• 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 9: A Heart of Stone

Captain Steel Shod was having a good day.

He sat behind his desk at the Guard post, eyes glancing over form after form – the drudgery of an officer’s workload. On average days it irked him; being penned up in one seat, in one room, for hours and hours while trusting somepony out there could do a job the way he wanted it done. Meanwhile he was stuck writing out some form or another explaining why one of his subordinates did this or making a request for that.

But today was different. True, the formula was the same; He sat behind his heavy oaken desk big enough to seat a family of four, reading by the light of torches lining the stone walls. His eyes flew over paperwork with experienced ease, and he felt that same old edginess that had hounded him since he took up the Captain position.

But today, he sat up attentively. He read through each form critically and thoroughly, taking it all in like it was his first day on the job again. His quill danced precisely across dotted lines, his stamp struck home purposefully again and again, denying some, approving others.

All of this because today… today was a good day.

With one last stamp that made even the sturdy table quiver, Steel Shod sprang to his hooves quicker than he had in months. Years, even.

“Private!” he bellowed out, his voice ringing off of the high stone walls and through the door at the far end.

Punctually, that very door swung open, admitting a stallion dressed in golden armor. “Sir?” he said, throwing a smart salute.

Young… inexperienced… sloppy

Steel Shod pushed it to the back of his mind – there would be time to shake down his troops later. He’d make sure of that.

With a hoof, he swept up a number of papers, each carefully labeled and rolled up. “Get these orders to the western perimeter,” he ordered. “Make sure Sergeant Lackadaisy and Willow get them. I don’t want anypony going in to that district and anyone getting out until the princess herself calls the all-clear. Understood?”

“Including Queen Applejack, sir?”

Especially ‘Her Highness’,” Steel Shod responded in a perfectly even, chilly manner. “The less she’s allowed to run free, the less she and her circumstances can harm innocent ponies. It is in everypony’s best interests if she stays right there in that district. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir!” barked the private.

Steel Shod nodded, settling down. “Good. Then, you have your orders. See to them, Private.”

“Yes sir, Captain Steel Shod!” the private then moved forward, took the orders from his superior, and galloped away with all due haste.

He has spirit… might have some potential after all…

Steel Shod turned around, but instead of returning to his seat, he trotted over to the nearby window – the only one in the expansive room.

Beyond, he had a peerless view over the tops of Ponyville’s thatched roofs, miles and miles of untamed treetops and hills under cloudy skies, far off into the dully grey horizon. The rain had finally let up, and even now he could see the seams in the clouds coming undone, threatening to spill rays of sunlight onto the earth below at any given moment.

If he had a window on each side of his office, he knew he’d have a commanding view of every square inch of Equestria itself – all under his watchful eye.

But he only had the one window, and that served him fine. Because that one window showed him the sole concern that dominated his attention.

Far off, on the opposite side of all of those steepled roofs and innocent ponies that dwelled in them, loomed a brooding shape. Towering trees that seemed to grow taller and become more widespread with each day, like a weed that was germinating out of control.

And Steel Shod did not like weeds. They were detrimental, poisonous. They choked out all over things, until only they remained. If, and only if, they were allowed to spread unchecked.

He frowned at it, puzzled over it in solitude, like it were some great citadel in need of breaching. The sight sickened him. How could such a thing be allowed to fester to such an incredible size? These ponies… they were all so soft – too soft for their own good. If they only knew what monsters those things could be…

His eyes narrowed, his insides boiling. Never again… I won’t stand for it… Even if it kills me, I will not tolerate it again…

A knock on his door pulled him back to reality. Instantly his composure was back in place. “Come in,” he said brusquely, turning away from that wretched sight.

In came another of the Guard – another new recruit by the looks of him. Poor lad could have only just been fitted for his armor. Steel Shod recognized the signs – the short stride, likely from the barrel strap on his armor riding up on the pits of his forelegs, the way his head bobbed this way and that, clearly unaccustomed to the weight of a helmet, and the heaviness of his stride, the way his armored boots thudded so forcefully against the wooden floor, as if weighed down by cinderblocks. It didn’t get much greener than him.

“The quartermaster is calling for you, Captain,” he reported. “He says your specialty order just arrived.”

Steel Shod straightened up. He did not grin, or anything of the sort. Instead, his eyes flashed – the closest thing to a smile he usually got. “Right on schedule – good. Tell him to prepare some suitable targets. I’d like to break it in a little.”

Yes, today was turning out to be a very good day indeed…

~~***~~

A loud bang rent the still country air, startling a flock of finches from a nearby tree and sending them scattering into the cloudy sky.

The culprit of that earsplitting noise formed right in the middle of a dirt road; a circle of green fire that grew to at least eight feet across, vaporizing a few muddy puddles in the process.

And with a pop, five figures were ejected from the burning hole.

Applejack bounded out, one hoof pressing her Stetson onto her blonde head as she stuck her landing with a grunt.

Rainbow was ejected a little more forcefully and with an accompanying yelp, but instead of risking a landing, her wings flashed open and caught her reflexively midair.

Right behind them came Roseluck and the cloaked shape of Antlion, who came in for a landing on thrumming wings as the portal started to snap close beneath them.

Lastly, with a startled squeak, Agave was fired out of the portal like a filly-shaped cannonball, tossing her nearly six feet up into the air. Her hooves milled through the air, before landing squarely on her chest – right on Applejack’s back.

“Oof,” Applejack huffed, a knee buckling before she could brace herself.

“S-sorry!” Agave squealed. Her pegasus wings sprang open and took her weight, much to Applejack’s silent relief. “I-I’m not used to tunneling like that.”

“You and me both,” Rainbow groused, shivering.

Roseluck shook herself, paper-thin wings rustling noisily. “That makes three of us. One of these days I’ll get the hang of it…” She then turned to the cloaked changeling beside her. “Thank you for the assistance, Antlion. Three others were a little too much for me.”

Antlion nodded in achnowledgement. “It was no problem.”

Meanwhile, Applejack glanced back over her shoulder at Agave and gave her a small, reassuring smile. “Well, as long as yer fine, everythin’s okay.”

Agave still looked nervous, but nevertheless, she set herself down on the ground and glanced around apprehensively.

All around them, grasslands and sporadic trees rolled in every direction. Towering, monolithic mountains loomed in the distance, astride which one could almost see the golden shine of Canterlot itself, if the sky wasn’t so cloudy.

The air was still rich with the smell of fresh rain, and many of the nearby bushes still dripped and glistened with beads of water.

In the distance, Agave could just see the irregular shapes and thatched roofs breaking up the never ending sprawl of vibrant greenery that dominated every other square inch of the countryside.

And just visible in the distance, standing atop a hill like some stoic monolith, jutted the Guard Post. It was so far away that it looked hardly bigger than a stick buried in the ground, but her eyes lingered apprehensively on it nonetheless.

And right behind the group, just a few yards away, jutted the corner of a painted white fence, behind which loomed row upon row of carefully tended trees laden with juicy red apples.

“And thanks fer gettin’ us this far, both of ya,” Applejack said, making Agave jump slightly and Antlion look around.

“Think nothing of it,” Antlion said humbly, bowing slightly – much to Applejack’s chagrin.

