The Cutie Mark Espionage Agency
When Apple Bloom suggests becoming spies, her fellow Cutie Mark Crusaders pooh-pooh her idea. But as strange things start happening around Ponyville, it looks like she and her friends are going to get a lot more intrigue than they'd bargained for.
"Well, there's one talent we ain't tried yet," said Apple Bloom, optimist extraordinaire. "Es-pee-own-arge."
The three fillies were sitting on the grass in one of Sweet Apple Acres' many orchard fields. There was a fence next to them, and a feeding trough, though, since there was grass growing from it, it was safe to assume that it was no longer in use. The three of them had spent most of the week trying to think up what to do for the spring, and so far the only thing they had done was to have a lot of meetings trying to think of what to do for the spring. It was only recently, after a visit to Ponyville town with her sister and brother, that Apple Bloom had received her brainwave.
Apart from her, there was Sweetie Belle, the unicorn, and Scootaloo, the pegasus. Unlike Apple Bloom's, their optimism had waned early this spring like crocuses, and they weren't taking anything at face value.
"What's that?" said Sweetie Belle, admiring the sheen of the sun on the apples hanging overhead.
"It's kinda like sneakin' into another farmer's fields and ruinin' all his crops, Ah think. That's how Applejack explained it to me."
"Oh, you mean espionage?" Sweetie Belle cocked her head to one side.
"That's what Ah said. Es-pee-own-arge."
"Why would we want to go into another farmer's field and wreck it?" said Scootaloo, who was idly trying to swat butterflies out of the air beside her. This being Equestria, one of the butterflies was swearing and shaking a fist at her. "We get told off for wrecking our own fields. Think of the stink that would get around if Ponyville found out we'd run around pulling up somepony else's food."
"Besides, I don't like pulling food out of the ground," said Sweetie Belle, absent-mindedly pulling up a tuft of grass. "That doesn't sound very sanitary to me."
"Don't be silly, Sweetie Belle. You roll around in the mud all day."
"Yeah, but I don't eat mud. Do you eat mud?"
One of the butterflies delivered a slap to Scootaloo's face with a wing. Scootaloo nursed her nose and scowled as the butterflies drifted off over the fence.
"I had a mud pie yesterday," she said.
"Mud pies don't have no mud in 'em," said Apple Bloom. "They're made of chocolate, an' stuffed with caramel an' cinnamon."
"Are they?" said Sweetie Belle.
"Well, that's what Applejack told me when she made me eat one."
"I ate one for a bet," Scootaloo said proudly.
"A bet of what?" said Apple Bloom.
"What do you mean, a bet of what?"
"Ah meant, what was it you woulda had a bet of for eatin' the mud pie?"
Scootaloo blinked at her.
"I had a bit of the mud pie?" she said slowly.
"Yeah, you said that. What Ah mean is, what for did you make the bet for the bet of when you had the bet for a bet of mud pie?"
Scootaloo did a remarkably good impression of a baffled pony, though method acting probably helped.
"No, no, no, I made a bet," she said.
"Did yer now? Which bet did yer make, the pastry or the fillin'?"
"It was a dare, Apple Bloom. I bet Snips and Snails that I could eat a mud pie in five seconds."
"An' did yer?"
"No. I did it in six."
"So, what did yer have to do as punishmen' for failin' the dare?"
"I had to eat the mud pie!"
Apple Bloom shook her head in annoyance.
"So what yer sayin' is that you were dared that you could eat the mud pie in five seconds, an' if yer din't you had to eat the mud pie as punishmen'?"
Scootaloo folded her forelegs and sulked, facing the fence.
"You work it out, brainiac," she said as Apple Bloom walked over to her.
"That doesn't make a blind bit of sense."
"Of course it does. Eating mud pie is a pretty horrible punishment. It makes the bet interesting."
"Which bet is the interestin' bet?"
Scootaloo gave her a searching glare. "Do you know the difference between the words 'bet' and 'bit', by any chance?"
"Course Ah do. One's the normal way of sayin' it, the other's the fancy way of sayin' it."
"You're doing this on purpose now, aren't you?"
"I'm practisin' mah es-pee-own-arge. Yer see, part of it means yer make the enemy doubt 'emselves, so's they get worried about attack from within."
"Oh, so you're saying I'm the enemy now?"
"I can be the enemy, if you want, Apple Bloom," Sweetie Belle said.
"No, Sweetie Belle. Ah was just tryin' mah skills to see if Ah'd be real good at it."
"Well," she said, trying to hide her disappointment, "I think you're an agent provocateur more than an espionager."
"Am not!" Apple Bloom said, folding her forelegs in a huff and faced the trough.
"You don't even know what that means, do you?"
"Yeah Ah do! It means a pony who goes around pickin' fights with other ponies, an' Ah don't want any part of that!"
"Sounds good. I'll take it!" said Scootaloo, turning around.
"Oh, no, no, no," said Sweetie Belle. "An agent provocateur is a pony who tricks other ponies into doing something naughty so that they can get punished for it."
