• Published 18th Oct 2011
  • 29,537 Views, 356 Comments

The Monster Mash - FredMSloniker

Six characters. Six encounters with the supernatural. Happy Nightmare Night.

  • ...

Fluttershy: The Curse of the Night

Everfree Forest was a scary place even at the best of times. The land of Equestria had been tamed so thoroughly and for so long that the ponies who lived there had come to think of their world as the natural order of things, that everything from plants to animals to the very air itself needed their guiding hooves. Only Everfree stood as a reminder of ancient times and ancient magic, the rhythm of the seasons, the relentless pulse of life, the savagery of nature. Ponies who ventured there did so at their own peril, for while the forest was not as malevolent as some said, it was no cradle to coddle and protect.

Fluttershy was not in the forest at the best of times. She ran through the grasping trees, eyes wide, breath heaving, mane and tail snarled with twigs and leaves, desperate to find a way out. Somewhere above, she knew, the moon shone down on Equestria, but the trees hid its light away, leaving her only the slightest glow to see by. In the darkness, her mind, desperate to find the path to safety, conjured all manner of beasts and bogeymen, lurking, waiting to devour her.

Imagined bogeymen were preferable to the real thing. Her ears strained to hear some sign of the beast behind her, whether it had truly lost her scent or was just waiting for her to slow and tire. It had ambushed them when she stopped to gather the moonflowers that had been her reason for visiting Everfree Forest in the first place. Poor, brave Rainbow Dash had stood up to the beast, only to be swatted away like an annoying gnat. She hoped the plucky mare would be all right. At least her own flight had drawn it away.

If she'd been less frightened, she might have had more time to wonder at the beast attacking her at all. Laelaps were strong, swift hunters, but they weren't savage; she wouldn't have expected that kind of ferocity unless a mother had found her holding its cub, and even then it would have stopped chasing her once she was far enough away. It hadn't responded at all to her faltering efforts to soothe it before Dash leapt into the fray, either. Then there were the physical differences. It had been bigger than a typical laelap, with sharper claws, longer fangs, and terrible green eyes. Was it sick? Was it under a spell? She had no way to know, and at the moment she didn't care.

At last, her legs gave out, sending her pitching to the forest floor, sliding a foot or so before coming to rest. She gasped desperately for breath, her whole body trembling with exhaustion, hoping—praying—she'd been able to do enough.

She hadn't.

It burst from the undergrowth, silent as it had been since the chase began, and latched onto her with all four paws, teeth seeking her throat. Her own panicked scream stuck there as she tried to roll, to protect herself from the beast, but while she escaped instant death, it was only by substituting a leg for her neck. It latched on with a grip like a vice, tearing at her body with its claws, and she screamed again, this time an honest wail, as it opened long bloody stripes on her sides and belly. She fought and kicked and struggled, and all the time she knew she was only delaying the inevitable, that she was going to die in the Everfree without ever seeing her friends again, not Rarity or Applejack or—

—or a sky-blue pegasus pony who suddenly burst through the trees, twisting at the last second to deliver a high-speed kick to the laelap's side. It released her leg as it tumbled, crashing into a tree some distance away, and struggled to rise as Rainbow Dash crouched nearby.

"I'm not sticking around for that thing to go another round!" the fellow pegasus said, kneeling next to her and forcing her upward, her body unable to offer more than token assistance. "Get on!" Fluttershy did her best, but ultimately it was Rainbow Dash who arranged her on her back, getting her settled in as quickly as possible as the laelap found its feet.

"Next stop, the sky," Dash said, crouching, then leaping in a great rush of color. Fluttershy squeaked and closed her eyes; leaving aside her own fear of heights, trying to fly here was a dangerous proposition, the trees growing close together like a net. She felt the branches and leaves claw at her as they rose, slapping her wounds and bringing new levels of pain... but it only lasted a second, and then they were clear, the blessed light of the moon bathing her, the smell of the air fresh and clean.

"Hold on just a little longer, 'Shy," Dash said, leveling out, speeding toward Ponyville as quickly as she dared with a passenger. "I'll have you at Nurse Redheart's before you know it!"

Which was true, though not in the way Rainbow Dash had meant it. Fluttershy passed out before they even reached Ponyville.

Consciousness returned slowly, soothingly. She blinked awake, looking around, and found herself resting in one of the nurse's beds, the open-air building well lit by the noon sun. Cautiously, she shifted her body, discovering that her wounds had been carefully bandaged; thankfully, they didn't hurt nearly as much as she'd expected them to.

"You're awake!" cried a familiar voice. "Hey, everypony! Fluttershy's awake!"

"Shhh!" another voice said, and Fluttershy turned to see Pinkie Pie shushing Applejack. "Can't you see she's trying to rest?" That was sweet of her, Fluttershy thought. It would have been sweeter if her voice hadn't been louder than the farm pony's, though.

"Oh, Fluttershy," Applejack said, as Twilight Sparkle and Nurse Redheart made their way over to her bed. "You sure had us worried. Rainbow Dash was up all night makin' sure you were okay."

"Are you feeling all right?" Twilight wondered. "Dash said you were attacked by a monster, but I couldn't find what she described in any of my books."

"Yes, I'm fine," Fluttershy replied timidly. "It was... a laelap. But it was... bigger. And meaner. And..." She shivered at the memory, and Applejack moved to place a hoof on her forehead.

