The dawn chorus awoke Zecora as reliably as any alarm clock. Despite the difference in its makeup, blue jays and robins instead of siskins and juniper babblers, she was always reminded of home. This always instilled a sense of melancholy within her. She didn’t regret her decision to leave her homeland but the memories, especially that of her father, struck a chord of longing in her heart.
Zecora had always been a realist though and her melancholy never lasted. It did nopony any good. A low grunt escape her lips as she sat up on the rug. The previous nights events ran through her mind as she looked over at her bed. The stallion had gotten under the covers at some point in the night. Right under, head and all.
Behind in my work and a stallion met only last night in my bed. I don’t even know his name, Zecora thought as a cheeky smile came unbidden to her face, Mother would go completely crazy! She could see the old mare now, wailing dramatically over how the West had corrupted her daughter. The smile vanished, And she wonders why I decided to move an entire continent away for ‘work’. Zecora let her thoughts of home rest as she got up to start the morning. The breakfast vegetables fell apart under her knife as her body operated on muscle memory whilst her wits was elsewhere.
The green stallion had not had a good night. What hadn’t helped was that the stripy mare must have left the candles burning for hours as the tree home had been very hot and stuffy. He’d gotten up in the night to see if he could open a window or something. That idea had been very swiftly snubbed by the thing looking in on the other side of the glass. It had rather a lot of eyes. He’d stayed under the bedcovers after that, getting what little sleep his imagination would let him.
The sounds of the forest and Zecora’s movements did not allow a lie in on the other hoof. The ruddy red light from the dawning sun soon had competition from the growing white glow inside the cosy little hut. Zecora said without looking,
“Good morning Mr. Snooze.”
A groan was the only response. Zecora looked over her shoulder whilst she swept the vegetable pieces into a pot. The stallion did look tired indeed.
“Sleep well?”, she asked, more out of misplaced politeness than anything.
Even if he’d been able to respond all she’d have gotten was another groan.
Zecora put down the pot and turned to her guest. She rested her head against a raised hoof and mimed sleeping, opening an eye and raising a brow. The stallion simply looked away and stuck his tongue out whilst rubbing his panda eyes. Zecora chuckled slightly,
“No matter. Some food and tea is all you need.”
She winced inwardly. Even when she didn’t have to she still rhymed inadvertently. She waved a hoof at the large cauldron in the centre of the single room,
“Could you move that for me please?”
She knew he didn’t understand her words but if he was ever going to she couldn’t keep mute.
A kick against the cauldron and the stallion got the message. Whilst he struggled with moving the large piece of cast iron, Zecora opened a lower cupboard and took out something very special. The cork-stoppered clear glass jar was not special but like with most of Zecora’s glassware it was what was inside that demanded attention. Laying softly within was a bright red feather, the tip of which had a small flame dancing delicately away.
Not long after the poison joke incident with Twilight and her friends, Zecora had had a second visit from Twilight. She’d bought with her a scroll from Princess Celestia. At first Zecora had been petrified that something had gone wrong with her travel papers. Her experiences with authority figures up until that point had not been positive to say the least. What was wrapped within the sealed scroll changed that.
As Twilight had unfurled the scroll with her magic for Zecora the feather had floated to the floor. As Zecora picked it up, Twilight had read out the Princess’ letter. It had been a simple message of thanks for curing her protégé and friends of the poison joke aliments. The feather was not so simple. The letter went on to explain that the Princess knew of Zecora’s trade and hoped her reward from the Royal Menagerie would prove useful. A phoenix feather.
Zecora took the feather out of the jar. Just as the Princess had instructed, Zecora always kept the feather in darkness for as the Princess put it, ‘A phoenix in darkness will always fight the shadows with fire.’ Whenever Zecora took the feather out it stayed lit for a few minutes, essentially giving her a infinite supply of firelighters. Very useful indeed when alchemy is your trade.
