• Published 3rd Apr 2013
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The Night is Passing - Cynewulf



Celestia disappears, Equestria falls apart, and Twilight goes West to recover her lost teacher.

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I. The Apostate

I. The Apostate

On the ridge overlooking Ponyville, Twilight thought about Celestia.


She sat with binoculars held to her eyes with magic, scanning the streets for signs of life. There were none; only the lost, castaway things that the evacuation had left behind. Overturned carts had not moved, and their cargo remained unclaimed. A door hung loosely on its hinges, and she swore she could hear it squeaking in the distance. The library still stood, at least. She stared down at it, lost in thought.


Her thoughts drifted back to the day that Celestia had left. Celestia had come through Ponyville before her two month sabbatical began.That month or two had stretched into a year and a half, and now Twilight was left aching. It had been too long since she’d heard that voice.


Twilight scanned the path that the Princess had walked when they had last seen each other. She remembered her walking up the main street, heading towards the library.


“We gonna go down there or not, Twi?” Applejack asked from beside her.


She jerked back, eyes darting over to her friend. “Yes. Yes, of course.” She looked up, shielding her eyes. “Gosh, is it noon already?”


Applejack shrugged, the shadow from her wide-brimmed hat hiding her face. “Days ain’t gettin’ longer, that’s for darn sure,” she doffed the hat and wiped her sweaty brow. “I’d love to get movin’, if that’s all fine with ya.”


“I suppose,” Twilight said, biting on her lip.


The binoculars still hung in midair, kept there by a steadying spell until she removed it. She put them carefully into her saddlebag, then slid down the dusty ridge onto the path below. Now that she wasn’t lost in thought, Twilight could feel the sun beating down on her and the sweat gathering on her coat.


On the road below the ridge, Rarity and Rainbow Dash waited. Rarity looked up, mildly surprised by the noise, but then returned her eyes to the ground. Rainbow’s ears perked up from where she lay in the grass; Twilight knew that if she stalled much longer, the restless pegasus might decide to rush in alone just to relieve her own boredom. Twilight offered a weak smile in response to Dash’s impatience.


“Well girls, we might as well,” she said.


Rainbow jumped up into a hover, grinning. “Finally! Action! That’s what we need around here.”


Rarity rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Rainbow, weren’t you the one who thought this was a trap?”


“Well, duh, of course I did,” she admitted, mockingly returning Rarity’s gesture. She rubbed her hooves together, and smirked. “Doesn’t mean I don’t wanna get some now that we’re here!”


Twilight looked to Applejack, who was still on the ridge. The farmer smirked at her, then looked to Rainbow.


“You're a darn fool, Rainbow. Now you know I love ya like a sister, but consarnit nopony with their head straight walks into an ambush with a grin.”


“Whatever! Like I can’t take whatever anything in there can dish out!”


Twilight gestured to her two friends on the road, and they followed her back up the ridge and over. She signalled for Rainbow to land. The pegasus huffed at her, but she complied, touching down. Twilight felt a little gust of wind on her mane and coat as Rainbow flapped her wings once for good measure and then tucked them against her body. Dash’s mouth was a thin line as she came alongside Twilight. Her steps were like little drumbeats of annoyance.


“You don’t have the guard here for support. You know why you shouldn’t be flying, Dash, ” Twilight said, keeping her eyes on Ponyville. As they approached, Rarity and Applejack fanned out behind Rainbow and Twilight, keeping a liberal amount of space between them. The Long Night’s aftermath had taught them to be cautious.


“I know, I know. Draws attention, I’ll get shot, whatever.” Dash sighed. “Not like you have to stop using magic,” she added softly.


Twilight chose to let it go. It was understandable, really. Rainbow was used to being a scout, being able to fall back on guards with repeaters and good aim if she ran into trouble. The evacuation of Ponyville and its environs had given her some hoofs-on experience.


Though the streets ahead were empty, Twilight wished for tree cover. Once, she’d enjoyed the open vistas around Ponyville, but at the moment they were far too exposed for her liking. The idea of danger in the daytime had once been preposterous, but so had anarchy, and that hadn’t stopped it from tearing apart the countryside.


Behind her, Rarity coughed before speaking. “Rainbow, you don’t know for certain that it’s a trap. There could very well be somepony hiding in there, hoping to avoid any trouble.”


“Eh, I guess. I mean, it’s always possible that the refugees bothered to come this far, but why would they? Nopony has heard from Dodge Junction in like four or five months, right? And with how pissed off everypony was at the Princess, why not head for Las Pegasus?”


“The walls of Canterlot might be a comforting thought after being in danger on the plains,” Rarity argued.


Rainbow shrugged.


