Got Away Again
When Lyra regained her consciousness, she found she had been restrained to what felt like an old stump or a tree. Her front hooves were secured above her head by something sharp and when she tried to move them it sent searing pain along her hooves and a fresh trail of blood that trickled onto her brow. Her heart started beating faster and her breaths became hard and labored, her torso was crushed against the apple tree in what she assumed to be rope, limiting the use of her lungs. Slowly, Lyra's senses began to intake her surroundings. A rancid odor of death and decay grew with every labored breath. She thrashed her head back and forth trying to avoid the trail of blood from her hooves getting in her eyes. It took several minutes for the immense headache and blurred vision to ease enough of her to see where she was. At first, she could only make out trees and a sunset. She guessed that she was in some part of the Apple family's orchard that had been long forgotten as evidenced by the mangled, overgrown branches and the piles of dried leaves littering the ground around them. As her vision progressed, she realized that the strange lumps on the trees weren't branches and the piles below them weren't leaves. She closed her eyes tightly, her mind putting the pieces together as her other senses were violated by her current reality. On her next intake of the rancid odor her eyes flew open and she let out an ear-piercing scream of terror. The remains of the missing ponies of Ponyville had been the objects she'd seen in her haze, or rather, what was left of them. Gardening tools and worn rope adorned the apple tree trunks, holding only sparse pieces of the ponies laid in mishap heaps at the base of the trees: bones, entrails, and colorful coats now stained crimson with the odor of their death carried in the breeze. The tree directly adjacent to Lyra's showed worn and bloodied hoe had been sharpened and slammed into the tree trunk. Resting atop the blade was the head of Bon Bon, the terror still stamped clearly on her face from her final moments of life. The rest of Bon Bon's body had not been completely severe by the hoe, her spine was exposed from the neck and her broken body hung awkwardly around it.
Lyra sobbed openly, too traumatized to understand what was happening or how to get herself out of harm's way.
"Look who finally decided to join us." Applejack whispered.
"A-applejack?" Lyra gasped in relief. "Thank Celestia, hurry get me down from --"
Applejack effectively silenced her when she lassoed a rope around Lyra's neck and pulled it tight; effectively choking her words.
"Taint very nice ya know." She said, staring at her with unforgiving eyes. "Every time Ah try to talk some sense into ya, ya refuse to listen. Ya up and die, ya see?"
Lyra sputtered and gagged, still trying to process what she'd seen and connect the carnage to a pony she had once called a friend.
"But Ah keep bringing ya back. Ah know how rich ponies are...think yer so much better than us country ponies. So much cleverer...every time you try and hide Ah find ya, don't Ah?"
"Applejack…" Lyra groaned in a voice barely above a whisper. "I'm...not…"
"SHUT YER TRAP!" Applejack screamed, slamming a shovel against the unicorn's head so violently that it caused the skull to fracture. "You have yer chance to speak. It's mah turn. We Apples have been on this farm for nearly four generations. Why...we founded this town. If my granny hadn't…" Lyra whimpered weakly in confusion. Until that point she hadn't made a sound. "AH SAID SHUT UP!"
"IT'S RUDE! Where was Ah...oh yeah, and then Pinkie Pie was handling 'em out like they were free samples. Wait, no...it was Rarity…" Applejack muttered under her breath. "And then Fluttershy wanted to gather 'em up like they were little, they were tame critters and Ah weren't gonna have none of it, y-ya hear?!"
Lyra was hyperventilating at this point, using all of her strength to catch her breath under the grip of the rope.
"Who are you?" Applejack snapped. "What are you doing here?! These here are MAH apple trees! Who sent you?"
Lyra could only reply by looking Applejack in the eye, trying to convey her plea for mercy.
"HE sent you, didn't he? He wants the farm...yer a spy!" Applejack screamed angrily. She released the rope from under her hoof allowing Lyra to breathe again. She gasped for several moments, grateful for the oxygen she had been denied. She didn't notice Applejack's momentary absence until it was too late. Applejack screamed and thrust the shovel in the mare's side, slicing it open on contact.
"We don't take kindly to spies 'round here." Applejack whispered. She pulled the shovel loose and stared at the fresh blood in its blade. "You can tell yer boss Filthy Rich he ain't gettin' this farm…"
"Please…" Lyra gasped moments before the shovel punctured her skin a second time. She cried out in weak agony, feeling her warm blood seep into her lungs rapidly.
