The letter for Celestia arrived early one morning, before she had even started raising the sun. The captain of her royal guards had hastily entered her room, carrying it in his mouth.
“What is the cause for such an early visit into my private quarters Captain Grey?” she had asked blearily, still waking up.
“A message your highness,” he had replied, quickly and unceremoniously spitting it onto the nearest surface and wiping a handkerchief across his tongue. The letter was torn and dirtied. Celestia noticed with some worry that there were several dark red stains covering its surface.
“The message arrived just a few moments ago via pegasus,” he continued, “given the strange and... alarming circumstances of its arrival, I thought it necessary to make sure you received it immediately.
Putting down her hair brush, Celestia gingerly plucked the note from the table. It had the royal seal of Canterlot on its surface. Breaking the seal, she unrolled the scroll and read the hastily scrawled message. It was written by a shaking hoof and the words were often curved oddly or smashed into each other, as if it had been written in the dark. It wasn't very long, but as she reached the last line, her face had gone pale, a grimace of fear breaking her normally calm countenance. This is what it said:
Dear Princess Celestia,
I'm scared. I've never been so scared in my life. I don't know who to trust. I don't know if this note will reach you. I hope with every ounce of hope I have left that it does. You're my last chance. If you get this letter then know that I never meant to do the things I did. I don't know why I did. I'm not sure what my friends will tell you, but please, for all the years that we've known each other please, forgive me. I'm in the Everfree Forest. I'm being followed. I'm begging you, come get me.
“Where is the carrier of this letter Captain Grey?” she asked urgently, “I must speak to them at once.”
“She was taken to the hospital in the center of Canterlot shortly after her arrival,” he replied. The urge to look away from the princess was strong as he said his next words, but he resisted and continued, “She has been identified as a resident of Ponyville named Fluttershy. I believe you've met her before, though you would have trouble recognizing her now. Her injuries are... severe. I'm not sure she's going to make it.”
“Take me to her,” said Celestia, not even bothering to put on her crown before heading for the door.
“Of course your majesty,” replied Captain Grey as he quickly followed after her.
All was silent, save the echo of their hooves on the cold stone floor as they made their way out of the palace. A sound oddly reminiscent of the last few beats of a dying heart.
Chapter 1: A Once Long Dead Tree
Twilight Sparkle was jolted awake in the middle of the night by a loud knock on her door. She had just barely fallen asleep after staying up late reading, so the intrusion wasn’t welcome. She rolled over, covering her head with a pillow, hoping that whoever it was would simply go away. No such luck. A few seconds later the knock came again, then a few seconds after that. Letting out an angry sigh, Twilight got up from her warm bed and climbed down the long row of stairs to the first floor of the library to answer the door. She was surprised, to say the least, when she discovered who it was.
“Fluttershy?! What are you doing here?” Fluttershy was never one to stay up late. She was never one to bother ponies when they were sleeping. She wasn’t even one to knock on somepony’s door loud enough to be heard, let alone multiple times!
“Oh Twilight, I’m so sorry, but... something terrible has happened.”
“Well can it wait until morning?”
“No! No. This needs to be taken care of right away, before it... spreads.” Fluttershy muttered. Her eyes were darting around as if she expected something to jump out at her any second, and she was tapping her hooves on the ground nervously. Twilight was still grumpy, but whatever had happened had obviously given her friend quite a scare.
“Ugh, fine. Come in.”
“I’m sorry Twilight. I can’t. I need to get back home as quickly as possible. The animals need me. I don’t even understand it myself. I’ve just come back from the Everfree Forest and Zecora-”
“Wait wait wait!” interrupted Twilight, “what were you doing in the Everfree Forest at this hour?”
“It’s a long story, and there’s really no time to explain. I need to get back home, and you need to go and see Zecora right away!”
“Well, it will have to wait until morning,” replied Twilight, beginning to close the door.
“No Twilight wait!” squeaked Fluttershy, “you don’t understand!”
“No I don’t!” yelled Twilight in frustration as she swung the door open again, causing her friend to hop backwards a few feet, “I have no idea what’s going on, and you’re acting really weird! You shouldn’t have been in the forest at this hour. Something has obviously just spooked you, and now you’re overreacting. I’ll head over to Zecora’s first thing in the morning, but for now I need to get some sleep! Goodnight Fluttershy.”
As Twilight slowly closed the door, Fluttershy didn’t respond. Her head was low to the ground and she was hiding her face behind her mane. Twilight grumbled to herself as she began to feel guilty.
“First thing. I promise,” she said, as she closed the door the rest of the way. Fluttershy only squeaked.
Now it was morning, and Twilight was trudging through the Everfree Forest alone. She had stopped by Fluttershy’s cottage along the way to see if she wanted to come along, but there was no answer. In all honestly Fluttershy was probably still tucked away in her own warm bed; dreams of happy little animals filling her head. Twilight felt a slight amount of animosity toward her for robbing her of the same experience, but a promise was a promise, and she would make sure to keep her word.
Twilight had never been in the Everfree Forest at this hour. For some reason the blue morning light filtering through the trees was more disturbing than just plain darkness. The light only made the dark places seem darker, and she felt like anything could be lurking in the deep shadows. As her hair began to bristle, either from cold, or from the unpleasant feeling of being watched, she quickened her pace.
It wasn’t long before she was able to make out the familiar twisted tree in the distance that she recognized as Zecora’s house. In a few short minutes she has reached it and eagerly knocked on the door. The sooner she could see a friendly face the better. She waited for what seemed like hours. Twilight jumped and let out a yelp as a small rustling noise manifested from the dark somewhere, then rolled her eyes at her own foalishness. It was probably just a little animal of some sort scampering away. She wasn’t awake enough to be doing this. Trying to get a hold of herself, she knocked again.
As she continued to wait, the feeling of being watched sent a shiver down her spine again. She nervously peeked through the window to see if Zecora was home. It was dark except for a few glowing embers in the cooking pit located in the center of her house. Twilight noticed that the back door was open.
“Zecora?” she called. There was no response. Twilight was about to turn away when she saw something move past the window near Zecora’s bed.
“Zecora? Is that you?” she called again, feeling uneasy. Twilight began to make her way around the tree, her muscles tensing with anticipation. Whatever it was that she saw was at least as big as she was. If it was Zecora then why wouldn’t she answer? It if wasn’t Zecora then what was it? And why didn’t she hear it move? Soon Twilight had reached the back of the tree.
Twilight looked around carefully, but there was nothing there. Just a decoration of some sort adorning the yard, which she assumed came from whatever far off land Zecora was from. Perhaps her mind was playing tricks on her. Twilight walked over and began to inspect it in order to give herself something to do.
As she got closer, she realized that the decoration was a totem pole. Several ponies were carved into its surface, intricate patterns twirling and twisting around them in a way that reminded Twilight of the roots of a tree. Each one was different in design. Some had long manes, some had short manes, others had... wait, was that Applejack? Twilight leaned closer. The picture she was looking at depicted a pony wearing the same type of hat Applejack wore. That alone wouldn’t have convinced her, but as she leaned closer still, she noticed more minute details. Etched into the pony’s flank, almost too lightly to see, were three small apples.
Twilight quickly moved her attention to the top of the totem pole. The pony with the long mane. Three butterflies were etched into this one. The next down had a short mane and a jagged lightning bolt. The next down was Applejack, and after that Rarity, then Pinkie Pie. On the bottom of the totem pole was a pony that looked very familiar. A small star was carved into its flank.
As she leaned in even closer, something else caught her attention. The twisting patterns that were carved around the other ponies continued down the totem pole and into the ground. Twilight pushed back on the totem pole, trying to get a better look, and saw the patterns come to an end at another pony. She pushed it back even more. It easily gave way in the soft, dew soaked dirt. This pony seemed rather crude. For one thing it was carved upside down. It had no mane or tail at all. Its legs were disproportionate to its body. Almost twice as long as they needed to be, and its cutie mark was nothing more than a circle. It seemed that whoever carved it must not have liked it much, because the mark had been haphazardly crossed out.
“Why would Zecora have something like this?” Twilight though out loud.
“It is a hobby of mine.”
Twilight screamed and jumped back at the response. She had been so focused on the totem pole that she hadn’t noticed Zecora approach, “Ah! Wha-where did you come from?” she stammered, trying to stand the totem pole up straight again.
“I was off collecting herbs for tea. Have you been waiting long for me?” Zecora responded, raising an eyebrow at Twilight.
“Me? No. Not long at all! I was just... I heard that you wanted to talk to me about something. I came as quickly as I could, but when you weren’t here I decided to- well I thought I saw movement on the side of the tree and followed it back here, but I guess it was nothing, then I saw this and I....” Twilight’s voice trailed off. Her heart was still pounding from the surprise, and no matter what she did the totem pole kept tilting to one side. She eventually let it go, cringing as it fell over completely with a soft thud. Zecora continued to stare at her suspiciously until she broke the silence again, “So... you carved this? It’s lovely.”
“Yes,” Zecora replied, “I often practice hobbies from my native land when I have time to spare. This one was nearly finished.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Twilight, trying to stand it up again and failing, “It must have taken you so long to do. Here just let me-” a purple light began to emanate from Twilight’s horn as she used magic to pick up the totem pole and shove it back into the ground. It seemed she had been a bit too forceful though, as it sunk almost half way into the soft dirt before stopping. She smiled awkwardly at Zecora as the magic faded away.
“Thank you,” said Zecora flatly, turning away from Twilight and walking toward the back door of her tree, “please follow me.”
Twilight followed Zecora inside, her ears turning red with embarrassment. Within a few minutes she was sipping a cup of Zecora’s special tea however, and the feeling had faded. As she sat next to the cooking pit on a small pillow, her mind returned to the reason she had come out here in the first place.
“So, Fluttershy said that something had happened? Something bad?”
“What she said is very true,” responded Zecora as she poured herself a glass of tea, “although I’m not sure why she came to you.”
“What do you mean?”
Zecora walked over and sat down next to Twilight, “A few days past, I was traveling through the forest, when I beheld an unexpected sight. A tree I once had thought long dead; it gave me quite a fright.”
“The tree scared you?” asked Twilight incredulously, “Why would a tree scare you?”
“In my homeland this tree was known to be cursed with a terrible taint. Its fruit, known as scari berry, was used by witch doctors to make vile potions, said to be able to prolong one’s life unnaturally. Its wood was said to be corrupted by the spirits of demons. I had heard that Fluttershy was knowledgeable about the fauna and flora of these lands, and asked her for assistance in removing it. I’m afraid her connection to the land may be too strong however. As soon as she layed her eyes upon it she sensed the evil within and fled.”
