Twilight Sparkle couldn’t handle it all.
She looked at the map before her. The cutie map. A tie to all of Equestria. The blood got to her the most. No, not blood—the map merely had the color of it. She felt sick. Looking at the jagged spires of the Crystal Empire wasn’t helping.
“Twilight?” Spike asked.
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m not even sure where to start, Spike.”
“Maybe the spell can help us.”
“That’s it! Starlight Glimmer used the map to bring us here, so the spell must be tied to it!”
The two of them looked at each other in excitement.
The smiles lasted too long.
“So…uh, are we…?”
“I thought you had it.”
“I thought you took it from me.”
“If I did, I gave it back.”
“Don’t think you did.”
“I don’t think I took it.”
“But if you did, you didn’t give it back.”
“But I just said I don’t think I took it.”
“I know you said that. I’m just saying that if you did, you didn’t give it back.”
“I got that.”
“…and you’re sure about that.”
“That you didn’t take it.”
“Completely, totally sure.”
“As sure as there’s stars in the sky.”
“…So we’re clear that—”
“Oh, for BUCK’S sake, Spi—” Twilight clapped her hooves over her mouth.
Even the cutie map seemed to be in stunned shock. Silence hung in the air for a bit, got bored, popped out for a bite to eat, came back, and settled in again.
“Spike, ohmygosh Spike I am sooo sorry I would never it just slipped out—”
“No it’s—” he rubbed his forehead. “—it’s okay, actually. Like, it doesn’t feel out of place. I was kinda asking for it, really.”
Somewhere in the distance, Twilight thought she heard thunder. She hoped it was just thunder.
“So we lost the spell,” Spike said.
“I’m not pointing claws, here. You thought I had it, and I thought you had it. We both thought each other responsible enough, so no big deal. Well, except that it’s gone. That’s definitely a big one. But hey—maybe we just misplaced it! Maybe it’s on the ground here somewhere.”
“Maybe it’s in my backpack.”
Binoculars. Comic books and a juice box. Some gem dust. A picture of Rarity, quickly stuffed in another pocket.
“Or it blew under the table—”
Dust, dirt, cracks. An impressive variety of gum, at every chair but Twilight’s. At first, the biggest wads were assumed to be at Rainbow Dash’s spot, but when seats were worked out via the orientation of the map, revealed to be Fluttershy’s chair instead.
“Wow. How rude.”
“Uuuuugh. Spike, this is useless. It’s gone. Plus, I think it’s going to rain soon. We need to find a place to take shelter.”
“Okay, one last thing. We could try retracing our steps through Ponyville. Maybe we dropped it there.”
Even if they had, the wind was picking up by the time they reached town. Retraced steps led them to Sweet Apple Acres again, but the plant was no longer running. The cart that this world’s Applejack had been loading was gone as well. The wind was louder now, and the occasional droplets found their way to Twilight’s face. She looked around. With a storm coming like this one, where were all the pegasi?
She thought it was just the wind, until spike asked if she’d heard it, too. There was a quiet ‘oh, for the love of Celestia’ a second or two before the rock hit her shoulder.
“Over here, you nitwits!” Applejack’s mane and tail were no longer in nets, but instead thick, heavy braids. Twilight picked up spike and galloped into the barn. The blond mare slammed the door and latched it behind them.
“I’m startin’ to think you’re just buckin’ insane, Missy—pardon my language. Forgot about the little one.”
“Enh, buck it.”
“Hey, when in dystopia, right?”
“I like you, kid. You got moxie.”
“Do you remember us yet?”
“No, ma’am, and I won’t, but all that has nothin’ to do with doin’ the right thing. You’re fixin’ to get yerselves in a heap of trouble, and if I stood idly by while you two got put through the ringer for not knowin’ what the score was, why, I’d be no better’n the Shadow King himself.” She spit on the ground. “The motherbucker.”
“So why are you only helping us now?”
“Well, first off, you still sound like you’re a few apples short of a bushel, so forgive me for bein’ suspicious, but it also means you might need some medical attention. Second, it didn’t click until I was hitchin’ myself up to the wagon that you’re a damn Alicorn, and since Sunset Shimmer—may she be at peace—there ain’t been any others. Had Mac take it for me, told him I saw some critters up the creek a bit. You two are some strange critters, for sure. Third, even if I didn’t have that stupid voice in the back of my head what makes me do the ‘right thing,’ If’n the love of my life caught wind I didn’t help a stranger in need, I’d be sleepin’ alone in a shed.”