"Ah've worked too hard for too long to let some city pony with deep pockets take…" Applejack started but was cut off when Lyra coughed up blood and accidentally spat it on her face. Applejack breathed slowly, allowing the anger to come to a boil. She screamed again and thrust the shovel at the mare every time she dared to splash her with blood. (Prolonged pained grunts and whimpers) By the time she had finished, Lyra barely looked like a mare at all, just the loose-hanging remains of a demolished creature.
"Filthy?" Applejack asked, looking at Lyra's remains and then all around her. "Got away again…" she hissed under her breath. "Don't you worry...Ah'll find ya...Ah'll keep findin' ya. Can't hide forever ya coward." she said, pulling the garden sheers loose from the hooves it held in place against the trunk. Lyra's remains sloshed awkwardly onto the ground, freeing the rope that had been tied around her torso. Applejack's movements were slow and deliberate, aside from the occasional twitch. Determined to find and punish Filthy Rich orchard in pursuit; unaware that his remains had already painted the orchard floor red from Applejack's rage.
The Thing You Fear Most
The orchard was as eerie as the Everfree forest to the three little fillies shuffling alone one of the many paths. Apple Bloom led her friends deeper into its fields with single-minded determination. For a short time after her sister's hospitalization, Apple Bloom had believed Granny Smith when she claimed that her sister still wasn't well enough to be visited. However, when weeks passed with no word, the crusaders had demanded to see Applejack at the hospital, only to be turned away by the staff each time. Every new doctor and nurse they had seen gave the fillies a different explanation for the denial of their visit before hastily ushering them out the door. Soon after, rumors and whispers of disappearances around Ponyville had surfaced. Miss Cheerilee addressed the confusion and the panic by insisting that ponies were falling ill from heat stroke and were sent to the hospital for recovery. Apple Bloom didn't buy it, especially when an unspoken increase in security could be seen around Ponyville. Fillies, like the crusaders, were no longer permitted to be outside their homes past sunset, as ordered by Princess Twilight herself. With every new lie told, Apple Bloom's patience wore thin and her temper flared. She knew if she were to get any answers she would have to find them herself.
Ponies were so distracted by the unchanging heat of the day and the panic of the night that it wasn't too difficult for the three fillies to stage their escape. They had arranged a harmless playdate at Fluttershy's cottage, reaffirming that such a thing would brighten their spirits. They knew that Fluttershy had spread herself thin caring for the animals suffering under the heat, and might be the only pony they could evade. Though she was hesitant, Fluttershy agreed, hoping it would convey the point that things weren't as hopeless as ponies feared.
The night had begun innocently enough, playing games with Fluttershy and her animals with forced laughter and smiles. When the time came to sleep, Fluttershy was no fool. She posted her bear friend at their door as an informal guard. The crusaders were told this was just a precaution to keep them safe, but they knew it was to prevent them from sneaking out at night as they had before. What she didn't count on, however, was Harry the bear's distracting appetite and how easily he could be persuaded away from his post by the scent of honey. Sweetie Belle held a delectable jar outside the window with her magic and Scootaloo flapped her little wings to send the scent his way. Within minutes, the crusaders had evaded Fluttershy's security and were alone in the darkness again.
"It's too hot...I wanna go back." Sweetie Belle whined, magiking a leaf from a tree branch nearby to fan herself as she walked. Scootaloo reared up on her hind legs and flapped her wings rapidly, causing a little breeze for her friend. "Thanks," Sweetie Belle said heaving a grateful sigh.
"We can't go back! Do you know how much trouble we're gonna be in?" Apple Bloom chimed, standing next to Sweetie Belle to enjoy the breeze before Scootaloo flopped back onto the ground in fatigue.
"Well then what are we doing here anyway?" Scootaloo muttered.
"Ah told you! Big Mac said there's a bunch of tools missin' from the barn, and just yesterday Ah heard him tell Granny that he found one of 'em in the west orchard." Apple Bloom said confidently.
"But what does that have to do with Applejack?" Scootaloo asked.
"Don't ya see? Only Applejack and Big Mac knew where they kept the tools and there was nothin' else wrong with the barn -- check it myself."
