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Zappin' Apples! (Closed: River)

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Applejack double-checked her list for the third time, her mind racing with all the mundane tasks that came together to create something unique. If Twilight could perch herself in the rafters of her farmer friend's mind she would be impressed. Applejack had a long list of what needed to be done ahead of her and some of it was even itemized, as crazy as the farmer would have thought of that just a few short years ago. It was enough to give Applejack the chuckles. “Hehe, maybe soon Ah'll become a librarian. Now wouldn't that be somethin'?” she chuckled, looking over to the left before turning back to the list. A lot of it truly was mundane. Food, though not much of it and in a few small varieties. Some basic adventuring gear. All of it was tried and true, tested and in perfect working order. She would have liked to take some of the other gear she had just got but she needed stuff she knew she could rely on because safety, while always of great importance, was doubly vital today.

“Soon enough, sugarcube. Soon enough,” she said to what seemed like the open air. She had the route planned out and knew how long it took to go to and from the location she was heading to in good condition, in poor condition, and if she was hampered. She knew she would be hampered. The Everfree Forest wasn't as terrifying as it used to be. It had been tamed by whip and population over the years. Didn't mean it was always safe mind you but as long as you weren't going deep into the dark, you could count on the danger being lessened. She doubted that she'd run into a cockatrice an hour out of town. But maybe she would. “An' thats why we're gonna be prepared for yer first trip out thar, ain't we?” she said, looking over to the left once more- and then picking up the pony to her left, Zap Apple.

She hoisted him on her back and laughed, giving him a small bronco buck because that was just a fun thing she liked to do for him. He was still so tiny! Momma's big boy, of course, but still so tiny. And he was going to the Everfree today. She didn't really want to do it. Indeed, if the Farm's vampire fruit repellent hadn't run out she wouldn't need to do this. They had given a small part of the Orchard over to the critters to satiate them and save the rest of the Orchard, but part of that was a unique repellent that Fluttershy had helped her create. It needed a special fungus that grew in a specific cave not too far into the Everfree, maybe an hour. Without it, the fruit bats might overextend themselves and cause lots of trouble.

They had a nice stockpile of it- or so she had thought. An incident involving Big Mac, Sugar Belle, and a silo they thought was empty and dark but very much wasn't had ended up with much of it ruined, and right before a change-over! By all rights it should have been Big Mac doing this, but he was allergic to the damn stuff. That meant Applejack had to do it. But why was Zap Apple coming along for the ride? Couldn't get anypony on such short notice to watch him. Why, you'd think with a bunch of friends and a whole network of reliable and friendly folks she'd get somepony. But no. Everypony was busy, the job needed to be done, Big Mac was out of town with Sugar Belle, Apple Bloom was a little sick, and Granny Smith was- well, she didn't need that much stress. He was an active fella!

So here she was taking her one and only out into dangerous Everfree. She wasn't much older that Zap when she first went in with her ma and pa. Then again, that was two parents. And they were all earth ponies. Zap was a pegasus. Hopefully he'd not fly on off. “You're gonna go on an adventure, ain't that excitin'?” She said, giving her little colt a nuzzle. She checked their bags again. Well, one bag. She was wearing what she needed to wear and most of the luggage was various foal-related stuff. She was prepared to mother this little pegasus very well regardless of where they were. But where they were about to be was someplace more dangerous than normal.

“So, you're gonna have ta listen ta everything Ah say, okay sugarcube? Tha Everfree can be a mighty dangerous place, ahn' momma loves ya too much ta see anythin' bad happen, okay? So you're gonna be a good boy for momma?” She asked as she trotted out of the front door, bounding slowly but surely for the Everfree.

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Zap Apple was always going somewhere.  He would always be on his way to discovering somewhere he hadn't been before on the farm.  It was a big farm!  He sometimes went to different places in the Ponyville marketplace when his mother took him there.  Even when he was put to bed and encouraged to fall asleep, his mind raced with thoughts about going somewhere new tomorrow.  Today, he didn't know why and he didn't know what allowed him, but Zap was going to the Everfree.

 

One time, Zap wondered towards the Everfree from the farm, and it made Applejack put a leash on him for the rest of the day.  He didn't know much about the Everfree, other than that walking towards it gave him the first punishment he ever got.  The forest was always off limits, and not even big ponies go in there.  But for some reason today we were?  Zap had so many questions.  But mostly he was excited.

