• Published 22nd Mar 2014
  • 11,415 Views, 872 Comments

Seasons Turning - moguera

The coming of autumn brings with it new trials for Dawn, his family, and his friends...as well as new feelings.

  • ...


Chapter 3: Initiation

This isn't an office, was Rainbow's first thought as she stepped through the door. Rather than entering into an enclosed room, she had instead stepped into an open space. A glimmer from above drew her eyes briefly to the stars above and she realized that she was outside. This appeared to be some assembly space on the rear side of the headquarters. Lowering her gaze, Rainbow came to another realization.

She, Spitfire, and Soarin' weren't the only ones there. In fact, the rest of the Wonderbolts were assembled in two lines on either side of the door, each line facing the other. Though none of them were wearing their goggles, Rainbow still couldn't read the expressions on any of the Wonderbolts arrayed before her, their expressions stony and empty. They stood at flawless attention, perfect posture and not a twitch of movement.

Looking straight down the lane formed by the two lines of ponies in front of her, Rainbow could see Spitfire standing on top of some kind of platform that had been raised about a foot above the rest of the floor. She stood alone, her posture and positioning just as formal and rigid as her subordinates. Rainbow couldn't see any sign of Soarin' in front of her. But Spitfire wasn't giving her time to look around.

"Step forward Rainbow Dash." The tone of Spitfire's voice brooked no arguments. Rainbow stepped forward, slowly making her way down the path before her. The ponies on either side of her made no movements. In spite of this, Rainbow already expected the worst. They're gonna drum me out before I can even get the chance to join, she thought in horror. All this for the cheap thrill of a few minutes in a borrowed flight suit. Rainbow wanted to cry. But she wouldn't, not in front of her idols.

She reached the base of the stage and saw Spitfire staring down at her. "Rainbow Dash, do you know what it means to wear that uniform?"

Spitfire's question made Rainbow pause. A long time ago, she'd thought being a Wonderbolt meant nothing more than being a great flyer, that it was all about impressing others and showing off how good you were. However, her time at the Academy, seeing them in the battle in Cloudsdale, and spending time with Soarin' had all taught her that they were more. There was much more to the Wonderbolts than Rainbow had originally thought, much more to being one.

"No," she said, her voice soft but firm, "I don't. Not yet."

She could have said yes, she could have tried to bluff, but Rainbow realized that Spitfire would have seen through it immediately.

However, the corners of Spitfire's mouth curled up in the barest hint of a smile. "Are you prepared to learn what it means to wear that uniform?"

Am I? Rainbow's mind sank into confusion as she pondered Spitfire's second question. She'd already figured out at least one aspect of the responsibility of being a Wonderbolt, sacrifice. The truth about that had hit her when she'd come back to Ponyville with Soarin' in tow. She'd realized that becoming a Wonderbolt meant leaving her home and her friends behind, giving up all those opportunities to go pranking with Pinkie Pie, no more hanging out with Twilight, no more contests of strength and skill with Applejack, no more listening to Rarity rant about her mane and hooves, no more enjoying quiet moments with Fluttershy, no more hanging out with her honorary little sister. All of those parts of her life would be put on hold, for months on end, if not years.

At that moment, it clicked together for Rainbow and she realized what was going on, what Spitfire was really asking her. This was it! This was the moment that she'd been preparing for since she was a little filly. This was everything she had strived and aspired for. Swallowing hard, Rainbow took a small moment to rally herself as she prepared to make the biggest decision in her life.

"I am."

Spitfire was no longer concealing her smile. Her right ear flicked and Rainbow heard a loud, warbling cry from above. Looking up, she saw Ouranos descending from on high like a fiery comet. Before she could shout a warning, the phoenix slammed into Spitfire and the two vanished in a fiery blaze.

A second later, the blaze parted, pulling back like a pair of wings. Now Rainbow could see Spitfire clearly, as her wings had become the blaze and were now returning to her side. Her mane had been replaced by a feathered crest, her tail by jeweled plumes. Her eyes blazed like twin suns and her wings were awash in color. Spitfire's presence extended to fill the entire space, exceed it even. Its weight was incredible and almost threatened to crush Rainbow's body into the clouds beneath her.

"Kneel," said Spitfire.

Rainbow knelt.

"Do you, Rainbow Dash, swear to dedicate your strength, your skill, your life to the ponies of Equestria?"

