• Published 24th Jan 2016
  • 2,024 Views, 104 Comments

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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The Unwelcome Discovery

Branches cracked beneath Pumpkin’s hooves as she tramped through the woods. A stray sprig snagged her mane, but she brushed it aside. Her legs burned from walking so long. Had it been three hours? Four? Whatever it was, it was a darn long time. The sun set before her, bathing the forest in orange light.

She could hear Discord and Fluttershy talking about something a decent ways away, though their words were fuzzy through the yellow-green leaves. Much louder, and more annoying, was her sibling flying along behind her.

“Come on, Pumpkin!” Pound swished his forelegs to the rear, his face purple with rushing blood. “This is dumb! You’re gonna go off and get killed! Let Discord and Fluttershy do their thing, and let’s go home.”

The volume and frequency of his complaints had varied throughout the day, but his words had not. Neither had her answer.

“No.” Pumpkin shoved the word unceremoniously out of her mouth.

“Yes!” Pound landed right in front of her face and stood his ground. “Yes, yes, yes! We are going home right now.

Pumpkin growled. She stepped to the side, and her brother hopped to match. She weaved through to the left, but Pound was ready and waiting. “I swear, I’m gonna punch you.”

“Oh yeah?” Pound plastered his best war-face across his muzzle. “Try it. I dare you.”

Pumpkin smiled. She lifted her foreleg and wound for a strike. At the exact moment her brother flinched, his eyes closed, she ducked beneath his legs and crawled past.

She heard Pound moan behind her. “That’s cheating.”

“It’s called ‘Pumpkin is smarter than Pound.’” She thrust her nose in the air and gave him an especially proud sniff. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a friend to save.”

“What’re you even going to do?” Frenzied flaps shook the air. Pound hovered overhead, his glower sizzling against her curls. “You know the instant they know you’re here, they’re gonna send you home!”

“That’s why I’m following at a distance.” Pumpkin rolled her eyes. She took a measured step to the side to avoid her brother’s grasping hooves. “I won’t let them know I’m following until it’s too late to turn back.”

“It’s never too late to turn back.” Pound got in her face again, his lower lip jutting out. “We’re kids. We take precedence where danger is concerned.”

Pumpkin wiggled her eyebrows. “Look who’s using his big boy words. Buzz off.”

Pound’s purple face became more of a nice magenta. “I’ll show you big boy words if you don’t come back right now!

“La, la, la, can’t hear you!” Pumpkin cantered forth, her eyes closed, a spring to her step. “Deedle dee, I’m on an adventure and you can’t stop me.”

All of Pound’s frustration erupted in one prolonged moan. He smooshed a toadstool before running to catch up. “You’re in so much trouble and I don’t care!”

“You think I care?” Pumpkin barked a phony laugh. “I care about making Discord better, and if Mom and Dad don’t like that, tough! If you think I shouldn’t go, who gives a darn? I’m going and nopony can stop—”

She ran face-first into a mountain of brown fur. She scrambled back and looked up to see two yellowed eyes. She grinned. “Hi, Mister Discord.”

“Little Miss Cake.” Discord crossed his arms and nodded at her brother. “Little Mister Cake. I do believe we have almost the whole set.”

Pumpkin swallowed hard. “Hi. How did you know we were here?”

Fluttershy stepped around Discord, a severe frown spelling certain doom. “We could hear you shouting. Really, really loudly.”

“Oh.” Pumpkin kept the smile bright, her mind racing almost as fast as her heart. “We, um, were just going for a walk—”

“They could hear us,” Pound said. Pumpkin wanted to slap the smug look from his face. “Now we can turn right around and go back home, right?”

His question met silence as Fluttershy and Discord glanced at each other. The pegasus spoke first. “As much as we need to get you home, well, there’s a teensy little problem.”

“It’s getting dark,” Discord said, his voice far too cheerful. “Pretty soon, all the nocturnal aminals will be out and searching for bad little fillies and colts to devour.”

Discord.” Fluttershy blew a sigh through tightly-pressed lips. She lifted her head and spread her wings, giving her voice a gentle, yet strong, tone. “Pumpkin, you know how dangerous it is out here. What possessed you to come?”

Pumpkin’s teeth showed through her smarmy grin. “Because Discord’s a big fat butt who can’t take care of himself.”

“Hay, now!” Discord said. “I’ll have you know that butts are like opinions. The differences get a little hairy.”

“Whatever.” Pumpkin narrowed her eyes at Fluttershy. She set her four hooves tall and strong. She was still only half Fluttershy’s height. “I’m coming. I’m helping. You can’t make me go back until Discord is healed.”

