Chapter Seven: Ayes Or Neighs
Rain fell in cascading sheets, pounding the gasping pony like a million angry wet hooves.
Teacup stood hock deep in the oozing mud that the road had become, her eyelids fluttering from the slamming rain. Her milk-white coat was covered in bleeding scratches, crimson drooling down to swirl in the mud.
Lightning, bright as a thousand suns split the sky, the boom almost instantaneous with the flash, the sound so loud that it made the mud ripple from the impact.
The pale earth pony was a pathetic sight, her saddlebags already filled with water, her body shivering in the deluge. But as awful as she appeared, it was nothing compared to the condition of her soul; she had left her very first real friend, in all the world, to die in the slavering jaws of a monster from hell.
Teacup hadn't meant to do that. She had firmly meant to stand with Petal, to die with her if necessary. But when Petal had commanded her to run, the fear in her body had taken over, and nothing her horrified brain could do would stop her legs from running away. Now, that same body, so different from the human body she had once worn, stood shaking in the mud, frozen in abject terror.
MOVE. The thought burned in her consciousness. MOVE, LEG! With every element of her being she willed her front, right leg to lift. MOVE. Slowly, her hoof began to escape the sucking mud. WALK. Her right hoof went down again, pushing her forward. GO. The left rear leg creaked into motion, muscles fighting terrified rigidity. Leg after leg, hoof by hoof, Teacup willed her rebellious flesh to obey her commands.
Teacup forced herself from the liquified road, pushing with her front legs to free her hocks and gaskins from the mud. Her hind legs had briefly failed her, and she had resorted to dragging her own hindquarters from the mudpit. Her sodden tail trailed behind her like a dead snake.
Mechanically, she forced her body to march back towards the forest. Step after step, her hooves finally meeting rain submerged grass. Splashing through this, she made the edge of the Everfree, where her legs froze again from an overwhelming burst of fear.
Teacup slammed the side of her head against a tree. Her ears rang from the impact, pain arcing down her long neck. Her legs suddenly forgot to remain locked, the pain overriding everything else. Forward, FORWARD she stomped, faster and faster, pushing through the tearing nettles and the grasping underbrush.
She was inside the forest now, the rain gone, clear dark blue evening above. The sound of thunder was still loud behind her, beyond the border of the Everfree, but it became muffled as she plowed her way back to the clearing.
In the clearing was a curious sight. A leaping unicorn, cast in stone, rested on the forest floor, balanced on extended, bent legs, where it had crashed. It was a statue in mid-leap, still upright, horn lowered in defiant attack.
Hovering close, circling as if admiring the statue, the abomination laughed with a cruel, hissing voice.
Suddenly it spoke, in perfect Equestrian: "You will soon return to flesh, pony. But when you do, my teeth will already be around you, waiting. Think of that now. Your last experience will be my teeth tearing your head from you. In that moment, you will know that you had a chance, but that you failed. Think of that, while you wait." The voice hissed and spat as it said the words, and its single great eye roved over the stone pony with unholy glee.
Teacup stood in the cover of a large bush, the twisted branches digging into her flanks. It's intelligent, she thought. It can talk, it can think. Her eyes tried to focus on her friend. She's alive. She's alive somehow. She will turn back to flesh any moment.
Finally the fullness dawned on her: this creature is magic. It can turn things to stone.
Hopeless resignation began to descend like a black curtain dropping down across her thoughts. She was a farm pony, a mere earth pony. What could she do if a unicorn could do nothing?
Inside her, some pride remained. She was a Provender Pony. She was a gosh-darn Provender Farms Pony, and Missus Provender herself chose her. Missus Provender loved her, she was sure of it. No damnable critter was going to stop a Provender pony. Teacup didn't know how, but by Celestia herself, she was gonna save her friend and kick that sorry creature's horror movie ass.
Oh! More than being a Provender Pony, she was the real monster here! Oh yes. 'Teacup?' No, she was Tikvah Feinstein, a REAL monster from a planet of TRUE evil. Scary eyes and big teeth were nothing to a former member of a species that could genocide entire civilizations from the globe. She came from a people that had burned an entire world, a species that delighted in torturing children and exterminating entire phylums of animal life! She trotted out into the clearing.
"EAT ME TOO!" Teacup shouted.
The monstrous, floating sphere swiveled to stare, in surprise, at the ragged pony.
"Eat me raw, as I am. I want to die with my friend. Let me stand beside her, and you may bite both our heads off at the same time! I cannot live without her!"
