• Published 15th Aug 2013
  • 9,299 Views, 95 Comments

Xenophilia: Plague's End - SpinelStride



The Blank Plague has burned out in Canterlot and Ponyville, but one alicorn must still undergo its ravages. But the Princess of Dreams has duties that cannot be left untended, and dreams will not bear the sun's light...

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Chapter 2: Burdens

Fluttershy hummed merrily to herself as she trotted about her cottage. Oh, today was such a wonderful day! Angel Bunny was being so perfectly behaved today, and all of her animal friends were just the very bestest of the bestest little cuties anywhere! She tugged out the bag of nuts for her little squirrel friends and sang out, "Come on out! It's breakfast time! And don't all of you just deserve the very best there's ever been, yes you do!"

The squirrels rushed right over and began animatedly chattering. She admired their sleek, glossy coats, their marvelously bushy tails, their perfectly kept teeth. She was just the best at taking care of her little friends, and they'd be in ever so much trouble if she wasn't there to help them all out. And Ponyville would be in so much trouble too! Why, they'd have mice nibbling all sorts of things they weren't supposed to, and the poor hydra would come on out of the Everfree, and the beavers wouldn't know where to build their dams, and all sorts of other problems.

Really, the whole town needed her so very much, and they didn't appreciate her at all! But every pony had their own personal little sun to raise, and she was just going to accept their little failings with her own considerable stores of grace, and she'd forgive them for not noticing what an utterly ideal pony she was.

Down where ponies belonged, too. On the ground! Not up in the sky, which was clearly far higher than ponies were supposed to be, wings or none. Why, of course she could fly up to the clouds if she really had to! Hadn't she outflown Rainbow Dash, even, when Fluttershy had to save Equestria from Discord's simply awful naughtiness? Sixteen wingpower, hah! Fluttershy was sure she could have shown off a little more and demonstrated twenty wingpower, maybe thirty, but it just wouldn't have been nice to show up Rainbow Dash like that, not when that silly pegasus was so proud of her flying all the time!

But Fluttershy could forgive other ponies their little lapses. Of course Rainbow Dash was proud about her flying, and Rarity was proud of her appearance, and Applejack was proud of all her farm animals, and Pinkie Pie was proud of how everyone loved her, and Twilight was proud of her magic... well, she did happily admit that Twilight Sparkle's magical powers were quite impressive, and nothing at all that Fluttershy wanted to be involved with, and if her other friends didn't notice just how much better she was at their personal points of pride, why, she could smile politely and let them think that!

She was so very, very humble, after all. And that lovely new dark fur across her chest set off her wings so nicely.

***

Lyra held her hoof against Rainbow Dash's neck. "Even for you in the mornings, this is pretty bad," she told the multicolor-maned pegasus. "Is this the Luna thing, or did the plague set you into heat early and you need to get onto a train to Canterlot?"

Rainbow Dash glowered up at her herdmate, from her spot on her back on the floor. "I am not going into heat!" she insisted. "I can wake up in a bad mood every now and then without it being an all-Equestria-beware emergency, okay? Maybe it is the Luna thing, but I feel fine. I just didn't get a good sleep. She messed up my dreams or something. Now get your hoof off of me before I break it off!"

"You're not helping your case, Rainbow," Lyra said, without moving.

Rainbow Dash glared up at her... then gritted her teeth. She took several hard breaths and forced herself to relax. "Sorry. Sorry, Lyra. You're right. I'm fine. Maybe it is that thing Luna did." She reached a hoof up to the side of her head. "She did something, that's pretty obvious."

Her coat was cyan as ever, her mane as rainbowed as ever. It was just on her head that a helmet pattern of dark, dark navy blue had manifested overnight.

"If I have nightmares for Luna until she gets better, then I'm not gonna sleep too well, so I'm gonna be kinda a nightmare myself," Rainbow Dash admitted. "I don't remember having nightmares, but if she rules dreams and she has nightmares, maybe I'm just having them for her. I'll take some extra naps and try to let everypony know I'm on edge, okay? Maybe this afternoon we can spar some and I can work some of this off getting my flank kicked?"

Lyra stepped back, taking her hoof away from Rainbow Dash's neck. "If you start feeling strange in any way, come get me," she warned. "Luna herself doesn't know what's going to happen to you."

Rainbow rolled onto her hooves. "Yeah, yeah, I know. And no stunts yet either, I didn't forget that either. I'm back up to a twelve, but no stunts until I hit at least fourteen, or I might still hurt myself, blah blah blah."

"They're your wings. You know best," Lyra said.

Rainbow Dash glowered at her again. "If you already know I'm in a bad mood today, you really oughtta know it's a bad day to be doing the whole annoyingly-enigmatic thing, right?"

***

Rarity stood in front of her sewing machine, frowning at the pattern she'd prepared yesterday for Fancy Pants' new order. She had done a magnificent job, of course. The new jacket would look simply smashing on him. But then he'd take it away, and no matter how wonderful a job she'd done on it, she'd never get a chance to see it in its proper environment. And that would be such a waste, wouldn't it?

