The Battle of Appleloosa.
"War is war and the Hells are the hells, but of the two, war is the worse. For you see, in the Hells one has sinners: ponies who deserve to be there. Yet, war is rife with innocents, foals and the elderly who have done no wrong. They are punished not for their own sins, but the sins of others. Trust my words, for I had the unfortunate fate to bear witness to both. I pity anypony who experiences the horrors of armed conflict." Stellar Stylus
A road of iron swept across the plains of the desert: linking cities and towns alike to the fertile new frontier of Equestria. Upon the twin lines of iron rails, a beast of mythic proportions powered across the land and shook the ground while it roared on. The fire in its belly burned hotter than the hells themselves, driving the titan on to reach then unheard of speeds.
A line of acrid smoke billowed from the mouth of the iron horse as it galloped down the track, panting for breath like a dog on an abysmally hot summer day. A loud, ringing whistle sounded from a brass pipe on top of the machine to warn any animals of its approach. A couple of jack rabbits sitting in the middle of the train's path quickly yielded to the marvel of pony technology, knowing it would never stop in time.
"Okay, here it goes," spoke a white mare crouched behind a rock. Judging from the whistle, the train was about to turn the bend. She took a deep breath and counted down, having done the math in her head before. "Now!" she cried, gaining the others' attention. The green-maned earth pony galloped with all her might alongside a blue unicorn and puffing young dragon.
Trixie, Twilight (disguised as Blueprint) and Spike ran alongside the train as it pushed past their rock and on to its destination, allowing the trio precious few seconds to scramble into an open boxcar door. Their owl friend easily swooped into the door, and nudged it open a little more with his beak before clearing the way. Once the door crept up behind her, the architect took a leap of faith and jumped into the open maw of the train car.
With no time to rest, she scrambled into the dark car to allow her sister and friend the chance to jump in as well. A pair of saddlebags flew into the door with a thud before the azure unicorn pulled herself inside, followed by the purple and green dragon. "All of this dirt does nothing to aid The Great and Powerful Trixie's atrociously messy mane," she complained before levitating a mirror out of her bags.
"Just be thankful we didn't need to haul that stupid cart around anymore," Spike replied flatly before shutting the door just enough to let some light in, but not give themselves away. "Chief Thunderhooves could have just wished us a nice trip and let us go on with that... awkward setup. I swear that wagon was about to lose the left wheel!"
Trixie, however, paid him no attention as she continued to study the state of her appearance in the low light. Twili- Blueprint, meanwhile, relaxed against the side of the boxcar. She was not used to such physical exertion, but she could not have teleported them into the car despite its theoretical possibility. The forward momentum of the train probably would have made them break a few bones if she had tried it.
Between Spike's venting, Trixie's brooding and Twilight's musing, the shuffles of the rousing pony did not register in their brains. Oh great, mused the waking pony, more of those stupid train inspectors. The middle-aged, beige earth pony got to her hooves and stretched, keeping her eyes shut. However, the noise and rocking motions of the car told her that it could only be fellow poor travelers.
"Well, hello there," she spoke, startling the two mares and third unidentified creature. "Are you three riding the rails on the hobony plan as well?" The mare groaned as she cracked a couple joints into place. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could see Trixie, Spike and a second pony standing by the door, all three of them staring at her in astonishment.
"M-Mayor Mare?" Spike breathed as he surveyed the former mayor of Ponyville. The other suspicious-looking green-maned mare looked just as startled, despite the fact that she appeared to be a stranger. She simply nodded her head and walked over to the alabaster earth pony with a smile on her face. "Next time, Twilight," she whispered, "Change the style of your mane. If a pony knows you, they won't be easily fooled."
A crimson blush flashed across her cheeks. She had never tested out her disguise against a pony that knew her, and Trixie did not really count, considering how enamoured she was with herself in the mirror at that minute. The white mare did not bother to correct her in order to maintain her appearance: she knew she had a point, but she would worry about her mane later. For the moment, she just wanted to relax from her sprint. "So... what happened, Mayor Mare?"
"Please, it's May Mare now, dear," she smiled. "I was... ousted when the queen appointed Ironhoof as Governor to Ponyville. Same story for every other mayor in Equestria, except I was banished from the town when I was caught sympathising with anti-government protests." A sigh passed her lips, looking much older than the disguised unicorn remembered. "But that's all in the past now."
In the light of the door, the white earth pony could make out the elder beige pony's features. Her once orderly and steel gray mane had turned into a messier and near-white version. Several new bags and wrinkles adorned her face as well, stealing what remained of a youthful appearance from under her glasses. Catching herself staring for a little longer then appropriate, the mare surveyed the rest of the boxcar since her eyes had adjusted to the darkness.
Several other ponies, far rattier in appearance, laid around the fringes of the boxcar: obviously homeless considering their messy state. In the back of her mind, she wondered how many of them had become that way due to the war's effect on the economy. The war: as much as she kept hearing about the nation being in armed conflict, she had seen no real signs of such a state.
"So..." the former mayor spoke to ease the tense silence. "I take it you three are heading to Appleloosa?" Twilight nodded her head in a small reply. "Well, perhaps you should know that the entire town is under a state of martial law. They recently destroyed their governor and threw the entire settlement into chaos, so you'd better watch your step."