"Well, don't you worry none," she said. "That varmint's back in the Everfree, and you're home where you belong."

Home. "Oh no!" Fluttershy squeaked, sitting bolt upright despite the pain. "Angel bunny! He's sick with greenlung! That's why I went into the forest in the first place! I have to take him his medicine!" She tried to get out of bed, but Nurse Redheart interposed a hoof.

"You're not going anywhere until I take a look at your injuries, young filly," she said, her voice stern but caring, and the butter-yellow pegasus sank back. "This is going to sting a bit, but I'll be as gentle as I can." Fluttershy sat quietly, if anxiously, as the nurse carefully peeled away the largest of the bandages, exposing the wound beneath.

Fluttershy found her attention drawn to the others; Applejack looked relieved, Pinkie Pie looked curious, and Twilight looked... puzzled. So did Nurse Redheart, for just a moment, before smiling. "Well! I have to say, you're healing quite nicely," she said, and Fluttershy looked down as the nurse began removing the other bandages.

She was healing quite nicely. Surprisingly so, in fact. She'd expected large, angry-looking gouges, but instead it looked like she'd had days of recovery overnight, cuts well scabbed over, nicks gone altogether. In fact, only half of the bandages Redheart took off needed to be replaced at all. "I don't know how you've managed to recover so well!" the nurse said, looking mystified, but grateful.

Fluttershy wasn't sure what to say, so she just smiled hesitantly. "Does that mean I can go take care of Angel?" she wondered.

"I think that'll be all right," Nurse Redheart said. "Just be sure to take it easy for the next few days, change your bandages regularly, and let me know if anything starts feeling wrong." Fluttershy nodded, the gesture short but firm, and eased herself out of bed, smiling again as she settled on her hooves.

"Thank you all so much for taking care of me," she said to the assembled ponies. "And tell Rainbow Dash to come see me so I can thank her too. But I really must be getting home. Oh, I hope he's all right!" With that, she hurried from the building, steps a bit stiff at first, but swiftly gaining strength as she headed toward the road leading to her little cottage.

Twilight Sparkle watched her go, tuning out Pinkie's excited babbling about turning a 'get better Fluttershy' party into a 'got better Fluttershy' party. Nurse Redheart was right; the injuries Rainbow Dash had described to her should have taken much longer to heal.

"Something's not right," she said to herself, before turning and heading for home.

Fluttershy had never been so glad to be home before.

Greenlung wasn't a common ailment, thankfully, and neither was it fatal, but the thick green phlegm for which the disease was named wasn't pleasant, and Angel's little lungs seemed to have an endless supply. There wasn't a lot, besides rest and fluids, that Fluttershy could do for him, but moonflower tea would both soothe a throat sore from coughing and make the liquid thinner and easier to clear. He'd fussed and squirmed when she tried to give it to him—probably upset about making her worry, the poor thing—but eventually he'd drank it, and she'd been able to relax, drink some of her own tea, and putter about the house for a bit.

She really was feeling much better now. The wounds had been incredibly itchy, but she'd dutifully resisted the urge to scratch—much—and the itching had finally subsided. Her aches and pains seemed to have faded away too, and if it weren't for the bandages still on her sides and belly, she'd wonder if she'd somehow dreamt the whole thing.

She kept thinking back to the attack, but not how she'd expected to. Oh, at first she'd felt what she'd expected—the fear, the trembling, the sight of it lurking in her eyelids, waiting for it to blink—but mostly she felt annoyed. Annoyed at herself for not being strong enough to stand up to the laelap, for needing to be rescued. Again. It wasn't a very nice thing to feel, but she couldn't seem to chase the feeling away. She hoped she'd feel better soon.

The light outside was changing, she noticed; it was almost time to take Angel some more tea. Thinking of this reminded her that it was time to change her bandages as well, so she sat down on the couch and gingerly peeled away the largest of the bandages, bracing herself for the sight ahead.

She blinked.

Reaching down with a hoof, she gently brushed at where the claw marks had been, and now only a crumbly sort of scab was visible. The crumbles stuck to tiny hairs, but a moment's patience removed them, revealing unmarked skin beneath. There wasn't even a scar.

Trying to make sense of this, she almost missed the knock on the door, despite it being delivered in a sharp, staccato beat. She couldn't have missed the followup, however. "Hey, Fluttershy, lemme in! It's gonna get dark out here in a second!"

Rolling to her hooves, she made her way to the door, opening it to see Rainbow Dash standing in the light of the setting sun. "Oh, hello, Rainbow Dash," she said softly. "Won't you come in?" Dash walked in, plonked herself on the couch, and grinned as Fluttershy closed the door and made her own way back to the couch. It struck Fluttershy as a teensy bit rude, and for once it wasn't as easy to dismiss the thought.

"I heard you wanted to have a word with the Dash," her guest said as she sat down. "Gonna thank me for saving your life, huh? It's no prob. I'm just sorry you got hurt in the first place. Course, it wouldn't have happened if that thing hadn't got the jump on me." Rainbow Dash frowned at the memory, while Fluttershy frowned as well, for a different reason. Had Dash really come out here just to stroke her own ego?