Discord cracked his knuckles. He reached down and picked Pumpkin up by her barrel. “An interesting assertion, Little Miss Cake.”

“Put me down, dummy!”

“Perhaps it deserves a test?” Discord threw Fluttershy a mock salute and snapped his fingers. “I should be back in a flash.”

Pumpkin’s eyes popped. She kicked and scrambled to escape, but Discord held fast. “Leggo of me! I don’t have to take this! Stop being stupid! Leggo!”

Her coat tingled as magic surrounded them. Light flashed and air crackled. Discord’s teleport gained momentum, ripping a hole in the very fabric of reality. Her body was stretched, rolled, and rearranged all at once. Thunder struck, and she was once again set on her feet.

She kicked Discord in the shin. He didn’t seem to notice. “You idiot! You moron! You butthead! I just wanna help you!

Discord stared straight ahead, his portal still roiling behind him. His mishmashed features creased into a deep frown. “Uh oh.”

“What?” Pumpkin turned and beheld the side of a mountain. Not Canter Mountain, or the Smokey Mountains, or even the McIntosh Range. No, it was completely unfamiliar; completely alien to anything even remotely close to Ponyville.

“You teleported us to the wrong place.” Anger boiled in Pumpkin’s chest, but it simmered to a stop as a cold chill rattled down her back. “You forgot how to teleport.”

“I… um… wouldn’t say that, exactly.” Discord’s draconic foot scraped at the sandstone ground. His cloven hoof tapped an unsteady rhythm. “I’ve just misplaced Equestria; that’s all. So… Let’s hop back through the portal before it closes. Okay?”

“Yeah.” Pumpkin shoved past him and leaped through the ring of chaos magic. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

One gut-wrenching trip later, she lay in the grass, breathing heavily, staring at the deepening purple in the sky. Her brother hovered into her field of vision with that annoying “I told you so” expression all brothers knew. She stuck her tongue out and rained spittle.

Discord slipped through the portal, folded it up, and packed it into a blender. It whirred behind his back, becoming a sort of weird milkshake. “That was a bust. Do we have a plan ‘B’?”

Fluttershy lowered her ears. “We need to get these kids home, but it’s just too late tonight. We’ll have to set up camp here.” She tried to hide it, but Pumpkin still detected a little hint of bitter herbs in her voice. “We’ll just try to make up for lost time tomorrow.”

Discord batted the glowing green arrow away from his head. It spun around and clocked him across the ears. “I suppose this is the part where we send them to look for fire wood?”

“Whoa, whoa,” Pound said. “Wait. Wait, wait. We can’t stay in the woods tonight! Our parents are gonna be worried sick!”

“I’ll send Spike a message for them.” Fluttershy dug through her saddlebags and brought forth a glowing, green vial. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to tell them everything.”

Pumpkin sat up and raised an eyebrow. ‘Fluttershy’s getting sassy,’ she thought. ‘That can’t be a good sign.’

Fluttershy picked up a wood pen with her lips and set to scribing out a letter. “In the meantime, please do as Discord said. The fire usually keeps monsters away. They’re afraid of light, you know.”

Pound’s throat bobbed. “‘Usually’?”

“For the most part.” Fluttershy might have smirked, if she was at all capable of smirking. “For everything else, there’s Discord.”

Discord polished his talon along his coat. “I am a highly competent monster swatter.”

Pound edged away from the draconequus. “I’ll take your word for it, Mister Discord.”

“Darn tootin’,” Discord said, shooing them off with his hands. “Now get scootin’!”

Pumpkin sneered. She flicked her tail and trotted off, her nose as high as it could go. “Go kiss a cactus.”

***

Pumpkin Cake sat away from the fire; close enough that she could read by its light, far enough that she didn’t have to see anybody else’s stupid face. ‘Screw them. Screw them and their dumbness.’

The book that lay before her was Elysium and the Tree of Life, naturally enough. She perused the stories, rereading a few that she’d stumbled upon before and searching for anything new she could glean. ‘Draconequus, fae, golden apple. Over and over again, in one big loop. The only things that get repeated even once.’

She came upon the story of the stallion begging for apples to save his daughter. The three mares who guarded the tree were reluctant, but gave him the fruit all the same. For a price: the performance of several epic challenges. ‘And then there’s this story, where there aren’t even any fairies or draconawhatsits. Just apples.’

She flipped through the pages at abandon. ‘And this other one, where there are fairies, but no apples or draconadummies. And this one, where the draconequuses and the fairies are fighting over the garden. And this one, where they’re friends. Nothing makes any sense!’

