Chapter 4: Rock Candy
Sweet Apple Acres.
Eight years ago. (Three years after Rupert.)
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were inside the newly christened Cutie Mark Crusaders Aeronautical Engineering Department. The name was, of course, much grander than the reality. The "department" consisted solely of an old tool and storage shed Apple Bloom had convinced her sister to let them repurpose into a workshop. The fillies had cleaned it out and Apple Bloom had shored up the roof and walls, then added several work benches and other tools as time allowed. Originally she'd wanted it to be up in Rupert with the main CMC Headquarters, but the practicality weighed against dragging stuff up and down a thousand feet of stairs regularly. And in recent months, as the construction attempts had moved into the realm of rocketry, the distance from other things both fragile and flammable was a definite plus.
Today the two were testing a new nozzle for what Scootaloo had termed the "Tea Pot." Of course, calling the eight foot long device a tea pot—even though it did technically boil water—was about as accurate as calling the Royal Palace of the Crystal Empire "a gemstone."
"Okay," Apple Bloom said, as she finished tightening the last bolt of the new nozzle. "Go ahead and pour the water in."
Scootaloo nodded, and dumped a bucket of water into a raised tank at the far end. The liquid gurgled as it filled the pipes below, and when it finished, Scootaloo closed and latched the pressure lid on the tank. Meanwhile, Apple Bloom set her wrench down, and then opened the double doors of the workshop behind the nozzle end of the device. They'd forgotten that step once, and the outcome had been memorable enough that they weren't likely to forget a second time.
Finished, both ponies gathered on the side of the roughly-cylindrical amalgamation of steel pipes and tanks. Apple Bloom made a final inspection of the plumbing, checking for any obvious leaks or rust in the pipes leading from the tank into the boiler sections, as well as any loose bolts in the massive steel framework anchoring the device to the ground. In a few moments, it would be trying very, very hard to tear itself free from those restraints. As such, she checked twice, but found them to be quite solid.
"Okay, Scoots," Apple Bloom said. "Let's check the firestone."
Scootaloo turned and grabbed tinted goggles and ear mufflers, handing Apple Bloom her set of safety gear before donning her own goggles and hanging the hearing protection around her neck. The Tea Pot was loud and had a tendency to throw random bits of detritus into the air with vibration and the raw wind currents it generated. The tinted part was for the firestone.
"Right then," Apple Bloom said, cranking loose the three heavy latches on the fuel access doors and opening them. Inside the smaller boiler tank were two metallic hemispheres, held on swing arms. They looked a bit like large marbles cut in half and stuck on the end of scissor blades. Apple Bloom reached over and turned a small wheel through a single revolution. The hemispheres moved a nearly imperceptible amount closer, but began glowing a dull red. Both fillies could feel the heat coming off them through the short fur around their eyes and nostrils. Apple Bloom gave the wheel one more turn, moving things another hair closer, and the glow rapidly moved into white-hot, causing the ponies to recoil from the heat.
The firestone had been one of the many things to come from the quickly growing trade with the Caribou. Originally found as faintly glowing rocks, Caribou explorers—lucky or rich enough to have them—had been using them for centuries as a way to stay warm. Matched in pairs or sets, the stones would heat up when brought together in close proximity. Then Twilight and Sweetie Belle had gotten a hold of a set.
The two had quickly isolated a rare element inside the rocks that they'd dubbed "Equium," both in honor of Equestria, and for the precise way the quantity and distance had to be balanced to maintain a desired energy output. The two magic users had gone on to extract and refine the element from the stones, discovering that the heat it generated could be incredibly more powerful when purified, though a minimum quantity in close proximity was necessary to get any reaction at all. The marble-sized amount in the Tea Pot was therefore split in half, and as long as the halves were separated by more than a few inches, they were effectively inert. When brought closer though, they would quickly start to generate heat.
"Looks good to me," Apple Bloom said, finishing her pre-fire inspection and swinging the access doors closed. She cranked the three latches back into place, and gave each handle a hard thump with her hoof to make sure they were sealed as tightly as possible. The pressure in that chamber would be enormous, and it very, very much needed to stay closed.
"I'm still amazed how much the heat increases with just a tiny change in distance," Scootaloo said. "You ever wonder what would happen if you cranked them all the way together?"
"I reckon it'd melt right through the tank and just keep goin' through the ground below, too. That's why that there knob's got a stop on it. Won't let ya crank it down too far."
Scootaloo briefly pondered the mischievous applications of self-immolating magic spheres, but realized they'd be more dangerous than funny.
"Okay," Apple Bloom continued. "Doors open, water tank filled and sealed. Exhaust valve?"
Scootaloo checked a valve just above the nozzle. "Closed!"
Apple Bloom reached for the preheat steam valve and opened it, as well as the main supply valve. Water flowed from the large tank, into the smaller boiler tank with the fuel in it. It quickly boiled, and the steam vented off to the top of the main tank, where it condensed back into the water, warming the tank's contents slightly, and more cool water flowed into the boiler as the circulation continued.
"Can't you crank it up higher to make this part go faster?" Scootaloo asked, impatient with the time it took to preheat the water supply.
"Ah probably could," Apple Bloom responded. "But I'd rather we had a chance to see leaks an' other problems before it was at critical pressures."
"Chicken," Scootaloo said with a grin. Apple Bloom just shook her head and continued.
After a few more minutes of monitoring gauges, she was satisfied that things were holding, and the main tank pressure was correct. She closed the main valve, waited for the last of the water to boil off, then closed the pre-heat valve as well, before finally cranking the fuel control knob down several more times. The metal of the boiler tank itself began to take on a faint glow.
"You ready for this?" she asked Scootaloo.
"I've been waiting a week for you to finish this new nozzle design I gave you. Let's do this!"
