• Published 17th Oct 2011
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The End of Ponies - shortskirtsandexplosions



A lone pony of a Wasteland future Equestria finds a way to visit her dead friends in the past.

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Chapter Ten: Where You Lay Your Head

The End of Ponies
by shortskirtsandexplosions

Chapter Ten – Where You Lay Your Head

Special thanks to Vimbert for Editing

Extra Special Thanks to Valhalla-Studios for Cover Art

Waves of wooden skeletons swam out of the gray mist in droves, hundreds upon hundreds of gnarled black branches, charred into soot and cinders by the flames of the Cataclysm. The leathery flakes of dead fruit hung off them as they came closer into view, their trunks hollowed out by the decay of time. The soil between the lifeless trees had been blasted away to barren rock, with black powder randomly cycloning above the sterile landscape like brief spurts of volcanic ash, and then settling once more into the perpetual silence of the dead acres.

Scootaloo leveled her descent and pushed at her cockpit levers, keeping the Harmony at a steady altitude as she skimmed the surface of the singed groves. Her goggled gaze narrowed in on an opening in the wasteland where the gnarled branches parted ways for a few dozen meters. Deciding it was the best location, she slowed the airship's speed and drifted the craft until it was nearly touching one large tree standing darkly above the rest. When she extended the port-side claw towards it, however, the petrified stalk crumbled to ashes. Sighing, she engaged the stabilizers, put the vessel into a permanent hover, and exited through the storage compartment's aperture.

After twenty minutes of prolonged effort, she managed to moor the levitating vessel with four chains stabbed into separate black stumps. Meekly satisfied with the anchorage, she gathered the rest of her equipment and stepped forward from the parked craft, heading southwest. In mid trot, the last pony raised the baby dragon's tooth up to her goggles. It hung from her neck by an orange string, and as her face stared closely at it, she felt a gentle aura pointing her forward and slightly toward the left.

She marched appropriately, following the enchanted shard's cue. On either side of her, petrified apple trees slunched over like rows of bound corpses, their limbs flaking off into ash even as she passed underneath them. The stony earth was splotched every now and then with feathery-white scrapes, the quarter-century old effigies of fallen songbirds. There was a sterile smell about this part of the wasteland, something deader than dead that permeated the shifting white mists that twirled tornadically through the hollow groves. Even the giant mushrooms of the Wasteland refused to leech off the petrified acres.

At last, the ground gave way beneath her in a clawed slope, as if a huge canyon had been gouged suddenly through the belly of Equestria. Scootaloo swiftly discovered the reason for the parting in the trees that allowed her to moor the Harmony so close to her destination. The mists cleared to reveal a gigantic sinkhole that had consumed the heart of Sweet Apple Acres, reducing the land into a gaping hole full of gravel and shifting soot. The upended bodies of long-dead fruit trees blanketed the open grave, their twisted roots scratching eternally through the gray fog.

With a somber breath, Scootaloo took wing, her pegasus feathers flying her through the bitter cold winds as she hovered steadily over the inexplicable ravine yawning beneath her. On either side of the trench, petrified apple trees leaned inward at awkward angles, some of them looking as though they could fall into the jaws of the earth at any second; others had done just that over the past two decades. Below her, bits and pieces of a faded red barn rested in splintery bits like a smashed coffin. In the center of it all, a lone and rusted weather-vane spun its rooster crests squeakily from the endless gusts.

In mid-flight, Scootaloo glanced once more at her toothy necklace. The chunk of infant dragon-matter was pointing her forwards, magically filling her senses with a nauseatingly sweet aroma of yesteryear. Fighting a sudden chill, Scootaloo glanced up and adjusted her goggles in time to spot a break in the mist.

The southern end of the sinkhole appeared in a sudden bluff, and hanging off its edges—barely intact—was the rickety wooden shell of the Apple Family's farmhouse. It leaned sickly on its haunches, the upper floors having sagged several meters into its lower foundation as the whole thing leaned crunchingly northward. A few paces to the east, a gazebo leaned precariously on the edge of the sinkhole, half of its floorboards having long fallen into the abyss. A brown wooden fence dangled like exposed bone in a similar fashion, and the hollow ribcages of pigs formed a pile beside a line of troughs overflowing with ashes.

The last pony touched down on even ground. She gasped to feel a chunk of black soil crumbling behind her and rolling its way down the cliffside of the ravine. Recovering her senses, she slowly trotted around the edge of the house, her eyes peering through amber goggles for the one thing she did not want to see. The dragon tooth urged her on, riding the pulsating throbs of her heartbeat, angling her hooves so that she rounded the last corner of the crumpled house—And stopped in a vibrating hum.

A breath left Scootaloo. Before her was the double-doored entrance to the Apple Family's storm shelter. The entrance was closed with rickety wooden panels, and lying broadly across the foundation—its broad girth adding weight to the flimsy barrier—was the hulking skeleton of an enormous, broad-shouldered stallion. Braced around the corpse's neckline was a mold-strewn wooden yoke with rusted iron spikes penetrating the body of the mechanism. The entirety of the pony's body was pressed to the door, its jaws turned aside with teeth forever biting into the finish. Judging from closer inspection, the metal hinges of the storm cellar's door appeared to have been shattered loose. The stallion must have done all he could to keep the door shut, right up to the bitter, burning end.

