• Published 12th Oct 2011
  • 28,355 Views, 915 Comments

The End - shalrath



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

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Chapter 2

* * *

Applebloom weaved through the crowd, oblivious to the angry bellowing from Big Mac. The wall of ponies were pressed nearly flank to flank, but she squeezed through where she could, and crawled where she couldn’t.

She heard a pony shouting above and behind her. Applebloom turned briefly to see what was causing the commotion.

This was easily the second most horrifying thing she’d seen all day. Princess Celestia’s chariot, lacquered a brilliant white and trimmed with gold, was barrelling in just above the crowd. The four pegasi of the draft team held their wings folded tight against their bodies as they plowed through branch and bough of the forest. A brown and white pony in royal livery reared upright on two legs at the head of the carriage, screaming orders as the whole ensemble glided toward her like a well thrown brick.

“Make a hole! MAKE A HOLE!” the Lieutenant shouted.

The ponies moved. Not necessarily in the same direction at the same time, but it was a good start that strongly implied they were quite serious at not becoming Equestria’s first case of roadkill. Few however were afforded the luxury of an expedient extrication, and the entire swath of them simply threw themselves to the ground and hoped for the best.

The carriage roared overhead, narrowly missing a set of trees as it burst through the clearing. The pegasi pumped their wings furiously, pulling the carriage out of it’s dive before they were cut loose at the last moment. The unencumbered draft team rocketed skyward as the wheels met the forest floor with a heavy crack, sending spokes and wooden bands flying.

Applebloom clambered over the many ranks of awestruck ponies, exploiting the momentary confusion and chaos to reach the clearing. But then she stopped abruptly.

The metal monster was there.

* * *

In the center of the clearing, the metal giant kneeled before the focused gaze of Princess Celestia. It gingerly lifted Sweetie Belle from the ground, before passing her semi-conscious form to Rarity, who accepted her without fear or hesitation.

Sweetie Belle stirred against Rarity, whispering into her chest as her older sister answered through tears of joy.

Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo raced across the field. But just before they arrived, the interloper shot to its feet suddenly, in a state of panic. Those closest to it, even Princess Celestia, involuntarily reared up on hind legs. Tranquility giving way to fight or flight.

The interloper deftly turned on one foot, judging a path through the forest against it’s internal bearings. Celestia and her guard prepared to engage again, but it was already running.

There was a high pitched whine, and a loud *whump* as twin pillars of flame erupted from the interloper’s back. It bolted into the air with alarming speed, crashing forcefully through the thick foilage.

Celestia and her guards were already in pursuit, leaving Rarity and Sweetie Belle huddled together in the clearing. Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo zipped next to them, staring in awe at the sudden turn of events.

“Did you see that!” they shouted simultaneously.

Applebloom finally made her way to the middle, gasping for air from her labored journey.

No pony spoke for some time, until Applebloom finally caught her breath.

“Where’s Applejack?”

* * *

Applejack nibbled cautiously on the swollen berries. The sweet nectar soothed her lips and slid easily down her throat. There was a lingering sense in the back of her mind that these could be poisonous, but just a few shouldn’t give her more than a belly ache.

Besides, they were delicious!

It was around this time that she heard something odd. She looked up, and immediately recoiled backwards - tripping over her own legs and landing upright on her bottom.

The one half ton bundle of articulated armor landed heavily before her, two enormous metal boots embedded in the grass, and one claw-shaped steel gauntlet buried deep into the small circle of fruits and berries.

The wooden leaves of the gardener’s flower snapped shut over the interloper’s arm. The metal giant wrestled with it momentarily, before grasping the supple vine and ripping it from the dirt. Still it twisted and pulled, coiling hard enough to force the metal giant into a struggle for balance.

The interloper aimed a stubby metallic tube at the base of the vine. There was a brilliant flash and a thunderous retort, as the vine disintegrated into glowing embers. Flaming bits of peat moss showered the general vicinity.

Applejack continued to stare, all instincts set aside as she grappled with what she saw.

The metal monster still struggled to extract it’s arm from the vise-like grip of the gardener’s flower, bashing the fibrous wooden leaves repeatedly with it’s other hand. It held firm though, seemingly determined to crush the contents of its vicious maw.

That could have been her trapped in there.

Finally the husk of the decapitated carnivorous plant landed with a soft thud, and the interloper turned to face Applejack.

A million thoughts raced through her mind. Was this stranger friendly? Were Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle okay? Why did it come here when it did? What in the name of Celestia’s green pastures was that explosion?

