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Swiftlight awoke with the memory of the previous night still powerful in his mind. He mostly felt annoyed with himself for overreacting to the thunder. For a minute there, he had lost perspective and didn’t know where he was. Confusion had taken hold, and he’d have sworn he was in the middle of Los Pegasus again. He stood and stretched. The injuries he had received just over a week before were healing nicely, but they twinged a little now and then. Java Chip still slept on the couch nearby. He allowed himself a moment to be captivated by the sight of her before getting prepared to face the day.

The captain exited the Apple's house to be met by the clearest blue sky he had ever seen. The spring morning was fresh and the songs of birds filled the crisp air. He'd have loved nothing more just now than to find a mountain to climb, but he didn't even have time to linger in the morning's glory. He quickly trotted off, briskly making his way into and across town to the castle. The muddy ground, saturated with spent rain was the only indication that a storm had unleashed its fury the previous night. It seemed that Ponyville had survived unscathed. The mystery of what had become of the two divisions that were on the train took over his thoughts as he walked. Scouts reported finding the location where they had disembarked, but there was no evidence to suggest why they might have abandoned the railway. As of the last report, the surrounding area was being searched. Swiftlight stopped by the barracks just long enough to don a fresh uniform. Checking a clock, he realized that he was a few minutes early as navigated the corridors.

As he approached CIC, the doors opened, and several officers and soldiers of various ranks began exiting. This struck Swiftlight as a little strange, as he would usually be informed of any scheduled meetings. They walked past him, not acknowledging with more than a nod. Swiftlight entered a now deserted CIC. Only General Mane Crusher and a few staff members remained. The morning shift would be due to arrive soon. The captain approached Mane Crusher, who was pouring over a map of Equestria. They had added figures to represent civilian population in addition to the military and timberwolf strengths.

"Did I miss a meeting, sir?" Swiftlight asked as he approached.

Looking up, the general seemed almost surprised to see him, "What? Oh, no. We had a few squads caught in the weather last night. Nothing important."

"I'll get the report," Swiftlight offered.

"It's all taken care of," Mane Crusher said shortly. "We have more pressing matters to be concerned with."

"Affirmative," Swiftlight replied.

Mane Crusher took out a new map of the Everfree Crater, complete with the surrounding forest. They had sectioned it off with a grid.

"This is what we have thoroughly searched," Mane Crusher said. "That storm was heavy, and likely anything we hoped to find in the crater is washed away. One report said that we've got a lake forming in the middle now."

"Lovely," Swiftlight answered.

"Even with our entire force out there, we managed to search just under half of this in a week," Mane Crusher said, shaking his head slightly. "There are many better things we could be doing."

“Are the timberwolves still quiet?”

“So far,” the general frowned at the map. “Their masters are no doubt looking for their next target of opportunity.” He took a breath and sighed, “We’ll have to keep searching, our prince won’t let us stop unless we find something conclusive. A waste of horsepower.”

The implication was unsettling, “You’re convinced they are dead?”

“I am,” the general said measuredly. “Our CAP saw the blast from here, and you’ve seen what it did to the forest. Survivors?” he scoffed, “No. They were incinerated along with everything else that used to be in the blast zone.”

Swiftlight couldn’t disagree with the assessment. It was the same thought that had been nagging at him. If any of the alicorns or Discord had survived, why hadn’t they returned? Surely they would have within a day as powerful as their magic was. He shuddered at the thought and forced his mind back to his work.

It turned out to be another boring day. The timberwolves continued to lay low, which put everypony on edge. It was strange to have no actions taking place anywhere, but that was the latest news in all reports. They had received a dispatch only that morning that they would be receiving additional forces to augment their corps within a month. If all went to plan, they'd be receiving an entire division. This was not counting the new recruits that were to be permanently assigned to Ponyville. Brax was to be promoted to command his own battalion soon, but he would have to train them first. No word on exactly when those recruits were supposed to arrive. Mane Crusher frequently vocalized his irritation at the inaction to which they'd been ordered. He had been itching to get back into the fight since Los Pegasus.

Swiftlight went to file paperwork with their corps clerk, a light tan pegasus that wore glasses. His cutie mark, unsurprisingly, was a file folder.

"Anything good for me today?" the clerk asked with his squeaky voice.

"Just routine papers," Swiftlight answered. "I'm sure nothing as exciting as last night."

"Oh? What happened last night?" the clerk asked as he began sorting the documents for filing.

Swiftlight was a little confused by the question, "The squads that got caught in the weather last night?"

The clerk stopped what he was doing and looked directly up at Swiftlight. He stared for a moment, and the pushed his glasses up and said, "Nopony was left out last night. I got reports from all company commanders that all squads were pulled in ahead of the storm."

Swiftlight wasn't sure how to answer that, "I guess I'll look into it."

The clerk shrugged and went back to his filing.

It was incredibly odd that a report hadn’t been made about the incident. The clerk was one of the few ponies in the entire corps that knew everything that was happening, everything. For him to not be informed was highly irregular to say the least. It bordered on bizarre. Swiftlight was going to have to ask the general about this again to find out what happened to the report.

As the captain returned to CIC, one of the aides came in and gave him a dispatch. He opened it and let his eyes quickly scan over the words. As he comprehended their meaning, his blood ran cold. This was followed by a sinking feeling.

"What is it?" the general asked.

Swiftlight answered in a cross between disbelief and horror, "They've found them.”

"Whom have they found?"

"They've..." he stopped again as he re-read the page, not wanting to believe.

Swiftlight’s eyes told him one thing, but his mind simply didn’t want to accept it.

"Spit it out, son," Mane Crusher demanded coarsely.

"They found the two divisions that we sent to Los Pegasus by rail," Swiftlight said in a ghostly whisper; then he swallowed hard. "They're dead. They're all dead."

