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Nemetona

By meslam
Created: 2023-11-13 03:34:10
Updated: 2024-02-24 19:26:42
Expiry: Never

  1. >Outside your window, snowflakes glittered down to the earth in an overwhelming silence.
  2. >The forest outside your house was a perfect sheet of alabaster, stabbed through with voluminous green columns of black spruce and illuminated by the full moon that had caught your attention moments ago, as it broke through the clouds.
  3. >Even as you stared, the snowfall began to wane, and the dim grey ceiling of cloud retreated.
  4. >The moon beamed down, and its rays struck the shimmering ice glazed woods below.
  5. >A smile crept over your face, and you felt that kind of comfort that you only get in the intermittence of reading a fantastic book.
  6. >To read, stop, appreciate, then seamlessly begin to read again, and feel as if you never stopped reading.
  7. >You swept your hair out of your eyes and scanned the room for a moment, checking that the fire didn’t need feeding.
  8. >Then you shifted your posture a bit, while remaining comfortably sheltered under your wool throw and your fleece blanket.
  9. >With your free hand, you grabbed your mug of Irish breakfast tea, and took a sip, before flipping to the next page.
  10. >It was an excellent hardcover copy of Le Morte d’Arthur, with a nice weight and size to it that let you splay it easily upon the teak wood coffee table.
  11. >The Questing Beast was passing by Sir Lamerok and Sir Tristram, before Sir Palomides, who’s quest it was to pursue the beast, threw them both from their horses and carried on pursuing.
  12. >You laughed a little at the abruptness with which the knights were overthrown, and pondered the beast’s bizarre physique.
  13. “Head of a serpent, body of a leopard, buttocks of a lion and feet of hart... With a belly that yaps like 20 hounds as it moves...”
  14. >It made you think of what you’d seen on the news earlier, all those people transfigured irreversibly into bizarrely truncated horses by that mass tainting of Tylenol bottles.
  15.  
  16. >Some had even become “Changelings”, insect-like beasts that could transform further, and at will.
  17. >The story was all like some fairy tale, even though it was true.
  18. >It was like some wicked witch, or a mischievous sprite had been let loose to cast spells and sow confusion.
  19. “...Ah.”
  20. >Your thoughts had strayed a bit too far from your book, maybe it was time to take a short break.
  21. >That was your last sip of tea anyway.
  22. >You pushed your blankets off, and set them aside before getting up.
  23. >The wood flooring was pleasantly toasty on the soles of your bare feet, as you walked over to the fireplace to toss a log in.
  24. >Walking around the counter, and into the kitchen space now, you yawned and stretched your arms high above your head.
  25. >For a moment you caught your reflection in the frosted up window across from the dinner table to your right.
  26. >Your hair was a bit everywhere, black strands floating thither and hither from all the static the fleece had made.
  27. >And your nightwear wasn’t really draping over your slight figure the way it should.
  28. >You wrinkled your nose in passing frustration, and flattened out all the creases, so that the white nighty hung just right.
  29. >While you worked on making your hair behave too, you made your way over to the kettle.
  30. >Your speaker system booted automatically, and started up the playlist you’d set just for nights like this.
  31. >First came the kettle, water in, flicked on...
  32. >Dishes away...
  33. >Spices back to the cupboards...
  34. >As you were putting the cinnamon back in its place, you spied your vitamins and remembered you’d neglected to have your magnesium earlier.
  35. >With how much vitamin D you were taking, that just wouldn’t do, so you grabbed the bottle and popped out a tablet.
  36. >It was a simple, little white circle, with a crescent shape pressed into the face of it.
  37.  
  38. >Now you set the magnesium aside, to take with your peppermint tea, and set to work cleaning the rest of the kitchen up.
  39. >Eventually the kettle was whistling away, just waiting for you to pour.
  40. >It was half past 8 as you dropped another teabag in and topped up your mug.
  41. >You had always been particular about that 7 minutes steeping time.
  42. >The speakers were going to switch off soon after you left the kitchen, but the music had hooked you, so-
  43. “Time set: 7 minutes.”
  44. >You ordered the system.
  45. >May as well ride out the rest of the song, and steep your tea just right.
  46. >Humming along to the tune, you picked up your mug and your pill and returned to the comfort of your sofa.
  47. >Your toes had started to cool so it was with a particular relish that you got back under your blankets.
  48. >Just as you started to read again though, your phone buzzed and nearly vibrated off the coffee table.
  49. >”Chad --- Calling...”
  50. >...As much as you liked the guy, you weren’t really in the mood to hear whatever demented sounding, but probably true, take he had on this Pon-E business.
  51. >With a sigh, you hung up the call, and shot him a quick text.
  52. >’Reading. Text me now or call me in an hour, thanks. -Aisling’
  53. >Now, it was back to the adventures of Sir Tristan.
  54. >You caught your flow almost right away, and followed along with the brave knight’s travels at a cantering pace.
  55. >Seven minutes later, the music stopped, and you didn’t waste any time swallowing your magnesium tablet with that first sip of tea.
  56. >The fragrance of the peppermint was as delicate to your palate as it was calming to your nerves, an impressive feat, considering how calm you were already.
  57. >You smiled at your own, kind of lame, joke, and set down your mug.
  58. “Hmm...”
  59.  
  60. >Chad was blowing up your phone with texts, which wasn’t really unlike him at all.
  61. >He was like a dog with a bone, whenever there was a news story developing.
  62. “’PONY... PON-E... Masons... No pills... Globalist plot... 2050... South Pacific infinite oil... Mr Beast supplements...”
  63. >You only glanced at the messages really, not taking in the full contents.
  64. >Really, you just wanted to get back to your book.
  65. “Whatever, I’ll check it after this chapter.”
  66. >With a touch of regret for not responding to your friend when he was trying to reach you so desperately, even though it was for a cause that would likely never affect either of you, you set your phone on mute and put it back.
  67. >Just as you started to flip to the next page however, a sudden twinge in your nerves made you recoil.
  68. >You frowned and stared at your suddenly rebellious right hand.
  69. >Even now it shook and underwent an additional spasm, sending a strange shock up your arm.
  70. >With a rising panic, you realized your whole body was beginning to feel the same way, dulled in the extremities, yet electrified along the main nerveways up to your spine.
  71. >Your hair stood on end, you breathed deep.
  72. >And quelled your panic.
  73. >And thought.
  74. >Black fur was sprouting up and away from your wrist in a crooked lightning zigzag, as fast as crows flew up and away from cars.
  75. >Chad must have wanted to tell you that it wasn’t just Tylenol bottles that were tainted with Pon-E.
  76. >Your toes were stuck together, you couldn’t pull them apart at all.
  77. >Pon-E took effect quickly, and came prepared in single doses of 500 mg, it was practically tasteless.
  78. >You could feel two sensitive bits of flesh were pushing up past your hair, as your ears sunk into the sides of your already furry black head.
  79. >Your magnesium tablets were 500 mg, and didn’t come with crescent shapes pressed in them.
  80. >You sighed and fondled your hair-
  81. “Mane.”
  82.  
  83. >...watching it turn a dim argent hue, you could feel strange crackles like pinpricks, all the way down the nape of your neck as more of your mane grew.
  84. >Maybe it was just like you, to fall so easily into this, even with all the warnings in the world.
  85. >A wholly new part of you at the base of your spine was wrenching its way out, making you sit up to avoid it getting squeezed.
  86. “It takes two tablets, so this isn’t permanent.”
  87. >You managed to utter, before your jaw painfully jutted forth along with the rest of your face.
  88. >With a morbid kind of fascination, you shoved your blankets away, pulled your nighty up and ran your hands along your core, feeling it push out into that unmistakable barrel shape.
  89. >The fur had started up your legs maybe 10 seconds ago, and it seemed to be toning your flesh as it went, it was hard to see past your snout though.
  90. >You’d barely noticed that your feet were already silvery hooves, and your ankles already fetlocks.
  91. >Your hands worked down your hips, grasping their new width, and rested a moment on your new ebon thighs.
  92. >They really were rippling with muscle, it was like, just by touching them, you understood the muscle memories every horse is imprinted with.
  93. >Bucking, galloping and cantering seemed like wholly different words now.
  94. “Oh, a tail.”
  95. >You picked it up in your hand and let the fine silver strands fall back against your buttocks.
  96. >But now it seemed, that was to be the end of your explorations.
  97. >You lost all sense in your fingers, and then they in turn lost all their shape, melting into a whole mass of keratin, before hardening into dense hooves.
  98. >Your lower body gave way with a great jerk, forcing you to all fours lest you smash your head.
  99. >Gruesome sounds began to worm their way out of you, and you couldn’t help but start to breathe heavier.
  100.  
  101. >Must have been your lungs getting bigger.
  102. >Your legs shrunk down like two taught elastics being let go, bringing your back down and parallel to the floor.
  103. >This was really a strange sort of feeling now, like your butt was just too high, a sort of permanent yoga pose.
  104. >Your insides squirmed so queerly, organs shifting to their new positions.
  105. “Aaaahn... Ah! Ahhh...”
  106. >The range of your voice had shifted too, you’d gone down, from your angelic soprano to a melancholic contralto.
  107. >A few more fleshy noises...
  108. “Done?”
  109. >Just as you lifted one hoof, you were struck by lightning.
  110. >You blinked, wondered where you were, then you were struck again.
  111. >It was all you could muster to see the brilliant flash of turquoise, instantly burning off into a glaring white like aluminum burning confusions mustered instantly rising droning telling knowing overthrowing.
  112. “Huh?”
  113. >Another strike, and this time you smelled burning, knew burning, was fire, knew fire, knew beasts, knew floating, knew-
  114. >You couldn’t really breathe, you were struck so dumb, or maybe smart?
  115. >Ideas swept through your mind, as fast as that flash of light maybe a millisecond ago, yet you grasped each one completely.
  116. >It was like walking through a library, and literally picking every book off the shelves to read, one at a time, or more like reliving a past memory of doing that.
  117. >You clung to that idea, to rationalize what was happening in your head.
  118. >The memory seemed to slow at parts, and you grasped more then, things like the principles of gravity, electro-magnetics and water were paid special attention.
  119. >Gradually the slowed parts became less and less frequent, and you found yourself just speeding by vast conceptual matrices of thoughts and ideas that frankly you were more interested in than some lame understanding of gravity.
  120.  
  121. ##Taking it all In
  122.  
  123. >For once you tried to reach out of yourself in this abstraction you’d invented for what was happening to you.
  124. >In a flash, you’d stopped dead in the ‘memory’, with your hand grasping a book titled: Prudence.
  125. >You peered at the book, then the shelf, then down the hallway to nothing...
  126. >There was no ‘you’ proper either, just a ‘hand’.
  127. >Something was off about everything, it put to your pseudo-mind the images of fractals, and made you think that if you were to back up a single step, all of this would melt away into a repeating, senseless pattern.
  128. >It seemed pointless to think on that any more than you already had, so you cracked open the book.
  129. >The first page read: “The proper motto is not ‘Be good, sweet maid and let who can be clever,’ but ‘Be good, sweet maid, and don’t forget that this involves being as clever as you can.”
  130. “C.S. Lewis.”
  131. >You whispered, and turned the page.
  132. >Next came: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
  133. “Matthew 10:16.”
  134. >You muttered, and frowned a little. Then shut the book and looked at the back.
  135. >Embossed in silver were the words of Thessalonians 21.
  136. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
  137. >These were things you’d already read before.
  138. >The illusion was shattered, and your abstraction fell apart, you weren’t acquiring any new sort of knowledge at all, this had been just a re-examination.
  139. >In an instant you were on your floor again, still a little horse, and a little hoarse.
  140. >You coughed and stood up on all fours, trying to bat away the heavy, cloying blue smoke that was about your head.
  141. >Eventually it dissipated, and you had the sense to put a hoof up to your forehead.
  142. >Clearly it was a horn, maybe two hoof lengths long, poking out between your silvery bangs.
  143. “Did it mess with my brain or something?”
  144. >It was certainly sensitive enough, you considered perhaps that the formation of such a tight bundle of nerves right next to your skull must have caused some kind of feedback.
  145. >But then again, there was the smoke, so the lightning must have been real.
  146. >Looking around at the floor, you could see scorch marks where electricity had clearly been arcing too.
  147. “Damn, arcing through the air?”
  148. >You pawed at the ashes with your right hoof, brought them to your snout, and sniffed suspiciously.
  149. “Magic.”
  150. >Immediately you snorted with laughter, and in the same action, sucked all the ashes down your nostrils and started choking half to death, which only made you laugh harder.
  151. >You keeled over and rolled all along the floor, coughing and giggling, sometimes in the same breath, making a mess of the nightwear that still dangled loosely from your body, and scratching marks into the floor with your horn.
  152.  
  153. >Once half a cogent thought of yours managed to sneak past the giggle fit, you slipped yourself out of the silk nighty, picked it up in your mouth, and set it up on the couch where it wouldn’t get every last speck of ash in the room on it.
  154. “Alright, let’s take a look at this magical horse hmm?”
  155. >Still laughing, now at how strange it was hearing such a different voice come out of your mouth, you swept your mane out of your eyes and started a trot for your bedroom.
  156. >On the way, you nabbed up a hunk of wood with your mouth, and gently pushed it into the fireplace.
  157. >The fire was down to embers small enough that it was pretty easy to avoid burning yourself, thankfully.
  158. >It made you think about how marvellously you’d adapted to moving on all four hooves.
  159. >Maybe this Pon-E stuff was something of a nootropic.
  160. >There was definitely a sharpening effect on your senses, but a lot of it could be attributed to the new physiology.
  161. >Your ears were like little radar dishes, it was fun just pointing them around and picking up sounds you’d have easily overlooked before.
  162. >Left, the sound of water in the pipes under the bathroom, right, the faint breeze slipping under the door, back, the low electronic buzz coming from the speakers in the kitchen.
  163. >Hm, that last one could get annoying actually.
  164. >On a whim, as you waltzed into your dimly lit bedroom, you trotted up to the window and very nearly stabbed a hole through it with your horn.
  165. >Giggling, you turned your head left, pressed your cheek up against the glass and rotated your ears towards the woods outside.
  166. >...
  167. >*crick*.... *crack*....
  168. >Yes, that was definitely the ice on the tree branches cracking, the snow must have frozen over by now too.
  169. >In your mind’s eye, you pictured yourself driving your hooves through the icy crust with great cracks and snaps, cantering and laughing.
  170. >There was an idyllic meadow perfect for that sort of fun, not far from your house either, and ringed with blueberry bushes.
  171. “Ahh, now I want to go for a walk.”
  172. >The weather was just right, the noisome wind had died down, and the moon was so bright it was like a demi daylight outside.
  173. >Hm, that could just be your new eyes too though.
  174. >Now you thought on just how many things you were attributing to this “new”ness, and laughed.
  175. >Finally you pushed that all to the back-burner, and got a good look at yourself in the mirror.
  176. >From the top of your head, to the bottoms of your hooves, you were beautiful, and around 4 feet tall.
  177. >You were so black you had to flick the lights on to see yourself properly.
  178. >Your mane and tail were straight as sheet metal and fluid like molten silver, rippling and shimmering by the lamplight.
  179. >Normally you’d have to drop 200 dollars in a salon twice a week to get anywhere close to this.
  180. >Upon your flanks were a pair of ivory coloured markings you instantly recognized as olive trees, by their strange twisted trunks.
  181.  
  182. >The horn, nay, the alpenhorn on your head was a work of the purest driven platinum, spiralling in such a tight wind all the way to the tip as to be impossible for human hands to reproduce.
  183. >And at that tip you could see a single burning spark of turquoise, like a gem in a sunbeam.
  184. >Your eyes were the same colour.