Not more than an hour later, the huffing of the engine began to subside, which caused the train to slow down. It did not take a lot of experience riding the rails to know that they were approaching their destination. As they traveled, she decided that while the mayor had a valid point, she was not really trying to hide from her friends. However, she did concede and said she would buy a hat once they got off the train to better blend in with the frontier community.
Trixie, of course, flatly refused to wear anything other than her usual attire. "If you want to play dress-up, that is your decision!" she huffed when Twilightt suggested she do the same. Although it frustrated her, she could not help but concede defeat since she did save her from a fate worse than death. Spike, meanwhile, thought the whole idea of hiding was stupid since, if she wanted to (according to him), she could take on a whole army by herself.
The train came to a screeching stop just a couple of minutes after it began to decelerate. Spike nervously nudged the door open, checking to make sure the coast was clear for them to disembark. Once the signal was given, the white mare picked up her faithful owl and placed the sleeping creature on her back before jumping down from the height of the boxcar. May gave them one last smile and nod before shutting the door.
After quickly vacating the scene, the three travelers set out to find some sort of store in which 'Blueprint' could purchase a cowpony hat. Still, after stepping away from the train, the disguised unicorn had to do a double take. Appleloosa looked far bigger then she remembered: the dusty streets were choked with all sorts of ponies. In fact, just from the train station, she could tell the settlement was easily twice the size of the town she knew.
It's probably just the nine-year difference in times, the mare mused to herself as they trotted down the dusty street. She could not help but notice the number of ponies looking in her direction. At first, she thought they were looking at her until, however, she saw their eyes rested on her little sister. Oh, Trixie. Why must you be so stubborn and flamboyant? I'd rather keep a low profile!
But no: the Great and Powerful Trixie happily trotted down the street, drinking in the attention like a school filly. The white earth pony wanted to sigh and apply a hoof to her face, but that might draw more attention, so she smartly decided to hang back, walking beside the baby dragon.
"Just pretend you don't know her," Spike sighed.
"Who's pretending?" the disguised unicorn replied, averting her gaze from the boisterous magician. "Mental note: Trixie and stealth do not go hoof-in-hoof." The baby dragon chuckled a little to himself as they came upon a clothing store. Trixie obliviously walked past it. "Can you corral her back here? I don't want to stay separated for long."
"Sure thing, Tw-Blueprint. Also, nice use of cowpony lingo," he complimented before running after the showmare. The white earth pony allowed a sigh to pass her lips before she stepped inside the clothing shop and out of the dusty, eye-watering street. Once inside, she began to look around for a hat she could buy to better fit in while they got their bearings and supplies. That, and she always wanted an excuse to buy one without gaining some weird looks from either the nobles in Canterlot or AJ herself.
Spurs, (fake) leather saddles, belts, and all other sorts of apparel lined the shelves inside of the small wooden shop. Only a couple of mirrors sat on the walls for ponies to check out their appearances before making their purchase. The stallion behind the counter was a brown earth pony with a black mane and brown hat on his head. His mark was that of a cow-skull tie, which put the disguised unicorn off a little bit.
Taking her eyes off of the... interesting stallion, she turned her attention to the back of the shop, where hundreds of hats sat upon hooks on the walls. Thankfully for her, the choices were limited: felt or leather for materials and brown, black and white for colours. After a couple of minutes of trying on hats (which she found pretty difficult without her magic) she settled on a black, felt Stetson that looked uncannily like Applejack's.
Happy with her selection, she trotted over to the stallion and placed the hat on the counter. "That will be thirty bits, please," the bored cashier spoke without looking at her from his magazine. Reaching into a nook in her mane, she withdrew the bits and placed them on the counter. "For ten bits extra, ah can add a strap to it: colour is yer choice."
"Okay," she replied, bringing out the extra money. "Do you have any lavender, or purple?"
"Just a second," he spoke before disappearing into the depth of the shop. Blueprint stood there for a couple of minutes and tapped one of her hooves idly while waiting for the brown stallion to return. She must have been in the store for little over five minutes, and Spike had yet to return with Trixie. Had something happened to them while she was in the store? Did the guard arrest them because they did something stupid? Before she could contemplate leaving the store to find them, the stallion returned with a light purple band in his teeth.
After applying a magical adhesive to the underside of the band, he wrapped it around the base of the hat with great dexterity of his teeth. "Thank ya kindly for yer patronage, ma'am," he spoke politely, offering the headgear to her. She accepted it with teeth and gently placed the sturdy item of clothing on her head.
"Thank you very much," she smiled and nodded before stepping out of the shop and back out onto the street. Thankfully, Spike and Trixie were outside waiting for her, no hints of any conflict on either of her companions. "So, how do I look?" she asked as she joined them in the sunlight.
Trixie did not bother to answer and Spike just gave her a quick glace before voicing his opinion. "Eh, if it makes you feel more at ease, I got nothing against it," he shrugged before the three walked away. "So, are there any plans about how to get to Mount Vicious from here, or how we're going to get all the equipment we need, never mind how we're going to carry them there?"
"I have a couple of ideas, Spike," she replied. "We'll ask around, or see if there is a map somewhere. I also know a spell I've wanted to try out that allows for infinite storage with no change of weight."
"Magic is awesome," the baby dragon chirped.