 

"When do we go to Ebbafee?"  He uttered as Applejack carefully placed materials for trip in her saddlebag.  He was in a good mood.  He was well fed, full of energy, and pacing the kitchen with eagerness to explore.  While waiting, he watched as his strong mother respond to him with a smile and love, continuing to place items in her bag.  Mommy was very strong and knew everything.  Zap nodded to her, and walked up to the bag to see what was inside.  He stretched vertically to get a peak, but the bag was closed before he could see what was inside.

 

Mommy asked commands of Zap, all of them related to following and listening to what Mommy says.  "Ok.  Ok.  Yes."  Zap Apple responded with somber.  But no because he was sad, but because he didn't know what to think.  He just knew he should trust Mommy.    "Momma, what's dan-ger-ous mean?"  He asked as they walked out the door onto the path that leads to the forest.

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“Why, that there is one smart question!” Applejack said, mostly to cover for the fact she didn't have a quick and ready answer. How did you define the concept of danger? If anypony'd know how, it'd be Applejack. Twilight may be the smartest pony most ponies knew but she could get caught up in the perfection of language in such circumstances. But danger? Danger was more...visceral and direct. You didn't know it by reading about it. You knew it by knowing it, by living it, and Applejack had certainly lived with a lot of danger. Maybe that made her the perfect mare to answer the foal's question.

“Uhh...danger is...danger...” she began, then thought of it,y'all remember when you put yer hoof too close to uncle Big Mac's cookin' pot when we had that tasty soup outside a few weeks ago and it hurt yer hoof a little? With all that fire underneath, and you touched it? That's danger, Zap. Danger is something that can hurt you in some way,” she said as she neared the edge of the dark, foreboding woods. She remembered that little incident well enough to know that his curiosity and impulsiveness, adorable in the marketplace and around the farm, could be trouble out here. She had to make sure he knew to follow directions here.

“That's tha Everfree. Stay close ta me if you get off mah back, but don't touch or eat anythin'. Sometimes tha Everfree can try and trick you into danger, but momma goes here often enough ta know what ta do, and she ain't gonna let anything bad happen, okay? If you wanna ask me questions, Ah'll answer but we gotta keep on moving so we can get back home all quick-like. And when we get home we're gonna get you into a nice bubble bath. Sound like fun?” Applejack said. Then after another few moments of adjusting herself she started a healthy trot into the Everfree, the light and sunshine of Equestria being replaced in quick succession by the dark and lightly foreboding canopy of the Everfree forest...

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Zap stood in wonder of his mother's explanation of the word danger.  "Oooohhh, so owies are dan-ger-ous."  Zap had listened to his mom say lots of things with lighthearted kindness, the way the best mothers would.  But today, she was very intentional about what she was saying, and Zap reflected the seriousness of Applejack's voice with the stern undivided attention that was so rare for the heart of a foal.  That is, until she mentioned getting a bubble bath for being a welll-behaved.  "Yay, bubble bath!"  Zap followed his mother towards the end of the orchard tree line, where the darkness started to grow.  His subconscious was excited about the journey ahead, but his heart was singing a song, literally, out loud, even as the sun was shaded.  Zap's songs were his own, and this one was no exception.

 

"Bubble bath, bubble bath
Bubble bubble bubble bath
Bubble bath, bubble bath
bubble bubble bubble bath"

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Applejack would have to take it on faith for the most part that Zap had understood the gravity of the situation. Indeed, even the little bit of acknowledgement. “That's right. Owies are dangerous, so listen to me so you don't get owies,” she said, bounding into the Everfree. As the pair moved Zap decided to serenade them with a song about bubble baths. It had a nice little rhythm to it, or maybe that was just her motherly senses working overdrive. After a while, almost anything your baby did had a musical ring to it. That was only amplified when the little ones actually had a song. She found herself humming along to the little tune, bouncing up and down as she kept going deeper. “Good singin', Sugarcube. Why, Ah bet yer gonna be a big star one day!” Applejack said, blinded by the possibility. She had also told Zap he was going to be a scientist, a prince, an athletic superstar, a Wonderbolt, and the best apple bucker in the whole wide world. She believed it too, he could be whatever he wanted to be!

They went into the Everfree, a few minutes going by pretty quickly all things told. No massive timberwolf attacks. No sentient plants trying to snatch anypony up and the poison plants were not in full bloom, not enough to attract the eyes anyway. She was happy. Of course, it was just the start of the Everfree but it was good so far. The sun was even shining through the normally intense canopy! “It sure is a nice day, ain't it sugarcube?” She said as they came up to a stream. It wasn't too deep, but it was deep enough to make Zap have a bad time. A few rocks would make jumping possible and that would be what she did. “Alright Zap, get on momma's back an' we'll cross,” she said as she looked at the stones and leaned down so Zap could climb on top. Or fly on top- his wings were strong, just like a Wonderbolt's!

