Agent Spike’s claw tapped in a slow, methodical sequence against the steel table bolted to the floor. His scaly eye ridges scrunched in concentration as he studied the files that Director Armor practically threw in his arms. Normally the veteran would be cool when handing Spike his assignments, like with the “Iron Mare”, but this one was an odd case, and he knew it just from his boss’s strange excitement from the relatively minimal amount of data. Sure he’s heard of the stories revolving around this particular pony, but he honestly saw no reason to get school filly giddy over a bunch of bones. If they even found bones.
Spike grabbed his mug of hot chocolate and took a small sip, still reading the files, but when he swallowed his drink, he realized that his taste buds might never forgive him for allowing cold hot chocolate in his mouth. Spike frowned and quickly warmed up his mug with a short burst of fire. He took another sip and smiled. He had been forgiven, and could now resume his reading with more ease.
Midway through the page on the subject’s psychological evaluation, there was a rather timid knock on the door to his office. Spike pushed a small red button on his desk like it was second nature, and the door slid open with barely a sound. But even with the door open, Spike was still preoccupied reading into the mind of the missing soldier they are searching for.
“Um, excuse me, Agent Spike?” said a stallion, his voice shaky.
The lanky purple dragon looked up from the files to face a rather thin pegasus standing in his doorway. The pegasus is bundled up, too, and trembling slightly from the nippy air of the hallway he’s in.
“Yes, Agent Cloudcover, what is it?” asked Spike half heartedly, hoping to Celestia it wasn’t another one of those tattle-tale moments.
“Um, well, Agent Spike, are you a hundred percent sure that we’ll find anything out here? Anything at all? I mean, look at it out there,” he motioned towards a large window, only to realize that the window was covered with thick curtains.
He smiled sheepishly as Spike tried to contain his unimpressed look when he pulled open the curtains. After pulling aside the curtain, though, Spike had to wait for a gloomy cloud to drift by in order for them to see the seemingly endless expanse of white snow and ice almost as far as the eye could see. It was almost completely featureless, save for the occasional crevasse or crack that resembled infected scabs. The end of the wasteland was marked by dark mountains whose peaks were shrouded by a thick blanket of the grayish clouds looming over the forsaken land.
“I’ve never seen such a hopelessly desolate wasteland in my entire life.” Cloudcover said, a worried look on his face.
The view did make Spike sympathize with Cloudcover. The frozen north had always been a place that not too many ventured to due to its harsh climate and the many stories revolving around the supposed supernatural phenomena in the area. But ghost stories aside, any sane person would know that you had a better chance of finding half a needle in a ton of hay than anyone or anything in the cursed land that Shining Armor had sent them to. Especially if its been exposed in the harsh terrain for decades.
Spike closed the curtain and put a hand on the pegasus’ shoulder, but mostly to calm a slight uneasiness in his own stomach. “Don’t worry Agent Cloudcover. It’ll be fine. I’m pretty sure that Director Armor has good reason for us to be out here right now. He obviously wouldn’t send us on a wild goose chase without any evidence now would he?”
The pegasus ruffled his feathers in a pitiful attempt to warm himself up. “Well…I guess not. But what if the satellite photos were wrong? I mean, it could be anything that it saw. Could have just been a random outcropping of ice that made a funny shaped shadow, I mean it’s happened before.”
Spike paused. He did have some doubts about the photo himself, it had been grainy and the satellite that had taken the photo was notorious for having bad cameras. But, apparently, the photo had been enough to convince Director Armor to send a small expedition to the Crystal Mountains on their last available zeppelin. A zeppelin that was in desperate need of repairs.
During the trip up, Spike kept telling himself that if the evidence was good enough for Director Armor, then it was good enough for him. But, alas, the farther he got into the frozen north, the more his doubt sunk in.
“You do have a point, but I still feel that this isn’t pointless,” Spike said, trying to keep his skepticism in check. He turned to look out the window again, slowly scanning the ground below, searching for anything that might look out of place. “If anything, we at least get some nice sight seeing out of it, am I right?”
“Well…I guess…” Cloudcover said, turning away and trotting down the hall.
Spike watched the scenery for a couple more seconds before bundling up with all the coats, socks, and gloves he could put on his body. And once his three layers of each were put on, he finished it off with ear muffs, a hat, and a scarf. Spike could barely move by the time he finished, but to him, it was totally worth it.
He grabbed his files and trailed Cloudcover; along the way he nodding politely to the mechanics who were working tirelessly on the constantly malfunctioning heating systems and other passing agents who were trying to keep warm. Spike heard one of the agents muttering about how he was lucky for having his special office, but he really didn’t care about the complaining. Besides, he knew all of his agents’ faces and voices so he knew who to give disciplinary actions to.
After reaching the bridge with Cloudcover, they were able to remove their thick bundle of clothing without worry since it was one of the few places in the zeppelin where the heating system was actually working properly. Cloudcover set his jacket over his chair and went straight to work while Spike set his clothing down on a nearby table and proceeded to observe the deck. Everyone was working as they should, interpreting the collected data, guiding the zeppelin through the harsh weather, and keeping Director Armor personally updated on their status. However, since everyone was doing their job, and their job was basically staring at screens and ice, Spike felt an odd mix of content and boredom. So he did the next reasonable thing. Look outside to see what’s there.
Spike’s eyes hurt from the brightness of the light reflecting off of the ice, but he retained his bearing and kept watch with his claws placed coolly behind his back. As he scanned the ice, he hoped that there’d be a seal or a polar bear or something to entertain his eyes instead of just an endless sea of featureless white. His prayers were answered, sort of, when a small black seal popped out a hole the ice and lay across the ice, apparently trying to get a tan.
At the sight of the seal, Spike’s mind began to wander, with most of his thoughts concerning what he would do if this expedition were successful. They never really done anything like this before. Sure NEIGHS had protocol regarding search and rescue operations, which is what Shining Armor had classified the mission as, strangely enough, but Spike had no idea what to do if they found her. Taking her corpse home and giving her a proper funeral would seem the most logical. But Spike knew that the world was anything but logical, contrary to Twilight’s opinion, and Shining Armor was really being illogical about the whole mission.
The chances of finding a body based on flimsy evidence is always a slim chance, and even if they did find her body, the laws of decay dictated that she would be too old and damaged by the elements to survive the trip home. And that was granting that there would even be body to find and not just some pile of cloth and bone picked clean by predators.
Spike looked at the profile of their missing mare once again, and started reading about her exploits in a Equestria’s bloodiest war. Her record was really impressive, and she did deserve the best ceremony under the sun. But just the fact that she had been a soldier lost in combat over seventy years ago would turn away most, if not all, who even thought of searching for the fabled soldier.
But Shining Armor was the black sheep. Whenever there was a shred of flimsy evidence, he would practically send an army to where it pointed. And time after time they came back empty-hooved and mad. And when Spike pointed out that fact, Shining Armor became very hostile, and spoke to him in a low, deadly tone as he explained how he had been searching for this particular mare ever since she became MIA. He refused to list her as KIA and, because of his position, he has managed to keep her labeled as missing and told Spike that he refused to let any opportunity of finding her slip away because of a few “faithless skeptics”.
Spike shuddered at the thought of having to tell Shining Armor that the body of his dead friend was not found. Not that Shining Armor was a cruel boss, not by any means, but getting on his bad side certainly wasn’t conducive to one’s overall health. They could probably spend an eternity scanning this Celestia-forsaken icebox and find nothing but more seals and polar bears. At most they’d probably find some old beat up dog tag, take that home and put it in a glass case and that’d be all. But Spike knew that a dog tag or a piece of cloth wouldn’t be enough. Shining Armor wanted a body, but unlike how he nearly chewed off Spike’s head for pointing out the obviously low chances of finding nothing, he got a big grin and told Spike that if they did find the tags they would find the girl.
No longer wanting to think about the strangely bipolar conversation in Director Armor’s office, Spike sighed and turned his eyes towards one of the dozens of monitors that were scanning for anything out of the ordinary. It was a sonar display, and showed mostly chucks of ice, rock and the occasional whale or sea serpent. He could have sworn that an abnormally large squid passed across the monitor when a voice shouted from behind him, snapping him out of his daydream.
“Excuse me, Agent Spike I think you should come and see this!”
Spike turned away from the monitor and walked over to where Cloudcover and a unicorn sat, staring at the screen in front of them. This particular screen was for a machine designed especially to seek out life signs, with each life form showing up as a colored blip on the screen. On the screen were several blips of various sizes and colors. The bigger and brighter the blip, the bigger the life form. Spike felt his weak confidence disappear and become replaced by the ever growing skepticism.
“What is it?” he asked, observing the various blips move about. “I don’t see anything out of the ordinary…”
“It’s that one sir,” the unicorn said, pointing towards the smallest, faintest blip on the screen, which was a cool blue color. “That’s the only life form that isn’t moving. It’s like it’s a tree or something…”
“The only thing is, there’s absolutely no trees this far north…so we know it’s something abnormal.” Cloudcover said with an excited grin.
A faint smile tugged at the corner of Spike’s mouth. They had found something. It wasn’t much, but it was certainly better than nothing. Maybe, JUST maybe, it was exactly what they were looking for. He turned towards the unicorn sitting next to him.
“Hal, can you calibrate your horn to send out that find-it spell for that life sign?” The unicorn thought for a moment, rubbing his chin in thought. “I guess I could. It’s really faint though. If anything the spell will probably be off by a couple hundred feet. But I suppose it’s possible.”
“Do it, and make it snappy.”
Spike turned to look out in the direction indicated by the scanner. He grabbed a nearby pair of tinted binoculars and gazed through them, scanning the ice for anything that seemed out of place. A moment later, Hal’s horn flared and small, pulsing beam of light shot out the window in the direction Spike was looking. Spike followed the beam of light with his binoculars.
The beam of light darted around, low over the ice, sometimes pausing over a outcropping of ice or a hole, before moving onward. Each time it did so, Spike would feel a jump of excitement, but, each time, the excitement would fade as the beam moved away, continuing its search.
After what seemed like an eternity, the tiny blip finally settled in a single position, hovering over a small outcrop in the ice. Spike felt his heart sink once more, the suspicion that it had all been simply a mechanical malfunction becoming all the more apparent. He sighed and set his binoculars down, then grasped the railing and looked down, dreading Shining Armor’s reaction to the apparent bad news.
He lifted his head up and wiped his snout, deciding that he might as well go out there and have a look at the hunk of ice, knowing that Shining Armor would have his hide if he figured out he didn’t investigate the find-it spell’s results.
He turned towards the pegasi piloting the zeppelin and pointed towards the glowing dot on the horizon. “Get us as close to that dot as you can. I think we found something.” The pilot nodded and turned the zeppelin slowly towards the dot. The dot slowly and steadily grew in size as the zeppelin neared it.
“Okay, that’s good. Bring her down.” Spike said, holding up his claw.
The pegasus nodded and the zeppelin began its descent, kicking up a cloud of sleet, snow and ice beneath it as it came in for a landing near the crag of ice.
“What now Agent Spike?” Cloudcover asked, walking up next to Spike, who was gazing at the crag of ice.
“We go out there and investigate it up close. Make sure it’s worth it.” Spike replied, poorly masking his disdain.
Spike mustered up some agents, one of which was Cloudcover, and bundled up again, this time with a scarf and hoof warmers. Once they left the control room, Cloudcover trotted up next to Spike.
“Do you think it is a false alarm?” Cloudcover asked, sensing Spike’s skepticism.
Spike shrugged. “Whatever it is, at least we’ll be getting a nice breath of fresh air.” Then he scowled and tightened the scarf around his face. “Frozen cold air, but fresh air nonetheless.”
Spike, Cloudcover and several other ponies strode across the snow towards the crag of ice. The first thing Spike noticed was that the crag had no signs of damage around it. Most crags of ice would usually show signs of their formation, usually cracks and rifts in the ice surrounding them. This one was strangely absent of those. A better description for it would be a giant rectangular ice cube that someone had decided to stick into the ice at random.
“Well…” Cloudcover said, letting out a disappointed sigh. “That was underwhelming. Looks like a big ice cube.” He looked around the cube. “I was kinda hoping for something a little neater…”
“Like what? The Abominable Snowpony or something?” one of the other ponies asked, sparking a few chuckles.
Spike ignored them, instead carefully scanning the ice cube. A vaguely pony-shaped form inside the cube caught his attention. A smile spread across Spike’s face, and he used every ounce of willpower to keep himself from laughing for joy, and the possibility of getting a promotion for his finding.
“Gentlecolts,” Spike said, now beaming, “I believe we’ve found something worthwhile!”
Cloudcover raised an eyebrow. “Really? What?”
“We’ve found…” Spike walked up the ice cube and after removing just enough of his scarf, he gently blew a small plume of fire on it, melting away some of the ice.
Once the ice thawed slightly, everybody except Spike let out a gasp.
“Is that…who I think it is?” one of the ponies whispered in a hushed tone.
Spike smiled. “Yes…yes it is.”
In front of them, was a shield inscribed with a ring-like structure with star capped spire pointing up, and surrounding the ring was two pairs of wings. It was a symbol that hasn’t been used in nearly seventy years. A symbol not seen since the Equestrian Civil War.
Spike blew out another lick of flame to thaw out more ice that revealed the perfectly preserved orange pony’s battle scarred, lightly freckled face.
As the morning mist slowly started to evaporate in the light of the rising sun, Applejack quietly hummed an upbeat tune to herself. She made her way towards the barn, ready to pick up this morning's fresh crate of milk. On her head was the same hat she always wore, her father's worn out, well used Stetson. She trotted up to the barn.
“Howdie Bessie, how ya doin’ this mornin’?” Applejack asked, stepping inside and tipping her hat. She pulled up a stool, reaching out to start milking in ernest. Bessie smiled, tipping her head slightly.
"Oh ya know, just fine. How goes 'round here?"
Applejack shrugged. "Good, good. Gettin' by ya know? You?" By this point, the bucket had been filled, and Applejack took it in mouth, grunting in effort as she did so.
"I'm fine." Bessie replied, glancing at Applejack. "Ya need help?"
Applejack shook her head. "Nah."
Bessie shrugged. "Okay then. Say hi to Apple Bloom for me, will ya?"
Applejack nodded. "I will." she replied through her teeth. Before turning back towards the house carrying the heavy bucket of milk, closing the gate behind her with her hind leg.
Starting towards the house, Applejack mentally ran through the morning’s checklist. She had already fed the pigs and the cows, gotten the milk, and was now hoping that Apple Bloom would be up and ready for school. She caught sight of Purity, who was busy bucking the apples, and gave her a quick wave as she passed.
“Mornin’ Purity!” she called out, once more setting the milk bucket down so she could more properly call out.
Purity turned towards her and waved half-heartedly, before turning back to her work. Applejack once more picked up the bucket and once more started trotting towards the house. Of course, given the large amount of milk that was being held inside the bucket, and her own skinny frame, Applejack had to stop more than once to give her jaw a brief respite, flexing it every so often to keep it from cramping.
As she walked, her mind once more started to wander, as it was often warrant to do so during the mundane farm work. Her thoughts focused mostly on what went on outside the gates of the farm, and in the rest of Equestria. Despite the beautiful morning sun, and singing birds, outside of Ponyville, Applejack knew that things were probably not so idyllic. For the past three months or so, there had been an active declaration of war on the Griffin Empire to the southeast, with the Griffin’s apparently being aided by a long active group of Earth Pony rabble rousers by the name of HYDRA.
Of course, politics and the art of warfare were subjects Applejack preferred not to think about, but for some reason, her mind had decided to dwell on the topic. Whenever the radio would report on it, Purity was most often liable to ask to switch to another station. Whenever asked about it, Purity would more often than not, respond with: “That’s the business of the ponies involved, an’ not us. Don’t stick yer nose where it don’t belong AJ, it’ll only get ya inta a whole mess of trouble.”
That was often enough to satisfy Applejack, but she still, deep down, wondered what it was all about. Something in her gut told her that, despite the news from Canterlot boasting that HYDRA would be stomped out and taken care of quickly, the rebellion would probably not be so swiftly stopped. She still wondered what had compelled these ‘HYDRA’ fellows to be so violent. She had always had her own fair share of derision from unicorns and pegasi, but her own family was rather respected in town (amongst Earth Ponies at least) and made an honest, good living, so it still felt rather odd that things were supposedly so bad that it would cause a war.
Of course, whenever Applejack would bring it up in conversation, Purity would be quick to respond with their father’s lifelong motto: “Applejack, yer not one ta judge others. Ya’ll don’t know iffin’ they had the same opportunities as ya might had. Just keep that in mind.”
Her train of thought, however, ended when she finally made it to the front porch, stepping up and knocking on the door. Her ears however, immediately caught the sound of water running and she raised an eyebrow as she carefully set the milk down.
Now what sorta trouble did that little filly get into now? she thought, reaching towards the door knob. She tried to turn it, but was instead greeted by it being seemingly locked in place. She let out a frustrated huff, reminded of the front door’s recent habit of locking shut. She could have sworn she heard splashing and scampering hooves along with the sounds of running water, which only made her more curious.
Come on now ya stupid door, open! she thought irritably, now fighting with the doorknob with all her might. The door knob finally gave way and the door swung open. Applejack was greeted by a flood of water washing up to her knees, causing her to stumble back slightly and the bucket of milk to topple over.
“What in tarnation!?” she shouted, steadying her slender frame against the doorway as she scanned the kitchen. Her eyes narrowed when she saw the small yellow filly standing on the tabletop, a guilty smile on her face.
“Um...howdy Applejack,” the filly said, waving slightly.
“Apple Bloom what didja do?!” Applejack shouted, stomping through the water and to the table. Apple Bloom shrugged slightly, the guilty blush on her face growing.
“Wouldja believe I was tryin’ ta get mah cutie mark?”
Applejack huffed, steadying the hat on her head. “And kinda cutie mark didja think you were gonna get? Floodin’ the house?”
Apple Bloom simply looked down at the ground, her face red with embarrassment. Applejack let out a deep breath, calming herself down. Apple Bloom always managed to get herself into all kinds of trouble, that was true, but, deep down, Applejack couldn’t really muster any real, true blue anger towards her sister. After all, all she said she was trying to do was find her cutie mark. What was so bad about finding one’s purpose in life? A loud metallic ding, followed by a torrent of water to the back of her neck though reminded her that, crusade for purpose aside, she couldn’t just let the young filly get away with flooding the entire house. Narrowing her eyes at the filly and saying nothing, she turned around and stalked towards the source of the flood coming from under the sink, as what seemed to be gallons of water erupted from below. Bracing herself, she reached underneath, feeling for the wrench she knew would probably still there. She smiled as she gripped the wrench, lifting from the water and placing it in her mouth, and doing her best to stop the waterspout to her face.
Several angry, muffled expletives and jaw-aching turns of a wrench later, Applejack let out a huff of relief as she put the wrench on the wooden counter top, the endless stream of water finally contained. Stepping back, she turned back towards Apple Bloom, who still sat on the table top, looking as guilty as ever.
“Now,” Applejack said, trudging through the water and reaching for a mop. “Yer gonna mop all this up, got it?”
Apple Bloom nodded, “Yes Applejack...” with that, she took the mop in hoof and clambered down off the table top. Applejack smiled, giving Apple Bloom a gentle pat on the head.
“Good girl. Now, lemme help ya so we can get this here floor dry before Purity comes back from bucking the apples.” she said as she trotted back outside, picking up the empty bucket with an explosive sigh and placing it back in its proper resting place after rinsing it out. She could hear Apple Bloom muttering and grumbling under her breath as she pushed the mop about, causing small waves to form in the water as the mop did it’s best to soak up all the water. Applejack trotted over to the kitchen closet and pulled out an empty bucket another mop, setting about helping Apple Bloom with the mess.
It took about an hour, but finally, after going through three mops, the two ponies had managed to finally dry off the floor. As Applejack put the mops and bucket away, she called out towards Apple Bloom.
“Now ‘Bloom, y’all gotta get ready fer school okay?”
“Awe but why?” Apple Bloom protested, stomping her hoof on the ground. “All they do is poke fun at me and call me names.”
Applejack turned, a concerned expression on her face. “Wadja mean ‘call ya names’?” she asked, walking up to Apple Bloom. Apple Bloom looked down at the ground, nodding glumly.
“They call me stuff like ‘digger’ an’ ‘blank flank’.” She answered sullenly. She felt a hoof on her shoulder and saw Applejack leaning down so she could be at eye level. Applejack’s gaze was serious.
“Apple Bloom, lemmie tell ya, don’t you ever let anypony bully ya like that okay?”
Apple Bloom sighed. “But AJ, they’re all so mean...”
“So? Daddy always used ta say ta me ‘sticks an’ stones may break yer bones, but don’t ever let them nasty words get to ya or keep ya down.’”
Apple Bloom looked up from the floor, her eyebrows raising slightly. “Daddy really said that?”
Applejack nodded. “Sure did. Didn’t he Purity?” she said, looking towards the door. Apple Bloom looked over her shoulder to see a tired and lather covered Purity nodded mutely as she gulped down water. After finishing her refreshment she took a breath.
“AJ’s right ‘Bloom. Don’t let that keep ya down.” Purity said as she looked out the window. Her expression however, changed from the content look from before to one of concern.
“Damn it,” she grumbled.
Both Apple Bloom and Applejack raised their eyebrows.
“What’s wrong, Purity?” Applejack asked as she trotted up to the kitchen window facing towards the gate, scowling when she spots the last pony she ever wanted to see approaching their abode. “Now what does she up an’ want?”
Purity shrugged, starting towards the door.
“No idea. Probably just ta haggle us fer money,” grumbled Purity, heading towards the door.
Applejack shook her head and trotted after her older sister.
“Oh come on Purity, don’t up and be unneighborly,” she said as she made her way to the door, stopping in the doorway and glancing back at Apple Bloom. “‘Bloom go an’ start gettin’ ready fer school, ‘kay?”
Apple Bloom nodded, turning to trot up the stairs. Applejack refocused her attention out the front door and to the open air carriage driving up. Inside it sat a very familiar powder blue unicorn mare in an incredibly elegant dark red dress with a flowing, billowy skirt. Her blue and purple mane was done up in a neatly manicured bang and curl combination which peaked out from underneath her sunhat. In her magic was levitated her always present ornate umbrella that she would always use to keep the sun off of her. The look on her face was one of incredible, intolerable smugness, as if everything she saw was beneath her and not worthy of her interest. Applejack joined Purity at the gate, each of them watching the carriage, which was pulled by two strapping earth pony stallions, drive up, kicking up a trail of dark brown dust behind it.
Both Purity and Applejack knew the unicorn very well. It was Mr. Belle’s daughter, Glory Belle, who had taken over from her father after his death about five years back. Now, in Mr. Belle’s case, he had been an understanding landlord, and, while having the obligatory offhand way with dealing with earth ponies like the Apple’s, still seemed to actively care what went on in their personal lives. However, Glory Belle was the exact opposite. She hated the Apple’s with a passion, and would constantly belittle them every time she saw them. Now that Applejack thought about it, it was obvious that the unicorn would be visiting today, as it was a Wednesday, and, like clockwork, Glory Belle would always come for ‘inspections’. Applejack personally thought it was just an excuse for her to find more opportunities to mock and belittle them. Her most frequent target for the belittling was Applejack herself, with Glory always making a point to point out her smaller than average build.
Of course, Applejack didn’t have time for her own griping as the carriage neared and Glory Belle ordered the stallions to halt in an authoritative voice, levitating a long, thin whip and cracking it in the air, and the two stallions ground to a halt almost instantly. The amount of dust kicked up however, caused the unicorn to start coughing, and she quickly waved her small fan in front of her face.
“Stupid, damn dust, always giving me this wretched cough,” she grumbled, shifting in her seat slightly to look at Applejack and Purity.
“Mornin’ Miss Belle,” Purity said, tipping her head slightly, but being sure to not seem totally subservient. Applejack at first said nothing, instead deciding to look stoic. However, a quick, sharp nudge from Purity caught her attention and she gave a curt bow.
“Miss Belle,” she muttered, not really putting her heart in it.
Glory Belle let out a vaguely disgusted sound, making Applejack roll her eyes carelessly. A part of her hoped that Glory Belle had seen it, though, just so she can see how mutual their disgust for each other was.
“Ugh, your accent is like sand paper to my ears,” Glory Belle complained, reaching into her purse to pull out a small box of snuff, and taking a quick snort. After scrunching her nose for a moment, she then pulled a small cigarette and, with a flicker of her horn, set it alight, taking a quick draw from it. She released the smoke in an elegant cloud, seemingly completely oblivious to the other two ponies.
“Miss Belle, might I ask why yer here?” Purity asked, obviously not wanting to be standing there herself.
“Ah yes, I’ve come to inspect my properties,” she replied, her voice dripping with haughtiness. With that, the door to her carriage swung open, glowing softly with the blue glow of her magic as she stepped down from the carriage, her hooves covered with what looked like small leather booties. She visibly grimaced as her hooves touched the dirt, muttering something about her hooves. Both Applejack and Purity cast each other a quick glance, each rolling their eyes slightly at the unicorn’s actions. As she found her footing, Glory Belle levitated the bottom of her skirt slightly, her head held high as she walked past them, looking at everything around her with the same haughty gaze as before.
“Well Miss Belle, which part of tha farm wouldja like ta see first?” Applejack asked, attempting to be courteous and stepping up next to her. Glory Belle eyed her hatefully out of the corner of her eye.
“Step away from me, digger,” Glory Belle practically hissed. “I’ll very well inspect what I please. I must be sure my money is being spent in the proper manner and not being wasted by your filthy hooves.”
Applejack’s expression hardened at the insult, but Glory Belle was too busy with her unenthusiastic inspection. Not that she cared if she insulted Applejack anyway. Glory Belle silently scanned the heavenly landscape with a disgusted scowl for a near minute before she pointed a hoof towards the apple orchards.
“Take me there. I wish to inspect the crop,” ordered Glory Belle, giving Purity and Applejack an accusatory look.
Both Purity and Applejack nodded, with Purity putting an a thin smile.
“Sure thing Miss Belle,” grumbled Purity, starting to trot towards the orchard, opening the gate that lead towards the endless rows of trees.
As they walked however, both Applejack and Purity could hear Glory Belle’s seemingly endless nitpicking, ranging from complaints about the temperature or humidity of the air, to the small gnats that flew about, to the smell of the grass and how much she’d rather be back at her mansion, entertaining guests at some sort of party or the like.
Applejack wanted to say something, to make the fussy mare stop complaining, but quick wary glance from Purity made her decide not to. The look reminded Applejack that any word towards Glory Belle would land her, and possibly Purity, in trouble. When they finally reached an apple tree, Glory Belle trotted forward for a closer look, her voice still an endless stream of muttered complaints. Her horn glowed blue again and she plucked an apple off the tree, intensely inspecting it. After several moments, she nonchalantly tossed the apple aside with a scoff.
“I’ve seen better done by unicorns in Canterlot. This was certainly unimpressive,” she turned towards the two earth ponies. “I mean seriously, I wait three months for a crop and all I’ve got is this?” she levitated another apple off the tree and waved it in front of them. “This isn’t even half as large as the ones I’ve seen in Canterlot! Pathetic digger work is what it is.”
“Well, iffin ya like what tha unicorns are making, why don’t ya ask fer them to do the work?” Applejack muttered, finally fed up with Glory Belle’s constant complaints.
Glory Belle must have heard it however, as her ears perked up and she stared at Applejack, positively enraged. She approached Applejack, who kept her head down, and with a sneer the snobbish unicorn tilted her head down so she can look at Applejack’s emerald eyes.
“What did you say to me?” growled Glory Belle.
Applejack lifted her head and glared daggers into Glory Belle, which only seemed to amuse their landlord rather than intimidate her.
“Ya’ll heard what I said,” Applejack said bluntly. “And I fer one am sick an’ tired of ya’ll constantly complainin’ everytime ya’ll come here. Yer father wasn’t like that.”
At those words, Glory Belle’s face turned a shade of red and she sputtered briefly.
“Well it’s obvious you diggers are all the same, you ungrateful whelp!” she spat back, turning and starting back towards her carriage, while Purity simply gave Applejack a angry look before running after Glory Belle, calling after her a long string of apologies.
Applejack simply stood in place, angrily looking at the apple on the ground. She could hear the sound of Glory Belle and Purity’s voices discussing something, Glory still sounding beside herself with anger and Purity sounding apologetic. Then Glory’s whip cracking through the air and the carriage starting down the dirt path, with Purity continuing her apologies. Letting out a long, frustrated sigh, Applejack started back towards the house. She had to get Apple Bloom to school on time anyways, and she wasn’t getting any work done by griping in an apple orchard.
Act I - 02 - Haven't You Heard It's a Battle of Words
Chapter Two: "Haven't You Heard It's a Battle of Words"
Applejack let out a grumbling sigh as she entered the kitchen, making a beeline for the staircase. She didn’t even need to see Purity’s disapproving glare out of the corner of her eye to know that she was in hot water. She could feel those angry eyes bore into the back of her skull, but she was not sorry in the slightest sense and knew that she was right to lash out. But she also knew that Purity didn’t see things that way, and for the sake of Apple Bloom, she continued her trek to the stairs and hoped that by avoiding eye contact she can postpone the inevitable.
“Applejack, I need ta talk wit’ ya,” Purity said, causing Applejack to halt with her hoof on the first step.
“What is it Purity? I need ta get Apple Bloom ta school…” Applejack replied, hoping to use that as an excuse not to talk about the obvious white elephant in the room.
“Applejack ya’ll know exactly what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.” Purity said, her voice insistent. “Now, come on I need ta talk ta ya. ‘Bloom can wait.”
Applejack let out a quiet sigh before letting her shoulders slump, and she reluctantly walked back towards the table where her sister is sitting. Without saying a word, she sat down.
Purity’s expression softened slightly, and she let out her own, tired sounding sigh. Applejack could tell that whatever Glory Belle had said to her had been important and, most likely, incredibly cruel. In front of her was an official looking paper. Applejack felt a stab of guilt go through her, and she looked down at the floor ashamed.
“Look,” she said, taking a breath. “I’m sorry fer what I did. I guess I’m just sick of her always comin’ ‘round just ta mock us and humiliate us. I mean her daddy didn’t do that right?”
Applejack looked at Purity, hoping that her sister would at least agree with her on that. Much to her relief, Purity did acknowledge that Applejack was right with a slight nod.
“AJ I don’t like it either, but there was another reason fer Miss Belle comin’ down here taday. Ya know what that was?” Purity started, her voice sounding as if it were trying to be firm.
Applejack shook her head.
“Well,” Purity said, taking a breath of her own. “It seems that she also wanted ta talk ‘bout our rent. Apparently, ‘cause of tha war, tha government in Canterlot says we farmers gotta pay an extra tax.”
Applejack blinked, her expression turning sour. “What?! That’s horsefeathers! She’s gotta be lyin’!”
Purity pushed forward the piece of paper, and Applejack quickly took it and read it over. Then she read it over again just to make sure she was reading it right. In very official looking print, was what seemed to be a government announcement:
“By Word of the One Hundredth Annual Equestrian Parliament:
Due to the recent military setbacks on the South Eastern Front, the One Hundredth Annual Equestrian Parliament has declared that, in light of the pressures put upon the economy and the general populace, and due to the lower than average crop outputs of the South East, all farms and their owners within the borders of Equestria are asked to comply to the new farm tax that is being set into effect on the first of May, Nineteen Forty One. The exact amount of the tax shall be determined by the size of the farm. Those who do not comply shall be fined in excess of ten times the amount of the tax.
- Dated: June 14th, Nineteen Forty-Four, by word of the One Hundredth Annual Equestrian Parliament.”
“Ya see Applejack? That’s why she came here. Since she’s tha owner, she’s tha one who has ta pay tha tax.” Purity continued, “and, because of what ya up an’ said, she says that she’s now gonna spike up our rent so she can pay it off faster.”
Applejack sighed heavily. “Look...iffin I’d had known ‘bout this, ya know I probably would ‘ave acted more…I don’t know, sophisticated or somethin’. But that doesn’t mean I can just let her offend us like that. We’re not her slaves ya know.”
Purity shook her head. “Either way Applejack, you can’t just up an’ yell at the pony who can take our house from us at any time....”
Applejack said nothing, her mind instead replaying memories of the look on her father’s face when he had heard similar news. she felt an intense feeling of guilt come over her, and instead made due with looking down at the floor.
The sound of hoofsteps came from the staircase, causing Purity to trail off, and Applejack turned to see Apple Bloom, her book bag filled with her school books and sketchbooks, which were filled with doodles and sketches of pretty much everything.
“Alright AJ, I’m ready.” she said, her voice lacking much enthusiasm as she made her way to the door. Applejack and Purity shared a look.
“Just think ‘bout what I said, ‘kay AJ?” Purity said, standing up and making her way towards the front door.
Applejack bit her lip slightly and stood up, following Purity to the door.
“Alright then ‘Bloom,” she said, taking her hat from the rack by the door. “Let’s get ya ta school.”
Applejack now walked Apple Bloom towards the old, red walled school house, from which the tolling of the school bell could be heard. A small crowd of fillies all poured into the school house, most of them earth ponies, as most unicorn fillies went to private schools in Canterlot. However, there were still a few unicorn students here and there, mostly from the upper middle class whose parents were too stingy for private schools. Those few fillies and colts however, made their presence known by constantly hovering in little clutches and groups, tending to shun the other ponies. There was a noticeable absence of pegasi fillies and colts, as they went to school in Cloudsdale, which hovered high in the sky above.
Apple Bloom swallowed slightly, preparing herself for the long day. She gave her blank shoulder a glance, her heart sinking slightly. Her brilliant scheme in getting a plumbing cutie mark had failed, and only managed to flood the kitchen. And on the day that nasty unicorn landlady Miss Belle was scheduled to visit. At least the stuffy unicorn hadn’t come inside, having instead left in a huff, seemingly offended. When she had asked Applejack about what had happened, Applejack hadn’t answered, instead simply saying that Apple Bloom should get ready for school.
“Yeah I guess,” she replied, looking up at Applejack. “Um, AJ, what was Miss Belle so angry ‘bout this mornin’?”
Applejack shrugged. “Oh nuthin’ ‘Bloom. Just her bein’ a snob. That’s all.”
Her expression however, made it clear that something more serious had happened to cause Miss Belle to leave so angry.
Apple Bloom nodded slightly, looking down at the ground for a moment. She could hear the bell calling the other fillies and colts in ringing in the background. That meant it was time for her to leave.
“Um, sis,” she said, looking up at Applejack. “Can ya walk me ta tha door?”
Applejack looked down at Apple Bloom and nodded, a warm smile on her face. “Sure thing, sis. Come on now, let’s get ya ta school.”
The two started towards the school house, with Apple Bloom taking notice of how the clutches of unicorns would point and snicker at her and Applejack as they passed. She glanced towards her shoulder, rolling up her sleeve slightly to see it. It’s bare yellow coat drove the failure of that morning’s attempt back home. She pulled her sleeve down again, and subconsciously stepped a little closer to Applejack.
Applejack meanwhile, ignored the sounds of snickering, instead keeping her head held high. She caught sight of Apple Bloom looking intensely embarrassed, and she leaned down so she was by her ear.
“Don’t let them pick on ya like that, ‘kay? Stand up straight,” whispered Applejack to Apple Bloom in her ear.
Applejack gave her a reassuring smile and Apple Bloom nodded slightly, attempting to mirror Applejack’s stance as the two walked up the schoolhouse.
However, even with her attempts to maintain her self worth and not let the obvious mockery get to her, Apple Bloom couldn’t help but feel demeaned by the constant heckling from the unicorns. It also didn’t help that she knew she wasn’t the only one who was being picked on. For every hoof or sideways glance directed at her, she would see three or four directed towards her big sister, almost all of them focusing on her scrawny, scarecrow like build.
After what seemed like an eternity of walking, they finally reached the front door of the schoolhouse, which opened to reveal an elderly looking unicorn stallion, who peered out from underneath his bush like eyebrows with sharp looking eyes. Apple Bloom swallowed slightly. It was Hard Discipline, the head teacher at the school.
“You’re late,” he practically hissed towards Applejack, his accent causing it to sound as if he had a buzzsaw at the back of his throat.
His eyes darting towards Applejack and staring daggers at her. Applejack simply nodded, but visibly tensed up and ground her jaw.
“I’m sorry sir, won’t happen’ again. Problem at the farm is all.” she said.
Hard Discipline simply scoffed, his eyes pivoting towards Apple Bloom.
“Get your flank to class.” he ordered, his hoof sharply stomping the floorboards threateningly.
Apple Bloom nodded, looking up towards Applejack, who was now staring at Hard Discipline venomously. Hard Discipline simply responded with a glare of his own, and Apple Bloom wondered if they were trying to stare a hole through each other.
“Now ‘Bloom, ya’ll be good taday ya hear?” Applejack said, still staring daggers at Hard Discipline. “An’ don’t let nopony push ya ‘round got it?”
Apple Bloom nodded.
“Yes Applejack,” she replied as she stepped inside, making a beeline towards the classroom.
Applejack watched Apple Bloom leave before focusing her attention back on the unicorn standing in the doorway.
“Now listen here you,” she said, pointing a hoof towards him. “Iffin’ ya as much as lay a hoof on her ya’ll gonna have ta have ta deal with me got it?”
Hard Discipline simply scoffed. “I will run this here schoolhouse as I see fit, and not under the advisement of some skinny mud pony.”
He spat out the last two words with extra venom, and Applejack simply glared in response, fighting the urge to punch this self-righteous unicorn right in the face. However, she was interrupted by a new voice.
“Excuse me,” the new voice said, catching Applejack’s attention.
She looked over Hard Discipline’s shoulder to see a yellow unicorn mare trotting up from inside the schoolhouse, her hair a wild frizzy orange beehive. She had a concerned look on her face, and eyed Hard Discipline with visible dislike.
“Nothing Ms. Frizzle, go back to your class,” Hard Discipline said, still glaring at Applejack.
The unicorn, who was apparently named Miss Frizzle, shook her head.
“Nonsense Mr. Discipline. I intend to keep good relations with the families of all my students,” she said, causing Hard Discipline to simply roll his eyes and scoff, turning away and trotting inside, muttering and grumbling under his breath. The mare simply watched him leave, shaking her head and clicking her tongue. She then turned towards Applejack. “Hello there, I’m Ms. Frizzle, how may I help you?”
Applejack nodded, tipping her head slightly. For once it seemed as if this unicorn actually seemed nice and not instantly prejudiced towards her.
“I just want ta know that Mr. Discipline here won’t cause any trouble fer mah sister, Apple Bloom.” Applejack said, her voice calming slightly.
Ms. Frizzle nodded.
“Ah yes, I’ve heard some complaints on the performance of Mr. Discipline,” she said, causing Applejack to cock an eyebrow.
“Really? Then why haven’t they done anythin’ ‘bout it?” Applejack asked.
“Well, that’s why I’m here. I’m Mr. Discipline’s replacement.” Ms. Frizzle said, smiling warmly. Applejack looked at her, taking a moment to study her.
The mare, aside from her somewhat off kilter hair, looked like a good natured pony, who actually cared for her students. Not like Mr. Discipline, who seemed to view the entire world through some sort of ultra-cynical and mean-spirited lens. Of course, this mare was also a unicorn, and from Applejack’s experience, all this supposed kindness could just be pandering her.
She looked over Ms. Frizzle’s shoulder, and could still see Apple Bloom looking at her through the schoolhouse window like a sad puppy and Applejack let out a loud exhale.
“Alright then, I’ll be back fer her at three,” she said.
Ms. Frizzle nodded.
“Of course. And don’t worry. I’ll make sure your sister isn’t bullied in anyway,” assured the teacher with an equally warm smile.
Applejack simply nodded and turned to walk away, still feeling bitter towards Mr. Discipline.
She hated that schoolhouse. As long as she could remember, the teachers had always been unicorns, and, more often than not, had been especially mean towards the earth pony students, including herself. The worse thing about the schoolhouse was the fact that it was literally the only schoolhouse in town, and therefore the only place Apple Bloom had any real chance of receiving a proper education. So, they had been forced to send her there, and leave her behind with the teachers, hoping that any potential verbal abuse she would suffer could be remedied by the comfort of home. Apparently though, it seemed that someone in Canterlot got the memo, and finally sent a pony to deal with the problem.
Personally though, Applejack always hoped that somehow, they’d be able to have Apple Bloom receive an education somewhere else, so that she wouldn’t be forced to suffer the constant mockery of being a blank flank or an earth pony.
Applejack let out a frustrated sigh, looking at the clock at was built into the spire of the schoolhouse. It was 9:30 in the morning. She still had the rest of the day ahead of her to get farm work done. She started back towards home, readying herself for the days work.
As she walked, she would occasionally catch sight of the odd propaganda poster advertising support for the war effort, along with dozens of recruitment posters all nailed up on whichever surface they could find. One in particular, however, caught her attention.
It was rather brightly colored, with the bright red, white and gold colors of the Equestrian military. In big letters was written the following:
ATTENTION ALL ABLE-BODIED AND/OR WILLING EARTH PONY CITIZENS: Are you a patriot?! Do you seek adventure?! Do you seek fame?! Fortune?! Perhaps all of the above?!
Then join the Equestrian Armed forces to help beat back in the incoming HYDRA/Griffinhiem menace! Join now and be assured safe and secure payments for the entirety of your tenure in the armed forces of Equestria!
All volunteers shall be given one months rent and payment for their services.
See your local Recruitment office for more details.
Applejack raised an eyebrow. Among all the propagandistic language that was there, one sentence in particular caught her attention:
Be assured safe and secure payments for the entirety of your tenure.
She thought back to what she had read earlier about the tax.
Applejack knew that there was no way they would be able to pay the rent in time, and that would give Miss Belle more than enough motivation and legal reason to kick them off the farm. Which she knows is exactly what the snotty unicorn wants to happen. And as she studied the sign, two options came to mind:
One was to ignore this opportunity and go back home, and find some other, less surefire way to come up with a solution to the problem.
The other was to give enlistment a shot, since, even if she managed to get only a desk job, it would be a job, and that meant that her, Purity and, most importantly, Apple Bloom, could keep a roof over their heads.
It didn’t take long for the scales to tip to the only logical choice, and knowing what had to be done, Applejack sighed and started towards the nearest recruitment center.
Shining Armor let out an unimpressed sigh as he idly stood backstage of one of the scientific presentation at the 10th Annual Equestrian Fair. This year, the Equestrian Government had decided to have the annual fair dedicated to whichever new doodads Canterlot Scientists had come up with in the small town of Ponyville. When he had asked about it, his father had responded with something along the lines of “Science isn’t just for rich Unicorns. It can benefit everypony. And that includes Earth Ponies.”
Shining Armor looked over the audience, taking notice of the fact that a good ninety percent of them were unicorns, all of which looked wealthy. Almost everypony else was a pegasus, with Shining Armor having seen only one or two earth ponies during the entire affair. Of course, who could blame them not for coming? Shining could feel himself nearly falling asleep as another scientist, who wasn’t his father, prattled on and on about the wonders of some new fangled device known as a ‘transistor’, and how they could supposedly do anything anyone wanted them to do.
“You okay, son?” his father, Night Light, asked, walking up next to Shining. “You look a little tired.”
Shining shook his head.
“No I’m okay...just a little bored is all.” he answered, idly ironing out the creases in his uniform with the help of his magic.
His dad raised an eyebrow, a wry smile on his face.
“Bored? What could be boring about science?” he asked, sitting down next to Shining.
Shining shrugged and idly pawed the ground, trying to keep his disappointed and raging boredom from influencing his tone. He failed.
“It’s just….I don’t know really,” began Shining with a deep sigh. “I just don’t see why we should be wasting our time prattling about transistors or whatever the heck Dr. Heartstrings is babbling about, when we’ve got ponies fighting for their lives in a war.”
Night Light thought for a second, then he placed a supportive hoof on his son’s shoulder.
“Son...is this about me not letting you get a field station?” he asked.
Shining glanced his way briefly before focusing back on the pattern he was doodling in the dirt.
“Not at all dad...I mean, why else would I want to do something more then just stand around and watch everypony babble and watch you and the Professor twiddle in his lab,” replied Shining lowly.
Night Light chuckled and let his hoof slide off as he shook his head, taking Shining’s complaint very lightly.
“‘Twiddle?’ is that what you think me and Dr. Schultz do all day? I’m offended,” he said, his voice carrying an over dramatic tone. “You’d think breaking new ground in biochemistry and magical studies would get a little more appreciation.”
“What?” Shining asked, raising his eyebrows. “I didn’t say I didn’t appreciate you Dad…”
Night Light smiled. “I know that Shining. Relax a little. And don’t worry, I understand how you feel. Celestia knows I felt that way at your age. Watching ponies do all sorts of awesome things, while I spent my time indoors with the feather flu or something. It’s okay to want be doing something or going someplace a little more…” he paused, tapping his chin slightly. “...ambitious than where you are right now, but you still have a use right here. You just haven’t seen that yet.”