The only thing to do was to set that little task aside for the moment so she could concentrate on something really worthwhile, something she'd get to properly enjoy. And it really had been quite a while since she made something just for herself. Not just a little shawl or hat, but really outdone herself on herself. And if she couldn't give herself things, then who could she give them to, really? She wouldn't want anypony else to think she was neglecting herself for them. It'd be simply cruel, and they'd think such awful things of themselves!

So she settled in to work. Neighponese silk, of course, a subtle mulberry to make a mingling between her prized mane and her gorgeous, meticulously maintained coat. Diamonds, sapphires, and amethysts for accents, with a few rubies at strategic locations to make it all really shine. A traditional train of lace, full enough to accent the flanks but with just enough gaps to artfully provide glimpses of her tail. Oh, and a single emerald bracelet about the right fore-ankle, to set the whole thing off! It was going to be so magnifique! And all for her!

And it would go so well with that lovely horn, so dark and mysterious! Why, all the stallions would ask how she came to have such a distinctly, dramatically offsetting horn, and she'd laugh and tell them that it was a little gift for her, just a little token of appreciation from Princess Luna for doing her a favor. Just what favor she was doing Rarity hadn't a clue, but clearly she was if she had Luna's color on! Why, she'd have all the stallions courting her at once!

All of them. She'd make sure to send any mated ones back to their herds, of course, she wasn't greedy, but the rest were hers!

Dimly she was aware of the sounds of Spike making breakfast for himself and for Sweetie Belle. He was such a darling little dragon, so brave and so noble, so giving in spite of his very nature! Twilight had done a simply splendid job raising him, but Rarity just couldn't imagine giving him up now. Surely Twilight would agree that he belonged to her now!

With her! With her, of course.

***

Pinkie Pie woke up hugging Gummy in his bed. She felt cold and clammy and Gummy was totally grumpy that she'd woken him up in the night but it was okay he forgave her and he liked being hugged so she kept hugging him and she had a great idea so she bounced over to the window she'd finally got back to bouncing just last week because she'd been so totally tired and it wasn't like her but sometimes even Pinkie Pie got sick and Rarity threw her that great party when she got better and that was what she was going to do!

"ANON, PONYVILLAINS!" Pinkie boomed out of her opened window. "LET US COMMENCE WITH GREAT MERRIMENT!"

A passing stallion winced, put his hoof in his ear, rubbed around, blinked, and looked up. "What was that, Pinkie?"

Pinkie Pie blinked back. Huh. What was that? "WE MEANEST... UH... Hey, Ponyville! Let's have a PARTY!"

***

Applejack swayed on her hooves in front of a tree. She'd skipped breakfast. Eatin'd be takin' food away from ever'pony else, an' it'd be all her fault if Applebloom got all stunted, or Granny just plain shriveled up, or Big Mac turned into Just Mac. Her fault Sweet Apple Acres was always runnin' so low on bits. If she was as good a farmer as Ma and Pa, or as good as Granny, they'd be makin' it all year on the Zap Apple Jam alone. Or she'd be winnin' blue ribbons at the rodeos an' keepin' everything right that way.

As it was, she couldn't hardly even buck a tree right. Her hooves felt like she had an anvil tied to each one, an' they even looked it, with that dark blue fur now at the end of each leg. Jes' walking out of the house was a bigger challenge 'n the Runnin' of the Leaves, Rainbow Dash's shenanigans included. She tried, ain't nobody could say she didn't try, but she jes' couldn't get both hind legs into it. Could barely get one leg up to kick with, even. An' that was all her fault too, now even her sorry-flank job wasn't gonna get done.

Prob'ly have to set Applebloom to buckin' before she was ready now, Applejack's fault. Then her little sister'd never get her cutie mark, not stuck doin' a chore that shoulda been Applejack's if she didn't mess it all up so badly. An' Applebloom'd never forgive her for somethin' like that, an' she'd be darn right not to. Be jes' what she deserved for wreckin' the whole darn Apple family.

Ma and Pa were prob'ly regrettin' they'd ever had her in the first place. Applejack hadn't noticed when the tears started fallin' down her muzzle, but her hooves were jes' too darn heavy to lift 'em to wipe those tears off with. Her fault about Ma and Pa, too, if she thought about it, but that jes' hurt too much to think about jes' how it was her fault. She jes' knew it was. Couldn't hardly believe she'd never admitted it to herself before.

"Some Element of Honesty you are, AJ," she whispered to herself. "Can't even tell your own family you ruined ever'pony."

***

Twilight Sparkle sat in the hall between the dreams. She had no use for it, not when she sat alone, holding Luna's vigil there, but there was no reason to banish it either. She had so many other things to do. The worst things were the ones she didn't know about. They were out there, somewhere. They saw her and hated her for being there, but dared not attack. She knew, with the certainty of dreams, that if they attacked, she would know what they were and she would know one of Luna's other duties, and she might never return to the waking world. She knew that if they attacked then she would defeat them. She knew they knew it too.

