Faster and faster she flew, the wind seemed to pull at her mane and tail as if trying to drag her back to face her tormentor.
Sure Stroke beat her wings as hard as she could, wincing as she darted between branches. A bit of blood beaded down her cheek, cut open by a stubborn twig that stung her face like an angry wasp.
If the wind wished to betray her, she would have to fly faster than her race’s age-old ally. Even the forces of nature wouldn’t stop her flight from the gleaming fangs and wicked grin on her friend’s face.
Friend? Predator? Which was he?
All their talk together made him seem like such a nice colt like he’d never think to hurt a fly! But sneaking up like that and making himself sound like Vector, tricking her into thinking he was a friend coming to help her was just like…
Tears stung her eyes, her vision blurred.
Just like all the stories!
“Sure Stroke! Wait up!” he called, his voice floating through the trees. “Slow down!”
No! She wiped the back of a hoof across her dampened cheeks and leaned into the wind. No matter what he said, she wouldn’t fall for his tricks again.
It had been Vector whispering to her, right down to the amusement in his voice until he laughed and gave that odd little chitter.
Another pegasus’ wingbeats filled the air. Sure Stroke flicked her ear to listen, her heart plummeted into the pit of her stomach as she realized the buzzing in the air had stopped.
He’d transformed. Right after tricking her with Vector’s voice, he’d transformed.
Don’t look back! He might pretend to be helping again!
“You’re going too fast!” Aspire cried. “Sure Stroke, slow down or you’ll crash! There’s a—whoops! Ack! Go away, you stupid birds!” He cursed, the steady beating of his wings faltered a moment while he tried to fend off his tiny tormentors.
Sending silent thanks to her temporary allies, she flitted through the branches, covering her face for protection against the snapping twigs.
She winced with each harsh thwap of twig and paper-thin leaf against her forelegs; no doubt she would have to come up with some excuse to appease her mother when they met after school.
What a lovely conversation that would be. Hi, mommy! Aspire, one of the nymphs we met on our first day, scared the feathers off of me and chased me through the forest! Can we please go home to Cloudsdale now?
Sure Stroke tried to fight back fresh tears. They seemed so nice! And—And I gave them a chance! Just like mom said! She bit her lip and ducked her chin into her chest. A fat lot of good that did me!
Her ear flicked as the sound of Aspire’s steady wingbeats filled the air again. He was chasing, coming faster if the quick, almost frantic beats of his wings were any hint.
With every twist and turn, he was gaining on her. She could feel the air shifting as he drew close enough to reach out and grab her.
“Sure Stroke, look up! Tree! Tree!”
Something in his tone jolted her. Sure Stroke snapped up, her ears perked up to fullest height and her eyes wide open, just in time for the very solid trunk of a maple tree come into view.
She banked hard to the right, her left leg scraped against the bark. A yelp tore from the back of her throat, Sure Stroke clutched her forehoof tight against her chest, her wings faltered in mid beat. She dropped like a stone.
In her panic, Sure Stroke curled up to cradle her hoof and pitching through the air like a Wonderbolt performing a somersault. Flaring her wings, she managed to level out and catch herself before she came in for a crash landing.
Her hooves hit the ground hard. She stumbled forward a few steps, her canter clumsy and unsteady with one leg injured and cradled to her chest.
A hoof caught on a tree root, sending her on a rough tumble through the patchy grass and dirt. At last, Sure Stroke came to a stop, whimpering as she held her leg close against her belly. The familiar sting of a nasty scrape bit at her shin, her back ached as bruises from her tumble began to form.
Sure Stroke grit her teeth, tears cascaded down her cheeks like twin waterfalls. She sniffled as she cracked open an eye to survey her wound, the sight of her own blood blurred with her tears. Wrapping a hoof around her injured leg, she curled around it and let go. Her tiny body wracked with sobs, her wings wrapped around herself like a feathery shield. “M-Mommy!” she called out to the forest. “Daddy!”
The familiar rustle of wings overhead made her ears flick up. Hooves hit the ground near her with a hard thud, a steady cadence that continued as a pony neared her.
“Sure Stroke! Oh, chitin!”
It was Aspire’s voice.
His hooves wrapped around her and rolled her onto her back. She tried to flinch away but found herself held fast in his grasp. “G-Go away!” she stammered, her thick with pain and fright.
“I wasn’t trying to—I was just—I can’t just leave you!” he babbled. A warm snout nosed against her cheek, a pony’s coat rubbed against her own. “I’m sorry,” he said, speaking softly. “I didn’t mean to scare you so bad.”
