by Knackerman

First published

Apple Bloom reaches out to her parents across the gulf of eternity. Something else reaches back.

Apple Bloom thought it was just a game at first. That was what Sweetie Belle had said anyways. It was just something to bring out at sleep overs to scare each other silly before going to bed.

But then Apple Bloom started playing with the Ouija board by herself... or so she thought. At first she’s thrilled when her parents contact her. It gives her a connection with them she always wanted but never had. But as time goes on, the things they say sound less and less like what a parent would say to a child. The things they ask her to do become more and more unthinkable.

When she decides to throw away the board game, she thinks that will be the end of it. Unfortunately, she might be done playing with it, but it isn’t done playing with her.

- Inspired by a series of artworks by xxmarkingxx

Chapter 1

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Apple Bloom sobbed in the candle light. As her tears fell on the ouija board, she hastily wiped the board clean with the edge of her blanket. She could still hear her family arguing down below. Granny Smith had stood up for her, but in the end it was Granny that had sent Apple Bloom to her room without supper. The hunger in the filly’s stomach, however, was nothing compared to the pain in her heart.

She’d done exactly as she had been asked. Everything had gone exactly as it was supposed to, up until the end when she had asked Applejack, “Remind you of somepony?” The cold stare her big sister had given her told Apple Bloom she’d said something very wrong. A chill had gone down her spine then, but she hadn’t been ready for the explosion of her sisters anger.

Applejack had been so mad she was almost speechless. Apple Bloom just didn’t understand. How had things gone so wrong?

She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself and still her sobs. Her teeth still chattered and she felt exhausted, but she had to know. Carefully, she laid both hooves down on the small heart shaped planchette. She cleared her mind of her tumultuous thoughts and spoke aloud.

“Ah did what ya asked and Applejack was very surprised,” she began stoically, but then quickly began to sob. “But now she’s mad at me. Ah must have done it wrong. Can ya tell me what Ah did wrong?”

It took a moment, but she was able to calm her shuddering breaths. After she regained her composure, she waited.

Slowly, imperceptibly at first, the point of the planchette began to wiggle across the board. Eventually it pointed to the word ‘NO’.

“Ah was afraid of that,” replied Apple Bloom. She felt a presence all around her. It had been comforting before, but now it felt cold. “Is there something ya think Ah can do ta fix this?”

Again, the heart shaped wooden piece pointed to the word “NO”.

Her ears drooped. She couldn’t help it. The sobs were coming so hard now they were giving her hiccups. More to herself than anything, she wailed, “What am Ah gonna do!?”

She wasn’t expecting an answer, so it surprised her when the arrow started flitting from letter to letter. It took her a moment to piece it together, but in the end it seemed to have read “STAY WITH US”. Apple Bloom felt a deep sadness spread through her heart.

“I wish that I could,” she whispered to the dark, “more than anything. But Ah can’t...”

Before she could finish the sentence the planchette began darting violently around the board. There was no mistaking what the board was telling her this time.


The wooden piece was moving so fast now Apple Bloom couldn’t keep up. She could see where the board was starting to smoke, as the friction began to heat up the wood. She took her hooves away from the game piece, and suddenly everything was still. The candle flickered gently.

There was no sound save for the night wind in the orchard outside and the creak of the old farmhouse settling. Even so, Apple Bloom was drenched in cold sweat. Nothing like that had ever happened before. The presence had felt so close, thick like smoke, as if it were all around her.

Tentatively, she reached a hoof toward the abandoned piece. She had to lean forward as she did so. Just before the tip of her hoof would have touched he smooth wood she felt someone’s breath, cold on the back of her neck.

She screamed and kicked out, flipping over the board and extinguishing the candles by accident.

Apple Bloom whirled in the dark, but as far as she could tell no pony else was there.

No pony at all.

She left the ouija board where it fell and carefully wrapped herself in her blanket. She tried to pretend it was the embrace of a loving pair of parents, but she was too scared and too cold to make herself believe it.

There would be no sleeping that night. Instead she just stared into the darkness, and felt the uncomfortable sensation that someone...

Or some thing was staring back.

It hadn’t started out like that. A few weeks ago, Fall had just started. The annual Running of the Leaves had just finished and as a result the ground was carpeted in lots of crisp and crunchy leaves in all the diverse colors autumn had to offer.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders had decided to have a sleep over in their club house to celebrate. They had been so busy recently between school, trying to help blank flanks discover their special talents, and working with ponies who already had thier cutie marks to help them better understand what they meant, that they hadn’t had any time to just enjoy themselves.

That was what that night had been all about. Good music, good food (provided by Sweet Apple Acres of course), and good company.

As the night deepened, however, it wasn’t a surprise that their playtime activities would turn to slightly more exciting, and maybe just a bit terrifying endeavors. Nightmare Night was the next big celebration on the horizon, so it was inevitable that the suggestion that they tell ghost stories would come up. Much to Scootaloo’s relief, however, Sweetie Belle suggested that they do something else instead. Something a little more grown up...

That was when she pulled out the ouija board. “Whoa, what’s that?” asked Scootaloo, both out of curiosity and to sound as enthusiastic as possible about anything other than telling scary stories.

“It’s a game my big sister Rarity used to play when she was our age,” replied Sweetie Belle with a slight squeak in her voice.

“How do ya play?” Apple Bloom had asked. It didn’t seem like there was much to it. The polished wooden board had numbers and all the letters of the alphabet scorched into it’s surface so they stood out bold and black. There were a few simple words too, like “yes” “no” “hello” and “goodbye”.

“It’s pretty simple,” admitted Sweetie Belle. “We each put a hoof on the planchette, that’s this wooden pointy thing here, and then we ask a question.”

“Okay... And then what?” inquired Scootaloo hopefully.

“Well then, if we get an answer, the planchette will point to a word or a letter and spell out another word,” replied Sweetie Belle excitedly. “You can ask all sorts of questions about the past and the future, even stuff that you don’t think anypony else would know! It’s really neat!”

“What do ya mean if we get an answer though?” Apple Bloom couldn’t help but ask. “An answer from who?”

“From the spirits on the other side!” Said Sweetie Belle in her best spooky voice. Sadly there was no clap of thunder to punctuate her sentence, and only the sound of noisy crickets as her friends stared at her, confused.

“You mean like... ghosts? We’re going to try to talk to ghosts!?” Scootaloo tried to sound nonchalant but there was an edge of panic in her voice.

“Ah dunno Sweetie Belle. That seems like it might be a bit dangerous ta me,” the farm pony had said. “Are ya sure that’s how it’s supposed to work?”

“Well... honestly, Rarity used to say that she’d catch her friends nudging the planchette towards certain answers,” confessed Sweetie Belle. “I’m pretty sure Rarity did too. It is just a game after all.”

Scootaloo looked visibly relieved. “So, any question huh? Past, present, or future? That could be interesting! Could I ask it if I make it into the Wonderbolt’s like Rainbow Dash?”

“Of course! We just have to set the right mood first,” saying that, Sweetie Belle blew out all of their lanterns with her magic, and then lit a few dribbling candles and placed them around the board which she had set up in the center of the club house. The effect was immediate. What had been a cozy club house moments ago instead took on an air of the arcane. Each of the girls felt like they had been transported to the study of an ancient wizard or some equally dark and powerful place where ponies might dabble with the realm of magic.

“So how do we start?” asked Apple Bloom in hushed tones.

“Just put your hoof on the planchette,” replied Sweetie Belle, trying to sound mysterious and failing because of it.

Each of the girls sat in front of the board and placed their hooves as instructed.

“So I guess I’ll go first,” Scootaloo giggles nervously. “Um... uh, if there’s anypony out there who might know... Will I ever become a Wonderbolt like Rainbow Dash?” She squeezed her eyes shut.

“The spirits aren’t supposed to appear in front of us Scootaloo,” chided Sweetie Belle teasingly. “You can open your eyes.”

“ I knew that!” answered the young Pegasus faster than she should have. “Besides, I wasn’t closing my eyes I was just... uh... blinking! Yeah, blinking nice and slow. Making sure I get a good blink in so I don’t miss anything!”

“Right,” Apple Bloom couldn’t quite stifle a giggle, despite a meaningful glare from Scootaloo. The girls sat for some time and nothing seemed to happen. “So... do we just wait now? How much time do we let go by before we give up and try another question?”

Before anyone could reply, there was the first timorous hint of movement. Slowly the wooden arrow began to slide across the board.

“Are you moving it!?”

“Nuh-uh. Are you moving it?”


“Well me neither.”

“You’ve got to be moving it!”

“Shh, you guys, it’s going to answer!”

The arrows point drifted slowly towards the word “yes” on the board. Scootaloo’s eyes grew wide with excitement and the other girls held their breath. At the last possible moment, the arrow jerked to the opposite side of the board and slid to the word “NO”.

Scootloo’s face fell hard, her jaw hanging open wide in disbelief. Sweetie Belle tried to hold it in, but she couldn’t suppress a snort before a torrent of squeaky laughter spilled forth from her lips.

“So you did move it!” Scootaloo shouted accusingly. “That’s not nice, or funny Sweetie Belle!”

“I didn’t move it, I swear,” gasped The unicorn fully between uncontrollable explosions of delight.

“Oh yeah, well why don’t we ask another question then?” Asked Scootaloo narrowing her eyes. “Will Sweetie Belle ever be as successful as her sister Rarity?”

This time there was no hesitation. Not only did the planchette point to the word “NO” repeatedly, it als quickly spelled out the words “NEVER” “IN” and the number “1” followed by the number “0” repeatedly and finally followed by the word “YEARS”.

“Hey, you take that back Scootaloo!” cried Sweetie Belle in a huff.

“Take what back? I didn’t say anything. It was the ‘spirits from beyond’!” shouted Scootaloo with a sneer, mimicking Sweetie Belle’s attempt at a spooky voice before sticking out her tongue.

“Would you girls knock it off?” grumbled Apple Bloom. “We’re supposed to be relaxing and having fun, not picking fights with each other!”

“Sorry Apple Bloom,” replies Scoots, genuinely.

“Yeah, sorry Apple Bloom. It was just a dumb joke,” added Sweetie Belle. “Why don’t you give asking a question a try. I promise I won’t move it this time.”

“Yeah, me either,” promised Scootaloo.

“Well Ah...” Apple Bloom hesitated. “Ah... Don’t want to ask a question. You girls go on.”

Scootaloo raised an eyebrow. “It seemed like you wanted to ask a question before. Why not go ahead and take a turn?”

“It’s embarrassing,” the farm pony admired as she looked down at her hooves.”

“Come on Apple Bloom! You can ask anything you want about the future or whatever and we promise we won’t tell anypony,” said Sweetie Belle encouragingly.

“It ain’t that,” mumbled Apple Bloom. “The questions Ah’ve got ain’t about the future... They’re about the past.”

The candles flickered gently. Neither of Apple Bloom’s friends knew what to say to that, so they just waited, hoping the silence would do more to coax an explaination from the stubborn filly than any amount of badgering or cajoling ever could. It took a few moments, but Apple Bloom let out a small sigh before confiding in them.

“When mah folks passed on, Ah was only a little foal, smaller than Pound and Pumpkin Cake are now. While we was all young when they left us, Big Mac and Applejack had already spent time with them. Lived with them. They knew them in a way that Ah never did,” she paused, her throat clenching up with emotion. “Ah just wonder sometimes if they even got to know me at all. If they even loved me, you know?”

“Apple Bloom, I’m sure your parents-“ began Sweetie Belle before she was quickly shushed by Scootaloo. The Pegasus filly shook her had sternly at the unicorn and placed her hoof firmly on the planchette.

“Ah guess that’s mah question,” finished Apple Bloom, placing her hoof on the heart shaped piece of wood and Sweetie Belle, reluctantly, doing the same. “Mom... Dad...” the earth pony had to clear her throat and wait for the tears to pass before she finally continued, “Bright Macintosh and Pear Butter, If you’re out there and ya can hear me, did you... did ya’ll love me?”

Nothing happened for a long time. Sweetie Belle moved to take her hoof away but Scootaloo glared at her until she held still. Then, just as even Apple Bloom was thinking of giving up, the arrow started to move. It didn’t move to one of the simple words like before, but started spelling out two words: ‘O’’F’’C’’O’’U’’R”S”E’.

Of course.

Apple Bloom started bawling. Sweetie Belle tore her hoof away as if she had been scalded. Scoots was actually the last one to touch the game, but even she looked mildly disturbed.

When she managed to calm down, Apple Bloom was able to say a few things. “Ah just can’t believe it. Thank you girls. It was mighty sweet of ya’ll ta do that for me.”

“To do what? I didn’t move that thing...” replied the pegasus filly, her wing feathers slightly ruffled from the experience.

“Me either,” added Sweetie Belle. “But it still moved.”

“Well Ah didn’t move it!” cried Apple Bloom, feeling somehow accused. Before anything else could be said, Sweetie Belle blew out all of the candles and relit the lanterns. “Hey whatcha doin’ that for.”

“I think that’s enough for tonight. It’s getting really late and we ought to turn in,” replied the unicorn.

“But you didn’t get a turn,” pointed out Apple Bloom. “Don’tcha want ta take a turn and ask a question.”

Sweetie Belle stared at the ouija board as if it might bite her. “No, that’s okay. I really don’t think I do.”

Later that evening, while the others were gently sawing logs, Apple Bloom wriggled out of her sleeping bag and over to the ouija board. It had been left where it had lain earlier, neither Scootaloo nor Sweetie Belle seemed to want to touch it after they were done playing.

Apple Bloom’s hooves, however, were itching to touch the smooth wood again. There had been something almost electric about how it had glided over the board earlier. She’d felt it then like she felt it now, a kind of static cling, a magnetic sensation.

She had to touch the board again.

Carefully, she lit a single candle and blocked its light with her body. She didn’t know if it would work with just her, but she wanted to avoid waking up her friends if she didn’t have to. So, placing both hooves on either side of the planchette, Apple Bloom whispered, “Mom... Dad... Are you there?”

There was no hesitation now. The arrow glided gently to the word “HELLO”.

In the candle-light, a wide smile of joy spread on the youngest Apple sibling’s face.

Chapter 2

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Apple Bloom didn’t exactly steal the ouija board... not exactly.

That would have been wrong.

Even so, after the girls woke up the next morning, Sweetie Belle had left the game where it had been abandoned last night. It seemed like she wanted nothing more to do with it, for some reason. She didn’t even glance at it as they had left to go up to the big farmhouse for breakfast.

It wasn’t a school day, but Apple Bloom still had a long list of chores to take care of before she’d have any free time. So while Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle set off to find out what the day might have in store for them, Apple Bloom set to her daily tasks. She did note, however, that neither of her friends returned to the club house before they left.

