"There you go, Mr. Badger. You make sure you stay off that paw now." Fluttershy told the small critter in front of her, one hoof holding up a bandaged paw while the other carefully stroked it's back. The badger gave a grumpy growl in response.
"Now now, it was her vegetable garden after all. If you're ever hungry, come see me, okay?" Fluttershy responded, patient as ever. She gave the badger back his paw and the creature wandered off. Fluttershy smiled and looked around. Today was just a perfect day in her mind. The sun had warmed the hill she sat on, making it all the more comfortable as she tended to the creatures that came to her for aid. She preferred to tend to them in her hut, where she could thoroughly clean and care for any wound or problem, but many wild animals weren't all that comfortable indoors, and she did her best to accommodate them.
However, her next visitor was no small critter. A cloaked figure emerged from the Everfree forest, turning to Fluttershy once she was clear. Fluttershy watched the figure approach, her nerves steadying as she recognized the pony behind the cloak.
"G-Good morning Zecora. How are you?" Fluttershy greeted her zebra friend as Zecora reached her and threw back her hood. Zecora came into town more often now, and she and Twilight visited one another frequently, but Fluttershy still didn't know the zebra that well. Her visit certainly came as a surprise.
"A morning it is, and quite fair, but I'm afraid it is a grim mood I bear." Zecora replied. Fluttershy blinked. Zecora's words were always rather pretty, but never easy for the pegasus to follow.
"Is something the matter?" she asked. Zecora nodded.
"I am sorry to ask, but of you I need a boon. Else I fear I'll be at my wits end soon."
"A...favor? What do you need me to do?" Fluttershy was hardly somepony most went to when there was a problem. She wondered why Zecora hadn't approached Twilight, or perhaps Applejack. They always knew what to do.
"I have found my stores raided by some manner of beast. I hoped you could discover what, at the least."
"Oh, I see." That made more sense. "I, um, I guess I can help with that."
"Your eagerness gladdens my heart. How soon can you be ready to depart?"
"Oh, we can go now." Fluttershy told her. Zecora nodded, turned around, and headed down the hill. Fluttershy got up and trotted behind her. She tried to hold back a whimper as they entered the Everfree forest. Even at midday it immediately got darker around them, the trees closing in and creating a thick roof above their heads. She knew that most creatures here wouldn't hurt them. Even the manticores were friendly, if you had the right touch. But there were the dragons, and the hydra, and all the darkness... the shadows themselves menaced her now. Fluttershy had never done well with darkness.
"So long as to my side you keep near, I promise you shall have nothing to fear." Zecora told her, apparently noticing her nervousness. Fluttershy nodded, swallowed, and tried to stop herself from trembling. Zecora lived in the Everfree forest after all. Surely there was nothing to fear with such an expert guide, right? Unless a tree fell on them, or they ran into a cockatrice, or they got stuck in a bog, or got stuck in a bog when a tree fell on them and were trapped as cockatrices got to them...
Fluttershy found herself getting woozy and realized she was hyperventilating. She stopped breathing in response, only to find herself getting light-headed. Just breathe, Fluttershy, just breathe. Remember what Twilight had said about breathing.
Fluttershy was sensitive to the noises of the forest, having spent most of her life in or around such places, and was familiar with its inhabitants. She knew the call of every bird, she could hear the growl of a mongoose in the distance, she knew the tracks in front of her. It brought some level of comfort to her, when she let herself relax enough to simply absorb all this. Many critters made their home in or around the Everfree; it wasn't that long ago Fluttershy herself had gone into the forest to deliver a load of excess frogs to the nearby swamp. It gave her some small measure of comfort to know she was just as likely to run into something friendly as something not. And surely whatever had bothered Zecora was nothing more than a couple of rats that didn't understand the concept of property rights.
"And here is the place in which I abide; my stores I keep to the other side." They had reached Zecora's home, which was such an organic part of the forest that even Fluttershy hadn't noticed until they were upon it. Zecora led her around the back of her tree of a house to a sturdy wooden chest nestled against the trunk.
"None of it I shall really miss, though I do wonder what beast could have managed this." Zecora tapped a hoof on the chest. It hadn't been locked, but had been on a solid latch.
"Sometimes squirrels or raccoons get oh so curious." Fluttershy smiled in response. "They fiddle with latches and hooks, anything you can just nudge open. Locks work though." Zecora took this response in stride, simply nodding in return.
"If of my reagents they have their fill, I'm afraid they'll soon become quite ill."
"You mean this isn't food?" Fluttershy's eyes went wide. Zecora shook her head sadly and opened the chest. There were several small cloth pouches, each of a different color and labeled. Herbs and powders, Fluttershy realized, like what Zecora had used to create the poison joke cure. Furthermore, several pouches were tumbled open and there were empty spots in the middle of a row of bags.