Sure Stroke gave a watery huff and jerked her head away from his, hiding her leg beneath her side. She didn’t reply, her tail flicked and cheeks puffed up in anger.
Aspire nosed against her again and continued, “I thought you wanted to play. You teased me like everyone else and joined in the bet, so I thought you wanted to play with us.”
“Play?” she repeated, indignation crept into her voice. “Friends don’t sneak up on each other and copy other friends’ voices in the middle of the forest! Friends don’t scare the feathers off each other like that!”
“B-But… I thought you wanted to play!”
Sure Stroke opened her eyes and pushed him away, then turned her head to glare at him and go on a tirade. Instead of his polished carapace, fluffy blue mane, and deep blue eyes, she found herself staring into a pair of eyes as green as leaves in mid summer.
A colt of orange coat and reddish-orange mane leaned over her, concern written plain across his face. His ears and wings drooped low, he sat back on his haunches and ducked his head into his chest, looking like he’d just been scolded for stealing sweets.
“I-I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said in Aspire’s voice. His wings unfurled and fluffed, ready to wrap around his barrel. “I just wanted you to have fun with us!”
His face brought forth a measure of comfort; a pegasus was standing with her, one of her own kin was at her side.
No. She shook her head. That’s not his face. He changed so he could catch me. Aspire is a changeling nymph. Changelings disguise themselves to play tricks and steal love, and so ponies are comfortable and suspect nothing.
He’s a trickster. They’re all tricksters.
Sure Stroke closed her eyes and looked away, letting out a long breath through her nose. “Change back,” she muttered.
He started, rearing back as though she’d slapped him across the face with a mop. “Huh?”
“Change back.” She waved her uninjured hoof at him. “That’s not—” That’s not the real you. “Just become yourself again.”
Aspire hesitated for a moment, biting his lip and looking away from her. Then, after a beat of silence, a ring of green fire flicked to life with a rush, surrounding his entire body and enveloping the pegasus before her in its tongues.
Orange and red melted away to reveal smooth black carapace and fluffy blue mane. Fluffy feathers burned until translucent blue wings remained, and royal blue backing and stomach to match. Holes formed in his legs, burrowing until she could see the greens and browns of the forest floor between them. A curved black horn, with sharpened tip grew from his forehead, several fins seemed to pop from the back of his head, but then were hidden by his mane.
The squared off muzzle narrowed, his lips seemed to smooth as if sanded and polished.
Last of all came his fangs; at first, they seemed to peek shyly from behind his upper lip, as if unsure that it was safe to be revealed. Then, the fire seemed to surround his fangs, coaxing them to fill out to their fullest length. Sure Stroke watched in muted fascination and no shortage of horror as those sharp, gleaming fangs extended until they reached from his lips to midway down his chin.
She felt her muscles tense, ready to take flight again. Aspire’s fangs were much longer than before.
They were the same size she remembered from her first days; the fanged grins he, Esalen, and all the nymphs and changelings in Respite seemed to share as they waved and welcomed her to their home. The very same size that made her recoil in fright, ready to hide behind her wings or fly home to hide beneath her bed.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated in a low mumble, rubbing a hoof against his shoulder. He gave an uneasy grimace, his lips parting enough to display where his fangs met the roof of his mouth.
Sure Stroke tried not to flinch at the sight, but couldn’t stop the startled gasp that slipped through her lips. They were much longer than she thought.
To her surprise, her reaction made him start. Aspire turned to look at her again, his brows knitted together in confusion as he tried to figure out what was wrong. Then he subtly flicked his tongue out—a move so quick, Sure Stroke would’ve missed it had Vector not told her what it meant.
He was tasting her so he could put the pieces together.
She watched his eyes go wide, his hooves flew to cover his mouth. Aspire turned away, his legs’ polished carapace glowed green as the telltale rush of magic fire tickled her ears again.
When he turned around again, sporting a pair of tiny fangs that barely poked out from behind his lip, Sure Stroke jabbed a hoof at him. “I knew it!” she cried. “I knew your fangs were longer before!”
Aspire flinched, his ears drooped low and a rather plastic smile crossed his muzzle. “Wh-What? No! Noooooo!” He scoffed, opening his mouth to show off his teeth. “No big fangs here! Just, um, little ones! Eheh!”
She raised an eyebrow and gave her wing an irritated rustle. “Eheh?” she repeated, bringing her hooves to her hips, just like her mother when she was in trouble. “I just saw them, Aspire! Your fangs were almost to your chin!”
His smile faded. Aspire ducked his head low again, he stared at the dirt, digging a divot into the earth with his hooves. After a moment of heavy silence, he nodded once.
