• 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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Look Back to Look Forward

Pumpkin Cake huddled beneath a beech tree. It was an old, wizened thing, with far-reaching branches and full, lush leaves. Early morning mist hovered over the ground cover, while dew collected in her coat. Birdsong stabbed at her ears as she looked for wretched things crawling through the wilds of Whitetail Woods.

Discord sat a short distance away, his head held like a periscope, swiveling this way and that. A short branch balanced in his crooked elbow, while a round helmet with a single spike sat on his head. “It’s noisy,” he said. “Too noisy.”

A bitter retort about him not helping faded long before it could leave her lips. She sighed and lay down in the damp grass to watch ants crawl across the forest floor. They paraded single-file, not a care in the world except to eat and build.

‘Do ants get sick?’ she wondered. ‘Do ants have doctors? Does anybody care about them?’

Fluttershy flew in, with Pound close behind, a woven hemp basket hanging from his side. It was piled high with berries, roots, and other edible goodies found throughout the woods. Seemed they had good luck foraging. “Eat up,” Fluttershy said. “We need to keep moving.”

Discord popped a raspberry in his mouth with a kaboing!

Fluttershy rolled her eyes. She nibbled on a wild chive and waved at the kids. “Hurry. Just get something in you so we can walk.”

Pound glanced at his sister before just as quickly looking away. “I found some blackberries if you want them.”

Pumpkin’s heart thrummed too quickly. Too lightly. Her eyes never left the dark, mottled bruises on Pound’s neck. His voice was raspy and pained. She found herself too upset to speak, so she just brought a hoofful of berries to her mouth. They tasted like ash.

‘That’s my fault. I did that.’

Discord hovered overhead, juggling radishes. “You’re all acting awfully dour for a group of ponies who just escaped with their lives. We should celebrate! He who screams and runs away lives to cower another day!”

“Discord.” Fluttershy’s words came like the snap of a whip. “Shut. Up.”

Pound grimaced as he tried to force air past his vocal chords. “We—we don’t know if the creatures are still after us. We know Tirek still is. Wh—we have to get home.”

“We can’t.” Pumpkin blinked. An ant might have looked her way, or it may have been a trick of the light. “Tirek will be waiting for us.”

“We have to move forward.” Fluttershy spread her wings, shaking a bit of dew into a rainbow-filled spray. “I don’t care where, but forward. Your parents were expecting us today, so when we don’t show up they’ll send a search party.”

Pound tried to cough, but barely managed a hiccup. “Hopefully one with lots of Royal Guardsponies.”

Fluttershy put a hoof to his chin to shut his mouth. “You should stop talking. I’m not saying you’re not right, but you aren’t going to heal if you keep hurting yourself.”

Pound nodded. He chewed his berries well before swallowing as gently as possible.

Discord raised a talon. “May I ask something?”

Fluttershy frowned. “No.”

Discord rubbed his hands together, staring into the distance, pressing his lips tight. “I’m gonna ask anyway. Which way is forward?”

Pumpkin’s ears rose as she lifted her head. “Aren’t we still going to the garden?”

“We lost our only way of finding it.” Fluttershy paced beneath the tree, gesturing with her hoof at whatever caught her ire. “If we pick the wrong direction, we could be hundreds of miles off. We’re going to have to start all over again.” She narrowed her eyes at Pumpkin, laying her ears back. “Without you two.”

She fluttered up to a low branch to gain a better lookout position. “So we pick a direction and keep moving, until the guards find us or Tirek does.”

Discord held his talon across his heart and fluttered his paw. “My, my, the day is just filled with possibilities!”

“Discord, please.” Fluttershy held her hooves to her chest, shaking her head. “Please, please stop talking. It’s not funny. Not right now. Creatures just died.”

Pound rubbed his mussed mane. “We don’t know that. They might’ve—”

“Pound.” Fluttershy stomped her hoof and turned. She walked into the woods, booking no room for argument.

Pumpkin looked from her brother’s bruises to Discord. “I think we’re supposed to follow her.”

“Prudent.” Discord lowered himself to his feet. “Shall we carry on?”

The walk was quiet as the grave. The sun rose and banished the mist, carrying the dew away to an early morning elsewhere. Insects came out in force; buzzing bees and katydids and ants everywhere. Pumpkin was tempted to swat a few away, but she dreaded upsetting Fluttershy.

