• Published 12th Oct 2011
  • 27,175 Views, 913 Comments

The End - shalrath



A friendly stranger delivers some unsettling knowledge about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

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Chapter 1

* * *

“Applejack! Applejack!” The young pony cried as loudly as her burning lungs could manage. Her mane and flanks bore numerous scratches from her frantic dash through the underbrush of Everfree Forest, yet still she sped over the hilltop at a full gallop. Her voice, already hoarse and raspy, continued to shout with urgency as she closed the distance with her older sister.

“Applebloom! Tarnation, girl! You’re going to give me a heart attack if you keep on hollerin’ like that. Now slow down and catch your breath. Tell me what happened. Is anypony hurt?”

Applebloom wheezed as she approched, shaking her head from side to side while she caught her breath, but turning to point one hoof back in the direction she came. “Sis, we saw something.. “

“Tell me later,” Applejack stared her sister in the eyes. “Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo - are they okay? Tell me that first lil sis!”

“Yes,” she gasped. “They’re right behind.. “

The young filly turned to look back to the hill - no sign of her friends in sight. Her eyes widening as she stammered “They’re right behind.. they were right behind.. ohhhh” The gulps of air turned into a long sobbing wail as she collapsed into the tilled soil, her watery eyes still sweeping the horizon for her friends.

“Mac!” Applejack shouted. “Get her inside on the double. I’m headin out to find Scoots and Sweetie” She knelt beside her sister, placing one hoof on her dirty mane. “Now Applebloom, you have to tell me what you saw. Was it a monster out there? Did it follow you?”

“No sis. I don’t think it’s a monster. It’s different than that. Ah don’t know how to put it out, but it’s not natural lookin. Not natural at all.” Her gaze never left the horizon.

“Okay. You hang tight here. Get on up and go with Mac when you’re ready. I’ve gotta run now, but me and yer friends will all be safe and sound back here before you can say baked apple fritters.” With that, she shook off her fruit-laden saddlebags and dashed off towards Ponyville, leaving Applebloom weeping softly under Mac’s shadow.”

“Its not natural sis.. All made out of metal with a head of glass. Just not right.”

But she was already gone.

* * *

“Okay Pinkie, we give up. What does a zombie plant eat?”

Pinkie bounded on top of the park table, rearing her legs in the air and contorting her face into the visage of a reanimated corpse. “GRAAAAIIIINNSSSS,” she snarled. This left Rainbow Dash bawling in laughter on the grass, with Twilight Sparkle unable to decide if Pinkie’s joke or the pegasus’s uncontrollable braying was funnier. Pinkie leaped down beside her, doing her best impression of a bloodthirsty-yet-immobile vegetable stalk.

“Whew, that was a good one,” Twilight said with a smile. Studying magic all morning had left her in dire need of distraction. “Would anypony care to join me for tea and cakes at the bakery?”

“You know I can’t turn down that,” said Rainbow Dash.

“For your tea madame, one lump, or twenty?” inquired Pinkie in a posh accent.

“Enough sugar to knock out a hummingbird, of course!”

This cause another round of giggling.

“Well girls, let’s.. ”

“Twilight!”

“..go,” She stopped to listen.

“TWILIGHT!”

The three ponies turned to face the growing cloud of dust and flying gravel barreling towards them. Applejack’s hooves beat the ground frantically as she charged towards the group.

“Twilight! Thank Celestia you’re here. Y’all gotta come with me right away.”

“Is everything all right Applejack?”

“No, no it ain’t. Now keep up - I don’t have time to explain. Applebloom saw something in the forest. Can’t find Scoots or Sweetie Belle. I’m heading in there right now, but I need y’alls help.”

Twilight and Pinkie galloped alongside as Applejack barked orders. “Pinkie, you tell Rarity about Sweetie Belle. Round up some other ponies to help us search the Everfree Forest.

“Search Party!” Pinkie bounded gleefully, just before the smile melted from her face, and her witty outburst tailed off into concrete seriousness. She locked eyes with Applejack, gave a sharp nod, and turned to gallop towards Rarity’s shop.

“Rainbow, go high and start looking for Scootaloo.” The pegasus departed like a missile trailing every color of the sunbeam.