There were just so many ponies dreaming, in the meantime. She couldn't see Celestia's dreams, nor Luna's, nor Lero's, nor those of her friends who had taken Luna's burden. But she could see Spike's, and of course he was dreaming of Rarity. There were so many ponies out in Appleloosa having such awful dreams, but the most frightening there were the simplest ones, the colorless dreams of nothing that taught her what she had dreamed when her mind was gone. She ached to reach out to them, but what could she do? The plague was on them, and it would pass in time, but they would have to endure until then.

A pony in Fillydelphia mourned her lost colt. She dreamed of digging into his grave with her bare hooves, digging and digging and digging forever, always knowing her son was buried somewhere below, that she just had to find him.

An elderly stallion in Seaddle lay in a hospital bed, dreaming of waking and being unable to move, unable to speak, hearing a sad song but unable to join in.

A set of twin filly foals lay against each other in a cabin in the far frozen north of the Crystal Empire, dreaming of Mommy being warm again and feeding them.

Honeydew was dreaming of a town of mares and humans, of screaming through the streets while they chased her, demanded she join the Overherd.

Her mother was dreaming of... her, and Shining Armor. Of them walking away while a grey-coated Star Sparkle mindlessly grazed grass until she died and fell unmourned and alone in a field.

A zebra colt was dreaming of her dreaming of him. Twilight felt unfamiliar magics around him. He smiled at her.

Too many would never dream again after tonight. Those were hidden from her. A part of Luna was with them.

She spoke into the empty hall as dreams flashed across her eyes.

"Dear Princess Celestia.

"Tonight I knew that I cannot help every pony in Equestria. Tonight I knew the hopes and dreams of every pony in Equestria. Tonight I knew how many ponies beg for somepony to save them from things that they must face on their own, no matter how terrible. Tonight I knew that I cannot save all the ponies who do need a savior, or even more than a few. Tonight I knew that I could not wake and know some of these things and still be Twilight Sparkle. Tonight I know that right now, I am not. In the morning I will know that I did more than I am able, and I will know that I will do it again, because somepony has to.

"Tonight I learned that there are some lessons whose teaching I could not endure. And so tonight I knew them instead of learning them, because dreams make all things possible. Tonight I learned a tiny fraction of what it is to be like you.

"Tonight I learned why Luna calls us all her little ponies. In the morning I may not know. But if I do, then I will always wear that title with the greatest pride and love possible.

"I seek and dread the day when I will learn why you call us the same.

"Your faithful student,

"Your little pony,

"Twilight Sparkle, Champion of Hidden Things."

***

Pinkie Pie hugged Gummy tightly to her chest. A conical paper hat sat atop her head. Her tent on the edge of town was empty. Three days. Three days of party and it had all been so great the whole time everypony was there and having so much fun and they were happy to be with her really they were but now they were just saying they were tired and they were going to go sleep and she wasn't going to be with them and she didn't have any more cakes ready and all the ice cream was gone too and even Madame LeFlour had made herself into a cake so she was totally all alone and even Gummy was asleep! Her mane had gone all straight again, too.

Oh! There went Rocky!

"WHERE DOST THOU THINK THOU ART GOING, BUSTER?" she demanded.

"THOU ART NAUGHT BUT A JACKANAPES!" Rocky told her. "NOPONY LIKES THY PARTIES AND THEY ONLY ATTEND THAT THEY MIGHT THUS ENJOY THE PLEASURE OF DEPARTING THEREAFTER!"

"'TIS A FOUL CALUMNY!" Pinkie insisted desperately. "WHAT BE-EST A CALUMNY?" She blinked hard and Rocky stopped being six or eight Rockies. "WE ARE HAVING SOME TROUBLE WITH THINE... YE... UM... THE TALKING THINGY-EST."

"THOU HAST NOT EVEN THE WIT TO BE DUBBED LACK-WIT, AS THUS WOULD IMPLY EXPECTATION OF WIT IN THE FIRST PLACE," Rocky firmly informed her. "NO PONY REALLY LIKES THOU."

Pinkie drooped even more as Rocky stopped talking to her. Then her hair perked up, just a bit, and her eyes widened. "WE KNOW-EST SOMEPONY WHO IS-EST NOT A PONY! CRANKY DOST NOT REALLY LIKE ANYPONY BUT MATILDA BUT HE IS-EST OUR FRIEND! CRANKY!"

The tent collapsed behind her as she left a pink blur through town. Rainbow Dash would have been proud of her.

Her hoof hammered on Cranky's door. "CRANKY! CRANKY DOODLE! WE ART GREATLY IN NEEDETH OF THY COUNSEL!" she boomed out.

