• Published 31st Jul 2013
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The Advent of Applejack - Mister Friendly



Applejack has yet to truly know what it means to be a changeling...

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Chapter 10: On the Trail

An unseasonable chill hung in the air over Ponyville. Cool rain and heavy cloud cover kept the thermometer down in comfortable levels. But the clouds were starting to break up, letting rays of sunlight seep in to the damp earth below.

The weather ponies had done their job flawlessly as usual, and now the rest of the village was coming out to try and enjoy the cooler weather before the unrelenting summer heat took over again.

Even with the events of the previous day fresh in their minds, the ponies of Ponyville did what they did best and got about their lives as usual. Granted, exploding zepplins and ominous threats were new ones, but the quaint city was hardly unused to calamity. Likely, the out-of-towners were going to need a couple months' worth of therapy to work past the trauma, and the media circuit would be stuck on the topic for weeks, but Ponyvillians had thicker hides than that.

Things were already almost back to business as usual. The market was bustling, ponies were stopping to chat in the streets with smiles and friendly banter, and traffic on the ground and in the sky was healthy, without being crowded.

But not everything was quite back to normal yet, and everypony was already well aware of that, no matter how many sets of eyes tried to stubbornly see past it.

The rattle and clank of patrolling Royal Guards was not a cherished sound. After what happened the last time they had been out in force, the sound elicited more than one nervous glance over a shoulder whenever it reached a pony’s ears.

Ponies did their best to keep the unease at a minimum, but it remained as a constant reminder in the backs of their minds nonetheless; a nagging paranoia of their surroundings that loomed heavy over everything.

From her perch atop a thatched roof cottage, Cloudkicker witnessed all of this, a discontented look darkening her muzzle.

She watched a patrol of three Royal Guards stomp noisily down the road below, marching in crisp formation. With the amount of noise they were making between their uniform marching and clanking armor, there was little chance of them sneaking up on anypony on the same block. Yet two patrols had already passed Cloudkicker in under half an hour. Captain Steel Shod was pulling out all the stops, without a doubt.

But there was something else that weighed on Cloudkicker’s mind more: a lack of something, actually. Something she found even more noticeable than the patrolling security detail marching through every street.

Not once since the sun had come up had she heard even a single thrum from a changeling wing. Not once had she seen one of their black profiles in the sky or wandering the streets like lost puppies. It was as if, overnight, half of the population of Ponyville had simply vanished behind their verdant green walls without a peep of complaint.

Getting over the distraction the Guard had presented, Cloudkicker returned to what she had been doing previously; carefully observing the changeling district – silent, unmoving, and unsettling for it. There’d always been this intangible energy about the district, some sense of motion at all times, very much like a beehive or ant hill. Now it was all just… still.

Not a single changeling had so much as peeked out of the thickets, not even one single glowing blue peeper. There wasn’t even a hint of activity echoing up through the trees; no even a single bird chirp. It was as if the entire hive was sitting just as motionlessly as she was, just as watchful – just as observant – waiting for the other horseshoe to drop.

In fact, the only living beings she’d seen in that direction were stationed around one of the entrances to the district – a full contingent of guards, armed for bear and brandishing banners like nopony would know who they were otherwise. They hadn’t moved since Cloudkicker had taken up her stakeout position in the wee hours of the morning, and likely wouldn’t move for a good while yet. But she couldn’t help but feel disconcerted at the sight of them facing into the district instead of out…

The complete absence of so many made her fidget restlessly. Changelings had become a regular fixture around town, no more out of place than a pegasus or unicorn. Everypony had acclimated to their presence, so to now have them gone was almost as much of a system shock as when they’d first turned up.

For there to be nothing now… They certainly were a skittish bunch.

She had no idea what had happened, not beyond Captain Steel Shod’s announcement of the lockdown. But somehow, someway, Cloudkicker’s gut told her that Rainbow Dash was involved. She’d had that feeling the moment she turned up out of the blue, more intense than ever before with a wild look in her eyes, demanding unscheduled rain… then she’d vanished again.

It wasn’t like Cloudkicker didn’t have an idea of where to look. But beyond that, the task of unraveling the mystery had been left to her mind. And she’d had a few hours to puzzle over it.

It’d been the first she’d seen of Rainbow since the evacuation yesterday, and if her expression had been anything to go by, things in the district were not hunky-dory. And if things in the district weren’t hunky-dory, then that meant something big had happened to Applejack. And if something had happened to Applejack…

Really, she could be just that predictable sometimes.

“Geez, there you are!”

Cloudkicker jolted slightly, then looked around. Firstly, that had not been the voice she’d been waiting for. It wasn’t even a mare’s voice. Secondly, it wasn’t coming from the direction she was expecting, either.

The street below was empty. The patrol had long-since rounded the block. The airspace off to Cloudkicker’s left, however, had a new occupant.

When she glanced towards the figure, Cloudkicker almost did a double take. But then she realized that the black figure was not what it initially appeared to be.

“Oh… hey Thunderlane. Long time no see.”

The charcoal-black stallion huffed, giving her an irritated look that ,frankly, she didn’t feel she deserved. “No kidding. I’ve been looking all over for you. The next time you decide to skip work, do it when Miss Firefly isn’t up in arms. Things are crazy enough without playing search party.”

Cloudkicker rolled her eyes. “So never take a day off ever again. Gotcha.”

Thunderlane glanced between Cloudkicker and the mass of leaves that loomed nearby. Something in her absent tone had given her away, and it didn’t take Thunderlane long to put two and two together.

“Come on, ‘Kicker. She’s been gone a day,” he scoffed. “Don’t be that mare.”

It wouldn’t have been so irritating if he’d only been referring to Rainbow.

“Buzz off, Thunder,” Cloudkicker huffed, picking herself up, and turned to give her pesterer her undivided attention. “Do you have something else to say, or do you really want to chat with me right now?” she said with a pointed stare to make her threat all the more apparent to somepony as thickheaded as Thunderlane.

Having been subjected to some of Cloudkicker’s fouler moods in the past, Thunderlane barely batted an eyelash at her hard tone. “Chill. I just came by to see if you knew where the boss was,” he said, now bothering with diplomacy. “Firefly’s been getting… well, more Firefly than usual. Something about Rainbow not making it home last night, and well… you know how she gets whenever the boss is involved.”

Cloudkicker grimaced. The weather manager had a very funny way of expressing her concern, especially when it came to her only daughter. Most mothers didn’t tend to put said daughters in headlocks as a disciplinary measure until they “quit their fussing”, for one thing.

“Sorry, haven’t seen her,” Cloudkicker said with a shrug. “But if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say she’s down in there somewhere.” She jerked her head towards the motionless district. As if it needed indicating, being only a block away across the rooftops and dominating a good portion of the skyline in that direction. “And I’d bet the rest of my salary for the year she’s up to something with Applejack. You know, like usual.”

Thunderlane turned to eye the district, and visibly seemed to reconsider his options. “Ugh, no bet. But if you see her, tell her her mom’s looking for her. You know, before she goes and gets her herself.”

Cloudkicker nodded. Not that she wouldn’t pay to see that, but they had enough to worry about without ‘Hurricane Firefly’ tearing through downtown in search of the spawn of her loins.

She turned to look at Thunderlane out of the corner of her eye, just as he turned to leave. “You know, you could probably go in there and check it out for yourself if it’s so important,” she pointed out. “Save us all some time and collateral.”

