Roseluck lay listlessly on a bench, swinging her hind leg in much the same way. Her hoof barely grazed the tops of grass blades, the sensation soothing to her absent senses. At the moment, she could use a little soothing.
A lot plagued her mind – too much to allow her to remain cooped up in that office of hers, surrounded by tools of authority she could not use. Even though the whole idea of being in charge of anything larger than a small town florist shop was still in and over itself a novelty, she’d nevertheless grown accustomed to her responsibilities and obligations. Having them stripped from her almost in totality overnight was just as big a system shock as when she’d taken up the position in the first place.
She could not send reports, could not organize or consolidate to any great effect – she couldn’t even send a letter and expect it to make it beyond the district’s walls. Nothing got out without being picked apart as some suspected secret communique, no matter how benign it might be.
It was frustrating, knowing in particular that Applejack was out there where she couldn’t be reached, and undoubtedly where she’d need help the most. But even just that one trip beyond the district may have been too bold a move…
Roseluck sighed and set her head down on her hooves. Too much worried her. Too much stressed her. At times like this, she would turn to her family – Daisy and Lily. But that was not an option, not with Steel Shod’s grip over the district so ironclad.
In the same way nothing was going out, nothing was coming in. Distance was not an appreciable factor in harnessing love, not when the distance only encompassed a village. But that did not stop the heart from yearning for closer contact regardless. Some changelings were… calculating… enough to boil it down to purely logical facts, that they didn't need face to face interaction for survival. But Roseluck was too much a pony at heart to see it that way.
Daisy and Lily… She let her mind wander in their direction. In a way, it was the lesser of two evils. Daisy and Lily weren’t in life-threatening situations. It was worrying still, but at least she didn’t feel like she was going to pull her mane out over it.
She wondered idly if they’d gotten that shipment of Mellow Mallow seeds yet. It’d been all Lily could talk about for weeks; according to her, only a few places in Equestria grew them for sale. Just one crop could really bring in the bits.
Speaking of which, she hoped Daisy had remembered to balance their books. Roseluck was supposed to do it today, but for obvious reasons that simply wasn’t to be. Businesses involving changelings were always under close scrutiny; the sooner that was done, the better for everypony involved.
Was the jasmine growing right? They’d need watered today… Lily was usually on top of that, though. She loved those budding plants like her own children sometimes. The store would need some more fertilizer soon, however. Hopefully the shops in Ponyville weren’t as restrained by Steel Shod’s lockdown…
A sound caught Roseluck’s attention, snapping her back to reality.
She looked up, refocusing her eyes – on a glass being offer to her by a holey hoof. Inside was a semi-clear yellow beverage, still swirling with lemon pulp and two disintegrating ice cubes.
A drone stood in front of her with a goofy smile, like a puppy awaiting praise.
Roseluck let the tension roll off of her, and she smiled, sat up, and took the offered cup. “Thank you, Derpy,” she said.
The drone beamed still wider, then pranced away, humming to herself, ever the enigma.
Does that pony have a worry-bone in her body…?
She sighed, tossing it aside, and glanced down towards the gift. She took a sip, and almost immediately winced. Way too much sugar for her taste. She was more of an ice tea kind of gal.
Still, the chilled drink cooled her tongue and throat, and despite the sweet-splosion that assaulted her taste buds with every drop, it was still refreshing in its own way.
And at the moment, she could use a little refreshment…
She looked up, just as a drone set himself down on the grass in front of her. There was a slight frown on his face; a tone of edginess that immediately sank Roseluck’s heart just a little lower.
“Miss Roseluck?” he said. “Sorry to interrupt.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, sitting up. Duty called…
The drone looked over his shoulder, ears up and at attention, as if keenly listening for something. Then he glanced back. “Uh… Captain Steel Shod would like a word.”
Roseluck sighed. She spared her half-finished lemonade a disappointed look that it probably didn’t deserve, having already numbed her tongue, then set it down on the bench.
Worries upon worries…
Roseluck followed the drone through the narrow streets. Along the way, she noticed the many changelings peeking out through windows and hollows, watching her pass.
Very few were actually out and about, and those that were in the open kept a watchful eye over everything from lofty perches, their heads on a swivel at all times. By and large, however, none were making any sound whatsoever. A pin could have dropped – on grass – and it would have made more noise.
Everywhere Roseluck looked, changelings looked back; questioning, curious. A few younglings peeked nervously over the sides of their parents, wings flicking.
But none followed her; they kept to their private hovels, as if taking shelter from non-existent rain.
She realized that many were probably just like her; thoughts drifting beyond the closed boundaries of the district, worrying over loved ones they could not see. Listless, on edge, but helpless at the same time.
The closer Roseluck got to the edge of the district, however, the thinner the population became. One by one, the number of blue eyes turning to her as she approached dwindled, until all she found were empty treehouses and abandoned streets. The only sound to be heard was a weak, moaning wind whistling through the trees.
That was when she found them. She rounded one last corner, her eyes falling on the archway of woven aspen trees marking the main gate in and out, only to find it crowded with royal guards.
There were at least six – three to a side – including an honor guard brandishing Equestrian banners, and judging by the rivet-studded barricades wedged in and around the archway, they’d made themselves quite at home.
At their head stood Steel Shod, who looked fit for waging war instead of making house calls. He was fully clad in armor, from his hooves to his head; he hadn’t even removed his helmet. Obviously he wasn’t here for a social visit, and he wasn’t planning on staying long.
At least he hadn’t drawn his weapon, but the heavy metal spear shaft hung from his side, cradled in a sheath where he could very easily bring it to bear in the blink of an eye.
The hard look he was giving Roseluck immediately made her quail inside, because a part of her knew exactly why the good captain had summoned her all the way out here. But she steeled her nerves; if Applejack could stand toe to toe with him, she could, too.
“Captain Steel Shod,” Roseluck greeted. She even managed a businessmare’s smile. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Steel Shod was unmoved. “Perhaps you can tell me,” he said. “That’s close enough,” he added, sharper this time.
Both Roseluck and her accompanying drone immediately skittered to a halt. There was still plenty of distance between both groups, enough to force both to talk in slightly raised voices just to be heard. In a way, the distance was a boon; Roseluck doubted she could maintain her composure if she was forced to stand within striking distance of the muscle-bound guard captain.
“I’ll keep this simple, Roseluck,” Steel Shod said tersely. “Where is Applejack?”
She cursed internally. She knew it… something had given them away. A sensor spell of some kind, a scout; who could say. She wouldn’t put it past Steel Shod to have blanketed the whole district in a latticework of magical snitches just waiting for the slightest hint of changeling magic to cross it.
Obviously Steel Shod thought he had enough proof to throw some kind of accusation around, or else he wouldn’t be here in the first place. On the bright side, it also meant he didn’t have anything concrete, or else he wouldn’t even be bothering with such a question. And that told Roseluck she still had room to maneuver.
“Why the sudden interest?” Roseluck countered smoothly.
Steel Shod didn’t miss a beat. “I’m not in the mood for games. I know someone left the district this morning. Already I’ve gotten half a dozen reports of positive detections near and around Sweet Apple Acres from patrols who are, as we speak, in hot pursuit of someone entering the Everfree Forest. So… where is she?”
Roseluck kept her head up. She had to keep her wits about her. Steel Shod was too… focused a pony to divert, but she had to do something.
It didn’t take her long to come up with a little ammunition, however.
“I wasn’t aware that the Everfree fell into your jurisdiction,” she responded coolly. “If I remember correctly, your orders were only to secure Ponyville, and nothing more. Don’t tell me you’ve been overstepping your bounds, Captain.”
Predictably, Steel Shod leveled an unamused glower at her, but she didn’t waver.
“As to your inquiry, I’m afraid Applejack is unavailable right now,” she said, forcing herself to meet that withering look. “I’m sure the princesses already briefed you on her… condition. And if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not have your troops stomping through my district.”
