Under A Luminous Sky
Jake The Army Guy
Chapter One: The Anguish of Youth
"... and so, as you can see, avians in Equestria are capable of navigating by magnetic fields," Twilight Sparkle said, pointing a hoof at a formation of birds high above the treeline. "However, the cold air of winter can interfere with their senses, which is why we help them return north during Winter Wrap-up." She turned, eager to see the bright eyes of the students she was instructing.
What she saw, however, was a sea of half-lidded eyes, drooping heads, hanging jaws, and severely arched eyebrows. Cheerilee smiled and trotted next to Twilight. "Thank you for that... detailed lesson on bird migration.” She turned back to the students. “Everypony thank Doctor Sparkle.”
“Thank you, Doctor Sparkle,” the students droned.
Twilight smiled sheepishly. “Please, just Twilight is fine. My doctorate isn’t enough to—”
"Now,” Cheerilee said with a warm smile, “I think it's time we went back to Miss Fluttershy's backyard. I believe she has some animals we can play with."
“Well, I have a slide show about the dif—” Her words were lost under the chorus of cheers and a stampede of hooves as the fillies and colts raced around the cottage. As she watched the fleeing foals, Cheerilee gave her an apologetic shrug, then trotted after her students. Left alone, Twilight rolled her eyes.
Foals these days. I just hope Applejack and Rainbow Dash are having better luck with their lessons than I am. With an only slightly-annoyed groan, she stood back up and trotted over to the nearby picnic table. The sounds of excited foals echoed across the peaceful fields that surrounded Fluttershy’s cottage. The field trip was in full swing; students from Ponyville Elementary were scattered all around, learning about nature from various volunteers and, Twilight noted with a roll of her eyes, paying much closer attention than her group had.
A chorus of thunderous hoofalls came from behind Twilight. She turned, and her jaw went slack. A large bull with razor sharp horns was charging towards her, bucking and snorting wildly, a rope tied to its neck. Applejack stood atop the raging beast, the thick rope between her gritted teeth. Twilight felt the ground shake as the bull thrashed, trying to dislodge the farm pony, but Applejack held fast. A crowd of young fillies and colts cheered loudly as they watched the display.
The lumbering bull came to a stop beside the picnic table and Applejack jumped off. “Thank ya kindly, Bobby Ray! We sure gave them young’uns a show, didn’t we?”
“Anytime, there, AJ!" The massive bull cricked his neck to the side as he walked away. "Next time, just don't tie yer ropes so tight, there. Ya almost gave me rope burn!”
“Heh, sorry. Say hi to Daisy Joe for me.” She removed her hat and wiped the sweat off her brow, turning to Twilight. “Shoot, I must be gettin’ old. That ol’ longhorn almost threw me that time.”
Twilight gave an irritated huff. “Well, at least you kept your group awake. How could you not care about the electromagnetic properties of avian migration?”
“Uh, the who of the what now?”
“Ugh, never mind.” Twilight slumped back down to her haunches, resting her head on the picnic table. “I just hope Rainbow Dash is having better luck with her flying lessons.”
Applejack let out a bark of laughter. “I kinda doubt that. She never even got off the ground.”
As if on cue, a loud retching sound came from behind a nearby bush. Several moments later, Dash stumbled out from behind, wiping bile from her lips. Spitting one last time, she stumbled over to her friends and plopped down on the ground. Twilight wrinkled her nose at the pungent smell of vomit that radiated off of her.
“Oh, my gosh, Rainbow!” Twilight cried. “Are you okay?” Dash merely grunted, not even lifting her green-tinted face to meet her friend.
Applejack grinned. “She’s been like that all mornin’. I told her she needs to go home and rest, but you know her.” She bent over Dash, the same smug grin on her face. “I’ll bet bits to bagels it’s all that dang junk food she eats.”
“Stuff it, hayseed,” Dash moaned, rolling over on her back. “I’m the best flyer in Equestria, a world-famous athlete; an upset stomach isn’t going to stop me from seeing my fans. Besides,” she said, looking up at Applejack with red-rimmed eyes, “it couldn’t be food. Mac cooked dinner last night, not you.”
“Hey, now, missy! My cookin’ is just as g—
“So, Dash,” Twilight interjected, stepping between the two, “you spent another night at Sweet Apple Acres?” A sly grin graced her lips. “I wonder, when was the last time you even saw your house?”
“Hey! I don’t stay over that much! I’ve only spent the night twice this week!”
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Rainbow Dash, it’s Tuesday.”
Dash shot a confused stare at Twilight while a cricket beneath the table chirped, unaware of its excellent timing. After a few moments, Dash’s eyes went wide before quickly narrowing. “So what? Mind your own business, egghead!”
“I’ll remember that next time you come to check out the latest Daring Do,” Twilight said with a slight smile.
At this, Dash finally stood and opened her mouth to reply, but all that came out was a loud burp, accompanied by an angry growl from her stomach. Putting a hoof to her mouth, she sat back down on her haunches, the green tint to her face growing darker. After a moment, she laid back down roughly. “Whatever, Twi.”
