Conflagration: Contagion

by GearMane


Anya sunk back into her seat, realizing the charade was up. She wasn't hiding by any means. She would have preferred to arrive in Canterlot under the unicorn's nose. Twilight's gaze was all she needed to see, nopony ever used that word, it was something truly unique that she had brought with her. She moved her front hooves nervously, awaiting whatever would follow.

"Hey... Twilight." She swallowed hard, lowering her head.

Twilight pulled her from the seat and wrapped her hooves around her.

"I'm so, so sorry." she muttered, while pressing her cheek against Anya's, the beginnings of tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

Both Anya and Applejack were confused, for different reasons though. Applejack was confused as to the relationship these two shared and Anya in general as to what had happened.

"What's going on?" Anya asked, letting Twilight break the embrace and return to the seat at the table, edging away from the mare.

"Ah'd like ta know as well." Applejack echoed Anya.

"I got so angry. I just... lost it." she hung her head in shame.

"That happens alot..." Anya deadpanned, feeling a tingle from her nose where she had been struck.

"What ah miss?" Applejack interjected. "Who is this pony?" Her confusion turned into concern as her tone became harsh.

"Applejack this is Anya. She's..." a pause to consider the phrasing. "She is the traveler, the one who allowed us to punish Ember at her own peril."

No, no, no. Twilight was not going to twist this. Give the events of her arrival were at the very least unacceptable, but they were down right hostile. It would have been understandable if they held off on everything, but the quickness at which everything had moved was stunning. There was alot going on behind the scenes that Anya wasn't privy to, but she wasn't going to let Twilight sugar coat the entire situation as if she had been on a pillow the entire time with knowledge of the events prior.

"You call beating me while I was defenseless, putting the rope around my neck yourself when you KNEW I wasn't Ember. When you pulled the lever, sent me to what I thought was death. I-" Anya stopped. Getting angry wasn't going to solve anything, wasn't going to prove a point. "And then yesterday. You punched me right in the nose, then after some arguing, then left."

Twilight didn't make eye contact, rather stayed looking at the ground. The seething mare was ready for another verbal laceration, but saw the distress of her so-called-friend. Anya pursed her lips behind gritted teeth, Twilight always had an agenda, to make light of situations that in reality had been much worse to get through.

"What the HAY is goin on here?!" The neglected mare shouted. Both Twilight and Anya took pause.

"Ya both need ta calm down. Twilight, you especially." she shot a glare over to the lavender unicorn. "Now, tell what happened. Anya is it? Let's start with ya."

"Twilight has been on a vendetta since I arrived. Intent on making my life a living hell. Yesterday we went out in the desert, like every week, and a verbal fight started, then she punched me in the nose." Anya said, noticing that as she spoke this time, Applejack seemed uneasy.

"Punched?" Applejack inquired.

"Yea." Anya raised a hoof and pushed it forward to mimic what had happened.

"Ah see..." glaring eyes shot over to Twilight who winced as if in pain. "An why would ya hit ah nice pony like Anya, Twi?" She was forcing that word out, being told that she was Ember at one point had added a bit of taint to how she was seen.

"Emb... Anya was doing everything wrong, completely the opposite way I had shown her, the way I had taught her. Then her tone became rather offensive, agitated. She wanted to try and learn how..." She trailed off and began to nervously squirm on the seat, "To learn how to control it, fire."

That word was going to forever haunt them. Applejack began to loose concentration, nervously looking out the window to Ponyville. She removed her glasses and set them on the table, suppressing tears welling up in her eyes and letting out a quivered exhale.

"Are you ok?" Anya asked and reached out a hoof across the table to Applejack. She didn't recoil as they touched, rather placed one on top of her's very slowly.

"Yea, ah'm ok." she nodded. "Ya ain't... her. Ember is dead, an ya are just caught in an orchard o` bad luck. Twi, could ya step out for a while."

The unicorn's ears perked up. "You want to be alone with her? Why?"

"Twi, please."

A defeated looking Twilight left the dining car and into the adjoining passenger car.

"Ah need ta tall ya something about Twilight. She's takin' this whole thing as her problem. She thinks that this whole thing is her fault."

"Why is that?"

