• Published 9th Mar 2014
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The Changeling of the Guard - vdrake77

Not all changelings are fit for life in a hive. But that doesn't mean they're capable of life outside it, either. Join one such changeling as he tries to find his place in Equestria, and what the difference is between survival and living.

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A Fibrous Diet

Author's Note:

WARNING: Things are going to get a little dark in this chapter.

Comment if you got'em!

Waking up in Everfree does make one thankful to be alive, I must admit; some part of me had been certain I would not be waking.. That Shining’s shield still cast a lavender glow over the room was a welcome reassurance, but also a reminder that we were still contained within this very strange forest. Most of the others were already making their morning ablutions to some extent or another, and I hastened to join them. Shining shifted restlessly, but did not rise. My sense of him was muddled through the haze of his magic, and it occurred to me that he could probably lower his defenses now that the sun had returned to the sky. Shaking him brought him out of the apparent trance he’d put himself into, and he groaned miserably and slurred something incoherent but not apparently thankful.

“Rise and shine, soldier. Good idea with the shield, but we need you on your hooves.”

“Sir…. yes shir… sergeant…” The unicorn’s bloodshot eyes flicked open, one after another, as if they had been sealed shut and prying them open was too monumental a task to do all at once. Even Bold winced and shook his head, looking disturbed.

“You look like death warmed over. I thought magic was free or something.”

“No, that’s… it’s a mental discipline. Like walking, for your mind.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Are you alright?”

Here Dank interjected. “He’s burnt. He’s been using magic all night. In his sleep, no less. Point is, almost everypony can walk here and there without getting tired, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require training. Most unicorns just use magic so often that it seems free. Even cheap magic gets tiring after a while.”

The sergeant nodded. “Probably one of the best explanations for it I’ve gotten from a fellow earth pony.”

“Meadows has a few that weaken him so... she had to walk me through that. Can’t overexert too much or magic goes on the fritz. Pretty straightforward.”

“Roger. Shields, drop it.” And with a look of absolute relief, Shining did.

The stench of feral cat and blood overcame us only seconds later. My own panic was thankfully hidden by the panic of… well, just about everyone.

Shining, already shaken and not entirely well, made a gagging sound that was duplicated almost immediately by Bold, which seemed to spur Shining on and so forth. When the mare made something akin to the noise, the sergeant scowled at all of us but was cut off by Dank.

“Oh for Celestia’s sakes, are you all that green? It’s just a little blood, you get used to it-” He threw open the door… and a large portion of a manticore rolled in, having been huddled against the door. The source of the stench of fresh death, now no longer blocked by walls or shield, permeated the building and filled it with the spoor of the big beast. Shining’s shield, apparently enough to prevent us from hearing the commotion outside and the beast from entering… had also made us blissfully unaware of the potential danger and left us blind to whatever had slain the monster. In the meantime, Dank’s own scream at what he originally mistook as an attack likely frightened off anything within a few hundred yards.

We could easily identify that the cause of death was ‘loss of upper body’, as we had only the rear of the beast to study.

“Dear Harmony, it stinks!” Bold groaned, looping a rope around it as he attempted to haul it back out of the shack. “What the hay happened to it, do you think? Where’s the rest of it?”

Dank took one loop of the rope in his mouth and helped get it back into the clearing “‘orest ‘appened. ‘omethin’ ate it.”

“Woods, that much is obvious.”

The dazed pony dropped his rope and shook his head. “No, I mean, look at it. Top half is gone. Ain’t here no more. So, the rest of it, the meaty top half? It’s gone. Meaning something big took it, and look here.” He worked at something in the tear, and a large hunk of something fell free, roughly as long as my foreleg. “That. Is a tooth. You start learning to recognize teeth here. Pretty much everything has teeth. The flowers here have teeth.” He started to tear up. “And Meadows is still out there… Celestia, I’m sorry buddy, I shouldn’t-” And then the wave of misery from the stallion nearly took me from my hooves as he began to collapse.

The mare rushed to his side and checked him over swiftly. “Shock, sir. Think the first time he’s felt safe since whatever happened was with that bubble. I… I don’t think there’s anything we can really do for him here. We need to get him out of here-”

He surged back up, though I wonder if the others knew what it had cost him. There was a glimmer of something in the stallion, a loyalty that was to his credit. He had lost his partner, knew on some level that it was a lost cause… and had not abandoned his post or his friend, to the detriment of his own health and possibly sanity. “Not leaving Merry! My best friend, and he’s not… not himself…” His strength left him, and he fell, barely conscious. The start from discovering the beast, the poor diet, and his recollection of his friend’s situation had been too taxing.

