Chapter 45: Surpassing the Past
Rainbow Dash flew higher, avoiding getting clawed by the monster that Shade had more or less fused himself to. She then dodged low, avoiding a follow-up strike. Blitz and Azure remained ground-bound, trying to get a feel for how the other two legs moved. The right foot crashed down where Blitz had been mere moments, ago, but a speed spell made sure it only hit the ground. Azure, meanwhile, did a gravity spell-assisted jump over a tail strike.
"It's useless, I'm telling you…" Shade mocked from atop the beast, "You won't be moving away from this!" This time, the beast's head lunged out at Rainbow Dash, mouth wide open.
"Rainbow, look out!" Azure called out. Rainbow Dash waited for the perfect moment, and flew to the left of the head, the mouth biting down on empty air. The pegasus continued forth. Shade adopted a shocked expression. Rainbow clocked him hard across the face, causing the hydra to stumble back. Shade barely moved from the center of the beast's neck, shaking his head.
"If you're trying to hit me out of this, forget it!" Shade shouted. "I would also advise against knocking me out—I'm the only one here who can control this thing!"
"Oh, really, now?" Rainbow asked, flying back around for another go at it.
"Do you think you're not out of control to begin with?!" Blitz called out, firing a few purple lasers at the body of the beast. The beast raised one of its forelimbs, blocking these attacks.
"I'm perfectly in control!" Shade shouted, swatting the oncoming Rainbow Dash down with the beast's tail.
"You alright?!" Blitz called out, not moving over to her right away, as he and Azure dodged the beast's attempt to smash them under its forepaws.
"Yeah…fine…" Rainbow Dash grunted, rubbing her head at the end of a small trench.
Azure slid to a halt, gritting his teeth as his horn's glow brightened up, firing off his own lasers. His lasers were also blocked, though they seemed to do slightly more damage than Blitz's own lasers—steam seemed to come off the impact zones. The beast roared, throwing its neck up high.
"Why don't I show you just what this thing can do!?" Shade called out. His eyes glowed red—the hydra roared again, its own eyes giving off the same red glow. The beast's head lowered, allowing Azure and Blitz a clear view: Shade was sinking deeper into the construct!
"What the-!" Azure called out. Blitz sped forth, but only crashed down on the beast's neck where Shade had just been.
"Darn it, just missed him..." Blitz cursed, quickly leaping off the beast's neck before it started moving again.
"Much better…" The hydra grinned, Shade's voice seeming to come out of the Shadow Hydra's mouth.
"He's become one with it?!" Azure shouted, at a loss for other words.
"How did this organization get their hands on so many gems…?" Blitz said under his breath, "They give their users frightening power…"
Rainbow floated down next to him, just as Shade spoke up again.
"You want frightening power?" Shade questioned, causing the hydra's neck to crane upward once again. "I'll show you frightening power!"
The hydra's mouth opened wide, and for a couple of seconds, nothing happened. However, all three gasped when they realized what Shade was doing, particularly as a large black ball began to form in its mouth.
The hydra fired the shot, though not aimed at the orchard, or the city, but rather, far off into the distance. The blast impacted, causing a distant explosion. The wind billowed through the ponies' manes, and sent distant debris flying everywhere. Whether or not that was disrupting the illusion on the orchard, none could tell.
"That's…" Blitz said.
"Don't worry, I didn't hit anyone…" Shade stated, "Not yet, anyway. So how's that?"
"I still fail to see how you're in control…" Blitz flatly stated, "If that was your idea of a warning shot, it worked…"
Blitz scraped his forehoof along the ground, his horn lighting up in a purple hue. "It showed me how much of a nut you really are!"
"We're not letting you get away this time!" Rainbow Dash called out, straightening up her hovering stance. Azure said nothing, gritting his teeth. Blitz's horn glow, meanwhile, began to expand along the rest of his body, and Blitz took off full speed at the hydra. Shade made no effort to dodge, even as Blitz began to leap up, obviously gravity-spell assisted.
"Bring it on…" Shade said, standing completely still. The red unicorn, cloaked in a purple aura, continued forward.
"Living Rocket!" Blitz called out, his momentum carrying him into the Shadow Hydra's neck. Shade's voice cried out in what sounded like pain as Blitz continued onward, slicing straight through the neck of the beast with his attack. He wound up high up on a mountain just behind him, between the two mountains that overlooked the settlement. The Shadow Hydra's head hit the ground, dissipating into smoke.
