A nearly full moon shines down upon the Everfree, not even the thinnest wisp of cloud or mist hiding the forest below from its view. Wind whistles between the trees, leaves rustling while wooden limbs creak and bend to cast an ever changing pattern of light and shadow onto the forest floor.
Beneath the groaning branches, a zebra mare carefully makes her way through the underbrush, eyes peeled and ears on alert for the slightest indication of any of the many monsters known to roam the darkened woods. Without warning, the wind suddenly shifts direction, Zecora ducking her head to help brace herself against the onslaught of air while her mane whips around her head as if possessed. The branches overhead protest loudly in the chaotic gale, a crack echoing as somewhere nearby a tree loses a limb. The sharp noise draws Zecora's attention and she automatically drops into a defensive posture, eyes darting towards the source of the sound. Instead of a broken branch or a prowling predator however, she notices a luminescent light coming to life amid the shifting shadows, its glow waxing and waning in time with it entering and leaving the moon's gaze.
Slowly making her way over the source of the light despite the windstorm attempting to push her in all directions at once, she lowers her head to examine her discovery, "Moonbloom is quite a find indeed; such an herb is just what I need."
Waiting to delicately nip at the flowers' stems during the occasional split second pause between gusts, Zecora removes two of the three blossoms from the plant, leaving the third as she stashes her discovery into one of the many small pouches hanging from her sides.
Task complete, her eyes wander over the rest of her pouches, the warmth of pride spreading across her chest as she views the many samples of plants taken from her new home – most of which she knew not even the wisest of the tribal shamans from her native land would recognize. For a brief moment, the dark forest fades from her vision, replaced by images in her mind's eye of sweltering desert sparsely populated by cacti, of endless savanna littered with trees and covered by grasses, of refreshing oases ringed by lush green plant life, and finally of her tribe and family who would travel all three together. Shaking herself from her reverie, she quickly surveys her surroundings, letting out a sigh of relief that nothing had decided to take advantage of her lowered guard.
Perhaps I should return to visit when the season becomes fall; I have been living here for very nearly a year after all. My family does worry if my travels have left me well; and once I tell them where I’m living, it may be a tough sell!
Lowering her head against the buffeting winds, Zecora presses onwards, another half hour of difficult searching amid the weakening storm passing until a small clearing opens up in front of her. Just before entering however, she pauses, wet squelching sounds making their way to her pricked ears along with indistinct murmuring. Glancing to each side, she hides beneath the leaves of a large shrub on her right, cautiously peering out from her cover towards the source of the voices – the strong breeze carrying their indecipherable words towards her now the only remnant of the earlier vicious winds.
Illuminated by the clear light of the moon, she sees four pony-like figures tearing into the body of a much larger animal which lays beneath them, unmoving apart from the occasional shake or jiggle caused by the frenzied consumption of its flesh. While she watches, one of the creatures yanks repeatedly on a particularly stubborn piece of the unfortunate beast, each tug lasting longer and becoming more violent than the last as its frustration grows. Unsuccessful in its efforts to remove the unyielding morsel, the predator plants its hooves and with a faint growl finally manages to tear its prize from the manticore corpse's side, tumbling over backwards from the effort – the chosen piece of meat and bone flying from its mouth to land on the ground a few feet behind it. Several droplets fall from the sky a split second later, and while the shrub shields her from most of them, a single drop of still-warm liquid impacts the side of her muzzle. Zecora flinches, time seeming to slow as she feels it dribble down into her slightly open mouth, leaving behind a bitter, metallic taste.
I should leave these monstrous ponies be, else they may make a meal out of me!
Suppressing the urge to immediately start spitting onto the ground, she slowly takes a step back.
Instantly, the sounds from the clearing stop. Her breath catches in her chest, small beads of cold sweat forming across her body as Zecora watches the monsters turn to stare directly at her hiding place.
The vampony male sighs through a mouthful of meat, swallowing before looking across the corpse of their most recent kill at his young daughter, "Midnight, stop jumping on the intestines."
Mini-Midnight glances up at him, giggling, "But it makes such a funny noise!"
Rearing, she brings her forehooves down on the abused digestive tunnels once more.
The larger vampony closes his eyes and sighs again as the organ finally ruptures from the assault, a spray of blood and internal slime hiding his sky blue coat and lime green, turquoise striped mane under a thin speckling of red. A piece of intestine slides down his left hind leg and falls to the ground, leaving behind a semi-transparent trail of residue over his cutie mark – a series of dark red hoofprints traveling diagonally from the lower left of his flank to the upper right.