“Oh that Fluttershy,” said Twilight, “everything scares her. Don’t worry Zecora. I’ll help you get rid of this tree, and I promise not to run away, no matter how spooky it is.”
“Thank you for your help Twilight. It’s well accepted in this plight.”
Twilight finished off her tea and stood up, stretching out her legs, “so, when do we begin?”
Zecora looked out the window. The sun was up now, the blue rays of light now bright white, “If we begin work right away, we may be done by sundown.”
“Alright then!” said Twilight enthusiastically, “lead the way.”
“So, why just tell Fluttershy?” asked Twilight, readjusting her saddlebags as she carefully stepped over a thick root protruding from the ground and running to Zecora’s side. She had lead Twilight into a part of the Everfree Forest that she had never been before, and she didn’t want to get separated.
“What do you mean?” she replied.
“I mean, why not tell all of us? If it’s just one tree then I’m sure we could have taken care of it even faster if there were more ponies to help.”
Zecora paused a moment before responding.
“To safely dispose of this tree, it must be handled carefully. The earth must be salted, the trunk and roots burned so that nothing remains, but first of all and most importantly, we must make sure to remove every single scari berry.”
“That seems like a lot of extra work,” said Twilight, “I mean, if we’re burning the whole thing, couldn’t we just... I don’t know, burn the berries too?
“Within each scari berry there is a seed. If even one were to take root, all our efforts would be for nothing.”
“Hmmm. I see,” said Twilight, “so once we remove all the scari berries what do we do with them?”
“Do not worry Twilight Sparkle. I will dispose of them safely, but I warn you, beware the juice of the berry.”
“Why, is it dangerous?”
Suddenly Zecora came to a halt. Twilight stopped as well, only now realizing that they had reached a large clearing in the forest. Well not a clearing per se, but the trees thinned out quite a bit, making the area seem open in comparison. In the middle of the clearing was the tree that Zecora was talking about. It didn’t seem nearly as threatening as Twilight had imagined it would be. It was short and stubby. Barely half the height of the surrounding trees. With its pitch black, oily bark and pale yellow fruit, it looked more sickly than anything.
“Do not let the juice touch your skin Twilight,” said Zecora, handing her a pair of gloves.
“What are these for?” Twilight asked as she set her saddlebags down.
“For picking the berries of course.”
“You mean we’re going to do it all by hoof?!”
“Yes,” Zecora replied simply, before walking over and carefully plucking a berry from the tree. Twilight watched despondently as Zecora placed it into her saddlebag and carefully reached for another.
“This is going to take longer than I thought,” Twilight mumbled under her breath before joining Zecora in her arduous task.
It turned out to be a good thing that Zecora had given her the gloves. As Twilight plucked her first berry from the tree it abruptly popped. Luckily the juice had exploded away from her, but it had earned her an angry glare from Zecora.
“Gently!” she had said, grabbing a berry and twisting it slightly, causing it to break away from the branch smoothly. Twilight tossed her smashed berry into her bag and followed Zecora’s example with the next one. She let out a sigh of relief when it easily separated from the tree.
It had been several hours since then, and the two of them had worked in silence without any further accidents. Unfortunately they hadn’t made much progress either. Over half the berries were still on the tree, and Twilight was running out of patience.
“I have an idea!” she suddenly exclaimed, causing Zecora to jump at the sudden noise, “why don’t I just magic the berries off the tree?”
“Don’t be silly,” Zecora replied dismissively before getting back to work.
“No really! I can do it! I’ve done it before with apple trees. And that was more than one tree mind you. This would be easy.”
Carefully letting go of the berry she was holding on to, Zecora turned toward Twilight, “Although it would save us much time, the risk involved is far too high.”
“Oh there’s no risk involved,” Twilight laughed, “here, let me show you,” Twilight’s horn began to glow as she focused on a single scari berry. She easily popped it off the branch and floated it over to her bag, “see?” she said, smiling confidently, “easy.”
Zecora looked over at the tree, then up at the sky. The sun was past mid way already, “Fine,” she finally said, “but please be careful. Start out small. Take one or two, and not them all.”
“I’ll be careful,” Twilight promised, her horn already beginning to glow again. Soon two more scari berries removed themselves from the tree and floated into her bag, then four, then eight. After only a few minutes the tree was berry-less. Twilight magically shut the saddlebags and tightened the latches, feeling very proud of herself.
“There!” she said happily, “on to step two.” Zecora nodded, satisfied with her work, and produced a small jar and another device that Twilight didn’t recognize from the outside pocket of her saddlebag.
“What are those?” asked Twilight.
“This is tinder oil,” she replied, holding up the jar, “and this,” she said as she raised the other device. A small tube with a rod that fit snugly inside it, “is a fire piston. Please stand a safe distance away.”
Twilight took a few steps back as Zecora undid the lid of the container and poured the thick black liquid around the base of the tree, not sure what to expect. Once she was done with that she removed the rod from the tube and placed a single drop of the liquid into it as well. She quickly replaced the rod, and in one quick movement slammed it to the bottom of the tube. Twilight wasn’t sure what that was supposed to have done, but to her surprise, when Zecora removed the rod and turned the tube over, a red hot ember fell out.
“Wait, how did that-” she was interrupted as the ember landed on the circle of tinder oil. There was a sudden flash and a blast of hot air as it ignited in an impressive display of orange flames.
“Under compression, if the tube is sealed tight,” said Zecora, walking over to Twilight, “then the heat is enough to make the tinder ignite.”
“That’s genius!” admired Twilight, now understanding the workings of the fire piston.
“Such devices have existed in my home for hundreds of years,” Zecora replied as she and Twilight watched the trunk of the tree begin to ignite, “Please try not to be alarmed.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it alarming as much as interesting. You would have thought that-”
Twilight was once again interrupted as an ear splitting shriek shattered the air around them. She looked around frantically for whoever it was that was making such a horrifying sound, but she didn’t see anypony. As the screaming continued she looked over at Zecora, who simply continued to stand there with a calm expression on her face.
“What’s going on?” Twilight asked in alarm, “who’s making that sound?” Zecora motioned toward the tree.
“The tree is screaming?!”
“As the thick sap inside the tree begins to boil, pressure builds, and the thick bark cracks. The sound you hear is nothing more than steam erupting from its core. It has been said though, by the superstitious, that each tree sounds different, depending on what evil spirit resides within it.”
“What a horrible thing to think,” mused Twilight, a shiver running down her spine as the screaming of the tree increased in intensity.
Twilight always considered herself a logical pony, but by the time the tree had finished burning down to nothing more than an ashen husk, she was visibly shaken. It simply sounded too lifelike. Sometimes it sounded exactly like her friends. A few times she could have sworn that she even heard words among the constant agonizing screams. Even now, in the silence of the late afternoon, the voice still lingered in the back of her mind. Still lost in her own thoughts, Twilight jumped when Zecora placed a hoof on her shoulder.
“Come. The roots will continue to smolder for some time, but it is safe for us to begin salting.”
Twilight nodded, feeling just a little queasy, and untied two pouches from the side of her saddlebag. She handed one to Zecora and kept the other for herself. Pulling open the pouch, Twilight reached in and scooped out a hooffull of crude salt. For the next hour they spread the salt around the clearing, making sure to stamp it into the soil to prevent it from blowing away.
Twilight was relieved when her bag of salt was finally gone, but Zecora informed her that it wasn’t enough, and they needed to go get more. By the time they had walked all the way back to her house, refilled the pouches, and walked back, it was getting dark. As they approached the clearing again Twilight gasped in surprise. Without the bright sunlight, the dim red glow of the smoldering roots, at least those near the surface, could be clearly seen. They spread out from the tree in all directions much farther than twilight would have thought possible, like long, gnarled fingers digging through the dirt.
“How big is this thing?” she asked as the two of them once again began to spread salt over the area.
“Its roots run far and wide, and deep. To other trees they try to creep.”
“It is a pestilent plant. If they get hold then those trees too must be removed, or they will eventually be turned. I once witnessed such a thing occur. An entire forest, burned to the ground in a single night.”
Twilight shivered as she imagined what an entire forest of these things would sound like burning down. It would be like burning an entire village full of ponies. She tried to force the images away as she threw another scoop of salt in a wide arc in front of her.
“So,” she said, trying to change the subject, “what exactly do these scari berries do?”
“It is best not to speak of such things.”
“Is it really that bad?” asked Twilight skeptically.
“...I would not want to frighten you,” was Zecora’s reply. Now Twilight’s curiosity was piqued. This whole experience was already disturbing enough. What could the berries possibly do that was worse?
“I- I won’t get scared,” said Twilight unconfidently. Zecora let out an agitated bray, but began to tell her anyway.
“There are tales of zebras, driven insane. Found muttering the cursed name...Slender Mane.”
“Who’s Slender Mane?” asked Twilight.
Zecora took a deep breath, “It is a long story.”
“That’s alright,” said Twilight, “I’m listening.”
To be continued….
Chapter 2: Slender Mane
“Slender Mane was once like you or I,” Zecora began, “A simple being, who lived a simple life. He was a wise zebra. A monk, who lived secluded in the mountains, and spent his days meditating in order to expand his mind. One day a visitor arrived from seemingly out of nowhere. The monk showed him hospitality. He gave him a place to sleep, and in the morning the visitor went on his way. It wasn’t until days later that the monk noticed that the visitor had left a small box behind.
“It was not the monk’s place to pry, so he left the box alone. As he meditated, the image of the box kept returning to his mind, however. No matter how hard he tried, the monk could not find any peace. Many years passed away. The monk grew old, and the visitor never returned. The monk’s soul was in a state of distress as visions of the box filled his every waking hour, and haunted his dreams. One day he could tolerate it no more. He took the box, which he had carefully wrapped in silk, and his few belongings, and set out on a pilgrimage to find its owner and return it.
“For years the monk wandered across the land restlessly. No one he talked to had ever seen or heard of the visitor. One day as he was traveling down a long road the monk contracted a strange illness. He became pale and weak. Terrible visions followed him wherever he went, and he knew that he was soon to die. In his last moments, the monk’s will broke. He tore open his bag and retrieved the box, desperately needing to know what was inside. As he opened the lid, his eyes fell upon a small key. He picked it up and examined it closely, trying to find its purpose. Trying to find any meaning in this thing that had haunted him for so long. As he examined the key, a door suddenly appeared before him. Hysteria had affected him, for he never questioned it. He quickly inserted the key, and it fit. The door swung open, and he stepped through without hesitation.