We arranged him back in the shack, and while searching for anything to make him more comfortable, stumbled on a spare suit of armor… and a pouch stuffed with blue flowers. Bold went to move them, only to have the sergeant squawk and slap his hoof away.

“Bigflank, what did I say about blue? Don’t touch that.” He snarled, giving Dank a sharp shove. “Tartarus is this, soldier?!”

“That… that’s Merry’s, sir.”

“I don’t care who it belongs to, you have poison joke, a full spare suit of armor-”

“Sir, some of this armor is for a mare.”

“Who the buck collects poison joke!? Soldier, I want a full report, now-”

“I… oh Harmony, sir, I…” He deflated, looking devastated. “It… it made him happy, sir. It was an accident, at first. He fell in a patch while going for supplies, and… the forest played a trick on him. You know how the others treated Merry. What it sounds like. And… you know...”

“Yes, soldier, I know, but rumors are just-”

“They weren’t rumors, sir. Well. They were, but... look. Merry hated it. And I always thought he just didn’t like being called a mare, but… when he fell into that poison joke… it made him one! Not just looked like one, he was one, he felt like it, smelled like it, and he was… she was happy, sir. We couldn’t just leave…! You guys understand, mare or stallion, Merry is my best friend, and… here it didn’t matter so much. I mean, she was happy, and proud, and she liked herself, sir. And his-her parents, they couldn’t have said anything, bunch of stuck up unicorn prudes, but who can call you a colt-cuddler if you’re a mare!?”

The sergeant stared at him in utter disbelief. “...Recruits. Out. I need to get the rest of this from Dank in private. Anything you heard here never leaves this forest, understood?”

Outside, staring at the remains of the beast before us, the others seemed to treat this new information as some sort of revelation. I, on the other hand, didn’t quite see what had been revealed. Or why it was worth noting at all, for that matter. It was, I decided, A Pony Thing.

“So… those flowers turned Merry Meadows into… what, Mare-y Meadows?”

Shining grunted. “That… that seems to have been the ‘joke’, yeah.”

Bold scuffed his hoof in the dirt firmly, as if trying to clean something off of it. “So why keep the junk? Wispy?”

“Because, you big idiot, those two were best friends.”

“Yeah, so?”

She closed her eyes, hung her head, and muttered with a groan. “Stallions.” She then gave him a piercing glare that I was quite glad not to be on the receiving end of. “Look, go move something heavy for a while, you’ll feel better. Armor, why don’t you help him?” The two looked at each other in confusion, then shrugged, taking it upon themselves to begin hauling the carcass away. I cursed my luck; there was still a bit of eating there. I’d find it later. “Come on, Hooves, let’s do a once-over. Place gives me the heebiejeebies.”

“The whats?” I pondered, and she blushed instead of responding, radiating embarrassment.

“Yeah yeah, laugh it up. Everything about this place feels off. I mean, look! There are two cumulonimbus clouds going in opposite directions, and then spiraling. It’s like there are two tornadoes that keep each other in check, but they’d have to be large and I don’t see anything else that would suggest any of that. Flying around this place would be a nightmare.”

“I shall endeavor to keep my hooves firmly on the ground.”

She gave me a pitying look, mixed with a bit of hurt. “Hey, I’m only trying to help distract you. I heard the marefriend thing. I’m sorry about that.”

“You’re… sorry?”

She kicked a small rock over an embankment. The pebble hit the water and skipped twice before plunking in. She gave it a puzzled look, then sidled away from the edge, continuing to walk away from the camp. “Yyyyeah. I mean, you’re always following him around. Pretty obvious, really. Kind of a jerk thing for him to just throw it in your face like that.” A heavy sigh escaped her. “And here I thought all the pretty ones were… well, like you. Turns out that one’s just taken.”

“Like me?” I was a little startled. My form had never been called ‘pretty’ to my knowledge. Perhaps Topaz had designed it to be attractive. I’d have to ask her later. I faltered, looking for the appropriate response. ‘Thank you’ seemed woefully inadequate.

