• 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 5: The Storm

The first meteors of burning wreckage were just manifesting in the sky when the panic set in.

Quick-thinking ponies started screaming just as the earsplitting boom of the explosion began to fade. Others instinctively ducked or threw themselves one way or another, but in the limited spacing in the stands, escape avenues were limited. And there were a lot of oncoming projectiles.

But they were not to be the bearers of the brunt of the fallout. The airship’s momentum ensured that the worse of the flaming, cascading balls of destruction rained down on one section of the square in particular.

And Applejack was dead center on what was sure to become ground zero.

But there was nothing she could do. Her natural instincts screamed at her to dive to the side; to try, somehow, to outmaneuver the deadly firestorm that was about to reduce everything around her to ash.

The sight of a head’s silhouette, however, held her in place.

Rainbow stood motionless before her, eyes glued on the rapidly approaching swell of fire, her features turned almost completely black against the glare of the emerald fire. Her wings were just coming open, as if in slow motion, but they showed no signs of actually taking her weight.

Applejack only witnessed that sight for one eternally long fraction of a second, but immediately she knew escape was not an option she would ever make for herself. She was not, however, going to sit around and do nothing.

The mangled, eviscerated remains of the hellishly burning airship bow – the largest chunk to survive the blast – seemed to hurtle straight towards them in slow motion, and yet so terrifyingly fast at the exact same time.


As it bore down on her in a maelstrom of shrapnel and hungry flames, Applejack instinctively sprang forward, intent on making the most of those last few seconds to fulfill a single desire; to save Rainbow Dash’s life, no matter how remote the odds of that happening were.

It was only a foot or so to Rainbow, but it was the longest foot Applejack had ever traveled before in her life. All the while the wreckage was getting closer, as if intent on beating her to her goal.

Applejack hit the pegasus full on the back, knocking her to the ground and pinning her there under a shield made by the apple farmer’s body. Applejack closed her eyes, braced, and waited…

… And waited…

Oh, she could hear the rushing sound of the fire as it swallowed her whole. But… no pain followed. Only a blisteringly hot gust of air hit her, and that was it. It was certainly searing like an oven, but definitely far from the lethal conflagration Applejack had been bracing for.

But what struck Applejack the most was the odd lack of crashes or explosive booms from the hailstorm of debris that should’ve demolished her and everything around her by now. Instead, there was only a very ominous, nerve-wracking stillness behind the terrific roar of the firestorm.

And as quickly as it started, it was over. The emerald flicker of firelight stopped shining through Applejack’s tightly shut eyes, leaving everything very unsettlingly dark.

As the raging fire became nothing more than a persistent ringing in Applejack’s ears, she finally came to a rather perplexing conclusion; somehow, against all the odds, she was still alive, and completely – miraculously – unharmed.

It was impossible; Applejack knew that. No amount of luck should have spared her. The simple fact of the matter was that she should be burned to a crisp or as flat as a pancake at that very moment, making each successful thump of her heart feel like a surreal daydream. Yet, thump it did; pounding with adrenaline, but it was there somehow.

The smell of acrid, burning smoke clung to her nostrils and the roof of her mouth, bringing forth several coughs from herself and the pony being pinned beneath her. That proved that she at least hadn’t just imagined the impending doom, but that only compounded the issue of how she was still alive in the first place.

But perhaps the most disturbing thing of all was the total silence that clawed at her ears. Nothing stirred at all. Nothing cried out, or fell over, or anything of the sort. The entire square had fallen completely dead quiet.

So it was with an overwhelming sense of confusion that Applejack finally cracked open one eye to peer at her surroundings warily.

The first thing she saw was the multitude of emerald sparks dancing through the smoggy air all around her. The entire square was filled with them, actually; they swirled like little green embers amid the cloud of smoke that’d descended upon the gathering, turning everything to a dreary twilight.

The second thing Applejack noticed were the many, many vacant seats lining the square. In fact, there was not a soul in sight at first glance; not one pony in the disconcertingly unharmed stands, or changeling on their usual perches in the trees.

And nowhere – not in the sky, not on the ground, or anywhere in between – was there a single scrap of wreckage. Not even the flight balloon hung overhead anymore. It was as if the airship had completely disintegrated from the force of the explosion.

Yet, flickering embers floated in the air, like the remains of some burnt up wad of paper. Something had been burned to ash, but for the life of her, Applejack couldn’t decipher what. And whenever one of the sparks of light drifted in front of her face, she could’ve sworn she could see something glinting within its tiny heart like some miniscule glass surface.

The more Applejack looked around, the more she started to feel like she’d been transported to some gloomier, lonely mirror image of the place she’d just been. It didn’t even feel real to look at.

While Applejack struggled to wrap her head around this new oddity, she noticed something flutter down from on high to come to rest just in front of her; a single, rectangular piece of charred paper, though it’s original shape had been all-but destroyed by the hungry flames.

It was the size of a post card, and one side even seemed to show some comical “Wish you were here” message over what might’ve been a tropical beach, if the flames hadn’t eaten through most of the image.

But it wasn’t the picture that caught Applejack’s attention, nor was it the thing that made her blood run as cold as ice. No, that was caused when the card tumbled over just before landing, revealing the curtly written message on the other side, just visible through the char.

To: Queen Applejack

From: The Royal Court

The message landed hardly a foot away from Applejack, sharp words face-up for her to stare at with welling dread as the true reality of what’d just happened struck her like a mallet, leaving her feeling almost concussed.

But it wasn’t alone.

To her horror, more postcards were falling from the sky; hundreds of them, each bearing the exact same message, even if the cards themselves bore different, rather disturbing messages on their reverse side. Get well cards, congratulations cards, even some rather alarming ‘thinking of you’ cards all rained down from the sky like some kind of sick confetti.

Applejack could only watch helplessly as the countless messages fell all across the square, and very likely beyond, thanks to the wind. Even if there was no one around to read them yet, there would soon be no doubt in anyone’s mind who this attack was aimed at.

Applejack could almost feel phantom sets of eyes turning on her, judging, unforgiving. She did her best to push such irrational thoughts away – now was not the time to be lingering over such things – but it was a very hard thing to do.

And it likely would’ve continued to be a difficult endeavor, right up until a voice snapped her out of it.

“Uh… you can get off me now. You’re getting heavy.”

Applejack blinked, then turned her gaze downward, towards the very indignant look Rainbow was shooting her.

“Oh, er… right,” Applejack mumbled, then stiffly clambered upright. “Sorry ‘bout that.”

Rainbow just grunted dismissively as she got up, though she didn’t quite meet Applejack’s eye. Instead, she looked out over the motionless square and the shower of cards sprinkling the ground, her expression unusually grave. She swept her eyes from one corner to the other, her frown growing even deeper the longer she went without seeing a single pony or changeling.

“Where did everypony go? What the hay happened?” she mumbled to herself, her wings rustling stressfully.

Applejack was just about to speak up again when another voice cut her off.

“Applejack!”

The apple farmer got her head halfway around before the visible world turned completely pink. The next thing she knew, she was knocked bodily to the ground by a poofy-maned missile.

Pinkie Pie stood over her, sapphire eyes huge with worry – and then alarm. “Are you alright, Applejack? There was all that fire and a really, really big BOOM” – she lurched into the air, hooves spreading wide to better illustrate how big the explosion was before landing exactly where she’d been before, practically eye to eye with the startled changeling – “And-and – Oh my gosh, You’re more toasty than Sweetie Belle’s toast! Wait… wait, you’re normally that color. Whew, that’s a relief! Or… or maybe not! Or maybe – or – or – argh, how am I supposed to tell when you look like charcoal to begin with?! Wait, I got it!”

The next thing Applejack knew, there was a pair of eyes looming improbably close to hers, fixing her with an intense stare that could’ve burned a hole through lead.

“Applejack, are. You. Alive?”

“Pinkie, what in tarnation are ya goin’ on about?” Applejack asked, going from astonishment to giving Pinkie her usual perplexed look. “Ah’m just fine, Ah promise. Don’t got a scratch on me. Ah don’t got the faintest idea how, but Ah sure ain’t complainin’. Where did y’all come from?”

Pinkie, looking very unconvinced, completely skipped over Applejack’s question altogether like she hadn’t spoken at all. “We have to be sure! Quick, how many hooves am I holding up?!”

“…One,” Applejack replied, nonplussed.

Pinkie paused, seemingly reevaluating her choice in test, then replaced her hoof back on the ground. “Huh. That seemed a lot more effective in my head. Like jam-stuffed jello.”

Applejack grumbled, rolling her eyes. At least now she was certain that she was at least dealing with the real, random article. “Now, would ya mind lettin’ me up? Ah promise there ain’t nothin’ wrong with me.”

Pinkie Pie blinked, slowly, then her stare lost most of its intensity and she leaned back. “Okie-dokie-lokie,” she said, though she still didn’t sound entirely convinced.

Applejack smiled at her friend, then carefully got to her hooves. “By the way, where’re the others?” she asked while trying to keep her nerves in check. She hadn’t failed to notice how solitary her pink friend was, even if she appeared unharmed. “They’re not hurt, right?”

Instead of answering verbally, Pinkie simply raised a hoof to point out over the square at a rather auspicious sight.

“Is everypony alright?” called Rarity, who was in the process of being airlifted towards the balcony by a panicky Fluttershy, who seemed torn between wanting to fall flat on the ground and the urge to make sure her friends were alright. Obviously the latter was winning out, though the former could’ve happened at any given minute.

Strangely, they didn’t seem to be coming from the stands, like Applejack would’ve expected. Instead, they appeared to be coming from over a nearby tree and down from above.

Applejack immediately locked on to that little detail and narrowed her eyes slightly. But just as she was opening her mouth to shoot a question at the quickly approaching pair, the fashionista unintentionally cut her off.

“We’re terribly sorry, but somepony grabbed us right after that terrible explosion,” Rarity explained apologetically, just as Fluttershy set her down on the balcony.

“Me, too,” Fluttershy concurred softly, touching down without a sound. “I don’t know what happened. One minute I was listening to Princess Celestia giving her speech, then there was a really loud noise, then… poof.”

“Poof?” Rainbow echoed, cocking an eyebrow.

“Yeah!” Pinkie piped up excitedly, drawing three sets of eyes towards her. “It happened to me, too! There was that huge POW – or was it a bang? I can never tell sometimes…”

“Pinkie…”

“Oh, right! Then everything got really dark and squeezy like a really small sleeping bag, then poof!”

Applejack and Rainbow exchanged loaded looks that were equal parts knowing and, at the same time, uncomprehending.

“Do you think Rose…?” Rainbow muttered.

“It musta been,” Applejack replied, frowning.