“Three years later his body was found in a small town miles away, horribly mutilated. His eyes scratched out, his mouth sewn shut, his limbs stretched and torn, and his heart burned black. The villagers buried him in a deep grave on the edge of the forest and never spoke of the strange incident again. It was said that inside the monk’s blackened heart was placed a seed which contained his memories from that place he had been, because some time later a tree sprouted from his grave. It was said that he lived on in this tree. He no longer searches for the lost visitor, though. Now he wanders the land trying to make others see what he has seen, and feel what he has felt. The scari berry is what calls him, and if even a drop of its juice touches your skin, it is said that he will find you, and he will make you know.”
“...and?” asked Twilight, throwing out the last of her salt and stamping it down.
“That is the myth,” Zecora replied.
“But who was the visitor? Where did the door lead?”
“Some say the visitor was a being not of this world, and that the door lead to his home. Questions like those you should not ask. It’s just a myth from ages past. I thank you for your help. Now grab your saddlebag and we shall return to my home.”
As Twilight picked up the now significantly heavier bag with a bit of apprehension, more questions started entering her mind. What was the sickness that the monk had caught while on the road? What happened to the box and the key? He was already old when he had started searching for the visitor. How many years had passed since then? How old was he in the end? Twilight was so engrossed in her own thoughts that she didn’t notice the large root sticking up out of the path ahead of her.
“Woah!” Twilight cried as her front hooves collided with it. She attempted to regain her footing, but the heavy saddlebags threw her off balance and she started stumbling toward a steep drop off to one side of the trail. Zecora spun around, but it was too late. She only caught a glimpse of Twilight’s tail as she haphazardly tumbled down the slope.
As Twilight fell, a sharp branch caught the side of her head. There was a sudden flash of light and a stinging pain as it left a deep gash over her left eye. Injured and disoriented, Twilight still tried to regain control, but the slope was too steep, and the weight of the saddlebags continued to pull her down. She would have continued to roll helplessly to the bottom of the hill had in not been for a sturdy tree that she collided with.
“Augh!” she was forced to scream as the wind was knocked out of her. She had hit the tree so hard that for a moment she blacked out. When she came back around she heard Zecora’s voice calling to her from what seemed like a long ways off.
“Twilight!” it said, “Twilight! Can you hear me? Are you badly hurt?”
“No... I’m fine. It’s fine,” she said, not sure how loud she was talking. As her vision began to clear she noticed her surroundings. She was facing away from the path, and had gotten wedged at an odd angle between the ground and a tree about half way down the incline. It was lucky that she had been stopped when she did, because the slope turned into a sheer drop not too much farther along. She also noticed the trickle of blood running down the side of her head. She felt for an injury, and twitched as her hoof found the cut.
“Zecora?” she called, “Something cut me on the way down, but it’s not too bad! If we get it looked at soon I should be fine!”
“Alright Twilight! Remain calm! I will return before too long!”
Twilight heard the sound of Zecora galloping away, then it was silent.
As Twilight lay there, she started feeling light headed. The bleeding had slowed, but hadn’t stopped, and she attributed it to that at first, but then the nausea started. It felt like her stomach was twisting around inside her body. Being so compacted probably wasn’t helping. She had tried to readjust herself, but when she did she started slipping and had to quickly grab onto the tree trunk to stop herself. Since then she hadn’t moved.
Soon the nausea became too much, and she couldn’t resist it any more. She retched loudly as her stomach spasmed. She was grateful that she hadn’t bothered to have anything other than Zecora’s tea that morning. A few minutes later she was grateful again.
As time passed the situation worsened. Twilight was exhausted from her body’s constant attempts to vomit, and she had broken out in a cold sweat. An unpleasant pressure had started building in the back of her head that pulsed along with the beat of her heart. It had spread since then to include her left temple and an intolerable spot just above her right eye. The moon had already started rising before she heard a sound from behind her.
“Zecora...” she called weakly, craning her head back, “what took you so long?” in the awkward position, Twilight could only see the path out of the corner of her eye. She thought she saw Zecora’s pale white stripes in the moonlight, but a moment later they moved out of view, “Zecora? Where are you going? I feel sick. Really sick. I think something’s wrong,” there was no response.
“Zecora!” Twilight shouted, frustration momentarily overpowering her malaise. Her head began pounding at the exertion, which in turn caused her nausea to intensify. She curled around the tree as she retched yet again. It was a full ten minutes before Zecora said something.
“Twilight!” she called, as she reappeared on the edge of the path, holding a length of rope in her mouth.
“Where did you go?” asked Twilight, no longer feeling strong enough to be angry.
“I returned to my home to retrieve this rope. Do you not remember the words I spoke?”
“No, I mean just now. Why did you just walk off like that?”
“Are you feeling well?” Zecora asked suspiciously, “I have only just returned.”
“But... I thought I saw-” Twilight swallowed hard as she felt her stomach lurch. This was horrible, “No. I don’t feel well. Please pull me up,” she quickly said, giving up on trying to explain herself. A few seconds later a rope landed next to her. She grabbed on to it with her teeth, and after some difficulty on her part, once again found herself on the trail.
“Twilight, what is wrong?” Zecora asked in alarm upon seeing her close up. She was horribly pale, not to mention the fact that half of her head was caked in a mixture of blood and dirt.
“I don’t know,” she replied, “I started feeling sick a little while after you left and... it’s only gotten worse since then. I need to get home.”
“No no, I will not allow you to travel through the forest in this condition. Not by yourself,” Zecora said, quickly reaching over and allowing Twilight to lean on her front leg, “you may stay at my home tonight. I may have medicine that will help,” Twilight nodded and accepted Zecora’s leg without a word. She just wanted to get away from this place as quickly as possible.
A short while later the door to Zecora’s tree swung open. Twilight hobbled in and quickly started undoing the straps on her saddlebags. She needed to lie down. Zecora came over and helped her.
“It is miraculous that the straps did not break during your fall,” she said, lifting the heave bags of Twilight’s back, “It would have been disastrous if-”
Suddenly Zecora jumped back, quickly dropping the saddlebags on the floor, “Jua na mwezi kulinda mimi!” she yelled, “Pepo wabaya fujo si hii nyumbani!”
“What?” said Twilight in concern, turning to look at what had caused Zecora such panic. Covering her side was a large yellow stain that had previously been hidden.
“It is the scari berry! Quickly Twilight, lay down on the floor. Do not move. I shall bring you something to drink.” Zecora carefully picked up Twilight’s saddle bag and threw it into the fire pit, where it began to smolder.
“What? Why? What’s going on?” asked Twilight.
“No questions!” Ordered Zecora, pointing to the spot she told Twilight to lay down. Twilight had never seen her like this before. As she sat down she started to feel anxious.
“So... what exactly do the berries do? Other than what the story says?”
“It is a poison,” Zecora said, grabbing a jar of something off the shelf and pouring it into a cup. She walked over to Twilight and held it out to her, “drink this.”
“Poison?” Twilight whimpered as she took the cup and looked inside. It was full of a thick black liquid, “Is this an antidote?” she asked.
“It will slow the poison, now drink!”
Twilight raised the cup and squeezed her eyes shut as she poured the substance into her mouth. It was surprisingly tasteless, but it burned and had a horrible texture, like liquid chalk. She was barely able to swallow one mouthful of it before gagging. As she coughed and sputtered, Zecora raised the cup to her mouth again and gave her a stern look. Twilight cringed as she forced herself finish off the glass. Zecora stood up, taking the cup from her, and walked away, coming back a moment later with the cup refilled.
“Oh no, please,” Twilight pleaded, “no more.”
“Lay on your side,” said Zecora. Twilight obeyed, confusion and fear causing tears to come to her eyes. Holding the glass out in front of her, Zecora overturned it, pouring its contents over the large yellow stain on Twilights fur, “Now, how are you feeling?” she asked, feeling Twilight’s forehead and neck.
“I don’t know,” Twilight responded, “My stomach hurts less, but I’m cold, and my head...” A feeling of doom suddenly weighed down on Twilight. She grabbed her head as tears started flowing down her blood stained face, “Am I going to die Zecora?” she asked desperately.
Zecora’s expression suddenly changed from that of stern efficiency to one of compassion, “Calm yourself Twilight,” she said softly. She stood up once again. She didn’t return for several minutes, but when she did she was carrying a new cup filled with what Twilght recognized as her favorite tea, “One last drink,” she said, discreetly pouring a strange powder into the glass before handing it to Twilight, “to ease the pain.”
“Thank you,” sobbed Twilight, accepting the tea. She drank it quickly, then rested her head on the floor. Soon she started feeling numb, and her vision began to darken. The last thing she saw were the flickering flames of the fire pit.
Twilight woke up late the next day. She looked around confusedly, trying to figure out where she was. To her right was a small window that was open to the outside. It was bright, and a soft wind was blowing. She looked to her left, and realized that something was blocking her view. Reaching up with a hoof, Twilight discovered a soft patch of cloth had been fastened over her eye. She rolled to her side, and saw that she was still in Zecora’s tree, in Zecora’s bed. Zecora was asleep on the floor next to the fire pit.
Twilight pushed herself up. As the blanket fell off of her she saw that a large bandage was wrapped around her torso as well. The events of last night seemed like a dream. As quietly as she could, she slid out of bed. As she tried to take a step forward her legs suddenly collapsed underneath her however. She tried to grab a shelf to stabilize herself, but her hoof caught on a flower vase, pulling it the the ground along with her with a crash. Zecora’s head shot up at the noise.
“Twilight! You should be resting!” she exclaimed as Twilight shakily attempted to get to her feet.
“I’m sorry,” said Twilight. For some reason her legs wouldn’t work right, “What happened last night? Why can’t I walk?”
“You’ve been sedated. You were under a great deal of stress, so I gave you something to help you rest.”
“The...the poison,” said Twilight, the memories slowly coming back to her, “what happened? Am I going to be alright?”
Zecora looked at Twilight’s side. Her expression became quite grim, “You’re bandage is in need of changing. Please, sit down. We must talk.”
Zecora helped Twilight back to the bed, then began to unwrap the bandage. A thick cloth was held in place underneath it, soaked in the same black substance Twilight remembered from the previous night. Zecora carefully peeled it away from Twilight’s side and threw it into the fire.
“Is that really necessary?” Twilight asked.
“I will take no chances,” Zecora replied. She sighed as she walked over to a drawer and pulled out an old blanket. She tore a large section of it off and dipped it into a tub in her sink. It came out black. After ringing it out she walked back over to twilight and carefully placed it on her side.
“What’s wrong Zecora?” asked Twilight, feeling as concerned about her downcast friend as she was for herself.
“Although it’s progress I can slow, for the juice of the scari berry, there is no cure I know,” she finally answered, securing the bandage around Twilight’s torso again.
“Oh...” said Twilight, not sure what to think. Suddenly she caught some movement out of the corner of her eye again. She spun around just in time to see something disappear past the edge of the window, “What was that?” she yelled, suddenly feeling scared. She looked back at Zecora, who was simply standing there, looking sad, “Didn’t you see it?” she asked nervously, “There’s... something out there!”