Shining sighed. “But do I have to do here? All I do is follow the Professor around,”
“Making sure he’s safe,” Night Light said, cutting Shining off. “I know that might not seem all that important compared to the pony who’s at the front lines shooting a gun, but trust me, everyday you spend with the Professor, is another day we’re a little closer to ending the war faster. He might be a little eccentric, but he’s the smartest guy we’ve got, and thankfully, he’s on our side of the war.”
There was a garbled announcement over the speaker system, which caught Night Light’s attention.
“Oh, time for my presentation,” he said, ironing out the wrinkles in his tuxedo and giving Shining a gentle pat on the back. “Just keep what I said in mind, okay Shining?”
Shining nodded. “Alright Dad. Have fun with your presentation.” he said, his voice however still unenthusiastic.
Night Light nodded, turning towards the stage and walking off towards the stage, leaving Shining alone.
Applejack made her way towards the large, rather garishly painted sign with the words ‘RECRUITMENT CENTER’ emblazoned on it. She was surprised to see that the line for recruitment was almost completely empty. She could hear somepony babbling about transistors in the background, his voice magically amplified to carry across the fairground. Almost ninety percent of the ponies that Applejack could see were all either unicorns or pegasi, with the unicorns standing out amongst the crowd with their opulent outfits and, in the case of the mares especially, utterly ridiculous hats. If Applejack hadn’t known better, she would have sworn it was the Canterlot Derby, and she felt everyone was ridiculously overdressed. She glanced up at the sun to get a baring of the time. It seemed to be only around ten in the morning, and Applejack could already feel the beginnings of the muggy, sticky noontime temperatures so characteristic of a Ponyville summer coming along.
She looked back towards the recruitment center, mentally preparing herself for the expected series of physical tests she was most likely going to be subject to. She took a deep breath to gather her courage, and after releasing it with a gentle exhale, she began her trot towards the center.
“Name?” The dark blue pegasus asked, pushing his black-rimmed glasses up his nose and looking at Applejack with an expression that could best be described as pedantic boredom, all the while chewing what seemed to be gum.
“Mah name is Applejack Apple.” she stated simply, consciously straightening out her posture and adopting an official sounding tone.
The pegasus nodded slightly, and jotted down the information on his clipboard, before looking back up at Applejack with the same pedantic expression.
“December 20th 1916 sir.” she replied, tipping her head slightly.
The pegasus once again nodded and jotted down the information.
“Alrighty then…” he sighed, handing the paper to a somewhat heavy set light brown unicorn stallion who took it in his magic and motioned towards her.
“This way…” he said, beckoning towards her to follow him.
Applejack nodded, feeling a bit of weight coming off her since things seemed to be going rather well. The unicorn lead her into a rather dull looking white tent that was marked with a big, red cross. Applejack assumed it was the doctors tent, which made sense, since she knew one had to undergo several physical tests before being allowed into the military. The two entered the tent and the unicorn pointed her towards a closed off area of the tent.
“Walk over there, and wait for the physician to see you, okay?” he said dully.
Applejack nodded with a nervous smile.
“Thank ya kindly...” she said, and the unicorn simply grunted, making her nervous smile fade.
“Yeah whatever…” he muttered, turning to head back out of the tent.
Applejack took that as her cue to enter the closed off area and stepped inside. It was surprisingly well furnished for a tent, with several various machines and gizmos that Applejack assumed was for medical purposes. There was the sound of talking outside the blocked off area, and then a lanky unicorn stepped in.
“Hello there, I’m Dr. Flatline. I will be your physician for this morning. ” he said, reaching for a box on the shelf and pulling out what looked like latex medical gloves.
Applejack wondered why a stallion was doing the inspection, and was about ready to demand a mare take his place. However, too much of her courage ran off when the doctor turned around with a massive grin on his face, pulling the glove tight with his magic with a sharp snap.
“Now, let’s get down to business shall we?” he chirped, his excitement way too much to be routine.
Applejack swallowed and took a step back. This was probably going to be much, much more intrusive than she had imagined.
Applejack sat in the walled off area, shaking off the last bits of the awkwardness that seemed to cling to her after the physician's physical. After each step of the physical, the doctor would jot down some information on the notepad, and then move onto the next step. After finishing what seemed to be every step of the physical, he had stepped out of the tent, leaving her behind with the notepad. She was tempted to read what he had written on the notepad, but a quick glance at his elegant, refined and incredibly difficult to read cursive foiled her attempts to see if she was eligible. She tapped her hoof, hoping he would return so that she would be allowed to continue. The temperature had climbed significantly since she had arrived, and It felt as if she were in a sauna with the mugginess of the summer air, forcing her to continuously wipe away sweat that dripped from her forehead and into her field of vision. Outside she could have sworn she heard rather...lecherous giggling and snorting, from what sounded like a stallion and a mare.
"And here I am!" came the voice of the doctor, and he burst into the tent rather theatrically, tipping his head towards Applejack.
Applejack backpedaled with a surprised yell from his sudden appearance, but once she settled she could immediately tell that his lab coat was rather disheveled,
"Howdy Doc. Can I go now? I've gotta pick up mah sister from school soon," she said in a rather unimpressed voice, tilting her head towards the exit.
Dr. Flatline raised an eyebrow.
"Really?" he asked, and he hastily glanced down at his watch. "By Celestia you are correct I seem to have gotten distracted." he laughed, but it was a guilty laugh, as if he knew she had heard him and whomever it was he had been philandering with outside. "I do apologize, but these field nurses tend to get rather...clingy."
Applejack said nothing, simply staring at Dr. Flatline. He seemed to sense her lack of enthusiasm at his actions as he cleared his throat awkwardly and handed her the clipboard.
"Here you go Ms. Apple, your evaluation. Just take it to the front there and he'll see if you're fit for service."
Applejack nodded, taking the clipboard and making her way to the exit, only to stop when she heard the doctor call after her.
"Just don't get your hopes up Ms. Apple...I don't really think you'll be needed, since we have enough secretaries as it is...that is what you were volunteering for right? Secretary duty?"
Applejack said nothing, instead turning and walking out with a dirty look on her face.
Shining Armor now made his way towards the front recruitment desk, still dressed in his fancy suit despite the somewhat sweaty temperature. Taking an empty seat, he nodded towards the unicorn mare next him.
“Good morning,” he said with a nervous smile, hoping to at least strike up a conversation with the other unicorn.
The unicorn simply grunted in response, seemingly having only just woken up if the bags under her eyes were any indication. Shining decided it would probably be best to focus his attention elsewhere, because if his sister’s morning mood were any indication, this mare would most likely be quite snappy.
Shining then leaned back slightly, and tried his best to catch a nap. The sheer mugginess of the heat seemed to suck one’s energy out of them like a vacuum cleaner. The sound of someone ringing the small bell on the mare’s desk however caught his attention and he looked to see an orange earth pony mare with a blonde mane standing there at the front of the line. She was built like a scarecrow, and had a large, weathered stetson on her head. The unicorn mare next to Shining let out a bored sigh and took the clipboard that the earth pony held in its mouth away from her, being sure to wipe it off with a rag.
The unicorn seemed to lazily scan the clipboard which Shining assumed was the skinny earth pony’s application for military service. The earth pony watched the other unicorn expectantly, seemingly eager to join inspite of her obvious disadvantage.
After a long pause, the unicorn finally put the clipboard down and sighed again.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but I just can’t accept your application.” The unicorn said, her voice a dull drone as she slammed the stamp onto her application, covering her picture with the word “4F” in bright red ink.
the earth pony’s hopeful expression dropped like a stone.
"But why ma’am?" she asked, hoping that she could possibly get an explanation instead of just outright rejection.
The unicorn let out a grumbling sigh, pushing his glasses up her nose, dabbing some sweat from her forehead and leaning forward slightly.
"Well, Miss," her eyes drifting down to the application at a snails pace, "Apple, asides from your asthma, you're about twenty pounds below the minimum weight requirement, no muscle mass to speak of and," she glanced back down at the application. "Another twenty various ailments that I'd rather not bore myself with telling you."
The smaller mare, who Shining assumed was Miss Apple, simply nodded, her head hung low in embarrassment. She honestly looked like her dreams had been squashed. The unicorn mare meanwhile, seemed completely unfazed by the earth pony’s embarrassment as she closed the folder the application was held in and levitated it back to the earth pony, with Miss Apple taking it in hoof and placing it in her bag humbly.
"Now, if you would please step out of the line, I've got a long day ahead of me, and I honestly need the energy," the unicorn droned, motioning towards the clock on her desk and pouring herself another cup of steaming jet black coffee, obviously not a morning pony even though it was already at least 11:30.
“Um how ‘bout a secretary job? I can read an’ write iffin that’s what yer worried ‘bout.” Ms. Apple asked, watching as the unicorn mare gulped down her coffee, all the while eyeing Ms. Apple with the same dull expression.
The unicorn put down her coffee cup, swallowing the last of it and quietly dabbing away any coffee that might have still dripped from her muzzle.
“Well…” the mare beckoned for the application again and took it from Ms. Apple’s extended hoof. She looked over it briefly before closing the folder and handing it back to Ms. Apple. “I’m sorry but no. Unless you’re able to type one hundred and fifty words per minute, I would say your chances are next to nothing.” she droned, sipping her coffee again. “Now please, I need you to step aside. There’s a line in case you don’t know.”
"Alrighty then ma’am, thank ya anyways," Ms. Apple said, stepping out of the line and ignoring the several dozen snickers from the various ponies all at least twice her size, as the line had grown while the unicorn had been reading Ms. Apple’s application.
Shining couldn’t help but feel sorry for the mare, as she seemed to have her heart set on joining the army. It kind of made him feel guilty, since he had gotten in almost entirely because of his family name and their position in Canterlot Society. They had been given the absolute best in education and learning, and now had a free pass to some of the most elite echelons of the Equestrian Military. On the flipside, this mare had seemed to have only her battered old hat to her name, but had still come to try and make a go at it.
Meanwhile, Applejack hung her head in sadness. She had thought that, even with a mere desk job, she could at least make sure that the rent was paid and the family could keep the farm, but her expectations had been crushed right in front of her with the simple falling of a stamp.
"Too bad squirt," a large, burly stallion nearby snickered, and he sharply kicked up a small cloud of dust up into her face.
Almost instantly she felt her airways tighten shut, cutting off all her air. The following few minutes passed in an panic, with her stumbling to the ground face first, all the while gasping for air, her breaths now a series of wheezing gasps. She barely noticed how everyone around her started to back away awkwardly, all looking towards each other with a mix of guilt and confusion. A magenta glow of magic suddenly poured over her field of vision and she felt herself being flipped over so that she was lying on her back. Of course, this did little to nothing to affect her breathing, and she continued to wheeze and gasp. A shadow appeared over her and it was revealed to be the white stallion she had seen from before. In his magic he carried an olive green box with a red drawing of two snakes intertwined on a winged staff.
“Okay, Miss Apple I’m going to start administering some medicine okay?” he asked, sounding deeply concerned. Applejack simply nodded weakly, still too distracted by her lack of air to really verbalize.
She felt a mask being strapped over her face and magic surrounding her throat.
“All I want you to do is take long, slow and deep breaths okay Ms. Apple?” the stallion said, looking Applejack in the eye.
Applejack nodded, doing her best to slow her breathing to a more manageable rate. The magic and whatever medicine was being administered to her through the mask seemed to work, as she felt her airways open up and she was finally able to breath again. she let out a sigh of relief and smiled gratefully towards the blue maned unicorn stallion.
“You okay now?” he asked, propping her up so that she could have a slightly better chance at breathing. She nodded tiredly.
“Yeah...I’ma okay…” she caught sight of the clock on the desk and her eyes widened. “Oh nelly I’mma gonna be late!” she said, trying to stand up only to have the stallion hold her down.
“Whoa you can’t just leave you need rest. And what do you mean late? Late for what?” he asked, raising an eyebrow slightly.
“I’ve gotta pick up Apple Bloom from school.” Applejack insisted as she tried, but failed, to push past the stallion.
The stallion nodded in understanding, but gently forced her down.
“Okay, but you still need to rest,” he said as his horn glowed softly.
“But mah sister..” said Applejack worryingly, her eyes now going heavy and her foreleg draped on the unicorn’s shoulder, trying desperately to keep herself up.
“Don’t worry, I’ll pick her up myself, in the meantime you need to rest, okay?”
“But... okay…” she slurred, quickly falling unconscious into the stallion’s forelegs.
Without saying a word, Shining gently levitated the earth pony up and slung her over his shoulders and made his way towards one of the cots across the large tent. The restorative slumber he had put her in would probably only last a half-hour or so, plenty of time for him to get her a spare cot and find this ‘Apple Bloom’ she mentioned.
As he walked, he was greeted by quizzical looks from the various unicorns all standing around.
“What?” he asked incredulously. “Were you all just going to let her lie there? Because if that’s what I think was going to happen, then none of you deserve to be in the army.” he said darkly, making his way towards the blocked areas where the cots where.
He entered the blocked area and waved towards one of the nurses. The nurse turned and smiled, taking notice of Ms. Apple draped across his shoudlers.
“What’s wrong with her?” the nurse asked, her voice concerned.
“Well, she was trying to enlist and had an asthma attack.” he said, and the nurse gasped.
“Oh dear. Is she alright?”
Shining Armor nodded, “Yeah she’s okay, I cast a quick healing spell and administered some oxygen.”
“And let me guess? You gave her a sleep spell so she can have rest?” the nurse asked, gently lifting Ms. Apple off his shoudlers and towards an empty cot. She gently tucked the sleeping pony in and turned back towards Shining. Shining meanwhile nodded slightly.
“Yeah…” he said, rubbing the back of his neck slightly.
“You did a good thing, then…” said the nurse with a smile, her eyes darted towards his slightly-askew name tag on his now somewhat ruffled uniform. “...Sparkle.” Her face then lit up in recognition. “Oh! You’re Captain Sparkle’s colt?”
Shining nodded. “Yeah…”
“Well what are you doing here?” she asked. “I thought you’re father was giving a conference today? Why aren’t you there?”
“Oh...got bored. Not really one for technobabble.” Shining said somewhat shyly. The nurse raised an eyebrow.
“‘Technobabble’? Why anything your father says I’d listen to! He’s just so handsome and…” she halted, seemingly noticing herself getting wrapped up in her fangirling.
Shining simply smiled rather thinly. He had become used to various mares freaking out over his father, since, according to Canterlot Mare he was Handsomest Stallion three years running. Apparently, everyone said that Shining had inherited his father’s good looks, but never seemed to have much luck with the mares. Maybe it was his personality.
Where his father was extroverted and gregarious, Shining tended to be noticeably quieter and introverted, preferring the company of a pulp novel or a comic over the company of a mare.
“Um...sorry, I kind of got ahead of myself,” the mare said. “But you must get that alot.”
He shrugged. “Oh...I’ve gotten used to it I guess…” he paused, glancing at a clock nearby. His eyes widened slightly. 3 o’clock?
“Um listen, I’ve gotta go okay? So can you just make sure that Ms. Apple there gets some rest?” he asked, already making his way towards the exit.
The nurse nodded, a kind smile on her face.
“Of course, sugar, now take care now you hear?”
Shining nodded. “Sure thing, bye!”
And with that, he quickly made off to the schoolhouse.
The blood red earth pony stood atop the pedestal, holding the severed head of the temple dripping blood over his hooves.
“Ah….” the stallion droned out, breathing in the last vestiges of the life energy of the mighty temple guardian. “....I can feel him inside me….” he croaked, letting the head fall to the ground and licking off the blood that coated his hoof. He let out a satisfied sigh, leaning down to pick up The Twin Golden Balls of Celestia’s Girdle. A demonic smile crossed his blood red hairless muzzle and he looked towards South Dakota Smith.
“Now that I have The Balls….” the Scarlet Skull cackled, giving South Dakota Smith a roguish grin as he stalked towards him and he picked up the Golden Staff of Luna’s Strength and expertly placed the Twin Golden Balls of Celestia’s Girdle on the wide end of the Golden Staff of Luna’s Strength. “...I shall have the full power and strength of the Twin Golden Balls of Celestia’s Girdle and the Golden Staff of Luna’s Strength!”
Apple Bloom blinked after deciding to end that story early, an eye twitching as she stared at the cheaply printed paperback in her hooves.
“What. The. Hay?!” she shouted, shaking her head in anger and tossing the pulp novel away. “I can’t believe I up an’ paid ten cents fer this!!!!!” She stomped a hoof on the book, grinding it into the dirt in anger. She was so focused on destroying the printed abomination that she barely noticed the white, blue maned unicorn stallion standing behind her.
“Um...excuse me, are you Apple Bloom?” he asked, and Apple Bloom whipped her head around.
“Whose askin’?” she asked, still angry over the book. Once she noticed that he was a unicorn however, and dressed in an incredibly well kept Equestrian Military Uniform, she consciously changed her tone to something a little more humble. “Um...I mean, how can I help ya sir?”
The unicorn however, seemed more focused on the book on the ground, as he had a knowing smile on his face. “Let me guess….a Fantasy Fantastic Fantasy Tales? Yeah I didn’t like the ending of that one either. I set mine on fire.”
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. “Set it on fire? Really ya can do that?!” she asked, her mind now populated by wonderful images of her cackling maniacally with glee as the accursed book burned away.
The unicorn nodded. “Yeah, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The ink they use tends to spark a lot. Nearly set my room on fire when I burned mine. I take it you’re Apple Bloom, then?”
Apple Bloom nodded, now slightly taken aback by the unicorn’s inquisitiveness.
“Uh...mah sister told me not ta talk ta strangers.” she said defensively, rubbing her right foreleg slightly.
The unicorn, however, smiled kindly.
“That makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Would your sister happen to be a scarecrow thin orange earth pony with a blonde mane and an old cowpony hat?” he asked, raising an eyebrow slightly.
Apple Bloom nodded, stumped by his insanely accurate description of her older sister.
The unicorn shrugged. “Well, she told me I had to pick you up from school...so here I am.”
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. “Oh….but what happen’d ta mah sister? Whay can’t she pick me up?”
The unicorn shifted on his hooves slightly, “Well she had a bit of an asthma attack, so she’s back at the recruitment office resting.”
“Recruitment office? Whyja she’d go there?” Apple Bloom asked.
The unicorn shrugged.
“Recruitment I guess. Do you wanna see her?” he asked, looking down at Apple Bloom expectantly.
Apple Bloom nodded, a worried expression on her face.
“Yeah, I wanna know iffin she’s okay.” she said.
“Alright then, come on then.” he beckoned with a reassuring smile. Apple Bloom trotted up next to him and clambered up onto his shoulders.
“Thank you, mister…” she said, pausing for a moment. “...um, mister? What's yer name?”
“Shining Armor.” he answered, smiling as he trotted down the street.
“Well then thank ya, Mista Armor.” she said, settling on his shoudlers as Shining made his way back to the recruitment center.
“Um, Mista Armor, since you know ‘bout that there book I was wondering iffin ya like Mare-Do-Well comics?” Apple Bloom asked.
Her curiosity had been piqued by the fact that this unicorn knew about pulp magazines. She always imagined that only earth ponies like her cared about that kind of stuff.
Shining Armor nodded, a small chuckle escaping his lips. “Oh yeah I do! Now where to begin…”
Hoch Spitze, Southern Griffin Empire:
A young griffin flew down the halls of the Reichschachteln, his messenger bag barely staying on his back as he barreled down hallways at breakneck speed. He was quick to shout an apology to the other griffins he nearly slammed into as he flew, but he had a message to deliver. And the recipient of the message was possible the single most important person in the entire Süden Reich.
He came in for a landing in front of an imposing door deep within the bowels of the building. He took a deep breath, both to recover from his sprint and to prepare himself for what came next. He reached into his messanger bag and pulled out a folder with the words: “Geordnet” printed on the cover in bold red ink. With a shaking talon, he knocked on the oaken door twice.
“Herein!” Barked a commanding voice from behind the door. The griffin swallowed again. He’d heard stories about how the person on the other side of the door looked, how he looked like some sort of monster. Stories abounded in the ranks of how he was able to crush a griffin’s skull with his own hooves and snap necks without so much as a thought. More often than not, these types of punishment would befall any who failed him in any way. The messenger swallowed again, nervously opened the door, stepping inside. The figure at the other side of the room sat so that his face was obscured by shadow. A thick cloud of cigar smoke swirled around his head, giving him the appearance of some sort of demonic dragon from legend.
“Ja Alois? Bringst du mir etwas?” he asked, his voice low and carrying a distinct Equestrian accent.
Alois nodded, saluting rather tightly, still incredibly nervous. “Mein Herr, die neuesten Berichte von unserer Northern Suchtrupps. Kapitän Litz sagte ein besonderes Augenmerk auf der Nordic-Datei zu zahlen.”
“Kapitän Litz?” the figure asked and Alois nodded. “Nun, was hat die Geheimnisse guter Kapitän nun zu finden?” The figure said as he reached out a gloved hoof and beckoned for the documents under Alois’ shoulder. “Gib sie mir.”
With a nod, Alois placed the folder on the table, and the figure took them There was a pause as Alois awaited another order. He could see the other figure’s eyes staring at him through shadow and the figure waved a hoof.
“Du kannst gehen, Alois. Ich möchte dieses Dokument in Ruhe lesen” he ordered and Alois nodded rapidly.
“Jawohl.” he said, spinning on his heels and quickly walking out of the room.
The figure waited patiently until the door was closed and locked before he opened the file. The glossy paper within caught the light from the celing lamp and reflected it back onto the crimson scarred face of the pony reading the documents. As he read the contents, a small, yet confident smile slowly spread across his face.
“Ja, alles wird genau nach plan.” he said quietly to no one in particular, closing the file and leaning back in his chair slightly, drawing a puff from his cigar and slowly letting it out, allowing the cloud of smoke to swirl around him again.
“Es scheint, dass Kapitän Litz hat sein Versprechen…” he murmured, his eyes focusing on the large, and well detailed map hanging on the wall across from him. “es scheint, dass ich bald ein neues Juwel in meiner Sammlung zu haben ...”
Applejack found herself in a stark, open field, a chilling jet black fog clouding around the bottom of her hooves.
"Um...hello?" She called out, only for her voice to seemingly fade into nothingness, deadened by the thick cloud of fog. Setting her jaw and furrowing her brow slightly, she started to trot along at a steady pace, having caught sight of a bright light on the horizon, piercing through the fog. As she walked, the ground beneath her hooves shifted from wet, dew covered grass to what felt somewhat like soggy dirt. She pulled her coat around her tighter, the cold nipping at any exposed areas of her body.
The light it turned out, was actually a lantern, perched atop a tall, spindly lamppost, which loomed out of the fog like a lighthouse. The lamppost was attached to a massive iron gate, with the words 'Graveyard' hanging over it. Applejack felt a shiver of insecurity scamper up her spine. Why was the only sign of civilization a seemingly abandoned graveyard? Applejack was about to turn back to try and find somewhere more inviting when a long, ghostly wail echoed across the moors, causing fear to go piercing right through her chest.
As if on cue, the heavy iron gate swung open, its rusted hinges groaning in protest, and Applejack felt herself forcefully shoved past the threshold and into the graveyard. She stumbled forward slightly, nearly tripping over her spindly legs before regaining her lost balance and returning to a brisk walk. It made sense that this mysterious graveyard would have a groundskeeper, since it seemed that it was incredibly well kept, with every headstone perfectly aligned in neat, ordered rows which went outward from a large, paved circle like spokes in a wheel.
However, even with the seemingly organized and well kept look of the graveyard, something about it felt...off, as if some dark oppressive force was pushing down on her shoulders, trying to weigh her down. Every so often, she would glance behind herself, checking to make sure something wasn't actually perched on her shoulders. So far, it was just an eerie feeling, with nothing physically present anywhere on her body. She found that, during her wandering, she had ended up among a clutch of headstones, which, unlike the other headstones, which were arranged in rows, were arranged in a ring around her.
What the hay? She thought, wondering where these headstones had come from in the first place and why they didn't follow the design scheme of the rest of the graveyard, which had, even more strangely, seemingly disappeared completely, completely engulfed in the thick, black cloud. She heard a low rumble, and looked back at the headstones to find, to her unease, that they had physically moved to close in around her.
"This is gettin' weird..." she said, voicing the very first thought that came to her mind.
"How so?" came a low, whispering female voice.
Applejack felt as if something vicious were slowly moving along the ground by her hooves. She looked down at the ground, fearful for whatever bizarre creature might be lurking at her hooves. She was greeted by simple grass and she narrowed her eyes.
"Where are ya? Show yerself!" she called out, having no patience for whomever it was who was making her feel so uncomfortable.
"You didn't answer my question," came the voice again, this time sounding somewhat disappointed. "What is so strange about home?"
"Home? Strange? This ain't my home, It's a graveyard!" Applejack found herself saying, not quite sure why she felt compelled to answer the disembodied voice. "Now where are ya?! Stop playin' this silly game an' tell me what's goin' on?"
"Game? This isn't a game..." came the voice again, this time sounding bemused. "This, Applejack...this is where you belong."
Applejack stomped a hoof, tired of whomever it was and their mind games.
"I said show yerself ya dirty coward! Stop messin' wit' mah head ya kook!" she shouted.
The voice made a sound that sounded almost like a disappointed sigh.
"You really aren't the least bit fun," the voice chided, and Applejack felt something akin to a tentacle wrap around her neck. "Now just humor me and take a look at this."
Before Applejack had a chance to protest, whatever it was that was wrapped around her neck yanked her head forward towards one of the headstones. Applejack's eyes widened at the words inscribed on it:
Here lies Apple Buck Apple, loving husband and father; 1888-1928
"Daddy?" Applejack said, her voice hushed, not even noticing the fact that she was looking at the headstone of her own volition and not because of the tendril, which had since slithered off her neck. Swallowing, Applejack's eyes drifted to the headstone immediately next to her fathers.
Here lies Apple Blossom Apple, loving wife and mother; 1893-1928
"Mama?" Applejack whispered in fearful confusion.
"Feels horrible to be the reason they're there isn't it?" taunted the mysterious voice. "If you're father and mother hadn't had to spend extra money on your dozens and dozens of doctor visits and expensive medicines, why, they might have been able to pay the rent without all that extra work."
Applejack felt an incredible guilt shoot through her despite her best efforts to ignore the voice. She didn't want to admit, but the voice had reminded her of a long kept secret fear she had had. She had always wondered that maybe, just maybe, if she hadn't always been so sickly and in need of constant medical attention, her family might have been able to have more money, and not be so desperate for extra income. Then maybe her father wouldn't have needed to take that job in those accursed mines. Maybe it really was her fault that they were there-
No. That's not mah fault. She thought, shaking her head to clear away the feelings of doubt. "Listen here you!" She spat, turning towards where she last heard the voice come from. "I ain't gonna take none of that horsefeathers yer spoutin' ya got that? Mah parents were honest ponies, an' they only wanted tha best fer us! An' I ain't gonna let ya insult them like that!"
She searched for where the tormenting voice was hiding. There was a strange disembodied growl and the thick fog began to clump together, quickly forming into a towering pitch black alicorn, garbed in ornate black armor and wings spread wide behind it, it's snake like eyes burning with hatred.
“WHY?!” The alicorn shouted, her voice sending out a blast that caused Applejack stumbling back up against one of the headstones. ”Why must you fight? You know the truth Applejack. You are the cause of all your family’s woes! Just accept that truth and release them from this anguish.”
“End what now ya grass snake?” Applejack growled in defiance as she stood up, noticing that the alicorn’s gaze had shifted to the headstone Applejack had been leaning up against. Following the alicorn’s gaze, Applejack felt her stomach twist at the text engraved on the headstone.
Here lies Applejack Apple, A burden to her family; 1916 - 1941
“No no no no no” Applejack said, stepping back fearfully and shaking her head. “Th-that’s not true...I’m not a burden…” she said, her voice degrading into a sob.
“Oh but you are Applejack. It is quite true,” The alicorn whispered in her ear, floating an ornate, onyx dagger into Applejack’s field of vision. “You have been nothing but a burden to your family since day one, just take this blade and end it.”
The alicorn placed the dagger into Applejack’s hoof with a sick, twisted smile stretching across her muzzle, awaiting for the slice that would end it all. Her smile got more sadistic when Applejack looked down at her hooves, feeling the cold, oily energy radiating off the dagger, slowly and steadily seeping through her body.
Just one little quick slash across the throat and they’ll be free...and you’ll finally cease to be a burden… came a soft, velvety voice from inside Applejack’s head. Trust me…
Applejack closed her eyes tightly, shaking her head and muttering the Apple Family motto under her breath.
“Apples don’t quit and they stick together through thick and thin.” she repeated, before tossing the knife away. She turned to look up at the alicorn, who seemed to be disappointed.
“I’m sorry, but I just won’t do it. Ya’ll think that ya can just scare me inta killin’ maself? Well, ya got ‘nother thin’ comin’.”
And with that, she turned and started to walk away, only to feel the ground suddenly give way underneath her hooves. She felt a sharp pain go through her ankle as she hit the ground, finding herself in a deep, roughly rectangular shaped hole.
“You didn’t think it would be that easy did you?” the alicorn said, looming over the pit, a dominating smile on her face. “Those who stand in my path are crushed.”
As she spoke, her horn began to glow a pale silver and the walls around Applejack began to crumble rapidly.
“But in your case, I think a burial might be appropriate...considering the location.” The alicorn added with a chuckle and Applejack felt the walls of the pit completely collapse around her, sending her into darkness.
Applejack awoke to a splash of water to the face. Sputtering slightly, she bolted up, searching for the pony who had dowsed her with water.
“What in tarnation?!” she shouted, her head whipping around in search of the one who had soaked her. She saw that she was laying on the cot, still at the fair, apparently in another blocked off tented area. Standing next to her, perched on a stool and with an empty bucket held over her head, was Apple Bloom, who looked at Applejack with concern.
“Ya’ll alright AJ?” she asked, dropping the bucket. “Cause ya was actin’ all finicky in yer sleep.”
Applejack wrung her mane, trying get as much water out as she could before it started to frizz in the humidity. “Just a dream ‘Bloom, I’m all right. Howdja get here?”
Applejack looked around to find that they were, in fact, alone in the room.
“Mr. Shinin’ Armor took me here,” Apple Bloom replied, pointing to the outside of the tent. “He’s busy talkin’ wit’ a griffin.” she added.
“Ya’ll just let a random stallion come up an’ take ya someplace ya never been?” Applejack asked angrily, sitting up in her cot and shaking off the last bits of water, looking down at Apple Bloom with disapproval. “How many times ‘ave I told ya not ta talk ta strangers?”
Apple Bloom looked down at the ground, obviously feeling guilty. “He said he knew ya…” she murmured, rubbing her right foreleg as she always did when put on the spot.
Applejack’s face softened slightly. Apple Bloom had always been very trusting of ponies, something that Applejack couldn’t bring herself to really despise. The filly was still very young, and still had a lot to learn about the world. Unlike Applejack, who had had to learn a lot about the world from a very young age. She let out a sigh, giving Apple Bloom a gentle pat on the head to calm her.
“Hey, listen ‘Bloom. Now this time, ya was lucky an’ tha stallion was nice ta ya and took ya here. But not everypony is so nice ‘kay?” said Applejack, her tone gentler as she brought Apple Bloom up for a loving hug. “Somepony could easily lie about that. Don’t be so trustin’ or else somepony might take advantage of ya and hurt ya real bad. If’in something bad happened to you or Purity ah don’t know what ah’d do.”
“Okay AJ,” Apple Bloom replied quietly, and the pair simply sat there for a moment, content on simply hugging.
Applejack glanced over Apple Bloom’s shoulder to see a familiar, tall and very handsome white unicorn stallion standing in the doorway, a warm, if somewhat awkward smile on his face. Applejack was quick to release Apple Bloom from the hug and sit up in a more proper position on the cot.
“Sir,” she said, tipping her head in respect. Apple Bloom meanwhile, broke into a big smile, and waved towards the stallion adimately.
“Howdy Mistah Armor!” she said, and the stallion nodded.
“Hey Apple Bloom,” he said as he stepped into the room.
Applejack felt some relief in the fact that she at least recognized the stallion as the one who saved her life just a few hours before.
“Thank ya Mr. Armor fer bringin’ Apple Bloom ‘ere safe,” she was quick to say, attempting to clamber off her cot to give him a hoofshake.
Mr. Armor nodded somewhat awkwardly, and Applejack could have sworn he was blushing slightly.
“Um..yeah you’re welcome. And please, just call me Shining.” he said, returning the favor and, surprisingly, shaking her hoof.
Applejack smiled. Most of the time, whenever she offered her hoof for a shake to a unicorn, they would often react with visible disdain or disgust, often murmuring some sort of offense under their breath. However, in this stallion’s case, he seemed to totally not even notice her lack of horn, seemingly treating her as an equal. It was incredibly refreshing to say the least. It didn’t hurt that he was very, very handsome.
“Alrighty than Shinin’, an’ ya can call me Applejack,” she said with an awkward smile, “Thank ya fer pickin’ up mah sister. She wasn’t any trouble was she? An’ thanks fer savin’ mah life. I do owe ya a lot.” She then turned towards Apple Bloom, who had been watching the entire time. “An’ I’m sorry to ya ‘Bloom. Didn’t mean ta scare ya.”
“Oh, you’re sister wasn’t any trouble, we mostly talked about pulp comics and the like. Mostly Mare-Do-Well,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck somewhat awkwardly. “And you’re welcome Ms. Apple, you’re a really beaut-I mean nice mare.” he finished, blushing slightly at his misstep.
Applejack couldn’t help but giggle slightly. That was the first time she’d ever been called beautiful. It gave her a jittery, bubbly feeling she couldn’t quite describe, which seemed only heightened by the awkward way that Shining shifted on his hooves.
“Well thank ya kindly Mr. Armor…” she felt a coy smile tug at her lips, and her face flush slightly.
“Er.. well you um... see...” was about all Shining could stammer out before Apple Bloom let out an over dramatic groan of disapproval.
“Eww...sappy…” she said, sticking her tongue out.
Applejack couldn't help but smile at Apple Bloom's behavior. Both her and Shining began to chuckle, but Applejack felt her chest tighten within a few chuckles, and she stopped, taking several deep breaths. She felt a hoof on her shoulder and looked to see Shining and Apple Bloom looking at her with concern.
"Look, if you want, I can take Apple Bloom home. I think you still need some rest. That was a really heavy duty asthma attack you had today." Shining said.
"No, I think I can handle mahself." Applejack replied with a shake of her head.
She then quickly moved towards the exit with Apple Bloom in tow. She didn’t get far however, as a nurse cut across her path and held out a foreleg to stop her.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but you have to stay here.” she said kindly, motioning for Applejack to sit back down.
Applejack furrowed her brow, and angrily said: “But why? I’ma fine.”
“Ms. Apple, you just suffered a rather harsh asthma attack, I suggest it would be best for you to stay here until you’ve recovered.” the nurse stated, her kind veneer weakening somewhat. “We just want to be sure that you aren’t going to suffer one on the way home. It’s just simple protocol ma’am.”
Applejack sighed, narrowing her eyes slightly before leaning in close to the nurse.
“Ma’am, I don’t mean ta cause any unnecessary trouble, but I gotta get mah sistah home. Celestia knows mah older sister is probably worried sick ‘bout her.”
The nurse simply responded with a stern gaze of her own, lowering her eyebrows. “Miss Apple, we will make sure that your younger sister is home safe and sound. I just want you to go and have some rest.”
Applejack was about to come back with a response when Shining stepped between the two mares.
“Whoa, now ladies, let’s not get into a fight,” he said, then he turned towards the nurse. “Nurse, I think Applejack is fine. I mean she’s up and walking right? That’s gotta count for something.”
The nurse looked up at Shining for a moment, before glaring back at Applejack. “Mr. Armor, I’m going to take your honest word on this. But if she shows any signs of an oncoming attack, be sure to bring her here quickly. Celestia knows we don’t need a wrongful death suit on our hooves.”
And with that, the nurse trotted off to another part of the tent. Applejack watched her leave, taking special notice of the horn on the nurse’s head.
That explains a lot… she thought angrily before beckoning for Apple Bloom. “Come on sis’, let’s get ya home.” she then looked at Shining.
“Thank ya fer standin’ up fer me like that.” she said, starting to trot out of the nurses’ tent. Shining followed close behind, apparently wanting to escort them to the door.
“No problem. Nurse Scalpel can be a little too by-the-book sometimes.” he said, “But she means well, trust me.”
“Well, iffin’ it’ll make her feel any better, I’m sorry. Just wanna get home is all.” Applejack replied, not wanting to admit she still felt sore over not being accepted.
Having an asthma attack right in front of at least forty ponies didn’t help matters either. Spending any extra time in a hospital than absolutely necessary would probably only add up to more expenses for Purity to pay. And no matter what guilty thoughts might have skittered around in her head, she wasn’t going to be a burden to her family. Not if she could help it at least.
Just as the trio were about to leave the fair however, a voice called out to them.
“Pardon me, frau!”
Applejack turned to see a griffin walk up next to them, and Shining tipped his head as if he recognized him. Applejack tensed up slightly, however, unsure of how to react to the griffin.
“Um...howdie?” she said, coming to a stop. Apple Bloom looked up at the griffin and waved.
“Howdie, Professor!” she chirped.
“Hello Frau Apple,” The griffin replied warmly, tipping his head. He turned his attention to Applejack. “Frau Applejack I presume?”
Applejack raised an eyebrow slightly. “Um...yeah. Who’s asking?”
“Oh sorry I’ve already introduced myself to Frau Apple I guess I forgot my manners. My name is Professor Hans Wolfgang Christoph Ludwig von Schultz. But most just call me Professor Schultz.”
He extended a talon in greeting with a kind smile to go with it.
Applejack blinked. Why had this professor, a griffin no less, decided to speak with her? She looked down at the extended talon, noticing that the claws, while still present, were noticeably duller than other griffin talons she had seen. Of course, she had only ever seen griffin talons on newsreels, so who was to say that this random griffin really was a professor and not just a spy? Of course, Shining had recognized the griffin, and Apple Bloom seemed to know him as well. With that thought in mind, she tentatively returned the shake.
“Nice ta meet ya Professor...what might ya need?”
“Well, I wish to speak with you if that’s alright with you?” he said, motioning towards a seat nearby.
“Why? I’m kinda needin’ ta get home.” Applejack said, hoping not to get wrapped into another over-long interview session.
The professor nodded. “Of course, I understand. It’ll just take a few moments, I promise, and then you’ll be on your way.” he said, beckoning her to sit.
With a sigh, Applejack turned to Shining while motioning Apple Bloom closer to the attractive stallion.
“Wouldja mind takin’ ‘Bloom home, Shinin’? This’ll probably take a while.” Applejack said reluctantly.
Shining nodded. “Sure thing…” He started towards the door with Apple Bloom only to pause. “Wait, what’s your address?”
“Ya’ll know where Ms. Belle’s mansion is?”
“You mean that massive one with the obnoxious white and purple color scheme?” Shining asked, raising an eyebrow in recognition. “Because I passed by it on the way into town yesterday.”
Applejack nodded. “Yup. That’s the one. Mah house is right down the main road an’ to tha right. If ya get lost, ‘Bloom will help ya find it.”
“Alright then. Thank you Mrs. App-I mean Applejack,” Shining replied, blushing again slightly at his slip up and beckoning for Apple Bloom to follow.
Applejack watched as they left the fair and headed down the road to the edge of town for awhile before she lost sight of them and turned back to the griffin.
“Alright Professor, whadda wanna talk ‘bout?” she asked, following him as he pulled out a nearby chair from a table, beckoning for her to sit, even going as far as to dust it off slightly. Applejack couldn’t help but be thankful for his courteousness, and she sat down.
“Thanks fer the chair.” she said, getting comfortable.
The griffin nodded. “Yes of course Ms. Apple. I am always respectful to a lady,” he said, taking a seat of his own and pulling out a notepad from under his wing.
As he did so, Applejack noticed that he also had the clipboard with her information there as well, and he set both on the small table they had sat at.
“Now, I’m going to ask some simple questions and I want you to answer as honestly as possible. Alright?”
Applejack shifted in her seat slightly, internally grumbling at the idea of another evaluation. “Um..alright then Professor Schultz,” she said, keeping the grumble in her voice to a minimum.
Professor Schultz smiled and nodded, before flipping a page up on the paper. “Alright then Ms. Apple, tell me, what compelled you to attempt and join the armed forces today?” he asked, peering at Applejack over his granny glasses with a slightly raised eyebrow.
Applejack shifted in her chair slightly. As much as she’d been thinking about it, she worried if just up and saying that she came for no reason other then money would seem mean spirited. It wasn’t because she wasn’t patriotic or anything, she loved Equestria just as much as the next pony. But to her, with all the hecticness of life, it seemed that patriotism, while an admirable thing, wouldn’t be the best way to pay bills.
“Ms. Apple, you can be as honest as you wish,” said Professor Schultz, snapping Applejack out of her moral pondering. “In fact, the more honest the better,” he added, giving her a smile.
Applejack let out a sigh. “Well, Professor, an’ I really don’t wanna seem like a jerk or nuthin’, but I came here fer the money. Plain and simple.” she said, subconsciously moving to rub her foreleg.
She looked at Professor Schultz, expecting him to maybe frown and give her a long speech about the wonders of patriotism, and how she was a terrible pony for only being in it for the money when others were doing it for moral reasons. Instead, he simply jotted something down on the notepad and nodded.
“Any other reasons? It says here that you have asthma and are at least twenty pounds below the allowed weight,” he said, looking down at the clipboard with her application. “Are you sure this isn’t so that you can prove the naysayers wrong? Prove your worth something to your family?”
He looked Applejack in the eye, and his tone, while level, had a noticeable flavor of sympathy and understanding to it, as if he wasn’t talking down to her, but rather simply wanting to know more about her.
Applejack bit her lip slightly. “Well…” she trailed off, looking down at the ground embarrassed.
She’d never really thought of it that way before, but his question had struck a chord in her. She’d always been trying to prove her worth around the farm, try to make things easier for Purity to handle or make sure they could afford Apple Bloom’s education. Of course, with her constant health problems, much of that money had gone to pay for hospital visits, doctor appointments and her medications.
“Now that ya mention it...I do feel like a bit of a burden’...” she said quietly, more to herself than anything else. “I mean, ya’ll read the paper I guess. Me an’ Purity wanna get my sister a good education’ an’ all, but we keep spendin’ money on me an’ my medicine. Add ta that the rent we need ta pay Ms. Belle...I guess maybe I justed wanted ta go an’ show them I’m worth somethin’...help keep a roof over our heads or somethin’...” she trailed off, letting out a sigh and adjusting her hat slightly.
“I see Ms. Apple. This Ms. Belle, is she your landlord?” Professor Schultz asked, writing down some more notes.
“Yeah. She’s a real bit-er snob.” Applejack replied, catching the expletive before it left her mouth. Professor Schultz raised an eyebrow slightly.
“You don’t like her do you?” he asked, seemingly already knowing the answer. “Is it because she’s a unicorn?”
Applejack huffed. “No...it ain’t because of that. A snob is a snob, horn or no horn.” she replied. “An’ iffin’ yer wonderin’ if I like them HYDRA folk, rest assured I don’t. I mean, I can understan’ why somepony would want ta be treated tha same, but I figure ya don’t have ta kill somepony ta be equal wit ‘em.” she replied. “Then yer just like the bullies ya wanted ta stop. An’ I hate bullies.”
“So you don’t like bullies?” Professor Schultz asked, jotting down what Applejack said on his notepad. Applejack nodded.
“Sure thin’. Nothin’ but big mean jerks who pick on the little guy. Can’t stand ‘em.” she replied, sitting up slightly.
“Ever been picked on by one?” Professor Schultz asked, looking at Applejack with curiosity.
Applejack nodded slightly, dark memories of constantly being harassed by bullies at school for her size or her lack of horn running through her mind. “Yeah...yeah I was.” She replied quietly.
“I see…” Professor Schultz responded, jotting something else down and then closing his notepad. “Well, Ms. Apple, am I correct in assuming that you attempted to join the military today because you simply wish to provide for your family? Is that the reason?”
Applejack nodded. “In a nutshell yeah...like I said...I don’t wanna be a burden to ‘em. I just want them ta stay safe an’ sound ya know. Any self-respect I get is just a bonus I guess…”
Professor Schultz smiled. “Excellent. That is exactly the kind of honesty I wanted to hear.” As he spoke, he leaned down to pull out another clipboard from his briefcase, which he had left next to his seat. He set it on the table and then, reaching back into his briefcase, he pulled out a stamp, rolled it in some ink and stamped the sign 1A. Applejack’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly.