Scootaloo sat under the downpour of steaming hot water flowing from the shower at the Apple's house. It was almost too hot, but after a long day digging latrines, it felt good to let the excessive warmth cascade over her. Every muscle was being soothed at once. Glorious as this was, it could only do so much to lift her spirits. In a way, she felt as if she had let her friends down. If she hadn't let her anger get the best of her, she could be helping them get signatures to recall the mayor. As it was, she was stuck doing hard labor for the next month. That would have been bad enough even if she hadn't had a sprained ankle. She examined the injury near her front right hoof. It definitely felt better than it had two weeks before, but it was still mending. She'd found that she was able to put a little weight on it, but the doctor had cautioned her to take it easy, and she had no intention of causing any further damage. Most of the cuts and scrapes from the fighting she'd been through were better, and her hearing was completely normal again. All that was left was the ankle, and one particularly deep gash. She couldn't even remember where she'd picked it up. The clearing, perhaps, or the fight in the cave. Maybe it was during the siege of Ponyville. It was probably during that explosion. The explosion. For a long moment, her heart felt heavy, and the lone mare was nearly reduced to a sobbing heap as she remembered Pibs, but as abruptly as it began, it passed. In any case, it didn't matter where the gash had come from. The important thing was that it was mending nicely.

A shiver of delight ran up Scootaloo's spine as the temperature of her shower fluctuated hotter for a moment. She had already finished washing the grime away from the day, but the temptation to just bask in the blazing water had been too strong to resist. This was also the one place she could be alone and have time to think. It had become her favorite way to unwind after digging in the dirt all day. New latrines were the best ones. Filling in the used variety was a most unpleasant proposition, but it went with the job. Her thoughts always eventually drifted back to her friends, those that were here, and those that were... absent. While it was a relief that Cloud Blazer still lived, Scootaloo ached inside over his disfigurement. He would never fly again. She didn’t know how he’d be able to continue. Then there was Pibs. While Scootaloo seemed able to function normally most of the time, waves of grief would occasionally overwhelm her. In those moments, it was as fresh as when it had happened, and she would find herself reduced to a blubbering mess. She hated it, but had managed to keep it together when she was observed. That was another thing about the time alone in a hot shower that she had grown to love so much.

She swallowed anything that passed for the sadder emotions and turned the water off just as a loud thunderclap shook the house. Scootaloo was a bit startled, but she recovered quickly. She grabbed a towel and dried herself off. That was one nice thing about having a shorter cropped mane and tail. They were much easier to wash and dry. Her filthy uniform lay discarded on the floor. She picked it up, trying to keep as much of the dirt off of the floor as possible, and put it into the "wash bucket", as Apple Bloom had called it. With cleanliness restored, Scootaloo exited the bathroom into the cooler and drier house. Walking down the hallway, she made a brief stop in Apple Bloom's room, where Scootaloo herself was now staying. She took fresh bandages for her ankle and the one cut, carefully wrapping them the way she'd been taught. Once this was accomplished she went back to the hallway to go downstairs. She could hear talking in the living room.

Upon entering, Scootaloo felt like a small party had unfolded since she went to get cleaned up. There were the Apples, of course, Pinkie Pie, and the Cakes. Sparklefly, LD, and Lightning Dasher were there. Finally, Java Chip and one other. The black earth pony that worked for General Mane Crusher. Clyde, of course, sat in the corner. The room was packed.

"Come on in," Applejack said cheerfully.

"I saved you a seat," Apple Bloom said, making room between herself and Sparklefly.

As Scootaloo sat, a bright bolt of lightning lit up the windows, and the thunder boomed immediately on its heals. Half the ponies in the room jumped. LD and Lightning Dasher began laughing. Swiftlight vanished. Uneasy laughter soon followed, and the captain looked up from behind the couch, wide terror in his eyes.

"You alright?" Java Chip asked Swiftlight.

He didn’t answer, but his eyes darted back and forth in a frenzy. Sparklefly and Scootaloo stood and slowly approached.

“Captain,” the lieutenant addressed him.

The manner in which he acted gave Scootaloo a shiver of fear, stopping her approach. He didn’t seem to recognize any of them. It was almost as if he had gone somewhere else.

“Captain, Swiftlight,” Sparklefly said as she drew closer, almost face to face.

He seemed to hear her, “Report.”

“Stand down,” she said. “It’s thunder. We are safe here.”

Scootaloo wasn’t sure if she should do something to help. She stood there, ready but uncertain.

“Thunder,” he repeated vacantly.

Everypony else sat silently while Sparklefly stood in front of him, calmly staring back and speaking softly.

“Yes, sir. Just thunder, no sign of the enemy. There is nothing to fear.”

Slowly, he seemed to come out of it. Scootaloo breathed a sigh of relief. He returned to sit by Java Chip.

“Are you okay?” she asked him as Sparklefly returned toward the sofa.

"Affirmative," he said, sounding a little uneasy.

A loud bang on the door became a fast knocking, again startling everypony. Sparklefly was already up, so she went to answer the rainy night. The door pushed open, and Sweetie Belle burst in, practically shouting.

"He's awake! He's awake!"

She was completely drenched from the rain, her mane was a mess, and she was already shivering a little.

"Whoa, slow down," Sparklefly said.

Sweetie Belle pushed past her when she saw Scootaloo, trying to catch her breath.

"He talked to me; Cloud Blazer is awake," she said.

An exuberant cheer went through the room, and Scootaloo felt warm inside. Everypony was on their hooves now, crowding around Sweetie Belle. The storm raged outside as Sparklefly shut the door.

"What did he say?" Scootaloo asked.

"Not much, but he recognized me. He said my name," Sweetie Belle answered.

Happy faces were seen all around; they looked like Scootaloo felt. Apple Bloom was wearing a wide grin, and a few tears had escaped from her eyes. Sweetie Belle suddenly was aware that she was dripping on the floor.