With a somber exhale, Scootaloo trotted over and began nudging the body with her snout. It wouldn't move. She snarled, struggled, and strained with all of her experienced might, but even then it took her several minutes to finally disentangle the stallion's skeleton from its diligent post. With the bones free, she effortlessly opened one door, only to watch both brittle panels crumble from their hinges. A loud echo of splinters emanated from the pitch-black cellar stairway below, and then all was once more silence and mist.

Slowly, Scootaloo descended the steps, lighting the yoke of lanterns around her shaved mane. The cellar turned into a hollow tube of bouncing shadows as she scaled the steps. Trotting down onto an even floor, the pegasus navigated a forest of cobwebs and skittering black shapes. She slowed to a shuffle, shining her halo of light left and right across the claustrophobic chamber of dust. In one corner, a pile of decayed foodstuffs lingered in a mountain of soot and rat droppings. In the opposite corner, a wave of earth had broken through the brick-laid walls and filled the room with the black dust of the sinkhole. And in yet another corner—

The dragon's tooth strobed once and was dead. Scootaloo's eyes twitched, perhaps in an attempt to erase the image in her mind before it could be committed to memory. Bravely, she stepped forward and knelt down besides a pile of bodies: three separate skeletons of completely different make, all huddled together in an embrace of crooked limbs and ratty hooves. One body was a mare of exceeding age with jagged joints and brittle marrow. A second was a tiny foal with next to no muscle mass. And the third...

The skull was obscured by a circular halo of tattered brown felt, moth-eaten along the brim and laced with spiderwebs. It took Scootaloo a few shivering seconds to move the hat before she was staring into the spaces of two hollow sockets that suddenly seemed livelier than her own.

In a strange breath of courage, she gulped and murmured, “Hey, AJ.” A brief beat: the sterile air of the room closed in around her, and she fought back the last drop of hesitance. “No hard feelings.”

That said, she produced a brass blade from her saddlebag, aimed it at the skeleton's spine, and began sawing.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Scootaloo marched back up the rows of dead orchards, her face blank, her saddlebag hanging a little heavier from her flanks. The mist cleared as she reached the Harmony. But just as she flew up to the aperture entrance of the lower gondola's storage compartment, murmuring a command for the runestones to unlock—She froze. Her gaze was aimed westward, just beyond a line of dead trees that curved in a direction opposite of the rest of the singed Acres. Her heart was pounding anew, but this time the dragon tooth was no longer strobing, for she had already acquired what she had come there for. Or at least, she almost had, Scootaloo suddenly realized.

Removing the saddlebag completely from her brown backside, she slid the thing a few meters into the safety of the storage compartment, floated back out, and commanded the runes in the door to seal the ship tight. She soared through the mists and touched down lightly, trotting west from the moored Harmony and piercing the line of awkward trees.

A few branches hung low, along with thorny brambles that dipped at eye-level. She pushed these clusters of dead vines away with minimal effort, ducking low past a couple of gnarled limbs, and climbing over a heap of charred earth until she finally came upon a clearing... and saw it.

Immediately, she raised her goggles and exposed two pained scarlet eyes, staring in disbelief at the sight before her. In a ghostlike trance, Scootaloo trotted forward into the company of a blistered wooden building, propped precariously two and a half meters from the ground in the cradled limbs of a burnt apple tree. The clubhouse was remarkably intact, a feat it had rarely ever accomplished even in the years before the Cataclysm. Its shingles were peeling and its windowpane had long fallen off in a heap, but the four walls were still carrying the weight of the tiny building, and the roof provided a dark shade from the blinking gray twilight above.

With a lump in her throat, Scootaloo numbly approached the careening plank that formed a walkway up to the balcony of the clubhouse. But with so much as one hoof placed down onto the wooden beam, the entire platform crunched into a belated pile of splinters. She didn't gasp, as her somberness greatly outweighed her shock. She exhaled, and with wings that wouldn't possibly have lifted her when she was a foal, Scootaloo effortlessly levitated herself to the balcony in a single bound. The floorboards creaked and wheezed dustily under her weight as she shuffled into the hollow of the shack.

The interior was nightmarishly quiet, like being inside a concrete block drowned in the center of the earth. She couldn't have asked for anything more. Scootaloo gazed silently as her eyes traveled the lengths of the room, observing tattered brown flakes of paper plastered to the walls, indecipherable illustrations of crusaders from an age long gone, of dreams long woken up from, of friends long dead. The floor was a sea of dust, with her fresh hoof prints looking bizarrely large to the scale of her wheezing recollection. The place had a smell to it that brought Scootaloo instantly back to nights of songs, crickets, and fireflies dancing in the moonlight. She ever so delicately wanted to scream.

She was about to turn around when a glint of twilight shimmered off something in the corner. Turning in a blink, the adult pegasus narrowed her eyes and trotted over until something took form in the penumbra of gray dimness wafting in from the crumbled windowpanes. The breath that left her was a wilting one, and she all but collapsed to her knees, her lower hooves folding numbly under her weight. She shuffled two forelegs and shifted something out of a pile of dust, something long and weighted, something glisteningly sublime. Its handlebars shone like polished cherries in the deep miasma of the doubly-dead world; its bent wheels squeaked like confused newborns that reflected her aged face.

