“First order a’ business of th’ Cutie Mark Crusaders:” Apple Bloom barked out over the podium − really just an empty apple bucket turned upside-down − to the Unicorn and Pegasus fillies facing her, “Ev’rypony else in our class has gotten their cutie marks ahead of us. That means we gotta stick t’gether! We gotta work it out ourselves how t’ git our cutie marks! An’ we’re gonna git our cutie marks, or die tryin’!” On that ominous note, she perked up as she brightly finished, “Any questions?”
Sweetie Belle put up a hoof, her fetlocks as curly as her mane.
“Yes, Sweetie Belle?”
Sweetie put down her hoof, “Can’t we just ask adults about how they got their cutie marks?”
“No can do, Sweetie Belle,” Apple Bloom shook her head, her big pink bow bouncing slightly. “Ah asked Big Mac how t’ git yer cutie mark, an’ he said that it’s sumthin’ thatcha gotta figger out fer yerself.”
Scootaloo stuck out her tongue and made a retching noise, “I got the same thing from Fluttershy one time.” Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom gave her odd looks, and she shrugged, “Rainbow Dash was staying over her house for some reason. Some sorta sleepover, I think. But anyway, Fluttershy told me that ‘getting a cutie mark is about finding out who you really are’.” She put on a breathy falsetto in imitation of the meek yellow Pegasus. In an instant, she dropped out of it and finished, “That’s boring. A cutie mark really comes out from action! I’m sure of it! Rainbow Dash had to of gotten her cutie mark through some really sweet moves!”
“Ah’ll bet Applejack got her cutie mark bah buckin’ all the apples in Sweet Apple Acres in one day!” Apple Bloom cried gleefully.
“Or Rarity put every gem on Harmonia onto the best dress ever for Queen Celestia!” squeaked Sweetie Belle.
“Or maybe… maybe Rainbow Dash did the Sonic Rainboom!” Scootaloo’s two compatriot Crusaders gave her baffled looks. She arched a cerise eyebrow. “What? Every Pegasus knows the… Ohh. Right.” She chuckled nervously.
“The ‘Sonic Rainboom’?” Apple Bloom echoed.
“What’s the Sonic Rainboom?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“I’m not entirely sure myself,” Scootaloo began, “but it’s supposed to be what happens when a really awesome Pegasus gets going really fast! So fast, that no other Pegasus has ever flown that fast, except one:” She smirked broadly. “General Firefly of the Wonderbolts! The fastest flyer who’s ever lived! …Except Rainbow Dash, of course.”
“That sounds awesome!” cried Sweetie Belle, her voice cracking. “Maybe we can get our cutie marks in being the first non-Pegasus ponies to make a Sonic Rainboom!”
“But how would we get t’ goin’ that fast?” Apple Bloom wondered out loud. “We’d need some kinda catapult contraption t’ get goin’ that fast…”
“I’m liking this idea!” Scootaloo said with a grin. “Maybe we can take along a lasso so that we can grab the Sun and pull it back over Equestria!”
Sweetie Belle leapt joyously into the air. “That’s sound so cool! Our big sisters’ll be so proud!”
“Ah know! Then Applejack cin come back home an’ not have ta take such a big ol’ journey across the entire world!”
“What are we waiting for? The Sun to rise?” Scootaloo said, darting towards the clubhouse door. “Let’s go!”
“Alright!” Apple Bloom called out. “But first, let’s do that cheer thang we were talkin’ ‘bout.”
“Cheer thing?” Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle asked.
“Y’all know… the whole ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders something-er-other’ thang.”
Each of the three put a forehoof in the air, each bellowing to the rafters,
“CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS SONIC RAINBOOMER SUN-BRINGER-BACKERS! YAY!”
The day after Twilight Sparkle had left Ponyville for Canterlot with five Ponyville mares, a letter had been dropped off at both Sweetie Belle’s home and at Sweet Apple Acres, each addressed to the young filly living at each house. It was an invitation to meet somewhere private in Ponyville (a private table at Sugarcube Corner) to discuss the formation of some sort of club. Upon arriving at the bakery and sweets shop, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle spotted a very familiar Pegasus filly.
Over a rich salt-lick sundae, the three fillies each agreed that they would team up together to brainstorm ideas to get their cutie marks. Alternatively, they also agreed that they would work together to show stuck-up snobs like Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon that not having a cutie mark did not make them second-class ponies.
“I mean,” Scootaloo had said, “I’m sure Rainbow Dash was still super-awesome even before she got her cutie mark!”
Though Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle thought nothing more on this comment the rest of the day, they came to agree that Scootaloo needed an intervention after she spent more time pining after Rainbow Dash than actually brainstorming about how to get a cutie mark.
Then the ursa major came on down.
Then it turned out to be a magical illusion by a delusional stage performer.
Then a real ursa minor appeared, drawing the attention of its all-too-real mother.
Then Twilight gave the bear-titan-sow back her cub, and it left Ponyville alone.
Then Twilight and the others left again, but not before Scootaloo received a more substantial farewell from Rainbow Dash.
The next time that Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle saw Scootaloo, the Pegasus filly was far better rested, but her cerise mane was still as wild as ever.
But before any orders of business for the newly formed Cutie Mark Crusaders could commence, they would need a meeting place a little more discrete than Sugarcube Corner. After several days of searching fruitlessly around Ponyville, they eventually came to an old clubhouse in a tree at the edge of a grove at the northern border of Sweet Apple Acres.
“Big Mac said that it used ta be where he an’ his friends hung out,” Apple Bloom told Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo down the overgrown path leading out from the barn. “Says he built it with help from Ma ‘n’ Pa when he was just a colt. So it should be right sturdy stuff.”
“Is that it?” asked Sweetie Belle as she pointed ahead.
The two other Crusaders looked where she had pointed…
“Somepony needs ta put that thang outta its misery,” Apple Bloom drawled.
The clubhouse had not taken the test of time kindly. The roof was collapsing in parts, and the windows were busted in. The front door hung off of one hinge.
“Rarity wouldn’t come at this thing with a ten-and-a-half-furlong pole,” Sweetie Belle commented. “But it’s just a fixer-upper.”
“Yeah. Ah cin see that. It just needs a bit a’ TLC.”
“As in Tender Loving Care, or Totally Lost Cause?”
