The zombie pony stalked fluidly through the undergrowth. She had been following a voice, for some time too, and many miles of woodland lay behind her. Nor had the journey been easy, for the voice belonged to someone who could fly, and they often rose above the forest canopy. Then the zombie would have to stand still and wait, until the voice dropped back to earth and she could trail it again.
At last, the owner of the voice seemed content to stay where they were. Quiet as a cat, the zombie moved into the shadow of an oak and peered around its trunk.
On the other side, about thirty paces away, a young pegasus pony was crouching to dig in the dirt. The pegasus had a pale gold coat and three pink and blue butterflies for her cutie mark. Her mane and tail were also pink, both of them very long and flowing. As she had for most of the morning, the pegasus sang to keep herself company.
Here in this place, filled with so many wonders,
I fly ahead, like the lightning to thunder,
All that they see,
Is it worth only money?
Don’t their hearts bleed,
For the life of a bunny?
The zombie was momentarily put off. She felt vaguely that she had liked such singing, a long time ago. Part of her wanted to stand still and listen.
But she was wasting time. If she waited too long, the pegasus would fly away. And she needed to kill her. The zombie had to rest in peace again—that singular desire burned within her, ever since she first woke up, days ago, pushing and clawing her way out of the rotten earth. She had no idea what had caused this torture, or why, only that it would end if she could find another pony and devour their essence. And now she had her chance.
Ducking close to the ground, the zombie slunk forward. The distance between herself and her prey dropped to a mere twenty paces. A few less and she could strike with no chance of missing. She had almost moved close enough when a dry twig snapped under her hoof.
The pegasus immediately whipped around. For a moment, they stared at each other. Then—
The pegasus spread her wings and leapt backwards. She would be safely airborne before the zombie could catch her. Suddenly there was a metallic SNAP! The pegasus stumbled and crashed into the dirt.
The zombie rushed forward. Almost at once, she saw what had given her this second chance: someone had hidden a rabbit snare in the ground. For whatever reason, the pegasus had been digging it up, and in her panic, she had accidentally stepped on it. Her left forehoof was caught.
Just like that, the zombie had won. A bite to the throat would suffocate the pegasus and make her lose consciousness. Or perhaps the zombie would feed while her victim was still alive. Confidently, she moved into position. The pegasus stared up at her, too terrified to speak.
When the zombie saw that, she hesitated. Perhaps it was not right to kill a helpless pony. Perhaps it was not right to kill a pony at all.
The zombie shook her head. These were foolish thoughts. The pegasus had to die. But what if she could be granted a more dignified death? The zombie had a vague memory of someone explaining how it was important to show mercy. That was the way of the warrior and the zombie had been a warrior once. She remembered a bit of it now.
The pegasus whimpered and the zombie made her decision. Reaching down, she took hold of the jaws on the trap. They were made of steel and fiendishly strong. A little higher and they would have shattered the pegasus’ leg. But purely from chance they had closed on the hardest part of her hoof. The zombie pried them apart and the pegasus pushed away, curling up in a ball to hide her face.
The zombie reached out to prod her, eliciting a number of tiny squeaks. Clearly, more time was needed. The zombie fought down her impatience and backed away to sit—far enough to reduce the terror of her presence, close enough to pounce on the pegasus if she tried to escape.
For a long time, the two of them stayed as they were. Eventually, the pegasus began to uncurl. Sighting the zombie, she nerved herself and attempted to speak. The faintest mumble escaped from her lips. She tried again and, after wringing her hooves and gulping several deep breaths, finally managed it.
“A-are… are you going to eat me?”
Her voice was peaceful, even though her words vibrated with fear. Hearing them made the zombie feel strangely ashamed. Almost before she realized it, she found herself shaking her head.
“Oh, thank you! Thank you very much! I’m sorry I was so frightened, but you really scared me. You don’t look as scary now, though. You look… sad. I bet something’s awfully wrong, isn’t it?”
Her question was completely unexpected. The zombie managed to nod.
“I knew it! I would have said something sooner, except that I didn’t realize zombies could feel sad. I didn’t realize zombies could feel anything. I’ve never seen one this close before.”
The pegasus rose to her hooves. She was slightly wobbly, but that seemed to be mostly from nerves, and not from any damage inflicted by the trap.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
The zombie considered. After a few seconds, she motioned at the pegasus’ throat, then swept her hooves outward and pointed to her ears.
“You want me to sing?”
The zombie nodded and relaxed in the grass. The pegasus cleared her throat. There were birds on the branches overhead and two squirrels chattering over an acorn. All of them fell quiet when the pegasus began to sing. Her voice was incredible; the zombie had only heard it tangentially before, but now she had the full effect and it stirred every part of the spirit that clung to her earthly remains.
After a time, the pegasus finished, winding down with a trio of haunting notes. The zombie’s vision became misty and she wiped her eyes, staining both hooves with a blackish fluid. Embarrassed and not a little horrified, she pointed to the broken trap and made an exaggerated wince, trying to divert her companion’s attention from the ugly tears.
“Yes,” said the pegasus, “that did hurt. Thank you for freeing me.”