It wasn’t unusual for any of them to leave things in the Crusaders Clubhouse. The treehouse was a kind of second home to each of the girls. But as a result, Apple Bloom spent the day thinking about the ouija board, still sitting out there in the orchard. She thought about all of the questions she had asked last night, and the hundreds of questions she had *wished* she had asked.

The sheer enormity of having contacted her parents, where ever they were now, had left her flabbergasted. Yet it hadn’t taken long for her to open up to the kind and loving parents she’d only ever heard about. It was like meeting them for the first time, though she could tell from how they talked that they already knew all about her.

“Apple Bloom!” The filly jumped at the sound of her name. So lost in her revery that she didn’t realize that she had managed to screw up feeding the chickens. The ground all around the coop was covered in chicken feed! Applejack was stomping across the yard, a stormy look on her face, “Just look at this mess! Are ya tryin’ ta make our hens obese or do ya just like wastin’ their feed!?”

“Ah’m sorry Applejack,” apologized Apple Bloom, trying to shovel some of the feed back into her bucket. “Ah don’t know where mah head is today.”

“Up in the clouds from the look’a this!” yelled Applejack as she did her best to help her sister clean up the corn and birdseed. “There’ll be plenty of time for day dreamin’ when yer done with yer chores. All yer doin’ right now is making more work for yerself. Try to concentrate, okay?”

Apple Bloom didn’t like being scolded at the best of times, but especially right now when all she had been doing was thinking about her parents. Sure she had made a mess, but she was trying to clean it up, wasn’t she? Sometimes Applejack could be so unfair!

She didn’t say any of that though. Apple Bloom wasn’t sure what Applejack might think of her talking to their parents with the ouija board, but she had an inkling her older sister wouldn’t be too happy about it. So instead she just said, “Sorry sis, Ah think Ah’m just a little bit tired. Me an’ the girls was up pretty late past our bedtimes last night. Maybe if Ah went and had a little nap it’d perk me up and then Ah could finish up these chores this afternoon?”

Applejack could be stubborn and very stern. She could be even stricter than Miss Cheerilee when she had a mind to be. But the farmer noticed there were dark circles under Apple Bloom’s eyes and her tail and mane seemed just a little bit droopier than normal. Honestly, Apple Bloom looked like she might be coming down with something.

Strict as she was liable to be, Applejack had a soft spot in her heart for her little sister, and that led her to say, “Alright. Ah suppose a little nap won’t hurt. But don’t ya go sleeping the day away! You’ll just end up having an even harder time fallen asleep tonight and then you’ll be right back to where ya are now, come tomorrow.”

“Ah won’t be long,” promised Apple Bloom.

As she watched her sister go, Applejack wondered why her sister was heading back towards the treehouse instead of to the farmhouse and her room. She woulda figured it would’ve been easier for the filly to fall asleep in her own bed. It was odd, but she just shrugged it off. There were more chores to do, and she might never get them done if she sat down and tried to figure Apple Bloom out.

Applejack just shook her head and went back to work.

Of course she felt bad fibbing to Applejack like that. But then it was more like she had told her a half truth than a lie. Apple Bloom really had been up late, and probably could do with a nap... She just wasn’t going to take one.

As she trotted back towards the club house, Apple Bloom enjoyed the warm sun shining on her back through the crisp leaves that still clung stubbornly to the apple trees. As a cool breeze swept through the orchard, causing the leaves to rustle, Apple Bloom didn’t even bother trying to suppress her smile.

She was so excited!

So excited, in fact, that she didn’t notice how the plentiful sunshine seemed to fade from gold to grey as she neared the clubhouse. How the shadows beneath the trees seemed to thicken, as if they were flocking to the shadow of the treehouse. The wind, a comforting breeze moments ago, became a mournful thing that whistled between bare tree limbs, fitful and melancholy.

As Apple Bloom climbed up the ramp to the clubhouse, it creaked ominously as if it were burdened by centuries of dry rot and would snap in half under a heavier burden. The door, too, squeaked open on noisy hinges that sounded as though they had never known a drop of oil. If Apple Bloom spared any thoughts for this, it was just that she’d have more chores to do soon, fixing up the clubhouse.

Inside, things were exactly as the girls had left them earlier that morning. If anything, it looked like someone might have tidied things up a bit. Again, Apple Bloom didn’t notice any of this, and instead her eyes went right to the ouija board. Lighting the candle again to dispel the suddenly gloomy day, Apple Bloom sat down and took a deep breath.

“Mom... Dad... Ya there?”

Nothing happened. Then Apple Bloom smacked her forehead with her hoof and put the planchette on the board. She asked again, and this time she felt the familiar tug of her parents spirits guiding the arrow to the word “HELLO” it then glided to other letters spelling out “YOU ARE BACK SOON”.

“Yeah, well Ah couldn’t exactly keep mahself away,” Apple Bloom replied, a little color rising in her cheeks. “It’s just so nice ta get ta talk to y’all. It’s really amazin’!”


“Well, yeah, of course I do,” Apple Bloom assured. “There’s Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, and all sorts of other ponies who are my friends.”


“That’s true,” agreed Apple Bloom. “It’s not like I can’t talk to Big Mac, Granny Smith, and Applejack though. It’s just...”


“They’re always so busy,” Apple Bloom heaved a heavy sigh. This wasn’t anything she had told anyone. Not even the other Crusaders. “Either they’re doing chores, or Ah’m doin’ chores, or they’re running off to do errands or going on some adventure without me. Ah mean, Ah get in’ta mah fair share of trouble with the girls and helping folks out with Cutie Mark problems, but sometimes...”

The room grew darker. The shadows grew longer. The candle flame seemed to shrink down to a bright dot on the end of its wick. The atmosphere was growing thick and oppressive.

“Sometimes we don’t feel like much of a family...” It was tough for Apple Bloom to admit that. Being an Apple was all about family. It was about knowing your roots and spreading out across Equestria like a mighty apple tree. However... “Ah got a big brother and sister who loves me. Granny has taken care of me practically all mah life. But a family ought to have a mom and a dad, you know? Ah’ve never really known what that’s like.”


There was a soft pattering sound as the first tear drops fell on the ouija board. Apple Bloom had never told anypony how she felt. Her parents saying those words though, that they were here for her, that’s exactly the kind of thing she had always wanted to hear. She knew that her parents would have been kind and loving if they had lived. They wouldn’t have been aloof like Big Mac, or scatterbrained like Granny Smith, or strict like Applejack.


Apple Bloom took a deep breath and let out a shuddering sigh. It felt terrible to cry, but having cried she felt a calm tranquility and a bone deep tiredness. She wasn’t too tired to reply, however. “It’s nothin important. Just Applejack yellin’ at me for havin’ mah head in the clouds. She didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”


The room darkened further. The candle flame flickered brighter as if to fight off the encroaching darkness, but the shadows were all around now, closing in fast.

“Yeah...” Apple Bloom whispered.


A little before lunch, Applejack stuck her head under the water pump and let the cold water run through her mane. She’d have to pump the handle a few times to get it going, but after she had taken a drink she had plunged her head right into the freezing spray. It caused her to gasp for breath and give a little shiver, but it was invigorating after all the work she’d put in. It was probably the only time of day, aside from when she laid down to sleep, that she voluntarily took off her hat.

Giving herself a little shake to dry off, she picked her hat up with her teeth, and without looking plopped it down on her head. Chicken feed showered down over her muzzle and shoulders, getting all in her mane.

With a look of cold fury, Applejack’s eyes darted around the farm. While there were plenty of places somepony could hide, none of them were close enough by that somepony could have dumped the seeds into her hat and get away again before Applejack would have noticed.

Was it possible she had somehow gotten some chicken feed in her hat and not realized it? That didn’t make a lick of sense, but it was the only explaination she could come up with to account for what had happened.

“Ah guess even I can be a little absent-minded sometimes,” Applejack said aloud with a confused look on her face.

The farm pony started pumping more water so she could clean out her hat and wash her hair. Not far away, Apple Bloom had to cover her mouth with two hooves to stifle her laughter.

Chapter 3

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Even Apple Bloom was willing to admit things went a little too far after that. She moved the ouija board from the clubhouse to her own room where, during the times she wasn’t communing with her parents, she kept the game hidden beneath her bed.

That wouldn’t have been so bad, except now that the board was so near to her, she couldn’t keep herself from using it every chance she got. She’d keep making excuses to get out of chores, like she was tired or sick, and then sneak off to her room to pull the drapes on her windows closed, lock the door, and reach out to the other side by the light of a lonely candle.

Apple Bloom started skipping meals to spend more time in her room. She also skipped out on sleep, staying up until the rooster crowed and it was time to go to school. Inevitably her school work suffered. She had trouble focusing on the simplest of lessons, and that was when she wasn’t quietly snoozing behind a well placed book. To Apple Bloom, nothing was as important as the time she spent catching up with her parents. Things like school, food, and sleep could wait until later.

If that had been all that came of Apple Bloom taking the ouija board into her room, maybe no one would’ve noticed anything wrong. They might put it down to what naturally occurred when a filly bloomed into a mare and figure that after a time she’d settle down and get her head on straight. But Apple Bloom became sullen and snappish on top of everything else.

It started with her simply avoiding her friends. Since Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were busy with their own chores and after school activities it wasn’t a problem at first, but whenever they asked Apple Bloom to come with them to hear a Cutie Mark problem or asked her out to try a fun group activity, she’d get defensive and claim she was too busy. Too much to do on the farm, even though autumn had set in completely and the harvest was already in from the fields.

Her friends started to worry.

They weren’t the only ones.

To her family, too, Apple Bloom became a stranger. She’d talk back to Applejack and Granny Smith, and completely ignore Big Mac unless he was right in front of her. Even then it seemed like she had no time for her big brother and would go out of her way to avoid all the Apples if possible.

Then there were the pranks. They were harmless at first. A tipped over milk bucket here, a crude doodle on a blackboard there. Maybe somepony would find her pigtails tide up in knots behind her head, or a colt would fall down for no apparent reason than he happened to have cut into Apple Bloom’s path. But pretty soon it was clear who the common denominator was. Even if she was supposed to be lying in bed, at a friends house, or making up a test in detention, somehow bad things started happening if Apple Bloom was involved...

And they only went from bad to worse.

It was inevitable that Miss Cheerilee would end up calling Applejack down to the schoolhouse to discuss the changes in Apple Bloom’s behavior. While the adults had their chat, Apple Bloom was forced to sit, fidgeting in the hall. She could hear every word...

The sun was already beneath the horizon by the time Apple Bloom made it back home, crying and out of breath. She had run all the way from the school house without stopping, not even to do so much as say goodbye to her friends.

“Delinquent” that was what Miss Cheerilee had called her. “Trouble-maker” they had said. “Unruly”, “Disobedient”, and even “bully” they had called her. Her, a bully? When had she ever bullied anyone? When had she been anything but the victim of bullies in all of her life? No, if anything it was Miss Cheerilee and Applejack who were being bullies, talking about Apple Bloom like that when they knew she was just out in the hall. When they should have known that she would hear.

She had listened as long as she had felt able, bile rising in her throat as her heart sank lower and lower until finally she coukdn’t Take it anymore. She hadn’t waited for Applejack to walk her home, and she didn’t think she could speak to Miss Cheerilee again after everything she had overheard.

No, she needed to be home now. Where the people who were supposed to love her were.

Maybe it was the gathering twilight, or just the tears in her eyes, but Sweet Apple Acres looked anything but ‘sweet’ right now. The paint was sun blistered and peeling, the wood looked grey and rotten like it might be shot through with mold or termites. Even the trees, bare of leaves as they were, looked sickly and twisted. Maybe it was just the fact Apple Bloom was upset and in a foul mood, but suddenly her home looked like the ugliest place she had ever seen, woebegone and haunted.

‘Home’ wasn’t good enough anymore. Apple Bloom knew what she needed. She needed to talk to the only ponies that had ever really understood her... That loved her for her flaws, not just in spite of them. She needed her mom and dad.

As she thundered up the stairs to her bedroom, ignoring Granny’s exclamation at the commotion she was making, Apple Bloom only had one thought on her mind. As she slammed her door shut and pulled the drapes shut, she was thinking it over and over. The flaring match barely had a moment to kiss the head of the candle wick before Apple Bloom’s hooves found the planchette and asked, ”How do Ah make them see!?”

The darkness grew close around her. The game piece started to move...

Dinner that evening was unusually quiet. Suppertime at Sweet Apple Acre's had always been a joyful affair up until now. With the days work done, usually everypony was in a good mood and looking forward to how they were going to spend their evening hours. Not so today. The tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Probably not one of these knives though... Apple Bloom thought darkly to herself. She couldn't help noticing how cheap and worn the cutlery was that had been set out on the table. How had she never noticed before just how shabby, chipped, and cracked the flatware was? With all the money the farm made at harvest time, you'd be forgiven for thinking a few bits could be set aside so they could eat off of something that looked like it wasn't from before the founding of Equestria. But it wasn't just the dining set. Everything in the kitchen was looking its age, old and decrepit and just barely held together with rust and good intentions.

Even the food, which a few weeks ago Apple Bloom would have been willing to swear was the best in five of the nearby counties, looked like little more than over boiled mush. Granny Smith was serving it up in heaping, wobbly lumps today too. In the tense silence, the steady squelching and plopping noises as she dug a spoon into the food and thumped it down on their plates. Apple Bloom was actually relieved when Applejack finally said something. Though her relief was short lived...

"So Ah couldn't help noticin' ya decided to head home on yer own before we had a chance to talk with Cheerilee," Her tone was mild enough, but a flash in her green eyes promised a storm on the horizon. Apple Bloom didn't have a response for the moment. She just looked down at the grey mush on her plate as her big sister continued. "She had an awful lot to say, even so. About how ya have been skipping classes, and sleeping through lessons when ya do bother ta show up. She was also tellin' me that ya've been actin' out. Avoidin' yer friends and, though she can’t prove it, bullyin' the other children."

Big Mac was steadily eating his pile of slop. Apple Bloom found it fascinating how he could wolf down anything that was put in front of him, even the dreck Granny had served up tonight. Or at least it was more fascinating than listening to Applejack.

"Are you hearin' me Apple Bloom?" her big sisters voice cracked on the third word. It was clear that the farm pony was doing what she could to hold her emotions in check, but there was only so much she could do to keep the roiling surface from giving way to the cauldron that was steadily bubbling away beneath. "It ain't like we ain't been noticin' it too! Yer up all hours of the night doin' who knows what! During the day ya run off and do whatever ya please instead of doin' yer chores! Worse, ya've been talkin' back to Granny and ignorin' Big Mac! Ya've grown mighty willful recently and it seems like ya think ya don't have to answer ta anypony but yerself anymore!"

