Twilight slumped to the ground, happy to be relieved of the burden of her saddlebags. While a dirt path cut into an incline was hardly the most comfortable resting spot, there wasn’t much else in the way of hospitality in a forest. Thankfully, it appeared this trip into the Everfree would be one of the uneventful ones. She hated to think what running with saddlebags packed this full would be like, especially since her friends were carrying equally heavy packs.
“Thanks again for taking time out to come with me girls,” Twilight addressed the two other ponies with her, “I didn’t realize Zecora was serious when she said she had ‘pounds of cures for aches and pains.”
Fluttershy smiled wearily, shrugging off her saddlebags next to Twilight’s. “Happy to help, Twilight. I know how difficult a pegasus’ growing pains can be.” She stretched her wings sympathetically, haunted by the echoes of pubescent hardship.
Rarity, meanwhile, was using her magic to slip out from under her load as gracefully as she could manage. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t terribly graceful. She winced at the rattle of glass bottles as the saddlebags slumped to the dirt. Tentatively, she pulled back the flaps, expecting the worst. Thankfully, the contents appeared undamaged. Exhaling in relief, she pulled out a small cloth and daintily dabbed at the sweat accumulating around her horn. She grinned sheepishly as she joined her friends, conjuring up a cushion to sit on.
“Ahem, yes, well, I suppose I’d be lying if I said I came along solely out of the goodness of my heart. Zecora offered to show me the rare dyes she often finds in her travels, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to take her up on that. I just wish I’d known ahead of time that it would involve… heavy lifting.”
Twilight giggled at her friend’s distaste. “All the same, I appreciate it. I hope you found a few things you can use.”
Rarity perked up at the mention of her new treasures. “Oh, but I absolutely did! Take this one for example,” - she levitated a bottle of dark dust out of her bags - “when mixed with water, it produces a magnificent shade of cobalt blue that positively sparkles in the light. I think it will be the perfect accent for my new line.”
Twilight tried to pay attention to Rarity as she excitedly explained all the things she was planning to do with Zecora’s gifts – she really did – but her new wings started acting up again. It always began the same way: little twinges and aches in the unfamiliar joints would escalate until she was unable to find a comfortable way to hold them. Even stretching did nothing to assuage the discomfort. Eventually, her feathers would become ruffled and it would take at least an hour to get them back in place. It made her question if becoming a Princess had really been worth the hassle, and that was nothing to speak of the unexpected challenge falling asleep had become.
Eventually, Rarity trailed off when she noticed Fluttershy’s concerned looks towards their friend. She glanced over to see Twilight trying unsuccessfully to hide a pained expression, her wings twitching and rustling restlessly.
“Twilight, darling, are you not feeling well?”
Startled, Twilight’s wings flared reflexively, eliciting a yelp of pain. Twilight locked her gaze on her hooves, cheeks burning and ears splayed.
“It’s quite alright, darling. I can’t imagine what it’s like to quite suddenly have to deal with a whole new set of limbs.”
“Come on, Twilight,” Fluttershy comforted, “let’s head back out. The sooner we get back, the sooner we can mix up some of those remedies Zecora gave you.”
Twilight sighed and gave them a pained grin. “Thanks, guys. Don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Just as they were getting ready to pick up their saddlebags, a distant roar froze them in their tracks.
“Fluttershy,” Twilight whispered, “was that-?”
“A manticore?” She finished the statement, swallowing nervously. “Yes, and it sounded really angry. We should get moving.”
The girls dashed over and picked up their bags, fumbling anxiously with the straps. It wasn’t until too late that they realized something was crashing towards them through the bushes above. A large figure burst out of the underbrush and rolled down the slope, coming to rest in the middle of the path. The girls whipped around, expecting to see a furious manticore. They were, therefore, completely unprepared for the sight that awaited them.
Before them was a creature unlike any Twilight had ever seen. At a glance, it could have been mistaken for a hornless minotaur. But, when it picked itself up off the ground, she saw that it more closely resembled an ape of some kind. Strangely, it was almost entirely hairless and quite entirely without a tail. The majority of its hair circled its head; a matted, light-brown mop framed by a scruffy, darker brown beard. While it was mostly unclothed, it wore a tattered pair of loose denim leggings with a strange set of footwear, and carried some sort of bag slung about its shoulders. From its musculature and facial hair, she presumed it was male, but also obviously malnourished. He stared at them with wild and frightened eyes… Almost as if he had never seen anything like them.
