• 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 13: Fight of Flight

Tick… tock… tick… tock…

Steel Shod sat restlessly in his office, motionless and tense. His hooves were steepled together in front of his muzzle, where they’d been for almost an hour now. The tips of his hooves lightly tapped together for sake of something to do. Aside from the loud ticking of a grandfather clock set against to the wall to his right, his hooves were the only thing that made noise, and the pendulum swinging back and forth was the only thing in the way of visual distractions, such as it was.

His office was big. Big, and very quiet. Normally, he liked it that way; the muteness of his working environment encouraged a speedy work ethic. He didn’t much care for all of this extra space, however. The high ceiling and wide open walls gave his office the air of a cathedral, something too pompous for any true Royal Guard officer. But he endured it without open complaint.

Tick… tock… tick… tock…

He sat still as a statue, waiting. All there was left to do now was wait, anyway. He began tapping one of his hind hooves restlessly, then forced it to stop. He just needed a little patience.

Tick… tock…

He was running out of patience.

At the same time, he reminded himself that the wheels of bureaucracy rushed for nopony. Of course, the Ponyville district court wasn’t exactly inundated with crime, so with any luck, any minute now…

A sharp knock rang out on the thick doors opposite his desk. After the silence, the sudden banging was almost jarring, and it was just what Steel Shod needed to get his senses about him again.

“Come in,” he barked, and the door swung open, revealing a lone guard.

“Sir,” the stallion barked, “word just came back from town hall.”

Steel Shod needed only to glance at the piece of official-looking paper the stallion was offering to know what the verdict had been. “Judge Miranda Right would also like to inform you, and I’m quoting here,” the stallion went on, cleared his throat, and said, “that ‘you owe me big time’.”

Steel Shod had to fight not to roll his eyes. For all the reluctance and resistance he’d encountered, one would think he was trying to indict Princess Celestia herself, not conduct an investigation. Even an old friend like Miranda, who knew him so well, was acting like he was pulling teeth.

Granted, this particular investigation involved one of the princess’s pet projects, but somepony had to have the courage to pry into all of this secrecy surrounding the district. Changelings were liars and tricksters by nature, and yet they’d still been given virtual total autonomy overnight. Even the most optimistic soul had to see the error there, if not for the ones already present, but for the scheming minds who would exploit such a glaring weakness.

He was also starting to think that ponies forgot that, ultimately, the changeling district was still under his jurisdiction. He had a list of codes, official ordinances, regulations and even royal decrees that said so. As if so many with questionable affiliations in their midst would be allowed to police themselves. If the griffons turned around and offered an olive branch after all of the belligerence they’d committed against Equestria over the centuries, would they be given full and unrestricted access to Equestria without question as well? No, of course not. Nopony, not even Princess Celestia, was that foolish. So why changelings, of all things, were being given that very privilege with the same – if not worse – consequences on the line well and truly baffled Steel Shod.

Fortunately, enough voices in Canterlot had at least given him this much authority. At least some ponies with administrative power could see the catastrophe on the horizon like he could. Somepony could see what a mistake this was, just like he could.

For a moment, his eyes drifted down almost by themselves, away from the stallion and towards a small picture frame resting on the corner of his desk. It was the only personalization that existed in his work space. Steel Shod stared at it, a heavy knot cinching painfully tight in his chest.

He knew what kind of monsters those beasts could be, first hand…

He only lingered for a heartbeat, however. He had a job to do. Steel Shod swiftly rose from his chair, casting aside his train of thought as he grabbed his helmet off the desk as he passed it by, and made for the door.

“Round up your platoon,” he ordered the stallion, already marching purposefully down the long hall beyond his office. “We’re heading for the changeling district.”

The stallion hesitated, looking torn for a moment. “Um, sir… another communique arrived from Canterlot as well, just a few moments ago. It looks urgent.”

“It can wait,” Steel Shod dismissed. “This won’t take long.”

“But sir…”

“I gave you an order, soldier,” Steel Shod snapped.

The sharp tone of his voice was enough to snap the guard to attention hastily. “Y-yes sir. Right away, sir.”

The now-jittery guard turned and bolted the way he’d come, sprinting well ahead of Steel Shod to carry out his orders. In the back of his mind, however, he was starting to get a very bad feeling. He knew a full platoon was complete overkill for a simple inquiry. That is, unless Steel Shod was expecting a fight.

As he moved, Steel Shod placed his helmet on his head, a grim scowl on his face as he shouldered a holstered spear. It was time to see just what ‘Her Highness’ was scheming behind everypony’s backs.

~~***~~

Applejack was running full tilt through the dense underbrush of Murmuring Mire, her hard breathing ringing in her ears. She utilized every advantage she could – jutting roots to leap off of, trees to circle around – everything she could think of to not get bogged down in the deep muck, but more importantly, to open up the distance between her and the five sets of bellowing maws racing after her.

Again she veered hard left, hitting a curved log to keep from skidding in the mud. That same log ceased to exist a split second later as Belle came plowing through the marsh like an out of control freight train, flattening everything in her path.

The balaur skidded on her belly, taking out another stand of trees with the trunk of her neck. Claws dug into the soft earth all the way up to her wrists, dislodging enough soil to form an artificial hill. Belle whirled her many heads around as two chomped through the rotten log like a celery stalk.

Applejack groaned to herself. The monster was fast for its size, and nimble to boot. Every attempt she made to get behind it had ultimately failed, and by now she was certain that Belle was on to her.

Sure enough, as Belle rounded on her again, all the while spitting out rotted wood pulp, Applejack saw her wind her two tails around her flanks, guarding two stalky hind legs behind a phalanx of unassailable scales.

Belle reared up, higher and higher, higher than the tallest tree for miles. Even her forelegs came off the ground, exposing her broad armor-plated chest. Most of the mud had been scraped away from her constant high speed slithering, lodging bits of reeds and javelin-like wooden slivers between dense carapace plates as thick as Applejack’s hind legs. For the first time, Applejack could see the creamy underscales hit the light, gleaming like polished stones.

Four sets of yellow eyes glanced about, checking their surroundings. Only one of the five heads stayed riveted on Applejack far below.

Something rustled to Applejack’s right, catching her attention. As the bush exploded, she sprang straight up, neatly avoiding a black missile as it came flying at her, only to pass harmlessly beneath her.

As if she didn’t have enough to deal with from Belle…

She knew what her sudden move would illicit, too. Applejack glanced up as Belle exploded forward, throwing the impressive length of her neck forward like a striking cobra, mouths agape.

But again, all they closed on was wet dirt. Applejack heard the rush of air as Rainbow streaked passed, caught her under each arm, and tore off low over the mire.

“Not that this isn’t fun or anything,” Rainbow drawled in her ear, “but please tell me you have a plan or something.”

Applejack cocked an eyebrow, all the while pressing her Stetson to her head. “What’s the matter, RD? Get tired of bangin’ yer head against a wall?”

Rainbow pulled a face. “Yeah, a wall that bites back. Seriously, how hard are those scales?! That thing’s totally cheating.”

Applejack cracked a wry grin. “We just gotta buy some time while everyone gets outta here. Ah hate ta say it, but we don’t got anythin’ ta match that thing with.”

Rainbow grumbled discontentedly at that. “I could totally take it… but you might have a point,” she added, noticing the hard look Applejack gave her. “Can’t you just blow it away or something, like you did Vigil?”

Applejack frowned deeply at that. “Rainbow… Ah don’t know what loosin’ that much magic in one go will do ta me right now.”

“Right, right,” Rainbow said quickly, shaking her head as if trying to fling loose bad memories. “Forget I said anything. But what are we supposed to do about Belle? What did we even do to tick her off so much?”

Applejack looked down seriously. Rainbow, she realized, was swooping low over the bog, winding in and out of trees in a lazy circle. All the while, a gigantic, fully grown balaur was giving chase. She wasn’t quite matching Rainbow’s speed, but she was taking advantage of the curve of her arc to turn inside of her path, negating whatever speed advantage Rainbow had over her.

Rainbow must have realized it as well, because she started pumping her wings even faster and banked in the opposite direction. Belle gave her an annoyed bellow from behind, but didn’t give up the pursuit, even as the gap between them widened.

Applejack could see her smashing through foliage and underbrush with reckless abandon, ejecting at least a dozen changelings from their hiding places. And yet, she stayed dead focused on them. Applejack was still trying to figure out if that was a good thing or not.

“There’s only a few reasons why a balaur that size would get this riled up,” Applejack shouted over the jet stream Rainbow was starting to carve through the sky. Applejack clutched her hat tighter to her head, just in case. “Either A: she inhaled a Porky Pine, and now it’s lodged somethin’ fierce in her throat or B: she caught sight o’ somethin’ maroon – best not ta ask – or C: she’s got a whole nest full of eggs ‘round here somewhere, and we’re headed straight for ‘em.”

“A nest?” Rainbow echoed, surprised.

“Yep. If she’s been layin’ eggs all day long, Ah reckon she’s gonna be both mighty sore and mighty irritable about now.”

Belle roared, interrupting her. Even as fast as Rainbow was going, with the wind rushing in Applejack’s ears, she could still hear the impressive boom of Belle’s thunderous voice crash against her eardrums. “There has to be something we can do besides running like a bunch of scaredyfoals,” Rainbow snapped in frustration. “You seem to know a lot about these things. They have to have a weak spot, right?”

Applejack averted her gaze. “Not unless ya got a bagpipe, some pliers and a couple bushels of Mellow Mallow.”

“Bushels of what?”

“My point exactly.”

Rainbow wanted to scratch her head in confusion, but her hooves were currently preoccupied with hanging onto Applejack. “So then… we’ve got nothing.”

“’Fraid not, sugarcube,” Applejack sighed. “Belle’s just too big and too ornery.”

Rainbow frowned to herself. Too big? Too ornery? As far as Rainbow was concerned, there were no such words in her dictionary.

“Well then, I guess it’s time for me to save the day,” Rainbow surmised. She banked inwards sharply as she shored up her turning arc. Belle observed this with suspicion, slowly down.

Applejack, however, had caught on to Rainbow’s choice of words.

“Ya mean ‘we’,” she said pointedly.

“No,” Rainbow countered even more pointedly, “I mean me.”

Before Applejack could object, Rainbow dropped her in the one place she knew would keep her preoccupied for a while – right at the top of a very tall tree. She paused only for a moment before racing off again.

“Dagnabit, Rainbow! Get back here! Rainbow!”

Dash winced to herself as she sped away. Oh, Applejack was going to be livid, but it really was the only way. Of the two of them, Rainbow was the only one not currently in the process of breaking apart from the inside out in order to emerge as a full grown queen devoid of empathy.

