Written by: Rainy Days
Apple Bloom was never able to fit into the Apple family like the rest of her relatives. When she tried to plant a new grove of trees nothing sprouted, when she tried to buck the trees she ended up having to spend three weeks in bed with a hurt leg. She ended up forcing Applejack to give away almost half the harvest for free due to her blunder when selling apples and she wasn't allowed to cook anymore after almost burning down Sugarcube Corner when trying to make a new type of apple pie with Mr. and Mrs. Cake.
It had gotten into her head, that perhaps she just wasn't cut out to be a part of the Apple family. As if probably she didn't really belong to them. She felt like she had grown up with these ponies, been raised and sheltered, but that she wasn't truly related to them. Like she wasn't of their blood. And if she wasn't part of the Apple family, who was she? Just a Cutie Mark Crusader? Her family had set their entire identity around their orchards - but Apple Bloom just wasn't suited for it.
"Maybe I'm not really a part of the Apple family.” She said to herself, staring out from her bedroom window at the night sky. Apple Bloom sighed to herself.
"If I'm not an Apple, what am I? Maybe I don't even belong into Ponyville. Maybe I can only find who I really am, and my Cutie Mark, somewhere else.” It was at that moment that the little filly got a gleam in here eye.
Apple Bloom turned away from her window and trotted over to her bedside table. She bit onto the handle, pulled open the drawer and removed her scarlet Cutie Mark Crusader's cape. Careful to avoid waking her older siblings and Granny Smith the yellow filly snuck downstairs. Placing the cape on the kitchen table she put some food and bottles of water on it. Other basic supplies and the few coins she had went on top. Apple Bloom crept out back, catching sight of a sturdy stick that was just the right size for her. Dragging the stick back into the farmhouse, Apple Bloom placed it on the table and wrapped the makeshift bag around one end.
She looked at her new ... whatever this was supposed to be.
"This is stupid, what the hay was I thinking?” Apple Bloom whispered to herself. Emptying the bag, the little filly poured the contents into the saddlebag she normally kept by the backdoor. She put on her saddlebag, and wrapped her cape around her neck. And with that, the red haired filly swiftly, and silently, made her way out of the farmhouse.
Written by: the Zefarian
She made her way through the groves, the grey streaks of moonlight just piercing enough to illuminate her path. The only sound was the rustling of the leaves. Apple Bloom pushed past the leaves that obstructed her path, coming upon the small clearing were her 'home away from home' was located - the Cutie Mark Crusaders clubhouse. Apple Bloom walked into the doorway, admiring the clubhouse she had so meticulously repaired several months ago - each nail was driven in steadily and with care, each board waxed and lacquered, each detail intentional and precise. Only a small beam of light lit up the small house, she could see the mess: maps scribbled on until the landmarks were barely visible, checklists filled to the brim with ideas and thoughts. Pictures, plans, and various tools were scattered about the floor. She went up to a pile of paper and picked up a sheet, holding it in her mouth as she headed toward the disordered collection of pencils. Letting the sheet fall to the floor, Apple Bloom replaced it with a pencil, her mind racing as she started to write.
She had already left a note to her family - to Applejack, Big Macintosh and Granny Smith, but she needed to leave one to her friends as well. She needed her friends to know, they would understand her and would be sympathetic to her ends. Applejack would only go on about how she was family. Apple Bloom needed to write to those who knew what it was like not to fit in, not to feel a part of something you've always known.
"My dearest friends Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle …"
The letter was left on the floor, in plain sight by the doorway. Her Cutie Mark Crusaders cape was folded nicely, placed by the note. Apple Bloom walked out, leaving her memories behind, leaving her life behind. This was her resignation.
Written by: The Zefarian
Her own thoughts kept bounding off the walls of her own mind: "Failure, failure! yer nothing but a failure …" Her mind turned to the shortcomings: her first test - she didn't study; learning to skate - all the hard work, all the strife, yet she always seemed to fall flat on her face; learning to use a lasso - all the lessons her sister gave her, all the practice, the hours tying and untying, training her dexterity and form, yet she could never learn to make any perfection out of her practice.
She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she even failed to see the pony in her path!
Apple Bloom crashed headfirst into her, falling back from the recoil. She looked up and who she saw was ... Pinkie Pie. Of course, who else would be awake this late?
"Oh, hi there Apple Bloom! Where are you going so latey watey this nighty wighty?"
Apple Bloom picked herself up, she had to think of something quickly, an excuse, a reason so Pinkie wouldn't get suspicious. "Ah ... er … have to pick up some medicine from nurse Redheart for Granny, and Big Sis is busy so …"
"Oh, is that all? Well, let Pinkie Pie help you!"
"No no, Ah'm fine, really. You go ahead and do ... whatever it is you do."
"Oki Doki Loki!", Pinkie sung out as she started hopping away
Apple Bloom immediately remembered something, Pinkie's story - her Cutie Mark story. She cried out," Wait! Pinkie Pie!".
"Yeah?", Pinkie replied, stopping in her tracks.
"Ah was just wondering, you told us you used ta' live on a rock farm …", Apple Bloom started, " so why did ya leave?"
Pinkie shot a look at the ground, a hoof to her cheek: this was a thinking face. There was a distinct lack of "Pinkie Pie" in her answer, an emptiness almost. "I've never really thought about that but I guess it just wasn't where I belong. I found my true calling, I found what I've always dreamed of and I couldn't do it back home. " A smile returned to her face, " I'm different, and I accept that. Now I can spread smiles and joy and laughter and candy and happiness and more candy and parties to everypony!" Her hooves flew up as if it were a grand finale.
Apple Bloom masked her deepening frown: she had expected something to make her reconsider, but what she got was reinforcement. "Thanks Pinkie…", she managed to whimper out.
"Oh, no problem at all! Get home safely and have a good night!", the pink pony replied, resuming her joyous bounce.
Apple Bloom waited until she was gone, dragging her hooves as she continued on. The little filly thought to herself, "If Pinkie could go off to leave her family and her home behind to do what she loved, what's stopping me? Ah can't do anything right here, so ah'll have to make right someplace else." The road underneath slowly changed from the smooth, familiar gravel of home to the rough, hard soil of the open road.
Written by: Piercing Sight
Leaving Ponyville and her old home behind her Apple Bloom reached an open field. The air became dry and cool, the sky appeared crisp. Luna's full moon shone down onto the grass, which gleamed. The path ahead was clearly visible. It was almost like nature wanted to help her make this journey.
Apple Bloom took in the scene, remembering the view from her upstairs bedroom. The apple trees gently swaying, the apples shining, the breeze whispering her to sleep. Homesickness lightly nestled itself into the back of her mind.
She looked up to the moon and underneath it she saw the shining city of Canterlot, clinging gracefully to the side of the adjacent mountain. This struck little Apple Bloom with an idea.
"Maybe that's where Ah can go. Maybe Ah can go talk to the princess! She knows my sister! She might even be able to help me get mah Cutie Mark!" Apple Bloom exclaimed into the breeze. Then it dawned on her. The princess was a princess. She was likely busy doing princess things. Apple Bloom probably wouldn't even be able to get past the guards.
Her pace slowed to a stop. Her vision began to blur. "Ah can't do this ..." she told the dirt, "Ah just can't ..."
She watched tiny patches of the road below her face turn to mud. Suddenly, her vision was filled with a subtle light. Apple Bloom looked up in time to see a shooting star fly right over her head towards the mountain. And just as quickly as it came, it disappeared right behind Canterlot.
Apple Bloom stared in awe. Her mind quickly flashed to the story her sister told her, and she smiled.
"Ah can't give up now! Mah destiny MUST be there!" Apple Bloom took one hesitant step forward. "Ah will find mah destiny!" Another step, "Ah'm going to Canterlot!" Another step led to another, and soon she was trotting down the trail, with a vigor in her step. Apple Bloom was determined, and nothing would get in her way. Nothing.
Luna's moon shown down onto a small filly, who's face shown just as bright.
Written by: Clarity
Hoof before hoof she continued her journey. Leaving the muddy old road behind her Apple Bloom felt as good as she hadn't in day. The shooting star had given her hope, had given her courage. The street leading to the pony capital of Canterlot was sealed, making it much easier for her to proceed even though the ascent up the mountain was getting steeper and steeper. She thanked her luck that the road was illuminated by lamps or it would have been dangerous daring the route in the middle of the night.
Still far above her she saw the shining lights of city. Even deep at night it seemed to be bustling with activity. She smiled - for the first time in many days a smile was gracing the filly's face. She stopped and for a moment looked back at Ponyville that was peacefully resting far below. And there, behind Ponyville, hidden by the darkness of night was her home - her old home. No light could be seen so they were all still asleep, none had noticed her being gone yet.
The smile slowly faded from her face again as she continued on, her feet getting heavier with each step from lack of sleep. What would they say when they found her missing, found the note she left them? Would they go searching for her right away? Would they ask Rainbow Dash, the pony her friend Scootaloo admired so much to go looking for her. She gulped and scanned the sky as if she expected a pegasus to swoop down any moment and demand her to return home to Sweet Apple Acres. But the sky was clear and a myriad of stars were spending additional light.
"Ah really have to get a move on ... gotta reach Canterlot as quickly as possible." She told herself as her hooves clip-clopped on the road.
Again her thoughts returned to the Apple family but this time she remembered something her sister Applejack had told her not so long ago. "Ah was just a little filly ... even littler than y'all." That's what she had said when she told the story of how she had gotten her Cutie Mark. Her sister went far away from home too, all by herself - and Applejack was even younger when she did. The thought gave her courage. They would understand, they wouldn't come looking for her! They would trust her just like they had trusted Applejack to find her way.
Her hooves moved quicker. Deep inside her a spark of doubt remained though - or was it reason? Applejack had dared the journey - but she had known were she was heading. Her family had known were she was heading. She had her relatives waiting for her. Apple Bloom shook her head, wiping aside the little voice of reason that gave her heart a sting. Another sting, even worse than before, made her almost stumble. Her grandmother ... she would be so worried. Would she even ... cry? A new feeling started to sneak into her heart - guilt. How selfish she was to just run away, not caring how worried she might be making them all.
She stopped and turned once more with a numb feeling in her head. Her throat felt dry as if she hadn't drunk in ages. Doubt was gnawing on her, chipping away at the bravery she had felt earlier with each passing second. She sniffed. She could still head back now, they wouldn't notice if she would hurry. She could spend the night in her warm bed and never tell anypony about this night.
"You're out late. Are you here all by yourself?" she heard a filly's voice behind her all of a sudden. Surprised she spun around.
Written By: the Zefarian
A pair of hazel eyes met her gaze, their urbane shade betrayed a sense of benevolence, a type of warmth. Her coat was a gentle white; a small tint of purple mixed in. A clean, short flowing mane rested gently on her head, its color a soft blue. She looked at Apple Bloom quizzically, though with a small smile as if they already knew each other.
"I said, ' Are you here all by yourself?', what are you doing out?", the little filly repeated.
Apple Bloom recollected her senses, giving her reply in a steady and firm tone," Ah could very well ask you the same thing, you seem to be alone as well."
Written By: Clarity
There was the sound of somepony clearing her throat and at that sound the filly turned around, rolling her eyes in a rather annoyed manner for a short moment. Out of the nightly shadows appeared another pony, taller, considerably older, with a fur as white as snow. She had donned golden armor, her wings were folded. With keen eyes she looked over Apple Bloom who was nervously glancing at the guard – for that is what she was. The glimmering stars were reflecting on her armament, making her appearance even more awe-inspiring. She smiled warmly as she noticed Apple Bloom trembling, the blue-maned filly bowing deeply as she approached.