What happened next was quite positively the last thing she would have ever expected. It picked her up easily, cradled in metal claws designed to tear holes in starships, and gave her a long heartfelt hug.

Her mind raced, but the gear was in neutral. Just over the giant’s shoulder, she caught sight of Princess Celestia - her jaw literally hanging in surprise.

There were very few times when “I can explain everything!” just simply could not. In the grand collection of history, throughout all such moments of epic awkwardness, this qualified as ‘Exhibit A’.

“Aw, what the hell,” she thought to herself as she hugged the metal monstrosity back.

* * *

“Can I have everypony’s attention please! Yes, I’m up here. All of you, please settle down for a moment!” The Lieutenant shouted from atop the wrecked carriage, stamping his hooves with impatience.

“Hi!” exclaimed Pinkie Pie, as she bounced up to the carriage. “Whatcha doing?”

“Trying to put things back in order here.. oh hey! HEY! You there! Stop what you’re doing and come back please! No wait. Go and tell those other ponies who just ran off into the woods to come back at once. The Princess is taking care of.. whatever we just saw take place. Tell them to come back immediately. We’re here for the fillies, who are now accounted for! We’re done with that, and now we need to.. OH! Catch hoof fungus you manure for brains goatmilk sucking salt licker! Anyways, pardon me about that, what did you say your name was?”

“I’m Pinkie Pie!” came the turbocharged saccharine response.

The Lieutenant sighed.

“That’s wonderful. Suppose you could tell me who in Celestia’s green pastures managed to round up the entire population of Ponyville and sent them into the middle of the forest here?”

“That would be me, silly! I know every pony in Ponyville, and I brought them all with me!” The cotton candy colored pony smiled like a shark in a swimming pool.

“Oh what.. you can’t be serious. You are serious. Gah.. Why on Equestria did you..”

“It’s a Search PARTY!”

The day of the Lieutenant’s inevitable debilitating brain aneurysm seemed that much closer.

“Auughh..” The Lieutenant rubbed his temple with one well polished hoof. “I don’t suppose it’s occurred to you that this is the Everfree Forest, and there are an awful lot of ponies who probably shouldn’t be out here. And if they start wandering off and getting lost, we’re going to have a real crisis on our hands. We need to focus on getting everypony back safely, rather than just standing around bumping flanks - er, pardon my language miss.”

“Well I can help!” she giggled with disconcerting confidence.

Without waiting for a response, she zipped into the milling throng of ponies. To the Lieutenant, she looked less like a pony, and more like a bouncing pink bulldog, as she swiftly herded the loose circle into a neat and terrified grid.

“Theeeey’re all yours!” She squealed, as she reared up on her hind legs and snapped off a salute that would bring a tear to a Drill Stallion’s scornful eye.

“Right then. First off, on behalf of Her Majesty Princess Celestia, and the Royal Guard of Canterlot, you have our thanks for coming here today. Bravely coming here, I might add. Great! Now that’s out of the way, I would like to remind everypony that we are in the middle of the forest, and the sun is going down soon! Now I know that not many of you are a part of Her Majesties forces, but I would ask that you follow my lead, and hopefully we can get everyone back to Ponyville in an orderly fashion.”

“Why should we take orders from you!” came a voice from the crowd.

There was a bright and terrible flash of pink.

There was a quiet whimpering from the heckler in the crowd.

“Theeey’re all yours!” Pinkie shouted.

* * *

“Applejack, my little pony. Are you okay?”

“Yes ma'am, I mean, Princess. I sure am glad to see you here.” She paused to look over her shoulder at the interloper. “Mighty glad the big fella was here too.”

Celestia overturned the gardener’s flower with her hoof, shuddering slightly.

“I would say so. Very fortunate,” she trailed off.

“Princess, pardon for interrupting, but have you seen Scootaloo or Sweetie Belle? I’ve been awfully worried.”

Celestia leaned forward, face to face with the cornsilk hue pony.

“They are both safe and well. And I believe we have our guest to thank for that.” She smiled warmly. “But know well that we all are indebted to you, my dear Applejack. Your bravery and determination has made a profound difference in the course of this day.”

Applejack nearly collapsed with relief.

The alicorn reared her head back gracefully, drawing up with magnificent regal splendor. She turned to face the interloper one more time, bowing her head with all sincerity.

The interloper raised it’s iron gauntlet again, waggling it around from side to side, and emitting a rumbling salutation that sounded not unlike a sick dragon gargling with a barrel of rainwater.

In the complete and exhaustive annals of awkwardness, this was ‘Exhibit B’.