The drone beside her let out a barely restrained whine through closed lips, looking like he was about to have a panic attack. His eyes never left the formidable group of stallions, every muscle in his body tense, legs trembling slightly.
Roseluck glanced at him, then back to Steel Shod meaningfully. “I’m sure you understand.”
Steel Shod looked the stressed drone over mutely, then flicked his eyes back towards Roseluck.
For a moment, she held her breath, praying for some kind of miracle. But the seconds dragged out, and Steel Shod showed no signs of backing down.
“You know, I’ve learned a great deal about changelings in these past few months,” he growled. “I’ve interrogated several of your kind while stationed near the border; enough to pick up on some of your habits.”
He glared at Roseluck; a look so hard and cold it had her shivering. “Your kind tries to avoid outright lying. You avoid answering difficult questions altogether and skirt around the issue at hoof. I don’t know if it’s pride or vanity that makes you do it, and I don’t much care. What I do care about is that right now you’re avoiding my question. Which tells me you have reason to lie to my face.”
Roseluck was glad she was in her pony form; the fur kept the beads of sweat on her brow from being seen.
“That tells me several things,” Steel Shod went on. “You don’t want me to know where Applejack is. And that’s a problem. Because if I find her breaking the lockdown, not even the Princesses can deny her crime. She will face justice. Her, or her accomplices.”
Roseluck fought down her nerves. She had to stay composed; she refused to give Steel Shod the pleasure of seeing her squirm. She forced herself to meet those eyes, and stand as tall as she could.
“My dear captain, I’d watch what you say if I were you,” she said, sounding borderline casual. “We wouldn’t want your words to actually be construed as a threat, now would we?”
Steel Shod glared back, but did not respond. “You have until noon,” he said shortly. “I’m sure I can work out the paperwork by then. Then, cooperation or no, I will be back for answers. That is, if Applejack doesn’t turn up elsewhere first.”
With that, he pulled an about-face, and swept away with his honor guard right on his heels.
It wasn’t until he’d rounded a distant corner down the road, and after Roseluck had retreated out of sight of the guarded entrance that she reminded herself to breathe.
“W-what are we going to do?” hissed the drone at her side, looking only half as panicked as she felt. “If Applejack gets caught and sent to the dungeons, there’s no way she’ll get out again before… before…”
“I know,” Roseluck said, feigning calmness quite expertly. “I know. We’ll just have to have faith in Her Highness. It’s… the best we can do right now.”
The drone glanced sideways at her. It was clear enough just by looking at him that he wasn’t contented with that response. “There’s plenty we can do…”
He instantly wilted under the look Roseluck shot him. “Not if we want to keep this entire situation from getting worse. We play by the ponies’ rules. The moment we don’t, we’ll give Steel Shod everything he needs to run us right out of Equestria. And we both know who’ll be waiting for us there.”
The drone shivered. He struggled to keep his features neutral, but he was still easy to read regardless. Compared to the Court, Steel Shod was hardly more than a stubborn social worker, and they both knew it.
But even so, Roseluck was finding it very difficult to see the silver lining in their situation anymore. Please hurry Applejack…
As the two contentious parties went their separate ways, they were unaware of a set of eyes and ears trained in their direction. Not from the forested district, either.
One purple eye watched from just around the corner of a nearby thatched roof cottage, well within earshot of the loudmouth individuals. But of all the things said, only one thing caught her attention.
“So… she went to the Everfree after all,” she said to herself. “Well… that makes things easier.”
The guards stationed around the main entrance jumped nearly a foot in the air as a sound like a thunderclap rent the air. The only evidence of its source, a streak of blue shooting high into the sky above, and out of sight.
With a grunt, Applejack slid down a shallow, muddy wash and landed on the trunk of a downed, mossy tree. Another hop, and she thudded to the spongy ground below on all fours.
Up ahead, Rainbow looked back at her. Zecora’s flask swung around her neck, its ray of light beaming still further into the forest. “You doing alright, AJ?”
Applejack straightened up. “Ain’t the worst trek Ah’ve ever been on,” she commented dryly. “Ain’t the best, neither.”
Rainbow pursed her lips for a moment, waffling on what to say next. They’d been making good time for nearly half an hour now, non-stop, and through some pretty nasty underbrush, too. Well, Applejack had, anyway. Rainbow had had the luxury of just flying right over the tangles of brambles and deadfalls and a whole slew of other things that’d gotten in their way.
Well… technically Applejack had that luxury, too, but did she use it? Of course not. She’d been hiking for miles on her hooves without so much as a complaint, just like usual. Over rocks, under fallen trees, through tightly packed ravines, over hills, never stopping, never slowing. For hours.
And, well, Rainbow was all-too aware that her friend wasn’t in perfect condition, either.
Rainbow continued to cast around for what to do… until she found the perfect patsy.
“Hey Bumblebee!” she called, causing the drone to jolt to a stop at the top of the slippery slope Applejack had just slid down.
Agave was on her back again, giving her hooves and wings a rest. And yet, Bumblebee barely seemed hampered, not even with the heavy orb that was still tied to Agave’s side.
“Um… yes?” she spoke up tentatively.
“You’re looking tired,” Rainbow observed. “Wanna take a break?”
Bumblebee blinked her big luminescent eyes, expression blank. “Uh… n-no, I think I –”
“Great!” Rainbow cut across loudly, plopping down to the ground without any further ado. “Take five, people!”
Bumblebee gave Applejack a fretful look, which she just returned with a shrug. Rainbow was being Rainbow again…
Still, the log she found sure felt good to sit on.
Applejack dropped her saddlebags, stifling her sigh of relief at having their weight off her flanks. She wasn’t about to telegraph how much her back ached, or her legs burned.
This couldn’t be her limit… She’d walked much further than this before – uphill, dragging a petrified Fluttershy to face her scaly, fire-breathing fears, just to name one occasion. Now all she had to carry was a little, rinky-dink pack stuffed with the essentials, and that was almost too much for her?
She frowned to herself, but ignored it. She was just a little out of sorts. She could still handle herself just fine.
She took off her hat and fanned herself with it. It wafted the salty scent of sweat back at her. That, she blamed on the heat.
The trees were starting to break up all around them, and that meant the invasive and oppressive summer siege was back on. Sunlight found its way to the ground through the towering stands of trees, cutting slanted pillars of light all the way down to the forest floor. And where the sun went, the sweltering heat followed.
The air was heavy and muggy with humidity, and it only got worse the further they went. Each breath was like a gulp of hot, steamy water already, and for once, she really didn’t appreciate all the hair covering her body.
The chirping of birds had very quickly been replaced with the incessant buzz of gnats and mosquitos in Applejack’s ear, which was infinitely more infuriating. Her ears had been flicking away the nuisances so much she was starting to worry about developing a permanent twitch.
Frogs croaked and chirped from virtually every direction, creating a riotous din that rang through the trees far and wide. Most, Applejack recognized. Too many she didn’t.
But the thing Applejack noticed the most as she dug around in her saddlebags for a water canteen was how brown everything was becoming.
Gone were the vibrant flowers of the Everfree. That should be a relief, but it was like trading one worry for another.
Here, everything was ugly, grubby and, more often than not, covered in wicked spines. Tough, rubbery fronds covered in serrated edges littered the forest now, filling the air overhead and occasionally dumping a heavy dollop of collected moisture upon unsuspecting heads below. It was like the forest was perpetually raining; droplets were constantly coming down. The humidity and condensation in the air was truly something else.
Here and there Applejack spotted wiry trees covered in skewer-like thorns as long as her foreleg in some places. They were oddly kinked and jagged, like nature was trying to imitate lightning bolts. So far they were sparse in number, but the further they went, the more they appeared. And those thorns truly were unsettling to look at.
