An epic adventure awaits the CMC... that is, if they can wrap their heads around it.
A mysterious stallion wielding incredible powers, with the help of mystical devices from Starswirl The Bearded's era, plunges Equestria into the pre-classical age—a place in time where questing and adventuring is first and foremost. The magical effects at play give the Cutie Mark Crusaders a new world, new abilities and a new challenge to overcome, all while fending for their lives in an ancient conflict. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Map of *canon* Equestria is the geographical tool.
Sweetie Belle glanced over to Scootaloo, standing on her left, half-expecting a pang of worry or skepticism to appear on her face. Scootaloo merely turned her head and acknowledged the glance with a quick nod, promptly setting her eyes back on their charge walking closely in front of them. Apple Bloom—on Sweetie’s right—did not tear her eyes from their charge at all.
They walked alongside a river that was flowing to their right, a dark and threatening forest looming on their left. A dim silhouette most unlike any of the three was cast onto the grass they walked over, shaped by the vestments they wore. The silhouette was created by the lone light coming from the clear night sky—its characteristic red shine giving Sweetie Belle the worrying she had expected from her friends.
‘Blood moon,’ Sweetie remarked. Her three companions stopped in their tracks and stared at her, blinking. ‘We were supposed to be at Rambling Rock Ridge before the next blood moon came. We haven’t even reached the bridge leading up to it yet.’
The charge shrugged. He was a short, lightly-armoured stallion, and his dark-grey coat was barely visible from the weak moonlight beaming down from the sky. His own silhouette accurately described his physique, that is to say not stocky in the slightest—even with the brown leather covering his body, hooves, and the top of his head, he looked more inclined to stay at home than to journey with the three ponies he had as company. Despite his feeble look, though, an air of charisma and intelligence could be seen burning in his eyes—glowing even in the dark of the night.
‘I doubt it will be long before we get there,’ the stallion replied. ‘I didn’t want to use the path that led directly up to the bridge. I assure you, it’s just a safeguard in case the enemy was going to ambush us.'
'Hey,' Scootaloo replied curtly, 'we're the ones on security detail. Don't go off changing the plan without alerting us.'
'But,’ he protested, ‘even if I have great protection like you three, it can’t hurt to be more safe, right?’
The three crusaders grumbled in unison. Without another sound, the group continued on their way. At the foot of a mid-rise hill, the stallion spoke up once again.
‘We should be arriving at a ruin site just beyond this hill.’ Their charge turned his head mid-step and smiled. ‘Oh, the things to be discovered and the places to be found! Cheer up, the journey won’t be long!’
The sentiment did not affect their moods, much to the stallion’s displeasure. ‘Alright,’ he said, curving his lips into a slight frown, ‘I guess this is all business. Fine, then; I’ll pay you when we get to the ridge. But I doubt you’ll get much satisfaction from the journey if you choose not to stop and smell the flowers.’
The group continued to walk silently as they reached the top of the hill, offering them a wider view of their surroundings. Looking northeast—to their right, close to where the moon was hovering—they could see the towering structure that was the Rambling Rock Ridge, blocking all view past its southern wall. To the west—the direction they were headed—was a clearly visible pillared circle, most of the supporting structures having fallen or crumbled into a heap after failing the test of time.
Not the most homely place, but several of the fallen arches still intact seemed large enough to fit the entire group under its encompassing stone.
‘There we are, our home sweet home—for tonight, that is.’
Sweetie’s shoulders and back longed for the security of the ruins; the light garb she had on hadn’t helped when she had been carrying them and a bag full of supplies strapped over her shoulder for many a night. She wore the familiar red cape bearing the mark of the Cutie Mark Crusaders and a star-studded purple wizard’s cap once worn by The Great and Powerful Trixie, a petty Equestrian magician the likes of which was not uncommon throughout the land. Emblazoned on the front of the cap was a flame that danced as its wearer moved about, matched by the cutie mark resting on her flank.
Though the light was dim, she could still see the struggles of her two friends as they went on with their heavy packs—dismissing their troubles as cramps and minor pains—made apparent by the beads of sweat escaping from all over their bodies. A helmet layered with thin, dull brass covered Scootaloo’s head and partially wrapped around her neck, reflecting a sliver of moonlight as the fillies gazed upon it. The brass extended to cover the base of her moderately-lengthed wings and reached further along some of her back. On her two front hooves were two shoes of the same metal that covered most of her body; her rear hooves, too, bore the brass alloy, but instead as boots rising up close to the lightning bolt cutie mark resting on her flank. And, like Sweetie Belle, a cape flew behind her as she walked—bearing the mark of the Cutie Mark Crusaders.
As the group approached and finally reached their destination, a feeling of absolute exhaustion washed over all of them. They had been walking all day and some of the night only to face a rest stop with little protection from the elements besides a weak-foundationed stone arch.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ the stallion insisted, ‘the pillars and arches would’ve fallen by now if they were in rough enough shape to collapse. Cheer up! If we get a good night’s rest, we might even be able to reach the ridge by tomorrow afternoon!’
The crusaders said nothing, merely walking with little care and no energy towards the pillar to unload. The effort of that alone proved too much to handle as they deposited their packs on the ruins’ stone floor, not even bothering to take off their gear.
‘...Well, good night, I suppose,’ the once-chipper companion said, sighing as he unloaded his own gear from a leather bag that had been hanging from his shoulder. ‘I’d take your stuff off—not really good to wear metal and such at night.’
‘We probably won’t get sleep anyway,’ Scootaloo piped in. ‘Doesn’t really matter to me.’
Apple Bloom remained silent as she scanned the forest around them. She wore the crusaders’ cape with a small extension at the front, functioning as a short scarf of crimson. Besides some leather boots going up close to her thighs and a black fedora adorning her head, its brim twice as wide as her head, she wasn’t heavily fitted with clothing or armour as Scootaloo was.
Laying down a pack of gear beside her, Apple Bloom allowed herself a few moments to inspect every piece. There was a steel tower shield with two short swords crossing over it, all wrapped with three leather bands securing them together. The shield held a familiar ice shard symbol engraved in its center, matching the cutie mark resting on her thighs, and its back held the clamp that would secure to one of her hooves if its use was needed—as did both of the swords. One sword bore the same symbol embedded in the shield and a white, sharp coating, the other holding the same lightning symbol on Scootaloo’s flank and bearing a jet black coating.
Once Apple Bloom was sure everything was in place, she returned her gaze to the forest as the group prepared to fall asleep—to her surprise, however, several pairs of eyes were staring straight back.
‘Don't say a word or move a muscle,’ Apple Bloom cautioned in a hushed whisper, keeping herself rigid as she stared at the ever-still white eyes presenting themselves behind the darkened shrubbery. All traces of weariness disappeared in her companions as she ushered her warning.
‘I don’t doubt there’s more, but so far I can only see two pairs of eyes,’ Apple Bloom remarked. ‘I’m not sure if they know you’re all awake—’’
In a flash of speed and brass, a pony came rushing from behind Apple Bloom, nearly catching her off-guard—in the frenzy, she did not realize it was Scootaloo, her dark sword clamped to her hoof and still sheathed. In a swift motion, Scootaloo’s 9hoof whipped forward, extending the blade into its full length, glistening even under the dimness of the moon. Her wings began to flap rapidly and lifted her a couple of feet in the air. The pairs of eyes widened and fled the bush, leaving only silence and a certain emptiness in its stead.
Apple Bloom scoffed. ‘There could’ve been more than two, you know. They were probably planning a surprise attack, thinking that we were asleep,’ she continued, securing her own blade to her hoof. ‘Might as well get ready for an attack—I still hear them in the bushes.’
Scootaloo nodded and a noticeably irritated Sweetie Belle was rising from her attempt at slumber, replacing the hat on her head in a swift movement of her hoof. The stallion remained silent, obedient to Apple Bloom’s orders as he rested below the pillar with eyes actively searching for danger.
‘Light your sword up, Apple Bloom,’ Scootaloo insisted.
Apple Bloom whipped out her sword from its handle as Scootaloo had done, its white steel shining in the dark and illuminating the nearby vicinity after a quiet whisper was spoken. Everything was clearly visible, from the pillars, to the grass, to the ponies poised and ready to fight.
Out of the bush emerged three earth stallions, each a varying shade of brown and each with their chests puffed out.
The pony with the lightest shade of brown stepped forward from the group, lifting himself on his two rear hooves and patting a sheathed sword buckled to his side with a confident smile. He looked to the crusaders with a knowing gaze.
‘You must be the heretics Moonshine told us about.’ The stallion smirked and glanced over at the crusaders’ escort. ‘Normally I’d follow his rules and... exterminateall four of you, but you're too young for me to fight. I’d feel terrible about it later, I’m sure. Just hand over the speaker and we’ll leave you three alone to your little filly games.'
‘Speaker?’ Sweetie Belle squeaked, stepping forward from her own group with a confused look on her face. ‘He’s a weapon salesman!’
‘Hah!’ the stallion replied, prompting a slight chuckle from his two companions. ‘Is that his story? No, he’s a criminal—a speaker for the Resistance, going from town to town in order to spread the word of his evil organization.’ The Cutie Mark Crusaders all looked at each other as he continued speaking, each of them surprised—but not upset. ‘You’ll be doing us a big favour by handing him over. Whatever he’s told you is surely just more of his treachery—’
‘No,’ Scootaloo said flatly, stepping past Sweetie Belle and nearly face-to-face with the frowning stallion. ‘He’s our charge and it’s our job to protect him. Either leave or face the consequences,’ she added, spreading out her wings and waving her sword in front of her.
The stallion pondered Scootaloo’s statement for several moments before shaking his head and motioning his hoof to the Crusaders’ charge. The darkest stallion on his left smirked and began walking towards his target.
‘I’m sorry,’ their leader continued, ‘but we’re not going to get pushed around by the likes of you. Make a move and I’ll have to listen to old Moonshine’s orders, hmm?’
Without hesitation, Scootaloo reared on her back hooves, concentrated for several seconds—while the intruders stopped and stared, puzzled and possibly even amused as to what she was doing—and her sword glistened with a yellow glow. She raised her blade into the air, prompting one of the stallions to reach for his sheath in defense—but it was barely a forethought before it was too late.
‘Leave this place!’ Scootaloo cried out, slashing her sword down to the ground in the direction of the approaching assassin, keeping it angled downwards as the ability took form. In an instant, an ethereal red eye appeared over him, sending a beam of red energy flowing down underneath it and through the stallion. Within the span of a few seconds, the target—paralyzed with fear at the terrifying sight—had a yellow bolt connect from the ground, flowing through his body and redirected towards Scootaloo.
‘W-What was that?’ the leader exclaimed, rushing over to assess the damage of the attack on his fellow stallion, his mouth agape in awe. ‘You’re one of those... things, aren’t you?’
‘Aliquatenus’, Scootaloo corrected. ‘Your friend isn’t going to die.’
The leader looked to the three with a horrified expression. ‘Your tone of speech, your abilities... you aren’t normal! You’re all freaks!’
‘We’ve been through a lot,’ Apple Bloom spoke up. ‘Did you really think we would just be regular school children? We’ve seen and done too much for that now.’