“Rainbow, it’s not some big shock that you’re staying over there. It’s been, what, a year now?”
“Ten months,” Applejack chimed, earning a glare from Rainbow. Applejack just shrugged her shoulders. “What? He’s my brother, and you’re one of my best friends! You don’t think I’d keep track of somethin’ like that?”
“All right, all right!” Dash said, finally rising to her hooves. “Can we please change the subject? We’re supposed to be helping Fluttershy with the foals, not gossiping.”
“Yeah, come ta think about it, I ain’t seen Fluttershy all mornin’,” Applejack chimed in. “I wonder if she’s doing okay.”
As if on cue, a loud bleating from an unidentifiable animal sounded from a swarm of students around the house. Above the din of laughter, a frail voice was barely audible. "Oh, um, please don't... no, honey, you shouldn't... oh, they really don't like it when you... oh, dear..."
The three mares looked at each other for a moment. “Maybe you’re right, Dash,” Twilight said, already turning to walk over.
Hickory Smoke charged forward, his face twisted in determination, and with a loud grunt he kicked with all his might, earning a satisfying slap as the rubber ball went flying. He looked up and saw the red ball sailing high into the air and over the group of foals that stood at the sidelines.
From behind him, a chorus of groans erupted. "Aw, come on, Hickory! It was only an eight-length shot!" yelled a yellow unicorn filly.
Hickory rolled his eyes. "Well, excuse me for trying to win the game, Pumpkin!"
"Quick! Somepony get it!"
Turning his head at the unknown voice, Hickory saw the ball hit the ground and continue to roll right towards the edge of the Everfree. Several ran, but none of the foals were fast enough, and it bounced right into the thick brush, its ending point unknown.
"Great job, Hickey!" said a tan pegasus. Pound Cake stepped next to his twin sister, both glaring at Hickory. "Now we can't play anymore!" There was another round of groans from the gathered foals.
Hickory cringed at his nickname, looking back at his cutie mark, a smoking grill. His family had made the best barbeque in Ponyville for generations, but he still sometimes cursed his name.
Pumpkin turned to glance at Hickory. "No, it's okay! It couldn't have rolled far. Somepony should just go in and get it!"
"Yeah! Somepony just needs to go get it!” Pound added. “Go get it. From the Everfree... F-Forest." The foals collectively turned their heads to the line of dense brush. Around the schoolyard, the dangers of the wild forest were known more from myth than fact, but everypony knew the stories: tales of wild dragons, ravenous timberwolves, and giant Ursas all waiting to gobble up any unsuspecting foal who dared enter their domain. Slowly, all eyes turned back to Hickory.
He gulped. "Oh, come on, guys. Recess is almost over anyway. Let's just head back to the animals.”
"What's the matter, Hickey? You scared?" taunted Pound.
"N-no! I-I just don’t think I could find it before recess is over." Hickory attempted a grin, hoping to escape his fate.
"Hickey's a chickey! Hickey's a chickey!" Pumpkin jeered. The chant grew louder as more and more foals joined in.
Steeling his resolve and setting his jaw, Hickory shouldered past the group of taunting foals and marched with determination towards the row of trees. That determination faltered along with his hoofsteps as he approached; the line of trees was so thick that he could not see past the first few hoof-lengths. A clear line of shadow was visible just a few pony lengths in front of him, a barrier marking safety and doom in the little colt’s eyes. His knees began to rattle, and he turned back to the group. Their taunts had grown silent, replaced by a sense of fearful respect.
"He's actually going to do it!" whispered somepony.
Turning back to the trees, he took a deep breath and ran forward. He was afraid that if he hesitated, his nerve would break.
He charged forward, eyes glued to the ground just in front of his hooves. A chill seemed to wash over him the instant he crossed the line of shade. His hooffalls echoed loudly in his mind as he ran for a good few seconds more before finally slowing and opening his eyes. Almost immediately, he wished he hadn't. Jagged shadows obscured his vision, and strange animal noises came from behind the rows of vegetation. Beads of sweat fell from his brow, but he pressed onward. I will not be a chicken! He looked around him but couldn’t see the ball anywhere, so he traveled on, scanning the forest floor. Dead leaves crackled under his shaky hooves as he walked. Trees towered over him, making him feel even smaller than he was.
He let out a loud yelp when a bush next to him shook. Jumping sideways, he turned to face it. “Wh... Who’s there?”
The small bush shook harder, the crackling of leaves getting louder. Hickory bit his lip, his hind legs tensing to run, as the sound grew clearer. He cringed away instinctively when a small, furry head poked out of the shrub. The fox looked up at the colt, its head cocked to the side inquisitively.
Hickory let out an annoyed sigh. “Go on, get outta here!” he said, waving his hoof at the fox. It let out a quiet yip and ran away. He watched the small creature run away, then continued his search.