… Still trying to wrap my head around that one…

Bottom line; in Rainbow’s book, that meant AJ was hardly up to her usual monster-busting form. She was weary, and Rainbow was worried enough about her without some giant beast trying to gobble her up at the same time. So that left the heroics up to her. Hopefully Applejack would see that and forgive her.

~~***~~

Applejack would never forgive that rainbow-colored nag streaking away from her, leaving her stranded high atop an ancient, moss-covered skeleton of a tree. While some part of her plotted its fiery revenge, she looked down and tried to find a way to scale the many branches back to the ground.

“Dang blasted Rainbow and her dang blasted…” she growled to herself, shimmying down to her first foothold. “When Ah get my hooves on you… Riskin’ yer neck for no good reason…”

She cast her eyes up, towards the distant shape of the balaur. Well, it wasn’t so distant anymore, she realized. Instead of being over a football field away, Belle was carving her way through the woodland like a great, animate river of scales. She was so close that Applejack could see the hateful yellow eyes peering through caked on mud at her, tongues flicking irritably. And there was Applejack, a good thirty feet up in the air, trapped in a tree.

“… Ponyfeathers.”

Something caught Belle’s attention, making her hesitate. She reared her heads up, pulling up short, and twisted in one direction – just as Rainbow blew over her again.

Belle twisted the other way, looking for the source of that sound – and promptly caught a hoof right on the end of her center-most snout.

“How about picking on somepony your own size!?” Rainbow challenged valiantly, her hoof buried up to her ankle in mud and picked up detritus.

Unfortunately for her, Belle merely gave her five thoroughly unamused glares. “Uh… this is the part where you reel back in pain,” Rainbow prompted, looking troubled now.

Belle started to growl. She wasn’t reeling.

“Or… not,” Rainbow squeaked. “That’s, uh, cooltoobye!” And off she shot, just as Belle snapped at her and gave chase. A ways away, Applejack groaned into her hoof. For once – for once! – she’d just like something to not blow up in her face!

And then Pinkie got involved.

“HEEEEYY!!” She screamed at the top of her lungs – through a megaphone aimed through an even bigger megaphone. There she stood on a rotten old stump, reared up on her hind legs… waving a matador’s cape. “ No sé lo que estoy diciendo!!!” she taunted boldly, striking a valorous pose all the while.

So. This is what it’s like ta be Twilight, Applejack couldn’t but remark to herself in an odd moment of comprehension.

Despite the absolute ludicrousness of the situation, Pinkie’s actions at least caused Belle to pause out of sheer bewilderment. She didn’t seem to know what to make of the strange pink pony, or if this was some kind of threat, as ridiculous as that seemed.

Five tongues tested the air as she circled Pinkie, glaring warily. Pinkie just stayed upright on her hind legs, chest puffed out, a look of daring bravery plastered across her face. She waved her cape challengingly – a pitifully undersized cape, considering what it was supposed to be taunting. But as the two twirled and Pinkie turned her back on Applejack, she caught a glimpse of what laid in wait behind that cape.

“Pinkie! Wait!” Applejack shouted, but it was too late.

Infuriated by the tiny red flappy thing in the pink pony’s hooves, Belle lunged forward, throwing open her mouths wide.

Pinkie dove to one side. As she did, the string tied to her tail yanked the festive cannon parked right out of sight behind her cape, which promptly fired one deluxe party-grade munition of dubious legality in the Ponyville county area straight into Belle’s face.

Fireworks, confetti, streamers, one full sized triple decker wedding cake and about fifteen water balloons carrying payloads of Gummy’s favorite punch exploded in an impossible spray out the end of Pinkie’s cannon, straight into an open mouth bearing down on it.

Such was the force of all the party favor projectiles that Belle was blasted to a complete halt. Her gigantic body piled up like a collapsing accordion, her eyes wide as the middle-right head tried – and failed – to close its jaws passed full extension.

Belle reared back, throwing herself into the air. Her claws slashed through the air as she bellowed in confusion and alarm. With four heads, at least; the other merely moaned around the payload stoppering up her maw, a look of utter confusion and mild panic on that head’s face.

“Yeah! Wait to go, Pinkie!” Rainbow cheered from overhead.

“How do you like them apples!” Pinkie cheered back, dancing in place. Then she paused. “Or… frosting. Yeah! How do you like them frostings!... and streamers. And bunting! Yeah, how do you like them frostings and streamers and buntings!... No, it doesn’t have the same ring to it…”

“If y’all are done celebratin’,” Applejack shouted at them from across the way, “RUN!”

Pinkie looked up, pulling a face. “Why?” she asked, perplexed.

A big glob of mucus fell from the sky, only missing her by a tail-length. Belle wasn’t thrashing anymore. No, for some reason, she hanging in place, bristling with peaked fury. And what was more, she was drooling.

“Ooooh,” Pinkie squeaked, “That’s why.” And then she bolted.

Belle reared back, all five mouths fall open wide as she let lose a spray of irridescent goo, all the while thrashing in every direction. The air was soon filled with flying globules ranging from rain drops all the way up to beach balls in size; a maelstrom of countless projectiles flying in every conceivable direction.

Applejack took shelter behind the trunk of the tree she was stuck in. Rainbow dove for cover in a heavily overgrown thicket. Pinkie jumped headfirst into a pool of muddy water.

None of them missed how the forest all around them started to change.

Applejack watched as wads of spit slammed into the tree branches all around her and swiftly melted into the bark. Within moments, that same bark began to develop the most disturbing sheen, as if coated with laminate.

Rainbow watched as leaves started to glitter prismatically, each small space between veins a different facet. In no time, it was like she was surrounded by actual emeralds in the shape of leafs.

Pinkie watched with wide eyes from beneath the surface of her pool as cattails turned rigid and unbending, their surfaces hardening to a glassy consistency. Each stalk started to turn translucent, cold and lifeless. Whole lily pads capsized and sunk to the bottom, very nearly flattening Pinkie twice.

In under a half a minute, nearly a hundred yards of forest was rendered completely unrecognizable. Trees, bushes, grass – everything living stood motionlessly, glittering sinisterly with the myriad hues of gemstones under the sunlight.

Rainbow peeked through her cover – and about had a heart attack when she discovered a bird’s nest, its inhabitant frozen in place as a tiny sapphire sculpture, wings half opened.

Pinkie emerged from her hiding place, a petrified frog frozen in the act of jumping to safety balanced precariously on her head.

Applejack took a deep breath, then peered around the side of her trunk, to find an unnaturally curved wall of emerald hovering in front of her, shielding her. A moment later, it plummeted to earth, smashed against a rock and shattered into a thousand pieces with a sound like glass breaking.

All around, she found six changelings all clustered close to her, their horns glowing. “Are you alright, Your Highness?” one of the drones questioned, sounding out of breath. “Did any touch you?”

She turned towards the one that had spoken; a cloaked changeling perched on a branch like a hawk. "Antlion!" she gasped. Her relief, however, quickly turned to horror when she saw the stiff foreleg jutting unnaturally forward, ramrod straight. It glittered disturbingly, like a length of jet carved in the likeness of a foreleg, but as cold and lifeless as a rock. "Y-your leg!"

Antlion shook his head dismissively, but there was no way he could hide the tightness of his jaw or the beads of sweat on his forehead. "It stopped at my shoulder," he informed her. "I'll be fine."

Applejack knew he was lying for her sake. A small droplet wouldn’t be enough to crystalize somepony completely, but they'd most certainly notice the loss of a limb’s functionality.

Applejack had seen the kind of damage a balaur could inflict, long ago, when she was still little more than a filly. Some ponies had come bursting into the farmhouse. Her parents had ushered her and Big Mac away quickly, but Applejack would never forget the screams of pain she’d heard.

One of Granny Smith’s old bedtime stories had even been about how they’d lost an entire orchard to a hungry balaur. Dozens of apple trees, all turned to gems overnight. She’d tried to put a childish spin on the tale for Applejack’s sake, telling how the gemstones had paid off all sorts of loans and even bought them an extra ten acres for the eastern orchards. But the horror of all of those apple trees dying ended up just giving her some of the worst nightmares of her life.

Of course, seventy years later and the Apples were still living off of the royalties from the horde of gemstones they’d been given. All sorts of scholarly types loved them to pieces, even if pieces were all they got. But all of those apple trees…

“We need to fall back,” Antlion advised, snatching Applejack from her bad memories. “Right now, your safety must be our number one priority, and the Court's agents will undoubtedly try to take advantage of this creature's rampage to make an attempt on your life."

Applejack frowned to herself. It didn’t seem right just letting these changelings go, knowing the havoc they could unleash if left to their own devices. But she knew that was just her being bullheaded. A couple vandalizing drones wasn’t worth the risk being put on the ones around her. The evidence of the consequences was right in front of her, after all. It twisted her gut, but she couldn’t see any other way through their situation.

“Alright,” Applejack grunted, and immediately she had the keen attention of all six changelings. “Three of ya go get anyone left back to the district. The rest of ya, make sure the Court don’t try anythin’ while we’re gettin’ outta here.”

Immediately, however, six drones spotted a hole in her plan. “What about you, Your Highness?” one of them asked her.

Applejack’s expression screwed up. She really had to bite back snapping at them to not call her that, but after a moment, the desire passed. “Ah ain’t leavin’ my friends out here.”

The drones looked at one another, then scowled in determination. “Then, we’re not going anywhere, either.”

Applejack felt no need to stop her hoof from hitting herself in the face. “Ugh… Fine. Then, we’re gettin’ Rainbow and Pinkie and THEN we’re gettin’ outta here.” She then glanced at them from around her hoof. “Sound better?”

All of them stood up straighter, giving their best serious faces. “Yes, ma’am!”

Applejack nodded, then caught Antlion's eye. "Ya better take care of yerself, too. Get yerself back ta the district and we can see ta gettin' that leg treated."

Antlion nodded, even if with a little reluctance. He knew he was in no shape to fight, though his honor as a soldier protested vehemently. "As you say, Your Highness."

“Good,” Applejack sighed. Then she started to lean around the side of the tree, peering into the crystallized section of the bog. “We just gotta find ‘em before that there balaur starts actin’ up again. Where in tarnation did she get off to, anyway…?”

As Applejack leaned around the side of the tree and poked her head around it, she got her answer. Belle loomed not far off, shrouded in a mist of powdered crystal and noxious fumes.

Slowly, she arched her neck through the air, lifting herself high into the air as if stretching. As she did, great sheets of crystallized matter cracked and sloughed off of her body, taking with it huge globs of mud and muck.

And for the first time, Applejack could see her scales. She’d thrashed so much and so hard that even the matted on chunks of it had broken off of her neck, revealing a dazzling crimson coat of armor thicker than the sturdiest shields.

Through the remnants of crusted mud still clinging stubbornly to Belle’s hide, she could see the jagged black patterning that ran across her hood that streaked down her spine and all the way to the tip of her tail, beginning on the serrated brow over each eye. The markings were a clear warning; Belle was indeed in season, and she was all the more short-tempered for it.

