Cuddly Doom (Chapter 3)

Jun 5th, 2017
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  1. >Even after a couple years with the force, it’d never really dawned on me that the static on each radio channel had its own unique pitch
  2. >With a curious mix of agitation and boredom, my partner stared at his fingers curled over the scanner, one to a button, clicking sporadically between each uninteresting bout
  3. >Mentally keeping score, it seemed that the din emitted by Channel 1 was the highest pitch, with the others descending in some random scheme
  4. >Click… buzzzzz… click… buzz… click…
  5. >I took a sip from my coffee and returned it to the cruiser’s sole cupholder
  6. “You know, with all your button-pressing aptitude I figure you’re not too old to start a career in EDM, get yourself a Launchpad… You even seen the Madeon Pop Culture video?”
  7. >He paused, straightened up, and shot me a nonplussed look as a hum of static – Channel 4, from the sound of things – filled the car
  8. >“Son, I’ve no idea what any of those words mean. Why would a guy like me know what madeon pop music is?”
  9. “Damn, just trying to make conversation is all”
  10. >“Okay, then, stop tryin’, and let me listen to dispatch. Usually these early morning shifts are quiet but you can’t ‘ave any reasonable expectations about Fridays”
  11. “Fair enough; damned if I’d know, after all”
  12. >At least, under normal circumstances I wouldn’t – I shouldn’t – considering my work shifts ended at the stroke of midnight
  13. >Nonetheless, on many nights I jumped cars and my essential equipment & belt were limply piled on the floor of my pal’s cruiser by 12:01
  14. >Calling him a ‘pal’ may have been a stretch for someone twenty years my senior, but he’s never shooed me away despite my intermittent sarcasm and weapons-grade puns
  15. >Beneath the grizzled stare and muscle was a good, genuine guy who appreciated that the newbie took time out to keep him company during a couple early hours of the morning
  16. >What was I supposed to do though, go home and sleep?
  17. >Not when the cruiser’s interior was larger than my cramped studio apartment – and even the rent for THAT place was tight on the first of each month
  18. “Any interesting action on the graveyard shift yesterday? Had prior plans, so I couldn’t keep ya company”
  19. >“Nothin’ much around ‘ere – must’ve been a giant mess on the more distant channels though; the big city guys were callin’ in one thing after another, rapid fire”
  20. >“One wouldn’t usually expect that kind of thing BEFORE the weekend – might be ‘Thirsty Thursday’ for some folks”
  21. >He chuckled gruffly to himself before continuing
  22. >“Hmph, seems they got it all sorted though; by like ten this morning, I ‘ear the channel was quiet as could be…”
  23. >“Kind of nice – usually they at least ring us if there’s a carjacking or somethin’, but it was totally calm, not a single call”
  24. >“The bastards were probably ashamed to realize they’d been hoggin’ the airwaves earlier”
  25. >Briefly pausing, he drummed his fingers on the dashboard before returning them to their native domain on the radio’s buttons
  26. >He was about to initiate another cycle of clicking through channels before the static fell away, momentarily replaced by silence until a rough voice cut through the air
  27. >“…responding to site of break-in and burglary, cross streets of Hamilton and North Main, requesting support, one unit…”
  28. >Hot damn! Something to investigate for a change!
  29. >It sure beat the monotony of sitting in a speed trap for hours just to scold soccer moms and sixty-somethings about something they’ve already furtively known for decades!
  30. >My partner broke off his staring contest with the scanner just long enough for me to catch his excitedly elevated eyebrows and smirk in the dim glow of the interior light
  31. >Before his hand could reach to activate the microphone, however, a series of quick tones over the channel announced that his moment’s hesitation had been his demise
  32. >I could practically see the exact moment his heart broke as a woman’s voice chimed in over the radio
  33. >“This is Crime Scene Investigation Unit One responding; we’ll take care of it. Five minutes out, over”
  34. >The dames beat us to the punch, and not for the first time
  35. >“Thanks CSI One; we were hoping to get a hold of you. Neighbors called it in after coming across the scene. Doesn’t seem as though anything was stolen at first glance”
  36. >“Money and electronics left untouched out in the open. Haven’t been able to get in contact with the tenant or several of his neighbors; we might be looking at several missing persons”
  37. >“A few large, brightly colored orange and purple feathers were found in the hallway and apartment entryway, the largest maybe a foot long”
  38. >“Didn’t seem like they belonged to a parrot – landlord stated he doesn’t allow birds all the same; we’re not sure what to make of them”
  39. >“Be advised, investigate them with gloves; a neighbor handling them complained of hand cramping - could be contaminated with some active chemicals, over”
  40. >“Understood, we’ll see when we get there, over”
  41. >With a rapidly consuming air of finality, the scanner returned to its playlist of the town’s finest static as my partner smacked the steering wheel and slumped dejectedly back in his seat
  42. >On the other hand, I was personally finding it difficult to relax; something simply wasn’t sitting right with me…
  43. >“Damn it all! For once something’s happening on the scanner… We would’ve been fuckin’ great responding to that call – you in particular, son…”
  44. >Orange and purple feathers…
  45. >“I get that you’re off the clock right now, but you always ‘ave a knack for seein’ things no one else does”
  46. >Orange and purple feathers…
  47. >“Lately we got everyone else on the force missing things right in front of their eyes, but nothing’s getting by you”
  48. >Orange and purple feathers… THAT’S IT!
  49. “Oh, God, I know exactly what happened to the poor bastards in that apartment!”
  50. “I’ve heard of this before, and it’s the worst fate possible for anyone who’s been taken… they’re simply unlike anyone you or I have ever known or could ever imagine…”
  51. “It’s kidnappers from Baltimore! Think about it, the Orioles baseball mascot has orange feathers, the Ravens football mascot has purple feathers – it can’t just be coincidence!”
  52. >I couldn’t think of a reason why they’d intentionally leave a clue, but there was no other explanation for strange feathers… indoors… not like those – they don’t appear out of thin air
  53. >It must be some sort of calling card! Even if we had to search down miles of highway by this point, the feathers gave us a convoluted lead!
  54. >My partner’s head slowly creaked to face me, like a robot that ran low on oil half a decade ago
  55. >It was apparent that his eyes weren’t exactly meeting mine, deep in thought as though he was regarding some matter of great importance
  56. >His pursed lips and utterly neutral expression painted a stark contrast to the elation I was feeling in response to the brilliant realization
  57. >“Kidnappers from Baltimore? Baltimore? Tell me, because I know you’re off the clock right now, are you like this when you wear the badge, too?”
  58. >The deliberate, irritated tone in which he asked the question caused my voice to falter
  59. “Y-yes… I guess… I think it makes a l-lot of sense…”
  60. >He nodded almost imperceptibly, his gaze slowly returning to the radio and its dull hum of static
  61. >In its own right, the static was grating for those unused to it, but its general dreariness didn’t prompt you to reconsider your career path…
  62. >The ignition key remained at idle rest, the cruiser’s GPS resolutely fixed on our little corner of the universe next to a small-town intersection
  63. >So much for springing into action…
  64. >The more the silent pause caused me to mull over my assertions, the more I considered whether I’d invented a fantastical conclusion without truly believing it
  65. >I’ve been living in this same damn town for twenty-some-odd years; I really need to spread my wings… Maryland’s beautiful this time of year…
  66. >I settled back in my seat, casting my gaze out across the empty road that stretched into the darkness, made only faintly visible by the lonely glows of a few widely spaced lamps
  67. >A few other garish splashes of color fought for attention – the dim sentinel of a red neon sign, the blinking yellow of a traffic light signaling an absent line of cars to yield
  68. >The buildings lining the street looked about as cold and sullen as the townspeople staring into their windows decades ago, as the news from Vietnam rolled across their cathode ray TVs
  69. >Nothing much was changing before my eyes, and nothing much was going to change…
  70. >Everyone who had gone out with friends for the evening was settling into their warm, comfortable beds at home
  71. >I was stuck here envying them from a lifeless intersection in the middle of nowhere… same as I’d been doing, week in and week out
  72. >“There’s really some imagination ya got there, son. Don’t let it be a problem for things right ‘n front of your eyes getting’ by you”
  73. >My partner said it matter-of-factly, never removing his eyes from the scanner’s latent promise of excitement, willfully ignorant of the dreariness immediately surrounding him
  74. >But as he was finishing speaking, my comprehension and listening abilities stumbled momentarily as a faint click echoed somewhere in the night
  75. >I didn’t think twice about it initially, but as he returned to switching between radio channels, I was uniquely unnerved by the fact that not every click was accompanied by a button
  76. >Click… buzz… clickclack… buzz… clickclack…
  77. >Narrowing my eyes at the gloom of the road, I strained to see anything out of the ordina-
  78. >No… no… I’m seeing things…
  79. >That can’t, cannot be real, no way…
  80. >It looks like a small horse, a small red horse…
  81. >This has to be my imagination acting up… maybe I’m finally losing it after all these years…
  82. >And yet, there it is… standing tall… vaguely silhouetted in the moonlight…
  83. >I’ve seen enough horses in my days to know one when I see one, but never so stocky and… small…
  84. >The horse’s gaze was bearing down on some point of interest in an alley, roughly half a block away; it didn’t seem to pay heed to our cruiser in the slightest
  85. >Ears perking up, an unseen force prompted it to gallop in that direction, swiftly disappearing from view behind a wall
  86. “I’m going to step out for a bit - just want to get a look at something”
  87. >Hastily grabbing for the door handle and pulling, I hoisted myself to my feet, shoes crunching against the derelict asphalt at the road’s edge
  88. >Still distracted and operating primarily on muscle memory, I grabbed the vast majority of my bulky equipment belt still piled on the floor
  89. >Whatever, a flashlight and a service weapon – in case things really, really went south – were all I needed; the rest of the belt was merely along for the ride
  90. >I double checked that those elements were in their expected spots by my side, and with a crisp snap of the belt’s fastener everything fell into place, securely enough
  91. >“What, somethin’ catch your eye out there?”
  92. >Well, his obliviousness obviously meant he’d had his eyes fixed on that damn scanner… best not tell him about the horse; he probably thinks I’m crazy enough as is
  93. “I’m pretty sure it’s nothing – a nifty trick of the light, if anything”
  94. >“Well, be careful and don’t do anything stupid”
  95. “Aw, little ol’ me? Wouldn’t dream of it!”
  96. >I tried to make my sarcasm as cheery as possible, playing up an abruptly good mood with my tone and a crooked smile
  97. >In reality, it was the only way I could’ve justified jogging away without arousing his suspicion – ‘oh, the stupid kid’s just chasing butterflies again’
  98. >I closed the gap to the alley rather quickly, my footsteps echoing hollowly along the barren road for no one to hear
  99. >Pausing briefly at the entrance, I couldn’t bring myself to ignore the faded tears of old grime rolling down the alley’s unfinished brick walls, the horse ominously nowhere to be seen
  100. >I took a few steps in, my flashlight illuminating a narrow white spot in the gaping maw of darkness ahead
  101. >A far call from its Grecian predecessor, the narrow labyrinth before me was lined with dumpsters & abandoned vehicles, and paved by cracked concrete & tough weeds
  102. >The thought crossed my mind to try calling out to the horse, but what good would it have done aside from scare it further away?
  103. >I couldn’t have that happening; I needed to see this thing with my own eyes, or else I damn well would commit myself to seeing a psychiatrist by morning
  104. >Pacing forward cautiously in a straight line, I reasoned that the horse probably ran off in a straight line too, and besides, I wouldn’t get lost following suit
  105. >Around this pair of garbage cans, past that dense thicket of scaffolding, behind this stack of firewood… still no sign of the horse mirage, but I was making progress!
  106. >It’d certainly be easier if there weren’t all these obstacles in the way; by now I probably hadn’t travelled even twenty yards from-
  107. >The entrance… Where the hell was the entrance?
  108. >I just looked back and I could have sworn it was there a moment ago!
  109. >On no, this isn’t good, how big was this city block anyways? I thought this alley prettymuch just connected to the next street over…
  110. >I spun around, desperately scanning for a column of starry sky that wasn’t obscured by a building, only to come up empty-handed
  111. >Okay, okay, panicking wasn’t necessary – pick an alley, follow it, and it either leads out, or it’s a dead end
  112. >Those are the only two outcomes for any path here, and I get infinite chances to alter my choice; this’ll be quick
  113. >There were four paths crisscrossing the alley intersection, none of which bore any tell-tale features of escape
  114. >Having disoriented myself enough to forget the original route of entry, I opted to follow a narrow dirt path, making sure to scuff the earth at its entrance for my future self’s sake
  115. >Twenty yards and a couple of turns later, I came face to face with… a brick wall… It doesn’t get much starker than that as far as confirmations of failure go
  116. >Though slightly irritated, there was consolation in the fact that I had three other options, any of which could be my salvation – what’s behind door number two?
  117. >Proceeding through the slow walk back, my ears caught wind of a strange clamor, and upon returning to the hub, I identified the direction of its source down another pathway
  118. >Advancing cautiously, the racket resolved itself into unmistakable footsteps on hollow metal… but if it wasn’t the horse, who was out at this late hour of the night, in this alley?
  119. >I curiously rounded a corner to see another brick wall, but… nothing else?
  120. >The alley widened into a large, empty courtyard, its patio adorned by only a few untended concrete slabs with cracks winding along their length
  121. >The surrounding buildings cast long shadows, with scattered moonlight struggling to break through
  122. >Sweeping the beam of my flashlight across the lifeless scene, I fruitlessly searched for invisible noisemakers concealed in the inky blackness
  123. >Bricks… wood… dirt… concrete… but not a soul to be seen…
  124. >I had nearly retired to investigate a third path when a bout of sudden noise somewhere above me caused the flashlight to escape my startled grip
  125. >Coordinating with a gasp, my eyes became transfixed on the movement of a figure on a nearby roof, the person’s silhouette stumbling before hastily rolling a few meager feet to the ground
  126. >The man appeared physically unhurt from the fall as he frantically scoured the patio’s shadows on his hands and knees
  127. >Grasping something from the dirt, he rose to his feet, the moonlight glinting off his pair of broken glasses, watch… and the shiny chef’s knife he now wielded
  128. >He spared a glance back at the low rooftop from which he’d just fallen, soon becoming aware of the steep cone of light my flashlight was emitting across the ground
  129. >As the new threat pivoted to face me with a wild, frenzied expression, I subconsciously wrapped my hand around the curves of the holster affixed to my belt
  130. >“I-I-I didn’t see you there! Please, please for the love of God don’t shoot, don’t shoot!”
  131. >Shuddering, he errantly let his knife fall to the ground, hands raised in terrfied submission
  132. >Making an appropriately equivalent exchange with the dirt, I picked up my flashlight to better illuminate the scene
  133. >“Please, you need to get out of here – we both do! Please, start running and warn anyone you can before they get here!”
  134. >I had questions… I had so many questions… but they would have to wait until later; as my flashlight’s beam swept across, I became increasingly unsettled by my surroundings
  135. >Something about the scene was seriously creeping me out, but I couldn’t say exactly what it was
  136. >Maybe it was the way I’d encountered this guy, panicked about pursuers in an otherwise desolate city…
  137. >Maybe it was the way his disheveled clothes looked as though they’d already been through a brawl or two tonight…
  138. >Maybe it was the way his raised arms appeared to be covered in bloody patches, but upon further inspection, the patches were more orange… shinier… and refused to flow…
  139. >With a series of sharp gusts in the wind and an abrupt clammering of hooves on the rooftop, I realized too late that I’d been looking in all the wrong places
  140. >My flashlight only had time to complete half an arc towards the new uproar, my glaze momentarily catching an unmistakably clear glimpse of the smiling red horse on the rooftop
  142. >The sudden sight of the uncannily expressive horse shot a full dose of adrenaline through my veins, but without a coordinated plan to use it, I flailed a foot backwards in the dirt
  143. >Flashlight swinging freely through the air, I kicked up a fine cloud of dust and involuntarily fell on my ass, knees unlocking as gravity secured its brief victory
  144. >I hit the ground with a thud, the pain evaporating almost immediately amidst the terrifying onslaught of realization that… whatever this guy had been running from… it was here…
  145. >Dust lingered in the air, illuminated in a sharp, dancing cone as the flashlight rolled on uneven ground a few feet away
  146. >The space where my head had been only moments ago filled with the sound a rushing wind, a dark mass curving through the air a few short feet above me
  147. >I should have been thankful that I hadn’t been standing, but as the shape crossed into the gleam of my flashlight, it was difficult to be thankful for the rapidly unfolding situation
  148. >With rays of light glimmering off the bright orange feathers lining its wings, a second horse – a flying horse, a Pegasus – glided into view
  149. >Its interest was clearly focused on the harrowed man at the far end of the courtyard, and as it loomed closer and closer to him, it demanded his attention as well
  150. >Frantically pivoting his eyes away from the red horse on the rooftop toward the orange Pegasus descending behind him, he widened his stance defensively
  151. >Fight or flight was intended to combat predators of untold viciousness, but as the man’s feet shifted anxiously, it was apparent he was hoping it’d work against horses too
  152. >The Pegasus skidded to the earth in a cloud of dust, a harsh flap of its wings upsetting the air all through the courtyard, wind whipping from the alley entrance behind me
  153. >It grinned wickedly at the man caught between the pair of equines, its wings ruffling slightly as they tucked to its side
  154. >The man took half a step back, only to be answered by the noise of the red horse jumping to the ground behind him, impacts echoing through the air as hooves met dirt
  155. >Slowly, the horses began to pace an analytical circle around the man, as a pack of wolves would circle a piece of prey breathing its final breaths
  156. >The scene was utterly unnatural for a pair of colorful storybook animals; as real as I knew this situation was, I couldn’t shake its surreal, nightmarish aura
  157. >It was difficult to take my eyes off the feverish expression of the man precariously entrapped by the horses, but a faint glimmer at his feet caught my attention
  158. >The knife… dear God, pick up the knife! I didn’t mean for you to drop it earlier, please just pick it up!