Here and there, lily pads as wide as ponies speckled the floor, topped by long, fleshy stamen swarming with all sorts of buzzy insects. They were the only real source of color in eye sight; a vivid red so bright it seemed like living neon.
It’d been all the group could do to keep Agave away from those things. Of course, when one folded itself in half, spines curling inwards, and snapped at her, Agave refused to wander more than ten feet in one’s general direction from then on.
Trees hung heavy with thick mats of moss. Knee-deep piles of rotting plant matter sat lumped up around the trunks of trees. And everywhere they went, the smell of stagnant water and decay only grew stronger as the presence of cattails grew.
It was hard to believe they were even still in the Everfree…
“So,” started Rainbow abruptly, making Applejack jump. She hadn’t realized she’d been sitting next to her.
Rainbow was looking up and around as well, taking in the shift in scenery passively. “This the place?” she asked, almost casually, like she was trying to strike up a simple conversation.
Applejack huffed, cramming her hat back on her head. “Sure is. Murmurin’ Mire. We’re only right on the edge of the mire proper, but it ain’t gonna get prettier.”
Rainbow turned towards Applejack then, giving her a confused look. “You sure seem to know a lot about it.”
Applejack shrugged. “Well, it ain’t much of a story. Winona wandered off the farm a long time ago and Ah came lookin’ for her. Ended up not far from here before Ah found her, chasin’ some dang chipmunk ‘round a tree.”
Rainbow snickered. Applejack gave her a sidelong look, and she couldn’t help but crack a grin, herself. “Ah don’t know who made pa madder; Winona or me. Ain’t been back since, not after that tannin’.”
Applejack cast her eyes across the sepia marsh, the grin sliding from her face. “It sure is an easy place ta hide somethin’,” she said quietly. “Don’t even think the Timber Wolves come out here. It makes me wonder why no one thought ta look out this way.”
Rainbow didn’t respond, but she watched Applejack carefully. Out here was a part of Applejack’s life that, quite frankly, not even Applejack understood. And for some reason, that made her very uneasy. She didn’t know why, and she didn’t care to. But it bothered her nonetheless.
The pair fell silent for a time, privately resting aching muscles and hooves. Not far away, Agave was inspecting that strange Corastone. She didn’t unwrap it fully, just enough to look at one of its hemispheres and frown. Even then, Applejack could see the rhythmic pulse of light flash weakly against Agave’s fuzzy grey belly.
Bumblebee, for whatever reason, was watching a nearby lily pad, blue eyes fixed on the buzzing cloud swarming the stamen. At one point, she cocked her head to one side, as if listening to something, then straightened up again.
Applejack found herself watching this behavior idly, until Rainbow unexpectedly broke the silence.
“Just out of curiosity,” she started, “What do you think the Court would get from causing… all this.” She finished by waving her hooves in every which direction.
Applejack blinked at her. That had come out of nowhere. “What brought that on?” she asked.
Rainbow ruffled her feathers. “It’s… it’s just something Queen Acornima –”
“Aconita,” Bumblebee corrected.
“Whatever,” Rainbow dismissed, “It’s just something she said. It was… kinda weird.”
She ruffled her mane. “I don’t know… it seemed important to her.”
At the mention of Aconita’s name, Agave snapped back to reality and looked up. “What did she say?” she asked.
Rainbow shrugged. “She just asked me what the Court would gain from war with Equestria. The strange thing was, I think she wanted me to answer.”
Applejack frowned. “That is a weird question. Then again, everythin’ the Court’s doin’ doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
She glanced up at Rainbow, her emerald eyes flashing. “Ah know Ah ain’t much of a changelin’, but Ah know enough ta know that changelin’s don’t make obvious moves unless they know for sure they’re gonna come out on top.”
Rainbow scoffed. “Yeah, fat lot of good that did Vigil.”
Applejack ignored her. “If the Court had this whole thing in the bag… why haven’t they done anything since? For that matter, how do they even have drones in Equestria? One or two drones slippin’ through is one thing, but enough ta cause a real ruckus? Well Ah just can’t see that bein’ the case. But the Court must have some sorta presence here, or else we wouldn’t be hearin’ from them at all.” She sighed and slumped lower. “Huuuh… It just don’t make any sense…”
Rainbow gave her another careful look. “Sounds like you’ve been thinking about this a lot.”
Applejack huffed and straigtened up. “’Course Ah have. As far as Ah know, the Court don’t stand ta gain anythin’ from instigatin’ a war with Equestria. But that’s exactly what they’re tryin’ ta do. So unless they’re just tryin’ ta be pests, there must be somethin’ we’re missin’.”
She frowned to herself for a moment, then turned to look at Agave. “She’s yer mother,” Applejack pointed out. “Got any ideas on what she’d mean?”
Agave frowned to herself. There was a disquieted look on her face, like she really didn’t like picking apart her mother’s actions. “Well… whenever Mother asks questions like that, a lot of times the answer is so obvious nopony sees it. She does it just to see how smart you are.”
Rainbow frowned deeper at that. “Yeah, well, it was a stupid question anyway.”
Agave fidgeted on the spot, chewing her lip. She glanced over her shoulder, as if half expecting to see a pair of icy blue eyes staring through the underbrush back at her. “I… I don’t want to talk about her right now. Can we talk about something else?”
Applejack caught Rainbow’s eye, who could only shrug. She started to open her mouth to say something – when all of a sudden Bumblebee shot up onto all fours, ears alert, body tense.
“Somepony’s coming!” she hissed.
Applejack tensed, straining her ears… but heard nothing. “Uh… Ya sure?”
Bumblebee's response was to suddenly whirled around, and without another word, tackle both Rainbow and Applejack right off the log they’d been sitting on.
A split second later, her head snapped up, clamped down on Agave’s tail, and yanked her down as well.
All four ended up in a heap in a depression behind the log; a drop of about three feet. To Applejack's poor back, it felt further. Cattails towered all around, and judging by the cold wetness soaking Applejack’s tail, they weren’t far from standing water.
But Applejack was currently more preoccupied with the drone sitting on top of her. At least Rainbow had broken her fall.
“Bumblebee,” Applejack growled reproachfully, “what in tarnation –”
A hoof pushed hastily against her mouth, silencing her. “Sorrysorrysorry,” Bumblebee squeaked quietly, urgently. “Please be quiet, Your Highness.”
She glanced up, peering through a thin gap between the warped log and an eroded lip in the earth. “The frogs,” she whispered. “Something made the frogs go quiet…”
Applejack paused, listening intently. To her surprise, Bumblebee was right. It wasn’t a new sound she should’ve been listening for; it was an advancing lack of sound that she should have noticed.
Carefully, Applejack rose up, allowing an irritable Rainbow to pick herself off the squelching earth and stand shoulder to shoulder with the other two. They looked out through the tiny space afforded to them, eyes scanning the small stretch of wilderness they could see.
At first, nothing. But Applejack kept listening, and the more she listened, the more she noticed the croaking in the air softening as frogs and toads fell silent. Small groups ceased their serenading. Then another, followed by another. Worse, it seemed to be drawing closer.
Then, without warning, the brush across from them shook – and an armored head pushed into view.
The stallion’s golden helmet was unmistakable. And he wasn’t alone, either; six others moved with him in loose formation, fanning out across the mire. Despite their heavyset frames, they made alarmingly little noise; only the occasional rustle of underbrush gave them away.
“I heard it around here,” one of them said, and Applejack jumped. The speaker was right there, suddenly appearing right where the group had been a few seconds prior. His armored hoof came down just on the other side of the log, blocking most of their view with golden plates.
All Applejack could see of him was his thick foreleg… and the saddlebags still resting against a twisted branch, right where Applejack had left them.