Sure Stroke drew in a breath through her nose. “And Esalen’s too?” she asked, receiving another nod. “And all the nymphs in class?”
Aspire gave another nod, then looked up. “We were just trying to help you stop being afraid,” he said weakly.
“Trying to—what the hay do you call all this?” With a quick wave of her hoof around the forest, she glared at him, taking a small measure of satisfaction in the way he ducked and tried to make himself smaller. “What in Celestia’s name make you think sneaking up on me, copying Vector’s voice, and scaring my feathers off would do?”
His gaze dropped to the forest floor again, his hooves dug at the dirt. Aspire gave a flick of his short, blue tail and muttered something under his breath.
Sure Stroke waggled her ears. “Speak up!” she demanded, leaning forward and pressing a hoof into the dirt, within easy reach of his.
“I said I thought you wanted to play!” he replied, his voice tinged with frustration. Aspire looked up, his brows furrowed together and a tiny frown marred his muzzle. “You teased me!”
“How does—We were all joking! Esalen, you, and I have all been talking and teasing at lunch!”
Aspire bobbed his head. “Everyone in Respite teases and plays jokes! That’s what friends do when they want to play!” Before she could get in a word to refute him, he stomped a hoof into the dirt and leaned forward, his snout a mere hair’s breadth from hers. Sure Stroke leaned back, her eyes crossed and fixed on his mouth as his lips began to peel back into an angry snarl. “You challenged us, too!” he said, an accusatory edge to his tone.
Confused, Sure Stroke gaped. “What? No, I—” she stopped short, it clicked for her just as the words left her lips. “Vector’s bet.”
“And you acted like you’d already won!” Aspire added. “You mouthed that you were gonna save us some cake like there was no way in love we had a chance! That was a challenge—you invited us to play, so I did!”
She blinked and opened her mouth to reply, but shut it quickly and shook her head. He thought I wanted to play like that because I teased him?
Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her forehead and sighed, wincing at the pain that shot down her leg. “Aspire,” she began, speaking slowly as though talking to a newborn foal, “I didn’t want to be scared like that. I wanted to play hide and seek, not get tricked into thinking another pony was right behind me only to find you looming over me and showing off your fangs!”
Aspire flinched away. “But… But we were all laughing and having fun!”
“Yes,” she said, nodding in assent. “We were. That doesn’t mean I want you to scare me like that!”
“But you were opening up like everyone else who comes to stay!” he protested, uncertainty crept into his voice. “Like all the other ponies who came to visit for a little bit, then decide they like it and want to stay for good! And I thought…” he trailed off, his gaze dropped to stare at his hooves. “I thought you wanted to play.”
There it was again. He thought scaring and teasing her was playing—or, perhaps that was just it.
To changelings, hunting, tricking, and scaring their pony friends in something like hide and seek, then holding them close for teasing and gloating was playing. The game itself was almost tailor-made for them to hunt without doing harm.
Relatively no harm, that is, she thought. Her eyes flitted to his fangs again, staring at their razor sharp points. He and Esalen are so different from ponies—even the foals here are different from ponies back home!
How many of her old friends would sit in a room full of changelings, letting them flick out their tongues to taste and showing off those gleaming fangs while they chittered and played tricks, without a care in the world?
No pony would. We would all fly away, or at least sit on the other side of the classroom.
Sure Stroke bit her lip, flicking her tail as she stared at those fangs. They tried to make me feel welcome. Several times.
“I don’t like being scared,” she said finally.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll, er, try to remember that from now on.”
“Thank you.” Sure Stroke gave her wings a rustle and looked down. “I’ll try not to, um, send mixed signals next time.”
Aspire looked up and gave a weak smile. “Thanks. I think that’ll help me remember—oh! I guess I should tell the others, too. I’ll get on that.” He shifted in place, chewing on his lip and glancing shyly at her. “So,” he began, “still friends?”
Sure Stroke nodded shyly. “Yeah. Still friends,” she said, extending a hoof to shake.
His eyes lit up as he returned the gesture, clasping her hoof in his.
Almost as soon as he touched it, Sure Stroke felt pain bite into her leg. She winced and made to draw back to cradle her hoof again, but Aspire’s grip held fast.
Confused, he tilted his head, raising a brow at her before dropping his gaze to look at her leg. “You have cuts on your leg,” he said. Glancing to her other leg, he corrected himself, “Both legs.”
“I, um, flew through some branches,” she replied, her cheeks flushed red. He had tried to warn her about slowing down. “It only stings a little, I’ll just get some bandages when we get back.” She pulled her hoof back and tried to twist free of his grip.
