Don't get me wrong, Zecora is a great host, though the rhyming does get a little hard to follow sometimes. It's just... Okay, there are plants growing through her hut. Like, vines and stuff. In one wall, and out another. Or out the roof. Which means that all sorts of creepy-crawly bugs and things come ambling through all the time, too.
Have you ever seen an Everfree Forest centipede? No? Well, I have, and let me tell you... Hrggblblblhhahaargh! Those things are just nasty! And they're the size of my foreleg!
Anyway, Zecora cooked up some stew for us that night: a nice, peppery vegetable soup with odd roots and stuff which she told me, in rhyme, she had collected from the forest around us. Then she showed me to a rough pallet she'd set up on the floor of her hut. Exhausted, I lay down and almost immediately fell asleep.
I don't know how long I was out for, but I woke up with this really creepy feeling of being watched. I looked up... Zecora was standing right over my pallet, just staring at me. For some reason, that terrified me, and my breath caught in my throat.
We stayed like that for a few seconds, and then Zecora spoke, in a slightly menacing tone.
"For one who snores so incredibly loud, Pinkie Pie, perhaps you'd be better off sleeping under the open sky?"
I took the hint, sheepishly gathering up my blanket and pillow, letting myself out of the zebra's hut. Outside, it was dark. Like, pitch-dark and impossible to see, thanks to some clouds over the moon. Almost immediately, I tripped over something.
"Ouch!" I said, then, "sorry!"
"No problem," a low and guttural voice said.
For the second time that night I froze in complete and primal terror. I wondered what it was that had spoken, but then I realized that I would much rather not know. Sadly, my blissful ignorance was soon washed away, as the cloud that had obscured the moon all this time finally got bored and moved on.
It was that vicious, terrifying manticore once again.
"Oh," I said, feebly.
"Hi," it replied, grinning through its ginormous fangs.
A long silence ensued, and the manticore blinked in confusion.
"So..." it said, adjusting its claws awkwardly. "You gonna run, or something?"
"I suppose I could," I said. "Should I scream in mortal panic while I do so?"
"If you like," the manticore said graciously.
"All righty, then," I said. "But first... is that a big, juicy rabbit with an injured leg?"
I pointed at some empty space. When the manticore turned to look, I bolted off into the forest, screaming at the top of my lungs. I heard the manticore curse behind me, then the sounds of its pursuit.
Thus began a merry chase as I dodged under bushes, leapt over ditches, clambered over rocks, and occasionally swung on vines, Tarzan-style. One of the logs I jumped over twitched slightly as I did so, then raised itself into the air behind me, followed by three other giant "logs". One of which was wearing, for some reason, a top hat and a monocle.
The hydra screamed, then lumbered after me, joining in the chase.
Oh, great! Now I'm being chased by a manticore and a hydra! What else could go wrong?!
"Ba-kawk!" clucked a cockatrice, rising up out of a nearby bush in a fine display of dramatic irony.
I turned to flee from the weird rooster-snake-thing, careful not to look in its eyes. What else? What else was in this blasted forest that was going to hunt me?!
Well, how about a timber wolf? I turned to run from it as it started howling, then stopped. Another monster, yellow and fuzzy, jumped out of a bush right in front of me! Now I was trapped! Surrounded on all sides by vicious critters!
"Roar!" roared the manticore, moving in.
"Growl!" growled the hydra, shaking the ground as it stomped towards me.
"Awk!" squawked the cockatrice, slithering up from behind.
"Awooo!" howled the timber wolf, creeping around towards my side.
"Pikachu!" said the little mouse thing, crackling with energy...
...wait a minute.
"Oh, man," I said, sitting down. "This is just a dream, isn't it?"
The monsters all stopped and looked at each other.
"Oh, drat and bother," said one of the hydra heads, the one with the top hat. "The little pink thing has gone and figured it out."
"Well, that's disappointing," the timber wolf said, panting. "I didn't even get to chase anyone."
"Go chase Pikachu," I said. "He's in the wrong cartoon anyway."
The timber wolf happily chased after the chubby little guy, who fled in a panic. The rest of us just sat there, basking in the awkward silence that ensued.
"So... what next?" I asked after a minute.
"I dunno," the cockatrice said. "Anyone wanna do something?"
"Like what?" I asked, ignoring the shrieks and the occasional crackle of electricity coming from the nearby forest.
"Would anyone care for a drop of tea?" the monocled hydra head asked, and one of the other heads snorted derisively. The rest of the monsters voiced a vague disinterest in the idea of boiling leaves.