Applejack stared at it, hard. She knew Rainbow must’ve been, too. All the guard had to do was shift to one side a few inches, and he’d bump into it. How he hadn’t seen it, Applejack would never know, but she wasn’t going to bet on that lasting.
“Look around,” somepony else grunted. “They must be around here somewhere.”
“Willow…,” Bumblebee whimpered quietly. “D-did they do something to… to…?”
Applejack didn’t have an answer for that. That was a question that was going to have to wait, however.
“Fan out,” the dangerously close stallion growled. “Find them.”
A hoof hit the top of the log.
Rainbow tensed, coiling her legs for action. Applejack readied herself, jaw set. Agave cowered into Bumblebee’s side.
Bumblebee was motionless. Utterly, totally motionless. She wasn’t even looking up towards the top of the log like everypony else. It was like she hadn’t even noticed anything.
With a muttered curse, the stallion whirled around a full hundred eighty degrees, facing into the forest. His hoof vanished from overhead, much to the relief of four cowering mares.
Applejack had heard the sound. It sounded like a branch snapping somewhere in the distance.
“What was that?” the stallion barked.
“It came from over there,” another shot back.
And then… they were gone.
Applejack peeked up again, craning her neck to look through the gap afford to her.
The stallions were all moving off, slipping through the bog just as silently as ever. Applejack could see their golden helmets as they passed through cattails and fronds.
“Whew,” she sighed, collapsing slightly into the dirt. “That was too close.”
“These guys have the worst timing,” Rainbow complained in an undertone. “Can’t we just kick their butts already?”
“What would that get done?” Applejack hissed back. “Besides gettin’ us in a whole heap more trouble than we’d already be in. If Steel Shod learns we whooped his men, he'd come after us faster than a cat with its tail on fire.”
“Well it’d make me feel better,” grumbled Rainbow.
“No,” Applejack whispered flatly.
Rainbow fell quiet, in the same way a filly fell quiet when they were pouting. Applejack ignored her, and instead returned to watching the stallions moving around the forest outside. They were just visible, the golden glints off their helmets giving their positions away through the matted underbrush.
Something was nagged at her as she watched them. Something was just… off about them. It wasn’t that they didn’t move in proper formation – in the bog, such a thing just wouldn’t be possible. Was it their uniforms? No, they were standard; nothing out of the ordinary. They certainly were far from civilization, but that couldn’t be it by itself. Then what was it…?
“They aren’t even armed,” Rainbow complained, keeping her voice down at least. “Come on, we could totally take ‘em.”
That was it.
Applejack jolted when she finally noticed what was so off. None of the stallions were carrying spears.
“Why aren’t they carryin’ weapons?” Applejack asked aloud.
“How should I know,” Rainbow murmured grumpily.
“This far in the Everfree, and they don’t have anythin’ ta protect themselves with.”
Now Rainbow caught on to Applejack’s tone. She turned to look at her, confusion warring with irritability in her face. “Yeah, so?”
“Why in tarnation would they not have weapons?” Applejack whispered pressingly, peering at the group. “Steel Shod ain’t stupid enough ta send this many ponies into the Everfree unarmed. And look; they ain’t even unicorns. Somethin’ ain’t right here.”
She continued to watch the group, Rainbow at her side now. They watched as two came back into full view, eyes sweeping critically around.
“I know their tracks came this far,” one growled, his head low and menacing.
“They can’t be far,” agreed the other, peering the other way. Without looking, he turned – and collided with his comrade’s shoulder.
The other staggered slightly, curled his lip on reflex… and hissed threateningly. Not a pony hiss, either; it was almost feral, and immediately it had the stumbling stallion backing away. “Watch it,” he snapped.
Whatever the offending party’s response was, Applejack didn’t hear it. Her eyes had gone wide as the final piece slammed into place.
They weren’t guards at all. They weren't even ponies.
Apparently Rainbow reached the same conclusion at the same time, because she suddenly let out an exasperated sigh. “Not this again…”
Applejack scowled as well. “Well shoot… Guess that answers that question…”
Rainbow turned to look at her meaningfully. “Can I beat them up now?”
But Applejack wasn’t listening. “How in tarnation did they give Willow’s folks the slip?” she wondered quietly. “And how’d they even get here?”
Bumblebee turned to look at her then. “Didn’t Willow say they avoided the Guard?”
Applejack had to suppress a groan. “Well that’s just great… Now there’s no tellin’ how much these goons are bunkered down here.”
“Are you telling me there could be a whole army out here and nopony would know?” Rainbow said, eyes wide with shock.
Bumblebee shook her head. “No… just enough to avoid suspicion. So, a dozen or so… probably.”
Rainbow frowned, glaring out into the infested forest. “Well, I guess we know where Queen Aconita ran off to.”
Applejack gave her a look. “Queen Aconita?”
Rainbow leaned in closer. “Who else would these drones belong to?”
“Queen Lucani, Queen Cerbera, Queen Vespa,” Bumblebee rattled off. “Queen Chrysalis…”
She fell quiet under the irritated look Rainbow gave her. Then she returned her focus back to Applejack. “Okay, besides them. It has to be Queen Aconita. She’s the only queen in Equestria –”
“That we know of,” mumbled Bumblebee dourly.
“The only queen,” Rainbow hissed forcefully. “She has to be the one that attacked Ponyville. It makes sense she’d be out here, too.”
“No it doesn’t.”
Everypony turned towards Agave, who’d wormed her way underneath a tangle of roots left exposed to the open air from the tree beside their hiding spot.
“Mother wouldn’t attack Ponyville like that,” she said simply. “She’s not that direct, and she wouldn't stay where she'd be found easily.”
“Then who?” Rainbow challenged.
“Queen Belladonna, Queen Nephila…” mumbled Bumblebee.
“… Queen Solifuge…”
Rainbow narrowed her eyes, then turned towards the gap, eyeing it critically. “Look, we can either sit here and talk about it, or we can actually do something about it. Do I need to tell you my vote?”
Applejack glanced through the opening. She counted only seven, but her field of vision was rather limited. “Hang on now, sugarcube. We don’t know how many of ‘em there actually are.”
Rainbow groaned, face-planting in the dirt. “Ugh…”
“Think about it,” Applejack pressed, arching an eyebrow. “They’re lookin’ for us. A pegasus, a drone, and two queens.”
Rainbow paused to consider that. “Well… Maybe they’re gonna try to trick us or something into letting our guard down, like they've done before.”
“… As Royal Guard.”
She scowled at Applejack. “Hey, I didn’t say they were smart.”
Applejack shook her head, then returned her focus to the hostile group moving just a few feet away. “The best thing we can do is try ta slip past ‘em. Without drawin’ attention to ourselves.”
Rainbow pulled a face; the kind she reserved for only a few occasions. Like bed rest, or frilly things. It was clear she wasn’t happy with that option, but Applejack did have a point. It was understandable that the Court would underestimate pegasi, unicorns and earth ponies; they were nothing but resources to them. But there was no way they wouldn't know what they were getting into with a fellow queen. Even Vigil had had enough sense to try to wear Applejack down with a puppet army.
“We’re just goin’ ta wait for an openin’,” Applejack whispered steadily, watching the stallions sniff the air. “Just gonna wait, and…”
Another branch snapped in the distance. This time, however, the two fake ponies only turned their heads in annoyance, not budging an inch. “Private, what the heck is going on over there?” one of them shouted, not bothering to keep his voice down.
“Did you hear me, private?” one of the drones barked, turning menacingly in the direction of that noise. No one was responding; only the frogs serenaded the air.
In the same moment Applejack cocked her head to listen, Bumblebee was suddenly tugging fearfully on her shoulder, whining quietly.
The frogs were falling silent again. Not just a few though…
A huge wall of silence rolled towards them like an inverse breeze. Frogs, birds, all sounds hushed one by one… as the ground quaked.
