Chapter Six: Tears Of Rain
Teacup's saddlebags weighed heavy on her back as she and Petal Confetti trotted down the endless dirt road. The deep wagon and cart ruts they had been following were gone, running off and away to the east, towards far Fillydelphia. The two had considered going to Fillydelphia, for there surely must be many bookstores in such a large city, but had reasoned that more possibilities existed if they kept to their original plan, Manehattan by way of Ponyville. Fillydelphia was relatively isolated, and there were several possibilities to find what they were seeking, one after another, on the road to Manehattan.
Petal seemed to be enjoying the trip, and often hummed or sang little songs. Teacup enjoyed these musical moments, because she didn't know any songs, and in any case she definitely couldn't sing. While she had never actually tried to sing anything in her new pony body, she had always assumed that her lack of ability in the human world would naturally carry over, so she had never bothered to even try. A part of her wished she could join in with Petal, but it was enough to be cheered by Petal's lovely voice.
Occasionally, Petal would become distracted by something as they traveled, slowing progress a bit. There always seemed to be a new, tastier flower just around a bend, or a party-colored swarm of butterflies to admire, or, even a shining lake or pond that reflected the vast, blue sky. Equestria was truly beautiful, and Teacup had come to think of her land as ever more like a storybook than she had previously considered.
Petal had been hanging back for awhile, darting from flower to flower, sniffing them and commenting on which ones were spicy or which were sweet. She had been on Teacup's right, now she was on her left, trotting up beside her. She seemed to be studying Teacup's saddlebags as she passed her flank and came up even with her.
"Most interesting. Teacup, I just noticed that you don't have a cutie mark. I've never seen that in a fully grown pony before. I didn't know it was possible, actually. I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable or anything, but I can't help being curious about this. If you don't mind me asking, how?, why?, what?... I'm kind of intrigued here."
"There's not much to tell, Petal. It just never happened for me. I love my work on the farm, I love the farm, I thought I was pretty good at it - the Provender's seemed to think so too - it's just that no Mark ever showed up for me. Missus Provender always figured that it was just because I was a newfoal, and that I shouldn't worry about it. But, after meeting you..." Teacup trailed off, a little unsure of what to say next.
"I see: I'm a newfoal, just like you, but I have a cutie mark. I guess you haven't had much contact with other newfoals until I arrived? I understand. It is all very strange and mysterious, these things -" Petal nodded her head at her own Mark, just barely visible underneath the edge of her own saddlebags "how they just appear, and why, and how they somehow 'know' to represent something about a pony's life. It's like magic has a mind of it's own that can make decisions about such things... or maybe somehow we ourselves magic the Marks into whatever they become." Petal shook her pink mane "I ain't got a clue!" she said the words with a lilt in her voice, and smiled.
"How... How did you get your Mark, Petal?" Teacup asked, a little hesitantly.
"Well," began Petal "My situation was a little odd. I was with friends, and we were running from the HLF, you know, that old 'Human Liberation' thing that thought they could fight Equestria? We were flying over the ocean, trying to get to the Barrier, being shot at the whole way by a helicopter. It was kind of scary."
"Oh...my! I had no idea, Petal! Wow, I'm really sorry - that must have been really scary!"
"It was ten years ago, and...obviously I survived! Anyway, we made the barrier, but the copter couldn't stop, so it plowed right through. It broke up because..." Petal looked uncomfortable for a moment "...there was something in it that couldn't get past the barrier, and that tore the machine apart." It took a few moments for Teacup to grasp the implication, and then, briefly, her eyes widened, and it was clear she was disturbed by the thought.
"Anyway," Petal gave Teacup a little nudge "as the copter parts fell, the magic of Equestria took over, and they changed. They just... changed. Into flower petals. They fell down like a colorful rain. It was just beautiful. I had been so frightened, so terrified, I was sure I wasn't going to make it, and suddenly, I was safe, I was in Equestria, and the thing that had been trying to kill me had become colorful confetti in the air! I was soooo relieved. I just started laughing. I laughed all the way to the ground. The relief... I can't even describe how much I felt, it was overwhelming."
"I imagine it was! What a scary thing! I'd be hysterical by that point, I think."
"I kind of was, actually. They had to calm me down. When I finally got around to being able to help my friends again, I noticed I had gotten this -" Petal tried to shift her walk so that her cutie mark, a pink streamer surrounded by confetti, could be seen, but all that happened was that her haunches swayed dangerously, and she almost tripped "- I guess the relief made me so happy, that it kind of changed me. I used to be so serious all of the time. Not just some of the time, like now, but, I mean, every moment."
