The Seventh Element

by PaisleyPerson

Chapter 34: Back to Ponyville

Chapter 34
Back to Ponyville

“Ooh,” I groaned. I never would get used to teleporting. I finally got a chance to look around. I recognized my surroundings; I was right in front of Ponyville Square, just on the borders of the town. Or, what was left of it. The... Everfree Forest?!... was just behind me with thick, black, horny creepers oozing from it like a disease. The borderline between Ponyville and the Everfree had suffered a dramatic change. The Everfree’s sickly flora was now completely overtaking Ponyville. I’d come to find out why the sky was split, only to find Ponyville in an uproar!
“Drop the act, Buster! We’re onto you!” Voices. I recognized that voice. Pinkie.
“Ladies, ladies, I'm innocent. Would I lie to you?” And Discord? What was he doing here? Common sense told me that he was probably the source of this uproar, but my better judgment got in the way. He wouldn’t. I knew he wouldn’t.
“YES!” five voices screeched.
“Um, maybe?” I finally stood up, and wove my way through vines to find the ponies belonging to the familiar voices.
“Well then, it seems we've reached an impasse. I'm telling the truth, but you think I'm lying. What do friends like us do in a situation like this, Princess Twilight? Congrats, by the way, on the promotion. You totally deserve it.”
“I say we blast him back to stone!” Discord? Back to stone? NO! After all he’d done for me, I couldn’t let him go back that way.
“Works for me!” AJ concurred.
“Hear, hear!” even Rarity spoke up. By now, I’d broken into a run. I could see them in the distance. All six wore their necklaces, though only three of the mares were powering up their elements. Three out of the six meant that it probably wouldn’t work, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
“NO!” I ground to a stop right in front of the draconequus, not permitting any clear line of fire at Discord.
“ACRYLIC?” Nothing else was said. I was met with only wide eyes and open jaws from all around. The three powered elements dropped like stones. I glared back for a moment longer, letting them know that Discord was off limits. Then I straightened back up, expression softened.
“She’s BACK!” Pinkie screeched, trying to choke me to death in a ‘welcome back’ hug. Spike soon joined her, veering around Twilight so he couldn’t be blocked this time.
“We missed you!” he declared, hugging my leg so tight I thought he’d never let go.
“You’re... but...”
“How dare you?” Applejack was angry with me again; I expected that. But it wasn’t the earth pony who’d spoken. This time, it was Rainbow Dash. I was taken aback by her reaction.
“Ah! Acrylic, so good to see you! I gave that teleportation parchment to Blaze ages ago. I expected you to have returned by now. Oh well. Better late than never, I suppose.”
“You knew where she was all along?” Twilight accused. I looked on with envy at her new feathered wings. Discord had told me before, but seeing it with my own eyes was something else entirely. How was it that she got wings and became a Princess, but mine made me a criminal?
“Of course I did. I helped her stay hidden.”
“She wanted to disappear. Friends help each other, don’t they?”
“That was different! You had no right to keep her from us!”
“You had no right to take my wings, either, but that didn’t stop you.” I looked back, still wearing the breezy blue shawl. I flipped it aside to remind them of their work. Everypony in our company winced. I quickly replaced the fabric.
“So why’d you come back?” Rainbow now quietly asked. Her anger had been excreted in the salty tears sliding down her cheek.
“The sky’s split in half all over Equestria. That tends to raise questions, even from an old dope like me.”
“You aren’t a dope,” Fluttershy quietly put in. She looked like she wanted to come up and welcome me back like Pinkie, but was too afraid.
“He is,” Rainbow snorted, pointing back at Discord.
“I’m telling you, it wasn’t me!”
“Well, if it wasn’t him, then who’s got the Princesses?”
“The Princesses are gone?” Twilight’s solemn nod confirmed my prediction. Then she turned back to Discord.
“Rainbow does raise a good point. If you're not the one responsible, then help us figure out who is!”
“I suppose I could, but after all the hoof pointing and besmirching of my good name, I just don't know if I'm up to it.” He took to knitting the long strands of out-of-control vines, apparently too busy to lend a hoof.
“Ugh!” She seemed to remember that I had finally come back. “You don’t know anything about this, do you?”
“I don’t know anything! I’ve been in exile for a year, remember?”
“You put your own self there,” Applejack snorted.
“You could’ve come back,” Rainbow sadly added.
“You didn’t even write.”
