As the fight for Equestria goes on, General Applejack of the House Earthborn seeks to contain the Everfree Forest before it drives out the ponies on her land...
The Everfree Forest has long laid dormant since its cursed trees ever appeared in the slowly defrosting remains of Old Equestria. Yet, in recent years, the forest has almost doubled in size, slowly covering Equestria in its thorny grasp and endangering several settlements of the House Earthborn. General Applejack, suspecting the work of the House Everfree, sends a strike force, under the command of her own brother, Big Macintosh, or, "the Guardian" to his troops, to drive the forest back in a tide of flame. However, Mistress Fluttershy of the House Everfree feels offense at these movements, and begins to make a military movement of her own...
Equestria Divided Universe property of PoorYorickDA. Art was found on Derpibooru, so I have no idea who actually drew it. But credit to them, too.
It was the sudden disappearance of the Royal Sisters that began the conflict that introduced war into the world of Equestria. Gripped by fear, everypony watched the skies for the next week, struck by terror as they awaited to the sun and the moon to stop moving, spelling destruction for the world. The Element Bearers quickly made their way to Canterlot, to locate the Elements of Harmony in an attempt to find the Princesses. Yet, very quickly, a conclusion was reached by thousands simultaneously in about a week.
The Princesses were gone. And the celestial bodies were still moving.
At this, some panicked, saying that the entire world had grown wild with uncontrolled magic, very much like the Everfree Forest. Yet more started to quiver with anger, as everything that they thought was true was merely a lie, conjured by the Sisters to rule Equestria for themselves. Yet more took this as an omen, that they weren't dead, but merely in hiding or kidnapped- but where, not even the Master of the Inquisition could answer.
In a full panic, and under the assumption the the ponies needed an able-bodied leader, Twilight turned to her friends, demanding that Applejack and Rainbow Dash were to accompany her back to Ponyville, so that she may conduct a spell devised by Starswirled the Bearded that would combine the essences of the three main races to force a transformation into the blessed form of an Alicorn. Rainbow Dash readily accepted Twilight's offer, but Applejack, at first was reluctant. She explained that a spell of such magical aptitude was going to be quite difficult to cast, if not impossible, even for a pony of her magical ability. Yet, as Twilight's demands became threats to unleash the full force of the Inquisition onto her, she became more steadfast, declaring that Twilight was a lunatic before stalking out of the room and back to her home of Sweet Apple Acres, guiding her family into leaving their ancestral home, in case that Twilight was, indeed, not bluffing.
Twilight was able to convince Pinkie Pie, albeit reluctantly. She agreed with Applejack, yet caved in under Twilight's threats of destruction of all of her family and the loss of her friends. The three of them left to Ponyville and, cast the spell... but, weather through lack of magical control, the reluctant attitude of Pinkie Pie- as magic is affected by emotions- or perhaps the spell fizzled or was written incorrectly. At any rate, the spell blasted the library to pieces, destroying the right side of Rainbow Dash's face and- through magical overload- detonated the heart of Pinkie Pie, killing her instantly.
Going half mad with grief and anger, Twilight retreated to Canterlot, where she proceeded to use her prestegious magical ability to take dominance over both the Council of Nobles as well as the Inquisition, and set herself up as the head of a large bureaucracy, leaving her other friends behind...
Silently satisfied that she was correct in her theory, Applejack gathered what relatives they had, and told them in a meeting akin to a council of war, that Twilight would come- and in force and fury. They recruited in force, eventually gaining a strong military base. As Twilight declared there to be a bounty against all non-unicorns, by popular opinion, as well as the guidance of Elder Matron Granny Smith, she countered by declaring all unicorns to have their lives forfeit. Either they lose their horn through a painless surgery that left little scarring, or they lose their horn by force- followed by their head. And so, under the leadership of the blacksmiths of the Apple Family and General Applejack, so was the House Earthborn founded.
As Rainbow Dash realized that the spell was a failure, she retreated to the northern reaches of Equestria, convincing every pegasus she came across of the corruption of the government. Upon reaching Cloudsdale, she proceeded to give a speech of rallying of forces. Equestria had grown corrupt, she said, and only by force of will and sharpness of blade and steel could they clear the country of corruption. Adopting a battlefield doctrine much akin to Commander Hurricane, they began training en masse. RD preached about the purity of the pegasI forces, and how any being not blessed with wings were cursed with the burden of work. And, through the puritanical belief of honor and dominance, and under the leadership of Commander Rainbow Dash, so was the House Stormwing formed.
Twilight slowly became more and more paranoid about the forces of the other Houses invading and destroying the city of Canterlot as well as her research. Fearing corruption for the "lesser" races, she declared that only unicorns were to be treated as ponies- the other two races were nothing, as, therefore, could be treated however they want. They were quickly enslaved, and Twilight erected a force field around Canterlot, preventing access to anyone but unicorns. From here, she then usurped the Master of the Inquisition and proceeded to put one of her lackeys in charge. And from the old chambers of the Princesses, Twilight studies and studies to become an alicorn and to save, and, under the iron fist of the new Inquisition, she founded the House of Moon and Star.
Fluttershy wasn't exactly the type of "ruler" that the other four were, considering her shy nature and rather vulnerable body. She ran a series of refugee camps for whoever wanted to avoid the war between the others, stockpiling supplies and food to ensure her new friends' survival of it.
All of it changed in one night.
She found herself witness to a company of Inquisition raiding one of her refuge camps, burning it to the ground and taking all that it contained as slaves for the House of Moon and Star. Suddenly enraged, she called upon her connection to nature and, using a power that, before now, she never knew she had, she summoned a trio of hydras that charged down the company, slaughtering them. Rallying the remaining refugee camps, she retreated into the Everfree, vowing that the forest would be the one that would conquer Equestria. And so was House Everfree founded.
After hearing the news, Rarity quickly opened up every single political and otherwise contact that she had, and decided, if her friends would rule the battlefield, well, she would rule the political field, as everyone knows that diplomacy can both start a fight- and stop it. She decided that her first steep would to gain massive political power by marraige- and who else but the head of the Council of Baltimare, Prince Blueblood himself?
Upon hearing her request, Blueblood, being the self-centered stallion that he was, couldn't help but accept such a beautiful mare with such a silver tongue. Yet, strangely during their honeymoon, Rarity came back, crying tears of sorrow- on the outside. She said that two mares in black had come and assassinated her newly-wed husband. After mourning with her, the order was given that Rarity, as his wife, would inherit both his late husband's political power and his fortune. It didn't occur to the council that it was a setup until about a week later- and the ones that did were quickly 'silenced'. And, under the political power of the Mistress of Deception herself, so was the House Whitegold founded.
Exactly one year after Pinkie Pie's death, two robbers broke into the Canterlot museum and stole the sarcophagus that held Pinkie Pie's body. This was considered by Twilight as a henious crime, and threatened death to the thieves when they were discovered- but they had hidden their tracks well. About a year later, it was discovered that the coffin was being venerated by a stallionhood of necromancers- and not just necromancers. An entire cult had sprung up in worship of a strange being known as the Laughing Mare- a goddess-like figure, living in an alternate dimension. Believing Pinkie Pie to have some connection to the being, the Cult of Laughter remains a dangerous threat to the stability of the realm- or, rather, what little stability it has left..
The changeling hives have long been dormant, ever since the invasion of Canterlot by Hive Chrysalis. Yet, slowly in the southernmost parts of Equestria, Hive Grey Monarch- long an ally of Equestria- sensed and opportunity, and started to feverishly prepare for an excursion into Equestria, for, even if the Houses unify again, which seems nigh impossible, will they have enough to compete with the strongest changeling hive currently known to be in existence?
The Far North is the home to many strange creatures. One such kingdom is the Griffon Empire, long looking for an opportunity to repay Equestria for conquering their southern lands over two thousand years ago. They have allied with House Stormwing, to gained the trust of these ponies. It is only a matter of time before the ponies find themselves the target of a full-scale invasion of the Griffon Empire...
