Dancing with Darkness
MLP FiM: Copyright Hasbro
A swathe of untamed woods that struck fear into the heart of many a courageous pony...and why wouldn't it? Filled with strange and mysterious beasts, weather and wildlife taking care of itself, and it didn't even stay within it's own bounds! The place was wholly and completely unnatural, leaving a lot o ponies to wonder why it hadn't been cut down and built over long ago, a question that was left without answer. It was a credit to the Apple family name that they'd been able to carve out the beginnings of Sweet Apple Acres from the Forest's grip, something they were rightly proud of since, to this day, even heroes of Equestria hesitated to venture into the forest during the day.
Was it any surprise that ponies had been a bit...wary of the strange pony who lived by herself out alone in the middle of those woods? Sure, they had warmed up to Zecora right quick once they'd gotten to know the zebra, but could they be blamed for being scared of her? Ponies had originally been herd animals after all, which meant any trace of difference was to be shunned since it could mean a danger to the herd as a whole. Ponies on a whole have come a long way since then, but instincts are hardy things that can take many years before they finally die out and Zecora had been a pariah because of it.
None of them were proud of their actions when they had first confronted Zecora, how could they be?
And now...old doubts were circling around in Twilight's head as they pushed through the undergrowth of the forest, careful to avoid the vivid blue flowers that laid along the path to the zebra's hut in the woods.
Don't be silly Twilight! There's a perfectly rational explanation for why those jugs were there! They could have even been stolen! It's not like Zecora would run into Ponyville to tell everypony if someone had knicked something from her hut after all. Twilight thought to herself, finding some solace in the logic of the statement, even as they reached a break in the dark, grasping trees of the forest. Like always, the zebra's hut was both alarming and a welcome change from the cloying flora of the forest with it's sinister looking masks and warm glow of fire coming from inside of the windows. Even after the reassurances from Zecora about the meaning of the masks and, admittedly, a little side research to confirm the truth of the matter, Twilight still found the leering things a little creepy. Like she was being watched by a crowd of anonymous beings just salivating at the thought of her trouble!
"Tch...I really wish she'd at least let me spruce up those masks! They're simply hideous!" Rarity commented as she gazed distastefully at a particularly spooky looking mask painted blue with a green grass mane. A shudder ran down the unicorn's spine which Twilight could only assume was because of the fashionista's distaste for green manes. She didn't even want to think about how Rarity would react when Twilight revealed she was going to be helping the show-pony who had turned her lovingly coiffed mane into that rat's nest.
"It doesn't look like she's home..." Rainbow Dash said, zipping up to peer over the lip of one window.
"C-can we go home n-n-now?" Fluttershy asked timidly from her position at the rear of the group, keeping her eyes open for any sign of the dangerous and oftentimes unpredictable creatures of the Everfree Forest. Even if the Poison Joke kept many of them away, the last thing the mares wanted was for hungry timberwolves or worst to track them here...
"Ah think we should just head'n in. Ain't like we haven't been to visit Zecora before, heck we might even find us some proof she ain't involved in this mess before she even gets home!" Applejack replied to the other three, sounding a great deal more sure of herself then the others did.
"Well...it might be a little rude, but I don't think she'd object to us just waiting inside..." Twilight murmured, even as the familiar flame of curiosity began to burn in the back of her mind. Zecora was a friend and, on occasion, a mentor whenever the studious unicorn came across a problem that she couldn't figure out on her own, but Twilight would be lying if she said she wasn't curious about just what sort of herbs the zebra kept around.
Inside of the hollowed out tree, the five ponies found their senses assaulted by a thick aroma of loam and herbs that was unique to Zecora and her home. Each of the five stepped inside nervously and shut the door behind them, standing about awkwardly or peering around at their surroundings. Rarity investigated the cauldron in the center of room, peering in at what smelled like a batch of vegetable stew even as her horn glowed to properly illuminate it. Fluttershy was, of all things, staring into the dirty mirror located by the bed and if Twilight wasn't so focused on the jars lining the shelves would have noticed the yellow pegasus' lips moving as if she was talking to herself.
It was actually Applejack that noticed and moved closer to begin to speak in a low whisper to the meek pegasus, while Rainbow Dash abandoned all pretext of subtly and zipped from shelf to shelf looking for the matching bottles to the ones they'd found in the Diamond Dog's cave. Intent rose colored eyes looked from bottle to bottle, trying to find the same symbols she had seen inside the abandoned Diamond Dog cave.