"Still sounds good. Still taking it."
"But why'd any pony wanna do that?" said Apple Bloom, also turning around.
"To get them into trouble," Sweetie Belle said. "It's a very clever tactic."
"It sounds like cheatin', an' Applejack an' Big Macintosh an' Granny Smith don't approve of cheatin'. Besides, it's silly. If yer have to trick a pony into doin' somethin' that gets 'em into trouble, then shouldn't you be the one who gets into trouble? You tricked 'em into it."
"No, silly," said Scootaloo. "It's because they're your enemy that you trick them."
"Well, what kind of an enemy is that, that needs to be tricked into doin' somethin' bad? Sounds like a pretty poor enemy to me. Ah'd get a new one to replace 'em."
"You know, I'm not sure this is actually what espionage is about," said Sweetie Belle. "I think we've got the wrong definition."
"No we ain't. It said so in mah comics. Es-pee –"
"Yeah, yeah, we get it," said Scootaloo. "What about it?"
"Yer mean why'd Ah bring it up?"
"Yes please, if you'd be so good as to tell us."
"Alright. Mah idea is simplicity itself. We all become spies."
Sweet Apple Acres became mysteriously quiet, except for the crickets, who were probably rehearsing. Even the sun seemed to keep still in stunned confusion. The three fillies gave up several moments of their life to stunned silence.
Scootaloo spoke first.
"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
"Oh, an' Ah s'pose you have a better idea for gettin' our cutie marks?" Apple Bloom reared up, brandishing her front hooves.
"I don't have that one, and I wouldn't want it if I did. Spies. Who would we spy on?"
"The enemy, dopey!"
"We don't have an enemy, Apple Bloom! We just have two jerks in our class who don't do anything, and I wouldn't want to lookat them every morning, so forget about spying on them. No way. Nuh uh. No can do."
"Sabotage!" shouted Sweetie Belle.
"Yeah, yeah it is, Sweetie Belle. Scootaloo's turned chickenan' now she's sabotagin' on us."
"No, I mean that's the word! Sabotage, not espionage. Sabotage is when you go around wrecking the enemy's crop, and espionage is the spying."
"Well, alright!" said Apple Bloom. "She's the agent proo-vok-ee-tur, then!"
"No I'm not," said Scootaloo. "I haven't tricked you into doing anything bad."
"Oh yeah? Well, trick this!"
WHAM! There was a thump on the grassy ground.
"That bad enough for you, yer turncoat?" Apple Bloom rubbed her hoof.
"You maniac! What did you hit me for?" Scootaloo touched her cheek, which felt raw.
"For bein' a yellow-bellied agent proo-vok-ee-tur, an' for trickin' me into hittin' you, yer snake in the grass!"
"Oh, oh," said Scootaloo, getting up, "so I tricked you into hitting me, did I? So I tricked you into hitting me out of revenge for tricking you into hitting me, did I?"
"Don't you try to out-psyche me, you sabby tour!"
"Oh no. No. I wouldn't out-psyche you, Apple Bloom. I'd be tricked into hitting you accidentally! Like this!"
WHAM! There was a thump, and Apple Bloom bounced off the fence and onto the grass. Scootaloo froze up in sudden panic – she hadn't intended to hit that hard. But it quickly subsided when Apple Bloom came up fighting, knocking them both over.
"Stop fighting, you guys!" shouted Sweetie Belle at the sky. "I don't like fighting!"
"Why, that was lower 'n a pig in pig muck!" shouted Apple Bloom.
"I'll muck you!" said Scootaloo, socking her in the mouth.
WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Sweetie Belle danced on the margins of the cloud in panic.
"Um... Sweetie Belle," she shouted suddenly. "You did this! Admit it; you're an agent provocateur and a saboteur! OK, I admit it. Please don't hurt me! You admit it, then. Yes, just don't hurt me! I did it! Yeah! You guys? You can stop fighting now. I beat the enemy from within! Oh... stop fighting, you guys!"
A loud and piercing scream struck their ears. Both ponies stopped, hooves raised to hit each other. It came from a distance.
"See, now you've upset someone," said Sweetie Belle.
The inside of a giant oak is an unusual place to keep a library, especially considering how ironic it must be for the tree.
But such buildings as Ponyville's Twilight Library (renamed by popular demand, and by a series of elections mostly conducted by Twilight which involved her handing out ballot papers and knocking from door and door until her victims voted just to stop her lecturing) are commonplace in the kingdom of Equestria. This is a realm where town halls can be bigger on the inside than the town itself is on the outside, where pet shops canter from place to place, and where schools make their pupils write "I must not stick gum under the seats" on the blackboard even before the teachers get there. Most of these architectural wonders were to be found in towns and cities populated mostly by unicorns, which, being the magic-wielders of the pony species, sometimes just couldn't resist showing it off.