"I do." The words flowed out of Rainbow's mouth without so much as a single thought.

"Do you swear to protect the weak, to help the helpless, to live for the sake of others and put their welfare above yours?"

"I do."

"Do you swear to put Equestria first, above the will of the Princesses themselves, to apply wisdom over obedience?"

Now Rainbow hesitated. Even if it means defying Princess Celestia? She'd never even imagined that she'd be asked to do something like that. After all, Celestia had the best interests of Equestria always in her heart. However, a glance upwards told Rainbow that Spitfire's reasons for doing this weren't treasonous. Her eyes, inscrutable in the blaze of her power, still somehow conveyed a sense of hope and trepidation, as though she was praying that Rainbow didn't misunderstand what she was asking. "I do."

She could practically feel Spitfire's relief. "Then rise."

Rainbow stood upright and looked straight up at Spitfire. It was like staring straight at the sun. Slowly, Spitfire reached out with a wing and rested a single amethyst-colored primary on Rainbow's shoulder. Rainbow quickly felt the heat of Spitfire's flames begin to bleed through the mithril mail. Just before anything worse than a slight sunburn could have been inflicted, Spitfire withdrew her feather.

"Mark that feeling well," she said, "And let it always remind you of your pledge."

"I am Spitfire of the Celestial Order of Knights," said Spitfire, her voice echoing in the evening, "Rainbow Dash, from henceforth, you are a Wonderbolt and sworn to bring forth the best in yourself for the sake of others. Welcome."

With that, a cloud of flame peeled away from Spitfire, leaving her as her normal self and transforming back into Ouranos, who let out an excited squawk as he winged back behind her. Now Spitfire was grinning from ear to ear.

For a moment, Rainbow looked to either side of her. She could see the other Wonderbolts smiling too. It began to sink in for her. This wasn't some kind of dream. This wasn't a fantasy anymore. The day she'd imagined, wanted more than anything else, was here.

"I'm a Wonderbolt," Rainbow whispered, scarcely believing it herself. Her body began to tremble and her wings began to tense. The feelings of elation and excitement were building up in her body, demanding release. Rainbow obliged.

In an instant, her body rocketed upwards above the headquarters as she launched herself straight up with a joyous shriek. With so much energy and happiness, there was no way she couldn't do it now. A Sonic Rainboom exploded high above the city of Cloudsdale, the thunderous sound of its release drowning out even Rainbow's exultant cries as she dropped back down. Her eyes picked out Soarin' now, where he had been waiting, just behind the door so that she couldn't have seen him when she came in. Not even bothering to slow down, Rainbow tackled him, knocking the stallion agains the clouds as she hugged him tightly. Soarin' chuckled and returned the embrace.

"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! I'm in! I did it! I'm a Wonderbolt!"

"You sure are Dashie," said Soarin' as he pulled her tighter against him.

Rainbow lifted herself up slightly off Soarin'. The words she had been planning on saying were cut off before she could even start as she was tackled from the side by a blur of pink.

"Hooray Dashie! You did it!" squealed Pinkie Pie as she tried to crush Rainbow with her forelegs.

"Pinkie Pie?" Rainbow blinked and looked over, surprised to see that the Wonderbolts were not the only ponies in the assembly room. Her five closest friends, along with Dawn, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, Spike, and Storm Front were all assembled. She realized that they must have been there the entire time. "Everypony..."

"We're so proud of you," said Twilight, who'd hidden the group with an illusion spell while the ceremony was was being conducted. The blazing flames of Spitfire's transformation had nearly unraveled the relatively weak enchantment, but Twilight kept that little tidbit to herself.

"Ah always knew ya could do it!" exclaimed Applejack as she came up to bump hooves with Rainbow, the two of them sharing a chuckle.

"Oh I'm so happy for you," whispered Fluttershy, looking nervously about. Rainbow realized that she was making a tremendous effort to be here, given that there were so many unfamiliar ponies hanging about. Still, Dawn's presence appeared to be keeping her at ease.

"Thanks," said Rainbow, exchanging a hug with her oldest, dearest friend.

"I must say, you look spectacular with your uniform on," said Rarity as she strode up, "I'm glad it fits so well."

