Cuddly Doom (Chapter 2)

Apr 27th, 2017
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  1. >“Honestly though, there’s no way you’re going to believe what I saw on the way in today, like, I just couldn’t resist coming over here to bother you about it”
  2. “I’ve seen some truly crazy stuff in my day, let’s hear it”
  3. >I settled into a relaxed stance, leaning against the doorframe – even if this were a half-assed story it would still be more exciting than most of what went on around here
  4. >Crossing my arms, I tilt forward in calm anticipation
  5. >“Okay, okay, it’s crazy, I’m actually not pullin’ your leg here, this happened just now”
  6. “Go on man, you got my attention”
  7. >“Alright, I was walking down the path by our neighbor’s window, you know, the two guys who live just down the hall?”
  8. “Yeah, yeah, the two roommates - I don’t know their names but I think I know the folks you’re talking about”
  9. >“Right - so I’m off a ways, and I can see one of them’s in his room on his phone. Reminds me that I’d been waiting for an alert on my own phone, so I look down for a minute-“
  10. >*Clap*
  11. >He was really going heavy on the dramatic emphasis here
  12. >“Look up and there’s a horse in the room”
  13. “A horse?”
  14. >“Yeah, like this little pony, weirdest thing – right where the guy was a minute ago”
  15. >He paused his story, unsure of what other descriptors to add; a moment later he drops his arms conclusively
  16. >It took me a moment to process what he’d just said – it was certainly long on absurdity – I couldn’t help but chuckle at the silliness of such a punchline
  17. >Gradually, the chuckle evolved into an exuberant laugh
  18. “Ahaha, okay, wow, seriously? Don’t quit your day job to go moonlighting as a storyteller”
  19. >“No, I’m absolutely serious, it was purple and –“
  20. “I’m sure it had a horn and wings too!”
  21. >“It… well, it did have wings…”
  22. “Ah, that’s great, a little pony, just like in that TV show, honest”
  23. >I tried to regain as much of my composure as I could muster, a deep cough helped do the trick
  24. “How wonderfully magical”
  25. >“Okay, but you follow me right, it… It was there, I saw this…”
  26. >His thoughts trailed off as his gaze shifted to the floor
  27. >One thing that all my neighbors seemed to have in common was a shared difficulty in laughing at their own jokes
  28. >An unsteady silence hung heavy in the air for a few seconds
  29. “Nah, I’m sorry man, it got a good laugh out of me”
  30. >“No, but, I’m actually, very and truly serious here, this little purple horse was where he’d just been”
  31. “And… the guy was gone?”
  32. >“Yeah, far as I could tell – look, just… look at me and tell me you think I’m joking about this”
  33. >With a strong undertone of solemnity, he made eye contact, breathing in before releasing a long, intentional exhale
  34. >I could feel my own smile fading - whatever he’d seen, it may have been otherworldly, but he wasn’t seeking humor in describing it
  35. >Poor guy… really thought he saw a… purple horse
  36. >From what little I knew about him, maybe he’d gone back on his promise from last year to stay clean
  37. >Or maybe the stress at the office that he’d been spending many sleepless nights escaping had finally caught up with him
  38. >Whatever it was, it was serious
  39. “Okay… Okay. I believe you. If it were anyone else I would have trouble doing so, but… I believe you”
  40. >He kept his eyes locked, not saying anything for a few seconds to be certain I was finished speaking
  41. >Slowly, his head started to bob in an affirmative nod
  42. >“It… means a lot to hear that; you’re a good guy”
  43. >I glanced behind him, if only to break eye contact – sounded as though a bunch of girls were visiting with the ‘proud new owners of the pony’ down the hall
  44. >Well, if by some stretch of the imagination that was actually the case, good on them
  45. >I wasn’t a particularly big fan of them, but who doesn’t love horses?
  46. “Say, stories aside, are you doing anything this weekend? We could watch the playoffs, maybe swing by the neighbors’ place and say hello to Secretariat, Seabiscuit, whats-its-name…“
  47. >“I’d love to do both actually, but I need to leave for the train station in a few hours”
  48. “Oh?”
  49. >“Yeah, going to be travelling this weekend with some-“
  51. >“Friends!”
  53. >His words got cut off as a chipper female voice piped up
  54. >With both of us craning our necks into the hallway, we didn’t see anyone there
  55. >At least, not while we were looking at eye level
  56. >Standing just down the way, softly bathed in the light spilling out of an open doorway, was the unmistakable silhouette of a…
  57. >A little pony
  58. >Standing about three feet tall, I questioned how she’d gotten that door open in the first place
  59. >As though that was the weirdest part of the whole situation appearing before us
  60. >When I made eye contact with her, her grin became a brazen smile, a pair of wings on her back ruffling out and twitching with joy
  61. >The late afternoon sun danced off of her glistening purple feathers
  62. “I’ll be honest, I… I didn’t really believe you were telling the truth about that pony…”
  63. >“You can see her too?”
  64. >I paused, not sure whether this made the two of us crazy
  65. “…I still can hardly believe my eyes”
  66. >My neighbor, who was in a less paralyzing state of surprise, did his best to kick off an exchange of dialogue
  67. >“Hi, uh… little pony… you’re a… cute friend, ain’t ya?”
  68. >The feverish little Pegasus gasped, pausing just long enough to remind herself that sentences need spaces between words
  69. >“Ohmigoshdoyouwant… you want to my friend too?! Just like Sky Meadows?!”
  70. >Oh wow
  71. >The pony can really talk too, just like a person
  72. >She couldn’t possibly be any more adorable
  73. >“Sky Meadows? Is that… another pony?”
  74. >The Pegasus gave an animated nod and stepped into the hallway, followed closely by another pony
  75. >This one was equally as small and colorful, with her lack of iridescent wings more than compensated by a brilliant blue coat
  76. >She too sported a grin, her eyes lighting up when she saw us
  77. >As if two ponies weren’t enough to inflict a heart attack on account of their adorableness, a third poked her head into the hallway
  78. >This one flaunted a flawlessly pure white coat and a horn extending from her forehead – a unicorn
  79. >I was still fawning over the adorable little ponies when the purple one spoke up again
  80. >Gesturing with a hoof, she went down the line
  81. >“These are my friends Daisy, Sky Meadows, and you’ve already met me, Storm Cloud!”
  82. >I let my neighbor take the reins of the conversation – not only had he already mentally braced himself for meeting little ponies today, he seemed ecstatic about it
  83. >Doubtful he’d expected to spend the afternoon conversing with one, but you never know what life’s going to throw your way
  84. >“Well, Storm Cloud, I must say, it’s very nice to meet you and your friends”
  85. >“You have no idea how happy we are to meet you! You’re going to be a great friend too – are you ready to cuddle right now?”
  86. >“I… guess I could spare a few minutes…”
  87. >He may have had a train to catch – later – how often did an opportunity like this come up?
  88. >He dropped to his knees and settled into a seated position on his feet, putting himself at about eye level with the ponies
  89. >I remained standing, crossing my arms and leaning against the doorframe again
  90. >Even if the undeniable presence of these ponies signified the guy was indeed, not crazy, he still needed a relaxing cuddle time to himself
  91. >The ponies, giggling excitedly, closed the distance at a brisk trot
  92. >Storm Cloud pounced into his chest, wings flaring slightly, nearly knocking him over in the process
  93. >She wrapped her forelegs around his neck, letting out a cute sigh as she rested her head against his shoulder
  94. >He returned the embrace, propping up Storm Cloud’s barrel and flanks as her tail drooped over his thighs
  95. >The other two ponies wrapped around his side, brushing their fine, soft fur against his exposed arms
  96. >Here and there, the fine tickling would cause him to shiver
  97. >It was an odd place for such a serene scene, and even if I couldn’t see his full expression, I could tell this was a rare instance in which the guy was genuinely smiling
  98. >The way he was always on edge, quick, sharp breathing was often the norm… but right now? In this moment, he was at peace
  99. >The building was quiet and calm, broken up by little more than the soft rustle of leaves beyond an open window, and the gentle flood of the late afternoon’s orange sunlight
  100. >The orange light draped over his arms, growing more vibrant each time a pony brushed him
  101. >Very, very vibrant…
  102. >I shifted to get a closer look
  103. >It was only when I stepped forward and blocked in the sun’s path that I realized the bright orange wasn’t coming from where I’d originally thought
  104. >And in fact, it wasn’t just on his arms… his whole upper body was an unhealthy off-color
  105. >I didn’t want to ruin the moment, but even more so, I didn’t want to stand idly by if something was wrong
  106. “Are you feeling… alright, man? I didn’t… notice before… but your whole upper body looks… odd”
  107. >“To be honest, my chest does feel a little… tight? Think if might be better to take off my shirt?”
  108. “Are you sure you’re not allergic to the ponies or anything?”
  109. >He continued to idly brush his hand along Storm Cloud’s back, refusing to give an answer
  110. >Either he was far too caught up in cuddling with the ponies, or suddenly found some gumption and grudge to just ignore me
  111. “I said, are you allergic to the ponies?”
  112. >He continued to refuse an answer, nuzzling closer to Storm Cloud
  113. >It couldn’t possibly be that he couldn’t hear me; I was right next to him
  114. >Well, he said his shirt was bothering him and wanted it off, so if he’s going to play tough, then right here, right now in the hallway, I’ll just-
  115. “What that HELL is that?!”
  116. >Abruptly, I stopped reaching for the slack of his shirt, and recoiled at the sight before me
  117. >Poking out from the top of his head and twitching around at different angles, was a pointed furry flap of skin – two of them, actually
  118. >Ears
  119. >Pony ears, just like those on Storm Cloud, Sky Meadows, and Daisy
  120. >At my interjection, all three ponies flinched, falling away from him before regaining their composure
  121. >He, on the other hand, didn’t retain his coolheadedness quite so well
  122. >Whirling about to face me, his wings pressed against his the inside of his shirt, then flared outwards in alarm, tearing the cheap fabric along several lines
  123. >A sharp report echoed throughout the hallway
  124. >The tattered remains slid from his shoulders, revealing a chest dotted with small patches of orange fur in various stages of development
  125. >Not to mention, well, his new wingspan
  126. “What did those ponies do to you?!”
  127. > “It’s okay, we were just cuddling – that’s what friends do! Goodness, you really startled me there with your shout, don’t do that again”
  128. “Dude, we need to get you to a hospital! And get these ponies out of here! Can you not see what’s going on?”
  129. >He looked down at his half-transformed body, the slightest hint of shame making itself apparent and quickly evaporating
  130. >“I guess a part of me thought this change was like a dream or… something… it feels so indescribably nice… you don’t even know, just try cuddling for a little bit!”
  131. “I’m not going to put up with this, we’re… we’re-“
  132. >We’re what? We’re going to take you to a hospital and get you diagnosed with a terminal case of horse?
  133. >Reverse the magic by getting three human girls to hug you instead?
  134. >What was the typical plan for stopping your neighbor from being turned into a cuddly little pony that, more and more evidently, is about to meet the same fate at least one of the other neighbors did?
  135. >Chances are one of these ponies has had experiences with at least two conversions
  136. >I had none
  137. >If I didn’t want to end up with hooves myself, I shouldn’t be anywhere near these ponies or anything they’d touched
  138. >Much as I wanted to be a hero, I was out of options and took a defensive step back… maybe after they claimed his humanity, they’d be appeased and would leave me alone
  139. >Perfect logic - I hoped the two seasons running high school cross country were about to pay off
  140. >I pointed a finger at nothing in particular, initially not sure who I wanted to address
  141. “Storm Cloud, why- why are you doing this to him?”
  142. >“We just want to be his friend, that’s all. Don’t you want to see what it’s like too? Don’t worry, you will soon!”
  143. >With that, she giggled and gave him a peck on the cheek, as a new rash of orange fur cropped up across his face
  144. >Overtaken by a new wave of bliss, he sighed, flopped back and rolled over, settling finally on his side with the wings tucked instinctively to his… barrel
  145. >Daisy and Sky Meadow planted themselves on each side of him, brushing the soft fur of their faces against him as the front of his nose pressed outwards and broadened
  146. >As his teeth flattened and lower jaw bowed outwards to match, he flared his nostrils and exhaled from his new pony muzzle
  147. >Blinking rapidly, his eyes grew to adorable proportions, a dainty row of lashes embellishing the corners
  148. >His hair, originally cut short to keep up with the style of the day, grew inches at a time until soft waves draped from the base of his pony ears, down past his shoulders
  149. >Storm Cloud had walked around to his feet, where his shoes and pants were loosening more with each passing second
  150. >She grasped a shoe and sock between her teeth, tearing them off and spitting away more archaic remnants of his humanity
  151. >Doing so for each foot revealed... what could only loosely be described as a foot
  152. >A hardened orange toenail engulfed the end of each, the other toes ceding dominance of the limb as each foot elongated
  153. >Storm Cloud ran her hoof along their lengths, setting in motion a wave of fur than eclipsed all the skin within seconds, from his ankle to his fetlocks
  154. >At the same time, it accelerated the morphing of bone and muscle into its new equine form
  155. >Within moments, calling them anything other than “hooves” would have been simply wrong
  156. >She tugged at the pants’ ankles, sliding them off with ease, and revealing legs that were further along towards ponydom than they were human
  157. >With nothing separating his now-exposed skin from the ponies flanking his sides, a line of growing hair raced across uncovered regions, leaving him awash in soft orange fur
  158. >A long tail flowed out from the base of his spine, making short work of the last of his ripping clothing
  159. >With a smile, the orange Pegasus let out a soft, feminine laugh and rose to her hooves
  160. >The other ponies had stood as well, each displaying a grin and admiring their work
  161. >With a subtle nod, they wrapped their hooves around their new friend in a loving embrace, and all playfully toppled to the ground, giggling all the while
  162. >She shivered with a newfound wave of bliss, a clear marker of the exact moment she would remember as when she joined their herd
  163. >All four stood again, their attention now fixed on me
  164. >Show’s over
  165. >Promptly, I slammed the door to the hallway and locked it, saying a quick prayer that it would hold
  166. >My prayers didn’t seem to do much
  167. >I hadn’t even taken two steps backward before the first crash of hooves launched a small barrage of splinters from the area around the doorknob
  169. >I shuddered as the first crash of hooves echoed throughout the house, near-certain that the latch wouldn’t hold
  170. >Whether it were a burglar or a quartet of friendship-enamored ponies, the whole complex’s security theater never inspired much confidence
  171. >Still, now that it was being put through its paces, it was actually holding up
  172. >A second crash sent the door lurching inward – further than the first time – and a fresh wood chip tumbled to the ground
  173. >Even if I’d bought some time, it would be measureable on the scale of a few seconds
  174. “Storm Cloud! Or… whoever’s kicking the door- I’m trying to unlock it but I think you might be breaking it more with your kicking!”