“Twilight, got a job for you, girl,” she gasped between breaths. “I need you to call up Boss Hoss and let her..”

“You mean the Princess?” Twilight gaped at the crude nickname.

“Darn it girl, you know damn well who I’m talking about. I wouldn’t be calling her for any old reason like somepony getting lost, or some beasty thing in the forest - but I ain’t never seen my sis get spooked like that. I reckon she ran harder than any of us put together when she saw it. I don’t know what we got ourselves up against, but it might be all the difference to let her know. Now.

“Okay.. ”

“GO!”

With that, Applejack bounded into the chilly veil of the forest’s shade, her hoofbeats steadily receding into the dim interior.

“Be safe,” Twilight breathed. Applejack was no where to be seen, and the staccato of her hooves had drowned under the rapid beating of Twilight’s heart. She turned to look back once more, before closing her eyes and feeling her horn flare with magic - leaving her standing in the familiar confines of her library.

Already, ponies could be heard assembling outside.

* * *

Sweetie Belle could hear something in the woods. It was coming closer. She dared not to move, laying under the gnarled tangle of tree roots washed clean by a slow moving creek. The cold mud of the bank felt oppressively close to her skin, and all manner of bugs were blindly leaping from the base of the tree to explore her quietly heaving chest.

The footsteps were coming closer. A slow rhythmic pace that echoed through the ground. Each footfall carrying the weight of a boulder, each step in perfect cadence. She dared not to turn and look. Once was enough. Her eyes were tightly shut, but she could only see the interloper. Standing taller than any pony, shiny like polished metal, with the head that looked vaguely like a dragon’s skull. Two legs, maybe. Two heavy blunt claws on arms that folded out from it’s midsection. And the eyes. It was hard to tell where the eyes stopped and the head began. So many of them.

The footsteps grew louder and more distinct, coming closer. Each step sending a subtle tremor through the mud bank that Sweetie Belle lay firmly against.

The footsteps stopped.

* * *

Everfree Forest was not well travelled by the ponies of Equestria. Least of all by Applejack. Her purposeful strides had slowed to a trembling walk, her only sense of direction reduced to the beeline path she took on the way in. Her trail of hoofprints melted away in the wet grass and waterlogged soil, leaving almost no trace of her passage. Just as the forest would leave no trace of brave little Applejack if she lost her way.

She shuddered at the thought of becoming no more than a lush patch of well fertilized grass. Or perhaps the mossy remains of a vaguely pony-shaped statue, should she cross paths with a cockatrice. The forest was not friendly to ponies. One hundred ways in, but only one way out. She shivered as she pressed forward, threading through the bushes that grew up to meet the hanging branches of the trees. In the stillness of the forest, the rustling of the branches and briers against her coat felt like an ever present cacophony in her ears, drowning out the din of voracious insects, and the predatory footsteps of the forest’s true denizens.

One hundred ways in, one way out.

But she was brave, even when she wasn’t. She never let her feelings show in front of her little sister. Even when the two were younger, trapped for a whole night in the old barn at the end of the orchard, listening to the curious footsteps of a winged basilisk pecking at the door.

“Don’t you fret now Applebloom. Your big sis ain’t afraid of nothin”. She had cooed to the young filly to keep her calm and quiet. Even as the door rattled and the wood began to faintly smoke from the basilisk’s caustic breath, the two ponies had stood firmly together without so much as a single noise that would pique the interest of the slithering abomination.

"Ain't afraid of nothin,” Applejack repeated to herself. “Ain’t afraid of nothin.”

She strode forth, ears perked and eyes wide. Her heart hammered rapidly inside her chest as every cautious sense inside her screamed to turn around and run until she could see daylight again. But she couldn't listen to that. Scoots and Sweetie depended on her.

Through the trees came a sudden shrill scream, cut short by a deep thud, and a high pitched crack that even the dense forest could scarcely conceal.

Applejack stood breathless for a moment, struck to her core by that terrified helpless cry; the sudden recognition of the young filly’s unmistakable voice shocking her body into action. Her nostrils flared, and her eyes focused into a baleful gaze. Trembling hooves turned to adrenaline pumped steel springs. She lowered her head as she turned to face the noise, whispering her mantra through clenched teeth as she charged through the brush with the force of an errant locomotive.