That made Rainbow freeze as several things clicked together in her head; the dress, the date, the uniform fitting so naturally on her. It all made sense now. "It was you wasn't it?" she asked, looking pointedly at Rarity, "When you took my measurements for the dress..."

"That's right darling," said Rarity proudly, "Though I had no idea what your stallion wanted by asking me to send them to that address in Canterlot. I was completely blindsided when he told me what he was planning yesterday."

Rainbow sat down, suddenly too stunned to remained standing. The dress-No! The entire date had been a setup for this. Her mouth worked silently as she came to the only conclusion possible. I've been pranked. Slowly, her head turned to regard Soarin' as he flashed her a triumphant grin. "You pranked me!"

Soarin' didn't miss the shift in Rainbow's tone and he suddenly found himself sweating underneath his own uniform. "Uh..."

"You took the most important event in my entire life and turned it into a silly prank." Rainbow was standing now and she was not looking happy.

"Um..." Soarin' could only find one thing to say in response to that. "...Gotcha..."

"Sooaariiiin'!" Rainbow began to stalk towards her coltfriend, her eyes blazing.

“Hey come on Rainbow, it was just a little joke,” protested the beleaguered stallion as he backed away from his irate marefriend, “Right guys?” He turned his head to his fellow male Wonderbolts, only to find that they were suddenly gathered around a blackboard that seemed to have appeared from nowhere.

“Okay, I’ve got ten bits on three minutes,” Rapidfire was saying, “Wave Chill, what was your bet?”

“Two minutes and ten seconds.”

“Alright, cool.” Rapidfire blinked as he remembered something. “Hey, what was Scootaloo’s bet again? I forgot to record it.”

“She put a bet down on Rainbow Dash catching Soarin’, and I quote, ‘In ten seconds flat.’”

“Oh, right.” Rapidfire quickly moved to mark the board.

“Seriously?” deadpanned Soarin’ “You’re betting on how long it’ll take Rainbow to catch me?”

As one, the Wonderbolt stallions turned to regard each other before turning back to look at Soarin’. “Yeah.”

“Any bets on me getting away?”

Rapidfire barked out a laugh. “Yeah right. We may be daredevils, but we’re not crazy.”

Soarin’ sighed and turned back to notice that Rainbow’s cat-like stalking had brought her dangerously closer, with a malicious glint in her eyes that made his voice rise an octave. “Um…Spitfire…girls, a little help please…”

Turning, he saw an even more disheartening sight. Surprise had apparently produced a few tubs of popcorn and now all the mares of the Wonderbolts were situated, watching with eager grins as they waited for Rainbow to pounce.

Left with few other options, Soarin’ turned a pleading look towards Rainbow’s friends. However, what he saw there wasn’t all that encouraging either.

“Really Scootaloo, your mother would throw a fit if she saw you gambling,” admonished Fluttershy.

“It’s not a gamble,” protested Scootaloo hotly, “Rainbow Dash is way to wicked awesome to not catch him in ten seconds.”

Pinkie Pie was bouncing excitedly. “That looks like fun Dashie! Can I chase Soarin’ around too?”

Rarity studied her hoof in a detached manner. “Really, darling,” she said, barely lifting her head to give Soarin’ a coy look, “I do hope you can keep our Rainbow busy. I put my bet at three minutes out. Besides, it’s good for her to put her new suit through its paces, don’t you think.” At her side, Sweetie Belle couldn't keep from giggling.

“So, how long do you think Soarin’ can keep away from her?” Spike was asking Twilight.

“Well…” said the lavender unicorn before she began to trail off into an analysis of comparative wingpower and weight ratios that had Spike’s eyes glazed over before a minute was up.

Soarin’ turned his gaze to Applejack, who gave him an apologetic look. “Sorry hun,” she said, “Yer on yer own.” Apple Bloom sagely nodded her own agreement with the statement.

Oh bother.

Finally, Soarin’ turned to his last, forlorn hope. Both Dawn and Storm Front looked on impassively. “Come on guys,” pleaded Soarin’, “Don’t bail on me this time.”

Dawn appeared to be studying the situation intently. For a moment, Soarin’ thought that the colt would intervene. His hopes soared when Dawn stepped forward…only for them to come crashing back down when he walked right past Soarin’ and over to the betting board. “Put me down for four minutes and thirteen seconds.”

Soarin’s jaw hung slack as he reached out with a plaintive hoof. Okay, that smarts.


