Sometimes being patient just wasn’t fun.
As the days went by, Sure Stroke began to open up to Aspire and Esalen more and more. Each day, she’d join them for lunch and talk about things. They’d tell her a little bit about the village, she’d talk about her old home in Cloudsdale. Or they’d pester her to share her sketches and doodles she’d drawn during free time the day before, and she’d ask them to talk about some of the things they did for fun.
After a couple weeks, they were able to get her to come over and talk to their other friends. She hit it off with Vector rather quickly, finding kinship in her fellow pegasus, and found Toola’s antics to be fun.
It took a couple days for her to warm up to Nimble and Zephyr, the latter mostly because he came off a bit gruff at times when he got annoyed. But once she sat with them long enough, talking was a bit easier.
Of course, she still stayed close by Aspire and Esalen for comfort. They were the first nymphs she met and the first friends she’d made in the village. It was only natural she try to stay close, even closer than she held Vector.
Still, every time they went outside, she slipped away to do her art in her favorite spot—Sure Stroke’s Art Tree, as all their friends had come to call it.
Esalen stashed her lunch bag within the confines of her saddlebag, just in time for Mister Abacus to send the class outside for the remaining hour of their free period.
Haberdasher’s story was still fresh in her mind. It gave her a bit of perspective on some things she didn’t quite understand when she was younger; to her, he was just some skittish stallion who her parents and Mister Breezy invited to dinner one night, then watched her mother feed a little. It was all just part of showing a newcomer they weren’t the nasty changelings of old, or those who still held onto the ways of those days before the Sainted Ones of the Crystal Empire offered their aid.
A younger Esalen never imagined she’d have to apply something similar to help a classmate. That was an adult thing, little nymphs and foals just ran and laughed and played when they weren’t “trapped” in Mister Abacus’ classroom. New foals usually showed up during the summer and had time to adapt.
Then again, most parents didn’t move to Respite in the middle of the school year. Mister Drizzly and Missus Skydancer were outliers, as Aspire would say.
Mister Haberdasher suggested a little push to get her comfortable. But how do we do that? We’ve had her sit with us for lunch for the passed few days, we’ve invited her to hang out and do homework with us at Sweet Treat’s or the ice cream parlor, but she’s still shifty. A tiny frown marred her muzzle. Esalen glanced out of the corner of her eye, flicking her tail as she watched Sure Stroke slip her saddlebags onto her back and make her way out the door and toward the field with the rest of the class.
No doubt, she’d sit herself down in the shade of her tree and doodle for the next hour, while everyone else played. Just as she had every day over the past several weeks.
Things had gotten better at lunch, though. She’d laugh and joke with them, she’d even stopped looking at the end of their snouts and tasting like she’d been dipped in way too much of some sort of vegetable oil—confusion in small doses, like right before a prank, was a nice little garnish for the ensuing amusement, but it was absolutely terrible in large doses.
Esalen gave another flick of her tail. How to pull Sure Stroke away from that for a while? Sit down and talk with her while watching her doodle away? Or, they could be a bit more manipulative: since Missus Skydancer always picked her up, Aspire and Esalen could try to use that to their advantage.
All it would take was some careful word choice, bright smiles, and a thinly-veiled hint that Sure Stroke had been using “family time” as an excuse to decline their invitations for the past several days.
At least we’d get a straight answer out of Missus Skydancer. Esalen sighed and made to follow her classmates outside. But something tells me that wouldn’t go over too well with Sure Stroke later on.
A rough shove to her shoulder jolted her out of her thoughts. She turned to fix her brother with a harsh glare. “If you’re trying to get me back for the other night, I’d be more than happy to remind you which of us is the better wrestler!”
“Uh, no, and that title goes to me,” Aspire brought a hoof to his chest. “You only win when you can call Nimble or Toola over to help!”
“Not my problem if you can’t get tag team partners!”
“Only because Vector and Zephyr think it’s funnier to laugh when the three of you pin me!” He snorted and bared his fangs. “I’d remind you how the last time you couldn’t call your little helpers went, but I was trying to get your attention. You’ve been off in la la land since lessons ended—you didn’t even try to correct me when I told Sure Stroke the story about how we helped Queen Euphoria catch Mister Breezy that time he shot spitballs at her.”
Esalen blinked and tilted her head. “Which time? He does that almost every other week.”
“Oh, right. Um,” he trailed off, bringing a chitinous hoof to his chin. “I think that was the time she promised to have Sweet Treat bake us her special death by chocolate cake if we told her where Mister Breezy was hiding.”
“I remember that one!” Her ears perked up. “He was hiding behind Missus Sweet Treat’s counter during a rush—she kept glaring at Breezy for causing trouble, but Queen Euphoria got distracted because she could taste everyone’s amusement!”
“Yeah, and I said you tattled on him.”
She drew in a sharp breath through her nose, eyes narrowing. “That was you who tattled first! I only went along with it because you gave me those stupid eyes of yours!”
Aspire brought a hoof up to stifle a laugh. “Yeah, I was setting you up to flip out. Except you were way off in your own little world, leaving me to explain the darn joke.”
Snorting, she strode passed him and flicked her tail across his nose. “Well, you’ll just have to pay for that later. Whose pick is it for recess today?”
“Mine. I’m thinking hide-and-seek today.” Aspire’s wings buzzed, his excitement palpable and sweet to the taste. “You cool with that?”