  159. >His gaze was rapidly switching between the circling horses, an epitome of tunnel vision, while the knife rested uselessly on the ground a few feet below his trembling hand
  160. >“Shit, this isn’t good, man!”
  161. >Glad we can agree on that! I don’t have protocol for anything remotely, remotely like this!
  162. >My training took over as the service weapon by my side slid out of its holster, hands working purely on muscle memory as my gaze remained fixed on the eerie spectacle
  163. >The horses maintained their orderly circle, breathing slightly more heavily and tensing their muscles more on each hoofbeat, manifestly priming themselves for action
  164. >Please, for the love of God, pick up the knife, please!
  165. “Pick up the knife!”
  166. >The man spun in my general direction upon hearing the shout, the horses responding by perking up and twisting their ears to catch the words
  167. >In a flash, the man looked down, suddenly remembering his incomplete helplessness, but it had been too little, too late… and too slow
  168. >His hands barely had time to process the signal to pick up the weapon as the Pegasus capitalized on his lapse of focus, springing into action by jumping at his blind spot
  169. >In a flurry of feathers, fur, and tattered clothes, the man and flying horse toppled toward the middle of the courtyard, the knife laying untouched far away
  170. >As he rolled tumultuously around on the ground, the Pegasus clung tightly to his back, hooves locked steadfastly across his chest
  171. >Amidst the hair-raising cries of horror, the red horse made its move, pouncing against the man and hugging his front
  172. >“No, please, get the hell off me!”
  173. >I shuddered as I waited for the sickening crack of the horses sinking their teeth into his spine… or the soft exposed flesh of his neck…
  174. >Every horse I’d ever previously seen was pleased with a nice bale of hay, maybe a carrot or a sip of Guinness if they’d been good; even omnivorous horses seemed far-fetched
  175. >Why did I have to deal with a pair of small predatory horses and their taste for human flesh – in the middle of a fucking city no less, and never mind the fact that one has wings…
  176. >Somewhere a pointy-haired mad scientist must have been cackling manically, and I couldn’t care whether he’d forgive me for what I was about to do
  177. >My service pistol rose into view, three green dots of tritium glowing dimly in the moonlight as the stainless steel slide cast a muddled reflection of the starry sky above
  178. >I focused my gaze over the scene; I couldn’t try to line up the sights like this, not with the horses gripping so tightly against the guy on each side
  179. >I briefly considered firing at a steep angle into each of the equine meatshields and hoping for the best, but the risk wasn’t worth it when I didn’t know what the horses wanted
  180. >With every second that ticked by, I was more astounded that the man still had the energy and every piece of flesh on him to continue thrashing about
  181. >Still, it wasn’t unheard of for predators to wait for prey to tire before dealing the final blow; humanity built itself up for millennia by hunting in such a manner
  182. >My hands were faltering as the gravity of the potentially life-or-death situation gradually settled in, every muscle in my body flinching with each shout from the doomed man
  183. >Warily, I lifted a foot and began pacing toward the scuffle, each other party uncaring or unaware of my presence as they toiled with their own battle
  184. >At a distance of about fifteen feet, I raised my pistol sights in line with the fray as it rolled into alignment and stopped, the cries fading away to heavy breathing
  185. >I had a clear shot to the orange Pegasus, and as my finger slid tensely into the trigger guard, the words of my instructor played through my mind
  186. >‘In all circumstances, keep your finger out of the trigger guard unless you’re prepared to take a shot’
  187. >My focus shifted to the three green dots of the sights – judge, jury, and executioner of the Pegasus – lining up as the blurry target slid into view in the background
  188. >In my mind a part of me had already taken the shot, but my hand wouldn’t respond…
  189. >I could… should… just ice the horses and be done with it…
  190. >Unless… No… wait…
  191. >Something here was… wrong…
  192. >I uncrossed my eyes back at the three peacefully rising and falling rhythms of breaths ahead
  193. >Without them writhing around on the ground, I could resolve considerably more detail about them
  194. >The man’s shirt had been torn to shreds, and should have been soaked through, my heart sinking as I realized his entire torso had been bloodied during the fight
  195. >All the same, he was somehow still alive, his expression bearing a slight smile even as blood streamed along his neck, the horses eerily mimicking his bliss on either side
  196. >The blood was a strangely beautiful compliment to the red and orange horses flanking his sides, but as the color seeped across his skin, I found myself overcome by nausea
  197. >Through deep breaths attempting to suppress my intensely visceral reaction, I did my best to gauge just how much blood he’d already lost at this point
  198. >One pint? Two? Is that a lot? I was terrible at trying to estimate these things, but it must be a lot if it were flowing out across his entire body
  199. >I called out as calmly as I could, trying to remain authoritative despite my own queasiness
  200. “S-Sir, are you feeling all… alright? Do you know what your name is, can you tell me your name?”
  201. >Shifting one hand from the pistol’s grip to the pouch where I keep my radio, I racked my brain for the best channel to call an ambulance, figuring Channel 3 would-
  202. >My radio… where the hell did my radio go?
  203. >Oh no, please don’t tell me I left it in the cruiser when I ran off!
  204. >My partner’s a block away scrupulously checking up on every available channel!
  205. >This is a serious situation right now; how could I have thought I wouldn’t need a radio when I went to chase down this horse – what if this guy died because of my haste?
  206. >“I-I’m… I’m better than alright…”
  207. >With the horses on his sides content in unmovingly cuddling the man, his eyes slid open and he craned his neck up to make eye contact with me
  208. >I promptly lowered my pistol, momentarily embarrassed that in my absentmindedness, its aim had drifted in his direction
  209. >With the horses making no movements beyond rubbing their heads against his torso, I tried to get a handle on the situation and the guy’s stability before I could run for help
  210. >“I’m alright… Can’t remember my name though… It’s Citrus… Citrus…”
  211. >His eyes slid shut again, a faint smile overtaking his face as he tried to recall his name amidst the waves of happiness overcoming him and the equines at his sides
  212. >I stifled a gasp as I studied his face, the oddly colored blood from his neck defying gravity as it steadily flowed upwards, consuming his cheek, the side of his nose, one of his eyes…
  213. >As I stepped in closer for a better look, a few pebbles wedged out from beneath my shoes, accompanied by a symphony of popping sounds
  214. >Pop… pop… pop… pop…
  215. >Strange, I’m surprised I’m not feeling all these pebbles slip out underfoot, especially when the ground’s so… packed…
  216. >I looked down and slowly realized that I was standing on a barren slab of concrete, the imagined pebbles resting untouched along its border
  217. >When my eyes shifted back to the man, a chill ran down my spine as the scarlet patches covering his face glistened with the unmistakable texture of fur in the moonlight
  218. >Oh fuck…
  219. >I stumbled a few steps backwards and raised my pistol with a shivering, white-knuckled grip as the situation set in that… he was becoming… one of… them…
  220. >My heartbeat accelerating, I struggled to keep the three glowing dots of my steel salvation aligned as I wiped a bead of cold sweat from my forehead
  221. >Through the tattered remnants of his shirt, the man’s fur-lined chest ballooned outwards into a proper horse’s barrel, shoulders rippling with muscle
  222. >As his arms rolled into a more equine positon, they snapped in place at the front of his body, a short twitch confirming their newly limited range
  223. >He didn’t have much freedom to swing punches at his furry captors anymore, but as his flattened teeth poked out through a gleeful smile, it was apparent he’d lost all will to do so
  224. >Amidst another round of sickening clicking and pops, one of his arms jerked clearly into view, bones reforming at the joints and elongating like putty
  225. >As fine hairs pushed out along his arm’s length toward his increasingly rigid hand, his wristwatch slid off and tumbled to the group before the fur had a chance to catch it
  226. >With fingers fusing - each sacrificing their individuality for the purpose of a limb more befitting horseshoes - the remnants of his hands angled outwards into the shape of a hoof
  227. >Keratin pushed out at the tips, the rounded hoof draped by a short fetlock of scarlet fur
  228. >Never again would he be able to pick up a knife, but why would he want to fight or run from members of his new species anyways?
  229. >His legs lurched to the front of his body, forming a right angle to the spine in a distinctly equine position as his thighs grew visibly thicker, jeans shuddering at each slight shift
  230. >A few threads gave way shortly before the entirety of the seams failed, the denim ripping with a resounding tear that echoed through the courtyard
  231. >His haunches, bathed in a soft scarlet hue, became exposed to the night air as a gentle breeze tickled the growing patches of fur
  232. >It must have felt exceptionally good even in the midst of the waves of pleasure, as a soft… feminine… giggle escaped into the night air around… her
  233. >Exploiting the lack of encumberment, her tail grew rapidly from the base of her spine, long amber strands waving as they draped over her legs
  234. >Her shoes and socks slid off unceremoniously as single units, a pair of tough hooves poking out where her feet had once been
  235. >The fur had already lay claim to every region of formerly pale skin along her face as her ears shifted and twitched into their new positions atop her head
  236. >A long, thick-stranded mane flowed from the top of her head, densely veiling half of her face, her nose widening into a petite, feminine muzzle
  237. >Her thick eyelashes lined her cartoonish eyes as they fluttered open, only one visible through the mane as her iris shifted from a dull grey to a stunningly brilliant shade of turquoise
  238. >Still held in a close embrace by her equine friends, the new member of the horses’ herd giggled over the orange Pegasus’ shoulder before rolling onto her back to face me
  239. >With hooves catching the moonlight as they hung in the air, her teeth glimmered and she shot me a smile
  240. >“That felt wonderful! Now your turn, lucky!”
  241. >Oh God, she’s a horse… I should have considered anything possible by that point but seeing the cheery words line up with her mouth movements cause my hairs to stand on end
  242. >My only audible response was the subtle reverberation of metal on metal as the pistol wavered in my trembling hands
  243. >I felt sick to my stomach; the only thing keeping me from dry-heaving on the spot was the fear of what would happen if I were to lose focus for even a moment
  244. >Two horses had been fast and nightmarishly terrifying when there were two of us fighting… Now it was just me taking on three of them… Fuck…
  245. >I prodded the side of the pistol with a free finger to check that the safety was still off, and to my momentary relief, it was
  246. >Deep down, I wanted to take the magazine out and check that I still had fifteen cartridges, even though I knew I should only need three
  247. >Or one, depending on how quickly these horses would be able to rush me
  248. >I knew my service weapon well, and simply from its weight I could usually get a rough estimate of how fully loaded it was, but this situation had a different gravity to it
  249. >Never in training did the pistol seem to carry so much weight; never before had I noticed its firmness yet how easily it slipped in my sweating palms
  250. >The three horses were slowly rising to their hooves, each standing about three feet tall as they eyed me warmly
  251. >Two sported closed smiles, while the Pegasus was studying me meticulously, walking directly into the beam emanating from my fallen flashlight as it stepped forward
  252. >I cautiously attempted to maintain a minimum distance between us, ceding the ground and flashlight as it shifted methodically in front of its friends
  253. >Its wings slowly flared outward against them – a feathery barrier holding them back from doing anything too rash – as she spoke up in a tranquil, pacifying voice
  254. >“Come now, you don’t want to be too hasty… That’s a really pretty gun you’ve got there… and it’d be such a shame if you were to use it against friendship, of all things…”
  255. >She didn’t even hesitate as the middle gunsight swayed into alignment with her forehead, the green dot framed by her stolid eyes as she stared down the barrel
  256. >Presenting an unflinching smirk synonymous with magicians watching their audience fall captive to trickery, she carefully looked over the pistol
  257. >“Looks like a Sig to me… beautiful, beautiful piece of work… solid construction… smooth action… gorgeous appearance… and I would imagine it’s a joy to shoot, yes?”
  258. >As she caressed me with her words I steadily calmed, only snapping back to remembering the magnitude of danger present when she posed the question
  259. >I realized that she had grown uncomfortably large in the background of my gaze, slowly closing the inches between us with well-calculated paces
  260. >I felt like a piece of prey in the view of an insurmountable predator, even as I was the one armed to fight…
  261. >All the horses really had was cuddles… And yet…
  262. >My heart raced, the orange Pegasus looming larger with each moment, easily overtaking me in apparent size thanks to the imposing shadows cast by her outstretched wings
  263. >Desperate to reestablish a piteous swath of territory as my security buffer, I stumbled a few steps backwards until my foot scraped against the wall of the courtyard
  264. >I barely even heard the scuffing of rubber as blood pounded in my ears, the corners of my vision beginning to exhibit the blurred and darkening characteristics of tunnel vision
  265. >The Pegasus had ceased her own advance, allowing me a moment’s study of the unyielding expressions of her and the horses to her side
  266. >One of my arms extended into my frame of view, service weapon trembling in a fraught grip as the other hand clutched for the brick wall
  267. >Maybe I’d find some way to scale this wall, maybe this vivid nightmare would end, maybe I’d just work up the courage to pull the damn trigger already! Come on!
  268. >I contemplated bringing the pistol closer to my chest or lowering it altogether so the horses would need to advance another foot or two before they could make physical contact
  269. >Considering how much good my threat was currently doing, it may not have been a crazy idea, if only preserving my humanity for another few milliseconds
  270. >“I asked you: it’s a joy to shoot, yes?”