“I tried,” I turned away. “Look, can we deal with this later? When the fate of Equestria isn’t hanging in the balance, maybe?”
“Acrylic’s right, but we are coming back to this,” Twilight declared, glaring at me to let me know she meant it. I submissively bowed my head. “But first we have to find out what’s going on.
“Why don't you ask your zebra friend if she knows anything?” Discord’s knitting had grown large enough to produce a recognizable shape: an arrow pointing to the Everfree’s own...
“Zecora!” they all shouted. I lingered, staying several paces behind them as they rushed to the zebra. I’d grown rather fond of Zecora. We shared the same home, and therefore had an unspoken connection. She was hauling what looked like all of her belongings with her. Twilight removed the harness, relieving her of the load’s excessive weight.
“From my home I have had to flee. The forest has grown too wild even for me!” The zebra always spoke in rhyme. I found her poetic tone somewhat soothing. “But now what is this I see? Acrylic has come back? I was not aware of this fact.”
“You and the rest of us,” Rainbow dryly complained.
“Still, it is good to see your face again. You grew tired of solitude, then?”
“I wasn’t alone,” I shook my head. “Gar-” I cut myself off. “Wait, where are they?”
“How should I know?” Discord innocently shrugged.
“Because it was your teleportation spell,” I reminded.
“If you didn’t teleport all at once, it probably landed you all in slightly different locations around Ponyville. Nothing to worry about,” he casually assured. “They’ll be along soon.”
“Any idea why all this is happenin'?” Applejack turned back to Zecora.
“I'm afraid it is a mystery to me as well, but I may have something that, if combined with a spell...” A bottle with a magenta colored solution was brought out of the wagon. “I do not dare to use it myself, the results would be tragic. It only responds to alicorn magic. Princess Twilight, you can turn the potion from purple to white. After a sip, you may see why the sky is day and night.” Twilight looked unsure, but saw no other solution to our predicament but to give it a shot. It required a great deal of energy, which was proven by the amount of grunting she let loose.
“Oooh!” Pinkie squealed, watching it finally turn from a watery solution to a milky pulp. Twilight tentatively took a sip.
“It doesn't seem to be worki-” her eyes flashed bright light. Then the mutterings began. The rest of us could only watch. My heart was pounding. My mind wasn’t on Twilight, though I was vaguely concerned for her safety. Mostly, I worried about my boys. What if Blaze and Garble chickened out and decided they weren’t going to come at all? Or what if they were landed in all of these vines? Garble would probably start a fire trying to keep away from them, or Blaze could be completely overpowered. And what about Heckley? He lived in the Frozen North all of his life. He wouldn’t know which way to go. In fact, he’d probably instinctively go for the forests, where he was used to. What if I never saw him again?
My thoughts were torn away from my three companions when Twilight began to weep. She was still under the potion’s influence, judging by the glow from her eyes, but she was trembling uncontrollably.
“Twilight?” Pinkie called from the group. There was no answer. I took a few steps for the purple alicorn.
“Stay back!” Zecora commanded. “Let the magic run its track.”
“But just look at her,” I protested. That was what I looked like a year ago. I didn’t want her to have to be alone, too. Despite the zebra’s warning, I shuffled up beside the weeping alicorn and sat down. I received a few glares and worried looks from the zebra, so I kept my eyes trained on either the ground or Twilight. Fluttershy, the closest thing to a caretaker we had, eventually joined me. She moved slowly and timidly under the critical gaze of Zecora, but even more so around me, as though she was afraid my wings would sprout back at any moment. If only. We had taken the lead; the others were soon pressing in to comfort their sobbing friend. It did no good, as she was oblivious to the rest of us, but it reminded me of the loyal bond I used to share with these mares.
Soon, the sobbing stopped. Twilight dizzily stumbled around for a while longer, flitting her wings one way or another. We again dispersed to give her room to wander. The mumblings continued, but grew quieter and sparser. Zecora’s cross glare told me that I’d better not try to ‘interfere’ again. The others got the same idea. I stood up, depressed and droopy. “I’m going to look for Blaze, Garble and Heckley,” I stated.
“Who now?”
“I told you,” Discord triumphantly declared. “That name...” he couldn’t help but break out into a fit of giggles at my pet snake’s ever so amusing title. I rolled my eyes and strolled off.
“You don’t mean... that Garble?” Spike joined me.
“Yes, Spike, the same one.”
“But he’s a real bully! What were you doing with him?”