"I'm making a mess," she apologized.

"Don't think nothing of it, sugar cube,” Applejack said. "Apple Bloom, how about you fetch a towel?"

With a quick nod, Apple Bloom trotted away. There was a great deal of murmuring and cross discussion about Cloud Blazer. Scootaloo saw Sweetie Belle glance at Swiftlight and Java Chip, and realized that they might not have met before.

"Sweetie Belle," Scootaloo began, "had you had a chance to meet Java Chip yet?"

“We pushed trees together. Nice to meet you properly,” Sweetie Belle said, still shivering.

"Likewise," Java Chip said.

Scootaloo gave a glance to Java Chip, which she read perfectly.

"This is my friend, Captain Swiftlight," Java Chip said.

"Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom have been my close friends since we were little fillies," Scootaloo said to Java Chip.

"Well, any friend of the Apples is a friend of mine," Java Chip replied.

"Oh, oh, new friends!" Pinkie Pie shouted. "Best gloomy-rainy-thundery-scary-night-time-storm ever!"

Thunder crackled outside as Apple Bloom returned with the towel. Everypony returned to their seats as Sweetie Belle cleaned up the water she'd been dripping everywhere. In spite of how pitiful she looked just now, freezing cold and soaking wet, there was a bright joy behind her green eyes. Clyde was the only one who didn't move, even when the good news came. Scootaloo accidentally caught his gaze, and his look surprised her. Normally, he was just sarcastic and combative toward her. At that moment, he looked genuinely sympathetic.

"I'm glad your friend is doing better," he said to her.

Caught off guard, all she could manage was, "Thanks."

A flash of lightning came simultaneously with the deafening boom of its landing, causing the lights to flicker and go out. Somepony screamed in the darkness, which was punctuated by another flash of lightning. This one was much farther away, but it was still loud. A general commotion had erupted, but Applejack was soon heard calling over the shouting.

"Just settle down, everypony," she began. “I got some lanterns around here. Big Mac, did they get put back in the wash room?"

"Yep," he replied.

"Okay, okay, I'm on my way," Applejack said.

"Ouch!" Mrs. Cake yelled.

"Sorry, sugar cube," Applejack replied.

With a bit more fumbling, the mare made it out of the room, and felt her way through the kitchen. Scootaloo couldn't see anything. Her eyes were adjusting to the dark, but only the faintest outline of the windows could be seen.

"It's too quiet," Java Chip said.

"What? Where's quiet? I can't hear it!" Pinkie Pie said.

"Seriously?" Clyde asked.

"Never! Don't be silly," Pinkie Pie replied.

"Anypony know any good jokes?" Mr. Cake asked.

"Oh, oh, oh! Pick me, pick me!" Pinkie Pie said.

"I do hope the little ones don't wake up," Mrs. Cake sounded concerned.

With excitement, Pinkie Pie asked, "What does a glabberdoodle’s nose smell like?"

"What even is a glabberdoodle?" Swiftlight asked; he seemed completely restored.

"It's a mythical creature that has the head of a dog, the body of a walrus, and a tail like a snake. They roam the woods in Equestria stealing pies that have been left out to cool!" Pinkie Pie answered. "So what does a glabberdoodle's nose smell like?"

Clyde sighed in the darkness.

"Pie?" Sparklefly suggested.

“Snot?” Mr. Cake offered.

“Honey!” his wife chided.

"I don't know," Scootaloo said.

"No pony knows," Pinkie Pie said with a chortle as she pointed at her own nose, only just visible as eyes adjusted to darkness. "Get it? No pony nose?"

There was groaning throughout the room as Pinkie Pie giggled. A light pierced the darkness from the kitchen. Applejack appeared in the doorway with a firefly lantern.

"Here y'all go," she said as she brought it in, setting it on a small table.

The lantern just provided light to see the room dimly, but it was enough to lift Scootaloo's spirits as the storm continued outside. She felt safe inside the house; it must have been well built to feel so solid during such inclement weather.

"So, Swiftlight, tell us a bit about yourself; how'd you and Java Chip meet?" Applejack said.

Sitting up a little bit straighter, Swiftlight said, "Well, I'm from up north. Java Chip and I come from Van Hoover. My parents took me hiking a lot when I was little, and that wasn't my favorite thing until I discovered climbing."

"You mean mountain climbing?" Sparklefly asked.

"Oh dear, that sounds dangerous," Mrs. Cake said.

"It definitely can be. Rock climbing is not for the faint of heart. It's best left for those of us that have the natural ability," Swiftlight replied.

Scootaloo wasn't sure, but Swiftlight sounded like he was full of himself.

"There's nothing like working your way to the top of a rock face, the wind in your mane and nothing but your own wits and strength keeping you alive. Inexperienced climbers can get in over their heads, but that would never happen to me; I'm a natural," he continued.

Now she was sure.

"Anyway, there was a big group rock climbing trip one day. It was on one of the smaller peaks, so not much of a challenge, but I was eager to take any chance to climb. That's when I met this one," he said as he gestured at Java Chip. "I practically saved her life."

"You did not save my life," Java Chip replied lightly.

"Your harness was compromised."

"You took a pebble out of it," she said, almost playfully.

"It was more like a rock," he defended.

"Annoying, yes, but hardly life threatening."

There were sporadic giggles about the room. The storm continued beating against the house. The rain was a pleasant sound, but the thunder was exhilarating. It boomed and clapped in rapid succession. The lightning lit up the room in strobes of varying intensities.

"In any case," Swiftlight continued, "that's how we met. She’s the only pony I’ve ever met that has as much drive and almost as much talent for climbing as I do. Afterward we must have climbed every single peak and cliff-face around Van Hoover."

"Solo climbing is fine, but I found that it's much better to share the experience," Java Chip added.

"Now that's a truth," Applejack said. "Most things are better when shared with friends."