For a few uneasy moments, nothing happened.
"Why isn't it going away like all the other ones…?" Rainbow Dash questioned, staring at the headless, motionless body of the beast. Suddenly, from within the beast, Shade laughed.
"Do none of you know what a Hydra is?!" he taunted, the beast moving just fine despite its lack of a head. In fact, at where Blitz made the cut; the unclean cut that had been the result of his throwing himself through the beast, shadow energy was rapidly moving. "If you cut off one head…"
This time, instead of just one tendril, three tendrils shot upward, each reaching the length of the hydra's head, before taking form.
"It gets…" One of the newly formed heads said.
"It back…" The second one picked up where it left off.
"And then some!" The third one said.
"Your light spells can't save you this time!" Shade called out.
"We'll have to see about that," Azure said, gritting his teeth yet again as the three heads began to each charge an energy attack in front of them…
Sure enough, as soon as they had entered the maze, they appeared to get separated by the trees. Virid had a funny feeling it would come to this sort of stuff, but in here, at least they wouldn't be found by one of the ponies if the summoner had backup. Virid couldn't hear much of anything except the sounds of his own hoofsteps, and occasionally howling wind, but he couldn't even hear how the others were doing.
"If any of you can hear me, do not panic!" he called out, "If the item can be found, it should stop the effects!"
If he was heard, if he'd gotten a response, he didn't know. He couldn't hear the others in the maze, and he wasn't sure if they could hear him, either.
This illusion… Virid said, closing his eyes in focus, I don't think any of us can break it without focusing hard enough…This isn't my type of magic, either…but I have to try…
Braeburn walked around in the orchard, separated from the others by what looked like the trees. However, after talking to the others, he knew this was just that strange item that had fallen in causing the mess. Well, he'd already had a funny feeling it had something to do with it, but the meeting confirmed it. The earth pony walked around, finding nothing but dead end after dead end. He couldn't see anypony around.
Now he understood why so many ponies were getting lost in the maze…
"Ugh! This is just like the hedgemaze back in Canterlot!"
Applejack huffed, turning around from what plainly looked like a wall of trees. "Dead end after dead end…"
Spike, who had been riding on her back, couldn't think of anything to ask; he didn't quite know what happened, but it seemed like Applejack got the worst of it from the way she had acted compared to the way the others had acted. They all had been mean-spirited, sure, but she seemed especially vicious.
"The item sure isn't making it easy on us…" said Spike.
"You're with Twilight's books," Applejack reasoned, turning to him, "Do you—"
"Usually, when Twilight's studying, I'm…uh…napping, unless she needs me…" Spike admitted, rubbing at the scales on the back of his head. "But I don't think she's studied illusions yet…"
"I just hope Az and the others are doing okay out there…"
" 'Az'…" Mendex said to himself, able to hear everything perfectly. They were in his illusion after all. "I know we came here for the item…but I'm sure Boss wouldn't mind if I tried to bring home a few extras…"
A wicked grin split his face wide open, "Well, if Shade's intel is alright, I'll use it…So let's see how she handles this…!"
Azure leapt out of the way of a lunging head, letting it scrape along the ground. The light of the sun didn't seem to be slowing down the Shadow Hydra any despite its increased surface area, and Shade was safely hidden inside it.
There has to be a way to defeat this thing, but what? Azure Courage thought to himself, I know I'm not going to let him get away here…
As the beast almost swatted Rainbow away again with one of its paws, Azure shook his head, Figure this out while fighting!
Azure began to focus, already recalling the basics of the light spell. Meanwhile, Blitz was speeding up the beast's tail, trying to find an opening.
If we cut off its heads, it'll just keep getting more… Crimson thought, The only obvious course of action, then, is to disrupt the magic holding this thing together!
He leapt up, slamming his forehooves into the beast's back. The beast barely budged from the impact, and began swatting at him with its tail. Blitz tried to avoid, but due to the angle, he still couldn't avoid the swipe. He fell off, bracing himself for impact, but Rainbow Dash flew over, saving him from that one.
"Thanks," Blitz said as Rainbow set him back down.
"No problem, but we've still got that to deal with!" she said, pointing to the Shadow Hydra.