The hovering abomination glared at her in shock. Then it began cackling like the sound of a thousand hooves scraping chalkboards, spinning slowly in delight. "Come, ridiculous pony. I will grant your request!" The horrific cackling laughter filled the clearing as Teacup trotted obediently over.
Teacup sidled up close to her friend, and stretched her head far out, so that it was even with that of Petal.
The creature cackled even more as it studied this display. Finally it bobbed over to face the two ponies, one flesh, one stone, all of its eyes focused on them. After a moment it opened its incredibly wide, jagged, dagger-toothed jaw, and slowly began to engulf the heads of the two Equestrians.
Teacup whipped her head out and fell on her side. Kicking the ground with her hooves she spun her body directly under the massive round shape, then pulled her legs in tight.
The monstrous creature pulled back from its meal. As it moved, Teacup shifted and kicked to stay underneath it. The horror spun, looking for the white pony. Teacup kept her limbs close.
"PoooOOOONYYY!!!" The loathsome orb was becoming angry. It floated away from the statue that was Petal Confetti, searching with all of its deadly eyes for any sign of the fleshy white mare. Teacup kicked and spun and twisted to stay always beneath the floating creature.
Suddenly, the abomination stopped. It was indeed intelligent, and had worked out where the mare had gone. The great, scaled sphere began to rotate, the mouth and central eye spinning down to face the ground. It prepared to bite the mare underneath it, its jaws wide and dripping, its massive central eye bulging in hellish delight.
As the scaled sphere slowly turned, Teacup scooted and squirmed away from the monstrosity, finally bringing herself to her hooves again, and stood staring at the horror's underbelly once more, as it chomped uselessly at the soil. This angered it beyond any hope of reason. Curse that wretched pony!
The sphere flipped with sudden fury, its long eye-stalks snapping like whips as it righted itself. Seeing nothing, it spun in place, and Teacup saw scales whirl in front of her until the edge of a vast eye started to come into view.
At this moment, Teacup reared up high on her hind legs, and as the great, wet eye slid into full view, she tore and ripped at it with her front hooves. Gouts of viscous, translucent ichor splattered over her coat and flooded from the sundered, shredded eye.
The horrific creature whirled back and around, shrieking in agony, fear, and shock. It crashed into the trees with a sickly, wet smash, then spun into the brambles screaming ever louder. The abominations ten eyes writhed like snakes on their stalks, and from them weird beams of force randomly discharged. The trunk of a tree, struck by a searching beam dissolved into a cloud of sawdust, the remainder of the great oak crashing down upon its own stump.
Teacup ran to the stone shape of Petal, slamming into the concrete-like statue, which fell upon its side. Teacup lay flat beside it, and peeked over a stone flank.
The floating monster, insane with rage and suffering had already left the clearing. Teacup was not sure if it was fleeing, or if somehow it had been truly blinded with the loss of its central eye. She heard crashes and impacts for some time, as the monstrosity careened further and further away, the sounds gradually diminishing, swallowed by the forest.
For some time, Teacup lay beside the cold, stone thing that had been her friend. Suddenly, the stone that made up the statue began to crackle, and patches of color returned. Teacup saw the familiar aquamarine coat appear, and soft pink return to what had only moments before been a gray carving in the shape of a mane.
In moments, the newly living body of Petal Confetti took its first ragged breath, and as the Equestrian's revitalized eyes focused, they saw the scratched, bleeding face of Teacup, sobbing and laughing and shaking.
"H...Hey." Petal croaked out, through dry lips.
And in that moment Teacup was all over her, pressing herself close to her friend, wetting her with tears, crying into her mane. "I'm... all... alright." Petal tried to hold Teacup still with her legs, wrapping her front hooves over the sobbing pony's back "it's OK, it's OK, I'm alright! I'm alright!" They were that way for some time, until Teacup's sobs turned to choking and sniffles, and Petal had found herself crying too, partly with relief, and partly in sympathy with her friend.
When the two had gained some measure of balance, they worked quickly to collect their things which had spilled out into the clearing. Some could not be found, such as the little red book and Teacup's entire supply of candy, but they had their saddlebags, and they still had what bits they owned, and some of the hay-cakes they had bought in Withers for the journey.
They decided as one that it was not worth staying any longer, and chose to suffer some loss so as to leave the forest as quickly as they could, preferring to take their chances with the storm.
When they had made it to the border of the forest, they splashed out into the coat-soaking tail end of the deluge, which they could see was just being dismantled by distant, flying pegasai.
