\AN After running this through the training grounds, I'm re-uploading it for feed back before I take another shot at EQD. Comments appreciated!\
A pair of ponies trotted through the Everfree forest, the forest dark as always despite the midday sun. Fluttershy was escorting Twilight to Zecora's hut, worried for her friend's safety after her encounter with the Cockatrice last year. Twilight hadn't been able to make an excuse to make the journey alone. Not that I mind the company, she thought fondly, the forest was a little less dreary with a friend nearby.
Turning a bend in the path, they saw Zecora coming towards them. "My two pony friends, what brings you to this trails end?" she asked, taking a spot next to Twilight.
"I was just coming to pick up some lavender-berry tea, and it's been awhile since we had time to catch up." Twilight answered. "I actually found a recipe I think you'll find interesting."
Zecora smiled, "A new brew for me? This I must see!"
The trio had made it to Zecora's hut, Twilight and Fluttershy following her inside while the unicorn launched into an explanation.
"Yeah, it claims to be able to provide a temporary relief from most minor ailments, like drowsiness, aching hooves..." Fluttershy tuned Twilight out as she got started. She wasn't trying to be mean, but Twilight could go overboard when she got excited about something. Fluttershy idly watched her two friends chat, scraping a hoof against the ground. Hearing a bird call outside, her ears perked up.
"I'm just going to be outside..." Fluttershy said, her voice unheard by either of her companions. With a shrug, she left the house and wandered about the fringes of the forest, watching the wildlife scurry through the overgrowth. Fluttershy was gently encouraging a ladybug as it struggled up a blade of grass when a light chime drew her attention.
What was that? She glanced around, trying to hear it again. After a few silent moments, Fluttershy returned to watching the insect. 'Ting!'. I'm not imagining that. She stood and trotted around Zecora's home, listening intently. Another musical note rang, drawing Fluttershy to a concealed path, overgrowth spilling onto it.
I shouldn't wander off, Twilight will get worried, She thought, eyeing the unruly bits of flora. There was a flash of color as something trampled a row of ferns, too fast for her to see. Fluttershy jumped back in surprise, then stepped onto the path, curiosity overcoming apprehension. The sound came again, a bell, she realized. It began to ring in an uplifting yet ghostly tune, carried on the wind with no visible source.
Fluttershy listened to the music for a moment, it was making her antsy in a strangely pleasant way; like at one of Pinkie Pie's parties, when she had eaten too many sugary sweets. Her eyes drifted as she let herself get lost in the melody. Fluttershy nearly overlooked the new pony in her stupor, finally refocusing on a sparkle of red and gold.
The newcomer's coat was dark brown, and his mane and tail looked like gouts of fire, speckled with gold. He grinned at Fluttershy, sending a tremor through her body. She felt lighter somehow, relieved of some burden she hadn't been aware of. The colt winked and galloped away, further down the path.
"Wait!" Fluttershy called, then covered her mouth in shock. Why is my voice so loud?
But the colt kept going, and Fluttershy raced after him. Dodging past hanging vines, she chased the colt deeper into the Everfree, leaving Zecora's hut far behind. At times she thought she had lost him, only to catch a glimpse of his fire-like tail. As she ran, the rhythmic chiming of the bells grew louder, drowning out the natural forest noise.
Fluttershy jumped over a bush and landed in a clearing. The forest had retreated entirely from a small circle, leaving dark soil and a lone granite slab. She took a few minutes to slow her breathing, looking around. With no sign of the mysterious colt, Fluttershy approached the stone. Time had worn away the markings on it, but she could make out the title on top: 'F-ever fre-'
"Please come out," she said, relieved to hear her voice was it's normal volume. "Is something wrong? I just want to help..."
The colt sauntered out of the forest at her call, and kept his smirking face looking at her as he circled the mare. "Who are you?" Fluttershy asked, watching him cautiously. He stopped moving, brow furrowing in concentration. The music changed suddenly, making a more distinct noise. It took her a few repetitions of it's new beat before she made out an answer.
"Ember Hoof?" The colt nodded, his grin coming back full force. They were on opposite sides of the stone now, Fluttershy at a loss for words.
"Are... are you okay?" she eventually asked. Ember blew a raspberry at her without making a sound. "You don't have to be rude," Fluttershy mumbled, frowning at him. Ember chuckled, the bells tinkling happily in response. Then he tensed his hindlegs. "Um, what're you do-" Fluttershy was cut off when the colt leapt, straight at her!