"What need have I to store food? The forest provides for any mood."
"Oh dear. So, they'll get sick from eating what was in here?" Fluttershy asked asked. Zecora nodded.
"Oh no! We need to, um...we should do something."
"What would you have us do?" Zecora asked. "The forest is large, and of us there are only two. I shall heed your advice and not rely on this latch, but as of the culprits we shall never catch."
Fluttershy nodded reluctantly, a sorrowful frown on her face.
"These reagents shouldn't be deadly, I think. Now why don't you stay for a drink?"
"Oh, um..." Fluttershy looked around "Maybe they didn't get far? Can I look around a little?"
Zecora nodded, and stood back, giving Fluttershy room. Some poor creature was likely out there, right now, nursing a bellyache, or worse! Fluttershy just couldn't bring herself to leave with this thought running through her head. She studied the area immediately around the chest, hoping for some sign of whatever critter had gotten into Zecora's supplies. The ground in the Everfree forest was almost always soft, bordering on boggy, and even small animals might have left prints. There was nothing right around the chest, so Fluttershy spread her search a bit more.
"Oh, that's strange. Zecora, do you wear horseshoes?." Fluttershy found a set of prints leading away from the home.
"Never in my life have I worn a horseshoe; zebras do not need them as you do." Zecora replied. She approached Fluttershy, curious, and saw the prints.
"Hmm." she frowned. "I had assumed I was raided by a beast, and quite sensibly. What kind of pony would do this is quite a mystery."
"You think somepony stole from you?" She asked. Zecora nodded, and Fluttershy realized that was the obvious answer given the evidence. Still, she couldn't imagine why anypony would steal, particularly from Zecora. Not only could nopony she was aware of use the herbs, but Zecora was always free with her supplies - take the poison joke incident for example, where she had mixed up more than enough cure for each pony even after being accused of witch craft.
"Maybe, maybe there's a reason..." Fluttershy mumbled. She found herself slowly following the tracks, and Zecora followed behind. In addition to all else, she found herself wondering where the pony could be headed. The hoofprints followed a tiny path, more of a natural gap in the trees than any real trail, farther into the forest. She was so engrossed by the tracks that she ignored all else around her, not noticing as she got higher and the ground got rockier.
She eventually lost the tracks, prompting her to look up at her surroundings. She turned to Zecora, who looked perplexed and intriged. She was at the base of a small mountain, the trees giving out as the ground became solid rock. She looked up and could see natural caves in the mountain side, one in particular right in front of her, a shallow slope leading straight to its mouth. Surely there wasn't somepony living here? Zecora made her home in the forest, that was true, but...a cave?
"Does, does anypony else live around here?" she asked. Zecora shook her head.
"There is no place for ponies upon this rocky shelf; as far as I know, it is only myself."
Cautious, scared but curious, Fluttershy began up the rocky path, unsure of whether she wanted Zecora to be right or wrong. She was several steps up when she heard a low groan. It made her lock up, afraid it was some angry beast she had just annoyed. But then she recognized the groan as that of a pony. She had heard a lot of such moans after the infamous 'baked bads' incident.
"Um, is, is somepony there?" she called out as best she could. The groan stopped short. Fluttershy thought she heard a gasp.
"H-hello?" she tried again, taking a step closer.
"G-go away! There's no one here!" came a reply. Fluttershy squeaked, stepping back instinctively. However, something about the voice made her frown. She recognized it, but couldn't place it. She turned, to find Zecora's brow furrowed. The zebra nodded for Fluttershy to continue, giving her some reassurance.
"Are you, um, are you okay?" she walked forward. "Did you, were you, um, the one-"
"Be gone! Uh, umm..." she heard a zap, and suddenly smoke billowed from the cave. Fluttershy nearly ran before Zecora caught her.
"Oh that was a bad idea..." the voice groaned. Fluttershy swallowed and tried to stop her shaking.
"Those are the sounds of a pony in distress." Zecora said lowly. "Let us get to the bottom of this mess." Fluttershy nodded, turning slowly back around. She knew Zecora was right, even if whoever it was clearly wanted to be left alone.
"A-Are you alright?"
"Please...." the voice was so strained. Fluttershy forced herself up towards the cave, Zecora on her heels. Whoever was in the cave coughed again but said nothing more. Fluttershy reached the cave mouth.
"Hello?" she blinked, unable to make out much in the dim light. A figure near the back wall coughed.
"I-I command you to leave! Nopony is allowed to see me like this..." the voice finally clicked in Fluttershy's mind.