“Um...what are ya doin’?” Applejack asked, unsure as to why she had been giving a passing grade.
“Ms. Apple, I am proud to announce that you have just been drafted into a very special, very secret project of the Equestrian Government.” He extended a talon for her to shake. “Project Rebirth to be exact.”
Applejack simply blinked, unsure of what to say. After searching her mind for a second, she finally decided what would be the overall best response to such an announcement:
Act I - 05 - The Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning
Chapter Five: “The Wheel in the Sky Keeps On Turning”
Applejack blinked, still trying to wrap her head around what the strange, obviously eccentric griffin had just said. She swallowed slightly, before repeating the question she had just asked, this time a little more clearly.
“Um, Professor, what didja just say?”
The Professor cast a brief glance over his shoulder, already packing what was apparently his briefcase. “I said that I welcome you to Project Rebirth, Frau Apfel,” he answered, “And as such, I feel that is worthy moment of celebrating, no?” he continued, reaching into his briefcase and pulling out a candy bar. “Care for a chocolate, Frauline?” the good doctor asked, already pulling off the metallic silver of the wrapper and taking a bite the shape Applejack Apple was not accustomed to seeing. He held out the candy towards Applejack, who simply looked down at it for a moment in confusion. “Try it! Ist gut!”
“Um….I guess?” she murmured, hesitating but still taking a bite, creating a fairly large dent in it herself. AJ’s eyes instantly widened at the enveloping wave of creamy warmth and sweetness that exploded across her tongue, coating it in a glowing, almost erotic feeling of bliss.
“Ist gut, is it not?” The Professor chuckled, obviously noticing Applejack’s rapturous enjoyment of the confectionery delight. She nodded slowly, relishing the taste for a few more seconds before she remembered where she was. She opened her eyes, shaking off her euphoria.
“Um, yeah it was,” she said, self-consciously running a hoof through her mane. She probably looked like a total idiot sitting there, eating a simple piece of chocolate like a cow would its cud. “Sorry fer zoning out on ya there, Doc. That chocolate was just…” she let out a breath, not realizing that she’d been holding one.”That was just some darn good chocolate ya had, there, Doc.”
Applejack balanced what was left of the candy bar in the palm of her hoof and tried to return it to Schultz, but the griffin gently pushed her hoof back, chuckling lightly.
“No worries, Mien Frauline! You can keep that,” the funny, feathered doctor said as he patted his coat pocket. “I have several more where that one came from.”
Applejack nodded slightly, subconsciously bringing the candy bar back to her mouth and taking another bite, although this time with a great deal less zeal. It was then that something popped into the mind of the thin young mare, though feeling as if she should tread lightly, the thought in question being, really, none of her business to begin with.
“Um, Doc?….can I ask ya somethin?” she began as she moved her father’s hat back to her blonde head.
The Professor, who was also seeming enjoying the wondrous rapture of the mighty chocolate, raised an eyebrow slightly. “Yes?” he asked in turn, tilting his head and raising an eyebrow as he mimicked his younger, more equine counterpart. “What is it, Frau Apfel?”
Applejack swallowed reflexively, ignoring the exotic twist on her last name and not wishing to come off as intrusive, but doing so anyway.
“Well, how’d ya’ll get this?” the young recruit asked. “The chocolate, I mean. They don’t sell stuff like this at Sugarcube Corner, that’s fer darn sure.”
To make her point clearer, she raised the remains of her candybar to the good doctor, which was now just a corner. Shultz instantly looked down and his expression grew visibly nostalgic.
“Oh, these little things?” he laughed it off like it was nothing major. “I, Frau Apfel, these? These are from my home country of Southern Griffinheim. I brought them with me, as I…”
His voice trailed off and his eyes wettened as he twiddled the candy bar in his claws for a moment, looking down at it as if it were an heirloom from a dead family member.
It was then that Applejack felt as if sudden and strange cocktail of different emotions go down her throat, totally negating the excellence of the chocolate she'd just a moment ago been enjoying. The young farm girl knew full well that the northern part of Griffinheim was friendly to Equestria, at least in any official sense of the term ‘friendly’, but the southern part? That was a different story entirely. Applejack could still remember, in very vivid detail, bringing home newspapers that told of the news of the countless atrocities that had been done against Equestria. She couldn’t help but now feel wary of whatever the supposedly ‘good doctor’ had planned for her with whatever this ‘Project Rebirth’ was.
Professor Schultz took a depressed breath and seemed to be lost in his own world. Applejack was still apprehensive of him though, and when he looked up, he spotted her uneasiness easily and his pensive expression broke into a warm smile.
“If you worry about where my loyalties lay, Frau Apfel, I assure you,” his voice became very stoic and resolved, as if he’d taken her expression as a personal insult, “I have nothing but love for Equestria.”
He reached over to pat Applejack on the shoulder. She still eyed the talons warily though, still feeling more than a little uneasy. However, her caution did nothing to faze his smile, and Applejack didn’t know if Schultz's look of understanding was fake or genuine.
“Look, I can tell you’re a little skeptical about all of this, Frau Apfel, and you are not the first, trust me," he said, zipping his briefcase shut. "Therefore, I courteously extend to you the invitation of joining me for lunch today, where, hopefully, I can help quell some of your fears, Frau,” he raised his glasses as they began to slide down his beak "Would you like that?"
Applejack nibbled her lip ever so slightly, her stomach deciding that now was a good time to voice its approval of a lunch on the town.
"Uh...yeah, that…” she hesitated as she began to accept the offer of a griffin that could very well be her end. Then again, she thought to herself. If’n he wanted ta off me, he could’a done by now, I reckon. So she swallowed her fear and finished her sentence. “That sounds nice, I guess" she replied, her stomach's rumblings reminding her that she hadn't had a bite to eat since breakfast that morning, and, if the clock on the wall was accurate, it was almost five in the evening.
"Excellent!" The Professor chirped, clasping his well groomed talons together and swinging his bag over his shoulder in one fluid motion and standing up out of his chair. He popped his hat on his head and motioned for Applejack to follow, and, with her previous trepidation fading at the thought of the great rarity of a nice, warm and full meal. When confronted by such an enticing offer, Applejack could do nothing else, save standing up and following after the eccentric griffin that had claimed her as his protege.
“How about here?” Professor Schultz asked, rubbing his fine mustache and motioning towards the refined and classy looking restaurant, adorned in candles and brass trimmings, on the street corner.
Applejack grimaced slightly, remembering the last time she tried to eat there, saving up all of her money for so long at a chance to eat like royalty. “Can’t we pick somewhere else?” she asked, looking at Schultz with apprehension. Schultz arched an eyebrow slightly.
“Why? What is wrong with zis place ?" He asked, and Applejack looked down at the ground in embarrassment.
"Just don't wanna run into any unnecessary trouble, is all, Doc" she replied. "Most earth ponies like me aren't welcome in a place like that."
Professor Schultz' expression soured noticeably. "I see," he said simply, glancing back towards the restaurant, where a small crowd of unicorns were all sitting in the outdoor cafe area. "Do you know of someplace else, Mien Frauline? Somewhere less…” he couldn’t help but let out a very visible sneer as he sought an apt term to describe the eating establishment before them. “Detestable?"
Applejack looked around, spotting a small, humble looking establishment with a sign that read "Berry's Punch Bowl"
“How ‘bout there? That’s where I usually go, if I can srping fer it,” she said plainly.
“Well, I am the foreigner," The Professor nodded with a laugh, though raising an eyebrow all the while at the rather… rustic looking tavern. “And you the native, Mein Frau, so lead on,” he chuckled, in a way that strangely made Applejack remember her father in a warm, gentle way.
She smiled slightly, before leading him towards the bar. The walk over was a quiet one, with the Professor looking around, looking more like a geeky tourist then a proper scientist.
“I did not know you could see Canterlot from here, Frau,” he said idly, and Applejack followed his gaze towards the tall, narrow mountain top that loomed in the horizon. Perched on the west side, glimmering in the light of the steadily setting sun, was the city itself, looking like a jewel carved into the mountainside.
“Uh?” Applejack responded, only barely registering what he’d said. “Oh yeah. Yeah, it is,” she agreed. “Yeah, Mount Canter’s got one of the prettiest views all over Equestria,” as they both began to admire the sheer and unrivaled majesty of the mountainscape. “Legend’s got it that it was a gift from Siegfried to Celestia as a-”
“As a wedding gift,” he cut her off, his griffin accent thick and his mind wandering to some place far away. “She is… magnificent,” she could tell that his own mind continued to travel to places much further than Applejack could fathom. “Reminds me of Hoch Spitze before the war,” Schultz added, his voice carrying a feeling of nostalgia, but snapping his own mind out of his mental sojourn.
“‘Hot Spits’?” Applejack asked clumsily, butchering the Griffin language, raising an eyebrow and turning back towards Schultz. “What kinda name is ‘Hot Spits’?”
Schultz chuckled, “No, no, Frau Apfel. It is spelt H-O-C-H, S-P-I-T-Z-E. It’s Griffin for ‘Great Hight’. It’s the capital city of South Griffinhiem…” his chuckle faded. “It was very, quite beautiful, before…” a touch of sadness and regret entered his voice. “Before everything went south.”
Schultz looked down at the ground pensively, and Applejack wondered whether or not to pursue any further questions when Schultz shrugged his soldiers.
“Oh well, no use being nostalgic over something I can’t regain, I think,” he said, smoothing out his suit jacket. “At least I’m in a place where I’m free to help others.”
He stepped up to the doorway of the bar and opened it up for Applejack right as his sentence ended. Applejack gave him a grateful nod accompanied by a smile, noticing this was the first time she’d had a door opened on her behalf, as if she were equal to any unicorn. He followed behind and Applejack waived towards the bartender, a vaguely sullen looking purple earth pony, who was busied with wiping the counter.
“Howdy there, Berry Punch,” Applejack said, waving a hoof towards the bartender, who looked up and waved back, her sullen expression lightning.
“Hey, Applejack. Didn’t expect you here at this hour,” Berry Punch said, returning her focus to wiping the counter. She motioned up towards the clock on the wall. “I close in half-an-hour, AJ” she added.
Applejack nodded. “Yeah, I know, Berry. Mah friend here wanted ta get a taste of the local food, though.”
Berry Punch arched an eyebrow, still wiping the counter. “Oh? Is that who that griffin is?” A bit of irritation entering her voice. “The one who smells like expensive chocolate?” she asked bluntly.
Applejack glanced over at Schultz, who simply had an amused expression on his face.
“Is it that obvious?” he asked, laughing all the while, “I can’t help that I enjoy the finer things in life.”
Berry Punch shrugged. “Well, then you probably wouldn’t like it here, Fancy Beak” she answered, finally setting the cloth asides and looking up at Schultz with a cocked eyebrow. “Cause this is probably the smallest bar in Ponyville. We don’t serve your fancy chocolate here.”
Schultz smiled, “Oh, that’s quite alright, Frau Saft. I am quite willing to experience something a little more rustic than what I am accustomed too. One cannot feed oneself exclusively on chocolate, after all.”
Applejack couldn’t help but chuckle slightly. The Professor was probably the nicest griffin she had ever seen, so wildly different from the horror fuel that made up most Equestrian propaganda.
“Well, what would you like to drink?” Berry Punch asked, once more glancing up at the clock. “Like I said, I’m going to be closing in close to thirty minutes...not to be rude or anything.”
Both Applejack and the Professor nodded. “Yes, of course, I totally understand,” The Professor said, waving a claw. “Frau Apfel, do you wish to order?” he asked, turning to Applejack expectantly. Applejack ran her tongue along her lower lip ever so slightly, glancing up at the menu before turning to Berry Punch.
“I guess some Apple Cider will be nice," she said, hearing her stomach then made it’s own order. “With a BLT club” it shouted once more. “With somm’a dem kettle cooked chips?”
Berry Punch nodded, diving under the counter and pulling out a bottle labeled "Sweet Apple Acres Cider", along with two shot glasses. She swiftly poured the golden liquid into the two glasses, sliding them over to Applejack and the Professor.
"There you go, AJ. One for you,” she shot a look at the griffin to the right as she handed her long time friend her sandwich and chips, along with her drink. “And for your feathered friend, here." Berry Punch said. "If you need anything else, I'll be busy closing down alright, Applejack?"
Applejack and the Professor both nodded, taking a seat, and each took a sip of their ciders.
"My, my, my!" The Professor said, his eyes widening slightly. “Some of the best cider I’ve ever had.”
Applejack smiled, feeling a little more comfortable. "Yeah. That’s ‘cause it’s Sweet Apple Acres cider. We make it the good old fashioned way.”
Professor Schultz raised an eyebrow. “Ya? Your family are brewers?”
Applejack shrugged as she took a large bite from her sandwich. “I guess you could say that. If it has somethin' ta do wit' apples, we Apples probably know how to do it..." She trailed off, her pride fading somewhat when she remembered how sharply her wire thin frame contrasted with everyone else in her family's larger and generally stocky frames. "...'cept fer me I guess."
The Professor raised an eyebrow. "Really? How so? You seem like an intelligent mare."
Applejack gave a sighing shrug. "Brains don't get ya that far on a farm," she replied, gulping down her drink bitterly, trying to wash down her chips. "I mean, mah sister can buck a whole orchards worth of apple trees. Me? I can't even buck a saplin'."
She let her shoulders sag as she stared at the bottom of her now empty glass of cider.
"I see,” Schultz answered, seemingly digesting her plight as he stroked his mustache once more. “You want to provide for your family, but fear you lack the physical strength to do so?" the Professor asked, looking towards Applejack with sympathy.
Applejack nodded slightly. "Yeah...I don't even know why yer considering me fer this whole ‘Project Rebirth’ thingy in the first place. I mean, look at me..." She motioned towards her frail and scarecrow like body and all of its pencil-like glory, showing him exactly the type of pony he chose to bring along for his little experiments. "I'm the last pony you'd ask ta go an' fight a war."
She turned the empty mug in her hooves and her thoughts about all that she could not do emerged to crush her, like the toothpick she was, but such thoughts dissipated when she felt a gentle talon on her back. She tensed at first, but relaxed and turned to give the Professor a look.
"One thing I've learned, Frau Apfel, and you may be surprised to learn this, is that power is nothing without a good, pure heart to guide it,” said Schultz softly, the look in his eyes telling her that it had been a hard learned lesson, indeed. “I have faith in you, Mien Frauline, but what is really, truly important is that you have faith in yourself. Remember the mare that is putting her life on the line to save her family, and this," a single, dull talon made contact with her center of her chest. “Remember this above all else, and you will be more than worth my time.”
The griffins words reminded Applejack of her father's own words of support that he would give whenever a much younger Applejack would feel left out. It made Applejack feel somewhat more confident to know that at least someone believed in her in someway.
“What exactly do ya do, Professor?” Applejack asked, raising a confused eyebrow and surprised that inquiry was not plied sooner. If anything, the question was driven by a sense of curiosity to know what this griffin did when he wasn't sharing drinks and offering words of encouragement.
Professor Schultz paused, set his drink down and sighed.
“Well, I do, or have done, many things in my life. I’ve been a writer, wrote a few books in my younger days, an artist, which I was never really that gut at, just between you and me,” he shot a wink at her. “I have been a doctor, which is a job I have adored above all else, and now? I am currently employed as a geneticist for your government, Frau. But, the one thing I have been, through all of this, is a simple griffin, simply doing what he thought was the best thing to help the world.”
He finished by taking another sip of his cider and Applejack looked at her mug again, not really sure what to ask next. “Except the artist?” She shot a wry grin at him.
Dr. Schultz could only return the favor. “Sadly, no. That one did more harm than gut, I think,” they both let out a chuckle as he said that, relieving some of the tension between them.
"Hey, guys," came Berry Punch's voice, and both the Professor and Applejack looked up to see the purple bartender leaning on the counter, already donning a large, black overcoat to keep herself warm during the night. "Sorry I have to interrupt your conversation, but it's closing time."
Applejack looked her over. “Where you headed, Berry?”
She popped her knuckles at that question, then her neck. “Graveyard shift at my other job.”
“So…” The kindly old griffin began. “Why are you wearing your sunglasses?”
“I always wear my sunglasses at night,” Berry responded, her tone very matter of fact and blunt. “So I can, so I can…” However, she trailed off, her brow furrowing, seemingly unsure of how to follow up on her explanation. She instead pointed up at the clock on the wall, seemingly wanting to end the conversation.
Applejack looked and widened her eyes. As it turned out, it was now almost seven o'clock, and most likely, Purity was wondering what was keeping her.
"Dang it, I gotta go," muttered Applejack, placing some bits on the table. "Professor?"
The Professor nodded. "Yes, of course. We must not keep this nice mare waiting, ja?"
He grabbed his overcoat, which had been slung over a barstool, and slipped it back on. The trio headed outside, with Berry locking the bars doors behind them.
"G’night, Berry." Applejack said with a rushed wave.
"Good night, Applejack. Stay safe now." Berry replied, tipping her head in acknowledgement and walking off, leaving Applejack and Schultz alone.
"Well Miss Apple, will you be accepting my offer?" asked Schultz, raising his eyebrow slightly and sporting a grin as he put on his hat and tipped it towards the farmer.
Applejack shrugged. "'Bout the program? I’m guess’n I'll have ta sleep on it fer a bit. Not that I'm tryin' ta be rude or nuthin'."
"Oh, I perfectly understand your apprehension, Mein Frauline! This is a major decision for anyone, and its best that you don't rush into things. But here,” he jotted something down on a small notepad, before handing her a sheet of paper with a phone number on it. “Whatever your decision, call me at this number.” he said, before tipping his hat again. “Goodnight, Frau Apfel," and then, like she’d been his niece or his grand daughter or something akin to a close relation, he pecked her with a small kiss on the forehead.
He took several steps forwards before coming to a pause and turning to Applejack with a comedic twirl.
"Which way to the fair again?" he asked, his talon raised and waggling in different directions.
Applejack pointed towards the center of town and let out a much needed chuckle at the crazy old griffin. "Just follow that there road fer about three blocks, then take a left. That’d be the path I took, at any rate."
The Professor nodded. "Danke schon, Frau Apfel."
And with that, he started down the road, idly whistling a small tune of his far away home, simply enjoying the smallest things he could find in life. As for Applejack, she herself turned in the direction of her home, her mind flooded with trying to sort out the events of the shockingly busy day it had been today.
"So whats the benefit?" Purity asked, her face pensive after her sister had told her everything she’s learned about signing up for the military..
Applejack shrugged, taking a large bite out of her salad. "Well, I get paid fer it," she answered back, her mouth still full from all the greenery in her maw. "Hopin' we can use tha money ta pay fer that tax, right?"
"Applejack, I really don't think it’s a good idea is all," said Purity bluntly, barely giving Applejack time to finish her sentence. "Ya can't just fly willy nilly inta tha army an' expect money ta come flutterin' down from tha sky like snow!"
Applejack opened her mouth to make a rebuttal, but instead went back to chewing her food. It had been about an hour since she got back from her unexpectedly extended day trip, and Purity had been quick to remind Applejack that she had missed a day’s work. Applejack knew deep down that Purity was right, since, if she hadn't been there, that left the already hardworking Purity alone to manage the farm entirely by herself. Sure, the cows could be trusted to mostly handle themselves, everything else required lots of work to keep running effectively, and therefore, Purity was justified in being rather terse at the moment.
Not like I could’a been much help anyway, she thought to herself. Bein’ the toothpick I am.
"Where's ‘Bloom?" She asked, taking notice that she was suspiciously absent from the dinner table. Purity glanced towards the chair Apple Bloom usually occupied.
"Well, that unicorn stallion dropped her off. Told us 'bout yer ashma attack too." Purity said, her voice shifting from bluntness to worry. "I got awful worried fer ya, AJ, so I sent ‘Bloom up ta bed early. Ya shoulda come right back instead of talkin' to that griffin ya mentioned. Who knows what he might be plannin'."
Applejack shifted her weight in her chair. "He looked honest ta me Purity,” she said, half heartedly defending the gentlegriffin that had bought her dinner, knowing what her sister had been saying wasn’t true, but being too tired to argue with any real zeal. “Whatja want me ta do? Ignore 'im?"
Purity shook her head. "No, I don’t think you should’a just ignored, ‘im,” she took a deep breath as she placed one of her hooves upon her face. “I just thank ya shouldn't be so gosh darn trustin'. I mean,” she began to wave her forelegs around dramatically, like South Griffinheim had already taken over Equestria or something. “Who’s ta say this whole 'Rebirth' doohickey isn't just some slick way ta hide some sorta trap? Someway to get away with doin’ some freaky mathematics on ya er some such?"
Applejack exhaled corsley. "Purity, yer soundin' awful paranoid right now, ya know that right?" She let out an exhausted laugh. “Mathematics never hurt no pony, least’n I wouldn’t say so.”
Purity shrugged. "I’d rather be safe then sorry, Applejack. Just tryin' ta keep my brain on the ground, like yers ought’a be right now.”
"Well, what 'bout tha taxes an' tha rent?” Applejack began to try to push her own argument now. “Iffin I sign up, ya'll won't have ta pay as much on that gosh derned tax!"
Purity sighed. "Its too dangerous, Applejack. I don't want to risk you getting shipped to some dirty trench somewhere and ending up dead just because ya'll gotta be such a big damn hero. I'll take 'nother job ta pay tha tax. Rather pay it honestly an' keep mah dignity than piggy back off ya with the extra risk of ya dyin'."
“Well,” AJ began, her voice much more defiant now. “Pardon me if’n I didn’t wantcha to go out to get yerself killed the same way ma and pa did.”
She finished by gulping down her water rather tersely, before setting the empty glass down and exhaling through her nose sharply. However, Applejack’s frustration evaporated when she saw Purity’s expression. She could have sworn that her older sister's eyes were watering, a theory that only gained credence when Purity dabbed a cloth to her eyes and sniffed.
Applejack got up slowly, walking over to her sister, who was now obviously trying to hold back tears. She spread her forelegs and pulled her into the tightest hug she could muster.
“I’m so sorry, Purity, I…” she said quietly, still feeling no less than awful for what she’d said to her own sister. Knowing that work had been the death of both of their parents was one thing, but using it to win an argument? That was uncalled for. “It’s okay Purity...it’s okay...ya’ll know I’d try ta be as safe as possible,” said Applejack in a comforting tone.
Purity nodded. “I know, I know...it’s just...are ya sure there isn’t some other way?”
Applejack shrugged. “I don’t know Purity...this just feels like tha right thin’ ta do is all.” She looked across the room, her eyes focusing on the bottles of her medication, which were always sitting on the countertop, at the ready in case they were needed. “At least this way, ya don’t hafta worry ‘bout spendin’ any extra money on me an’ mah meds. I mean, tha army’s gonna pay fer mine while I’m there, right?”
Purity nodded slightly. “Yeah, I suppose so…” she trailed off, sniffing again. “When are ya shippin’ out?”
Applejack ended the hug and sat down next to Purity and they just held each other in a way that only two siblings could, consoling each other in what would be one of the last moments that they’d ever see.
“Well, I don’t hafta leave till tomorrah mornin’...figured I’d sleep it over, ya know?” Applejack staring off into nothing in particular, knowing that if she went over tomorrow morning, then the life of her, and of her family, would never be the same.
Purity nodded, before gently putting a hoof on Applejack’s shoudler. “Looky here, AJ, I know ya better’n most. If'n this is what ya really want, and if it’s what ya think is the absolute best way ta solve our problems, well then I can’t really stop ya,” she pulled her sisters head closer to her, not wanting to let go of her baby sister. Even after all the fights and all the arguments about what they should and should not say, they were still blood above all else. “Yer a grown mare ready ta make her own decisions, as weird as it feels ta say out loud. I also know that nuthin’ I say is gunna make ya change yer mind. Just remember...stay safe okay?” Purity said slowly and sniffling with tears rolling down her cheeks. “Fer ‘Bloom’s sake, just don’t go gettin’ yerself shot in some Celestia forsaken trench somewhere, alright,” she pleaded as she ruffled her sister’s mane. “After all, somepony’s gotta come back home and help me out with the zap apple trees.”
Applejack nodded slowly, her expression equally emotional. “I will, Purity,” she then spread her forelegs and pulled her older sister into a hug. “And you can take that all the way to the bank."
Applejack stood by the phone attached to the wall of the kitchen, looking down at the piece of paper with the Professor’s number on it. The sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon, tinting the room a light, lavender shade of purple.
Applejack hadn’t gotten much sleep that night, instead spending most of it sitting in the kitchen, pondering her next course of action. She already knew that Purity was going to support her, if only in spirit, but Applejack still felt as if she were standing on the edge of a massive cliff, looking into an endless, unexplored void ahead. She swallowed, biting her lip before she quietly lifted the phone off the hook and put it to her ear.
Here goes nuthin’, she thought, carefully dialing the number she had been given. There was a brief sound of the busy signal, before it was interrupted by the click of someone picking up the phone. Here goes everythin’
“Hello?” A voice that was neither too deep nor to high pitched answered the line. “This is the illustrious Captain Shining Armor of the Royal Equestrian Military, to whom am I speaking with?”
She gulped as she heard his voice. Applejack Apple knew that this phone call would change her life, and she knew even before she let her hoof on the dialing ring that this would quite literally be the first day of the rest of her life, but upon hearing his voice, her anxiety shot up to a level approaching something she’d never seen before. If mah trepidation before was a solid seven on a scale of one to ten, then this must have been was a thirteen felt like, she thought to herself. Plain and simple.
“Hello? Who is this?” Shining asked again, his voice sounding a little bit impatient.
Applejack shook her head slightly, shaking away her awkwardness and loosening her jaw as if she’d just been kicked in the face by a mule.
“Um, yeah this is, I…” a little sweat began to form on her brow. C’mon, girl! Get a hold’a yerself! Yer joinin’ the army, for Celestia’s sake! “This’d be Miss Applejack Apple, an’ I’mma callin’ ta talk ta the good doc, Professor Schultz…is he... is he there?”
“Applejack?” His voice perked up at the recognition of the name. “You wouldn’t happen to be the same Applejack that nearly died of an asthma attack yesterday would you?” Shining asked, his voice losing it’s impatience and instead gaining a sense of comradery and familiarity.
Well, that’s just great there, AJ, Applejack felt her face flush slightly. First stallion that remembers your name, it’s just ‘cuz you go and nearly kill yerself. She swallowed again, running her hoof through her mane to tinker with her ponytail.
“Um...yeah...that’s me,” she answered hesitantly.
“Sorry, about that, Applejack,” she could have sworn she heard him rubbing the back of his neck as he said that. “But Doc Schultz kinda can’t come to the phone right now. He’s kind of busy.”
“Really? He can’t?” Applejack asked, feeling a mild sense of relief lacing her disappointment at knowing that she could theoretically hang up without much problems. “Well then nevermind...I’ll hang up,”
“No, wait,” Shining replied, causing Applejack to put the phone back to her ear. “You can leave a message and I’ll tell him what you said.”
Applejack nodded slightly, even though she knew he couldn’t see her nodding.
“Oh, alrighty then...ya can tell him I’m gonna go through with mah promise, there, Shinin’?” she said, looking towards the stairs as the sound of hoofsteps coming down them caught her ears. “Figured that doin’ this whole ‘rebirth’ thingy might be just as good a way as any to get mah life on track as much as anythin’ else, ya know?
“Alright then, Miss Apple,” she heard something like a pen jotting down notes. “Then will you be taking the train to Canterlot?” Shining asked. “Cause I can pick you up myself if you want.”
“No, no, train is fine. Don’t wanna be a burden,” Applejack replied with an unintentional nervous giggle thrown in as she wondered who was coming down the stairs.
Applejack slammed the headpiece back on the phone and stepped away from it, and then she released a very long, deep breath and turned to the staircase.
“Who’s there?” she asked, and down stepped Apple Bloom, still dressed in her pajamas, a curious look on her face. Applejack gave her a smile. “‘Bloom whadda ya doin’ up so early? It’s barely 6:30.”
Apple Bloom rubbed her left foreleg slightly. “I heard ya and Purity talkin’ last night ‘bout ya leavin’, an’ then I heard ya talkin’ on tha phone ta somepony.” she said with a touch of solemnity, quietly walking over to the kitchen table and sitting down.
Applejack sat down next to her, and was greeted by Apple Bloom pulling her into a hug.
“What’s wrong, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, even though she already had a strong inkling as to what had the filly so sullen.
“I don’t want ya to go…” The filly nodded, nuzzling up against Applejack. “Yer mah sister, Applejack…” she said quietly, finding some warmth in her older sisters bony forelegs..
Applejack wrapped her forlegs around her. “Oh it’s alright ‘Bloom, I’ll stay safe, don’t ya worry ‘bout me.”
Apple Bloom nodded slightly. “It’s just...yer gonna be goin’ so far away...an’ fer so long,” AJ felt a warm water begin to trickle down her cheak. “...An’ I’m gonna be here alone without ya.”
“Oh nonsense, there, Bloomers,” she lifted her smaller sister’s head to look her in the eye and held her closer. “Yer gonna ‘ave Purity, right?
“Purity’s not fun like ya,” Apple Bloom whined as she held on to her sister harder and harder. “And she don’t tell the teachers at school what’s what like you do, AJ,” she gripped tighter. “I’ll be lonely without you, Applejack.”
“Apple Bloom,” the older sister began warmly, fighting her own lump in her throat as she tried to stay strong for the little bundle of red hair curled up on her lap. “Yer never alone when yer with family,” assured Applejack, “an’ don’t worry, I’ll probably be back before Hearth’s Warmin’ Eve! And even then, I’ll make sure ta send ya a letter every day.”
Apple Bloom looked up at Applejack, her lower lip quivering. “Ya promise?”
Applejack nodded, her green eyes fighting a floodgate while also doing the impossible of expressing strength and sincerity at the same time. “I promise.”
And then they just held each other in a way that they never had before in a moment that would carry Applejack through the darkest moments in her future. It was both heart warming and tragic, in it’s way, and as a green earth pony mare made her presence known from around the corner, Applejack knew it wouldn’t last forever.
“Applejack,” her voice rung out, chattering the moment. “If’n ya wanna get to the station in time, ya gotta go pack yer bags,” she implored, unable to look at her two younger siblings.
“How long were ya there?” AJ sighed as she asked her older sister.
Purity shrugged, trying not to show off any emotion, but failing spectacularly if her refusing to make any eye contact was any indication. “Long ‘nuff, now go get ready. I’ll get ‘Bloom ready fer school.”
Applejack nodded, standing up from the table and heading up the stairs. In the kitchen, Apple Bloom looked up at Purity.
“Ya sure I hafta go ta school?” she looked up to her green sister, unfazed by the small ones big, brown eyes. “Can’t I help AJ pack?”
Purity shook her head. “No, ‘Bloom. It’s almost time fer school anyways, if tha sun is givin’ any clues,” she said, pointing towards the bright morning sun that was shining through the windows. “That clock on tha wall was always an hour slow, anyways.”
She then gently took the still sullen Apple Bloom in hoof, placing her on her back and walking up the stairs. “Iffin it’ll make ya feel better, we can drop Applejack off before we go ta school, so that way ya can say goodbye. That sound good?”
Apple Bloom nodded, wrapping her hooves around Purity’s neck. “I guess so.”
Purity smiled. “Alright then. Let’s get ya ready.”
It wasn’t until she saw her little sister moving to the second floor to get ready that Applejack realized that Bloom had left her with a big, red ribbon on her lap. She knew why, of course. The big, faded red piece of cloth was her lucky bow. It’d been worn half way to heck, but it was the only thing that she had that belonged to their mother. With one, final, longing look back at the little sister she was going to leave behind, she headed up to her own quarters and began her own preparations. Applejack was joining the army, after all, and come Hell or high water, she was going to do more than provide for her family. She was going to make them proud.
Applejack was going to make herself proud.
Applejack was awoken by the gentle prodding of somepony’s fist on her shoulder. She shook her head slightly as she tried to wave the unwanted disturbance away, though it was futile as whatever it was just kept poking at her upper body. She grimaced as she finally opened her eyes and went to sitting more upright, as much as it pained her.
Looking down upon her was a white pegasus mare with a bright blonde mane and a firecracker cutie mark. She had evidently wanted claim on the extra seat that Applejack had taken up while trying to catch a few winks.
“Why, hellooooo there!” The white pegasus chirped, extending a hoof in greeting and an ear to ear grin on her face. “My name is Surprise Kaminsky Pie! What’s yours?”
Applejack wiped away the sand from her eyes, and, while she was still a little tired, the happy, open expression on the other mare’s face was enough to quell any potential animosity for now.
“I’m Applejack Apple,” she said, still shaking away some sleep. ”An’ what kinda name is Kaminsky?”
Surprise smiled, plopping down right next to Applejack. “That was my maiden name but after I got married I thought since I don’t have a middle name I’ll make that my middle name so I did!” She finally took a breath. “Do you have a middle name?”
“Ashleigh,” Applejack answered, now finally fully awake.
“Wow!” Surprised exclaimed. “Applejack Ashleigh Apple. That is a really pretty name,” she said, her smiling broadening even more, “and wow all your names start with an A! Guess your parents must have really liked alliteration or something.”
“I guess,” Applejack said, brief nostalgic memories of her parents drifting through her mind.. “Wait…” She paused, getting several new thoughts gathered as she remembered parts of the pegasus’ spiele. “Ya said yer was married and in the service?”
“Yup!” Surprise beamed with pride and joy. “Got married three months ago!”
In a flash, she pulled out a golden ring that was hung around a silver chain from under her green army fatigues, which was hanging around her neck.
Applejack smiled slightly. “Congratulations. But why are you here an’ not him?” she asked, ducking as Surprise placed her duffle bag in the overhead compartment.
Upon hearing Applejack’s question, Surprise cocked an eyebrow. “Uhhh, because he’s blind in one eye. And I'm just as capable as any other pony at blowing things up!” she announced with a great flare in voice, apparently quite proud with her capability for causing wanton destruction. “I even make my own fireworks for a living!”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend ya, Surprise.” Applejack apologized with a nervous wave of her hoof.
Surprise cooled visibly.
"Yeah, I’m sorry, too,” she admitted. “It’s just that I had to face more than a few bullies back home to get here...guess it made me a little more snappy than I should be.”
Applejack shrugged. "I reckon ya can't be blamed then," she then looked down at her wire thin frame and let out a laugh. "But, the way I figure it, basic ought’a do us both a heapin’ helpin’ a’good, right?”
Surprise nodded. “That’s right!” she said, her perky nature once more returning to the conversation. “So, Miss triple A, what did you do before answering the call to help defend our fair Equestria?" she asked, tilting her head slightly and scanning Applejack, as if she were an art critic studying a painting. “I want to say that you're a farmer, given your Southwestern-Ozark accent. And judging by the faint smell of apples, you’re family is leasing an apple orchard,” she then nodded with her eyes closed. “But, because of how skinny you are, you’re parents had to work themselves pretty hard, eventually getting sick and ending up in the big farm in the sky, leaving you with your siblings to run the place. Eventually,” she opened her eyes back up. “You found a poster and decided to use the money from signing up to help pay the rent!" She then paused, her intuitive expression changing to one of tentative questioning. "Did I get it right?"
Applejack’s jaw dropped and her eyebrows shot up at the near magical deduction of her life story.
“How didja know all that?" She asked, her eyes widening.
“I deduced it!” Surprise answered simply, whipping out a deerstalker and a pipe. Her expression then softened and she put an foreleg around Applejack's shoulder and added with genuine sympathy, “Sorry about your parents, by the way. That must have been terrible."
Applejack was somewhat taken aback by the pegasus' near supernatural deductive skills, but more importantly, this pegasus, who was a stranger no less, had actually expressed clean cut sympathy for Applejack. Ever since Applejack was a filly, most ponies, especially unicorns and pegasi along with a hand full of self-righteous earth ponies, had done nothing but look down on her weak and slender frame, seeing her as nothing but a liability or an obstacle. But lately, with that, admittedly quite dapper soldier, that cookey griffin and now this upbeat blonde, she couldn’t help but feel as if she were on a roll with meeting newer, nicer folks.
“It’s fine,” Applejack responded with a smile. “Thank ya, though,” she paused, then began again. “Do ya mind me askin’ what brought you here?”
"Well, I make and sell fireworks and firework accessories!” Surprise announced proudly, before letting out a dreamy sigh. “But my true dream is to work in movies.”
“Movies? Like in Applewood?” Applejack asked, raising her eyebrows in surprise. She had expected that the mare would be more inclined towards something like parties. “What kind of films?”
“PORN!!!” That sudden burst nearly gave Applejack an asthma attack all by itself. Surprise, however, must have found the outburst to be funny, as she was practically sobbing with laughter. “I swear I’m kidding,” she finally answered, having calmed down slightly. “I’m so sorry! I just had to see your reaction!”
Applejack tried her best to gather herself, taking deep breaths to bring her heart rate down while also simultaneously trying not to cause an accidental asthma attack. “Please don’t do that again” She said, looking towards Surprise with concern. Surprise seemed to notice, as her laughter trailed off and she straightened herself out.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, shouldn’t have done that.” She said, wringing her hooves guiltily. “But in all seriousness, I’d like to go to Applewood. Probably comedies. That way I can bring smiles to every corner of the world!”
“Don’cha need to know somepony in that business to even get yer hoof in the door?” Applejack asked, leaning against the windowsill of the train car slightly.
“Oh, no worries about that! I’ve got my fair share of buddies in Applewood,” Surprise replied with confidence. ”I’ve managed to sell some radio plays I wrote, like The Two Thousand Year Old Mare for instance. Currently working on a spy spoof, too, but that might not get finished for awhile.”
“Well,” Applejack scratched her head in confusion. “If’n you got work making fireworks and writing scripts, then why, in Luna’s luscious Equestria, are ya in the army?”
Surprise just looked at Applejack for a long, awkward moment before speaking in a very serious and somber tone. “Simple. Evil wins when the good do nothing, but demons run when the noble and just go to war,” And then, as if a switch had been flipped, she was back to her jovial self. “So that’s why, silly!” She smiled wide. “It was just the right thing to do and besides, if I can be an engineer, I’ll have access to the good explosives.”
Surprise then smiled deviously and wrung her hooves, and Applejack nodded slightly before looking out the window with a reserved expression. She watched as the world raced by outside, feeling incredibly disappointed in herself. Surprise had come for possibly the noblest and most genuine reasons to put her life at risk, and why was Applejack here? Just to earn a quick paycheck and nothing more.
“I guess then I must look pretty greedy to ya. I’m just here so I can use the pay ta cover those new taxes and pay the farm bills,” Applejack said glumly.
Surprise lowered her eyebrows slightly, and put a sympathetic hoof on Applejack’s shoulder, asking, “So you're trying to help your family?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Applejack said, still looking away and out the window. It didn’t help that Applejack had left her entire family behind to go on this trip, including Apple Bloom, who had seemed visibly heartbroken when Applejack had stepped onto the train earlier that morning.
“Then I don’t think you're greedy at all!” Surprise declared, throwing her forelegs unexpectedly around Applejack. “We just have a different reasons coming is all. But at the end of the day, what’s important is that we’re both here to help those who can’t help themselves. So don’t be so gosh-darn glum, ya silly-filly!”
Applejack couldn’t help but feel a warmth go through her at Surprise’s words.
“Ya’ll always this chipper, sugarcube?” she asked, giving surprise a questioning smile.
Surprise nodded admittedly.
“Yupperdoodles!” she said, before her face became thoughtful and she put a finger to her chin. “Well except for that one time with the oak trees, the angry sparrows and a pecan pie,” she added, her expression souring somewhat. “In fact, I don’t think I can ever really look at durians the same way again.”
Applejack blinked awkwardly for a moment, not sure if Surprise was joking, or if something really bizarre involving oak trees, angry sparrows, pecan pies and durians had somehow traumatized the white pegasus. Try as she might, she couldn’t figure out a way to connect the wildly disjointed dots of whatever must have happened, and she came to realization that it just might be for the best. She was snapped out of her ponderings with the sudden jolt as the train car they were riding in came to a stop. She looked out the window to see that the train had in fact, reached the station.
“YAY THE TRAIN STATION!” Surprise exploded with joy, hopping up with an explosion of confetti to match.
Applejack didn’t have a chance to figure out where the strange confetti had come from, as Surprise was already out the door, bags in hoof. Applejack reached below her seat, sliding out her very small and humble looking rustic leather suitcase, and slinging it over her back like a backpack.
“Well, here goes nuthin’,” she whispered.
She then took a deep breath and made her way out of the train car to brave her new world.
The vehicle came to a stop outside the old stone building, the bright headlights focused on the doorway. The front door swung open, revealing a tall, golden eyed griffin dressed in a jet black uniform. He eyed the ancient building with disdain, before walking around the large, ornate limousine to open the passenger door. Seated inside, wearing an equally jet black uniform and a pair of sunglasses, was a slate grey earth pony with a very finely coiffed white and silver mane .
“Danke schoen, Gustav,” the pony said, stepping out of the limousine and nodding tersely towards the griffin. The griffin nodded in return.
“Jawohl, Mein Fuhrer,” The griffin, Gustav, saluted, stepping asides to let the stocky earth pony stride past, head held high. “I trust you enjoyed your journey here?” he asked his superior, his pulse quickening as he began to feel a slight twinge of nervousness next to his leader.
“Where’s Alister?” The earth pony asked, seemingly studying the ancient walls or the complex and admiring the scorch marks and the runic markings alike on a nearby wall of the building and ignoring the greeting from his subordinate, not at all here for the pleasantries.
“Inside,” Gustav began. “He is trying to get a so called ‘priest of Bor’ to be cooperative.” Gustav replied, his voice carrying with it a noticeable aura of disdain at the mention of the priest.
The Earth Pony nodded tightly. “Then let us continue,” he declared as he moved from the rather intricately inlaid wall, feeling a small tinge of disappointment at having to leave the ancient marvel, but otherwise having other obligations to attend to. “No reason to keep revered priest waiting.”
WIth that, the pair walked inside, with the Earth Pony impassively studying the damage around him, a small measure of disappointment entering the back of his mind and feeling disgust at the level of wanton destruction that had ruined what had been such a prime example of ancient architecture, idly nudging aside the occasional charred body of a pony who had probably died defending this once proud house of worship. He looked up at the ceiling, studying the runes and etchings inscribed along the ceiling.
“Take note, Gustav,” the leader commanded, forcing Gustav to raise an eyebrow and look towards the ceiling.
“What is it, Fuhrer?” he asked, not really seeing anything particularly special with the ceiling.
“This building is the ultimate example of the foolishness of these Equestrians,” he said sternly, before continuing forward, flaring his nostrils in disdain.
“Mein Fuhrer?” The young griffin asked, still not certain what his elder was saying.
“ Do you not see how they choose to waste these gifts?” They came to a stop in front of a staircase that lead down to a subterranean level, where the pony and griffin could hear the thin, reedy, Albion accented voice coming from down below. “Do you tell how they desecrate this once mighty temple? I tell you now, my student,” he cast a brief glance towards his younger counterpart. “This is why they shall lose: because they squander their talents,” he then raised his gloved right hand to stop his apprentice. “Now watch, Gustav, and learn.”
“Why do you fight?” A voice, high pitched for a stallion, sounded off from the red fire light, carrying with it the voice you’d expect to hear from a spider, if they could talk. “Your god is long dead, mien reverend, so stop hiding The Heart from those of us with the conviction to wield it,” the voice hissed, before the sound of a blow being sharply landed against something greeted the duo’s ears. They began to walk down the staircase, their footsteps echoing slightly.
“It is not meant for us,” said an old voice meekly. “We are only to be it’s custodians, no more,”
“Then your watch has ended, Wirén,” a sharp, tittering laugh was released by the earth pony standing above him. “Allow me and my friends, the ones with the sacred knowledge, take over your vigil, and perhaps,” he began to stroke his beard. “We will allow to live, and to live out the rest of your days in happiness. There will be many spoils after the war, after all, and your share would be but only a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.”
The griffin and earth pony finally reached the bottom of the staircase, revealing a small, stone chamber, where they were greeted by the sight of a wormy, finicky spectacled zebra slowly stalking around an older looking unicorn whose horn was broken off and lying on the ground next to him. The unicorn was tied to the pillar, seemingly unable to move, and several black and blue marks, and several small open knife wounds indicated that the zebra had been at work for some time already.
“Aleister!” Gustav called out, his voice echoing in the chamber. “Report!”
The zebra whipped his head around, his bright green eyes seemingly glowing with a strange, unsettling sense of chaos and maliciousness.
