The jumble of letters and numbers stared back at her, almost mocking her. They knew they’d beaten her before, the red markings of Abacus’ pen still fresh, like the thin cuts a rosebush left across a pony’s body.
But Esalen was not to be deterred. She would defeat her longtime nemesis with the aid of her faithful companions: Toola Roola the Giggly and Sure Stroke the Doodle. Sadly, Zephyr the Grumpy, Vector the Obnoxious, and Aspire the Bird’s Nest were off playing and wrestling with Rocky the … Rocky.
She wasn’t the best with nicknames. That was Aspire’s thing.
Stupid Aspire being good at math. Why couldn’t he at least stick around and help them out with their corrections? Toola was a great help since she’d all but aced the pop quiz they’d taken, but he was mister tutor in training. This was his job.
Esalen shot a look at Toola, who was already done with her lone correction and a few of Sweet Treat’s peanut butter cookies. It just wasn’t fair. Especially when she and Sure Stroke were still struggling to finish up their own.
Her lips tugged into an impish smirk. Esalen glanced at the purple coated filly out of the corner of her eye, flicking her tongue out to taste the bitter bite of frustration and irritation while she tried to figure out where she’d gone wrong.
Esalen caught Toola’s eye and cast a wink, drawing a poorly hidden fit of giggles as she spoke, “What’s got you stuck, Doodle?”
Sure Stroke gave a low whine. “Essyyyyyyyyy!”
Turning to face her, Esalen mimicked her pout and whined back, “Dooooooooodllllllllllle!”
Soft purple ears drooped. Sure Stroke huffed and crossed her hooves over her chest. “I’m going to smack your brother for coming up with that stupid name!” she grumbled. “I do not doodle that much!”
Toola Roola leaned over the table, placing her hooves on it to balance herself. “Oh, really? Then why—” before Sure Stroke could react, Toola snatched up a piece of her scratch paper and held it up to reveal several tiny clouds, the lake, and a small doodle of a foal and a nymph wrestling in the shallows “—have you been doing this in between your corrections, hmm?”
With a startled squeak, Sure Stroke snatched it back. Her face tinged a deep purple as a blush colored her cheeks. “Th-Those aren’t doodles! They’re sketches! Completely different!”
Esalen hid a smile behind her hoof, she lit her horn and floated the paper out of Sure Stroke’s hooves so she could examine it a bit closer.
She scoffed. The scene wasn’t shaded or overly detailed, just something Sure Stroke had done quickly in between problems; a doodle, just as Toola said.
Rolling her eyes, she made to comment such, but something about the wrestling pair made her do a quick double take. She knew the foal and nymph on Sure Stroke’s paper.
One of them was sitting across from her, blushing profusely as she tried to stretch across the table and take the drawing away, whining each time Esalen moved it just out of reach. The other was her bookbug of a brother.
The tiny Aspire wore a wicked grin as he pinned tiny Sure Stroke, sticking out his tongue at the prone filly. There was even a little speech bubble with the words “Nyah, nyah! I’m smug and proud!” above his head.
Esalen snickered. Someone is getting into the swing of things. Good. “You’d better not let him see that,” she teased, floating the drawing back over to Sure Stroke. “Or you’ll have to hear him snark and pun as much as I do!”
“Oh, not the puns!” Toola wailed. She flopped down on the table and buried her face in her hooves. “Anything but his puns!”
“Yes, the puns!” Esalen cried, baring her fangs and rising to leer at her faux melodramatic friend. “We will all suffer the horrible fate of hearing each and every one of his stupid, poorly timed puns day in and day out!”
The pair broke down in a fit of giggles. Esalen let herself fall back into her seat, chittering merrily as she took up her pencil again.
“Are his puns really that bad?”
Flicking an ear toward Sure Stroke, Esalen glanced up at her. She grimaced. “They’re not bad. They’re worse. He makes the first one and just beats all the follow ups in until you’re ready to beat him into the ground.”
Sure Stroke winced. “I’ll take your word for it,” she said. “Puns can be fun, though.”
Oh, this poor, innocent filly. Esalen gave a sympathetic smile. She reached across the table and patted Sure Stroke’s hoof. “I’m sure you think so, but once you hear him start, you’ll want to smack Aspire just as much as I do, Doodle.”
“I already want to smack him for that stupid nickname.” Sure Stroke fixed her with a glare. “And if he drives you all so nuts, why are you so keen to help him drive me nuts?”
“Because that’s how we show we care!” Toola cheered.
“What she said,” Esalen replied, nodding toward Toola. “Also, because the name suits you, judging by those doodles on your paper.”
Sure Stroke huffed. “Not doodles! Sketches!”
Smirking, Esalen resumed working on question three. An idea came to mind. Why not get a little teasing in while she suffered the horrors of algebra? “There’s no shading, no detailed lines, and you’ve been doing it really quickly while you try to distract yourself. You’re doodling, Doodle. There’s no shame in doing what doodling Doodles do.”
“You’re both just trying to find ways to say ‘Doodle’ as much as you possibly can, aren’t you?” Sure Stroke deadpanned.
On cue, Toola flipped herself out of her chair and cartwheeled over to wrap Sure Stroke in a hug. “You know it, Doodly-Doo!”
Groaning, Sure Stroke slumped. “I had to ask.”
Too easy, Esalen thought. She flicked her tongue out to sample Sure Stroke’s taste.
A dash of irritation, a healthy dose of resignation, but with the more delectable sweetness of happiness acting as a counterbalance. In short, she was having fun, even though they were pressing her buttons.