"I mean, you saw it!" Dash continued, oblivious to Fluttershy's growing irritation. "That thing was huge! Well, okay, not huge huge, but it was strong. And sneaky! If you hadn't screamed, I might not have found you in time. It's too bad, too. I was looking forward to going another round with that thing! I'd have been, whoosh!" She moved her forehooves as if navigating treacherous obstacles. "Where am I? I'm in the trees! I'm over here! Whoop, I'm over there! And then bam!" She swung one hoof up in a punch. "Right in the jaw! And it'd be all 'rar', and I'd be all, too slow!" Another punch. "Bam! Down you go! Oh, you wanna get up? Well, too bad, 'cause this is 'Rainbow Dash Says', and Rainbow Dash says—"

"Will you please shut up!?"

Rainbow Dash fell silent, staring at Fluttershy in shock. The pony was... seething. The last time she'd seen Fluttershy seethe was when she lost it at the Gala, and that had been a bad night for everypony involved. And there was something else, something she thought she'd never experience.

Fluttershy was... scaring her.

"Fluttershy... are you okay?"

"Of course I'm okay," Fluttershy replied, staring at Rainbow Dash, who couldn't help but wonder if this was the Stare. "I've never felt better. Oh wait. I did feel better that one time. When was it? Oh yes, it was before a certain annoying pony came over to brag about how strong and brave she is, and isn't it a good thing she was there to rescue poor helpless Fluttershy?"

"Shy, you're kinda creeping me out here." It was an understatement. Rainbow Dash's skin was crawling. Fluttershy was acting like she was under Discord's spell again, only then she'd just been an obnoxious jerk. Now Dash felt like Fluttershy might actually hurt her.

"Well, too bad!" Fluttershy barked, and Rainbow Dash jerked back. "Because I'm tired of everypony treating me like I'm some delicate little flower. Oh, look at poor Fluttershy, afraid of her own shadow! Isn't it sad, a pegasus that can't even fly? You don't even laugh. I'm too pathetic to laugh at. Up in your big dumb cloud house, thinking flying is so awesome, and too bad Fluttershy's such a weenie—"

"Fluttershy, that's not true!" Dash protested, jolted out of her trance of fear. "I would never think anything bad about you!" She paused, looking Fluttershy over with a more critical eye, noticing the tension in her body, the slight wobble in the focus of her eyes, the sweat on her brow. "Ohmigosh, you must be, like, hallucinating or something! You just stay right here, I'm gonna go get Nurse Redheart—"

"I don't need a doctor!" Fluttershy screamed. "I've never. Felt. Better!"

Dash's pupils shrank to pinpricks. Freaking out was one thing. Snarling at her... with visible canines... was another.

She scrambled off the couch and back towards the door, unable to take her eyes off Fluttershy as she changed. Her body was getting leaner, more muscular. Her mane and tail were going wild and ragged. Her hooves were larger, and their edges seemed to be sharpening by the second. Her teeth were terrifyingly pronounced, not just the canines but all of them, and the image of those teeth clamping onto flesh and never letting go sprung to mind unbidden.

Worst of all were the eyes. Fluttershy had wide, innocent eyes, the color reminding Dash of nothing more than shallow water at the world's best beach. Now they were a neon green, a color she'd seen just last night—

—in the beast that attacked them.

Fluttershy snarled and leapt.

Rainbow Dash screamed.

The trouble with working on a farm, Applejack groggily reflected, is that when you went to sleep, you needed that sleep. There was a lot of hard work on the farm, and she was only too happy to do it, but she couldn't just stay up on a whim to watch the stars or read a book or whatever other ponies got up to at night. She lay down, she went to sleep, and she woke up in the morning full of the energy she'd need for a new day.

At least, that was the plan.

The scream came again, and Applejack only then realized that was what had woken her the first time, a weird scream, first higher, then lower, then higher again. As she stumbled to the window, she reflected that it sounded an awful lot like—

"Applejaaaaaaaaaaack!" Rainbow Dash screamed, blurring past her window. She blinked.

"Rainbow Dash, what's the matter with you? Some of us are trying to—"

A pink and yellow blur nearly sucked her out the window.

"—sleep." Had that been Fluttershy? Chasing Rainbow Dash? And keeping up?

"Fluttershy's—gone—crazy!" Rainbow Dash yelled, circling the farmhouse, one word per revolution. "Monster—bit—teeth! Help!" Applejack boggled for a moment, then shook it off.

"I'll be there in a sec, sugarcube!" she yelled, hoping Dash heard her, then ran out of her bedroom to get what she'd need.

This was crazy, Rainbow Dash thought. This was impossible! Even if Fluttershy were so feverish that she'd forget her fears and attack her best friend, the sky was Dash's element! Nopony was faster than her, and even if Fluttershy somehow managed to push herself to match her, she'd never be able to hold the speed, not in this condition.

Risking a glance back, she realized Fluttershy wasn't holding the speed at all.

She was gaining.

"Applejack, now would be a good time!" she yelled.

"I'm ready!" came a welcome cry from the ground, as Applejack burst out of the farmhouse, lasso already spinning. Rainbow Dash gave the house a few more circles, dipping as close to the ground as she dared, counting off the spins as she passed.

"Three... two... one... now!" With that, she shot off in a straight line, nearly colliding with a fence before pulling up, letting gravity bleed off her velocity. If Applejack had screwed up, she'd know the instant Fluttershy rammed her from behind.