"Indeed I am," Trixie smirked. Both of the other companions rolled their eyes at the comment, although they could not hide that they were a little surprised that she could hear them in the first place, considering the noise level of the dusty prairie street and the distance between them. Although, thinking on it for a brief second, the disguised Twilight smiled, since despite being a loud-mouthed braggart, she cast a spell to hear them, just in case (or so she hoped).
Unnoticed by the three travelers, a grey earth pony stallion had been following them since a little while after hopping off the train. At first, he had no clue who the strangers were. However, the grating attitude and flamboyant appearance of the azure unicorn told him that it was none other then the former General Trixie, followed by the baby dragon known as Spike and a second, unidentified earth pony mare with a blinding white coat and emerald green mane with a black streak.
It was reasonable for him to have his doubts, but after a couple minutes of observation, he became certain the only reason the former two would step hoof in Equestria again was only if Twilight Sparkle was with them. So, he went out on a limb and cleared his throat. "Pardon me, ma'am," spoke the stallion with the yellow mane. "But ah was wonderin' if y'all could help me with this year's Applebuckin' Season. You see, ah've been up fer a week straight and ah'm beginning to hallucinate."
"Um..." the white mare paused in mid-step, turning her head to look at the stallion who approached her from behind. "So, you need me to help you with Applebucking Season? Why me?"
"Well..." he trailed, taking off his hat, "Ah'm all alone doin' it this year, and ah could sorely use the help. In fact, the more hooves helpin' me out, the better!"
Trixie walked back towards the others, scowling. "What is the hold up here?! The Great and Powerful Trixie thought we were going to get a map and supplies!" The stallion had told the disguised unicorn that he had been up all week for Applebuck Season and that he was alone that year? Either it was a strange coincidence, or it was code for Applejack wanting to see her.
Going to see the workhorse proved to be an issue that she had to face as long as she was in Appleloosa. Yet, if it meant that she could get some help, information and supplies out of her old friend, then she would happily go see her of her own accord. Besides, she had the suspicion that if she did not, she would find her on her own, despite her own wanted status. So, she put on her biggest, most friendly smile and tilted her Stetson back. "Why sure, I'd love to help you, kind sir!"
Trixie muttered darkly under her breath as the group walked out of town and into the hills where the apple orchard blanketed the rolling mounds of earth. The distinct possibility that it was a trap set up by the hayseed had crossed her mind at least a dozen times since one of her lieutenants approached them. Twilight, naturally, was far too naive to suspect such a thing, so she followed him blindly.
It was amazing to her just how much her older sister could trust a complete stranger. Obviously, she had to be from another world, timeline, or some other trickery if ten years in the Everfree Forest did not toughen her up. How could the fate of Equestria be dependent on such an easily-manipulated and weak-willed mare? Sure, she possessed great magical power, but that was about all she had going for her, or so Trixie mused.
Apple trees and farmers passed by as they walked down the dirt road in the middle of the orchard reserved for the buffalo stampede. Many bucked at the trees while others carried baskets and whisked them away to the red barn at the top of a nearby hill. Twilight looked around; keeping an eye on the pony they followed. She almost wanted to call him out on the ample number of ponies, but she did not if only so she looked like she had no idea what was going on.
Of course, she had no idea that Trixie knew they were going to see Applejack. She sure doesn't look happy, she mused to herself. It must be the idea of having to do some manual labour for a change that has her so riled up.Then again, she'd probably use her magic to get it over with as soon as possible. Offering a quick glance back at the azure mare, she gave her a silent look of apology to her for dragging her into the situation, as she had 'volunteered' them to assist as well.
Eventually, the group wound their way out of the grove and up towards a huge, red boulder of a mountain just on the outskirts of the farm. Near the base, they came to a large rock jetting out of the side of the sheer cliff. With a swift buck to the right rock, the boulder slid out of the way with a noisy grind, revealing the cave beyond. "As you might have guessed," the worker pony drawled, "We ain't here to buck apples."
"Gee, you think?" Twilight replied sarcastically as she followed him inside, her sister and baby dragon in tow. Lanterns hung from supporting wires on the wall, occasionally disturbed by the odd brace or two to keep the cavern from collapsing upon the inhabitants. Hoofsteps echoed off of the walls before the sound of voices began to reach their ears. There was no telling how deep the sloped path went underground, but the disguised unicorn had a feeling it had to be at least as deep as an underground Crusader's base.
The tunnel twisted and turned until they finally came to a solid slab of stone. The worker pony walked forward and tapped a code against the solid stone with his front hoof. After a couple of seconds, the grey bricks shuddered and shook dirt before sliding apart from the middle to reveal the rooms beyond. Unlike the other bases she had been to, the one for the Apple Clan was by far the most dirty and makeshift in appearance.
Wooden braces lined the halls with dangling lanterns strung in between. The floor was naught but the red rock, carved out and made as smooth as possible, but still very off-kilter. Doorways were chiseled out of rock, with doors fitted snugly in the gaps. They were led past dozens of the doors and down some carved stairs before coming to a set of double doors with a pony on either side to guard the contents of the room.
"What have we here?" asked one the guards in a gruff tone of voice. "You know the general is not taking audiences... especially with FORMER allies."