“Ain’t afraid of nothin!”

* * *

Scootaloo ambled quietly through the forest. The young pegasus felt very alone, even if she was not. Sweetie Belle had fallen behind in their short frantic dash, and Applebloom was long gone by then. She could barely remember why they were running in the first place, aside from that look on Applebloom’s face.

She sighed and stamped the ground. This was not turning out to be a good day, and it would probably only get worse once they got home. Hopefully nobody would find out about their trip into the forest today.

Scootaloo froze. In the bog and grass lay a near perfect circle of plump berries on small leafy shrubs. A gardener plant! She had seen one just like it in Zecora’s hut, as part of her exotic menagerie.

The gardener, as Zecora had instructed, was not to be trifled with. Its flat wooden leaves curled into the shape of a shallow basket, low to the ground where the splatter of rain would cover the bowl of leaves with dirt. In time, the dirt would collect seeds - some nourished by ducts in the gardener’s leaves, others culled by emissions of diluted acid. The gardener’s bowl would eventually grow a small thicket of fruit bearing plants. Their branches stunted by the gardener’s chemical secretions, but carrying unnaturally full and numerous fruits.

The fruit basket was just the tip of this horror.

The real bulk of the gardener was firmly buried several yards away. A thick vine lay just inches below the dirt, ripe with tension. The flat leaves at the terminus bore several hair-like spikes, waiting patiently for the touch and hot musky breath of a grazing animal. Triggering these two senses would prompt the thick woody leaves of the gardener’s bowl would twist and close abruptly, clamping down firmly around the neck of its prey. Then, the serpentine vine would suddenly coil around itself, tearing free from the soil and twisting the flower on the end around in a violent circle - hard enough to spin its victim like a ragdoll and wrench its head from its neck. Often leaving its prey paralyzed, yet still conscious.

The gardener could not completely envelope its prey, but this offered little reprieve. The sudden twisting squeezed the vine, pumping a concentrated jet of gastric fluids into the ears, eyes, throat, and lungs of the Gardener's new meal. The torrential release of searing caustic fluid would break down the fibrous bulk of the underground vine as well, pushing a slurry of plant fiber down the lungs and esophagus of the stricken animal, whereby growing into a branching root system that fed upon the partially digested flesh.

Zecora’s gardener was the size of a small saucer plate. This one was the size of a dinner table.

Scootaloo skirted around the small tuft of tasty fruits, having abruptly lost any trace of appetite.

It was nearly noon, but the forest concealed it neatly. Infrequent shafts of light broke through the leafy canopy, casting a glow through the blanket of haze. Scootaloo fluttered quickly through the red tinged air, casting furtive glances through the forest for her friends.

Her stubby juvenile wings were not strong enough to fly, but she still skipped across the ground in long shallow arcs. Dashing through a burbling creek into a small grassy opening, something caught her eye. The small field looked like an inviting place to rest - away from the hanging vines and twisted tree trunks that grew with wild abandon throughout Everfree forest. An oasis of warm sunshine. But the light revealed something odd; a sizeable clump of dark brown branches nestled beneath the vibrant greens, pinks, and yellows of a flowering hedge.

She set one hoof in the lush meadow, and froze - her wings beating madly to keep the rest of her airborne. Something moved in the bushes as she touched the ground. No, not moved. Tensed. The dark articulate shapes just under the hedgerow were locked rigidly in place, just as her limbs dared not to move.

The clump of wood lay between her and the hedge. She loosened her gaze from the hedge for only a moment, just to examine the oddly colored pile of bent sticks. The pile of sticks gazed back - two empty eyesockets and a jaw hanging open, as if still delivering it’s last mournful shriek. Bones bereft of any flesh, save for the ichor stains and ragged tissue that had been passed over.

Her other hooves never touched the ground. Scootaloo rebounded into the air, distancing herself from the macabre sight. She was nearly across the small field when her hooves touched down for a second time.