“It’s really not my place to tell you. But he really isn’t all that bad, you know.” I picked up the pace just in time for him to scuttle back to Twilight, who was recovering from the effects of the potion.
Wings would have made the whole process a whole lot easier, and faster. A fly over would have only taken a minute or two, and I’d be back with my boys. Instead, I had to scour the whole town on foot, possibly passing them by as I swerved and ducked to stay out of sight and avoid astounded stares from any who may recognize me. Not that the vines didn’t block off enough shortcuts as it was.
I wasn’t seeing them anywhere. I’d managed to climb up a coil of vines without becoming entirely entangled to get a bird’s eye view. Where were they?
“Hey!” Rainbow yelled from the distance. She swooped down and hovered just in front of me. “You aren’t trying to run off on us again, are you? We need you over at the Everfree border!”
“You know the Everfree better than anypony else; even better than Zecora. Congratulations. You’re our navigator.”
“No!” I protested. “I have to find my friends!”
“These friends need you down in the Everfree pronto,” Rainbow countered. The look in my eyes told her that I wouldn’t budge until I knew they were safe. She sighed in defeat. “Okay, okay. If it makes you feel better, I’ll do a quick fly over.”
“It would. Thanks, Dashie.” I watched her take off, high above the town. She was only a pinprick of black against the glaring sun. I lost her when she melted into the night side of the sky. It hadn’t been five minutes when she circled back.
“There’s nopony new in or around Ponyville... besides you, anyway.”
“They aren’t ponies, they’re dragons, I desperately corrected.
“There’s no one down there,” she insisted, slightly aggravated. “Now, come on! We need you!” I supposed they could be tracked down later. Ponyville may not be here later.
The vines I climbed up to get here had significantly overgrown since I first made it atop the roof. I wasn’t going to risk climbing back down those things. So, I jumped. I almost forgot that I didn’t have wings to buffer my fall, so my landing was a bit rough to say the least. I stumbled a couple of feet until I regained my balance. “You okay?” Rainbow folded her wings upon landing beside me.
“Fine.” I couldn’t help but stare at her wings. She had no idea how lucky she was. I gritted my teeth to disguise the embarrassment from my fall and hurried ahead.
“What took you so long?” Twilight chided.
“I couldn’t find them.” My pained eyes and droopy disposition kept her from scolding me further. I continued forward to head them off.
“Seems like only yesterday we were heading into these woods to find the Elements of Harmony,” Rarity commented.
“Seems like only yesterday I was foolish enough to think I should go after them on my own,” Twilight continued. “I don't know what we're going to face in there. But whatever it is, I know we need to face it together.” The rest of them hummed agreement. My eyes were trained on the ground ahead, and I gave no response. “That means all of us,” she noted, playfully nudging me with a wing. I gave a halfhearted but grateful smile in return. It faded when I eyed the wing she’s bumped me with. They were trying to welcome me back, even if they didn’t know just quite how to do that. I still couldn’t help but envy her wings. She took for granted what I’d lost.
There was a fork in the path coming up. “Which way, navigator?” Applejack addressed.
“That depends. You all dragged me in here, but didn’t tell me where we’re going.”
“Oh, right,” Twilight blushed. “Do you know anything about the Tree of Harmony?”
“Just stories and legends,” I shook my head. “Is that where we’re going?”
“Only if you know where it is.”
“I know where it’s rumored to be,” I offered.
“So? Which way?”
“Uh...” I looked between the two paths.
“I thought you said you knew!”
“It all looks so different from the ground. And with all this overgrowth, I’m surprised I recognize anything!”
“Take your best guess,” Twilight pleaded. “You know the Everfree better than anypony. There has to be some way to get there from the ground.”
“I... I do know a way. It’s a longer trip, but it’s almost guaranteed to get us all there safely.”
“Lead on!”
“But,” I went on. “It means stopping at a thestral encampment for directions.” The others all looked at each other.
“What do you think, Twi?”
“Ya sure do have enough on your plate as it is. Nopony’d blame ya if ya don’t feel like dealing with those fellas today.”
“What other choice do we have? It may be our only chance at getting the Princesses back. And now that Acrylic’s with us, we might even reach them, this time.”
“I heard you’ve been losing scouts to the barriers,” I apologetically nodded.
“Barriers? What barriers?”
“Oh, you didn’t know? Discord told me that they’ve set up semi-magical barriers and won’t let anypony, or draconequus, in.”