  175. >I hesitantly reached an arm forward and jostled the doorknob vigorously, remaining absolutely sure not to rotate it even a fraction
  176. >The relatively thin construction of the door was apparent by how easily the ponies’ voices pierced through
  177. >“I don’t think it’s such”
  178. >“Clementine Breeze, would you-”
  179. >“Stop kicking the door, dear”
  180. >The faint tap of a hoof against the floor signaled the definitive reception of my message
  181. >While they stood outside at their peak patience, I just needed to divert their attention
  182. >My mind racing, heart beating fast, I settled against a wall adjacent to the door, eyes still fixed on the menacing damage already done
  183. “Y’know, I think I heard a couple guys just down the hall earlier today who were feeling lonely and looking for friends, try to track them down”
  184. >It just so happened that all the other residents in this particular hallway were either out of town or at work right now
  185. >I think… I hope…
  186. >It was a solid plan - if I could dupe these ponies into a wild goose chase for even 30 seconds, it would be enough time to call the cavalry
  187. >“Really?!”
  188. >“Thanks so much for letting us know!”
  189. >“Oh, how wonderful! You can join us in meeting them!”
  190. >“Yeah, everyone here can be friends! It’s a great idea!”
  191. >I could hear their smiles through their voices; it was oddly sickening
  192. >My stomach was upset enough just trying to cope with the fact that… at LEAST one of the ponies out there was a neighbor of mine
  193. >A former neighbor, that is
  194. “Of course, of course! In fact, why don’t you go meet them first – I’ll sort out the door lock in the meantime”
  195. >I gave it another rattle to sell my imitated effort
  196. >“Don’t worry, even if you can’t get it, the door’s not too strong for us to break it down – as friends!”
  197. >These ponies were as corny as they were persistent
  198. “No, I think you should focus on them first”
  199. >They weren’t buying what I was selling
  200. “I-I don’t want to be there when you meet those new friends, and trust me, it’s better that way”
  201. >I absentmindedly shook my palms as they started to get sweaty
  202. >The cracks in the armor were starting to make themselves known
  203. “Really, I’m, uh, not very good with the… whole friendship thing, yeah! You don’t want ME to meet them!”
  204. >Shoot, that line totally validated what they’re trying to do to me, didn’t it?
  205. “Actually, I don’t have a good relationship with them, so it should definitely be just you while I get this door sorted out!”
  206. >I wiped my brow and gave a forceful exhale
  207. “In fact… I don’t think… I don’t think I want to be your friends either… It’s… it’s not meant to be”
  208. >I paused, that was enough for them to turn over in their minds
  209. >Surging up past waves of adrenaline, a tinge of sympathy made its way through to the surface
  210. >I felt a bit bad telling it so bluntly when their core desire was evidently just to “make friends”, but it was worthy price to pay for my unscathed fingers
  211. >Neither the ponies nor I said anything for a few seconds
  212. >If my thoughts could’ve risen beyond reactionary humanity-preserving impulses, I’d have made a dash for the my phone on the kitchen table
  213. >I could’ve called the police, animal control, hell, I could’ve justified calling my buddies in the National Guard with the potential threat these ponies posed
  214. >Instead, I was frozen in place, a few inches and one door away from a militantly cuddly horde
  215. >A soft voice, one I recognized as Storm Cloud, spoke up
  216. >“I know you’re probably afraid right now… Afraid of us and the idea of being our friend… Afraid of friendship and what it’s meant to be”
  217. >She breathed a long inhale
  218. >“It’s okay. It’s not your fault, and we want you to know, we’re here for you. The ponies who don’t know about friendship are those who need it the most.”
  219. >Please God, if you’re listening, please tell me she’s not talking about me
  220. >“We’ll be there for you soon enough – we’re not going to let one… measly… LITTLE… barrier… STAND IN OUR W-
  221. >Storm Cloud hadn’t even finished grunting out the end of her sentence before another crash shook the door
  222. >“Come on girls, we can do this!”
  223. >I stood straight upright – especially given the extra emotional motivation I just unearthed, that last kick was audibly the most powerful yet
  224. >And in effect, the most worrying
  225. >A couple seconds later, a pair of crashes echoed through the room in rapid succession
  226. >“Sky Meadows, you gotta kick at the exact same time as me!”
  227. >With my heart once again racing faster than I’d thought possible, I channeled my feverishness into scrambling toward my bedroom
  228. >No phone
  229. >Might not be time to call anyone
  230. >No weapons around, knives - useless
  231. >Too many ponies
  232. >Too many
  233. >Distance!
  234. >I just needed to create distance between us
  235. >My ears were overwhelmed by the cacophony of my heavy footfalls combined with the sharp – and progressively better coordinated – knocks at the door
  236. >I slid into my bedroom, slamming the door behind me just as I heard the first door explode inwards, followed by the excited pattering of hooves
  237. >Net count of the doors between us: still one
  238. >But considering the ease with which my bedroom door swung closed, its mass wasn’t even in the same ballpark as the front door
  239. >Two, three hits if I were lucky, and that’d fall too
  240. >My eyes scanned the room in a fruitless search for anything good with which to defend myself, but I finally rested my gaze on the window
  241. >It might take the ponies a few moments to ascertain what room I was even in; this was my chance… and I wouldn’t get another like it
  242. >Lifting the glass, I gave a solid kick to the right half of the screen, snapping out a pair of plastic brackets, but not quite clearing the way
  243. >My second kick to the other side came in unison with another crash of hooves from somewhere else in the apartment
  244. >The screen popped and I exited out of that window faster than a porn popup at a church meeting, doing my best to shut the opening as much as possible on my way out
  245. >Two of those ponies had wings
  246. >I wanted to think that for the skewed proportions of a small horse, they wouldn’t work, but nothing up to this point seemed to scientifically make much sense either
  247. >If they got airspace, I wasn’t getting away, and anyone else looking to avoid being their “friend” wasn’t getting away either
  248. >And from there everything snowballs as there are more Pegasi befriending more Pegasi…
  249. >…Better to just not think about it
  250. >The cool, gentle breeze rustled my clothes as I aimed for a modest shrub, swiftly sliding off the window ledge and doing my best to stick the landing
  251. >After rolling out into the mulch, I instinctively took off running
  252. >…for about three steps
  253. >Though putting barriers between myself and the ponies had worked great up until this point, windows and locked doors were unique in that I could get through them while creating a temporary hassle for the equines
  254. >A tall, solid wood fence surrounding this back lot on all sides?
  255. >Not good
  256. >I looked around for a place in the yard to hide – did horses have really strong noses like dogs? Would they be able to home in on my scent?
  257. >The pessimist in me said I was about to find out, but I did my best to shut down the thought
  258. >I wasn’t going to be a pony
  259. >I wasn’t going to be a pony
  260. >I repeated it like a mantra – call it desperation or hyping myself up; I insistently wanted it to be true
  261. >It’d been only a few seconds since I’d gotten out of the window, but I chanced a peek back
  262. >If the ponies had caught sight of me by now, undoubtedly at least one of them would either be staring out the window or actively trying to turn it to shards the way they did with my door
  263. >The coast was clear - for the moment - prompting my gaze back to the fence
  264. >It was visibly well-built and sturdy, and stood about seven feet tall; it’d unquestionably be impassable for at least Daisy and Sky Meadows, maybe the Pegasi if luck turned my way… for once
  265. >Dealing with two ponies was still better than four
  266. >I was probably only going to have one shot here before tiring myself out, so I stepped up to a favorable spot on the fence, took a deep breath, and shook my arms to get the blood flowing
  267. >3… 2… 1…
  268. >Channeling all my strength downwards, I vaulted enough to get some momentum and a good grip on the top of the fence
  269. >In a do-or-die scramble, my feet gradually clawed for enough purchase to get my center of mass the full seven feet in the air
  270. >My muscles were shaking, teeth gritted and eyes pinched closed in agony
  271. >After what felt like an eternity, I got there
  272. >My pause at the top was brief, just enough to rest my stomach on the top plank and glance back at the window
  273. >No ponies
  274. >From the peak, a feeling of relief settled in as I relaxed and let gravity do its work
  275. >Things were getting better; once I got behind the fence, I’d be able to cover my escape easily – the forest back here stretched out for what felt like miles
  276. >Even though it was all in slow motion, the seven foot fall was a fraction of a second
  277. >Probably just a very short fraction of a second
  278. >The fence slipped further and further away, the horizon rolled past, and I found myself looking at the base of the fence on the forest side
  279. >The base of the fence… where the ground should have been… where I was expecting it to be
  280. >Fuck…
  281. >With the sensation of freefall already gripping my body, a useless surge of adrenaline shot through my veins as the remaining eight feet of the drop came into focus
  282. >My view was swallowed up, not by the lush bed of green grass I’d hoped would poetically conclude my ordeal, but a bed of dark grey rocks
  283. >Dark, except for those spots where the sun glistened off their sharp edges
  284. >In that moment it would have been fitting to think about the family and friends I’d be leaving behind, and their fate in the new pony-ravaged world; instead, only one thought made it through: “Huh. This is how I die.”
  285. >My shoulder was the first part to hit the forest floor, accompanied by a sickening crunch and pop
  286. >It called back to high school afternoons spent crushing empty soda cans underfoot, although the sound coming from inside me was a new, unwelcome experience
  287. >Having never broken a bone, I wouldn’t have minded going my whole life without breaking any – or at the very least starting with the agony of a single bone before working up to a combo
  288. >The shockwave became bored of ravaging that part of my body quite quickly, moving over to my chest next
  289. >With a forced puff, my lungs were abruptly voided of air, and the rest of my organs reacted accordingly as they slammed against my ribcage
  290. >My neck and legs were mercilessly whipped about, my head missing the worst of the rocks by inches
  291. >It was all very loud for a split second, then eerily quiet
  292. >A score of songbirds in the tree canopy went about their business, unknowing or uncaring of the scene unfolding below them
  293. >I had a clear view of them, and was probably going to for a while
  294. >I didn’t want to move, not now - not that I really had much choice in the matter
  295. >Even as my breathing returned and a few of my nerves were overwhelmed by the subtle rise and fall of my chest, I begged simply to stop moving altogether
  296. >Long, labored exhales were punctuated by sharp gasps, both fighting the nausea of shock
  297. >The approaching dusk provided a gentle backdrop as a single drop of blood snaked its way off my face
  298. >Meanwhile, a faint copper taste gradually made itself known in the back of my throat
  299. >I wasn’t dead, and if that meant the ponies could still turn me into one of them, I should be moving, right?
  300. >I should be running full speed, just like… that guy in the sports
  301. >If I go off through the forest on a heading toward… the place… the uh…
  302. >It’s got the blue thing, the…
  303. >What were those questions that they asked… my friend… when he was in the… it’s the place with doctors
  304. >The year’s… I know this one… and my name…
  305. >I let my eyes slide closed
  307. >It was dark… even for nighttime
  308. >Anywhere else in town, the moon and stars might have illuminated a bit of the sky
  309. >At the very least, on a cloudy night, scattered light from the dull yellow sodium glow of streetlamps downtown might have done some good
  310. >A hellish and unnatural sight to be sure, but it was still some kind of sight
  311. >Instead, the densely packed forest leaves greedily grabbed for every ray that tried to make its way through
  312. >It would have been very useful cover in avoiding the Pegasi on my escape
  313. >Would have, had I made it more than eight feet into the forest
  314. >And those eight feet weren’t even horizontal – what a joke
  315. >Still, at the base of the shallow ditch in which I found myself, the darkness wasn’t absolute, and squinting allowed me to make out a few of my surroundings
  316. >There were definitely more than the four of them that I’d encountered trying to kick down my door
  317. >Maybe as many as seven or eight, and that was only in my field of view
  318. >I could turn my head to the side, distressed nerves warning me that it wasn’t a healthy idea
  319. >It was apparent my neck wasn’t fractured, as I could raise my head enough to look over my body, feet poking up just beyond the quickly rising and falling silhouette of my chest
  320. >I settled my head back down, but not without a long, strained groan
  321. >They hadn’t pounced on me yet, though they had to be well aware I wasn’t going anywhere in this state
  322. >I felt the dried blood all over the side of my face; if that weren’t an indication of my vulnerability, I don’t know what would be
  323. >Actually, that probably was the very reason they could show patience - a trait I hardly considered feasible after hearing their frantic effort to break down my door
  324. >I stared up at the trees, thoughts swimming in a daze as I tried to get myself up to speed on what was going on
  325. >Maybe I could talk my way out of this, maybe I could convince that me staying as a human was better for t-
  326. >Two dark blurry masses stepped into my field of view
  327. >A soft glow near one of them gently grew more intense, resolving the pointed unicorn horn from which it originated, then the facial features of the two ponies looking at me
  328. >I found myself meeting the gaze of Daisy and Sky Meadows
  329. >Their expressions were still cheerful, but they carried more subdued, serous undertones than the ponies giddily bounding down the hallway hours earlier
  330. >Still trying to piece together the thoughts leading to the words, sentences, mouth movements, and sounds I’d hoped would buy my escape, my mouth hung uselessly ajar
  331. >Daisy was the first to speak
  332. >“Don’t be afraid, I can see you’re afraid but we’re not going to hurt you.”
  333. >At that, my breathing audibly quickened as I tried imperfectly to keep myself calm between short, tormented breaths
  334. >Hyperventilating would do me no good in getting out of this, and at worst I tried to avoid thinking about what would happen if I passed out again and their patience wavered
  335. >I wanted to be awake for whatever they had in store for me; it might be the only way to try and keep a grasp on “me” – the real “me”
  336. >I wasn’t afraid of being hurt by these ponies
  337. >Not physically… not in the way Daisy was talking about
  338. >I could tell she had much left to say, but instead she tenderly shushed me and signaled to Sky Meadows to take a step back
  339. >She too gave me some more breathing room, though she wasn’t yet ready to abandon her speech
  340. >After a few moments that seemed to drag on for an eternity, steady inhales through my nose met long exhales in a well-controlled rhythm
  341. >This was my maximum attainable level of calmness given the circumstances, and Daisy was well-acquainted with this
  342. >“Our herd is growing nicely here, but it could be so much more. There are so many people around here with whom friendship is still lost, and I think I know just the thing for it”
  343. “Why aren’t you going after them? Why are you waiting around for me to wake up, to calm down, all those things?”