"Trixie...?" she stepped inside the cave, eyes adjusting to the light. It was in fact the blue unicorn. Her mane and tail were torn rat's nests, she was covered in scratches and gashes, and her ribs were visible. It was hard to imagine, but the pony's cutie mark identified her as the showmare that had come to and left Ponyville a month ago.
"Leave..." Trixie groaned, panting. Fluttershy could hear the other pony's stomach growl, and the once proud unicorn winced, eyes tearing up. Her head slumped down against the ground.
"Trixie!" Fluttershy rushed to her side. She was out cold, her breathing pained and ragged. "Oh, um...don't worry! Z-Zecora!"
"Mmm, the Great and Powerful Trixie approves..." Trixie moaned. She felt so warm and comfortable, and hung peacefully between sleep and wakefulness. In her mind she was getting a spa treatment, an expert young mare filing her hooves gently until they would gleam as she rested on a mountain of pillows.
"Masseuse next." Trixie ordered, half-asleep. She heard a squeak. Why, the spa girl must be timid. Trixie smiled; she loved them cute and innocent. Then, suddenly, she felt a sharp pain in her hoof that distorted the illusion.
"Oh, sorry. I, um, just need to get the splinters out." the voice made Trixie finally wake up. She opened her eyes, immediately shutting them again as the light attacked her poor retinas. Groaning, she tried again, slowly peeking out from behind her eyelids.
She was on something soft, a bed she guessed, feeling what was no doubt a pillow beneath her head. She was on her back, looking up at a yellow ceiling. She was very comfortable, but too confused to enjoy the sensation. She turned her head to look around, immediately wincing as she began to feel her aches and pains again. She forced herself to ignore this, and as she looked she found another pony at her side, sitting on a stool and holding up Trixie's right foreleg. A yellow pegasus with a long pink mane that hid half her face.
"You!" Trixie accused. "Who are you? What are you doing?" she tried to tug her hoof away. She was so weak that it barely twitched in the other pony's grip.
"Oh, I'm sorry! I had to get them out before they got infected. I, um, I'm afraid some already are..."
Trixie groaned. The pegasus used a pair of tweezers she held in her teeth to pluck out another splinter. Trixie looked at it, eyes widening. It was bigger than a toothpick!
"What happened?" Trixie asked with a groan. She felt more dead than alive.
"Zecora said you tried to eat her ingredients. You, um, poisoned yourself a little... I keep a lot of medical supplies, so we brought you here."
Trixie began to say something, but remembered what the pegasus was talking about, at least partially. "Right, the witch-pony." she frowned. "Trixie was...not in top shape at the time. She rightfully assumed that the witch kept food, not... whatever that was. What a silly pony."
"She's, um, a zebra...actually..." the pegasus shrunk away at Trixie's frown.
"Well, while the Great and Powerful Trixie appreciates being pampered, she has had quite enough of this. She shall be leaving now." she looked to the pegasus, waiting for her response. The pink-maned pony just gave a worried glance, but nodded.
"...aren't you going to argue with Trixie?" Trixie asked, a little hesitant. The pegasus shook her head.
"Well." Trixie huffed. "Good to see somepony with some good sense. The Great-" she struggled to get onto her side, wincing at every movement, "and Powerful-" the pegasus stepped aside as Trixie got off the bed, her eyes watering, "Trixie does not- woah." she fell down where she stood. She groaned, trying to lift herself from the floor, but found she couldn't support her own weight. A horrible, sharp pang of hunger made her cry out a little. She looked up to see the pegasus standing over her, watching her with such open eyes. Trixie looked away.
"Would you, um, like some lunch first?" the pegasus asked. Her voice wasn't mocking or sarcastic like Trixie expected. She was asking that in all honesty. Trixie was astounded.
"...the Great and Powerful Trixie would like that, yes." she admitted, not looking back at her caretaker. The pegasus trotted away, just leaving Trixie on the floor. Trixie looked around from her low vantage point. It was a tidy, sunny room, as far as she could make out. Almost disgustingly cute, all yellows and greens with rustic wood accents, like she had stepped into the home of spring itself.
Trixie's thoughts were interrupted by a small clatter. She blinked as she found a bowl of soup in front of her. She looked up to see that pegasus pony smiling at her sweetly, having come back while Trixie had been distracted. Trixie looked back to the soup warily, then forced herself to lean forward. She put her lips to the bowl and began to drink. The soup was so warm, and felt so good.
"It's, it's okay. You don't need to cry."
Trixie stopped drinking and looked up at her crossly. "What are you talking about? The Great and Powerful Trixie does not..." she blinked and felt a streak of wetness down her face. She gingerly brought one hoof to her face and it came away damp.
