• Published 24th Jan 2016
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If You Weren't Afraid - MyHobby



Discord's illness is tearing him apart. He must join Fluttershy and two young stowaways on a journey to his birthplace in order to find the cure.

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Dealing with the Devil

Pumpkin Cake ached all over. She felt weightless, her limbs waving in midair. She winced as she coughed herself awake. A scratch clawed at her tail and snaked around her hind leg. Salt fell from the corners of her eyes as she blinked them open.

She looked up and saw mossy ground.

She brought her hoof to her face to wipe it. Her head pounded. Her cheeks felt hot with the blood rushing through them. Her lungs were stiff and shallow, working against her breath. Something sharp struck her skin, near her hoof. She looked down to see her tail tangled up in a tree branch. A thorny vine wrapped around her leg.

They moved with a mind of their own.

She squealed, kicking her free legs. The tree’s grip tightened. She was lifted higher, towards the trunk. A gap appeared in the bark. A hissing noise echoed all around.

Her horn flashed, and she fell through the tree’s grip. The moss hid a bed of hard stone. She rolled across the ground, her muscles screaming with every dull thud. The tree’s branches curled back, and the gap vanished.

She rested on her belly, praying for the slightest moment to rest and recover. The air was filled with yellow haze and dusty wind. The sky was black, billowing clouds, broken by a single harsh light piercing through the smog. A single grimy curl of mane fell over Pumpkin’s eye.

She hauled herself to her feet and took a step. She nearly fell when the ground ended in a sheer cliff. She scuttled back, taking in the small, elevated island she shared with the carnivorous tree.

“Help!” Pumpkin choked as the caustic wind burned in her nostrils. “Help me, please!”

She walked the perimeter of the island and found a thin stone pathway leading downward. It curled in a helix from the base of the tree, down, down, down to vanish in the haze.

She glared at the arboreal menace. “I hope you starve, you stupid pony-eating tree!”

The vines grasped for her, but she was already picking her way down the ramp, far out of reach. Pebbles tumbled into the ether as she scraped past. Slick sand coated the stone pathway, leaving every step treacherous.

Before long, she couldn’t see the island anymore. She couldn’t see anything below, either. There was pale yellow, stinging wind, and a harsh scent, like burning paint. Pumpkin felt along her back to find her saddlebags missing, only an indent in her coat where the straps once lay.

“Hello!” She covered her eyes, but the acrid wind still scoured at them. “Pound! Discord! Pound!

Nothing answered her but the hiss of sand on stone. “Please be okay.”

“I think you should be more concerned about yourself.”

Pumpkin whipped her head around. She lit her horn, ready to run for it. “Who’s there?”

A smallish pony stepped out of the haze. There was no land for his hooves to step on, yet he walked all the same. He tilted his black boater hat and smiled at her. “It’s nice to see you again, Pumpkin.”

Pumpkin Cake scowled at him, even as she inched her way down the path. “I don’t know you and you’re too happy to be here. I don’t like you.”

“But we’ve spoken so much!” The pony eased itself closer, its smile growing by the word. “We’re just… such good friends.”

“I don’t…” Pumpkin felt like she was about to hack up her lunch. Not that she’d eaten. “The forest spirit.”

“Will-o’-the-wisp, actually.” The pony fell into step beside her, at least a meter from the path. “One of my favorite methods of communicating with mortals. Most amusing. Most very amusing.”

“It’s your fault we came to this stupid garden!” Pumpkin thrust her hoof out, to punch him if she could. He shrugged and carried on his downward spiral. “It’s all your fault! You tricked me—!”

“Pumpkin Cake.” The pony rolled its eyes. “Don’t give me so much credit. None of this would be possible without you.”

He halted in front of her, blocking the path. “At first I was annoyed at your insistence. Annoyed that you wouldn’t be kept from joining this little expedition. I even goaded your brother to stop you. But then, oho then I saw the possibilities.”

He laughed in the back of his throat, favoring her with a smile that reeked of stranger danger. “My dear sweet little filly, you wanted to be tricked.”

Pumpkin’s horn glowed at full power. Nothing but nothing was gonna touch her. “That’s stupid! I wanted to help Discord. That’s all I wanted.”

“And it was that single-minded determination that made it so easy to show you the way.” He prowled towards her, his feet making nary a sound on the shale. “You wanted the shortest distance between two points, and here we are. Discord is cured of his malady. Freed from his chains. Liberated of all pain.”

He stopped a hair’s breadth from her, his eyes dark and cold. “You were so afraid of losing him. I appreciate that level of loyalty. I find it most very amusing indeed.”

“Leave me alone!” Pumpkin dashed through him, and immediately slipped on the loose ground. She tumbled from the path, careening through space on her way towards a meeting with the ground.

The hot sand she landed was a poor pony’s cushion. She stumbled around, brushing her face off, fighting the itch that pervaded her entire body.

“Without your actions, it wouldn’t have been nearly as simple to persuade Fluttershy.” The pony floated down like a feather on the breeze, shifting in and out of sight in the stench-filled atmosphere. “I intended to use Tirek as the catalyst, but it seems his usefulness has reached its end.”

“Who are you?” Pumpkin scrambled away, but she never seemed to gain any distance. “What are you?”

“You may call me Jeuk.” The pony’s smile briefly dipped into a scowl. “Before you ask, no, it is not an egg yolk, nor a farmer’s yoke. It’s a foreign word.”