"Do not be afraid, little one. I am sorry if we frightened you. But it is unusual seeing a pony of your age out here on the road to Canterlot, all by herself and in the middle of the night. Say, are you lost?”
Apple Bloom gathered all her courage and stood up tall before the sentry, still barely reaching to her neck.
"Ah’m on mah way to Canterlot ... to … to visit mah relatives. They live there!” she lied quickly.
She saw the deep purple eyes of the guard resting on her. She felt how she started to shiver, her own weakness and vulnerability became obvious to her yet she could not force herself to look away though she tried. The younger filly was watching the guard as well but her eyes showed no fear but utter reverence.
"Is that so?” the pegasus sentinel slowly asked. "You are visiting your relatives in Canterlot, all by yourself, braving the long way at dead of night?”
"I don't believe a word of it!" blurted the younger pony. The elder gave her just a short glance and the filly took a step back, lowering her head in an apologizing manner.
Apple Bloom felt a lump in her throat, her ears folded and she wanted to be anywhere else now, just not here in front of this mare. Any other place would be more comfortable now. The guard thought for a moment, her eyes still fixed on the filly.
"You know what I think?” she finally began after seconds that seemed like hours "I think you are a runaway. You have run away from home and Canterlot just happened to be closest to your home in Ponyville.”
Apple Bloom felt sick, she wished the ground would just open up and swallow her. Her throat became all dry, her knees weak and she sank onto them, finally evading the sentry’s eyes. She stared at the ground before her. What would happen now, would the guard bring her back home? What would she say to her siblings and her grandmother? How could she explain? She heard the sound of the guard’s hooves as she slowly circled her as well as a soft snicker by the young filly.
"You know, I should return you to your parents, little one. But you have spunk. Not many dare to take the road at this time – it is quite dangerous if you are careless or too foolhardy. One false step … and I would be bringing sad news to you relatives – if we ever found you down in the ravines in the first place.”
The guard grinned. She noticed how the filly before her was shivering. She felt bad about giving her such a guilty conscience but a little fright was well deserved after running away from her home. She knew of course that no pony ever went missing in the ravines before, the road being broad, well paved and properly lit. But the little one didn’t know.
"Well, come along now. I will accompany you to Canterlot. There we can decide how to proceed. What is your name anyway?”
Apple Bloom thought she didn’t hear right for a moment. Then she looked up, not sure what to say.
"Ah’m … Ah’m Apple Bloom.” she finally replied, "Why are y’all takin’ me to Canterlot? Don’t ya want
to take me back to mah family … since ya know ah’ve run away …”
The guard gently poked the filly’s croup with the tip of a hoof, urging her to get up.
"Maybe I will do that tomorrow. Maybe I won’t. I want to hear a bit more about you first, little Apple Bloom.”
Apple Bloom blushed, her eyes moving between the two ponies in front of her. She wondered if they were related, the pegasus was surely old enough to be the other pony's mother.
"May ah ask what yah name is?" she said slowly.
"Oh, how rude of us. We beg for your forgiveness. I am Sky Skimmer of the royal pegasus guard. This here is young Light Heart, apprentice guard in training, first grade."
The filly puffed herself up as her rank was mentioned, her eyes gleaming with pride.
"How did y’all know ah’m a runaway?”
"I didn’t before you told me a moment ago. But I am good at guessing you might say. Being observant is a guard’s duty and skill – one of many skills and talents that are needed. But if you really want to know” she answered to Apple Bloom’s surprised look ", I have been a guard for many a year and I am yet to see a filly alone on the street at this hour, carrying filled up saddlebags who does not turn out to be a runaway. You are not the first -" she glanced at Light Heart ", and you will not be the last to wander this road to find her destiny.”
Apple Bloom tried to keep up with the sentry’s fast paced steps, listening to her every word. Light Heart was following close behind, eagerly watching the surroundings as if scanning the area for unseen dangers. The road to her destiny - what could she mean? Did she guess why she had run away from home?
"Ma'am, are we really taking that urchin along?" the filly’s cocky voice could be heard from behind them.
"We are, apprentice. Or do you doubt my decision to do so?" Sky Skimmer asked without looking back.
"No, Ma'am! Of course not, Ma'am!" Light Heart replied quickly.
"Good! Now that we have clarified that, let us move on. It is not much further till Canterlot."
"Ah always thought all them guards are colts!” Apple Bloom’s faint voice could be heard as the trio disappeared behind a corner, getting ever closer to the pony capital. The guard’s hearty laugh was the sole reply.
= = = = = = Chapter End = = = = = =
"Ah had such an odd dream …" Apple Bloom mumbled.
Blurry visions of a long, winding road and a dark forest appeared before her inner eye, foggy like a dream that was trying to escape her memory. She tried to sharpen her senses as faces appeared and disappeared before her, a proud mare and a cheeky young filly … and tall towers and broad hallways of a white city in the mountains. Oblivion cast its blanket over her. She turned in her bed when something else caught her attention and the visions were gone altogether. She sniffed. The sweet scent of warm porridge on a stove was slowly filling the room.
„Sis, is it breakfast time already?" she called aloud without bothering to even open her eyes. She felt her legs and hooves being sore as if from a very long walk. No, she certainly didn’t want to get up just yet.
„Sis?" she called again when suddenly the room was flooded with the bright light of morning. It tickled her face as the last shadows of the night fled and were swept away by the shafts of sunlight.
Apple Bloom sat up straight in her bed and looked around. Slowly the memories of the previous day returned to her and what appeared to be visions just a moment ago had become truth once more. She was in Canterlot, the capital of Equestria. Late at night they had reached it and she had been so tired, barely able to stay awake. She remembered crossing the large oaken drawbridge, seeing the many towers with their golden spires and pinnacles, the marble hallways and big stained glass windows. It was truly a place fit to harbor the royal family.
"Good morning, Apple Bloom.” she heard the gentle yet proud voice of Sky Skimmer. Just a moment ago she had drawn the curtains of the broad and tall windows, allowing the sun to shine in.
"You slept in late this morning. You have to hurry up if you want some breakfast, our apprentices and recruits are well known for their big hunger.” She winked and smiled.
"Where am ah exactly?” she asked carefully.
"Well, in the headquarters of the royal guards.”
The white-coated mare looked at Apple Bloom, raising a brow, giving the filly the feeling she had forgotten something.
"Oh … beg pardon … good morning, Miss … Miss Sky Skimmer.”
"That’s better” she beamed at her ", but you really ought to get up now. Wash yourself and then please join us at the breakfast table, alright?”
Apple Bloom nodded, feeling still a bit shaky as she climbed out of the bed once she was alone in the room again.
"Ouch!” she moaned as she walked a few steps "Ah’m feelin’ every bone in mah body.”
Written By: the Zefarian
Sky Skimmer simply chucked a bit," well you did make quite a journey to get here. I must say, you've got a bit of endurance for a little one."
Apple Bloom's visage turned sour, "Little one? Why, ah'm a big pony, ah know ah am!"
"Hm, I'm afraid that's what all the cadets say. They always think they have to grow up, put on the adult saddle. They forget that having troubles and having fun are a part of life."
There seemed to be a bit of wisdom in that, but it passed over her head, "All the cadets? You mean there are more cadets than that little jerk?" she questioned, remembering Light Heart and her forceful nature.
"But of course, as the only academy this side of the Amarezon River, the Royal Academy of Canterlot is home to quite a few applicants. Right now they're all out on their early morning run." Sky Skimmer explained, carefully laying a large bowls of oatmeal and daisy browns on the table. "You know, you're welcome to join, as a temporary recruit, until you decide to go home.
"And who says ah'm going home at awl?" Apple Bloom forcefully proclaimed, the memories of failures and the pitiful faces that accompanied them coming back. Her attitude calmed as Sky Skimmer responded with a concerned look. "B-but ah guess I don't have anything else to do, so ah accept."
As her words hung in the air the side door burst open and a flood of several young came fillies running in, completely ignoring Apple Bloom and finding their place along the dining table. Only one hung back, a familiar patronizing tone escaped her mouth as she spoke.
"Oh, still here? I would have thought somepony so weak would have run back home by now."
Apple Bloom's face darkened, obviously falling for the bait, "You know what? Ah-"
"ACHEM." interrupted a commanding voice behind them, intending to break up the argument before it began.
"Light Heart, you know better than to antagonize your fellow guards in training. You should help make our new recruit feel welcome."
"Oh, so you've joined our ranks, have you? Ha, you'll probably be begging for Skimmer to bring you back home by the end of tomorrow." prodded Light Heart.
"Just ya'll wait, ah bet ah could pass all of you by the end of the month" Apple Bloom asserted, her pride clearly classing with Light Heart's.
"Hmph, I'll bet." declared the young filly condescendingly as she took her seat.
Apple Bloom kept an eye on her new rival, wondering what she had gotten herself into, before remembering her own hunger and quickly finding a seat before all the victuals were gone.
Written by: Clarity
The young ponies’ appetite was a sight to behold as they wolfed down their breakfast. But even then the applicants remained civil. None ate with their mouths open nor did they make any uncouth noise. Apple Bloom had never been shy nor had she been afraid to be among strangers but never before in her life had she felt so out of place as at this breakfast table. The first disapproving glances of the other fillies were quickly earned as she gobbled down her daffodilly sandwich and wiped her mouth with the bare hoof. She slurped as she took a sip from the earthen pitcher in front of her. Apple Bloom felt her face turning red in shame as she was certain she heard the words ‘country bumpkin’ whispered by one of the others.
Sky Skimmer surveyed the crowd silently for several minutes before she returned to her private quarters. She rested on a soft cushion in front of her escritoire and picking up a quill started to scribble a note in swift letters on a piece of parchment. Placing the finished note in an enveloped she returned to the eating crowd of fillies.
"Archer? I am sorry to disturb your well deserved breakfast but would you bring this letter to Her Royal Highness?”
All the fillies looked up at once, for a moment their hunger was forgotten. One of the fillies, a blue-coated colt with a bow and arrow as his Cutie Mark got up and bowed before Sky Skimmer before picking up the envelope, beaming with pride.
"Of course Miss Sky Skimmer, Ma’am!” he replied and started to head towards the large wooden door.
"Thank you, Archer. And don’t dawdle, it is important.”
The filly almost started to run right away, the envious eyes of the others resting on him. How they wished they would be chosen to carry an important letter to the Royal Palace. It was a great honor.
"Archer? Is that you?” Apple Bloom’s voice could suddenly be heard as she had hopped onto her seat to get a better view.
For a moment the colt stopped in his tracks and looked at Apple Bloom. He gave her a quick smile and a wave and he was off. Apple Bloom shrunk in her seat as suddenly all eyes were resting on her instead. She blushed.
"Um … he … he used to be in mah class. Back in Ponyville ah mean, at school.”
There was some mumbling among the cadets and some seemed more approving of her suddenly for Archer was popular. He was not the strongest nor the swiftest nor the brightest among them but his heart was true and he was dependable and valiant. And Apple Bloom too felt just a tiny bit more at home all of a sudden.
"Apple Bloom, when you have finished your breakfast may I have a word with you in private?” Sky Skimmer asked as the crowd had started to continue their early meal.
Apple Bloom nodded and upon finishing a second sandwich she followed Sky Skimmer into her quarters. She looked around, her eyes filled with awe. The furniture was precious and adorned with marquetry, surely crafted by ponies of great skill. There were stained glass windows overlooking the valley below and numerous framed pictures of ponies. Sky Skimmer silently watched Apple Bloom’s eyes traveling here and there, her mouth open in astonishment. As she looked at the pictures she gasped for she had found the picture of Sky Skimmer herself.
"Surprised? All captains of the guard have their portrait hung in this room. I suppose it is a way to remember them.” The pegasus said as she moved next to the filly, looking at her own framed image.