With eight factions going at each others throats, it is only a matter of time until one faction proves dominance. The war has been going on for over fifteen years now, and shows no sign of stopping...
How long will war reign over the land? Only time will tell who will come out on top...
The Everfree Forest had always been a mysterious entity. It is said that somewhere in it's dark and twisted woods lies the slumbering body of Discord, master of Chaos. Yet more rumors state that there are treasures yet to be found. Yet, no matter what the rumors say, there remains three true facts. One, it is full of untamed magics. Two, It is full of dangerous beasts, anywhere from Timber Wolves to the dreaded Everfree Hydras. And, three, to enter is to tempt the patience of Lady Fluttershy and her house, for the Forest is the realm of the House Everfree.
And the forest seems to enjoy the houses presence.
In fifteen years, the forest has doubled in size, conquering all of Old Equestria. Yet, with the mountains blocking its expansion to the east, there remains only one way to go- south.
Right into the open arms of the militaristic forces of the House Earthborn.
Major Sword Scar had seen better days.
He had served for over ten years, leading his troops against the forces of Whitegold (who were, in is opinion, a bunch of sissies- albeit some certainly were beautiful), Moon and Sun (traitor stuck-up unicorns), and the nightmare of the Cult of Laughter (he tried not to think about it). He was proud to lead his regiment to wherever he was needed. But his body... not so much. Don't get me wrong, he was still a fighting pony, but I guess my above statement was perhaps the best. Sword Scar had definitely seen better days.
And, right now, he was bored.
He was itching to get stuck into a real fight, but General Applejack thought that it was best if he took a year or two off, especially after the last campaign with the Cult of Laughter. At first he agreed, but as he was sent to Fillydelphia to watch the gem mines- in case Whitegold tried another assault into them- he slowly got more and more, for a lack of a better term, bored. He decided that the only medicines to the horrors of battle are three things- counseling, retirement, or more battle. Sure, he liked the break, but he was bored- and so were the troops under his command.
ONe of his captains approached him as he put down his pen from writing yet another report to the General. He looked up. "Hello, Quick Shot."
"Another slow day?"
"I'll say. But the fellows made an interesting discovery."
"And that would be?"
"Would you think that I am crazy if I said that forests move?"
The major chuckled. "I would probably send you in for some counseling. But I wouldn't blame you, six months ain't enough to get the horrors of... that... out of your mind." And it was true. It took him three months to begin to recover the small amount of his sanity that he had lost. Honestly, he still wasn't one hundred percent. "But I assume that's what you wanted to tell me? The forest moved?"
"Yes, sir. Come and see."
He stood up. "Well, at least I can stretch my legs."
The moment he saw the outskirts of the Everfree, he knew something was wrong. A forest doesn't grow fifty feet in six months. And he was right. Suddenly, all of the stories that he had heard as a kid came to his mind. All the ponies killed by the Everfree Forest. How only the pure of heart made it out alive. And, hell, he didn't exactly have the cleanest record.
He then spotted something. Something that made his heart jump into his throat. And the howls to accompany them.
"BATTLE STATIONS!!!" he yelled, leaping back. "Everfree side!"
We shall repeat what happened here in defense of House Everfree in a bit, but for now, let us move a few hundred miles southwest, to the town named Apploosia- to be specific, one room in Apploosia where an awfully familiar orange pony in a full suit of Juggernaut Armor, glaring at a report on a page while listening to the shattered Major. Her blonde mane and tail protruded from the armor almost strawlike fashion, while a black eyepatch covered her right eye. A large hammer emblazoned with an eagle leaned against the wall.
"...timber wolves, General. Timber wolves and their beastmasters, if they are any better." The major said, somewhat panicked., absentmindedly picking at the bandages around his legs. "And they... they made it into the ravines..."
"Don't worry, sugarcube. Ah have what happened all right here." She sighed as she read the report before looking at him intently. "Half the regiment gone before they were dealt with?"
"More than that, ma'am." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, ma'am... I failed you. We all failed-"
"I ain't the Archmagister, major. You don't have to suck up tah me. Tah tell ya the truth, it gets rather old."
She sighed. The forest growing forward, the sudden attack of the Timber Wolves... the slaughter at the canyon. She sighed. For the first time in over fifteen years, Fluttershy had finally done something.
"Major... Ah have several things to think about. Do me a favor when ya go- see to your men. Ah've found that an officer commending their work is one of the most important ways to keep morale up, even if they did lose the battle."
Major Sword Scar left in a new, walking-assist mechanism that the blacksmiths made, leaving a frustrated Applejack sitting behind her desk, massaging her forehead. Now she would have to organize some sort of contact into the Everfree, and there was no guarantee that the envoy would come back, anyways...
"Ah know that look on yer face, Applejack."
She looked up to see a adolescent pony in front of her, grinning. If it wasn't for the charred yet obviously still pink bow sitting on top of her head, she might not have recognized her. "Hello, Apple Bloom." She murmured. "How are ya doing?"
"Excellent! Me and mah boys got something cool done after we heard about the Everfree incident!"
Applejack gave her a look. "You mean the entire camp knows already?"
"Naw, just me and some of the Masters, that's all. But anyways, I've been thinkin'. How do you get rid of wood? And I thought, at first, axes. But after I designed a prototype of that, I thought, 'that's wasn't gonna wo-'"
Applejack sighed. "Can ya just tell me what'cha made, Apple Bloom?" Apple Bloom looked somewhat offended and was about to say something in retaliation when Applejack continued. "No, ah don't mean any disrespect or anything... Ah'm just tired. Mentally and physically. And unless this machine here is a miracle machine, I'm gonna haveta ponder what exactly we can do and say to Flutters, and ah'm not so sure she's completely... ya know. Sane."
"Say no more, sis. Hey, Hotshot! Come in here, please?"
A pony in a full rubber suit came trundling in. He wore a pair of goggles, as well as thick boots. Applejack gave him a good lookover before sighing. "Sis... it's a rubber suit."
"Actually, it's a custom-made rubber suit from Fillydelphia, but that's not important. What is important is what's on his back."
Applejack looked on the ponies back to reveal three metal canisters. "What are those?"
"That is a combination of oil and oxygen that comes out of..." she pulled a cord, and out came two long hoses, which slithered out about a foot before coming to a stop. "...this."
Applejack sighed. "So, we'll coat the enemy in-"
She then touched a button on the other side, and a small little flame entered the end. Comprehension dawned on her. "Apple Bloom! It certainly won't win the war- if it results in one- but this is a brilliant idea! Where did you get the idea for this thing?"
"Well, ya see, ah was thinkin'... how d'ya get rid of wood?..."
Let us now turn this entire situation around. There are two sides to every story after all, and if we focus on the House Earthborn, you won't get to see how the House Everfree is doing, yes? So we will leave General Applejack for now and go and talk about a pony near the mines of Fillydelphia, about six months ago. You see, this particular pony- named Junebug- was taking a walk with Woody and Chip. Two of her best friends. Well, more of a training run, since Woody and Chip were Timber Wolves. Which was entirely appropriate, as Junebug was a beastmaster for the House Everfree.
It all started one sunny- or, rather, shady- day. Junebug was busy training two new 'recruits' as she liked to call them. She had already befriended one of them, but Chip was being stubborn. He desperately wanted to return to the wilds, despite all of the proof that he had that he would have a better life here. She was told by Greenleaf, her Master Beastmaster, that Chip needed a walk, perhaps, to get used to his new territory. And so here she was.
Perhaps thirty minutes into her walk, both of the Timber Wolves perked their ears up before running off to the south. She had been dragged along, and, after yelling at them to heel until they listened, seen why the Timber Wolves were howling.
The canyon, where no one had been before, was garrisoned.
She stayed down and watched while edging on the wolves to stay still and quiet. Which they did. Somewhat. As she saw, there was perhaps a regiment of guard in and around the canyon, while other ponies pulled out... gems? Yes, gems. A banner which held a symbol of a large tree, with an apple below it, hung over a small building on the other side. The result was obvious.
It was a war command. And, seeing and the only other territory that the Earthborn didn't control in the area was Baltimare- which Rarity had made very clear that it was hers, thank you very much- there was only one direction that they could go. And she was standing in it.