Up above, the stallions tensed, freezing in place. “What was that?” one asked.
Applejack caught Bumblebee’s terrified gaze. She was mouthing something at her – a two syllable word, over and over. But she was so scared she couldn’t put her voice to it.
That was when a sound cut through the trees. A low, carrying sound, like a rumbling groan.
Applejack glanced up at the pathway on the other side of the log – and the stallions were gone without a trace. She tensed, head and eyes whipping this way and that, half expecting to find them bearing down on her. But they were gone.
Something heavy collided with the ground. Something that was toppling trees and flattening bushes.
It was as if all of a sudden, something gigantic had materialized right on top of them. Branches snapped. Heavy trees crashed to the ground. And under it all, Applejack heard the most alarming, most blood-curdling growl she’d ever heard before in her life.
It was guttural, like the exhaust of some great engine. And it was so high above them…
Applejack tilted her head upwards, around the brim of her hat, just as a massive tail swung over their heads.
It was covered in jagged scales – two toned red on the bottom and black on the top. They glinted and gleamed like polished stones, outlining the iron-hard bands of muscle flexing with each movement.
Right on the end were five overlapping boney kernels, like the rattle of an incredibly oversized rattlesnake. It shook and twitched spastically, producing a horrible chatter like clinking bones, before whipping out of sight with astonishing speed.
Applejack twisted back around, staring through the hole under the log – right as a massive claw thundered to the ground outside.
All four of them felt the earth shake with the impact. All Applejack could see was two thickset toes covered in plated scales, squelching deep into the soft ground.
The creature paused. The growling ceased, and an odd flapping sound reached Applejack’s ears. Flicking… flicking…
The ground began to darken as a shadow grew deeper. The flicking sound came lower, lower to the ground.
Somepony was clutching at Applejack’s shoulder. She ignored it, pulling away, but the hoof was insistent.
“The bottle,” hissed a voice beside her.
Applejack snapped her head around, heart jackhammering in her chest, to find Rainbow staring wide-eyed at her, pointing at the bottle.
It was suddenly, and inexplicably, pointing towards the other side of the log. Directly at the creature.
Applejack paled. No… No that couldn’t be right. How…
The log they were all hiding behind groaned as a massive weight pressed down onto it. It cracked and very nearly split, rotted wood giving way beneath sheer tonnage. It sagged into the mud, and their precious peephole was squashed flat.
Applejack and Rainbow both looked up, petrified, to find four dull grey scythes buried in the wood mere inches from their heads.
They were long, thick, and wickedly curled, like the talons of a hawk. The entire paw was so wide it could have completely wrapped around the downed tree they were taking shelter behind.
But it was nothing compared to the fifth digit. It was a razor sharp crescent nearly twice the size of the others, like some overgrown spur set on the inside of the massive paw. It clicked up and down pensively, digging deep into the wood with each motion.
Again the creature paused, scenting the air. Then, with an irritable grumble… it moved off.
Applejack watched as the claws released their only safe haven and receded. She could see the shadow of a great arched back lumber passed them, the ground quaking with each step it took.
She listened to each subsequent thud as the creature lumbered away, carving its own path through the dense underbrush with terrifying ease, until nothing but terrified silence remained.
Applejack waited until the forest came back alive before she peeked her head cautiously over the top of the log.
The scenery had changed dramatically with the giant monster’s passage. Trees had been knocked aside, and now lay toppled over all around. Branches were snapped. Bushes were flattened. And all over the place, Applejack found deep-set paw prints as wide as she was long.
“Well that was thrillin’,” she said, frowning. “Ah guess we don’t need ta worry about wakin’ it up now.”
“What the hay was that?” Rainbow breathed, following the trail of destruction. “Did you see that tail? And those claws?”
“Yeah, and Ah’m guessin’ it ain’t somethin’ we want ta get on the bad side of,” Applejack replied.
“Kinda late for that,” Rainbow grumbled. “Did you see Zecora’s bottle? It was point right at it!”
“How did it get behind us?” Agave asked.
“Well, Aconita’s drones kind of had us distracted,” Rainbow mentioned.
Agave puffed out her cheeks at that. “They’re not Mommy’s! I-I mean Mother’s!”
“We can decide whose they are later,” Applejack interrupted, cutting across Rainbow. “Right now we gotta catch up to that thing before it leaves us behind again.”
“And do what?” Bumblebee asked apprehensively.
To that, Applejack lost some of her gusto. “Well… We’ll just have ta wait and see. At the very least we’d better get outta here before those drones do come back.”
On that, there was no argument.
"Alright, grab your things and let's..." Applejack started... only to trail off.
Rainbow had just turned around to retrieve her own pack when she noticed Applejack's lapse into silence. "What?"
She turned, and found Applejack standing in the same spot, her eyes turned towards a patch of chocolate diamonds in the shape of twisted branches – right where her pack used to be.
Used to be.
The mire seemed a thousand times more dangerous as the four mares broke cover and carefully made their way deeper into the waterlogged glades. All four heads were on a swivel, scanning everything and not taking anything for granted. They knew now that they were being hunted, and not just by the Guard.
Luckily – in a way – the beast’s trail was not hard to follow. It carved a wide path through the brush, pushing through even the densest of foliage in a perpetually straight line through the mire.
Deeper they went, ever downward in a gentle slope. The humidity grew worse, forming thick banks of mist and steam that coiled through the trees and rose off of shallow pools.
And along the way, it didn’t take long for Rainbow, Bumblebee and Agave to learn how the mire had gotten its name.
At first, Rainbow thought her ears were playing tricks on her. But the further in they went, the more she started to make it out.
Here, there, all around them, she thought she could hear whispering amongst the trees. Sometimes it was relaxed and soft. Other times it was hasty and urgent. More and more, she was getting the feeling that they were surrounded, but whenever her eyes darted around for the source, she found nothing but grubby fronds and moss, and the occasional beady eye of a frog staring obliviously in her direction.
She was already stressed by that point, so the sound grated on her nerves until she felt fit to snap.
Yet nopony else seemed bothered by it. Heck, Applejack wasn’t even paying it any mind!
Finally, she simply couldn’t take it anymore.
“Okay, who’s making all that racket?” she shot, raising her voice in the hopes that whoever was whispering about them would shut up. “Show yourself!”
It was a vain hope; the sound of barely perceptible whispers continued.
Applejack glanced up at her. For some reason, she didn’t seem nearly as bothered by the noise. “Easy there, cow pony,” she said. “It’s just yer ears playin’ tricks on ya.”
When Rainbow looked back at her, her expression demanding an explanation, Applejack merely pointed off to the right.
She was indicating a tall stand of those same fronds. Its great big rubbery leaves were swaying in a low breeze… and whispering because of it.
Suddenly, Rainbow understood. It was the leaves rubbing against each other.
“Oh… I knew that,” she grunted, and quickly looked away, much to Applejack’s bemusement.
On they went, through thick banks of humidity and down winding trails; ever downhill, gradual but unmistakable. Every now and then, Applejack would glance up towards Rainbow, register the direction their beacon was pointing, and go back to walking. Not that she felt it was needed; the creature couldn't have left them a more obvious path.
There was little in the way of conversation, and now that she was putting her hooves to work again, Applejack didn’t feel much like she was up for it anyway.
Twice she felt the stabbing, jarring pain race up her foreleg like some incessant and cruel reminder. She knew Rainbow had glanced at her each time, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at her. She just… couldn’t. They could talk about it, or they could do something about it. So, Applejack trekked on doggedly.
Until, all at once, they rounded a bend, and just about ran face first into a signpost.
All four froze midstride, eyes locking onto the anomaly.
It stood right in their path; a simple pole rammed into the ground, sagging slightly to one side, with a number of boards nailed to its top. And gouged into its front was a simple message:
Beware of Dog
“Uh,” Rainbow muttered, nonplussed. “That’s… kinda weird.”