Back at Zecora's hut, Twilight was watching Zecora mix a pot of her favorite tea as she talked. "It always tastes better when it's from this forest, why do you think that is Fluttershy?" No reply. "Fluttershy?" Twilight turned, so busy chatting she hadn't noticed her friend's absence until then.
"You didn't happen to see where she went?" Twilight asked nervously. Zecora shook her head, stopping her work to look out a window.
"Our friend seems to have gone, but not for a time too long." she said. They left the hut, calling out for their pegasus friend. A high pitched shriek answered, coming from a disused trail. They shared a panicked look and galloped towards the sound.
Fluttershy cringed away with a frightened yell, raising her forehooves for protection. A second passed without impact, and she peeked between her fetlocks. Then a rush of alien feelings filled her, sending warm electricity through her veins. The forest snapped into crystal clarity, every color more vibrant, the sounds richer. She could feel the warmth of the afternoon sky on her coat. She could smell the moist scent of the forest, crisp with the spice of fall. Fluttershy felt as light as the wind, her thoughts stripped away and leaving a sense of elation. She didn't need to question where Ember had gone, she forgot all her worries and cares. Giggling lightly in her euphoria, Fluttershy sat in the dirt and let the rush carry her.
All too soon, she felt the ebb of excitement begin to dwindle. She sighed sadly, the feelings already fading to memory. When her heart rate had slowed back to normal, she blinked several times to reorient herself.
Zecora crashed into Fluttershy's back, sending them both tumbling in a mess of sprawled legs. Twilight came shortly after, panting to catch her breath while the two disentangled themselves.
"Fluttershy! are... are you okay?" Twilight managed between gasps.
Fluttershy ignored the question. "Did you see him?" she asked, swerving her head to check the clearing.
Twilight frowned in confusion, "Who?"
Ember Hoof was gone, leaving the three mares to themselves. "Oh, uh, no one."
"You didn't hit your head or anything, did you?"
Twilight was interrupted by Zecora, who had gone to look at the granite slab.
"This I have not seen before, I thought surprises there were no more." she said, studying the piece of stone. Twilight and Fluttershy moved to flank her, squinting to read the old writing. Zecora leaned in close, the two ponies mimicking the action, and blew off the layer of dust on top of it. Caught by surprise, her friends backed away coughing. She chuckled and waved away the cloud with a hoof.
Cleared of the film, the writing was legibile, if a little eroded. As they read Fluttershy swore she could hear the bells, but their happy tune was replaced by a heart wrenching knell.
'Back during the reign of Discord when all was mad, the ponies beneath his claw were never glad.
They did not know freedom or peace, only the cruel chaos and his tease.
A colt was raised in this yet he craved more, the slavery and torment made his spirit sore.
One fateful day he ran free, out to this forest for what he couldn't see.
To be released from his bounds, he left behind all that had become fond.
He sought relief from pains, those that would not be slain.
Out he came to this wood, and here he thought his life was good.
He died a free pony but alone, not a soul to hear his last sorrowful moan.'
"You sure you didn't make this Zecora?" Twilight asked, rereading the monument. Zecora shook her head.
Is this... somepony's grave? Fluttershy pawed at the soil, uncomfortable with standing on a pony's final resting place. Who would want to die out here, all alone?
That pony wanted to be free, so the stone said. But it had cost so much, all his friends and family left behind. He had never seen them again, even when he drew his final breath. To her surprise, she caught herself wondering if freedom had been worth it. Her mind drifted back to the burst of elation she had felt before Zecora and Twilight had arrived. Was that freedom?
"Well, I guess we should head home now..." Twilight muttered. Fluttershy came out of her thoughts and nodded.
"Bye Zecora, it was nice seeing you again." Fluttershy said half heartedly. Zecora waved a hoof to them as they trotted away.
"I've never heard of any legends like that. Actually, there's not a lot of text from Discord's reign at all. Maybe he..." Fluttershy rolled her eyes as Twilight began to rant once more. Is it so hard for her to shut up, a stray thought remarked. She stopped for a moment, stunned by her own thinking. "Something wrong Fluttershy?" Twilight asked, noticing that her friend had fallen behind.
"N-nothing!" she stammered, picking up the pace.
They separated once the Everfree was behind them, Twilight continuing on to her library-home. Fluttershy went to her own house, opening the door to a glaring white rabbit. "Oh Angel! I forgot to tell you where I was going. You must have been so worried about me..." the she started; the rabbit responded with a huff and a paw pointed towards the food closet. Fluttershy realized her mistake, she hadn't fed her animal friends today! She galloped past Angel, who dusted his off paws and hopped away, his mission accomplished.
