Fluttershy fully intended to be the first pony awake at Sweet Apple Acres, so she could speak to Rainbow Dash about what she’d seen. She’d risen before dawn, and flown alone through the last minutes of night so she could arrive at the farmhouse before even the Apples were awake.
She hadn’t bargained on seeing an orange pegasus head pop up above tree level, and drop back out of sight—and she was even less prepared to see it reappear, with a white unicorn head somewhat lower down, and the glimpse of a red mane below that.
Fluttershy swooped down to investigate, just in time to see the process repeat itself.
The three Cutie Mark Crusaders were running in a tightly spaced line, concentrating fiercely. Then, Applebloom ducked her head just as Sweetie leapt up in a bound, her head tucked between Scootaloo’s legs, her forelegs awkwardly clutching her young lover’s hind legs. Apple Bloom made a powerful leap in turn, her head shoving up against Sweetie’s personal areas, and Scootaloo’s wings buzzed madly, creating a storm of lift—and all three little ponies, clinging together in a rather colorful way, soared up into the air, farther than Fluttershy would have believed possible.
As they arced over the peak of their ascent, they peered around to the best of their ability, and Sweetie gave a little shriek when she spotted Fluttershy approaching. Apple Bloom was looking at the ground, and Scootaloo was past noticing anything, for she was clearly working her wings far past their normal abilities and couldn’t dial back the crazed effort until the three fillies were safely touching ground again.
They landed with a heavy thump. Sweetie squeaked, “Girls! Fluttershy is here!”
Apple Bloom spat out dirt ingested through her impressive faceplant. “Hi, Fluttershy, how are you this mornin’?”
Scootaloo was groaning. “I think I better rest a little bit before we try that again. Argh, my wings!”
“What on earth are you doing?” said Fluttershy. “Is it some sort of, um… improper thing I shouldn’t be asking about?”
Apple Bloom gaped at her. Scootaloo looked confused. Sweetie Belle, recently sandwiched between two fillies, wouldn’t meet Fluttershy’s eye.
“What the heck you talkin’ about, Fluttershy?” said Apple Bloom. “We’re just learnin ta jump extra high!”
“Oh, really?” said Fluttershy. “And whose idea was this, yours?”
“Mostly!” said Apple Bloom. “I figured it would help us look. Sweetie come up with what you might call th’ configuration, an’ Scootaloo’s the muscle!”
Sweetie repressed the hint of a sly smile. “No, really, we just want to all jump high into the air for a better vantage point, and thanks to Scootaloo’s amazing flying abilities all three of us can reach nearly the treetops with ease!”
“That’s easy for you to say,” grumbled Scootaloo.
“Oh, that’s nice,” said Fluttershy. “What do you need to see in the treetops? Are you watching birds now?”
“We’re watching ponies,” said Scootaloo belligerently. “And we’re gonna find him first! And Apple Bloom can stop talking about Rainbow Dash and my Dad fighting, ‘cause it’s not even gonna happen, since we’ll find him first and talk to him!”
Fluttershy blinked. “What?”
Apple Bloom grinned. “Why should th’ grownups have all th’ fun? We’re gonna go on a quest to find Braeburn, Scootaloo’s Dad!”
Fluttershy blanched. “Eeep! You mustn’t!”
“You always say that,” complained Scootaloo.
“Uhhh,” said Apple Bloom, “th’ last time she had a perty good point. Is there another cockatrice in the forest, Fluttershy?”
“Worse! A terrible, savage griffin!”
Apple Bloom blinked at the trembling pegasus, and then laughed. “Haw! I think you need to hang around with us Apple folk, Fluttershy. We ain’t scared of no griffins! Heck, we have ‘em over for dinner!”
“But…” quavered Fluttershy. She was pretty sure she knew which griffin Apple Bloom meant. “Please listen to me, it’s very important! You ponies must stay inside and certainly not go on some foolish quest. I can’t explain more now. I must go speak to Rainbow Dash. Promise me you will stay safe!”
Apple Bloom hesitated, reading her eyes. “We ain’t safe? What are we missin’ here? Is it some other griffin we don’t know about, Fluttershy, a wild one?”
Fluttershy seized the opportunity. “Yes! I am warning you about a wild one. Now will you listen?”
Sweetie’s eyes were wide. “Somepony should do something about it, then! We can’t have wild griffins in Ponyville. Maybe Twilight Sparkle will fight it!”
“Maybe we kin get Gilda to fight him!” suggested Apple Bloom. “She’s real friendly-like!”
Fluttershy gulped. “You just stay inside, okay? Just stay home! Now, is Rainbow Dash in?”
“Sure!” said Apple Bloom. “She’s gettin’ breakfast, she’s goin’ on a quest too! We’re all goin’ out to find Braeburn. Except Scootaloo wants to find him first, on account of she’s skeert Rainbow Dash will kick his tail for him!”
Scootaloo glowered. “I am not! They’re not going to fight, they’re both too awesome. I just want to find him ‘cause… I just want to find him, okay? Shut up!”
Sweetie gave her special somepony a worried look—and an uncomfortable observation. “Scootaloo, are you scared he won’t want you, because he ran away? Is that why you want to find him first, in case Rainbow says something wrong or your mom fights with him again?”
Scootaloo’s glower got much worse, and she whirled and turned her back on her friends, sulking.
Apple Bloom nudged Sweetie Belle. “For all th’ canoodling y’all doing with her, you still got the tact of a mail pony…”
“Scootaloo?” said Sweetie hesitantly.
“Girls!” said Fluttershy. “Inside! I need you to go in and stay there until everything’s safe again.”
The three fillies reluctantly drifted back towards Sweet Apple Acres, glancing back over their shoulders, as Fluttershy followed them and hurried them along. “Quickly! Please? That’s the way! Good girls!”