Apple Bloom knew everything that she had said was true, at least as far as Applejack knew. She had no way of knowing that she was up at all hours and ignoring her chores, and disobeying them so she could have more time to talk to her parents. She had no way of knowing that the 'acting out' was Apple Bloom following her parents advice. Even so, she was hurt by Applejack's accusing tone... and she remembered how Her older sister had failed to defend her when Miss Cheerilee had been saying all those awful things about her. Part of her just wanted to break down, apologize, and come clean about the whole thing. But that wasn't what her parents wanted... and right now they seemed like they were the only ponies on Apple Bloom's side. So instead, she curled her lips into a knowing sneer and narrowed her eyes at her older sister, and said exactly what they had told her to say "Remind you of somepony?"

The silence rushed back in so quickly it was almost a sound unto it self. Big Mac's mouth locked up mid-chew. The spoon Granny Smith had been using to serve herself hung motionless in the air, a glob of dinner slowly and noiselessly sliding off the tarnished metal. The fire flickered out in Applejack's eyes, replace by a long, cold stare that sent a chill down Apple Bloom's spine.

A panicked thought crossed Apple Bloom's mind, This isn't how this is supposed to go.

"How dare you!" Applejack's hooves came down so hard on the kitchen table that the entire dining set, food and all, rose a good foot in the air and slammed back down with a rattling crack. "How dare you say that ta me! Everypony at this table does more than their fair share of work around here! Ah say more, cause they have to pick up for your slack! Even before you started acting up, we've all been having to pitch in to fix yer screw ups and clean up yer messes! What little respect you showed to us before was just barely enough to make up for all the stress, heartache, and pain ya put the rest of this family through!"

"Applejack, now wait just a minute..." started Granny Smith. But Applejack's blood was up now, and her face was going as red as Big Mac's.

"And ya've got the gal ta sit there lookin' down on us, lookin' down on the things we've worked so hard for! Ya think Ah haven't noticed? Ya think Ah haven't seen how ya roll yer eyes when we honor the least little family tradition!? "Applejack thundered. "Oh sure, ya get all moon-eyed when some high tech hunk of junk rolls into town, or some hot to trot celebrity comes down from the city, but do ya have even an ounce of respect and admiration for the hard work and traditions that have kept a roof over yer head and food in yer belly!? Ya think our way of life is so miserable and backward, but it's good enough for ya when you're hungry or sleepy, ain't it!?"

"Applejack..." Granny tried again.

"And another thing!" Applejack roared.

"Applejack!" it wasn't the volume of Granny Smith's voice that at last got the attention of the farm pony, but the tone. It was one neither Applejack nor Big Mac had heard in a long time. There was the crack of a belt in the old mares voice, and the promise of retribution for all crimes, known and unknown, if they weren't careful. "Now that's enough! Can’t ya see how terrified the youngin' is?"

It was true. Apple Bloom sat ramrod straight, hooves digging into the bench she sat on. Silent tears had been falling from her eyes for some time now, but she was too terrified to so much as sob. She'd never seen her sister so angry. She had no idea she had thought such awful things about her.

No, this wasn't at all how things were supposed to go.

More than the betrayal she felt from Applejack, however, a small part of her felt betrayed by her parents. They'd never led her astray before. Yet following their advice had blown up into this huge and painful mess. Surely this hadn't been their intention. Surely it was Apple Bloom who had somehow messed things up. After all, it was clear that Applejack had been angry with her for some time and simply hadn't been saying anything.

"You need ta calm down Applejack, fore you say anything else yer likely ta regret," Granny Smith stared her granddaughter down. For a moment it looked like Applejack might protest, but then she looked down, the brim of her hat hiding her eyes. Granny then turned to her youngest grandchild. "And as fer you young missy, Ah reckon you've got a thing or two ta be thinkin' about. Best ya head on up ta yer room."

Apple Bloom nodded mutely, climbing off of her seat and walking slowly out of the kitchen. Once she could no longer feel her families eyes on her, she heard the arguing start. She couldn't make out the words, but she could tell that they were all angry, hateful things being said.

And she knew all the words, one way or another, were about her.

Choking back a sob, Apple Bloom fled up the stairs to the relative safety of her room, but she couldn't outrun the sound of angry voices and the heartbreak they made her feel.

Chapter 4

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At some point Apple Bloom must have drifted off to sleep. The filly awoke in her own bed, sheets tangled about her legs, at the sound of a sudden loud knocking on her bedroom door. Her head felt like it was full of cotton or wool. Had she been dreaming? She half remembered something about using the ouija board to talk to her parents, but the memory was warped and hazy, almost like it belonged to somepony else. She looked groggily around the room for something to help jog her memory. It must have been getting close to dawn by now, but it was still black as pitch outside her bedroom window. The night was moonless and starless, so Apple Bloom assumed it must be overcast. Although she had too much on her mind at that moment to be overly concerned with the weather, and so didn't spare much thought as to what that might mean.

Apple Bloom was struck by the sudden urge to feign that she was still asleep and hadn’t heard anything. The idea of dealing with anypoony else right now just didn't sit well with her for some reason. As she was rolling over to face the door, however, a second knock shook it so hard she was afraid it was going to fall off of it's hinges! Apple Bloom remembered then about the terrible events at dinner earlier that evening. The knocking sounded angry, and if one of her family members was that mad at her still she had best confront them before they broke down her door. She quickly slid out of bed and trotted over to throw the door wide open.

There was no one there.

She had half expected to see her sister standing in the hallway, still fuming with anger and ready to finish what she had started at dinner time. Instead the hallway was completely empty. Everything was dark and quiet, save for the creaks and moans of the old farmhouse settling. Whoever had been knocking, they were long gone now. It struck her as strange and Apple Bloom couldn't help looking around a bit. Had someone just knocked and then run away? That didn't make any sense, but then what other explanation was there?

In the gloom of the hallway, Apple Bloom could see someone had left a plate of food sitting in front of her door. The gesture would have been touching, except as she lent over to pick the grub up off the floor she caught the sour stink wafting up from the food. As she got a closer look, it was clear the leftovers were splotched with hairy green and black mold and, as Apple Bloom reeled back from the stench of it, several fat cockroaches skittered out from under the plate and into the darker shadows of the hall.

Whatever the rancid mush had once been, it now looked as rotten as Apple Bloom herself felt. She could only assume that this was some hurtful and hateful message from one of her family members.

Tears streaming down her face, she went back into her room and slammed the door shut behind her. Whatever appetite she might have had was long gone, leaving behind only a hollow ache and a feeling of deep depression. How had she managed to screw things up so badly with her family? Apple Bloom had made mistakes before, but never anything like this!

There was only one way she could think of that she might get some answers.

Taking the ouija board out from under her bed, she carefully lit the stub of a candle that she kept with it. The light of the little flame didn’t do much to illuminate the night, it's flickering flame seeming only to lend texture to the darkness and increase rather than reduce the number of looming shadows. Even so, Apple Bloom felt like that tiny light was the only good thing left in her world. She reached her hoof out, ready to try and contact her parents once more, only to realize that something was different about the game board.

It was completely blank.

It was as if all of the letters had been wiped away, leaving behind a perfectly smooth piece of wood. Apple Bloom turned the board over, thinking that she might have just accidentally flipped it over the last time she had used it, but the other side was also perfectly blank.

Apple Bloom flipped the board back and forth a few times, unable to understand how this was possible, before finally wailing, “Now what am I supposed to do!?”

As if in answer to her question, three small words appeared on the board when she flipped it over again “STAY WITH US”.

Squealing in sudden surprise and fright, Apple bloom threw the piece of wood away as a flood of bad memories came rushing back like a sudden flood of murky water. Her eyes darted around the room, remembering the cold breath she had felt on the nape of her neck. Was she really alone? Had she ever been? Suddenly the darkness seemed to be crowded with unseen horrors and faceless eyes.

How had this all started? Where had her life gone so terribly wrong?

... the ouija board.

That had to be it didn’t it? Things had been going from bad to worse ever since she had been using the game board as a means to communicate with her parents. Apple Bloom eyed it suspiciously, and took no comfort from the fact that it now appeared to be back to normal.

Impulsively, she grabbed up an old knapsack she had once used while camping and quickly stuffed the board game and planchette inside. After carefully edging around the plate of moldy food set in front of her bedroom door, Apple Bloom quietly slipped into the hall and down stairs, not pausing a single moment before opening the front door and running out into the night.

Immediately she was hit by an unidentifiable sense of dread. It wasn't so much that she felt like she was in danger, but there was a disquieting sense that she was somehow in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact that was the best way to describe it. There was a wrongness that hung in the air, not unlike the cold and clammy fog that seemed to cling to Apple Bloom's hooves as she ran into the orchard. She tried to ignore the feeling as she galloped among the trees, but the further she went the more the creeping sensation grew until she felt as though she would be overwhelmed by it.

The air smelled not of crisp autumn leaves but of damp and mildew. Though the sky overhead churned with ominous black clouds, they seemed to glow faintly, but not by any kind of moon or starlight. Rather the source of the illumination seemed to come from within the clouds themselves and wobbled and bobbed about in strange patterns. Though the light was fitful at best, it allowed Apple Bloom to see the thick spider webs that cluster high in all of the nearby tree branches. The thick strands of webbing dripped with a moisture that looked too cloudy and foul to be early morning dew. There were also strange noises off in the distance, like a warbling howl, but it sounded nothing like the call of the Timber Wolves that sometimes hunted in the nearby forest.

Panicked, certain she was being watched, Apple Bloom decided she had gone far enough and put some of that vaunted earth pony strength to work digging in the dirt near a particularly tall apple tree. Instead of the scent of freshly turned earth, however, she was met with the fetid odor of rotting mulch. It was like she was digging into a compost heap rather than the good fresh soil of Sweet Apple Acres. Apple Bloom tried not to gag as beetles, nightcrawlers, and millipedes crunched and popped under her hooves. The soil was alive with worms and insects, and they only seemed to grow thicker the deeper she dug.

At last she judged she had dug deep enough, or as deep as she could stomach, and tossed the nap sack into the hole. She haphazardly and hurriedly covered up the sack with the foul mounds of dirty that wriggled when she touched them, and turned and ran back to the farmhouse. She stopped briefly to rinse off her hooves in the frigid water from the pump, but didn't bother drying them as she thought she heard something moving among the trees. Whatever it was, she was certain she didn't want to meet it.

Apple Bloom hurriedly darted through the front door and locked it behind her. As she trotted back upstairs, careful to go slowly so as not to make them creak and wake her family, Apple Bloom already felt a little better.

That is, until she rounded the corner to her room and came face to face with her sister, Applejack.

Both siblings gasped as they gave each other a tiny jolt of surprise, but Apple Bloom was clearly still much more shook up than her big sister. That was probably why it was Applejack who was first to break the awkward silence. “Ah, so there ya are Apple Bloom. Yer Granny brought you up some vittles awhile ago, but she said ya didn’t answer when she knocked. Ah figured it'd be best if I came up and checked on ya...” she cleared her throat,” And maybe, uh, clear the air a bit between the two of us.”

Apple Bloom burst into tears and hugged her sister. “Ah’m so sorry Applejack! Ah never meant to cause trouble for you, or Granny Smith, or Big Mac! Ah know Ah don’t always show it but Ah know y’all all do yer best to look after me, and Ah really do appreciate it! So please don’t be mad at me anymore!”

Applejack was clearly surprised by this sudden rush of emotions from her little sister, but she hugged her tight all the same. “Ah wasn’t mad at you sugarcube. Alright, well, maybe Ah was a little mad, but more than that we’ve been worried about you is all. We all have, even Miss Cheerilee,” Applejack wiped away her little sisters tears with one hoof before continuing. “Ah hadn’t thought about it but ya probably only overheard part of what yer teacher and Ah were talkin’ about and got upset and run off before ya had a chance ta hear the rest. We know ya haven’t been actin’ like yourself lately, and we want you to know that we’re here for you. Whatever yer goin’ through ya ain’t gotta put up with it by yourself.”

That only made Apple Bloom cry harder and bury her face in the soft tuft of fluff on her sisters chest. “Ah know,” she sobbed, “Or, maybe Ah should say Ah shoulda' known. Ah’ve always said ya were the best big sister a filly could ask for Applejack! Ah know we don’t always see eye to eye, and sometimes Ah forget that, but it’s true! And Ah know yer there for me when Ah need ya the most.”

“And your the best little sister a big sister could ask for sweet heart,” replied Applejack with a smile and a few tears of her own. “Tell ya what, it’s gettin’ pretty late and Ah imagine we’re both still a little raw. How about you head on back to bed and we’ll talk about the rest of this in the mornin’? Does that sound alright to ya?”

With a shuddering sigh, Apple Bloom nodded her wordless agreement. She felt extremely exhausted, and not just from her tears; as she walked back into her room she didn’t notice that the moldy mush had somehow been miraculously exchanged for a slice of apple pie with a dollop of whipped cream. Nor did she notice the full moon that road high in the starry night sky. But as sleep came to her, weighing down her eyelids, she couldn’t help but notice that there were fewer shadows in her room than before. Fewer creaks and distant moans too.

For the first time in a long time, Apple Bloom slept peacefully, and dreamlessly.

Chapter 5

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Morning broke with the familiar 'cock-a-doodle-doo' of the farms rooster. Apple Bloom felt better than she had in weeks. Her sleep had been deep and untroubled, and as she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and gazed out her window at the first rays of dawn she could tell it was going to be a beautiful new day! The filly opened her window wide and leaned out so she could take in that first breath of clean, cool country air. The breeze invigorated her and set her heart at ease.

What a difference gettin’ rid of that old ouija board has made!, she thought to herself. Ah should got rid of that thing ages ago.

She could smell the welcome scent of breakfast drifting up from downstairs as she left her room. Apple Bloom was still a little anxious about seeing the rest of the family after what had happened last night at supper, but since the hard part of making up with Applejack was out of the way, surely making peace with Big Mac and Granny Smith would be even easier. Still, she was certain it was going to be awkward, so the filly took a little more time than usual washing her face in the bathroom and fixing the bow in her hair. When at last she felt as prepared mentally and physically as she was going to get, she trotted downstairs and into the kitchen.

As soon as Apple Bloom entered the kitchen however, she could tell something was wrong.

Really wrong.