“Yeah, but you know what? There are plenty of other fish in the sea. Lots and lots, and you’re still young! Can’t let yourself get discouraged, am I right?”

I’d lost track of this conversation entirely, and wondered if I had drifted off. “Oh, certainly. A great many.”

“And let’s be honest, there are tons of nice stallions out there just waiting for the right pony.”

These compliments were very oddly phrased, but I thought I understood the style. “There are also plenty of nice mares as well.”

She blinked, then looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. “...Oh. Oh! You’re… oh. So there’s even more fish for you!” She laughed. “Well hay, you’ve got a better outlook than I would have after all that.” She lightly cuffed me with a hoof. “Just keep that stiff upper lip. Things will work out, I promise.”

“Indeed.” I agreed, hesitantly. Was she losing track of this conversation? Why were we discussing fish again?

She cleared her throat, then gave a look back at the cabin. “Shame about Merry and Dank. Sounds like they were close.” She put odd emphasis on the last word.

“It does seem so. It was good that Dank kept an eye on his friend while under the influence of those strange flowers.”

“I just want to know what went wrong all of a sudden-Ow, thorns, look out!” She pushed me off to the side away from the bush, then scowled at the drop of blood welling on her leg just above her hoof. And then held it in front of her face, staring for a long time. “...Weeks.”

There was a crash at the cabin, and we rushed back to find Armor and Bold standing by a large ditch with a felled tree blocking the opening. The manticore, from the muddy trail, was now buried, if inexpertly.

The sergeant and a skittish looking Dank Woods were already out, and the sergeant looked to be building himself up to a tirade.

“SIR!” Wispy saluted firmly. “I would like to ask Specialist Woods about the situation in the forest, sir!”

The decorated stallion deflated, if grudgingly. “I don’t see why, the forest went mad, Merry is gone.”

“Then it won’t hurt to ask.” She tried for respectful, but the tone sounded eager. “How long was Merry a… well, mare. Without turning back?”

“Recruit, that’s hardly relevant.”

“About a month, but yeah, I don’t-”

“Started being a little moody, wasn’t feeling well?”

Dank started. “Well. Yeah, actually. She thought she had a bit of the flu starting. And that’s when everything started going to hell. She was scared about something and then things started coming right up to the door.”

The sergeant looked impressed. “You think you know something, Wisp?”

“Sir. Predators are attracted to blood, sir.” I nodded at her words, it was common knowledge, after all. Ponies, not being predators, should be more aware of that fact, I thought.


She stared at him. Then blinked slowly, meaningfully.

Bold was the first to react. “Oh come on. You gotta be yanking my tail! It was just a flower, he was… he wasn’t actually-”

She spun on him. “We don’t know that! And it's as good an answer for why they started coming here as anything else. It’s nothing Woods did, and Meadows might not have known better.”

Shining cut in. “So they followed the scent here… to hunt. And that means…”

It was my turn. “Territorial disputes. Predators dislike other creatures hunting the same prey as themselves.”

“Doesn’t explain the manticore, though...”

“Sure does.” Bold grumbled. “It came here looking for something to eat, and something ate it. I don’t know how much more simplistic that can get.”

“I meant that it doesn’t tell us why it’s half-gone-” The underbrush rustled, and we all grouped together in a defensive formation. Dank, perhaps showing more wisdom than the rest of us, took the rear.

My estimation of him dropped dramatically when he, upon seeing a timberwolf lope out of the brush, went around us to embrace the growling monstrosity. “Moony! Harmony, it’s good to see you, where have you been?”

It was the sergeant who voiced our confusion. “The buck are you doing now? Soldier, please tell me you haven’t taken in a wild animal…”

“Well, er… technically… he’s Merry’s. I mean, kind of.” The creature seemed… tolerant of the embrace, but I had seen pets with their owners and this was not a creature that seemed to enjoy this sort of affection. It pulled away from the embrace with a bit of a growl, hackles rising as it eyed us.

It was, I realized, a battle-scarred old brute. Lines of growth and regrowth crisscrossed over its timbers, and much of its hide appeared to be overgrown with moss instead of leaves. The pronounced limp and what appeared to be recent damage suggested that the creature had been in some sort of fight recently.

More importantly, when those yellow eyes fell upon me, I became acutely aware that it did not like me, as evidenced by the deepening of its growling and the aggressive lowering into a stance for a charge. Dank giving it a corrective pat on the snout only seemed to include him in the beast’s ire, and he quickly backed away.