"Ehehe… sorry~" Midnight apologizes, ears splaying back as she removes her hooves from the dead beast's insides.
Wiping the spray from his eyes, her father blinks several times to clear his vision completely, but before he can say anything else, something warm and wet moves upwards from his jaw and across his cheek.
He rolls his eyes at the mare next to him, "Don't you start too, Eclipse, you're encouraging her."
Eclipse rubs up against her mate, the bloody residue smearing across her coal grey coat, pure white mane, and cutie mark of a shattered vertebra, "Oh lighten up, Wisp, you have to admit it was pretty funny."
"I admit nothing," Wisp huffs, successfully hiding his own amusement by taking another bite from their prey's shoulder.
"I see," Eclipse replies with a knowing smirk. "In that case, what do you think, Dusk?"
The young stallion sitting calmly next to Midnight looks up from his meal, shrugging indifferently before returning to eating, his brown mane, dark red coat, and unobscured cutie mark of a plant sprout giving him the deceptive appearance of being covered in significantly less blood than the rest of his family.
"There, you're overruled two to one: it was funny," Eclipse teases.
Ignoring her clearly flawed interpretation of the vote, Wisp raises an eyebrow at his son, "Having a bit of trouble there?"
Dusk responds with a growl, yanking repeatedly on a particularly stubborn rib. Planting his hooves, he pulls as hard as he can, only to have it easily detach from the manticore's spine with a quiet crack. The rib and chunk of attached meat fly from his mouth to land a few feet behind him, Dusk meanwhile flailing desperately before falling over backwards from the lack of expected resistance.
Grumbling as his family shares a laugh at his expense, Dusk gets to his hooves to retrieve his hard won food.
Four pairs of ears perk up at the sound, the entire family turning to stare at its source. For a moment, nothing else happens, nopony moving as they watch the shrub the noise came from. Then the shrub rustles, followed by the faint sound of retreating hoofsteps. Eclipse immediately lets out a piercing screech, charging after whoever had been hiding beneath the leaves with Midnight and Dusk eagerly following in their mother's wake. Wisp, meanwhile, disappears into the sky, homing in on the terrified shriek coming from their newest prey as it gallops away from his mate under the trees.
With Wisp flying above them, Eclipse allows the chase to stretch on, several times lunging towards her target as if to end it only to instead nip at her fleeing prey's legs or bat at her tail. When her quarry begins to tire and slow however, she sighs in disappointment, surging forward once more to grab the striped creature's tail in her mouth and yank backwards.
The attached mare yelps in surprise and aims a panicked kick at Eclipse, said vampony dodging the hasty blow easily, though in doing so releases the tail in her mouth. The mare stumbles away as the force pulling on her suddenly vanishes, but before she can regain her balance and continue with her escape, Wisp lands heavily in front of her. Ramming into the staggering mare's chest, he flips her over onto her back, knocking the air from her lungs. As the she lays on the ground momentarily stunned, Wisp places a hoof on her chest, leaning down to clamp his teeth around her throat. He feels his prey stiffen as he holds her pinned to the ground, though not enough to hide her trembling.
However, after holding her there for a moment, Wisp releases her, lips leaving behind an outline of leftover blood on her coat as well as faint welts from where his teeth had nearly penetrated her skin. He backs away from the captured mare, and after a few seconds she warily glances first at him, then at Eclipse, then behind them at Midnight and Dusk as they catch up to their parents.
Seeing their quarry laying defenseless on the forest floor, Midnight runs past her mother to rear and stomp the ground, "Raaarr!"
The recently released mare flinches at this, the innate adorableness of the filly overwhelmed by both the situation and the half dried blood from the beast she had been eating matting the hair on the front half of her body.
Wisp looks at his daughter reprovingly, "Stop trying to scare her, Midnight. We need to talk with her, not give her a heart attack."
Dusk raises his hoof, "Dibs on first drink."
Wisp gives his son a flat stare, "There will be no 'dibs' on anything."
Dusk rolls his eyes and looks away, quickly losing interest in the situation.
"Sorry about that," Eclipse says, smiling as she takes a step forward. "Kids will be kids, after all. But that aside, we do have something we need to discuss with you regarding this whole 'knowing we exist' thing."
"I'm Eclipse by the way. That over there is Wisp, Dusk, and Midnight," she continues, pointing to each in turn. An expectant pause follows.
"And you are… ?"
Zecora gulps, rubbing her throat before answering, "My sincere apologies for the wait; I’ve never met any like you to date. I am still new to these woods and my name is Zecora; I seek only to gather some of this forest's flora."
