Malus Maleficarum

by SaddlesoapOpera

Chapter 1: Dead Wood


By Saddlesoap Opera

For the Equestria Daily 2012 Horror Story Contest

"The roses have faded, there's frost at my door,
The birds in the morning don't sing anymore.
The grass in the valley is starting to die,
And out in the darkness the whippoorwills cry."

— Hank Williams Sr.

Applejack took a slow, deep, and unneeded breath, and then turned to address her family.

“I s’pose by now it’s pretty obvious somethin’s… happened,” she began, her voice lower and coarser than its usual drawl.

The Apples sat in silence in the farmhouse’s dimly-lit living room, patiently waiting for her to continue.

Applejack cleared her throat. “Folks in th’know about this sorta thing are gonna be here pretty soon, so ‘fore ya hear it from some riled-up visitor, I wanted ta explain myself.”

She turned and looked out the window at the midnight gloom; she effortlessly spotted a night bird preening on a tree-branch a hundred yards away. She kept her eyes on it as she spoke:

“It all started with the Dead Wood...”

• • • • •

Big Macintosh shifted the grass stem in his mouth and slowly shook his head.

“Eenope. I ain’t settin’ hoof in there, AJ.”

Applejack frowned. “Ya can’t be serious! It’s as much ours as any part o’ the Acres! An’ we run outta cider early every durn year! Why do we hafta leave a whole ORCHARD untouched? It’s time we made use o’ this place!”

She turned away from her brother and looked at the overgrown field before them.

The land was easily half again the size of Sweet Apple Acres’ biggest orchard, but it had lain untouched for longer than either of them had been alive.

The grass was a sickly shade of grey-brown and the trees were leafless and lifeless, their bark gnarled and black. The only animals visible were a few oily-feathered crows hunching moodily on low branches. A gust of autumn wind bearing more than a little wintry bite stirred the desiccated underbrush.

Big Mac snorted. “Granny Smith says we can’t farm it. She’s gotta have her reasons.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “This ain’t somethin’ rational like Zap-Apple tendin’ or the like – it’s just superstition! With a little bit o’ care n’ hard work, we could have another ten barrels o’ cider a year!”

A shiver passed through Big Mac’s hide. He spat out the grass stem. “Maybe so. But I still ain’t goin’ in.”

Realization slowly dawned on Applejack’s face. “Well, peel n’ core me! Yer SCARED!”

Her brother turned his head down and away. He remained silent.

“That’s it, ain’t it?” Applejack pressed. “Ya remember them spooky stories from when we were little, and now yer knees are knockin’!”

Big Mac said nothing.

Applejack sighed in frustration. “It’s just a FIELD, Big Mac! Since when’re Earth Ponies scared o’ open ground? Sure it’s a mite bit creepy-lookin’, but t’ain’t like it’s some forest or cave or whatnot – it’s broad daylight an’ the trees are wider-spaced’n most of the fields we tend! I can see right ta the far side from here. Do YOU see anythin’ dangerous?”

He shook his head. “Eenope.”

“Awright, good. Me neither. So... yer comin’ along?”

Big Macintosh turned and ducked to meet his sister’s gaze. “Eenope.”

Applejack groaned. “Fine! Run along home an’ get a pie bakin’, then! Cause I’m fixin’ ta work me up an appetite!”

The stallion gave his sister a long, silent, unhappy glare before trotting away back toward the farmhouse.

Applejack huffed, shrugged, and then crossed the border of the sickened grass.

• • • • •

For the first few hours, Applejack worked as she would have in any field in Sweet Apple Acres.

The grass was dry and crunchy under her hooves and the air was stagnant and dank, but it was still far less unpleasant than some places she’d visited in her time. The autumn sun was still bright, after all, and the cool air kept her from overheating as she worked.

“Ya think YER scary?” she asked the black, twisted carcass of a tree. “Y’oughta see yer cousins in the Everfree Forest!”