"Even a power outage during a lightning storm?" Apple Bloom asked playfully.

"Definitely!" Sweetie Belle said, giving Apple Bloom a big hug.

Apple Bloom, now damp, pushed her sopping friend away.

"I agree," Sparklefly said cheerfully.

"Much as I hate to break up a party," LD began.

"I know where you're going with this; I'm tired too," Lightning Dasher finished.

"I guess... we're, off to bed," LD spoke with a hint of annoyance.

Following their lead, the Cakes, Pinkie Pie, Big McIntosh, and Applejack all retreated to the rooms after two more lanterns were retrieved to light the way.

Looking out at the storm, Java Chip said, "I hope my shop is doing okay."

"I'm sure it's fine," Apple Bloom said. "The buildings around here are pretty sturdy."

"Remember the old town hall?" Scootaloo asked.

"Oh, when it was falling apart, and Rainbow Dash crashed through the floor?" Sweetie Belle added.

The three of them giggled.

"That doesn't make me feel any better," Java Chip said.

“Either way, there's nothing that can be done until the storm blows itself out," Sparklefly said.

Thunder crashed in the wind outside, as if to punctuate that last comment.

"Don't you fret about it," Apple Bloom said reassuringly. "We'll be able to find some good strong hooves to help you fix any damage."

Java Chip smiled and glanced back out the window, still a little uneasy. They stayed up only a little longer before sleepiness came for them. Java Chip slept on the couch, and Swiftlight said he was fine on the rug, so they let him sleep there. As Scootaloo went up to the room and laid down, she was already dreading the next day. Even if the rain stopped now, she'd be digging in the mud. It was bound to be an entirely new kind of misery. She thought on these things as the sound of the rain singing against the tin roof lulled her into the sweet embrace of dreamless sleep.

"Thank you for your time,” Sparklefly said as the door was shut. She sighed at the polite refusal she had received for the petition for a recall election. Her hooves ached as she left the house to find Apple Bloom waiting for her.

"I sure thought gettin’ signatures would be easier," the farm pony said.

"I guess nopony wants to rock the boat," Sparklefly agreed as she rubbed her eye patch.

"We've been at this a while already and I don't think we have half the signatures we need," Apple Bloom sulked.

“It’s a small matter; we’ll get them. Look on the bright side; your sister's had a lot of time to catch up on her end of things.”

"Yeah, I guess that's so," Apple Bloom admitted as they began walking back toward Sweet Apple Acres.

The setting sun produced a golden sky that was punctuated by perhaps a dozen lazy clouds drifting by. The last week had been a busy one. Cloud Blazer survived his surgery, and his fever had broken the following day. His temperature was back to normal now, and he had returned to a similar state as before. He would lay there doing nothing. Sometimes he would open his eyes, but he didn't communicate. They also couldn't tell whether he was aware of his surroundings. This meant he was likely totally unaware that his wings had been amputated. The doctors filled the rest of them in on his condition, which was worse than Sparklefly had thought. The infection had spread into the muscle tissue that connected to his wings, all of which had to be removed. This made any chance of him being able to fly with prosthetic wings highly doubtful at best. The thought of it sent a shudder through Sparklefly.

The transfer orders did go through for Twilight Sparkle's elite squad, and they were now permanently under the command of Captain Brax, who would soon be promoted to major. Scootaloo had been released from hospital confinement, but Clyde was still assigned to follow her around to make sure she stayed out of trouble. This was, no doubt, unpleasant for Clyde as Scootaloo had been digging latrines the entire time. Sparklefly was rather alarmed to hear about her incident in the hospital, but she wasn't sure how to discuss this with Scootaloo. At any rate, it was old news now, so she had decided to not bring it up.

The war was still underway across Equestria. Little action had been taken in the past week, but there was a small attack on Baltimare that had been easily repelled. General Mane Crusher's corps had returned to Ponyville, and the news of the battle at Los Pegasus had everypony talking for days. They had lost nearly half of their strength during the battle, but by all accounts, they made the enemy pay dearly for every life lost by a factor of four to one. One welcome turn of events was that the soldiers still hadn't come to plant anything at the orchard, most likely because the entire corps was now engaged in constant SAR of the Everfree Forest. The rumor was that those orders had come from Prince Shining Armor himself.

Sparklefly, still on medical leave, was helping round up signatures for a recall election in Ponyville. Without missing a beat, Mayor Diamond Tiara had put up posters all over town with all sorts of sappy political messages. Also, she had actually kissed a foal at a town meeting. This may have back-fired in a way, as it drew attention to the petition to have her removed. To say the least, signatures had been a little easier to get since that meeting. Applejack had been spending almost all of her time pouring over books in the library, and she seemed to loathe every minute of it.

As Sweet Apple Acres came into view, back-lit by the setting sun, Sparklefly could see the workers coming in from the field. Lightning Dasher and LD were making themselves useful, but Lightning Dasher had to take it slow for his broken leg. They were making decent progress, but clearing the old trees was hard work.

Apple Bloom yawned, "I'm beat."

Thunder rumbled in the distance, causing Sparklefly to turn. It was coming up from the southeast. It was difficult to see in the evening light, but there were rapid flashes of lightning punctuating the edge of the clouds.

"That's going to be a big one.”

"Looks like," Apple Bloom agreed. "We'll have to make sure the barn is all closed up. I forgot one time last spring and it nearly flooded inside."

They changed course slightly to go check the barn. Thunder resounded across the distance behind them. The barn was open, but it didn't take long to secure everything. In the few minutes that Apple Bloom and Sparklefly closed it up, the wind was beginning to come in cool, uneven gusts. They entered the house to find Fluttershy and Applejack in the living room.

"Welcome back, girls. How was your day?" Fluttershy asked as more thunder rolled.

"Just fine, thanks. Are you staying for supper?" Apple Bloom asked.