Not with her family, but with the view from the dining room window. She had grown up all her life seeing the panorama of the orchard spread out before her in the mornings at the breakfast table. The sun shining bright and the birds singing. What she saw now, however, was instead any inky darkness that spread as far as the eye could see. For a moment she thought maybe the window was being blocked by something, like it was boarded over, but that didn't seem to be the case. For one thing, she thought she could see trees and some slight movement deep in the impenetrable murk.

For their part, Applejack and Big Mac didn’t seem to acknowledge there was a problem at all. AJ busied herself setting the table for breakfast while Big Mac read over the morning paper. Apple Bloom was just about to ask what was going on when something caught her eye on the other side of the window pane. There was a glimmer of light, faint and sickly, drifting back and forth. As she watched, more lights seemed to join the first. Apple Bloom thought they might be Fireflies, but the glow was steady and didn’t wink on and off like she was used to with Lightning Bugs. As she tried to puzzle out what she was seeing something slammed itself hard against the glass.

With the light from the kitchen Apple Bloom could just barely make out the creatures distorted face, dripping with moisture as small tendrils probed the windows surface, smearing a thick black substance all over the glass. The glow, the filly realized, came from the creatures many strangely shaped eyes. Two of them were spaced far apart on its face like a hammerhead shark, while other smaller eyes seemed to cluster all over the surface of the creatures skin. It’s long yellow teeth clicked as they bumped into the glass, and Apple Bloom felt the blood drain from her face as the mouth opened and latched onto the surface like a lamprey, revealing a circular maw lined with row after row of long barbed fangs that led deep down into the dark creatures throat.

“Apple Bloom? You okay? Ya look worse than that time y’all caught Hay Fever.” The words of concern spilled from Applejack’s mouth, but that wasn’t all. Thick, dark filth dribbled from the farm pony's lips, staining her teeth black as it dribbled down her chin. Applejack's eyes had also gone solid black, and steadily producing the same syrupy discharge. It oozed like molasses down either side of her face and began to softly patter on the kitchen floor.

“Eeyup,” agreed Big Mac as he looked up from his paper, agreeing with Applejack's earlier observation of the color draining from Apple Bloom's face. Like her sister, her brothers eyes and mouth poured the disgusting fluid, so much so it seemed the newspaper had been completely drowned in the substance. Even so, the look of concern on his face matched Applejack’s. Apple Bloom could see herself reflected in the wobbling jelly like jet black eyes of her siblings, and she did look as though she had fallen suddenly ill.

Realizing the two expected an answer from her, Apple Bloom couldn’t help taking a few steps back. “Ah... Ah am feelin’ a might poorly. Ah think maybe Ah’ll go lay down in my room for a little while.”

Before her siblings could respond to that, Apple Bloom darted out of the kitchen and thundered up the stairs. She didn’t stop running till she was on the other side of her bedroom door, and then only after she had managed to shift her closet over and block the rooms only entrance.

The only entrance that was, other than her window... Which Apple Bloom realized, with an icy dread that trickled down her spine, she had left wide open that morning.

Eyes darting around the room for any sign of the creature she had seen outside, she quickly galloped over to her window and slammed it shut! It was only then that she noticed the view from her window was very different from what she had seen downstairs. The sun was already bathing the orchard in orange and golden light, making the limbs look as if they were awash in fire. Outside her window there were birds singing, chickens clucking, and she could even see the Mail Mare flying about her duties.

“Just what in the wide world of Equestria is goin’ on here?” Apple Bloom wondered to herself aloud.

Was she seeing things? Hallucinating? Were her eyes playing tricks on her? Or was it all in her mind? Had recent events pushed her around the bend without her noticing? And if she was a few dozen apples short of a bushel, how would she even be able to tell? Was what she was seeing outside her bedroom window real, or was the nightmare downstairs the true reality?

She started to feel dizzy as her mind swam with the possibilities. It was like the world had fallen out from beneath her. Apple Bloom had to steady herself against her bed, and as she did so her eyes fell on a familiar shape that lay there among the rumpled blankets. Sitting there, pretty as you please in the morning sun without so much as a speck of dirt on its polished surface, was the ouija board.

Apple Bloom screamed.

After that, Apple Bloom tried everything she could think of to get rid of the ouija board.

She tried mailing it to Saddle Arabia, but she found it sitting on the floor beside her bedroom door moments after the Mail Mare and flown off with it.

She tried bundling it up and throwing it in a lake. As the board sank into the depths, leaving behind nothing but a few bubbles, Apple Bloom felt a wave of relief wash over her. Unfortunately the ouija board managed to beat her home and it was waiting, dry as a bone, beneath her bed.

After that she grew desperate and tried to outright destroy it. She tried tossing it in the wood chipper, but it came out whole and undamaged on the other side no matter how many times she threw it in. She tried burning it, but matches went out as soon as they got close to the game board. Apple Bloom thought she had finally managed it when she got a small campfire going and then tossed the ouija board in, but later that same day the filly found the piece of wood leaning against her bedroom door.

It wasn’t even singed!

She really was beginning to question her sanity. It was just a lump of wood! There wasn’t anything special about it that should make it act this way! Even so, no matter what she tried the darn thing just kept coming back! With mounting terror, Apple Bloom realized that even though she was done playing with the ouija board, it wasn’t done playing with her!

What was really bad was her nightmarish visions were growing worse. They weren’t constant, but every now and then she would glance out a window and see the alien world of darkness and decay waiting for her just behind the thin membrane of glass. Strange shapes moved beyond the edges of her sight, and muffled sounds of what she could only assume were hunting creatures vibrated the window frames.

What was perhaps the most disturbing though was her families apparent continued deterioration; They didn’t seem to notice it at all themselves, but Applejack, Big Mac, and even Granny Smith were now caked in a putrid filth that poured forth from their eyes and mouths constantly. Apple Bloom didn’t want to think about what this meant, but slowly her family seemed to be replaced by foul, twitching beings more suitable to the alien world she kept seeing through the looking glass. She was too terrified to hazard looking at herself in a mirror for fear of how she might see herself if she did so.

This was too much for one filly to deal with on her own... But that didn’t mean she was going to drag the Cutie Mark Crusaders into this now, even if the ouija board technically belonged to Sweetie Belle. No, there was only one pony she could trust to deal with something as bizarre and unsettling as this.

Princess Twilight Sparkle!

"Okay, so who put you up to this?" Twilight asked with a suspicious smile on her face as the ouija board hovering in her magical grasp between her and her guest. "It doesn't sound like a Pinkie Pie prank, so I'd guess Rainbow Dash, but I'd really expect that from Scootaloo rather than you Apple Bloom."

"Fer the last time Twilight, Ah ain't tryin' to prank you!" Apple Bloom practically wailed. It had been like this since she had arrived at Twilight's castle. She had pulled out the ouija board and told her story from the beginning. Twilight had listened patiently enough at first, but as Apple Bloom had gotten to the wilder parts of her story she could tell that she was losing interest. Still, the filly had pressed on until she had finished the whole sorry tale. It was then that the Princess of Friendship had burst out laughing and they had been going on like this ever since.

"What's all the ruckus in here?" Starlight Glimmer queried as she wandered into the throne room.

Apple Bloom wasn't too happy with the intrusion, but Twilight brightened right up, "You'll never believe the story Apple Bloom was just telling me about this ouija board she's been playing with! She claims it's haunted! Of all the superstitious nonsense, am I right?"

"Or cursed!" Apple Bloom interjected, feeling the need to defend herself. "Or, or, I dunno... Ah ain't familiar with how all this magic stuff works! Ah figured the Element of Magic could figure it out for me, but if ya don't believe me Ah might as well go ask Zecora for help!" The little earth pony had been frustrated before, but now she was getting angry. She didn't like being humiliated in front of an audience.

"Well, did you check it for enchantments?" Starlight's question mollified Apple Bloom a little. At least somepony was taking her seriously.

"Of course!" Twilight responded, affronted. "While she was telling her story I scanned the board, and planchette for any curses, enchantments, ensorcellment, hexes, jinx, runes, or old fashioned voodoo. Since it was a rather long story I also checked for any mundane tampering like hallucinogenic substances, drugs, or poisons. I even took measurements to rule out euclidean geometry. It's just a normal piece of wood that someone has poorly printed some letters and a few words on and a typical planchette playing piece that you would find in the cheaper copies of such foalhood games."

"Ya did all that while Ah was talkin'!?" gasped Apple Bloom, dumbstruck.

"Well, yes," replied Twilight nonplussed. "While I might not believe in ghosts and spooky goings-on that defy explanation, it did seem like you believed that you had witnessed some kind of strange events. Since I was able to rule out the ouija board as any kind of anomaly in and of itself, I was left with only the conclusion that either you were trying to prank me (and doing a very poor job) or someone had been playing some rather mean tricks on you. I mean are you absolutely sure that this is the original ouija board that you borrowed from Sweetie Belle? You do know you can just buy these for 5 bits a pop down at Filthy Rich's emporium, right?"

"Ya mean there really ain't nothin' special about the board at all?" Apple Bloom was unable to believe her ears. "Not even a little bit?"

"I'm afraid not. Though I can see by your reaction that you truly think there should be," Twilight hesitated. "What do you think Starlight?" The Princess of Friendship proceeded to recap Apple Bloom's story for Starlight, managing to concisely repeat the story while focusing on the most important details.

When she was done, Starlight eyed the ouija board cautiously, before seizing it in the grasp of her own magic and running one hoof over the smooth wooden surface. "I had one of these when I was a little filly. I kind of went through a phase where I was really into crystals, macabre things, and, well, the color black. I'd fool around with the game when I was bored or feeling... Lonely." She gave Apple Bloom a meaningful glance as she said that, "While I can't say I had the same experiences as Apple Bloom, there were some nights when it was dark and I was on my own that I thought I had made contact with something... Something that might have been better left alone."

"Really?" Apple Bloom and Twilight both asked simultaneously, one hopefully and the other in disbelief.

Starlight tried to suppress a blush."I'm sure it was just a teenagers overactive imagination," the unicorn added hurriedly. "Or at least that's what I had convinced myself of at the time. But you know Twilight, we've seen a lot of strange things. Odd creatures, ancient magic, and no end to unexplainable phenomena. It's just possible that what Apple Bloom was seeing wasn't just a filly's overactive imagination. It could be very real."

"So you think she's really been talking to the ghosts of her parents?" asked Twilight incredulously. "Or that she's been catching glimpses of some horrifying nightmare realm?"

"Well, why not?" Starlight shot back somewhat defiantly. Apple Bloom hadn't heard her speak like that Twilight since... well, ever. "I know you think Equestria is this wonderful place full of friendship and light, but it has a dark and dangerous side to it too. Starswirl the Bearded pretty much confirmed that himself when he sent us to places in Equestria that were once fonts of dark power."

"True, but if you remember we found out the places he sent us to had stopped being fonts of dark magic a long time ago," Twilight shot back. "Just because Equestria held such dangers long ago that's no reason to think it would spontaneously develop new such places now."

Starlight shook her head, "That's also no reason to just dismiss Apple Bloom;s experiences out of hoof. There are still places like the Hollow Shades in Equestria. We don't know why there are places that seem to call to dark magic, nor how they get started in the first place, or even how far they spread! Maybe what Apple Bloom has stumbled on is a small piece of something larger. Something that could pose a real threat to Equestria."

Apple Bloom was having a hard time keeping up with what they were talking about now, but Twilight seemed to find Starlight's words amusing. "So you think Sweet Apple Acres has become a font of dark magic?" she actually chortled! Apple Bloom had never seen anyone other than Discord chortle.

Anger flashed in Starlight's eyes, but she pressed on. "Sweet Apple Acres is the oldest place in all of Ponyville. It has been here longer than the town itself and much longer than you or I. If there is any place in Ponyville that might hide some dark secrets, then why not there? I know it must sound ridiculous, but sometimes the brighter the picture the darker the negative."

That seemed to give Twilight pause for thought, and it certainly wiped the smile off of her face. "Applejack has seemed like she has been under a lot of stress recently. Big Mac too. And now we're hearing this wild story from Apple Bloom... As much as I might not believe in superstitious nonsense, I do believe in my friends. If the Apple family is in trouble then we should do our best to help them."

Starlight and Apple Bloom both smiled. "Right!"

"Although... I'm not ruling out that this entire thing could just be psychosomatic," Twilight added, taking the ouija board back from starlight and placing it on the Cutie Map. "I mean, stress and trauma do funny things to a ponies minds, and if nothing else it does sound like Apple Bloom has been dealing with a lot of stress at home."

Starlight and Apple Bloom both raised a hoof to their faces. Once Twilight got an idea in her head it was sometimes difficult to dislodge it again.

Before anyone could say anything else, however, something drew the attention of all three ponies.

Where the ouija board had touched the cutie map, dark torrents of black liquid seeped into the crystal surface like thin varicose veins. The darkness spread beneath the surface of the map until it turned the crystal completely black.

Slowly, a magical projection of Equestria flickered to life. It was truly a dark reflection of the land that three ponies loved, with jagged and broken mountains, overgrown forests that seemed to have completely swallowed many of the cities and towns, and something that was even more disturbing: In the center of it all was a huge hole that seemed to extend down into the depths of the map. The swirling maelstrom of darkness sucked at the ponies eyes, not letting a single mote of light escape. It was right in the middle of where Ponyville should have been.

Suddenly, Twilight and Starlight both looked down at their flanks to see that their cutie marks were glowing! As they watched, tiny versions of their marks hovered precariously close to the edge of the yawning void in the center of the map. With a strange jerky motion they slowly drifted over to what looked like a broken down farm that sat just beyond the pool of shadow. There was no mistaking it... Their marks were floating right over where Sweet Apple Acres would be.

"Well..." started Twilight weakly, "I guess now we have no choice but to investigate."

Chapter 6

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They arrived at Sweet Apple Acres a short time later.

Iit was hard to believe that anything was wrong. It was a bright autumnal afternoon. The last of the birds were singing before being rounded up and sent south for the coming winter, the late season flowers were blooming and adding their mellow colors to the riot of reds, golds, and orange leaves that still littered the ground. Though the apple trees looked a little creepy denuded of their fruit and leaves, there was something almost comforting about seeing their thin limbs reaching towards the blue sky.

Applejack rushed out to meet them as soon as she spotted them coming up the dirt drive, “Landsakes Apple Bloom, Ah’ve been lookin all over for ya all mornin’! Yer brother needs help bringing in the apple crates out behind the barn and Ah have’ta start fixin’ lunch. Scoot round back and help him out so the food won’t be cold by the time y’all are done.”

“Sorry Applejack, but that’s gonna have’ta wait,” Apple Bloom gestured to Twilight and Starlight beside her. “There’s something going wrong around here and we’re going to get ta the bottom of it...”