Despite Scootaloo’s quibbling, the Crusaders set to work on restoring the old clubhouse to workable conditions. For the first week, the fillies plugged away at trying to fix it up with direction from Apple Bloom. Even with the farmer filly’s guiding hoof, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo would inadvertently botch the areas they would be working on, setting the reconstruction back at least a day. When asked for more direct guidance, Apple Bloom refused on the grounds that she would only make it worse.
“B’sides, who’d want a cutie mark in rebuildin’ rundown ol’ clubhouses? Ah mean, there can’ be a big ol’ market fer that, can there?”
Apple Bloom did acquiesce to asking Big McIntosh for assistance and guidance in restoring the clubhouse, however. The three fillies − Earth Pony, Unicorn and Pegasus − worked together with Big Mac’s taciturn instructions to tear out rotting slats of wood and refit in fresh planks, to carefully replace the windows and window frames, to sand down the floor and to disinfect the clubhouse of any ill sorts of creatures that would now call it home. Last was the repainting: pale rosy pink, with a burgundy roof.
It took a good two weeks more to fully restore the clubhouse, but it was done by the ‘monthiversary’ (as Sweetie Belle called it) of their big sisters leaving to go save the day. With Big Mac’s permission and oversight, they were allowed to indulge in a special brew of the Apple family’s cider: a dram of hard cider had been added for each gill of fresh cider, to help calm the body and nerves.
“Well,” Apple Bloom had said as she planted her empty mug on the smoothed-out wooden floor of the clubhouse, wiping away the bubbly froth around her lips, “Ah think that this is a clubhouse we cin call a meetin’ place.”
Sweetie Belle had nodded with a smile, “It’s got plenty of space for brainstorming.”
“And it’s got a telescope, so we can see if anypony’s coming before they can see us,” Scootaloo beamed.
“So… all in favor?” asked Apple Bloom.
All three fillies had put a forehoof in the air, grinning brightly at each other. They lowered their hooves after a moment.
“All out of favor?”
None of the three put a hoof into the air, only glancing awkwardly back and forth at each other.
“Is that even what ‘out of favor’ means?” Sweetie Belle had asked.
“Who cares?” Scootaloo replied. “We’re all set to start our first order of business!”
At which point Apple Bloom turned over an empty bucket of apples, and began her spiel…
Collecting parts for an impromptu catapult proved to be surprisingly difficult for a trio of frolicsome fillies on a farm brimming with old parts of outdated farm equipment. The grown-ups of Sweet Apple Acres − in other words, everypony but Apple Bloom − had taken care to hide anything “dangerous” from Apple Bloom, in the event that she got a little too curious.
“Can’ rightly say Ah see th’ sense in this, child,” Granny Smith said feebly when Apple Bloom asked her in the living room, the elderly mare’s hearing trumpet propped on the lampstand by her rocking chair. “When Ah was yer age, Ah wasn’ so worried about mah cutie mark as Ah was about tendin’ to mah Pappy’s farm out by Fillydelphia.”
“But Granny…!” Apple Bloom implored. “Ev’rypony else in mah class ‘cept fer me, Sweetie Belle an’ Scootaloo has their cutie mark already! An’ Ah don’ know how long Applejack an’ her friends’ll be out savin’ the world, but Ah really need ta git mah cutie mark before they come back frum their big adventure!”
Granny Smith scratched behind her ear. “Ah unnerstand yer impatience, Apple Bloom, an’ Ah git thatcher wantin’ ta help yer big sister out. But all good things come in time, an’ a cutie mark’s somethin’ that takes its time. What is it that yer good at?”
“Ah don’ know…”
“But that’s why we want to build a catapult!” Scootaloo cut in. “So we can see if our cutie marks are in catapulting ourselves and pulling the Sun back into place with a lasso!”
The three fillies beamed hopefully at the Apple family matriarch, who rubbed her chin in thought.
“Hmm…” murmured Granny Smith. “Ah don’ think that’s how cutie marks work. A cutie mark is when ya realize what it is that yer good at, an’ what it is that ya really like doin’. Big McIntosh tells me that y’all put a real good bit a work inta that rickedy ol’ clubhouse. Maybe one a y’all’s good at buildin’ things!”
“But that’s boring!” Sweetie Belle whined. “We wanna get fun cutie marks, not cutie marks about things like building or…” She ground a hoof ruefully against the floor planks. “…or singing…”
Apple Bloom and Scootaloo gaped at Sweetie Belle. “You can sing?” Scootaloo asked in astonishment.
Sweetie Belle’s ears fell back, “I don’t like singing in front of ponies…”
Scootaloo groaned, “When did you turn into Fluttershy on us? Let’s hear you―!”
“Simmer down there, young’un,” interjected Granny Smith, a knowing smile on her face. “Give ‘er some time.”
Scootaloo sat down on her haunches, crossing her forehooves on the ground.
After five seconds she looked at Sweetie Belle again.
“Can you sing for us now?”
“No!” squealed Sweetie Belle, blushing red and covering her face with her forehooves. “I don’t like to sing in front of ponies!”
Granny Smith let out a raspy groan, “She needs more time th’n that.”
“How much time, Granny Smith?” Apple Bloom asked her grandmother.
“As much time as she needs.”
Scootaloo threw her forelegs in the air in frustration, her tiny little wings beating furiously, “That’s it! We’re not getting any closer to our cutie marks just sitting around in Apple Bloom’s living room! Let’s go ask her big brother!”
They found Big McIntosh out in the western orchard, inspecting which apple trees had grown to ripeness. Though Twilight Sparkle’s new sun kept the trees from dying of freezing or sun-starvation, the development cycle of so many plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables had been impeded by the encroaching night. As such, Big Mac took it upon himself to inspect the groves of trees punctually, with the help of whatever willing Ponyvillager he could contact readily − usually his close friend Caramel, who was an Apple in all but name and blood. As it was, though, he always had a moment to set aside for his littlest sister, even moments after he’d finished savoring the newly reconstructed clubhouse of his youth.
As it turned out, she did not take kindly to his answer in regards to her question of him letting her get some catapult parts.
“But Big Mac…!” she begged, her ears and even her bow sagging as she pawed at one of his giant hooves with her own.
“‘Nope’ is ‘nope’, Apple Bloom,” Big Mac reiterated. “Ya can’ force a cutie mark to appear the way y’all’re goin’ about it.”