Scootaloo could no longer contain it. She buckled, silently cradling the object in her lap, as she hung her head to the cadence of a haunting chorus in her lonesome ears.


A young orange pegasus twisted the wrench around the spokes of her scooter's wheels, finally tightening them with expert craftsponyship. Scootaloo tossed the wrench into a saddlebag resting against the log she was sitting on and spun the wheels for good measure. They practically sang on their axes, a tell-tale sign that they would glide smoothely for her over the next week of speeding randomly across Ponyville. Smirking, the winged foal gazed up across the flickering campfire as an orange-coated mare finished her exciting tale before the attendance of four other sets of ears.

“And it was right at that moment, when the elements of Harmony were lyin' all shattered on the stone floor of the abandoned temple, that Nightmare Moon was fixin' to make true to her threat of Eternal Night.” Applejack leaned forward with a wicked grin. “When what would happen; but the five girls and I reunited with Twilight, and in her eyes there was a spark—a magical spark! And wouldn't y'all know it? She taught us right then and there that the true Elements of Harmony were restin' inside of us the whole time! And all we really needed to defeat Nightmare Moon was our companionship, a joinin' of hooves if ya will. In a heapin' flash of colors, these purdy sparklin' jewels formed on our necks, and a solid beam'o'rainbow light soared straight at Nightmare Moon, lassoin' her up like a startled hog, and cleaned Princess Luna of all the nastiness that had clouded the poor Alicorn's soul for a thousand long years!”

Coooooool,” Sweetie Bell and Apple Bloom cooed as one. They squatted side by side with sparkling eyes lit alive by the night-laced electricity of Applejack's story. A campfire crackled in the center of a crater of wooden logs, nestled in the front yard of the Apple Family's farmhouse under a purple curtain of twinkling stars.

“I had no idea Nightmare Moon was defeated like that!” Sweetie Bell beamed, balancing a roasted marshmallow on the end of a stick. “I always thought that night was a whole lot scarier!”

“Oh darling, of course it was a dreadful event up until that penultimate moment of victory!” Rarity's operatic voice announced her presence. The fashionista sat on a velvet pillow that she had hauled over to Sweet Apple Acres. The ivory unicorn nibbled delicately on a silver platter of marshmallow bits, all the while regaling her younger sibling, “There were phantom pegasi, ghoulish trees, a raging manticore, and a most horribly distraught sea serpent! If Twilight Sparkle hadn't had her mystical moment of sudden epiphany, I'm afraid your older sister and all of her companions would be rotting away in some unsavory dungeon made of moonrocks!”

“Hey!” Applejack briefly frowned. “Were you tellin' this here story or was I?”

“Please, Applejack...” Rarity smiled with fluttering blue eyes across the embers. “Far be it from me to detract from your rightful place in the limelight, but your recollection of that night's events could surely use a bit more dramatic flare and suspension of disbelief!”

“I reckon I told it just fine! It's getting' late, so shoot me for not wantin' to scare the fillies something fierce!” She upturned her snout, juggled a few marshmallows into her mouth, and downed them in a gulp. “Mmmm—Besides, if I hoofed the reins of the story to you, the whole lotta of us woulda been put to sleep by you gabbin' on forever about how plum dumbstruck yer were by them necklaces we were sportin'!”

“But weren't they the most splendid pieces of jewelry?! As if they were carved in the dawn of the First Age itself!—(Sweetie Bell, chew with your mouth closed, dear. There's a good lady.)—Ahem. But you were quite accurate towards the end, Applejack. I'll give you that much merit.”

“Did a rainbow really lasso up that nasty Nightmare Moon, sis?” Apple Bloom blinked over twin sticks of marshmallows.

“Heh heh! That's right! Slapped the gloominess square off her noggin'!”

Young Scootaloo raspberried. “How in the heck can a rainbow smack around a pony?” She spun the wheels on the scooter she was examining once more and smirked. “Much less a stupid dark moon goddess come to enslave us all?”

“It's not so much that the rainbow throttled Nightmare Moon within an inch of her life, but rather—” Rarity began, but at the sound of an orange mare's throat viciously clearing, she shifted nervously on her pillow and smiled. “R-right. Do carry on, Applejack.”

“Ahem. Much obliged.” She turned and gazed with soft green eyes Scootaloo's way. “Y'all must realize that a rainbow means a lot more than just a fancy blendin' of lights—or whatever it is that they're teachin' you in them textbooks nowadays. Nah, Rainbows are symbols of hope, like when good friends come together and make magic happen. That's exactly what took place when the elements of Harmony came together with the six of us. The fact that it produced a rainbow was just... just... erm—”

“A matter of ironic theatrics,” Rarity said, smiling between marshmallow nibbles.

Applejack grumbled into a mouthful of sugary dough. “Mmmf... Showoff...”

“Well, I think it's a great story!” Apple Bloom positively squealed. “Y'all were so brave, especially you, Sis!”