Azure grit his teeth as he began firing lasers, using the light spell to enhance them. The blasts hit the Shadow Hydra's guard. Though the impacts of the spells gave off steam, the beast still remained standing, roaring in anger.
"I told you! Light won't work this time!" Shade called out, speaking through the hydra's mouths.
"Maybe not outside…" Azure said, taking a short breather. Taking the two spells together was still a bit much in terms of concentration. The beast stomped towards him, but before it could do anything, a voice shrieked the only thing that could be said about the situation.
"What is that?!"
All heads turned towards the voice: Rarity, with the other group close by. All of them were looking right at the hydra, even Silver, though everypony knew he couldn't actually see it.
"It's his biggest monster yet!" Rainbow called out. "He called it a 'hydra'…"
"That would explain why it's got three heads," Twilight said, "But how are we going to stop it?!"
"To be blunt…" Shade said, speaking through the three heads, "You can't…"
All three heads lashed out at once, the first one heading for Azure. He dodged it easily enough, leaping off to his left. The second headed for the group, but they knew enough to scatter in some way, leaving the head scraping along the group. Blitz and Rainbow sped out of the way of the third, with Blitz going by ground and Rainbow escaping into the air.
"You're that summoner from before, right?" Shining asked, getting into position, "You won't get away this time!"
"Every one of you keeps saying that, but you haven't made more of an effort to bring me in," Shade taunted. The hydra roared again after he finished his sentence. "It sure was nice of you all to come, but I'm afraid I don't have much longer to do this…"
The hydra leapt impossibly high given its size, but it did not actually move from the spot it was at. It landed down in the same spot, hitting the ground with tremendous force—nopony could tell if it caused a tree to be uprooted or not, nor did they care straight away. Everypony was staggered by the shockwave the impact caused. Azure grunted, trying to adjust himself. All the while, Shade eyed his potential targets. Seemingly before anypony could react, one of the heads shot forth: its target, Shining, whose focus had faltered like most others.
"Shining!" Twilight called out, attempting to warn him, but just then, a cyan-white flash happened over to his right: Azure, teleporting over to his side and shoving him out of the way immediately after materializing. However, he had no time to react to save himself.
"A—Azure!" Rarity called out, just as the hydra bit down, swallowing Azure whole. The entire group reeled in shock, with Pinkie being the first to state what happened.
"Oh no! It…it ate him!" she screamed, her mane losing a good deal of its curls.
"You…" Blitz started, finally getting back to his feet.
"Oh, no, no, don't worry," Shade said, laughing it off.
"Why shouldn't I?!" Twilight yelled, tears at the corners of her eyes, her horn lighting up.
"Because you'll be in its stomach, soon enough…"
Azure could only see blackness now. At first, he thought for sure he'd died when the beast chomped down, but he realized he could still feel…a little slimy, but otherwise unhurt. The colt briefly began to wonder where he was.
"Doesn't it…suck, to be food?" Azure thought aloud, seeing as how he was alone. He looked around, seeing nothing but blackness around him. "So this is what it looks like inside one of these things. Nothing but darkness…"
Azure closed his eyes, "I've got to find a way out of here…"
For a few moments, Azure didn't exactly know what he'd do. But he remembered something: when it was dark, people reached for a light. When the light was on, the darkness would erode away from the light. The darkness couldn't help but recede.
"The light may not have done much outside…" Azure began to focus once more on the light spell in his memory. "But what about inside?"
The fight outside the orchard-maze continued, with the others not wanting to get caught like Azure did, wanting to avenge the sacrifice he'd made by taking Shade down. Of course, some ponies believed that the pony wouldn't go that way.
"Someone needs to cut this thing open, pronto!" Rainbow Dash called out, dodging the hydra's attempt to grab her in its clutches.
"I don't think it actually works that way in real life, Rainbow!" Twilight responded. Rainbow didn't really respond—she figured Twilight would know.
"It's useless, I'm telling you!" Shade taunted from within the hydra. Silver stood in front of the beast, aiming his horn directly at its stomach, his horn glowing brightly.
"Cough him up!" Silver commanded, letting loose a large blast of compressed sound, just as he had before. The sound blast hit the beast dead-on in the stomach. It didn't take long for the hydra to recover from this, though, and soon it was back to causing trouble, sending out a few more blasts at the ponies that were causing them trouble. Shining quickly put a shield up, repelling the energy bolts aimed at them. Others went out into the distance and exploded.