Then, suddenly, his attention snapped back the way he came, and he bolted off down the hill. Seconds later, a manticore, snarling furiously, charged out of the forest above them, chasing after the fleeing creature. The manticore paid them barely any heed, intent on settling whatever grudge it held with the ape-like thing.
They watched the spectacle disappear into the forest. No one dared move for several seconds.
“Fluttershy,” Twilight whispered, “what was that?”
The pegasus gulped. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Well,” Rarity added breathlessly, “while this is normally more of Rainbow Dash’s forte, I think we should to go after them.”
Twilight and Fluttershy both did a double take before staring incredulously at Rarity. She huffed indignantly.
“Don’t give me that look! You saw its– er, his clothing. He’s obviously from some sort of civilization, and we can’t just leave him to his fate!”
Twilight and Fluttershy looked at each other, before giving nervous but determined nods. Somepony needed their help, and they would not turn tail and run. As one, they galloped off into the forest after the stranger and the manticore, following the trail of broken underbrush and churned earth.
Already, questions and ideas were buzzing agitatedly around Twilight’s head; questions like ‘Who is he?’, ‘What is he?’ and ‘Where did he come from?’ The thought of new, possibly even unheard of knowledge was tantalizing. But she shoved the giddy excitement aside until later. They first needed to address the most pressing concern: how in the world were they going to calm a raging manticore? The obvious candidate was Fluttershy, but…
“Fluttershy, that manticore looked pretty angry. Do you think you’ll be able to calm him like the last one?”
“Oh, um, I don’t know,” Fluttershy, fretted. “I can try, but I’m not sure how successful I’ll be.”
“Alright. Rarity, can you cast a sleep spell?”
“It’s… been a while since I’ve… used one, but I’ll… give it my best… shot,” Rarity affirmed between gasping breaths.
“Alright. Fluttershy, you try to talk him down. Rarity and I will have sedation spells prepared in case things get ugly. Rarity, be ready to cast as soon as we reach them.”
Rarity just nodded, focusing on keeping up. As they crested the opposite side of a shallow ditch, they heard a triumphant snarl followed by a pained yelp.
“Come on, girls! That was close!” Twilight shouted, veering towards the noise.
They rounded a thicket of dense trees to find the manticore stalking towards the stranger. He desperately tried to back away from his prone position, hampered by the bloody claw marks on the back of his calf. The manticore sneered in triumph and raised its barbed tail, poised to strike the final blow. Twilight was about to charge up her spell when Fluttershy’s voice rang out loud and clear.
“Um, excuse me?”
The manticore faltered. Not turning away from his target, he glanced back at the intruder, frustrated at the interruption.
“I… I’m sorry to intrude, but is this really necessary?”
The manticore snarled indignantly at her. Clearly this little pegasus didn’t understand the laws of the jungle. Fluttershy gulped, trying hard not to quail under his furious glare.
“Oh, well, um, I’m sure he didn’t know those were your mating grounds. I know he won’t make that mistake again. Would you please consider letting him go?”
He snorted. Perhaps she did know a little about how things worked. She was certainly right about one thing: the little pest wouldn’t be making that mistake again. He turned back to his prey, a hungry gleam in his eye, and growled deep in his throat. How did little ape-things taste? He wondered.
Seeing the manticore turn back on the defenseless ape creature, Fluttershy suddenly felt righteous indignation boiling in her mind.
Surprised, the manticore turned to stare at the pegasus. Where had the timid little thing gone, and who was this that replaced her?
“I realize he offended you, but this is wrong! Surely, he’s been punished enough! The poor thing is scared out of his wits! How would you like it if you accidentally wandered into an Ursa’s territory, and she didn’t stop after chasing you out? You wouldn’t like that very much, would you?”
The manticore felt something unfamiliar well up in his chest, something he hadn’t felt since he was a cub. He started to protest, but was quickly cut off.