  344. >Nothing about this made sense
  345. >Three of them turned my neighbor into a pony in just a few moments; these seven or eight of them would make short work of groups of people…
  346. >And then those groups would make short work of entire crowds…
  347. >For all I knew, it could be just after twilight, or the hour before morning already; maybe there were already herds, hundreds of ponies strong, devastating the local area
  348. >Mercilessly and hopelessly mobbing anyone brave enough to put up a fight
  349. >Pegasi preying on those ambitious enough to make a run for it
  350. >Wasting time on one incapacitated human didn’t make any sense, considering the transformational power they wielded
  351. “What’s so special about me?”
  352. >“Friend, in a way, it’s particularly advantageous to us that you’re not able to go anywhere. Most people, even the willing ones, are often surprised at first by friendship”
  353. >“The change startles them because they’ve lived their whole lives differently; they grow to be so used to what they can see that they brush aside the benefits of what they can’t”
  354. >“They get so caught up on the fact that they have feet, that they forget about the importance of forgiveness”
  355. >“They get so caught up on having hands that they forget about the importance of helpfulness”
  356. >“We’ve all found that modesty requires a mane, honesty requires hooves, and trustworthiness a tail – that’s where the unfriendly fall short”
  357. >“Luckily, all it takes is a little bit of affection, one hug from a true friend, and they come to their senses soon enough, all the more excited to share friendship with others”
  358. >The way Daisy spoke so eloquently, I had to wonder whether this was the first time she’d spoken of this topic
  359. >I shuddered to think how many ponies standing around me were once helpless people meeting the same fate during their final moments in a human body
  360. “Please, just… please get it overwith then… I… I’m ready to be a pony, honest. I’m ready to be your friend.”
  361. >All this, after I’d explicitly told her the opposite through a locked door
  362. >I was never a great liar – they saw right through my deception earlier, and with my facial expression betraying me as I lay there on the forest floor, a neon sign might as well have been pointing to my bluff
  363. >Truly, with every passing moment I became more concerned – terrified – about what Daisy had planned for me
  364. >I thought being a pony was one of the worst possible outcomes for the night, verily comparable in consequence to death, but I was beginning to reconsider
  365. >I didn’t want to be a pony
  366. >I didn’t want to be a pony
  367. >And I didn’t want to be whatever Daisy had in mind
  368. >From the far edge of my peripherals, the subtle movement of a blue pony caught my eye
  369. >“How do you want to do this?” asked an uncharacteristically stern Sky Meadows
  370. >“It’ll make it a lot easier if he’s lying on his stomach; that way the wings have space to grow”
  371. >Sky Meadows gave a nod, walking over to the side of my body with my bad arm
  372. >I didn’t sugar coat it for myself - if she was going to be pushing that particular side of my body, it was going to hurt
  373. >Well, pushing prettymuch ANY side of my body was going to hurt in the state I was in
  374. >I could at least give thanks that she wasn’t rolling me the other way, which would have crushed my bad arm into an even worse shape under my body weight
  375. >I did my best to be cooperative; at the very least, submission might make this less painful now that my fate seemed pretty well sealed
  376. >Doing my best to elevate my arm even an inch or two, Sky Meadows wedged her head underneath and gave as forceful of a shove as she could muster
  377. >I yelped in pain as I began to roll, and found myself resettling on my stomach a moment later
  378. >Thankfully I’d only needed to attempt that ordeal once
  379. >My arms were still at my side, but without looking I could feel a faint tickling sensation as the first patches of pony fur pushed out where Sky Meadows had made contact
  380. >I groaned at the thought that my humanity was already slipping from my grasp, but also at the still-pulsing pain coursing through much of my body
  381. >Was it even necessary, really? Who’s to say I was going to get wings growing out of my back anyways?
  382. “How is that you know I’m going to be a Pegasus? Is it because my neighbors ended up as Pegasi? Is it something about me?”
  383. >“Well, normally, it’s prettymuch random, but well-versed unicorns have the ability to influence the process if they know the right spells.”
  384. “And me in particular, being a Pegasus in particular, does what for you?”
  385. >Daisy gave an intentional exhale and looked up to the forest, not so much in irritation as in hollow hope that the answer to my question was written in one of the trees
  386. >Without attempting to establish eye contact, she racked her brain for an answer, opting to respond with a question of her own
  387. >“You’re at least familiar with the television show My Little Pony, or maybe some of the toys, right?”
  388. “I’ve seen some commercials for it and I could probably name the, like, five main characters…”
  389. >“Okay, do you know of any of the princesses, Celestia, Luna, Cadance, Twilight Sparkle later on?”
  390. “I just recognize the name Twilight Sparkle, what about these princesses?”
  391. >“Of course you know about what we call ‘Earth ponies’, Pegasi, and unicorns. They’re, say for example, Sky Meadows, Storm Cloud, and myself”
  392. >How could I forget about them…
  393. >“The princesses are kind of like a combination of the traits of all three pony types – visibly, they have both wings and a horn”
  394. >“I’ve made a lot of friends, but none are ever like those princesses – alicorns, we call them, when they have all those traits”
  395. >I opted to stare unwaveringly at the ground, because Daisy undoubtedly would have commented on my expression if we’d locked eyes
  396. >My blood was ice cold, and if the suppressed fear wasn’t evident in my face, my slight, uncontrollable shaking otherwise gave it away
  397. >The pieces were all starting to come together, and if this meant what I thought it did, I could safely say I wasn’t ready to be a pretty pony princess in any capacity
  398. >Not that my preparedness would make much difference to her or any of the other ponies around me
  399. >After all, I presumed none of them had been prepared to end up as ponies
  400. >Daisy has been wanting to do this for a while, and simply needed the right ingredient for her purposes… lucky me
  401. >“I made friends with two other unicorns recently, both of which are also quite adept at their magic – Arctic Charge, Magnolia, if you’d be so kind?”
  402. >I made out a steady of rhythm of clacks as two ponies’ worth of hoofsteps bounded over the rocks; they halted a few feet away from me
  403. >“Just as the plan is supposed to go for alicorns: Arctic Charge, you take care of the Pegasus spell, Magnolia, you do the unicorn spell. Oh, and first…”
  404. >I was a goner already; I didn’t bother to even look at what the ponies around me were doing or talking about, and I certainly didn’t have it in me to fight back
  405. >I was only vaguely aware of them tugging around my clothing – it was mostly an acknowledgement of them doing so rather than any kind of response
  406. >My shoes shifted off and a pair of unseen teeth grabbed my socks, sliding them easily off before also making short work of everything else on my lower body
  407. >My chest was poked a couple times as I heard a unicorn trying to cut their way up the length of my shirt with their horn
  408. >The method was crude in the absence of scissors, but nonetheless worked efficiently; after a slight tug, the torn fabric fell away
  409. >The cool night breeze evaporated the last drops of sweat on my exposed back, even as a rising sense of dread had flushed my whole body
  410. >In the distance, I heard an owl hooting – one of the few sounds cutting through the otherwise still night
  411. >After a few moments, an ominous buzz from three separate sources rose up around me
  412. >They didn’t quite sound like bugs – more like bug zappers to be honest
  413. >Still, trying to describe them wasn’t necessary; I knew exactly what the sound was
  414. >All my muscles tensed slightly, and my hands formed into loose fists in anticipation of what was to come
  415. >I felt a faint heat drifting across my body, accompanied by a dull, electric charge that caused my fine arm & leg hairs to stand on end
  416. >A few moments later, the sensation was compounded with the soft bristle of pony fur on my arms
  417. >On each side, a Pegasus had had rolled up against me, making contact with as much of my chest as they could
  418. >To get more complete coverage, they also fanned out their wings across my back
  419. >Being brushed by feathers so large was a truly unique and alien feeling, but it was also quite nice
  420. >It all felt very cozy with them functionally wrapping me in a pony blanket; a gentle warmth came off their bodies, and I could feel their mellow heartbeats thumping slowing in unison
  421. >It didn’t take long until any slight shift I made stopped feeling like skin-on-fur and more like fur-on-fur
  422. >It was accompanied by a ticking sensation spread across my entire torso, and a palpable rise in body temperature as the insulating fur spread
  423. >I didn’t crane my neck around to look, but I could feel the frontiers of fur travelling down my thighs, accompanied by warm, blissful waves washing throughout the transformed regions
  424. >Trying to move individual fingers, I found much of my hand had gone numb
  425. >However, they were most certainly still there, as attempts to raise and tap my hand against the rocks were met with a sharp report – hooves
  426. >The slightest twinge of discomfort made itself known on my back as my wings began to push out from the area around my shoulder blades
  427. >The Pegasi at my sides weren’t blind to my predicament and shifted their own wings back to their sides, giving the bones and feathers more free reign to grow out
  428. >Still though, the discomfort was intensifying, as though someone were pinching me under the skin in a hundred different places
  429. >It wasn’t unbearable, but it was accompanied by an increasingly oppressive heat that had wrapped itself around my barrel
  430. >With a bit of stiffness, I abandoned the Pegasi posted at my sides and slowly rose to my knees and forehooves
  431. “Daisy, Clementine Breeze seemed to be having the time of her life when she got her wings…”
  432. >Daisy looked at me, horn still brilliantly aglow as she and the two other unicorns kept up their respective spells
  433. >“What do you mean?”
  434. “This throbbing ache where the wings are coming in…”
  435. >“That’s not supposed to happen, that’s never happened with anyone I’ve ever made friends with…”
  436. “Huh, I guess it m- goddamn!”
  437. >A pair of muscle spasms gripped my wings, muscles I didn’t think I had tightening beyond what I thought was possible
  438. >My voice became increasingly strained as a pulsing pain began to manifest beyond just the wings
  439. “So this is… part of the process… with alicorns?”
  440. >I was trying to speak slowly; some words were coming out more as gasps between spasms
  441. >It was a different kind of pain from what I’d experienced after falling from the fence, but I could tell it was rapidly becoming just as fierce
  442. >The warmth had likened itself to fire in some places; I knew it was just in my head but a cold shower sounded wonderful
  443. >My breathing had picked up and my pulse pounded in my ears
  444. >After a few breaths, my eyes were beginning to blur at the corner of my vision, a dull pressure apparent from within the skull
  445. >“Well, I guess so…”
  446. “But ponies usually make it out of the process alright, right?”
  447. >Daisy bit her lip, a dreadful expression of her own wiping away the fragile optimism
  448. >If it were possible to see the blood drain from the face of a pure-white unicorn, this is what it’d look like
  449. >“I… I’ve not… It’s never been done before… I’m the first one to try it and I don’t know what’s ‘supposed’ to happen…”
  450. >If I weren’t groaning to the forest floor in agony, I’d have given her the nastiest of nasty expressions to question her sanity
  451. >I’d have tackled any two of the three unicorns whose glowing horns were continuing unabated
  452. >But as the fire burning in my veins coursed with a new wave of intensity, I was as much a passive audience as every other pony there
  453. “Daisy… please… this… I can’t…”
  454. >“No, it has to work! It’s for the good of the herd, this is all on you to pull through, friend!”
  455. >Every muscle was screaming at this point, and my head felt as if it were preparing to explode
  456. >My lungs were burning at every breath, even as it felt like they were getting a tenth of the necessary air
  457. >My mind was going a million miles an hour yet getting nowhere as it tried to keep up with the sensory overload
  458. >I took one last gulp and a deep inhale to make a final plea
  459. “Daisy, if I already have the wings please just make me a Pegasus! I don’t want to die!”
  460. >I could tell I was gasping hard after that, but there was no sensory information confirming it
  461. >My hearing had gone blank as a high-pitched ringing took over, my body was numb from pain, and my vision blurred beyond being able to recognize anything or anypony
  462. >Daisy manifested as a white blob against the dark forest background, which was a stark contrast to the pitch black flood engulfing the corners of my vision
  463. >In seconds, the black encompassed more and more, until all but the white blob had been swallowed by black
  464. >Then it faded to a dot, and went away
  465. >I awoke with blurry eyes that steadily sharpened into a view of the forest canopy; the light was dim, so it must have been some point in the early morning
  466. >I was expecting there to be ponies craning over me to see if I was alright… where did they all go?
  467. >All told, I wasn’t in any particular pain right now, though there was an odd sensation on my torso and legs, something brushing up against me, like…
  468. >Clothes? I lifted my head up and was greeted by the sight of my chest, followed by a raised arm turning over in amazement, fingers waggling slightly
  469. >Compared to the intense pain from right after I fell off the fence, and especially compared to… whatever the hell I’d just imagined, it hurt a lot less to move my arm, and sitting up wasn’t too bad either
  470. >I was still stiff all over and trying to move any part of my body too quickly – or moving my bad arm at all – was met with a vicious response from my nerves
  471. >Still, I could avoid doing that on the way to a hospital
  472. >Hesitantly, I pinched myself on the cheek – surely I was actually awake, right?
  473. >Sure seemed like it
  474. >When I drew my hand away, a bit of fresh blood that’d just recently come from my nose dripped down, so I couldn’t have been out for more than a few minutes
  475. >It sure felt like an eventful few minutes; looking back at the sky, it must not have been early morning – more like twilight
  476. >A brief glance at visible pockets of the sky’s gradient revealed that the sun was concealed below the horizon in the general direction of west… definitely twilight
  477. >Things were good - I hadn’t lost much time and could still get away to warn the proper authorities to quell this pony outbreak
  478. >And best of all for me, I was neither dead, nor turned into an alicorn by a psychotic unicorn mastermind
  479. >I stood up and brushed the dirt off my pants, chuckling about my good fortune
  480. “Ahaa, get fucked Daisy”
  481. >“Hey Clementine Breeze, did you hear that?”
  482. >“Yeah, it sounded like someone said your name”
  483. >As a pair of feminine voices piped up from behind the fence, it dawned on me that the nightmare was far from over
  485. >I froze, hoping that if I didn’t make any more sound, they wouldn’t be able to ascertain that I was right on the other side of the fence
  486. >My silent prayers were answered by an audibly forceful gust of wind on the other side of the fence, punctuated by a few bumps against the thick wooden planks
  487. >Bumps that sounded undeniably like the hoofsteps from earlier, though a bit more methodical, more calculated
  488. >The kind of knocking you’d hear from an unexpected friend at the door who was wondering if anyone was home, beckoning you to answer
  489. >Through the blood pounding in my ears, I picked up the sound of another staccato gust of wind beyond the fence, this one a few feet higher than the last
  490. >It wasn’t hard to guess what was about to peek over the top; I starting bumbling backwards as quickly as I could manage over the rocks, hoping to avoid any uneven terrain
  491. >A slight divot caused me to slip into a seated position just as a pair of pony ears, then the head to which they were attached, poked out from the top of the fence
  492. >As the pony’s torso began to crest into view, my mind raced to come up with a response to the rest of the pony’s body following suit - before launching into a dive and tackling me in a flurry of feathers and fur
  493. >I held in a sigh of relief when that didn’t happen
  494. >Steadily, almost casually, the pony settled her forelimbs over the fence and tucked her wings to her side, a pair of gentle thumps denoting her body settling against the fence
  495. >With an unsettlingly friendly smile matched with a generous helping of naïve forgiveness, the pony met my wide-eyed gaze and addressed me
  496. >“Wow, you’re looking a bit worse for wear! Golly, we thought we’d lost you!”