  185. >But the gaping expression on your pretty face nearly ruined the entire effect.
  186. >You gasped and laughed and laughed.
  187. “Hhhoooo noooo I’m hoottt!!!”
  188. >Maybe you should take a second one?
  189. >You nearly choked on the thought, and fell down laughing all over again.
  190. >I mean you had HOOVES for Pete’s sake, you were practically an amputee.
  191. >No, no, no this should all wear-
  192. >A sonorous *THUNK* from the living room stifled your giggling, and made your ears spin right round to follow the sound.
  193. >Plastic with metal inside.
  194. “Chad, texting me, right. Phone vibrated off the table.”
  195. >Yes, it would be best to let him know you were alright, and hadn’t overdosed or anything.
  196. >Still laughing a little, you walked back into the living room, picked your phone up from off the floor with your mouth, and tried not to think too hard about how many germs you just fast tracked into your system as you tossed it up onto the couch.
  197. >You crawled up after your phone and pulled your fleece blanket over yourself to get comfy, because this was obviously going to take forever.
  198. >Considering the nature of keratin, your hooves should still carry enough of a static charge to at least work a touch screen...
  199. “Right?”
  200. >You stared at your little black rectangle down over your scrunched up muzzle and set to work.
  201. >With an inordinate amount of effort versus the reward, you eventually managed to kind of smoosh the sides of the phone between your hooves and depress the power button, bringing up the lock screen.
  202. >5 missed calls from Chad, 137 text messages.
  203. >Actually not the highest you’d seen, thinking back to 2016.
  204. >The bulk of them always came in the form of ALL CAPS ONE WORD repetitions of what he wanted to emphasize from his last message.
  205. >...The phone had relocked.
  206. >With some consternation, you did your smooshing between the hooves trick again, still a little worried you may wind up breaking something.
  207. >Now for your first real attempt; you lifted your right hoof... lowered it... and... dddrrraagggeddd up...
  208. >Nothing at all.
  209. “Pffffffffffffffffffffff..........”
  210. >You lied flat on your belly and blew all the air from your lungs in an exasperated sigh.
  211. >At least you were warm, under this fleece, and in your fur.
  212. >But if anything you wanted to be cold right now, outside cantering around.
  213. >Common sense was keeping you at this phone operating business though, you couldn’t just leave Chad out to dry like that, and if anything were to happen while you were like this, he was definitely the best person to notify.
  214. “And not just because he’s the closest friend to my house.”
  215. >You added.
  216.  
  217. ##Tricknology
  218.  
  219. >Alright, back to it.
  220. >You tried again, this time using more surface area, and the screen started to move...
  221. >Then flopped right back, still locked.
  222. >You whipped your tail into the sofa, producing a muffled thump.
  223. >Reflected in the phone screen, you could see your snout all scrunched up.
  224. >Time was seriously wasting at this point.
  225. >The weather outside was still nice, but this close to the mountains, it could change at any time.
  226. >Sighing, your frustration drove your thoughts inward.
  227. >You lounged sulkily, swishing your tail and flicking your ears.
  228. >Why would someone take a recreational drug that physically handicapped you like this anyway?
  229. >With psychoactives it was just a consequence of the desired effect.
  230. >There had to be some detail to your new form that you were missing, on TV you’d seen that little blue horse with no horn using a touch screen just fine.
  231. >...something more-
  232. >You slapped your head with a hoof, and immediately regretted it for all the pain it caused.
  233. >But, now you had a very silly idea.
  234. “Magic.”
  235. >You uttered the word like a slur.
  236. >It had been so obvious that it had become almost tastelessly improbable, what with all the sparks and the lightning strikes and that vision of the library.
  237. >But now that the thought had struck you, you felt like you had no choice but to at least try.
  238. >Sighing with disbelief at your own foolishness for even thinking this could work, but simultaneously half convinced that it would, on the merit that magic worked precisely because it shouldn’t...
  239. >You stared up at your horn with eyes crossed, and slowly, you lowered it all the way down to just a hair’s breadth of the screen.
  240. >The moment you touched your horn to the phone, you thought: “Open”.
  241. >And it ‘worked’.
  242. >Your phone opened up like an exploded-view in CAD, screen, casing, motherboard, individual little screws and wires, all floating in that turquoise glow you’d seen earlier.
  243. >With the barest thought of turning your head to see if anyone else was seeing this, even though you knew you were alone, the phone in suspension turned.
  244. >The parts swirled in orbit around a set axis, and began to slow to a stop as soon as you stopped thinking about “turning”.
  245. >Alright...
  246. >There was a lot of risk here.
  247. >I mean if you thought the wrong thing right now-
  248. >You could possibly-
  249. >I mean there was the chance that you-
  250. >...You couldn’t even think it, lest you risk that it be done.
  251. >So you focused on “fixing” things first.
  252. >With a measured, clockmaker like deliberation, the parts pulled back together and began to reassemble.
  253. >You could even see some bits of glue “un-drying”, sticking back together, and re-bonding to the surface.
  254. >The turquoise light seemed to be manipulating it all somehow.
  255. >And you, it.
  256. >Once the phone was all back together, you dared to think anything besides “fix”.
  257. >A cold sweat ran down the nape of your neck as you exclaimed,
  258.  
  259. “I was so close to setting my phone on FIRE! Or throwing it IN the fire! Or setting MYSELF on fire...”
  260. >But now a warm elation was pouring from your heart, and finally it bubbled up to the top.
  261. >You could cast MAGIC.
  262. >You could BEND physical laws!
  263. >You were practically like a... Like some kind of myth for goodness’ sake!
  264. “Ahaha!”
  265. >Giddy with excitement, you battered your sofa with your forehooves in rapid fire.
  266. >If it operated off thought, you thought, then all you had to do was compartmentalize your thinking.
  267. >It shouldn’t be any different than something like driving, people practically did that unconsciously, lifting and using a phone with magic should be even easier in fact.
  268. >Embracing that usually contrary notion, you set your mind on your phone again, this time with a clearer mental image of “grasping” it.
  269. >Your phone was gradually wrapped in that glow again, and rose a couple centimetres, but ultimately the magic petered out and your phone fell back down.
  270. >Immediately you could see the problem, it was like those secret eye illusions, where you had to keep your eyes crossed for just long enough that seeing the illusory hologram came without maintained effort.
  271. >Such it was with imagining ‘what’ was “grasping”, you settled on a definite shape, that would be easier to maintain, rather than just the idea of “grasping”.
  272. >For now you just thought up a cartoonish hand with a thumb and two fingers, to keep it simple.
  273. “I could even say that I conjured a hand, ~Oooo...”
  274. >Giggling, you waved your hooves around in front of your face while you levitated the phone up.
  275. >The rest came easy, you just touched the magic thumb thing from the conjured hand macguffin to the screen and...
  276. >You had attained the bare minimum of modern human functionality; unlocking your smart phone.
  277. “That felt like it took all week...”
  278. >Much more at ease now that you were finally getting somewhere, you stretched out under your blanket, enjoying the feel of the fleece on your short fur.
  279. >You brought up the chat with Chad, scrolled past the now 200 odd messages he’d sent, conjured a second thumby glowing hand to type with and started on a response.
  280. >”Hey Chad. Yeah I took one, don’t worry, just one. It was in my magnesium tablets. Thanks for the heads up though lol!”
  281. >Before hitting send, you attached a cutesy pic of yourself on the couch, doing a ‘reclining figure’ pose, copied from a renaissance painting you’d seen last week.
  282. >It looked goofy with your horsey legs, but damn if magic wasn’t convenient for taking good pictures.
  283. >You hit send and waited, humming tunelessly and kicking your hind legs around.
  284. >You’d gotten the rest of your tepid peppermint tea drunk by the time Chad called.
  285. “Hello?”
  286. >”Say Jesus Christ is lord you damnable horse or I will aggressively hang up on you and tragically break down crying over the assumed death of my friend Aisling.”
  287.  
  288. “Chad the lllaaaaddiesss mannn~”
  289. >You laughed, this was even better than you expected.
  290. >A loud ‘frsssssssssshhhhhhhh’ sound came out Chad’s side, nearly blowing your ears out.
  291. “What was that?!”
  292. >”Salt, you fucking LITERAL nightmare, I’ll be there to exorcise you when you least expect it.”
  293. >Faintly, in the back, you could hear a feminine voice cursing mightily “Chad is that her?! What the fuck-” before the line cut out.
  294. >You blinked and stared at your phone for a moment, before shrugging and tossing it aside.
  295. “Guess Chad’s coming to visit.”
  296. >Laughing, you hopped off the sofa and grabbed a white scarf off the hanger with your magic.
  297. >You wrapped it in an almost comically big bow around your neck, and tucked your mane inside for some extra warmth.
  298. >Hopefully your fur and body heat was enough.
  299. >Heedlessly, you swung your door wide open and charged out into the frigid air.
  300. “O-o-o-o-ohhh...”
  301. >You shivered, your teeth were rattling, and your hooves were pitter pattering.
  302. >Your cheeks were instantly flushed, and your breath came out in big chimney puffs of steam that floated straight up, with no wind to blow them apart.
  303. >Thinking fast, before you lost your courage and retreated to the wools and linens inside, you lit your horn up and thought; “heat”.
  304. >Heat passed over your body in smooth and heavy rivulets, like a massive egg was cracked open on top of you.
  305. >Wherever the warmth passed, you could see your magic emit a turquoise flash, before shimmering off into a faint spattering of distant-star like sparkles that remained and dappled your black coat.
  306. >The effect was marvellous to the eyes, although you were a bit apprehensive doing a spell like that right off the bat.
  307. >So you spun around for a quick body check to make sure you hadn’t set yourself on fire, grinned, and then leapt off the porch.
  308. >Your forehooves broke through the icy crust first, with a satisfying crunch that was quickly muffled by the snowy landscape, then your hindhooves followed.
  309. “Hahahaha!”
  310. >Cackling away, you hopped up and down, stabbed your horn into the snow just to see what would happen, and made a general ruckus of your frigid front yard.
  311. >The snow was hard, but not so hard you had to worry about breaking a leg, although you really should have checked that beforehoof.
  312. >As you gambolled around, it suddenly hit you that the transformation had definitely induced a kind of euphoria.
  313. >It wasn’t just that the situation was so ridiculous all you could do was laugh, it was like a wind or a power you were swept up by.
  314. >You were following it eagerly, but that’s just it, you were following.
  315. >There was something a little outside of you that was in the lead.
  316. >This made you press the brakes, just a little, it wasn’t like you were going to stop being happy or anything, but your silliness had begun to wander into the territory of the wanton.
  317. >Nonetheless, you were smugly satisfied with your hoofdiwork, as you looked it up and down.
  318.  
  319. ##Frolicking
  320.  
  321. >You were breathing heavier now, after all that jumping around.
  322. >While you caught your breath, you craned your long and slender neck to stare up into the endless night.
  323. >Your eyes were dazzled by the moon, and the real stars up there, that made your little magic ones seem like so much cheap glitter.
  324. >Out here at the foot of the mountains, there wasn’t much light pollution, so the whole Milky Way could be seen.
  325. >You were never any good at picking out constellations, but the sight of the clear night sky had always mesmerized you in other ways.
  326. >It was a strange thing to think, considering how distant it all was, but there was something so visceral about that wheeling dome of stars, especially on a night like tonight.
  327. >That visceral feeling was queerly amplified by your transfigured body, or maybe it was the other way around.
  328. >There had been a touch of the dreamlike when you were a pony in your own home, but now that you were outside where things were much realer to your sense perceptions...
  329. >You were suddenly feeling your new shape as if it really was your own, for the first time.
  330. >This brief interval of self-discovery stretched back through your past, and linked with one of the earliest memories of your childhood, staring at the same stars in the same sky, held tight in your father’s arms.
  331. >What would that Aisling think of Aisling now?
  332. >What would your father think of you now?
  333. >...What did God think?
  334. >You lifted up one argent hoof, glistening with melted snow, and peered at it.
  335. “Have I truly become an animal?”
  336. >The sound of a branch snapping struck the rest of your thoughts dumb.
  337. >You whipped your head around to stare into the trees where you’d heard it, and for the barest moment, you could almost swear you saw a smear of red vanish around a spruce trunk.
  338. >A shiver travelled up and down your spine.
  339. >Your gut instinct left you certain that you had been watched, but for who knows how long?
  340. >And by what?
  341. >You racked your brain to think of anything “red” this time of year, and you didn’t like the sane answers any better than the irrational ones.
  342. “Thank God it’s not hunting season right now...”
  343. >With a few deep breaths, you quickly regained your calm.
  344. >It had just been some trick of the eyes, you’d panicked because you were surprised in a moment of contemplation.
  345. >Nothing more to it than that.
  346. >You laughed and started walking off into the forest, towards that meadow you’d been anticipating so eagerly.
  347. >It was also where the sound had come from, but you easily swept that fact aside in your mind.
  348. >On your way over, you passed by your car, and felt totally dwarfed
  349. >Then you walked under the massive pine that stood vigil in your backyard, before you finally planted your hooves up to the edge of the forest.
  350. >The snow cover was thinner through here, so you decided it was high time to do what your body was really meant for.
  351.  
  352. >You snorted and pawed the icy turf, tossing your head round like you’d seen horses in movies do before.
  353. >With a strong kick from your hind legs, you started off at a gallop.
  354. >Your silver hooves clove cleanly through the snow and ice with swift sharp crunching blows.
  355. >You planted your hooves firmly, and with all that leverage and grip, you weaved gracefully between the conifers.
  356. >Everything was in perfect alignment, this was the “truest” you had ever felt in this pony figure.
  357. >The automatic, rhythmic pumping of your legs, matched the steady and strong beating of your beautiful heart.
  358. >Your mane and tail trailed behind you like banners, and shone in the light from the Moon that watched you from above.
  359. >The forest was all asleep; no matter where you pointed your ears, you only picked up the sound of your breath, the thumping of your heart and the stomping of your hooves.
  360. >But your nose was picking up scents you never used to catch, even through the snow and ice you caught the distinct scent of sap.
  361. >Long before you leaped ‘round the last spruce, you knew the maple trees were ahead.
  362. >Now that there weren’t any branches in the way, you could find out what your top speed really was.
  363. >A satisfied grin crept up your face, condensation was rushing from your nostrils like smoke from a steam engine.
  364. >Your legs were rushing below you at an almost frightful pace now.
  365. >Tree trunks just flashed by, left to stand in the wake of the tumultuous din of your thundering hooves and the cloud of powdered ice you had kicked up.
  366. >Surely you had never felt your heart beat this way before, the difference from being human was so drastic it made every other new thing about being a pony seem practically the same as before the pill.
  367. >Everything was “on demand” physically, if you wanted power there, you got it, speed here, you got it, oxygen now, more like oxygen yesterday.
  368. >You went like that for what felt like forever at the time, and mere moments after the fact.
  369. >The maples were interspersed with pine now, and now and again you skipped over fallen logs.
  370. >It was only when the blueberry bushes came into view that you started to feel your muscles begin to ache.
  371. >You caught yourself breathing from your mouth too, in big sighing draws and exhales that clouded your eyes with the condensates.
  372. >With one last grand effort, you planted both fore hooves straight through the snow, then drove them irresistibly upward just as your chest came up even with the bushes.
  373. >You tucked your hind legs in and cleared the hurdle deftly, then lowered your fore legs for the landing.
  374. >The green earth gratefully received your moonlit hooves.
  375. >It took twenty strides to slow down and rein yourself in after that rousing bit of athletics.
  376. >Your body radiated heat like a furnace, if that spell from earlier was still active it certainly didn’t matter now.
  377.  
  378. >Sweat dripped down your flanks in beaded lines, your back was rising and falling with each tremendous breath.