Twilight was inclined to agree with Dash, but said nothing. She doubted the refugee band from Dodge Junction was here, but at the same time there was always the possibility that Rarity was right. Scouts had seen ponies moving into the valley in a large herd, but then they had vanished. Twilight had almost forgotten it when an offhoof report from a wanderer had tipped them off to the presence of somepony in town. The vagrant had figured it was a missing party from Dodge Junction. Rainbow thought it was raiders.


We won’t know until we see for ourselves, Twilight thought.


With this—among other things—in mind, Twilight set hoof in Ponyville for the first time in over a year.


She paused on the first street she came to. While Rarity and Dash continued ahead, Applejack came alongside her, and together they stared down the forlorn street. While she stood silent, Applejack pulled off her her hat and whistled, listening to the sound carry through the empty air, then sighed and frowned.


Briefly, Twilight imagined she could see where the Princess had walked before the Long Night. Closing her eyes, she saw Celestia nodding, accepting the greeting of a passing pony. The Princess smiled, her benevolent gesture like the light of the beautiful sun itself—


“Twilight? Twilight, dear, are you listening?”


No, she hadn’t been. “Sorry, what?” She blinked and refocused on Rarity’s frowning visage.


“I was just asking if I might pay the boutique a quick visit—catch up with the old place, you know? It’s been awhile. It's also a rather large, inviting place. I'm sure any newly homeless wanderers would find it a splendid hideout.”


“Oh. Yeah, yeah sure,” Twilight said softly, her eyes wandering back towards her own abandoned home. She shook her head, trying to return to the street in the present. “Hey, Rarity!”


“Yes?” She turned and raised an eyebrow.


“Don’t go alone.” Twilight looked over at Rainbow. “Can you go with her?”


“Yeah, sure,” Rainbow said as she unfurled her wings to stretch them. “As long as you’re quick.”


"I'll try. I shan't be long, darling!" Rarity trotted off toward the square, pegasus escort in tow, and Twilight heard a conversation strike up between them. Rather than strain to eavesdrop, however, she looked over to Applejack.


Applejack’s head was tilted, an eyebrow raised. “You all right, Sugarcube? You seem a little off your game today.”


Twilight narrowed her eyes, confused. “What are you talking about?”


“Yer just a bit... slow. Kinna starin’ off into space.”


“Oh. I was just planning,” she said, quickly looking away. “You know. All sorts of plans about what to do in case of attack, and stuff. Or how we’ll sweep the town efficiently. You know me. Efficiency.”


“Right. Gotcha.” Applejack adjusted her hat. “So, where exactly would you like to start? What’s your plan?”


Twilight continued avoiding her eyes, and gazed down the lane. Her old library stood at the end of the road, the hollowed tree’s green canopy drawing her eyes. She swallowed. “Actually... I was wondering if you might start over here. I need to check something out.”


“And you’re sure? I could come with ya, Twi. You know we shouldn’t be wanderin’ off alone. Ice Storm’s told us that before, if you’ll recall.”


Twilight bristled, remembering the flight from Ponyville; the white pegasus Captain's grim tirade on battle doctrine echoing in her mind. "Of course I remember, but look, they do that all the time, but it's not like we're in the guard. We don't have to parrot their methods all the time. It's a good thing to know, but we can take care of ourselves, especially here of all places. And besides, it'll only be for a minute."


Applejack made a face, then shrugged. “If ya say so. Fine.”


Twilight trotted off at a brisk pace down the street, leaving her friend behind.


The books, the royal guard, now Applejack--everyone always talked about staying together, but it wasn't as if she couldn't take some initiative. Celestia had always stressed the importance of initiative. At the thought of the princess, Twilight's irritation began to fade.


Celestia had come to town a year and a half ago, paying Ponyville an unexpected visit. Twilight had picked up hints of Celestia’s sabbatical through her correspondence with the Princess, but the date had always been vague.

She followed hot on Celestia’s heels as the Princess strode through town. Celestia was calm, graceful, everything Twilight had always admired. Her steps were measured and sure, her head held high. Her mane billowed in the light breeze, a radiant field of color. It was mesmerizing. It took her sight captive and held it until the princess would speak again.


Celestia smiled down at her. “It’s only for a while, Twilight. I think perhaps two months.”


“Will I be able to write?” Twilight looked up at her hopefully. When Celestia shook her head, Twilight’s ears drooped.


But her teacher chuckled. “Sadly no, you won’t. But I promise to have much to write you about when I return. In my absence, you could always write my sister. The two of you have become such good friends, and—don’t tell her I said so—I think it would do her good to have a penpal.”


Twilight perked up at this. Talking to Luna about astronomy the last time she had visited Celestia had been rather enjoyable. “I think I’d like that. But, aren’t you going with a guard? And where are you heading? I know you don’t want to tell the court... I mean, I guess you just want some privacy, but—”


“But surely I would tell you, my faithful student?” Celestia chortled. “I would, if I knew exactly where I was going. But to a great extent, I think I shall be wandering. Perhaps I’ll even see an old friend of mine in the West. She governs a city there called Jannah.”


