Rainbow Dash shivered as a strong breeze blew past her and ruffled her mane. The Everfree Forest was a dangerous place, having grown to twice its former size since Eternal Night fell and becoming all the more dangerous for it. It was dark, the trees blocked out the little light from the stars and moon. It was eerie, the rustle of bushes seemed to echo after every hoofstep, and it was extremely dangerous. It was also, surprisingly, extremely cold. Rainbow fluffed her wings for the third time in the past ten minutes in a futile attempt to generate warmth on her exposed fur. The small saddlebags she wore were a poor protector from the piercing chill. Zecora had made her leave her armor at the hut, insisting that showing up at one of the rebel leader’s doorstep in a Night Guard uniform might deter her from offering them any help.
Or make us easier to take down once we get there, Rainbow thought to herself with a smirk, keeping her wings open for an easy takeoff; just in case.
She stole a glance to her right, away from her zebra guide in front, and her smile fell. Pinkie Pie was trudging along beside her, head bowed and seemingly oblivious to the world. Pinkie had agreed to come to meet the rebel leader after some coaxing, but it didn’t take a mind reader to tell that the Earth Pony was less than thrilled at the prospect and her misgivings weighed heavily on her mind.
Rainbow suddenly realized that it was also incredibly quiet in the Everfree. “Hey Pinkie,” She said, succeeding in catching her friend’s attention, “I… I’m sorry, about what happened to your parents.” It wasn’t that useful of a statement, and Rainbow doubted it would even ease the pain, but she felt that it had to be said.
Pinkie smiled at her, not a particularly happy smile, but a smile nonetheless. “Thanks, Dashie. I try… I try not to think about it that much. ‘Don’t dwell on the past,’ my Dad always said.” She turned her gaze back to the ground, her expression becoming hollow again. “Sometimes I almost forget them from not thinking about it.”
A heavy silence fell back over the forest and Rainbow shifted awkwardly on her hooves. She didn’t want Pinkie to be upset, but she wasn’t sure words could fix the three years of pain suddenly pushed into the front of her friend’s mind.
“What about yours?”
Rainbow shook her head and focused again on Pinkie. “Sorry, what was that?”
“What about your family?” Pinkie asked, cocking her head, “What happened to them? You always talk about Fluttershy, but I’ve never heard you say anything about your parents.”
Rainbow shrugged and fixed her gaze ahead, noticing through the darkness that Zecora’s ears were tilted back towards them. “There’s nothing much to tell. My mom died when I was real young, before I even got my cutie mark, so I didn’t know her that well, and Dad…” She sighed heavily. “Dad and I had a fight a couple months before the whole eternal night thing. It had happened before, me flying out on him and not coming back for weeks, but once the world went to crap I couldn’t find him again. Haven’t seen him since.”
“Do you miss him?”
Rainbow nodded as she felt tears prick her eyes. “Yeah, I miss him every day. I’d give anything just to see him again.” She quickly rubbed her eyes and cleared her throat. “But who wouldn't, right? He was my dad, ‘course I'm worried about him.”
The cold was momentarily fended off as Pinkie pressed into Rainbow’s side and softly nuzzled her neck. “I'm sorry Dashie. I know it doesn't mean much, but I'm sure he missed you too.”
“Yeah… uh… thanks, Pinks.” Rainbow couldn’t think of a better reply so instead turned her attention to her guide. “So, Darts, where exactly are we going? Don't tell me the rebellion's in Ponyville proper.”
“Our numbers are scattered as to not raise an alarm,” Zecora answered immediately, “But the leader we are meeting lives on a farm.”
Rainbow crinkled her nose. “A farm? So it is in Ponyville.”
“Some say it is the town,” Zecora replied, “But we shall not meet anyone on the way down.”
Rainbow said nothing to that and remained silent until they stepped out of the forest and into a much more structured array of trees. She sniffed the air as her eyes adjusted to the unobstructed moonlight.
“Apples?” Pinkie spoke from behind her, apparently picking up the same sweet smell that Rainbow had.