With one final crunch, Belle cleared the blockage in her mouth, shattering crystallized cake with a sound like a thousand panes of glass shattering. She rung out her head while the other four looked around, tongues flicking menacingly.

She paused, then swiftly rounded on Applejack all over again.

Belle forcefully planted her hefty fore-claws with a thunderous impact before inhaling a lungful of air and letting loose a terrific roar that hit Applejack like a sonic boom.

Hinged fangs snapped forward as Belle literally swelled with fury; her muscles bulged and knotted, puffing her up visibly. Fangs the length of elephant tusks, curved and wicked with serrations along both sides, glistened in her mouth. The center-most head had a twin set of saber-like fangs big enough to skewer a dragon if need be. Applejack could only imagine what they’d do to something as soft as a pony.

Each neck swelled with inflamed muscles, making a broad neck even broader as Belle fanned her hood open wider. Her eyes zeroed in on her prey. Her body began to coil like a spring.

“We,” Applejack started once the last echo of Belle’s roar faded, “might want ta start runnin’. Now.”

~~***~~

Rainbow grunted as she kicked at a tangled branch made of chocolate diamonds, trying desperately to get it off. With everything frozen around her, the mess of branches and leaves she’d fallen into had stiffened into a prison that thought itself tough enough to restrain somepony as awesome as her.

Admittedly, it was doing a pretty good job.

“Urgh… ugh… Stupid… bush…!” Rainbow spat, trying to work her wings. One had become entangled in a vine when she’d dove into the thicket for cover. Part of it was still green and alive, but at least two loops around the middle of her wing were unyielding emerald gemstones that didn’t feel much like relinquishing her.

She continued to thrash, though. With each passing second, her panic rose even more. Applejack was still out there! She couldn’t just sit here like a useless lump! That’s not what awesome ponies did!

She’d left her in that tree, someplace she’d assumed she’d at least be out of the way. But if Rainbow wasn’t out there to save the day, who was going to save Applejack?

The thought ripped at her insides like a knife. Nopony would. The drones would try, certainly, but… she would fail. Again.

She’d watched Applejack get dragged away through a portal right in front of her as a barn burned down all around her. She’d watched as Vigil savagely struck down Hyacinth after throwing her off. She’d watched Applejack save her from a hailstorm of burning debris when it was supposed to be her protecting Applejack! She’d watched Applejack explode, for Celestia’s sake! And what had she done? Nothing. Every single time, she'd just let it happen. And now, it was all happening all over again. Applejack, in danger. And Rainbow? Twiddling her hooves like a useless lump.

Again.

No!

Belle’s roar split the air from not far off. It hit so hard that several of the glassy leaves around Rainbow snapped off from the sheer force of it pressing down on them. It hit so hard that even with her hooves clasped protectively over her ears, they were still left ringing.

Something hit her bush like a battering ram. Rainbow yelped as she was tossed through a maelstrom of broken crystal bits like some pony-shaped tomato in a dragon’s tossed salad.

When it all stopped again, Rainbow looked up to find a heavy crimson mirror looking back at her. She blinked, confused, until she noticed the many, many others alongside it. She wasn’t looking at a mirror; she was staring at the side of an immense serpentine body.

High about her, Belle’s twin rattlers filled the air with a deadly chattering as they swung over her head – and the nearest treetop, for that matter.

The next thing Rainbow noticed was the fact that she was free again. She looked down as the last glassy bit of vegetation dropped from her shoulders. Then, she was up on her hooves. She was free. She hadn’t let Applejack down yet. There was still time!

Rainbow turned – and immediately felt the bottom of her stomach fall out.

Belle hefted herself up higher, her forelimbs completely leaving the ground as she took aim, and proceeded to drop her gigantic body down on top of a a distant skeletal tree. A horribly familiar skeletal tree.

Applejack!

Without even thinking, she was moving at breakneck speeds, her wings blasting her low across the bog in a blur of motion. She had to get there, now!

But even with all her speed and desperation, all she could do was watch helplessly as Belle came crashing down on the tree, smashing it to wood pulp in one colossal blow that shook the earth.

The world seemed to go dead quiet. The only sound that rang in Rainbow’s ears was the snapping and cracking of the tree as it and everything in it was pulverized. She couldn’t breathe. Her lungs screamed at her, burning for air, but she was too numb to inhale. Even her heart felt like it’d stopped. All she could do was stare in dawning horror.

Rainbow was about to scream the name on the tip of her tongue… when she noticed a flash of orange upon the monster’s back.

There, high above her! Applejack was skidding on two legs down the length of Belle’s spine, one hoof on her hat. She was alive, and aside from a cut on her cheek, she was unharmed.

Rainbow barely even noted the six changelings swooping after her like a swarm of disturbed ebon gnats. She didn’t comprehend the green streaks pelting from their horns as they barraged Belle’s heads with spell after spell, much to her fury. Rainbow had eyes only for the living miracle now sprinting down Belle’s ridgeline, even as it undulated and bucked underneath her, threatening to toss her off at any moment.

For a moment, her green eyes met a pair of violet ones, and instantly their owner knew what she was about to do; what she had to do to escape.

Rainbow snapped open her wings to feel extension and rolled, flipping over almost completely upside down as she approached Applejack from below. At the same time, Applejack took off her hat, bit down on the brim and the corner of a letter tucked safely inside, then after bending her knees, she vaulted off Belle’s side and into the open air.

Right as Belle whirled her heads around to face them. She’d only caught sight of the two of them after she’d recoiled from another barrage of changeling fire, but now they had her undivided attention.

Applejack reached desperately through the air as Rainbow threw out her hooves for her as well, as five deadly maws bore down on them. Rainbow felt her hoof brush past something fuzzy on one side as the top jaw of a mouth came to overshadow her…

With an explosive crash, Belle slammed her jaws shut again. She landed face-first in the bog from the sheer momentum she’d accumulated, flipped end over end in an avalanche of tumbling scaly coils, then picked herself up again. Then, she swished a tongue around the inside of each mouth probingly, tasting around expectantly.

“Better luck next time, partner!”

Belle snarled as she whirled around, hateful eyes snapping straight towards an orange and blue shape clinging together high over her head.

Applejack had a death grip around Rainbow’s neck, her hind quarters hanging otherwise unsupported in open air. Rainbow, likewise, had her hooves latched under each of Applejack’s shoulders, keeping her supported while flying as high as she could get herself.

Belle roared and threw herself up at them, but to no avail. Her jaws snapped, her claws raked the air, but she simply couldn’t get enough elevation before she came crashing back down, flattening still more of the forest.

Applejack watched with an overwhelming sense of relief as Belle grew steadily smaller and smaller. Five heads continued to track their every move, but the only thing Belle could throw up to reach them was her furious voice.

“That… was close,” Rainbow said, heaving a huge sigh of relief.

“Yer tellin’ me,” Applejack muttered around a mouthful of Stetson and parchment, looking down at the irate balaur with only too much joy that she was down there and they were up here. “Nice catch.”

“Any time, bugbrain. Now hang on; I’m getting you the hay out of here right now.”

Applejack looked up, trying in vain to catch her friend’s eye questioningly. Rainbow just stayed determinedly turned the other way, away from her friend’s probing look.

After a short pause, Applejack gave up. “Ya know, home sounds mighty fine about now.”

“Good. Then let’s get out of here before I change my mind.”

~~***~~

Far below, in between a series of smooth boulders, a pair of blue eyes tracked the two soaring forms far overhead. They were so very exposed… so inviting for a little, shall we say… accident.

The changeling primed his horn, a malicious little smile forming on his lips as he took aim… when a hoof lightly touched his shoulder.

“No,” grunted someone behind him. “Let them go.”

The changeling whipped around, hissing in agitation, until he saw who was standing behind him. Then, with a grumble, he extinguished his horn. “The Queen of Queens would not want her to get away," he growled anyway.

Behind him, a grim-faced changeling glanced up at the sky. He watched the two streak away, swirling low hanging clouds as they sped into the distance. “No. The Queen of Queens would want to know what she’s after,” he said smoothly. “She risked a great deal coming out here herself. She might already be on the trail.”

The drone glanced back at him. “You mean…?”

The captain nodded seriously. “Keep an eye on her, see where she goes and what she learns. In the meantime, we have some business to –”

That was precisely the moment a pink blur came whizzing right between them, streaking at full speed in the opposite direction. “Tagyouritbye!”

The drones blinked, confused. An angry balaur snarling in their ear cleared that right up. The two drones turned, going ashen as they stared up at an absolutely livid Belle.

On that day, they learned two very, very important lessons. Firstly, balaur eggs look uncannily like boulders. Secondly, balaur really do not like things messing with their nests, as Belle was oh so keen to demonstrate.

“…Meep…”

~~***~~

Rainbow cut through the sky like a bird freed from captivity. She was only too happy to leave all of that nastiness behind them as she carved a path through the sky, putting her wings through their paces for the first time all day. She only stopped once, and that was because having Applejack hanging off of her shoulders was starting to hurt her neck. So, after a brief pause, they took off again – this time with Applejack safely sitting on her back. Alive and, largely, unhurt. Yes, she’d call that a victory any day.

The whole time they flew, they remained silent, focused mostly on what they each had to do; one flew and the other hung on for dear life. However, as the dreary brown of Murmuring Mire gave way to lush green woodlands, Applejack finally rediscovered her voice.

“Ya know, ya surprised me,” she commented.

Rainbow glanced over her shoulder at her. “I do that. Anything specific?”

Applejack rolled her eyes, then said, “High tailin’ it in the opposite direction of a fight. That ain’t like ya.”

“Oh.”

The simple response was not what she’d been expecting. Applejack blinked at her, but Rainbow had turned the other way, hiding her expression. “I just… I-I thought Rose would be getting pretty worried about now, so I –ow!”

Applejack’s hoof upside Rainbow’s head cut her off. “Now try that again like an honest pony,” Applejack quipped with a wry grin.

Rainbow turned to fix her with a glare out of the corner of her eye. Then, she turned away stubbornly. “I just changed my mind. What’s the big deal? It’s not like I got worried about you getting hurt or something. So what do you think’s in that book thingy?”

Applejack raised her eyebrow at the back of Rainbow’s head. A part of her wanted to disregard the horrible attempt at changing the subject and get a real answer out of her. But then again, she could feel how tense Rainbow was; she was obviously uncomfortable with the whole situation. So, with a reluctant sigh, she played along.

“Ah ain’t got a clue, but if Ma hid it, it’s worth somethin’.”