"Twilight always knew magic and those things, did real well with Celestia as a teacher. Several years ago, she had learned all she could an set loose on her own, only after a final test if ya` will. Her test was to teach a young mare named Ember. She was just a little older than a filly, just barely."

"Twi did just fine, she helped her ta understand everythin' there was about magic. All day an night they were always in their books, tryin' to get a hoof up on each other in a playful way. I ain't never seen two friends have so much fun together. They were both alike, like Ember was ah long lost sister or one o` them doubles from a mirror they got locked away in Canterlot."

"Ember then got older an she changed. They'd fight with magic in a playful manner before, an Ember kept getting rougher and rougher every year. Twilight always had some sorta bandage on her at one point. We all told her what we felt, that somethin' was off. Twilight just waved us off an` said they was all accidents, a mare who'd just been growin' inta' herself."

"She grew distant from Twilight, more concerned about herself an bein' the center of attention. She was still there for her though, just like Celestia was there for Twi when she was young. Twilight won't ever admit it, but what they had before was gone. She started to blame herself for it."

"A bit later on Ember was accepted to the Arcane Magics as a instructor. Twilight was so proud seein' her student growin' up an movin' back ta Canterlot. Twi kept writing letters, but very few came back. Friends don't do that ta eachother."

"Twilight felt like a mother to Ember then. How long were they together?"

"It was close ta six years. Ember became Twi's student when she was only five years old."

Anya had to think for a second. Five years meant ten in human years, because they went on a bi-annual basis for birthdays here. "She spent more time with Twilight than her own family? That seems odd to me."

"That's just how things all go here. Been that way for ah long while, still be that way when we all go."

"What happened after she left for Canterlot?"

"Well, Twi kept the letters goin', and even visited her every once and ah while. Don't know what happened, but she eventually stopped goin' ta see her Twilight spiraled into a depression, whatever happened with that wasn' no good thing. Then that whole... thing happened."

"Everythin she knew came crashing to the ground. Somepony she saw as her daughter almost destroyed her entire life. Twi felt... responsible for it all. Thinkin' that everythin that happened was her fault, cause she had failed somehow. Ah don't think that did her any good. She hasn't talked with anypony about what happened, an no offense ta you, but havin' you around ain't doin' her no good. We all are worried about her."

Anya nodded. "I've talked with her a bit, mostly just answering questions. I can't really remember an honest conversation with her."

"How's she holdin' up?"

"I can't say honestly. I don't know her that well, but every time I try and ask about the..." what was that called, the event? "About the thing that happened she gets angry, and in my face. The other day was the first time she had actually hit me since the day I got here. I really think that she needs you and your other friends, with me gone."

Applejack paused for a second. "Whadya mean 'With you gone'? Are ya going ta... do somethin'?"

"What? No! I mean that I need to be away from her for a while. I managed to make it out of the desert and back here. I'm figuring that I'll head to Canterlot and see about finding other living arrangements." Anya said. The last thing she was going to do was off herself, though to be fair, that disgusting thought had crept it's way inside on several occasions.

"Ah got several places all over Equestria. If ya'd like it wouldn't be that hard ta convince Celestia ta let ya stay there. Of course ya'd have ta work for it."

Anya smiled a tiny bit. Of course business Applejack would want that, no free rides right? The pony version of Alisa Rosenbaum, Apples Shrugged. She had to giggle a bit inside, the horrible nature of that pun.

"Ah can even take ya ta Canterlot as well."

"I think I'll be fine on my own, getting to Canterlot that is. You have already done so much for me. Besides, I want to see Equestria on my own, take a while to make it there and see everything I can."

"Well, there ain't much between Ponyville and Canterlot but a whole lot ah small towns and farmin' country."

"It's still more than I've seen in the past few months. Sitting inside the library and going to the park is all I have really seen so far. Seeing what little I did of Las Vegas was amazing, and I would love to see more!" Anya's spirits began to climb higher, her ears perked up and the beginnings of a smile crept across her face. Her own adventure was about to begin.

"Las what now?" Applejack stated, confused.

"Oh... I meant Las Pegasus. It's called Las Vegas in my... old world.

"Ah can see why ya got em confused. Let's get Twilight back in here, breakfast is gettin' cold."

Twilight and Applejack talked during breakfast and tried to bring Anya into the conversation but they were talking about events and a friendship she had never experienced, thus felt left out. Soon, all the food was consumed and glasses refilled with orange juice.

