“I don’t like this, Twilight.” Spike said as he clung to the side of the balloon’s swaying basket. “Is it really worth risking our lives for some stupid map?”
“Spike, this whole area of the Everfree Forest has never been mapped before! Think of all we could learn if it were explored.” Twilight Sparkle adjusted her sextant. “But we need to do some basic surveying from the air before we can mount an expedition. Just keep writing down my measurements while I make them. That last hill was at 58.4 degrees south-southwest, by the way.”
“I’m just saying,” said Spike as he scribbled down another string of meaningless numbers, struggling to keep his parchment from being ripped away by the wind. “We should’ve brought in a pegasus team to clear out the weather. You never know what we’ll run into this far from civilization.”
“It’s just a little windy. We’ll be fine as long as…” Twilight was cut off as another gust, much stronger than any before, slammed into the balloon. The basket bucked wildly, snapping free of the anchor rope that had previously kept the craft in place. Spike held on for his life until the shaking finally stopped.
“That’s it.” He said, pulling himself upright and taking hold of the balloon’s controls. “I’m getting us out of here before one of us gets hurt. Your map can wait until…” He turned around, noticing for the first time that, aside from him, the basket was empty.
Twilight struggled towards consciousness. Her senses were a wash of confusing sights and smells. Shadows flickered in and out of her vision as her eyes tried in vain to focus. Her head pounding, she decided to concentrate on her immediate surroundings, and piece her situation together from there. She was wet. Warm and wet. The memory of the fall from the balloon flooded back to her. She didn’t feel like she was in heaven, so she reasoned that she must have survived. Every muscle in her body ached. Nothing felt broken, but her back and hind legs were badly bruised. Something must have broken her fall. Did she land in a pond, or maybe a swamp? No, it was much too warm for that, and neither explained the smell. She was shocked as more warm, sweet smelling water was dumped on her from above.
As her vision began to return to her, the strange shadows resolved themselves. She was surrounded by odd looking little goblin-like creatures. There were about a dozen of them. Each was small, about half as tall as the average pony, covered in brown fur, and dressed in primitive tribal clothing. While she was taking this in, two of the creatures picked up one of several small pots of water which were warming over a fire and carried it in her direction. Her concussed brain put two and two together. She wasn’t in a pond, she was in a cauldron. A pony-sized, metal cauldron.
“Cannibals!” She shrieked, though some tiny part of her brain reminded her that the creatures were a different species, and thus were not technically cannibals. However, this thought was drowned out by more pressing concerns. She tried desperately to pull herself out of the cooking pot. Though she wasn’t tied up or restrained in any way, the pain in her muscles made her efforts futile. “Please! Oh, God, please don’t eat me!” She yelped, thrashing wildly.
The goblin-men seemed startled by this. The two dropped the pot they were carrying and looked at each other, confused. They chattered to each other in an odd, clicking language Twilight was unfamiliar with, before suddenly erupting in laughter. One of them (some sort of leader, Twilight guessed, judging by the painted symbols on his forehead), strode up to her, his hands raised in a reassuring gesture.
“No, no!” he said in a thick, tribal accent. “We no eat poni! Poni am bad eating!” He mimed taking a bite of something, then made an exaggerated retching face.
“Then why am I in this pot?” Twilight asked, her heart still pounding in her chest.
“We see you fall from flying bubble.” The painted goblin explained, using expansive hand gestures to help clarify his broken English. “Find you- very hurt! We fix, make you…” He paused, searching for the right word. “Medicine jacuzzi?” He huffed, in a that-will-do sort of way. “Herbs for make heal, see? Stink very pretty.” He said, indicating the sweet smelling herbs floating around her. “You very lucky poni. Hurt not so bad for big fall. Very lucky twice! Other tribes no like poni so much.” He smiled broadly. “Our tribe, we like poni very much!”
“I… see.” Said Twilight, struggling to parse the goblin’s fractured grammar. A sudden thought occurred to her, and she panicked again. “Spike!” she pleaded to the now friendly goblin. “Please tell me, did you see a baby dragon fall from the balloo- the flying bubble?”
The goblin furrowed his brow in thought. “No…” he said. “Only see one fall.”
“Are you sure?” said Twilight, unable to bear the thought of Spike getting hurt because of her recklessness.
“Am very sure.” The goblin nodded. “Us have best eyes. See for miles! Poni fall, bubble make big fire- FWOOSH!” He made a gesture indicating that the fire went upwards. “Go off toward plain-under-sunset.” He finished, pointing in the general direction.
“Thank Celestia.” Twilight sighed. “Spike must have gotten the balloon back under control.” She turned back to the painted goblin. “Thank you very much for helping me, and I don’t want to impose on your generosity,” she blinked, remembering to scale back her vocabulary. “But, um, could you help me find the, ah, big bubble? Find my friend?”