She turned and wound up for a two-legged applebucking kick, intent on felling the dried-up tree in a single blow.

The tree gave way like tissue paper as she kicked it, the blackened wood shattering into a cloud of splinters and displaced beetles. The lack of resistance threw Applejack off, and she stumbled to the side with a yelp of surprise. An unexpected dip in the lumpy ground worsened her balance still more, and she fell.

A wickedly sharp patch of brambles greeted her as she landed.

Applejack cried out as the thorns caught her mane and tail and scratched and pierced her skin. She struggled frantically to get free of the bone-dry tangle, every movement adding to her injuries.

She tumbled out of the patch and fell on her side on the desiccated grass, panting. Thin threads of fresh blood stood out in vivid relief on her orange hide.

Applejack struggled to her hooves, gritting her teeth against the sting of countless tiny cuts. A few stray drops of blood fell to the parched soil. She took a step forward but then paused as she heard a crack under her hoof. She looked down, and then up at the Dead Wood field. Her ears drooped; she softly gasped.

The crunching under her hooves wasn’t grass — not entirely.

The field, she now saw, was littered with bleached bones of every shape and size, from tiny slivers to the skulls of full-grown Ponies. The black trees’ roots were curled over, around and through the remains, clutching them like greedy Dragons on a hoard.

Applejack’s pulse pounded. Her breath quickened.

“B-Black roots n’ hungry soil,” she whispered in a shaky sing-song, “‘round the Dead Wood n-never toil.”

A creaking sound like Granny Smith’s old rocking chair caught her attention; she turned around.

The roots of the tree she’d shattered were slithering through the dry soil like black worms, reaching out for the tiny droplets of her spilled blood.

Applejack backed away from the sight. Her upper lip curled in disgust.

“Ghosts n’ ghouls n’ frights galore...” She swallowed hard. “... Work the Dead Wood, w-work no more!”

The air filled with the sounds of a dozen trees cracking and creaking to horrid life. Their branches and roots bent and twisted to reach out for the trembling Earth Pony.

When a rootlet brushed her left hind leg, Applejack lost whatever remained of her resolve. She let out a shriek and galloped as hard as she could.

Roots and brambles writhed and coiled under her hooves to trip up her gait and slow her progress. Vines and branches lashed out to grab and entwine her. Fresh cuts opened on her hide as she fought to free herself from the grasping horrors.

Despite the field’s best efforts Applejack soon got within sight of the border of the Dead Wood. Green grass and living trees heavy with fruit rose up on the horizon and beckoned her like a family reunion.

Applejack squinted against the tears blurring her sight and lowered her head, straining to run faster still. She crushed bones and thorns underhoof with every stride.

As the border of the field drew close — as she dared to hope for escape — a thick tree-branch swung out at chest height and knocked her to the ground. Her Stetson fell to the ground at the spot where she’d been struck.

The impact left Applejack dazed, coughing and gasping for breath. By the time she finally got her bearings the creeping plants had already wrapped around her legs. They soaked up the beaded blood on her hide. More thorns pricked her skin, and with every beat of her heart the dessicated vines drank deeper and grew smoother and more supple.

Applejack’s fear gave way to panic; grim thoughts of joining the dry bones littering the Dead Wood lent a desperate strength to her limbs. She thrashed and kicked and jerked her head to and fro, screaming for help.

A vine wrapped around her muzzle to mute her cries. Others whipped across her back and neck to pin her down to the dark earth. Soon enough she could barely move.

Bit by bit, the pain of Applejack’s injuries gave way to a spreading chill. Her straining lost its vigour. Her wide eyes slowly drooped half-closed as dark circles formed under them.

When the lush and healthy undergrowth unwrapped and released her, her hide was the same colour as the field’s dead grass. The sun was setting and the air had grown colder. Applejack barely had the strength to shiver.

Thirst and hunger tormented her; her cheeks were hollow, and her ribs showed in sharp relief on her side. Her breath came in shallow gasps.