“Now none of that missy,” replied Applejack sternly. “Ah’m sure whatever is wrong Twilight and Starlight can handle it for a few minutes without you.”


“No buts! Get!”

Apple Bloom looked pleadingly to her companions but Starlight simple shrugged and Twilight could only manage sheepishly to say, “Well, the Cutie Map did only summon us...”

With a frustrated sigh, that was more of a groan, Apple Bloom hung her head and started slowly towards the barn.

“That filly has been findin’ all kinds of excuses to get out of chores lately. Ah’d hoped she was done with those shenanigans but Ah guess she’s just gettin’ ta be that age,” Applejack said in a too loud 'conciliatory' whisper, prompting another sigh/groan from Apple Bloom who was still in ear shot. “Why don’t the pair of ya follow me to the kitchen. Y’all can fill me in on what’s goin on while I work on lunch."

As Apple Bloom left her sister and the others behind the day seemed to suddenly turn colder and darker along with her mood. She hadn’t expected Applejack to believe her right away, but she didn’t anticipate being ignored out of hoof before she even had a chance to tell her what was going on. It wasn’t likely that Big Mac really needed any help moving empty apple crates. The grown stallion could haul an overloaded wagon like it was nothing, so any help his kid sister might offer would be negligible at best.

It was clear to Apple Bloom that her big sister had just wanted her out of the way so the ‘adults’ could talk without worryin' about Apple Bloom butting in.

Still, the only thing she could do now was work to get the chore done as quickly as possible. Hopefully by then Twilight would have impressed on Applejack how serious the problem was...

Lost in such thoughts, Apple Bloom didn’t notice the strange changes going on around her. How the sky was steadily darkening despite there not being a cloud for miles, or how all of the wooden fences seemed to twist as the seasoned wood warped and grew grey and worm eaten. There was a clammy dampness to the air that hadn’t been there a moment ago, and the dust that Apple Bloom kicked up as she trotted across the yard seemed to rise slowly into the air behind her rather than settling back down to the ground like it ought to.

It was only when she reached the barn that Apple Bloom realized something was wrong. The edifice should have been warm and inviting, painted a cheery red. Instead it loomed, dark and cavernous over the filly, what little paint remained on its exterior blistered and peeling away, revealing the rotten planks beneath. Apple Bloom had the disquieting sense that she was seeing this barn for the first and possibly last time. Which didn;t make a lick of sense considering she had help put it up in the first place.

Hadn't she?

“Big Mac?” Apple Bloom called tremulously, “Are ya there? Applejack said that ya needed some... help...”

She couldn’t finish her sentence as the sound of a distant clanking and scraping noise came from deep inside the rickety building. Something heavy was being drug slowly towards her from that forbidding darkness. Something that made Apple Bloom’s mane and tail stand on end.

The sound steadily drew grew closer and closer, only growing louder as it did. The filly was frozen to the spot by fear. She wanted to run far away, but her legs wouldn't do what she wanted them to.

Mere moments later a hulking figure emerged into the half light of the darkened day, towering over Apple Bloom as steam rose off its haunches. The filly felt her heart cease to beat.

“We were waiting for you Apple Bloom,” whispered the enormous dark creature. It’s eyes rolled towards her, black liquid pouring like twin waterfalls from the blind white orbs. It smiled, showing rows of crooked broken teeth that also seeped the same rank liquid. Thick rusty chains hung from the horse collar the behemoth wore around its neck. The sound of them being drug over the barn floor was what had frozen Apple Bloom's blood before, but now realizing who it was that stood before her, it was the mere sight of the stallion that sent a chill down her spine.

“Big Mac?” she whispered, tears wobbling at the corners of her eyes.The fact that the monster resembled her big brother only enhanced the fear that had stopped Apple Bloom’s tiny heart.

“Now we can begin...”

Applejack busied herself with crockery and utensils with her back to her friends. There was a lot of activity but it didn’t seem like much work was getting done. Even so, it wasn't like Starlight and Twilight were domestic types, leaving most of the kitchen work to Spike when they weren't specifically baking something themselves for friends, and even then they tended to cheat and use their magic. Maybe making lunch the Earth Pony way always took this much prep on the Apple farm?

“Are you sure you don’t want any help with that Applejack?” asked Starlight. She got a little nervous when other ponies were working hard on something and she was sitting doing nothing.

“Wouldn’t dream of it sugarcube,” replied Applejack brusquely. “Now what’s all this talk about somethin’ bein’ wrong here at Sweet Apple Acres? Why, this here is one of the most peaceful and serene spots in Equestria. What could possibly be wrong here?”

“Well, we’re not exactly sure,” started Twilight before Starlight cleated her throat and gave her a meaningful look. Twilight pressed on, “But the Cutie Map has sent us so it does seem like there must be something. Apple Bloom came to us with some pretty disturbing stories and...”

“That filly,” interrupted Applejack, “Always telling tall-tales and getting folks worked up over nothin’. Ah tell ya Twi, ever since she got her Cutie Mark that one has just been a real hoof-full. Not that she wasn’t before either, Ah reckon, but the older she gets the worse she seems to behave.”

“So the problems with the ouija board, all the strange things Apple Bloom said she saw she’s just making it all up?” asked Starlight, her voice brittle and eyes narrow.

“Ah can’t rightly say Ah know all the details of what she’s filled yer heads up with, but Ah reckon ain’t a bit of it the truth,” replied AJ firmly, selecting a very large and sharp looking knife from the cutlery drawer. “Ya ask me, it was a waste of time y’all coming out here. If there is some kind of friendship problem on this farm, we Apple’s can take care of it just fine without any fancy Unicorns or Alicorns help.”

Starlight’s expression dissolved into a look of hurt, but the look of doubt on Twilight’s face instead changed to one of resolve,”I know how you like to be self reliant Applejack, but I thought you learned a long time ago that your friends are like your family. We’re here to help you with your troubles whether you want to acknowledge them or not.”

“Well, alright then, can’t say Ah didn’t try ta warn ya.” Applejack’s voice had a far away quality to it, flat and emotionless. She seemed occupied by whatever it was she was doing with the knife. A sharp iron scent suddenly hit both of the other ponies square in the nose.

“What exactly is it you are making for lunch?” asked Twilight, thrown off by the metallic odor.

Applejack suddenly brightened back up,”Oh, this? This is just something Ah’m makin’ up for Granny. Her teeth have been botherin’ her lately, so she’s on a liquid diet.” Applejack let the butchers knife clatter into the sink, and both of her friends could see it was streaked with blood and caked with gore.

As the farm pony turned around it wasn’t the tray of slightly steaming blood that caught their attention, but the hoof she was holding over it. She had stripped the skin halfway up her forelimb, exposing the red flesh beneath. Black veins bulged and throbbed in the angry looking meat as blood and black filth drained into the saucer, Despite this, the warm and welcoming smile never left Applejack’s face.


With that loud cry, a corpse suddenly fell from the ceiling and slammed onto the kitchen table with enough force to shake the kitchen. Twilight and Starlight both jumped back, nearly falling over one another in their haste to get away from the blood spattered dead body that lay across the table.

Only, the thing wasn’t exactly dead.

On closer inspection, the creature bore a disturbing resemblance to an emaciated Granny Smith. Her body was slick with black filth and long, sharp bony protrusions extended from all four limbs where her hooves should have been. Her tiny shriveled body hung in the air as she slowly rose into a crouch. Twilight looked up and could see where there was a long black smear leading out of the kitchen where the creature had apparently crawled along the ceiling to get into the room.

Applejack just laughed at her friends bewildered and horrified expressions, “You’ll have ta pardon Granny’s enthusiasm! It’s been a long time since she last fed and ya might say she’s a little desperate for a warm meal.” To the ponies disgust the corpse-like creature that Applejack referred to as her granny began to lick and slurp at the saucer of her granddaughters blood like a starving animal, grunting gutturally as she did so with gusto. Applejack's smile grew painfully wide as she waved her skinned limb in front of their staring eyes. “What’s the matter? Never seen a peeled Apple before?”

As the farm pony roared with maniacally laughter Twilight eyes met with Starlight's, “Okay, I am willing to revisit the theory that something supernatural may be occurring.”

“Now is not the time Twilight!” shouted Starlight, clearly freaked out as “Granny Smith” stopped slurping up her bloody meal long enough to raise her head and sniff the air, revealing rows of needle like teeth between her blood stained lips. Her eyes had gone completely white and seemed to be leaking the same thick black fluid that coated her body.

As suddenly as it started, Applejack’s laughter stopped. She seemed to be listening for something. Twilight and Starlight couldn’t help mimicking her, so they heard it too. In the distance, a filly was screaming. At that, ‘Applejack’ gave an uncharacteristic giggle. “Sounds like our little filly is finished helping out Big Mac. Starlight is right Twilight, now is not the time. No, it’s way past time for all of you. The harvest rots on the vine, and it’s due a good, solid reaping!”

Saying that, the farm pony scooped up the butcher knife from the sink and let out a high pitched scream before she lunged towards Starlight, brandishing the gore slick blade.

With only seconds to spare, Starlight threw up a magic barrier between herself and the howling creature that had so recently been Applejack. Without the least bit of effort, the manic passed through the barrier as if it wasn’t even there and plunged the kitchen knife down hard. Shocked by this development, the Unicorn couldn’t quite dodge in time, and the blade sank deep into the meat of her shoulder.

Starlight’s own high scream was a cacophonous counterpoint to Applejack’s own.

With a bark of laughter and a satisfied grin, Applejack removed the blade and gave its edge a long slow lick, slicing open her own tongue on the gorey edge. “Delicious,” she moaned. “I think we’ve found our second course!”

Starlight’s horn flared and her magic kept the wound closed, staunching her bleeding, but she was already soaked with blood down her back. There was panic in her eyes as Applejack eyed her hungrily. “Twilight, my magic isn’t working on her!”

“I know,” Twilight looked equally panicked. “I tried to pull her off you and my magic had no effect either. They seem to be out of sync with the thaumological laws of our reality!”

“What does that mean!?” squealed Starlight as the farmer gave the kitchen knife another long lick and smacked her lips.

“Oh Starlight, Twilight's first and slowest student,” mocked Applejack twirling the blade. “That just means your magic can’t touch us. But we can touch... you!”

As the maniacal Earth Pony lunged at Starlight once again, a nimbus of magic engulfed the table Granny Smith was squatting on and flipped it across the room and into Applejack, flattening her against the kitchen floor. “Well it looks like that touched you!” screamed Starlight triumphantly. Applejack struggled to get out from under the table, but slick as she was with blood she couldn't just push the heavy table off without the wood slipping out of her hooves.

"RRargh! Get 'em Granny!" screeched the fallen farmer.

For her part, the thing that had been Granny Smith gave a very unpony-like roar that split her face down the middle before she leapt back up onto the ceiling. Neither Twilight nor Starlight new what to expect but braced themselves for another attack. When the monstered started making loud retching noises, they lowered their guard for just a moment, confused as to what was happening. In that moment, 'Granny Smith' vomited a boiling stream of blood and black filth down on the two ponies.

Twilight was the first to react, raising her wings in front of herself and Starlight to shield them from the deluge of stinking liquid, but as she did her feathers began to sizzle and smoke. Agony wracked Twilight's body as her feathers fell like autumn leaves, smouldering as they littered the floor. The alicorn let out a tortured scream of her own as blood drizzled down her back and flanks.

"Twilight!" Starlight cried in alarm. "You'll pay for that you monsters!"

"No... time!" Twilight struggled to say through teeth clenched against the pain. "We... have to go! Come on!" Twilight practically had to drag Starlight out of the kitchen, she was so angry.

The Granny Smith creature clambered after them, lightning fast as she darted across the ceiling. The injured pair bought distance for themselves as they ran into the living room where the monster had to waste time climbing up the wall to the second story to remain above them. All the while it continued to spit it's acrid venom in their direction, but since they kept moving it only lightly singed their hides. Quick as a wink they were outside with the front door slammed behind them and held firm by their combined magic as the monster hammered at the wood.

"What do we do now?" asked Starlight. As if in answer, a fresh round of girlish screams echoed from the nearby barn.

"That has to be Apple Bloom," Twilight reasoned. "We need to get her away from here. Whatever is going on with the Apple family, she doesn't need to be in the middle of it. She doesn't need to see her family like... like this."

"Right," Starlight nodded, "Then we can come back with the Elements of Harmony and..." the unicorns eyes went wide. "Uh... wow. Maybe not. I don't think we're in Ponyville anymore."

For the first time, Starlight took in their surroundings. Twilight did the same and gasped aloud.

The sun was gone.

It wasn't that it was night, nor that it was cloudy. There was simply no sun, no moon, no stars. An endless black void yawned above them. Dust and puffs of something feathery floated gently in the still air. All around them the world had taken on an alien appearance. Thick fog floated between trees that looked overgrown and dead, yet were swollen and pulsed with a rotten vitality. Maggots and other insects squirmed beneath the tree bark, and similarly churned in the dark soil beneath their hooves. In the distance alien shapes darted through the gloom, the light from their eyes the only illumination in this darkened realm. Despite the darkness neither Twilight nor Starlight had any problem seeing every gastly detail.

Sweet Apple Acres had also changed. Gone was the cheery red paint and wholesome looking little buildings. In their place were broken down and rotten edifices as filthy and corrupted as the orchard that surrounded them. The barn didn't even appear to have a floor to it anymore and was instead just four walls erected around a huge yawning pit that sloped down deep into the decaying earth.

Of course, that was where Apple Bloom's screams now echoed from. It couldn't have been anywhere else.

Twilight shook her wings. They were useless as they were, covered in gunk and half burned. She wouldn't be flying anywhere anytime soon. Not that it looked like there was anywhere she wanted to fly any time soon. Not if what the Cutie Map had shown them of this dimension was accurate.

"So it seems we've slipped into another world. An alternate Equestria that has clearly seen better days," summed up Twilight. "We don't know how to get back, there is no hope of help coming, and we seem to be surrounded on all sides by monsters, some of whom look like the Apple family. Is that about it?"

"You left out our magic doesn't seem to work on them and um..." Starlight vanished for a second and then reappeared right where she had been before. "I just tried to teleport back to the castle and didn't go anywhere. So I think we can assume our magic will also be unreliable in general. Oh... and your poor wings are ruined."

"Doesn't matter," Twilight shrugged dismissively, wincing as she did. "It's not as bad as what that harpy did to your shoulder. Are you going to be alright?"

"I'll live."

Then we're just going to have to see this through," Twilight said resolutely. "The Cutie Map sent us here for a reason. If we're the two ponies best equipped to solve this mess than we will find a way to solve it."