"Right then. Get on the exhaust valve."
Scootaloo moved to stand by the valve at the nozzle end. Apple Bloom nodded, and Scootaloo opened the valve. A brief puff of steam and hot air escaped from the not-quite-empty boiler. Apple Bloom then opened the main fill valve, and water, under pressure in the main tank, rushed into the boiler, quenching the glow of the metal. The nozzle sputtered and spat a few drops of hot water, then quickly began issuing a steady dose of steam. Apple Bloom shouted "Close!" and both ponies quickly shut their respective valves.
"Twenty... nineteen... eighteen... seventeen..." Apple Bloom began counting softly. She'd been unable to find any gauges that would work for the boiler pressures the Tea Pot generated, so they'd been playing it by ear. Her current estimates were that the steam would take about twenty seconds to reach maximum safe pressure at the fuel throttle setting she was using, but there was a more literal part to playing it by ear as well, and while she counted, she listened closely for any sound of fatiguing metal that might indicate an impending failure.
The metal of the boiler began to glow red as Apple Bloom's count neared the end. Both ponies raised their hearing protection up over their ears, and the last few numbers were shouted to compensate. "Three... two... one... Fire!"
Scootaloo yanked the large quarter-turn valve open, and superheated steam roared out of the nozzle, leaving a horizontal column of white vapor shooting out the doors of the workshop at supersonic velocities. The rapid flow of the steam sucked nearby air along with it, creating a wind and ear-popping drop in pressure inside the building. Apple Bloom looked at the strain gauges she'd placed on the device's mounting, noting as quickly as possible what the maximum readings were, since it dropped quickly after the first second or two of pressure was released. Meanwhile, Scootaloo kept an eye on the thermometer they'd placed on the nozzle itself.
After about fifteen seconds, the Tea Pot was noticeably quieter, and while plenty of steam was still flowing, it was no longer shooting out with the beam-like linearity it had started with. A few more seconds, and the last puffs of steam were gone. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo merely nodded at each other, not wanting to remove their ear protection, and Apple Bloom began the fill process for another run.
The main tank was good for about fifteen runs in the current design.
"Well?" Scootaloo said, briefly pulling off her ear protection while the boiler heated again several cycles later. "Was it better?"
"Yeah. Ya can run the full numbers yerself, but eyeballin' it, I'd say we're about fourteen percent up. What about the exhaust temperature?"
"Up six percent or so."
They covered their ears and ran another thrust cycle. When it finished, Apple Bloom decided to risk a slightly higher heat setting, and dialed the firestones closer.
"What was the temp on that one?" she asked, after the valves were closed again.
"Definitely better. After you dialed it up, I'd estimate it was at least..." a smirk crossed the pegasus's face, "twenty percent hotter."
Apple Bloom facehooved. "Seriously, Scoots? That again?"
Scootaloo stuck out her tongue. "Just because you don't appreciate it, doesn't mean it's not funny. But seriously though, it really was like twenty one percent or so hotter than our previous tests."
They eventually found that, with proper timing, they could reduce the dead time between active thrusts to just about the same length as the thrust time itself. They just had to be very quick to refill the boiler, before it overheated and started to melt while dry.
When the main tank was nearing empty, Apple Bloom decided to give it only one more run, and dialed the firestones another notch closer for a final test. As the pressure built, she counted down as usual, but noticed the boiler was getting noticeably brighter at the same countdown points. It still wasn't bright enough to loose integrity, but she decided this was as hot as she was willing to push things for a while.
"Three... two... one... Fire!" Apple Bloom yelled.
Scootaloo gave a yank on the valve handle, but it stuck. Eyes widening in alarm, she grabbed it with both forehooves and yanked harder, still to no avail.
"Here," Apple Bloom shouted, tossing her a hammer. "Try that!"
Scootaloo took the hammer and gave a couple of whacks to the valve, but in her panic, did so from the wrong side, causing the handle to bend, and jamming the valve itself further.
"No, the other way!" Apple Bloom shouted. Scootaloo looked confused for a moment, then realized her mistake and started hammering from the other direction, hoping the damage wasn't too great.
Seeing the unfolding disaster in front of her, the boiler glowing brighter and brighter, filled with supercritical steam, Apple Bloom decided to abort, and reached for the fuel control knob to shut things down. Unfortunately, the superheated metal of the boiler had now jammed the threads in the scissor mechanism as well. Thinking quickly, she turned and grabbed a wrench, using it to force the knob to turn. It worked, but the added friction of the swollen metal meant it was going to take several minutes to make the multiple revolutions needed to shut things down.
Then Scootaloo got the valve free, and the Tea Pot howled like a Windigo. The metal mounting structure began to flex, then a bolt head snapped off and shot through the roof like a bullet. The two ponies looked at each other, and Apple Bloom shouted—though for all the noise, it may have just been mouthed—"Run!"
The two ran out the side door and quickly galloped away from the building. A few seconds later, a large crash caused them to turn and look. The Tea Pot had broken free, and shot through the far wall of the workshop. For a brief moment, it slid along the ground like it was ice, before hitting a rock and shooting up into the air. There, its flight took on a somewhat corkscrew pattern, leaving a massive white trail of billowing steam behind it as it sailed off toward the horizon. When the steam subsided, they could still barely make out the faint shape of the now-ballistic device itself against the sky. Eventually though, it fell onto a dome-shaped hill near the horizon.
For a few moments of deafening silence, both fillies were just glad to be alive. Neither was quite sure what to say, until Scootaloo finally turned toward Apple Bloom. "So... I'd say that boiler needs to be at least twenty percent cooler, wouldn't you?"
"I hate you," Apple Bloom deadpanned.
"I know," Scootaloo replied, smiling. "I know."