The hedge erupted behind her. Hundreds of hairy articulated legs stamping the ground rhythmically in swift pursuit. She ran, and did not dare look back.

* * *

Twilight’s hasty letter had barely disintegrated into the green magical aether that would carry it directly to the Princess when there was a knock at her door. She bolted past Spike and down the carved wooden stairs of her loft, flinging the door open with a bolt of magic from her horn. Rarity stood trembling - her eyes speaking what her lips could not.

“Rarity, did Pinkie tell you everything?”

A slight nod broke through her barely suppressed sobbing.

“She did, yes, and then she left. I could have strangled her for leaving like that, but surely it’s for the best that I let her work.” She motioned outside, where “Pinkie’s Army” had mobilized. Teams of ponies, still in afternoon attire, bolted towards Everfree forest as soon as they received their orders.

“Ohh..” Rarity’s head hung like a wilted rose. “I do hope we get to them in time. I know it hasn’t been long here, but I can’t imagine what they must be going through”.

“I think they’ll all be okay,” Twilight reassured her. “Applejack and Rainbow Dash made it into the forest before Pinkie got here. Besides, we’ve been through the forest before. It’s not the safest place in Equestria, but I know those girls are smart enough to stay out of danger."

Rarity allowed the trace of a smile to return.

“Oh, Twilight. Thank you. I know you have a positively uncanny knack about being right, even when we have doubts. They probably are quite all right.”

She thrust her head up, regaining some modicum of her usual composure.

“But I can’t help to think that all this commotion seems.. a bit unusual,” as she gestured out the window.

“It might just be an overreaction,” Twilight mused. “But you know what Princess Celestia would say. Better to be safe than sorry, and never to give a half-flank job when somepony could be in trouble.”

Rarity smiled at Twilight’s impish grin, giggling at the implication that the Goddess of the Sun might earnestly utter such a saucy remark. Her mirth was short lived however, as she leveled her eyes and let her concern show once again.

“Twilight. What did Applebloom see?”

“What?”

“What did she see in the forest? What if this is not an overreaction?”

“I.. I don’t know Rarity,” she said weakly. “I don’t think Applejack even knows.”

She sighed weakly, letting her gaze drop to the floor.

“I probably should go. Pinkie did say she wanted everypony to help search.”

Twilight placed a hoof over Rarity’s mane.

“I will go with you,” she said solemnly.

Before they could turn to the door, an immense crash was heard just outside the library, followed by the sound of many stampeding hooves and a shower of loose gravel. Twilight flung the door open, expecting to see somepony’s house laying sideways in the street. Instead, and perhaps more surprisingly, Princess Celestia’s royal coach was parked only yards away - its gleaming white elegance juxtaposed against the deep ruts that marked its violent landing. A compliment of four Royal Guard pegasi, golden armor reflecting brightly through the cloud of dust, stood ready to loft the carriage back into the air.

“Oh my..” Twilight intoned, mouth agape. “Princess Celestia! I’m glad you could come! We’ve been worried..”

A Lieutenant of Canterlot Palace leaped from the carriage, and shouted in their direction.

“Miss Sparkle! Your presence has been urgently requested. Miss Rarity, I understand that you may wish to join us as well.”

The brief statement spoke volumes.

Twilight and Rarity hurried to enter the carriage. Two empty seats awaited them.

“Where is Princess Celestia,” Twilight inquired.

The Lieutenant simply gestured skyward. A wide “V” shaped procession streaked overhead, with the fierce glow of the Sun Goddess at its crux. Her majestic wings beating the air with a force that left her Royal Guard escorts straining to endure the gruelling pace.

"Now this can’t be normal,” she whispered to Rarity, who nervously nodded in return.

Without further delay, the lieutenant ordered the carriage aloft, slamming the two ponies backward into the plush seating. The familiar landmarks of Ponyville raced away as they went airborne, careening towards Everfree forest.

* * *

The rustling of so many distinct legs had fallen quiet some time ago, but Scootaloo still pressed onwards at a breakneck speed. Bounding over obstacles, and weaving through the trees as quickly as her short wings could take her. She stopped eventually, more exhausted than relieved.

The forest was unnaturally quiet.