As they obediently filed in the front door, Scootaloo turned and, chafing at being called a good girl, asserted, “Rainbow Dash could kick any griffin’s butt, even a wild one!”
A laugh came from inside. “Probably!” quipped Dash. “Unless I thought of something even better to do with it!”
“Rainbow Dash, I must speak with you, okay?” said Fluttershy. “Upstairs, girls! Grown-ups have to talk now!”
The Crusaders exchanged glances and promptly charged up the stairs, disappearing from sight and making diminishing filly hoofbeats in the direction of Apple Bloom’s room—or, diminishing hoofbeats, at any rate. Fluttershy turned from the stairs and faced Rainbow Dash as she came into the living room, limbering up her cerulean wings.
“What’s up, Fluttershy? I only have a minute, I’ve got to start flying some major search patterns after I hook up with Flight Lightning and we work out coverage.”
Fluttershy took a deep breath. “Rainbow, all my bunnies are safe, just so you know. I am keeping them inside, as you suggested.”
“Oh, good! That ought to…”
“And I know WHY you said that,” snapped Fluttershy, advancing on her friend.
Dash blinked. “Huh? You don’t need to know why, everything ought to be okay. I was just being cautious, but I actually trust her.”
“You trust Gilda?” hissed Fluttershy. “I watched her tear the head off a helpless bunny, just last night. Did you trust her to do that, too?”
Dash stared, and then face-hooved. “Oh, sweet Celestia. This is going to sound kind of weird and gross, Fluttershy, but yeah! I don’t like it either, but yeah, they do that. I made damn sure she wouldn’t do it to any of yours! She tells me she’s hunting out near griffin country. I believe her.”
“Why are you flying search patterns?” demanded Fluttershy.
“We’re trying to find Braeburn. At least, Flight Lightning is trying to find him for Scootaloo,” explained Dash, “and probably also because she likes the way he fucks, but I’m trying to find him because Big Macintosh is missing.”
Fluttershy gasped. “Oh, no!”
“Tell me about it,” grumbled Dash. “That cowpony is too sexy, and that’s me saying it. It’s too sexy if he causes trouble seducing both mares and stallions. I wish we’d taken the trouble to get Big Macintosh laid some more, he probably went off looking for Braeburn for a little more cowpony bucking. And you know, both me and you, we can vouch for the big red thunder, right?”
“No, Rainbow Dash!”
Dash blinked again. “Don’t even tell me you’ve forgotten. I guess it was less traumatic for you, huh? I know Pinkie has you taken care of, believe me I know how amazing she is. With me, he kinda blew my mind but then my life went to shit right away when Applejack dumped me, which thanks for reminding me of by the way…”
“No, that’s not what I mean!” cried Fluttershy, shaking. “I think I know where Big Macintosh went!”
Dash’s jaw dropped. “What? Where?”
“In that wicked Gilda’s belly!” said Fluttershy.
Rainbow stared at her for a moment. Then, she swallowed, painfully. “Fuck you. Fuck you, okay? I don’t need your prejudiced bullshit…”
“No, listen! Gilda is vicious. She kills bunnies. Now Big Macintosh is missing. Griffins used to eat ponies, Rainbow Dash! I can’t believe that you would forget this obvious thing!”
“Gilda’s my friend!” yelled Dash. “How about you get out of here? Go tell it to Pinkie Pie. Maybe she’ll talk some sense into you. I need to get in the air and look for Braeburn and Applejack!”
She froze, for Fluttershy had stepped forward, eyes burning in a way Dash had never seen, and she stared helplessly into those eyes, ceasing to argue and not knowing why.
“Tell me everything you know about the absence of Big Macintosh, Braeburn and Applejack, Rainbow Dash,” commanded Fluttershy.
Dash gulped. “Big Macintosh has been missing since yesterday. We haven’t seen Braeburn for a while but Big Macintosh pretty much admitted he was getting mounted by Braeburn. Applejack left me a note telling me to get out to Appleloosa. We’re going to search for them and bring Big Macintosh home so Granny Smith has to deal with him.”
“Where is Applejack?” demanded Fluttershy, still staring.
“She said she was in Appleloosa, but when I got there, nopony had seen her.”
Fluttershy dropped her gaze, and a tear formed in her eye. Rainbow blinked, released from the mysterious compulsion, and stammered, “W… what the heck are you d… How’d you do that? Why do you need to know all that?”
Fluttershy gritted her teeth, her legs shaking, her wings ruffled up. “I have some painful things to tell you, Rainbow Dash.”
“Big Macintosh and Applejack are dead, Rainbow Dash. Gilda got them. I don’t know about Braeburn, if he’s out by Appleloosa he may still be alive. Big Macintosh never got to Appleloosa, and I think Applejack never made it out of Ponyville alive.”
Dash had gone pale, and her ears were back. “Stop it. Stop saying stuff like that! How dare you tell me…”
“I know it!” insisted Fluttershy. “It’s hard to believe, but you must, or more ponies will die!”
Rainbow shook her head, stamped a forehoof. “You have no proof! You’re just making this up because Gilda ate a bunny. That’s what they do, they can’t eat grass like us!”
“You think Applejack wrote you a note?” challenged Fluttershy, not backing down. “Is that what you think? It was a pretty convincing note, huh, all about getting you out of town for a while, away from the scene of the crime?”
“There’s gonna be a crime right here if you don’t shut up, Fluttershy!”
“Applejack never wrote that note,” said Fluttershy, staring Dash right in the eye. “She never left it, either. Gilda forged it and left it to fool you and get you out of the way.”
“Shut the fuck u…”
“I watched her do it,” hissed Fluttershy, utter conviction in her tone and her stare freezing Rainbow Dash in her tracks.