“Yep, happily. ‘Bout two years or so now since they came waltzin’ into Ponyville again. They’re not here, since I know you’re gonna ask. Their currently doin’ a tour at the front lines.”
“Hope they stay safe.”
“Damn straight. Now, my turn for a question. Why the hell aren’tcha wearin’ any clothes?”
“We’re ponies, we don’t need to—”
“You are really a piece a work. Save me the hippie-dippie ‘it’s in our true nature’ speech, alright? And I’ll save you the patriotic tirade about ‘a uniformed Equestria is a unified Equestria.’ It’s the style of the times, and you’re gonna stick out like a boulder in a wheat field if you’re not dressed up. Don’t need to draw unneeded attention to yerselves any more than your matchin’ set there is goin’ to. Plus, these days, it’s worth the protection, especially against the weather.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask about that. Where are all the pegasi? Usually they’re out warning ponies about the storm, just in case they missed the schedule.”
Applejack went pale. Twilight didn’t like the look in the other mare’s eyes, but couldn’t break away. All the irritation dropped out of Applejack’s voice, replaced by a mix of pity and…was it hurt? The earth pony spoke in statements, but used them as questions, even if Twilight thought they had obvious answers.
“….Because they still schedule storms.”
“Yes! It’s the safest way to do it.”
“And the runnin’ of the leaves will happen soon.”
“If I’m not mistaken, it should be about two weeks away.”
“And C…Cloudsdale will come and they’ll set up winter for us.”
“Of course they w—”
“My stars, you really don’t know.”
Applejack sobbed quietly for about a minute, not able to look anywhere but down. Finally she drew a sharp breath, and— “Okay, you know what? I believe you now.” She looked Twilight in the eye again. “At least-sniff-least if you’re crazy, you truly believe what you’re sayin’. Can’t fault you for that, but…no. You ain’t crazy. I don’t know what in the hell is goin’ on, but…Celestia above, you really aren’t from here. Right, well, let’s get you two some clothes, and we’ll get out there.”
“Hold on, what happened to Cloudsdale? And where are we going?”
Applejack grabbed something from a shelf and threw it over her back. She beckoned them to follow her outside. The rain hadn’t come quite yet, and Twilight and Spike watched as Applejack locked down the Barn. “Plant” was coming to mind more often now, Twilight thought. The smoke was still leaking from some of the chimneys over their head, but the raucous chorus of machines passed into a pressing silence. Only the wind creaking and whistling through the buildings and the sounds of their own hurried footsteps remained.
“Would be runnin’ the graveyard shift, but there just ain’t ponyfolk left around here anymore. Cousin of mine should be comin’ down this way soon, and if’n you’re gonna be around, might ask of you some help—with pay, of course, I ain’t no Crystal slaver—but we’re approachin’ a slowdown in production anyway. This’ll be the second winter since…since things changed, but we learned our lesson last year.
“Now, as for the Lost City, now’s not the time for that. As for where we’re headin’, that’s back to that map of yours. From the sound of it, it’s your property, and I’m guessin’ you want to take care of it. This here tarp’s all I got on short notice, so it’ll have to do for now. We wanna be quick. Surprised it hasn’t started pourin’ already.”
They were at the door to the farmhouse. Applejack had her hoof on the handle, but didn’t turn it.
“No, not map. It’s a table. Why did I say that?”
“It’s both, really,” said Spike.
Applejack stared at the door for a few seconds, then gave a mild shrug and opened it. The farmhouse was much more Spartan than Twilight remembered it being. She reminded herself that she wasn’t in her world, but a totally different version. The thought didn’t settle in right. Her mind refused to accept it, even though her gut told her it was true.
Which in itself was odd. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
“Now, I ain’t seen many dragons around, and I don’t know if you—Spike, right? Okay—if you need clothes like your sister here does, but I should have—yep, here, try that on.”
It was a small leather jacket, black, with a steely zipper and buttons. It looked like it was meant for a foal, but was still a bit large on the little dragon.
“Thanks! But, she’s uh—”
“I’m not his sister,” Twilight said.
“Guessin’ you raised him, right?”
“Yes, I actually hatched him when I was a filly.”
