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“I’m scared,” mumbled Silver Heart, latching onto Chip’s leg.
“Don’t worry, I’m here. Nothing bad is going to happen,” assured the changeling. It was as much directed to the filly as to himself.
In the dark, the two could see a small light burning inside one of the windows – a candle perhaps. The whole setting seemed quite creepy, especially the masks, staring down the incoming equines. Chip could swear he was hearing some kind of low growl coming from the tree’s direction, a monotonous bubbling sound.
The colt stopped a hoof away from the doors. Silver Heart was trembling behind his back. Gulping, he knocked, the sound ominous in the setting night. A few birds flew out from above, causing the two to drop flat on the ground. Being this defenceless didn’t sit well with Chip. It was humiliating that he jumped at every shadow.
From inside the tree-house came hoofsteps. With a blood-chilling creek, the doors opened, revealing the strangest pony Chip has ever seen. He jumped back, huddling around Silver.
“And who is this at such an hour, Interrupting my evening shower?” asked the black and white striped pony, standing in the frame of her door. She wore a mohawk on her head with the same colour pattern as her body. Golden rings clanged silently as she took a step forward and squinted at the shuddering intruders.
“A colt and filly lost in the wood? Or is there something I misunderstood?”
“Why does she speak so funny?” whispered Heart, glaring at the mare.
“Umm…” started Chip, picking himself up. “Yeah… I mean no… We’re not lost. We were, umm, following that path,” he said, pointing from where they came from, “but it is getting dark and we thought we could find shelter here… Or around…”
The stare of the black and white pony was full of suspicion. Chip did his best to put on a convincing smile – somehow his self-confidence evaporated along with his changeling powers.
“Travelling Everfree is dangerous, There are many traps and monsters,” she said slowly, looking past Chip into the blackening thicket. “If it is shelter you seek, You are welcome here to sleep. Ponyville isn’t that far away, but it is better to travel in the light of day. Come in, now don’t be shy, being a good host I will try.”
Silver Heart was the first to break the ice with some questions – why was the pony coloured like she was? What were all the masks and potions? Why did she live in the forest?
Chip was stunned to learn that aside from ponies and changelings, there were also zebras. Apparently there were a lot of lands and countries he hasn’t heard about and the world was so much more than just Equestria. Zecora, if the colt remembered her name right, was a fascinating representative of her species – thanks to Silver’s barrage of questions, Chip could just listen and inhibit the mood and smell of this place. A strong herbal note was soothing for his nerves, making him sleepy along with the deep voice of the zebra, who always talked in rhymes.
“Your friend is very quiet. Is he perhaps on a word diet?” asked Zecora. Chip got nudged on the side by his filly, snapping him back to the present.
“Huh?” he said sheepishly.
“If it would not offend you, I would like to know you too.” The zebra smiled warmly.
“Umm, I’m Chip,” offered the changeling. “I’m… Well, from very far away. Maybe even further than you, miss Zecora. I uhh… There isn’t much to say about me. Just your regular pony, hehe.”
“He’s being modest, Zecora!” laughed Silver Heart, gomping her friend. “He’s very special! Did you know he can have a horn and wings at the same time? Just like our Princess Celestia!”
“Oh, is that so? Where did those things go?” asked Zecora with a raised eyebrow – she didn’t seem convinced, eyeing Chip
“Yeah, c’mon, show her!” The filly was excitedly jumping up and down.
“Oh my,” said the zebra. She pointed a hoof at the red clump of fur on his hind leg. “Is that a wound I see? Did it happen in Everfree?”
“Yeah… Don’t worry, it’s nothing. It’s healing nice I think.” Indeed, the scar didn’t hurt anymore, but moving the leg caused a slight stretching sensation, as if he had a muscle cramp or something.
“Dear Chip, that wound of yours will get you knocking on heaven’s doors!” exclaimed the zebra, picking herself up and bolting to a shelf with colourful bottles. She browsed quickly through them and picked one, a venomously green high vase. Before the changeling could react, she came up to him and poured the contents of the vessel onto his flank.
The pain bloomed in his hind and crept along the back, stiffening his body. Chip’s hiss turned into a legitimate yell when smoke rose from the bubbling wound.
“What are you doing Zecora?!” shouted the filly, dancing on her hooves in panic. “Stop hurting him!”
“I wish to hurt him not, but the healing hurts a lot. This wound is deep and dirty, we need to cure it swiftly. Otherwise, your friend could die, causing tears in your eye.”