  379. >The condensation was like a localized nimbus around your body.
  380. >When you had finally come back to your senses, you took the time to actually appreciate the view.
  381. >The meadow was a windblown, frosty little Eden.
  382. >Drifts of snow sparkled hither and thither like dunes, rising out of the verdant carpet of frost touched mint, melt dappled clover and amethyst violas.
  383. >A stream, like a silver ribbon, lay curving from your end of the meadow to the other.
  384. >The entire place was ringed in snowberry bushes, heaving with bright red fruit that was just waiting to be plucked by chickadees.
  385. >Just when you thought you had processed the whole of the entrancing locale, a cloud covering the moon swept past, and your gaze was held fast upon the landscape with an awful wonder.
  386. >The refracted moonlight from the ice on the ground and the frozen glaze covering the bare branches glowed with such a white brilliance that you felt like you were caught in the spotlight on a stage.
  387. >A brief gust whipped up a swirl of icy flakes like diamonds, and spun them across the whole meadow.
  388. “Gorgeous...”
  389. >You tried not to say any more, knowing it would just come out in a singular stream of synonyms.
  390. >...Probably should have waited for Chad.
  391. “Hahaha!”
  392. >The thought of him possibly missing this made you tumble onto your rump with laughter.
  393. >Of course you were going to drag him out here, you’d strap him to your back if you had to.
  394. >For now though, you decided it would be best to just relax and enjoy.
  395. >He was all the way in town after all, it would be a while yet before he got here.
  396. >You settled into a more comfortable position, lying down on your belly, with your legs tucked for a bit of warmth.
  397. >The cold was starting to nip at your skin, so the spell must have been nearly worn out at this point.
  398. >But with how overheated you were from the gallop over, the chill was actually a pleasant treat.
  399. >So you lay, sometimes staring at the moon, sometimes the stars, oftentimes the verdant sprawl.
  400. >After a while, you started to think maybe you should try eating a bit of the mint.
  401. “It’s... safe right?”
  402. >You snuffed at a mint plant with your snout.
  403. >It was growing straight in front of your chest, well within munching range...
  404. >You had a little bit of experience with horses, since the last town you’d lived in had a ranch.
  405. “Mint. Mint. Mint?”
  406. >The memory you were looking for seemed out of reach for a second there, but you finally got a hold of it.
  407. >Right, you’d fed that brown horse, Lucky Sands, some mint once.
  408. >You licked your lips with eyebrows raised, and pondered the total lack of reluctance you had for eating vegetation right off the ground.
  409. >Maybe it came easy because it was an herb.
  410. “Aahm.”
  411. >You lowered your head, and took three frosty leaves with one bite.
  412.  
  413. ##Familiar Faces
  414.  
  415. >The texture was...
  416. >Yeah it was just leaves alright.
  417. >Your new teeth munched them up fine though.
  418. >But as you mulched the leaves down, the flavour got intense.
  419. >It was strong and sweet, so strong it made you open your mouth to catch your breath.
  420. >You giggled, enjoying the feeling on your tongue, then chewed some more, and stared at the stars.
  421.  
  422. ////
  423.  
  424. >Outside the car window, a snow blanketed ditch streamed past.
  425. >Beyond it, endless rows of spruce streamed past a little slower.
  426. >And beyond them, the mountains hardly moved.
  427. >Their peaks were like shadowy prisms cut into the starry night, and they were rimmed with swiftly vanishing clouds.
  428. >BBNG was oozing out of the speaker system.
  429. >On your left sat a young man you knew as Chad, smoking a cigarette.
  430. >The little ember at the end of his rollie would cast a red glow across his cool and collected face, every time he took a draw.
  431. >You sighed and shifted uncomfortably in your seat.
  432. >At first you tried to lean yourself against the passenger side door, and press your hoof to your face like you would have pressed your hand to it back when you were still human.
  433. >But it quickly became obvious that wasn’t going to work, the damned seatbelt kept sliding off of you, or it just plain got in the way.
  434. >Instead, you switched over to the other side, laid your fore legs across the middle console, and nestled your head between them with an apoplectic snort of derision.
  435. >You are Anonymous.
  436. >A lot of people call you Keyboard Masher now.
  437. >”Fuck, are we almost there yet Anon?”
  438. >Except for your friend Chad.
  439. >You lifted your head up and stared out the windshield, at the oncoming, salt stained pavement, bordered by black walls of trees on either side
  440. >A mailbox flashed by, #3320.
  441. >You laid your head down again, and responded in a low growl,
  442. “Yeah, three houses down, on the left. Not even a minute.”
  443. >It had been a long day, and then a long drive, all to go check up on yet another friend who’d taken this Pon-E crap, so you were dead tired about it all right now.
  444. >Chad butted out his cig and almost used that tobacco stinking hand to muss up your mane, before he thought better of it, and used his other hand that was hardly any better instead.
  445. >You laughed a little at that at least, and felt your ears perk up for the first time in the past half hour.
  446. >From this angle, you could see your reflection in the driver’s side window.
  447. >It was a goofy looking top-down shot of your pale white horse face, with your blonde mane all askew across your big staring eyes.
  448. >With your forehooves, you poked and prodded and smoothed out the stray hairs.
  449. >You’d been nagged enough by your girl friends at this point that it had become a habit to at least try and stay on top of it.
  450. >It looked nice when it was all clean, like a wavy peel of sunlight.
  451. >But frankly, at this point, you wished you were back to having short hair that you didn’t have to care about at all.
  452.  
  453. >You had just started to really get it all back together, by the time Chad had started slowing down, when suddenly you felt his hand smush your head into the console.
  454. “Agck...”
  455. >You spluttered, your ears twitching between his fingers and your tongue reflexively darting out between your teeth.
  456. >”Woops. Sorry bud.”
  457. >Chad’s hand swapped over to the shift stick, and you got a look at his hardly apologetic looking face, with his eyes intent on the driveway ahead.
  458. >You took a look at yourself in the window again, and saw basically the same picture as before you’d started trying to groom.
  459. >With your snout firmly in the scrunched position, you sat back up straight and fast as an arrow and started over again, this time with the brush you nabbed out of the back seat.
  460. >Chad rolled the car to an easy stop in Aisling’s driveway, maybe a car length or two away from her vehicle, and you hopped out just as soon as he put it in park.
  461. >Aisling’s house was a pleasant construction, the “built by a carpenter” type, with good woodwork but not much of the stylistic sense that would impress a buyer.
  462. >All the lights were on inside, and their bright glow cast crossed window pane shadows over the absolutely dug up, stomped down and rolled in square of snow out front.
  463. >”...What the hell happened here?”
  464. >Chad was the first to utter.
  465. >Trotting up to look, the first thing that stuck out to you were the hoof prints.
  466. >You planted one of your hooves into a print, and saw that these were about the same, if a little thinner, than yours.
  467. >The other thing you noticed was that the snow was still pretty loose, which led you to deduce that it was shifted pretty recently.
  468. “Must have been Aisling,”
  469. >You called over your shoulder to Chad, as he approached.
  470. >He was zipping up his jacket and looking over the snowy mess, before his eyes were drawn to the house itself.
  471. >”Lights are on, probably inside.”
  472. >Wordlessly, you followed him across the front yard, up the wood steps, onto the porch and mercifully straight inside the warm home.
  473. >The interior looked like...
  474. “What the-”
  475. >”Typical, I knew it was a Nightmare.”
  476. >You snorted and butted your head against Chad’s leg for being such a crackpot at a time like this.
  477. >But looking at the place, even you found it hard not to get some less than rational ideas in your head.
  478. >The faint, ashy shadow of something like a blast radius was burned into the floor.
  479. >Char marks that looked unmistakably like electric arc burns formed a circle around the radius, and in that circle more ashes were strewn about.
  480. >Strange gashes had been made in the wood floor as well, and you wondered at the size of the implement that must have been used to carve them.
  481. >Everything else besides the floor around the fireplace was relatively pristine, with only a few oddities like Aisling’s soot dusted nighty lying on the sofa.
  482.  
  483. >”Aisling?”
  484. >Chad called out upstairs, while you took a peek at the book on the coffee table.
  485. “...Arthur... Hm, she’s reading the tale of Tristan now.”
  486. >As you were wont to do, you instantly got sucked into the tome as soon as you laid eyes on it.
  487. >You placed a bookmark to save Aisling’s spot, hopped up on the sofa, and tucked in all four legs to lie down.
  488. >Time vanished as you got invested in Sir Tristan’s desperate struggle against King Mark, and the tragedy of his illicit love for Isolde.
  489. >You were about 10 pages deep with your whole body wrapped in the wool throw before Chad could stop you.
  490. >The expression on his face as he spotted you from the stairwell was the antithesis of surprised.
  491. >Chad merely sighed and rolled his eyes before his visage finally settled into a grim determination for what must be done.
  492. >For your part, you did your best to pretend you hadn’t seen him, and got back to reading.
  493. >”Fucking. Nerd. Get up.”
  494. >Chad grumbled before yanking away your covering.
  495. >Plaintively, you clung to the wool throw by the mouth and shed some crocodile tears.
  496. “Mnnffooo...”
  497. >You were suspended, staring Chad straight in the eyes and immediately employing every form of psychological warfare ponyngly possible.
  498. >Big eyes, slow blinks, little kicking hooves, swishing tail and ears pinned back.
  499. >None of it should be legal.
  500. >And... there. Right there.
  501. >Chad’s face relaxed, and his shoulder started to loosen as he moved to set you back down.
  502. >One moment’s hesitation was all you needed.
  503. >Swiftly you let go of the throw and dropped-
  504. >But Chad’s left hand was already in waiting for just such an escape.
  505. >He deftly wound his arm around your barrel and hefted you over his shoulder.
  506. >”She’s not here, Nightmare or not, she’s just not here. We’re going to check out those prints.”
  507. >As he spoke, Chad was headed for the door.
  508. “Aaaaaa... Too collldddd...”
  509. >You moaned, half seriously.
  510. >This black hoodie you had was nice and all, but it wasn’t enough for the weather.
  511. >Chad grunted an acknowledgement, then turned around and took the moment to throw another hunk of wood on the fire with his free hand while you squirmed.
  512. >You tapped him on the back with both forehooves.
  513. “Seriously I’m too cold dude, grab that blanket or something.”
  514. >”Yeah, I got ya.”
  515. >Your captor grabbed the wool throw on his way out the door.
  516. >You shivered in the cool night air, and gazed longingly at the warm home you were leaving behind, as Chad walked down the doorstep with you still draped over his shoulder.
  517. >With some trepidation, you slid off of him once he’d reached the lawn.
  518. >”Is it like her to leave everything running like that?”
  519. >You shook your head at Chad, and started to walk around the yard trying to find a set of prints that split off.
  520. “None of this is much like Aisling at all besides the book and the way she talked over the phone. I was expecting to get here and just have tea and talk about books for hours while you sperged out about Freemasons faking history or something.”
  521.  
  522. ##Searching
  523.  
  524. >You started to take things a little more seriously once you and Chad were outside again.
  525. >Aisling wasn’t the type to lose her cool at all, and keeping in mind what you’d heard of the phone call earlier, it was safe to assume she wouldn’t be subject to some random fit of histrionics in the intervening time before yours’ and Chad’s arrival.
  526. >So she probably wasn’t anywhere random.
  527. >Chad followed in your hoofsteps the way a hunter would follow after his dog.
  528. >You trotted over to the eastern edge of the lawn, closest to the tree line, and spotted a set of tracks leading out and away.
  529. >Just then, the moon broke out from behind another cloud, illuminating the path in the glittering snow.
  530. >Immediately you noticed that once the hoofprints reached the forest, they were farther apart, with big tufts of snow kicked up and out of them.
  531. “She wanted to run.”
  532. >You mused.
  533. >Chad nodded and lit another cigarette while poking you in the rump with his boot.
  534. >”You could do with a bit of that too you know.”
  535. >Your lips tightened down to a thin line, but Chad couldn’t see that.
  536. >With a deadly and quiet resolve, you stood stock still with your head turned to face Chad sidelong, as if you were waiting for him to pick you up.
  537. >As soon as his foot left the snow, you donkey kicked him a dozen times in the shins and send him tumbling.
  538. >You’d gotten five good body blows in with your forehooves before Chad managed to scramble to his feet, laughing like a fool.
  539. >The tussle turned into a hunt as you chased the fleeing Chad around in the snow, tossing your head and rearing up on your hind legs, trying to stomp on his heels with your hooves.
  540. >Chad just cackled and darted around, biffing a snowball at you whenever the mood took him.
  541. >...And that kept up until the both of you were huffing and puffing and well the worse for wear.
  542. >The snow from Chad’s projectiles had accumulated in your coat, making you shiver and shake.
  543. > While Chad, for his part, was nursing more than a few hoof shaped bruises on his legs and chest.
  544. >The two of you shared a glance, from one sorely beaten young man, to a pathetically cold and shivering young mare, and laughed.
  545. >Chad walked up and smacked the snow off you, and you off of him, before you let him pick you up and wrap you in the scratchy woolen blanket he’d brought.
  546. >Then Chad slung you over his back, and tied the ends of the blanket tight around his midsection, so that you hung snug on him like a backpack.
  547. >It was blessedly warm, squeezed up against him, and you could feel your extremities getting toasty already.
  548. >You smiled, pointed over Chad’s shoulder, and said,
  549. “Hiyo! Conspiracy Cruiser! Away!”
  550. >”Inverted... Hmmph... world we got here...”
  551. >Chad grumbled around his cigarette as he adjusted the stubborn blanket sling with both hands.
  552. >With great gusto, you whirled one hoof over your head as your steed trudged on, among the conifers.
  553.  
  554. >Something about the tight atmosphere, and being bundled up like this, made you think again of how much smaller you’d become.
  555. >The forest was so deathly quiet, that Chad’s breath was like a great lumbering bear’s to your ears.
  556. >It condensed into big stormheads, compared to the childlike nimbuses that came out of your mouth.
  557. >Besides his breath, you could feel his back muscles too, and thought of the musculature you’d once been born with.
  558. >You’d never throw a punch again, never heave a load over your head, and never wrap your arm around someone.
  559. >You were no longer a man.
  560. >...
  561. >You stared up at the stars.
  562. >Out here away from the city, you thought, the whole night sky was lit up, and the few people who lived here could appreciate it.
  563. >In the city, there was no sky like this to be seen.
  564. >Several orders of magnitudes more people than ever in all human history; would not look at what you were looking at right now, just because it was an hour’s drive away.
  565. >In a way, they’d given up the night sky just to earn the living they wanted.
  566. >From the start of this Pon-E catastrophe, you’d sensed a great fault in the gestalt of the collective human mind, and you had an inkling that Chad was sensing it too.
  567. “If this drug had hit us at any earlier decade, it would have either completely derailed society, or it would have been exterminated from the earth.”
  568. >You finally said.
  569. >The end of Chad’s cigarette burned to life, and cast one spark sizzling into the snow.
  570. >Once he’d exhaled, Chad answered, and you felt the deep tenor of his voice humming from his back.
  571. >”I don’t think that’s actually a predictable outcome. But I understand your point. God only knows what would have happened... But it sure as hell wouldn’t have been this... This...”
  572. “Dead.”
  573. >The word sounded elevated beyond it’s own meaning, when it was muffled by the snow.
  574. >You sighed and wrapped your fore legs over Chad’s shoulders and around his chest, then you leaned your head up against his, and stared straight ahead at the moonlit forest.
  575. “There’s been no reaction at all, just some social media trends. Is that the only way people can react to anything anymore? It’s been so dead that I’m almost starting to believe your ‘demons’ and ‘NPC’ talk. How can we just brush off something that is so unnatural?”