  271. >I tried to grasp an answer from the sea of unorganized words racing through my frenzied mind, only to come up short in every effort
  272. >I sufficed with a slow nod of affirmation
  273. >“Yes, and yet… you haven’t fired a shot”
  274. >A bead of cold sweat rolled from my brow, the Pegasus staring me down with the asserting gaze of an attorney who already firmly knows the answers to her prompts
  275. >At the same time, her friendly smile didn’t show a hint of malice, nor fear as she made unwavering eye contact in lieu of acknowledging the pistol’s threat
  276. >I was practically a child’s rag doll at this point, already well within her grasp as she tossed me about
  277. >“You don’t have it in you to defend yourself like that; you’re an officer because you want to help – because you want to ‘protect and serve,’ as it goes…”
  278. >“You won’t bring it upon yourself to kill us when you know that we’re not hurting anyone…”
  279. >“On the contrary, friendship has made our lives so, so much better, and we want to show that to everypony…”
  280. >“In a way, you and I just want to make the world a better place, and that’s why you’re going to make such a wonderful friend…”
  281. >I barely registered the sight of her flapping wings silhouetted in the dim light as she fiercely lunged in my direction, her friends surging forward in the same flurry of motion
  282. >Acting on instinct, I dove for approximately where I hoped the alley’s entrance would be found, just ahead of the rush of air sweeping off her wings
  284. >I cleared the entryway clumsily, feet stumbling and shoulder smacking the brick wall in tandem with the uproar of excited hooves on clay just behind me
  285. >Without looking, I could ascertain that two horses were practically nipping at my heels while a third – the Pegasus – was clamoring upwards against the wall
  286. >Having missed on her first pounce, she’d pivoted skyward and was gaining altitude against the building’s side, each surge audibly marked by a rush of air
  287. >The alley was undoubtedly too narrow for her outstretched wings, but as the air support ascended, she knew I would be flushed out soon enough by the other two horses
  288. >Crumbling walls of neglected brick raced by as fast as I could run, wrought-iron barred windows denying me the slightest glimmer of salvation at every step
  289. >With my flashlight abandoned in the courtyard, the sole glow illuminating the urban canyon ahead was the paltry light of the moon framed by a twinkling sea of stars above
  290. >I rounded a corner and caught sight of the intersection I’d knew I’d inevitably be encountering, its various paths offering one of the few tangible choices I had tonight
  291. >The irregular rhythm of hoofsteps on the concrete behind led me to believe hooves weren’t negotiating the labyrinthine turns as well as the rubber soles beneath my feet
  292. >All the same, once out in the open, the horses wouldn’t have that problem, and the Pegasus would have a field day swooping down on her doomed prey – nowhere to hide
  293. >If I could radio for help I might succeed at holding out in one of the alleys against the two horses on my tail – maybe they wouldn’t be so brash without their feathery charismatic leader
  294. >Except that I didn’t have my radio… Well… I suppose I didn’t have much of a choice when all was said and done…
  295. >Rushing to the intersection, I tightly grasped a thick metal downspout – albeit a bit unsturdy as it shuddered and flaked rust into my hand – swinging through the turn into another alley
  296. >With the slipping of hooves growing slightly more distant as the horses struggled to negotiate the turn, I vaulted over a stack of firewood, praying this alley led to the main road
  297. >Rounding the corner of a dumpster, a softly glowing column of lamplight marked the exit I’d been seeking, the Pegasus still nowhere to be seen
  298. >Ducking under the low clearance of a row of scaffolding, it occurred to me that this alley would spit me out in plain view of the one guy I could trust: my partner in crime-fighting
  299. >Thankfully he’d be able to cover my approach, assuming he looked up from the scanner long enough to notice a lurid orange Pegasus… so that’s a ‘maybe’
  300. >With my path to the mouth of the alley unobstructed, I slowed just enough to tuck my service pistol securely into its holster by my side, freeing up my hands
  301. >Unconsciously, they tightened into fists, ready to swing at any equine assailant once they weren’t predisposed in counterbalancing my frantic sprinting
  302. >In the back of my mind, I feared feeling the bristle of Pegasus feathers the moment I cleared the alley, each step echoing in slow motion as the road loomed into view
  303. >With shoes reverberating against the concrete of the sidewalk… then the asphalt of the road… I kept up my frenetic pace even as I scanned my surroundings
  304. >The silhouette of the police cruiser was still resting in the shadows half a block away, bracketed by gently swaying bushes and the unobscured night sky, the Pegasus nowhere in sight
  305. >With blood pounding in my ears, and surging through my head & every straining muscle in my body, I gave all available effort to my final sprint
  306. >I couldn’t tell how well the horses were closing the distance in my wake, but the horrific thought of them catching me flashed distinctly through my mind
  307. >Of the Pegasus swiftly gliding into me or the other horses tackling me a few mere feet short of the cruiser…
  308. >Of my cries and pleading as I thrashed uselessly on the ground, my uniform torn to shreds as my once-human proportions started failing to accommodate it…
  309. >Of a set of gaudy pastel furry ears… muzzle… tail… all pushing out where human features had once resided, but resided no longer…
  310. >And worst of all, of the thought that as the horses atop me spread the accursed influence of their species, I’d find myself smiling about it when all was said and done…
  311. >That I would join their ranks and be excited to inflict the same fate on the innocent people I swore to protect when I graduated from the police academy…
  312. >As I lunged headlong to the side of the cruiser, I caught myself on the door handle, throwing it open with what little energy I had left before collapsing into the passenger seat
  313. >When the door apathetically bounced back, it swung shut with a soft thud, overwhelmed by the racket of my heavy breathing as I slumped exhaustedly over the dashboard
  314. >“Geez, ya see a ghost or somethin’?”
  315. >Through strained gasps, I pleaded for the security of our most solid line of defense
  316. “Lock… the doors… please!”
  317. >“What’s gotten into you? Are ya feelin’ alright, son?”
  318. >With a resounding click, the indicators on each of the cruiser’s locks flew forward to indicate their engagement, fortifying us inside our four-wheeled fortress
  319. >Still breathing deeply with raspy wheezes, I steadily raised my head and rested it against the backrest, my posture barely keeping up in the battle against exhaustion
  320. >As the cool night breeze whistled past the windows, a fine film of steam formed on the windshield, thickening with its own beat as it caught my weary exhales
  321. “They were right on my ass… I don’t know… where they are now...”
  322. >“Who was? I didn’t see anyone out ‘round here”
  323. >Hell, I’d bet my paycheck you never even bothered to look up from the scanner; of course you didn’t see anyone!
  324. “No, they were right behind me, I swear they-”
  325. >Narrowing my gaze beyond the front line where I’d expected our equine siege to commence, I caught the faint sights and sounds of hooves on concrete near the alley’s entrance
  326. >The red stallion casually stepped into the soft glow of a nearby streetlamp, closely followed by the similarly-colored mare who had been a doomed human only minutes earlier
  327. >They swiveled their heads about as their ears perked alertly, undoubtedly seeking their elusive prey, or the reassuring return of their sky-bound friend who remained unseen
  328. >In addition to the sweat that had been soaking into my shirt after my abrupt aerobics, a drop of nervous sweat rolled down my temple
  329. “Fuck, here we go… your pistol loaded?”
  330. >“Yeah, of course, but why… uh… wait a minute…”
  331. >His brow furrowed as he wrestled with the same bizarre reality I’d encountered earlier, the silence within the cruiser cut only by my steadily slowing breaths
  332. >“Call me crazy if ya’d like, but… do ya see those… little ‘ponies’ over there too?”
  333. “I do… all too well. That’s what I was trying to tell you about – we need to take care of them. Now.”
  334. >Though I was all business, my partner’s expression was a naïve mix of merriment and curious wonder, as a child would have upon seeing a lava lamp for the first time
  335. >“They’re positively adorable! Such a pretty, bright red color, the two of ‘em – didn’t know Chestnuts got that vibrant, but genetics do all kinda crazy stuff these days”
  336. >From somewhere near his feet, he produced an apple out of a brown paper bag, shining it deftly against his shirt before absentmindedly fidgeting with it between his hands
  337. >“Cute, those ponies look just like the ones outta the show my son used to watch on Saturday mornings. Y’know, he said he was… I think he called ‘em ‘bronies’”
  338. “Yeah, I can see why anyone would find those ponies cute, but trust me, we need to do something about the very real threat they pose to everyone in this town.”
  339. >“Now hold on, they aren’t doing anythin’ wrong…”
  340. >At first glance, even now I could have thought the same thing, but a certain experience on the back streets had taught me otherwise…
  341. “Well, let me tell you that you don’t want to be anywhere near them if you want to keep your sanity and individuality, because their whole existence is just a terrible menace”
  342. “They normalize everything they’re doing, from convincing you that ponies are the fucking salvation of humanity, to taking away your masculinity and making you think you’re enjoying it!”
  343. “And look at their appearance, God is it obnoxious and just utterly unnatural, I don’t understand wh-“
  344. >“Now hold up jus’ a fuckin’ second, ya arrogant bastard; let me get a few words off”
  345. >I took my gaze off the idle ponies half a block away to find my partner pointing an accusing finger at me half a foot away, his face tinged with annoyance
  346. >“I don’t know where punk-ass kids like you find the moral high ground to insult ‘bronies’ like that, but you got some fuckin’ nerve to do it right after I tell ya my son’s one of ‘em”
  347. “No, I wasn’t-“
  348. >“Course ya ‘weren’t’, you and all the other cowards givin’ him a hard time in middle school weren’t ever doing nothin’ but playin’ around, so your story always goes…”
  349. >“Ya go insulting these ‘bronies’ day in and day out when he’s just trying to watch this damn show that makes ‘im happy for a lil’ while – how sad ya gotta be to say things like that?”
  350. “I wasn’t talking about your son; I wasn’t even talking about bronies! I literally meant all that about the horses – those ponies standing out there – they are a serious, serious threat!”
  351. “Everything I said about them is utterly true – I saw it with my own eyes, and we have to stop THEM before they can do everything I’ve just been telling you about!”
  352. >“So… lemme get this straight: Those ponies out there are gonna, what, literally take away my masculinity and make me think I’m enjoyin’ it?”
  353. “Yeah! It… well when you put it… that way, they… You don’t… The ponies are going to turn YOU into a pony if you touch them – honest!”
  354. >He rubbed the bridge of his nose testily as he reached to unlock his door of the cruiser
  355. >“Your backpedalin’ after painting yourself into a corner is… interesting. It’s late – drink some water; lean your seat back and take a nap if you’re tired. I’ll return in a few minutes”
  356. >With the quiet, steadily pinging alarm heralding his departure, my partner pushed his door open as cool nighttime air flowed into the cruiser
  357. “Wait, where the fuck are you going?!”
  358. >“If the ponies don’t just run off, I’m going to offer ‘em my apple and make a friend! My boy’s gonna be thrilled to hear ‘bout it, I’m sure”
  359. >Before I could retort, he rose to his feet and slammed the car door behind him, shoes crunching on the crumbling asphalt as he began to walk up the road, apple in hand
  360. >Suddenly terrified, I shimmied my own door handle repeatedly before remembering it had been locked as well
  361. >Speedily resolving the hindrance and swinging it open, my partner had already progressed another several yards up the road, but I could still catch him well before he reached the ponies
  362. >I stepped out hastily, remaining off balance as I spun about and nudged the door closed, its latch shutting conclusively with a resonant click
  363. >“Psstt, what’re you trying to do?”
  364. >My unstable balance finally failed me as a sharp, hushed whisper spoke up from atop the cruiser
  365. >Even my impact with the ground seemed silent as every muscle in my body inflexibly tensed, vocal cords frozen with fear as it dawned on me that I recognized the whisper’s owner
  366. >With a slight twitch, her orange fur and feathers rippled in the scattered moonlight
  367. >Staring back at the car from a stupefied sitting position, my hands clenched into fists against the rough earth as they steeled themselves for becoming hooves
  368. >My legs were spread slightly, an unconscious cue to allow space for the tail to grow in when it came time for that
  369. >I watched the dim profile of the orange Pegasus’ wings flare outwards just before she launched herself with a weak hop, the cruiser’s suspension shuddering and bouncing slightly
  370. >Still paralyzed, I found myself playing the role of captive audience as she settled her hooves on the ground with a few casual wingflaps, directly between myself and the car
  371. >It was difficult to break eye contact with the Pegasus at my feet, but I spared a quick glance at my partner, who was now far up the road and within a few yards of the red ponies
  372. >He had taken a knee and was holding out the apple towards them, enticing them tenderly at eye level as though they weren’t the kind of animals to immediately tackle him with cuddles
  373. >“I’m honestly surprised you haven’t shouted out to him by now”
  374. “I… I-I-I-”
  375. >Not that it would have accomplished anything in terms of saving me; at this point, his first instinct upon seeing the Pegasus next to me certainly wouldn’t be ‘shoot it’
  376. >Even if I could form the thoughts I needed, an incessant knot in my throat made it difficult to speak
  377. >I breathed deeply, the Pegasus more than happy to remain patient as she grinned and leaned forward, resting against the soft fabric of my pants
  378. >“Take your time; you and I aren’t going anywhere…”
  379. “Please don’t do this, I’m begging you – you must have heard him while we were talking in there… please, he’s a father! You don’t want his kid to be an orphan, do you?”
  380. >She looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears
  381. >“Uh… Do you… do you actually know what an orphan is? Well, when all is said and done, I’m positive the colt’s father will be able to find him”
  382. >“Even after becoming ponies they just… have an instinct for finding their colts. Fathers are just like that, you know?”
  383. >I felt nauseous at the thought that the ponies were more than willing to go after innocent kids, with each reference to my partner’s son as a ‘colt’ sending a shiver down my spine
  384. “Please, just get the ponies over there to spare him… He doesn’t deserve this…”
  385. >I glanced over to see the red stallion taking small bites of his apple, still moments short of commencing the transformation
  386. “Take me instead! I’ll become a pony if that’s what it takes for you to leave him alone, please!”
  387. >Blood pounding in my ears, I stared pleadingly at the Pegasus as she tilted her head inattentively upwards, lost in thought
  388. >Slowly, she set a forehoof in motion and began walking along my side, her eyes turning to meet mine as she intently approached my desperate face
  389. >“What you’re presenting is definitely… really interesting, to say the least…”
  390. >“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone genuinely demonstrate such concern for a friend as you’re showing right now…”
  391. >During the time the Pegasus had been leaning against me earlier, I couldn’t help but notice a faint tingling sensation on the lower portion of my leg
  392. >I didn’t prioritize it at first, but as she walked alongside me, the feeling trailed with her, an undeniable urge to scratch faintly consuming me everywhere she touched
  393. >The tickling had spread along my leg and the side of my torso, flowing like the ink from a pen as she traced along my sleeve towards its edge
  394. >When she crossed over to the exposed skin of my upper arm and halted, the feeling overwhelmed me with comforting bliss, even as I knew I should be deeply unsettled by it all
  395. >Without looking, I felt soft pony fur push out where my bicep had once been barren, the forfeiture of my humanity occurring at a brisk rate as she drew small circles with her hoof
  396. >I didn’t lie to myself; I was slowly become just like her… a member of her herd
  397. >“I think that our herd will be very lucky to have a member like you… caring… looking out for others… not to mention, willing to accept the transformation, just like I was…”
  398. >“You’re already cut out to be our friend… You need to think of this as a reward for all you’ve done…”
  399. >Tenderly, she set a hoof on top of my head and brushed forward, a pleasant warming sensation accompanying the appearance of a light pink lock drooping into view
  400. >I found myself inhaling and exhaling deeply as I accepted the consequences of my deal with the snuggly devil
  401. >The Pegasus wrapped behind me and spoke warmly as she whispered into my ear, my skin bristling with soft fur as it gradually reshaped into a point
  402. >“Just relax for me, okay? You’re okay… You’ve earned this…”
  403. “And my partner… he’s still… totally human? There’s not a single pony hair on his body?”
  404. >I couldn’t see the Pegasus’ expression behind me, but I could sense her smile as she continued her work, toying with locks of hair as they swapped color to an unnatural shade of pink
  405. >“Ah, maybe at this exact moment, but he’ll be prancing around soon enough”
  406. “But you said… I thought we had agreed…”
  407. >“I’m sorry friend, but we’re not going to drag out inevitabilities. Everyone is worthy of friendship, and we’re going to show it to them, sooner rather than later…”
  408. >“I’m just lucky to have had the chance to show it to you, my feathery friend”
  409. >A dense fog clouded my thoughts as she caressed my back, a pair of small nubs starting to push out, the bony lumps bumping lightly against the hard keratin of her hoof on each pass
  410. >She traced her hoof along my other arm and new fur sprouted, waves of bliss washing over me as I struggled to keep a grip on my drifting focus
  411. >As my head rolled to face my partner up the road, my eyes went wide, mental blurriness suddenly sharpening as I realized his peril
  412. >Having finished the apple, the stallion presented him a look of gratitude, while the mare was excitedly primed for action in a blind spot
  413. >Swiftly, she gripped his shirt and cleanly tore it away in a single fluid motion, the stallion capitalizing on the open range of exposed skin by pouncing
  414. >The mare seemingly joined in before the cuddle pile even reached the ground, a wave of light grey beginning to spread in the flurry of flailing fur
  415. >No… please… not him too…
  416. >I rolled forward toward the cruiser and shifted to my feet, the Pegasus momentarily stumbling as her basis of support shifted away
  417. >“Hey, we weren’t done cuddling! Where are you going?!”
  418. >Lunging for the car door, my fingers stiffly wrapped around the handle, my entire hand cramping unnaturally as I threw the door open and dove inside
  419. >She barely even had time to move before I slammed the door shut, hastily jamming the lock button in the blink of an eye
  420. >After bumping into the side of the car, she leaped onto the hood, glaring at me through the windshield with a twinge of enmity
  421. >“Wait. Here.”