  497. >And you’re about to lose me again ya creepy horse!
  498. >Spinning around and lifting off the “better” of my two feet, I took off with a long stride, immediately receiving a reminder that I was far from being in good shape to do so following my run-in with gravity
  499. >I stumbled on the first step, almost fell on the second and third, but soon regained a steady footing and found myself pushing through a patch of ferns into the heart of the forest
  500. >My bad arm hung limply to the side; it swung wholly under the apathetic influence of gravity as it counterbalanced my running
  501. >I didn’t think I could move it if I tried, and if I had to guess, the doctors were going to tell me I’d run through the woods with a dislocated limb
  502. >For how much I knew something like this really should be hurting, I should be punching my ticket to start travelling with a circus freakshow
  503. >Adrenaline’s a hell of a drug
  504. >At no point did I even consider looking back; if the Pegasus was going to make an effort to tackle me, I’d know - either way
  505. >I wouldn’t really have any reasonable way to respond - either way
  506. >Even if I took a stand to fight, she’d make hoof contact, somewhere, I’d start growing fur, somewhere, and soon end up just like her - either way
  507. >No, the best thing to do was to put all my energy into creating distance between her and myself
  508. >Thankfully, her pleas for me to stop could be heard continuously from well above my head, fading steadily with each step I took
  509. >At one point, a muffled, distant shout pierced the air – “PLEASE STOP!”
  510. >but frankly, all it did was confirm to me that the pony hadn’t opted to follow
  511. >Gradually, my fear of being pursued by two fervid Pegasi, or even just one, began to fade – though the fear never dissipated completely
  512. >Somewhere out there, the four ponies were undoubtedly either restructuring their plans to get me, or breaking into the homes of folks settling in for an evening in front of the television
  513. >And here I was, out for a hike
  514. >Even as I began to tire after ten or so minutes, I kept up a steady jog at a pace quite respectable for someone who didn’t actively run
  515. >Pushing further into the woods, I tried my best to stay on a straight path in the absence of human-made markers or trails
  516. >Every thirty seconds the homogenous view prompted me to second-guess my navigation, as I could’ve sworn I’d just passed that same tree five minutes earlier
  517. >The forest floor was uneven, densely packed in many places with a bed of leaves, in some places with pine needles, and with occasional puddles scattered throughout
  518. >Here and there, a small gathering of rocks and modest boulders, or green sprig of undergrowth, would punch its way through to provide some different scenery
  519. >The setting was a forgiving turn of fortune in a couple of ways
  520. >To an extent, each footfall sent a sharp lance of pain through the leg unfortunate enough to be taking the impact
  521. >Nonetheless, running through the soft forest dirt & undergrowth was at least more forgiving than rocky ground, even as the pain signals were addled by surges of adrenaline
  522. >On top of that, a subtle scuffle of leaves covered the noise of my escape far better than the traitorous reports of shoes on rock or packed earth would
  523. >A scuffle of leaves was a common sound in the middle of the woods; between indecisive rushes of wind and the industrious movements of the forest animals, it was surprisingly noisy
  524. >A few leaves here, a few there – although, in time, the noise of those shifting leaves seemed to become more prevalent and refined
  525. >It had been gradual, but over the span of the twenty or thirty minutes since I’d last seen the ponies, my perception of the sound around me had become undeniably more acute
  526. >Undeniably more acute… and I couldn’t tell why
  527. >Even as my heart was still racing to keep up with my rapid steps, my mind came to a halt as a worrying thought clicked into place
  528. >I slowed to a stop next to a thick tree at the edge of a small clearing
  529. “Oh, please don’t tell me…”
  530. >At the same time as a very deliberate, nervous exhale, I gave a quick shake to my good arm
  531. >I didn’t want it to be too tense for what it was about to do – above all, I didn’t want to get any wrong information
  532. >Nervously, I reached up toward the side of my head, praying that I wouldn’t find a pair of pony ears, exactly where the first clear signs of ponydom had appeared on my neighbor
  533. >Could it have been the dream? Maybe something else had happened while I was knocked out?
  534. >Considering I never even touched one of the ponies, an implication that the… disease… could spread via air would be a firm nail in the coffin of humanity
  535. >I couldn’t already be a carrier of this damned infection, could I? I was supposed to be preventing the outbreak! What if that’s exactly why they hadn’t chased me?
  536. >I set the tips of my fingers against my cheek, slowly trailing upwards, gently brushing the scruff of my five o’ clock shadow
  537. >They got to the side of my head and – ah, there my ear was – right where it should be!
  538. >I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I tugged on my earlobe and a gave a gentle squeeze a bit further up the ear
  539. >Briefly turning my head to the side, I did the same on the other ear – yup, still totally human, as far as I could tell
  540. >I settled my good hand back to its place at my side with a slight smile, but couldn’t shake the unmistakable air of confusion
  541. >I furrowed my brow and wondered for a moment, why would I be hearing the movement of leaves with such clarity and regularity, then?
  542. >With my gaze focused on the horizon, I squinted, and after a moment the answer dawned on me
  543. >Ah, of course! It was getting darker, and when people can’t rely on their vision as strongly, their other senses become stronger
  544. >That had to be it; that made sense
  545. >Still though, it did raise a concerning point about just how late it’d gotten
  546. >Dusk had come and gone, with late twilight already giving way to the first dark blue shades of nighttime
  547. >Where the leaves cast their shadows over the edge of the clearing, an even stronger darkness prevailed, with many of the scarce rays filtered away before even reaching the ground
  548. >I’d been doing my best to chase the setting sun in an ill-considered attempt to follow a straight line out of the woods, but the more i-
  549. >“Pssst, hey, thanks for stopping so I could catch up with you”
  550. >My heart skipped a beat as a cheerfully innocent whisper spoke from eye-level, a few feet to my side
  551. >I didn’t hesitate to react; my fast-twitch muscles wouldn’t waste a moment as a surge of adrenaline shot through my veins
  552. >In a fit of panic, I swung out with my arm nearest to the unseen source, which thankfully turned out NOT to be my mangled arm
  553. >My half-clenched fist met a tuft of pony fur, grabbing the scruff with just enough force to brush the pony from the low branch upon which she’d perched
  554. >A loose grip followed her to the ground, sending her sprawling on her back with a solid thump
  555. >I held her for a second as she gave a half-hearted attempt to thrash free, wings flaring to the sides in their useless attempt to contribute to ‘fight or flight’
  556. >By this point, a gentle tickling sensation had made itself known on my hand – right on the areas where I was grabbing the pony
  557. >As much as I desperately wanted to draw my hand back, I shifted, cupping it over the wide-eyed pony’s mouth
  558. “Don’t scream, okay little pony? I won’t hurt you if you don’t scream”
  559. >The Pegasus gave a rapid, desperate nod to signal her submission, doing her best to silence the instincts of her frenzied limbs
  560. >I pulled my hand away, deciding not to look at it for fear of what I’d see
  561. >I couldn’t let myself get distracted by a few fingers when the harbinger of the remainder of my transformation was lying at my feet
  562. >No, no, that’s quitter talk; there’s not going to be a “remainder” of it - I’m not going to be a pony, this hand is going to get fixed and everything’s going to be fine
  563. >I set my shoe atop the base of one of the fearful Pegasus’ wings in a firm but (hopefully) minimally painful attempt to pin her
  564. >Squatting down gently, I could make out a few orange tufts of fur in the fading evening light, rippling with each terrified shiver as I got closer
  565. >Between wild gasps and choked-back sobs, she did her best to keep her eyes open and meet my gaze
  566. >“I-I-I’m s-sorry, I d-d-didn’t mean to- to s-startle you like that”
  567. >She quaked uncontrollably with terror, tears beginning to roll unceasingly from the corners of her eyes
  568. >“W-why are y-you s-s-still holding me here, I just want to help! Honest! We’re not out here because we want to hurt you! Please!”
  569. >We?
  570. >As if her rising voice wasn’t a clear enough sign, both her wings began twitching violently, a clear sign that she was rapidly becoming hysterical
  571. >The thought flashed across my mind to put her out of her misery – hell, if there were more ponies behind her, she just might blow my cover with her shouting
  572. >A quick jerk of the neck and it’d be done – no pain for either of us
  573. >No…
  574. >No. There would be a lot of people who’d be heartbroken if I were too hasty with “my neighbor, now known as the Pegasus, Clementine Breeze”
  575. >Every problem had a solution; some of them may just take longer to get sorted out with all the desired outcomes
  576. >I wasn’t going to be a pony
  577. >I wasn’t going to be a pony
  578. >And I wasn’t going to cut someone else’s life short just because they were one
  579. >Fully aware of the danger I put myself in by doing so, I shifted my weight off the shoe pinning her wing
  580. >Taking a step back, I watched as her wing flexed and then swiftly clamped to her side – it was quite evident that she was adamant about keeping it there for the time being
  581. >Even with me still looming over her, the personal space did her good; her deep inhales and exhales became steadier and more drawn out as the moments went by
  582. >She let her gaze drift to a neutral view of the forest canopy at the edge of the clearing
  583. >“Why don’t you want our help? I… I know it’s just me here right now, but we’re all your friends…”
  584. “Who’s this ‘we’ by the way? And I’m about to be tackled by your friends in some kind of ambush, no?”
  585. >She rolled onto her side, letting to legs rest indifferently upon each other while pointing a glare in my direction, visibly hurt by the baseless accusation
  586. >“I wouldn’t lie to you! …And no, the others are scouring other parts of the woods looking for you. All four of us – you saw us earlier”
  587. >If they were so intent on recruiting new members to the herd, why oh why were they stumbling through the woods after me specifically?
  588. >As insistent as she was about her honesty, it was impossible to shake the feeling that I was being deceived
  589. “Christ, all… four? But the fence…”
  590. >There’s no way the non-Pegasi could have gotten over that fence, not to mention the cliff that had caused, and continued to cause, my innumerable aches
  591. >As I stepped back and gave her space to do so, the Pegasus weakly rose to her hooves and ruffled her feathers proudly
  592. >“We gave them a lift with these ol’ wings! The others are really insistent on helping you in whatever way they can too”
  593. >That just about sums it up: there’s not much scarier than well-coordinated cooperation, not to mention when its mission statement is spreading that ‘cooperative spirit’
  594. “Well, in that case, I appreciate your efforts… but I want you to go back to your friends and tell them I’m not interested in their ‘help’ – my herd walks on two legs”
  595. >“No, our friendship-“
  596. “YOUR friendship, yes. Tell your speech about what is means to you”
  597. >“The ponies who chose to be a part of our herd-“
  598. “Your FRIENDSHIP is all about taking away the humanity of people who DIDN’T ASK FOR THIS to build up your herd!”
  599. >“No, please - please listen to me, you don’t understand!”
  600. “A real friendship is all about give AND take, and all you want to do is TAKE away my humanity!”
  601. >“But it’s about-“
  602. “It’s about you surrounding yourself – yourself – with friends, not about those you like to say you’re helping!”
  603. >The Pegasus had shut her mouth in a hardened frown, eyes glistening with tears as she gave a slow nod of disagreement
  604. “You don’t even remember your time as a human, who am I kidding – but trust me when I say it’s better for us to be left alone”
  605. “It’s not too much for me to ask, and it’s not hard for you to do”
  606. >I should consider myself fortunate that ponies, as far as my limited experiences went, didn’t attack when upset
  607. >The stifled sound of a sniffle escaped from the pony’s muzzle
  608. >She hung her head low, visibly hurt by my resolve; my shouting had reached its audience loud and clear
  609. >A long pause hung heavily in the air, interrupted only by the sound of a few steady gusts of wind and the rustling of leaves
  610. >A rustling of leaves from a particular source that, though distant, was undeniably persistent
  611. >I came to realize too late that the pony in front of me wasn’t the only one in the audience; a moment later, I saw her head rise and ears perk up
  612. >Did she… did she hear something?
  613. >A pair of dampened female voices broke through the underbrush
  614. >“Clementine Breeze, you over here?”
  615. >“We heard an awful lot of shouting, did you find him?”
  616. >I wasn’t going to wait for visual confirmation as I bolted out of the other side of the clearing at a brisk trot
  617. >Er, jog, I took off at a brisk jog
  618. >Behind me, the hurried conversation of three, or maybe even four, ponies filtered through the trees at a steadily easing rate
  619. >For the second time today, I felt a surge of hope as my odds of successfully escaping appeared to appreciate
  620. >But who knows how long I’d been running before encountering Clementine Breeze… and it’s as if she didn’t even struggle to track me down…
  621. >With despair creeping into my mind, I mulled over my options
  622. >I was well and truly lost, miles into the woods at this point, but getting out meant I could find a hospital
  623. >After a quick glance to confirm my isolation, I tempered my pace and stopped
  624. >I lifted my “good hand” into view, though I couldn’t help but chuckle longingly at the fact that it wasn’t good, nor much of a hand at this point
  625. >A thick webbing of skin had formed, closely joining the center three fingers into a solid unit
  626. >The middle finger protruded conspicuously from the bunch, worryingly pointing me to ground zero for the hoof formation
  627. >It was capped with a thick band of keratin, spilling out unfettered toward the rest of the bonded fingers – the beginnings of a hoof
  628. >Moreover, what was once a well-trimmed healthy pink fingernail had taken on a deep crimson hue
  629. >Not quite the color of a nail soaked in blood, but in a way… just as unsettling to look at
  630. >The entire sight was unnatural… utterly foreign
  631. >Straining to flex my thumb or pinky, the sharp decline of their dexterities was apparent
  632. >They felt right at home tucked close against the rest of the skin, no doubt waiting their turn to be swallowed up and be forgotten
  633. >At the wrist, a gentle bulge of bone indicated that the equine proportions were sparing no expense in consuming my humanity, bit by bit
  634. >The entire spectacle was covered by a fine coat of hair, thin further up the arm, but becoming the dominant color as my gaze returned back up toward the hoof
  635. >I wanted to tell myself that the infection wasn’t spreading, that it would stop where it was so long as I didn’t make any more contact with the ponies
  636. >But I had no way of truly knowing
  637. >I could get it amputated; prosthetics have come a long way in the past few years!