As she said this a loud screech shook the still air and the sound of shattering glass drew their attention to one of the upper floors. The Granny smith looking creature flew out of one of the upper windows in a shower of glass shards. It landed heavily in the dust and with a snap, one of its limbs crumpled beneath it. That didn't stop it from using its other three limbs to drag itself towards the two ponies with surprising speed. Their eyes wide, Twilight and Starlight looked at each other and nodded.

"Looks like we can't stand around talking about this all day."

"Lets go!" With that, Twilight charged boldly towards the yawning abyss inside the barn.

"Yeah... lets go," Starlight winced. The wound in her shoulder would make keeping up difficult, but she didn't have much choice with that monster nipping at their heels.

Of course, she didn't notice the thick black liquid that had started to seep from the wound, taking the place of her blood...

Chapter 7

View Online

Apple Bloom tried to flee.

It might not have looked like that to a casual observer, but she really did.

The problem was her legs simply turned to jelly from fear. It didn't help that as soon as she turned away Apple Bloom felt rusty chains snake around her limbs, causing her to trip and tumble hard on the black muddy soil. As the filly's fall broke the crust of the filthy soil, centipedes and maggots boiled up from beneath the surface, swarming over her prone form. Apple Bloom's eyes went wide as she felt hundreds of squirming bodies envelope her, getting in her mane and tail. It was her reaction to this which prompted the initial burst of screams that had reached the ponies ears in the not so distant farmhouse.

The chains around ‘Big Mac’s’ collar wriggled, seemingly every bit as alive as the insects that churned up the muddy soil. They grasped Apple Bloom tightly and pulled the filly towards the waiting darkness of the barn. The furrow her body dug in the soil churned up ever more insects, so much so that a streak of worm and bug guts was left in the filly's wake. The smell was repugnant.

There was no anticipating what happened next. The looming monster that resembled Big Mac lifted Apple Bloom up out of the mud and... dusted her off, removing the larger clumps of mud and the particularly stubborn critters that still cling to her hair. He then gently set her across his broad, if slimy back, and began to trudge back into the darkness.

He was so unexpectedly gentle that at first Apple Bloom had no idea how to respond. She was still bound firmly by the creatures chains, but not so tightly as to chafe or dig into her flesh. Indeed the gentle rocking motion as the monster lumbered, down into what the filly could see was a deep dark pit gouged into the earth, was actually kind of relaxing.

Apple Bloom had practically been a foal the last time her big brother had carried her on his back like this.

Still, as the foul scent of decayed earth and rot wafted around her, she knew she didn’t want to go anywhere with this thing, who both was and was not her brother, would want to take her.

She started to try to struggle out of the chains, to work herself loose or at least off of his back. Unfortunately that just made the links tighten around her, hurtful for a brief moment, and then relaxed again. Apple Bloom cried out, screaming at the top of her lungs for help, but the restrictive chains crushed in around her again and made it difficult to breath.

Apple Bloom got the message loud and clear. She could either go along for the ride quietly, in relative comfort, or she could struggle painfully.

What a rotten choice!

Well there was only one thing left to do then.

“Just where is it ya think yer taking me ya big galoot!?” Apple Bloom blustered angrily, kicking the beast beneath her hard with her tiny hooves. She quickly swallowed her anger, however, and mollified her tone when she felt the creatures muscles shift beneath her, “Um, sir? If it’s not too much trouble ta tell me, that is...”

“We are going to the source. To the heart of the orchard," her kidnapper whispered, almost sadly. "The darkness from whence we all come and to which we will all one day return,”

“Gee, well isn’t that swell,” the filly muttered, not quite under her breath. “Ah suppose it’d be pointless to ask ya ta be more specific?”

“I’m taking you to your mother and father,” the beast answered simply, and then said no more.

They had gone deep into the earth by now, and the tunnel had widened into a kind of burrow or cavern. Thick roots intertwined with one another overhead. Viscous black liquid oozed from the organic ceiling. Apple Bloom could see all manner of creepy crawlies pulsing like a living blanket in the damp ceiling. Though it should have been pitch black down here, the filly had no trouble taking in every slimey detail.

She should have been terrified, should have been struggling to find a way to escape, but her captors words intrigued her.

“My mother and father?" she asked, unsure she had heard correctly. "They’re down here?"

“Yes,” ‘Big Mac’ replied simply. “They have been here for some time now. Would you like to see them?”

Apple Bloom took her time in answering.

Was it possible her parents were here somewhere? Or was this just some kind of trick to make her cooperate? Why bother lying about them while she was so firmly wrapped up in chains? It wasn't like she was going to be going anywhere else any time soon. If there was even the ghost of a chance Apple Bloom could see her parents, was it really worth the risk of missing such an opportunity?

“Yes... Yes I want to see them,” Apple Bloom stoically replied. “Take me to see my parents.”

It was hard to believe, but Twilight and Starlight were having a tougher time than little Apple Bloom. As soon as they had entered the tunnels, they had heard the tell-tale scratching noise of blade like legs scrabbling behind them. It wasn't a surprise that the creatures that had attacked them had followed after the pair, but they had thought with both of them injured they might have put more distance between them. Of course, Twilight and Starlight both were dealing with their own injuries as well, but it certainly didn't help that they could hear their pursuers drawing closer the deeper into the warren of tunnels they went.

It wasn't long before the first of the whispers started to echo around the pair.

“We’re gonna get ya! We’re gonna get ya! We’re gonna get ya!” the Applejack thing’s sing song voice chased them through the underground, mockingly. Her mad laughter seemed to come from every direction.

Worse, every time they paused to try and get their bearings and figure out which way Apple Bloom might have been taken, they could hear the Granny Smith thing as it snuffled the muddy earth to pick up their scent. It wouldn't be long now before Twilight and Starlight would have to worry about more than just sounds coming out of the dark to harry them. Running at a full gallop they might have been able to put more distance between themselves and their pursuers but, as dark as it was in these tunnel, doing so would have almost guaranteed a broken neck if they should stumble and fall.

Unfortunately Starlight's stamina had begun to flag as soon as they had entered this Celestia forsaken pit. Her magic was only barely holding the wound in her shoulder closed now, and thick dark veins could easily be picked out radiating from the puckered slit in her flesh. Twilight had seen enough to recognize an infection of dark magic when she saw it, but there was little she could do here and now to help her friend. Not if they were going to escape their pursuers and rescue Apple Bloom.

It didn’t help that Twilight’s wings still throbbed in pain. Fortunately they didn’t show any signs of a similar infection, but that didn’t make her burns hurt any less. The pair stopped to catch their breath, but both knew that they wouldn’t be able to continue on at this rate.

Something was going to have to give.

“Twilight. I want you to go ahead without me,” Starlight said between gasps of breath, her breathing labored partially from exertion and partially from the steady throbbing pain radiating through her body.

“No! I’m not going to leave you behind!" Twilight exclaimed, clearly flustered. "In your condition...”

“In my condition I’m just slowing you down," Starlight replied rationally, though not happily. "Your wings may be injured but your legs are just fine. Meanwhile, I can barely keep up with my shoulders stiffening up on me like this.” It was true. She could barely move her forelimbs now, even on her uninjured side. Running like this had done her more harm than good, and whatever was on that knife she had been stabbed with was only being spread through her blood stream all the quicker because of it. “You have to worry about Apple Bloom instead of me right now. I can take care of myself.”

“Starlight...” Twilight didn’t like it, but it seemed like they really didn’t have a choice right now. Pushing Starlight to run anymore seemed like it would only cause her more pain, and spread the dark magic in her veins all the quicker. Twilight would have attempted to carry her former student on her back, but with her wings damaged as they were she couldn’t even think about trying that without wincing.

She’d have to leave Starlight behind.

Twilight seemed to come to a decision, “I’ll be back as fast as I can! But don't try to fight them. Instead we should hide you. Rub yourself with some of this mud. I can cast a spell on it to help conceal you.”

As Twilight’s horn started to glow, the nimbus of energy immediately fizzled out. Starlight tried to ignite her own horn, only to encounter the same fizzling effect.

“Looks like that’s out of the question Twi,” Starlight gave a weak smile. “Well, I’ve been wanting to see if I can solve my problems without resorting to magic. I guess now is as good a time as any to find out if I can.” The unicorn stood proudly, if stiffly, her breathing calmed and her chin set firmly. Starlight turned her back on her mentor and faced the direction they had come from. The direction from which the sounds of their pursuers were only growing louder.

“Starlight, no. There has got to be another way...” Twilight was practically in tears.

“Go on Twilight. The least I can do is buy you some time. I’ve got this,” the unicorn put on a brave face. “You’ve got a filly waiting on you. I know you're scared and I am too, but think about how she must be feeling? Don’t make her wait too long to be rescued.”

Twilight choked back a sob.

“O-okay. See you soon,”

Saying that, Twilight turned and dashed down the tunnel before Starlight could see her tears. She didn’t know if that would be the last she saw of Starlight, and she didn’t want to think about it if it was.

Not right now.

Starlight was right. Apple Bloom needed her and she was far more defenseless than her former pupil.

Twilight just hoped she was somehow in time to not just save her, but Starlight and herself as well.

The further they went, the higher the ceiling grew.

As they had gone along the tunnels had gradually widened until they were now in something that would more accurately be dubbed a cavern.

Apple Bloom couldn’t help gazing in awe at the complex weave of roots that spread overhead. She didn't see as many bugs now and the intricately interlaced roots were strangely beautiful in a pale and other worldly way. That was not all that drew quiet admiration from the filly, as she could see tall white marble or granite pillars of in the distance on either side of the chamber they passed through. On closer inspection they were shot through with black corruption, some kind of mold perhaps, but even so they still towered majestically and supported the ceiling high above.

The ground was more even here, and here and there Apple Bloom could see a few wide stone tiles. There were also vast sconces, wide as a small pong, set on either side of the muddy path they trudged. Deep in the bowls there smoldered a curious black flame that cast neither light, nor heat, yet seemed to illuminate the entire cavern. Without their strange un-light, Apple Bloom might not have noticed the sudden shift in terrain. They were no longer following the muddy tunnel path, but instead had begun to travel down a flight of massive stone steps that led further into the depths below.

“What is this place?” The filly wondered aloud.

“We are close to the heart of the orchard now,” replied Big Mac in a deep voice that rumbled in Apple Bloom’s small chest, yet was still swallowed by the sheer cathedral-like size of the chamber they moved through now.

“Did you guys build all this?” asked Apple Bloom with awe in her voice. The chains were loose enough around her now she could have tried to run for it if she wanted to. If she had thought to. But her mind was occupied with many questions, and it was her curiosity that held her captive now. “The stairs and pillars and big bowls of weird fire? All this stuff?”

The creature began to quiver and shake, a strange wheezing sound escaping its throat.

It took Apple Bloom a little while to realize that this was this ‘Big Mac’s’ version of laughter.

“No, little one,” he replied in hushed tones tinged with mirth, before growing serious again. “These are his temples. They are his places of power. They can be found all over Equestria. Where darkness gathers a temple built in his name, in eons past, is probably buried close by, in deepest shadow.”

“Who's temple? Who's name? And why would ya go ta the trouble of buildin' such a beautiful and breathtakin' place just ta bury it?” Apple Bloom leaned forward, trying to peer into the ponies eyes, but they were hidden beneath his thick greasy mane. “Who built the temple then?"

Her captor didn’t answer right away, sighing heavily, as if this small conversation was in some way incredibly taxing and wearisome.

That didn't surprise Apple Bloom. Thinking about it, this would have been a lot of talking for the real Big Mac.

“The architects have long since passed out of this world. Who and what they were are questions with complex answers that would not satisfy you, nor would you understand the answers even if I gave them to you. As for the one that these temples were dedicated to...” he paused, as if he were struggling with himself. As if part of him was trying to resist divulging a secret that the rest of him badly wanted to tell. “We never learned his name. Not truly. Thousands of years ago he was known as the Pony of Shadows. But that name was doubly inaccurate. He was never a pony nor was he a mere shadow. His darkness reached further than even the deepest pits. He is the true sovereign of this world..." The darkness seemed to grow thicker for a moment. "Always has been. Always is. Always will be."

“The Pony of Shadows! Hey! Ah know him!” cried the young mare in recognition. “He was that fellow Stygian who originally got together the legendary heroes of Equestria. But Ah thought he was banished to Limbo, or his dark powers were, or somethin’ like that?”

“Perhaps in your world little one,” replied the beast as it finally reached the bottom of the stairs. The roots grew particularly thick here and reached down the walls of the cave and entwined around the crumbling pillars of the sacred temple, “But here he has ruled as long as anyone can remember. His darkness blankets this world and all who dwell here drown in despair.”

It seemed like they had finally reached their destination. They were surrounded on all sides by what appeared to be a vast black mirror. As Big Mac stepped forward onto the smooth dark surface, ripples spread out in every direction. It took Apple bloom a moment to realize what she was actually seeing was a huge black lake that spread as far as she could. As her captor walked across the oily sludge, he continued his story.

“This is why the orchard was planted. Once the sun and moon fled from us, all of the plants withered and died, leaving us with nothing but rot and decay to live off of. But soon we discovered that by tapping into the power of the sovereign, even the rot could be made to live, and grant life in turn to those who should have lost it. With the orchard thriving, we could live on in this dead and dying world, clinging to his shadow for sustenance." His voice was less quiet now, more sure and certain. There was a hint of religious mania to his words, not that Apple Bloom would understand what that fervor might portend. "He saw what we did, and he was glad, and he blessed us. The Apples have ever been his devoted servants since...”

Something was going on. There was movement high above them, and in the distance Apple Bloom could see a spot where the roots seemed to reach down deep into the heart of the lake of shadow.

All the Apples!” Big Mac thundered.

Apple Bloom could see it now. The deep hole in the middle of the lake that the black ooze dripped into, the roots that reached deeper still into that further abyss, and strewn among the roots the myriad bodies of ponies tangled in their grasp. Not only that, but the thick tendrils grew into and through their shriveled bodies. Most were corpses, long decayed but somehow preserved by the sticky black resin that seeped from the roots. Some of the ponies clearly still lived, although their eyes had long ago glazed over from madness or resignation to their horrible fate.

Now that she knew what to look for, Apple Bloom could see even more bodies among the roots above her head. It was from those bodies that the black liquid dripped, feeding the subterranean lake. The foul substance was the black blood of the damned!

This revelation was horror enough on its own, but that was not all. There were shapes moving among the roots on long, sharp spider-like limbs. They looked like they may have once been ponies themselves, long ago, but as they climbed upside down and latched their mouths full of needle sharp teeth onto the living corpses to suckle from their lifeless bodies, there was no doubt in Apple Bloom’s mind that these were nothing more nor less than monsters.