“But you’ve only gotten your cutie mark the way you got your cutie mark!” Sweetie Belle shouted.
The stallion and two other fillies beside her gave her questioning looks. “Huh?”
“Uhh… What I think I’m trying to say is…” Sweetie Belle continued awkwardly, tracing a circle in the cold earth with a tiny cloven hoof. “Well… You only got your cutie mark story. Other ponies must of got theirs in all sorts of other crazy ways.”
“She’s right!” Scootaloo piped in. “Everypony gets their cutie marks doing something really special! And what’s more special than launching ourselves with a catapult we built ourselves, lassoing the Sun, and swinging it back around the world?”
“Th’ Sun ain’t somethin’ anypony could lasso,” Big Mac explained patiently. “It’s over a gigagross miles wide, an’ almost a gross-a’-gigagross miles away. There jus’ ain’ any way that any three fillies could build a catapult strong enough to throw ‘em that far. An’ if that weren’ enough, th’ Sun’s burnin’ hotter th’n the heart a’ Tartarus. Any rope or filly’d fry before they got within a furlong.”
Scootaloo moaned, “We didn’t come here for an astronomy lesson, Big Mac! We came here to get catapult parts! Right, Apple Bloom?”
But Apple Bloom wasn’t listening. She was staring off back into the east, over the Everfree Forest.
“Apple Bloom? Are you listening to me?” Scootaloo shouted.
Apple Bloom continued to gape out towards the horizon, slowly pointing a hoof out to the place where the Sun ordinarily rose.
“The Sun’s risin’…”
She was right. The sky was brightening from black to deep-purple to royal-blue to pink to orange, and at the very edge, right where the sky met the earth, a sliver of bright golden light pierced the night. A blast of warmth struck the faces of all four ponies standing on the hill of apple trees. The leaves glistened with an earthy green light, as though they were attempting to soak in as much sunlight as they could in case the Sun vanished back below the horizon.
The stalk of wheat in Big McIntosh’s mouth fell to the grass at his hooves as his jaw fell open. The three fillies around him gazed at the Sun in awe, as though it were the first glimpse they had ever had of daylight.
“Oh mah stars…” Apple Bloom breathed.
“Is Queen Celestia coming back?” Sweetie Belle asked.
“Wait,” Scootaloo shook her head, snapping out of her enraptured state. “Didn’t Rainbow Dash’s new friend Twilight Sparkle say something about sunrise and figuring out some secret Celestia message?”
“Eeyup,” replied Big Mac, smiling broadly.
“Then that means,” Apple Bloom continued with a beaming face, “that Queen Celestia’s not back yet, but she’ll be back soon!”
Sweetie Belle giggled gleefully, a pale-harlequin shower of sparks emerging from her stubby little alicorn.
Suddenly, Big Mac’s large foreleg scooped all three little fillies together, and the burly stallion began to herd them back towards the homestead.
“Hey, what gives?” Scootaloo asked irately.
“What’s goin’ on, Big Mac?” asked Apple Bloom.
“NightMare Moon will’ve seen that, an’ she won’ be happy,” he said shortly. “She’ll send ‘er troops on down here. We gotta lock ourselves down fer now.”
“Why, though?” Sweetie Belle said confusedly. “I bet you could fight all of them off, Big McIntosh!”
The big Apple stallion gave a small humble smile, “Well, maybe. But why risk gittin’ swamped?”
After swiftly alerting his grandmother as to the situation regarding the Sun and NightMare Moon, Big McIntosh deposited three protesting fillies in the Sweet Apple home and promptly bolted for Ponyville proper.
He gulped. This would involve a lot of talking.
Reaching Town Square, Big McIntosh looked around at the ponies present. There was Golden Harvest, packing up her carrot baskets; Bon Bon and Lyra, respectively putting away jars of candy and placing a lyre into a case; Pinot Noir, taking down the displays of her vineyard wares; Stellar Eclipse, placing cartons of chicken eggs onto a cage containing a very irate white rabbit; and many more whose names Big Mac knew, but did not feel the need to remind himself as it looked like most everypony had gotten the right idea as well.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to help somepony else out so that they could all get back to their homes quickly, before the new Nightmare Guard up at the newly rechristened Endymion arrived to tear Ponyville down for providing further shelter to NightMare Moon’s Most Wanted (so Applejack and company were called on the radio by those radio hosts who were intimidated or hypnotized into obeying NightMare Moon).
Big Mac approached an Earth Pony stallion. He had a light-amber coat, a chocolate-brown mane, bright-blue eyes and a cutie mark of three sky-blue horseshoes. This was Caramel, the last of Big Mac’s childhood friends who had not moved off from Ponyville. He was a forgetful sort, but forgetful help was better than no help at all.
So Big Mac hoped.
Caramel was startled to see Big McIntosh. “Big McIntosh! Oh, I… wasn’t expecting to see you here. Are you here to help me take my seed wares back home to stock?”
Caramel turned back to his cart, counting the bags of various types of seeds. His ears flattened.
“That’s strange… did I really only bring along two bags of sunflower seeds?”
Big McIntosh sighed to himself. Caramel must have forgotten to restock his cart the night before…
The firstborn Apple son looked up at Miss Twilight’s fake little sun in the sky.
Or as close to night as we’re likely to get for a while, he thought.
He did not doubt that his younger sister Applejack had fine intentions in leaving with Miss Twilight to help overthrow NightMare Moon and reinstate Queen Celestia, but he feared that she would bite off more than she could chew. He knew her longer than anypony else in Ponyville, and he knew that Applejack possessed a fierce stubborn streak, stopping for nopony else. She was even better at standing firm than Big McIntosh himself was, though she was too humble to admit so. Such was her tenacity and refusal to give in or compromise.
He only hoped that such stubbornness would not give in to recklessness and an early end.
Bringing himself back to the present, Big Mac hitched himself into the harness of Caramel’s cart and began to tow it towards Caramel’s home.
“Oh… well, thanks, Big Apple!” said Caramel, using his own personal nickname for Big McIntosh. He always told Big Mac that he felt the term Big Mac to be uncannily close to something that “those meat-eater Griffons” would eat.
“Don’ mention it,” grunted Big McIntosh as he brushed past the Bon Bon-Lyra pair. He never enjoyed talking much, even around family, and he was already surly enough with having to be so bluntly reminded of Caramel’s forgetfulness on top of NightMare Moon’s impending crackdown on Ponyville and his littlest sister getting the wrong idea of cutie marks into her head.