She tried to move but her limbs wouldn’t respond. She tried once more to call for help but all that left her chapped lips was a faint croak. She couldn’t even lift her tail to wave.

Her ear twitched at the sound of further creaks.

One of the trees, now strong and tall with stolen life, bent an upper branch down before her face. A single apple hung from the branch, as glossy and black as Nightmare Moon’s hide. In spite of its colour, it was round and ripe and plump with juice.

Applejack tried to lift her head but found she lacked the strength. A second branch slid under her neck and gently raised her head to the offered fruit. The dewy flesh brushed her lips.

After a moment’s hesitation, Applejack opened her mouth and took a bite.

• • • • •

Applejack opened her eyes to the sight of her fallen Stetson.

She jerked into full alertness as the memory of her ordeal returned. She leaped to her hooves ready to fight and flee, only to find the field as she and her brother had first found it.

The dry grass was free of bones, the trees were gnarled and lifeless, the brambles were withered and brittle, and though the day was cloudy, the afternoon light revealed not a hint of any danger.

She examined herself, craning her neck to peer at her sides. Her skin was unbroken, and there wasn’t so much as a single thorn caught in her mane and tail.

She felt fit and strong. No chills, no weakness. The hunger and thirst were another matter, however; those remained in copious amounts. Her stomach growled.

She chuckled to herself.

“I TOLD ya there was nothin’ ta get so worked up about, Big Brother!” she said to the empty field. “Nothin’ but a little bad dream!”

Applejack grinned a self-satisfied grin and then trotted out of the Dead Wood, stopping only to retrieve her hat.

Halfway back to the farmhouse she paused at one of the harvest tubs at the base of a tree and ducked down to snap up an apple.

It was rotten. Putrid.

Half-chewed apple splattered on the grass before her. Dry heaves followed, making her stomach clench.

“D-Dang!” she muttered. “T’ain’t my day!”

Once the last of the awful taste had left her mouth she frowned and gave the tub a more thorough study before choosing another apple.

Disgusting. Repulsive.

“Uhgh! Buck me!” she swore once she’d spat out the second apple. She kicked the tub of rotten-tasting fruit, sending it and it contents tumbling off into the distance.

“That pie’d better be waitin’ fer me, Big Mac!” she warned the empty air. She trotted on.

Further down the dirt path between orchards, Applejack heard the intermittent toll of a small bell. There came with it the sound of hesitant hoofsteps and quickened breath.

Applejack squinted, and soon picked out a nervous young cow in the distance, wandering back and forth and cringing at every sound.

“Mooriella?” Applejack called out. “That you?”

The Guernsey froze, her eyes wide. “Wh-Who’s there?” she whimpered.

Applejack frowned. Mooriella was perhaps ten paces from her. Was she blind?

“There w-was a break in the fence!” the cow continued. “I was sleepwalking again, and now I’m lost!”

“Sleepwalkin’?” Applejack tilted her head in confusion. She trotted closer.

Mooriella’s jaw dropped. She backed away from Applejack and then turned to bolt, lowing in terror all the while.

“What’s gotten inta you, ya crazy critter?” Applejack gave chase.

The chase felt good. It felt right. Applejack tore after the cow with feral ease, not even noticing the change in her gait from gallop to bound.

Mooriella shrieked as Applejack closed the distance between them.

Applejack ignored the sound. The world was collapsing on itself. The trees and grass and cold wind were fading away, leaving only herself and her quarry. With a final burst of speed she pounced.

A minute later, Applejack raised her damp muzzle skyward and let out a satisfied sigh that steamed in the chill air.

Shortly afterward, she watched the afternoon clouds part... and reveal the full moon.

Applejack gulped in dismay. Her mouth tasted like hot copper.

• • • • •

Applejack fell to her knees and stomped a front hoof, cracking a floorboard.

“I didn’t know, Granny!” she moaned. “I thought they’re just stories! I shoulda listened ta you!”