“Indeed.” Zecora had stopped walking for the moment and was scanning the field ahead of them. “These trees have many mouths to feed. Move quick. The cover we have is not thick.”
The trio moved again under the speckled shade of the apple trees. Rainbow fleetingly wondered how the trees managed to survive all this time in the dark. Didn't plants need sunlight or something to thrive?
That thought process was snuffed out, however, when another breeze sliced through Rainbow’s coat. “Why aren't we wearing cloaks or something?” She muttered, “Anyone can see us out here.”
“We are not being suspicious,” Zecora whispered back, “dark cloaks would paint a target on us.”
Rainbow sighed but didn't argue further as they rounded a hill and a small farmhouse came into view. It was a humble thing that Rainbow couldn’t see fully as there were no lanterns hanging around it or seemingly inside it. She did manage to see a flicker of movement on the bottom floor but that was the only sign of life in the dark farmhouse. Once they were no less than a hundred feet away the door flung open and the soft glow of fireflies lit up an orange Earth Pony standing just on the edge of the doorway.
“Howdy there travelers,” The Earth Pony called, squinting against the gloom with an easy smile on her lips, “What can ah do for ya?”
“We are just passing through,” Zecora called back, “We need a little light. We don’t want to intrude.”
“Well come on in,” The pony said, walking back into the house, “It’s cold out there and ah just can’t leave ya wonderin’ around with nothin’ ta keep ya warm.”
Rainbow exchanged a look with Pinkie before following Zecora into the farmhouse. The inside was just as she had expected from the little she had seen of the exterior: cozy, quaint and exactly like farmhouses in books. They had apparently entered through the back door since they walked straight into the kitchen. Light flooded the room and Rainbow wondered how they couldn’t have seen it from outside as the place was lit up so almost no darkness crept in the corners.
A large red stallion sat at a wooden table, hooves on the table and a hard expression on his face. Rainbow didn’t see the mare that had let them in, however, until the door closed behind them and the click of a deadbolt echoed through the house.
“Zecora.” The orange mare’s kind tone and bright eyes were gone like a fire snuffed out. In its place was a fierce, suspicious gaze. “You know ya ain’t suppose to come out like this unless it’s somethin’ important.” She jerked her head at Rainbow and Pinkie. “Who are these two?”
“Applejack, they have a I think they should share,” Zecora said, “They’ve found a way to defeat Nightmare.”
Applejack’s brows raised. “Is that so? Well, I’d definitely like ta hear that.” She stuck her hoof out to Rainbow. “Ah’m Applejack, head of the rebellion in Ponyville. That’s Big Mac, mah brother.”
“Rainbow Dash.” Rainbow bumped her hoof against Applejack’s. “And this is Pinkie Pie. We’re, uh, rebels now I guess.”
Applejack nodded and, suspicious gaze never completely leaving, took a seat next to Big Mac. She gestured to the other chairs and adjusted the brown hat on her head. “Alright, Rainbow Dash, tell me yer story and I'll see if ah trust ya.”
Something in her tone made Rainbow shudder, but she steeled herself and sat down, ready to tell her story once again.
Pinkie felt strange. The open fields, the cramped house, the smell of homemade food lingering even when none was present all pulled on forgotten memories. Pinkie hadn’t been at a farm in… well, she hadn’t been anywhere besides a couple rooms for much too long and the whole experience of the rapid traveling she was doing was almost crippling.
Dashie and Zecora had taken the two empty chairs beside Applejack and Big Mac and Dashie had started once again to tell the story. Seeing as she wasn’t needed, Pinkie sat by the door, just out of their conversation, but still close enough to join if needed.
She let her mind drift from the talking ponies and her eyes to wander around the room. Firefly lanterns hung at every corner, completely filling the room with light. No light escaped outside, however, and the pale glow of starlight wasn't present even though the curtains were not tightly shut. Pinkie assumed that some subtle form of magic was at work, a theory made solid by the windows shimmering every few seconds.
Pinkie’s gaze moved past the light and onto the things in the kitchen. The stove was old and obviously well used, but it was high quality and well cared for in such a way that it’d probably be around for years to come. In fact, most of the things in the house were like that. The kettles, the chairs, the filly by her side, even the walls themselves seemed to be sturdy an--.