  576. >You’d started gesticulating a bit with your hooves at the end there, and your tail was swishing against the blanket.
  577. >Then, you added,
  578. “Even I’ve been doing it, I feel like a moron, just playing around.”
  579. >Chad stepped out around one last spruce, and into a stand of maple trees.
  580. >The way the moon reflected off the icy, barren branches made you feel like things had suddenly gotten a bit better.
  581. >Like the atmosphere was not so pressing as it was with the moon bearing down on you and Chad with no cover, between the green needles.
  582. >Chad laughed as he stuffed his butted out cig into his pocket ashtray.
  583.  
  584. >”Doesn’t sound like you’re brushing it off to me-”
  585. >You were about to protest, but Chad just gently laid his hand on your snout to stop you, and the smell of ashes made your nose wrinkle.
  586. >”You’re stuck like this until someone finds a fix anyway, having some freakout will just waste time.”
  587. >Your breath escaped you, and you slumped up against Chad in acceptance.
  588. >Then he mumbled,
  589. >”...That’s how the fuckin’ Bilderberger group would want you to react anyway... To get more people hooked on fuckin’ benzos...”
  590. >With a great snort, you laughed and shook into Chad’s shoulder.
  591. >A great grin was on his face as he picked his way along through the forest.
  592. >The two of you went on like that for a time, in a friendly silence, tracing after the hoofprints.
  593. >You were properly warm now, and your cheeks were flushed red and rosy against your white fur.
  594. >Chad seemed unaffected by the cold himself, and now that the snow was low, he was having an easy time of it just strolling across the forest floor.
  595. >The branches were utterly still overhead, glinting in the night, and you couldn’t remember the last time you’d felt a breeze.
  596. >Eventually, a clearing came into view up ahead.
  597. >It was a refreshing green, and it looked positively like an oasis after all the stark whites and blacks.
  598. >And from it came a dulcet voice, singing in a low, intimate, and laughing tone.
  599. >”...No one I know.”
  600. >Chad had stopped just a bit short of the clearing, and was half hiding in a bladed stance behind a tree.
  601. >You pushed up out of the blanket sling, shivering at the sudden cold air, and stepped your fore hooves on Chad’s head so you could look.
  602. >Peeking around the trunk you caught a slice of what you realized was more like a meadow than anything.
  603. >The voice sounded like it was just out of view, to the left somewhere, and moving around.
  604. >Faintly you could hear the soft crunching of the frosty vegetation being trampled, and it quickly became clear to you from the timing and the rhythm of it that the voice’s owner must be a pony.
  605. >You were stricken with a sudden bout of jealousy for them.
  606. >Seeing the fresh mint made you lick your lips, and you almost urged Chad to walk over already, but you knew his neuroses would not be satisfied if you didn’t at least say something first.
  607. >So you muttered into his ear:
  608. “It’s a pony. Who’s it gonna be besides Aisling anyway? Gnomes don’t have voices like that.”
  609. >Chad swiftly shot back in a low murmur.
  610. >”Gnomes aren’t real.”
  611. >You couldn’t believe what you were hearing.
  612. >The anticipation of munching on mint was wiped from your mind in an instant, you scowled and spoke.
  613. “Gnomes are real.”
  614. >With a bored sort of expression on his face, Chad locked eyes with you, and shook his head before once again insisting,
  615. >”No, they aren’t.”
  616. >You could hardly believe your flicky little ears.
  617. >Leave it to him to know just how to push the limit.
  618. “Yesterday you told me nukes were fake, now you think GNOMES are fake?”
  619. >You hissed under your breath.
  620.  
  621. ##The One with Nemetona
  622.  
  623. >All the while, you could hear that voice coming closer.
  624. >Chad turned his head to look, and, seeing nothing, whipped around to stare at you again.
  625. >His brow was raised in a kind of bemused surprise, as if he was only just realizing you weren’t kidding
  626. >Once more, Chad checked to make sure the pony in the meadow wasn’t near, then he whispered back,
  627. >”You seriously think they’re real?”
  628. >Your eyes practically rolled out of their sockets, as you sat back in your blanket sling and huffed out a puffball of steam.
  629. “Once the Changelings started showing up, I thought it was so obvious that I...”
  630. >You lifted a hoof as if to continue, but paused, and instead held the hoof to your chin.
  631. >It was so...
  632. >So clear to you?
  633. >How the fuck did Chad not realize what was going on.
  634. >What?
  635. >This was the last possible way you could have imagined this scenario playing out, if anything you thought you were going to have to listen to Chad endlessly insist that Pon-E was developed by the Rosicrucians, to keep people from finding out the Moon was a spy satellite or something.
  636. >Now that you thought about it, Chad hadn’t really espoused ANY theory he was totally ADAMANT about yet...
  637. >When was the last time that had happened?
  638. >Your brow furrowed in concern, as you contemplated the possibility that Chad may have caught a cold after all that walking.
  639. >Slowly, so that your friend wouldn’t pull away, you pressed the soft frog of your hoof against his forehead to check the temperature.
  640. >Chad was surprised at first, then his face settled into something like a laconic exasperation.
  641. >He just rolled his eyes and let you get on with your check.
  642. >For half a minute the both of you were stock still, just listening to that pony sing while you gauged his warmth.
  643. >...Then you pulled your hoof away, and sighed, a little relieved.
  644. “Normal I guess.”
  645. >Chad seemed to have completely forgotten about the unknown pony at this point, because his next remark came practically at normal speaking volume.
  646. >”What are you even talking about Anon? What the hell do Changelings have to do with gnomes? What do gnomes have to do with ANYTHING?”
  647. >You shook your head, still not quite believing this was really happening.
  648. >This was a watershed moment.
  649. >You were not ashamed to admit you’d been proven wrong more than once for doubting Chad.
  650. >Oftentimes the difference between thinking he was totally off base, and knowing he was right, was a year’s wait.
  651. >Now, finally, the horseshoe was on the other hoof.
  652. >You smiled, a little sadly, and spoke plainly.
  653. “Gnomes created Pon-E.”
  654. >Dumbstruck, Chad could only stare at you.
  655. >A long and deep sigh passed your lips, and you pressed your hoof into your forehead to massage away the headache you could feel coming on.
  656. >Then suddenly, in a spurt of emotion, you wiggled your hooves and raised your voice to a loud and squeaky falsetto, as Chad looked on in utter confusion.
  657. “Ooohhh fairy tale transformatiooons!!! And now... literal fairy tale creeeatures, in the streeets!”
  658.  
  659. >You started a new impression; of the sort of simpleton that would not realize what you had long ago, this time with a fake bassy, booming, moronic voice.
  660. “Ummm... So, yeah? There’s shape-shifters? We call them Changelings??? So what????”
  661. >Chad’s eyes squinted, and he shook his head in incredulity at what he was hearing.
  662. >But your brain and your lungs were already firing on all cylinders for a lengthy rant, and you got on with it at full volume.
  663. “THEY’RE SPIRITS!!! You know!? Sprites! Mischievous little faeries! Who the else would do some shit like this!?”
  664. >Your friend scoffed and pulled out a fresh cigarette, while you continued.
  665. “And where there’s one spirit, there’s always another one. These-”
  666. >Chad rolled the cig between his fingers, and, seemingly not satisfied with the quality, swapped for a better one.
  667. “Hell, I bet these ‘people’ were Changelings from the start! Not to mention that-”
  668. >Finally, your attentive interlocutor dug out his lighter and fired it up, his eyes darting up at the sky for just a moment.
  669. “It’s no coincidence that it came out of NYC either, of course the gnomes would strike an urban centre first! That’s the whole point! They-”
  670. >Chad smiled, and spared himself the rest of your diatribe by stepping into the meadow.
  671. “I...”
  672. >Pure awe had struck you into a blessed silence.
  673. >Ribbons of the most stunning hue of turquoise were streaming across the entire night sky, from the Moon to the mountains at the edge of your sight.
  674. >They seemed to wrap and fold around the peaks beyond, a startlingly beautiful contrast to the shadowy triangles, bedecked as they were in stars.
  675. >The Milky Way cut askance the aurora, like a slash of diamonds across a field of gemstone.
  676. >All the frost upon the fresh meadow below was enkindled in the ghost light from above.
  677. >And shining like an heirloom ring in the middle of a jewellery box, was a slight and nimble looking unicorn standing at the centre of the meadow.
  678. >Her eyes matched the aurora, and her fur was made of the night sky behind it.
  679. >The silver horn on her head, and the silver hooves at the ends of her fine legs gleamed like the stars.
  680. >She turned her head up, to see the aurora better, and you nearly cried seeing her platinum mane flow the way it did.
  681. >Chad strode forward at a dreamlike pace, while you stared all around, and he casually lifted his hand to catch the unicorn’s eye.
  682. >She returned the wave, smiling brightly, before turning her attention to the night sky again.
  683. >You think maybe she did a double take when she spotted you on Chad’s back, but you were too distracted by the view to really register that.
  684. >The unicorn spoke with that same voice you’d heard singing earlier.
  685. >”You must be cold, let me help.”
  686. >For the first time, your attention was drawn away from the heavens.
  687. >The dusky beauty had laid herself down in a patch of thawed clover and violets, and her playful gaze was fixed on your face.
  688.  
  689. >There was the glimmer of a question in her eyes, but she seemed not to want to ask it, preferring silence.
  690. >Suddenly self conscious, you shut your gaping mouth, and shyly rubbed your cheek with a hoof.
  691. >The night mare’s horn glowed, just like the light of the aurora, and you found your mouth instantly agape again.
  692. >Chad’s shoulders tensed, and you felt a warmth spread all down your body.
  693. >He seemed to relax in the same moment, understanding that there was no threat, despite the supernaturalism of the situation.
  694. >You could see the same glow from her horn envelop the both of you, before it dissipated into fine glitters of something a poet would certainly call stardust.
  695. >After the spell was cast, you felt as if you had been lying in front of a hearth for the past hour.
  696. >It was a perfectly pleasant “soaked in” heat, that conjured memories of hot chocolate, and whisky.
  697. >...Despite your comfort, you were a little worried how Chad would react, and checked his expression.
  698. >But he looked surprisingly calm, considering the situation.
  699. >He was straight faced, and met the unicorn’s eyes with his own.
  700. >You started to think that maybe the whole “Nightmare” thing was actually his idea of a joke.
  701. >The unicorn was smiling a little wryly at Chad now as he let you loose from the blanket, and she asked,
  702. >”So, how did you figure I wasn’t some demon?”
  703. >Chad quickly shot back,
  704. >”I haven’t yet. As far as I know, you are. Keyboard? What do you think?”
  705. “Why are you calling me... Ah...”
  706. >He didn’t trust her after all, so he wasn’t about to use your real name.
  707. >Your friend’s request had snapped you out of your dreamy reverie, and you paid closer attention to the black mare.
  708. >The first thought you had was that she must be Aisling, but your own talk earlier about gnomes and Changelings had fomented a flicker of doubt in your mind.
  709. >You climbed down from Chad’s back, and finally stepped upon the earth again.
  710. >Groaning and sighing, you stretched your whole body, standing on your hind hooves and reaching with your fore legs like a human would reach with their arms.
  711. >With one eye open, you remarked to the pony,
  712. “Listen, I’m not as paranoid as Chad here, but for now I’m just going to file you as n’Aisling alright? No hard feelings.”
  713. >The newly dubbed n’Aisling giggled at you while you shook, and kicked your legs around to get the blood pumping again.
  714. >Once your little ritual was complete, you started to look n’Aisling over.
  715. >Your eyes passed from her horn, down her laughing expression, past her barrel, and finally settled on the mark on her left flank.
  716. >It was an ivory coloured olive tree with reaching branches, a twisted trunk, and coiling roots that wound their way around the entire tree in a full circle, completing the crest.
  717. >Frowning, you touched your own symbol, a broken computer keyboard.
  718. >You couldn’t help but feel you got gypped, seeing how n’Aisling’s was borne of myth and ancient history.
  719. >It brought concepts like logos, peace, and sanctity to the mind.
  720.  
  721. ##Catching up with Friends
  722.  
  723. [Deftones-Sextape]
  724. >Yours just made people think of rage quitting streamers and gamers screaming slurs over badly compressed microphones.
  725. >Also it smelled like Monster, no matter how much you scrubbed.
  726. >With your muzzle scrunched, and your mood just a little bitter, you turned your thoughts back to the matter at hoof.
  727. >”So? Can you drop the ‘n’ yet?”
  728. >n’Aisling interrupted with a sly smile on her face, almost as if she had sussed out your envy.
  729. >You lifted a hoof to silence her, as you sat and assumed the Atlas pose.
  730. >Frankly you figured this was the real Aisling.
  731. >Everything about the way the unicorn talked, and how she hadn’t even asked who you were yet was so much like Aisling.
  732. >Total nonchalance, that was her M.O.
  733. >It’s not like there was gonna be some other tell that you could discern anyway, Aisling didn’t have a codeword for this kind of thing like you and Chad had.
  734. >So instead of rationalizing it for yourself, you started thinking about what kind of bullshit story you could spin to convince Chad that she was Aisling.
  735. “Hrrmmmmm....”
  736. >You breathed.
  737. >Chad had obviously only asked you to figure it out because of the ‘cryptic’ mark on her flank any-
  738. >Like lightning, your brain traced a quicksilver path back into the vast archival recesses and corridors worth of symbols you’d seen in your life.
  739. >Your face tightened, recognition had struck you raw.
  740. >Chad noticed, and his gaze was taken from the aurora, back to you.
  741. >You pressed your snout right up close to n’Aisling’s flank, and pressed your hooves on either side to make sure the mark wasn’t being distorted.
  742. >n’Aisling’s tail flicked at your face, but otherwise she didn’t react.
  743. ”One... two... three...”
  744. >With baited breath, you counted out the branches and roots.
  745. >Chad watched silently, his cigarette streaming smoke, and so did n’Aisling, albeit with a much more serene expression.
  746. “...eight.”
  747. >You broke out into a cold sweat, and shock knitted your brow into a grave expression as you pulled away and sat on your rump.
  748. >Four branches and four roots, it really was eight in total.
  749. >Chad crouched down to your level, looking almost as concerned as you.
  750. >Even n’Aisling’s expression was a little muted now...
  751. >No, you could confidently affirm that she was Aisling, that was her family’s crest after all, but...
  752. “It’s just too perfect, that the crest would change.”
  753. >You murmured.
  754. >A hand clapped to your head.
  755. >”Explain. Bookworm.”
  756. >Chad grumbled.
  757. >Before you were able to respond, Aisling piped up.
  758. >”Oh, it’s numbers right? Like the meanings in the Bible? Eight is-”
  759. “Change, new beginnings.”
  760. >You finished.
  761. >Chad let go of your head and stayed squatted by your side, listening attentively and looking intently at the little olive tree while you expounded at length.
  762. “Aisling’s ancestors were nobles, Catholics, so they took an olive tree for their crest, after the grafted tree in Romans 11.”
  763. >Aisling nodded, and a pleasant, elated smile bubbled up to her face, as she intuited the whole of it.
  764.  
  765. >”Right, right. I didn’t even think of that. The original has five branches and five roots.”
  766. >Chad’s eyes flicked to her, then to you again.
  767. “Point being, everywhere in the bible, five is the number of divine appointment.”
  768. >Again Aisling contributed, gently excited now.
  769. >“ ‘There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?’ ”
  770. >She quoted.
  771. >The words had such a pleasant ring when she spoke them, that you stayed silent for a moment to appreciate them.
  772. >Then you nodded, and appended.
  773. “Exactly, when Christ fed the five thousand.”
  774. >Now you looked at Chad.