As he crested a small hill, he weighed being labeled a chicken against being gobbled up by some creature.Okay, that's far enough. I’m not going any fur—
His thoughts were cut off as his front hoof caught on a root, and he fell head over hoof down the hill, finally landing with a dull, wet slap. He groaned, his knees aching from the tumble. Great. I'm a chicken, I'm hurt, and I'm covered in mud. He spat, the foul-tasting mud causing him to retch. Hickory opened his eyes to see a pair of purple eyes staring at him, unblinking.
“Feeling better, Dash?” Twilight asked.
After helping Fluttershy with the wild foals, Dash had run back to the bushes again. She had emerged a few minutes later, her mane still unruly, but her face no longer carried the deep green tint. “Yeah, yeah, it’s just a bug or something. Fluttershy is making me some herbal tea she says will help. I’ll be fine.” She turned to Cheerilee with a sheepish grin. “It’s a real shame I didn’t get to those flying lessons.”
Cheerilee just smiled. “Oh, it’s okay, Rainbow Dash. I didn’t expe—”
A chorus of shrieks interrupted her. Turning their heads, the mares saw a stampede of young foals running and screaming in terror. They dashed over to the group, blocking their path. "My little ponies, what's wrong?" Cheerilee asked.
"Hickory Smoke is hurt!" one of the fillies cried.
Twilight looked behind the filly and saw a small colt walking very slowly towards them. His movements were slow, as if his body was moving on instinct rather than thought. Cheerilee and Twilight ran over to him. while Dash and Applejack stayed with the panicking foals. Twilight reached the colt first, but the sight caused her to take a half-step back, gasping loudly. The young colt was a mess: half of his face was covered in blood, the right side of his blonde mane was plastered to his head, and his fur was dotted by dark splotches of red.
"Hickory!” Cheerilee knelt down to help, but the colt didn't acknowledge her. He stood rooted to the spot in front of her, staring ahead at some distant point. “Somepony get a doctor!"
It was then that Twilight noticed the look on his face. His lower lip was quivering, but what stood out were his eyes: they stared ahead, unblinking, with pupils drawn in to pinpricks. Twilight waved a hoof in front of the foal, but got no response. "Hickory?" When the colt still failed to answer, she took hold of him by the shoulders and shook him gently. "Hickory!"
The colt slowly turned his eyes to Twilight. "I found the ball," he said with a tiny voice. "Behind the tree."
Twilight felt bile rise in the back of her throat as she studied him. There’s so much blood. She ran a quick scanning spell over the foal, trying to find the source of his injuries. After a few moments, she could find nothing wrong, save a few scrapes on his legs. She glanced back at Hickory’s face. “Hickory, where are you hurt?”
“It’s not mine.” A strong tremble spread through the colt. “It’s not mine! It’s not mine!” He fell to the ground sobbing, his body shaking violently. Cheerilee hugged the colt close as Fluttershy landed next to them, a first-aid kit held in her mouth.
Twilight stood back up as she took in the colt’s words. But, then who— She looked up and saw a trail of small, bloody hoofprints leading from the forest. Curiosity taking over, she left the quivering colt with Cheerilee and followed the trail. She could hear the chaos behind her growing quieter, the panicking cries of the foals blending in with shouts from her friends desperately trying to calm them down. A small break in the row of foliage appeared before her, but deep shadows were all she could see beyond it.
She ducked her head and entered the tree line, the dangers of the woods far from her mind. She had to suppress a shudder as she thought back to the blood-soaked colt. Twilight had never been particularly squeamish; as a young scientist, she had taken enough biology classes that the insides of a small creature were nothing new to her. The more she thought about it, though, the more her stomach would turn. There’s no way that much blood came from a frog. The trail of crimson began to grow thicker, the path clear even in the dark shadows of the Everfree.
Twilight followed the smears of blood further, and a small hill came into view, the tops of a few trees visible above the crest. Twilight started up the hill but jerked to a halt. She wasn’t very deep in the forest, but in the wild woods of the Everfree Forest, it was deep enough. Already she could barely see the path that she had followed; tall trees with broad leaves blocked out the sun, casting eerie shadows across the forest floor.
A low thrumming sound came from across the hill, and an odd, pungent stench wafted into her nostrils. Twilight shuffled back and forth on her hooves. Whatever the colt had found had scared him half to death. It was probably just some dead animal, she reasoned. This is the Everfree Forest. The thought did little to comfort her; her eyes darted back and forth at every sway of the trees around her, the dull humming from before growing louder. Eventually, her curiosity won the battle over her nerves, and she crept forward to the top of the hill and looked down.
As she looked, her brain could only process flashes of the scene: the loud droning of a swarm of flies; a large pool of congealed blood; a pile of grayish viscera, faintly glistening in the midday sun, laying on top of a light purple frame; a face trapped in a look of pain, tongue hanging limply to the side.
And somewhere far away, a pony screaming. A scream that, to Twilight’s confusion, sounded very much like hers.