Apple Bloom didn’t know what to reply. She felt small next to the mare. She had long realized that Sky Skimmer was no ordinary guard but now she perceived her as a pony of great importance and influence.
"Who’s that?” she said pointing at the picture next to Skimmer’s, more as a means to break the silence than out of interest.
The portrait showed a stallion with a black fur and piercing, grim eyes.
"That, Apple Bloom, is my predecessor. A guard of the old school as many often said. He is now the captain of the guards of Her Royal Highness Princess Luna. It didn’t come as a surprise once that position was established again. He does have a rather grim aura, don’t you think?” she winked at Apple Bloom with a smile.
Apple Bloom looked at the dark pony’s eyes once more and nodded, smiling back.
"Apple Bloom, I hope you have a nice time here. It won’t be easy but I am sure you will get along well with the others. As I said earlier you are welcome to stay as temporary recruit. If it is your wish you can even stay with us permanently if you consider the duties of a guard to be a worthwhile goal in your life. Be warned though, you will be treated like all the other cadets. Becoming a guard is no bed of roses. Of course you also have to obey the orders and commands of those superior to you. That is any adult guard in your case. Do you understand that?”
Apple Bloom took on a brave face and nodded, standing at attention.
"Yes, Miss Sky Skimmer, Ma’am.”
"That is good. You may return to the others now. Just one more thing, Apple Bloom …”
"What is it, Ma’am?”
"No matter if you like somepony or not, you will never address one of your fellow apprentices as a ‘jerk’ again. Is that clear?”
Apple Bloom ducked as if an unseen blow was directed at her. She looked at the floor, a burning feeling of shame in her stomach. She shook her head.
"No, Ma’am … ah promise.”
Written by: the Zefarian
A smile returned to Sky Skimmer's visage, clearly approving of the reply. " Go on, the others should be outside now; we have agility training today. You wouldn't want to be late in your first day.
"Yes Ma'am!" Apple Bloom perked up, sure to make the most of her time. She quickly bolted out of the quarters, almost fumbling once or twice. Outside the sun was shining, the bright beams of Celestia's grace were warm and comforting. She took a moment to enjoy the weather before looking out, spotting the rest of the recruits in a row - each one of them looked like a statue: they all stood upright, unmoving, unwavering.
"Pst. . . Hey! Get in line before she comes out!", a whisper came from a colt on the right.
Apple Bloom snapped to attention, quickly taking a place to her place to his left. "Hi, mah name's Apple Bloom, what's your-"
"We aren't supposed to talk", the colt interrupted. " We have to be quiet and read-"
The door few open, Sky Skimmer was standing at the threshold. Apple Bloom's attention quickly turned to the mare; there was something different. Sky's face was hard and stern, her gaze was no longer soft and motherly, but instead piercing. Her every movement as she walked toward their formation conveyed strength, power, and resolute ability.
"As you all know, we have a new cadet joining us today", she spoke, her very words brought force. "Perhaps now would be a good time to remind you all how things are done here. Young ponies may need love and care, but guards need DISCIPLINE", Skimmer asserted, the final word shaking the air. "I intend to provide both. Each morning before dawn you will awake and provide one lap around the perimeter of Canterlot. After breakfast you will assume formation quickly, quietly, and efficiently. You will perform each day's exercise promptly, without fail. You will follow my instructions to the letter. There will be no questions, no back talk, no excuses, no falter; do . . . you . . . understand?", she condescended, her sight fixated on Apple Bloom.
A tad frightened, but still resolute, Apple Bloom managed to squeak out," Y-YES MA'AM!"
"Very well, I have prepared an obstacle course for all of you", the mare claimed, pointing to a large twisting monstrosity of wood and metal behind them. "You will each complete the course in under 3 minutes, failure to do so will require you to repeat it until you do."
Written by: Clarity
When Apple Bloom thought of her trip to Canterlot by hoof to be a hardship the obstacle course Sky Skimmer had prepared seemed to be an insurmountable task. But she was not alone in this feeling as the other fillies - though some had already spent months in training - didn’t fare much better than she did her self.
A crowd of adult guards who enjoyed some of their rare free time had gathered to watch the recruits in their labor. On Sky Skimmers signal half a dozen of the fillies attempted to tackle the course at the same time. Apple Bloom was in the second group and as she watched the first six recruits racing towards the obstacles, leaping over and climbing onto them, helping each other whenever one got stuck her thoughts drifted back to Sweet Apple Acres. The young ponies reminded her of her family, always ready to stretch out a helping hoof to those faltering, always there for her. They were quite alike.
She almost didn’t hear the whistle blowing marking the next group to start.
"Hey, get a move on!” she heard Light Heart’s shout which awoke her from her memories.
The other five had already reached the first obstacle when Apple Bloom finally started to run. She groaned, feeling sweat pearls forming on her brow as she felt the eyes of the entire crowd of guards and apprentices on her. Sky Skimmer’s face was a closed book to them all. She was following Apple Bloom’s every move but no one could tell whether she was disappointed, angry, upset or even indifferent at the display she beheld.
Apple Bloom bounced over the first obstacle with ease and picking up speed she had soon caught up to the slower fillies while Light Heart raced ahead. She heard the screams of the guards and other recruits. Some jeered as one of her comrades crashed into one of the wooden bars and took another colt with her in her fall. Others shouted words of encouragement, remembering well how they had felt when performing similar physical challenges in their youth.
"Ah’m coming!” Apple Bloom called as she reached the two fallen ponies. She helped them up and off they went, huffing and puffing while the sand in the big hourglass measuring their time was getting less and less.
Light Heart, a black coated filly and a lean but fast colt with longer legs than the others slowed their pace and actually waited for the three others to catch up again. Apple Bloom’s legs started to ache as she climbed over yet another wooden contraption. She wheezed as she landed and finally saw the finish line ahead of her. Just a few more paces and she could finally rest. The recruits raced towards the crudely drawn line among the shouts of encouragement of the guards. Apple Bloom had never felt as happy as when she finally crossed the line. She felt the cold sweat on her fur as she just stood there, trembling in a mix of pride and exhaustion.
She smiled and looked at Sky Skimmer only to be struck by her cold glare.
"Three minutes and four seconds.”
The six fillies groaned in unison. The recruit that had stumbled earlier muttered an apology - he had crossed the line last.
"Do we all have tah do the course again? Us others were within the three minutes, right?” Apple Bloom whispered to the others but Light Heart only shook her head. Apple Bloom could tell that she too was exhausted and would have very much preferred not to do the course once more.
"No, we are all going to do it again. We are a team and if one of us falters we all do. We have to do better this time and help those who fall behind.”
The other four nodded in agreement and after a moment of thought so did Apple Bloom. ‘It really is like a family’ she pondered and she felt a little sting in her heart. By now the Apples must have found out that she was gone.
"Come on, Apple Bloom!” she heard Light Heart calling and off she went again to beat the three minute mark.
Written by: AppleDoom
Once again Apple Bloom and her new comrades lined up once again at the starting line. The whistle blew and once again Apple Bloom started running through the course. At this point fatigue was plaguing her legs and her lungs burned with every breath. Then a yell. A shrill yelp came from behind as Apple Bloom jumped over a small hurtle. Turning around she sees that Sky Skimmer faltered on a wooden beam and twisted her ankle. Apple Bloom ducked back under the hurtle to help her fallen comrade.
"No! I don’t need help from you!" Sky Skimmer cried out as she struggled to stand up. She shakily stood up and immediately fell back on he bad leg.
Written by: Matias
Gritting her teeth in pain and rendered unable to protest by her condition, she could only open an eye and watch as the young filly disobeyed her order.
"Ah got ya, Miss Skimmer." Apple Bloom whispered as she helped her get back up.
"G... Get away... I don’t need..." the guard continued, hobbling along with Apple Bloom’s help.
Light Heart routinely hopped from obstacle to obstacle, diligently noting her timing. For a moment, she seemed to be in a bit of a trance. Something seemed strange, however, and she couldn’t help but stop. Her ears pricked for a moment. Now made aware to the lack of stomping hooves, she glanced back to see just how far her squad had fallen behind. It seemed that the rest of her squad mates had formed a group, concentrated around some obscured figure. She squinted to assess the situation, and let out a small gasp after noticing her leader injured – and the new filly assisting her.
As she helped her leader along, Apple Bloom became aware of the uneasy stares coming at her from all directions. She at first believed they were expressions of worry over their captain, but, after glancing back at their eyes a few more times, she became unsure. They sure were discomforting. Nevertheless, she pushed on.
Carefully maneuvering through and around obstacles, the little filly brought her fallen leader to the end of the course. Light Heart didn’t know how to react. She silently observed the scene as it passed her, completely oblivious to her slightly agape, dumbstruck expression. She must have been twice her weight, at least.
Catching herself in awe, she shook back into reality. The little pony hastily, yet reluctantly, trotted to the finish line, where the new recruit appeared to have collapsed under the captain in heavy huffs.
Written by: Kyoko (unconfirmed)
From atop a balcony overlooking the courtyard, a stallion watched the recruits. His long white hair was a waterfall, pure and soft. His face, however, was locked in stone. His skin was pale, and this contrasted with the robe of purest black covering his body.
"The newest recruit shows potential. She has just performed a feat of friendship rarely seen in this training." His voice was cold, each word echoing slightly.
From behind him, in the director's office, another colt dressed in a red robe that obscured his face entirely stopped his scribing and looked at the stallion, who remained statuesque on the balcony.
"She could be a problem. You may need to break her, Ballad." The voice of the red robed colt had a much darker feel, each word like an icicle piercing the air.
The white haired stallion smiled and chuckled slightly to himself. "Of course I shall, master."
Ballad's horn began to glow a fiery red, the same colour as his eyes. The blade at his side followed suit, slowly unsheathing itself before him and slicing in the air at great speeds. All ponies broke eventually.
Sky Skimmer let Apple Bloom rest for a bit while she was tended to by a nearby medic, who was there for safety reasons.
"Group 2, you may rest for a bit. But you still have to complete the course later." She exclaimed, as if she had never been wounded at all. "Group 3, get ready!"
She was soon on her hooves again and continued to watch over the recruits, ignoring the ordeal she had been through earlier.
By lunchtime, all four groups had finished in time. They all sat around the table as they had done that morning, though this time they were a little more inviting to the newest recruit.
Rush, a young, blue, pegasus sat next to Apple Bloom. "You were quite there hero out there." He said.
Archer sat the other side. "Yeah, you did a great thing out there."
Apple Bloom felt her pride growing. "Ah'm gonna be the best guard ever!" She proclaimed, with her fellows taking different opinions on this statement.
From far across the table, Light Heart looked at Apple Bloom with anger and pure hatred. At this rate, the country bumpkin was going to exceed everypony just as she had said before. She needed to win, winning was everything. Daddy had told her that this plan relied on her talents.
The recruits finished their food just as a bell rang. This meant that they had to go back out to the courtyard for more training. Apple Bloom followed the others with great haste, hoping to continue to impress.
Sky Skimmer's ankle was bandaged but aside from that, she was as cold as earlier. "Listen up! Today we have a special guest from the army to talk about what life is like out there. So stay respectful and..."
"Chill Sky. I've got this." Spitfire interrupted. The golden pegasus looked at the recruits and gave them a heart-warming smile, but their leader looked at her with hatred.
"Fine... At ease." She called out before slinking away from the fiery mare. At this order, the recruits all sat down, but remained focused on the guest.
"Hey, I'm Spitfire. I'm a lieutenant in the REA and I captain a squad in the Air Force. I'm also vice-captain of the Wonderbolts..." Her voice was much more relaxed than the other guards.