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Zap's delightful squeaky melody started to simmer as he stopped singing imaginary lyrics but continued humming the catchy tune. Though his mother complimented his singing, he only responded with more musical noises. While his head bobbed up, down, and side to side, his eyes danced around inside of the dank forest. With the sunlight being more inhibited, his eyes dilated with the adjustment the environment required. His expression fell from entertained to slight concern and he went silent from his bouncy musical mood. His ears clear of his own hum, he could now hear the intricate noises of bugs and mystery animals coming from deeper in the woods. His legs began following the beat of his mother's steps more religiously. When she optimistically presented her opinion of the weather in a question, Zap did not reciprocate. "Why is it dark?" He asked plainly seeing the light escape the shadow of the trees.

 

Upon reaching a stream, the odd noises in the forest were drowned out by the slow rushing of water. Zap wanted to do as he was told and attempted to climb on top of his mother's back. After a few slips of the flank, he unfolded his wings and attempted to hover on-board. It took a few seconds, but leaving the ground, swaying back and forth to manage his own control, and then using gravity to fall where he needed to, his body fell not-so-gracefully onto her back. His feather light body not flinching a single vertebra of the mare's spine. He wrapped his hooves around her neck. He assumed just as if this was similar to when they would play rodeo-pony in the living room.

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Applejack looked around, wondering how dark it really was. She reckoned it was darker than she would have liked perhaps when it comes to bringing her little big stallion into the Everfree but...nah, that was just her mind playing tricks on her. For all of her improvements when it came to being rational where her family was involved it was a part of her that she wanted to keep her little colt as safe as possible for all time. Shadows in the day? Sure it could be a sign of danger. But it likely wasn't. It was a sunny day but there was some shade to be had. The trees were large and they provided plenty of coverage. “Well, its kinda like back home. The trees get in the way of the sun, an' there sure is a lot of trees all close-like, so they're mighty shady,” she said, hoping he would get it. He might not right now but he was very smart and would understand given time.

He held her neck tightly- something that made her heart leap every time-and was prepared for the jumping. “Here we go!” She said, jumping across the stream one stone at a time. As she did she made sure he had fun!
“Thar we go!
Think Ah'm gonna make it?
Yee-haw!”

She said as she jumped over, reaching the end in good time. She had jumped quickly but securely, her focus more on making sure Zap was safe until she reached the other end. She continued walking through. He was welcome to get off but she wouldn't tell him that. “So, did mama Dashie give you some nice flyin' lessons?” She asked, her eyes scanning the Everfree for any danger. She was interested in how the flying lessons were going on account of her not...really knowing much about it, to be honest. A pegasus flapped them wings and flew about and that was all there was to Applejack.

Zap wasn't going to flight camp or anything like that for a few more years but it was never too early to start up on learning flying skills, according to Twi. Same with Unicorns and their magic, or proper bucking techniques- well, that was just from Applejack. She remembered trying to buck a tree for the first time when she was just the littlest of little fillies, barely out of diapers. She had learned little from her parents directly and everything from them emotionally. She'd be more than proud to pass on the emotional depth that was at the Apple's core as well as give Zap all the help and education he needed to become the greatest stallion the world had ever seen. “Are ya hungry up there? How're you doin'? Havin' fun?”

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The explanation of the Everfree's lack of natural light satisfied Zap's growing intellectual mind, but gave his psyche a level of anxiety that was mostly unexplored for a colt his age. As his imagination raced of thoughts of the unknown, his eyes bounced around looking for clues in the shadows of the terrain. Despite his best efforts to discern he could not make out anything that would alarm his need for safety. However, other than the unbreakable bond of his mother's love and care, there were no indications that this was any place for a small pony to roam at his leisure.

 

"Okay," he said softly in angst. As Applejack hopped from one stone to the next crossing the stream, the light jostle would not break Zap's grip of his mother's neck but it would encourage him to clinch slightly harder until both of them had made it to the other side of the water. Through the experience of crossing, Zap wore a worried expression, none of which was due to lack of trust in the strong earth pony he rode. When the short ride was over, his expression lightened to the attitude his mother presented as an achievement. Like the emotional roller coaster a young foal would have during their first brave attempt to go on scary rides at the fair, Zap fell into the trap of enjoying his temporary moment of distress. "Yay! Yeeehaw. Dats, howee doit...  on the farm," he stuttered as his relief from the stream ended but his masked fear of the continuing darkness maintained.