“What?” asked Rarity, cocking an eyebrow.

Just as Applejack opened her mouth to respond, a slight commotion behind her distracted her.

“Applejack, are you alright?” said Cadance’s voice, drawing the changeling’s attention.

But it wasn’t just the pink alicorn that was rushing over towards Applejack. Both of her honor guards cantered along right behind her, including a very alert Shining Armor who seemed liable to develop whiplash if he continued to snap his head around as fast as he was while his eyes scanned every conceivable hiding place for potential assailants.

Twilight came running up right on Cadance’s heels, looking frazzled and a little disoriented by the suddenness of recent events. Applejack couldn’t help but notice the number of postcards that were chasing after her on violet envelopes of magic, and just the sight of them caused Applejack’s gut to twist even more.

Captain Steel Shod galloped right beside the lavender princess, and he seemed to be doing his level best to put Twilight in his rather vast shadow, all-but hiding her from view. But Applejack also noticed the numerous looks he threw her way, as well as the way he seemed to be trying to bar Twilight’s way in order to draw her up short.

Twilight simply sidestepped around him without a second thought every time, however, as her attention was wholly devoted to reaching her friends, until she and Cadance came to a stop in front of Applejack.

“What about you folks?” Applejack responded while looking everypony up and down for signs of even a single hair being out of place. “Is everypony alright?”

“Everypony’s present and accounted for,” Shining Armor responded, though he sounded very bewildered by the authenticity of his own words. “I barely managed to get a shield up around me and Cadance in time, but… Something felt off about that fire. It didn’t feel right when it hit my spell.”

“Same for me,” Twilight chimed in, sounding the epitome of confused.

“And me,” echoed a new voice, one that came from the second of Applejack’s honor guards, who’s demeanor hardly seemed dented by the blast.

Applejack couldn’t help but look at him, confused. When did he put a shield up around them? And why did his voice ring a bell?

She was distracted, however, when she noticed Shining Armor giving her a relieved look. “I thought you guys weren’t going to make it. I could’ve sworn you guys took a direct hit. I’m glad everything turned out alright, though.”

Applejack shook her head. “Ah woulda bet that way, too. Ah thought we were goners for sure. What in tarnation happened? Where’d that darn airship go?”

“I dunno,” Pinkie chimed in, and she sounded remarkably confused, too. She even shrugged when several of her friends looked at her. “My tail didn’t go twitchy-twitch, not even a little bit. Are we sure we didn’t just imagine it?”

“Uh, yeah,” Twilight retorted, shooting the party pony a look, “I’m pretty sure.”

“Oh,” was Pinkie’s simple response. Then she lapsed into silence, a deep and thoughtful frown on her face.

Cadance, frowning, turned her head up towards the hazy sky – towards the exact point that the explosion had happened, now marked only by a small ring of vaporous smoke. “Imagined it…?” she muttered quietly, her voice so low it seemed like she was talking to herself.

Rainbow couldn’t restrain a very incredulous look as she rolled her eyes. “Shouldn’t we be focusing on more important things? Like finding out who the hay did this so we can return the favor?”

“Rash action may not be the most prudent choice right now, Rainbow Dash,” said another voice, drawing everyone’s attention away and towards the edge of the balcony.

Princess Celestia stood exactly where she’d been before, unmoved. The only sign that she hadn’t completely missed the catastrophe in its entirety was the unusually peeved look she wore, as if slightly irked by some minor inconvenience and hardly anything more.

Princess Luna – coffee finished and mug set aside – hopped from her throne to move up next to Celestia, along with her bat pony guards, one of which was clinging painfully to her fuzzy ears and wincing.

“Are you alright, sister?” Luna asked. She barely sounded concerned, though the critical eye she flashed over Celestia’s snow-white profile was quite discrete.

“I’m fine, Luna,” Celestia promised, yet she didn’t turn to meet her sister’s eye. Instead, she focused on something in front of her; something out in the middle of the square.

Just as Applejack started to follow her gaze, Celestia spoke up again. This time, however, her voice was louder, and much more sharp and commanding.

“Captain Steel Shod,” she said swiftly and clearly.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the Guard Captain responded gruffly, snapping to attention.

“Gather up the town Guard and aid in evacuating everyone from the district as quickly as possible. Make sure they get to the safety of the Guard post before activating the perimeter.” Celestia then turned to give Steel Shod a look, as if she could see straight through the captain. “I do not want anyone left behind, Captain.”

To his credit, Steel Shod’s expression didn’t even waver. His pause was hardly even detectable, and almost immediately covered up by a sharp salute.

“As you wish, Your Majesty,” he said, just as composed as ever, before turning away and leaping clean off the balcony. He landed with a heavy thud on the ground below, and then charged down a side road and out of sight.

Applejack watched him go, but only for a heartbeat. Steel Shod was barely two houses away when Celestia’s voice distracted her.

“As for the rest of you, I would like you all to follow Shining Armor to safety as well,” she said.

When Applejack turned around to look at the monarch, she saw Celestia glancing over one shoulder straight towards her in particular with a much more deep-set worry in her eyes. “Especially you, Applejack. The others will likely be worried sick.”

Applejack gulped, her heart thudding heavily in her chest. Nevertheless, she nodded. She had a pretty good idea of how wound up the drones were likely to be.

But that did raise another question that drifted through her mind for a moment. Where were the other changelings, too? And why were she and the rest of the royals still there, at ground zero, alone?

She was only just starting to puzzle over those questions when she noticed a certain lavender alicorn freezing in place just as Shining Armor made to push her and the others to safety.

“Hold on a second, Princess Celestia!” Twilight said apprehensively, taking an automatic step forward around her brother’s outstretched hoof. “Aren’t you coming with us?”

“Not yet,” Celestia responded calmly, her eyes still forward.

“But… why not?” Twilight asked nervously.

“Because, my faithful student,” Celestia responded, her voice just as serious as ever, “this is not over yet.”

Applejack’s body tensed almost painfully, her heart thudding in her chest. That was the moment she became very aware of how focused the regal alicorn’s gaze was.

But what happened next took her and everyone else by complete surprise.

Suddenly, a bright shaft of light cut through the gloom like a knife, just as a voice filled the still morning air. It rang off of the nearby houses like it had an entire bank of speakers amplifying it, which shattered the silence quite spectacularly. Worst yet, it was a very terribly familiar voice.

“Ladies and gentlecolts! Colts and fillies of all ages! Welcome to this morning’s final presentation!” boomed out the voice of the royal caller himself.

His voice still rang with that same cheery excitement as before, completely unchanged, and yet now – to Applejack at least – that very enthusiastic voice was raising the hairs on the back of her neck.

It didn’t take her long to spot where the stallion had gone. Instead of standing at the head of the balcony, he’d somehow managed to make it halfway across the square entirely, placing him several feet in front of the massive tent in the center – a place nopony would ever miss him – and at the heart of a glowing beam of magical light akin to a spotlight without a source.

He had a hoof in the air, a big cheery smile on his face, and for all the world, seemed to be carrying on with his routine just as planned.

Everyone on the balcony exchanged looks ranging from confusion to deeply apprehensive. Shining Armor pushed his way to the front of the group, assuming a defensive posture just in case.

Yet none of them seemed to exist to the caller. Not a soul caught his eye, save for one amber-maned queen.

His eyes unnerved Applejack. They never wavered from her, and despite the air of flamboyant enthusiasm lighting up his face, his eyes were as cold and lifeless as stones underneath the spotlight’s glow.

“Now that I have all of your attentions, I must ask for a mere moment of your time,” he went on just as before – full of energy, full of enthusiasm. “I am sure you, along with the rest of Ponyville can spare some.”

It was at that moment that Applejack realized that the caller’s tremendously amplified voice was not just for show. He was broadcasting his voice all across town, so that every street, alley and thoroughfare could hear him. It seemed that his audience would not just be the royals, and for some reason, that put Applejack on edge a lot more than seemed necessary.

“And who might you be?” Princess Celestia asked, her voice sharp, yet even.

“Me?” chuckled the stallion, acting as if the princess had made an amusing jest. “I am nopony; that is all there is to it. I am merely a humble messenger with something to say.”

The caller stepped forward, slicking back his inky black mane upon his golden head as he did so. Every pair of eyes followed him, with a few tensing with every little move he made.

“I come to you, Equestria, to tell you a story; a story about one you may be very familiar with indeed!” he said energetically. “I am here to tell you the tale of a young, aspiring queen who sought to change the fate of her people, and the many, far more powerful rulers she enraged in her foolishness.”

Applejack gritted her fangs. As if she had to speculate who that might’ve been.

“For nearly half a year, this young queen has been living in a delusion; that she could achieve her goals, and the repercussions for her actions would never come! But, with her stunted grasp on the world she pretends to tread in, she has reached far beyond her capabilities. For one does not steal away the resources of a mighty kingdom without hefty consequence, as you will all soon discover for yourselves.”

At her side, Applejack felt Rainbow bristle, as if it were taking every ounce of self-control to keep from doing something violent. Applejack knew she was starting to have the same difficulties, herself.

“But in the end, the young queen’s quest will be for naughtt!” the caller said, gesturing grandly with his fore hooves. “The wrath she invoked for her naïve actions would prove to be her ultimate undoing… and the undoing of all those around her.”

Several of the others all around Applejack gasped. Applejack herself tensed for a moment, her muscles locking up as she stifled her own voice.

“But never fear, Equestria!” he proclaimed as if he were announcing some kind of bonus round for a game show. ““Today is but the beginning of the final chapter in this story I present to you. There is time yet to alter the course of this most dire of futures! Though, I doubt there is much of it left.”

Princess Celestia’s eyes narrowed ominously, her lips forming a thin line.

“That is why I am here! I have been tasked with the delivery of an ultimatum from the Royal Court!” the caller went on. “It is quite a simple ultimatum, so never fear! But I would not pass this chance up if I were you! There may not be another one.”

Applejack was almost painfully aware of the anxiously murmured conversations that were undoubtedly taking place all across Ponyville between ponies and the looks they exchanged. And Applejack knew, at the heart of every word uttered, she would be at the center of it.

“The terms are simple,” the caller shouted merrily. “For the sake of keeping your beautiful country so pristine, for the sake of sparing your peaceful nation from the ache of someone else’s war, all we ask in return is that Queen Applejack be removed from Equestria… and turned over to us.”

The response was immediate.

Applejack heard the cry go out somewhere overhead, amid the tree branches. In a flurry of movement, Applejack found herself completely surrounded by changelings appearing seemingly out of nowhere.

half a dozen drones all crowded around Applejack, shielding her behind a living phalanx of hissing, buzzing shadows that were all turned to answer the threat with fang and spell.