Esalen gave a full, toothy grin, showing off her fangs. “I’d say that sounds like fun! Picking teams?”
“Foals versus nymphs, I think. It’ll be fun.”
“Perfect!” Her sugar pink tail swished merrily. “I can’t wait to get Toola back for the last time we played!”
Aspire winced. “Oh, right. We have to deal with her stupid flipping and contortionist stuff.” He stopped, tapping a hoof against the wooden floor. “You could always team up with Nimble. She’s pretty… er, nimble.”
She hummed. “Maybe. That could—wait, no.” She sighed and shook her head. “That leaves us short a nymph to catch Vector. We have to put two on him or he’ll shoot past us every time.”
“That’s right!” he groaned, bringing up a hoof to cover his forehead. “Stupid Zippy pegasus!”
His comment earned a bump of her shoulder. “Watch it, there. Keep it to Vector.” The sheepish smile he gave in return made her shake her head. “So, hide-and-seek again. Sounds like that’ll be fun.”
“Should be,” Aspire said with a nod. As they turned the corner and stepped through the doorway, out into the warm sun and green grass where the rest of their classmates were gathered, the smile washed off his muzzle. His brows knit together in concern. “So, mind telling me what had you so far off in your own little world?”
Esalen stayed silent a moment. Her gaze flitted from the crowd of foals and nymphs to the lone filly sitting in the shade of the maple tree; the tiny smile on Sure Stroke’s muzzle, the look of concentration written plainly on her face as she began drawing whatever it was that had caught her eye today.
Her eyes didn’t stay on her sketchpad, though. She kept glancing up, looking toward their classmates, then returning to her work.
Sketching us again? Esalen raised an eyebrow, an amused smile played upon her lips. “That’ll be interesting to see.”
“Hmm?” Aspire followed her stare, blinking as he looked at Sure Stroke. “Sure Stroke sketching again? Why’s that interesting?”
“She’s sneaking looks at the class.” She waved a hoof between the gathered group and lone filly. “It’ll be interesting to see how it looks, I mean.”
He hummed and pulled a face, but nodded all the same. “Hopefully I won’t have overly large fangs again.” Sighing, he ran a hoof through his mane. “I still wish she’d come play with us. She does her drawing stuff every day.”
Esalen nodded, chewing on her bottom lip. Her eyes flitted from Sure Stroke to the waiting group, then to Aspire again. “Mister Haberdasher mentioned Mister Breezy giving him a little push when he came over for dinner.”
Aspire tapped a hoof against the ground. “Yeah.” He shifted his weight from one side to the other, his tail flicked. He turned, rubbing a hoof against his chin. “Hide-and-seek is something we share if I remember right. Rocky said something about playing it before he moved here.”
Slowly, a smile made her way across her muzzle. Esalen turned herself to face him fully. She kept quiet, simply smiling at him and waiting for him to connect the dots himself.
Blinking, he tilted his head. His tongue flicked out, testing her emotions to help guide him along. Aspire drew back in confusion at the taste of her mirth in combination with the knowing smile she wasn’t even trying to hide.
Again, he looked between Sure Stroke and the group. His ears perked up and tail began to swish, he’d figured it out.
“We’re gonna pull her in?” he asked, a grin made its way across his muzzle.
“Bingo,” she replied. “Time for a little push, I think.”
Aspire’s wings buzzed with excitement. “Alright, let’s get her before Prim comes over and rips us apart for taking too long.”
Esalen snickered, but nodded along with him and began trotting over toward the tree as Aspire turned and called out to the class that they’d be over in a minute.
Their hooves thudded and crunched against the rolling green grass, both doing their best to keep their wings from buzzing too much and keep their smiles small.
Running her tongue over her fangs, Esalen was happy to note that she’d kept up her transformation again; they were still the same size as a newborn hatchling’s, just enough to still be there, but unassuming enough that they wouldn’t frighten Sure Stroke.
Perfect. Everything was set.
As they came closer, Aspire called out, “Hey, Sure Stroke!”
Soft purple ears flicked, Sure Stroke looked up from her drawing and gave a smile. She waved, a pencil still held in her hoof, and called back, “Hi, Aspire! Hi, Esalen!” Confusion written plainly across her face, she tilted her head. “Not that I’m not happy you came over to talk, but what’re you doing over here? Shouldn’t you be playing with them?” She nodded toward the rest of the class.
“We will in a minute,” Esalen replied, grinning in turn. “Just gotta bother you a little first.”
Sure Stroke blinked. “What for?”
Aspire took a step closer, pointing at her. “We wanted to see if you’d like to come over and play. It’s my pick today, and I was gonna have us all play hide-and-seek.”
“Oh. Um,” Sure Stroke broke off, looking down at her sketch pad. “I’d planned on, um, practicing during free time…”
“You practice every time we have a break,” he pointed out. “C’mon, it’ll be fun!”
She fidgeted, her ears pinned back to lay against her head. Stealing a glance to the rest of the class, she shrugged her shoulders and ducked her head. “I don’t really think they like me very much,” she muttered. “Prim ’n Proper always looks at me like I smell rotten.”
Snorting, Esalen stepped close and laid a hoof on her shoulder. “Prim’s always got a bee in her bonnet over something. If it’s not you, it’s us playing a joke, or Toola and Nimble being too giggly during a special event, or Vector messing up her mane on a flyby. Little Miss Prissybritches always has something to complain about.”