The terrain shifted as they moved further west, growing less a wooded plain and more a rocky, craggy landscape. Vast boulders overgrown with moss stood like ancient ruins. Steep hills and wide valleys were coated with thick trees. The sun shone yellow through the chlorophyll-filled foliage. The warm summer air was accompanied by a cooling breeze, gently tugging at their manes.

Any other time, Pumpkin would have been amazed and awed. She probably would have taken her notebook out to try her horn at drawing something. But every time she thought about it, she would stumble on an exposed root, or catch a glimpse of Pound’s bruises, or hear Discord mutter something just out of earshot.

If you hadn’t been there, they could’ve just flown over the gap.

Her thoughts sounded strange to her, but she couldn’t argue with them. The whole fiasco at the gorge… The creatures falling, Fluttershy almost getting killed, that thing choking Pound… that was on her.

It’s your fault for wanting to come. That’s why everybody is hurt.

Pumpkin scratched an itch behind her ear. A moth flew from its perch and flapped its wings in her face. “Son of a—”

“Pumpkin!” Pound glanced over his shoulder, giving her an evil eye.

“—gun…” Pumpkin let her head dip down. A half-restrained, curly pigtail flopped over her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

He’s hurt because of you.

Pumpkin bit her lip. Her eyes stung as a flash of sunlight broke through the branches. “I’m sorry.”

Discord will lose his memory because of you.

“I’m sorry.”

People are hurt because of you.

“I’m sorry!”

She wanted to curl up on the ground. She wanted to cover her ears and say it was all lies, but it wasn’t. “I just wanted to help!

Her face was sticky with tears. Her hooves were too damp to dry her cheeks. She felt the strength leave her legs and cause her to flop down, shaking and sobbing. “I’m sorry.”

“Hay.” A hoof brushed a tear away. Pound nudged her shoulder, trying to get her to stand. “It’s gonna be alright.”

“No it’s not.” Pumpkin sniffled, burying her muzzle in her forelegs. “I screwed up and now everybody’s hurt. I just wanted to make things better, not worse.”

“Everything happens for a reason.” Pound rested a wing on her back. “That’s what Mrs. Cheerilee says, right? That’s what Mom and Dad and Pinkie always say, right? Maybe there’s a reason you came?”

“Yeah.” Pumpkin shifted herself in the moss to turn away. “Reason is I’m a big doody-head.”

“No, I mean for a good reason.” Pound looked to Fluttershy, his brow furrowed. “There has to be a good reason for this. Right?”

Fluttershy scrunched her muzzle, her eyes lidded. “We don’t have time for—”

“Fluttershy,” Discord said, touching her shoulder. “I don’t think Tirek will find us if we just sit here for the next ten minutes. Do you?”

Fluttershy opened her mouth, but nothing came forth. She flicked her tail and walked to the edge of a nearby clearing. She sat down with her back to them, her long, soft wings touching the tips of the grass.

“Now you listen hear, Little Miss Cake.” Discord popped a monocle in each eye, swishing a pointer back and forth at nothing. He walked in a circle with Pound and Pumpkin at the center. “I’ve lived a good many lifetimes and can remember at least a couple of them. I’ve seen this side of eternity and more. And with my long, long life and great, great experience, I can tell you one thing.”

Pound narrowed an eye. He spread his wings and croaked, “Which is?”

“That the entire world is on a crash-collision course with cataclysm!” He slapped a palm with the stick. “But you ponies don’t seem to care.”

He bounced a monocle like a yo-yo, spinning it around and around. “You see the world crumble around you, all your hard work going up in flames and burning to the ground! Yet you still march on, waving your little flags and singing your little songs. Joyously going about your day as if it would never end, even though the end is just around the corner.”

The objects in his grip disappeared. He curled himself up in coils, slipping to the ground, bringing his head to their level. “I never understood it. For centuries and millennia I never understood it. I knew cataclysm was coming, so why not embrace it? Why not charge wholeheartedly towards it and meet it in the middle?”

Pumpkin felt the sobs recede, little by little. She watched Discord talk, with his exaggerated movements and his loud voice. Always seeking to entertain. Always fighting for an audience. He had one.

