Zecora wandered the forest in search of a fruit; she was brewing a potion that it would suit. Across her shoulders, a basket was slung. It had herbs, and roots, and other such fun. But her journey was halted when she heard a pained sound. She looked for the source, and found a pony on the ground.
The source of the noise was a white unicorn colt. When he heard her approach, he awoke with a jolt. But his strength had all left him, and he could not rise; instead he uttered the most pathetic of cries. He looked up at Zecora, and his eyes filled with tears.
"Oh no, a cannibal," he said with great fear.
He struggled to flee, but could not even crawl. His eyes became glassy, his head started to fall. Zecora took pity, and reached for an herb.
"Don't worry, young pony, this will settle your nerves."
Blueblood floated in a numb, cottony darkness.
He could feel memories pushing at the corners of his plush void, trying to force their way into his head. He ignored them. Here, he didn't have to think about the mistakes he had made. He didn't have to think about how empty his life was. He didn't have to think about what an embarrassment he was to Auntie Celestia. He didn't have to think about Cadance and her idiot husband, or that indigo-maned pony who had humiliated him in front of all of Canterlot, or that small-town school marm he'd managed to fall for because of one, simple gesture of kindness.
Most of all, he didn't have to remember that he'd left behind his life of ease and luxury to commit suicide by Everfree Forest.
No. Here, it was just soft, comfortable blackness. Whatever that cannibal had given him sure felt good.
Bright red panic suddenly filled the void. Blueblood felt himself rushing towards consciousness. Light started to stab at the corners of his eyes. He groaned and tried to stir, but found his body nonresponsive. Finally, with a burst of willpower, he managed to open his eyes.
It took a moment for things to come into focus. He was in some sort of hut. Freakish painted masks decorated the walls, and implements of dark magic hung from the ceiling. Long shelves contained an assortment of colorful flasks, no doubt evil poisons or bewitching potions. A kettle bubbled in the center of the room, steam rising through a hole in the hut's center.
The cannibal had captured him.
Blueblood groaned incomprehensibly, trying to fight off the effects of the evil creature's poison, but could only barely manage to raise his head before dizziness washed over him and nearly sent him spinning back to unconsciousness. He gritted his teeth and kept his bearings, but only just.
Well, he'd wanted to die, right? Being eaten alive wasn't the way he'd have preferred to go, but the end result would be the same. And besides, at least the cannibal would get a good meal out of it. At least Blueblood would finally prove useful for something.
He hardly stirred when the door opened and the cannibal walked in, baskets full of vile reagents across her back. She glanced at him for just a moment, then set about unloading her packs. Some things got placed on shelves, some got thrown into the stew pot, and a few others were hung from lines that descended from the hut's ceiling. When she was finished, the cannibal tucked the baskets in a corner and turned to the prince. "Finally awake, little lost foal? Good thing I found you, though that wasn't my goal."
Blueblood tried to speak, but his mouth was numb and the words came out slurred and indecipherable. The cannibal quirked an eyebrow at him, then smiled.
"The herbs that I gave you eased your illness and pain, but they have a disorienting effect on the brain."
What? The prince's confusion must have shown on his face, because the cannibal chuckled.
"What, did you think I was some evil mare? That you had awoken in my shadowy lair? I am Zecora, a healer by trade. Many I've helped with the potions I've made."
A healer? Likely. The book Blueblood had read on zebras as a child claimed that they were vicious monsters who cast wicked spells and feasted on the flesh of normal ponies. Everypony knew that they were not to be trusted.
His skepticism must have again registered on his face, because the cannibal rolled her eyes and reached for a small, glass vial. "Go back to sleep, oh paranoid colt," she told him as she approached. "Perhaps when you arise, you won't be such a dolt."
Blueblood struggled against the zebra's foul magic, but her words snaked into his ears and wrapped themselves around his brain. His eyelids grew too heavy to bear any longer, and the void reclaimed him.
Blueblood eased into consciousness gradually this time. He was aware of birds chirping and the sun warming his face. A blanket with far too low a thread count was pulled up to his chest. An odd smell, like scented smoke, filled the air around him. His eyes opened slowly, and he found himself inside the cannibal's hut once again. The fire under the cauldron had gone out, and the zebra was nowhere to be found.
He waggled his hoof experimentally, and was relieved to note that it actually responded to his commands. With a groan, he pushed himself out of the bed and stood. Every joint in his body pulsed with aching agony, his head still felt heavy and fuzzy, and his eyes weren't quite focusing on what he was looking at, but he was alive and not boiling in a cannibal's stew pot, so it was a net win.