"And we have no problem with that," Wisp replies, "but we can't exactly have you going off to tell the townsponies about us either. Your own reaction to finding us explains 'why' well enough."
"I can understand very well others’ desire to be left alone; it is why I myself chose to live within the Everfree on my own. But to say that is the only reason I am growing my home here is most untrue, as there is another unfortunate reason that I settled here out of the blue," Zecora states. "For whenever I don my cloak and attempt to draw near, the ponies of Ponyville always run away in fear. So no matter what I may have come to say, they would not listen to my words anyway. Therefore in summary you need not fret; I can tell nopony of your secret."
Wisp cocks his head in confusion, "Why would they be scared of you? You're not exactly terrifying. Or intimidating. No offense."
Zecora sits up and shrugs, "Why they are so terrified of me, I cannot say for sure; whenever I enter town, I do try to act most demure. Yet while my only goal this past year has simply been to shop and trade, they all still avoid me as though a pact with a demon I have made."
"Huh. Well… I… guess that solves this rather nicely, regardless," Wisp says, his attempt at a reassuring smile revealing a mouthful of pointed teeth. "And… honestly I was expecting there to be a lot more coercion needed on your part, but seeing as you’ve been so calm and reasonable about this… "
Wisp pauses, sending Eclipse a questioning look. Eclipse hesitates, then nods sadly.
"…we won't sneak into your home and drink your blood anymore," he finishes.
Zecora blinks, then narrows her eyes, "By choosing to use the word 'anymore', that would imply you have done so before."
"Well yeah, it's a lot easier to fly over to your tree than to sneak into Ponyville," Wisp explains matter-of-factly.
"And the flavor of your blood is just so… exotic," Eclipse adds wistfully. "It was a nice treat every once in a while. Though I suppose nothing lasts forever. Or in this case barely a year."
She sighs dejectedly.
"It's not fair!" Midnight complains, "I never got to taste her!"
Zecora coughs at this, getting to her hooves, "While I do not wish to make light of the flattery you proffer, I will very gladly take you up on your generous offer. But unless there is more you wish to say of this, I must make haste; the night is no longer young, and I have little time left to waste."
With that, she quickly dips her head, then turns and canters into the forest away from the family of bloodsuckers. After watching her vanish between the trees, the vamponies leave as well, heading back to finish their meal.
Growling greets the family as soon as they re-enter the clearing containing the carcass of their most recent kill, a trio of scavenging timberwolves contesting the vamponies’ previous claim on the still fresh meat. Wisp trots towards their meal unperturbed, the timberwolves meanwhile spreading out from the corpse to flank him on either side, their growling growing louder the closer he approaches. Without warning, Eclipse drops from the sky, shattering the middle wolf beneath her hooves. Before the other two can react, she springs back into the air, her shadowmagic not quite compensating for her speed as she flies up and circles around, a nearly invisible dark blur flitting between the stars. Bounding forward when the remaining pair of wolves make the mistake of looking towards their broken comrade, Wisp bucks one of them to pieces. Suddenly alone, the last of the interlopers takes a step back, then turns, attempting to flee along with the weakly floating remains of its two comrades. It gets halfway across the clearing before Eclipse descends on it as well, the magic holding it's form together easily overwhelmed.
Midnight cheers, running beside her mother to flare her wings and hiss enthusiastically at the retreating remains. Eclipse giggles at the display, tousling her daughter's mane affectionately. After the last of the sticks vanish into the woods, they turn to rejoin Wisp and Dusk at the dead manticore just in time to see Dusk pull out what remains of the liver.
"Hey!" Midnight shouts, running up to her older brother and biting into it as well.
"Mine!" she growls through the chunk of meat, eyes momentarily flashing bright red.
Dusk drops the contested food instinctively, staggering back a couple steps while his sister happily scampers away with her prize.
"Midnight… " Wisp says, eyes glowing softly as he draws her attention, "stop intimidating your brother."
Midnight mutinously meets his gaze for several seconds before breaking off the contest and lowering her head.
"Fine… " she grumbles through a mouthful of liver, retreating further from the group to consume her food in peace.
Eclipse bumps flanks with Wisp, grinning as she watches their daughter lay down to gnaw on the organ, "Looks like you've got some competition, Wispy. She doesn't even know what she's doing and she's already almost matching you."
Wisp's dimly lit eyes meet his mate's, raising an eyebrow as he starts to circle her, "'Almost'? I don't know what you were watching, but that was clearly a complete victory on my part."