Ponyville, being populated by the more mundane Earth ponies, was rather tame by comparison, which suited Twilight Sparkle, librarian of Twilight Library, just fine. Not a day passed when the wooden desk in the library corner was stacked with leaning towers of volumes, all flanking a lone piece of parchment and a quill, with Twilight biting her tongue and making page after page of notes in front of them and no sound being made but the scratch of quill on paper.
It was no metaphor to say that she lived in the library. Indeed, it was no metaphor to say that Twilight probably used the library more often than even the Ponyville Homework Group, and had time left over to check, double-check and triple-check the list of ponies that had yet to return their loaned books. No demon of the underworld, poring over his book of the dead for sinners, ever giggled with such glee at the sight of an odd name out like Twilight did, but then he merely had to settle for damning them to eternal misery. She had a report to fill in. With triplicates. Who could top that?
Twilight was filling in a report just now, cheerfully adjusting each incorrect punctuation mark on the script, and it was a while before she heard the tapping of hooves behind her. She looked around.
"Oh, it's you, Cheerilee," she said, her face filling up with joyfulness. "I was just writing a report for you –"
Cheerilee's expression jumped with fright and she wobbled to regain her balance. Tip-toeing was hard for a pony to pull off, but Cheerilee had been a gym teacher once during her career.
"Twilight, good to see you," she said, the apology already worming into her voice. "Listen, I did try to return the book on time, you understand. Busy teacher's schedule and all…"
"Cheerilee, you don't have to worry. It was only three hours, forty two minutes and sixteen seconds late," Twilight said. "There's no charge anymore because I scrapped the idea. Every pony kept complaining about it. So, I'm just putting a caution next to your name. If you go for twelve months without another such incident, I promise you it'll be wiped from our records."
Twilight's horn glowed, and the parchment glowed in the same violet tint of magic. It rose off the desk and floated across the room as Twilight guided it towards a book on one of the carved shelves. The book slid out, opened up, and snapped up the report with a gobble before it replaced itself on the shelf. Cheerilee sighed, and, with her mouth, picked up the book she'd dropped.
"Mah moss shinsheer aporogees, Schwigh-wigh," she said, before the book glowed and levitated out of her mouth. Twilight placed it between two books on its shelf. "I know I'm not usually late, but I must admit I'm feeling a little flustered at the moment."
"I thought it was an odd book for you," Twilight said. " 'Six Easy Steps to Impossible Magic' by Mr Fine Horse?"
"But you're not a magic teacher. You're not even a unicorn."
"I do have some unicorns in my class," said Cheerilee. "Twilight, can you keep a secret?"
Twilight put a hoof to her chin and thought deeply for a moment. "Uh, yes," she said. "Yes, I can. And I'll swear on the Pinkie Pie promise."
Cheerilee leaned forwards. Within the cylindrical confines of the wood, surrounded by an audience of tomes, and with furtive glances at the doors leading off from the hall and at the wood-carved staircase leading up to the more open areas of the library, Twilight leaned closer as well. Spike leaned closer too.
There was a wail and a thump as a small round ball of scales fell onto its back in shock.
"And just what do you think you're doing?" Twilight tapped a hoof impatiently.
"Eavesdropping. I mean, leaves dropping. Yeah. Books falling out of shelves, Spike's gotta pick them up. Number One Personal Assistant and all, right?" He tried a winning grin, but it didn't quite reach his worried eyes.
"Spike, there's nothing on the floor."
Spike looked around the room awkwardly. Then with a flick, his tail knocked over a hardback from the shelf.
"Oh, would you just look at that?" he said theatrically. "Deary me, what an unfortunate mess. I must clean it up. I must put it back on the shelf." He caught her expression. "Er, I must go now."
There was a puff of smoke, and the bedroom door upstairs slammed shut.
"I honestly don't know what's gotten into him recently," said Twilight, levitating the fallen book and slotting it back into place. "He's far too nosey. Anyway, sorry Cheerilee. You were saying – ahem. Spike? No listening at the top of the stairs!"
"I wasn't listening," said a voice above them.
"Spike, I can see your head peeking out."
Between the railing balusters, the green head spines twitched in alarm and vanished.
Pinkie Pie screamed and swung from the apple she had clutched between her hooves. The apple tree it was still attached to was suddenly agitated.
"Come down from there, li'l pink lady!" Applejack shouted up to her, and with a kick she made the tree shake even more violently. Several leaves fell out. Pinkie Pie screamed harder.
Over the muddy crest of the hill, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle came galloping, though being such little fillies their gallop was barely a canter. Scootaloo followed closely in the air above them.
"Applejack!" cried Apple Bloom. "Stop! What are yer doin'?"
"You keep out of this, li'l sis! This is a matter between me and that little scamp in that there tree!" She kicked so viciously that Pinkie swung nearly up and over herself. Her screams became louder. "Come on, you annoyin' li'l ball o' agony! Ah ain't stoppin' fer nothin'! Come down here, an' Ah'll mash you up and make a big pie out o' you! Come down!"
"I can't hold on much longer!" Pinkie's hooves began to slip. "Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo… take care of Gummy for meeeeeeeeeeeee!"