Nothing. She hung in the air, wings reflexively putting her into a hover, and looked down. Descending carefully, she saw that Applejack had successfully wrangled Fluttershy, hogtying the pegasus neat as a present. The earth pony looked shocked as she got a good look at Fluttershy for the first time, then looked up at Rainbow Dash.

"What happened to her face?"

"What happened to her everything?" Dash retorted. "She looks like that thing that got her in the forest!"

"It must be contagious," Applejack replied. "Go get Twilight. I'll keep an eye on her until you get back."

Rainbow Dash shot off a sloppy salute. "I'm on it!" she replied, darting off.

Applejack sat down slowly, gazing sadly at the snarling, rabid Fluttershy, still trying to break loose. Applejack had to double-rope everything to keep her from breaking free—her! Fluttershy! Wouldn't hurt a bug! But whatever had happened to her had made her strong, stronger than Applejack, and only her focus on Rainbow Dash had given the farmer the chance to bring her down. Taking a deep breath, feeling janky from the aftermath of it all, she spoke softly and sadly.

"What in tarnation happened to you?"

Fluttershy's second visit to Nurse Redheart's was less pleasant than her first. Groggily, she opened her eyes, staring uncomprehendingly at the horizon for a moment before trying to sit up—and finding herself practically hogtied to the bed, lying on her belly and barely able to move.

"Oh my!" she breathed. "Where am I? What's going on?"

"Wha—Fluttershy?" It was Rainbow Dash's voice, and she turned her head, with some difficulty, to see the pegasus pony push to her hooves, only to pause halfway and stare at her. "You're back to normal!"

"I am?" Fluttershy echoed, looking confused. Back to normal from what? But before she could muster the words, Rainbow Dash was hurrying to tell the others the news. Unable to turn her head far enough to see, Fluttershy sighed and returned it to a more or less comfortable position, albeit one that left her squinting in the morning sun.

"Fluttershy." She turned again, this time seeing Twilight Sparkle, a book held in her magical grip and looking serious. "What do you remember about last night?" Confused by the question, Fluttershy thought back.

"Well, Rainbow Dash and I were going into the forest for some moonflowers... no, that was the night before," she said, looking confused. "Um, I was at home, and I was going to get Angel his tea. Then Rainbow Dash came over..." And she was incredibly rude, couldn't she see how bad Fluttershy felt, why did she have to go on and on about—"...I don't remember," she finished weakly. "Did I pass out? I'm so sorry."

Twilight shook her head slowly, looking grim. "It's worse than that," she said. "You... you changed into some sort of... horse monster. You attacked Rainbow Dash!"

Fluttershy gasped. "Is she all right?"

"Yeah, like you could catch me," Dash declared with her familiar bravado as she returned. "You sure gave me a workout, though! Applejack wound up trussing you up like a turkey, and we brought you here."

"Oh my! I'm sorry to have been a bother."

"No sweat," Rainbow Dash replied. "And I mean that. You said some stuff before... y'know..." She fidgeted a bit. "And I just want you to know, I'm there for you. Just like you're there for me when I need it." She stared at Fluttershy with an odd intensity, and after a moment the yellow pegasus nodded.

"So... can you let me go?" she asked hopefully. Twilight looked pensive. "I mean, if... that's okay..."

"I don't think this was an isolated incident," Twilight said. "For your own safety, I think we should keep you restrained."

"C'mon, Twilight," Rainbow Dash said, surprising Fluttershy. "I mean, yeah, we don't want her biting anypony, but do we really need her to be tied up like this? Can't we just... lock her up or something?"

Twilight considered this, then nodded. "All right. Fluttershy, until we figure out what's going on, I'd like you to stay in my basement. I can rig up some space so you'll be comfortable without risking you hurting anypony."

"You wanna lock her up underground?" Rainbow Dash protested, flaring her wings in shock. "Are you trying to make her go crazy?"

"It's the safest place I know!" Twilight replied, looking briefly frustrated. "Besides, she's not as..." She searched for a diplomatic way to put it. "...into the air as you. Can you take care of Fluttershy's animals until we figure this out?"

Rainbow Dash hesitated, then nodded. "Don't worry about a thing, Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash is on the case!" Fluttershy wasn't so sure about the idea herself, but she had to admit, she didn't want to hurt Angel or any of the other animals that needed her care. Hesitantly, she offered a smile.

"Don't worry about a thing," Twilight said. "I'm sure I've read about your symptoms before. I'll have a cure figured out in no time!"

"This is gonna take forever," Twilight groaned, head sinking into her book.

Setting up somewhere to keep Fluttershy had been the easy part. She'd just had to clear out some of the junk she'd used in her ill-fated Pinkie Pie perusal, get some books and bedding set up, and make sure to lock the door. Fluttershy had been quietly accepting of her fate, settling in without complaint to read, eat the meals Spike brought her, and wait patiently while Twilight searched through her books or tried one of a dozen possible cures.

Unfortunately, the reference Twilight half-remembered was proving elusive. She'd found any number of references to some of the symptoms, but not the entire package. Worse, some of the diseases that sounded something like what Fluttershy had were incurable once they'd progressed this far, something that made a heavy weight settle in her stomach. And none of them mentioned the patient returning to normal, which Fluttershy had... at least for the day.