The zombie drew a question mark in the air.
“What was I doing?” For the first time, the pegasus looked angry, as though she might actually be capable of defending herself. “Well, if you must know, there’s a group of horrible trappers who come to the forest and snare the animals. Not the Everfree Forest, of course, those animals can fend for themselves. But it’s different here. The trappers sell what they catch, or sometimes they… they kill them and take their fur! I’ve tried to speak out about it, but no pony in town wants to help. So I fly around and I pull up all the traps I can find.”
A faint wrenching tugged at the place where the zombie’s heart had been. By the time she finished cleaning her face, she knew exactly what she had to do, and pantomimed her intentions.
“You’d… like to help me?”
The zombie nodded.
“Oh my goodness, really? That would be wonderful! I’m Fluttershy, by the way. What’s your name?”
The zombie shrugged.
“You can’t remember?”
“Well, maybe it will come to you later. If it doesn’t, I’m sure we can think of the perfect new one.”
The zombie had no objections, and followed Fluttershy deeper into the forest. Locating traps was not especially difficult, but their surroundings often made them tricky to disarm. For a living pony, at any rate. The zombie was another matter. Thorns and briars didn’t hurt her, stinging insects never drove her away, and she had no fear of cutting herself on the edge of a rusty snare. Moreover, the magic that animated her body had made it incredibly strong. If a mishandled trap closed on the zombie’s leg, she simply tore the metal apart and continued working. With her help, Fluttershy made ten times her previous progress, until, by the time the evening stars were up, every trap for miles had been destroyed.
“I can’t thank you enough,” said Fluttershy. “We saved so many animals today. Will you be here tomorrow? I’ll come back and see you.”
She waved and spread both wings to fly away. The zombie let her go.
Next morning, it was windy and overcast. The zombie had barely moved during the night. She felt lonely and confused, but most of that vanished when she heard a familiar voice singing. A moment later, Fluttershy swooped down from the forest eaves. In her hooves, she carried a basket full of needles, thread, and deep purple cloth.
“I have a friend in Ponyville,” said Fluttershy, “who’s just amazing with magic. And so brave too; I wish I could be like her! A-anyway, she enchanted this cloth for me, and the thread. They’re strong and waterproof, and my friend says they’ll last almost forever.”
The zombie needed no further explanation. Standing up, she brushed her coat until it was as clean as she could possibly make it. Then she held still while Fluttershy threaded a needle and cut several lengths of cloth with some scissors. Fluttershy had also brought a bottle of water and a few sponges. Using these, she cleaned away what dirt the zombie had missed.
Next, she began sewing squares of purple cloth into the zombie’s coat. Her first prick with the needle was hesitant, but when it became clear the zombie was not in pain, Fluttershy quickened her pace. The zombie’s body didn’t rot or decay—that was part of the magic which had returned her to life—but it had suffered much damage from its long sleep below ground. Fluttershy patiently restored every inch, until the patches of missing skin had been covered and the torn flesh mended back into its rightful place.
When this was done, Fluttershy took up one of her favorite combs. With careful strokes, she untangled the zombie’s mane and picked the burrs out of her tail. As a final touch, she polished the zombie’s hoofs.
At last, the job had been completed. Fluttershy stood back to have a look. The zombie was still a bit scary, yes. But she was no longer terrifying.
“I wish I could tell what your cutie mark is. But it’s… well, it’s gone now. Anyway, I was hoping it might give me a clue about your name. I don’t suppose you remembered?”
The zombie shook her head.
“Well,” said Fluttershy, “what if I call you—”
She spoke a word that felt curiously appropriate. The zombie bowed to show she liked it.
“Wonderful! I’m so glad! I have another question for you, too: would you like to help me feed the animals? I thought you might, because of how hard you worked to protect them yesterday. And I can show you more about the forest, if you’re interested.”
The zombie was interested. For the rest of that day, and for many days thereafter, Fluttershy came to teach her. The forest was a joining of innumerable pieces, and under Fluttershy’s patient guidance, the zombie began to understand how each one fit together. The animals and plants became second nature to her, and the more she learned, the more she was filled with the desire to help everything prosper.
One clear autumn morning, a few weeks later, Fluttershy led her to the base of a tall, treeless hill. They ascended together, and if the zombie had still been living, what she saw at the top would have taken her breath away.
“Isn’t it beautiful? I think this is my favorite place in the whole world. I think, maybe one day, I could stay here forever.”
The zombie moved slowly forward. A wooden bench had been placed in the grass near the center of the hill, surrounded by daffodils and tiny blue wildflowers. From here, one could look in every direction, where the roof of the forest shone gold and fiery crimson. Further still, the town of Ponyville was a medley of thatched houses, checkered tents, and tan cobblestone. Beyond that again, a great lake shimmered under the afternoon haze.
Fluttershy sat down on the bench, while the zombie rested in the grass beside her. For a time, they were silent. Then Fluttershy began talking. She spoke of her hopes and her dreams, her regrets in the past and her aspirations for the future, all those things she normally kept to herself when, from kindness, she chose to listen to her friends’ thoughts rather than speak of her own. The zombie paid rapt attention, nodding or shaking her head according to each topic. Only once did she interrupt, when the mention of a certain word made her glance at Fluttershy with a questioning look.
