The Everfree forest had taken a turn for the dark and monster-infested since the gate to worlds beyond had opened in its heart. After a few months, the general assumption among the wildlife was that anything that surprised you was going to eat you and/or your offspring, and you should maul the hell out of it. Creatures who had no intention of eating any baby animals nor of being mauled had hit on making as much noise as possible to announce their passage.
Adventurers who also had no designs on dying or baby-eating had long ago figured on doing the same.
At some point past Serpent River but not quite near the Umbral Ruins, east of Hydrabog but not so far east that it brushed against any Harpy nests, there was a chanting. It had a swinging cadence to it. Whoever was marching along to it was singing with an oddly low voice. A rhythmic chunk noise sounded on the downbeat, and every time it rang out, a tree shook or a particularly tall fern shuddered.
It went something like:
A-weem-a-weh, a-weem-a-weh, a-weem-a-weh, a-weem-a-weh, a-weem-a-weh, a-weem-a-weh....
A particularly thick bush lost two or three branches as something shiny and sharp whisked through it. Out of the gap formed and into a clearing stepped Garf, face covered in camouflage grease paint, machete in one hand... and singing.
“EEEEEEEEEEEEEE, EEEE~EEEEE~EEEEE, EEEE-UM-BUM-BAH-WEEHHHHHH~!”
He continued to stroll forward, repeating the wordless refrain as Pinkie Pie followed him, carting rations in a pair of saddlebags and continuing to belt out the weem-a-wehs.
Reports had come in of one of more inhuman somethings present within the forest that weren’t there last week. Unbeknownst to anyone else involved, said inhuman somethings were performing their own rendition of Garf and Pinkie’s “Musical Jungle Trek” routine. It’s a commonly known fact that weem-a-wehs are a universal constant.
As per the treaty between Vorlan and Equestria, someone had to go into the forest and shoo these interlopers out, or preferably shoot them bang dead. And as has already been established with the weem-a-wehs and the not eating babies, Garf and Pinkie were here to shoo(t) whoever and whatever was violating allied landspace.
They hadn’t been told to weem-a-weh on their way there, it just sort of happened.
Garf stopped. “Pinkie.”
“a-weem-a-weh, a-weem-a-weh, a-”
“Pinkie, stop singing!”
“-weem-a-weh, a-weem-a-what is it?” she asked, continuing to trot past him to the tune.
“Looks like we’ve found the first sign of our quarry.”
The clearing wasn’t much more than a twenty yards across, which made it all but impossible to notice the shallow grave that had been dug in the exact center. The odd ivory-colored sapling planted on top of the pile of disturbed earth was probably meant to disguise it, but failed so utterly at that task it might as well have been a sign hand-painted in neon green, reading “LOOK OUT, THERE’S A DEAD BODY UNDER THIS THING.”
Garf knelt down by the sapling, plucking one of its leaves and watching another, slightly different-colored leaf immediately sprout in its place. He drew his mouth into a grim line, nodding to himself as he stood up.
“Right, then. This has to come out.”
Pinkie gave the tiny tree a quizzical glance, her head tilted at an odd angle. “Why’s that?”
“I’m pretty sure our guests stuck something under here and thought speed-growing a completely out-of-season tree on top of it was a good way to hide it.”
“What?” She looked at the tree, then down at the grassless earth it was planted in. “I’m no Applejack, but I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to dig up the ground where you plant these sorts of things.”
“Right,” said Garf, wrapping his hands around the thin trunk and bracing his legs. “And do you know of any gardeners who live in the Everfree Forest?”
“Hmm...” she made a show of scratching her chin with a hoof. “Does Zecora count?”
“Nope.” And with that, Garf gave a yank, dislodging the sapling’s roots and tearing it out of the ground. “Alright, now hand me the shovel.”
Pinkie glanced to either side of her. “But you didn’t bring a shovel!”
Garf simply held a hand out.
Pinkie gave an indulging sigh, rolling her eyes as she plunged a hoof into the mass of pink pillow stuffing that was ostensibly her mane, but everyone this side of Canterlot assumed was a fancy wig. It’s a mystery to this day as to which.
After much rummaging and the sound of tin cans clanking together, she did indeed pull out a shovel -- three feet longer than her mane was across, with a quarter of a strawberry-frosted doughnut stuck on the spade. She bit the doughnut off and handed the rest to Garf.