"Bitterwart, hackle back, night shadow....Is it just me or do most of these sound like poison?" Rainbow grumbled a loud as she pushed back the first row of jars and blinks in surprise, "Hey Twilight, I think I found something!"
"Hm?" The unicorn looked up from the shelves she had been examining, just as the cyan pegasus flapped down with jar in hoof, "...Rainbow, these are tea leaves."
"What? No way! Just look at that symbol!" Dash asserted, shaking the clay jug suspiciously.
"I am! Do you even know what it means?" Twilight responded with a sigh.
"No! ...do you?"
"Yes! Now put the tea down!"
"Eeeeeuuuggghhh! This...this stuff is simply rancid!" Rarity interrupted from the cauldron, recoiling back from it as one hoof was lifted to cover her nose, knocking the thing over and spilling it's foul-smelling contents all over the floor. That familiar stink hit all of the ponies like a sledgehammer to the face, each one quickly covering their noses.
"What is going on in here? Breaking in does not endear!" A sing-song rhyme called from the doorway, the sudden voice prompting each of the girls to spin around with a guilty look to face down the confused and slightly irate zebra that had stepped inside while they were searching. "Such suspicions I thought we had moved beyond, but here we are and I feel quite conned!"
Not the Everfree Forest
"Move pony!" The dig dog growled, shoving the group of foals forward with his spear even as his armored bulk blocked the path back up towards the surface behind them, the smoke from the torches thicker down here in these narrower tunnels. Most of the foal-nap victims were happy to comply, skittering forward with a cry or two of fear here and there but two ponies found themselves at the back of the group. Diamond Tiara limped forward sullenly while Apple Bloom lagged behind just a step or two behind the pink filly, casting a worried look as the spoiled pony favored one of her rear legs.
"Diamond, are ya okay?" the red-maned filly asked worriedly, lagging behind another step to whisper to her and earning herself a vicious prod from the butt of the spear.
"I'm fine." Diamond snarled, giving a toss of her mane, "One of these mongrels was just a little rough when I put up more of a fight then he thought I would. At least they had to struggle to get me down here..."
Is that filly really bragging cause she's limping and I'm not? Apple Bloom wondered in awe to herself, stunned into silence by the thought before the spear whacked her on the behind again and pushed her forward.
"Oh...well you can lean on me if you want, you probably shouldn't be weight on that leg." The earth pony offered tentatively, wary of any anger in Diamond's eyes at the perceived pity. Diamond had been acting oddly ever since the whole Discord incident in the first place, she'd even been mean to Silver Spoon of all ponies, and the last thing the youngest Apple needed was an argument with Diamond to make everything worse! For a moment, it looked like it was going to happen anyway, with the pink filly opening her mouth for some cutting remark before her ear twitched and a pensive frown settled on her face.
"Yeah...that makes sense I guess..." Diamond mumbled to herself, reluctantly leaning up against Apple Bloom, taking the weight off her wounded leg.
"Course it does! Why Ah bet the reason yer still limpin' at all is because you've been walking on it!" Apple Bloom said helpfully as she helped her fellow prisoner catch up with the rest of the group.
"What?" Diamond said, looking a bit surprised that the other had spoken to her, "I wasn't talking to you!" the filly blurted out, looking incensed before she winced and shook her head. "I was just talking out loud to myself! I do that all the time at home."
Stunned by the harsh reply, Apple Bloom lapsed into silence and instead looked to their surroundings as the crying of the other foals quieted down to just sniffles and the occasional scuffing as the foalnap victims slowed, only to be given less and less gentle shoves forward by the dig dogs. At the front, guiding the way and making sure none of the foals ran off, was Rover holding up a fitful torch as the small group was guided down deeper and deeper into the earth, where dirt was less common and gray, unwelcoming stone replaced it. The noises of mining faded behind them as the group came upon an ornate looking doorway, where Rover paused to dip his torch into a hidden trough, igniting the oil inside and illuminating the crypt before them all with a line of flame along the wall. Across from the flames, the dogs had worn the stone smooth over time through hard work and buffed it to an almost mirror like sheen to reflect the flames opposite them. On the wall with flames was a marvelous fresco that showed...