“Then,” Bumblebee said back, “is that weird, too?”
Everyone turned to look at her, at the hoof she was holding up, then towards what she was pointing at. She was indicating beyond the sign – and towards the end of the forest itself.
The trees gave way all around. Among tall reeds and grass spread soggy, waterlogged glades; a wetlands that reeked of something rotten and nasty.
Trees were still here, clustered together in little islands across the expansive bog. They were sparse and scraggly, barely clinging to life in this drowned woodland. Most had succumbed entirely, and were little more than twisting limbs and roots grasping at empty air like dead, lichen-covered bones.
Reeds and cattails thrust up from the deep, deep mud. Everything swayed rhythmically, ignorant of the lack of a breeze. Applejack couldn’t figure out why, until she heard the faint lap of water hitting the branches at her hooves.
She looked down, and found muddy water glistening just underneath a thick coat of algae and flotsam.
A thick, muggy haze hung over the air – steam and humidity rising off of the mire, muddling the ferocious sunlight and casting tendrils of smoky mist through the treetops. But the relief from the sun was hardly felt; the humidity was as intense as a sauna without it.
All four mares looked around, taking in the shift in scenery carefully. Each still remembered which forest they were walking through, and they were keenly aware of the dangers it was known for.
But nothing on the mire stirred, save for reeds and tall grass. A crow drifted from one tree to another, cawing the whole way before disappearing through thick branches.
More out of habit than anything, Applejack looked up towards Rainbow’s neck. Sure enough, the flask Zecora had given them was beaming a concentrated shaft of green light straight across the mire… and towards perhaps the strangest thing any of them could have expected to see in such a place.
Right in the middle of the bog, standing on stilts and wrapped around a gigantic log, was a cottage, plain as day.
It stood complete with a little dock, rickety walkway, and even a flowerbed hanging from one of the perfectly round windows.
It had been painted a vibrant shade of canary yellow that stood out like a beacon through the dull browns that surrounded it. It was rather small, too small to have more than one or two rooms. Long wooden stilts held it up a good ten feet above the water, keeping it balanced upon something that looked like a tree trunk… and yet not. It was too smooth, but the distance between them made it difficult to make it out in perfect detail.
Applejack couldn’t help but blink at the thing. It was so garishly out of place that she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Something nagged at her as she looked at it, something that worried her even more.
It was too obvious. Would Hyacinth really live in such an auspicious place? It also begged the question; a very important question, really. Why hadn’t it been found before?
And yet there it was, right in the middle of a lake, so jarringly out of place. Quickly Applejack looked around, scanning every nook and cranny she could see.
Meanwhile, Rainbow hovered by her shoulder, blinking. “Is it just me, or does this seem just a little easy?”
“Ah wouldn’t go that far,” Applejack spoke up.
Rainbow looked at her, then followed her gaze towards an adjacent shore – and towards the gigantic translucent white mass heaped there. It was strung across trees, fallen logs, and snagging branches, like a blanket left out to dry.
Rainbow blinked. The long strips, the mottled texture... It almost looked like…
She’d seen the stuff before, mainly at Fluttershy’s house. But never had she seen so much in one place. An entire tree was draped with the sloughed off hide, torn strips flapping languidly in the wind. The tree itself had buckled and split quite alarmingly, as if it’d borne the weight of something truly massive.
Further along, they spotted another one of those strange, crystalline trees – which was missing nearly half of its branches, as if something had taken a bite out of it.
Now that they were looking, Applejack couldn’t help but notice odd glitters all across the mire that had nothing to do with moving water. A shimmering reed here, a glimmering tree there… It all sent a chill up Applejack’s spine.
Applejack checked Zecora’s bottle again. It wasn’t pointing directly at the cottage, and was instead indicating some spot off to its right. Yet the beam wasn’t indicating across the water; it was instead pointing about halfway across – straight towards the base of a floating matt of vegetation.
Of course, that begged a whole new question. Why in the world was it pointing at the monster? Applejack had been expecting to find an identical bottle waiting for them.
That question, however, would have to wait. There was a much more pressing one that needed to be dealt with.
“How are we supposed ta get over there?” Applejack asked, frowning.
“Well, we could always fly,” Rainbow offered.
Applejack frowned even harder at that suggestion. It was still reflex to completely dismiss the idea as being impossible. Even after she reminded herself that it wasn’t, the thought still sat dubiously in her mind.
“Dash, that’s… a long way fer me,” she admitted with some difficulty. “Ah don’t think Ah can make it that far.”
She hated admitting her shortcomings. It twisted her up inside. especially when they counted. But facts were facts. There was easily over a hundred yards of wetlands between them and the cottage, possibly two hundred. Then there was the monster, and the changelings still prowling the forest… She’d have to move fast, and that just wasn’t possible.
Maybe if she was well rested and in peak condition, both of which she was not. But as it was, she could already feel her wings aching just thinking about it – and she didn’t even have any right now.
Rainbow turned to look at her, her expression oddly blank. “Uh… I wasn’t suggesting that, but I like where your head’s at.”
Applejack raised a confused eyebrow at that. “Then what?”
“Well,” Rainbow muttered, scratching the back of her head. “I actually kind of figured I’d carry you across.”
Something flashed through Applejack’s mind. A mortifying something involving being cradled like a babe, followed by months and months and months of antagonizing.
In a rush of emerald flames, Applejack shed her disguise. “Let’s get this over with.”
Immediately, Applejack was self-conscious. The moment she turned to face the bog like some great adversary, she felt like Bumblebee and Agave were already aware of every imperfection she had.
Her scarred chitin, she could live with. It bothered her, knowing the two were probably looking at her cracked forehead, but she could power through it.
But she knew she was a bad flyer. She didn’t talk about it with others simply because she didn’t want to say anything about it. But the consequence of that was that she kept her poor condition to herself – and Rainbow mostly.
Either way, she knew she’d walk away from this whole situation with a bruised pride, but she would not give Rainbow the satisfaction of taunting her with tales of how she clung so fearfully to her neck. That just wasn’t happening.
Still, she refused to meet Agave’s or Bumblebee’s gazes, and instead just focused on the cottage ahead, testing her frail wings. It did not feel natural in any way, but she persisted.
“Alright,” Rainbow said, speaking to everyone. “We’re going to do this nice and slow.”
Those were words Applejack never thought she’d hear come out of the pegasus’ mouth.
“And if anything starts chasing us, we run like bats out of Tartaurus. Got it?”
… That sounded more like it.
Behind her, Applejack heard the others mutter agreements. she gulped, her every fiber too aware of her own wings restlessly rustling on her back.
Then, to her surprise, she felt Rainbow move up beside her while giving her a meaningful look. “We’ll do it just like last time, okay?” she said quietly in a private aside.
If there was another pony alive who could possibly understand what Applejack was going through, it was Rainbow. Pride was a language they were both fluent in.
She was expecting Rainbow to take her by both hooves, like last time. For that reason, she was somewhat thrown off when, instead, the pegasus offered her the crook of her foreleg. It was so much like a gentlecolt offering a lady aid crossing a street that Applejack didn’t know if she should feel disgruntled about being the lady, or laugh at the mental image that popped into her head of Rainbow in a top hat and tailcoat and saying things like “madam” in the most supercilious accent one could imagine.
Rainbow only flashed her half a smile. She didn’t say anything, but there as a subtle fire in her eyes; a light of encouragement that softened even Applejack’s bullheaded doubts.
She still felt her ears burning, however.
Applejack hesitated, warring with her embarrassment and self-loathing, then wrapped her hoof around Rainbow’s, gripping it tight. A bemused flicker crossed the pegasus’ eyes, but she said nothing.
Then, her wings opened.