She knew the response she’d get, but she still felt like poking him anyway. Thunderlane trembled and stuck his tongue out, feigning retching. “Blech, no thanks. One, those things give me the creeps. Have you seen their eyes? I had nightmares for weeks. Two, the Royal Guard wouldn’t let me get close, so what’s the point? I’ve got better things to do.”

Cloudkicker raised an eyebrow. Oh, this should be good…

“Such as…?” she prompted. Honestly, she hadn’t been expecting an actual answer, so when Thunderlane fixed her with a look, she was somewhat taken aback.

Such as,” he said stiffly, “a trip to Canterlot. Folks are going, so I’m going, too.”

Curiosity reared its ugly head in Cloudkicker’s mind. “Strange time to go on vacation,” she noted casually.

Now it was Thunderlane’s turn to give her a bizzare look. “You really must be out of the loop. Haven’t you heard? There’s supposed to be a really big forum in the Day Court this evening. Everypony’s going to be there.”

Ah… well, that did explain a few things.

“And let me guess,” Cloudkicker drawled, overcome with a sudden onset case of the ‘disinterests’, “It’s all because of the royals’ favorite topic; the changelings.”

“Of course,” Thunderlane said, indifferent to Cloudkicker’s tone. He just kept his chest puffed up, like he did when he was doing his best ‘aloof Rainbow’ impression. “I don’t know if you noticed, but ponies are really talking this time. What if what that changeling said yesterday really happens?”

Cloudkicker shrugged, turning back towards the district. “Who knows? Don’t sweat it, Thunderlane. The princesses aren’t exactly going to take this lying down, you know, and neither is Applejack or her friends, including the boss. If nopony feels like doing anything constructive, just like them handle it.”

“I know, it’s just… ponies are talking, you know.”

“Then let them talk,” Cloudkicker rebuffed indifferently, a slight tick of irritation in her voice. “They’ve been doing that for months already. Nothing new there.”

“No, this is different, Cloudkicker,” Thunderlane pressed. “I mean… It’s not just Canterlot anymore, and it’s not just the fat cats. A lot of ponies are getting nervous. Plus, I heard there’s a petition…”

She flicked her eyes back to Thunderlane, who was clearly gauging her expression and waiting for some kind of response.

“And that’s news because…?” she asked while winding a hoof through the air as if to prompt an explanation. “Seriously, TL, the nobles write up a new petition to kick out the changelings every other month. Celestia’s just going to keep striking them down until she finally loses her temper and punts the lot of them to the moon. How is this so groundbreaking?”

“Well, it’s bad, right?” Thunderlane said back, a little defensive now. “And it’s not just in Canterlot; ponies here are starting to talk, too. I mean, what if what that guy said really does happen? Do we really want a repeat of the last changeling attack?”

He was clearly antsy, constantly fidgeting and changing position in midair, and he kept compulsively scratching at the back of his neck, a nervous tick that always came out when he was anxious.

Cloudkicker scowled. She had the distinct feeling she knew which way he would vote if given the chance. “Oh come on. You really think the boss’ll let it get that bad again? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve got changelings of our own this time fighting fire with fire. Seriously, since when did you become such a worrywart?”

Thunderlane glared right back. “Since I had a little brother who didn’t do anything to anypony. As far as I see it, this is their problem, not ours. Why are they getting us involved, too? I get that it’s bad where they come from, but we didn’t ask to get dragged into the middle of a war.”

Cloudkicker had an answer, but she kept her lips firmly shut. It wasn’t like they didn’t know which side of the fence each of them sat on when it came to this topic, and if she got into another fight over it…

“… Look,” grunted Thunderlane, not making eye contact anymore. “Just tell Rainbow Dash to go see the manager.”

“Will do,” Cloudkicker responded curtly.

With that, he left, either because he’d grown a brain and decided to back off or had finally said all he wanted to say; Cloudkicker wasn’t in much of a mood to speculate.

Thunderlane was one of those ponies that wasn’t all for the changelings around town. This was well known already. Certainly he wasn’t the worst; he didn’t go out of his way to discriminate like some ponies did. But she had to admit, he’d never been this vocal about it, even after his little brother Rumble started tailing after a sweetie from the district like a dumbstruck moth following a filly-shaped candle. Ah, to be young again…

But even then, Thunderlane had made his opinion known loud and clear, but that was all.

To actually go to Canterlot… Next thing Cloudkicker knew, he’d be one of those picketers in front of City Hall that’d seen a resurgence lately.

For some reason, that single point of fact bothered her a lot more than she thought it should have. Despite differences of opinions, they’d still been friends for a long time. She may have a very sour outlook on his actions, but that was only because they stirred a deeper sense of unease.

I don’t know what’s going on around here, Boss, and I don’t know what you have up your sleeve. But whatever you and Applejack are up to, you’d better get your tails in gear before this craziness gets any worse…

~~***~~

Applejack didn’t much like the Everfree Forest. True, not many ponies could claim they did, but Applejack especially held a deep-seated respect for the place in her heart. A respect border-lining on aversion.

Maybe it came from growing up in the forest’s shadow, and the occasional yet terrifying encounters that came with it. Maybe it came from Granny Smith, who’d spent the better part of Applejack’s youth filling her head with stories of terrible things within the forest’s depths: the Headless Horse, the Jabberwocky, the Olden Pony, ‘Old Rotbreath’, and countless more that made her wary of ever stepping one hoof within the forest’s borders, and humbled her daring spirit in the face of that dark place.

Even to that day, every foray into the dark thickets felt like a test of her courage and wits. She always kept herself on high alert, and every muscle stayed keyed for action at a moment’s notice; one arrant rustle, one barely perceptible snarl, and they’d be in trouble. Sometimes it was thrilling… so long as she held true to that respect. The forest was quick to punish even the smallest slight.

That visit to the infamous forest was hardly any different.

Just a few steps into the dark underbrush, and the sky was completely lost to her. Thick, gnarled branches curled through the air above them, wearing thick curtains of hanging moss that smelled of rain and dead things. Where the sunlight could not reach, the branches had become twisted and stricken of greenery; dead bones yet to slough off the greater whole.

Strange plants were everywhere; most were beautiful, all undoubtedly harmful in some way or another. Applejack did her best to avoid the thick stuff, but vegetation was everywhere: fallen trees covered in suspicious fungal caps oozing luminescent spores, vines wound so tight around tree trunks they bit deep into the bark with cruel barbs, and so many different kinds of flowers she couldn’t rightly recall all of them, all competing for what scraps of light they could bask in from the canopy. In the Everfree, even the plants were engaged in a battle for supremacy with one another.

And the sounds…

Birds cawed and shrieked in the trees above, not so much serenading the day as they were issuing threats to anything dumb enough to draw too close. Insects hummed and trilled incessantly, falling into tense silence only when Applejack drew near.

The rustle of the underbrush as something scurried through it… the rattle of branches as a bird took flight… the snap of a twig directly behind her…

Applejack glanced behind her, just to be sure, only to have the culprit blink at her.

“What?” asked Rainbow, head cocked to one side slightly. She said it a little defensively, too, since she was perfectly aware of who had stepped on that twig.

She walked just a few steps back, her wings restless and prone to unfurling almost absently, but she kept her eyes forward, down the winding game trail they followed. She was putting up a front, Applejack could tell; even the brazen mare didn’t like being in the Everfree if she could help it. The claustrophobia of the forest probably wasn’t doing any favors for the winged mare, either.