A dome-shaped hill.
A short while later.
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom stood over the wreckage of the Tea Pot. Not much was recognizable—let alone salvageable—in the twisted metal. The device had left a decent gouge in the dirt and vegetation, and smaller bits of metal were scattered throughout the nearby bushes and rocky outcroppings. Of the firestone, there was no sign.
"Well, I'd call this a total write-off," Scootaloo said. "At least we know the idea can fly though. Just imagine when we put wings on it!"
"Yeah," Apple Bloom said, a bit more dejectedly. "I guess. It took me a month to build this thing though, now I gotta start over from scratch."
Scootaloo put a hoof on her friend's shoulder. "True, but if I know you, that just means the next one will be even better."
"Heh, thanks Scoots," Apple Bloom said, returning the gesture with genuine affection. "But now we're gonna have to beg some more firestone, and I get the impression Twilight only let us have this first batch 'cause Sweetie helped refine it."
"We'll figure it out. For now though, you want a lift back to the farm?"
"Naw, you go on ahead. I wanna look around a bit more, see if I can find anything worth savin'."
"You sure, AB? I can drop you off on my way back home."
"I'm sure. It's only twenty minutes or so on hoof anyway."
"Okay then," Scootaloo said, launching into the air. "See you tomorrow!"
Apple Bloom nodded and waved as her friend left, then sat down with a deep sigh in the waning sun of late afternoon. While it was great that both her friends had become so talented, it sometimes got to her that she was always relying on them for transportation. If they went anywhere as a group, Scootaloo was either giving her a lift through the air, or Sweetie was simply teleporting them all to their destination. Yes, either was quicker than trotting there by hoof, but... sometimes stubbornness won out, and she did it anyway, just to prove to herself that she could.
Surveying the horizon, Apple Bloom took a deep breath, savoring the scents of late summer. The dry grass up here on the hillside was wild, and while similar to the alfalfa hay of the fields below, had a smell all its own if a pony took the time to appreciate it. Faint hints of clover, dandelions, and even a few wild berries mixed in with the subtler smells of the wild grass strains. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the life she could feel through her hooves.
Like the smells around her, the pulse of life had subtle variations too, ones she'd become attuned to in the past couple of years. There was spring, with its explosion of fast, excited growth. On the other end, deepest winter, where life clung on to every morsel of warmth and energy, waiting out the cold. Then of course summer, when things seemed carefree, and all the creatures and plants acted with no concern for tomorrow. But Apple Bloom had found her favorite time was by far the late summer and early fall that she could sense beneath and around her now. That was when life went about with purpose and determination.
The grasses were working hard to sprout their final seeds, ensuring new growth come spring. The mice and other burrowing critters worked fervently, storing up food for the icy months to come. Foxes and mink hunted and grew out their fur to guard against the coming cold. And the birds gathered together and started to prepare for their great journeys south. Every living thing had a purpose in the fall, Apple Bloom felt. Everything but her.
She looked off to Rupert in the distance. Her massive world tree stood tall as a mountain against the sky. The giant branches swayed gently in the late sun, the millions of leaves individually shifting, causing it to almost sparkle at this distance. There was her big achievement. There was her bright fame. There it was, three years in the past. Not even an adult yet, and Apple Bloom felt perhaps her best days might already be behind her. She told herself that obviously couldn't be the case, but sometimes, on days like today, when everything had literally blown up in her face, it definitely felt like that might be true.
A flicker of movement from a nearby boulder caught her eye. She turned to look, but nothing was there. Just tall, dry grass swaying in the light breeze of sunset. But when she turned back toward the orchard, another flash of color caught her eye. It was white-ish. Too bright to be just grass, and too big to be a puff of dandelion or cottonwood fluff.
Standing, Apple Bloom took a few steps toward the boulder. "Who's there?" There was no answer. She concentrated on her other senses, and felt some larger source of life behind the rock. Something was there, and it didn't feel like an animal, but it didn't feel like a pony either.
She took another couple of steps. "I know yer there. Show yerself!"
Two ears and a pair of eyes slowly appeared from around the edge of the stone. From the height, Apple Bloom realized the creature was probably close to her own size. "It's okay," she said. "I ain't gonna hurt ya."
The face stuck its way out slightly farther, revealing a short snout in a stubby muzzle, and sharp looking teeth. It was followed by the rest of the creature, which was standing on two legs. Apple Bloom recognized it from pictures she'd seen in some books. It was a diamond dog.
This particular diamond dog was much smaller than she'd expected though. It was slightly taller than her, but only as it was standing upright. She figured she probably outweighed it by a decent margin. It also looked odd compared to the pictures she'd seen. Its forelegs—"arms" she remembered—weren't nearly as overdeveloped, though they were still longer than the rear legs it stood on. One of its ears seemed to be damaged as well, folding over and flopping loosely, causing the cream-colored fur to stick out oddly at the crease. It also lacked any of the clothing, collars, and jewels most diamond dogs reportedly wore. Most strangely of all though, was how timid it was behaving. Supposedly, diamond dogs—while not outright dangerous—were relatively aggressive and obnoxious. This one seemed to be more scared and nervous than even Fluttershy though.
"Howdy," Apple Bloom said, raising one hoof in a cautious wave.
The diamond dog moved his mouth several times, as if trying to speak, but no sound came out. Then he shook his head and finally manged a quick, muttered "Hi" before turning his head away and staring at the ground.
Apple Bloom smiled. "Mah name's Apple Bloom. What's yours?"
There was a moment of silence, then a stuttering "Ru...ru...ru..." before he gave up and looked away again.
"It's okay, ya can take yer time." Apple Bloom had met a filly at camp one year with a nervous stutter. She'd learned that as long as she gave the filly time to calm down, she'd eventually get past it and get the words out.