There was another flash of light from the forest, a yelp, and a crashing sound. The timber wolf sprinted out of the darkness, his hindquarters smoking slightly. Pikachu emerged a little later, gave me a disgusted look while shaking his head, then wandered away.
"Anybody got a deck of cards?" I asked. Then something with far too many legs wriggled down my face, and I woke up shrieking and completely freaked out!
"What is this screaming I hear?" a grouchy zebra asked from her nearby bed. "It's far too early to voice such fear!"
"There was a centipede on my face!" I informed her, in my calmest and most rational screech.
"Did it bite you, or perhaps sting?" she asked.
I shook my head no.
"Then do not be frightened of just any old thing!"
I opened my mouth to say something, and then hesitated. How did she do that? This required some research.
"What would you have said if I said 'yes'?" I asked her.
"If you had made the claim that you had been stung?"
I nodded again.
"I would have had a different rhyme upon my tongue."
Whoah. She's good!
"Zecora, do you always rhyme whatever you say?"
She looked at me, still slightly cranky from being woken up so loudly.
"No," she said.
"Oh. Well, why do you?"
"Do my rhymes bother you? Is it something you would prefer me not to do?"
"Oh, no! I like it! I was just wondering why you do it."
"It is a cultural thing, Pinkie dear. These rhymes sound easy upon my ear."
"Oh. Well, I think it's neat!"
She nodded, seeming less cranky.
"Then I shall get us something to eat," she said, getting up and heading to the kitchen. Or, at least, the area of her hut that she called the kitchen. It was a firepit in the middle of the room with a huge cauldron.
I got up, stretching, and then started looking for any additional bugs in my mane and tail. I stopped briefly, when it occurred to me that she hadn't rhymed that last sentence. Then I realized that she had, but she'd rhymed off of my last sentence!
Oh, she is too good!
Zecora made some breakfast, by which I mean that she piled some vegetables and fruit on a plate and gave it to me. It was pretty tasty, honestly, along with the fruit juice she served up.
Then she slipped on an empty set of saddlebags, saying: "Touch nothing while I am gone, do you hear? These ingredients can be quite dangerous, I fear."
I agreed not to mess with her potions or ingredients. She stood in the doorway, just looking at me. I don't know why, but I got the feeling that she didn't quite trust me, all alone in her hut, with bottles full of rare and possibly dangerous chemicals.
"Pinkie Pie, would you please join me? I'd rather keep you where I can see."
Well! Of all the nerve! It was like she thought I couldn't be trusted, or something! I put down the glass jars full of various liquids which I'd been idly wondering if I could juggle and hopped over to the door, following the zebra out into the Everfree.
You know, this forest isn't so bad in the daylight, when it's not actively trying to kill you. It's pretty quiet, kind of tranquil. Or, it was, up until the point where Zecora started calmly pointing out all the different plants that were incredibly toxic.
"This one will kill you, with terrible cramping pain. This other one merely causes breakfast to come up once again. This flower here creates a pretty blue dye; but do not eat it, or your bones will liquify."
Mental Note: Do. not. touch. ANYTHING! This place is, like... super-Australia, or something.
Anyway, after she pointed out the first few instantly-fatal things, I pretty much crowded up behind Zecora's tail, keeping as close as I could. I mean, I was briefly considering trying to find a patch of Poison Joke and seeing what it would do to me, or maybe use it for some pranks (Flutterguy!). But liquid bones? No thanks!
It would sure make yoga pretty easy, though.
Eventually, Zecora finished getting all the stuff she needed to gather, and we went back to her hut. Much to my surprise, Twilight was waiting outside the door for us, tapping a lavender hoof impatiently.
"There you are!" she snapped. "I've been waiting for almost an hour! I thought I told you to stay here!"
Whoah! Cranky Twilight alert!
"Sorry," I said, "Zecora wanted me to come with her. Something about not wanting me to juggle delicate containers of volatile liquids, or something like that."
Zecora gave me an 'I knew it!' kind of a look.
"Never mind that. I heard back from the palace. Celestia is gone!"
"What?" I said, honestly surprised and, if I had to admit it, more than a little alarmed. "Did she get kidnapped? Er... Pony-napped... no... Princess-napped?"
"Abducted?" Twilight said in a snarky deadpan.
"No, she's on some urgent diplomatic mission to the Griffon Kingdom, and won't be back for weeks. Luna's apparently overwhelmed with the day-to-day running of the country. Her knowledge of law and tax codes are a millennium out of date, and she keeps yelling at everypony."