‘You’re still heretics; begone the notion that young fillies are innocent and helpless! I underestimated what you could actually accomplish—but rest assured, your covers as mercenaries are gone.’ The leader helped his fellow assassin up, nodded to the other and began bolting away as a group.
‘Not if I can help it!’ Apple Bloom cried out, standing on her rear hooves and copying Scootaloo’s ability, albeit with a cyan-blue glow surrounding her sword instead.
As she casted the spell, large chunks of ice appeared above the fleeting attackers, raining down on them at terminal velocity. The ice itself did not deal enough damage to severely injure any of them before they could escape—however, as they would not realize soon enough, they had frozen in place once the magic was finished being cast.
Apple Bloom huffed for a few moments as she sheathed her sword, allowing herself to walk comfortably on all four hooves. Sweat began beading on her forehead as the cost of the spell hit her; she panted and her legs began to quiver.
‘What... what just happened?’ the charge asked incredulously, stepping forward from the pillar now that the danger had ended. ‘Who are you ponies?’
Apple Bloom sighed. ‘Don’t worry about it. In case you were curious, those ponies there have been stopped in time, so they won’t be a concern any—’
‘Yes, I kind of gathered that when I was over there watching you in awe... but what I meant to ask was—’ the charge paused for a moment, ‘—what’s your story? Your conduct intrigues me.’
‘I think it is we who should be asking you questions,’ Scootaloo piped up. ‘You didn’t exactly tell is the truth, no matter how dangerous telling us about being a speaker for the Resistance would have been. That’s the point I’m trying to make—you put us in danger, and we weren’t exactly in Moonshine’s good books in the first place. I’ve a mind to kill you where you stand.’
‘W-Well, you just explained it right there,’ their charge replied, allowing a few drops of sweat to escape from his forehead. ‘It’s too dangerous for our group to reveal ourselves in public. I suspected that danger would come, even if I did take a different path, but that’s why I hired you three. For protection. But, pray tell, what is your story?’
Apple Bloom looked up at the stars, to her friends—who were nodding their heads as they met her gaze—and over towards the barely visible Rambling Rock Ridge. ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you. But I think it’d be best if we wait until tomorrow, so we can tell you along the way to that ridge. We shouldn’t sleep too long, though; those stallions could unfreeze at any given time. We need to cover some ground.'
‘Very well. Until tomorrow, then.’ The travelling party proceeded to settle down, anxious to get some rest and continue their journey. There was an open question in the air, with none of the ponies wishing to bring it up—why not kill the attackers?
The party did not sleep that night.
This tale is one in a special era, a place in time long forgotten by the denizens of Equestria in the modern day. It is a tale of adventure, magic andaliquatenus—it is also one concerning the Cutie Mark Crusaders.
But the tale does not begin with any of these things, nor does it begin with the mysterious Moonshine the Great or what he has against the Crusaders.
It begins quite simply.
Over the Hills and Far Away
A river flowed south—only a twenty-second walk east from downtown Ponyville—and with it came treasures waiting to be discovered, as anything dropped anywhere from Canterlot Falls to the western sea would be picked up by its swift current. This fact was well known by three adventurous young fillies, eager to find whatever they could in the shallow waters of the river.
Three snorkels poked their tubes out above the surface of the water, their users lurking beneath as they hunted for hidden treasures.
‘Mmph!’ Scootaloo mumbled, splashing around as she emerged from the river. She was soon followed by the other two Cutie Mark Crusaders, anxious to see what their friends may have discovered. ‘Girls,’ she continued, removing the snorkel from her mouth, ‘I haven’t found anything! I’m not sure if we’re going to get any results here... let’s try doing something else!’
Apple Bloom groaned, removing her own snorkel from her mouth. ‘And what do you think we should do, Scoots? I say we keep trying, we’re bound to find something!’
‘Yeah!’ Sweetie Belle squeaked. ‘The current isn’t very strong, we should be fine!'
Apple Bloom and Sweetie nodded their heads and turned to Scootaloo, who sighed and prepared to put her snorkel back on. ‘Alright, I guess I’m outnumbered. If anypony finds something, just put your head out of the water.’
The three replaced their snorkels and slowly submerged themselves back into the river’s flow. Scootaloo eyes glazed over as she dunked her head in, taking no effort to look for hidden treasures; she was surprised to discover, however, that they were not alone in the river.
A flailing fish was swimming down with the river’s current, moving around in erratic patterns without control. It was on a crash course heading right towards Scootaloo’s head, who instinctively rose up from the water—in her hurry, she lost her balance against the current and fell right back in. Her hooves kicked as she fell, connecting with the fish and sending it flying out onto the riverbank.
As the Crusaders recovered themselves and escaped the river’s current, they all looked around to see what had happened. They caught sight of the flopping, out-of-water fish jumping to and fro in a frantic motion.
‘What happened, Scoots?’ Apple Bloom inquired. ‘How’d the fish get out of the water—wait, it can't breathe!’
'You think?' Scootaloo said.
Without another word, Apple Bloom rushed over to the flopping fish to diagnose the problem. It didn’t take very long. ‘Its throat is bulging... I think it swallowed something from the river!’ she deduced. ‘If I just press down here... slide my hoof across its throat...’
A hint of blue peeked out from the fish’s mouth, eventually revealed to be a jewel casting a brilliant sapphire shine in all directions. The edges were perfect; not a sign of a scratch nor a nick could be seen anywhere on the multifaceted crystal as Apple Bloom picked it up. Its length was about twice as long as her hoof and half as wide.
‘...Huh?’ Apple Bloom questioned, staring inquisitively at the jewel. ‘What’s this doing in a fish’s throat—oh, put the fish back in the water first!’
Scootaloo rushed over and began pushing the flopping fish with her hoof. As it reentered the shallow depths of the river, it recovered its bearings and swam along with the current. Scootaloo took one look at the rocks moving with the flow of the river and came up with the answer to her friend’s question.
‘Maybe the fish was trying to swim up the river and swallowed the jewel accidentally? I don’t think fish are the brightest things out there.’
‘Maybe, maybe...’ Sweetie Belle said passively, staring at the gem. ‘We should get this appraised—it’s a word for checking the value of jewelry, I learned it from my sister,' she added, looking to her friends' incredulous expressions. 'She’s too busy out having fun with Twilight to do it—let’s head to the jeweler’s store instead!’
The suggestion was met with two agreeing nods, prompting the trio to turn and walk towards one of Ponyville’s many buildings a little more than a stone’s throw away. There was a sign out front with a painted diamond necklace artfully drawn onto its rough wooden surface. The Crusaders did not hesitate to walk straight in, with Apple Bloom carrying the jewel in the clenches of her jaw. As the door opened, a bell sounded, bringing their presence to the attention of a light-grey stallion polishing an amber stone behind the store’s counter.
‘Welcome!’ the stallion said warmly, looking to the fillies with the friendly smile. ‘And what brings the town’s crusaders to my humble little shop?’
The shop was, indeed, small. The space was mostly taken up by display cases, but even without them, there would be little space. On that day in particular, only one other pony—a moderately-sized stallion dressed in a trench coat that dragged down almost to the tips of his white hooves—was in the store, carefully perusing the display of jewels.
‘We just wanted to get this jewel... thing, appraised,’ Apple Bloom answered, holding out the gem. The jeweler grabbed a tool from the table vaguely resembling a magnifying glass on a thin rod and held it up to his right eye, slowly inching closer to Apple Bloom’s hoof until they nearly touched.
‘I’d like to inspect this further in my backshop, if you would be so kind as to lend me it for a little while,’ the storekeeper requested. Apple Bloom willingly deposited the object in question on the store counter—soon after snatched with excitement and delight by the jeweler. ‘It looks rather fascinating!’ he exclaimed, widening his eyes. ‘Where did you find it?’
‘Over in the river.’
The stallion to the side stopped perusing the gallery of stones and cocked his head to the side ever so slightly, leaning his ear in towards the commotion.
‘I’ll be right back with my thoughts! You fillies sit tight!’ The appraiser turned, walked to a table in the back covered with various complex tools and equipment and set to work. The other customer began walking slowly towards them.
‘Hast thou discovered a gem in yonder river, young fillies?’ the stallion questioned in a high-and-mighty tone, keeping his face partially hidden underneath a worn-out fedora. ‘Thy discovery intrigues me tenfold from such petty rocks set on display herewith.’
‘I heard that!’ the jeweler grumbled from his desk.
The crusaders looked to each other, shrugged and looked back to the stallion in confusion. Sweetie Belle was the first to speak. ‘Mister,’ she began, ‘I don’t think any of us can really understand you—’
‘He was talking to me earlier, I understand him,’ the shopkeeper interrupted, keeping his gaze upon the jewel. ‘He was asking if you had found this beauty in the river.’
‘Ah, that makes more sense!' Sweetie remarked. She puffed out her chest and stuck her chin up high. 'True, our statement is! We, as proprietors of the benefactory establishment enacted therein would henceforth—’
‘I don’t think you’re making any sense,’ Scootaloo whispered, interrupting Sweetie with a gentle nudge. ‘Where’d you learn those words?’
‘My sister! And why are we whispering? Everypony can hear us!’
‘I can’t hear you!’ the storekeeper said aloud. ‘...Whoops. I’ll just get back to work.’
The stallion coughed and cleared his throat. ‘I know not what hath just occurred, but if thy stone from yonder river proveth to be what I think it is, then I shamefully request, O humble souls, that ye return it to its owner true—that is, to say, myself.’ He raised his fedora enough for the Crusaders to see his face—a white, almost regal visage that commanded authority even as he bore a friendly smile. ''Tis an ancient family heirloom passed down from generation to generation, and it would be much appreciated lest you allow me a look.'
'How do we know you're not lying to us so you can get a free jewel?' Scootaloo questioned. 'Prove that it's yours.'
The stallion smirked and reached into the depths of his trench coat, soon holding a dusty, worn-out tome in his magenta-coloured magical grip—the same colour that emanated out from the sides of his hat.
'Very well. ‘Tis a sapphire-coloured gemstone with a beauty and perfection not likely seen in this corner of the world, and with it, light seems to shine from nowhere; in addition, should thou givest up the stone, I shall impart onto you this magical tome. It hath... magical properties.’ The stallion paused for a moment. ‘I’d wager that thou hast found the bauble in the river—I was in Canterlot prior, ‘twas possible that I misplaced it somehow.’
The Cutie Mark Crusaders retreated to the side, much to the stallion’s dismay. ‘Let’s keep this quiet,’ Sweetie Belle commented, whispering. ‘He described the gem perfectly; giving it back is the right thing to do. I don’t really care about whatever book that is, but we can still make the exchange so he doesn’t think we’re giving him a fake.’
‘I agree!’ Scootaloo said aloud. ‘I mean, I agree. Maybe Twilight will want the book too!It looks pretty old, she seems to like that kind of stuff.’
‘So it’s settled,’ Apple Bloom concluded. Just as the huddle broke away, the jeweler returned from his work table and laid down his monoglass.
‘I honestly have no idea what this is,’ he said, sighing in defeat. ‘I’d like to say that it’s a sapphire, but the gem seems to create light on its own. Normal gemstones don’t do that—’
‘You can give it to the stranger!’ Sweetie Belle squeaked, startling the jeweler. A smile crept up on the stranger’s face. ‘It’s his, he deserves to keep it!’