“And then… then I met Fluttershy and I started to get it.” He gazed at the Pegasus, his eyelids low, his snaggletooth digging into his chin. “I started to understand why you mortals clung to life so desperately. What you wanted to hold onto. And that’s…”

He rubbed his neck, fluttering his decidedly nonsymmetrical wings. “It wasn’t until I started caring for the mortal life that my own mortality showed its big, ugly face.”

He held out his hands, giving Pound and Pumpkin a shrug. “I don’t know if everything works out for good, but I know it’s in your nature to never stop trying.”

He booped her nose. “And that, Little Miss Cake, is all you ever needed.”

Pound huffed. He hopped into the air and hovered, bopping tree branches aside. “I’m not convinced.”

Discord touched a finger to his lips. “Oh, you. Stahp.”

“I mean, there’s more to life than just ignoring all the bad things that are coming.” Pound thumped one hoof against the other. “There’s a reason and a purpose for all of us. A good one.”

“Hate to break it to you, Sport,” Discord said, his voice low, “but not everybody lives as charmed a life as Pinkie Pie. It’s easy for her to say, but—”

“Discord.” Fluttershy tugged on the tip of his tail, dragging him a few inches back. She jerked her head towards the west. “It’s time to go.”

Discord pressed his lips together. He shot a glance at Pound out of the corner of his eye. “You’ll be happy, Pound. Oh, ho, ho, yes, ecstatically so. But don’t be surprised when you’re not.”

Pumpkin lifted herself off the grass and moss, picking little blades out of her coat with a flash of magic. She adjusted her saddlebag straps, rolled her pigtails behind her shoulders, and looked to the others, who all made their way west with plodding, uncertain steps. Some of it had to do with the terrain, but not all of it.

Fluttershy’s wings dragged at her sides as her ears swiveled, searching for something.

‘Probably listening to the birds,’ Pumpkin thought. ‘Looking for a friend?’

Fluttershy let her head droop, and stared at her hooves as she carried on.

Pumpkin did the same.

***

Fluttershy rested against a tree trunk overlooking a deep valley carved from stone and soil. Trees grew sideways from the walls, reaching for the sunlight as it passed overhead. Caves pocketed the otherwise sheer walls, hosting endless unknowns.

“We’ll camp up here for the night,” she sighed. The warmth of the sun faded as it sunk beneath distant hills. She chewed on a spare sprig of dandelion she’d found on the way there. “We’ll find some peace.”

“Unlikely,” Pumpkin piped up.

“We will!” Fluttershy blew a hot breath through her nostrils. “We will. Some. Discord, would you—”

“Make a fire?” Discord held a stick above crackling flames, cradling a bag of marshmallows. “Roast some weenies? Sing camp songs?”

Fluttershy felt anger rise in her chest. She bit it back, along with the retort she’d summoned from the depth of her heart. “Please, just keep a lookout.”

She walked off, staying within earshot but gaining enough distance to clear her head. It was wrong. Everything was wrong. The trip was spoiled. The guide was lost. Now she had two children to take care of on top of Discord? ‘It’s too much. It’s too much! How could everything have gotten so twisted? How could everything have come apart so quickly? I don’t know what to do.’

She looked to the setting sun, wishing for the slightest glimpse of the pony lowering it to its rest. ‘I don’t know what to do. Is there anything I can do? There has to be something.’

“What can I do?” she whispered.

“I, um, was about to ask that.”

Fluttershy snapped her head around. She beheld the same sturdy, cream-coated colt that had been following her for two days now. “What?”

“I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help.” Pound shuffled his hooves, letting his wings twitch unfettered. “Anything. G-gather food again? Keep watch? Um, make a shelter, I dunno.”

Fluttershy tried with all her might to keep her expression neutral. She was as weak as she’d ever been; her face grew dour as the edge of her lips turned up in an unmistakable grimace. “I think you’ve helped enough.”

“No I haven’t.” Pound tried to clear his throat, but it came out as a scratchy whine. “I haven’t done anything right since we followed you. I wanna do something to help.”

“Believe me, Pound,” Fluttershy said, her ears low, “there’s nothing you can do—”

“Teach me what to do!” His voice broke at the last word. “Teach me how to do it right. I tried to protect my sister and it sucked, so teach me how.”

“Don’t run off into the woods!” The words escaped before Fluttershy could blot them out. “Don’t throw yourself in danger when you know it’s irresponsible! Pumpkin knew better and so did you!”