Twilight tasted the name, rolling it over in her mind. Jannah... it sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it. She made a mental note to look it up when she had the time.“But by yourself?” Twilight asked. “Won’t you be lonely? Isn’t it wild out there?

“Oh, Twilight. I shall be quite safe. I’ll be back before you know it.”

Twilight came to a stop at her old doorstep. The familiar signage was gone, smashed to splinters in an old confrontation; the door’s paint was faded and chipped by stray storms out of the Everfree. She brought up a hoof to open it, but hesitated. There was no reason behind it, nothing holding her back. She simply didn’t want to look. And yet.


Just a peek. Just one little peek.


Twilight lightly pushed the door, cringing at the squealing hinges, and her mouth fell open as she took in the carnage before her. Books littered the floor in careless patterns—nothing more than a haphazard collection of broken spines and shredded pages. A crippled bookshelf lay face-down on the center table. A heavy weight built in Twilight’s gut as she stared at the burn marks and old bullet holes along the surface of the shelf—like a pockmarked face, former beauty stolen away. How much of this had been her own doing?


Taking a deep breath, Twilight plunged into the library. It was like visiting the scene of a murder. The damage the marauders left in her library was everywhere, and broken glass was scattered all over the floor. As she gingerly stepped about, she found a book that looked more or less intact and scooped it up with her magic.


Supernaturals,” she mumbled to herself. Looking back, she carefully brushed a few of the glass shards away with magic and sat down. The book floated before her eyes: on a whim, she flipped through the pages to the entry on poison joke. She stared at it, and a smile found its way to her lips. Somewhere in her memory, a tiny Applejack fumed.


Applejack. I should probably head back.


Twilight placed the book in her saddlebags. Turning to leave, her eyes fell on the overturned center table, and she quietly lamented what used to be her library. It seemed so long ago.


The marauding bands had come in the wake of the Long Night. Ponyville had only been given up when constant raids had made living there impossible.


In the wake of her sister’s disappearance, Princess Luna had been unable to hold Equestria together through the panic that had ensued. With every mile of Equestria that fell to anarchy, marauders gained strength, and grew bolder. Malcontents preyed on the smaller towns throughout the countryside. They painted themselves, spiked their manes, and came in swinging and shooting. At first, they had justified it with hunger, but soon offerings of food no longer placated them. Meeting their basic needs became only a pretext for lashing out; the excuse they whispered quietly to themselves as they embraced the violence, once it took the thrill of hunting down their fellow ponies to feel safe and alive.


Twilight thought they were mad. Most of them probably were. The one that had stumbled into the library before Ponyville was left abandoned had been foaming at the mouth, snarling at her before she blew him out the door with a strong push from her magic. The marauders had lacked a plan. They just spread through town, burning, killing, and stealing as they willed. Their aim had been poor, and they lacked organization. As soon as the guard had shown up, the assault had stopped.


But it didn’t end. In the year that had followed her teacher’s disappearance, the marauder bands had grown more and more daring and competent with each passing month.


She told herself once that it was a testament to the essential character of Equestrians how awful they’d been at it. She’d said it wryly, but at the same time it had been comforting to think that the Guard would always be there and be better. If nothing else, there had always been more of them. Where had all those ponies come from?


She left her library behind.


Twilight headed towards Sugarcube Corner. Her mouth turned down into a frown with her mind in free fall. The packed dirt beneath her hooves offered little in the way of answers, but they did offer up a spot of dried blood. She swerved around it, trying to get her thoughts off it. Instead, she thought of how far Equestria had fallen in her mentor’s absence.


A month had stretched into two, and they’d still gotten no word. Two months stretched into three, and ponies began to notice that days were a little shorter. Four months in, the days had gotten so short that ponies whispered of Nightmare Moon.


Twilight shook her head. I can’t dwell on it. She’s not coming back. If her teacher was going to come back to Equestria, she would have done it months ago. A year, even. Twilight had to stay in the present.


I should try and find Applejack... She bit her lip, looking around for any sign of her friend. The town was silent, as though hushed in desperate prayer; all around her were empty streets, empty buildings, utter lifelessness, all except the enduring verdant canopy of her library. Twilight shivered and continued on, picking up speed as she went. She needed to find Applejack. I’m an idiot. Why didn’t I want her with me? Have a perfectly dependable pony right there and... Stupid, Twilight, stupid! If it is a trap...


If it was a trap, it was going to be sprung. She was far too alone, and far too exposed. Visiting her home had not been worth it.


She came out of the long alleyways into the open main square, headed for Town Hall. It rose before her, battered but still standing, with holes in the walls and graffiti covering nearly every inch. The town was still deathly silent. Twilight’s hair stood on end, her eyes darting side to side, every hoofstep sounding like a thunderclap to her ears.


