Chapter 4 - The Hermit
The small equestrian figure moved through the growth of the Everfree Forest, her bright blue eyes rising and falling in the darkness with each step she took. Her skin clung close to her ribs; while she was not dangerously malnourished, she had less meat on her body than anypony would want. She carried in her mouth a crude handwoven basket filled partway with any herbs and grasses she could find.
As she neared the entrance to her den, loud noises ahead of her prompted her to pause. She set the basket on the ground and cautiously approached a clearing in the thick woods, trying her best to stay hidden and preparing to flee at any time. Near the entrance to her den were a mare and a very young filly. The filly was unfamiliar to her and frightened her, but she recognized the mare's violet fur. She had found the mare unconscious and suffering from a head injury, and she had somehow been persuaded to drag the mare back home with her to treat the wounds.
She realized the mare was looking at her, and she ducked her head into the undergrowth, her heart beating quickly. Had she been spotted? She dared to look again and discovered with relief that the mare and the filly were now talking to each other and had left her alone. She backed away slowly, lifting the basket in her jaw. She would come back later, and maybe by then the strangers would be gone. She turned and made her way back into the darkness of the forest but stopped when she heard a cry from the clearing. Daring to look, she saw the mare buckled over on the ground, the filly dancing around her, frantically.
She's still hurt, the figure realized. She hasn't healed. She needs help. Leave her, a voice in her head instructed. This was never your problem; she'll be fine. And then the blue-eyed figure saw a spark light up, just for a moment, casting light into the darkness. Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the clearing. "Help me carry her," she instructed the filly, and she grabbed the mare's tail between her teeth.
The mare was not aware of any of this, as she was already elsewhere.
The Summer Sun Celebration was the most celebrated holiday in Canterlot. And by the looks of it, thought Twilight, Ponyville seemed to be taking it pretty seriously too. A large banner had been hung across the village square, proudly announcing, "Welcome, Princess Celestia."
Twilight scoffed. "They sure do love their princess, don't they, Madam?" she asked her traveling companion, an well-dressed orange earth pony that Twilight thought looked stunning in her velvet dress.
The earth pony, looked back at Twilight confused. "I thought you enjoy the Summer Sun Celebration," she said.
Twilight shook her head. "I used to," she lied, "but not anymore." Watching the princess raise the sun still took her breath away. It was the most spectacular display of magical talent anypony could witness. As a filly watching the majestic performance, Twilight was filled with wonder and admiration, but Twilight liked to think she had grown since then. She now saw the spell for what it really was: just a spell. A spell anypony could pull off with enough raw power.
And hidden in the bag Madam currently had slung over her shoulder was the most powerful artifact to ever grace Equestria.
"In a few hours, the sun will rise," remarked Madam. "And this has been a rather uneventful night. I'm beginning to think we came all this way for nothing."
"Maybe," Twilight admitted. "I don't know what to want. If we were wrong about Nightmare Moon..."
"Suki," corrected Madam playfully.
Twilight rolled her eyes. "I never should have told you about that," she said bitterly, with a hint of playfulness. "If we were wrong about Nightmare Moon, then our planning is wasted. On the other hoof, though..."
Madam finished for her. "The world won't be destroyed."
"Shrouded in darkness, you mean. Although both possibilities are things I'd like to avoid. And thank you, by the way, for your support in all this."
Madam smiled as she looked at Twilight, the way a mother might look at a child. "My little protégé, why wouldn't I assist you? We make an excellent team."
They passed a table stacked with apple pies being sold by a white unicorn. "You hungry?" Twilight asked Madam.
"Not at all," said Madam, even though she was. "And I think I'll stay away from the village slop, anyway."
The unicorn looked up and cast a beaming smile at Twilight. "Good morning," she said cheerfully, and then her eyes fell on the earth pony behind Twilight. "Oh," she said flatly. "It's you."
Madam tried her best to look indifferent.
Twilight looked back and forth between them. "You know each other?"
The white unicorn answered. "Madam Orange, the rising entrepreneur of Manehattan? Is there anypony who doesn't recognize that atrocious cutie mark of hers? To what do we owe this pleasure, being graced with your appearance?"
Madam laughed, moving so that she was directly in the unicorn's face. "I came for the celebration," she said. "I hope you don't have a problem with that, and there isn't some law against us educated types ruining your quaint little backwards world."
The unicorn, while intimidated, didn't flinch. "Enjoy the party," she said with as much scorn as she could fit.
Twilight felt the sinking feeling in her stomach even before she knew where she was. The sudden transitions were jarring, and each jump left Twilight feeling tense and panicked. Worse, the dreams had all but destroyed her sense of time. They weren't normal dreams; rather, they felt like things that had happened a long time ago, but she had forgotten about them until now. Each time a memory unlocked, she berated herself for not remembering them before. Twilight knew for certain that somehow, the dreams were real, but she knew that they couldn't be. It was her gut against her common sense, and like always when the science-minded pony had to make a decision, common sense won out.