“Oh,” said Fluttershy, “don’t you know what caring is? Well, it’s... hard to explain. I suppose it means something different for everypony you ask. To me, caring is protecting what someone else treasures.”
The zombie did not answer. That evening, after Fluttershy went home, she stayed for a long time on top of the hill, staring thoughtfully into the world.
“You know,” said Fluttershy during the following morning, “I think you might be ready to work on your own. I’ll always be here to help, and I’ll come back as often as I can. But my friends have started to ask where I’ve been. Would you like me to introduce you? Or even to come and live with me?”
The zombie shook her head. Fluttershy didn’t press the issue, and though she brought it up at long intervals, the zombie always demurred to meet any other ponies, or to leave the forest.
With that settled, the two of them fell into a regular rhythm. Sometimes Fluttershy would be away for months, and the zombie worked hard in her absence, collecting a store of questions to ask when her mentor returned. At other times, Fluttershy would show up by surprise, cheerful greetings would be exchanged, and the two would spend weeks in the wilderness.
They had many adventures. Once, the trappers caught Fluttershy by surprise. They were shouting and angry over years of broken snares. The zombie was out of sight behind a thicket. When the trappers pulled out their clubs and their hunting knives, she launched herself into them, and the whole group fled, screaming, never to return.
Another time, they were attacked by a manticore. In this terrible foe, the zombie finally met her match, and would have been ripped to pieces if Fluttershy had not started to sing. By her third note, the manticore’s roaring had turned into a soft croon. A few more notes and the great beast lay at Fluttershy’s feet, purring like a kitten. From then on, it was hers to command, until the season changed and it left the forest as suddenly as it had come.
Through all this and more, the two companions helped their forest thrive, working hard to make a difference.
The years passed.
* * *
There were two stallions at the edge of the tree line. The younger one wore a saddle bag bulging with maps, flares, telescopes, compasses, and other surveying equipment. The older stallion carried only a single sheet of paper, and he scowled as he glanced from it to the trees.
“The forest isn’t this far east in our records,” he said.
“No, sir. It’s grown incredibly well since the last survey. Must be great for the town—all this shade and fertilized soil. Some of these trees should also be purifying the local aquifer. Not to mention the berries, the acorns, the honey bees and maple syrup… I think I even saw a few truffle oaks.”
“Yes, thank you, but I do not require an ecology lesson. Now let’s go.”
The younger stallion was visibly startled.
“B-but sir, aren’t you worried about the zombie?”
“The zombie? Ridiculous! I don’t believe in such nonsense. This area is prime real-estate and it’s gone undeveloped for far too long.”
“Because the zombie chases everypony away! Everypony who might hurt the forest. You have to be respectful to come here. That’s what they said in the town.”
“I don’t care one whit what a bunch of Ponyville yokels said. In fact, I’ll bet you a hundred bits they made the whole thing up, just to try and keep their scenic view from changing. Well, it’s damn selfish, that’s what it is. There should be houses and stores for miles in this direction. And our company is going to make that happen.”
The younger stallion said nothing and the two of them tramped on through the undergrowth. After a time, they began climbing a hill. The trees thinned as they went higher, until, at the very top, the tallest vegetation fell away, so that the crown of the hill lay open under the midday sunlight.
The area was surprisingly well-kept, covered in grass and blooming with pink and gold wildflowers. An ancient bench, long since overtaken by vines, sat close to the hill’s center, as though this had once been a place that was used to receiving visitors.
“There’s some kind of marker here,” said the younger stallion. “Looks almost like a gravestone.”
He trotted forward and knelt in the grass.
“It is a gravestone. Name’s faded, but the dates are over a hundred years old.”
“Yes, yes. We can always get someone to exhume the remains and rebury them elsewhere. Now, have you got the tripod? This is a perfect location for taking measurements.”
The younger stallion reluctantly obeyed. As he pulled a tripod out of his saddlebag, he suddenly froze in place.
“What is wrong with you?!” demanded his supervisor. “Can’t you even get one little task right? And why in the world are you staring at me like that? For goodness sake, I’m not going to eat you!”
“S-s-sir! I think you b-better look a-around!”
He did. The zombie was standing not a dozen paces behind him. With a scream and a squeal, both stallions turned tail and ran.
The zombie could easily have caught them. But she pursued at less than half her full speed, and only until she was sure that neither intruder would go anywhere except out of the forest.
This done, she retraced her steps to the top of the hill. The younger stallion had dropped his tripod, but that could be left at the outskirts of Ponyville, where someone would know what to do with it. Far more serious was that the tripod had fallen on a patch of wildflowers. The zombie picked it off and gently rearranged each of the plants, until they were once again standing tall like the rest.
As she finished, a hawk flew overhead, all dappled wings and shining feathers. The zombie gazed upward to watch, imagining a voice on the wind.
“Caring is protecting what someone else treasures.”
She faced the gravestone and bowed her head. Then she turned away and entered the forest, in whose delicate splendor an old friend had long ago helped her find peace.