  638. >I let out a long sigh, looking down at the untransformed arm hanging feebly at my side
  639. >Ironically, it was the one I’d get to keep even though it were smashed to a million pieces
  640. >But that would still mean showing up to a hospital long enough to possibly make fur contact with a nurse, a doctor, some poor sick kid who thought I was just cosplaying
  641. >I didn’t want to condemn anyone to that; any outbreak needed to be broken off at the head as soon as possible
  642. >I wanted it to be broken off at the head, though if my encounter with the Pegasus back there was any indication, I wouldn’t be the one to literally do it
  643. >Maybe there was security footage back at the apartment; maybe someone else was an unscathed witness to a transformation just like my neighbor had been
  644. >My landlord’s sixth sense was probably tingling the moment the first crash of hooves met the door; the scene left behind had some clear signs of foul play
  645. >Someone would piece together the clues; I just needed to keep the ponies away from people while defenses got fortified
  646. >I could do that
  647. >They were solely focused on following me; I could do that
  648. >They’d made some poor choices in how to grow their herd, and they were going to pay for it – I was going to make them pay for it
  650. >Several years back, my boss had tasked me with keeping tabs on the computer network of a large consultancy firm
  651. >It was an otherwise calm June evening when the alarm bells started to go off; a new virus had flown in under the radar and was showing its mettle
  652. >Before my eyes, files were disappearing from computers closest to the epicenter, falling into the abyss beyond the Recycle Bin as the virus tore its destructive path
  653. >Financial records, project files, customer data – it gave an apathetic shrug in its relentless bid to throw it all away
  654. >Even with as many cords as we could find unplugged, routers disconnected, lines severed, nothing I or anyone else did seemed able to stop it
  655. >First 10% of the company’s computers, then 15%...
  656. >There was no telling how far it was going to go, but it showed no symptoms of tiring
  657. >I sat at my desk, apprehensively rubbing my hands together
  658. >There had to be something else, some other way…
  659. >No… that ‘other way’ was me… it had to be
  660. >Reluctantly, I withdrew my personal computer from my backpack and deftly set it on the desk
  661. >Opening it and tapping the power button, I wiped my brow at the thought that I’d never see a healthy startup screen from it again
  662. >I had all the preprogrammed code I needed to stop this monster, tuned just the way I liked it, sitting among my personal files
  663. >And it would work – it had to
  664. >My gaze followed the snaking line of cord protruding from the laptop’s side, settling finally on a port of the central computer
  665. >With a click, I drove the connector into place; there was no backing out now
  666. >The virus didn’t hesitate to take on its new challenger, sending its full might to my doorstep in a flash
  667. >The unseen battle of ones and zeroes produced little more than a few flickers – in moments, my screen was wiped clean of icons and all went dark
  668. >Had it worked? The dread of useless failure settled in for half a minute before an inquisitive voice in the office spoke out to no one in particular
  669. >“It… it stopped?”
  670. >I gave a deep exhale
  671. >It stopped
  672. >I leaned back in the chair, exasperated and indifferent to the celebratory atmosphere that had begun to rise up in the office
  673. >It stopped
  674. >The following days were spent drowning in paperwork; dozens of computers were written off, including my own
  675. >A “cost of doing business” as my boss referred to it
  676. >He would always smile and tell me I was damn hero or something for putting my personal property on the line in order to contain the thing
  677. >What he never saw when he talked about ‘personal property’ were the long nights spent trying to reclaim the high scores of years past
  678. >The lost chat logs, letters, and pictures sent in correspondence with friends that had drifted away, moved on, graduated
  679. >The photo albums of moments that would never be relived
  680. >Pictures of my nephew learning to ride a bike…
  681. >Pictures of my smiling parents on the day of my graduation…
  682. >Pictures from the last vacation we got to take together as a family before… before…
  683. >I just tried to tell myself that losing evidence of the memories didn’t change the fact that they’d happened
  684. >That the actions I’d taken in containing the virus were for the greater good and it was fine
  685. >Just because I couldn’t relive the past, didn’t alter the way it had affected my life
  686. >But how much was it really worth it? Well, if I let the business receipts tell the story, five hundred dollars was what the foundation of my sense of self was worth
  687. >Thanks boss, some friend you were
  689. >My swirling thoughts cleared as the rustling of leaves behind me spoke more clearly into the night
  690. >Glancing back at the source, I couldn’t make out the shapes of the ponies through the broken underbrush, but they were undoubtedly there
  691. >At one point I thought I could pick out the muffled remnants of four distinct voices, ranging from Storm Cloud’s energetic interjections to Daisy’s slightly deeper, yet still feminine, musings
  692. >The gang’s all here
  693. >It was my lot to lead these four horses of the apocalypse on a useless hunt now that we were effectively lost deep in the woods
  694. >And I had to say, I was doing a pretty good job of it so far
  695. >In a perverse testament to my abilities, I didn’t recognize that tree over there, had no clue about this hill we were on, or anything about wherever the hell we were
  696. >I kept up a lively pace over the leaves and rocks - Step… step… step… Ste-
  697. >Everything went into slow motion as I focused through the darkness on the realization that my foot was about to snag on a well-concealed root at the base of a large oak
  698. >The sounds became drawn out, hanging in the air for a moment
  699. >A solid thump as my shoe bumped against the offending vegetation
  700. >A slow gasp as I felt gravity taking hold
  701. >A whoosh of air as I accelerated groundwards
  702. >A stretching and folding of fabric as my knee flexed outwards
  703. >A sickening crack as the kneecap met an unseen rock
  704. >A crumple of leaves as the rest of my body hit the ground
  705. >Even in slow motion, I didn’t have time to process the sensations, the situation, or what I should logically do
  706. >But, as if the other sounds hadn’t been enough, I did the most primal thing my overloaded mind could manage
  707. >From the bottom of my lungs, I let out a hair-raising cry of agony
  709. >I curled up on the forest floor, my protohoof clutching hysterically across my body to the leg from which the unspeakably sharp stinging emanated
  710. >Squeezing my thigh above the offending region as hard as I could did next to nothing in my futile attempt to quell the pain
  711. >Touching the kneecap itself, or whatever remained, would have accomplished little more than launch me into an unimaginably more intense bout
  712. >Through fogged, tear-filled eyes and a fine layer of crimson fur, I could still make out the remnants of my knuckles fading to white as they clenched with all their might
  713. >With every breath, a hazy black fog invaded the corners of my vision, withdrawing just enough through each tide to maintain consciousness
  714. >With every heartbeat, the ominous red tendrils of blood vessels in my eyes consumed a more generous portion of my vision
  715. >I wanted that to be the only red I’d see today – I wanted this to end, I wanted to go home, please… please
  716. >I didn’t want to see any more red fur, I didn’t want to see any more blood… no more red
  717. >My operational leg shuddered, doing its best to cope by pulling back and then flexing out at an unseen enemy, as if trying to shoo the pain away with feeble nudges
  718. >Through it all, I was distantly aware of the noise I was making, but the signals from my leg were nearly unassailable by the auditory signals
  719. >In a few short seconds, my energy to cope with the situation through sheer decibels waned, gradually giving way to sobbing broken up by labored gasps
  720. >If the pain was going away, it was taking its sweet time doing so
  721. >The tears carried on for a while, easing slowly as I began to reestablish my handle on the situation
  722. >Even as my eyes brimmed, the tragic magnitude of the situation continued to settle in
  723. >I was incapacitated from even wiping the tears from my own eyes – one hand wouldn’t move, and if I used the other I’d probably be looking at a pony muzzle a moment later
  724. >Okay, just let it out, just let it out, you’re okay
  725. >You’re going to get back up in just a moment and make you way out of here, you’re not going to be a pony, you’re not going to be a pony
  726. >It was okay to cry here, you’re okay, you’re in the middle of nowhere and no one out here is going to judge you f-
  727. >“He sounds really badly hurt! We have to help him!”
  728. >“Where are you?! Please!”
  729. >“What happened?!”
  730. >No no no no no please, I don’t care what it takes, please stop them, please, don’t let them get anywhere near me, please!
  731. >With every rapid beat of hoofsteps, the rustling of leaves approached closer and with sharper clarity somewhere in the concealing blackness of night
  732. >I released my grip on the mangled leg; if it wasn’t going to contribute to my escape, at least freeing up my arm might
  733. >I clawed out, desperately swiping for a root to which I could grab; after a half dozen frenzied swings, I met my target in firm union, hoof clenching around the bump on the forest floor
  734. >I tugged through all the power in my bicep, coordinating with a kick with my good leg, and slid a foot or two
  735. >For as much bad luck as I’d had, at least each usable limb was on the same side of my body
  736. >I groaned as leaves brushed across my face and mud smeared across my loose clothing dragging upon the ground
  737. >The progress wasn’t much, and it would’ve taken a master of deception to convince I’d evade an injured turtle at this rate
  738. >No! I didn’t think I’d be able to get away from the Pegasi from the moment I got out the window, this wasn’t going to be the end of me, I’d come too far!
  739. >Blood pounding in my ears, I repeated the pattern – swipe, grab, tug and kick
  740. >Every movement - every sequence - seemed to drag out to an eternity, my breathing picking up to intentional panting through the torture
  741. >Swipe, grab, tug, kick
  742. >Even as my actions became more feverish, the hoofsteps behind me seemingly quieted, long pauses spanning the time between each subsiding hoof
  743. >Swipe, grab, tug… kick…
  744. >Swipe… grab…
  745. >I gulped, my blood running cold as a hundred thoughts battled for dominance
  746. >The ponies… they weren’t running anymore… so… the hunters had caught up with their prey…
  747. >Settling onto my stomach, I choked back a deep sniffle and slowly set my hoof below my torso
  748. >With a forceful shove consuming the last of my energy reserves, I rolled myself halfway over and adjusted into a seated position against a sturdy tree trunk
  749. >My head lolled limply forward, and with a weak cough I raised it to face the silhouettes of four ponies clustered together in the darkness
  750. >My breathing was heavy – whether it was because of fear, pain, or exertion was debatable, but it hadn’t been enough… it hadn’t been enough
  751. >Feebly, I tried to gather some words - any words - I hadn’t been able to piece together in my dream
  752. “I… I don’t… want to be an alicorn…”
  753. >My glassy, unwavering gaze met with none of the ponies in particular
  754. >The fuzzy, dark shapes of the their heads pivoted to look at each other
  755. >A moment later, a soft glow from Daisy’s horn dimly illuminated the faces of herself and the ponies in her immediate vicinity
  756. >Through tired eyes, I could still make out four confused expressions mixed with a strong overtone of concern
  757. “Why… why?”
  758. >Sky Meadows fretfully paced forward ahead of the other three ponies
  759. >“Why? We should be asking you ‘why’ - Why did you have to run all the way out here? Why did you do this to yourself? Why did you have to put us all through seeing this?!”
  760. >Her voice crescendoed before falling into silence, the pony sporting a frown pressed closed as her lips quivered
  761. >“Why…”
  762. “Please… I’m not going to be just another pony…”
  763. >“But we want to help you with every-”
  764. “I. Am. Not. Going to be just another-”
  765. >“This isn’t about you being a human or a pony! It’s about you being a friend!”
  766. >She gave me a pause to respond, but all I’d prepared was an exceptionally forceful exhale
  767. >None of my talking points, none of the arguments I wish I’d had just a bit more time to form… None were falling into place
  768. >She had to be lying, she had to be; how was I supposed to trust a bunch of ponies who valued ‘friendship’ in the way they did?
  769. >Why would they have followed me for hours just to ‘be my friend’ when hundreds of potential ‘friends’ were peacefully at home a few miles back the way we’d came?
  770. >“We can tell – all the way out here – you’re scared, hurt, tired, alone…”
  771. >Well, you’re right on all four of those fronts
  772. >“And… honest… you aren’t afraid of us…”
  773. >I let out a long, labored exhale, its full duration shaken by my trembling body
  774. >Sky Meadows tenderly settled her hooves onto the bed of leaves with each calm step, slowly making her way to stand at the base of my maimed leg, just inches away
  775. >“You’re afraid of how we would change you…”
  776. >“How you would end up feeling… after we’d become friends…”
  777. >“And I’m sure you just think of us as a group of… senseless horses… who don’t care about you as anything more than another tally mark etched on a scoreboard somewhere”
  778. >“I guess… maybe you think that we’re just itching to send out a telegram”
  779. >“You know, ‘one fewer of them, one more of us’”
  780. >Sky Meadows had been directing her gaze dourly downwards, and now lifted her head to meet my gaze, sorrow written all over her face
  781. >“All we’re asking you… all I’M asking you, is to accept our help, please! Before this goes on any further…”
  782. >She hastily scanned her eyes across the half of my upper body that lay in ruin, even as it retained its fragile grip on humanity
  783. >Before looking back at my eyes, she spared a quick glance at my kneecap, a fresh patch of blood creeping slowly outwards, soaking the fabric
  784. >Each breath was a battle to hold back tears, to some degree for the pony, but even more so for myself
  785. >It hadn’t even been two, three hours since I was happily driving home, excited to simply put my feet up and enjoy the little things in life
  786. >A beer or two, a ballgame on the television
  787. >Hell, cuddling with a few huggable ponies would have been a wonderful way to pass some time, if it didn’t lead to humanity loss
  788. >Now, the heart of the man I’d once been was beating its last pulses – it was inevitable in one way or another, these were the final minutes
  789. >Amidst a pitiful rhythm of choked breaths, I felt a single tear roll down my cheek
  790. >That seemed to be the closest thing the ponies had to a collective signal, as Sky Meadows slowly leaned closer, and the other three began walking toward us
  791. >The sound of rustling leaves caused me to perk up, and I caught sight of Daisy leading the others in loose formation, compassionate eyes providing a window into her mind
  792. >No…
  793. >No no no I’ve seen those eyes before
  794. >I’ve seen too much of those eyes, those are the eyes of a killer, a leader who sees the ponies around her as means to an end
  795. >It’s a mask, a veil of deceit, no, this was her circus and she was the ringmaster!
  796. >I don’t care what she’d convinced the others into believing!
  797. >I had no way of knowing that the alicorn-crazed pony I’d foreseen wasn’t this very pony smiling at me
  798. >The same pony that was a few yards away, and closing
  799. >No, please, she wasn’t getting anywhere near me!
  800. >Please! Sky Meadows was here, she wouldn’t let anything bad happen, please!
  801. >I wanted to tell myself that being around the ponies had been what sucked the masculinity right out of me, as I broke down crying uncontrollably
  802. >Please, don’t let her hurt me! Sky Meadows, please, please!