She quietly withdrew with her Timber Wolves, prepared to sprint the several dozen miles back to the camp, while going through her mind all of the things she had heard about the Earthborn. Giant, steam-powered engines that would steamroller entire acres of the forest. Explosives that could reduce an Ancient Oak to char. And their insane blacksmiths were coming up with new things all the time. She was almost certain that they would all charge into their home, their home for over ten years, to run them out. For what? For cities, towns, mining, damaging the terrain, and polluting the environment?
All that she knew was that while she had a breath left in her body, she would never let that happen. And neither would Woody or Chip.
Upon reaching the Wilding Camp, Junebug frantically told the Everfree Wraiths in charge- temporarily swallowing her fear of the ponies possessed by spirits of the forest- and, sending one of their number out, the other four rapidly marshalled the camp, preparing them for the numerous battle rituals. All that they needed now was the Mistress's approval and three months.
And thus, the Everfree Wraith.
This Wraith used to be a pony known as Starshine, but now, her name sounded something like Sha'Sol'Koa. It meant "Guardian of Forests." She had served as a Wilding pony for over five years, and her spectacular leadership and combat skills drew the attention of Mistress Fluttershy herself. She told her that the spirit of the forest was satisfied with her work, and asked if she would give up everything, even her special talent, to serve the true force of the world. To serve nature.
She accepted, and, suddenly... she was aware. Aware of the flow of energy, aware of the spirits and the natural order of things. Everything was... alive. And Mistress Fluttershy was an avatar of nature herself. And so she accepted her transformation.
An Everfree Wraith, you see, is a pony that has become one with nature. Their cutie marks quickly fade away, to be obscured by scales. Their flesh and coat become as tough as wood, and they gain the capacity to regenerate even the most dire wounds almost instantly. They have poison glands and sharp teeth as well, and some of them can even float- another attirbution to the spiritual link. Their link also changes their personality- all of them are wise, yet capricious, and most of them have a craving for warm flesh. In short, they are the elite- the elite of the forest, and the true guardians of the House.
It took Sha'Sol'Koa about a week to find her way to the ruins of the castle. Upon entering, she was dimly aware of a slow, sleepy presence enter her mind before leaving. She smiled. The forest had honored her with its touch.
Before long, she had reached the lair of the Mistress, where she was guarded by two shady figures. Her smiled faded.
Hello, Masters Hunter of Beasts and Fire of the Pines, she said in the language of spirits, acknowledging the two Everfree tree-spirits who guarded Fluttershy. I desire to speak with the mistress in a matter most urgent.
Welcome, Guardian of Forests, to the home of the mistress. replied the one on the left. What is this matter that you wish to speak of her with?
I bring dire news from the southern camps.
Excellent, said a new voice. I have not heard new from the south for over six months.
At this, all three of them turned and bowed towards the door as it squeaked open, revealing a yellow pony with a pink mane.
She smiled. "I am sorry to disturb you, Sha'Sol, by my request, but might we talk in the Equestrian tongue? The language of spirits is hard indeed to speak after a few hours straight for someone not a a native speaker." She walked over. "Now, tell me of this news that you bring."
"Yesss, misssstrisss..." Her serpentine tongue, while providing her a greater sense of smell, gave her Equestrian a snake-like lisp that annoyed her slightly, but she ignored it. "The House of the Earthborn has been seen with an active war camp within a mile of the forest. It ssseemsss unlikely that they are attacking Baltimare, asss they have holdings closer to them, and Stormwing ssseparatesss them by the mountainsss and the desertsss. They would muster around the remainsss of Ponyville if they had that intention, and with the speed of Stormwing, the Earthborn would be cut off."
"So the only reasonable way to go would be this way."
"Hmm..." she paused. "Was there anything that could be nearby that they want?"
"Our scoutsss report gem collections, although one or two war machines were indeed visssable."
She remained deep in thought for a few minutes. "Alright. I have an idea. Attack in enough force to drive them away from the camp, but do not destroy it, nor continue on towards Fillydelphia. This will put off any ideas of attack and give us time to prepare our defenses more thoroughly."
Sha'Sol grinned, revealing her pointed teeth. "Asss alwaysss, your council isss much appreciated, missstresss."
And so, six months later, the assault sprang out of the Everfree, driving away or killing the entire regiment of Earthborn. An Everfree Wraith was seen approaching Apploosia a few weeks, bearing a white flag. After a rather heated conversation- and resulting attempt at a duel- with Applejack, which ended with the wraith's brains scattered against the floor, two conclusions were drawn. One, whoever sent the emissary shouldn't have sent a wraith that couldn't control her bloodlust. Two, that the forest had grown way out of control-. And, so, a cheer went up from the assembled soldiers of the 7th Regiment that they would be accompanied by heroes into battle to conquer the Everfree. Although General Applejack would not be accompanying them, three others would.
Braeburn, founder of the Equestrian Rangers. Apple Bloom, Master Blacksmith And, to the most excitement of all, The Guardian himself: Big Macintosh, as well as half of his company of Juggernauts.
Applejack and Big Macintosh looked out over the canyons of Apploosia, sighing as she watched the sunset from the balcony of Town Hall. "Ain't it a beauty, Big Mac?"
She paused for a moment before sighing. "I know you aren't looking forward to this."
"I assume it's not because your scared or anything like that."
"Don't trust your troops?"
Applejack paused. "Fluttershy?"
"Listen, Big Mac. I would readily ally with Fluttershy if she wanted to be allied with. I trust her, but all these years in the forest probably weren't the best for her." She grimanced as she remembered the scouts reporting of the violence, over fifteen years ago. "Seeing all those ponies killed or enslaved... Well, I guess it kinda drove her out of her mind."
Applejack paused, her one-eyed gaze staring back out over the sunset. "You said partly."
"Care to explain?"
He sighed. "The others face danger by merely looking at the forest, let alone what's inside."
"Worried about morale?"
"Eeyup. If even half of those stories have any grain of truth, these ponies are going to turn tail and run."
"That's why I'm sending you and Braeburn. With two heroes of the House holding firm in front of them, it will inspire them to greatness. Imagine their reactions with you charging down a hydra, all by yourself! They will stand strong."
Big Macintosh sighed. "Are you sure this is necessary, sis? I mean... It is the Everfree Forest."
"Yes, Big Mac. I'm sure. They've already gotten the northern parts of Equestria. There is a difference between using empty space and conquering. We have to draw the line somewhere."
They stared in silence, watching the final rays of sun go down beneath the horizon. "Let's just hope that this ain't folly. This overgrown bush needs to be trimmed, whether Fluttershy accepts it or not."
Braeburn, in his ranger's equipment, ready for battle, stood shivering slightly outside of the forest. Next to him stood Apple Bloom and Big Mac, and the rest of the army was forming up behind them- Big Mac in his signature Juggernaut armor and with his squad-mates, and Apple Bloom. Apple Bloom had chosen a personal retinue of Hotshot, Blacksmith Ironhoof, and a few hoof cannoneers. For her own personal protection, she insisted on, but, in reality, Hotshot had already set fire to several ponies on the way over here. Apple Bloom, Applejack, and his own conscious were all he seemed to understand, let alone listen to.
"Oh, c'mon, cuz! You fought against the Cult of Laughter in Colterado! What's worse than that?" laughed Apple Bloom
"The cult don't use thick forests that they could hide ambushes and traps in without anyone seeing them."
"Ah don't believe it. Mah cousin, a scaredy cat!"
"Stop." said Big Macintosh before turning to the troops.
Having fully assembled, this strike force was quite a sight to see. Several squads of Ponies-at-arms, as well as several of Battle Buckers. Other Flamespitters were in rank and file of five, with a blacksmith to ensure all of the weapons were working properly. Two squads were equipped with hoof cannons, mobile but inaccurate artillery. Three Bucker Cannons. A few squads of Apploosian Rangers, each with a similar getup to Braeburn. Towering over the other ponies, four squads of Juggernauts stayed in the back, organizing the smaller groups and keeping order. However, the most impressive things were in the back.