Regardless, when they reached Caramel’s home, Big Mac offered Caramel a very patient smile and helped the slighter stallion haul his wares indoors, stowing them in his seed stores in the back. After only three trips back and forth (sunflower seed bags were not the only wares which Caramel had forgotten to restock his cart on), Big McIntosh bade Caramel a wordless farewell and left for Town Square.
“…An’ that’s how Ah got mah cutie mark!” Granny Smith finished to the three fillies.
Apple Bloom’s eyes sparkled. “Wow…”
Scootaloo made a raspberry. “Phooey! That sorta thing isn’t gonna help us get our cutie marks!”
Granny Smith let out a knowing chuckle, “Oh, Ah don’ know ‘bout that, youngster. My grandpappy told me the story ‘bout how he got his cutie mark, an’ Ah got mine less’n two weeks later. These cutie mark thangs… ya gotta take yer time with ‘em, figger out what yer special talent is. An’…”
Whatever it was that Granny Smith had to say further on the subject was lost, as the elderly matriarch’s eyes slowly slid shut as she was speaking, before her head bobbed down, and she began to slowly snort and snore.
Scootaloo raised an eyebrow skeptically at the sleeping old mare, turning towards the radio on the corner table.
“There’s gotta be something good on right about now,” she said just before she began to spin the dial with her teeth. A cyclic din of chattering voices and spurts of music reached their ears.
“Okay!” squeaked Sweetie Belle, trotting forward to rest beside Scootaloo in front of the radio. “Maybe there’s gonna be something about Rarity and her friends!”
Apple Bloom shook her head hesitantly, “Ah don’ know. Ah don’ think that anything like that’d be good news fer us…”
“Oh…” Sweetie Belle sighed sadly, before perking up brightly. “Maybe the Cheese Sandwich Band is playing something!”
“Or maybe there’s some story ‘bout the ol’ NightMare Moon war goin’ on!”
“Or maybe there’s a Daring Do radio play!” Scootaloo received odd looks from her two accomplices, before shrugging her forelegs, “It’s better than reading, isn’t it?”
Awkwardly returning to spinning the dial back and forth, Scootaloo cast her mind out to her prospective mentor and (hopeful) big sister Rainbow Dash. Where was she now? Was she alright? What was she doing? Did she (Scootaloo shuddered) find some other new Pegasus filly to take under her wing and raise as a wingpony? Some little filly that could actually fly…?
The word Queen Celestia buzzing in her ear from the radio caught her ear, and she let go of the dial and sat back with her two best friends.
“Why has Queen Celestia abandoned us in our time of need?” hissed a very unbalanced and scratchy voice, as though the pony who was speaking had skipped many nights of sleep before speaking. It did not help that his speech was interspersed with bursts of static. “We have been told by Kibitz, the Royal Steward of Canterlot, who was conveniently outside of Canterlot at the time of NightMare Moon’s arising, that the Queen of the Sun has been imprisoned by NightMare Moon inside of our own Sun. Maybe he’s telling us the truth…
“Or is he?” breathed the speaker on the other end, and his microphone blasted feedback so loud that the Crusaders leaned back with flattened ears and Granny Smith gave a loud grunting snore.
“Well, I, Tinfoil Hat, have cracked the reason behind the unexplained disappearance of Queen Celestia and the equally unexpected appearance of a dark mare calling herself NightMare Moon. And the reason is… they are the same pony!”
“What?” cried out the Cutie Mark Crusaders in shock. Could it be…?
“Yes, my friends. It’s true,” he continued in a tone approximating sympathy. “The guardsponies of her New Order didn’t want me to reveal this to you. That is why I had to hijack this radio station’s broadcasting waves. But why, you must be asking yourself, why has she only revealed herself now? Why has she not already attempted to enslave us under her tyrannical horseshoes?
“I would have thought that the answer was obvious: She didn’t want us to think that she was a bad, bad pony. Oh no no no. She fabricated the legend of NightMare Moon, and the prophecy of her return, so that we would never know of her monstrous heart and diabolical intent. That small sunrise you saw out to the east? That was her reminding us of her absolute control over every celestial body, and how we only continue to exist at her whim!
“But, you may ask me, the prophecy told to us by her loyal little lapdog Twilight Sparkle. Surely that could not have been a lie. Well, my friends, I can only answer Neigh. She was so close to the Queen, she would surely know of how twisted of a mare the Queen truly was. It’s obvious that she is Queen NightMare Celestia’s right-hoof mare, out to conquer the planet with her band of hypnotized lackeys!”
“Wait a minute,” Sweetie Belle began, raising a hoof in query. “This pony sounds super-crazy!”
“Yeah… I was just beginning to think that, too,” Scootaloo replied.
“Let’s change the station,” Apple Bloom said, getting up to take the dial in her teeth…
“Wait!” Scootaloo hissed hastily, biting her lower lip. “I gotta hear how crazy the rest of it is!”
Cocking an eyebrow at the Pegasus, Apple Bloom sat down nonetheless as Tinfoil Hat continued on his tirade.
“…then, they shall conquer Saddle Arabia, and the fiendishly cruel Shutterfly shall be the adjutant in charge of that country! And then, they shall conquer―…”
A clattering ruckus arose on the other end of the radio, and Tinfoil’s voice stopped immediately. In a moment, it returned, losing its manic tone and gaining an irate edge.
“Do you mind? This is a very important message that the ponies of Equestria need to― AGH!” The sound of a hoof striking a chin rang out, and Scootaloo put a hoof in the air with a Woot!.
‘Vın̈yl!’ came a Shirish mare’s indignant voice. ‘You were not supposed to strike him!’
“Aww, c’mon, Octy,” drawled the voice of another, more sassy mare. “I left the door unlocked while we went to get milk and food; I get first dibs on any breakers and/or enterers.”
As Tinfoil groaned and (apparently) struggled back to his hooves, “Octy” made a huffing noise and could be heard to hiss something that sounded oddly like ‘I wanted to get first dibs.’
“You miserable nags…” Tinfoil growled, spitting something out of his mouth that clattered against the floor. “What’re you two doing here?”
‘What are we doing here?’ snarled “Octy” in a rising voice. ‘I believe we should be asking why you are in our safehouse!’