After a few moments, the metal giant tried a different approach. It swung one of it’s smaller arms forward, fingers splayed ever so slightly with the palm facing up. Celestia eyed the strange pose, and attempted to mimic the otherworldly greeting; her hoof pressed softly into the mechanical gauntlet.

They shook.

* * *

“All right, is everybody clear? Task element Barley, your job is to proceed back to Ponyville, leaving two-pony teams at 50 yard intervals. You will be relieved by task element Oatmeal, as they pass through. Stay tight with your groups, and leave no pony behind”

The Lieutenant sighed with a small measure of relief. Not only for the satisfaction of an orderly procession, but the sudden stroke of brilliance in asking that shrill pink maniac to take a complete headcount.

“Now, Thank you again, everypony, for your cooperation. Task element Hayseed, are you prepared to embark?”

“Eeeyup,” affirmed Big Macintosh, towing a makeshift sled with Sweetie Belle comfortably strapped in.

“Excellent. Now If there are any volunteers, I’d like to see if we can do something about this,” he tapped his hoof on the stricken carriage. “It shouldn’t be too hard to strip down and carry back to Ponyville.”

The carriage already bore a conspicuously absent space where a Sweetie Belle sized plank used to be.

“Any volunteers at all? Love to get this thing home and slap on a little bit of glue and polish. It’ll be just like new, and no pony will ever know the difference.”

“Know what?” intoned a familiar voice.

The Lieutenant spun abruptly, losing his footing and tumbling from the roof of the carriage. He rebounded up from the pony-sized depression in the mud and came to attention. Years of well hardened discipline suppressing his sudden urge to brush away the wet leaves plastered to the side of his face.

“Your Majesty..” he stated, deftly concealing his sudden lack of anything to say as a declarative salutation.

Celestia peered across the clearing - the organized chaos of ponies marching home in staggered intervals, and the entourage surrounding Big Mac as he pulled Sweetie Belle on a gleaming white lacquered plank.

She looked at the carriage, and back to the Lieutenant.

“Permission to speak freely, your Majesty?”

“Go ahead.”

“I’m sure that will buff out.”

Many thousands of years of experience bearing the crown of Equestria came to bear in suppressing a very un-princess-like braying laugh. But only just.

“It’s perfectly all right, Lieutenant..”

“Lancaster, ma’am. Laurence Lancaster.”

“Ah. I apologize if we did not have the time to meet properly this morning. And I feel that our time here may be short as well. But I must stay to commend your quick thinking and superb organization.”

“I did have some.. help, your Majesty.” He let his eyes flick to the sides, nervously twitching at the thought of leering pink visage appearing from nowhere.

Celestia giggled softly. “I think I know exactly who you mean.”

“She has some natural.. talents, I have to admit. I have her performing a headcount to make sure there’s - “

“All done!”

If there was a terrible and abrupt end of the world, this was exactly how Lancaster had dreadfully imagined it; his vision filled with the bright eyes and wide smiling teeth of the gleeful rending of existence.

“Pinkie Pie, my resourceful little filly. Is everypony accounted for?” Celestia mused, already certain of the answer.

“Of course, silly!”

The Lieutenant’s fateful destiny with a brain aneurysm crept several years closer.

“I’ve got them aaaall right here!” She tapped a hoof against her head with a force that would leave larger animals in a six month coma.

“Well done my little pony,” she said with a trace of astonishment, glancing up at the sea of near-indistinguisable ponies, and back down to Pinkie - who’s attention had suddenly gone cross-eyed on a lavender butterfly, her lips whispering softly as she attempted to discern the secret language of it’s ancient and storied fluttery race.

“Lieutenant Lancaster, I have yet another assignment for you to partake in your service to the crown. If you would please, and with haste, inform Miss Twilight Sparkle that I urgently request her presence again. Please escort her back to the clearing, and I shall return shortly. Secondly, I will ask that you secure lodging in Ponyville for a brief but indefinite duration, as soon as you have finished seeing everypony out of the forest.”

The Lieutenant nodded sharply.

“One more thing. Please inform Twilight and her companions that their friend Applejack is safe, and will join them later this evening.”

“Understood Ma’am. But if I might say one thing, you can just call me Laurie instead of that other mouthfull.”

“I see. Then I shall call you Captain Laurie from now on.”

His lungs took a sharp intake of breath, though it felt as if the exact opposite had happened.

“You are dismissed, Captain.”

Laurie saluted, unwittingly adding another layer of mud and detrius to his proud bespackled face.

Celestia turned to depart, leaving the two next to the carriage.