Wheezing hard as she fought to stem the burning sensations in her wings, she stepped slowly in a circle to take in her surroundings. More forest, just as expected. The ground dipped into a long shallow ravine; murky water lazily threaded through the trench as Equestria’s poorest excuse for a river. Nearby, a tall wizened tree nearly straddled the stream, leaving a flat thicket of roots jutting out above the soil which had long since eroded away.

Sweetie Belle!

She lay still beneath the thicket, one flank embedded in the cloying bog. Her vivid purple and pink mane lay streaked and dirty across her back. Eyes shut to the world.

Scootaloo tried to call out, but her voice choked within her. Tears welled in her eyes as she stamped the ground furiously, angry with herself for leaving her friend behind.

“No. No. No.. Oh Sweetie Belle,” she raised her head to look once again.

But Sweetie Belle’s eyes were open now. Shocked wide and staring directly at Scootaloo with no trace of joy or relief. Only the same terrified expression that Applebloom wore as she wordlessly tore past them earlier.

“Run,” she whispered.

But she could not. The young pegasus found herself enveloped by a shadow, abruptly cut off from the reassuring warmth of the Equestrian sun. Where there had been an open bog of wet leaves now stood a towering statue of blackened metal. It’s many eyes bearing down on the terrified young pony, silently peering as it stood motionless.

“RUN!” screamed Sweetie Belle, who had extricated herself from the riverbank, and rapidly closed the distance with the foreign creature. “RUN!” she cried as she planted her fore hooves in the soft ground, and spun to deliver a precise kick with all the force her hind legs could muster.

Scootaloo needed no further prodding. She leapt away in the confusion, pounding her hooves into the ancient forest floor as a sharp ear-splitting bang echoed from behind her. The interloper erupted with a gutteral scream, breaking into a rapid fire procession of unintelligible barking. The ground vibrated as the metal giant shifted its ponderous weight, moving much more quickly than before. But the two ponies were already speeding away in opposite directions.

Further down the river, another tree had nearly succumbed to the inexorable erosion. It slanted halfway between the vertical and horizontal, propped up only by the strained branch of a neighboring tree.

Scootaloo darted towards it, pushing her wings to the limits as she galloped straight up the dying trunk. Chunks of bark were sent flying by the force of her hooves. When the tree ended, she did not stop. Her wings beat frantically, despite never having flown successfully before. It seemed like a good time to start. But just as her arboreal assisted jump sent her arcing over the forest canopy, she felt the rush of wind and gravity reclaiming her struggling body. The sunlight disappeared as she crashed through thick leaves and thin branches, careening straight back towards the dark carpet of the forest floor.

* * *

The skies of Equestria had become remarkably crowded in a few short minutes. Flights of palace guards and pegasi citizens swept over the leafy carpet of treetops, furtively watching for any signs of life. The Sun Goddess Celestia was no exception, tirelessly pumping her wings for altitude, then gliding in long winding “S” patterns just above the tree tops.

Suddenly there was a burst of light, coalescing into a rainbow hue jet stream behind one light-blue pony, her wild multicolored mane flapping vigorously as she ploughed through the humid air. Her swift dive into the forest caught the collective attention of the other pegasi, who hurried to veer towards her.

She returned from the forest moments later, wings beating skyward as she clutched another young brown pegasus tightly with her legs.

* * *

The ground raced to meet Scootaloo. Her eyes squeezed shut as she prepared for impact, but rather than a cold hard thud she suddenly felt herself grasped tightly and pulled through a stomach-lurching arc - the firm unforgiving ground rushing away just inches behind her.

Her eyes opened, cautiously at first, but then wide with relief to see nothing but a swatch of light blue hair.

“Dash! You made it!” shouted Scootaloo.

Rainbow Dash turned her head to look at the young pony cradled tightly between her hooves, before letting her gaze drift back to the forest below. Her usual boisterous demeanor had melted into surprise and terror.

“Dash?”

“WHAT WAS THAT!” screamed Rainbow Dash. “What was THAT!”

“The metal monster?”

“No, no no! Something else! We have to go back.”

“What!”

“It got Sweetie Belle!”