The diamond dog took several deep breaths, then closed his eyes and forced out, "Th-they... ca-ca-call me Ru-ru-runt."
Giving another smile, Apple Bloom said, "It's nice to meet ya, Runt."
"So, uh, what brings ya out here?"
Runt looked around, and pointed at the scattered wreckage of the Tea Pot.
"Oh," Apple Bloom said, flushing slightly at her failure. "Ya saw that, did ya?"
Eyes widening in excitement, Runt smiled. "It fl-flew! I sa-sa-saw it fl-flying!"
"Yeah, though it weren't supposed to yet."
Runt cocked his head to the side. "It was y-y-yours?"
"Yeah, me and mah friend. Dang thing was supposed to stay put for testin', but it got away from us and took off."
"You a-a-actually built it?"
Apple Bloom couldn't help but notice that Runt's stutter was disappearing the more he talked. "Yeah, I reckon I did. Though Scootaloo, my friend, helped design a lot of it."
"Th-that's amazing! It l-l-looks so complex. What is it supposed to-to do?"
"Well, it's meant to be an engine for a flyin' machine at some point. Scoots, she's kinda the fastest pegasus in the world, but she had this idea that a pony could build a machine to go just as fast."
"I thought you s-s-said it wasn't supposed to f-f-ly."
"This was just a test o' the engine itself. It was supposed to stay bolted to the ground. Eventually though, somethin' like this was meant to go in some kinda contraption with wings and such, let anypony fly up in the sky like a pegasus, at least for a little while."
Runt grinned. "Aw-awe-aw-awe... Cool! So how does it wo-work?"
Apple Bloom wasn't quite sure what to make of the situation. It was clear Runt wasn't an adult, but diamond dogs didn't age at the same rate as ponies either. She wasn't sure if she was talking to a little child, or a young adult older than herself. Of course, even adult diamond dogs weren't really known for their intelligence either. On top of that, the stutter and shyness were obscuring things even further. She didn't want to treat him like he was six if he was really sixteen. On the other hoof, could he even understand the workings of a rocket? Best to start small and work up, she figured.
"Do ya know what a tea pot is?"
Runt shook his head. Not promising then, Apple Bloom thought.
"Well, ya know how when ya put water over a fire, it gets all steamy?"
This time, Runt nodded.
"It's kinda like that. There's this tank, and we put some magic firestones in it—well, they ain't really magic, but might as well be—anyway, they get really hot, then we pour in some water. When it boils up, all the steam is trapped, until we let it out through..." Apple Bloom looked around, and found the twisted bit of metal that remained of the nozzle. "Through that bit there, which pushes the whole thing forward."
Nodding, Runt appeared to consider this for a moment before speaking. "So, the steam can only grow out the b-b-back part?"
"Grow? Ya mean expand?"
"I th-think so."
"Then, yeah. The steam expands out the back, pushin' things. Basically it's takin' the heat o' the firestones and makin' it into thrust."
"What are f-f-fire st-stones?"
Apple Bloom thought for a moment about how to explain it simply. "Well, they're basically these special rocks that get really hot when you put them close together."
"Yeah, I guess ya could say that."
"No. I m-m-mean hotrocks. We have l-l-lots of glowing rocks like th-that. We c-call them 'hotrocks' as a single w-word."
Apple Bloom's own eyes now went wide. "Really? Where?"
"All o-over. We use them to k-k-keep all our tunnels w-warm and for l-light under-gr-ground."
Thinking this might let her avoid begging more Equium from Twilight—and thus having to explain what happened to the last batch—Apple Bloom jumped on the idea. "Do you think you could show me?"
"I... d-don't kn-know. I don't th-think the others would like if I was b-bringing a p-p-pony into the dens. They'd h-hurt me if they f-f-f-found o-o-out."
"Your denmates hurt you?"
"Not ba-bad. Just, p-p-pick on m-me. I am the ru-ru-runt after a-a-all."
"Aww, I'm sorry, Runt. I know what that's like. Me and mah friends, we used to get picked on a lot by some bullies."
"You used to get p-p-picked on t-too?"
"Yup. Me an' every other foal in class really. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon used to be just the worst sort a ponies ya could think of."
"Used to?" Runt said, his non-limp ear raising in curiosity.
Apple Bloom smiled at that. "Yeah, mah friend Sweetie Belle... well, she insisted we start tryin' to be friends with 'em. Be nice to 'em and all that. It was hard at first. None of us really wanted to do it. But Sweetie insisted, and, well... it eventually worked. Diamond and Silver even came to mah last birthday party, and not in no ironic way like they used to."
Runt looked disappointed. "That's g-good," he said, hanging his head.
"What's a matter?"
"I... I don't th-think just be-being nice will wo-wo-work. I'm too d-d-d-different. They don't like when I re-re-read and think about the wr-wrong things."
"What do ya mean, 'wrong things'?" Apple Bloom said, tilting her head in confusion and concern. "Long as ya ain't plannin' some evil scheme, ain't nothing wrong with thinkin' about darn near anything."
Runt nodded. "But the others don't s-s-s-see it like th-that. They don't l-l-like when I come up here to wa-watch the sunset and the c-c-c-clouds even. They think it's not r-r-right for a d-d-d-diamond dog to not like the tu-tu-tunnels, or to wo-wo-wonder what's over the horizon."
"I'm, uh, sorry," Apple Bloom said, not sure how to console this odd creature. "I know it ain't fun to feel like yer different."
Runt let loose a short, barking sort of laugh. "How would you kn-kn-know what 'different' f-feels like? You're just the s-s-same as all the other p-p-ponies."
Now it was Apple Bloom's turn to laugh. "Oh boy, Runt, did you ever pick the perfect pony to say that to."