That meant Sure Stroke was open for a bit more teasing. And Esalen knew exactly what to hit on next.
“We could always find something else to talk about,” Esalen noted, giving a wicked grin. “Like the fact that it seems our new friend is so taken with Aspire that she’s drawn him not once, but twice since coming here. Already lovedrunk for my bookbug brother, eh, Sure Stroke?”
Scrunching up her snout, Sure Stroke tilted her head and furrowed her brows. Esalen could almost see the gears turning in her head as she tried to parse together the meaning behind her words.
Esalen made sure to run her tongue along her lips, savoring the taste of confusion hanging over the air, then again as she saw Sure Stroke’s sky blue eyes go wide. Comprehension dawned on her, bringing with it a blush that spread to the very tips of her ears and even made her wings fluff.
Embarrassment was light and fluffy, like cotton candy.
If they weren’t in Sweet Treat’s shop, Esalen would’ve happily tackled Sure Stroke and hugged her tight to tease and gloat over as she savored and sipped at the delicious treat radiating off her pegasus friend.
Instead, she simply cast a wink at Toola, who tittered and puckered her lips while making loud, obnoxious kissing noises.
Sure Stroke reared back. “No, no, no!” she cried, waving her hooves. “That’s not it at all!”
“Oh, really?” Esalen drawled. “You draw him an awful lot.”
“I draw many things!” Sure Stroke said. “It’s not my fault you haven’t seen them!” Frantically, she rifled through her papers until she found a few, then pushed them to the center of the table. Just as promised, each was littered with her so-called sketches. “See! Plenty of sketches!”
“Doodles!” Toola sang.
Chuckling to herself while the pair bickered, Esalen let her eyes wander over each of the drawings. She smiled as she saw a mini Vector and Zephyr exchanging a hoof bump, while a mini Aspire sat fuming and grumbling to himself. On the other side of the page, there was a rather cute drawing of Toola standing on just one forehoof while holding her other out and beaming. Then one of Esalen herself reaching out with a hoof, the word “Boop” floated above her in neat cursive.
And our fangs are proportional, she happily noticed, smiling at how her picture’s fangs poked out from behind her top lip to a fine point, stopping just past her bottom lip. Just as they should.
The next page began with a picture of Toola and Nimble doing a twirl together, their long flowing manes trailed with their every movement. There were a few small drawings, mostly of clouds and pegasi pushing them, but a couple of their friends’ faces.
Esalen had to withhold a snort at the sight of Aspire’s face drawn with rather strange makeup and a ball on the end of his nose. The mini goof of a nymph stuck his tongue out and had a speech bubble floating above him that read “I’m a big, silly, clownling!”
Just below the “clownling” was a picture of her and Aspire together, both staring back at her. He fixed her with a raised eyebrow and his trademark wide, smug smirk, while her miniature gazed through half-lidded eyes and a knowing, almost impish grin.
Her hoof traced over the words floating above them, Esalen had to suck in her lips to avoid cooing.
It wasn’t a speech bubble. It was a title:
My Best Friends.
She licked her lips. The sweet, bubbly taste of Toola’s mirth and mischief mixed with the fluffy embarrassment rolling off Sure Stroke in waves. Esalen stood and trotted around to wrap them both in a hug, cutting them off in the middle of their bantering.
“Your drawings are very good,” she praised. “And you’ve got our fangs looking much nicer, not to mention the detail in our bodies.”
Sure Stroke fidgeted, her taste grew more fluffy. “I’m good at pony bodies,” she replied. “But changeling bodies are tricky, so I’m trying to spend more time working on them. If I can draw you, I can picture them as you are, and then I can start to understand you better.”
Esalen gave an approving hum. “Well, I like it. Though you make it sound like you’re studying us.” Casting a wink, she added, “I’m not a math problem, you know! You can just ask me to tell you the answer!”
“I’ve been getting answers from everyone, and they just raise more questions!” Sure Stroke glared down at the papers sitting on the table. “I can’t decide which is more complicated: math or changelings!”
“Changelings are a lot more fun than math,” Toola supplied helpfully.
Scoffing, Sure Stroke flicked her tail. “Yes, they also delight in mischief and have a tendency to be maddeningly confusing!”
Esalen could only shrug. She couldn’t argue the point, it was part of their nature to be confusing. “There’s not exactly a how-to guide on living with us, sadly. Respite is really just learning as you go, but we’re all happy to help you along the way.” She nuzzled Sure Stroke’s cheek. “You know you can always ask, and we’ll try our best to answer.”
For a moment Sure Stroke stayed quiet. Then she sighed and let her shoulders slump, leaning into Esalen’s touch.
Now there was progress!
“I know,” Sure Stroke muttered. With a tired smile, she shifted to hug both of them. “I appreciate it, too. I just wish there was something written down so I could study it and avoid all my little slip ups. I want to understand. Without being scared until you or Aspire calm me down and tell me what’s going on.”
Esalen winced. Okay, that is a bit of a problem. Something like that would help, especially for ponies who wander in off hearsay—
An idea hit her like a bolt of lightning. Trade Day!
She leaned back to hold Sure Stroke at hoof’s length, giving a wide smile. “Well, maybe that can be your trade!”
“My what?” Sure Stroke tilted her head.
“Your trade,” Toola said. “Everyone who lives in Respite has something they do to help out the village and its visitors—like how Essy’s dad was there to give you all a big welcome, or how Ready Steady is always happy to help ponies move in!”