“No! What you’re doing is wrong, and you know it! Now leave this creature alone, and go think about what you’ve done!”
Her stare withered his defiance. When he looked into her eyes, he could only see his mother, glaring at him in disappointment. Thoroughly rebuked, he slunk off shamefully in the direction of his cave, unable to look the pegasus in the eye any longer.
Twilight and Rarity watched in awe as the manticore shuffled off into the woods, fighting spirit thoroughly broken. After he had disappeared, they trotted over to Fluttershy.
“My goodness, Fluttershy!” Rarity marvelled. “No matter how many times I see it in action, your Stare never ceases to impress.”
Fluttershy smiled meekly at her friends, but was too preoccupied with the strange ape to give a response. Twilight turned to him as well, clearing her throat.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get here sooner, sir. Would you like some help?”
The stranger did not answer, or even respond, until Twilight took a step forward. He scrambled backwards, retreating from the perceived threat.
“Sir, I just want to help you. Can you understand me?”
Fluttershy was unsure if he could. The entire time Twilight had been speaking, his eyes were whipping around the clearing, searching for the best escape route. While she could see some intelligence in his gaze, it was the kind of intelligence she saw in the eyes of her animal friends, and even then it was buried under layers of paranoia and self-preservation. From the look of things, he had been somepony’s pet that either got lost or abandoned and had to survive in this forest, alone, fending for himself for quite some time. Long enough to no longer trust anypony. The poor thing was terrified of them. If she didn’t get get him to calm down, they wouldn’t be able to help him.
Fluttershy gently put her hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. Twilight turned to look at her, distress pulling at the corners of her mouth.
“Twilight, I don’t think he has pony intelligence. Would you let me try?”
The scholar in Twilight sighed in defeat. She had hoped he would be able to communicate with the strange creature, maybe learn about where he came from and what he was doing here. Unfortunately, it appeared that Fluttershy was correct. With a regretful nod, she returned to Rarity’s side. From there, the two watched the shy little pegasus do what she did best.
“It’s ok,” Fluttershy cooed reassuringly, “no need to be afraid. We won’t hurt you.”
Upon hearing her speak, he stopped backing away, but he was still watching them nervously. She lay down, motioning for her friends to do the same. He didn’t move, but still kept his eyes on them. Fluttershy’s heart ached as she saw the blood dripping from his calf. Slowly, she turned her head to reach into her saddlebag, and pulled out one of the apples she had brought in case anypony got hungry on the trip.
“Twilight,” she whispered, “could you split this with your magic?”
“Oh, um, sure,” she mumbled back. There was a small flash, and the apple fell in two halves. Fluttershy heard a sharp intake of breath from the creature, and she turned back. It had retreated a few more feet, startled by the sudden flash of light.
“Shhh, it’s alright,” she gently hushed, “it was just a little spell. See? Food.”
As calmly and docilely as she could, Fluttershy crawled towards him, inching along until he looked like he on the verge of bolting. Then, she laid one half of the apple on the forest floor and slowly backed away, trying her hardest not to startle him anymore than he already was. Halfway between the first apple half and her friends she placed the second half, then backed up the rest of the way and lay down.
“Go ahead,” she said encouragingly, “those are for you.”
The ape’s eyes darted between them and the apple half. He licked his lips, clearly debating whether or not to make a move. Then, slowly, cautiously, he leant forwards. Fluttershy laid her head on her crossed forelegs, trying to look as friendly and docile as possible. After a minute, the ape took a tentative hop forwards, favoring his injured leg. He watched the girls carefully, to see if they would make a move, then hopped forwards again.
This pattern repeated until he was a few feet away from the apple. Then, keeping his eyes on them, he slowly reached forward. As soon as his fingers touched the apple, he snatched it up and hopped backwards a few times. Fluttershy heard Rarity gasp and scramble to her hooves, as if to make chase. Fluttershy looked back at her friend, eyes pleading for her to stay put. Rarity understood, thankfully, and went back to watching the lost animal.