  422. >Her wings flexed outward with a snap, a pair of forceful flaps launching her toward the rest of her herd
  423. >Having learned to take her words for what they’re worth – which is to say, not much – I immediately reached for the ignition, only to find the key missing
  424. >After a harsh, ill-tempered series of curses and hits to the dashboard, I exhaled deeply and resigned myself to helplessly watching the lamplit horror playing out just up the road
  425. >The orange Pegasus glided in front of the scene and skipped to a stop, obscuring slightly less of my view upon tucking her wings to her sides
  426. >Hesitating only momentarily, she planted her hooves and clamped her teeth around my partner’s pants, testing them with a quick experimental tug
  427. >In a single swift yank, they slid off with ease, his shoes having already fallen away moments earlier, revealing a pair of mostly-pony legs that hardly fit the pants anyways
  428. >I couldn’t see his expression amidst the rest of the ponies, but he was perceptibly mellowing as the movement of the squabble slowed, save for the calm rise and fall of each pony’s barrel
  429. >A couple of equine legs twitched in plain view, each now bathed in a thick coat of grey pony fur, and capped with a hard hoof that bounced shimmers of lamplight
  430. >Rapidly, a short tail of vibrant blue strands swayed into view, draped haphazardly across the asphalt
  431. >The orange Pegasus carried the former human’s pants to the side, dragging them along the asphalt as she laid them out carefully
  432. >Probing into one of the pockets with her muzzle, she drew back after a moment with a glinting silver object, though I couldn’t discern exactly what she held between her teeth
  433. >Meanwhile, the three individual members of the cuddle pile rose to their hooves at their own paces
  434. >The last to stand was the new grey stallion, unsteadily wavering on his hooves as he brushed an ill-fitting wristwatch from his foreleg
  435. >Stretching his muscles in an assortment of dynamic poses, he almost knocked one of his new herd members to the side as his wings flared outwards
  436. >The orange Pegasus studied her new friend’s feathers closely, noticing that they were obviously in need of a good preening after having been pressed to the ground
  437. >But that could wait… There were other, more pressing matters to attend to…
  438. >With an inaudible motion of encouragement from their feathery leader, the group of ponies turned toward the cruiser and began a casual, shambling walk, each sporting their own grin
  439. >The red stallion and ponies whose transformations I’d witnessed were smiling subtly, some crookedly, and some with a half-hearted display of teeth
  440. >The orange Pegasus’ smile was absolutely vile, teeth bared in an unnerving expression of foregone victory as the silver object remained firmly clamped in her grasp
  441. >Narrowing my eyes and trying to sway with the bouncing of her gait, I recognized the object as something I’d already become well-acquainted with, years and years ago
  442. >The police cruiser’s key…
  443. >For a moment, I considered my chances if I were to make a run for it – I could find another alley to hide in or break into a vacant shop and set up a makeshift barricade
  444. >But reconsidering the odds, I realized just how hopeless it’d be, especially now in a situation of… four… against just me
  445. >That wasn’t taking into consideration the fact that two of them could fly - even if one hadn’t quite earned his stripes yet, he was no less terrifying than any no-frills pony
  446. >But I didn’t have any other plan! What the hell were my options supposed to be here? I didn’t have the mental fortitude to pull a trigger, if only I hadn’t left my radio in the-
  447. >Oh shit, my radio, it’s here with me in the cruiser!
  448. >As the ponies calmly surrounded the car, my hand dove for the dark shadows at the foot of my seat, desperately shaking as I tried to come up with the one device that promised salvation
  449. >Somewhere in the darkness engulfing the floor, my hand met coarse plastic, a familiar feeling that prompted me to clutch my target tightly, drawing it up into the dim light filling the interior
  450. >Just outside the driver’s side door, I could see the animated twitches of orange pony ears poking up from the edge of the window
  451. >The driver’s side door echoed with a hair-raising scratch of metal on metal, undoubtedly from the clumsy Pegasus’ attempt to guide the key into the lock using her muzzle
  452. >With a grinding noise, it slid into the lock and engaged the tumblers, the lock popping free with a resonant click
  453. >I jammed the large button on the side of the radio, inhaling deeply and praying that it was on a relevant channel of someone who would hear & respond
  454. “All units, my location, NOW!”
  455. >The driver’s side door of the cruiser popped open a narrow crack, as an uncontrollable shiver caused me to flinch and drop the radio
  456. >It was enough to see a sliver of the orange Pegasus’ self-assured grin as she yanked at the handle resting between her teeth
  458. >Relinquishing the radio to the shadows of the cruiser’s floor, I swung my feet over the center console, striking a blow to the computer that had belonged to my partner… once…
  459. >The laptop’s thick case took it well, but the brackets holding it snapped pitifully, the whole assembly tumbling to the floor and allowing my feet to rest unimpeded on the driver’s seat
  460. >With the door gradually creaking open in the feeble grasp of the orange Pegasus’ muzzle, I shifted my position, aimed, and kicked towards the center of the door as hard as I could
  461. >My sole met at high speed with a loud thump and a sickening crack, the sudden impulse flinging it wide open as the Pegasus behind crumpled backwards, her ears dropping from view
  462. >Rolling into the driver’s seat, I quickly peeked my head out the door in search of the remainder of the furry horde, my gaze meeting the indigo eyes of my former partner near the car’s rear
  463. >He was frozen, stunned by the sudden assault on his friend in what should have otherwise been a simple task – ‘just open the door and hug the unfriendly man inside’
  464. >Beneath the door’s bottom edge, I couldn’t see anything more than one of the Pegasus mare’s twitching hindlegs and some errant strands of tail hair, though I didn’t dwell on her fate
  465. >She was the source of half of this mess, and had gone back on her word when I was willing to lay my own humanity down to save someone else!
  466. >Even if the retraction of her hoof towards her body was a precedence of curling up to die, I didn’t feel like…
  467. >Well, okay, I didn’t want her to die of course; that was a bit extreme…
  468. >At the very least, her creepy infecting days might be over, which was exactly what I wanted from her and all the other ponies!
  469. >A din of hooves clacking all around the cruiser rose up as her three friends hurried to investigate the fallen comrade, but I didn’t pay them any attention
  470. >Focusing on escaping the persisting danger that they actively posed, I swiftly reached around the door and removed the key still residing there
  471. >Slamming the door shut, I swiped at the lock to reestablish confidence in my automotive fortress, praying that it would double as an escape vehicle
  472. >The key slid into the ignition, and with a twist, the engine revved out a choked melody in stubborn refusal to start, each turn of the key enticingly elevating my hopes before failing
  473. >Come on, come on you bucket of bolts…
  474. >Focused intently on my white-knuckled grip around the key, I didn’t notice the shadows shifting outside until the clamor of hooves on the car’s hood caught my attention
  475. >With a cold chill running down my spine, I found myself staring face-to-face at the gritted teeth of the orange Pegasus
  476. >She breathed deeply, head lowered with blood streaming from her nostrils, dripping onto the windshield in a steadily pitter-pattering rhythm
  477. >“I’ve been trying to make this crystal clear: becoming a pony was the best thing to ever happen to me – to us – and we’re working so, so hard to share this gift with everyone”
  478. >“But you, possibly the most morally sound of all people I’ve had the pleasure to meet, are the one who keeps standing in our way – We’d THOUGHT you were a good person!”
  479. >She paused, the momentary silence punctuated by another clash of keratin on metal as the scarlet mare leaped to join her on the hood of the cruiser
  480. >“This. Ends. Now.”
  481. >Suddenly, the Pegasus spun around on her forehooves, aligned her hind legs with the windshield, tipped forward, and bucked downwards with all her might
  482. >A deafening crunch accompanied her direct hit, my eyes unconsciously flinching shut as they were peppered by fine pieces of glass ejected from the windshield
  483. >With little delay, I winced again upon hearing a second hit resonate from the area near where the scarlet mare been standing
  484. >Opening my eyes narrowly, I saw the distorted refractions of the tensing ponies through the cracked glass, which despite its damage had remained unbreached
  485. >Two pairs of hoof-shaped marks full of obliterated glass were visible on what had once been a dutifully polished windshield, a web of cracks snaking outwards from the impact points
  486. >Tall tales at the station had left me unconvinced that the laminated window would stop a bullet, but the thin plastic film was evidently strong enough to catch a volley equine kicks
  487. >As the cruiser’s suspension lurched forward with the shifting mares, I raised my arms and flinched in preparation for another onslaught
  488. >All four hind hooves crashed into the glass at the same moment, a massive crack making itself apparent between the impacts, as the weakening glass shuddered and bounced noticeably
  489. >With my confidence rapidly waning in the millimeter of plastic standing between myself and ponydom, I raised one arm over my face and set the other to work on turning the key
  490. >Come on you gas-guzzling bastard, after all the work the mechanics did every day to keep you in tip-top shape!
  491. >The engine revved for slightly longer, but nonetheless sputtered, another coordinated crash of hooves echoing through the interior as nickel-sized pieces of coated glass fell into my lap
  492. >Come on, come on! Start, damn it!
  493. >I didn’t look up, desperately turning the key again as hooves danced audibly on the car’s hood in preparation for another strike, the windshield sagging and shrouded with cracks
  494. >With the key torqued commandingly, the engine sputtered out its familiar song for a few moments before finally turning over, its triumphant purr rising in pitch as it roared to life
  495. >No sooner had I withdrawn my hand from the steering column than I suffered through another cacophony of crashes and the twinkling of CD-sized shards of glass in my lap
  496. >Throwing the cruiser into reverse, I almost failed to notice the hoof protruding several inches into the car’s interior, the orange fur and sharp glass around it doused in blood
  497. >I jammed my foot on the gas pedal, tires squealing briefly as the cruiser began to accelerate backwards
  498. >The scarlet mare’s face quickly changed to one of frightened surprise as her hooves slipped on the smooth metal of the hood, a short jig preceding her gentle tumble off the front
  499. >The Pegasus, on the other hand, wasn’t so fortunate as her mane began to flutter in the increasingly lively night wind, her hoof still caught on the tight opening in the windshield
  500. >Amidst the bellowing engine, she twisted her spine to face me, sporting a resolute expression that silently said ‘you’re not getting away – not from me’
  501. >She yelped as the cruiser bumped a few inches over a curb, piercing shards of glass undoubtedly driving into her vulnerable flesh as a drop of blood rolled down the windshield
  502. >With the glow of streetlamps rolling by faster and faster, I errantly glanced back at whatever the hell we were hurtling towards, quickly acquiring the row of shops looming into view
  503. >They ran perpendicular at the end of the road, an unbroken wall of storefronts and uninspiring blocky windows, each segment painted its own pastel color and crowned with an ugly cornice
  504. >It was gradually easier to resolve the flowerboxes adorning some windows, and while we weren’t exactly hitting the speed limit in reverse, the hundred yard gap was quickly evaporating
  505. >The Pegasus seemed to have seen the buildings as well, for when I turned to face her again, she remained determined, but with tears welling up at the corners of her eyes
  506. >The cruiser hit another curb, shaking another drop of blood and a tear free as the Pegasus cried out again
  507. >Little pony, I’m probably going to hit these buildings at this rate, but I am NOT going to let you gore yourself on this window just to prove a point!
  508. >Releasing my foot from the gas pedal, I steadied the steering wheel with one hand and gripped the protruding base of her hoof with the other
  509. >Hurriedly finagling it to find the path of least resistance against the glass, I gave her a solid shove before she even had time to fully register what I was doing
  510. >With wide, startled eyes, her hooves skipped across the car’s hood, Pegasus instincts taking over as her wings shot outwards, catching the air while she began to sail skywards
  511. >My head swiveled around just in time to see the shops swallowing my view, but with no time to do much else
  512. >I was thrown in my seat as the cruiser’s suspension jerked through the roadside curb, garbage cans, bushes, and the front of a tiny parking lot
  513. >With my foot floating unreachably over the brake, I yanked the steering wheel to the side, but all it did was spare one shop at the expense of another as the cruiser hurtled backwards
  514. >Any folks in town who know their local history will tell you that Johnnyboy’s Liquors has been consistently in business for well over a century – even through Prohibition as a drugstore
  515. >Worthy of note, during World War I the owner personally gifted General Pershing a bottle of whiskey that he shared with English commanders upon arriving at the Western Front
  516. >The front & interior of Johnnyboy’s Liquors had been rebuilt entirely after the fire of 1953, renovated about once a decade since, and even now sported a clean coat of fresh white paint
  517. >…and it took less than two seconds for my cruiser to crash through the windows and door, demolish the front counter and shelves, and destroy thousands of dollars’ worth of alcohol
  518. >Folding the deflating airbag out of the way, I popped my door open and rolled out, sliding onto the wine-soaked tile floor with a distinct lack of grace
  519. >My ears were ringing, my head was throbbing, blood flowed steadily from a cut on my shoulder, and the hand that had been in contact with the Pegasus had gone numb
  520. >Glancing at its splayed form resting on the ground, I waited for my double vision to recede before concluding that a total of three fingernails had taken on an alien shade of blue
  521. >It was hauntingly beautiful, the early manifestation of hooves visually complementing the fur on my arm nicely, though as the sensation of touch returned, my hand was very stiff
  522. >Flexing the fingers slowly, they still moved difficultly as individual units, but the comparative ease with which they moved together presented a starkly equine symptom
  523. >As my other muscles recovered from the shock, I clutched a broken shelf and hoisted myself to my feet, making a halfhearted effort to brush away the shards of glass plunged into my arm
  524. >My hearing returned just in time to make out my own cries of pain amidst the klaxon of the burglary alarm
  525. “Ow, God! Fuck, FUCK! Ahhhh, son of a bitch!”
  526. >This was a harsh reminder that a plethora of open wounds didn’t mix smoothly with an alcohol soak – at least I’d be safe from 99.99% of infections…
  527. >As my focus promptly returned to the aggressive infection in the 0.01% which I feared the most, I glanced at the gaping hole in the storefront opened by the cruiser
  528. >Water sputtered from a broken pipe and a thin veil of dust masked a bit of the world beyond, but as steady wind currents drifted through the store, clearly not much stood in the ponies’ way
  529. >The pair of Pegasi were systematically weaving through the sky, and a nearing rhythm of hoofsteps in the parking lot renewed the adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream
  530. >Frantically scanning for an escape route, I spied a sturdy metal door at the back of the store, its slightly tarnished façade ornamented by a pair of Jäger ads
  531. >“Looks like you spilled a whole bunch of perfectly good drinks, friend!”
  532. >Vaulting over a rudimentary barrier of beer cases, I lunged for the metal door’s handle, praising God that it hadn’t been locked as the latch responded with a click and flew open
  533. >With the light switch not immediately in sight, I slammed the door closed with all the force in my torso and laboriously struggled to lock its knob & deadbolt in the darkness
  534. >Where the hell was that light switch? I sure hope it wasn’t outside the room; I didn’t see one there…
  535. >All I’d seen in my briefly illuminated glimpse were innumerable cases of booze framed by the unfinished cinder blocks of a small storage room
  536. >Beers, wines, a wide selection of spirits… I could seriously use a drink right now, but it was far too difficult to relax in my current situation
  537. >Instead, I fully committed myself to tracing my sweaty palms along the rough walls in the darkness
  538. >There had to be something here - even if I couldn’t find a light switch, there might be another door leading out… or… come to think of it… leading in…
  539. >Through the wall, I could hear the tinny echoes of numerous sets of hooves on tile, the ponies congregating just beyond the door
  540. >“You’re sure he went in there - in this storage room?”
  541. >A few firm, metallic taps were discernable against the door, followed by a halfhearted kick by that couldn’t induce either of the door’s locks to audibly flinch, let alone fail
  542. >“Yeah, but there’s no way we can get to him through these walls; I’m not even going to bother!”
  543. >I felt a wave of relief as the latter exclamation sang out like music to my ears
  544. >Breathing a forceful exhale, I leaned my hand against the wall and relaxed my muscles, hands gradually shaking away their anxiety
  545. >It had been a long night, and ending it locked in a room with literal gallons of beer was… the last way I’d expected it to end
  546. >Shit, I didn’t deserve this…
  547. >Pretty much as a direct result of my actions – and inactions – two people were now ponies, one of them being a citizen I’d sworn to protect, the other being my own partner
  548. >I couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d made the right call by never pulling the trigger when I had the chance to, even when I was backed into a corner
  549. >If I’d had valor when I needed it, the orange Pegasus and the red stallion would have been the end of it, instead of the four ponies now here
  550. >I blew a lock of mane out of my face, silently cursing myself that it was more like four and a half ponies after what the orange Pegasus did to me
  551. >I guess the question becomes what’ll happen to them when other authorities arrive on the scene…
  552. >Will they be treated as a job to be dealt with by armed police, or just animal control?