“I know!” Pound took in deep breaths to ease his throat. Judging by his strained face, it had the opposite effect. “I know. I know we did it wrong. So how do I fix it?”

“Some things you can’t fix.” Fluttershy felt her eyes pool. She wiped her face with a wingtip, flicking the water away with a gentle wing beat. “Sometimes there isn’t a magical cure, or a final puzzle piece, or a lost prophecy… Sometimes you just have to live with your mistakes.”

Pound looked her right in the eye, sniffling. “Then what?”

“You try again.” Fluttershy drew to the edge of the cliff and looked down. A stream trickled across the boulders and crags, reflecting the orangey light. “And you choke down the pain.”

She sat at the brim of the valley, letting her legs dangle over the side. A bird soared from the sky to perch on a long, thin branch. Its twig-like leg bent as it tucked its head beneath its blue wings.

Pound nestled into the moss a short ways away. “I don’t want to always hurt.”

“It doesn’t always hurt.” Fluttershy filled her lungs with fresh air. She reclined and watched the wildlife shift, from the bright cheerfulness of day, to the soft tranquility of night. Raccoons peered from dens, while snakes slithered from burrows. “But it can always hurt again.”

She shut her eyes and listened to the call of a barn owl. “Do you remember the story of how my friends and I got our cutie marks?”

“Yeah.” Pound swung his hoof in an arc. “Rainbow Dash soared through the sky and made the biggest rainboom ever!”

“That’s right.” Fluttershy folded her wing beneath her to act as a makeshift pillow. “Shortly after I fell from Cloudsdale, once I was saved by the animals, I met a boy. A young colt named Happy, just my age.”

She reached her foreleg out to allow a ladybug to perch on her hoof. It crawled around in circles, fluttering its four wings. “I was still too young to live alone, but when my parents saw how much I loved it down here… well, long story short, I stayed with his family over the summer. Miss Merry Mare is his mother. You remember her?”

“The lady that runs the anti-Applejack protest rallies.” Pound offered her a lopsided grin. “Hard to forget a mare with a megaphone.”

“Maybe so.” Fluttershy giggled lightly. Happy memories played behind her eyes, overlapping with the peace she found in the valley. “We had so much fun just discovering the world. Me, Happy, Merry and her husband.” She wrinkled her snout. “Since her name was Missus Mare, I always called him Mister Pony.”

Pound batted aside a falling leaf with a swipe of his wing. “I didn’t know she was married.”

“She’s not.” Fluttershy felt that old, familiar ache slide into the groove carved into her heart. “At least, I don’t think so. Not anymore. I don’t know if they actually got divorced, but…”

She glanced at Pound. Hesitated. Did he need to hear this? Didn’t he already feel bad enough? Could it help him? Hinder him? Was this a harsh kindness, or a bitter cruelty?

“We were all very happy. Mostly because of Happy. His love of life was…” She pressed ahead before she could doubt herself further. ‘The harshest lessons can have the greatest impact.’ “He was always cheerful. Always had something nice to say or do. Always encouraging me…”

She looked him right in the eye, her brow furrowed. “Until I made a big mistake.”

The ladybug flew behind her ear and nuzzled her mane. “I’ve always loved animals so very much. I wanted to meet as many as I could. And… and I’d read about the manticores that live in the Everfree Forest—they’re such gentle creatures, you know, just big—and I wanted to meet one.”

She saw it in the way Pound deflated; he could see where it was going. She saw the very moment it dawned on him what might have happened. What had to have happened. He said nothing, though, and tilted his ears to catch her words.

“Happy promised to protect me, to accompany me through the forest.” Fluttershy bit her lip hard. “We were younger than you. We packed a couple of snacks and slipped away from the mare babysitting us. We traveled through the woods all afternoon. We met the nicest creatures. Manny the Manticore is still one of my best friends…”

Tears trailed through her coat, feeling warm against her skin. “But it was the night the Everfree earned its status as an evil place. The day the legend became harsh reality.”

The ladybug flew away to whatever leaf it called home. Fluttershy gazed as it went, bobbing its carefree way across the landscape. “We crossed a log that stretched across the river. We’d gone over it four times that day without any trouble. It was sturdy, strong, steadfast. But—but I must have been bitten by a bug, because a terrible, terrible burning itch spread across my wing. I reached to rub it and… and my foot caught and…”

Heat spread across her face as her throat tightened. “I had never learned to swim. They don’t have pools or lakes in Cloudsdale. I fell.” She let her head droop under the weight upon her shoulders. “I fell and he jumped in after me. He kept my head above water until I could grab a branch. I—I climbed onto the bank and he was gone.”