“Hey, lay off a little,” Aspire chided, bumping his shoulder against her side. “She just likes to keep things orderly and all. She doesn’t try to be mean.” He turned his attention back to Sure Stroke, offering a smile. “It’s not that they don’t like you, they just don’t know you yet. They do want to try, though!”
Another shift in place, her sky blue eyes flitted to the group again. “I know,” she muttered. “They’re nice—mostly. I just…” Sure Stroke trailed off again, her wings unfurled as if to wrap around her. “I know you guys because we met at the gate, the rest…”
Esalen wrinkled her nose, the bitter taste of anxiety and nervousness made her want to gag. Sure Stroke was going the complete opposite direction they needed her to go.
How to get her back on track?
A little push to get her going.
Forcing a smile, she offered a comforting rub to Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “Everyone would really like to get to know you a little better,” she said. “Our friends, Nimble, Toola, Vector, and Zephyr, are certainly interested.”
Sure Stroke’s ear twitched. “They do seem nice. Toola ... she's the one who's always flipping and cartwheeling, right?”
“Her and Nimble, yeah. Though Nimble does more dancing, and she’s really quick to find any ticklish spots if she gets a chance.” Esalen stopped and shook her head. “That’s unrelated, though. Those four are really nice—well, they’re all nice enough when you get a chance to know them, but those four are the ones we’re closest to.”
“Even if Vector calls me bookbug,” Aspire said with a roll of his eyes. With a fond smile and shake of his head, he offered a hoof. “They’re all really fun, even if Prim can be a bit… persnickety.”
His comment was met with a pair of blank stares. Slowly, matching smiles made their way across the fillies’ muzzles. They turned in unison, Esalen opened her mouth, no doubt with one of her quips fresh on the tip of her tongue, but found herself beaten to the punch.
“You really are a bookbug,” Sure Stroke tittered, holding up her sketchpad to her grin.
Esalen’s cheeks puffed up, she tried her best to withhold her laughter, but a glance to her brother ruined it.
His mouth hung low, his eyes were wide with shock. “You… just…” he trailed off. His short-trimmed blue tail seemed to droop along with his ears.
She toppled over, falling into Sure Stroke’s lap. “You should—pfft!—see the look on—oh my sides!” Esalen rolled over and leaned forward to nose against her friend’s cheek. Subtly, she flicked her tongue, tasting the sweetness of joy and mirth. Much better. “You are going to fit in perfectly.”
As her laughter abated, Sure Stroke gave a shy smile. “You think so?”
“I know so.” Esalen gave another affectionate nuzzle, then rolled herself off of Sure Stroke. “So, wanna come over and play? You can brag about how you left bookbug—” she bumped a hip against his shoulder and nearly sent him staggering as he tried to work his mouth “—stunned silent. You’ll be Vector’s new hero. Zephyr’s too.”
Sure Stroke fell into a fit of giggles again, earning another smile from Esalen. She carefully closed her sketch pad and placed it inside her saddlebag, then stood. “If they don’t mind, I guess I could join…”
Aspire chose that moment to shake himself out of his stupor. “They’ll be fine with it. Everyone in class is welcome to play.” A rather odd look crossed his face, something akin to a mischievous smirk and a dangerous gleam in his eye, but it was gone before Esalen could sneak a taste.
She flicked her tongue out, only to catch a bit of amusement. He was planning something; the not-so-subtle “innocent smile” and attempted masking of his emotions only confirmed her suspicion.
With a mental shrug, she stepped to the side to allow Sure Stroke to trot a few steps forward, then fell in step; with Aspire on Sure Stroke’s left and herself on the right.
Whatever trickery her brother had planned, he was welcome to it. As long as it wasn’t anything that would undermine their goal, she would keep her complaints to herself. Something told her that Sure Stroke might find herself fleeing from a vengeful changeling in the near future.
Esalen hid a grin of her own. Time to see how she deals with a bit of changeling payback!
“What in the name of love took you two so long?” Vector demanded, stomping a hoof into the dirt. “You’re cutting into our time, bookbug!”
Seeing Aspire’s ears pin back and jowls begin to peel back into an angry snarl, Sure Stroke backed away and ducked her head, ready to flee at the first sign of trouble between the colts.
Esalen simply rolled her eyes. Great, they’re already scaring her off. “We were getting Sure Stroke, cloudbrain!”
Vector’s ears perked up. “Really?” he asked, peering around Aspire and Esalen to stare at her. A smile crossed his muzzle, with a flap of his wings, he leaped over them and landed within hoof’s reach. “Hey! You actually came over today!”
She gave a shy rustle of her wings. “Y-Yeah. They, um, said it might be fun.”
“Might be? Ha!” He threw a hoof around her shoulders and pulled her into a friendly hug as if he’d known her longer his entire life. “You’ll have loads of fun—that is, unless bookbug is gonna have us do something boring like a spelling bee or whatever goes through his dorky little head!”
As Sure Stroke hid a laugh behind her hoof, Aspire hissed. “You’ll pay for that!” he said, wings buzzing. “Hide-and-seek, foals versus nymphs!”
Translucent wings buzzed and foals stomped their little hooves in approval. His selection was, as always, a popular one. With the edge of the forest, they had plenty of places to hide and run as long as they let one of the village guards know and establish boundaries for them.
“I’d say we’re all in favor, then,” Prim said, using the overly official tone she was so known for. “And what are the rules, Aspire?”