The little painted goblin beamed. “Us happy help! We like help poni!” He gestured to his fellows. “We am Broni tribe of Non-moose people.” He pointed to himself, by way of introduction. “I called Thunder Beard.” He said, smiling. “Am heap big faggot!”
“Fa… fa…” Twilight faltered, until she noticed a small bundle of sticks hanging from a loop attached to the goblin’s loin cloth. “Oh, you mean the sticks? Like, firewood?”
Thunder Beard nodded. “Me am start fire. Big responsibility!”
“Oh, okay.” Twilight said with sudden understanding. “So, you’re like a tribal leader?”
Thunder Beard made a noncommittal gesture. “No… Non-moose no have leader. Non-moose hate leader. All Non-moose in tribe am equal.” He nodded emphatically. ”Non-moose free. But,” he added. “I speak for tribe.”
The little goblins- the Non-moose, Twilight thought, correcting herself- helped lift Twilight out of the bath. She had nothing to dry herself with, but the cooling water felt welcome in the sweltering heat of the jungle. She stood up shakily, the pain in her joints mellowing out to a dull throbbing. Apparently the “medicine jacuzzi” had done the trick. With some help from her new friends, she managed to limp along the forest floor.
“Spike wouldn’t risk staying in the air.” she reasoned. “And he wouldn’t be able to land in the forest. So he must have headed for that plain you mentioned.” She squinted at the setting sun. It had been several hours since she had fallen. If Spike was smart- and Twilight knew that he was, at least in a pinch- he would have landed in the nearest clearing and contacted Celestia to send a rescue team. By now, a group of pegasus ponies should be on the way from Canterlot to look for her. That is, she thought, wincing, if Spike hadn’t crashed before he could send the message. She put the thought out of her mind. She had no reason to think Spike had crashed, and worrying about it now wouldn’t help either of them. All she could do now was hope he was okay and try her best to find him.
While she walked, she took a closer look at the Non-moose who skittered around her, hacking away at the vines and shrubs to clear a path and lugging sacks full of fruit and wild tubers. They must have found her while foraging for food. They certainly didn’t look anything like moose, though that was an odd trait for them to name themselves after. She had difficulty telling them apart, other than by the strings of hieroglyphic symbols some painted on their foreheads. One wore a bright blue mask, although the others didn’t seem to like it. In fact, they seemed to spend most of their time arguing over one thing or another, making rude gestures and blowing raspberries, or even chucking sticks and pebbles at each other. In spite of this, Twilight found them charming. They reminded her of bickering siblings, and the way Thunder Beard had described them, “Non-moose free”, well, it was hard to dislike them after seeing the pride in his eyes.
Thunder Beard put up a hand, halting their progress. “Plain-under-sunset many mile away. Light fading. Dangerous at night. We make camp in caves. You stay, rest, eat with us. Go again in morning.” Twilight was about to protest, the ponies she hoped were searching for her would never be able to see her under the thick forest canopy, much less in a cave, but he made a good point. She was in no condition to travel long distances, especially at night. She figured her luck had been tested enough for one day. Ahead of them she could make out a system of caves jutting out of the undergrowth. “This is your home?” She asked. “Your cave?”
“This a cave.” Thunder Beard replied. “Any cave good. Broni have many cave.”
“You’re nomads.” said Twilight. “Traveling all the time? Only stopping at night?”
Thunder Beard nodded thoughtfully. “No-mads. Yes. Good word. I no-mad all the time.” Twilight wasn’t sure he had fully understood her, but she let it drop. Thunder Beard lifted a small horn to his lips and blew a series of notes that echoed into the dense forest. “I call rest of tribe. Make fire. Here.” He handed Twilight something small and lumpy. “Have jackfruit. Very tasty.” Twilight accepted the gift graciously. She dug into the jackfruit (which did turn out to be quite tasty), until she suddenly realized what he had just said.
“Rest of tribe?” she said, sputtering. “How many of you are there?”
“Many.” replied Thunder Beard, with a wicked grin. “Many, many, many.”
There were hundreds of them. They came streaming out of the forest, laughing, dancing and singing. They filed into the spacious cave and set to work preparing that night’s meal. A few slowed down to look, wide-eyed, at Twilight, who sat next to Thunder Beard’s fire. They seemed in awe of her, though most kept a cautious distance.
“Poni poni poni poni poni!” A lone voice rang out in the crowd. An especially excitable Non-moose pushed his way to the front, his face full of rapturous joy upon seeing Twilight. “Poni Poni! Look, poni!” He pulled out a small, brightly painted wooden figure and shoved it under Twilight’s nose. “Good poni, yes? I make!” The figure was, indeed, a pony. A pegasus, to be exact, and fairly well carved.