"General Applejack gave me orders to look for one Twilight Sparkle. Ah believe ah may have found 'er, so please do not delay us any further." The sentries looked to each other for a brief moment before one opened the doors and disappeared beyond the threshold.
The assembled ponies waited patiently for the stallion to emerge from the door, nodding his head to the pony leading the mares. "She is expecting you. Pass," he spoke briefly before opening the door wide for them. "However," he added with a glare, "Only Miss Twilight may enter. All others are to remain outside unless summoned."
Trixie and Spike traded nervous glances with the disguised unicorn. She did not like the idea of being separated either, but if push came to shove, she knew her old friend Applejack would be tough enough to take what she could dish out. Even if she really did not like the idea of fighting with her. With a smile and a nod, the apparent earth pony advanced towards the doors, doing her best to hide her own discomfort at walking into the lion's den.
Twilight jumped as the heavy wooden door slammed shut behind her, echoing throughout the room. It was a simple, but large space containing a large oval of a table under a bunch of hanging lamps. Several maps and plans were pinned to the walls on cork-board, some with big red lines drawn across them. Large braces held the ceiling back, turning into a network of beams at the top to help support the load.
Sitting at the head of the table, at the other side of the narrow oval, sat her dear friend Applejack. She looked as normal as she remembered, except for the addition of a few off-orange scars. On her head was a brand new brown Stetson, the edges frayed and slightly burned from the many skirmishes she was rumoured to have weathered. Her apple-green eyes bored into the white pony as she approached, as if she saw past the illusions to find her truth.
The silence was uneasy as the orange farmer walked around the edge of her table to face the alabaster mare, a frown replacing her usual smile. "Ah know you're gifted with magic, sugarcube," she spoke, "But you don' have ta keep that disguise up in front of me. If it makes any difference, ah'm sorry about yellin' at you durin' the meetin'." She looked to the ground slightly and scuffed her hoof on the solid stone.
"It's okay, AJ," the white pony soothed as she approached. She turned back into her old self with a flash, albeit still wearing the hat. "I'm sorry for thinking of such a stupid plan. Both you and Fluttershy were right to be mad at me. I still can't believe I thought it was a good idea to bring back ponies from the dead! I should have remembered that no spell can do that. You must have thought I went crazy, or something, when I suggested something so barbaric."
"Yeah... Ah thought the girls had gotten to you," the orange farmer sighed.
"So... it's true that they want a pony to steal the queen's divinity and merge their soul with the stars?"
"Ah'm afraid so, Twi," she replied solemnly. "Trixie told you, didn't she?"
"No, it was Fluttershy," the librarian said. An eerie silence crept over the room as the name of the yellow Pegasus echoed off of the hard, reddish stone. The farmer's face scrunched up in frustration and anger over the news. She wanted to yell and cuss out the formerly kind Pegasus, but she did not, if only for the librarian's sake. "She also said some rather hurtful things," the unicorn continued. "For example, she said that... well... that all of you no longer care about me as a pony, but as some sort of tool to be abused!"
Applejack blinked in surprised. Sure, she expected the strange yellow mare to be candid with her, but not so much as to risk losing her loyalty by spilling such a secret. "A-ah don't know what she's talkin' about, Twi," she replied with a twitch in one of her green eyes. "We all missed you somethin' fierce!"
She was never a good liar, despite experience removing her tells, but she was still ineffective against a pony who used to know her as well as Twilight did. They sat in silence for several uncomfortable minutes as they each tried to puzzle out what to say next. It is hard to talk to strangers.
"AJ," the purple pony broke the silence, "How could you expect me to accept such a lie? Yes, I am a golem: I admit it. But that does not mean I am an unfeeling tool. It hurts me to see you all at each other's throats, but it hurts me even more that you no longer think of me as a friend! Well, I refuse to give up on any of you. I need your help to get rid of the queen, but we all need to work together!"
"What's the point in workin' together!?" Applejack fumed. "Rainbow's dead and that damned Rarity is a buckin' traitor! Don't even get me stated on Pinkie Pie, and you -know- Fluttershy is none better! Ah ain't workin' with any of them, sugarcube, and that's all there is to it!"
"I suppose it would be too much for me to ask for some supplies and directions and then expect you to let me go. It's clear to me now that she was right. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a tyrant to topple." Twilight strode towards the door, her back to the orange farmer, and a tear creeping into her eye.
AJ growled in frustration. She galloped ahead of the unicorn and blocked the door with her body. "Ah can't let ya go, sugarcube," she spoke sternly. "Not when ya so willingly walked into mah center of operations... Don't make me hafta hurt you!"
Just as the lavender pony was about to retort verbally, the ground, no, the entire mountain began to shake, loose pebbles from above crashing onto the two mares. The farmer looked up in awe, although still confident in the stability of the braces. With every passing second, the rumbling and the vibrations intensified until the two mares struggled desperately just to keep themselves upright. "What sorta magic is this!?" the farmer shouted angrily.
"Don't look at me!" Twilight shouted over the rumbling, her voice shaking from the vibrations. Ponies screamed on the other side of the door, calling out to their leader for aid. A large crash echoed behind the lavender mare, making her wheel around with damned curiosity only to freeze up at the sight. A large, purple claw dug through the rock, paying no attention to the fact that it thrashed blindly into a room. The tunneling dragon moved to dislodge some rock in front of it before pushing it to the side, too focused on its goal to care.