Dash stared back, teeth bared.
“You have to listen to me when I tell you that Gilda is killing and eating the ponies we love, and you could be next,” said Fluttershy. “So could the fillies I’ve sent inside to stay in safety here. They need to stay indoors, and you need to join me. I need your help bringing Gilda to justice, because I’m not as strong or brave as you. I can’t possibly fight her, but maybe you can. All of Ponyville depends on you now, Rainbow Dash.”
Rainbow was shaking her head. She wrenched her gaze away from Fluttershy’s, and her eyes were tearing up—not so much from grief at Fluttershy’s news, so much as sheer agony. The darkness was back upon her, using Fluttershy’s voice, oozing like poison into her veins, crooning its insinuating, sickly-sweet song to tell her that life was like this after all, hope was a lie, the most horrible possibilities were inevitably the truth.
“No, no way,” moaned Dash, “no way, no FUCKING way…”
“I’m sorry,” said Fluttershy. “I know it must hurt, but we need you on our side more than ever now.”
“No! We have sex with her, dammit! She wants to be a pony herself!”
“It’s a ruse!” hissed Fluttershy, her eyes flashing. “It’s a ruse, and it worked, it got her Applejack, poor Applejack. And all those poor bunnies!”
Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth, her eyes squeezed shut and running with tears from the agony of her tortured thoughts, and then she snapped. “Get out!” she shrieked, charging Fluttershy, kicking out at her with forehooves, attacking the old friend who’d turned into such a nightmare-bringer. “Get out, get out, get OUT!”
Fluttershy’s nerve had failed as soon as Dash’s hoof whacked her in the ear. She squealed, panicked, and ran back out the door. Outside, she blasted into the sky in a storm of hysterically flapping yellow wings, sobbing and wailing, bound for home where her mate and foal awaited her.
Rainbow Dash stamped the ground, shaking violently. She couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t stop her mind from whirling, showing pictures of all the things that Fluttershy had told her were true.
Rainbow screamed a horrible scream that hung in the air and echoed through the house even after she’d blasted through the door herself and taken to the sky, weeping, turning to her search mission with redoubled conviction, vowing to not rest or eat or even slow down until she’d found every single pony that Fluttershy was lying about.
The sound of her anguished scream faded.
Three little filly heads peered around the corner of the stairs, stunned. A fourth joined them: Northern Spy had woken up.
Apple Bloom licked her lips. Her mouth had gone dry. Her mind was a scary blank, and the world around her didn’t seem real at all.
“I’mma wake up in just a moment. You wait. I know this here’s a dream,” she said. “Such things cain’t happen. You kin stop pretendin’ we’re here on th’ stairs ‘cause I’m gonna wake right up…”
Northern Spy nudged her. Sweetie Belle nuzzled her, and said, “Come on, let’s go back to your room.”
Scootaloo hesitated. “But… Braeburn’s out there some where, and if this Gilda the griffin is…”
“Scootaloo!” said Sweetie Belle. “Shh! Help me get Apple Bloom back to her room.”
“Ain’t prop’ly my room ‘cos it’s a dream, this all is jes’ only a dream,” insisted Apple Bloom, even as her friends and her little niece coaxed and herded her back towards her room.
She got all of halfway down the hall before sobbing, and becoming hysterical. Their herding became hugging, and carrying. She whacked Scootaloo on the chin in her struggles. Scootaloo didn’t utter a word of complaint. She just wrestled Apple Bloom into her room, and joined up with Sweetie in hugging her distraught friend and helping her ride out the first wave of her crushing grief.
“We shouldn’t have listened,” sniffled Sweetie Belle. “But how could we have known?”
“Braeburn’s out there somewhere,” said Scootaloo, so quietly that none of the others heard her.
A little while after Rainbow Dash had vanished over the horizon, two figures appeared on the road, walking solemnly—or at least one did. Princess Celestia trudged heavily, her head bowed. Lyra, by her side, moved skittishly, her nerves making her run ahead and then wait for the Princess to catch up, looking anxiously back at her charge.
The Princess walked on, in her orderly fashion. Her expression hinted delicately that she’d had second thoughts about her plan to bring Lyra, but that she was too polite to rescind her decision. It was the expression of somepony expecting to be consoled by a cute puppy who could also be expected to mess on the floor: a sort of resigned benevolence.
Lyra had the presence of mind to let Princess Celestia knock on the door. The knock was answered by two sets of little hooves running down the stairs, and the door was opened by Sweetie Belle’s magic and Scootaloo’s teeth on the pull-ring, both awkwardly used at the same time. The magic tickled Scootaloo’s nose and caused her to sneeze.
“Princess Celestia!” squeaked Sweetie Belle. “To what do we owe this nice visit? Hi, Lyra!”
Celestia lifted her head. “Where are Apple Bloom, Granny Smith, and Big Macintosh? I must speak with them, and I would rather not repeat my tale over and over.”
Scootaloo ran back up the stairs, calling, “Apple Bloom! Princess Celestia is here! Granny Smith! Wake up!”
Celestia blinked. “Why does she not call Apple Bloom’s brother? Is he already awake, perhaps?”
“That’s sort of the problem,” said Sweetie Belle, wincing. “We kind of can’t.”
Princess Celestia gave a start, her eyes flying wide. “Ah! And Rainbow Dash! I grow old, rigid in my thinking. How could I have thought only of her blood relatives? Oh, dear, we had better call Rainbow Dash as well. As if this could not be more difficult and painful…”
Lyra reared and hugged her. Princess Celestia had gone quite red in the face.
“We kind of can’t do that either,” admitted Sweetie Belle. “Oh! Here’s Apple Bloom!”
