The Advent of Applejack

by Mister Friendly

Chapter 8: Price of Power

She stood someplace familiar; on the edge of a grassy field that rolled out over lumpy hills, so much like the waves of the ocean frozen in place. Dappled patches of bright yellow wildflowers littered the slopes, bringing color even where the sun could not directly touch.

Not far in the distance – maybe just over the fourth hill from her – thatched roof cottages stood tall, resplendent underneath the midday sun, as if every surface had been polished to a mirror finish. She recognized some of them, even if they didn’t seem to be where they should’ve been. A round, bluish-purple building, like a carousel, what looked like a life-sized gingerbread house, a tree sporting windows and doors… Yes, she knew these places.

When she turned her head, she saw a familiar fence meandering away through the field, and just behind it, orderly rows upon rows of trees bearing great big, juicy red apples, bigger than she’d ever seen before.

Somewhere in the distance, towards the glittering village and the lustrous orchard, ponies were laughing. She knew those voices… they were familiar, but she couldn’t quite put her hoof on it, even though she knew she should know. She was not distressed, however. All she had to do was go and check for herself.

Picking herself up off of the smooth, cool grass, she started off in the direction of those voices.

Yet… the hills never seemed to change. The grass kept on coming, moving beneath her hooves, and yet the countryside in front of her stayed in the same place, unmoving.

Concerned, she sped up to a quick trot, frowning to herself.

The distance began to grow.

Inexplicably, impossibly, she found herself moving away from the field, from the inviting village, the gorgeous farm, the friendly voices. It was as if she was on a treadmill while the rest of the world moved past her like great sailing ships.

She broke into a gallop, but the ground only started to move faster, propelling her backwards faster and faster still.

Dark trees closed in all around her, like the ranks of some unspeakable advancing army passing her by. Her view of the plains soon disappeared behind ghastly hanging moss and twisted tree limbs.

The shadows grew deeper and deeper, until all she could see was a few scant feet all around her. Beyond that, the flurry of movement made it appear like the forest was crawling and squirming with unspeakable horrors.

Desperate and panicking, she started running as fast as she could, trying with all her might to return to the safe place, the bright and happy place, the place where she belonged most of all, but to no avail. Deeper and deeper in she was dragged, where the black heart of the forest awaited her.

“Let me go back,” she cried in terror. “Let me go back!”

All she got in response was a cold, heartless cackle from the brambles that swallowed her whole and dragged her, kicking and screaming, into the darkness below.


Applejack’s return to consciousness was not a sudden one, but that did not mean it wasn’t unpleasant. Instead of bolting upright with a gasp, she let out a groan as sluggishly her senses became sharper.

The first thing she assessed was that she felt terrible, not at all like she’d been sleeping. If anything, her return to consciousness left her feeling even more drained than before. Every bone in her body ached and creaked like she’d been lying in the same position for an eternity already.

And her head… her head rang with the most ferocious, most splitting headache she’d ever endured. It was as if somepony had pulled out her brain, raked it through a bramble patch a couple of times until it was covered in thorny burs, and then crammed it back into her skull. The pain alone made her instantly regret waking up.

But… why was she waking up?

Even through her pain and misery, the thought still coalesced in her mind. Why was she waking up? When had she fallen asleep?

She had to do it; she had to force open one eye and check her surroundings. Even though she only got her eye open a narrow, narrow slit, she still made out a couple of things about her surroundings.

Firstly, she discovered that she was lying on a bed, but… not her bed in her bedroom. The sheets smelled different, and were unusually light and silky smooth against her hide. The pillow underneath her head was mercifully soft, so soft that she sank up past her ears into its poofy depths. But even that snuggly soft cushion did not agree with her throbbing skull any more than sleeping on a brick might have.

Mercifully, the lights were dimmed, maybe even turned off completely. But she could still make out the space beyond her bed well enough, and the sight perplexed her.

For some reason, the walls appeared to be made from tightly packed roots, or branches of some kind. Some were thicker around than she was, while others were as thin as spider silk wadded up into the finer gaps and crevices.

Light was coming in from somewhere; diffused and weak, sort of like indirect light that emanated from… somewhere, but for the sake of her migraine, Applejack didn’t dare look for it. She only registered which side of the room it was coming from and turned her head away from it.

When she turned her head – thinking perhaps it might have been a shuttered window or something – she noticed that a doorframe seemed trapped within the tangle, as if it’d unfortunately been caught when whatever those roots were attached to had grown.

It was open just a crack, and though glaring orange light cut through that tiny crack like a laser beam, it only fell across her blanket-covered midriff, sparing her eyes from direct exposure.

Applejack restrained another groan, but she shut her eye again, tight. Nothing she’d seen answered her question. Why was she here? Where was here? Why the hay couldn’t she remember anything?

The last thing she recalled was hearing… somepony. Somepony important, somepony she’d been thinking about, desperate over… Somepony that’d called her name. And then… nothing. Darkness, nightmares… and pain. The forest, a voice cackling in her ears… pain…

What… what in tarnation happened to me…?

The silence of the bed chamber pressing down on her was the only response she got.

Applejack wanted to hurry up and go back to sleep, if only to get away from her throbbing headache. The pain of it…

A voice suddenly caught her attention, giving her pause. It was quiet, but not quite a whisper – low, and almost grim.

“Okay ladies,” it said – a stallion, by the sounds of him. She did not recognize the voice, and that worried her. But she remained quiet, ear perked up despite herself.

A scrabbling sound followed, rasping and scratching, like seats scraping on a wooden floor. Hooves as ponies stood up. Clopping and clambering as somepony moved closer.

“Well?” asked a mare this time, expectant – demanding even. Applejack knew that voice, knew it more than any other. blue… rainbow…

She couldn’t get her brain to function much better than that. Even trying to organize her thoughts was a herculean task, let alone formulate new ones. She just felt so weak…

“What’s happening to her?” asked a more collected voice. She knew that one, too. purple… books…

The stallion made a noise, like a word that failed him at the last second, then he tried again. “I… don’t know what to tell you. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before,” he said. “Well… not like this. A magical spike of this magnitude is just…”

“Wait… like a unicorn magical surge?” the purple voice said again, only now she sounded surprised, worried. “But she’s practically fully grown. Why would she be getting them now?

“I don’t know,” the stallion responded, though his voice sounded strained. “And the fact that she has as much power as ten ponies, at least, didn’t help the situation. Luna’s mane, it’s a miracle she didn’t blow her own head off, or hurt anypony around her for that matter.”

A chilled silence filled the room neighboring Applejack’s. She could practically feel the tension rolling off of it. It lasted so long that Applejack started to wonder who they were talking about, her thoughts slow to take shape in her head. Considering it hurt to think at all, making that much progress was something of a miracle in itself.

“Do…,” spoke up the first mare, the blue-and-rainbow-voiced one. “Do you think it’ll happen… again?” She sounded choked, as if just asking it took something out of her.

The stallion didn’t respond right away. It seemed almost like he didn’t want to. Then, after another reluctant noise, he said, “… I… don’t see why it wouldn’t. Whatever is causing her magic to fluctuate so wildly, it seems like her body is what’s producing it, yet that body of hers can barely handle it at all. At least, that’s my theory as to what’s going on. Whatever this is, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I’ve been working for the princesses for half my life already. Believe me, I’ve seen some exotic ailments in my time, but this… this is something I’ve never seen before.”

“Your theory?” shot the blue-and-rainbow-voice again. Rainbow… “You’re a doctor! Can’t you come up with something –”

“Rainbow, keep your voice down,” hissed the purple voice urgently. “She’s still resting.”

Something clicked in Applejack’s mind, but she still couldn’t coordinate her mental faculties enough to make sense of it. Are… are they talkin’ about…

A silent pause. Nothing moved in the other room, and neither did Applejack. It seemed to her like the group in the other room was listening for something, maybe from her. But she stayed quiet.