  553. >God, I hope it’s the latter…
  554. >I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing I’d effectively killed my partner without firing a bullet – hell, more like BECAUSE I didn’t fire any bullets…
  555. >Drawing the pistol from the holster’s curves amid the darkness, I studied the gliding of smooth metal as I removed the magazine, still just as heavy as when I’d loaded it this afternoon
  556. >Quickly disinterested, I reassembled the gun a moment later and dropped it back into the holster, finding it strangely more comfortable there than when it had been in my hand
  557. >Sighing, I resigned myself to the noble task of getting plastered, preferably until sleep would take me
  558. >The authorities outside would deal with the snuggly group far better than I had, and by morning when the store owners broke me out of here, everything will have calmed down
  559. >I gave up on finding any light switch and couldn’t remember seeing any good booze on the way in, but as my eyes adjusted, their focus settled on a bottle of rum resting on the floor
  560. >Cheers…
  561. >Reaching for it in the darkness, I raised it to eye level and surveyed its label for telling characteristics about its quality, and more importantly, its alcohol content
  562. >O…S, R… Original Spiced Rum… Original Spiced Rum, crafted and distilled with the finest of Caribbea-
  563. “What the hell…”
  564. >Just a moment ago, the label had been practically unreadable in the dark room, its cinder block walls impermeable to visible light
  565. >Rapidly, the bottle had begun to glow, lines and edges on its label sharpening and becoming brilliantly legible as the golden liquid inside faintly glistened
  566. >For a split second, I noticed the light wasn’t limited to the bottle in my hand, the entire room glowing brightly amid a buzzing noise, before the darkness snapped back
  567. >Did one of the ponies try to turn on the lights from outside the room and blow a bulb?
  568. >As night reigned again, I raised the bottle’s label to within inches of my eye, but with my newfound inability to discern even the large, bold lettering, I uneasily set it on the floor
  569. >The silence was oppressive, as even the ponies outside the storage room door had apparently left me in quiet solitude to listen to little more than the rhythm of my own heartbeat
  570. >Thump… thump… thumpthump… thumpthump…
  571. >A drop of sweat rolled down my cheek as I realized a second heartbeat was with me… somewhere in the darkness
  572. >“Hello, friend…”
  573. >Frozen in fear, I couldn’t properly respond as my knees shivered and gave out, falling to a seated position in a small alcove between a stack of cardboard boxes and… something else
  574. >Something… softer…
  575. >My mind raced as the unmistakable plodding of sinister hoofsteps clicked in the darkness toward the opposite side of the cramped room
  576. >Faintly, but still casting enough light for her to be seen, the horn of a white unicorn pony began to glow insidiously near the far wall
  577. >She was smiling warmly, confidently, her delicate eyelashes fluttering each time her cartoonish eyes blinked
  578. >“It means a lot to me that you didn’t use your ‘magic’ against my friends; you’re a good person…”
  579. >Without conscious thought, I frantically moved to draw my service weapon, only to feel my hand swipe uselessly against the holster a few times
  580. >“…and I know you’re going to make a great Pegasus”
  581. >Seeking the source of the hindrance, I looked down to find my arm fully coated in dense blue fur, fingers fused together as the equine hoof knocked uselessly against the holster
  582. >I winced in my sore efforts to raise it for closer inspection, promptly noticing that my mobility had drastically declined
  583. >The arm was most comfortable directly in front of my body, and generally refused my commands, swinging useless at the air
  584. >It wouldn’t be able to dexterously open the deadbolt and knob if I were to get myself out of here, and my other arm didn’t inspire considerably more confidence
  585. >The other arm clicked and cramped painfully as I tried to reach for the holster across my body, coming up just a few woeful inches short – so close, yet so far…
  586. >“Ah, a gift for me?”
  587. >With a new glimmer of bright light enveloping the side of my hip, the pistol began to animatedly shift inside the holster, seemingly of its own volition
  588. >I tried to roll my body and swung my hoof ineffectively as the weapon began to float through the air, its form loosely wrapped in a glowing aura that matched the unicorn’s horn
  589. >Levitating the weapon across the room, she held it in a telekinetic grip in front of herself, deftly admiring the shimmering reflection of its silvery components
  590. >To my surprise, she recognized the risks of arbitrarily pointing the muzzle, aiming it downwards and away from each of us while she inspected it
  591. >“My name’s Daisy by the way”
  592. >Please Daisy… please give me my pistol back when you’re done looking at it…
  593. >I wanted to verbally ask her if she’d be so kind as to return it, but as my body shook with immobilizing dread, I knew that wasn’t going to be possible in my current state
  594. >And forget about fighting for it when my arms… forelegs… wouldn’t be able to throw punches anyways
  595. >An unpleasant metallic rattling echoed through the cramped room, and for a moment, I feared Daisy was about to hit the trigger and lodge a bullet into one of the beer cases in the corner
  596. >Instead, she released the magazine, negligently letting it tumble to the floor, and pulled back the slide, ejecting a cartridge that likewise fell carelessly downwards
  597. >Trying to untangle the knot in my throat, I coughed and breathed in forcefully
  598. “D-Daisy, I-I-I think you… broke it… Let me see those pieces… please”
  599. >She tilted her head towards me and gave an incredulous smirk, angling the empty pistol so I could see its profile clearly in the soft glow radiating from her horn
  600. >“Clementine Breeze told me about these on our walk into town. I knew NOTHING about these a couple hours ago and can tell you they’re supposed to do that; what’s your excuse?”
  601. >Apathetically tossing the pistol a couple feet into the air, she let it drop with a resonant clang that prompted me to flinch and Daisy’s ears to briefly flatten against her head
  602. >Carefully orchestrating every aspect of the show she was putting on, she levitated the loaded magazine into plain view for me to watch
  603. >“Now, I think these hold somewhere around a fifteen rounds, right?”
  604. >The removal of a cartridge from the magazine was announced by audible sliding of metal against metal, followed by a sharp plinking as the unfired cartridge came to rest on the ground
  605. >“Well, that makes two!”
  606. “Daisy, please give me my pistol and magazine back”
  607. >Plink…
  608. >“Threeeee…”
  609. “Please, I’m serious!”
  610. >Plink…
  611. >“Four…”
  612. >This was about much more than her simply getting dust on the equipment I’d worked so hard to keep polished and maintained for years, and we both knew it
  613. >This was about her methodically taking away the last means I truly had of fighting back, one agonizing step at a time
  614. >Even if I hadn’t been someone to take the shot in any situation before, she was fully aware what the simple presence of the loaded firearm symbolized
  615. >It made for a playing field where there would be consequences if she really went too far… Without it, nothing was out of bounds…
  616. “Daisy, I really don’t feel comfortable with this! Please! I promise I wouldn’t hurt you!”
  617. >Plink…
  618. >“It’s for both of our safeties… just relax… I want to show you that you can trust me… can you do that… for me?”
  619. >I wanted to… I desperately wanted to… I hardly had a choice… but while her eyes continually failed to unmask what I suspected were her true emotions, how could I?
  620. “Daisy, please, this is stealing… You stole that pistol from me. Good friends don’t steal from each other!”
  621. >“Maybe from your perspective, but it’s not going anywhere; I’m just borrowing this for a bit”
  622. >Plink…
  623. >“Six…”
  624. >I couldn’t bear this a moment longer
  625. >With muscles twitching and heart racing, I shifted forward onto the balls of my feet and desperately tried to dive forward, instead falling to the floor violently as my feet snagged
  626. >Glancing back at them, I found my feet engulfed in a bright glowing aura, radiant light spilling onto my lower legs and the surrounding floor
  627. >Attempting to thrash my legs, even after throwing the rest of my body into it, made a lot of noise against the nearby cardboard boxes but failed to move my feet even an inch
  628. >As a few lonely cans of beer tumbled to the floor, I found my movements gradually relaxing in a dejected mix of fatigue and failure
  629. >I reached out weakly with my hand, silently praying that it would somehow reach my equine dominator and the magazine she held
  630. >Plink…
  631. >“Seven…”
  632. >Our eyes became fixed as they met each other’s with a stark contrast of emotion
  633. >Naturally, I couldn’t see my own eyes in the absence of a mirror, but even if I had one it would’ve been hard to see my terrified appearance through the tears rapidly welling up
  634. >Hers were filled with an unexpectedly friendly coziness, the expressive equivalent of returning home to a crackling fire on a cold winter night
  635. >Plink…
  636. >“Eight…”
  637. >But as warm & welcoming as fires can be, they can also burn you badly if you’re not careful…
  638. >Plink…
  639. >“Nine…”
  640. >I sniffled as a tear rolled down my cheek, the realization dawning on me that if Daisy wanted, this could be the last thing I’d ever see
  641. >Or maybe the last thing I’d see would be the inside of a blindfold before starting life as a broodmare for a half-dozen Pegasus foals…
  642. >Or maybe an anesthetic mask and the harsh fluorescent lights lining the surgical room in an off-the-books government facility…
  643. >There was no way I could know or even imagine what was on the other side…
  644. “Daisy… please… I’m scared for what’s to come… it’s just you and me here right now… please… please… I can trust you, can’t I?”
  645. >She nodded her approval slowly, almost imperceptibly, as she bore the slightest trace of a lopsided smile
  646. >“Of course you can… little pony”
  647. >Plink… Plink… Plink…
  648. >As I silently counted the final cartridges of the fifteen-round magazine, Daisy’s horn gradually dimmed, her need for light and telekinetic force slowly dissipating
  649. >Plink… Plink… Plink…
  650. >When the last round fell, my body tensed up and my heart raced as the last of the room’s light faded away, becoming darker, more sinister, than I’d ever remembered it
  652. >With my reddened eyes still letting free a steady stream of tears, it took a lot of willpower not to totally break down and shout for someone to save me
  653. >My family, my friends, the shadow of my partner from when he still walked on two legs, hell, I even considered calling out to Daisy despite the fact that she was right here with me
  654. >After resigning myself to the idea that my ponification must be inevitable at this point, I was ready to get it over with, and her hesitation to do so was increasingly concerning
  655. >Daisy, what else was there for you to do? You ponies took the others’ minds and bodies in the span of seconds; how was I any different?
  656. >The overall tranquility of the dark storage room was broken by intermittent hoofsteps as she paced about in brief bouts, glass clinking against her hooves with each unseen bump
  657. >Each clink seemed to come from somewhere vastly different, a product of Daisy’s movement combined with the confusing echoes in the room, the auditory equivalent to a house of mirrors
  658. >For as active and curious as she was while wandering, I matched her in motionlessness and fear
  659. >Whenever something’s not quite right, when a jungle shadow or color amidst the bushes is out of place, many animals’ instinctive reaction is to duck down so they’ll be missed by predators
  660. >As I laid on the ground, the far-reaching optimistic corner of my brain – the one that plays the lottery – hoped Daisy had simply forgotten about me
  661. >It worked for a few hopeful seconds, but as her voice spoke into the darkness, I despondently released a breath I hadn’t even realize I’d been holding
  662. >“Watch your eyes; I’m going to light up my horn again”
  663. >I propped myself up on my elbows, and through narrowed eyes I saw a brilliant shimmer burning in the room for a split second
  664. >It quickly tempered itself back to the dull glow with which I was familiar, centered on Daisy’s horn
  665. >Daisy was at the opposite side of the room, muzzle buried in a cardboard box of unopened bottles as she carefully inspected the contents of each
  666. >My kneejerk reaction was to offer assistance, but every moment she kept searching was another moment I got to live my comparatively happy life with mind and masculinity intact
  667. >The questions that had been bubbling up finally breached the surface as I did my best to stall, but also to determine what was ahead for me
  668. “Daisy… am… am I going to lose sight of… me?”
  669. >She withdrew her muzzle from the box, perplexed eyes squinting as she waited for clearer elaboration
  670. “Will I remember the person I was before becoming a pony, that is… The scarlet mare I saw transforming took on a completely new mentality…”
  671. “I’m guessing you were once a human too; what do you remember?”
  672. >Inhaling deeply, she absentmindedly clicked her jaw, lost deep in thought for a moment
  673. >“Well, I don’t actually remember much; it’s different for everypony based on how much of their past selves they’re trying to escape”
  674. >“Truth be told, I was probably some sort of career criminal or something - there were entire YEARS where I can only remember a few blissful days”
  675. >My heart sank, her lighthearted smile and snicker doing nothing to stop the color draining from my face
  676. >“I don’t know… believe me, THOSE days are all behind me!”
  677. >Perfect, you know who career criminals absolutely love to no end, and they definitely care about their well-being? Cops.
  678. >As I moved my restlessly trembling leg against the floor to find a more comfortable laying position, I was reminded of the vacant holster and equipment belt still clasped tightly in place
  679. >Come on Daisy, this may be police equipment, but… cut me some slack… please… I wasn’t technically a cop… an on-duty one… when I stood up against the orange Pegasus and all her friends…
  680. >Please, I spend most of my days writing pointless tickets… If there are any cops that wronged you before… that didn’t give YOU any slack… I’m not like them, please understand that!
  681. >You have no reason to be upset with me… I was just acting in self-defense… Please don’t be upset… Please…
  682. >Pushing myself into a position in which I could see Daisy more clearly, I straightened up against a wall next to a tall stack of 30-packs and sat on my feet
  683. >My shins ached painfully, in part due to the unforgiving solidness of the ground, though I was well aware that any transformational effects in my legs didn’t help
  684. >Finding the position all too appropriate for doing so, I kept my eyes open but lowered my head & tried to silently recall as much of the Lord’s Prayer as I could
  685. >Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name…
  686. >For someone whose parents gave up on Sunday school after my three months of insurrection, I think I got through it accurately enough before Daisy’s soft exclamation of victory interrupted me
  687. >Grinning to herself, she’d found the bottle for which she’d been searching, its telekinetic retrieval heralded by glass sliding against cardboard and a faint shimmering noise
  688. >Setting it carefully next to the opposite wall of the cramped storage room, her horn sparingly cast light on a few objects, generally doing so only when she gripped them in her telekinetic aura
  689. >The minimal use of light made it difficult to ascertain the reason why the bottle had caught her interest, enough to distract her from the present task of giving me hooves, wings, and a tail
  690. >A coffee mug adorned with a faded Johnnyboy’s Liquors logo floated across the room and gently found its place next to the bottle
  691. >Next to the unicorn’s furry silhouette, the bottle rose into the air, its cap snapped and twisted off with a disquieting metallic grinding, and a clear liquid began to flow from its spout into the mug
  692. >Accompanied by a steadily rising pitch of trickling spirits, the mug filled with what I’d presumed to be vodka before Daisy recapped the bottle
  693. >“This’ll help you – drink up”
  694. >Keeping the bottle for herself and levitating the mug to my trembling knees, she set it directly in front of me before the glow of her horn faded away, once again plunging us into darkness
  695. >I clutched the mug’s handle slowly, raising it to my nose and futilely attempting to waft the liquid’s smell into my nostrils
  696. >Taking a dip with my tongue brought the familiar punch of alcohol – definitely vodka – but the ease with which my tongue reached the liquid’s surface made me realize just how full the mug was
  697. >I’d thought the mug was just really dense ceramic, but there must’ve been… five, six shots worth of vodka in this? Maybe eight?
  698. >I took a small sip and set the mug down, reticently thankful that Daisy appreciated human affinity for getting just a bit tipsy before traumatic events, be it war, business, or turning into a pony
  699. “That’s… actually really good stuff – any reason you poured out so much?”
  700. >“Did you not drink it all?”
  701. “N-no… I don’t know why you’d wa-”
  702. >“Drink it up – all of it”
  703. >I chuckled nervously while cautiously swirling the mug in the darkness, doing my best not to accidentally spill what was obviously some pretty expensive booze
  704. >I seemed to recall horses could process alcohol really efficiently… Maybe she just figured I should enjoy getting a bit tipsy while I still had the chance?
  705. >Maybe she knew there was something about me in particular that was going to make the transformation unpleasant and wanted to dull the effect?
  706. >I anxiously took another gulp, loud enough for Daisy to hear, the harsh burn of alcohol racing down my throat as I set the mug back on the floor
  707. >“That’s still not all of it; is that honestly too much to ask?”
  708. “No, really, I’m fine, it’s just that I can’t really think straight, as is – I’m not sure whether this is what I want right now”
  709. >“Believe me, you’ll want it – It’ll help a lot if your head hurts”
  710. “Okay, maybe true short-term, but honestly, when-”
  711. >Daisy’s horn flared to life with an impatient glow, casting shadows across her stern face
  712. >“Drink. It.”