“Mein Fuehrer!” He buzzed, bowing his head towards the earth pony before turning towards Gustav. “Wirén is a pitiful excuse for a hedge mage,” he hissed, looking towards the disabled unicorn with an almost fanatical loathing before whipping his head back to Gustav. “But, the object we seek is here. Of that I have no doubt.”
Aleister then paused to rub his muzzle briefly and he sniffed as if he had a head cold. He then twitched slightly, his eyes starting to dart about wildly.
“So what?” Gustav asked, not having much patience for the zebra’s pretentions. “We tear this place down?”
“No!” Aleister replied sharply, shaking his head violently, before darting over to Gustav’s side and leaning close. Gustav tensed slightly, but Aleister seemed unfazed, his wild eyes staring straight at the griffin, while his ears flickered about wildly, as if searching for sounds. “Gustav, The Heart is probably locked in a small pocket of our world that is ever so sl-slightly out of phase with us, whatever we do, we should most certainly, undeniably, NOT tear the place down. It’s preservation is of utmost importance until The Heart is located.”
The zebra suddenly twitched, letting out a odd yelping sound before reaching into his jacket pocket to pull out a small paper bag, which, inside, contained a fine white powder. With an abrasive and vulgar snorting sound, he inhaled the powder, his pupils dilating briefly before he shook his head rapidly, letting out a satisfied shout.
“Then Aleister, what is our move?” the Earth Pony asked, raising an eyebrow.
Aleister leapt towards the earth pony, lowering himself dramatically before him before speaking. “Simple, Mein Fuhrer,” he whispered, his eyes darting upwards for a fraction of a second. “We use the powers of the Blood Stones I brought to our own ends, oh High One. Give me three minutes, and I shall have the Form of Mantoruk crafted and the priest’s horn prepared as an item of focus.”
The Earth Pony nodded, and Aleister clapped his hooves together like a school filly, quickly scampering over to a large saddle bag and pulling out several translucent stones filled with a dark red liquid. He bundled them up and skittered to the center of the room, setting five of them down on the ground at equal distances. He then pulled out a long, refined dagger with complicated symbols and runes inscribed, and, with a series of strange, guttural mutterings, began to trace lines between the five stones, revealing a perfect pentagram. He then drew a ring around it, before hopping to the center and sitting down.
Gustav shifted uncomfortably, looking for something to distract his attention as the zebra continued with his increasingly bizarre ritual. Every so often however, an arc of black energy would bolt outwards from a point of the pentagram, seemingly searching for a location. To Gustav however, he only saw an intoxicated zebra babbling away wildly in some strange tongue.
With a sudden yowl of triumph, Aleister pointed a hooves towards the northern wall of the chamber, his babbling and chanting ceasing, and instead being replaced by a low hum.
“Gustav,” he droned, causing Gustav to roll his eyes in disinterest.
“Yes, Sir?” the griffin asked back.
“I have found The Heart!” He declared, pointing his hooves high up in the air. “Take care of the priest, will you?” Aleister laughed, a large, toothy smile spreading across his face. “And do try not to make a mess. These ruins have been damaged enough today, me thinks. T’would be a shame if they became stained with blood, would it not be?”
Gustav looked towards the elderly unicorn, a pleasured smile spreading across his face as he slowly walked over to the unicorn. He leaned in close to the restrained pony, holding a claw under it’s throat.
“You’re services are most appreciated my friend,” he whispered as he place his beak right next to the trembling holy stallions ear. “HYDRA is forever thankful,” he finished, plunging his beak into the throat of the stallion, ripping out his throat and unleashing a floodgate of blood upon the ruins. Gustav smiled. “So much for not leaving a mess.” he added, wiping his beak with a cloth from his jacket.
Aleister meanwhile, had already stood up from the pentagram, walking over to where the Form of Manouk had indicated. As it turned out, it was a large, surprisingly ornate and well carved diagram of Yggdrasil, the tree that connects the nine realms of the cosmos. He then placed his hooves on the image of Asgard, slowly and steadily trancing it along the labyrinthian branches before ending on the image of Hekkerheim. With a wild eyed grin, he pulled out the severed horn and placed it on the image of the mythological realm. Just as he had predicted, the wall began to melt and fade away, unmasking the previously hidden chamber.
Sitting on a pedestal, with a fine coating of ancient dust, was a large, crystalline chest covered in Asgardian runes.
“Hans! Fritz! The Trolley!” he shouted, cackling gleefully as he hopped from hoof to hoof. As he did so, two burly griffins in khaki uniforms trundled a small trolley in place. Aleister giggled and chuckled as he daintily lifted the chest off of it’s pedestal, muttering and chanting in another ancient tongue as he placed the chest on the trolley.
As the zebra’s chanting increased, the chest began to glow a gentle, icy blue and a huge smile exploded across the zebra’s face.
“Excellent! Excellent! The Chest has responded to the spell! Quickly, we must bring it to Hoch Spitze!” he pulled out the small paper bag and took another snort of the powder before running over to the grey earth pony.
“How long will it take you to open the chest?” The earth pony asked, his voice low and commanding.
“If it’s safeguards are like those of the mural? Approximately a week in my private library will suffice. Possibly longer if I run into a different enchantment. But trust my word, oh Great One, I shall open the chest, and you shall be able to finally ascend to your rightful place on the throne of the universe,” Aleister replied, bowing low.
The Earth Pony smiled confidentially.
“Soon HYDRA shall stand victorious, and I shall rule over all.” he said, before turning around and heading out of the chamber, followed closely by Aleister, Gustav and the other underlings.
Twilight Sparkle leaned forward slightly, spotting the tell-tale smokestack of the oncoming locomotive. She reflexively looked down at the carefully written, carefully researched list that she held in her arms, once more attempting to memorize the list of names. She had already done this of course, at least six times already, but to her, double checking was always necessary.
She lifted a thermos to her lips, taking a sip of the fine, ultra caffeinated minotaur coffee that always managed to keep her going, even if she’d been up since 9:30 the night before, memorizing the list. As if on cue, the train finally came into the station, a massive cloud of steam forming as the brakes screeched and moaned as the massive iron and steel behemoth came to a stop.
Twilight cleared her throat, her horn glowing magenta, readying her voice amplification spell. She glanced over towards one of the other officers standing on the platform. The officer nodded, and Twilight gave him a nod just as the doors to the train cars swung open.
“Would the following ponies please follow me to the airfield: Apple, A; Barrett, A; Bronson, C; Conners, C; Fitzgerald, F.S.; Herb, J; House, G; Lightning, S; Ludwig, C; Miranda, B; Pie, S; Shine, D; Waters, E.F.; Whooves, D; Williams, B.”
Her horn flickered off, causing the spell to cut out and returning her voice to it’s natural levels. She idly watched as the eclectic mix of stallions and mares all grabbed their saddlebags, or traded goodbyes with their respective loved ones or friends. Twilight raised an eyebrow however, at the sight of a shockingly thin looking golden earth pony attempting to drag a steamer trunk that was at least one and a half times heavier then she looked, all while being aided by a white pegasus mare with a firecracker cutie mark.
Twilight furrowed her brow slightly. I’d better help them, she thought, trotting forward. They look like they need it.
With that thought in her mind, she trotted over to the pair, already prepping herself to be as gregarious as possible.
“...lift with yer legs, damnit!” the skinny orange one said, while pushing against the large steamer trunk. The white one nodded rapidly, her bright yellow mane bouncing like it were cotton candy.
“Yeah! I know, AJ!” A now kind of agitated white coated, blonde maned mare of maybe 21 asked. “But what in the nine rings of hell do you have in here? A gaggle of fillies?” She groaned, struggling to lift the steamer trunk. Twilight bit her lip slightly, lighting her horn and attempting to help steady the trunk, much to the other ponies’ surprise.
“Um, hello there,” Twilight said, extending a hand in greeting towards the orange mare, who was quick to make herself look visibly smaller.
“Howdy, ma’am, sorry fer causin’ trouble,” the earth pony said humbly, rubbing the back of her neck.
Twilight simply shook her head. “No, no…” she looked at the struggling ponies in front of her. “That’s perfectly alright. My name is Twilight Sparkle.” she answered, extending a hand to shake the orange earth pony’s own. The orange earth pony looked down at the hand with visible surprise. “One of the officers in charge of this divi-” she was abruptly cut off by her hand being taken by the now excited white pegasus.
“Well, it's nice to meet you, Twilight! I’m Surprise Kaminski Pie, but most just call me Surprise!” The white pegasus said, shaking Twilight’s hand with vigor.
Twilight gave Surprise a smile. “Alrighty then, and what about your friend here?” she asked, looking towards Applejack again.
“Her? That’s my new bestest best friend, Applejack Ashleigh Apple!” Surprise said, swinging an arm around the orange earth pony’s neck. “Say hey, Triple A!”
“Um…” Applejack stuttered, seemingly taken aback by how extrovertive her friend was. “Howdy?”
Twilight raised an eyebrow at the name. “So you’re the pony the Professor wants?” she asked, looking at Applejack, who nodded self consciously. “Well, you’re a lot thinner than I expected.”
Applejack visibly shied away slightly and look down at the ground, which led to Twilight realizing what she had just said.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I really shouldn’t have said that!” she said with wide eyes while waving her hooves in penance. “I mean, if Professor Schultz thinks you're the one, then I guess you’re the one!” the officer let out a fairly awkward laugh, immediately regretting what she just said. “Sorry.”
Applejack glanced up at Twilight, and the lavender unicorn put on her best apologetic smile, complete with a heartfelt squee. It seemed to work, much to Twilight’s relief.
Applejack nodded her head slightly. “Nah, that’s alright, ma’am. It’ ain’t yer fault. Ain’t tha first time I heard that.”
Twilight nodded slightly. “Oh, thank goodness,” she began rubbing the back of her neck, her embarrassment now showing profusely. “Well, either way, I shouldn’t have said that. Here,” she lit up her horn and hefted the bag up into the air. “Let me help you with your bags. We’re going to be taking a zeppelin to our destination, are you two okay with that?” she asked, already having dropped the surprisingly heavy steamer trunk into the back of the vehicle. “I mean, you two aren’t afraid of heights or anything, are you?”
Applejack and Surprise shook their heads. Twilight glanced towards the steamer trunk.
“Alright then, that’s good. But, for future reference Ms. Apple, you were told to only bring the essentials,” she began again as she realized all the extra prescriptions that must have been in Applejack’s luggage. “Do you have anything else in there I should know about?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. Applejack shook her head again.
“No, ma’am” the earth pony mare answered, shaking her head and trying her hardest to sound like she belonged there. “It’s just mah clothes, extra meds and paddin’ ta keep some keepsakes safe fer tha trip. I swear.”
“Anything else that we should know about?” Twilight pushed further, wanting to know for sure whether or not this sickly mare was going to be any more of a problem than her luggage.
“Well, ma’am, I work on a farm, so I’m thinkin’ I’ll be just dandy with the bugs and whatnot, but if I do run inta any problems, I got mah medicated cigarettes for mah asthma.” Applejack answered, adjusting the old cowboy hat on her head slightly.
Twilight nodded, making a note along side the jotted down the information to have some of the medicine stocked up at the base, and then she turned to Surprise, who was slightly worrying her now since her massive grin had yet to fade.
“And what about you?” she asked. “Any meds? Teddy bears? Chocalate that you’re going to keep stashed away from your bunkmates?”
Surprise’s expression got impossibly brighter. “Me? Well, I’m from Cloudsdale, so humidity and bugs are like that weird uncle who comes over for a visit and then stays for six months and eats all the food in the fridge and eats all your candy bars, so then you’re forced to hide it in a place nopony would think to look and sometimes even yourself forget about because the hiding place to so great.”
There was an awkward pause.
“So... is that a yes or is that a no?” Twilight asked, arching an eyebrow more than just slightly, trying but failing miserably to take this mare’s personality in stride.
Surprise nodded. “Yes siree bob! Just fine with it. Why?”
“Well, I can’t go into specifics yet, but we’re heading out to a place with a lot of moisture and bugs and-
“THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!!” Surprise blurted out, her face now showing to be barely holding back the laughter. “Sorry! Couldn’t resist!”
The two others just stared at her for the next few seconds. “So yeah, we’re headed to a swamp. Will you be fine with that?” Twilight asked, turning to face the road as the vehicle lurched forward, driving towards the airfield in the distance.
“I guess so, yeah…” Applejack said in a subdued tone.
Twilight took that as just pre-basic jitters, and ignored it, her mind turning to the task at hand, which was driving. Meanwhile, in the back seat of the bumpy ride, Surprise cast Applejack a slightly worried expression.
Applejack glanced her way. “Ya Surprise?”
“This is gonna suck isn’t it?” the white pegasus asked, rubbing the back of her neck slightly.
Applejack shrugged and sighed. “Maybe a little,” then she looked at the size of the blimp. Or a lot, she finished in her head.
Gustav ironed out the wrinkles in his uniform as he made his way towards Aleister’s office. Ever since they got back to headquarters, Gustav had been feeling uneasy. For one thing, even though he always knew Aleister was a strange fellow, Aleister’s actions in the old temple had introduced Gustav to a side of the zebra he had never seen before. On top of that, for the past few days, Gustav had been plagued by strange, disturbing images of the zebra sitting in the middle of the pentagram, chattering and babbling incoherently while being surrounded by what looked like monsters made of shadow.
He stood outside the door of the zebra’s private study sharply, and was greeted by the zebra’s voice.
“Come in,” came the accented voice of Aleister, noticeably lacking it’s normal frenetic energy.
Gustav opened the door and stepped inside, his eyes widening and eyebrows raising slightly at the sight of hundreds, if not thousands, of tomes and books that covered every possible object. Along with them, and giving the room a strange, helter skelter aura, were dozens of strange and arcane devices, including beakers, vials and even a small cauldron, which contained a mysterious, bubbling liquid. The only light seemed to come from the dozens of scented candles that were clutched around the large, diamond shaped chest sitting on a large oak desk. The chest itself continued to emit the strange, otherworldly pale blue glow that it had been emitting since their return.
Gustav found Aleister sitting in a large, elegant chair, sipping a glass of what Gustav was hoping to be tea, for the sake of seeing something normal in the office.
Gustav raised an eyebrow slightly, blinking in shock at seeing the normally fanatical zebra so static. His green eyes were now gaunt and sunken in, with heavy bags hanging underneath them. His complexion had paled significantly, and his normally carefully manicured mane was now wild and unkempt.
“I take it that you are surprised to see how I look without my medicine?” Aleister asked, arching an eyebrow and shooting a sharply bloodshot eye up at Gustav. HIs voice carried with it a venomous sense of sarcasm.
“I always considered you unattractive, Aleister,” Gustav shot back, his voice matching Aleister’s in venimonisty. “But even I find you looking particularly ugly this morning.”
Aleister let out a sharp snort, his nostrils flaring briefly, before he shifted into his chair a little more.
“Gustav, surely you must have better things to do then slander the looks of a superior officer?” he motioned towards the chair opposite of Aleister. “Please, take a seat. I would be a terrible host if I’d simply let you stand there like some sort of underprivileged plebeian, no?”
Gustav rolled his eyes and stifled the urge to spit back an insult, but instead, took a deep breath and sat down tersely in the chair across from Aleister, crossing his arms in frustration.
“Would you care for some tea?” Aleister asked, motioning towards the kettle sitting on the small table next to him. Gustav simply let out a dismissive snort, which Aleister apparently took to be positive, as he reached over and poured the contents into a teacup, passing into to Gustav.
Gustav gave it a cautionary sniff, knowing full well that Aleister had a strange habit of spiking his drinks with all sorts of strange chemicals and drugs.
“It is clean, if that is your worry.” Aleister said, seemingly reading Gustav’s mind. Gustav glared at him briefly before taking a sip of the tea, which was, surprisingly, quite tasty. He caught sight of Aleister pulling a small eyedropper filled with a clear liquid, which Aleister then squirted into his own cup of tea.
“So what do you need, Gustav?” he asked, taking another small sip from his warm drink. “You know full well that I detest and loathe company whenever I am low on powdered coca leaf extract. Not to mention that I’m rather low on most of my other medicinal aids”
“Oh please, Aleister,” Gustav scoffed, showing nothing but disdain in his voice. “You know exactly what I’m here for. I’ve come for answers.”
Aleister nodded slightly, a wry smile on his face. “Really? Answers? About what?”
Gustav grit his teeth, angrily clenching his talons once or twice. “Stop playing with me, Aleister. You know exactly why I’m here. What have you done to me? To my mind? My memories?” he growled, pointing a talon at his head as he spoke.
Aleister was silent for a moment, his green eyes staring intently at Gustav. Gustav noticed that his eyes seemed to regain some of their fire, and a dark smile slowly spread across the zebra’s face.
“So you did see the spell work in the temple? Most surprising,” he remarked, adding some sugar to his tea. “I half-expected you to be too ignorant and blind to see such things.”
Gustav tossed his teacup asides, causing it to shatter as he stood up. “Stop it! I’m sick of your silly games, you inane drug addicted swine!” he insinuted, his talons now digging deep into his superiors desk. “Tell me what you’ve done before I rip your throat out same as that priest!”
Aleister simply rolled his eyes, seemingly unfazed by Gustav’s outburst. “I have done nothing to you, Gustav. You’ve simply been given the unique opportunity to have a peek behind the curtain of our reality. What you are currently experiencing is simply due to your lack of understanding of what you’ve seen.” He let out a small, tittering laugh as he finished, taking another sip of his tea. “Now please, if you would be so kind as to leave, I wish to rest before returning to work.”
Gustav couldn’t believe the sheer, unadulterated arrogance that the thin and sickly looking zebra exuded, and, in a fit of anger, Gustav readied his revolver to dispose of the ‘scientist’. However, before he had a chance to fire, his arm froze solid and he heard Aleister’s voice echoing in his head.
“Gustav la Grande le Shaw, I command you to put that gun away and return to your seat until I excuse you.” Aleister ordered, his voice taking on a strange, almost supernatural aura. As much as Gustav attempted to remain standing, he found himself sitting down against his will. He clutched the arms of his chair as a surge of panic overwhelmed him as he was now seemingly utterly helpless against Aleister.
Aleister meanwhile, let out a long sigh, clicking his tongue in a condescending manner as he stood up from his chair. “You must remember, Gustav, that the power of names is truly one of the most dramatic, albeit ineffective, forms of magic. Yes, you might be able to cause somepony to do your bidding, but you first have to hear their name from their own voice first in order to have any power over it.” He paused, idly glancing down at a small stuffed toy that vaguely resembled Gustav. “It’s a very feeble spell matrix as well, and, by Tirek, don’t even get me started with how many things can go wrong if somepony has truly reinvented himself.”
Gustav stared daggers at Aleister, whom, if his babblings were true, had apparently just taken control of Gustav’s entire body without lifting so much as a hoof. A whole assortment of disturbing childhood memories ran through Gustav’s mind at the feeling of restraint, and he tried to trash around and break free, but was halted with a dominating glance from Aleister.
“Stop this now, Aleister! Stop this stupid game of yours and let me go!” Gustav spat, acid coating every word, and Aleister only shook his head.
“Weren't you listening?” Aleister asked nonchalantly, looking at his own, perfectly groomed hand without a care in the world. “I used ancient sorcery and your own name to make you be a good guest. Don’t be so insufferably dense, mein freund.”
Gustav’s eyes darted around. “It’s mere hypnotism nothing more!” he shouted, more to console himself and try to ease his oncoming panic attack then anything else.
Aleister let out a sharp laugh. “Oh please! Hypnotism can’t make the victim do anything they would not otherwise do themself!” For instance, if you were hypnotised, I wouldn’t be able to do the following,” he cleared his throat, and grabbed a doll in his hand while smiling deviously at his victim, “Gustav la Grande le Shaw, if you would, please stop breathing.”
Gustav was about to voice protest when his jaw clamped shut. He tried to open it, to show that he was beyond Aleister’s control, but found that his lungs seemed to have been sealed shut, blocking off any air. His vision slowly began to grow darker, and he could feel his lungs beginning to burn. He grew light headed and was about to pass out when Aleister spoke again.
“You may breath now, Gustav la Grande le Shaw.” he said slyly, and Gustav’s lungs opened up, and the griffin let out several heaving gasps as he desperately attempted to regain his lost air. His eyes fixed on the thin zebra, who simply sat in his chair with a dominating smile. Gustav took this opportunity to leap out his chair and bolt out of the room in a panic, the sound of the zebra cackling madly filling his ears.
Gustav scrambled through the halls of the base, ignoring any sounds of protest or shouts for him to look out. He wanted to be as far away as he could possibly get from that strange fanatic. His sprint, however, ended when he impacted a pony. He was about to spit out a violent tirade towards whomever had stopped him, but instead snapped his beak shut at the sight of the Fuhrer.
The grey earth pony cocked an eyebrow in suspicion, idly adjusting the seemingly limp skin around his face before turning to look directly at Gustav.
“Gustav, my friend what has you so panicked?” the Earth pony asked, putting an assuring arm around Gustav’s shoulder. Gustav swallowed in an attempt to make his throat less dry before speaking.
“It w-was Aleister, sir.” Gustav answered, reflexively looking around to make sure his voice hadn’t accidentally summoned the zebra.
The Fuhrer nodded steadily. “I see... I take it that he demonstrated his abilities to you?”
Gustav nodded, a fearful expression on his face, swallowing again, and the Fuhrer smiled slightly.
“Good. I feared you might have seen fit to kill him for being a charlatan or something.” he said, giving Gustav an asides glance.
Gustav exhaled. “But, mein Fuhrer, you’ve said-”
The Fuhrer held up a hand, silencing Gustav. “I know what I’ve said, Gustav. And I’ll repeat it again: I don’t believe in gods or devils, my student, but I do believe in one very important thing. Do you know what that thing is, Gustav?”
Gustav shook his head slightly. “No, mein Fuhrer, I do not.” he answered.
The Fuhrer smiled proudly. “Power, Gustav. I believe in power. Power to bring one’s enemies to their knees, power to bring oneself to a higher place in life. And Aleister, even in his drug addled haze, has the best method around to bring me that power. Understand?”
“Yes, but how am I to avoid-” Gustav was once more silenced by a fatherly hand being held up.
“Here, take this,” the Fuhrer reached into his uniform and handed Gustav a small, ornate medallion in the shape of a triangle formed out of many smaller ones. “This will prevent his spells from having any affect on you. I wear one myself.”
Gustav took the medallion in hand, observing it with reverence before slipping it on. “Thank you, mein Fuhrer,” he said. “I will not forget this!”
The Fuhrer once again smiled.“Of course you won’t,” he smugly replied. “Also, I suggest that you also change your name. He did use that silly name trick of his didn’t he?”
“I...” Gustav began, remembering how much pleasure the deviant zebra seemed to have in using Gustav’s name against him and feeling embarrassment at having to admit it to the one pony the griffin had any respect for. “Yes.”
The Fuhrer nodded again. “Then drop the ‘la Grande’. Just be ‘le Shaw’. We don’t want any more occultists or witches to be able to gain power over you, do we?” He smiled. “Le Grand Le Shaw was always such a mouthful, anyway.”
Gustav shook his head. “I understand, Mien Fuhrer.”
“Good!” the Fuhrer said, giving Gustav a fatherly pat on the back. “Now, next time Aleister tries anything of this sort, I want you to come straight to me, and I will handle it. I have my own methods of keeping that maniac in check.” He gently tapped the front pocket of his uniform. “Does that reassure you?”
Gustav nodded resolutely. “Yes, yes it does. Very much so, Thank you, Mein Furher”
The Fuhrer smiled. “Excellent. Now, I want you to prepare a strike team. There is a village to the north of here that has tactical value, and may be an Equestrian spy base. I want you to take it out. Understand?”
Gustav nodded. “It shall be done sir.”
“Good. Off you go, my boy, and please.” he added as an after thought. “Do make it back alive. Finding underlings you can rely on is something of a challenge, you know?”
And with that, Gustav spun around, his previous fears abated and his mind now focused on preparing for the mission ahead.
“Welcome home!” Twilight announced proudly as she swung the door open to the special camp barracks, revealing a very empty and stark room that was furnished with only a single bunk bed, a nightstand and single window to provide light. “I know it’s a bit of a fixer-upper,” she continued, the first half of her sentence preceded immediately by the crashing of a ceiling tile. “But I’m pretty sure you’ll do just fine, Ms. Applejack. You seem to be of the resourceful type.”
“What about me?” Surprise butted in from behind Applejack, bearing a slightly disappointed look on her face. “Don’t I get a bunk?” she asked, and Twilight nodded.
“Yes,” Twilight replied, taking out her clipboard and pen. “But yours will be on the other side of the camp, in barracks… A-2, I think,” she said, nodding in apparent satisfaction as she looked down once more at her papers, content that she was correct. “But again, I’m sure you'll be fine. You seem like you make friends easily enough, after all.”
“Yeah, okay,” the blonde mare looked down to the floor. “It’s just I was really hoping I could bunk with my new best friend, Applejack.
“Well I’m sorry, Mrs. Pie.” Twilight gave Surprise her best attempt at an apologetic smile. “But I’m sure you two will have plenty of time to become BFF’s over the next couple of weeks.”
Applejack put a hoof on Surprise’s shoulder, pulling her now down friend closer. “Hey now, lil’ lady, don’t be so glum. I’m sure yer gonna meet somepony nice over there,” she said, noticing how downbeat Surprise seemed to have become. “I’ll be just fine, alright, Surgarcube?”
Surprise noded. “Okay,” she raised her head slightly with a forced smile. “I guess I’ll be going then. Good luck AJ.” She gave Applejack a hug and turned to walk out of the room, followed by Twilight.
“Ms. Apple, I told them about your condition,” Twilight said over her shoulder. “I had them leave some cigarettes. Bottom drawer right there.” She motioned towards a foot locker at the foot of a bunk bed clear on the other side of the room. “You and whomever they choose to have bunk with you will be splitting it. Is that alright with you?”
Applejack nodded. “Thank ya, ma’am. I appreciate it.”
Twilight gave her a smile, and nodded, before turning to head after Surprise. “Alrighty then. Mrs. Surprise? I’ll show you to your bunk then,” she called out, leaving Applejack alone in the room with her steamer trunk.
Applejack let out a slight sigh, before taking a breath and starting to push the large steamer trunk towards the bed. She only managed to push it a few inches before stopping to take a breather, as her spindly frame could barely muster the strength necessary. Not to mention that, being asthmatic, heavy labor was always prone to cause her to lose her breath quickly.
“What in tarnation is makin’ this so garsh darn heavy?” she wondered aloud, before leaning against it, which, surprisingly, caused it to fall over to it’s side with a loud thump creating an impact upon the hard, linoleum floors of the barracks. The green eyes of the new recruit widened as she heard the muffled sound of someone groaning in pain.
What the hay? she thought, raising an intrigued eyebrow, quickly walking around the trunk and fishing the key out of her hat, kept in a closely knit pocket near the very top of the curve of the classic stetson design of the head piece. She turned the key and lifted the lid, only to have her mouth drop open in shock.
“Apple Bloom?!” she gasped, barely able to comprehend the sight of the small, off yellow filly crammed into the steamer trunk, gasping for air as if she’d just come up from swimming.
“OH THANK CELESTIA!” Apple Bloom gasped as she practically threw herself out of the trunk and staggered to the bed, flopping down and taking long, deep breaths. “I could’a sworn I was gonna die in there! Applejack, y’all would not believe how hot it got in there! I mean, it was so hot, tight and I think a few bugs got in there somewhere along the way!”
“But...how’d ya even breathe in there?” Applejack stammered, still trying to wrap her head around the bizarre situation.
“I used tha keyhole!” Apple Bloom replied, still obviously gasping for breathe.
Applejack narrowed her eyes, not buying her little sister’s assertion for a second. “Keyholes don’t work like that, ‘Bloom.” she said, before facepalming. “You know better than that, Bloom. I want the truth,” she folded her arms, lowering her brow deeply. “Now.”
Apple Bloom rolled onto her side, her face one of frustration. “Oh fine. I stowed away in tha trunk, an’ then when they dropped it in tha back of tha train, I popped it open wit’ mah hairclip.” she held up the twisted piece of metal in her hand before continuing. “An’ then, I just kinda waited till we got ta da station, then hid back in tha trunk, and did tha same thin’ on the zeppelin’, where it was really cold, and then we got here.” She finished with her best innocent smile.
Applejack blinked. “But how’d ya figure that all out?!” she asked, still in shock. Apple Bloom shrugged.
“I read it in those books ‘bout Hoofdini I got from tha library,” she replied, standing up and fixing her bow in an obvious effort to avoid Applejack’s glare.
“But that still don’t explain why ya did it ‘Bloom! That was dangerous! Ya coulda got killed!”
Apple Bloom hung her head in shame. “I--I just wanted a cutie mark...that’s all.”
“All this fer a cutie mark?! You have got to be kiddin’ me!” Applejack said, sitting down next to Apple Bloom. “I keep tellin’ ya it will happen when it happens, but here you are, sneakin’ away to boot camp and some super secret military… thingy!” She took a deep breath, palm on her chest as her lungs once more tightened. After a quiet moment of Applejack regaining her breath, she continued. “I mean, why would ya think it’s worth dyin’ over?”
“So those mean ponies at school stop pickin’ on me…” Apple Bloom said sadly, idly rubbing her hooves together.
Applejack’s expression softened some, though not quite all the way. “Whadda mean? What do they do?” she asked, her anger at her sister now directed towards the bullies, whomever they were.
“They call me a blank flanked dirt digger. They throw stuff at me...they’re constantly laughin’ at me, sayin’ I’m stupid...sayin’ I shouldn’t even be in school...stuff like that,” Apple Bloom replied quietly, leaning against Applejack with watery eyes. “An’ it don’t help either that I can’t really help ya and Purity at tha farm...I mean, ya’ll both work so hard, I had to feel like I was helpin’ ya somehow.”
Applejack gently pulled Apple Bloom into a hug. “Oh, ‘Bloom, we didn’t want to wear you out with work when you already had school and all. We were hopin’ school would make sure you didn’t have to work like us. Yer cutie mark is gonna come, ya’ll just gotta be patient, ‘Bloom. Ya can’t just make it appear like magic.”
Apple Bloom let out a sad sigh. “But I’m fourteen AJ! Everypony else in mah class is got one, hay, everypony in the school has one! An’ I’m just sittin’ there, tryin’ so hard ta find one, doin’ anythin’ I can, an’ nothing works! What’s so bad ‘bout me tryin’ somethin’ else?”
“‘Bloom, ya’ll gotta understand, a cutie mark is an epiphany. It’s somethin’ that only happens when ya discover what ya love. And, once ya find that out, yer gonna find yer purpose. Now, ya’s gotta have somethin’ ya like ta do a lot. What is it?”
Apple Bloom sighed. “I like fixin’ thin’s I guess. But Purity always gets mad when I try ta help her fixin’ tha farm equipment stuff.”
Applejack gave Apple Bloom a smile. “Oh, that’s just because Purity doesn’t want ya ta get hurt by accident. She’d rather have ya studyin’ fer school. That way, ya can get a nice, well payin’ job. So, how ‘bout, instead of tryin’ ta help with farm equipment, ya try ta fix somethin’ a little...smaller.”
“Like what?” Apple Bloom asked, looking up at Applejack. Applejack was about to answer when a knock came at the door. Applejack was quick to hush Apple Bloom.
"Hold on, just don't say nothin', an' we'll talk later, 'kay?"
"No buts. Shhh." Applejack replied, walking over to the door, opening it to reveal a tall white stallion.
"Oh, hi Shinin'! How ya doin?" Applejack asked, consciously placing herself so that she could hide Apple Bloom from Shining's field of vision. The last thing she needed was for Shining to see Apple Bloom and then totally freak out, possibly calling all sorts of security down on Applejack and then any hope for Applejack getting to be able to get that money the family needed would be lost.
Shining however, simply gave Applejack a smile. "Oh, I'm just doing fine. I take it Twili and you have met?"
"Twili? Ya mean that lavender mare? Un, yeah we met." Applejack answered, rubbing the back of her neck. "Why? Is she yer girlfriend or somethin'?" sh asked, wondering how Shining had come to know the purple unicorn. Shining's face however, was quick to contort into an expression of bafflement, quickly followed by him shaking his head.
"What?!” His eyes went wide, as if he had just seen or heard something really disgusting. “No! No! Just… NO! she's not my girlfriend! She's my sister!" he proclaimed. Applejack blushed furiously.
"Oh...um, I’m sorry, ya just didn't mention her." she gave Shining her best apologetic smile, unable to look the stallion directly in the eye and rubbing the back of her neck in a nervous response..
"It’s… okay, it’s okay, but," Shining said, giving an equally awkward smile in return. “That’s kinda...gross.” There was a painfully awkward pause between the two of them, with each rubbing the back of their respective necks awkwardly.
"Sooo....how do you like your cabin?" Shining finally asked, seemingly dead set on changing the topic of discussion. "Because I brought you some, um, books and stuff."
"Oh, its good, its good. An' what kinda books?" Applejack asked, her eyes looking towards the saddle bags on Shining's back. Shining's horn lit up and he pulled out what looked like a thick textbook.
"Um, its just some military books. Figured it wouldn't hurt to at least help you on the written test." he explained, and Applejack took the book, nodding her head.
"I didn't know they'd be a test, but thank ya kindly Mistah Armor." She moved to put the book on her back however, she unconsciously allowed the door to swing open, revealing Apple Bloom, who was sitting on the bunk with a frustrated expression.
“It’s not problem at all, Applejack. Anything for a frie-” his eyes narrowed as they affixed themselves on Apple Bloom. “Applejack...what is your sister doing here?"
"I wanna join tha Army Mistah Armor!" Apple Bloom proclaimed, cutting Applejack off mid sentence. "So I can get mah cutie mark!"
"Really? You haven't gotten one yet? How old are you, exactly? Because I swear I had mine at your-" he was cut off by a warning glare from Applejack. He gave Applejack an apprehensive and apologetic smile, before leaning down to be at eye level with Apple Bloom. “So you don’t have your mark, then?”
Apple Bloom shook her head. "No I haven't but I really, really want one!" she said. "An' I'd do anythin' ta get it!"
"Now hold on, 'Bloom! Didn't we just talk 'bout this?" Applejack said, stepping up in front of Apple Bloom. "Ya gotta find what ya love first, then do that." Shining however, held up a hoof.
"Now hold on, Applejack,” he began to rub his chin, looking Apple Bloom over and squinting his eyes. “Sometimes a pony needs to do a little digging, anyways, you can't blame the filly for being eager, I mean, I knew I was desperate for one when I was her age."
“So yer sayin’ yer gonna help me get one?” Apple Bloom asked, her expression hopeful. Before Applejack had a chance to protest, Shining Armor nodded. “For realsies?!” Apple Bloom gasped, her eyes widening to the size of saucers.
“Yeah, I don’t see why not,” He said, looking towards Applejack.
"But, Shinin', yer not gonna let a little filly just up an' wander 'round a military base! She's gotta go home! Purity's gonna be worried sick!" Applejack countered, waving a hoof for emphasis.
"Don't worry Applejack," Shining said, walking up to Applejack. He motioned for her to come closer. "I'm just going to walk her around the base, and keep her occupied, that way I can keep an eye on her until I can think of a way to get her home safely. That way she doesn't get into trouble." he said quietly, glancing towards Apple Bloom as he spoke.
Applejack bit her lip slightly. “Ya sure?” she whispered, and Shining nodded again.
"Of course. Just relax, and I'll handle it. No need to worry." He said confidently, and Applejack sighed.
"Alrighty then, just remember, she can be a bit of a handfull, 'kay?" She then turned to Apple Bloom, who had taken it upon herself to start leafing through the textbooks Shining had brought. "'Bloom, Shinin's gonna show ya base, 'kay?"
"So he’s really gonna help me get a cutie mark?!" Apple Bloom asked excitedly, and Applejack and Shining nodded in unison.
"Yup! Come on now, let me show you around," Shining said, motioning for Apple Bloom to follow him. Apple Bloom, grinning widely at the hope of a cutie mark, bounded after Shining happily. Applejack leaned out the doorway as they walked off, waving towards Apple Bloom.
"Now remember 'Bloom, stay with Mistah Armor an' listen ta what he says alright!"
"Don't worry! I will!" Apple Bloom shouted over her flank as she scampered after the larger stallion.
"An' stay safe!" Applejack added, her expression worrisome.
"I will!" Apple Bloom shouted again, and her and Shining disappeared around the corner of a nearby cabin, leaving Applejack alone. Applejack sighed, turning inside the cabin and closing the door behind her.
Don't worry yerself, AJ, 'Bloom is gonna be fine. Shinin' Armor seems like a nice stallion. Anyways, its not like she's gonna get drafted like me. Jus' focus on tha trainin', an' everythin' will be good. She thought, picking up the spilled contents of the trunk and starting to find places for everything. An extra change of horseshoes were placed in the bottom drawer of the small nightstand, and her cigarettes were placed along side them. She noticed that one of the packets was open. She briefly wondered how the pack had been opened, and if Apple Bloom had tried to use of the cigarettes, but a quick glance inside revealed that all were accounted for.
Might as well, she thought, pulling out a single cigarette and the Zeppo Lighter. With a quick flick, the cigarette was alight and she took a draw, exhaling the medicated smoke from her nostrils. She coughed slightly, gently tapping her chest with a fist in an attempt to loosen her lungs. Satisfied that she had successfully avoided an asthma attack, she went back on organizing the several trinkets she had packed.
"And over here is where your sister and the other trainees are going to train," Shining Armor said, motioning towards what looked like a glorified school playground, with a wide assortments of monkey-bars, climbing structures, ropes and nets, along with a complex series of pits and trenches, which were covered in barbed wire.
"Looks like a big playground," Apple Bloom said, tilting her head in curiosity.
"Yeah, its sorta like a playground, but with more blood, sweat, tears and suffering," Shining said, nodding his head slightly.
Apple Bloom’s eyes widened. “So AJ’s gonna be goin’ inta battle fer real?”
Shining’s eyes widened slightly. “Well..um...no, not exactly...at least, not that I know,” He answered evasively. “I will say that it is definitely possible, but I’ve been wrong before.”
Apple Bloom scrunched up her face again. “But I thought she was gonna be a soldier? Don’t that mean she’s gonna fight in tha war?”
Shining hesitated. Well you've really stepped in it now, Shining, he thought. Go and tell the fourteen year old that her sister might get her head blown off, just like you did with your last girlfriend, and we all know how that turned out. Shining thought as he took a breath and began to chose his words carefully.
"Well, Apple Bloom, not everypony who joins the army has to go fight in the war. Instead, some ponies, like me for instance, stay here and help keep the homes and towns nice and safe and make sure everypony follows the rules and stuff, while others go out and make sure those HYDRA ponies can't hurt little ponies like you." He finished his carefully worded speech and gave a somewhat shy smile, which only caused Apple Bloom to give him a slightly suspicious expression. “And others still run support for those on the front lines, working as messengers, cooks, or just general staff that help the military run like a smoothly operated machine.”
"Ya mean yer not a soldier Mistah Armor? Yer just a cop? Isn't that, I don't know, a little dissapointin' to ya?" she asked, blindsiding Armor with the unexpectedly perceptive question. Shining opened and closed his mouth slightly.
"I mean, its kinda dishonest right? Thats like sayin' yer a farmer, when, really, all ya do is own one an' have other ponies do tha work fer ya," Apple Bloom continued, and Shining shook his head.
"No, no, its not like that. Just,” he took a breath, trying to find the right words. “Just because somepony can't pick up a weapon and fight in the war like a normal soldier, doesn't mean they're dishonest. Sometimes, they just have a job they need to do back here at home, or else everything goes crazy or something else really bad happens. Like, what if all the police ponies left to go to war? They'd leave all the cities and towns without law enforcement, and that would mean that all those nasty thieves and robbers would take over the town. Get it?"
Apple Bloom shrugged slightly. "Yeah I guess I get it...but that still don't answer my first question."
"Well, thats because I don't really know the answer, Apple Bloom. I can’t say for certain if Applejack is going to be sent to the front. This whole thing is really a big test, and Applejack is going to be taking it along with some other ponies, and then, at the end of testing, they're going to pick a winner."
"Really?" Apple Bloom responded. "That means Applejack is gonna win a fancy prize right?"
Shining nibbled his lower lip slightly. “Yeah...I guess you could say it’s sort of like that.” He then leaned down to be on her level and leaned in close. “I already know what the prize is, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, squirt” he said, lifting his eyebrows slightly and smiling, ruffling her mane. Apple Bloom’s expression was one of excitement.
“Really? Ya’s gotta secret?! I can keep a secret!” she said, hopping up and down slightly. Shining shook his head.
“Sorry, but a secret is a secret,” he said, puffing his chest out with confidence. As he did so, he looked around to see a very burly and heavily built unicorn seemingly screaming his head off at a smaller, generally meeker looking colt. The drill sergeant then paused, looking around for a moment, before seemingly noticing Shining.
“ARMOR! GET YOUR WHITE PRIVILEGED RICH BOY FLANK OVER HERE, AND INFORM THIS FILTHY MAGGOT WHY ONE SHOULD ALWAYS MAKE SURE THEY’VE NAILED THEIR HORSESHOES ON PROPERLY!”
Shining huffed, before flicking his eyes towards Apple Bloom and then towards a nearby building. He leaned down towards Apple Bloom.
“Look, I’ve gotta help with that. Trust me when I say I’ll be right back, but in the meantime, go over there and wait for me okay?” he said, pointing towards the building. Apple Bloom looked towards the building, then towards Shining.
“But why? What’s wrong? Why can’t I help out?” she asked, her voice taking on a somewhat whining cadence.
“Well--” Shining was cut off by the drill sergeant shouting again.
“SHINING! I ISSUED YOU AN ORDER! STOP FIDDLING WITH FILLIES AND GET YOUR FLANK OVER HERE THIS INSTANT OR I WILL SHOVE YOUR HEAD UP YOUR PLOT HOLE SO HARD YOU’LL BE TURNED INSIDE OUT!”
Both Apple Bloom and Shining’s faces broke out into looks of fear, with Shining spinning on his hooves and briskly trotting towards the drill sergeant, leaving Apple Bloom alone. He briefly looked over his shoulder and motioned towards the building he had indicated, and Apple Bloom, most certainly not wanting to incur the wrath of what seemed to be a very big and very, very mean looking drill sergeant, quickly nodded and aimed herself towards the building.
As Shining walked off towards the drill sergeant, Apple Bloom walked up to the building, and looked up at the sign at the top of the door.
“‘Gunsmithin’?” She read aloud. She furrowed her brow slightly.
Well...gunsmithin’ has ta do wit’ building...an’ I like buildin’ stuff…. Her eyebrows rose as an idea formed in her mind. Applejack said I should do what I like! An’ if I do what I like, I can get a cutie mark!
“Cutie Mark in Gunsmithin’ yay!” she cheered, reaching for the doorknob and opening the door, which was, surprisingly, unlocked. She stepped inside eagerly, happy that fate seemed to be smiling down on her today. Sitting at a table, hunched over and listening to the music on the radio, was an earth pony who was busily working on a half-assembled rifle.
“Hello mistah!” Apple Bloom said, hopping up on the unoccupied stool next to the stallion. The stallion glanced towards her for a moment, before grunting.
“Whadda want?” He grumbled, taking a draw from his cigarette and exhaling the smoke from his nostrils.
Apple Bloom gave her best confident smile. “I wanna try an’ see if gunsmithin’ is gonna be mah cutie mark!”
The stallion looked at Apple Bloom with an intensely disinterested expression, before his eyes drifted towards Apple Bloom’s flank. “I see you’re a blank flank,” he droned and Apple Bloom nodded self-awarely.
“Um...yeah, yeah I am,” she said. “But I really wanna try everythin’ I can ta get mah cutie mark! So can I help ya?”
The stallion smiled slightly. “Well, thanks for info.” He then shrugged. “As long as you stop talking and just hand me my tools, then sure.”
Apple Bloom nodded, and the stallion motioned towards the small mallet sitting on the table.
“Alright then, pass me that mallet.”
Apple Bloom was quick to reach over and place the mallet in the stallion’s hoof. He took it in hoof, and once more returned to the disassembled gun. As he worked, Apple Bloom watched intently, her eyes focusing on the mechanics of the weapon. Something about it seemed almost poetic and elegant the various pieces fitting together gracefully.
“Um, Mistah, can I give it a try?” she found herself asking, and the stallion glanced towards her.
“Pleeeeeaaaaase?” she asked again, making the best puppy dog face she could muster.
The stallion sighed. “Ugh, fine, whatever. Just as long as you stop making that face.” He slid a disassembled gun towards Apple Bloom and motioned towards the parts.
“Okay, go. Let’s see what ya got.” he said, and Apple Bloom nodded, reaching for the parts and beginning to assemble the rifle. For some reason, it seemed really easy for her, with the pieces just clicking into place smoothly and quickly.