Her hurried pace slowed to an awkward crawl. Which way had Applejack gone? How long had she lingered in the library? I thought I’d only be a minute! I should’ve paid attention. I should’ve known better by now!


"Applejack?" she called, her voice reverberating off the neglected storefronts and empty homes surrounding her, returning to her ears to leave only a shiver down her spine. “Applejack, where are you?”


Twilight listened, straining to hear any kind of response. For a moment, she thought she heard an answer, but it was faint. “Probably looking through a house,” she muttered to herself, eyes scanning the scarred storefronts.


She turned towards the boutique. Of course! I’ll go find Rarity and Dash, and we can go look for Applejack together. It’s obvious no one is here. The town had nothing to offer them but old memories. No one would stay in a place as dead as this.


She trotted towards the boutique, feeling better already as she passed by Town Hall. Soon she wouldn’t be alone. With her friends by her side, she would be safe again. The thought of Rainbow swooping down to pick off anyone who tried to ambush her was suddenly very comforting.


Her daydreams of Rainbow’s martial prowess were abruptly ended by a hoof to the face.


She went sprawling. Her head hit the ground, turning the world into a fragmented jumble of light. Something turned her roughly on to her back, and she faced the bright sky. Before she could move, the sun was blocked out by a tattooed, scarred pony roaring in her face, spraying spittle over her face. She screamed as the pony reared up over her, preparing to beat her into the ground.


Twilight panicked; she summoned magic, raw and shapeless, and discharged simple arcane power. It washed over her and threw her attacker back, shrouding her in a purple shell, and she gasped and shook violently as the primal energy danced over her like lightning.


As it subsided, she tried to raise herself up on weak legs, calling out, “Rainbow! Rarity!”


Twilight heard somepony screaming, and then off in the distance she saw Rarity running out of the boutique, only to trip and go sprawling herself. Twilight tried to run for her, summoning more magic, but her body felt numb and her legs betrayed her, dropping her roughly to the ground.


She heard hoofsteps, and whirled her head around to meet them. A unicorn in tattered leather barding grinned at her as she emerged from Town Hall. The raider’s teeth had been filed into sharp points, and she flashed them at Twilight in malicious glee.


The unicorn pulled a crude spear from the hole in the nearby wall, and the weapon hovered above her head in a green aura.


“Hey, catch!”


The unicorn let the spear fly; for Twilight, it was in slow motion. She reached for it with her magic, but she was still reeling from her wild discharge of energy. All she could manage was to narrowly turn it aside, whistling past her ear.


The unicorn marauder groaned like a disappointed foal. Behind her, two more raiders emerged from their hiding spot. Twilight glanced back towards the boutique, but she had no time to search for her friends. This is all my fault, she thought, turning back to face her assailants.


She grit her teeth and pulled magic from her body once more, feeling the tingling along her spine. It gathered on the tip of her horn, and Twilight cast it out into a wide, flat plane in front of her. The air shimmered and crackled with energy.


The spearmare was talking, but Twilight couldn’t hear her through the light shield. She took quick stock of the other two raiders: one had only hoofblades, small serrated weapons tied to the hoof; the other clung to an old shootstick, a long wooden pole supporting a miniature iron cannon which flared out at the end.


The gunner took aim, and she knew her shield might not be able to withstand both his assault and the unicorn’s. The spear thrower summoned her own magic, and Twilight acted. She pushed her light shield forward like a ram. The unicorn, distracted while charging her power, had no time to react. While the other two jumped out of the way, she was blasted back, legs flailing like a foal trying to fly for the first time.


Twilight seized her chance as they regrouped, and made a mad dash for the boutique. She ran low to the ground, her ears tucked in, doing everything she could think of to make herself a smaller target. She raced for a cobblestone bridge over the stream ahead and took heart at the sight—perhaps she could funnel her pursuers into a bottleneck as she crossed.


There was a loud boom, and Twilight knew instantly that it was the shootstick’s report. It hit somewhere on the bridge, and as her hooves touched grass again she felt tiny shards of torn-up rock pelt her flank.


Twilight whirled, summoning her magic. She focused them into a tight, hard point, and cast an arcane bolt back across the water. It hit the gunner dead on, and he fell with magic arcing over his twitching body.


She looked away from her first target, now fallen, only to find the other raider now right before her.


Without time for useful magic, Twilight dropped low to the ground. The raider sailed over her and went sprawling with a thud. Twilight drew her magic up to power, and subdued the pony with a debilitating blast.


She took a moment to breathe, looking around for Rarity—she found her dancing back from another raider pony, the attacker's hoofblades glinting in the midday sun.


She took a sharp breath, and cast a simple dome-shaped light shield over Rarity, who then stopped short as her attacker’s weapons rebounded off the purple light. He fell back, Twilight let the shield drop. Rarity recovered swiftly, and unleashed a wide ray of magical energy. The pony on the ground groaned and shook violently, and Twilight knew he was out of the fight.