Scootaloo barely felt the words register before she was flipped upside down again, clutched tightly through a sharp turn. They dove once again toward the maw of the forest. It was just then that something unusual caught their eyes - a trail of smoke that sped over the horizon, whistling distinctly as it crossed their path, and angled down sharply beneath the forest canopy.

A crack of thunder and a gout of flame erupted from the forest floor. Dash and the other pegasi reared away in panic as fire and debris shot upwards into their path.

“Dash! What about Sweetie Belle!” cried Scootaloo as soon as she regained her breath. “What happened to her?”

A stream of tears was her only response.

* * *

Sweetie Belle’s back hooves delivered a violent jolt against the towering legs of the metal giant. Still completely terrified, but sporting a grin from ear to ear, she listened to the interloper’s outburst of foreign profanity growing steadily quieter behind her.

There was a soft rustling in the bushes nearby.

There was an intense and terrible sensation in Sweetie Belle’s flank.

She spun wildly from the impact on her rear quarter, sending her flailing into the slick bog. Her rear legs had gone completely numb - with that cold anesthetic feeling slowly creeping along her spine as well. She was facing backwards now, forelegs fighting for purchase to prop her head up from the dirt and decay.

The metal giant was moving with an alarming swiftness. It’s tree-trunk sized legs stamping angrily as it bore down on Sweetie Belle. But something else was holding her attention, something much closer.

In the annals and encyclopedias and bestiaries of the kingdom of Equestria, there were a great many plants, animals, and magical apparitions that had been studied, catalogued, or at least vaguely mentioned in the findings of exploratory journals. On the other hoof, there were a variety of creatures that were not, or would not ever find their way into the written record. The elusive nature of these creatures could generally be explained on their innate and well honed ability to camouflage themselves from prying eyes, thrive in climates or regions that were rarely travelled by the ponies of Equestria, or simply and viciously devour anything that approached.

That which stood before Sweetie Belle was firmly in the third category. Long hairy spider-like legs bunched into hundreds of brown bristling segments; the juncture where the arachnid characteristics clashed neatly with “giant carnivorous centipede”. If only it were that simple to describe. The head of the creature bore no resemblance to any known insect. Where one might expect to find eyes or a mouth, there was simply a mass of tendrils; eel-like protrusions with gibbering tooth rimmed mouths that thrashed blindly, bearing the force to knock down smaller prey.

The fangs bore a venom as well. A paralytic agent. Not one powerful enough to completely silence the prey, but just enough to leave it thrashing the ground with one or two remaining appendages in a desperate bid for survival.

The panic-stricken flailing of the young unicorn's matted muddy limbs sent vibrations through the ground that could be sensed through the spiderpede's many articulated feet. A sense that held a particular meaning for the creature. Lunch time. Albeit an extended lunch, since the dozens of tiny mouths could only consume flesh and bodily fluids in small measured chunks.

The numbness helped with cooperation.

As the paralysis crept past her forelegs, and the tears in her eyes blotted out the nightmare world before her, she began to scream. She screamed as the spiderpede darted towards her supine form, as the otherworldly metal monster ran towards her, and even as a flash of rainbow hued blur heralded Scootaloo’s rescue. Her face sank into the mud briefly, as she struggled to roll her uncooperative body to the side. Brackish water stung her eyes as she forced them open to witness their last sights.

The spiderpede was held aloft, grasped in four separate places by the metal monster. Clumps of legs were torn free as the mechanical arms efficiently punctured and dismembered. Still it fought back, the poison tipped tendrils beating uselessly into the head and neck of the interloper. With a grunt, the metal monster spun and threw the spiderpede to the ground, where it lay writhing. Then it pointed, making a series of odd, but distinct gestures.

And then, it ran. It scooped up the screaming Sweetie Belle and held her close to its blackened steel armor, running with long purposeful strides. Moments later, there was a great and terrible explosion. Flames, debris, and the innards of carnivorous pony-eating insect flew in haphazard arcs past the interloper and Sweetie Belle’s field of vision.

The forest flew by at a dizzying pace, suggesting a far more jarring ride than the gentle support from the steel gauntlets. It was hard to tell if the interloper was exhibiting real concern, or if it was just the dream-like effects of near total paralysis.