“Listen to me Twilight. The poison of the scari berry is not like a normal poison. It doesn’t affect one’s body, so much as it affects their mind.”
“It causes them to become paranoid. They begin to mistrust their friends, feel like they are being watched and see things that aren’t there. Nothing passed by my window Twilight Sparkle.”
“But I saw it! Something big and white. It can’t have been my imagination.”
“Look again,” Twilight turned toward the window. Nothing was there this time, but that didn’t mean something wasn’t before. She had seen the same thing the other day before any of this had even happened after all! As Twilight continued to rationalize to herself, a light breeze blew by. The branches of the trees outside moved slightly, and a thin beam of white light appeared, then vanished just as quickly as the branches moved back into place. Twilight blushed with embarrassment as she turned back toward Zecora.
“Well... anypony could have mistaken that out of the corner of their eye,” she said, but Zecora only shook her head.
“I am sorry Twilight. I do not know what hold the scari berry has on you, but I know that it will only get worse from here.”
Twilight couldn't believe what she was hearing. There must be some answer. Something she could do! “Well, if it’s a poison then I’ll be able to work it out of my system eventually right? It can’t last forever can it?”
“I suppose what you say could be true, but nopony has made it more than a day or two.”
“Well, I’m not just anypony!” Twilight said, refusing to accept her fate, “I’ve read more books about psychology than any other pony I know. I’m sure I’ll last longer than that. I’m sure I’ll be fine. I’m... sure of it.”
“If you say you can... then I shall not doubt you,” Zecora finally replied, “but please take my advice. Let those you care for know what has occurred as soon as you can. If anything is to happen, they may be the only ones who can help you.”
“Don’t worry Zecora. I will. I know the strength that comes from friends.”
“Good,” Zecora nodded, “Now please, lay down. I have some work to attend to, and you need rest.” Twilight happily complied. As Zecora exited the tree and closed the door behind her, she softly said, “Sleep well Twilight Sparkle,” but Twilight didn’t hear. She was already asleep.
It was the last restful sleep she would have for a long time.
It wasn’t until that evening Twilight woke up again. The sun was beginning to set, and rays of orange light were streaming through the forest. Zecora was on the far side of the room, watering a small potted plant. She turned around when she heard Twilight getting out of bed.
“Did you sleep well, Twilight Sparkle?”
“Yes,” she replied, “Thank you for taking such good care of me.”
“It was no trouble Twilight, honestly. Now, I have something for you, please come with me.”
Twilight followed Zecora out of the front door of her house. As she exited the tree, she saw her attaching a harness to the totem pole she had been carving in her back yard. Since then she had smoothed out some of the carvings and applied a layer of varnish to it, causing the orange light to hit the black surface in a way that made it look like it was burning. The strange upside-down pony was still as rough as ever though.
“What’s this?” asked Twilight, walking around the totem.
“It is a gift. A charm that is said to ward off evil spirits. I do not know if it will help, but I would like you to have it nonetheless.”
Twilight wasn’t one to believe in evil spirits, but she knew better than to refuse such a considerate gift, “Thank you” she said as she hefted it onto her back. It was surprisingly heavy.
“Place it by your door as soon as you arrive home. I wish you a safe trip Twilight, and good fortune over the next few days.”
Twilight smiled appreciatively and waved as she began walking back to Ponyville. She was feeling a bit rushed. It was a long trip after all, and she was already feeling a little nervous. It would probably be best if she was able to get out of the forest before dark. Zecora waved back before silently walking inside and closing the door.
As soon as Zecora was out of sight, Twilight shivered. The familiar feeling of being secretly watched started to creep up on her. She tried to ignore it. Soon I’ll be home, she thought to herself, then everything will be fine, she quickly walked along the path, shifting the weight of the totem pole as she did so. It wasn’t very comfortable.
As the sun became no more than a red sliver in the distance, she started worrying. It felt like she should have been out of the forest by now, but the gnarled trees of Everfree still loomed all around her. Everything was fine though. The fact that she had slept the entire day was probably just throwing off her sense of time. As she looked around to try and find a landmark in order to orient herself, she saw something dart between two trees. She immediately snapped her head forward, not wanting to know what it was. There was another movement out of the corner of her eye, but she bit her lip and continued to look straight ahead, increasing her pace by a small amount.
A short while later Twilight let out a whimper as the sun finally disappeared from view and darkness started filling the forest. She was sure that she should have been out of the forest by now. She stopped for a moment, shifting the weight of the totem pole again as she looked around. The path had split a few times, but she had always turned the right way... hadn’t she? Of course she had. She would just keep going the way she was going, and eventually she would exit the forest near Fluttershy’s house, safe and sound, just as planned.
Suddenly a twig snapped and Twilight jumped. She had to keep moving. A few seconds later a bush rustled and she jumped again, Stop it Twilight!, she told herself, There’s nothing there. You’re being ridiculous! Despite her efforts she jumped again as she heard another noise. Her heart started to beat harder. She wanted to go home. With this thought in mind she increased her speed to a canter. Even though moving faster caused the Totem pole to rub against her even more uncomfortably, it wasn’t until she came to another fork in the road that she finally slowed down. It was at this moment while pausing and trying to remember where to go that she heard the unmistakable sound of hooves on the trail behind her.
Twilight froze, her ears immediately flipping up and rotating back. She was hoping that if she stopped to listen then the sound would fade away, but it didn’t. The subtle scratching of keratin on the hard dirt was unmistakable as it moved ever closer.
“It’s not real,” Twilight whispered, “It’s just my imagination,” mustering up her courage, Twilight loudly cleared her throat, “Can I help you?” she called authoritatively. There was no response. The soft scratching sound continued. Twilight’s pupils dilated as her body reflexively injected a dose of adrenalin into her system. She slowly began to turn around; one last desperate attempt to prove to herself that there was nothing there. That it was all just a cruel trick her mind was playing on her.
As Twilight turned she saw it. It was too dark to tell what it was. Black on black, just the outline of something looming over her, but it was enough. Twilight lost it. She screamed in genuine terror as she bolted down the path. She didn’t know which way she had turned. She only knew that she was scared, and had to get away. As she ran the shadows seemed to reach toward her. Every stray branch was a twisted arm attempting to pull her into the dark. Every star peeking through the trees an eye tracking her. In her panic Twilight almost didn’t notice the flickering of a fire off in the distance, but when she did it was all that mattered. A fire meant that somepony was there. That somepony could help her.
No longer caring about getting out of the forest, so much as simply getting away, Twilight jumped off the path, charging directly through the thick trees in an attempt to reach the light. She tripped over a fallen limb, twisting her ankle. She briefly cried out as a jolt of pain shot up her leg, but she didn’t slow down. She was almost there. As she got closer to the light, Twilight saw that the trees opened up. Through them she could see a small wooden fence. The fence around Fluttershy’s house. Tears of joy began filling her eyes at the sight. She dove between two trees, and was finally out. The relief of escaping the Everfree Forest had barely begun to form however, when something grabbed her mid-jump. She was disoriented as she came to a dead stop in the air, spinning around and falling to the ground on top of the totem.
“No!” she exclaimed, breathing heavily. Her unbandaged eye seemed to bounce around in her skull as she looked every which way for the attacker, but none could be found. She awkwardly scrambled to her feet, and for a moment she just stood there, shaking. Nothing happened. As she finally started calming down, she noticed that one of the trees on the edge of the forest was missing a chuck of its bark.
A thought occurred to her, and she quickly took off the harness holding the totem pole. Near the bottom of the pole, overlapping the front half of the strange pony was a large splintered area. Nothing had grabbed her when she jumped out of the forest. Her eye patch had just prevented her from seeing how close to the tree she actually was. When she had jumped the totem pole must have hit it.
As Twilight stood there, looking at the damaged gift, she started wondering if she had really seen anything following her in the forest. She had felt as certain about something grabbing her as she had about being followed. As she thought back on it she just... didn’t know. Twilight wasn’t sure why, perhaps it was just the adrenalin wearing off and her finally realizing how much pain she was in (not only had she twisted her ankle badly, but falling on the totem pole had left a large bruise on her back), or if it was simply the insecurity she felt from not knowing if she could trust what she saw, but suddenly she felt very tired. Twilight quietly fell to her knees and began to cry.
Between gasping sobs and desperately trying to catch her breath, Twilight didn’t hear the pony approaching from behind. It wasn’t until she felt a hoof touch her shoulder lightly that she realized somepony was there.
“Stay away!” she yelled, spinning around, the pony yelped and jumped back before Twilight realized who it was. As she turned a wave of pain spread through her back, and she wasn’t able to hold herself up. She stumbled slightly, cringing as she waited for the soreness to subside, “I’m... sorry Fluttershy,” she muttered between gritted teeth, “I didn’t know it was you.”
“Who did you think it was?” responded Fluttershy in an alarmed tone, her eyes stopping momentarily on Twilight’s various visible injuries. Twilight was scared, exhausted, and in pain. She didn’t want to explain the whole situation to Fluttershy. She just wanted to go home.
“Will you help me to the library?” she asked. Fluttershy was still wide-eyed and confused, but she nodded slightly and walked over to help.
“Thank you,” Twilight said in relief as they walked toward Flutershy’s cottage, “if you could grab that totem pole for me, I think I should be fine.”
“What totem pole?” Fluttershy began to ask, and then suddenly stopped as she turned to face it. As soon as she saw it she took a step back.
“What’s wrong?” asked Twilight.
“On second thought... Maybe I should stay here. I’m sure you can make it on your own. It’s not... too far after all.”
“Wait, what?” demanded Twilight as Fluttershy quickly began heading toward her door, “Fluttershy! I’m hurt! I need your help! Come back!”
“I’m sorry!” she squeaked as she entered her cottage, “I’m sorry! Just, please take that thing away from here.”
“Fluttershy... please....” Twilight heard several more sorries from her friend as she closed the door. A few seconds later the lights inside went out. How could she just leave her out in the dark like this? That wasn’t like Fluttershy at all. Or, perhaps it was....
As Twilight looked back at the forest and remembered what had just happened, a thought occurred to her. Maybe whatever the scari berry was doing to her had made this whole event seem worse than it was. Maybe she was letting the paranoia get to her. That was probably it. Twilight waited a few more minutes, hoping that the lights inside would come back on, but they didn’t. Eventually she limped over to the totem pole, feeling slightly betrayed, but trying to ignore it, and grabbed one of the harness ropes in her mouth. She dragged it along behind her as she slowly made her way through the dark streets of Ponyville, alone.
To be continued...