Pinkie jumped a good foot in the air as she whirled to the side. Sure enough, sitting inches from her and staring at her with an unreadable expression, was a little yellow filly wearing a light pink jacket that matched the bow perched in her mane who hadn’t been there when she walked in.
Pinkie’s eyes widened. It was a foal. A little filly sitting right next to her. Pinkie hadn’t talked to a foal since… Actually, she couldn’t remember the last time she talked to a foal. Had she ever? The only ones she could recall were her sisters when they were all foals.
Wow, she should've gotten out more when she had the chance.
Fidgeting slightly, Pinkie turned to face the foal and gave her a small wave and a smile. “Hi, there!”
The filly blinked but gave no other indication that she had heard Pinkie.
Pinkie tried again. “I'm Pinkie Pie.”
Again, the filly did not move and just stared at Pinkie with a completely straight face.
Pinkie was not going be swayed from a potential new friend that easily. “What's your name?”
Success! The filly’s voice was high pitched with the same slight accent as Applejack’s and devoid of emotion much like her expression, but she had spoken and Pinkie was happy with that small victory.
Pinkie stuck her hoof out with a smile. “It's nice to meet you, Apple Bloom.”
Apple Bloom stared down at the outstretched hoof but made no movement towards it. Slowly, Pinkie lowered her hoof and let her eyes wander the room again, away from the odd filly.
Dashie was still telling their story, occasionally being interrupted by Applejack asking a question. The stallion beside Applejack, however, only nodded along and gave short one-word answers when asked questions directly.
Pinkie wondered if he was good at humming.
“Yer runnin’ from Nightmare Moon ain’t ya?”
Pinkie glanced back down at Apple Bloom and nodded. “Yep. We got in a bit of trouble and had to run away quick. Zecora said we'd be safe here ‘cause Queen Meanie’s still looking for us.”
Apple Bloom nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer and went back to her staring.
Pinkie’s gaze flicked from the foal to Applejack, still chatting on with Dashie. It was odd how the filly’s deadpan stare could be so similar to the older mare’s sharp, protective gaze.
Pinkie wondered if Apple Bloom liked poetry.
“Do ya have any scars?”
Pinkie jumped at the question, one of her forehooves rising on its own accord before she forced it back to the floor. “Wha… what?”
“Ah have scars,” Apple Bloom continued, nodding slowly with her eyes closed, “on ma back. One time a little over a year ago the soldiers came for more supplies and apples then they usually do, but ma big sister wouldn't give it ta them. She said if she gave Nightmare Moon anymore there wouldn't be enough for the town ta eat. Well, the guards didn't like that at all so they dragged me out of the house and gave me a good lashin’. Said they'd do somethin’ worse if she ever said no again. Ah think that's when she agreed ta join the rebellion.” She reopened her eyes and cocked her head to the side. “What about you? Ya seem like ya might have scars too. Do ya?”
This time, Pinkie couldn't stop her hoof from reaching up and gently rubbing her chest. It still stung, even under her apron that she had refused to take off even when Zecora said she should leave it behind. “Not many,” She muttered, “magic doesn't leave a lot of physical wounds.”
Pinkie let out a short gasp as Apple Bloom wrapped yellow hooves around her.
“It's alright,” Apple Bloom said, her head resting intentionally on Pinkie’s shoulder, away from her chest, “Once ya join the rebellion you're family, and Applejack won't let anything hurt her family. She promised me.”
Tears ran down Pinkie’s face as she hugged the filly back. Of course she wouldn't. What big sister would ever let anyone hurt their little sibling? What big sister wouldn't give up everything they had for their family? Who wouldn't fight Diamond Dogs and Alicorns?
Pinkie wondered if Applejack enjoys farming just as much as Limestone did.
Applejack leaned back and let out a long breath as the Pegasus finished her tale. Her eyes flicked over to Big Mac who was, in turn, watching the other pony Zecora had brought with her talk to Apple Bloom. Applejack had expected that some kind of trick was at play when she saw her friend walk up with the two strangers, but so far they had been completely civil, if a little odd.