The hydra screeched yet again, its roar deafening the ponies by a good amount. "Alright, I'm done here!" The hydra turned and opened all three of its mouths, energy balls charging in each of them. "Let's see how well you deal with this!"
The hydra roared again, as the magic attack began to swell in size.
"No!" Fluttershy called out, being among the first to realize it.
"He's aiming for the town!" Shining said, already rushing in front of the hydra, horn alight.
"It's too late!" Shade said, safely within the hydra. "Let's see if you can explain this failure!"
However, just as the hydra bit down on the attack, the hydra's eyes widened, and the energy seemed to leak out in smoke form from between its teeth.
"What?!" Shade yelled in confusion. "No…no…!"
"What's gotten into him—" It was only when the hydra roared high into the sky, light seemed to pour out of its eyes and ears, that Shining finally got it. "Uh-oh…everypony, cover your eyes! Quick!"
Most of the ponies did as they were asked, having seen the light as well. Had they not taken Shining's advice, they would have been blinded by the white light that literally burst the Shadow Hydra apart. In the blinding light, even Shade himself was blinded. The only one who could actually see despite the massive amount of light was Azure, and he was falling down on top of Shade, horn and hoof alight with magic...
The sound of what could only be described as thick glass breaking was heard by Silver. He couldn't see it, but he knew the Shadow Hydra had burst wide open. It was only when he put two and two together that he let out a small chuckle.
"Jeez, Azure…" he said, "Don't scare us like that…"
The light finally cleared, and the others turned their heads back to where they saw the hydra several seconds before. Now, they saw a panting Azure, standing just a few inches in front of the summoner, who was more or less out cold, the gem on his chest, shattered. The cyan colt's horn had returned to normal, and his eyes had stopped glowing.
Twilight was the first to move towards him, practically tackling into him; Azure held his ground, however, so the most he did on impact was tilt heavily to the left before gradually leaning back to normal.
"One year…" Twilight said, tears in her eyes yet again, "And you're still doing this kind of thing…"
As the others swarmed around the two, and the unconscious unicorn, Azure sighed, "I know…but I also know I would have had to jump down there myself anyway…"
"Yeah, Twily here and your cousin would have never forgiven you…" Shining continued onward, "Or him, for that matter…"
"Actually…" Azure said, "I think the stomach was a holding area…not like anything else…"
"Captain," Blitz interrupted, "He may have been subdued, but the others…they went into the orchard to try to retrieve the item."
"They haven't had much luck, then…" Shining said, "Hopefully somepony's gonna figure out what the secret to the maze is…"
"The orchard is meant to look the way it does from the outside as a trap," Twilight continued, "It's an illusion generated by the item itself…There's no other explanation!"
"Yeah…so…what do we do?" Azure asked.
"To be honest…" Twilight responded, "I don't know…I've never studied illusion magic before…at least, not specifically…"
"Then how do we get rid of it?" Rainbow cut in, "We've gotta know if we're gonna get the others out!"
"I only know that it's based around truths that the caster believes may be useful…" Twilight said, "If I had to guess, I would say it might lie in seeing past what's in front of you…"
Dead end. Dead end. Dead end. No matter where she went, Applejack and Spike kept running into dead ends. Spike had still ridden on her back throughout the whole ordeal—Applejack had come very close to asking Spike to try to send the orchard into an inferno just to try to get past the maze. However, she knew it wouldn't work. The maze was not going away; whatever created it was still around.
"Can anypony hear me?!" Applejack called out in the maze. Once again, she was met with silence. This illusion was certainly powerful; before, all her friends were with her, now, she was left with Spike, who had been on her back at the time.
"Really wish we could find the others…" Spike commented, scanning the area for any signs of life besides them. He knew just as well as Applejack that they were around somewhere. The farmer mare could only nod, walking forward. Eventually, the two reached a fork in the road. Applejack looked down each path, seeing nothing but lines of trees down both directions. She knew, however, she had to pick a way.
Spike looked up with a "Huh?" as he turned around. He knew somepony just called his name, but he saw nopony in sight.
"Did you hear that?" he asked as he turned to Applejack.