She slammed the book shut and pushed it aside. She lay her head in the grass and stared into the dark woods, seeing the flicker of a lightning bug, or catching the hoot of an owl.

‘This is dumb.’ She reached her foreleg out to tug the book closer. ‘I’m dumb—’

Something scratched the side of her leg. She moved her hoof along the edge of the book and felt it again; something small and plastic. It was rectangular, laminated paper, stuck between two particular pages. ‘A bookmark? It must’ve belonged to Ribbon Wishes. It’s mine, now.’

She flipped to Ribbon’s stopping point and checked the story. It was one she’d glanced over, along with dozens of others. ‘“The Last Draconequus.” Sounds kinda weepy.’

She leaned on her hoof and started from the top. Once upon a time, long before the formation of Equestria, the draconequus people called Elysium their home. They were tasked with the caretaking of the garden, from the tallest oak to the smallest insect. They loved the garden and guarded it jealously, forbidding any but the draconequui to enter.

‘Oh yeah, I remember this one,’ Pumpkin thought. ‘It’s the one where the fairies and draconacusses go to war. Meh. Buncha screwballs.’

The fairies, likewise, were the guardians of the outside world, bringing order to the lives of the peoples that walked the earth. One day, the king of the fairies grew envious of the bounty of Elysium, and wished to eat of its fabled fruit. The chief draconequus refused, and told the fairy king a lie that only draconequui were permitted to eat of the produce of the garden.

‘Blah, blah, blah, lying is bad. Blah, blah, blah, sharing is good.’ Pumpkin Cake flipped to the next page. ‘Heard it all before, buster.’

***

Pound Cake tapped his hooves together, chewing on a peanut butter sandwich Pumpkin had brought. He gazed to his left, where Discord sat munching a bag full of little black kernels. The draconequus jiggled the bag in his face. “Want some?”

“N-no thanks,” Pound said.

Discord snarfed a handful of the stuff by tossing it into his mouth. Several little bits fell to the ground. “Suit yourself.”

To Pound’s right was Fluttershy, who stared glumly into the embers of the fire. The magical arrow floated over her head, casting a sparkling green pallor over her. She lifted her eyes above the flames and called out to Pumpkin. “Come closer to the light. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Pumpkin grumbled, but shuffled half a meter closer.

Pound fluffed his wings behind his head. He sucked his lips in and considered what to say. “Are you okay, Miss Fluttershy?”

Fluttershy’s ears lay back. “Do you realize how dangerous what you did is? How would you feel if Pumpkin got hurt and you couldn’t do anything? How would she feel if something happened to you? What you did was very irresponsible. Wouldn’t it have been better to just get your parents?”

“Well, yeah…” Pound sank against the tall tree they were nestled beside. “But I wanted to make sure she didn’t get hurt—”

“And what could you do?” Fluttershy snapped. “Honestly, what did you think you were going to do?

Pound didn’t know what to say to that. He curled up before the fire, wrapping his wings around his torso and bringing his mussy tail up around his legs. He tried to ignore the sting in his eyes, but drops collected at the corners all the same. ‘This is so dumb,’ he thought.

He looked Pumpkin’s way and saw that she was totally absorbed in her book. ‘I’m dumb.’

***

The light of the moon shone overhead, fighting a losing battle against the rumbling fire. Pumpkin’s hoof trailed across the words as she read. The war between the draconequui and the fae was in full swing, causing great damage to Elysium and the surrounding countries.

It came to pass that a certain young mare, who was called Softly, traveled from her home to Elysium, having heard of the legends of the Tree of Life. She sought to escape from the ravages of the war and build a new home, backed by the power of golden apples.

During a pitched battle between the armies, in which storms raged and earthquakes shook the mountainside, the mare called Softly snuck into the garden under the cover of the stars. The golden apples shone in the night like lanterns, piercing the cloak of darkness the draconequui had cast.

A voice called out to her from the branches. “What do you want here, mortal? Why have you come to the realm of the great and powerful?”

“I come to cast away the hardships of mortal life,” she replied. “We have only pain and drudgery to look forward to, in order to survive. I wish to no longer work for a morsel of bread and yet starve. I wish to no longer fear the illnesses of the fae, nor the whim of a draconequus’s gale. In eating these apples, I seek to become immortal.”

“Well,” the creature in the leaves replied, “that sounds amusing, true enough, but why should I allow it?”

He showed himself to her as a draconequus, whose body took its form from many species of animals. He floated around, always moving, never remaining as he was.