The door of the library creaked quietly as Twilight pushed it open. Without bothering to close it again, she dropped the totem just inside and fell to the floor. She felt awful. She momentarily considered falling asleep right there, but her soft bed called to her, and she forced herself to get back to her feet. She turned toward the staircase leading to her room and began walking toward it, but yelped in surprise as she accidentally kicked something. She felt a sharp pain as a jagged edge of the object caught the skin of her leg, tearing it open. She took a quick step back, only then realizing that she had forgotten the totem pole lying on the ground next to her.
Twilight lifted her front leg to her face to inspect the cut. It wasn’t serious, but it wasn’t a clean cut either. It would take a long time to heal, and even then it would probably leave a scar. She glared at the totem pole angrily. That was the second time it had hurt her today. If she didn’t know better she would say it was cursed.
Twilight walked back over to the totem pole and stood it up to see what part of it had cut her. She used her horn to provide herself some light in the darkness. Almost immediately it became apparent what had caused the injury. As the light of her horn passed over the strange pony, she noticed a thin line of blood where the tree had splintered it earlier. Twilight noticed with little amusement that it made the pony look somewhat like it was wearing a red tie. She also realized that this probably could have been avoided had she placed it in the ground outside her house like Zecora had told her. It was too late for that now though.
In a very uncaring manner, Twilight tossed the heavy totem pole onto a nearby table and headed for the stairs. She didn’t even look back when she heard it roll off and fall back to the ground, although the continued sound of it rolling caused her mind to summon images of other things that could be making that noise. She ignored them though. The sooner she was in her bed and asleep, the sooner she would be able to forget all of this.
When Twilight entered her bedroom she saw spike asleep at the foot of her bed. This made her feel a little better. At least somepony was acting normal. As quietly as she could, she tip-toed past him and crawled into her blankets. She quickly closed her eyes and covered her head with a pillow. After a few minutes she started to relax. A feeling that was almost foreign to her at this point. With each minute that passed she became less and less alert, her breathing calmer and calmer, and soon she had fallen asleep.
Twilight’s eyes shot open. Something had woken her up, but she didn’t know what it was. She had the feeling somepony was there. She didn’t dare move. As her eyes scanned the room, she noticed a strange shadow stretching across her floor. The moonlight coming through the one window in her room showed that whatever was casting the shadow was behind her. Its shape looked similar to a pony, but it couldn’t be. Twilight just lay there, hoping that it would go away, but it didn’t. She had to stifle a yelp of surprise as it moved.
Twilight closed her eyes and very slowly began to roll over. Whatever was there wasn’t real. It must just be a hallucination. If she could disprove its existence then she wouldn’t have to be afraid of it anymore, and everything would be fine. Time seemed to stretch out as she oriented herself toward the window. Her instincts were telling her to run, but she fought them off. Soon she had completed her roll. She hugged her pillow tightly, and in one quick motion snapped her eyes open as she sat up in her bed. What she saw caused a chill of terror to run down her spine.
Silhouetted in the light from her window stood a pony she recognized. Although his head and body were the size of a normal pony, he stood as tall as Celestia, if not taller, due to his unnaturally long and slender legs. His fur was even darker than the shadows around it. His head seemed to be completely hairless. The light surrounding his silhouette revealed his skin to be cadaverously pale. It was the same pony from the totem pole. It was Slender Mane. Twilight couldn’t make out any of his facial features.
Twilight sat motionless as the gaunt figure loomed over her. What she was seeing now couldn’t exist. She had to prove it to herself. Fighting every urge she had, she slowly reached a hoof out toward it. She would place her hoof on it, and feel nothing, because it wasn’t really there. Then it would disappear, and she would go back to sleep, and everything would be fine. As her hoof inched closer, Slender Mane raised his hoof as well, reaching out toward her. It was extremely unsettling. When their hooves were less than an inch apart a ringing started in Twilight’s ears, then they touched.
A lifetime of terror flashed through Twilight’s mind. She saw her mother hanging by chains from the ceiling of her room when she was little. She saw her friends lying motionless in the crowded streets of Ponyville, worms wriggling through their flesh. She saw Celestia begging for mercy between two slabs of stone as they slowly began to rotate in opposite directions, and so much more. It was only at this point that Twilight realized she was screaming. She jumped back off her bed, but as she did Slender Mane scrambled forward, his ragged hooves desperately trying to grab hold of her again. His skin had been clammy and deathly cold. Twilight needed to escape.
“SPIIIIIIIIKE! SPIIIIIIIKE!” she hollered as she backed away from the horrifying monstrosity. In her haste to get away she hadn’t looked where she was going though, and backed off of the ledge behind her. Her muscles tensed in preparation for the impact, and she screamed again as she landed partially on a table below her, the corner of which dug directly into her already bruised back.
“Wha- Twilight?!” yelled Spike, suddenly jumping up from his bed, “what’s wrong?”
“Turn on the light Spike!” Twilight yelled in both pain and fear. Spike obeyed immediately, expertly shooting a small stream of flame at the lantern hanging from the wall. As the room filled with light, Twilight caught her first clear glimpse of Slender Mane.
His skin wasn’t just pale, but sickly as well. It seemed unhealthily loose, and had the same foul yellow tint as the juice of the scari berry. The reason that Twilight couldn’t make out his face in the dark was that he had no face. Any sign that he had once had eyes or a mouth were gone. Now there was only a smooth layer of skin hanging over his bones. The fur on his chest was splattered with dark red blood in a grisly imitation of his form on the totem pole. He was no longer scrambling toward her however. Now he once again stood silently by her bed, looking down at a panicked and worried spike.
“What happened to you Twilight? Where have you been? What’s going on?”
“Look out behind you Spike!” yelled Twilight, still in too much pain to get to her feet, “don’t let him touch you!”
Spike spun around and looked directly toward Slender Mane, then turned back toward her, looking more confused than before, “Don’t let who touch me? Please Twilight, tell me what’s going on!”
“You don’t... you don’t see him?”
“You don’t... but I thought...” Twilight stuttered. Spike ran down the stairs and was soon standing by her side helping her up.
“Where did all these bandages come from?” he asked, “is your eye OK?”
“It’s... it happened at Zecora’s,” Twilight continued to mutter, her gaze locked onto the frightful figure near her bed.
“Zecora did this to you?” said Spike in surprise.
“No! No, she helped me. It happened... before.”
Spike gave her another confused look, “Well I’m glad you’re OK, but I think you should definitely get some rest. You’re acting crazy.”
Twilight attempted to resist Spike as he pushed her back up the stairs, but he was abnormally strong for being so small. As she was forced closer and closer to Slender Mane, the things she had seen in her mind became clearer. The ringing began again. Soon there was only one small bed between the two of them.
“There you go Twilight! Now get some rest and tomorr- whoa, hey, are you crying?” Twilight was. She couldn’t help it. When she was younger she was afraid of the dark. Her mother would always come in the room and tell her it was alright. On nights like that if she woke up again, her mother would always be in the corner of the room, still watching over her. Now that memory was tainted by the one given to her by him. The comfort replaced by fear. Everything she saw had been so personal. So real. She could never have imagined such terrible things on her own.
“No no no. You don’t understand Spike. I can’t go to sleep. Please, don’t-” Twilight squeaked.
“You need rest Twilight!” Spike insisted again, giving her a hard shove into her bed.
“No!” she exclaimed, expecting Slender Mane to latch on to her again, but he didn’t. He just continued to stand there. Every now and then he would shift his weight slightly.
Spike let out nervous laugh, “You’re not going to convince me to change my mind Twilight. I can be just as bossy as you, ya know. You always get emotional when you’re tired. You just need some sleep, that’s all. Just lay down, and if you really can’t sleep I’ll... go make you some cocoa or something. Whatever’s wrong, we can work on it tomorrow, OK?” Spike walked over and snuffed out the lantern. Once it was dark he walked back over to his bed, pulling it slightly closer to Twilight before hopping in.
“You are gonna be OK Twilight... right?” Spike asked, but she didn’t reply.
In the darkness, Twilight looked up at Slender Mane once again. His head was turned towards her. Even though he had no eyes, she could feel him watching her closely. He didn’t move. Not knowing what to believe, she shakily crawled under her covers. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought it might break her ribs.
Twilight lay awake in her bed for hours. The only movements she made were those of her shaking in fear. The only noises she made were those of uncontrolled sobbing. She had never cried so hard in her life. There was nothing to comfort her. Only horrible images filling the dark places of her mind. As the moon got lower in the sky the shadow of Slender Mane stretched out even more, causing it to seem like he was towering ever higher over her. Only when Twilight’s body was completely exhausted, and the moon had drifted out of view, did she finally fall asleep.
Twilight opened her eyes. The sun was barely above the horizon. Despite her exhaustion she must not have slept long. One of the first things she noticed was that Slender Mane’s shadow was gone, but it gave her little comfort. As she got up from bed, she noticed that Spike was gone too. He must have gotten up early for once.
“Spike?” she called, “I need to talk to you! Where are-” suddenly she stopped. She noticed with a great deal of surprise that here eye patch was missing as well. She looked around to see if it had come off in the night, but it wasn’t anywhere to be found. In the process of searching she also saw that the bandages wrapped around her torso had disappeared.
“Wha?” she said to herself. Had Spike removed them while she was sleeping? No, that was silly. There was no way he could have done that without her noticing. She quickly looked over her room. There were no signs of them anywhere. Confused, Twilight hopped out of her bed and headed to her bathroom. As she tried to open the door she found it to be locked.
“Spike?” she called, knocking a few times. There was no answer. She looked behind her as the feeling of being watched began to envelop her again. The house seemed eerily empty. Twilight shook the door and knocked louder, but there was still only silence. Now she was starting to get worried. Her horn started to glow as she attempted to unlock the door from the other side. After a few seconds of feeling around, she was fairly certain that the door was unlocked. She tried to open it again, but it wouldn’t move. As a last resort, Twilight spun around and bucked the door as hard as she could. She wasn’t as strong as most ponies, but after a few hits she heard the sound of wood breaking and it swung open a small amount.
It was dark inside. Twilight tried to shove the door open more to let some light in, but it wouldn’t budge. Something was holding it shut. After some effort she managed to squeeze through the opening and land on the floor inside. As Twilight got up she looked around. One of her stools from downstairs had been wedged into the door to hold it shut. Every towel in her bathroom had been piled up against the far wall. They were smeared with something dark.
Twilight grabbed the stool and slid it out of the way, glad to finally light up the room. A few seconds later she regretted the decision. As light flooded in, the room took on a whole new atmosphere. The substance covering the towels had looked brown in the dim light, but it now appeared red. The mirror had been broken. Several shards of glass covered the counter, and Twilight noticed with a growing uneasiness that there were splatters of red on it as well. There was no way she could have slept through whatever had occurred here, no matter how tired she was. She stepped forward to examine it more closely and screamed in surprise when the spots moved with her. Her eyes widened as it dawned on her that the spots weren’t on the mirror, but on her fur.