Fluttershy sat up. The last of the light vanished behind distant trees and mountains, leaving the sky a deep purple. “They said they found him three days later. He never had a chance. They took me back to Cloudsdale and… and Ponyville fell apart. For a long time, it was just broken. So many horrible things happened after… after my mistake.”

She reached out to touch Pound’s shoulder. He stared into the middle distance, barely breathing. “Pound,” she said, “you are one of the most responsible colts I know. From what I saw yesterday, you’re one of the most courageous and noble brothers, too. You have a beautiful heart.”

She rubbed his back gently, her voice quiet. “You need to temper that courage with wisdom. Learn when to act. How to act. When to tell somebody no. Pumpkin didn’t need you to go after her, but to tell her she was wrong and then get your parents. I needed somebody to tell me no. To stop me. But nobody did. And someone very important to me was caught up in the consequences.”

Pound was quiet for a long time, mulling over his response. When he spoke at last, it was with a waiver. “I… I don’t understand how that could work out for good. P-Pinkie says—”

“Pound.” Fluttershy blew a breath through her nose. ‘Pinkie’s gonna hate me.’ “Not everything has a happy ending.”

Dampness trickled down his face. He sniffled and rubbed his nose.

Her heart broke. She pulled him into a soft hug, covering him with her wings. “But I learned from my mistake. I learned how to move through life with careful caution. I learned that though there are hardships, they can be endured.”

She pressed her teeth tight behind closed lips. “And I decided that I will never lose a friend ever again. Not if there’s anything I can do to save them.”

Pound rested his head against her downy feathers. “So… so next time Pumpkin goes crazy I know what to do, right?” He laughed, just a little bit.

“I suppose so.” She gave him a squeeze before letting him go. “And you are a brave colt, Pound. That’s something to be proud of.”

***

’Pumpkin.’

Pumpkin Cake arose in the deepest of night, her ears filled with a small buzzing. She scratched an itch at the back of her head, beneath her impossibly tangled mane. As she scratched, it niggled all the more, soon adding a slight burning sensation atop it.

No crickets chirped. No owls called. No creature stirred in the depths of Whitetail Woods.

Discord curled around their little campsite, where all three ponies huddled together. Pumpkin moved carefully to step around the others, never so much as nudging them. Never disturbing them. Never waking them. The spell of stillness over the forest caught her up in its grasp, hushing her footsteps against the moss.

She sighed. Fog rolled from her mouth. It hung before her in a clump, wafting and swirling, unworldly and spectral.

She cinched her saddlebags around her barrel, hefting the weight of her art supplies and that stupid book. She’d never finished that story. It didn’t seem important anymore, though. Nothing much did.

Her ear twitched at the tug of a sound more felt than heard. She looked up to find a perfect path cut through the trees, overhung by branches and dangling vines. A light hovered up and down the road, fading in and out.

‘A firefly?’ Pumpkin wanted to wake Fluttershy, or Discord, or anybody. But she didn’t. She walked towards the bobbing light. She reached for it, again and again, but each time it pulled further down the path.

It wasn’t a lightning bug. There was no buzz of wings, no telltale black carapace in the midst of the glow. It was bodiless, formless, void of all but luminescence. Yet still it led her on, step by step, inch by inch.

She tried to speak, to say “What are you?” but her thoughts were muddled by an incessant itch in her mind. Her throat was stopped up by a weight upon her tongue. Her eyes were drawn unstoppably towards the guiding light, her hooves having stopped obeying her long ago.

“Hello, little girl,” the light said at last. “Do you know the way to the Tree of Life?”

“No,” she said automatically. She scratched at the infernal itch. “We’re lost.”

“I’m sorry. So terribly sorry.” The voice sounded genuinely remorseful. Pumpkin almost felt bad for it. “I know you wanted to find the tree ever so badly. Yes, yes. A horrible creature stole your heart’s desire away from you.”

Pumpkin fought to say what she wished. Words fell from her open mouth, though not the one’s she’d chosen. “I want to heal Discord, but now we can’t.”