That didn't mean Applejack trusted them, of course, but she wasn’t going to be overly hostile without a good reason.
She held up a hoof to the Pegasus and looked her directly in the eye. “Alright Sugar, you've had your say so now we're gonna talk and you ain't gonna interrupt, understand?”
Rainbow Dash licked her lips but nodded all the same. Smart gal.
“Alright, Zecora, this here plan is complete hogwash.”
Applejack shot a glare at Rainbow who begrudgingly closed her mouth again.
“This is the answer to all our woe,” Zecora insisted, “What makes you think we should say no?”
“Ah got three reasons,” Applejack replied, “The first is that the whole so-called plan sounds like somethin’ from a fairy tale. Time travel? Magical rocks that are driven through ‘goodness’ or whatever and can take down an Alicorn? It's just a mite hard ta believe.”
“I have sources that say the time travel is true,” Zecora argued, “and you know Nightmare was defeated once, too.”
Applejack rolled her eyes but didn't argue the issue further. Instead, she moved on to her second point. “There's also the fact that this plan is comin’ from an unreliable source. How do we know she ain't setting us up for Nightmare herself?”
“We're not--” Applejack held up a hoof to silence Rainbow Dash, giving her a pointed look in the process.
“I believe they are with our cause. You must admit they have broken no laws.”
Applejack snorted. “Ah’d also expect a spy ta be good at their job.” She sighed and leaned back in her chair. “The last issue is that there’s no way Twi would agree to this plan.”
Zecora shook her head. “Though we are thorough we cannot continue in the same way. Sooner or later Twilight won't have a say.”
This got Rainbow to perk up. “Twilight? As in Twilight Sparkle? She's part of the--”
She was cut off again by a loud knock ringing through the house. Rainbow instantly rose out of her seat but Applejack waved her down.
“Don't talk,” She whispered, “ma granny will get it. Just keep quiet.”
Rainbow Dash sank back into her chair and the pink pony silently trotted up next to her, Apple Bloom in tow.
The knock sounded again and the shaky voice of Granny rang out. “Alright, alright ah’m comin’ hold your horseshoes.”
The door creaked opened and a chillingly familiar voice to Applejack echoed through the kitchen. “Hello Miss Smith, is the mare of the house home?”
Applejack instantly rose to her hooves, motioning for her guests to stay put, and walked to the door. “Lightning, what the hay are you doing here? You ain't suppose ta come for another week.”
The green Pegasus, dressed in the blue uniform of the Ponyville soldiers, grinned at her. “Usually, but the Eternal Night celebration is coming up and we need more food for the party.” She shouldered her way past Applejack and the silent Unicorn stallion behind her followed her into the house. “Not to mention that a supply wagon got raided the other day so we're all behind on food.” She smiled back at Applejack. “Know anything about it?”
Applejack followed the two soldiers into the house proper, breathing a quiet sigh of relief as she noticed the kitchen was empty. “I haven’t heard anythin’.”
Lightning Dust frowned but shrugged her shoulders and continued to the pantry where the apples for Nightmare Moon were carefully stored. “Well, everything's fine now. We even managed to capture one of the raiders so it won't be long until we find them all.”
Applejack made sure to keep her expression neutral as Lightning continued to stare at her, her eyes searching Applejack’s face.
She apparently didn't find what she had been looking for as she flicked her windswept mane with a huff. “Anyway, we'll probably have to take extra so we can have enough for Eternal Night.”
Applejack scowled. “Ya come demandin’ payment early and say ya want extra? Land sakes, we ain't even got the usual amount yet, let alone more.”
Lightning smirked. “Well, isn't that too bad? We'll just have to--”
Whatever the Pegasus was about to propose was interrupted by Apple Bloom charging into the kitchen. “Applejack,” she cried, “there are soldiers comin’ this way! Lots of ‘em with weapons and such.”
Applejack whirled to the window and confirmed what Apple Bloom said. In the distance, roughly twenty soldiers marched into the front gates of Sweet Apple Acres, brandishing spears and torches that made shadows flicker across their faces and gave them an even more menacing look.