  775. “That’s why I was so freaked out, the synchronicity is insane. Her mark has four branches and four roots now. And four is the number of ‘wholeness’, it’s everywhere in nature.”
  776. >Chad seemed to be catching on, and he murmured.
  777. >”DNA, the 4 nucleobases: cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine... Physics, the 4 fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, weak interaction, strong interaction...”
  778. “Add em up and you get eight, change, new beginning. I’d say this...”
  779. >You swept your hoof generally above yourself and Aisling for emphasis.
  780. “Qualifies as ‘change’. It’s also interesting that it specifically takes two pills to make it permanent.”
  781. >There was a grim satisfaction on Chad’s face, and he nodded his assent to your assessment, while muttering.
  782. >”...Maybe not gnomes... but Templars?..”
  783. >’And there he goes,’ you thought.
  784. >As usual, the best way to get Chad to trust something was to have it involve cryptic numbers and obscured patterns.
  785. >Chad’s brain would be crunching on that all night.
  786. >But at least it also meant he wouldn’t be dumping his table salt on Aisling’s doorstep like he promised.
  787. >When Chad got like this it was usually best to give him a little time, so you turned to Aisling, and jerked your head to motion; ‘Walk?’
  788. >She nodded, and followed you graciously about the meadow, while Chad stayed behind to ruminate.
  789. >The aurora was tinged with purple, and still going strong overhead.
  790. >Aisling’s spell kept you supernaturally heated against the frigid atmosphere.
  791. >And your eyes were locked on the sky above, with your mouth a little agape in muted awe.
  792. >You could feel Aisling’s gaze on your face,
  793. >Then suddenly you felt a warm fuzzy thing knock into your side, and Aisling giggled.
  794. >It had been her, of course, but whether you’d blundered into her or she’d bumped you wasn’t really clear.
  795. >Now that she had your attention though, Aisling asked,
  796. >”So, who are you really? You remind me a lot of my friend Anonymous.”
  797. >Your mouth shut, and your eyes were cast down in a melancholic expression, as you thought on just how much you must have changed for one of your longest running correspondents to not recognize you.
  798. >At the back of your mind the thought had niggled you already, but you’d just pretended Aisling was being coy.
  799. “I am Anonymous.”
  800. >You answered.
  801. >Aisling’s eyes glinted in the starlight, and her smile flattened.
  802.  
  803. >The both of you had stopped walking.
  804. >”You took two... I’m sorry.”
  805. >She said, totally serious for the first time since you’d seen her tonight.
  806. >You started trotting again, and stayed silent for the moment while Aisling followed.
  807. >Then you answered with a hasty cop-out, whipping your tail.
  808. “It’s fine, at least I overdosed on the one drug that doesn’t kill you. When’s the last time over the counter drugs got tainted en-masse like this anyway? ‘82? When you think about it like that, I’m incredibly lucky.”
  809. >It was a totally rehashed answer, you’d said much the same to Chad, what felt like forever ago now.
  810. >Still you watched Aisling’s expression for her reaction.
  811. >Aisling laughed, a little darkly.
  812. >You weren’t sure she was convinced.
  813. >”I suppose. It sounds like you’ve already muscled through a lot of it in your head? Anything I say will probably just be something you’ve heard before.”
  814. >You hip checked Aisling playfully, and said,
  815. “You’re the one person besides him-”
  816. >Here, you gestured to Chad.
  817. “-that I trust to at least say something original, even if it’s total bunk.”
  818. >She smiled, and bumped you back, before sitting down again.
  819. >You followed suit, noting the violets that surrounded you.
  820. >Before turning to look at the sky, your eyes locked to a little sprout of mint.
  821. >...You checked to see Chad wasn’t looking, and snapped it up in your mouth.
  822. >Aisling didn’t laugh, or even really comment on it, she just moon gazed.
  823. >The flavour was stupendously strong, and pleasant.
  824. >If it really was just a natural growth of mint, it was extraordinary, or maybe it was just that your sense of taste had changed so much from being a human.
  825. >You grinned, and watched the aurora shift to an abyssal magenta.
  826. >”Do you want to turn back?”
  827. >Aisling asked.
  828. >And you responded without flinching,
  829. “Yeah. But I’m not exactly desperate or anything.”
  830. >Her being so direct made you much more comfortable, and willing to divulge.
  831. >Aisling was ponderously pawing a chunk of ice with her silver hoof.
  832. >Another pang of faint envy hit you, and you grumbled internally about your plain white appendages.
  833. >If you really were gonna be like this for the rest of your life, it wouldn’t have hurt to be a little nicer to look at.
  834. >Aisling looked much more like a mare than you, with her slim legs and svelte body.
  835. >You were like the Mega Bloks to her Legos.
  836. >Your eyes roamed upward, to that gleaming metal spiral.
  837. >It especially wouldn’t have hurt to get magic out of the deal...
  838. >”Do you want me to take a second one?”
  839. >You blinked, hardly believing you’d heard Aisling say that.
  840. >With concern, you lifted her chin to get a good look at her eyes.
  841. >They were clearly serious.
  842. “No. Why?”
  843. >You answered decisively.
  844. >Aisling sighed and flopped down on her belly, and huffed her silvery mane out of her eyes.
  845. >”Sorry, I just felt guilty. I know I shouldn’t, but I did.”
  846. >Relief and sympathy buoyed your spirits, and you laughed.
  847.  
  848. ##Onto the Man
  849.  
  850. >The guileless admission your friend made had disintegrated and blown away your envious thoughts.
  851. >Your laughter seemed to put Aisling at ease too, she raised her head and smiled again.
  852. >As your giggling petered off, you answered.
  853. “It’s fine, seriously. I’ll be fine. You don’t have to do anything dramatic like ‘prance this road’ with me or whatever. We came to check on YOU... And I’ve got Chad helping me anyway, you know what he’s like.”
  854. >Aisling nodded, and you dodged just in time to avoid getting your eye poked out by her horn.
  855. >”No! Oh no... I’m sorry, I’m still not used to this thing yet!”
  856. >She began to profusely apologize, with both hooves laid over yours in remuneration.
  857. >You just grinned and laughed some more.
  858. “It’s fine, you missed.”
  859. >After a couple minutes, things settled down, and the two of you were both just gazing at the purple ribbon of light in the sky in silence.
  860. >When suddenly, Aisling simply said,
  861. >”Yes. Chad’s always been a dependable guy.”
  862. >Crunching ice made all four ears between the both of you flick to the east, before the heads they were attached to followed suit.
  863. >Chad had squatted down, just a little apart from you and Aisling.
  864. >Smiling between chews of his nicotine gum, he waved a hand and casually remarked,
  865. >”Keep the conversation going that way, before I infodump about dark nobility, and you change your mind.”
  866. >Aisling didn’t even blush, she just propped a hoof under her chin and gave Chad a look that said she at least appreciated he was trying to tease her.
  867. >You rolled your eyes, then shuffled along the violets and started dragging Chad in closer with your mouth.
  868.  
  869. ////
  870.  
  871. >A little white horse was biting the zipper on your jacket.
  872. >You couldn’t help but laugh.
  873. >Anon’s face looked so goofy with her teeth sticking out of her mouth like that.
  874. >She’d done the same thing earlier, when she ate the mint while she thought you weren’t looking.
  875. >And the expression this time was just plain cartoonish, it was practically a carbon copy of >:|.
  876. >Chuckling, you let Anon reel you in.
  877. >Once you were pressed up against the side of her barrel, Anonymous bore her haughty expression up at you, and snorted.
  878. >By contrast, Aisling grinned almost apologetically, with her ears pinned behind her head while she rubbed Anon’s back with one glittering hoof.
  879. >You splayed your legs out, and leaned back on the palms of your hands to get a little more comfortable.
  880. >In the back of your mind, you were still mentally storing words to run through a gematria calculator later, but up front you’d just thought of a pretty good needle to stick in your buddy’s ass.
  881. >”Anyway, I saw you were reading the Morte d’Arthur...”
  882. >Anonymous had started on some lit-geek shit before you poked her in the barrel with your elbow.
  883. >In a huff, she turned that same expression from a second ago on you again.
  884. >”What?”
  885. >You grinned, chewed your gum, and lifted up the box it came in.
  886. >The label read ’Ultra Chill Mint’.
  887.  
  888. >Aisling started laughing instantly and tried to stop just as immediately, while Anon just stared in confusion.
  889. >Her big blue eyes, pressed into two mean half circles from her brows and framed by her slightly swaying blonde mane, went from the box, to your face, and back again.
  890. >Finally, when Aisling had already managed to stop laughing, Anonymous seemed to realize what you were getting at.
  891. >Blood flushed her white cheeks a brilliant snowberry scarlet, and she puffed them full of air.
  892. >You cackled as a million hooves pummelled your ribs.
  893. >Before Anon could start really throwing the rough ones, you grabbed her ‘round the neck and pulled her in close where she couldn’t put her weight into it.
  894. >Anonymous’ still bright red face pouted up at you from between your chest and the crook of your elbow.
  895. >You grinned back, but spoke with a hint of apologetics.
  896. “C’mon, it’s just funny you cared so much that you tried to hide it. Humans can eat mint raw like that too.”
  897. >Anon failed to look you in the eye.
  898. >Still blushing, she silently went about loosening your grip with her hooves, cursing all the while.
  899. >You relented with a sigh, and took a strong right to the liver for your mercy.
  900. >Anonymous huffed, already standing on all fours, with a satisfied smirk, while Aisling could hardly look on.
  901. “Can’t take the man out of the mare.”
  902. >You commented, with a wince, as you got up too.
  903. >Anonymous actually laughed at that, blunt and brusque.
  904. >”Hear hear.”
  905. >Aisling stood up too, nodding patiently, and agreeing in comical solemnity.
  906. >”Hear hear.”
  907. >All three of you felt the warming spell start to wear off at the same time.
  908. >The chill had started in your toes a minute ago, and you could feel it snaking up your arms now too.
  909. >You zipped up your jacket tight, and started to prepare the blanket to carry Anon with again, but she shook her head and declined.
  910. >”Nah, the snow’s not all that high. I think the magic will last me long enough.
  911. “Alright.”
  912. >You wrapped it around yourself, inside your jacket instead.
  913. >The two ponies went first, and they were already up to their withers in European medieval legend by the time you’d all reached the edge of the meadow.
  914. >You stopped to look at the aurora again, but it was already gone.
  915. >The moon looked to be heading the same way, in maybe 10 minutes it would be completely hidden behind one of the mountains.
  916. >’Better hurry then,’ you thought.
  917. >You didn’t know how good pony-vision was at night, but keeping watch over two friends who looked awfully like prey, on a dark moonless night, in the middle of the woods...
  918. >It would be a tight spot.
  919. >”-yeah Sir Kay is the best, remember when he-”
  920. >Anon was ranting excitedly to a more serene, but equally content, Aisling.
  921. >You sized them both up and felt pretty sure that you could run with the two of them under your arms if it really came done to the line.
  922. >Aisling’s turquoise stare caught you unawares.
  923. >There was a knowing smile on her lips as she mouthed the word,
  924. >’relax’
  925.  
  926. >And once more you were struck a little dumb by how surreal this all was.
  927. >You’d gotten used to seeing Anonymous past ‘Keyboard Masher’, but Aisling was another thing entirely.
  928. >Her personality had always been a bit disarming, and not just because you were so hopeless around women.
  929. >Inhabiting that myth-like body, Aisling came across every bit the trickster spirit.
  930. >It had taken everything you had not to grab Anon and run, the moment her horn had lit up earlier.
  931. >Sighing, nodding to Aisling, and picking the sleep from your eyes, you instinctively reached inside your jacket for a cigarette, before stopping yourself.
  932. >What bothered you the most about nearly running away back then was that it meant you hadn’t totally trusted Anon’s judgment call, and less trust was exactly the last thing you needed right now.
  933. >Ahead, the moonlight was already so much dimmer between the maples.
  934. >The eight horse hooves between your two friends trundled along in the snow, sounding a bit like tank treads crawling along.
  935. >Your heavier footfalls followed in their wake.
  936. >But every few minutes, a different sound, one so quiet you didn’t even believe you’d heard it at first, would reach your ears.
  937. >Your attention slowly sharpened to a deadly point, and you stopped walking right when you heard a foreign noise so distinct you couldn’t deny it.
  938. >Aisling and Anonymous had both stopped too.
  939. >Their ears were twitching to and fro, aiming at gaps in the branches and trunks.
  940. >Anonymous was stanced up, with her fore legs spread, ready to gallop.
  941. >Aisling already had one leg raised, and she was peering all ‘round.
  942. >You looked at Anon and asked,
  943. “What, where.”
  944. >Anon looked consternated, thinking, ears aiming, and her eyes too busy looking everywhere else to meet your own.
  945. >Eventually she just shook her head, and answered.
  946. >”I dunno, everywhere.”
  947. >Without another thought, you lunged to scoop up both ponies, but Aisling stopped you, and pointed her hoof between a pair of twinned maples.
  948. >”There!”
  949. >She whispered.
  950. >”I think I saw something like that before too, all red.”
  951. >You pivoted round to look, but there was already nothing.
  952. >Just as you were about to give up, scoop and run, you saw the blurry red thing for yourself, as it darted from one trunk to another.
  953. >Then another, then another.
  954. >All the trees in a 10 meter radius were suddenly alive with movement, and you felt it was too late to try any running.
  955. >Instinctively, the three of you had backed into each other, with the whole trio facing out towards the still practically incomprehensible beings that surrounded you.
  956. >”I knew it was gnomes!”
  957. >Anon blurted.
  958. “It’s not fucking gnomes...”
  959. >You grumbled under your breath.
  960. >Aisling was totally quiet, you glanced over and saw she had sat down to focus and becalm herself.
  961. >30 seconds of breathless cacophony passed, before everything settled into a deathly silence.
  962. >With a shock, you realized what had just been done.
  963.  
  964. >Every foot and hoof print had been swept away.
  965. >In the same moment you thought that, and figured you could direct yourself by the moon instead, its light was snuffed out.
  966. >Pitch dark wheeled overhead, and below.
  967. >The sky was not even pin pricked by the stars, concealed as they were behind a new swell of clouds.
  968. “Fuck.”
  969. >The moment after you swore, a pale light began to shine from the tip of Aisling’s horn.
  970. >Anonymous looked twice as relieved as you were.
  971. >You stared all around, but Aisling’s light just reached the lowest parts of the tree trunks around.
  972. >In the shadows, you could faintly make out red pointed shapes, everywhere.
  973. >Beside trees, in the branches, and between looping roots.
  974. >You could hear Anonymous breathing heavy and fast beside you.
  975. >”It... it really is gn-gnomes...”
  976. >At this point you would believe it was practically anything.
  977. >You reached into your jacket and white knuckle gripped the buck knife you kept hidden inside.
  978. >A few precious seconds were wasted with pointless babbling thoughts, before you gathered yourself and let go of the knife.
  979. >Trying not to sound exasperated or stressed, you asked Aisling,
  980. “Can you make that light any brighter?”
  981. >Your voice didn’t echo at all, the snow just ate it up.
  982. >She shook her head about as regretfully as if you’d asked for another cookie she just didn’t have.
  983. >”I tried, but it’s hard to visualize the concept properly.”
  984. >You came up with a plan the moment she said ‘hard’, and immediately started acting on it.
  985. “Alright... You know these woods better than me, take it slow so we can get a good look at whatever these things are first, but head wherever you think is the way out. I’ll follow. Anon-”
  986. >Her head flicked to you.
  987. >Anonymous was the most scared you’d ever seen her.
  988. >Her teeth were chattering, her ears were pinned flat to her head, and her tail was pressed against her belly.