The ceiling was full of them!

“The heart of the orchard,” rumbled Big Mac, his sonorous voice lost and alone in this unholy place. “The darkness from whence we all came, and to which we will all one day return...”

Terror and revulsion flooded Apple Bloom, but even more than that was a sadness that threatened to overwhelm her completely. For at the center of the lake, the freshest additions to the malignant growth of the ‘orchard’, were regrettably familiar despite the fact she had not seen them in the flesh for years.

Bright Mac and Pear Butter.

Apple Bloom had found her parents.

Chapter 8

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“It’s so good to see you little Bloom." her father's corpse whispered. "It's been so long..."

Bright Mac's body was shriveled and pale. It looked like he had been ripped apart and stitched back together at some point, thick black thread ran all over his once large frame. Though he looked very much dead his eyes were still vibrant and alive and, though his body remained unmoving, they locked with Apple Bloom’s eyes immediately. There were so many warring emotions there... Happiness, sadness, apprehension, and more than a little fear. But the raw emotion that seemed to overpower all the others was... relief.

“Yes. It has been a long, long time, and we have been oh so very lonely,” murmured her mother's corpse. "But you are here with us now... And that's all that matters"

As worn and decayed as her husband looked, Pear Butter appeared far worse. Her bones showed through skin worn as thin and brittle as a papyrus. The tree roots, which had grown down deep into her body, seemed to have sucked almost all of the life out of her. Indeed, the fat white tendrils had grown down through her empty eye-sockets and branched out through her mouth and chest. It was a wonder she could speak at all. Even so, she showed no sign of pain or distress as Bright Mac did.

"Mom? Dad? Ah don’t understand... What is going on?” Apple Bloom blinked back tears. Without thinking about it she had shrugged off Big Mac’s chains and leaped down, running over to the edge of the pit just before her parents hanging bodies. She reached out a single tiny hoof towards them, but they were just out of reach “How did y’all get here?”

“That’s a long and sad story little Bloom," answered Bright Mac, his withered muscles shifting slightly. "Ah don’t think we should ruin our happy reunion by dwelling on the past,”

“She has a right to know dear. There should be no secrets between us. Not now that she can finally join us,” Pear Butter admonished her husband without moving at all.

“Well, alright. Where to begin?” Bright Mac seemed to be struggling. “How about-“

How about you start with the fact that you aren’t her real parents!?” shouted Twilight. The Princess of Friendship struggled through the tar like waters, but righteous fury seemed to lend her all the strength she needed. “How about you tell her how you tricked and manipulated her here so you could feed off of her despair!?”

Interloper! We will suffer no weeds in our orchard!” thundered the creature who moments ago resembled Big Mac before his body unfolded and seemed to grow shadowy and indistinct. The massive pony-creature reared back on his hind legs and pawed at the air, the rusty chains on his back coming to life and rattling around him like angry snakes. The chains flew through the air towards Twilight as his hooves came down hard, sending a wave of dark water crashing towards her as well.

Twilight’s horn flared darkly, a smokey purple haze drifting up from her eyes as well, green sparks of magic leaping from her eyes and horn. The iris of her eyes turned from purple to red red as black flames shot from her horn, evaporating the wave and crumbling the chains to dust. Big Mac howled in pain as if it were he that was burning and crumbling away.

Indeed, mere moments later, he began to writhe and scream as though it was his own body that was engulfed in invisible flames. In a flash he was suddenly awash in dark flames from his head to his hooves. The stallion stomped about, trying to extinguish himself in the lake water but the black liquid only seemed to feed the flames. He stumbled blindly, screaming himself hoarse, the stink of roasting horse flesh an unwelcome addition to the perfume of wet rot and decay.

Finally, Big Mac turned and blindly charged the pit at the center of the lake. He didn't even pause a single moment before he plummeted over the edge and vanished into the invisible depths below. The pit must have gone down for miles... for Big Mac’s screams didn’t cease for some time, and when they at last faded into inaudibility it was not because they had ended, but because he was simply too far away.

“Twilight!?” Apple Bloom was shocked at the violence of Twilight’s appearance.

“This worlds Big Mac was awfully chatty. I figured it out while I was chasing after you two.” The flames faded and the dark energy emanating from Twilight’s horn subsided, though purple smoke still seemed to drift from her eyes for a few seconds. “This world isn't dying... It's already been dead for some time. That’s why my magic faded here, because such magic no longer exists in this reality. Fortunately Celestia taught me a few spells that can tap into the darkness that seems to pervade this realm. Although, I’ll admit, I had no intention of setting that creature on fire. I had no idea that spell would be that effective.”

“Wait so... was he telling the truth, or was this all a lie?” asked apple Bloom, confused. "Ya said ya figured it out from listenin' to him?"

“Call it an educated guess." replied Twilight, carefully putting herself between Apple Bloom and the pit. "When he mentioned the Pony of Shadows everything finally clicked. When the darkness took Stygian, it came to him when he was at his most vulnerable. Cast out, alone, and wrestling with feelings of self-doubt, betrayal, and despondency. Does any of that sound familiar? It’s exactly the kind of feelings you’ve been having Apple Bloom, and exactly what these fake parents have been nurturing.”

Apple Bloom turned to her ‘parents’. “Y’all ain’t really mah parents then? Y’all just pretended ta be to get me tah come here. Y'all used me?”

"She doesn't know what she's talkin' about Apple Bloom!" shouted Bright Mac angrily, "Yer Ma and Pa are right here! We Just-"

"Bright Mac..." chided Pear Butter quietly.

There was a soft sigh from Bright Mac. He seemed to grow a little smaller as he said, “You need to understand. You were so lonely, so sad.”

“You called to us from across the void," added Pear Butter, a long centipede crawling over her face. "You blazed like a bonfire against a midnight sky. We were lonely too. We thought it would be better if you were here with us.”

“Look around you little Bloom... Does anyone seem like they're sad or in pain?” asked Bright Mac, his eyes moving over the ceiling. “We are all together, part of something greater here in the orchard. We wanted to share that sense of belonging with you.”

“But as alone as you were it wasn’t enough," rasped Pear Butter. "Though you didn't appreciate them like you should have, you still had family, friends. You didn’t truly know despair..."

"Despair is what he desires."

"What he feeds on."

"To reach you..."

"To bring you to us..."

" To cross over from your realm to ours, the seed of your sadness would have to blossom into despair.”

“So you did trick me!” Apple Bloom realized, horrified. “All those terrible pranks ya made me pull, and all those horrible things ya told me to say! You wanted me to drive my friends and family away! You wanted to make me as miserable as all of you! Y'all were tryin' ta hurt me the whole time!”

“Apple Bloom there is more to it than that-“ began one of her ‘parents’ but it was impossible to tell who.

“Shut up! Just shut up!” she was crying but her words were choked with anger rather than sadness or fear. “Ah’ve been so unhappy and so afraid, for weeks now, and it’s all because y’all thought being with you in this disgusting hole in the ground would somehow make mah life easier!? Ya thought that would make me happy!? That seeing ya like this would somehow put me at ease!? I hate you! I hate this place! I don’t know why ya would think anyone would ever want to be anywhere near ya let alone in such an awful place!”

“Oh I don’t know Apple Bloom, it’s not so bad once you get used to it.” chuckled a familiar, yet strangely altered voice.

“Starlight?” Twilight gasped, but had no time to wonder at her wounded friends sudden reappearance before tendrils of liquid shadow shot up from beneath her and bound her legs and horn. She tried to summon up the spell she had used before, to burn away the clinging darkness, but the tendrils tightened around her burned wings with a twist and sent a white hot wave of agony through her body. She cried out pitifully, her concentration completely broken, and any spell work she might have done rendered impossible.

“Twilight!” Apple Bloom cried, terrified by the adults screams. “Starlight how could you? Ah thought you were our friend!”

“That’s not... Starlight,” Twilight barely managed to croak out before the tendrils gripped her more tightly and crushed the air from her lungs.

“I’d tell you to save yourself some pain and just surrender to the darkness Twilight, but we both know you’re a fighter,” Starlight said with mock admiration as she stepped into view. It was as if her entire body had somehow absorbed the lake water. Her body was a shiny jet black, her mane hanging limp beneath the black slime, while her eyes glowed a ghostly white. Starlight sneered. “Honestly I think I’d rather enjoy watch you squirm, so struggle away little Princess!”

Through the pain, Twilight realized that the unicorn looked much like Stygian had when he was possessed by the Pony of Shadows! As Starlight’s laughter echoed through the cavern the strange spider-like ponies began to descend from the ceiling above on long black threads. They surrounded Apple Bloom on all sides, their gaunt corpse like bodies perfectly still as if they were waiting for something. From behind Starlight appeared the one that resembled Granny Smith and a skinless pony wearing a dusty old farm hat.

“Ah take it the offering is to your liking my lord?” asked the flayed pony, reverently. To Apple Bloom’s horror, she recognized the voice as that of her older sister, Applejack. It seemed her hide had been completely removed at some point, though it was impossible to tell how long ago. She showed no signs of being in pain, but it was difficult to look at the her glistening raw flesh.

“Indeed! You have outdone yourselves this time my little ponies!” Starlight/The Pony of Shadows praised them with a deeply disturbing laugh. “This vessel is full of such delightful neuroses! Anxiety, obsession, self-doubt, and depression! Such unique and intense negative emotions are to be cultivated and savored! In time she will provide a truly heady draught of despair. I can’t wait to sample the other offerings you have gathered for me.”

As she said this, long tendrils of liquid shadow began to creep up Apple Bloom’s legs, not seizing her like Twilight but squeezing her in the same way she sometimes saw ponies squeeze an apple at the market. It was as if Apple Bloom was being tested for ripeness. That thought made the filly shudder.

“Happy to oblige my lord,” the bloody Applejack smirked. Not that she had much choice but to smile, what with her lips peeled off along with the rest of the skin on her face. “I am ready to receive your blessings, whenever ya like.”

This made the possessed Starlight pause. “Hm, are you indeed? It was your brothers turn to receive the dark baptism, but I do not sense his presence,” Starlight tilted her head and sniffed at the air, as if searching for Big Mac’s scent. “No matter. He can have the next turn. Step forward daughter of the Apple’s and receive my gift!”

As ‘Applejack’ took a step towards her master, the shallow lake seemed to rise up around her. Or rather, she began to slowly sink in with each step. When she had just about reached Starlight, the dark water reached her muzzle. Something like fear flickered in her eyes then, but she was soon swallowed whole by the black liquid. A long muffled wail seemed to rise from below, but was cut off almost as soon as it had begun.

Slowly, a new shape began to rise out of the mire.

The corpse-like creature was clearly still Applejack, but gone were her hooves, replaced with long scythe like claws at the end of each leg. The new appendages made her much taller and far more gangly than before, though that was at least partially due to her little remaining flesh shrinking around the bones that now jutted out of her body. The monster opened its mouth revealing rows of needle sharp teeth and let out a high pitched cry that was echoed by the other monsters that surrounded them.

“With that the pact is sealed,” Starlight boomed with a rumbling laugh, clearly pleased with herself. “Now we will planet a new seed of darkness and let our orchard grow!”

Having said that Starlight, or rather the Pony of Shadows within her, turned her full attention on Apple Bloom. Vast wings of darkness spread on her back and she seemed to grow in size as the shadows whirled around her.

“Fight it!” cried Twilight, finally able to breath again as the shadows binding her were sucked into their master, loosening their grip. “You have to fight it Starlight! I know deep down inside you there’s a light that the Pony of Shadows could never hope to snuff out! Hold on to that spark of light and fight!”

“Starlight is gone!” thundered the Pony of Shadows. But even as his voice shook the cavern, a crack of light appeared in the shadowy surface of his ‘skin’. The cracks quickly spread across the dark mirror like surface of his body, little glowing spider webs spreading all over his form “No! This isn’t possible! I am all powerful here!”

With one last defiant roar a column of light exploded in the cavern, driving away the arachnid ponies and evaporating the lake of darkness in a flash of foul vapor.

Twilight and Apple Bloom were free!

For a moment, Starlight floated serenely in mid-air, but then in another flash of light all three ponies vanished!

Chapter 9

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At first it was hard to tell that they had gone anywhere.

The roof above was choked with roots, there were what looked like the columns of a vast and forgotten temple all around, and a large pit in the middle of it all. However, the moisture in this cavern was simply water dripping from above. There were no pony corpses, living or dead, dangling from the roots as far as Apple Bloom and Twilight could see. The air was the same slightly musty scent you get from any cavern with a colony or two of bats, but aside from that the thick miasma of rot and decay was nowhere to be found.

As Twilight’s horn blazed to life, a bright white orb of light taking shape on the tip of her horn, the darkness all around them fled away. What was revealed was a perfectly normal cave... And Starlight, collapsed on the ground. The wound in her shoulder had reopened, and a wide pool of blood was slowly spreading around her body.

“Starlight, no!” Twilight cried in alarm and quickly set to casting spells to staunch the flow of blood and heal the wound.

All Apple Bloom could do was watch while Twilight scrambled to help her friend. She couldn’t help but feel bad for dragging Starlight and Twilight into all this. If she understood what was going on, and she thought she did, it seemed it was all her fault for dwelling on the loss of her parents. She had caused this, as much as those crazy copies of her family members. If she had just been satisfied with the life she had, the family and friends she had, then maybe none of this would have ever happened in the first place.

As the guilt rose up inside her, a soft voice “Apple...Bloom...” drifted to the filly's ears.

She spun around. Behind her was a pit not unlike the one she had seen in the other world. It’s depths were equally hidden in shadow, though it looked quite empty from what she could see. Had she really heard a voice coming from there? Carefully, slowly, she leaned over the edge and gazed into the abyss below.

Wreathed in black flames, a skeletal pony rose from the depths! Empty eye sockets that blazed with hunger bored into Apple Bloom's soul as it hissed “Stay with us!” before a rusty chain wrapped around her throat!

She had just enough time to scream before she felt a great weight tug her forward... and over the edge into the darkness below.

“Apple Bloom!?” Twilight looked up when she heard the filly cry out. She had been distracted, tending to Starlight so she had lost track of the youngest Apple sibling. She turned the light of her horn up as far as it would go and swept it around the cavern left and right. At last the light fell on a little yellow pony with a bow in her red hair standing at the edge of a huge pit, “Apple Bloom are you okay?”

She didn’t answer right away, but when she did her voice was hushed, so quiet it would have been lost entirely were it not for the comparative silence of the cave. “Ah thought ah heard... Ah thought Ah saw something, down in the pit. Ah think it’s just the dark playin’ tricks on me.” In a louder voice, that trembled slightly with tears, she intoned the mantra of children everywhere who had regretfully had enough “Ah want to go home.”

