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In the forest where the monsters roam
Which evil creatures call their home
A dark and ancient power sleeps
With passed souls which it keeps
A force devoid of warmth or life
The blood-stain on a blackened knife
It haunts the earth below the ground
Until its summoner is found
When it shall at last awake
And their body overtake
Granting power great in size
But taking without compromise
The Everfree Forest was not a locale to be visited lightly. It was no sunny beach for a leisurely vacation, nor a tepid but welcoming holiday foliage that greeted wayward ponies with open branches. Quite the contrary, in fact. Even at the outskirts of the great foreboding wood, ominous shrubberies and great leering trees of questionable origins stared back at passerby, sneering at them, daring them to enter the mysterious darkness of the forest proper.
It was not an invitation many ponies made good on – and yet, here was one visitor, unexpected; ventures into the Everfree were often preceded by ample preparation, or at the very least undertaken by stoic and steadfast explorers, willing to ignore the looming ever-present danger in pursuit of the mysteries of the forest. The pegasus flying at top-speed beneath the hanging bows of the trees fit neither of these descriptions. Her eyes were almost completely shut, and the wind-trail of her flight carried with it an echoing shriek – the left behind squeak of panic she was letting out at a constant volume.
Fluttershy did not like the Everfree Forest. That her peaceful home cabin was so close by had always been a point of discomfort – she liked to believe that if she vowed to leave the forest and its denizens in peace, they would do the same to her - and yet, here she was, trekking boldly forward into the darkest depths of the woods. It was not a decision she had made lightly.
The panicked squeak subsided, to be replaced with a more coherent communication – a frightened voice calling out into the darkness of the forest.
“Sir Roostington? Please come back! It’s not safe here!”
Fluttershy cast her gaze back and forth searching for an errant feather or orange beak peeking out of a nearby bush that might indicate the presence of the wayward birdl she had followed well past the boundary of both the forest outskirts and her own comfort. Commitment to the animals came first and foremost, and she couldn’t bear to think that one of her beloved creatures was wandering scared and helpless in the ominous winding growths of the Everfree - and yet, wasn’t that exactly what she was doing now?
The forest was too dense going forward to continue at any reasonable speed. Fluttershy’s reasoned that the less time she spent inside the forest, the better, but she couldn’t risk missing Sir Roostington in a clump of grass or tangled mess of tree branches. Besides which, given her eyes-half-shut method of flying thus far, she’d be just as likely to crash into one of the Everfree’s unpleasant residents as her missing chicken – or perhaps even just the unwelcoming sturdiness of a tree-trunk. Proceeding cautiously seemed like a much better idea.
A small bundle of dried leaves wafted upwards as Fluttershy landed, her wings sending tiny gusts over the ground, shaking the blades of dark green grass underneath. The path she had followed seemed to be made for her – it looked as though the native flora had grown up all around her, towering black oak trees and gnarled maple boughs tangling overhead in a mess of intertwining branches and dying leaves. The sky was barely visible through the cover of deadened limbs, with only hints of the bright blue peaked through the cracks in the cover. After several minutes of timid walking even those patches had vanished, and Fluttershy found herself whimpering quietly as she proceeded into the increasing darkness of the forest.
Over and over, she repeated a mantra in her head, willing herself to continue.
Don’t panic don’t panic don’t panic don’t panic don’t panic-
Her repetition was cut short at the sensation of a presence on her hind left hoof.
The branches of every nearby tree shook with the volume of her scream. Clenching her eyes shut in fear, Fluttershy dove forward into the closest bush, burying herself in the dense thicket that had guided the path thus far. After several seconds, she managed to open one eye and peer out of her naturalistic hiding place, praying that whatever creature had followed her had been unable to keep track of her movement as she dove to safety.
As her bright turquoise eyes peered out of the shrubbery, a pair of beady black dots stared back at her.
The pair of eyes bobbed back at her in response. Fluttershy poked her head out of the bush in hopes of confirmation – and there waiting for her was the furry white form of one Angel Bunny.
“Oh, thank goodness! Angel, you frightened me so much when you snuck up on me like that!”
Angel shrugged apologetically as Fluttershy crawled out of her hiding place. She shook one of her hind hooves after exiting to rid it of an errant leaf that had attached itself.
“I’m so happy to see you, Angel. This forest is so dreadful… even the trees look frightening. I’m glad I have someone to come with me.”