  713. >My gaze wavered quickly between the vodka and Daisy’s glare
  714. >Why did she give me this much?
  715. >This mug was practically full!
  716. >I tried to keep my quickening breathing in check as a sinister thought slithered its way into the recesses of my mind
  717. >Oh no… No… Please…
  718. >Even if this much alcohol wouldn’t kill me by itself, I wouldn’t have my senses about me as she carried out the final step of her plan
  719. >There’s a reason the lawful good vigilantes of the Wild West gave people a ton of booze before surgeries… or… or… before… executions…
  720. “Daisy, please don’t do this to me… please… I’ll be a pony, I’ll be a good pony…”
  721. >“Mhmm…”
  722. >You don’t need to do this – I can be a worthwhile addition to your herd if you just give me a chance!
  723. >I can’t do that if you go through with this!
  724. “Please, please, I’ll be a good pony!”
  725. >With no directive from my hand, the mug rose on its own, bathed in a telekinetic glow as Daisy looked on in softly illuminated determination
  726. >With pursed lips, I tried to maintain a neutral facial expression as a despairing tear rolled off my cheek and sent out ripples in the vodka
  727. >Daisy had grown impatient by now, and any more protest would probably be met with her shoving the mouth of the nearby bottle directly down my throat to achieve the same end
  728. >With a shaking hand, I gingerly supported the mug, but Daisy’s magic wasn’t letting up as she tipped it against my lips and forced me to drink
  729. >I took long gulps, grimacing with tightly shut eyes as each barrage of alcohol assaulted my throat, the burning sensation growing steadfastly more intense as every drop drained
  730. >Inhaling desperately, I didn’t open my eyes when I was all done, instead taking in the noise of Daisy uncapping the bottle again and pouring another mug amid the strange sou-
  731. >Ow, fuck! Motherfucker, that stings!
  732. >I let out a nightmarish cry as my shoulder was seized by searing agony, loud enough for Daisy to flinch backwards and cease tipping the bottle
  733. >The burning pain abated slightly when she stopped pouring vodka over the open wound left by the cruiser crash, the deep gash clearly visible through my torn uniform
  734. >I continued whimpering for a while as the stomach-turning mixture of thickened blood and alcohol flowed leisurely down my arm
  735. >I shifted forward onto my hand and knees, finding that the balancing act of sitting upright used a lot a brain power, a precious resource when it was both intoxicated and assailed by anguish
  736. >Daisy… why…
  737. >There was no reason anymore for her to do this… none at all… when the guy in the courtyard got transformed, his similarly minor wounds got healed on their own without a problem!
  738. >She didn’t need to disinfect my wound… for any reason… that is, if she were still planning on transforming me… oh God…
  739. >At this point Daisy was just having fun with me – what fun would I be after this was all done and I… stopped twitching?
  740. “Please Daisy, please! I’ll be a good pony! I’ll be a good pony!”
  741. >My heart hammered as I watched her slow, deliberate steps toward my side, and with a calm demeanor she caressed my incompletely transformed arm with her hoof
  742. >Bones audibly popped and fingers fused together, a thick band of keratin wrapping around to form a hoof, as blue fur raced along the limb to complete… my new pony leg
  743. >Trying to shift the limb ever so slightly, I found it wasn’t able to move far – from drunkenness, transformation aches, or whatever else – but for all Daisy cared, I wouldn’t be moving it
  744. >I wouldn’t be swinging punches with it in an attempt to fight back
  745. >I wouldn’t be trying to grab her or push her away as she finished what she had to do
  746. >With my hands out of the way, this would be nice and quick, without any risk or too much cleanup for her
  747. “I’ll be a good pony… I’ll be good…”
  748. >All my forelegs were really good for was supporting my torso and head at the perfect height for Daisy to whisper into my ear
  749. >“You’ve been a good human, I’ll give you that much”
  750. >The dimly burning radiance from her horn faded to nothing, leaving us amid the dark gloom again
  751. >I could feel Daisy’s presence somewhere by my side, but where I could once hope to hear her heartbeat or breathing in the night, I only heard my own blood pounding in my ears
  752. >Sweat formed on my brow as I started to feel the tightness, first in my head and chest, but growing firmer each second around the base of my neck
  753. >I tried to breathe deeply and rapidly, but it only met my demands for a few moments as I realized I was desperately fighting a losing battle
  754. >Some muscles were twitching as they started wising up to what was happening, but their primal responses weren’t geared to deal with a supernatural horse in a locked room
  755. >Any attempt to fight or run would waste breath and just prompt Daisy to hold me down in a telekinetic grip while she strangled me – a mere inconvenience for her
  756. >With every passing second, Daisy was somehow making it more impossible to breathe, just as I was starting to become complacent it each ever-deepening form of agony
  757. >If only I could see the look on her face amid the darkness, she’d be proud of her ability to do so much harm – to end a life – with a single spell, without even touching the poor bastard
  758. >With my oxygen reserves draining, my eyes felt a painful pressure while my vision, which had been a uniform shade of black, began to fill with faint stars
  759. >The twinkling apparitions were small and none too bright at first, but became brilliant bulbs of white after what felt like less than a second, blinking in a continuous series of fleeting sparks
  760. >My mind scrambled, a thousand images and thoughts crashing together, the lucid thought sequence becoming further detached from reality as the roles of my five senses began to crumble
  761. >My seemingly eternal time in the storage room collided with flashes from my childhood, Daisy’s dim lamp-lit silhouette following me home after the end of baseball games in the park
  762. >On a nature hike with my summer love, birdsong and flowing water commingled with crunching metal, clinking glass, and the steady plinks of cartridges along the trail
  763. >At my friend’s eleventh birthday party, the cake she was serving relentlessly burned my throat even after I begged her not to give me another slice, pleading that I’d had enough
  764. >I’m so proud of you; have a good first day of school honey! I’ll be right here when you get off the bus – be good for mommy!
  765. >I will mommy! I love you too! I’ll be good… I’ll be a good pony… I’ll be a good pony…
  766. >Everything burned brightly, the harsh summer sun and the shimmering glow of Daisy’s horn focusing to melt everything away…
  767. >Goodbye Daisy…
  768. >Warmth…
  769. >Quiet…
  770. >Peace…
  772. >“Hey… hey!”
  773. >The hard concrete of the floor smacked my side, presumably from me tipping over, although my fading perception of gravity didn’t even let me acknowledge the collapse
  774. >As a vibrant glow pierced the darkness and overtook the room’s crates, I could confirm that, yes, I was lying on my side
  775. >Daisy’s voice was distortedly calling out to me as though it were being transmitted through swirling water
  776. >“Breathe, BREATHE! Oh ponyfeathers, what’s wrong?!”
  777. >With a sharp ringing and blood pounding in my ears, I sputtered and coughed over Daisy’s words
  778. >“Breathe, oh please, breathe!”
  779. >After a deep, belabored gasp, I started crying out at the top of my lungs – a steady, unwavering note – with eyes clamped tightly shut as the despair overtook me
  780. >I couldn’t sustain the wailing for very long, soon falling into a rhythm of choked, desperate breaths punctuated by pitiful sobbing
  781. >Why am I still alive… Why was I put on the chopping block in the first place… What did I do to deserve this? Why, Daisy?
  782. >With time, I stopped vocally crying out my anguish, a few harrowed gasps now the only noise coming from my mouth
  783. >I shouldn’t be alive right now – please tell me this purgatory isn’t just a continuation of the horrors of life… please…
  784. >“Shhh… It’s okay, you’re alright… just breathe…”
  785. >I laid on my side, mostly motionless, save for the animated rise and fall of my chest that slowly shifted my vodka-soaked, blood-spotted uniform
  786. >Daisy was gently brushing my face with very light contact, soft bristles of new pony fur tickling with her touch, though it was evident she wasn’t charging forward with the transformation
  787. >“Just try to relax… you’re okay… It’s okay to be nervous, you just had a little anxiety, that’s all…”
  788. >“You’re a good pony… You’re a strong little pony…”
  789. >With time, I found it easier to calm myself, the tense knots in my muscles slowly becoming untied
  790. >“Are you feeling a bit better now?”
  791. >With half-lidded eyes I sluggishly strained to meet her gaze and gave her a slight nod
  792. >“You know, if you’re so eager to be blue in the face, you could just wait for the fur to come in, silly”
  793. >Was this… not going to be the end?
  794. >Why would she back off when she was so close to ending me, to finishing off her plan?
  795. >Did…
  796. >Did I really just have a panic attack?
  797. >Was it all in my head, and this is just what it’s like… at their worst?
  798. “Daisy… I’m… okay? But…”
  799. >With a reassuring chuckle, I heard the familiar twinkling of her telekinesis, the effect growing slightly closer as a the bottle of vodka appeared and was placed in front of me
  800. >“Here, take a drink; it’ll help”
  801. >Daisy. Vodka. What the actual fuck.
  802. >I leaned up onto the fur-veiled remnant of what was once my arm, sporting an expression of unrelenting bewilderment
  803. “I already drank a mug full of that stuff, and you’re seriously insisting I have more? The fuck is wrong with you Daisy…”
  804. >“I-I-I figured… you know… after losing a lot of blood in the c-crash and then… a-after all you’ve been through… a sip of water would help a lot w-”
  805. “Waitwaitwait, hold on a second… water?”
  806. >“Yeah, is there something else you’d prefer? I think I saw apple juice in the crate over there if you-”
  807. “Daisy. Daisy. This is NOT water”
  808. >“Huh?”
  809. >Uncapping the bottle and sniffing the opening with her muzzle, she remained incredulous about my claim
  810. >She pressed the bottle against her lips and tilted it back, eyes going wide and ears standing on end the moment the clear liquid sloshed into her mouth
  811. >Tossing the bottle aside, it shattered in a corner while she vigorously spat in a futile attempt to void her mouth of every drop of alcohol
  812. >“Oh, what is that wretched taste?! It’s like a medical kit… There’s something terribly wrong with that water!”
  813. “Well, yeah, if you mean the fact that it’s vodka, probably like, fourty percent alcohol…”
  814. >With Daisy’s horn clearly bathing the whole room in a warm glow even as she coughed vigorously, I spied a can of cola on one of the shelves and grasped it between my forehooves
  815. >Taking a seat next to Daisy, I let her aura consume the can and pop it open before she greedily started guzzling the sugary drink, hoping to dilute the lingering alcoholic burn
  816. >After chugging the entire can, she continued to hold it while peering, unrewardingly, into the aluminum treasure trove for more of the sweet indulgence
  817. >“What’s… vodka?”
  818. “Uhhh, come again?”
  819. >“The clear liquid that was in that bottle – what’s ‘vodka?’ Also, ‘alcohol;’ I feel like I’ve heard those words before…”
  820. “Daisy, what happened to you when you became a pony that you would forget what alcohol is?”
  821. >“I… I don’t know! I understand you’re supposed to drink it, but I guess before I made friends I must’ve had a bad experience with alcohol… or something… that I was trying to forget”
  822. >“Like, the most I can remember about it is some relation to teetotalers, whoever they are – what do they have to do with alcohol?”
  823. “They insist on never drinking the stuff”
  824. >“Right, I think I once told someone I was a teetotaler because I must’ve had a bad time drinking alcohol, and it made me really sick… or something, but now the memory’s so far away”
  825. “Well, yeah, if you have too much it can really wreak havoc, that’s for sure! You’re still ticking though – you’re good”
  826. >Suddenly dropping the empty cola can on the ground, an intense expression of alarm spread across her face
  827. >“Oh no, p-please tell me you’re not going to… to… fall asleep forever… I-I didn’t mean to hurt you!”
  828. “Daisy, this really wouldn’t be the first time I’d drunk a lot of alcohol…”
  829. >“I just wanted to help! I thought you were dehydrated… and then when I was cleaning your wound with it I just didn’t want you to have any leftover blood soiling your beautiful fur!”
  830. >Her eyes filled with tears as it took every fiber of her being not to hug me for comfort, knowing fully well that it would kick the transformation back into action
  831. >“Oh sweet heavens, it’s all over you… and it’s inside you… I’m so so so sorry, I didn’t want this to happen! I didn’t mean to poison you!”
  832. “Daisy… I’ll be fine… Alcohol just makes you a little… uncoordinated, and besides, horses can deal with it even better than humans can, so we can still be… er… ‘friends’
  833. >Sniffling, she raised her head toward me, tears still rolling occasionally down her cheeks as her eyes silently demanded to know whether that was really true
  834. >I leaned forward and wrapped my hooves around the little pony in a warm embrace, gently rocking back and forth as Daisy’s breathing gradually calmed
  835. >The transformation was limited by the uniform’s fabric separating us, but I was nevertheless cognizant of the faint tingling wrapping around my neck and torso
  836. >“I just… wanted to show you that you can trust your friends, even when you’re uncomfortable doing so… I knew you didn’t like me taking apart your gun…”
  837. >I’m still kind of upset; I’m not going to lie, I spent hours cleaning that thing
  838. >“…But I never meant to hurt you… I never meant to hurt you… I just wanted to make a new friend for our herd who would understand the trust we have in each other…”
  839. “Daisy… you helped me realize… that the greatest fears we have are all in our heads. The only thing stopping me from trusting you was my own fears…”
  840. “I know I was anxious earlier… about… other things… but I can’t tell you how happy, and how relieved, I am now that you want me as part of your herd…”
  841. >“But… in the end it turns out you really can’t trust me… I’m not worthy of your trust… You’d be better off if… if Clementine Breeze or some pony competent just finished transforming you…”
  842. >Daisy, you were doing your best; why do you have to belittle yourself like this?
  843. >Steadily leaning back from my hug with the downcast mare, I swung my feet around to an open spot on the floor, and using the opposing foot, I kicked off each shoe and sock
  844. >Poking my feet into the fluff on Daisy’s haunches, I wriggled my toes, and whether it was a product of the tickling or her appreciation of my silliness, she couldn’t stifle a giggle through her tears
  845. >Gradually, the inevitable happened as my toes wiggled no more, the individual units fusing into a pair of blue hooves at the end of a slowly elongating foot
  846. >The rest of the transformation became concealed beneath the legs of my pants as the blue frontier of fur raced for cover near my ankles
  847. >I rolled onto my back, fully transformed hooves swinging in the air for Daisy to plainly see, as I shot her a toothy grin
  848. “Looks like the rest of my uniform might pose a predicament now that I got these”
  849. >“You’re such a silly pony”
  850. >A beautifully shimmering aura wrapped around my shirt as it slid off effortlessly, past my forehooves and the pointed fuzz of my equine ear, to expose my contrastingly human torso
  851. >With the same vivid glow, my belt unlatched by way of Daisy’s magic and my pants slid away from my legs with a similarly surgical ease
  852. >Daisy took care to fold the clothes and set them squarely atop a stack of boxes, even though we both knew there wasn’t much point in doing so when I wasn’t going to need them anymore
  853. >A soft glow gently surrounded the last piece of clothing – my boxer briefs – before I calmly urged her to pause
  854. “Could I actually… Uh… N-Nevermind…”
  855. >“Can I help in any way… Is there anything wrong?”