“I’m telling Equestria what they need to hear,” Tinfoil said with a feeble attempt at dignity.
Vın̈yl scoffed, “Sure, and me and Octavia here are secretly the same mare. Now, if you don’t mind…”
Before she could finish her sentence, there was a scuffling noise interspersed with coltish grunts and disturbingly high hisses, culminating in a high and long scream followed by Tinfoil groaning in pain.
‘Hmm…’ mused Octavia. ‘Falsetto. Even most geldings cannot reach that pitch. I’m impressed.’
Vın̈yl let out a loud guffawing laugh that Scootaloo echoed, the latter occasionally choking out a couple words: “She… she kicked him in… in the…”
“Now,” growled a surprisingly dark-sounding Vın̈yl, and they heard the unmistakable tinkling sound of a Unicorn’s dwimmer shimmer, “if you don’t mind… GET OUT!”
Tinfoil let out a great and long yell as he was apparently thrown out of a door which promptly slammed itself shut. Vın̈yl let out a heaving sigh.
“Man, that dockhead really worked my appetite,” Vın̈yl grumbled. “I need a tomato juice.”
‘There’s some left over in the fridge, Vın̈yl,’ sighed Octavia, whose voice was far louder; she must have been standing closer to the microphone. She breathed softly, before speaking directly into the mic:
‘Apologies for that, listeners, but it would seem that Daydreams with a DJ will be postponed until such time as we can find a new safehouse. If somepony didn’t leave the door unlocked and let some lunatic prat waltz right in…’
The sound of exhaling sharply through nostrils.
‘In any case, we will take extra care that tin-shoe mental cases do not use our station as a platform for their ridiculous theories in the future. You will know when we are back on the radio waves. As always, keep those dials spinning, and those smiles shining.’
“Hey! That’s my line!” came out Vın̈yl’s indignant voice, before the broadcast cut out to static.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders looked back and forth at each other.
“I don’t think I want to listen to the radio anymore,” Sweetie Belle said softly.
“Neither do Ah,” agreed Apple Bloom. That had gotten entirely too scary, finding out that somepony could think something so crazy and do something so wrong as to break into somepony else’s house.
“Are you kidding?” Scootaloo grinned at her two friends. “That was hilarious!”
“Hilarious?” Apple Bloom questioned. “How was that funny?”
“How could it not be? I mean, it’s so obvious that it was a fake guy telling fake stories! That’s what makes it so funny! That Tinfoil Hat’s a laugh and a half!”
“I don’t know,” Sweetie Belle glanced back at the radio. “I think that those deejay ladies really hurt him…”
“Well, he rightly deserved it,” said Apple Bloom with a stomp of her hoof. “He shouldn’t a’ been breakin’ an’ enterin’ like he did.”
“Well… yeah, that was pretty bad,” Scootaloo conceded, “but you gotta admit it was pretty funny when she kicked him in the―”
“Scootaloo!” Apple Bloom hissed, shushing the Pegasus. She nudged her head towards Granny Smith, who was rubbing her eyes sleepily with one foreleg. The three fillies watched the old mare for a few tense seconds, but Granny Smith lowered her leg and rested her weight upon it once more, snoring softly.
Apple Bloom breathed a sigh of relief, before fixating a glare with scrunched-up lips at Scootaloo.
“What did I do?” Scootaloo asked.
“Ya almos’ woke up Granny Smith. An’ she don’ like bein’ woken up from her naps. Exspecially not in this whole ‘eternal night’ thingamabob.”
“Sorry,” Scootaloo said with an abrasive edge.
“‘Sides,” Apple Bloom grinned, “we wouldn’ want Granny ta stop us helpin’ Big Mac out in Ponyville.”
Sweetie Belle gasped delightedly, “Maybe there are catapult parts we can get out in the town!”
Scootaloo grinned, “Yeah! There’s this huge basket they use for laundry out at the orphanage that I know will be good for a catapult!”
“Alright!” Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle cheered, charging out the door. Scootaloo followed after a moment, glad that they did not question her as to how she knew the orphanage so well…
“Thank you so much for your help, Big McIntosh,” said Miss Mayor, a hoof on her chest as she smiled proudly at the burly Apple stallion. “Once more, the Apple family comes through for Ponyville.”
“Eeyup,” Big Mac replied simply.
(“Sure, everypony thanks the Apple family for the work of one stallion,” Diamond Tiara groused next to her father, “but if wasn’t for Great-Granddaddy Stinkin’ Rich, Ponyville wouldn’t have anything to call Ponyville in the first place!”
(“But,” retorted her father shortly, “if it wasn’t for Old Miss Granola Smith’s Zap Apple wares that put Ponyville on the map, my grandfather Stinkin’ Rich would not have become so wealthy in the first place.”)
“Now, everypony,” the Mayor continued, her voice losing much of its joviality and becoming more serious, “please hurry back to your homes, and try not to act suspicious if the Nightmare Guard comes knocking. Just tell them the truth: Twilight Sparkle is not here, and hasn’t been here for weeks.”
Everypony nodded, standing beside or hitched to their carts, ready to return to their homes in an instant. Everything could have proceeded very quickly and smoothly…
If not for the sonic boom.
Everypony in Town Square flattened their ears against their skulls, obeying the rush of adrenaline and the ancestral evolutionary urge to bolt and save themselves for the benefit of the herd. The result was a cacophony of crashing carriages and a plethora of provoked ponies. Big Mac and the Mayor gaped at the chaos that had erupted in Town Square caused by the…
The sonic boom.
Looking up at the source, the pair of Earth Ponies barely registered a pack of eleven purple shapes before one of them landed directly in front of the Gazebo, a miasmic trail dissipating behind it as it resolved into the shape of a shadowy Pegasus. She exactly matched the description which Daydreams with a DJ had given for the Captain of the Shadowbolts, Nightingale.
Then a second sonic boom shook Ponyville, shattering windows around Town Square and overturning several unattended carts. This paralyzed the panicked ponies in Town Square, stopping in their tracks and staring with wide fearful eyes at the dark captain.
“Hey Big Mac!”
Big Mac’s heart clenched as his head turned back toward Sweet Apple Acres. Apple Bloom and her two friends were galloping his way as fast as their little legs could carry them − or, in Scootaloo’s case, buzzing her tiny wings as fast as she could to propel herself forward on her scooter.