Pumpkin glanced over her shoulder. He was within foreleg’s reach. “What’s it mean?”

“You’re a smart filly. Look it up.” His eyes turned upward. “If you get the chance.”

He held a hoof over his heart. “I am a fae. What you ponies call a fairy. A being of magic, of pure spirit. Unchained by a body or mind. I come from a realm far outside your own. I am often merely an observer sitting on the fringe.”

The itch in her skin was overridden by a chill through her bones at his next words. “But I couldn’t bear to pass up such a golden opportunity.”

“A fairy…” She glared at him, though it was difficult to put the proper heat behind the stare. “You stole the garden from the draconequuses! From Discord!”

“Ah, you’ve done your research!” Jeuk threw his head back with a spatter of giggles. “Even I couldn’t keep that Creator-condemned book from your hooves, could I? It’s all lies, of course, save for where it’s true.”

“You’re just a thief!” Pumpkin shouted with more anger than she actually felt, hoping that the energy surging through her horn would keep her safe. “You’re just a thief and a liar and—!”

I! Don’t! Lie!

Pumpkin’s heart skipped a beat. For the briefest of instances, Jeuk had changed. His grey coat became pitch black. His featureless face wrinkled and warped. His cold eyes burned like embers. His suit coat was black wings and his tie was a snaking tongue.

She blinked, and the monster once again assumed an unassuming form.

“It’s bad for business,” Jeuk said with a humorless giggle. “No, I aim to speak truth, Pumpkin. It can be far more misleading than lies.”

She cowered behind a small dune. He waved a hoof and parted the sands, walking through the gap. “Sorrow is more inspiring than joy. Anger is more driving than courage. Fear is more motivating than hope.”

“That’s stupid!” Pumpkin said through tears. She spun around on her rear hooves to face the other way. “You’re stupid! I’m leaving this stupid place and finding my brother!”

Jeuk was there, inches from her face, his mouth a deep frown and his eyelids low. “But Pumpkin, your brother is gone.”

Pumpkin waited for the punch line. For the explanation. For the moment it all made sense. “Huh?”

“Don’t you remember?” Jeuk shook his head and shut his eyes. “When Fluttershy took on Discord’s magic, it was simply too much for her feeble mortal body. She had no choice but to let a portion of it loose. Discord just so happened to be in the way.”

Pumpkin’s knees knocked.

“It would have hit you, too, had you brother not selflessly sacrificed himself.” Jeuk clicked his tongue and draped his foreleg across her shoulders. She was too numbed to move. “Now he’s gone and you’re here. There truly is no justice in Equestria.”

He held out his hoof to point deep into the mist. “Pound is gone, Discord is blasted, and Fluttershy has been carried off to who-knows-where. All thanks to your efforts. I really must find some way to make it up to you.”

Her vision swam. Her legs failed her. Her knees hit the sand with a skin-scraping chuff. Pound’s voice echoed from a distant mountaintop. Jeuk’s laughter overpowered it and brought her back to the desolate remains of the garden, the captive audience of the ersatz forest spirit.

He sang to her softly, a teasing giggle behind his words. He walked around her, his eyes never leaving her kneeling body, his ears perked to catch her soft sniffles.

“Ages ago I was Prince of the Fairies
Caretaking nature and weather
Draconequui lived happily and unwary
Thinking themselves far more clever

“Thus we would battle
Through darkness and shadow
The garden we would win
Conquer the rabble
And nab us an apple
I fell to my sin”

He grasped her chin and jerked her head up. She looked into his eyes, callous and coarse, and saw the war between Discord’s people and the fae. Draconequui were torn apart. Fae were banished into nothingness. The world died around them as it went uncared for.

“That’s why
I bring you unending itching
You’ll find me cloying, bewitching
When you see
Just how loveless you can be

“It’s true
Failure is always behind you
There to faithfully remind you
Who you hurt
When you journeyed through my murk
My work”

The yellow haze swirled before her, casting shadowy shapes across the sand. A tree grew tall, its fruit glistening gold. Long, snaking bodies surrounded it, but were pushed away by an assault of ghostly images.

“We crept upon the Tree of Life
The guard had gone away
The fruit was ours, much to their strife
It was a grand melee!

“We brandished the sword
Left them maimed and gored
The Wild Hunt was so fruitful
Victory
For the world to see
And it ended with all of them dead”

Pumpkin jerked away and trotted through the haze. She didn’t care where she was going. She just had to get away. Away from the monster, away from his voice, away from the unending itch.

“Shut your face, you big bully
Isn’t it a little late for a stinking party?
I think you missed just a little fact, Mister Smarty
Discord’s still alive!”

Jeuk’s face flashed into existence before her, surrounded by a cloud of hateful smoke. He gritted his teeth and spoke around them, hissing his response.

“You think that you’re so brilliant?
Just because you read that ridiculous story
You can’t ignore the fairies’ unmitigated glory
I lived it!
I lived it!
And they’re mortified!
I’m alive”

Her hooves sank into the sand. She kicked out to free them, and returned to running as best she could. The terrain hobbled her every move as she was hounded by Jeuk’s unending cackles.

“Discord had left his kin behind
To be at Softly’s side
He later returned but to find
He’d lost his ruddy mind!”