Somepony had left a plate piled high with odd fruits and vegetables on a small table near the bed, along with a pitcher of water. Blueblood sniffed them mistrustfully, but a sudden rumbling in his guts reminded him that he hadn't eaten anything since those tasty red berries he'd found in the forest yesterday. He took a tentative bite of one fruit, an orange object with a hard outer shell, found it rather palatable, and set about devouring the entire plate.
He didn't realize that the zebra had returned until she set her baskets down with a loud thunk. Blueblood halted mid-chew, panic returning to him in a rush. He watched as the cannibal went about her business, not looking at or even acknowledging him.
Finally, the zebra glanced at him with an inquisitive expression. "I see you're awake and enjoying your meal; tell me, little pony, how do you feel?"
The prince swallowed his mouthful of food. "Better. Certainly well enough to defend myself. Don't think I don't know what you're doing, cannibal, trying to fatten me up for the slaughter."
The zebra rolled her eyes. "So much for hoping you'd be less dumb. Your accent is odd, pony; where are you from?"
"I am Prince Blueblood of Canterlot, nephew to Princess Celestia herself. So don't get any ideas."
"A prince, you say, but so far from your home. What brought you to Everfree, unarmed and alone?"
"Alone? Who said I'm alone? Why, I have a squadron of royal guards no doubt surrounding your hut as we speak!"
The zebra covered her eyes with a hoof. "The stories they tell of my people are mad. I rescued and fed you; am I really so bad?"
"Rescued?" the prince scoffed. "Hardly! I had the situation well in hoof. I just... was tired, you see."
"Exhaustion does not enter into it; you ate the red berries and made yourself sick. I know your symptoms, and you're lucky I do. Red berry poisoning has been the end of no few."
"Oh. Well." Blueblood considered that for a moment. "So you're not going to eat me?"
"I eat plants, berries and roots. The hunting of ponies is not my pursuit."
"Ah. Well, then. Um. Thank you for helping me, miss... ?"
"I already told you, but I suppose you were sick. My name is Zecora; hopefully this time it will stick."
"Right. Zecora. A... pleasure to make your acquaintance." Blueblood looked around the hut; in the daylight, it was significantly less terrifying. The strange masks were painted in warm, pleasant colors, and the previously sinister objects hanging from the ceiling were herbs and roots and other odd, but certainly nonthreatening, things. Reluctantly, the prince was forced to admit that Dangers of the Southern Lands: Zebras and Lemurs might have not have been entirely accurate.
He finished his breakfast with silent gusto, his only concession to manners being to chew with his mouth shut. Zecora set about placing sticks under her cauldron and lighting them with a few expert scrapes of a gray stone. As the water inside began to boil, she started taking things from her baskets and slicing them with a knife.
Blueblood watched her work, his curiosity growing. "What are you making?"
The zebra finished slicing some sort of plant, then placed the knife on her table. "A brew to strengthen muscle and bone. After you drink it, you should return home."
The prince snorted. "May as well stop, then. I'm not going home."
"You're not going back?" Zecora asked, turning to him. "And why is that?"
"Because there's nothing for me there. And I mean nothing to anypony."
"But you said you're a prince? Surely, you will be missed."
"Not particularly. I doubt anyone will even notice I'm gone. They'll be too busy fawning over Cadance and her idiot husband."
Zecora considered him for a moment, then turned back to her table and began scraping chopped bits onto a plate. "Ah, I see. You are plagued by jealousy."
"And complacency. And inadequacy. And depression... " he waggled a hoof vaguely, "... cy."
The zebra offered him a small grin as she picked up the plate and dumped its contents in the cauldron. "Most ponies would try to deny these flaws. And yet you embrace them without any pause."
"When you have as many as I do, it seems rather pointless to try hiding them."
"And yet you are humble, and clearly quite smart. These are signs of light in your heart."
"Humble?" He snorted. "You don't know me very well."
"I know what I see, and that is a hurting pony."
Blueblood gave a thoughtful grunt. He watched in silence as the zebra continued preparing her concoction, the steam rising from the pot taking on a slightly purple hue as more ingredients were added. Once she had dropped in the final piece, she found a long, wooden ladle and set about stirring the brew.
"So tell me, Prince Blue," she said after a moment, "what troubles you?"
"Me," he sighed. "I'm just... worthless. I've never been of any real use to anypony, but now, it's like any purpose I might have served is just... gone. I don't know where I fit in. I have no friends, nopony who really cares for me."
"So you came to the Everfree to find who you're meant to be?"