The stallion had finally managed to manoeuvre the heavy cauldron off of the fire pit. Taking some kindling from the cupboard as well, Zecora rebuilt the fire and held the feather in it. A few seconds ticked by and she was rewarded with the familiar sight of a wisp of smoke. She was in a hurry however, with a busy day upcoming and all, so whilst replacing the phoenix feather Zecora took a small hoof full from a small pouch. Returning to the fire she shooed her guest back a few steps and, whilst shielding her face, threw the grey powder she’d taken onto the newborn fire.
Green edged flames shot up almost to the chimney, taking the fire from fresh-kindled to roaring inferno before dieing back to usefully vigorous. The plant Zecora had just used was one of the harder to find but she was in a rush that day. She moved back to the bench and gathered breakfast together, the stallion behind her tentatively checking to see if his eyebrows were still present. Practice led to two pots, one of fresh vegetable soup and the other of tea, suspended over the dancing fire on a campfire frame. This was one of Zecora’s quicker breakfasts. It was ready in a few minutes and the hut quiet save for the crackling flames and two ponies eating with the silent eagerness of the hungry.
Gentle sounds of satisfaction emanated from both ponies, empty bowls and cups beside them. Zecora had noticed her companion had not used his, for lack of a better phrase, fire powers and instead had eaten Earth pony style. The tea had done him the world of good, his eyes brightening by the second.
“You get any brighter Mr. Shine and Celestia is going to think she has competition.” , said Zecora lightly. A politely blank expression was the stallion’s only response. Zecora settled for patting her stomach and making a questioning ‘mmmm, nice’ noise. A less than subtle belch answered that.
The stallion slapped a hoof over his mouth in embarrassment as Zecora rolled her eyes,
“The right answer is ‘Yes Miss Zecora‘.”
“Si‘a daai kun-na‘ Zicoora.”, said the stallion apologetically.
“I‘ll take that as an apology.”, Zecora said, getting up to put away the dishes. Between the two of them they tidied away the breakfast things and rolled the cauldron back to its rightful place. Zecora began pacing in a circle around the cauldron, an indication she was in deep thought. The stallion watched her endless looping silently.
No more hesitation Zecora, you need to make a decision, thought Zecora as she walked, What to do with Mr. Shine. Those ingredients need collecting today and that’ll take hours. You can’t just take him to the forest’s edge and wave him off, something will happen to him. I can tell. If we go into town with him ponies’ll be querying both of us ‘till sunset. I can’t bring him harvesting with me...
Zecora stopped walking and looked over at her guest.
She sat on her haunches and scratched at her chin,
If he comes with me I’ll have to watch out for the both of us, keep an eye on him plus make sure he doesn’t attract anything to us. But… another back to carry things means being able to gather more in one go. An extra pair of eyes wouldn’t hurt either. Besides, might find somepony out looking for him.
Zecora stood up, decision made.
“Alright Mr. Shine, time to work.”, she said clapping her fore hooves together. Mr. Shine, for that was apparently his name now, continued watching in faint mystification as Zecora went around the hut pulling down bundles of plants and gathering a few jars. She placed them all on the workbench and motioned him over.
“Now, we‘re going out for a spell. I need to find more of these plants and some others. Keep an eye out for them.”
Mr. Shine simply looked from the plants to Zecora and back again. He cautiously sniffed a couple before giving Zecora an expression of even greater puzzlement than he’d had already. She was clipping on her numerous rings both around her neck and left forearm, plus her grandmother’s earrings. They all looked like pure gold and like most things that did they were anything but. Gold-plated solid brass appeared the same but was cheaper and heavier. Zecora had even had a few incidents where they’d acted as both body armour and blunt instrument.
“Yes, yes, ‘I don‘t understand a word you‘re saying Miss Zecora‘ and all that but just stay still a minute.”, she said as she took a pair of weaved pot baskets down from a shelf and set about strapping them to Mr. Shine’s back. He stayed stiff as a board but didn’t try to shake off Zecora or the baskets. Tightening the straps with her teeth to her satisfaction and a slight grunt from Mr. Shine, Zecora noted the sun shining in through the window. They needed to get moving. She quickly attached the pouch from yesterday to herself and went out the front door. Mr. Shine was either learning or simply didn’t want to be left alone since he followed without prompting.