Upon hearing the word Wonderbolts, Apple Bloom remembered Scootaloo and how she proclaimed that she would be a Wonderbolt one day. She felt like she had not seen her friend in years, despite having seen them yesterday.
"...And so we train for two hours every morning. Any questions?" Spitfire asked. Apple Bloom realised that she had zoned out completely, lost in memory.
Rush's hand dashed up, "So, what do you do in the Air Force?"
Spitfire smiled, "Well, we often deal with emergencies. In fact, not so long ago, we were called out to Ponyville to deal with a dragon attack!"
Apple Bloom remembered that day. Spike had been taking everything and had rampaged all day, nearly destroying the town in the process. She began to miss him, and that smile he often gave his friends.
Spitfire stopped talking, and a number of hooves were raised. Apple Bloom realised that she had been daydreaming again, how was she supposed to be the greatest guard ever if she kept being distracted. She raised her hoof as well, and was selected upon by the mare.
"Err, what's your favourite part about being in the army?" She asked politely.
Spitfire smiled, "That I am surrounded by friends that trust me and that I can trust, of course."
Apple Bloom was reminded of her two best friends, probably worried about her by now. She felt a little uneasy, this nostalgia kept creeping up on her.
"Well, I'm sure that captain Spitfire has much more important things to do right now, so give her a pro..." Sky Skimmer began to speak, but was cut off by Spitfire once again.
"I'm just going to go take a nap on a cloud and then go shopping." The yellow mare announced, a smirk on her face.
The leader was stunned! "But... You're so important and..."
Spitfire cut her off yet another time, "Even the fastest of us need to slow down from time to time." And with that, she spread her wings and flew off, bewildering Sky Skimmer even more.
"Everypony! Run 10 laps around the courtyard! Stat!" She ordered, the fillies standing up and obliging right away.
As she was running, Apple Bloom wondered if what she was doing was right, but she remained adamant in her decision to continue this training.
Written by: Matias
It was a typical morning in Ponyville. Pegasus cleared the sky, helping to show the sky’s brilliance as the Sun rose into position. Ponies lulled about in Ponyville’s active town square, sharing their daily lives with their respective companions. A busy sort of calmness filled the atmosphere. Couples were sharing breakfast, young ponies chased each other around the courtyard, and all seemed to be business as usual.
However, a hammering broke the lack of concentration. Many ponies turned their heads to see a panicking, large red stallion frantically hammering photos of a young filly on every building, pole, fence, door, and other easily viewable surface. While this pony dashed to and fro, another disheveled pony could be seen zipping erratically from individual to individual, desperately reciting the same question to each startled bystander.
“Have you seen this filly? Oh please, I need your help!” Applejack said, pleading to a couple.
“S-sorry, but we don’t know her!” the colt replied, taken slightly aback by her sudden appearance.
“Thanks anyway” she replied, not long before zipping to yet another group nearby.
A loud knock on the door woke Apple Bloom from her
slumber. She creaked here eyes open blearily, looking out her window to see what time it was, groaning when she saw that the sun wasn't even up yet. The previous day had been exhausting, and all
she wanted to do was lie in her bed all day and not move. As the knock came again, louder than before, it became obvious that that wasn't going to be possible. Still hugging her pillow, she slid
out of her bed as if she were made of cement. Limping sorely to the door, she swung it open.
"I'm sorry Miss Sky Skimmer, but I—eep!" Apple Bloom jumped back in surprise as she looked up. Looking back at her wasn't Sky Skimmer, but a very large, very angry looking unicorn with pale fur and burning red eyes that she had never seen before. Apple Bloom noticed that he had a sword hanging from his side. He sneered at her as she hugged her pillow tightly. She quickly dropped it and stood up straight.
"Apple Bloom, is it?" he asked.
"Um... yes sir. That's me... sir," she replied.
"You're late. All the other trainees are already lined up in the courtyard."
"I-I'm sorry Mr.... um...."
"My name is Ballad," he growled.
"Right, I'm sorry Mr. Ballad. It's just that I was tired from yesterday, and I didn't know—"
"You are training for the royal guard," Ballad forcefully interrupted. "All the recruits are tired, and shall remain that way for the rest of their training, if I have anything to say about it. Now get yourself ready and proceed to the courtyard at once. There's no room for weak links among Celestia's guards. Do you understand?"
Apple Bloom was too scared to reply, so she simply nodded, whimpering slightly. Ballad's only response was to turn around and head back the way he came, slamming her doors shut in the process. After he was gone she sprinted to her hairbrush, only straitening her mane enough to get all the worst tangles out before turning back around and rushing to the courtyard as fast as she could. When she arrived, all the other fillies turned and looked at her, and she felt herself flush with embarrassment, even though, from the looks of it, they hadn't been prepared for this any better than she had.
Among the line of ponies, drooping heads with heavy eyelids and disheveled manes were common. Some stared off into empty space, their bodies still trying to go back to sleep, despite their best efforts. All were quickly snapped back to attention when Ballad walked by, however. If one of their neighbors didn't elbow them awake, he would take it upon himself to rouse them with a quick slap of the broad side of his sword across their forelegs. Apple Bloom took her place next to Light Heart nervously.
"Where have you been?" she asked, once Apple Bloom had done so.
"I didn't know we were supposed to be up so early!" Apple Bloom whispered back. "What's goin' on anyhoof? Who's this Ballad guy, and wh—"
"No talking!" Ballad yelled, pointing his sword at Apple Bloom threateningly as he walked past. "That's two marks against you already, recruit."
Apple Bloom didn't respond, other than snapping her mouth shut and glaring at Light Heart, who smirked mischievously in return. Apple Bloom huffed and looked away, deciding that it would be better to look for some friendly faces among the crowd instead.
Craning her neck forward, Apple Bloom spotted Archer standing up straight and tall near the middle of the line. She was one of the only ponies that looked fully awake, but every now and then she would still give a hard blink and shake her head, as if she we struggling to hold the expression. There was a sudden movement past her, far in the distance, and Apple Bloom noticed that Sky Skimmer was here as well! She was standing off to the side of the courtyard, talking with a dark Pegasus. She couldn't tell from this distance, but to Apple Bloom it looked like the one from the picture in her office. Could it be? Whatever the case, Sky Skimmer didn't seem very happy. Apple Bloom couldn't make out what they were saying so far away, but she still heard the frustrated tone in Sky Skimmer's voice. It sounded a lot like the tone Applejack would use on her when she made mistakes back home.
The pegasus seemed not to hear anything Sky Skimmer was saying. He stood completely still, sometimes looking around calmly as she stomped her hooves and paced around him animatedly. Once Sky Skimmer even yelled at him so loud that the words, "...only children!" echoed off the walls before it became muffled again. By now, Ballad had reached end of the line, and in one quick movement spun around. He immediately locked eyes with Apple Bloom, and she leaned back, looking straight ahead and hoping that she would get in any more trouble.
After what seemed like a very long time of standing, and Ballad pacing, and pretty much nothing else happening, the sun finally started to rise. A shadow passed over Apple Bloom, and she looked up to see the dark Pegasus flying away, over the roof of the dining hall. A few second later Sky Skimmer landed in front of the group, next to Ballad.
"I'll take things from here," she said.
"I was told I would be in charge—"
"If it's all the same to you, Ballad, I would like to tell them myself."
When Ballad didn't move, Sky Skimmer stepped forward threateningly and stomped her hoof on the ground, causing a small cloud of dust. He only laughed, but after a moment he backed away. Sky Skimmer didn't take her eyes off him until he was out of the courtyard. Once he was, she looked at Apple Bloom's group, and her expression softened. Marching to the middle of the line, she turned to face them.
"There have been... rumors, spreading among the castle, that the training program for Celestia's guards might be letting in recruits who are not qualified for the position."
Apple Bloom sunk down where she stood. Even though no one looked her way, she knew that must be the one the rumors were about.
"Because of this... Captain Redcloak of the Night Guards has been given permission to run all new recruits through a series of training exercises that will determine who is and isn't prepared to move forward in the guard training program."
A chorus of whispers broke out among the group, but were quickly silenced as Sky Skimmer shouted, "Attention!" When it had quieted down she continued. "These exercises will take place in a location that has already been chosen by Captain Redcloak, under the supervision of Lieutenant Ballad and shall begin... immediately."
More surprised mutters erupted from the line.
Sky Skimmer finished by saying, "Go pack your things and meet back here in one hour, recruits." As the group began to head back toward their rooms, still unsure of what was going on, Sky Skimmer called out again. "Apple Bloom! Archer! If I could speak with you privately for a moment."
Apple Bloom quickly ran over Sky Skimmer. Archer joined them a moment later, having already run half way across the dining room before her name was called.
"What's goin' on, Miss Sky Skimmer?" Apple Bloom asked.
Sky Skimmer sighed as she watched the courtyard clear out. "I'm not entirely sure myself, but the matter is out of my hooves now. I wanted to speak to you while I still had the chance."
"What do you mean, ‘while you still had the chance'? Aren't you gonna come with us?"
"No, Apple Bloom. I'm afraid not. The circumstances of this arrangement require that I take a... ordered vacation of sorts. That's beside the point, however. This has to do to with the special circumstances in which you joining the recruits."
"Yes ma'am?" replied Apple Bloom. "What about ‘em?"
"Becoming one of the Canterlot guard is a noble goal, Apple Bloom, and I have full confidence that if you set your heart to it, you could someday succeed, but I also know that it wasn't your intention to join up when I met you on that road. If you wish, I'm willing to arrange for you to return to Ponyville before you get too involved."
Apple Bloom was shocked by Sky Skimmers offer, and responded with an enthusiastic, "No ma'am!"
Sky Skimmer looked at her curiously. "Are you sure, Apple Bloom? Captain Redcloak has a reputation for being rather... severe."
Apple Bloom shook her head again. "I don't care. It's... it's like my sister would say. You don't give up on somethin' just because it's hard. Some things are worth fightin' for. I can do anything any other pony here can do, and I'm not gonna give up on things yet if I don't have to."
A smile snuck across Sky Skimmers normally serious face. "You're a brave filly, Appleblom." As quickly as the smile had appeared, it suddenly vanished, and she was back to business. "As for you, Archer."
"Yes, Captain Sky Skimmer?" she responded energetically.
"You and Apple Bloom were friends back in Ponyville, yes?"
"Yes, Captain Sky Skimmer!" she repeated.
"Then you two take care of each other, understood?"
"Yes, Captain Sky Skimmer!" she repeated a third time.
"Yes, Ma'am!" added Apple Bloom, trying to match Archer's conviction.
"Good. Now, I'm sorry to cut into your time to prepare, Archer, but I have another message for you to deliver. Is there someone you can trust to gather your things for you?"
"Apple Bloom can do it, Captain! I trust her!" said Archer, her excitement over her assignment causing her to lose a bit of her serious guard attitude.
"All right then. Off you go." Before Sky Skimmer had even finished her sentence, Arched was bolting toward the castle. Once she was out of sight (which didn't take long) Sky Skimmer turned back to Apple Bloom. "Turn right after the dining area, then right again at the end of the hall. Archer's room is in the second to last door at the end of that hall, on the left."
Apple Bloom nodde and turned to leave, but stopped. Turning back around, she took a moment to yell, "Thank you!" to Sky Skimmer one last time.
"Turn right... second to the last on the... right? No, left."
Apple Bloom attempting to shove her way through the chaos of all the other ponies as they attempted to gather their things before time was up. "Hey! Watch it," she shouted as a young colt carrying a bag so large that it hid his face crashed into her, knocking her to the floor.
"Oh! Um... sorry!" he quickly muttered, before crashing into another pony only a few seconds later. Apple Bloom picked herself up and huffed, giving the back of his head an angry look.
"Some ponies need to learn some manners."