Some practically huddled around her, blocking all avenues of attack. Some even clung to her, as if fearing she’d up and vanish into thin air at any given second if someone didn’t hold her down. Others took the front, snarling and crouched low with fangs bared and ears flipped back.

But it wasn’t just the changelings that leapt to her defense.

Right before her eyes, five mares jumped up in front of her, barring the path of any would-be attack. Even Fluttershy wasn’t looking quite as timid as usual as she determinedly held her wings open to cover her friend as best she could.

“In case you were wondering,” Rainbow bellowed angrily between her hooves at the caller, “This means ‘no’!”

The caller didn’t respond. He only watched the scene unfold in mild amusement, unaffected by the numerous glares he was catching now.

“You will never have Applejack!” one of the drones cried out, and it took Applejack several seconds to realize the voice belonged to Roseluck. She’d never once heard the usually calm and collected mare shout like that before. “We may not be fighters, but we’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe!”

“So it would seem,” remarked the caller. He heaved a loud, sad sigh, and yet still maintained that unsettling smile of his. “Oh well, I suppose it was a bit much to ask for right away. But never fear! You have a second option to choose from!”

The caller raised one hoof, as if expecting to be given something right then and there. “If you will not surrender Queen Applejack, you will give me her crown,” he said simply. “That’s it. Simple, no?”

For a second time, the square fell silent. Even the furious drones paused in their hissing and spitting to look at one another in confusion.

Applejack became all-too aware of the small, usually light thing resting atop her head – unobtrusive and forgetful on the average day. At that moment, however, it seemed to weigh ten pounds.

Her crown, the last gift imparted to her by her mother, Queen Carnation and, in a way, by her aunt, Hyacinth. It was the only thing she had of either of them, and despite the other kind of weight it laden her with, she had never once thought of being parted from it. It’d just never crossed her mind.

Before Applejack realized what she was doing, she’d retrieved her crown from her head and looked down at it. It was such a small thing, made of what looked to be polished black stone and topped by four gleaming, flawless topazes. It certainly wasn’t as grand as the royal sisters’ or Twilight’s.

“Surely it would not be much to ask for,” the caller went on, still smiling friendlily. “Applejack, you say again and again how you are no queen. You willingly admit that you do not have the knowledge, nor the ability to govern your people. But surely, even you can see how simple the choice is. Either lay down your life, or lay down the lives of all those you hold dear… or give up your crown. Which will it be?”

Applejack continued to look down at her crown for a moment. The choice seemed like the easiest in the world. Yet…

She looked up, and in her peripheral vision, she noticed everyone looking at her. Not just her friends and the royals, but also the many glowing eyes of the changelings around her.

She glanced at them for a moment, then returned her gaze back at the caller, who was waiting patiently.

“What’s so important about my crown?” She asked. “Ah thought ya said it was what Ah stood for that was gettin’ me in trouble, and last Ah checked, what Ah wore had nothin’ ta do with who Ah was.”

The caller’s expression didn’t falter. His expression did become rather patient, however. “It is about giving up that which you do not deserve, nor want. One gesture of humility for so many lives. Is that too much to ask?”

Applejack frowned. Something wasn’t right. Something else was going on here.

Her shoulders squared, she touched the two changelings in front of her, and after giving them a determined, meaningful look, they parted slightly for her to step forward.

But the drones did not stay far behind. They moved with her out of pure anxiety, so even though she moved all the way up to the ledge of the balcony to stand side by side with her friends, she did so with nearly a dozen blue-eyed shadows practically clinging protectively to her.

The caller stayed motionless where he stood as he watched the amber-maned changeling move forward, his eyes never wavering from her.

Applejack stood tall, unfazed by the emptiness in those eyes, and shot him a hard look of her own. “And what if Ah refuse?”

The caller paused for a moment, as if not quite believing what he was hearing. Then, he chuckled once. “Believe me, Your Highness, it is in your best interest not to find out what the combined fury of the entire Royal Court feels like. One queen nearly toppled your entire country in one swift blow. What do you think all thirteen will do to it?””

Applejack’s eyes widened in shock, her chest pounding.

Thirteen? There were thirteen queens in the Royal Court? She’d never paused to give much thought to how many queens were left in the world, but after Queen Phantasma’s crusade, she’d assumed there weren’t many at all. But for there to be thirteen…

And the caller was right. Just one had very nearly brought down the whole of Equestria and rocked it to its foundations. What could twelve more accomplish?

“So, those are you two options!” the caller said with a flourish, pulling away from their conversation to address the whole of Ponyville. It was like he hadn’t just delivered a death threat at all. “The life of a powerless queen and the misguided virtues she stands for, or the symbol of her ill-appointed office. The choice is yours, ladies and gentlecolts; not just hers!”

“Is that so?” shouted Rainbow, anger rising in her voice, her wings flared with welling indignation. “You know what I vote for? I vote for option three; we beat you to a pulp, then throw what’s left back the way you came!”

“I second that motion,” shot Roseluck, stepping forward.

All eyes turned to her as she broke away from the amassed group, placing her slight frame in front of everyone else as if to protect them all.

“Rose?” Applejack muttered, both confused and a little worried. Roseluck was moving like a mare on a mission, and it was making Applejack more and more anxious as a result.

The caller watched the drone, his expression almost encouraging, but he said nothing.

“I don’t know who you think you are,” Roseluck said, her voice quivering with barely repressed anger. “But to come here, alone, to threaten an entire hive and then expect results? You certainly are an arrogant one, aren’t you?”

The stallion cocked an eyebrow, smirking. “My apologies. Was I supposed to be frightened by the might of the Royal Guard? Or perhaps I was supposed to fear a bunch of farmers, builders and nurses?”

At that, Roseluck snorted, and one corner of her mouth pulled up. “No. What you should be afraid of is your belief that that’s all we are.”

For the first time, the caller’s eyes widened a fraction of a millimeter, just as emerald flashes began to light up the square.

All along the balcony, flashes of light caught Applejack’s attention. She turned, and to her utter astonishment, saw several of the honor guards bursting into green flames.

One of Luna’s guards, One of Celestia’s, even the unicorn mare who’d remained faithfully by Twilight’s side – all burst into flames, coats and armor burning away to reveal something else entirely.

For a moment, Applejack couldn’t quite make sense of what they were. At first glance, they all appeared to be formless shadows in the vague shape of pony-like creatures. Then, a wind blew through the square with a cold morning’s bite, and Applejack noticed their forms… flapping.

That was when she realized it. They were all wearing dusty brown, rugged cloaks. Just like…

“Hyacinth,” she breathed in astonishment.

“Well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag now,” sighed the changeling that’d once been Twilight’s guard. She bounded up towards the ledge of the balcony in two big leaps and stuck the landing like a cat, balancing on the thin strip of molding that ran the length of the edge. Her cloak swirled around her like a comet tail as she moved, which revealed the thick black hem line with red, cryptic markings.

“About time, I say,” grumbled the changeling that’d been Luna’s bodyguard. He simply brushed the hood from his head without care while meandering his way to the front of the group. His icy blue, featureless eyes drifted around lazily, as if he didn’t really have his heart in it. “I was getting tired of this grub’s self-righteous speech. I was going to fall asleep if he went on much more!”

“Cloak, Dagger, be quiet,” snapped a third changeling in a low, raspy voice. This one stood next to Princess Celestia, standing at attention, his sturdy body tense and his poise immaculate. “You’re standing in Her Highness’s presence. Show a little respect.”

Applejack noticed how both cloaked changelings paused, then glanced in her direction carefully. There was something in the eyes, though; some glint in their depths that unsettled her. There was something about them that was much more cunning and alert than the rest of their body language was giving off.

After momentarily catching her eye, both cloaked drones exchanged bored looks. “If you insist, Antlion. You’re the boss,” said the male drone dully.

The female drone pulled a face, perhaps rolling her eyes. “Oh please. I’ll take this guy seriously once he gives me something to get serious about. Right now all I’ve got to fear from him is getting talked to death.”

The one called Antlion shot her a look that could’ve frozen boiling water, and despite her insubordinate attitude before, she immediately reigned herself in and fell quiet.

The caller watched quietly, his expression unusually blank. “I’m afraid you have me at something of a disadvantage.”

Antlion merely looked down at him, thoroughly unimpressed. “Yes, that was the idea.”

“Your mistake was thinking we couldn’t see you coming,” Roseluck explained in a hard voice, regaining the caller’s attention. “I am kind of disappointed you’d fall for such an obvious feint. Didn’t you find it odd that we’d apparently leave Applejack and the other royals undefended for any length of time? And we’d been bracing for much worse, too.”

The caller looked around, and for the first time, his expression was unreadable; his smile was gone, his features blank.

“So you say the Royal Court sends their regards?” the other male changeling said casually. “Well, the Spymaster sends his.”

When he heard that, the caller’s eyes grew very wide indeed. Even Applejack looked on in surprise, blinking.

“Spymaster?” Rainbow repeated, perplexed, her eyes going to Applejack. “What the hay is that?”

“First Ah’m hearin’ about it, too,” Applejack admitted, frowning. Her eyes searched the back of Roseluck’s head, seeking some kind of explanation to all the questions she had. Rose… what aren’t ya tellin’ me?

But telepathy was not one of Roseluck’s skills. Granted, she could probably guess that Applejack was looking at the back of her head quite intensely, but she pretended otherwise.

“If you surrender peacefully,” she stated, “we’ll be sure to get you back to your masters so that you can tell them that we are capable of defending ourselves against any further… annoyances.”

“And if I don’t?” inquired the outnumbered caller. He even made it almost sound like an innocently curious question.

“We’ll send back what’s left, and hope the Court can extrapolate,” the female cloaked drone promised with a wicked smile.

The stallion stayed quiet for a few seconds, as if to weigh his options while scrutinizing Roseluck and the gathered squad of cloaked changelings. Then, he slowly opened his mouth to speak again.

“I see. So, you have just been the middle-mare all along. Clever – very clever. You are proving far more capable than the Court thought to expect!” he said with exceeding cheerfulness.

Roseluck scrutinized the stallion, frowning. “I’m getting the feeling that you’re not going to give up peacefully.”

The caller actually laughed at that. It was clearly intended to be a good-humored laugh, but it cracked halfway through, devolving into something almost… maniacal.

“Ah ha ha… Apologies, my dear, you’re just so adorable when you think you’re in control of this situation!”

A bad feeling took hold of Applejack then, her skin crawling. She lurched forward in reaction, but instantly found two pairs of holey forelegs crossed in front of her chest. Before she could do anything, the stallion moved.

“Perhaps,” he said – almost purred – “you and everypony here need a more… compelling demonstration of Their Highnesses’ abilities.”