He grinned, showing off his tiny fangs. “Same as always: no using magic to catch or trip, no flying above the treetops unless you run across a forest creature, no nature connection, and nymphs can’t transform into classmates. Sound fair?”
“No restrictions on transforming entirely?” Toola asked.
Aspire shook his head. “Nah, we need something to help keep up with Zippy-colt over here.” He gave a nod to Vector. “How about this: we can only transform into pegasi so we can chase down pegasi. Anything else, we have to stay in natural form. Is that better?”
Vector, Toola, and Prim, the de facto leaders of their fellow foals, huddled together—though Vector made sure to pull Sure Stroke into the group, earning a little squeak from the new filly—and talked it over in hushed whispers. After a moment, they broke their little circle and nodded.
“That’ll do,” Prim said, then raised a hoof to add, “on one condition!”
He raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”
“Nymphs can’t taste for emotions.”
“Dang!” Nimble stomped her hoof. “It’d have been so easy to catch Toola if we could taste her!”
Her acrobatic friend stifled a bout of giggles behind a hoof. “Too bad, Hoofsy-Woofsy!” she chirped. “You’re gonna have to find me the old fashioned way!”
“It’s either that or natural form at all times,” Vector added. “Take it or leave it, nymphies.”
Esalen narrowed her eyes, carefully weighing their options. On one hoof, transforming into pegasus form would give them some level of a chance in chasing Vector down. On the other, Toola Roola could hide in some of the most creative places thanks to her talent for acrobatics and contortions; hiding under large rocks, climbing small trees, if it was a place no sane pony would think to look, she’d hide there.
Which meant they had to search everywhere for her. Which, in turn, meant they spent more time looking for her while slower and less agile ponies like Rock Solid used the opportunity to sneak their way back to base, where they’d wait with cheeky grins and taunts for the grumbling nymphs to return with a giggling Toola in tow.
“Hang on a minute. Nymphs, huddle up!” she called, turning to talk with Aspire, Nimble, and Zephyr. “So, what are you thinking?” she whispered.
“Catching either of them is a right pain in the rump, but we have to think of which is more difficult,” Aspire replied, his eyes flitting to the smirking ponies, plus one awkwardly smiling Sure Stroke.
“Vector’s a pain because he’ll just shoot off and zip through the trees,” Zephyr said, “I’m quick, but I can’t catch him if he gets a good lead on me. And once he gets out of the trees, you can forget it. He could fly backward circles around us and still make it to base.”
Nimble hummed, tapping a hoof against the ground. “And catching Toola is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hooves.”
Almost in unison, they sighed and shook their heads. Either way they picked, they lost an advantage. But such was the nature of making the rules to give themselves an edge—they had to accommodate the other team or they’d only have a handicapped victory.
“What’s the lesser of the two evils?” Esalen asked, rubbing a hoof against her forehead. “Vector can take off and be halfway across the field before most of us can move, and Toola can hide and evade us with her gymnastics.”
“I can catch Toola once we get her out in the open,” Nimble said, smiling as she bounced in place. “I’m pretty quick on my hooves too.”
Aspire nodded. “We can deal with Toola if a couple of us take time to sweep for her. Nimble, you’re okay to volunteer if you get sight of her first?” Seeing Nimble bounce in place and nod, he turned to the others. “Anyone else?”
“I’ll look for her,” Esalen said. “I still owe her for last time, the two of you can look for the others and keep a watch for Vector breaking.”
“Sounds like a plan!” Zephyr buzzed his wings. “I’ll try to get Zippy before he takes off.” He glanced over his shoulder, raising a brow at the rest of the ponies. “We can have Allegretto watch for Prim, she’s not the best runner so he should be able to keep up just fine. What do we know about Sure Stroke?”
Esalen leaned over to survey her newest friend, biting her lip in thought. “I’ve never seen her fly very fast. Mostly she stays on the ground until Missus Skydancer takes her home.” Turning back to the group, she shrugged. “Maybe she’s a weak flyer?”
Zephyr scoffed. “You’re gonna tell me you think the new flight teacher’s daughter is a weak flyer? C’mon, Essy. I know we tease Aspire for being a bookbug, but don’t make me start to think he got all the brains in the family!” He ducked a swipe and stuck out his tongue. “Temper, temper! Looks like you two share something after all!”
“Bite my carapace!” she hissed. “I’m just speculating, smart-mouth! But if you’ve got the inside scoop on her, you go right ahead and tell us how we should plan this out! Well? Go on!”
His smile strained, his ears pinned back. “I don’t know enough about her,” he mumbled, looking down and away.
“What was that?”
“I said I don’t know enough about her, she talks to you and Aspire more than she does me or anyone else when we sit with you guys at lunch.”
Esalen snorted, giving a decidedly smug smile. “Exactly. And as far as we know, she hasn’t shown much in the way of flying skills. Now, unless our pony friends are feeling particularly informative—and I very much doubt they are—all we can go off is what we’ve seen.”
“Or not seen, in this case,” Aspire added with a nod. “I don’t know if I can agree entirely with either of you, but both raise good points.”
“How about we just catch her and save discussion for later?” Nimble asked. “It’s hide-and-seek, guys. Look for the little purple pegasus, find her, catch her, and then tease her like we do everyone else.” She shrugged and flicked her tail. “Not a hard plan. And if we can bottle up Toola, all we have to worry about is Vector. I say take the transformation so we at least have a chance of catching him.”