Quick as a cat, Aspire’s free hoof caught her knee and held her leg in place. His eyes narrowed and bored into hers, as if he were a parent giving a stern glare to a naughty foal, giving silent command to stay still.
Perhaps out of instinct, Sure Stroke complied. Her ears pinned back against her scalp, she quailed beneath his gaze and gave a tiny nod of submission.
Once he was satisfied, Aspire turned his attention to the leg he had in his grasp, then turned it over. His nostrils flared. “When did you get this?” he asked.
Sure Stroke’s ears twitched at the shift. “I scraped my leg on the tree when I tried to bank around it.”
“I told you to slow down.” His tone carried a scolding edge to it, though with a hint of concern. He sucked in a deep breath through his nose, his cheeks seemed to bulge as if he’d stuffed too many cookies into his mouth. Aspire leaned forward, drawing near to the scrape along her leg.
“Um, Aspire? What are you—”
He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue, which was dripping with a thick, gooey green slime. Before she could object, he pulled her leg close and ran his tongue along the scrape, coating it with the strange substance.
A shiver ran down her spine. She tried to pull away, but his grip was stronger than she’d realized. His tongue lapped at her leg, coating her wound in the warm slime he’d produced.
Her stomach turned, Sure Stroke brought her free hoof to her mouth to hold back a retch. Ew! Ew! Ew! Ew! Ew!
Once he was satisfied with his work, Aspire nodded and drew back, his cheeks puffed out again. He inhaled a sharp breath through his nose and spat a thick wad of slime on top of his first layer.
Sure Stroke squeaked in protest. “Aspire!” she cried, trying to wrench her leg free. “That’s gross! What the hay do you think—”
“Bandaging you,” he said simply, shooting her another look. “Hold still. This’ll help.” Without another word, he leaned in and began spreading the slime around with his tongue, deftly maneuvering it to coat her shin and cover the remaining cuts.
Biting her lip, Sure Stroke tried not to squirm. Dear Celestia, what even is this stuff? “Aspire, this feels really weird!” she hissed. “What is this slime you’re licking onto my leg!”
Aspire paused his ministrations to reply, “Cocoon slime. We use it for sleeping wraps and bandaging. It’s harmless unless you mix certain magic into it when secreting it.” He returned to his work, humming a tune as he resumed spreading the slime.
“Wait, what sort of magic? Aspire? Aspire!” Seeing that he wasn’t going to give an answer, she huffed and looked away. I am not looking at this! Nope, nope, nope!
Sure Stroke made a point of staring off into the distance in search of anything to distract herself from the steady feeling of Aspire’s long, thin, warm, slime-coated tongue lapping at her leg. At some point, he switched to her other leg to coat the rest of her cuts. Thankfully, he didn’t see fit to spit another wad onto her leg—perhaps because she hadn’t cut that one up too badly.
After a few moments of awkward silence, he finished.
“There!” he said, sitting up straight and taking hold of her hooves to stretch them out. Aspire surveyed his work, giving a satisfied nod. “Just don’t mess with it too much and those cuts should heal up soon!”
Sure Stroke looked down at her hooves, cringing at the sight of the green goop he’d spread all over her legs. Well… at least he meant well? “Er, thanks,” she said, smiling awkwardly. “I, um, probably could’ve made it back, though.”
Aspire gave a sheepish grin. “I figured I owed you since I caused all this.” He rubbed a hoof along her shin, tracing the scrape mark. His grin faltered. “Too much?”
Yes. “Er, just a surprise.” She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s just…”
“Weird,” he finished for her.
Sure Stroke winced. “Kinda. To me, at least. But I appreciate the help all the same.”
He lowered his head, his ears began to droop again. Just like when she yelled at him.
Rubbing a hoof against her slime coated leg, she looked away. Oh, feathers, I made that worse. He was helping in his own… strange way.
Sure Stroke set her jaw. If she ever wanted to make this village her home and keep the few friends she had, she would have to adapt somehow. Aspire and Esalen—all the nymphs in her class, really—were alien to her.
Alien, but nice.
She planted her hooves on the ground for balance and leaned forward, nosing against his cheek in a show of gratitude and affection. “Thank you, Aspire,” she muttered. Her lips tugged into a small smile, a tiny part of her felt a brief spark of fascination at the sensations his smooth carapace brought as she brushed against it. Like touching glass, but with warmth.
“Cake! I knew it!” he whispered.
Her ear flicked. Sure Stroke drew back to regard him with a raised brow.
A bright grin had crossed his face, he seemed full of energy, ready to bounce all over the place.
“What was that?” she asked, watching with a hint of amusement as he ran his tongue along his lips, completely forgoing any semblance of subtlety.