As he dug, she continued to paw at her chin, deep in thought.
“So,” she began, “what do you think’s buried here?”
“Not what,” said Garf, shimmying the shovel under a particularly solid clump of dirt, “but who. If we’re chasing who I think we are, we’ve likely got a case of a speedy conviction and execution.”
“For what? And who’s doing all this conviction-ing and executing?”
The last scoop of dirt exposed a bit of golden metal, shimmering as the speckles of tree-filtered sunlight played across it. Garf stuck his gloves into the yielding soil and heaved that that metal the last few inches into daylight.
The body was relatively humanoid. It had pure white hair that was cut off at the neck, out of which sprang two thin, pointed ears. It was clad head to toe in form-fitting body armor of a metal with brilliant yellow luster, engraved with designs hearkening to leaves and roots and other plant parts. Its skin had no pigmentation anywhere, making it even more pallid than the average corpse was to start with. Garf pried open one of the thin almond-shaped eyes to inspect it, revealing a pupilless, bright seafoam-green iris.
“What is he?” asked Pinkie, curiosity far outweighing revulsion at the moment.
“He’s an elf,” Garf said, prying the body’s other eye open. “A very, very naughty elf, by the looks of things.” He chuckled, slapping the corpse on the shoulder. “Get caught with your head priest’s lady friend, did you, mate? Or maybe you forgot to file a form? Pinkie, help me pull up his arms.”
With the aid of shovel and Earth Pony hoof, the body’s lower torso was gradually revealed, a deep wound under the sternum appearing with it. In its crossed arms, it held a thick sheaf of legal-looking paper documents bound by a fancy-looking clip woven from what looked like gold filigree.
“And here,” Garf said, pulling the bundle of vellum out of the dead elf’s grasp, “is where we’ll find our story.”
He mumbled as he scanned the papers, occasionally raising an eyebrow at places.
“Executed for littering? I wasn’t aware elves had anything to litter with... Oh, here we are. ‘Violation of Silence Order considered Auditory Littering.’ Bloke got shanked for saying something he ought not to have said. Probably criticising his superior, the poor sod.”
“Wait...” Pinkie looked at Garf, then at the dead elf, then back. “Littering?”
“Eh, the Elves are crazy.” Garf continued flipping through the document, every page drifting further and further from normal unpretzel logic until eventually one started gaining less useable information from the paper itself than one would gain by consulting the nearest sweetroll for advice. He tossed it to the side. “They’ve got a system of laws so intricate as to be impenetrable. And just to spite us, it’s ‘illegal’ to ask what the laws are, ‘illegal’ to look them up, and ‘illegal’ to call bee-ess on them or claim ignorance of them.”
“Wait. Doesn’t that mean everyone’s guilty, then?”
He shrugged. “It would explain why they’re constantly at war with everybody.”
Pinkie gave an uncertain glance at the dead elf, who was enduring the disturbance of his eternal rest with a surprising lack of complaint. “Oookey dokey. What now?”
“Well, judging from our friend’s eyes, he’s not been dead more than a couple hours. And knowing the Elves, they probably gave him a ‘proper’ burial, opinions or not. And then they had to plant the tree on him, which all in all likely took them an hour, hour and a half. They’re close by. Very close by....”
He suddenly tensed, pulling his scrapgun from its holster on his back and aiming it into the trees behind him. After several suspenseful if uneventful seconds, he slowly lowered it.
“Okay, so they’re not that close by. But knowing my luck, if they had been, they would have taken that as a dramatic cue to jump us.”
“Sooo.... do we jump them now?”
“What about this guy?” Pinkie asked, looking back at the body half-in, half-out of its hole.
“Leave him,” said Garf, trudging out of the clearing and into the underbrush. “This is as hot as the trail’s going to get.”
“Roger dodger,” said Pinkie, pulling out an oversized fur hat from precisely nowhere and slapping it on her head before following him. “Be veeewwy quiet, we’re hunting ewlves...”
Khaydin considered himself a rather clever specimen of Elf.
But then again, so did every Elf ever to exist in the elfy history of Elvendom.