With a gulp, Soarin’ turned back to see that Rainbow was still coming at him, a rather manic grin on her face. He shot one last pleading look at Storm, who merely shrugged it off.

“I only have one word of advice,” said Storm, “Run.”

“What do you have to say for yourself bucko?” demanded Rainbow as she continued to close in on her quarry.

Turning to face Rainbow, Soarin’ could see that he had no hope of help from the outside. However, his expression was not one of a pony who had given up hope, nor was it an apologetic one. If one had to describe Soarin’s expression at that moment, they would describe it as the expression of a stallion who’d found himself at the bottom of a very deep hole and was convinced that the only way out was to dig deeper still.

Turning, Soarin’ rushed to the betting board. “Put me down for seven minutes,” he said quickly to Rapidfire.

“Why you…!” Rainbow leapt, spreading her wings and shooting towards her target like an arrow launched from a crossbow.

With a terrified squeak, Soarin’ launched himself skywards with Rainbow Dash in hot pursuit. The two of them quickly dwindled to specks in the sky as they weaved and dodged.

“I figured he would do something like that,” commented Dawn wryly as everyone watched the chase.

“So…” Dawn turned to regard Spitfire as she came up behind him. “…Given any more thought to what we talked about?”

Dawn paused to think about it. “I have. And I can’t make a decision about that at this time. I don’t even have my cutie mark yet. My life has been full of different experiences and that is not likely to change for a while. I still have no idea of where my future might take me.”

That drew a sigh from the fiery mare. “You’re right,” she said, gently ruffling his mane, “I shouldn’t push too hard. You’re still a foal after all. You’ve had enough ordeals for a while. You should enjoy a quiet life with your mother.”

“If only it was going to be that way,” murmured Dawn softly.

Spitfire raised a curious eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

Whispering, so as not to be overheard, Dawn confided in Spitfire, telling her about Twilight’s plan and what lay in store.

“Yeah, sounds like you still have a lot on your plate,” Spitfire finally admitted. She reached out and gently rubbed her hoof across Dawn’s back. “But I want you to promise me that you’ll ask for help if you need it. Don’t try to overreach. I’ll give you some of Ouranos’ feathers so you can contact me if you need to.”

“I appreciate that,” said Dawn.

Any further conversation was interrupted as a loud scream tore through the night sky. Everypony immediately turned to Rapidfire, who was checking a small clock. “Four minutes and twelve-point-five seconds,” he said finally, “Looks like Dawn takes the pot.”

Soarin's breath exploded out of his lungs as Rainbow's tackle slammed the pair of them into a cloud. Before he could so much as twitch, her hooves were on his, pinning the stallion down as she loomed over him.

"N-now Dashie..." stammered Soarin', grinning sheepishly, "L-let's not g-get carried a-away now..."

"Oh don't worry about that," whispered Rainbow as she leaned in close, "I'm just making sure that you get what's coming to you. So, now that you're caught, are you gonna take your lumps like a stallion."

Jaw trembling with fear, Soarin' clenched his teeth shut and nodded.

Rainbow gave him a sultry smile. "Good. Now close your eyes."

Having no other choice, Soarin' did as he was told. A second later, he felt Rainbow's hoof rap lightly against his nose. "That was for pranking me," she chided, "And this..."

He felt Rainbow's weight leave his legs, letting him lose. However, he was unable to move before she wrapped her legs and wings tightly around him and pulled the stallion into a passionate kiss. The pale-blue stallion's eyes flew open then fluttered back shut as he returned the embrace and pulled Rainbow tighter against him. For a moment, the two of them simply lay there. Finally, Rainbow pulled away, panting for breath.

"That was for giving me the best night of my entire life," she said, before leaning forward to tuck her head under Soarin's chin, "Thank you Soarin'."

"Don't thank me," said Soarin' as he contentedly rested his chin on top of Rainbow's head, breathing deeply to inhale her scent, "Spitfire was the one who decided that it was time for you to join the team."

"So I'm guessing the prank was your idea."

"Yep." Soarin' winced, then chuckled as Rainbow reached up to rap the top of his head.

She began to shake a little in his grasp. "I guess this means it's time to say goodbye to my friends," she said forlornly, "l...I..."

"Are you regretting it already?" he asked.