“I am called Disagreement. I am called Antagonism and Conflict.” The draconequus held an apple out to her, but kept it just out of reach. “I am myself in disagreement. To allow you an apple would be to break an oath made to my chieftain. He has decreed that only draconequui shall eat of the fruit of these trees.”

“I care not,” the mare replied. “Only look the other way and I shall bother you no longer.”

The draconequus withdrew the apple and fastened it to the branches of the Tree. “Alas not, for my oath in full is to guard the tree from fae who would abscond with its bounty. I am duty and honor bound to prevent its harvest.”

“Do I look as a fae would?” the mare called Softly asked.

“Nay, but perhaps that is the key to your trickery.” The draconequus curled itself up at the base of the tree and gave her a simpering smile. “Prove to me that you are not a fae and I shall consider giving you an apple. I make no promise, however, as my mood may shift as the hours grow bleaker.”

“As bleak as these hours are,” the mare said, “I find my own mood amenable. For lack of a better idea, I accept your challenge, though I know not how to convince you.”

“That is for you to decide, if you are clever enough.” The draconequus snapped his fingers and a plate of candied fruit dropped into his waiting talon. “I tell you the truth, it is a dull duty they have given to me, and I find the prospect of a challenge exciting. That the challenge lies on you and not me is an added boon.”

“I am not here for your entertainment, but it cannot be helped.” The mare called Softly considered the terms of their agreement closely. “Would you accept my words if I were to prove that I use a magic a fairy could never replicate?”

“That would be a feat indeed, and one I find ever more intriguing.”

“A fairy’s magic concerns the spirit realm; the heart and the health.” The mare called Softly scuffed her hoof along the ground, which sent magic into the nearby grass. It grew before their eyes and seeded as grain. “But an earth pony’s magic concerns the physical. It is the magic of a farmer, or a stone carver, and its effect is felt in the land.”

“Ah, but a fairy is also capable of great illusions.” The draconequus tossed the plate of fruit away, where it fluttered as a butterfly into the stream. “If that is in fact real, it should last into the morrow. If you seek to prove to me your equinity, you will come back after the sun rises. If the grass remains seeded, then perhaps you are a pony.”

The mare called Softly did not wish to leave the Tree, but knew that if she did not agree, she might never see her prize. “Then I bid you a good night and return to what remains of my home. If the wars have not taken my life, I shall return in a day.”

She returned the following day, as she had said, and the draconequus was waiting, just as he said. Still, the grass was seeded.

“There is your proof,” she told him. “Am I not a pony?”

“It is a small thing to keep an illusion going for a day.” The draconequus hung from the branches of the Tree like a vast snake. “I feel as though your proof is weak. Surely there is yet something else you can use to showcase your magic.”

Anger rose up in the mare called Softly. She raised her hoof to him and smote the seeded grass. “You speak falsely to me, draconequus! Why should I believe that you will ever see reason?”

“You have little evidence that reason much matters.” The draconequus smiled. “And less evidence that you are an earth pony.”

“Then I shall prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt!” The mare glared at the Tree of Life with a fiery scowl. “I shall carve my name into the Tree and yet not harm it! Perhaps then you will be forced to believe!”

The draconequus laughed, loud and long. “If such a thing were possible, it would be disallowed by my chieftain. Such vandalism is well frowned upon in these parts. If you were to do so, I might allow you an apple for sheer audacity! Be warned, if the tree is harmed, you shall become much less than a slug.”

“That of a slug is a less pitiable existence than mine.”

The draconequus became suddenly silent and thoughtful. He gazed at the tree for a long while, before finally coming to a decision. “I care little for my chieftain, only fearing the power he wields. This war has become stagnate and uninteresting at every interval, and shall see little in the way of an end in a millennium’s time. If you are caught, you shall bear the brunt of the blame and the extent of the punishment, only I shall be reprimanded for neglectfulness. Carve your name in the Tree, and also mine, and I shall give you as many apples as you desire. On my word as a draconequus.”

The mare called Softly shook her head. “The word of a draconequus is that of a liar and a madman.”

“You speak well, yet it is all I have to give.”

“Then by the boldness at my disposal and the desperation in my heart, I shall carve our names.”

Pumpkin yawned. The moon was directly overhead, full and bright, its surface marred by several gray splotches. There was a time, she knew, where it was overshadowed by a literal shadow, up to a few months before she was born. It was a strange thing, knowing something in the world had changed so significantly.

She looked to Discord, who rested against the oak tree with his fingers crossed. ‘Did Discord change just as much? And how many times?’

