• Published 13th Sep 2018
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Alternate Beginnings: Year Six - Doug Graves

Herd Apple continues to grow, both out and up, as Doug meets a few more colorful characters.

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16 Smothering Tendrils

September 12th, 998

"Oh, ponyfeathers," Rarity moans, looking outside the Carousel Boutique. Doug walks over, glancing outside at the many ponies disappearing into their houses, the muffled shouts as they warn each other of the coming danger. "Well, there goes the rest of the business for today."

"What just happened?" Doug asks, a touch of worry in his voice as he cautiously walks to the window, trying to spot the disturbance and failing. "Is something going on? I don't hear the siren."

Rarity shakes her head, a heavy sigh as the mare turns away from the window. "No. The rest of today might just be the slightest bit of an overstatement. Well, I'm not going to need to work in the front of the store for a few hours." She swoons back, her 'woe is me' look lost on Doug as he stares out the window.

"So, all that time I spent cleaning up in the back, like you asked, is going to be wasted by you going on another creativity spree?" Doug rolls his eyes, a mocking impersonation of Rarity's heavy sigh as he shakes his head.

"Oh, hush, darling, my bouts of inspiration aren't that bad." Rarity holds her head up, flicking her tail back and forth, "Now, I don't know if there is any space in the back room for anypony who doesn't apologize for such an uncharacteristically rude remark." She walks towards the back room, a haughty look over her shoulder at Doug.

The human considers for a few moments, one hand stroking his chin, before he walks to the front door and grabs his light rain jacket and one of the old bags he used to transport gems, loaned to the Diamond Dogs and now emptied into Rarity's many boxes. "Alright, then," he says, a wave and a smile for Rarity as he opens the door. "Good day!"

Rarity huffs, "You aren't serious, are you?" She stares, her mouth hanging open in disbelief as he dons the jacket and walks outside. "Darling! Wait!" She rushes forward as the door shuts behind him. She calls into the thick glass, "It's not safe out there!" Her warning falls on deaf ears, the solid construction blocking the noise. Rarity watches from the window of the Boutique; she gasps as she spots a mysterious brown figure pawing at the ground off in the distance, Doug's path taking him closer and closer to... her.

Doug stretches as he walks out of the Carousel Boutique, glancing around at the deserted streets. Well, the sooner he gets to Fluttershy's cottage, the better; hopefully the mare isn't too terrified by whatever is happening. He pauses for a moment, seeing a figure he has only glimpsed once or twice in Ponyville, giving her a quick wave.

Though it is difficult to make out under the brown hood, the mare's mouth twists to a smirk, "Hello, Doug! Again, I see; would you like to come pick herbs with me?"

"Hey, Zecora!" Doug says in a loud voice, his long strides eating up the distance between them. His voice trembles a little, "Um, out in the Everfree?" At her nod, he reluctantly says, "Um, sure, I guess, but... is it really safe out there?"

"Of course, for there we will tread, the many dangers blue and red; for perils, those unseen, we will use this powder green." Zecora reaches a hoof into a worn bag, withdrawing a measured hooffull of green powder. Doug gets a few feet away from her and she blows, a cloud of green dust billowing around him. He coughs, waving his arm in front of his face as his other goes to his mouth, trying to stop himself from inhaling any more.

From her store, Rarity gasps as Zecora takes Doug's sleeve in her mouth, leading the human into the Everfree Forest. The unicorn fearfully glances from side to side, her hooves covering her head as she shakes. "This is all my fault!" she moans loudly, falling to the floor, "No!" she shouts, slapping herself on the chin with a hoof. "Ow," she groans, shaking her head from side to side at the pain. Her head quickly raises back up, "I need to tell somepony!" She dances on her hooves for a few seconds before saying, "Rainbow Dash! She'll be able to help the fastest!" and darting outside the Boutique.

Doug rubs at his eyes, finally getting a little vision back. He glances around, the black and white trees around him looming ominously. The cloaked figure next to him still pulls his arm along, leading him along the wide clearing the catapillt made when it attacked. A large number of dark colored flowers are blooming on both sides of their path, Zecora following a winding route that avoids all of them. "What the hay was that?" Doug asks, a little testy about the whole situation.