  803. >Loud sobs echoed throughout the forest, my eyes clamped tightly shut as the floodgate of tears flew open
  804. >All the ponies halted, and I reached my hoof across my body to the back of Sky Meadows’ neck, resting it in the soft strands of her mane
  805. >She was initially startled, but took my cue as both permission and opportunity to subside against my body
  806. “Sky Meadows, I-I-I… I want to be your friend… I r-really d-do. I’m just… I’m just too scared…”
  807. >My thoughts flowed without a filter, punctuated only by a few gasps for air to be immediately spilled back out in sobbing
  808. “Please, please, I’m too scared to do this, I can’t… I can’t…”
  809. >I clutched the bewildered mare close as I slowly worked to calm myself
  810. >As I held her in a one-armed hug, her mane danced across my shifting protohoof, now becoming… well and truly, just a hoof
  811. >Trying to move either my pinkie or thumb found no response, as it became clear that they had found their final resting places deep within my arm… my equine foreleg
  812. >The sites were subsequently covered by thick patches of pony fur pressing out of the skin, a tickling sensation seizing every affected inch
  813. >With time, the sensation marched further and further up my arm, establishing itself all along my former forearm to the elbow
  814. >My fingers locked together, functionally one limb, and with my final act of dexterity, I tried to give Sky Meadows a few scritches behind the ear
  815. >She appreciated my efforts, even if my success wasn’t nearly as good as untransformed fingers would have been
  816. >I felt a subdued smile spread across her face, cheek pressed up against mine, a warm sensation of fur softly spreading as she gently nuzzled me
  817. >Her movements prompted my head to move a bit in kind, allowing me feel the extra weight along my face - the first stages of a pony muzzle pressing outwards
  818. >Sky Meadows was comforting, having her there felt… almost… safe
  819. >Safe… feeling that way for the first time out in these woods
  820. >I could feel my breathing was gradually calming, the time between breaths growing more relaxed
  821. >I tried to embrace Sky Meadows closer, gently wrapping my other forehoof around her neck and burying it in her mane
  822. >Wait a moment, since when did I have two hooves?
  823. >I uncrossed my forelegs from Sky Meadows and pulled away; she leaned back in response, not upset, but curiously puzzled by why I’d interrupted her cuddling
  824. >I looked over the side of my body where a mangled, unmoving arm had been just a few seconds ago
  825. >Lifting it into closer view and leading my eyes down its length from hoof to shoulder, I found a complete pony forelimb, covered in a soft crimson blanket of fur
  826. >I took a moment to replay the scene in my mind; Sky Meadows must have been pressed against the arm during the embrace
  827. >The fact that I didn’t feel a lance of agony – that I didn’t feel anything at all – was a surprise
  828. >For the first time since falling from the fence, I tried to move my wrist, and the far end of the pony limb responded
  829. >I tried to move my whole arm, the shoulder pivoting about painlessly, without a single ache to be found
  830. >A far cry from the limb hanging limply at my side, shooting agony through my nerves at any attempt to move it, this pony arm appeared to be… completely healthy
  831. >I tested some more neural commands and flexed what muscles I could, a visibly strong ripple answering and then relaxing back
  832. >They might even be stronger than the arms I had when I was hitting the gym daily back in college
  833. >Getting a better look at the once-dislocated shoulder required me to take off my shirt, which would have been magnitudes easier with at least one functional hand
  834. >Still, with a bit of finagling and time, it came free, leaving me staring in fascination at the sight of my dull human torso flanked by a pair of brightly colored pony hooves
  835. >“We’re doing our best to help heal you…”
  836. >Daisy was now speaking up, standing with the other ponies in a loose circle around me, providing a few considerate yards of breathing room
  837. >She paused long enough for me to settle my new hoof into the leaves and refocus my attention on her
  838. >“We’re doing our best to help heal you… not just your mind but your body too…”
  839. >Sky Meadows glanced at her counterparts, confirming silently with them that she was the best one to approach me in my fragile state
  840. >“Is… is it okay for me to touch your leg?”
  841. >Deep down, I wanted to argue; I wanted to tell her no as a last act of defiance against the third hoof that was probably about to come along
  842. >Instead, I sniffled and gave a feeble nod of approval as a child might on their first trip to a new pediatrician
  843. >Go ahead Sky Meadows, you can have the humanity from my knee too, just please take good care of it…
  844. >She lowered her head and carefully gripped the hem of my pants leg between her front-most teeth, doing her best to leave a generous amount of slack
  845. >As she started to gently shift the fabric, a few objectionable aches raised concerns about whether any movement in the area was unwise
  846. >Nonetheless, even where the fabric snagged, the pain wasn’t enough to incite even the slightest peep from me
  847. >With a familiar warmth making itself known along my leg, I had to guess that Sky Meadow’s proximity was doing some anesthetizing of its own
  848. >Not only was the pain being quelled, that strange aberrant feeling was back… safety…
  849. >I looked on in wonder as she drew back from the pants leg, allowing it to relax in bunches with much of my skin still uncovered, and gingerly set a hoof just below my kneecap
  850. >Instead of a harrowing pain springing up, crimson fur began to appear, first slowly, then racing across its new land of opportunity in every direction
  851. >At the same time, a calming warmth pulsed deep inside the knee, soon met with the visible shifts and popping of morphing bones
  852. >Everything was where it should be – fortunately the transformation didn’t necessitate popping my knee backwards – but something about it simply looked… more equine
  853. >To tell the truth more completely, the warmth had spread to the muscles around my knee and they had taken on a more horse-like profile as well
  854. >I moved my head, trying to get a better look at the spectacle unfolding before me
  855. >My lower leg was characterized by thick, lean bands of muscle, shrouded only slightly by the fuzzy fetlock beginning to drape its lower fringes
  856. >My thigh had shortened noticeably, at the same time bulking up significantly with a mass of stored energy itching to gallop across the forest floor
  857. >My pants were becoming tight, doing their best to remind me of my fading humanity as they strained against the development of my new pony leg, my shoe doing the same
  858. >I swiped at each in an attempt to remove them using my forehooves, for which I’d clearly not read the owner’s manual
  859. >Seeing my difficulty, Sky Meadows took her hoof off my leg and paced over to my kicking foot, waiting for me to stop thrashing it about
  860. >She grabbed the crooked shoe between her teeth and effortlessly slid it off, following suit with the sock
  861. >Doing so revealed the beginnings of yet another protohoof, the outmost toes raising a quiet protest as the rest of the foot began to swallow them up
  862. >On the middle toe, a thickening, slightly crimson band of keratin had made its future intentions clear
  863. >I looked up as Sky Meadows flashed a smile at me, and even if they weren’t all baring teeth in line with their levels of enthusiasm, the other ponies were doing the same
  864. >The waves of bliss washing over me crashed for a moment, no pony close to comfortably sedate my trepidation
  865. >A flurry of thought raced across my mind as panic began to set in
  866. >What if this was all just part of the devious plan, I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying this, I told myself I wasn’t going to fall for this!
  867. >I’m not going to be a pony, that’s what I told myself!
  868. >My gaze jumped between the affectionate expressions of each of the four ponies, a sickening compassion shared by all
  869. >I’m not going to be a pony I’m not going to be a pony I’m not going to be a pony
  870. >My heart jumped into action as my singular human foot kicked outwards, springing me upwards and through a gap in the circle
  871. >Stumbling over the first step on the protohoof, I realized their defense didn’t seem nearly as strong from a standing position
  872. >Sure, even if they had the numbers advantage, I had a height advantage
  873. >“Wait, stop!”
  874. >“Please stop!”
  875. >I wasn’t going to be a pony
  876. >I wasn’t going to be a pony
  877. >I wa-
  878. >I didn’t even make it three whole steps on the protohoof before losing the fleeting semblance of balance that I’d never truly grasped in the first place
  879. >My pants tangled and slid off, a short, grey tail swaying free where they had once been
  880. >Sliding softly across the bed of leaves as twigs brushed against my face, I came to rest at the edge of a modest puddle, no more than a few feet across
  881. >That was it… that was all I had left in me… a few desperate steps
  882. >I slowly raised my torso & head a few feet off the forest floor, shifting into a half-seated position at the edge of the shallow water
  883. >The few quick steps I’d taken weren’t even enough to escape the soft illuminating range of Daisy’s horn, shadows drifting and slanting out ahead
  884. >Between the glow she cast and the moonlight filtering through the forest canopy, I had a clear view of the person… pony?… looking up at me in the puddle’s reflection
  885. >You poor bastard
  886. >You messed up pretty badly, but got yourself healed - or better - and you still can’t manage to run away
  887. >And I couldn’t help but wonder, come to think of it, why did I even have to?
  888. >Well, because of the ponies of course, but that was the surface-level answer that still left so much unresolved…
  889. >The ponies said this was all about friendship, but that’s not true, this just isn’t what friendship is!
  890. >My human friends, even last one of them, they truly got it – hell, they were great friends!
  891. >It’s all about... uh, hold on… listening! Yes, listening!
  892. >I told Clementine Breeze she wouldn’t need to worry about me, that we were both better off going our separate ways, and look where it got us when she didn’t listen!
  893. >And not just her, I told them ALL I didn’t want to be their friends, and what do they do? They literally try to kick down my door – that’s the exact opposite!
  894. >A real friend is supposed to listen to you, respect what you have to say
  895. >When I was studying for year-end exams during my junior year of college, I spent fourteen hours straight in the library each day, and I asked my friends not to bother me
  896. >And you know what, they didn’t – it was me and the books for all that time, fantastic!
  897. >The time I fell on the lecture hall steps and got a bloody nose, all my friends were asking me if they could take me to the health center
  898. > ‘I’ve never seen anyone take a tumble that hard,’ one guy said, not to mention a bunch of malarkey about concussions
  899. >I told them that I’d be okay, that people get hurt all the time and to stop worrying about me – and they did! No more questions about it for the rest of the day!
  900. >For as bad as it might’ve looked, they were good enough friends to oblige, I didn’t even need to say it twice
  901. >Whenever I got homesick, usually around the middle of semesters when the workload got to be too much, I might’ve gone down to the dorm basement to be alone
  902. >And that was fine, a few of my friends and my roommate were the only ones who knew I was down there
  903. >Actually several times they walked in on me crying and asked if I was okay
  904. >I always told them the same thing, that I was fine and to just leave me alone
  905. >And that was fine for them, they always left without probing any further
  906. >And that was fine… that’s what friendship is meant to be…
  907. >If you try to push people away, they let you do so, because a good friend is supposed to listen to you…
  908. >Chasing after you for hours through the woods… feigning concern about your well-being through some kind of… fake… fake… worry… That’s not what REAL friendship is…
  909. >And that’s fine… it’s… fine…
  910. >The reflection of the figure in the puddle shimmered as a series of circle-shaped ripples spread across the water
  911. >Another series of circles spread outwards from a new point a few moments later
  912. >With a sniffle, it occurred to me that briefly before each perturbation, a tear was rolling off my cheek
  913. >Raising a hoof to wipe my eyes, my brushes didn’t help much, vision still brimming with tears
  914. >I tried, again and again, until I gave up, my crying now disturbing the water in a regular rhythm
  915. >All I’d really accomplished was getting my fetlocks wet and pushing my facial features a bit further toward ponydom
  916. >I tried to meet the gaze of my muddled crimson reflection in the water as my sobbing subsided
  917. >Instead, when I refocused, there were two shimmering shapes – one crimson, and one orange
  918. >As the water settled, it was apparent that Clementine Breeze had taken a seat by my side
  919. >I didn’t raise my eyes to greet the Pegasus, but the figure in the puddle proved equally as conversational
  920. >“I know… Maybe you won’t believe me, but I remember some things from before I made my current friends… not just things about myself, about you”
  921. >She solemnly took a moment’s pause, not that she showed any difficulty in recalling her memories
  922. >“You were always so fun and pleasant at parties, we watched a lot of the games together during the playoffs last year…”
  923. >“You were so full of joy whenever we won, you… smiled… That seems so far away now…”
  924. >“Even if it means you’ll be a pony, that’s the part we… I… want to see back more than anything else in the world…”
  925. >I sniffled, another tear dropping to the puddle and sending forth a new series of ripples
  926. >In the water’s smoothing surface, I could make out Clementine Breeze tenderly flexing her wing toward me, a sympathetic expression across her face
  927. >I didn’t take my eyes off my own reflection – I didn’t want to miss out on seeing the last of my humanity leaving… regardless of whether this was for better or worse
  928. >Clementine Breeze didn’t even have the opportunity to fully drape her wing toward me before I gently reached back with a hoof and guided her into place
  929. >There was nothing between her feathers and my exposed skin, and for a moment I felt the alien sensation of bristling Pegasus wings
  930. >It was strange, but at the same time comforting as I found myself settling into a docile state of mind, wrapped in the blanket my friend had provided me
  931. >Shortly after, the sensation gave way to the familiar warmth and tickling of pony fur pushing out all along my back
  932. >The frontiers of fur didn’t rest after growing dense and fluffy along my back, soon spreading outwards, wrapping across my neck and to the front of my torso
  933. >The broad surface area of the Pegasus’ wing spurred a rapid transformation, the fur racing across my chest as it bowed outwards into a proper barrel
  934. >I found the need to shift into a more comfortable, equine resting position, my legs out to the side as I rested upon my barrel and forehooves
  935. >I flicked my tail, letting its short lead droop across the forest floor
  936. >While I didn’t turn to look, I could feel that my legs were swiftly shortening and reshaping into pony legs… so much for my height advantage…
  937. >My thigh muscles brimmed with energy, not so much anxious to run away from anything, but excited to gallop around with my new friends
  938. >Feet elongated and bristled with longer pony fur - another pair of fetlocks - as my toes fused into proper hooves, a thick band of keratin hardening into my new ‘shoes’
  939. >I craned my neck over the puddle to watch my reflection as the fur found its final objective – the rest of my head
  940. >It creeped up from my neck, gradually engulfing the previously unscathed half of my face
  941. >My hearing cut to a dull ringing upon it reaching my ears, the flaps of skin forming to a point and pressing against the side of my head
  942. >They floated with the line of fur upwards to the top of my head, settling there in the form of a new pair of fluffy pony ears
  943. >I gave each a quick flick and smiled; they were quite adorable after all
  944. >A short grey mane tumbled from the top of my head, and with a few quick blinks, I watched my irises change from a dull blue to brilliant magenta
  945. >I rose to my hooves, giving Clementine Breeze an unspoken signal that her work was accomplished, an adjustment of my back prompting her to rest the wing at her side
  946. >Turning my head to the side – quite a bit further than I’d been able to do with a human neck – I noticed Daisy, Sky Meadows, and Storm Cloud beside me
  947. >They were standing patiently at attention, each sporting their own version of a gleeful smile
  948. “Daisy, I owe you an apology. I owe all of you an apology…”
  949. >I looked over the three ponies before me, also sparing a glance back at Clementine Breeze
  950. “I didn’t realize why you’d be doing so much for a friend… but I think I understand now”
  951. “I’m sorry for putting you through all this, and leading you all the way out here, and getting us all lost… can you… can you forgive me?”