“Everyone helps somehow, we all pick on Trade Day.” Esalen nodded to Toola. “Aspire’s already planning to be a tutor, how about you, giggly?”
Beaming, Toola nodded so fast her blue and pink mane fluffed. She threw her hooves out wide. “I want to teach gymnastics!” Then, she gave a sheepish grin. “But that’s really exclusive, and that doesn’t really help visitors. I’ve talked with some ponies around town, and they mentioned stuff with muscle therapy and wishing they could stretch like Nimble and me. So I might try something like that.”
Esalen brought a hoof to her chin. “I’m sure one of my books had something in it about that, but I can’t remember what it’s called. We’ll have to look it up.” Her eyes flitted to Sure Stroke. “Since you mentioned wanting a book about us to help new ponies, you could always write one yourself.”
“What?” Sure Stroke’s ears perked up, her eyes went as wide as dinner plates. “Me? Write a book?”
“Why not? It’s not like it has to be really detailed. Just stuff you learned while living here.” Esalen shrugged. “I’m sure Queen Euphoria would be happy to have something else to help get ponies comfortable.”
Sure Stroke bit her lip and gave a little rustle of her wings. “I don’t know. I like writing better than math and stuff, but I’m more into drawing than that.”
“So why not make it a picture book?” Esalen said, prodding her in the chest. “Little illustrations with some of the stuff you talk about as a way of showing, maybe.”
Toola bobbed her head. “That would be nice, actually. And if it’s from an outsider’s perspective, it’d probably help more than us just shrugging and saying it’s normal all the time!”
Letting out a low hum, Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chin. “A book would really help, but I’m still not sure if I’m the one to write it.”
Esalen smiled and gave another shrug. “You’ve got plenty of time to think about it, Trade Day isn’t for a while. Going back to math, though—”
“Do we have to?” Sure Stroke whined.
“I was going to say you could always ask Aspire. He’s gonna be a tutor or a teacher.”
“All you’d have to do is offer him a trade,” Toola added. “He’s pretty fair about it whenever we ask. He usually just asks for a few sips of love in return.”
Sure Stroke stiffened. Her eyes flitted between them, she rubbed a hoof against her shoulder and looked down at the floor.
Flicking out her tongue, Esalen caught a sample of nerves. Still uncertain, but not nearly as potent as before, and lacking the fear. A bit more typical of a first timer.
She smiled. Not perfect, but much better. Sure Stroke would come around soon enough, she just needed to experience her first feeding.
Aspire or me, maybe, she thought, fighting back the urge to lick her lips. Sure Stroke’s happiness tasted delicious, she could only imagine how her love was. And this could be the way to get her to accept it.
“I’ll … think about it,” Sure Stroke said after a moment. Scrunching up her snout, she looked up to meet Esalen’s eyes. “What’s your trade going to be, then? Tutoring like Aspire?”
Esalen gave a chittering laugh. “Me? No way!” She waved a hoof. “I’m not nearly as book-friendly as him!”
“Even though you love to read!” Toola quipped.
Narrowing her eyes, Esalen pulled the little filly in close and pressed their snouts together. “Behave, you!” she warned, furrowing her brows as Toola simply giggled. “Or I’ll wrap your legs together so we can all take turns poking your sides!”
Undeterred, Toola just stuck her tongue out. “Still thinking about it?” she asked.
Esalen pulled a face but nodded. “Still trying to.”
“Is it really that hard to pick?” Sure Stroke asked, tilting her head.
“I wish it weren’t,” Esalen muttered, bitterly flicking her tail. “I know I want to help ponies like my mom or Queen Euphoria, but I’m not entirely sure I just want to talk like they do, y’know? Ponies and changelings have plenty of other problems.”
Sure Stroke hummed. “Like, physical stuff? Like how my mom helps pegasi relearn how to fly after they get hurt?”
Esalen’s ears perked up. “Yes! That!” she said, grinning broadly. “But, not so specific. More broad.”
“Caretakers love helping everyone they can,” Toola noted. She thought for a moment, then grinned. “You and I could do the stretching thing! Just think!” Bouncing away from them, she stood on her hind legs and held her hooves up as if holding a sign. “Toola and Esalen’s Stretch Services!”
Sharing a look together, Esalen and Sure Stroke sucked in their lips to hold back laughter.
“I don’t think—snrrk—stretch services are what you’re looking for,” Sure Stroke managed to say.
Toola scoffed. “Work in progress. What do you say, Essy?” She waggled her ears. “Trade partners?”
Esalen gave a tight-lipped smile, still holding back her mirth. Working with Toola could be fun, it would certainly be a barrel of laughs unless she did a full one-eighty in personality.
There were worse ponies or changelings she could partner up with.
She nodded once. “I think that’d be lots of fun.”
A loud bang made the trio of fillies flick their ears toward the front door. Cool Breeze darted around to shut it, pressing his back against the frame as if to keep someone out. His blue-coated chest heaved, his snowy mane seemed damp with sweat, a wide grin spread across his muzzle even as he panted for breath.
Esalen flicked out her tongue to sample his taste, an act followed by several other changeling patrons while their pony friends grinned knowingly. Happiness and mischief both hung thick in the air.
He’s up to his tricks. Oh boy.
“No, no, no!” Sweet Treat’s angry voice called from the kitchen. She burst through the door, glaring daggers at Cool Breeze. Stomping a hoof, she pointed him back outside. “You get out of here, Breezy! My poor shop isn’t going to be your hiding place after one of your darn pranks again!”