At last Apple Bloom made it to Archer's room. She began to reach for the handle, but then stopped. "Wait... was it the second to last door on the right? Or...." She gazed down the hall, trying to remember where the dining room was from here. Scratching her head, she turned back around, looking at the rows of doors ahead of her. In the end she just shrugged. There wasn't time to stand around. Archer was counting on her after all. She would just have to trust her instincts. Opening the door on the right, she quickly stepped inside.
There was a soft click as the door shut. Once it had, Apple Bloom took a moment to inspect her surroundings. The room looked a lot like hers; one bed, a chest of drawers, a small window on the far wall. Other than that it was empty for the most part. She noticed a small bag in the corner and walked over to it, picking it up and stuffing whatever belongings into it that she saw lying around. Once she had gathered all of those she began checking the drawers. It was in the third drawer she opened that she discovered something interesting.
As she slid it open, Apple Bloom saw a lone picture set in a gold frame. Looking at it quizzically, she carefully picked it up and inspected it. In it there were four ponies. The first was princess Celestia, smiling and looking down at another pony. He was a dark Pegasus who looked almost exactly like the one that Apple Bloom had seen in the painting in Sky Skimmer's office, except maybe a little younger. Next to him was a light purple unicorn mare, and the last was a little foal; probably younger than Apple Bloom was. She had hazel eyes, a blue mane, and her fur was white, with just a tint of purple to it.
"...Wait a minute," said Apple Bloom, squinting at the picture. "Why's Archer got a picture of Light heart in her...." Apple Bloom's eyes went wide as she realized what was going on. This wasn't Archer's room. This wasn't Archer's room at all.
Suddenly a noise came from the hallway, causing Apple Bloom to jump. As she did she dropped the picture, and there was a loud crack as the glass shattered. "Oh horseapples!" she exclaimed, quickly picking up the picture and dusting the glass shards and broken frame under the chest of drawers. The noises outside had turned to voices now, and Apple Bloom recognized one of them to be Light Heart's. Looking around for somewhere to hide, Apple Bloom dove into a tiny gap between the wall and the bed just as the door opened.
A tense moment passed as Apple Bloom heard the door swing shut, followed by quiet hoofsteps on the tile floor. Not even daring to breath, Apple Bloom carefully leaned down and peaked under the bed. As she did, four small white hooves, with just a slight tint of purple, came into view. She watched as they walked over to the bag lying on the floor.
"What... who packed my things?" she asked. It was quiet again, then Light Heart carefully said, "Is someone there?"
Apple Bloom looked around frantically for some way to escape. If they found out she had been in Light Heart's room, snooping through her belongings (even if it was accidentally,) she was going to be in all sorts of trouble. As Light Heart took a step toward the bed, she prepared to bolt. Maybe... maybe she could throw the blanket over her head and get out the door before she saw who it was! Or maybe—
Apple Bloom's thoughts were interrupted as Light Heart suddenly turned around, grabbing the bag and quickly exiting the room, slamming the door shut behind her. Once she was gone, Apple Bloom let out a sigh. "Whew!" she said, stepping out from behind the bed. "That sure was a close one!"
As she headed toward the door, she noticed for the first time that she was still holding on to the picture she had found in Light Heart's drawer. In her rush to hide she had forgotten all about it. Being framed and stored all by itself like that, it seemed like something that Light Heart would notice had gone missing. Maybe if she was lucky, she could sneak it back into her back before anypony noticed.
Apple Bloom was able to able to gather Archer's things quickly enough, and was standing in line with all the rest of the ponies within the hour. At the last minute, Archer came running around the corner and lined up next to Apple Bloom. She was surprised to see that she was carrying a bag of his own, which she dropped at Apple Bloom's hooves.
"Hey Archer," she said cheerfully, "what's this?"
"It's... from Celestia," Archer replied, out of breath from running. "She said she knew that you didn't have much with you when you arrived, so she gathered some supplies for you."
"Celestia knows I'm here too?" said Apple Bloom in surprise.
"I guess so," Archer responded simply. Apple Bloom cringed.
"Attention!" yelled the familiar voice of Ballad, causing all the fillies to immediately stop talking and stand up straight. He approached from the west, walking down the line of ponies and inspecting them one by one. When he was done he walked back to the middle of the line and said, "It looks like things are in order. Now march."
And march they did. For almost the entire rest of the day, Apple Bloom and the rest of the recruits marched down the mountain and out of Canterlot to some place they had never been before, or at least that Apple Bloom hadn't been before. The confused and worried looks from the others only made her assume that they were in the same horseshoes as her.
The trail they followed lead down the far side of the mountain and away from Ponyville. It wound back and forth, through caves and over bridges, until it finally ended at a large field at the edge of the Everfree forest which had a large in the center of it. By the time they all arrived the sun was beginning to set, and every pony in the line was exhausted. Even Archer, who up until now had always seemed full of energy, was looking like all she wanted to do was collapse.
"Halt!" called Ballad. All the ponies immediately obliged, throwing their heavy packs to the ground. Some of them slumped over, using their bags as pillows as they tried to catch their breath, while other more desperate ponies began to head toward the lake in hopes of cooling off. This, however, turned out to be a bad idea.
As soon as Ballad saw them breaking formation, his lips curled down into an angry snarl. Drawing his sword, he pointed it at the nearest insubordinate. "You!" he barked. "What's your name, recruit?"
The young filly yelped in surprise. "F-Featherdancer!" she quickly answered.
"Back. In. Line, Featherdancer. That goes for the rest of you as well! Line up!"
All the ponies that had wandered away or lied down quickly got back to their places, their fear of Ballad overpowering their desire to rest. Once they were all miserably organized, Ballad began pacing back and forth in front of them again.
"Listen carefully," he said. "This is going to be your only warning. From now on you are under the command of the Night Guard. You will do what you are ordered to do, and only what you are ordered to do. Any disobedience will by severely punished, understood?"
The group of young ponies were silent, unsure of what to make of their new situation.
"I said is that understood?" Yelled Ballad. This time a general mutter and several unhappy nods came as a response. "Good. Now, on the far side of the lake you will find a row of tents that have yet to be assembled. Each tent can hold two ponies, therefore you will split yourselves into groups of two to set up your tents. You have ten minutes to accomplish this, after which—and only after—will you be given fifteen minutes of leisure time to do with what you will, be it unpacking, or resting up for tonight's training exercises. Any extra time spent setting up your tent will be extracted from your free time. Understood?"
The ponies all nodded again, still looking miserable, but not wanting to risk losing any of their free time by asking questions.
"Then get moving recruits! Go, go, go!"
As soon as the order was given, the group galloped to the far side of the lake. Apple Bloom and Archer made sure to stay close, and soon they had reached one of the tents. Unrolling it, they began trying to figure out how to put it together. It wasn't as simple as Apple Bloom had guessed it would be, but Archer seemed to know what she was doing, assuring Apple Bloom that her parents used to take her camping all the time.
"You just put these rods through here... connect them here... and stand it up!" she said. Each of them grabbed two of the supporting rods (one for each corner of the tent), and at the same time, lifted. Just like Archer had said, the tent easily rose from the ground. Taking the last rod inside, she inserted into the center of the roof, forming a point.
"Wow!" admired Apple Bloom. "That doesn't look half bad!"
"Yeah," agreed Archer. "I guess we make a pretty good team." The two smiled at each other, then turned to see how the others were doing.
It became immediately obvious that most of the other recruits had not been camping very often. Only one other tent was set up, which belonged to Light Heart and another pony that Apple Bloom didn't recognize. Everypony else had their tents in different levels of functionality, but none of them were near close to done. Apple Bloom walked over to the nearest pair of ponies that were struggling with their tent. They looked up at her gratefully as she began to explaining how to connect the rods together, but were interrupted as a loud voice yelled, "No helping the other recruits!"
Looking up, Apple Bloom saw Ballad watching the different teams from the sidelines. "Why not?" she asked.
"Because I said so." he replied.
"But... that's not fair! There no way they can get this done in time when—" suddenly Apple Bloom felt a hoof on her shoulder. She turned around to see Archer standing behind her.
"We're supposed to follow orders," she said cautiously.
"But it's not fair!" she whispered back. Archer just looked over at Ballad.His jaw was set; his brow furled, obviously waiting to see what Apple Bloom would do.
"You don't want to get in any more trouble," cautioned Archer.
Apple Bloom looked down at the two other ponies, obviously lost in their task. "...Sorry, guys," she finally said, then slowly turned and walked away.
Apple Bloom and Archer sat in their tent, unpacking. Neither of them were happy about not being able to help the others, some of whom had still been struggling with their tents after the 15 minutes of free time were over. Those that had failed were gathered up and shown how to do it by Ballad, who then ordered them to take down their tents and put them up again until they could do it on their own. By the time it was over there wasn't a single smiling face in the camp. Now they all waited in silence for whatever would happen next, those that were brave enough still attempting to sneak in a bit of sleep while they had the chance.
As Apple Bloom unpacked her things, she took a small amount of interest in seeing what Celestia had decided to give her. There were some first aid supplies and bug repellant, and snacks, such as dried fruits and an especially yummy looking jar of sugar cubes that Apple Bloom would have to make sure to keep secret from the other ponies, but when she opened a small pocket inside the bag, she found something she didn't expect. It was a note, sealed with Celestia's royal seal. Curious, Apple Bloom quickly opened it up to see what it said. There was only one sentence written on it, which read, Remember, little ponies can do big things. Don't give up.
"What's that?" Archer asked, causing Apple Bloom to jump.
"Ah! Oh, it's... nothin'," she replied, quickly stuffing the note back into the pack.
Suddenly there was a stirring outside the tent that caught Apple Bloom's attention. It sounded like the voices of the other recruits, but there was something abnormal about it. It seemed like they were... excited, of all things. Curious, she and Archer poked their heads out of the tent—and their mouths immediately fell open and what they saw.
Descending from above, almost completely silent, were dozens of dark pegusi that blended in perfectly with the night sky. They couldn't even be seen until they were at the top of the tents, and as they landed, magical torches in the camp began to ignite. They started around the lake, bursting to life one by one and casting eerie reflections on the water. After that they started along the edge of the forest, and all the recruits gasped in surprise to see that off in the distance were dozens—if not hundreds more in the distance. Finally the last of the pegasi landed. Swooping in like some nocturnal predator, he came to a sudden stop inches above the ground. His intimidating yellow eyes looked around, unblinking, taking in every detail as he stood still as a statue. Apple Bloom got the very strong impression that he never slept.
After a long time of silently observing everpony around him, he finally spoke. "My name... is Ghost Wing, but you, young colt and fillies of the guard, may call me Captain Redcloak." His voice was soft; almost kind, yet it caused a shiver to run down Apple Bloom's spine.
"Greetings, Captain Redcloak," said Ballad, saluting as he approached.
"Ballad. It is an honor, as always."
"The recruits have been settled in, and await your orders, sir."
"Good. We will begin at once. Ballad, please escort them to the opposite side of the lake to meet with the rest of the troops."
One filly who was two tents down from Apple Bloom look disgusted at the thought of having to stay up any longer after such a hard day, and tried to voice her opinions.
That was all she was able to get out. As soon as she spoke, Captain Redcloak looked over at her. It was only the slightest movement of his eye, but his gaze was so intense that she was literally stunned to silence. She took a small step back, wide-eyed, and didn't dare move until he looked back to Ballad.
"Try to show restraint," said Captain Redcloak as he opened his wings. "It seems they have yet to fully adjust." He vanished as he took off into the air, then appeared again just a moment later on the lake's opposite shore.
Ballad turned toward Apple Bloom and the rest of the recruits, and in a slightly calmer voice than usual, said, "You heard the Captain, recruits. Get moving."
