• Published 31st Oct 2016
  • 497 Views, 8 Comments

The Taste Of Blood - Shrink Laureate

Twilight Sparkle has nightmares.

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3. Following her hoofsteps

She swam over fields of grass that were swaying in the breeze. She beat her left wing lazily and turned in a slow barrel roll, her mane brushing against the tips of the grass as she span. Returning to something close to upright, she drifted idly across the landscape.

A shoal of moles swam past her, pecking at the tufts of grass with their beaks and kicking the air with their flippers. Were they moles or platypuses, wondered Twilight, and was it platypuses or platypi?

Her attention was drawn, once again, to the setting sun as it spilled consecutive rings of colour across the sky. Passing by overhead was a swirling band of blues and pinks with thin silver stripes, but the sun was now shedding a cyclone of greens and yellows, flecked through with warm golden stars that danced erratically.

Realising she was about to drift into a tree, Twilight beat her wings too hard, sending her careening hoof over haunch into the sky. As her mane billowed past her eyes, she realised it too was full of stars.

She finally came to a stop quite high and surveyed the landscape from above. From here the trees and streams, hills and stones had shrunk into little carved models on a map. Reaching out a hoof, she nudged a small forest, and heard roots being torn from the ground as dozens, hundreds of trees were relocated downhill. She giggled at how easy it was.

In the middle of the forest, on a road that had been hidden by the trees she moved, she now spied a small boxy model with four crude wheels glued onto it. It was painted yellow with a red sloped roof, like a tiny cottage on wheels. Curious, she beat her wings and swam down to the ground.

Even from up close, the cart was small, about the size that one pony could pull. There was nopony in sight though, and the cart sat lonely in the road. It was a box type that could be locked, but the double doors at the back were open, the boxes inside strewn messily about. The luggage appeared to be that of a travelling show of some sort: costumes, make-up, scenery, props and sparklers shovelled haphazardly into boxes and cases.

Stepping around to the other side of the cart, Twilight saw why it was abandoned: one of the wheels had hit a stone in the road and broken its wooden axel. Too much weight had been placed on the rear axel over too many years, without any suspension to soften the impacts of bumpy roads. Eventually the wood had given up.

She saw a trail of hoofsteps leading away from the cart into the forest she'd relocated earlier. They were heavy, as if the pony had been carrying a lot. The smell of disturbed earth and roots reached her nostrils. If she was to find the pony this cart belonged to, she would have to follow that trail.

The trees closed over her head too easily as she stepped into the forest. Turning, she saw no sign of the clearing behind her. Everywhere the ground was turned over, trees hanging at angles, their massive roots arching through the air, clods of earth hanging from them, undergrowth and mosses and ferns in disarray, making it difficult to tread her way through it. The hoofsteps she was following sank deep into the damp soil.

She caught sight of a cave. The hoofsteps clearly led into it, so Twilight followed. She expected the cave to be dark, but as she trotted in she found its walls were lit by a gentle glow. Some sort of bioluminescent lichen, perhaps feeding off the magical aura and using the light to regulate its internal magical pressure? Whatever the light source, Twilight was grateful for it.

The tunnel was broad and easy to walk down, but wound around itself in convoluted twists. At one point she could see through the translucent walls that the passage was actually tied in a knot, that she trotted up, down and around, her hooves flowing over the walls, floor and ceiling. The further from the surface she got, the easier it became to see through the stone, revealing the seams of crystal, the cracks and leylines twisting their way through it, and the twists of the passage she followed. Far away below her burned the fires of manga bubbling up from deep in the earth, casting a red light from beneath.

She looked through the rock at the tunnel ahead, outlined in the same soft lichen glow. It looked like it ended in a huge, round cavern that had been fashioned into a cozy nest, padded with big soft leaves and wood shavings. Curled up in the middle of them snored the giant, cuddly form of an ursa.

Twilight smiled. She'd always been fond of ursas, ever since reading a book about astrofauna as a filly. The drawings had been crude and didn't do them justice, but the descriptions – that she'd later learned were copied near-verbatim from Starswirl’s travel journal – had captivated her imagination. The life cycle of the ursas was fascinating!

The warm, distant glow of the earth's mantle was above her now as she crested the last twist in the tunnel. A soft 'fwump’ sound drew her attention to her own hooves.

That was strange. She'd stepped on a hat. What was a big purple floppy hat doing all the way down here? Maybe the pony she was following had dropped it. She looked curiosity around for any sign of them, but saw none. She was nearing the end of the tunnel now, and that pony must have come down here. Where were they?

She stepped up to the opening where the tunnel joined the cavern and gazed up in awe. It was huge and darker in colour than the one she'd meet before, clearly an ursa major. Constellations swirled within its body. Starswirl had speculated that astrofauna like the ursas were higher-dimensional beings, and that the skies seen in their bodies were glimpses into other universes. Of course, nopony had ever persuaded an ursa to submit to study.

The sound of its snores filled the cavern, reverberating through Twilight's teeth and hooves. And the smell—

Twilight frowned. That wasn't right. She was expecting the smell of warm astral fur, but this was something different. Something sharper. What was that? Dropping her muzzle to the ground she sniffed. She quickly identified where the smell was stronger. Trotting up the wall, she knelt down to get a closer look. The strangely coloured light made it hard to see colours properly. Was it green? Black?

She still couldn't place the smell, but at least it didn't smell toxic. She gingerly extended her tongue to touch the tip of it against the stone. Withdrawing it she pondered the sharp, metallic taste.

The taste of blood.

Her eyes widened as she turned her head up to look at the massive ursa. There, beneath its front paws, she saw a torn fragment of bone, sharp jagged ends with the meat torn from them, and the barest patch of blue pony hair clinging to it.

She realised with a lurch that she was hanging above the ursa, that if she dropped here she'd land on it, waking it up. Her hooves started to lift off the face of the cavern as gravity slowly woke up and turned its ire on Twilight Sparkle.

With a flap of her wings she righted herself and headed for the tunnel, curving her path to avoid skimming the sleeping ursa's massive ear. The whoosh of air as she skidded past caused it to flinch. The sound of snoring turned into a snort, and then a snarl.

Twilight didn't stop. She careened around the slalom of winding tunnels leading back the surface, pushing her wings as hard as she could, knowing without looking that the beast was somewhere close behind. The sound of its hunger filled the tunnel. At points where the passage curved around itself, she could see it through the rock, though that gradually became more opaque as their chase neared the surface.

When she burst out into the forest, Twilight didn't bother retracing her path but instead flew straight up. Only when she was high in the sky did she look back down.

There, amid the cluster of little trees, was a wooden carving of a bear barely bigger than her hoof, painted dark blue and dotted with little white stars.

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