The trench coat stallion held out his hoof to the counter, and after several of the storekeeper’s doubletakes from the jewel to the crusaders, the stone was placed onto the stranger’s hoof and quickly stashed away into a lone pocket. ‘If you insist...’ the owner said hesitantly, looking to his mysterious customer with suspicion. ‘It really is quite a valuable-looking bauble.’ He put on a fresh smile and looked around his shop. ‘And maybe some of you fine ponies would like to do a bit of shopping here now that that’s done!’
‘Sorry, but no thanks,’ Apple Bloom replied. ‘We were just here for the appraisal; we don’t have any money.’
‘Nor do I,’ the stranger added, his hooves shaking. ‘I shall take my leave now—but ye three hath done me a great service today. My family shall be delighted to see this beauty once more; I hope that thy tome shall satisfy you for many a year!’ He carefully set the tome still held by his magic on Apple Bloom’s back, promptly trotting away from the group and towards the door—as he began disappearing from sight, he was seen hopping with giddy excitement.
‘I’m not sure he was telling the truth,’ the storekeeper commented. ‘His voice sounded a little funny, don’t you think? We don’t get too many ponies like that around these parts—especially ones that don’t have any money. Might be up to no good.’
‘I don’t know, he seemed pretty trustworthy,’ Apple Bloom replied. The Crusaders turned to the shop door’s window panes, startled to see the sun’s orange glow beginning to shine through.
‘Huh, it’s getting late. We’re sorry to have bothered you over nothing, mister Jeweler!’
‘That’s quite alright; I get plenty of business from your sister, miss Belle!’ The merchant chuckled and withdrew to his work table. ‘See you fillies later!’
The trio left the store, Apple Bloom carrying the book on her back. ‘Hey, might as well take a look at the book, right?’ Scootaloo requested as they trotted down downtown Ponyville. ‘It wouldn’t hurt—maybe we’ll even find it interesting!’
Both Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom nodded their heads, prompting Scootaloo to grab hold of the tome with her jaw and set it down on the grass beneath them. The cover was blank—only a bit of dust and a faded brown trim adorned it. As she flipped through the pages with her hoof, the crusaders were surprised and dismayed to find that the pages inside were completely empty; no images, no words, no diagrams were found at all. The Crusaders looked expectantly at the pages, but were left with empty sighs.
‘Are you serious?’ Scootaloo groaned. ‘Guess we got fooled. Maybe Twilight can use it like a journal or something?’
‘I guess so,’ Apple Bloom replied. ‘It’s getting late though; I’ll bring it home and hand it to Twilight tomorrow. Meet at the library at noon?’
‘Yeah!’ the other two Crusaders cried in unison. They soon parted ways to their respective homes, Apple Bloom beginning her trek to Sweet Apple Acres with the tome replaced on her back.
As she headed west, the orange glow of the sunset took everything in sight within its all-encompassing hold.
'Beautiful,' Apple Bloom remarked. 'Has it always been like this?' She paused for a few moments in thought, up until the sun disappeared from sight, leaving only darkness in its stead.
'I wonder where that jewel came from... or even this book.' She took a glance at the text on her back. 'Far off lands, I bet. Cutie Mark Crusaders... adventurers! That'd be fun.'
Apple Bloom chuckled and continued on her way home.
A clash of steel sounded all throughout the Apple house, eventually reaching and awakening a sleeping filly. Groggily, she opened her eyes and glazed them over her bedroom to locate the source of the sound. Another clash of steel came, which was soon followed by another, then another.
Puzzled, she left her bed and walked over to her window. Yet another clash sounded through the window as a stout red stallion crossed swords with a lizard-like creature standing on two legs. ‘Tell your friends to stop steppin’ their slimy feet on our land or I will personally come into yours and make them stop!’ the stallion cried out, lunging forward with his short sword and narrowly missing his target.
‘Hiss!’ the creature replied, sticking its forked tongue out as it dodged the strike. It held a curved falchion in its partially-webbed hands, promptly swinging downwards toward the stallion's head. He quickly swatted the strike away with his sword, knocking his opponent's weapon clean out of his hands and into the bushes.
'Eeenope,' the stallion finished, lunging forward once more and finding its mark into his opponent’s center. The lizard clutched its pierced gut and stuck its tongue out once more, closed its eyes and hung its head in agony.
'Big...' Apple Bloom began, incredulous. '...Big Mac?'
Without hesitation, the filly bolted out through her bedroom door as fast as her young legs could carry her, her eyes glistening as hints of tears began to surface. ‘Applejack!’ she called out. ‘Help! There’s something going on outside and Big Mac is in trouble!’ No response came.
Big Mac would never... he would never do that! No, no, no!
Once outside, Apple Bloom noticed that the creature had vanished, leaving a pleased Big Macintosh sheathing his spotless short sword to his side. He took a glance at Apple Bloom, smiled and began walking towards the Apple home.
‘Where’d that lizard go, big brother?’ Apple Bloom questioned hurriedly. ‘Please don’t scare me like that again!’
‘Huh?’ Big MacIntosh replied. ‘Ah, you mean that Argonian scout that was steppin’ on our land. He’ll be back later, I’d wager. Why, what’s gotten you so riled up, little sis’?’
‘Be back later? But I saw you stab him with that thing—wait, where did you get that sword from?’
‘Mm, the varmint sword—ah, what’s gotten into you, Apple Bloom?’ Big MacIntosh questioned sharply, putting on a frown. ‘You’re actin’ like you’ve seen a ghost or something. Are you all right?’
Apple Bloom simply shook her head and continued to stare at the sheathed blade.
‘Well, alright then. I’ve got to get back to buckin’ apples, if you don’t mind.’ Big MacIntosh paused and pondered for a moment, lifting a hoof to his chin in thought. ‘Say, I haven’t seen your sister in a while. If you see her, mind askin’ her to help me out a little? She should be at the Dungeoneerin’ Association.’
‘Uh, sure.’ Apple Bloom smiled sheepishly, keeping her eyes away from the blade. This is all a dream, she thought. ‘Don’t get distracted by swords.’
‘What was that?’
As quickly as she had arrived, Apple Bloom was racing away from a puzzled Big MacIntosh and down the path towards Ponyville.
A sword? Where in the hay did Big Mac get a sword? Apple Bloom sighed. If this ain’t a dream—and it definitely feels and looks real—then there’s a lot I’ve got to figure out.
In the distance, past a well-trodden gravel road and above several of Ponyville’s thatch-covered rooftops, Apple Bloom caught a vague outline of a shining metal object reflecting the rays of the afternoon sun. As she hurried down the road to discover what the curious object was, it revealed itself to be the letters “D” and “A” mounted on the tip of a tall spire.
Darting her eyes left and right, try as she might, she could not find what she was looking for.
‘Twilight’s library... is gone?’ she questioned. A pair of accusing eyes glared at her odd behaviour, prompting a sheepish smile in return. ‘Sorry, I don’t talk to myself much! I swear!’
‘Best you not be doing that much,’ the stranger replied in a gruff tone, a mahogany-coated stallion with shoulders nearly as broad as the length of the silver sword he twirled with his hoof. ‘Some folks might think you’re crazy. Or at least a little bit like... you don’t belong,’ he added venomously, taking a brief pause in his twirling.
Apple Bloom swallowed her anxiety. ‘W-Well, I’ll try not to do that next time. Could you tell me where the... Dungeon Company is?’
‘You mean the ol’ Dungeoneer’s Association?’ the stallion inquired, receiving a nod in response. He looked towards the spire with the two letters, then down towards the building itself. The structure was mainly composed of a brick wall with wooden supports running down its side, keeping the shingled wooden roof and brick inlay from collapsing. Several curtained windows were visible on the front, with no activity visible on the inside. ‘You would find whatever it is you’re searching for over there.’
‘Well... thank you!’
The stranger said nothing more and resumed twirling his blade. Apple Bloom paced herself away from the stallion and towards the building—it lay in the middle of a circle of buildings, all sporting some form of symbol out front, from a helmet to a blade to a green potion in a glass flask. A few ponies were outside chanting overused pitches for their products, and even fewer were perusing their wares, scratching their chins with their hooves or weighing some products with others, only to shake their head and depart unsatisfied.
Wh... what is this place? Apple Bloom thought, horrified. This ain’t Ponyville... it can’t be. Twilight’s library isn’t even here!
‘Apple Bloom?’ a squeaky voice called out from behind her. ‘Apple Bloom!’
Before she could turn around and locate the source of the voice, Apple Bloom was knocked to the ground with two fillies, each hugging half of her body.
‘We’ve been looking for you for hours!’ Scootaloo piped up, relinquishing her grip. ‘We kept asking the folks around town what was going on and where to find everything... but when we mentioned the library, we got a bunch of funny looks!’
‘Yeah, everypony’s acting and dressing all weird!’ Sweetie Belle added. ‘Do you know anything about what’s going on? Maybe it’s some sort of festival! Then again, I haven’t seen Twilight and she’d be the organizer—’
‘Girls!’ Apple Bloom interjected, cutting off a noticeably irritated Sweetie Belle. ‘...Please. I probably know less than you. All I know is that something is weird is going on! Big Mac stabbed an Argonaut or something and it lived and, and...’ Apple Bloom stopped to catch her breath. ‘...I don’t know.’
‘I woke up a couple of hours ago and couldn’t find my sister!’ Sweetie Belle began. ‘So I checked downstairs and all I could find were fancy pieces of pony armour. It’s not like her not being there is a big deal, but she never mentioned she’d be away!’
Apple Bloom glanced upwards at the building. ‘Well, Big Mac said something about this “Dungeon Corporation” here, maybe somepony we know is in there?’ Her suggestion was met with two shrugs. ‘I don’t really see anything wrong with it, so we might as well. Let’s head inside!’
The trio of fillies hesitantly stepped towards the large building, looking to one another with sheepish smiles. Apple Bloom stepped forward at the door and slowly pushed it with her hoof, revealing a bustling room full of foreign-looking ponies. Most were seated at tables filling most of the space chatting with one another, some were by a bar to the side and chatting up with the bartender—all of them sporting faces of mirth and the fire of adventure locked in their eyes. Some exposed necks held jewelry of varied metals and precious stones, thin metal and leather armour covered most of their bodies and nearly all of them had some form of satchel or sack hanging over their shoulders or placed beside them on the floor as they sat on wooden chairs.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders could not see the entrance pony rolling his eyes impatiently in front of them, as they were too engrossed in their strange surroundings. Behind a varnished oak counter, he laid his maneless head in his dark brown hooves and waited.
‘...I said how may I help you?’ the stallion repeated sternly, shaking the crusaders from their trance. ‘Good, you finally woke up. What do you young fillies need?’
‘Uh,’ Apple Bloom stammered, ‘w-would you happen to know where my sister is?’
‘Lost your family, eh? Well, you’ll need to tell me who she is first, young lady.’
Sweetie Belle barged in past Apple Bloom and raised her hoof in the air insistently. ‘Um...’ the guard replied, ‘...you have a question?’
‘Do you know where my big sister is?’ Sweetie replied. ‘She looks just like me with a really nice purple mane!’