Rarity was at her side before Twilight could say a word.


“Where’s Rainbow?”


Rarity pointed, her eyes wide and her chest heaving. Twilight looked and saw that Rainbow was locked in combat with a green pegasus. They rolled in midair, hooves flying, punching, kicking. The raider tried to dig his hoofblades into her side, but Rainbow was too fast for him, batting his forelegs away. At last, she broke free, throwing the defeated raider down onto the boutique’s ceiling. He hit with a thud and rolled off of it. Twilight and Rarity winced.


“Thank you, Twilight. I’m glad you came along when you did! Now... wait. Where’s Applejack? Oh, please don’t tell me...”


Twilight shook her head furiously. “No, no she’s fine. Well, I think she’s fine! We got separated.” Rarity gaped at her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to!”


“Twilight, you can’t... Nevermind. It’s a moot point. Rainbow!”


Shooting between the buildings with practiced ease, Rainbow landed gracefully a few steps away. She grinned triumphantly until she noticed that they were one pony short. Her cocky grin faltered.


“Hey, Twi, where’s AJ?”


Twilight groaned. “I don’t have time to explain. Can you two just help me find her?”


Rainbow’s wings flared out as she nodded. Rarity huffed, but had no objections. The three of them turned back towards the rest of town. Already, Twilight could hear the sound of conflict in the distance. She gestured back towards the center of town, and Rarity and Rainbow followed.


They passed Town Hall, and Twilight scanned the storefronts for shooters but found nothing. A pegasus rose up from one of the alleyways, and before Twilight could say anything, Rainbow was barreling towards the foe. The green raider fled, with Rainbow giving chase.


“Rainbow! Don’t chase her too far!” Twilight managed through gasps for air.


Rainbow spun around, hovering as the raider escaped.


“What the hay, Twilight? Why not?”


She wanted to scream, Why? Besides the fact that she’s running?” The books all say... to stay together. She held her tongue. Yes, they all said to stay together and not go off alone. Like she had done.


Two raiders stormed out of a shop, and Twilight stopped short, readying her magic. Another joined them, an earth pony stallion with a shootstick. He leveled it, grinning like a madpony as both Twilight and Rarity brought up their shields. Twilight braced herself, preparing for the impact of the missile against her shield.


She needn’t have. As the gunner took aim, Twilight saw Applejack running up the alley towards them. One of the ponies looked back, but before he could alert his comrades, Applejack had turned and bucked them with all of her considerable force. They went airborne with a sickening crunch, ragdolling over the square. As Applejack passed, they stumbled to their hooves. Twilight kept her magic ready to cast an arcane bolt at any of them if they hesitated.


None of them did. In the blink of an eye, the element bearers were left on their own.


Twilight breathed a sigh of relief, watching the slowest one as he retreated. She allowed herself a thin smile, shifting her gaze back to Applejack. “Hey, looks like—”


Applejack was in her face, seething. Twilight backed away, her ears flattening against her head and her mouth hanging open. Applejack wouldn’t let her escape. She advanced, every step forward matching Twilight’s steps backward.


“What were ya thinkin’?! Were ya even thinkin’? Twi, I thought you were only gonna be a minute, and now... Celestia, lookit this! You coulda died! Just wanderin’ into ambushes an’ not carin’! You should know better. Celestia knows you’ve seen it done, and ya know how this works by now! I was sick with worry, thought some fool monster had found ya an’... an’...” Tears of what Twilight could only assume was anger gathered gathered in the corners of Applejack’s eyes.


Twilight noticed at last that there was a nasty cut under Applejack’s eye. No longer able to bear her accusing gaze, she stared down at her hooves, ears drooping. “Ah, Twi... look, hon, I’m sorry. But ya scared me right awful, ya hear? I just... I don’t wanna lose ya.”


“I know,” she said, studying the dirt.


Applejack sighed and sat heavily. “I reckon we’re in the clear, girls. Chased ‘em all off proper.”


Rarity came alongside Twilight, and hummed in affirmation. Twilight sighed and looked up at last. Applejack was still staring at her. Rainbow landed to stand beside her and look at Twilight.


“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I just wanted to be alone for a little while. See the library.”


“Sugarcube, I know ya didn’t mean it. I’m just... be careful, alright? Please? We’re here for ya.”


She nodded slowly.


“I’m not sure anypony we want to see is here, you guys,” Rainbow said, kicking the ground.


“Agreed.” Rarity grimaced at the storefronts. She put a foreleg over Twilight’s shoulders and hugged her close. “We’re all safe now, though. I’m sure Twilight will be more cautious in the future. Right, ‘fearless leader?’”


“Yeah,” Twilight muttered.


