Fluttershy walked the well trodden path that she knew so well by now, smiling as she did so. Her face reflected the peace and tranquility of the afternoon. As she walked, her hooves stepped into the imprints of countless others before her, fitting perfectly as she hummed a quiet tune. She kept on walking past the trees and bushes as she observed the nature around her, taking in a deep breath of crisp air. The smile still held strong on her face.
Normally, Fluttershy would have been scared—terrified even—to walk the Everfree Forest at all, let alone by herself. Fluttershy kept her calm demeanor as she pushed forward, however, marching along the well trodden path. Around her birds sang and chirped the tune of life, their tiny throats warbling each note to their lovers as if it were a sacred treasure. The beautiful symphony brought an even deeper smile to Fluttershy’s face as she kept moving forward. There would be no stopping until she reached her destination.
High above her, the sun shone down on her with its gentle, guiding light, pointing the way towards her destination. The pine trees rose hundreds of feet in the air all around her like giant, watchful sentinels guarding the path for the ponies that strode it. They always bowed though in this portion of the forest—they bowed and swayed away, providing a clear outlet for the rays of the sun to reach the clean forest floor. The sky above her was devoid of clouds, as it was every time she walked this path. The sun always shined here.
Fluttershy’s pace quickened to a light jog as she saw her destination rising high above the treetops in the distance. It rose on the very edge of her outward perception on the horizon, two small, bristly bars silhouetted by the brilliant sun shining behind them. She sighed contentedly to herself as she continued along her path, the birds chirping along the way. As the bushes grew thicker around her, the path grew narrower. To her left and right, other paths came together, each with hoofprints of every size, and intersected with her own path—the path that ponies and creatures of every size travelled.
Fluttershy simply continued along her way and kept humming her soft melody to herself. The wind carried it away with the songs of the birds and the squirrels, mixing them all together into a symphony of life. Fluttershy stopped dead in her tracks as she felt a familiar feeling enter her moves and shoot up her spine. The soft, clay earth that marked the end of the path cooled her front hooves and soothed the tension in her body. Instantly, she relaxed and her mind cleared. She blinked and opened her eyes again.
Before her was a large, flat clearing. Other paths branched out and tapered off on all sides of the clearing, each just as worn as the last. The real attraction though was at the very opposite edge of the clearing where there was only one large path. The path was not as worn as the others, but the tell tale signs of hoofprints marked the fact that it was still well traveled. Towering over the clearing and the solitary path were two large pine trees.
The two trees looked ancient, more so even than the rest of the forest around them. Their lording presence commanded an air of majesty and respect that Fluttershy had seen very few time in her life. These were no ordinary looking trees, however; their branches were barren of leaves. They were just spindly little twigs, sticking out in every direction and showing off the brown, withered bark of the two omnipotent trees. The two trees leaned against each other at the edge of the clearing, forming a large ‘x’ in the air. Fluttershy looked at them in curiosity, the same as she had every other time that she’d seen them before.
What had knocked these trees over so long ago that their crooked bodies grew just as tall and natural as if they had been sown that way from the very beginning? What had the clearing looked like when they had still stood straight? Questions and thoughts whizzed through Fluttershy’s mind as she sat on her haunches and watched the trees from afar. She never dared venture any closer to them than she had now. She had tried once to get closer, but those two silent guards had deterred her with their sheer imposition.
She stayed like this for a few hours, listening to the birds sing and observing the trees as she always did. She noted with an idle mind that she’d never seen any animals along the path behind the trees, or even around it. In fact, those who strayed close always stayed on the edge of the clearing, watching the path with just as much intent and curiosity as she did now. Fluttershy’s eyes widened in amazement and wonder as the sun rose through the crest of the X, bathing the entire clearing in a golden light. It warmed her. It soothed her very soul.
Always so quiet. So peaceful…
A rustling from one of the other paths snapped Fluttershy out of her trance. She watched with a strange curiosity as the bushes from the right-most path rustled with movement. To her surprise, a changeling stepped into the clearing with her, its gaze focused firmly on the two sentinels. He continued further into the clearing and paid her no mind. Instead, he walked over to her and sat beside her without a word, his eyes still focused on the two trees.