Three Beastbusters, all equipped with triple Earthbreaker Cannons, stood ready to go. Their faithful Blacksmith crews were in high spirits, for what could stand before this steam-powered monstrosity and win?
Big Macintosh surveyed the units, making sure that they were all in combat formation and ready to go. Upon ensuring they they was, he nodded to the captains. "Let's go."
To those expecting a speech- as several of the members of the army were- Big Macintosh was, indeed, a strong and silent type. He left the speeches to his captains. He preferred direct action, as demonstrations of prowess and skill were much better motivators than words.
And Apple Bloom turned to Hotshot. "Hotshot? It's sparkle time."
You could see the jubilation in his eyes as he bit down on the activator pad. causing two long streams of flame to jet out of them.
Several dozen miles away, the Beartooth sect of the House Everfree was preparing for battle. And that included a sacrifice to the tree spirit that guarded over the camp, in a large dome-shaped tree with yellow-orange brambles. Without it, several of the guardians would not wake on their own, so they found it customary that, before every battle, to send one of their warriors into the vine-filled hollow, where the tree spirit would do... something. It was never known, for whoever entered into this cave never came out, whether they were actively sacrificed, or merely entered as part of a dare or a bet.
And so it fell down to- in this case- a mare named Fire Heart. Being pressured on by her warrior colleagues, as well as the recent lost of her family at the hands of an incursion by House Stormwing, she had been looking for an excuse to die for quite some time now, her heart rended into pieces. So, when an inquiry came up for anyone who would willingly sacrifice themself(ves) for the forest, she leaped at the opportunity. At least she would serve the forest in death.
So she found herself- under the watchful eye of an Everfree wraith- walking steadfastly towards the vine covered hollow at the base of the tree. She paused upon entering. What would happen to her inside? Who knew? She just wished for it to be death. A quick, painless death.
Fire Heart entered in to see vines covering the entire cave. Several bulges in the hollow wall reminded her that even the most beautiful tree was not perfect, yet, all in all, it reminded her of a place where the wraiths would go to meditate.
She saw something... something green. Something shiny. Brushing her way through the vines. And stopped dead in her tracks as she saw what it was.
It was a pony. No... it was more than that. It was a spirit. The tree's spirit. It turned to her and smiled lightly, and spoke to her. Yet, the language she spoke was... unfamiliar. It sounded like the wind in the trees, the rustle of leaves. She paused in her talk and looked at her.
Remembering what was told to her by the Wraiths, she then repeated what they had told her. She couldn't understand it, but the words flew from her lips, almost of their own accord. The spirit smiled and turned away, before it said something again. And, suddenly... the vines started to move.
She looked around, frantically. What was happening?
The spirit spoke again, yet once again, she could not understand it.
One of the vines had made its way to her chest, where it was... dancing, almost? She couldn't tell. But Fire Heart was starting to freak out. Was this a good idea?
Then. she felt a sharp pain in her chest. The vine had stopped moving, but she could feel something enter her heart...
It felt... good. Better than she had felt in a long, long time. In fact, she couldn't believe she had ever felt better. She fell over, but the vines held her up. She was overcome with joy. This was, indeed, the best thing Fire Heart had ever done. The whisper of the spirits became... coherent. As the vines continued to wrap her up and enter into her body, several entering through recent scars and battle wounds as well as through her mouth, the only thing she could feel is joy. Joy.
Feeling her mind slow down...
The sensation of her legs disappearing...
The words of the spirit...
Enjoy the boon of your bravery...
And, suddenly, the mind of Fire Heart as recognizable to ponies was no more, replaced by a blissful spirit entering into the lifeblood of the Everfree, where an even greater reward awaited her.
And with that, the spirit laughed as she felt the power of a new soul enter the current of the Everfree's stream, as the vines finished wrapping the body, turning it into a hyperslime that would give the forest even more energy. Grinning, she diverted some of that energy into waking up the guardians of the forest. The shamblers, the carnivorous trees... yet, she used some of her own energy to activate them. She could feel the sorrow of this soul- the pain of losing a loved one fresh on it. She decided to reward her the best that she could possibly reward her.
Closing her eyes and feeling through the energy web, she found exactly what she was looking for.
A new Guardian Tree, newly grown, but in need of a spirit to guide it before it could truly perform the deeds of the forest. With happiness, she filled the tree with Fire Heart's soul, so that she may become part of the forest she serve. And that she would live forever, blissfully transmuting her sacrifices so that the forest would continue to grow. Before long, Fluttershy would sense the new tree and send a new coven of Wildings to support her and nourish her. She would soon forget losing her family, for the joy of gaining a new life would soon drive out all other memories from her mind.
If only all ponies' mortal lives could end this way...
The first order of business was scouting out the surrounding areas of terrain. After walking about a mile it, Big Macintosh had the entire group work to clear out three acres square of land to set up a base camp of sorts. He then divided up his Ponies-at-arms into three groups. One group, along with the Battle Buckers and the Juggernauts, would stay behind and, under the guidance of a blacksmith, set up entrenchments across the camp. The moment that they had entered the forest, they were under threat of attack. Honestly, he was surprised they had not seen action yet.
The second group, along with the Rangers, would garrison the camp and guard it while the entrenchments were being built, as well as clear out more terrain so that they might be able to expand the camps. And, finally, he split the third group up into ten-pony squads to scout out the terrain. He only had suspicions about the terrain, and had almost no idea about the lay of the land, or what camps or otherwise that the House Everfree had set up. He told them to be back in a week, or else be accounted as missing or killed in action.
Therefore there were five scouting squads of ponies. The two groups located the lay of the land, about ten miles away from the camp. The third found a zebra tribe's camp- obviously a valuable resource of potions, warriors, and skirmishers to the cause. It would have to be dealt with. Of the fourth, only one came back, and he was broken, scratched and bruised, with a deep gash in his forehead. He remained conscious enough to tell them that they were ambushed, twelve miles from camp, by a squad of Wildings, and ran into... he didn't know. A monster made of slime and branches. After this, he fell unconscious, and was sent back to Fillydelphia for medical treatment.
The fifth squad was entirely a different story.
There were indeed, several attacks, but they were weak and the attackers retreated almost as soon as they came, easily repelled by the company of ponies guarding the camp. Fortunately, these attacks dealt little casualties, but they gave little as well. Big Macintosh deducted that they were either delaying and putting pressure on them, or that they were testing the defenses. Either way sat ill with him, for the Everfree were well known for fielding large armies quickly. What, then, was holding them back?
Either way, it sat ill with him. It sat ill with Braeburn, too, who now commonly left base with his rangers to flush out any Wildings in the area. The sheer amount that they sent packing just, once again, made him wonder. If all of them attacked at once, they wouldn't stand a chance. So, why wait?
As he was pondering this, into his tent stumbled three ponies, and... Sergeant Thunder Lion? He looked at him oddly. The master scout was due for a promotion several times over, but he never accepted them, prefering to stay in the back to train the ponies-at-arms. He was a valuable asset and a master scout, even better than the renowned Nighthooves of the House Whitegold. But...
"Sergeant Lion, why are you here?"
The grizzled old veteran smiled. "I don't know, sir. I found myself whole year without an active assignment for some reason- perhaps some clerical error in the upper offices. So I went to Applejack, and I told her so, and she said I could join in this expedition if I could catch up. And I caught up." He sighed. "And you won't believe what we found..."
Now let us rewind to a week before. Sergeant Thunder was standing in front of the forest, staring it down, smiling as he inspected the thick layer of leaves and branches on the ground, making it almost impossible to walk through.
But who said anything about going over?
And so Thunder swiftly scaled the tree and proceeded to stalk through its immense treetops, skirting around the few squads of Wildings enjoying themselves. Odd. They seemed slightly less off guard than before...