"Ah've seen enough!" Apple Bloom leapt from her gallop and tackled Applejack, soaring into her face, and sending both of them tumbling away from the tree. Pinkie wailed as the apple she was holding onto came loose. Sweetie Belle rushed underneath to catch her, which was a bad move as Sweetie Belle was half the size of the pink pony. Scootaloo plucked Sweetie Belle from the ground and carried her off just in time, as Pinkie bounced on her rump and sat on the grass, looking dizzy.
"Whut in tarnation do y'all think yer doin'?" Applejack said, now lying on her back with Apple Bloom sitting on her stomach.
"If you have a problem with Pinkie Pie, yer gotta talk sensibly 'bout it, sis," said Apple Bloom. "Y'all are s'posed to be friends! Friends ain't s'posed to fight."
"Fight?" said Applejack. "We weren't fightin'."
"No, Ah was tryin' ter git that there apple ou' o' the tree."
Apple Bloom looked stunned, and Applejack took advantage of this and flipped back onto her own hooves. Her sister landed on her belly next to her.
"Whaaaaaaaat?" Apple Bloom said.
"It wouldn't come down," said Pinkie Pie, "and since I was passing by, I decided to help, and so I climbed up the tree and tried to get it down. But then, silly me, I forgot I'm not good with heights! Oopsy!" Pinkie beamed proudly at this discovery.
"But you called 'er a pink lady," said Apple Bloom.
"And you threatened to bake her into a pie," said Sweetie Belle above their heads.
"And you called her a scamp," said Scootaloo above Sweetie Belle's head.
"Pink Lady apples, gals," said Applejack, as if it was obvious. "Yer wouldn't believe how stubborn it was. The li'l thin' wouldn' come down, so's Ah jus' kept goin', an' Pinkie Pie was comin' ter see me anyway an' decided ter help. Ah got a li'l irritated, Ah'll admit, an' maybe a mite stubborn mahself. Work horse's curse," she added.
"So, we galloped our little hooves sore all the way here jus' to save… an apple?" Apple Bloom's hair bow drooped.
"Yeah. So y'all can relax, now," said Applejack, as Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo landed next to Pinkie Pie. Applejack patted her sister affectionately on the forehead. "Aw, bless yer li'l sis, an' you thought we was actually fightin'. Come on, Pinkie. Lend me a hoof taking these babies down ter the barn."
"Okey dokey lokey!"
"This is crazy," said Scootaloo, once Applejack and Pinkie Pie were walking away down the hill with the apple cart in tow. "That's the third scream we've rushed to in one day, and none of them were anything interesting, like a pony getting eaten by a bear or something like that."
"Well, at least Fluttershy had a good reason," said Sweetie Belle. "She saw a snake. I'd scream if I saw a snake."
"Yeah, don't we know," said Scootaloo, still rubbing her ear at the ringing that hadn't quite gone yet. "But who screams when they find a snake because it has a paper cut? Besides, she only put a plaster on it afterwards."
"She's so sweet and kind hearted," said Sweetie Belle. "She looked so happy when she tucked it into bed."
"How would you know? You were hiding under the chicken coop the whole time."
"I found an interesting egg while I was under there."
"Yes, Sweetie Belle. It was green. That's called a bad egg."
"And the second scream was kind of an emergency," said Sweetie Belle, scraping the grass with a hoof out of embarrassment.
"No, Sweetie Belle. Sugar coat it all you want, but a little filly dropping a bit into a well is never going to be an emergency."
"Aw, but she looked so sad when she dropped it."
"She had wings. She could have swooped down and picked it up herself." Scootaloo shook herself down, splattering everything with bits of dust and soil. Sweetie Belle stroked her mane clean and looked sadly up at the offending apple tree as if hoping it would shrug apologetically at them.
With a grunt of a little throat, there was a whack, the branches shook, and leaves fell down onto their heads. Apple Bloom panted and bucked the tree again. She was glaring at the soil.
"Um, Apple Bloom?" said Scootaloo. "Are you OK?"
"No," said Apple Bloom petulantly. "I'm not OK. I'm tired of wastin' my time, day in, day out. Nothin' interestin' ever happens here."
"Well, not strictly true…"
"Don't you start throwin' me references to things that have already happened, 'cos Ah already know 'em. An' Ah still stand by what Ah say. Nothin' interestin' ever happens. It's either borin' stuff or stuff that gets yer hopes up, an' since when have we ever come out of it any better off? We ain't done nothin' to deserve it, an' the one time we did do somethin' deservin', it was an accident. An' nothin' came of it, anyway."
She looked sadly at her yellow rump. One day, she wished, just one day, she'd look back on it, and see that special symbol that told her what she was supposed to do with her life. The fact that today wasn't that day just bit into her harder.
"We was destined to be blank flanks. An' Ah ain't gonna kid mahself no more." The others stepped aside as Apple Bloom hung her head and ambled silently away. "If anypony needs me, Ah'll be at Sugar Cube Corner. Doin' the only thing that Ah'm good at: eatin' mahself silly."