“So you might as well be. You ain’t his mom, but the two of you are close as kin. Learned a long time ago that you don’t have to share blood to be family. Certainly hurts just the same losin’ ‘em. Here, try these on.”
It was a button down blouse, with sleeves, but it also had holes for wings. It was a faded blue. The arms of the shirt were a little small, reminding Twilight that she’d grown taller since ascending to Alicornhood. The pants that came with them had a high waist, but fit her comfortably, so she suspected that was a consequence of style, not a lack of fit. Lastly, there was a jacket. It was a tan overcoat, long enough to cover her whole body. There wasn’t any holes for her tail or wings. The outside seemed to be somewhere between canvas and suede, but the inside was smooth and silky, and around the neck, there was fleece, which puffed out around the collar. The seams were plain, but sturdy. It had clearly been designed with a focus on comfort and durability. She took one look in the mirror, and decided that she was keeping it, even if it meant buying it off of AJ.
“Now, I know it’s a mite bit strange, but if I were you, I’d be tryin’ to hide my wings and passin’ myself off as a Unicorn. Never mind you don’t know the history if someone pushes you on it, you…how to put this…it’s plain as a picket fence that you’re a magic user. How you talk, how you carry yerself, it’s a dead giveaway. Feel free to keep the clothes. Last owner, she…she ain’t around anymore.”
Twilight opened her mouth, but Spike waved his hand at his throat and shook his head behind AJ’s back. Was it just her, or was Spike way more aware of things than usual? And it almost seemed like he was a little taller th—
“Twilight, was it? You ready?”
“Oh…yes. Sorry. Lost my train of thought. Let’s go. Spike, you can stay here, and we’ll be right back.”
“I’m coming with you,” Spike said.
“You sure? It’ll be raining, and—”
“It might be for the best, hon. Mac should be back sometime soon, and I don’t want a scene because there’s some lizard in the house. No offense, there, fella.”
Twilight looked at the mirror again. She really liked the jacket, and the way she looked in it. “Alright, fine. But no complaining if we get drenched, alright?”
“I promise,” he said.
The first real drops came as they left the farmhouse, and by the time they reached the map, it had progressed to a steady drizzle. The jacket, Twilight noted, must have been treated with some sort of oil or chemical, because the rain ran right off of it. The fleece around the collar was a little damp, but her hair kept most of the water out of it.
The wind picked up. Letting Spike come along turned out to be a good decision. He wasn’t tall enough to walk the tarp over the map, but he was heavy enough that he could keep it from being blown about. He also had the bright idea to tuck the edges of the tarp under the chairs. It took all three of them even just to tilt the chairs up, but once an edge was underneath one it didn’t move.
Spike also discovered something that he didn’t want to tell Twilight or the new Applejack about. When they first arrived, Twilight and Applejack went looking for sticks and stones to hold everything down. Spike stayed with the folded tarp, and as they were walking away, he noticed something odd coming from underneath the table itself. It felt like a strange warmth, and it even had a slight glow. He felt drawn to it. It wasn’t just curiosity. Somewhere deep in his gut, a hunger like he’d never felt before stirred, not strong, but persistent. It was at the spot where Fluttershy usually sat. In fact, the source of the heat-glow was attached to the table with the shy pony’s stash of unfinished chewables. Some of it, he noticed, was way fresher than the rest, especially at the very edges of the object. The object itself had strange indents in it. It looked to Spike like three wedges of pineapple, an equal distance apart from each other in a sort of circle formation. At the center of the three was another indent, circle-shaped, making a sort of core.
The new hunger inside him was whispering to him. Telling him to take it. He remembered a feeling like this before, when he’d been greedy and nearly trampled all of Ponyville into oblivion. This was stronger, as if the feelings he’d felt on his rampage were that he hadn’t been able to find a treasure like this one, and hoarding all of those things was a cheap substitute. He reached up, scrunching his face as his claws dug into the gum, and pulled it out. Without thinking, he wiped some of the residue on his new jacket, and flipped the stone over.
Carved into the strange stone, there was a note.
A note to him.
Welcome to the New Age!
He knew it should weird him out, but he felt encouraged. Somepony had left this here to help him. He looked at the spot where the stone had been. Some of the gum was still a bit wet where the stone had been, but now he noticed that the gum around where the stone had been was harder than before, and some of the closest wads even looked a bit scorched. The table there cracked a bit more than the rest, too. Maybe. Maybe it was just a trick of the light. He looked down at the pale green stone. He felt that hungry voice inside him again. It was like…like all his life, if he were a pony, he’d been eating paper, and this rock in his claws was real hay. It was what dragons were meant to have, and someone had gone out of their way to make sure he got some.