"Wh-what do you m-m-mean?" Runt said, caught completely off guard by Apple Bloom's laughter.
"Well fer starters, I ain't even technically a pony. I'm actually a scarecrow that was brought to life as a golem by a wish my sister made on a magic cupcake."
"What's a g-g-golem?"
Apple Bloom sighed. "Promise me ya ain't gonna freak out and run away?"
Runt's head nodded in agreement, but the fear in his eyes gave the minority report. Apple Bloom went ahead anyway.
"Basically," she said. "I'm a mud monster. I was made o' sticks and dirt, and given life by a magic wish."
Runt nodded uncertainly. He knew all of the words used, but they may as well have been gibberish for all the sense they made.
"Aw dang it, lemme just show ya." Apple Bloom grabbed one of the scrapped pieces of metal lying around, and made a small cut in her fetlock. She held it up to Runt, letting him get a good look at the mud-and-water that flowed.
Runt's eyes went wide. "Th-that's a tr-trick. A magic sp-spell!"
"Well, it is and it ain't. Like I said, I was brought to life by magic, but it ain't no trick or spell now. That's mah blood. That's who I am. Like I said, I ain't a normal pony, and I promise ya, I really do know what it feels like to be different."
Runt moved closer, looking at the muddied fur on her foreleg.
"Go on," Apple Bloom said. "It's real, I promise."
Runt sniffed at the "blood" that had dripped to the ground and at Apple Bloom herself several times, before stepping back. "It really is y-y-your bl-blood?"
"But... how? I m-mean how does it wo-work? Does it cl-cl-clot? Do you a-age? Are you heavier like ro-rocks? Can you sw-swim? Wh-what happens—"
"Woah, slow down there!" Apple Bloom said. "That's a lotta questions."
"S-s-sorry," Runt said, hanging his head and letting his good ear droop.
"Nothin' wrong with questions," Apple Bloom said, making sure her tone was cheerful and encouraging. "Just, maybe we should start at the beginnin'? How's that sound?"
"Sure, I'll tell ya my whole story if ya want, but I want to hear yers too. Figure it's a fair trade that way."
Smiling, Runt nodded and his ear perked up. "Okay."
The two spent the rest of the early evening talking. Apple Bloom told the story of when she and her friends had discovered their golem natures, and Runt slowly revealed details about his odd life underground. The diamond dog was, Apple Bloom decided, actually quite smart once you got past the stutter. From what he described, it sounded like that was the biggest source of his problems too. The other diamond dogs respected only strength and tradition, and had no time for his curiosity and desire to learn about the wider world. He kept talking about how trapped he felt, and Apple Bloom really felt for him.
She'd felt that way herself from time to time. While she loved her family dearly, none of them were exactly forward thinking intellectuals. When she got excited about some new invention she was working on, and rambled on about it at dinner, Applejack would just nod politely, saying "That's nice, AB." Granny wasn't much better, and Big Mac was... Well, he was Big Mac. But at least she had friends she could talk to. She could discuss grand ideas with Scootaloo, who was always eager to help with anything that went fast or exploded. If she had more subtle things, Sweetie was always there to talk about social problems, or magical theories and ideas.
Runt had no one though. If he wondered about something he read, he couldn't just go to Twilight and ask questions. He couldn't talk about his personal problems with a big sister. And he couldn't run away to a clubhouse with his friends when the bullies closed in.
"So you really grew that huge tree?" Runt asked, staring off at Rupert, silhouetted against the last sparkles of twilight.
"Eeyup. Got this for it, too." Apple Bloom turned and pointed to her cutie mark. "You can come visit sometime if ya want. There're stairs all the way up to that clubhouse there near the top."
"Of course. Friends are always..." Apple Bloom trailed off, her ears swiveling as she heard voice approaching.
"Ruuu-nt!" one of the voices said, with a slight hiss. "Where aaare you?" The sing-song cadence sounded menacing.
Runt's eyes went wide in fear. His head darted back and forth, searching for cover.
"Runt should comes out and plays with us!" said a second, gravely voice. "Or we's gonna make him sorry!"
"Who're they?" Apple Bloom whispered, joining Runt as he flattened himself to the ground to hide behind one of the nearby outcroppings.
Apple Bloom heard footsteps approaching, then a pause and the sounds of sniffing.
"I smells a ruuunt!" bully number two said. "I smells him close!"
Unable to see from their hiding spot, Apple Bloom closed her eyes and concentrated on her earth pony magic. She could sense two large sources of lifeforce a couple dozen yards away. They were quite a bit larger than the echoes of Runt or herself, but... something was wrong with them. Their echoes were off-color, sickly somehow, but not weakened like she'd seen with elderly or dying ponies. Something else was amiss. The sounds of further sniffing broke her train of thought, and she felt the echoes moving directly toward her and Runt. Apple Bloom opened her eyes and looked at Runt, unsure what to do. He was shaking with nervousness, and flattening himself as much as possible, so she stayed put as well.
"We sees you!" the first voice said, as a large gray paw reached over the ledge and quickly snatched Runt by the scruff of his neck.
"Let him go!" Apple Bloom said, jumping to her hooves.
"I thoughts I smelled a pony!" said the smaller of the two diamond dogs. He had dark brown fur and a black vest. His companion—now dangling Runt in the air—was gray furred, and wearing a yellow vest. Both sported collars with large spikes on them.
"I said. Let. Him. Go!"
The diamond dogs didn't seem impressed. The brown one casually licked some piece of crystalline rock he was holding in one paw before responding. "Or what?"
The gray one took a lick of a similar rocky substance held in his paw as well. "Yeah, what's little pony thinks it can dos?" Runt had gone limp in his other paw, giving up.