Angel raised one of his front paws and tapped it against his forehead in a salute. Though normally his behavior could best be described as ‘flippant’ or ‘sarcastic’, it was apparent that he understood the necessity of solidarity in his friend’s time of need. Besides which, it would take a heart of stone to be anything other than sympathetic to Fluttershy as she shivered underneath the menacing canopy of the Everfree Forest.
Fluttershy sighed in an expulsion of relief, her eyes closing briefly before snapping open in determination.
“All right, Angel, let’s go find Sir Roostington and get out of this awful place.”
The bunny nodded in affirmation, and together the pair hopped down the increasingly foreboding trail deep into the heart of the forest.
The deeper into the forest, the darker the trees became, and the more foreboding the ominous lingering aura of the forest became. Fluttershy had been visibly shaking at the very edge of the imposing woods – now she was practically forcing herself from a huddled cower into walking, prodded along mostly by Angel’s insistent encouragement, dragging Fluttershy along by one of her yellow hooves deeper into the Everfree.
By this point, Fluttershy was considering calling off the search party and making haste back to her warm, safe cabin far away from the miserable depths of the leering trees with their twisted branches, and watchful eyes of unseen creatures from the darkness.
“Oh, Angel, what if we’ve missed Sir Roostington further back? Maybe we should just turn around and-“ Fluttershy found her suggestion for retreat silenced by a glare from the fluffy companion at her side. Angel had an economy with words – or rather, the lack thereof – that was always able to bring his pegasus friend around one way or the other. Staring back into Angel’s insistent gaze, Fluttershy sighed in resignation, begrudgingly trudging forward along the increasingly ominous path to the center of the forest.
Where had the path even emerged from? Now that Fluttershy began thinking, she couldn’t recall a clear separation from the normally untamed and haphazard array of partial openings in the dense foliage. She had simply flown her fastest, and ended up touching down on the clearly linear walking trail. Following it at the time had just made sense… but now there was a feeling. An ominous foreboding, that made her feel as though the path – or by virtue, the forest itself – was leading her somewhere. Fluttershy swallowed loudly at the thought, prompting a sideways glance from Angel as he practically pulled her forward.
The texture of the forest was… changing. Even at the perimeter of the darkened woods, the trees had at least maintained a degree of natural formation and simplicity. Now they seemed… strange. More so than their simple intimidating nature had from Fluttershy’s first steps into the forest. Now it was as though the limbs of every tree-bough had begun to twist in alien way. Leaves sparkled in the darkness overhead, giving off faint glimmers of bizarre colours from out of the shade. It was enough to prompt more than a batted eyelash from Fluttershy, already more than sure that every unchecked corner of the forest was home to an unknown creature waiting to leap forward in search of an evening meal. Though her kindness knew no bounds for even the most hostile of critters, there were some animals that did not respond very well to pleasant, welcoming gestures.
“Angel, I really don’t think we should be this far into the forest,” Fluttershy whispered her complaint quietly, still well above the ambient whispers of the forest leaves and snickers of hidden creatures in the distance – and where her previous anxiousness had only received Angel’s characteristic deadpan stare, now he bobbed his white fluffy head in mild agreement. Neither of them had ever seen this part of the forest before, and with every inch it was quickly becoming a locale not to be visited again.
But to turn back now – that would be so much wasted time, and abandoning the poor helpless rooster alone in the darkness of the forest besides. Though Fluttershy was not possessed of the degree of fearlessness her more courageous friends were capable of demonstrating, her loyalty and concern for her animal companions was unrelenting. So if that meant trekking into the farthest unexplored reaches of the Everfree, then so be it.
With that thought firmly in mind, and her resolve steeled firmly, Fluttershy gritted her teeth in determination. Angel gave a knowing nod; he recognized that expression. And further forward the two of them ventured, down the winding trail that beckoned them to even darker depths of overhanging brush and leering faces carved in the boughs of the many trees.
The pair continued onward for several more minutes before Fluttershy broke the staunch silence of their determined march.