He brought the apple to his nose and snuffled around it, trying to determine its edibility. Apparently he liked what he smelled, because he took a tentative bite out of the fruit. Fluttershy couldn’t help but grin when he froze, eyes dilated. Snapping out of his revery, the ape wolfed down the rest of the apple, licking his fingers excitedly. He looked crestfallen when the treat was gone, but it seemed that he immediately remembered the other half. Uncertain, he looked between the girls and the apple. Seeing they hadn’t moved while he ate, he scooted forwards, reaching the second apple half with little hesitation. He snatched up the piece of fruit and hopped back only once before devouring his prize. While he ate the apple, Fluttershy had Twilight split another one. This time Twilight did her best to suppress the flash of light that followed her magic, but couldn’t suppress everything.
Fluttershy looked back to see the ape holding his breath, but watching them warily from the same spot. Smiling invitingly, Fluttershy placed another apple half before her, pushing it out as far as she could without getting up. The ape hopped forward eagerly, but stopped when he came within a few yards of their current position. He sized them up, looking for signs of hostility. Fluttershy kept her breathing slow and steady, loosening up the tension that had been building alongside the hope that she could get the poor thing to trust her. She heard her friends doing the same, and mentally thanked them for being so quick to follow her cues; although Rarity was breathing more… dramatically than was really necessary.
Thankfully, he didn’t seem to mind the theatrics and crawled forward, keeping his eyes on them the entire time. Carefully, he plucked the apple half and stuffed it whole into his mouth, watching their reactions. Fluttershy giggled, seeing his cheek puffed out around the large piece of fruit. He grinned a little at this, chewing slowly as he examined them.
She held out the last piece of apple in her hoof, the warmest smile she could muster on her face. The ape chewed contemplatively, before swallowing what remained of his apple. He stared into Fluttershy’s eyes.
Slowly, he shifted towards her. When he was no more than a yard away, he cautiously reached forward, watching her movements. Fluttershy sat as still as possible, not wanting to ruin the trust she’d gained. His hand inched toward the apple. Fluttershy held her breath.
When his hand closed around the fruit, instead of snatching it away, he gently lifted it off her hoof. From this close, his sheer size became much more apparent. Even crouched down, she could tell he would stand at least as tall as Iron Will – horns and all – on his hind legs. Still staring at her, he took a careful bite out of the apple, slightly relaxing as he watched her. Occasionally, his gaze would flick to the other two with her. It was obvious that she had quite a lot of trust to build up, but it seemed like she was off to a good start.
There was still one more thing to try. She pulled the last apple out of her bag and held it up before him.
“Good boy,” he cooed encouragingly. “See? We want to help you. There’s more apples for you if you come with us. Will you come with us?”
She held up the apple temptingly, sitting up to be closer to eye level. Her smile grew as he licked his lips, then shuffled tentatively into her hoof’s reach, gently reaching for the third treat. Like before, he picked it gently out of her hoof, but didn’t move away. Then he sat, quietly munching on the apple. He would occasionally look back over at Fluttershy, a curious but hopeful look in his eyes.
She held out hoof for him, showing she meant no harm. He almost backed away before curiosity overcame him. He reached out and gently stroked her arm, feeling the soft fur and examining her hooves. She moved the hoof, so he could watch, to reach for him. Expectedly, he tensed up, and she murmured soothingly to him.
“It’s ok. It’s ok.” She repeated the phrase, to help him become more accustomed to her voice. Gently, she placed her hoof on his shoulder, and began to pet him. With each stroke, his taut muscles loosened up until he was like putty in her hooves, leaning into her touch and humming happily. He pawed pitifully at her arm when she stopped, and she couldn’t help but giggle at the disappointed look on his face.
“Come on, let’s go back to Ponyville. I can patch you up better when we get to my house. Then you can meet the rest of my animal friends.”
She stood up to turn to her friends and he followed suit, hopping along behind her on his three uninjured limbs. At first, he was leery of approaching the two unknowns. But when they mimicked Fluttershy in offering their forelegs for him to touch, to show they, too, meant no harm, he relaxed his caution. Twilight was fascinated by the strange hairlessness of the creature and was eager to look him up in her zoology texts, to see if his condition was unique among his kind. Rarity, meanwhile, was interested in examining what remained of his clothing. Perhaps if she could identify the style, she would be able to help determine his place of origin.