Being ranked Noxa Secundum, First Degree, Third Subdegree in the Corps of the Dryadalum put him in the optimal position to lead this incursion. He had specifically timed his promotions so he would gain his current position at this specific moment. If he executed his duty to a satisfactory extent (which he knew he would, having no reason to doubt himself), he’d likely be promoted again, to Noxa Primum or even Grand Noxum of his regiment. With a salary like that lining his purse, he could retire within the century -- within the decade, even!
Some of his peers considered him shortsighted in these matters. Those peers were currently considering him from either their menial temple maintenance jobs or their graves.
It was with a considerable amount of smugness that Noxa Khaydin considered these facts, as he led the Diplomatic Invasion Platoon on its quiet, flowing march through the forest. The formation was four elves by ten and never broke cohesion. Not for trees, not for rivers, and definitely not for a certain uppity Manticore that got spooked by the platoon’s silent motion and thought they were here to eat its babies.
Khaydin realized he had forgotten where they were going. He called a full stop to the Platoon and noted, with some amusement, Ira Toto taking a half step more than formation called for. As he unrolled the Platoon’s map, he made a mental note to dock a few drachmae from the Ira’s severance package.
After a moment’s consultation, he motioned his soldiers to adjust course a few degrees north. No words were spoken, of course. Ira Jormung had been a delightful object lesson on what happened to those guilty of sound pollution.
Pinkie had a ripsaw in her teeth and a song in her brain. She couldn’t be happier.
While Garf kept a lookout, she hummed and sawed at her assigned tree trunk every other beat. The vibrations of the saw biting at wood rattled up her jaw and started to make her head go numb.
“A-weem-a-” VZZZ “-weh, a-weem-a-” VZZZ “-weh, a-weem-a-” VZZZ “-weh, a-weem-a-”
“Do you think you could speed that up a little? We don’t have all day.”
“Oh,” she said, giggling nervously. “Sorry. Got kinda caught up in it. Right, faster. I can do faster.”
After speedily weemawehaweemawehing through the remainder of the tree, Pinkie took her position behind it, putting the trunk between herself and another tree a few yards away. Beyond that, Garf was cleverly disguising himself as a very oddly shaped rock. He did this by crouching behind a nearby pile of other, real, much more rock-looking rocks.
The now-fully-sawed tree sat at one corner of the mouth to a rather steep dry gully. The ground had been cut quite deep by the now-absent running water, and the mouth was the only way in or out. They had seriously lucked out with the tree growing in the spot it did.
They waited maybe two minutes. The sound of muffled footfalls announced the arrival of their target. Garf peered out from his hidey hole behind his boulder and saw the first Elf of the day: a pissy-looking ginger fellow, slowly striding forward with his nose buried in a map. His platoon was not far behind, but far enough that this particular dirty trick was going to work brilliantly.
The map-bearing Elf entered the gully, stumbling a bit as the slope of the ground made a severe dip. He looked down, curled his lip in a sneer, and said something grumpily in Elvish. He turned around-
The Elf gave a dreadful start at Garf’s shouting, then another at the sound of Pinkie bucking the sawn-through tree over. The tree landed with a thud, blocking off the entrance and separating him from the rest of his men. He gaped for a minute as Garf shed his ingenious weird-rock disguise and strode out into the open.
“Welcome to Equestria,” he said. “You’re trespassing.”
The rock transformed into a very ugly, un-elven thing and told Khaydin he was stepping on someone’s hairbraids. At least, that’s what most of the platoon agreed happened. It was odd, because there weren’t any tresses being worn by anyone except Ira Gianshi, and Noxa Khaydin definitely wasn’t passing over those.
“I beg your pardon,” said Khaydin, still shocked at the young oak tree’s recent passing.
“I said,” said the ex-rock, “you are marching through land that does not belong to you. You are to immediately order your troops to turn and leave the way they came.”
Khaydin gathered up all his aplomb (and some of his vitriol) and responded with a resolute “No.” He thought for a second, then added, “Also, you smell funny. You should really bathe before you try to order around people you don’t know.”
“Funny,” said the not-a-rock. “I was about to tell you something similar. What, did you soak an hour in a tub of perfume this morning?”
“I will have you know, sir,” said Khaydin, now quite offended, “that it was only half an hour, and that in the finest oils and scents the city of Cilmar can produce. We all did!” He turned to his platoon, who were peering over (but definitely not touching) the fallen tree trunk. “Back me up here, guys.”