Three days into his trek in the forest, covered in various lacerations from a rather close encounter with a carnivorous plant, Thunder discovered a squad of Earthborn, trekking through the undergrowth. The sergeant in charge scolded them as they made about as much noise as a Beastbuster, and honestly, he agreed. He wondered what their training sergeant- also known as himself- would think. He actually debated going down there and saying what he thought. But then, he spotted movement in the nearby overgrowth. He shouted an alarm, and they turned to it just as two squads of Wilding ponies leaped out of the bushes. He launched his own ambush, quickly taking out the leader, so obviously marked out with his battle honors pinned onto his furs, and two others before they realized one had gotten behind them. And, distracted so, the Earthborn were able to eliminate them all. One of the Earthborn was dead- his head leaking blood and brains after a direct hit with a club- but the Wildings were all either dead, dying, or were smart enough to pretend otherwise. He sighed as he saw the others. "As your sergeant said before, you are making more sounds than a harvester. Please, try to keep quiet if it is okay with you?"
They others stared at him, dumbstruck. The sergeant stepped forward. "Sergeant Lion? What are you doing here?"
"I was told by Commander Applejack to catch up with you. Have I caught up with you?"
A few heads nodded, none meeting his eyes. He sighed. "Come on, now, no need to feel insulted. What exactly are you all doing, anyways?"
"General Macintosh wants us to-" started one pony.
"Scout the surrounding area? Well, he has the right idea, although you all obviously forgot your training. What direction are you going in? Do you know?"
"Well, let me inform you. You're heading southeast. If you keep going, you'll stumble out of the forest, and there'll be no way of you getting back."
"But, sir, how do you know? The leaves are so thick, we can even see the sun clearly!" said another, near the back, somewhat pale as he shifted away from a hemorrhaged pony.
Sergeant Thunder located the closest patch of sunlight that didn't have a body of a dead Wilding in it and stood in it. "You see what direction the shadow is stretching?"
"And it is obviously morning, correct?"
"Well, then, that's easy. A shadow always points the opposite of where the sun is shining. So if the sun rises in the east..."
There was a general 'oh'. It caused Thunder to smile. These were obviously somewhat green troops. And green troops needed to be taught.
"Come on, everypony. Let's get this scouting mission over with."
Apple Bloom slipped into the tent, smiling. Through the swaying tent entrance, you could see Hotshot standing outside, staring into the distance.
Sergeant Lion turned to Apple Bloom, scratching his beard. "Hello, Apple Bloom. How are you doing?"
"Same as always. Though you look like that previous year has worked about tenfold on you."
Big Macintosh sighed. "May we continue?"
"Alright, General, keep your mane on."
On the fourth day, Sergeant Thunder had been trekking in the forest when he suddenly paused. "Something isn't right..." he stated. He looked around the area, his eyes coming down to rest on a pair of long, thin branches. With vines hanging off of them. It made them look like... oh no.
"JUMP!" he yelled.
He leaped into the air, along with five of the nine others. The floor suddenly rumbled and-
Like a giant Venus Flytrap, the leafy ground snapped shut, quickly encasing three of the other four on the ground in a pair of razor sharp leaves. One of the squad was unlucky and was standing on two of them as it snapped shut, and his body was almost ripped in half, each piece being taken by a separate piece, leaving a trace of blood on the ground and spattered across the leaves. While the other two struggled faintly, the fourth stood staring in shock. All the leaves- the ones on the ground and the ones with the ponies- retracted. As Thunder hit the ground, the sergeant in command of the group threw a large blade at one of the ones with a pony in it. It chopped clear through the blades before burying itself in a tree nearby.
His companions rushed to help the stunned and slightly damp pony as the other pony slowly stopped struggling. Thunder looked at the plant in question, glaring at it, before his eyes fell on the blade embedded in the tree. His eyes widened.
"Move along, now."
As they hustled along, the sergeant in command angrily confronted Sergeant Thunder. "Sir, what the hell was that about?"
"It is what you should expect from the Everfree. They specialize in guerrilla warfare, and often use the natural dangers of the forest against-"
"I know what the hell they use the plants for, thank you, sergeant. But why in the House's name did you leave Star Shot to die like that?"
"Because of your brave- though rather foolish- maneuver."
"Did you see where that blade landed? It almost cleaved a tree in half. If that tree contained a spirit of the forest, which nine out of ten of them do, the entire place would have been swarming with Wildings by the time we had recovered him long enough to be gone." said the Sergeant in an undertone. "That, and casualties happen. Had I or another pony saved him, we would have been witnesses to the rather unpleasant event of a pony who had been stunned into euphoria and apathy melt into a pile of goo by the plant's digestive juices. And, I don't think that would have been a very pleasant event, especially for morale. These are green troops, and you are a green sergeant. Am I right?"
He growled. "You are a heartless bastard. Do you even have a soul?"
He considered biting back with a insult of his own, but he sighed and said, "I leave my soul at home. I cry over the fallen when the day is done, not in front of the others. Imagine: the lieutenant that has been through it all, crying in front of my troops?" He turned back to the forest. "It's called iron self-contro- STOP!"
He skidded to a stop, as well as the others behind him. One nudged him, and he almost lost his balance, but he recovered it. The sergeant, however, was not as lucky, and he tripped over a branch, and, even as the squad watched, fell into the leaf- covered ground ahead. It gave away and he fell into a pit. There was a plop, and nothing else.
Some of the troops had come over to look at the pit, but he stopped him before they could. He peered his head in to see, just underneath the water, the sergeant, eyes closed with an expressionless face while a giggling spirit almost unwound his body into liquid.
And Sergeant Thunder had been six inches from falling in.
He watched him for a moment before he turned to the others, shaking his head. "And that is why you are always immediately suspicious of anything with more leaves than it should."
He sighed. "Let's move on. And do me a favor and don't look into the pit, please."
Thunder grinned as he came into view of a rather large tree with several orange and yellow blossoms in the canopy. Well, here it was. He turned to the others remaining. "Well, in order to defeat your enemy, you must know your enemy. Can anyone tell us what this is?"
Once again, silence. Thunder smiled. "I wouldn't expect you to, unless you've come from the Everfree regions. Alright then. This is what is commonly known as a Guardian Tree. Think like a command center for defenses in the area. And wherever there are Guardian Trees..." He moved a branch out of the way. "There are Wilding Ponies and, in some cases, Everfree Wraiths." He sighed. "As this is a scouting mission... give me a map, please?" One of the troops shakily produced a map and a short, red pencil. He grabbed it and, after making a few mental notes, marked out their path, as well as obstacles and dangers, and put a big red circle around where he estimated they were. He also noted where he thought that their camp was. He nodded to the scouts, who slowly began to back out of the tree they were currently in. For a moment, he stopped, staring, hypnotized for a moment, at the battle drills and rituals of the Wildings...
"Mmh? Oh, yes, of course."
He crawled out after them and, guiding the others, he began to stalk back towards the camp.
"And here you are." finished Apple Bloom. "But where are the other two?"
"Well, one was wounded enough where I thought a visit to the first aid tent would do him good, and the second... I don't know. He collapsed and started melting. Before I could determine what did it, he was dead."
At the mention of melting ponies, Apple Bloom's smiled had disappeared, to be replaced by a slightly disgusted look. "Ah ain't sure I should be here no more..."
"Don't worry, Forgemaster. It's not like your going to be on the front lines."
He took out a small dart and the map and presented it to him. "The tip was poisoned. With what, I don't know. I guess it activated what little of the plants digestive juices there was on him, though I'm sure that's just a side effect."
Big Macintosh sniffed it and looked over it. "Zebra make..."
"Exactly. There's a war camp somewhere around here, and I'm not so sure I want to attack the Guardian Tree with the possibility of being flanked."
Macintosh thought for a moment. Then he turned to the Sergeant, a small, grim smile on his face. "Ready to get rid of it?"
Sergeant Thunder's scarred face split into a large smile behind his beard. "As always, sir."
Sha'Sol'Koa growled at the troops as she continued to glare at the blade buried in the trees. It was obviously not of the House Everfree, which means the enemy was further in than she originally thought. Consoling the spirit as she continued to sob over her wound, she turned to the others. "Well?" she growled to Wilding Captain.