"Oh, no, I need to get home to feed my animals.”

"Well, you might want to go soon. It looks like the weather is about to turn pretty nasty outside," Sparklefly suggested.

"Oh my goodness!" Fluttershy became concerned. "I'll be off then. Thank you so much!"

The soft-spoken pegasus hurried out, gently closing the door behind herself.

"How was your day, sis?" Apple Bloom asked.

"Mighty fine," Applejack replied. "I took a break from the library and started getting signatures on the south end of town."

"You did?" Sparklefly asked. "How did it go?"

"I'd say they listened up," Applejack said. "Java Chip went with me, and plumb near everypony we talked to was ready to sign."

“That’s amazing; way to go, sis!” Apple Bloom praised.

Java Chip and Swiftlight entered the room.

"It was more than amazing," her voice brimmed with excitement. "The ponies are on fire. There are so many of them that got fed up with Diamond Tiara after last week on the farm."

Thunder crashed outside, causing the lights to flicker. Apple Bloom let out a screech.

"Everything okay?" LD burst into the room. Lightning Dasher was following directly behind him.

Sparklefly grinned, shaking her head.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just the thunder startled me is all," Apple Bloom admitted with a sheepish giggle.

Applejack asked, ”Did anypony hear timberwolves howling earlier? Maybe last night?"

There was a general shaking of heads.

"Looks like the weather's turned on me. Would you mind if I stay until it clears up a bit?" Java Chip asked.

“I was hoping we’d get some more zap apples, but I figure this storm is just a storm. It’s not likely they’d come that soon at any rate. Make yourselves at home," Applejack replied to Java Chip and Swiftlight.

“Affirmative,” Swiftlight said.

The captain that followed Java Chip around was not a mystery to Sparklefly. She was not deeply interested in matters of which-pony-likes-which, but with some it was impossible to not read their feelings. Whether the sentiment were reciprocated was not usually as simple to discern. In this case, no obvious sign was given, and she didn't know Java Chip well enough to be able to tell. The group discussion turned to the politics in Ponyville. After a quick count, Sparklefly estimated that they actually now had a bit over half of the signatures they needed. It should be less than a week before they'd be able to present their challenge to the judge. Following that would be a week of trying to convince the town that Applejack is the better choice, and then at the end of that week, the debate. According to the Apples, there was a long history of these debates being an "anything goes" kind of open forum. There was no way to know what questions might be asked, and since everypony can ask one question, the event could last for days. That would be something they could worry about after they had all the signatures they needed for the recall election. It wouldn’t do to take this any other way than one step at a time. Her Momma Mare might have told her not to put the cart before the horse, she remembered wistfully.

"You didn't open your shop today?" Apple Bloom asked Java Chip.

"No, I usually take the day off on Sundays," she replied. "I'm open sunup to sundown the rest of the week. I'd go crazy if I didn't take a break."

"That's a shame. I bet it'd be worth your while to be open," Sparklefly said.

"Yes, it would. In fact, I was looking for somepony to work the weekends for me when that small business tax hit. Ever since then, it's all I can do to keep open at all."

"Hopefully that won't be a problem in a few weeks," Applejack said with a wink.

She seemed to be in a good mood, no doubt a result of her respite from library reading all day. Thunder boomed outside, causing them all to flinch in reaction. The rain had begun.

Becoming a little concerned, Sparklefly asked, "Is Scootaloo here?"

"Why else would I be here?" Clyde spoke from the corner.

"Oh, hi Clyde. I didn't see you back there," Sparklefly said.

"Yeah, she may have latrine duty, but I still have to keep an eye on her. I'm not sure which of us got the bad end of that deal," he dripped with sarcasm.

"I'm sure she'll be along," Applejack said as she slowly stood and stretched. "It's starting to get a bit crowded in here. I’m gonna round up some more chairs."

“I’ll do that, sis!” Apple Bloom objected. “You have to take it easy for the baby!”

Applejack snorted, “Fine, just quit your fussin’.”

Sparklefly felt a warmth inside that made her smile.

"Tag! You're it!" Cloud Blazer yelled as he sprinted away, galloping as fast as his little legs could carry him from Scootaloo.

"Oh, it's on now!" she screamed back.

Apple Bloom squealed as she dodged around a barrel, also running from the orange filly. Sweetie Belle was hiding in a hay bale, and she burst forth just as Cloud Blazer and Scootaloo ran by. She taunted them and ran off in a different direction. The orchard was filled with the joyful sounds of the colt and fillies as they played together. Glancing back, Cloud Blazer could see that she was gaining on him. He aimed for a fence, charging toward it as fast as he could run. At the last second, he leapt as high as he could, flapping his wings just enough to get him over it. Scootaloo shrieked a moment later as she crashed into wooden planks. The colt landed on the other side and turned around. She looked a little dazed, and the other two were actually rolling on the ground laughing. Scootaloo shook her head, her mane unkempt from the rowdiness.

"No fair! We can't play if you cheat!" she huffed at him.

"Are you okay?" Sweetie Belle asked. Apple Bloom was still laughing.

"I'm sorry," Cloud Blazer said, approaching her with the fence between them. She looked rather angry with him.

"No you're not," she pouted. "You're it!" she cried as she reached through the fence, tagging him by surprise.

He instinctively stepped backward, and she had already run halfway back to the barn. Sweetie Belle had the sense to hide has he scrambled through the gaps in the fence. Apple Bloom was still laughing so hard that she couldn't run. He walked right up to her and tagged her. She sort of waved him off as she recovered.

"You just," she took a breath, "You should have seen her face when she hit that fence."

Apple Bloom looked silly rolling in the mud, her pink bow filthy. Cloud Blazer let the moment take him and joined her guffaw.

"Aren't you going to chase us anymore?" Sweetie Belle called out from her hiding place.