Apple Bloom stumbled down the stairs as if hypnotized, staring into Celestia’s eyes with great and desperate intensity. Her lip quivered, and she nearly lost her footing, but she forced herself onward, walking up to the Princess with a sense of occasion, gulping, her eyes tearing up.
Scootaloo followed close behind, saying “Easy there, Apple Bloom.”
Apple Bloom cleared her throat. “Princess. Ya got… sump’n ta tell me, Princess?”
“I would prefer,” said Celestia gently, “to wait until the adults are here, child.”
Apple Bloom gritted her teeth. “Ain’t no child, Princess. Even if I ain’t stickin’ things in my hooha like these critters. You got somethin’ to say?”
“Please wait until we’re joined by your Granny Smith and your brother?”
“You might be waitin’ a spell,” growled Apple Bloom. “Sounds like you won’t talk to me? You’re waitin’ for th’ mare of the house to arrive? Or th’ stallion, though damn if I know what Big Macintosh counts hisself as these days. Maybe that won’t be troublin’ him no more!” She laughed, though it came out like a sob.
Princess Celestia blinked, puzzled. Apple Bloom was getting more and more fierce, to the concern of her Crusader friends. “Something like that,” said Celestia, cautiously.
“Ah think maybe Ah’m it,” said Apple Bloom. “Again, you got somethin’ to say to me, Princess?”
“I beg your pardon, child?”
Apple Bloom gritted her teeth again, and though her eyes were tearing up, they burned a hole right through her Princess.
“If you’re sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’, Ah am the mistress of this here house. I din’t ask for it, an’ I don’t want it. But I am my sister’s blood an’ I am the mare of the house and you’re gonna talk to me. So start talkin’!”
She braced herself, her little legs shaking. Princess Celestia gazed at her sorrowfully, opened her mouth, and found herself too choked up to speak. There was something so heroic about the stubborn little filly, following in her sister’s hoofsteps and taking on the burden of the Sweet Apple Acres ranch in the midst of tragedy.
“Your sister Applejack…” began Celestia awkwardly.
Apple Bloom sobbed, loudly, but would not back away or look down.
“…has been very, very badly injured.”
Scootaloo’s and Sweetie’s eyes widened. Apple Bloom’s were beginning to dull from pain overload, but a moment later, they widened too. She made a choking noise, and spat on the ground heedless of the royal presence, and she blurted “Say that again!”
“Applejack has been hurt terribly. She was attacked by something…”
Apple Bloom’s jaw dropped. “You said hurt! You din’t say killed! Fluttershy, she said she was killed an’ ate up! She ain’t? She… she ain’t dead?”
Behind her, Granny Smith was coming down the stairs. “What’s all this, child? Princess Celestia! Say that again, will you?”
Celestia sighed. “Must I tell it again and again? Can we at least fetch Big Macintosh before I resume?”
“Who?” said Granny bitterly.
Apple Bloom paid no attention. She was hopping up and down. “She ain’t, she ain’t, my sister ain’t dead! Oh my gosh! Oh, Princess Celestia!”
“Do not rejoice!” protested the Princess. “Applejack was attacked by a savage creature, which tore her open! My sister Luna, even now, watches over her healing. She will not wake, and we fear for her life, and I must impose upon you the gravity of the situation!”
“But we know about that,” said Sweetie Belle. “That’s why Rainbow Dash has rushed off! We heard all about the wild griffin that’s hurting and eating ponies, and we thought he ate Applejack and Big Macintosh like Fluttershy said, and now you’re telling us that she got away! Of course we’re happy, we thought everything was lost!”
Granny Smith looked stunned. “What’s all this now?”
“Applejack has been terribly wounded…” began Princess Celestia.
“And Braeburn is still out there somewhere and Rainbow Dash and my mom are trying to find him!” said Scootaloo.
“And…” began Apple Bloom, and froze. “Aw, hell, that’s right! Big Macintosh was doin’ fine an’ then one day he weren’t there and th’ plow was just sittin’ in the fields…”
What happened to Granny Smith then was striking. They could see her putting two and two together. Applejack attacked. Danger in the fields and woods of Ponyville, danger so grave as to take even Applejack down. And her grandcolt, the grandcolt she’d turned from and disowned, the baby colt she’d thought had simply run away to be wanton and immoral…
“Oh, baby, forgive me,” muttered Granny weakly.
“Ma’am,” said Princess Celestia, “are you well? I bring upsetting news. I am concerned for its impact on your family.”
“No, I ain’t,” said Granny. “I ain’t well atall. Oh, my.” Her face twisted in anguish that swept over her in a merciless tide. “He ain’t dead ta me, oh no. Pore baby, he’s jes’ dead… and that’s why he din’t come back… and I never once thought… oh, hell!”
Princess Celestia fluttered her wings in distress. “Granny, calm yourself! What can I do? I can’t bear to bring you such ill tidings, yet I had to! Do you need to come and see Applejack? We cannot disturb her rest, for fear of shaking her tenuous hold on life, but you shall visit her if that will help.”
Granny gulped. “Won’t make up for… oh, pore Big Macintosh! But Ah cain’t lose them both! An’ young Apple Bloom…”
Apple Bloom whirled and faced Granny. “I thunk I was th’ mare of the household. Well, Ah’m mare enough for this! Yes we are visitin’ Applejack, right now! There’s an awful lot o’ farm work ta do but come with me, we are goin’ to go see Applejack with Princess Celestia. Then we’re comin’ back home an’ gittin’ to work, and you’re gonna help me even if you kin only do a lil’. So can you, Sweetie Belle, an’ so can you, Scootaloo!”
Granny gaped at her little granddaughter, and then all at once she began to weep and tremble. “Aw, lil’ darlin’. Life surely do go on, don’t it? There’s always an Apple mare, always. It’s in th’ blood, somehow.”