She moseyed up to him. Pound snored beside the fire, a bound blanket preventing him from rolling into the flames. Fluttershy lay a meter away, her feathers shielding her from the light chill of a summer night. Pumpkin set the book between herself and Discord, nudging it with a spark of blue magic. “I think you’re in this book.”

Discord blinked at her. “How do you mean?”

“Check it out.” She pointed out the scene she’d just read, specifically the part where the draconequus named himself Disagreement. “This is totally you. He’s quirky, and random, and generally disinterested unless he finds something funny.”

“That does sound very much like me.” Discord picked up the book and squinted. The words inflated until they bulged from the page, the perfect size to be read. “I can’t recall ever having met this ‘Softly’ pony. And putting me on guard duty seems like the worst possible idea ever.”

“Maybe it says something about how bad the other draconequuses were.” Pumpkin rubbed her foreleg. She glanced at Pound, who whined in his sleep. “You sure you don’t remember her at all?”

“It’s hard to remember what I had for lunch last week, let alone acquaintances from two millennia ago.” He let the book float into her forelegs, light as a feather. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I figured.” Pumpkin rested her forehead against the cover. “Maybe it’s just another dumb story.”

Discord twiddled his thumbs; impressive, since his paw didn’t have one. “For what it’s worth, I appreciate the conceit.”

“I’ll admit, I’ve never been called conceited before.”

“I have, but that’s beside the point.” Discord waved a hand. Flower petals fell from his talons and turned to dust on the wind. “I mean the idea behind what you’re doing. I appreciate you wanting to help. It’s just… the timing could have been better.”

Pumpkin sighed and lay down along the grass. “But we didn’t have any time.”

“Maybe not.” Discord said. “But now you’ve upset Fluttershy, and Pound, and probably your parents. Do your parents spank? Is that too personal a question?”

“Focus, Discord.”

“Right, whatever. The point is, as much as you’d like to make up for treating me like a personal repair business, charging into the wilderness wasn’t the solution.”

Pumpkin snorted. She hefted the book with a telekinetic spell, shoved it into her saddlebags, and walked away. “Have you always been this clueless, or did you have to work at it?”

“It’s a gift,” Discord said, kicking himself with a disembodied foot. “A gift with no returns.”

“Great. Awesome.” Tightening her bag’s straps, Pumpkin turned away from the firelight and towards the shadowed woods. “You can take your gift and shove it—”

A pair of eerie purple eyes stared back at her. Glistening teeth shimmered orange. Muscles rolled beneath a black coat. Whatever it was, it had too many legs, and too much hunger in its eyes.

She screamed until her throat burned.

Fluttershy jumped into the air, wings beating erratically, haphazardly. Pound sat up with a yelp, his bleary eyes blinking at the fire. Discord curled himself in a ring around Pumpkin, a stick grasped in his talon.

The black-coated creature stepped out of the firelight. Its head remained visible, but its body melded into the shadows. “Well that’s a fine way to say ‘hello.’”

Pumpkin retreated until her back lay against Discord’s winding chest. The creature seemed to appear and vanish at will as it weaved around at the edge of the light. She let out a whimper, the only sound she could manage.

“Who are you?” Fluttershy said. “What do you want?”

“Don’t worry none.” The creature’s voice was smooth as butter sliding around on a hotcake. “I’m just a traveler lookin’ for a place to rest for the night.”

Pound rubbed his eyes, pointing a wing into the darkness. “And what about them?”

Pumpkin gazed around. The shadows had come to life, prowling at the edge of her vision.

“You’re displacer beasts,” Fluttershy whispered. “Creatures that are only visible under a direct light source.”

“You know your critters, ma’am.” The lead displacer beast chuckled in a friendly sort of way.

“This is our campfire.” Discord cracked his knuckles, his neck, his back, and his tail, all the way down the line. “Get lost.”

“Rude much, crazy man?” The displacer beast grinned, a frightening showcase of teeth and drool. “We’ll just have to take it out of your hide!

The displacer beasts leapt. Pumpkin screamed again, covering her head with her forelegs. Pound shot straight into the air beside Fluttershy.

Discord rolled his eyes and snapped his fingers.

Black vines exploded form the ground. Long, snaking growths tangled between legs, thorns stabbed rumps, and a web of plant matter encircled the campsite. The displacer beasts were held fast, unable to do much besides blink.

“Plunder Vines,” Discord said, popping a seed into his mouth. “They do a body good.”

A lance of pure malice thundered through one of the stalks, tearing it in half. The condensed hatred turned the splintering vine into a cluster of flaming shards, raining down on the four campers. Fluttershy swatted at her wing, brushing embers away.

Pound pushed Discord’s head down. “Duck!”