"I am sorry, milady. Whoever was here- and they definitely were here- We can't track them further than the next few yards."
"And why not?"
The captain flinched at her razor tone. "Well... you see... um..."
"Spit it out, why don't you?"
"Very well. Whoever was over here has about as much knowledge of stealth, staying undetected and covering their tracks as a Zebra Skirmisher. Unless we can get some of the spirits to cooperate..."
Sha'Sol cursed under her breath. "Continue searching. The trail may be slim."
She glided over to the tree and looked at the slightly transparent pony sobbing in the trees.
Be at rest, friend. We shall find who has hurt you, and vengeance shall be wrought.
I know. It just... it hurts. So much...
She sighed. Just hold on. We shall fix the wound as soon as they arrive.
Turning to the other Wildings, Sha'Sol scowled as she drifted through them. But her ears perked up as she heard something...
You certainly are cute...
Turning to the source of the sound, she dashed off.
She soon arrived at a small pond in a depression of the ground, a water spirit examining her water. Eventually, she looked up. Hello, there.
Hello, spirit. Might I inquire what you are doing?
She giggled. What I am doing? Well, you see, a pony fell into my pond. Almost on top of me, actually! He seemed grumpy and grumbly and no fun, so I decided to do something about that. She giggled again, sinking down into the water. No matter what the grumpy meanie-pants he was, he certainly is a refreshing patch of water. She went down under the surface, bubbling happily.
Sha'Sol sighed. Did this pony wear any clothes?
Yes, he did. A sergeant's outfit for the House Earthborn, yuck! I'm sure he's glad to be out of that now.
A sergeant? Did he do anything to a tree?
He did! How did you know? He chopped off of a leaf of one of the carnivorous plants and it landed in a tree nearby! She shuddered. But he says he's sorry. He never wanted to. And he's happy now, providing water for the plants here, and for me to have fun in!
That solves that problem. What about the others? Anyone else?
There was another meanie-pants names Thunder Lion who acted like he was the boss of everyone. He wanted to get his blade back and make the wound better, as well as save a friend from the plants, but he wouldn't let him. How mean! She sighed and shook her head, looking at her from under the water.
Sha'Sol sighed. Very well... thank you for your help.
The spirit giggled and sank deeper below the water.
Sha'Sol began gliding back towards the others, shaking her head. While informative, the water nymph thoroughly irritated her. And besides, bathing in the souls of other ponies was not something she enjoyed. Besides, you never know where the souls came from, anyways.
She arrived just as she saw a trio of ponies in green cloaks approach the trees, the Wildings bowing to them. Sha'Sol nodded to the ponies. "Hello, shamansss... I asssume you are here to asssist us?"
They put their hoods down, and suddenly, she found herself bowing to the mages. "Ah, yesss... the Flower Trio. How are you doing today?"
The Flower Trio- Rose, Daisy, and Lily- were three legendary shamans that served as botanists before Equestria was rent into pieces. Seeking refuge, they retreated to the forest well before the House was founded by Fluttershy, and, to activate the first Guardian Trees, they sacrificed themselves at the same time, their friendship rendering them inseparable. Yet, while one might merely become a tree-spirit, the three of their wills together allowed them to emerge from the Heart of the Everfree as an independent entity. They always act as one, yet the voice comes from Rose, so it is unsure whether the three ponies control their separate bodies, or all three of them control all three of their bodies, as their souls were mixed about by the process of becoming spirits. They quickly located Fluttershy and put themselves under her command, as an aspect of the forest was with her.
Two of them began singing softly, as the area around the blade rippled and the blade slowly began to back out of the wound. Rose- the one in the middle- smiled. We have been sent by the Lady to assist in the banishment of the House of the Earthborn from the blessed realm of the Everfree.
Reverting back the the language of spirits, she sighed. That is indeed good news, as we do not think we can do this without assistance from her.
Rose raised an eyebrow. Are you saying that the Iron Bulls provided by the Commander Iron Will have not been useful?
Indeed they have, yet, they treat all of us as if we are merely servants.
The blade landed silently onto the ground with a soft thump. She looked at it for a moment before turning back to Sha'Sol.
Did you honestly expect anything else out of a squad of minotaurs?
Sha'Sol smiled. I guess not.
Indeed. Where is Commander Sky Fire?
He is at the base, preparing defenses and organizing the few Wildings not in a flanking position.
That is good. Might you guide us back to the camp?
But of course... Sha'Sol's smile grew. If you will follow me...
The other two ceased singing as the wound in the tree shut. There was little proof of the cut even being there. The transparant spirits smiled, wiping the tears from her eyes. Thank you, shamans.
The three of them said in unison, You are welcome, spirit of the earth. Then Rose looked at her. Lead on, Guardian of the Forest..., she said, smiling slightly.
And that is the camp... what might I call you? Do you have a title?
Commander Deus watched with trepidation as she watched the Shamans of the Flowers watch the other Wildings train below. A small force of zebras were present as well, the Warlord trading with the ponies for poisons and weapons in exchange for pelts and other items.
Please, call me Rose
and me, Lily
and me, Daisy.
Very well, then, Rose, Lily, and Daisy. He sighed. What is your opinion of the camp?
They smiled. Considering that this forest is not in the middle of the Everfree, this camp is in decent condition, although I wonder why you have only limited your beastmasters to Timber Wolves...? While deadly, a trained enemy can handle them, and they focus on offensive maneuvers rather than defensive.
The shamblers have just been awakened by the Guardian Tree, and they have yet to reach us. We are not far enough into the forest for our shamans to summon ents, and we do not have the resources to control Hydras. Are even timber wolves not better than nothing?
The shamans remained silent and watched for a while. The sun had started to rise when they moved again. A faint rumble could be heard. Sound the battle call- our enemies are upon us.
Big Macintosh waited a whole week from sending out Sgt. Thunder's strike force before setting out with his forces to destroy the camp. In his attack, he divided his troops into two pieces- the smaller force attacking the southern side of the camp, while the larger force circumvented the camp and attacked from the other side. Their goal- the Guardian Tree. If it was burned, chopped down, or destroyed in any way, it would inhibit every one of the defenses of this section of the Everfree. That isn't to say they won't be an issue anymore- the troops would still have to be wary of the dangers. But they would not have directives from the guardian tree, and, therefore, be more... disorganized, for a lack of a better term.
Braeburn would lead the southern attacks, while Big Macintosh would lead the northern attack with Apple Bloom.
The first thing that the southern troops had to deal with were the natural defenses of the camp- most notably, the numerous Death Blossoms. While implanted into the ground, each had a large, red tulip-like flower at the end of the long stems. When the troops first entered the battleground, they thought they had entered a faeries' garden. Yet it quickly turned into a nightmare as the plants started snatching ponies. Two whole squads were destroyed before a squad of Firespitters and Captain Soulhammer razed a way through the plants. Casualties numbered twenty-seven- and that was before a single Wilding had been sighed, let alone fought. What a way to start.
Captain Soulhammer had over a decade of service to his name, earning his rank during the purge of the Cult from Colterado. Best known for the hammer he used as a close combat weapon, it was capable of smashing Juggernaut Armor into a flat plate of shield. Combine this with five other Juggernauts and in a suit of Juggernaut Armor himself, he was a formidable threat. And he knew that the only thing that was preventing him from getting eaten was the fact that he weighed about five hundred pounds with his armor and hammer.
As he charged forward into the thickets, he slammed his hammer into one of the plants, causing a burst of a green liquid and a screech to echo from the plant. Turning around, he slugged it into another so hard it uprooted the plant. His other Juggernauts took care of a third. He charged forward, his squad at his side...
And burst out of the garden.
He was aware of seeing a trio of cloaked ponies standing upon the guardian tree, about three hundred yards distant, before the Wildings struck. Swinging his hammer like a madmare, he single-hoofedly pulverized a squad with his hammer, their strong blows not a match for his Juggernaut armor. "Onwards!" He screamed, trampling another pony into a pile of flesh and gore under his massive bulk. Out of a nearby thicket came Braeburn, leading three squads of Apploosian Rangers. And he grinned.