Soon Apple Bloom stood on the far edge of the lake alongside the ranks of the Night Guard. All eyes were focused on their captain as he waited patiently in front of them to all find their place. Once they had, he began to speak.
"Good Evening, troops. You have most certainly noticed that we have with us, on this night, several guests. These foals are honorable recruits for Celestia's royal guard, and I expect you to give all the respect they are due." An almost imperceptible hiss of laughter slithered through Redcloak's troops at this comment, which unnerved Apple Bloom probably more than it should. Redcloak continued.
"Be grateful for their presence, Night Guard. Seeing as this is their first night of training, we shall only be running through the basic exercises, which means you get a rare rest from your usual labors. Such an occasion will not happen again for quite some time, I assure you. Now, begin your preparation for the night's activities. I would like to take a moment to speak to the recruits directly."
At his word, the Night Guard seemed to suddenly evaporate into thin air. It took Apple Bloom a moment to realize they had simply flown away. She had to admit that their speed and silence were impressive, even if she did find it really creepy.
"Now," began Redcloak again, once his troops were gone, "I am curious to know, what do you know of the Night Guard already?"
"That you're in charge of protecting Luna?" Archer offered bravely. Redcloak smiled. It wasn't a very pleasant look.
"That is correct, but we are charged with much more than that. You see, it is during the night that the predators of the forest awake. Even before our beloved Luna returned to us, it was our task to assure the safety of all the ponies that lived near the Everfree. The Everfree is home to a very... diverse range of life, and covers a very vast area, and so our task cannot be taken lightly. We must always be on the alert. Always prepared to face any challenge, even at a moment's notice, but most of all we must operate as one. Protecting Luna's subjects while they sleep is not a task that can be accomplished by any one pony, and because of this there can be no weak links among us."
Apple Bloom cringed. There was that phrase again.
"While you are here you will learn focus, you will learn discipline, and you will learn fearlessness. All of these are nothing, however, if you do not first learn to trust one another." Redcloak paused for a moment. "Are you tired, young recruits?"
At this the entire group nodded vehemently.
"As is to be expected," he said. "I assure you that you will get your chance to sleep, but first each of you will learn an important lesson: That it is only when we push ourselves past our perceived limits, that we can truly discover where our limits are. Now follow me, recruits. Your first training exercise awaits you."
"Um... where, exactly?" Apple Bloom dared to ask, noticing that she had never seen any of the Night Guard actually come back down. Redcloak looked back at her.
"Where we do all our training. In the Everfree Forest."
Apple Bloom had been in the Everfree forest before. She had even been in the Everfree forest at night before, but it never seemed quite as dark as it did right now. Her and the rest of the recruits followed Redcloak in a straight line, two by two, through the almost pitch blackness. None dared take one step off the trail for fear of getting lost, and many of the young ponies held hooves. Apple Bloom wasn't above such a thing, and held onto Archer tightly as they made their way deeper and deeper into the woods.
After what seemed like hours of walking, she began to hear a noise. Voices, yelling orders over the sound of rushing water. Soon the woods opened up, and in front of them was the Night Guard, busy setting up a structure like nothing Apple Bloom had ever seen before. It looked almost like a playground, with ladders and steep inclines to climb, but also looked dangerous at the same time. There were parts where large wooden discs were balanced precariously on thin poles over pits of muddy water, and heavy stones that blocked upward sloped paths, and at the end was a narrow bridge made of wooden planks that passed over the top of a quickly flowing river.
"What is this?" a pony behind her asked.
"You've all run the Day Guard's obstacle course," said Redcloak. "This is the Night Guard's version. Please gather at the starting line, and I will explain to you how it works."
All the ponies gathered at the starting line, none wanting to be at the front of the group.
"You will find this course much more challenging," he began, "not only due to its more advanced design, but also due to the fact that almost none of the obstacles can be overcome without help. Here is how you will proceed." Redcloak turned toward the obstacle course, pointing out each feature as e explained them.
"First is a water-slicked ramp that you must reach by crossing several balance boards over a shallow pit. Next is the counterbalance disk. If one pony steps on it, there must always be a pony opposite of them to keep it level, or it will tip, causing all ponies standing on it to fall off. Next is the boulder tunnel. You must push the boulder up the ramp until you are at the top. It weighs two hundred pounds, and will require several of you to work together to move it. After that you will climb the ladder and cross the bridge over the river to the finish."
Redcloak looked back at the recruits. Their expressions ranged from awestruck to downright terrified. "This is not a simple challenge; therefore you will be able to watch two of the Night Guard perform it first in order to get a better feel for it. Although the guards have wings, they will not be allowed to use them for this example, under risk of severe penalty." Looking at two guards that stood next to him, Redcloak nodded. They nodded back, and immediately rushed toward the first obstacle.
With what seemed like almost impossible agility, the first of the two bounded clear over the balance boards, landing solidly on the ramp and acquiring a sturdy grip. The second ran across the board and grabbed onto the first's outreached hoof. Using his momentum, he ran all the way up the ramp without stopping, and then pulled the other guard up behind him.
As they reached the disk, they both leapt at once, landing on opposite sides, but as they did it began to spin. The guard on the left took a step back, while the guard on the right took a step forward. The managed to keep it level, but it seemed as if neither of them could reach the far side without causing the other to fall. Again, with an almost impossible level of synchronicity, the two guards began running in opposite directions. By stomping their hooves down at the exact same time, they were able to stay in place as the disc spun faster and faster. All the time they moved closer to the center. When it was nothing more than a blur underneath them, they suddenly stopped. Making one full circle to gain momentum, the first of the guards leapt from the disc, landing safely on the opposite side. As the disc began to wobble perilously, the second jump as well. He barely made it, slamming into the ledge so hard that the wind was knocked out of him, causing one of his wings to extend out of pure reflex.
"That's a week of armor cleaning duty for the entire squadron, Shadowmane," Redcloak reprimanded, "in addition to your normal patrol hours." The guard didn't respond in any other way than quickly folding his wing back in as his partner helped him over the edge.
Next was the boulder tunnel. The guards were surprisingly strong for their sizes, and managed to push the boulder up the steep ramp quite quickly, though they were breathing heavily afterwards. They never slowed down as they made it up the ladder and across the bridge to the finish.
"Well done, Night Guard. Return to me."
The two pegusi quickly flew to Redcloak's side and stood at attention. He saluted them, and they saluted back. They never looked down at the crowd of foals staring at them in amazement, but nonetheless a slight smirk formed at the corner of the second guard's lip. Obviously Shadowmane wasn't too discouraged by his punishment to enjoy the attention.
"Now," said Redcloak, facing the recruits, "it is your turn. Unlike the Day Guard's course, there will be no time limit. There is, however, the requirement that all participants make it to the end. None of you will count as having finished until all of you have crossed the bridge. If one falls, then you must go back for them. Understood?"
The recruits all nodded weakly.
"Then you may begin."
None of the foals had speed or coordination anywhere near the Night Guard's, so things went very slow. Before they had even gotten across the balance boards, half of them were covered in mud from falling into the pit. Some even fell multiple times. Despite everything, Archer continued to be a good example. Once she made it across the balance beam she held it sturdy to make it easier for the others to cross. Once that was over she did the same with the disc. Due to being so much lighter than the guards, it didn't tilt over near as quickly, and by going slowly and carefully, and having several other recruits help hold it steady, they were all able to make it across on the first try.
The boulder was the hardest part. The planks it was placed on were only wide enough for five or six of them at a time, and even with that many working together it was still a difficult challenge. Apple Bloom and Archer had been part of the first group to make it up, and Light Heart made it up with the second, but when the third group tried, one of the ponies slipped and fell. The sudden increase in weight for all the other ponies caused a chain reaction, and the boulder rolled back down, knocking all six of them into the pit below.
There was a moment where every pony watching let out an exasperated groan, and the fillies in the pit of mud below looked like they were going to cry, but once again Archer saved the day. In a bold move, she ran back down the ramp and hopped over the boulder, encouraging the six to hurry back to the start and meet her. Apple Bloom couldn't just watch as Archer attempted to stay in high spirits while attempted to cross the counterbalance disc all by herself, so she ran down the ramp as well, inspired by Archer's courage. She was able to make it across safely, and soon the six were back. Archer continued to prove herself to be a good leader when the problem of how to get eight ponies up a ramp only wide enough for six presented itself.
Making sure that everyone wiped their hooves off first, so that nopony would slip again, Archer (along with Apple Bloom, who was trying to follow her good example) helped four of the ponies to push the boulder to the top. When they had pushed it far enough, Archer told two of them to slip around the edge. As they did the boulder slid back down, but thanks to being prepared this time, no one fell off the planks. When it reached the bottom there were now six ponies, and, pushing it back up the ramp for the third time, Apple Bloom and Archer finally jumped to the side, the entire group safely at the top. Everyone thanked Archer and Apple Bloom for their help as the climbed up the ladder and crossed the bridge one by one. Archer was the last to cross, with Apple Bloom a short distance ahead of her.
"I can't... believe... we made it!" exclaimed Apple Bloom, looking back.
"I... know!" agreed Archer. "I hope... we get to... sleep now. I'm not... sure... if I—"
Suddenly the board under Archer's hoof seemed to flash in the moonlight. There was a sudden cracking sound, and she fell, the board she had been standing on half a second earlier quickly getting carried away in the current of the river.
"Apple Bloom! Help!" she screamed, hanging above the water from the ropes of the bridge. "I can't swim!"
Apple Bloom quickly reached down and grabbed Archer's free hoof. "Don't worry, I got ya!" she yelled. Looking back up at where Redcloak was standing, she prepared to get his attention, but was surprised to see him already looking in their direction, as calm as ever.
"Captain Redcloak! Captain Redcloak! Help!"
He stared at the two of them in silence for a moment more, then, to Apple Bloom's great surprise, he said the last thing she had ever expected him to say.
"That's an order, Apple Bloom."
"But... but she can't swim!"
"The bridge isn't stable. One of the Night Guard can retrieve her downstream. Drop her now, or risk falling into the river yourself."
Apple Bloom looked down at Archer. "Don't worry, Apple Bloom," she said reassuringly. "Finish the course. I'll be fine."
"But... it just doesn't feel right!"
For the first time, Apple Bloom heard Redcloak raise his voice. "Drop her now, or you will be disobeying a direct order and cause everypony to fail!"
Looking down at Archer one last time, Apple Bloom whispered, "I'm sorry."
There was a loud splash as Archer hit the water below. She watched with mixed feelings of dread and helplessness as her friend was washed away. Getting to her hooves, she looked back over at Redcloak, who only motioned for her to get moving. Turning to face the shocked faces of the rest of the group, Apple Bloom muttered to herself, "I wish I'd fallen into the river too."
It seemed that at this time, fate decided to grant Apple Bloom her wish, because no sooner had the thought crossed her mind, than she heard a loud snap! The rope on one side of the bridge came undone, and she cried out in surprise as she fell sideways, getting cut short as the dark water rose above her and swept her away to places unknown.
All Apple Bloom could see was the dark. All she could hear were air bubbles as they escaped her lips. Sticks and rocks beat against her, and she couldn't tell which way was up. For a brief moment Apple Bloom burst above the surface, struggling to stay there against the powerful undertow. As she slipped under again, she thought for a brief moment that she heard her name. Clinging to the hope that she wasn't imagining things, she forced herself to the surface once more.
"Z-Zecora?!" she sputtered. "Is that you?"
"Yes, dear Apple Bloom, it is me! Now swim toward my voice, quickly!"
Trying her best to obey, Apple Bloom paddled toward what she could only assume was the shore. Soon she ran into something smooth that stopped her constant motion downstream. Looking closer, she realized that it was a long, thin, reed of some sort that was being held out to her. She wrapped herself around it desperately, and felt herself being pulled in. A moment later she was lying on dry ground, shivering uncontrollably and coughing up water, but safe.