  856. “It’s just… Could you let me keep the shirt as a sort of… security blanket during the transformation? I’m not sure how ready I am to see… to see…”
  857. >I glanced down at my crotch, expressively indicating my concerns to Daisy without saying another word, and a moment later she responded by levitating the folded shirt onto my stomach
  858. >“I understand… Everypony’s different… I must say, it took me a moment to accept it at first too, but you learn to love yourself and your friends for who they are”
  859. >With a conclusive symphony of twinkling, her magic aura slid off my underwear and rested the folded shirt over the unseen vulnerability
  860. >“…And while I can’t be sure you’ll end up as a mare, if you are, you’ll be an absolutely adorable one”
  861. >With a friendly giggle, she slid out her hooves and settled down on the floor next to me, hugged her legs around my torso, and poked her muzzle into the crook of my shoulder
  862. >With each of us finding the warmth of each other’s body mutually comforting against the slightly chilly concrete, Daisy let out a contented sigh, gradually letting her horn’s light fade
  863. “Daisy, if it’s not too much to ask, could you keep a nightlight on? I just got… anxious… when you left us in the dark earlier…”
  864. >“Of course… I’m sorry… I thought you weren’t comfortable with watching transformations happen, based on how you reacted to your friends… but you’re so remarkably calm now…”
  865. >My heart thumped slowly, in times coming into sync with Daisy’s for a few harmonious beats, as I felt a coordinated warm pulse washing over my torso
  866. >With sensations of a thousand little pinpricks faintly sweeping across my chest each second, a dull itch overtook my body as new patches of fur began to spring up
  867. >The fur had a pleasant, comforting warmth to it, just enough to insulate us from the harsh, solid floor, but without being oppressively sweltering considering we we’d discarded our clothes
  868. >Silhouetted in the soft light, I rested my own furry arms across as much of my torso as their range of motion would allow, speeding up the infectious spread of fur ever so slightly
  869. >Far from trying to avoid it, I was embracing it just as welcomingly as Daisy was embracing me…
  870. >Far from grappling with a fear of looming death, this felt… amazing… natural… like this is the pony I was always meant to be…
  871. >This unicorn had given me a new lease of life tonight… twice… Thank you Daisy… I’ll be a good pony…
  872. >With a soft shiver, my whole body shook as a long flowing tail of lurid pink strands flowed out from the base of my spine, spilling over the concrete
  873. >An empty aluminum can went rolling about on the floor as my nerves haphazardly twitched the new appendage, knocking it aside in the fray
  874. >While I continued lying on my back, the tightening and thickening of certain muscles in my haunches caused my legs to rise into the air, finding their natural equine positions amid the spreading fur
  875. >Gravity wasn’t going to let them stay there rent-free, and as they started to droop apart to the sides, the folded shirt settled across the widely exposed region between
  876. >I didn’t need to look to be sure: even if the associated feeling was partially shrouded by a few measly tufts of fur beneath the folded shirt, I could tell some… changes had gone on
  877. >I sighed, more so matter-of-factly than dejectedly, with a markedly feminine voice resonating from my vocal cords
  878. >With a brief series of pops, the last of the bones in my legs settled into place, their appearance looking remarkably equine right down to the long blue fetlocks freely swaying near each hoof
  879. >With the way they trailed around my gently swaying legs, in the same manner of windless flags shifting about a flagpole, I couldn’t help but wonder whether their trails would accumulate dust
  880. >My legs twitched excitedly as they were reached my another rush of pure bliss, a delightful side effect to saying farewell to my humanity
  881. >Daisy turned my head with a coaxing motion, prompting me to close my eyes as she gently gave me an Eskimo kiss with her muzzle
  882. >I felt the realignment of my other ear and facial features in the same cuddly onslaught, and when I opened my eyes, I came face to face with Daisy and furry apparition of my new muzzle
  883. >I crossed my eyes in an attempt to bring it into focus, and with a gentle exhale, I watched the slightly blurry nostrils at the end of my muzzle flare as the puff of warm air flowed through
  884. >Slowly, a curtain of new hairs drifted into sight, the elegant pink mane strands tumbling between me and the unicorn as I felt their weight gently tugging on my scalp
  885. >I could easily pass as a fully transformed pony to most observers, but as a pair of bony nubs poked between the floor and my back, Daisy and I smiled about the capstone of the changes
  886. >Kicking away the folded shirt and rolling onto my stomach, Daisy nuzzled close to me while the wings started to take form
  887. >The undressed limbs pushed out, first manifest with a zig-zagging assembly of strong, dense muscles before being engulfed in feathers
  888. >Shimmering feathers grew and bounced light from the soft glow of Daisy’s horn all around the room, a brilliant light show of vibrant blues
  889. >When I felt the changes drawing to a close, I backed up to the center of the room, looked at Daisy, and snapped my wingtips out proudly with an unfettered grin
  890. >The imposing feathers reached much of the way to the walls on both sides, and not only did the new appendages feel natural, I could feel them coursing with power, strength, readiness to fly
  891. >Drawing them back in for a moment, I leaned forward and curled them around my unicorn friend, wrapping her in a feathery hug before I jumped for a full embrace
  892. >Daisy caught me with just a hint of help from her magic, and amid a hearty laugh combined with an overwhelming wave of ecstasy, I shuddered and twitched as the old me was left behind
  893. >And it felt… it felt wonderful!
  894. >Breaking from the hug, I smiled at her for a few seconds as my mane lazily drooped back into place in front of my eyes
  895. >I’d hate to ask anything more from Daisy when she’s already done so much for me – she’s such a good friend…
  896. “Daisy, could you… No, nevermind, don’t worry about it…”
  897. >“What is it, dear?”
  898. >I sheepishly bit my lip, realizing the red blush in my face was very unevenly obscured by the long strands of pink mane
  899. “Could you… braid my mane? I just think I’d look really pretty with a braid… You don’t… have to if you don’t want to…”
  900. >Daisy smiled and took a step to my side
  901. >“It’d be my pleasure; what are friends for, after all?”
  902. >With mechanical efficiency, her telekinetic aura carefully gathered all the errant strands, separated them into a trio of groups, and braided them together in a steady rhythm
  903. >As she neared the end, a small rubber band floated toward us from a small stack of papers across the room, and Daisy used it to secure the braid unyieldingly in place
  904. >I was in awe as Daisy stepped back to admire her work and the beautiful trail of hair draped over my shoulder, shimmering in the light cast by her horn
  905. >It was every bit as beautiful as I’d envisioned, a seemingly unending row of clean, uniform twists, and it was all mine to display when I went to meet friends… and make other, new friends!
  906. >“You’re a very beautiful pony, uh…”
  907. “Typhoon Twist!”
  908. >“Well, Typhoon, I think that, not only does your mane look fantastic, but it’ll make flying a lot easier – I have a feeling your Pegasus friends will agree”
  909. >“Of course you already know Cobalt from working with him for a few years, and Clementine Breeze has been dying to make friends with you!”
  910. >My twitching wings wanted to launch into the air for an energetic celebratory flip, but given the confined volume of the storage room, that would have to wait
  911. “I’m so excited! Let’s go!”
  912. >Trotting to the door and ignoring the revolting brassy taste of the metal locks, I gripped the knob with my teeth and turned-
  913. >I gripped the knob with my forehooves and turned-
  914. >I gripped the knob with both my forehooves and teeth and turned-
  915. “Daisy… little help please…”
  916. >Still stifling her laughter as she watched my hopelessly slippery forays, Daisy gave in to assisting me, the glow of her magic wrapping around the deadbolt and knob with a series of clicks
  917. >After a couple seconds, the door flew open, a bright white and red light suddenly flooding into the storeroom as Daisy and I shielded our eyes with our hooves
  918. >Through the intense rays filtering in, we noticed the white and red light change, first to white and blue, then back to white and red, then white and blue…
  919. >A clamor of hooves heralded the arrival of the orange Pegasus at the storage room’s door, her muzzle and spots of her coat coated with dried blood… Clementine Breeze…
  920. >“Hiya Daisy, I’m glad you got done what you needed to; we’re super glad to have another Pegasus in the herd now”
  921. >With a curt nod and a friendly smile, Clementine Breeze acknowledged me, her stern expression quickly returning as she continued informing us
  922. >“Not sure whether it was the radio call or the store’s alarm that brought them, but the entire overnight police force seems to be out there – I think three cruisers and four or five officers”
  923. >“Okay, then… what course of action do you want to go with to get us out of here?”
  924. >“Not entirely sure, but we were afraid to abandon you here. They seem apprehensive to make a move, so we’re hunkered down behind the impromptu barrier the cruiser made”
  925. >Glancing around Clementine Breeze, I noticed a familiar grey Pegasus stallion hunkered just below one of the cruiser’s side view mirrors in a small alcove of debris
  926. >I gently nudged my new friends to the side in order to clear a path to my old friend, sliding into cover next to him as I attempted to keep my head low
  927. >As he smiled at me from across the room, I could tell that he too had preserved some fond memories from our time together on the force and was excited to see me again
  928. >“Well, glad to see you’ve made friends; how are you liking the hooves?”
  929. “Oh, Cobalt, they’re absolutely wonderful! And the wings are marvelous too! They set my heart aflutter”
  930. >Flaring my wings out ever so slightly, I strutted around the wine-soaked floor in a small circle, showing off the glorious blue feathers adorning my back
  931. >“Hey, not bad! I’m in love with mine as well. They’re such a natural part of me now – I don’t know how I ever lived without them!”
  932. “I’m jealous you’ve already gotten some flight time with them… Any word on when you think I’ll be able to try out mine and we can go make some new friends?”
  933. >“Well, as soon as we can get the rest of the herd out of this mess, but that shouldn’t be too long considering Clementine Breeze has been studying the lay of the land out there”
  934. >“Plus, Daisy’s great with strategy, and ha-”
  935. >BANG
  936. >Cobalt was cut short, his words catching in his throat as the clear report of a gunshot echoed through the store
  937. >In the back, Clementine Breeze’s cries of anguish pierced through the air
  938. >“DAISY!”
  939. >I barely even had time to turn and process what I was seeing as the unicorn stumbled forward, clutching her head
  941. >My ears twitched agitatedly as the high-pitched ringing slowly faded, the gunshot’s thunder still echoing faintly off of a distant row of hillside houses outside the liquor store
  942. >Near the store’s rear, Clementine Breeze had reflexively lowered her head and strained to keep one of her eyes open, fierce discomfort written plainly in her wincing face
  943. >With a hint of disorientation, she scanned the room for any other potential victims in the herd before turning her attention to the white unicorn at her hooves
  944. >“Daisy! Can you hear me? Daisy!”
  945. >Through the gaping hole in the storefront, I could hear a faraway series of footsteps and a barrage of unintelligible shouting, but thankfully no sounds drew closer to our makeshift holdout
  946. >Daisy rolled onto her side, still clutching for her head as she kept her eyes clamped tightly shut
  947. >“Daisy, look at me sweetie, can you hear me?”
  948. >Slowly her eyes slid open, but they couldn’t make perfect contact with Clementine Breeze, instead taking a wandering path over the rows of beers and wines filling the store
  949. >After a few seconds, the neural message finally seemed to reach her eyelids as they slid fully open, and Daisy’s eyes locked on to her friend’s
  950. >“Daisy, can you hear me? Daisy? Are you there?”
  951. >She stared blankly at the concerned Pegasus for a moment before responding, slowly pulling her own hooves away from her twitching ears
  952. >“Y-Yes… Oh, horse apples… That was really loud… Is everypony alright?”
  953. >“Yeah, thankfully, they all seem to be… I think you shot a hole into the ceiling – you need to be a lot more careful when handling that!”
  954. >Daisy was still blinking rapidly as her senses gradually returned, her gaze vacillating between her friend and the shiny pistol lying on the floor a few feet away
  955. >“R-Right… I got carried away – after all you were telling me about these ‘guns’ I was interested to see one of them firing one of its ‘bullets’… and to show you… but…”
  956. >“Well, I told that you they’re loud, and now you know!”
  957. >Daisy cautiously rolled onto her hooves and stood, shaking away the last of the mental fog lingering in the wake of the gunpowder’s roar
  958. >With her magical aura significantly less pronounced against the fluorescent lighting, she carefully levitated the gun for closer inspection
  959. >All the while, she ensured the tip of the barrel was directed downward and to the side so, at most, a bottle of whiskey would feel the wrath of a misfiring ricochet
  960. >“Where’s the safety on this thing; I think I loaded it with multiple cartridges…”
  961. >“Daisy, never mind the pistol, we’ll just leave it here – for pony’s sake, if the police think we’re trying to get into a shootout, everypony in our herd is going to die!”
  962. >After registering Clementine Breeze’s prediction, I couldn’t discern the extent to which the blood had drained from Daisy’s face – on account of her white coat – but she seemed a bit faint
  963. >My own fears became manifest in the tightly clamped wings by my side, as I unconsciously attempted to make myself as compactly hidden as possible in the cruiser’s shadow
  964. >Cobalt was the first to hold out a branch for the elephant in the room
  965. >“Well, we can’t just stay here! Could we at least improve our chances of escape by taking out one or two of them… how many bullets do we have?”
  966. >Horror struck Daisy’s face as she lowered the gun to the floor and slid it away from us along the room’s back wall, the stainless steel skittering to a stop amid the dust in the corner
  967. >“Why would you even suggest such a thing?! Because you’re a pony you can’t think of them as friends? We just need to give them a chance; it may take a bit but they’ll join our herd soon!”
  968. >“I’m just… worried… is all… They’re good people, but they might also be scared of making friends… I know, to an extent, Typhoon Twist was too, but at least she never used her pistol…”
  969. >Cobalt looked at me momentarily as though my blank, thousand foot stare somehow held the key to our former comrades’ hearts
  970. >“Do you think that they’d hurt one of us, that they’d be so adamant about pushing back against our friendship?”
  971. >Cobalt bit his lip and shifted nervously on his hooves, taking exceptional caution to not poke his head into the officers’ views through the cruiser windows
  972. >“All it would take is for one of them to get a bit jumpy about one of us getting too close, and considering that’s the whole police force out there, the chances of that happening are high…”
  973. >With neither pony wanting to suggest a course that’d harm their friends, they each took a particularly strong interest in the floor, with Cobalt idly kicking at pieces of broken glass
  974. >Daisy carefully eyed the store’s construction, each side lined with an imposing cinder block wall of that would require another smashed cruiser to make an opening
  975. >For a few seconds, the stillness was strained by little more than the dull hum of the lights, until a sharp crackle of static pierced through the air
  976. >“Lay down your weapons and come out slowly with your hands above your heads!”
  977. >Along with our perky ears, most of us had raised our brows curiously upon hearing the message, intrigued as to whether there would be any more prompts
  978. >Hands above our heads…
  979. >Clementine Breeze, on the other hoof, had furrowed her brow pensively, as though the middle of a police standoff were the appropriate time to ponder life’s mysteries
  980. >Hands… Why not hooves…
  981. >Gradually, her eyes went wide as the puzzle pieces of her epiphany snapped into place
  982. >“Oh my gosh! Maybe they don’t know we’re trying to make friends with them – as in, they’d still willingly snuggle with us! What if we still have the element of surprise on our side?”
  983. >Wait a minute, she’s got a point! When I first saw Clementine Breeze and her red stallion friend, I thought it was odd… but didn’t conclude anything sinister about it
  984. “Clementine Breeze, you’re a genius!”
  985. >Letting her gently swaying mane droop adorably, she leaned back and cocked her head to the side, although her slight smirk indicated she didn’t totally disagree with my conclusion
  986. >“Hey now, was it something I said?”
  987. “Well, at the end of my shift around midnight, our station didn’t have any reports whatsoever about ponies we should be looking out for”
  988. >“Hold on, and if that’s the whole police force out there… none of them are off trying to wrangle Storm Cloud and Sky Meadow’s herd, right? They… haven’t seen…”
  989. “…Do you really think we could just waltz out of here?”
  990. >A subtle grin spread across Clementine Breeze’s face
  991. >“They asked for the gun-wielder to put their hands up… they’re not looking for ponies!”
  992. >To Daisy’s dread, Clementine Breeze’s hooves clacked against the tile and she slid next to the cruiser’s bumper, just around the corner from the glimmer of the police searchlight
  993. >Clementine Breeze confidently looked back at Daisy, the silent unicorn’s eyes going wide as she realized what her enigmatic friend had in mind
  994. >“Daisy, I can’t thank you enough for being my friend; this makes us even”
  995. >Before there was any time for retorts, the orange Pegasus vanished through the hole in the wall, swallowed by the searchlight’s glow just beyond
  996. >Daisy stifled a cry for her friend as everypony in the store flattened their ears against their heads and shut their eyes, fearing the worst for her
  997. >Except the worst didn’t arrive… after a few moments without the crack of a gunshot, my ears perked up and pivoted to catch a distinctive clamor of confused voices
  998. >“Anyone else seeing this shit?”
  999. >“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffin’ glue…”
  1000. >“Is that some kind of… little orange horse?”
  1001. >“Come on, it’s a distraction, guys! A really weird one at that… I’m still hearing voices in that building – don’t take your eyes off it!”