“Yes, well, it’s very ni…” Twilight trailed off. The way the figure was painted was very familiar. She looked closer. The mark on its flank confirmed her suspicions. “This… this is Rainbow Dash, isn’t it?”
“Bodash, yes!” Said the young Non-moose, nodding vigorously. “Bodash, best poni! Ficky-ficky!” He banged his fingers together in a gesture Twilight was sure was obscene. Thunder Beard, noticing this, walked over and thumped the intruding Non-moose with one of his sticks.
“Bad Broni!” he yelled. “Rude!” The chastened Non-moose slunk back into the crowd. “Sorry. He new.” Thunder Beard said to Twilight, returning to his fire.
Twilight sat in shock. Looking around she could see other Non-moose drawing on the walls, carving wood or shaping lumps of clay. They were all making representations of ponies- and not just any ponies, her friends. There was Applejack and Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and even Spike. All of her friends were being drawn with an almost religious zeal by the gathered Non-moose.
“You’re… making ponies?” she asked Thunder Beard.
He nodded. “We camp. We make poni. Broni tribe like poni, very much.”
Twilight decided to proceed carefully. Somehow, these creatures knew about her friends, even though she hadn’t known of their existence until this very evening. She had to find out how this happened without antagonizing them. She had no idea how dangerous they could be when angered, and she didn’t want to find out. She also decided not to ask what “ficky-ficky” meant.
“You say you… like ponies.” She picked her words cautiously. “I’ve never heard of ponies coming this far into the woods before. When did you…?” Thunder Beard’s head snapped up, as if he’d had a sudden idea.
“Shaman! Show you shaman! He tell all about Broni!” He led Twilight, gently but firmly, across the cave to where a heavily decorated Non-moose sat. He stared at Twilight pensively as they approached.
The shaman’s neck was weighed down with heavy beads, feathers and gemstones. He (or perhaps she, Twilight had trouble telling which Non-moose were male or female) held an elaborate staff, and a hollow bamboo tube was strapped around his shoulders. He spoke quietly, with a deep, melodic voice, and only in his native tongue. He also spoke rarely, but when he did, the other Non-moose paid respectful attention. Thunder Beard translated as the shaman told the story of his people.
“Many year ago,” he said, “Ages and ages before, Broni tribe were like all other Non-moose. We walk through the forest, taking its treasures, and adding our own. We lived free and died as free Non-moose, as in ages past. Then, a great cloud descended on our land, and brought forth the Celestia.” To Twilight’s shock, the Non-moose booed and hissed at the mention of Celestia’s name. Looking around, she noticed that any pictures of Celestia they made had a furious grimace she had never seen the Princess make in real life.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but I thought you said you liked ponies.”
“Old ponies, no so good.” said Thunder Beard. “The Celestia, she come to us, she say, ‘I rule this land. You Non-moose, you do as I say!’ And we say, no! No one rule Non-moose! Non-moose free!” At this, the assembled Non-moose raised their hands in the air and chanted with him.
“Non-moose free! Non-moose free!” It dawned on Twilight that any ruler, even one as benevolent as Princess Celestia, would be met with the same resistance by such a fiercely independent people. She was glad she hadn’t mentioned her own connection to Celestia before now. When the chanting tribesmen eventually became quiet, the shaman continued his story.
“We war against poni, and drive out poni from our forest. Ages go by, and Non-moose forget about poni. They become nothing but story to us, told around fire.” The shaman paused and shook his staff for dramatic effect. “Then, few moons ago, the long-night came.”
Twilight gulped. They could only be talking about the night of the Summer Sun Celebration, when Nightmare Moon prevented the sun from rising.
“We know is poni caused this. We make plan. We will hear what poni say, what plans they make. Use shaman magic.” The shaman removed the plug from the end of the tube on his shoulders and spilled its contents on the cave floor.
Twilight recognized what was inside, even before she saw the scrolls spill out. The odd, musky scent that came from the tube… she had smelled it before. She smelled it every time Spike sent one of her letters to Celestia.
She had heard of spells that could intercept letters sent by dragon, but it never occurred to her that such a primitive people could use magic so powerful. It meant that every time she sent a letter through Spike, the shaman would receive a copy. Her stomach churned at the thought of her private correspondence being pored over by these strange creatures, but she held her tongue.
“We read letters. We think, ‘We find out what poni do, we use to fight back.’” Thunder Beard paused, his lip quivering with emotion. “But we find more. So, so much more.”
“What did you find?” asked Twilight, not yet sure she wanted to know the answer.
“Magic.” said Thunder Beard, tears filling his eyes. “Before, us Non-moose fight, all the time. Non-moose not clever people. Letters show us better. Letters show us friendship.”