A hoof tapped her on the back and she whirled and oh! There were Cranky and Matilda together and they had that expression on that usually meant somepony was going to talk slowly and evenly at her for a bit but of course Cranky wasn't a pony but she went over that already and he must be really really really fast if he'd gotten outside to talk with her before she even started knocking but maybe he had a secret donkey super power and the donkeys all had secret super powers and they were all superheroes when ponies weren't looking and he could be Dark Doodle and be able to draw things and make them real and that would be so amazing but he'd have to keep his identity a secret so she shouldn't let anyone know because telling a secret is the best way to lose a friend

"FOREVER!" she yelled. Oops, that was her own, of course she already knew that one but it wouldn't be fair to play favorites so she probably should say it a few more times later in case she'd forgotten some before but now Cranky had his really really cranky expression on but not the really really really really cranky expression so he was just a little annoyed and not actually going to yell at her and that was good because she didn't want Cranky to yell at her when nopony liked her and all hated her parties and wanted her to go away but Cranky wasn't a pony still so he could still like her, right?

"Pinkie, why are you standing outside my home and yelling?" he graveled out to her.

"WE HAVEST NO IDEA WHAT THOU ART TALKING ABOUT, GOOD CRANKY!" she told him. "WE ART BUT TALKING IN THE MANNER OF THE PERFECTLY NORMALEST!"

"Let's go inside, dear," Matilda suggested. "And Pinkie? Could you perhaps try to whisper? My ears must be getting a little sensitive."

"Oh! We are so sorry to hear that," Pinkie whispered, and Matilda and Cranky only flinched a little bit so they both must have sensitive ears because she couldn't talk much more quietly than that no way no how and Matilda smiled at her so that meant she did still like her and she wasn't all alone and going to have to go start up her own rock farm that wouldn't work because Rocky would tell all his friends and so she'd have a rock farm with rocks that hated her too and a rock farm with unfriendly rocks couldn't really farm anything at all! Anyway, they opened their door and went in and Pinkie went in with them.

"Pinkie dear, what ever is the matter?" Matilda asked gently, guiding Pinkie to a seat. She jerked her head over toward the oven, and Cranky put on a pot for some tea.

"NOPONY LIKEST US AND... and everypony thinkest our parties art-eth terrible and everypony leftesteth and we art ALL ALONE!" Pinkie threw herself against Matilda's chest and started sobbing outright.

The startled jenny hugged Pinkie and brushed a hoof over her mane. "Erm... there, there," she said.

Cranky sat down at the table and took Pinkie's hoof in his. "Pinkie," he said to her in a quiet voice. "Every pony in Ponyville is your friend, and they like you. Just because they went home after your party doesn't mean they don't like you anymore."

"Th... then what doeseth it meanest?" Pinkie sniffled.

"It means they need some time alone, Pinkie," he told her. "Some ponies need some peace and quiet. It doesn't mean they're not your friends. Some of my best friends, I haven't seen in years and years. I write letters to a dragon I once pulled carts for, and he takes naps for ten years at a time. That just makes it all the more special when I do hear back from him."

Pinkie sniffed again. Matilda presented her with a kerchief. Pinkie delicately blew into it. Matilda and Cranky exchanged a glance.

"So... It art like unto... not having a welcomest hometh party until after somepony hath gonest away for a while?" Pinkie whispered almost quietly enough to not talk over the shriek of the teapot reaching boiling.

"Something like that, dear," Matilda told her, and got up to pour the tea.

It wasn't a party. But it wasn't alone. And they let her stay with them that night so she wasn't alone then, either.

***

It wasn’t like a mostly-sunny day was supposed to be a challenge. Rainbow Dash could have probably taken care of the entire thing herself, even ‘pacing herself’ like she was supposed to. So she couldn’t see any bristle-chomping reason why it was taking the team so freaking long to get it done right! Snowflake was letting his nerves get to him and getting that cloud over there all raggedy while he positioned it, and Cloud Kicker had, sure enough, busted one apart that was supposed to be providing a nice shady patch over the market.

Yeah. She was in a bad mood. She was watching it. She’d given the team fair warning, even, and Cloud Kicker and Medley were keeping themselves on the brunt of it. They’d taken everything she’d dished out so far. It was a relief, in some ways, to know she had a solid pair of ponies like that to keep their teams in order.

In other ways it was a pain in the flank. Like when Thunderlane did that! She waited impatiently for Medley to get around to telling him to correct that obviously too-high one and get it puffy like it was supposed to be. Okay, maybe she was in a bad mood, but there was just no excuse for putting a cloud together that could turn itself into a thunderhead if it got just a bit too much extra rain on top of it!

She waited an impossibly long thirty entire seconds before she took off, with maybe just a little more force than she absolutely had to, but she’d barely been in the air enough all day to stretch her wings! And Thunderlane was tough. He could take a chewing-out. She’d probably given him a swelled head, with all that praise when she got back. He totally deserved some yelling and she was in just the mood to deliver!

***

“One regular and a quadruple espresso.”

“Have it ready before you can say... quadruple espresso!”

“Thanks, Joe.”