After a moment, the conversation picked up again.

“Can’t you think of something more sciencey,” Rainbow snapped, but her voice was at least in the low hissing range now. “We need answers, not guesses, and we need them right now. If… if that does happen again, what are we supposed to do? Huh? W-What if she, she really does… her head…”


It was hard for Applejack to make out who said that, but she was more preoccupied by the sheer levels of distress in Rainbow’s voice. For some reason, she was possessed by the strangest urge to rise, find the distraught pegasus and make everything alright…

But she could barely turn her head, much less heft herself up and walk.

The stallion’s voice answered after a pause. “Young lady, I specialize in ponies, not changelings. I can only draw parallels to what I do know. If the changelings had a more developed medical practice, I might be able to tell you more, but as it is, we’re practically pioneering new territory here. And based on my findings, I believe it’s reasonable to think that if her magic were to spike like that again, well… it may do more than knock her out next time.”

Silence, heavy and deafening followed.

“Is… is there something we can do?” A new voice this time… critters…pink and yellow…

This time, it wasn’t the stallion who responded. It was Rainbow.

“Yes, there is. Come on, girls; we gotta talk to Agave.”

Agave…? Applejack wondered? Why… Agave…?

Her senses were dulling again. What strength she’d managed to reawaken was fading again. Fading… into nothingness again.


Applejack awoke to the sound of light tapping. This time, she was not greeted by a pounding headache or aching body; just tapping. tip-tip-tippity-tap

She tried to ignore it; she was still drowsy, more unwilling to relinquish sleep than it was to relinquish her. Just… a few more minutes.

Something touched her bed then.

Applejack stiffened. She felt the reverberation run through the mattress – light, faint, but there. tip-tip-tippity-tap…

The sound was coming from the end of her bed. Something was tapping softly but restlessly against the wooden frame, relentless, unceasing.


Louder now, as if demanding her attention.


Applejack didn’t want to look, for fear of what she might see, but with the sound getting louder and louder, more and more agitated by the second, she had to.

Slowly, reluctantly, she cracked open one eye, and cast her gaze to the end of the bed.

Towards the towering, inky black darkness that stood there, one boney, ragged appendage poking her bedframe savagely, demandingly, as a pair of malevolent eyes stared hungrily back at her through a mat of filthy, oily hair, maw full of cracked and stained fangs pulled up into a terrifying, rictus leer.

Rise and shine, dear Applejack. There is so much left to do, and so little time to enjoy it in.


Applejack sat bolt upright in bed in a cold sweat, hooves raised, ready to fight the dark beast that’d invaded her bedroom.

Nothing. A dark bedroom; the frame of her bed, a dresser in the corner to her right, a nightstand, a vanity mirror, a recliner to her left with a blanket draped across it… Nothing…

Applejack slumped in her bed, all of the air flushing from her lungs in one big exhale. Just another nightmare. Landsakes, it sure felt like the real deal…

She shuddered fitfully. The room felt suddenly freezing. For a moment she feared she’d awoken into another nightmare, if not rather foolishly. When she realized the chill came from the cold sweat she was drenched in, she settled down somewhat.

Her headache had dulled into a muted roar at least, and the aches had devolved into stiffness. Still, she reached up to her forehead, hissing, to place one hoof on it.

A cracking sound, a gush of fire… darkness…

Applejack froze, hoof an inch from her face.

Something tugged at the back of her mind – a memory, shrouded in darkness and inconsistency. Something had happened to her. Rainbow, staring at her in shock… then… wrongness. It was unexplainable beyond that. Whatever had happened, it’d felt… wrong.

Thoughts whirled through her head, agitating her headache. Twilight, Rainbow, Fluttershy, and that stallion fella… Ah bet they were talkin’ about… about me. But then, that would mean… Ugh, Ah don’t know!

Frustration at her enfeebled state lanced through her, found no purchase, and burned away to disgruntlement instead.

She couldn’t get her brain to work. Not that it often helped her to think; most of the times, thinking only made things worse. She wasn’t like Twilight; working things out in her head wasn’t one of her strong suits. Her brain just didn’t work like that. What did work, however, was finding answers the good old fashioned way; by going to somepony who knew them.

Even with legs that felt only slightly lighter than lead pipes, Applejack swung herself onto the edge of the bed, then took a second to collect herself. She took a deep breath, then…


She flinched, her spine crawling. The sound again…

It didn’t relent, and Applejack was able to quickly trace it to the other wall behind her. This time, though, she wasn’t going to cower.

Applejack jumped free of the bed, whirled around, ready to defend herself, and was confronted by…

A pair of olive-colored drapes, through which only a dull grey light filtered. Through the narrow gap near the base, Applejack saw the frame of a window set into the root walls of her room – a window that was streaked with rivulets of water.

Rain. It was just the rain.

The sound, it seemed, was coming from water dribbling from someplace higher – a tree, perhaps – and striking the sill with big, fat droplets. Not a monster of inky darkness.

Applejack sighed, the tension rolling out of her body and replacing it with a whole new sense of exhaustion.

Jumpin’ at shadows and dreams now, huh AJ? C’mon, y’all are better than that…

The tired changeling shook her head, then turned and headed for the door before she lost any more of her dignity. She had to find answers to what was going on. She had to…

So much to do… so little time to enjoy it in…

She shivered, this time for reasons unrelated to the sweat clinging to her skin. First, perhaps a hot, relaxing shower was in her future.

Applejack made for the door, more than ready to be gone from that dark, unsettling place, when to her surprise, the door clicked open ahead of her.

Still almost five feet away, the door swung inward, letting the light of the hallway beyond gush in.

And there, in the doorway, stood Rainbow.

It was hard to tell who was more surprised in that moment; Applejack or Dash. Both froze midstride, stiffening at the sight of the other.

Rainbow was no longer wearing the changeling armor she’d been given. She was once more unadorned, except for the book she had tucked under one of her wings and a Wonderbolts water bottle tucked under the other. To look at her, one would think she was about to settle in for a long haul of reading, confusing Applejack more than it perhaps should’ve.

They both stayed motionless for a few seconds – long enough for Rainbow’s book to hit the floor with a thud.

“A-Applejack?” she finally got out.

Her voice was what broke the spell. All of a sudden, Applejack found Rainbow right in her face, nearly making her stagger backwards.

“Oh my gosh, Applejack!” Rainbow cried out, “You’re up! Oh my gosh, how are you feeling?”

Applejack blinked slowly at her. She didn’t yet have it in her to keep up with the rambunctious mare, but she was getting there. “Ah… Ah’ve been better,” she mumbled.

She then glanced behind Rainbow, expecting to see more faces leaning around the doorframe to look at her as well. But the hallway beyond was vacant; at least, from what she could see, which was basically just a stretch of wooden wall paneling, a hanging basket of flowers, and nothing else.

“…Where is everypony?” Applejack asked blearily. “Is… is everypony alright? Did Ah…”

A sense of panic stung at her, rising up out of nowhere. Suddenly, her inability to think clearly and precisely made her feel congested, stifled. “Did Ah… hurt somepony? Is everypony…?”

Her voice evaporated when she felt a strong pair of hooves take her by the shoulders. “Whoa, whoa, calm down,” Rainbow said. She may have even tried to make it sound soothing, but ‘soothing’ was not a tone of voice the pegasus got much mileage out of.

“Everypony’s fine. They’re fine, I promise. Hay, they’re more worried about you, you know.”

The sense of panic started to ebb. The warm hooves – strong and bracing – seemed to leech it out of her, like a warm blanket on a winter night.

Without a word, Rainbow began pushing Applejack back to the bed, and she complied without speaking, either. She allowed herself to be guided back and took a seat on the edge. But she knew her time as an invalid was over, even if she had to force herself to buck up.

“Ya didn’t answer my question, sugarcube,” Applejack grunted as soon as she’d gotten off her hooves.