"N-no. I mean...I knew what I was agreeing to when I said yes. But still...it feels like I'm going to disappear without being able to really say goodbye."

Soarin' smiled down at Rainbow. "Actually, you don't...not yet anyway."

"Huh?" Rainbow looked up at him in confusion, tears still beading in her eyes.

"Actually, we were originally planning on waiting a little longer before inviting you in...during the spring actually. But after what happened with Fleetfoot, well..." Soarin's voice trailed off at the thought of the traitor that he'd flown with for so long, "Spitfire decided it would be a good idea to go ahead with the initiation. But all of her plans for you were mostly laid for springtime. So, while you're officially a Wonderbolt you won't have to move out of Ponyville until this coming spring."

"Really!" exclaimed Rainbow, shooting up and looking at Soarin'. The idea that she'd have time to enjoy one last autumn and winter with her friends made her body feel like it weighed nothing at all.

Soarin' nodded and pulled Rainbow back down on top of him, nuzzling into her mane as she relaxed with a contented sigh. However, something odd struck Rainbow. "Wait, what do you mean by Spitfire's plans for me?"

"Well..." mused Soarin', "She hasn't exactly shared all the details with me. But it sounds like she has some special plans for your training. You are the best flyer she has ever recruited after all."

"The best?" echoed Rainbow, shocked to get such a straightforward acknowledgment of her skills.

Soarin' nodded again. "When it comes to pure flying, you really are the best Rainbow. Even Spitfire admits it. That's not the same thing as having a Wonderbolt's level of skill. There are still a few gaps in your education to fill. But that's true for every recruit we've taken on. But Spitfire's seen something special in you, beyond all that. I've heard that she's actually trying to get in touch with one of her peers to come in and handle your instruction."


Soarin' raised and eyebrow. "You heard Spitfire when she announced her title, didn't you?"

"Yeah..." Rainbow had completely forgotten that little detail amidst the emotional whirlwind of finally achieving her lifelong goal. "So the Celestial Knights really exist?" At Soarin's nod, Rainbow froze. Not only was she finally a Wonderbolt, but she was also serving under a living legend, a pony whose existence was thought to be a fantasy, a bedtime story for foals around the world. The whole realization was simply too much for her to take. Rainbow's body went limp and she sagged back against Soarin. "So awesome!" she squealed, her voice escaping like air from a balloon.

At the sight of his marefriend's vacant, yet blissful stare and lack of responsiveness, Soarin' could only chuckle and pull her tight against him once again, simply planning to hold her until she was ready to wake up again.

Down below, Spitfire was enjoying a light snack when she was approached by an orange earth pony. "Ah can't believe it," said Applejack as she approached, actually pulling her hat off and holding it to her chest respectfully, "Ah guess Ah'm a fool fer not believin' all those stories Granny Smith told me when Ah was a filly."

"I couldn't fault you for that," said Spitfire with a friendly smile, "We prefer it that way. Being a Knight isn't about glory or fame. It's just as well that we're the object of bedtime stories. I doubt ponies would like us much if they knew the real things we had to do. There's a reason we don't go around promoting ourselves."

"But ya have yer own flight team," Applejack pointed out, "Yer showin' off to the public all the time."

Laughing softly, Spitfire reached out and patted Applejack across the shoulders. "Yeah. But when I'm doing a show, I'm just Spitfire, Captain of the Wonderbolts. I'm only ever really Dame Spitfire of the Celestial Order to my enemies...or ponies I trust with my life." She amended the last part of her statement seeing Applejack pale slightly.

"So Ah guess ya don't want us goin' around yakin' about it," said the orange mare, her tone a bit shaky.

"That would be correct," replied Spitfire, "Secrecy is central to our identity. Some ponies have been Knights with no one but their fellow Knights and Celestia being the wiser. Some have been Knights without even their closest family or special someponies knowing. Sometimes, it means keeping those closest to you in the dark about your true self. It may seem wrong, but we do it for a very good reason, to protect those closest to us. That's why you shouldn't talk about us."

"Aw shucks," mused Applejack, slipping her hat back on, "Not like anypony would believe us anyway."

That earned a laugh from Spitfire. "True enough."

A moment later, it was Twilight who pulled Spitfire away to talk. However, Twilight's expression was much more serious.

"What's the matter?" asked Spitfire.