Fluttershy looked at him with a morbid curiosity. His black carapace gleamed in the sunlight as she observed him, bathing him in an ethereal white glow. She noticed that his blue-green wings were fluttering idly as if her were deep in thought. From the way that his eyes were sunken in and his mouth curled inward into a slight frown, she could tell that he was very tired.
“H-hello.” Fluttershy waited as she spoke, watching the insect beside her to see what sort of reaction she would get. To her surprise, he appeared startled as he looked at her. It was almost as if he’d just noticed her for the first time.
The changeling got up immediately, his eyes wide with fear. “I-I’m sorry… I didn’t know that anybody else came here at this time. The clearing’s usually empty, I—” His eyes widened even further as he took a few steps back. “I-I know you… You’re one of those Elements! Please, don’t hurt me. I-I don’t want any trouble! I just come here to think sometimes and—”
Fluttershy patted the ground beside her softly. The words that had been spoken to her when she first stumbled upon the clearing showed clear in her mind like a beacon. She gave him a reassuring smile and sighed sadly. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. Everyone and everything is welcome here, at the crossroad. Why don’t you take a seat beside me?”
The changeling looked at her in suspicion for a moment before giving a sigh of consent. He was simply too exhausted to argue at this point. The changeling sat next to her on his haunches, staring back at the two trees once again. “You know, it’s strange… I’ve never seen anypony else here before. Whenever I come here it’s always really quiet. I like to just sit here and listen to the birds singing and stuff. It’s really—”
“Nice?” Fluttershy gave him a small smile before turning her gaze back towards the end of the clearing. “Yes, I like coming here to think sometimes too. The sounds are just like music.” Fluttershy closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, taking in the sounds around her.
“I’ve seen plenty of ponies, gryphons, minotaurs, and even giraffes here before. I like to sit and talk with them sometimes…” Fluttershy turned her gaze towards the changeling once again. “I haven’t seen a changeling come here in a long time though… I’ve never seen you around town before. Are you just visiting?”
The changeling looked around the clearing and sighed. “Yeah. I came a long way from home to be here. Why do you ask?”
Fluttershy shifted in her seat and sighed. “You look rather tired from your hike here.” Fluttershy noticed that the changeling was sweating slightly under the glare of the sun. “You look rather thirsty. Would you like some water? I always bring extra when I come here.” She reached under her wing and retrieved a small canteen, handing it over to the changeling.
He, in turn, looked genuinely surprised and grateful. The changeling grasped the canteen gingerly and uncorked it. He tipped it to his lips and began to slurp the water down slowly, relishing each second of the cool, pure flavor on his tongue.
“Thank you…” The changeling handed the canteen back to Fluttershy, his cheeks flushing a light red. “I’m… I’m just not used to a pony being so nice to me I guess. Thank you for the water Miss…”
“Fluttershy…” The soft whisper was barely audible over the natural sounds of the clearing.
“Fluttershy, huh? That’s a pretty name, if you don’t mind me saying. My name’s Shade, if you were wondering.” He gave her a small smile, his lips curling upward to reveal his sharp teeth. Immediately, he covered his mouth in shame and turned away.
“Y-you heard me the first time… Nopony’s ever heard me the first time…” Fluttershy’s cheeks flushed red as she looked at Shade.
“I heard you just fine, Fluttershy.” Shade turned back to the two trees and sighed. As Fluttershy followed his gaze, she noticed for the first time that he was looking at the path behind the trees, rather than the trees themselves. “Say, Fluttershy? You must come here a lot to have met so many different creatures… Tell me: do you ever wonder what’s behind them? On the path behind the trees?”
Fluttershy tapped her hoof against her chin momentarily in thought. “I’ve wondered that sometimes. Most of the time though, I just sit here and think about the trees. They’re so big and tall, but why? Why are they taller than all of the others? How did they get to be like that?” Fluttershy blushed and made and ‘eep’ sound, shutting up immediately. “I’m sorry for ranting like that…”
“No, no! It’s fine, really. You know, I’ve never really thought about it like that before. Really make you wonder, doesn’t it? Who made the paths? Did the clearing grow around them?” Shade chuckled to himself, falling into a trance. “Really makes you wonder… So many questions that we’ll never know the answers to. And we’ll never even know if the answers mattered in the first place.”