As he spoke, he started to raise one hoof, bottom up, as if to offer it to Roseluck.

And with a small flash of emerald light, something odd appeared in his hoof, as if being push up through a hole in its center.

The object was hardly bigger than a baseball, and just as perfectly round. It seemed to be made from some kind of polished yet craggy black ore covered in fissures and cracks. Whatever it was, it seemed to have been petrified, yet strangely, its surface seemed to be shifting and squirming, as if there was something within that was very much alive.

Whatever the object was, it held no meaning to Applejack. For all she knew, it could’ve been some kind of piece of coal. The same could not be said, however, for the changelings in the square.

Out of nowhere, several of the drones started shrieking in terror. “Sylphid!”

The entire congregation jolted back a step or two as if the caller had just pulled out a bomb. The drones huddling around Applejack compacted together tighter, whimpering and trembling at the same time. Even the ones lining the square jolted back a step in reaction, tensing.

Even Roseluck jumped back, her eyes going as big as they possibly could get.

The caller merely grinned smugly. His outstretched hoof was held almost unnaturally still, holding the thing for all to see. “Yes, I think this will do nicely.”

The only one who didn’t recoil in fear was Twilight’s former bodyguard. Her eyes seemed to gleam even brighter at the sight of the alien object. “Oooo, now that’s more like it.”

“Easy, Dagger. Down girl,” Luna’s former bodyguard said, which earned him a scathing look.

“What’s a Sylphid?” Twilight asked, her own apprehension starting to rise.

“A very good question, Your Highness!” acknowledged the caller, his voice now almost patronizing. “I very much doubt your kind has ever seen such a creature as this. Why, when I first arrived here in Equestria, I could barely believe just how tame this land was! Even the biggest, most dangerous of beasts paled in comparison to the most mild of predators from where I come from! Such an unprotected town as this one, sitting right beside what is reputed to be the most dangerous, inhospitable place in all of Equestria – the Everfree Forest – has had next to nothing to fear!”

The caller laughed once, shaking his head in disbelief. “You have never had to know what it’s like, living behind a boundary wall, ears trained for the faintest of noises, ready to drop what you’re doing and run at even the slightest of alarms. You have never needed to know what it’s like to be surrounded by predators that cannot be reasoned with or appeased; whose only concern in life is the taking of others’. You have never needed to know true fear of the world that surrounds you.”

The caller extended the small object out just a little further. “This stands as a perfect example of the world outside of your peaceful borders. It is a monster through and through. Why, an egg like this can lie dormant for centuries beneath the ground. But disturb it even a little bit…”

He chuckled darkly, eyes on the ancient thing in his hoof. “Well… it would not be a pretty sight. They have very… particular tastes, you see. And I’m afraid a place like this would be an absolute buffet.”

Applejack couldn’t help but squirm uncomfortably. She couldn’t envision such the nightmare the caller was describing, especially from such a small object. But at the same time, she dearly did not want to find out for real.

Yet it seemed inevitable at that point. Unless this messenger got what he wanted, at least – but even then, what were the chances of him simply backing off?

Applejack was all-too aware of all the ponies and changelings still occupying the square. At best, she’d have time for maybe one move – one order, possibly. Then, all Tartaurus was going to break loose. And if what the faux caller was saying was true at all, not all of them would see the next few hours.

The caller chuckled, as if knowing the only potential outcome that could safely be reached. “So then, I shall ask you one more time, Applejack. Will you give up your crown or your life for the sake of these ponies? Or do I need to demonstrate the true power of fear to such a happy little community?”

Applejack hesitated. She stalled. Her mind worked this way and that, trying to think of some way out of the situation they were in.

But the caller was much too far away to stage any kind of intervention. And if she simply complied, what were the chances of him simply leaving without incident? Not good. But if she did nothing, the outcome was certainly unavoidable. So, it was a matter of slim chance, versus inevitability.

Applejack looked down at her crown, still clasped in her hooves. She could just see tiny reflections of herself in those four topazes looking back at her, as if waiting for her decision.

Her life, her crown, or her friends. With choices like that, the choice seemed painfully obvious.

But just as Applejack started to extend her hoof, her heart heavy, a voice reached her ears, shrilly crying out from somewhere in front of her.

“Don’t do it, Applejack!”

She jolted and, along with everyone else, she turned her head towards the source of that voice.

And there stood a little, blue-maned pegasus filly, peeking out over the atop the tall tent at the center of the square.

“Agave?” Applejack breathed, astonished, her heart thudding in her chest.

The young changeling stared back at her, her eyes filled with panic and fear. “Don’t listen to him, Applejack!” Agave screamed. “He’s trying to trick you! Whatever you do, don’t give him your crown!”

By that point, however, she’d gained the attention of more than just the ones on the balcony.

The caller had turned his head, cold eyes turning frigid as he looked up, all pretenses disappearing. “Ah, there you are.”

What happened next occurred so fast that Applejack almost missed it entirely.

The caller suddenly whipped around with truly alarming speed, going a lot faster than anyone would’ve given him credit for. He raised his horn, and fired a bolt of caustic light intended straight for the loudmouth filly above him.

Agave cringed back with a terrified squeal. At the same time, all three cloaked changelings sprang forward like arrows being loosed from their bows, seizing on the opening the little changeling had made for them.

But they never quite made it in time. And neither did the caller’s spell. Something happened right before Applejack’s eyes, something she didn’t have time to even begin to explain.

With a loud pang, the caller’s spell exploded mid-flight, disseminating in a shower of emerald swirls of light and electricity that raced through the air, around the tent.

Whatever the spell encountered, it did not take kindly to being struck. With an even louder boom, the scattering energies rebounded in a shockwave that blasted the air clear of smoke in a perfect dome around the tent.

Applejack could only watch as the caller was picked up off the ground from the force of the backlash, and thrown backwards with a yelp.

And everyone could only watch in horror as his hoof tilted as he fell, and the egg slipped from his grasp.

The group of ponies and changelings were just barely inhaling a gasp when the encrusted egg lightly plopped to the ground on a bed of soft grass… and promptly exploded.

And out of the ruptured shell erupted something horrendous, and very much alive.

It expanded with alarming speed, as if it were attached to a hose. Its flabby, ashy grey body ballooned and swelled, almost appearing to bubble as it grew and grew and grew. Within seconds, it’d grown to the size of a train car. Then, to the size of a house.

It just kept bloating and swelling, its long body rolling and roiling as it flipped over itself and thrashed on the ground in its effort of rise. What appeared to be some kind of swollen tail swung through the air as it unfurled, nearly doubling in size halfway through its arc before slamming with a heavy, flabby thud that reverberated through the ground.

Finally, hundreds of tiny, wicked claws the color of charred bone found the earth, and the Sylphid raised itself into the air.

It was a terrible sight. The upper body of the creature was clad in a thick boney, spiny carapace that rattled and clacked with every move it made. Its entire underside was wriggling and roiling with hundreds upon hundreds of tiny, scrabbling claws that were sprouting out of legs so bloated they appeared to be little more than gargantuan warts topped by curved claws. Whatever wasn’t armored was comprised of flabby, grotesque pudge that made the whole thing look completely ungainly.

The head resting atop its obese, worm-like body resembled a massive centipede’s, complete with a set of sideways-mounted, scything mandibles that produced a very unsettling, very loud chattering sound as they clicked together. It was sunken slightly into its carapace, making it look absurdly like it was snuggled deep down within a series of mammoth vertebrae.

Either side of its head was adorned with countless glassy black eyes that gleamed almost wickedly while two long feathery antennae batted at the air.

The Sylphid swayed itself from side to side, sweeping its head to and fro in great arcs, its long antennae bobbing and swaying as it produced a strange trilling sound.

“Well, that’s… troubling,” remarked the male cloaked changeling, presumably Cloak. He and his compatriots had screeched to a halt only a few feet through their jumps, and all three were now quickly backpedalling as fast as their wings could take them.

“Captain Shining Armor,” Princess Celestia spoke up, her voice only slightly sharper than usual, “I believe I gave you an order.”

“It’s just a big bug,” Rainbow pointed out incredulously, “how bad can it be?”

That was precisely the moment Applejack noticed the wind.

It wasn’t bad at first; just an errant breeze that, strangely, refused to die down. But it kept getting stronger by the second. Pretty soon, Applejack began to notice the sounds of the branches rattling overhead, and the bell peppers chiming wildly, and the way her braid was swaying back and forth.

At the same time, she noticed a very disturbing smell beginning to permeate the air; the smell of decaying plant life.

And before her very eyes, Applejack watched as the grass beneath the Sylphid’s bloated body started to wilt, then die. And the more the decay spread, the stronger the wind became, as if the rot was fueling the building storm.

“Remind me to smack the blue one later,” complained Dagger sourly.

“What’s happening?” Twilight said, raising her voice as the wind reached a howl. “Why is everything withering?”

“It’s the Sylphid!” Roseluck said back loudly. “We have to get out of here, now! If it gets ahold of any of us, it’ll suck the life right out of us!”

“Hey, what’s a little fun without a little challenge,” laughed the cloaked female changeling.

“And I’m guessing you have a plan to defeat something we can’t touch, Dagger?” the other cloaked drone asked almost casually.

Dagger hesitated at that.

“Yeah, I thought not,” sighed Cloak.

Dust was starting to kick up from the howling winds whipping through the square, and as everyone watched, the gale outlined the swirling vortex forming around the gargantuan worm itself. It was like an earthbound twister, and it was getting bigger and bigger by the second.

Applejack could feel the air tugging at her, trying to drag her off her hooves and into the heart of the maelstrom forming in the middle of the square. She watched as postcards, banners, decorations, even leaves and twigs were sucked into the vortex, never to be seen again.

“We have to get this thing out of Ponyville,” Twilight shouted. “It’ll destroy everything at this rate!”

Applejack knew Twilight was right. More often than not she was, and every time the apple farmer had thought otherwise, it’d come back to bite her in the flank.

So, she quickly replaced her crown back atop her head, squared her shoulders, and then turned towards Roseluck.

“Got any ideas on how ta get rid of this critter?” Applejack asked critically. If anypony would know how to deal with a creature from the south, it would be a changeling, at least in her mind.

But the helpless look she got in response was all the answer she needed. “I… I don’t know! I’ve never heard of anyone challenging a Sylphid before and surviving! They’re part of the reason why no one made it past the Badlands before your mother!”

“Not to mention,” Cloak put in, “Queen Phantasma’s favorite way of destroying an entire hive was by throwing one of these things in and locking the door behind it.”

“Well that’s promising,” Rainbow said dryly.

“Then we’re just going to have to wing it,” Twilight stated with a lot more determination than she was feeling. “It has to have some kind of a weakness. We just have to find out what it is!”