Twilight hadn't seen any of her friends on a normal basis for nearly a year, keeping to herself to try and get the Ember event under control. Nopony knew her better than Twilight, why get them involved and possibly hurt again.

"Twi, Ah need ta talk with ya about Anya here." Applejack reached out to her with a hoof across the table, the tone of a serious conversation. "Ah think that ya need some time away from her."

"No! Princess Celestia has made it my task to keep her safe, to make sure that she is fine, she's MY responsibility." Twilight withdrew her hoof, offended that anypony should ask her to defy the Princess' orders.

"Ya blame ya'self for what happened, an have been beatin' ya'self up ovah this for goin' on a year now. We all ah worried about ya."

"I can't, I can't let her do anything to hurt anypony again. I have to keep her safe, keep all of us safe." Twilight said, drawing her hooves towards her chest.

"Ember is gone Twilight, an now ya have somepony else here. Anya needs the same guidance ya gave Ember. If ya can't give that ta her, ya need ta let her go until ya are ready. Ya need time ta work ya self out, an all ya friends are here ta help."

"Where is Anya going to go? Who's going to watch out for her?" Twilight asked, looking over to the mare.

"Ah will for now. She ain't ya problem, never was, and still ain't. Ya gotta let her go, or ya life and her life ain't gunna' be nothin' but miserable. Besides, she dun made her way from the middle of nowhere ta get back here and onta' Canterlot."

"But... but, she hasn't learned enough to be out in the world yet!" Twilight sputtered.

"Ya coulda fooled me. Ah thought she was a regular pony all the way till ya said somethin' about her. Anya's more than capable of bein' on her own." Applejack nodded.

Anya wanted to interject as her future fate was decided. She didn't want to leave permanently, but rather give Twilight some time to grieve with the support of her friends. Ember was more than a pony that needed to be brought to justice for her betrayal, she was also very important to her. In some light she felt like an adopted daughter.

"I really shouldn't let her go. Anya has come along way, but is far from capable of controlling her... gift. She isn't even wearing the-"

Anya moved a hoof to pull back the shortened mane that had been changed to nearly the same color as the ring around her horn. If there was one thing she had learned from Twilight it was that until she had a mastery of her special skill, the ring needed to be on.

The previous night in the desert had given her great insight as to why Ember had done some of the the things she did. There was one fact that had shown forth in all of this, that her body had some sort of physical ailment and needed an external heat source.

"I put it back on when near anypony else. I know that I'm dangerous, as it relates to my lack of skill. The last thing I want to do is burn... anything."

Twilight just nodded, seeing her thought process to have been all wrong.
"AJ, I don't want to seem offensive, but what if something happens that you can't control? There isn't much you know about unicorn magic at all."

"Ah offered to see ta her after the Princesses decide how ta handle this. They may decide she needs more time with ya, or she's stayin in Canterlot."

Both of the other mares sat silent. There was nothing left to say that hadn't already been. Twilight understood that this was a good course of action, even though she would have rallied against it if the words were coming from any other pony than Apple Jack.

Everything now hinged on what would transpire in Canterlot. Anya felt apprehensive about the entire thing. It was something she wanted, to know more than the small spaces she had been in. But with such a massive change before her, there were bound to be mistakes she would make. The worst of which would be a repeat, however unintended it would be, of the events that had brought her here.

"Ya have everythin' ya need from Twilight's?" The orange mare asked.

"I don't have much. All of it is in my satchel. A spell book and papers from Celestia, it's all I own. I guess I'll need a map. Other than that, I can leave right now."

"Well, ah can get ya a map and Twi," she turned to her friend, "Ya can send a letter. Let Celestia know Anya is headed her way."

Twilight nodded, looking let down. A tingle of failure ran through her mind. That she was unable to do what she had been given for the second time, with what was physically the same pony. She rose from her seat and slowly trotted to the door of the train car.

Anya wanted to say something, though no thoughts came to mind. There was no reason Twilight needed to feel a failure a second time. Rather an explanation that they needed to walk down separate paths this time around.

"I do want to see you again." she said to the mare in egress who didn't turn to say anything back, just exit the train and onto the platform.

"Let her know that it's not her fault." Anya said, turning to Apple Jack.