They hit the ground just before the beam tore through the space above them. Vines fell like wheat on harvest day, and the displacer beasts landed easily on their six feet. Pumpkin found herself surrounded by fire on all sides, with monsters surrounding that. Her knees shook, her heart pounded in her ears, her mind raced with one thought: ‘We’re dead. We’re so dead.’

Raspy laughter scratched at her ears. A cloaked form—taller than any pony, slimmer than any skeleton, with horns rising high above beady yellow eyes—waltzed into view. “Discord, old friend. How long has it been? A decade?”

Discord’s fingers gripped the grass tight. “Tirek? What’s the matter? Prison food not good enough for you?”

“You are as amusing as you are clever,” Tirek said, his teeth bared. “That is to say, not at all.”

“Ooh, did it take you all night to think of that?”

“Silence!” Tirek raised a gaunt hand. “There is yet a chance most of you walk free. I only want what was taken from me.”

Fluttershy’s wings shook against her sides. She kept Pound beneath her, guarded by her legs. “Somehow, I feel like that’s a lie.”

“Astute.” Tirek pointed his gnarled finger. “Give me the Rainbow of Darkness, Fluttershy! Return what was stolen!”

Fluttershy shook her head, her mouth dipping open. “I… I have no idea what that—”

“Do not play games with me!” Tirek strode forward until the crackling Plunder Vines licked at his cape. “Where have you hidden it? Where is my power?

“For Peat’s sake, she doesn’t have it!” Discord rolled up the fur along his arms. “But if it’s a whoopin’ you’re a-wantin’, we’ve got plenty of those.”

Tirek barked a laugh that hurt Pumpkin’s neck just thinking about it. “Then I shall retrieve my Rainbow of Darkness from Fluttershy’s corpse!

A ball of energy glowed between his horns. Red magic boiled forward to strike Discord in the chest. The draconequus snapped his body to the side, spinning around the incinerating blast. The oak trunk erupted with shivers and plasma, sending the ancient tree tumbling.

“Run!” Discord shouted, and threw Pumpkin over the flames. Pound followed soon after, with Fluttershy in hot pursuit. Discord paused to punch a displacer beast right in the snout before scrambling along.

“After them!” Tirek screamed, his eyes blazing as bright as the magic between his horns. “Destroy them utterly!”

Pumpkin ran, her wits having completely failed her. She couldn’t see anything except for what was right in front of her. Ferns were trampled underhoof, flowers kicked into pollen and dust, and insects sent scattering. Shadows lunged at her, but she barely registered them. Something long and sharp snagged her rear leg, but Discord swatted it away. Pain stabbed through her nerves, but she pressed past it.

A jolt in her tail pulled her legs out from beneath her. She flopped to her stomach with a winded “Gwaugh!”

Discord dug in his heels. Fluttershy yelped and spread her wings to catch the air. Pound spat Pumpkin’s tail out and breathed a sigh of temporary relief.

Pumpkin looked down, down, down into a black abyss. The far side was a good thirty meters away. The ground was invisible to the naked eye, though the faint rush of a river rose above the ratta-tat-tat of her pulse.

They’d made it to Ghastly Gorge. Yay.

“On my back,” Fluttershy said breathlessly. “Pound and Discord can fly, but you need to get on—”

Menace took the form of a murderous pillar of fire, slicing through branches and turning leaves to ashes. The edge of the spell singed Discord’s mane.

“He’ll see you if you fly!” Discord pulled a bottle from nowhere and dumped its contents into the gorge. “I’ll hold them off; you three scamper across.”

Discord stood tall, a scabbard in his left hand. He drew the weapon with his right and pointed at the approaching attackers. “Have at thee!”

A bouquet of flowers hung limp from the end of Discord’s hand. He sucked his lips in. “Probably not the best time for a joke.”

The displacer beasts swarmed out of the tree line and into the light of the moon. They bit and snarled, their six legs moving at a frenzy, the tentacles on their backs grasping. Discord pounded them with boxing gloves, but they continued to come.

Fluttershy ducked beneath a claw swipe. “Stop it! Stop it!

Her voice became hard, loud, and clear. “I said stop.”

Several displacer beasts halted in their tracks, their eyes wide, their mouths agape. They sat transfixed, unable to move, unwilling to breathe. Fluttershy’s Stare bored into them, straight into their blackened souls.

“Don’t you dare hurt my friends,” Fluttershy said. “You need to go home and think about what you just did.”

Discord pounced and batted aside a displacer beast that was circling around her rear. “You think you can do the convincing a little faster?”