While her eyes maintained contact with the diamond dogs, Apple Bloom's actual focus was on the vines and bushes behind them, which she was quickly encouraging to grow around their feet. "Ya know, I never get tired o' hearin' that. Always makes it much more satisfyin' in the end."
"I thinks little pony talk too much!" said the brown one, putting the crystal in a vest pocket, before pounding a fist into the other paw.
"Just r-r-run!" Runt shouted. "I'll b-b-b-be okay."
Feeling her adrenaline building with fear, Apple Bloom knew what she was about to do was incredibly risky, even to the point of stupidity. But she also knew it was the right thing to do, and as such, there really was no debate. "Naw, Runt," she said, hiding her fear beneath a tone of nonchalance. "Can't do that. Nopony hurts my friends and gets away with it."
The brown diamond dog growled, and Apple Bloom responded, "Come on, ugly, what're ya waitin' for?"
The brown dog moved to charge her, but was immediately tripped by the vines around his feet, and ended up face down on the ground, kicking to free his feet from the unseen attacker. "It's gots me! Gets it offs! Gets it offs!"
Apple Bloom concentrated as hard as she could to grow more weeds and brambles to hold and pin him. A couple of loops managed to grab and hold one of his arms, then the other, as he struggled wildly against the plants. It worked, Apple Bloom thought in relief. She knew she was very lucky that the trapped dog had simply thrashed about randomly, and hadn't been cognizant enough to pull or claw at individual plants pinning his feet.
The larger diamond dog, seeing his companion trapped, was smart enough not to move and trip himself. "Pony think she clever?" he bellowed, tossing Runt to the side and bending down to quickly slash through the weeds with his large claws. "Now you in for world of hurt!" he said, taking several big steps toward Apple Bloom.
Crap, Apple Bloom thought. Time for a new plan. Stepping backwards slowly, she scanned the ground nearby, trying to remember the subtleties of a trick Applejack had taught her last applebuck season. She really hoped she could pull it off, as she wasn't likely to get a second chance.
"Is little pony scared?" the large dog said, chuckling in his gravely voice.
Why yes, yes I am, Apple Bloom thought to herself. Gulping though, she forced one more line of bravado as she continued backpedaling to stay out of range. "Naw, us Apples ain't afraid a nothin'. Just lookin' for the proper tools is all."
Realizing his confident—but slow—stride wasn't actually closing the distance, the diamond dog picked up the pace just as Apple Bloom tripped over a couple of loose rocks. He paused his advance to point and laugh, expecting his quarry to finally show the proper fear. Instead, she was smirking. "Found 'em!"
Apple Bloom tossed two hoof-sized rocks high into the air, then turned and planted her forehooves. Focusing on, but not looking at the diamond dog—Applejack had taught her that trying to turn would upset her aim—she waited for the rocks to fall. When the timing was right, she leaned onto her forehooves, arched her back, and brought her hind legs up. Then, a fraction of a second apart, she let her rear hooves exploded outwards, each connecting solidly with one of the rocks, sending them flying directly at the mass of surprised gray muscle and claws behind her.
From the nearby bush where he'd hidden, Runt watched as Apple Bloom bucked two rocks in impossibly quick succession directly at the gray bully. The rocks both connected, the first catching her opponent in the chest, but before he could even start to bend over from the impact, the second rock caught him directly in the forehead. Runt's jaw fell open in astonishment as the massive diamond dog's eyes went cross, and he fell limp to the ground, his rock candy falling from his paw and rolling to stop nearby.
For her part, Apple Bloom was actually more surprised than Runt was. Even in practice, she rarely got both rocks in the same buck, and her aim tended to be less than brilliant. Her plan had been to hit a couple blows to the chest just to surprise him, then sprint off and try to lay some sort of trap with more vines. The knockout head shot was pure luck, but she liked to think that just maybe, it was because she was doing the right thing in protecting her new friend. Of course, that didn't mean she couldn't pretend she'd planned it all along.
"Wow," Runt said, stepping out from the bushes as Apple Bloom was growing more plants to restrain the recently defeated. "H-how did you learn to d-d-do that?"
"Apple buckin'," Apple Bloom said, smiling as she finished entangling the second diamond dog. Satisfied both of the bullies were secure, she turned to Runt. "Are all yer denmates like these two?"
"M-mostly. These two are w-w-worse though."
As if on cue, the still conscious diamond dog growled, "We's going to gets you pony! We's not forget!"
Ignoring the outburst, Apple Bloom looked at Runt. "Is somethin' wrong with 'em? I mean, besides bein' a couple o' bullies?"
"W-what do you mean?"
"I... I'm not really sure how to explain. See, I can kinda sense the life in stuff. Part of what lets me grow plants like this. I can sense the life in other ponies, and creatures an' stuff, including these two. But the echoes I get off 'em are wrong somehow."
Runt shrugged. "I don't kn-kn-know."
Apple Bloom put a hoof against the head of the fallen diamond dog and closed her eyes in concentration. She could sense his lifeforce clearly now, pulsing slightly cooler now that he was unconscious, but it still had the off-color character she'd sensed earlier. Focusing now at close range, the "color" wasn't quite homogeneous like it seemed from a distance. Instead, she realized that there was something mixed in with the life she was sensing, polluting it almost like silt could be suspended in water, changing its color without ever actually becoming part of it. Once she identified the signature of the pollutant, she tried to isolate it in her senses. Immediately, she could sense another large mass of it in the other diamond dog, but after a moment, realized there were smaller sources nearby as well. She'd almost missed them because their signatures were not muddled in with lifeforce.