 

When Applejack asked about Zap's flying lessons, he wasn't sure what to say at first. "Ummmm." He thought for a moment trying to relive the experience he had with Rainbow Dash a few days ago when they spent the majority of the day in the park outside of Ponyville. "Yeah, Mommy Dash flies really high," Zap expressed himself by holding his hooves high, "and really fast!" Zap hopped off her back and started circling around her, his wings buzzing and his hooves dragging. He didn't really answer his mother's question, but he told his experience by replaying what he felt was his best memory of the event, which was watching his pegasus mother show off her moves.

 

Whooo! An owl interrupted.

 

Zap zipped back onto his mothers back, lightly grabbing onto the blonde locks on her neck. Applejack asked him if he was hungry and having fun. "No. I'm not scared." He said with a nervous whimper, answering a question that wasn't asked.

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She watched Zap Apple zoom around her, describing in what ways he could what Dash had bothered to teach her. It was hard to tell if Rainbow had gone ahead and taught Zap Apple anything to help the little fella fly or if she had just been showing off and trying to impress him. Knowing Dash it could and would start one way and end the other. Always a bit worrisome was that trait of Rainbow's. Applejack may be accused of trying to teach too much too quickly sometimes with Zap Apple but...okay, it was true sometimes. Sometimes even more than sometimes. Maybe it was the fact she had lost her parents at a young age or maybe she had a secret passion for education, but she sure did love seeing Zap learning. She'd have to watch them next time Rainbow took Zap out for lessons to make sure that the only thing Zap Apple wasn't just how cool her mother was. Applejack agreed on that count but, well, she couldn't teach him how to fly! “Momma Dashie sure does like goin' real fast, right? Almost makes mah head spin!” She said, intentionally rolling her eyes and swooning her head.

Applejack was being very open and very loose with Zap Apple. She could hear his little voice give in a little as the anxiety of the Everfree got to him. That wasn't a bad thing. Fear was an important thing to learn about, have, grapple with, and understand. Just like pain. You needed to feel those things because they told you important stuff about your environment. You didn't allow it to rule you. You used it to rule yourself. When the owl made himself known and Zap Apple hurried himself back up on her, she made sure he was comfortable before she started talking again. She approached the owl gently. “That there is an owl. It's a big ol' bird, eats mice an' such. They're also pretty dang smart...well, for a bird, hehehe. Why, Princess Twi has an owl. Remember Owilicious?” Applejack asked as she sat down and pointed at the owl.

“Ah'm no expert like Flutters is, but Ah reckon that there is a...tawny owl, Ah think. Or a Southern Everfree Spotted Owl, one or tha other. See how his head moves? Ain't it cool?” She said, pointing at the owl as it moved its head on a swivel. It then started to bob it up and down. “Hehehe, Ah always found 'em kinda funny. Maybe one day we can get one for tha farm. Twi says they can make good pets. Anyway...” she said as she got up and went back to the path. “Ah want you ta hold on real tight now, on account of momma not havin' eyes in tha back or sides of her. If you could tell me anything you see, on account of you not bein' scared an' all, that'd help out momma a lot. We're almost halfway there,” she said as she continued to trot. She wasn't gonna force Zap to say he was afraid if he didn't want to say it.

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Despite the pleasant explanation of the owl creature, Zap was still bewildered at the sound and appearance of the strange bird. "Who." He whispered back. He would casually turn his head to see how long his rotation was, and and he quickly found out he could not rotate very far. And speaking of being able to see all around you, Mother wanted Zap to stay vigilant on her back and speak up about anything that he saw.

 

"Mom."


"Mom."

 

"Mom." Zap waited for her mother to stop walking and turn her head so she could make some kind of eye contact with him before he would continue with his concern. He required her full undivided attention. "I see something." He pointed to her left, a fer meters out on the ground was a short branch that fell from the tree above, possibly several days ago. "It's a stick."