“Heh… Moonshadow here… uh… always sort of preferred Merry. She was the one who gave him treats...”

“So… what are the other ones named?” Wispy asked, eyes flicking around us into the forest.

“Oh, there aren’t any others, Merry figures this guy is the only member of his pack, there’s not enough prey around here to support a large-”

Two more of the beasts stepped out of the other side. It was like looking at a different set of creatures entirely. They were larger and of a different color of wood, true, but they had a gaunt look to them, and their eyes glowed in a fashion that seemed more sickly than angry. The elder wolf snarled at them, interposing himself between us. He began backing away as two more slunk in from the forest’s edge… and his tail began to go down as a quartet joined those. Woods was edging towards the cabin, but a firm shake from our sergeant stopped him.

“Can’t hold up in there. Too many. Can that one hold them off?”

“Sir, they’re probably after the manticore. Scavenging maybe?”

“That doesn’t make sense, they’re pack hunters, they don’t fight over prey like this, and a pack that size wouldn’t just suddenly range this far out of their own territory, that’s not how they-”

Another wolf, unseen to us until it decided to attack, charged… and had its jaws caught by a furiously terrified Bold Bigflank, who, with a scream of agreement, pivoted, wrapped his hooves around the monster’s throat, and proceeded to slam its head off the downed tree of the manticore’s grave. “THAT’S RIGHT, BUCKING BRING IT!” He roared, before flinging the dazed wolf into its pack, bowling over a pair as Moonshadow seemed to take his own chance to attack, leaping onto one of the larger wolves with great spurts of sap as they bit and clawed one another. One leapt for Shining, whose shield burst into existence, shrank almost to his body size with the confused beast astride the orb before it very suddenly expanded to fullsize, sending the creature through the air with a startled yelp.

Wispy dodged her own with grace only a pegasus could achieve, rolling and diving past them with uncanny speed, but served as more distraction than detriment to the creatures. Even shod with armor, she was incapable of leaving lasting damage any more than that the rest of us, and my own magic was poorly suited for combat against so many foes; I would likely expire before they did, to no lasting effect for my comrades.

Dank, on the other hoof, showed again his mettle, bringing forth some sort of rod with a crystal on it from his armor, which, upon shattering, lit the end of the rod with a spitting white flame. He jabbed it into one of the wolves circling Moonshadow, and its flank burst into orange fire as it howled in agony, but cost him the weapon. Another rod made an appearance, and he regrouped with the rest of us, panting with exhilaration.

“We’re outmanned and not well-enough armed for this, recruits. We retreat before this gets any worse. Woods, ideas?”

“Pack hunters, sir. If we run, they’ll chase us. If we split up, they’ll go for the easiest target. Most likely the smallest of us.”

“That would be me, sir!” Wispy asserted. “I could stay to the ground to get them after me, and take to the air after luring them off.”

“Can’t! Hard to see, but there’s… things in the trees, too. Spiders. Seen them catch hawks. An eagle, once. You fly into one and it’s over. We all make a break for it, if we’re lucky, they’ll stay for the manticore. We might be too much trouble.”

The sergeant gave a sharp nod. “Wispy Nimbus, your orders are to fly from here, get the others, and tell them to prepare more magnesium flares.”

“Sir, I’m not leaving you-”

“That is an order, recruit! We need extraction, not backtalk! GO!” And with that, our number dropped by one as Wispy Nimbus took to the sky, flying low over the trees.

“Sir. There’s practically no chance of an extraction team getting here in time.” Dank noted, sounding disturbed and certain.

“Better than losing all of my recruits, soldier. Better they get ready to deal with a bunch of poneaters before they leave the forest. Get ready to break for the cabin on my command. Hooves, Shields, I want the two of you making a light show. Shock and awe, burn if you have to. Keep them back as long as you can and-”

I have never been a good judge of pegasus flying talent. I have always considered myself a changeling who would prefer his hooves on the ground, and good solid stone above him.

So when I say that the skills exhibited by one Wispy Nimbus were nothing short of awe-inspiring when she changed directions in mid-flight to avoid the gaping jaws of a wolf that more resembled an Ursa in size, I do not not know that I do her justice. I do not know that flying in and out of the creature’s maw in rapid succession is a credit to her skill or her desperation, but I am fully aware that when the monstrosity landed on and subsequently through the ramshackle guard outpost, she was flying with most befitting haste. Nonetheless, I believe I may have thought poorly of her for causing our flimsy shelter to be utterly destroyed, and for that I apologize.