Rainbow took a seat next to her, yet for some reason she didn’t meet Applejack’s searching gaze. “Yeah, well… some stuff happened while you were out. Everypony kinda… left.”

Applejack’s eyes’ widened. “Left? When? Where?”

Rainbow scrutinized her friend’s face, as if trying to judge whether she was really up for this conversation.

“You know AJ… you look terrible,” she commented. “Are you sure you’re feeling better?”

“Focus, RD. What happened?”

Rainbow winced, her lame attempt to change the subject thwarted. “It’s really not that serious. Really!” she repeated, seeing the look on Applejack’s face. “Look, Twilight just went to Canterlot with the princesses to do egghead stuff, and Rarity and Fluttershy only left for the Crystal Empire, like, two hours ago with Cadance and Shining Armor to go check on something while Pinkie’s doing her best to keep the rest of the changelings entertained while you’re resting. See? Nothing major, right?”

Applejack crooked a disbelieving eyebrow at her friend. “Rainbow, what part of that doesn’t sound major?”

Dash hesitated, then gave her biggest, winningest smile. “All of it?” she said hopefully.

The deadpan look she got in response was all the answer she needed.

“Y’all are the most lousy salespony Ah have ever met,” Applejack grunted bluntly, “and Ah’ve met two of the worst.”

Finally, Rainbow’s expression arranged itself into a more appropriate scowl. “Oh come on, Applejack, I just don’t want you to worry. A-After what you’ve been through…” she paused, shook her head quickly, then started again. “You’ve barely woken up. Why do you want to sweat the small stuff already? Just take it easy for little bit.”

Applejack sighed, looking away. She was quiet for a long time while she stared into space, expression blank. ‘Taking it easy’ was the furthest thing from her mind at the moment. On the inside, she was restless, too restless to even think about relaxing. She had to move, do something, get something done. She needed too many answers to just lie back down and wait for the shadow monster to come back to haunt her.

When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “How long was Ah out?”

Rainbow fidgeted uncomfortably, then responded, her voice just as low.

“Since… since yesterday.”

Applejack stiffened in surprise. A day? A full day? She could’ve sworn it’d only been a matter of hours at the most.

A full day… that was a long time for something to happen. Now she was even less inclined to spend another second in that small room.

For the second time that morning, she reached up towards her forehead, and this time, she actually touched it.

Smooth, leathery chitin met her touch… along with a network of noticeable ridges.

Without a word, Applejack hopped down from the bed. Her heart was thumping hard in her chest, pounding and fluttering fitfully.

Aware of Rainbow ghosting her the whole way, she stepped closer towards the vanity mirror in the corner, and moved in front of it.

Rainbow had not been exaggerating; she looked terrible. Her mane was stuck to her neck and shoulders by sweat, swirls of amber hair caked to her chitin all over the place. Her braid had come undone; either by worried hooves or the force of the explosion, Applejack would never know.

Her face was pale, ashen even, making her black face look almost milky, sickly. She looked almost gaunt, like she’d lost weight in the span of a night.

And across her horn and forehead, the cracks remained. It was as if a portion of her face had petrified before it was fractured by a cruel blow. When she reached up and touched it, the rough edges of the cracks didn’t feel like skin at all, but like stone – hard and unyielding… and unusually cold. Nothing under her hoof felt like it belonged to her anymore, like it wasn’t even a part of her. It felt like her whole forehead had simply… died.

Applejack gulped, prodding the cracked and ruined chitin, hoping for some sort of sensation. Nothing… only the faintest sense of pressure, nothing more.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Rainbow’s reflection as she watched Applejack in the mirror, and right then, it was hard to tell who looked worse.

Her heart was thumping even harder than before, punching her in the ribs again and again.

This… this is wrong. It… it ain’t supposed ta be like this, she thought.

Every time she’d molted before, it’d happened all at once, even without warning. And when it’d happened, it’d felt… wonderful. Like being freed from undersized clothes she’d been wearing for days on end. Like… like being released from a plaster cast or a hospital bed and being free to hop, skip and play to her heart’s content. It’d been freeing, liberating in the most awesome sense of the word.

But this… the sensation she’d felt the day before… it was anything but freeing. It was a primal, awful sense of wrongness, of… of… she simply didn’t have the words. It wasn’t pain, it wasn’t fear. It was simply… wrongness, like every bad feeling rolled up into one nasty, sickening wad and blended together until there was no distinction between them.

Applejack gulped again, licking her lips, her eyes fixed on her cracked and ruined horn. She couldn’t see what lay beneath it through the thin cracks, but… for some reason… she desperately wished she’d never find out what did.

Something compelled her to change then. Be it fear, anxiety, or any number of reasons, the sight of her splintered chitin was almost unhealthy for her to look at, like doing so was slowly but surely putting her in shock.

The emerald flames wrapped around her body, catching Rainbow by surprise and momentarily dying the whole bedchamber a bright, vivid shade of green.

When it was gone, and Applejack’s eyes had readjusted to the gloom, she found herself staring once again at an orange earth pony – albeit one who looked, as Rainbow had put it, terrible. At least she didn’t have to worry about being sweaty anymore.

But her eyes did not leave her fuzzy forehead. The broken and scarred chitin wasn’t there anymore, true… but it was in her mind. And to her horror, the numbness was not so imaginary.


She turned then – maybe a little too quickly – from the mirror to look at Rainbow.

Rainbow was looking back at her, and Applejack felt that both of their haunted, anxious expressions were mirrors of each other.

“Rainbow… what’s happenin’ ta me?” she breathed, her voice quivering. “What… what am Ah turnin’ into?”

She was scared; scared and fully unable to dismiss it as irrelevant. In the face of this unknown, even her strong heart quavered.

An outside source she could deal with; an aggressor, a task, something she could get her hooves around. But if the aggressor was herself… what was she supposed to do? How was she supposed to overcome this?

For a moment, it seemed like not even Rainbow – strong, dependable Rainbow – would have an answer to be Applejack’s saving grace.

Then, her expression hardened, her eyes flashing. “Applejack, follow me; there’s somepony you really need to talk to.”


Of all the places in the changeling district, there was one rarely glimpsed by pony eyes. It was not blatantly hidden or disguised, either; it was simply a place of seemingly little import, positioned on the other side of the already wondrous and captivating sights of the district. Most ponies simply never made it that far. It bore no signs, no official or grand markings, nor was it placed in any particularly notable location.

Yet, it was anything but insignificant.

Five blocks from the main square, tucked along the slope of a shallow hill on the very edge of the district, amidst a quartet magically grown weeping willows the size of cathedrals, stood perhaps the only structure in the district that had been built, not cultivated. It’s wooden walls were unpainted oak, plain and ordinary without embellishment or flourish. Yet, it could hardly be called a standard building by a pony’s standards.

The longhouse at its base had been built around the unusually large willows, with further structures snaking their way over and even through the trees themselves higher up, like the world’s grandest tree house.

The ground levels were tucked up into a recess in the ground, with the willow’s roots growing over the actual structure itself like the talons of some bird of prey perching on its roost. Balconies and walkways wound around the willows’ broad trunks and across its boughs, the architecture perfectly designed to mesh as seamlessly with its living foundation as possible yet virtually hidden behind the hanging curtains of willow branches.

A single curved terrace hung out over the longhouse’s front from halfway up the sprawling tree, giving a commanding – but discrete – view of most of the changeling district and a good portion of the woodlands beyond through the long cascades of hanging branches and leafs.

Baskets of hanging flowers – some as big around as wine barrels – hung off of branches, eaves, sturdy poles; whatever could bear their weight, filling the air both inside and out with the mild scent of wildflowers. Where they could not be hung, they were simply set on the floor in planters, so that the coverage was consistent and orderly.

The moment Applejack stepped onto the landing and stepped out onto the terrace, she almost kicked herself for not recognizing where she was. Celestia knew she’d spent enough time there in recent months, even oversaw it’s construction once she was able to get all four legs under herself again.