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Applejack made sure she stepped well and good on the mystery path to the execution of her day's journey. She knew the Everfree pretty dang well by now. Her life had sent into its dark and foreboding depths time and time again. She had her fair share of scraps in it but had come out with not only a few small scars bu the experience and confidence that she could handle it. Where before as a filly she had been filled with a near-supernatural dread that made the darkness appear to be an offensive force that stole her sense of safety, now she looked at it as a wild land filled with obstacles she could overcome, -"Mom"- foes she could beat, and a darkness she could stare down. The risk was greater with Zap here but it wasn't that dangerous, not this time. The path was relatively safe and she had made sure that they weren't coming around during any of the known migratory periods -"Mom"- of the...umm, dangerous animals to be found- "Mom." -


After just enough interruption, she had to look. Zap Apple very dutifully pointed out something he thought was of primary concern, which was a stick. A nondescript stick. One of her ears twitched as she tried to phrase it in a way as to make Zap feel good about himself. He was, after all, being a rather good colt. "Well...Ah'll be, that there is a stick, ain't it?" She said with fake enthusiasm as she approached it. She bent down, picked it up with her mouth, spat it back into the air, and then caught it. Yep, looked just like a normal stick to her. "Ah think you can keep that one. When we get home maybe we can whittle it down ta something fun, right?" She said jovially, a sigh escaping as she continued to trot dutifully into the forest, not noticing a slight green pulse that emanated from the stick for a brief second. "We ain't too much further now, Zap!"

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He wrapped his hooves around the stick carefully, taking it gently from his mother's grasp. His eyes grew to saucers and his mouth puckered with astonishment. The green tint glowing hesitantly from the stick was fascinating, but there was no need to mention how peculiar it was or how it compared to sticks that fell from apple trees on the farm. If his mother said it was an ordinary stick, then that was good enough for him. "I want to make a night light!" Zap said out loud, his mind wandering from the luminosity of the branch to the fact that the jar of fireflies he would get in his bedroom would stop glowing after a couple days. How long do sticks stay glow-y?

 

The two were approaching something to the cue of Applejack's readiness. Though Zap had no expectations, he assumed it would involve some kind of satisfaction to his curiosity. How much of a letdown for an exploring colt would it be if the Everfree was dull and boring? "How long will we be here?" Zap asked. "Will- will we sleep out here?" His questioning came from a pure misunderstanding of the whole point of the expedition, but at least it wasn't in the spirit of fear at the moment.

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Applejack chuckled. A night light? Well, she reckoned anything could be done with enough effort and ingenuity. She didn't see the glowing element of the stick and chalked it up to her son's endlessly creative mind. But why a night light? Fireflies stayed alight for several days and were pretty cheap. Just get yourself a new jar and let the old ones out into the forest. But then they could carve it into something nice, maybe even with his name, and put some light thingie at the end. Her mind was already running with the idea as arts and crafts were always an excellent way to spend time with those you love. "We can make that an awful pretty night light, Ah reckon. Maybe even carve yer name into it. What sorta light do you want with it?" She asked as she moved quickly and ever closer to her destination.

 

The cave beckoned to her. It was dark and dank but nowhere near as bad as others, with large holes appearing in it. From these halls came a gentle trickle of water, and along the paths that the trickles took came the fungus that she needed. Applejack leafed through her saddlebag and brought out a small cylinder and shook it for a few seconds. She then twisted it a few times and it produced a light, the geode crystals inside reacting to the layered earth pony magic. She found a small hole in the floor and placed the cylinder in it, allowing the light blue light to cascade across the cave. "No sweetie, we're not gonna sleep out here. A bit too dangerous! Momma is gonna get this fungus, maybe take a minute. Then we'll step on back into tha light an' have a bite to eat, then make our way back home. Maybe we'll camp soon though, right?" She asked happily, always grateful for ponies to show excitement about the outside world.

 

She went to work, slowly shaving the fungus off the walls. In the distance, a series of howls echoed across the Everfree as a pack of Timberwolves wondered where one of their branches had wandered off to. Applejack's ears twitched at the sound. "Stay close, Zap. The Timberwolves are out an' about," she said in a whisper, flicking her tail in her direction.

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The lack of awareness was really catching up with Zap. What did she mean, 'light with it?' He assumed that he was misunderstanding how night lights were made. "How many night lights?" Zap's question was not aimed well, but he just asked what was on his heart at the moment. Even for a two year old, a light with a light seemed ridiculously redundant.

 

After they went inside a cave, Applejack displayed a lighting geode that filled the interior of the dark cave with a crystalline reflecting projection. Along the walls were several patches of fungi. with some shaving tools, she started collecting samples of the strange organism. The moisture in the cave was so thick you could almost see it. And it smelled strange, too. Zap took notice of the geode and found it captivating. When he noticed his body casting a shadow on the wall, he entertained himself by doing short jumps and dances. He giggled as he played, waiting for his mother to finish the chore of gathering cave mushrooms.