Twilight's mouth hung open in fear and awe: she never knew dragons could dig like that before! Thinking on her hooves, she turned back to her friend and galloped towards the door. It was no stretch of the imagination to think that the dragon was looking for her, and that it was just a couple of seconds shy of realizing it had found her. Thankfully, Applejack decided the need to escape outweighed the desire to keep her former friend in line. She bucked open the door and shouted to one of her guards as the unicorn galloped onwards. "Get everypony outa here! We have to evacuate! Now!!"
They did not need telling twice. Even Trixie and Spike began to flee when they saw the claw in the room beyond and joined the stampede to get outside. Along the way, the massive shape of her brother, Big Mac, and her cousin Bareburn flanked a doorway, helping ponies get out safely. In a way, it comforted Twilight to see them acting the same as she always remembered.
Ponies of all shapes and colours stampeded out of the narrow tunnel between the relative safety of the outside world and the slowly collapsing network of tunnels behind them. One misstep would be enough to kill, as the poor pony would be trampled to death under the uncaring hooves of dozens of terrified equines. Despite her lack of athleticism, Twilight found the prospect of a dragon chasing her to be enough to motivate her to greater speeds.
When the tantalizing glint of sunlight sparkled through the end of the curving hall, the lavender pony found herself breathing a sigh of relief. It was so beautiful that she could ignore the taste of dust from the unkempt floor that drifted into her mouth. Although she would be out in the open, it had to be better than staying inside.
However, such thoughts left her mind when she finally passed beyond the threshold. The town of Appleloosa burned as three large dragons circled round the town in the skies above. Even though the town proper was a good mile from the edge of the orchard, screams and cries of anger rang through the ears of everypony present. Occasionally, the shape of a griffon would emerge from the din carrying a shape up high into the air before letting it drop. The scholar silently hoped that they were just sacks of flour or debris.
"Well, what are y'all waiting for?" Applejack shouted as she climbed to the top of a rock cropping. "Grab yer rifles and give them feathered fuckers a run for their hides! Artillery: to yer stations! Ah want those dragons distracted while the rifleponies tackle those griffons! Ah also need the scouts to make a run for the buffalo reserves: they should be just beyond the next hill! Go, GO, GO!!!"
A flurry of activity replaced the stillness from just a minute previous. Ponies scattered about to get themselves in order to defend their homes at any cost. Trixie, Spike and Twilight stood around uselessly while everypony else got busy, until a brilliant idea wandered into the mind of the stage magician. "Twilight!" the younger blue mare whispered to her sister. "We can use this to our advantage! Spike and I will... 'liberate' some supplies in the confusion for our trip. You keep out of trouble in the meantime. The hays- I mean, Applejack, isn't likely to let anything happen to you yet. We'll meet outside the other end of town."
Before she could even protest, they were off, hurtling through the winding trees and ducking under the low-hanging branches as they made for the battle at top speed. It was a risk leaving Twilight behind with the militaristic zealot, but it was a far better option than letting her sit in the open fiddling with her hooves until another dragon scooped her up! Or she had just made another epic blunder: Trixie always did prefer to think positive.
In no time at all, the duo was upon the besieged town as the battle began in earnest. Ponies galloped into the streets carrying muskets and flintlock rifles on their backs. The showmare detested the vulgar simplicity of how the weapons were used, since magic was superior in all respects. But, if it made the Earth and Pegasus ponies feel better, then more power to them.
Fires raged as the attacking griffons lobbed burning bundles of sticks into houses and businesses in a classic strategy of crippling the defending settlements' economy. Together, the mare and baby dragon dodged the attacking soldiers as they scoured the streets in search of an untouched (or as close as they could get) general store. "Woah! Watch out!" Spike cried out suddenly as a griffon tore out of a building across the street.
With only seconds to react, The Great and Powerful Trixie launched herself into the air with all the power her legs could spare. She hung in the air for what felt like an eternity as the feathered menace soared beneath her, no doubt unaware that the tempting target had moved out of reach. Gathering magic into her horn, the blue mare let loose a concussive blast of pure magic square into the enemy's chest, causing him to hurtle into a nearby building uncontrollably.
Landing smartly on her hooves, the magician hit the ground and quickly sped back into a swift gallop after buckling a little under the sudden weight. Spike, meanwhile, kept an admirable pace next to the rather fit magician, trailing behind by only a pony length or so. At first, the baby dragon was impressed by her speed and endurance, but he was hardly surprised. After all, one did not pull such a heavy caravan for so many years without building some strength and stamina.
Arriving at the main street of the small town, the two allies found it clogged by duelling ponies and griffons and bodies of the dead all around. Still, that was not the main focus, as they both spied an emptied shop not yet set ablaze by the enemy forces. Taking a deep breath, they charged ahead, literally dodging bullets and spears in their flight, only changing course when a skirmish moved in front of them.
Neither of them stopped running until safely covered by the cool shadow of the building against the heated veil of the desert sun. Their vision was plunged into an eerie darkness, but they did not have the luxury of time to adjust. "Just grab anything that looks important!" Trixie shouted to her companion over the din outside. They ripped through the wares on the shelves and stuffed what food and fuel they could into the magically altered saddlebags. With no time to give a real look, the two abandoned the shop once satisfied.