  1002. >Cobalt poked me with a hoof, curiousness prompting me to relax, if only slightly, as he sported a mischievous grin
  1003. >With a surprisingly convincing animalistic battle cry, replete with typically equine whinnies and neighs, he nudged my rump, and before I knew it, we were both up and running
  1004. >Rounding the cruiser and vaulting over the last of the broken shelves lining the front of the store, our impacts of hooves against tile changed to concrete as Cobalt and I hit the sidewalk
  1005. >We hardly broke stride as the police line came into focus, an arc of three cruisers providing cover for the four officers to which Clementine Breeze had previously alluded
  1006. >Even through the blinding light of the searchlight’s beam and the blue-red wash of the siren lights, I could still make out the firearms each had levelled in our direction
  1007. >Three were equipped with pistols while the fourth bore a shotgun, each cold metallic maw staring us down as we prayed that no muzzle flares would add to the light show
  1008. >With my adrenaline surging, the rush of blood to my head almost drowned out all the audible variations of ‘I have no fucking clue how to response to this’ each officer shouted
  1009. >Each step fluttered my tail and sent the braid of my mane flying about chaotically, whipping me across the shoulder after each set of hoofbeats
  1010. >At a full gallop, we closed the distance to a gap in the line over what was realistically only a few seconds, but felt like an eternity
  1011. >The officer posted behind the hood of the nearest cruiser seemed to have blocked us from his mind, his eyes transfixed on the storefront as our hooves clicked past
  1012. >I almost considered becoming his friend then and there, before Cobalt wrapped a wing around me, both of us still at a swift gallop as he guided me to safety a few dozen yards beyond
  1013. >Collapsing into the lamplit shadows of a bush at the street’s edge, Cobalt wrapped both of his wings around me, swaddling me in a warm feeling of comfort and safety
  1014. >I wrapped my hooves around his furry barrel, eyes still firmly shut as each of our racing heartbeats gradually slowed in rhythm with the other’s
  1015. >Between his deep, subdued gasps for air, Cobalt’s warm breath whispered into my gently twitching ear
  1016. >“We’re okay… We… made it…”
  1017. >My eyes slid open, first acquiring the dreamy glistening of Cobalt’s deep indigo eyes, then the blurry apparition of an exhausted Clementine Breeze next to us
  1018. >A few seconds later, the remaining three ponies in our herd stumbled into the bushes, trying to keep their noise to a minimum as they fought for air and took a seat next to us
  1019. >Leaves brushed by and branches crunched as the pair of red ponies rolled onto their sides, not as much from weariness as from adrenaline withdrawal
  1020. >After a few seconds of wheezing and a cough from Daisy, she attempted to plan our next move in a hushed whisper
  1021. >“They still seem solely focused… on the front of the store… We got out of there alright… and, after all… we’ll get them… sooner or later…”
  1022. >With her friend looking ready to drop, Clementine Breeze compassionately brushed her shoulder to relieve her and stepped on to the impromptu podium a small rock provided
  1023. >As her fur still bore the blood stains from earlier, she carried the classic look of a grizzled veteran, and her eyes burned with similarly appropriate determination
  1024. >“Friends, we have a golden opportunity… right here and right now, to not only make friends with those four people out there… but to do so much more for THOUSANDS like them in this town”
  1025. >“This is bigger than just us and them… when many of the sleeping humans awaken, I’d be amazed if they were ALL willing to cuddle with us and be friendly, because change can be scary to them”
  1026. >“Morning Star and I know dozens of people in this very town who aren’t happy with who they are, who wake up each morning to mechanically go to work, come home, and sleep – day in, day out”
  1027. >Clementine Breeze paused in the midst of her speech to not only draw a deep breath, but also acknowledge the red stallion among us
  1028. >Morning Star, which was evidently the name of the pony who I first saw just outside the alley, grinned sheepishly as though he felt a personal connection to her words
  1029. >“And yet, as humans, simply because they’ve learned to survive in the rut they’ve found themselves in, they think that deviating too much will spell disaster”
  1030. >“But we have a duty to show them that friendship is about more than just surviving – it’s about thriving!”
  1031. >By now, even the ponies who could only manage half-lidded stares were attentively seated to face Clementine Breeze with their ears perked at the ready
  1032. >“Yes, making friends can be challenging at first – for both ponies involved – but we all know from experience what a wonderful experience it is”
  1033. >“We wouldn’t deny that experience – a new life with friends, a slate washed clean of all we’ve tried to forget, a new role of simply helping others – just because it’s a little DIFFICULT at first”
  1034. >“…And we’re not going to pass up on this chance we have, in this very moment”
  1035. >Halting again, Clementine Breeze cast her gaze across the five other ponies present, taking note of the affirmative, excited nod each gave when their eyes met
  1036. >Even with a faintly hanging air of fatigue, why wouldn’t I be absolutely ecstatic about everything that lay ahead?
  1037. >Flying, building new friendships, changing lives for the better, making a difference – it was everything I ever wanted to do, and it was all at my hooves to share with others!
  1038. >“Typhoon Twist, Cobalt, how are each of you at flying?”
  1039. >My muzzle scrunched up and my wings twitched slightly in response to the question, the very thought of flying priming me for action even if I would be ‘flying blind’ in many senses
  1040. >Cobalt met Clementine’s question as a challenge, puffing out his chest with a smirk and simply giving her a moment to recall the maneuvers he executed on approach to the liquor store
  1041. >“Okay, I see… I want you two to swoop in on the officer behind the far-right cruiser, and be as stealthy as possible… I’ll handle the one on the left”
  1042. >“The rest of you will have to try and cover the noise of your hoofsteps – make your way up the middle to the two officers behind the center cruiser, we’ll do our best to all coordinate”
  1043. >With a murmur of understanding from each of the ponies, the bushes rustled with our respective departures, as Cobalt and I sneakily paced toward the opposite side of the street
  1044. >As I continued trailing him by a couple yards, he gave a brusque, straightforward nod and unfurled his wings, prompting me to do so in a mix of both surprise and eagerness
  1045. >Reveling in the gentle breeze filtering through the feathers, my face was overtaken with a goofy grin as I felt the power surging through my muscles
  1046. >With a skip, jump, and a flap, we both took to the skies amid a flurry of dusty air
  1047. >With the parked cars and blinking police sirens far below starting to resemble children’s toys, we crested the low rooftops, and I couldn’t help but gasp at the beauty of the endless night sky
  1048. >I wanted to wrap Cobalt in my own wings and continue soaring higher, just two Pegasi swimming in the inky sea of stars, each heavenly body gleaming with the same beauty as his indigo eyes
  1049. >But as high as my own elation could reach, it would have been selfish to not share the skies, the wings, the wonders of flying with all my future friends, many of whom would be Pegasi soon
  1050. >My vision rolled back down toward the ground, landing on the officer behind the far-right cruiser as the rest of my body prepared for a literal landing of its own
  1051. >As Cobalt and I floated with an easygoing weightlessness, he scanned the night sky for Clementine Breeze, eventually spotting her hovering above the far end of the police line
  1052. >Flicking his eyes back to me, they were filled with anticipation as he called out in a terse whisper
  1053. >“Ya ready for this?”
  1054. >If gliding was even half as fun as flying, then I could say wholeheartedly that I was more than ready, let’s go Cobalt!
  1055. >Turning my head down, my stomach dropped for a moment while gravity began to take hold, my body plummeting as the wind started whipping across my fur with increasing ferocity
  1056. >My heart raced with a concoction of excitement and vertigo, blood pounding in my ears as everything from the bustling officers to Cobalt was momentarily shut out
  1057. >It was exhilarating to feel the tugging, wild force of the air, the athletic muscles in my back and wings adjusting the feathery appendages like a sailboat’s captain making full use of her sails
  1058. >The thrill was one I could have never imagined, and just as the roar of the wind seemed to reach its peak, I pitched my wings flat, levelling out as the sudden lurch sent blood to my hooves
  1059. >I smiled self-assuredly as I banked into a spiral toward the officer, making my final approach toward him as the air raced pa-
  1060. >“Typhoon! Typhoon, what are you doing?!”
  1061. >The frenzied cry came from a horrified Clementine Breeze, still far above the distant end of the police line as her silhouette frantically flapped its wings into a dive
  1062. >Rolling my neck around to study my surroundings, I caught a glimpse of a panicked Cobalt racing downwards after me
  1063. >Oh ponyfeathers, I started going way too early! I thought it was go time already – too low, too low!
  1064. >A current of wind caught my body and I lurched to the side, rapidly finding myself drowning in lamplight just a few meager feet above the ground as my vision rolled violently
  1065. >I desperately flapped my wings to try to gain height, upwards velocity, anything to slow myself, anything, please, give me something, please, Cobalt, help me!
  1066. >Help me! Nopony had ever taught me how to stop flying!
  1067. >The cruiser I thought I’d been steadily approaching raced into view, the lights, decals, and curves of the body coming rapidly into sharp focus as my eyes became spellbound by the officer’s pistol
  1068. >With a stomach-turning crash, I hit the windshield and side of the cruiser before rolling into the middle of the brightly illuminated arc, my vision going dark as I momentarily blacked out
  1069. >“It’s that horse again… What the-”
  1070. >A moment later, it was sheer and utter chaos all along the police line, as blurred clouds of lurid pastels lunged aggressively at the taller blobs in blue
  1071. >I found myself gasping for air after my lungs were voided by the impact, my ears, wings, and legs thrashing violently as I tried to stand up with more willpower than coordination
  1072. >Cobalt, no! Cobalt! Get away, save the rest of the herd! This is all my fault, for pony’s sake, you’re putting yourself in serious danger because of me! Get away!
  1073. >Shuddering while I slowly rose to my hooves, I yelped pitifully as one of my hind legs buckled, a sharp lance of pain permeating through my whole body
  1074. >I let out a tormented groan, redoubling my efforts to walk with as little weight as possible on what may have been a broken leg
  1075. >With my vision still showing two side-by-side copies of the blurry scene, I picked the copy in which I had the most confidence, and hobbled toward the cruiser that had been my original target
  1076. >“Don’t let them touch your skin! There’s something weird going on with these fucking horses, man!”
  1077. >Each of my steps was accompanied with a grunt of agony, becoming more frantic as Cobalt and the officer rolled into view in the gap between the cruisers
  1078. >The officer sat up on his knees with Cobalt locked between his legs, the pinned Pegasus gritting his teeth as he swiped at the man’s torso, unable to reach a clearly open patch of skin
  1079. >At most, the officer might have felt a faint tickling along his legs, the earliest traces of a tail, but he didn’t appear fazed as he swung his pistol, striking Cobalt’s foreleg with the unforgiving metal
  1080. >The Pegasus’ eyes flew open with a cry of pain, another howl coming a moment later as the officer struck his foreleg again
  1081. >Though my eyes and limping gait were immovably focused on the fight directly ahead, a clear shout called out from behind another cruiser, its pitch gradually rising toward femininity
  1082. >“Get out of here! They’re gonna turn us all into… into…”
  1083. >This should have been a straightforward plan to make four new friends… Clementine Breeze had coordinated everything perfectly… And now… No… Cobalt… Just a little further…
  1084. >The officer, with his pistol still in hand, pulled it back from the fray and aimed shakily at Cobalt’s head as the doomed pony frantically did everything in his power to wriggle free
  1085. >He squirmed helplessly, his legs kicking the air while his wings twitched frantically, a shudder accompanying each time he glanced down the barrel that promised his demise
  1086. >No no no! Don’t take him away from me! Please!
  1087. >Eyes brimming with tears, I dove and collapsed unceremoniously against the officer, tightly wrapping my forehooves below his rolled-up sleeves as the strength in my hind legs gave out
  1088. >We fell to the asphalt together while the pistol, replete with an entirely full magazine, announced its own fall when it tumbled a moment later
  1089. >After all the panic-stricken turmoil that had filled the air just a few seconds earlier, it fell uncannily silent
  1090. >The only sounds to be heard in our immediate vicinity were the gasping breaths of myself, Cobalt, …and one more soon-to-be member of our herd
  1091. >It’s okay, you’re going to be a pony, my little friend… and not a moment too soon
  1092. >I brushed my hooves sedately along his exposed arms, a sense of calm washing over both of us as he relaxed, a golden yellow coat of fur spreading in the directions of his torso and hands
  1093. >Everything’s going to be alright… Everything turned out alright…
  1094. >Cobalt joined with an uncomfortable halfhearted hug shortly afterwards, having clearly set aside any grudge he may have held against the officer
  1095. >A buried yet unmistakable expression of soreness was written across the injured Pegasus’ face, accompanied by a wince whenever his injured foreleg touched anything
  1096. >I couldn’t help but get lost in his eyes, the windows to his soul looking forward toward a better future even as they fought off the lingering anguish of his brawl
  1097. >Cobalt and I couldn’t be mad at the officer… yes, he had been violent, but that’s all the more reason he needs our friendship… friends don’t fight each other with swinging hooves of rage…
  1098. >We were doing a good thing for him, it just took him a moment to realize it... As Clementine said, sometimes friendship is a challenge at first…
  1099. >As he shivered with a wave of bliss, I moved my hoof to gently caress his hand, tracing small circles along his skin… then along his fur… as the bones steadily elongated into an equine foreleg
  1100. >A wedding band slid free from his ring finger just ahead of his knuckles drawing together, his thumb already swallowed up in the wave of fur demarcating the transformation
  1101. >His fingernails grew larger and smoothed together, a single hoof forming at the forelimb’s end as the last of the bones popped into their respective equine positions
  1102. >With a faint shimmering sound, Cobalt and I leaned away from the center of his shirt, as the buttons near his collar became bathed in a soft glow
  1103. >They popped loose with very little effort, the glow fading away just as quickly as when it’d first started, as my ears swiveled to catch several approaching sets of hoofsteps
  1104. >Glancing back, I saw a sizable herd of ponies slowly approaching, led by Daisy and a softly smiling pink unicorn whose barrel was still draped with the torn remains of a police uniform
  1105. >Shifting her mane to free it from the uniform’s collar, she glanced at Daisy, who simply gave an encouraging flick with her head and pointed with her eyes
  1106. >A vibrant pink aura overtook the remaining buttons on the partially-ponified officer’s shirt, each beginning to shift aimlessly against the fabric while they failed to come free in the scramble
  1107. >“Take a deep breath dear; it’s just like I showed you – I believe in you”
  1108. >Exhaling forcefully, the pink unicorn paused in her magic attempts, filled her lungs with a deep breath, and refocused herself on a single button
  1109. >As it began to faintly glow, it wedged out of its confining hole with a slow, surgical precision, followed by the next button, then the next, until her telekinetic aura was racing down the shirt
  1110. >As the last button came free, the unicorn beamed proudly at her teacher, while another mare trotted behind us with little hesitation and grasped the shirt between her teeth
  1111. >With a gentle tug, she pulled it free from the officer that had once been her comrade, his upper body now largely exposed to the night wind as golden fur continued to spread across his skin
  1112. >Dissatisfied with something as small as buttons, the unicorn pair set to work removing the officer’s undershirt, belt, socks, and shoes, while the pair of red ponies carried away his trousers
  1113. >His boxers didn’t hold out for long as they were shooed aside by his flourishing tail, a short trail of light green strands pushing out from the base of his spine as his final clothes slid away
  1114. >My heart beat in tandem with our new friend’s as his barrel steadily pushed outwards, becoming increasingly equine while the patches of fur growing there grew denser by the moment
  1115. >As much as I wanted to cherish the moment of welcoming a new member to our herd, I was well aware of the other ponies eagerly looking on
  1116. >With reasonable certainty that the officer had lost every inkling of resistance, Cobalt and I broke away from the embrace, to be replaced by the other ponies almost immediately
  1117. >They wrapped him thoroughly in a hug, the frontiers of fur racing even more rapidly across his body as each pony attempted to cover as much of his skin as possible
  1118. >This proved to be an increasingly challenging feat, as the former man who had once stood over six feet tall took on the stature of a small stallion
  1119. >Rapidly, his ears rose to the top of his head, light green hairs spilled out to form his mane in the affected areas, and waves of pleasure washed over him, announced by each round of smiles
  1120. >With a beaming smile, he reciprocated the hug to the fellow members of his herd, wrapping one of the mares in an embrace tight enough to assert fears of him breaking her ribs
  1121. >Cobalt slowly walked toward me, a slight flinch showing through his smile whenever any of his weight settled on his bad foreleg
  1122. >It was a funny thing for us to have in common… two Pegasi with messed up legs… but at the very least we’d have our wings, and each other, to help us get by
  1123. >We each gently closed our eyes as Cobalt leaned in to nuzzle me
  1124. >“You had me so worried…”
  1125. “You did too… he was this close to getting the jump on you… I’d do anything to keep you safe…”
  1126. >He slowly nodded his head up and down, lightly brushing me with his own warm fur as he whispered into my ear
  1127. >“Maybe next time… it’d be best to wait for someone to tell you when it’s go time?”
  1128. >Leaning back, he shot me a good-natured smirk, which earned him a good-natured jab on the chest
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