Blueblood shook his head. He'd come here to die. To starve, or to throw himself off a cliff, or even to be ripped apart by a monster. Just a few hours ago, he had been convinced that it was the only rational and noble thing to do. But as he looked into the zebra's concerned eyes, the words stuck in his throat. He looked away.
"I understand," Zecora said solemnly. "That is how I came to this land."
The prince looked up again in surprise. Zecora was staring into her stew, eyes sad and distant. "A shaman I was, or was soon to be. Respected and feared by everypony. But my chieftan took ill while my mentor was gone, and the potion I made to cure him was... wrong. I had not done research, had assumed I was right, and so my poor father died badly that night.
"I fled. I felt worthless. I'd let my own father die. I ran to the north, blinded by the tears in my eyes. Through savannas, through mountains, across rivers and streams. Until I reached the feared legend that was Everfree.
"I expected to die, I will tell you that. But, as I wandered, my knowledge came back. I could identify plants, animals, and tracks. I found places of safety, and where fresh water's at. I learned to survive, and never took ill. And I kept moving on 'til I found Ponyville.
"I was not at first welcomed, but finally made friends. And here I found purpose, and shall stay 'til the end. So I know how you feel, o wandering colt. Though you may seek to end things, you should not give up hope."
She continued stirring while Blueblood absorbed her story. "That last part didn't really rhyme," he said after a moment.
She just grinned.
"Honestly, though, I'm glad for you, Zecora," he continued. "But we're very different. You already knew what your purpose was before you came here. You knew about healing and mysticism and such. Perhaps you didn't expect to be practicing your skills here, but you knew your strengths already. I mean, look at your cutie mark. I bet that means 'magic healing powers' or something in your language."
"That is close, you see; it denotes alchemy."
"But look at mine! A compass. What, am I supposed to be really good at reading maps? Huzzah."
Zecora quirked an eyebrow. "Most ponies have a good story, I hear, of what events led their cutie mark to appear."
Blueblood rubbed a hoof across his chin. "I'm actually not even sure when it specifically did. There was... something going on at the castle. Some sort of attack. I was very young, I didn't really understand. But I started shouting at the servants to follow me to a hidden room I knew about. I spent a lot of time exploring the castle as a foal, and I'd found all sorts of old passageways. So I gathered as many as I could, and we all went there and hid. And when we came out a few hours later, I had this mark."
"And it does not seem clear to you what your cutie mark suggests that you do?"
"What, shout orders at people?" He laughed. "I suppose I have gotten a lot of practice at that."
The zebra rapped Blueblood gently on the skull with her ladle, drawing a surprised bark of protest. "It seems quite obvious to me, you know. You're meant to blaze trails while others follow. You find paths others can't perceive. Your special talent is to lead."
"Lead what? Equestria is ruled by a pair of immortal goddesses, Zecora. I doubt they'll abdicate just to make their idiot great-great-great grand nephew feel better about himself. Besides, even if they did, they'd probably just give the throne to Cadance and her numskull husband. I mean, great, if my special talent is leadership, what is there for me to lead?"
The zebra regarded him calmly, again stirring her pot. "You seek answers about your fate; I can help, if you'll just wait. You can put your very soul to the test; I will place you on a vision quest."
"Yes," the prince deadpanned, "wandering through the Everfree Forest while under the effects of hallucinogens sounds like an excellent idea."
Zecora shot him a glare. "This is an ancient practice of my folk; it has given many lost souls hope. I will brew you a potion and give you supplies, and you shall see your path laid out 'fore your eyes. So what do you say, o heartsick prince? Are you desperate enough to undergo this?"
Blueblood stared at the bubbling surface of the cauldron. This was, obviously, insane. He'd read about "vision quests" in Dangers of the Southern Lands, and how zebras would eat a paste that warped their perceptions of reality and would then wander for weeks across the savannah, usually starving to death or being eaten by lions. Granted, the book was proving less and less reliable, and pony-eating lions were unlikely to be an issue, but the Everfree was probably even more dangerous than the wilderness of Zecora's homeland.
To his surprise, Blueblood realized that he didn't particularly want to die anymore. Just talking to this zebra for awhile had made him care about living again. Part of him felt relief at that, but a larger part rebelled. He had come to Everfree because he believed, truly, that the world would be better off without him in it... hadn't he? He had come with purpose and with a noble, if grim, goal. But if his death wish was simply the result of loneliness, if a simple expression of kindness from a stranger was all it took to shake his resolve...
Then he was just a coward, taking the coward's way out.
"I'll do it," he said.