Between the time they entered and the time they exited the shop, the number of griffons in the street had been significantly reduced. The ponies were evidently managing to beat them back, accompanied the sound of cannon fire overhead. "Applejack sure loves those cannons," the blue mare mused to herself before the overgrown purple lizard kicked her in the leg. "Sorry," she apologized before getting back up to speed. A battle was never a good moment to have one of her musings.
Thankfully, the dragons above were too distracted to see the single pony and her dragon accomplice flee from the quarantine zone, and with all the griffons being engaged, the two managed to flee with relative ease. Trixie skidded to a stop once they had made it some distance from Appleloosa. Her frame heaved with every puff as she struggled to regain her breath. Now, it was up to Twilight to find her way to them: the part that worried the blue mare the most.
"Wait, Trixie! Don't leave me!" Twilight cried as the azure mare suddenly turned her back on her, leaving her hoof outstretched in vain to catch her friends. How could she just tell her to stay out of trouble and leave her with Applejack like that? She wanted to be mad, but she had to cast the thoughts loose as ponies began to charge past.
Startled from her silent fuming, the lavender mare found that the orange farmer was gone, leaving her to fend for herself. Given the situation, her rational mind spun into overdrive. If I stay here, I'm out in the open. That means it would be easy for one of the dragons to spot me and... A shiver ran up her spine at the simple thought. There was no way she could allow herself to be captured again. My best bet is to head into the town. Even with a skirmish going on, at least I can get lost in the confusion, and maybe help save lives!
With her mind made up, the scholar set down the road into town at a brisk pace. Granted, going into the heart of a battle was a normally stupid notion, but it was not like she had any choice in the matter. Besides, Trixie would be waiting for her, so she had to go through the town regardless. Even if it went against just about every fibre of her being, not to mention every ounce of sense she possessed.
Finally arriving at the edge of the small town, she found the sight before her eyes shocking. Buildings smoldered or were otherwise badly damaged as the skittish mare made her way through the streets. Cries of fury and pain caused the hairs on her body to stand on-end as she slowly made her way deeper into the heart of the battle. It was truly a surreal feeling.
Every time she encountered an enemy, or a member of the town guard, the purple mare quickly backtracked down an empty alley or backstreet. Naturally, considering the size of the town, she was not really going to get anywhere particularly fast using that method. She considered donning her Blueprint disguise again, but that would only eliminate the guards as potential enemies and would not be worth the effort she would have to exert.
"Okay, Twilight. You can do this," the pony spoke to herself as she stood beside a soggy old rain barrel. "What would a brave pony like Rainbow Dash do in a situation like this?" Taking a deep breath, the answer made itself clear to her. She would not run around hiding like this, she would stand up and fight! If she could borrow just a bit of that can-do attitude, then she might just be able to survive this thing.
However, just as she was about to make her move, the ground gave a sudden lurch, making her lose her balance and topple awkwardly into the barrel of water beside her. A moment later, the scholar emerged from the surprisingly cold water with a gasp, her mane clinging to her body and new hat soaked through. She leaned over the side and started coughing up the small amount of water that had snuck into her lungs.
The sound of cracking wood sounded out over the din, and the shaking of the ground becoming enough to make even the most sturdy of ponies collapse into a heap. A low roar filled the building in front of her, followed by the tell-tale orange glow of dragon fire. The roof swiftly caught fire as a large, purple claw ripped through, shattering glass, wood and stone alike. Several ponies of the guard and the Apple Clan militia descended upon the scene in mere seconds.
Faced with the choice of hiding in the barrel, or fleeing, the purple pony decided to flee, since the chances of discovery and injury were far greater if she stayed, even if the water would protect her from the inevitable torrent of flame. Even as the dragon broke free of the confines of the building, she jumped out of the rain barrel and made a beeline for the other end of the town. Trixie had to have the supplies by now, she hoped.
Although terrified by the sight of ponies fighting all around her, she could not help but marvel at the strange sticks she noticed they carried. They were identical to the ones the ponies in the refugee camp had, so that solved the earlier mystery of what they were quite nicely. She had to admit that the idea of expelling metal balls at high speeds, while insanely barbaric, was actually very effective against the griffons. With some conjecture, they had to be the 'rifles' that Applejack spoke of during her spiel of orders.
During her flight, she came across a pony of the town guard standing around, looking for something to do or an enemy to fight. Twilight froze up and skidded to a stop right in front of him. At first, he surveyed this new mare quizzically, familiar with her, but not precisely sure from where. Neither side had a chance to voice their worries, however, as out of nowhere, a griffon that had escapes a larger skirmish screamed through the air and scooped up the fully-grown stallion.
The sound of angry cursing filled that air as the guard was hoisted up high into the sky, thrashing harder with every hoof of altitude gained. The lavender pony watched helplessly from the ground since it was too risky to cast any spell she knew that could dislodge them without hurting or killing one or both of them. Her mind raced as she struggled to think of something, anything she could do to help.