At the time, however, I was some hundred yards from a predator whose head was larger than the entirety of any other timberwolf I had ever heard of, and it was looking directly at us. And it was very, very hungry. I could sense that emotion even from the bestial mind before me, so raw and focused that it left me staggered and dizzy from the shared sensation before I could block it. When the beast lunged, I was so fixated upon the massive teeth that it only occurred to me a moment before they closed how pink they suddenly became.

Shining’s shield held, however, and the beast hefted us both into the air, rattling us violently around inside the orb as is tried to pierce the improvised magical structure, worrying it with shakes of the enormous lupine head. Thankfully, Shining’s maintained composure did him great credit, and though the shield developed an enormous crack with a sound like breaking glass, his only response was a low groan of pain.

When the beast released our protective enclosure, our composure may have slipped. Shining’s shield was, after all, not designed for flying over trees. And, though he had the presence of mind to make it somewhat flexible, this only led to our crashing through and off of more of them with all the force of those strange mottled balls I had seen foals kicking about. I made the rather poor choice of clinging to the inner surface to try to control my tumbling, and learned that, if the shield sphere is mobile, that means it is rolling. I proceeded to lose all form of balance and spatial awareness as I very rapidly orbited our means of defense in a most undignified manner. Thankfully, Shining was in no better shape to witness my humiliation.

We rolled to a stop at the edge of an embankment underneath a thick layer of cover, momentarily safe. Shining looked dazedly around, his horn lighting to reveal little of the forest and certainly not enough for us to retrieve our bearings. I, unfortunately, was treated to a spectacular view of the canyon and river below our precarious perch.

“That… that wasn’t so bad.” Shining tried, sounding as nauseous as I felt. “Wait, what’s that?”

A small orb flitted out of trees, hovering just outside the bubble. It was… cute, I suppose. Familiar… “Topaz has several of them in her collection. I believe… they are called ‘Parasprites’?"

Entranced by the light, the small insect flitted towards us, bumping into Shining’s shield.

Ground shifted beneath us.

“I hate it.” Shining announced. As we fell, I shared the sentiment with every fiber of my being.

Neither of us were functionally aware of our surroundings when we finally came to a complete halt, battered and bruised, and myself with a deep ache as the damage to my back again announced its presence. Our shield-turned-boat was tossed upon the shore by the rapids, and at that point, Shining finally lost his composure, and I was deposited face first into the mud.

I had never been happier to feel soil in my mouth or nostrils. It was an enlightening experience. I also swore never to be a pegasus for any reason.

“Sorry.” Shining mumbled, sinking slowly in from his position on his back.

I staggered to my hooves. “It… is nothing. We are alive.”

“That might be the worst news I’ve ever heard.” He groaned, shifting and trying to right himself with little success. “Help…?” I wrapped a forehoof around his own flailing one, and pulled him free with a sucking sound. We were both absolutely covered. He looked around. “Celestia. Where are we?”

“Judging from my extensive knowledge of geography, Everfree Forest.” I reminded him, sourly.

“...We’re totally lost, aren’t we?”

“Unquestionably.” I began slogging through the knee-deep mud, and Shining trailed after me. “The others?”

“Only had time to put a shield around you and me. I hope they’re okay.” We’d gotten no farther than the edge of the mud when he sat down, heavily. “Holy buck. Cady’s going to kill me. And then she’s going to break up with me.”

“On the positive side, you’ll be dead.” I offered. “You won’t feel a thing.” I chose not to wonder what she was going to break. Or why this pony would break anything after his death. “Beyond that, ‘Cady’ may not have the chance to do either. We’re still here.”