Roseluck shifted, looking a little sheepish. “I doubt you want to be walking around Ponyville right now anyway, not with Steel Shod’s lockdown in effect. He’s taking the Court’s threat very seriously, and he’s cracking down hard. It would be best to stay clear of them until things die down again.”

Rainbow huffed, crossing her hooves across her chest with a foul look on her face. “Yeah, and I hear he’s brought in a whole bunch of his goons from wherever the hay he was before this. I’ll give you ten guesses why.”

“They ain’t too keen on us changelin’s,” Applejack sighed.

“You got it,” grumbled Rainbow. “Ugh, if Twilight were here, she’d have those whole mess sorted out by now. Steel Shod was probably just waiting for a chance like this.”

Applejack let her eyes linger on the distant shadow of the Guard Post. She’d had nothing but bad memories of that place; she didn’t much feel like dwelling on it.

“We’ll just have ta make do,” Applejack said, turning away. “’S long as we stay out of Steel Shod’s way, he won’t have the grounds ta do anythin’ ta us.”

Rainbow turned to her, giving her a meaningful look. “And what if he does try to pull something? Be a patriot or something stupid like that?”

Applejack avoiding her stare, partly because she simply didn’t see that happening. “Steel Shod only cares about keepin’ the peace. So long as Princess Celestia has our back, he ain’t stupid enough ta try anything. Besides, he’s a soldier at heart.”

Rainbow’s expression bent into a look of confusion. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

Applejack shot her a look out of the corner of her eye. “Soldier’s don’t pick fights they know they’d lose.”

“Ponies are not fighters,” Antlion spoke up abruptly. “That is the only reason Queen Chrysalis’ coup made it as far as it did. Six untrained mares performed better than an entire city’s defensive force. I’d say that speaks volumes on Equestria’s capabilities.”

Rainbow glanced at the gruff changeling, eying him warily. “You talk as if you were there.”

Antlion’s head didn’t move, but she suddenly got the impression that he was scrutinizing her. “That reminds me; you need to work on your uppercut. Too much follow-through, leaves your ribs exposed. Keep that in mind when you’re up against opponents who aren’t ordered to take you alive.”

To that, Rainbow had no response.

“Anyway,” Applejack grunted, brushing off the implications more effectively than her feathery companion, “Ah figure it’d be best if we kept a low profile for now. No need ta go and get Steel Shod all riled up.”

Roseluck glanced back towards her. “Good idea. I’ll stay behind in the district and try to keep as many changelings off the streets as I can, just to be safe. Maybe I can work something out with Mayor Mare so that families can at least see each other. As long as we go over Steel Shod’s head, he won’t get in the way.”

Applejack nodded. “Ya read my mind.” After a moment, however, her expression turned down slightly. “And… Ah’m real sorry ta ask ya to look after the whole district while Ah’m gone.”

Roseluck merely gave her a smile. “It will be… interesting without you, but I can manage. Certainly better than on whatever adventure lies in store for you. I wish I could go with you, truly, but I’m just a store owner at heart.”

“It’s alright, Rose,” Applejack said placatingly. “We’ll be back before ya know it.”

“That’s good and all,” Rainbow drawled, looking to one side, “but why is this guy coming along, too?”

Applejack glanced at her, then followed her gaze to Antlion, who was merely standing by passively. Applejack got the feeling that Rainbow hadn’t stopped watching the cloaked changeling since the comment he’d made, considering how unwilling she seemed to be to leave him outside of her line of sight for even a moment.

Without turning to look at Rainbow, Antlion stated, “The Court has made its intentions perfectly clear. Leaving the two of you unguarded is out of the question, especially given Her Highness’s current condition.”

Applejack frowned, but let that one slip by. Something told her that she’d have little say in the matter to begin with, either with Antlion’s stubborn insistence on referring to her like royalty or having to put up with a guard detail. It wasn’t exactly a new thought for her, but it wasn’t one she relished.

“Well, if it’ll make y’all feel better, go ahead. Just try ta keep a low profile, if ya would. Best not ta stand out too much right now.”

Antlion bowed. “You won’t even know we’re here, Your Highness,” he said. His horn glowed for a moment… and he was gone. Simply, and completely, gone, without as much as a whisper of sound or shimmer of light.

Applejack and Rainbow stared at the empty patch of slightly muddy ground where he’d been standing, dumbfounded. They even jumped when a puff of dirt heralded the invisible drone’s departure as he jumped away, landed somewhere off to their right, and went completely quiet from there on.

“Did… did you know you guys could do that?” Rainbow asked in a private aside to Applejack.

“Nope,” Applejack mumbled back, still staring unblinkingly at the same spot. “And now Ah wish Ah never knew it in the first place. That’s just plain unsettlin’…”

Roseluck turned to give Applejack a sympathetic look. “You can’t blame us for being worried. Just… promise me you’ll take care of yourself? A lesser pony would still be in bed after… after what you went through.”

Now it was Applejack’s turn to give her a reassuring smile. “Ah’ll be fine, Rose, Ah promise. You just focus on keepin’ everyone safe fer me, and Ah’ll be back in a couple hours, tops. And try ta get some rest,” she added. “We all gotta be in top form fer whatever the Court’s gonna pull next.”

She knew it was futile, but it never hurt to ask at least. The only pony she knew of who was more of a worrywart than Roseluck was Twilight, and bitter experience told her that no amount of words could fix that.

Still, Roseluck grinned slightly, as if she knew what was on her queen’s mind all too well. “I’ll… do what I can,” she promised.

Applejack nodded. “Good enough, Ah guess. Now, y’all better get back before Steel Shod start’s gettin’ suspicious.”

Roseluck nodded, her smile vanishing, replaced instead with a determined look. “Right. I’ll see you three when you get back.”

“Bye, Rose,” piped up Agave, just as the drone’s horn ignited, and then she, too, vanished from sight. Only the thump of her hooves gave her away as she turned around and quickly darted away, until even her hoof-falls faded into the distance.

Finally, the three were alone – visibly – on the side of the road leading up to a familiar stretch of apple trees.

Applejack stood still for only a few moments, long enough to be sure Roseluck had gone. Then, she turned around. “Come on, you two. We got a lot o’ ground ta cover and not much time ta do it in.”

Rainbow was at her side virtually instantly, hovering along on energetic wings. “Alright, let’s get to it!” she said, grinning savagely as she clapped her hooves together. “Where to first?”

“First… home.”

“Okay…,” Rainbow said slowly, impatiently, “… Then where? The Everfree Forest? Oh, Freedom? Is that where we’re going?”

The excitement in her voice nearly pulled a begrudging smile from Applejack, but she kept herself in check. What she did do, however, was give a rather flippant shrug, much to Rainbow’s surprise. “Maybe, but Ah doubt it. Hyacinth probably didn’t stick around there.”

Rainbow turned to exchange a look with Agave, who shrugged right back at her, looking unknowing.

“So… where are we going?” Rainbow asked, less excited now.

Applejack was quiet for a moment. Then, she let out a tiny, almost imperceptible sigh. “That’s… sorta the problem, sugarcube.”

“What is?”

“… Nopony knows where Hyacinth’s place is.”

“Oh…”

“Eeyup…”

Agave looked back and forth between Rainbow and Applejack, a look of worry on her face. “That’s… that’s a problem, huh?”