A soft crunch and loud thud filled the air as the ground shook suddenly, a spout of some warm liquid splattering against her coat. Against her better judgment, Twilight opened her eyes to see what had happened. The stallion lay upon the ground, limbs bent at awkward angles as a massive rupture in his side spilled blood onto the dirt street. His head had become detached from his head and rolled into one of her forward hooves. She wanted to scream, as loud and clear as she had for Zecora, but her lungs refused to cooperate.
"Twilight!" cried a voice behind the catatonic mare. "Come on, we have to get going!" It was Trixie! She glanced down at the ghastly sight, but offered no words of comfort, as the grounded dragon's roar and belch of fire erupted out of the street behind them. Instead, she firmly placed her head against her flank and shoved the purple pony's legs into moving automatically, half dragging her away from another shattered piece of her innocence.
Through it all, only one thought floated to the top of Twilight's waking mind. I want to go home.
Applejack rarely found herself on the field of battle anymore, and was often holed up in her meeting room, waiting for news of failure or success to come in. Naturally, this irritated and frustrated the orange farmer since she was always a hooves-on sort of pony. So, when a battle so willingly presented itself to her on her front doorstep, she faced it like a mare!
To sweeten the deal, many of the town's guard and the hoof-selected members of the Royal Guard, chosen by Eos herself, would be fighting alongside her forces. Call her opportunistic, but the offer of killing two birds with one stone proved to be a siren's call to her. So, to that end she would gladly stick out her neck in front of the guards, if only so she could have a shot at theirs the minute they turned on her and her militia.
"About time ah got the rust off of this thing," she smiled to herself as she dug up a box near the barn. A short dig under the dirt revealed a soggy and muddy cardboard box with several strings of twine wrapped around the cover to secure it. Nipping at the ropes, she opened the box to expose her sword to the light of day once more. Back in her days with the Crusaders, a blacksmith among their number gladly crafted the sword for the workhorse.
Taking the grip into her teeth, she shook the sheath off and let the steel sparkle in the sunlight. Satisfied her old friend had not changed one bit, the orange mare wheeled around on the spot and made for the town at full gallop. Even half a mile away, she could hear the roar of cannon fire as the artillery division finished moving into position to antagonize the dragons. With any luck, things would finally start going her way.
The instant she entered the confines of the town, she was beset by at least half a dozen different griffons. Annoyingly, several of the other fighting ponies jumped on them and distracted them. It was not nearly as fun unless she was outnumbered by at least two to one. Well, since it is mah first battle in a while, ah guess one-on-one will have to do. 'Sides, can't very well lead if ah'm dead.
Running down another street, however, the farmer came upon an enticing target: a griffon with its back to her, trying to face down three town guards and a couple of her own ponies. Both sides fought valiantly, but the ponies were obviously at a disadvantage next to the razor-sharp claws of the half eagle, half lion hybrid. Granted, it was a little on the easy side for her, but she needed to warm up with something.
Seizing her chance, Applejack pounced upon the winged fiend. The beast cried out in surprise and tried to buck off the unwanted passenger, but to no avail. "Yee-haw!" the orange pony cheered through her clenched teeth. "Ah haven't ridden a buckin' bronco fer far too long! Get along, little doggy!" She crept forward, unrelenting in her hold upon the winged enemy. She twisted her neck once she got far enough, and plunged her thirsty steel into the base of its neck.
The body went limp and slumped to the ground with a heavy thud. Blood poured out of the fatal would when she withdrew her sword, but it was not quite enough to settle her down after being cooped up underground for so long. However, a shout and growl around the next bend caught her attention, especially when half a dozen ponies ran towards the source of the commotion. She could not suppress the grin that spread across her face.
Hopping off the slain enemy, she ran towards the source of the excitement to find herself both a little giddy and a tad scared at what she saw. A massive, juvenile dragon was busy clawing its way out from under one of the houses in town, belching fire at anypony who ventured too close. Pieces of wood and stone flew all over the place as the home slowly caught fire. "Circle it! If y'all can get an artillery pony, do it!" the general ordered her troops.
Much to her surprise, even some of the town guard followed her orders, either too stupid to realize she was number two on the Most Wanted list, or too scared to really care. Either way, it was all ponies willing to die to defend the town, so she was not going to complain. As well, a number of griffons decided to congregate around the slowly escaping wingless dragon. So many prime opportunities to strut her stuff!
Out of the corner of her eye, the farmer noticed a shadow moving towards a pony in front of her at blistering speed. Obviously, it was a rookie, since the angle of approach was far too low. Well, they would pay for that mistake. Applejack rushed right into the line of flight, as if she were going to sacrifice herself to save one of her subordinates. As the griffon approached, she could see that satisfied smirk on its vile beaked face, absolutely clueless.
Just as it was about to hit, the orange mare rolled out of the way and twisted her body around. Raising her sword, she tightened her grip with her teeth as she felt the steel make contact with the tough, bony base of the creature's right wing. The speed, plus the sharp edge resulted in a nearly perfect cut as the wing toppled to the ground, the griffon once attached to it careening uncontrollably into a building.
A loud roar behind her told her that the dragon had finally broken free of the building it had tunnelled into. "About time too," the orange mare said to herself with some spite. With a loud whistle from her mouth, a series of loud blasts sounded through the town as the cannons beyond the town limits all fired at once, peppering the ground inside the circle mercilessly.