There was a logical explanation out there somewhere; Twilight just had to figure out what it was.
As the ceiling slowly stopping spinning above her, Twilight recognized the uneven cave walls. She was back in the underground burrow, and Pumpkin was looking down at her, the filly's face scrunched up with worry that quickly became relief when she saw her friend was okay.
"You made it!" said Pumpkin excitedly. "I mean, I knew you would, of course, never doubted you, but she said you were hurt, hurt bad, and by the way you shouldn't move, and drink lots of water, and I got you some, but don't drink it too quickly or you'll choke, and you should rest, and she'll be back soon to check on you, and she said to thank chestnuts or something." Pumpkin paused to inhale. "At least, I think that's what she said; it was kind of quiet, and I may have made some of it up."
"Did she say anything about not making noise?" asked Twilight, covering her ears with her forehooves.
Pumpkin put a hoof on her chin. "Nah," she said, "don't think so. Maybe. Probably."
A brown furry mass leaped onto Twilight's stomach from beyond her field of vision and stared down at her, rapidly making high-pitched squeaks.
"Oh, yeah," added Pumpkin. "That thing's back."
Twilight tried to stand, but her head began pounding, and a sick eruption of feeling in her stomach almost made her vomit. The one leg she had managed to lift gave way, and she resigned herself to lie on her back, staring at Pumpkin, the squirrel, and the ceiling.
The squirrel, seeing her attempts to move, put its paws down on her chest and shook its head back and forth, as if it was pantomiming, telling her to stay down.
"Am I crazy," Twilight asked Pumpkin, "or is the squirrel trying to communicate with me?"
The squirrel nodded vigorously.
"Who are you?" she asked the squirrel, and the squirrel leaped off her body and out of sight. Half a minute later, it returned carrying a large seed, which it deposited on the ground next to Twilight. Bending her head to get a better look, Twilight recognized the seed as a chestnut.
"Chestnut." She looked up at the squirrel. "Your name is Chestnut. You kind of remind me of another animal back home, but he was a rabbit named Angel."
Chestnut glared at Twilight angrily, as if she had crossed some sort of forbidden line. "Sorry," said Twilight. "I guess you don't like rabbits. But Chestnut and Pumpkin. You guys are making me hungry."
Pumpkin chuckled. "And speaking of names, miss, what's yours?"
"Twi-" began Twilight, before remembering that telling Pumpkin her name probably was a bad idea. She hesitated, trying to think of a cover and hoping Pumpkin hadn't heard her.
Pumpkin peered at Twilight expectantly. "Twi..." she said, awaiting the rest of it.
Twilight found inspiration as a name rose up to the surface of her mind. "Trixie," she said. "My name is Trixie." It wasn't the most pleasant sounding name, in Twilight's opinion, and it was one she certainly wasn't going to enjoy hearing, but Twilight was in the clear, so long as she remembered her name was Trixie now.
"Okay, Trixie," said Pumpkin, who had bought it completely. "Stay there and drink up. She'll be back soon."
"She? Who's she?" Twilight tried to say, but she was interrupted as she begun by a glass of water that Chestnut had shoved against her lips. Twilight stopped talking long enough to drink the whole thing. She hadn't realized how thirsty she was until now. After she finished, she asked Pumpkin her question.
"She's some weird mare who lives out in these parts. She said she found you out by the swamps and dragged you back here."
Twilight remembered the figure she had seen before she had fainted and woken up here. Was that the mare that had saved her? The blue eyes in the darkness of the forest flashed through her mind. Was that her rescuer too?
"Oh," she said. "We should thank her if she comes back before we leave. Maybe we could write a note."
Pumpkin shook her head, and Chestnut mimicked her motions. "Why are you in such a hurry, Trixie?" the filly asked. "We're on an adventure, remember?"
Twilight opened her mouth to argue, but instead almost vomited again. As she tried to recover, she thought about Pumpkin's question. How could she explain that she didn't know what day it was, or how she had gotten here? There were holes in her memory, giant blank areas that refused to yield any information. Twilight was confused and lost in the unknown, and it terrified her. She needed familiarity. She needed comfort, and she knew she wasn't going to find either of those things in the Everfree Forest. The feeling of entrapment had been constricting itself around her since she had first awoken, and until she saw her friends, brash Rainbow Dash and sweet Applejack, serene Rarity and timid Fluttershy, exuberant Pinkie Pie and even little Spike, the feeling wasn't going to go away.
Instead of explaining these impossible facts, Twilight merely muttered, I need to get home," before the headache returned and made her close her eyes, moaning softly.
How had she ended up here, anyway? Twilight tried to think again, hoping that this time the memories would come more easily. Instead of trying to figure out what had happened last, she let her recent experiences flow over her one at a time, looking for one that didn't have a conclusion. She had celebrated Pinkie Pie's birthday party, an event nearly destroyed by Pinkie Pie herself. She'd been preparing to go the Grand Galloping Gala, but she didn't remember going. This narrowed down the possibilities to a span of a couple days, and she ran through each of them in her head. What had she done those days, before the Gala. Imaged flashed briefly. Studying for Academy exams, helping Fluttershy feed the chickens, writing her most recent report on friendship, receiving the letter from Zecora.