As the evening grew near, though, Fluttershy had begun showing warning signs: increased irritability, restless energy, tensing and flexing her wings. She'd knocked her dinner out of Spike's hands and started eating it right off the floor, which Spike had considered reason enough to run upstairs and Twilight enough reason to lock the door. Then had come pleading to be let go, and then threats, and then violence—directed first at the door, then, when it refused to give, at anything she could get her hooves on. Twilight had already moved anything fragile or dangerous out of the basement, but she still cringed at the crashing and banging, and it didn't exactly help her study.

"Any luck?"

Sighing, Twilight turned to Spike. "Not really. I don't understand it! I've tried everything short of a stake to the heart, and nothing's worked! It's not a spell, it's not a disease... I don't know what it is!"

"Maybe you just need to take a break," Spike suggested. "You missed lunch and dinner." He looked accusingly at her, and she sighed softly, remembering the pride he took in his cooking.

"Maybe you're right," she said. "I just can't help but feel like I'm missing something important." She got up from the stack of books she'd been going through and started to follow Spike to the kitchen.

Then she stopped. "Do you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Spike asked, pausing and twitching his fins.

"Exactly," Twilight said, dashing over to the door to the basement. "Lock the front door. Be ready for anything." Carefully, trying to make as little sound as possible, Twilight opened the door, stepped inside... and gasped.

"She's gone!"

The flaw in Twilight's plan lay before the assembled ponies, a great earthen tunnel, large enough for a pony to work her way out through and leading right down to her basement. Piles of dirt were scattered all around, and hoofprints led only a short distance from the hole before vanishing into the grass.

"How could I have been so careless?" Twilight lamented. "I should have used chains! Or bars! Or chains and bars! Now she's loose, and it's all my fault!"

"At least she didn't stick around and get all bitey," Pinkie Pie consoled, or tried to. "Oooh, but what if she did? What if she bit me? Would we be fighty, or would it be like zombies? Zombies don't bite other zombies, right? She could bite every pony, and then we could have a meanie pony party! Oh wait, that's bad."

"I wouldn't blame yourself, dear," Rarity said. She'd been looking around the scene of the crime, so to speak, and now approached Twilight with a frown on her delicate features.

"Well, I can't blame Fluttershy!" Twilight protested. "She's sick, or possessed, or something! Why else would she dig her way out?"

"She didn't," Rarity said, and pointed with a hoof. Twilight looked blankly at the mound of dirt Rarity was pointing at... then started in shock.

"Somepony dug in!" She turned to the hoofprints, looking at them with a fresh eye, no longer distracted by shame. "Too many tracks... more than one pony. They took her... but how? And where?"

"I dunno about the how," Applejack said, having been doing some investigating of her own, "but I reckon I can find the where. They're good at hiding their trail, but not that good, and Fluttershy's hardly trying. Just lemme grab Winona and we'll have 'em tracked in two shakes."

Twilight nodded. "You do that. Rainbow Dash, you see if you can spot them from the air." The pegasus nodded and took off. "Rarity, Pinkie Pie, you get what you need to go after them." She glanced up at the cloudless sky. "At least the moon's full tonight. We shouldn't have any trouble..."

Spike blinked, looking over at Twilight, as she stopped talking and stared into space. The other ponies followed Spike's lead.

"...the moon! Of course! But I thought that was wiped out centuries ago!" Her eyes darted back and forth in a way he'd seen before, as if she were reading her own thoughts as they sped past her brain. "If it's true, that means..." She fell silent again, but just as Pinkie Pie, peering puzzledly at the purple pony, opened her mouth, Twilight spoke four familiar words—though they were words they weren't expecting to hear.

"Spike! Take a letter."

She ran.

There was no anger, no fear, no thought. Just the light of the moon, the soft grass underfoot, the warmth of the herd all around her.

There had been fear before, and anger, in the dark place, underground. Her herd had betrayed her, isolated her, punished her. She had struck out again and again, striving for freedom, achieving only destruction. Then she heard the sound... hooves scraping at dirt, stones flying, roots snapping. Fear had gripped her, leaving her helpless as she watched the unfamiliar ponies tear through the wall, like her yet not like her.

She had tried to fight, tried to break through and escape, but the leader had stopped her. They had fought, but only briefly, his strength and skill so much greater than her own that he was able to defeat her without so much as a mark on her skin. She understood, and knelt, and he accepted her submission, made her part of the herd.

Now she ran. She didn't know where they were running to. She didn't need to know. He knew, and she would follow him. He would keep her safe and protect her. Everything would be all right.

Suddenly, a shot of color pierced the darkened sky. It flew overhead, the wind whipping manes and rustling grass, leaving the herd confused and uncertain. He calmed them with a dozen tiny gestures, ordered them to protect her with the slightest of sounds, and when the light came again, they stood their ground, lashing out with hooves and teeth, denying the predator its prize.

It screamed at them, its voice setting her ears back despite his presence. She knew it, she suddenly realized. It had been there, in the pain and darkness. Protecting her. It... she... was part of the old herd, the one who saved her, the one who wanted her to be free. For a moment, she yearned to join her, spread her wings the tiniest fraction... but she had a new herd now. She couldn't leave, not while they were fighting to protect her.

The brave pony screamed again.

"Twilight! I found them!"