"That's something she has ta decide herself. But ah gotta get in touch with some ponies. Ya sure ya want ta walk to Canterlot? Cause ah can give ya a ride."

"I'm fine. I'd rather see things at my own pace, even if it is nothing but countryside, it's better than the past few months."

"Ok then. Ah'll get ya a map and somethin' for the road." Applejack lightly clopped a hoof on the table and shifted from the seat, disappearing into another train car.

Anya wrapped the remaining croissants from the plate in napkins and carefully placed them into her satchel. No point in letting it go to waste like the rest of the food still plated about the car. There would undoubtedly be food along the road, and grass, but better to err on the side of caution.

The suited mare returned to the car with a small leather bag and what looked like a canteen with an apple stitched into the outside felt.

"Here's a canteen, and a pouch with apple and a few bits inside. And a map." the earth pony laid out all the things on the edge of the table.

"Oh wow... Thanks. I uh, also took the left over croissants from breakfast as well." Anya reported, feeling guilty for having shoved them in her bag. AJ just nodded. Anya slung the canteen around her neck and laid the satchel off to one side after depositing the pouch inside.

"Now ya best be off. Twilight is goin' ta need some support before she does somethin' stupid."

"What?" she asked, "Twilight would never-"

"Ah said too much. Out!" Applejack announced, more in a playful tone than officious, giving the mare heading towards the door a rather good shove to move her along faster.

Anya was unceremoniously pushed from the car onto the platform. A loud hiss burned through the air and the wheels spun for a fraction of a turn before catching and moving the train forward.

Odd, she thought. Well, what ever had Apple Jack in a rush would have to wait. Right now she had freedom at her hooves, the ability to take as long as Anya wanted to travel to Canterlot. It was the rush of the unknown, getting in her car and just driving far away. There was no purpose to it but to be alone with music. To feel the road on the tires, to be moving.

Unfortunately there were no cars here, music was played on vinyl records and the radio or walk-man hadn't been invented. The mare shivered with anticipation as she unfolded the map on an empty seat on the platform. Canterlot, according to the legend, was two hundred and one Leagues away. Damn, what was a League in Miles? Two? Didn't they go around the world in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea? She couldn't remember.

The roads looked safe anyway. The first leg of the journey would take her around the edge of Apple Jack's farm in a North West direction, which on the map looked monstrous. Roughly ten Leagues up the road there was a small town, Ardenville. Depending on how long it took to get there, Anya would be able to judge the length this trip would take.

She folded the map and put it into the satchel, remembering to close the top. She didn't need to bumble about Equestria for a month trying to get to Canterlot. Butterflies flapped in her stomach as she smiled. Her first adventure, out on her own. Two hundred leagues, a journey that started with a single step.

AJ disembarked the train from the small offshoot from the main line that went to her farm. The cost of track made it well worth it, as they no longer had to haul tons of apples down to the loading dock. It cut down on time and cost.

After greeting her family she went for a slow walk in the orchard. The entire ordeal earlier on had rocked her to the core. Anya was Ember, in body at least. It has been explained that Ember was gone, some magical hoo-hah about her mind escaping to another place. She expected that whatever was left of her body was bed stricken and would need care for the rest of it's days, even though Princess Celestia had explained there was another mind inside her.

It was good that she had changed her coat and mane. If Anya had approached her as Ember had been, there would have been a reckoning coming to that little mare. Hopefully what ever evil was inside her had left with Ember's mind.

Apple Jack felt sorry for her in all honesty. Tossed into the middle of something she didn't understand, in a world she knew nothing about. To make matters worse, she was staying with Twilight. If she would have known about this situation before, she would have rallied against it. As much as her friend had on her mind, coupled with her other issues, this should have happened sooner.

There was no doubt Anya was well on her way to being a true pony. She even managed to pass under her nose. She had a filly's understanding of the world and for the time being that was more than enough. No doubt that she would need to work back up to Arch Mage, Twilight said there was a reason they needed another unicorn as powerful as she was, but she couldn't remember the reason.

Right now Twilight needed a friend, she had become distressed when AJ had mentioned they part ways for now. A sign that she wasn't well. It was best to check up on her. AJ returned to the train, undressed and took her hat from the rack.

Back in Ponyville.