Either way, she hoped before slipping unconscious, that it didn’t hold a grudge.

* * *

“Did you see that!” Twilight screamed over the whistling wind.

Rarity peered over the edge, her face bereft of any visible emotion. Slowly she closed her quivering eyelids, and turned to face rear of the carriage. Twilight averted her attention from the chaos below to hold her friend; gently shuddering as she softly wept.

There was a sudden commotion from the front of the carriage, as the Lieutenant scrambled to one side.

“INCOMING,” he shouted as the carriage rocked with a sudden thump. Twilight and Rarity twisted around in the increasingly cramped area, turning to see Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo, breathlessly sprawled across the seat.

The glances they exchanged conferred a distinct absence of good news.

“Have you seen Sweetie Belle?” Rarity asked through a facade of hope. “What happened to her?”

Rainbow Dash began to shake her head, but hesitated.

“I.. don’t know,” she breathed. “I don’t even know what I saw down there, it was so fast”

She still held Scootaloo tightly to her chest, almost afraid to let go.

“What did you see Dash? What caused that fire -”

“INCOMING,” the lieutenant loudly interrupted again. The carriage rocked a second time as the remaining space was taken by the gleaming majestic flank of Princess Celestia - straddling the side rail with two legs hooked in the car, and two dangling in the air. One wing folded tightly, and the other extended in the airstream to keep her aloft.

“Girls, I am glad to see you safe! But I must not delay.” She turned to Twilight. “I must commend your judgement for bringing this to my immediate attention. I know you had very little to go by, but there are no shortage of surprises in Equestria, and it never hurts to stay one hoof ahead of them. You have my thanks.”

She turned, a somber expression creeping over her regal disposition.

“Lieutenant, stay aloft until given the signal to land. Otherwise, if you see anything else out of the ordinary, return immediately to Canterlot. I charge you with their safety.”

“Understood, your majesty.”

“Rarity. Know this. Your sister is in my care.” She leaned close to Rarity, their horns touching for a brief moment as she whispered to her.

A tangible sense of calm washed over her, as she quietly nodded back to the Princess.

“Rainbow Dash. Your brave actions have made a difference today. The depth of my gratitude can not hope to match what you are truly owed.”

Dash tried to protest, shaking her head weakly.

“I couldn’t get to her in time. Something carried her away into the forest.”

“But there is still hope, is there not? Hold onto that thought like a candle in the darkness, and let it guide you.”

Rainbow Dash simply nodded.

“I will.”

“Now I must go. Be strong, my little ponies.”

And with that, the Princess Celestia kicked off from the burdened carriage, spreading her wings and diving into the jet stream. They watched as she swooped down into the fray.

“But.. where is she going?” asked Scootaloo.

They looked. Dozens of pegasi, citizen and soldier alike, had begun to descend through the cloud of smoke wafting up from Everfree forest. The first wave of Pinkie Pie’s search party were not far behind. But the Princess had turned to seek a different objective. She followed the smoke trail that still hung over the forest, before diving through the leafy canopy, out of sight.

* * *

Sweetie Belle laid nearly still on a silver blanket, breathing softly through fitful sleep. The punctures on her flank had been painstakingly cleaned, and bandaged with sterile cloth. A portable electric blanket rose and fell with the movement of her ribs.

The interloper remained still, holding vigil over its comatose patient. Nearby, a metal case lay open - nearly buried in the clutter of tiny wrapped packages and stainless steel implements.

A solid thump in the ground announced a new presence behind the interloper. The measured and uniform stomp of four hooves conveyed a very clear demand for attention.

A crown of eyes spun around to face the newcomer, even as the interloper kneeled motionless in front of the makeshift triage area. Slowly and deliberately, it began to stand, shifting it’s body to show the young Sweetie Belle laying safely in front of it. It’s careful and practiced movements bespoke considerable experience in this sort of situation. A seasoned veteran of awkward encounters at gunpoint. Finally it stood, rocking back and forth with small steps as it turned to face its visitor.

A big glowing unicorn with wings. The interloper shrugged plaintively, before slowly holding one hand in the air and uttering a deep electronically tinged greeting.