Fluttershy had covered a surprising amount of ground, especially considering she'd been running, not flying. Twilight was gasping for breath by the time they reached Rainbow Dash, and Rarity looked ready to pass out. Applejack was fresher, despite the late hour, but even she was showing the strain. Only Pinkie Pie looked unaffected, and Twilight suspected she'd continue to look unaffected right until she keeled over and fell asleep on the spot.

There were six of them, she realized, including Fluttershy, all the rest of them earth ponies... or at least, earth ponies at the core. They were changed as well, but a different sort of change, one that made them heavier, more solid, shifting like stone. Even the smallest of them looked like Big Mac, and the leader was frighteningly large.

His teeth were even more formidable than Fluttershy's, looking like they could bite through wood, through stone, and each hoof looked heavy enough to crush gravel, with an edge she'd be hard-pressed to give a knife. There was cruelty in his every line, a power that waited only for the chance to hurt and kill. The only thing that didn't look dangerous was his cutie mark, three blue horseshoes... and with a shock, she realized she'd seen it before.

It was Applejack who spoke. "Caramel?"

Then Twilight got another shock.

"No. But I know him." The voice was rough, deep and dark, but clear nonetheless, and his green eyes had the spark of intelligence.

"You can talk!" Twilight blurted, then cringed. "Way to go, Twilight," she added under her breath, but not quietly enough to avoid the stallion's notice, and he smirked.

"Yes. I can talk," he replied. "I have learned the ways of the Curse of the Night, as have all of my herd." The other ponies were watching her now, eyes sharp and savage, but aware. Only Fluttershy continued to look like a wild animal, held in place by something Twilight didn't understand.

"I don't care if you've mastered synchronized spitting!" Rainbow Dash demanded. "You give Fluttershy back!" The wild stallion glanced up at the pegasus, then snorted dismissively, returning his attention to Twilight.

"The Curse of the Night is dangerous," he said. "It drives us to hunt, to kill, to feed. You cannot fight it, not if you want to survive. It cannot be mastered by force. But it can be tamed."

"Hey, I'm talking to you!" Dash protested, looking ready to dart in and clip the stallion's nose, but Twilight looked up and glared.

"Not now, Rainbow Dash!" She returned her attention to the stallion, who seemed amused again.

"You understand the role of a leader," he said. "Good. Then understand this. No harm will come to her. I have taught others the ways of the Curse of the Night. I will teach her how to let the beast run free and how to call it back. She will learn to accept its strength without losing her will. She will have a new home, a new family, one she need not fear harming should she lose herself."

"She already has a family!" Applejack protested. "And I don't care what kind of mumbo jumbo you've got going on in her head, she's still our Fluttershy!"

The stallion's lip curled nastily. "You would do well to remember your place."

"She knows her place," Twilight spoke, surprising even herself. "It's by the side of her friends. All of her friends." She met the stallion's gaze, felt the strength of everypony supporting her: Rainbow Dash's ferocity, Applejack's determination, Rarity's will, Pinkie Pie's joy. She could feel the gap where Fluttershy's reassuring gentleness should be, feel it reaching out and calling to the pegasus.

Fluttershy's wings trembled.

"So be it," the stallion replied. "If you think yourself a better leader than me..." He took a step forward, then another, with the inevitability of continental drift. "...then you can prove it."

Rainbow Dash frowned. What did he think he was trying to pull? She'd pulled some pretty boneheaded stunts in her time—and if she was brutally honest, 'her time' hadn't exactly come to an end—but challenging Twilight Sparkle to some sort of... of macho-off? Like they could solve the whole problem by smacking their heads together? No way. There was no way the smartest pony she knew was going to get involved in something as idiotic as oh gosh Twilight was stepping forward.

"Twilight, no!" she yelled, and the unicorn turned to her.

"I have to, Dash. They're bigger and stronger than us, and somepony could get seriously hurt if we fought."

"Somepony is gonna get seriously hurt!" Dash protested. "You don't know the first thing about fighting! Let me do it! I'll smack him silly!"

"It has to be me," Twilight replied, her voice calm but firm.


"Rainbow Dash, promise me that you won't interfere. This has to be between him and me." Her gaze was unfaltering, her voice steady. In the face of that expression, what could the pegasus say?

"You'd better be right," she replied, hovering over to the other ponies, then landing and slouching sullenly. Applejack reached over with a hoof, touching her reassuringly. Rarity looked like she was choking on something, and Pinkie Pie's eyes were wide as saucers.

"I am," Twilight said, turning to face her opponent... then quailing as the sheer magnitude of her task sank in. "...I hope."

The stallion stood still, waiting for her to make the first move. For a moment, she wasn't even sure what to do; how could she fight somepony that big and strong? She'd only read about fighting in books! How was she supposed to—

A stray thought occurred to her. He hadn't said she had to beat him with her hooves, now had he? She crouched, focusing her will, and her horn flared violet.

"What are you—" the stallion began, then started as a matching glow surrounded his body, lifting off the ground. "What is this?"

"It's called magic," Twilight replied, the effort of levitating him leaving her feeling a touch snarky. "You may have heard of it."

"A trick," the stallion replied. "I know how to deal with tricks." He lashed out with one hoof—and incredibly, impossibly, cut the magic with that sharpened edge. Caught in the backlash of her own spell breaking, she could only stare in shock as he hopped to the ground, wisps of magic fading around him.