"A powder of my own mix, the problem of no light to fix," Zecora responds, letting go of his sleeve. "The flowers to each side, beware, their use is many but one must take care, to never touch the petals with bare skin, or else face curses thick and thin."

"Got it." Doug looks around, the sun shining in the sky but darkened, white clouds against a gray sky. "Why is my vision black and white?"

"Your color sight has been subsumed, for something must be consumed, to grant you this dark sight, for the Everfree can be as night." Zecora carefully plucks several dozen of the flowers, Doug holding the bag open for her. The two leave the field of gray, coming to a fast running stream, the water babbling loudly against the birds tweeting back and forth.

"Do you plan these rhymes out in advance? Or just very talented at it?" The two take a right turn at the stream, the sun disappearing from the sky as the trees completely cover them. They occasionally splash into the stream, bare feet and hooves against the well worn stones of the streambed.

Zecora smirks, "Alone I am most of the days, plenty of time to plan my plays, few questions difficult to predict, and as such easy to depict." The two leave the stream, a hush coming over Zecora as she stops. The two hold their position for several seconds, silent except for the human's soft breathing. She sighs, "I did not wish this to be used, but necessity cannot be refused." She pulls out a vial of gray liquid, a drop to Doug's nose as the human hunches over.

Doug gasps, trying not in inhale. Fumes from the droplet spray off from his nose, distorting the air in front of his face. Anywhere he looks through the hazy gas is starkly lit in deep blacks and bright whites. The forest around him lights up, the stream turns to a void, the banks of the stream faint lines of color twisting and turning around the trunks of trees. "What did this one do?" he asks quietly, trying to keep his breathing low and steady.

"This is a vial of dark detection, to show the corruption's reflection." She holds the vial up, an inky blackness gripped by a faintly glowing hoof, the rest of her body etched in sigils of white despite the cloak on her. "A Timber wolf has been here soon, perhaps more will come before the moon." Zecora shakes her head, motioning with an etched hoof, "Everywhere that they have tread, brightly lit for us to dread."

"Yeah, plenty of that going on," Doug says, his voice shaking as he backs into the stream. "Your house isn't far, is it?" He shudders as he takes another step, his foot slipping in the barely visible water. "I want my rock."

Zecora confidently strides through the water, Doug struggling to keep up, "My humble abode is not far, a stone's throw from where we are. Remain strong, for you will see, the ring of bright around my tree."

Doug grunts, "Yeah, easy to say, right?" as he tries to stay in the tight corridor of black, both banks of the stream swamped in white. The two come around a bend in the stream, a dazzling circle of white and black appearing in front of him. The colors swirl into and out of each other, tiny dots of black in a sea of white that get engulfed by a tidal wave of black, a small white dot surfing along the center.

The slippery rocks offer no purchase to Doug's distracted legs; he overbalances, his foot sliding out from under him as he tries to regain his footing. The human tumbles down, his arms flailing to the sides, desperately trying to find something to grab onto. His hand slashes against the rough roots of one of the nearby trees, a heavy grunt as his back slams into the rocks under the water. Zecora glances back at the sound, a look of horror as she spots the trickle of red. Doug winces as he sits up, rubbing his back and hand and trying to wash the blood into the stream, putting pressure on his hand to try to slow the bleeding.

Zecora yells, "Tarry not, do not relent! If you wish flesh to not be rent!" A rumble can faintly be heard off in the distance, the zebra's eyes growing frantic as she reaches into her saddlebags.

Doug groans, "Oh, come on," as he struggles to his feet, slipping again on the smooth rocks. The rumble grows louder as Zecora pulls a small crystal vial out of her saddlebags, holding her breath as she fumbles with the stopper, trying to remove it with her mouth.

A loud smash from the side startles the two, both looking with wide eyes as two large trees crash down, the falling trunks a short distance from the stream. With only fearful glances behind them Doug and Zecora race along the banks as the small trees along the water's edge are bent to the side like twigs.