As she spoke, the Sylphid reared up, producing a loud trilling sound. And maybe it was Applejack’s imagination, but it looked to be somehow bigger than before.

“…Somehow,” Twilight amended nervously.

Applejack was just starting to wonder how exactly they were going to go about doing that when she noticed one of the cloaked changelings moving in front of her.

“Your Highness,” he shouted, and Applejack realized it was Antlion, “we must evacuate you out of this area immediately! It’s not safe for you here!”

Applejack jolted back a step automatically in reaction to their abrupt appearance.

“He’s right,” Roseluck insisted. “The Inner Sect will handle it! Right now we need to fall back and regroup, and…” she trailed off when she noticed the look Applejack was giving her. “… Explain ourselves, too.”

“Ya got that right,” Applejack said, frowning a little.

“How is that an option?” Rainbow shouted back at Rose, not believing what she was hearing. “That thing is going to tear Ponyville apart!”

“And we won’t lose all of our leaders in the process,” Antlion countered, unmoved.

“We have to do something!” Rarity hollered. “You can’t expect us to simply sit by while that dreadful beast devours our homes!”

“Unless you’ve got some skill in quelling beasts,” interjected Dagger, “I seriously doubt you’ll be much help. And why is the yellow one staring at me like that?”

“We don’t have time to argue about this!” said Shining Armor this time, and in the next second, his horn was glowing brightly. His intention was to end the arguing the best way he knew how; by solving the problem at hoof.

That, however, turned out to be the absolute worst thing to do.

“Don’t!” cried Roseluck and Dagger at the same time, but it was too late. The moment Shining started channeling his spell, the Sylphid’s head whipped around, antennae standing rigidly at attention, its sights locking on the balcony. It hesitated only a split second before demonstrating just how mobile it truly was when it lunged hungrily straight at them all with lightning speed.

“Scatter!” Applejack bellowed, just an instant before everyone did just that.

She threw herself one way, just as the Sylphid slammed it’s thickly plated upper into the structure she and everyone else were standing on like a wrecking ball. The wooden beams snapped and buckled as if made of dried twigs, ejecting ponies and changelings every which way into the awaiting, howling gale.

~~***~~

Rainbow hit the ground hard on her chest with a yelp, bounced, then landed again spread eagle on the ground.

She may have done a flip in the process, but she had no way to be sure. The only thing she was positively aware of was the screaming winds yanking at her with increasing ferocity.

The swirling gale had reached such a pitch that it was stealing her breath away; like she was facing headlong into a windstorm. Bits of rocks, dirt and detritus were whipping through the air all around her, borne by the savage vortex. And somehow, it was getting still stronger.

Rainbow tried to make herself as low to the ground as possible and dug her hooves in as best she could for support. But the moment she was anchored, she started whipping her head around this way and that in order to find her friends.

She knew they were out there; they had to be! But the more she looked, the more she came up with the same thing; dust, debris and howling winds. Rainbow couldn’t hear anything over the gale anymore. Not even her voice pierced the storm in the slightest.

“Fluttershy! Twilight? Pinkie Pie! Is anypony out there!”

Nothing. Not a single trace of another living soul anywhere near her. But she knew they were out there. And so was the Sylphid.

All of her friends were in danger. At any moment…

A flash of orange crashed through her mind like a cannonball. Orange… and a lot of red…

Rainbow gritted her teeth, hard. She couldn’t stay here, cowering on the ground like some bed-wetting foal. Rose had chosen her to be Applejack’s bodyguard, and for a reason! And bodyguards did not sit around twiddling their hooves while the pony they were in charge of was put in harm’s way! Everyone was in danger, and she could either sit there and do nothing about that, or she could be Rainbow Dash!

“Hang on, Applejack,” she growled under her breath as she struggled to rise in total defiance of the lashing storm. “I’m coming. Just hang on…”

But as she managed to force herself into a crouch, something moved out of the corner of her eye. There was a shadow off to her left that stood in complete defiance of the storm. Stranger still, it was moving – straight towards her.

Rainbow turned on the approaching form, keeping herself crouched low. “Who’s there?”

Whatever it was, the wind broke around it like it was nothing more than a brittle breeze. The figure moved so effortlessly, even with the fury of the Sylphid’s windstorm slamming into it broadside. Only its ragged, hole-ridden tail moved in the wind.

Rainbow’s eyes grew wide as the figure grew closer. Even through the dust swirling about her head, she could make out those particular glowing blue eyes illuminating the darkness.

“Uh, do I know you?” She asked. It could be hard to tell sometimes, even under the best of conditions.

She trailed off, however, when she noticed the crackling green light fulminating on the end of the figure’s slightly curved black horn.

“Not exactly,” said Vanity.

~~***~~

Applejack groaned, rubbing her head where she’d bumped it against the ground. She hadn’t had the most graceful of landings, sliding face-first through the dirt for a foot or two before coming to an unceremonious stop.

But at the moment, the amount of dirt she had caked inside her mouth wasn’t her top concern.

Applejack squinted her eyes against the lashing gale, keeping herself as low as possible, lest she, too, be swept away.

She’d lived through some windstorms before, but this… this was something else entirely. The wind was almost a physical force, like each gust was attached to a solid limb that tried in equal measure to bash her to pieces and rip her to shreds. And if it was given half a chance, Applejack had no doubt that that’s exactly what would’ve happened.

As she looked around, a humongous wood beam skewered the ground right in front of her, burying itself deep enough into the earth to resist the pounding wind for a few spare moments.

But the thing that caught Applejack’s eye was just how old it looked. The wood was warped and bleached bone-white beneath a familiar white coat of paint – just like the ones covering the royal balcony. It’d become so brittle that the wind itself was tearing it apart, shredding the dead wood like paper, bit by bit, until it was torn in half.

And all the while, the grass beneath her was getting browner and browner. She actually watched a blade that was right under her nose wilt right before her eyes.

But… something was off. She couldn’t put her hoof on it, but something felt wrong. There was a sensation at the base of her horn; a tingling, electric buzz like static electricity. It was very subtle, but given how alien any sensations were around her pointed black horn, she picked up on it right away.

And as she looked around, she could’ve sworn she caught sight of something glimmering in the hazy windstorm, something that glittered green…

“Is anypony out there?” Applejack cried out at the top of her lungs, looking around desperately. She knew that the Sylphid was still nearby somewhere, hidden by the dust-ridden winds. But she was more concerned for the safety of her friends.

But just as she was starting to panic for real, she saw a shape move off to her right. “Applejack!” it cried, but it was impossible to tell who it belonged to. She couldn’t even tell if it was a pony or changeling – the wind was making it hard to make out a single word at all. “Are you alright?”

“Been better, but Ah’ll live!” she replied. “Where is everypony else? Can you see them?”

“A few,” the figure replied. “I have Twilight, Rarity and a few changelings here with me! I don’t know where anypony else is, though. Can you see Shining? I can’t find him anywhere!”

The more the pony spoke, the more Applejack recognized her voice. Somewhere off to her right was Princess Cadance, even though all Applejack could see of her was a vaguely pink shape on ground level, despite it just being a few feet away.

She was holding tightly to a length of a support column that’d gotten buried in the ground deep enough to anchor it in place. It wasn’t much in the way of cover, but at least it was something solid to hang on to.

Every now and then Applejack could just make out a purple shape almost underneath her, like Cadance had dove on top of somepony else to cover them. But as far as Applejack could see, they were the only other two souls around.

“Afraid Ah can’t see anypony out here,” Applejack said with a lump in her throat. She couldn’t see much of anything for that matter; it was only because of their close proximity that she could make out Cadance at all. “But Ah’m sure he’s doin’ just fine. Probably has his hooves full with everypony else!”

It was wishful thinking, but at the moment, she desperately wanted to be optimistic.

“I… I suppose so,” Cadance responded, though her voice wavered a little. “I’ll just have to believe you’re right. Do you think you can make it to the sound of my voice?”

Applejack paused for a moment. Clinging to the ground was taking as much strength as she could muster. Moving? That would take even more, and Cadance was upwind of her; she’d be fighting tooth and nail against the the gale for every inch, and there were quite a few of them between the two.

But she had to try. Staying where she was – in the open, exposed to anything falling from the sky – was not an option.

“Ah’ll try,” Applejack shouted. It was the best she could offer.

She shimmied herself around so that she was pointed in the right direction at least, put one hoof forward…

Applejack felt the wind shifting all around her, as if the very eye of the storm had just passed directly over her. The wind changed direction so abruptly that Applejack was nearly thrown forward when it struck her from behind instead.

She chanced a glance up, but all she had time to register was the immense shadow looming over her before it thundered to the ground with an earthshattering crash only a few inches in front of Applejack’s snout, right between her and Cadance.

Applejack immediately recognized the stench wafting off of it; sour, rotting vegetation, like a compost heap in the middle of summer.

It occurred to her that perhaps she should’ve been a bit more mindful why the grass underneath her was so desiccated as she slowly turned her head, heart pounding a tattoo into her chest.

But now she was all-too aware of it as she craned her neck, following the length of the horrendous thing barring her path.

And there was the Sylphid. Its massive form, shrouded by a tornado of dust and a swarm of rapidly decaying debris, loomed over her; a nearly formless shadow darker than the hazy gloom around her, where the storm was at its most vicious. It undulated and gyrated on the spot almost gracefully, as if dancing. But there was nothing enchanting about what it was doing in reality.

As she watched, the Sylphid’s mandibles pried open wide, dropping another decayed piece of flooring, which was quickly torn to sawdust by the wind before the beast attempted to snap up something else to feast on. Applejack could see the worm’s eyes literally glowing with an otherworldly, crackling light, speckling the darkness with a small, iridescent constellation attached to a looming mass of darkness.

And maybe it was her imagination, but Applejack could’ve sworn she heard a buzzing in the air around her, one that had nothing to do with wings. The tingling at the base of her horn reached pins and needles, and though Applejack still had no idea what it meant, it was beginning to worry her more and more.

“Applejack!” cried out Cadance fearfully, “Are you alright? Oh, please tell me you’re still there!”

“Ah’m fine, Cadance,” Applejack shouted back. “But Ah can’t get ta ya, not with this tail in the way!”

“Don’t let it touch you, Applejack!” shrieked a voice that was even fainter than Cadance’s. Applejack had to strain just to hear whoever was speaking. “Just stay where you are! We’ll think of something to get you out of there!”

But while Applejack remained as motionless as she could bare, eyes fixed on the squirming, undulating flesh in front of her, she noticed the Sylphid pause out of the corner of her eye.