The young dragon took in a deep breath and puffed out its chest, ready to unleash another unholy torrent of flame before one of the cannonballs found its mark and struck the dragon. A loud crunch filled the air as the heavy ball of solid iron impacted it square in the back of the skull, possibly shattering it into a million pieces, and killed it instantly. She held her hat over her heart as she watched its great hulk fall to the ground with a deep rumble. Truly majestic, she thought. Then she cleared her head with a shake, and put her hat back on at a jaunty angle.
"Alright everypony!" Applejack cried to her troops far and wide, "Finish off them griffons! Ah want all artillery focused on those flyin' dragons, right now! Let's show them not to mess with us ponyfolk!" For now, she was savouring the delicate taste of a great battle. However, it would not be until later that night that she realized her REAL prize had slipped away.
Gentle crackles from the warm campfire filled the air as Luna's... as the moon hung at a shallow angle over the eastern horizon. Despite the early hour, the group felt exhausted from the activities of the day, to say the least. Ever since escaping the battle that was waged in the streets of the frontier town, they had not spoken more than a few whispers. In fact, Twilight had not said anything at all since right before the horse apples hit the fan.
Trixie could not help but frown at her melancholy, as the lavender unicorn refused to cozy up to the fire, or eat any of the food they managed to swipe from the store in the confusion. Spike did not seem to fare much better either, since it must have reminded him of when he betrayed her and pushed her already fragile emotional state over the brink. This whole situation is going from bad to worse, the azure magician sighed to herself. "She's going to be a millstone around our necks, isn't she?"
The baby dragon perked his head up at the sound of the unicorn's voice, wincing a little as he sensed her annoyance and general anger. "Well, I wouldn't say that, Trixie," he calmly replied. "I mean, sure she's a little... frail right now, but I'm sure she'll bounce back and be the same mare I've always known. I mean, we need her and Twilight never lets anypony down, ever!"
"Says the overgrown lizard who caused the worst of this," the azure pony spat. "The Great and Powerful Trixie knows depression when she sees it, and she was teetering on the brink when she visited her in her caravan. Your betrayal wasn't so much the straw that broke the pony's back, but a sledgehammer to a crippled mule! Yet here you are, naively thinking she can bounce back after that? You're delusional."
Forcing herself onto her tired and throbbing hooves, the blue mare slowly walked over to her purple counterpart who sat brooding in the shadows. By all appearances, she was aloof: lost in her own world of thought and totally disconnected from reality, possibly as a defence mechanism Trixie knew all too well. As she approached, Twilight moved her head around a little, as if looking for Owlowiscious. Obviously, she was aware enough to know she was coming.
"Twilight," the younger pony spoke as she sat beside her older sister, "Being moody isn't going to do a damned thing to help anyone out. Yes, it was a little... disturbing, to see your first death like that, but it was bound to happen sooner or later." She paused and awaited a response. When none came, she resumed her spiel, a little more annoyed then she intended to be. "I swear to the creators, I am sick and tired of having to be your emotional nanny. I'll snuff you myself, right here and now, if you keep this up! We can't use you like this!"
At first, it looked as if her words had not managed to breech the fog of sorrow that seemed to seep from her pores until a chilled sigh escaped her lips. "That's all anypony wants with me. They all want to use me to further their own ends. They don't care about me, or how I feel about the matter. I'm supposed to be their weapon." Tears slowly began to slip from her eyes and stain her cheeks as another breakdown crested over her mind.
At the end of her rope, the azure mare decided the time was ripe for some tough love, since it would be the only kind she would find out there in the cruel world. "Wah, wah, wah," she mocked, "The super weapon golem complains about being treated like an object. News Flash: It's really hard to give a buck about a pony as whiny and naive as you when we all feel dead inside! We've seen hundreds of dead ponies and dozens of those die horribly right before our eyes. Just because you see one does not give you the right to carry on like a depressed foal! It's not going to get better either. Not..." Trixie sniffed, letting a bit of her more gentle side through for dramatic effect. "Not unless you help us, big sister."
Twilight lowered her head sadly to the ground, the tears refusing to stop flowing from her eyes as she silently contemplated her words. "Why am I always the one thrown into this sort of mess? I... just want to study and read my books. Is that so much to ask? How can I be of any help to anypony? I'm not as powerful as I seem: I'm useless without my friends around."
"Nonsense," the magician replied firmly. "You're a smart pony! If you can't muscle or magic us out of this situation, then think for a while and come up with a plan! I'm sure you'll find a way to reunite your remaining friends in time, but for now... well: we just have to keep moving. Can you do that for me, Twilight? Can you keep moving, no matter how bleak things might get?"
The lavender mare took a deep breath and let out a long, ragged sigh as she contemplated the situation. Talking, she found, always helped make her feel better. As a filly, she would often find the princess to seek her counsel. No matter how bad she felt, her teacher could always cheer her up. That was when something clicked in her mind. "Sure," she replied, "As long as we head to Mount Vicious as soon as possible."
"Okay, sure. Not a problem," the showmare smirked and nudged her head against her elder. "Come and get something to eat. You'll need your strength if we are to get through the range, never mind the harrowing climb up." Twilight nodded her head and followed her sister back to the warm embrace of the campfire. Sure, right at that moment she was depressed, but it helped that she could reaffirm that her sister, at least, would always have her back.