But then... something felt... wrong...
"Cover!" He yelled, hitting the ground as a bolt of green energy zoomed over his head, impacting one of his squad-mates in the chest. A strangled gurgle emanated from behind him, and he flipped over to see...
THe Juggernaut was not on the ground, convusling as his skintone turned green. His body rooted into the ground, and his hooves split open into... flowers...?
"Holy Celestia..." he breathed. He murmured a prayer of forgiveness as he slammed his hammer into his chest, ending the odd sounds and spattering what appeared to be sap out of what used to be the pony's chest cavity. He then arced his hammer up behind him, the Wilding behind him being caught on the head. He heard a crunch and a thwump. He turned around, and didn't look at the pony he had just smited. He curved left towards the Rangers. five or six of them had already been killed by the Timber Wolves. Braeburn looked relieved.
"Where is Sable?" he yelled.
"Those ponies on the Guardian Tree are sorcerers! Whatever they hit him with, he's gone now!"
Braeburn gritted his teeth. "His death shall be avenged."
"Now let's forge onwards! Ten bits to all of your Juggernauts if you beat us to the tree. Twenty if you beat Big Mac!"
"You're on!" He swung around, launching another Wilding from her feet and turning a Timber Wolf into a pile of sticks.
And so the bloodshed continued throughout the morning. It seemed for every Wilding that they cut down, another three they had to deal with. The ponies on the tree continued to blast away at the others, turning some into plants, others became piles of compost. And they continued to fight his way through the camp.
Something slammed into his side and he fell to the ground. Flipping over, he found himself face to face with a pony... yet it was unlike any pony he had ever seen. Her teeth were razor sharp, and dripping venom. She grinned as her scaly hide shone and streaked with blood. "Are you prepared to die today, pony?" She laughed before snapping at his face. The steel plate covering his face buckled but held. He grunted and threw him off, yet she recovered and darted around him with agility that he couldn't match. "Slowpoke," she laughed. He swung the hammer around and he heard it connect. Not too fast to dodge it, huh? He turned back to the battle. Then something clicked in his mind as he turned around, just in time to absorb a large blow from the pony. A dreadful wound covered its right side, but it slowly disappeared. She grinned. "Foolish pony."
He dueled with the pony creature for over five minutes before he managed to pin it down. "Foolish pony," he echoed her before bringing the hammer down three times- one shattering her chest, one to the neck, and, for good measure, a blow to the head. All that remained was a puddle of blood.
He shook his head and sighed. What these ponies had fallen to...
He growled as he turned- and found himself around, surrounded by Wildings that couldn't get through his armor. Remembering Sable, he growled and charged towards the tree, determined to at least destroy the shamans on top of the tree, trampling every pony in his way...
As the trees thinned out slightly, Hotshot found himself and his best friend, Apple Bloom, paced out in front of a Beastbuster. Apple Bloom smiled at him and, under his thick rubber suit, he smiled back. She was a burst of color in this grey world of life, unlike the others. And she seemed to be the only one able to speak Equestrian, while everypony else merely babbled.
Let us explore Hotshot more, and so understand him. Hotshot was a great grandson of the second cousin once removed of Applejack's grandmother- so, related in a very small way. He remembered fondly his fillyhood, as it was as much as he remembered before it all turned grey.
In truth, after Applejack founded the House Earthborn, he spent the next two years training and preparing for battle. His first assignment- and his only one- was against the Cult of Laughter in Colterado. He remembers only faintly what happened, but even then, only about two weeks before it happened.
In truth, he been shot by a Reveler- a cultist of sorts- and had fallen backwards into a pit.
But he was not alone in that pit.
The pit was a dump for the corpses that the Cult of Laughter used for their undead. And the large amount of magic that had been released had animated a few of them, who then proceeded to mindlessly reanimate the remaining corpses. So he did not fall into a pit of bodies- he fell into a pit off Laughing Dead. Sensing a body enter the pit, they then proceeded to try and 'integrate' him into the rest of them. But since he wasn't dead, it didn't work. Or, at least the way it was intended to.
He didn't know how long he was in the pit. At least a week? Perhaps more. But eventually, the captain had found him, still alive, and shot a Hoof cannon or two into the pit, scything down the Laughing Dead and allowing them to rescue him.
He awoke several weeks later in a hospital bed, and as soon as he could sit up properly, he was rushed off to some of the best psychologists that the House could produce. But, no matter how long and with who he was with, he could not be happy. As if the ability to do so had been driven from his mind. Indeed, he saw the world as grey and dull. He couldn't even understand the babble of the others anymore, drowned out by the memories of endless laughter and the magic that had eaten away on his soul.
All of that changed a few weeks after he had woken up.
He was walking around Fillydelphia, enjoying the fresh air- or, at least, trying to- when he saw something wonderful. Of course, what this was we can't know, but we know that the blacksmith's pyre had become an object of adoration for Hotshot. But why? His psychologists said that perhaps it was the one thing that he remembered about his accident- the blasts that had cleared the undead from him. Others said that it was more literal- the warmth and light of fire was something to be admired, after all. Another one said that it was the only thing that his ravaged mind could hold on to. No matter how one explained it, it was obvious. Hotshot was now obsesses with fire.
And so, he was a prime option for Apple Bloom's prototype flame weapon. It would make him happy, she argued. Nobody disagreed with her on that point.
Hotshot busied himself with spreading his happiness to the others around him, fighting to keep the blasted laughter out of his head. He had come close to pulling the lever several times, yet he always was able to reason with himself against it. He wasn't ready yet.
A blur passed himself. His eyes followed it and he squeezed the activator as the bean of sun projected from the muzzle of his weapon, and there was no movement anymore. He shrugged and turned away as the blast of happiness spread like a paint stain. And suddenly...
There was lots of movement, each move speaking of demons and darkness, years without any true joy but the conversion of others to their cause. He squeezed it, and suddenly the area in front of him was full of light and joy. Well, now you know it, he thought, as their laughter echoed in his ears. Or was it screaming...? He didn't know. They sounded close enough.
He was aware of several more beams coming from his comrades that had arrived next to him. He nodded thanks.
And suddenly, a demon from amongst the joy rose up and made straight for him. He pulled his weapon, pouring pure joy into the creature, but it wasn't enough. It reared up to smite him-
and a creature of iron slammed into its side, spurting a grey liquid everywhere as the blades affixed to its head dug deep into his flesh. Nodding at the creature, he paused as he heard, clear as day...
He turned around to see Apple Bloom frantically fighting off several more shapaes, each trying to draw her blood through her thick coat...
He whistled loudly and she dropped to the ground as she painted the area ahead of them in flames.
One of them couldn't take the onslaught and vanished in the tide of joy. The others fell back from the assault, the ancient spirits unable to handle the joy that he poured into them. He picked up Apple Bloom and carried her to the Beastbuster, where a pair of Blacksmiths took her silently. He then surveyed the battlefield, and, through the eyes of a madmare, saw where the darkness was coming from.
Big Macintosh smashed a Wilding from his feet and threw him into another as the rest of his squad trampled over their bodies, their five-hundred pound armor pulverizing their bodies. Surveying the battlefield, he saw that the Guardian Tree itself had entered the battle, ensnaring ponies from both sides from the hollow at the base of the tree.
"Push forward!" He bellowed, shaking his head to rid the blood from the blades mounted from his helmet.
As he looked over the battlefield again, he saw a Flamespitter making a beeline for the cave.
What was that pony doing?
As he dove into the cavern, he looked around. Nothing but grey vines and shadow. He saw a flash of green and... what? Green?
He pressed on, seeking the burst of color. And then he reached the end of the cavern. And there... was a mare. A beautiful mare. She turned to him and looked at him oddly, as if trying to determine why he was wearing a suit.
Who are you? she asked innocently.
A friend, Hotshot said in return. I wish only to help my friend...
Your friends? She looked doubtful. Are your friends the ponies outside?
Yes. They are. Or, at least one of them is. And she got hurt...
There was silence for a bit. Even the screaming and laughing was out of his friend.