"My turn," he said, and charged her, incredibly fast, faster than a pony his size should be. Still off-balance, she was thrown backwards, landing on her back and sliding several feet before coming to a stop. Worse still, he was on top of her now, one hoof pressed against her chest, driving her into the earth.

"Twilight!" Applejack screamed, the ponies looking horrified. Twilight struggled to push that hoof off of her, but it might as well have been made of stone.

"It needn't end this way," the stallion rumbled, practically in her ear. "Your loyalty is admirable. Submit. The Curse of the Night can be shared. Join the herd, and you can be with your friend once more."

Twilight gritted her teeth, staring defiantly up at the stallion. "I won't... submit... to you!" she replied, her horn glowing again... then vanished. He stumbled, hoof sinking into the ground where she had been, and she appeared a short distance away, bruised but intact.

"Woo hoo!" Pinkie Pie yelled, having gotten a banner with Twilight's face on it from... somewhere. "Way to go, Sparkle!"

"You're only delaying the end!" the stallion roared, charging Twilight even as she rolled to her hooves. She stood her ground until the last possible second, horn lowered as if to gouge his chest—then leapt sideways, rolling once and finding her hooves again. The stallion was quicker than he should be, but not quite quick enough to match her move.

Twilight watched him set up for another charge, bracing herself to dodge again. She'd have to wear him out somehow, keep him making those wild charges until he couldn't move fast enough to keep her from hitting him back. She didn't want to hurt him, but if that was the only thing he'd understand—

He rushed her again, and she rolled—realizing too late that it was a feint. He drew himself up short as she moved to the side, then rolled to his side, crushing her again under his sheer bulk. Thankfully he didn't stay there, completing the roll and getting to his hooves, but the cold ground had offered little cushioning, and she staggered upright only with difficulty.

"You big jerk!" Rainbow Dash yelled. "How about you pick on someone your own size?"

"Not very likely," Twilight mumbled, trying to focus. The stallion was coming at her again, slower, but not nearly slowly enough for her liking. She needed something, anything to throw at him.

Then she looked down.

Her horn flaring again was the only warning the stallion got before the ground in front of him flung itself into his eyes, leaving him to stagger back with a roar of anger. She ran at him, horn lowered and still glowing, only to disappear just before she reached him—reappearing above him, facing down. The assembled ponies gaped as she crashed into his back like a violet missile, driving him to his knees and bouncing off like a rubber ball.

"Well done, Twilight!" Rarity enthused. The barrier spell Twilight had used was meant to protect a pony, but the unicorn had flawlessly and elegantly combined it with an improvised alteration of her own teleport spell in a way her own humble skills could not begin to match.

Twilight was feeling a little giddy after the success of her gambit, beginning to think she might win this after all. She doubted the stallion would fall for the same trick twice, though; she needed something else. Concentrating, she poured her magic into the ground beneath him, and was gratified to hear him bellow in protest as he sank up to his ankles in dirt before it froze solid. "Stay down!" she said, electing to charge him with the barrier in front of her, then leap and hit him in the head.

Then, before her disbelieving eyes, he tore free, bringing his hooves up just as she was about to hit him, blocking her leap... and carrying her to the ground. The barrier absorbed most of the impact, but was unable to take the full force, popping like a soap bubble and leaving her pinned beneath him. Panicking, barely able to breathe, she tried to teleport out again, but lost her focus when sharp teeth cradled her neck.

As the ponies looked on, four of them in shock, four of them in silent approval, and one of them torn between loyalties old and new, the stallion spoke. "Submit."

Twilight struggled, but it was useless; if she even started casting a spell, he could tear out her throat, and she was just no match for him physically. She knew what was coming, and she squeezed her eyes shut... but nonetheless she opened her mouth to say


Twilight blinked. That hadn't been her voice.

There was a sudden rush of motion, and the pressure was taken off her body. Confused, she looked up to see the stallion staring in shock, not at her, but at—Princess Luna?

The alicorn looked different than Twilight had seen her look before, not the dark reflection of Princess Celestia that was Nightmare Moon, nor the smaller form, timid as a foal, that she had taken after being purged by the Elements of Harmony. She was tall and slender and beautiful, yet strong and sure and terrible, standing under the light of the full moon and glowing with her birthright.

Twilight's friends looked on in amazement, even Pinkie Pie's face curved in an 'ooh', but the effect on the stallion and his herd was even more dramatic. They were cringing as if the moonlight burned them, staring at the princess with expressions mixing fear and desire, unable to move a step.

"You will not kill in my name." With that, the glow surrounding Princess Luna rose to an almost painful intensity, and with it, the light of the moon above turned night into day. Twilight's eyes were watering, but the effect on her was nothing compared to that on the cursed stallions, who screamed and writhed in the light—no, they remained still, but their shadows writhed and hissed and fought until they could withstand it no longer, tearing free. They were drawn to Luna like moths to a flame (or like moths to the moon, some analytical part of Twilight's mind reminded her), pulled into that light and destroyed utterly.

After a long moment, the light faded, first to a glow, then to a glimmer. As Twilight's eyes strained to adjust, she could see the silhouette of Luna shrink and fade, becoming once more the smaller of the two princesses. The light hadn't completely gone away, however, for next to Luna stood—

"Princess Celestia!" Forgetting her own pain and injuries, Twilight struggled to her hooves and hurried forward, her friends following her example. Celestia smiled gently, turning her eyes to Twilight, her voice soothing and warm.