“Awww, shucks, Apple Bloom. Yer makin' yer big sister blush.”

“Pffft—Of course she'd root for her sister the whole time!” Sweetie Bell rolled her eyes.

Apple Bloom stuck her tongue out at the unicorn. “So what if I did! Yer just bummed cuz AJ saved Twilight Sparkle from fallin' off a cliff and all yer sister did was dress up a giant snake!”

“Hey! She was showing generosity! Go choke on a marshmallow!”

“I would if I could swallow ya!”

“Girls—Girls!” Rarity tsk'd-tsk'd. “Now what's so 'harmonious' about this kind of an attitude? Why—Applejack, myself, and the rest of us would never have defeated Nightmare Moon if we carried on with such awful bickering!”

“You're riiiiight.” Sweetie Bell sighed, shifted where she sat on her log and mumbled, “I'm sorryyyyy, Apple Bloom.”

“Me too, Sweetie Bell.” Apple Bloom smiled sweetly at her. “I think we both should be happy that we have such brave sisters.”

“And such delicious marshmallows!” Sweetie Bell's eyes twinkled as she beamed across the campfire at Scootaloo. “Thanks for fetching these, Scootaloo!”

“Yeah, thanks, girl!” Apple Bloom giggled. “They really make a bonfire worth gatherin' wood for!”

“Hey—It's my pleasure,” Scootaloo smirked rosily. “Figured it'd be a crime to listen to an awesome story over a fire without something to snack on!”

“Well I whole-heartedly agree; they are a finer delicacy than I normally give them credit for.” Rarity winked. “Wherever did you purchase them from?”

“Ohhh—Sugarcube Corner. Mr. Cake makes them himself. Not even the candy stores in Canterlot make 'em as tasty, I'm willing to bet.”

“Ain't you gonna have a bite yerself, kiddo?” Applejack murmured through a mouthful.

“Yeah, Scootaloo!” Apple Bloom guiltily frowned. “We don't wanna be hoggin' them all!”

“Pffft—I got them all for you to enjoy, so enjoy them!” She leaned her scooter on the log next to her bag and reclined lackadaisically. “Besides, I get all the marshmallows I could ever want.”

“Really?”

“My parents give me this craaaaaazy awesome allowance.” Scootaloo rolled her violet eyes. “Seriously—With all the nights my dad works to bring home the bits, I'm spoiled rotten!”

“That makes the four of us.” Rarity hummed after another bite and cleaned her empty plate off daintily. “Mmm—That reminds me. Applejack, did you hear that Twilight Sparkle has begun a book of memoirs?”

“A book of what-now?”

“A collection of all her experiences in Ponyville as written from a first-pony perspective!” Rarity smiled. “It's been almost six months since she arrived in town, and she's already been inspired to write a personal summary of all her letters to Princess Celestia. She regaled me about it this afternoon over brunch. I think it's a positively splendid idea.”

“Yer don't say. What's she fixin' to name this thang?”

“'The Harmony Chronicles.' It has a nice ring to it, don't you think?”

“Ugh!” Scootaloo clopped her hooves briefly against her forehead and groaned, “Seriously—What's the whole big deal about 'harmony?' Not that your stories aren't awesome or what-not, but everyone uses that word like a social disease!”

Applejack spat and choked briefly on a chunk of marshmallows as Apple Bloom blinked innocently.

Sweetie Bell glanced crookedly up at her sister. “Rare? What's a 'social disease?'”

“Erm—(I-I'll tell you when it's time to buy you a bridle, dear),” Rarity stammered and smiled nervously Scootaloo's way. “Ahem—Colorful metaphors aside, Scootaloo, 'harmony' is the essence of friendship, at least when it comes to Applejack, myself, and our little circle of fillies.”

“So that's all it is?” Scootaloo raised a vexed eyebrow. “Just a bunch of racket about 'friendship?'”

“It's more than that, sugarcube,” Applejack remarked. She cleared her throat with a gulp of apple cider, exhaled, and smiled the filly pegasus' way. “'Harmony' means bein' at peace with yerself, as well as with those around you. It's about finding that magical place in yer heart where yer no longer afraid of the little things—or the big things in life, cuz you've got everythang all together-like.”

“So only when you have friends do you get to experience 'harmony?'” Scootaloo made a face.

“Mmm—Not necessarily, I suppose,” Applejack thought aloud, then smiled. “I reckon even solitary ponies can be at peace with themselves. Every soul floats through life a slightly different way, but the difference between those who are harmonious and those who ain't is that the ones with harmony feel like they don't have to stress the weight of the world, because they can manage things just fine. I reckon you could say 'harmony' is like a state of being. It's like... It's like...”

“It's like never being lost!” Sweetie Bell hopped up in her seat. “It's like being at home, no matter where you are!”

Scootaloo blinked the young unicorn's way. Her breath left her under a faltering heartbeat, and her violet eyes gazed down at the firelit earth.

“Y'know what—That's a plum good way of puttin' it.” Applejack smiled. “Kudos to you, Rarity, for polishin' your little sister's head up just right with them homeschool courses!”