But neither felt much like engaging the other over their sense of unease. To do so meant admitting they were nervous in the first place, and their prides would stoop to no such level.

So what if that gap in a nearby bush looked like a Timber Wolf muzzle? So what if they could have sworn they caught a whiff of the choking stench of a hydra? It wasn’t like they were nervous or anything.

Maybe just a little bit, but neither would ever admit to such a thing.

Focus, Applejack, she thought to herself, and frowned with concentration. Sooner or later, Rainbow was going to lose her temper if Applejack kept shooting her looks after every sound she made.

She pinned her eyes back on the trail they were following; a familiar one, one she’d used many a time whenever duty called her into the forest. Calling it the safest option they had might be a bit of a misnomer, since the only ‘safety’ afforded to them was familiarity. That wouldn’t account for much if they wandered headlong into a roving timber wolf pack.

A faint rustle in the bush ahead of them – a chipmunk scampering for cover, perhaps. Wind rattled the bare branches over their heads, though the air on the forest floor remained motionless. The feel of –

“What’s that?”

Applejack about jumped out of her skin at Agave’s innocent question. Rainbow was quicker to spin around, apparently having been jarred just as bad as she was.

Agave was only half a step behind Rainbow, wearing a look of simple curiosity as she pointed off to one side.

Rainbow followed where she was pointing, and wrinkled her muzzle. “Er, yeah… pretty sure that’s Poison Joke. Uh, don’t touch it.”

Agave stared at the small flower bed as they passed. “But they’re really pretty…”

“Trust me,” Rainbow said dourly. “The last thing we need is you growing ten feet tall or something.”

After that, Agave didn’t look nearly as fascinated with the curly-leafed blue flowers.

The walked in silence for a few minutes more, when suddenly –

“Oh, what’s that?” piped up Agave again, pointing to something overhead.

Applejack looked up this time, a trace of exasperation nipping at her – only to turn instantly to shock when she found two huge, perfectly round eyes staring right back at her from above. “…Pretty sure that’s just an owl,” Applejack mumbled after taking in the rest of the body that glare was attached to.

The screech owl just sat on its perch, staring accusingly at the trio with huge steely eyes. The fact that it hardly moved and didn’t utter so much as a peep as they drew near unnerved Applejack. After all, in the Everfree, it rarely was the noisy inhabitants one had to worry about.

And yet, this entire concept seemed to be utterly lost on Agave. She looked at her, looking totally lost. “What’s an owl? I’ve never seen one before.”

That question stumped Applejack. “Guess they don’t have ‘em in the south,” she noted.

Agave shook her head. “No. I did read a story about birds by the coast that hunt “w-hales”, whatever those are. Ooo, does Equestria have terrordactyls, too?”

Both Applejack and Rainbow exchanged horrified looks when she wasn’t looking. What exactly did one say to that?

“Er… no,” Rainbow finally got out around the lump in her throat. “Pretty sure we don’t.”

Agave didn’t seem terribly put off by that. She just watched the owl until they’d passed, her eyes glittering with wonder. “Are there a lot of owls in Equestria? They look so cute.”

Rainbow gave Applejack an incredulous look while saying to Agave, “Uh… yeah, I suppose. Twilight kinda adopted one as a pet.”

That got her attention. “You can have owls as pets?” she asked, suddenly very intense.

Rainbow mouthed “wow” at Applejack, who had to keep her own grin in check, before saying, “Well yeah. You can have all sorts of animals as pets. Applejack’s got Winona, Pinkie’s got Gummy… I even have one.”

“You do? Is it fun? What’s your pet called? Can I see it?”

Rainbow chuckled a little. Agave sounded like this was all vitally important information to her future wellbeing. “Look, when we get through this, I’ll take you to Fluttershy’s place. I get the feeling the two of you will get along great.”

After that, Agave could barely sit still.

With her distracted by images of adorable animals and whatever activities they’d get up to together, Rainbow turned back towards Applejack.

“So…”

“So…?” Applejack echoed, raising an eyebrow at her without turning away from the road.

Something in Rainbow’s expression shifted – an edge of uncertainty crept in that was in danger of looking like actual worry. “You sure Zecora will know something? Cuz… we’re kinda up the creek without a paddle if not.”

Applejack nodded. “Positive, sugarcube,” she said with absolute certainty. “When all that craziness with Vigil hit, she asked Zecora ta look after my family. Ah know it ain’t much, but… Only other option is ta go rootin’ around through Freedom and…” she faltered a bit. “Truth be told… Ah wouldn’t know where ta start. Ah don’t think we’d explore it all in a day or two even with the rest of the girls here, and with Steel Shod’s lockdown keepin’ the other changelin’s in Ponyville…”

She could feel Rainbow’s eyes on her, but she kept turned away. She’d tried to pick the right words without pointing out the one thing that hung over her worse than the gloom of the forest; that she didn’t have a day or two to search. The more they focused on that one fact, the less it felt like they could actually overcome it…

Rainbow nodded to herself, suddenly resolute. “Okay, Zecora it is. Just you wait, Applejack; we’ll be done before you know it.”

Applejack kept that grin in check, too, but it was substantially more difficult to do so.

“Of course, the trick’s gonna be findin’ her,” she mumbled. “There’s no tellin’ where Zecora is right now.”

Rainbow frowned at that. She hated to admit it, but Applejack did sort of have a point. Finding where she lived was one thing. Finding the zebra herself? That could take forever… and they didn’t have nearly that long…

But then Rainbow shook her head roughly. No, no! Stop thinking like that! It was way too early to throw in the towel over something so stupid as doubts!

While Applejack glanced around, resuming her vigilance, unbeknownst to her, Rainbow straightened up.

“No sweat,” she said confidently. “If that’s all we have to do, we’ll be done before lunch! Just you watch; I’ll find her in no time!”

She ignored the perplexed look she got from Applejack, instead forging ahead down the path. Her head turned this way and that sharply, looking for any sign of their white-on-grey quarry.

Applejack just blinked at her, arching an eyebrow, the whole while watching as Rainbow inspected the ground with keen interest, looking for tracks.

“Uh… Rain –”

“Ah-hah!” she proclaimed so loudly Applejack jumped. Rainbow reared up, pointing with a hoof. “Over there!” And off she zoomed into the underbrush… only to reappear a second to two later, mane full of twigs and coat covered in leaves, frowning again. “Nope… But what about… Over there!”

Off she shot again… only to reappear moments later, even more disheveled. “Nope.”

Applejack shook her head, letting out her breath, and just kept walking forward, all the while watching the rambunctious pegasus turn their patch of forest upside down in pursuit of their target.

Agave trotted up beside her while she was distracted. Applejack only became aware of her presence when the filly raised her voice. “Are you feeling better, Applejack?”

Applejack looked at her, confused. “Why?”

Agave fidgeted slightly. “Well… you’re smiling.”

She blinked. Was she?

Applejack straightened her facial features and glanced away, pretending to have noticed something out of the corner of her eye.

And for the first time in a very long time, fortune smiled on her. Because through a small break in the trees, she spotted a familiar twisted tree in the middle of a small clearing. It would have been just any other in the dense forest, if it wasn’t for the telltale door fixed to the front.

At the same time Applejack started to open her mouth, she felt a whoosh of air over her head, as Rainbow cried out. “There it is! Told you I’d find it!”