Tirek’s hatred sliced the air beside his head. “Please,” Discord whimpered

Pound grabbed Pumpkin’s shoulder and shook her. “Snap out of it! Let’s go!

Pumpkin’s head whirled. There was nowhere to go. Displacer beasts in front of her, a sheer cliff behind her, and Tirek’s rage above her. Her stomach twisted and her balance failed.

Pound caught her before she could collapse. “Get up! I’m not leaving without you so get up!

“Why little pony want to run?” a skeevy voice said. “All fun stuff already here!”

Pumpkin opened her eyes and beheld the single ugliest thing she had seen in her entire life. It walked on two legs, dragging oversized knuckles. Its head was oblong and its nose was stubby, barely visible over its sharp teeth. Scraggly little white hairs took the place of a proper coat. Its red eyes glowed in the low light. “My little pony, my little pony, what flavors will Munchy taste?”

It reached for them, its grimy fingers tipped with dirty claws. “My little pony, my little pony, feasting is ma—”

Pound drew back, scrunched his muzzle, and punched the creature with all his strength.

The thing that called itself Munchy tumbled head over heels. It grasped its face, wailing like a foal.

Pound didn’t stop there. He leapt onto the monster, thrashing it with as many punches and kicks as he was able to slip past Munchy’s meager guard. He paused just long enough to take a breath.

That was long enough for Munchy’s hands to close around his throat. The monster rolled, pressing the young colt against the ground. A grin split the creature’s features. “Ponies screaming, ponies dying. Ponies roasting, ponies crying!”

Pound gasped, his eyes rolling back.

‘No, no, no!’ Pumpkin thought. ‘Do something, do something, do something!’

“Hay, buttface!” she shouted.

Munchy looked up, his grip slackened, his expression puzzled.

‘This is such a dumb idea,’ she thought. “Was your mom the warthog or the ugly tree?”

Tears burst into Munchy’s eyes. He rose to his feet and ran at her, his arms outstretched. “Mommy Munchy was lovely!

Just before he hit her, Pumpkin’s horn flared. He slid right through her. There wasn’t any ground on the other side. “Oh cruuuuud!!!

She hoisted Pound to his hooves. He struggled to catch his breath as coughs rattled his chest. “Quit fooling around,” she said. “What are we gonna do?

“Cross the gorge!” Discord shouted, still protecting Fluttershy from an onslaught. Tirek could be seen just inside the first few rows of trees. “Go now! Move your caboose!”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Pound shouted. “I can’t carry Pum—”

“Use the bridge!”

“Bridge?” Pumpkin leaned down and peered closer into the darkness. Several round, transparent shapes glistened into view, bumping up against each other.

“You made…” She tilted her head, one ear falling limp. “A bubble bath? In the gorge?”

“Don’t question it, just move!” Pound hopped onto the first bubble, his wings ready for a quick takeoff. The surface tension held. “It’s fine—come on!”

Pumpkin landed hard. The bubble jiggled beneath her hooves like a giant bouncy house. “You couldn’t make a bridge out of—I don’t know—sticks?

“Pressed for time!” Discord blew air into a long balloon and used it to bat a displacer beast aside. “You try to be clever on such short notice!”

Pumpkin wobbled forward a few steps. “I don’t need clever, I need sturdy!”

Discord grasped Fluttershy by the tail. “I’d like to apologize in advance for this.”

She frowned, breaking her hold over the displacer beasts. “What are you—?”

She squeaked as she found herself tossed over the edge of the cliff and onto the bubble bridge. She wobbled for far too long to be comfortable before finding her footing. “A little warning next time!”

“I’ll remember that the next time we’re fighting for our lives!” Discord tripped a displacer beast as it tried to follow her. “Nope, nope, nope.”

Tirek plowed through the last of the trees and aimed straight for Discord. He missed by a matter of inches. “You’re slowing down, Discord! How much longer can you—?”

Discord stepped on the tip of a garden hoe. It came up to slap Tirek across the nose.

Pumpkin hopped to the next bubble in line. Every time she looked down, her stomach wanted to upchuck. She glanced back. Her breath caught in her throat as Tirek clawed at Discord, before the draconequus shrunk to a speck. Her attention soon shifted to the displacer beasts joining them on the bridge. “Fluttershy! Behind you!”

Fluttershy’s jaw set. She about-faced and glared at the approaching monsters, her eyes bright and piercing. “Stop! Go back! Go home!”

The Stare struck the displacers to their core. A few at the back of the line were able to avoid her glare, but they struggled to shove past their fellow beasts.