A clap of thunder startled the four. Sweetie Belle let out an ear piercing scream. The thunder rolled and subsided. They stood now, staring into the sky. Dark clouds were rolling and almost boiling above. They came in fast, and wind began blowing fall leaves all around in swirls.

"Y'all get inside! A storm's brewing," they heard Applejack call from the house.

With only a moment of hesitation, the four galloped toward the safety of shelter. Half way there the rain came down in heavy sheets, so thick that it blinded Cloud Blazer. As they continued running, his hoof caught something, maybe a root or a rock. He went sprawling on the ground, taking a face full of mud. The smell of the rain filled his nostrils as he got back to his hooves and continued running. By the time they made it into the house, they were drenched. Dripping and covered in mud, Applejack threw towels at them.

"Get cleaned up, y'all. I'll fix some supper," she said.

“I wanna help!” Apple Bloom offered.

"Thanks, sugar cube. I'm about fit to be tied today," she replied, gesturing at her pregnant body. From the look of her, she could deliver a pair of foals any minute.

As they prepared for dinner, Cloud Blazer cleaned himself up, making a mess of the towel.

"Come to me!" a voice interrupted him.

Startled, he turned about. He wasn't in the house anymore. He was outside in the rain, standing in front of Princess Twilight's castle. Applejack and the three fillies were still with him.

"Should I go? Should I follow the voice?" Cloud Blazer nervously asked Applejack.

The rain was coming down, and running off of her hat in a steady stream. "I don't think she's calling to you," Applejack said solemnly.

Everything went suddenly dark, and pain shot through Cloud Blazer, followed by numbness. The dream faded away and for what seemed like several minutes, he lay there in agony, unable to see or hear anything. The sharp ache was still there, but after a few minutes he felt almost giddy. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Blurry at first, things eventually came into focus around him. He was in what looked like a hospital room. Despite the euphoria, he was afraid to move, as it had been so painful the last time. He couldn't tell if he was alone, but the door to his room was open. There was a curtain on the left side, which probably was dividing the room between himself and another patient. This looked just like the Ponyville hospital.

Trying to remember how he'd come to be here proved difficult. His mind was so foggy at the moment, he began to wonder if he were dreaming again. But if he had been dreaming, he would never have wondered that, so he decided that he must be awake. Breathing was not nearly so painful or gravelly as it had been before. Gently, he began to turn his head a little. On the right side of the room, there was a wall with shelves and all sorts of medical supplies and things stored there. There were also chairs, and a white mare was sitting in one of them. He didn't recognize her, but he felt like he should. She had a purple mane, two different colors, and a horn. She must be a unicorn. She looked like she was sleeping. As he watched her, the feeling that he should know her was growing stronger, but he still couldn't place her identity. It was a curiously unsettling sensation.

Turning his thoughts back to his current situation, Cloud Blazer tried to think back through it. He remembered playing in the field by the barn, and then it started raining. Had he been injured in the rain? Turning back carefully, he tried to assess his physical condition. There seemed to be bruises and healing cuts all over. He had bandages on his legs, and a cast on his hind right leg. It was completely immobilized. If the bandages had been only a little more complete, he'd look quite a lot like a mummy.

The unicorn stirred, and Cloud Blazer looked back at her. Her eyelids fluttered, and she awoke, making a good long stretch. She shook herself a little, and then opened her green eyes. They sat there a moment looking at each other before Cloud Blazer recognized her.

"Sweetie Belle," he said. He wasn't actually trying to address her; it was more a statement of recognition.

"Cloud Blazer!" she practically leapt to his bedside. "How are you feeling? Are you okay? We've been so worried about you."

"Oh... yeah..." he said, still feeling far away. "I'm alright... I think I fell down in the mud..."

"What?" she seemed a little confused.

"The rain... I must have fallen down..."

“It’s not raining, and there isn’t any mud.”

“You didn’t see? The thunder.”

"It must be the medicine," she concluded. “They gave you something for the pain. Well, I'm just glad to hear you speaking again."

"Was I... not speaking? Sorry..."

She smiled at him, and somehow, that made everything seem better. Things began to go foggy again. Cloud Blazer could feel himself slipping back into unconsciousness.

"I'm... going... again..." he said.

She began to speak, but he couldn't understand her. He had a fleeting thought that Scootaloo was also there because he could feel his mane being gently stroked again. He made a final effort to see her or say something, but it was no use. The euphoria, the pain, the good feelings, and everything else slipped away as Cloud Blazer drifted to sleep again.
The Last Cutie Mark Crusader 18.1
Next: 8/18/16


The cover art was created by the talented :iconthecrochetdragon:

Please leave creative or clever comments below. Let me know you're there; even a gurgling sound would be helpful. What do you like, what don't you like? Constructive criticism is always appreciated. :) (Smile)

Previous Chapter:…

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The Beginning:…

Other stories which I have written or to which I've contributed...
The Forgotten:…
Sweetie Belle's First Time:…
Rarity's Hearts and Hooves Daysaster:…

"See you later," Sparklefly said as she parted from Apple Bloom and Java Chip. They were on their way to make bail for Applejack. They’d had to pool some resources, but getting her out of the jail was a necessary first step. The unmistakeable scent of illness covered over with industrial cleaner hit Sparklefly as she entered the Ponyville Hospital. This building had become old news to her since she'd been reporting here frequently to be evaluated. The last time she had come in, the doctor had told her that she could probably begin flying again in a week or two. The impacts that had hurt her wings hadn't broken anything, but the bruising was pretty painful. That had been quite a relief. She wasn't here to see the doctor today. The others had decided that someone should tell Scootaloo what's going on. Lightning Dasher and LD stayed on the farm to help out there. Big McIntosh had begun mobilizing the others to start clearing the rest of the orchard in preparation for planting season. They all had the look of exhaustion from the hard work the night before, but somehow they found the strength to keep going. Sparklefly could already tell that they were all going to sleep well tonight.