Oh yeah,” Rainbow said, rubbing the back of her neck. “That’s kinda sorta a major problem.”

Applejack nodded grimly. “Most changelin’s who knew her thought she’d died alongside my Ma and Phantasma when they fought. Some thought she’d cut all ties with her old life. The only one who ever knew Hyacinth’s true agenda was… well, Hyacinth herself.”

But Applejack remained unfazed, something Agave noticed. “Um… Miss Applejack, do you have a plan?”

Applejack winced. “Callin’ it a ‘plan’ might be a stretch, but… Ah got an idea.”

“Care to fill us in?” Rainbow asked, regaining her attention.

Applejack glanced at her, then looked ahead along the fence they were walking beside. “Well… If Ah had ta wager, Ah’d say she set up her safehouse somewhere close to the farm – to me – but not so close that we’d run the risk of bumpin’ into each other. On top of that, it would have ta be someplace where ponies wouldn’t go or otherwise stumble across.”

She looked back towards Rainbow, a glint in her eye. “Sound like anyplace we know?”

But Rainbow only looked uncertain now. “Of course. The Everfree Forest. But… you sure you’re up for that? I mean, I know you’re tough and all, but Rose did have a point. You sorta did explode yesterday.”

To that, Applejack frowned, looking down. “Well Ah sure as hay ain’t goin’ ta lie around in bed and wait fer it ta happen again.”

“Well… alright, AJ,” Rainbow said, though she didn’t sound convinced in the slightest. “But if something happens, you let me handle it. And no,” she cut across, interrupting Applejack’s rebuttal. “That wasn’t a request, bug brain.”

“Rainbow…”

“Don’t give me that!” Rainbow snapped in a huff, turning up her nose and folding her hooves across her chest indignantly. “Somepony has got to keep you out of trouble. Who better than me?”

Applejack turned her eyes to the sky. “Where ta start…?”

“Bottom line – I do the heavy lifting, you do the ‘getting better’ stuff. Got it?”

“Good grief,” sighed Applejack.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Oh! By the way, we should probably let the other know you’re up.”

Applejack sighed, exasperated. “Y’all just thought of that now? Ah coulda asked Rose ta mail a letter ta Twi’ while we had her here.”

“Oh come on,” Rainbow said brightly. “I’ve got something better!”

Applejack gave her a look. “Beg pardon?”

Rainbow was grinning in that mischievous way that let Applejack know to brace for some hair brain scheme.

She leaned in conspiratorially. “One word, AJ,” she said.

“And that is?” Applejack asked, humoring the ornery pegasus by leaning in as well.

She leaned in a little closer. “Party,” said Rainbow.

“You called?” said Pinkie.

“GAH!” said Applejack.

~~***~~

It took them nearly ten whole minutes to reach the front gate to Sweet Apple Acres and trudge up to the farmhouse.

It felt like it had been a small eternity since Applejack had laid eyes on her home. She couldn’t help but take in every detail about it as if looking for something she might have forgotten, even though everything was exactly where it’d been before – save for a bag of chicken feed on one corner of the house, which was now on top of a rain barrel, instead of beside it where she’d left it last.

Of course, Applejack might have truly appreciated the whole scene… if Rainbow wasn’t still laughing.

“The… the look on your face!” she howled, clutching her sides. “P-Priceless! Oh Celestia, that was priceless!”

“Yeah, ha-ha, real funny, RD,” Applejack grunted, rolling her eyes. Suffice to say, she was not amused. “The next time y’all see Pinkie runnin’ up, point her out like a normal pony would.”

“Oh come on!” giggled Pinkie Pie, bouncing practically as high as a pony with each bound, “Dashie was just having some fun! I mean, I wanted to sneak up behind you, put my hooves over your eyes and say ‘guess who?’, but then I thought maybe you’d be so surprised you bucked me, and that wouldn’t be funny at all, but theeeeen I wanted to give you a really, reeeeeeeaaaaaalllllly big hug because YOU’RE AWAKE! But Twilight always gets mad when I give her really, reeeeeeaaaaaaaallllllllllyyyy big hugs. I don’t get why – Oh wait, there was that one time I thought she’d gone to sleep… yeah, I get it now. But THEEEEEENNNN I thought about –”

“Pinkie,” Applejack said patiently, turning around to put a hoof on her… well, it was supposed to be over her mouth, but it ended up being on one of her knees, as she was mid-bounce at the time. Somehow, she even stayed there for a surprisingly protracted amount of time. “Ah get it. Yer happy ta see me.”

Pinkie gave her a look like she couldn’t believe what she’d just heard as she literally dropped out of the air and landed hard on her four hooves. “Happy? HAPPY?! no-nonono, I’m MORE than happy! Because yesterday was NOT happy, but now here we are, and there you are, and everything is so much better!”

“… Just how much sugar did y’all eat today?”

“... I don’t understand the question…”

Applejack sighed. “Well, that answers that question. And about a dozen others… Look, Pinkie, could Ah ask ya ta do me a favor and let the others know Ah’m up?”

Pinkie smiled hugely. “Okie Dokie Lokie! I’ll go tell Spike and be back before you can say Supercalifragili—”

The rest of what she was saying faded off into the distance as a pink blur vanished over a hill, leaving a dust trail in her wake.

“…Ya know, sometimes Ah worry ‘bout her,” Applejack commented dryly.

“Oh come on, AJ, she’s just super happy to see you feeling better,” Rainbow said, giving her a nudge. “All of us saw what happened to you, you know.”

Applejack glanced at her, but Rainbow neatly avoided her gaze. Still, the changeling took note of the deep, dark circles under her eyes…

“—idocious!” cried out Pinkie, screeching to a halt in the exact same spot she’d been before. It took a full second before the dust cloud she’d kicked up caught up with her, leaving Applejack and Rainbow in a coughing fit. “I’m back! Spike says hi, by the way.”

~~***~~

Applejack had been braced for a number of things when she stepped up onto the farmhouse porch. That time of day, surely Big Macintosh was still out tending to the orchards that had yet to be cleaned of fruit. Apple Bloom should have been at school, like she typically was that time of day. So, Applejack had been expecting only to have to deal with the elderly matriarch of the household.

She couldn’t have been further from her mark.

Applejack had just knocked on the wooden frame of the screen door and was only half a breath away from calling out, when she saw something move on the other side – and move fast.

Out of instinct, she ducked just a split second before the door was blown open, narrowly missed a bow-wearing ballistic missile as it came screaming out of the living room.

Poor Rainbow never saw Apple Bloom coming, however. And one would be surprised how much momentum a little filly could build up with just a few yards to sprint.

Rainbow was knocked bodily backwards by an airborne filly hitting her square in the face, launching them both clean off the porch and onto the damp ground beyond.

Applejack didn’t have time to react, however. The next obstacle coming at her was significantly bigger than her little sister.

The next thing she knew, she was lying out in the dirt right next to Rainbow, the wind knocked out of her by a great big red stallion who seemed too overjoyed to check himself.

Pinkie Pie, not wanting to be left out, flung herself into the biggest mud puddle she could, giggling like a complete madmare.

“Applejack!” cried out a harmony of three voices, full of so much glee and relief that one would think they’d been separated for years, not a matter of hours.