A snort escaped him, and he pushed back his hair, forcing a smile he didn’t feel. “Right. Right, other problems right now.” He looked up the cliff face. “...We aren’t climbing that. We need… a clearing. Somewhere to set a fire, get somepony to find us. So… I guess… we head back?” He pulled a sheaf of crumpled parchment from his saddlebag and a stick of something from a side pouch. To my interest, he very soon had a passable sketch of our surroundings, were they to be viewed from above. On another, he sketched something I could only vaguely recognize, which he then informed me was the trail we’d followed to find the outpost. I was respectfully impressed. “So. What we need to do. Is determine where ‘here’ is in relation to ‘there’.” After a moment, he drew a very straight line from the outpost. “Our probable flight path, I think. Few hundred yards in the air, but we slid over the treetops for a while after that, and…. with the hills and water…” He sketched again, this time perpendicular to the first line. “We’ll have to follow the water upstream. Try to find where we fell, and climb back up if we can. After that, due west. If… if we’re lucky, we can make it back by nightfall. If not…” He rolled up the map. “Ready?”

I did not relish the idea of marching back towards predators. But the idea of travelling deeper… possibly deeper, I realized with dismay, into the forest held no greater appeal. “Lead on, Armor.”

It was slow going. One side of the river or the other would be impassable, and we would have to travel back to safer crossing. I could have left my pony form, but with my injuries, I doubted flight was wise. There was enough trouble without those questions.

Shining and I attempted to eat what little rations we had, but decided we would have to do a bit of grazing of our own to supplement our diet. I found a pair of the small brightly-colored parasprites and felt no remorse at their fate. They were actually quite to my liking, in fact. I wondered if it would be possible to collect them for later consumption.

Dusk was falling as Shining and I completed our ascent to the position where we believed the second part of our journey had begun. Disappointingly, the parasprite that had so helpfully taught Shining of his ability to create a life raft was nowhere to be seen. Still, our mood brightened as we found a rock formation that would enable us to shelter from the night, hopefully with only one entrance to guard.

Finding a guard chestplate, covered in blood and sap, did not, however, inspire confidence in our newly discovered stronghold.

The first set of eyes appeared shortly thereafter. The monstrous wolf, slinking through trees only moderately larger than itself, growled, and the musty, earthy scent of the cave took on new meaning. New, hideous meaning. We had not found shelter.

We had found a den.

The den was not deep. The sheer amount of bones deeper within attested to our foolishness. The beast snarled, slashing again at Shining’s shield. The scores vanished in an instant, but the cost to my companion was great. Every blow staggered him, and I could see that the time between the beast testing his defense was growing shorter even as his need to recover grew. Defense was proving inadequate to our survival.

Once, Shining’s shield faltered, and it was only a burst of my own magic that startled the beast into halting, though did little more than cut a shallow groove into it.

“I think... “ Shining groaned. “You’re… going to have to hit it harder. Split it, maybe?” He nodded grimly. “Try… try right in the head.”

I nodded, drawing energy for the attack, pulling at the behemoth’s own fury to power the attack. It took minutes, minutes for Shining to upkeep the shield, and distract the creature.

When I finally told him to drop his defense, it sprang for us, and this time I was ready. The blast of magic sent me tumbling backwards, but Shining’s cheer told me that we had been successful. Blinking spots from my eyes, I beheld glorious sight; I had splintered the beast’s head, and it lay in a heap, limbs tossed about by the force of the blow. I may have preened a little. One does not fell such a creature without a bit of pride. Shining’s whoop and clapping a hoof on my back in congratulations was one of the finest sharings of emotion I had ever felt.

It was incredibly unfair, I think, that the beast did not have the decency to actually be dead. The whisper of wind became a rustling of leaves, branches dragging together became a clattering as they reattached, and a horrible mossy lump of something levitated into the torso as baleful eyes again lit within a snarling, newly scarred skull, and the nightmare began anew.

Renewed terror kept Shining’s shield strong at first. “Night! What the hay do we do now!?”

“Fire?” I offered, remembering our training.

“We’re covered in mud, it’s wet here, and you don’t set things on fire in Everfree! If there’s a search party, they might get caught in it.” Resignation began to flavor his words as his shield began to crack. “How many more of those do you have in you? Can we make a run for it?”

“Ah.” I did a rough estimate. “Two. No more than three.” I considered. “It has been an honor.”

“Oh shut up, we are not dying here. Not like this. I am not dying to an angry piece of rotten kindling.” The wolf snarled and scrabbled at the shield. “WE BUILD HOUSES OUT OF YOU!”

“Shining. Calm down. It is undignified.” I settled myself down, taking some of his fury and adjusting it to be more useful for my own efforts. I wondered if I could set the inside of it ablaze. Sap still streamed down its muzzle from the damage I’d done the first time; it was unlikely to light. “Shield, please.” He dropped his defense and I smashed the creature down a second time. It took longer to rise, I decided. Whole minutes, this time. If that increase held, we would be able to run for perhaps five whole minutes before it consumed the first of us, and the other would likely have that long again before they joined.

