"J-just put one h-hoof in front of the other..." Fluttershy stammered, making her way deeper into the Everfree. The wind picked up, a desolate whistle weaving around the pegasus, rustling stray bits of greenery. Alright, it wasn't far now, just have to put one hoof- what was that?! She jumped in place, hearing a branch crack somewhere.
Trembling so hard her teeth clicked together, she tried to put the myriad of forest noises out of her mind. There was Zecora's hut, so the clearing should be nearby. Something poked her side, Fluttershy shrieked in little more than a whisper and darted ahead. Panting, her hooves pounding on the dark soil, the mare raced past the rows of slender trees, imagined horrors peering out from between the branches.
She closed her eyes, willing the sights to fade away. Eyesight removed, her hearing picked up the slack, making her ears twist every which way. A muffled crack, rustling grass, something was breathing heavily really close to her- Oh. That was her own panicked breathe.
Something hard meet her hoof mid stride, sending the pegasus tumbling to the ground. Fluttershy writhed on the dirt for a moment, trying to escape from whatever had tripped her until she realized there was nothing. Raising her head, she saw an empty space before her, the earth naked of grass and trees. The clearing!
Her hoof sent a lance of pain up the leg as she stood, the limb looked twisted but luckily was no worse for wear. Looking behind herself, Fluttershy noticed the granite slab centerpiece beneath her pink tail. Smiling a little in relief, she hobbled around to face it, resting on her haunches less than a foot away from the horizontal block.
Wait, what did she do now? Should she wait for the colt to show himself? Should she call out? No, making more noise was sure to attract some unfriendly visitors. The yellow mare contemplated her options; she had come this far, now was definitely not the time to turn back.
With no suitable answer in mind, she idly read the inscription. 'Ember Hoof, forever free?' Fluttershy thought, filling in the blanks. That was when she noticed the small, semi circular indent in the rock face. Raising a curious hoof, she slowly pressed it into the mark, finding her horseshoe fit perfectly. Who made this, she wondered, as the hoof print must've been made by the same pony who placed the grave, and not some wandering animal.
Fluttershy's vision blurred as she looked up from the grave, distorting the forest into a sickly greenish brown hue. Closing her eyes, she shook her head to clear it, opening them again to see a different scene. Standing atop the stone was a brown coated colt, mane like rippling flames. Seeing him closer, she noticed that he had a horn poking from beneath the red and gold hair, and a cutie mark depicting a Phoenix rising from a pile of grey ash.
The unicorn turned to her, blue eyes meeting her own sea-green ones. Her pupils widened in surprise. It was him, Ember Hoof! Smirking at the pegasus, Ember flicked his tail, a wave of translucent sparks rolling off the hair.
"I thought you were gone..." Fluttershy mumbled, too stunned to let her fear build up. The colt threw his head back and laughed, or at least it seemed like he did. He didn't make any noise that she could hear.
Ember sprung nimbly off the stone and started circling the yellow pegasus, ghostly flames dancing in his wake. Once more awe kept the mare from panicking. Only Celestia herself had the same aura as this lone colt; that overpowering veil making the pony seem like something more. Feelings that were not her own played with the frays of Fluttershy's waking mind, trying to wear away her guard.
Fluttershy's wings flapped of their own accord as she followed the colt's movements. After a few more circles, he stopped in front of her again, putting out a hoof, an offer, to his visitor.
This is why she had come, isn't it? To find that stranger from last night, for better or worse. And here he is, ready to give us all we could ever hope for...
I don't know him! It could be a trick, or-or something dangerous!
We shouldn't have to live imprisoned, even if it's our own making. Take the hoof!
Too distracted by her warring thoughts, Fluttershy didn't notice the colt fading away. When his presence began to fade, her eyes shot open. Ember was barely visible, his head tilted to one side. The mare thought she saw his mouth move to form two words: 'Next time.'
With the spirit colt gone, the familiar gloom of the Everfree smothered Fluttershy's resolve. She gasped, how far in the wood was she? The sun had been descending when she had left, it was going to be nightfall soon. The last thing the pegasus wanted to do was wander through the forest when all it's nocturnal inhabitants were awake and hungry.