"YEE HA!" She shouted aloud, standing on her back hooves and gave the air playful kicks all the while grinning like a filly in Sugar Cube Corner. A tingle of pain shot through her flank, it was worth it though. Time to go see an old friend.

"Twi?" Apple Jack called out in the main room of the library. "Ya here?"

"She in her bed room." a deep voice said. It was Spike, calling from atop a book case near a window. He'd been laying on it to soak up the warm sun coming through.

"Yer gettin' mighty big." Apple Jack gulped, taking a step back. She hadn't seen the not-so-little guy for nearly a year now and he had grown to nearly twice his size in that time.

"Yep!" He grinned, showing a row of razor sharp teeth. AJ tried to keep her expression neutral, but his maw gave her shivers down to the very core. It looked capable of effortlessly cleaving a pony in half. But this was Spike, no way he was ever going to do that...

"Ah'll just go to see on Twilight..." AJ trailed off, nervously forcing a smile and trotting her way up the stairs.

Twilight laying was in her bed, facing away from the door and out the window. She had her tail wrapped in her hooves, giving it a stern hug from time to time.

"Ya all right?" AJ asked, placing a comforting hoof on her shoulder.

Twilight sniffled and wiped the visible tears from her eyes, completely forgetting the matter fur on her cheeks, a darkened stain on the pillow told a tale of heaving sobbing.

"She's gone, AJ, she's gone..."

"Anya?" She asked, confused.

"No, Ember. She... she's gone."

"Yea Twi, she's been 'gone' for nearly a year now."

Twilight turned her head, brow wrinkled in confusion and her muzzle agape in shock. "But she just..." she stopped herself, pausing in thought. "Yes, a year now." she nodded confidently. AJ's concerned melted into a hint of anger and disappointment.

"What is today?" she asked to Twilight.

"Tuesday." she spoke with haste.

"What year?"

"Regal Era, One thousand and thirty... four." Twilight's pause did not bringing ease to her friend as she lifted a corner of her muzzle to smile.

"Do you know where you are now?"

"In my bed room, I'm pretty sure in Ponyville." she reported.

Apple Jack frowned and left the room. She was only gone for a few seconds, returning with a hoof-ful of opaque orange bottles wearing a white labels.

"Twi, all of ya medicine is dated six months ago. Ya stopped taking it. Why?"

Twilight didn't respond, she just wrapped her hooves around AJ's shoulders and began to cry uncontrollably who followed her hug in suit. It was twenty minutes before she calmed down enough to speak.

"I don't want to loose her Apple Jack, I don't."

Apple Jack just held her without response. It was bad, but not as bad as it could have been. Whatever she believed in at this point, it would have made it worse to take it away from her in this condition.

Anya wanting to change herself so she didn't look like Ember anymore must have been the reason she had been violent. It was the last piece of her that was left. Changing that meant facing facts the Ember she knew was truly gone.

"Why'd ya do this to ya self Twilight..." she whispered to herself. Between the sniffles and sobs she wasn't able to hear.

"Come n` stay with me for a week."

"Why?" Twilight asked bluntly, releasing her hold and looking sternly into her friend's eyes.

"Cause ah don't wanta' have a talk with Shining Armor, or even Princess Celestia."

Twilight paused, if there was anything she didn't want, it was to have her family dragged into her life at this point. She had always been able to keep on top of it, keep things under control, but this time, she wasn't able to tell. "Have I really gotten that bad?" She asked in alarm. "Cause Ember is gone, I know that."

"Jus twenty seconds ago ya didn't."

Twilight sighed heavily and raised a front hoof, as if about to begin reciting an oath. "I'll defer to your judgement then."

"Ah'll get ya things an medicine." AJ nodded.

Seven hundred miles. That was how far two hundred leagues was. It was going to take a week to get there at this rate. As the road wound around the fields and apple orchards she would hear the blast of a train horn echoing across the air. For most of the journey the road would curve away and towards the tracks, going around hills and valleys where the train would hug the cliffs or cut through them.

The road was amazing though, groves of trees chock full of the biggest and reddest apples she had never seen. The opposite side of the road was a varying scenery of wide open golden plains of wheat, trees that overhung the road and that was a nice reprieve from the sun while it lasted.