A huge orange creature bursts through the trees, violently roaring at Doug as he sprints away. The large red dragon wings on its back give it an unexpectedly powerful burst of speed, nearly catching him as it swipes with a large paw, the human barely staying out of range of the slashing claws.

Zecora twists, a midair leap as she flings the vial; it crushes against Doug's bare chest, the foul substance contained within splattering all over him. He gags, sinking to the ground and vomiting as the manticore's scorpion tail swings above him, the momentum from the swing of paw and tail taking the creature slightly off balance. Zecora sprints away, a loud ululation that draws the attention of the manticore as she dances from tree to tree.

The manticore glances down, a hasty step away from the extremely pungent odor; it looks back at Zecora, a vengeful roar as the zebra disappears behind the trees. It dashes off in the other direction, a rough path carved through the trees as it disappears into the dense foliage.

Doug grimaces as he glances to the side, his body convulsing as he tries to recover. He spits a bit more bile out as he slowly pushes up, crawling to the stream and trying to rinse his mouth and body off. A short distance in front of him Zecora peeks out from behind a tree, a sigh of relief the human is still alive. "Good thing I don't wear pants," Doug groans, splashing a little water against his face, trying to control his shaking limbs. "What the heck did you hit me with?"

"Let's just say that sweet scent is skunk musk, a vile ward against claw and tusk." Zecora pauses, backing away as he gets closer. "The scent of your blood I had to hide, for manticores are not the only ones that seek your hide."

"Yeah, well, thanks for that, but you are kind of the reason it was necessary." Doug continues walking along the stream, finally spotting the large tree as he breaks into the circle of black and white.

Zecora grimly nods, her tone slowly growing more chipper, "Yes, and I am sorry it was required, but since it has, in fact, transpired, I do hope that you would thus, help me find herbs more dangerous?" Her mouth stretches to a wide smile, the void where her eyes would be twinkling with specks of white.

Doug raises a finger, "On one condition." Zecora tilts her head as he says, "Say something without rhyming."

Zecora laughs, "Doug, I would rather with you lay, than not to rhyme the words I say." She gathers a few bags from her home, strapping them to her back as she smirks at him. "I have some refreshments inside, if you need a break before we ride."

Doug sighs, "Okay, fine, whatever. Lead on, rhyme all you want, what do I care." Zecora returns inside her house, grabbing a bowl of what he assumes is food and bringing it out, dropping it on the ground a good ten feet away from him. She moves to the edge of the circle, waiting for Doug to grab the meal.

"I am sorry but I must stay, at very least this far away, for if I get that musk on me, I will not collect the bee's honey." The zebra glances up, dark clouds barely visible over the Everfree canopy growing larger.

"Seriously? Just for honey?" Doug starts chewing a piece of bread, his tongue starting to taste the honey on the flat cakes. His face lights up, "This is really good; what's in it?"

The two start walking, Zecora leading a few yards ahead, a trail of white following behind her, "The honey of the sweat bees, know for their many properties, to keep one's water level high, even when the air is dry." The air above them booms, a stroke of lightning trading from one cloud to another. A light rain begins to fall, Doug zipping up his jacket.

"So, an antidiuretic? Why would you need that out in the jungle?" Doug glances back at the stream, then at the water starting to come down around them, "Especially when water is somewhat readily available?"

"The catapillt was not alone, for corrupting powers do not atone, they do not give up so readily, and the water fouls most easily. That stream we passed is quite unique, no other waters should we seek." Zecora comes across another stream, this one flowing a little faster. She backs up a little, a running leap to the other side and avoiding the water entirely.

As Zecora moves on Doug follows her path, easily clearing the brightly lit stream by several feet, the mud on the banks squelching as he nearly slips again. "So, you use the honey to venture further into the Everfree? Doesn't that seem, I dunno, a mite dangerous?"

"The bees that we seek, they cannot help but take a peek, should they catch a whiff of that musk, their home will be a barren husk." Zecora pushes past another set of branches, a giddy laugh at the prospect of getting more of the rare herbs, especially those she cannot collect alone. "Then other ingredients we might find, to brew potions for strength and mind."