Apple Bloom held her head high. “Applejack’s coming back. But until then, Ah am boss mare, an’ I’m tellin’ you to come with me an’ go see her. Hop to it!”
Granny seemed weakened. She muttered, “Ah let my poor babies down, an’ it were th’ death of one of ‘em and near th’ death of the other. I ain’t in no position ta argue, not me.”
“I’d like to hear more about what happened to Big Macintosh,” said Princess Celestia, shaken. “This is more terrible than I had imagined, yet I cannot deny the consequences I’ve seen with my own eyes.”
“Fluttershy will tell ya all about it,” said Apple Bloom, “but Princess, lead us to Applejack. Right this instant! In case…” she said, and then she choked up and Sweetie hugged her tightly.
Celestia turned, without another word, and with Lyra close by her side, led the somber procession of ponies out of the house, down the road, and toward Canterlot. It was a long walk, but none offered a word of complaint, and none wavered from their goal.
Except Scootaloo, who kept looking anxiously toward the horizon when the others weren’t watching.
Fluttershy peered around the edge of her front door, trembling. Then, she squealed, and tried to push her way back inside, fruitlessly.
She had no chance against the earth pony who opposed her—a pink pony, with a set jaw and long, straight hair.
“Come on, Fluttershy!” said Pinkie, nee Pinkamena Diane Pie, forcing her beloved out into the deceptively mild air of Ponyville. “Move your little rump! I don’t care if you hop or skip as long as you help me warn the other ponies! This is important!”
“Important?” squeaked Fluttershy. “Try deadly, and scary, and please can I go back and hide under my bed some more?”
“No, you can’t!” snapped Pinkamena, and then facehooved. Her lip quivered. “I… I’m sorry, Fluttershy. I can’t bear to hurt you, but this is serious. We’ll have a big cake and a big tub of pudding afterwards and everything will be okay, but BEFORE that happens we have to warn the town, and if it’s just me doing it, ponies could die from not hearing about it fast enough!”
“Well, why don’t you zip around faster than Rainbow Dash, then, if it’s so important?”
“I don’t have it in me,” said Pinkamena Diane Pie. “I’ve got to protect all the ponies I love. At least I stopped fuzzing out all the time, but that makes me sad. We’ve got to get through this, somehow. Maybe if the town is safe, then I’ll feel like myself again.” She gulped. “I want to be singing and smiling and full of love and I can’t, Fluttershy, I can’t. I’m too frightened, and it hurts too much.”
Rock Candy had come up behind them, and nuzzled his mother, blinking at her peculiar new hairstyle. She stroked him with a forehoof, and looked beseechingly at Fluttershy. “You said we’ve lost Applejack and Big Macintosh. Do you have any idea what that will do to this town? If any more ponies die, I don’t think we can ever recover. I feel kind of like we can’t recover now.” She gulped again. “You’ve got to help me warn them. It’s just terrible!”
Fluttershy trembled, staring at her beloved mate. “You’re right. Can… can we go together?”
“And take twice as long?” said Pinkamena. “Brilliant.”
Fluttershy pouted. “I’ll take the pegasi and the center of town. That will cover many, many houses, and I can sound the alarm from the air.”
Pinkamena nodded. “That leaves me the farm houses and the area by the Everfree. I’m okay with that. I think I can run extra fast if I’m attacked. I hope so, anyway. Rock, you are staying home! Thank you for the cuddles and we will be back for more. Go inside! Don’t open the door for anypony but us!”
Rock Candy looked solemnly at her, and then turned and went into the cottage, as he was asked.
“Such a good boy. All right, Fluttershy—fly, don’t let anything stop you!”
Pinkamena pounded along the road, looking grim and annoyed, calling, “Fluttershy!”
As she approached the town and crossed one of the bridges that ringed it, she pulled up abruptly, staring. Her sweet pegasus was not flying around sounding the alarm, nor was she cowering from the danger. Instead, she was sprawled on a park bench, sobbing, and Rock was with her. Pinkamena galloped up. “What happened? Rock, what are you doing here?”
“I couldn’t send him home by himself!” sniffled Fluttershy. “Now that you’re here let’s bring him home, okay? How did it go for you?”
Pinkamena glowered. “Bad. They gave me hugs! I mean, hugs are a very good thing and normally I am happy to get them, but they just would not listen! Some of them thought I was making a big joke and I couldn’t get through to them at all. Carrot Top wanted me to sing her my song.”
Fluttershy wiped her eyes with the back of a hoof. “Did you?”
“Sort of! I sang, big monsters are coming to eat you up and not even have your carrots as garnish or dessert or anything, so you better hide, la la la!”
Fluttershy stared. “You’re joking. Really?”
“I was upset,” said Pinkamena. “She was totally offended and kicked me out. How did your part go?”
Fluttershy’s lip quivered. “They didn’t hear me! I flew and shouted as loudly as I could and not a pony noticed me. Then, when I started to fly at them and grab them and plead with them to hide somewhere safe, they l… laughed!”
Pinkamena stared into space, sourly. “Something tells me that we are not among the great alarm givers. Applejack would have everypony in town locked up in her barn by now. She’d herd them or something. She’s amazing…”
“But,” objected Fluttershy, “she’s…”
They looked at each other, and began to cry. Rock hopped up frantically, trying to hug both Moms in turn.
“Applejack, noo!” wailed Pinkamena. “Please can it not be true?”
“Oh, Rock!” sobbed Fluttershy. “Let’s get you home!”
“We’ve got to convince the town,” said Pinkamena. “We’ve got to! What can we possibly do?”