Aspire blinked and shook his head, his eyes looked everywhere but at her face. “I, uh, I just mean I knew you’d come around if we talked!” he replied, pasting a rather unconvincing, innocent smile on his face.
Her brow arched higher, Sure Stroke opened her mouth, ready to tell him off for lying and demand an explanation.
Then, she thought better of it. He’d only stuck out his tongue. All he was doing was tasting for her emotions, making sure she was sincere.
Sure Stroke nodded and stood, working her legs to test how flexible his slime wrappings were. “I’m glad we had this little talk, then. Even if you had to scare me for it to happen,” she teased, smirking at the way he ducked his head and tried to hide a smile of his own. Laughing to herself, she turned away to begin the trek back to the field. “So I guess you caught me.”
“Wait, we’re counting this?” he asked, hopping to his hooves and trotting over to fall into step at her side. “I only caught you because you fell.”
“I’m tired and I really don’t feel like trying to beat you from a dead start. Besides, you know this forest way better than me.”
Aspire grinned. “I was trying to be nice and give you a chance. I’d have at least counted to five.”
“Such a gentlestallion! Or is it gentleling?” Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chin. “This is going to be rather odd, isn’t it?”
“You could do me a favor and tell Essy that I got the looks in the family,” he quipped, waggling his ears. “The look on her face’ll be worth it!”
“Excuse me! I just got scared out of my mind because I called you bookbug and said that I would save you some cake—I don’t want to know what your sister will do if I tell her she’s not as pretty as Princess Celestia, or something!”
He scoffed. “Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about Essy, I’ll protect you!”
Sure Stroke stopped and turned to face him. “Really?” she asked with no shortage of amusement. “You’re going to be my nymph in shining armor?”
“Polished carapace, but yes. She and Vector and everyone else can joke all they want about me being a bookbug, but I know how to wrestle really well!” He grinned, showing off his fangs. “If Essy tries to get you because you helped me, I’ll jump in and hold her down while you tickle her!”
Sure Stroke couldn’t help but laugh and shake her head. “I’ll think about it. C’mon, let’s go see if Vector made it back to base or not.”
“Doubt it! Nimble and Zephyr were watching for him! And we had all the nymphs listening out!” Aspire crowed, licking his lips. “That cake is ours, little pony! Despair in the face of our victory!” He cast a quick look around to make sure they were alone, then added, “But I guess I could make sure we slip you a piece. Since you’re new and all.”
“How nice of you!” she simpered, fluffing her wings. She turned and playfully swatted him with her feathers. “Well, let’s go back and see who has to sneak cake to who, then.”
As they made their way through the forest—with Aspire taking a bit of a lead to guide her back to the main path—Sure Stroke let her mind wander back to what she’d seen.
His fangs. Her gaze flitted to his face, a tiny frown marred her lips as she noted how small they looked. He’s hiding them for me again.
He was still trying to help her.
The entire class was.
“Stop hiding them,” she said softly.
“Huh?” Aspire tilted his head.
“Your fangs. Stop hiding them. Please.”
Confused, he furrowed his brows. “I thought you didn’t like being scared.”
“I won’t be scared if you don’t jump out at me.”
“Yes, you will. I can taste it every time you see them; you hate our fangs.”
Sure Stroke screwed her eyes shut. “If I want to stop being scared, I have to get used to them! So just shut up and change them back!”
With an amused chuckle and a flash of green fire, his fangs grew back to normal length. “You’re a funny pony,” he said, leaning in close. “I like that.”
“And you’re a mischievous little nymph,” she shot back, glancing out of the corner of her eyes to take note of his smirk. “What?”
“That’s kinda redundant. We changelings, by nature, are mischievous.” He flashed a fanged grin. “Especially toward our friends.”
“Oh, shut up. You’re mischievous and you’re a nymph—you are a mischievous little nymph. Full stop.”
“If you say so.” Aspire nodded and started walking along with her. He turned to look at her again, squinting as if he’d missed something. “Hey, Sure Stroke?”
“Could you turn your head a little? Like, look over your right shoulder real quick.”
“Uh, sure, I guess.” Furrowing her brows in confusion, Sure Stroke obeyed, turning to peer back at the trees. “What exactly am I looking—”
A long, slender tongue, dripping with warm, gooey slime ran across her left cheek.
She stopped in her tracks, her jaw dropped. “Aspire…”
He gave another slow lick before drawing back. “You had a cut on your cheek,” he said. “I missed that one.”
Oh, right. The branches.
Sure Stroke turned her head slowly, facing him with a rather forced smile.
“Say something first?” he asked.
Aspire ducked his head. “Yeah, okay, that one’s my bad. Noted.”