“We thoughtcha could use… a little… help?”
Apple Bloom trailed off as she saw Nightingale the Shadowbolt captain standing in front of Town Hall, her mouth full of fangs bared and her shattered goggles resting against her chest. Ten more Shadowbolts descended behind her slowly, half of whom were Pegasi and the other half Bat Ponies.
Nightingale’s slit-pupiled eyes narrowed on Big McIntosh, “Stern.”
A Shadowbolt Pegasus stallion with his muzzle completely covered by a black cloth flapped up to Nightingale’s front, bowing slightly before his Captain.
“Go up to Sweet Apple Acres and turn out the place,” she ordered fiercely. “Turn the place upside-down. Look for any sign that Most Wanted were here recently.”
“They ain’t been here in weeks!” Apple Bloom blurted out, before Big Mac drew her back to his side with a quiet hush.
Nightingale glared at the small filly, “We’ll be the judge of that.”
Stern nodded his assent to Nightingale’s order silently, before he bolted off above the heads of the Ponyvillagers towards Sweet Apple Acres.
Turning back towards the Gazebo, Apple Bloom gave a squeak of terror; Nightingale was right on top of her! Big Mac gave a roar of rage and made to cuff the Shadowbolt Captain across the head with a mighty forehoof. The area where he would have struck her turned into a miasmic blue mist, his hoof traveling straight through her as she glowered at Apple Bloom.
“We’ll be having none of that,” she snapped at the baffled Big McIntosh, before she practically touched her muzzle to Apple Bloom’s. The filly’s ears fell flat, scooting backwards into her big brother’s forelegs, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle shuddering at her sides.
“The Moon wears many faces, my little pony:” Nightingale hissed, “the faces of kindness, of love, of fury, of sorrow. You are to love every one of the Moon’s faces. But I am not here to make you love the Moon’s faces. I am here to make you fear mine!”
She soared into the air with a wing-roll, half-turning her head to face her nine remaining Shadowbolts.
“Shadowbolts, fan out! Search for the Most Wanted! If you find them, or any evidence that they’ve been here recently, do not harm them! We will bring them straight to Queen NightMare Moon, and be rewarded the best out of all her loyal followers!”
“You mean ‘out of all her coerced and hypnotized slaves’, don’t you, you big bullies?” called out Ditzy Doo, a wall-eyed Pegasus mare.
Nightingale passed a surprisingly gentle look over to the gray Pegasus, “Oh. Silly me. I forgot about the whole ‘coercion’ part. Ponyville!” Her voice boomed out, reverberating out from every beam of timber, every cornerstone, every shard of glass around the hamlet. “Your village is a known haven for those who conspire sedition against our Queen of Everlasting Night. Surrender them, or information leading to them, and we will leave your quaint little hamlet unsearched.”
Every mare, stallion and foal in Town Square glanced fearfully about at one another. The Mayor faced Nightingale with conviction in her lined face, “You can threaten to raze our Ponyville to the ground, but we will never surrender a single pony to you!” Around her, the looks of fear melted away to match the Mayor’s look of defiant resolve. “Each of them, including the young dragon cub Spike, is a part of our extended family here in the Saddle Valley! You will never get a whit of information out of―”
“They were going to the Crystal Mountains!” piped up a shrill filly’s voice, and scores of eyes spun around to face Diamond Tiara, who was pointing up past the North Equinus Mountains. “They should be getting there pretty soon! If you hurry, you might catch them!”
Filthy Rich gaped at his daughter’s brazenness, and many ponies who had merely tolerated her in the past leveled looks of deepest loathing at her. In spite of this, she held a look of smuggest triumph on her face.
Until her father clamped his teeth down on his daughter’s ear and started to drag her off down the street, a look of most pronounced distaste on his face. Her tiara fell askew as she gave her father a distressed and panicked look.
“Daddy? What did I do wrong? They’re not gonna touch our money now. They won’t touch our money!”
“We just came from the Crystal Mountains, and they got away to Maker-knows-where,” Nightingale growled, an evil grin appearing on her muzzle as she continued, “but it’s gladdening to know how easily you’d sell them out, little filly. You must be so proud of your little filly, sir,” she finished in a lilting voice like poisoned honey.
Mr. Rich unclamped his teeth from Diamond Tiara’s ear and glared at the Shadowbolt Captain.
“I’ve never been more disappointed in my life, I’ll have you know.”
“Don’t talk until I’ve given you permission to, young mare. I didn’t raise you to be such a self-serving little snitch.”
“But I don’t serve myself; that’s why you hired a butler, right?”
“I’m hearing you talk without my permission, Dégueulis Dazzle Rich,” he growled. “Your allowance is now indefinitely withheld. I can’t believe you would be so ungrateful to your family here in Ponyville.”
“But you’re my only family, Daddy!” she whined, imploring at his hooves as tears ran down her muzzle. “Ever since Mommy left for the funny farm, you’re the only one who matters to me other than Silvie! Silvie!” She cried out as she spotted Silver Spoon, who wore a neutral expression on her bespectacled face. “You think I did right by Ponyville, right? We’re sugar-lump buddies, right?”
Silver Spoon walked up to Diamond Tiara, tilting her head down so that she could look at Diamond Tiara over the rims of her glasses. Diamond Tiara offered a hopeful smile…
Silver Spoon’s hoof slapped roughly against Diamond Tiara’s muzzle, the pink filly’s jaw dropping in shock as the gray filly gave her a look of deepest disgust.
“You’re a monster,” breathed Silver Spoon, her eyes narrowed to slits at Diamond Tiara, whose ears drooped as her eyes overflowed with fresh tears. Raising her head, Silver Spoon turned away from Diamond Tiara and flicked her tail in the latter’s face.
“If you please, sir,” Nightingale said shortly to Mr. Rich, who only nodded in return before nudging his daughter along with his head. She let out a few whining whinnies, but acquiesced and allowed herself to be escorted out of Town Square and out of sight.
Nightingale returned to the air, a look of somber fury on her face. “If you will not surrender further information on the Most Wanted, then my Shadowbolts will fan out across Ponyville and turn the place inside-out and upside-down. If we find a single shred of evidence that they’ve been here in the past fortnight, you will all pay dearly! Are you still sure you and your little ponies are all so noble, Miss Mayor?”