Lero carried both drinks back to the table. Twilight had her head down on the table. She wasn’t sleeping, not quite, but getting more than monosyllabic grunts out of her took all of Doughnut Joe’s not-inconsiderable coffee-making skills. Lero’d actually carried her from the castle this morning. Luna wasn’t responding at all during the day, but she visited freely during his dreams. It was a strange to see her in such different states.

For one thing, the dark alicorn’s body was cold. He had to bundle up outside the door to Luna’s room just to go in long enough to pile more wood on the fire. It probably wasn’t doing any more good than spraying water over Celestia had, but none of the ponies had a better idea. The windows stayed open and the pegasi were keeping the skies clear around the castle so Luna could get sunshine to help as much as possible.

He couldn’t stay in the room very long. That was something they hadn’t considered when getting the place ready for her. In the vast, high-ceilinged throne room, Celestia’s temperature had room to dissipate. In Luna’s cozier bedroom, the walls were going from ‘frosted’ to ‘ice-coated’ in a hurry. In another week or two, assuming she followed the same path as Celestia and Cadence, he ought to be able to keep watch during the day again.

But for now, Lero couldn’t stay by her side all day, and she was far too contagious for any of her loyal guards (or any other ponies) to attend to. So the guards kept watch on her through the windows and kept a chariot ready to swoop down and retrieve the tall, obvious-in-a-crowd biped if he was remotely needed, and Lero and Twilight had the days to themselves.

Lero did, anyhow, and as much of Twilight Sparkle as he could get to wake up. They’d walked right by another musical number on the way from the castle and she hadn’t so much as hummed. And she’d been needing more and more caffeine to get up in the mornings. He set the magic brew (the kind that transcended dimensions) in front of her nose. That was enough to get her eyes open, at least.

She sat up and stared at the cup. Then she groaned and rubbed her horn, then carefully picked up the quadruple espresso in both forehooves and drained it.

Lero took his first sip of his coffee. Black, which wasn’t how he usually preferred it, but somehow adding anything to Doughnut Joe’s blend felt vaguely sacriligeous. “Bad one today?” he asked, not that he had any doubt about the answer.

She groaned. “I’m debating whether it might be better to just go up and give Luna a hug so I can spend another month brainless.” She slumped back in her chair. “I think I’m learning something, at least.”

“Oh?” asked Lero, and took another sip.

Twilight smiled weakly. “Dear Viceroy Lero, today I learned that Princess Luna deserves a raise. Your faceplanting student, Twilight Sparkle.”

“I think Celestia’s giving her one every day,” Lero said, deadpan.

Twilight blinked owlishly at him, then facehoofed. “It’s way too early for puns, Lero. What time is it, anyhow?”

He checked the clock on the wall. “Almost eleven. You seemed to need the extra sleep.”

Her eyes widened. “Eleven o’clock? But now we’re never going to get to everything! I had the whole day planned! Where’s my schedule?”

Lero bent over the table and kissed her. “About four hours ago, it did a very nice job getting Luna’s fire restarted. You’re here to rest, recuperate, and relax. Playing tourists, remember? Not tour group.”

Twilight’s mane got a single hair rising out of place. Then she sagged onto the table and her mane flopped around her head. She pushed the cup over to Lero with a hoof. “I don’t even have the energy to worry about a schedule. I need another.”

“Can’t even float the cup over?” he asked sympathetically, and took it.

“Just because your hands work when you’re tired doesn’t mean the rest of us are so lucky,” she grumbled.

Lero laughed. “I bet Pinkie could give you some pointers on getting by without a horn,” he teased, and went to get her a refill.

Twilight rolled her eyes behind him. She couldn’t imagine what lessons from Pinkie Pie would be like when her horn wasn’t so sore she couldn’t make a spark. She’d been down to her hooves until midafternoon yesterday. She had a feeling she’d be lucky if she could lift her fork for dinner this time.

***

Rainbow Dash was getting seriously annoyed.

Sure, she'd been in a bad mood for a few days, and even that totally badflank helmet thingy from Luna wasn't cheering her up, but it was probably all the nightmares she must be having for Luna keeping her from sleeping well. She was handling it! She was getting in like twice as many naps as usual, she was doing Rolling Earth exercises until her hooves were falling off to wear herself out, she'd even started trying some of the lighter bits of Shattered Stone again even if she knew she couldn't really pull them off right. She'd gone out and got a seventeen on Twilight's wingpower thingy, even, so even Lyra had to admit she was okay again. She should be making everypony in town cheer for her, doing the most mega-awesome-amazingtacular stunts ever!

Instead she'd made two of her pegasi cry and Cloud Kicker and Medley both ganged up on her and told her to get her flank out of the clouds until she was Rainbow Dash again instead of whoever she'd turned into.

That was very, very not cool. Not of them. They were looking out for the weather team. That was like one of the gutsiest things she'd ever seen them do, even more than when they led the flanks redirecting that lightning storm that came in from Cloudsdale at twice the speed and six times the density it was supposed to. She had the best weather team anypony could ask for, and that included having assistant weather coordinators who'd tell their boss when she was screwing up.