“H-Hey!” Apple Bloom barked. “I'm bright too!”

“Of course you are, darlin'. Just don't be shocked when yer my age and you discover that bein' literate don't get no apples down from the trees!”

“Pffft—Maybe I'll just move in with Aunt and Uncle Orange!”

“Ha! The day you do that is the day I grow a mule out of my left ear!”

Sweetie Bell and Rarity giggled at that. Apple Bloom helplessly joined their cadence as the campfire crackled to a sudden dimness, so that the blue-maned fashionista suddenly sauntered up to her hooves and exclaimed, “Well, it has gotten exceedingly late, and I have many silk supplies to pick up from the next Trottingham shipment in the morning. Sweetie Bell, honey, it is high time that we headed our way back home.”

“Awwwwww—But can't we stay just a little bit longer?”

“It's been delightful, Sweetie Bell, but we have a strict lesson plan tomorrow and I shan't fail at my responsibilities to your future!”

“What's so great about my future? The next research assignment is about some dumb old fossils!”

“Those aren't just dumb fossils! They're the excavated remains of the Second Age's Lunar Dynasty—only the most influential designers of earth pony wear in millennia—NnnghAhem, we shall talk about it in the morning.”

“Yessssss, sissss.” Sweetie Bell sighed, finished the last of her marshmallows, and smiled Apple Bloom's way. “Thanks so much for inviting us over! I do hope we get to do this again sometime!”

“I would love that! So long as my sister and I still have wood to burn!”

“Heh.” Applejack stood up and stretched. “I'm kinda fancyin' this sort of communion myself, to be perfectly honest.”

“And you always are honest, dear.” Rarity winked at her, then glanced Scootaloo's way. “Scootaloo, dear, would you like us to walk you home?”

The orange-coated filly snapped out of her stupor. She looked up with a practiced grin. “Hmm—Ohhh, nah. That's awfully nice of you, Miss Rarity, but I'll be fine.”

“Are you sure? How in heaven's name do you manage to get around on that device at such dark hours of the evening?”

Scootaloo stood up and kicked the edge of her scooter so that it dramatically bounced up, unfolded, and propped itself under her hoof. “It's nature! All pegasi have a built-in radar they use to navigate the world like homing pigeons. 'Wing sense.'” She winked. “Look it up!”

Rarity stared for a few prolonged seconds, then smiled. “Well, if you insist, but the offer still remains.” She shouldered her pillow like a saddle and trotted off with her foalish sibling. “Come along, Sweetie Bell. Stay by my side.”

“So long, Apple Bloom! Scootaloo! AJ!”

“Bye Bye, Sweetie Bell!”

“Y'all stay safe! Don't walk into the Everfree Forest or nothin' goofy-like!”

“Applejack!—What do you take me for, a plowhorse? A lady certainly knows her way home!”

“Just don't get yer horn rammed into a tree!”

“Oh puh-leeeease!”

“Heh heh heh.”

Scootaloo watched with forlorn muteness as the party dissipated. She liquidly mounted her scooter, wincing slightly as a deep bass sound obscenely emanated from her belly. She hid it with a loud clearing of her throat. A shadow before the campfire wafted over her. She glanced up, blinking.

Applejack smiled down at her. “Yer sure we can't walk ya home? I hate to think yer parents fancy the Apple family to be irresponsible with their guests!”

“Believe me—They rather not bother anypony this time of night.” Scootaloo grinned slyly. “Besides, Mom's probably trying to sleep, and Dad's reading his latest issue of Equestria Daily. They know I can look after myself.” She bit her lip, her eyes glancing over at a barrel just a few meters beyond the penumbra of the crackling fire. A sparkling horde of delicious apples lingered from the latest harvest. Scootaloo swiftly wrenched her gaze off and resumed smirking. “It's the pegasus way, y'know.”

“Mmmm... I reckon,” Applejack muttered, but she tactfully followed the line of Scootaloo's sight. “But the least I can do is offer a token of Apple Family hospitality.” She then trotted over to the barrel, lowered her hat, grabbed three whole apples, and deposited the three of them into the little pegasus' bag. “There ya go—Something for yer family to munch on.”

Scootaloo gasped, “Oh AJ—I couldn't! Besides, I spent all of my allowance on those marshmallows and—”

“Oh go soak yer head!” Applejack rolled her eyes and stuck her cowgirl hat back on. “It's a gift, sugarcube! Compliments of a family that appreciates yer good manners and friendship.”

“Yeah! Besides, those marshmallows were delicious!” Apple Bloom trotted up, beaming.

Scootaloo gulped, her face hidden in the shadows of the dying fire, so that the weakness of her smile was barely noticeable. “Well... uh... I guess I could convince Mom and Dad to have these for dessert tomorrow night.” She sealed the bag of apples and tools and slung it all over her shoulder. “Th-Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“Mmmm—'Dessert,'” Applejack thought aloud as she shuffled over towards the other end of the yard. “Now there's a lick of sense—Focus more on advertising Apple Fritters and less on Apple Cider. Especially with the holidays comin' around, that would positively roll in the bits!”

Apple Bloom shook her head with a smile and trotted over, momentarily nuzzling Scootaloo. “Stay safe, Scoots. I'll see ya tomorrow, ya hear?”