"Royal Canterlot voice?" I asked.
"No, frustration." Twilight replied, seeming a little frustrated, herself. "Luna said she'd look into your situation at her earliest opportunity, but that might not be for a few days. She also said she's never heard of anything that can switch a pony's mind for a creature's from an entirely different world."
"Have my ears led me astray?" Zecora asked, looking surprised. "What is this you say?"
"Rainbow Dash didn't tell you that Pinkie is claiming she's really an alien trapped in Pinkie's body?" Twilight asked, frowning.
"She neglected to relay that information, I fear. That is something I would have liked to hear."
"Well, why didn't you say anything, then?" Twilight asked me, crossly. Man, that unicorn really got the whole 'annoyed' thing down pat!
"Hey, everypony I tell that to thinks I'm crazy. If I told Zecora, she'd think I was crazy, too," I said, by way of an admittedly lame explanation.
Zecora looked at me with an unreadable expression for a longer time than I was, strictly speaking, comfortable with.
"We should discuss this matter inside my hut," she said, eventually. "Where I fully expect to be told what is what."
Feeling slightly embarrassed, I followed the zebra into the hut, followed by a grumbling Twilight.
Once again, I related the whole 'looked into a mirror, saw Pinkie Pie, became Pinkie Pie, had epic adventures' story that I'd told Twilight and company the previous evening. This time, though, things were different. Zecora looked at me with a very thoughtful expression.
"It seems you may have run afoul of mirror magic," Zecora said. "The results of which are often-"
"Wait, you believe her, just like that?" Twilight blurted out, looking shocked.
"- quite tragic," Zecora finished, giving Twilight an annoyed look. "I believe what she says may very well be true. All that remains is to determine what to do."
"Wow," Twilight said, sitting down. "I guess if you say it's possible..."
I snorted in frustration. I say what happened, and she thinks I'm most likely just nuts. Zecora says it's possible, and suddenly, Twilight's ready to believe without hesitation. What was I, chopped celery? And I say celery, because ponies don't eat liver. At least, not outside of a Fallout Equestria fic.
"Skyggie, known as the Shadow Witch, is the one you should seek. The voyage to her castle should take less than a week. I do not believe this is her doing, though she may have answers to the questions you are pursuing."
Yes! Epic Voyage of Friendship! A potential mysterious new foe appears! This was going to be great!
"I think it would be better to wait for Celestia," Twilight said, crushing my hopes beneath her tiny purple hooves. "If anypony can set this right, it's her."
Argh! Adventure-blocked by Twilight Sparkle! It made me sad. I had to convince her!
"That's a bad idea," I told her.
"What do you mean?"
"Look, doesn't it seem odd that all this just happened while Celestia is out of the country?" I pointed out. Hey, I spend tons of time on internet. I can spin conspiracy theories with the best of them! Twilight looked thoughtful, but not convinced.
"Besides, there are two possibilities," I continued. "Either I'm nuts, in which case we waste a few days traveling, or I'm telling the truth. In which case, Pinkie Pie, your Pinkie Pie, could be in real danger. Not to mention, if part of the plan was to get Celestia out of the way, then this could be part of a plot against Equestria itself!"
Okay, I was laying it on a little thick, there. But, bless Twilight Sparkle's adorkable little heart, she ate that up with a spoon!
"You're right." she said slowly, then repeated more forcefully, "You're right! I'll get the others, and we'll be back here before noon."
"Awesome!" I said. "Let's go get her! With a name like that, she has to be evil!"
"In all honesty, she is quite nice," Zecora said. "I simply suggested her as someone to ask for advice."
Man, what is it with these ponies (and zebra), harshing my adventure buzz? Anyway, I had a hard time believing that someone with a name as ominous as 'the Shadow Witch' wasn't involved somehow.
"Zecora, would you be kind enough to draw us a map to where we can find this... Shadow Witch?" Twilight asked.
"I'll gladly make a map for you, in order to see you through. Castle Penumbra is where you will find her abode, simply by following the western road."
I groaned melodramatically.
"Oh, man, we have to go through the forest? There are so many things in here that want to kill me!"
"You shall be fine, my dear. Your friends will help to see you clear."
"Right," Twilight said, pulling out her 'decisive voice'. "You wait here, try not to drive Zecora crazy, and I'll go gather the others."
I watched the lavender unicorn gallop off, then looked towards the now slightly nervous-looking Zecora.
"Say, Zecora," I said, grinning. "Would you happen to have a deck of cards?"