The other two watched her slowly make her way downhill, Sweetie Belle with a scowl on her face, Scootaloo with a worried look.
"You don't think I took it too far earlier, did you?" said Scootaloo. Sweetie Belle fumed.
"She's quitting on us. Come on, Scootaloo. I'm not letting her do that to herself."
"Um, Sweetie?" Scootaloo put up a hoof to stop her friend marching forwards, and when Sweetie Belle gave her a quizzical look Scootaloo shook her head, eyes downcast. Sweetie Belle sighed.
"But, what do we do now?" she said. They watched Apple Bloom reach the trough of the hill under the sweltering sun of Sweet Apple Acres. A red-tailed eagle screeched overhead.
Things within the library had turned darker. Curtains were shut, doors locked, stray books hastily shoved back into shelves. A lamp was lit.
Cheerilee's and Twilight's faces were all that it illuminated, apart from a patch of wood on the floor surrounding it. Everything else was black.
"You're sure?" said Twilight, once she'd sealed up the keyholes with bits of gum. Her horn stopped glowing violet.
"Absolutely," said Cheerilee. "Spike isn't about to walk in on us, is he?"
"I sent him down to Sugar Cube Corner with a list of things to buy. He'll be a while; he likes to window shop."
"But just there? With one list? He might not be gone for long."
"Cheerilee, Iwrote the list."
"Oh good," said Cheerilee, fully reassured by that bit of information. "Now, this might be a bit of a shock for you, Twilight, so be prepared. I'm… well… I'm… I'm nervous."
Libraries were quiet places anyway, but now it became so quiet that Twilight's blinks were audible.
"What's so shocking about that?" she asked.
"Oh, nothing in itself, oh no no no. But it's what I'm nervous about that really bothers me."
"Why? What are you nervous about?"
Cheerilee gulped, and then wished it wasn't so quiet because she felt embarrassed at how loud it had been. "Nothing."
A tap dripped somewhere. Twilight thought it was the kitchen.
"What do you mean nothing?" she asked, reminding herself to pester Spike about the plumbing when he came back.
"Well, I mean, yesterday, I was walking through the corridors of the school, nothing unusual; checking the children's trays for homework, eating Apple Bloom's apple gift, correcting the spelling mistakes on the graffiti, and then – I just felt it. Nervousness. This sense of nervousness just overwhelmed me. I didn't know where it came from. One minute, I was the happiest teacher in the whole wide world, the next – I was nearly gibbering. I shivered. I don't know how long I stood there, in the corridor, feeling like this, but it couldn't have been more than a minute because I remember hearing the bell ring and the yells of the children playing outside stopped. I shook my head, got a grip on myself and… well, it just vanished."
"I don't see what so wrong with that. Every pony gets nervous from time to time. You have got some big event coming up, remember?"
"No, you don't understand. I felt it again, just on my way here. It didn't feel like my own emotion. It was like I was somepony else for a few seconds. Somepony frightened. Nervous. Worried about something. I know I'm speaking in fragmented sentences rather than grammatically correct full ones, but it bothers me so much. I mean, what if it happens again?"
Twilight sighed, making the lamp flicker slightly and threaten to go out. Her horn glowed and she summoned a quill and a roll of parchment to her side. There was a flutter of wings from upstairs. Cheerilee's face vanished from the light.
"It's OK, it's just Owlowiscious," said Twilight, making notes. "I think he's waking up. He probably thinks we've plunged the place into night time. Keep talking."
Cheerilee returned into view. Her normally lumpy fringe had a hair or two slightly askew. It seemed to pain her to continue.
"I know this is going to sound silly," she said, "but you're the best at magic around here. You don't think…" She took a deep breath, preparing herself for the big hurdle. "You don't think I'm… I'm… cursed, do you?"
The scratching noises ceased. Twilight's horn winked out and the quill and parchment landed on the floor. Cheerilee regretted her word choice at once.
"Curses, don't, exist," said Twilight.
"But what if they do?"
"I can assure you that they do not. Over the past ten centuries in Equestria, there have been exactly eight hundred and forty two official claims for curses, hexes, enchantments, and evil enchantress magic generally. Do you know how many were investigated? All of them. Not one of them proved to be true."
"Well, OK, no, but maybe, maybe somekind of enchantment?"
"Cheerilee, I really think you're letting the preparations get to you. You just had a panic attack. There's nothing to be ashamed of. It's perfectly normal. But it's not magic, and it surely isn't curses."
"They surely aren't curses, or it surely isn't a curse," corrected Cheerilee, a teacher to the last. Indeed, her last thought would probably be a grammatical correction of one of her relative's grieving speeches, and she disliked herself for it, but it just happened automatically now.
"I'm glad we've established that," Twilight said. "And just to prove my point, did you feel a tingly feeling, or did your skin glow when you felt those emotions?"
The lamp was starting to die down. Cheerilee stared glumly at it, as if wishing it wouldn't leave her alone with this analytical pony.
"No," she said. "No, I didn't."