"I kind of decided to become a party pony at that point" Petal smiled "I just wanted to keep feeling as happy as I could after all of that, and to let others feel happy too. Also, I kind of wanted to honor someone who had helped me, once. When I was settled in Clydesdale, I threw my first party, and I chose my name. Petal Confetti, because that is what that copter looked like, after it had changed. Like flower petals falling like confetti. My salvation, thanks to the magic of Equestria."
"Wow. I mean, just... wow." Teacup was speechless. She had experienced many narrow escapes in her human life, and a few failures to escape as well, but never anything properly adventurous like what Petal described. For Teacup, even a successful escape had meant returning to the usual nightmare, and never a true happy ending.
Well... except for her last minute escape from Earth itself, she thought. That turned out alright. Better than alright. Suddenly Teacup missed the farm and Missus Provender again.
"I know that look." Petal leaned in "Tush, tush, you'll see Missus Provender again. And the farm. And Mister Provender. You'll be back there in no time."
"How... how did you know? That I was thinking that, I mean?"
"When your ears droop suddenly, it's a pretty good guess as to what you're feeling, Teacup." Petal looked into the distance ahead "If I had a Missus Provender and a Farm, I'd probably feel the same way."
"Don't you have a home in Clydesdale?" Teacup asked.
"I have a room, and I have ponies I know, and I am sure they like me. But I don't have a home. Not exactly." Petal fell silent after that, so Teacup let things be. The two continued down the road, impossibly steep mountains on the right, and an increasing number of trees on the left.
They walked on that way for a long time.
It was late afternoon, before they spoke again. They had fallen into a kind of silent trudge that anyone on a long journey eventually settles into, where the act of walking becomes almost hypnotic. But something had changed.
Teacup stopped. She sniffed the air. She sniffed it again. "Petal?"
Petal stopped and turned around "Teacup? What is it?"
"Rain. It's going to rain." With that Teacup looked up from the dusty road, and Petal joined her, to look at the sky.
Above the two walking ponies, flying pegasai could be seen soaring back and forth, stacking fluffy clouds as though they were building a pillow fort in the sky. A number of the winged ponies could be seen working together to push and prod a gigantic, dark raincloud into position, tucking it into the smaller, fluffy clouds, gradually blotting out the blue.
"Hey! Hello!" Teacup called up to them, but either they were too high up to hear, or too intent on what they were doing to answer. She turned to Petal "See the big, dark clouds they are bringing in? They do that when they are behind schedule. This is going to be a big one, maybe even a storm. I'll bet that they forgot a regularly scheduled rain in these parts, and they're having to make up for it. Happens a lot more than they like to admit, you know."
"Wow, you sure know a lot about the weather!" Petal seemed impressed.
"Comes with living on a farm. 'Course there, we negotiated directly with the pegasai for the weather we needed. Every month a pegasus representative visited the farms, and worked out the schedule. We had a few commotions over it all, too -sometimes one group of farms wanted more rain, and others didn't and that sort of thing. Of course, if you paid extra, you could get personal attention, rain on just your farm or whatever. But nobody much wanted to pay extra, so..."
"Hee! Sounds almost like Earth there. So how bad did the arguments get?"
"Not terribly bad or anything. Things were pretty much resolved with various deals involving pies and offers of help and such. We called it 'weather barter'. Four pies could get Old Farmer Roan to agree to less rain so the wheat wouldn't get soaked, that sort of thing. It was more like fun than actual trouble. Though there was that one time with the Epona brothers...I thought Missus Provender was going to buck one of them right in the flank." Teacup smiled at the memory.
"So, what do you think we should do about this situation? I don't think we can get their attention," Petal nodded up towards the Pegasai far above "and even if we could, I'm not sure we have anything to offer them to hold off on the rain."
"We need to find some shelter. This is going to be a doozy, I think. They're really bringing in the big clouds. I've never seen such big ones before. Maybe it's because we're between towns, so they figure they can let loose and make up for lost rain." Teacup scanned their surroundings "I'm not sure where to go. We're kind of in the middle of nowhere."
It was true. The dirt road stretched on behind and in front of them, to their right were tall peaks, and to their left dense forest. The forest did not look pleasant, for it was an extension of the Everfree, and the world just didn't work correctly in there.