Apple Bloom actually had to squint for a second, she could have swore she saw a unicorn in the fresco for a moment, but on second glance it was a female Diamond Dog standing with the one she'd seen before scolding Rover beneath a large glowing stone. The male didn't look nearly as scarred or angry as when the pony had last seen him...in fact he looked downright happy! That seemed a bit peculiar itself honestly, she hadn't seen many Diamond Dogs but she'd yet to see a happy one. Course, she'd just figured it had to do with living underground all the time and never getting any chances to come out into the sunlight for a some fresh air, but now that she thought about it...
"Hey, Mister Dig Dog, who's that fella in the top hat? And who's that lady he's standin' with?" Apple Bloom asked the primitive looking canine behind her, scooting forward when it looked like he was considering whacking her with the spear for talking.
"Dat's Rex, he's da top dog...da lady is Fifi. She used ta be married to da Top Dog til she died." the dig dog growled out though he was quick to look away from the fresco, as if worried it would see him slacking off, "Dat was while ago, he ain't been da same since..."
"Hey! Quit talking to the poniesss back there!" Rover shouted back, glowering over his shoulder at the dig dog until he straightened up and gave an eager nod, returning his attention to where they were heading. As they walked, the wall opposite the fire was broken up by large rectangles of shiny...wait, gold?! Everyone stopped for a moment to look at the first one, the Diamond Dogs with greed and also reverence while the ponies were just amazed. Above it was a little plague.
"Here rests Happy the First
His pack will miss his expertise."
"Holy hay stacks! That's a tomb!" Apple Bloom blurted out, breaking the silence and drawing the attention of everyone else until Rover coughed and motioned them further into the crypt. More of the fancifully gilded tombs followed, some gold, some silver, all barred by a door of some precious metal that practically glowed in the fire-light. It was still a bit eerie though, to think on the opposite side of those slabs were the dead...As distracted as she was, Apple Bloom couldn't avoid running into Peachy Pie from behind as the group was halted in front of a rough opening. Like the other tombs, it used to be a perfect rectangle set into the wall, but whatever precious metal had been blocking it off had been stripped away in a process that had left gouges in edge of the entrance, giving it a jagged and fore-boding look that did little for the nerves as the dogs began to herd the suddenly protesting foals into the opened tomb.
Only Rover followed them in, the dig dogs lingered back reluctantly at the entrance, whining softly to themselves and quickly retreating once Rover was out of sight. Something inside the tomb smelled like...Sunnytown.
Each of the ponies exclaimed when they saw the zebra coming in through the door, Twilight and Dash quickly backing away from the herb shelves with a guilty look at one another. Had the rhyming zebra seen them? All of the present ponies stepped away from the spilled stew, raising their hooves up to cover their noses.
"Greetings, friends from Ponyville! What brings you here, if you will?" Zecora said amicably as she closed the door behind her, walking across the room to grab hold of a mop to begin cleaning up the mess that had been made of the contents of the cauldron, looking a bit confused by the smell coming off of it.
""There aint' any time for pleasantries Zecora, we got a serious problem on our hooves! Have ya heard the news from Ponyville?" Applejack said anxiously drawing a startled and dumbfounded look from the zebra, even as the other four ponies pressed in around her.
"Diamond Dogs have been taking foals from Ponyville and we're trying to figure out what's going on." Twilight explained quickly, only to be interrupted by a sharp gasp from the zebra.
""The little foals, they've disappeared? !A crime this vile I've never seen! Poor little foals, where could they be?" Zecora exclaimed, her tone bringing a a surge of guilt to Applejack. After all, how often had Apple Bloom snuck into the Everfree Forest to visit Zecroa for advice or to run some errand for her? The two were fast friends...and Applejack couldn't help but feel bad that she hadn't considered that it wasn't just the families that were hurting right now and that reminder made her wonder how Scootaloo was doing.
"T-that's just it..." Fluttershy began timidly, "We looked at the Diamond Dog's den to try and find them, but they'd already left. We did find a couple of jars that had the same kind of writing as on yours thought so we thought...maybe if you could...?"
The yellow pegasus' question was left hanging in the air when Dash finished, zipping down with a familiar jar in her hooves.
"We found the plants you gave the Diamond Dogs Zecora! Now fess up, why are you helping those mutts and where are they?" she bristled, shaking the jug vigorously in front of Zecora's face as if to get an answer out of it.
"Rainbow! Put down the tea!" Twilight snapped irately, yanking the jar out of her hooves with telekinesis, "I'm sorry for barging in like this Zecora, but everyone in Ponyville is getting anxious and the only lead we have is a weird knock-out potion the dogs had and bunch of herbs with Zebra script on them..."