A burst of wind knocked her to her side. Jeuk stood over her, his legs growing long and skinny, wrinkled and black. His mouth widened to allow his red tie to form a long, snaking, forked tongue. Vast wings opened wide on his back, and the itch in her flesh became a maddening, burning rash.

“That’s why
I’ll always be your distracter
You’ll be the grand reenacter
Of my crime
We’ll be punished for all time!

“Cast out!
Thrown from the Creator’s presence!
Down to live among the peasants
For my killing
So I’ll take the ponies willing
To the depths of the abyss
And you’re next!”

Pumpkin crawled across the sand, desperately raking her hooves through the grains. Jeuk leaned his grotesque face near, showcasing rows of jagged, uneven teeth. “Cast out. Thrown from the Creator’s presence. Can you even imagine?”

“Leave me alone!” She screeched. She didn’t dare look at the horror. She didn’t dare let the sight of the thing haunt her mind any more than it already did. “Go away and leave me alone!”

“But, you see, this is my reward for a job well done.” The freakish creature flipped his boater hat end-over-end and set it between scarred, tattered ears. “I get to see the fruit of my labor. Sweeter than any golden apple is the knowledge that even for the briefest instant…”

His tongue snaked around her neck and lifted her into the air. Her eyes met his and churned her stomach.

He hissed in her ear. “For just the briefest instant, I’ve made a mortal just as miserable as I am. I find it most very amusing.”

The haze vanished. The wind stilled. The air cleared up and was breathable once more. The darkness overhead became the twinkling light of stars. Jeuk’s eyebrows lowered as he twisted his head, swinging Pumpkin this way and that. “What nonsense?”

“You are a fool to lay a hoof on one of the Creator’s chosen, Jeuk.”

Pumpkin turned her head to find the source of the voice. There, a scant few meters away, stood a unicorn mare. A unicorn mare wearing overalls. Overalls with wrenches, screwdrivers, and hammers at the ready. “Ribbon Wishes?”

Pumpkin looked to Jeuk and shrugged. “The plumber just came to my rescue. You’re no longer the weirdest thing I’ve seen all day.”

Jeuk scowled at her. He stalked towards the mare, his wings spreading to their full span. “Who are you, then?”

Ribbon Wishes brushed a lock of her mane behind her ear. “I am Ribbon Wishes, a Herald of the Seelie Court of Fae, and chosen Emissary to the Equestrian People.”

Jeuk raised an eyebrow. His smirk returned, backed by a seething growl. “You speak as one with authority. Whose authority?”

“I am but a messenger,” Ribbon Wishes said, “but the message comes from the Lord of the Seelie Court.”

“By all means, share it.” Jagged teeth ground together. “Miss Wishes.”

Ribbon Wishes held her head high, her hooves shoulder-width apart, and her tail hiked. “You have no right to the fate of this child. Not in mind, body, or soul. She has been spoken for. Her condition is guarded.”

“Well, then.” Jeuk giggled, lifting one of his misshapen hooves. “Guard it!

The hoof impacted with enough force to send dust and debris flying. Hammers scattered as wrenches were torn in half. Jeuk spoke in a steady, harsh whisper. “I am Jeuk of the Unseelie Court of Fae. I am the Princeling of Equestria, given authority to oversee its peoples, its crops, its wellness or lack thereof. I am the itch of failures never forgotten. I am unyielding obsession; the steady slope to despair. I control the land upon which you lay, broken and bleeding.”

Pumpkin’s horn flashed as she slipped from his grasp. She skittered away as he towered over Ribbon’s crumpled form. “And I,” he said, “will be shown the proper respect by a mere herald.”

Pumpkin tripped over burlap. Her saddlebags lay at her feet, one side holding her drawing materials, the other holding Chewie and the book. She slipped it on with a flicker of magic and continued forward. She was in the garden, just as it had looked when she first entered. Had her hellish surroundings been an illusion, or had she been taken to another place?

“Leaving so soon?” Jeuk’s bouncing, bubbly voice carried over the distance to tickle at her ears. “And here I had only started to gloat. You’ll miss the best part, Little Miss Cake!”

“You’re not allowed to call me that!” she screamed. She glanced down to see two outlines in the stone floor, shaped like a Pegasus colt and a draconequus. She was at the clearing, where Fluttershy had her freak out. A glance upward brought her to the stump of the Tree of Life, standing on its hill. The trees shushed behind her as Jeuk came closer.

With nowhere else to turn, she climbed the hill and slipped within the hollow of the tree. It wouldn’t hide her for long, if at all, but it gave her time to think. To breathe.

The stars grew dim as Jeuk entered the clearing. “Why carry on when you know I’m right? You’ve caused such pain and anguish, Little Miss Cake. That is Discord’s little pet name for you, isn’t it? Is it a sign that he cares for you, or that he doesn’t bother to remember your name?”

Pumpkin lay her head against the wood. She blinked. The was an oddity on the other side. Something other than deadwood. It was swirling, indented, almost carved.

Writing.

Pumpkin held her breath as Jeuk’s wing flapped over the stump. Tiny black feathers fell loose before vanishing in a cloud of soot. “You and I, we’re two of a kind. We both wished for something so desperately that we were willing to do anything. Anything. I wanted control. Dominance. Rulership of a people who would not be tamed. When I didn’t get what I wanted, well…”

Pumpkin worked as quickly and quietly as she could. She pulled a crayon and pad of paper through the side of her saddlebags and floated them over to the writing. A sheet of paper was laid over the script, and the crayon was rubbed over the entire surface. As she rubbed back and forth, the shape of the symbols formed on the page.