Anya had passed Ardenville as the sun touched the horizon. It was a quiet little town a bit from the edge of Apple Jack's farm. Not much was there, several houses, a small inn and brew house that she passed up and a passenger platform by the rails that was little more than wood raised off the floor and a tower for catching the mail bags hung on them. The train only stopped once a week.

Sweet-water Springs was ahead. The map showed a small hut or cabin near it's shores just off the road. Hopefully it was some place to stay for the night. Anya cursed under her breath, she should have stayed at the inn.

The fields were alight with a full moon and millions of tiny star pinpricks in the black fabric that was the sky had brought a beautiful glow to the world. Crickets hummed on either side of her and breezes of wind would occasionally sweep through to join in the moonlight chorus with the owls.

The Ever-free Forest was some-hundred miles away by now, but the lingering thought of some rouge entity crouching in the field, ready to devour her began to bite at her mind. She had slipped off the ring on her horn just in case. She knew how to levitate with near perfection and the insight just a day ago into fire and flames would be an ally. Though she was reserved about using it, meals for perhaps tens of thousands of ponies were out there in that wheat.

The glow off the road was enough to see by, but she wished that before departing she had learned some sort of an illumination spell. Or night vision. That would be awesome. Up ahead there was a sign and she rushed to see it.

As she read off the white letters of 'Sweet-water Springs' from the wooden board, the oddity that English was both the language and written word struck her. Or was it English? The thought crossed her mind that it possibly wasn't, just her brain making sense with what Ember's body knew. Celestia had done alot of spell casting on her that was never explained, after their return from the forest and she was deemed fit to leave. Was knowledge able to be imbued with a spell? Best not to think about that, she barely understood what she did and trying hard to gave her a headache. Apparently headaches were all to regular with unicorns.

Thoughts of magic aside, Anya headed down the offshoot through a grove of trees to come upon a crystal clear lake and a small worn down house. A group of candles on a table provided enough light to see the shape of a pony sitting in a chair on the porch. She approached with caution, ready to high tail it out of there.

The moment she came close to the porch, the pony sprang forward from the seat and shouted.

"Who's there?" a high pitched voice called out. "Ya know I don't have my glasses! Come closer!"

He wasn't holding a shotgun, but the dirty overalls and a single piece of wheat from the corner of his mouth wasn't helping the whole 'Deliverance' vibe Anya was getting.

It's Equestria, she reminded herself, not banjo country.

"Hello." she called out, approaching the house and putting a hoof on the step. "My name is Anya and I'm looking for a place to stay for the night."

"Hello little Missy!" He chimed cheerfully, "I'm Didley, I run this here spring. Ant had a visitor in quite some time now. What bring ya this way?"

"I'm heading up to Canterlot from Ponyville and looking for a room for the night." she restated. Clearly Mr. Didley was hard of hearing, or just out of it. Either way he seemed nice.

"A room ya say! Well I don't have no extra rooms, but I have a couch. Though there is one thing I'd nee ya to do for me." He grinned, the few missing teeth sent a chill down the mare's spine.

"And... what is that?" Anya asked, folding her ears down and grimacing, disgusting thoughts ran through her head.

"My wife, bless her heart, has been gone a few years now," he paused and reached back out of the light for something. Great, here it comes. Anya held her breath. He produced a large brown colored glass bottle, "We'd sit on our porch, talk and drink hooch till we got all silly an passed out." He held the bottle out in both fore-hooves and grinned again.

"Just drink and talk with you?" She raised an eyebrow in dis-belief.

"Yussiree! My wife an I did it it most nights once the visitors stopped coming to the spring. Drinkin' alone ain't all it's cracked up to be, not without company."

Twilight never let her have any alcohol and she was never able to buy any. Anya slipped the studding ring from her bag and placed it on her horn, giving it a little twist so it wouldn't fall off. Apple Jack got her loose the other night and that was fun. A smile crossed her muzzle.

"That sounds absolutely fine. Pour me the first glass."

Delight crept across the earth pony's burnt umber body, he bubbled with glee and popped the cork from the bottle with his teeth.

"Only glasses round here are the ones ya see outta little miss!" Didley laughed and offered her the bottle strait up.

Anya took a giant swig from the bottle. It went down smooth and burned in her stomach. The element of fun in a bottle. Tomorrow was going to hurt.