She choked back a sob.

“I couldn’t stop myself! Mooriella didn’t run away! It was me! It’s my fault she’s gone!”

A shudder passed through her. She sighed a rueful sigh. When she looked up, her gaze was as hard as a horseshoe.

“But I can’t lie. I can’t. As Celestia is my witness... nothin’ I’ve ever ate tasted so good.”

• • • • •

Applejack staggered away from the cow’s cooling body with steps made uneven as much by bliss as by disgust.

She’d heard tales of things that lurked in the dark places. Of creatures skulking in the caves and the woods and the mines, hungry for the tender flesh of colts and fillies who skipped their chores and went rambling. Of shadowy things the light never touched. The stories had kept her up some nights as a foal, to be sure, but the older she’d gotten, the sillier they’d seemed.

Yet now here she was, seeing in the dark so well she’d mistaken it for day, and licking the taste of another living creature off her pointed teeth like a mad dog.

She snarled in disgust with herself.

“I ain’t givin’ in again!” she shouted to the night sky. “I don’t care WHAT ya done ta me! I ain’t a killer!”

Applejack turned and galloped back to the farmhouse in mere moments.

When she tried to open the front door, it wouldn’t budge. She could tell it wasn’t locked — or even latched — but the wooden door felt as heavy as a mountain.

Applejack frowned. She gave up and trotted around to the root cellar at the back of the building.

The lock came off the angled doors with the merest jerk of her jaws, and she crept down into the cool darkness like a shark into water. She closed the doors after her.

“Ya picked the wrong Pony ta mess with,” she told the shadows full of jam-jars and preserves. “Ya think yer gonna get me ta do wrong again, ya got another thing comin’. I’m gonna stay down here and wait this out like a case o’ flu. You want a critter o’ the night, ya better just pack up an’ look elsewhere.”

She wrapped herself up in a large potato sack and curled up in the back corner of the cellar.

• • • • •

For a time, Applejack was certain of victory.

She worried her family must be missing her, and boredom made the hours long, but a little cabin fever was a price she was gladly willing to pay to keep from harming others.

As the days passed, she grew more and more certain that if she simply held on long enough, she’d be cured of whatever foulness had been put in her and never again feel an urge to hunt. To chase. To taste hot fear spill into her mouth.

To kill.

Applejack awoke on the night of the fourth day to the feeling of icy knives tearing at her insides.

Hunger hollowed her out like a cored apple. The emptiness inside her was a sucking void that felt like it could consume her entirely.

It pained her enough to catch the breath in her throat — which, to her chagrin, she realized she didn’t miss.

She curled into a ball and hugged her sides.

“Iz-z’at all y-you got?” she groaned through clenched fangs. “I h-hurt worse fallin’ down a hill as a f-foal!”

A fresh pang tore through her innards. She stifled a shriek.

Her sharp senses, honed further by anguish, caught the sound of tiny hoofsteps at the cellar door. Her little sister’s voice hesitantly called out:

“AJ...? Are you down there?”

Applejack’s hunger redoubled its efforts to tear her apart.

“N-NO!” she hissed fiercely to herself. “N-Not her, ya hear me? NOT HER!”

Apple Bloom opened one of the cellar doors. “Granny an’ Big Mac’ve been worried sick!”

The evening breeze carried a hundred scents to Applejack’s nostrils and a thousand sounds to her ears. The night called out to her. Beckoned her. Begged her.

“Didja have some kinda trouble like with the rodeo again?” Apple Bloom asked. “Ya know we’re there for ya, sis! Door’s always open to you an' yer friends!”

A low growl left Applejack’s throat.

Apple Bloom froze, her pupils shrinking to pinpoints. A sudden rush of wind and a blur of orange and yellow knocked her off her hooves as it streaked past and disappeared into the deepening gloom.

• • • • •

“I just wanted ta keep y’all safe! I couldn’t hold back any more! It HURT, Apple Bloom!”