The Mayor returned Nightingale’s glare with a stare of steel fury. “I can assure you, that filly is a bad seed. You won’t find a single soul here who knows any more than you do.”
Nightingale floated down until she was almost nose-to-nose with the Mayor. Her golden eyes seared through the Mayor’s pince-museau glasses, but the stately Earth Pony stood firm.
“You’ve got guts, for a politician,” snarled the Captain of the Shadowbolts. She looked over her shoulder at her team, “Alright, mares and stallions! Pegasi and Bat Ponies! Turn Ponyville on its head! Leave no horseshoe unturned! Grill these pansies! Find some evidence that the Most Wanted were here recently!”
The nine Shadowbolts silently saluted their captain, before taking off into the sky and fanning out in enneagonal directions, leaving trails of miasmic blue mist through the air. Nightingale turned a glowering gaze upon the ersatz sun at early afternoon, baring her teeth in fury.
After the Shadowbolts spread out across Ponyville to shake down everypony in town, Big Mac took the Cutie Mark Crusaders back to Sweet Apple Acres, where a very irate Granny Smith gave each of them an earful about how worried she was when she woke up and they weren’t there, her only company being a Shadowbolt who had completely ransacked their foodwares, asking them if they even gave a thought to how their families would react if something bad happened to them on their way to Ponyville. Sighing, she’d told them to go up to Apple Bloom’s room and think about what they’d done, but not before promising that they would not go anywhere outside without adult accompaniment during the night.
“You know, I don’t like Diamond Tiara any more than you girls,” Sweetie Belle said sadly, sitting on Apple Bloom’s canopy bed, “but I kinda feel bad for her.”
“‘Feel bad’?” Scootaloo echoed incredulously beside her. “She tried to rat out Rainbow Dash and her buddies! I hope her dad beats her for this!”
“Ah don’ think Mr. Rich is the beatin’ type, Scoots,” Apple Bloom cut in on Sweetie Belle’s other side. “An’ b’sides, parents don’ usually beat their kids. Ah know Big Mac an’ Applejack were never beaten.”
“And what about you?”
Apple Bloom gave Scootaloo a cross expression, “Ah never knew Ma ‘n’ Pa. They died same day as Ah was born.”
“Ohh…” Scootaloo sighed sadly. “Sorry. I didn’t know we were… uh! I mean, that… you were! Yeah, you were an orphan. I didn’t know you were an orphan.”
“Yer repeatin’ yerself, Scoots. Are y’alright?”
Scootaloo chuckled nervously, “What do you mean? Of course I’m fine! It’s fine! We’re all fine!”
The door opened abruptly, drawing the eyes of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. In stepped Stern, the masked Shadowbolt. He raised a hoof to his covered mouth and made a quiet shushing noise, before silently sweeping over to Apple Bloom’s closet.
Scootaloo sighed, “Fine. I’m not fine.” She unfurled her wings. “Do you girls see my wings?”
“Aww, they’re so cute and tiny!” Sweetie Belle cooed, touching one of the tiny primaries.
“Yeah? Well, all the other foals in Ponyville have fuller wings than me.”
“Aww, c’mon, Scoots,” Apple Bloom said comfortingly. “Ah’ve seen ya flyin’ ‘round on that scooter a yers, an’ yer real swell at flyin’!”
“You call that flying? That’s scooting! I’ve seen other Pegasi in our class flying − remember when Golden Parachute did that double loop-de-loop in recess?”
“That was pretty cool, too,” Sweetie Belle conceded, “but not as cool as your scooting.”
“Yeah, well, that’s all I’ll ever do,” Scootaloo grumbled with flat ears.
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle put their hooves on Scootaloo’s back, smiling at her.
“I’ve been to the doctor’s, and he says that I’ve got some sort of gene problems with my wings. They’ll never grow to their full size…” A tear glistened down her cheek. “I’ll never fly.”
“But…” Sweetie Belle began sadly, the rustling searching sounds in Apple Bloom’s closet silencing. “Didn’t he give you some medicine to fix it?”
“He said that this isn’t something medicine can fix.”
“What about some kinda magic solution?”
Scootaloo shook her head, “I don’t think that this is something that magic can fix, either. That one Unicorn in our class, Roughshod? She told me as much last week. And I got her good for it,” she smirked as she pounded one hoof into the other. “Got detention from Miss Cheerilee, though, but it was worth it.”
“Well, we’re here ta support ya, through thick an’ thin!” Apple Bloom said brightly, throwing both of her forelegs around Scootaloo.
“We’ll be there to get you anything you need!” Sweetie Belle said sweetly, also hugging Scootaloo.
Scootaloo looked back and forth at the two other Crusaders, tears of joy on her face. “You guys…”
Apple Bloom’s closet slammed shut, Stern standing at the edge of their bed. Bright-pink bows were strewn about the floor. The Cutie Mark Crusaders glowered at the masked Shadowbolt, who lowered his golden goggles and looked intently at Scootaloo with brilliant emerald-green eyes.
Scootaloo snapped, “What’re you looking at?”
The dark-clad Pegasus slipped his goggles back up over his eyes, before clambering out the window and taking flight off to Ponyville.
“What in Equestria was that all about?” Scootaloo asked.
“Ah don’ rightly know,” Apple Bloom answered. “Adults’re just so complicated.”
“Except for my parents,” Sweetie Belle added. “Rarity’s more complicated than them.”
Scootaloo raised an eyebrow at the Unicorn filly, “But isn’t she an adult, too?”
“No,” smiled Sweetie Belle. “She’s a sister.”
With the Shadowbolts turning Ponyville inside-out in their futile attempt to find Twilight Sparkle and her six companions, any semblance of working capacity in the town ground to a sudden halt. You couldn’t make any sort of deal with anypony else without fear of a dark-clad Pegasus or Bat Pony sweeping in and completely disrupting any semblance of order you had kept your things in. The post office was entirely emptied of its letters and packages, which were individually opened and scrutinized by each Shadowbolt in turn, looking for some kernel of evidence of the Most Wanted’s recent presence in the hamlet. Sugarcube Corner’s stored sacks of sugar and flour were torn open and thoroughly emptied. The Bon family’s BonBonnière was ransacked, jars of candies smashed to pieces and each bit of chocolate, each jawbreaker, each praline, every sweet in stock unwrapped for something resembling a hidden message along the lining of the wrapper.