Applejack’s heart jumped into her throat. Her nerves almost overpowered her, but it was too late; Rainbow was rising into the air, and her own death grip on Dash’s foreleg was dragging her up with her.
Instinctively her wings buzzed to life, trying desperately to keep her supported. Her voice almost came out unchecked when her hooves left solid ground and automatically flailed a little to find purchase. But immediately she strangled it into silence, toughing it out.
All she could do was stare at Rainbow – sometimes glaring a burning accusation, sometimes pleading for this whole ordeal to be over already.
But all she got was that same half smile. Flying with Applejack so close to her side could not have been an easy task, and yet she managed it flawlessly. She just kept herself slightly angled away from her inexperienced partner, enough so that Applejack’s buzzing wings weren’t clashing with her own. It didn’t look natural in the slightest, and yet Rainbow didn’t show any signs of complaint.
At one point, Applejack glanced down and immediately regretted it.
It wasn’t because of height – they were scarcely a foot higher than the tallest stalks down below. It was her equilibrium, which immediately veered wildly and very nearly sent her careening into Rainbow.
They were almost halfway across the bog now, moving quicker than Applejack expected. She caught a momentary glimpse of herself in the standing water below, but she didn’t look for long. Soon her eyes snapped back up, focusing instead on the cottage.
Already her wings were burning, the muscles in her shoulders threatening to cramp. She just kept her eyes on the prize, until after only a minute or two, she started the short descent onto a small, warped deck of wood planks.
As she felt the wooden deck meet her expectant hooves, she breathed a sigh of relief. She’d made it.
“Not bad, cowgirl,” Rainbow said, sounding pleased. “How about next time maybe we try some –”
“How about no,” Applejack panted, breathless. She was going to nip that in the bud right there.
Rainbow just snickered.
A moment later, they heard two more sets of hooves clop against the weathered deck as Bumblebee and Agave came in for a landing as well.
The group found themselves on a small, rickety boardwalk held several feet up in the air by wooden poles. It was thin, flimsy, and creaked quite dangerously with every step.
Applejack eyed what had once seemed like safe, solid ground with a dubious expression. As she surveyed the sketchy walkway, her eyes inevitably found their way to the tiny shack balanced neatly on some kind of gigantic red cap speckled with tiny white dots, like freckles.
She blinked at it, trying to figure out what it was – until it clicked. The entire cottage was built right on top of a monolithic mushroom.
Clustered far below, Applejack could just see more, smaller caps thrusting up out of a thick, sunken log of some gigantic, ancient tree just barely visible through the muck below.
Fat spores danced in the air, gleaming brightly in the daylight… a little too brightly, Applejack thought.
There was something very strange about the fungus. It just… felt weird in a way she couldn’t quite put her hoof on… until she realized why.
Her horn was tingling. Like an itch that ran into her scalp. Like static electricity that skittered under her skin instead of on top of it.
She hadn’t learned much about magic from Twilight; she just didn’t have the patience for it. But she had picked up on some of the basics. There was something very magical about that overgrown toadstool, and it made her wary of it.
Behind her, Bumblebee was inspecting the mushroom just as intently, but not as cautiously. Whatever it was, it seemed to simply intrigue her; she leaned towards it a little, brimming with curiosity.
Agave stayed on Rainbow’s other side, eying the thing around her blue legs. She didn’t seem entirely sure if it was okay to investigate, given the reprimands she’d already been given on their trek.
Rainbow was utterly oblivious.
“Sure isn’t much to look at,” she commented, rubbing her chin as she looked the cottage over. “I was kinda imagining something… cooler.”
Her voice distracted Applejack, who looked up towards her.
Rainbow glanced around, taking in all of the vantage points around. It really was an exposed location, totally not what she’d been envisioning. No immediate cover to mask an escape, no concealment to hide the location… All of the secret hideouts Daring Do had encountered had at least had one of those things.
She glanced back, meeting Applejack’s eye. “Are we sure this is the right place?”
Applejack shrugged, then stepped forward. “We might as well see if anypony’s home.”
The rickety deck wound around the whole periphery of the shack’s unconventional foundation. Each step made the wood pop and creak; more than once, Applejack found herself paying more attention to where her hooves were going than where she was headed.
Whenever she could, however, she watched the house, eying the grimy windows in the hopes of seeing inside.
The faded curtains were drawn. No lights shown from within. The roof sagged low. The boards along the walls were as crooked as buckteeth in some places. If it wasn’t for the coat of paint and the baskets of flowers under the eaves, Applejack would have written the place off as being long abandoned.
But her gut feeling told her this place was something more, and so she watched the ramshackle cottage carefully for any signs of life.
A quarter of the way around, they came to the front door, complete with a matt that said “Welcome” in faded lettering. Most peculiar indeed.
Applejack glanced back towards Rainbow, who glanced towards her.
“Maybe you should knock,” offered Bumblebee.
Applejack gave her a look. The chances of that place being occupied were about as good as herself becoming a Wonderbolt; very low. But, she decided to humor the awkward drone. She stepped forward, and politely gave the door two curt knocks.
And to her astonishment, she got a response.
“Just a minute!” sang a voice from inside. An awfully familiar voice.
“Was that…?” Rainbow stammered, stunned. “N-no… no, it couldn’t be.”
“W-we just heard wrong, that’s all,” Applejack agreed, eyes wide.
Bumblebee glanced between them both. “Really? Then it wasn’t –”
With a loud bang, the front door burst open. And standing in the threshold, beaming ear to ear, was the pinkest anomaly any of them had ever seen.
“Hi!” Pinkie greeted. “What took you so long?”
Applejack stared. And then she stared some more. And just for good measure, she stared some more.
Pinkie Pie turned to her, all sunshine and rainbows. “Applejack?”
Applejack took a stiff step forward, then pawed Pinkie’s face. She was, somehow, real. She even giggled when her nose was booped.
“How…” Applejack breathed, absolutely at a loss for anything resembling an answer.
“How did I catch up?” Pinkie said for her. The whole group nodded in unison. “That’s easy! First I was at your house. Then I was in the Everfree. Then I was at Zecora’s. Then I saw a big scary monster, and then I followed the big scary monster, and now I’m here! Duh!”
Applejack blinked. Slowly. “Pinkie Pie.”
“When was the last time somepony told ya that yer really… random?”
“Just now,” Pinkie said, sticking her tongue out playfully. “Oh!” she added, jolting upright, “You guys should come in! There’s somepony here you really need to talk to!”
Applejack blinked, doing a double take. “Uh… there is?”
“Yep!” Pinkie enthused, grabbed her under the foreleg, and yanked her right into the shack, leaving three mildly shell-shocked ponies standing outside.
“Um… I don’t think I’m still imagining Pinkie Pie,” Bumblebee informed the others. “But I’m really not sure…”
Rainbow shook her head. “Aren’t we all…”
The inside of the shack was, unsurprisingly, rather cramped. It consisted of only two rooms; the majority of the inside was taken up in a single open space that had several things crammed into it – a small kitchenette with two cupboards, fire oven and sink, next to a tiny circle of two chairs around a coffee table paired with a moth-eaten couch pushed up against the wall.
A rocking chair sat alone in one corner of the room, right next to a window and the only other door in the place, which lead to an itty-bitty bedroom that made Apple Bloom’s club house look spacious.
Released from Pinkie Pie’s insistent tug, Applejack staggered into the shack, and immediately noticed the odd, pungent odor in the air. She’d smelled it before in natural remedies stores. It was an earthy, bitter smell, like ground roots and leaves all mixed together.
In the kitchen, a brass kettle fumed silently. And throughout the room, Applejack heard a familiar rhythmic creak of wood rocking back and forth steadily.
“We were just making tea,” Pinkie explained, bounding over to the stove. “Oh! And these funny cookies! At least, I think they’re cookies… they smell kinda funny.”