Petal and Teacup tried shouting again, in unison, attempting to signal the remaining pegasai above. The fliers had almost finished packing the sky with dark, ominous clouds, and almost no trace of blue was left in the sky, except over the forest. There was no point in trying to manage the weather of the Everfree, so the pegasai just didn't bother.
"How bad could a storm like this get, Teacup?" Petal sounded a little concerned.
"I've heard stories over the years. The pegasai like throwing big storms, they even have a competition, or so I've been told. Pretty bad, I expect."
"Alright..." Petal nervously shuffled her hooves on the road "There's no storm over the Everfree. Maybe if we are very careful, and stay really aware, we can take shelter in the forest just until the storm is over. What if we go in, only a little ways, and just be really, really unobtrusive. We don't touch anything, we don't eat anything except from our bags, and we generally do not interact with the forest at all. What do you think?"
Teacup agreed. "I can't think of a better solution at the moment, so, let's do that."
The two mares gingerly approached the edge of the nearby spur of Everfree, and tried to find a way in that did not involve plowing through unknown underbrush or some strange plant.
Just as the first drops of rain wet their flanks, Teacup and Petal managed to find a small path into the eerie forest. The instant Teacup stepped across the threshold between Equestria and the border of the Everfree, the feeling of the air changed. The already dim light seemed darker, and the smells of the world changed instantly. One moment the pleasant air of Equestria, the next her nose was filled with a steamy jungle of strange scents and curious odors.
It was a different world inside the Everfree, and it did not feel like home. Carefully, the ponies picked their way into the forest, careful to avoid anything that looked even vaguely odd. They had heard many stories over the years about the Everfree, and pretty much none of them were happy stories. In time, they felt themselves beyond the possibility of lightning or being soaked, and what they could see of the sky through the canopy of leaves was blue. But they still heard the loud rumble of thunder, and occasionally a particularly bright flash of lightning from beyond the forest would illuminate the trunks of the trees. It was a strange experience: warm, blue sky forest around them, yet a raging storm only a few hundred feet away, just outside.
They had found a small clearing, where the forest floor was mostly empty of plants -at least strange plants- and the trees formed a sort of circle around them. They decided to lay down near the edge of the clearing where they had entered, and wait out the storm, while keeping an eye on everything around them. Strange beasts, monsters even, were said to live in the forest, and neither pony wanted to become dinner for some fantastic creature.
They stayed that way for some time, breathing quietly, ears scanning the forest for any sign of approach. Teacup and Petal glanced furtively about, looking for any movement through the trees. But nothing happened, and in time they began to relax. Maybe the Everfree forest was not quite as dangerous as it had been made out to be.
Petal decided that the time waiting could be put to good use, and she turned her neck and rooted about in her left saddlebag with her muzzle. She brought out the little red book she had bought at Coriander's, and set it in front of her. She studied the tome for a bit, silently mouthing the name on the cover 'Appropriate Thaumaturgy'. "Keep watch, Teacup, I'm going to check out this book, and see what I can learn about the rules of magic while we wait, OK?" Teacup agreed.
Petal sighed, then closed her eyes briefly. Her horn began to glow with a faint, soft light. Though Teacup was watching the forest carefully, her eyes couldn't help but drift to watch, for this was the first time she had ever seen Petal use her unicorn magic.
The little red book began to glow with the same soft light as Petal's horn. The book lifted off the untidy leaves littering the forest ground, and hovered inches above them. Then it suddenly rotated so that the spine faced the ground. Finally, the covers parted, like a bird opening its wings for flight.
Pages flipped making little whipping sounds until the frontispiece and title showed. The image illustrated by the frontispiece was of Princess Celestia smiling at the reader, surrounded by curled banners and decorative flourishes. The banners were covered in the pictographs that made up the Equestrian written language: horseshoe shapes, star shapes, horse-like marks, glyphs that resembled stylized lightning bolts, unicorn horns, crescents, spirals and other simple shapes. Teacup had grasped that Equestrian writing was more likely an ideographic script rather than a phonetic one, her earthly background in programming had let her see that much. But trying to learn such a written language at her age seemed daunting to her.
It had apparently not been too daunting for Petal, however, and though Petal was the younger pony, she was still well past the language window for humans. Then again, they were no longer human. This encouraged Teacup somewhat. Maybe learning to read an ideographic script might be easier her, as an Equestrian, if she gave it a try.