 

From where they came, several lengthy howls could be heard. They seemed loud and large. Zap gasped and looked in the direction it bellowed from, the entrance of the cave. "Winona?" Zap squeaked. What could the border collie be doing way out here? But his mother was not so curious, her tone now more serious than ever. Timberwolves. Zap had heard stories about the timberwolves before, but he had never actually seen them. He knew his mothers and their friends had run-ins with the monsters before, but that they rarely came out of the forest. He also knows that zap apples, the phenomenon he is named after, have a prerequisite of howling timberwolves. Great Gran-Gran liked to tell him about the story of spontaneously growing apple trees, something that he couldn't even imagine seeing with his own eyes. But timberwolves. They were the dark part of the fairy tale. They were the monster that hid underneath the bed. They were the creatures that have only existed in howls, scaring little ponies who have never laid eyes upon them.

 

He slowly trotted close to his mother's side, his mane being matted against her shoulder. He took a few deep breathes and sighed, the worry beginning to rise in his young mind. He sniffed a few times, a look of bewilderment falling on his face. "It smells bad in here."

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Applejack focused as well as she could on the job at hoof. She had to be careful about the way in which she went about cutting the fungus off. If she didn't do it just right then there would be less for her in the future, the fungus growing back slower and worse. That was part of being a caretaker, no matter what you were the caretaker of. Knowing when to cut and when to grow. Everypony thought a healthy forest was a forest with all its trees, where nothing was ever cut and it was allowed to grow wild and free infinitely. Somepony with a caretaker's eye knew that was a lie. Stressed trees become susceptible to droughts and insect attacks. That overgrown shrubbery that was once a forest was a tinder box and staging ground for a vast infestation that would destroy much of the surrounding area. To save a forest you cut down some trees.

 

She was a caretaker. Of the fungus, of the forest, of the Orchard, of her kin. It was in her blood, to care and fawn and raise and grow those around her. It came as second nature to her. Had been ever since she was just a wee filly who looked at the orchard like it was the whole world. Felt true every morning when she woke up, got ready, and went to work excitedly. She found herself caring deeply about every new chick that hatched, each new fawn, every little tree and hoofprint that was around her. Heck, when she thought that way it almost made her feel like Fluttershy. But she knew that it wasn't as rosy as all that. It came with hard decisions and harsh moves at times. You could cry about it later, get upset about it when it was done, but she was a caretaker and knew a simple truth in all things:
To save a forest, you cut down some trees.

 

"It'll be fine, Sugarcube. We'll be out of this stinky, smelly cave soon enough," she whispered with a joking tone as she turned and gave her worried little stallion a quick peck. She could content herself with just that. Getting out of here with the two of them safe. But she knew that would just mean another trip, another possible way for something to go wrong. She was so close to finishing. With a few more scrapes and a quick peek, she was done. The fungus was in a small jar that would hold until they returned home. It took maybe a minute from start to finish. All this trek just for that, eh? That was the life though. A lot of effort for what always felt like small returns if you tried to compare it to the monumental effort spent on the activity itself. A caretaker didn't look at it that way, though. Every new growth and every small success was enduring proof of the righteousness of the hard decisions made. If life was about something other than luck then it would have to be about will. And she was sure as shone gonna ensure that the trees being cut down weren't going to be of the apple variety, not today. Such was her will on the matter, anyway.

 

"All right, here is what we're gonna do honey," she said, grabbing the geode light and placing it on her hat with some sticky sap. "Them howls are a little too close for comfort. So what we're gonna do is go deeper in the cave. Now, Ah know that sounds mighty scary but it'll be fine. Ah got us a mighty nice light right here and y'all can just stay on top of me an' hold onto mah neck. Ah know a shortcut an' we'll be home in time for a bath an' some food," she said with a broad smile. Bit of a detour but she was gonna make sure this was a safe trip. She wouldn't mind knocking some timberwolves into kindling, but no reason to expose Zap to all that just yet. 
 

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"Ok." Zap said somewhat sadly. He was not sure what was going to happen next, but he had a strange feeling things were going to get hairy soon. This had become a very treacherous moment for the young colt. A lack of stressful moments in his life to this point had left him pretty complacent, or as complacent as a pony his age could possibly be. It started to feel like a trial by fire, which as uncomfortable as it felt was favorable if his mother was close by to protect him and watch him and help him learn. He didn't realize it at the moment, but Applejack's intuition and ability to ride the edge and keep herself calm was a pillar for Zap to stand on.