“Oh they’re cookies alright, dearie,” crooned a wispy voice from one corner of the room. “My own secret recipe, I’ll have you know.”
Applejack turned her head towards the source of that voice – and the wooden creaking sound. Her eyes went to the rocking chair, and the wizened occupant seated in it.
She jolted when she found herself looking at a changeling, though perhaps the oldest changeling she had ever seen before in her life.
Ancient didn’t even begin to describe the drone sitting before Applejack. She was hunchbacked with age, her neck almost sticking out at a right angle from her shoulders. Every one of her joints was knobby with arthritis. What little of her mane remained was wispy white, like threads of spider silk.
Her chitin was so worn from age it looked almost papery and fragile on her boney frame. She had remarkably few wrinkles, but her entire hide looked… old, like the taut skin of a dried mummy.
Even with sunken eyes full of milky cataracts, they still gave off a soft blue light as she gazed off into space, her toothless mouth pulled up into a puckered smile.
Her entire body was wrapped in a flowery shawl, her legs covered up by a knitted quilt as she rocked gently back and forth on her rocker.
She seemed oblivious to the other visitors in the room, her attention instead turned towards the bouncing pink shape tending to her kitchen. Whether she could make out more than a pastel blob, however, was up for debate.
“Thank you, dearie,” she said to Pinkie. “These old hooves aren’t what they used to be…”
“No problemo,” Pinkie said back with a smile.
Applejack glanced from Pinkie back to the elderly drone still rocking absently, staring into space with a small smile on her old face.
“Uh, Pinkie?” spoke up Applejack. “Is this…?”
She trailed off when she noticed the old changeling stiffen slightly. She turned her head, sightlessly scanning the room. As she did so, her nostrils flared as she sniffed once, then twice. Then she paused, her smile disappearing.
“I know that smell,” she said slowly, as if she herself could not believe it. “It has changed so much. So many new scents mingled with it. But… I still recognize it. I would recognize it anywhere.”
Her blind sights settled unerringly upon Applejack then, causing her to freeze. “You have your mother’s scent,” the drone went on. “And so many others, yes… some stronger than others… But you are still one of a kind, little Applejack.”
Applejack’s heart jolted in her chest. “Ya… know me?”
The drone gave an unexpected witch’s cackle; dry and throaty. “Heehee! Why, of course I do! I may be old, and my mind might not be what it used to be… but I still remember all the little ones. Oh yes… I remember them so clearly.”
It was around that point that Rainbow made her way into the hut, her eyes immediately falling on Applejack’s motionless backside. “Hey, what’s the holdup?” she said, trotting up to stand beside her friend.
The elder drone raised her head slightly, aiming it in the direction of the new voice. Then, again, she sniffed. “Hmm… Ah yes. You’re that other smell on her,” she commented, breaking out into a fresh grin. “That makes sense.”
Rainbow jolted to a halt, eyes locking on the unexpected crone rocking in the corner. “Er… who’s this?”
“Oh!” the drone gave another cackle. “Heeh! Silly me… where are my manners. I am old lady Widow. But, most just call me Nana.”
She cocked her head slightly, still surveying Rainbow with a curious expression. “And you, my dear… what are you?”
“Oh,” Rainbow said with a blink, then puffed out her chest. “The name’s Rainbow Dash, but most just call me awesome.”
Nana cackled again, revealing empty gums. “Do they now? Heehee, oh but I do love lively children.”
Applejack glanced towards Rainbow, who seemed to be trying to figure out if she’d been complimented or insulted by being called a child. Then, she looked back towards Nana – a mystery wrapped in a shawl.
“We’re sorry for bargin’ in like this,” Applejack said. “We were lookin’ for someplace, and Ah guess we got turned around.”
“Did you?” Nana said curiously.
“Yes,” Applejack went on. She made to sweep her hat from her head respectfully – but only found her crown. She still held it against her chest anyway, just to be polite. “We were lookin’ for Hyacinth’s place.”
“Oh,” Nana said with a grin. “Well I think you’re not as lost as you think you are.”
Applejack frowned. “Come again?”
Nana’s grin grew, her milky eyes turning towards her again. “Hyacinth is such a dear. She lets me stay here; watch over the place while she’s out on missions for your mother.”
Applejack suppressed a gasp. They were in the right place. Stunned as she was, she almost missed Nana’s next words.
“It’s strange, though. I haven’t seen her for a while,” she commented. “Her Highness must have her on a very difficult mission, the poor thing.”
Now there was a whole new lump in Applejack’s throat. It was too big to speak around, though Applejack doubted she’d have the words to say, anyway.
But beside her, Rainbow suddenly cocked her head curiously. “’Her Highness’?” Rainbow echoed. “You mean Applejack?”
Nana chuckled. “Oh no, no. Her mother, of course,” she said. “She’s oh so busy. Always busy. I look after Applejack when she isn’t around. Hyacinth does a good job, but there are things a growing youngling needs. And she's always busy, too. So much to do... always so much to do...”
She paused, then suddenly jolted again. She looked up, sniffing noisily. “Oh! Hello dearie,” she said, looking straight at Applejack. “Come for another story? You know your mother worries when you sneak off. She’ll be good and worried.”
Nana then turned, and shouted over one shoulder. “Flicker! Flicker, dear! Be a dear and go tell Queen Carnation her daughter’s down in the nursery again. Before she gets too worried.” She paused. “Flicker? Ach, she’s never around these days…”
She turned back around, fixing a nervous Applejack with a mild smile. “And who’s your friend? Oh, did you charm a lovely little pegasus already?”
"Ooooo," teased Pinkie from the kitchen.
Color rushed to Applejack’s cheeks. “Wha-n-no. Ah-Ah mean, I didn’t…”
Nana merely chuckled knowingly. “She has your scent already,” she giggled. “Well, she’s welcome to listen, too.”
Rainbow self-consciously raised a foreleg and sniffed it all the while avoiding Applejack’s gaze. Applejack only spluttered stupidly. That is, until Pinkie suddenly appeared on her other side and whispered to her.
“It’s okay,” she hissed privately. “She’s been doing that ever since I arrived. I’ve been her cousin, niece, a friend’s daughter, an assistant and a whole bunch of other things I don’t think I really am!”
Pinkie abruptly raised her voice, turning towards Nana. “A story sounds great!” she said.
“Good, good,” Nana said happily, then paused. “Oh, bother,” she grumbled as she turned towards the oven. “Did I leave the cookies in the oven again?”
“No, Nana,” Pinkie said quickly, zipping over into the kitchenette in an instant. “I’m on it!”
“Oh… thank you dear,” Nana said hesitantly, but sank back into her chair nevertheless. “… What was your name again?”
Applejack turned away while Pinkie went through what seemed to be a tired greeting routine, and instead she turned towards Rainbow. For some reason, she was fixedly staring out a window – in the opposite direction of Applejack.
“You alright, sugarcube?” Applejack asked quietly.
“Yep,” Rainbow said back instantly. “Totally awesome and charm-free.”
Applejack quirked a smile at that. “Good ta hear.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Applejack noticed Nana turning back towards them. Only… a slight wrinkle had appeared on her brow; a confused look bringing down her smile. Her nostrils were flaring again.
“And… who might you be?” she asked calmly.
Applejack blinked, then turned around – towards Agave and Bumblebee, both of whom were standing in the corner by the door unobtrusively.
Nana raised a quivering, knobby hoof, proffering it in their direction. “You… your scent is familiar,” she said. “Yes… yes… Aconita,” she breathed. “How very curious… But you…”
Her eyes turned ever so slightly towards the one standing beside Agave, who’d stiffened on the spot.
Nana stared at Bumblebee, her eyes narrowing.
“… I know the smells of every queen... every hive to have existed," she said quietly. "But you..."
She leaned forward slightly, warily scowling at the intruder in her home.
"... I do not know you."