"I wanted to ask you about a couple of things," said Twilight, "First off, have you made any progress with Fleetfoot?"

That drew a sigh from the orange mare. "Yes and no. Since we took her in, Fleetfoot hasn't even bothered to try and hide anything from us. She's told us everything about the Cult Solar that she knows. The problem is..."

"What?" asked Twilight.

Spitfire turned and directed a glare in the general direction of the prison where Fleetfoot was being confined. "What she knows isn't helpful. Her contact was a dead-drop, one that was apparently abandoned the instant word got out that she'd been arrested. She has no idea who picked up her letters or where they ended up getting sent or how they got to where they were going. She gave us some names, but those ponies apparently went to ground before we could find them." The Wonderbolt Captain let out a low growl of frustration. "It's just plain crazy. This group seems to be set up more along the lines of a subversive organization than a religious order.

"Although, while we've been looking around, we've run into some ponies who belong to the Cult, but don't know anything about the assassination attempts or even about Dawn in general."

"Hmm," mused Twilight, "It sounds like there might be certain divisions within the Cult Solar, so that only certain ponies in the group know about its darker activities."

"That's what I thought," agreed Spitfire, "I'm thinking that might be a deliberate move by the pony in charge. It keeps Princess Celestia from declaring the whole thing a criminal organization, since then we'd be rounding up mostly innocent ponies in the process." Turning to regard Twilight, Spitfire gave her a smile. "But I'm guessing that's where your plan comes in."

Twilight nodded. "I have one other question," she said, "Do you have any leads on the artilleryheads?" The massive black clouds, manufactured to produce powerful downward bursts of lightning, had been the reason Meadowlark and her forces had taken over Cloudsdale's Weather Factory. Locating the dozen that had been shipped out before they could act had been the reason the Wonderbolts had taken so long to deal with the situation.

Spitfire's smile faded again. "Again, that's a yes and no. We interrogated Meadowlark and her cronies but..."

"Is she refusing to talk?"

Shaking her head, Spitfire chuckled dryly. "Oh no," she said, "Once we got her in the interrogation room, we'd barely started asking questions before Meadowlark was singing like a...well like a bird." She chuckled again at the parallel. "The problem is that, when we acted on her information, the artilleryheads weren't there anymore."

The bottom fell out of Twilight's stomach. "They're gone."

Spitfire nodded. "There's one other thing that's been bothering me. Meadowlark's interrogation was held before the whole thing with Willow and..."

Twilight's eyes widened. "Fleetfoot was one of the ponies interrogating her?"

Spitfire nodded gravely. "I haven't gotten the chance to ask her yet. But I already have an inkling of what might have happened."

"In other words," Twilight whispered, "The Cult Solar might have them now."

"I haven't asked Fleetfoot about it yet," said Spitfire, "But I'm pretty sure that that's the case. And if that's true, then finding the artilleryheads will be a whole new kind of problem."

Twilight nodded. "Back when it was pegasi tribalists, the best they'd be able to manage was keeping the clouds camouflaged in a secluded location..." No small task, given the immense size of the artilleryheads and the fact that there were a round dozen of them. "...But if it's the Cult Solar, then they could have unicorns utilizing cloaking spells."

That changed matters substantially. Using cloaking spells to cover several large objects was no small task to be sure. It would either take a unicorn with immense power, or several unicorns working in concert. As such, the resulting spellwork would be something that a decently skilled mage, much less one at Twilight's level, would have little trouble detecting. However, the new options in concealment opened up the whole of Equestria to probable locations to search. Spitfire and her team could easily work the whole country in a search, but bringing a unicorn along to find the relevant spellwork would slow them down to the point that the artilleryheads could be relocated before they were discovered. If the leaders of the Cult Solar knew what they were doing, they could conceivably keep the artilleryheads concealed indefinitely.

The notion sent chills down Twilight's spine. If the Cult Solar was in possession of the artilleryheads, then things had just gotten a whole lot more perilous. If the Cult found out Dawn's location, their response might well be to simply use the artillleryheads to turn Ponyville to ash.

Still, she thought, If the plan works and the cultists do try that, there's no way they'll be able to move the clouds to Ponyville without me picking up on it, at least. If that's the case, then we can take care of two things at once.