  989. >There was no way she was going to walk ahead of you, and if you let her follow, she might get snatched or bolt while you weren’t looking.
  990. “C’mere. Watch my back.”
  991. >She relaxed a little as you picked her up and slung her over your shoulder, but you could still feel her furry sides shiver against your cheek every now and again.
  992. >Aisling started walking, one slow hoof in front of the other.
  993. >You stalked after her, and kept your eyes on the edge of her hornlight.
  994. >Those damned things, whatever they were, vanished the moment the light would have passed over them.
  995. >Yet you could always see more of those distinct red pointed shapes, just out of proper reckoning.
  996. >You and Aisling went on like that for what felt like forever, but your phone told you it had been three minutes.
  997. >God only knew if you were even heading the right way.
  998. >Out of desperation, you hissed to Anonymous,
  999. “What do you even say to gnomes, is there some kind of bullshit greeting they have to answer?”
  1000. >Anon shuddered hard, and her tail fluttered in your face, blinding you for a second.
  1001.  
  1002. >”T-t-the t-t-typical w-western garden gnome is actually more a-akin to the Sc-Scandinavian nisse...”
  1003. >You had figured that speaking from her field of interest would give Anon some comfort.
  1004. >She collected herself as she continued.
  1005. >”Red pointed hats are characteristic of the depictions of the nisse...”
  1006. >She whispered in your ear.
  1007. >“Judging by what we’re looking at here, it’s safe to guess that these may be a little more adherent to Scandinavian folklore than the passages written by Paracelsus on the subject... Nisse are responsible for the-”
  1008. >You gently patted Anon on the back.
  1009. ”What would they want?”
  1010. >Her tail floated in front of your face again.
  1011. >”...they might appreciate some kind of gift.”
  1012. >Aisling stopped and bent her lovely neck to peer up at you, asking with just a look; if you wanted to try gifting them something.
  1013. >You nodded in the affirmative, and slowly started to peel Anonymous off of your shoulder.
  1014. >She looked cool, and determined, now that there was some kind of ‘understanding’ reached.
  1015. >”Try the rum you brought first.”
  1016. >Anon contributed.
  1017. >And you agreed,
  1018. “Alright. Everyone just stay still.”
  1019. >As if you had a gun drawn on you, you peered all round, and moved as steadily and deliberately as possible.
  1020. >You reached into your right-hand pocket for your metal flask, and held it aloft.
  1021. “It’s spiced rum. Decent shit, not mass brewed swill. Let’s talk.”
  1022. >There was no response.
  1023. >The red cones didn’t move a millimetre.
  1024. >Aisling’s pulsing light played tricks on your eyes, making you imagine they were swaying, but you knew it wasn’t so.
  1025. >...Maybe they weren’t drinkers?
  1026. >You started on a new tactic, and reached into your jacket for your cigarettes.
  1027. “Alright maybe-”
  1028. >”The drink’d be fine boy. Just’n hold yer horses.”
  1029. >The voice that piped up was exactly how you’d have a imagined a gnome’s, high, tinny, jolly and in an insufferably british/irish/scottish/whatever hell bastard blend of an accent.
  1030. >Another, similar voice quickly added,
  1031. >”Well he’s already held one horse hasn’t he!?”
  1032. >A tumult of jolly laughter echoed from all around.
  1033. >All the gnomes had begun to banter and bicker.
  1034. >What you figured was the first gnome who spoke up, stepped out into the light.
  1035. >Anonymous gasped.
  1036. >Tall red cap, frizzy grey beard, a tricky gleam in blue eyes, rosy cheeks and a red button nose.
  1037. >All the surrealism of Aisling from earlier felt just like home compared to this.
  1038. >You whipped your head around.
  1039. >Anonymous was frozen in shock and surprise, and Aisling was already conversing with a pair of two other similar looking gnomes.
  1040. >A particular gnome let Anon’s tail fall from his hand, and then nodded at it in an approving, appraising sort of way.
  1041. >She wheeled on him, but didn’t seem to know what to do, so she just stared.
  1042. >For that fact, you didn’t really know what to do either.
  1043. >Absentmindedly, you let the gnome who’d spoken take the flask from your hand and take a swig.
  1044. >”Thank ya.”
  1045.  
  1046. ##Making Trades
  1047.  
  1048. >He capped and threw it to another gnome who repeated the process, drinking and passing again.
  1049. >The tone shift was so drastic, it was like you’d been airdropped into an Irish pub.
  1050. >Two gnomes were arm wrestling on a big toadstool you were sure hadn’t been there before.
  1051. >A third gnome had joined Aisling’s conversation, to drunkenly complement her mane.
  1052. >The lead gnome you’d first passed the rum to was pointing around and trading jokes and jibes with his subordinates.
  1053. >All the while the rum kept jumping around like a hot potato.
  1054. >On the surface the situation was like some cheery little painting.
  1055. >But that queer disquietude from moments ago hadn’t actually dissipated at all.
  1056. >It didn’t even feel like it had become a part of the background, the tension was thick and palpable.
  1057. >You could see it on Aisling’s face, that she sensed it too.
  1058. >She was keeping her interlocutors just far enough from her, and she hadn’t sat down or gotten comfortable at all.
  1059. >The three gnomes around her had moved on to talking about the meadow,
  1060. >”-planted ‘er right all by my lonesome! No help from this bleedin’-”
  1061. >Aisling giggled, and it sunk to the bottom of your heart like lead shot, there had been so little joy in it.
  1062. >Anon... Well she was practically catatonic right now.
  1063. >There was nothing you wanted more than to drop kick the gnome that was sizing her up, but...
  1064. >This wasn’t over yet.
  1065. >They were still encircling the three of you.
  1066. >A heart pumping shot of adrenaline raced through your veins, when you realized there were even more of them waiting just outside of the hornlight than before.
  1067. >Your fists balled up instinctively.
  1068. >”Y’alright lad? The deal was we talk, eh?”
  1069. >The first gnome again.
  1070. >He’d just got done making another joke at another gnome’s expense, and was grinning at you, a bit bemused.
  1071. >Despite being factually the most whimsical thing you’d ever seen, upon observation, he was grotesque.
  1072. >His eyes weren’t right for his expression, they looked cold and piercing.
  1073. >Under the little tunic you could see the gnome was built like a coal miner.
  1074. >There was a penknife on his belt, although now that you thought about it, to him it was as big as a buck skinning knife.
  1075. >Your eyes darted around, and you confirmed that all the gnomes had some kind of weapon strapped, from blackjacks to slings.
  1076. >All his clothes looked to be tanned and dyed leather, rabbit-hide?
  1077. >Where he stepped, he left no prints.
  1078. >It was like he was floating just above the surface of the snow.
  1079. >Despite your racing heart, you put on a relaxed smile.
  1080. “Yeah, let’s talk. Sooo... why did you follow us, and erase our tracks?”
  1081. >You looked all around like you were a moron as you asked your question with a fake naivete so put on it must prove to be convincing again.
  1082. >The gnome laughed and scratched the back of his little head, knocking his cap to the ground.
  1083. >Laughing some more at his ‘clumsiness’, he doddered after the rolling cone and picked it up.
  1084. >So that was his game.
  1085.  
  1086. >The way he’d moved, if you wanted to keep him in sight, you had to have your back to both ponies.
  1087. >By way of trade for the disadvantage, you took a bladed stance so that Anon’s statuesque figure was still in your peripheral.
  1088. >You could just barely watch Aisling’s back as well.
  1089. >The gnome that felt Anon’s tail earlier was waving his hand in front of her glazed eyes now.
  1090. >He had a particularly nasty looking barbed hook on his belt.
  1091. >Your attention was drawn back to the lead gnome when he finally stopped laughing and answered your question.
  1092. >”Oh, that? Just the usual little tricksies, lad. We smelt that liquor on ye and wanted some ourselfs. Not to mention its been nigh a century since we seen a unicorn in these woods.”
  1093. >That was a clear lie by omission, the gnome never said they meant no harm, and padded his sentence with two factual declarative sentences to make it sound like a reasonable excuse, but he’d never justified their actions at all.
  1094. >You tore a laugh from your gut, and stared down at the little beard puller as you replied.
  1095. “Well you got us. You know it’s funny, my friend was just talking about you guys earlier.”
  1096. >The gnome adjusted his cap, and nodded.
  1097. >”Aye, so Biblin was telling me also. She reckons we made that little horse transfigurin’ brew.”
  1098. >At this point, the gnome stepped just a little to your left, to point into the woods were ‘Biblin’ supposedly was and hollered,
  1099. >”Eh?! Biblin? That’s what yer tawny feckless ears picked up eh?!”
  1100. >You had no choice but to turn on your heel, to keep him in sight, and you nearly tripped over a mushroom in the process.
  1101. >The gnome turned his grinning face up at you and laughed.
  1102. >”Watch yerself!”
  1103. >You took the luxury of imagining your boot going through his teeth.
  1104. >But now Aisling wasn’t visible to you anymore.
  1105. >You could hear her telling some lie about there being more people on the way to her house for a get-together, and it eased your stress a little.
  1106. >She was always composed, and while you didn’t know exactly what kind of magic she could use, just the fact she had it was reassuring.
  1107. >But Anonymous...
  1108. >You glanced over.
  1109. >She’d finally come back to reality, and was asking about a million rapid fire questions to the gnome in front of her.
  1110. >”-do you really drink dew!? Do you guys like, like ride rabbits like horses? And can you move through the earth like air? You guys do deals right? Can-”
  1111. >Judging from the earnest excitement on Anon’s face, you were almost certain she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.
  1112. >Ah, she was cute though.
  1113. >She was literally bouncing up and down on the edge of her hooves, and her messy mane kept getting in her eyes.
  1114. >You smiled, and felt re-invigorated.
  1115. >The odds seemed pretty stacked, but you didn’t really know what the gnome’s motives were anyway.
  1116. >For all you knew, this position wasn’t even all that good for them.
  1117.  
  1118. >Something about the look in the lead gnome’s eyes implied otherwise however.
  1119. >You decided it was best to keep him talking for now, but first you had to nip one avenue of attack in the bud.
  1120. >Without shifting your feet, you turned to face Anonymous, then leaned over and patted her on the back to catch her attention.
  1121. >She pointed her smiling face up at you, and casually asked,
  1122. >”’Sup?”
  1123. >The smile you returned wasn’t totally fake at least.
  1124. “Don’t cut any deals with these guys just yet alright? You never know when you’re gonna get the chance for something like this again, so we should make it count. It’s not like it’s zero-dark-thirty yet, we’ve got plenty of time to get home.”
  1125. >Anon’s eyes bored into yours at the words ‘zero-dark-thirty’, the codeword you’d spent years drilling into her head for just such an occasion.
  1126. >’not... zero-dark-thirty’, always meant ‘something isn’t right’.
  1127. >The gnomes might notice, but it was the best solution you could think of in the moment.
  1128. >The fact they didn’t just take the ponies hostage the second you said it was all that mattered.
  1129. >Whether they realized or not, you’d gotten away with it.
  1130. >Anon nodded, looking suddenly pensive.
  1131. >She didn’t give you any knowing looks or anything to give up the game.
  1132. >”True...”
  1133. >Then she went right back to bombarding the clearly exhausted gnome with more questions, with a now usefully honest curiousity.
  1134. >As you stood up straight again, you immediately noticed the lead gnome had taken the chance to wander even more to the right.
  1135. >You took a step back instead of pivoting any further, unwilling to let Anonymous out of your sight.
  1136. >This time you stepped over the mushroom without looking, and put on a happy face before you inquired,
  1137. >”So, what’s your name anyway?”
  1138. >The gnome’s smile in response was oddly subtle compared to before.
  1139. >He raised a finger to indicate you had to wait a moment, then he sat down and yanked off one of his little boots.
  1140. >The revealed appendage was a gnarled mess that better resembled a tree root than a foot.
  1141. >You couldn’t stop your eyes from narrowing in aversion.
  1142. >The gnome slapped his leg with a jocular pride and answered,
  1143. >”They call me Clapperleg, on account of my witherin’ feet.”
  1144. >Clapperleg winced and whistled in momentary pain as he pulled his boot back on.
  1145. >While your mind raced to find some kind of leverage you could hold over these gnomes.
  1146. >He outright said Clapperleg was an alias, did that mean their real names held some kind of power over them?
  1147. >They might be more like demons then...
  1148. >You thought mournfully of the holy water you’d left behind in the car.
  1149. >It was a struggle to find something to talk about now, Clapperleg was just so obscene to look at, and you were still worried this whole situation could turn into a gnome holding a knife to Anon’s throat.
  1150.  
  1151. >Somehow Aisling was trucking on, about tea or something, and you wished you had that gift of gab.
  1152. >You cursed your lack of knowledge of myth and legend too, you were willing to bet just the alias ‘Clapperleg’ would tell Anonymous everything she needed to know about him.
  1153. >But she was too wrapped up with interrogating that other gnome.
  1154. >You could only hope she would take the hint from earlier and try to glean some weakness, then convey it to you.
  1155. >Clapperleg was looking at you expectantly, since you were obviously taking too long to say anything.
  1156. >...Fuck it, you had to take your chances with a riskier topic.
  1157. “So what kinds of deals do you guys do anyway?”
  1158. >Clapperleg tugged at his beard, pondering, then said with a grin,
  1159. >”Well, almost anything really lad. We’ve got certain standards, ye understand, but so long as the trade is fair we ain’t opposed.”
  1160. >The gnome flicked his gaze over at Anonymous.
  1161. >”Shiftin’ shapes is somethin’ of our speciality. Though we haven’t been botherin’ with humans much in the past while.”
  1162. >Now Clapperleg seemed to reminisce, as he paced annoyingly close to being just outside your field of view.
  1163. “I reckon’ it was sometime in the aeon of the Sieve when- Oh I s’pose you wouldn’t understand that... In your time, it must have been the early 1900’s, was the last time I traded perfect beauty to a woman.”
  1164. >In your head, your mistrust of the gnomes waged war with the tempting possibility of turning Anonymous back to normal.
  1165. >You snapped out of it right away though.
  1166. >This fucking gnome shithead had already admitted to listening in on your conversations earlier anyway, he’d obviously heard Anon say she wanted to turn back, and now he was trying to psyop you with it.
  1167. >You feigned curiosity.
  1168. “What did she trade for that?”
  1169. >Clapperleg pursed his lips, and for once he made it obvious he was carefully choosing his words.
  1170. >”Well it wasn’t like she went an’ gave anything up. She just did us a wee favor, involving another trade.”
  1171. >You cocked your head to the side.
  1172. >Sighing, and scratching his head, Clapperleg paced back to where you could see him more comfortably.
  1173. >”If you really must know lad, then fine, but it wasn’t a nice business. We don’t like havin’ our hands forced, but when it comes to our land you know...”
  1174. >The gnome fidgeted his fingers before continuing.
  1175. >”We had her help put a stop to a mine for us eh? They wanted ter’ dig a bloody biggun’ right here. And that was part of another sorta deal we had with an industry competitor y’see...”
  1176. >You couldn’t believe your ears.
  1177. >Gnomes were actually involved in interrupting the expansion of industry.
  1178.  
  1179. ##Gnome ‘Truth’
  1180.  
  1181. >In five minutes, Clapperleg exposed the entire intrigue, which involved the gnomes producing falsified reports of dangerous substances that would make the mining impossible.
  1182. >Along with a lengthy series of contrived adulterous relationships the woman from earlier had been ordered to partake in as part of the deal, that ruined the reputation of every shareholder of the company in charge of the new mine.
  1183. >Anonymous was literally correct.
  1184. >It only followed that the gnomes must have made PON-E.
  1185. >You could hardly believe this Clapperleg guy was giving it all away... was it because of the deal to ‘talk’?