Tirek whirled around, seeking a sign of Discord. The orb of wicked power raged between his horns. The whip-like muscles in his arms stretched taut. His beady yellow eyes settled on one particular pegasus mare, focusing all their rage. “Fluttershy!”

Fluttershy twitched, her eyes meeting the centaur’s.

“Consider this,” Tirek said, charging his spell, “payment in full!

The head displacer beast, freed from the Stare, turned around with wide eyes. “Wait, big hoss! Don’t shoot the br—”

Discord cannonballed onto Tirek’s back. The centaur’s aim went wide, missing Fluttershy but slicing through the wall of the gorge and several bubbles.

The bubbles continued to pop, right beneath Pumpkin’s hooves. She ran as fast as she could across the uneven, unstable bridge. Pound was ahead of her, urging her on, reaching for her. With a final leap, she grasped his foreleg and hoisted herself onto the ledge.

Fluttershy covered her mouth, her wings carrying her aloft, as the entire contingent of displacer beasts tumbled into Ghastly Gorge, howling all the way. She flew at top speed for the far side, tears in her eyes.

Pumpkin fell to her stomach. A gentle hand touched the side of her head. “Come on,” Discord said. “We gotta move.”

She glanced up into mishmashed, yellowed eyes. To her right, Pound was stumbling along, trying to catch his breath. To her left, Fluttershy was cleaning vomit from the side of her mouth. They all scuttled along, keeping low, rushing through the woods to whatever destination they could find.

***

Tirek flailed at thin air, roaring sounds without meaning. He gazed around the empty cliff side, down into the gorge, and across to the other side. His gang lay at the bottom, most assuredly no longer among the living. His greatest prize and his greatest enemy both turned tail and escaped into the woods.

A disgusting little hand appeared over the cliff. Munchy’s head popped up soon after. The little morlock shivered as he wandered up to Tirek’s side. “Whoo. That was super-close one.”

Tirek lashed out with a hind leg and sent Munchy flying. The morlock groaned, his broken nose pressed against the soil. “Munchy okay.”

Tirek turned back through the trees. He would have to find another way around the gorge if he wished to continue his chase. But then, how would he find his hated foes again? He no longer had a hunting party. He no longer had the stink of draconequus to follow.

His answer hovered over the fiery remains of the camp: The glowing, green, magical arrow the fools had been following. It would no doubt lead Tirek right to them. Or, at the least, he could reach their destination before they did.

Tirek rubbed his chin and scowled. He no longer had an edge, but the battle was not over yet.

***

Lacer the Displacer lay face down in a puddle of soapy water. Three of his legs were broken, as well as several of his ribs. He could tell just by trying to stand. He wasn’t going anywhere.

His fellow displacer beasts were similarly injured. The bubbles had broken their fall on the way down, but they had still fallen a great distance. All because of Tirek and his stupid vendetta.

“Oh dear.” A shape materialized out of the misty gorge. It was a small pony, with a gray coat and a black business suit. The pony tipped a boater hat to Lacer. “It seems you are in something of a pickle. Most very distressing.”

“What… what do you want, pony?” It was strange to Lacer that a pony would hang out in the gorge at all. It didn’t seem very important, though. More pressing was the itch working its way down his back. “Look, we’re kinda half-dead down here, so why don’t you go off and get us some help?”

“Because I am the help.” The pony set a briefcase beside Lacer’s head. “I wish to hire you, in exchange for a great reward.”

“Been there, done that, pony bro.” Lacer groaned, which only served to pain his ribs further. “Just got done with a job that went south in a hurry.”

“Yes, yes. Tirek and his promises of gold.” The pony smiled. “I’d like to sweeten the deal, so to speak.”

He kicked the case open. Gold and jewels sparkled in Lacer’s eyes.

“Consider this a… nonrefundable down payment.” The pony dumped the gold beside Lacer. The briefcase vanished. “My gift to you. If you take this job, your reward will be many times what you see here.”

Lacer the Displacer lifted a good leg. “I’m… a little wounded here, pony bro.”

“Oh yes, of course. Yes, yes.” The pony placed a golden vial in Lacer’s paw. “Perhaps a bit of ambrosia will go a ways?”

Lacer took a sip of the curative potion. “Who did you say you were?”

“You can call me Jeuk.” The pony took a step back as the other displacer beasts got to their feet and wandered closer. “I’ll be your business partner for the foreseeable future. And trust me when I say the future is bright.”

Lacer looked at the pile of gold that was already his. It was enough to pay for all his and his sister’s debts. A couple times over. It was a new life. It was all their troubles over.

He wanted more. “What’s the job, Jeuk my pony?”

Jeuk giggled.

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