The last pieces of the puzzle clicked together in Twilight’s mind. Zecora had told her about something like this happening to some of the more primitive tribes of her homeland. She called it a “cargo cult”: a superstitious people who come in contact with an advanced civilization and mistake them for gods. An impromptu religion is formed, with its adherents crafting totems and hoping to draw favor from those they worship. They read her descriptions of her friends, each representing one of the elements of harmony, and thought they were gods. They didn’t recognize Twilight herself, of course, since she had never bothered to describe herself in her own letters. Her anger at the violation of her privacy ebbed, replaced with pity.
“These letters… They’re very important to you, aren’t they?” she asked Thunder Beard. “And these drawings are your way of learning about friendship.”
Thunder Beard nodded gravely, saying nothing.
Twilight took a closer look at one of the clay figures, seeing it in a new light. This one was an earth pony, but a strange one. It seemed to have too many legs.
“What is this one?” she asked.
“Fertility totem.” Thunder Beard replied. Twilight set it down, carefully.
“It’s… nice.” she managed, “Very… detailed.”
Twilight spent the night in the company of the Broni tribe. They shared their food generously, and regaled her with tales interpreted from their “holy book”. She was surprised to find out that any pony she mentioned in her letters, even in passing, was elevated to an almost saint-like status among the tribe. By far their favorite of these was “Spork”, who resulted from a typo Spike made spelling his own name.
“Spork is best poni!” said Thunder Beard, unable to contain his enthusiasm. “She find egg, think it hers! She forget poni no make egg!” He gripped his sides, shaking with hysterical laughter. Twilight smiled. Apparently the tribe had no problem with adding their own stories to the mix.
Later that night, the shaman received a copy of Spike’s letter to Celestia, asking for a search party to be sent. It must have taken him longer to think of that idea than Twilight had anticipated. She wasn’t angry; she was just glad to hear he was safe. Celestia’s reply said the team would arrive by sunrise. Thankfully, that afforded her a few hours sleep before she needed to make her way to the plains. She dozed off in the comforting glow of the dying fire’s embers.
Morning came, and Twilight stretched her legs in the mouth of the cave. She hadn’t fully recovered from her fall, but at least she could walk without limping. The calmness of dawn was shattered, however, when a terrified Non-moose ran wildly into the cave.
“Trolls!” he shouted. “Trolls coming!”
“Trolls?” said Twilight, with a worried glance to Thunder Beard. He nodded grimly.
“Not all Non-moose like Broni.” he said, “Some cling to old ways. They fight with Broni, try to drive us out.” He was already making his way up the hill outside the cave. Twilight struggled to keep up.
“What do we do?” she said, preparing herself for a fight.
“We run.” he said, “Fight with trolls just give them reason to keep fighting. That not our way. That not friendship.” They passed a tribe member desperately throwing the remains of his breakfast at the advancing trolls. Thunder Beard thumped him with his stick as they ran by. “Stupid Broni! No feed trolls!”
“But your cave!” she yelled after him, “All of your art!” She turned and watched as the tribe scattered into the forest, leaving their work behind. The trolls stampeded into the cave, trampling everything.
“There will be other caves. Other art. We carry all we need here.” he said, pointing to his rucksack, “And here.” He pointed to his head. “Broni strong. Broni survive. Broni free.”
“But I can help you…” Twilight started.
“No!” Thunder Beard turned, suddenly furious, and marched up to her until he was inches from her face. “You have to stay safe! Get back to friends! Keep writing!”
Twilight felt her pulse quicken. “You knew who I was?” she said, quietly.
He nodded. “Of course. Why you think I no ask your name?”
Twilight looked down, sheepishly. The little guy was smarter than she had given him credit for. The moment was interrupted by the sound of something rushing through the treetops above them.
“Uh, can trolls fly?” she asked nervously.
“I hope not.” said Thunder Beard. “If they do, it news to me.”
Twilight looked for a hiding place, until she noticed that the thing zig-zagging through the treetops had a distinctive rainbow trail following it.
“It’s Dash!” she yelled, “They found me!” Of course Dash was in the search party, she thought. She wouldn’t have it any other way!
“Go!” said Thunder Beard. “I hold off trolls!” A troll spear whizzed by them, its shaft shattering against a tree trunk. “Ha ha! Stupid trolls!” he shouted, running to join his fellow tribesmen. “Zero ten! Zero ten!”
Rainbow Dash swooped down to meet Twilight as she crested the hill. “What the heck have you gotten yourself into, girl?” she yelled, barely hiding the relief in her voice, “Spike’s been losing his mind looking for you!”
“It’s a good thing he had a map!” she yelled back, laughing and crying at the same time.
“Spike, take a letter.” said Twilight from the comfort of her bed.
“A regular one, or…” he said, readying his parchment.
“The other kind.” Thanks to Celestia’s security enchantment, no one would be able to intercept her letters any more. Well, not unless she wanted them to.
“Dear Princess Celestia.” she began, “Today, I’d like to tell you about my good friend, Spork…”