The mare walked past the nurses’ station, up a flight of stairs, and found the hallway that led to Cloud Blazer's room. She suspected that it would where she’d find Scootaloo. There were still many injured here, but it was much quieter than it had been only a few days before. The Ponyville doctors seemed to really know their remedies. As she rounded the corner into Cloud Blazer's room, confusion was the first thing she felt. The bed was empty, and while Scootaloo was indeed here, she was curled up on the floor, sleeping at the foot of the bed. Clyde was reading a magazine, sitting in a chair nearby. Sweetie Belle was pacing nervously back and forth.

"What's going on?" Sparklefly asked.

Sweetie Belle spun to face her, "It's horrible!"

"What's horrible? Is Cloud Blazer..." she couldn't finish as her stomach sank.

"No, he's alive," Clyde said nonchalantly, still reading his magazine. "The doctor seemed to think his chances are looking good. They took him for surgery."

"What do you mean? Sweetie Belle, what's happening?"

Nervously and quickly, Sweetie Belle answered, "We thought he was recovering completely, but he was getting worse. He got a fever, and he had an infection in his wings." Tears were filling her eyes.

"So they're fixing it?" Sparklefly asked, trying to remain calm.

"They're going to... amputate...” Sweetie Belle said as she was taken by an overwhelming fit of tears. She sank to the floor.

Sparklefly was mortified at the thought of it. To never be able to fly again would be a horrible handicap for a pegasus. She pushed the thought from her mind. There wasn’t any way to know how extensive the damage had been. She’d seen many pegasi with prosthetic wings that were able to fly and lead a normal life. That would be something discuss with the doctors after the surgery. Sweetie Belle was a complete mess. Sparklefly quickly decided that the unicorn’s state was the only problem before her that she could actually do anything with. She crossed over to Sweetie Belle and hugged her.

"Hey, now, that's not going to help anything," she said in a sweet and soft tone. “Brownie is strong. He'll get through this."

Sparklefly wasn't sure what more to do, so she just held Sweetie Belle for a while. This had always been her best bet when her sister, Glitterdust, had nightmares. They had started after the fall of Apple Loosa. In this case, Sparklefly might have liked to cry also, but she couldn't. She felt she had to remain strong for everypony else's sake. They sat there for a time while Sweetie Belle wept. Eventually, she began to quiet down.

"I failed him," Sweetie Belle said.


"We failed him. We tried so hard to make him better, but he's going to be crippled, and it's my fault."

"No, not at all," Sparklefly replied. "If you hadn't done what you did, he'd have died a week ago. I saw that fall he took. Nopony could have done better for Cloud Blazer than you and Zecora did. Sometimes things are just too broken to fix. Lightning Dasher thought Brownie was as good as dead, but you got him this far. I've seen you here every minute of every day that you can be. None of this is your fault."

"If only he only could have jumped a second sooner that timberwolf never would have caught him, and he'd be fine," Sweetie Belle said with a sniffle.

"Perhaps," Sparklefly began thoughtfully, "but we'll never know. He might have gotten away from that and been killed later at the mirror pond or in Ponyville." She suddenly felt distant. It was almost as if she heard herself speaking but had no will or control over her words. "When we went to Canterlot to evacuate the city, our plans fell apart. The defense collapsed, and we had three-thousand cadets that had no one to lead them. I didn't know what to do, so I started barking orders, and I had them all follow me into a horde of timberwolves. Scootaloo, Pibs, and Cloud Blazer should have been with us, but we'd been separated only minutes before. There were seven of us:  myself, Thunder Boomer, Cherry Blossom, Sky Burst, Flame Out, Treble Cleft, and Rain Dancer. They followed me without question. They didn't even hesitate when we flew down to that platform. They all died there. They were right next to me, and then they were gone. It could have been me, maybe it should have been. They didn't deserve to die any more than I deserved to be spared. I must have run through it in my mind a thousand times in the days after the battle. I just knew that there was another way to save everypony. Maybe I missed something in my haste to act. If I did, if I could have saved them, I'll never know now. You can only do the best you can with what's in front of you. After it is decided, it does no good to dwell on possibilities that could have been."

Silence filled the room and Sweetie Belle was breathing softly and regularly now. "I'm sorry you lost your friends."

Sparklefly nodded, still holding Sweetie Belle, "I'm sorry about Cloud Blazer."

Scootaloo half sat up, facing them. She had obviously been crying, and was as much a mess as Sweetie Belle. "Thank you for being here," she said to Sparklefly.

She nodded in reply. The situation seemed much more stable now, so Sparklefly let go of Sweetie Belle, and found a chair to sit in. She was so tired. Working the fields the night before and now dealing with everypony's emotional distress was draining. Her stomach growled as she rubbed her eye patch.

"I guess you heard I've been confined," Scootaloo said.

"Yeah; you're not the only one,” Sparklefly replied.

"Not Applejack?"

Sparklefly nodded. "The sheriff came to arrest her after you left. We had been called to the castle before it happened. Big McIntosh has already got some more ponies moving. They're still working on clearing the rest of the orchard.”

"What about Diamond Tiara?"

“I don't know. We haven’t seen her since this morning, but I found out something else. Mane Crusher’s entire corps left last night; they aren't here to do any planting anyway."

"Wait, where'd they go?" Scootaloo asked, looking a bit confused.

"I'm not sure. I overheard a rumor that Los Pegasus was under attack, but who knows if it's true." Sparklefly paused for a moment. "Scootaloo, I came here to fill you in on the plan."

Scootaloo snorted. ”We have a plan?"

"Yes, Applejack is going to run for mayor."

Both Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle blinked with disbelief. Clyde seemed to be ignoring them. He was still flipping through his magazine.

"We're nowhere near elections," Sweetie Belle observed.