Breezy laughed. “Aw, c’mon, Sweets!” He pulled the most insincere pout anyone present had ever seen. “I’m just a poor, innocent pegasus, trying to hide from his angry wife!”
“You’re as innocent as Maple when I make pancakes,” she deadpanned. “What did you do this time?”
“Me? Nothing! Nothing at all!”
Esalen flicked out her tongue again. “Liar!” she sang.
Breezy’s false pout left his face, replaced by a bright grin. “Okay, fine, maybe a little, but it’s for a good cause! She was buried in paperwork and desperately needed a break—”
“So you pranked her,” Sweet Treat interrupted with a heavy sigh. Bringing a hoof to her forehead, she let out a groan. “What was it this time?”
“Water balloons,” he replied without a hint of shame in his tone. “Filled with ice water.”
Another groan. Sweet Treat muttered something under her breath that earned a bark of laughter in reply.
With a cheeky waggle of his ears, Cool Breeze wrapped her in a quick hug, then flapped his wings to dart over toward the fillies. He laid his hooves on Esalen and Toola’s shoulders, smiling at each of them in turn. “Say, girls. How’d you like to gimme a bit of a hoof with my little game with Phory?”
Esalen had to fight back her want to bounce in place. Breezy’s pranks were always the best, and anytime he could help them get Queen Euphoria was more than welcome. “I’m in!” she chirped.
“I’m in!” Toola cheered, throwing her hooves up.
They each turned to Sure Stroke, Esalen made sure to give her biggest, brightest grin.
The filly stared back at them, confusion written plain across her face. She scrunched up her snout and stole a glance to the front door as if she expected Queen Euphoria to come charging in, fangs at full length, hissing curses, and ready to spit cocoon slime at any who dared come between her and Breezy.
Not entirely wrong, of course. They were all about to risk the Queen’s wrath by helping her ever-mischievous husband.
Sure Stroke looked up at Breezy. “Won’t she be angry?”
“Oh, we’re well beyond that,” he replied. “I got her a few times before she realized it was me. She’ll come after me first, of course. So you three just have to stay out of sight as best you can, which is perfect, really.” Waggling his eyebrows, he added, “I’ve already got an ambush spot picked out.”
Sure Stroke bit her lip. “I don’t know …”
Fortunately, Esalen had the perfect response to give her the push she so needed.
Time to see if the pony takes the carrot.
“You know,” she began, “if you help us with a prank, you can see how changelings and ponies work together to achieve their goals, and how to avoid being caught by one who’s trying to find you.”
She allowed herself a smirk as she caught the spark that flashed across Sure Stroke’s eyes.
“Okay,” Sure Stroke said with a weak smile. “I guess it couldn’t hurt to try.”
Breezy gave a happy nicker. “Great! Now, let’s get out of here before Phory catches up. I don’t wanna chance getting out when she’s got plenty of stuff to stick us to!” He looked toward the kitchen door, a wide grin crossed his muzzle. “And I know a shortcut to our spot!”
Quick as a flash, he swept the fillies up and onto his back, then bounded for the kitchen door. Esalen and Toola cackled as Sweet Treat shrieked at him, and did their best to hang on, each wrapping a hoof around his shoulder, then another around Sure Stroke to keep her steady.
They shot through the kitchen, Peppermint and Spearmint leaped out of the way, both grinning and catcalling while a small, chubby little changeling with red-orange mane named Maple looked up from where he was trying to sneak a quick lick of syrup off a plate.
Esalen spared a quick wave to each of them before Cool Breeze burst through the back door and into the warm sunlight, speeding off as fast as he could toward whatever spot he’d chosen to stage his ambush.
Just in time for a second bang and enraged hissing to sound from within Sweet Treat’s shop. Then, a familiar voice, cracked with rage and coming in a hunting changeling’s dual reverberating voice, reached their ears.
“COOL BREEZE! WHEN I GET MY HOOVES ON YOU, YOU’RE FINISHED!”
Queen Euphoria was on the hunt.
Sure Stroke knew she wasn’t what one might call a genius by any stretch of the imagination, but she knew better than to ignore the tingle running down her spine.
It was different from the one she got during sunny days, when all her instincts just itched to fly through the open blue sky, or maybe find a nice, fluffy cloud to perch herself on for a quick nap or a few hours of drawing.
Rather, it was one that told her she’d just made a very, very big mistake joining her friends and Cool Breeze in their mischief against Queen Euphoria.
She bit her lip and looked about the yard. Piles of lumber were stacked high, a small, wood tool shed stood a short distance away from a large workbench, several downed tree trunks lay on their side just past a small clearing near the grassy forest edge. On the other side of the yard, a cottage of similar design to the rest of the village stood. The back door bore a small sign with words painted in bright red:
Birch and Pine Wood’s Lumber Yard
Knock On Door For Assistance
Do Not Borrow Tools Without Asking
Do Not Use Tools Without Supervision
This Means YOU, Morning Dew!
Sure Stroke couldn’t help but let her gaze wander. Cloudsdale didn’t have anything like this. There was just no need since all the buildings were built entirely out of carefully shaped clouds. Any wood furnishing was just ordered from lumber yards, usually in small towns near forests.
I wonder if Respite ships its lumber. She wrinkled her snout. No, that wouldn’t make much sense. Respite wasn’t on any maps, it took a visit from Merryweather and Hawkeye for her family to find about about the tiny village.
That said, how did they get new ponies?
Also, why did Morning Dew need a special note?