‘Oh, you mean the armourer?’ he replied, grinning. ‘She’s a mighty pretty one, that mare. I certainly would’ve noticed if she had come in, but she usually comes in through our secret back door anyway—’
A pony clearing its throat interrupted the stallion, who quickly began blushing a deep shade of red. ‘I-I never said anything about a secret door! Do you three understand?’ He leaned over the counter and began whispering. ‘Don’t let anypony know I let that slip, you hear? I think the boss just heard me say it, I guess it doesn’t matter now that I’ve let it slip...’
‘You’re certainly right that it doesn’t matter,’ a familiar voice scolded. ‘It was just a few fillies this time, but it could’ve been somepony else. Have you been drinking at all, Stormy?’
‘N... no, Bookworm. I’ll get Raider to take my shift and then go get some rest...’
‘Sounds like a plan to me,’ Twilight Sparkle replied, revealing herself as she stepped away from behind the stallion. She looked to the fillies as Stormy went off, raising her eyebrows in slight surprise. ‘Why are you three here? You seem a little young for the Dungeoneer’s Association.’
No answer came from the fillies, who were standing slack-jawed as they watched the scene unfold.
‘What’s the matter? Does the Association scare you at all?’ Twilight chuckled. ‘No need to feel overwhelmed; we’re all friends here. And you three are certainly more than welcome, despite your age!’
Scootaloo was the first to regain her senses. ‘What’s going on, Twilight? We don’t—’
A purple hoof was quickly lunged forward to Scootaloo’s mouth, silencing her before she could finish her sentence. ‘How did you know my name?’ Twilight whispered sternly, leaning her head even closer than Stormy had done. ‘Did Ra—er, Bolt, tell you? You should know to call me Bookworm, especially if you somehow were to discover my real name!’
‘B-Bookworm?’ Scootaloo replied, passively pushing Bookworm’s hoof to the side. ‘What a silly name, why don’t you use—’
‘Enough!’ Bookworm whispered again. ‘Come with me.’
With a motion of her hoof, Bookworm ushered the three fillies around the counter and through the hustle and bustle of the room. Dodging the occasional flying hoof from slightly-inebriated adventurers, they soon found themselves in front of a wooden door with tinted glass. A plaque was mounted on the door with two words engraved on its metal frame.
‘Come in,’ Bookworm insisted, pushing the door open with her hoof. ‘I’ll need to get a bit cleared out before I can let you leave.’
The fillies reluctantly entered the office one by one, swallowing their fear under Bookworm’s cold glare—the room, however, eased their nerves and relaxed their muscles, even if the difference was slight. The homely look of a neat, organized desk in a similar form to the front counter added professionalism to an otherwise artistic room filled with stacks of parchment, jet black inkwells and razor-thin quills resting on top of standard office fixtures. Cabinets, a waste bin and cerulean-coloured walls reminded the trio of a time they could not see returning any time soon.
‘This kind of looks like... school,’ Sweetie Belle observed, tapping her hoof on a metal cabinet. ‘What’s in here, Twi—er, Bookworm,’ she added with a grin.
‘That’s not funny in the slightest, Bella,’ Bookworm replied, shutting the door softly with her hoof. ‘I can’t believe you three would just blindly disregard such an important rule.’
‘Hey, it wasn’t me!’ Sweetie protested. ‘And why did you call me “Bella”? You know what my name is, don’t you?’
‘Why are you acting so strangely?’ Bookworm inquired, walking over to her desk. On the front of the desk was a brass nameplate with Bookworm’s nickname engraved, just as the office’s door did. ‘I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to question you later; for now, I wouldn’t mind knowing why you’re here.’
Apple Bloom did not hesitate.
‘Something weird is going on, T—Bookworm. We can’t find your library, Big Mac was off slicing some lizard thingy and... heck, we don’t even know where this building came from or why you have a nickname!’
‘Callsign,’ Bookworm corrected. 'And, by the sounds of it, the Argonians are still bothering your family... will look into it later,' she added, scrawling a few notes on an idle piece of parchment.
‘Bolt. Her callsign is Bolt,’ Bookworm snapped. ‘Looks like you’re all suffering from mild amnesia since you still seem to remember your friends and families... how curious. Your minds would remember their callsigns too, but somehow you remembered their real names...’
'Bookworm,’ Apple Bloom began, ‘you’re making no sense to any of us.’
‘Which is as expected. Out of curiosity... do you remember how you learned our real names? I mean, it isn’t incredibly difficult to imagine that you know your sisters’ names—sorry, Scootaloo—’ Bookworm added, receiving a nod in response, ‘—but I don’t know how in Equestria you were able to figure out mine.’
‘Uh, everypony calls you by that?’ Scootaloo said, raising an eyebrow. ‘We were talking to you and your five friends about going to the Ponyville river to find some stuff... I’m positive that this happened.’
‘I’m sorry, girls. I know you all want to believe what you wish, but I am also absolutely certain I’ve lived the past while of my life as Bookworm. This amnesia looks pretty bad... we’ll have to go to Manehattan to get some proper medical care for you.’
‘Why not Canterlot—I mean, we don’t need health care!’
‘Even if you don’t, it’d be nice for a checkup.’ Bookworm sat down in her chair and rubbed her temples softly with her hooves. ‘Canterlot... is not an option.’
‘Meeting, girls,’ Apple Bloom commanded. The three fillies, much to Bookworm chagrin and confusion, retreated to a corner of the office and huddled into a tight circle. ‘Girls,’ she whispered, ‘something’s not right here.’
‘Maybe Twilighthas amnesia?’
‘Nah, it’s more likely that we have amnesia. These buildings pretty well confirm that Twilight’s story is true, but I’m pretty sure we don’t have amnesia either. So that’s ruled out.’
‘What if it’s just some big joke? It’s not like we’ve never been pranked before!’
‘Nope, can’t be. Even with magic, this seems too elaborate to be a simple prank just for us. Magic...’ Apple Bloom pondered for a moment. ‘Maybe magic has something to do with this.’
‘In what way? We don’t even know what’s going on, we can’t exactly pinpoint this on magic.’
‘I don’t know what to think. I’ve got a feeling that trying to go against whatever this is will raise a lot of eyebrows.’
‘So we don’t have any leads on why everything’s different, and we can’t talk to anypony about it but ourselves. What should we do?’
‘We could just go with the flow.’
‘What are you girls talking about?’ Bookworm inquired, tapping her hoof impatiently on her desk. ‘I still wouldn’t mind clearing a few things up before we move on from my office.’
‘I think Sweetie’s plan sounds alright. Go with the flow, then?’
‘Sounds alright with me.’
‘Me too! And not just because I thought of it!’
As the crusaders spoke, Bookworm distracted herself with a curious sight on her desk—who moved my nameplate? she pondered, staring at the lopsided piece of metal. Maybe if I just move it here, then—
With the slightest nudge of her hoof, the nameplate fell to the ground with a resounding *clink*. The crusaders disengaged from their circle and stared at the nameplate lying on the floor.
‘Uh,’ Bookworm said, ‘mind getting that for me?’
‘Why not use your magic, Twi?’ Apple Bloom replied, continuing to stare at the piece of brass.
‘Huh? What are you talking about?’
‘Your magic. Use your magic to levitate the nameplate back on your desk!’ Apple Bloom observed as a sweating, twitchy Bookworm stared back. ‘...Unless your magic somehow vanished, too. Seriously, what’s going on?’
Scootaloo gave her a slight nudge. ‘What happened to “going with the flow”?’
‘I am not an aliquatenus, and I am most certainly not at Starswirl’s level of magic!’ Bookworm said sharply, shuffling her hooves over her desk and biting her lip. ‘E-Even if I were at that level, I—no, it’s rude to think that anypony could match his level of magic!’
‘But Book—Twi, you’re the most powerful unicorn in Equestria!’ Apple Bloom insisted, nearly pleading with the unicorn to accept the statement. ‘You can’t say you don’t have any powers! It’s a piece of metal!’
With a crack of her hooves, Bookworm snapped out of her chair and dashed towards the inquiring filly in a blind rage—with an idle hoof, she covered her mouth almost as quickly as she had left the desk. Her face was covered entirely with sweat, and her frantic breathing reeked of fear and anxiety.
‘I don’t know how you three know all of this, but it’s clear that your amnesia has prevented you from keeping it in check—if anypony knew about my abilities, I’d be locked up in prison forever, or worse! You will not speak a single word of this to anypony, do you understand?’
‘Yeth,’ Apple Bloom mumbled, all three of the fillies trembling and shaking as Bookworm glared at each of them in turn.
‘Good. Now that that’s settled, I have to figure out what to do with you fillies. I don’t think I’m going to find out how you know all this with your amnesia...’
‘Maybe you tell us about the things that confuse us?’ Sweetie Belle inquired. ‘Maybe it’d jog our memory!’
‘Hmm... yes, that does make sense.’ Bookworm relaxed her muscles and smiled. ‘How would you three like to become the newest members of the Dungeoneer’s Association?’
‘...What would that mean for us?’
‘Well, for one, I’d be properly teaching you about the stuff you don’t remember, so you’d spend a good deal of time with me. Your sisters and the rest of my friends can help you along—if you really want, you can learn how to fight and quest, even at such a young age.'
‘My goodness, so many questions. Amnesia will do that to you, I suppose.’ Bookworm sighed and returned to her desk. ‘Well, I think that your sisters will want to hear about this. And maybe I can ask a couple of them if they let my real name spill...'
‘You three were from Ponyville?’ a dark-grey stallion questioned, looking towards the sun-brightened sky. ‘By the sounds of your story, you’re leaving quite a bit out.’
‘Yes, we are,’ Scootaloo replied flatly. ‘We’re not prepared to tell somepony our life’s story. This is just to pass the time quicker.’
‘Ah yes, the ever-mysterious, professional mares keeping their secrets. This is of no surprise to me, really. But I am enjoying your story—tell me, who is this mare you’re speaking of who invited you into their questing club?’
None of the crusaders replied.
‘And what of the club itself? Surely you can spare me the name of that at the very least.’
Again, silence filled the air.
‘...Very well.’ The four travellers continued on silently, but their efforts were halted at a bend in the plains—travelling east or west along the river would lead them astray from the Rambling Rock Ridge hovering directly in front and above them, which was guarded by the river itself lying right at their hooves. ‘Hm...’ the charge pondered, staring at the torrid flow of the river. ‘This will prove problematic. I did not anticipate us arriving so quickly—the river is always too strong to be easily passable in the middle of the day. Perhaps we can make a stop here for a few hours, and you can continue your story?’
‘Mine?’ Bolt questioned, moving her hoof from a half-empty tankard of yellow, translucent liquid to stroke her chin. ‘I think I’ll keep that a secret for now.’
‘Oh, come on Bolt!’ Apple Bloom whined. ‘How else will we be prepared for adventures if we don’t even know anything about them?’
Bolt smoothed the thin leather vest she wore, straightened the eyepatch on her right eye and took a heroic pose with her chest puffed out and her left forehoof pointing straight away from the bar where they sat. Leaning a rear hoof on her stool, she smiled and looked to the three fillies sitting next to her.
‘Why, I’m captain of the dungeoneers!’ she stated proudly. ‘The perilous adventures I go on are way too dangerous for fledgling adventurers!’
‘But we won’t be going on them,’ Scootaloo corrected, ‘we just want to hear a cool story!’