She jumped to her hooves and galloped away from the stone, slightly hampered by a limp as she threaded between tree trunks and thorny bushes. Familiar terror began to grip her again, bringing her to new speeds as she ran through the forest. A twist and turn, the trees disappeared as she broke through the border. Fluttershy blew a happy sigh, back in Ponyville where it was safe.
The shroud of night had already fallen, sparkling spots of light hanging above a shaded Equestria. Breathing in the chilled air, the mare shook herself off, bits of dirt and leaves drifting away. Rarity would have a fit, she mused. No longer feeling threatened by every noise and shake, Fluttershy took a leisurely pace to her cottage.
A few bats fluttered about, their day just beginning, however the rest of her charges were asleep. The mare whispered them each a sweet dream before entering her home, the scent of flowers and clean wood never being quite so welcome. Angel was resting beside his small house, the white rabbit caught by sleep in his self assigned watch duties.
Giggling quietly, Fluttershy draped a hoof-stitched handkerchief over the slumbering bunny. She yawned widely, her own exhaustion bringing some attention to itself. Snuggled herself into her own warm bed, the pull of sleep tugging her away as her head hit the pillow.
This time, Fluttershy didn't panic. As much as before, at least. She still ended up tripping over her own hooves, but she vaguely knew what to expect from this nightmare. Once more light flooded the world, and she found herself suspended above Ponyville in a cage. The other ponies still carried their own prisons, perfectly unaware.
The pegasus tested the bars of her cell, prodding each with a hoof. Finding no way out there, she turned her focus back to the dream-ponies. Maybe if she could get one to come help her, she could escape. "Hello? Can somepony help me?" she asked, but her voice was too hushed to be heard by the ignorant figures beneath her.
Sighing in defeat, the mare tried to keep her imminent claustrophobia at bay. Fluttershy hid behind her jumbled thoughts, doing her best to pretend she wasn't stuck. It wasn't often that she wished she had been born as something other than a pegasus, but unicorn magic would've been a great help. If only Twilight was here, even if the cage was resistant to the bookworms magic, Fluttershy would've appreciated the company. A sudden noise startled her out of her reminiscing, a crackling noise coming from all around her.
The ring of fire had returned, majestic gold flickering off a raging red, and had banished the rest of the world to darkness. Fluttershy watched it, enthralled by the harmless display. A tongue of flame came off the body and licked at the bars, but she didn't shy away from it. When it left, a ruby padlock was locked into the bars.
"Is this a way out?" Fluttershy asked, not sure if the phantom would respond. A streak of brilliant blue worked it's way into the center of the band, spinning faster than the other colors.
'You could be free' the bell voice chimed, friendly taunts beneath it's musical ring.
"What about the others? All those ponies in the cages?"
The flames seemed to give an angry huff, 'They don't see what we see.'
There was a thump above her, the sound of hoof steps trotting across the metal surface. Ember Hoof dropped from the top, landing with a burst of regal fire.
"I was sad you couldn't join me tonight." he said, his voice an echo of an echo, faint and distant. The colt laughed, a sound very similar to burning wood, at a joke only he knew. "But there's always next time, isn't there?"
"W-who are you?" Fluttershy's timidity was returning, and it showed through the tremble in her voice.
"You know well enough, but the who of me is unimporant." he answered cryptically. "I have something to offer, and that is why we are here."
Ember floated a shining red key from somewhere in the void, his telekinesis as shifting as his mane. Dangling it inches before the cell, it hung like an apple to a starving pony.
"To be free, or to be trapped? Your choice, Fluttershy."
Fluttershy awoke without her natural grace, flailing for a moment as she slid off the bed. As she stepped on her right fore hoof, a sore ache shot up her leg, not as jarring as the shot of agony it had been. With a limp, she left her bedroom and went to the washroom, splashing water on her face to chase away her disorientation. Looking in the mirror, she saw her butter yellow coat sprinkled with spots of earthy brown, mane equally disheveled. Cleaning the remnants of last night's trip would be a good way to get her mind off of Ember.