If the changelings in Equestria had a seat of power, the Vivarium was it. Of course, it was no castle or palace, or anything of the sort; if anything, it was more like a headquarters than any of those other things. It was clean and elegant, but hardly regal, and never dull.

Changelings were always bustling about the Vivarium, regardless of where one was. Even by the district’s activity levels, the Vivarium was constantly abuzz, like the heart of an ant colony. Be it drones bringing news from other parts of Equestria, or coordinating more local efforts – the list went on, probably well beyond what Applejack knew of.

When Applejack emerged from the passageway that’d been carved straight into one of the willow’s trunks and into the open air on the terrace, however, she discovered a new kind of presence, one she was somewhat unprepared for.

Right at the mouth, she encountered a dual set of changelings, both standing in familiar, stoic positions, both clad in sweeping brown cloaks. Neither was armed, but when one came bearing such sharp fangs and pointed horns, something to preoccupy their hooves wasn’t entirely necessary.

Guards… there was a guard detail waiting outside of where she’d been resting. They didn’t react to her presence, never turned to look anywhere else other than straight ahead with somber, icy stares. But just two steps beyond them and they fell into step behind Applejack and Rainbow Dash without comment.

Applejack glanced at them, then turned to Rainbow questioningly. The pegasus merely shrugged, looking like she wanted to say more, but restrained herself.

As they progressed through the Vivarium, Applejack saw more guards positioned strategically at every entryway. As she and Rainbow made their way across the terrace, the branches rustled overhead, giving away two more perched amongst the brush, icy eyes unblinking and watchful.

Applejack followed their gaze, wondering if maybe they’d seen something out over the trees. But besides a light drizzle and cool wind, she didn’t find much of note; trees, an undeveloped valley that ran the periphery of the changeling district, and hills covered in a dark, brooding forest. Besides the cascades of willow branches swaying in the breeze, nothing else caught her eye.

The rain confused her, though. She was sheltered enough by the gigantic tree’s boughs that none of the drops landed on her, but the presence of rain was as unexpected as the guards. As far as she knew, they weren’t due for a shower for at least another week or so, and that was something she kept on top of for the orchards’ sake.

She glanced up at it curiously, then towards Rainbow. To her surprise, Dash was watching her. As soon as Applejack turned her amber eyes onto her, Rainbow shrugged.

“Uh, some ponies thought you might like some cooler weather,” she said in an offhand kind of way. “Might make you feel better than, you know, sweltering heat, or… something.”

Applejack, however, was unconvinced. She raised an eyebrow, which caused Rainbow to suddenly take a keen interest in the overhanging baskets of flowers. “Some ponies?”

“Yep,” Rainbow grunted. “Some. Some who might have been just a little worried. And some who might owe their moms, like, five years’ worth of favors, you know, so try to be a little grateful. For their sakes, I mean. It wasn’t easy getting an unscheduled rainstorm approved.”

Applejacks brow reached the apex of its range and didn’t come down. “Uh-huh…”

Rainbow was quiet for a moment, then glanced sheepishly in the weary faux earth pony’s direction. “Bad salespony?”

“Bad salespony.”

She chuckled. “Eh heh… well, okay, maybe I had a little something to do with it. Aaand I may have enslaved myself to mom until the day Celestia bites it, but you know… details.”

Something crossed Applejack’s lips then – a sound she didn’t expect. She actually chuckled back.

Rainbow heard it, unfortunately. She stood up a little straighter, her slight smile turning into a cockier grin. “So, all I have to do is knock off Celestia, and I’m off the hook! See, no big deal. It’s fool-proof!”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Landsakes, yer the hardest workin’ lazy pony Ah have ever met.”

“Yeah,” Rainbow said wistfully. “It’s great.”

Applejack couldn’t help it; she laughed. Just like she did every time she was in a dark place and Rainbow was around. It was raining drearily outside, but it sure felt like the warm sun was on her. In that moment, she didn’t mind the guards trailing after them, or the numbness on her forehead, or the stiffness in her legs. Such was the power of the cyan pegasus’ company.

A shoulder bumped into hers, drawing her attention back to Rainbow. She smiled, a more heartfelt smile this time – not one full of bravado or pride, but one that came for a more well-meaning place.

“I’m glad you’re alright, bug-brain,” Rainbow said. “Just… don’t scared m-us so much, okay?”

Applejack smiled back – actually found it in her to smile. Then, after leaning to one side to bump her companion back, she said, “Ah will of y’all will, sugarcube.”

Rainbow’s expression warmed. “Deal.”


As she expected, the interior of the Vivarium was packed with activity. Even the courtyard they passed was buzzing with energetic changelings – more than Applejack was accustomed to seeing. The frenetic volume of drones coming and going could be heard long before the source was seen; changelings holding serious conversations without a laugh to be heard or a smile to be seen. There was a constant flow coming in and going out, a conga line going in both directions.

Even during the Summer Sun Celebration preparations, the Vivarium had not been nearly as pack as it was, or boiling with such barely contained energy.

Fortunately, she and Rainbow followed along an upper walkway, where few eyes were trained. Only the guards watched them pass, and none broke their silent vigils to point her out, thankfully.

Applejack’s mood was improved, but not back to normal. At the moment, she didn’t see how she would be able to deal with another onslaught of worried changelings. At least, not before she got some answers. A part of her wanted to stop and see what was going on, but if so much as one drone spotted her, she could probably kiss her morning goodbye.

She hadn’t asked where they were going, but she also noticed that Rainbow wasn’t wandering. They were going somewhere, somewhere specific. She would just have to trust her friend to know where she was going. After all, if there was a pony alive who knew the place as well as she did, it was Rainbow.

The interior of the Vivarium was cool, well ventilated, and smelled of flowers. The second floor was dimly lit, however; vines laden with glowing bulbs adorned the walls, but they seemed scrawny and stunted, producing only a candle flame’s worth of light each.

The second floor was, after all, a more somber place. Business here wasn’t so hyperactive, and more often than not, concerned more than just the interests of changelings alone. Drones were not out in the hallways, but instead sequestered inside offices and meeting rooms, their voices dull background murmurs without distinct direction.

The only times Applejack had visited, it hadn’t been to shoot the breeze. The fact that they were sticking up there and not going to a lower floor only added more concern to a building list inside of Applejack.

Rainbow abruptly hung a right, passing through an archway that carved its way through a massive side of a trunk flanked by pots of bright red flowers; namely, two great big, well-manicured rose bushes. It was about then that Applejack realized where she was going.

Roseluck, however, wasn’t always in her office. The duality of her life made it so, just as much as Applejack’s did. True she was one of the most important and busy changelings around, but she spent just as much time – if not more – at the flower shop with her sisters. Roseluck, like Applejack, was only ever there when she needed to be.

Rainbow didn’t seem to be bothered however, and after crossing the short recess, bumped open the door like she knew it’d be unlocked all along.

Sure enough, Rose was there, sitting behind a desk.

Even so many months after getting it, she looked out of place in such an official station. She’d tried to spruce up the place with the many, many varieties of flowers her shop produced; virtually every piece of furniture had a pot or a vase budding with some colorful flower or other.

Filing cabinets had bouquets of lilies, her desk was covered in potted daisies, a table along the back wall was lined with pictures of familiar faces, knickknacks with meaning only to Roseluck, all underneath a wreath of flowers wide enough for Big Macintosh to jump through.

But despite her best efforts, it couldn’t quite diminish the air of official power the place had, or how much it contrasted against her simple appearance. Just looking at her office gave the correct impression; that there was a mild-mannered shop owner sitting in a presidential suite.

She’d been glancing over some paperwork with a cursory scan, reading by the light of a brass lamp, when she heard the door open.