She turned to Esalen, both questions on the tip of her tongue.
“Okay, so!” Breezy spoke up, cutting across her as he leaned in to let them in on his plan. Unfurling a wing, he revealed a small pouch hanging across his body. He reached in and pulled out four small straws and a few bits of paper. “I’ve got our weapons here, and this is gonna be the staging ground for our ambush! So, it’s really simple: everyone spread out and hide. Phory will be here any second to wring my neck, so hopefully, she won’t stop to search for other scents.”
Sighing, Sure Stroke filed her questions away for later. They were all excited for their game. There would be plenty of time afterward. Hopefully.
“You want to confuse her?” Esalen asked, a wicked gleam shone in her eyes.
Breezy grinned and bobbed his head. “Bingo!” He reached down to tussle her mane. “She’ll follow my scent, then one of you hit her while her back is turned. She’ll come looking for me, not you three. So, if you keep hitting her from behind, she’ll think I’m sneaking around faster than she can track me down.”
Toola let out an amused snort. “Oh, gosh! She’ll be chasing her tail if we can confuse her enough!”
“Yes, but try not to stay in one spot too long.” Breezy held up a hoof. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, but changelings are quite good at hunting, eh, Essy?”
Giving a fanged grin, Esalen nodded once. “If we just stay in one spot each, all she’ll have to do is pick one of us out. Then we’re done for.”
“Exactly.” He turned to Sure Stroke, giving a small smile. “Ready to play a trick on a changeling queen?”
Sure Stroke fidgeted in place, her coat stood up as three sets of eyes fell upon her. She rustled her wings and flicked her tail. “The last time I was hunted, Aspire nearly scared the feathers off me,” she muttered.
A gentle hoof wrapped around her shoulder and pulled her in close. Breezy smiled down at her. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Phory might be mad at me, but she won’t do anything too scary. If she does figure out what we’re up to, the most she’ll do is wrap you up in a cocoon for safe keeping while she comes after me.” His grin returned, he gave a playful little waggle of his ears. “Me? I’m in trouble either way.”
Wrinkling her snout, Sure Stroke looked to Esalen and Toola, and was met with matching grins.
“Queen Euphoria won’t be mean,” Toola said. “And if she does wrap us up, it’ll just be in a cocoon like what Essy and all the other changelings sleep in. Like when you roll around in your blankets.”
Esalen laid a hoof on Sure Stroke’s shoulder. “It’s just like when Aspire wrapped your legs, really. She doesn’t do it too tight, just so we can’t run away while she finds anyone else helping to prank her. She always lets us right out when she’s done.”
Sure Stroke let out a low whine. She rubbed a hoof against her shin.
It was weird enough when Aspire wrapped her leg to bandage her cuts and scrapes. Just the thought of her entire body being covered in that … that … sticky, goopy, slime made the skin beneath her coat crawl!
How much would they even have to spit to do that?
She shook her head. It was weird because she didn’t grow up with changelings. To Toola, this was all just part of having them as neighbors.
And for Aspire and Esalen, it was just natural.
Not to mention, if she did play a little, she could actually see how Queen Euphoria went about trying to hunt for each of them in turn.
As for being wrapped up … well, maybe if she asked really nicely, she’d get out of it. And if worst came to worst, she could always sneak away.
Or maybe she could get away with just watching. That would work just fine.
“I’d rather not be wrapped up,” she said slowly. “But if it’s just playing, I guess it’d be okay.”
The Respite natives grinned. Cool Breeze gave her a quick pat on the head, along with one last assurance that “his Phory” would be nice to the fillies, then passed out the straws and bits of paper.
A strange sound tickled Sure Stroke’s ears. She perked them up, raising her eyebrow as she tried to make it out.
It almost sounded like a bee’s buzz as it flew. But from far off.
Breezy flicked his ears. He heard it too. “Right, that’s Phory! Everyone find a place to hide! Don’t bunch up!”
Esalen and Toola darted off, each fighting to hold back their laughter as they dove behind the stacks of long, square boards. In a flurry of blue feathers, Breezy flew over to the toolshed and slipped inside.
The buzzing grew louder, joined by angry hissing. Sure Stroke panicked, she bit her lip and searched frantically for a place to hide.
Her gaze fell upon the tree trunks. Specifically, a little gap between two or three trunks that seemed perfect for her to peek out and shoot through, but difficult for someone else to spot her.
Sure Stroke galloped as fast as her legs could carry her, skidding around the pile. Fortunately for her, the pile had a small cropping of bushes to her right, to cover her flank from view. She would just have to keep an eye out for the left side—where she’d just run through.
As long as she kept her eyes on Queen Euphoria and didn’t give herself away, she had the perfect spot. And this time, she had an easy escape route if she needed to fly.
She crawled beneath the bushes to hide from view, just in case Queen Euphoria chose to make her approach from a higher altitude. Carefully, she crept forward until she could see the small clearing at the center of the yard.
Just in time for her to see Queen Euphoria land with a loud thud, the rapid buzzing of her wings kicked up dust. Her mane hung limp, her golden heart circlets glinted in the sunlight. She snarled, her lips peeled back to reveal her pearl white teeth and long, pointed fangs. Her tongue ran along her lips.
Sure Stroke could see sunlight gleaming off the Queen's chitin, catching on the water from Breezy’s assault. Her eyes went wide.
Oh, crab apples, he didn’t just get her with one. He soaked her!