They all muttered, Ira Toto saying something under his breath about how silly he thought the whole perfume thing was. Khaydin edited his earlier mental note. There would be no severance package for a blasphemer such as this.
“It’s a wonder we didn’t smell you before we found your happy tree friend.”
He turned back to the notrock. “What?”
“The bloke you buried under an elfwood sapling. What’d he do, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“He polluted the air with incessant chatter. He continually violated the-”
“Yes, yes, I read the paperwork you buried him with.”
Khaydin sputtered for a second, both at the flagrant interruption of legal recitation and at the fact that this beast had read the interred forms, which meant-
“You dug him up!?”
“Well, yeah. Elfwood’s an invasive species. I wasn’t letting that thing take root in Poison Joke country.”
“You dug up Ira Jormung.”
“So that’s his name,” the notrock pondered, beginning to slowly pace around Khaydin. “That was bugging me.”
The normally pale face of Khaydin was turning a shade of ruby red in indignation, nearly matching his hair.
“That’s...! You can’t...!”
“I did. Oh well.”
The sheer audacious flippancy of this being! It was almost like... like...!
“Humans,” he spat.
“He finally recognizes me!” said the profane one, clapping. “I know it’s been a while since we last kicked your tuchuses out of Gloamshire, but you certainly took your time puzzling it out.”
“I had hoped to never befall your kind again,” growled Khaydin, clenching his teeth until his cheekbones hurt. “There’s a list of your transgressions against Elvish law longer than the laws themselves.”
“Yeah, that sounds like us,” the human said, idly unsheathing and examining a crude iron blade coated in... Oh, dear Mamril.
“What is that on your sword,” said Khaydin, attempting to keep his composure.
“Oh, I imagine plant sap. You know, there’s a bush in your way, and you’re sure as hell not gonna go around it, eh?” He grinned stupidly and elbowed Khaydin in the side. “Eh?”
The human defiled graves, he presumed to order around a Noxa, and now this... travesty against nature. Khaydin was certain of one thing. Whoever this human was, he needed to die. Immediately.
With an inelven cry, he brandished his shotel and made to stab the infidel.
This of course was a rather sloppy move that no elf who had seen actual combat in the last century would make.
Something heavy stopped Khaydin’s wild lunge as soon as it had started. He felt something like poison ivy in between two of his ribs.
“I swear,” said the infidel. “You Elves are so easy to bait.”
The human withdrew his machete, now covered in thin white Elven blood mixed with clumpy green plant remains. He sheathed his weapon, swiped Khaydin’s left armor plate straight off of his shoulder, and turned to leave. The jerk didn’t even bury him. This was just humiliating all around.
Khaydin toppled backwards, resigned to his inevitable reincarnation as mudmoss.
Secretly, the rest of the platoon agreed that was about what he deserved.
The assembled Elven soldiers collectively took a few steps back and Garf climbed up the gullyward side of the felled tree, leaning one elbow on the top and peering down at them. The shiny shoulder plate he was now wearing meant that, by some ridiculous millennia-old rite or ritual, he now commanded all of these gaudily-dressed, odd-smelling, pale-skinned pansies.
Best to do what he came here for, then.
Further dumbfounding them by climbing down and blatantly displaying how he was touching a dead plant, all over, dear Mamril, make it stop, he jumped down and looked them over.
“We’re not going to have any more problems like that, are we?”
They shook their heads, half-bewildered, half-terrified.
“The whole uprooting thing isn’t going to be a problem, is it?”
“Well, it was an invasive species...” offered one of the spearmen.
The platoon quickly came to the consensus that Jormung didn’t really need that tree growing on top of him if it meant the whole ecosystem went belly-up, and that Garf was an alright guy, other heinous sins notwithstanding.
“Alright, then.” Garf started pacing in front of the assembled troops. “According to this shiny bit of metal, I tell you what to do now, right? First order, drop all your weapons and strip your amor. All of your metal bits and bobs are now property of the Vorlanian-Equestrian Border Patrol.”
They hurriedly did so, collecting every piece of wargear they had in a giant gold-and-silver mound. Thankfully, the traditional Elven combat dressing included a shirt and trousers. The alternative was the last thing anyone needed today.
“Next order,” said Garf, “you’re all going to turn around and go home the way you came, and tell your superiors that you followed their stupid, labyrinthine laws to the letter.”