  952. >Daisy stepped forward, setting her hooves precisely into the leaves and positioning the tip of her muzzle inches away from mine
  953. >Her gaze was calculated and certain, but not devoid of emotion, a smile sneaking across her face despite mischievous efforts to look serious
  954. >“What’re friends for, silly?”
  955. >She closed her eyes and quickly leaned forward, a gentle boop between our muzzles coming as the result
  956. >When she retracted, we met each other’s gazes with goofy smiles
  957. >I wrapped my hooves around her in a tight bear hug, and she did the same, sending waves of bliss through my system
  958. >My negative thoughts began to drift away, all the bad things I’d done, said, seen – they all evaporated on the nighttime breeze
  959. >I didn’t have to worry about bills or car repairs, angry bosses or angry customers, or even the fear of not having friends, or being forgotten
  960. >In fact, I had only one unsteady thought, and as I felt Daisy’s muscles tense, it occurred to me that she’d had the same thought
  961. >Playfully, we sacrificed the steadiness of our firmly planted hooves, shifting off balance and tumbling into the shallow puddle
  962. >With a bit of splashing, the other ponies trotted over to join our hug, hooves kicking up water and soaking a few patches of their coats
  963. >After all, friends always love to share in a bit of fun, and we were all part of the same herd
  964. >And I was a pony – and not ‘just a pony,’ because from that moment, my friends knew me as Morning Star
  966. “Sky Meadows, if you don’t mind me asking, what makes you so sure that you know the way out of here?”
  967. >Stepping confidently over a small rock, the mare neither broke stride nor deviated from her straight path as she glanced back at me with a playful smirk
  968. >“Silly pony, do you doubt me? I’m no better equipped to lead us out of the forest than you – is it just taking time for you to get used to life as one of our friends?”
  969. >She spoke in a warm manner without condescension, but it was quite clear that she was poking at the fact I’d not yet grown completely accustomed to my new body
  970. >Even as the other ponies in the herd marched unwaveringly forward through the forest in a loose formation, I found myself stumbling over fairly minor slope changes
  971. >It didn’t help that it was getting toward the middle of the evening, with only sporadic moonlight fighting its way through the leafy canopy in denser patches
  972. “No, I trust you, but I don’t understand how…”
  973. >I slowed to a stop, settling my hooves softly on a patch of dirt that was once the bed of a shallow, dried-up creek
  974. >A few feet away, I could quite easily discern the blades of long grass fringing its banks
  975. >Glancing beyond them, a patch of white birch trees stood starkly against the darkness of night, still only to a visible depth of a few dozen yards
  976. >Dim silhouettes stretched out beyond, a myriad of vertical lines that revealed little about the varied pines, oaks, and maples littering this patch of forest
  977. >Narrowing my eyes, I tried to level my gaze at where I was pretty sure the horizon should be, carefully scanning across with a slow turn of the neck
  978. >After a quick set of glances back to the left and right, I let out an irritated sigh
  979. >Nothing… not even the vaguest hint of light from a city or town where we could make some more friends… What were these ponies seeing?
  980. >The rustling of hoofsteps had ceased, the other ponies in the herd noticing that I’d fallen back a few paces
  981. >The rhythm of a casual canter broke the silent pause as Sky Meadows turned about and approached me
  982. >I briskly directed my gaze to the left and right of her smiling muzzle, hopeful to catch a glimpse of something, anything, before she made me feel foolish for being so blind
  983. >“Naaaaah, what’re you looking for? Ponies have good eyesight, but it’s not quite miles-through-the-dense-woods good.”
  984. “Okay, so how are you seeing the right way out?”
  985. >I stretched my neck to the side, figuring I might see some previously unnoticed saddlebags or map at her side
  986. “Do you have some kind of guide, or a compass or something?”
  987. >Sky Meadows shut her eyes and giggled softly
  988. >With a good-natured lunge to my side, she leaned her head close to mine and I heard a sharp flick, the muscles at the base of my ear and a few locks of mane registering the impact
  989. >Satisfied with the firm swipe she’d made at my ears using her own, Sky Meadows leaned back and met my gaze with a thin, toothy smile
  990. >For a second, my brow furrowed as I tried to process her wordless response to the question
  991. >My brow then rose a moment later, the answer slowly beginning to make sense
  992. >I perked up my ears as much as I could, flicking them independently about and catching the dull clamor of the forest at night
  993. >The leaves rustled in every direction, a function of nocturnal animals and the gentle breeze blowing through
  994. >Somewhere far away, an owl’s hooting broke through the night
  995. >Tuning my radar to the space directly ahead where all the ponies had halted, I first noticed the steady tempo of their relaxed breathing
  996. >That wasn’t all I heard though; indistinctly, a distant rumble was perceptible, still at least a few miles away
  997. >Occasionally, the rumble would be modulated by the faint rise and fall of a car engine thundering to accelerate, pass, or make a turn
  998. >We may have been the only ponies in the woods, but there were plentiful friends to be made wherever those sounds were originating
  999. >Breaking from my stare, I made eye contact with Sky Meadows and silently indicated my newfound understanding – I guess we were never lost at all
  1000. >She turned to regroup with the other ponies, with myself following suit a moment later at a brisk trot
  1001. >Clementine Breeze had turned to greet me, the Pegasus evidently not fully sated by the brevity of Sky Meadows’ navigating lesson
  1002. >“Ponies are great at seeing over long distances; if you want to SEE where you’re going, you COULD always knock down all the trees – no forest, no problem…”
  1003. >Excitedly, she unconsciously twitched a few feathers on one of her wings
  1004. >“But that isn’t the kind of problem to be solved by kicking; this is a problem for flying!”
  1005. >Daisy stumbled a few steps backward to give Clementine Breeze the appropriate space for unfurling her wings in all their glory
  1006. >Feathers fluttered in the breeze as her wing tips snapped outward, bending slightly at the joints as she planted her hooves and primed her muscles
  1007. >With a powerful jump and effort behind her wings, she went airborne, launching herself skyward with a gust that disturbed all the leaves on the ground where she’d once stood
  1008. >A steady rhythm of flaps announced her ascent toward forest canopy, each wingbeat growing slightly fainter as her silhouette shrunk against the night sky
  1009. >A rustle of vegetation and snapping of branches in the treetops accompanied her disappearance from view
  1010. >I few errant leaves drifted down toward us as I turned to Daisy, who was still staring upwards with lips pursed in mild annoyance
  1011. “She’s done this before?”
  1012. >“She did once after you’d run off… She can be a bit… excitable. Especially when flying’s involved”
  1013. “Ah… I see…”
  1014. >I couldn’t blame her; if it were me I would’ve been equally as ecstatic to try out the gift of flight my friends had given me
  1015. >Storm Cloud fluffed her feathers and preened a few back into alignment, momentarily contemplating going after Clementine Breeze, but setting the notion aside rather quickly
  1016. >Daisy’s ears were on alert, perked up and flicking every few moments as she kept her gaze fixed skyward
  1017. >I pointed my attention in the same direction, picking up little more than a few gusts of wind snaking their way through the leaves far above
  1018. “She IS coming back, right?”
  1019. >“She’s just scoping things out; she flew up pretty high last time and got a good look around”
  1020. >“She might see something interesting - yeah, in the meantime we’re just standing around waiting for her to return, but it’s not all bad”
  1021. >I gave a nod of understanding – it probably wouldn’t be more than a minute or two and then we’d be back on our way toward making a bunch of new friends
  1022. >The other ponies around me showed an array of fairly neutral expressions, but I couldn’t contain a grin of absolute glee
  1023. >Hundreds, thousands of new friends - just a few miles away - and with five of us now, it wouldn’t take long to befriend them at all!
  1024. >The magnificent thought filled me with a warm feeling as I looked around at these loving members of my herd, currently complacent in gravity’s grip
  1025. >Suddenly, all the ponies swiveled their heads as a distant crack rang sharply through the air, a low drawn-out rumble echoing as it bounced from tree to tree
  1026. >The sound didn’t originate nearby, but as several pony’s eyes went wide, it was apparent that something about it had shaken them to their cores
  1027. >Daisy’s heart sank, a frantic rhythm of rustling leaves accompanying the anxious trampling of her hooves upon the forest floor
  1028. >“No… no nonono! Clementine Breeze!”
  1029. >She galloped a few paces in the general direction of the sound’s source and leapt onto a modest boulder, still woefully short of the treetops
  1030. >Her eyes were primarily fixed ahead, darting slightly to one side or another, occasionally interspersed with a moment’s glance back at the treetops
  1031. >Her whole body was trembling, tail and ears twitching without any conscious directive from the frenzied unicorn
  1032. >After a few seconds of mild shaking, she flinched, the dreadful report rewinding and replaying in her mind as clearly as the when she’d first heard it
  1033. >“We just got to be friends… please… no… please bring her back…”
  1034. >Daisy choked back tears as her soft begging struggled to be heard
  1035. >“Please come back, Clementine… please…”
  1036. “Daisy, what… what was that sound? I don’t know what to make of it… it sounded dreadful…”
  1037. >She let out a sniffle as she tried to regain enough composure to put words together, in spite of her persisting frenzy
  1038. >“I know that sound… it’s an awful lot like one of the handheld devices some people use… when they’re really insistent on not being friends… really, really insistent…”
  1039. >Every phrase seemed to draw the full contents from her lungs, her breathing now characterized by an irregular rhythm of hyperventilating
  1040. > “I don’t know exactly what kind of magic it is… but it’s very loud… it’s like little fireworks… there’s a bright flash… a brilliant light fills the room for a moment…”
  1041. >“Oh no, Clementine Breeze… please don’t… no… you can’t be a victim of that terrible thing… not you…”
  1042. >Daisy leaned back on her haunches, settling gently into a seated position on the boulder while she struggled to compose complete thoughts
  1043. >“This is all my fault… I should have stopped her… She doesn’t… She doesn’t deserve…”
  1044. “Daisy! Maybe we can help her – please, think for a moment! What happens after the flash of light?”
  1045. >With unfocused eyes, she swallowed and let out a long, shuddering exhale
  1046. >It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop as the other ponies leaned forward, desperate for any clues that would lead to a course of action
  1047. > “If the person cast the magic on you, you got very sick… and it’s not gradual like influenza or feather flu or pneumonia; it happens in seconds”
  1048. >“These ghastly metal parasites spawn in the muscle – or even worse, I’ve heard sometimes they appear in organs – and they do terrible, terrible things…”
  1049. >“I’m just glad there was a unicorn with a first aid kit nearby the last time we tried to make friends with someone wielding one of those dreadful things”
  1050. >“She found where the parasites had done damage, extracted what was left of them with a pair of tweezers, and I helped her collect the parasites’ remains in a small shallow pan”
  1051. >“They were like stout little cylinders attached to flattened flowers, mostly grey metal with some parts covered in copper, and… oh my… everything was covered in blood…”
  1052. >“The poor pony didn’t take the magic well… she was just a filly… but thank goodness, the unicorn bandaged up the parasites’ damage and stayed with her while she got better”
  1053. >“It was hard at first to be friends with the fellow who did it… but we knew it was the right thing to do, and he’s one of the nicest Pegasi you’ll ever meet”
  1054. >“And it’s… it’s really a miracle… I was sure that was going to die right there… she’d been bleeding so much…”
  1055. >Daisy wavered slightly upon the boulder as queasiness began to show its influence, her eyes simultaneously full of tears
  1056. >I stepped forward on the off-chance she’d fully lose her balance, but also to improve the chance of my question making it through the fog hanging over her mind
  1057. “Daisy, please, we have to help Clementine Breeze if she’s hurt out there; say we find her and there are parasites in her body, how will we know?”
  1058. >“I… I-I-I don’t want to want to remember much more…”
  1059. >She looked at the faces of the distraught ponies around her, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply
  1060. > “B-But if I’m… If I’m doing it for her… okay… I honestly can’t bring myself to forget the memory; it’s as clear as day…”
  1061. >“The filly we were treating… the parasites had dug holes… burrows… from where they’d spawned up to the skin, cutting a straight line through tendon, muscle fibers, you name it”
  1062. >“I guess that they did so immediately because they needed air… she said the way her ears were ringing from the noise of the magic, she didn’t even notice the parasites in her leg at first”
  1063. >“Soon, there was a fiery… agony… where they were resting, then numbness, and the filly felt very tired and weak not long afterwards… she ended up collapsing on the spot…”
  1064. >“The holes in her leg were bleeding profusely; it took some time to actually find them among her bloody, matted fur… All the blood…”
  1065. >Daisy’s voice trailed off as a new voice spoke up from the tail end of the herd
  1066. >“That sounds an awful lot like a gunshot wound – you sure you’re not talking about a gunshot wound?”
  1067. >Each of us spun around halfway to face the unseen voice, eyes going wide as they met… Clementine Breeze
  1068. >The chipper Pegasus was looking as healthy as ever, once you looked past her expression conveying an intense bout of confusion
  1069. >With a collective gasp and a round of relieved smiles, Storm Cloud and Sky Meadows tackled her; Daisy and I joined the hug with a bit less zeal a moment later
  1070. >“Clementine!”
  1071. >“Did the magic not affect you?”
  1072. “We were so worried about you!”
  1073. >There was a certain irony in how Clementine Breeze had returned from her flight unscathed, only to be crushed half to death by a pile of concerned friends
  1074. >Wriggling free from the fray in a flurry of leaves and loose feathers, she stood before us and started asking her own questions
  1075. >“Is this magic device y’all are talking about a simple run-of-the-mill firearm? Like, they shoot regular bullets, that come out of a barrel, and go into whatever they’re shot at?”