He stuck out his tongue, with a moment of hesitation, gave it a lick.
It was like his whole body got a single shock, but in a good way. He felt more awake, and everything seemed a bit crisper. The smell of the mud and wet stone. The parts where the Crystal Empire spread over the map in eerie red-black lines. The sound—
—the sound of hooves! Twilight and Applejack were coming back! He shoved the stone in his mouth and swallowed it whole.
The world spun. He felt his stomach crackling and rumbling. For a moment everything was too sharp, to the point of painful. His veins felt like they were pumping acid, and fire, unbidden and far hotter than normal, welled up in his throat. He retched up the brightest flames he’d ever seen. The other sensations subsided (he still felt more…aware than before), but he was still coughing smoke and pounding his chest when Twilight and Applejack stepped back into the open.
“Spike, are you alright?” Twilight rushed over.
He nodded, still hacking a bit, leaning on the seat of the chair. He needed to come up with something. He had a feeling telling her about it right now would be a bad idea. He tried to straighten up and part of his jacket stuck to the seat. That’d work.
“Did something attack? What happened? Are you hurt?”
He shook his head, and thumbed a claw at the table. “The-koff koff-tried some gum.”
Twilight scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue. Applejack fell down laughing. After they had the tarp over the cutie map, they took a moment’s rest. Twilight was sure Spike had grown more since the last time she noticed. She had an easy frame of reference with the table. He definitely didn’t measure up the same as he used to, and he seemed thinner and—
“Twilight, Applejack! Look at this!”
The two mares rushed over to the bare patch. In it were four sets of hoofprints.
Well, two sets. And something else.
“What in tarnation…Those ain’t hoofprints, and they sure as hell ain’t your feet, either. First part here, those’re probably shoes…”
“Are they clown shoes? They look way too long.”
“I doubt it, hon. Lookit the treads in them. Clown shoes ain’t got that sort of stuff, they’re for show. These look like…well, like sneakers to be honest. Look over here! Same print, opposite direction….yep, it’s a shoe. Now you’re a smart little dragon. How do we know that?”
Spike looked at the mud. Up until the point the earth pony was pointing at, the left and right feet left prints in a narrow gait. At that point, the mud was pretty thick, and there was a large, wet hole. Around it, a bunch of right footprints made a small cluster. After that point, the left print was replaced with what looked like a large paw print, and when he looked closer, there were a few around the hole, as well. Spike shut his eyes for a moment, and saw it play out in his head. The owner of the shoes walked up to the table, and left heading in the direction of Ponyville.
“Whatever it was, it got its shoe stuck,” he said.
“Right you are! Blue ribbon for the young scholar. From what I see, it didn’t see the mudpatch, sunk a foot in, and pulled right out of its shoe. Real attached to those, too, from the looks of it, because there’s nothin’ in there but muck. Must have dug it out. The part that’s got me stumped is what comes after. That left print, that’s a timberwolf—”
“Not quite, Applejack.” Twilight leaned over the first set of the prints. “Look, they don’t have the usual twig markings. It’s too small to be a diamond dog, either. I think this might be the foot prints of a grey wolf, or maybe an eastern one. I have a book back at the ca—um, I mean, I’ve read a lot of books about extinct species. Natural, warm-blooded feral wolves haven’t been seen in over a hundred years.”
“Well, Miss Know-It-All, tell me this: even diamond dogs run on all fours most of the time. How many wolves do you know that wear shoes and walk on two legs?”
Twilight opened her mouth, then shut it again. The rain picked up, along with the wind.
“I’m just sayin’. Don’t like this. First you fall out of the blue, now we got some wolf monster in town. Hold up now—”
The three looked down at one of the hoof tracks leading away from the table. It couldn’t have been made more than a few minutes before. They didn’t belong to either AJ or Twilight. They looked in the direction the tracks were headed—
—And somepony was there. About 50 yards away. It was a Pegasus, with an orange coat and a wavy blue mane pinned up in the back. Her wings didn’t look quite right, and she was carrying something tubular in her mouth. The stranger was headed towards town.
“Hello?” called Twilight. There was no response.