It was so not cool of her to be making them do that. Her hooves still itched to go back and pound the two of them into little clouds of feathers. She could totally take them both at once and they knew it. They knew it so hard. She knew like a gazillion different ways to take them apart, and they stood their airspace and told her anyhow. She might be ticked off for no good reason, but she had to respect that kind of loyalty.

But that left her with nothing to do to get rid of her frustration. Solo workouts weren't cutting it. She needed something to hit. So she'd figured out a way to do that and not end up with the Guard chasing her down. Time to go learn a new style. The ancient farmpony art of Kick Stuff So Hard The Fruit Falls Off. And fortunately for her, she had a friend who'd probably be perfectly happy to teach her, and then she could spend the day kicking trees instead of ponies. She'd even put up with having to wear earth pony shoes for the day for that.

***

Applejack looked up. Well, that rainbow streak headed her way was familiar. Prob'ly comin' to tell her she'd ordered too much rain an' there wasn't any left for th' rest of th' year so she'd messed that up, too. She couldn't remember the last thing she'd done right. An' ever'pony was jes' too polite t' tell her. It was all her fault. Everythin'. An' with her hooves so dang heavy, she couldn't even run away proper so they'd at least stop havin' her wreck everythin'.

"Hey, AJ!" Rainbow Dash called, and hovered overhead. Didn't even want ta get her hooves on the same farm as her. Applejack didn't blame her for it.

"Look, I've been in a real mood for days now, and I could really use something to do where I kick stuff a lot and don't get arrested. I was kinda thinking maybe I could lend you a hoof today? Like, learn how to buck trees with you? I'm not saying you need help, I'm saying I need something to do, so I'm asking you for a favor, not offering to help, right?"

A pegasus sayin' she wanted to learn to buck trees. Rainbow Dash buckin' trees. Gal could probably fly around an' pick 'em all with her teeth faster'n Applejack could buck 'em anyhow. Now that was jes' mockin' her. She prob'ly deserved it. Runnin' the farm so bad even a pegasus could see it. But at least it meant she wasn't hidin' her true feelin's anymore. Meant Applejack could go ahead an' get herself what she deserved an' not worry about a friend gettin' hurt doin' it.

"Featherbrain," AJ told her, doin' everythin' she could to get her to jes' quit messin' around an' do it already. "Flyin' airhead ain't got what it takes ta buck a tree. If Ah wanted a pegasus to give that a try, Ah'd go t' Derpy first. At least she wouldn't get bored an' fly off 'fore th' first branch was done."

***

Rainbow Dash stared down at the farmpony. That came so far out of the stratosphere she had nothing ready for it. That wasn't just uncool. That was... that was just plain mean. That was Honeydew levels of racism, only not aimed at Lero. That was...

That was betraying everything their friendship was.

The yellow stripe on her cutie mark turned red.

***

"Y'all might as well jes' go on back to Cloudsdale anyhow!" Applejack pressed. Jes' a little more an' she'd do it, she knew that. Give her what she had comin' to her. Then it'd all be over an' done with an' ain't nopony would have to live with her mess-ups ever again. "Ponyville did jes' fine without you hangin' around, an' all you ever wanna do is leave anyhow, go join them stupid Wonderbolts an' spend yer life pretendin' y'all can fly!"

The first hoof hit her in the jaw and knocked her sideways. A bright streak of nothin' but red hung in the air, an' some sorta red mist was comin' out of Rainbow Dash's eyes. Applejack didn't care. Jes' somethin' else prob'ly her fault. "That all you got, filly? An' here Ah thought you were a fighter," she said.

Hooves and teeth came at her so fast she couldn't see 'em. Applejack got knocked up onto her hind legs, bounced backward offa a tree, an' then a red whirl was all around her, with hooves an' wings hittin' her every which way. She felt a kick hittin' her rear an' breakin' her tailbone. All four legs got hit. Real clean, too, three kicks an' a wing an' then four broken cannons. Bitten shoulders an' ears. Kicks in th' face, one right near her left eye an' she felt somethin' give around there that ain't supposed to move. Buncha ribs. Three kicks in a row that caught 'er square where a mare don't like to get kicked even more'n usual.

She hit th' ground. There were tears of pain comin' out her eyes, an' one eye not lookin' where it was supposed to, but it wasn't all she had comin' to her. Not by a long shot. A hoof came down on her right forehoof an' she felt that hoof split to the frog.

"Ap... Applejack?" came that raspy voice, mockin' her, pretending to be confused, hatin' her like she deserved, finally. "Applejack! You're hurt! What just happened?"

No. That wasn't the right voice. But Applejack knew just what truth she could say to get her to finish the job.

"Freak."

A blur of red light was the last thing she saw.

***

"APPLEJACK!" screamed Rainbow Dash. AJ was seriously messed up. Legs were not supposed to bend that way, sometimes Pinkie aside. There was blood and there was... there was...