Teacup suddenly remembered that she was supposed to be keeping watch while Petal examined the book. She whipped her head upright from where it had gradually crept closer to the little red tome. Teacup scanned the trees around them, looking for any movement, and swiveled her ears back and forth to catch any approaching sound.
"Hmmm... this book was once part of the university library. I wonder... how it ended up all the way out in South Withers?" mumbled Petal, as she flipped a page with her horn "Let's see, basic magical etiquette... advanced..."
Teacup froze. Her breathing stopped as her heart skipped a beat. The shape, dark and curious, moved against the dim light that shone from breaks in the forest canopy. The round silhouette almost bobbed, like a cork in water, only very slowly, like a balloon drifting on the breeze. It was huge, surely as big as the largest bull, and there seemed to be some kind of projections coming up from the top of it. There was no sound, but the air had changed, somehow, and in her bones Teacup felt an inexplicable, sudden dread.
"Petal. Petal. Shhh. Petal!" she squeaked, nudging her friend with her head. Petal looked up "Huh? What is it?"
"Shhhh!" Petal spoke in a frightened whisper "Something..." she motioned with her nose "There!"
Petal's horn went out. The book dropped to the leaves, making a soft, quiet thump. Her eyes focused on the dim shape. After a moment she spoke, soft and low: "It...it can't be. It better not be. No. No-no-no-no..."
"What is it, Petal?" Teacup barely breathed.
"Stay very still, be very quiet. But if I say run, run as fast as you can, and don't look back. Understand? Just run."
"I won't leave you." Teacup was adamant.
"You will, and you won't argue. If anything happens, you just run, promise me." Petal had a look in her eyes that only a creature that had known the terrors of Earth could possess, the look of one who knows hopelessness.
Teacup said nothing. The two huddled close to the ground, wishing they were physically closer, just for the comfort, but not daring to move lest they make some noise. Their breathing was shallow, and Teacup felt her blood had turned to ice water.
In the distance, the storm raged on, beyond the boundaries of the forest. The sound of it, dulled by the thick trees, was a welcome cover, one that would hopefully help to hide any sounds from them. But the fact was that they were both in an open clearing, and as much as the sound of the storm might blot out their ragged breathing, they were not hidden from view.
The shape stopped, bobbing slowly in place. Teacup could now see that it was indeed round, like a ball, and she could not see any legs. Did it... float somehow? She briefly imagined some cute, whimsical balloon creature, friendly and party-colored like a pony. But this thing did not seem colorful, rather it was shadow and grey, and the way she felt inside, it was not easy to imagine that it was friendly. Indeed, it felt like her memories of life in the favela on earth, and she flashed briefly back to the night she lost her human ear.
A low, gutteral hissing came from the shape. It almost sounded like some kind of language, but if it was, it was the most awful speech Teacup had ever heard. The shadow approached the clearing, spotlights of sun from the canopy sliding over a scaled, spherical form. Teacup could see the thing now, at the far edge of the little clearing, and for a moment her breath stopped entirely.
It was perhaps eight feet in diameter, and hung in the air, low to the ground. A sphere covered in scales, with one vast, soulless eye filling the front. Below the great eye was a ragged gash of mouth, opening and closing as if tasting the air. Inside the mouth were rows upon rows of dagger-sharp teeth.
The spherical creature had no arms or legs, but above, on top, almost like a crown, it had ten thin stalks, each of which blossomed into a small eye. Each of the ten tiny eyes swiveled and moved upon their scaly stalks. Teacup had never seen anything like it, and had never imagined anything so terrible, even in her worst nightmares.
The many eyes of the strange beast gradually converged on one point, which to the horror of the two Equestrians was clearly them.
"Teacup." The word was flat, almost mechanical as Petal said it "Get ready to run." It was not a friendly suggestion, it was an absolute command.
The spherical abomination slowly floated towards the two ponies.
"Thank you for having been my friend. Now... RUN!!!" Petal Confetti suddenly sprang up, more like a jungle cat than a pony, and ran straight at the monstrous horror. "RUUUNNNN!!!" she shouted as her battle cry. And to her shame, Teacup could not help but follow Petal's command, her terrified legs acting of their own volition, utterly ignoring what she wanted to do. Her body disobeyed her will and she found herself crashing through the brush and undergrowth, as fast as her hooves could carry her, toward the edge of the forest, and the storm.