"Zecora! Oh, thank goodness!" she said. "What are you doing out here?"
"I was fishing for a rare moon eel, but I think two ponies are a better deal."
"Two?! Does tha—" Apple Bloom had to pause for another small coughing fit. "Does that mean Archer's here too? Is she okay?"
"Do not fret. You're fiend is fine. He was the first to catch my line. I must admit, though, he gave me quite a fright. What happened to you two this night?"
"It's a long story, Zecora. We were crossing a bridge after runnin' an obstacle course for the Night Guard, but on the way over it, it broke. I grabbed Archers hoof before she fell, but..." Apple Bloom paused for a long time. "...But I dropped her. I failed... again/. Like I always do."
"Why Apple Bloom, such harsh words you speak! Surely these things you do not think?"
"It's true, Zecora. I've let everypony down. I just wanted to prove that I could do somethin' right for once, but I couldn't. I wanted to be a royal guard, but now... now I just wanna go home."
Zecora looked down at Apple Bloom with concern and rested a hoof on her back. "My dear... sometimes you may feel sad, but I assure you, it's not that badYyour family would tell you so. They've been searching for you, you know."
"From dusk ‘till dawn since you've been gone."
Apple Bloom sneezed. "Heh. Well... I guess that's something. Nice to know my family's always—" suddenly Apple Bloom remembered something. "Oh! Um, I'd love to go home, Zecora, but there's somethin' I need to do first. Do you know how to get to the Night Guard training camp from here?"
"The camp? Are you quite sure, my dear? Shouldn't you take some time first to rest here?"
"I would love to rest, Zecora, believe me. But I've got to do this before it's too late."
"I'm not sure telling you is right. The woods can be quite dangerous at night."
"I'll go with her," said a familiar voice. "I need to get back anyway."
"Archer!" exclaimed Apple Bloom, as she came hobbling out of the darkness. "I'm so glad you're all right!"
"I'm glad you're all right too!" she replied. "What happened? How did you end up in the river?"
"Oh, well, the bridge collapsed after I... oh, Archer! I'm so sorry for droppin' you!"
"Aw, don't feel bad about that," Archer said simply. "Everything turned out fine, after all. I just want to get back before any of the others start to worry."
Zecora smiled at the two of them. "With such good friends you cannot fail. Come then, I shall show you the right trail."
The two young ponies followed Zecora close as she lead them back into the woods. Not too far in from the fishing spot the trail split at a signpost which pointed down each path. Starting from the right, it read, Ponyville, Canterlot, and then in large red letters, DANGER. That was the path they took. How long they walked, Apple Bloom wasn't sure. By now she had been awake longer than she ever had been before. She couldn't see the moon through the trees, but she assumed that it must be setting. Eventually, however, a familiar site came into view. Through the thick trees, she spotted the sharp angles of the obstacle course, now dark and abandoned.
"This is it, Zecora. Thank you so much for yer help. Archer and I know the way from here."
Zecora gave them a nod. "Take care, you two. Good luck with what you want to do." Apple Bloom and Archers thanked her one more time before begging down the trail that lead back to the camp.
Once again the two young ponies decided to hold hooves. She thought that maybe it was just her imagination before, but now Apple Bloom was sure that this place was darker than the rest of the forest. She could hardly even make out Archer's face in the scant light. Soon she started getting the unpleasant feeling of being watched, and decided that some conversation was needed.
"So..." she began. "Your plannin' to keep tryin' to become a guard?"
"Yeah," replied Archer. "I mean, this Night Guard stuff is hard, but like they said, you can't have any weak links! The sooner we get back, the easier it will be to prove that I'm willing not to give up, even if I did technically fail the test. I bet they would let you keep training too, if you wanted."
"Ya think so?"
"I don't see why not."
There was a short silence, but this time it was Archer who broke it.
"There was something I've been thinking about that was kind of... odd."
"Well... didn't Redcloak say that he would send somepony to come to come save me?"
Apple Bloom furrowed her brow. "Yeah. He did say that."
"...Did you ever see and of the anypony looking for us?"
"Now that you mention it... no," said Apple Bloom. "But then again, they are kinda hard to see in the dark. Maybe we just missed ‘em."
"Maybe... but would they have missed us?"
Apple Bloom didn't respond. Now that Archer brought it up, it did seem strangely out of place. As a matter of fact, a lot of things seemed out of place. Like after all that talk of teamwork, why would Redcloak have told her to drop Archer? It made some sense, she had to admit, if the bridge really was unstable... but was it? He wouldn't have let all the recruits walk across it if it was that dangerous. Also why didn't it break earlier, when there was more weight on it that just the two of them? No... none if this seemed right.
Thinking back even harder, Apple Bloom recalled another detail, which she had merely ignored at the time among the panic. When the board broke under Archer, she remembered seeing a distinct flash of light. At the time she thought it was just the moonlight, but now that she thought back... it seemed more like the flash of magic. Had somepony done this on puropose? No, that was crazy. Nopony would be willing to do something like that. But still....
A sudden flicker of light up ahead caught Apple Bloom's attention, shaking her from her thoughts. Through the trees, she could see the eerie torches of the Night Guard camp. Ducking down, she scanned the area. There didn't seem to be any movement. A second later Archer ducked down next to her.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I don't know. I've just... got a feeling. Come on. I've got to get something from our tent. Let's try to get there without gettin' seen." Archer looked at her quizzically, but went along with it anyway.
For the next several minutes the two of them snuck through the Everfree forest around the camp's border. Being as small as they were, they were able to wiggle under roots and bushes, and did a pretty good job of staying low to the ground and out of sight. Soon they had reached the back of the tents, and only then did they come out of hiding. As they got closer, Apple Bloom heard the snoring of several ponies, and realized that everypony must be asleep. Good. Ducking under the back of their tent, Apple Bloom dug through her bags as quietly as possible.
"A-ha!" she whispered when she had found what she was looking for; the small photo she had accidentally taken from Light Heart's room.
"What's that?" asked Archer.
"It's something of Light Hearts," she replied. "I think it's a picture of her family."
Archer reached out to see. Apple Bloom handed it to her as the two of them ducked back out and started sneaking toward Light Heart's tent.
"Wait—Captain Redcloak is Light Heart's dad?!" Archer whispered in surprise.
Apple Bloom shrugged. "I guess so." Who was whose family had never really concerned her.
"But why would she be trying to get into Celestia's guard then? Why not join the Night Guard with her dad?"
"Well the fact that she'd stick out like a green apple in a basket of red delicious might have something to do with it...."
"Actually, that's kind of a good—oof!" Archer was interrupted as she bumped into Apple Bloom, who had suddenly stopped moving. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Apple Bloom didn't reply. Instead she made a "shush" motion and waved for Archer to duck down. She obeyed, then silently mouthed the words, What's wrong? again. Apple Bloom pointed toward the tent. Through the thin slit between the fabric and the ground, two sets of hooves could be seen; four small and white, and four much larger and darker. Frantic whispering could be heard, but from this distance, Apple Bloom couldn't make out any of the words. Looking over at Archer, she signaled for them to move closer. Archr nodded in response, and as quietly as they possible could, they inched toward the tent.
"...should have told me sooner!" Apple Bloom heard Redcloak say as they neared the back of the tent.
"I'm sorry!" Light Heart whispered back. "I thought you had packed it!"
"I told you to take everything into account. Extracting a spell from a unicorn and storing it in an object isn't an easy task. I warned you of the importance of that picture! How could you be so incompetent?!"
"I'm not incompetent!" cried Light Heart.
"Keep your voice down," ordered Redcloak.
Light Hearts was quiet for a moment, then repeated in a timid voice, "I'm not incompetent."
"Celestia knows that there's a spy among her guard, Light Heart. You're lucky that I was able to intervene and conceal your identity or else you would have been found out. You were supposed to deliver the spell contained in that scroll to her days ago, but then you allow yourself to be outdone by Archer, then Apple Bloom."
"I got rid of them, didn't I?" she argued.
"Well that hardly matters now that you've lost the very thing we needed to get them out of the way for!" Redcloak's hooves turned to face away from Light Heart. "I'm dissapointed in you, Light Heart."
"I... I can cast the spell again!" she whimpered. "We can put it in another scroll, and I'll make sure to get chosen this time and make you proud of me! I can fix this!"
"No, Light Heart. You can't."
There was a long silence between the two of them. Finally Light Heart spoke.
"Just give me a chance...."
Redcloak sighed. "Fine. We've come too far to go back now. Here's what is going to happen. I'm going to personally fly you to Canterlot tonight. I'll tell Celestia's guards that we've come to report the disappearance of two of the foals, and it will be up to you to use your sleep spell on Celestia in person. Don't fail me."
Light Heart flinched at these words.
"While you're keeping Celestia out of the way, I'll return and tell the Night Guard that a rebellion has started at the castle, and the Day Guard is responsible for Celestia not raising the sun. It's a temporary solution, but the confusion should keep both sides busy long enough for the predators of the Everfree to make their way out of the forest."
"I won't let you down," Light Heart insisted.
"You'd better not," Redcloak replied.
Light Heart's hooves vanished as she climbed into her father's back, and there was a rush of air as he took to the sky. After it was quiet, Archer and Apple Bloom looked over at each other in shock, then, at the same time, stood and bolted back into the forest.
"Oh horseapples! Oh crabapples! Sour candy apples! This is bad!" ranted Apple Bloom.
"What are we going to do?!" exclaimed Archer.
"We've got to get to Canterlot!"
"We're the only ones that know what's going on! I've got to try to at least try to help Celestia before it's too late!"
"All right then. Let's go."
"Oh no, you need to warn Ponyville about Redcloak's plan! It's farther away, and you're faster than me. Once I get to Canterlot I'll try to send help if I can, but you've got to be my plan A."
Archer looked up the mountain at the spires of Canterlot, thinking, and then back to Apple Bloom. "It will be faster to get to Ponyville if I go through the Everfree forest."
"You're gonna travel through the Everfree forest alone?" Apple Bloom said in shock.
"I don't think there's enough time for anything else."
For a moment the two hesitated, then nodded to each other in trust, and began to head their separate ways.
"Try to find Zecora again!" said Apple Bloom. "She knows the forest better than anypony! It's a sure thing she'll be able to help you!"
"All right!" Archer called back. "Be careful!"
Apple Bloom's lungs pumped furiously as she ran up the winding trail toward Canterlot. She was fatigued in every type of way, but she knew that she had to keep going. Everypony was counting on her. As she rounded he last corner before entering town, she feared she might be too late, however. She was almost certain the sun should have started rising by now.
Suddenly a flurry of shadows passed over Apple Bloom's head. She quickly dove into a nearby bush as a dozen members of the Night Guard flew by. Following their path, she saw that fighting had already broken out around the castle. Giving it everything she had, Apple Bloom doubled her pace, sprinting toward the conflict at full speed.
As she got closer, Apple Bloom could see hundreds of Night Guard pegasi swarming around the outside of the castle, barely being held back by a barrage of magic spells from Celestia's guards, most of whom seemed to have been caught by surprise. Some of them didn't even have on full sets of armor, and were forced to fight with their heads or chests exposed.
There was a spark of light in the distance that caught Apple Blooms attention. As she watched, it seemed to get bigger. Realizing at the last second what it was, she barely managed to dive to the side as a bolt of magic slammed into where she had just been standing, causing a nearby tree to burst into bright green flames.
Getting back up and dusting herself off, Apple Bloom once again prepared to run, but suddenly heard a loud creaking behind her. She turned around just in time to see the tree come toppling toward her. There was no time to get out of the way now, and all she could do was shield herself under her forelegs as it came crashing down.