Running a bath, the mare lowered herself into the steaming water with a sigh of pleasure. The water was working wonders for her muscles, still tensed by her night terrors. Closing her eyes, she sank up to her nose in the bath.
A flash of fire behind her closed lids made her jump, heart pounding with a burst of adrenaline. Looking around, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Just a lingering piece of her nightmare, she supposed.
Just as she returned to that state of relaxation, a clock rang from the floor below. Fluttershy didn't pay it any heed until she recalled what day it was; she was going to be late for her and Rarity's spa trip! Quickly leaving the tub, she rubbed a towel across her coat and let the water drain out. The pegasus hastily went through the morning feedings before leaving Angel in charge and galloping out the door.
The bunny just rolled his eyes. Ponies, what could you do?
Half an hour later found the two friends standing neck deep in imported mud. Rarity was explaining her newest idea for a fall hats line. Fluttershy, normally the most interested of their friends in fashion, was finding herself increasingly distracted by a nearby candle. The flame wavered gently in the air, bringing back thoughts of the fire wreathed colt.
Was he telling the truth, could she be free if she just took his offer? The nervous mare doubted it, but some part of her dearly wanted to try. Even if he was wrong, or just a hallucination, it was worth a shot to shake off the weights she had worn since foalhood.
"- Ooh, what about some feathers. I think, if I could acquire them of course, that some griffon plumage would look fabulous with a fall setting. What do you think Fluttershy?" Hearing no response forthcoming, Rarity leaned closer to the distracted pegasus.
"Fluttershy?" nothing. Rarity lifted one of her cucumber slices to look at the other mare. Fluttershy's eyes were unfocussed, drifting across the room and taking in nothing. Slightly concerned, the unicorn prodded her friend with a hoof.
"Whau!" Fluttershy yelled in her gentle voice, stumbling in surprise and falling up to her eyes in the mud.
Rarity tsked, "Sorry darling, but you were being more quiet than usual."
The yellow pegasus got back to her hooves, nutritious ooze dripping from her muzzle. "It's okay Rarity, I shouldn't have gotten so distracted..." she replied, rubbing her fetlocks together beneath the surface.
Didn't mean she had to be so rude, a stray thought contributed, making Fluttershy wince. Rarity hadn't meant to frighten her...
"If I may ask, what's on your mind Fluttershy?" the unicorn questioned, watching her friend intently.
"I-it's nothing, really." she answered. Unfortunately, she could feel an embarrassed blush working it's way up her cheeks. Rarity's eyes lit up.
"Don't tell me! You found some dashing stallion who swept you off your hooves!" she squealed, tightly curled mane bouncing as she pranced in place.
"No, no! It's not that!" Fluttershy said quickly, trying to diffuse the suddenly energetic unicorn before things got out of hoof.
"Drat," Rarity muttered, "I was so looking forwards to making you a wedding dress."
The pegasus, who definitely had no plans for marriage, blinked several times to make sure she had heard right. "Oh, sorry dear, I was probably getting ahead of myself there." Rarity tittered.
"At least Pinkie didn't have the same idea," added Fluttershy, "She'd probably have invited most of Ponyville to an imaginary wedding by now."
They both laughed at that, until a certain pink pony popped out of a bowl of sponges.
"Wait, there isn't a wedding?" the other two ponies, initially startled until they realized it was their friend Pinkie Pie, laughed even harder. The party pony, never one to overlook a good laugh, shrugged and joined them.
Leaving the spa, Fluttershy hummed a jaunty tune to herself, feeling much more at ease. As she crested a hill on the way to her house, the Everfree forest drew her gaze like a magnet. She shook her head, one trip in that light-forsaken place was enough, two times was far too many.
She didn't convince herself very well, however. Her eyes kept glancing at the twisted branches, imagining what frights would await in those shadows. And wondering what gifts she could find if she searched hard enough.