Rainbow Dash thought as fast as she flew, sometimes. She thought how long it would take to get an ambulance from the hospital to Sweet Apple Acres. She thought how long it looked like Applejack was going to last after... after whoever had done this to her. The numbers didn't work out. She thought how long it'd take her to fly to the hospital and how bad she'd hurt AJ doing it, and how quickly the hospital could heal her of that extra damage.

She hooked her forelegs under AJ's barrel and took off as fast as her wings could fly her. Almost. She didn't think AJ would survive a Rainboom. That snap of air breaking was rough. But she came close.

She landed so hard her hooves left skidmarks on the ground, and she bucked the doors off their hinges racing inside, carrying her friend. "EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY! SOMEPONY HELP!" she screamed. There was a time for cool and there was a time for saving Applejack's life and she would wear black horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector for the rest of her life if that would help save Applejack's life.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. The nurse at the desk took one look at Applejack and hit a button. There was a lot of yelling and a lot of rushing around, and while normally Rainbow Dash was good at those, medical yelling and rushing around somehow made it all a lot more intense. The last she saw of Applejack, the farm mare was on a gurney being wheeled into the operating room, with tubes going into her and doctors trying to hold her legs so they didn't move.

The nurse at the desk said something to Rainbow Dash and held out a clipboard, but Dash swatted her hoof away without listening. "No time. Gotta go find whoever did this," she said, and took off out of the room.

"I am gonna find whoever did this to you, AJ, and I am gonna leave her in so much hurt she's gonna wish she'd beat herself up instead of you, Applejack," she vowed through her furious tears.

Her trail turned red behind her.

***

Discord, utterly reformed Spirit of Chaos, friend to all things pony and non, sophisticated gentledracoequus of means, was behaving himself with perfect decorum, as of course he always did, a few minor misunderstandings between friends aside. He certainly wasn't doing anything that would remotely bother either of the joyless, humorless rulers of Equestria, and most certainly wouldn't cause anything but a warm, inviting smile to cross the face of that lovely little pony Fluttershy. He was helping, really! Not even in the long run. Just a year or so and they'd really appreciate the versatility of the new crops. Once they figured out how to pen them in properly and keep them fed.

At any rate, he had just finished revolutionising Equestrian agriculture, ensuring that all the hungry little fillies and colts and chicks and pups and whatever minotaurs chose to call their offspring, he thought it was probably calves but he couldn't be bothered to find out for sure, but at any rate ensuring a fine and well-fed future for all of them. And then he felt something that once upon a time when he had been in a particularly poor mood he might have taken some moderately antisocial amusement in feeling. While he of course felt nothing but compassion at the thought of a fight between two of the Bearers of those BLASTED ELEMENTS OF HARMONY, it naturally occurred to him that he ought to investigate the matter and see if he might not resolve any lingering bad feelings over what was sure to be a simple quarrel and certainly did not by any means have the distinctive piquancy of that rarest of rare things in this peaceful land, an outright equicidal rage.

It was with altogether surprise, then, that he found himself quite viciously and, for once, honestly, unprovokedly assaulted upon arrival in the skies over Ponyville! He saw one of his most absolute favorite of all pegasi approaching, one of unfailingly gentle and forgiving disposition suitable to be a fellow friend of Fluttershy, and summoned onto himself a top hat, white coat, and cane, and prepared to deliver a clever bon mot by way of greeting. He then suffered the indignity of several really well-done blows to the face, his hat yanked down over his head, the cane yanked from his grip and used to strike him with brutish force in the midsection, and a quite expertly-executed spinning back kick for a finale.

Discord then snapped the digits of his bear paw, and his uncouth assailant was neatly shrunk to the size of a fly and captured inside a jar, while Discord's own discomforts were promptly erased. He bore his new captive no ill-will whatsoever, being as mentioned not too long ago a friend to all things pony, and so rather than take some sort of cackling villainous revenge secure in the knowledge that RAINBOW DASH SERIOUSLY DESERVED TO FIND OUT WHY PONIES SHOULD KNOW BETTER THAN TO ATTACK A SPIRIT OF CHAOS WITH THEIR BARE HOOVES, he politely conversed with her instead.

"Why, my dear friend Rainbow Dash!" he said, while bunnies romped in the meadows below and all the rubbish of that sort. "You seem ever so perturbed! What could possibly be the matter?"

"Durrr, me mad," the eloquent little pegasus told him. "Some pony beat up apple pony! Me get revenge!"

This of course made Discord very sad, because ponies with lusts for revenge in their equine hearts was something a reformed Spirit of Chaos could never encourage. Particularly ones who could read back and find out exactly what had happened, and so knew that the angry little pony was herself the one who had caused such terrible hurts to her friend. And so he tried to encourage her to find a friend who could help her calm down.

"Oh, little Rainbow Dash," he told her, "It sounds very much to me like you should go see Lyra Heartstrings."