“When we get through this. I am going to practice this thing… until I can make a shield you could fit a castle in… and hold off an army!” He swore, furiously. “Going to have a big fireplace… in a nice house.. and it’s all going to be made of wood! You aren’t going to eat me you overgrown shrub!”

Something clicked from our training. “Shining. How… devoutly vegan, are you?”

Shining blinked, his tirade forgotten. Exhaustion was setting in. “I… well, not, really. Vegetarian. Vegans don’t drink milk or eat eggs, you know.” He frowned. “Is… this really the time to be discussing my life choices?”

“As good a time as any. It is really a matter of your viewpoint and morality.”

Shining stared at me. Then his eyes widened. “...I don’t think I like where this is going.”

“It is a plant, sir.”

“It’s a giant carnivorous plant, Idol!”

“Better it than us. Do you have a better plan?”

This is not a plan! How in the buck do you suggest we eat a timberwolf!?”

“In truth, I am not sure. I believe if we destroy the head or consume… I believe that large mass was the heart, it would be enough to stop it from consuming us.”

This is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas!” Shining screamed, and the reformed beast flung itself towards us again, and the shattering of Shining’s shield and my final blast of magic lit the den.

“That,” I stated firmly, “-was a trial.”

“I feel like a monster.” Shining managed, chewing morosely. He swallowed.

“Because we slew a beast that had developed a taste for pony, attacked guards, and is likely the murderer of one of our own?” I tried, hoping to ease his conflicted emotions.

“Well… no, I’m… kind of okay with that.” He licked his lips. “I… kind of want seconds.”

“Ahh.” I cleaned a twig out of my own teeth. It had been… not quite like meat, but a very meat-like vegetable, perhaps. With the texture of wood, I decided, but the flavor was almost right. “To each his own, I suppose.”

“...We never speak of this. Never not ever. Okay?”

“You have my word.” I promised, easily. He extended a hoof, and I took it with a firm shake. It would be too difficult to explain, regardless.

Our improvised dinner had been interrupted only once. One of the smaller timberwolves had appeared, but kept its distance, actually crawling forward on its belly towards us until Shining grabbed a fallen limb (part of the large wolf’s leg, I believe) and flung it towards it. The beast fled with a yelp, and we had been left to our own devices after. It had taken a great deal of effort to start a fire, but several of the limbs of the beast had been dry, and now that it was dead the sap seemed to leak rapidly from it, leaving wood that burned merrily. More disturbing, it had a number of other types of wood inside it. Shining came to the conclusion that, out of desperation, this one had taken to consuming its own kind. It was simply too big for the ecosystem it resided within. A shame, really. Perhaps not even the creature’s own fault. Oddly, the feeling of maliciousness had lifted, and the forest felt more… welcoming. Almost pleased, and the rest of the night was spent in surprisingly good cheer.

Regardless, when Wispy flew overhead trailing red smoke in the early hours of the morning, we were overjoyed. At Shining’s insistence, we strapped the head as a makeshift sled and began dragging the remains of the beast with us towards the outskirts of the forest and safety.

To our immense shock, we were outside in less than an hour’s brisk walk, beating even Wispy, though she demanded we explain how we had both lost her and beaten her back while dragging anything, let alone that. Personally, I think the forest’s maliciousness had been sated, or perhaps it had grown bored with us. Regardless, I was glad to be free of it.

Our companions had been largely ignored by the beasts, who had all been immediately entranced by the flying pink orb that their larger number had cast deeper into the forest, and were largely unharmed as they fled. Dank’s timberwolf had, upon the arrival of the first, seized him by the leg and fled into the forest with him; the limb was dislocated, but he would live. His grief when Shining revealed the shattered armor was a personal thing, and I will share no more of it.

Our homecoming was, all things considered, a somber thing. Bold clapped each of us with a hoof, seemed marvelously impressed, and told Shining he had more guts than he’d given him credit for. The two laughed, and for once, there seemed to be no tension between them. The Outpost was left as lost, and the guard decided to instead monitor the edges of Everfree for the foreseeable future to determine if it was, in fact, moving again.

But it was in returning to Canterlot that the real show began.

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