Fluttershy went outside to feed the animals in her care, every hummingbird, squirrel, tortoise (Turtle! A nagging though corrected. The tortoise had gone off with Rainbow Dash.) and other various creatures. The sun had fallen by the time she had reached the last of her charges. Spitting out a mouthful of worms to the nest of blue jays, she watched the boughs of the Everfree sway in the breeze for a moment.
With a confused sigh she landed and went to her bedroom. Laying down on the soft bedding, Fluttershy tried to replay the events of the day. Specifically, the rush she had gotten when Ember had charged her. But that only made the mare restless. Giving up on the bed, she got out of it with a frustrated huff and quietly tip-hoofed out the door.
Fluttershy crested a hill not far away, sitting down by a tall oak to listen to it's leaves rustle. This was one of her favorite spots to rest during a busy day, the hill offering a wonderful view of her cottage and all it's inhabitants. Watching the little animals play, she felt a glow of contentment. But... something was missing, something she hadn't noticed before now. Her smile retreated into a puzzled frown.
Questions without answers plagued Fluttershy as she lay, and sleep took her unexpectedly.
Where am I? Fluttershy couldn't see anything, the world was pitch black. A surge of panic struck her, did I go blind?! She turned in tight circles, trying to see in the void and tripped over her own hoof, falling on a cold, hard surface. She shut her eyes, scared to open them and confirm her continued blindness. When a glow penetrated her eyelids, Fluttershy sighed in relief, realizing she wasn't blind. Though that still left the issue of where she was... After a couple minutes of internal debate, she opened an eye.
Fluttershy was trapped in a metal cage, the bars too close to let her hooves through, the entire thing hanging off some point in the sky. Looking down, she could see Ponyville highlighted by the reddish tint of dawn. It looked normal except for the ponies, each one stuck in a cell similar to hers. She wondered why she had been caught in the air, while they were stuck on the ground. But those thoughts vanished quickly when, scanning the ground, Fluttershy saw a mare, hoof outstretched to a crying foal. The two were locked inches apart.
Fluttershy tried to reassure the poor ponies, but her voice was too weak to carry that far. "Don't worry Fluttershy, this is just a bad dream, I'll wake up soon..." Her self reassurance wasn't doing much. There wasn't even enough room to spread her wings! Fluttershy wasn't as attached to flying as Rainbow Dash was, but right then she dearly wanted to fly away from this nightmare world.
A merry bell rang, making the mare jump. Like the conclusion to a play, a curtain closed on Ponyville, leaving her hanging in the darkness once more. There was a few flashes of red and gold sparks, before it became solid and began to spin. Faster and faster it went, creating a band of glimmering flames. Fluttershy was trembling now, terrified that the fires would consume her.
'Not free' chimed bells, the notes becoming words to Fluttershy. There was a sense of disappointment in the voice. She cringed away from the sound, frightened tears dripping down her muzzle. A pair of brilliant azure dots opened in the ring, peering into her eyes.
Fluttershy tried to look away, but the orbs held her still with a will of their own. The longer the stare held, the more the bright blue expanded until she could only see their burning cores. There was not malicious intent in their depths, but a possibility for mercy. A promise, a temptation of freedom. Enchanted, Fluttershy took a step towards them before the vision vanished with a 'pop!'.
Fluttershy awoke with a start as something thumped against her side. "A-angel Bunny? What're you doing up so late..?" she yawned, shaking off the post-sleep daze. Angel frowned at her and pointed at an imaginary watch on his wrist. "I'm late?"
She looked around and saw that she had in fact overslept. Fluttershy's mood dropped as she started with her morning feedings. She was already conflicted over the Everfree ordeal, adding her neglect in responsibility made her feel murky.
Once finished, she plopped onto her couch and tried to clear her mind, but her confusion only deepened. I know, a cup of tea should help me calm down. She agreed with this, and with every intention of fixing herself some herbal drink, started to hop off the cushions. Fluttershy's body didn't respond in kind to her thoughts, and left her lying prone on the couch.
Hours passed, and she was still laying on the furniture. Fluttershy had managed to find some kind of zen, the time had melding into a stream of meaningless blurs and freeing her to be frustrated over the disagreeing thoughts. Part of her wanted to go back into the Everfree and see what Ember Hoof could give to her. This part was new and a little unwelcome, even if it was persuasive. Her other, more familiar inclinations firmly agreed that it was best to stay away from that forest.
So why was it that her hooves had begun to move towards the door?