And before he could explain further, that furious little misguided pony let out a scream of rage and shattered the magical glass bottle that had thus far resisted all efforts at marking it, let alone escaping, and somehow restored herself to her usual size and strength, and flew off under the unfortunate assumption that Discord had meant that Lyra Heartstrings was responsible for the injuries to poor, sweet, dear little Applejack, not that Rainbow Dash should ask her herdmate for assistance in learning to control the alicorn rage she was so clearly bearing.

It really was quite a pity that Discord had a very important meeting unscheduled at some indeterminate other location, or he might have been able to catch up, explain further and prevent Rainbow Dash from getting her multicolored tail handed to her as she so richly, richly deserved by a pony who was much, much, much better than her at beating ponies into small whimpering piles of broken bones on the ground.

HA.

***

Unlike Discord, Lyra Heartstrings was prepared. She had, after all, been living with Rainbow Dash. A pegasus with limited flight was a grouchy pony at the best of times, Fluttershy aside. Rainbow Dash with limited flight was a stomping, irritable ball of anger. And that was before Luna did whatever it was Luna had done. Now she could fly, but she'd been snarling like a timberwolf constantly. Lyra had her suspicions about exactly what burdens Rainbow Dash was carrying for Luna, but so far her lead mare had done a surprisingly good job at keeping herself under control, for a pony who'd never been able to tolerate the simple meditation requirements of master ranks in any of her various schools.

Seeing Rainbow Dash flying at high speed from Sweet Apple Acres carrying a clearly demolished Applejack gave Lyra a very large clue as to what to do next. Her armor wasn't in town yet and probably wouldn't do her much good anyhow. She needed to find a place where she could take Rainbow Dash down without anypony else getting hurt. With that mare's speed and strength, any place with ponies around was going to have innocent bystanders. She knew just the place. Rainbow Dash might appreciate it too. The edge of the Everfree. Right around where Fluttershy found Lero.

How to get Rainbow Dash's attention was much easier than she'd expected. She'd thought she'd have to initiate the fight, blast her at range in midair. Having that bright red bolt in the air coming at her got rid of step one. The sky was still red behind her. A monochromatic Rainboom, powered by a thousand years' bottled-up fury, starting from a time of war to begin with. A Sonic Rageboom. And coming at her at those speeds.

Lyra settled into place. There was no point tensing, no point putting up a guard. If Dash came within ten feet of her, the backwash from her speed alone would be enough to send her into a tree, even if Lyra blocked. She had no intention of letting Rainbow Dash get within ten feet of her.

Anger is useful in a fight. It provides strength, determination and a certain numbness to pain. Anger is a hazard in a fight. It destroys stillness, erases subtlety, causes foolish mistakes. Rainbow Dash was coming at her in a straight line, not jinking, not twisting, not making herself anything but a target. Even at those speeds, Lyra could lead her easily. A simple sharp tweak to the left wing should break the bone and cause her to crash instantly. With any luck, Lyra could get her to a hospital in time to save her life and find out why she killed Applejack. And then explain to Applejack's family that their scion's murderer had a pre-emptive pardon from Princess Luna.

Lyra's spell vanished without effect into the maelstrom of pegasus magics surrounding Rainbow Dash's wings. She did not panic. She had prepared for that eventuality. She cast again, a simple sharp-edged yank driven directly into Rainbow Dash's nostrils. No pony could keep from reflexively turning her head under such a sudden, surprise pain, and that would cause Rainbow Dash to veer straight into the ground. Rainbow Dash's nostril tore open. Blood streamed back from the wound down her cheek. She did not deviate from her course at all.

Calm can make foolish mistakes sometimes too. Lyra barely had time to throw herself backward and put up her forelegs in front of her in a simple block that any yellow-belted novice could have matched.

Rainbow Dash's hooves crashed into her with horrific force. Lyra felt bones snap in both legs and her shoulders. Rainbow Dash's hooves struck through to her chest as well, and Lyra felt ribs break like twigs. She was flung backward into the trunk of a tree. She saw stars when her head hit, but did not lose consciousness. She fell forward and screamed when she hit her broken bones, and fell to her side.

She saw the red streak loop around. The next blow would kill her. She had no choice.

She hoped she was as good as Rainbow Dash thought she was.

Two precision strikes to the carotid artery. Too little and she'd shrug it off and Lyra would be dead. Too much and she'd sever them, and Rainbow Dash would be dead. Just right and she'd be out like a light.

Rainbow Dash's limp form smashed through branches and leaves and still left a trail of torn earth behind her. Lyra couldn't tell if she was dead or just nearly so.

Lyra forced herself to turn her head, screaming twice from the pain, and then began sending magical flares into the air with all the power she could muster, until she passed out.

Author's Note:

It should be noted that getting two spells off and still having time to put up a block is itself a well-nigh legendary feat, even if it didn't work. And being able to cast in that much pain is an impressive display as well. Lyra is a Grandmaster for a reason.