"But...if she went to the barn...why not just go home?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Well...Granny said there was somethin' wrong with Applejack's...mind...like she didn't know who she was and who other ponies were either, and that's why she had to stay in the hospital for so long. Maybe...maybe she just got confused and tried to get back to work on the trees and got...lost…"
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo exchanged worried glances. Hearing Apple Bloom tell the story to them now didn't seem quite as exhilarating as it did when they were planning to go out on their own. Neither of the little fillies had the heart to tell Apple Bloom her ideas were a long-shot at best, and missing tools didn't explain the other pony disappearances. From a lack of response, Apple Bloom continued:
"Ah just wanna see if we can find something in the west orchard that maybe mah brother didn't see...he might a might tired from the heat when he found that ole rake, and he didn't think he was gonna come back again for a little while. Ah can't just let Applejack get more lost!"
"What if WE get lost?" Sweetie Belle asked in a hushed tone.
"Don't worry, Ah know where Ah'm goin!" Apple Bloom insisted, pressing onwards and faking a look of certainty.
"What's that awful smell?" Scootaloo chimed in, covering her nose with her front hoof, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom following suit.
"Eiw! It smells like...like…" Sweetie Belle trailed off.
"Like that time we found that dead skunk next to the clubhouse." Scootaloo finished.
"G-girls?" Apple Boom stammered, stopping dead in her tracks. "Does...does that look like dried blood to you?"
She pointed to a dead patch of grass stained with crimson hoofsteps that led further into the orchard.
"I-I think it's time to go back now." Sweetie Belle muttered in fear.
"Look! It's Rainbow Dash's saddle bag!" Scootaloo said, bounding after it alongside her friends. "Maybe she's still here! A-and maybe she found something, a clue to --" She paused, gasping in terror when she lifted the saddlebag off the ground only to find it had been resting in a fresh pool of blood.
"Let's go back! Please!" Sweetie Belle cried in terror, her eyes watering and legs trembling.
"L-listen...do you girls hear that?" Apple Bloom whispered, causing the other two to fall silent. The three fillies strained to hear the sounds of garbled cries coming from somewhere in the direction of the bloody hoof prints.
"RAINBOW DASH!" Scootaloo screamed, abandoning all logic and racing alongside the blood trail in a blind panic.
"Scootaloo wait!" Apple Bloom protested, she and Sweetie Belle weren't too far behind.
All three fillies came to a grinding halt when a wounded Rainbow Dash sped backwards through the air landing with a crash into the trunk of an apple tree. Rainbow's face was badly beaten and blood oozed from her lips. Her left eye was swollen shut and her legs and torso were marred with hoofprint bruises to indicate she had been beaten and bucked. Clasped in her right hoof was a strange looking needle filled with a white shimmering substance.
Somewhere in the opposite direction, the assailant was laughing and shouting.
"Ah won't EVER go back! And nothin' you pathetic ponies do or say can make me…"
"A-Applejack! It's Applejack!" Apple Bloom finally muttered, choking on her words as her mind tried desperately to understand what it was seeing. At the sound, Rainbow Dash's head spun around making eye contact with the three cowering fillies. Seeing them there gave Rainbow Dash a surge of adrenaline, she leapt from the tree she had crashed into, moments before a hoof-held spade spun and struck into the trunk.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?" Rainbow screamed in anger, pushing all three fillies with her head in the direction she wanted them to go. "RUN!"
The crusaders didn't need to be told twice, they ran from the carnage as fast as their little hooves could take them. That is, except Apple Bloom. Still shocked from the sound of her sister's voice, she deviated from the others and doubled back after Applejack.
"SHIT!" Rainbow screamed, heading back for the foolish filly and biting down hard on her tail before running again.
"NO! IT'S APPLEJACK! AH HEARD HER!"
"Stop...squirming…" Rainbow muttered angrily with the filly's tail still clasped in her mouth. It wasn't long before she caught up to Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle whose little hooves could only move so fast. Rainbow charged ahead, pushing her way through a mass of fallen branches to make way for the other crusaders. Once on the other side, Sweetie Belle tripped over a large fallen mass and tumbled a few feet away from it. When she opened her eyes, she let out an ear piercing scream, that mass was none other than Princess Twilight herself, her head laying in a fresh pool of blood.
Rainbow's head turned sharply around to shout something at the fillies inadvertently tossing Apple Bloom in the process. However, before she could say a word, Applejack sprang from the same thicket of branches, kicking off the ground with her front hooves and bucked Rainbow Dash clean in the jaw. Rainbow skid across the ground but made no sound aside from a garbled intake of breath. The lower half of Rainbow's jaw had completely dislocated and now hung by the skin exposing the carnage of her snout.