Rainbow nodded. “Well, we’ll be back at the district in no time. We’ll know for sure then. So rest up while you can; I get the feeling we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Applejack nodded and let her head fall wearily against Rainbow’s neck, much to the pegasus’ discomfort. She stiffened, but made no commented. All she did was trim her wings and pick up speed before Applejack asked her any more pesky questions.

~~***~~

From a distance, it was hard for Rainbow to tell when they began to close in on the district, and safety in turn. She’d made the flight over Ponyville so many times it was practically reflexive, so she at least knew what direction to orient herself.

It still took her by surprise when, all of a sudden, the trees in front of her dropped away into a shallow bowl filled with grasslands and wildflowers, only to pick up again a few hundred meters further ahead.

Rainbow very nearly blew straight over those trees without thinking twice… right up until she noticed the many black forms melting from the trees to greet them. The sight focused her attention, enough to notice the first traces of thatched roofs just on the other side of all of those towering tree tops. It was the only reason she didn’t immediately execute evasive maneuvers. Without even realizing it, she’d flown all the way back to Ponyville in less than an hour. Just further proof that wings beat hooves any day of the week.

“Hey, AJ,” Rainbow said, raising her voice for the first time in a while. “We’re here.”

Unexpectedly, Applejack jolted, snorting slightly as she raised her head. Had she actually dozed off on Rainbow’s back, even as fast as she’d been going?

“Huh? Already?” Applejack mumbled blearily. She blinked a few times, trying to clear the haze from her eyes. By the time she did, she noticed the many worried shapes darting straight for them, their chirping calls already audible over the wind.

“Applejack! Queen Applejack, you made it!”

“When we heard about what happened, we got so worried!”

“Are you hurt anywhere? AH! Your cheek! It’s bleeding!”

As Rainbow slowed, Applejack dimly reached up and patted her cheek. A spot stung in response to the contact, but not any worse than a paper cut might. A dried crust clung to her fur where the cut had bled slightly, but it was hardly a life-threatening injury by any stretch of the imagination.

And yet, the reaction she got from the changelings was all-too predictable. Immediately, half a dozen were crowding her and Rainbow, forcing the pegasus to a complete halt.

“Oh no, you’re injured!” one squealed. “Quick! We must get you medical attention right away!”

“Who did this to you, Your Highness?” one spoke up urgently, scowling ferociously. “Just say the word and we shall scour them from the face of Equestria!”

“Does it hurt? quick, how many hooves am I holding up? What day is today? Just hang on, Applejack!” another cried, all the while holding tightly to Applejack’s apathetic hoof.

“Hang on, everypony!” Yet another drone shouted all of a sudden, bringing silence to them all. “Stand back!”

Applejack looked around with mild irritation, ignoring the way Rainbow was shaking from suppressed laughter as a changeling cautiously approached, something in her hoof. “Please hold still, Applejack,” she advised, a look of pure concentration on her face. “I’ll take care of your wound.”

Applejack rolled her eyes, but said nothing. She just held still as drones, murmuring in wonder and fascination, parted for the unnamed savior as she buzzed closer, and with the utmost care of a veteran surgeon… she applied the band-aid.

A collective sigh ran through the ranks as she backed away, her job completed flawlessly. There would be tales of this day and her bravery, for sure.

“Uh, thanks,” Applejack commented, touching the heart-patterned adhesive strip with a hoof.

“No need to thank me, Your Highness,” The drone said humbly, somehow achieving a bow midflight. “It was an honor.”

Rainbow was snickering uncontrollably now. The fact that she was managing to keep it down at all must have been some kind of miracle.

~~***~~

Considering the reception Applejack and Rainbow received as they descended through the heavy boughs of the enchanted trees towards the ground, one would assume they were conquering heroes returning from defending the realm from certain destruction. Cheers rang through the branches as changelings emerged from their hiding places all around the pair. Hooves clattered against wood in a resounding applause that, naturally, Rainbow couldn’t get enough of. She even waved as she descended, grinning ear to ear. Thankfully she managed to keep enough of her senses about her to not attempt any daring stunts for her audience, not with Applejack on her back.

Applejack did her best to smile and wave – whenever she felt brave enough to lift herself from Rainbow’s back – but she just felt awkward being the center of attention. They were blowing this whole thing completely out of proportion...

As they went, drones followed in a swirling mob as they neared the ground. And of course, down on the grass below, Applejack spotted Roseluck waited for them with a large smile.

“Sorry it took so long,” Rainbow said with bravado to spare as she alighted on the ground. A moment later, Applejack hopped from her back and landed next to her. She swept her hat from Rainbow’s back – where she’d been lying on it to keep it from getting blown away – and donned it once more after flapping it a couple times to get rid of the wrinkles.

“Welcome back, you two,” Roseluck said warmly, smiling. “How was your trip?”

Rainbow shrugged, of course. “Eh, you know. Nothing to get excited about. We had a couple faces walk into our hooves, no biggie.”

Roseluck raised a very questioning eyebrow at that and turned it to Applejack. “We heard about what happened in Murmuring Mire,” Roseluck said, her tone sobering up. “Bumblebee and Agave arrived a few minutes before you did.”

That kind of took some of the wind out of Rainbow’s sails. “Wait, they beat us here?” she questioned in shock.

Roseluck just gave her a look. “Some of the Inner Sect brought them here via tunneling spell. In fact, most of your entourage just barely made it back ahead of you two.”

Applejack glanced towards her, looking a little apprehensive. Roseluck answered the unspoken question with a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. Only a few have any real injuries, and we’re having them treated. Two are being given balaur anti-venom treatments, so they should be… um… softening up in a few hours.”

Applejack shivered nonetheless. “How's Antlion?" she asked.

Roseluck huffed, restraining a grin. "Stubborn. He'll be fine, but I doubt we'll be able to keep in in bed long enough for him to recover fully. That guy is devoted to his job to a fault, I swear..."

"And Bumblebee?” Applejack asked next. "How's she doing?"

Roseluck smiled, and in response, she glanced over her shoulder. There, some distance away, stood a drone indistinguishable from the rest who offered an awkward wave and a half-smile, looking apprehensive as always.

“She bounced back just fine,” Roseluck said. “It seems she’s found somepony who really cares about her, despite her best efforts.”

Bumblebee puffed out her cheeks indignantly. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Applejack, however, only smiled. “It’s good ta see ya back on yer hooves, Bumblebee.”

“Yeah,” put in Rainbow with a smile. “I never got the chance to thank you back there.”

If Bumblebee wasn’t uncomfortable before, she was now. Now she couldn’t even look any of them in the eye. “I-it was nothing, really. J-just doing my part, nothing fancy…”

Further discussion was cut off when another cry rang out across the now-packed square. Applejack and Rainbow both turned, just as a little grey pegasus filly came bounding up to them, smiling ear to ear.

“You two are alright!” Agave cheered, jumping at Rainbow and catching her in a hug. “I was so worried!”

“What, over some little lizard?” Rainbow scoffed, scooping her up in one hoof. “Pfft, I eat things like that for breakfast – on a slow day!”

“Good gravy,” Applejack grumbled, rolling her eyes.

“Oh!” Agave gasped with a smile, turning around, “And Nana’s here, too!”

For some reason, Applejack couldn’t help but notice the very sour look that crossed Roseluck’s usually composed expression. She didn’t pay attention to it for long, because behind her she found wizened old Nana slowly shuffling towards them on stiff legs.

“My, my, what a lovely park this is,” she was commenting, glancing around with a warm smile. “Oh, hello dear. Come to keep old Nana company?” she added, her eyes focusing on Applejack. Then, her nostrils flared as she sniffed. “Oooo, and who’s this little pretty following you, hmm? A little playmate, maybe?”

Applejack would never see how quickly Rainbow turned the other way, feigning deafness.

“I must thank you,” Roseluck said, her voice rather thorny, “for bringing dear old Nana back to us. I’ve missed her company so very much over these long years we’ve been apart.”

While Applejack raised an eyebrow at her, Nana cackled wheezily. “Oh Buttercup, I’ve missed you, too. I hope you’ve been keeping up on your studies, dearie.”

Yes, Nana,” Roseluck said through a stiff smile. “Of course I have.”

“Buttercup?” Rainbow echoed. “Who’s Buttercup?”

“Absolutely no one,” Roseluck immediately responded with a sickly sweet smile. “Now how about we take this inside where we can talk – in private – and you can fill me in on the details of your adventures, hmm?”

Without waiting for an answer, she whipped around and quickly strode away, prompting Applejack and Rainbow to exchange curious looks and shrugs all round before following the swiftly departing mare.

~~***~~

Roseluck led the way all the way back to the Vivarium, ignorant of the crowd they were accumulating along the way. She didn’t say a word as they entered, climbed a spiral staircase, and trotted along a hallway to her office. Only then, once they had a pair of closed doors between them and the outside world, did she turn to regard Applejack and Rainbow.

She couldn’t help but also note the little shape of Agave, who was shadowing behind Rainbow like a lost filly. But Roseluck didn’t raise an objection to her presence as she sank into her seat.

“So,” Roseluck prompted, “how did it go?”

Rainbow was only too happy to explain. Applejack let her retell their foray into Murmuring Mire, though her expression screwed up every time Rainbow… embellished… a tad.

“So there we were,” Rainbow said, holding her hooves out dramatically, “Us against a whole legion of Court changelings. It must’ve been ten… no, twenty to one! And Queen Chrysalis was there, and – ow!”

She glared at Applejack, who met her gaze evenly. “Alright, sugarcube. Care ta tell what really happened? Before ya go and get everyone riled up over the Queen of Queens bein’ in Equestria again, when she ain’t?”

Rainbow folded her forelegs across her chest petulantly. “As far as you know…”

“Rainbow,” Applejack said warningly. That was a thought she really didn’t want to entertain right now.

Rainbow pouted at her. “Oh come on! My story was just getting good! I hadn’t even gotten to the fire-breathing dragons, yet!”

Applejack just rolled her eyes. “Can we just stick ta what actually happened?”

“Oh alright,” Rainbow sighed, sagging. Then she turned towards Roseluck with a disinterested expression. “We ran into Nana and found this book.” From her saddlebags, she produced the weathered and beaten tomb in question and dropped it unceremoniously onto Roseluck’s desk. “There was this big dragon thing, we ran away, and here we are. Any questions?”

Roseluck blinked. To have what was once a half-hour-long retelling boiled down to a few sentences kind of threw her off a little. “Just one,” she said. “Well… a few actually. You were saying that the Court’s agents intercepted you at the cottage?”

Applejack nodded, frowning. “Ah don’t know how many there were. Hard ta tell with all them hidin’ in the trees.”

Roseluck frowned to herself, looking really troubled by that bit of information. “I’d figured that if the enemy was going to be anywhere, it would be the Everfree. Hopefully they were just following you and not actually after the same thing you were.”