For Princess Celestia, this sounded virtually indistinguishable from a stagecoach sliding sideways over a gravel strewn cliff, and violently immersing itself in the bottom of a lake - except backwards and softer.

* * *

Applejack continued her trek through the forest, meandering through unmarked trails. Her burst of vigor had since faded, as with her sense of direction. Still she pressed on, even as her creeping doubt began to manifest as a bear trap snapped tightly in the back of her mind.

She was lost. No other way around it.

Her head hung low, she steadfastly continued - refusing to succumb to the choking sobs that swelled in her throat.

As she pushed past yet another low hedge, bespackled with tiny pink and yellow flowers, she came across something odd. A perfectly circular patch of berries and fruits, hanging delectably from short stunted branches.

“Well,” she said, putting aside her thoughts of Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo for a moment, “Ah never seen anything quite like that before, but I know them’s good eatin.”

A full stomach never hurt anybody.

* * *

Over the blanket where Sweetie Belle lay, the two giants among ponies faced off. The luminous alicorn, magestic in her splendor and graceful in poise, stared fervently across the space between them; eyes narrowed to angry slits and jaw set with fierce determination. Flank muscles tensed to lunge forward at the slightest provocation as she leveled her gleaming white horn at the interloper.

The visitor firmly held ground. Its suit of armor bore a very simple and utilitarian purpose; to inspire shock and terror in those unfortunate to face it, and swiftly follow through with brutish mayhem. Such a suit would find itself only mildly impeded as it smashed its way through flesh and bone, or hardened steel bulkheads. But despite the nightmarish appearance, it tried its best to appear friendly.

A rumble of countless hooves could be heard, encircling the standoff. A sea of hushed gasps and quiet shouting. No pony approached, even as the encroaching circle swelled with their numbers.

They stood this way for minutes, neither flinching from their mutual gaze. Their eyes locked unwaveringly, even through the sudden commotion, screaming, and frantic galloping of ponies clearing a path for one errant pegasi drawn royal carriage. It struck the ground hard, wheels fracturing in segments over the uneven terrain. In a panic, the Lieutenant hammered the release for the harness, allowing the draft pegasi to fly upwards out of the path of the impromptu missile. The remains of Princess Celestia’s royal chariot bounced and slid through the soft grass, wooden debris flanking the uneven furrow it carved.

The carriage skidded to a halt, settling just inches away from the dead broken limbs jutting away like a ring of spikes from the trunk of one particularly deformed tree. Despite the renewed and deep seated fear of Everfree forest held by the occupants of the carriage, they unanimously reached a wordless decision that it couldn’t be any worse than spending another minute in the wreckage, as they dove out in all directions.

With great and deliberate caution, the interloper perceptibly gestured with one steel gauntlet in the direction of the carriage, as if to say ‘Hey, did you see that?’.

She didn’t.

Sweetie Belle stirred gently, roused by the cacophony of vehicular carnage, and the screaming that accompanied it. Her eyelids fluttered open further at the shrill cry of her older sister.

Rarity had galloped straight away towards the trio, only stopping short of entering their mutual space. She looked at Sweetie Belle, anguished at the sight of her wounds, but buoyed by the monumental relief that she still lived. Flush with conflicting emotion, she settled back on her hindquarters, staring up with nervous trepidation at the formidable metal giant before her.

It looked back. With a soft hiss of hydraulics and artificial muscle, it slowly descended, placing one knee next to Sweetie Belle. Under the alicorn’s watchful eye, the interloper’s steel gauntlets gently slid under the young filly’s flank; lifting her up and into Rarity’s embrace.

Sweetie Belle broke the collective silence, whispering softly enough to be heard across the entire forest clearing.

“Is that you, sis?”

“Yes,” Rarity spoke, as she struggled to regain her voice. “I’m here now.”

Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash nearly bowled the two over as they joined to hug Sweetie Belle, followed closely by Applebloom - who threaded her way through the crowd and ran across the clearing faster than her older brother could give chase.

Not another word was spoken for some time, until Applebloom piped up curiously.

“Where’s Applejack?”

* * *

Author's Note:

Authors notes? testing testing, 1 2 3

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