Applejack was then swept up in perhaps the biggest hug of her entire short life, trapped between burly red hooves, tiny yellow hooves, and knobby green ones.

“Yer awake!” cried out Apple Bloom into her sister’s ribs. “We were startin’ ta get worried!”

“Eeyup!” chimed in the pair of red hooves throttling the life out of her. “We were just comin’ back ta see ya.”

“B-but… Steel Shod…,” Applejack got out with what little air she had left.

“Oh poppycock,” scoffed the owner of the hug around her middle. “Ain’t no pony gonna keep Apples apart! I’d like ta see that good-fer-nothin’ captain try!”

With a groan, Rainbow righted herself, blinking a couple of times, while Pinkie continued to splash through puddles of mud gleefully. She looked grumpy for half a second – as anypony who’d just been tackled to the ground and promptly forgotten ought to be – when something more powerful than her hurt pride caught her attention. Her nose twitched, followed immediately by her ears picking up. “… Why do I smell cinnamon?”

“Oh yeah!” Apple Bloom cried, raising her head. “We just pulled a bunch of fritters from the oven!”

Rainbow got to ‘fritter’, and which point her empty stomach took over with a monstrous rumble. Missing several meals would do that.

Granny Smith took one look at her and gave the starving pegasus a knowing smile. At last, Applejack was released from the group hug, just as she was starting to see lights pop before her eyes.

“Well then, everypony, that lunch ain’t gonna eat itself. Come on in; we made plenty fer everypony!”

Rainbow didn’t need to be told twice. Heck, she made it through the front door before anypony else.

Applejack shook herself off and got to her hooves. “Sounds… sounds good ta me,” she said, moving to follow. “Ah need ta talk ta – ow!”

Everypony froze, startled. Even Rainbow halted halfway through the door, jolting as if she’d been shouted at.

And when she turned around, she saw Applejack – still standing where she’d been, wringing out her hoof like she’d just stubbed it on a rock. Only… there were no rocks on the hard packed ground.

Four ponies looked on with looks of concern, watching her carefully. But three others wore looks of concern on a much, much deeper level.

It was starting again…

“Applejack? You alright?” asked Granny Smith. It was the worry in her voice that finally broke the tension that had taken hold.

Applejack stared at her hoof for a moment longer, though she knew she wouldn’t get to see any visible signs. Then, she put her hoof back down and met her grandmother’s gaze with a more serious one of her own.

“Granny… Everypony… we need ta talk.”

~~***~~

Granny Smith hadn’t been lying; the family had made plenty of food – not for a family of four, but for a family perhaps several times larger. Batches of apple fritters, apple pies, apple crumble, homemade apple sauce, caramel apples – every known recipe the family of dedicated apple farmers had perfected over its long lifetime, all piled high on the dining room table, kitchen counter, anywhere there was room. It was as if the Apples had suddenly decided to run Sugarcube Corner out of business or something.

The whole house smelled of cinnamon, flour, and freshly cut apples, rising dough, and freshly baked bread. It was all rather confusing… until Applejack realized that the majority of the tantalizing treats piled on platters and in bowls were some of her favorites.

Unfortunately, the mood Applejack had brought home with her ruined most of it for her. She still froze in the kitchen doorway, staring around with wide eyes while Rainbow ravenously piled a plate with everything she could get her hooves on.

Agave was beside her, though she was much more humble with her selections, as if she wasn’t entirely sure if she was allowed to have any.

Apple Bloom had picked up on the grimness in her sister’s voice and features, and she kept glancing at her worriedly. Only Big Macintosh and Granny Smith didn’t watch her like they half expected her to collapse on the spot, but they nevertheless wore their own serious expressions, like they were bracing for nothing but bad news.

And as far as Applejack was concerned, that was the only news she had.

To their credit, however, each and every one of them sat quietly and listened, save for a single outburst from Apple Bloom, who was immediately shushed by Granny Smith.

For some reason, the whole time Applejack spoke, she kept finding herself turning towards the elder of the household, dissecting her expression, her every move, looking for something – anything – to indicate how much of a blow her words were.

But Granny Smith remained silent, impassive but attentive as Applejack explained what had happened the previous day… and what was happening with her now. She didn’t ask any questions, didn’t make any comments… she merely listened with the most serious expression Applejack had ever seen the wizened matriarch wear, and that alone made her unusually tense.

“So… here we are,” Applejack finished, leaning back in her chair. Her plate was untouched, and frankly forgotten altogether.

Finally, Granny Smith spoke. “Hmm,” she said quietly. “That’s quite the pickle, alright.”

“Eeyup,” Big Mac agreed, frowning at the table.

Apple Bloom toyed with a cookie – like she’d been doing for the past few minutes. “Do… do y’all know how long ya have before… ya know…?”

Applejack glanced at Granny, who somehow looked more ancient than usual. “Well,” Applejack started slowly, “The last time Ah… uh… went through this… Ah had a day or two,” she said. “’Course, last time was nothin’ like this time, so who knows; Ah might have a little more time on my hooves this go around.” She wasn’t particularly optimistic, however, and she knew her voice reflected it.

Rainbow – face covered in crumbs and various shrapnel from the confectionary apocalypse that had taken place on her plate – carefully surveyed the room, going from face to face. Even Pinkie looked around quietly, not quite sure if she needed to jump in or not.

“Hmm,” Granny Smith repeated into one hoof, her attention becoming a million miles away.

For the longest time, silence prevailed. The only sounds came from Rainbow and Agave’s chewing while they looked around. Then…

“What’re ya goin’ ta do about it?” spoke up Big Mac.

“Took the words right outta my mouth,” added Granny Smith.

Applejack looked up to find her family looking rather expectantly at her. There was no fear or anxiety in those eyes; just an unspoken understanding. Even Apple Bloom looked at her like there was no doubt in her mind that she knew Applejack would be alright – that she had a solid plan.

But a plan was the very thing Applejack didn’t have. An idea, yes; a lead, yes. A plan? She wasn’t too confident about that. But she kept it to herself, because right now it wouldn’t do her any good.

“Ah have a hunch,” Applejack said. “Hyacinth might have saved somethin’ from my old home back in the Everfree Forest. The problem is findin’ where she stayed…”

Granny Smith frowned to herself thoughtfully. “Yes, that’s somethin’ of a problem. It won’t do you no good ta go runnin’ around that place willy nilly without some kind of destination. Ah swear there’ve been more Timber Wolves and the like in the past few weeks than Ah’ve seen in years.”

“Eeyup,” Big Mac agreed grimly. “Lotsa them Star Spiders, too. Won’t do ta get bit by one of those critters.”

Applejack winced. She’d been bitten by one of those before. That had not been a good week for her.

“A-and there’s the Court, too,” chimed in Agave, like she couldn’t quite help herself. “They’ll be waiting, for sure.”

But of all the concerns on Applejack’s mind, the Court’s cronies was not at the forefront. She could handle herself still, with or without an armed escort waiting in the shadows.

For a long time, though, the room fell quiet again. The grown up ponies leaned back in their chairs, their thoughts their own as they pondered over what to do.

But it wasn’t any of them that broke the silence.

“Ah know!” piped up Apple Bloom suddenly, standing up on her chair so suddenly she nearly sent her plate flying. “We could ask Zecora!”

Everypony at the table blinked, caught off guard.