 

She was a rock. Zap had seen other mares his mother's age. None of them had the strength or confidence she carried. At one point, Zap had assumed all mothers were like this. But it was clear once he started mingling with other young ponies and their older siblings and parents that nothing came close to his mother's embrace. Dash was also pretty special to Zap, her influence being a little more motivational and flashy. It was moments like this mushroom hunt in a dark wet cave when Zap knew the only thing he needed to really feel safe was with him the entire time. His only worry was what would happen if his mother's sturdy foundation was taken from him in some unfair way. It didn't feel like playtime anymore.

 

Zap could remain to his mother's side, able to constantly make contact with her forelegs as a way to make sure she was there. But he would concede to her advice of riding on her for safe-keeping. And so he climbed on top of his mother's back, grabbed hold around her neck gently, and took a ceremonial whiff of her blonde mane. It smelled like home.

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Applejack kept her senses sharp as they moved deeper into the cave, Zap's warm form snuggled up in her mane giving her all of the focus she needed to make sure they got out of here safe and sound. She had only taken this route once a few years ago when a small herd of cockatrices had made camp outside of the cave while she was inside of it. They weren't aggressive by nature so she was able to get away without having to be too sneaky about it. This time? Well, this time she was dealing with Timberwolves. A different beast altogether. Great hearing, good tracking, and very, very, very territorial. Until she was out of their territory or they found what they were looking for they were going to be searching for the pair. No matter. It would be fine. You didn't live in the border regions without learning some lessons, harsh as they may come. 

 

As they moved deeper the cave narrowed in and they went further into the earth. Never too steep, very gradual- HOWL- but enough for her to keep aware. All the while she kept her breathing calm and steady. The light danced gradually and gracefully in front of them, illuminating each step just as it was needed. Small bugs and other critters moved from the light, some of them never having seen such a thing before. It was rare for stuff to venture down here, wasn't it? HOWL, scamper. Well, she knew for certain that it was safe enough. Nothing down here was likely to be venemous because nothing down here required it. She could only hope that such thoughts became reality. She was an honest mare at heart but heck, she wasn't above lying internally- about some things. A bad habit she hoped to break and a habit she hoped wasn't informing her optimism here.

 

HOWL.


That one was closer. It was in the cave. The howl echoed across the walls. Applejack's breath almost caught itself, but she remained calm. She had to, if not for herself, than for Zap. "Alright Zap, yer doin' great. Just hold on, keep on holdin' on. Mama loves you," she whispered, turning her head and giving his front right hoof a little kiss just as her hooves tasted the water. There was a stream that led out. They'd float down and it would be tight for sure. Maybe only two feet of clearance between the water and the top, and that was at its best. Still, it was the way out. "We might get wet. Kinda like-" HOWL "-tha pond in town center, right? No splashin' this time, though. Gotta be quiet," she whispered as she walked into the water until it was sloshing over her body. She took one step and found that was where the drop was. She waited a second. HOWL, the sound of timber on stone.

 

Deep breath. It would be tough, but she'd do it and everything would be fine. She pushed off and started paddle-swimming as best she could, making sure to keep Zap as far away from the water as possible as she swam upright. 

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Zap was firmly saddled onto Applejack's back. His front hooves bracing over her shoulders, his back legs anchored against the saddlebag, and his head reclining her neck. Zap could sense the uneasiness in his mother's attitude. But he also saw her resilience to stay firm and focused. Zap never saw his mother be actively afraid of anything, but it was always Applejack's reaction that he paid the most attention to. Seeing her relaxed stance and hearing her calming voice seeded in him courage to continue staying serene himself.

 

Approaching the water, he knew to hold on a little tighter as it would be easier to slip out off of his mother's haunches. When she stepped in, the water level rose to Zap's underside, wetting all four of his hooves and giving him a chilling sensation at his core. He did his best not to speak out, but could not avoid a small whimper as a reaction to the cold water. "Hm. It's cold," he whispered loudly. He started to involuntarily shiver but was also dramatizing the temperature he was experiencing. "Burruruuruuururur."

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Applejack made a more concerted effort to keep her top half up and above the water as much as she could, powering her bottom half and swimming with all four hooves as she tried to push them through the dark stream. Zap Apple's little hoofsies were wettened by the dreary water and she made a mental note to ensure that when they got home that she made sure to get him a hot bath. Didn't want Ponyville's best and brightest future stallion to catch a cold? Thinking about a relatively small problem helped Applejack relax ever so slightly. Every nerve was on end as she listened for any updates on the Timberwolves on their trail. She swam some more as the stream narrowed.