Rose looked tired, almost as tired as Applejack felt. Her disguised pony form’s mane was ruffled and unkempt from long hours of leaning her head on one hoof or the other. There were bags under her eyes that hadn’t been there before, and even with three mugs of coffee scattered about her desk in front of her, she looked on the verge of passing out.

When she saw Rainbow push into the room, her features arranged themselves into a friendly – if not weary – smile. When she saw Applejack, she about had a heart attack.

Her jaw fell open, abandoning her initial greeting. Her eyes shot open just as wide. It lasted a moment – maybe a testament to how exhausted she was – before she leapt from her chair and shot forward.

“Oh Maker, Applejack! You’re awake! How are you feeling?” she asked in rapid succession. Without waiting for a response, she added, “You really should be resting. You barely look like you can stand!”

“No more than you,” Applejack said with a soft smile. “When was the last time ya slept, Rose?”

Roseluck just waved her question away. “Oh dear, don’t worry about me. I’ve been through worse. One all-nighter never hurt me before.”

While Applejack seriously questioned how many all-nighters a small-town florist would have to pull, she let it drop.

She did notice, however, how Roseluck’s eyes kept glancing to her forehead, where her cracked horn should’ve been. All she saw was orange fur and blonde bangs, of course, but the tightness of her eyes made it seem like she could see straight through the disguise altogether.

Having Rainbow look at her with worry had been one thing. Having another changeling give her an identical, equally anxious look… it was somehow even more disquieting.

“Applejack, I really do think you should rest,” Roseluck persisted. “You’re barely on your hooves again, and after what you’ve been through… you need to conserve your strength, at least until you’ve recovered a little more.”

“Ah can’t just lie around while everypony else is off doin’ Celestia knows what, especially if Ah’m the reason for it,” Applejack countered without force. “Ah don’t even know what the hay is going on.”

She wanted to add something about the shadow monster – how she really didn’t want to go back to that room, to close her eyes… But it was foalish; stupid and foalish. She was a grown mare, one who wouldn’t believe in nightmares.

What surprised her was when Rose didn’t back down. “And you’ll be less than helpful if you exhaust yourself and collapse again,” she argued.

Applejack had not been expecting so much resistance from the usually subordinate changeling. Did she really look that bad?

“Look, Rose,” Applejack said, “Ah know somethin’ is up. Ah need ta know what happened ta me.”

Roseluck bit her lip. The welfare of her queen’s health and a desire to help warred almost visibly in her eyes, her expression becoming conflicted. But her reluctance only had the opposite of its desired effect; it made Applejack even more concerned. To see Roseluck so reluctant to grant her request… something squirmed inside of Applejack, something she didn’t like; something ominous.

But she couldn’t just back off, not now. She had to know if there were answers, and she had to know them if there were. She had to make sense of all of this, before the wrongness came back again…

She took a step closer, regaining Rose’s attention. “Both of us know that this ain’t how changelin’s shed,” she pointed out firmly. “If it happened like it was supposed to, Ah’d be over it already and there’d be no reason ta fuss. Somethin’s wrong, and Ah need ta know how ta fix it. Please, Rose… Ah need ta know what’s goin’ on with me.”

Roseluck’s expression grew heavy, and she sighed. She didn’t even seem to register the fact that Applejack – her queen – had just said ‘please’ to her. And yet that may have actually been the only reason she relented in her reluctance.

Rose slumped, looking somehow even more tired than ever before. She fell quiet as she gazed off to one side – at a potted plant in the place of honor at her desk, one with bright red, clustered flowers.

“Sometimes,” she muttered quietly, “I don’t like being reminded which parts of her you take after the most…”

She glanced up, towards Applejack and away from the small, potted carnation plant. “No one could ever talk sense into her, either,” she said with a sigh. “Not when she made up her mind. But… I suppose we wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t true.”

Roseluck’s eyes pinched shut, as if she were pained. When she didn’t immediately speak up again, Applejack made to say something.

However, Rainbow beat her to the punch.

“Come on, Rose,” she said, a slight edge of impatience in her voice, “let’s just let her talk to Agave. She won’t wear herself out from talking, and Applejack will get what she wants. It’s a win-win.”

Roseluck’s eyes flashed open, an edge to her stare now. “It’s not the talking part I’m worried about,” she said testily.

Her temper took Applejack by surprise, as it did Rainbow. She must have been a lot more tired than they’d deduced. That had to be it… right?

Again, Roseluck’s eyes pinched shut. This time, she rubbed her eyes as well. When she spoke next, her voice wasn’t as hard; in fact, it seemed so tired, so slow, it was almost as if she was speaking in her sleep.

“I… know I can’t stop you one way or the other,” she mumbled. “But… you can’t blame me for trying, Rainbow… can you? You know what she’ll learn… and you know what it’ll do to her. All I want is to protect my queen for as long as possible. That’s all.”

Applejack glanced over her shoulder towards her friend, who did not meet her eye.

“Yeah. And I know what keeping her out of the loop will do, too,” Rainbow countered. “Rose, I only came here to let you know AJ’s awake. I’m not here to ask your permission. One way or another, this is happening, but I’d much rather have you on board, too.”

Roseluck sighed again, this time, in defeat. “Yes, I know. I just wanted her to be a little better prepared, that’s all.”

“Can y’all not talk like Ah ain’t right here,” Applejack objected, then glanced towards Roseluck. “If it’s such a problem, why don’t the two of ya try ta break it to me softly?”

But Roseluck shook her head. “No. You really should hear it from Agave. Just… promise me one thing, Applejack.”

“What’s that?”

“That… you won’t push yourself too hard. I shouldn’t need to remind you that you’re all we have left.”

Applejack paused, caught off guard by the gloom in Roseluck’s voice. Then, she nodded. “Ah do, Rose. Ah know it more than anypony.”

But the look she got in return seemed to question that statement. In the end, Roseluck kept her mouth shut, however.

She sighed again, then slid out of her chair, stretched her weary hooves a little bit, then rounded her desk to approach the equally tired-looking queen.

As she approached, her expression flickered, the corners of her mouth twitching up slightly. “It’s… good to see you recovering, Applejack,” she said sincerely. “It really is. The rest will be overjoyed to know you’re alright. Please, follow me; Agave’s been waiting to speak to you, too.”


Applejack followed Roseluck even deeper into the Vivarium, back where there were no windows. With her leading the way and Rainbow following alongside her friend and two guards shadowing their every step, Applejack couldn’t help but feel like a captive being transferred to a new prison. It was irrational, but the feeling in the air was an unsettlingly somber one.

As they walked down a gently spiraling staircase built into a willow trunk, Applejack let her mind turn away from the grim convoy she’d become a part of and allowed her thoughts to wander where they may.

They didn’t wander far, however.

Agave… What was so special about little Agave? First she’d tried to warn her – not once, but twice – then everypony was so eager to speak to her… She didn’t understand it.

How she could be related to her problems, Applejack didn’t know, but she got the feeling she wouldn’t like it regardless.

Down they went, down one flight of stairs, then another. Down passed the first floor landing, and into the basement.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really a ‘basement’. Instead of finding herself emerging into a stuffy room, she found herself confronted by a hollow in the earth at the base of one of the mighty willow trees. Its roots made a de facto roof and walls, and yet it was still high enough that Applejack never felt the need to duck her head.

The space hadn’t been dug out at all – if anything, it appeared like the weeping willow tree above them had grown partially into a gaping crevice. It would certainly explain the massive boulders flanking the walls and the fine, loose gravel under their hooves.

More vines of light bulbs hung from the roots like ivy, bringing soft, inviting light to the dark, damp interior.

As the group approached, Applejack spotted a feature that rather perplexed her.

The rooms earthen floor bowled slightly near the middle, just enough that Applejack could just discern the slope with her eyes, but it wasn’t distinct enough for her to actually feel it. At the very center of the room, directly under an imitation chandelier of twisted roots and light bulb vines, there was a stone circle nearly twelve feet across. Strangely, it seemed to be filled with a shallow pool of crystal clear water, hardly deeper than a puddle.