The Shadowbolt shakedown only lasted four hours, but to the ponies involved, it may have been an eternity. They knew that the Shadowbolts would not find anything that would suggest that Twilight Sparkle and Spike and the five native Ponyvillagers were in Ponyville more recently than four weeks before. Even so, the blatant invasion of privacy and lack of care for personal space by the Shadowbolts was an atrocious matter to be subject to, and it was with tremendous relief when the eleven intruders gathered together in Town Square and confessed to the Mayor that they had not found anything.
“But…!” continued Nightingale, “don’t think that this means your village is off the hook, Miss Mayor. You’re a marked mare, as is everypony in your town. So, until such time as Queen NightMare Moon sees fit, this town will play host to a garrison of the Nightmare Guard, who will make sure that you Ponyville ponies remain good little moon-loving ponies.”
The ponies standing around Town Square watching these proceedings began to raise an outraged din, but the Mayor raised a single hoof to keep them calm.
“We will accept these terms,” she said levelly. “We know that you could do far worse to us. So long as the day-to-day lives―”
Nightingale cleared her throat loudly over the Mayor’s statement. Realizing her faux-pas, the Mayor continued,
“So long as the night-to-night lives of my constituents remains uninhibited, we will raise no fuss about this arrangement.”
“You’re in no position to stand against them,” Nightingale hissed as she flapped into the air. “The rules have changed with your ruler, Mayor. Celestia has gotten sloppy, and now the true heir to Equestria’s throne − to Harmonia’s throne − has made her glorious return!”
And with that the eleven Shadowbolts bolted into the air, an elevenfold sonic boom blasting out from overhead as a miasmic cloud exploded behind them. What direction they went in, Ponyville could not have known.
Almost as soon as the Shadowbolts had made themselves scarce from Ponyville, several mares around Town Square shrieked in terror. Ponies in jet-black armor had appeared from the shadowed alleyways, carrying polearms with silvery scythe-blades over their shoulders. Secateur edges gleamed along the bodies of armor, a crescent moon ablaze on each flank. Pale-blue eyes gleamed under skull-like helmets. Earth Pony, Unicorn, Pegasus and Bat Pony were represented in their ranks.
The Nightmare Guard had come to Ponyville.
“Ponyville under martial law…” Granny Smith murmured, rubbing a tired eye with a wrinkled foreleg. “Never thought Ah’d live ta see th’ day. Big Mac, can ya bring th’ girls down?”
“Eeyup.” And without another word he strode up the stairs, leaving Granny Smith alone to her thoughts.
Granny Smith felt every one of her eight-dozen-and-ten years. She could still buck apples as good as any Earth Pony, but not as good as an Apple. Her reflexes were getting sluggish, her joints were getting creaky and her hip was getting saggy. If she pulled back on her wrinkled face hard enough, her age would seem to melt away in the mirror, and a southern belle would be smiling back at her in the mirror. But ever since her husband left for Elysium, she had seen little reason to let her looks persist. She’d had many, many children with him, and they could carry the Apple name.
Big McIntosh came back down the steps with three slightly sullen-looking fillies at his tail. The four of them sat themselves down on their haunches in front of the Apple family matriarch, who commanded attention despite being about half as many hooves to the withers as her grandson.
“Now, Ah jus’ got wind a the fact that NightMare Moon’s done stuck some a her guards on us down here in Ponyville,” she explained slowly and clearly. “Ah personally don’ rightly like it, but we gotta bear this burden.”
“But why should we?” Scootaloo asked angrily, her little wings buzzing like a hummingbird’s. “We didn’t do anything wrong, so why should we let them push us around?”
“Scootaloo,” Apple Bloom said sharply. “Ah don’ like it either, but Ah reckon we oughta listen ta Granny Smith.”
“I don’t know…” Sweetie Belle scratched her chin. “Maybe we should just ask them nicely if they could leave…?”
“Eenope,” Big McIntosh said shortly.
“They’re not here ‘cause a us, young’uns,” Granny Smith said as she slowly rocked her chair. “They wanna be sure that they cin catch AJ an’ her friends if they come back.”
“What?” Apple Bloom gasped. “That’s jus’ not fair!”
“Fair or not fair, we gotta lay low,” Big Mac said.
“Big McIntosh is right,” nodded Granny Smith. “Ya can’ give them Nightmare Guards any reason ta be cross with ya. Who knows what they’ll do ta ya if they thinks y’all’ve been in touch with Applejack or any a her friends.”
“But… we can still crusade for our cutie marks, right?” Scootaloo asked nervously.
“S’long as it don’ involve catapultin’ yerselves off ta lasso the Sun,” Granny Smith replied.
The three fillies put their forehooves triumphantly in the air, “ALRIGHT!”
“Ah still think ya girls’re takin’ this crusadin’ business a little off-center,” Big Mac admitted.
Apple Bloom shrugged, “Well, if it helps us git our cutie marks before our big sisters come back, it’ll be worth it in the end, right?”
Big Mac shrugged noncommittally.
“Well, technically, Rainbow Dash isn’t really my big sister,” Scootaloo said as she rubbed her foreleg, “but she’s real awesome, and she’s gonna teach me everything there is to being as awesome as she is!”
“Rainbow Dash?” Granny Smith echoed. “Ain’t she the filly what drinks us dry of cider ev’ry cider season?”
“Th’ one an’ only, Granny,” replied Big Mac. “S’far as Ah know, she’s also all set t’ marry some animal caretaker.”
“Aww, that’s so sweet!” Sweetie Belle squealed.
“More like sappy,” Scootaloo groused with her tongue sticking out. “I never thought Rainbow Dash would do something so girly as getting married.”
“Colts get married too, Scootaloo,” Sweetie Belle reminded.
“Yeah,” added Apple Bloom, “an’ th’ way Ah heard, straight from th’ horse’s mouth, she’s known Fluttershy fer ages ‘n’ ages. She even told me last cider season that she was itchin’ t’ ‘pop th’ question’. What that question was, Ah don’ know, but―”
“Wait…” Scootaloo’s eyes went wide. “Rainbow Dash is engaged to Fluttershy?”
When Granny Smith and Big McIntosh traded awkward smiles and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle started to giggle inconsolably, Scootaloo had to wonder just how much girliness Rainbow Dash was hiding with her awesomeness.