Applejack gulped, just as she heard that dreadful trilling again. She looked up, right as the Sylphid swooped its head in her direction, gleaming eyes turning on her; sightless, emotionless.

The good news was that its tail was dragged out of the way in the process by hundreds of stunted little legs. The bad news was that now Applejack had the other, much toothier end to deal with.

It moved its head so close to her that she could make out the foot long hooks at the end of each mandible. She could see the saliva forming long ribbons through the air as it was carried by the pounding winds. And beyond those mandibles, she could see a set of hinged jaws lined with wicked, pointed fangs and the lightless, yawning, squirming depths beyond.

Its glistening head was bigger than she was. One mandible was bigger than she was. With the alien, otherworldly light radiating from its dozens of eyes like floodlights, it was like staring down a train – granted, a train that very much wanted to devour her where she lay.

It seemed to regard her for a moment, head twitching this way and that while its long antennae tested the air around Applejack hungrily.

“Ah don’t mean ta rush ya fellas,” Applejack said anxiously, shuddering as an antennae tip brushed past her carapace, “but could ya hurry it up?”

A short ways away, Cadance was struggling to stand against the pounding wind. “Twilight, I need you to do something for me,” she grunted. It was taking all her strength to keep herself upright and not get bowled over.

The purple alicorn clung tightly to one of Cadance’s hind legs; the only grip she was afforded. She was trying to use one of her wings to shield her face from the wind, but her wings weren’t quite up to the task, and slowly but surely she was shifting centimeter by centimeter across the ground.

Rarity was not far off, huddled behind a mass of broken timber, affording her and a few cowering changelings a miniscule safe haven from the pounding winds that broke around it like a levy.

“What do you need me to do?” Twilight asked – shouted more like.

A surprise gust slammed into Cadance, nearly toppling her. She staggered, but held, her legs wobbling fitfully.

She muttered something under her breath – something Twilight just missed – and steadied herself once again. Cadance was in hardly more than a crouch, but any higher would prove too much for her.

“When… When I give the signal, I want you to cast the biggest, strongest shielding spell you can,” Cadance explained.

Twilight bit her lip apprehensively. “Against something that big? I… I don’t know if I can hold back something as big as that.”

“Don’t worry, Twilight,” Cadance reassured. “You’re not going to be stopping the Sylphid. That’s my job.”

Twilight’s eyes went wide, first with alarm, then fright.

“I don’t think anypony can hold something like that back for long, but I can at least buy us a few seconds,” Cadance explained, “and that’ll be enough time for us to escape.”

“Are you sure?” Twilight asked nervously. “Maybe we should switch places.”

To her surprise, Cadance turned to look at her with a gentle smile. Twilight had seen that smile so many times when she was growing up. It was patient and kind, like the sorts of smiles the other royals and nobles wore, yet hers was so natural and genuine.

“Twilight, I’ve shielded an entire kingdom from harm for a day or two. I think I can handle an overgrown worm for a few seconds,” she chuckled amusedly, even through the strain in her voice from resisting the winds.

Twilight was hardly convinced. She stubbornly didn’t want to be, but the ever-present voice of logic in her head pointed out that Cadance had a fair point.

So, the best Twilight could manage was to hold her tongue. It was the best kind of acknowledgement she could muster.

Cadance smiled a little more, then turned her attention to the ones huddled a short ways away. “On my signal,” she shouted, “teleport Applejack to us, then we’re all going to move!”

Two of the changelings exchanged nervous looks. “If we do that, princess, the Sylphid will be on us within moments,” one of them cautioned her.

“I know,” Cadance said steadily. “Get ready!”

The changelings nodded, their warning given, their expressions hardening. Their fear of the Sylphid was considerable, true, but their fear of losing Applejack dwarfed it by a wide margin. They tensed on the ground, teeth clenched tight.

Cadance took a deep breath, steadying herself.

At the same time, Applejack stared the monster down. The Sylphid continued to study her, its eyes like spotlights in the surging storm.

“Where’s a rope when Ah need one,” she grumbled to herself.

The Sylphid, uncomprehending, clicked its mandibles, then reared back, coiling to strike.

Applejack screwed her eyes shut and braced, just as the Sylphid lunged with a screech.

“Now!”

Applejack felt the ground beneath her disintegrate as a ring of emerald fire sliced open a hole directly beneath her. What she wasn’t expecting was the pair of hooves that shot up from below, wrapped securely around her barrel with a muttered “gotcha”, and yanked her down into the void beneath her.

The last thing Applejack saw of the Sylphid was its hungry maw descending on her, and if she’d been a betting mare, she wouldn’t have bet against the Sylphid.

The moment Applejack disappeared from sight, the portal slammed shut. In the next instant, several tons of exoskeleton, pudge and teeth plowed into the earth with a heavy thud that shook the square.

But the Sylphid kept moving. It didn’t stop, even for a moment, as it barreled around, multitudes of legs propelling it forward like an out of control freight train in a wide arc. Only, now its sights were set on Cadance and the measly group behind her.

The Sylphid was just about to lunge once more when two horns erupted with light; one violet, one sky blue.

Two walls of light coalesced in the gloom like a twin set of ripples, one on top of the other. The violet one bent around the whole group to take the fury of the storm head on. The sky blue one formed a curved barricade of hardened light between the ponies and changelings and the oncoming monster.

But it only took the two alicorns half a second to realize that something was terribly wrong.

Twilight realized it first, when the wind battering her body didn’t abate in the slightest, no matter how thick her wall of light became.

And Cadance realized it when the Sylphid’s head passed straight through her shield like it wasn’t even there at all.

The shield didn’t break or fracture. It didn’t even distort. It was as if Cadance was trying to stop a shadow.

Her eyes widened in surprise, her breath catching for just a moment. She had no time to do anything more than lean instinctively away from the rapidly approaching, gaping maw.

Then, with a terrible wrenching sensation, the ground beneath their hooves disappeared.

Both Twilight and Cadance yelped as they felt something grab them about the ankles and yank them down, just a split second before the Sylphid’s heavy body came roaring past, missing them by mere inches.

Cadance and Twilight had absolutely no idea what was happening, until they witnessed the walls of a changeling portal snapping shut over their heads.

Both mares were pinned together as they were shoved through compressing darkness, and just as both were starting to believe that they were somehow still alive, they were thrown clear once more, producing a squeal from both.

Twilight braced, expecting to feel the lash of the wind hit her again… but nothing of the sort happened. She and Cadance plopped to the ground in an ungraceful pile of pony, a distinct ringing in their ears from the lack of even a breeze whistling through the air. Everything was so still that, for a while, Twilight wasn’t even sure how to adjust. It was such a system shock that she was sent reeling.

Twilight cracked open her eyes, completely baffled. There was grass beneath her – she could feel it – but they were motionless before her eyes. And, strangely, they were awash with the light of day.

“What in the world?” she mumbled to herself, completely at a loss.

“Are you alright, Your Highness,” grunted a voice directly beneath her.

It occurred to Twilight then that she was lying on top of something rather lumpy.

Twilight yelped again, this time jolting up, only to find a cloaked changeling lying sprawled on the ground beneath her.

“Yeah, you seem fine,” noted Cloak, nodding to himself.

“Cloak!” cried out the voice of Dagger in a panic directly beside them, “This pony is soft and fuzzy and I have decidedly mixed feelings about that!”

Both Twilight and Cloak turned at the same time, just as Cadance jumped upright, flushing, off of a panic-stricken cloaked form.

“I-it’s not on me still, is it?” Dagger asked nervously. “Did I get any on me?”

Cloak sighed a long, weary sigh. “And this is why you can’t stand being around ponies.”

“Sh-shut up,” Dagger jabbed back, jumping to her hooves. She buzzed her wings indignantly, scowling.

Twilight and Cadance exchanged bewildered looks, before another voice reached their ears.

“Twi’! Are ya alright?”

Twilight turned her disheveled head around, eyes wide, to find a pair of double-ringed, amber eyes looking back down at her with concern.

“Applejack!” Twilight gasped. “You’re alright!”

Applejack smiled slightly. She was a mess, truly – her mane was full of dirt and twigs and wooden splinters, and her usually jet black coat had developed the oddest brown film from all the dust.

“Sure am. How about y’all?”

“We’ll be alright,” groaned Cadance. “Just… don’t ask me to do that again.”

“Agreed,” Twilight added fervently. “But… where are we?”

Together, all three mares looked up, and beheld a rather perplexing sight.

All around them – by several feet at least – the air was calm and still. Sunlight poured down from above, through a hole in what lay just beyond their safe haven; a furious, pounding storm that howled like a wounded animal.

But it wasn’t like the storm was being kept at bay by something. It was simply… ending, then picking up again on the other side.

“What… is this?” Twilight said, hopelessly lost. “Is this some kind of… barrier?”

“I don’t know,” Cadance mumbled, “But, maybe –”

“Cadance!”

All three whipped their heads around at the same time. Only then did they notice the rather sizable crowd all gathered behind them. And at the front of the group was Shining Armor – dirty, windswept and a little nicked up, but otherwise unharmed.

Cadance let out the most relieving sigh of her life as she jolted upright and ran towards her husband. Poor Shining never knew what hit him when she tackled him right off his hooves and very nearly into the unsuspecting changeling behind him.

“You’re alright! Oh thank Celestia!”

“Hey, I should be saying that,” Shining complained, though his heart wasn’t really in it.

When Cadance showed no signs of letting him go, he chuckled ruefully and patted her head. “I’m fine, Cadance, really. Just like everypony else.”

It was true. Right behind him was a crowd of familiar faces and black forms.

Pinkie was bouncing around even more than usual, looking like she’d just gotten off the world’s greatest thrill ride. Fluttershy was comforting a hyperventilating Rarity, who was trying fruitlessly to find some way to articulate the state of her windswept, debris-filled mane and coat.

Princess Celestia and Luna stood a few feet away, counting heads and taking stock of injuries. After a moment, Luna swirled her tongue around her mouth, then sullenly produced a single leaf on the end of her tongue, much to her big sister’s amusement.

Roseluck was nursing a knee that glimmered with emerald light, but for the most part she seemed unhurt. She certainly hobbled quick enough towards Applejack.

“Your High—I-I mean, Applejack – sorry – I mean, are you alright? You’re not hurt anywhere, are you?”

“Nope,” Applejack answered. It didn’t stop a swarm of changelings from making absolutely sure themselves, but she paid them no mind. “Rose, where in the hay are we?”

Roseluck started to say something, then paused halfway through. Instead, she only turned her head.

Applejack followed her gaze, straight towards the towering tent standing right behind her.

The fabric of the tent rustled lightly. The dense material moved in some unseen breeze, one that strangely appeared to be coming from within the confines of the tent itself.