When she caught the look Applejack gave her, Roseluck shrugged slightly. “It’s best not to discount these things with our kind,” she told her. “Still. You’re safe now, and you got away with what you were after. I would call that a win for us. Now, about this book…”

Applejack nodded before glancing down at it. It was such a simple book bound in leather and clasped in gleaming wood, hardly anything special-looking. And yet, hopefully, it was the answer to all of Applejack's prayers.

“What is it?” Roseluck inquired.

Applejack looked up. “My Ma’s diary.”

The look of profound shock that shot across Roseluck’s face was the stuff of legends. She did a sudden double-take, going from Applejack, to the diary, and back to Applejack in a split second. Her eyes shot open wide and her breath caught in her lungs as her brain processed Applejack’s words.

“A-as in Queen Carnation’s…?”

Seeing Applejack’s nod, Roseluck leaned back in her chair, looking flustered but under control. Still, her eyes remained glued to the thing that, to any drone, would virtually amount to sacred text. To have such a thing just shoved under her nose like that… a mare needed some warning sometimes.

“Whatever Ma found,” Applejack went on, lightly tapping the book, “It’s bound ta be in here.”

That said, she pulled her hat from her head and fished around inside. Roseluck watched curiously until she pulled out a plain-looking envelope and reached inside. After a moment, Applejack pulled out a small wooden key, and gripping it very carefully in one hoof, she inserted it into the latch on the diary.

With a sudden jolt, Applejack felt something race up her hoof and back down again, like she’d just jarred a nerve. At the same time, the key twisted all by itself, wrenching her hoof around with it as it produced a loud, oddly metallic clicking sound.

A flash of light exploded out of each page, sending a shaft of fiery green across the room as the latch blasted itself open. The force of it threw Applejack’s hoof clear, just as Carnation’s diary snapped open all by itself, pages furiously fluttering, flying from front to back and back again in a blur.

Then, all at once, it stopped.

The light extinguished. The pages laid flat and motionless in front of Applejack. As Applejack stared, she watched words – once glowing green-hot as if molten – slowly cooled into jet black ink lines.

For the longest time, everyone in the room remained quiet, eyes wide with shock. Eventually, Agave peeked over the edge of the table, reappearing from cover.

“That,” Rainbow said breathlessly, “was so… awesome…! Lemme see!”

Without waiting for permission, she reached out and scooped up the diary eagerly. But the moment her hooves touched it, the diary let out an unsettling hiss.

Everyone watched as, right before their eyes, the words on the pages started to crumble away, and evaporate into thin tendrils of smoke.

“Wh-what the…?” Rainbow gasped, startled. “H-hey! Stop that!”

But it was too late. Within moments, the pages in front of her were completely bare, save for a few water stains and smudges.

Rainbow looked over at Applejack, looking desperate. “I-I didn't mean to! It just sorta... I mean... I..."

Applejack frowned, but said nothing. She took the diary back, scowling at the pages. The moment, her hooves touched the paper, a pulse of emerald light raced across their surfaces, as if a pen was dancing across it in fast motion. A split second later, and the pages were once again filled with words all ready to be read.

Rainbow let out a relieved sigh. “Whew… I thought I’d just screwed everything up.” Then she straightened up, frowning slightly. “Guess that means nopony’s gonna read that except you, huh?”

“Looks ta be that way,” Applejack surmised with a nod.

Rainbow couldn’t help but ruffle her mane in frustration. “Geez… first the weird lockbox, now this… You changelings really go overboard sometimes. You know that, right?”

Roseluck chuckled slightly, as did Agave.

“So, what’s it say?” Rainbow inquired, peering over Applejack’s shoulder.

Applejack glanced at her, then turned her eyes to the pages. Immediately, she recognized the same elegant calligraphy Carnation wrote with. This time, she was braced for it, but it still made her heart leap uncomfortably in her chest. Right away, however, Applejack noticed how slanted and uneven the words were, as if it’d been scrawled very hastily. It didn't take her long to figure out why.


Third Moon: Day 239

I am getting close, I can feel it. Another floor was discovered today, near the eastern wing. It’s still going deeper down. There is hope yet that I will find it here.

I am anxious to explore the new chambers myself, but given my current condition, it would be unwise to exert myself so much. The child inside me is taking all of my strength to grow. I fear this one may not be a drone. If that is the case, it may be many months before I can resume my work. I cannot afford any further delays, but if nature demands it, so it shall be. I shall simply have the drones transcribe every rune and etching they come across. It will have to do for now.




Third Moon: Day 240

It is as I feared. The egg inside of me will be no drone. It is taking all the strength I can muster to simply raise this quill to write, and I fear soon I won’t even be able to accomplish that. The child is sapping every ounce of strength I possess in order to grow. And here I was thinking I’d become stronger than ever before.
This has come at such an inopportune time. I know I am close… Every day, more evidence is

It is becoming difficult to write. I must rest. Hyacinth will continue the excavation. We cannot afford


Applejack frowned to herself as she leaned back. “Ma was… diggin’ for somethin’,” she spoke up, breaking the silence in Roseluck’s office. She glanced up at Rose, throwing her a questioning look, to which Roseluck merely shook her head. “Most of the hive was concerned with integrating with ponies,” she pointed out. “I’ve… never heard about this. She must have only involved her inner circle. Hyacinth and a few others.”

Applejack frowned to herself, looking the pages over again. Some of their content really seemed to jump out at her, causing her to look up again. She remembered what it’d been like for her pony mother when she’d been carrying Apple Bloom. She’d been out of sorts, but… not nearly as bad as these pages described Carnation’s pregnancy. It was a disturbing thought to think that she could’ve incapacitated her mother to such a degree. The very idea was... disturbing, even hurtful.

“What else does it say?” inquired Rainbow from beside her.

Applejack glanced at her, then turned the page. More entries sprang to life as she did so, literally writing themselves in a blur of light before the pages had even settled again.



Fourth Moon: Day 301

Today marks the first day I’ve felt well enough to move. A group of the finest nurses I possess are tending to the egg. Someday soon, it will bear our hive its first heir.
In the meantime, I have much to catch up on. I must complete my work before my egg hatches. Tomorrow, I shall make for Canterlot to speak with our benefactor. I have much time to make up for, and she is the only option I have left. I will find the Maker before my daughter hatches. I will.

“The Maker?” Rainbow spoke up from over Applejack’s shoulder. “Why do I keep hearing that name?”

Roseluck raised her head expectantly. “What about Her?” she asked.

Applejack set the diary down, frowning even worse to herself. “Ah think… Ah think Ma was lookin’ for the Maker,” she said dubiously.

Roseluck gave her a rather bizarre look, “Her Highness was looking for the Maker? Here?”

“It don’t make sense,” Applejack agreed with a nod. “Why would Carnation come ta Equestria lookin’ for the one that created the changelin’s in the south?”

No one had an answer to that. For several long minutes, everypony thought about it, but no satisfactory answers were to be had.

“… It makes sense, though,” Agave spoke up, breaking the silence.

All eyes turned to her as she peeked up over the table at them, then she glanced at the book. “Think about it. She knew there was something passed the World’s End while every other queen didn’t believe there was. She believed in it enough to bring her whole hive through uncharted territory. She must have learned something.”

“Like what?” Rainbow asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” Agave mumbled. “But… Applejack, you asked me about the Maker earlier, when we were headed into the forest.”

Applejack nodded, frowning to herself. A flash of the memory she’d seen cut across her mind, making her shiver. “That’s right. Some queen was mighty interested in findin’ out why Ma had been askin’ that Queen Honeycomb about her.”

Agave nodded. “Queen Carnation believed enough to go through whatever stupid task Queen Honycomb put her through, then uprooted her entire hive to chase whatever she’d learned. It wasn’t a hunch that brought her here; she must have known for a fact that the Maker was here in Equestria. At least… her final resting place, maybe.”

Rainbow frowned. “Whoa, whoa. So, you’re telling me AJ’s mom was chasing down a god?”

Agave fidgeted slightly. “Who better to ask than the one who created us?”

“Great,” Applejack muttered. “Now we’re chasin’ down almighty bein’s. Again.”

Rainbow flashed her a smile. “Just another Friday, eh?”

Applejack huffed in response.

“There is a problem, though,” Agave mumbled, frowning to herself now. “The Maker disappeared thousands of years ago. At least, according to the bedtime stor—I mean, the books Mother used to have me read.”

She looked around and noticed how everyone was staring at her. “What? Why is everyone looking at me like that?”

“Well,” Applejack spoke up, breaking the awkward silence, “By the looks of it, Ma found wherever it is this Maker gal is hidin’. And she was gettin’ help from Canterlot to find her.”

Applejack frowned to herself then, something occurring to her. Canterlot... for some reason, that nagged at her. Something about Canterlot... A benefactor in Canterlot... “Bumblebee…”

Roseluck raised an eyebrow. “What about her?”

Rainbow gave Applejack a look as she started to make the connection as well. “You thinking what I’m thinking?” Rainbow muttered.

Applejack nodded, half to herself, half to Rainbow. “Sure am. Looks like we’re gonna have ta pay the Spymaster a visit.”

Roseluck froze, her eyes growing big. “Wait, wait… the Spymaster? Don’t you think you’re being a little rash?”

Rainbow huffed and leaned one elbow on the table. “Filly, compared to the Everfree, a trip to Canterlot would be a walk in the park.”

“Not exactly,” Roseluck said grimly. “In case you hadn’t noticed, the district is still under lockdown. What’s more, travel into and out of Canterlot is being strictly monitored; no one is allowed in without permission. Not even you, Applejack.”

Applejack blinked, taken aback. “Wait, wait, since when did that happen?” she asked.

This time, it wasn’t Roseluck who answered. It was, to Applejack surprise – and quickly building annoyance – Rainbow Dash.

“Er, yeah, um… I kinda, sorta forgot to tell you,” she said sheepishly. “It’s kinda been that way since, well… yesterday.”

Applejack turned on her, stunned. “And ya didn’t think ta tell me?”

Rainbow frowned back indignantly. “Oh come on, I didn’t think we’d actually being going there. The whole place is a changeling-free zone right now; all the barriers and defenses they have up now make the ones during the royal wedding look like foal proofing.”

“And you have the nobles to thank for that,” Roseluck said bitterly. “Celestia had no choice but to batten down the hatches for the sake of peace in the streets. If the Spymaster is still in the city, it won’t be easy to find him, even without all of the countermeasures in place.”

Applejack leaned against the table, scowling to herself. “Well, we gotta get in there somehow,” she said. “Everythin’s pointin’ to Canterlot right now.”

She turned to Rainbow then. “Think ya can make it ta Twi’s place and get Spike ta send a letter?”

Rainbow shrugged. “Worth a shot, but if Celestia’s busy, it could take her a while to put anything together.”