“You wanted Discord to be well. And where is he now? Gone. Vanished in a torrent of the same magic that was tearing him apart. Your own little road to Hell.”

His tongue snaked into the gap first, followed by his wrinkled, scarred, tooth-ridden face. “There’s no forgiveness for our selfishness, Little Miss Cake. There’s only agony, and the abyss!”

She grabbed the paper and phased through the stump with a powerful leap. She heard Jeuk’s head bump against the dead bark, followed by an unearthly howl. She glanced back and saw wriggling limbs, horrid wings, a snaking tail lit with fire…

And a flash of green on the pale bark.

She slid to a halt despite herself. The tree was dead. Deader than dead. It was decayed, hollowed out, devoid of life, and yet there was a small sprig of green hanging from the side. A twinkle of gold peered out from beneath the leaf, almost invisible with Jeuk’s thrashing.

She let the page drop. Killer demonic fairies be darned, if there was any chance that she could get a golden apple, she needed to take it.

She ran up the hill. Her horn sparked to reach for the gold, but she couldn’t get a good grasp. She stretched her forelegs out, cupping the tiny golden apple between them.

Her hooves went right through it. It vanished in a sad little gasp of soot and shadows.

Jeuk’s hoof pressed against her back, maddening her itch to something akin to Poison Oak. His horrid face twisted into a triumphant sneer. “You think you’re the only one who can play this game, Little Miss Cake? I’m a fairy. I live and breathe trickery!”

His tail whipped overhead. Cinders singed her mane. “Moth,” Jeuk said, “meet flame.”

The clearing lit up with daylight. Jeuk winced away, covering his eyes with a malformed wing. Bright as it was, Pumpkin’s eyes didn’t hurt. She looked directly at the source, her heart thundering.

A pony hung in the air. But not a pony. Not quite. In addition to four hooves, six massive wings flapped from its back. The mane was long and flowing, and the tail sparkled to match. Pearl-like orbs covered every inch of the creature’s coat, shimmering and shining.

Pumpkin wasn’t really surprised when Ribbon Wishes’ voice issued forth. Almost surprised, but not quite. “Jeuk, you were warned! This child’s condition is guarded!

“Flame…” The Seelie Fae smirked. “Meet hydrant.”

A beam of light, of the purest white, struck Jeuk in the chest.

***

Pound Cake stared at an open, blue sky. He hung his forelegs over the sides of the small rowboat he found himself in. It was relaxing, in a completely perplexing sort of way. Just the gentle rock of the sea beneath creaking boards. He fanned his wings out to catch the sun’s rays.

“I wouldn’t have chosen this locale, personally,” Discord said from the prow. “I probably would have gone with, say, a tropical isle. With palm trees. And a soda bar.”

Pound leaned his head over the side of the boat. Water, water, water, as far as the eye could see. No wind, no oars, no current. Just a dead stop in the middle of the ocean.

Discord folded his hands over his chest. He twiddled his thumbs as he stared into the unbroken sky. “Something with a little life to it, you know? Maybe a sea monster or something, just to spice things up.”

Pound sighed. He’d done it. He’d finally saved his sister from certain doom. Yep. Just in time to be put into some other sort of doom. And where did it leave him? Lying in a rowboat, in the middle of nowhere, with the creature responsible for all of it.

“Shut up, Discord.” Pound covered his face with a foreleg. “Nopony cares what you think.”

“Now I hardly think that’s true,” Discord said. “Fluttershy more often than not will lend an ear, and I can usually con one of the others into helping me out—”

“I’m the only pony here!” Pound sat to his haunches. He splashed water at the motionless draconequus. “And I don’t give a hoot! Not about you, not about your stupid magic, and not about your dumb ideas!”

He flopped back to the bottom of the boat, crossing his forelegs over his chest. The boat bobbed from the motion, but soon became still.

Discord tapped his claws. “You know, I think things are starting to come back to me. Like, I totally remember what I got Fluttershy for her birthday last year. Of course, I can’t remember what color the silly dress was. Was it white and g—?”

“Unless you’re going to figure out a way to get me back to my sister—” Pound spoke around gritted teeth. “—then please shut your flappy yap.”

Discord tilted his head back. He ran his fingers through his goatee. “I’ll consider it, but as far as I’m concerned, every word from my mouth is an overflow of wisdom gained over the course of several lifet—”

Pound socked Discord in the jaw.

Discord’s body wriggled from his head to his tail. He crossed his eyes to look down at the colt. “Huh. So that’s what pain feels like.”

“It’s your fault!” Pound reeled back for another blow, and Discord ducked. “You’re the whole reason Fluttershy came to the garden! You’re the whole reason Pumpkin ran into the woods! To save your sorry butt! You don’t deserve it, you ungrateful moron!”

“Please, give me a moment.” Discord cupped his chin, working his jaw back and forth. “I need to savor this sensation. Really wrap my mind around the—”

A hoof to the gut knocked the wind out of him.

Discord’s cheeks bulged. He leaned forward, his arms curled around his middle, until his chin touched the bottom of the boat. He looked up at Pound with watery eyes.