"Dawn told me about what you're planning," said Spitfire, lightly resting a hoof on Twilight's shoulder, "As much as possible, I'm gonna keep the team in Cloudsdale. If things go south, I want you to contact me." She reached back and pulled out something that had been tucked away amongst the feathers of her wing. It was a single brightly-colored feather. "Use this to send a letter and Ouranos will bring it straight to me."

"Thank you," said Twilight, accepting the feather.

Spitfire gave the lavender mare an encouraging smile. "I want to protect Dawn too. We'll make sure nothing happens."

Twilight smiled softly. With two Knights looking out for them, their chances were that much greater.

The stars shining above Arkenstone were just as meaningless as the darkness that closed in around him. After all, his whole life was darkness now. He had extinguished the light in his eyes long ago. However, even if he couldn't see the way, his hooves knew it. They guided him along the path leading to the gate. Beyond the gate lay the fields and orchards, the smell of ripening apples filling the air with their tantalizingly sweet scent.

Even before smell had become the centerpiece of his senses, Arkenstone had still appreciated the scent that permeated Sweet Apple Acres. It was so much more than just a simple smell. It was the essence of the magic of earth ponies that infused the land and the trees that grew upon it. A unicorn or pegasus might have simply found it a pleasant smell. But to an earth pony, it was something much deeper and richer, the smell of power, power that had settled over the course of years…decades…centuries.

As he passed by a tree, Arkenstone paused and laid a hoof against its trunk. Within its bark, he could feel the power, the magic of the Apple family thrumming through the tree's vascular tissue, filling it to the brim with life. That power flowed out into the apples the tree grew, filling them with sweetness and flavor that couldn't be matched.

Perhaps most tellingly, Arkenstone recognized the power that flowed through this tree...and every other tree on the farm. Without question, it was hers. True, it was mingled with the magic of her children, grandchildren, and her grandchildren's grandchildren, all weaving together in an intricate tapestry of life and history richer and more vibrant than any that might have hung on the walls of the Royal Palace in Canterlot. But hers was still first and foremost. She lay at the center of this massive flow of power, her magic and will spreading throughout the farm like a network of roots, resting quietly, like a mighty and towering tree herself.

"It has been a long time," Arkenstone mused as he took his hoof off and continued on his journey.

In the near distance, the small farmhouse rose up amongst the apple trees. Already, Arkenstone's keen nose picked up the scents of cinnamon and various other spices that had sunk into the home over the course of lifetimes of cooking and baking. They reached out, tantalizing him, beckoning him. The stallion was not ashamed to admit that his stomach was growling, even though he'd eaten rather recently.

Ultimately, Arkenstone had opted not to go to Cloudsdale with Twilight and the others. He was still mostly on the level of an acquaintance with Twilight's friends, in spite of his relationship with her. Granted, that was something they intended to remedy soon. Besides, this gave him the chance to attend to other business.

Approaching the porch, Arkenstone's ears twitched as they picked up the clop of heavy hooves against wooden boards. Big Macintosh had been waiting out on the porch, whether it was for his sister to come back or something else, Arkenstone had no notion. However, he raised an eyebrow of appreciation. He hadn't noticed Big Macintosh at all, in spite of being this close.

They'd encountered one another over the course of the few weeks Arkenstone had spent in Ponyville. However, he and the large red stallion had barely exchanged more than a couple of words. Any mention of their previous history had been almost naturally omitted. He wasn't surprised that Big Macintosh hadn't let on that they knew each other. Besides his size and prodigious strength, Big Mac was also known for being discretion ponified.

Arkenstone turned his head to Big Macintosh and bobbed it in greeting. "I'm back," he said softly.

Macintosh returned the motion. "Been awhile," was all he said. Then, he turned and jerked his head towards the door leading into the house. "She's waitin' fer ya."

"Much obliged," said Arkenstone, walking past Macintosh.

"Eeyup." The red stallion remained where he was as Arkenstone went inside, instead turning to maintain his silent vigil over the orchards. His presence once again seeming to meld into the environment until it vanished entirely.

As Arkenstone set hoof into the kitchen, he immediately felt the heat of the ovens. It appeared that the Apple Family matriarch was in the middle of an intense baking session. She didn't so much as twitch or turn when Arkenstone stepped in, continuing to remain absorbed in her work, rolling out another batch of dough for her next pie.

"Ya sure took yer sweet time in comin' up here," said Granny Smith, her crackling voice being almost exactly as Arkenstone remembered it.