Applejack frowned. They didn’t have ‘a while’. No… she didn’t have ‘a while’, not if her sudden lack of growing pains was any indication. When the next one hit, it was going to hit hard, mark her words…

“We’ll think of something,” Roseluck reassured, sitting up straighter. “Right now, you should all rest while you can. You’ve had a long day, and there’s no telling when –”

A polite knocking on the door interrupted her.

“Um, excuse me? Miss Roseluck? Your Highness?” spoke a muffled voice through the door. “We, uh… have visitors.”

~~***~~

Ponies up and down the streets of Ponyville looked up as the sound of marching reached their ears. The sound preceded a column of twenty heavily armed and armored stallions moving as one down the lane.

Whispers broke out as ponies quickly vacated their path. Some dashed off, bearing word of the military formation on the move. Captain Steel Shod watched them out of the corner of his eye, but he let them go. After all, if he didn’t want attention, he wouldn’t be marching his troops straight down the main thoroughfare of Ponyville.

He wanted to be seen. Even if this inquiry somehow proved to be waste of time, ponies around town would know the Guard had its eyes on the changelings amongst them. And it did not like what it was seeing. It would get ponies talking, one way or another.

Steel Shod led his column around a corner onto what had once been the city limits of Ponyville. But instead of a gently sloping grassy hillside, he was confronted with trees. Lots and lots of unnatural, magically grown trees. He narrowed his eyes at them, fully knowing his approach would have been noticed by now, even if the high boughs overhead betrayed no movement.

The guards he’d posted at the blockaded entrance to the district snapped to attention, saluting their superior officer as he strode up.

“Captain Steel Shod,” one spoke up. “There’s been no unusual activity since your last visit. All’s remained quiet.”

Steel Shod didn’t act like he’d heard him. “Has Lieutenant Willow reported in yet?” he asked.

Both guards at the blockade exchanged a quick look. “No, sir. His platoon hasn't sent word since departing into the Everfree.”

Steel Shod scowled deeper at that. Willow could be a weasel, but he was never late with his reports, not unless something made him late.

He turned his attention towards the looming shade of the trees, as if he half expected to be set upon by little black assailants at any moment. Meanwhile, he was thinking quick, a sense of justified foreboding creeping in the back of his mind.

“Sir, may I ask a question?” piped up one of the guards.

Steel Shod glanced at him. “Speak, then.”

For some reason, he noticed how the other guard at his station was giving his fellow an apprehensive look barely hidden underneath a Royal Guard’s characteristic stoicism. The one doing the talking looked unsure for a moment as well, then he straightened up.

“I was just wondering, sir… things were finally starting to calm down around here. With all due respect, should we really get everypony worked up again?”

Steel Shod narrowed his eyes disapprovingly at the soldier. The guard didn’t visibly shrink under his gaze, but he certainly seemed smaller than before.

“We will do what needs to be done to contain any threat to Equestria,” he said sharply, “even if it is an unpopular choice. The law does not pick sides; you’d do well to remember that, private.”

“Y-yes, sir,” the guard mumbled quickly. “I will, sir.”

Steel Shod nodded. “Good. Now, open the way.”

The guards saluted, then scrambled to either side of the barricade. Muscles knotting, the pair shoved the heavy obstructions to one side, opening a gap that slowly grew large enough for Steel Shod and his column to advance.

The Ponyville Guard Captain glanced around the shaded and verdant alley that laid beyond. He knew these changelings wouldn’t let him have his way, not without resistance, hence the reinforcements. So, it came as no surprise to find a khaki earth pony waiting for him with a reproachful look on her face.

“Captain Steel Shod,” Roseluck greeted stiffly. “Punctual as ever, I see.”

Steel Shod eyed her carefully, gauging her reactions. Her disdain for his presence was evident enough, but what he couldn’t see was any unease. Perhaps she was just hiding it well. Without a word, Steel Shod pulled from his collar the search warrant he’d procured and waved it at her. “No more games, Roseluck,” he stated. “Show me where Applejack is, now.”

Rose trotted over, looking at him with clear dislike, and swiped the document from his grasp. As she quickly scanned it over, impatience welled up inside Steel Shod. “Satisfied?”

Roseluck frowned, then flicked her eyes up at the burly Guard Captain. “It’ll do,” she commented without inflection. Then, she simply turned and walked away. “Right this way then, Captain.”

Steel Shod’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. He glanced back at his platoon and nodded.

As he moved deeper into the district, his troops followed close behind, all eyes scanning their surroundings carefully. Meanwhile, Steel Shod’s mind worked fast. This was too easy. Roseluck caved to his demands with far less resistance than he’d anticipated. Which could only mean they had something else up their sly sleeves. However, Roseluck could only stall at this point. Sooner or later, he’d get what he wanted. He’d prove Applejack wasn’t in the district at all; that she’d illegally broken the lockdown. And then he’d have her.

~~***~~

Steel Shod followed Roseluck deeper into the district, all the while remaining on guard. They took the most direct route to the central square, a move he hadn’t been expecting. He’d more than anticipated her taking the scenic route, to the point that he’d already come with a comment preloaded, just in case. As it turned out, however, it wasn’t even needed, which only furthered his distrust.

Perhaps worse, however, were the sounds.

All around them, he could discern changelings. They were usually up high, out of one’s immediate line of sight, but he saw them. Most cowered in knotholes and in the crook of tree limbs. A few clung to the roofs of houses like living shadows, their luminescent blue eyes blinking back at him from their heavily shrouded hiding places. One or two even followed his procession, slinking like snakes through the trees as they watched warily.

But Steel Shod knew he was only seeing a fraction of the drones he was passing. The ones he couldn’t see, he heard. All around him, he detected the sound of rustling insect wings, occasionally trilling like a cricket through the trees. He heard their squeaking and chirping as they chattered back and forth through the underbrush, exchanging who knew what kind of information between them.

Every now and then he’d hear a rustle as a drone darted away through the boughs overhead, bringing tension to the platoon. They were in enemy territory now; they could all feel it, Steel Shod especially.

Roseluck seemed to pay all the noise no mind. Surely one who had been living amongst such a din for so long would learn to tune it out. But Steel Shod couldn’t help but note that the deeper in they marched, the more agitated the sounds became.

The sound of insectoid wings grew louder. The calls ringing through the trees became more prominent, to the point that it sounded like they were completely encircled from above by a veritable army.

Some of the guards tightened their grips on their spears and looked around nervously. Others seemed only slightly concerned by the building tension in the air, as if used to it by now.

Up ahead, Roseluck turned a sharp corner, vanishing from sight.

This was it, Steel Shod realized. His hoof went to the haft hanging from his side, but he did not draw his weapon just yet. Instead, he advanced, burst around the corner expecting anything, and –!

His eyes immediately fell on Applejack.

She stood near the middle of the square that had once been used in an ill-fated holiday celebration. Now, however, it was practically unrecognizable.

Not a trace of the devastation wrought by the Court’s attack remained. Every last scrap of building material had been removed, right down to the smallest tack. Plant life, once stricken and wilted, was once again positively glowing with vibrant life, no doubt fed by the twisted magicks of changelings.

The only evidence of the Summer Sun Celebration was the large tent still standing untouched in the center of the square. The tough fabric rustled heavily in a low wind, but offered no further comment.

Applejack wasn’t alone, either. At her side, much to Steel Shod’s annoyance, was Rainbow, who was lounging nonchalantly in the grass, completely unfazed by his demonstration of strength. On Applejack’s other side was a grey pegasus filly Steel Shod had never seen before, who looked only too nervous to be there.

And, of course, there were drones everywhere. These ones, however, didn’t bother hiding themselves; they were all out in the open, clustered like a small galaxy around Applejack. Like a living cape they fanned out in every direction behind her, glaring and bristling at his advance. Teeth flashed warnings, a few horns even sparked threateningly. But none moved so much as an inch without their queen’s directive.

Steel Shod took one look at her before his eyes narrowed. Then, he took a deliberate step into the square, undaunted by the commotion ringing through the trees all around him or the many glares he was getting from the front.

Applejack met his glare with an aloof calmness that only irritated Steel Shod more. But there was something about her that didn’t quite match up.

Applejack did not stand with her usual poise, he noticed. Her shoulders were slouched slightly and her eyes were weary, like she’d been up all night. The drones, Steel Shod also noted, were clinging to her more than usual. There were at least four clustered around her, facing her and not Steel Shod but nevertheless throwing cold glares over their shoulders, wings bristling.

Steel Shod had heard the report on Applejack’s condition, but to actually lay eyes on her and the hive’s behavior, he could tell right away that something wasn’t right with her. If he had to guess, he’d say she looked almost sick.

Applejack’s eyes never wavered away from him as he stepped closer. Then, abruptly, she raised a hoof into the air.

Immediately, the whole district went quiet. The sheer volume of the silence left Steel Shod’s ears ringing, and even he couldn’t help but pause because of it. Just one casual motion, and her entire hive had obeyed her unspoken order instantaneously… Applejack really was a dangerous one, whether she flaunted it or not.

“So,” Applejack grunted, frowning slightly at Steel Shod. “Ah hear yer lookin’ fer me. Mind tellin’ me what this is all about, Captain?”

Steel Shod didn’t immediately respond. He was too busy sizing her up, earning him a quirked eyebrow from Applejack.

The disguised changeling queen waited patiently as Steel Shod came to within twenty feet of her before stopping. Any closer, and he wouldn’t have the reaction time to save himself if she chose to rush him. There, he gave Applejack a suspicious look.

“Show me your true form,” he demanded.

Applejack’s quirked eyebrow raised up higher. “Beg pardon?”

“You heard me,” Steel Shod said coldly. “How am I to know you’re the real Applejack and not some imposter?”

Beside her, Rainbow made an irritated noise and rolled her eyes, a sentiment repeated in a ripple effect across the many drones in the square, like a bunch of children mimicking an adults actions.

Applejack glanced at her, then flicked her attention back to Steel Shod. Then, she lifted a hoof and, with a wince, pulled a band-aid from her cheek. She tossed it up slightly, then in a rush of emerald fire, shed her disguise.

She gave him a pointed look with her amber eyes, flicking her fiery orange tail slightly as if to prove it was real. “That better?” she quipped, caught the fluttering band-aid out of the air, and stuck it to her cheek again.

Steel Shod said nothing. In fact, he seemed at a slight loss for words. The gears in his brain were turning fast as he processed this new information, something that was amusing Rainbow to no end.

“So what’s this all about, Shoddy?” Rainbow piped up, trying her very best not to sound goading. She didn’t do a very good job, but she at least tried.

Predictably, Steel Shod shot her a glare before returning his attention back to Applejack. “I think you know,” he growled. “Somepony – or more specifically, someone – breached the perimeter of this district against lockdown protocols. For that matter,” Steel Shod added, turning his cold gaze onto Rainbow this time, “Ponies are forbidden from entering this district. Explain yourself, Rainbow Dash.”