“Dear child, fear not.” The light twinkled, as if it was capable of smiling through sheer brightness. “I can show you the way to the Garden of Elysium. There, you will find a way to free Discord of his worries.”

‘Convenient,’ she thought. ‘Way too convenient. It’s a trick. It’s a trick and this is some weird forest spirit that wants you to wander forever.’

“I do so hope you’ll follow my advice.” The light dimmed. It lowered itself towards the ground, changing hues from plain white to an odd, darker red. “You know what will happen to Discord if you don’t.”

A fire struck in the midst of Pumpkin’s heart. She clenched her teeth tight, pointing her horn at the apparition. She forced the words past the fog behind her eyes. “What do you mean? Nothing’s gonna happen to Discord! We’re gonna cure him!”

“But what if you don’t?” The light faded into dust and blew away. “All you need to do to see forward… is to look back…”

“Back?” Pumpkin threw her head around to see the path. “That doesn’t make—”

What once were woods was a forest of candy canes. What once was a mountain was a pile of green mucous, humming a merry little tune. What once were clouds were vast clumps of landscape, hung upside down, where ponies clung to the grass for dear life. The dirt was checkerboard and the river was salami. The sun and moon flew across the sky in an arcane tennis match.

Over it all, a throne sat, holding a familiar mishmash of a creature. Discord tilted his cup to her, letting the fish within slosh around. “Aha! I’ve been expecting you, my dear! I… huh?”

He put on eyeglasses. They slid down his nose, growing bigger by the inch, until his eyes were magnified to astronomical proportions. “My, my; these virgin sacrifices are getting younger every year.”

Pumpkin’s pupils shrunk. “Oh, eeew!

“Oh, hush. I’m just tossing you into the gelatin volcano with the others.” He picked her up by the scruff of her neck and held her over a vat of goo. “Here comes another one, girls!”

Pumpkin chanced a look down as she fell. Dozens and dozens of mares were encased in solidified blocks of gelatin, like mosquitos in amber. She saw familiar faces, every one, from Princess Twilight Sparkle, to her filly scout leader Twist, to even Scootaloo.

Scootaloo stared at her, her eyes pleading for help.

Pumpkin hit the goop with a flat plunk. She stood up, her legs wobbling beneath her. “Discord, stop! We’re your friends!”

“Hmm? What was that?” Discord stuck a pinkie in his ear and pulled out a Pinkie. He flicked her away like a booger. “I must have misheard you. See, I don’t need any friends. Why have friends when you can have breakable playthings?”

“What about Fluttershy?” Pumpkin tripped when her hooves stuck fast to the slime beneath her. “She’s your best friend! Your first friend!”

“Shutterfly? Never heard of such a thing.” He tapped the tips of his claws together, giggling bright. “Ooh! Ooh! Can you do the thing where you hold your hoof up so that it’s the last thing that sinks? It’s a gut-buster every time!”

Pumpkin gasped. She was up to her chest in the stuff. She struggled to pull something, anything, out of the mire, but every tug was met with a squelching sound from the ooze. “Help! I’m gonna sink!”

“Spoilers!” Discord pressed a finger against his lips and shushed noisily.

“I’m your friend, Discord!” Tears burst from Pumpkin’s eyes, streaming down, down, down to the muck. “You’re my friend! We hang out after school, and you do funny things, and you fix my rubber chicken! You’re my best… my best friend.”

Discord lowered his eyebrows. He scratched his chin, swinging a silver pocket watch with his paw. “Ah! I remember a rubber chicken… Yes, I do remember.” He laughed straight from the bottom of his belly. “I brought that thing to life years ago! It was hilarious the way it devoured that entire family alive!”

Pumpkin felt the sludge collect around her cheekbones. “Wh—what?”

“All of them lived in the bakery, you see, and—” He guffawed and slapped his knee. “Oh, their screams were delightful! You’ll see what I mean in a minute. Here he comes now!”

She looked to the right. A rubber chicken shambled bonelessly towards her, its painted eyes wide with a silent scream. It stretched its mouth out to the size of a pony, revealing row upon row of sharp, hungry teeth.

Squeaka!

Pumpkin screamed and shut her eyes tight.

“Oh dear. That was so very upsetting.”

Pumpkin gasped. Her limbs were free of the weaponized dessert. Her breath came in quick spurts as she patted herself down. No sign of the horrendous things she’d seen. She reached into her saddlebags and felt her hoof bump against Chewie. Normal. Squeaky as usual. Safe.