Bolt frowned, settled back down into her stool and stroked her chin once more. ‘Tell you what. You listen to the bard singing—’ Bolt pointed to a light-brown stallion elevated on a small stage on the other side of the building, wielding nothing but a lavishly-decorated lute and his smooth voice. ‘—and you’ll know more about adventuring.’
‘As something stirs and something tries, and starts to climb across the light...’
The crusaders leaned their ears to the stage, but only eyebrows and questions were raised as they listened.
‘...I don’t get it,’ Scootaloo admitted.
‘Of course you wouldn’t!’ Bolt laughed and took a sizeable swig of her drink. ‘You aren’t real adventurers yet! The thrill of an exciting new quest can clear your mind and help you understand anything!’
A sliver of space beneath Bolt’s eyepatch revealed the whites of the eye beneath, prompting her to shift the patch over to her other eye. The crusaders curled their mouths and sat, perplexed, as the eye that was once covered was completely unharmed.
‘What’s the matter, you three? You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something!’ Bolt again laughed and took a final swig from her drink. While her back was turned, Apple Bloom turned to her friends and circled her hoof over her head.
‘Yep. She’s nuts.’
‘So what do we do? I still think that we should learn more about this place.’
‘Let’s go see my sister!’
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom looked quizzically at Sweetie Belle.
‘...What? Twi—Bookworm said we should catch up with her friends, and my sister is her friend, right?’
‘Yes, but we need to find out what’s going on here, not what—’
‘What are you talking about, girls?’ Bolt inquired, curling her mouth into a slight frown. ‘Am I boring you with my awesome tales of adventure?’
‘You never told us a story,’ Apple Bloom replied, breaking from the circle with a sigh. ‘Where did Bookworm go?’
‘Probably in her office. But—hey!’ Bolt called out as the crusaders turned and began to walk away. ‘She’s probably busy, why don’t you stay here with me? I’ll show you around the place if you want!’
‘Cloudless every day you fall upon my waking eyes...’
The crusaders looked to each other and nodded.
Bolt smiled, stepped off of her stool and motioned her hoof to the bar counter. ‘Might not have been the best idea to bring you to the bar of all places, but I guess I can start there.’ Bolt cleared her throat. ‘You see the bartenders over by those two adventurers?’
The quartet turned to the end of the bar table, where two earth ponies—a stallion and a mare—were chatting with a pair of energetic ponies shaking the dust off of their tattered vestments. They were amber and pink, respectively, and their manes were a shade darker than their coats.
‘Is that P—’ Sweetie began, cut off by an unseen nudge to her side. ‘Er, who are those, Bolt?’
‘I was getting to that.’ Bolt rolled her eyes. ‘The pink one is Surprise; she doesn’t really go questing or adventuring. She runs the entertainment side of the place—you know, like getting cider for the bar and paying the musicians. She also occasionally runs the bar with or without the other bartender next to her.’
‘No one actually knows his name. We usually just call him some nickname or other—Amber today, maybe Chocolate tomorrow. Those two are the main sources for rumours and whatnot around here, so naturally if somepony wants an adventure or a thrill, they’re the ones to see. Pretty reliable with their sources, too.’
The two chatting bartenders directed their acquaintances' attention to the stage, where the bard was clearing his throat, preparing for the last verse. The pink mare was held captive by every word, taking no notice of any chatter amongst ponies throughout the room or even the ones she had just been speaking to.
‘And call to you...’ The bard trailed off.
The ensuing bow lead to several dozen pairs of hooves applauding in response, leaving the room in a stormy bout of noise none of its occupants could hear through. Bolt had turned to face the stage and, as the crusaders were well aware, paid no attention to the three fillies. They all nodded, deftly snuck behind her and walked quickly to the doors lining the back wall.
Apple Bloom looked from left to right, unable to decide which way to go. She shrugged, unable to communicate through speech over the deafening crowd. Scootaloo pointed to the leftmost door, to which the other crusaders nodded and followed her lead.
The wooden door, as with Bookworm’s office, held tinted glass with a brass plaque mounted on the front. Instead of “Bookworm’s Office” as they had expected, there were two swords crossing with one another. Just as the crusaders prepared to move to the next door, the applause stopped.
‘No time!’ Apple Bloom barked. ‘Let’s check this door out!’
Leaving no time for thinking, the crusaders pushed the handleless door and walked in. It was a small room, detailed with very little on its wooden walls—the only striking features in the room was a weapon rack next to the fillies filled with all sorts of bladed and ranged weaponry and a row of five training dummies lined up across the room. A small fence lay in front of the entrance, separating the dummies from the rack and any new entrants to the room.
A figure was busy punching through the dummy farthest away from the crusaders, bearing an orange coat, blonde hair and a tattered hat that Apple Bloom knew all too well.
‘Applejack!’ the filly cried out happily, hopping over the fence as quickly as she could. Applejack turned from her target and stared, bemused, at her sister.
‘Stop right there, Apple Bloom,’ Applejack snarled. ‘Now what’s this about calling me that? You know that you’re not allowed to say my name outside of the house!’
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow, but soon remembered Bookworm’s reaction earlier that day—’Sorry ‘sis,’ she mumbled, keeping her head lowered. ‘I won’t do it again.’
Applejack looked down at her sister’s expression and smiled. ‘It’s alright. But really, I haven’t heard you call me anything but Red for the past few months! Seems a little weird is all.’ She took a look over the small fence and saw two snickering young fillies. ‘So what brings you three to the Dungeoneerin’ Association?’
‘Well, we just wanted to take a peek around once we got here,’ Apple Bloom explained. ‘Big Mac said I should head here to find you, he needs your help with something important.'
‘Mm, probably them Argonians acting up again...’ Red cursed under her breath. ‘I swear, one of these days we’ll really lay it down on them.’
Apple Bloom recalled the fight with her brother and the Argonian—soon after, she wanted to forget. ‘What’s this room for, ‘sis?’
‘Archery, swords, axes... general fighting stuff, really,’ Red explained. ‘I’m just practicing some hoof-to-hoof combat for now. I’ll be sure to teach you how to defend yourself someday—all three of you.’
‘Psst!’ Sweetie Belle whispered—loudly, at that. ‘We’re not here to dilly-dally! Let’s go find T—Bookworm before Bolt finds out!’
‘I heard every word you said,’ Red replied, unamused. ‘Not sure what you fillies are doing, but if it’s trouble, I would mind yourselves—some ponies really don’t take kindly to youngsters running around and making a ruckus.’
‘Uh... alright?’ Apple Bloom questioned, hesitantly turning towards her friends. ‘We won’t get in your mane anymore. Come on, girls!’
The crusaders all walked—rather quickly—to the exit, leaving Red to her training. After creeping the door open to take a peek for Bolt, Scootaloo nodded her head and led the trio through.
Through the din of the conversing adventurers in the room, the fillies felt no need to whisper. ‘Let’s check this door,’ Scootaloo suggested, making her way to the next door along the wall. ‘If it isn’t Bookworm’s office, then we can just keep on exploring.’
‘Why didn’t your sister try and investigate, Apple Bloom?’ Sweetie Belle inquired as the trio stopped in front of the new door. ‘Is she usually like this?’
‘No... Bolt was acting a little funny too. Well, crazy I guess.’ Apple Bloom looked up at the door. ‘But obviously that isn’t the only thing wrong with today. Here’s her office.’
After taking a look at the brass plaque mounted on the door, still spelling out “Bookworm’s Office” as it had earlier that day, the crusaders walked inside.
‘Girls?’ Bookworm inquired, sitting behind her desk with a star-studded blue wizard’s cap lying on her lap. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be with Bolt? I’ve got paperwork to do for the Association and I can’t quit doing that just to babysit you three.’
‘She’s crazy!’ Sweetie Belle blurted out, prompting a reddening in her cheeks to form. ‘Er, she’s acting a little... weird, I guess.’
Apple Bloom shot Sweetie Belle a hard look.
‘What? She told us—oof!’ Sweetie cringed as a short nudge hit her ribcage.
‘Well,’ Bookworm started, laying the hat on her desk as she sighed, ‘it seems that we’re at an impasse. You won’t leave me alone and I won’t set aside my work—’
‘In pass?’ Sweetie wondered. ‘Isn’t that something Rarity would say?’
‘Ugh... That’s “Sapphire”, Sweetie. I—you know what, girls?’ Bookworm looked at the stack of papers lying beneath the wizard’s cap, closed her eyes and sighed once more, this time in defeat. ‘If you give me fifteen minutes, I’ll fill you in on some things. Just leave me to finish some of what I have, alright?’ The crusaders nodded.
Bookworm moaned. ‘Good,’ she said after a short pause, ‘thank you very much. Now, I’m sure Bolt is looking for you, so I’d appreciate if you left to go show her where you went.’
The fillies, satisfied with the result of their visit, left the room.
‘...and then the blasted thing pulled a sword on me! Can you believe that?’
Surprise gasped. She was leaning over the bar counter, enough that her nose had nearly touched Bolt’s before she caught herself and drew back a touch. ‘No kidding? Tell me mo—oh, hi girls!’ Both she and Bolt turned to face the fillies, who were staring straight back.
‘Why’d you stop?’
‘Scootaloo? Her friends?’ Bolt questioned, raising an eyebrow. ‘How long have you three been behind me?’
‘I don’t know,’ Apple Bloom cut in, grinning, ‘how long have we been behind you? You are supposed to be watching us, after all.’ The crusaders snickered and Bolt felt her face heat up.
‘Uh... so, have I introduced you to Surprise? She’s the—’
‘Of course they know who I am, silly!’ Surprise interrupted, snickering. ‘You girls are pretty funny! Bolt doesn’t get embarrassed very often—what brings you three here, anyway?’
‘We’re trying to find out what is going—oof,’ Sweetie huffed. ‘Cut that out, Scootaloo!That's the third time today!'
‘We’re here because, according to Bookworm, we seem to have some sort of amnesia,’ Apple Bloom answered. ‘We have no idea how it happened, but for now we’re just trying to get back into the swing of things to see if our memory comes back.’
‘Hmm... oh! Maybe you can even join the Dungeoneer’s Association!’ Surprise smiled and put a hoof around the other bartender, hooking him away from a pair of chatty ponies and to the three fillies. ‘This is Amber, and he—’
‘My name is Mutatio, Surprise,’ a husky, baritone voice corrected—this wasn’t the first time he’s had to say it, or so his rolling eyes told.
‘Bless you! Just kidding, Moustachio—’ A hoof rose in protest. ‘—but don’t worry, girls! You won’t have to remember his funny name. For some reason, he changes colour every day, so whatever he’s like at one moment, you can name him based on that!’
'Bolt, you said this guy didn't have a—oof,' Sweetie huffed. 'Scootaloo!'
‘Pay her no heed, young ones,’ Mutatio explained. ‘She can be a little... misguided, I suppose, but she means well.’
Surprise took no heed of the comment, choosing instead to squint across the room. Her tail began to twitch. ‘Something’s going on... I think there’s a fight about to happen! Come on, Bolt! Let’s go stop them; my Secret Sense is never wrong!’
‘I don’t hear or see anything going on! What are you—’
‘I said come on!’
Surprise hopped right over the bar counter, knocking over an empty tankard that just barely missed falling on the floor—’Thank goodness,’ Mutatio remarked—and bringing a confused Bolt along with her. Mutatio shook his head.