The more Applejack looked at it, the more she realized that their entire safe haven from the raging storm was centered on that tent.

And there was something else in the air, something Applejack couldn’t place as being anything more than… familiar.

“What…?” Applejack started to say, eyes locked on the tent.

But a loud trilling interrupted her.

As one, everyone spun looked up, eyes turning towards the seething air currents just beyond their inexplicable sanctuary.

A constellation of glowing eyes looked back down at them from within the heart of the storm. In the darkness, it was all anyone could see of the Sylphid amid the tornado it’d wrapped itself in. It towered over them – even over the tent at their backs. One mouthful could’ve claimed three ponies in one bite. Was it possible that it was somehow still growing?

But the creature hesitated. It stared down at the gathered ponies and changelings with clear want, and it swayed its head this way and that, as if looking for some kind of an opening to strike through. But it made no move towards them.

Applejack stared back, waiting for it to attack, to throw itself against whatever was shielding them – to do something to finish the job it’d so stubbornly endeavored to finish.

But… it didn’t. The Sylphid stayed still and silent, watchful and little else.

“Uh… Anypony know what’s gotten into it?” Applejack asked apprehensively.

“I think I do.”

Applejack turned around a moment before Cadance rose to her hooves. The pink alicorn turned a solemn look on the vast shape of the Sylphid as she turned to face it properly, eyes locked on its glowing eyes.

“I think it’s time we put an end to this,” she muttered, and a split second later, she ignited her horn.

This time, the Sylphid reacted. Everyone gasped, tensing to jump out of the way as the Sylphid lunged with a screech at the boundary of their safe zone.

And with a sound like a cannon going off, a blinding flash of light cut through the square, slicing through the darkness that engulfed it.

Applejack felt a rush of air slam into her from behind as a wave of force washed over her and everyone around her.

It hit the storm, and to everyone’s utter astonishment, blew it aside like it wasn’t even there.

And when it hit the Sylphid, the creature’s immense shape vaporized in a shower of light and magic. It dissolved right before Applejack’s eyes like a shadow being dispelled by the beam of a flashlight. It didn’t even get the chance to finish its hungry shriek.

All at once, the windstorm tore itself apart as the wave of light washed over it. Not even dust hung in the air afterwards. Debris that hung in the air dissolved in a shower of emerald sparks and something… darker.

But it also revealed the true devastation that’d wracked the square.

As the storm was thrust aside, it unveiled the chunks of wood from the royal balcony that were scattered all over the place. Most were embedded deep in the ground in craters and gouged divots, giving the square a rather war-torn look.

The thing that’d been the balcony itself had been smashed as if struck by a hammer, yet the wood around the impact spot seemed oddly scorched.

The grass all across the square had turned either a very unhealthy shade of yellow or withered to brown shrivels. Even some of the branches overhead looked diseased and unhealthy, as if stricken by a rather sudden onset of autumn.

But everything that was alive…

Applejack could only watch in wonder as the trees and vines on all sides of the square shimmered and shined like gemstones, reverberating with the force they’d been bathed in.

Stiffly, Applejack turned her head around, heart thudding heavily in her throat.

Something shined and shimmered within the depths of the tent, like the light cast from a rippling pool of water. It filled the entire square, rays of light piercing every shadow, every wisp of darkness that still clung to the air.

The Sylphid’s pervasive stink no longer clung to the air. Not even the smell of dust or smoke reached Appejack’s lungs. There was nothing but clean, clean air, and the lingering remnants of something… more.

“…Mama…?”

Applejack heard herself say it, but didn’t register the fact that it’d been her voice for another moment or two.

And a second later, the light faded away until there was nothing left by sunlight.

Applejack automatically lurched forward, taking half a step towards the tent, her heart jackhammering in her chest.

Something was there… something she needed to see…

“Get away from that!”

Applejack jumped in surprise, eyes turning every which way in alarm. But the one who’d spoken wasn’t even addressing her.

All three cloaked changelings were standing closely together behind her, encircling something lying in the grass. For some reason, they were keeping their distance, as if expecting the thing to suddenly strike at them.

A short ways behind them, Twilight had jittered back a step, clearly the target of the reprimand.

And as Applejack watched, something was levitated up off the ground on a veil of emerald light.

At first glance, Applejack thought it was some kind of a rock shard. It was thin and irregularly shaped and made from some kind of glossy, jet black stone that twisted round and round like a screw. And for some reason, the tip seemed to be glowing with a dark, ominous light…

“That is not something I thought I’d ever see again,” murmured Cloak grimly.

“Nor something I ever wanted to see again,” Dagger growled, scowling worse than ever before. “Maker, just looking at it is giving me the chills…”

“Now is not the time to be grumbling,” snapped Antlion.

“Um…”

All three turned around sharply, causing Twilight to cringe back a step again. “Uh… if you wouldn’t mind explaining, but… what is that? And what happened to the Sylphid?”

All three exchanged dark looks for a moment. Then, Antlion turned back towards Twilight. “What Sylphid?”

“Huh?” was all Twilight to respond to that with, blinking in confusion.

“What Antlion is trying to say,” Cloak said grimly, “is that there never was a Sylphid to begin with. What we all saw and felt; it was all an illusion.”

Everyone’s eyes grew wide in shock as they processed that. “That… that was all… an illusion?” Twilight repeated weakly. “But… but an illusion of that magnitude and strength would’ve taken so much magic and-and…”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Cloak said evenly, “just enough to trick our minds into thinking we were seeing what we were seeing and feeling what we were feeling.”

Twilight shivered at that, a memory of a dark doorway deep within the Crystal Empire creeping into her mind.

“This device,” he went on, eying the thing floating between him and the other cloaked changelings with dislike, “is called a Liar’s Tongue, and it was built exactly for that purpose. Think of it like a record player; if you know how, you can craft a scenario, a creature, anything you want. And it’ll be so real no one can easily tell the difference.”

“So, that’s why our shields did nothing?” Shining asked, eying the tiny needle warily.

“There was nothing for them to actually resist, so yes,” Cloak responded. “The balcony being destroyed was likely the doing of that blighted caller, whoever he is.”

“Whoever he was, once I get my hooves on him,” seethed Dagger furiously.

“But then why did everything die?” Applejack asked.

“That’s simple, Your Highness,” Cloak said. “This thing drew in all the ambient magic it could to power itself. That’s why they used a baby Sylphid, since they feed the same way, and not something worse.”

“W-worse?” echoed a suddenly breathless Fluttershy.

“You’re better off not knowing,” said Dagger grimly. “Just be glad changelings don’t scar. None of you would want to see what some of us look like if we did.”

Cloak glanced towards her, but she soundly ignored his look.

“If that is all true,” spoke up Princess Celestia, and she instantly gained everyone’s undivided attention. “Who could have made such a terrible device?”

Once again, all three changelings looked at one another with dark, knowing looks. “No one we need worry ourselves over anymore,” Antlion stated.

But Applejack had a very good idea who could’ve been twisted enough to even dream of something so cruel.

“Why would they use something like this?” Cadance asked uneasily. “What could they gain from scaring us with sorcery?”

The answer to her question did not come, however, from any of those present. It instead came from a terribly familiar voice booming through the streets like a seasonal well-wisher, completely contrasting the message it delivered.

“And so, now you all see what the Royal Court is capable of,” shouted the voice of the Court’s messenger. “And this was but a taste of what awaits you all if Applejack is not handed over to us. If Queen Applejack is not removed from Equestria or stripped of her crown in the next few days, it will not be an illusion that tears this country apart, piece by piece. We will be waiting.”

With that, his voice faded, leaving his words echoing in the minds of all those who’d heard them.

Applejack could only stand in place for several moments. And in those long, long seconds, it felt like the weight of the world had come crashing down on top of her.

A fuse had been lit, and no one – not even Celestia – could know how bad the consequences would be.

But then, Applejack gritted her teeth. The world hadn’t ended just yet. There was still time, and she was not going to go down without getting in a swing or two of her own. Applejack turned then, her jaw set, her shoulders squared. This was not going to go unanswered.

Her eyes immediately found Roseluck, who was looking at her as if she was on the verge of panic. In fact, nearly all the changelings were looking at her the same way, but Applejack ignored it.

“Rose, we need ta find Agave,” she said firmly.

Of all the orders Roseluck had been bracing for, that obviously wasn’t on the list.

“Agave?” she repeated.

Applejack nodded. “That’s twice now she tried ta warn me ‘bout somethin’.”

“I agree with Applejack,” Twilight put in. “She knows something about what’s going on. Why else would she tell AJ not to give up her crown?”

“Exactly,” Applejack concurred with a nod.

She then took a deep breath. She had to work now – had to get things done. It was the only way to keep her mind off of what’d just happened and the weight crushing her heart.

“Alright. Rose, go gather up all the changelin’s ya can and fan out across Ponyville. Best be quick; that messenger will have one heck of a lead on ya.”

Roseluck nodded, her expression hardening. But then she paused, unable to maintain her determination. “Applejack… about what the messenger said…”

“Later,” Applejack said dismissively.

“Alright,” Rose said softly, paused for a moment longer, then added, “Just… don’t forget. We'll be with you every step of the way, no matter what happens.”

Applejack hesitated, drawn up short. Then, she managed a slight, brittle smile. “Ah know, Rose. Thanks.”

Roseluck managed a weak, supportive smile in return, then she turned on her heel and took to the air, along with a small group of other changelings that shot out in every direction across the sky.

Applejack only watched them go for a moment or two, then she went back to her task of assigning duties. Even Pinkie stayed silent and listened, though she bore the most anxious look of them all.

“Twi’, Ah need ya ta do that thing ya do and organize a search party. Do ya think ya can do that?”

“Of course,” Twilight said with a nod. “But… what about you, Applejack?”

“Don’t worry, Your Majesty,” spoke up Antlion abruptly, “We’ll stay with her. Nothing will happen to her while we’re here.”

“Though,” Cloak noted, “someone should let the boss know what happened.”

“If you want to tell him our operation failed, then be my guest,” Dagger shot.

“I’ll send a letter to him,” volunteered Princess Celestia, much to everyone’s surprise. “I’m sure I can make him understand.”

“Then I shall organize the Guard, sister,” Princess Luna stated, followed by a large, jaw-popping yawn. “After a journey to the local café, I think.”

“Thank you, Luna,” Celestia said with an appreciative smile.

“Then I’ll go to the Guard Post to make sure everypony is doing alright,” Cadance volunteered. "Somepony should be there if the peace needs to be kept."

“So will I,” Shining added, and it was clear in his expression that he would accept no alternatives that did not include being with his wife.