“Zecora?” echoed Rainbow, raising an eyebrow.

“Sure! If anypony knows the Everfree Forest, it’s her! She’d know where ta find Hyacinth’s house for sure!”

The older members of the household continued to wear dubious expressions. They were well aware of the filly’s fascination with the hermit zebra, and they fully suspected she spent more time with Zecora than she was letting on. Unless her sudden budding curiosity with brewing was purely coincidental.

But, the longer she sat there, the more Applejack started to recall something – something from the night she tried to bar from her mind. Deep in the forgotten passages of a long abandoned hive…

“Ya know… Ya might be on ta somethin’ there, Apple Bloom,” Applejack said thoughtfully.

Rainbow gave her a questioning look, but she ignored it. “Alright, we’ll try her first. Better than nothin’, Ah suppose.”

Granny Smith nodded, smiling benignly. “Sounds like ya got a plan there, sugarcube. Don’t you go worryin’ about us none – the sooner ya take care of business, the sooner we can all go back ta normal.”

For the first time, a tentative smile appeared on Applejack’s lips. Perhaps things at home hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared; she’d been far more worried about how her family had been holding up than things she probably should be focusing more on.

“Alright, well… Ah’ll go throw some things together, Ah guess,” Applejack said, scooting her chair back. “Shouldn’t be a long trek, but it don’t hurt nothin’ ta be prepared.”

“Ah’ll help!” cried Apple Bloom, and together the two left the kitchen and made for the stairs. She couldn’t help but smile… but not at the filly bounding after her like a little puppy. Maybe, just maybe, she’d actually pulled it off without anypony seeing through her this time…

~~***~~

Applejack was hardly out of the room when Granny Smith’s smile faded.

Oblivious, Rainbow scooted her chair back as well. “Well, I probably should help, too. Thanks for lunch, by the way.”

“Hold on a minute there.”

Rainbow froze, flinching.

Granny Smith hadn’t shouted at her, but the shift in the elder’s tone was unmistakable.

When she turned to look, she found Granny Smith looking directly at her, her eyes very sharp indeed for somepony her age, like she hadn’t lost a bit of her edge over the course of her long lifetime. And there was something else in her eyes… something that made Rainbow’s heart tighten in her chest.

“You look after my granddaughter, ya hear?” she said. “Ah know when Applejack’s leavin’ things out. Can see it in her eyes. Whatever happened ta her, it’s taken a real toll on her, more than Ah think she’s willin’ ta admit even to herself. So y’all look after Applejack and bring her home safe and sound, whatever it takes. Understand?”

Rainbow looked at her for a moment, then she turned to face the table and the two ponies watching her every move, gauging her like judges at some contest. She stood up straight, forcing herself to meet Granny Smith’s surprisingly intense gaze.

“You can count on me, Granny,” she said. “Cross my heart, hope to fly.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Pinkie giving her a dead serious look, as if silently asking her if she could handle the burdens of a Pinkie Promise. But Rainbow didn’t look at her.

Granny Smith continued to stare at her critically. Then, she leaned back in her chair, the edge in her eyes softening. “Good ta hear. Now git; y’all have a lot of ground ta cover before the day’s out.”

Rainbow nodded quickly, then turned to the others. “Come on, Agave, Pinkie. We’ve got work to do.”

After some clambering out of seats and hasty departures, only then did Big Mac turn to give Granny Smith a deeply questioning look.

“Don’t y’all start with me, too,” she said with a ghost of her usual grin. “Applejack is gonna be just fine, so long as she’s got her.”

Big Mac silently look between the head of the household towards the door, then back again, looking all kinds of uncertain. Granny Smith simply ignored him, looking relaxed for the first time in hours… until something seemed to occur to her.

“Oh fiddlesticks... Wasn't Ah supposed ta tell Applejack somethin’…?”

~~***~~

With a grunt, Applejack pushed the door open to her own bedroom. She was a little distracted, however, by the energetic filly bouncing past her and further down the hall, towards her own room. “Listen here, Apple Bloom,” she said sternly, “now ain’t the time ta be runnin’ around the Everfree. Yer stayin’ right here with Granny and Big Mac where it’s safe, ya hear?”

Apple Bloom only made a petulant noise in response. “Oh come on, AJ! Ah’ve been to Zecora’s place plenty and Ah ain’t ever had anythin’ bad happen.”

“No means no, little filly,” Applejack called over her shoulder, stepping into her bedroom. “And don’t ya think Ah won’t know it if ya try and follow us anyway.”

least that guard detail will be good fer somethin’…

Applejack turned around, huffing to herself… only to pull up short, a hoof still held up in the air at the sight of an unexpected oddity sitting on the night stand in front of her.

“Uh… Apple Bloom? Where did this box come from? Ah wasn’t expectin’ any mail…”

It was peculiar, and in the world Applejack lived in, 'peculiar' wasn’t normally a good thing. Because ‘peculiar’ had a bad tendency to lead to pain.

“Oh! Ah completely forgot about that!” Apple Bloom cried from the other room. “It got hear a few nights back. Some scary-lookin’ mare said it was for you.”

Applejack’s eyebrow went up even further at that. “A ‘scary lookin’' mare?” she echoed.

The scuffing of hooves was coming closer, and soon Apple Bloom peeked in around the corner of the doorframe. “Granny wanted ta throw it out, but…”

“But?” Applejack prompted, suddenly feeling very on edge. There was something uncomfortably familiar about that tiny cardboard box, something she couldn’t quite put her hoof on.

Apple Bloom shuffled by the door, looking nervous. “But it has the Royal Canterlot seal on it so… it can’t be all bad, right?”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. Big scary mares carrying packages from Canterlot? Her first thought was Princess Luna, maybe, but no – Apple Bloom knew her. And it would’ve been very strange for her to not come straight to Applejack if it concerned her.

Something tugged at the back of her mind… a memory she’d all-but forgotten…

“Applejack? Is somethin’ wrong?” Apple Bloom asked apprehensively.

Applejack kept staring at the box, all her senses on high alert. “Apple Bloom… go get Granny and the others.”

“But—”

“Now, AB.”

Apple Bloom bit her lip, then nodded. “A-alright. Be right back.”

Applejack cocked her ear, listening as the sound of Apple Bloom’s hooves receded down the hall. Not once had her eyes move away from the grubby box.

She knew she knew it, but she couldn’t quite put her hoof on it. Applejack frowned to herself, trying to remember… but nothing came to mind except a vague sense of anxiety.

And then, all of a sudden, it clicked.

That night at the Crystal Empire… the strange package… a cryptic warning…

But what was it doing here, of all places?

Despite her better judgment, Applejack edged closer, gauging the thing like it was some coiled up snake in a foul mood.

And as she stepped closer, she felt something. It was the strangest feeling, like suddenly she was keenly aware that she wasn’t alone…

Applejack glanced around, but her room was vacant. In the off chance, however… “Antlion? That you?”

Nothing.

“Anyone in here?”

Nothing…

And yet, the feeling persisted, and it only got stronger the more she moved forward. Something kept making her rub her brow – a persistent agitation that just wouldn’t go away…

Without even realizing it, she found herself standing right in front of the diminutive package, and the huge array of stamps, stickers and labels plastered all over its top. But these weren’t postage stamps.