“There!” she said proudly, plopping the now full assembled gun on the tabletop and smiling broadly. The stallion stared at the assembled gun in complete shock.
“...did you just assemble that?” he said, and Apple Bloom nodded.
“Yeah, yeah I did.” she said, arching an eyebrow slightly. “Why? Did I do somethin’ wrong?”
“What? No! No not at all! It’s just, you did it perfectly,” the stallion said, shaking his head in wonderment. He was quick to slide some more parts over to her, beckoning for her to continue.
“Go, do it again!” he said, and Apple Bloom shrugged.
“Um, okay...I just don’t get why this is such a big deal is all,” she replied, before moving on to assemble the next gun. Within moments she was done, and the stallion, grinning broadly, beckoning for some other stallions, all of whom had been working on their own stuff, to come over and watch.
Shining grumbled to himself as he headed back towards the gunsmith shop. What should have been a quick chiding of a lazy soldier and an attempt to calm the ever-fiery General Stonewall down, was soon distended by way Stonewall’s ranting on the way Shining Armor cut his mane, and how he supposedly looked like ‘a strange, emaciated skank rat that had drowned itself in a bucket of paint.’
Let me just pick up Apple Bloom, and then figure out a way for her to go home nice and safe like I promised. he thought, coming to a stop however, when he saw a large crowd of ponies all gathered around the gunsmith shop.
Oh dammit, he thought worriedly, speeding up his pace and pushing his way through the gaggle of ponies. Apple Bloom please tell me you didn't do something stupid please please plea--
His thoughts derailed when he finally reached where Apple Bloom, who sat surrounded by servicemen, all chanting her on while she assembled a Browning Automatic Rifle at seemingly lightning speed. With a loud slam, she placed the finished weapon on the table, and nodded her proudly.
"Time?" She asked, looking up towards a stallion holding a stopwatch.
"Minute and thirty seconds! New record for Apple Bloom!" He proclaimed ecstatically, and the crowd erupted into cheers. Apple Bloom smiled proudly, and caught sight of the still slack-jawed Shining Armor.
"Howdie Shinin'!" She said, waving him over as she started assembling another rifle. "Didja see what I did there!" She asked, and Shining nodded.
"Yeah...yeah I did!" He said, wide eyed. His eyes only got wider when he caught sight of the mark on her flank. "And I think you just got your cutie mark!" He said, wording the first thought that appeared in his head.
Apple Bloom's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates as she whipped her head around to stare at her flank, rolling up her sleeve just a little more. The symbol adorning it was a rifle and a hammer, directly in the center of a crosshairs. A brilliant smile exploded onto Apple Bloom.
“I GOT A CUTIE MARK! I GOT A CUTIE MARK! I GOT A CUTIE MARK!” Apple Bloom cheered, hopping up and down around Shining, before stopping mid hop with her eyes and grin broadening. “I gotta tell Applejack!”
Before Shining had a chance to respond, the filly had already started towards the door.
“Wait, Apple Bloom! Come back!” Shining called out, rushing out after her and ignoring the mutual, confused looks among the other stallions.
Shining scampered after Apple Bloom, now finally understanding why his mom had been so strident about him going to track met every Thursday back in college. He now regretted having ignored his mother’s requests. The little yellow filly was surprisingly fast, as she dodged and weaved through the scattered groups of personnel and soldiers.
“Apple Bloom! Wait up!” he called out, and Apple Bloom finally began to slow down, looking over her shoulder as she ran.
The excited filly seemingly noticed Shining’s desperate efforts to keep up, as she began to slow down slightly.
“What’s wrong, Mister Armor?” she asked, raising an eyebrow as Shining finally caught up with her.
Shining held up a hand, as he took several deep breaths to regain his lost air.
“Mister Armor, are ya’ alright?” Apple Bloom pressed, her expression showing a growing concern and her voice repeating the same emotion. “Ya havin’ an attack er something?”
Shining shook his head, finally having gained enough air to speak again. “No, no,” he rubbed the back of his neck as he often did when nervous. “I don’t have asthma. I’m okay. I’m okay, I’m just...” his eyes drew back to the young filly’s cutie mark, recreating the previous moment’s anxiety.
“Then why were ya’ yellin’ at me to stop? I gotta tell my sister ‘bout mah cutie mark!”
“Yes, I know I was just about to talk to you about that.” Shining responded, putting a hoof on Apple Bloom’s shoulder.
Apple Bloom gave him a confused look. “But why? What’s to talk ‘bout?”
Shining sighed. “Well, it’s just,” he rubbed his face, fighting an incoming anxiety attack. “I don’t think you’re sister is exactly going to be happy to hear I let you play around with guns, and then there’s...” he found himself glaring at her new mark. “That.”
“But I wasn’t playin’! I was just tryin’ to figure out the problem!” Apple Bloom replied, before pausing and furrowing her brow slightly. “Or..at least that’s what it felt like I was doin’. I kinda zoned out there for a lil’ bit.”
Shining tilted his head slightly. “‘Zoned out’?” he raised one eyebrow. “What do you mean ‘zoned out’? Zoned out how?”
“I mean I just looked at the gun, and it was kinda like a bunch of drawin’s popped up in my brain,” Apple Bloom replied, pointing to her head as she spoke. “An’ it was like a lightbulb turned on and I just knew exactly how to fix it.”
“And that’s never happened before?” Shining asked, and Apple Bloom shook her head. “At all?”
“Nope. Never before. I mean, I always had a knack fer cleanin’ the family rifle whenever I was told to, but right now?” she answered, her expression baffled. She looked down at her cutie mark, it was a rifle and a hammer, directly in the center of a crosshairs combo standing out in contrast to her previously naked flank. “ It just kind of clicked, you know? And I got no idea why the rifle and hammer are next to each other or the circle thing, any ideas?”
“That circle thing is a crosshair. They’re in rifle scopes to help you aim better but the rest...I don’t know,” Shining he sighed, letting his shoulders sag. “I really don’t. This really is something we’d ask my dad. He’s an expert in that.”
“Yer dad’s an expert in scopes?” Apple Bloom replied, her eyebrows rising slightly.
Shining shook his head. “Um, no, he’s actually an expert in cutie mark symbolism and sociology... You know, stuff like what a cutie mark means, and what it means for society and all. He wrote a paper on it. Which is weird because his doctorate in theoretical physics, magic, and chemistry, but I guess we all have our hobbies, right?”
Apple Bloom looked away, nodding slightly. “I guess.”
Shining blinked. “So do you want to ask him?”
Apple Bloom tilted her head. “Ask him what?”
“What your cutie mark means,” he replied, his voice beginning to have a definite tinge of irritation in it. “I mean, that’s what you want to know right? So you can use your special skill properly right?”
Apple Bloom’s expression was quick to become excited. “Ya think he’ll really tell me?”
Shining nodded. “Don’t see why he wouldn’t. Come on, I’ll take you there.” he scooped her up and plopped her on his back, trotting off towards the area of the camp that held the offices, the need to inform Applejack having totally slipped his mind.
The tall, almost bear like unicorn stallion puffed his chest out, taking a deep breath before eying the line of recruits in front of him with an almost virile disdain. “WELCOME TO CAMP OKEFENOKEE YA FILTHY SIMPERING FU--”
“Language, Sergeant Stonewall,” came another voice, this one from a shorter, albeit more authoritative and restrained looking pegasus dressed in the ornate, gold and red uniform of the Equestrian Military. The first stallion quickly saluted, nodding his head tersely.
“YES SIR, GENERAL WING, SIR!” he responded with a near deafening shout.
The pegasus nodded slightly, giving the larger unicorn a thin smile. “Thank you, Sergeant Stonewall. But please lower your volume. None of us are deaf.” He added, and the unicorn nodded, and the pegasus turned to the line of recruits. “Good morning everypony, I am General Stalwart Wing, and this is Sergeant Stonewall. He will be your drill instructor during your time here. Now, you're probably all wondering why you've been called to our humble military camp.”
He paused, eying the recruits again as he began to walk in front of them, seemingly inspecting them carefully.
"Well, I'll tell you," continued the General, keeping his tone even. "You are here for the purpose of helping this nation defeat its greatest threat. And how are going to do that? Well, it is often said that war is fought with weapons but won by soldiers. And I can say with the greatest confidence that we have the best..."
He faltered, coming to a stop in front of Applejack, who attempted to stand as nobly and confidently as possible, but still couldn't hide her pencil-thin frame. The general's expression grew visibly uncomfortable, and he looked over his shoulder to catch the eye of the easygoing griffon standing a couple paces away. The Professor merely smiled, before looking away, seemingly taking on an enhanced interest on the clouds overhead. The general looked back at Applejack before bracing himself.
"...And that the best can only get better." He finished before continuing to walk. "Much, much better."
Applejack could sense his brief, half-hearted glance in her direction.
"Now, this base is dedicated to Operation Rebirth, which is a joint-effort between Equestria and the greatest minds in the free world," said General Wing. "Our goal is to create the greatest army on the face of the globe. But, alas, an army can only begin with one, single soldier. And, by the end of this week, we will choose that soldier, and they, whomever they may, will be the first in a new breed of super-soldiers. And then, when the time is right, that super-soldier will personally escort Red Skull to the very gates of Hell."
He finished his speech with a harsh stomp of his hoof on the dirt. He then turned towards Sergeant Stonewall.
"They're all yours, Sergeant." He said, spinning on his heels and trotting back towards the griffon. The massive unicorn nodded, stomping over towards the line of recruits.
"ALRIGHT, YOU DISGUSTING SCUMBAGS, GET YOUR SORRY FLANKS IN LINE AND MARCH!" he roared, and Applejack was nearly trampled by the sudden shift of ponies around her as the group hurried to line up and begin marching.
Meanwhile, a few paces away, General Stalwart Wing trotted past Professor Schultz, shaking his head.
"I want you in my office right now, feather face," he grumbled, motioning for the griffon to follow him.
The griffon, seemingly unfazed by the insult, turned and followed after the pegasus.
Meanwhile, in the general’s office, were a trio of simple chairs, which sat directly in front of the large, wooden desk. In the chair to the left, slouching and looking as if he held the world around him in general derision and cynicism, was a lanky, off-white unicorn with a balding grey mane. His foreleg was held in a leg brace and his cutie mark was a complex series of mathematical formula.
Across from him, in the chair to the right, was a blue unicorn with a navy blue mane and a crescent moon cutie mark. His personality seemed to be one of overall optimism and eagerness. He was a little shorter than the white stallion, and at least five years his junior.
“I wonder where General Wing is?” the blue unicorn asked aloud, looking around the office and towards the other unicorn.
The white unicorn scoffed, shifting in his seat and hunching his shoulders. “Probably giving some sort of speech to those dragoons outside,” he grumbled while he scanned the office with little to no interest of what he was seeing.
The blue unicorn gave the white unicorn a curious look. “Probably. But don’t be so glum, Silver Belle. You act as if he’s somehow wasting our time.”
Silver Belle simply responded with a derisive snort. “I’ve been up since four this morning, Dr. Light. I’ll act however I feel like.”
Night Light shook his head. “Silver Belle, I understand that time is important to you, but--”
“But nothing,” interrupted Silver Belle, his voice remaining completely monotone, rapping his cane on the floor sharply. “My work on the Enigma machine takes priority, and failure to finish results in the senseless loss of resources and soldiers. I should also remind you remind you that you’ve got your bomb project as well. That should be your priority, not hanging around with some griffon.”
Night Light shifted in his chair, shooting Dr. Belle an angry glare. “First off, Silver, my work on the bomb is my business, and mine alone, and second of all, don’t be so prejudiced. Dr. Schultz has done more to help our cause than any other scientist in the Project, and is a fine, upstanding, and above all, loyal citizen of this nation.”
Dr. Belle grumbled. “So he’s loyal. But what about his idea? You can’t just inject magic into a pony and expect the results you want. There are too many variables to consider.”
“Well, we all know how much you love variables…”
“And on top of that,” Dr. Belle ignored the quip at his expense. “We don’t even know if this will work. No common threads or denominators asides from the fact that all but one are earth ponies. That’s it. Nothing special or nothing unique out of any of them.”
“I’m glad I’m not the only one feeling a lack of confidence in the Professor’s methods,” said General Wing from behind, causing Silver Belle to stop his rant.
Both unicorns stood up and saluted, but the General merely motioned for them to sit down. Behind him, carrying himself with confidence, was Professor Schultz. Silver Belle immediately shot him a grumpy look, to which the Professor simply responded with a cordial tip of the head and a smile. Night Light, by contrast, gave the Professor a much more respectful smile, and extended a hand in greeting. A quick shake was exchanged and the Professor sat in the vacant chair, shifting slightly to fit himself into a chair designed for a creature that was, by nature, smaller than a griffin.
General Wing, meanwhile, settled into his chair, looking over the three scientists for a moment, before taking a breath and beginning to address them.
“Alright then, gentlecolts, we have quite a bit to discuss,” he began, leaning forward and steepling his hooves. “And I am going to start with our good friend, Professor Schultz.”
The General motioned towards the griffin, who simply nodded, and for that, he gave the griffin a thin grin before continuing.
“Professor Schultz, I have to ask you one very important question,” he said.
Professor Schultz nodded again, still calm and smiling. “Of course, I am quite willing to answer any questions you might have concerning the Project, General Wing. Please, ask away.”
General Wing gave the Professor a brief narrowing of the eyes, seemingly put off by the Professor’s near-supernatural ability to take criticism with the sweetness of sugar and goodies.
The General shifted in his chair, apparently preparing himself for the question. “Alright then…” he began, steepling his hooves. “What, in Luna’s luscious Equestria, is that scrawny little mare doing with my recruits?”
The Professor blinked, seemingly not expecting the emphatic response from the General.
”Well,” he began, leaning back in his chair slightly and tapping his talons on his lap. “Common sense would suggest that, being in a ‘boot camp’, she means to join the army, Allgemeinen. Really, I would have thought it was quite--”
“Don’t you give me that crap!” snapped the general. “You know full well that you were supposed to get me candidates for a super soldier, not some half starved scarecrow of a mare. What am I supposed to do with her? Give her a medal for participation?”
The griffin shook his head. “Well, I think you should trust me on this. I have good reason for considering Miss Apple. She is a kind, gentle mare, who only wants what’s best for her family.”
Dr. Belle scoffed. “Good is only decided by who’s in charge, Doctor. Might makes right, not the other way around. ”
“And who has more might than that kind? It takes more strength to continue to show kindness to one who has shown you none then it does to show cruelty, I think,” he retorted to the cynical unicorn, adjusting his glasses. "If you return cruelty with cruelty, you become no better than the one tormenting you. Simple as that."
“You don’t have a real reason based in logic, do you?” Silver Belle asked.
“Do you wish for me to be analytical?” Professor Schultz asked, his voice taking on a tired tone, as if he’d been asked this question a thousand times before in the past. When Dr. Belle nodded, Professor Schultz sighed. “Alright, I shall attempt to placate your desire for a purely scientific explanation for my decision. The simple fact is that, my serum, when combined with the naturally mana rich biology of your average pony, will cause the aforementioned mana to be greatly enhanced. Four hundred percent to be exact. So, I feel it would be best to be on the side of caution, and start with a test subject with the lowest overall mana levels, lest we incur a catastrophic mana overload, and cause death in the subject.”
Dr. Belle visibly seemed to be made content, but still he asked. “Are you sure about this? It seems like a longshot.”
“Yes, yes of course. I did create the serum after all, so I would consider myself rather assured as to the side effects of the serum I have created. Just give Miss Apple the opportunity, and I assure you that everything will work out.”
He finished with a confident smile, only adding the last part in the very back of his mind.
“Alright then! Listen up you no good talking lumps of dirt and feathers!” the female griffin barked, causing whatever cockiness or confidence in the group of recruits to instantly evaporate due to the sheer intensity of her voice. The griffin seemed somewhat short and stocky, and her coat was a shade of brown, which stood out in nice contrast to the white feathers that covered her from the shoulders up. Her golden eyes seemed to glare at everyone with the same, vicious sense of belittlement as the other drill sergeant had, except looking even more out of place on her surprisingly feminine features.
Applejack felt even more like a tiny twig than before as the griffin began to stalk in front of the recruits, her eyes critically scanning each of them. When she reached the end of the line, she pulled out a pair of sunglasses, flicking them up to her eyes in one smooth motion, obscuring her eyes and preventing anyone from declaring her exact expression.
“Since you’re all obviously too low on intellect to read my name tag, I feel I should introduce myself! My name is Gilda Martel, and before you ask, yes, I do share my name with a certain famed princess -- well, sorry to crush your little manic pixie dreams, but there’s a very important difference between me and her. She’s dead, and Death is scared shitless of me!” With that, she took an official looking hat from under her wing and pulled it onto her head. “The reason I’m here is really quite simple. I’m going to take your sorry excuses for bodies, and turn them into lean, mean, griffin killing machines. YOU!”
The griffin shot a talon out towards Applejack, locking her gaze on the earth pony’s spindly frame.
“What’s your name and why the fuck are you here?!” she barked.
Applejack straightened up, not about to let herself be knocked down by one griffin.
“My name is Applejack Apple, Ma’am!” she shouted back, ignoring how silly her drawl made the words sound. “An’ I’m here to earn money fer my famil-”
She was unexpectedly cut off by the griffin letting out a loud, cawing laugh.
“Well, sweet eggplant molasses on a southern honeysuckle! Sugarcube!” Gilda sneered, seemingly intentionally giving her voice the most grating and stereotypical Southern drawl Applejack had ever heard. “What rotten, dirty, mud caked inbred dirthole did you crawl out from, pard’ner?!”
Applejack steeled herself, making a point to stand as upright and proudly as possible. No beakfaced griffin was going to mock her accent. “I came from Ponyville, ma’am!” she shouted aloud, now proudly drawing. “An’ I’m mighty sorry ya missed the family reunion! We really did miss ya.”
There was a tense silence as Gilda slid her sunglasses down her beak slightly, leaning up into Applejack’s face. Applejack simply stared back, her green eyes reflecting Gilda’s golden ones.
“Dunk me in frying oil and call me chicken, your voice is just devine! Come now, sugah, sing with me tha song of the south!” Gilda suddenly cackled, still keeping the drawl on maximum.
“What? You deef? I said sing with me, sugahcube!” Gilda barked again, this time with much more force.
Applejack blinked again, before taking a deep breath.
“Oh, keep on tha sunny side, always on tha sun--”
She only got about one verse in before Gilda roughly clamped a talon over her mouth. Applejack tensed up, half expecting her face to be ripped off by the obviously razor sharp claws.
“That’s enough, Billie.” Gilda said, her eyes darting towards Surprise when she noticed the white pegasus’ insufferably happy expression from her peripheral vision.
Applejack nodded slightly, Gilda’s talons dropping from her mouth.
“YOU!” Gilda practically spat as she turned to face the blond pegasus next to Applejack. “WHAT’S YOUR NAME?!”
Surprise opened her mouth wide, taking a deep breath that sounded like she was sucking all the air out of the world and left her chest puffed out, before shouting with pride: “SURPRISE KAMINSKY PIE, MA’AM!!”
Her voice exploded like a bomb and sent birds flying off and cawing with fright in the distance. Applejack’s ears rang as she pressed them against her head. She was afraid that she would go deaf due to that deafening proclamation, and if that was the case, she was most certainly going to be having some choice words with the mare.
Meanwhile, Gilda’s hat had been blown off by Surprise’s awesome voice and her sunglasses now hung crooked on her beak. Her expression initially seemed as shocked as everyone elses, but within a few blinks, her rather comical expression hardened into a scowl. A scowl that was born from such fury that it looked almost as if she were attempting to melt Surprise’s head off with heat vision. Her muscles visibly tensed up, before she took a deep, heaving breath.
“ARE YOU TRYING TO BE LOUDER THAN ME?!” Gilda screamed, surprisingly enough matching Surprise’s obnoxious level.
“ABSOLUTELY!!!!” Surprise replied with a slight laugh.
“THEN DROP AND GIVE ME THIRTY WINGUPS, YOU SARCASTIC FEATHERED PIECE OF SHIT!!!!” Gilda roared, and Surprise nodded, giving a sharp salute in response.
“YOU GOT IT!!!”
“MAKE THAT FIFTY!!!”
“OKIE DOKIE LOKI!!!”
Surprise then dropped to the ground, pumping her wings up and down repeatedly as she pushed herself up using them. Gilda meanwhile, glared back at the line of recruits, pointing towards the large open area to the left.
“AS FOR THE REST OF YOU! YOU’D BETTER START RUNNING LIKE SOME STARVING GRIFFIN IS CHASING YOU DOWN FOR HER AFTERNOON SNACK!”
She roared, stomped the ground and took flight just over the recruits' heads. The immediate result was the earth shaking as dozens of terrified ponies stampeded along the base tracks to escape the wrath of one very angry griffin.
Shining and Apple Bloom came to a stop in front of a small building at the far end of the camp. Apple Bloom’s eyebrow was raised slightly, and she looked up at Shining with curiosity.
“Um, Mister Armor? Why are we here, exactly?”
Shining looked down at her. “Like I said, my father’s an expert on cutie marks and their meanings, and we’re going to show him yours.”
Apple Bloom rolled her eyes, letting out a slight huff. “No, I mean, why are we at this buildin’? What’s in there?”
Shining blinked, his ears perking up in realization. “Oh, this is his office,”
“But this isn’t this kinda...underwhelmin’ fer an office buildin’? I mean, I thought most offices were in big cities an’ in skyscrapers?” Apple Bloom replied.
“Well..um, I guess, yeah, but this is a field office, so it’s kinda bare bones. It’d be kinda weird to have a skyscraper in the middle of a military base wouldn’t it?”
Apple Bloom paused, mentally picturing the Empire Building from Manehattan standing in where the small, humble wooden building was. “I guess it would, yeah.”
Shining smiled and started to knock on the door. There was the sound of someone standing up, along with what sounded vaguely like frustrated mutterings from inside. The door opened to reveal the cratankerious form of a middle-aged white unicorn stallion, who Apple Bloom instantly could tell seemed to look down at everyone around him.
“Ah, Armor, you’re the one who interrupted me and your father’s meeting. I might have known.” The unicorn then glared down at Apple Bloom. “And who’s this infant?”
“Infant?! I ain’t no infant! I’ma fourteen years old!” Apple Bloom shot back, stomping her hooves on the ground. “An’ we wanna talk ta’ Shinin’s dad!”
There was an awkward stretch of silence, with the two white stallions looking down at Apple Bloom, who looked at the older one with narrowed eyes and set jaw. The older unicorn opened his mouth to speak, only to be interrupted by a blue unicorn opening the door all the way.
“Did someone call me?” he asked.
The older white unicorn shook his head. “No, I was just about to tell this little filly that you and I are rather busy at the moment.”
“What? No we’re not. I mean, are we Professor Schultz?” the blue one asked, looking over his shoulder. Apple Bloom took the chance to peer between the unicorn’s legs to see the inside. The interior was small, filled mostly with a mix of what looked like science equipment, chemistry sets and a large blackboard. There was a table in the center of the room, in front of which, sitting in a chair that looked far too small for him, was the Professor from the fair.
“Howdie Professor!” she chirped, trotting through the unicorn’s legs and up to the griffin. She was quick to spin around and present her cutie mark to him. “Can ya tell me what this means?”
The older white unicorn, Dr. Belle, was quick to try to shove her away. “What are you doing? Don’t you see we’re busy?”
The Professor however, smiled and stood up. “Oh Dr. Belle, don’t be so mean. She simply wants me to see her cutie mark,” he glanced down at Apple Bloom. “Although, I’ll admit, that this isn’t really my expertise. I believe these are more of your expertise, aren’t they Dr. Night Light?” he added, looking towards the blue unicorn, apparently named Night Light
Night Light nodded. “Yes I am. You want me to tell you want it means? Why, did you just get it?”
“Yeah huh!” Apple Bloom replied excitedly, smiling at Shining. “I got it when Shinin’ left me by tha gunsmithin’ shop!”
Night Light and Dr. Belle both turned towards Shining Armor, with Night Light looking concerned.
Shining lifted his hooves. “Now let me just say that I was going to take her off base, but then the drill sergeant needed help with something, so I told her to stay where she was. By the time I turn around, she was gone. I went looking and found her in the smithing shop.”
“And what was she doing there? Playing darts?” Silver Belle asked, arching an eyebrow at Armor.
“I was fixin’ rifles fastah than anypony else!” Apple Bloom proclaimed proudly, not about to let her moment to shine pass by. She smiled broadly, puffing her chest out. “An’ then, Shinin’ came back an’ told me I had a cutie mark!”
“You let a fourteen year old fix a rifle?!” Silver Belle barked, stomping past Apple Bloom right into Shining Armor’s face. “Why did you even let her out of your sight, you simpering dolt?! Don’t you know she could have been injured or worse?!”
“Of course I know that! I came right to get her! I didn’t even wait, I just took her straight here. What do you want me to do, scream like Fay Wray?” Shining replied sternly and leaning up in Silver Belle’s face.
“Now, now, now, let’s not turn this into a gruesome katze kämpfen,” the griffin spoke, stepping between Shining and Silver Belle and gently nudging the two white unicorns apart. “There’s no point in complaining about what one could have done once the event has passed. What’s done is done. Yes, Herr Armor made a grave mistake in leaving Frau Bloom alone, but, thank Celestia, the little stutfohlen came out unharmed. Now, it’s obvious that she wishes to know the meaning of her cutie mark, or else she would have already told us what it meant. Now, allow us the pleasure of Dr. Light’s analysis, ja?”
Shining was first to nod, stepping back and extending a hand towards Dr. Belle. “I’m sorry, Dr. Belle.”
Dr. Belle merely looked down at the hand and shook it limply, before turning around and limping away, Apple Bloom noticing the brace and cane for the first time. She looked up at the griffin with a slightly raised eyebrow, still unsure of what he was doing here. He responded by looking down and smiling, waving a talon at her.
“Now, come sit,” he replied with a smile, before motioning towards a small chair. “But let us take a look at that mark now, shall we?”
“Yes, let’s.” Night Light added, stepping up to Apple Bloom as she sat down on the chair. With a shimmer of blue, the unicorn pulled out a magnifying glass and a notepad, holding the magnifying glass close to Apple Bloom’s flank.
“Hmmm...that is interesting. You said you got this repairing rifles?” he asked, and Apple Bloom nodded.
“Yessiree Bob, sir,” she replied with confidence.
Night Light nodded slightly, jotting something down on the notepad, upon which was already a sketch of her cutie mark. After a few mutterings, the unicorn stood back up and looked at the notepad.
“What’s interestin’?” Apple Bloom asked, Shining echoing her words.
Night Light shrugged. “Well, for a cutie mark in repair, this looks awfully militaristic. Apple Bloom, mind telling me what you felt when you got your cutie mark. That often helps me define what it means.”
Apple Bloom blinked, furrowing her brow. “Uh...well...I kinda zoned out. I mean, one sec I saw a rifle that needed fixin’, an’ then it was like a bunch of fancy drawin’s popped up in front of mah face, tellin’ me tha right way ta get her done.”
“So, got any ideas on her cutie mark, Dad?” Shining Armor asked, looking concerned as he tried to get a look at the notepad.
Night Light shrugged slightly, simultaneously moving the notepad away from Shining. “My best guess is she can be a gunsmith or a repair pony or a soldier or... I don’t know."
Shining's jaw dropped as he woundered if he’d survive the week. “What do you mean you don't know!? How can you not know!?”
Night Light sighed. “Because ten minutes with a filly is hardly enough time to get a grasp on her psyche, and her mark is not exactly common. And Shining, you’re acting like somepony’s going to be angry.”
Shining moaned as he slumped against the wall with his hooves failing to cover the dread and shame plastered on his face. "Applejack is going to kill me. I’m done."
“Why is mah sista gonna kill ya?” Apple Bloom asked. “She’d love ta know that I got mah cutie mark!”
“Ja, why would Frau Apple be mad? Is not the gaining of a cutie mark a happy occasion for ponies and normally celebrated with a party?” Professor Schultz asked, tilting his head in a birdlike manner.
Shining let out a frustrated sigh. “You don't get it, Professor," he began, rubbing his forehead. "A cutie mark is supposed to be something... cute. Like flowers or sparkles or something. That is not cute!” he pointed towards Apple Bloom’s cutie mark. “I mean; rifles, hammers and sniper scopes? That’s the cutie mark for a living weapon, which I'm pretty damn sure is something Applejack does not want. Especially since she’ll know that you've been playing around with stuff that you should not have been seeing in the first place!"
Apple Bloom huffed. "What about what I want?”
“What do you mean ‘what you want’?” Silver Belle asked with bitterness. "Your cutie mark has decided your destiny. Your precious little opinion isn't relevant.”
Apple Bloom gave Silver Belle a dirty look. "It's mah cutie mark right? Don't my opinion on mah destiny mean somethin'?"
"Yes. Yes it does." Professor Schutlz said, putting a talon on her shoulder. "And Herr Armor really has no need to worry. After all, don't you use guns to protect others? And isn't a hammer used to build a new home? And so what if the mark is militaristic? Never let a single factor control your destiny. Your destiny is yours to decide."
Everyone blinked, surprised by the griffin's insight.
"Ya really think so?" Apple Bloom asked, tilting her head.
Professor Schultz nodded. "Yes. Yes I do."
"Well that's just great, but that still doesn't resolve the whole problem with telling Applejack." Shining said, shaking his head.
General Wing rolled his eyes and checked the time on the wall clock, scowling at what he was seeing.
While this happened, Night Light sighed and put a hand on his son's shoulder.
“Look, I might not know Applejack personally," began Night Light, "but from what you’ve told me about her before, she sounds like a nice, reasonable mare. Just go up to her, tell her that Apple Bloom got her cutie mark, and that’s it.”
“I know we can’t predict her reaction, and I know I would have probably been worried if Twilight had such a cutie mark, but Schultz is right. Cutie marks and their meanings aren’t set in stone. And really, to be honest, Apple Bloom’s mark is rather ambiguous anyways. It’s not like it’s got big letters saying ‘born to kill’. Understand?”
Shining sighed, letting his shoulders sag. “I guess…I guess I’ll go tell her now.”
“If you think that’s the best thing, then go right ahead.” Night Light replied, his tone calm and fatherly.
Shining huffed slightly, looking over at Apple Bloom. “Okay, Apple Bloom, I’m going to go tell your sister about your cutie mark okay? Just stay here with Dad and the professors and wait for me to come back okay?”
Apple Bloom shrugged, secretly wishing she could tell Applejack herself, but also dreading her sister’s possible reaction in light of the recent events. On top of that, it looked like Shining needed some space. “Sure thin’, Shinin’.”
“And while you’re gone, we’ll keep the young stutfohlen occupied. Now, hurry on Shining. Best to have the task out of the way as soon as possible instead of dreading over it, ja?” Professor Schultz added, his voice encouraging.
Shining bit his lip, before nodding and leaving the room.
Once the door shut, Dr Belle let out a purely obnoxious yawn and stretched himself out on his chair. This caused everyone to look at him with mixed looks, and he returned it with a face wrinkled with pure annoyance.
"So now that 'Guiding Light' is on commercial break we can actually get down to business," he said sourly. Then he looked at Apple Bloom. "Starting with putting you in a daycare center."
"Are ya serious?" Apple Bloom asked with a tilted head and squinted eyes.
Apple Bloom slouched to the ground and folded her arms across her chest. "Phooey."
Applejack ran as fast as her scrawny legs could carry her in a desperate attempt to keep up with the rest of the troops, who, even though obviously not soldiers, were all considerably more muscled and well built then she could ever dream of being. It didn’t help either that, due to her asthma, she was having trouble getting any real air. It also did her no good to get any time to take breath because every attempt would lead to the sharp voiced griffin attacking her with a vicious, verbal assault.
“APPLE! MOVE YOUR SORRY, DISGUSTING TOOTHPICK FLANK! KEEP UP!” she barked.
Applejack nodded, quickening her pace again. She heard another pair of hoofsteps come up along side her.
“How you doing?” came a familiar voice. Applejack glanced to her left to see, of all ponies, Shining Armor, who was now dressed in simple green fatigues. His expression was one of visible concern and nervousness.
Applejack did her best to shrug as she ran.
“I’m good, I’m good,” she replied, nodding her head and giving him a quick smile. In truth, she honestly felt as if her legs were gelatin, wibbling and wobbling underneath her and making her feel as if she might collapse.
“You sure? Because I can ask Sergeant Martel to give you a break--”
“No! No, I’ll finish this mahself, iffin ya don’t mind, Shinin’. I promised tha Professor I’d do this, an’ I gots family at home rootin’ fer me. Iffin I can’t handle this little jog, then I’d be lettin’ ‘em down. An’ Apples don’t let Apples down.”
Shining Armor gave her a brief nod. “Alright then. Just so you know, I have to talk to you about Apple Bloom.”
Applejack raised her eyebrows. “Whadda mean? What’d she do now?” she asked, secretly dreading whatever the filly had done while out of her sight.
Shining’s expression seemed hard to define for a moment, as if he were hesitant, before he spoke. “Well..she kinda got her cutie mark just now an--”
“She got her cutie mark!?!” Applejack practically shouted, nearly stumbling over in surprise.
Shining was quick to prop her back up, just as the griffin flying above shot them a glare.
“Um, yeah, yeah she did," said Shining uneasily. "But I, um, promised not to tell you what it was. She wants to show her yourself.”
Applejack nodded with a smile. “Well thank Celestia’s sparklin’ mane an’ tail! I’ll be there as soon as I’m able.”
Applejack felt her energy return to her from hearing the fantastic news. For years now, the fact that Apple Bloom had been a blank flank had weighed on the family, with Apple Bloom being bullied at school, and even by some particularly distasteful members of the extended family. Applejack remembered spending some nights just rocking her sister gently back and forth, trying to help calm the emotionally wounded filly from a day’s worth of torment. But now? Now Apple Bloom had achieved a lifelong dream. Doors would open for her. The bullying would perhaps finally end, and the filly could live a normal, socially well adjusted life. It made Applejack feel just a little bit more confident.
Iffin Apple Bloom can get her mark, then I can run this course. She thought, giving Shining a nod before finally speaking.
“Well, I gotta go now! Keep an’ eye on her an’ tell her I’ma real happy!”
Shining nodded. “Will do. And remember, if you need any help, I’m here,” he said, only to have Gilda swoop in low.
“GO AWAY! WE’RE TRAINING!” the griffin barked, and Shining was quick to pull aways away, giving Applejack some space. Gilda then looked down at Applejack. “Pick up your hooves, Apple! I’m not getting any younger!”
Applejack nodded resolutely, “Sure thin’, Sarge!” she shouted back, before focusing her attention on the road before her.
“Alright, you pussies!” Gilda cawed, dropping down the ground with a thump from her flying position about the nest of now visibly exhausted recruits. She leaned against the flagpole, motioning upwards towards the flag raised above. “You see that flag? I want it.”
There was a pause as the group looked up at the flag. Gilda cocked an eyebrow.
“What? Ya wimping out because of a little jog? We’ve barely run for an hour. Get your asses together, get your flanks up there and get me that flag!” she emphasized her words by kicking the flagpole harshly. Another pause. Her ears perked up at the sound of someone muttering under their breath. Her head whipped towards the source of the noise, a big oaf of a stallion who wore an insufferably smug grin on his face. Gilda grit her teeth.
Great. A smart guy. Yaaaay.
She took a deep breath, marching over towards the smirking stallion, who loomed over her rather small (for a griffin at least) and stocky frame. “What do you find so funny soldier?!” she barked, and the stallion straightened out, still smirking.
“Just that we have to listen to an ugly beakface girl with small tits,” he replied loudly, his voice dripping in sarcasm. Gilda’s eyebrows lowered and her eyes narrowed. She balled her claw into a fist and landed a good hard punch in the stallion’s gut, causing him to bowl over in pain. Before he had a proper chance to react, she landed a good kick between his legs, causing him to let out a girlish yelp of pain as he collapsed to the ground. She then picked him up by the throat in a chokehold.
“Sorry ‘bout that, Slim Jim!” She let out a hearty laugh. “I couldn’t quite hear what you said over the sound of me kicking your ass,” she yelled, leaning down to lean in close to the now humiliated stallion. “Care to repeat what you said for the rest of your unit?”
The stallion, unable to breathe, just shook his head meekly, and Gilda nodded. “Good dumbass! Now,” she stood back up, arms behind her back and once more eying the recruits with anger. “Get up there and get me my flag!”
This time, there was no pause, but a stampede, as the mess of recruits went clambering around the pole, trying their best to climb up the twenty foot flagpole and grab the flag above. “And no magic or flying, ya poozers!” she called out, causing the few unicorn and pegasus of the recruits to suddenly turn and give her a befuddled expression. The white one with the bright yellow mane tilted her head.
“But why? That makes no sense!” she called out. Gilda allowed herself a smug grin at the sound of the mare’s voice exhibiting a tone of voice that wasn’t just manically happy. Gilda then shrugged, ambling over towards a nearby tree.
“Because I say so. Now get to it.”
Surprise’s shoulders sagged. “Darn it,” she murmured as she turned to try and climb up the pole.
Gilda leaned up against a nearby tree, an amused expression on her face as the soldiers wildly leapt up at the flag. She knew full well that the chances of climbing up twenty feet of a slippery flag pole to grab a simple flag was a futile exercise. Of course, that was the whole point. The point of this exercise was the test if a recruit could take an impossible task, and, using his intelligence, figure out a way to make it possible.
Of course, she’d intentionally left that detail out. What good was it explaining to the soldiers what they were supposed to do, when the whole point of the test was figuring out how to do something? On top of that, they obviously didn’t respect her, so a lesson in humility was needed.
Of course, watching a bunch of grown stallions fumble about like immature toddlers got tiresome rather quickly, and Gilda flicked her eyes down at her wristwatch, before letting out a sharp whistle.
“Alright, enough lollygagging!” she called. “If that’s the best you all can do, then we’re done here and I’ve just wasted two minutes. Back on the trail! Hut to, move it!” she ordered, flexing her wings and flapping into the air with a grace that didn’t quite match her personality.
“Wait a sec, Sarge!” came a distinctly accented voice, and Gilda halted in midair. She turned her head to see the orange mare from earlier standing by the pole, studying it closely.
“What is it Apple? You think you can get the flag?” Gilda asked, crossing her arms and cocking an eyebrow. The skinny earth pony saluted.
“Yes ma’am, I think I can.”
Gilda smiled slightly. This should be fun to watch, she thought, holding up a talon to stop the other recruits and flapping down to the ground. “Well then soldier, impress me,” she said as she landed. The thin earth pony nodded, turning towards the flagpole to give it another inspection. She would occasionally stop, pausing to frame the flagpole with her hooves.
“Well? We’re waiting!” Gilda called out, and the young recruit nodded, visibly bracing her wire-thin frame before landing a kick on the small support bar, which bent forward slightly. She then reached down, and with quite a bit of physical effort, pulled the support pin loose, causing the flagpole to start falling over. With a loud clang, it fell to the ground, and a confident Applejack strode forward, untying the flag and handing it over to Gilda, who simply stared at Applejack in surprise. The wimp did it, she thought, her eyes widening slightly.
“Did I do it right, Sarge?” Applejack asked, standing up straight and raising an eyebrow slightly. Gilda quickly nodded, swiftly returning to her authoritative demeanor.
“That you did Apple, that you did. Damn good job,” she then motioned towards the barracks that sat down the road. “Now get back to barracks and haul flank! Day’s a-wasting!”
The sun slowly lowered behind the horizon, and Shining Armor walked besides Applejack, who had just gotten back from her day’s worth of training, and were now heading back to barracks. Inspite of her obvious tiredness in light of almost four hours of non-stop running, she still wore a massive smile on her face and walked with a skip in her step. Her uniform was disheveled and covered in dirt, which stood out in sharp contrast to the pristinely pressed uniform that Shining wore.
“Oh thank Celestia, she’s finally got it!” Applejack beamed, the grin on her face growing. “Apple Bloom done an’ got a cutie mark!”
Shining smiled meekly. “Yeah, yeah she did. Whoopie,” he said, doing his best to sound enthusiastic inspite of himself. For the past ten minutes now, all Applejack had done was go on about how wonderful it was that Apple Bloom ‘found her purpose’ and how she’d be able to go home and ‘be safe and sound’. He was really starting to wish he’d just straight up told Applejack about the exact nature of the cutie mark, instead saying it would be a surprise.
Great. Get her worked up just to see her freak out. Classy. He took in a breath, before clearing his throat slightly. Just try and prepare her for it, just so we don’t have to worry about her freaking out and punching you in the face… or something.
“So… Applejack…” he started, before trailing off as Applejack turned to look at him. He scratched the back of his neck. Applejack tilted her head slightly, giving him a confused look.
“Shinin’? What is it?” she asked, coming to a stop. Shining bit his lip, swallowing slightly before looking skyward.
“Uh, it sure is a nice evening. I mean, look at that sunset,” he said, pointing towards the setting sun. Applejack looked over her shoulder in the direction Shining was pointing, before turning back and giving him a smile.
“Yeah, it is a mighty fine one. Ya should see how it looks like back on tha farm. Ya gots tha light bouncin’ off tha tree tops, an’ if ya look east ya can see Canterlot mountain lookin’ purple like some kinda gemstone or somethin’.”
Shining nodded slightly, still wondering how to break the subject of Apple Bloom’s cutie mark to AJ. Maybe you should ease her into it. Like… talk about the farm or something. Yeah that’s it. talk about her cutie mark!
“Yeah, that probably is pretty nice,” he finally replied. He idly kicked away a stone. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
Applejack shrugged, her eyebrow arching slightly. “Yeah, sure.”
“How’d you get your cutie mark,” he blurted out, immediately wincing at his fumble. Ease her into it, don’t hit her like a steamroller. Applejack’s head tilted slightly and her expression became more confused.
“I mean, you totally don’t have to tell me, I mean, that kinda stuff is pretty personal I’d venture,” he quickly said, holding up his hooves slightly. Applejack was silent for a moment, before shaking her head slightly.
“Um, no, no I don’t mind talkin’ ‘bout it. I mean, Apple Bloom just up an’ got hers, so it’s not like cutie marks’ ain’t a topic of conversation right now, am I right?”
Shining let out a slight laugh. “Yeah, yeah they are…”
Applejack then nodded slightly, her expression loosing some of it’s happiness. Shining’s lips pursed slightly. Great, you probably offended her. Stellar job, Shining! he thought.
“Again, if you don’t want to tell me, I won’t make you.” he added, but Applejack shook her head.
“No, no, I don’t mind tellin’. Just…” she paused, letting out a sigh. “It ain’t exactly a happy story ya know?” she idly pawed at the ground. “I mean, it ain’t depressin’ either… just not… happy happy,” she gave a slight shrug, her hoof idly tracing in the dirt. “It happened when I was ‘bout twelve or there ‘bouts, so after mah momma died. I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I remember ma always bein’ optimistic ya know? Always say’n we didn’t need ta worry, an’ that everythin’ was gonna work out…” she voice trailed off, and she wiped a tear from her eye.
Shining frowned. “I’m...I’m sorry…”
Applejack shook her head. “No, no, don’t be. It ain’t yer fault. What happened happened, ain’t no reason ta up an’ get sorry fer somethin’ ya didn’t have a hoof in,” she gave him a pat on the back before sighing again. “I mean, I wanted ta run away fer Celestia’s sake.”
Shining raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
Applejack blushed slightly, rubbing the back of her neck. “Yeah… I mean, it was kinda stupid when I think ‘bout it now, since I’d be leavin’ my family behind like that an’ goin’ on my own. But, back then, I just felt so lonely. I mean, everythin’ in tha house reminded me of her. So, I just up an’ packed mah stuff, an’ was headin’ on tha way out when I heard Purity cryin’.”
“Purity? She your older sister?”
Applejack nodded. “Yeah. After ma died, she kinda took her place. Me an’ ‘Bloom really look up to her. She always knows how ta handle things or what ta do… but that night, I found her in tha kitchen, holdin’ a photo of ma an’ pa, bawlin’ away. I’d never seen her like that before in my life so I kinda just went in an’ gave her a hug…” she paused, opening and closing her mouth. She’d never shared this story with anyone else before, and a part of her worried if she were somehow betraying a family secret.
“Hey,” Shining spoke up, putting a hoof on her shoulder. “If you don’t want to finish, I understand.”
Applejack smiled, but shook her head, “No, I outta finish what I started. Don’t wanna leave ya hangin’ or nuthin’.” She took a deep breath before straightening up slightly. “Me and her just sat there fer awhile, just huggin’ each other. I asked her ‘bout the letter on her lap, an’ she told me it was a letter from one of them fancy colleges. Turns out that before ma an’ pa died, she’d applied ta one. Apparently, they just said she got accepted,” she let out a sad sigh, idly leaning down to pick up a pebble and fiddle with it.