“Well, that… works that out,” Twilight said, waving a hoof weakly. She then turned to the rest of her friends and cleared her throat. “Okay, then we’d better get busy, too, girls. Pinkie, you know everypony in Ponyville; see if you can’t find anypony that hasn’t seen Agave."

Zoom! Off shot Pinkie like a loosed bottle rocket, disappearing down a side street so fast the dust had barely enough time to be kicked up.

Twilight barely even lost her stride, however. "Rari—er, Fluttershy, help Rarity get cleaned up, then the two of you search downtown."

Fluttershy nodded, then carefully coaxed a nearly catatonic Rarity into rising, then following her down another road.

"Applejack, you’d best stick to the changeling district for a while until we know how the rest of Ponyville will react.” Instructed Twilight.

Applejack nodded, though inside she was squirming uncomfortably. Again she was visited by that crushing pressure, but she shoved it away; now was not the time or place. There was work to be done.

She was just turning to leave, however, when she caught the last of Twilight’s instructions.

“And Rainbow, you…” Twilight started to say, only to pull up short.

Twilight blinked, looked around, and then said something that struck Applejack like a javelin.

“Where’s Rainbow?”

~~***~~

With a groan, Rainbow’s eyes fluttered open. Yet, for the longest time, she couldn’t make sense of her surroundings. All she understood was that it was dark, and kind of uncomfortable.

It took her nearly five whole seconds to realize that she wasn’t lying on the ground. She wasn’t even lying, for that matter. She was upright at a very awkward angle, and for some reason, something was biting into each of her forehooves…

“Wha… where am I?” she mumbled, her eyes unfocused. “What… happened?”

A flash ran through her head. A massive shape looming over her, the wind whipping through her mane…

And suddenly, her mind snapped into focus. It was like a switch being thrown; all of a sudden, the haze in her head evaporated, and her senses hit the ground running.

“Applejack!” she gasped, instinctively lunging forward. Applejack was in trouble; she remembered that now! But when she went to rush off, something held her in place. The biting sensation around her hooves worsened, but did not give in the slightest.

In agitation, she turned to glare at whatever was stupid enough to hold her back… only to realize what was holding her at bay was a pair of wrought iron, thick-set manacles embedded in the wall behind her. They were holding her up just barely off the ground; too far for her hooves to touch, though she could feel floorboards against the end of her tail.

Rainbow’s eyes went wide in shock as the realization hit her; Applejack wasn’t the only one in trouble. Quickly she darted her eyes around, looking for the slightest hint of danger.

But what she found was a very, very odd sight.

The first and most immediate thing Rainbow noticed about the room around her was how alarmingly extravagant it looked.

The rich, purple wallpaper could’ve just been set in place. The gold and lavender drapes lining the walls and windows looked to be worth more than all the worldly possession she herself possess. The glorious winged crystal chandelier hanging in the middle of the gently domed roof sparkled with even the faintest of lights.

Every piece of furniture, from the red velvet lined couch, chair and sectional ringing the mahogany coffee table in the center of the room, to the wall-sized bookcases brimming with pristine tomes and codices, even to the shiny black piano set in one corner of the room, flanked on one side by a towering grandfather clock and a massive, boulder-sized globe on the other, looked brand new and very, very pricey.

Tendrils of smoke wafted through the air, carrying with it a woody, musky smell that filled the room – as well as filling Rainbow – with a sense of anxiety she just couldn’t explain, originating from half a dozen sticks of incense burning on the coffee table.

Not a single window was open. The only source of light came from the low-burning candle at the heart of the chandelier, and a single candelabra resting on an end table across the room from Rainbow that gave off an unsettling, wicked green light.

And it was in the light of that candelabra that Rainbow saw the shape of someone else; someone who instinctively filled Rainbow’s heart with dread.

A large, slender figure sat at a table by a window sheathed behind deep purple and gold curtains. Only one of her long, midnight blue forelegs was even visible from where Rainbow was, lit up by a sinister green candle flame flickering in the candelabra on the end table next to the chair itself. The pony’s form was outlined by a strange, eerie glow emanating from the other side of the chair – from something Rainbow couldn’t quite see.

For the moment, it seemed like the figure was lost in thought, like she wasn’t even aware of Rainbow’s presence. Rainbow gulped, uneasy. Perhaps it was just the scented smoke clogging her nose, but being in the presence of this single individual was unnerving her quite a bit.

So, she did the only thing she could think of; she confronted the problem head on.

“Wh-who are you?” Rainbow shot, only to curse herself internally for letting her voice quaver like that. “You better let me go right now, or else!”

The moment she spoke, the light coming from the other side of the chair was snuffed out, followed by a strange magical pop.

“Or else… what, I wonder,” spoke the figure.

She spoke in a soft, level tone as smooth as velvet, yet it carried a weight behind it. It was an authoritative edge that demanded respect, making Rainbow feel like she was nothing more than a brat standing up to someone her elder.

“As… amusing as it would be to find out, I don’t have the time nor patience for entertaining little fillies such as yourself,” she went on coldly.

“Yeah?” Rainbow shot. She refused to let herself be intimidated, no matter how many warning bells were going off in her head. “Then why am I here, huh? Whatever you want, you’ll never get it from me!”

“Is that a fact?” asked the mare almost curiously. For a moment Rainbow thought she saw the flash of something silver in the gloom as a head turned.

“You bet it is!” Rainbow snarled with confidence.

The mare paused for a moment, thinking quietly. Then, she carefully rose from her chair.

Before Rainbow towered a tall, slender mare with sharp, piercing eyes. Her entire body was covered in blue fur so dark it was nearly black in the gloom, almost perfectly hiding her tall profile in the murk of the room. But the candlelight caught on the silver flow running down her neck and backside – a curtain of straight platinum hair so lustrous it seemed to be made from thin polished steel filaments.

She stood with such poise, such imposing grace that it felt almost terrifying. It wasn’t just the fact that she was so much taller than the average pony; the sheer, razor sharp curvature of her body and seamless, seemingly never-ending flow of the motions she moved with bore with it the presence of someone beyond parallel.

Her silver eyes flashed like polished platinum disks when she turned towards Rainbow with a look of complete superiority.

“We will see, little pony.”

Rainbow glared at her, trying to cover up how rapid her heart was pounding in her chest. “Y-you think you scare me?”

The mare stared back, her platinum eyes unwavering and relentless. Then, without warning, her entire body was wrapped in emerald fire.

Rainbow watched with widening eyes and tightening chest as the mare’s legs stretched and elongated still further as the fire ate holes through all four of them. Her entire body grew and stretched into a towering, lanky form that filled the pegasus with even more dread.

She watched as the mare's horn turned even longer and jagged, like a piece of volcanic glass. Her midnight blue coat turned to ash, leaving behind sleek, leathery chitin – save for a silver carapace clad across her narrow torso. Even though her mane and tail hardly changed in appearance, no one would’ve overlooked the moth-eaten holes that filled them both.

Gossamer, ragged wings exploded out of her back. Long, curved fangs extended past her lips. And finally, as the fires guttered out, she opened her double ringed, icy blue eyes to glare directly at Rainbow mercilessly.

“For your sake, pegasus, I hope I do,” the changeling queen said back, and her reverberating voice made it sound like there was absolutely no room for argument.

And the only thing Rainbow could offer in response was a low, “Oh… crabapples.”

The silvery queen fixed the still pegasus with a hard look, and then after a moment, she began to slowly stalk across the room towards the restrained mare.

“Perhaps introductions are in order,” the queen said coldly. “My name is Queen Aconita, though I highly doubt that means anything to the likes of you, or else you would be trembling much, much more.”

“I-I’m not trembling,” Rainbow protested. The sound of her own voice was enough to instill some semblance of indignant anger – mostly at herself for being such a scaredy-cat. “I bet you’re the one that attacked Ponyville, aren’t you?”

Queen Aconita paused for a moment, but only for a moment. “The only reason I’m here in this country is because of the one that brought this misfortune down upon your heads. I care little for any other… trivialities.”

Now it was Rainbow’s turn to glare. Her inner fire stoked, she threw Aconita’s look right back at her, bristling now.

“Were it not for her,” went on Aconita, “you ponies would be going about your little lives the same as always. Now, all of that will end because of one foolish little brat.”

That was the last straw for Rainbow. “Don’t you dare talk about Applejack like that you walking cheese-grater!”

But that was the wrong thing to do.

Rainbow felt a burning, searing force grab her by the muzzle and slam her jaws shut so hard it hurt, pinning them together painfully.

And the next thing she knew, she was eye to eye with a very unamused changeling queen, a hair’s breadth away from razor sharp fangs and crackling, burning horn.

“Hold your tongue, pegasus,” Aconita seethed, her breath hitting Rainbow in the face. “Had I no use for you, I’d be enjoying breaking every single bone in your brittle little body right… this… moment. Be thankful that that is not the case for the moment.”

And Rainbow held no doubt in her mind that Aconita wouldn’t do exactly what she was saying. There was a cold, detached edge to the changeling queen’s eyes that held absolutely no value or care for the one under her nose. It was a merciless, unfeeling look unlike anything she'd ever encountered before, and a small piece of her prayed she'd never find again.

“Your kind is always so quick to jump to conclusions,” she hissed. “It only shows how small a grasp you have in the situation you’re in.”

“What are you… talking… about?” Rainbow forced through her clenched teeth.

Aconita leaned in still closer, forcing Rainbow to cower back a centimeter. “I was not talking about your precious Applejack,” she whispered. "I couldn't care less about her. I am here for someone else."

Rainbow’s eyes widened in shock at that. Anything she could’ve said in response stalled completely. She was just too taken aback to adjust.

“And that leads us to why you are here, little pegasus,” hissed Aconita chillingly.

“Where is Agave? Where is my daughter?”

Author's Note:

It's finished... it' finally finished... Oh good lord what a relief it is to get this done. And it's a massive one, too, so hopefully that'll make up for the... three week overdue... delay.

This, right here, is the shining example of what happens when you get an idea, then realize that that idea won't work, so decide to substitute that idea with another one, only to find out that that one would take the story in a bad direction, so you come up with another idea that turns out to be too complicated to actually do, so forth and so on...
Two dozen rewrites later, I finally just say "f**k it! print it, ship it, let's get moving already!"

This is also what happens when I vote against cutting a chapter in half. Just thought I'd try that out for a change.

I don't really have anyone but myself to blame, either; there were a lot of parts in this chapter I had to keep in mind. And before you guys start frothing at the mouth about that tent, please understand that to divert into going into that would've hopelessly derailed the progression of this already lengthy chapter. I promise, it will be revealed next chapter, along with a lot of other things.

Oh and yes, Dagger does have a nasty anxiety about pony fur. Yes, I will make her suffer for it with a smile on my face.

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