Fluttershy was shaking, but she lifted her head. “Maybe if we watched Gilda doing something terrible, we would have evidence? She was staying in Rainbow Dash’s house.” She glanced huntedly at the sky, trying to shield Rock Candy with her wing.
“I don’t think we can shake Rock. He can tell something’s wrong,” said Pinkie. “Let’s all three of us head that way. Keep an eye out because we mustn’t be the next victims, but maybe we’ve got to catch her eating somepony to be believed.”
Pinkamena twitched. “As horrible as letting it keep on happening, over and over and over, and not stopping it? How many have we lost so far?”
Fluttershy winced. “You’re right. Let’s go.”
They headed nervously in the direction of Dash’s cloud house, Fluttershy barely able to walk for trembling, Pinkie doggedly sheltering Rock every step of the way. A few townsponies gawked or snickered, but the odd trio ignored them: set on their mission, heading back over the bridge and onward to the outskirts of town.
As they crossed the crest of a hill and came in view of Dash’s cloud house, Fluttershy made a faint squeal of horror that she frantically suppressed, and Pinkamena hissed and just about sat on Rock. The house wasn’t empty. A winged figure was coming out of it, brown with a white head, clearly Gilda. It was hard to tell if she’d seen them—she seemed to be carrying something bulky in her talons.
“Take cover!” whispered Fluttershy. “Stay down!”
Then she flew up deliberately, even as Pinkie whispered “Fluttershy, no!” in desperation. All she could do was watch Fluttershy cautiously soar higher, following Gilda as the wild griffin carried her burden away from Dash’s house and away from the three secret observers.
Pinkie died a thousand deaths there in the cheerful afternoon sun as she waited for Fluttershy’s return. She watched, terrified, as Gilda appeared in the sky again and returned to the cloud house alone and shut herself in. Finally, mercifully, her pegasus came back, just as silently as she’d left.
“I know what she did,” said Fluttershy. “I need your help. You’re stronger than me.”
“I’ll do anything, Fluttershy,” said Pinkamena. “I was so scared, don’t ever do that again! I wanted to yell, but then Gilda would have heard it and she’d have caught you for sure…”
“She won’t catch me,” said Fluttershy. “I’m good at watching. You know that. She didn’t spot me, and I totally watched her, and I think we’ve got her. I think she buried a dead body!”
Pinkamena stared at her. “Fluttershy, she eats ponies, she doesn’t bury them. That’s kind of the point, duh!”
“I don’t care, I know what I saw! Maybe she buries the bones! She wrapped them up in something, I know that. If we bring pony bones back to town, everypony will have to listen to us! Come with me. I’ll show you where she buried them. She picked a good spot for hiding dead pony parts. I mean, good if you didn’t have an observant pegasus watching your every move…”
They slunk along, staying under cover as much as possible, along the edge of the Everfree Forest. Fluttershy guided them through heavy underbrush, nearly impassable except by air. She flew up and directed Pinkie who clambered through hedge and scrub getting leaves and twigs tangled in her mane but pushing on unstoppably. Rock followed in her path, bouncing with excitement.
“It’s over here,” whispered Fluttershy. “She really found a place, if you can’t fly it’s almost impossible. You have to go around these thorn bushes, and then she put a big rock on top of it…”
Pinkamena was sweating, glaring at the bushes. “Thorns are no fun!”
“I know,” said Fluttershy gently. “Not much farther now.”
Pinkie concentrated and tried to flatten herself out, but it seemed like she’d lost a little bit of her outrageousness in her grief and worry. She could only squeeze out of the way of the thorns like a normal pony might, and she cursed “Licorice! Tiny black pieces of licorice, skinny… ow! sticks of it!”
“Almost… there you go!”
Pinkamena stumbled out into a small clearing, heavily shaded by the overhanging trees. In the center, a large rock lay atop a mound of freshly turned earth. “Wonderful,” she said. “Was this her idea of a gravestone?”
“You must move the stone away,” said Fluttershy, hovering. “I’m not strong enough.”
Pinkie looked up, with a sour expression. “Well, you could help me!”
“I’m frightened to!” protested Fluttershy. “What if something terrible jumped out from under the rock?”
Pinkamena Diane Pie drew a deep breath. “And yet you are fine with me doing it? Fluttershy! Get down here right now and help me!”
Chastened, sulking, her pegasus mate hesitated no longer. The two ponies hauled at the rock, helped by their excited foal. “Rock! Don’t get near the rock!” cried Fluttershy, fretfully.
At this, Pinkamena snorted with brief laughter. “Now that’s unfair! Stay away from yourself, kid! Okay… almost… got it…”
The big stone rolled aside, and Rock scampered clear with room to spare. Pinkie panted, as did Fluttershy.
“Now you must dig, Pinkie Pie! I’m much too tired!”
Pinkie didn’t hesitate. She knew there was an element of truth in what Fluttershy said, and in addition the fabric of reality seemed to press heavily on her, demanding she complete her task. She stared at the ground, and then began to dig like a dog, and the earth flew away beneath her hooves.
“No, Rock!” she ordered. “Stay back, it could be yucky!”
Very soon, the texture of the earth changed. Something emerged under her hooves, dank, wadded, dark.
“That’s it!” cried Fluttershy. “Be careful, now!” Rock stared, fascinated.
Pinkamena glared up from under a fringe of sweaty mane. “What more do you think I’m gonna do to it?”
“Just bring it up and we will unwrap…” Fluttershy’s lip quivered suddenly. “Her…”
Pinkie dragged the wad of cloth up out of the hole, refusing to think about what it concealed. She feverishly spread it out, digging through the grimy folds. “She must have rubbed it in the dirt for a while!” she said, as she spread out the cloth.
Nothing was inside it, nothing at all. Pinkie and Fluttershy stared at each other.