Zephyr nodded in turn. “Agreed. He’s a problem in and out of the trees, Toola’s pretty easy to catch once she tries to move to the playground. We’ve either gotta catch her before she starts dancing around everyone, or corral her once she runs out of trees to use as barriers.”
“Makes enough sense for me, too,” Aspire said. “So, take transformations and sacrifice tasting? You agree, Essy?”
She waited a moment, stealing another glance toward the group of ponies. Sure Stroke was certainly the wildcard in the game, but they already had two “problems” to deal with as it was.
Allowing transformations would help them chase their friends down, tasting was only good if they could find and catch them before they all started to run.
A tiny frown marred her muzzle. Either way, we’ve got to deal with those two somehow. And Vector is the bigger threat if he can get to top speed and make it to the field.
Esalen nodded once, then turned to their waiting friends. “We’ll take pegasus transformations and give up tasting emotions.”
The ponies nodded. “Good choice!” Vector said, giving his wings a flex for show. “I could use a little warm up for Mister Breezy’s class, and outflying you silly nymphs seems like the perfect way to do it!”
Aspire and Zephyr hissed, baring their tiny fangs at him, though they quickly sucked in their lips when they noticed Sure Stroke flinch in response. “Y-Yeah?” Aspire stammered. “Well, we know how you like to fly, so we’ll be able to take you this time! You’re as good as done, Zippy-colt!”
Smooth. Esalen rolled her eyes.
“Oh yeah? Well, I’m not alone this time!” Grinning, Vector looped a hoof around Sure Stroke’s shoulders, then tussled her mane. “Let’s see how well you handle two pegasi, bookbug! I’ll bet a whole chocolate cake you lot can’t catch both of us!”
Each nymph’s ears perked up, their tails swished and wagged like little puppies.
Their reply was said in one, unified voice: “Deal!”
His grin only broadened, nearly splitting his face. “I’m gonna enjoy that little snack. How about you, Sure Stroke?”
Sure Stroke tried to hide a smile, but the corners of her mouth betrayed her. “It sounds like fun,” she said, glancing to Aspire and Esalen and mouthing “I’ll share” to them.
Esalen raised a brow. Oh, will you now? A quick glance to Aspire and a flick of her tongue to taste the surprise and calculating stare told her he was thinking along the same lines.
They were going to have to watch for her as well. Even more so with Vector grinning like he’d just found out Hearth’s Warming Eve, Sharers’ Day, and his birthday all fell on the same day.
“Well, then,” Aspire began, giving a small, but confident smile, “good luck, ponies. Base is the maple tree. How does a count of one hundred sound?”
Prim nodded in assent. “That seems fair. We’ll hide as soon as you’ve started counting—and no peeking!”
Rolling her eyes, Esalen nodded and turned to trot away with her fellow nymphs. “Yes, yes, we know the basic rules, Fussybritches!” She smiled, humming to herself as she pictured the way Prim was no doubt puffing her cheeks, her muzzle reddening with poorly suppressed indignation.
She was almost tempted to taste it, even if she knew how foul it would be.
The nymphs sat in front of the maple tree, each closing their eyes. “One,” they said in unison.
Hearing the foals giggle and take off, hooves thumping and swishing against the grass, Esalen’s ear flicked toward the forest. A smile played upon her lips. The challenge was laid down, her wings buzzed with excitement.
And their newest friend was already starting to open up, even if she was still a bit apprehensive.
Too bad she was going to get caught, no matter what plan she’d hatched with that silly Vector.
Teasing her is gonna be a ton of fun. Esalen held back a laugh. Maybe I’ll make good on that threat and get Nimble to find her tickle spots.
“Ninety-seven… ninety-eight… ninety-nine… one hundred!” Esalen took a deep breath and grinned as she belted out with the rest of her class, “Ready or not, here we come!”
She leaped to her hooves and took off toward the forest. The pounding of her fellow nymphs’ hooves and buzzing of their wings as they took to the air to search the first tree branches hummed in her ears. Hide-and-seek was always one of their favorites; it played on some of their more base instincts, giving them the thrill of the hunt and the chance to tease and chase their pony friends in a less antagonistic manner than that practiced by their ancestors, and still practiced by the Locust.
It gave them the perfect chance to exercise every little trick they could bring to the table, albeit with a few concessions. There was plenty of leeway to be had, even if she couldn’t use her taste to help find her friends.
Bounding into the shade of the forest edge, Esalen slowed herself to a trot and sniffed at the air. If she recalled, Prim and Toola were wearing those scents again, the ones those fancy city-mares so loved to put on.
If I can find Prim quick and get her out of the game, we’ll be on even hooves in terms of numbers. She withheld a snicker as she approached a patch of bushes. Crouching low, she pinned back her ears and readied to leap over the foliage. Not to mention a chance to poke her about being so neat and orderly I can find her without trying.
With a playful chitter, she pounced, jumping over the leafy green tops of the bushes landing nimbly on her hooves on the other side.
There was no pony friend to snag and pull into a forced hug, no chance for her to crow in victory before sending back to base.
Her smile fell. “Well, dang,” she muttered, flicking her tail as she stood up straight. “Little Miss Fussybritches learned after all.”
Well, that would just make the game a bit more interesting.
There was a shriek, then a bout of chittering laughter through the trees. Her ears perked up, trying to pick out who’d been caught or sighted by her fellow nymphs. Hooves thudded, scrapping against leaves as they chased after the unfortunate foal. She could hear Allegretto calling something unintelligible through his own laughter.