Fluttershy gestured pointedly towards the source of her exclamation – though, doing so was largely unnecessary. Angel’s attention had been focused there since the approach from several feet away. There, at the end of the path that had emerged from nowhere, guiding the two into the Everfree Forest, was the climax of its winding trail-work – an opening in the tangled tree branches and irksome shrubs, leading to a clearing. A huge grove, it seemed – and from within, emanating outwards, pulsing rhythmically like the heartbeat of the forest, the ground surged with a vibrant violet light, darkened underneath the canopy of trees overhead, but still illuminating everything it touched. Fluttershy’s mouth hung open in amazement. Though she had mentally prepared herself for any number of strange phenomenon during her unpleasant but necessary foresting excursion, crackling leylines of magical energy had not been on that list. Even Angel gawked wide eyed, astounded at the sight in front of him.
It was Fluttershy who broke the silence, Angel’s characteristic economy with words leaving him to absorb the scene quietly.
“Angel… what do you think that is?”
Angel shrugged, perplexed.
Fluttershy approached the entrance to the glowing grove with utmost caution, practically tip-toeing as her hooves neared the first point of the crackling lilac emanation. As it shimmered and turned in jagged arcs through the forest floor, an ambient hiss washed through the air, tugging at the attention of Fluttershy’s ears like a light left on in an empty room, or a shrill, constant whistle from miles away: loud enough to be heard at the back of the mind, but not definable enough to be pin-pointed.
Fluttershy hovered her hoof over the final step for some time. The point of contact between her and the sizzling energized ground was a mountain she wasn’t sure she was ready to climb, especially if she had no guarantee going this far was necessary in the first place. What if Sir Roostington was ambling along in some concealment of brush behind them? They should probably just turn back and search more thouroughly –
The warbling call of an errant rooster gave pause to her thoughts immediately. She swallowed loudly, her lips dry in anticipation of the plunge waiting ahead of her. Reaching to the farthest corners of her mental reserves, and reasoning in the back of her mind that, if Sir Roostington could venture this far, then there was no reason for her not to be fine – Fluttershy gasped a loud intake of breath, before nervously slamming her hoof into the electrified ground.
She let out a high pitched shriek that shook the branches above, sending all manner of irritated birds flying into the distance.
Hoof planted firmly on the ground, she timidly cracked open one eye.
Angel Bunny stared back at her with an unimpressed glare. He was standing amidst the swirling purple energy, tapping one of his hind legs impatiently.
“Oh… I guess it’s safe after all.”
Angel rolled his eyes, but nodded in assurance, before gesturing forward. The grove was much more open than the trail, fantastic in its size, but there was still a tiny part more left to explore, an area just out of the field of view from the opening’s entry.
Fluttershy gulped again, before placing her other hooves on the magical current and walking forward at Angel’s behest.
Just a short walk further yielded the de facto destination of the pair’s trek. Again, their mouths hung open in astonishment, but many seconds more passed before their awareness was recollected. Some time passed before the two could draw their eyes away from what they found at the edge of the flickering purple grove, what seemed to be the source of the mystical energy surging all around them. A giant stone formation – a circle, or runic construction of some kind. Five stone pillars reaching far upwards to the furthest height of the forest, arranged in perfect symmetrical formation in a circular fashion. Where the rest of the surging lightning underhoof was chaotic, it seemed to find purpose at the border of the stone structure – bright violet lines were tinted blood red, spanning perfect parallels connecting every piece of the stone formation in a bizarre criss-cross, like an ancient rune or arcane language long forgotten.
After finally collecting herself, Fluttershy began to titter nervously. Even Angel could feel a chill in the air – an ambient electricity that permeated the space between every breath, sending shivers up and down his spine.
“I don’t think we should be here, no no no, we should go…”
For once, Angel was content to agree with his companion’s cowardice – he had seen enough.
The two had just turned tail to exit the grove when they heard the sound.
The shrill caw of an errant rooster.
Slowly, Flutershy turned back to the monument. There, plucking idly at the shimmering red and purple ground, was Sir Roostington, oblivious to the terrifying ambience surrounding him.
“Oh! Sir Roostington, finally! Please, you have to get out of there, we need to get out of this awful forest, right away!”
The chicken squawked obliviously, pecking at errant strands of grass as he ambled in the center of the arcane circle.
“Ohhhhh, Angel, I have to go get him.”
Angel lifted a paw in pause. He would have normally been the first to suggest immediate action, but this didn’t feel right.
Fluttershy felt it as well – the uncomfortable ambient energy swirling through the air, the fear that caught every breath as the blood-red lightning crackled between the joints of the stone structure. And yet, what else could she do?