“But I’m sure this is what she buried,” stammered Fluttershy. “It was right here! And she was so furtive, and this must be what she was hiding, and…”
Slowly, Pinkamena Diane Pie looked at her forehooves, dark with dirt. Very warm-colored dirt. Strangely red dirt… she looked down at the empty cloth again. Her crankiness began to drop away, that anger that had protected her from looking too closely at the situation she was in.
Rock suddenly looked very worried, and nuzzled her as she stared at her prize.
“The blood,” said Pinkie softly.
“I suppose maybe this is what she used to wipe up the blood from that poor bunny?” said Fluttershy. “I hope not. We need better proof! Can you do your creepy weird thing and get a sense of what this is? Not that I enjoy it, but desperate times call for desperate measures…”
“So much blood,” said Pinkie, and gulped. “Please, no…”
Rock stamped the ground, and butted Pinkie with his head. She didn’t respond, just sat blinking and gulping and staring at that cloth.
“I think you’re right, there’s too much. It can’t be from the bunny, or even a whole lot of bunnies,” said Fluttershy. “I knew it! I knew she was a horrible murdering monster! We have to get this back to town right away, and… Pinkie?”
Rock whimpered. Pinkie lifted her head. Her eyes glowed with fey madness.
“There will be more, there will be more! If we have our way, our wonderful pony way! Who can spare a little blood for the tale of Pinkamena Pie? They won’t listen! Sauce for the goose! Come and listen, come, it’s funny, laugh! Everything is terrible and the most terrible thing, why, it’s us!”
“Pinkie!” screamed Fluttershy, but it was too late. Pinkamena had plunged back through the bushes, and was galloping heedlessly through the Everfree back toward town. Rock charged after her, able to avoid injury by following the path his mother had made.
Fluttershy grabbed up the blood-soaked cloth. “Pinkie!” she screamed. She flew after her beloved, and caught up with her to see the madness undimmed, and rendered still more horrible by the beaming creepy smile and the drips of blood all trickling down her pink face from the thornbush’s resistance.
“Stop it! There’s blood all over you!” cried Fluttershy.
“There will be more, oh yes,” called Pinkie, “and I won’t be the one who stops it! They won’t listen, they won’t listen, murder by law, everything is wrong and you can’t help! It’s out of my hooves, la la!” She trotted on, heading straight back to Ponyville. Fluttershy bit her lip and flew after, and Rock stuck close by Pinkie, staring up fretfully at her.
Carrot Top was out in her fields. Her jaw dropped, and the hoe fell from her mouth. “Pinkie! Something attacked Pinkie!”
“Listen to me,” demanded Fluttershy. “You’ve got to come with me and we’ll get a gang of ponies and we have to go and attack Gilda!”
“That griffin?” stammered Carrot Top. “She did this? Look at her!”
“You will have her blood on your hooves!” called Pinkie, a huge mad smile on her face. “And that’s not nice at all!”
“What?” wailed Carrot Top.
“She has Applejack’s blood on her hooves!” said Fluttershy. “Because Gilda has it on her claws and killed Applejack! It’s all over this cloth, it’s our evidence! Gilda must have eaten her all up except for… hey! Wait!”
She stared in frustration. Carrot Top pounded away from them as she galloped into town in a panic, screaming shrilly. Pinkie resumed her incongruous trot, and Rock pursued her single-mindedly. Fluttershy gathered the cloth up in her forehooves, and the blood and dirt stained her yellow chest an ugly iron-oxide brown. She set off as well.
When she got into town, Pinkie was cornering Bon Bon in the street, beaming. “How does it feel to know you’ll be part of a blind hateful mob?”
“What’s the matter with you?” cried Bon Bon. “Leave me alone!”
“You could think twice, but you won’t, you won’t!” insisted Pinkie. Bon Bon bridled, her ears laid back at the smiling, blood-streaked visage.
“You’ve got to help me!” demanded Fluttershy. “This cloth is totally soaked in Applejack’s blood, and… hey!”
Bon Bon had galloped off. Pinkie’s grin widened. She reared, standing on her back hooves, kicking the air, and did a twirl.
“It begins!” she cried, and her eyes rolled back in her head, and Pinkamena Diane Pie fainted in the middle of the street, bleeding from all her thorn-induced injuries.
Rock wailed and dove, clinging to her and shaking her. Fluttershy hesitated a moment and then called, “Rock Candy!”
He looked up. She was staring at him in a peculiar way, a way that made him stop thinking and just listen and obey her instructions.
“Stay with her and don’t let her talk to anypony else, okay? I’ll be right back and we’ll take her home, but I have to get ponies to do something for me first.”
Rock nodded, tearful, and did as Fluttershy asked. He stayed with Pinkie, soothed by her regular, even breathing, feeling her heartbeat against him as it calmed from hysterical pounding to more of its normal throb. Fainting seemed to have helped Pinkie. Her face relaxed from its rictus grin, but in some ways it was no improvement, for she looked so sad.
He watched across the town square as his other mom confronted a mare with a red flower on her flank, only to stamp in frustration as the hapless pony screamed and ran. She turned to argue with a dark-maned elegant mare who bore a purple treble clef on her rump. This one didn’t run, but turned to a pegasus she was with, a big strong fellow dressed as a Royal Guard. That one’s eyes widened, as Fluttershy showed him the cloth and spoke at length. Rock couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the guard began to look more and more worried…
Gilda thought she’d settled her nerves down. She’d laughed at herself for being a cowardly griffin, though it wasn’t a very convincing laugh and the way it faded into the silence of Dash’s kitchen left her feeling even more jittery.
When the loud rapping erupted from the front door, she thought she’d end up clinging to the ceiling. Instead, her talons scraped on the floor tiles with a nerve-jangling screech that sent a spasm up her spine. She took a deep breath, and tried to sheathe her claws.