Doug flatly stares at Zecora's back, huffing as the zebra doesn't turn back. "So, I'm bait."

Zecora laughs, "That won't be your only duty, I do need somepony to carry, all the ingredients that we find, I hope that you don't mind."

"Did you bring a bottle for them or something, or do you expect me to carry a bunch of ingredients mixed in this bag?" Doug grunts as he pushes through another overgrown section; at least there aren't any thorns, just sharp twigs and leaves, the woe essence Rarity crafted into the jacket crackling occasionally as its power is spent preventing small cuts and tears. At least the bramble patches are spread out, giving the essence time to recharge.

Zecora flashes a bottle from her saddlebags, dropping it back in as she continues on. Doug sighs, keeping up until he notices a bright circle on the ground, partially buried in the mud. He moves over, picking up the solid metal ring, about one foot in diameter, though he can't tell what it is with the black and white vision. Something heavy, though; not iron or steel. Maybe lead? Or gold? He shrugs, bringing the metal closer to his head; not feeling anything he shrugs, looking up at Zecora's retreating form. He opens his pack, the ring going inside, quickly zipping it back up as he hurries after her.

Several minutes of trudging through the forest later, the brambles feeling even more overgrown, and Doug nearly runs into Zecora. The zebra has stopped, looking up a twisted and rotten tree, a faint buzzing heard from above. "Can you smell their lair, high above?" Zecora asks, glancing back at Doug. "Or is your nose still stuck with foxglove?"

"Yeah, can't smell a thing," Doug says, still reeking of skunk. "Also, isn't that poisonous? What the heck did you hit me with?"

Zecora softly smiles, "It merely increases the potency, for what else would drive away both bear and bee?" She looks up to the tree, a few large bees starting to come out, "Now, just get a little closer to their hive, the rest of them should soon arrive. I will move to grab their honey, and maybe a larvae or thirty."

Doug gulps, "Did I mention I hate the Everfree?" as he moves closer, the buzzing around the hive increasing tenfold as the pungent odor reaches the insects inside. Thousands of bees, each the size of a tennis ball, swarm as they leave, making a beeline for the source of the stench. Zecora slinks to the side, swiftly climbing the tree and entering the deserted hive as Doug shuts his eyes, holding still as the bees land on him. "I thought you said it drives away the bees!" he yells, a deep breath as several of the bees land on his face. Fortunately, their constant motion allows him to continue breathing as they crawl over his body. Doug winces, tiny pinpricks along his skin as the bees probe every inch of his body, the bees two or three layers deep in some areas.

Meanwhile, back in the small clearing, four sets of hooves thunder along the forest, the brown earth pony in the lead coming to a halt. His three earth pony compatriots; one brown, one gray, one white; all stop, scanning the forest for any sign of movement as their black maned leader sniffs the ground. His nostrils pucker, his Spanish accent saying disgustedly, "What foul creature came by?" The four glance around before he says, "Ah! Look! The ground! The ring fell here, and now it is gone! We must follow the trail!"

"But, Doctor!" the dark gray earth pony says, "What creature leaves tracks like that?" The four look down, five small circles in front of two larger ones.

"Is it a Sass Squash?" the white pony asks, a stammer in his voice as he shakes.

"Don't be ridiculous!" the Doctor harshly speaks, "Those live near farms, not in the Everfree. Onwards!" The four give chase, the foul stench easy to track in the rain.

Up above, maneuvering through the tight treetops, a brown pegasus grits her teeth as she inspects her saddlebag, a long tear from an arrow leaving the ruined canvas empty. "Come on, it can't have been far, I wasn't that far away." She hears a muffled, 'Onwards' and gasps, holding onto her pith helmet as she drops out of the cramped canopy and abandoning stealth for speed. She slows down, her prismatic gray mane and tail swishing eagerly back and forth as she spots the four earth ponies charging through the forest. She unhappily sighs, the lack of a golden glint an even worse sign than seeing one of the Rings of Scorchero in Dr. Caballeron's possession.