"I don't hear anything," Applejack responded, turning to him with an arched brow and perked ears.
"Guess I was imagining it…" Spike sighed, scratching at the back of his head with a claw. Applejack nodded, turning back to her decision. She chose left without saying it, walking down the path in question, when Spike heard the voice again.
"Over here, Spike," Spike whipped his head back around, spotting something this time. Just around the corner, in the path on the right, Spike saw the rear end of a pony taking the corner: lavender fur coat, a cutie mark of one large star surrounded by several small ones. It didn't take Spike long to guess who was calling his name.
Spike hopped off Applejack's back, running towards where he saw Twilight, "Wait up, we're over here!" He saw her disappear around the corner. Applejack took notice of Spike, but not of the Twilight Spike saw.
"Spike, wait!" Applejack turned, running after the drake. She noticed how fast he was moving. It was like he was running at super speed, somehow—he was moving far faster than he should have been, anyway. Spike took the corner, and disappeared from her sight. She picked up her pace a little, skidding to a halt the moment she reached the corner.
"Spike!" She called out into the illusion, looking down the path. Immediately, she drew back—the path that Spike had just taken was now empty. "Did he just—"
Refusing to accept that line of thought, Applejack immediately took off down the other path, full speed, hoping to find some trace of him somewhere.
"Spike, where are you!?" Again, her call went unanswered. She continued down the maze, spotting another corner. Hoping she'd spot Spike if she took that corner, she lowered her head, about ready to skid to a halt. She hit the corner, skidding to a halt and looking down the path. But, instead of spotting Spike, she saw another pony looking back at her.
It was a very familiar unicorn colt—cyan colt, spiky green mane and tail, and covered in light injuries. Azure Courage was standing there, his back initially to her. However, having heard her, he turned, and immediately gave a relieved smile.
"Az?" Applejack smiled back, feeling relieved to see somepony she knew in the maze other than Spike—it wasn't that she wasn't still worried, but she finally saw somepony else here. "How'd the hay did you find me?!" She walked up to him, and Azure walked towards her. However, when they were five paces apart, Applejack stopped. Azure, however, kept going.
"You didn't think I'd let some maze keep us apart did you?" Azure questioned in a low, reassuring voice. Applejack blinked, her eyes widening.
Why'd he say it like that?
"I…I guess not…" Applejack felt confused, and also like she'd been here before at the same time, but she had to make sure of something. "What about the others, are they in the maze too?"
"Who cares where they are right now? All that's important is that I'm here…" Azure raised his hoof off the ground and put it to Applejack's cheek. "With you…"
Applejack's eyes opened wider, but this whole situation seemed weird.
"Az…what's gotten into you?" she asked. Azure may have cared 'bout Twilight the most, but it didn't…
"It took me a while," Azure continued onward in response, "But I came to the decision that I may have made the wrong choice before..."
Applejack's expression became unreadable. It felt like things had been this way before too. Things seemed…off.
"You don't know how glad I am to hear that," Applejack said, smiling and leaning into the colt's hoof. As she closed her eyes, she didn't notice Azure's smile; it wasn't his usual smile: kind-hearted…no, it was cynical.
Applejack's smile turned to a frown after a few seconds, and she removed her face from Azure's hoof. Applejack took a few steps away from him now, turning her back on him.
"But what're you going to tell Twilight?" Applejack questioned, "I don't think she'd take it well…"
"She'll just have to accept it," Azure stated very flatly, as he closed the distance once again, "She means nothing to me now…all I want is you!"
Applejack closed her eyes, shifting her weight forward ever so slightly as she sighed.
"I guess so…" Applejack continued, "But before you do, there's something I should tell you…"
"What is it?" Azure asked. Applejack opened her eyes, slowly, turning her gaze to him…
You low-down, dirty…
"I don't fall for the same trick twice!"
Her open eyes filled with rage, she launched a perfect back kick straight into "Azure's" chest.
Azure has never been that way…!
Azure's eyes bulged out, and he was lifted from his feet, caught totally off-guard by the attack. Azure hit the ground, grabbing at his chest, groaning. Now Applejack could see his form shifting and distorting. The pony's horn receded, his cloak seeming to grow out of his brownish-gray fur. One silver eye opened, more surprised than anything. His mane and tail were slicked back, black in color. He was clearly an earth pony. Applejack saw what she had hit on the pony's chest: a gem, dark gray in color.