Twilight’s heart broke for the little filly. She hadn’t asked for any of this, and it was clear the experience had left her shaken. “We’ll get you home as soon as we can, but first we have to get Starlight out of here. I’ve done what I can to stabilize her for now but she needs a doctor.”

The bleeding had stopped at least, but Starlight was still out like a light. It was clear she wasn’t going to be going anywhere under her own power any time soon.

“I’d just teleport us all to the hospital, but I’m worried my magic might not be a hundred percent back to normal yet. With my wings in the shape they’re in, it’ll be hard carrying her on my own,” Twilight lifted her burned wings gingerly as if to illustrate her point. “Think you can help me get Starlight out of here Apple Bloom?”

The filly sniffed hard and wiped at her nose with the back of her hoof, but she nodded her head. “Uh-huh. Just leave it ta me!”

Getting out of the cavern ended up being much easier than Twilight thought it would be.

It turned out the chamber they were in connected up to a tunnel system she had actually stumbled into a few Nightmare Night’s back that extended under the area where the Apple family put up their annual ‘Haunted Corn Maze’. There were a few twists and turns, and a lot of gnarly roots to navigate, but in no time at all they were out in the fresh night air under the glow of a full moon.

Twilight could have bathed in that moonlight after the dark claustrophobic depths she had just crawled out of, but getting Starlight help was her first priority. Fortunately Sweet Apple Acres wasn’t far and Applejack, the real Applejack, had taken one look at the stricken Starlight and had run to fetch the paramedic ponies.

When the pegasi medics arrived there was a whirl of activity and questions that Twilight took great care to oversee, once her own burned wings had been bandaged and splinted of course. As the pair of fliers carefully loaded Starlight into a snug harness so they could carry her to the hospital, Twilight sat down with the whole Apple Family at their unbroken dining room table to tell them everything that had happened.

"Are ya tellin' me the Pony of Shadows is back!?" cried Applejack in alarm after Twilight had finished telling her story.

"Not exactly Applejack, at least I don't think so," replied Twilight, her brow furrowed as she clearly sought for the right words to both allay her friends fears but also convey the gravity of the situation. "The Pony of Shadows was banished from our world, but there are other worlds out there, like the human world where Sunset Shimmer lives. While our Pony of Shadows was banished to limbo and likely will never return, there are other worlds with their own ponies who fell for the promises that the darkness made to them. Twisted reflections of the Equestria we all know and love."

"Ah'll say!" chimed in Granny Smith. "A world where the Apple family consumes its own, sowin' them in the ground like seeds and reapin' their life force, drainin' them till they ain't nothin' but living corpses! Whoo-nelly, it gives me the heebie jeebies just thinkin' about it!"

"Eeyup." was Big Mac's contribution to the conversation.

"And our Apple Bloom somehow attracted their attention?" asked Applejack

"It's important that I stress that it was not Apple Bloom's fault," Twilight answered with a sad look in her downcast eyes. "Any pony that was lonely or depressed could have attracted their attention. That Apple Bloom happened to live here at Sweet Apple Acres and was a member of the Apple family herself just made the attraction all the stronger. Their world isn't just dying, it's dead, and the only way they have to keep living is to drown other ponies in sorrow so they can draw them in from other worlds to feed on. That's why I think they tampered with the Cutie Map through the Ouija board. They didn't just want Apple Bloom but anyone close to her as well."

"So it was this Weegee-doo-hicky that was ta blame for everythin' then?" asked Granny Smith, touching the innocent looking game board that sat on the kitchen table tentatively, as if she expected it to jump up and bite her.

"No, it really is just an ordinary piece of wood. I'm still not sure how, but it simply served as a conduit to the other world through which the dark power of the evil Apple family could flow," Twilight held the game board between her hooves. "I suspect it was Apple Bloom's own strong emotions and focus on the board that allowed this, but with the wards I've placed up around the farm there shouldn't be anymore risk of it being used by nefarious forces from outside our own dimension. It's just a piece of wood now, with no special powers for good or ill."

Applejack seemed to consider Twilight's words carefully. When she next spoke, though her eyes were hidden by the brim of her hat, her voice was clearly thick with emotion. "Is Apple Bloom going to be okay?"

"She's been through a lot Applejack. It doesn't seem like she was hurt physically, but there are some wounds that we can't see. It was such wounds that drew the other worlds attention to her in the first place. Unless those heal... I'm not sure I can really answer that question one way or the other," Twilight set down the ouija board and turned her back on the Apple's. "I should get going. I want to check up on Starlight before I head back home. In the morning we'll all go back down into those caverns and we'll find those ruins again. I think that it's those that are the real source of this problem and the sooner we find a way to seal them off or destroy them the sooner we can put all of this behind us."

"You take care of yerself too Twilight. Thems some nasty burns ya got on yer wings there. Er... how didja say that happened again?" Granny Smith eyed the alicorn Princess as if she didn't wholly expect to be told the truth.

"Just like I said Granny, they accidentally got burned off by a spell that I cast," Twilight lied, awkwardly. While she hadn't been shy about relating the truth about the evil versions of Big Mac, Applejack, and even the fate of Bright Mac and Pear Butter in the other world, she somehow felt uncomfortable telling Granny Smith about the acid spewing, blood slurping, beastial version of herself. "I'm sure they'll heal soon. Try not to worry about me. It's Apple Bloom that needs your love and attention right now."

Saying that, Twilight vanished in a flash of purple magic.

"Ah reckon she's right about that," Granny Smith looked forlornly up the stairs to the second floor where Apple Bloom's room was.

"Eeyup," added Big Mac sadly.

"Ah'll talk to her," said Applejack stoically. Her eyes might have still been hidden by her hat, but the tears streaming down her freckled cheeks were all too apparent. "It's high time she heard the honest truth."

Chapter 10

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Applejack knocked softly at the door to Apple Bloom's room. It was clear from the puffiness around her eyes that she had been crying, but the farm pony had done her best to put on a brave face before she said, "Apple Bloom, sweetie, is it alright if Ah come in?"

There was no answer.

She stood there for some time, listening to the old farm house settle. She couldn't really fathom what her little sister had been through, but she didn't think sitting alone in her room was the best thing for her right now. Even so, she hesitated to just barge in on her.

What she wanted to tell Apple Bloom, what she was about to say, those were things she hoped she would never have to tell her. Or at the very least Applejack hoped that it would be saved for a conversation she had with her kid sister once she had become an adult. Maybe when she was sixty or so. Yeah...

The truth was a part of her didn't want Apple Bloom to come to the door. Or even better, she wanted her little sister to just tell her to go away. Then she could keep putting off the conversation and at least say that she had tried.

Who am Ah kidding? Applejack thought to herself. The family had put it off for so long that in the end it seemed that it had done real harm. If she didn't tell Apple Bloom the truth now then there was every chance it was only going to get worse. Steeling her resolve, the Element of Honesty reached to turn the knob on the bedroom door...

And froze.

Just beyond the cracked wood, Applejack thought she could just make out quiet voices whispering. It was low and hushed, but at least one voice was clearly that of Apple Bloom. Fearing the worst, Applejack quickly opened the door. She strode into the room both dreading what she might find, but also readying herself to deal with whatever it might be.

Instead she found Apple Bloom, simply sitting on the floor and staring at her in alarm.

"Is everything okay sis?" asked Apple Bloom, her eyes wide with surprise.

"Er... Yeah," replied Applejack, deflating somewhat as the adrenaline in her system abated. "Were you uh, talkin' ta somepony just now?"

Apple Bloom shook her head. "No Applejack, Ah wasn't talkin' ta anypony. Ah wasn't talkin' ta anypony at all."

Applejack breathed a sigh of relief. "Sorry, with everythin' that's happened Ah was worried ya might have been chattin' with spooks again with a ouija board."

"Nah sis, Ah don't need one of those things anymore," Apple Bloom said firmly. "Ah've learned mah lesson. Ah ain't gonna be usin' that thing ta reach out to anypony anymore. Not after all the trouble Ah've caused."

Applejack felt her heart shrivel in her chest at her little sisters downcast look. It was clear that she was miserable over everything that had happened, and she clearly blamed herself for it all. "About that sugarcube. Ah got somethin' Ah've been meanin' ta tell ya, but Ah..." the farm pony struggled for words. She took a moment to compose herself and sat down on the edge of Apple Bloom's bed. "Well, me and the rest of the family were sort of waiting for the right time ta tell ya and well... Given the circumstances, Ah reckon now is as good a time as any."

"Oh, what's that?" asked Apple Bloom getting up from the floor and coming to sit next to her big sister on the bed.

"It's about mom and pop. Bright Mac and Pear Butter. Ah now that we lost them when ya were still practically just a foal so ya probably don't remember things too well. Truthfully speaking we had kind of hoped that ya had forgotten and ya wouldn't have to remember but... "Applejack wrapped one forelimb around Apple Bloom's shoulders. "I want ya to know we never meant to hurt ya by not tellin' ya. Quite the opposite in fact. We wanted to protect ya."

"Applejack," Apple Bloom suddenly looked older and wiser beyond her years. "Quit beatin' around the bush. If ya got somethin' ya want to tell me, just spit it out already."

"Right, right. Yer right Apple Bloom. Here Ah am still tryin' ta put it off." Applejack removed her hat and took a deep breath before plunging ahead. "Mom was a strong pony. She'd had Big Mac and me, no problem, and Big Mac... well he was big even as a foal. That was how they picked his name! That was why it was a bit of a shock when the pregnancy went wrong. One afternoon Ah had laid down with mama for a nap, and when Ah woke up ah was all alone. Big Mac, Granny, mama and papa had all gone."

She let those words hang in the air for a moment. There was only the sound of the wind in the night outside Apple Bloom's window, shaking the glass ever so slightly. Applejack's hooves were shaking too.

Applejack took another deep breath to steady herself. "The bed was soaked in blood. So was I, come to that. There was actually a trail of it leading ta the bathroom. The towels were soaked too and there was a red ring around the bathtub. Ah had no clue what was going on until Auntie Applesauce came by ta pick me up. She got me cleaned up and took me to her house. Ah kept askin' her where everypony was, where mama and papa were, but she'd just change the subject and try to distract me with puzzles and colorin' books."

Apple Bloom reached over and placed her hoof on top of Applejack's own shaking hoof. "Go on."

"Right. It wasn't until some time later that she took me up ta the hospital and Ah found out Ah had a new baby sister. Ya were just the tiniest little thing. It was still a good two or three months before ya were supposed ta be born, so we couldn't hold ya or nothin'. They had ya hooked up ta so many tubes and wires and things that if they had offered ta let me hold ya Ah think Ah woulda been too afraid to," Applejack smiled slightly when she said that, but the grin quickly faded. "Ah knew somethin' was wrong when Ah noticed no one was happy. Ah'd been to enough birthin's even at that age ta know that the Apple clan celebrated big when a new member was born into the family. Everypony Ah saw that day was ashen faced and grim. Big Mac and Granny Smith were both bawlin, and papa... well papa just held onto mama's hoof fer dear life. She was hooked up ta even more machines than you were."

"So Ah'm the reason mama died," Apple Bloom said flatly.

"No!" Applejack said forcefully, grabbing her little sister by the shoulders and shaking her. "No! see that is exactly why we didn't tell ya. We was worried ya would come ta that conclusion. Buttercup was strong and always had been. She survived the pregnancy but... but she never was the same after that." Applejack let her sister go gently and looked down at her hooves. "She grew weaker and weaker as the years went by. One mornin' we went in ta wake her up and she just... she just couldn't open her eyes. She had fought hard and given everything she could, but in the end they said it was some kind of blood poisoning that took her. Some kind of an infection that just went unnoticed and untreated for years. It had been so long since she had you, since she was sick, that it really stumped the doctors. The sad fact was that with helping out on the farm and raising three children, she just hadn't had the time to take care of herself."

"But there's more, isn't there?" asked Apple Bloom quietly.

Applejack set her jaw firmly. "Yeah, there is. Losin' mama hit dad hard. He turned ta the cider barrel more and more. We tried ta make him stop, but mama had been his whole world, and his sun and moon too. From the time that they had been kids themselves, his life had revolved around her. There was no way for him ta deal with her loss without dullin' the edges of his pain a bit." Applejack stopped, as if she wasn't sure how to continue. She looked up to the ceiling. "They say he probably didn't even notice when he stepped onto the tracks. They figure it was too dark and he was too drunk to realize what he was doin'. There were rumors o'course. Plenty of folks said it was a broken heart what drove him ta step in front of the Friendship Express, but our daddy weren't no coward like that. He may have been a bit of a fool, and he certainly was tryin' ta avoid his problems, but Ah can't see him as the sort of stallion that would leave behind three children of his own intentionally like that."

She'd done her best, but remembering what had happened to her father and all of the nasty rumors folks had spread about him was too much for Applejack. The tears came fast and hard, streaming down her face, though she struggled to contain the sobs that wracked her small frame. She whimpered and hiccuped a little, but she refused to lose it completely in front of Apple Bloom.

To her surprise she felt herself wrapped up suddenly in a warm hug. Little Apple Bloom was squeezing her tight. That only made her cry harder, burying her face in the top of her sisters head and making a mess of the filly's mane.

"There, there Applejack, shh," Apple Bloom hushed her older sister, rocking her gently back and forth on the edge of her bed. Applejack could feel wetness as the tears of her little sister soaked her front. Her voice was soft and sad as she said "It's going to be okay. Everything is gonna be fine."

Applejack snorted loudly. She needed a tissue. She tried to pull away from her little sister but Apple Bloom held her firmly. "Hey... uh. Could ya let me go fer a second Apple Bloom?"

"No..." the filly replied in a hollow voice.

If anything, Apple Bloom squeezed her tighter. "Apple Bloom!," Applejack struggled but she couldn't break her little sisters grip. "Apple Bloom yer hurtin' me!"

"Ah can never let you go again," whispered the filly sadly. "But don't worry... Like Ah said, everythin' is gonna be fine. Pretty soon yer gonna see yer parents again. We'll all be together again. Just one big, happy Apple family. All you have to do... is stay with us."

Apple Bloom looked up at Applejack and smiled. In the candle-light, her wide sad smile sent a chill down the spine of her older sibling. The smile was so wide, in fact, that Applejack could see that Apple Bloom's skin just barely hung on her face. Raw, red, and angry looking flesh peeked out at the corners of her mouth and beneath her sagging eyelids.

The tears that streamed from Apple Bloom's dead eyes were black and filthy.

"Stay with us forever."