Rainbow merely waved an infuriatingly nonchalant hoof. “Well, technically I never left in the first place, soooo… no entering. And besides, Princess Twilight gave me permission to be here, so what’s the big deal?”

“The ‘big deal’,” Steel Shod said back, “is that we are trying to keep all changelings isolated from the main populace in case –”

“In case what?”

“—there are infiltrating elements within the district itself,” Steel Shod finished, undaunted by Rainbow’s attempt to interrupt him. “By decree of the royal sisters, you are required to leave this area immediately for your own safety.”

Rainbow pretended to think about it for a moment. “Mmmm… nah, I’m good.”

“She’s stayin’,” Applejack added sharply. “If somethin’ happens to her, y’all can hold me responsible then. Until then, wherever she goes, Ah go.”

Rainbow flashed an irritating smile at Steel Shod, then made a show of getting good and comfortable right there in the soft grass next to Applejack.

Steel Shod narrowed his eyes again. “I will be sure to bring this to Princess Celestia’s attention.”

“Alrighty then,” Applejack said with a curt nod. “Ah hope ya do. Now, if that’s everythin’…”

“Hardly,” Steel Shod said back. “You still haven’t answered for the breach earlier. A breach we tracked heading towards your farmland, I might add.”

Applejack narrowed her eyes, but said nothing.

“Now, travel to and from Sweet Apple Acres isn’t unusual,” Steel Shod noted. “There’s been a steady flow of changeling magic coming and going ever since we established a monitoring system.”

“Uh, why is he telling us this?” Rainbow mumbled.

Applejack was less confused. “Cuz he’s tryin’ ta make a point.”

“What point?”

“That he’s been keepin’ tabs on us,” she responded sourly.

Meanwhile, Steel Shod continued, ignorant of their conversation. “When Princess Celestia instated the lockdown, all traffic out of the district stopped. Save for this one instance,” he concluded. “Can you tell me why?”

This time, it was Roseluck who spoke up. “Forgive me for saying so, Captain, but that is some very flimsy evidence to come and accuse our queen with. And to what end? To slap a petty crime on her in the name of justice? Or in the name of superiority?”

Hundreds of drones nodded and mumbled in agreement.

Steel Shod glanced at her, his eyes cold as ice cubes. “Queen… strange how you whip that word out only when it benefits you.”

“Excuse me?” Applejack said pointedly.

Steel Shod glanced back at her. “You, by your own words, have stated many times that you are no matriarch. And yet, when it serves you best, when it gets you out of trouble, you are. So, which one is it, Applejack? Are you a ruler beyond reproach? Or a naïve foal without conviction?”

Applejack opened her mouth… then shut it again. What exactly was she supposed to say? How was she supposed to articulate that she was as much a queen as Rainbow was a pegasus, but not as much a queen as Princess Celestia was a princess. She could barely even explain it to herself, let alone to somepony else.

Meanwhile, the others did not take the accusation lying down. Even Rainbow jumped to her hooves and glared.

All around, changelings bristled. A few hissed, ears flipping back threateningly. The platoon that had accompanied Steel Shod closed ranks defensively, weapons at the ready.

“Hush up!” barked Applejack, her voice cutting through the escalating ruckus.

Immediately the drones fell quiet again, hesitating in place. A few turned back towards her questioningly, looking like they didn’t understand why she’d stopped them from defending her honor.

Applejack glanced at only a few of them – Rainbow included – but her focus remained largely on Steel Shod. “Ah’d thank ya ta choose yer words more careful-like,” she told him tersely. “The last thing we all need is ta be pickin’ pointless fights with one another.”

“Then answer my question,” Steel Shod immediately retorted. “Do you, or do you not, know anything about this breach?”

Applejack caught Rainbow’s eye, who shook her head very subtly back at her. She wasn’t the only one, either; Roseluck was doing the same. Agave merely gave her an apprehensive look, her wings shuffling nervously.

All up and down, drones met her look without comment or gesture, but she saw the same thing in all of their eyes. All of them, to the last mare and stallion, was expecting her to lie. After all, it would have been easy. Steel Shod’s so-called evidence was wafer-thin; there was no way he could hope to touch her because something happened that could have been done by any one of her drones.

All she had to do was lie to save her own skin. It’s what a changeling would do, wasn’t it?

Applejack scowled slightly, then met Steel Shod’s expecting glare. “As a matter of fact, Ah do,” Applejack said. “And yer right. Ah left the district.”

That had not been the answer Steel Shod was expecting, and it showed on his face. In fact, most of the changelings around her gave her a stunned look, Roseluck included. Even Rainbow look at her like she’d lost her mind. “What are you doing?” she hissed, but Applejack brushed her off.

“Ah said it, didn’t Ah? Now ain’t the time ta be pickin’ pointless battles with each other,” she said firmly. At the same time, she started stepping closer, closing the distance between her and Steel Shod. “The only one who’s goin’ ta win is the Changelin’ Court. So yes, Ah snuck out ta chase down a lead.”

Never before had she seen the Guard Captain give her such a look of blank surprise. Steel Shod looked completely taken aback, but it didn’t take him long to recover. “Then you know what I have to do,” Steel Shod said ominously.

Yet, Applejack was unfazed, even as the changelings bristled again. “What ya gotta do is listen to me,” Applejack said, coming to a halt just out of Steel Shod’s reach.

The captain raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Why?”

“Because,” Applejack said pointedly, “While Ah was out in the Everfree, Ah stumbled upon a whole mess of Court drones just sittin’ on our doorstep.”

Steel Shod blinked again. “I haven’t received any such reports,” he said quickly, only to almost immediately be cut off by Rainbow.

“Yeah, because you’re so focused on us that you aren’t bothering to look anywhere else!”

More murmurs of agreement.

“The reason why Ah’m comin’ clean with ya,” Applejack said, “is because we all need ta work together ta get through this, not just steer clear of one another. As long as we’re divided, the Court’s just gonna keep pickin’ at us until we come apart at the seams. It’s what they do.”

Steel Shod gave her a look like she’d just suggested taking a bath in a septic tank, but Applejack ignored it.

“This here land belongs to all of us,” she said, gesturing with a hoof. “Some of us may not be from around here, but that don’t make it any less our home. Instead of lockin’ us up, we gotta start helpin’ each other out. So Ah’m willin’ ta fess up to my own wrong-doin’s if it’ll help ya see that we’re all on the same side.”

She stepped closer, staring down the stalwart captain who met her gaze with cold contempt. "Ya asked me which one Ah am. Well here's yer answer." She leaned in closer, stepping right up on him. "Ah'm what they need me ta be," she growled.

Steel Shod’s eyes narrowed. “What game are you…?”

“No game,” Applejack said back. “Ah’m admittin’ Ah did wrong.”

But Steel Shod’s eyes only narrowed further. “Do you think that will impress me? Taking the blame for one incident? There’s always an angle with your kind –”

“And this time,” Applejack interrupted, “it’s ta show you somethin’.”

“What?” Steel Shod shot, “that you can be honest sometimes?”

“Yes,” Applejack said.

“… And?”

“That’s it.”

Steel Shod gave her a look of pure suspicion. “I don’t believe you,” he said.

To that, Applejack sighed in defeat. “Welp, then that’s on you,” she said with a shrug.

“I still have you dead to rights on breaching a royally mandated quarantine,” Steel Shod pointed out.

From a pouch along his side, he pulled a pair of silvery manacles. Just the sight of them caused changelings all around to bristle. “I don’t know what you thought your speech would accomplish,” Steel Shod stated, “but you cannot change the law with just a few flowery words.”

With that, he held the manacles out to his side. “Officer,” he barked at the troop behind him, “Take Her Highness into custody.”

Silence was the only response he got.

“Officer!” he barked, glaring over his shoulder.

The stallion in question was indeed standing behind him, right where he was supposed to be. Except, he hadn’t moved an inch. The only thing to change about him, in fact, was the frown on his face.

“Sir… is this really necessary?” he asked Steel Shod.

“Excuse me?” Steel Shod growled back in a voice of cold menace.

The Guard officer remained mostly undaunted, though he did quail a bit. “Sir, with all due respect, Queen Applejack has a point. On top of that, she discovered where the enemy is hiding in the course of her unsanctioned departure. Should we be wasting our energies on a minor crime?”

Steel Shod rounded on him, all but snarling now. “I gave you an order,” he spat.

The officer backed up a step – only to back up into two more stallions, who were holding their ground.

“Captain Steel Shod,” one said with a frown, “Article Twenty Nine, section B subsection H clearly sets a precedence for withholding corporal punishment against those who contributed to the safety of Equestria through the perpetration of a crime. If Her Highness’s claims of enemy infiltrators in the Everfree Forest are true, her actions would clearly fall under this category. Should we not validate her claims before rendering judgment?”

“At the discretion of the commanding officer,” Steel Shod shot back. “Do you think I don’t know basic law?”

“Then,” another countered, “you know, under the new ordinances set in place by Princess Celestia herself, a guard may disregard his commanding officer’s orders if he or she believes them to be of detriment to the wellbeing of Equestria as a whole?”

A look of shock crossed Steel Shod’s face as he comprehended what was going on. Most of the troops behind him were no longer at the ready. They were looking at him with frowns and conflicted expressions as each, one by one, shouldered their spear.

“Fine,” Steel Shod snapped. “If none of you have what it takes to do the right thing, I’ll do it myself.”

He rounded on Applejack again, brandishing his manacles as he advanced. “It doesn’t matter if it is a minor crime or a major one; an example must be set. Your kind need to be shown how short your leash is, and if nopony else is willing to do it, then I will.”

Applejack didn’t back away, or move in the slightest. Her hive, however, bristled worse than ever. Like a dam about to burst, they rumbled and fidgeted restlessly, all eyes gauging the distance between their queen and the one threatening to do harm to her. Even Rainbow was tensing up, ready to intervene within seconds, when –

The square became filled with a slow, slow clapping.

It started out low at first, almost imperceptible over the hissing and growling of the changelings. But with each passing second it grew louder, until it was reverberating off of every tree branch overhead.

Even Steel Shod came to a halt, his eyes glancing around warily at the sound. “Who’s there?”

A voice echoed around the square, seemingly coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. “Oh please, don’t stop on my account. This whole scene was just getting good.”

Applejack’s eyes shot open wide for an instant. She knew that voice. And right now, she really wish she didn’t.

“Show yourself!” Steel Shod shouted, turning around.

A sigh ran through the trees. “What are you saying, my dear Captain of the Guard? I’m right here.” The voice purred – from the stallion behind him.

Steel Shod spun around to face the guard standing behind him, who suddenly looked scared out of his mind as an envelope bearing the royal Canterlot seal pulled itself out of his saddle bags, using two corners like hands.