"So you're with those other ponies…the ones who keep going after my friends!"
"H-how'd you see past my illusion?" The pony asked, grunting as he got back to his feet. He was still stunned from the critical, crushing blow to the chest.
"You think you're the first one to try pullin' that on me?" Applejack took four slow steps towards the pony, more furious than she'd ever been in his life, "You ain't the first to use what I had with Az against me…And, I'm not sorry to tell you that it won't work on me a second time!"
Over the center of her chest, something began to glow: green. As the glow intensified, Applejack continued to speak.
"My friendship with Twilight, Az, and everypony else had already been tested, and in the end we all bounced back stronger than ever!" The glow turned into a full body aura, and as it happened, the illusory maze began to distort heavily. The multiple lines of trees began to morph back into their singular forms.
"My illusion's being dispelled?!" The pony yelled in disbelief.
"And I'll tell you right here, right now," Applejack kept right on going, a few steps from the still-recovering pony. "No matter the lies you feed us, our friendship will only grow stronger as time goes on, and it won't ever be broken! Not by you, Discord, or anypony else!" Her entire body shone with the green light, and it formed straight upward, releasing a shockwave that filled the entire maze/orchard.
The cloaked pony was lifted off his feet once again, blasted back by the shockwave—the impact of which shredded the rest of his cloak. As he flew backwards, he could do nothing but watch: the light of…whatever Applejack had just done, pierced straight through the illusion that had kept the various creatures trapped in the maze: they all began to come into focus within the light.
"The illusion's been wiped out!" Twilight announced, as the light cleared. Sure enough, it had: the orchard was back to normal, with confused ponies and buffalo alike in the maze. The group that had been outside of the orchard quickly moved in, to where they saw the light coming from.
"That was…Applejack?!" Azure reacted, seeing the light die down around her alongside the others. All present were stunned. Applejack looked ahead, looking as though she were seeing somepony. All heads turned, to see an earth pony in a shredded cloak. His back was to the tree, which kept him upright. He was breathing hard, one eye still closed.
"He's one of them," Applejack spat, "Tried to trick us again…"
"That's not all!" Blitz raised a hoof, "Look!"
Around the neck of the pony was a corroded silver necklace, with a blue gem in it. The others who had seen the item Discord had left behind when he'd been killed, immediately gasped.
"That must be one of those Elements!" Rainbow shouted, "I've got him!"
"Wait!" Shining snarled, suddenly extremely alarmed.
"Wha—why?!" Twilight said.
"Just at his hooves…"
All looked down now, to see a portal opening at the pony's back feet, which began to rapidly absorb him. The earth pony gave a chuckle.
"Looks like they're taking me back…too bad…I was hoping to get you all in my next illusion," the earth pony said, already halfway into the ground. "But it seems my job is done…"
"Why you…!" Rainbow charged the illusion-maker, aiming to apprehend him. However, before she could reach him and knock him out of his escape route, the pegasus instead found herself hitting the ground headfirst, bouncing.
"Rainbow!" Applejack called out, everypony else running in, "You okay?"
"…He got away…" a familiar voice spat. All heads turned; Virid was standing there. Braeburn and Spike came in from different directions.
"Ya'll alright?" Braeburn asked, looking around.
"We're fine…" Azure said.
"But his partner just got away…" Applejack said, as Rainbow got to her feet. "And he had that element, too!"
A silence hung over the group, broken only by the sound of belching. Spike burped up green fire, and with it, a scroll. Immediately, Twilight went over to him, intent on opening it, having a good feeling of where it was from.
"It's a notice from the Royal Guard…" Twilight said to herself.
To Captain Shining Armor and the retrieval party:
We have reason to believe one of the Elements of Chaos, as they're called, may have landed in the Hayseed Swamps. Units have reported the wildlife is much more aggressive there than it usually is. Please be advised that the group opposing us may have already made a move there by this time. At this time, our search parties have returned. They are uninjured, but can not get past the unruly wildlife…
Best of luck to you all…
Alright, that took long enough...
With this, I have to put this on hiatus so I can go work on Collision Code for a few more chapters. Probably until the end of Act 2, or so. We have been making sluggish progress on that...
Anyway, here it is.
Score: 1 to 1