Pound sniffed. He wiped his nose with a wing. “You can just sit there and be stupid for all I care. I’m gonna find my sister. I’m going home.” He leaned over the side and stuck his leg into the water. He paddled as smoothly as he could, but it was pretty obvious he wasn’t going anywhere. “Come on. Make yourself useful and row.”

Discord slithered up to the side. He dipped his paw in and wiggled it through the unwavering water. “Seems if I want to keep my guts in one piece…”

“Quit bellyaching… No pun intended.” Pound scowled and stared straight ahead. “The sooner we find land, the sooner we can get back to Equestria.”

“You seem so sure we’re even on the same planet.”

Pound glared at Discord. If he could have set fire to the draconequus—perhaps with laser vision—he would have then and there. “Blah, blah, blah. Nothing’s worth doing if it doesn’t entertain you. Right? You don’t do anything unless it’s fun.”

Discord gave him a cheeky grin. “Fun makes life worth living.”

Family makes life worth living!” Pound thrust a hoof at his chest. “Friends make life worth living. In the good times and the bad.”

He resumed his slow, shallow paddle, the sprinkling of the water dusting his coat. “That’s how Pinkie put it. She’s usually right.”

“Oh yeah?” Discord narrowed one eye and widened the other. “What if the only family you ever had has been dead for over two-thousand years? What if the only real friend you ever had just went gonzo bananas on chaos magic? What then, Punchy Hooves?”

“You still think Fluttershy’s your only friend?” Pound stomped a hoof, rocking the boat from side to side. “What about Pumpkin? What about my sister, who risked her life and getting grounded just so she could make sure you were okay?”

“Cry me a river.” Discord stuck his snaking tongue out. “She probably just needed her rubber chicken fixed again.”

“That’s enough!”

Pound pounced on Discord. The boat rolled beneath them, its sides nearing the surface of the water. Salty seas dripped aboard.

Pound held Discord down by the shoulders. “My sister doesn’t need you to fix Chewie, you dingus! She can do it herself! It’s her special talent! She just goes to you because she wants to hang out with you!”

Discord blinked at him. His mouth worked quietly for a heartbeat. “She doesn’t need to come to me?”

Pound bopped himself on the head as he climbed off. “Now he gets it.”

“She just…” Discord swallowed hard. He wrung his hands together and looked to starboard. “She just wants to come to me?”

“She thinks you’re funny.” Pound flicked his tail. He sat with his wings spread and his back to Discord. “She thinks you’re funny, and weird, and cool, and nice, and all that other stuff. Too bad she didn’t know you were just stupid.”

He rested his head in his hooves. “Stupid like me.”

Discord ran his talons through his mane. He slumped over and rubbed his sore belly. He pressed his lips together to suppress a sigh. “I really messed up, didn’t I?”

“Yeah.” Pound rested his forelegs against the side of the boat. He splashed the water, for all the good it did. “We messed up.”

***

Pumpkin was witness to the battle of the ages. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. Rainbows of living color spiraled betwixt the two warring fair folk. Squeals of anger and words in otherworldly tongues were exchanged.

Jeuk fell back from the latest assault and scrambled to his hooves. Ribbon Wishes used the free moment to fly to Pumpkin’s side. She pressed the crayon rubbing into Pumpkin’s hooves and whispered in her ear. “Head for the stream. You’ll find help there. I’ll hold him off.”

Pumpkin reached for Ribbon, but her hoof couldn’t make a connection. “But—”

“I’ll explain later!” Ribbon spread her six wings, coating the garden in a masterwork of light. “Run!”

‘If there’s one thing I’m good at…’ Pumpkin pounded her legs against the mossy stone. Jeuk’s voice shouted behind her, coaxing her to look back for even the faintest of moments. She refused. She had a goal—whatever that goal was. She had a hope. She had a freaking Fairy Godmother at her side.

Or whatever Ribbon was. Fairy Godmother sounded pretty good, though.

The route was familiar, or at least straightforward. She retraced her steps to get into the garden, past the rotting fruit and the narrow gap in the boulders. A tree collapsed somewhere behind her, fading to dust under Jeuk’s influence. The crazed itch lessened the further away she got, teasing a slow sense of relief.

Her hooves splashed in the shallow stream. The golden roots seemed dimmer in the night, as if tarnished. She looked around for the promised help, but found herself alone. “Hello! Hellooo, magical fairy army of helpers! There’s a little girl here that needs you!”

The silence was only broken by the distant sound of Jeuk smashing Ribbon’s metaphysical form into the ground.

“Yeah, I didn’t think that’d work.” Pumpkin turned her gaze to the stream. What sort of help was she supposed to be looking for? Help drowning? Help sitting quietly while “mommy” and “daddy” had a “discussion?” Please. Like she was gonna wait around for those two to work out their issues.

She looked up. The forest was dark and uninviting, but it seemed devoid of magical monstrosities. For the most part. She could run off and leave the fairies to their scuffle.

‘No. Running off without thinking is what got us into this mess.’ She paced in the water; it splashed cold against her skin, raising goose bumps. ‘Charging in got everybody hurt. I gotta slow down. Gotta think. Gotta hold tight and…’

She examined the crayon rubbing. The words were older than Equestria. Written in a whole other language. Maybe it was some sort of clue. Some way to locate a cure. Some way to fix everything.

“More likely it’s somepony’s idea of ancient… graffiti…” Pumpkin’s eyes popped. The book. The story. Discord’s challenge to Softly: Carve their names in the bark of the tree. Of course the carving would still be inside the bark. Of course it would be visible in the hollow.