"There you are," said Twilight. "It's not unicorn magic."
Cheerilee started biting her lip. Panic attacks? Really?
"It was all just a misunderstanding," Twilight continued. "Have you ever felt this pressurised before? Can you think of a time when you were suddenly nervous and scared for a brief moment?"
"No," lied Cheerilee. "No, not at all. Definitely not. I don't remember any time feeling like that."
"Problem solved, then." Twilight clapped her hooves, and the lamp went out with a wisp of smoke. Twilight's horn glowed in the dark, and all the curtains magically opened, flooding the room with painful light.
Cheerilee shrieked at the owl perched on Twilight's head.
"How did he get there?" she said. "He was upstairs. I heard his wings shuffle from your study."
"Amazing, isn't he?" Twilight hooted to the owl, who replied in kind and fluttered down to perch on her proffered foreleg. "I've been learning about owl communication from Celestia's guide to birds and birdsong. His feathers are extra soft and fluffy around the wings so that he can glide silently through the air without the rushing wind giving his position away. He's the perfect assistant in the library. Oh, I mean, after Spike of course." She grinned apologetically to Cheerilee, as though hoping she would pass on her expression to Spike if she saw him later, and in case he found out.
Earth ponies had no magical powers of their own, at least not in the same calibre as unicorn ponies, but at times like this they prided themselves on their ability to keep their hooves on the ground. Cheerilee chewed over Twilight's words, and fought her ears' natural urge to droop at what thoughts she tasted as a result.
"You mean, this is all just… me becoming emotional?" she asked.
"I know it sounds bad, but... yes. Just a perfectly normal panic attack. And it's not magic whatsoever. Just take it easy over the next few days. Do something you enjoy. Ooh, maybe try out the spa, too - Rarity always goes there before one of her big fashion shows. She says it's a great way to relax."
"Well, I'll try..."
"Great! I bet you're feeling much better now that you've talked it over with me."
At the time, Cheerilee nodded her head and said yes, but as she was trotting out of the door, a stack of books balanced on her back and a stack of thoughts balanced on her mind, she began to weigh the implications of what she'd said, and realised that she actually felt far worse than when she'd started.
Elsewhere in Ponyville, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were crossing the little stone bridge that arched across Ponyville's little brook. There should have been a troll under it, or at least a Diamond Dog, but they had all left centuries ago because the sickly sweetness of the residents had put them off, and it's never a good idea to have too much sugar in your diet.
"So what do we do now?" said Sweetie Belle.
"Well, why don't we try Apple Bloom's suggestion and practice this espio-spying thing?" said Scootaloo.
"That sounds great."
There was a purr, and a bundle of white fur with a blue bow tie on top touched down softly in front of them. It curled its tail leisurely while they stopped to have a look at it in case it attacked.
"Oh, it's you," said Scootaloo, relaxing. "Hi, Opal."
The cat merely raised a supercilious eyebrow. Sweetie Belle suddenly looked downcast.
"What's wrong with you?" said Scootaloo, nudging her with a wing.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Scootaloo," she said, hanging her head in shame. "Opal just reminded me. I have to go back home and get ready for tonight's big festival. Rarity's going to New Alicornia later."
"You have to be kidding me. She dragged you into going to that place?" Scootaloo said. Opal hissed in her face, then went back to licking her paws.
"She said I needed to see her at work, and that I needed to get out in the world. I don't know why she's taking me. I don't want to go. I'll only wreck it for her, anyway."
"Yeesh, you don't have any self-esteem issues at all, do you?"
"Have you seen me around Carousel Boutique? I only have to sneeze and the place falls to pieces."
Opal tapped a paw on the ground, casting Sweetie Belle a meaningful look.
"OK, Opal, I'm coming," said Sweetie Belle, following Opal, who nodded her head approvingly and waddled away from the bridge. "Sorry Scootaloo. Maybe we could meet up for the spying and things tomorrow?"
"Fine. In the meantime, I'll just find some pony else who'll join me."
As Opal and the foal ambled over the bridge, Scootaloo did an about-turn and shot through the air in an orange and purple blur, aiming away from Ponyville.
There was a shriek of outrage from within the Everfree Forest, followed by a babbling of Swahili.
The Everfree Forest was not an inviting place to the ponies that lived just outside of it. Unlike the clean plants of the open fields, these ones reeked of wildness. They draped themselves in vines and moss and dead leafy things and fought for every last patch of sunlight, to make it perfectly clear to the nicer trees outside that this was a gang whose members you didn't invite to be planted in your patch for an afternoon rain and a bit of birdsong.
The animal life was little better. It was populated by a lot of rare creatures, if only because they all made such a violent effort to keep each other rare. The total population of ponies within its borders could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and usually were if a hungry dragon ever caught up with them. Zebras, on the other hand…
Upon the soil of a dingy glade, a tribal hut was placed, round like a squashed coconut, with bamboo window frames and elongated masks propped up on sticks surrounding it. The light was on, which meant that the fire under the cauldron was burning brightly and Zecora was probably mixing up a batch of noxious goo. It is amazing what ponies would eat if you told them there were natural herbs in it.