Esalen turned, biting her lip in thought. She could go help him and bring the number of ponies to find down one. After all, he’d found one of their classmates rather quickly.
Buzzing her wings, she took to the air, her eyes scanned through the mess of branches and leaves to scan for any sign of polished carapace or soft pony coat flitting through the forest, her ears stood up straight to pinpoint the sound.
A squeak and rustle of leaves made her ears waggle. Prim’s voice floated through the trees. “No! Allegretto, wait! Don’t you dare even think about—eep!” she cried, giving one last squeak of protest before succumbing to a fit of laughter as Allegretto, presumably, pounced upon the overly organized filly and tickled her sides.
“What’s that?” Esalen snickered at the sound of Allegretto’s voice. She flew over, grinning to herself as she sped over to get a good seat.
Upon finding them in a clearing, she grinned at the sight of Allegretto pinning Prim ’n Proper down next to a patch of wild grass and poking and prodding her sides as he cooed playfully. “Speak up, Primsy! I can’t understand you! Don’t you dare think of what? Don’t you dare think of tickling your riiiiiibs?”
Again, Prim shrieked. She squirmed and flailed her hooves, trying in vain to escape the pianist’s teasing hooves. Her ears splayed back, her well-brushed tail swished merrily as she writhed on the ground. “I’ll—heehee!—g-get you for—hahahahaha!—this you jerk!”
Needless to say, he wouldn’t need much help tormenting their favorite target. She caught Allegretto’s eye and shared a grin with him. Giving him a nod, she called, “Finish up tickling her, ‘Gretto! We’ve still got nine ponies to find!”
“Got it, Essy!” he called back, almost singing his reply. “Come on, Primsy! Say ‘bye Essy’!”
“Es—hahaha!—alen!” Prim squealed. “Don’t leave me with him!”
Esalen just laughed. “Have fun with ‘Gretto, Primsy! I’ll see you back at base once we’ve caught all the others!” She flew off, swishing her tail as cries of indignation and vows of retribution mixed in with laughter.
No doubt, Prim would make it her mission to find both Allegretto and Esalen in the next round if only so she could hold them down and tickle their ears with the feathered end of one of her mother’s quills.
If she could catch them.
Her laughter abated, Esalen resumed her search. Flitting from tree to tree, sneaking glances around branches, and peering through the leaves, she searched for any signs of wayward pegasi trying to hide in the boughs. A small part of her hoped to see a hint of soft, violet mane and purple coat so she could have the honor of being the first to catch Sure Stroke.
No such luck.
Esalen frowned. Either Sure Stroke was better at hiding than she’d thought, or a certain Zippy-colt had taken care to give her pointers on where not to hide as a pegasus.
At least it would make the game a bit more interesting.
With a sigh, she hovered down to the ground and folded her wings back into their translucent casings. If she couldn’t rely on sight or taste, she’d have to try smell.
Closing her eyes, Esalen sniffed at the air. Scents of grass and musty odor of a rotting tree greeted her. She wrinkled her nose at the latter and lowered her head to the ground to try to find a trail. Just because there weren’t any ponies in the immediate area wouldn’t stop her from picking up any scent they’d left behind.
She walked slowly, sniffing at patches of disturbed grass and soil for any hint of her pony friends. Just a bit of Vector’s natural musk or Toola’s perfume would be enough. Or even the hint of pencil shavings that seemed to follow Sure Stroke.
The enticing smell of vanilla and lilac reached brought a smile to her lips. Toola always chose such sweet perfumes, the kind that just made her seem like she was just begging to be hugged and nuzzled while Esalen sipped at her love.
Giggles floated from the trees ahead, a rustle of leaves made Esalen’s head snap up. She gave a fanged grin. “Alright, Toola,” she called, crouching low as she readied to bound after the giggling filly. “Let’s play!”
The chase was on.
There was a lesson Sure Stroke would soon learn, and Aspire was all too happy to be her tutor. After all, that was his calling or would be once Trade Day came and he declared his intent to become a teacher. Still, it was his job to ensure Sure Stroke learned all about Respite culture; specifically, that of her changeling neighbors.
Even more specifically, why challenging a changeling had consequences.
He grinned, his nostrils flared as he followed her trail. The telltale scents of biting iron and dry, musty paper guided him to her as though Missus Sweet Treat left one of her pies on the windowsill to cool.
Quirking his brow, Aspire sniggered at his own joke. She sure does taste sweet now that she’s not so afraid. Can’t wait until she lets me take a nice, big sip.
Aspire shook his head. Find the pretty pegasus now, tease her, think about feeding on some love later. If not Sure Stroke, Mister Haberdasher was still in town, and he’d said—privately, out of Miss Bright Sky’s earshot—that they could take a few sips from him at dinner tonight. It’d be like having dessert for dinner; all the nutritional value, with the taste of a hot fudge sundae.
He couldn’t help but lick his fangs. Mister Haberdasher was definitely a hot fudge sundae pony. Sure Stroke, on the other hoof, he suspected was a cake pony; both in her preferred treat and in how her love would taste. Both were hypotheses he would be happy to test.
I’ll have to remember that. Aspire sniffed, wrinkling his nose at a new scent. Sweat? And cirrus? That doesn’t smell like Sure Stroke.
Narrowing his eyes, he drew in a deep breath through his nose. There was the bite of iron and must of paper, but with it was the second scent. He wasn’t just following Sure Stroke.
He was trailing two ponies.