  1076. >“Nah, that doesn’t sound in line with her symptoms. She didn’t feel the parasites landing on her or going IN; we figure the magic spawned them right inside the muscle itself”
  1077. >Clementine Breeze let out a sigh and rolled her eyes; both ponies seemed quite adamant about how they thought this particular type of magic worked
  1078. >“No silly, it’s not- she wouldn’t- she probably wouldn’t feel the bullets, and I don’t mean… ‘parasites,’ going in at all considering how fast they are; a firearm can-“
  1079. >“Ohhh! I see the confusion. See, he didn’t have fire arms – it was a device he was holding, not a part of him…”
  1080. >“About eight inches long, blocky, made of a shiny silver-black metal, and it had a hole in the front for casting the magic”
  1081. >“Oh my, you…”
  1082. >Clementine Breeze chuckled to herself, having completely lost touch with Daisy’s narrative
  1083. >“You thought a firearm was literally, like, fire… arms? Flames coming off of the wrists, Rapidash-style? Good gravy, you really are an imaginative little pony, Daisy…”
  1084. >“Heh, just telling what I know – you heard that loud crack too, right? I’ve seen one of the devices that makes that sound up close; we were just worried the magic had hit you”
  1085. >“I’m… all good, no, ahem, ‘magic’ here. Morning Star, I’m surprised you’re not jumping in the discussion - years in the Marines, you definitely know a thing or two about rifles”
  1086. >Huh? Back up a sec.
  1087. >What did she even think she was talking about - why was she putting ME on the spot like this?
  1088. >Thankfully my fur was already crimson, as it helped hide the rosy flush in my face
  1089. “Uh, yeah, yeah! Years with the… Marines… you’d think so! We didn’t actually spend much time around rifles, totally sorry. Guess what you thought about Marines was a bit misled”
  1090. >Clementine Breeze was locked into a thousand yard stare, a subtle smile of insanity accompanying her infrequent eye twitches
  1091. >“Welp… guess I better just commit myself to a pony insane asylum…”
  1092. >Daisy walked over uneasily and deftly placed a hoof on her shoulder
  1093. >“Clementine Breeze, dear, are you feeling alright?”
  1094. >“I don’t get it, I only went down to the range for a few hours each spring and fall to blow off some steam – for me, shooting was just a hobby, a hobby! I don’t get how this is happening!”
  1095. >“How… what is happening?”
  1096. >“I’m the only one here who knows the basics of what a firearm even is! And how it works! Morning Star, for a couple years you probably spent every morning cleaning one!”
  1097. “I don’t remember doing something like that… even once…”
  1098. >“And that’s what’s so messed up! You were telling me about your time with the Marines the very last time we were hanging out! I remember!”
  1099. “No, I’m sorry! I must have just been telling a tall tale; I swear I don’t even know what a ‘Marine’ is!”
  1100. >“You don’t just forget whole years of your life – think, Morning Star, think, think!”
  1101. >Clementine Breeze had gradually closed the gap between us, and was confronting me eye-to-eye unnervingly inside my private space as I frantically scanned my memories
  1102. >Daisy once again walked up and rested a hoof on her shoulder, causing her to flinch and her intensity to falter
  1103. >“Clementine, it’s not your fault… it’s certainly not his either…”
  1104. >“Daisy, do you know what’s going on? Please… why do none of the other ponies in our herd remember these things I’m talking about? I’m not crazy…”
  1105. >“I know you’re not crazy. I know. When a new friend joins a herd, good friends help them move past the things they struggle with… and it’s different for everypony”
  1106. >“I’m not sure I understand…”
  1107. >“Before we met our friends, all of us did things we wanted to forget. Some little things… some big things. We try to forgive and forget, but the hurting never fully goes away… not alone”
  1108. >Daisy turned back to face me, directly meeting my gaze with a warm expression even though she wasn’t addressing me when she spoke
  1109. >“Morning Star doesn’t have any recollection of his time with the ‘Marines’ because he wanted to put the memory in a glass bottle and toss it into the ocean”
  1110. >“And in a way, he couldn’t forget the blemishes of his past without a little help from us”
  1111. >“He just wanted a better life – to sleep more soundly and to live without his burdens – and with our friendship, that’s what we gave him – that’s what YOU gave him”
  1112. >“Clementine Breeze, you’re the angel that put her wing around him and took away that weight when you became his friend…”
  1113. >“Yes, it means he doesn’t remember the part of his life with those things – rifles, I think you called them”
  1114. >“I understand it upsets you, and I can’t ask the ‘old’ Morning Star what he thinks… but I would bet my last bit that he’s happier leaving behind the part of himself shackled to them”
  1115. >“Clementine, you’re a very generous Pegasus, and you… freed him”
  1116. >Clementine Breeze and I had both raised a fetlock to wipe our eyes, slightly embarrassed that Daisy knew this part of us better than we knew ourselves
  1117. >For a few moments, a quiet stillness filled the air except for the gentle rustle of a few leaves
  1118. >In time, Storm Cloud worked up the courage to ask a question that had been lingering on her mind
  1119. >“We don’t have memories of the bad times… Do any of you… remember your lives as a young filly?”
  1120. >She was met with a multitude of nods and approval
  1121. >“Oh, certainly!”
  1122. >“Yeah, it was such a fun time!”
  1123. >“Sky Meadows was telling me all about her schoolfilly days! Never a problem she couldn’t solve!”
  1124. >After the clamor died down, Clementine Breeze put forth the question no one else would
  1125. >“Storm Cloud, did you?”
  1126. >Storm Cloud shifted nervously on her hooves, sternly staring downward as she tried to avoid eye contact
  1127. >“That’s the thing, it’s just… I didn’t know whether it was normal… I can remember quite a bit about my parents at least…”
  1128. >“My father must have been a Pegasus too, because he always said he was flying around the country – not sure about my mom because she never went with him”
  1129. >“I can remember their faces from our time vacationing in, uh, White Tail Woods. They both had lighter tan coats – kind of funny considering I ended up as a purple Pegasus”
  1130. >“I think mom was an Appaloosa; she had a few black, blue, and purple spots on her coat; I remember them especially well during the times my father spent in town”
  1131. >“I wonder if that’s where my purple genes came from? They were odd spots; not always in the same places and tended to fade… like chalk in the rain”
  1132. >“Well, anyways, it doesn’t… seem… bad… from what I can remember. Odd that so many years – entire decades – of my life are represented by just a few events in recollection…”
  1133. >She sighed, having spent a significant amount of brainpower simply trying to recall the memories
  1134. >“…But I’m sure it’s well and truly for the best. Thank you. All of you, and especially Daisy… for being my friend.”
  1135. >Storm Cloud narrowed her lips and drew them back, still deep in a strange region of scrambled thoughts, somewhere on the borders of confusion, friendship, and faded memory
  1136. >She resurfaced back to reality with a gentle embrace from Daisy, a cuddly gesture to reassure her friend that everything would be alright
  1137. >“It’s what friends do. I did it for you, and I know you’d do the same for others”
  1138. >“Of course I would, Daisy, you know I would!”
  1139. >With a merry smile and a newfound spring to her step, Storm Cloud stepped free of Daisy’s hug and cantered off in the presumed direction of town
  1140. >“Come on guys, we got friends to make! Clementine Breeze, you see anything worthy of note while you were skybound?”
  1141. >All eyes shifted to the mildly startled Pegasus, her wings bumping outwards into a nearby tree upon unexpectedly hearing her name
  1142. >“Wha- Oh, right! Town’s a couple miles off, right in the same direction we’re already headed!”
  1143. >“Didn’t see a whole lot else; it’s a bit dark to make out much.”
  1144. >“To me, I think it’s rather late in the evening for it, but a few places were having massive bonfires and cookouts!”
  1145. >“One city waaaay off in the direction of the mountain range had some super plumes of smoke – I wish you all could’ve seen it!”
  1146. >“Probably some chef who isn’t quite used to hooves, trying to grill a bunch of veggies with too much water content – need to dry them out first, silly guy!”
  1147. >“It also sounded faintly like a ton of fireworks going off over there – pop pop pop! I wonder if they’re all celebrating a bunch of new friendships?”
  1148. >Daisy had begun to slowly walk in the herd’s predetermined direction, but spared a glance over her shoulder to answer Clementine Breeze
  1149. >“Could be! Earlier today I met a couple unicorns who said they were planning to teleport over that way and make some friends! Must’ve gone well!”
  1150. >The trot through the forest proceeded in relative silence, at least with no ponies saying anything while the leaves underhoof did plenty of talking
  1151. >Gradually, the scattered profile of the moon visible through the trees ascended higher and higher, indicating time’s incessant march toward the middle of the night
  1152. >The usually monotony of trees passed without comment, interspersed with the odd fern, puddle, or boulder
  1153. >It didn’t take long for them to become more clearly visible, for a greater multitude of them to be seen from any particular vantage
  1154. >The further we trotted, the more the air seemed to take on a soft, glowing quality, meagerly illuminating just a bit more of our surroundings
  1155. >Cresting the top of a large, gently sloping hill, I was overwhelmed by the orange light spilling from a street lamp a few dozen yards away
  1156. >Through narrowed eyes, I noticed Sky Meadows pick up her pace to a leisurely gallop, visibly eager to look at something that wasn’t just endless leaves
  1157. >She came to rest near the gravelly shoulder of a desolate back road, the other four of us joining up not long afterwards as our eyesight slowly adjusted to the glow
  1158. >We all sat without any intention of seeing anyone, but nonetheless, as our pony ears flicked about and our gazes swept across the horizon, our surroundings came into focus
  1159. >There were definitely people lacking friendship somewhere nearby, and we were going to find them and help them, as good friends!
  1160. >Still, presently, we found ourselves in the middle of the woods, the cracked road little more than a winding approach to the town proper
  1161. >Aiming my perked ears in that direction, a low rumble of bass, a smattering of vehicles, and even a racket of voices, were all undeniably present
  1162. >The lamp near us cast a dim light upon a simple road sign a few yards ahead
  1163. >Half a mile to the town center on the left road, half a mile to the university on the right road – take your pick
  1164. >A part of me gave thanks that I hadn’t forgotten how to read when I became a pony
  1165. >Reading was the source of so much pain in undergrad that the fear of losing the ability struck me as hauntingly valid
  1166. >Not far beyond the sign, the road split before veering off into the trees in either direction, the path for both becoming obscured
  1167. “So which way are we going?”
  1168. >A brief rhythm of clacks broadcast Storm Cloud’s pacing onto the road, her gaze vacillating between the two roads, then back to the sign labeling them
  1169. >“I think I know where I’d like to go… Sky Meadows and I know a lot of people at the university – from classes, parties, campus activities, you name it…”
  1170. >“Moreover, I know they’re not happy… I want them all to be happy… oh, how wonderful it’d be if we could go show them the blessing of friendship!”
  1171. >Daisy’s expression presented a small, lopsided smile and eyes with just a hint of lament as she approached the enthused Pegasus
  1172. >“Okay, Storm Cloud, I want you and Sky Meadows to go to the university…”
  1173. >She paused, the second half of her sentence hanging momentarily in the air as she gently sighed and her voice softened further
  1174. >“…because I know you two have learned a lot today, and you’ll be great at it… I want you to find your friends and show them all about friendship”
  1175. >All of us, except for Daisy, stiffened as the implications of her request began to set in
  1176. >Why hadn’t she mentioned the rest of us?
  1177. >Surely she wouldn’t suggest splitting up the herd, right?
  1178. >As the pieces fell into place, a question broke forth from each pony’s concerned thoughts
  1179. >“Daisy, are you not going with them?”
  1180. >“You’re at least going to go into town with us, right?”
  1181. >“I thought friends weren’t supposed to leave each other?”
  1182. >“You’re practically the leader of our herd, what if we have questions and you’re not there?”
  1183. >Daisy’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully in response to the barrage, her brow furrowing as she took in all the questions
  1184. >After a moment of internal processing, she walked to an ideal spot on the road where she could turn to address us all, face-to-face
  1185. >“Morning Star and Clementine Breeze, I want you to lead the way on the other road to the town center – don’t worry, I won’t be far”
  1186. >I opened my mouth in protest, but halted when Daisy made eye contact with serene, reassuring eyes
  1187. >Her expression alone spoke a thousand unsaid words, the most clear of which were ‘I believe in you’
  1188. >“I know it may seem odd, because good friends are loyal to each other and, on the surface, maybe that means they stick together no matter what”
  1189. >“But to be clear, this isn’t a definitive goodbye; this is a ‘see you later’ because very soon we’ll have cuddled with everyone in this town - shown them the value of friendship”
  1190. >“There will be much celebrating tomorrow; I know I’ll be able to easily find you amidst it all because there’s nopony else like any of you”
  1191. >“The chipper little purple Pegasus who was willing to be my friend the moment I arrived here…”
  1192. >“The caring blue mare whose tenacity and tenderness have been the stuff of picture book stories…”
  1193. >“The orange Pegasus who carried friendship miles through the woods for a hurting companion…”
  1194. >“And the crimson pony who taught us all something about accepting the help of friends, even when it may seem daunting…”
  1195. >Even though I knew it was coming, Daisy’s flattery overwhelmed my resolve not to blush
  1196. >“You’re all the best friends I could have asked for, and I know you’re each going to make dozens, hundreds of friends with wonderful qualities in their own rights”
  1197. >“You’re becoming the ‘leaders’ of your own herds, and some time – or even times – tomorrow, you too may find yourself splitting them to more effectively seek others”
  1198. >“I know it’s difficult, but it’s what we must do; you’ll find that some folks don’t want to snuggle if we’ve been in a place too long… in some ways we’re up against the clock”
  1199. >“You’ll find out a lot of things for yourself… Somewhere between the snuggly embrace of a new friend and the companionship of the old ponies in your herd, you learn a lot”
  1200. >“I certainly had to… I’ve seen a lot in the past few days… and I appreciate that you all trust me with your lives on account of that, but it hasn’t always been that way”
  1201. >“If you think I’ve always been the ‘wise pony’ I am today, I’m flattered, but considering the fact I don’t remember much from before the day I met my first friend…”
  1202. >She paused, trying to find the best way to phrase her thoughts
  1203. >“…I probably wasn’t someone I’d remotely want to return to being. Let me tell you, if that version of myself can become somepony’s friend, anyone can”
  1204. >“In the few days since then, I’ve been in a lot of places, and I mean that physically and emotionally”
  1205. >“One place had steep rolling hills and large white cottages as far as the eye could see… another had tall buildings along a shore…”
  1206. >“Whenever we ran out of people with which to snuggle in a certain place, it always hurt to leave, but unicorns do what we have to do… through joy and sadness, confidence and fatigue”
  1207. >“One moment our friends are a hoof’s reach away, and it seems in the blink of an eye we’re saying goodbye, and poof, off to somewhere else”
  1208. >“That’s how I came here and first met you, Storm Cloud. While I temporarily left friends behind to do so, I wouldn’t have gotten to know you if I didn’t”
  1209. >“I’ve cherished the time we’ve had… and the memories we have yet to make… thank you… thank you all”
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