There was a heavy boom, and a sudden jolt, and then Apple Bloom... felt fine? Opening her eyes, she was confused at first. For one thing, she wasn't where she had been a moment before, and secondly, she seemed to be moving. Looking down, Apple Bloom saw the ground rushing past below her, and realized that she somehow seemed to be flying.
"Wha?" she stammered.
"Close one, kid!" a familiar voice responded.
Apple Bloom looked up. "Spitfire?! Miss Sky Skimmer?!" she exclaimed.
Swooping toward the ground, Spitfire landed under the cover of a large bush just outside the castle walls, spitting out Apple Blooms tail as she set her down. A moment later Sky Skimmer landed as well.
"It's good to see you're all right, Apple Bloom," she said.
"You... you saved me!" said Apple Bloom gratefully.
"Eh, don't worry about it," replied Spitfire. "I've pulled of riskier stunts in my sleep. Really. I was actually sleeping on a cloud just a little while ago and had pull out of a nose dive when it was blasted out from under me! Thought I was dreaming at first. That's a weird sensation, let me tell you...."
"Please, Sptifire, at least try to focus," said Sky Skimmer. Spitfire responded by sticking her tongue out at her. Turning to Apple Bloom, Sky Skimmer asked, "What'a going on? Why were you running to the castle instead of hiding like a smart filly?"
"I've got to get to Celestia's room!" Apple Bloom replied frantically. "She's in danger!"
"Is that so?" said Spitfire, seeming a bit too happy about the news. "Well we can't have that now, can we? Don't worry. I'll get you there faster than you can blink!"
"...You don't even want to know why?" asked Sky Skimmer.
Sky Skimmer stared at her flatly for a moment, before turning back to Apple Bloom. "Why is Celestia in Danger, Apple Bloom?"
"It's Redcloak! He's plannin' to prevent Celestia from raisin' the sun so that monsters will come out of the forest and attack Ponyville and who knows where else!"
"This is Redcloak's doing? I knew something was off about him lately, but I never would have guessed... fine. I'll round up whoever I can to go aid Ponyville, meanwhile Spitfire will assist you in getting to Celestia's chambers, right, Spitfire?"
"Hey, I never pass up an opportunity to do something awesome."
"All right. Good luck, you two. You'll need it."
Sky Skimmer didn't waste any time as she took off in the direction of Ponyville. At the same time Spitfire kneeled down to allow Apple Bloom to climb on to her back.
"Hold on tight!" she said as Apple Bloom got into position.
"I—waoh!" replied Apple Bloom as they suddenly rocketed into the air.
"That's Celestia's room up there!" called Spitfire, pointing at a window on the third floor of the castle. Apple Bloom didn't reply, seeing as she was focusing solely on not letting go as Spitfire bobbed and weaved skillfully around everything that got in their path. It was only a few seconds before they reached the window. As they did, a red streak suddenly rushed past them, severing a dozen feathers from Spitfire's left wing.
"Yikes!" she yelped, swerving to the side. "What the—was that a sword?!"
It had been, and with genuine distress, Apple Bloom spotted Ballad directly below them, horn glowing red as he looked up at them intently.
Spitfire did a sharp backflip in the air as the Ballad's sword flew by again. "He's the one that's controlling it," yelled Apple Bloom, pointing Ballad out to her.
"Ha! Well don't worry, Apple Bloom. He'll have to do better than that if he—" suddenly the sword came by a third time, striking Spitfire's right wing and causing several more feathers to fall away. Suddenly the two of them dropped. Spitfire had to flap her wings twice as hard as before just to stay airborne. "Oh... oh that little... he's trying to clip me!" she yelled.
"That jerk is trying to cut my feathers off so I get ground locked! Now it's personal. Don't worry about our little friend down there, Apple Bloom. I'll take care of him. You just get ready to jump!"
Suddenly Spitfire rushed straight toward the wall of the castle. Ballad's sword changed direction to meet them, but she didn't change course. As the sword neared, Spitfire actually started to laughed. "Now!" she yelled.
Apple Bloom was hardly able to keep track of what happened next, but from what she could piece together, Spitfire had at some point changed direction, and had gone from flying straight forward, to straight down. During this process, she had removed Apple Bloom from her back, and now she found herself careening through the air, directly toward the window of Celestia's room. The only problem was the window appeared to be closed.
There was a loud crash as Apple Bloom exploded through the shutters in a cloud of splinters. She made a mental note to never forget that Spitfire was completely insane. Climbing to her feet as quickly as she could, Apple Bloom assessed the situation.
It was immediately assessed as very bad. On the far side of the room was Celestia, asleep, but seemingly caught in a fitful dream. Light Heart sat next to her bed, focusing intently as her horn glowed a soft white, and in the center of the room, calm as always, stood Redcloak.
"Hello, Apple Bloom."
"Wha? Wh-what are you doing here?" Apple Bloom replied, attempting to sound less scared than she was.
"I'm leading my troops to victory. I'm making sure my daughter completes her task. But really, I'm avenging my family. What are you doing here?"
"I'm... here to stop you?"
Redcloak actually laughed. It was very unpleasant. "How?" he asked.
"I hadn't really thought that part through...."
Redcloak seemed unimpressed. "I would allow you to leave, Apple Bloom, but the door to this room must remain closed, or else it might arouse suspicion. You are free to try and stop me, but I suggest you take a seat and listen instead. I'm not sure how you've managed to arrive here, but after all you've been through, it would only be polite of me to offer some explanation."
Apple Bloom looked over at Celestia, then back at Redcloak, then sat down. "Okay," she muttered.
"Wise choice," said Redcloak, as he began. "Few know this, Apple Bloom, but my full name is not just Ghost Wing. It's Ghost Wing the Sixteenth. My family has served in the Night Guard for generations, and it was the first Ghost Wing—my fourteenth great grandfather—who was Captain of the Night Guard when our dear princess Luna was banished to the moon.
"It was a time of great turmoil for the Night Guard. Sinister rumors spread, demonizing us for ever being loyal to what they referred to as an evil being. Still my grandfather continued in his duties, protecting the ponies throughout the night as they slept, and being ridiculed by them when they woke. He died in obscurity, his steadfastness unrewarded. Soon ponies forgot all about the Night Guard entirely, even though they never stopped performing their sworn duties.
"And so it remained for a thousand years. We served Equestria, unthanked, unrewarded, all but forgotten. Well, now we will be remembered. Everypony will know what happens without the Night Guard to watch over them."
"...What'll happen to Celesita?"
"She is merely being kept out of the matter until my mission is complete. My original plan was to poison her with a sleeping spell that would activate upon contact with her, but due to... complications, plans had to be changed."
"I said I was sorry," said Light Heart, too focused to be upset, but still able to make her point.
Redcloak gave her no attention. "By now the hunters of the Everfree forest should be stirring. It won't be long before the towns around the Everfree are overrun."
Apple Bloom sniffed, wiping at her eyes. "I just wanted to do somethin' right for once."
"Well..." said Redcloak, "no one blames you for trying."
"Could... could I say something to Celestia?" Asked Apple Bloom.
"What do you mean?"
"I just want to apologize to her for messin' everything up so bad. I... I just want her to know I'm sorry I couldn't save things."
Redcloak looked at Apple Bloom suspiciously. "I doubt she can hear you."
"Please..." begged Apple Bloom, breaking down into sobs. Redcloak watched in silence, but eventually rolled his eyes, letting out a small huff.
"Fine, but if you try anything I won't hesitate to make you leave the same way you came in, understood?"
Apple Bloom nodded shakily.
"All right then," replied Redcloak. "Approach Celestia slowly and say what you will, then return to your seat."
Getting up, Apple Bloom obeyed, carefully making her way toward Celestia's head. She wrapped her hooves around Celestia's neck, she simply said, "I'm sorry, Princess. I guess I just was too little to help after all... or, was I?"
"What?" asked Redcloak.
All at once Apple Bloom's expression abruptly changed. With a sinister smirk, Apple Bloom slowly let Celestia go, revealing a picture held in her left hoof. It was surrounded by a glowing purple mist that was becoming brighter all the time.
"What?!" Redcloak exclaimed in alarm. "Where did you—no! No!"
Apple Bloom shoved the picture into Light Heart's face, who was too focused on her spell to pay attention. There was blinding purple flash, and suddenly Apple Bloom felt like she had just been hit by the world's softest cloud. She watched in a half-dream state as Light Heart fell to the ground next to her, her eyes rolling shut. Apple Bloom tried to fight it, but it was too strong, and she was too tired. The last thing she saw as her vision faded was Celestia sitting up, eyes glowing, and the look of terror on Redcloak's face as he bolted for the door.
"Wake up, sleepy head...."
The voice seemed to echo.
"Come on now. Rise and shine. We've got an apple orchard to take care of."
"...Applejack?" Apple Bloom whispered.
"The one and only!" the voice responded.
Apple Bloom's eyes shot open. She sat up, looking around in confusion, and found herself at home—and in her very own bed no less! Applejack and Big Mac and Granny Smith were all standing around her with big smiles on their faces.
"Wha... how'd I get here? What's goin' on?"
"You fell asleep out in the apple orchard," said Applejack. "You were so plum tuckered out that Big Mac carried you back home, and you've been sleepin' ever since. From the sounds of it you were have one doozy of a dream."
"A... dream? It was all a dream?"
"Eeyup," said Big Macintosh.
Apple Bloom just stared at them, dumbfounded. After a few seconds Applejack snickered, and they all suddenly burst into laughter at the same time. "Aw, we're just messin' with ya!" said Applejack. "You saved the day! We heard all about it from the Princess, and we couldn't be more proud of you! That was three days ago now, and you've been sleepin' ever since. Don't blame ya. Sounded like quite the adventure!" She leaned over and gave Appebloom a hug. "And we're all so glad you're safe."
"But, what about the monsters? Where's Archer? Did they catch Redcloak? Did Spitfire—"
"Woah there, little filly!" Applejack interrupted. "Don't go bitin' all the apples in the basket. One question at a time."
Apple Bloom took a deep breath, trying to calm down. "Is Archer all right?"
"Yes, ma'am. And a matter of fact, she's been worried sick about you! Told us to tell her the minute you woke up so she could come see ya."
"And what about everypony else in town? Were they able to fend off the monsters?"
"Aw, heck. Ain't no monsters tough enough to get the best of our little town! Thanks to Archer comin' to warn us, we were able to keep thing under control. When things started lookin' grim, backup arrived just in time, then not too long after the sun suddenly shot up into the sky and all them creepy crawlies high tailed it back to the forest."
"And what abour Redcloak? Did Celestia get him?"
"Well," said Applejack, "that's a bit more complicated of a situation. This Redcloak fella... he went and got himself into a whole mess of trouble. Celestia wanted his head on a platter, but apparently her sister convinced her otherwise. Somethin' about years of loyal service, and understandin' where he was coming from, plus he had a family to take care of. The Princesses assured us that he would be fine, and that he might even be able to come around these parts again someday, if he learns to behave. It's all politics. I wouldn't worry yourself too much about it."
"Huh," said Apple Bloom. "So that's it?"
"...Huh," said Apple Bloom again.
"Somethin' wrong?" asked Applejack.
"I just feel kinda like I should have learned something from all this."
Applejack laughed. "We're the Apple family! We don't need to learn things!"
Apple Bloom thought for a moment. "Huh. I guess you're right," she finally said. "So, what do we do now?"
"Well, we've got some stew simmerin' for ya downstairs," said Applejack. "Figured you'd be pretty hungry by now."
"Boy am I!" said Apple Bloom enthusiastically as she hopped out of bed.
Talking and laughing, the apple family exited the room, making sure to shut the door behind them.