Shining was surprised. “Is that why you didn't run away? To look after your family?”
Applejack shook her head. "Not exactly, no. I mean, sure, I felt sad that Purity had ta go, but there were more important things ta be done. I couldn't leave 'Bloom behind. I had ta be there for her. I told mah sister that'd I'd look after tha farm while she was at college. She gave me the funniest look then. She told me she wasn't leavin' us at all. I was kinda surprised, so I asked, “sis, don't ya wanna get off tha farm? Aren't ya always talkin' 'bout gettin' respect?”” Applejack paused, taking a moment to toss the rock she'd been playing with away. Her shoulders lowered a little, and she smiled wistfully. "It was then that she told me that family was more important than respect ever could be. She told me that somethings are more important, an' how Yahweh puts ya in the right family for whatever reason, an' no matter what, ya stick with 'em," Applejack smiled a little wider now, the advice bringing back fonder memories. "I didn't notice my mark till the next day. Purity was so happy, we had a whole party an' everythin'. I mean, weren't nuthin' all that fancy, but we were still happy." She moved to point at her mark. "I mean, sure, they're apples cause we're Apples. But its three because there are three of us, but we're always gonna be together."
Shining was quiet for a moment. "What do you think it means?" He asked quietly, honestly not having expected such an intimate look into Applejack's life. Applejack shrugged.
"I always took it ta mean that I was gonna keep tha family together ya know? Like, keep everypony safe." She then chuckled. "But then, I ain't no expert. I just do what I feel is the right thing, an' pray it works out right."
By this point, they’d finally reached the barracks. Shining opened the door for Applejack, to reveal, sitting inside, seemingly deeply wrapped up in a game of chess, was Apple Bloom, sitting across from her, obviously on the losing end, was Professor Schultz, who was now rubbing his beak in thought.
“Apple Bloom? What are ya doin’?” Applejack asked in surprise, and Apple Bloom’s head whipped around, the filly’s face exploding to a huge smile.
“Applejack!” she shouted with glee, bounding out of her chair and tackling her sister into a hug. “Didja hear! I got mah cutie mark!”
Applejack nodded, the wind having been knocked out of her by the unexpected tackle. “Yeah, yeah, Shinin’ told me all ‘bout it!”
“Wanna see it?!” Apple Bloom asked excitedly, already spinning around to reveal the complex hammer and gun pattern on her flank. Applejack blinked, her eyes wide.
“Is that a gun?” she asked, her voice worrisome. Apple Bloom looked down at the mark, before nodding slightly.
“Um, yeah, it is. But don’t worry none! The Professor said that we ain’t got nuthin’ ta worry ‘bout!”
Applejack blinked again, slowly standing up. “Uh… wow… it’s…” she stammered, reflexively nibbling her lip and twiddling with her mane. “Sure is… ornate… and… intricate… and a gun.” The mental image of Apple Bloom running around, gun spraying a rain of bullets at her enemies suddenly made Applejack’s eyes grow to the size of dinnerplates. “How am I supposed ta keep ya safe iffin’ yer own damn cutie mark is a gun!” she practically shouted, standing up and running her hooves through her mane. “I mean, what iffin’ tha general finds this! He’ll probably recruit ya right then an’ there an’ next thin’ I know, yer hundreds of miles away in some trench gettin’ shot at by griffin’s an-”
“Applejack, calm down,” Professor Schultz said, standing up and putting a talon on the now panicking pony’s shoulder. Applejack looked up at him.
“Calm down? Why should I calm down! She’s basically destined to become a killin--”
Schultz gently put a talon over Applejack’s mouth. “Now hold on, don’t get yourself worried. I was there when Shining brought us the young stutfohlen as soon as she gained her mark.”
“But-but, guns! Weapons!” Applejack stammered. Schultz camly patted her back, looking down at Apple Bloom.
“Apple Bloom, go with Herr Armor please. I wish to speak with your sister. We’ll finish our game later, ja?”
Apple Bloom, who had been looking up at Applejack with concern, nodded slightly, taking Shining’s hoof and walking outside the barracks, leaving just the Professor and Applejack. Professor Schultz motioned for Applejack to sit down, and the still troubled mare sat down slowly.
“Now, Applejack, tell me why a simple symbol is making you so worried,” he asked, keeping his voice calm and collected. Applejack took in a shaky breath, still obviously bent out of shape.
“Well… it’s just… a gun? Like, I’m happy fer ‘Bloom… but…”
“You’re worried that she’ll let this define her existence completely?” Schultz asked, and Applejack nodded.
“Yeah. I mean, I want her ta have a happy fillyhood. I don’t want her drafted or nuthin’, thrown in front of a bunch of enemies who all wanna kill her. I just want her ta be safe an’ sound, an’ how can that happen’ iffin’ she’s got that kind of a mark?” She sighed heavily, putting her head in her hooves.
Schultz camly patted her back, taking a moment to form his answer carefully. “Well… I don’t let my work in the military define me, do I?”
Applejack let out a groan. “Griffin’s don’t have ta worry ‘bout what their cutie mark tells them. They can just pick whatever job they want! And anyways, yer doin’ a good thing! Ya ain’t shootin’ nopony!”
Schultz sighed, shaking his head. “No, that wasn’t always the case.”
Applejack looked up at Schultz with a raised eyebrow. “Whadda mean?” she asked, her tone growing concerned. Schultz looked down at the floor, and for the first time, Applejack noticed his demeanor loose it’s near omnipresent optimism. Instead, he looked tired and world weary.
“Well, Frau Apple, I wasn’t always working for the forces of good. You see, back in my homeland, everything was-or rather is, very much built on militarism. I suppose, being a nation of claws and talons rather than hooves, we griffins have always allowed ourselves to give into our… darker impulses,” he sighed. “In fact, I was once such a griffin. I was working for HYDRA once myself.”
Applejack didn’t say anything, simply too surprised by this to really form words. The Professor meanwhile, continued speaking.
“Now, I will admit fully to never actually sharing their beliefs. They had simply noticed my scientific research, and had been quick to recruit me and provide me with all the funding I could ever need. I was very much a blind idealist then. I figured, what was the worst that could happen? I only thought of what I had to gain. More funding, more money, more fame. I was selfish. Of course, it didn’t take long for Hoity Toity to take a… personal interest in my work.”
“‘Hoity Toity’? Who’s that?”
“You know him better as Red Skull. He had dragged himself from the depths of poverty to the very peak of power, all by sheer force of will. But, he had no kindness at all. He only wanted the power my serum could give him.”
“Ya mean, he’s…” Applejack began before the Professor waved his talons dismissively.
“No, no. Not a super soldier… at least not the kind I envisioned,” he let out a small sigh. “You see, the serum doesn’t just amplify your body physically. It also amplifies what lies inside of you; your soul, if you are so inclined to think that way. Good becomes great, and bad becomes worse. Hoity’s lust for power grew rampant after the first tests of the serum, and although I tried to hold him back and warn him of the dangers, he continued on regardless of any safety. I soon realized, that I had played a hand in creating a monster. It was then that I realized that, in the wrong hands, my work would only cause death and destruction. I never wished for that. So, I packed my bags, and moved to Equestria, taking my research with me,” he let out another sigh. “I learned that it wasn’t one’s cutie mark or job that defined them, it was their soul. Hoity Toity’s cutie mark was a simple fan, yet, when he took the serum, he turned into a monster.”
Applejack scrunched her brow in thought. “But what does this hafta do with Apple Bloom?”
“Well, from the little time I’ve spent with her, Apple Bloom has a sweet soul. She cares about you. She thinks your the greatest sister she could ever have. Does that sound like a pony who would take a weapon and mercilessly butcher another?”
Applejack shook her head. “Apple Bloom don’t gotta mean bone in her body, I can tell ya that,” she answered quietly. “But… it’s still…”
“Guns are used for defense as well. If you were to shoot a bear who was attacking you, would you be doing a bad thing? If that bear tried to attack Apple Bloom, wouldn’t you try to defend her?”
Applejack nodded. “Yeah. Yeah I would. Without a second thought.”
“Then does that mean if Apple Bloom were put in a similar situation, would that mean she’s a murderer?”
Applejack shook her head. “No sir, it wouldn’t. She’d just be doin’ what she had ta do.”
“Exactly,” Professor Schultz said, giving Applejack a comforting rub on the back. “And that’s what I believe her cutie mark represents. That she’d do what was necessary to defend the one’s she loves. Of course, what I think her cutie mark means, and what she believes it means might be two entirely different things. But we can’t let our fears define her life. She is who she chooses to be, pure and simple.”
“But what if she wants ta join tha army? I couldn’t live with myself if she got hurt,” Applejack responded somberly. The Professor camily placed an arm around her.
“Applejack, the future is not set in stone. But that doesn’t mean we should fear it either. Take heart in the knowledge that your sister cares for you and would never do anything to hurt you. Simply take it a day at a time, and we’ll see what she chooses,” he then slowly stood up. “After all, tomorrow is another day. Now, get some rest,” he said, starting towards the door.
Applejack sighed. “Okay Professor…” she said quietly, slowly sliding herself into bed. As soon as she did so, in walked Apple Bloom, still waiving the Professor goodbye.
“You okay Applejack?” she asked, turning towards Applejack, who simply nodded slightly.
“Yeah… I’m fine.”
Apple Bloom didn’t say anything, instead simply climbing into bed next to Applejack. “Mind iffin’ I bunk wit’ ya?”
Applejack shook her head. “Nah, ‘Bloom. It’s okay.”
Apple Bloom smiled. “Great,” she then snuggled up against Applejack, lazily wrapping her arms around her sister and snuggling close. “G’night sis. Sweet dreams.”
Applejack smiled thinly, still deeply worried over her sister’s fate. “Good night Apple Bloom.”
Gustav walked into the heavily fortified city town hall. He whistled idly, talons in his pockets, nonchalantly shrugging off the rain of bullets that came from the Equestrian guards around him. Every so often, he would take a breath and, with the flick of a wrist, send out a bolt of kinetic energy, knocking asides whomever he deemed particularly troublesome at the moment.
“Are you gentlecolts done yet?” he finally said loudly, sighing deeply and looking down at his watch. “Because it’s getting rather late in the day, and I’d like to have this city under HYDRA control by sundown if you don’t mind me saying.”
He was greeted by another bullet, this time directly into his face. He flinched slightly, before blinking a few times and shaking his head. True, the bullet hadn’t done any actual physical damage, but it still hurt to have a .9 millimeter round impact directly between the eyes.
“Well, I’ll take that as a no,” he called out, reaching down to pick up the bullet that had fallen to the ground. Gustav took a breath, focusing his attention on the bullet, carefully channeling some extra kinetic energy into the small lead object. He smiled slightly as it glowed red, obviously filled to the brim. He looked up at the group of soldiers hunkered on the balcony above, who all carried varying degrees of shock on their faces. His smile grew, taking on a pleased aura, as he held the charged bullet in his talons, carefully aiming it towards the first soldier he saw. He then flicked his talon forward, sending the bullet flying forward, propelled by the internal kinetic energy.
The soldier fell forward, his head now missing most of the top half, which caused his comrades to once more open fire in a wild haze of panicked gunfire and magical bolts. Gustav smiled broadly.
Time for me to have some fun then, he thought, and with a pump of his wings was up in the air, claws extended. The bullets bounced off, flying in random directions as he simply absorbed the energy, which he was quick to fire back in bolts, blowing away parts of the balcony and whatever soldiers he’d taken aim at. A magical bolt however, managed to graze him, taking off some of his coat. He let out an enraged hiss, diving directly at the unicorn who’d fired and pinning him to the ground.
A quick slice of the talons and a small fountain of blood sprayed across Gustav’s face. Without a second thought, Gustav tossed the body asides, already moving to disembowel another soldier while simultaneously picking up an abandoned rifle and firing it, taking out anyone outside of his immediate reach.
Gustav felt another sharp pain at the side of his head, and whipped his head around to see who had taken another shot at him. A couple of feet away, uniform stained by the blood of his comrades, was a particularly inexperienced looking soldier. He was a thin, very young looking earth pony, who was bunched up against the wall. In his trembling hooves was a small pistol, which he kept fixed on the taller griffin.
Gustav sighed slightly, dropping the body of the soldier he’d just decapitated to the floor. He smirked slightly, crossing his arms and tilting his head.
“Really? You really think it’s going to work this time?” he paused to wipe some blood off of his beak. He hated getting dirty. The terrified soldier simply swallowed mutely, his hoof clenching around the trigger.
Gustav braced himself subconsciously for the oncoming bullet despite himself, mostly out of old habit. He knew full well that the bullet would obviously do no real harm, but old habits die hard, and even then, it still was mildly painful to be shot in the face.
The trembling soldier finally pulled the trigger, and both were greeted by the hollow sound of an empty chamber. Seemingly still seized in frantic panic, the pony pulled the trigger a few more times desperately, each time only causing the chamber to click. Gustav rolled his eyes, walking forward and discreetly lifting the pistol out of the horrified pony’s hooves. He glanced down at, before tossing it aside. The soldier, still terrified, reached for his knife, but Gustav grabbed him by the arm and twisted it around, slamming the pony to the floor in one fluid motion.
“Now look here, pony,” Gustav growled, leaning down to speak into the pony’s ear. “I’m going to ask that you do me one little favor. Do you mind?”
The pony below simply whimpered, still struggling against Gustav’s grip. Gustav let out a growl and twisted the pony’s arm sharply.
“I asked if you minded me asking you a favor. Answer the question.” he growled again.
“No! No!” the pony wailed, and Gustav smiled.
“Okay, good. Now, listen carefully. I want you to take your nice little earth pony legs, and I want you to run as fast as you can to the nearest Equestrian base. And I want you to tell them that HYDRA has liberated the city of Stalliongrad from their oppressive grip. Understand?”
The colt nodded rapidly, and Gustav smirked at the sight of tears welling up in the young colt's eyes.
"Alright, just one more itty, bitty favor for me. What's your name?"
"Wh-what?" The colt whelped, and Gustav pressed the colt into the floor harshly.
"I asked what your name was. Now, be a good little colt and tell me what you're name is, and I won't deprive you of your throat."
"G-G-Gild-ded Sp-Spear! My name is Gilded Spear!" the colt replied, his voice tight. Gustav raised an eyebrow slightly, leaning back from the colt and sitting slightly more upright.
"Hm… Gilded Spear… a rather arcane name, yes, but a good one for a soldier." He let out a dark chuckle. "Now, Gilded Spear, I'm going to let you go. Are you going to fulfill your end of our bargain? Are you going to tell Equestria that her tyranny shall soon be destroyed?"
The colt nodded, letting out a stifled sob. Gustav nodded. "Good job, boy. Now, let’s make sure you get off to a good start." Gustav suddenly stood up, grabbing the young stallion by the back of his shirt and hefting him up. The stallion yelped in terror, as Gustav violently lifted him off the ground, the griffin pumping his wings as he flew down to the ground floor, unceremoniously flinging the pony to the ground several feet away. The stallion tumbled violently, ending up on his back. Gustav landed beside him, giving the colt a sharp kick.
"Move!" Gustav barked, and the stallion quickly scrambled out of the room, running as fast as his legs could carry him. Gustav meanwhile, idly reached towards the revolver that was slung on his side, lazily pulling it out and double checking to make sure it was loaded. He nodded in satisfaction, flexed his shoulders and smoothly aimed the revolver towards the running pony.
"You have done a great service to your country, Gilded Spear!" he called out at the top of his lungs, before adjusting his aim slightly and firing, the bullet whizzing past and taking a sizeable chunk out of the earth pony’s ear. The pony stumbled but kept running, even picking up the pace as Gustav fired a few more lazy shots. Run faster, little pony... it’s about all you’re good for.
Gustav exhaled, slipping the revolver back where it belonged, before turning back inside and sauntering along, content at his conquest. He would nonchalantly push a body asides, not really caring if any blood smeared the floor. He knew full well that his whole game with the lone survivor had been unnecessary. He had heard the radio pony's panicked begging for reinforcements the moment he'd begun his assault. But alas, Gustav couldn't resist the opportunity the frightened pony had afforded him. The opportunity to play with his prey, make it feel like it had a chance of freedom. It was fleeting yes, but wonderful none the less. It made Gustav feel powerful.
And there was nothing more that Gustav adored then feeling powerful.
“Ms. Applejack Apple,” the grumpy looking white unicorn said, pushing his reading glasses up the bridge of his nose slightly as he spoke. “This is going to be a rather simple question and answer test. The questions I’m about to ask you are to see if you have the right kind of thinking skills to be the leader of a group of soldiers. Understand?”
Applejack nodded slightly, giving the unicorn a smile and a salute. “Yes, sir, I understand.”
The unicorn smiled a smile that could best be described as half-hearted, as he seemed to be in a perpetual status of grumpiness. He shifted his weight, scooting his braced leg to the right a little and wincing as he did so.
“Don’t expect your eagerness to aid you in any manner during this test, Ms. Apple. I for one, do not expect much success from you, but that’s not my decision in the end,” he said, lighting a cigarette and taking several draws from it. “Now, onward with the questions.”
He opened the notebook and looked down at the page.
“Question One: You and your unit find an enemy soldier who is alone, and seemingly critically injured. What do you do?” he asked, looking up from the sheet of paper and directly at Applejack with critical eyes.
Applejack furrowed her brow slightly, honestly having not expected such a morally ambiguous question so soon.
One part of her was quick to remember that the soldier, while injured, was an enemy soldier, that, if the situation were reversed, would most likely kill her and move on without a second thought. But another part of her still felt sorry for the soldier. He was most likely abandoned by his own unit, and left to fend for himself, alone in an environment that was far from pretty. To just leave him behind, left to die on the side of the road, made Applejack feel terrible. Of course, she couldn’t just let him escape either; he might somehow get back to his unit or his superiors, and tell them all about Applejack’s unit and their position.
She took a breath, hoof on her chin, and nibbled her lip slightly before finally answering, “I feel that tha best decision would be ta take him wit’ us, an’ patch him up. Then, drop him off at tha nearest friendly base an’ then move on. That way he’s not left ta die like an animal, but he can’t tell on us either.”
“And what if he meant to be caught? What if he has armed himself with an explosive device so he can blow himself up along with your unit?” Dr. Belle countered with a cocked eyebrow.
Applejack could have sworn that his tone had become ever so snide with the additional question. His question also brought Applejack to bite her lip and squirm in her seat with a mind at a complete loss for the appropriate answer. Her ears drooped when the grouchy unicorn snorted in disgust, and rather than making any noise of disappointment, she decided it was best to swallow the rock-like lump in her throat instead.
“Of course you have no answer,” he scoffed sharply as he jotted down Applejack’s answer.
Applejack felt the urge to give him a good slap across the face, if only to wipe that arrogant smirk off of his muzzle, but that would just get Applejack into trouble for no good reason.
Just focus on tha test, AJ. Not yer fault he's a total son of a bitch.
"Is something wrong, Ms. Apple?" came Dr. Belle's voice, the tone just as sneering as before, snapping Applejack out of her grumbling thoughts.
Applejack subconsciously flexed her hooves in frustration, noticing that she must have been mumbling under her breath.
“No sir,” Applejack replied flatly, shifting in her seat slightly. "Ain't nuthin' wrong."
Dr. Belle eyed her skeptically as he turned the page. “Question Two," he began, peering down at the page. "You and your unit have been ambushed, and several of your troops have been wounded. Your attackers have retreated, but have left an easily followable trail. What do you do?”
He looked back at Applejack from the paper, the same arrogant look on his face.
Applejack set her jaw, not about to let this arrogant unicorn belittle her sense of right and wrong. “Take care of tha wounded. I ain’t ‘bout ta abandon my troops ta follow somethin’ that just might be a trap. I’d rather make sure I can save as many troops as I can, than abandon them when they need me most.”
Dr. Belle arched his eyebrow slightly, and leaned back in his chair. “And what if they took one of your soldiers captive?” A slight smirk appeared on his face. “Would you pursue them, then?”
Applejack furrowed her brows. “Of course I’d go after them. I’d use whatever troops I could spare ta get ‘em back.”
“So, you are telling me that if you had a group of fifteen soldiers under your command, and you got ambushed with half wounded and one taken, you would abandon your wounded and send the seven plus you to get that one person back?” Dr. Belle pressed, motioning with his pen.
Applejack’s eyes narrowed. She was really starting to loathe this stallion and his morbid, cynical and mean spirited questions. “I ain’t gonna leave the wounded undefended. I’d leave a few ta guard the injured while me and tha others went ta save the captured.”
Dr. Belle nodded, his expression still unimpressed. “I see. Putting the need of one over the need of many. Even if the path could lead to your death, and the death of all those you are so willing to throw away.”
“A person is a person. Not a number, Doctor,” Applejack countered sharply, putting special emphasis on the last word. “An' I’m pretty damn sure ya’d like an army ta come and save yer sorry flank if HYDRA got ahold of ya.”
“Yes, but I’m a valuable resource,” Dr. Belle smiled arrogantly with his hyper-critical expression, but a small twitch under his eye betrayed his thoughts. Applejack, in the meantime, simply slid back in her seat, crossing her arms over her chest and narrowing her eyes, watching as he uncapped his pen. “And my inventions have saved lives dozens of times over. A single pony cannot accomplish that.”
"An' just so ya know, iffin I had ta, I'd just go after tha bastards mahself, so that way tha rest of mah unit ain't in any unnecessary danger. Might want to write that little bitty bit of info down wit' yer fancy pen, there."
Dr. Belle simply inhaled deeply, cigarette in mouth, letting the smoke out forcefully through his nostrils like a dragon, his eyes narrowing to mirror Applejack’s. He then flipped the page unceremoniously, keeping his gaze focused on Applejack.
“Question Three: You have broken an enemy code and are now faced with a choice. Act on the information you have and use it save a town of innocents that holds little to no tactical importance. Doing so, however, will alert the enemy to the fact that you've broken their code. Or, do you do nothing, let the town be captured, and instead try to gain as much intel as you can before they notice the code is broken?”
Dr. Belle finished by resting his hooves on the table top and leaning back in his chair.
Applejack simply blinked, shifting herself in the seat slightly. "I'd save tha town. They got nopony else ta protect 'em, an' they'd most likely get killed iffin tha enemy took over. It'd be like leavin' a kid alone in tha woods, surrounded by timberwolves. An' that ain't right."
Dr. Belle tilted his head slightly. "Even though by sacrificing the town, you could save countless more lives? Are the couple hundred in that village really that important?"
The smirk was still there, Dr. Belle seemingly taking pleasure out of trapping her in a moral corner. Applejack clenched her fists. She'd had enough of this unicorn's arrogance.
"Okay, Doc, I'm gonna be honest with ya. Yer really starting to piss me off," she snarled as she sat up right and aimed her hoof at his chest. "I don't know what self-centered part of Hell ya crawled out of, but here, where ponies live, we don't see 'em as numbers. Iffin ya can go an' abandon a town in need because ya'd rather wait around twiddin' yer thumbs ta see what goodies ya can find, then yer no better than tha dirty cowards that are doin' tha invadin'."
Dr. Belle silently stared at Applejack, eyes narrowed and jaw tight while his pen remained stagnant on the paper. Applejack met the Doctor's harsh gaze with one of her own. Dr. Belle then slowly exhaled, the smoke from the cigarette coming out like a dragon's breath.
"The part of Hell you believe I came from, Ms. Apple, is better known as Canterlot. And really, its not so much Hell as a place filled with myopic, servile ponies who constantly spout greeting card sentiments in an attempt to assuage the world's woes. I, on the other hooves, prefer to see the world how it is: cold and calculating, where logic controls our motions, and triumphs over your misplaced, self righteous and short-sighted excuse for morals. And, aside from that, while you seem to believe in saving a person, and not numbers, I feel I should remind you that numbers are, in fact, made of many people," he then sighed. "It's with that knowledge that I decide to live my life. If that's too much of an issue for you, you can kindly leave. The test is over, and you're excused."
With those words said, Dr. Belle looked down at the paper and jotted something down with hard strokes. Applejack, on the other hand, resisted the urge to go flying across the table and punch him, and instead, stood up and walked out without a word.
Apple Bloom walked along, enjoying the morning air. Since she’d spent her entire life on the farm, getting up early was just a normal part of everyday life for her. However, this morning was different, since, not only was it an especially crisp morning, it was also the beginning of the rest of her life. She finally had gotten her cutie mark, and it made her feel as if everything that was going to happen in the future would be better and better than anything that had happened before.
As she walked along, she passed a clutch of recruits talking amongst themselves in grumpy tones, and one stallion’s words in particular caught Apple Bloom’s ear.
“I can’t believe that stupid digger got the flag…” one said, receiving voices of agreement from the others.
Apple Bloom halted mid stride and perked up her ears. Were they talking about what she thought they were talking about?
“Yeah, and did you see how skinny she was? What’s she even doing here? She should go back to whatever backwater farm she came from,” said the other stallion, earning him a series of approving murmurs.
Apple Bloom began to feel her blood boil. No one could say that about her sister! Her sister was just doing what she could to help the family. Apple Bloom found herself spinning on her heels, stomping in the direction of the voices.
“Hey you big jerks!” she called out, catching the attention of the group, which consisted of four well built stallions. The one who said Applejack should go back to her ‘backwater farm’ turned and raised an eyebrow critically. Apple Bloom noticed he had a somewhat bruised eye.
“Who the fuck are you?” sneered the bruised stallion.
Apple Bloom puffed her chest out slightly in confidence. “I’m Apple Bloom Apple an’ nopony talks ‘bout mah sistah like that! Just ‘cause she got a silly flag before ya don’t mean she’s stupid. You’re all just sore losers! Iffin’ ya weren’t such big mean bullies, ya’d maybe be happy fer her.”
The group of stallions burst into laughter and the one with the black eye, who just so happened to be the largest of the bunch, stalked over to her, growling and cracking his knuckles. The closer he got, the more massive his size appeared and Apple Bloom felt a very uneasy lump go up in her throat as her eyes trailed up his obnoxious build. She could see his muscles past his fatigues and while she was worrying that she might have landed herself in a huge mess, she convinced herself to stay put. Applejack had helped her and defended her her whole life, and she could at least stand up to these bullies smearing her sister’s name and the dignity of the Apple Family in the mud.
The stallion with the black eye was now towering over her, using his build to intimidate Apple Bloom, but not enough to have her run off screaming. Barely.
“What are you going to do about it? You’re just a filly,” he said, emphasizing his words by giving her a sharp prod, sending her rather lanky frame stumbling back a little and a burst of pain in her shoulder.
“You tell her, Ballpark!” said the one closest to the leader.
The group howled with laughter again while the big guy smiled viciously at Apple Bloom as she rubbed the sore spot, glaring back at the stallion. Her glare looked more like a pout though, and only served to add fuel to the group’s teasing.
“HA! Being a skinny wuss must run in the family! One little poke and I nearly knocked her over!” Ballpark cackled, and Apple Bloom’s glare intensified with tears in her eyes. The stallions continued laughing.
“Daw, look, the little baby’s mad!” one pointed towards Apple Bloom, before leaning down in a condescending manner. “Aw, little baby feeling mad? Maybe she wants a bottle? Or maybe a diaper change?”
“I ain’t a baby!” Apple Bloom countered, taking a step forward and clenching her fist and teeth. The stallions merely responded with an over the top hoot that made Apple Bloom quiver with the rage replacing her fear.
“You stupid little filly. You ain’t got no business here!” said the stallion harshly. “You’re just a little upstart who happens to know how to put a fancy gun together. So take you and your filthy digger sister and go back to your whoring mommy on that muddy shithole where you belong!”
Right about here, something inside Apple Bloom snapped and her eyes narrowed and before she could process what was happening, her right hoof lashed out on its own and grabbed the stallion’s wrist. He barely got a word out before she used his larger body as leverage to spin around, twist his arm behind his back and use her own body weight to push against the now unstable stallion, sending his face smashing against the pavement with a loud thud and a painful grunt.
The rest of the group swore and took a couple of steps back while Apple Bloom growled through her clenched teeth and twisted his arm until it was awkwardly pinned behind his back. He tried to buck her off, but she only tightened her grip and bent the arm at a bigger angle, causing some cracks and pops to sound out.
“Ya’ll take back what ya said ‘bout my sista and ma!” barked Apple Bloom with angry tears clouding her vision and rage fueling her strength. When he refused with silence, she gave his wrist a sharp twist that made him yowl in pain and release a string of harsh expletives. “TAKE IT BACK!”
"No!" he snarled, his red, puffy eyes snapped up to his friends and blood dripped from his muzzle as he screamed at his friends. "Get this stupid little bitch OFF OF ME!"
At first his friends were simply too stunned to move, but seconds later, one took a few very large steps towards Apple Bloom and grabbed her shoulder. Apple Bloom’s reaction was quick and a blur to everyone as her hoof released to twist the assailant’s wrist. There was a loud snap and the stallion bowled over, howling in pain and clutching his now limp hoof tightly.
Ballpark tried to get up when Apple Bloom broke his friend’s wrist, but as quickly as her hoof left, it was back on him, this time on the back of his neck while the other returns his arm to its painful position. Apple Bloom felt him tense up, but she did not relent and tightened her grip on the back of his neck and twisted his arm again, creating more sickening snaps and a cry of pain from Ballpark.
"I want ya ta take back what ya said, ya big jerk!" Apple Bloom repeated. She heard a scuffling sound and whipped her head around to see the remaining stallions turning tail and running as fast as their legs could carry them.
The struggling stallion beneath her however, beckoned for her attention and she once more put pressure on his wrist.
"That didn't sound like an apology ta me," snarled Apple Bloom, adding more pressure and making Ballpark swear up a storm before glaring out her out of the corner of his eye, sniffing blood back up his nose.
“I’m not going to apologize to any digger! EVER!” he shouted.
"What the fuck is going on here?!" came a rather gruff, but very authoritative female voice.
Apple Bloom reflexively released Ballpark’s wrist and spun off him to a full stand, leaving his arm to flop on the ground and him to moan more colorful words as he massaged his injury. Apple Bloom’s anger quickly dissipated and fear returned when she saw a female griffin in a Drill Sergeant’s uniform staring at them, eyebrow arched and arms crossed. Even though she was rather short for a griffin, she still was big compared to most ponies and her talons looked like they could slice a limb clean off if she wished it.
"Answer my question soldier!" the griffin ordered, her eyes darting down to the stallion. "Why are you pinned to the ground by a teenager?"
"She attacked me and my friends, Sarge!" the stallion groaned.
The Sergeant scanned the area in a mockery of his claim and looked down on Ballpark again, frowning. “What friends? I just see you alone getting your ass handed to you by a digger.”
Apple Bloom’s eye twitched, but she remained still as the griffin approached, and the filly didn’t know if she was still on an adrenaline high because everything seemed amplified. She heard the gravel crunching under the boots, the extra heartbeats and the steady breaths of the newcomer and the irregular ones of the fallen stallion.
When the griffin kneeled next to Ballpark, she whipped off her sunglasses and put them in her breast pocket. “So, so sad. Poor little Ballpark, in only three days, gets his ass handed to him by a buch of girls. I wonder if I should tell everyone about this. Or maybe I should just send you home because here, I do not like sore losers or little shits who think they are better than someone else. Especially when a piece of shit has a god complex but can’t even fight a filly!”
The Sergeant slapped him over the head with a sharp flick of her wrist, and while the stallion yelped, she yanked him to his hooves using his collar and shoved him away from Apple Bloom.
“Get out of here and get yourself cleaned up, you fucking loser!” barked Gilda.
Ballpark started running, and he looked over his shoulder and his eyes bulged and he tried running faster when the griffin gave chase. However, he was too slow and got a swift kick in the butt that sent him crashing into the outlying grass.
“Run faster!” hollered the griffin.
“Yes, ma’am!” cried Ballpark.
Apple Bloom swore she heard his voice crack, and a small smile stretched across her muzzle as she watched the bully run with his tail literally between his legs. With her body now relaxing, everything returned to normal and she didn’t process as much as before. She relaxed slightly, letting her shoulders rest. The Sergeant turned around, a slight smile on her face.
“So… you managed to pin that guy all by yourself?” she asked, and Apple Bloom nodded slightly.
“Uh, yes, yes ma’am. Am I in trouble?” she asked tentatively, her hooves idly fidgeting. The Sergeant put a talon to her chin, tapping it slightly.
“Well, you did kick the ass of a uniformed soldier…”
Apple Bloom swallowed dryly, preparing herself for some sort of harsh punishment. However the griffin’s expression lightened somewhat, and her smile grew noticeable.
“But I’ve been trying to get that idiot off his high horse for three days now, so really, I think what you did wasn’t bad,” the griffin strode over, putting a talon on Apple Bloom’s shoulder. “Not bad at all. What’s your name kid?”
Apple Bloom stammered briefly. “Uh, I’m-I’m Apple Bloom Apple, ma’-”
“Sir,” she interrupted. “I’m not old enough to be a ma’am and I’m still wearing my bars. Call me sir, or sergeant Gilda.” She gave Apple Bloom a slight tap on the shoulder. “An Apple? You look familiar, too. You related to the stick figure?”
Apple Bloom nodded slightly, her confidence returning slightly as things seemed to warm slightly. “Uh, yes ma’am. She’s mah older sistah.”
“We might get along after all,” Gilda paused, moving to tap her chin again. “Your sister’s got balls, kid.”
“She’s a mare…”
“Balls,” Gilda joked with a smile, evidently having a good day. She reached into her breast pocket and pulled out a cigar, setting it alight. “Well, thanks for the laugh kid, but I gotta get back on the grind. These dweebs aren’t gonna train themselves.”
Gilda turned and started back the way she came, idly whistling a random tune. As Apple Bloom watched, she noticed a pair of young colts standing aways back, looking very apprehensive as Gilda headed in their general direction.
“How old are they?” Apple Bloom blurted out, waving towards Gilda.
Gilda paused and looked over her shoulder, eyebrow raised. “Who?”
Apple Bloom pointed towards the two colts. “Them, ma’am.”
Gilda glanced in the direction Apple Bloom was pointing. “Eighteen.”
Apple Bloom’s eyes widened. “What? They look youn’gr than me!”
Gilda cocked an eyebrow. “Oh they’re eighteen you can be pretty damn sure of that. I don’t tolerate any child soldiers here.” There was something strange about the way Gilda said the last sentence, as if she were recalling it with a bitter taste. “Don’t get any ideas, girlie.” Gilda added with a humorous wink, seemingly brushing off her previously serious demeanor.
At that, Gilda turned and strode over towards the two colts, who seemed to shrink with every step closer. When she finally reached them, Apple Bloom heard her squawk harshly, “Now that that’s cleared up, DROP AND GIVE ME FIFTY SOLDIERS!”
Apple Bloom watched without saying a word as the two colt dropped to the ground as if they were made of lead and started straining to obey Gilda’s barked orders. For earth ponies, they seemed awfully scrawny.
I could go faster than that, she thought bemusedly. She watched for a few more minutes before things became too embarrassing to withstand. She quietly turned and walking away, the sound of Gilda’s constant sarcastic criticisms towards the two colts filling her ears as she walked away.
Wonder how they got here… she thought, pensively looking around. A part of her felt strangely out of place here, among the recruits and soldiers, all either marching about or doing some other sort of training exercise. It felt like some strange counterpoint to the playground at school. Colts and stallions climbed over various obstacles and obstructions, which all looked like playground equipment anyways. Maybe it was because almost all of the recruits were seemingly only a few years older than her. Ponies who most likely only just left high school, their futures now tied with the actions of a faceless menace miles and miles away.
Slowly but surely, Apple Bloom felt something like guilt curling in the pit of her stomach. She’d seen the newsreels. Read the newspapers. She wasn’t as naive as Applejack always seemed to think she was. They’re gonna go ta war. she thought darkly. An’ I’m just gonna be send back home...back to where I’ll be put down just like any other earth pony…treated like I’m dirt.
She rubbed her thigh, tracing along the edge of where her cutie mark was. Maybe she didn’t have to be treated like that. She had a gift right? A thing that made her unique from everypony else. But what was her gift? The Professor had told her that hammers could build and guns could hunt. But what was she going to build? What was she going to hunt? She knew full well that at her age, and in a town where earth pony mechanics were a time a dozen, she’d be likely treated like a little foal, someone out of their depth and worthy only of belittlement. Especially at the hooves of that stuck up horn-headed Mrs. Belle. So that left only hunting. But what was there to hunt? Ponies were mostly plant eaters anyways. Stuff like grass and wheat. Not like you could hunt wheat right?
She let out a groan. She had finally attained her dream, finally gotten the one thing she’d hoped for more than anything, and she was still as useless as ever. She angrily kicked a stone, sending it tumbling away. She looked around, wondering where she was standing now. She’d walked quite aways, her mind too wrapped up in her existential crisis to notice where she was going. She spotted a sign indicating that the building in front of her was the registration office.
But in the army…
Apple Bloom eyes widened slightly. Where was the place where she had finally had a sense of fitting in? The place where ponies had actually respected and appreciated her talents? It was here, among the guns and rifles and uniforms. She’d felt like she’d actually moved forward in her life here, that she’d truly accomplished something. She’d made a difference. Done something good.
She felt her heart hammering in her chest. She knew if she went home, whenever she went to the movies, whenever she saw one of the dozens of posters pinned about town, she was would always be reminded of the stuff going on at the borders of the country. Things Applejack would be working to solve and all these other foals too. It felt so powerfully wrong to stay at home while everyone else she knew was going out there, fighting and dying so that she could stay at home safe and sound. And stagnant. And Apple Bloom didn’t want to be stagnant anymore.
Back at home all they’ll ever let me be is exactly what my sisters and my parents and their parents were. Nothing will change for me ever. I’ll wake up every day and paw at the same dirt my granddaddy did. But if I do this, it’ll be like the stories in the drugstore, I’ll make my fortune just like the heroes did.
Apple Bloom looked up, steeling herself and walking up the wooden stars up to the door. The words “Register” were directly in front of her in bold, almost challenging lettering.
Applejack will kill me. she briefly thought, biting a corner of her lip slightly. But she made a sacrifice without asking me or Purity. Because she knew it was for the best. This will be for the best.
The door unexpectedly swung open, almost hitting Apple Bloom in the nose, and a young mare with a pale blue coat and glasses stood the doorway. “Do you need something, Ms. Apple?” she asked in a clipped voice, eyeing Apple Bloom suspiciously.
Apple Bloom blinked. “H-how diya know my name?” She blurted out, taking a step back and self consciously grabbing her tail. The blue mare let out a slight sniff, pushing her glasses up her nose.
“You’re the one who assembled those rifles, everypony knows who you are, Ms. Apple.”
Apple Bloom’s eyes widened slightly, and she took a step back. News traveled that fast? A sudden feeling of self awareness swept over Apple Bloom, and she felt as if she had been shaken out of a haze. What I do now?
“So, do you need anything Ms. Apple?” the mare asked again, her voice now with an annoyed inflection as she pushed her glasses up her nose again, narrowing her eyes as she did so.
“N-no, ma’am, nothin’. Thank yer,” Apple Bloom mumbled before quickly turning away and walking away as fast as she could. She wondered if the mare could guess what she was about to do. Casting one last glance over her shoulder, she rounded the corner, letting out a forceful sigh and running her hoof through her mane.
Crazy talk, yer thinkin crazy talk Apple Bloom! Singin’ up ta go get shot in some trench! Think of how worried Applejack and Purity would be ifin you did something so crazy…
She glanced at a group of colt milling about a tent, laughing about something she had just missed. They all looked so young…
I’ll bet their families are worried too. And they didn’t even have a choice to come here or not…
Apple Bloom shook her head but couldn’t shake off the guilt now festering in her belly.
"Oh Celestia look at this mess," General Wing grumbled, motioning towards the line of recruits jumping jacks. Next to him stood the Professor and Night Light, who both were squinting slightly in the mid-afternoon sunlight.
"I see nothing particularly worrying." Professor Schultz stated simply, glancing towards the General who merely glared at him.
"Feather Face, I don't know what kind of happy pills you're on, but what I see is a line of barely trained recruits who're being trained by a beak faced girl who eats cigars like celery. I mean, just look at that mare." He motioned towards the wire thin frame of Applejack. "She's making me cry."
Night Light shrugged slightly. "Well, I'm not exactly wildly impressed with Miss Apple, but I don't see anything partially awful about her. She's a nice mare."
“Oh, well then I guess we can just invite the griffons over for coffee and cake, and she’ll be our hostess and convince them not to invade Equestria. There, war’s over,” General Wing rolled his eyes before turning his attention to a different recruit.
"Now, look at that guy, Ballpark. He's big, strong, follows orders. Sure he's a bit of a prick, but it doesn't get in the way of his following the rules. He's what we need, not some mare who makes scarecrows look like sumo wrestlers. Ain't that right Drill Sergeant?" he called out towards the griffin, who had been chanting out the number of jumping jacks rhythmically the entire time. She turned her head towards the trio, quirking an eyebrow slightly.
"What's that sir?" she called back, causing the general to beckon towards her. She walked over, muttering something unintelligible under her breath as she did so. She took her sunglasses off, and chucked her withered cigar to the side. "Whadda need?"
"Am I right, Sargent Martel, that you feel Ballpark would be the best choice for our needs?" General Wing said, an aura of pride sneaking into his voice. Gilda surprisingly shook her head.
"I'm sorry to say no to that, General. Of all of them, I'd vote Applejack. Mare's got spunk. Hutzpah."
"What do you mean 'hutzpah'?" General Wing inquired, giving Professor Schultz a quick glance as he did so. Sargent Martel simply shrugged.
"Like I said, spirit. A little daring do," as she spoke, she beckoned for a soldier to come over, silently grabbing a grenade from his belt. "Just watch." She spun around, tossing the unarmed explosive into the midst of recruits. There was a chorus of panicked yelps and girlish screams as every recruit turned tail and ran, except for the wire thin orange mare, who instead shouted at the top of her lungs as she dove for the weapon.
"GRENADE! TAKE COVER!" she curled herself in a fetal position around the grenade, as a bemused General looked on, his flat expression contrasting with the look of mild fear on Night Light's face, the pride on Schultz's and the smugness on Martel's.
"Okay, soldier. Just a dry run. You can relax now." Sargent Martel called out, striding over and nudging the still tensed Applejack off the grenade to pick it up. She leaned down to help the visibly confused mare up, before barking an order towards her to get back to her jumping jacks.
General Wing merely glared at the Professor, who simply grinned wildly.
"She's still skinny," General Wing countered half heartedly before walking away, his wings flexing in frustration.
Brawny Gunner shifted slightly on his hooves. It was his turn on sentry duty, and that meant standing up on a high, open air tower, peering out into the darkness of the cold night. Gunner wasn’t exactly fond of the night, or the dark in general. He was always quick to remind ponies that he wasn’t afraid of the dark per say, but as a sharpshooter, he felt very uneasy being unable to see.
It didn’t help that their position, just a couple dozen miles south of Stalliongrad, meant the fort was surrounded by a mass of thick and sprawling forest, where strange sounds ebbed and flowed from the darkness, such as the random yowls of some kind of cat or some other creature.
Suffice to say he didn’t enjoy it in the slightest. It didn’t help at all that his only companion was Shale. Shale, much like his namesake, was a dense fellow, always shooting his mouth off, and possessing a temper that could best be described as a sleeping volcano.
As such, Gunner made a point of avoiding his watchmate, but strangely, tonight, Shale had taken it upon himself to apparently undergo a vow of silence, having barely spoken a word. As a consequence, Gunner went out of his way to have as little contact with the stallion as possible.
On Shale’s side of the watchtower, he was simply enjoying the silence of the night. It had been a long day, and at least this job meant getting something resembling rest. Of course, being so close to such a massively important tactical location as the steel mill filled Stalliongrad meant that ‘rest’ was a relative term, something strange and foreign that was only briefly acquired between shots of coffee and the odd cigarette.
“Ah don’t hear nothin’,” Gunner called out, his southern drawl dragging out across the silence.
Shale sighed. “Yeah, I noticed that. I kinda liked it.”
“Ah, but somthin’s wrong,” Gunner persisted, his tone growing suspicious. “At night, ya always hear sumthin’ out there. Bugs flyin’, ‘possums out forgin’... maybe the odd coon out frickafrackin’. But tonight?” he paused, letting the silence speak for itself. “Ain’t nuthin but us. Were all ‘dem varmints at, tonight?”
Shale shrugged, trying to ignore the increase in paranoia that Gunner’s observations brought. “So? Maybe they’re all asleep. What? You scared of the dark or something?”
All he got was a muffled swear from Gunner.