‘So—so the story’s true? At least mostly?’ Pumpkin flinched at a shrieking curse from Jeuk. ‘Softly wanted golden apples. Did she get them? What does the story say? Did she take the apples somewhere? Did she hide them? Eat them?’

A bright ball of light flew overhead, crashing through trees and showering her with leaves and bark. Lightning flickered as Ribbon Wishes came to a crushing halt in the stone. The Seelie Fae rose to her hooves, her legs shaking. Her face was awash with the purest of lights, though marred with dirt and grime. Her eyes were two solid orbs, flickering with inner fire.

Pumpkin looked closer. The other orbs bedecking her body had the same shape. The same fire. The same—

“Oh gross, you’re covered in eyes.” Pumpkin backpedaled away from the fairy. “That is super-gross.”

Ribbon Wishes frowned. “I’m not too fond of the whole ‘body-odor’ thing you mortals have, either.”

“Says the town plumber.”

“Touché.”

The itch in Pumpkin’s back climbed in intensity. Jeuk was getting closer. Too close for comfort. “So,” Pumpkin said, “are you gonna beat him, or what?”

“Ah. No.” Ribbon Wishes tilted her head to the side. She looked over Pumpkin’s shoulder with a grimace. “No, he’s at least three orders of magnitude above me. In rank, power, influence. It’s a decided match.”

“Oh.” Pumpkin’s stomach sunk as that little blip of hope faded away. “Then why are you here?”

Ribbon opened her mouth, but hesitated to speak. She spread her six wings and gave them a strong flap. “I’m here to hold him off until you find the help I spoke of. All I know is that it’s by the stream.”

“That’s all?” Pumpkin raised a hoof as Ribbon took to the sky. “But you could die! I mean, can fairies die?”

Ribbon let out a humorless laugh. “I suggest you find what you’re looking for, or we might just find out.”

Jeuk descended through the foliage like a vast, predatory bird. Ribbon rose to meet him.

Pumpkin splashed into the stream, the rubbing caught up in her magic. She puzzled through the words she couldn’t read. The story she hadn’t finished. The chaos magic. The missing apples. The garden at the center of it all.

Her hoof bumped against a little metal pipe at the bottom of the stream.

She picked it up with a flicker of her horn, setting the page in her saddlebags. It was Fluttershy’s little sailor whistle thingy; the gift from Cloudkicker. The “boss-man’s call” or something. What had Cloudkicker said? Something about it being a cry for help? Or did she just say it’d scare away large predators?

Pumpkin scrunched her muzzle. She had a need for both on hand, she supposed.

She puckered up and gave it a good, solid blow.

***

Pound blinked as his ears stood up. He tilted his head back. “Did you hear that?”

Discord lay across the bottom of the boat, an arm over his face. “Hear what?”

“A whistle.” Pound hopped onto the side of the boat, his wings keeping him balanced. “Like what they use for sailing. For issuing orders and stuff.”

“It’s pirates,” Discord said without looking up. “It’s pirates and they’re gonna swab the deck with us, or keelhaul us, or skin our gizzards or some such nonsense.”

Pound jumped. The boat swayed. “There it is again! Can’t you hear it?”

“All I hear, lately, is ‘You’re stupid and this is all your fault.’”

Pound rolled his eyes. “That’s beside the point. The point is that somebody’s close. Probably somebody with a boat! We’re saved!”

“Are you aware, Dear Muffinhead—” Discord sat up and glared at Pound with wide, yellowed eyes. “—that sound can travel for miles across the ocean? They’re most likely on the other side of the world, far away from us. We’re going to either dehydrate or drown out here.”

Pound hovered over Discord, his eyebrows low. “What? And we’re just gonna let Fluttershy get torn apart by your chaos magic?”

“You’ve got a better idea? I’m all ears.” Discord’s hands flopped to the deck. “Not really, though. Kinda have a magic deficiency.”

Pound flew to the rear of the boat and pushed. They moved a scant few inches as he flapped for all he was worth. “We follow the whistle. We find whoever’s blowing the whistle. We get back to Equestria and save our friends!”

“Do you see a boat?” Discord hopped to his feet. The boat wobbled beneath his weight. “Do you see land? We’re hopeless!”

“We’re not hopeless!” Sweat spread across Pound’s brow as his sore throat grew dry. “We’re not hopeless because everything works out for good!”

“No it doesn’t!”

“It does, too!”

“Prove it!”

Pound slumped against the wooden planks. He let himself slide back onboard, his wings and legs sore. “I can’t.”

“No evidence.” Discord fluttered his wings and turned his back on Pound. “No point.”

“The point is that I’ll keep fighting.” Pound’s leg muscles protested for all of their worth. They felt like jelly after his exertion. It didn’t make sense. There shouldn’t be that much friction holding the boat still. It wasn’t even that heavy. Pound could have pulled it along on a wagon and never broken a sweat. On the water, it should be a literal breeze to move.

Pound rubbed his forelegs to get them ready for another try. “I’ll keep fighting until I win or I fall apart. Like Fluttershy would. Like Pumpkin would.”

He pointed at his misshapen shipmate. “Like Pumpkin thinks you would.”

Discord blew raspberries with his forked tongue. “You have an overabundance of faith in her faith in me. She’s wrong about me, you know.”