Teacup and Petal flopped to the sodden grass, then huddled close together for warmth. They shivered, wet and sore, and waited for the clouds to be removed, only to find the night sky behind them, the moon already risen. They were cold and shaking and miserable, and huddling together was not enough.
Wearily, the two ponies clambered to their hooves again, and leaned to support each other as they staggered down the grass beside the hopelessly muddy road. Teacup was wet and scratched and traumatized, and Petal was still stiff, sore, and in some state of shock. But they were alive, and they had survived mostly intact, and they had each other.
Teacup decided that they should eat all of the hay-cakes now, before moving on. The saddlebags had become filled with rainwater, and the traveling food resembled oatmeal more than cake at this point, it could only get worse. The two ponies gobbled what was left, and tried to wash the sticky remains out of the inside of the bags by trawling them through a particularly deep puddle of clear water. Putting their small stash of bits back into the bags, they returned to the painful business of making it to the next town, which would be Hoofington.
The two friends trudged through the night; neither could hope to sleep being so wet and uncomfortable, and walking made them feel a little warmer just from the use of their muscles.
When morning finally came, the ponies were mostly dry, though their saddlebags were still damp. There was no patch of ground that was not soaked for them to lie down on to rest. Tiredness gradually overcame them though, and the warm rays of Celestia's sun made them so drowsy they began to stumble.
Finally Petal said "I need sleep. I just gotta have some sleep. Let's lock legs and just take a nap, OK?"
Teacup and Petal locked their leg bones in place, leaning against each other for comfort as much as support, and fell into the sleep unique to a standing pony. Standing sleep is not as restful as sleep lying down, for there are no dreams, no REM sleep, but it nevertheless helps, and when they both woke up, it was just past noon. The sun had dried them well as they rested, and even their saddlebags were mostly dry now.
"I'm really hungry." Petal's stomach rumbled and gurgled as they limped on. Their legs were very sore now, and the many cuts and scrapes that covered Teacup clearly bothered her.
"Remember the party, remember the baked dandelions in cream?" Teacup began to drool a little, then realized it and quickly closed her mouth.
"I liked the carrot salad. What did they have in that, plums? or was it something else?"
"I think it was plums. Oh... I miss biscuits. I miss biscuits so much right now!" Teacup's belly sounded like a monster from the Everfree.
"They were really good biscuits."
"The best. I had them every day on the farm. Every day." Teacup's eyes watered up, and she had a hard time holding back tears.
Petal did not bother to say anything about Teacup's drooping ears, there was nothing she could think of to say. They briefly considered trying to nibble at the short grass that they walked upon, but as they were unsure just where the border of Equestria truly ended relative to the edge of the Everfree forest, and had no clear idea of just where the guarantee of safe grazing might lie, they decided not to take any more risks.
It was not until late afternoon that the two ponies finally saw the tall brick buildings of Hoofington. Tiled roofs replaced thatched cottages, and wide streets paved in cobblestones lay in place of the familiar dirt roads of South Withers and Clydesdale.
The ponies here wore clothing, sharp-looking frock coats on the stallions, and bustled dresses with tatted collars on the wealthier mares. Some wore hats, and Petal noticed not a few top hats among the mix. The citizens of Hoofington were not farmers.
The first order of business in Hoofington was food. They went straightaway to the first diner they saw, and pooled their bits. They had seventy-two of the small, golden coins between them, and while their ragged, filthy state drew stares of disdain, they cared little. They were starving.
Thick groat patties on oat and wheat buns were only five bits each, and neither could resist an oatshake, strawberry for Petal and apple and sweet carrot for Teacup. Hay fries were a must, and between them they were seventeen bits poorer, but marvelously full in their bellies. They rested a moment after their feast, savoring the feeling of sitting down with a full stomach in a warm place.
The next stop after 'The Groat Garden' was a visit to the local clinic to have Teacup's scrapes and scratches healed. The on-call medical unicorn performed magical healing, which cost ten bits. This left them with fourty-five bits. "Hoofington is a pretty expensive place" Teacup complained "back in Withers, we may not have had a unicorn, but the local doctor would have patched me up for free."
"So would my doctor friend in Clydesdale." Petal searched for some place they could stay "She's a pegasus, but she never needed magic to clean a cut or put on a bandage. Ten bits! I'm beginning to think I should have stayed at unicorn school now."
"Unicorn school?" Teacup hadn't heard of this.
"For the newfoals. After Conversion, they separate the pegasai and the unicorns, right? so..."