“Talkin’ to strangers ain’t a good idea, h—”
“Twilight, look!” Spike had pulled his binoculars from his backpack, and looked at the distant pony. He handed her the pair, and she knew before they were even to her face. It started as a murmur in the back of her head. It rumbled as it grew into a thought and gained momentum. By the time it arrived at her lips, it was a clap of thunder.
“SHE’S GOT THE SPELL.”
In that moment, Spike felt an eruption inside his stomach. The hyper-awareness he experienced came back with a vengeance, but this time it didn’t hurt. Twilight’s horn began to glow, and for a moment he swore he could see the paths of the magic itself, twisting in and condensing into her horn. He watched the bolt of magic energy well up as Twilight lowered her head. He felt the concussion as the air snapped and the bolt left her horn like a rocket. At the same time, which he couldn’t explain, He saw the mare in the distance. At the same instant the spell fired, the air around the Pegasus in the distance warped. It looked like an air bubble in a sheet of fresh glass. The Pegasus seemed to shift to one side of it. When the bolt of magic reached the bubble (to spike it felt like a full minute), it hit where the pegasus should have been, then curved around the edge of it. Much, much later, when Spike described it to Twilight, he reminded her of a time they’d gone mini-golfing, and how the ball would sometimes roll around the rim and continue off in some random direction instead of going in. The bolt of magic blew a hole in a nearby tree, and the bubble imploded with tremendous noise.
All Twilight and Applejack saw was the bolt hook left when it hit where the pony should have been, and heard a loud whipcrack.
The next moments, Spike would later tell his followers, were the first time he felt himself truly aware. “How can I describe what it’s like waking up, when you’re already conscious? Someday, you may feel it too, and the weakness of words for moments like these will be cast aside. Ascension may feel like it happens all at once, but it is like a wave upon a beach; driven by the tides, we don’t see the momentum building behind it until just before the shoreline, at which point it builds up, and crashes with awesome power. We think of the wave, not the tide focusing and narrowing its power into a single event. I did not stay awakened. Then, it was only a brief candle in the darkness. I had so far yet to go.
“Don’t let me get caught up in idealism, comrades, and forget to tell you what it was like. The mare—We now know her name to be Ridley Box—broke into a full gallop after the shot was derailed. Time hadn’t sped back up yet, but somehow I knew she let loose. If anything, it slowed down. I remember Applejack first. It was like I could see her body converting energy into raw power. I could see and hear her muscles tense, like winding springs, and then they let go. The ground beneath her hooves broke with the sheer force of it. The rain rolled off of her as she shot forward. You’ve seen her fight, some of you, and know that she does not portray the strength she is truly capable of until the time calls for it. I saw it then. I don’t think she knew why she ran. Twilight Sparkle was next, and pegasi among us know this part well enough. Where the Earth Pony was like a spring, the Alicorn was like a rubber band. Her wings spread, her tail straightened like a rod, she pulled back, lowering her front end and raising her back, like a tiger. The tips of the wings roll first, and the rest follows. The band was drawn back, so to speak, and now it is let go. I could see each raindrop, and the way they moved as they were shunted away by the force of her wings, felt the push of the air as it radiated outward from her, lashing my face with water and propelling her into flight.
“The most vivid, of course, was my own movement. I’m not sure how I could see them at the same time I turned to chase the Smiling Mare, even to this day. I could feel the muscles in my legs tense and contract. I could feel those muscles pull tendons, which pulled skin and bone and other muscle to drive my body into motion. I could feel my head swiveling forward, feel one hand go forward and the other back—you see, for us bipeds to run efficiently, we have to pump our arms as well—and I remember the feeling of excitement charged by anger and held together with fear, I remember the feel of the reactor now lit inside me pumping out energy, I remember the feeling of seeing what reality was for the first time, feeling a glimpse of a world that I had lived in my whole life but never comprehended as being there.
“And just as soon as it came to me, my friends, it was gone. I was still small then, and Twilight Sparkle grabbed me and put me on her back as she always did. The hunt was on. I didn’t have time to process what had just happened to me, and in looking back, I am glad. Not only did I not have the mental acuity I have now, I could not have comprehended how important those first few moments were. You see, that wasn’t just the moment that Twilight and I joined the Crystal War, or the moment where we first bonded to a version of Applejack truly new to us.
“No, all of you, it wasn’t just that. It was the moment we started fighting to save the world.”