“I know you’re here, Breezy!” Queen Euphoria called, poorly hidden fury tinged her voice as she began to stalk around the yard. “Come out, dearest! It’ll only get worse if you keep hiding from me!”
No answer came.
With an angry chitter, Queen Euphoria raised her snout and sniffed at the air. Slowly, a smile spread across her black, chitinous muzzle. Her eyes fell on a pair of blue feathers laying at her hooves.
She picked one up and gave it a kiss. “I always did love your feathers,” she crooned, looking toward the woodshed. “So beautiful, so soft … so easy for me to find, my sweet!” Her smile grew into a wicked grin, her fangs began to lengthen. She hunched down and pinned her ears back, making straight for the shed.
Sure Stroke craned her neck to see, she shifted forward, her hooves scraped against the dirt.
Both she and Queen Euphoria froze at the sound. Her heart hammered in her chest, she watched the angry changeling turn toward her, ears perked up and snout wrinkled in confusion.
Queen Euphoria’s brows furrowed, then relaxed. With a low chuckle, she crouched low again and began to approach Sure Stroke’s hiding spot. “Trying to play more tricks? Perhaps there’s a nice bucket of water balanced atop that door just for me, hmm?” Her eyes flashed green. “I don’t think so, darling!”
Barely holding back a squeak, Sure Stroke stayed perfectly still. Her eyes wide as the angry, full grown changeling Queen stalked forward.
Hunting her. Like predator and prey.
The Queen stopped just a short distance away, pinning her ears back, she gave a chitter and bounded forward, ready to leap over the pile of logs …
Sure Stroke heard a puffing sound, then a startled yelp. Queen Euphoria stumbled just before she reached the logs, her hooves dug into the dirt as she stopped and did a quick about-face, searching this way and that for her attacker.
A flash of sugar pink mane and black carapace ducked behind a stack of wood. Esalen had come to her rescue just in the nick of time!
“Breezy!” she yelled. Her snarl returned, she stamped a hoof. “The more you play these games, the more I’m going to punish you once I get my hooves on you! You’re already getting wrapped up in a cocoon and teased—” she paused a moment to lick her lips, her voice dropped to a low, husky tone “—do you really want to see how much worse I can make it?”
For a moment, there was no reply. Then, Sure Stroke noticed a blue hoof reach up to push the shed window up just a crack. Enough so Breezy could stick his straw through the opening when his wife turned to look at the stack of wood where Esalen was hiding, and fire a quick shot that hit her square on her right flank.
Queen Euphoria glared toward the shed and stomped over. Before she’d even made it three paces, Sure Stroke saw Toola pop out of her hiding spot and shoot a spitball.
Right at their Queen’s cheek.
Sure Stroke let her jaw drop. No pony would dare shoot a spitball at Princess Celestia, let alone at her face.
Slowly, she crept back away from the edge of her bush’s cover, mirroring Queen Euphoria turning to gape at Toola’s wood pile.
The turn allowed Esalen and Breezy to move. Essy scampered over to hide behind a wheelbarrow while Breezy chose to shift behind a cutting block.
They were all working in tandem to help each other. All they had to do was keep Queen Euphoria guessing, put her off balance enough that she would get too confused and flustered to slow down and figure them out.
But there was a problem. Sure Stroke’s eyes went wide. If they wanted to keep the illusion up, it meant they couldn’t have ponies fire from opposite positions—they were limited to only firing from the left or right of the previous shooter.
In short, she couldn’t just watch.
She had to participate or everything would fall apart in short order once Queen Euphoria got her wits about.
Sure Stroke watched Breezy peek out to shoot at the back of Queen Euphoria’s head, drawing her attention to the cutting block while Toola shifted around to hide behind the corner of the cottage. A few seconds later, Esalen took her shot, which hit Queen Euphoria right in the shoulder.
It was her turn.
Swallowing a lump in her throat, Sure Stroke moved to peek through the crack between a pair of logs. She tore off a small edge of paper and chewed, waiting as Queen Euphoria stalked Esalen. Sure Stroke brought the straw to her mouth and took aim at her target’s midsection.
Maybe Breezy and the others were brave enough to shoot at her face, but Sure Stroke wasn’t so disrespectful.
Queen Euphoria’s side, however, was fair game.
Sure Stroke sent a silent apology to the confused mare and took her shot. The spitball zipped through the air and struck true.
With a startled gasp, Queen Euphoria turned sharply, her eyes flitting about in search of her assailant. Sure Stroke stayed low and waited.
It was Toola’s turn next. Sure enough, a few seconds later, Sure Stroke saw her chance when Queen Euphoria yelped and brought a hoof up to cover her snout.
She scampered over to hide behind one of the thicker tree trunks, covering her mouth with a hoof to stifle a bout of laughter as Queen Euphoria let out another angry chitter.
“That did it! Breezy, when I get my hooves on you, I’ll—eep!”
Sure Stroke had brought her free hoof to her mouth, she clenched her eyes shut and tried not to squirm. Her ears twitched as she heard another yelp and a bout of cursing, then another. The game was starting to pick up.
Peeking around the tree trunk, she fired off a quick shot that hit Queen Euphoria in the neck, then ducked just in time to avoid being seen.
“I don’t know how you’re getting around so quickly, Breezy, but once I—eep! Stop that!—once I find you, I’m going to give you such a—ack!—such a smack!”
Around and around they went. Through Breezy’s plan, they led her on a merry little chase. Sure Stroke shifted each chance she got, moving as soon as she was sure Queen Euphoria was occupied. Then, when it came her turn to take a shot, she managed to score a quick hit to the irritated changeling’s thigh.