The unicorn put it as delicately as she could but...the implication still hung thick in the air and it hardly took long for a former-pariah like the zebra to see it, brown eyes narrowing angrily.
"Your words are filled with bile and rot! To blame for this crime, I am not!" she asserted hotly, instinctly taking an aggressive stance, much like she had during that first, misunderstanding filled meeting between the ponies and the zebra. Just remembering that made Twilight's forehead ache and a unicorn skull was built for charging!
"No no no, we weren't blaming you, were we girls?" Fluttershy said quickly, taking a couple quick steps back before finding her nerve and glancing around at her other friends only to find some of them divided on that topic.
"Well...you do have to admit it is very suspicious..." Rarity replied begrudgingly, still covering her nose with one hoof, "I mean first Diamond Dogs seem to brew up a potion with a few ingredients they only could have gotten from you and now we find the same brew in your cauldron."
"Yeah! Now why don't you get talking Zecr...?" Rainbow Dash began to demand before a purple glow grabbed her tail and yanked her out of the air, quieting her down for the moment as Twilight cleared her throat.
"Is there any way they could have stolen the ingredients and a recipe from you? Maybe on one of your trips into town?" Twilight asked hopefully, "There's so many ingredients here after all, would you have noticed if some of them just went missing?"
"Twi...why would she have a brew like that in the first place?" Applejack says gently, giving Zecora a heartfelt, pleading expression, "Look, Ah'm not judge'n but ya gotta admit this is mighty odd. Accordin' to Twilight, a few of the plants we found don't have a wholesome use but ya got them in here. If the Dogs robbed ya, just say so and we'll believe ya but if they didn't, just tell us. We just want to find our kin Zecora.."
"Those mystic herbs they did not thieve, they traded gems for every leaf! Each plant I gave them forms a cure, powerful, effective, and pure." Zecora said crossly, snatching the jug they had brought with them from the den, "And if this truth you do deny, some silver-root you then should try. A few chews later you will find, this herb can soothe an aching mind."
She had barely finished the rhyme before the five pressed in tight all around her again, eyes wide.
"You traded with them?! Where are they?!" they said in unison, nearly blowing the zebra off her hooves before she caught herself with a dazed look on her face and recounted what she knew. Zecora had been as surprised as anyone would have been when a trio of Diamond Dogs had shown up on her door-step, looking to find some herbal remedies for their pack's aches and pains, as well as something more potent to deter quarry eels from encroaching on their turf. She had been leery at first, but the canines had seemed to be on the straight and narrow while their payment had been surprisingly generous for what little they had asked for. A simple pick-up and their business had been concluded! Until a couple days ago when one of the dogs had returned, wanting to pick up more of the one herb when it had turned out they hadn't bought enough the first time. Seemingly a lot busier then before, the dog had begrudgingly agreed to let the zebra deliver the herbs to their den herself to save them the trip after they'd been so kind in their last dealing. She still remembered where the cave entrance was, right where the land started to get swampy where Everfree met Froggy Bottom Bog...
In the Den
All of them could smell it now, but few of them recognized the scent for what it was...and the ones who did shook in their hooves. That smell of spoiled meat and decay was just like Applebloom remembered it from the terrifying necro-ponies of Sunny Town and the reminder of those red eyed monsters emerging from the ground had her gulping nervously and glancing around as if she expected to see the horrid ponies emerging from the walls around them. Rover carried his torch once more as he ushered the foals towards the back of the hollowed out tomb where the light from the tunnel was harder to see and the noises muffled.
There, a ragged shape covered in rags huddled against the wall, a poofy poodle tail laying out from the pile of rags and announcing the creature's species as well as anything could. Whatever it was crunched and lapped at a large bone, noisily sucking the marrow out from a cracked thigh bone as Rover stepped past the foals and raised his torch to cast light on the horror the foals had been brought to. Apple Bloom recognized what it was all too well, she didn't want to though. She wanted to run back home, hide under her bed, and wake up from this nightmare!
"Wake up beast." Rover growled out, keeping the torch between himself and it at all times as it stirred and rose to it's rotten paws, "Your dinner's here."
As the thing's face came into view, the foals began to scream and scream, even as a ghastly smile came to it's rotten face.
"How sweet...he sent treats for Fifi..." the monster cooed, reaching for the closest of the small ponies...