"My faithful student. Did you think I wouldn't come?"

"I—" Twilight began, then realized she didn't know where she was going from there. "What did you—what did she—what happened?"

"The Curse of the Night is a terrible thing," Celestia replied, her expression turning somber. "The strength and speed it grants is only good for bringing violence and pain. That these ponies have lived with it and done so little harm is to be commended." Twilight noticed the ponies approaching, heads downcast, bodies humble. "But I had thought I had seen the last of its victims so long ago."

"We went into hiding," the stallion said, and Twilight realized that he had changed, if subtly. He was still bigger than any stallion she had ever seen, all the strength of the earth in each step, but no longer was it a cruel strength. His hooves and teeth had lost their deformities, and his eyes had changed from a dangerous green to a warm silver.

"Those of us who could control it," he continued, and the four ponies with him completed the circle that Twilight and her friends had unconsciously formed. "We learned how to keep from hurting the ones we cared about... how to hold the beast in and when to let it run. We put our ears in every village, listening for the signs that another had fallen victim to the curse. Forgive me," he said, turning to Twilight. "When you did not back down, I... let the beast take me. I am glad I did not hurt you."

"Um," a small voice asked, and Twilight turned to Fluttershy—and gasped. Before, she had been a swift and dangerous predator, held in check only by the charisma of the cursed herd's leader. Now, her body was light but not delicate, an energy almost like dance suffusing her steps. Her mane and tail were still wild, but it was the joyous energy of Rainbow Dash's mane, not some snarled and ragged thing. (Rainbow Dash found herself wondering if she could make the long-haired look work.) Even her eyes had changed, returned to innocence and wonder... but silver, not turquoise.

For a moment, Twilight felt the urge to look for a horn on Fluttershy's brow.

"If you don't mind me asking," Fluttershy wondered, pushing through the circle to stand in its center, "how come we still look like... this?" She dipped her head slightly, indicating the changes still present in her and in the other ponies.

The answer came not from Princess Celestia but from her sister. "The Curse of the Night had another name, long ago," Princess Luna spoke, looking slowly around the circle. "When Equestria was still wild and free, before you little ponies claimed it for your own. Before my madness." She inclined her head, but only briefly, lifting it again to look each pony in the eye before speaking.

"It was called the Blessing of the Moon."

Fluttershy sighed softly, sipping her tea, wriggling a little as she sunk into the warmth of her couch. It had been a hectic week, but at last it was done and behind her. The strange ponies who had come to 'rescue' her that night had helped to repair the damage done to Twilight Sparkle's tree, then left the way they came, speaking hopefully of reuniting with former friends and family. One had stayed, a face she'd seen around town before but never spoken to, keeping their network alive.

Princess Luna was using that network to find the other cursed ponies, freeing them of the burden of Nightmare Moon's taint on her power. In time, she had said, she hoped there would never be another to face that burden. Princess Celestia had personally gone to the Everfree, using her light to purge the darkness; the animals living there had no need of Luna's blessing and would be happiest returning to their own kind.

Pinkie Pie had thrown a party, of course. Fluttershy had enjoyed herself immensely, especially when she was able to get through the whole thing without having a panic attack or finding somewhere to hide. She didn't think she'd ever be as outgoing as that party pony, but she'd found a new, quiet strength to help her carry on.

The others had each dealt with what had happened in their own ways. Twilight had insisted on closely examining her, taking copious notes and comparing them to ancient texts on loan from the Canterlot library. Rarity had hinted at elegant, tasteful evening wear, and though Fluttershy had ultimately declined, she did let the unicorn take her measurements... just in case. Applejack had brought her enough apple-based treats to keep her well-fed while Angel recovered from greenlung, saving her trips into town. As for Rainbow Dash, she'd apparently been working on some special, night-time acrobatics routines, and Fluttershy was expecting the cajoling to join her in the sky sooner rather than later.

She glanced up from the couch, feeling a restless tingling in her body, and stood. It was a shame that Princess Luna seemed to feel there wasn't a place in Equestria for the Blessing of the Moon. It was a sorrow she carried, not the shame of madness past but the vague yearning of the explorer reaching the end of the world, a regret at savage beauty having been replaced with well-tended peace. Fluttershy wasn't sure what could be done for the princess, or even if there was anything to do, but she'd resolved to find a way to help.

But that could wait. For now, Fluttershy ventured to the door on legs that seemed less willing to touch the ground with each step, pausing just before venturing outside to turn to Angel.

"Now, you be good while I'm out, okay, Angel?" she said. The rabbit nodded, then gave her a thumbs-up, watching from the window as she ventured onto the cobbles in front of her cottage. She took a moment to admire it as day gave way to night, especially the newest addition: a wide stretch of land which she'd planted with every grass and bush and moss she could find in the Everfree. She didn't know what would live and what would die; ultimately that would be up to it, to thrive or wither, as she simply watched and waited.

Just as it used to happen, so long ago.

She felt the ache in her bones and knew it was time. Her body grew taller and slenderer. Her mane and tail sprung free from their neat and tidy combing. Her wings stretched, flapping once in anticipation. She looked up at the moon, and her eyes caught and held its light.

Then, with a delicate spring, she let her thoughts fade...

...and flew.