Applejack rolled her eyes, but said nothing to ruin the moment for her friend. Instead, as the trio moved closer, she cast an eye over the small shelter.

Aside from the doorway, there was very little to indicate that the thing in front of them was somepony’s home. The two windows on either side of the doorway could have been hollows bored into the side of the trunk and used as nests for all manner of forest creatures.

But the longer one looked, the more details started to become apparent.

Strange bottles of various sizes and colors hung from long ropes from several branches, clinking together with a wooden clunk whenever the breeze played with them. Some sounded empty. Most did not.

The most eye-catching thing stood just off to one side of the entryway; a peculiar totem that looked like some sort of sleeping animal’s face.

The only thing the small hut was missing was its owner.

As Applejack stepped closer, she couldn’t help but glance around warily. No lights were on inside the hut. Nothing stirred in the clearing, save for the bottles of unknowable brews swaying slightly in the breeze.

The very air felt different here. Perhaps it was the circulation afforded to this place, but the smell and taste of it was… off. Nothing Applejack could put her hoof on, but there was no denying it.

Even the sounds seemed unusual. Where once the bird calls had been shrill and piercing, now they seemed subdued, as if trying to keep themselves in check for fear of disturbing something.

“Is this the place?” Agave asked tentatively, craning her head slightly to see over a hedge.

Applejack nodded. “No sign of Zecora around, but she’s bound ta come back sooner or later.”

“So… we’re just going to wait for her?” Rainbow asked. She tried to sound neutral, but Applejack caught the tone of disapproval hiding behind her words.

“Better that than stumblin’ headlong into trouble.”

Rainbow didn’t argue, but she didn’t exactly look very enthused, either.

She paused, and was just about to turn to console – or at least chastise – the hothead… when she heard something.

It was an odd something; something that anypony with one half-deaf ear could have picked out in a heartbeat. The forest around them had continued to make its regular din, but by then Applejack had grown used to what to listen for.

A cat meowing off to her right? Now that was a new one.

Rainbow heard it, too. She turned to give Applejack the same look, then both turned to look in the direction of the sound.

About twenty feet further down the trail, a suspiciously nondescript bush was suddenly and inexplicably shaking… and hissing angrily at itself.

Rainbow and Applejack flicked their eyes back to each other while all of this carried on.

The strange bush continued its antics for several long seconds… until it seemed to come to the realization that three sets of eyes were turned its way.

Applejack breathed out through her nose, an eyebrow arching. “So… Y’all gonna come on out, or what?”

Of course she had a good idea what the culprits were, and sure enough, a few moments later, she was proven right as two changelings crawled out into the open, looking all sorts of ashamed with themselves.

Heads held low, both stepped forward nervously. “S-sorry, Your—I-I mean, Applejack,” the first mumbled. “I… I panicked and just… made the first sound that came to mind.”

Her companion glared sideways at her, mumbling, “A cat, of all things…”

The first looked at him, eyes wide with anxiety. “I-I panicked!”

Applejack couldn’t help but pause, her brows pulling together in confusion. “Bumblebee? What’re y’all doin’ out here?”

The mare gave an awkward flash of a smile with her head still tilted down. “U-uh… Hello. I-I was out gathering herbs. In… In case it’d help you get better. You know… after… blowing up…”

The only one who winced harder than Applejack and Rainbow was Bumblebee’s companion, who looked like he half expected to be murdered for her tactless comment.

There was nothing particularly unique about him, though that was not unusual for a changeling. However, Applejack couldn’t help but notice a tear in his wing that was currently aglow with soft green magic. Besides that, both he and Bumblebee looked virtually identical – if one ignored their radically different postures.

“But when I started to head back,” Bumblebee went on, ignorant, “there were all of these royal guards everywhere. I got nervous, so I just stayed put here. Then I ran into a group of Wasps…”

“Ran into,” the other changeling grumbled, rolling his eyes. “We came this close to attacking you.”

“Y-yeah,” Bumblebee said, wincing. “Th-that…”

“Wait,” Rainbow piped up, looking confused. “Wasps?”

The stallion nodded stiffly. “Scouts might be a better word for us. We’re the closest thing to… security Applejack’s hive has. We’re no Inner Sect, mind you, but we get the job done. We’ve been keeping an eye on the Everfree Forest, making sure the Court doesn’t get a hoofhold here. Name’s Willow, by the way. I take it you know this one?” He gestured to Bumblebee, who waved sheepishly back at the group.

“Sure do,” Applejack said back, but her frown didn’t let up.

“Good,” Willow grunted, “then get her the hay out of here. This is the last place someone like her should be.”

Bumblebee mumbled something about just wanting to help, but didn’t bother raising her voice high enough to properly object.

Applejack gave her a sympathetic look, but she couldn’t help but take Willow’s side. Someone like Bumblebee really didn’t belong in such a wild place as this.

“You guys see anything out here?” Rainbow asked, looking Willow up and down.

“Plenty,” he grunted, scowling. “Lot more than we were hoping for. Royal Guard had the same idea we did; it’s been a real Diamond Dog keeping a low profile and keeping tabs on things.”

Applejack’s eyes widened. “Steel Shod’s got troops out here?”

“Oh you better believe it,” Willow said darkly. “I get the feeling they’re not up for ‘unilateral cooperation’, neither. Normally, I say if they want our jobs out here, they can have ‘em; I’m willing to share the joy of getting chased for miles by timber wolves. But the timing is a little odd, wouldn’t you say?”

Willow turned his attention towards Applejack, studying her. Of all the looks changelings had given her, this was perhaps one of the more unusual; it was critical, not awed or reverently fearful. It wasn’t the wondrous gaze of a zealot. It was the once-over of a soldier.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you out here, Your Highness,” he said. “Then again, we haven’t heard back from the outside world in a good day or two. With what’s going on, I guess I don’t need to ask if anything’s happened back home, and beg pardon if I’m making assumptions, Your Highness, but something tells me you being out here at the same time Steel Shod’s taken an interest in sightseeing, too, isn’t pure coincidence.”

“Yeah, y’all could say that,” Applejack muttered bitterly. “It’s a good thing yer out here, though. We could use yer help findin’ Zecora.”

“Zecora?” repeated Willow, looking and sounding taken aback. “The hermit? Haven’t seen her for a while now. Not a big surprise though; I swear she has eyes in the back of her head. It’s kind of spooky how easy she avoids prying eyes if she doesn’t want them. But that’s a zebra for you…”

That had not been the news Applejack was hoping for. Quite the opposite; it took a good portion of the wind out of her sails.

Zecora was their one and only hope. Without her, they’d never find Hyacinth’s safehouse fast enough for it to matter…

Willow took in Applejack’s expression, pursing his lips slightly. “… Well, I’ve got a lot of good drones with me. If it’s something you’re looking for, we’ll get it found.”

“Oh!”

All four jumped in surprise, turning as one towards Bumblebee, who was suddenly bouncing in place with a big smile on her face. “Ooh, ooh! I know this one, I know this one!”

“Maker help me,” Willow sighed, rolling his translucent eyes. “What now?”

Still beaming, Bumblebee proclaimed, “I know where Zecora is!”

“Really?” asked Rainbow, though she sounded dubious. “Where?”

Bumblebee didn’t say a thing. Instead, she merely lifted one holey hoof… and pointed directly behind the trio.

Applejack and Rainbow blinked, turned, blinked at each other, then turned to look over their shoulders.