"My apologies," said Arkenstone, "I was detained by other affairs."

"Hogwash," spat the elderly mare, "Yer just too darn self-conscious. Ya waited 'til mah granddaughters went out with their friends and Red was out on whatever business he’s on...” She waved an idle hoof at the kitchen table, the first physical gesture she'd made to acknowledge his presence since he'd arrived. "There's a fresh pie there. Help yerself to a slice."

Arkenstone did so. It would have only been polite after all. Besides, even he was not immune to the tantalizing perfume of Granny Smith's baking. "Big Macintosh appears to have grown since I was here last," he observed quietly.

His remark earned a chuckle from the elderly mare. "Ain't had such a natural at bein' still in all the years Ah've been alive. Makes me wish he'd actually agreed to be mah apprentice."

"He didn't?"

"Nope. He learned to stand firm and that was enough fer him. Ah guess Ah'll try Bloom next, but Ah don't think Ah'll have any more luck with her." Shaking her head, Granny Smith set aside the rolling pin. Laying a pie pan over the top of the flattened dough, she pulled up the corners of the pastry sheet she'd been working it on and, in a single deft move, flipped the entire thing over so that the dough settled into the pie pan with minimum fuss. Removing the pastry sheet, she pressed the dough down and resumed work, peeling and slicing apples before depositing them into the pan in layers with sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

"They're quite gentle, all your children," said Arkenstone, "I can understand that your calling has not appealed to them."

"True enough," agreed Smith, "They're earth ponies to the core, heart and soul. Whether they've settled here or halfway across Equestria, every one 'o ‘em's in love with workin' the land. That's why Ah had to look outside mah family fer disciples. None seem to work out though." She turned and regarded Arkenstone with a raised eyebrow.

The beige stallion shrugged in response, prompting a huff from the Apple matron. "Ah well, can't be helped, Ah suppose. But enough jawin' 'bout family gossip. So ya finally came up to see me."

"So to speak," commented Arkenstone automatically.

Granny Smith chortled. "After Ah told ya all 'bout rushin' through things, ya went and did it anyway."

"I did not rush into it," replied Arkenstone, "I made my decision and gave up my eyes to further my Way. I do not regret the path I've taken."

"That's good to hear," said Smith, "Ya've done some growin' yerself."

"I have," agreed Arkenstone.

"Seems like only yesterday ya were showin' up on mah doorstep askin' me to teach ya."

"As I remember that was around the time your granddaughter ran off to Manehattan, wasn't it?"

"So it was." Granny Smith shook her head forlornly. "Time sure does fly when ya get to be as old as Ah am. But Ah won't have to worry about that much longer."

Arkenstone flicked his ear. "You seem perfectly well to me," he commented. Indeed, Granny Smith was practically a wellspring of life to his senses, a presence that hadn't dimmed in the slightest since the day he'd left her tutelage.

"It ain't 'bout mah health," said Granny Smith, "Sometimes, a pony just knows that it's time and has to let go. It ain't here yet, but Ah can feel that time a'comin'."

"I understand," said Arkenstone, bowing his head.

Granny Smith finished piling on apples, as they had formed a mound that rose above the edges of the pie pan. Now she took a second layer of dough and laid it across the top. She crimped the edges together, cut some slits in the top, and slid the whole thing into the oven. Closing the door, she knocked the flour from her hooves and joined Arkenstone at the table.

"Ya ain't such a sorry sight no more," she said as she looked him over, "When Ah heard what ya'd gone off doin', Ah thought the next time Ah saw ya, ya'd be a darn wreck."

"I have to admit that I was, for a little while," said Arkenstone softly, "But I managed to find my way."

Granny Smith snorted. "Ah noticed. Ya found yer roots, didn't ya?"

"I did," agreed Arkenstone.

The elderly mare smiled softly and rested her forelegs on top of the table. "Then sit a spell and tell yer old teacher what ya've been up to."

Author's Note:

And so we have Rainbow's initiation into the Wonderbolts. I'd had that scene in my head for a long time before I finally got around to writing it. For whatever reason, I love jokes at Soarin's expense. Ah, who needs reasons?

I suppose the revelation with Granny Smith wasn't a huge surprise. A lot of you had guessed it already.

Next chapter: Something wicked this way comes.