Applejack turned back to the window. Two arcane glows — one reddish, one blue — were bobbing their way down the road from Ponyville.

“If I was gonna be stuck this way, th’least I could do was keep my family safe.”

• • • • •

The same tunnel-vision had returned, shrinking Applejack’s perception to an unthinking search for prey. She all but flew down the winding dirt road, every bound hurling her a dozen yards farther. The night wind whistled in her ears and tickled over her lean, pale-orange hide.

Ahead, a dun-coloured brown-maned stallion was pulling a cart of trash down the road. Applejack could taste the scent of him on the air even over the sourness of his cargo.

Even through the haze of her hunger, Applejack realized that she knew him. Caramel. They’d met the Winter Wrap Up before last. She slowed to a halt a short distance away from him.

The darkness within her bristled at the delay, and lashed out at her for it.

The pain made her knees shake. She collapsed with a moan.

Caramel turned to face her, finally spotting her through the darkness. He unhitched his cart and galloped over.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his soft voice full of concern.

Applejack could feel the warmth of his breath on her back as he spoke.

She lunged for him, knocking him down like a timber-wolf on a rabbit. She moved so quickly that the pressure of her jaws on his throat choked off his yelp of surprise.

Applejack winced in sickened shame; the expression melted into eyelid-fluttering ecstasy the moment the taste hit her tongue.

• • • • •

Half an hour later, once more flushed with stolen life, Applejack stood in front of the library's front door for a long, silent moment before knocking.

A light came on, and Twilight Sparkle opened the door soon after.

"Applejack?" she said blearily. "It's the middle of the night! What's going on?"

Applejack came as close to the threshold as she could, allowing the light from inside to fall on her.

Twilight Sparkle screamed.

Applejack backed away, leaving the light.

"I need h-help, Twilight," she whispered. "I... I can't stop."

The Unicorn took a moment to catch her breath. Her horn glowed, and the light in the library's main room dimmed somewhat. "Applejack," said Twilight with sudden formality, "I invite you and you alone into my home."

Applejack felt the invisible barrier holding her back from the entryway fade and vanish. She tilted her head in confusion. "How did ya...?"

Twilight sighed sadly. "I've done a lot of research about mon-" She caught herself. "About unusual creatures, after all the strange things we've faced. I knew what was wrong as soon as I saw you." Twilight turned away and trotted inside.

Applejack followed, hanging her head in shame. "I didn't wanna do it! I didn't want any o' this! Please, ya gotta believe me!"

"I understand," said Twilight. "But we need to keep you away from everypony until we can find a way to treat you. We can't risk letting a curse like this spread."

Applejack froze in mid-step.


Twilight nodded. "The thirst for blood is passed on to any Pony who is fed on, spreading the curse to-"

Applejack was gone before Twilight could speak another word.

• • • • •

Magical force pounded at the farmhouse door.

Applejack's voice cracked as she continued her confession.

"I ran back here as quick as I could! I swear, n-nothin' coulda run faster! B-But I wasn't... I..."

Applejack's gaze passed over the still, pale, silent bodies of her assembled kinfolk, and the crumbling dun-coloured remains on the floor nearby. She looked down at her own hooves, spattered black with tainted blood.

"I stopped him, but I was too late! T-Too late!"

Dark tears escaped her red-on-black eyes and slid down her pale cheeks. She trotted over to her little sister and cradled her in her front legs. She nuzzled the red-stained-red bow still tied in her mane.

"I never shoulda come back here!" She wept bitterly.

Twilight Sparkle and Rarity burst into the room with desperate speed, but then skidded to a halt as four pairs of red eyes opened and focused on them in the gloom.

"Oh, Celestia!" whispered Twilight. "Run!"

Apple Bloom slipped out of her sister's grasp and shakily got to her hooves. Her inky eyes grew wide as she piteously asked:

"Aren'cha gonna stay fer brunch?"


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