“Spike?!” Twilight yelled. She ran over to the sink and started trying to wash off the blood.
“Spike!” she yelled again over the noise of the running water. She couldn’t gather enough of it in her hooves to get rid of the spots. She needed something better, like a washcloth, or a towel. She turned her head toward the pile in the corner, momentarily contemplating using one of them, but the thought made her queasy, and she turned back to the mirror. As she did, she saw something in the shower behind her move.
Twilight grabbed a shard of glass with her hooves as she spun around, ready to face whoever had done this, but there wasn’t anypony there. She peeked over her shoulder at the mirror, but whatever it was couldn’t be found there either.
“What’s going on?” Twilight asked, slowly lowering the mirror shard.
Suddenly a voice came from downstairs, “Twiliiiight!” it called, “are you here?” the voice belonged to Pinkie Pie. She was so surprised by it that she dropped the shard of glass to the floor, where it broke into several pieces.
“Wake up sleepy head!” came Pinkie’s voice again, followed by the sound of hoof-steps on the stairs. Pinkie Pie couldn’t be allowed to see this. Cringing, Twilight reached over and grabbed one of the bloody towels from the floor. She soaked it and brought it up to her face, trying not to think about the stains as she vigorously rubbed in on the splatters of blood covering her. Twilight exited the bathroom and slammed the door shut behind her at the exact moment that Pinkie burst through the door of her room.
“Hey there Twilight!” said Pinkie Pie, bouncing up and down.
“Hey Pinkie!” Twilight responded, “I was just...cleaning up. What are you doing here?”
“I have some super exciting news. You know how yesterday you were feeling super mopey?”
“Um... well... yes actually, but how did you know-”
“Well I was trying to think of a way to cheer you up, when I got a super good idea!”
“And what would that be?”
“It’s a surprise!” said Pinkie Pie excitedly.
“Is it a party?”
“Listen Pinkie, I’m not really feeling up for a party right now. I’ve got some problems that I need to work out.”
“I know!” said Pinkie Pie, “That’s why this... surprise is so special!”
“What do you mean special? What do you mean you know? Who told you?” asked Twilight.
“Why, you told me silly! Well not directly, but I guessed, and then I made Spike tell me the rest.”
“You know where Spike is?!” asked Twilight, momentarily forgetting her other questions.
“Yup,” replied Pinkie Pie.
“Where? I need to speak with him urgently!”
“Well, you’ll have to come with me if you want to find out... won’t you?”
Twilight didn’t like the way Pinkie Pie had said that last sentence. She didn’t like that she had spoken so slowly and clearly, she didn’t like that she had stopped bouncing when she did, and she especially didn’t like the fact that she looked straight into her eyes and held her smile the whole time.
“What... what did you do?” asked Twilight.
“It’s a surprise.”
Suddenly Pinkie was bouncing again, “Come on Twilight!” she said as she hopped out the door. Twilight didn’t want to go. Something seemed wrong about this, but she needed to know where Spike was. She wanted to know that he was OK. Against her better judgment, she followed Pinkie out the door and down the stairs. As she exited her room and began walking down to the main section of the library, she realized that something was missing.
“Hey, where did the totem go?” asked Twilight, scanning the floor in case it had rolled under something, but it wasn’t there.
“What totem?” asked Pinkie, “I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
“It was black. It had carvings of... ponies in it. Zecora gave it to me just yesterday! Where did it go?”
“Come oooon Twilight,” Pinkie sang as she hopped out the front door.
As Twilight followed Pinkie Pie down the streets of Ponyville she started feeling anxious. She thought she saw the pale face of Slender Mane in every dark window and around every corner, but when she would look again it would be gone. It felt unpleasantly hot. The ponies in the streets seemed to crowd around her so that she couldn’t move. Twilight jumped as Pinkie Pie started talking again.
“Hey Twilight!” she chimed, “do you remember yesterday when we-”
“No, Pinkie Pie. I don’t. I never talked to you yesterday.”
“Yes you did silly. You were sad, so we went to get snow cones, then you went to the doctor to have them remove your bandages, then said you had to go see Fluttershy about something and- what’s wrong?”
Twilight had stopped walking, “How did you know about my bandages?” she asked, “I came home and went straight to bed. I didn’t even see you until this morning. There’s no way you could have known, unless... what day is it?”
“It’s Friday!” Pinkie Pie cheered, “Now come on. We don’t want to be late!”
That wasn’t right. It had been Tuesday when she had gone to Zecoras. She had spent the night there, which made it Wednesday when she came home. It should have been Thursday now. Somehow she had lost a day. What happened? Why couldn’t she remember anything?
“I’m not feeling very well. I need to go home.”
“You can’t go home! What about your surprise?”
“I don’t think I can handle any surprises right now.”
“Oh don’t be a party pooper! We’re almost there!” said Pinkie Pie, pointing out the bakery. She grabbed Twilight’s hoof and practically dragged her the rest of the way. As she opened the door Twilight looked inside. It was dark.
“What is this?” asked Twilight.
“Go on in and find out!”
Twilight stepped inside, and Pinkie followed close behind her. As soon as they were both in, Pinkie suddenly slammed the door shut, and the room went pitch black
“Hey!” yelled Twilight in surprise, “What are you doing?”
There was no response.
“Pinkie?” she called again. Still nothing. As Twilight stood there in the dark she could swear she kept seeing movement out of the corner of her eye, but when she would look directly at it, it would stop. Soon she stared hearing sounds, like somepony shuffling around. She couldn’t quite tell where it was coming from.
“Pinkie? Could you turn on the lights please?” she shakily asked. No one responded. It was a few seconds later that the familiar ringing started up in her ears.
“Turn on the lights Pinkie!” she said insistently as she backed toward the door. She tried to open it, but it was locked.
“Turn on the lights!” she yelled as she fumbled with the lock. She knew it was him again. She needed to get out. Twilight started shaking the door back and forth in desperation, “Turn on the lights! TURN ON THE LIGHTS!”
Suddenly the lights flashed on and dozens of ponies jumped out of hiding. Twilight screamed and spun around to see Pinkie Pie and the rest of her friends standing among several other familiar faces. A banner hanging above them that read, “We Love You Twi”.
“Sorry Twilight!” exclaimed Pinkie, trotting over and handing her a piece of cake, “Some of the ponies weren’t quite in place yet, and we had to move them around. I didn’t mean to scare you! Welcome to your pity party!”
“After how weird you were acting yesterday we all thought we should try to cheer you up,” said Rainbow Dash as she flew over, “I told Pinkie Pie that a surprise party was a bad idea.”
“It’s a pity party!” she insisted
“Where’s Spike?” asked Twilight, still trying to calm down.
“Oh, he’s in the kitchen. He helped me make the cake. Do ya like it?”
As Twilight took a bite of the cake Pinkie had brought her, the image of her friend’s worm ridden flesh suddenly popped back into her mind. She tried not to portray the sudden urge to vomit as she swallowed the mouthful of moist, sticky bread.
“Well there’s plenty more where that came from!” cheered Pinkie Pie as she hopped away.
“Try to loosen up a little Twilight,” said Rainbow Dash as she patted her on the back. Twilight flinched. She had patted her right where her bruise was. As Rainbow Dash flew over to the dance floor, Twilight looked around. She noticed that all of her friends were there except for one.
“Where’s Fluttershy?” she asked, but no one answered.
“Come dance!” said Pinkie Pie, but Twilight shook her head.
“I think I’ll sit this one out,” she replied, glancing around suspiciously. The ringing in her ears hadn’t stopped yet....
After making sure that Spike was alright, Twilight wandered over to a table in the corner and sat down. As the party continued, all of her friends came over at some point or another and tried to cheer her up. They weren’t successful. The longer she stayed the worse she felt. Fluttershy never showed up, and no one had seen her since yesterday. The noise and the crowds had her feeling sociophobic. Eventually it became too much, and she got up to leave. As she walked over to the door a concerned Pinkie Pie intercepted her.
“Are you leaving?” she asked.
“I just... I need to step outside for a bit is all.”
“Wow,” Pinkie replied, “you really must not be feeling well. What’s wrong?”
Twilight didn’t want to explain the whole situation at the front door, but she felt like if she didn’t tell somepony she was going to go insane. Leaning toward Pinkie, she whispered, “Is there somewhere private we can talk?”
“Well, there’s my room upstairs. What do you want to talk about?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there,” Twilight replied.
“Okie dokie...” said Pinkie Pie, looking confused. Twilight followed her upstairs and into her bedroom. The room was perfectly circular with a few windows placed evenly around it. There was a fireplace on the far side. Twilight walked over to it. Pinkie closed the door behind her once she was inside.
“So what’s wrong Twilight?”
“Pinkie...” Twilight began as she turned around, but suddenly stopped. Standing directly behind Pinkie in the dark room was Slender Mane. As Twilight saw him the ringing in her ears doubled and her vision blurred. The images came back to her mind again, filling her with the same sense of fear as before. He took a step toward her.
Twilight looked around frantically for something to hold him back with. Some way to defend herself. As she passed over the fireplace she saw several fire irons standing next to it. She quickly grabbed one and held it out in front of her threateningly. As she did, she had a strange sense of déjà vu.
“T-Twilight?” said Pinkie, taking a step back and almost bumping into the tall pony behind her. Using his long legs, Slender Mane simply stepped over her and continued advancing.
“Stay away from me!” Twilight yelled, “Oh Celestia, don’t come any closer!”
“Don’t worry!” said Pinkie Pie, a look of distress and confusion covering her face, “I’ll get help! Everything will be fine!” she quickly opened the door of her room. As soon as she did, Slender Mane rushed toward her.
“NO!” yelled Twilight, jumping forward and swinging the fire poker at him with all her might. There was a sickening crunch as the spike sank into his haunch. As soon as it made contact more visions rushed into her mind. These were different from the others though. She saw these from a first person view. She was holding a fire poker, but she was somewhere else. It was raised in the air. She watched as she brought it down, then raised it again, causing a line of blood to splatter across the ceiling. She brought it down a second time. As she raised it again, causing another arc of blood to fly from the end of the poker to the ceiling, she noticed that there was a tuft of pink hair stuck to it. She couldn’t take it any more as it was brought down a third time, and yanked the poker she was holding from Slender Mane’s body. Blood sprayed everywhere, but Pinkie Pie didn’t seem to notice.
Slender Mane spun toward her. A feeling of terror passed through her like nothing she had felt before. She dropped the poker to the ground and backed away as quickly as she could, crashing into one of the windows at full speed and knocking it open.
