The sun sunk over the horizon and only its last light illuminated the clearing. Rainbow Dash was pacing back and forth next to Blue Hoof and Derpy as Team Alpha, a while back split into twos, took turns watching their borders. Thunderlane had long since been sent to Ponyville to warn and call for an appropriate response team; Blue Hoof had been out cold for a long while now.
Batches of berries had been brought over for eating, though they were mostly of displeasing flavour which barely half the gathered pegasi had the stomach to swallow.
"Who got these anyway?" one pegasus asked.
"Eat or don't, I'm not an outdoorspony, okay?" another pegasus defended.
"Well that answers my question."
"Quiet every pony, I think I hear Blue Hoof wake up," Rainbow Dash ordered.
The blue pegasus shifted and moaned as she got to laying flatly on her back. She murmured many nothings before opening an eye and peering at Rainbow Dash before saying anything. "Rainbow Dash? What are you doing here?"
"Me? We're holding out for Hyde, that's why I, uh, we, are here!" Rainbow Dash replied.
"Who's Hyde? Why are we in a forest?"
"What don't you remember?!"
"Uh, how you and I got here?"
Rainbow Dash groaned and shook her head. "Take it from the top, where does your memory end?"
"We were, y'know, flying and stuff, and you thought I was doing pretty well. Said I was getting good and ready for the Young Flyers' Competition in Cloudsdale. Um, then you said you wanted to show me something... I guess?"
"And what did I want to show you?" Rainbow Dash asked with a confused look on her face.
Blue Hoof rubbed her forehead and looked around, noticing the other pegasi. She squeaked loudly and jolted at the revelation she was, in fact, recounting a dream of very different circumstances. "Nothing, you didn't wanna show me anything out here!" she cried out and Shanks, amongst other stallions, couldn't help laughing. She had, it seemed, forgotten that she was not the only pegasus to be led out on the rescue mission.
"Well you're awake, how are you feeling?"
"Fine, I'm fine! Who's Hyde, anyway?"
"That one guy you tried to bulldoze, who shot you down. You're lucky to be here."
"What's so lucky? Oh - I remember now! We were there, Thunderlane and Silverspeed were going for it. And I was getting really close, but then I heard this voice, like, 'sleep,' and it just got kinda warm and fuzzy. It was dodgy all over the place."
"So, you're not in any pain?" Rainbow Dash asked and leaned in.
"Should I be?" Blue Hoof asked and raised her front legs in a shrug, noticing then her right leg being both broken and dislocated, "oh, goodness..." she murmured and slipped out of consciousness again.
Rainbow Dash sighed. "Okay, so we have a confirmed living pegasus here, but she's out cold again. Now I'll tell you all our next move."
The pegasi gathered in to listen.
"Okay - so by now we are all well tired, and probably really bored with waiting for goo-..."
A rustling came from the distance, alarming the pegasi.
"Horse apples, he's close by!" Rainbow Dash looked around and saw behind her how the brush were moving. "Get Blue Hoof out of here! Next clearing, next clearing!"
The largest stallion balanced Blue Hoof on his back and carried her away through the forest passage as Rainbow Dash pointed the others to head in the same direction, making sure she was the last to leave. At the other clearing, a much larger and completely flat one, the pegasi decided to gather round close to the centre, making sure to keep close to Blue Hoof so they would not take as much time moving her as they had this time. Rainbow Dash skipped out and applauded the sensible initiative.
"Okay, that was a precaution, and better safe than sorry. But we can't do this too many times, or we'll run out of escape options. So tell me, which clearing did we just go to?" Rainbow Dash asked.
One of the pegasi shrugged and Derpy shook her head.
"Great, one of us has to go back there and check the map."
"I'm not going back there!" a stallion protested.
"Noble of you," Rainbow Dash remarked, "I'll do it myself. Just keep her safe and listen out in case I need help. Time me at, I dunno, one minute or two tops, then something's up."
Rainbow Dash dived into the forest again and soon emerged into the last clearing where a pony now stood - a horse, in fact. Rainbow Dash backed away quickly, uncertain of whether to hide or approach this stranger.
"I know you are there, little equine," the horse said gently, her deep voice warped slightly by a strange mouthpiece.
"Who are you?" Rainbow Dash asked, trying to sound unsurprised.
"The one you ran from," the horse replied.
"That was you? Oh! I thought you were Hyde, ha ha! Wow, we've sure gotten edgy."
"Hyde? A fitting name."
"You know him?"
"I know it is not his name."
"What are you doing out here anyway? You're clearly a traveller," Rainbow Dash pried as she pointed at the numerous personal effects the horse carried.
"This is true, but I fret not a stranger such as Hyde," the horse said boldly.
"I have tender company. I am safe."
"We were, like, ten pegasi going straight at him, and he just shot one of us down and took off without touching her," Rainbow Dash informed. "He's got some mean tricks up his sleeve, y'know."