A lot of glass shattered. Bottles tinkled and shelves snapped off and collapsed. Metal pinged. As the Swahili babbling burned more fiercely, there was a demented giggle and the front door burst open. Something raced out of it looking very much like a bulging sack on legs. Zecora rushed out after it.
"Come back with my things, you little thief!
"Or Zecora will give you so much grief!"
Along a winding dirt track, the overflowing sack fled, snagging occasionally on low branches. A rip appeared in the fabric. Some leaves fluttered out of the tear.
Zecora thundered behind, leaping over the leaves as they landed. She left the explosion behind her. A beaker full of purple liquid fell out and smashed, but she leapt over the resulting blue, starry cloud and galloped onwards. Three seeds landed in front of her, and giant stems shot out like hose pipes. Bulbs burst out of the ends, baring shark's teeth. She zigzagged between them, and in their attempts to snap her up, they got tangled in each other's stems and collapsed. Zecora made an angry noise, like a panicky guffaw to pony ears but like a demon rising from the spirit world to a zebra's, and put on an extra burst of speed.
The stranger suddenly ducked to one side, through the trees, and Zecora skidded to a stop to catch sight of her thief. She looked right, and she looked left, but all she saw were tree trunks, and the Everfree Forest's ever-present shadowy mist. She gritted her teeth.
"Zecora will never forget this slight!
"So come out now, or I will come in and fight!"
She heard a whooshing overhead, and looked up. Three blue streaks passed overhead, leaving a trail of clouds behind them.
From their aerial position, the Wonderbolts had an excellent view of the action below. Through the trees, they could still see the running sack threading its way deeper into the forest. The professional flyers didn't even need to communicate – as one, they simply inclined their wings and swooped down. They were keeping pace with the running figure, and closing in.
They followed it through the gaps in the canopy, until suddenly they stopped. The running figure had vanished.
As one, they looked at each other and nodded. All three Wonderbolts dived down and split apart, piercing through the canopy like three prongs of a gigantic smoke-made fork. Soarin' immediately switched to hovering, and scanned the surrounding dense mass of sprawling leaves and branches and stems. Spitfire weaved in and out of the trunks, trying to flush the thief out. Her partner on the other side did likewise.
Nothing could be seen. Through the mist and dark vegetation, the Forest seemed empty. Soarin' held his position nonetheless.
His teammates had completed their first sweep of the area. Nothing had appeared yet.
As one, they rose out of the canopy and moved a little further ahead before diving down and repeating the procedure, this time with Spitfire taking point and her two partners circling around her, trying to flush out the thief.
They heard someone shouting and looked back. Had they gone too far forwards?
It was Zecora, crashing through the bushes and ferns behind them and shouting at them. As she came closer, they could hear some of the words. It sounded like a warning.
A blast struck Soarin' out of the air. As his teammates turned around in shock, Zecora gasped. A blue glow flared from behind some leaves. Fire leapt out of it and engulfed another Wonderbolt, who fell to the ground. Spitfire rushed down to catch him and disappeared behind a bush at the same instant the third blast shot for her. The thief had evidently predicted she would do that.
Zecora's fierceness returned. A fourth shot rushed at her, but she raised her hoof and blew the green dust out of it, covering herself in a smokescreen. The blue blast disappeared inside it, and came out of the other end.
The blue glow vanished.
Another burst of green dust produced another cloud near the spot. Zecora appeared out of it and pushed back the leaves, but she knew from the sound of distant clopping that her thief was long gone. She looked back nervously at the blue-smoking bushes.
A few leaves were gingerly brushed aside. The zebra peered down, her rings and neck rings jingling as she did so. Her eyes flared with alarm and outrage, and a gasp escaped from her as she looked upon what remained of the Wonderbolts.
"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, this is not at all good,
"My poor, dear friends - though they did what they could,
"A terrible fate has befallen them,
"And now they may never soar the skies again."
She bowed her head in sadness.
A little while later, one of the Wonderbolts said; "Bdak?"
Applejack bucked the tree. All the apples fell out, but a few missed her saddle baskets and she walked over to pick them up. As she lowered her head, she heard a crash and raised it again.
"Wowwasa?" she said, mouth full of apple. She dropped it into the basket and pricked up an ear.
From the trees in the distance, behind the fence and the bushes, someone said "ow." There was a lot of muttering, and a squeak as someone stepped on one of Winona's chew toys. More muttering followed.
Applejack watched with mouth open as the bushes rustled and a beady eye peeped out. It swivelled right, and then left, and then ducked back down. The rustling traced the path of whoever was inside it as they made their way down the hedge row and stopped next to the gate. There was a bump, another "ow," and a loud shush.
Somepony zipped from bush to fence, pressing their back up against the wooden post. Applejack could tell because their blue wings were sticking out. A while later, a second filly tried to follow, but she tripped and fell onto her face. Scootaloo looked up at Applejack nervously before disappearing behind another wooden post. One of Applejack's eyebrows climbed up her forehead to get a better view.