A smile played upon his lips. Zippy-colt and Sure Stroke. My lucky day. Aspire turned to look over his shoulder, peering through the leafy green foliage in search of his cohorts “Zephyr!” he hissed. “Nimble!”
Zephyr’s head popped up from behind a bush, looking decidedly innocent as he munched on a few daisies. “Mmph?”
A few paces to his left, Nimble Hooves hopped down from a low-hanging tree branch, buzzing her wings to ease her fall. “Not up there,” she muttered, shaking a few leaves out of her purple mane. “Gah! I was sure I’d find Toola there! She loves climbing!”
“She does. But I don’t smell her anywhere. The good news is that I think we’re tailing a couple others.” Aspire tapped a hoof against his snout. “Zippy’s getting creative,” he said. “I can smell him and Sure Stroke. They’re somewhere around here, hiding on ground level.”
Snorting, Zephyr shook his head. “Trying to trick us into looking through the trees, eh? Not bad.” He trotted over to stand with his fellow nymphs, pausing to disentangle a branch that had found its way into one of his leg holes. “Gah! Stupid things! So thin and pokey and never stop getting in places they shouldn’t!”
Nimble sniggered. “You could try being a little less heavy-hooved and a bit more—” With practiced ease, she stood, balancing on one hoof, and did triple twirl, stopping with a thump of her hoof against the ground “—nimble!”
The colts rolled their eyes. “Har har,” Zephyr grumped. “You’re such a comedian. So, how about we find our pony friends first? Then you can show off your winning sense of humor.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I wanna tell jokes when we find them.” She gave a fanged grin, her eyes flashed with mischievous intent. “I think I wanna hear Zippy-colt giggle like a little foal, and I bet Sure Stroke’s plenty ticklish beneath her wing joints!”
Aspire covered his mouth to stifle a laugh. “Well, once we find her, we’ll pass her along to you for a little experimenting. For now, we have ponies to find.” He lowered his head to ground, sniffing again. Nimble and Zephyr were at his side almost immediately, joining him in his efforts.
Sure Stroke and Vector definitely came this way; and judging by the scents’ strength along with the telltale signs of hoof prints through the soil, they were together.
Two for the price of one.
His eyes darted left and right, peering through the leaves in search of Sure Stroke’s soft purple coat or that gray and teal-striped mohawk Vector styled his mane into.
No such luck. Vector was being a tricky little pony today, and Sure Stroke was going right along with him.
Yeah, tickling is happening. A wicked grin crossed his muzzle, exposing his shrunken fangs. Tease me after I was all nice and friendly, and then act like you’ve got this in the bag, eh, Sure Stroke? Aspire rubbed his hooves together. Time to teach you a little something about what happens when you challenge changelings…
“Spread out,” he whispered. “Try to keep Zippy boxed in on one side. If you see Sure Stroke first, grab her.”
Nimble and Zephyr nodded, moving away to widen their search.
We have plenty of ways to tease naughty little ponies! He gave a low chuckle. And even more for shy ones!
Her breathing was shallow, Sure Stroke cupped her hooves over her mouth in desperate hopes that she wouldn’t be heard.
Hidden beneath a fallen log, she fought against every instinct telling her to look for higher ground, or the confines of a nice, leafy tree. Stay low, because they’ll expect us pegasi to use the trees, just like Vector said. Keep very quiet because changelings can hear very well, especially when they’re trying to find you.
Easier said than done. Violet coat and purple mane weren’t exactly helpful when it came to hiding in the forest, even more so given that her changeling friends were natural hunters.
Hunters who, in a rather surprising twist, wanted to be friends.
What a one-eighty that had been for her. All those tales of changelings playing trickster, disguising themselves as a pony’s loved one to feed on feelings of love and affection or causing confusion and dismay, delighting in the chance to watch ponies run around flustered from their tricks.
These nymphs were certainly tricky—their promise to have Nimble Hooves tickle her silly was a testament to that, as was Aspire’s remark about Queen Euphoria’s sweet stash her first day in the village—but they seemed… nice. The changelings of Respite seemed almost pony-like in how they smiled at her, waving and welcoming her family to the village they so happily shared with their pony neighbors. Their colorful manes and eyes were certainly different from the strange creatures described in the stories.
And yet, they were so very alien.
Smooth, polished carapace that shone in the sunlight, colored backings, holed hooves, translucent wings, long, snake-like tongues that flicked out every now and again, and those fangs…
Those long, pointed fangs, poking out from behind their top lips, creating a more predatory edge to their smiles…
How she’d nearly jumped out of her coat upon seeing Mister Warm Welcome smile at her parents! And Aspire and Esalen’s, too! Even with their kind words, she found herself taken aback, wanting nothing more than to take wing and fly up to the highest cloud!
Her wings ruffled. Sure Stroke felt a tight pain in her chest. She’d been so rude, so scared that day, even in front of Queen Euphoria. Right up until she saw the fangless smile and received an affectionate nuzzle.
They’re so different. Shapeshifting, hard carapace instead of coats, and fangs! She licked her lips, testing her wide tongue against her flat teeth. I wonder what it’s like to have fangs. Do they ever bite their lips? Or their tongues when they flick them out at ponies? Her brows furrowed, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chin. So many questions!
None very easy to answer, either. Not without asking them directly, at least.
Sure Stroke ducked her head low, as though she were trying to bury it in the soil. Her tail flicked. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know how they’d react to being poked and prodded; teasing Aspire had already earned a rather mischievous grin, one that showed off his fangs.