"We've been looking into the Ponyville bylaws all morning. If we can get enough of the citizens to sign a petition, we can have a special recall election at any time."

"How many is enough?" Scootaloo asked.

“A third,” she replied. "But one problem at a time. First, we're bailing Applejack out of jail." Glancing up at a clock on the wall, she continued, "She may already be out by now. Then Applejack is going to study everything she can find out on Ponyville law, but we'll start the petition immediately. It might take a while to get all those signatures."

"You think?"

Sweetie Belle shushed her.

"If we can get all of the signed petition filed at the court house, the judge will set up a debate for one week later. Everypony in town is allowed to ask one question to either the mayor or the challenger, and then they talk about it. After everypony is finished asking questions, they place their votes."

A bit concerned, Scootaloo said, "Applejack's awesome and all, but do you think she can out-debate Diamond Tiara? That mare's been arguing since she was a filly."

"Well, that tantrum she threw in front of half the town this morning should give us an edge, at least initially," Sparklefly answered. "At any rate, this is the plan. Get the orchard ready for replanting the apple trees, get the mayor thrown out of office, and find some other land to go ahead and plant the oats and hay she wanted. If we can do all of that, we'll be able to save Sweet Apple Acres."

A feeling of optimism began swimming about the room. Sparklefly wasn't completely sure why, but saving the orchard was important to her. Perhaps it was because it reminded her of home. A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. It was Captain Brax. Clyde, Scootaloo, and Sparklefly stood and saluted.

"I was told I'd find you here," he said to Scootaloo. "Dismissed," he said, looking at Clyde.

Clyde and Sweetie Belle exited the room, and Sparklefly followed them.

"Not you, Lieutenant; this concerns you as well."

Her mouth went dry, and she returned to stand by Scootaloo, both of them at attention.

"At ease," he said, causing them to relax their stance. "I'm sorry to hear about Cloud Blazer. A nurse at the front desk told me. In Canterlot, he gave me the impression that he knew how to handle himself."

"Thank you, sir," Scootaloo said, swallowing hard.

"Now, you are already under my command temporarily, but I have put in a request to make it permanent. This will be the only way I can help you. If it goes through, this is how things are going to play out. Scootaloo, you will be demoted back to sergeant, and you'll have thirty days of latrine duty. That way the mayor can't complain that you weren't punished."

Scootaloo groaned, “But we never touched the mayor.”

“Shut your mouth, sergeant, or it’ll be sixty days,” Brax said sternly before he continued. Sparklefly’s heart was pounding like a drum as the captain continued, "I have received word that we're going to get new recruits, nearly five-hundred of them out of Baltimare. I'm to organize a battalion that will be stationed here in Ponyville for defense of the city. They're giving us a drill sergeant, but I'll also be assigning the two of you to assist in the instruction of the recruits." Reading her expression, Brax asked Sparklefly, "Do you want to say something, lieutenant?"

"Permission to speak, sir?" she asked.

"Go ahead."

"Thank you, sir. I recognize and appreciate that you are trying to clean up our mess. I would only like to point out that we have no experience training recruits."

"True," Brax replied, "but you do have valuable field experience. More to the point, the events of today have shown me that you two need something constructive to do to stay out of trouble."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Sparklefly replied, not wanting to push her luck.

"I'm going to put you in command of a platoon, and Scootaloo will be one of your sergeants. That means it will be your tail if she get’s out of line.” Brax looked behind himself as if to check that nopony was standing there, and then turned back to the pair. "The four of you, injured, really took out ten of the mayor's Ponyville Defense Force?" he asked. If Sparklefly wasn't mistaken, he had a slight grin on his face. It almost looked as if he were proud of them.

"Yes sir," Scootaloo replied.

The captain snorted and shook his head; the smile flashed across his face for only a moment before evaporating as he began walking out of the room. "I'll let you know if those orders go through. Until then, stay out of trouble."

"Yes sir," they both said together.

The old warhorse left. Sparklefly listened to him walk down the corridor. She let out a sigh of relief. Scootaloo made a noise that almost sounded like a growl. A little startled, Sparklefly stepped back and turned to face her.

"Latrine duty," Scootaloo said.

Sparklefly could see the anger in her eyes.

"Honestly, you'll be getting off easy if that's all that happens."

"I know!” Scootaloo practically shouted.

Sparklefly took a step back. For a moment, she was unsure whether Scootaloo might be about to do something rash.

"No, I..." Scootaloo began. She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'm just tired, and hungry. Just give me a minute.”

“It’s a small matter,” Sparklefly replied. Confidence returned that Scootaloo had checked her anger. "One thing's for certain. Our plans just got complicated."

Scootaloo snorted, “You mean more complicated?”

Sparklefly nodded slowly in reply.


United States
Current Residence: Home
Favourite genre of music: Soundtracks & Classical
Operating System: I'll let you know if I find one that actually operates!
Shell of choice: the candy coating M&M shell of course!
Favourite cartoon character: I don't know anymore... so many to choose from... In any case, Rainbow Dash is 20% cooler than all the others.
Well, I've been able to get to the cinema again finally. Two movies in particular are standing out just now. I went to see The Golden Compass, which didn't seem to have any "anti-God" message in it. Apparently there's been some kind of controversy about it because of some stuff the author said. Well, all I got was an anti-socialist messgae. Don't worry, I don't give spoilers!

I also got to see "I Am Legend", which I enjoyed very much. Great story, amazing build and character development, weak ending. It's like they build it up and then stop. It was good though.

Not much is going on with me, just living life and working and all that. I never find time to be on here anymore.... rather I don't make time. That's how it goes these days though. Anyway, enough of that, see you guys later.

:iconjatheus: :iconlove: :iconthecrochetdragon:

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landobaldur Featured By Owner Jul 5, 2016  Professional General Artist
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