Gilda eyed the door warily, and pulled it open, to reveal two ponies standing on the walkway just outside the house. One was a big white pegasus dressed up in some sort of uniform. The other had no business being up on a cloud at all, for she was an earth pony, a pretty gray mare despite a severe case of long flowing dark mane and tail. She had lovely violet eyes, but Gilda didn’t like the way they were looking at her.
“Ma’am?” said the pegasus. “Can we speak with you for a moment?”
Gilda narrowed her eyes. “About what?”
“About, uh…” The pegasus broke off, whispering to the pretty mare. He turned back. “Papers. We’d just like to see if your griffin papers are in order.”
Gilda shifted her weight from talon to talon, uncomfortably. “I’ve never heard of griffin papers! What the fuck are you talking about?”
The pegasus flinched, and listened to the mare whisper something else. “Oh!” he said. “So you haven’t got griffin papers? You’d better come with us.”
“What for?” demanded Gilda.
The mare spoke up. “You should listen to what my boyfriend says! Trust me, it would be the easy way. You don’t want to see the hard way.” She nodded, solemnly.
The earth pony mare held her head high and proud, and stared back at Gilda, as if she was so confident in her pegasus boyfriend that she had no fear of an angry griffin directly in front of her. “Yes. Go with him. Stout Heart? I believe there is something you say at this point, isn’t there?”
He glanced at her. “Must you, Octavia?”
Octavia gave a little gasp. Her hind legs were trembling. “All right, I admit: I just want to hear you say it. Go on.”
Stout Heart sighed, and fixed Gilda with a fierce gaze. He rumbled, “Gilda Griffin, you are under arrest. Come with me.” He glanced back at his marefriend, who quivered with excitement. “Like that, dear?”
“Oooh, yes,” said Octavia. “Delicious.”
Gilda stared at the two in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Go away. Fuck you. Or go fuck each other, it looks and smells like that’s what you want to do right now. Piss off!”
Octavia grinned a tight little grin. “Later. Right now, you’re coming with my wonderful darling Stout Heart, peacefully, or you’ll be very very sorry.”
“Oh yeah?” hissed Gilda.
“I told you this was the easy way,” said Octavia with serene confidence. “We can do it the hard way if you like. We’re being nice. I’ve seen the hard way, and you don’t want to see it.”
Stout Heart stepped back a pace, biting his lip. A splintering sound filled the air. Gilda looked down to see that she was tearing up Rainbow Dash’s front step, her talons sinking deep into the painted wood. She looked up, and realized she was grinding her beak, her nerves jangling worse and worse. The afternoon was turning into a nightmare, and this stupid earth pony kept on smiling smugly at her, threatening her with hints about the fierceness of this police-pegasus who was already shying away from her.
If she knocked him aside, he’d still be able to catch the earth pony if she fell off the cloud. The sky awaited.
“Fuck your hard way,” snarled Gilda, and stepped forward one pace. Stout Heart stepped back, nervously, glancing between the griffin and his marefriend. Octavia didn’t budge.
“Last warning,” said Octavia, calmly.
“Fuck you, too,” hissed Gilda. Her talons dug into the steps and wood splintered and broke. Her hindquarters shifted their weight back and forth, her tail lashed. She thought to herself, hit him with your shoulder, keep the talons down, one good pounce and you’ll be clear…
Gilda leapt, and screaming yellow hell descended upon her before she even reached him.
She tumbled, the wind knocked out of her, panicking and lashing out in all directions. Octavia jumped back and plummeted through the cloud. Stout Heart dove in pursuit and reappeared in mere seconds carrying his mare, and watching from a safe distance. Octavia’s voice pealed out triumphantly. “Warned you!”
And all the while, Fluttershy snarled and wrestled with Gilda, long flowing pink mane flying in the breeze, kicking and biting like she herself was a wild animal.
Gilda writhed, nearly flinging the maddened pegasus off, but Fluttershy was biting her shoulder. She lashed out, and Fluttershy screamed, gashed deeply in the chest, her body whirling to sprawl helplessly across her attacker’s. Gilda’s hind claws came up, ready to instinctively gouge and tear at Fluttershy’s neck—and Fluttershy’s back hooves kicked out savagely, once, twice, slamming into Gilda’s head with sickening force.
Gilda thrashed in a final spasm and went totally limp, out cold.
Fluttershy stood panting, shaking, dripping blood. Octavia cheered. “You were right! She was a big criminal and we’ve caught her!”
“I hope you didn’t kill her,” said Stout Heart. “I didn’t want there to be a fight. This is bad all around.”
Fluttershy bent her head, staring hard at the comatose griffin whose eyes gazed vacantly at nothing. She looked up. “I didn’t. She’s unconscious but is not dead. I wish she was… but that wouldn’t make Applejack and Big Macintosh be alive again.” Her face twisted, and she began to cry.
Stout Heart set Octavia back on the path outside Dash’s front door, and addressed Fluttershy as she hung her head and wept. “You can carry Tavi back to Ponyville. I won’t ask you to carry this… thing. I can hardly believe it’s true. I guess we’ll be using the dungeon for the first time in a long time! Are you ready?”
“Just a moment,” said Fluttershy. She bent down, and took a breath, muscles on her neck standing out from the tension of her fury and grief. She whispered, very quietly and gently, “That… was for Applejack, poor Applejack.” She paused.
Stout Heart opened his mouth and then flinched. With blinding speed, Fluttershy had smashed Gilda in the head with a forehoof.
“And THAT’S for the BUNNIES!”
Stout Heart and Octavia stared, wide-eyed. Fluttershy gritted her teeth and slowly looked up at them, her eyes burning.
“Take her away.”