I have NOT come this far to give up now. Sir Roostington is my friend and I am going to get him out of here, no matter what!
And with that thought cementing her resolve, Fluttershy boldly stepped forward between the pillars or stone, into the great red circle.
She breathed a sigh of relief when nothing happened.
“Okay, don’t worry! Sir Roostington, we’ve come all this way, and we’re going to take you home, and never come back into this awful forest ever again!”
Angel nodded and waved his paw in a silent cheer as Fluttershy advanced with determination on the oblivious rooster at the stone circle’s center. Sir Roostington was ambling just outside the middle point of the arcane structure, clucking as he paced back and forth.
Fluttershy was less than a foot away when she heard the crackling noise, like lightning in the air around her. Immediately, her eyes flew downward, out of natural suspicion, but also in deference to the fact that her hooves were cemented firmly to the ground.
The eye of the runic lightning was coiled beneath her in a perfect circle, at which she stood at the very center. The air sizzled again, and her nose smelled a faint burning, like the particles around her being ignited. Scanning around, panicked, she saw the peals of crimson lightning arcing through the great stone pillars with increasing ferocity, spitting to and fro idly at first, but doubling in intensity every few seconds, until the obelisks formed a wall of electricity, separating her from everything outside the stone structure.
Over the swirl of the luminescent vortex, she cried out.
“Angel! Angel, help!”
But her words were drowned in the tumultuous sea of electricity that swirled through the pillars. The ground underneath her was shaking, making her footing unsteady despite still being entirely fixed in place by a mysterious force – like the binding of rope, locking her at the center of the glowing red circle. Its lines increased in intensity, glowing brighter and brighter. Fluttershy screamed until she thought her lungs would give out, but the arcane vortex only continued to burgeon.
And all the while, Sir Roostington pecked at the ground only feet away, still seemingly ignorant of the chaos surrounding him, as well as his keeper’s pleas for help.
The brightness had grown too bright to withstand, blinding in its power. Fluttershy shut her eyes, crying behind them, yanking at her magical bindings to no avail, wanting this all to be over, wishing she had never walked so deep into the forest in search of a single wayward chicken…
With the roar at the height of its volume, the swirling torrent of magical lightning surged and pulsed outward, before exploding into the center of the relic with a fracture that split the barrier of sound, separating itself with a sound like the sky cracking wide open. The stone rune burst forth with a purple and crimson wave of energy, scattering outward into the forest and disrupting everything in its path: shaking the tree-trunks and sending torrents of leaves tumbling to the ground, as well as tossing a distressed white bunny rabbit upwards into the air before gravity delivered him unceremoniously back to the forested ground.
The explosive swirl of power was accompanied by a final crack, like a mighty peal of thunder matching the simultaneous splintering of each of the five pillars in the runic circle. Around the grove, the magical energy beneath the ground had vanished. Now, only black shadows stretched through the waves of branches that surrounded the mysterious hideaway.
Angel struggled to his feet as quickly as he was able, disoriented from the force of the blast. Around him, several trees here and there had caught fire – not all consuming infernos, but tiny localized tufts of flame, like invisible torches swirling from the branches, collateral damage from the power of the explosion. Wasting no time, Angel dashed to the center of the stone circle, the pillars steaming from their conduction, their moments ago smooth bodies of stone fractured and damaged beyond repair.
Fluttershy was there at the center, collapsed on the ground, her eyes shut tight.
Words not being his strong suit, Angel ran to her, his eyes welling brightly in distress. Though he was almost always the figure of staunchness to Fluttershy’s timidity, the thought of world without her was beyond the grasp of his stoniness to conceal his emotions. Squeaking meekly to himself as he reached the fallen pegasus, he prodded her side lightly with his head, willing her with all of his might to rise, and to prove that she was okay. To his relief, Fluttershy gave a small groan, stirring every so slightly.
Angel practically bounced upwards in joy before prodding her again, gently, pleading silently for her to be alright.
After several more nudges, Fluttershy managed to muster the tiniest squeak before attempting to speak.
“Ohhhh… Angel, what happened? I remember seeing lightning everywhere, like a tornado, and then an explosion…”
Angel pet Fluttershy on her back reassuringly, his tiny paw tracing her mane in a soothing fashion. Fluttershy was always content to have her hair brushed, finding it relaxing and capable of relieving her normal nervousness. Angel continued to stroke Fluttershy’s flowing pink mane for a minute before pausing abruptly.