Straight into the face of a mildly annoyed zebra.

“If you are finished making such an uproar,” Zecora said coolly, “I would very much like to reach my door.”

~~***~~

Zecora was not used to receiving visitors, and her home reflected that. She hardly had anything in the way of furnishings, apart from a bed tucked into a private alcove, a few shelves cluttered with all manner of herbs and ingredients, and a gigantic cauldron sitting dead center in the hut.

Aside from a single chair set next to a shelf cut into the side of the tree – likely the closest thing Zecora had to a meal table – there was not much in the way of seats, forcing Applejack, Rainbow and Agave to content themselves with sitting on the floor.

Neither Willow nor Bumblebee felt much inclined to enter the small hut and, judging by the cool look Willow and Zecora exchanged, something told Applejack the feeling was mutual. Apparently, she didn’t take kindly to being spied upon.

The moment all four were inside and the door firmly latched, Zecora’s mood shifted slightly; not much, but enough for the tension to ease out of her shoulders.

“It is not often that you come looking for me,” Zecora said, sounding friendly enough, if not a little tired from the day’s activities. She made a beeline for the impressive cauldron that dominated the center of the hollowed out tree hut. “May I ask why this would be?”

As she spoke, she carefully unhitched a pair of burlap bags stuffed to the brim with all manner of herbs and roots, and set them down on the floor. To Applejack, the contents looked little more than a hodgepodge of random twigs and leaves, but she knew well enough that that was not the case.

“Yeah,” Rainbow started, looking around. “We were kinda hoping you could help us.”

Zecora nodded to herself; this was not in question. Ponies rarely made it all the way out to her humble hut just for social visits. She sat down, her back to them as she leaned closer to the base of the cauldron.

Out of nowhere, flames burst forth, causing Applejack and Rainbow to jump a foot in the air.

“Of this, there is no doubt,” Zecora said, standing back up. “But I don't know what brought this about.”

This time, Rainbow turned to Applejack, to her displeasure.

“Well, ya see, Zecora,” she started, uncomfortably, “We were kinda hopin’ y’all could tell us where… where we’d find Hyacinth’s place.”

Zecora froze, midstep. Her mouth hung open, halfway through biting down on her saddlebag’s top, but there it stayed for a good long while as Applejack’s words rattled around inside her head.

Then, slowly, she straightened up, and turned a new look on the group, as if really taking them in for the first time. Her eyes drifted over Applejack, as if she could see through her form and to the real thing beneath, before sweeping over to Rainbow… and then settling for a rather long time on Agave, who shrank back behind Rainbow’s tail.

But it wasn’t necessarily Agave her eyes lingered upon, but the distinct, bulging wad of white table cloth wrapped around her midriff, tying something round to her side.

As she looked between them, the weariness seemed to redouble with each pony Zecora glanced towards, culminating in a heavy sigh as she sat down.

“Why?” she asked bluntly, eyes flicking back to Applejack.

Applejack looked back and forth with Rainbow, who only offered a ghost of a smile, and nodded in Zecora’s direction faintly.

Applejack exhaled, feeling an uncomfortable twist in her chest. Then, she shrugged off her pack, stepped forward, and changed.

Zecora didn’t back away in surprise, or hardly react at all to the sudden burst of green fire in her home. Her eyes only squinted reflexively against the glare until it passed.

Her expression didn’t even change when her gaze came to rest on Applejack’s black, leathery face – ruined as it was by a spider web of cracks and hairline fractures. Zecora only surveyed her, her thoughts her own.

When Zecora didn’t respond, Applejack bit her lip. She tried to force herself to stand as straight-backed as possible, but she knew she wasn’t pulling it off as well as she should have.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Zecora turned away. She once more returned to her bags and the steaming cauldron behind her.

“So, it has finally come to this,” she said, speaking as if she were talking to herself. “I should have known that something was amiss.”

Without really paying attention, Zecora scooped up a hoofful of what looked like dead, dried leaves, and began kneading them between her hooves into a fine powder. Once that was completed, she flicked her wrist and sent the green dust sprinkling into the pot, without any immediate reaction from the contents.

Rainbow frowned to herself, but didn’t keep her thoughts private for long. “Do… do you know what’s happening to AJ?”

Zecora glanced back at her, turning away from regarding a collection of strange, polka-dotted flowers she’d laid out on her table. “From what I have learned, I know enough to be concerned,” she said, pulling over a mortar and pestle.

Rainbow and Applejack exchanged a curious look. Zecora knew? But… how?

Applejack took a step closer, her curiosity almost too much to hold back. “Zecora… how did y’all know Hyacinth?”

The zebra paused in her grinding, but did not turn around. She stayed motionless for quite some time, as if lost in thought. “A long time ago, Hyacinth set her sights on me.”

A faint chuckle escaped her lips. “It was but a chance meeting... most unfortunately.”

Zecora turned back around, carrying the mortar with her as she made her way to the cauldron. As she did so, Applejack caught sight of the faint melancholy smile on her face. “When she made her move, I saw through her disguise. And then I gave Hyacinth quite the surprise.”

Zecora dumped the mashed up flower petals into the cauldron, just as the water inside started to ripple from the fire crackling at the pot’s base.

“She was still quite young, but after that she knew, not to be quick to trust a zebra's strange brew.”

She returned to her bag, and hefted two corkscrew-shaped roots, one in each hoof, and proceeded to raise and lower them in midair as if weighing them in her hooves.

She frowned slightly to herself in speculation, licked each in turn, then whacked them together, judging some quality in the sound and heft of each. Apparently satisfied, she picked one of the two, discarding the other into her bag, and carefully lowered her choice into the pot.

Despite her care, the contents of the cauldron hissed and spat, emitting a volatile plume of green fumes into the air.

After that Zecora hesitated, eyes drifting away into empty space. “I started as only a means to an end. But as time went on… I became her friend.”

Rainbow abruptly straightened up, a thought striking her like a lightning bolt. “Wait a minute… does that mean you’re from the south?”

Applejack jolted. She hadn’t even been paying attention to that, but now that Rainbow mentioned it…

“Then… why are y’all in Equestria?” she asked, though somehow she knew it wasn’t because of anything good.

Zecora sighed, stepping away from the cauldron – slower this time. “Zebras believe changelings are forest spirits most dire. When my tribe found out, I was sentenced to the pyre.”

All three gasped, including Agave, who was doing her best to blend in with the background.

Zecora flashed them an understanding smile. “The zebra tribes did not and do not know that not every changeling must be our foe.

“I tried to explain, to share what I had learned. But their respect, despite this, I had not earned.”

~~***~~

Zecora walked onward, forcing her mind to still, as she was marched to a small hill.

All around her, the faces of those she knew and loved glared pitilessly at her as she was pushed and shoved. They formed two lines, one on each side. When it came to their gazes, there was nowhere to hide.

She forced herself to look forward, to keep her heart from breaking. But no matter what she did, she couldn't stop the aching.

Words were thrown at her, filled with rage, regardless of her youthful age. Zecora sought no sympathy; she knew it was too late. For a long time already, she'd resigned to her fate.

Torches lined the way to her untimely doom; an unlit bonfire, whose flames would be her tomb.

The elder of the tribe grimly led the way. She did not look back to her protege. She’d tried to talk sense into her, but to no avail. So now she had to walk her down this trail.