“Do we have to-”
“No,” exhaled Garf. “You do not have to use those exact words.”
There was a great sigh of relief. The platoon turned and began marching... in a very elfy fashion.
“And stop being so quiet! You’re going to spook the fauna.”
An ex-pikeman shrugged. “We’ve never been under orders to make noise before.”
“I can fix that. Pinkie!”
Pinkie was suddenly sitting on one of the Elves’ shoulders, donning a helmet she had nicked from the Great Pile O’ Elvish Metal Things.
“Hiya!” she called, seriously wigging out the Elf she had appeared on.
“Give our friends here a beat.”
“Aye-aye, cap’n!” With that, she jumped down and trotted over to the fore of the formation. “Okay, everyone, follow my lead!”
What followed would directly lead to the revival of the choral arts in Elvish culture.
“AH-WEEM-AH-WEH, AH-WEEM-AH-WEH, AH-WEEM-AH-WEH, AH-WEEM-AH-WEH, AH-WEEM-AH-WEH, AH-WEEM-AH-WEH, AH-WEEM-AH-WEH, AH-WEEM-AH-WEH...”
Never in the history of warfare had a great number of Elves been so very loud. Nor had they been enjoying themselves so thoroughly.
Pinkie worked miracles like that.
Ira Toto had been granted the Noxa insignia for the duration of their return trip. Pinkie waved them all a fond farewell as they walked -- not marched, not flowed, simply walked -- through the two arched trees that marked the boundary between the Everfree forest and beyond.
As the sounds of Elven acapella faded into the distance, Pinkie started giggling.
“What’s so funny?” Garf asked.
“Oh, you know how the song goes. I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony~!”
He chuckled, thinking that if anyone were to attempt such a feat, it would be Pinkamena Diane Pie.
He stopped laughing when he realized a few things.
“Pinkie, do you remember where the gate between the Everfree and the Vesperwood in Vorlan is?”
“This is it, isn’t it?”
“You’d think, but the gate to Vorlan is in the western quarter of the Everfree. I remember being able to see the Drackenridge in the background. But instead...” he turned, and lo and behold were the Drackenridge mountains behind them. “...We’re in the eastern quarter. Which means...”
“...Which means this isn’t the Vorlan gate at all!” Pinkie concluded, eyes widening to match Garf’s own.
They looked through the portal, under the intertwining tree branches that marked the realms’ boundary.
“This isn’t good,” Garf muttered. “In fact, I do believe this is a very not good thing.”
“And another thing!” interjected Pinkie, shooting a hoof in the air. “What did those guys call themselves again?”
“The, uh, the diplomatic something.”
“Right! That meant they were here to meet and diplomacy-ize with somepony.” She rubbed her chin with a hoof. “But who?”
“Well, I’m not running after them to find out.”
“Yeah, me neither.” Pinkie perked up, grinning. “Hey, I hear Bon Bon’s selling those new flavored chocolates.”
“The ones that come in the foil shaped like an orange?”
“That’s the one!”
“Well then!” He clapped his hands together, spun on a heel, and started walking. “I have even less of a reason to be here than I thought!”
“Why stay in a spooky forest when we could be eating orange chocolate!”
“Wisdom for the ages!”
Eventually, the duet of mutual chocolatey admiration faded into faint wimowehing. All was well.
“Didn’t come,” one said.
“Useless bloody food-eaters,” said another, scowling and fluttering its wings.
“It’s like I says, isn’t it?” said the third, their leader. “If it’s got carbon in it, it’s not worth spittin’ for.”
“And we didn’t right spit for the elves, now did we?”
“No sir Bob, we didn’t. Got half a mind to float home now, tell Mum t’ call off all this meet-n-greet with the ground-pounders and let us go back t’ killin’ every one of ‘em.”
“S’ gettin’ late, Rab,” noted the first. “Think we ought to get going, eh?”
“Yeah...” the third sighed and spread its wings. “We ought to. But you’s the one tellin’ Mum.”
“I’s always the one tellin’ Mum.”
“Yeah, but you’s it this time especially ‘cause Mum was hopin’ on the Elves. I’m not gettin’ smote again this week.”
With a flash of light, the clearing was suddenly empty of winged beings. Except for one particularly unflappable bluejay. He stuck around.