“Do I?” Pound hovered behind the boat. He pressed against the side until the lumber creaked. “Are you really willing to give up on Fluttershy?”

Discord’s head snapped around. He worked his jaw back and forth, testing the placement of his snaggletooth. “Why do you have to phrase it like that?”

“Because that’s what you’re doing. You’re giving up hope. You’re giving up on your friend.”

Discord sneered. “I’m being realistic.”

Pound gritted his teeth and wheezed. “Since when has that worked out for you?”

Discord blinked. He grasped his tail with his talon and swung it around. “Huh. I suppose not once in two millennia.”

“There’s the whistle again.” Pound sucked on his lips as his wings let out a strong magic oompah, to use the technical term. “It sounds louder, too. Like we’re right…” He looked down as his ears tickled again. He studied the rippling water beneath the boat, showcasing a blue-tinged reflection of himself. “Like we’re right above it?”

His reflection tilted its head, giving him a look that reminded him a little too much of his father. One that said “What in the hay were you thinking?” He had a feeling he’d be seeing that particular expression in the near future. He hoped so, in any case.

The whistle blew, more insistent than ever.

Pound crossed his eyes. He looked past his face, past the familiar colors and lines and faint pimples. He looked into the water, to the murky depths. He saw darkness, unmarred by anything living or dead.

Then he saw a flicker of movement. “Oh horseapples.” Was it a whale? A shark? Something worse? No, it was small. Or far away. It was orange. And curly. And familiar. It was running.

He saw the bottom of Pumpkin’s hooves as she ran across the depths, blowing frantically on a small whistle as a big, dark something chased her.

“It’s Pumpkin.” Pound snapped his head to Discord, his breath coming out in a whoosh of words. “It’s Pumpkin and she’s in danger. We gotta get to her.”

“What?” Discord leaned his head beside Pound’s. He shook his head as his goatee dipped into the drink. “I don’t see—”

“You gotta look past yourself.” Pound put his hoof to the back of Discord’s head and yanked him closer. “You gotta look past yourself and see what’s really there.”

Discord gave him a long glare, one that softened as Pound held his grip. The draconequus looked back down and crossed his eyes, trying to decipher the water beyond his reflection.

He jerked out of Pound’s hold as he sucked in a harsh breath. “It’s a fae. A powerful, monstrous, bad-news fairy. This thing is the real deal.”

Pound’s heart rumbled in his chest, threatening to burst with magic energy. “W-what else do you know about it?”

“That’s about all that’s stuck with me, honestly.” A talon found its way between Discord’s teeth. It twisted and squirmed to remove some unseen—probably nonexistent—food particle. “Big-time bad news for anybody. They rarely show themselves as it is, and for one to be chasing Pumpkin…”

He swallowed hard and licked his lips. “She’s doomed without help.”

“Then we gotta reach her!” Pound grasped Discord’s shoulder and shook. “How do we reach her? How do we get from here to there?”

“I dunno!” Discord swung his hands out in a wide shrug. “Swim for it?”

“That’s—” Pound raised an eyebrow, tilting his ear downward. “Actually not the dumbest thing I can think of.”

“It’s the dumbest thing I—” Discord choked on his own spit. “Don’t you dare—!”

Pound flew straight up. He hovered over the scrambling image of his sister and tucked his wings in.

Discord reached out. “Wait!”

Pound fell butt-first into the ocean. His eyes stung in the salt water, and the sickening flavor slipped past his lips to coat his tongue. He snorted water from his nose and held his breath tightly.

His wings flapped, scooping the water and shooting it past. He propelled himself as a tiny pony torpedo through the brine. His sister’s image wavered the father down he got, growing bigger and distorting to unnatural proportions. His chest screamed and panic gripped his legs. He wanted to kick, to lash out, to go back the way he came. A bubble escaped but did not rise. It hovered before his face, another mirrored surface to capture his sorry figure.

Discord slithered past like a sea snake. He grasped Pound by the hoof and dragged him along at a far faster clip than he thought possible. As they closed in on the scene of Pumpkin and the fairy, they saw a final, overwhelmingly large mirrored surface standing between them. The sun shone behind them, casting an eye-searing glare across it.

Pound pressed his mouth tight. There was no time to go back. There was no breath to take. No respite to seek. There was only going forward or dying. ‘Not much of a choice, if you ask me.’

He pressed his hooves against the rippling film and pushed through.

He splashed from the stream, soaking wet and shivering. Pumpkin ran face-first into him, and they collapsed in a heap. Discord popped up right behind him, gasping for precious, precious air.

Pound untangled his legs from Pumpkin’s. She leaped to her hooves and wrapped her forelegs around his neck. “You’re okay!”

Jeuk halted a scant few meters away, his face twisted into a hideous rage. “Discord!”

Discord jumped as a jolt shot down his spine. “Now’s the time to enact your master plan, Pound!”

“Uh.” Pound gripped his sister tight. He wasn’t willing to let go. Not just yet. Not until they were safe.

“What are you waiting for, you little putz?” Pumpkin released him. She stood at his side with her hooves squared. “Do the thing!”

Pound’s legs refused to respond. Jeuk met him eye for horrible eye. “Um. Yeah, the thing. That thing. That one particular awesome thing…”

Pumpkin sighed as her eyelids drooped. “You didn’t have a plan, did you?”