“He did, did he?”
“Yes. He did.”
“Come on, you guys. Let’s not argue. Let’s just get this done. We’ve lost enough time as it is.” I turned to her.
“How do you feel about a shortcut?”
I led them off the path down routes I was quite familiar with. Even the thorny creepers couldn’t obscure this familiar landscape. We tripped over them a couple of times, though. I knew where we were, but I’d forgotten one slight detail. The swamp.
I used to play here with the other thestral fillies and colts. The little grove was secluded, and more or less safe. That is, until the cragadiles decided to move in.
“We can use these to cross,” Twilight suggested, noting a few rocks sticking out of the water. Those weren’t rocks.
“No, WAIT!” Too late. The alicorn had already stepped out over them.
“Whoa, whoa!” she screeched, the creature beneath beginning to wake. It bucked her off as it rose out of the water.
“A cragadile!”
“Run for your lives!” Rarity dramatically screeched. Everypony scattered. Thestrals were pretty good when it came to dealing with Everfree wildlife, but even I didn’t dare take on a full sized cragadile. Not alone, anyway. The huge, rocky crocodile was bigger than some dragons, and it had Twilight and Spike cornered.
“Applejack!” I called. “I need your rodeo skills!” She seemed to get my meaning, and began fashioning a lasso out of the flexible, thorny vines. I’d have preferred her powerful kickers to land a firm blow to its flank- we needed to get its attention. Still, I could handle that diversion, but nopony handled a lasso better than AJ.
I imagined that I was helping her to buck apples at the orchard when my hind legs snapped into action, kicking its not-so-exposed underbelly. Being made of rock, the collision did nothing more than distract the creature. My legs, on the other hoof, already felt sore. While I ran circles around the beast with a slight limp, Applejack aimed her lasso, which found its mark around the creature’s mouth. All of the girls tugged on the rope, dragging it back and away from me. Applejack handled the actual throwing of additional ropes, catching it by each of its legs, but the rest of us could still tie off the other ends to keep it from returning. Soon, the cragadile was restrained, and couldn’t advance on us anymore.
“That was close,” Twilight panted.
“A little too close, if ya ask me,” AJ concurred. “Ya sure you’re alright?”
“I'm fine. I just can't seem to get these new wings to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it,” she grumbled.
“Aw, you'll figure it out eventually,” Rainbow consoled.
“Eventually isn't soon enough.”
“You have been having an awful lot of trouble with those things. And, well, who knows what else is gonna to come after us? Ya know, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea for Twilight to go back to Ponyville and let us look for the Tree of Harmony without her.”
“What? Why?” Twilight indignantly gasped.
“For starters, you just about got eaten by a cragadilly,” AJ obliged.
“We all did. He wasn't after just me,” Twi pointed out.
“Sure, but... well, the rest of us aren't princesses.”
“What's that got to do with anything?”
“She’s basically saying that we’re disposable and you’re not,” I indignantly clarified.
“What I’m sayin’ is that Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are gone. If something happened to you, I-I just don't think Equestria can risk losin’ another princess.”
“Applejack does make a valid point. Even if we manage to save the Tree of Harmony, it won't necessarily mean Princess Celestia and Princess Luna will return. Equestria will need somepony to lead in their absence.”
“But the Tree of Harmony! I'm the only one who has seen it and knows what it looks like.”
“Huge tree, cutie marks on the trunk, probably being attacked by something hideously awful? Yeah, I'm pretty sure we'll know it when we see it.”
“And Acrylic does know a lot of old legends. Her friends are even going to point us in the right direction.”
“Hey! Don’t you be dragging me into this.”
“So you think I should stay?” Twilight hopefully asked. I tilted my head in thought.
“When Celestia took my wings, I was so angry with you all that I drove myself into exile. I would never want to make you feel the same way I did- like the only option you had left was to leave. No pony should ever have to go through that kind of heartache. But this is different. There are more ponies at stake than just us seven. You have to think about the rest of Equestria now. It’s your decision, but it will affect the rest of the world.” She seemed to grasp my reasoning, but that made the words no less painful.
“All of you feel this way? Feel like I shouldn't be here?”
“It is probably for the best,” Fluttershy quietly contributed. Twilight cast one more look at us before tearfully wandering off.
“Ya think we did the right thing?” Applejack quietly asked when she and Spike were out of earshot.
“I sure hope so,” I answered, glumly reorienting myself and heading for Midnight Armor once more.