‘And that is my boss. A sharp eye for detail, that one; she could catch a rabbit several hundred yards away if she wanted to, all because of that keen sense she has.’ A ‘Hey! He started it!’ across the room was heard. ‘See? Even if she’s a mite odd, she does her job right.’
‘Mutatio, sister of Red Delicious.’
‘Right—wait,’ Apple Bloom paused for a moment, ‘how did you know that I’m Red’s sister?’
‘I’m the bartender for the busiest place this side of Equestria!’ Mutatio said, laughing. ‘I know nearly everyone in the immediate area, especially those close to miss Bookworm!’
Apple Bloom turned to her fellow crusaders. They shrugged.
‘You fillies are lucky it’s late in the evening,’ Mutatio continued. ‘The entertainment and overall allure of this establishment brings along some busy times throughout the day. If you wish, I can tell you a few things about this place while I’m free—I’m sure Surprise will take over once she’s done what she’s doing. Might help you with your amnesia, too.’
‘How did you know we had amnesia?’
‘You’ve been here for several hours. Bookworm makes sure I know everything that goes on so I can do my job the best I possibly can.’ Mutatio looked up at the ceiling, sighed and closed his eyes. ‘I’ve been at the Association ever since Starswirl the Bearded was defeated atop Sinner’s Peak, and it has never wavered from its initial goal. This place is designed for anyone—not just ponies, mind you—to come, have a good time and pick up some leads or give some information on any type of adventure or quest. I get some leads, I give some leads, everyone winds up happy.’
‘Girls?’ Bookworm’s voice called out from behind the group. As they turned to face the mare, she made her way over to the bar counter. ‘I presume everything is alright, Mutatio?’
‘Yes, I was telling them a bit about what goes on in this old place. Did you need me for something, miss Bookworm?’
Bookworm shook her head. ‘No, that will be all. I was actually coming for the fillies; we have something to discuss.’
‘Very well,’ Mutatio said, turning his head towards a nearby window. ‘It is getting rather late—I’ll close the place down soon, if you wish. I’ll tell their sisters where they are.’
‘Yes, thank you Mutatio,’ Bookworm said, smiling. ‘I should get upstairs—Surprise might come and delay us further.’
Mutatio nodded his head; Bookworm returned the gesture. The room’s ambiance had died down from before; where there was joy and alcohol before lay calmed adventurers clearing out by the dozens. Bookworm took no heed of the change and made her way to the third door along the wall, the farthest to the right of the three.
Inside, there were a few sealed barrels and baskets lying underneath an escalating staircase. ‘Upstairs,’ Bookworm insisted, motioning her hoof upwards. ‘Into the first room on your left.’
The fillies did as they were told, coming up to a carpet-laden hallway with several doors lining it on each side. The first one to the left was already ajar; Bookworm went inside and searched every corner she could see in the small room. The room was not decorated and only contained a curtained window, a small bed and a nightstand beside the bed’s head.
‘I don’t think anypony can hear us, we should be fine,’ Bookworm said, sighing a breath of relief. She ushered the fillies inside and shut the door. ‘We rent out the rooms up here to let a bit of income come in. No one is scheduled for tonight, so we should be alone here.’
Apple Bloom heard the faint rumbling of the ponies still enjoying themselves downstairs. Bookworm took in a deep breath, exhaled and closed her eyes.
‘Can you tell me what you do know?’
Apple Bloom was the first to reply. ‘All I can think of is that we know you and your best friends’ real names, all five of them.’ She shrugged. ‘We all went home one night when things weren’t so... old, I guess, and we woke up to all of this.’
‘Hmm... well, is there anything specifically that you want to know about? If you need a refresher on any lore or rumours, then Mutatio is your pony. But if there are some policies from Moonshine that you don’t quite understand, then it’s best that you speak up now so there won’t be any incidents.’
‘Policies?’ Scootaloo chipped in. ‘And who is this “Moonshine”?’
Bookworm’s eyes widened and her jaw hung slack. After several moments of rapid blinking, she finally came to her sense. ‘You... you don’t remember any of that?’
All three crusaders shook their heads.
‘Oh, how to put this... well, I don’t really need to. I can get you some medical assistance in Manehattan, that’d help—maybe Bolt could bring you?’
‘Come on, Bookworm!’ Apple Bloom yelled, receiving a cold glare in response. ‘Sorry for yelling, but you can’t honestly say that we have some sort of mental sickness! Just give us a few days, I'm sure we’ll be fine!’
Bookworm’s hoof was raised in protest, but words failed to come out of her mouth. A cool breeze made its way through the room. ‘I... I guess that waiting this out would’ve been a better idea, really. I was just worried that you might’ve had head trauma or something, but neither Sapphire nor Red mentioned anything peculiar before today.’
The crusaders looked at each other’s foreheads, squinting to look for abnormalities in their skull. No head trauma here.
‘But before everything comes back, I urge you to not reveal my name nor any of my friends’ true names to anyone. There are some...’ Bookworm turned her eyes away, ‘...consequences, I guess, if my name is spread and repeated in Canterlot.
‘Anyway, you will refer to myself as Bookworm, your sister—’ Bookworm pointed a hoof to Apple Bloom, ‘—as Red Delicious, your sister—’ she shifted her hoof to Sweetie Belle, ‘—as Sapphire, the mares downstairs as Surprise and Bolt, and lastly, Butters. She’s the scout off searching for traces of an Argonian encampment; they’ve been harassing us a lot lately.’
‘Argonians?’ Sweetie Belle questioned—as she did so, Apple Bloom shuddered. ‘And where’s my sister?’
‘She took a trip down to Los Pegasus for some sort of smithing material you can only find on the west coast—cost a hefty fee to hire that pegasus chariot, too.’ Bookworm frowned. ‘Better have been worth it. And—oh, Argonians... don’t worry about them. They’re just annoying pests claiming that this land is theirs.’
‘Is there anything else we should know?’ Scootaloo said, and promptly shuddered. ‘I feel a wind coming in, I want to get downstairs before it gets worse.’
Bookworm looked to the curtained window. ‘Someone must have left the window open.’ She walked over, moved the curtain to the side and slid the window shut. ‘As long as you fillies call us by the names I told you and you keep silent the fact that I can do that special magic, everything should be fine.’
‘Why?’ the fillies replied in unison, raising their eyebrows and looking to Bookworm expectantly.
'Aliquatenus—spellcasters, that is—aren't that well-liked to start. Something about each one of them having a "sense of entitlement",' Bookworm spat. 'So if I were to be public with my special abilities, more advanced than any belonging to an aliquatenus since Starswirl the Bearded...'
'We understand,' Apple Bloom said. 'Let's head downstairs.'
Bookworm nodded and led the fillies out the door and down the stairs, taking care to look for eavesdropping ponies along the way. 'Moonshine is the so-called ruler of ponies in Equestria,' she said venomously. 'Don't worry about that, though. You'll all learn in time—do you all know where you live?'
'Yes,' Apple Bloom replied.
'I'll just stay with Apple Bloom for a bit,' Scootaloo said. Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. 'I'm... I'm sure my parents won't mind.'
'I'll stay with Apple Bloom too!' Sweetie squeaked. 'Cutie Mark Crusaders sleepover!'
Bookworm nodded her head. ‘I’m sure your sisters won’t mind. Just don’t forget to come back tomorrow—I’m sure we could try unlocking a few more memories, maybe kick this amnesia thing really quick.’
‘Sure thing, Bookworm!’ Apple Bloom replied as they made their way through the nearly empty main floor. Besides the crusaders and Bookworm, only a few stragglers and Mutatio remained.
‘Have a good night, young fillies,’ Mutatio said, holding the door open with his hoof. ‘I’m certain we’ll see each other plenty over the next little while.’ He smiled, and the fillies smiled back.
As they walked away from the Dungeoneering Association and towards the outskirts of town, Apple Bloom noticed a familiar figure. The sword twirler from that afternoon was still standing in the same spot as he had been before, leaning against a faceless building and carrying his sword still glistening under the sun’s glare.
‘Wind was acting up today,’ the mahogany stallion said aloud in the same gruff tone as he had done before. ‘Odd, we don’t get much wind around here.’
The crusaders fell silent as they passed him by.
‘Good night, crusaders!’
‘Apple Bloom,’ Scootaloo protested, raising a hoof out from her sleeping bag, ‘shouldn’t we make a plan for tomorrow? I mean, today was crazy enough when we hadn’t planned anything beforehand.’
‘I just want to see Rarity first,’ Sweetie Belle said, prone in her sleeping bag and muffled by the pillow under her face. ‘I just want to see Rarity first...’
‘I think that’s a good idea as any. We’ll talk with Twilight’s—’
‘Bookworm’s,’ Scootaloo corrected.
‘Right. We’ll talk with Bookworm’s friends first and then...’ Apple Bloom’s eyes drifted to the book lying on her nightstand, ‘...we can show her this book. Remember that?’
‘Well, it stayed with us when everything else changed. Might do something at the very least. Do you have any better ideas?’
‘Uh...’ Scootaloo stammered for words. ‘I guess not.’
‘It’s settled, then. Tomorrow, we figure everything out.’
‘Come on, Apple Bloom!’ Sweetie Belle insisted, barely recognizable through half-asleep senses. ‘Oh boy, my sister is coming back today!’
‘It’s not like she can’t wait a few more minutes, Sweetie,’ Scootaloo replied. ‘You’ve been sleeping in every day we’ve been here. Admit it, you’d still be sleeping if she wasn’t coming today.’
Apple Bloom, moaning, slowly opened her eyes. As her sight adjusted to her bedroom’s light, her hooves began lifting her up from rest. Draped over her was a thin blue blanket—a few goosebumps still spotted her coat from the night before—and a pillow lay underneath her. She blinked, turned to her bed and saw a whole mess of sheets and pillows crumpled up in a heap.
They could have at least made the beds first.
‘Come on!’ Sweetie continued, tugging on Apple Bloom’s left hoof with her own. ‘You’re up, now we can go!’
Apple Bloom’s stomach growled. Great, she thought. Hope I don’t have to get used to this.
Sweetie continued to tug on the filly until, after several long moments for Apple Bloom, she shook out of her trance and lifted herself up from the floor. ‘Gee,’ she said, catching a glance to her bedroom window glowing a faint orange colour, ‘you could’ve at least waited until the sun was up for a few hours... got anything planned in case Rarity isn’t in town yet?’
‘I dunno, but we can kick around town if she isn’t!’ Sweetie smiled and hopped over to the bedroom door. Red was waiting on the other side, adjusting her hat’s position on her head.
‘Early mornin’, girls?’ she said, smiling. ‘Well, I’ll be. Is there something special you three had in mind?’
Scootaloo rolled her eyes and Apple Bloom groaned—both faced Sweetie Belle, who stretched her toothy grin as wide as she could. ‘Rarity’s coming back today!’ she said gleefully. Red’s eyes widened, then promptly narrowed as she glared—Sweetie quickly lost her grin, and faced a familiar jab strike her ribs. ‘Quit doing that, Scoots!’
‘Since when have you three been calling us by our real names?’ Red snarled. ‘I thought we already went over this.’
Sweetie Belle looked down on the floor and shuffled her hooves. ‘I’m awfully sorry,’ she mumbled. ‘I won’t do it again, I promise!’