The early morning air was cool between the trees with dew covering the grass and ferns. After the stuffy air in Zecora’s hut the air was almost sweet to taste. Mr. Shine followed Zecora as they wound they way through the foliage. He felt better since breakfast, the much needed sustenance clearing his head and filling his belly.
Why am I following you?, he thought, keeping pace just behind Zecora, More to the point, is there anything better to do?
Mr. Shine was rather lost. He had no daily routine he felt needed doing. No tasks to sort out before the end of the day. He’d probably have just sat in Zecora’s hut for hours.
Maybe this is payment for letting me stay… Yeah, that sounds right. Who’d let a stranger stay in their home for nothing? Thought so.
Rationalisation made, Mr. Shine trotted up besides Zecora. They traded a glance and a brief smile before resuming searching the forest.
Zecora never left her hut around dawn and was always back before dusk. The forest was most… active then. With nocturnal predators returning to their lairs and the day shift starting to prowl, and vice versa, it was more hazardous than usual. She began to consider taking Mr. Shine back to her hut and simply leaving him there for the day. Her thoughts were interrupted,
Zecora looked at Mr. Shine. He was pointing a hoof towards a fallen tree. Covering the bark was an abundance of Evening Saints ivy, one of the more common plants Zecora used and one of the ones she’d shown Mr. Shine in the hut. Zecora mentally chastised herself,
Keep your mind on the job, filly. You should’ve seen that a mile away.
“Good Mr. Shine! Help me pick it.”, was what she actually said.
They set to work stripping the dead wood of its former parasite and stuffed it into Mr. Shine’s baskets.
Maybe this’ll go quicker than I imagined., thought Zecora as the both of them continued onwards.
Much of the morning was the same as many another harvesting trip Zecora had done. They would walk a bit then one of them would see a plant from the list or something indicating one was nearby, Zecora was the one doing this, and gathering would ensure. Only twice, a near record for Zecora, did the forest try to kill them. Firstly with a smell on the air of a manticore. Unceremoniously shoving Mr. Shine into a bush and Zecora lying beside him covering his mouth as the threat passed oblivious to their presence solved that crisis. The second was closer and nastier.
Mr. Shine had noticed what he thought was another plant from the hut and had gone to pick it. A sharp yank on his tail pulled him onto his rump. Zecora spat out his tail. The grab had been instinctive, ignoring the whole fire aspect. Apart from that it had tasted like smoke and felt like cotton wool. She also noted the lack of burning pain from practically eating fire. She walked to Mr. Shine’s side with a stern expression on her face.
The little blue flower was shaped like an upturned bell with large anthers feathering out from the inside. It stood out from the dense greenery surrounding and was all but touching the ground. Zecora shook her head and picked up a small rock from the ground. She accurately tossed it at the flower, brushing it slightly. From the surrounding bush thick vines whipped forth to grab the rock with great force before it ever touched the ground. They retraced back into the undergrowth as rapidly as they’d emerged. The whole process took less than a second.
Mr. Shine blinked in shock as Zecora pulled him to his feet and led him away,
“Ya-te-veo, the flesh-eater. Very nasty way to die.”
Lunch was a brief hoof full of hay in a clearing and a drink from a stream. Zecora promised herself to make this up to Mr. Shine with something nice from Ponyville, one of Pinkie Pie’s creations maybe.
The afternoon was less pleasant.
Zecora knew something was going on when she noticed how quiet the forest had become. The birds sang even when a cockatrice was passing under them. They knew what could and could not get them. A distant noise of cracking wood, loud in the silence, caused both ponies to start.
“Hide!”, hissed Zecora.
They scrambled beneath a thick bush on the edge of the clearing and lay in the damp earth.
The silence of the woods was unnerving.
The cracking happened again, closer this time, along with heavy footfalls. Fear had a strong grip on the harvesters now. Ponies being a flight rather than fight species had to try harder than most to stay still when danger is near. Especially when it passes mere feet from them and is large enough to block out the sun.
Mr. Shine could feel Zecora huddled next to him. She was trembling. This did not encourage him. What he didn’t know was that at least some of the trembling was excitement. Zecora was looking at one of the reasons she had come to the Everfree Forest.