Silver Heart was still unsure what to think of this situation, but remained silent. Chip was hissing and squirming, held down by Zecora who mumbled something in her native language. The little filly nuzzled the changeling’s muzzle, whispering some words of encouragement. That is the best she could do for him now – be there for him.
The pain was great and it came in waves, rippling through his body straight to the skull and drilling a hole there. Chip’s nostrils were filled with the stench of burnt flesh, making him cough. He was on the verge of passing out, but didn’t quite manage to breach the surface of unconsciousness. Magma seeped from his flank and he couldn’t feel his legs – somewhere in the background he felt Silver’s touch and the weight of Zecora pinning his convulsing body to the cold floor. If only he could place that bleeding leg on its surface, he was sure the pain would go away. He couldn’t voice anything other than moans and screams, though, so he just struggled to turn to the other side.
A surge of pain his his hind woke Chip. He didn’t remember going to sleep, so he must have finally passed out at some point. Bewildered, he bucked, hitting something with his hooves.
“Settle down you crazy colt! Do you want to knock be out cold?” he heard from behind.
“It’s alright Chip.” That was Silver Heart – she soared into view, holding his muzzle in her hooves and hugging him. “She’s just trying to clean the wound, okay? It may hurt a little, but you’ll be brave, okay?”
Strange. How could such simple words bring tranquillity to him? Chip allowed his body to limp – the fire in his flank was burning out, but deep under the skin he could still feel it, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Most of his view was obscured by the face and worried green eyes of Silver Heart – he managed to see a part of his wounded leg, furless and red all over. He could swear there wasn’t much skin on there either.
“Ugh, it was a nasty night. Back there you gave us quite a fright,” said Zecora, cautiously returning to shaving the colt’s leg with a knife she held in her mouth. She looked very skilled at handling that thing, tracing the blade around the enflamed spots – the cool surface of the tool brought a soothing chill with it.
“Another mystery is inbound; Blue stripes on your skin I have found. This symptom I know well – the work of Poison Joke I smell.”
“Poison Joke?” asked Silver Heart, turning to face Zecora. The fillies mane smelled like herbs, as far as Chip could tell. And it was soft. And his nose was full of it now.
“It is a tricky little plant that lives in Everfree. Do not worry, the cure for it is known by me.”
“But what does it do?”
“It plays a joke on anypony that touches it, although some of the effects might not be funny one bit.”
“What do you think it did to Chip?”
“It is hard to tell, really. Poison Joke can be quite silly.”
“Oh… Wait…” Silver Heart snorted, remembering something. “I think I know what the Poison Joke could’ve done to him… It wasn’t very funny. And it didn’t smell nice either.”
Zecora shrugged, deciding not to indulge into the subject, focusing on bringing the colt back to a working condition.
“This is the best I can do. My advice is rest for you. To cure the Poison Joke effect, Go to Ponyville spa direct. They’ll know what to do when they hear the name, the herbal bath I showed gave them fame.”
“Does that mean we have to go now?” asked Silver Heart, looking back at Chip. He was awake, but his eyelids fought to shut down.
“Oh no, sorry I made you feel like that Silver Heart. You may rest here as long as you need while I go to the mart. Now don’t let Chip get up just yet; He needs to wait for the cure to take effect.”
It wasn’t until noon that the colt got restless and wanted to continue his journey – Silver Heart wasn’t nearly as heavy as Zecora, but she tried to hold Chip down regardless. She even threatened to tell the zebra on him or buck his wound if he so much as sat up. Not wanting to argue, the stallion resolved to laying on a make-shift bed of leaves.
The filly was eyeing him with slightly blood-shot eyes – she was up all night helping Zecora tend to his festering wound, enduring the smell and sticky blood on display. Chip was impressed by her dedication. Did ponies look out for each other like that? When a changeling got hurt, it either healed or died, crippled. They were all tools and a tool that cannot be used has no right to exist. Especially when there are thousands of them, all capable of doing the same thing.
Come to think of it, him caring for the foal just a night back wasn’t natural to changelings either. All this again pointed to the pony origin of his spark mind which he grew so accustomed to. With not as much as a whisper coming from the hive mind part of him, his own thoughts were all that was left. Sometimes, he felt half-dead inside – not hindered in a physical way, but kind of slower and more unsure of what he was doing. There was nothing guiding him, he had to rely purely on his own judgement.
Being a pony was hard, concluded Chip, closing his eyes and trying to get some sleep. The comfortable weight of Silver Heart on his side shifted a bit – the foal was already snoring, a light smile gracing her muzzle as she travelled through her own dream-land.