“Y-yeah...” The filly pegasus strapped her helmet on and gripped her scooter. She smirked at the hairbow'd earth pony. “Try not to wet your bed, Miss Cider!”

“Try not to lay an egg, chicken!

“Ba-COCCK!—Eat my feathers!” Scootaloo winked and blazed a trail down the stretch of night-kissed orchards, her wings beating her forward atop the scooter. She rounded the hills overlooking Sweet Apple Acres, then took a sudden east turn and ascended a rise in earth bordering the Southern Forest. There, she paused and glanced down breathlessly towards the distant farmhouse of the Apple Family.

The campfire sputtered and sparkled for a few lingering minutes, until the shadow of an orange pony finally extinguished it in a puff of gray mist that floated towards the heavens, dissipating against the purple haze of the Milky Way. Two sisterly shapes sauntered up to the front door of the farmhouse, and in a matter of minutes every light in the building turned black.

Scootaloo lingered there, leaning her upper body over the handles of her scooter in a melancholic slump. Her curved eyes focused long and hard on the dark outline of the humble home, until the crickets hovering about the line of trees behind her dragged her back to the dark heartbeat of the moment. She exhaled a weathered breath, spun about, and pushed her scooter into the forest, piercing the trees with the sluggish charm of a flightless bird.

Less than an hour later, she arrived at a dark shape that lay in a heap at the center of a forested clearing. It was the structure of a barn, constructed uncountable years before the colony that would become Ponyville spread north into the open riverbed beyond the trees. The wooden beams and support struts of the barn were in decent shape—decent enough not to collapse at any given moment.

Scootaloo pedaled her way inside, skidded to an unenthusiastic stop, and propped her scooter up against an abandoned stable. With shivering orange wings, she climbed a wooden ladder up to the loft of the splintery-roofed barn, where a month-old spread of crinkled hay and a tattered canvas sheet served as a bed. She reached into a cluster of straw and uncovered a hidden suitcase, inside which were several basic necessities and mechanical tools, mostly crafted by the filly herself. She opened her bag and produced the three apples, watching as they glistened in the purple starlight filtering down from the cosmos, unsurprised at a pair of reflected violets that watered half as much as her mouth did that very moment.

She stuck two of the apples safely into the suitcase. The third apple, she eagerly devoured, savoring her first meal in nearly two days. The other fruits would have to be conserved over the course of the week, long after the lonely night had taken its course, long after she had tossed and turned in the straw under a futile search for sleep, long after the tears had redoubled—as they always did under the moonlight—but this time pondering a new question, a question that ached her head with enough pain to rival the perpetual pit in her stomach.

Was this 'harmony'?


“I'm sorry, Scootaloo.” Spike turned and glanced up from where he was reading an old journal of self-scribbled math equations. “What did you say?”

“You have a nice home,” the last pegasus remarked. She shuffled down a series of worn steps from the first level of Twilight's old treehouse and removed her saddlebag. “It's cozy, it's got everything you need, and it's so nicely decorated.”

The purple dragon lowered a pair of large crystalline spectacles from his emerald eyes and smiled sagely. “It is a gaping hole in the ground that I only carved wider with my bare claws a few scant years ago.”

“Still—It counts for something,” she said, her eyes falling emotionlessly over the shelves of mystical ingredients. “A long time ago, I came to believe that 'home' is wherever you lay your head. But even that is a stretch. I think the only time you're ever home is when you die.”

Spike shrugged his aged arms. “You've done well for yourself all these years, if I may say so. You've always had the Harmony, yes?”

“Who hasn't?”

“Indeed.” With a deep fuming breath, he leaned forward, his violet pendant twinkling earnestly in the manalight. “Did you find what you were searching for, Scootaloo?”

The brown pegasus slumped the dull weight of the saddlebag onto a granite tabletop with a flurry of dust. “She's here, Spike,” she muttered.

He slowly nodded. Putting aside his journal, he slithered over and delicately opened the bag before examining its grim contents. The pegasus strutted across the laboratory, gazing up at the lengths of the purple-hazed interior as more and more details revealed themselves to her with each passing visit.

“It wasn't easy at first to sleep in my airship,” she rambled. “What, with the gray world outside always being the same constant shade of ugliness, no day and no night. There's no need for a cycle, because everything is so static. So eventually, you're staying awake all the time, and when you sleep—it's only for pathetically short thirty-minute spurts every eight hours or so. But then it's not really sleep, is it? It's more like you're half alive, half awake, half dreaming—I dunno how to describe it. But when you lie down, you know that you're just fooling yourself. All that matters is your next task, your next tomb raiding, your next run-in with a monster—thinking about all the ways you gotta keep yourself alive to keep yourself alive another dayless day... Heck, even now, I'm not even sure if I'm dreaming or if I'm thinking of dreaming.”

“Which do you think it is, Scootaloo?” Spike asked in a distant voice.

“I'll let you know the soonest I open my eyes,” she said with a bitter smirk. She turned around. “Hey, mister Triple Centenarian, do you still bother with sleep?” Silence. She blinked. “Sp-Spike?”