Black Beast! Living Shadow! Nargacuga!, the names of the beast crossing the clearing ran through Zecora’s head as she took in it’s savage majesty.
Black was not an accurate enough way to describe it’s colour. Light seemed to fall into it, a moving shadow in full daylight. If a tiger, a bat and a crocodile had been melded together by some sadistic demon it would be nothing compared to this creature. Vestigial wings stretched out on it’s forelegs as it squatted down to drink from the same stream Zecora and Mr. Shine had been doing the same scant seconds ago. The edge of the wings caught the light, the reflection merely hinting at the sharpness of them. The disproportionate tail was what entranced Zecora though, its spiked length swaying side to side as the beast drank.
The reality of the situation was just starting to sink in through Zecora’s excitement. Yes, she was witnessing one of the rarest creatures on the planet. Yes, it potentially held the solution to a lot of her problems. Equally, it could kill them both faster than they could blink and for no other reason than it knew they were there. The stories told of the Living Shadow’s insatiable bloodlust and violence in great detail.
Fortune was smiling on Zecora that day. The Black Beast stopped drinking and looked up out into the forest in front of it. It’s hackles rose, the spikes on the tail rising to attention and a hiss rumbling from deep within the throat. The threat display was ignored by the white blur that crashed onto the Nargacuga’s head, forcing it into the stream. The Living Shadow whipped it’s tail up and at the unseen assailant, smashing several trees in half with the force of the blow. Whatever had attacked it leapt back in a blur to within the depths of the forest. The Nargacuga sprang after it silently. It’s entire focus was on the death of the attacker.
The event had occurred in moments. Neither of the watching ponies had moved or so much as drawn breath. The sounds of the fight moved away, deeper into the forest. Zecora was the first to breathe out in an overawed sigh. As she made to stand up Mr. Shine quickly used his foreleg to push her back down to the ground. He was beyond scared. Anypony could see he was terrified. Zecora felt a twitch of guilt and pity add themselves to the roiling emotions the fight had sprung within her. This kind of thing had gotten under her normally calm and composed skin. Mr. Shine had probably never seen anything like this in his life.
The stallion came out of his horrified trance to see Zecora out of the corner of his eye. With eyes shut she was nuzzling him under his jaw.
“Its okay, its okay.”, murmured Zecora in a comforting tone.
She could feel the rapid heartbeat in his jugular vein slow as she continued to soothe him. The demands of his body finally overcame his mind and he gasped, desperately drawing in the air his fear had denied him.
Zecora felt him move his foreleg from her back as he calmed down. She stopped nuzzling and stood up. Moving forward carefully from the bush, her every sense heightened for danger, Zecora took in the clearing. The Black Beast had made a mess indeed. Not only were there the trees it had decapitated but the deep paw prints and drag marks from the tail. Zecora’s observational skills made her wonder why this creature was so hard to find. Even Mr. Shine could follow this trail.
Of course, Zecora thought as she walked cautiously towards the ambush site, we tended to kill them whenever they did show up so it is not they’re hard to find, there’s just not that many of them.
The sound of birdsong returning to the forest coached Mr. Shine from his hidey-hole. He trotted quickly over to Zecora who was inspecting the ground around the stream where the black nightmare had been. She looked over to him and enthusiastically beckoned him over.
“Quick! Help me gather this stuff before it comes back!”, said Zecora as she rummaged around in one of Mr. Shine’s baskets. She took out a glass vial, a broad spatula like implement and a roll of matted fur-like material. With the speed of an expert she scraped a patch of blood off the grass and put it into the vial. Mr. Shine had gone over to the decimated trees and was poking hesitantly at something embedded in the wood.
Zecora hurried over, the fur material in her teeth, and shooed Mr. Shine aside. She was so excited she babbled a bit as she worked,
“Oh Mr. Shine, you have no idea what a big deal this is! Not only have I just confirmed the Beast‘s pan-continental status, that blood is the first fresh sample in decades! Who knows what it can do? But these,” she paused as she yanked the object out of the wood, “are worth more than you can imagine!”