“Well, well,” Lightning Dust chuckled, “guess they got more out of that rebel than I thought.”
Applejack growled and spun on her front hooves, her hind legs thrusting into the air. Lightning ducked under the kick, but Applejack hadn’t been aiming for her. Her back legs slammed into the other soldier's jaw, sending him crumpling to the floor.
By the time Applejack had regained her balance, Lightning was already rushing at the youngest Apple. Applejack tried to move to defend her sister, but the Pegasus was too fast and already on Apple Bloom by the time Applejack had taken two steps.
Before Lightning could wrap her hooves around the filly, however, a blue blur slammed into her, knocking her to the ground.
Applejack gaped as Rainbow Dash wrestled with Lightning Dust. The two Pegasi punched and grappled with each other, each trying to gain the upper hoof.
As Applejack watched the odd scene as the stallion she had knocked down groaned and rolled to his hooves. His eyes flashed with rage as he magically pulled the knife that had been strapped to his leg out of its sheath.
Applejack cursed and rolled out of the way as the stallion swung at her. She jutted her back legs out once again but only sent the soldier stumbling back when her blow connected with his armored chest.
The stallion’s knife swung down and Applejack dodged away, but didn’t get far before tripping over the still fighting Pegasi rolling on the floor. Rainbow Dash managed to break free of the tangle of limbs and jumped to her hooves.
“Let’s trade,” she said, sounding much too enthusiastic for Applejack’s liking and spinning to slam her whole weight into the Unicorn soldier.
Applejack staggered to her hooves and eyed her new opponent.
“Mess with my sister, will you!?”
Lightning didn’t have time to react as Applejack copied Rainbow’s approach and slammed her entire body into the other pony. It worked better than expected, as Applejack was a good deal heavier than the Pegasus and succeeded in pinning Lightning to the floor.
“You’re not stopping anything,” Lighting hissed from under Applejack, “You’re only delaying the inevitable. No one can hide from Nightmare Moon.”
“And no one,” Applejack snarled back, “is ever gonna hurt ma family as long as ah’m around. Not Nightmare Moon, not an army, and certainly not you.” With that final remark she slammed her hoof into the side of Lightning’s head, rendering the Pegasus unconscious.
Applejack staggered off the ground but only regained her balance for a moment before Rainbow Dash flew into her, knocking them both against the wall.
The soldier Rainbow had been facing glared down at the two of them, his horn glowing menacingly. Applejack gasped for breath as a magical aura pushed against her throat, causing her to see spots.
Before the stallion could do anything worse to the two helpless ponies, a high pitched battle cry came from the corner of the room and a yellow missile jumped on his leg and sunk its teeth into his fur.
The stallion yelped and stumbled back. Applejack felt the pressure on her neck lessen. Apparently, that was all the trained Night Guard beside her needed as, in the blink of an eye, Rainbow Dash had launched herself off of Applejack and used the blunt end of the stallion’s own knife to knock him out next to his partner.
Applejack scrambled to her hooves and wrapped Apple Bloom in a hug. “Gosh darn it, don’t scare me like that sis.”
Apple Bloom wiggled in her grip. “Applejack, we don’t have time ta hug. The soldiers are still comin’.”
Applejack groaned and released her sister. “Yer right. Yer right. Go tell the others we’re goin’ in one minute so get out back with anythin’ you can carry while I bar the door.”
Apple Bloom scampered off, and Applejack turned to the other still conscious pony. Rainbow Dash stood over the fallen soldier, knife in hoof and a hollow look in her eyes. “Hey, thanks for savin’ Apple Bloom back there. I know ya didn’t need ta do that.”
Rainbow Dash tore her eyes away from the fallen stallion and shook her head. “Yeah, yeah I did. I can’t have innocent ponies getting hurt when I could save them.” She looked back at the two soldiers lying on the ground, the knife clenched in her hoof and her body stiffening, before she relaxed and trotted out of the room. “I’ll go get my saddle bags. We’re running again, huh?”
Applejack nodded, following after her. “To the North.”