This was not the normal colour of Fluttershy’s hair. This was quite different.
The strands of mane that slid along Angel’s tiny paw were more than a single colour, to start with. Normally Fluttershy’s mane was a single, bubblegum pink – now, strands of red and black ran through it, like woven highlights, blending in with the gentle pink hue surrounding them. Angel noticed too, besides the colour; with every other touch, he could see another tint, coursing through the strands of hair, like a tiny purple lightning weaving along the soft, single-hair conductors.
His pause gave Fluttershy concern.
“Angel, is everything alright? You’re not hurt, are you?”
Fluttershy had turned her eyes mid-way to examine her bunny companion when they caught a more urgent sight. Immediately, tears brimmed to the corner of her eyes.
Several feet away at the farthest edge of the grove, a lone tree had splintered and cracked, separating into a fallen trunk and sizzling stump, traces of bizarre fire sprinkling the charred husk still rooted to the ground.
Underneath the burning bough now toppled to the forest floor, a pair of chicken feet protruded.
Fluttershy’s exclamation was the only cohesion she could muster. As soon as her eyes found the first evidence of a conclusion she wished so badly not to come to, the other pieces fell into place – or rather quite literally, were scattered in place just so. Fluttershy was close to every animal in Ponyville – she raised them, cared for them, and nursed them back to health – the latter especially meaning she was no stranger to the more unpleasant outcome of an animal’s failing health. Usually, however, the result was not quite so graphic. She wished she had seen just a comical puff of feathers and rigid talons signifying Sir Roostington’s departure from the mortal coil, but instead the forest ground was stained red, this time from no mystical lightning. Feathers were scattered here and there, but they were accompanied by tiny, more composed pieces – fragments of bone, and… less pleasant other fragments of the deceased rooster.
Placing her head in her hooves, Fluttershy began to cry.
She laid in a heap on the ground as Angel pet her back soothingly again – the explosion had been disorienting enough, but to come all this way… Angel was no stranger to death either. He was a roamer of the forest, and had seen more than his share of unpleasant encounters between animals in a state of disagreement – but the sight still unsettled him, especially in this level of gratuity, and it was something he would never wish on Fluttershy, as long as he lived. He knew she didn’t deserve this.
The wind whistled through tree branches above as Fluttershy’s tears dotted the forest floor. She lay there for several minutes before another sound joined the mournful hollowing of the passing breeze coupled with her quiet sobs. She heard a voice, whispering just outside her ear, or perhaps at the back of her mind, a hiss of the lowest volume just loud enough to make out.
The words felt strange as they echoed in her mind, rasped as though spoken through parched lips. Fluttershy raised her head wearily, the strands of her newly recoloured hair flowing down like multi-hued streams of a secluded waterfall. She glanced back and forth, doing her best to avoid letting her eyes fall to the scene of carnage already burned into her mind.
There was no sign anyone else in the clearing, save for the still concerned looking Angel standing by her side. And yet, there was a voice, speaking directly into her ear.
Stand up… it said again. Though the credibility of an otherworldly disembodied voice was inherently suspect, Fluttershy felt strangely compelled by its direction. Shakily, she rose to her feet, hooves gaining a hold on the ground as the mournful gusts continued to shake the boughs of the trees overhead.
Go to him…
There was further direction. Still unsure, but with little reason to do otherwise, Fluttershy’s legs carried her shakily forwards. She didn’t want to have to look again, to see…
She stopped a foot away from the brunt of the remains, turning her head to the side in an effort to keep her gaze away.
Fluttershy shook her head, but stepped timidly forward regardless. Every sentence sent tingles up her spine, making the hair on the back of her neck stand up from the feeling the haunting voice left in her ear, a combination of fear and compulsion running through her each time it spoke. She did as she was told, pausing this time only inches away from the pair of talons protruding from the still crackling fallen tree.
The voice was louder when it spoke this time, drawing her eyes open with its insistent tone.
What you must learn today… is that death is not the conclusion to existence. It is merely an inconvenience…
The sentence was punctuated with a small gust of wind, sending a clump of leaves tumbling upwards and off into the distance. All the while, Angel had stood, watching his pegasus companion with confusion from afar. He knew that dealing with the death of an animal was more than likely to impart some kind of mental strain – but Fluttershy’s behavior worried him regardless. He was torn between stepping forward for another attempt at consolation, or letting Fluttershy’s grief play out its natural course. But now, she was standing so close, he knew she wouldn’t want to see what was in front of her in any greater detail.