“Of course, darling. Now, I doubt anypony is here, but why don’t we make sure? I’d hate to see some trapped pony be retaken by these ruffians. Why don’t you take Twilight with you, Applejack?”

Twilight and Applejack trotted side by side through the streets they once called home.


They were both quiet for a long time. The only sounds were the wind and the quiet echo of their hooves. The long-shattered windows held now only dirty, jagged shards, taunting mouths making mockery of what had been. An orphaned door lay in the road, and Twilight peered down as she stepped over it. It was pink, or had been once. She sighed, seeing the legacy of raids here as well. When Luna had finally managed to lift the sun into the sky, they’d thought that things were looking up. They’d all believed it.


Then the raiders had come.


“Different. It’s all really different, Twi.”


Twilight glanced over at Applejack, and the look on her friend’s face knocked her out of her melancholic reverie entirely. Applejack took in every broken window and article of daily life left behind by panicking ponies. Twilight could tell what was coming. “Applejack?” Applejack simply shook her head. She squeezed her eyes shut, and sped up, leaving Twilight a few paces behind.


“Hey! Wait up!”


But she would not. Twilight stumbled after her, trying to keep up as they left town behind entirely. She didn’t try to call her back again. Applejack was running like the wind now, and for a brief, irrational heartbeat, Twilight feared Applejack meant to leave her behind for good.


Then, in a flash, Twilight realized where she was headed, and her heart sank.


Home.


Twilight was sprinting now, but still her friend widened the gap between them.


The sun was setting, and Twilight knew time would be short for them. Luna and the court mages could only keep the sun up for so long.


Applejack didn’t seem to care. She ran on, now well ahead of Twilight. With every bend in the long dirt road out of Ponyville, Twilight feared that she would lose sight of Applejack for good. It was was a silly thought, but it ate at her. As if letting Applejack out of her sight was just an invitation for raiders to snipe at her from the trees, or for her to sprout wings and fly off.


Time lost definition; all that mattered was the beat of her hooves against the dust. Sweat ran down her forehead and drenched her mane, matting it to her face. She shook the offending strands away, frown growing all the while. She was no runner.


It occurred to Twilight at last to teleport. She stopped dead in her tracks and made the jump, her magic tunneling through the cold space between heres and theres, carrying her to pop back into being before Applejack.


Her sudden appearance was ignored. Applejack's attention was elsewhere, her eyes locked on something behind Twilight—something that was making her shiver, something that had made her lose her footing into a fall, by the dust and dirt covering the one side of her. Something so terrible that AJ's beloved Stetson lay ignored in the dirt next to her, and there was so much wrong about that.


Twilight turned, bracing herself, but it wasn’t enough. The main farmhouse was ruined, discolored by accumulated filth. The windows were boarded up. The door which had been barred hung open. Through the open door she could see the beginning of some obscenity painted in green. Something had torn a hole in the roof, exposing half of the second floor to the sky. The barn beyond was flattened. Trees were uprooted left and right, and the ground was torn. In the dried mud, Twilight noted the heavy imprints of Manticore paws and her jaw hung open. Manticores hadn’t dared leave the bounds of the Everfree in a long time. World’s moved on.


“It’s all gone,” Applejack said behind her, and Twilight faced her friend. “All gone. ‘S all gone. Just look at it!”


“Applejack...” Twilight took a shaky step towards her. Applejack shook like a leaf in a bitter wind, her eyes darting from left to right, as if trying to find some evidence that it was all an illusion.


“No! It’s all gone! It’s all gone, Twi! Might as well’ve never been a Apple family livin’ in... in S-Sweet Apple... aw, Celestia. Aw, no.” Applejack turned and Twilight knew she was hiding her face.


“Applejack?”


“Gimme a m-minute, wouldja? Just... just a minute.”


Twilight sighed. It felt like the bottom of her stomach had just given out. Carefully, gingerly, she picked up the discarded Stetson from the dust with her magic, and brought it over to herself. She beat the dirt off of it with as much care as she could manage, and then sent it back to its proper place. She softly placed it on Applejack’s head, and Applejack automatically moved a hoof up to straighten it.


Twilight sat beside her and said nothing. The only sounds were Applejack’s sniffles and the quiet rustling of the soft breeze.


Finally,Twilight ventured to speak. She cleared her throat, and began. “Applejack, it’s going to b—”


“No! Don’t you dare tell me it’s gonna be all right, Twi! Don’t you dare! It ain’t alright! Ain’t never gonna be. It’s wrong! The world shouldn’t be this way! It wasn't meant to be this way.” Her drawl warped the words, mangling them into something akin to sobbing.


Twilight said nothing.


Tears sprang up in the corners of Applejack’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Twilight could see her red eyes now, puffed up and awful. Twilight moved closer to her, and Applejack buried her face in the crook of Twilight’s neck.


“I just wanna go home, Twi. It’s all I want.”