  1186. >Were they really the kind of creatures to give this all up for a flask of rum?
  1187. >Your head swivelled round to look at Anon, but she was still too busy rambling at the other gnome, and evidently hadn’t heard what Clapperleg had said.
  1188. >That was too bad, but Clapperleg’s expression made you feel confident in the assumption that he must be suffering from the compulsion your trade had imposed.
  1189. >The tricky glimmer in his eye was gone, and he was nervously looking from side to side.
  1190. >For the first time in the conversation, Clapperleg asked you a question instead, with both of his rough, calloused hands held in front of his chest.
  1191. >”Listen lad, I’m thinkin’ we both know what this is really ‘bout now eh?”
  1192. >He glanced at Anonymous, and nodded his head.
  1193. >“Your friend wants to be human again, don’t she?”
  1194. >Before you could say anything, Anon interjected.
  1195. >”...You can change me back?”
  1196. >You cursed under your breath.
  1197. >The one time she took a break from her rant...
  1198. >No, Clapperleg must have been waiting until she did.
  1199. >Was that why he looked ‘nervous’ a second ago?
  1200. >Anonymous walked over to Clapperleg, looking highly doubtful, but obviously interested.
  1201. >At that point, you decided it was high time to drop all pretenses.
  1202. >You had to grab Anonymous and run, before she struck some Faustian compact with these freaks.
  1203. >But you couldn’t even lift your legs.
  1204. >Dumbstruck, you stared down at your feet.
  1205. >What caught your eye first was the uncanny ring of toadstools around them, but then you noticed the familiar turquoise glow envelopping your ankles.
  1206. >You saw it, but the idea of Aisling doing this was so inconceivable you actually reached out and touched the light, as if that would be proof of the fact.
  1207. >The culprit stepped into view, sat down, and eyed you quietly.
  1208. >Totally baffled, you exclaimed to Aisling,
  1209. “What are you doing?”
  1210. >Anonymous looked on in abject horror at the mushrooms around your feet.
  1211. >”N-no... that’s...”
  1212. >Aisling shushed Anon, shook her head, and pointed to one of the mushrooms.
  1213. >Her placid expression, contrasting how urgent this was, made you want to scream.
  1214. >But still she kept herself as calm as ever, and answered,
  1215. >”It’s a fairy ring. You have to stay inside of it for now, because you’ll be hit with a curse if you step out.”
  1216.  
  1217. >While you frowned at the circle, Aisling motioned to the three other gnomes she’d been talking to, and each of them had the same slimy grin on their faces.
  1218. >”They offered to teach me how to nullify the ring and stop the curse from happening, if I keep you from stepping out of it until Clapperleg is done talking to Anonymous.”
  1219. >The silence was deafening.
  1220. >The gnomes had all stopped their fake gambolling, and simply watched the situation unfold with ice cold expressions.
  1221. “What is it actually going to do?”
  1222. >You asked Aisling, but Anon answered, with a steady, dead voice,
  1223. >”Probably you’ll just turn into something else. You could also ‘just’ crumble to dust, ‘just’ disappear into the faerie realm or ‘just’ age several decades. Take your pick, every nation in Europe has a varying account on what a fairy ring will do.”
  1224. >Her blue eyes were staring holes into yours.
  1225. >The last few words went unspoken.
  1226. >’So don’t try to step out of it, no matter what happens next.’
  1227. >It was a hard look to meet, because you knew if it really came down to the wire, you would be going against her wishes.
  1228. >So you turned your gaze on Aisling instead.
  1229. >Her facade had already begun to crumble away.
  1230. >Aisling’s eyes were shut, her ears were drooping, and each hoof gave out one by one as you watched.
  1231. >Finally she crumpled into the snow, and covered her head with both fore hooves.
  1232. >”...I’m sorry... I just didn’t... I didn’t think...”
  1233. >Sympathy crashed through your soul, but you didn’t know what words to say.
  1234. >All these fairy tales were frankly out of your field.
  1235. >You smiled and felt reassured by the fact that Aisling and Anonymous were both looking out for you that way though.
  1236. >Being careful not to fall away from the toadstool circle, you knelt down and gently slid your hand between Aisling’s hooves to lay it on her head.
  1237. >A few seconds passed that way, and you stared into her silver mane, waiting patiently for a response.
  1238. >Aisling slowly started to raise her head, and just when her bright eyes came into view, you tousled her mane the way you always did to Anon’s.
  1239. >Grinning, you stood back up, and laughed at the lazy blinking that passed for Aisling’s surprise.
  1240. >”Chad you moron we’re in deep shit here!”
  1241. >Soundly ignoring Anon’s chiding, you beckoned Aisling to stand.
  1242. “Now get up you lazy bookworm, and make sure I don’t fall out of this dumb circle.”
  1243. >Your friendly out of the neighbourhood unicorn sighed and tossed her mane just once as she stood.
  1244. >Instantly, all your mussing and fussing of her silvery locks vanished into the wave of argent hues.
  1245. >Aisling levelled a terrifically ironic smile at you, and suddenly you felt like you should be looking up at her instead.
  1246. >”Hold still then, imbecile.”
  1247. >You laughed, but it was drier than before.
  1248. >The situation was bad, not impossible to navigate, but bad.
  1249. >It all hinged on Anonymous, and you could communicate with her more directly now.
  1250. >And that was like saying it was in the bag.
  1251.  
  1252. >Even if the gnomes decided to get physical, now you knew Aisling had magic that was strong enough to restrain a human male, let alone hurt a gnome.
  1253. >You were the most at risk here, and you liked it better that way.
  1254. >Anonymous winked at you, then rounded on Clapperleg.
  1255. >”Don’t fuck with my friends!”
  1256. >Clapperleg shook his head, and replied with the most infuriating flippancy.
  1257. >”I didn’t ‘fuck’ with anything ya bleedin’ fool. The lad stepped in it all by his self. Wasn’t like it weren’t obvious.”
  1258. >Shaking her head in disbelief, Anon kept pressuring him,
  1259. >”You’re trying to pass this off as an accident? Do you honestly think I’m too stupid to tell you’re holding Chad hostage?”
  1260. >Clapperleg huffed, and voiced his own ‘disbelief’,
  1261. >”Hostage? It was MY gnomes that done offered that lass the way to save him from his own mistake, wasn’t it?”
  1262. >Still with their cold expressions, a few gnomes gave a heartless cheer of,
  1263. >”Hear, hear.”
  1264. >For their leader.
  1265. >You physically cringed, comparing it to your banter with Anon and Aisling earlier.
  1266. >Anonymous rebutted,
  1267. >”Yeah, ONLY after we’re done talking though. It’s clear that-”
  1268. >This was going nowhere, it was about time you said something.
  1269. >First, you had to tell Anonymous that ‘Clapperleg’ was an alias.
  1270. “Don’t bother with semantics thEY’LL-”
  1271. >Your voice had snuffed itself out.
  1272. >Desperately, you clutched your throat.
  1273. >There wasn’t a speck of air passing through it anymore, and you couldn’t even cough if you wanted to.
  1274. >Your eyes locked to Clapperleg’s in shock and anger.
  1275. >The gnome simply sighed and shook his head, almost piteously.
  1276. >”Yer violatin’ the deal lad, we’ve all had our fill of rum, yeh shan’t be talkin’ to us no more.”
  1277. >Anonymous was equal parts concerned, confused and baleful.
  1278. >You tried, and failed to even mouth any words, then slammed a fist to your thigh for how stupid you’d been.
  1279. >Your face was red and wrathful as you thought back to all the mistakes you’d made.
  1280. >You’d spent all that time worrying about them taking your friends hostage, and never spared a second thinking about them taking you instead.
  1281. >Your wording from the start had been too vague, ‘let’s talk’ could imply practically any combination of people, ponies and gnomes in that context.
  1282. >From how silent Aisling was suddenly, you could only assume it had been applied to her as well.
  1283. >She was biting her lip, and her brow was furrowed in a delicately pained expression of doubt and regret.
  1284. >...But of course, they let Anonymous speak, they wouldn’t be able to conclude an offer otherwise.
  1285. >This was unforgivable.
  1286. >A cold fury like nothing else was burning in the pit of your stomach as you looked on helplessly.
  1287. >”What the fuck is this!?”
  1288. >Anonymous continued to rage.
  1289. >”Why would I ever trade with you if this is the kind of shit you’re gonna pull?!”
  1290. >Clapperleg sighed once more, and took a step back from your screaming friend.
  1291.  
  1292. >”Because ya need us lass. And we need you. The deal we have in mind is a happy one, I swears it.”
  1293. >The camel’s back had finally been broken.
  1294. >Anonymous didn’t even honour that statement with a word at first, opting for a derisive snort as she pretended to walk away.
  1295. >Then with cold iron fury and a deft slide on her hooves, she got in as close to Clapperleg as possible and bucked him in the chest.
  1296. >Her sinews rippled from the force, and sent the gnome tumbling on his back half a dozen times before he slammed into the tree behind him.
  1297. >”YEAH WELL TOO BAD.”
  1298. >Clapperleg was standing up, bleeding from his mouth and holding a hand up to stop his followers from acting.
  1299. >Anon pranced up to him, affecting a childish voice,
  1300. >” ‘Ya neeeeeeeed~ us~ lass~~~~!!!!’ ”
  1301. >Before screaming in his face.
  1302. >”THAT WAS BEFORE YOU USED AISLING LIKE A TOOL TO HOLD CHAD AT THE END OF A FAIRY SHAPED GUN, MORON.”
  1303. >As if he’d never really seen it before, Clapperleg daubed at the blood on his mouth and examined it curiously.
  1304. >Anon scoffed, her taste for violence seemed to be sated.
  1305. >She started walking back over to you as she flatly said,
  1306. >”We’re done here. I’m not going to make any sort of deal with you.”
  1307. >Clapperleg stood up, brushed off his jerkin, and followed.
  1308. >Still cruelly calm, Anon balefully looked over her shoulder at him and continued,
  1309. >”Now that we’re done talking, the deal with Aisling should take effect, your gnomes have to tell her how to dispel the fairy ring.”
  1310. >Perfect.
  1311. >You laughed and dug out a cigarette to celebrate it was so perfect.
  1312. >Couldn’t have done it better yourself.
  1313. >If you could say that to Anonymous already, then it really would be perfect.
  1314. >Instead you just settled for grinning around your rollie at her, and she nodded back, smiling a little regretfully.
  1315. >”No.”
  1316. >Clapperleg answered.
  1317. >Your brow furrowed.
  1318. >But what stunned you more was Aisling’s reaction.
  1319. >She’d broken out into a long, pained moan.
  1320. >It was quiet, but that made it sound all the worse, like someone being strangled under a pillow.
  1321. >You couldn’t see her face, she’d covered it with her hooves.
  1322. >Anonymous was going to walk over to see what was wrong, but Clapperleg’s next words stopped her in her tracks.
  1323. >”The contract says: ‘Keep Chad inside the fairy ring, until Clapperleg is done talking to Anonymous, and we’ll tell you how to disarm it.’ “
  1324. >The terrible implication struck the three of you nearly dead.
  1325. >You’d rather Clapperleg grinned, or made some obvious expression of his insidious nature, but maybe he knew that was what you wanted instead of this dead, fish eyed look, as he spoke again,
  1326. >”You can be done talking to me, but I’m not done talking to you.”
  1327. >The accent was gone, the sparkle in his eyes was gone, his hat had fallen off and he didn’t care.
  1328. >Even the other gnomes had left.
  1329. >It was just you, Anonymous, Aisling and this twisted little un-man in the middle of the night.
  1330.  
  1331. ##The Cards are on the Table
  1332.  
  1333. >You knew Anonymous.
  1334. >He was as trustworthy a friend as there ever was.
  1335. >And if there was one thing you felt you had to mention, it was that he had integrity.
  1336. >But you knew Anonymous as Keyboard Masher too, and she was just that little bit softer, just that tiny speck more pliant.
  1337. >So even though what she said next was exactly the worst thing you could have imagined, you weren’t caught off guard.
  1338. >Keyboard Masher’s desperate eyes darted away from Clapperleg’s, and she barely mumbled, between her hyperventilating,
  1339. >”...Will you let my friends go?”
  1340. >The gnome smiled like a father to a daughter, and spread his arms wide in a welcoming gesture.
  1341. >All of his gnomishness came back at once.
  1342. >”Of course. Of course! That’s a freebie, honest. Not even a part of the deal. We don’t want to take em from you in the first place. Now let me tell you the details of the real offer, gal, let me tell you. It’s the simplest thing in the world.”
  1343. >The little white pony your friend had become, breathed deep and looked to be steeling her resolve.
  1344. >But you knew it was fruitless.
  1345. >Clapperleg began to explain,
  1346. >”We’ll do it this certain way you see, so that both of our wants will be met at the same time.”
  1347. >The gnome laid a calloused, bony hand on Keyboard Masher’s back.
  1348. >And you silently yanked your leg up as hard as you could.
  1349. >Aisling could barely hold you back.
  1350. >Her jaw was clenched tight, and she stood defiantly on all fours, with her head lowered valiantly.
  1351. >New magic shackles appeared at your wrists.
  1352. >You liked that resolve flashing in her eyes better than the crying from earlier.
  1353. >Neither of you could speak, or even mouth the words to each other, but it was clear as day from her glare that Aisling was telling you: ‘I won’t let you give yourself up.’
  1354. >”We gnomes’ll give you wings and a horn liken yer friend’s there. This’ll make ya somethin’ of a special kind of mare y’see. You’ll be able to cast just the spell we both want. And casting it will be your offer in the trade. That’s it. Just casting it is all you have to do.”
  1355. >Keyboard Masher frowned, her eyes darting to Aisling’s strained expression and your impassive face, before she cautiously interjected,
  1356. >”I don’t get it, I’ll still be a pony after that won’t I? Do you think I’m so stupid I wouldn’t even check to make sure the deal includes what I want?”
  1357. >Clapperleg laughed, and waggled his finger at the mare.
  1358. >”Of course not lass. See that’s the magic of it, if you don’t mind my pun. The spell will do the trick for ye. Y’see... The spell we want ye to cast will reverse the effects of PON-E.”
  1359. >Your eyes went wide with utter terror as you realized the possible permutations of what he could decide he meant by that.
  1360. >The wording was so broad, it exceeded belief.
  1361. >You strained even harder against your magical bonds.
  1362. >Aisling was panting now, and had to shut her eyes and lie down to maintain her focus.
  1363. >But still she was adamant.
  1364. >The light at the end of her horn had become a piercing white.
  1365.  
  1366. >Clapperleg eyed you ‘nervously’ (you had no doubt it was an act), then turned to look at Keyboard Masher imploringly.
  1367. >She was biting her lip, with her head down, her ears pinned flat and her eyes darting side to side as she tried to reason the deal in her head.
  1368. >You could practically see all the competing desires; to see her friends safe, to be a human again, to be anywhere but here.
  1369. >”I-I dunno... I... But if... What does that actually-”
  1370. >Clapperleg cut in at just the right moment, to sweep away the bits of logic Keyboard Masher still clung to.
  1371. >It literally made you gag from how sickening it was to watch.
  1372. >”You... you got us alright... We made PON-E! I admit it!”
  1373. >The wicked old spirit fell to his knees, and raised his hands to grasp at Masher’s chest, in the appearance of utter supplication.
  1374. >”It was a mistake, it didn’t work the way we wanted... We need you to cast this spell!”
  1375. >Keyboard Masher was taken aback, she raised a hoof and stepped away, but Clapperleg crawled after her, and clung to her body again.
  1376. >Doubt clouded her expression.
  1377. >Your rage was injected with a hatred so invective it made you bite your lip and draw blood.