“Alright girls, let’s hurry back to Fluttershy’s. I’m going to need research material if we’re to figure out this mystery.”
Discord growled in irritation as he flew over the same patch of forest for the umpteenth time that day. It was a thoroughly unremarkable patch of forest, and he had seen thousands more just like it. It was becoming increasingly difficult to care about that little patch of forest with each pass. It was just so boring. Which was exactly the problem.
For weeks, Discord had been scouring the Everfree for any sign of an alien invader. He’d scanned every square mile of the forest through all the types of vision: color, monochrome, infrared, ultraviolet, uber chartreuse, monocular, binocular, trinocular, x-ray, y-ray, z-ray, and even beer-goggle. Nothing popped out at him as unusual. The only reason he was so concerned by this small collection of trees was because of how little he could bring himself to care about it.
The first couple times he passed by it, he just skipped it over. After all, it was exactly like the rest of the forest. Why he should bother with such a nondescript piece of land was beyond him. So, naturally, the third time he came around, his inability to concentrate on the copse of trees sparked his suspicion. Any other spot, he could scan so thoroughly that he understood the personal life of a single ant in an anthill from a mile away. But the longer he stared at this area, the stronger the feeling that it didn’t matter, and that little voice in the back of his mind would tell him that it was somepony else’s problem.
“So, it’s Somepony Else’s Problem, is it?”
“In that case, I guess I don’t need to worry about it.”
“So, it’s the perfect spot to take a break.”
But before he could argue with himself any further, Discord snapped his talon and was quite suddenly lounging on a lawn chair in a vast clearing, sipping a mimosa. He looked around, and found no sign of the trees that had made up the foliage he’d seen from the air.
“A complete sensory illusion field with an SEP perception filter. Well now, it seems that Somepony Else’s Problem has become MY problem.”
With that declaration, the nagging effects of the mental dissuasion evaporated. A clever and thorough ruse, albeit hastily put together, if the ease with which he broke the illusion was any indicator. Someone was trying hard not to be found, but was in too much of a hurry to cover their trail properly.
He tossed the mimosa aside, and stood up, scanning the clearing for anything out of place. It turned out he had not far to search, for after only a ninety-degree turn, he spotted something very clearly not a natural part of the forest. Jammed up in the crook of a branching maple was a mangled mess of metal and rubber.
“What have we here?”
With a flippant snap, the wreckage disappeared out of the tree and reappeared beside him.
“This seems familiar…”
Curious, he grasped both halves of the wreckage and unbent it with as much ceremony as he would uncrumple a wad of paper. The wreckage started to take shape before him, until he was looking at something that slightly resembled the original object. He looked on his work with distaste.
“Honestly, imposing order on anything is just so blasé. Still, at least I’m getting a clearer picture of what-”
The image clicked in his mind. A car. He was staring at the remains of a human automobile. Instantly, his hackles rose, and a cold fury descended on his mind. He’d begun to think, after all this time, that he’d finally found a place isolated from the ravages brought by that incessant species, and now one up and decides to just fall into his reality and start messing up all his hard work? Not if he had anything to say about it.
He conjured up a note and attached it to the wreck, before translocating the whole mess into Celestia’s bedchambers. Her court mages could strip the thing down to spare parts for all he cared, they wouldn’t be able to discern much without knowledge of combustible fuels. His obligation to alert the Princesses of his progress fulfilled, he began sniffing out the traces of the obfuscation magic. He knew what it smelled like now. The human wasn’t going to be able to pull one over on him!
As soon as Discord picked up the trail, he phased out of corporeality. He wasn’t about to give the escapee the satisfaction of a tripped wire or crossed sensor. This was one enemy that would not escape his wrath. He’d put too much time observing and testing this race to have one blundering idiot bring it all crashing down on his head. When he caught up, the two of them were going to have a long, thorough discussion, and no one – not even Celestia – was going to stand in his way.
“The saying is ‘to boldly go,’ is it not?” He seethed, stalking through the trees. “Well, my little human friend, this time you’ve boldly gone too far.”