It was an unusual letter, one that just showed up in her mailbox one morning. No postage. She had asked Ditzy Doo, the local mailpony, about it, but the response she got, as best as she could decipher it, was that Ditzy hadn't delivered it. Twilight finally came to the conclusion that Zecora had dropped it in the box herself, in which case Twilight failed to understand why the zebra didn't just come and talk to her in person.
The text was short and simple. "Twilight. Please meet me today, by noon, at the old castle of the Royal Sisters in the Everfree Forest. This is urgent, but please come alone." Twilight was immediately suspicious, particularly of the part about coming alone, so she showed the letter to Rainbow Dash, a decision that turned out to be a huge mistake. Rainbow Dash, overcome by curiosity, insisted that the two of them go together to get to the bottom of the mystery.
That was the last thing Twilight remembered before she woke up, hurting and alone.
But you're in safe hands, Twilight reminded herself. Relatively, she added, remembering the dirty scalpels. As long as nopony tries to perform surgery on you, she decided, I think you'll be okay.
"How is it?" she asked Pumpkin. "Does it look that bad to you?"
Pumpkin nodded, slowly, and Twilight realized that she might not be the only pony in the room trying to keep her stomach contents down. "You've got this, gash," said Pumpkin as she traced a line down the side of her face to show Twilight just where it was. "It's not bleeding, but it looks awful. What happened to you?"
"You're guess is as good as mine," muttered Twilight softly. Maybe she had a concussion. That would explain the urge to vomit. Could concussions cause strange dreams, she wondered.
A clopping sound from the entrance disrupted her thoughts. Pumpkin turned around excitedly. "That's her," she said, and she bounded forward to greet their host. Twilight, still not wanting to risk moving, watched on from a distance and got her first look at her savior.
It was the dirtiest mare Twilight had ever seen. She looked like an incredibly frail earth pony. Dirt clung to her coat in such great quantities that Twilight could not even begin to guess what color the coat would be when clean, only that now it was the brown color of rabbit droppings, with a darker brown unkempt mane. The only bright part of the mare was her eyes, which shone a brilliant blue. The mare paused her approach as she spotted Pumpkin and took a few steps back. Something about the mare's behavior seemed oddly familiar to Twilight, and she looked vaguely recognizable in a way that Twilight couldn't place.
The mare walked a large circle around Pumpkin and approached Twilight. "You're lucky Chestnut found you," she said, and her voice was sad and grim. "He brought me to you, made me help you. I was scared." She opened her saddlebag and pulled out some bandages with her teeth. "I had to go into town to get some strips for your face," she explained. "I was hoping you'd still be out of it when I got back. You must be in a lot of pain after surviving an attack like that."
"Attack?" said Twilight, trying once again to sit up. As she moved, the mare flinched and almost fell over. She's scared of me, Twilight realized, and she politely laid down once again. After a few seconds the mare recovered and continued working.
"The shape of the wound, that's a claw mark," said the mare. "You can tell by the shape. But it's not like anything I've seen before. Too big for the little creatures, but too small for most of the predators. Rest now."
The mare turned around, and Twilight thought she saw something jagged sticking out of the mare's back. "Okay," the mare called up the entrance. "Come and get your food." A large number of creatures stampeded down the tunnel and immediately began feasting on the piles of lettuce and carrots that had been lying about. One of them, however, put off eating to stare disdainfully at the new ponies, and he hopped over to get a closer look.
He was an all-too-familiar white bunny rabbit. Twilight remembered why the mare looked so familiar.
It was impossible, of course. But she had to find out.
The mare turned around, and Twilight could now make out the pink in the tail, the three butterflies on the flank. There was no mistaking Fluttershy, even under all that grime.
"Fluttershy!" she repeated. "But you're, I mean, you don't..." She trailed off, pointing at where Fluttershy's wings were supposed to be. "You're an earth pony," she said at last. This was crazy, thought Twilight. This had to be a dream.
Fluttershy looked at where Twilight was pointing, confused. She scowled, as if she was trying to remember something from long ago. "Oh," she said, visibly ashamed. "I really am an earth pony, when you think about it," she said. "I talk to animals, I'm not good at flying. I belong here, in the ground, like earth ponies do. I was never supposed to be a Pegasus. That was all just a mistake."
Twilight didn't understand. "But that doesn't explain," she began. And then she once again saw the jagged points sticking out of Fluttershy's side. In the background, the dirty scalpels suddenly seemed to begin shining. Twilight froze in fear, the only part of her moving was her chest, which began heaving faster and faster. A sense of horror spread through her, and her imagination ran wild, showing her images she didn't want to see.
"Oh," she said weakly, before the food she had been trying so hard to keep down finally made its way to freedom.