And still, Twilight had nothing to say. What could she say? The empty space where her words should be was like an almost tangible ache in the air. Twilight felt like her lungs were on fire, begging her to fill it with something, anything. Just so it wouldn’t linger on and on.


After a while, she spoke. “I’m sorry I left you all alone, Applejack.”


Applejack shook her head, her face still buried in Twilight’s neck. “Nah, it’s alright. Ya didn’t know.”


“No... I just... I wanted to see the library again. I shouldn’t have left you alone, you were right. We’ve been living in this world long enough to know that sort of thing. I was stupid. I was so worried that I’d gotten you killed.”


“Twi, it’s fine. Ya had to go home.” Applejack pulled out of her forelegs, and gestured wildly at her own former home. “I had to go home. We all need ta do it! Home... it’s home. And this don’t feel like it any more, and I don’t know what that means.”


Twilight sighed again. Her ears folded against her head, which she lowered as she inched forward to speak. “Applejack, I know you don’t want to hear it, but home isn’t just here. It doesn’t have to be here.”


Applejack sputtered, and shrugged, unwilling to speak.


Twilight turned them both back towards the house. Applejack resisted weakly, but soon gave in.


Twilight took a deep breath and stared at the house. The words came together in her head as she chewed her lip. “Applejack, your family’s back in Canterlot. They aren’t here. Isn’t that enough for ‘home’?”


“Dammit,Twi,” Applejack swore, pushing her hat down over her eyes. “It ain’t just about where you are, I know that. But Sweet Apple Acres was ours—it was part of us and they... just look what they done! You oughta know. Don't tell me you felt nothin' when you saw your library.” Her voice broke, and she coughed as her constricted throat finally refused to speak another word. Twilight held a leg open to her, and she returned to its comfort.


It was time to head back.

Twilight noticed the cellar door from far off. It hung open, revealing little but shaded blackness, inviting her in like a predator’s maw. However, she filed it away for later. First, she and Applejack needed to catch up with their friends.


Rainbow was easy to find. She flew over the streets, looking down and calling for them. As soon as she saw Twilight waving at her, she landed and started talking quickly. “Where have you two been? We looked all over!”


Twilight put up a hoof, gesturing for her to be calm. “It’s alright. Applejack and I thought it might be a good idea to check outside of town, see if any refugees had held up in her farmhouse.”


Applejack didn’t look at her, but Twilight heard her shuffle her hooves. A white lie, but she thought Applejack would appreciate it all the same.


“I’m guessing you guys didn’t find anything.”


“Good guess. Yeah... unfortunately, I fear I was right all along. The refugees from Dodge Junction never made it here. The raiders were probably hoping to snare someone a bit less prepared than us, though.” She gave Rainbow a smile. making her puff her chest out, placing a hoof over it. She flared her wings out.


“You know it! Nothin’ gets past me. I’d never leave you guys hanging. Anyway. Rarity asked me to go look for you two. We haven’t found them anywhere.”


Twilight thought about the cellar. “Did you check under the houses?”


“What?” Rainbow cocked her head to one side.


Twilight rolled her eyes and waved her hoof in a circle, as if to hurry Rainbow’s thinking along. “Cellars, you know.” Rainbow still looked lost, and Twilight sighed. She stopped waving her hoof and thrust it towards the ground. “Underneath.”


Rainbow’s eyes lit up. “Oh. I guess? I don’t know. I didn’t, really.”


“I didn’t either. Honestly, I was more waitin’ for ya ‘fore I started headin’ down into things.”


So probably not, Twilight thought. Right. I’ll just have a look at that cellar then.


Rainbow led them to the boutique, where Rarity sat pawing at something blue and silky, her back facing the doors. Is that... a dress? Part of it? Oh, Rarity. She wanted to leave her friend to mourn in peace, but she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.


When Twilight coughed, Rarity jumped. She awkwardly wheeled herself around. “Oh! Sorry. Twilight, yes, hello. I was just... distracted. I’m glad Rainbow found you. Where were you?”


Twilight shrugged, seeing her friend hide the torn scraps. She avoided looking at them. “Sweet Apple Acres. We were looking for ponies. Sorry we forgot to tell you.”


“It’s fine, it’s fine. Of course. You were with Applejack; I knew the two of you together would be just fine.” She smiled as wide as she could, and pushed the rags out of sight behind her.


Twilight looked around, noting the dismal interior. These walls were stained just as Applejack’s had been, and the once lovely wallpaper was torn and shredded. The dress racks were bent and deformed, and to Twilight’s dismay, the raiders had covered the walls in their amateur attempts at hoof-drawn pornography.


Now that she was looking for them, she could see shredded fabric bits everywhere. Somepony had taken to destroying for fun the painstaking works Rarity had been forced to abandon.