“Yaaay! A promotion!” Pinkie cartwheeled around Laurie.

His eyes bore twin hollow pupils, a thousand yard stare that silently screamed for sweet release from this nightmare. Explosions rocked around him, sending his heart racing - the streaming confetti and showers of glitter from Pinkie’s emergency party rations. He turned briskly, and ran after task element Hayseed - where Twilight and the others formed a loose entourage around Sweetie Belle.

“Oh hey, did she say you’re going to be living in Ponyville! That’s great! I know just the place where you can stay too, it’s right next to Sugarcube Corner! I know we can be the best of friends! FOREVER!”

Captain Laurie broke into a sprint.

* * *

Applejack waited patiently, examining the odd plastic netting draped over the squat hulking structure behind it. She backed up and walked forward several times, amazed at how the facade of artificial leaves and mismatched colors blended seamlessly with the forest. Even the Royal Guards couldn’t help reaching through the fake foilage to gently tap the drab boxy metal craft.

“Is it still inside there?” Celestia asked, gliding silently behind Applejack.

The Royal Guard ponies of Canterlot abruptly snapped back to their posts.

“Yes Princess,” Applejack responded with a husky sigh. “Not sure what for, but I reckon it’s not polite to rush things.”

“Oh, I agree.”

They sat for a moment, before Applejack changed the subject.

“Never knew something that big n scary could be all affectionate like that,” she said with a chuckle, concealing a hint of blush. “Almost like it hadn’t seen me in a while.. which would be kinda silly, since neither of us ain’t met before.”

“I agree. It certainly was an interesting reaction.”

‘Interesting’ did not begin to describe the depth of what Celestia opted not to say.

From behind the netting came the sound of footsteps - much softer than before. There was a hiss of hydraulics and lubricated metal as the ramp lifted and sealed against the belly of the craft.

What stepped out was much smaller, but only slightly shorter than before. Eyes nearly level with Princess Celestia. An upright frame lacking the bulging haunches and chests of Equestria’s inhabitants. It raised one hand, pink fleshy fingers splayed flat in the evening air.

It opened it’s mouth. What came out sounded like a short singing note, combined with the winning entry in last year’s Apple Family annual “pie-eatin, cider-drinkin, belch-athon” contest.

* * *

“Miss Sparkle! Miss Sparkle, yes, sorry, thank you all for stopping. Miss Sparkle, I have instructions to escort you back to the Princess.”

“Oookay. It’s just Twilight by the way.”

“And I’m Laurie. Sorry we haven’t had a chance for proper introductions. Ah, Captain Laurie actually. No wait. I’d have to check the regs on how fast a field promotion from the Princess is supposed to take affect. Oooh, no wait - I need to check when my new pay grade takes affect first, oh god I hate the paperwork that comes out of that office. Augh! Anyways, sorry about that. Oh, good news! I’m happy to let you know that your friend Aa.. Actionjack.. Applesauce.. oh gods.. “

“Applejack?”

“Yes! That’s the one. I have some important news about her! She’s ahh.. good. She’s doing good. Don’t ask me anything else because that is everything I know at the moment.”

“Wow, you are good,” Rainbow Dash said with a snicker.

“Anyways, glad to see everything is proceeding smoothly. Miss Twilight, when you’re ready.. Oh hold on, Hey! HEY! You there! Get away from that! Those things are unbelievably dangerous, I don’t care how hungry you.. HEY! You dragon teat sucking, dung-wallowing, flank-on-both-ends, miserable excuse for a quadruped; back away from that thing, NOW!” Laurie stopped to catch his breath. “Now all of you, get back in line, and don’t go anywhere near those berry patches again! I will make you march single file all the way to Ponyville if you can’t keep your oat-stuffed noses out of trouble!”

The crowd looked back at the raving mud and leaf plastered pony. Pinkie was there next to him, bouncing back and forth between her fore and hind legs, chirping a constant stream of “Can I help, Ooh, can I help! I love to help!”

They zipped into line, marching away in lockstep terror as fast as they could manage.

“Ahh, sorry about that. Anyways, Miss Twilight, when you’re ready -”

“What’s a..”

“APPLEBLOOM!” shouted Big Macintosh, staring sternly at his younger sister.

“That’s when you..”

“PINKIE!” shouted the other ponies, save for Rarity, who immediately blushed beet red and threw her forelegs into a makeshift muzzle around Pinkie Pie.

Captain “or is it Lieutenant?” Laurie shot Twilight a glance that spoke “Let’s run and never look back”.

They did.