The crusaders ducked behind one of the trees and fell deadly silent. Not a single one of them could understand what they were seeing.
Applejack had created an orchard graveyard of all their friends from Ponyville. The missing tools were the means of their deaths and still stuck out of their mangle remains. It was nearly impossible to tell who was who anymore with the carnage of one pony's death seeping into another's. Too traumatized to move to safety they could only watch as the pony, once known as Applejack, descended upon Rainbow Dash, her next prey.
In the light, the crusaders could see the monster Applejack had become. Her right front hoof had a chunk of flesh missing and was oozing a sickening green puss while the fur underneath was blackened and long dead. Her back legs, having once been broken, now looked strong with bones set incorrectly causing her stance to widen and her left back hoof to drag along behind her. Her fur was marred by all manner of scars and matted with twigs, blood, and pieces of hair and fur that were not her own. Most disturbing of all, Applejack's eyes had completely clouded over with the exception of two dark black pupils staring straight into Rainbow Dash without a hint of sanity or mercy.
"Ah told ya...Ah don't want yer fuckin' cure." Applejack said, spitting on Rainbow Dash who fought against choking on her own blood.
Apple Bloom looked up from where she had landed, searching frantically for the needle that had been flung from Rainbow's grasp at the same moment she had. Dazed and still in shock, it took a moment for Apple Bloom to focus her eyes and concentrate on nothing but finding that needle.
"You think there's anything left in here to cure, Rainbow?" Applejack taunted, leaning in close. "Do you still believe you're savin' me?"
Rainbow's eyes darted from Applejack to spy Apple Bloom, creeping towards the needle which was sticking up out of a pile of dead pony debri.
Applejack chuckled to herself. It swelled in her chest, until she laughed madly in Rainbow's face. "Didn't ya know Rainbow? Ah am the thing you fear most! Ah am the madness crawlin' around under yer skin, squirming...writhing around inside just waitin' to get free…"
Apple Bloom's face lost all color, she pried the needle from the debri, having to pull it out of the eye-socket of another one of Applejack's victims.
"AH AM THE INEVITABLE! AH AM THE HARBINGER OF FEAR AND THE MESSENGER OF TRUTH YOU SILENCE WITH HOPE…"
Rainbow Dash made a conscious effort not to look at Apple Bloom and instead writhed around on the ground to keep Applejack's attention on her. Applejack took the bait, stampering her hoof hard on Rainbow's back and leaned down close to her ear.
"And that truth...is that in the end, there ain't nothin' at all…'cept me."
Apple Bloom waited until she was within range, then charged at her sister from behind, needle held high in hoof. She pierced it into Applejack's flank and plunged the liquid into her bloodstream. Almost as if on reflex, Applejack reared her hind legs in the air and bucked Apple Bloom hard into the nearby tree.
Who is to Blame?
The dark stillness of the dungeon cell was broken by the sound of approaching hoofsteps. Applejack lifted her head from the cot and looked expectantly towards the door. Her only indication for the passing of time came from the light of a small window too far from her reach. When sunlight passed over certain stones on the wall, Applejack knew to expect her daily meals; it was the only change from the monotony of silence. This time, however, the approaching pony came entirely too early. Applejack's mind raced; hoping at least she could learn what was going on.
Somepony magicked the key into the lock and opened the cell door, entering without a word. Applejack winced from the sudden brightness but her expression quickly turned to a smile.
"Hello Applejack." Twilight replied, her voice tinged with a professionalism that Applejack had only heard used in the presence of acquaintances or important guests.
"Thank Celestia! Ah was beginnin' to think somepony forgot Ah was in here! What in the hay is goin' on?"
Twilight hesitated before giving her answer. "What...do you remember?"
Applejack frowned and slumped back onto the cot where she had been lying. "Ah...Ah remember askin' you fer help and takin' that strange potion of yours but after that...things get a bit hazy. Next thing Ah know Ah'm all wrapped up in a gauze and bandages downin' pain pills like they're candy and tryin' to get over the fact that I look like I've been in some kind of terrible accident...what happened?"
Twilight pursed her lips and fidgeted on her hooves. There was a slight tremor in her voice as if she were needlessly nervous to answer.
"Applejack, I don't know what you're talking about. There was no potion...you worked yourself too hard and it caused a mental break. You were spouting nonsense and acting violently. Not only did you harm yourself but you harmed several others, turning your orchard into…" she paused, contemplating how much she wanted to reveal at once.