Zecora turned her eyes up to the sky, taking solace in the bright stars up high. It wasn’t much, but it kept her strong against the words of the hateful throng.

The chanting and shouting was growing louder still, as the progression reached the top of the small hill.

Torches were raised, and Zecora quailed at the sight; she knew it marked the end of her final living night.

Unable to delay it, the elder did turn, forcing herself to now appear much more stern. As she lead the tribe in chanting the young one's final rite, Zecora looked upon her idol, retaining the sight of her former mentor in the night through the flickering firelight.

Then, finally, she let her eyes close, and calmed herself as the chanting rose...

Burn the witch, burn the witch; that was their demand. Burn the witch, burn her to bring peace to the land…

But Zecora held her head high and stood tall; she knew she wasn’t wrong. Wasn't wrong at all.

She mustered her courage – she would not fear a thing. She could not tremble before whatever fate would bring.

The elder finished, the drumming came to a stop. And Zecora waited for the other horseshoe to drop…

And then there was a bang, louder than any shout, and all at once, every one of the lights went out.

Zecora’s eyes flew open, her heart missing a beat, as a blast of hot air knocked her flat on her seat.

The jungle was now quite dark – the torches snuffed to the last spark. She heard her tribe scream as the elder let out a panicked bark.

The tribe quickly scattered, eager to flee. But Zecora knew not why that would be.

As she looked through the gloom, she saw a shadow loom. She turned to it, expecting the worst… but she did a double-take first.

“Are you alright?” it asked in a blurt. “Please tell me you haven't been hurt?”

Zecora just stared, unable to speak. She saw those blue eyes, and she felt so weak.

“Why… why did you come for me?” she breathed. “I told you to flee…”

“I did,” the shadow said, calm as could be. “However I was told you must go free.”

“I must got free? But why save me?"

The shadow did not answer; she merely turned away… as darkness fell to earth near where Zecora lay.

She turned, her heart threatening to stall, as a towering form stood up tall. Higher and higher did it rise, until it reached the stars and skies.

A long jagged horn, a bushy mane of vivd red; Zecora stared at it all with a feeling of dread.

She knew about changelings, much more than her tribe’s lore. But this creature, she had never encountered before.

Zecora cowered in terror and awe at the sight, as the changeling queen’s form rose to eclipse the moonlit night.

~~***~~

Applejack stared at Zecora, completely at a loss for words. Beside her, Rainbow and Agave were similarly struck dumb.

“Ma… my mother saved yer life?” Applejack said in a small voice. She coughed, clearing her throat, but those in the room were too transfixed to pay her any heed.

Zecora nodded. “She ordered my rescue personally. But not without a fee.”

She stood over the cauldron, whose contents had reached a frothing boil, filling the hut with a peculiar, earthy smell. She eyed the contents critically, then, with a precise motion, picked up a strip of bark, so blackened it looked like it had been burned, and let it fall into the brew with a wet ker-plop.

Applejack watched as the bark floated for several seconds… and then disintegrated as if eaten away by acid.

The contents of the cauldron churned and fizzed, and then began emitting the most alarming green glow.

Something tickled in Applejack’s forehead, making her rub at it absently. This only served to remind her how numb it felt, filling her with even worse concerns.

“My friendship with Hyacinth had not escaped her gaze,” Zecora said, watching her concoction boil. “She needed our secrets, and so saved me from that blaze.”

“Your secrets?” Rainbow echoed, frowning. “What kind of secrets?”

Zecora lifted a crooked length of wood and dipped it into the cauldron, stirring gently. “My tribe knew the way,” she said softly. “Through mountains of ice, and lands far away.”

Applejack’s eyes widened, her jaw hitting the floor. “Ya mean… y’all showed her the way to Equestria?”

To that, Zecora shook her head. “No. Not even my tribe possessed such a mystical legend. They only knew the secrets of the place known as the World’s End.”

“Sounds… ominous,” mumbled Rainbow.

“I-it is,” whimpered Agave.

Both Rainbow and Applejack turned to her, to find her hiding under a table. “Before Carnation, the name was literal,” she said. “No one ever made it past the mountains. There’s blizzards, and earthquakes, a-and avalanches… it’s stupid to try to cross over them. If the flash freezes don’t get you, the snow monsters will…”

Zecora nodded. “Trying to cross over them is a terrible blunder. The safest way across is not over; it’s under.”

Zecora sighed slightly, her eyes drifting back to her work. “After we made it across, they let me stay. And so here I am to this very day.”

“Wow,” breathed Rainbow. She stared at Zecora like she’d never seen her before.

Zecora looked up, and offered a smile. “Oh, I have certainly come to love this land. I have learned much, and had adventures most grand.”

Then her expression straightened. “But you did not come here to listen to me speak. I must warn you; what you ask is not for the meek.”

Agave chewed her lip. She alone, however, showed any signs of trepidation.

Rainbow just gave her a look. “I don’t know if you noticed, but ‘meek’ isn’t really in our vocabulary.”

Applejack nodded. “Not like we got a choice, either,” she said. “Zecora, y’all knew Hyacinth better than anypony. If anypony had any idea what she or my ma were up to, it’s you. So please… Ah’m askin’ for yer help.”

Rainbow stared, thunderstruck. Applejack was borderline throwing herself on her knees at this point. It twisted her up inside, knowing that if there wasn’t so much pressure on her, it never would have to come to this.

Zecora looked at her, and even if she did not know the farm pony as well as Rainbow did, there was a glimmer of something in her eyes as she studied her.

“I can clearly see that you do indeed mean well,” she commented. “But whether you are ready… is harder to tell.”

Applejack only offered a weak shrug. “I know one way ta find out,” she said.

Zecora glanced at her, then nodded. Without warning, she suddenly produced a heavy bottle-green flask and dipped it carefully into the cauldron, making sure not to get so much as a drop on her.

After filling it almost all the way up to the neck, she reached down into her bag one last time, rummaged about, and pulled out a flake of something – something streaked black and red that sparkled like a gemstone shard. She lifted it up and, without ceremony, dropped it into the bottle.

The light produced by the strange brew surged even brighter for a moment – so bright that everypony except Zecora had to shield their eyes against the glare.

“Finding Hyacinth’s home is no easy task,” she told them, stoppering up the bottle with a cork and holding it out towards the group. “Unless you heed the guiding light of this flask.”

Applejack and Rainbow glanced at each other. Then, the pegasus reached out and took the bottle.

The heat it gave off did not surprise her. The pulsing vibrations, on the other hand, did. They rattled up her foreleg, tickling her shoulders and causing the little hairs at the base of her neck to stand on end.

“That will lead you to its twin,” Zecora said, pointing at the bottle. “It's the only way to find where Hyacinth’s been. It is our own secret recipe, and known only by her and me.”

“Awesome,” Rainbow said, trying to grin – if she wasn’t still disconcerted by the thing throbbing in her hooves. She still eyed it like she half expected it to blow up at any moment.

“Be warned,” Zecora warned suddenly, making the trio freeze, “When you approach, no matter what might occur, tread with utmost care, or you will wake the monster.”

All three had been rousing to head for the door – until she said that. Instead, they stayed rooted to the spot, staring at Zecora with wide eyes. “The what?” echoed Applejack.

Zecora continued on like she didn’t hear them. “It is a creature that protects Hyacinth’s place. Do not rouse it, or its fury you will face.”

“Great,” Rainbow groaned, rolling her eyes. “Don’t wake the sleeping death-beast. Gotcha. Anything else?”