“Oh come on,” Shale grumbled, stomping a hoof. “It’s not like some weird monster is creeping around, watching us and waiting to eat us. What do you think is going to happen? Some freak gonna jump out an--”
Shale didn’t even get to finish his sentence, when, as if supernaturally summoned, came the bedraggled and scarred figure of what looked somewhat like a young stallion. Both Shale and Gunner instantly drew their rifles, aiming at the figure, who instantly cried out, waving his hooves in front of it.
“Wait! Please don’t shoot!” he cried, his voice sounding cracked and fragile.
“Who goes there?” Gunner called out, the sound of his rifle cocking emphasizing his words. “Identify yerself or we’ll hafta shoot ya.”
“Spear!’ the soldier got out. “M-my name is Private Gilded Spear!” The stallion staggered forwards, before falling down. He was breathing so hard he could barely speak. “I-is this… an… Equestria… base?”
Looking closer, Shale could see that that there light scars all over his body, most likely from thorns and other plants. He was malnourished, and could barely talk. His eyes were wide open, and kept moving, constantly looking for danger. Most of his right ear was missing, and the wound looked like it was infected. Shale shouldered his weapon and moved forwards to help, motioning for Gunner to cover him. “Yes. This is an Equestrian Base. I’m Private Shale Kraft. What happened?”
The soldier wheezed, “I… came… from… Stalliongrad.”
Gunner and Shale exchanged glances. Stalliongrad was at least five miles to the north, quite a distance to move on foot through wild forest.
Not good. Shale thought, looking over the soldiers wounds and obvious exhaustion. “Why are you here?”
Gilded Spear was starting to catch his breath. He looked around suspiciously, like there might be something in the shadows that would jump out at him. “I have… a message. The city… has fallen.”
Shale and Gunner did a double take. “Fallen? How?” Shale demanded. “How many soldiers are there? How far away are they?”
Gilded Spear simply shook his head, holding up a single hoof. “Not an army. One.”
Shale looked on in horror. “Are you saying,” he said slowly, “That one pony came in and took an entire city by himself?”
Gilded Spear shook his head. “Not a pony… a griffin. Couldn't hurt ‘im. Bullets just bounced off.” He jumped at a loud noise from inside the barracks. Clearly, some of the other soldiers had heard. Gilded Spear scuttled back away from the gate. “I have a message,” he said again. “HYDRA is coming. Equestria… is at its end.”
So did Gunner.
“So what you’re telling me is that one griffin managed to take the most strategically vital fort this side of the White Tail River, and I wasn’t told?!” General Wing barked into the phone, pausing to hear whatever it was the pony on the other end was saying. “Well, it would have been nice to wire me directly…” he paused, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “What about Project Rebirth?” Another pause, and his expression grew inscrutable before growing frustrated. “Well sir, again, I would have been greatly blessed by this information yesterday rather than today. Yes. Yes I’ll ask. We’ll get it ready on time. Goodbye.” He then hung up the phone, grumply leaning back in his chair. In front of him sat Professor Schultz, Dr. Belle and Night Light, all of whom wore varying degrees of curiosity.
“Well, what’s the news?” Night Light asked, leaning forwards in his chair slightly. General Wing sighed, taking off his hat and lighting up his cigar.
“Apparently, as you heard, a griffin managed to take the fort in Stalliongrad. Apparently by himself. On top of that, HYDRA forces moved in the next day, and the town fell. which means we’ve just lost the main steel producing city in Equestria,” he puffed, taking a moment as his expression grew more sour. “In civilian terms, that means we’re very much screwed. On top of that, it seems that the suits up in Canterlot have grown impatient, and, in light of the loss of Stalliongrad, wish that whomever we chose for Project Rebirth is ready for the treatment. If not, they’ll cut the funding entirely and mothball the program. Apparently, and I’m quoting here, they wish to have ‘full taxpayer confidence in the operation’.”
“So what does this mean for us? That we have to choose the first test subject? Because I don’t think we really have chosen yet,” Night Light said, turning towards Professor Schultz. “Have we Schultz?”
“I have already expressed my decision, friends. I believe Miss Apple is the most suitable candidate. Her heart is true, her spirit pure. Simple as that.”
The General didn’t say anything, his eyes simply sliding towards Night Light. “What about you? Please tell me you’re not going to give me something so trite.”
Before Night Light could answer, Schultz held up a talon.
“How is what I said trite? Just because I believe we shouldn’t just thrust this amount of potential power into the lap of just anypony? I have already told you in the past, and I shall repeat it again: the serum’s task is to take what’s inside a pony, and enhance it. What’s bad becomes evil and what’s good becomes great. If we were to inject it into just anypony, we might cause a potential disaster. And if you feel my moral obligations are not sufficient to please you, my serum helps enhance mana. Miss Apple has low mana levels. Better to test it with small amounts then with larger amounts. Think of it like pouring vinegar into a bucket of baking soda.”
Everyone was silent for a moment, as a now visibly frustrated Schultz leaned back in his chair. Night Light wrung his hooves slightly before speaking.
“Well… basically, what Prof. Schultz said. I’d rather give it to a humble pony, and also, the serum’s effects are untested. And her mana levels are very low, which is good. That’s at least what we think.”
"And what about you, Dr. Belle, do you think she is suitable?" General Wing asked, looking towards Dr. Belle with lowered eyebrows.
Dr. Belle let out a grumbling sigh. "I am loath to admit it, but I agree with the Professor. The whole purpose of this program is create the 'perfect soldier'. And while I personally believe that Miss Apple is sickeningly optimistic about the nature of the world, I will admit that I'd rather have her injected then one those retarded ape-ponies outside."
"But why? Aren't you all about survival of the fittest?" Night Light asked, raising his eyebrows in surprise.
Dr. Belle nodded. "Yes. Yes I am. And in this case, it is better to simply sideline my beliefs for the good of the nation. We're in a war right now, and I'll be damned if I'm the one held responsible for stunting any military advantages we may gain..." he paused, glancing towards Professor Schultz with a critical eye. "No matter how insane they may seem on paper."
"What do you mean by that?" General Wing asked, raising an eyebrow.
Dr. Belle let out an exasperated sigh, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Simply put, Ms. Apple's moral compass is something that the propaganda hounds up in Canterlot can use as a potent recruiting tool for the program. After all, this first test is more for the politicians than for us. They'll probably love how disgustingly homespun she is, and use it to our advantage. If the public likes Miss Apple, that will most assuredly vote for more funding for the program, and therefore assure more, better trained soldiers in the future. On top of that, she seems like the kind who would treat her soldiers well. Soldiers prefer a kind leader over a brutal one, and if Miss Apple is anything, it is kindhearted. And if her spirit is as strong as her words, then she will most certainly never leave a soldier behind. And troops admire that in a leader. That is why I support choosing her. Now if you'll excuse me, the wife has been writing me for my return, and I would sincerely wish to reacquaint myself with her charms. Farewell, gentlecolts."
And with that, Dr. Belle stood up and limped out of the general's office, leaving Night Light and Professor Schultz to trade glances.
"Did Dr. Belle just say what I thought he said?" Night Light asked.
Professor Schultz shrugged. "I suppose he did. But his reasons for choosing her are sound, despite his best efforts to make himself as distant as possible."
Night Light nodded. He turned and headed out the door. “I’m going to double check the equipment checklist again. We don’t want something to go wrong.”
Professor Schultz smiled. “Only twice? I thought you had gone over that thing more often than that by now.”
“I meant today of course,” Night Light answered, determinedly ignoring any implication of over preparation. “Goodnight, Professor.”
The General meanwhile, simply sat in his chair, rubbing his temples slightly.
This was most likely going to go very badly for him.
Apple Bloom was sitting on a bench, frustratingly tearing a napkin she had found. She still felt guilty and torn over her actions. Applejack’s going to fight. Applejack, who can barely do one pushup, who gets winded when she kicks one apple tree, she’s still getting up and going out to fight.
And you, who can run a good mile without breaking a sweat, who can buck fifty apple trees without tiring, what are you gonna do back at home? Sit in a musty old school house and get teased because you’re a digger? Go back home and get walked all over by some hoity toity primadonna? Sit on your flank, bucking apples, while your skinny, sickly sister goes out again to take care of you when you’re better suited to be taking care of her?
Apple Bloom tossed the remains of the napkin aside. She knew she couldn't keep all this bottled up inside her. She needed someone to vent to. Or else it would simply fester and boil, becoming worse and worse.
...Well, I could always talk to Applejack about it. Maybe she’s got some ideas. Apple Bloom stood up and walked off, wandering through the camp in search of her sister.
Applejack let out a cleansing, long breath as she flexed her sore body. It had been a very long day’s worth of workouts and training, with her running up, down, around, over, under and through the obstacle course at least seven times over.
Wonder what that whole weird bit with that grenade was fer… she mused, reaching into the small nightstand to open the box of medical cigarettes, pulling one out and lighting it up rather mechanically. It was a motion she’d repeated hundreds of times in the past. She never would have taken herself for a smoker, since it was always considered ‘unladylike’, but she wasn’t exactly keen on having to deal with her asthma every three seconds, and she wasn’t exactly interested in being ‘lady like’ anyways, so, smoking it was.
The small cloud billowed in front of her, and she sat down at the small nightstand. She reached over to her cot, were several large textbooks on military tactics stacked neatly on top of each other. She opened the book up, moving to the dog eared page and restarting where she’d left off.
Figure I can get ready fer the next written test an’ ace that. Not like I’mma gonna ace a physical any time soon, she thought as she mentally stored away the tactics Gaius had used against the Gauls at least two thousand years before. She’d found the reading rather easy, surprisingly, with tons of interesting anecdotes and stories buried in the account.
A knock at the door, however, caught her attention. At first, she simply scrunched her eyebrows, and hunkered down a little. She needed to get this reading done. The knocking continued however and Applejack let out a sigh as she stood up and walked over.
“Hold yerself, I’mma commin’,” she muttered towards the door, turning the knob and opening it to reveal two burly stallions dressed in military police uniforms.
"Oh, um, howdy officers whatcha doin' here?" Applejack said, rubbing the back of her neck. "Apple Bloom didn't do nuthin', did she?"
One of the two officers shook his head. "No, ma'am, she's done nothing wrong. We've been ordered to give you this."
The second stallion thrust his hoof forward mechanically, handing Applejack a plain white envelope with the Equestrian Military Seal stamped on it.
Applejack took the letter silently, looking down at with eyebrows raised. "Um… what is this? A letter?"
The two MPs nodded.
"Yes ma'am," replied the one that gave her the envelope.
Applejack furrowed her brow slightly, opening the letter. Her eyes widened as she took in the text.
“I… um… well…” Applejack stammered, putting a hoof to her forehead.
The letter read as such, in rather plain and simple typewriter text, with her name quickly scrawled in sloppy cursive in several blank slots:
“CongratulationsApplejack Apple, Equestria has chosen you,Applejack Apple, to be the first in a new line ofSUPER SOLDIERSthat will help defeat the demonic evil devil spawn that is theHYDRA MENACE. You will have an all-expense paid trip to Canterlot to be administered Professor Hans Wolfgang Christoph Ludwig von Schultz’s groundbreaking Super Soldier Serum! And then you will help fight for Truth, Justice and the Equestrian Way!”
“Uh...” Applejack looked up at the MPs. "What the hay is this?"
"Congratulations, ma'am. You're going to be the first Super Soldier," said the first MP.
The second MP grabbed Applejack's hoof and shook it like a water pump, nearly causing Applejack to fall over. Before she even had a chance to react to that, the stallion's hoof retracted, and he snapped to attention.
"You have to pack your bag, then we are to escort you to the train station where you will be taken to Canterlot."
Applejack meanwhile, blinked, not quite sure what to make of what she just heard. She looked down at the letter, which she still held in her hoof, letting the full scope of its words sift into her mind.
I passed?! How in Celestia’s name did that happen? she thought, once more rubbing her forehead pensively.
She turned inside, closing the door of the bunkhouse as she did so. She walked over to her cot, sitting down, her brain still working over the words of the letter. They’d chosen her, a scrawny, asthma afflicted mare who could barely lift a gun, much less lead an army. She was going to be subjected to a test that, when tried before, had turned its subject into a monster. She lay back against the bed staring at the ceiling. She couldn't deny a part of her felt excited. Who wouldn't be? This was an opportunity to achieve great things. To be first in something.
Applejack had never been first in something. Why, she'd always been a loser. Here was her chance to be a real winner.
Wait, hold on. Applejack thought, sitting up and shaking her head. That ain't what's important. What good is it iffin I get a prize an' then act like a jerk? Yer bein' given a gift. An' when ya have a gift, ya hafta use it properly.
She stood up, closing her books and reaching under her cot to pull out the old steamer trunk, which, now that it didn't have a filly stuffed inside, weighed considerably less. She flopped it onto her bed, popping it open and beginning to stuff her clothes and books inside. Her battered old stetson, which had been sitting on the bedpost ever since she arrived, was placed snugly on her head. It felt comforting to have it back on her head, and she began to muse about what it meant to her. It held memories of home and of her parents, of a time before all the war and strife that seemed to dominate the world. It reminded her of who she was. She was Applejack, a simple mare with simple needs, who, by some twist of fate, wouldn't be so simple anymore.
“Ma’am, two minutes,” came the voice of the MP, and Applejack nodded.
“Thank ya. I’m comin’.” She let out an uneasy laugh, grunting in effort in an attempt to lift her trunk, which only shifted on the bed slightly. The MPs both shared an unimpressed glance, one tersely marching over to grab the trunk, hefting it up and walking out to the door to the sound of a muttered thank you from Applejack.
Applejack meanwhile, shyly turned to follow. She paused in the doorway, giving the bunkhouse one last look over. The sound of the MPs calling out to her forced her to turn away however, and with one last sigh, she set out after the MPs, jogging as fast as her legs (and lungs) would allow, to catch up.
"Uh, gents, iffin ya don't mind me askin'," began Applejack, coming to walk between the two soldiers, looking between them tentatively, "Have any of ya seen a rather tall lookin' filly with a red mane? Yellow coat? Most likely wearin' overalls?"
As if on cue, Apple Bloom’s voice rung out.
Applejack looked over her shoulder to see Apple Bloom, jogging over briskly, waving a hoof in the air. Applejack waved back, beckoning for Apple Bloom to come over.
“Hey, ‘Bloom! Where were ya?” Applejack asked, arching an eyebrow as she tried to keep up with the MPs. Apple Bloom motioned around the camp.
“I was lookin’ fer ya, but I couldn’t find ya.” She then grew visibly more subdued. “Uh, sis, can I ask ya somethin’?”
“What is it?”
“Well, I wanted ta try ta make sure that yer okay with me tryin’ ta get a job with my cutie mark.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Really? That’s it? I’m fine with that! I think it’s great!”
Apple Bloom scrunched up her face. “Ya do?”
“Oh, yeah! Usin’ yer cutie mark ta help somepony is always great!” she let out a pant, feeling her airways starting to constrict. Apple Bloom’s face grew concerned.
“AJ, ya okay? Why are ya runnin’ anyways?”
Applejack smiled. “Well, I got chosen ta go ta Canterlot! Ain’t that somethin’?”
Apple Bloom’s eyes widened. “Canterlot?! Why are ya goin’ ta Canterlot?”
Applejack was about to speak when an MP gave her an accusatory glance. Applejack gave him a coy smile before turning back to Apple Bloom. “I kinda can’t tell ya. It’s kinda a secret. But don’t worry, I’ll be back. No worries. Now, why dontcha catch tha first train home. I bet Purity’s worried sick fer ya.”
“Look, Apple Bloom, it’ll be fine! It’s my job ta worry ‘bout ya, not tha other way ‘round. Now, as yer older sister, I want ya ta go home. Remember, I won’t be here ta keep an’ eye on ya.”
The MPs then nudged Applejack forward rather tersely towards the entrance of the train station, which they’d reached during the sibling’s conversation.
“Just send me a wire when ya get there!” Applejack called out, being practically shoved into the train station, leaving a very confused looking Apple Bloom behind.
Apple Bloom blinked in confusion. Applejack? In Canterlot? To her knowledge, Canterlot was just a place filled to bursting with stuffed up unicorns, noses constantly turned up and dressed in hopelessly impractical clothing.
Then why is AJ goin’ there? she thought, moving to rub her forehead.
The confused filly walked over to a nearby chair and removed the manila envelope with all of her documents before taking a seat. She gently pulled out her papers and looked them over, not thinking about the contents, but more of her quick conversation with Applejack. From the quick moment Apple Bloom had had with her, it seemed that her sister was at least open to the idea of her being proactive. That served to calm at least some of Apple Bloom’s unease, but she knew deep down that, once Applejack found out about what Apple Bloom meant by ‘job’, there’d be less smiles, and more wild panic.
Apple Bloom let out a sigh, rubbing her face slightly as she put her papers back. “Ain’t no use cryin’ over spilled milk I guess. Just gotta get up an’ keep goin’. Like AJ said.”
She then stood up and started walking in a random direction to look for Gilda.
Figure ya stick with who ya know, ‘suppose, she thought, walking along, carefully scanning the now scattered clutches of soldiers.
In the background, the high pitched whistle of the train Applejack had been practically forced aboard cut through the air, followed by the heavy, mechanical chugging and coughing of the engine roaring to life. Apple Bloom glanced over her shoulder, catching the train moving away from the station, a billowing cloud of steam and smoke erupting around it.
Hope ya have fun, sis, Apple Bloom thought, giving a slight smile.
The train steadily rolled into the station, and Applejack peered out the window. Through the steam and smoke, she could make out the forms of dozens upon dozens of ponies, all milling about. Most seemed to be carrying luggage or bags, and by the wild mix of pristine and bedraggled clothing, Applejack ventured that most hadn’t exactly had a nice trip.
She glanced down the interior of the train, motioning towards the stallion who she assumed was the conductor, if his uniform was any indication. He walked over, looking down at her with slightly raised eyebrows.
“Uh, do ya happen ta know where those folks came from?” she asked tentatively, pointing out the window at a group of tired and downtrodden looking ponies. The conductor glanced outside for a moment, before looking back down at Applejack.
“Refugees, most likely, ma’am.”
“Refugees? From where?”
The conductor raised his eyebrows. “Haven’t you heard? Stalliongrad has fallen. As such, most civilians are sending their families to the countryside for safe keeping.” He then walked away without another word, leaving Applejack to look out the window. The train had since slowed significantly, and her eyes met those of a very young looking filly, who waived tentatively towards her as the train came to a halt. Applejack silently waved back, glancing down to notice the small stuffed toy that the obviously scared filly clutched tightly.
The sight of the young filly only managed to make Applejack think of Apple Bloom, and if she was safe. Applejack bit her lip slightly, the loud clang of the trains breaks fading into the background.
Damnit AJ, ya’ll should’ve taken Apple Bloom wit’ ya. Now’s she’s all alone there… Applejack thought bitterly.
She slapped her forehead into her face, and released a frustrated groan. She let her hoof slide down her face, before moving to pick up her bags from the overhead compartment. She nearly fell over in doing so however, the heavy steamer trunk quickly overwhelming her less than stellar strength.
She muttered a swear as she dragged the trunk behind her, heading towards the exit. She hauled the heavy trunk off the train and practically stumbled onto the platform, looking for anything resembling a familiar face. It only made sense that somepony would be there to meet her, what with her being part of a secret government program and all.
“Applejack! Applejack Apple!” came a voice, shouting at the top of his lungs, and Applejack looked in the direction of the voice to see, of all ponies, Shining Armor, who was dressed in a neatly pressed uniform.
Applejack smiled awkwardly, waving towards him, pausing to adjust her mane self-consciously. It was probably now horrifically frizzy due to all the steam and smoke surrounding her. She knew well enough that they hadn’t even spoken to each other since Apple Bloom’s cutie mark had appeared, so she wanted to make a good reintroduction. She muttered to herself, chiding how she’d suddenly become so weak kneed and flimsy.
Come on AJ. Ya know him. Stop actin’ like some sorta school filly with a crush. Yer an adult. Act like one.
She smoothed her mane, standing up straight and motioning towards Shining. “Hey, Shinin’! Over here!”
“Oi! Watch yourself!” a random passerby snapped as he bumped into her. She tried to turn and give an apology, but the wave of disembarking ponies started to close in around her, bumping her to and fro.
“Sorry! ‘Cuse me! Pardon me. Sorry ‘bout yer toe…” Applejack continued to apologize, still waving her arms in an attempt to catch the tall stallion’s attention. Fortunately, it didn’t take long, and Shining smiled and waved back, trudging his way through the crowd towards Applejack.
“Applejack! How you doing?” he asked, nudging some random passersby out of the way and grabbing her hoof and bag. He motioned for a more open area of the station. “Come on, this way.”
The two of them carefully made their way through the crowd, with Shining taking the lead, using his larger build to his advantage, and pushing his way through the crowd.
“Sorry for not staying at the camp, but mom came down with the flu.” He gave her a quick smile. “She’s better now though. Was one of those twenty-four hour flu things. I didn’t miss anything back at the camp, did I?”
Applejack shrugged. “Nah, ya didn’t miss nuthin’,” she answered rather nonchalantly. “I mean, I got picked fer tha program, but ya probably guessed that already.”
Shining nodded. “Oh, yeah. Professor must really see something in you.”
Applejack nodded silently, trying to keep her own insecurity of whether she deserved the honor or not hidden. “So… uh… how thing’s goin’ fer ya? I mean, besides yer mom’s bit of flu.”
Shining stopped, holding out an arm to allow a small family to pass by, their bags packed to bursting. He nodded towards them, and they nodded back, appreciative smiles on their faces. Once they passed, he and Applejack started walking again, the crowd steadily thinning.
“It’s been pretty quiet around here,” Shining began, shifting his shoulders slightly. “Twilight’s been studying for her Field Agent’s exam, so I suppose that’s a good thing.”
“Twilight’s a Field Agent?” Applejack asked, tilting her head. “I thought she was already a part of tha army?”
Shining shook his head. “Well, no, it’s not a position in the army persay. It’s a position in the ESS, Equestrian Spy Service.” He then frowned slightly. “She’s been really worried about it. She’s always freaking out over her tests and stuff.”
Applejack scrunched her face slightly. “Really? She kinda seemed pretty normal ta me.”
Shining gave a light scoff. “That’s only because you don’t live with her. Trust me. She’s nice when calm, but when she’s stressed…” he made a corkscrew motion at his head. “She can get a bit wonky. And don’t get me started on how she gets when she skips a couple of day’s rest.”
By now, the pair were making their way out the doors and down the steps, Applejack heartily thankful that the crowd had now thinned to something less daunting. They ended up on the sidewalk, where Shining waved down a taxicab.
Applejack looked at the taxi, and back at Shining. “Uh, where am I stayin’?”
Shining opened and closed his mouth, shifting on his hooves slightly. “Oh well, things are kind of hectic, and all the earth pony hotels are downtown,” he grimaced. “Trust me, you don’t want to go downtown. Especially this late at night.” He then rubbed the back of his neck. “So, we’re just going to bunk at my family’s house. The Professor’s going to be there too, so it’s not like you’re going to be alone or anything.”
Applejack bit her lip. “Ya sure? I kinda don’t wanna be a burden--”
“No, no, it’s fine with everypony. We’re just a few blocks uptown from here anyways, so it’s not a long drive.” He then smiled, opening the door to the cab. “After you.”
Applejack gave him a shy smile, a blush spreading across her face. It wasn’t often that a stallion did something like that for her, much less a unicorn. She muttered a thank you, settling inside the cab as Shining quietly sat across from her, and with a putter, the vehicle set off in the direction that Shining indicated.
The first thing Applejack had noticed about the Sparkle residence was that it was a fairly stately looking brick house, just down the road from the truly magnificent Canterlot Castle, which loomed overhead, it’s tremendous spires spiraling skyward. This was as close to the castle as Applejack had ever been in her life, and her eyes were the size of dinner plates as she gazed at it.
They’d made their way up the steps to the front door, Applejack pulling her eyes away from the castle to better study the house itself. It’s walls looked rather weathered, as if the home were quite old, but other then that, it looked well taken care of. A sharp contrast to the almost comically over the top manner that Glory Belle’s house existed in. Applejack had only been to Mrs. Belle’s home once or twice, but each time, it struck her as something very garish and extreme. This place on the other hand, was understated and calm.
Shining opened the door, giving Applejack the opportunity to step inside first. She took it, walking inside and taking a moment to take in the interior of the house. Again, it was obviously something that only a wealthy pony could afford, but it didn’t seem overly luxurious. Rather, it just seemed… homely.
“So, this is it,” Shining said, making a vague gesture at the hallway. “Casa del Sparkle.”
“Real nice,” Applejack replied simply, noticing how the whole home seemed to smell of books, ink and parchment, mixed in with the scent of old cigarettes and cigars.
Applejack looked up at a large framed painting, in which stood a rather noble looking family.
“This yer family?” she asked, and Shining looked up at the painting and nodded.
“Yeah. But that was like, eighty years ago,” he pointed to another framed image, this time a large painting of a tree. “That’s the family tree. Mom insists on keeping it in the hallway.”
Applejack looked at the painting, carefully tracing the lines and branches from the top down. She arched an eyebrow when she caught sight of a seemingly out of place name.
“Why is Celestia in your family tree?” she asked, giving Shining a confused look.
Shining shrugged. “That’s a question for Mom really, she’s the usually the one who keeps track of stuff like this. But I think it’s more family legend then anything else.”
“Shiny?! Is that you?” came a voice from just out of sight. Both Shining and Applejack turned to see a rather short unicorn mare with a kind face step out from a doorway. A warm smile spread across her face as her eyes focused on Shining. “Oh darling! You’re back from the train station!”
She walked over, spreading her arms and enveloping Shining in a tight hug, giving him a big kiss on the cheek. Shining started to squirm, trying to push the grey mare away as gently as possible.
“Mom! Not now! It’s embarrassing!”
Shining’s mother let him out of the hug,and had to stand on her toes to give his mane a playful ruffle. “There’s my brave little colt, always being so self-aware. I swear you and Twilight are almost identical.”
She then spun on her heels, her tale billowing elegantly, and gave Applejack a hug.
“You must be Applejack Apple,” she said kindly, extending her hoof in greeting. “I’m Twilight Velvet, and I’m Shining’s mother.”
Applejack tipped her head slightly, giving Velvet a hoofshake. “Thank ya kindly, ma’am.
“Oh, please, call me Velvet. No need to be so formal, honey. Why Shiny here hasn’t had a mare over since--”
“Mom, please,” Shining interjected, giving her a pleading look.
Velvet glanced towards him, clicking her tongue slightly. “Oh Shiny, it’s no big deal. Not your fault she couldn’t appreciate your flugelhorn skills. Now, pick up those bags, no need to leave them just sitting in the hallway.” She then beckoned for Applejack to follow after her, already walking away. “Now, come on Applejack, me and the Professor have prepared a nice wonderful dinner.”
“That sounds awfully wonderful Miss Spar-I mean, Velvet. But I really don’t wanna be a burden.” Applejack answered.
Velvet simply waved her hoof dismissively. “Oh nonsense, Applejack. It’s the least I could do for you. You’re our guest, and we are your hosts. Anyways, I had a good bit of help from Professor Schultz. He has a truly amazing casserole recipe.”
At the mention of dinner, Applejack’s stomach made a quiet growl, and she started after Velvet almost immediately, leaving Shining behind, still struggling with the bags.
Maybe this trip won’t be so bad after all, Applejack thought to herself.
Apple Bloom was silent, watching the train slowly chug away, leaving a thick, billowing cloud of smoke, soot and steam in it’s wake. Her hooves, which had previously been loose, slowly tensed, and a look of determination spread across her face.
She said I could get a job. I’m gonna get me a job. I can’t sign up here though… they already know me. She thought, glancing up at the clock hanging on the station wall, the gears in her head turning.
Half an hour to the next train outta here. Time ta get ready.
Stifling the last whispering doubt in her brain, Apple Bloom turned smartly on her heels and began marching back to her barracks.
Aleister muttered another spell under his breath, moving his hooves carefully around the large glowing diamond-shaped box that sat on his desk. Tendrils of red colored magic drifted from his fingers, deftly poking and prodding the six keyholes of the box, trying his best to unlock it and whatever secrets it might be holding within. There was a flicker of light as one of the keyholes rebuffed a tendril, sending it recoiling like a frightened snake. That was the fifth time such a thing had happened, and Aleister's patience was running low.
Aleister let out a grumble, sniffing slightly to clear his nose. He'd already had at least three doses of his coca leaf dust, so he knew his mind was as expanded and alert as possible. If that was the case, however, why did the accursed box refute his every attempt? He was tempted to organize another dosage, but instead shook his head.
No. This foolish relic shall not continue to thwart the attempts of one who is so obviously worthy. I shall discover your secrets, foolish crate, even if it requires shattering your casing with a hammer. He let out a huff, standing up from his chair, giving the crate one last glare as he moved to browse one of the half-dozen bookshelves that were overflowing with dozens, if not hundreds of arcane books. He moved slowly, carefully scanning the weathered spines, on the look out for one particular book that had, in the past, provided much help on his endeavors.
Where is that spell book? I can't have misplaced it, so it must be here, on this shelf... he pondered, coming to a halt as he spotted the instantly recognizable six fingered hand with the number six printed on it. Aleister grinned, quickly wrapping his hooves around the book and pulling it out from the bookshelf, spinning on his heels and striding over to his desk, where he lay the book down and opened it. He glanced towards the box briefly, giving another sniff to clear his nose. He turned back to the tome, opening and beginning to leaf through its contents.
"Hmm, let's see; we have some blood spells… necromancy… aether conjuring… Whateley of Dunwich… summoning The King in Yellow… AH!" His finger pinned down a complex series of symbols, signs and runes that was mixed with several normal words. He grinned so widely that one could be forgiven for assuming his face was about to pop open. Meanwhile, his eyes narrowed as he read the complex looking series of spells aloud in an incredibly theatrical manner.
There was a loud crack of energy as a glowing bolt of magic shot from his fingers and impacted the casket, sending both him and the casket spiraling across the room in opposite directions. There was a deafening assortment of crashes, bangs and clangs that followed as Aleister impacted one of his many bookcases, sending several dozen large tomes crashing down on top of him. The casket meanwhile, slammed into a different bookcase, it’s vaguely crystalline structure shattered into a thousand pieces, sending random slivers of crystal and glass hurdling around the room. There was then a rather unimpressive thunk as a large object hit the ground, causing Aleister to peek out from behind the large sofa he’d dodged behind during the hail of shards. Sitting at the foot of the bookcase, atop a small pile of the casket’s remains, was a large, softly glowing crystal heart.
Aleister’s eyes widened again and he bolted upright, letting out a triumphant shout. He darted over the crystal, reaching his hooves out towards the large gem, only to have it jolt him with bolt of energy. His hoof tingled with some kind of energy, but his excitement of actually seeing the relic surpassed any health worries. He spun on his heels, giggling to himself, and practically ripped the door open and darted into the hallway, running as fast as his thin and spindly legs could carry him.
“Out of my way, plebeians! Move!” he barked, roughly shoving asides anyone who didn’t clear out of his way fast enough, be they griffin or pony. This rather excited behavior, coupled with his complete disregard for physical upkeep during his self-imposed exile inside his office, made him look not unlike some sort of strange mountain dweller.
“Oh, Fuhrer! Fuhrer!” he called out, his feet scuffing along the polished floors as he reached the large, ornate oaken doors of the Fuhrer’s office. His fist darted out, rapping on the door several times before he took a step back, taking a moment to compose himself. No use appearing unprofessional, especially after a discovery as groundbreaking and world altering as the one he’d just made.
There was an awkward moment of silence after his knock, and Aleister began to fidget. The Fuhrer was usually always punctual. He always answered the door as soon as it was knocked. It wasn’t like him to keep anyone waiting. Especially someone as important as Aleister!
Aleister furrowed his eyebrows, shuffling forwards and leaning against the door, touching an ear to the oak. From inside, barely audible through the rather thick and dense wood were voices, which seemed to be discussing something.
Who’s he speaking with? Aleister thought, briefly looking around as a random sound caught his ears. After a quick affirmation that it wasn’t some sort of angered eldritch abomination or angry interstellar being, Aleister knocked on the door again, this time with great earnest. There was the sound of shuffling footsteps, and the knob could be seen turning. The door swung open to reveal the eternally high strung face of the Fuhrer’s butler, a rather thin griffin with graying feathers.
“Sir, I regret to inform you, but Der Fuhrer’s in a meeting right now, and he cannot be--”
“Nonsense! I, Aleister Pendragon, have unlocked the secrets of the casket!”
“Well--” the butler was cut off by a sharp, calculating female voice calling Aleister’s name.
“What was that, Aleister?” she called out, and Aleister peeked out from behind the butler, and lowered his eyebrows reflexively. Sitting across from the Fuhrer at his desk, dressed in a rather utilitarian labcoat was a bright blue earth pony with a brown mane. Her eyebrow was cocked in a hyper critical manner, which reminded Aleister of his first ex-wife. She nudged her glasses, an incredibly bland pair of wire-frames, up her muzzle.
“You heard me, Professor Brass,” Aleister hissed, winding around the butler like a snake and slithering towards an empty chair. “I have been able to unlock the hidden secrets the casket held. Unlike you, however, I was able to accomplish it with the true forces of the universe, and not your foalish calculations.”
The Fuhrer arched an eyebrow. “Aleister, what are you blathering about?”
“Blathering?! Did you not hear what I have just spoken?!” Aleister snapped, before realizing who had just spoken and humbly bowing and saluting in a rather haphazard manner. “Apologies, Mein Fuhrer, but I have managed to open the Casket we found in Hornstrandir.”
“You have, have you?” Dr. Brass asked bluntly, obviously ready to continue before the Fuhrer held up a hoof.
“Now, now, Beauty,” he began, seemingly taking no notice of how Dr. Brass’ face briefly twitched in irritation at the use of her first name. He then turned towards Aleister. “What did the Casket contain, Aleister?”
“It contained exactly what I had predicted; the Crystal Heart.”
The Fuhrer’s eyebrow raised slightly, and Aleister took that as a good sign.
There was a long pause before the Fuhrer turned back to Dr. Brass. “Well, this is fortunate. I suppose that will save you a bit of time, Doctor.”
Aleister's jaw dropped at the news and he took a step back, his hoof pointing at the mare like an angry child.
“What! Why are you bringing her into my research?” cried the eccentric zebra. “This is an intricate study of an incredibly powerful arcane artifact. I don’t need her ‘science’ and shallow minded theories muddling up my work.”
“I was going to tell you this later,” the Fuhrer said, folding his hooves in front of him. “But I have decided to place Dr. Brass in complete control of the study of the artifact. She will assess what its properties are and then find a way to properly apply them in our fight against Equestria.”
“You... you would just give a piece of the gods’ handiwork over to a bunch of-”
“I would, and I fail to see how your theories and superstitions have any application to our current situation. Even with Gustav’s successful acquisition of Stalliongrad, the forces of Equestria grow stronger by the day. They will soon amass their forces, and they will strike back against us, and, if we have not yet gained any significant weaponry advances, we will fail. Simple as that. And while I do appreciate your work, Aleister, sadly, much of it does not have much military application. Dr. Brass’, on the hand, does.”
“What?! You’re just going to cast aside my work in favor of hers?!”
“Of course he would,” Dr. Brass interjected. “Unlike you, I tend to actually get work done, instead of wasting thousands upon thousands of gryphmarks on those toxins and powders you inject and ingest like some sort of foolish addict.”
“I AM NOT AN ADDICT!” Aleister shrieked, slamming a fist into the arm of his chair. As soon as he did so, however, he noticed the incredulous look from the Fuhrer. Aleister took a deep breath, snorting slightly and relaxing. “I apologize for my outburst, but my point still stands. I am not an addict, but rather, an acolyte. The Elder One’s--”
“Aleister, I do not wish to hear your excuses. You can pray to all the gods and ‘Elder Ones’ you want, but please refrain from doing so until after we’ve destroyed Equestria. Until then, we will move the project to Dr. Brass’ division. Do you understand?”
Aleister gritted his teeth together. “Yes, my Fuhrer.”
Applejack sat in a chair in the corner of the warm and homely living room at the Sparkle’s house. Across from her, sitting at the piano, was Mrs. Velvet Sparkle, her fingers dancing over the keys and filling the room with placid piano music. A few feet away, the Professor and Night Light were wrapped up in what sounded like an extraordinarily intense conversation about chemistry while Shining sat on the couch, idly playing solitaire. The whole atmosphere reminded Applejack of home. Granted, the setting and ponies couldn't be more different, but the overall feeling, the nice relaxed sensation of belonging, was the same. To distract herself, Applejack tried to occupy herself by studying a random painting on the wall, which seemed to her to be just random colored blocks arranged together. She tilted her head slightly, unsure of what to make of it, then she tried squinting her eyes. But that only blurred the colors and made it more confusing.
“Do you like the painting?” came a familiar voice from behind.
Applejack turned to see Twilight standing behind her with an expectant look on her face. Applejack glanced back at the painting and shrugged.
“Uh, I s’pose.” Applejack looked at the picture, squinting again. “I guess it’s... a... I have no idea what it is.”
“That makes two of us,” Twilight deadpanned, nodding her head. “But Dad liked it, so we got it. It’s an original, I think.”
“Eh huh…” Applejack let out a sound of acknowledgement. “Interestin’.”
Her eyes scanned the shelf underneath the painting in a rather detached manner. She felt awkward, standing in such an opulent place. The carpet silenced her feet’s constant shuffling, and the warmth of the fireplace was noticeable. A wild contrast to the drafty, creaky cabin she called home.
Applejack blushed slightly, rubbing the back of her neck in a somewhat nervous manner. “Uh-yeah, I s’pose I’m ‘kay.”
She bit her lip and looked upwards, her eyes shifting around. Twilight raised an eyebrow.
“Really? You look a little lost,” Twilight pointed out, her expression growing sympathetic. “I mean, if something is really bothering you, you can tell me. You know, girl to girl?”
Applejack glanced at Twilight, letting out a slight sigh. “I s’pose I’m just a bit out of my depth, 'cuz in Ponyville we earth ponies don’t usually have dinner with unicorns…” she hesitated, giving Twilight an apologetic smile. “No offense.”
“Oh no, I understand. Prejudice is a problem down there. It’s a little more laid back here, I guess."
Applejack shrugged slightly. “S’pose.”
There was a rather awkward pause between the two, the piano music having shifted to another, more sprightly tune, and the two scientist’s still discussing chemistry. Twilight meanwhile, tapped her foot slightly. She wasn’t normally one to initiate a conversation, so maybe that’s why things had gone so awkwardly between her and Applejack.
“Uh... so, um, Applejack... I heard that Schultz picked you for the program,” she said, putting on an upbeat smile. “That’s got to be something right? Pretty big deal?”
Applejack’s expression grew a tad more introspective and uneasy. “Eeyup. Real big deal.”
Twilight furrowed her brow slightly. “Then shouldn’t you be, I don’t know, a bit more happy about that? I mean, that’s got to be pretty inspiring. You’re going to be a pony that others can look up to, right?”
Applejack let out a sigh. “Well...I’m just not sure if that means I’m really helpin’, ya know? I mean, what am I gonna do once I’m all juiced up? Are they gonna send me up front or somethin’?”
“I... I really don’t know,” Twilight sighed. “I’m just not high ranking enough in the ESS for them to tell me anything like that. If I did know I’d tell you, but-”
“S’okay, I get it.” Applejack looked to Twilight. “It’s just that sometimes I get so tired of not knowin’ anythin’. My daddy always told me to be rather straightforward when it comes ta dealin’ with ponies, but all this testin’ an’ questioning just... just doesn’t feel right.”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I understand,” Twilight replied, giving Applejack a sympathetic look. “I mean, they grilled me pretty hard too. I really wanted to help, but I failed the physical test, so I moved to someplace where my brains would be appreciated. In that case it was the ESS. Figure if I can’t use my brawn, I can use my brains. Maybe that’s what you can do?”
“Yeah...” there was a pause before Applejack shook her head. “Ah don’t really want to talk about that right now.”
“Well, at least you’ll be around Shining.” Twilight countered.
Applejack felt herself smile slightly, and did perk up a bit. She had to admit, Shining had grown on her. Besides the Professor, whom she always felt was closer to some sort of father figure to her, Shining was pretty much the only pony there who seemed to actively seek her company. Maybe having someone familiar around to talk to would help make this wild change in her life more bearable.
She let out a chuckle. “Well, there is that. Shinin’s always been there for me…”
She rubbed the back of her neck, feeling her cheeks warm up at the thought. Maybe she could finally get some proper alone time and--
“Are you romantically interested in my brother?” Twilight unexpectedly asked.
Applejack' s body tightens and her eyes nearly pop out from their sudden growth as her face ignited in a flare of bright red. When her ability to talk returned, all she could do was stammer and wave a hoof in a terrible attempt to hide her embarrassment. “What? N-No, of course not! I-I mean, I... Uh...”
Twilight’s face immediately exploded into a massive portrait of embarrassment. “Oh, I’m sorry about that,” she ran a hoof through her hair. “I-I-It’s just that I’ve never--I mean I’m such a fish out of water sometimes--I always blurt out whatever’s on my mind and then I realize ‘Twilight, maybe that wasn’t the best idea’, especially when ponies get mad at me which you’re probably mad at me right now and then they-”
“Twi... Twi, just calm down.” Applejack placed her hoof on Twilight’s shoulders, anything to get the unicorn to stop talking. “I get it, you're bad with ponies, but if you just stand there an’ babble then you’ll probably end up makin’ things a lot worse than they are.”
"Right. Sorry." Twilight released a deep sigh and ran her hoof through her mane again, chuckling nervously. "Well, I guess we can move on from this awkward you-and-Shining-liking-each other-a lot thing to something more..."
Twilight gave a small nod and Applejack took that as a sign that the other mare had calmed down enough. They both awkwardly turned towards another wall, this time holding several more paintings and drawings of various styles. One of which was a rather odd painting of a steam engine emerging from a fireplace as if it were a tunnel.
“Is that some sorta modern art thing?” Applejack asked, glancing at Twilight inquisitively. Twilight glanced at Applejack for a moment, raising an eyebrow. Applejack pointed a finger, and Twilight followed it towards the painting.
“Oh yeah, that. Yeah, I think Mom bought it at an art show last year…”
There was a pause as Twilight trailed off. She pointed towards a rather nice pencil sketch of a unicorn sitting at a typewriter.
“Uh, I drew that,” she said, her voice tinged with self-consciousness. “It’s my mother at work.”
Applejack nodded slightly, a smile crossing her face. “That’s really nice. Apple Bloom likes ta do that too sometimes,” she replied with an aura of nostalgia. There had been many times in the past, between her younger sister’s wild crusades in seek of a cutie mark, Applejack would find Apple Bloom sitting at the dinner table, pencil and paper in hoof, page already filled to bursting with sketches of various kinds.
“You’re sister likes to draw?” Twilight asked, her expression brightening. Applejack nodded.
“Yup. If she isn’t--err-wasn’t lookin’ fer her cutie mark, she’d be drawin’ up a storm. Coulda sworn she’d be an artist or sumthin’,” she gave a slight shrug. “Guess fate had other ideas…”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” Twilight piped up, causing Applejack to look to her.
“What do ya mean by that?”
“Well...” the unicorn fidgeted a little. “I had this idea, back when I was first thinking about joining up, that maybe somepony with great artistic skills could... well, go out to enemy bases and hideout and just draw whatever it was they saw. That way we’d know what’s actually out there,” her ears drooped. “They laughed at me when I brought it up. Apparently some ponies think spending thousands of bits on some big fancy cameras that only work on nice clear days is a better option.”
“I think that’s a good idea--the sketchin’ I mean,” she paused, scrunching up her face. “Or both. I mean, iffin ya had a camera, ya wouldn’t need ta worry ‘bout gettin’ too close…”
“Yeah, but then you’ll run out of film, you’d have to make sure you had spare film on hoof, and then you might expose it to light, ruining your shots.”
“Then that’s when you get yer sketch pad out…”
“Best thing to do would be to have both on hoof. That way, it’s the best of both worlds right?”
“Yeah...I suppose.” Applejack said, shifting her hooves. “Always wanted ta learn ta draw...” she added under her breath.
Twilight raised an eyebrow slightly. “Really?”
“Yup. Guess I just liked it. Reminds me of home, ya know?” she sighed, looking down. “Back when things were simple… now… everythin’s gettin’ complicated and crazy what with super soldiers an’ tha war… just makes me wish I could just stop tha world fer a bit, relax… draw somethin’...”
Twilight nodded slightly. “Yeah...me too. I guess that’s just a part of life, right? Everything always seems so simple but then…” she paused, looking over the paintings and sketches on the wall. “It gets complicated. I guess what’s important is how we handle that right?” She turned towards Applejack. “Right? Find a reason to get up in the morning even when everything seems so confusing that you just want to stay in bed and sleep?”
