support columns buckled as the inferno ate through it.
Rainbow only stared at the place her friend had once been, uncomprehending.
The memory of Applejack’s terrified eyes kept flashing before her eyes – so close, yet so far away.
With a loud splintering sound, the rafters over her head came crashing down… on thin air.
Rainbow threw her wings behind her with everything she had, tearing through the choking, smoggy air like a feathery bullet.
All around her, the barn was falling to pieces, bit by burning bit. Barrels were small furnaces. The cart had been crushed under a massive support strut, reducing it to a pile of burning rubble.
Rainbow bobbed and wove around the disintegrating structure, surging straight for the front door. Just a split second before impact, she spun around, cocked her legs, and bucked.
The whole door fell apart into a burning heap as a rainbow streak tore past, hit the ground, and skidded on all fours.
Rainbow coughed fitfully, her eyes watering. Dang it… Dang it…!
She had been right there – right there! And now… now she was gone.
Rainbow furiously wiped at her eyes, struggling to clear them. This was not how this was going to end! She was Rainbow Danger Dash!
She snarled, grinding her teeth. And Vigil’s gonna learn that the hard way!
A loud, horrible groaning sound broke Rainbow out of it.
She spun around, just in time to see one side of the barn buckle under its own weight. The whole thing came down in a mass of flames, wood and cinders, sending fiery shrapnel everywhere as it fell apart like a house of cards.
The old structure buckled to one side, and with an almighty crash of splintering wood and raging fire, it came down with all the fanfare of a bomb detonating…
Rainbow watched as her nightmare came back to her, this time anchored in reality. The more she watched the old barn burn, the colder she felt inside.
Everything was coming apart at the seams.