Everypony watched in morbid fascination as the letter climbed out of the stallion’s bags, perched on the rim, and executed a flawless swan dive to a smattering of unseen applause.

The letter descended, alighted on one side, and then turned on one corner to face Steel Shod. And then, folding down one corner in order to reach for the seal, and in one swift swipe, undo it.

The explosion of sound and light that followed had everypony backing away, shielding their ears and eyes as best they could as a crude fanfare trumpeted through the air. As the brilliant glare died down and the trumpets faded away, Applejack reopened her eyes to find her worst possible fears confirmed.

A tall, horribly elongated creature stood in front of her on a mismatched set of legs. For that matter, his entire body was a hodgepodge of cobbled together animal parts, each as senseless as the last. But, perhaps more disturbingly, at the moment he appeared to be wearing a complete postal uniform, complete with a winged helmet bearing a cartoonish insignia of his own face, which was also stamped on each shoulder.

“Discord,” Applejack grumbled. “As if Ah didn’t have enough problems.”

“Oh, I missed you, too, dear Applejack,” Discord said with a toothy grin.

“What is he doing here?” Rainbow shouted, throwing a hoof at Discord, who’d taken to reclining in midair.

“Am I not allowed to simply drop in on my friends now and then?” Discord asked. “Besides, I couldn’t help myself, what with all this wonderful chaos your friend here has kicked up recently. Why, I practically feel like we’ve become such good friends lately!”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “What’d Ah do?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Discord responded, stepping out of her shadow – much to her alarm. He slunk through the air like a snake, spinning once around her before settling down again behind her. “You’ve just set the entire system on its head and thrown the whole of Equestria for a loop! War, social change on an unprecedented scale… Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were after my title. And now this whole business with your heart…”

He cackled, and with a snap of his fingers, vanished again. With a pop, he reappeared again in front of Applejack, making her jump back a step. “I just can’t help but wonder. You, Applejack, the epitome of honesty and one the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. The victor of numerous heroic exploits already! Well on her way to being the next worst thing to ever crop up on Equestria’s horizon. Think about it; with all the love you receive, how powerful do you think you’d become? Hive or no, would even the Princesses be able to stand in your way? I can barely contain my curiosity.”

Applejack glared. “It ain’t comin’ ta that, Discord,” she shot.

Discord only cracked an infuriating grin. “And… how far are you willing to go to make sure it doesn’t?”

“As far as Ah have to,” Applejack said back without missing a beat.

Discord cocked an eyebrow at that. “Which is why I find you so very amusing.”

Applejack glared at him, and was about to fire off another scathing remark, when he vanished again.

A split second later, he reappeared right behind Steel Shod – now wearing a grossly undersized Guard uniform. A few feet away, one of the actual Guard actually yelped when he realized his armor had inexplicably vanished.

“And then there’s you, Captain Steel Shod,” Discord said, leaning in uncomfortably close to the irritated stallion. “The cherry on top of my sundae."

Steel Shod tried to shove him away, but Discord was already gone. “Watch your tongue, monster. What business do you have here?”

“Of course,” Discord’s voice rang through the trees. He’d dematerialized again. “Right down to business, as always. Never any time for some real fun. Well… I can wait. The ball is already rolling. The fun is only just getting started.” He ended with a disconcerting chuckle that echoed in everyone’s ears and sent a chill down Applejack’s spine.

“As for why I’m here, there really is no mystery. You’d know that if you’d actually bothered to read Princess Celestia’s message like a good stallion.”

With a loud bang, something appeared directly over all of their heads. A horrific something that roughly resembled Discord wearing a horrible caricature costume of a certain Princess of the Sun.

“I need you to go fetch that silliest of ponies, Queen Applejack from Ponyville for me,” screeched Discord’s voice in what would undoubtedly become known as the absolute worst impression of Princess Celestia to ever pollute Equestrian ears. “Be a lamb and do that for me, oh gracious and most handsome Discord!”

In a puff of smoke and loud bang, Discord returned to normal, though he continued to hover a few feet over their heads. “Or, something to that effect.”

Applejack opened her mouth, closed it, tried again, and after two more failed attempts to speak, she finally got out. “Wait, Princess Celestia told ya to get me?”

“And you listened?” Rainbow added.

Discord was busy digging around in an ear with his pinkie finger. “Come now. I can be charitable once in a while, can’t I?”

“She threatened you with Fluttershy, didn’t she?”

“That’s beside the point,” Discord rebuffed, all the while literally stealing Rainbow’s mouth and stuffing it behind his ear. Which, of course, he immediately regretted when she bit him. “The point is – ow! – that I must break up these proceedings in the interest of Equestrian security. You, little missy,” he added as he slapped Rainbow’s mouth back on her face, “need to learn some manners.”

Rainbow stuck her tongue out at him – which had developed the most stunning plaid patterning anypony had ever seen. Rainbow opened her mouth to shout something – only for classic music to come streaming out instead.

While she sat there, horrified hooves clasped over her mouth, Discord sidled up to Applejack, who automatically tried to shimmy away.

It was then that a stunned Steel Shod finally managed to recover his voice. “Hold it right there, Discord! This mare is wanted for breaking the law! You can’t just –”

“ I Can’t. Just. What.”

Even Steel Shod fell silent at the tone in Discord’s voice. The towering dragonequus threw a look at him from the corner of his eye, his smile replaced with a chilling sneer. “Steel Shod, I would choose my words with more caution if I were you, before I actually think you’re trying to tell me what to do. I would simply hate to have to correct you.”

Discord put one hand on a motionless – and slightly terrified – Applejack’s head. He cracked a wicked smile then, showing off all of his pointed teeth in great detail. “But by all means, finish that little thought of yours. Follow through, if you must! I’m always up for a good laugh.”

And with a snap of his fingers, they both vanished in a flash of light, leaving in his wake a stunned crowd, and a pool of chocolate milk.

For the longest time, nopony moved, least of all Steel Shod. All of that changed, however, when Rainbow suddenly stiffened. “Hey! You forgot me, you idiot!” she bellowed before streaking off into the sky.

Steel Shod turned towards her, but she was already gone.

And of course, it was that moment that Pinkie decided to make her grand entrance, bursting through the underbrush and skidding to a halt right in between both parties. “Hey guys! I made it!” she cheered, paused, then looked around. “Uh… guys?”

~~***~~

Rainbow shot up high into the air, high enough to look out over the whole of Ponyville. She looked around quickly, getting her bearings. If Discord was just going to leave her behind, she was just going to have to catch up!

“Hang on, AJ,” Rainbow growled through gritted teeth. “I’m coming!”

She set her sights on Canterlot, tensed… and felt a polite tapping on her shoulder. That snapped her out of it.

Rainbow whirled around, snarling. “Not now! I’m in a hu-hu… hur… ry…” Her voice died in her throat as she laid eyes on the one hovering behind her.

The owner of that pink hoof was a mare with a mane as blue as the sky, who was currently smiling at Rainbow with a bright smile that only filled her with welling dread. “Caught you,” the mare said in a singsong voice.

Rainbow gagged, gulped, and squeaked in the tiniest voice imaginable, “H… Hi, Mom…”

~~***~~

Applejack had been subjected to travel via several different kinds of teleportation in her life, more-so than most. But out of all of them, she had to say Discord’s brand was her absolute least favorite.

It felt like being pulled apart, stretched out until she couldn’t have been more than a single line of molecules, and then violently snapped back together faster than she could form a coherent thought to describe the sensation.

It all happened so fast that it was only in retrospect that Applejack even made sense of any of it. By that time, she’d rematerialized in a discombobulated heap on the floor, eyes spinning.

“Last stop!” Bugled Discord, all the while wearing a train conductor uniform. “Pompous ponies, political intrigue, and bunt cake!”

Applejack staggered to her hooves, shaking her head. “Whu… why do Ah taste cranberries?”

“Happens all the time,” Discord said dismissively. “It’s better than hearing it. Take my word for it.”

Applejack didn’t even know how to begin responding to that. So, instead, she focused on righting herself and getting her bearings. She had no idea how far she'd been transported, but considering Discord was involved, she didn't feel much like taking any chances.

As her senses recovered, she started to make out the great stone hall she stood in. Arranged behind her were a series of towering arch windows that let in great shafts of sunlight, filling the room with warmth. But… there was something odd about the sun, she realized. As she narrowed her eyes against the glare, she couldn’t help but notice the odd pink tinge to the sky, one that was pulsing oddly…

"Where are we?" she said, approaching the window. Outside, she could see the shape of glittering golden roofs, a pair of towers...

With a jolt, she realized why everything looked so familiar. The clean marble walls, the elegant golden fixtures… to Applejack’s astonishment, she realized she recognized the architecture, no matter how impossible it seemed.

“We… we made it all the way to Canterlot?” Applejack gasped, astonished. "How in tarnation...?!"

Discorded buffed his lion claws on his chest, grinning smugly to himself. “Impressed? I know I am. These days, it’s like I don’t even know my own strength.”

Applejack jumped when Discord leaned in, cheek to cheek. “I suppose I have you to thank for that, don’t I?”

Applejack glowered and stepped away. “Ah have no idea what gettin' at, but if ya try any funny business…”

“Me? Try something?” Discord chuckled. “My dear, whatever would I do? You and that delightful Court you oppose make it so difficult to find a way to contribute! No, no, I’m more than content to watch you all play your little games.” To better make his point, he snapped his fingers, conjuring a jumbo bucket of popcorn drizzled in butter, a large cup stamped with his own face topped with a crazy straw, and even a set of 3D glasses. “All of this delightful chaos, all of these conflicts and hatreds and fears… You and the Court certainly know how to stir things up around here."

Applejack glared at his back, bristling. “Well, enjoy it while ya can, cuz Ah'm gonna put a stop ta all this nonsense one way or another.”

Discord paused, then turned to give her a rather disturbing sneer. “Oh I know. I'm counting on it.”

And with a pop and flash of light, he was gone. Applejack continued to glare at the spot, and tried very hard not to let his last words get to her.

Author's Note:

Uh, Rainbow, your tsundere's showing... And your mama's girl, Agave. And... whatever the heck it is that's got Roseluck's panties in a knot. Yeesh.
I know it's a lot longer than I meant it to be, but gosh dang it, I'm going to get to the next major plot point next chapter even if it kills me! I apologize if the quality took a bit of a dip, but I'm tired of working this chapter. It's time to pick up the pace a bit.
Anyway, character progression! Yar.
Some of you have been wondering where Discord has been during all of this. Well, he's been around, popcorn in hand, watching with great glee as events unfold.
And now we start to see things taking shape. Kind of. Next stop, Canterlot; a totally safe bastion where absolutely, positively nothing can ever go wrong ever. Trust me. Would I lie to you? don't answer that

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