Would you like to stay with me? she asked, silently.
Hotshot sighed and remained silent.
We can stay together... forever and ever.
Eyes widening, he looked down and saw several vines crawling up is legs, one entering into his scar above his heart. He felt something enter...
And it felt like... like...
Here, then, was another demon, though in a different form. He roared in frustration and despair and bit down on the activator...
But the valve was cut.
The green mare giggled. We can stay here forever in joy and harmony...
But he didn't listen. He suddenly remembered.
He closed his eyes. Was he ready for this?
Yes he was. He was gone and dead anyways, caught by this demon. And it was the only way to help as many ponies as he could.
Deus shivered as he watched their forces get pushed back, while the Flower Trio slowly manipulated nature around them, picking off ponies one at a time, occasionally shooting a beam into the masses. Their targets would be turned into living flower gardens, becoming part of the forest while remaining sentient. Of course, they would accept their new form, perhaps even joyfully, but it removed some of the larger threats, such as the behemoths in full metal armor that were traipsing around, smashing the Wildings to bits. Rose turned to her as the others continued their chanting. Deus...
This camp is lost to us. We have dealt the enemy great harm, yet they keep coming in more numbers then we can stop. She sighed. Quickly, make your way to Mistress Fluttershy. She must be warned of the enemies coming her way. Send word to the hidden Wildings as well- they will know what to do.
But, Rose... what about yourselves?
Do not worry about us. We will be fine.
As Soulhammer struggled his way us the steep steps that lead up to the abode above him, he could see a pony dash up into the nearby treetops, then leaping- gliding?- to another, and continued deeper into the forest. He sighed and continued forwards.
He was amazed that the tree could withstand his massive weight. five hundred pounds was no easy feat, even for a tree of this size and magnitude. As he reached the top of the stairs, he found himself looking at the backs of the three ponies. They had an unearthly aura around them. He grabbed his hammer. Dishonorable as it was, he needed to finish this quickly.
Wrong move, earth pony.
Soulhammer felt a force slam into his body. His mind was ringing... and he had heard a voice in it. He let out a growl and said, "I am Captain Trajan Soulhammer of the House Earthborn. Give me the honor of letting me know who I face before I run out of patience and your heads become like grapes."
Silence... then laughter.
You sound more like a Diamond Dog then you do a pony, captain. Let us hope that your words carry more honor than your actions.
His face became set in a scowl.
A different voice sounded in his mind. I am Rose...
And I, Lily...
And I, Daisy.
The voices then sounded in unison. We are the head shamans of the House Everfree, and you shall soon know how folly it was for you to challenge us to battle.
Upon hearing this, he took a fighting stance, as the three ponies turned around, all with their eyes aglow. Two of them looked like twins, while the one in the center has different with her paler coat and red and pink hair.
The one in the center smiled. You have the look of a powerful warrior, captain. I shall enjoy seeing what your inner blossoms are...
He dove to the side as a beam of energy shot from the middle one, scorching the tree. He rolled to the side as another one fired, and ducked to avoid a third blast. He jumped up and began strafing, changing directions suddenly to dodge their attacks.
You certainly are agile for one in such a thick suit of metal, captain, commented Lily. You know, if you come with us, we can give you protection and even enjoyment. A coven of ponies all your own... you would like that, wouldn't you?
"I already have ponies under my command- good ponies who trust me and I trust them." he snarled.
Absolute dedication? No wavering of cause? said Daisy, a smile forming on her face. Think for a moment, captain. What if you stopped working with the House and take up a cloak of wood? You could be a prince in the kingdom of nature. Lesser spirits, dedicated to your cause? Servants and pleasures without end?
Soulhammer continued his circling. "You seem to think I am some gullible Nighthoof."
So this is your answer? responded Rose.
Very well. You will be made part of the forest anyways. Not all warriors can last forever. Eventually, we will have you as part of our collection.
And with that, the tree shook and half of it split open. A keening sound- the spirit's death keel- sounded in the air, and the shamans screamed. Soulhammer took advantage of this time, slamming his hammer into the back of one of them. Her pulverized body hit the ground and promptly exploded into flower blossoms. Now the middle one- Rose- screamed in rage as she saw her sister fall. She turned to Soulhammer.
Soulhammer dove to the side and rolled to avoid the sudden burst of magic. It flew out to the side and blew up the cannon of the Beastbuster that was approaching. He took a blade from his belt and threw it out at Rose, who dodged to the side. Yet this distraction was enough for him to slam his hammer into the other sister to Rose's left. She, too, exploded into blossoms.
Then a force blew into him, knocking him off of the tree as it slowly began to shake and continued to burn. His mind felt... slower. He tried to make for his hammer, but he knew he could not reach it in time.
I told you, pony. Do not go against the will of the forest. He looked up to see Rose, whose face was enshrouded with shadow, with her two sisters, looking like spirits, besides her. All the ponies here will face Fluttershy's wrath. One way or another. Soulhammer felt his mind slowing, peace entering into them. He closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable...
And he felt his hammer against his hoof.
Without thinking, he brought it down onto the head of the pony in front of him.
He didn't even remain conscious enough to hear her death cry.
And the Guardian Tree collapsed into a pile of flaming lumber, with Soulhammer underneath of it.
As the company raiding parties went trough the tents for important spells, paperwork, et cetera, Big Macintosh stood up with his head high, looking at the forest around him. If it wasn't trying to kill him, it would be... peaceful. Braeburn sidled up next to him, acknowledging him with a short nod.
"We found Soulhammer's body."
"Charred almost to the bone. The tree fell on him when it split in half. We also found the pony- err- charred skeleton of the pony who blew apart the tree."
Yet more silence.
Braeburn shifted silently. "I was thinkin'... maybe we should head back. I mean, we struck back at them, yeah? Isn't this enough for a twenty-pony guard squad?"
"No?!?" Braeburn looked at him, a fire in his eyes. "We've lost over three hundred ponies. True, we reaped our fair share in return, but what do you expect? Some great crusade against the Everfree?"
Big Macintosh looked at him warily. "Listen here, cousin. I've lost legions of ponies to this accursed place. Friends, foes, family..." He sighed. "If we can hurt them enough... well, it would take months for them to recover."
"And it would take years for us to recover from the pain!" Braeburn shook his head. "Let's end this madness now while we still can. We've destroyed a camp numbering well over five hundred! Isn't your bloodlust sated?"
"It ain't about bloodlust."
"What? Then... then why are you fighting?"
Big Macintosh was silent for a while. "I don't think that you'd understand."
"Oh, very well. Keep your secrets." Braeburn poked Big Macintosh playfully, but stopped after looking at the glare we received in return. "I'm just saying, if you wanna drive to the other side of the Everfree... don'tcha think it's about time for a pit stop? If, for nothing else, to get resupplied, heal the wounded, and bury the dead? I mean, think of Apple Bloom... poor fella got her leg broken by the Wildings. Surely you want her healed more than battlefield triage?"
Big Macintosh paused, deep in thought, considering the outcomes. Finally, after about ten minutes, he sighed. "Very well. We will head back."
Braeburn smiled and nodded. "Thank you, Big Mac." He started to walk away, but before he did, he drew out three bags of bits. "If you could give these to the survivors of Soulhammer's squad? They did beat you and me to the Guardian Tree, after all..." He left, shaking his head.
Big Mac looked at the bits and put them in his saddlebags, resolute to give them the bonuses. He sighed and shook his head. If only he could talk to her again... he'd make her see reason. Maybe the Everfree and Ponykind could live in harmony... but all of his diplomatic plans would be for nothing if he got ritually eaten by a carnivorous pony. Hearing hoofsteps behind him, he turned around, revealing a beaten up and bleeding pony. "You should be in the medical tent." He offered quietly.
"No... time..." he panted. "Important... news..."
He gave the pony a look before gently placing the pony on his back. "Don't worry, I gotcha. Now what's this news?"
"Camp... attacked... Wildings..."
He widened his eyes. "The camp was attacked?"
"Yes... overran... raided... gone." He fainted, head lolling on Big Macintosh's shoulders.