“H-help!” yelled Pinkie as she watched the scene unfold, “Somepony help!” mere seconds later a stampede of hooves could be heard as the rest of her friends crowded the doorway, Applejack in the front of the group.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Pinkie pointed toward Twilight.
“Where’s Fluttershy?!” Twilight shrieked. She never received an answer though. As soon as the words had been said, Slender Mane bounded toward her. She screamed in terror as she fell from the open window. The last thing she heard were the alarmed cries of her friends. The last thing she saw was the face of Slender Mane looking down at her. The last thing she felt was her shoulder breaking as she hit the ground.
To be continued….
When Twilight woke up she was walking. She had no idea where she was. She was in an excruciating amount of pain. She felt light headed, as if she was in some sort of trance. It was all she could do to raise her head up and look around. As she did, a familiar scene came into view. The moon was rising. In front of her was a small cottage. Its roof was covered with moss, and several bird houses hung from trees nearby. Twilight was standing on the far side of a small bridge that lead up to the door. Through the window she could see a flickering light.
“Fluttershy...” she tried to call as she reached the front door, but her voice was too weak. She nudged the door with her head, and it easily swung open. As she stepped inside, she saw the source of the light. A wax candle was set on a small table near a reading chair. It was burned nearly down to the base. A thick book was lying open on the floor.
“Fluttershy...” Twilight tried to call again. There was no response. She walked over and picked up the candle, raising it into the air. Although the light didn’t reach very far, it was enough for her to see streaks of blood splattering the ceiling, just as she has feared. She lowered the candle again, illuminating the floor around her. She nearly dropped it in surprise as she saw a pool of dried blood in front of her. A crimson trail lead from the pool off into the darkness.
As Twilight followed the trail, it lead her to the backdoor of Fluttershy’s cottage, where another pool had formed. She had to set down the candle in order to open the door, and as she did a gust of wind rushed in, blowing it out. Now the only light was that of the moon. A beam of moonlight spread across the house as she opened the door wider, clearly illuminating the trail of blood. The trail continued for a short distance out the door, but then faded into the dirt. She looked into the distance, feeling drawn toward something. A far ways off, near the edge of the Everfree Forest, she saw something that looked out of place. An irregular shape that stuck out from its surroundings.
At that moment she suddenly heard a creak from behind her. She jumped and quickly spun around, but as she did she felt the bones in her shoulder grind against each other, and the pain made her stop. Instead she slowly turned her head to look toward the front door. A blue pegasus whom she recognized was standing there.
“What is this?” said Rainbow Dash, as she looked around in horror, “What happened here?”
“I’m sorry Rainbow Dash. I didn’t mean to. Please, don’t tell anypony.”
“You did this?” she responded in disbelief.
“I wasn’t myself. I was...” Twilight voice trailed off. Standing in the dark place between the small front window and behind the open front door was Slender Mane.
“You... you’re crazy Twilight. No one knew where you went after you fell out that window. We’ve been searching for you. We were worried. Now I find you here, and... this?” Rainbow Dash took a step back. Tears started falling from her eyes. “She was your friend Twilight! How could you? How could you? I’m gonna go back and tell everyone what you did, and then they’ll come for you... and you’ll get what you deserve.”
As Rainbow Dash turned to fly away, Twilight yelled, “Wait!”
“What?!” Rainbow Dash replied desperately, hoping that Twilight would say something, anything to make her believe she was innocent.
“Don’t leave me alone with him.”
Rainbow Dash shook her head, not understanding, “You’re on your own Twilight,” and with that she bolted into the sky. As soon as she was gone, Slender Mane began to move.
Twilight had thought that she was beyond fear. That despair was all that she had left, but she was wrong. As Slender Mane pushed the open door out of the way, her body once again filled with adrenalin. She needed help, but who could she rely on now? Quickly grabbing a piece of paper and a quill from the table next to her, Twilight turned and ran out the backdoor toward the forest.
As she ran the pain in her shoulder was so severe that she was constantly on the verge of fainting, but she couldn’t stop. She ran toward the shape she had seen earlier. As she got closer she realized what it was. It was a small cylindrical object, jammed into the ground at a crooked angle. It was black, and had several ponies carved into its surface. The totem pole that Zecora had given her. How it had gotten there was as much of a mystery to her as the rest of that day.
Upon reaching the totem pole, Twilight had to stop. The pain was too much. She didn’t want to think about what type of damage she was causing by running, but unless she let it subside she would pass out for sure. She took this opportunity to write a quick letter. One that could very well be her only chance to be saved. Laying the piece of paper on the ground, Twilight began to write.
Dear Princess Celestia....
As she continued to write, she heard an odd sound. A quiet scratching noise. At first she thought she was imagining it. But a moment later she heard it again.
Scratch scratch scratch.
Twilight tried to ignore it. She didn’t have much time, but as she finished her short letter she heard it yet again.
Scratch scratch scratch.
Where was it coming from? Twilight got to her feet and looked around. It was too distinct to be random noise from the forest. As she stood there the sound came again, but this time it seemed quieter. Twilight looked at the totem pole. Was it making the sound somehow? She leaned towards it, noticing for the first time that it was stuck in the ground upside-down. Slender Mane was now on the top, putting Fluttershy....
Scratch scratch scratch.
“Oh Celestia! Fluttershy!” gasped Twilight. Using her one good foreleg, she desperately dug at the ground. The dirt around the totem pole was loose, as if it had been moved recently. She barely had to dig a few inches below the surface when she hit something made of wood. As soon as she did the scratching momentarily stopped, then suddenly became frantic.
Twilight hysterically cleared more dirt away, searching for an edge to what she quickly realized to be a crude box. Once she had, she grabbed it with both hooves and pried up on it. It wasn’t nailed down, but the weight of the dirt she hadn’t cleared away was still substantial, and she heard something in her shoulder snap. A new type of pain shot through it that didn’t go away.
As the lid was removed, Twilight stared in horror at what she saw inside. Before her was Fluttershy, bound, gagged, and blindfolded, but still horribly alive. The blindfold and gag were completely soaked with blood. Her hooves were worn to stumps from the constant scratching. As Twilight reached down to untie her, she began to cry. Tears of joy or fear, Twilight couldn’t tell.
Once Fluttershy’s hooves were free she frantically climbed out of the coffin. She ripped the band of cloth away from her mouth and coughed, expelling globs of coagulated blood in the process, then proceeded to lay her head on the ground and sob even louder.
“Oh please don’t let this be a dream!” she whimpered, “I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die....”
“It’s not a dream Fluttershy,” Twilight attempted to say in a comforting tone, but Fluttershy reeled back at her voice.
“Twilight! I’m sorry for whatever I did! Please don’t hurt me again! I’m so sorry!” Fluttershy tried to get up and run, but she was still blindfolded, and was only able to make it a few steps before she tripped and fell. Twilight limped over to her.
“You didn’t do anything Fluttershy! I didn’t mean it! I don’t even remember doing this! I don’t know what to say. I-” suddenly Twilight’s ears began to ring again. It was shriller than ever before. She looked up to see Slender Mane stepping out of Fluttershy’s cottage.
“Fluttershy. I need your help. I know that you have no reason to help me, and if you don’t, I understand. I can’t explain everything, but if you have any kindness in your heart left for me then please, take this letter to Princess Celestia!”
Fluttershy continued to lay on the ground and cry, but she lifted the blindfold off of one bruised eye and looked at the letter Twilight was holding. As Slender Mane got closer, Twilight dropped the letter to the ground. She gave Fluttershy one more pleading look before turning and running into the Everfree Forest. Fluttershy watched her in confusion until she was out of view.
As Twilight ran through the Everfree Forest she caught glimpses of Slender Mane through the trees. Although he never seemed to be moving faster than a slow trot, he was never more than a few paces behind. Twilight’s shoulder had given out on her some time ago, and now she ran as fast as she could on her three remaining legs. She had to be close now....
Twilight suddenly found herself on the same path she had been on just the other day. A tree that was almost indistinguishable from the others came into view that she recognized as Zecora’s house. She urged herself onward. Just a little further and she would be safe.
“Zecora!” she yelled, banging on the door, “Zecora please! Help me!” Twilight heard movement from inside, and a moment later the door swung open.
“Twilight Sparkle? Are you alright? What brings you here this time of night?”
Twilight shoved her way past Zecora and slammed the door shut. She peeked out the window, searching for where Slender Mane had gone, but she didn’t see anything.
“It’s him Zecora. You were right. At first I thought he was just a hallucination, but he can’t be. He must be something else. I’ve felt him. I’ve seen him move things. I’ve even seen him bleed! There must be some way to stop him, to protect me from him. There must be something you can do to help me. You’re an expert on this after all, aren’t you?”
“I am,” replied Zecora, “more than you know,” something about her voice caught Twilight’s attention.
“What do you mean, ‘more than you know’?” she asked, looking toward her. As she did she froze in fear. Standing next to Zecora was Slender Mane. He was looking down at Zecora, one of his twisted hooves resting gently on her shoulder.
“Do you remember the story I told you Twilight? Of the village where the monk appeared those years later?”
“What- what is this?” asked Twilight, backing away from the two of them.
“It was more than just a story Twilight. I am surprised you did not see sooner.”
“I don’t understand....”
“That village was real, and it was quite prosperous not too long ago. When the body of the monk appeared, there were a few who said that he should receive a proper burial. That the rituals should be performed to free his tormented spirit, but the villagers were superstitious. They refused, saying that it was an evil act to try to free a being such as this. All those that tried to perform the rituals were killed. When they buried his body on the edge of the forest, there was only one who still dared to help him. She was so young. She didn’t understand what the consequences of her actions would be.”
“No...” muttered Twilight as the pieces began to fall into place.
“When the villagers found out what had happened they tortured the poor girl by locking her in a cage in the center of town, barely giving her enough food or water to survive. It was like this for years. All of the villagers taunted her. She only ever had one friend. Every night he would visit and share with her secrets. Teach her things that no other mortals knew...” Zecora took a step toward her, picking up a smoldering log from the fire as she did so.
“There was a river in the forest. When the roots of the tree reached it, the water became tainted. Every villager that drank from it became infected. They burned down the forest in an attempt to try and stop the spread, but they could not save themselves. That night the villagers tore themselves apart in their madness, amongst the flames and screams of the trees. Only one survived, because the cruel zebras had refused to give her anything to drink that day.
“The girl managed to escape that cage Twilight. She used what her friend had taught her to become a well known doctor in her land, but it was only a matter of time before her secret was discovered. When they found out about the source of her powers, every scari berry tree was burned. She fled to a new land, determined to be more careful this time. To only grow as much as she needed. To never let the tree spread beyond its borders, but accidents are prone to happen, and one day as she was returning home from a successful harvest, one did.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Twilight begged as Zecora raised the burning club in the air, “I promise, I won’t tell anypony your secret. Just don’t let him touch me! Please!”