As promised, Applejack immediately identified the royal Canterlot seal – two sets of wings, one held aloft and another curved inward – around a crescent superimposed over a circle giving off four radial spokes of light, like a caricature of a crown.

The thing was, there wasn’t just one seal. There were dozens, each printed or stamped onto every single label taped to the box, each accompanied by a different, rather lengthy yet official looking name.

The Department of Magical Oddities

The Department of Dangerous Magicks

The Royal Apothecary Society

The Scholar Association of Canterlot

The list went on and on. Seemingly every official branch in Canterlot had had something to stick to this mundane cardboard box, and just by casting her eyes over it, Applejack could tell that nopony had been in agreeance over something.

Failed, passed, failed, passed, repeated over and over; the two words appeared stamped in various colors of red, black and dark blue ink, until one great big ‘Failed’ had been mashed across the top end of the box, seemingly for no other reason than to render a final verdict.

Applejack blinked, raising an eyebrow curiously despite herself. She had more than her fair share of reservations, and by that point she’d developed a healthy dose of wariness when it came to unknowns, especially where changelings were concerned. But at the same time, such an inconclusive judgment on the box’s contents was even more puzzling. Surely somepony would be able to discern some kind of curse or hex of some kind. Furthermore, it’d been one of her own drones that had brought the box to her in the first place.

… At least, she thought he’d been one of hers.

Again, she felt almost compelled to check over her shoulder. Nopony was there, though. But that feeling of paranoia persisted, like she was being watched oh so closely…

Applejack frowned to herself. A part of her was fed up with how ridiculous this whole situation was. If it was so dangerous, how had it managed to find its way all the way to her house? Another part of her berated the first for ever suggesting she lower her guard over something so involved with changelings.

Both sides agreed on one thing, though; she was fed up. Try as she might, she simply didn’t have the patience to deal with one more dang thing. So, more out of irritation than any sense of investigation, she reached out, and gave the box a hard poke.

It was as if she’d poked a live wire.

She only momentarily registered the sharp, jolting pain in her foreleg, before everything went dark in an instant.

~~***~~

The cavern was falling apart.

Ancient black stone cracked and crumbled. Great stalactites a hundred feet long fell like javelins from the high ceiling, impaling the volcanic rock floor and fracturing it, too.

Stagnant air choked with dust clogged her lungs, but she restrained the building urge to cough. Instead, she stayed dead focused on the figure lying crumpled on the floor, struggling in vain to rise.

“Now, now. That was a very foolish thing to do,” she said, stalking closer to the agonized form on the ground. “And here I thought we were having such a pleasant conversation.”

A long, black neck rose from the clouds of dust, sporting a similarly lengthy, twisted black horn that cracked and fizzed feebly. Two eyes of peerless blue glared back – eyes bearing a striking double set of irises.

“I asked you one simple little question,” the first said, dark humor dancing in her voice. “But if violence is the only language you speak anymore, dear mother…”

Her horn crackled to life with a seething green light.

The fallen figure’s panting suddenly caught in her throat as a magical vice closed around her neck, and seemingly without effort, hauled her bodily into the air so high that not even her lanky, hole-ridden legs could touch the floor.

“I’ll be only too happy to reciprocate.”

The wretched queen clawed at her throat, but to no avail, wheezing and fighting for every breath.

Watching the figure work for every bit of air she could get, the first quite calmly pulled her in closer, until they were virtually nose to nose.

“Now then… how shall I word my question this time?” she breathed in her face, speculative, almost childishly curious. “My way? Or yours.”

The changeling queen was starting to turn pale in the face, her fanged teeth bared. Up close, bathed in the light of a glowing horn, the myriad of wrinkles stood out in stark contrast across her wizened face. Even for a changeling, her midnight blue mane was ragged and filled with countless split ends, and what looked awfully like wads of milky wax.

But more than that, her face was covered in cuts and bruises, outlining a very long… conversation… indeed.

When the first spoke again, it was in hard, unamused tone. Her patience was over. “What. Did you. Tell her?” She asked, punctuating each pause with a hard squeeze. “What. Did she. Want?”

The queen’s cracked lips parted, her eyes fluttering.

“Yes?” she prompted.

“The…” the elder queen wheezed in the faintest, thinnest of breaths. “The… M… Mak… er…”

Confusion shot through her. “The Maker? That is what Carnation came to you about? Do you take me for a fool?”

She forced the queen down, bending her over almost backwards on herself so that she could stand over her.

“She came to you about a youngling’s fairytale? You, of all creatures?”

She was bending the helpless queen over to the limit, stretching her almost in a U shape.

“You wouldn’t tell your own child a bedtime story, let alone any of those precious secrets you kept horded away. And you’re telling me she tried her luck with you over something as asinine as that?!”

“…H… Ha…”

She pulled back, surprised.

Even so defeated, broken and bloodied, the old queen still found it in her to smile her infamous knowing, taunting smile. And she just kept laughing, wasting what little breath she had left in defiance and taunts.

Her surprise turned to outrage. And with one swift motion, she finished folding her in half.

~~***~~

Applejack jumped back, panting.

As quick as a blink, the whole terrible image was gone, but her racing heart took much longer to slow.

She was staring at a familiar nightstand place beside a familiar bed and window… and a harmless-looking cardboard box, that stood silently in the same place, only a few inches from her hoof.

Everything she’d seen raced through her mind again, then again, like the echoes of the worst nightmare she’d ever witnessed…

She could hear hooves behind her racing up the hall. A voice called out, muffled, but she only barely heard it.

Because right in front of her, the cardboard box was starting to blacken.

“Applejack, what’s –” shouted Rainbow urgently right behind her, just as Applejack’s nightstand was engulfed by gushing green flames.

Bm-bmp…

The sound reverberated through the walls and air itself as the cardboard box disintegrated into a pile of white-hot ash. The only thing that remained was a cube of dazzling lavender light in the shape of countless intricate runes and figures, topped by what looked like a glowing keyhole.

Bm-bmp…

The enchantments flexed, bowing outward as a wave of something hot slammed into them, blindingly bright. Such was the force that even the floorboards under everypony’s hooves shook, as if it had been struck.

Applejack’s nightstand toppled over, and yet the object remained exactly in the same place a few feet off the ground. It was trembling now, flexing… cracking…

Bm-bmp…

One enchanted shattered with a sound like smashing glass, swiftly followed by another and another.

Applejack was swiftly backing up now, a sudden and intense feeling of dread gripping her. Whatever was inside that enchanted cube of layered spells, whatever was breaking its way out – whatever was filling the air with a steady, rhythmic beating sound – she wanted no part of it.

Bm-BMP…

The keyhole fractured, cracked… and exploded into a million shards of light, causing everypony present to yelp and shield their eyes. And with the final enchantment broken, the rest ripped themselves apart like tatters of cloth in a hurricane.

Through narrowed eyes and over the top of one hoof, Applejack finally laid eyes on the thing filling her with such fear.

It was perfectly round, unnaturally round, and roughly the size of a melon. It flashed in time with the rhythmic pounding punching Applejack in the chest. A wall of pure magical percussion rippled through the room; a shadow of darkness, pulsing forth with an unsettling, entropic green light.

Each thump seemed to make the air and Applejack’s lungs hotter, her skin more prickly and uncomfortable.