Fluttershy did not speak this time, having received no answer from her attempt previous. A thought simply played out in her head, intended only for herself as a result of the suggestion posited to her by the mysterious ethereal whisper.
I don’t understand...
The voice answered her almost immediately.
Her eyes widened as the answer echoed her own thought.
Reach forward, and let us show you…
Shaking, Fluttershy raised one unsteady leg, pointing her hoof forward at the feet of the late Sir Roostington. The wind howled louder,, like a the mournful cry of an ailed creature lamenting fate with its last breath. Fluttershy felt strange. Her foreleg was tingling, tiny pinpricks of static tracing their way through her body.
The ambient breeze intensified, growing more and more furious, swirling around her body like a miniature tornado. The strands of her hair began to lift into the air, framing her head like a multi-coloured halo as the torrential gust reached its apex, screaming outwards into the forest. Again, Fluttershy shut her eyes in fright, wishing so hard that she had never followed so far into the Everfree, wishing everything could just be better…
She felt a jolt run through her body, concentrating at the end of her hoof pointed outward. Peeking one eye open, a dark strand of something splayed outward, ridding her body of this tingling sensation as it did so, and ceasing the fervent howling of the wind as well. The gathered gust dissipated with a whoosh, causing Fluttershy’s eyes to close once more to block out the impact of the wind and the debris it scattered.
The sound of leaves and dust settling around her prompted another nervous peek. A pair of tiny black eyes stared back at her blankly.
The rooster clucked amicably, apparently unfazed by the last moment’s tumult. His head bobbed as he walked lazily around.
Fluttershy checked her surroundings. Though she was loathe to see the grim scene she had analyzed moments ago, she had to make sure. There under the broken tree – there was nothing but the darkened grass that had always been there. To the right, the tufts of feathers – they had vanished as well, leaving no sign of their presence minutes ago.
Sir Roostington clucked as he bobbed about in a patch of grass.
“Oh my goodness! Angel, look!”
The white bunny had been fixated since Fluttershy had stepped forward, so the demand for his attention was largely unnecessary – he was staring wide eyed at the now perfectly animate rooster in front of him – and, as an afterthought, gave a sideways glance at Fluttershy as well. Her hair had returned from its elevation in the breeze to framing her demure features, but the strands of black and pink remained. The former seemed perhaps even darker, permeating the neighbouring strands with the smallest flush of outreaching blackness as well. Angel blinked.
Fluttershy had no attention for the bunny at the moment, however. She ran forward to the now perfectly whole and healthy rooster in front of her, grabbing him with her hooves and bringing him up for a tight embrace.
“Oh, Sir Roostington, I was so worried! You had me so scared… I thought we’d lost you!”
The chicken clucked again.
“No more running off like that ever again, do you hear me? Come on, we should get out of this awful place…”
Uncharacteristically, the rooster seemed to bob his head in assent, and made no signs of discontent as Fluttershy placed him gently on her back where he settled in immediately. Sighing with relief, Fluttershy turned back to Angel, finally ready to make her way out of the ominous forest. Her welcoming smile was met with a look of incredulous disbelief from Angel.
She understood the expression. Moments ago she had been sure that one of her beloved animals was no longer for this world, having met his fate at the behest of a cruel magical mishap. But… here he was now, alive and well, and ready to follow the two back to their safe and comforting home. There were details she wasn’t clear on, mostly what had happened since they entered the mysterious clearing… and the voice that had whispered in the back of her mind – but everything was alright now, surely? She and Angel were fine, and Sir Roostington as well, ready to accompany them back home. She could worry about the details later.
“Angel… come on, we should go.”
She opted to forgo the explanation of her thoughts in lieu of making the trek back as fast as possible.
Angel was inclined to agree. He nodded eagerly, and hopped swiftly to Fluttershy’s side, the two of them beginning a brisk pace towards the trail they had followed.
As they exited the grove, another tiny breeze picked up behind them, blowing errant leaves skyward and sending rattles through the scattered tree branches. It carried, at its tail end, a darker whisper, the faintest words on the dying breath of its short lifespan before it dissipated.