“Yeah. Guess so.” Applejack answered, memories of home filtering through her mind. A reason to get up in the morning. she mused, shifting slightly. Like family…
Truth to be told, although she hadn’t exactly shown it, Beauty Brass was incredibly happy that Hoity Toity had finally come to his senses in regards to that simpering, strung out wreck of a zebra, Aleister. She knew that now, with the technology and authority in her hooves, she could take this supposedly mystic object, unlock it and change the world… for the benefit of herself, of course. With each test, each experiment, she could feel Hoity’s trust growing in her. Once she played her part, and allowed his own, egocentric and megalomaniacal plans to come to fruition, she was sure to be placed in a position worthy of her skills and prowess.
Of course, there’s always that first hurdle.
Beauty Brass slid her goggles up her face, uncovering her eyes. Sitting before her, glowing a soft blue, was the large, heart shaped crystal. Next to her, neatly inscribed in black ink, were dozens (if not hundreds) of notes, observations and calculations regarding the nature of the crystal. It seemed that it reacted to bio-energy in a negative manner, an observation grounded in several laboratory rats that had been unlucky enough to be chosen for physical contact with the crystal. Their corpses were quickly disposed of, the damage to their bodies noted and properly catalogued. It seemed that, simply put, the inherent mana within the crystal was simply too high for an organic being to process safely. All the dead rats showed signs of mana overload, with their simultaneously bloated and shriveled forms indicating where the mana had both been drained from and where it had overflowed.
Aleister would have probably gone straight to testing this on ponies, she mused, shuffling her notes around. I think I need a few more tests before we go that far… Muttering under her breath, she continued to shuffle through the notes.
Where’s that sketch… sketch… sketch… mana re-direction sketch… has to be somewhere… Covering the dozens and dozens of sheets of notation papers where various devices, weapons and other forms of technology. She briefly paused upon unearthing the complex sketches for her “special project”. She’d always wanted to build such a device, if only to allow her to better interface with the computing technology that was rapidly developing, but alas, at this moment in time, it was far too complex. She let out a vaguely nostalgic sound, carefully taking the notes and placing them in a manila folder. Moving on from that, she smiled slightly at the sight of the complex blueprints for a certain device she’d spent quite awhile working on: “The Mana Containment and Redirection Device”
“Here we go,” she grinned, opening the blueprints on her drawing board. Time to get to work. she thought, rolling up her sleeves, and grabbing a hammer and wrench.
“So when were these photographs taken?” Red Skull asked, glancing up at the wiry earth pony sitting across from him. The stallion let out a slight sniff and shifted in his chair.
“Just yesterday, sir.”
Red Skull raised an eyebrow slightly. “Really? Very efficient of you.”
The stallion nodded slightly, a small, tentative smile flickered across his face. “Thank you, my Fuhrer. To be honest, none of us at intellegence expected him to be there, since his location has been rather difficult to track as of late. We had him placed in a small fort in the swamp lands, and we tracked him from there to Canterlot.”
“Very good, very good. Do you have the necessary agents in place to deal with him?”
The stallion ran his tongue along his lips and shifted in his chair. “Yes, yes we do, Fuhrer. Do you want us to have our man in motion or wait for a command?”
Red Skull rubbed his chin. “No, I’ll leave him to his devices. What good is a spy if you have to instruct him how to do his job?” The stallion nodded before Red Skull continued. “Relay the orders, and keep me up to date on any other developments.”
“Yes, my Fuhrer.”
The stallion saluted and departed, leaving Red Skull with the intelligence pictures. He brushed a few away before pulling one out, studying the image of the aging griffon scientist.
“So, this is where you ended up running to, old friend,” he mused. “Shame, that you were too short sighted to see my ultimate plan, and that you ended up under the ‘care’ of the Equestrians.”
There was a pause before he tossed the picture aside.
“No matter. Soon, your mistake shall be remedied.”
Night Light let out a quiet sigh, rubbing the bridge of his muzzle as he slouched at the kitchen table. Across from him, looking equally, if not more exhausted, was Professor Schultz. Both of them still had their respective manes and crests hopelessly jostled and messed up, and in Night Light’s case, a small forest of hair was making it’s presence known along his chin.
“So…” Night Light croaked, rubbing his eyes for what seemed like the hundredth time in as many minutes. “You got the message from central too?”
Schultz simply nodded mutely, obviously not wishing to be a bundle of sunshine and rainbows at the moment. Night Light let out a groan, dragging himself out of his chair. Just a few minutes before, he had been asleep and warm in his bed, with his beautiful wife, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly three months. He had at least hoped that, once Miss Apple was in Canterlot, he’d get a day or two off, and just spend some time with Velvet. But alas, the heads at Central had commanded that the procedure be administered as soon as was possible, sending a particularly annoying phone call directly to Night Light’s bedroom phone to wake him and the Professor up.
“I guess that means we get Miss Apple ready for the procedure?” he pawed at the coffee maker, setting it to work with a grumble and a sigh. “Guess we might need some fuel before the trip right?”
“It isn’t decaf is it?” Schultz asked, a hint of trepidation in his voice.
Night Light shook his head. “No. No it isn’t. It should be ready in a few minutes. In the meantime, I suppose I’ll go wake up Shining, get him ready and all.”
“I suppose. I shall wake Miss Apple up,” the Professor croaked, dragging himself out of his own chair and flexing his wings. “Hopefully she won’t find my appearance nightmarish.”
Night Light simply nodded dumbly, already heading towards Shining’s room as the Professor headed the other way, paws shuffling on the floor. As Night Light shuffled along the hallway, he cast an angry glance towards the clock on the wall.
4:30 in the morning? Celestia’s sake… he thought. Sure he was a scientist, and yes he was undergoing government work, but, usually, he did honestly try to get a complete’s night’s rest before heading back to the grind. Apparently nobody in Central remembered that.
He reached the door to Shining’s room, grumply whacking his fist on the door sharply. He was greeted by a muffled groan, followed by sleepy blathering. Night Light let out a sigh.
“Shining… I need you to get up. Come on, time to walk among the living,” he said as nicely as his tiredness allowed, opening the door and flip-flopping into the room, ducking underneath the small model airships that were hung from the ceiling on fishline. He leaned over the bed, giving Shining another prod.
“Hey, come on, old sport. Up and at ‘em.”
Shining simply murmured in response, waving a hoof dismissively and rolling over in bed.
“No cookies for me thanks, I’m driving…” Night Light rolled his eyes at the babbling, lighting his horn up to yank the comforter off of Shining. Shining’s eyes popped open and he let out a loud groan.
“What the heck, dad… it’s…” he glared at the clock on his nightstand. “4:30 in the morning! Why did you do that?”
Night Light sighed. “Like I said, I need you to get up. Got a call from Central. They want to give AJ the serum today. Can’t have my son slacking off and missing important scientific progress.”
As much as he wanted to believe his own words, Night Light couldn’t help but spot his own sense of dread in his tone. Shining meanwhile, rubbed his eyes vigorously, still grumbling.
“But at 4:30? Who does science at 4:30?” complained Shining.
“All great scientists for one.” Night Light replied sarcastically, already walking to the door. “Now come on, at least the upside is that you’ll probably spend the rest of the day off if everything goes well.” Shining muttered something in response, but Night Light was too far away to make out what he said. He made his way back to the kitchen, waiting for a moment before Schultz returned with a very sleepy (and grumpy) looking Applejack, who was dressed in a plain looking uniform.
“Wouldn’t it just be easier ta do this when I’m, y’know, awake,” the mare mumbled, stifling a yawn and giving the Professor a baffled look.
“In a perfect world, yes,” Professor Schultz replied, nodding slightly as he pulled a chair out for Applejack. “But, apparently, there have been a few small hiccups that have arisen, so we’ve been asked to speed up our timetables a bit.”
Night Light could tell that Applejack didn’t like that answer, but she gave a simple limp nod instead of voicing whatever criticisms she might have had. It was then that she noticed Night Light, and she was quick to blush, her hooves darting up to smooth out her mane and try to make herself look somewhat presentable.
“My apologies, Mr. Sparkle,” she said shyly.
Night Light simply waved a hoof. “Don’t worry. I don’t like waking up this early either. Surprised you’re not a morning mare, though. What, with you living on a farm.”
Applejack let out a quiet laugh. “Oh, well, normally I am, but I was up real late with Twilight. We were workin’ on my drawin’ skills and stuff. Usually I’m in bed earlier than one in tha mornin’,” she gave a shy smile, before looking down in a self aware manner.
“No I completely understand. Twilight has a talent for staying up late like that. I take it you enjoyed it?”
Applejack nodded. “Yeah. I did.”
The next few minutes passed quietly, with Night Light serving the coffee in a trio of cups. They drank them quietly, none of them really game for speaking. Eventually, Shining joined him, pouring himself a cup and sliding into an empty chair.
“Honey?” The tired group turned around, greeted by the sight of an exhausted Velvet standing in the kitchen doorway, her eyelids heavy with sleep. “I hate to be the one to cut in like this, but Central called. They expected you at least thirty minutes ago.”
“Oh,” Night Light replied, letting out another yawn. “We’ve been here that long?” he dragged himself out of the chair, shaking his head to attempt to wake himself up. “Then we should be going. Come then.”
He motioned to the Professor, Shining and Applejack, all of whom let out a series of grumbles and grunts, shuffling behind Night Light and towards the door.
“Please be careful, darling,” Velvet called out, and Night Light blew her a kiss.
“Of course, dearie. Make sure Twilight gets on her train. She’s due at her camp today, isn’t she?”
Velvet sleepily glanced at the calendar on the wall. “Why, yes she is. Slipped my mind. She’ll probably be rather disappointed that you and Shining won’t be able to see her off.”
Night Light shrugged. “As am I. But I suppose bigger duties call. Don’t worry though, I’ll be sure to send her a telegram when she gets to her camp.”
“I suppose.” Velvet replied, before shifting her gaze to Shining. “Shiny, stop looking so glum. When you get home I’ll make you a nice brunch, okay?”
“Thanks mom,” came Shining’s mumbled response as the quartet quietly left the house, the Professor offering his own quick goodbye along with Applejack.
The group was greeted with the sight of a nondescript automobile parked directly in front of the house. Standing in front of it, dressed in a rather bland looking uniform, was a stout pegasus.
“Professors. Miss Apple. Your car is here.”
Applejack raised her eyebrows. “That was mighty fast.”
“Suppose they want to get it over with too,” said Shining with a brisk shrug as he approached the open door at the bottom of the stairs.
Meanwhile, Applejack stood at the top of the stairs, slowly placing her hat on her head as she nibbled her lip.
Night Light turned around. “What’s wrong, Miss Apple?” he called out
Applejack gave him a worrisome look. “This is really happenin’...” she replied, letting out a slight worried sound. A talon came to rest on her shoulder, and she turned to see the Professor, who, while still rather tired, was smiling warmly.
“No need to worry, Frau Apple. All will be well. Now, come.” Shultz beckoned towards the car. “Let us move forward in good faith.”
Serene piano music drifted from the speakers of the black car that Applejack now found herself sitting in. Outside her windows, stretching and clawing at the sky, where buildings taller than any she’d ever seen in Ponyville. Looming above them, climbing even higher, being partly obscured by the low hanging cloud layer, was the large, looming spire of Canterlot Castle.
Applejack’s eyes widened at the majestic structure. Never before had she seen such a beautiful building, nor one so tall before, and it, as well as the surrounding buildings, only seemed to be getting taller as the car drove down the street. It made her feel so small, so insignificant. She felt less like a pony, and more like an ant who was lost in a world of giants.
“Are you okay?”
Applejack flinched slightly at the sudden sound of someone speaking to her, and tuned to see the Professor giving her a concerned look. Applejack gave him a thin smile, doing her best not to look daunted as she actually was. “Yeah, I’m totally fine.”
Professor Schultz’s eyebrows lowered slightly. “Are you sure? You seem a little worried.”
Applejack looked down at herself ruefully. “I’m just...overwhelmed, I guess. I mean, I’m gettin’ injected with some weird magic juice I ain’t never heard of, an’fer all I know it’s gonna make me sprout wings or spit fire or sumthin’. I mean, that’s a good reason ta get a bit worried right?”
Professor Schultz nodded simply. "Well, I can't say I blame you for feeling a little overwhelmed, Applejack. We are both at a crossroads, and, with crossroads come uncertainty. Where will our future lead us? After all, it isn't as if we have some window to it, something to let us see what's ahead. We're simply left moving forward in the good faith that everything will work out in the end. Yes, there's the fear of failure, that something terrible might happen and that we'll get lost on our path of life, but there's also the fact that you're blessed with the friends you've made here," Professor Schultz placed a fatherly talon on Applejack's shoulder. "We're here, and we'll help you on your way as best we can. While your destiny is your own, the journey there is filled with others, others to give you support and to lean on. You're not alone, Applejack. Take heart in that."
Applejack didn't say anything, deciding it was better to take a moment and digest Schultz's words. She gave him a slight smile.
"Ya'll write that down earlier or sumthin'? Cause that sounded awful poetic of ya."
Schultz's eyebrows rose slightly. "Really? It did? Well, I'm flattered." He chuckled warmly. "But alas, I'm no poet. I simply speak from the heart, my dear Applejack. That is all."
Applejack gave him a warm smile. "Well, ya coulda fooled me," she paused, looking back out the window. "But I guess ya have a point. I gots ya here don't I?"
Schultz smiled. "Of course. Me, the Sparkles. Your fine family. All here to help you on the journey of life. Doesn't that make you feel less afraid?"
Applejack was silent for a moment before nodding slightly. "Yes. I believe it does."
“Ah! Ve have arrived!” The Professor chimed as the car pulled to a halt, and Applejack peered out the window.
“Uh….where’s the lab?” she asked aloud, raising an eyebrow at the sight of the almost mind numbing generic brownstone building they were parked in front of. The Professor merely opened his door, slipping out of it and walking around the car, opening the door for Applejack.
“Why right here, Fräuline Apple. Wouldn’t be a good secret lab if everypony knew it was right, ja?”
Applejack continued to harshly inspect the bland building. “I suppose…”
Twilight was the next out of the car, a wide eyed look on her face. “You mean the most advanced scientific minds in Equestria are in that building?”
Night Light, who was already out of the car and opening the door, gave Twilight a nod, before lifting a hoof to his mouth to shush her. “Careful what you say, Twilight-” he motioned to his ears. “-ears are everywhere.”
Twilight snapped her mouth shut, and gave a nod, following after Night Light as he stepped into the building, followed by Professor Schultz. Shining Armor was the last out of the car, coming up next to Applejack. He gave an awkward smile, stopping the door from closing with his hoof.
“Mares first,” he added.
Applejack smiled back rather self-consciously, before nodding and stepping inside. Once she entered the building, she was greeted by what appeared to be a small shop dedicated to art. Almost immediately, the rest of the group seemed to disperse, and go to separate corners of the room, seemingly studying the mix of paintings and statues that lined the walls and cluttered the floors.
Applejack stood awkwardly in the center of the room, looking around at the antique collection from her spot. She glanced at Shining Armor and almost went to him, but stopped herself, thinking that her going next to him will lead to something awkward, like weird stares or Shining somehow stabbing a priceless picture with his horn. Or her giving off the vibe that an earth pony can hold attraction to a dashing unicorn stallion with great muscles, a snowy pelt, an amazing mane and a smile worth dying for.
She exhaled quietly, her attention shifting slightly away from the painting to the sound of Night Light and the Professor speaking with someone in hushed tones. She leaned back slightly, peering over the mast of a small, cast iron ship. She might have only a basic understanding of what was at stake here, but she knew enough to know appearing distracted would work in her favor.
Fortunately, she did not have to wait long before Schultz crossed back over to her, trying to smile pleasantly, but coming off more anxious than anything else.
“Everything is ready. Please, follow me,” he said.
Applejack just gave a small nod and fell in place behind Schultz, as the group was led to the back door, which opened to reveal a staircase that went down into an armored basement. From below drifted up an ebbing noise of dozens of ponies shuffling about and talking.
"Come on, then," Night Light said, starting down the stairway, followed by a very eager looking Twilight.
The stairway was rather narrow, forcing everyone to walk more or less in single file. The only source of light was the occasional light bulb shining rather dimly from a small indent in the ceiling. The sounds from below grew steadily louder and louder, until Night Light came to a stop in front of a rather non descript door. With a glow of his horn, the locks tumbled and the door opened to reveal the bustling laboratory.
“Well, I’ll be…” Applejack murmured, slowly stepping down the stairs and into the laboratory.
It was a surprisingly large and spacious room, filled with strange and complex gizmos lining the walls. One wall looked like a bank of beeping lights and spinning gears and cogs, every so often pushing out a length of paper from a slot on one end. On the opposite end of the room had the appearance of a chemistry set gone awry, with dozens of beakers and vials all filled with liquids of various colors, some bubbling, some smoking, some sparkling.
Applejack could see Professor Schultz and Night Light already chattering with several unicorns wearing labcoats, apparently quite absorbed in whatever it was they were talking about. She turned to Twilight, who’s eyes were now the size of saucers as a supremely overjoyed smile spread across her face.
“Ya okay, Twi?” asked Applejack with a raised eyebrow.
"I’m more then okay…” Twilight replied, her eyes still wide. “I’m in heaven!”
She giddily clapped her forehooves together before darting off to go gawk at the massive bank of blinking lights and cogs on the far wall, leaving Applejack standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, and subject to varying glares and stares from the other ponies, all of whom seemed far smarter than her. She shily waved at a passing earth pony, who gave a terse nod as he carried a tray full of vials in his mouth.
Guess I’m outta mah depth here… she thought, sitting herself down by a table covered with various notes, and an ashtray overflowing with half burned cigarettes. Hunched over the table, going over the notes, was a very familiar looking grumpy unicorn.
“Oh...hello, Dr. Belle,” Applejack said, immediately regretting this as the place to sit.
Belle simply glared at her over the haze of smoke pouring from both the cigarette in his mouth and his nostrils, snorting dismissively before going back to his notes.
“Are you prepared for the Professor’s serum? Or are you simply here to sightsee?” he asked sharply.
Applejack gave a slight cough, the smoke from his cigarette irritating her throat.
“Well…” Applejack paused, glancing towards the Professor. “He said I was ready, suppose that must mean I am…” She pulled her hat from her head, reaching inside to pull out an opened pack of her asthma cigarettes. She pulled one out, leaving the pack in her hat as she put her hat back on. She glanced back at Dr. Belle, who was watching her the whole time. “Have a light?”
Dr. Belle’s horn merely lit up, and the tip end of her cigarette lit up and he returned to his note taking without a word. Applejack shifted where she sat, idly puffing her cigarette and tapping her forehoof. The snippets of conversation she heard sounding like unintelligible babble about chemicals or something. She looked around for Shining Armor, hoping that she could at least try to hold a conversation with him, since Twilight was obviously hopelessly enraptured with that glowing, blinking thing on the other side of the room.
Finally, the conversation broke up as Dr. Schultz approached Applejack.
“There are a few minor details we have to deal with,” he explained. “But we should be ready to start the procedure.”
“Ya sure?” Applejack asked. “Ah mean, I’m sure ya know what yer doin’, but it’s still me goin’ up here and all...”
“Don’t worry, we have taken all the necessary safety precautions.” Schultz gave Applejack a reassuring smile. “Now, if you would please step into the center of the room, we’ll get started.”
Applejack hesitated, but eventually gave a small nod before walking towards the center of the room. Once she had taken up position, Dr. Belle approached carrying a vial and syringe. Applejack closed her eyes and took a small breath as the unicorn injected her right foreleg with whatever was in the vial. Despite a little itch, the whole thing went smoothly.
“That wasn’t so bad." Applejack said, opening her eyes again. “Kinda was expecting more of a kick?”
“That was just penicilin.” Dr. Belle muttered bitterly, glaring at her. “The actual serum will be along in a moment.”
Applejack bit her lip in embarrassment as two more unicorns approached, the closer of the two carrying a small metal box. The unicorn carrying the box handed it to the professor, who took it in talon, bringing it up to his face as he peered through a pair of reading glasses produced from his jacket pocket. Muttering to himself in what Applejack assumed was Griffin, he turned a few dials and a knob several times, before the lid of the box popped open with a click. He reached inside, pulling out a vial that contained a dark blue fluid.
“Ta-da! This, Applejack, is the serum.” he said, his voice filled with pride as he took a syringe and carefully pushed into the vial, filling the syringe with the blue fluid. He beckoned for Applejack’s foreleg, and readied the needle.
“Well,” he said, carefully lining the needle up with her foreleg. “Here ve go.” With that, he pushed the needle into her foreleg, causing Applejack to wince slightly as a spark of pain shot up her arm. The Professor did not seem to notice her wince, withdrawing the needle and passing it off to the nearest assistant before backing away.
“Now, you might feel a bit of discomfort for this next part,” he said as Dr. Belle and a few other unicorns took up positions around Applejack. “But I assure you, after this is done you will feel like a new mare.” Applejack did not know how exactly to respond to that, but had little time to think before a large dome descended towards her.
"Um...what's that dome fer?" Applejack asked, growing a little worried as it clicked into place like an upside down fishbowl, separating Applejack from the rest of the lab.
"It’s a Magical Conductor. It takes the ambient magic in the air and processes it, strengthens it, and then administers it to the subject." Schultz replied, giving her a reassuring smile.
Applejack nodded slightly. "This been tested?"
Dr. Belle snorted. "Of course it’s been tested. Whatever makes your dullard mind assume we'd stick a pony we're invested millions of bits into an untested machine? Don't be stupid."
Applejack gave Dr. Belle a glare in return, while Dr. Belle merely rolled his eyes, levitating a fountain pen and a clipboard in his magic. He then proceeded to slip on a pair of tinted goggles, a motion mimicked by Schultz.
"Alright, Applejack, you might feel a slight tingle, but otherwise, you'll be fine. You ready?" Schultz asked. Applejack swallowed, looking around the interior of the chambers. It felt uncannily like the inside of an oven.
"I...guess..." she replied, just as a series of multicolored arcs of electricity and magical energy began to leap between the large orb capped poles that jutted down from the ceiling. The Professor grinned, and Applejack couldn’t help but visualize the goggled griffin as a cackling mad scientist from a movie at that moment. Maybe it was the way the lights played off his goggles, or the fact that his grin was just that wide, made him look just the least bit crazied.
“Excellent!” he chirped, snapping a talon and pointing towards a random unicorn assistant, who stood by a giant switch.
“THROW THE SVITCH!” He declared, and there was a blinding explosion of light as the unicorn followed the order. The interior of the glass dome exploded into a wild array of color and light as the device proceeded to suck the ambient magic directly out of the air and collected it in a wildly swirling ball of energy directly over Applejack’s head. The frail pony looked up, and her pupils became tiny dots and her ears drooped as a sizeable lump went down her throat.
Oh cra-- the thought was cut off as the energy blasted downward like a laser, directly into Applejack’s body.
What followed could best be described as having a thunderstorm’s worth of lightning injected directly into one’s body. Applejack’s entire body, mind and consciousness was sent into a wild explosion of energy. Energy that was being greedily absorbed by her body like a dry sponge tossed in a sink full of water. Applejack cringed and blinked back tears as she felt her legs felt the bones of her legs being awkwardly stretched and pulled outwards. With every forced inch of growth of her bones, strands of muscles duplicated and hardened underneath her static charged fur.
Burning tears flowed down the mare's cheeks and stifled grunts and cries of pain leave through her gritted teeth. Her legs quivered, her heart raced and her tongue dried as the energy zipped in and out of her like needles and threads, stitching new mass to her. Making her into a brand new pony.
When the magic reached her organs, Applejack let out a choking, painful gasp from her lungs being broken apart and reconstructed. Just like her heart and lower organs. Applejack releases a shrill cry of agony when her eyes and the inside of her ears are burned away, blinding her and filling her head with ringing. But just as soon as the blinding and ringing appeared, they left, and in a dramatic final burst of magic, Applejack's body tensed.
Applejack's sore body stayed nearly completely still. All that pointed to her being alive was her chest barely moving with her quivering, sweaty body. Her eyes were dopey, but everything was clearer, and her ears, while sluggishly turning, picked up everything. From the clear words of private, concerned whispers, to the hums of the electricity going through the wires. She might even have heard blood flowing, too.
There was a click and the machine she was in whirred as the dome lifted up. But her body did not wait for it to go up, for as soon it started moving, her eyes rolled to the back of her head and she collapsed to the ground, like a puppet whose strings were cut.
There was a long lull of silence and universal looks of concern as the dome slowly continued its retreat to the ceiling, revealing Applejack’s limp, smoking form on the ground.
“Mein Gott…” Schultz muttered worriedly, immediately sprinting over Applejack and looking her over.
Applejack meanwhile, blinked slowly, her head feeling as if it’d been taken off, shaken a few hundred times, rolled down a hill and then kicked back onto her body. The first thing to come into focus was the Professor’s tremendously worried face looming over her.
“Applejack? Are you alright?”
Applejack scrunched up her face as she shifted her body around to get on her hooves. For some reason, her limbs felt like someone strapped weights to them. The same went for the rest of her body, and as she steadily rose to her full height, she noticed everybody looked a tad smaller.
“I suppose I am, Professor…” she said wearily, lifting a hoof to rub her forehead. “Since when did y’all get so short though?”
The Professor’s worrisome expression shifted as he took a step back, his eyes moving across her body quickly before he smiled brilliantly.
“IT VORKED!!!” he practically screamed, leaping into the air to give Applejack a hug, tightly wrapping his arms around her neck. “It vorked! It vorked! It vorked!”
He let out a laugh like a filly on Hearth’s Warmings, sliding off her neck and back on his feet as he eagerly yanked away the clipboard and pen from a visibly gobsmacked Dr. Belle, who simply looked up at Applejack with wide eyes.
“So, Applejack, how do you feel?” asked the Professor giddily.
Applejack shrugged slightly, putting a hoof to her chin. “I don’t know...taller?”
The Professor clapped his talons together, positively elated.
Applejack turned her head to see Shining Armor practically bull rushing over, seemingly oblivious to the various disapproving stares and glances he got from the scientists that had begun to crowd around her, all with their notepads out and furiously jotting down every little movement that Applejack made. Shining came to a stop in front of her, and Applejack couldn’t help but notice how he now had to peer up slightly at her, compared to before, when he had to peer down at her. Applejack cracked a slight smile, feeling an upswing of pride swell inside. She could get used to being taller than most stallions. It also helped that Shining’s eyes were practically bugging out of his skull by this point, and for the first time Applejack felt the feeling of having a stallion appreciate her figure, which was completely alien to her.
Most of the time, when a stallion looked at her, it was with a vague sense of pity or sympathy, usually followed by a muttered comment about how thin she was. Now, she could hear dozens of hushed whispers spoken between the stallions, and for the first time she noticed how her hearing seemed to have gotten vastly better from what it was before.
She flicked them around, trying to catch at least some of the conversations around her. Most, however, simply made her go red with embarrassment.
The sudden touch of a hoof along her foreleg made her tense up and her head whipped around to see Shining giving her foreleg another gentle prod, his eyes still wide as saucers.
“Uh...do ya like ‘em?” Applejack asked, shifting her weight awkwardly.
Shining seemed to notice what he was doing and instantly retracted his hoof, tensing up and cheeks going red.
“I-uh-well-” he cleared his throat, tugging at the collar of his uniform slightly. “Sure, yeah, sure, sure. Really nice muscles there.” He let out a forced laugh. “Do you lift?”
Applejack stifled a giggle at his awkwardness and shook her head. “No, can’t say I do. Do you?”
Shining’s response was another stream of stammers, before he clamped his mouth shut and swallowed. “You know I think I gotta see Dr. Heartstrings about the...place with the stuff and things.”
Shining cleared his throat and shuffled away awkwardly, leaving Applejack behind, still surrounded by scientists.
“Vell, it’s good to see that you’ve made an impression on Shining, ja?” Schultz chuckled, eyebrow slightly arched and a teasing grin spreading across his beak.
Applejack simply stammered awkwardly in response, before rubbing the back of her neck. “I reckon I did.”
“Well, who can blame you? You’ve both young and ready for love and…” Schultz paused, his eyebrows furrowing before he let out a laugh. “Ach, vell, I’m no poet, so vy should I be vaxing eloquent. Come” -he placed a talon on her shoulder and started to gently escort her away from her platform- “let’s get some samples of your blood so that we can study it and see if there are any improvements for the serum.”
He started to lead Applejack through the crowd, gently shooing prodding scientists and curious guards away.
“You did good, Applejack. I am proud of you,” Schultz continued in a fatherly tone. He then gave her shoulder a light squeeze. “Ve're all proud of you.”
“Professor Shultz!” called a surprisingly beautiful unicorn scientist with a pale white coat, soft pink mane and a fleur de lis cutie mark.
Applejack and Schultz looked at the scientist, and she waved her clipboard at them.
“Professor, can I show you something really quick?” The scientist asked, giving Applejack a brief glance that looked somewhat intimidated.
“Of course!” Schultz answered, before smiling at Applejack again and gave her shoulder another good squeeze and playfully pointed at her nose. “Now, you stay put and ve'll celebrate with some schnaps with you and your future husband, yes?”
Applejack nodded, “Yeah, sounds good,” she said. Then she realized what Schultz implied and she looked at Shining Armor for a split second before looking back at the griffin, blushing madly. “Wait, hold on a second!”
Schultz chuckled and playfully waved to her as he walked to the scientist skimming the data on the clipboard. “I'll be just a moment, Fräuline Apple.”
Applejack lifted her hoof to call after him again, but she ended up huffing and lowering it to the floor.
“My turn for science!” blurted Twilight, suddenly taking up all of Applejack's vision.
Applejack seized up, her hooves stomping into the ground so hard they left miniature indentations in the concrete.
“Jeeze, Twilight! Don't scare me like that!” She gasped, giving Twilight a wary look as she took several breaths to calm down, now having trouble adjusting to the fact that her lungs had considerably more power now.
Twilight giggled awkwardly. “Sorry. But I just wanted to have a look at you, too, since nopony had a chance to properly examine you."
“Uh...” Applejack glanced over Twilight's shoulder, trying to find the Professor in the ecstatic crowd of happy scientists. A small flashlight hovered into her field of vision, and her eyes refocused on Twilight, who was standing on the tips of her hooves.
"Lean down and follow the light." Twilight stated, her eyebrows scrunching up as she used her hoof to lower Applejack's head to her eye level.
“Why?” Applejack muttered, briefly looking past the light to finally see the Professor and the scientist still talking in their little isolated area. Everything was considerably louder now, her ears now much more sensitive, and she had difficulty picking up their conversation over the more than two dozen other conversations going on at the same time. She caught a few words about the serum, but couldn't really discern their meaning.
“Just follow the light.”
Applejack obediently followed the light, and when Twilight shut off the flashlight, she levitated a notebook and a pen and scribbled down her observations, babbling to herself about how exciting the day had become. However, Applejack put her attention back on the Professor, and noticed the female unicorn scientist had seemingly brought herself entirely flush to the Professor, who responded by stiffening. Before Applejack had a chance to figure out the strange shift in the Professor’s body language from relaxed to frightened, there was a muffled, but instantly recognizable crack of a gunshot that cut through the rest of the noise.
As soon as the gunshot reached Applejack’s ears, the room exploded into a frenzy of panic and shouting as every guard in the room swarmed towards the Professor, who was already slumping down to the floor. Applejack bolted towards him, launching herself into the air and clearing the large expanse of the room in one leap, landing next to the Professor and instantly cradling his limp body in her forelegs.
“Professor! Professor you alright?! Speak to me!” Applejack choked out, tears already filling her eyes as she noticed the steadily growing pool of syrupy red liquid beneath the Professor. In the background she could hear someone scream for a medic.
“Applejack,” wheezed Schultz, his eyes still wide open as they weakly drifted towards her face. His body was trembling and he could barely lift a talon to wave her forward, and Applejack responded by tightening her grip. “I... I think I'm dying,” He said, his voice whispery thin.
Applejack sniffled, blinked tears out of her eyes and forced a smile. “You're still talkin', so ya'll be fine, ya hear? We're gonna take ya to the hospital, ya gonna spend a couple of days in a nice comfy bed with great food and radio, and we're gonna have some schnaps when you walk outta there like the tough bird you are.”
“With the cute nurses?” asked Schultz, his eyebrow raising slightly, wincing and tensing as a medic appeared, injected his quivering arm with a shot of morphine.
Now Applejack got a genuine smile as a bubble of hope rose in her chest and up her throat, making her choke out a half hearted giggle. “Yeah, with the cute nurses.”
Professor Schultz wheezed with a smile, as Applejack tried her best to laugh. She couldn’t lose him. Not now, not when they had only just begun to know each other. Schultz let out a sudden, sticky cough and the weak smile on Applejack’s face disappeared. She instantly leaned over him, pressing her hoof into the blood soaked spot on his chest, looking deep into his rapidly fading eyes as her vision began to cloud with tears again.
“Schultz! Schultz, stay with me!” She begged, her voice cracking and throat tightening.
Professor Schultz swallowed and gripped her hoof with his talons, his grip weak and limp. Applejack's eyes burned and her throat hurt from how tight it had become as she looked into his eyes, meeting his sad, accepting smile with quivering lips and refusal to believe what was happening.
“You're a good pony, Applejack. Don't let that change,” Schultz whispered before his eyes slid shut and his chest stopped moving. His talons slipped off her hoof and fell limp to the floor. The medic who had been injecting the morphine moved to check the griffin’s pulse and pressed his ear against his beak, then sat up and shook his head solemnly.
“He's gone,” said the medic.
Applejack's arms went limp as the medic’s words hit her ear. She tried to blink back the tears, but they came flowing freely as she let out a gasping sob. The look on the Professor’s face was so similar to the one she’d seen on her mother. A strangely ethereal, contented smile that seemed to sharply contrast the pale, deathly look of the rest of his face.
“No! No, no, no, he can't be gone! He can't be gone!” Applejack lunged at the medic, hooking her hooves on his shoulders and yanking him so that he was nose to nose with her. “Ya gotta help him! Please!” she sobbed, tears pouring out of her eyes.
The medic shook his head, trying to pull himself frere from her grip. “Ma'am, he's dead. I can't do anything.”
“You're a doctor! You're supposed to stop people from dying!” Applejack screamed back, shaking the medic in her sorrow, which was now shifting rapidly into a seething rage. She felt a strong pair of forelegs wrap around her as she let out a screaming sob, and she looked up in surprise at Shining Armor, who was now dragging her away from the Professor’s corpse, hugging her and rubbing the back of her mane, trying to shush her.
“I can’t lose him Shining, I can’t lose him! Not again! Not another father!” she sobbed, her grip tightening around Shining, who returned the hug as best he could, rubbing her neck and running a hoof through her mane, moving to speak into her ear.
“I'm sorry, Applejack, but he's gone.”
As if to drive the point home, a trio of sharp gunshots could be heard from down the hall, and with it, another explosion of shouting and screaming. A rose colored bubble quickly appeared from Shining’s horn, surrounding Applejack and the other scientists. She could hear him bark something about staying put, and before she had a chance to properly process the information, Shining had already started to gallop away, followed closely by a pair of guards. As Shining ran up the stairs, Applejack turned back to Schultz’s body and gently cradled him on her lap, hugging his head close to her chest, ignoring the now sticky pool of blood she was sitting in.
“I’m so sorry,” she whimpered, stroking Schultz’s head. “I should have been there! I should have been quicker!”
“The last vial is gone!” Came Dr. Belle’s sharp accent, and Applejack looked towards the open box on the floor where the vials of serum had been stored. It was empty. Another series of gunshots, slightly more muffled than the first volley, came from further down the building as Applejack rested her chin on Schultz and closing her eyes. As soon as her eyes shut, she felt a new feeling over take her every thought.
Taking a deep breath and breathing slowly through her nose, Applejack's eyes slide open and glared at the stairs leading to the exit. Her whole body trembled as she felt raw power course through her. She gently lowered Schultz to the ground. Before, she’d been helpless. Unable to protect those she cared for. But not anymore.
It was time to do what she knew was right.
With a loud growl and her muscles tensing underneath her coat, Applejack steadily raised herself to her feet, her hooves already covering ground as her steady, tank-like trot shifted into a pulse pounding gallop. She ignored the shouts from Twilight and the guards telling her to stay. She was going on a mission. A mission to find the pony who took Schultz from her, and no one was going to stop her.
Applejack exploded to the surface, tearing her way out of the antique shop just in time to see Shining standing and firing a bolt of magic after the slender, white unicorn scientist who was now running as fast as her long legs could carry her. Applejack completely ignored Shining’s protests as she bolted past him, her gaze narrowing in on the unicorn ahead of her. The other pony cast a panicked look over her shoulder, eyes briefly widening as her pace quickened.
“GET BACK HERE!” Applejack roared, her pace quickening faster and faster then she’d ever gone before. The unicorn’s speed also increased, and she leap into an alleyway, Applejack right on her tale.
Applejack was greeted by the front bumper of a black sedan, which sent her tumbling to the ground, causing the pavement to crack underneath her. Applejack shook her head to clear her swimming vision, already seeing the same sedan driving down the road like a bat out of hell. Applejack dragged herself to her feet again, and bolted after it as fast as her legs could carry her.
She raced after the sedan down a labyrinth of city streets, leaping over pedestrians and cars as she tried to keep pace with the fast moving car. The city around her steadily became more tightly packed and urbanized, the traffic becoming more and more congested. Applejack had quickly moved to leaping onto the tops of individual cars to keep track of her target, which was obviously having a harder time weaving its way through the increasingly dense traffic. It soon became horrifically apparent however, that the car’s non descript, black paint job meant it blended in near seamlessly with wave after wave of automobiles, and Applejack came to a stop atop a taxi cab trapped in traffic, her head whipping around in a frenzy as she tried to spot the car again.
They’d ended up underneath what looked like an elevated railway, and Applejack could see a steady flow of ponies departing from the ground level exits. Applejack’s eyes narrowed as she scanned the hordes of ponies, before she caught a glimpse of a particularly panicked looking white unicorn with pink mane desperately trying to force herself into the crowd.
Found you, Applejack thought angrily, leaping off the taxicab and landing on the ground with a firm crunch of concrete. “Hey! You!” She roared out in the direction of the unicorn, who, just as Applejack suspected, shot a fearful glance over her shoulder. Applejack pointed a foreleg at her, and the unicorn pace quicked as she ran up the forged iron stairs leading to the railway above, Applejack close behind. They weaved through the swarm of ponies, Applejack keeping her eyes fixed sharply on the white unicorn, who every so often, would look back at her in panicked fear.
The increasingly narrow staircase suddenly opened up, and Applejack found herself on the train platforms, and Applejack’s ears perked at the ear piercing whistle of an oncoming train. By the time she’d returned her attention to her target, the other pony was already standing on the edge of the platform, watching the train eagerly as it came to a stop in front of her, it’s doors opening and disgorging another wave of disembarking ponies. The wave came head on to Applejack, who tried to fight the current of ponies as, much to her horror, she saw the slender unicorn board the elevated train. Applejack began to force her way through, but by the time she’d gotten clear of the others, the train doors were already shut. The train let out another whistle, and with a groaning metallic lurch, began to move forward steadily, its speed increasing with each passing second. Applejack ran alongside it, staring daggers at her target, who looked back at her with wide eyes.
The fear in the other pony’s eyes was steadily replaced by a strange look of satisfaction as her lavender eyes darted between the direction the train was heading and Applejack. She steadily raised a hoof, and with a look that could only be described as intolerable smugness, gave Applejack a dainty wave as the Earth Pony raced alongside the train.
Roaring with fury, Applejack leapt to the left, smashing through the glass window like a wrecking ball. She crashed down into the interior of the train, sending passengers scattering in panic and shock amidst a hail of shattered glass. She wasted no time dragging herself to her feet, ignoring the crunch of glass beneath her hoof as she quickly rebounded and charged through the panicked herd of commuters, her eyes zeroed in on the white unicorn, whose smug grin quickly evaporated and switched back to the previous look of panic.
The unicorn’s horn glowed as she ran towards the opposite end of the train car, the door opening with a soft rose glow just in time for the unicorn to slip through and slam it behind her. Applejack was unfazed however, and she threw herself clean through the metal door, causing it to snap off it’s hinges with a crash, sending her rolling and tumbling into the next car. The unicorn was still several paces ahead of Applejack, but ended up getting blocked by a cluster of passengers, all of whom gawked at the pair of disheveled ponies. The unicorn began to force her way into the cluster, only to have Applejack leap forward and grab her tail in her mouth and give it a violent yank, causing the slender unicorn to shriek in pain and sprawl to the floor. Applejack wasted no time trying to pin the unicorn down, but the unicorn responded with a blinding bolt of magic directly in Applejack’s face, sending the earth pony stumbling in shock and anger. Applejack gave a wide swipe in the unicorn’s direction, and heard a crack and a yelp.
Blinking away the remaining sparkles of magic that danced in her field of vision, Applejack’s visioned cleared, revealing the unicorn dragging herself to her feet, a noticeable rivulet of red ebbing from her nose.
“You pack one hell of a punch,” The unicorn rasped, her accent vague and unplaceable, sounding like an odd mixture of Prench, Canterlot, and some other accent Applejack couldn’t place. “Like a stallion. Sure that thing didn’t give you anything else?”
Applejack’s only reply was a roaring war cry as she leapt towards the unicorn, tackling her like a rugby player. The pair crashed down to the floor as Applejack wrapped her hooves around the unicorn’s long next and tried to strangle her.
“You bitch, you killed him!” Applejack spat, lifting a hoof and readying a punch. In her blinding rage, however, Applejack failed to notice the unicorn’s horn glow, and fired off another shot directly into Applejack’s chest, causing the earth pony to keel over in agony as what felt like a thousand needles shot through her body. The unicorn wasted no time dragging herself away, choking and gasping as she tried to recover from the near strangulation.
Applejack got back on her hooves with a wobble, shaking away the remaining stinging sensation as she bolted after the unicorn again. “You killed him!” she screamed out in rage, spinning around to buck towards the unicorn, who ducked down out of the way before fluidly standing back up and firing another bolt of magic. This one missed however, leaving a scorch mark on the floor as Applejack leapt towards the unicorn again, who this time sidestepped, Applejack’s forelegs missing her head by mere inches.
Applejack bucked towards the unicorn again, who again, in a revelation of surprising flexibility, dodged the blow. Applejack caught a glimpse of her horn glowing. Applejack wasted no time, and gave the unicorn a sharp punch in the jaw, just as whatever spell she was casting was fired. There was a burst of light, and the two found themselves standing on the now empty train tracks, the train they were on rapidly departing behind them.
The unicorn stumbled back, Applejack pressing the advantage and giving another swipe, which ended up missing as the unicorn stumbled back defensively. As the unicorn blinked rapidly, obviously discombobulated by the repeated punches to the face, Applejack could have sworn she saw waves of what looked strikingly like dark blue, shiny scales ebb across the unicorn’s body, in time with the unicorn’s mane shifting from light pink to dark red and back again.
Applejack’s eyes widened at the sight, as finally, with a sputter from the unicorn, her coat shifted entirely to the strange scaly blue, her mane now dark red and eyes the color of gold. Applejack was dumbstruck at the sudden change, and the unicorn gave herself a quick glance, her eyebrows raising.
“Shit.” Was the only word to come out of her mouth before the unicorn spun around and began to gallop away in the opposite direction, her gait now noticeably staggering and awkward as the no doubt exhausting chase began to take a visible toll on her.
Applejack growled, her own body beginning to protest as she started after the unicorn. It didn’t matter that this unicorn was now some sort of lizard pony. What mattered was that the Professor was avenged. That justice was served.
“Don’t think ya can get away, ya filthy murderer!” Applejack shouted out, as the unicorn’s pace quickened. The sharp sound of a train whistle, mixed in with the heavy clatter of train cars reach both their ears, and the pair looked down in the direction of the sound. Underneath the tracks they were standing on ran another set of tracks, and, coming around the bend with steady speed was another train. The unicorn and Applejack both shared a look, with the unicorn steeling herself.
“Sorry, but I have a train to catch!” she shouted back, and without another word, leapt off the tracks and down onto the top of the second to last car of the passing train, just as it swept underneath. Applejack tried to leap after, but the train proved to be faster then Applejack, and it’s last car passed before Applejack’s hooves could find purchase. Her hooves brushed the smooth metal surface of the train car just enough for it to send her sprawling forwards, off the roof of the train and across the twenty foot gap between the tracks and the nearby , Seemingly abandoned tenement building.
With another shower of broken glass, Applejack found herself crashing into an abandoned apartment, landing on the floor with a crash and only coming to a halt when she slammed into the far wall, her body indenting into the crumbling drywall with a crunch.