“Please, Scootaloo,” her scaled friend murmured in a low voice. “A moment, if you will.”

She squinted curiously at him, momentarily numb to his solemnity, until she saw him hoist the hollow pony skull out of the saddlebag and place it gently onto the table. She clenched her jaw and gazed towards the stone floor, drowning herself in a pool of silence for Spike's sake, and for the sake of another ghost that lingered dustily in the sudden, grave hole that surrounded them all.

Minutes into the muteness, Spike's clawed finger gently stroked the hollow at the base of the skull's nostrils. Scootaloo trotted over as the dragon gulped his scaled throat and murmured, “I do not envy the task that I have set before you, Scootaloo. It is one thing to know that the necessary ingredients for the green flame's binding are the ashes of our loved ones, but it's another thing altogether to dig them up, something that has been forced upon you no matter how many ways I wish to paint the truth otherwise.”

“Jee, Spike,” she muttered. “You're speaking as if I haven't done things as bad if not worse already.” She pulled her goggles completely off and set them on the table besides the skull whose hollow she was being absorbed in. “I've pulled things off of bodies. I've pried teeth loose, sliced horns off of unicorns, carved rings off of fingers—” She paused in mid-confession, her face caught upon the precipice of a wretch as she dove deeper and deeper into the hollow, finding it incredibly hard to flutter her way back. “...I-I've eaten meat, Spike. I've murdered creatures in cold blood. I've robbed from the halls of Princess Celestia and the graves of the innocent.” She snapped her eyes in a concrete blink and cleared her throat. “You shouldn't feel bad about sending me to do the unthinkable. I've lived all my life with the intention that the ends justify the means. Why should this moment be any different, when we've come this far, when we have an entire Equestria to bring beauty back to... s-somehow...?”

“Because this isn't just our moment,” the dragon said, gently cradling the equine skull as his tired green eyes studied it like a lost limb. “This is an entire sunken well of moments, strung together from eternity to eternity—moments that belong to all that has died, and all that will die again, no matter how many times we dive down into the warm currents of the past—Their past.”

He glanced aside at Scootaloo and motioned with his head towards the skull.

“She was having a family reunion when I first saw her,” he said. “There were nearly a hundred ponies in the Apple Family, and they treated me, a perfect stranger, like royalty the first moment Twilight and I set hoof on her property. There was so much bounty—So much pie. Heheheh—Twilight's belly practically bowed from her obligatory indulgence. I tell you, Scootaloo, there is no earth pony who absolutely loved, took care of, and relished in the fruits of the earth than Applejack. And what should rightfully be buried in that earth we must now disturb so that we might ascertain the truth of those last burning moments that only residually belonged to us in the first place. Believe me when I say this, Scootaloo: this is a brutal irony that I had long hoped to share with myself alone.”

“Save your apologies for when you've wet the bed, Spike,” Scootaloo blurted. “Let's just do what needs to be done.”

“Your impulsiveness for once has a twinge of wisdom to it, old friend,” Spike bowed his head and reached into a cabinet, from which he produced a tool that he proceeded to scrape edges of the skull with, forming a fine dust that he then shuffled into the hollow of a crystal vial. “I've already prepared the alchemic circles. You may take your place when you are ready.”

Scootaloo nodded, stripping off her armor and gear as she trotted over towards the space of stone floor in question. “I promise that things will go much better this time, Spike, if not for our sake—then for Applejack's.”

“Of that I have no doubt.”

“Though—There's one major detail that I'm curious about,” she remarked.

“Hmmm?” He finished gathering the necessary dust and planted the skull safely back down onto the tabletop. “And what is that?”

She made a face, her brown muzzle scrunching. “You said my appearance would look different when my soul essence manifested itself in the past....”

“And did it?”

“Yes. I had a completely different coat. It was—like—a rusted shade of copper. And then my eyes resembled the colors of my goggles. And then my hair—”

“—was a black flowing mane with an amber streak to match the eyes?” He smiled over his scaled shoulder at her.

ErYes.”

“And I imagine, then, that you were also rather surprised to find the most remarkable emblem on your flank.” Spike strolled over towards the threshhold of the next time jump. He suddenly coughed, hacking up a cloud of fumes that he nonchalantly batted away before stating, “A rather belated cutie mark, if I must say so.”

“It's like nothing I've ever seen before!” Scootaloo breathlessly stammered. “And I wasn't the only pony to think that! Ms. Cheerilee's entire class was gasping at it. And then she went on and on about how I'm some sort of 'royal member of Canterlot Court' or what-crap.”

“Well, if I recall—It's a rather pristine solar crest that you are bearing. And in the center of which is—”

“—an infinity symbol.” Scootaloo nodded, glancing once more at the etched cave wall before squinting back towards him. “Just how in the heck do you know what it looks like?”

“Because it isn't just any royal cutie mark.” Spike smiled. “It is the very same mark worn by Princess Entropa.”

“The Goddess of Time?” Scootaloo's eyes twitched. “But... B-but how is that possible?”

“Simple—I am threading you back through time via a current of the Goddess' very own essence, yes?”

“I... guess...?”