A wooden bucket was lying nearby. Two blue hooves reached out and snatched it out of view. Applejack's mouth twisted up with scepticism.
One upturned wooden bucket slid out from behind the post and made its way towards the nearest apple tree. Mentally, Applejack docked a few extra points for the rainbow tail still trailing behind it. The bucket moved from tree to tree, crossing the orchard towards Applejack. After a while, it disappeared behind a tree one along from Applejack's. However long she watched, it didn't come out again.
From above, there was a shuffle from the branches of the tree, and a third "ow." A few leaves parted, allowing two pairs of eyes to swivel back and forth. They vanished. A streak cut from one tree to another. A few leaves fell on Applejack's face. She sighed.
Rainbow Dash poked her upside-down head out of the branches.
"ABOOGABOOGAWAAAAH!" she yelled in Applejack's face.
She grinned expectantly.
Scootaloo fell out and landed next to Applejack, who was giving Rainbow Dash's grinning face a look that was anything but surprised. Then Applejack turned around and bucked the tree. Dash fell to the ground in a heap.
"An' jus' whut was all that about?" Applejack said at Scootaloo and at Dash, who shook herself off. Dash scowled.
"Gee, Applejack, way to let a pegasus down lightly," she said, hitting one of her ears. Leaves poured out of the other one, all over Scootaloo, who shook them off. "Isn't it obvious? I am teaching young Scooters here the art of stealth."
"The art of stealth?" Applejack yawned. "You sure you're not jus' dabblin'? Ah ain't seen a less stealthy way to get around since Granny Smith tried to run up behind me and shout 'Awoogabooga' on Nightmare Night, an' Ah had ter help her for half the way an' remind 'er what she was goin' to say."
"Scootaloo came to me for a bit of company," said Dash, getting back onto her hooves and into a more dignified pose. "She asked me if I knew anything about sneaking around, so naturally I said I was the world expert on sneaking around and of course I'd bring her up to speed."
"It's all part of the espio- whatever it's called that we were going to try," said Scootaloo. "I thought I'd learn a few things so that I could show the others later. Apple Bloom hasn't come back yet, has she?"
"Sorry. Ah haven't seen her since this mornin'."
Scootaloo's wings drooped. Applejack felt so bad she mentally awarded Scootaloo some sympathy points. But her back was starting to ache from the huge pile of apples she'd accumulated in her saddle baskets.
"Say, why don't you use the south field for practice? It's right close to the barn, so you'll see Apple Bloom come back while you're stealthin'."
"OK," said Scootaloo, and confidence filled her up as Dash nodded in agreement.
"Sweet. Catch you later, AJ," said Dash, and she zoomed over the horizon, leaving a temporary rainbow in her wake. Scootaloo spread her wings and tried rushing after her, but she was conspicuously slower at it, and there was no trail to mark her wake. Applejack frowned after them.
After a shrug, she turned back to work. Apple trees weren't in any hurry to drop their apples, but Applejack had her quota to fill, and she'd be blowed if she was going to break her winning streak against Big Macintosh's bets. Goodness knows, she used to wear Granny's girdles far too often in her younger years.
Applejack walked over to the next tree, and gave it a gentle buck. Apples came streaming out of the branches and into her saddle baskets, which were already overflowing. She sighed and staggered over to the cart to unload.
When she came back, she looked up into the tree and stopped. A lone apple was hanging out of reach. She shrugged and bucked the tree trunk again.
It didn't fall down.
"Huh," she said. "Guess this li'l sucker doesn't wanna come down. Come on, li'l Pink Lady. Mama's waitin' on you." She bucked harder, making the branches shake. The apple did not fall down. She bucked again, hard enough to shake the whole tree. The apple continued not to fall.
The next buck knocked the trunk over until the roots tore out and it was nearly horizontal. The apple shook, then stayed still.
"Well, well, it looks like we got us a smart alec," said Applejack, all mirth starting to drain from her voice. "Big Macintosh said ev'ry apple on ev'ry tree, an' by golly, Ah'll make sure it's ev'ry apple on ev'ry tree. You'll see if Ah don't."
She turned to leave, then slipped because she'd trodden on a fallen apple. There was a thump, and a lot of leaves fell down on her. Applejack grinned sheepishly.
"Might be an idea to clear the ground up first," she said.
Inside Sugar Cube Corner, sitting up to the counter on a stool she couldn't possibly have climbed up herself, Apple Bloom stared gloomily into her mug of hot chocolate. A donut was floating in it.
"Es-pee-own-arge," she said. "Puh. Apple Bloom, you are just kiddin' yerself. Whut could you an' Sweetie Belle an' Scootaloo possibly do that no pony else could do better?" She took another sip, and sighed. "Whut could possibly happen around here?"
There was a scream from outside. The Cakes rushed out of the kitchen and past the counter. Apple Bloom shrugged.
"Ah ain't answerin' it," she said, and took another sip of hot chocolate.
To be continued...