And at the edge of that pool sat Agave.

The blue-maned pegasus had her back to them, and seemed to have her head turned down, as if staring into the pool. Yet Applejack could see her ears turned back in their direction; she knew she wasn’t alone.

Not that that changed much for her. The further along Applejack went, the more she made out changelings in the dark corners of the room – hooded changelings, all on guard, all watching carefully, silently.

To one side of the stone ring, there as a simple bed tucked up under the cover of more roots; a small mattress covered with blankets and pillows. a stack of books stood to one side, along with large sheets of paper covered in scattered crayons left wherever they may be.

And on the bed itself was one of the strangest stuffed animals Applejack had ever seen. If she had to guess, it might’ve been an absurdly cute rendition of a manticore, perhaps one of the most un-cute creatures Applejack had ever had the displeasure of running across in the flesh. Whoever could look at such a beast and envision a foal’s toy would need to be very twisted indeed.

Roseluck paused all of a sudden, just beyond the clearing in the roots in which the stone pool – and Agave – sat, where the roots didn’t go. She stepped to one side, her expression determinedly posed as mute, and without a word, let Applejack step past her.

Applejack turned to give Rainbow a weird look, which earned her a grimace in return.

With that less-than encouraging sign, Applejack took a breath, steadied herself, then stepped out into the brighter light encircling the stone pool, Rainbow close on her heels.

She’d only barely taken two steps in when Agave twitched, then looked around curiously.

The moment she saw Applejack, a huge, beaming smile brightened her face. It was so big that Applejack pulled up short, rather taken aback.

“Applejack! You’re awake!” Agave cheered, turned, and bounded towards her eagerly.

This had not been the reaction Applejack had been expecting. The way her day had been going, she’d been anticipating more grim faces, more gloomy words, not the excited fervor of the growing filly.

“Uh, yeah. Just woke up, actually,” Applejack commented, sounding rather numb and tactless even to herself.

Agave nodded, still smiling. “You look like it, hehe.”

She giggled. She’d actually giggled. And she’d made fun of her? As if this day wasn’t strange enough…

“Well, now that you’re awake, we can get to work!” Agave added.

“Get ta work?” Applejack repeated dumbly. “Get ta work on what, exactly?”

Agave just smiled. “Saving Equestria, of course.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Agave… Ah thought we were gonna talk about what’s goin’ on with me.”

“We are,” Agave responded with a quick nod.

“And… both those things… are related?” Applejack asked, carefully neutral.

The little pegasus hesitated, her eyes still on Applejack. Then she glanced to Rainbow, then back to Applejack, and comprehension dawned in her eyes. Finally, her smile shrank, her big eyes looking like they could see straight through the fake earth pony’s tired façade.

“Yeah, they are. Uh… Did Rainbow not tell you anything? I kinda thought she would.”

Applejack resisted the urge to turn to shoot her friend a look, instead keeping her attention on Agave. “She wanted me ta talk ta you first. Agave… what's this all about?”

Agave bit her lip. Now she looked troubled, even nervous. “W-well, I thought Rainbow would tell you, then you showing up here meant that you weren’t mad at me, and… uh…”

Applejack just looked at Agave, fighting back her scrutinizing scowl. It made her too aware of her unfeeling forehead.

Agave, meanwhile, composed herself, becoming much more subdued. “Um… well if you wouldn’t mind, Applejack, could I… um, could you show me what happened?”

Applejack could feel Rainbow’s and Roseluck’s eyes on the side and back of her head then. She suddenly felt particularly aware of the presence of so many guards, all eyes aimed in her general direction, not to mention Agave’s keen attention. She hesitated, misgivings slowing her down.

“Please?” asked Agave, taking a step closer tentatively.

“Why?” Applejack asked, narrowing her eyes questioningly at the little filly.

Agave shuffled, looking around for a second before returning towards the bigger changeling again. “Well… I might be able to tell how much time we have left. I promise to be quick.”

Still, Applejack hesitated. Part of it was that she still didn’t know how Agave fit into the grand scheme of things. Seeing the security measures around the room only exasperated her misgivings further.

Secondly, she simply didn’t feel comfortable revealing the damage her own body had inflicted upon itself. It felt… exposing, like admitting some very personal weakness. And Applejack did not make a habit of wearing her weaknesses where they could be easily seen.

“It’s okay, AJ,” spoke up Rainbow unexpectedly. Applejack turned her head to find Rainbow, one corner of her mouth crooked up in a supportive grin. Being a proud mare herself, though, it wasn’t like she couldn’t empathize with matters of pride. “We’ve all talked to her already. Trust me; she’s here to help.”

Whether Agave was there to help or not was not the issue, though. Of course, knowing that did help, but it didn’t change Applejack’s opinion on the situation a whole lot.

But… which did she want more? To preserve her pride? Or to figure out what was happening to her? When she phrased it like that to herself, the answer seemed kind of obvious.

Looking resigned, she allowed the plume of emerald fire to engulf her bodily, burning away her guise in a flash and leaving her tarnished changeling form exposed for all to see.

Applejack kept her attention on Agave, for fear of picking up on reactions for those around her. Thankfully, the room had simply gone quiet – almost stiflingly so.

Agave didn’t gasp, or turn pale, or react in any way like that. A glimpse of something did cross her eyes, but to Applejack’s surprise, she fought it down in quick order. For such a young pony, she was awfully tactful.

The little pegasus carefully approached, walking right up to Applejack before craning her neck to get a better look. Applejack lowered her head slightly, far enough so that the young pony wouldn’t have to struggle to see whatever it was she was looking for. She would much rather be done with this whole thing as soon as possible.

Agave stared unblinkingly, her eyes scanning over the cracked and ruined chitin. Then, to Applejack’s complete surprise, she picked herself up on her hind legs – just high enough to raise one hoof and lightly touch Applejack’s forehead.

Nothing. No sensation of her little hoof poking or prodding or whatever it was doing. If Applejack wasn’t witnessing it herself, she’d never have known that Agave was touching her.

After a few moments, Agave politely backed up, looking thoughtful.

“Well?” Applejack asked, unable to contain herself.

Agave continued to think, looking down. She didn’t even seem to have heard her. “It’s not as bad as I thought,” she mumbled to herself, thinking aloud. “Which means… Yes, it means there’s a few days left.”

“Before what?” Applejack asked. She was starting to get impatient; so far, she’d only accumulated more confusion than she’d banished, and it was starting to wear on her.

Agave continued backing up, one slow step at a time, until she’d reached where she’d been sitting before. The whole way, she looked like she was trying to decide how best to answer Applejack’s question. But Applejack herself could tell, just by looking at Agave’s nervous demeanor, that she wasn’t going to like what came out of her mouth, regardless of how much thought she put into it.

“Before you go through what all queens go through,” she said. She sat down again, watching Applejack carefully. “The final step in actually becoming a queen; a third molt.”

Applejack blinked. Again, the amount of questions was only rising… “Ah don’t get it,” she said honestly. “Don’t all changelin’s shed three times?”

Agave shook her head. “No. Only queens do. That’s why no one really noticed your symptoms earlier, or recognized them at all. I don’t even know all about it; I just… heard about it.”

Applejack raised her eyebrow. “Ya heard about it? From where?”

This, however, seemed to make Agave even more nervous. She shrank even more, gauging Applejack’s every move as if expecting her to explode with rage upon her next word.

“From… the Royal Court.”

Now both of Applejack’s eyebrows were up, going from skeptical to surprised in only four words. Her heart thudded in her chest, and suddenly, the filly had her undivided attention.

The next one to speak, however, wasn’t either of them.

“Maybe you should show her, Agave,” said Rainbow as she stepped up beside Applejack.