“The way that you look, and the way that you appear to others, is a result of the fact that your projected self has become an extension of Princess Entropa's glory. You are, in every sense of the term, made manifest in her image,” he said, then chuckled briefly. “Though, I imagine, you are hardly an Alicorn. You are still your own soul, pegasus guile and all.”

“Huh... That's kind of nifty,” Scootaloo murmured, gazing down at the circles framing her. “But, with the crest and all, it’s like everyone assumes that I'm a servant or clerk of Princess Celestia...”

“Something that you can take advantage of, no doubt.”

“How do you mean, Spike?”

“Simple—Our greatest goal here is for you to make contact with the Goddess of the Sun, yes?” Spike smirked sideways. “What better way to do that than to convince the ponies you meet that you are an ambassador visiting abroad on her behalf?”

“Spike—You should know me by now.” Scootaloo lethargically glared at him. “The only thing royal about me is the way I burp after a broth of mushroom stew.”

“Then perhaps you should perfect your fine art of belching,” he leaned broadly over her with the jar. “You are going to a farmstead where there is much to eat, after all.”

She gulped. “I hope to be doing much more than that, Spike.”

The dragon nodded. In a solemn tone, he murmured: “Take care, Scootaloo. Remember my words of wisdom—But more importantly, latch onto those of your own.”

“The moment I think them up, I'll consider it,” she said with a lasting smile. Then she sighed and shut her eyes. “I-I'm ready.”

“Very well, child.” The dragon leaned over, anointing Scootaloo's forehead with the ashes of Applejack. After the frozen pony's upper coat was succinctly doused, he took a step back, inhaled sharply, and managed in a fuming green breath, “Keep your hooves on the earth.”

Scootaloo burned while all gravity spun around her. As she felt her mane grow long and her eyes flicker from scarlet to amber under their lids, she nodded her head and deliriously murmured back to her friend, “I'll do my best.”

She opened her eyes—and the blue horizon was upside down.

Whoah—”

She flailed, gasped, and clambored over a bouncing forest of brown branches and bobbing apples. Green leaves and stems flickered past her lopsided vision, providing a crimson kaleidoscope of hundreds of thousands of dangling fruit across glistening orchards. Another jolt, and she surged towards the ground for another meter before wedging her body obscenely through two scissoring branches, suspended like an awkward pendulum above a dirt path just beyond hooves' reach.

“Oh yeah... This is fun,” she hissed, waved her hooves madly, and flailed wild copper wings in the leaf-littered air. “Nnnnnngh—Ugh!” She dangled, her amber-streaked hair forming a black flag beneath her twitching ears. “Hoboy—Well, this couldn't get any worse.

“There ya are! I'm gonna rip yer gullet out, yer mangy varmint!”

“Huh—?” Scootaloo's dangling head spun and her amber eyes pulsed wide as a trio of serrated metal teeth sliced its way through the air and straight at her snout. “Gahhh!”

An orange mare in the glare of the noonday Sun froze in mid lunge, her pitchfork stopping a bare centimeter from the dangling pony's eyeballs. “What in tarnation—?” She glanced cockeyed as a red stallion marched up beside her, brandishing a likewise threatening spade in his strong teeth. “Oh for cryin' out loud! I thought yer were something else!”

“You m-mean something other than a crucified pony?” Scootaloo hissed, caught her tongue—then rolled her eyes at herself. “Ahem—I'm sorry. My manners—You see, I kinda got stuck here—”

There was a loud metallic ring, and the bladed pitchfork was once more vibrating point blank in Scootaloo's face. “Which would never have happened if you weren't so dag blame'd beant on trespassin' like a freeloadin' mule!” Applejack's teeth glistened angrily in the spring air. “I swear—pegasi think they own the skies! Well, these here skies happen to be the roof of this land—Our land! And if ya'll wanna come out of this with slightly less holes poked in ya—Ya better start singin' or Big Macintosh here will really give you something to write home about!”

The red workhorse nodded, spat out the spade in his teeth, and opened his mouth to speak—

“Don't you worry, Macky. I've got this,” Apple Jack frowned and poked the winged pony threateningly in the chest. “Now spit it out! What were you doin' in our trees?”

“Yeesh—I don't ever remember you guys being this psycho!” Scootaloo frowned. “What gives? What was this 'something else' you thought I was?”

“You ain't knowin' nothin' about us because we ain't never met before, smart aleck!” Applejack scowled. “Now what's yer name?”

“Uhhhh...” Scootaloo blinked, helplessly dangling. “M-my name??”

“You heard me! Don't you know it's impolite to ignore a question when it's aimed at y'all?”

“I... I'm... Uh...” The copper pegasus bit her lip. She glanced past Applejack's glistening image in the noonlight. She saw a hauntingly familiar ring of wooden logs lying in front of an upside down farmhouse. Her amber eyes caught the distant bobbing figure of Granny Smith in a rockingchair. Besides the deliriously smiling elder was a table, atop of which was a record player—playing faint music, like cello strings, like a lullaby, a hammock, a bobbing homeless home in the gray twilight...

“Well...?”

“Harmony...” The last pony smiled nervously and stammered the cowgirl's way. “M-my name is H-Harmony.”

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