The former fashionista, by this point, had recovered most of her poise. She sniffed. “Yes, solid thinking there, Twilight. It wouldn’t do to forget the outlying areas. I believe we’ve looked the town twice over by now, and there’s nothing but a few signs of somepony being here weeks ago. If there were refugees here, they’re long gone.”


“I doubt it was them. Probably raider bands or just drifters, stopping in an abandoned house for the night. I guess we can stay here for now, seeing as how the sun’ll be down before we can reach the river,” Twilight offered.


“I would quite prefer to sleep on a proper bed...” Rarity looked around, and Twilight just barely caught the grimace she gave.


“We can sleep at Sugarcube or the Inn,” Twilight said before Rarity could formulate the rest of her sentence. Twilight smiled softly, but said nothing as Rarity gave her a thankful look.


“Actually, Rarity, I wanted to check on something quickly.”


Rarity blinked. “Oh. Oh, of course. What, if I might ask?”


“Just a door. A cellar door, back when Applejack and I were walking back. I want to see. I mean, there won’t be anything in there, I know that. But... Curiosity. Just making sure.”


“Curiosity is alright, I suppose. Take Applejack with you?”


“Sure.”


Twilight nodded, but her mind had left the boutique altogether. She was thinking about the door.


As Applejack fell in step beside her, Twilight looked up, noting the setting sun. The days were far too short. Princess Luna did what she could, she knew that, but it simply was too much to expect a full day of sunlight in these times.


The cellar door bothered her. It tickled her mind, like how Spike had tickled her ears with one of Rainbow’s molted feathers years ago. She scrunched up her nose. She was sure it was nothing, but it had seemed so... odd.


It was a short walk, only a minute before she turned the corner and saw it. Wind blew, and the door creaked. The noise was harsh, abrasive. She winced.


Cautiously, very cautiously, she approached the door and looked around it. Standing before the drop into shadow, she waited for somepony to call up to her. Nothing came out from the hole, and she set her shoulders. It was just a cellar.


“I just want to take a peek,” Twilight explained. “Watch my back?”


“Sure.”


Twilight summoned her magic once more, closing her eyes as the warm, lively feeling coursed up her spine and gathered at the tip of her horn. She shaped it into a harmless ball of light, taking a deep breath. She always enjoyed making light; it was relaxing. Nothing dangerous or harmful about it, only a simple weaving and tying off. It reminded her of being a filly, and how her mother first taught her to create light to help push the shadows in her room back.


She let her little light go, and under her command it drifted down the wooden stairs, into the cellar below. She squinted into the abyss. For a moment, what lay beneath was unclear, but then she recognized it.. or rather, them.


Twilight froze, her levitated ball of light dropping down, bouncing along the bodies until it came to rest against the cheek of a pale, lifeless mare. The light caught on her glassy eyes, staring out at Twilight in their dead emptiness, almost reaching out toward her.


Twilight screamed. She scrambled back toward the steps in a frenzied escape only for her legs to collapse beneath her, slamming her chin down onto the cold stone, her vision blurring...and then, somehow, she was outside again, eyes wide and breaths short.


“Twilight!”


She couldn’t bear to look back. Instead, she looked up into the sky, but it was too disorienting, too much, and she could feel bile rising up in her throat. She turned her head and threw up violently.


“Twilight, what is it? Twilight!”


Applejack was at her side, pulling her away, trying to speak to her. Twilight ignored her, even as Applejack hoisted Twilight onto her back. Somewhere, the farmer was calling for their friends, trying to ask Twilight what it was she had seen. But she couldn’t say. She simply didn’t know how to say it in a way that would do it justice.


There had been so many.

Author's Note:

It begins. The sunbutt teacher fled across the worlds and the Student spellslinger followed.

Thankya big big to sai RazedRainbow, who I thank for saying the right things to make this story happen. Read Not all Who Wander, y'all. You are the better craftsman and one of my best friends.
Thankya to sai q97randomguy, writer of Paradise Sundered and new into the fold of authordom, for his invaluable aid to me not only in this fic but many others, as a pre-reader and as a friend. Sharing references is super fun.
Thankya to Mixolydian Grey, for bein' best shy Skype contact and prereading
Thankya to AkibaWhite, who tore this thing to shreds and prompted me to decide to rewrite this chapter. It's a lot better now. Read Lost Legacies, y'all.
Thankya to wackedoutpet for helpin' a bit here an' there, editin' and reading.
Thankya to sai Admiral Hoofsome for bein' neat an' stuff. Some nice comments here and in chapter 2.
Finally, say thankya most kindly to sai Sunchaser, writer of the Lavender Letter, for his invaluable assistance, for making me think a lot, frustrating all my aims, and being a huge help. You're a pretty cool guy, Sunchaser.


Also, thanks Bronius and Nothing is Constant for reading just as readers. A lot of the time, ya just need to know it's worth and don't suck, ya know?

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