The object simply hung in place, beating with uncontained magic and something that stoked the deepest, most private terrors in Applejack’s heart, as if something truly horrific was staring her down, savoring the moment before it pounced…

And then, all at once, it stopped.

The flashing ceased. The pounding, the radiating fear and power, all of it halted, and with a heavy thud, the orb dropped to the ground, bounced once, and rolled until coming to a halt against one leg of Applejack’s bed.

Light poured in from the window once again. The walls were still. All seemed unnaturally, eerily quiet.

For about ten seconds.

“…Whoa,” breathed Rainbow. “That… that was spooky.”

“That’s one word for it,” said Applejack quietly.

“Scary? Freaky?”

“Warmer,” Applejack muttered.

Carefully, she moved closer, inching uneasily in the direction of the disturbingly quiet object now resting benignly against her own bed. Even the faintest glimmer from the impurities inside its crystalline surface catching the light made Applejack skitter back, but nothing further happened. Whatever power it had held, apparently it’d just completely expended itself.

“What the hay is that?” Rainbow asked, and by the sounds of it, she was trailing after Applejack, move for move.

And that was precisely when Agave merely trotted right passed them, right up to the ball, and picked it up in a hoof.

“Oooo. I’ve never seen a Corastone do that before,” she said, intrigued, rolling the orb this way and that while inspecting it closely. “You didn’t tell me you had one of these, Applejack.”

When she didn’t get a response, Agave looked around, only to find every pair of eyes in the room staring at her with open-mouthed disbelief.

“…What?”

~~***~~

For the second time in under ten minutes, the entire group found themselves seated around the table in the Apple farmhouse kitchen. This time, however, all attention was put squarely on a little grey pegasus filly, who was currently looking as flustered as one could be, given the circumstances.

The glassy ball sat in the middle of the table, motionless and, thankfully, lifeless once more. The glass bowl upended over it showed how little everypony trusted it, anyway.

“So…” Rainbow started, feigning a casual air almost perfectly. “Being our resident expert, Agave, you mind explaining what that is?”

Agave looked up at her, still playing with her hooves. “It’s… It’s a Corastone,” she said simply, as if that should have been explanation enough. “Mommy – I mean, mother has one like it, but she never lets me touch it.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Applejack grumbled dryly, wringing out her hoof. It’d been on pins and needles ever since.

Agave glanced at her, her confusion showing through. “So… you’re saying that wasn’t yours?”

“Nope,” Applejack responded. “Never had one before.”

She explained how it had first come to her, which only made Agave even more confused.

“I… I don’t get it,” she mumbled. “Those books I… um… borrowed… when I was looking up the third molt… I think I remember one or two of them saying that every queen has one.”

Rainbow grew puzzled over that. “How?”

Agave could only offer a clueless shrug as a response.

“I don’t know. But… if they’re anything like mother’s… No one would ever let their Corastone out of their sight, let alone mail it to someone.”

“But isn't that what happened?" inquired Pinkie, totally lost.

Agave nodded. “Yes… and that makes no sense… And this one reacted so weird, too…”

“What’s normal?” Rainbow asked.

In answer, Agave gestured to the Corastone as it was – motionless and lifeless.

The room fell quiet once more, all eyes on the Corastone.

The more Applejack looked at it, the more she could swear she saw shifts in its light; an ever so faint, almost ephemeral glimmer dancing within its bottle-green heart, keeping time with a two-beat rhythm…

The scene she’d witness played through her mind again, and again, she shivered to herself. That voice… she recognized it, like some subconscious memory of a bad nightmare. But where…?

“…Applejack?”

She jolted and sat up, eyes flicking upwards across the table – towards the speaker, Agave.

She was looking at her with a look of concern, her eyes just barely peeking through her mane. “Are you okay?”

For a moment, Applejack’s reflexive denial came to the tip of her tongue… until something else muscled it out of the way, just as she opened her mouth.

“Ah think it’s time we got movin’,” she said. “We can sit here thinkin’ it over, or we can go find some answers.”

Rainbow nodded. “Yeah… yeah, moving sounds good. Before anything else happens.”

That was precisely the moment a cloaked changeling materialized in the chair right next to Applejack.

“Your Highness,” he said urgently, oblivious to the chorus of shrieks and yelps his sudden appearance had invoked, “There is a group of Royal Guards moving towards the front gate. Not a patrol. And they’re armed.”

“Me and my big mouth,” growled Rainbow.

Applejack snarled and glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the front door. How had Steel Shod figured it out already? Or was he just being paranoid?

“Welp, sounds like y’all better get a move on,” Granny Smith said, and her tone took Applejack by surprise; she hardly sounded fazed at all. She might as well have just wished her a safe trip to the market.

Applejack looked at her, and witnessed the small smile on the elder pony’s face. “Y’all go take care of business now,” Granny said, “and hurry on back. There’s still lots o’ apples that need buckin’.”

Applejack blinked at her. Then, after climbing down from her chair, she threw herself at Granny for one last, great big hug.

Granny chuckled, and gently patted her on the back. “Ain’t no time fer that, sugarcube. Off you git; shoo, shoo. We’ll be just fine ‘till ya get back.”

Applejack started to say something, failed, then simply nodded into her shoulder.

“Atta girl. Yer bags are on the back step. Now go.”

Again, Applejack nodded, then quickly stepped away. Not daring a backward glance, she ran for the back porch. “Let’s go.”

“Right!”

“R-right behind you.”

Rainbow jolted forward... then came to a stop, glancing over her shoulder. "Pinkie? You coming?"

The party pony just waved a farewell hoof at them. "Oh! don't worry, I'll catch up! You just leave these guys to Auntie Pinkie Pie!" At the same time, she reached into her mane and pulled out -- of all things -- a pair of silly glasses with a fake nose, a top hat, and a pair of scuba-diver flippers. "Time for 'Operation: Smelly Condor'!" she cried, just before hopping from her chair. "I'm going to need ten paper clips, two pipe cleaners, all the lint you can find, and a glass eye! Wait, TWO glass eyes! Better be safe than sorry! And trust me, you do not want to be sorry with 'Smelly Condor'."

"She's right," said Rainbow, suddenly looking pale, "time to go!"

Apple Bloom jumped from her chair as well, but a big red hoof caught her. “Nope.”

“But Ah want ta go, too!” Applejack heard Apple Bloom protest.

Whatever Big Mac said back, she would never heard. The last thing she heard as she burst through the screen door was a heavy hammering on the opposite end of the house – the sound of an armored hoof banging on wood.

~~***~~

The next few minutes were a whirlwind for Applejack. She’d donned her pack so fast she wasn’t even sure which one she’d grabbed, then darted off into the orchards.

Bad memories drifted through her minds eye of the last time she’d been running hastily through the trees, but she dismissed them and focused only on the path ahead.

One hill later, it suddenly occurred to her that she was supposed to be traveling with company. She glanced over her shoulder once, but immediately felt some relief; Rainbow was right on her tail, saddle bags in place, including one Agave, who sat on her back while clutching onto a ball of white linen table cloth…

It was only once her throat started to burn that Applejack slowed down to a gentler trot.

Rainbow dropped into step beside her, and Agave took to her wings as they headed deeper into the orchards.