“Oh, no, not safe. Not at all.” The light bobbed before her eyes, a cheerful green. “Not yet.”

“What was that?” Pumpkin snatched at the odd thing, but her hoof went right through it. “What did you do to Discord?”

“Nothing. I’ve never even met him.” The light wobbled in an approximated nod. “And all I did was show you one of many, many possible futures.”

Pumpkin scratched until her itch was red and raw, sizzling like fire. “It’s not true. It’s not! We’re gonna save him!”

“Yes. Yes, I know.” The light fell, flying close to the ground, illuminating the stone. “And I will help.”

A sparkling, shimmering, glistening, rich something appeared. It sparkled in the light of the wisp, almost shining with a light all its own. “Wh—what is it?”

“Look closely.” The light waved and wobbled, carrying down the path, showing that the precious something carried on down the road. “Follow the vein of gold, Pumpkin Cake. Follow it as it winds and weaves through the hills and valleys. It is the roots of the Tree of Life, and all strains will collect at the source. There, you will find the Garden of Elysium, and help for Discord.”

Pumpkin touched the gold. It tingled to the touch. “I don’t trust you! You’re a creepy forest sprit, or an evil will-o-the-wisp, or something weird like that!”

“Don’t trust me?” The light slipped between the trees, zipping away, its voice growing faint. “I’ve done nothing but tell you the truth. Is not trusting me worth what could happen to Discord… and all Equestria?”

Pumpkin closed her eyes, scuffing her hoof against the ground.

“Follow the riches of the earth, Pumpkin Cake!” A breeze blew through her tangled mane. The itch reached a fever pitch. “They will guide you to your heart’s desire!”

***

“Pumpkin! Pumpkin!” A hoarse voice scratched her ear as someone shook her awake. “It’s time to wake up!”

Pumpkin lifted her head. Her mane clung to her cheeks in damp strips. Chewie hung from her mouth, squeaking weakly.

“Come on.” Pound shook her shoulder, rubbing his neck with the joint of his wing. “Fluttershy’s already moving.”

He looked awful. Two full days of running through the woods with no baths to speak of? Barely anything to eat? A freaky monster clutching at his throat? Nope. He wasn’t winning any beauty pageants.

‘Of course,’ Pumpkin thought as she caught her reflection in the stream, ‘I look a bajillion times worse.’

She splashed herself with water, if only to get the top layer of dirt to run off. She rubbed black rings of soil from her eyelids.

“Pumpkin!” Pound’s voice sounded as painful as ever. He shouted to her from the other side of the valley, standing beside Fluttershy and Discord. “Come on!

“Oh, screw this,” Pumpkin whispered. A bit of grit scratched her eye. She blinked to get her tears running.

A glistening gold something lay at the bottom of the stream, shining in the light of the sun. Pumpkin’s breath halted entirely as she followed the vein, watching it stretch into the west, all along the bottom of the water.

She scratched a minor itch somewhere along her left shoulder. “Hay, guys! Isn’t it true that hunters can lose you scent in water?”

Fluttershy hovered above the ground. She glanced at the meager stream before turning a stern eye towards Pumpkin. “Yes, but I very much doubt Tirek has a bloodhound—”

“It’s not gonna hurt anything to follow it.” Pumpkin crossed her forelegs, raising an eyebrow. “Is it?”

“Oh my gracious!” Discord pressed his hands against his cheeks. He bent way, way, way over until his nose nearly touched the surface of the stream. “This is perhaps the most delightful stream I’ve ever seen! Can we follow it, Fluttershy? Please, please, pretty please?”

Fluttershy’s mouth twitched. “Fine. I don’t see why not. Let’s go.”

They ambled along, Fluttershy in the lead, Pound second, and Pumpkin and Discord at the rear. His lips popped off his face to hover beside her ear.

“You owe me,” he said in a hushed voice. “This is the single most eye-searing stream that’s ever seared my eyes. What’s so important about following it?”

Pumpkin thought for a minute, choosing only the choicest, most aggravating words. “Because suddenly I begin to see—” She touched the golden strain in the cool, summer-warmed water. “—a bit of good luck for me. Get a load of this stuff…”

Author's Note:

This is one of the chapters lost to time on my previous laptop. Had a heck of a time getting back to this point, but perhaps it's better for it.

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