After she'd created the rock plinth as part of the fugue state that had saved Applejack and grown Rupert, Apple Bloom realized that her earth pony magic applied not just to life, but literal earth as well. She could sense, and in some very small ways, even manipulate rocks, stones, dirt, and similar things. It was much more difficult to use that part of her magic than the part that dealt with living things. Her working theory for that was that life—all life, animal and vegetable—was actually pretty darn magical to start with. But she'd been practicing with the mineral part of her abilities as well. Following the faint source, she moved to the side of the diamond dog and picked up the white, translucent crystal it had dropped. Yup, she thought as her hoof touched it. It was the same strange "color" in her magic senses as what she felt in the diamond dogs.
"What's this crystal stuff they were lickin'?" Apple Bloom asked Runt.
"That's ju-ju-just sweetrock," Runt said. "All the o-o-others say it tastes gr-great."
"All the diamond dogs eat this stuff?"
"Well, n-n-not me. Even as a p-p-pup didn't like it. It just t-t-tastes like dirt to me."
Apple Bloom looked at the crystal, and decided to give it a taste. She brushed off the dirt from one end, and gave it a tentative lick. The taste was almost sickeningly sweet, like pure sugar. She was hesitant to swallow any though, so she swished some extra saliva around in her mouth and spit, repeating that several times before turning back to Runt. "That's as sugary as all get out to me," she said. "Ya say that just tastes like dirt to ya?"
"Hey, you," Apple Bloom said, walking over to the conscious diamond dog and holding the sweetrock down where he could see it from his tangled position. "What's this stuff taste like?"
"Heh, why I answer if stupid pony not even know sweet rock taste sweet?"
Wow, Apple Bloom thought, these guys really are dumb.
"Wh-what are you a-a-asking for?" Runt said.
"I ain't quite sure, but like I said. Somethin' ain't right with these two, an' I think it might be connected to this sweetrock stuff."
A loud groan made both of them turn around. The large diamond dog was waking up.
"Uh oh," Apple Bloom said. "I think we might better skedaddle. I got a feelin' those weeds ain't gonna hold him fer too long."
Runt nodded in eager agreement.
"Are ya gonna be okay?" Apple Bloom asked.
"Y-yeah. I can k-k-keep out of sight for a f-f-few days. They've been m-mad at me before."
"Okay." Apple Bloom was reluctant to leave Runt at the mercy of the two huge bullies, but apparently he'd been dealing with them for quite a while already, so she just had to trust that he knew what he was doing. "Don't forget to come visit sometime."
"You, m-m-mean it?"
"Like I was sayin' afore these two showed up, friends are always welcome at the CMC."
Another loud groan sounded, and quickly turned into an angry growl.
"Okay, I'd better get a head start here!" Apple Bloom said. "Nice to meet you, Runt. Hope I see ya soon!"
"Y-you too, A-a-apple Bloom," Runt said, before turning and tunneling into the ground in a noisy whirlwind of claws and paws, leaving Apple Bloom with her turn to be shocked. She'd known diamond dogs could dig quickly, but Runt disappeared into the ground like it was water. She could only imagine how much faster the larger, stronger diamond dogs must be. She supposed that was why Runt had tried hiding instead of tunneling away when they first appeared.
The sound of snapping vines reminded her it was time to go. Tucking the sweetrock into a knot of ribbon on her mane, Apple Bloom galloped down the hill and toward Rupert.
Outside a tree that's also a library.
The next day.
Sweetie Belle looked up at the sign above the door. A board with the word "Royal" crudely painted on it had been tacked on in front of the elegantly carved "Ponyville Library." "What's up with that?" she said, pointing out the addition to Apple Bloom.
Apple Bloom could only shrug. The writing was bad enough it could have belonged to Scootaloo, but she couldn't imagine any reason why the young pegasus would have modified the sign here at the library.
Knocking at the door, Sweetie heard Twilight's voice. "Come in!"
The two fillies entered, and found Twilight relaxing on a cushion near the far window, reading a book. "Hi girls," she said, placing a bookmark before setting the novel down. "What brings you here?"
"What's the deal with the 'Royal' sign?" Apple Bloom said.
Twilight let out a nervous chuckle. "It's uh... Well, I blame Luna."
"Oh?" Sweetie said.
"I suppose it's a bit my own fault as well."
Sensing a juicy story, Apple Bloom pried. "Come on Twilight, you can tell us."
Rolling her eyes, Twilight sighed. "I guess you'll end up hearing it from somepony anyway."
Sweetie and Apple Bloom both put on their biggest fake smiles.
"Well," Twilight began. "A couple of nights ago, Luna was visiting, and we'd been up late talking. We may have had a few glasses of wine as well."
Sweetie raised an eyebrow.
"Anyway," Twilight continued. "I was complaining that some bureaucrat in the Office of Royal Decorum had been sending me letter after letter, insisting that, as a Princess, I must move to a royal residence, as required by an ancient law he'd discovered. Of course I don't want to leave Ponyville, and I'm quite happy at the library. I jokingly told Luna I should just slap the word 'Royal' on the sign to shut him up."
"Lemme guess," Apple Bloom said. "She didn't realize you were joking."
"Actually, she thought it was a hilarious joke. So hilarious, she insisted we do it immediately. Next thing I know, we've dug up an old scrap of board and some paint from the basement, and Luna is doing her best to paint with one eye closed."
"Why one eye?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Ummm..." Twilight hesitated, remembering her audience was too young to drink.
"Stops ya seein' double," Apple Bloom said.
"How do you know that?" Twilight said, suddenly concerned.
Apple Bloom laughed. "Don't worry, Twi, wasn't personal experience. But I do live on a farm where half our income's from cider sales, and even my own sister's named after booze. I've been around plenty a ponies when they're drinkin'."
Twilight relaxed a little.
"So anyway, why don't you just take the sign down?" Sweetie asked.