Mr. Shine looked at polite incomprehension at the sliver of darkness held carefully in Zecora’s teeth. It was one of the spines from the Beast’s tail. A foot long and wicked looking, it resembled a double-edged sword rather than something nature had come up with. He took in the ruined trees and saw there were several more such spines piercing them. Between them they managed to extracted the spines and wrap them in the fur, placing the package back into the basket.
Zecora was nearly giddy with exhilaration,
“The fur? Its bantho pelt. Tough stuff. Those spines will still shred it but it should last until we get home.”
She couldn’t contain herself any longer and reared up, clapped her hooves together and dancing in place like an over-excited school filly whilst giggling. Mr. Shine couldn’t help but grin at the sight of the ever calm and composed zebra showing such raw emotion. The grin was joined by raised eyebrows as Zecora pulled him into a hug.
“You‘re like a lucky charm Mr. Shine! Thank you.”, Zecora’s sheer happiness lending a tremor to her voice. Mr. Shine’s face softened as he shut his eyes and returned the embrace.
They stayed together like that for a few long seconds before Zecora drew back. A slight blush was visible under her stripes.
“Um, yes, good work today.”, she said as she turned her head to fiddle with her pouch, more for a reason to look elsewhere than anything else. Recomposed, she clapped a comradely hoof to Mr. Shine’s shoulder.
“Well then, let‘s go home.”
Zecora, more quickly than intended, trotted off back the way they came, Mr. Shine hurrying to keep up.
The pouch thudded onto the bench. Zecora had only realised on the trip back home how heavy it was. She busied herself emptying it of its contents as a sweat and dirt streaked Mr. Shine walked tiredly through the door. He gratefully sank to the floor besides the fire pit, uncaring of the hard earth floor and unmoving as Zecora unloaded his baskets of their precious cargo.
With practiced ease Zecora organised and stored the varying leaves, flowers, roots and vines into their proper places around her home. The jars and bundles were unlabeled. This was the workplace of a solo-artiste. Her happy mood was somewhat spoiled by the knowledge that despite the overwhelming success of the trip they still had not found all the ingredients she needed. There were going to be some awkward apologies to impatient ponies and at least one outright argument. It wasn’t Zecora’s fault Filthy Rich needed herbal help to perform his matrimonial duties.
Mr. Shine was idly attempting to undo the baskets straps whilst Zecora bustled around the hut. The journey back had been free of incident, a fact Mr. Shine was rather happy with, but it had been at quite a pace, the straps rubbing through his coat against his skin. He was tired yet satisfied. He was still alive despite the forests’ attempts and had apparently helped make his hostess rather cheerful. A good day, if slightly terrifying.
Zecora had finished with the collected flora and was busy examining the more special items they had acquired. Mr. Shine was curious, getting up off the floor having detached the baskets and walked over. Zecora looked across at him,
“Okay, long story short time. The spines,”, Zecora unrolled the fur to expose the black fragments, “will need some work but will solve my bit problem. The main appeal is simple.”
Zecora picked up a stray stem and gently drew it against the edge of a spine. The stem was cut in two without even bending. It almost seemed as if the spine had cut it before the stem had touched its surface. Mr. Shine was fascinated. Zecora dropped the stem and merely smiled,
“Living Shadow tail spines are infamous for their sharpness. They never get blunt either. You have to really try to damage a blade made from them.”
She went to where underneath a low shelf was what appeared to be a pile of rubbish. She gathered some pieces of wood, placing them on the bench before sorting through a rack of tools attached to the wall behind the bench.
Mr. Shine was lost. It may have been his default state yet this was not frustrating but fascinating. He was simply appreciating a practiced craftspony at work. Zecora used various woodworking tools to fashion what appeared to be a short-handled spoon, long, thin and quite deep. Leaving her creation to one side, she took down a clay jar from a shelf. The fumes that emerged when she opened the lid immediately brought tears to the eyes of both ponies. Zecora worked quickly and poured the viscous liquid from the jar into the crevice of her woodwork. She replaced the lid and took a spine delicately in-between her teeth, forcing it into the cranny.