"Yeah, pegasus; pony with wings? What, horses don't have pegasi?"
"I'm a pony. You're a horse, I'm smaller than you... that stuff,"
"Hmm, I had no idea these words existed," the horse said, "thank you for teaching me this."
"You're a foreigner?"
"Where's your friend then?" Rainbow Dash asked, "you said you had good company."
"You are here, are you not?"
"You're weirding me out, ma'am, I just gotta check this map and I'll be..." Rainbow Dash looked at the map and came to a revelation. She had already trotted over next to the horse by this time, and realised what a bad idea that was. "You're with him, with Hyde..." she uttered weakly.
Rainbow Dash looked up slowly and was met with a blank grin, one which had no remorse for what might come to those around her. "Why? Why with him?"
"I am safest that way, and I am well kept. Not every horse is so lucky to have a master to protect them, you see."
"Where is he?!"
"Around, looking for new game, now that your little fellowship spoilt his meat."
"The doe? He already got her, didn't he?! Why's he coming for us?"
"Maggots long since got that creature before he returned to it, and he grows ever hungrier still." The horse began leaning in over Rainbow Dash. "If I were you, I would hide your little 'pony' friend before he finds you. A few 'pegasi' will not see him starve to death."
"What's your problem!?"
"I gave you a fair warning."
Rainbow Dash only then realised the voice of Cloudette, a Team Beta member, was shouting her name.
"If you're there, Rainbow Dash, we're retreating back to Ponyville!"
"He lurks toward them, 'pegasus', I can distract him for a moment, but then you better have taken flight."
"You'll help us?" Rainbow Dash asked as she started toward the forest passage.
"And why not?" the horse challenged, and began to follow, "you want to escape, so I will give you the fair chance Hyde will deny you."
"You fly, I cause a distraction, you guide your fellow 'pegasi' away, and Hyde comes looking to see why I clamoured. It is simple, really."
Rainbow Dash instinctively took flight and soared above the horse. "Like this?"
"Fascinating," the horse complimented, "now, lead them wherever they need to go, but do not stop for one another, for he will not tire unless he loses track of you."
Rainbow Dash flew over the trees to the large clearing and waved her hooves. "Every pony that way, that way! We're running back to Ponyville, quick, quick, quick!"
"What took you so long?" Cloudette asked as her group began mobilising.
"A stranger, let's just say! C'mon, Hyde could be here any moment!"
The horse's promised clamour echoed over the trees and gave the other pegasi a jump.
"What was that?!" Popper cried.
"Just a distraction! Go, go, go, GO!"
Hyde could not possibly mistake the loud sound of the stampeding pegasi moving through the forest, so Rainbow Dash hoped the horse's plan had worked. The pegasi disappeared out of sight into the trees as Rainbow Dash remained their eye in the sky. Though Hyde would have been the more sensible target to look for, Rainbow Dash was more concerned about the horse. If she was misleading them into a chaos that would help Hyde pick them off, or if she was really sincere in her efforts, was hard to tell; and it was too late to gain anything from speculation.
The pegasi came out into the next clearing, still carrying Blue Hoof, but suddenly a visible disturbance in the trees below caught Rainbow Dash's attention. Out sprung Hyde to the pegasi's flank, charging toward them at speed, skipping on his two spindly legs. Rainbow Dash threw to heck her senses and charged a frontal assault.
"RUN!" she screamed mere moments before impact.
Hyde was raised well off the ground, suspended by Rainbow Dash's head and carried far off into the forest where they landed. Rainbow Dash tried to recover with her legs but felt them sack down as if sapped of all their strength. She was now laying on top of the downed Hyde, but unable to get back up again. Her head began to ache, and that ache began carrying down her neck and spine. She had gotten hurt in this attempt of bravery.
Hyde then coughed and raised his torso upward as much as he could, grabbed hold of Rainbow Dash's muzzle with his leathery talon and forced eye contact. His eyes were dead grey with void blackened pupils and his head armoured with thick bone, unlike any creature Rainbow Dash could recognise. He chuckled at her and lay down once more, whether winded was uncertain, but he certainly was unharmed by this exchange. He stroked his talon across Rainbow Dash's mane and revealed her damage, as his talon was stained with red from the caress.
Her eye sight began to fail her, as did her mind as she could barely think coherent thoughts. But worst of all, Hyde started cackling wildly at his situation. What roused him to this, Rainbow Dash barely had the clarity to ponder and her mind began echoing with his harrowing laugh. Then he spoke:
Rainbow Dash's pain faded as did the gravity upon her body. Her head bobbed and her eyes shut gently. Her legs lost all sense of weariness, and her wings felt no burden or strain. She was floating in a piece of paradise where all her worldly concerns were banished, save for the clutch of talons upon her neck and head - a last embrace.
Whether she was to die or to sleep was beyond her care, as for the first time in her life, she felt only ease. And all else perished in this darkness, as did all sights in this dark encroaching night.