Something ran through the room then, something Applejack noticed. Fabric rustled restlessly as a small platoon of guards straightened up, shifted, and refocused their gazes on what was happening. It was like a sigh running through the room, quiet as a ghost, and just as eerie. None of the guards stepped forward, but she could practically feel their attention coming to rest on the center of the underground hollow with her.

Agave bit her lip, looking even more apprehensive than ever before. She looked as if she very much wanted to object, her eyes constantly flicking towards Applejack worriedly.

Then, she looked towards Rainbow, who nodded back with a small smile. Applejack witnessed this whole exchange, and it only perplexed her further.

Agave waffled for a brief moment more, then she stood up with a look of resignation. “Al… Alright. I… suppose it is for the best,” she said, and a moment later, she shapeshifted.

Applejack was only confused for a fraction of a second, as long as it took for the emerald flames to blow away Agave’s silver-grey fur coat and replace it with a black chitin.

But her mane didn’t disintegrate into a short, frayed scruff of dark grey hair. Her eyes didn’t become luminescent blue balls of light in her head. The carapace on her back did not turn dark midnight blue.

Even as Applejack stared at Agave’s undisguised form, it took her a while to process what she was seeing – and that it wasn’t the visage of a drone.

Mulberry, double-ringed eyes watched her with an almost panicky edge from behind a precisely trimmed, perfectly straight mane of sapphire blue. None of these things belonged to a drone, Applejack knew that. Which only meant one thing…

When the realization hit her, Applejack’s nostrils flared in alarm. She flinched back a step, as if Agave’s transformation had been a lot more violent and shocking than it’d actually been.

“Y-yer a…,” Applejack started to say. She felt like the world had just flipped on its head, throwing her for a loop and possibly bashing her own head in the process. She blinked hard, thinking maybe she was hallucinating – a bad dream that had actually followed her into the waking world.

But Agave stayed where she’d been, legs held so tightly together she looked like she was trying to collapse in on herself like a folding chair. Her now transparent wings didn’t flutter at all, and in fact clung to her blue carapace as if she were hugging herself. She watched Appeljack’s every move, and judging by the look in her strange eyes, everything was happening that she’d feared would happen.

Applejack opened her mouth to say something – something she hadn’t fully processed yet – when out of nowhere, Rainbow was standing in front of her.

“Hang on, AJ,” she said quickly after practically throwing herself in between the two of them, “I know what it looks like, but she’s here to help, I swear!”

Now Applejack turned to scrutinize Rainbow, questioning her with her eyes alone… for now.

“I know she’s a queen, but that’s why she knows these things,” Rainbow went on quickly, recognizing Applejack’s look. That was the same look she always got when one of her stunts ended up leaving collateral damage, damage Applejack and her brother would have to fix. If she didn’t explain herself – and fast – it always led to a lecture and an angry apple farmer.

“See, queens keep a lot of things from the rest of the hive,” Rainbow said as fast as she could, almost so fast that she stumbled over her own words. “Like, a lot of things. You don’t even know…”

“Rainbow,” Applejack warned, her lips starting to purse.

“Okay, okay, just hear me out, AJ,” Rainbow implored. “Look, Agave’s already explained herself to Twilight and the others, the princesses, Shining Armor, Roseluck and the others, and we all believe she’s telling the truth. Do I look like I’m lying about this, AJ?”

But Applejack looked unconvinced. “Then why is she bein’ kept prisoner down here?” she asked pointedly.

The reaction she got was not the one she’d been expecting. Rainbow gave her a weird look like she’d just said something ludicrous. “What? No, no, she’s not being kept prisoner at all! All of this –” she gestured around “– is to keep her safe from the Royal Court… mostly.”

Rainbow tried to downplay that last word as saying it as softly as possible. But of course, Applejack locked onto it for the simple reason that she’d said it so strangely.


Rainbow grimaced. “Well, you see… when I was, um… captured yesterday…”


Rainbow had only gotten part way through her recount of what had happened the day prior before Applejack sat down hard. She ground her hooves against her temples, her eyes screwed shut – but even that didn’t hide the look of pure irritation that she wore.

“Hold it right there, sugarcube,” She said sharply. “Ya mean ta tell me that there was a queen in Ponyville yesterday?”

“U-uh, yeah, kinda,” Rainbow said carefully. Not carefully enough.

Applejack’s eyes flashed open, real anger in them now. “And did y’all do anythin’ about it? What are we supposed to do with a queen runnin’ around Equestria loose as a fox in a chicken coop? A queen who, Ah might add, don’t care much for me?”

“One,” Rainbow countered, her own temper flaring to her defense, “I was a little preoccupied with finding you and making sure you were alright. Two, we did do something about it after we put our heads together.”

And?” Applejack shot.

“And she was already long gone,” Rainbow admitted. “It’s the weirdest thing, actually. All of Ponyville was locked up tight, but –”

“Rainbow, we need ta find this Queen Aconita,” Applejack snapped. “If she’s free ta do whatever she wants…”

“That’s… that not what Mommy will do,” piped up a small voice.

Applejack turned, rounding on Agave. Yet, she wasn’t where she’d been before.

Agave had retreated back to her bed beneath the shelter of the willow roots. She sat on the edge of the mattress, clutching her absurd teddy manticore to her chest. The doll was so big that it obscured most of her behind it, not counting the holey hooves hugging its midriff and one side of her head, which stuck out around the doll’s fuzzy wool mane.

“Mommy won’t do anything major without her hive,” she said. “She’s really careful; she wouldn’t do something that risky by herself.”

Agave looked down, hiding her face behind her mane and stuffed manticore and giving it a tight squeeze. “She… wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for me. If I hadn’t decided to come… Mommy wouldn’t have, either.”

She sighed. “The Court only attacked because I came to help. If I’d stayed home, none of this would’ve happened.”

Applejack looked Agave over, but said nothing. On the inside, however, she found herself in a rather difficult position. She was trying to stay on guard, especially around an unfamiliar queen; everything Agave said, she had to try to take with a grain of salt. And yet… it wasn’t anywhere near that easy to do.

“The Court had a plan, you see,” Agave went on, oblivious to Applejack’s troubled expression. “There was a reason why they weren’t active for all this time, and… it involved what you’re going through now.”

She peaked back around her stuffed animal, fixing Applejack with a meek stare. “I heard them talking about it. Mommy always locks me in my room when the others come, but… I snuck out.”

Agave suddenly looked panicked, as if expecting reprimand for admitting to as much. “I-I didn’t mean to overhear them talking. I just got so bored waiting, and decided to go exploring.”

When no one spoke up, she looked back down and gave her teddy a snuggle. “Mommy doesn’t let me explore. She keeps me in the royal quarters all the time and never lets me out. Sometimes, when she’s not around, I go exploring. This time… I heard the other queens talking about… Um, about you, Applejack.”

Applejack didn’t even blink. She couldn’t say that that was a revelation; she already knew – or at least suspected for a very long time – that she had the changeling court’s full attention. So far, this wasn’t news, but she decided to let Agave keep going and kept her silence.

Agave noticed, because she paused, probably expecting Applejack to say something, then continued on when she didn’t. “There was a reason why they hadn’t made a move until yesterday,” she went on. “They were waiting for you to shed, because when you did… they said you’d be just like them. They wouldn’t have to raise a hoof to conquer Equestria… because you’d do it for them.”

A cold chill ran down Applejack’s spine. Again, the memory of that wrongness plagued her, making her heart thud anxiously in her chest. “Why would they think that?” Applejack asked.

She could feel Rainbow turning to look at her, to scrutinize her. Clearly, that had not been the reaction her friend had been expecting. Perhaps she’d expected a vehement denial, or plain disregard for Agave’s words. But she hadn’t felt what Applejack had felt, nor had she experienced what she’d experienced.

Agave looked at her, too, but she didn’t question Applejack’s oddly easy acceptance of her words. “I didn’t know at the time… but then I snuck into Mommy’s library,” she said. “I’m not supposed to read the bigger books until I’m older… but I did anyway. And… and I found out, when a queen sheds for the third and final time, they… they lose something deep inside of them so that they can have power over all changelings.”