"The Great and Powerful Trixie would prefer to eat alone." she said curtly.
"Won't you need help getting back into bed?"
"Hmph. The Great and Powerful Trixie is more than capable than taking care of herself."
"Oh...okay." Once again, where Trixie expected argument she got only quiet acceptance from the pony. She disappeared, and though Trixie couldn't see it, she heard a door closed.
Alone, Trixie got back to her soup. She felt more tears come and didn't have the will to hold them back. It felt so long since she had eaten, even longer since she had eaten anything substantial. The forest had seemed endless and thick whenever she had searched for an exit, but barren and full of hatred for her whenever she searched for food. There was no grass, the undergrowth smothered by the thick canopy. What leaves she had found had been bitter; berries had almost always been brightly colored and dangerous, and what wasn't clearly poisonous was usually scarce, such as a hoofful of foreign nuts or a patch of grass. It was as if the forest itself was evil; it had not just nearly starved her, but had grabbed at her legs and sides, it had tore her mane and tail, it had taunted her at every turn. So yes, she would allow herself to cry, just this once.
She drained the soup astoundingly quick, her throat sore as she gulped down the hot broth. She tilted the bowl up, getting every drop. Her belly felt bloated and painful, but she wouldn't trade the feeling for anything in the world. Surely now, she figured, she could get to her feet. She tried twice before it dawned on her that all the soup had done was to make her heavier. She looked to her forelegs in frustration and realized she was bleeding from around her hooves, where the underbrush had always cut her worse and thorns and splinters had stuck in her. There were layers of pain to feel in that moment, from the dull ache of her muscles to the sharpness of cuts to the exquisite agony inside her. She was going nowhere.
"Um...you there! Pony! The Great and Powerful Trixie demands you come this instance!" she called, trying to lean to where she believed the door to be. She heard no response.
"Do you hear me? Come already! ....please?" she wavered. She heard the door click. She managed to look over and see the pegasus approach her.
"Do you need any help?"
Trixie scowled. "The Great and Powerful Trixie has decided, in her infinite benevolence, to indulge you for a while longer. You are now free to return to pampering me."
"Oh. Do you, um, want me to help you into bed?" The pegasus asked, acting as if she hadn't heard a word Trixie had said. Trixie scowled and looked away.
"...that would be acceptable." she muttered. She heard the pegasus trot around and suddenly felt a nudge in her side. She winced.
"Careful!" she shouted. She got no response, and the pony continued to nudge her. Confused, she tried to lift herself, as she assumed she was being prompted. Then she felt the other pony's head go underneath her. She found herself being lifted over the pegasus's back, briefly carried like a sack of grain. The pegasus turned to the side and lifted Trixie onto the bed. Trixie wriggled her way onto her back, placing her head back on the pillow. She looked at her hooves hanging in the air and frowned.
"You may continue the pampering now." she told the pegasus. The other pony just nodded calmly and got her tweezers out again.
"G-gentle now!" Trixie prompted, remembering how much it had stung before. The yellow pony closed her eyes briefly and nodded. Trixie found the gesture demeaning. She was being...coddled.
"D-don't go getting ideas, you, you...commoner!" Trixie tried to sound intimidating. "Trixie is still great and powerful! If you had been what she had been through, you....ahhh....would not have even survived!" she found herself yawning. The weight in her stomach was beginning to settle, and her meal was sapping what little energy she had left as she began to digest it.
"Sleep would be good for you, you know." the pegasus said, managing to keep the tweezers in the side of her mouth as she spoke. She inched them back into position and leaned in. Trixie bit her lip as she felt something on her leg begin to leak. The pegasus just sighed and got off her stool.
"Hmph, I'm sure that's just what you want. The Great and Powerful Trixie at your....ahhhm, mercy." the pegasus came back with a washcloth in her mouth. She began to dab at Trixie's hoof. It came away with a small bloodstain, along with something disturbingly green. The pegasus was beginning to hum something gentle.
"What are you doing? The Great and Powerful Trixie is wise to your tricks."
The pegasus put down the washcloth, and to Trixie's surprise, began to sing.
"Hush now, quiet now, It's time to lay your sleepy head..."
"What? Are you seriously singing?"
"Hush now, quiet now, it's time to go to bed..."
"The Great and...ahmm....is not some filly to be sent-"
"Drifting off to sleep, leave the sun and day behind you..."
"Stop...ahhm, stop that right....now..."
"Drifting off to sleep, let the joy of daylight find you..."
"Great and....powerful....mmmmm." Trixie's eyelids were closed, and her breathing slowing down. She slowly fell asleep, the pegasus waiting for the sound of a snore before carefully getting back to work.