Zecora nodded. “Beware the creature’s spit, or your life will be forfeit.”

Both Applejack and Rainbow paled. This venture was starting to sound worse and worse by the minute.

~~***~~

Willow and Bumblebee both turned as the door of Zecora’s hut creaked open. Bumblebee was first to offer a greeting smile… until she saw how out of sorts the trio that emerged were.

“Um… good news?” she asked hopefully.

Rainbow grimaced at her. “Uh, sure!”

“Well, we have a direction now,” Applejack grunted, hefting her saddlebags back onto her haunches. “So… it’s a start.”

All eyes fell onto the strange, glowing flask in Rainbow’s hooves. Zecora had kindly tied a length of woven vines around it, allowing Rainbow to carry the bottle around her neck. But that didn’t stop her from hefting it and peering into its depths, turning it this way and that in her grip.

“Just how does this thing work, exactly?” she mumbled.

No sooner did she say that than she witnessed something odd. Deep within the bottle, Rainbow could just make out the strange shard Zecora had placed inside. It floated dead center in the solution, not sinking or rising. At first, anyway.

As Rainbow stared at it, the shard suddenly drifted off to one side – off towards the underbrush.

And as it did so, the light glowing from the bottle bent in the opposite direction. Shafts of green drew together, until it had formed a shimmering cone, pointing deeper into the Everfree.

“Whoa,” Rainbow breathed, wide-eyed. “Well… I guess that solves that problem.”

Willow, however, was less enthralled. He followed the shaft of light, a frown on his face. “That… better not be pointing where I think it’s pointing,” he said. “Because we’ve got enough problems without the lot of you running head-first through Murmuring Mire.”

Rainbow gave him a confused look, yet Applejack merely sighed in resignation. “The way this day’s been goin’, Ah’ll settle for that place and not somewhere worse.”

“You’ve got a funny idea of what’s good or bad, Your Highness,” Willow grunted. “With all due respect, I’d encourage you to go around if you can. There are a lot worse things out that way than timber wolves.”

“If we could, we would,” Applejack grumbled. She didn’t look too thrilled, herself. “But if that’s where we gotta go, there ain’t no gettin’ around it.”

Willow sighed, already looking tired. “Well, we’re with you regardless.”

He then unexpectedly lifted his head, turning it to one side, and gave a peculiar squeaking cry. It was strikingly similar to the chirp of a bird – too similar, Applejack noted. And when the forest suddenly echoed the same note back at them from dozens of directions, she couldn’t help but look around at the nearby trees, slightly unsettled.

“Just lead the way, Your Highness,” Willow said. “We’ll –”

A shrill caw ran through the treetops. Once, then several times, all coming from the game trail pointing the way home.

Immediately Willow tensed, his body going ridged, before he whipped his head around sharply in that direction. “Oh brilliant, just what we needed…”

Bumblebee turned to look at him anxiously. “Um… wasn’t that the alarm call you told me to make if I saw any royal guards?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact it was,” Willow growled. “And I’ll give you ten guesses why the lookouts are making it. Care to have a go?”

“Royal guards are coming?”

“Congratulations…”

Rainbow let out an annoyed sound that would've Twilight proud. “Of all the… are these guys going to be on our tail all day?”

Applejack frowned. “Shoot. Ah was really hopin’ Granny would give ‘em the slip. Looks like they really are after us now.”

“Um…,” squeaked Agave. “Shouldn’t we leave? Since, you know… we’re not supposed to be out here.”

“I’m with pipsqueak here,” Willow agreed. “You three, get gone. And take the Spada with you, too, before she makes a real mess of things.”

“The wha—” started Rainbow, only to be interrupted by Willow. “Just go! We’ll buy you some time.”

Applejack and Rainbow both nodded – they had no other choice. “Time to go, Agave,” Rainbow said and, ignoring her squeak, she scooped the filly into her hooves and sped off, eager wings urging her on.

Applejack galloped a few paces, then turned back around. “Y’all take care of yerselves,” she said. “Ah… Ah mean it. Understood?”

Willow grinned, then gave a crisp salute. “Yes ma’am. You can count on us.”

Applejack nodded. “Come on, Bumblebee,” she called, “time ta get scarce.”

“O-on my way!” she babbled, scampering after her… only to pause, turn, and bow to Willow. “Th-thank you for not killing me!”

“Just go!”

“Y-yes sir!”

Willow watched as the group bounded through thick fronds. Within seconds, they’d vanished entirely. He nodded to himself, popped his neck, then turned – just as three armor-clad stallions appeared through the bushes.

The one in the lead had something peculiar in his grip; a jet black rod bearing a sharply angular emerald tip. As they drew closer, the gemstone on the end grew brighter and brighter, and began emitting a high-pitched squeal.

Willow cocked his head to one side, just as all three stallions looked up and fixed him with a cold glare.

“Found one,” one of them growled, brandishing his spear.

“He isn’t wearing a tag, either,” another noted, griping his own spear tighter.

Willow merely glanced between them, looking slightly put off. “Only three of you? I’ve got to say, I’m a bit disappointed.”

That was when the rest of the platoon appeared, pushing through the dense brush side-by-side, bulldozing their way through bushes and tall grass.

There must have been twenty in all – all of them fully armed and ready for battle. Several of them were carrying the same strange dousing rods, all of which were homed in on Willow.

“Ah, that’s better,” he said with a grin. “You had me worried this would be a fair fight.”

The Guard glared at him, spears at the ready. But none advanced.

Willow looked around, a little confused, until the group parted.

And in walked a thin, weasel of a pony. His salmon pink coat was hardly flattering, not with how gaunt he appeared. His muzzle was narrow, the bridge of which bore the signs of being broken at least a few times in his life.

But the most unsettling thing about him was his smile – cold, yet derisive, as if he were fighting back scornful giggles. Dark circles hung under his dull grey eyes like shadows; his oversized helmet hung so low on his brow that his eyes looked sunken and skeletal.

“My oh my, what do we have here?” he purred, looking Willow up and down almost hungrily. “Very odd finding your kind so far out of the district, don’t you think? I was told none of you were supposed to be… out and about.”

“Sorry,” grunted Willow, shrugging. “Must’ve missed the memo.”

The stallion clicked his tongue. “Oh, well isn’t that too bad. But don’t you worry, friend; I’m feeling plenty generous today. I’ll be more than happy to offer you a… crash course education.”

Willow pretended to think about it for a second. “Hmm… as tempting as that sounds, I’m afraid I must pass. Duty calls, you see, and I don’t have much time to dilly-dally with you kind gentlecolts, so…”

He waved a hoof dismissively. “Off you go.”

The while troop of guards hesitated. Most looked completely taken aback by the sheer gall of the lone adversary before them.

The stallion in charge froze, his sneer fixing itself in place. His eyes, however, narrowed. “Excuse me?”

“I’m terribly busy, you see,” Willow explained. “Can’t be bothered to entertain every pony that comes my way. So if you’d be so kind to bug off, I’ll pretend I didn’t see any of you, and we can all go on our merry way, yeah?”

The stallion just stared at him, as if he just couldn’t understand what he was saying. After a moment, he gave a dry chuckle, his grin splitting a little wider. “Ah. I see. You don’t seem to realize what situation you’re in. You seem to be under the impression that you have some say in the matter.”