“I tried to help you Twilight, as all friends should, but I knew that there was nothing that I could do. What has occurred can’t be undone. Now I implore you Twilight, run.”
As Zecora swung the club down at her, Twilight jumped to the side. Her injured leg prevented her from catching herself though, and she fell to the ground. As Zecora approached from one side and Slender Mane approached from the other, Twilight channeled all her willpower into a spell.
There was a sudden flash of light as a tower of flames erupted from the fire pit, causing the large kettle sitting on it to go flying into the air and covering the ceiling in flames. Zecora yelled in surprise and stumbled back as the intense heat caused the tree to catch fire. To Twilight’s surprise, Slender Mane stopped as well; looking over at Zecora with what she could only assume was concern. She took this opportunity to scramble to her feet and dart out the backdoor.
As she left the burning tree behind her, Twilight heard Zecora screaming. She glanced back, momentarily feeling pity for the zebra she had once thought was her friend. As she did she thought she saw the face of Slender Mane in the window, but a split second later he was gone.
To be continued….
Chapter 5: Missing
Twilight could hear Slender Mane’s hooves beating against the ground behind her. She didn’t dare turn to look. Her mind was so clouded with fear that all she could think of doing was getting away. She ran blindly, randomly changing directions in an attempt to throw her hunter off. She was completely lost, but this fact didn’t occur to her. As long as she didn’t let Slender Mane reach her she didn’t care. She was so distracted as a matter of fact, that she hardly noticed when she jumped over a root directly off a cliff.
The sensation of air rushing past her was the first thing that caught her attention. As she looked around she realized what was happening, but had no time to react. With something between a plop and a thud, she landed in a thick bog below.
“AAAAAAAUGH!” she screamed as the air was knocked out of her. She had landed on her side, sending the brunt of the force through her broken shoulder. She writhed in blind agony for several seconds, causing her to get sucked further down into the mud before it finally diminished enough for her to see again. Now she realized her dire situation. The mud surrounding her was almost like quicksand. In her flailing she had sunk so far that over half her body was submersed in it. There was no solid ground near enough for her to reach. She attempted to pull one of her legs out, but as she did something gave way beneath her, and she sunk up to her neck.
“Help!” she yelled, looking back up to the edge of the cliff. No one answered. For a moment she saw Slender Mane peer over the edge, then he was gone again.
Twilight’s mind raced in a desperate attempt to find some way to escape. There was nothing around to help her. None of her friends would save her this time. As she tried to go through every possible scenario in her mind, her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a loud ringing in her ears. Twilight snapped to attention. She looked around frantically, and soon caught sight of the pony she feared so intensely as he slogged through the thick mud toward her. His legs were sunk so far down into it that he almost looked like a normal pony walking across the surface.
“No! Stay away!” she yelled, “Don’t do this! Why are you doing this?!” despite her cries, he continued to slowly walk toward her. In a few minutes he had reached her. The ringing became deafening as he leaned down, positioning his face only a few inches from hers.
“Ple-e-ease!” Twilight sobbed, looking for any sign of compassion in his featureless face. She found none as he raised a muddy hoof and pressed it hard against the tip of her horn, shoving her deeper into the mud. Twilight’s eyes rolled back in her head as the terrifying thoughts forced their way in.
The time that Twilight spent in the Everfree Forest then was the worst experience of her life. After the first few hours she couldn’t even scream.
It wasn’t until three days later that the royal guard found Twilight in the Everfree Forest. She was severely dehydrated. Her eyes were half open and unresponsive. Tendrils of dried blood snaked out of her mouth in all directions. Upon returning to Canterlot the doctors had said they'd never seen anything like it. The damage to her shoulder seemed to be self inflicted, and was so severe that they thought they might need to amputate the entire limb. She had shredded her vocal cords to pieces from screaming, but none one could explain why. Her brain didn’t seem to have suffered any severe damage beyond that of a minor concussion from the fall, but she had nonetheless completely withdrawn into herself. Not even Celestia seemed to be able to reach her.
Reports from Ponyville were of no help either. Ponies were saying that she had murdered Fluttershy, even though she was still alive. A fire had started in the Everfree Forest at about the same time Twilight disappeared from town in the home of a zebra named Zecora, but when they searched her house there was nothing but ashes. No sign that somepony had ever lived there could be found. What was even more frustrating is that there were no witnesses to any of the supposed reports. Other than the bloody scene in Fluttershy’s cottage proving that somepony had attacked her, there was no other lead.
Now the two residents of Ponyville were lying in the Canterlot hospital, attached to all sorts of magical devices. Twilight’s heartbeat was higher than normal, but not dangerously so. Her other monitor showed normal brain function, but her eyes always seemed to be looking far away. She would occasionally twitch or make some small sound, but the doctors had said they were just reflexes. What worried them the most was when she would start crying. That shouldn’t be happening.
Fluttershy’s heart monitor on the other hoof showed a dangerously low level of activity. She had lost almost half her blood by the time she had arrived. No one knew how she had managed to fly the whole way. Whoever had attacked her had been relentless. Her skull was smashed on one side, and she had lost an eye. She had several broken ribs, her lung was punctured, and several of her vertebrae were cracked. On all accounts she should have died long ago, but she was holding on. Now she slept more peacefully than it seemed possible for somepony in her condition.
Celestia looked from one to the other, not knowing what evil force had entered her land and caused this abomination. As she stood there her sister silently walked up beside her.
“The sun needs to rise soon. Have you slept at all?”
“How could I when I let something like this happen? Twilight trusted me. I should have been able to keep her safe,” replied Celestia, a golden tear falling from her eye.
“Don’t blame yourself for this sister. We will find out what happened. Both your guards and mine are searching for an explanation; for a way to fix things. They are brave and diligent, and they work so hard so that their Princesses can continue to perform their duties uninterrupted. Please sister, even a few hours will be good for you.”
Celestia’s eyes continued to show the same amount of distress as before, but the rest of her expression softened, “You’re right Luna. I’ll try to get some rest, but if anything happens while I’m absent, inform me immediately, no matter what. I won’t have Twilight thinking that I have any priorities more important than her.”
“Of course sister. I promise.”
Celestia gave her sister a loving hug before hesitantly turning and exiting the hospital room. Luna followed her out, turning off the lights and quietly closing the door behind her. For several hours the only sound in the stillness of the room were the faint beeps of medical equipment, then suddenly somepony began to speak.
“FfffffluuuUuuuutterSshyyyy...” the voice hissed. The sound of it was so unnerving that Fluttershy jolted awake, the beeping of her heart monitor reflecting her surprise.
“W-who’s there?” she asked.
“WwwhyyyYY are littlllle fiiilliie’s afffrrrraiiiid of the daarrrk?”
Fluttershy looked over at Twilight. She was still staring blankly ahead. Nothing had changed other than the strange rasping words that seemed to be hissing out from some hollow place deep within her. As Fluttershy watched, she began to crawl out of bed. She dragged her body off of the edge and fell to the floor. Her arm, which was still connected to a support, wrenched her shoulder out of place, but if she felt any pain she didn’t display it. As she slowly got to her feet her head hung limply to the side.
“It’ssSS becaussse tthey know thaaaaat I can fiiiiind them in the daaaark.”
Fluttershy whimpered weakly as the thing that looked like Twilight hobbled over to her bed. It stood there for a moment, unmoving. Twilight’s head still hung awkwardly to the side. The one eye she could see stared blankly into hers, a stream of tears constantly pouring from it. Slowly, menacingly, the thing raised its hoof and placed it lightly on Fluttershy’s chest. She opened her mouth in a silent scream as the alarms on her heart monitor when off.
There was a blaze of light as Celestia channeled magic to raise the sun. The crowd that had gathered oohed and aahed as usual, but something seemed strange. The morning light was too red. It usually seemed refreshing to her, but this felt draining, like the last moment before the sun would fall behind the horizon at night. She was still pondering the matter when she saw two guards running toward her. She quickly flew the short distance to meet them.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. She knew something bad had happened.
“It’s Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle!” said the guards urgently.
Celestia didn’t need to hear any more. Before the guards had even finished speaking, she was galloping toward the hospital at full speed. She wouldn’t let anything else happened to her dearest pupil. In only a few minutes later she burst through the door of their room, prepared for anything, or so she assumed. As she took in the scene she could only stare in shock. A moment later the guards caught up to her.
“Wh... where are they?” asked Celestia.
“That’s just it Princess! The doctors heard an alarm go off in the room, and when they arrived they were gone! No one saw them leave the building.”
“We need to find them,” said Celestia in a strained voice, “Send everyone you can spare. Check the room, check the hospital grounds, check in the walls if you have to. Just find them as quickly as you can.”
“Yes Princess,” said the guards in unison, before turning around and dashing away.
Celestia gave the room one more glance before turning around and galloping away. The tall, unnoticed pony in the corner watched her go.
It was only a few days later that Fluttershy and Twilight were pronounced dead. The news quickly reached their friends in Ponyville. A service was held to remember them, but their bodies were never found. As the years went by, their friend's lives went on. The pain of loss eventually faded, and was then forgotten as the four friends each died in their own due time.
Ever since those strange events occurred, there were rumors though, of strange ponies lurking on the edge of the Everfree forest who wore pale masks to hide their faces. Ones that would snatch up little fillies who wandered too far away from their parents at night, “don’t you wander off,” they would say, “if you get lost in the dark then they will find you and pull you into the forest! Then they’ll bury in the ground, and you’ll grow into a tree. No matter how much we search, we won’t be able to find you among all those trees.”
The fillies had no reason not to believe them. They’d seen them after all. The strange black trees with yellow berries that only seemed to grow deep in the Everfree Forest. No matter how many they cut down, more seemed to appear. They heard that every time you would cut them, they would scream, and if you ate their fruit you would die right then and there. They called the places where the trees grew, “filly fields,” because that’s where they would bury the fillies they stole. It was said that the fields were haunted by a cloaked pony with glowing yellow eyes. Lots of fillies thought this was made up, but some older ponies swore that they had seen her wandering the fields, picking the berries from the trees.
The fillies would grow up someday and dismiss the stories as something their parents used in order to scare them into behaving. No one ever really wondered who the ponies were that lingered just out of view on the forest’s edge. No one bothered to find out who the strange shadows belonged to that could be seen in the windows of the old abandoned cabin by the forest. The same one where a pony was supposedly murdered a long time ago. They were fine not knowing though. It was just a story after all.
And everyone knows that there’s no reason to be afraid of a simple story.