“You know,” Shade continued. “I’ve never really thought about it this deep before, but I really want to see what’s on the path…” Shade stood up and looked down at Fluttershy, smiling again. “Fluttershy? Would you maybe want to walk the path with me and see what’s back there?”
Fluttershy gulped as she looked at the imposing figures of the two trees. Something at the back of her mind stopped her from standing up and held her in place. “I think all of the other paths all lead back home at some point. Some are just longer than the others.” Her eyes shifted to avoid Shade’s gaze. “I-I’m not ready yet, I don’t think. I’m still too scared… You can go on without me. I’ll just sit here and watch like I always do…”
“If you’re sure…” Shade turned around and reached underneath one of his insectoid wings. He pulled out a small black scale and handed it to Fluttershy. “Here, take this then. To remember me. It’s my hive worker badge. I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again, so I want you to have it. As a token of our friendship and as thanks for being so kind to me.”
“O-oh my, I don’t know if I can take this from you… I mean, don’t you want to go back to your hive? To your people? Surely you have friends and family that you’ll want to go back to?” Fluttershy held on to the black scale, holding it gingerly. She twirled it around in her hooves and felt its smooth surface. Something about it made her feel warm inside.
“No. No friends or family. That’s why I chose to run away from that place. Nobody likes a changeling who can’t even do his job well. You take it. It’s just bad memories at this point.” Shade sighed and stepped forward towards the path at the edge of the clearing. His blue eyes glazed over with the thousand-yard-stare of memories flying by.
“Oh…” Fluttershy was struck speechless and she held the scale close to her heart. “I’ll keep it then. As a token of our friendship. Goodbye, Shade. I hope you reach your destination safely, wherever it may be.”
“Thank you, Fluttershy. Goodbye. I’ll see you again one day, I promise.” With a final smile and a wave, Shade continued walking towards the path at the edge of the clearing. He stopped for a moment as he reached the lower opening where the trees crossed. Fluttershy watched in anticipation as he stood there a moment in thought, secretly hoping that he might turn around and come back to her.
Shade continued forward passed the gap in the trees. Each step he made caused a new hoofprint to appear in the path, marking that it the path had been crossed once more. Fluttershy watched as the ethereal white glow from his carapace grew stronger with each step he took. The blinding light began to grow in intensity as he stepped further along the path and into the rays of the sun. Soon enough, Fluttershy was forced to bring a forehoof over her eyes to shield herself from the brilliant white light. All she could see was his shadow.
After a few moments, the light disappeared behind the center of the crossed trees. She sighed. There was no trace of his shadow either. No trace that he’d ever been there with her, other than a few hoof marks on the path behind the trees.
“Goodbye, Shade. I hope you find a happiness that you never found at home. I’ll never forget you…” Fluttershy stood up after a few moments. She took a deep breath and inhaled the crisp air once again. She felt it filling her lungs and soothing the dull sadness that she felt in her heart; the birds chirps brought her restless soul to peace yet again. Fluttershy took the black scale and tucked it under her wing for safe keeping before turning to face the way she had came.
As she walked through the path once again and retraced her steps, she couldn’t help but think to herself. She’d seen so many ponies come and go along the different paths at the crossroad. So many different creatures. So many different personalities. And each one went their own path. Fluttershy stopped in her tracks and listened to the song of nature around her. For a moment, she wondered if she should have gone down the golden path with Shade.
She shook her head vigorously. “No. I have a family and friends who love me. It wouldn’t have been the right choice. Still, I can’t help but wonder…” She shook her head and began walking again. “No. I hope that wherever he’s going, he’s happy.” A gentle smile crept its way on to Fluttershy’s face as she trotted along the path she had come. All along the way, she hummed that same, soft tune that she’d hummed before.
In every life there comes a time—our choice is surely nearing;
We stop and stare at every road and walk into the clearing
Other creatures come and chat; some may pass, but in time they all must fade
We come to this place and know our life is changed, for today a choice was made