"And that's why I blame Luna," Twilight said. "After she finished with the paint, we went outside to put it up. I'll admit, even I thought it was a funny idea at the time. The problem is that in her inebriated state, Luna didn't just tack the sign up there. She affixed it with probably one of the most powerful binding spells I've ever seen. It would take me weeks to unweave it."
"Couldn't ya get Celestia to do it, or even Luna herself?" Apple Bloom said.
"That's the worst part. Apparently Luna didn't stop with a nearly-adamant binding spell. When she returned to the castle, she issued a royal decree about it before going to bed. It would now, technically, be treason to remove it. As for Celestia..." Twilight hung her head. "When I told her, she didn't stop laughing for nearly a full minute. When she recovered, she basically told me that's what I get for drinking with Luna, and that I should 'at least be glad that it didn't involve pudding.' On the plus side, I don't think I'll be hearing from the bureaucrats in Decorum for a while."
Sweetie and Apple Bloom smiled. They'd both gotten to spend some time with Luna when visiting the Caribou with the princesses last winter. Having only really known her from Nightmare Night and second-hoof reports through their sisters before, it'd been interesting to see the royal pony sisters as regular ponies. Luna had been surprisingly fun to be around, joking with Celestia and Twilight, as well as Gunnar and his wife. It was therefore easy to picture her doing exactly what Twilight had described, even if most other ponies in Equestria would be astonished that a royal could "misbehave" so easily.
"So what did you girls actually come here for?" Twilight asked. "Please tell me it wasn't because everypony is talking about the sign already."
"Naw," Apple Bloom said, pulling the sweetrock from her bow. "I actually wanted to ask ya about this."
Twilight took the rock in her magic and brought it closer for examination. "Where'd you get this?"
"A diamond dog, actually. Ya know what it is?"
"Not exactly, but I think I can find out pretty quickly." Twilight spread her wings, and flew up to one of the high bookshelves. Tilting her head to read the spines more easily, she quickly scanned the shelf before pulling a book and bringing it to the table and opening it. She set the sweetrock down, and flipped through a few pages. "Looks somewhat like calcite or halite," she said, and moved the crystal toward her mouth.
"Wait!" Apple Bloom said. "What're you doing?"
Twilight stopped. "The easiest way to tell calcite from halite is by taste."
"It's really sweet, like sugar."
"It should be either salty or relatively tasteless."
"Then I don't think it's one of those."
Twilight moved to taste the sample again. "No, don't!" Apple Bloom said.
"I... I think it might be poisonous or somethin'. Can you see if anything else matches?"
"Okay..." Twilight said, unsure, but trusting the filly to have a good reason to think so. "Let me see what else is in here." She flipped through more pages, trying to think what might be sweet, yet potentially toxic. Then she remembered a theory she'd heard about the demise of the ancient Roanen Empire, and flipped through to 'Pb.' There it was. Reading quickly, with rapid glances to the sample of "sweetrock," Twilight quickly confirmed the identification.
"Well?" Apple Bloom asked, when she saw Twilight finally look up from the book.
"Where did you say you got this again?"
"I got it off a diamond dog. Apparently they eat it like candy or somethin'." At this, Twilight's eyes went wide, her ears flat, with her jaw dropping as well.
"What? What is it?"
"Oh no," Sweetie Belle said, her own paw covering her mouth in shock now too. "Does that mean—"
Twilight interrupted in the only way her horrified mind could, by lecturing from the book. "Also known as 'lead sugar', lead acetate, like other lead compounds, is highly toxic, interfering with many biological tissues and systems, particularly the development of the nervous system. It is therefore especially dangerous to foals, with prolonged exposure often resulting in permanent learning disabilities, memory problems, aggressive behavioral disorders, and other neurological ailments."
All three ponies stood in silence as the implications set in. Apple Bloom finally spoke up, and filled Twilight in on the full story of what she'd heard from Runt.
"So if he's right," Apple Bloom said, concluding the story. "Then all the diamond dogs have been eating this 'sweetrock' since they were young."
Sweetie Belle had tears in her eyes. "They're literally feeding their children poison like it was candy," she said sniffling. "That's... that's horrible."
Twilight hung her her head, nodding. "It's horrible to contemplate, but it would explain so much about the diamond dogs. The various speech impediments, the aggressive behavior, even the ancient statues and ruins that seem way beyond their current level of technical and cultural sophistication."
"What about me?" Apple Bloom asked, somewhat afraid of the answer. "I licked it once, but I spit out most of it."
"Oh! No, no. You'll be fine." Twilight said. "That shouldn't be enough to do any real harm one time, but it is cumulative. Small doses can add up over time."
"Is there any way reverse the damage?" Sweetie asked.
"I'm afraid not," Twilight said. "Stopping the ingestion may help some of the physical symptoms like joint pain and stomach aches lessen, but much of the neurological damage is likely permanent."
"So you're saying they're beyond help for the most part?"
Twilight nodded solemnly, and all three ponies stood in silence.
"No!" Apple Bloom said, stamping a hoof with sudden determination a moment later. "We can still save the young ones."
"I take it back," Apple Bloom said. "We are going to save the young ones!" She looked at Twilight and Sweetie, daring them to disagree.
"But how, AB?" Sweetie said. "I don't think they're likely to just listen to pony advice about how to raise their pups, and we can't just take them from their parents either."
"We can if it comes to that," Apple Bloom said.
"Apple Bloom!" Twilight gasped. "That's not—"
"It is an option!" Apple Bloom insisted. "The last option, I'll grant ya, but don't ya dare tell me they'd be better off growin' up poisoned and brain damaged. But, I've got somethin' else to try first."
"Oh really?" Sweetie asked, looking questioningly at her friend. "And what's that?"
Apple Bloom grinned. "Come with me!"