He raised a hoof, and the platoon tensed for action. “I, Sergeant Willow, vice-captain to Captain Steel Shod of the Ponyville Garrison, hereby place you under arrest. Is that clear enough for you, little changeling?”

The changeling’s eyes went up slight. “Willow, huh? What a coincidence. But, you see, I’m going to have to decline your offer.”

Sergeant Willow grinned wider. “Unfortunately for you, I happen to have several friends who say otherwise.”

Willow the Wasp looked about with a small nod. “Hmm… Hmm… Indeed you do. Sure wish I’d thought to bring back up.”

That was when every tree in the forest began buzzing ominously.

Tracking rods sudden pulled their wielders in every direction – some went left, some went right. One or two went straight up so suddenly they bashed their holders in the nose.

“Oh wait, that’s right,” Willow said with a wicked grin. “I did.”

The Guard sergeant looked around, his eyes wide with shock, and a little fear, as black shapes emerged from trees and bushes on all sides, hissing and spitting and brandishing pointed fangs and horns.

“So,” Willow started, causing the sergeant to snap his attention back to him. “You say your name’s Willow, huh?”

A truly wicked smile spread across his fanged lips at that. “What are the odds…”

~~***~~

Applejack poked her head out through a stand of tall grass, eyes scanning this way and that. A part of her didn’t know what was worse; being hounded so persistently by Steel Shod’s lackeys, or the simple fact that they’d left the trail far, far behind.

Bushwhacking through the Everfree was not very high on her bucket list, truth be told. There was no telling what they’d stumble into wherever the forest was thickest.

She continued to scan around, hoping beyond hope to find some kind of trail just waiting to rescue them. No such luck; only a deadfall of mossy trees and strange mushroom caps big enough to use as an umbrella.

“All clear,” she said, and stepped forward reluctantly. Rainbow and Agave were right behind her, looking around just as warily as she was.

Applejack glanced back at Rainbow, an unspoken question on her face. But Rainbow was too busy tilting Zecora’s mystery flask this way and that, frowning. The light still beamed in a cone straight ahead, heedless of whatever clutter and vegetation was in the way.

“You sure this thing’s working right?” Rainbow asked dubiously.

Applejack huffed, turning away. “Not even a little bit. But Ah know better than ta doubt Zecora, so… only thing ta do is keep forgin’ ahead.”

“I… was afraid you’d say that,” Rainbow mumbled. A split second later, she added quickly, “Not that I’m afraid or anything. Pfft, who said I was afraid?”

Applejack cocked an eyebrow at her, but said nothing.

“… Cuz I’m not.”

Applejack huffed, turning away. “Alright, alright. Let’s just keep goin’, before the Guard catches up.”

Bumblebee looked at her, looking slightly panicked. “Y-you don’t think they’ll hurt Willow, do you?”

When Applejack turned towards her, she was surprised to find Agave seated uncertainly on her back, like she hadn’t been given a choice in the matter. At the same time, Bumblebee didn’t seem to notice her passenger, besides using her wings to brace the filly’s legs.

Applejack opened her mouth, then closed it. She’d like to say they wouldn’t… but she wasn’t feeling that optimistic. “Don’t you worry about him,” she said with the best reassuring smile she could. “He’ll look after himself.”

As she said it, she saw Rainbow turn towards her out of the corner of her eye, a meaningful look in her glower. “And what happens if they catch up to us,” she pointed out.

Applejack pursed her lips. That was something she didn’t want to consider. “We’ll… just have ta cross that bridge when we get to it,” she mumbled. “If we do.”

Rainbow looked like she was about to argue – when she flew headlong into something that clunked against her head like glass. That kind of cut her off.

“What in the…?” Rainbow yelped, rubbing her forehead before staring daggers at the thing that she’d flown into… only for her eyes to shoot open wide.

Before her stood a tree made entirely of chocolate diamond. Branches sprawled overhead – branches filled with glittering emeralds in the shapes of leaves.

The whole group stared at the tree in wonder, perplexed by its very existence… until they spotted more.

Here and there, all along the forest floor, stood crystalline shapes. A jagged stump of brown quartz, a pond of sapphire… and at least two pink-colored crystals in the disturbing shape of fleeing deer.

Most of the improbable formations were smashed or damaged in some way; most were in pieces, shattered as if by a great fist. And yet, there didn’t seem to be all that much crystalline debris littering the forest floor. But trees shouldn’t be missing their entire top halves, or have crescent gouges carved through their boughs.

The group followed the progression through the forest, and the more they looked, the more signs of devastation they found. What trees hadn’t been crystalized had been tossed aside, roots and all. Bushes had been squashed flat, their stems split down the middle.

The entire stretch of forest floor in front of them bore just the faintest trace of being gouged out, as if something of truly immense proportions had bulldozed its own path through the forest. Mosses and ferns had grown in to fill the gap, and most of the inexplicable gemstones were covered in encroaching vines and other creeping plant life.

But it did not hide the trail that ran perpendicular across Applejack’s field of vision… or the massive craters in the ominous shapes of massive clawed feet, only partially filled in by lichen.

“Well… Gotta say… this is a new one,” Applejack mumbled, her eyes tracing the shafts of iridescent light streaming in through the gemstone canopy overhead.

“I’ll say,” Rainbow said back, looking around. “Heh… Rarity would lose her mind out here.”

“Yeah, but…,” mumbled Bumblebee anxiously, “what made it?”

Applejack shook her head, suppressing a shiver. “Ah don’t know, and Ah don’t care ta know. By the looks of it, whatever did this is long gone. So let’s just keep goin’ that way” – she pointed into the underbrush on the other side – “ and never find out.”

That was when Rainbow raised her voice again, and no one could have missed the anxiety in her voice, either. “Uh… about that…”

Dread crept into Applejack’s chest, but she still forced herself to turn and look at Rainbow. And the flask she was holding, beaming quite insistently – straight in the one direction Applejack didn’t want it to.

Rainbow merely looked at her, chuckling nervously. “Heheh… heh…”

Applejack gave the only response she could.

“Ponyfeathers…”

Author's Note:

Get it? Willow the Wasp? GET IT?!

First off; righting in rhymes is NOT fun. I don't know what possessed me to do Zecora's whole flashback in that format, either. Just to mention, I wasn't going for proper poetry form. It's not really my cup of tea to begin with, but it seemed like one more rule I had to tie myself down with, so I said screw it. So, I apologize if that whole part was wonky, and if some of the rhyming was... off. I did the best I could.

Edit: Thanks to Cyanhyde for the extensive help with the rhyming section and Zecora's dialogue. I can't thank you enough for devoting so much time to working out those kinks.

Now, for some fun facts:

The World's End: its name was quite literal until recently. A mountain range of extreme altitudes and brutal conditions, it was so named because everyone thought that nothing could exist beyond. The range is in constant flux; between savage hurricane-force wind storms, massive avalanches and tectonic upheavals, no one map is ever good enough to chart a path through the peaks. What is a traversable pass one day could be leveled to sheer cliffs the next, or buried under thousands of tons of rock and ice.
The reputation of the mountains worked two ways, as well; they were just as impenetrable from the north as they were the south, which kept intrepid pony explorers at bay just as effectively. Considering it goes from Badlands to that, most ponies are too scared to find out what lies beyond the mountains, for simple fear of it being worse. In a way, they were right, too.

Anyway, next chapter! More leads, some revelations, and totally no giant angry monsters. Totally. Would I lie?

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