 

Splash.
Behind her, a sound. Judging by the brief howl and the distant yet growing furious dog paddling, a timberwolf had joined them. By sweet Celestia's mane, how in the hay were they tracking them and why? Applejack's pulse quickened and she started to feel a small bead of nervous sweat develop under her maneline. "Cold is right..." she muttered in response, her bottom hooves making contact with the water floor underneath them. This allowed her to move faster with small canters deeper and deeper in, even as the sound of the dog paddling grew and grew. Damn their branches, bein' so magical and buoyant. In due time Applejack came to a hole. Well, it certainly felt like a hole. Her hooves felt around and she judged it was big enough for the both of them. It would be a tight squeeze, though. Also entirely underwater. Zap would have to hold his breath.
 

"Zap, yer doin' so good. Mah brave little stallion, thats what you are! Just gotta do one more thing. We're gonna have to go through a tunnel and that tunnel is underwater. Yer gonna get real cold and real wet and yer gonna have ta hold yer breath, alright?" She said as the sounds of splashing got closer, and a howl that may as well have been right next to them. Now she looked worried. She could see behind them now and the yellow eyes of a timberwolf could be seen. At a distance, sure. They had...oh, twenty seconds. But not time to spare. "We're going down in three, when momma says zero, okay? Three...two...one...zero!"

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The chattering of Zap's teeth and lips made his soft murmurings indistinguishable, his young mind wondering left and right between being a little afraid to being really cold. As he though about the dangers that might come ahead in the water, he would slowly forget about how cold the water felt. The large splash behind them didn't alarm him right away, but the look of his mother's eyes told a tale of concern. Zap was about to look behind him but before he did, his mother gained all of his attention.

 

"Under?" Zap looked down in the cave pool, the water that was once still was now torrenting with haste like that of a drain during bath-time, only on a much larger scale. Zap was not feeling too encouraged about his situation and how uncomfortable it felt. He had no idea that adventures like this were so taxing to the pony body. Wet. Cold. Hungry. Yeah, he was getting hungry. What would normally be snack time for him had turned into a major derail into the wilderness, with the only fortunate detail being that he was with the one mare that would keep him safe, and fed he secretly hoped. The pep talk from his mother was just enough for him to muster the courage to go along with what she asked. "Okay," he whimpered.

 

Applejack started counting down, and in between the counts he could hear the turbulent water behind them. Just before she got to zero, Zap took a huge inhale of breath and closed his eyes. He could not see anything, but he could feel the cold water rushing around him, he could hear the scary growl of what seemed like a not-so-distant timberwolf, and he could smell the caustic fumes of death and rotten wood. And then, he felt nothing.

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Applejack could not have been prouder of her little stallion. She could tell he was cold, he was afraid, nervous, and- well, probably hungry. It was snack time and here he was having to brave a most unlikable place. Yet he didn't whine or throw a tantrum. He held on to her tighter and tighter, acquiesced to her plans, and went along with her. Considering cave water swimming wasn't on anypony's list of most favorite activities to participate in regardless of age, he was being a real trooper. Hopefully he wouldn't need to be a little trooper for much longer, and they could get back to the fun day they were having before. She still didn't know why the Timberwolves had started to follow them, but she knew for sure why they would fail.

She dove under the water, straightening and then loosening her body while giving consistent kicks with her back hooves. She moved swiftly enough in the water and used her front hooves to direct herself through the under water cave. The timberwolf behind her tried to follow but they were notably awful swimmers, the buoyancy of their wood pushing them up instead of allowing them to really direct themselves well under the water. Applejack was not a world class swimmer but she was a dang good one, having swam since she was a filly in creeks, lakes, pools, for fun and as part of competitions like the Iron Pony. Nopony would excuse her for a professional, but she sure as shine knew how to move herself through this cave.

In a short time she could feel the water change as the cave ceiling above gave way to open sky. She gave herself come clearance and then shot up, breaching the water with a big splash. She looked around- coast was clear it seemed- and then felt around. Everything was where it needed to be, water logged hat included. She paddled herself to the shore and then jumped onto it, shaking her legs free as she examined the open forest around her. "Well, that was a heck of a swim there Zappy. Yer doin' real good, sweetie," she said as she took him off of her to investigate her little stallion. The howls were more distant, and the water in the open-air pond she had swum out of next to the cave was not being further disturbed. "How're you feeling?"

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