I could’ve sworn his fangs were a little bigger the first day. She furrowed her brows, thinking back to her first day in Respite. Esalen’s too.
She shook her head. I’m being silly. Aspire and Esalen are nymphs. They probably still have foal fangs, or whatever they call babies.
Unbidden, her thoughts turned to a certain drawing in her sketchbook. Her ears drooped at the memory, how she’d sketched such a ghastly looking changeling with long, dripping fangs, just before Aspire and Esalen came over to ask her to play.
A low whine sounded from the back of her throat. “I hope they didn’t see that,” she whispered to herself.
The thud of hooves against the dirt made her flick her ears. Sure Stroke turned, coming muzzle-to-muzzle with Vector. “Eep!” She jumped and banged her head on the log. Clapping her hooves over her ears, she whimpered. “Owie!”
Vector winced, pinning his ears against his scalp and covering her mouth with a hoof. He perked up his ears, listening for any sound of chitinous hooves or buzzing wings. Once he was certain they were alone, he pulled his hoof away, mouthing, “I told you to keep quiet!”
Ducking her head again, Sure Stroke gave a sheepish smile. “Sorry!” she replied, mouthing the word as he had.
He sighed and shook his head. “It’s fine,” he whispered, barely audible even against the quiet rustling of the leaves. “I just did a quick look around, we’re gonna have to make our move soon. Aspire, Nimble, and Zephyr have caught our scent. It’s only a matter of time before they find us at this point.”
Sure Stroke shifted in place, wincing as a few leaves crunched beneath her hoof. “What do we do?” she hissed.
“Well, we can’t stay here too long; if they box us in, we’ve got no chance.” He reached up and tapped his hoof against the log. “This was great for a spot to throw them off, but we’ve got no quick out. All they have to do is slide in and grab our legs. And then—” he paused to give a theatrical shudder “—Nimble has her way with us.”
Sure Stroke blinked. “Everyone seems to talk about getting tickled by her like it’s more tickly than anything else, is she really that bad?”
Vector nodded. “She really lives up to her name. She’s great at poking and prodding until she finds what makes you squirm, then it’s all over. And once she knows which spots to go for, you can bet your feathers she’ll tell everyone else.” He wrinkled his nose, shaking his head quick enough to send his mohawk back and forth. “I am not letting her, Zeph, and bookbug get me. No way, no how!”
A crooked smile crossed Sure Stroke’s muzzle. Maybe they’re more like the tricksters than I thought. Just in a different way. Clearing her throat to draw his attention again, she whispered, “So, how do we get out of here without getting caught, then?”
“Oh, that’s easy.” Vector grinned and poked a hoof into her chest. “You’re gonna stay here. I’ll move that way,” he said, pointing off toward the east, “you’ll wait a couple minutes, then circle back the other way. From what I saw, that’ll put me near Nimble and Zephyr, leaving you with Aspire. Think you can manage with him?”
Aspire’s wicked grin and glinting blue eyes flashed before her mind, almost a challenge, daring her to test her mettle against him.
Though timid, Sure Stroke still held the thundering pride of Hurricane’s heirs in her heart. She set her jaw, nodding once. “If I can get flying, he won’t catch me.”
Vector patted her shoulder and said, “Atta girl! Just you wait, we’ll make those nymphs eat our dust while we laugh all the way to home base! Bragging rights are as good as ours! And so’s that cake!” He sniggered, rubbing his hooves together. “I gotta thank Toola for the idea to let them shape-shift in exchange for taking away tasting emotions!”
Ah, yes. That thing. Curious, Sure Stroke tilted her head. “Why does that help us? They can still find us.”
“Yeah, but if they could taste us, they’d figure out we were both planning something and be on watch. It’s like if they said we could fly, but only with one wing.” He wrinkled his snout as if to think on his words, then shrugged. “Eh, that’s the best I’ve got. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I think I understand a little.” Furrowing her brows in thought, another question came to mind. “Er, how do they taste emotions, anyway? Is it that, um, tongue flick thing they do?” She flicked hers out a couple times like she’d seen Aspire and Esalen do on occasion, whenever they thought she wasn’t paying attention.
Vector snorted. “Not quite that obvious unless they’re worried you’re a little too down in the dumps or looking a bit weak and low on love, but yeah. If a changeling flicks their tongue out at you, they’re checking to see how you’re feeling. They can taste it.”
Blinking, she opened her mouth to speak, hesitating a moment. “Um, I don’t mean to be rude, but isn’t that a bit, well, odd?”
“Not really,” he said. “I mean, the Caretakers have always done it. Then again, I grew up here, so it’s just like how we’re able to push clouds and control weather, unicorns being able to cast spells, or earth ponies having that connection with nature.” He shrugged. “It’s just how things are. Anyway, that doesn’t matter since they can’t taste us right now. Ready to get a big win for team foal?”
Sure Stroke made to prod further but decided against it. I can always figure out more later. She smiled in return and gave a nod. “Let’s do it!”
The pair of pegasi bumped hooves, then Vector slipped out from underneath their log, slinking off toward the east.
Settling herself in, Sure Stroke began counting down in her head. Her mind began to wander toward her new friends, namely the changelings pursuing her.
I wonder how good a flyer Aspire is when he transforms. Sure Stroke grinned, her wings fluffed up in anticipation of the thrill of a good race. He’ll have to be quick if he wants to catch me!