Eclipse begins circling as well, eyes glowing to match the pair looking into her own. On the third cycle, they close the gap between them, eyelids drifting shut just as their lips meet. After a short while, Eclipse breaks the kiss to nip playfully at Wisp's ear.
Noisily wolfing down a mouthful of liver, Midnight voices her opinion of their actions, "Ewww!"
"'ew'?" Wisp asks, sauntering over to his daughter, "You thought that was gross? Well then, what do you think-"
Without warning he pounces on Midnight, "-about this!"
They roll over several times before coming to a rest with Wisp on his back and Midnight upside-down on his belly, pinned by his legs. Midnight struggles fiercely to free herself from her father's embrace, though to no avail – Wisp managing to keep hold of her while his wings slowly spread wide. Then, when his wings reach full extension he suddenly brings them back in, using the claw tipping each wing to mercilessly tickle Midnight's sides.
"Stooo-ooop!" Midnight protests, giggling and wriggling in her father's grasp.
Her father ignores her plea however, continuing his relentless assault. Finally, when Midnight lays exhausted and defeated on his belly, gasping for breath while her lungs fight with the spasms of laughter for air, the tickling ceases. Before her mind fully registers the missing sensation, Wisp’s legs gather beneath her and he throws her into the air, her wings and limbs flailing wildly until her short flight ends with a squelch as she lands in the remains of the manticore's chest cavity.
Wisp punches his hoof into the air, "YES!"
Dusk spares a glance for his recently airborne sister from the other side of the manticore's ribcage, opting to continue polishing off another rib rather than become involved.
Midnight meanwhile lays unmoving amid the leftover blood and guts except for her heaving chest, rogue giggles exiting her system as she recovers from the ordeal. After more than a minute, she gets to her hooves and clambers out of the corpse's insides, shaking her body in a vain attempt to remove the coat of red now covering her from head to toe.
Eclipse raises a hoof to shield her eyes from the stray droplets flying off of Midnight, blinking in surprise as from behind her leg she notices the barest hint of dawn tipping the treetops.
Fighting a sudden urge to yawn, she stretches and stands, "Time to head home, kids; the sun's going to rise soon and we all need to take a bath. I don't want anypony tracking blood everywhere. Again."
She casts a pointed look at one of her children in particular, "Dusk."
Dusk rolls his eyes before taking off into the night sky. Midnight attempts to follow him, but fails to get more than a few feet into the air, descending back to the ground amid the tired beating of her wings. Her second attempt goes little better, and she kicks a tuft of grass in frustration.
"Dusk!" Wisp calls out, gesturing at Midnight once he has his son's attention, "Make sure your sister gets home safely."
"Fiiiine… " Dusk groans loudly, the weight of this responsibility clearly almost too much for his young shoulders to bear.
Landing beside his sister, he nudges her out of her wanton assault on the innocent blades of grass, "Alright, c'mon, let's go."
"You know, you don't have to walk me home," Midnight offers once they leave the clearing. "I can totally make it back on my own."
Dusk snorts, "That's funny, coming from the one who was almost tickled to death. Plus if anything happened to you, Mom and Dad would probably kick me out of the cave in the middle of the day or something."
With their kids finally out of earshot, Wisp bounds over to the dead manticore and pulls out the remains of its heart, which despite being nearly half gone is still larger than his hoof. Switching gears smoothly, he strides over towards his mate to offer her a piece of the organ held in his mouth.
Eclipse observes his approach wearing a faintly amused expression, and rather than take it, she instead raises an eyebrow quizzically. Undeterred, Wisp shakes the meat, then boops her nose with it. Like a waiting trap, Eclipse's jaws snap open and shut on the heart, their noses briefly touching before they both pull away from the other, attempting to split the piece between them.
Damaged as it is, the dense muscle nevertheless manages to hold firm for a few seconds, but ultimately gives in to the determined pair. Once separated, Eclipse turns and flicks Wisp with her tail, hips swaying as she takes a few steps before spreading her wings and leaping into the sky, leaving in a distinctly different direction than their children.
Wisp chews for a moment, watching her rise towards the twinkling stars until he takes off as well, following the wingbeats of the one to whom he'd given the other half of his heart.
The door to Zecora's hut slams open, another source of early morning light joining the windows until the one who entered kicks it closed. Zecora sits tiredly on her wooden floor, waiting for her breathing to calm before standing and removing her pouches. Once they are all laying on the table in front of her, she makes her way over to her bed for some well-deserved rest, only to pause as a metallic glint catches her eye. After a moment's thought, she lifts each of five neck rings laying on the nearby shelf and, with some difficulty, slips them on.
While these may be annoying as heck, never again shall they leave my neck.