"Into what?" Applejack asked, a scowl on her face.
"Into a slaughtering ground. In your hysteria you took the lives of thirteen ponies and attempted to take mine and Rainbow Dash's lives as well."
"What in the hay are you talkin' about?! Ah'd never harm another creature and Ah certainly wouldn't put the lives of mah best friends at risk! And of course there was a potion! You're the one who gave it to me in the first place!"
Twilight sighed. "Applejack I'm...I'm sorry. I don't know what to tell you."
"You can tell me why yer lyin'" Applejack growled.
"I am the Princess of Friendship. I have ponies who rely on my guidance and I can't be taking the blame for the mistakes of my friends. Your...mental break...must have caused you some confusion."
"Take the blame?! Yer accusing me of murder, Twilight! We both know Ah came to you for that potion! What was in that thing? Why can't Ah remember what happened? WHAT DID IT MAKE ME DO?!" Applejack shouted, wishing she could stomp her hooves down in anger but feared the searing pain of doing so.
Twilight completely ignored the outburst and continued. "Princess Celestia and I don't believe in corporal punishment, and given the fact that you've assisted in saving Equestria on numerous occasions...We've decided to grant you your life; a sentence to be carried out here for the safety of other ponies."
"Why are ya doin' this? You know me Twilight…" Applejack muttered, her voice trembling as her mind tried to accept her friend's betrayal.
"If there WAS such a potion, and I'm not saying there was, I would have TRIED to caution you to its…adverse effects before giving you anything that could be considered dangerous!" Twilight said, returning to that formal tone she used as a mask to hide behind.
"That's it, isn't it? Yer absolving yourself from the guilt; blamin' everything on me so you can sleep at night KNOWIN' what you've done…" Applejack hissed.
"You're the one who carried out those heinous crimes and...disturbing deaths...you have no pony to blame but yourself." Twilight said, looking a little green at the thought.
Applejack looked up at the pony who used to be considered her friend with a cold stare that could penetrate Twilight's heart. It wasn't like her to be so cold and calculating. The Twilight she knew would have stood with her friends and owned up to her mistakes, no matter the cost. While she wracked her brain, searching for a plausible explanation, Twilight broke the silence.
"I found a cure too...whatever it was that ailed you. Even though I was too late to save the others, I knew I could save you. It wasn't until you were...safe here, that I could really focus on the drought. I did something even Celestia couldn't do: find a spell to save Equestria. That's what I do, Applejack, I'm the Princess of Friendship; I wield the most powerful magic in the world and it's MY responsibility to harness that magic for the good of everypony! Equestria can't afford to lose the both of us!"
"So ya sacrifice a friend to bury your secret? And what about the Elements of Honesty, Twi? The Magic of Friendship doesn't work without it!"
"It turns out that Starlight Glimmer might be more useful to Equestria than we thought. She wields the element now."
Applejack sat dumbfounded. The life she had lived passed before her eyes like a flickering memory and she knew this cell was made specifically for her to rot.
"Why'd ya come?"
"To say goodbye. And...to see if…"
"If Ah was cured. Sorry to disappoint ya, but Ah am. Your spell worked."
Twilight bit her lip and lowered her head. If Applejack wasn't herself, she could justify this in her mind; but Applejack wouldn't give that to her. She wanted Twilight to live with the weight of this guilt for the rest of her life.
"Is...is Rainbow alright?"
"Rainbow Dash is still recovering, but she should be fine." Twilight answered softly.
"And mah family?"
Twilight hesitated again. She rubbed the back of her neck with her hoof nervously before answering, "They're...alright. I should go now."
"No...what's wrong? Is Big Mac still hurt?"
Twilight's horn ignited and she made her way towards the door.
"He's fine." Twilight answered.
"I've got to go Applejack." Twilight said, hanging her head in shame.
Twilight flinched at the mention of Apple Bloom, and Applejack picked up on it immediately.
"What's wrong with Apple Bloom?"
"Goodbye…" Twilight said, choking back tears as she closed Applejack's cell door and locked it again.
"WHERE'S APPLE BLOOM?" Applejack screamed after her.
Twilight briskly walked away from the cell towards the pony guard waiting to guide her out. The sound of Applejack's cries were masked by the boom of thunder outside and the new rainfall hitting against the prison wall.
"WHAT HAPPENED TO MAH SISTER?"