Red closed her eyes and sighed. ‘I’ll take you up on that promise. As long as this doesn’t happen in public, I won’t pester you about it anymore. That aside, I bet you three are feeling mighty hungry.’
‘You have no idea,’ Apple Bloom replied, rubbing her eyes. Her stomach promptly reminded her of its emptiness with another loud growl.
Red chuckled. ‘Well, let’s deal with that hunger at breakfast! Got some delicious apple pancakes just waiting to be eaten!’
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo happily followed Red out of the room—before Apple Bloom did the same, she caught a glance at a familiar tome lying on the floor. She walked over to it and dusted it off.
‘This thing?’ The filly turned the cover over—nothing. She flipped to several of the book’s pages, but nothing yet was written down. ‘Aw. Not like I expected anything from this junk.’
Apple Bloom stuffed the book ,which she had flung to the side of her room the night before, into her saddlebag, and promptly hung it over her back. Maybe Bookworm would still want it, she figured. Journal, maybe?
'Hey sis!' Red called out from the bottom floor. 'You gonna eat anytime soon?'
'Sure thing, I'll be right down!' Apple Bloom replied, promptly exiting the room and heading down the stairs. The breakfast table was already set, heaps of red-dotted pancakes covering four plates on each side of its square surface.
'Dig in!' Red insisted, motioning her hoof to the table and taking one seat for herself. All three fillies quickly and eagerly hopped into their own, eyeing their food with fervorous delight. Red picked up a fork and set to work on her pancakes first—followed closely by the three fillies.
‘So,’ Red mumbled between chews, ‘did Bookworm mention what we’ve got planned for you three?’
Apple Bloom, still feeling a little groggy, did not respond. Scootaloo shook her head.
‘Well, them pesky Argonians still think they own the darned place, so some of us have been planning to drive the varmints out of their main camp near town. We ain’t gonna kill them or anything—’ Red looked to Sweetie Belle’s horrified expression. ‘—but we think it’s about time we told them to leave right where their camp is. All talky like, no fighting.’
‘What does that have to do with us?’ Scootaloo asked—but the smile on her face and the bounce in her seat meant that she already knew. It was time for adventure.
Red nodded, as if confirming Scootaloo’s suspicions. ‘Well, you three have been spending a lot of time in the Dungeoneering Association over the past week, so Bolt figured you’d want to do something exciting! If you want to come, you would be accompanying Butterfly, myself and a few freelance adventurers that want to help out. Don’t worry, I’d be keeping a close eye on you the entire time.’
‘But we can see Sapphire first, right?’ Sweetie said, eyes widening at the notion of not seeing her sister. Her eyebrows curled worriedly.
‘Of course. We’re leaving tomorrow morning so that we have sunlight on our side, so you’ll have plenty of time to see her today.’ Red pondered for a moment. ‘Sapphire should be fine with me taking you, Sweetie Belle. It’s not a particularly dangerous quest—mostly just the diplomacy I mentioned. The only thing that I still have to check is permission from someone you know, Scootaloo. It’s not like you can stay here forever.’
Scootaloo’s face froze.
‘Something the matter, sugarcube?’
Scootaloo shot a nervous glance at both Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom, the former shrugging and the latter too busy staring into space to respond—Scootaloo panicked. ‘They... they’re not here. They’ve passed away,’ she said sullenly, hanging her head and adding a sigh to the mix.
Red’s face froze.
‘I-I’m sorry, Scoots. I never heard about no recent passings in Ponyville... are you doing okay?’ Red walked over to Scootaloo and put a hoof on her slumped shoulder, who promptly nodded her head. ‘You can stay with us as long as you’d like. You’re under no rule to leave.’
Scootaloo sniffed once, raised her head and re-stated her nod. ‘Thanks, Red.’
Red offered a smile, removed her hoof from Scootaloo’s shoulder and returned to her place at the table. ‘Good to see you taking this so well,’ she said. ‘I won’t delve any further for now.’
Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom—fully awoken by the recent turn in events—shot their fellow crusader a look of both confusion and surprise. She did not return the gaze, choosing instead to focus on the meal in front of her. For the rest of the morning, the table was silent. No more fervorous appetite, no excitement coming from Sweetie Belle--only silence.
‘Scoots, you doing alright?’ Apple Bloom inquired, walking alongside the other two crusaders away from her home. ‘You want to just stay home for the day?’
Scootaloo sighed, stopped and turned to Apple Bloom. ‘No,’ she stated plainly. ‘I’m not entirely upset. My parents didn’t really pass—’
‘What?’ both fillies replied, eyes widening in shock.
‘No, wait!’ Scootaloo pleaded. ‘They might as well have passed... when I woke up the day we got here, I was sleeping on the grass on the outskirts of town. There was no sign of my home, my parents—nothing that hinted at my family.’
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle stared, dumbfounded.
‘My parents were rarely home because of a busy work schedule abroad. When they were here, they were too exhausted to do anything with me. One of the workers at a nearby restaurant usually comes in to check on me and the house.’ Scootaloo closed her eyes. ‘My parents not being here is just another day like it always has been. That’s why I didn’t feel like bringing it up.’
Sweetie Belle’s eyebrows curled, but she hesitated for a moment before speaking. ‘Are you... are you sure you’ll be all right, Scoots?’
Scootaloo nodded her head and continued walking. ‘Yeah. Don’t worry about me, girls.’
The crusaders walked in silence towards the Dungeoneering Association. Halfway there, Apple Bloom tried to convince herself to say something to break the quiet air—a sight, or lack thereof, however, diverted her attention.
‘Girls, do you remember seeing a funny stallion in front of that building there?’ she said, stopping and pointing a hoof towards a flat-faced building. The other two crusaders shrugged. 'Oh, well... never mind, then. Let's head inside the Association.'
Apple Bloom stopped as her friends walked in, and glanced over by the spot where the stallion once stood. She grimaced; no use staring at the ground.
'Hey, you three!' Bolt's voice called out from inside, prompting Apple Bloom to hurry in. 'Did Red already tell you what's going on tomorrow?'
'Well, she didn't really give many details,’ Scootaloo replied, ‘but she mentioned stuff.’
Bolt smiled brightly. ‘Awesome, stuff is great. I'll fill you in a bit more at the bar with Surprise.'
The group passed by the entrance desk, receiving a friendly wave from Stormy. Bolt was humming a tune from the night before, but it was soon barely audible over the bustle of the Dungeoneering Association. There was no music being played, but everyone was still merry, including the current barkeeper.
‘Howdy!’ Surprise said gleefully, setting down a mug she had been cleaning. ‘Would anyone like some cider?’
Bolt frowned. ‘These three are like... how old are you again?’
‘I’m nine!’ Scootaloo said.
‘I’m nine too!’ Apple Bloom added.
‘I’m not,’ Sweetie Belle said plainly.
‘Exactly,’ Bolt continued. ‘The team heading out already knows the plan, but I figured it’d be a good idea to tell the fillies what their role will be at a place as casual as this.’
‘I could go for some cider myself,’ Surprise said, happily taking the mug she had been cleaning and turning around to a cider barrel tap. ‘Delicious stuff. Hope you three will drink lots when you’re older—life’s pleasures. The quest isn’t too tough... the others you go with will do a bit of talking, do a little fighting, maybe some killing—’
‘Ah, right.’ Surprise turned to the group with a full mug and took a quick swig. ‘So they’ll do their thing, and you three will just tag alongside them when they do. Only one Argonian will talk to Bolt at a time, and any dangerous situations will be avoided, so have no fear. At least, that’s what the plan is supposed to be.’
‘Don’t go scaring them...’
‘They’re not scared! Look at them!’ Surprise looked to the three fillies; Scootaloo’s smile bridged her entire face, Apple Bloom’s was a grin nearly as wide and Sweetie Belle curled her lips. ‘Don’t worry Sweetie, you’ll be behind Bolt during the entire thing. Absolutely nothing to worry about.’
‘And that’s it,’ Bolt said, swinging her hoof. ‘Nothing too dangerous. Want to do it?’
Sweetie’s smile widened just like her two friends, and the three of them shouted: ‘Yes!’
‘Fantastic. I’ll go tell Bookworm—oh, and Sweetie, your sister is going to be late. But you might be glad to know that she’s coming along with me and Red since she really wants to make sure everything turns out alright.’
Bolt saluted Surprise and dashed off to Bookworm’s office. Surprise took another swig of her cider.
‘That’s good stuff,’ Surprise said, breathing a sigh of relief. ‘Don’t worry, Pearl will take over for me soon. A barkeeper can’t drink while she’s on the job, now can she?’
‘Certainly,’ Mutatio said from behind the fillies. His coat today was as white as Sapphire’s coat. ‘I must say, “Pearl” is probably the nicest name you've given me yet, Surprise.'
Surprise smiled. She downed the remainder of her drink and placed it on the counter, then exited through the side of the bar. Mutatio nodded once as she passed and took her place behind the bar.
'You fillies staying at the Association for a little while?'
Apple Bloom took a seat at the bar, and was soon followed by her friends. 'I guess so,' she said. 'Anything interesting happen around Ponyville lately?'
'Nothing much,' Mutatio replied, sighing and grabbing Surprise's glass for cleaning. 'Had someone sever one of their hooves while practicing his fighting with a hatchet. Stupid idea to do that in—'
'Wh-what?' Apple Bloom said, horrified. She looked to her friends, who sat with mouths agape.
'It wasn't very serious, girls,' Mutatio said assuredly. 'He's a pretty strong stallion, so it didn't do much besides leaving him in a bit of pain.'
Apple Bloom was the first to shake from her trance. 'Wait, is this like what happened with my big brother? That lethal injuries don't kill?'
Mutatio frowned. 'Is this your amnesia acting up? I can explain a bit further if you've forgotten about one of the most important things in the world. It's pretty essential.'
The fillies nodded quickly. Mutatio sighed.
'Well, everyone has magic inside of them, regardless of their race. As you know, unicorns can use some of this magic if they wish to cast spells... but there aren't very many with the ability to learn more than a few. Some are born with the ability to use lightning, some with ice and water, and others use fire. Well, you might be surprised to hear this, but earth ponies actually have the most magic of the three races.'
Apple Bloom grinned.
'Pegasi have the ability to fly, unicorns can harness their inner magic and can manifest it into something real, but earth ponies get the most magic for one reason: strength. That leads me to why ponies can sustain injuries.' Mutatio paused for effect. 'Magic immediately heals broken bones, severed skin, etcetera, just as long as no brain injury was involved and there's enough magic to do it.'
'So it was magic that kept the hatchet pony alive—and the Argonian my brother attacked?'
'I would assume so, although the report that an Argonian being in Ponyville was of much greater importance than the hatchet incident.' Mutatio put the mug away and fetched another dirty one from across the counter. 'As you train yourself physically, your body needs less magic to heal it since it's in such good shape already. And as you train yourself in the magical arts, your supply of magic gets bigger. It's an interesting dilemma for casting spells; do you cast one to defend yourself or save the magic for any injury you might receive?'
'What if you run out?' Sweetie Belle asked. 'Do you die?'
'You can't cast spells or heal, that's for certain. Everyone can feel the life force inside of them, so generally once you are almost out of magic, you feel incredibly weak. Once you run out, you can barely move and any injury you receive will last until you rest and regain some of your energy. It's not the lack of magic that will kill you.'