She had to bite her lip as she heard another frustrated grumble. This was fun! Sneaking a quick peek out, she fired a spitball right past Queen Euphoria’s nose.
“Shoot!” she muttered before she could catch herself. Sure Stroke clapped her hooves over her lips as if hoping to catch the words and force them back inside her treacherous mouth.
Queen Euphoria stood up straight, her ears perked to their full height. She turned just as Sure Stroke ducked back behind her tree. The damage was done.
Sure Stroke pressed against the tree trunk. She heard sniffing, the Queen was searching for her scent.
“That doesn’t sound like my Breezy,” Queen Euphoria called. “And I thought I smelled someone else at first. A couple someones, actually.”
The soft crunch of a hoof stepping on grass made Sure Stroke flinch.
The Queen continued, “I smell you, of course, Breezy. But I also smell vanilla and lilac, a favorite of a few mares and fillies, as well as a Caretaker’s chitin. The question, though, isn’t who you three are … Oh, no, I can guess you three easily. I know your scents quite well.”
She paused for effect. “I’m very interested in this fourth scent, though.” Another step. “It smells so very much like my wonderful new weather manager, Drizzly, and his beautiful wife, Skydancer—like ozone and rainwater, much like so many Cloudsdale natives. But there’s only one other pony fresh from Cloudsale, and I was so sure our sweet, innocent new filly wouldn’t do such a horrible thing as prank me!” Queen Euphoria gave a low chuckle. “But I can taste all four of you, and I know each taste very well.”
“Mischief,” the Queen continued, slowly stalking toward her. “Mirth—oh, so very much of that! Especially coming from my left! But there’s someone whose delicious mischief, almost as strong as my own kin, is mixed with doubt and guilt, oh yes! Guilty of what, I wonder? Would our guilty little filly like to confess?”
Filly? Sure Stroke’s eyes went wide. Oh no. Oh no, no, no! That’s right! The Queen said she had her scent, too!
She had to run!
The hoofsteps stopped. Sure Stroke craned her ears, listening out for any sound. Her heart hammered in her chest.
Then she felt warm breath tickling her ear, and the smooth touch of a chitinous snout nuzzling into her mane, with twin fangs brushing against her scalp.
She’d been caught.
“Well, sweetheart?” Queen Euphoria whispered. “Would you like to tell me why you taste so guilty today?”
Slowly, Sure Stroke turned, hunching her shoulders low so she appeared smaller, she fixed a sheepish grin upon her muzzle. “Hello, Queen Euphoria,” she greeted.
Queen Euphoria’s slitted eyes seemed to dance with glee. “Hello, Sure Stroke.” She kissed the top of Sure Stroke’s head. “Would you be a dear and put that straw down for me?”
Sure Stroke took one look at the wicked, fanged grin on the changeling’s muzzle, it was all the prompting she needed to drop both the straw and the scrap of paper.
Her obedience earned her another nuzzle.
“Good girl. Now, stand up and come out from behind this tree.” Queen Euphoria flinched, a wad of paper stuck to her cheek. Her left eye twitched, her lips seemed to tighten. She stepped back and turned, gesturing for Sure Stroke to follow.
Ducking her head, Sure Stroke walked alongside with Queen Euphoria to the center of the clearing.
Queen Euphoria held out a hoof. “Right there is fine, dear. Now, be good and hold still.”
Hold still? For what?
As Sure Stroke made to ask, she noticed Queen Euphoria’s cheeks begin to puff out. Just like Aspire and Esalen’s had when they spat slime.
Her eyes went wide. “No! Wait! That’s not—”
Queen Euphoria spat a stream of slime at her hooves, coating them in a thick layer of the warm, green gunk.
Sure Stroke had to fight down the urge to gag. She flapped her wings and tried to pull her legs out, the slime just stretched with her and yanked her back down to the ground.
Chuckling, Queen Euphoria leaned down to give her cheek an affectionate lick. “Just so you don’t get any ideas to run or fly away, Sure Stroke,” she cooed. Her eyes flashed green again, just as another spitball hit her shoulder. Stealing a sidelong look to the pile of logs Sure Stroke had first hidden in, she leaned in to add in a whisper, “You’re lucky. Your little friends and Breezy are all getting wrapped up in cocoons. And that, my sweet little filly, is just the start of what his mischief has earned him.”
A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine. She let her ears droop and gave a sullen nod, still cringing when she tried one last time to pull free, only for her hoof to get more stuck. “Yes, Queen Euphoria,” she muttered.
Queen Euphoria patted her head. “No need to be so glum, dear. I can appreciate a good prank, but, as you well know, if you challenge a changeling, you’d better be ready for the consequences.” She turned toward the pile of logs and hummed as she trotted forward, pausing to sniff at the air. “Vanilla and lilac, such a lovely scent. One I quite like to wear as well. But there’s only one filly in my village tastes of gumdrops and ice cream when she’s trying not to laugh while she pulls a trick …”
Almost on cue, a poorly stifled giggle fit from behind the logs tickled Sure Stroke’s ears.
Black ears twitched. Queen Euphoria looked over her shoulder to smile and shake her head at Sure Stroke. “Yes, only one filly in all of Respite. And her name is just as pretty as her laughter and as sweet as a tiny little drop of her love.”
She let out a hiss, then leaped over the logs in a single bound, Toola’s shrieks and laughter filled the air. Sure Stroke could hear a short scuffle; the familiar sound of a changeling spitting slime and a sickening squelch as it hit its mark.