Applejack’s skin crawled now, her gut twisting tightly. Agave was looking straight at her when she finished.

“We… we lose our hearts, Applejack,” she said in a small voice. “Our own magic burns it away when we grow up. We stop caring and feeling, and become… like the rest. That is what the Court is counting on happening to you; when you shed, all of your friends, your family… they will mean nothing to you. And the bright future you dreamed of will die.”

Applejack stood in place, but on the inside, she felt like she’d just been punched so hard in the gut she’d been sent flying end over end. The whole time, her chest pounded hard, throbbing fearfully as if the object inside suddenly realized how short its days had become.

“N-no,” Applejack heard herself gag. Then, again, in a louder voice, “No, that can’t be right. It ain’t right. How can that be true and Ah never heard of it before?”

Agave gave Applejack a sympathetic look. “Because the only one who could tell you… isn’t here anymore,” she said quietly. “She hasn’t been for a very long time.”

Applejack felt like she was choking. She breathed in, but it felt like little to no air actually filled her lungs.

Fear, cold, icy, cutting fear filled her heart. She wanted to deny Agave’s words, to call them into question. It should’ve been easy; all she had was words and no actual evidence to back it up.

The memory of the wrongness, however…

Applejack suddenly felt like the butt of some unfathomably cruel joke, one that the entire Royal Court had been laughing at for the past several months. She hadn’t been defying them at all; she’d merely been their unwitting Trojan horse.

But what could she do? What was there to do? It felt like Applejack had just been informed that she’d come down with some incurable disease, and now she only had mere days left to live. Days… a matter of hours… before it all came undone.

Somepony had a hold of her shoulders and was shaking her slightly, calling her name. Applejack turned, and found herself confronted by a pair of worried magenta eyes.

“Come on, Applejack, snap out of it,” cried Rainbow. “Don’t panic already! We’re not out of options yet, you know!”

Applejack just blinked at her. How could she say that? Things were already in motion like an avalanche; unstoppable. This wasn’t some sickness or curse; this was her own body simply maturing – and turning her into Equestria’s next great adversary as a consequence.

But like a drowning rat, she clung to the hope Rainbow cast out for her to hang onto. It wasn’t a matter of whether she believed Rainbow or not; it as simply a matter of survival.

“R-right,” Applejack croaked shakily. She struggled to compose herself, but it was a lost cause. The best she could do was take a deep, deep breath and stop herself from shaking.

Roseluck had been right; she should’ve prepared better. She should’ve rested more. In her current state, Applejack felt like she was on the verge of passing out again.

Rainbow was still looking straight at her, holding Applejack’s gaze. The changeling stared back, desperate for those eyes to show her some ray of hope – something to keep her insides from shattering.

“We’re not out of this fight yet,” Rainbow promised, a fiery tone in her voice. “Not as long as I have anything to say about it. I promise, Applejack, I’m going to do everything I can to keep you just the way you are. I won’t let you turn into one of… of them. And with Agave’s help, we may have a chance.”

Applejack blinked. “We… we do?”

As quickly as it’d gone out, hope rekindled in her chest. Yes… there was always a chance. She wasn’t turning into a heartless monster that very moment, was she? No, she still had strength left. And now – now she had the will to fight back – against fate, against whatever other opponent got in her way. She was not a selfish pony by default, but the need to survive was a potent incentive indeed.

“Right… right, we do,” Applejack said, and she was proud to hear her voice steadying. “All ain’t lost just yet…”

“Exactly,” Rainbow said with a nod.

“But what are we supposed to do?” Applejack asked. “Ah doubt there’s a magic spell that’ll just make everythin’ better.”

“Well…,” cut in Agave, “maybe there is… or, something like that, maybe.”

Applejack looked around towards her. To her surprise, she found Agave much closer than before, no longer clutching her manticore teddy, caught in the open halfway towards Applejack, as if she’d been coming to comfort her, too.

“What do ya mean?” Applejack asked critically. Now she knew for sure – every word counted.

“Well,” Agave said, tilting her head one way while looking at Applejack, “there was one queen who didn’t lose her heart. Your mom.”

Applejack jolted in surprise. Of course! How had that slipped her mind? Her mother had been nothing like any of the other queens she’d met or heard of; kind, loving, willing to sacrifice her own life for the good of others. She had been everything Applejack wished she could be to the changelings in Equestria.

“Queen Carnation was the only queen to ever overcome her heartlessness,” Agave said. “And she did it after she came to Equestria, she must have. Whatever she did, there must be a record of it somewhere in your old hive.”

But at that, Applejack paused. “Ya mean Freedom?” she asked carefully.

Agave nodded. “Queens keep all sorts of stuff hidden in their hives,” she said eagerly. “Back home, Mommy has all sorts of secret rooms and stuff where she kept everything her mommy and great mommy and great-great mommy kept. All we have to do is find out where Queen Carnation kept her secrets and we’re bound to find out what she did!”

Agave was starting to look excited again, a small smile growing on her face. Applejack, however, did not look so eager.

She glanced towards Rainbow, who shared her look. “Uh, Agave,” Rainbow cut in, “We’ve kinda mentioned the problem with that, right?”

Agave looked down, deflating somewhat. “Y-yeah, you and Twilight did,” she said.

“If Carnation had secrets,” Rainbow said, “how are we supposed to find where they were hidden if only she knew where they’d be? There weren’t any drones close enough to her to be given that kind of info, not if it was meant for AJ only.”

For the first time since the encounter began, Roseluck made her presence known by speaking, her voice making Applejack jump a little. “I’ve been getting in touch with every changeling from the original hive,” she said. “But most of us hardly ever spoke to her, let alone knew her on a personal level. And whenever we’ve gone back to Freedom to see what we could salvage, we’ve never come across anything like a secret chamber or hidden cache, and some of us have been at it for years.”

That was certainly discouraging to hear, but Applejack wasn’t willing to slip into despair yet. She couldn’t allow herself to, not after feeling its terrible grip already.

“So, why did Twi’ and the others take off?” Applejack asked. “Ah mean, for real.”

“Technically,” Rainbow put it, trying not to sound miffed, “I wasn’t lying, you know. Twilight went with the princesses to see if they could uncover anything about the magic behind your transformation, or maybe dig up some info on what Carnation was up to while she was here.”

“Princess Cadance asked Rarity and Fluttershy to help her go through some of the archives at the Crystal Empire, as well,” Roseluck added. “It’s a longshot, but she seemed convinced that there might be something there worth looking into.”

“So then,” Rainbow said confidently, “That means all we have to do is find Carnation’s secret. It’s got to be in Freedom somewhere, it’s just got to be.”

“But we’ve already turned it upside down,” Roseluck pointed out, looking doubtful. “If it is there, there’s no conventional way to find it. And the only one Queen Carnation would’ve entrusted that information to would’ve been her family. Mainly, Applejack herself, once she was old enough.”

She had a point, even Rainbow had to admit. If the secret to Carnation’s success was still in Freedom, it would need to be exceptionally well hidden; perhaps magically so, and they were running out of time.

And yet…

Something Roseluck had said caught Applejack’s attention, perking up one of her ears. Her family…

Could it be…?

“Ah think…,” Applejack started, talking slowly as the idea formed in her head. By the time she spoke again, everyone was looking at her curiously. “Ah reckon Ah know who would’ve known,” she said.

Roseluck and Rainbow looked between each other, taken by surprise. Even Agave blinked in astonishment.

“Really?” Roseluck said.

“Who?” Rainbow asked, eager to know.

But Applejack was not grinning. She did not look even half as excited as the changelings and pegasus in front of her. She now looked glum for a whole new reason.

“Ah think,” she said slowly, “it’s about time we visited Hyacinth’s place.”