'Do the elements have anything to do with how much magic you have inside of you?' Scootaloo piped in.
'I don't know much about the three elements. You'd have to ask Bookworm or go research it yourself if you want to know more.'
'Oh, I'm sorry to interrupt,' a calm voice said. 'Is Bookworm in her office, Mutatio?'
Behind the fillies was a familiar yellow pegasus with butterflies as her cutie mark. She smiled to the fillies and rustled Scootaloo's mane, to her dismay.
'Yes, Butterfly,' Mutatio replied. 'If she needs me for anything, don't hesitate to tell me. I'm just telling the girls about how the world works.'
'Sounds fascinating,' Butterfly said. 'Might be a good idea if you tell them what Argonians are like so they know what they're up against tomorrow. They really aren't very nice!'
'Bet you saw that on your scouting journey, eh?' Mutatio gave a hearty laugh. 'The things you see on your expeditions would give a lesser pony a heart attack. Take it easy, Butterfly.'
Butterfly blushed, waved to the fillies and left for Bookworm's office. Just as she entered, Bolt left the office, stretched her hooves and went to the far side of the room where the staircase was in a hurry.
'Bolt's acting a bit peculiar,' Mutatio noted.
'Would you mind telling us a bit about the Argonians, Mutatio?' Apple Bloom requested.
'There isn't much to tell. They're bipedal lizards—they walk on two legs, that is—and they hail from some foreign land way off from Equestria. How the resident ones got here? I have no idea, but they tend to trespass where they shouldn't. Power hungry for land, I suppose.'
Apple Bloom pondered for a moment.
‘Anything else you girls want to know about?’
‘Actually, yes,’ Apple Bloom said. ‘Do you know anything about the stallion that likes to twirl his sword outside the Association? I didn't seem him today, but I saw him a lot before.'
‘What are you talking abo—’
Bolt burst into the scene, interrupting Mutatio with her heavy breathing and wide-eyed expression. 'M...' she gasped, clamouring for air, 'Mutatio... one of Moonshine's agents is in town, I could see a black-vested figure out my window. It looked like he was coming this way.'
Mutatio blinked a few times, then regained his composure. 'Do you have any idea what for?'
Bolt shook her head.
'Hmm... that's unsettling. I'll go take the front entrance in case they show up and hopefully send them along their way.'
Bolt nodded and looked to the fillies. 'Girls, I think you should keep away from the front. It might be a bit suspicious to have young fillies here at the Association, and we certainly don't want them peeking around, sticking their dirty noses where they shouldn't.'
'Who's Moonshine, Bolt?' Sweetie Belle asked. 'And what are you trying to hide from those guys?'
Bolt snorted. 'I'll tell you about him later. Come into the fighting room; while we wait this out, I figure I might as well show you a few things.'
Bolt dropped a peculiar curved, leather sheath with a sun-yellow clamp attach on the sharp end on the ground in front of her. The Crusaders watched on the other side, all of them standing on the archery range side of the Combat Room.
‘This is a sword,’ Bolt explained. ‘It may not look like it if you’ve seen others being used up close, but it is. It’s an easy-to-use, retractable blade you can use and keep on you at all times, given you aren’t in a public place. Keeping your sword out, sheathed or no, is a big no-no in civilized places.’
Bolt slid her hoof into the sheath’s circular clamp, which quickly tightened to her hoof’s diameter. ‘As soon as the clamp is within range of your hoof, it begins to sap a very, very small amount of magic from you to activate and tighten around your hoof—not too tight, not too loose.’ She lifted her hoof, and showed the fillies that the blade now conformed to the length of her right foreleg. ‘The magic it saps from you molds it to your leg so that it doesn’t bother you when walking. To bring it out—’ Bolt bent her elbow and swung the blade out of its sheath, revealing a glossy, silver shine ‘—you whip it out like so. Your body will automatically dispel the magical barrier preventing the sheath from coming out all of the time, just as long as your mind is set on releasing it.’
‘What about sheathing it again, Bolt?’ Apple Bloom questioned.
‘I was just getting to that.’ Bolt straightened her hoof, relaxed her leg muscles and raised it to the ceiling. ‘As long as you concentrate on relaxing the leg the sword is attached to, all you have to do it raise it into the air, straighten out and gravity will do the rest.’ The sword slid right into its sheath right on cue. ‘All without so much as breaking a sweat. Of course, sliding it out won’t be possible if you’re out of magic completely, but in that case, you’re probably too unfit to fight anyway.’
Bolt tapped the clamp with her other hoof and it came off effortlessly. ‘I’m not sure who designed these, but that’s all you need to do to get the clamp on and off. Really smart of them though, made our lives a whole lot better. This sword’s mine, but I’m sure we could get you som—’
The Combat Room’s door burst open, and just as quickly, Mutatio rushed from the doorframe to the fillies with an urgent look in his eyes.
‘Something very strange is going on,’ Mutatio said hurriedly. ‘I spoke with Bookworm already, but we need to figure out something and fast.’
‘At least a half-dozen of Moonshine’s agents were wandering around Ponyville’—Bolt’s eyes widened as Mutatio spoke—’all looking for one thing. Well, one was asking for three little somethings.’
Mutatio stared at the three fillies, who blinked and stared back. Bolt was the first to break the silence.
‘...Uh, what? What would Moonshine want with these three?’
‘That’s what we all want to know,’ Mutatio replied, keeping his gaze fixed on the fillies. ‘He hasn’t even sent anyone here to get our leader, Bookworm. I don’t remember him ever sending more than one guy, and that was shortly after the schism with Starswirl.’
‘So what’s the plan? Give him the fillies?’
‘Goodness no. Why would we give him what he wants? Have you forgotten what the Association was made for? And think of the fillies—what he probably wants with them isn’t good for us or them.’
The fillies gulped.
‘I was only saying that in case we would send an escort with them. Just to talk.’
‘Nevertheless, Bookworm doesn’t want anything concrete done quite yet. The fillies will stay upstairs until tomorrow morning. If they leave before they wake up, then they probably aren’t the main reason why they came around here and they can head back home or find whatever else they were looking for. Otherwise... we’ll have to talk about that later.’
‘What did you do with them?’
‘Told them that the fillies do visit here often, but that they were out doing something else. If I told them I didn’t know who they were, they wouldn’t have believed me and they’d likely be in here with all of us right now.’
‘Good thinking.’ Bolt sighed and turned to the fillies. ‘I think I already know the answer to this question, but do you have any idea what’s going on here?’
Apple Bloom shook her head. ‘Does this have anything to do with the stallion I had mentioned earlier, Mutatio?’
Mutatio raised an eyebrow. ‘Who is this stallion, anyway?’
Apple Bloom pondered for a moment. Her hoof tapped against her chin. ‘Never asked for his name. His coat was mahogany and he was twirling a sword of some sort.’
Mutatio wrinkled his snout. ‘Did he have more than one sword with him?’
‘No. At least none that I saw.’
‘Good.’ Mutatio breathed a sigh of relief. ‘There are a lot of mahogany ponies out there, but one in particular I’d rather not have on our tails.’
‘Who is that?’ Sweetie Belle inquired.
‘Don’t worry about it. I think you three should head upstairs for now, and remember to keep the windows and curtains closed. Be on alert if you hear anyone coming upstairs—this might all be a big misunderstanding, but if it isn’t, I’d rather have you safe and secure. Your sisters will be up with you later tonight.’
The fillies stood blank for a moment, then slowly nodded. All three tried their best to keep a light heart, but sweat began glistening over Scootaloo’s head, Sweetie Belle’s legs buckled and Apple Bloom took in deep breaths.
‘Come with me, girls,’ Mutatio said calmly. ‘It’s nothing to worry about. Bolt, if you could watch the front entrance with Stormy, that’d help set my mind at ease.’
Bolt saluted and dashed out of the room. Apple Bloom went and grabbed her knapsack in the corner of the room, while a peculiar faint glow escaped out of its sides.
‘Hmm?’ Apple Bloom opened the sack and beheld the tome from her room, now glowing in a bright yellow light. She brought it out and onto the floor, opened it and saw nothing inscribed on its sheets, yet the glow still remained. ‘Mutatio, do you know what this is?’
Mutatio, previously deep in thought, turned and widened his eyes at the tome. The other fillies approached it with excitement. ‘My goodness,’ Mutatio whispered. ‘It can’t be.’
‘It can’t be what, Mutatio?’ Apple Bloom asked, tilting her head.
Mutatio rushed over to the tome and picked it up—’Hey!’—and headed to the door. ‘Come with me, girls. I need to see something.’
Puzzled, the trio followed Mutatio out of the Combat Room and towards Bookworm’s office. As they got closer, the tome shone brighter. Without a word, Mutatio opened the door and rushed in—Bookworm merely stared back with a raised eyebrow.
‘What are you doing here, I’m bus—oh,’ Bookworm said knowingly upon sight of the tome. ‘It’s... that. I didn’t think there were any more left.’
The tome flashed instantly, blinding everyone in the room for a brief second. It rose of its own accord and opened to the first page, where several lines of inked writing were forming from thin air. The tome still glowed as everyone watched, waiting, with astonished eyes.
‘Wh-what?’ Scootaloo stuttered, feeling her own body rise on its own. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom soon followed suit, and all three of them glowed in a similar light to the tome. ‘What’s happening?’ Scootaloo repeated, kicking her rear hooves to no use.
A stream of red light soared from the book to Sweetie Belle’s horn, rolling her eyes back for several seconds before the stream ended, reverting her eyes to normal. She was slowly set back onto the floor on her four hooves, and soon after a yellow light did the same thing to Scootaloo’s wings. Once she was finished, a blue light coursed through Apple Bloom’s hooves.
The tome shut tight, the glow settled and slowly sunk down to the floor. The room had returned to normalcy, but that didn’t stop the fillies from panicking and running around the room, yelling this and that about “infection” and “scary magic”.
‘Calm down, girls,’ Mutatio said, taking in a deep breath. ‘I knew this was going to happen. At least, that’s what I was hoping this tome was going to do.’
The fillies looked to Mutatio, their eyes begging for questions that their mouths could not spit out. Bookworm did not take a positive outlook on the matter, and frowned bitterly as she paced herself behind her desk.
‘The tome was unlocked because of my presence, my power. A tome I had thought lost forever.’
Bookworm remained silent for several moments.
‘You three... somehow, I don’t feel like you’re the fillies that we used to know. Moonshine wants you...’
Bookworm could barely utter the words: ‘You three are the wielders, not simple users like the rest of Equestria, of the three elements: lightning, ice and fire. You three are some of the most powerful ponies on the planet, and that book just unlocked your potential.’ Bookworm paused for a moment. ‘But that also means that Moonshine knows who you are and might be coming here to neutralize you as a threat; that’s probably why he sent multiple guards. I’m going to need you to stay upstairs for the night, guarded, while we sort out a few matters to get you to a safer location.’
Apple Bloom appeared stupefied. ‘What do you mean, Bookworm?’
Bookworm stopped and turned to the fillies. ‘I know you don’t have amnesia, but wherever you came from, whatever era you got here from that allowed you to access this potential, it doesn’t matter. Moonshine wants to kill you.’