Queen Euphoria trotted out from behind the logs with a satisfied grin on her muzzle, a merry sway in her hips, and Toola Roola, giggling though she was wrapped up to her neck in a slimy cocoon, held in her mouth.
Their eyes met. Queen Euphoria waggled her ears and spoke, her words muffled by the cocoon she held in her teeth.
Sure Stroke tilted her head. “What?”
Gently setting Toola down beside Sure Stroke, Queen Euphoria cleared her throat. “I said, ‘my little Toola Roola is in trouble again.’”
“I got you good a few times!” Toola quipped through her giggles. “Right on the end of your snout.”
Queen Euphoria chuckled, then leaned down to lick her cheek and nuzzled between her ears. “Yes, you did. And you’ll get yours once I find Breezy and Esalen.”
A gasp to Sure Stroke’s left made the trio flick their ears.
Before she could blink, Queen Euphoria took off like a bolt from a Cloudsdale guard’s crossbow. She darted around a stack of boards, hissing as she chased after Esalen.
“Run, Essy, run!” Toola cheered from within the confines of her cocoon. “You can beat her!”
Sure Stroke bit back a retort. Esalen didn’t have a chance. Though the young nymph ran as fast as her legs could carry her, Queen Euphoria had the size advantage. It was like with pegasi—small wings might beat faster, but big wings had more power.
With each step, the distance began to close. Both Esalen and Queen Euphoria knew it, too.
The Queen’s cheeks filled again, she reared back and spat a stream of slime that enveloped Esalen’s back, then descended upon the struggling nymph. Her long legs worked quickly, spreading her slime over the nymph’s body and covering all the way up to her neck, like a spider winding its silk around a bug trapped in its web.
It was all over before it even began.
“Three down!” Queen Euphoria sang. She picked Esalen’s cocoon up in her mouth and carried her just as she did Toola, trotting over in an almost carefree manner. She dropped the captive nymph next to Toola and set to her work, doling out a nuzzle and a lick before stepping back and eying each of the fillies in turn.
After a moment of quiet—save for Toola’s giggling—she spoke, “So, before I pull my husband out of his hiding spot and wrap him up, who would like to tell me what he offered you three fillies in exchange for your help?”
Sure Stroke bit her lip and looked away, she pinned her ears back as her friends fell into laughter.
A chitinous hoof cupped her chin and turned her head back toward Queen Euphoria. “Sure Stroke,” she said, leaning in to nuzzle her nose playfully, “what did Breezy offer you?”
Blue slitted eyes bored into hers. Sure Stroke hunched her shoulders, her wings unfurled and came forward like feathery shields.
“Nothing!” Esalen and Toola chimed together. “Nothing! Absolutely nothing!”
Even before Queen Euphoria’s nostrils flared and her smile fell, Sure Stroke knew that was the wrong thing to say. With a whine, she ducked low and hid her head in her wings.
“Nothing?” She flinched at the angry hiss in Queen Euphoria’s tone. “My, my, my! I guess I will have to punish all three of you after all!”
Sure Stroke let out a whimper, the image of Aspire with his carapace dyed a bright magenta, glowing each time he tried to disguise himself, flashed through her mind.
“Please don’t dye my coat strange colors!” she squeaked.
Queen Euphoria fixed her with a wry look. “Dye your—oh! Right! Aspire and I mentioned that your first day here.” She chuckled. “Oh, no, sweetheart, I try not to repeat my punishments. I’m sure I can find something for the three of you. Once I find Breezy, of course. Speaking of, where did he—”
Before she could finish, Toola let out a gasp. “Mister Breezy!” she cried, anger tingeing her tone. “You’d better not leave us! This was your idea!”
Sure Stroke’s head snapped up. She craned around Queen Euphoria, as much as the slime around her hooves would allow, just in time to see the stallion take off through the air, cackling as he made his cunning escape.
“Oooh! That termite!” Queen Euphoria looked between the fillies, then her fleeing husband. She quickly bent down and sliced through Esalen and Toola’s cocoons with her fangs to set them free, and then pulled Sure Stroke out of her slime with a sharp tug. “You three,” she said, fixing each with a stern look, “my house. First thing Saturday morning. Don’t dawdle, or I’ll come pick you up myself. If that happens, your punishments will be much worse. Got it?”
“Got it!” Esalen and Toola replied.
When those blue slitted eyes fell upon her, Sure Stroke gave a shy nod of her own.
Queen Euphoria smiled. “Good girls. Now, if you’ll excuse me …” Green fire washed over her form. Pearl white coat grew in place of smooth, black carapace, but her aquamarine and pink streaked mane remained. She flared her new pegasus wings out wide. “I have a husband to hunt.”
Without further ado, Queen Euphoria took off after her husband. The hunt was on again.
For a moment, the trio sat together in total silence and watched the pair race through the sky.
Then Sure Stroke turned to Esalen and said, “You realize when my mom asks why I’m in trouble with Queen Euphoria, I’m blaming you.”
Esalen didn’t even bat an eye. Instead, she gave an impish, decidedly shameless smile. “What sort of friend would I be if I didn’t drag you into trouble?”
“Besides,” Toola chipped in, “wasn’t it fun, Doodle?”
Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. She turned away from them with a huff. “This is all Aspire’s fault somehow. I know it is.”
She made sure to pin her ears back to block out their laughter as she stood and stomped back toward Sweet Treat’s shop, and made doubly sure not to let them see the smile tugging at her lips.
It was fun.