“Just like old times, huh,” Rainbow muttered dryly. Apparently Applejack hadn’t been alone in her thinking.

“Sure feels like it.”

Rainbow then glanced up, narrowing her eyes as they passed an opening in the tree branches overhead. “I figure we’ve got a couple hours before it gets dark, so we’d better find Zecora before then.”

Applejack nodded. The only thing worse than the Everfree Forest was the Everfree Forest at night. Granny Smith had told her stories growing up, every Nightmare Night…

Stories…

Applejack frowned to herself, lost in thought. She was aware of a conversation happening beside her – something to do with Zecora, she thought – but she didn’t pay attention.

She came to you about a youngling’s fairytale? You, of all creatures?

“…Right Applejack?... Applejack?”

She jolted, snapping back to reality to find Rainbow looking at her, her face slowly turning from confusion to alertness.

“What’s wrong?” she asked seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Applejack blinked in surprise.

“N-nothin’. Well… maybe,” she waffled. Instead of giving Rainbow a better answer than that, she instead turned towards a curious filly watching her.

“Agave… what can ya tell me about the Maker?” she asked, trying at being casual.

It didn’t work. Agave blinked, completely thrown off guard. “Uh… just stories. Why?”

Applejack bit her lip. “That… Corastone thing… before y’all showed up, Ah touched the box it was in, and… Ah saw somethin’.”

She related the story, trying her best to dull the unsavory bits. Even with her efforts, Rainbow looked unsettled, and Agave more than a little troubled.

“That… sounds like Queen Honeycomb,” Agave said nervously. “I’ve heard M-mother talking about her before. She says she knows a lot of things… a lot of very old things. But she keeps it all locked up and doesn't share it with anyone. I don’t know why.”

“Sounds like she and her daughter had a falling out,” Rainbow said grimly.

For some reason, that only made Agave more fretful. “I… I didn’t know she even had a daughter. Most queens like to show off their heirs. Unless it was a memory from a long time ago…”

“A memory?” Rainbow echoed, raising an eyebrow? “So, you’re saying there might be more in that thing?”

Agave grimaced, then looked down at the hastily gathered wad of table cloth she was carrying. “Maybe… I don’t know. I didn’t read very much about Corastones. I don’t think even the queens know much about them…”

“Well that’s promising,” grumbled Rainbow. “But what’s all this about the Maker?”

Agave glanced towards Applejack, and saw she was looking at her just as intently. For some reason, that confused her.“You… you’ve never heard of the story?” she asked. Both ponies shook their heads.

That response seemed to throw her so much.

“Oh. Mother used to tell it to me when I was little before…” she caught herself. “I mean… I’ve heard her tell it before.”

She ignored the looks she got, and instead went on after clearing her throat.

“Um… basically, the Maker was the first queen to ever live,” she said. “All queens come from her… or at least that’s what mother would tell me. As the story goes, she came to the changelings during a very bad time and saved them, showed them how to work together, and gave them structure. In order to repay their debts, the changelings swore undying allegiance to the Maker, and followed her wherever she went, and they lived happily ever after. Or… something like that.”

A look of confusion crossed her face. “I thought every changeling knew that story. Mother used to tell it to me all the time, and surely everyone knows who the Maker is.”

“Yer point?” Applejack asked, trying not to sound testy about being the only changeling not to know the tale.

Agave’s expression became more conflicted. “Well… if everyone knows it… why did Carnation go to Honeycomb to learn about it? From what I've heard, Honeycomb doesn’t give anyone any of her secrets without doing something really difficult for her to impress her. So…”

“So, whatever she was after,” Rainbow finished, “It was important enough for her to put herself through that ordeal.”

“Exactly,” Agave said with a nod. “But… why? What’s so important about an old fairytale?”

“Answer one question, get another,” Applejack sighed.

“Well,” Agave said quickly, “look on the bright side. At least now we have a clue about why she came here, right?”

It didn’t get much vaguer, but Applejack had to concede the point there. At least now they had something. Not much of something, but it was certainly better than the nothing they had before.

“Well,” Applejack said, “hopefully Hyacinth’s place will have somethin’ ta shed some light on all of this.”

“Yeah,” Rainbow piped up, sounding bitter, “We just have to get there without anything else happening.”

That was exactly when they rounded a bend, and came face to face with five fully armed stallions who looked just as surprised to see them as they were.

“Me and my big fat mouth,” whined Rainbow while Applejack looked towards the sky in sheer exasperation.

“Hold it right there!” one of them bellowed, lowering his spear first.

Rainbow tensed, crouching low threateningly. Applejack braced, ready for a fight, and Agave quickly dove behind them both with a squeak.

“State your names and business,” the lead stallion ordered. “What are you doing out here?”

“W-would you believe we're taking a stroll?” Agave peeped.

Applejack couldn’t help but feel her gut twist. She knew, any moment now, if these five stallions made a move on them, they were going to have the worst day of their lives. And that was not something they needed right now, not with Steel Shod's watchful gaze bearing down on them.

Worse, the lead stallion was staring straight at her. Surely he recognized her – not many in their line of work in Ponyville wouldn’t. She braced for a scene, knowing it could only get worse from here on out…

“… Right, carry on.”

For a moment, Applejack couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. Literally unable to fathom it.

She looked up, and was dumbstruck by the sight of all five stallions lifting their spears and relaxing their stances. “You ladies have a safe day now,” the squad leader state, tipped his helmet courteously, and made to leave. Just like that.

Rainbow summed up Applejack’s thoughts best.

What the hay just happened?”

“Ah… don’t even…,” Applejack started to say, as the squad moved passed her.

That was when the last stallion in the group suddenly glanced in her direction, and then quickly stepped out of formation and darted straight up to her so suddenly she couldn’t help but back away.

“There. We’re even,” he hissed in a harsh undertone at her. “You tell that Spymaster we’re square now. We’re done. No more favors. You tell him, got that? Now get out of here, before Sergeant Lackadaisy’s other patrol comes through.”

“Uh.. w-wha…”

“You heard me! Go, now, before we all regret this!” the stallion shot at her.

Finally, she got the message. Applejack’s head was still whirling in complete confusion, but she didn’t waste any more time second guessing their inexplicable good fortune. She grabbed Rainbow, who was still standing motionless, brain jammed, and pushed her on. “Come on, everypony, we gotta go!”

Finally Rainbow’s legs remembered how to walk, and she started off hastily with no other direction besides Applejack’s insistent push in her back end, Agave bringing up the rear. They were almost out of sight when Applejack glanced over her shoulder one last time, just as the last armored stallion disappeared further into the orchards.

And of course, now she had even more questions than ever before.

Author's Note:

Suddenly, chapter out of nowhere. And it's even around my 10,000 word goal, too!

The funny thing about this chapter is it was supposed to go over two things simultaneously, but I split them, so now I have a good outline for the next chapter, too. I must've revised that opening part half a dozen other times, though...

Now, fun stuff:
Corastone is a play on words for the spanish word for heart, "corazon". I actually played with a number of uses for the word and how it would be used in the story (example, it was more of a material in one edition), but in the end I settled on the most thinly veiled plot device I could conceive of! Go me!

Anyway, hope you guys enjoyed it, and I appreciate all of the patience. Hopefully I'll be seeing you guys again real soon...

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