"Y..Yes. You didn't know that?" Petal was taken slightly aback. Every newfoal knew this.
"My Conversion was kind of... rushed. I was one of the very last to be converted. There weren't any more Bureaus at the end, they just rounded us up, herded us into transports and sprayed us down on the way." Teacup seemed very matter-of-fact about this.
"Sprayed...you down? You drink a liquid, it tastes like grape, sort of, and..." Petal stopped in the street "What do you mean sprayed you down?"
"Purification was coming. It was only hours away. Everypony was recalled to the safety of Equestria, and that included any last minute newfoals like me. There wasn't time to foal-sit the hold outs, so they just sprayed us during transport. The spray did taste like grape, though, as I remember. Not very good grape." Teacup made a face and stuck out her tongue.
"Why did you wait so long to Convert?" Petal was astonished by all of this.
"I... my job was such that I just never heard about Equestria and Conversion and everything until the last day. If I'd known, I would have run to one of the Conversion Bureaus, if I could have." Teacup's ears splayed out sideways briefly, the pony equivalent of a shrug.
"Equestria was in the news for FIVE YEARS, Teacup!" Petal had passed astonishment and had reached mildly enraged incredulity "Five years! The barrier kept growing, they tried to bomb Equestria, they almost nuked it, the Conversion Bureaus were approved, the HLF was doing terrorist stuff... five years! I... just don't know what to say!"
"Where did you live?" Teacup asked.
"Uh... Michigan. Petosky Michigan, by the lake. I Converted in Lancing. Why?" Petal seemed flustered.
"I lived in Wilmington, Jersey. It was one big hive city. What wasn't megacomplex was favela. We still had industry. Hyper crowded, security transport, living pods, Total Security Work Zones. I never even went outside for those five years. I lived in a box smaller than an outhouse. That's life in a megacomplex." Teacup did her ear-shrug again.
"In Michigan, there was no industry left. The whole zone was pretty much empty, everypony had moved away. It was all ruins and mostly empty buildings, abandoned factories and such. We didn't have slums, there just weren't that many ponies...um. humans." Petal felt strange remembering those days.
"That's because all the humans that left places like Michigan crowded around the last remaining industry! We followed the remaining jobs, and the only hope of getting one was around the megacomplexes. 'Go where the food is', right? Or, where the jobs are. How did you survive in Michigan if it was so empty?" Teacup watched a carriage go by, pulled by earth ponies. In the carriage were unicorns in fancy dress.
"Basic Worldcorp minimum income. Just like everypony. Didn't you have that?" Petal followed Teacup's gaze, and watched the unicorn couple exit the carriage.
"Of course - I didn't know they'd even bother with a no-industry zone. We had food rations, like you, but I wanted more. I wanted a chance to, I guess, better myself. It didn't actually work out that way though." Teacup's ears dropped for a moment.
"Wow, Teacup, I didn't realize that our experiences had been so different." Petal had an idea "Come on! I know what we can do!" Petal trotted towards the earth pony carriage team, stopping briefly to make sure Petal followed.
The carriage team was Boxer Socks and Wilberhoof, two stallions with quite a nose for the city. They were glad to tell the two mares where they might find an inexpensive place to stay for the night, and gave them clear directions. Petal and Teacup thanked the kindly pair, and set out for the corner of Stifle and Croup, where a room could be had for only five bits a night. It was not the fanciest or wealthiest part of Hoofington, but this was Equestria, not earth, they reminded themselves, so it was not as if they would be in any danger. There were no 'bad' parts of any town in Equestria, not in the sense of the risk of horrific violence, anyway.
The Coronet was a large, somewhat run-down place, which had, in the past, been quite the hotel. Now, it had fallen on hard times, and had become the home of many working ponies in the big city. At five bits a day, most city wages for even the most menial of jobs could easily afford a room at the Coronet, and Petal found that they were both fortunate that there was any rooms available at all. Most tenants had been in their rooms for years, as they worked toward various goals.
Petal and Teacup enjoyed the building's communal showers, reveling in hot water, soap, and feeling clean again. They brushed each others coats and manes, and retired to their room. It mattered not that they had to share a single bed, the simple joy of comfortable sleep was a luxurious treasure to them at this point.
But Petal found her mind racing when she tried to drift off to sleep, despite how tired she felt. What they had been through flashed over and over in her thoughts. Then she felt Teacup press up against her back, and the warmth and softness comforted her, and almost to her amazement, she soon found herself deeply asleep.