“Of… course I did.” Pound racked his brain. What did the old stories say about fairies? The good ones granted wishes, right? The bad ones… The bad ones also did that, but for a price. “I’m here… I’m here to make a bargain!”

Discord swallowed. He swallowed very, very hard. “You are an imbecile.”

Jeuk squinted his fiery, charcoal eyes. He grinned. “I’m listening.”

He shrunk himself down. His legs regained their short, unthreatening length. His eyes were pale gray, rather than Gehenna incarnate. His face smoothed out as his tongue tied itself in a Windsor knot. The black boater hat on his head slid aside for two sharp ears. Jeuk adjusted his business suit and produced his briefcase. “What business have you come to conduct?”

Pound hiccuped. His tongue twisted itself to rival the tie. “I-I-I want to bargain for the safety of—of Pumpkin, and Discord, and Fluttershy.”

Jeuk laughed, halfway between a giggle and a chuckle. He clipped his hoof against a smooth stone.

Sharp, splintering fractals sliced through reality. Pound found himself inside a bubble with hard edges. A dodecahedron of air and crystal. Pumpkin struck the walls, her voice muffled to a whisper. Discord scratched at the sheer surface. A bright light ignited behind Jeuk, but was barely discernible beside the dark fairy.

Jeuk tipped his black boater hat. “I don’t think you quite understand what you’re asking. Guaranteeing the safety of three lives is quite the undertaking. It requires hefty collateral.”

“I-I…” Pound felt an awful dose of sick rise up in his belly. “I have myself to bargain with.”

“There’s only so much I can do with one able, willing body, Pound.” Jeuk giggled lightly to himself, placing his briefcase on the ground. He paced back and forth, keeping his eyes trained on the young colt before him. “For a business transaction to work out, both sides need to get what they want. Both sides need to come away satisfied. You’re far more boring than your sister. Far less attractive to my purposes. You’re so sure of what you believe, yet so unwilling to actually stand for it. Honestly, it’s dull; most very dull.”

Pound shut his eyes. ‘More attractive? What a creep. He can’t get his hooves on her. No matter what, she’s got to get away. I’ve got to get him to leave her alone somehow. She’ll get back home. Find ponies who can help Fluttershy. Pumpkin’s the priority.’

“Just my sister, then.” Pound opened his eyes. He set his jaw and stomped a hoof. “Look at it this way: If she’s more interesting, what’s the fun in hurting her? It’d just end your time tormenting her, or whatever you’re doing. Let her live her life, stumbling through it, being a pain in everybody’s rear. Enjoy the show.”

Tears collected at the corners of his eyes. Snot threatened to overflow from his nose. “B-but me, if I’m as boring as you say, then what good is it to let me go? If you have me, you can do whatever you want. Take out your frustrations. Make me do stupid, dangerous, hurtful stuff. Let me know how dumb I am. Show me over and over again that I’m a failure. Show me that nothing I ever do in life means anything.”

Pound pointed at the blurry, shattered outline of his sister. “What do you want? A broken toy to toss aside, or a toy that you can break again and again and again?

A slow, small smile snuck its way across Jeuk’s face. “For as long as you live, Pumpkin will come to no physical harm.”

He held his hoof out, covering his heart with his boater hat. “For as long as you live, you are my plaything. Beholden to my every word. Beholden to my every whim. Is that clear?”

Pound looked at the plain, gray hoof. His own foreleg itched from the pad to the knee. “My other condition is that I’ll never hurt another creature. Nobody besides myself.”

Jeuk’s eyes turned up and back. His attention returned with an added burning rash across Pound’s wing. “I accept your condition, under the clarification that you shall cause no physical harm to another.”

Pound’s lungs burned more fiercely than they had beneath the sea. “To any other. You won’t order me to hurt any creature alive now, in the past, or in the future.”

“Well.” Jeuk’s eyebrows hopped. “How can I refuse such a well thought-out bargain?”

They shook.

***

The gem-like bubble vanished, leaving a shallow, scored crater. The stream bubbled to fill the empty space. A small puddle formed, before the stream once again found its proper path down the hillside.

“Pound!” Pumpkin jumped into the pool and splashed, grasping for any sign of her brother. “No! No, please, no.”

She shouted at Ribbon, her voice cracking, nearly shattering. “What happened? Where is he?”

Ribbon Wishes’ lips flopped. She let out several false starts before crafting the proper words. “H-he made a bargain with the Unseelie Fae. I am… I am not allowed to interfere with free-will bargains. I am… I am so sorry.”

“Why?” Pumpkin wept, great tears melding together and streaking down her cheeks. “Why would he do something like that?”

“To save you,” Discord said, barely at a whisper. He knelt down to his haunches, resting his arms on his knobby knees. “He did it all to save you.”

“I didn’t want to be saved!” Pumpkin sat down in the puddle, her throat tightening, her breath painful, her sobs coarse. “Not… not like that.”

“You…” Ribbon Wishes descended to stand at Pumpkin’s side, her magnificent glow fading. She rested her hoof on the filly’s shoulder. “You found your help at the stream. Just as was promised.”

There were no words. Pumpkin cried out, her strength spent.

“Goes to show.” Discord rubbed an ear, turning his head away from the sight. “Be careful what you wish for.”

Author's Note:

Jeuk's song can be sung to the tune of "The Master's Song" from Dracula the Musical

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