Zecora blocked out the noxious gases of the adhesive and held the spine in place for the precise number of seconds the pony she’s bought the glue from had instructed. Holding your breath helped too. Carefully letting go, her creation was complete,
“This Mr. Shine,” said Zecora as she turned holding her handiwork by the handle, “is a Shadow Blade. Knives like these are worth a lot of bits to the right pony. And there are plenty of components here.”
Mr. Shine was a little nervous of Zecora right then. The single-edged black knife she had made looked rather intimidating. Her smile didn’t help matters. He cleared his throat and uttered his first Equestrian word,
Zecora smiled even more. She put her payday on the bench and grasped Mr. Shine’s fore hoof in hers,
“Yes! Yes! Good, Mr. Shine, very good!”
She punched him playfully in the shoulder,
“You‘re a quick learner indeed.”
Looking at her companion she noticed something else. Zecora dropped the hoof hold and wiped her hooves on the floor,
“You also need to learn when to take a bath.”
She was right. Mr. Shine, and Zecora too but she barely noticed dirt on herself much nowadays, was covered in mud, sweat and the occasional leaf. There were probably grass stains too hid amongst his green coat.
Zecora walked out the front door, motioning Mr. Shine to follow. The sun was starting to go down. The late afternoon light dappled through the canopy as Zecora walked around the back of her hut. At the bottom of a small decline was the stream that’d played a large part in her choice of habitat. She sat at the small but deep streams edge as Mr. Shine arrived. Zecora pointed an authoritative hoof at the water,
“Bath time Shiney. I don‘t want a muddy bed.”
‘Shiney’ dripped a hoof in the water. Being outdoors in the woods it was of course freezing.
Does she want me to wash up?, he thought, But this is freezing! The mud isn’t so ba-
He was brusquely interrupted from his thinking by Zecora shoving him into the water. The stream wasn’t that deep, he could just about stand up in it and emerged from underwater taking coughing breaths. The zebra rolling on the bank laughing irritated him somewhat.
In-between her gales of laughter, Zecora took in the sight. For the brief second he’d been underwater, Mr. Shine had not only had the sweetest expression of affronted pride but had gone completely bald. His fiery mane and tail didn’t work underwater seemingly. It was foalish Zecora knew but she found it rather amusing. Her mirth was interrupted by a blast of water.
The cold water shocked her out of laughing and onto her hooves. Mr. Shine was standing in the stream, an impish grin on his face and hoof raised to send another splash at his tormentor.
“Oh it! Is! On!”, declared Zecora as she cannonballed into the water.
The bath, never having really been that, degenerated into a splash fight, Mr. Shine holding up his hooves in defeat as Zecora forced his head repeatedly underwater.
Both laughing, they clambered out of the now foaming stream and Zecora shook herself dry. An embarrassed noise behind her caused her to look over her shoulder. A reignited Mr. Shine was pointedly looking away, finding something ostensibly fascinating in the woods and a blush on his cheeks. Zecora looked away quickly,
Right, shaking your plot in a stallion’s face. Don’t do that Zecora., thought a suddenly very self-conscious zebra.
They were very civilised about the incident.
As in they never acknowledged it ever happened.
The duo returned to the hut and dried themselves out properly besides the fire pit. A simple dinner of the rest of the mornings soup turned into a stew filled their hungry stomachs. The rest of the evening passed with Zecora working on more of the valuable knives and Mr. Shine cleaning up the dishes and the mud they’d tracked in.
The sun was barely starting to set as another yawn came unbidden to Zecora. A hoof lightly settled on her shoulder. Mr. Shine looked her in the eyes and simply shook his head. He steered her gently from her work with her barely muttering a resistance. He pointed at the bed. Zecora tried to insist she was fine with the floor but Mr. Shine was taking no arguments, practically pushing her onto the bed. A tired Zecora watched him in the dying light shining through the window as he blew out the lights and all but collapse onto the rug. She smiled,
Fair enough Mr. Shine. Tomorrow, we sort out your problem.
And again, yet more zebra snores.