  1378. >You were going to kill that gnome, if it was the last thing you ever did as a human being.
  1379. >Every muscle in your body was electrified by that signal.
  1380. >There was not a single one of them that you weren’t putting forth to escape right this second.
  1381. >The bonds around your ankles and wrists crackled with white fire, and you felt one foot immediately shift like a melting glacier.
  1382. >Aisling’s horn was throwing up sparks, and she seemed hardly able to stay conscious.
  1383. >It was then that Clapperleg struck the final blow.
  1384. >He waved a hand to your straining figure and shouted,
  1385. >”You have to hurry, damned girl! He’s about to break free... And I’d sooner die than fix him! DO YOU THINK YOU’LL GET ANOTHER CHANCE LIKE THIS AGAIN?!”
  1386. >Keyboard Masher stared at you, frightened so utterly for the humanity you’d already given up on, before looking down at Clapperleg again.
  1387. >Stony faced and terrible to behold, you began raising your right leg inexorably upward.
  1388. >For once you believed the fear in Clapperleg’s eyes.
  1389. >He pleaded to your friend one last time.
  1390. >”PLEASE!”
  1391. >And finally she acquiesced.
  1392. >”Fine! Just do it, and let me cast it right away!”
  1393. >Keyboard Masher turned to you, already too late, and screamed,
  1394. >”Chad! STOP!”
  1395. >You slammed your foot into the snow, beyond the fairy ring.
  1396. >Time crawled, but your mind kept rushing by.
  1397. >Aisling was flying backward, propelled by the magical whiplash from her spell giving out.
  1398. >You even had the time to feel bad about inflicting that on her.
  1399. >Were you being sent to a different dimension?
  1400. >Was this what it was to ‘disappear’ after stepping out of a fairy ring?
  1401. >A brilliant light was beginning to seep out of Anonymous.
  1402. >She was floating in the air before Clapperleg, your prey.
  1403. >Prey?
  1404.  
  1405. >You observed yourself as you flung forward, as if you were outside your own body.
  1406. >Your clothes were crumbling into a grey mist, and at first you thought your body was doing the same, so you promptly came to terms with your mortality.
  1407. >But it was actually grey fur that was spreading up your legs.
  1408. >You must literally have not had the time to feel the changes, they mutely progressed as your focus ever more inexorably honed in on your prey.
  1409. >Black talons tore through the ends of your fingers, all the better to rip his throat away.
  1410. >But somehow you knew it wasn’t enough, you remembered Anonymous, and words he’d said a long time ago.
  1411. >”They fear cold iron.”
  1412. >So instead you grasped the buck knife that was falling out of your vanishing jacket, and aimed for the gnome’s heart.
  1413. >The end of the handle had partly vanished into mist, but seemed to stabilize now that your scaly yellow digits held it.
  1414. >In the intervening moment of a moment, your legs bulked with tougher and leaner sinews than before.
  1415. >Your new musculature naturally made you adopt a digitigrade stance that gave you vastly more explosive force.
  1416. >Your feet mushed into themselves, and took the shape of massive paws that dug into the snow beneath them from the force of your murderous leap.
  1417. >A leonine tail snaked out of the base of your spine, just as grey and furred as the rest of your lower half, it whipped the snow twice before slowing into a serpentine curl behind you.
  1418. >Rays of brilliant splendour beamed from Anon’s body, and you could see the stark silhouette of black wings sprouting from her back.
  1419. >They spread wide, and grew as big as a condor’s.
  1420. >The feathers were intermittently black and white, like the keys of a piano.
  1421. >Your own wings bloomed from your back just then, fantastically white for a moment before the pinions of them became stained with rusty dots and their ends were dyed in slate.
  1422. >The backs of them were almost totally this rusty colour, speckled with white and grey instead of the other way around.
  1423. >Feathers of a similar white to rust pattern as the underside of your wings exploded from your chest in a hefty tuft, then spread swiftly up your elongating neck.
  1424. >You watched with a resigned horror as your face vanished into the cruel visage of a hawk.
  1425. >Your furious expression was wiped, to be replaced with a cold, calculating, and almost reptilian exactitude, staring impassionately through your yellow eyes, and down your hooked black beak at the little un-man that was to be your first kill.
  1426. >Anonymous’ horn had finally thrust forth, black and already gleaming with a black light that shot inky sable rays out everywhere.
  1427. >Aisling had recovered in time to witness the final moment before the spell was cast, and her eyes were wide with fear as she cowered behind the drift of snow you’d kicked up.
  1428. >You had one last glimpse of yourself, poised on your hind legs like a figure of heraldry, before you were sucked back into your new body.
  1429.  
  1430. >You screamed piercingly, bestially, like a true hawk and plunged your blade into Clapperleg’s foul chest, where you assumed his black heart must lie.
  1431. >Blood struck your face in an urgent, arterial spray, and you heard him howl and spit curses from the pain.
  1432. >”Devil’s luck! How weren’t you killed?!”
  1433. >Screaming again, your slammed your left hand full of talons into his face and pulled the knife back for another blow.
  1434. >The holes your talons made were bloodless, confirming your suspicions and doubling your murderous impulse.
  1435. >Clapperleg’s eyes glared into your own from the gaps between your talons, twisted with rage, fear and pain.
  1436. >Registering all those emotions in your head in that split second was like making a note of the iridescent sheen of a beetle’s elytron, before plucking it off.
  1437. >With all the wintry cold, clean killer force in your newly transfigured body, you drove your blade at the gnome again.
  1438. >It was mere millimetres from the end of his nose before he vanished with the literal snap of his fingers.
  1439. >You immediately re-acquired him in your sights, in a tree to your left, before he vanished again, re-appearing further east.
  1440. >Every neuron in your brain screeched “Follow.”
  1441. >But, Aisling was getting jumped by three more gnomes behind you.
  1442. >Wheeling around, you pounced the other way.
  1443. >In half a wingbeat, you were among the prey.
  1444. >With hardly a thought, you slit the closest gnome’s throat and stabbed the second through his eye, spraying his blood all over yourself.
  1445. >You stopped the third mid-leap with your free talons, and took one botched stab to the leg from his bone dagger before you tossed him in the air.
  1446. >With both paws and a foot planted, you pivoted and threw all your weight behind your talons for one strike to the gnome’s midsection.
  1447. >It connected with such kinetic force he was blown apart.
  1448. >”Aaaghglklkk!”
  1449. >His parts flew to the ground, producing all the sickening sounds of tumbling flesh.
  1450. >With your head cocked sideways, you advanced on the halved gnome.
  1451. >There was no blood at all, and where his open insides should have been there was creeping vegetation instead.
  1452. >You watched as the two halves squirmed, in something like discomfort rather than pain.
  1453. >Surely, his legs tried to worm their way back to the upper half.
  1454. >”L-listen...”
  1455. >You killed him like the other two and turned your eyes on Anonymous.
  1456. >It was clearly too late.
  1457. >Her whole body was glowing with that uncanny dark light, and she writhed slowly and spasmodically in the air, as if overwhelmed by the sheer amount of magic that was flowing through her.
  1458. >Aisling was lying beside you, praying fervently.
  1459. >With one last apoplectic spasm, Anonymous spread her wings behind her, and a strobing flash of black and white erupted from the horn on her head in perfect silence.
  1460. >It blasted well past you and Aisling into the farthest reaches of the forest and beyond to the highest point of the mountains.
  1461.  
  1462. >The last you saw of it was a final strobing pulse as it flew through the swiftly receding sea of clouds.
  1463. >A moment later the roaring thunderous peal of the spell followed, as if lightning had struck a foot in front of you.
  1464. >In the quiet that followed, all you could hear was Aisling’s ‘Amen’.
  1465. >Then came your heart, pumping with such a vicious animal power it scared you.
  1466. >You watched Anonymous.
  1467. >Her whole body had gone lax in sweet sleep, her head lolled in your direction and her mane bounced before her shut eyes, the platinum blonde strands gleaming from the starlight above.
  1468. >As she was gently laid to rest in the powdery snow, your heart slowed, and quieted.
  1469. >The first thing you could think to do was lift your bloody claws to your beak and stare at the ground.
  1470. >Everything instantly felt all too distant now compared to what had just happened to you and what you’d done.
  1471. >Even the spell seemed inconsequential at this point.
  1472. >Was this what Anonymous had felt all this time?
  1473. >You scowled, and clenched your talons together away from your face.
  1474. >No...
  1475. >Your face relaxed, but the turmoil boiling in your heart never went away.
  1476. >You twisted your claws around to look at the backs of your scaly appendages, then your eyes passed over the tuft of feathers on your chest, watching it sway in the slightest breeze.
  1477. >A crimson line of gnome blood criss-crossed the rusty specks on your feathers.
  1478. >Your gaze caught Aisling watching you closely, and you could see fear harden her expression when she noticed you looking at her.
  1479. >She swallowed, and sat up too straight, with her eyes locked to yours.
  1480. >The two of you stayed like that for a moment, and it nearly shattered your soul.
  1481. >Steadily, you lowered your claws, sat on your leonine rump and stared up at the stars instead.
  1482. >It was stupendously clear, the sight was not at all the same as it looked when you were human.
  1483. >Every detail had details you couldn’t dream of before.
  1484. >Hot tears beaded from your piercing eyes, and clouded your new vision of the heavens.
  1485. >And a voice not your own creaked out of your beak,
  1486. “Am I a monster?”
  1487.  
  1488. ##Fear of Self
  1489.  
  1490. >Your vision dulled just a moment, and your tears were instantly wicked away.
  1491. >After a second you realized you hadn’t actually closed your eyes, that had been your translucent third eyelid blinking.
  1492. >The inhumanity of it made you shiver.
  1493. >Which made your feathers ruffle and puff up, before slowly deflating back into place in a show that was even more inhuman.
  1494. >Nothing was the same.
  1495. >It struck you again, deeper now, just how much you could really see.
  1496. >Earlier you’d spotted Aisling being attacked nearly 180 degrees behind you.
  1497. >Right now you could watch the stars, see the lingering tension in Aisling’s withers and spot Anonymous’ mane blowing in the breeze, all at the same time.
  1498. >Your hearing too, what had been such a quiet forest one moment became practically cacophonous if you listened closely enough.
  1499. >Aisling’s heart was... right there, beating fast, as she cautiously stepped closer to you.
  1500. >Anonymous’ had slowed, but was holding steady.
  1501. >You could catch each delicate breath as her barrel rose and fell.
  1502. >Why... Why were you making a note of their heartbeats?
  1503. >Your perception was stupendous, but you were mortified.
  1504. >Those bloodied moments you’d been the author of just seconds past flashed through your mind’s eye, punctuated with Aisling’s expression when you’d cut that gnome in half.
  1505. >Gaping horror, abject terror.
  1506. >It had been so trivial to you in the moment you hadn’t even acknowledged it, seeing whether you’d actually killed that thing was more important then.
  1507. >Your friend’s emotions had been nothing to you.
  1508. >You clawed at your chest in helpless frustration, suddenly gasping for air.
  1509. >Aisling recoiled, and nearly tripped over half a gnome.
  1510. >You’d taken the time to register the fear and hatred you’d induced in your prey-
  1511. “Prey... W-what the fuck... gguuurraaawhhh.... what the fuck am I even thinking anymore..?”
  1512. >Groaning, you slid down onto your stomach, clasping your feathery head with both sets of talons.
  1513. >The snow was cold and dry on your fur.
  1514. >Your whole world was falling apart, it was like you couldn’t even trust yourself.
  1515. >Hyperventilating, your thoughts raced to even earlier, when you considered the state of your friends, ‘who looked awfully like prey’.
  1516. >The texture of the word had clearly changed, when you thought ‘prey’ then, you also thought of ‘some animal’ as the counterpart, as the predator.
  1517. >But just now, the moment the word ‘predator’ sounded in your head, the image of your own body, poised to kill, every muscle trained, every sense honed, was the first thing that came to mind.
  1518. >You shut your eyes, and you were instantly assaulted with the intrusive and hellish thought that you would look at Anonymous and think the word ‘prey’ again in this new context.
  1519. >Predator, you were a predator.
  1520. >A casual murderer.
  1521. >You had always indulged in hyperbole, and said you would ‘kill’ people.
  1522. >Now you had actually done it.
  1523. >So much regret.
  1524. >And yet...
  1525. >Your claws ran lines across your head.
  1526. >Yes, it was true.
  1527.  
  1528. >The deepest regret you had was failing to kill Clapperleg.
  1529. >One of your last cogent thoughts as a human being had been the expression of your desire to kill him.
  1530. >You felt that this was one thought you could still trust, as morbid as it was.
  1531. >”Chad?”
  1532. “Don’t touch me.”
  1533. >You opened your eyes, and saw Aisling standing just within reach, one hoof raised as if to lay it on your head.
  1534. >The truth was you’d felt Aisling coming much earlier.
  1535. >If she was still scared, she didn’t show it now, and you couldn’t have been more grateful for anything in your life.
  1536. >You knew you were still scared, after all.
  1537. >With every second you feared your mind would slip into killer instinct.
  1538. >Slowly, more for your own sense of what was safe for Aisling than for fear of scaring her again, you raised your head and lowered your claws, assuming a relaxed pose like a sphinx.
  1539. >It wouldn’t be easy to pounce from this position at least.
  1540. >You couldn’t fake a smile as you scratchily uttered,
  1541. “Sorry.”
  1542. >Aisling smiled, and sat down.
  1543. >She tilted her head to the side, and her mane draped wonderfully past her shoulder and down her side, as she asked,
  1544. >”What for? You saved my life.”
  1545. >You tried to look away, to gather your nerves, but it was impossible with your expanded field of view.
  1546. >You stuttered,
  1547. “I...”
  1548. >And then a sad laugh came out of you, unbidden.
  1549. “I don’t know anymore... I have all these thoughts that I can’t... I’m just...”
  1550. >”I’m fine, and you’re just fine, Chad.”
  1551. >Aisling was sat right next to a broad spray of blood in the snow, from when you’d slit that gnome’s throat.
  1552. >Your pupils flicked to it momentarily, then to Aisling.
  1553. “What I did-”
  1554. >”Was understandable given the circumstances.”
  1555. >You still couldn’t look at her straight, or look away.
  1556. >Aisling sighed, and tossed her silvery mane.
  1557. >With a serious look in her eyes, she said,
  1558. >”You are not your thoughts Chad. I don’t know exactly what it’s like being a griffon... But, obviously-”
  1559. >Here she looked you all over, waving a hoof at your changed features.
  1560. >”-when you physically change this much, your thinking is going to change too. That isn’t you transforming into a monster, it’s just your reality changing around you. You have different choices to make now.”
  1561. >You clenched your talons, scraping up ice and turf.
  1562. “But what if I’m not choosing... What if...”
  1563. >Aisling shook her head.
  1564. >”There’s no such thing as not being able to choose. You’re always responsible for what you do.”
  1565. >Before you could stop her, or say anything, Aisling walked up and hugged you.
  1566. >You lay there blinking, too surprised for a moment to fear you would hurt her.
  1567. >She was small.
  1568. >You’d actually lost a little of your mass, you guessed.
  1569. >On all fours you were... two maybe three heads taller than Aisling or Anonymous.
  1570. >But somehow you felt like she’d gotten even smaller
  1571. >Just a little thing, clutching your chest, her snout buried in your feathers.
  1572.  
  1573. >This was a dangerous position, it left Aisling with no time to react to what you might do, and she had no way of seeing it coming.
  1574. >With a million worries swirling in your head, you were priming yourself to push her off as gently as you could with your scaly hands.
  1575. >You quickly thought of something to say that might get her off,
  1576. “...I’m covered in bl-”
  1577. >”’Oure smfo smfoft.”
  1578. “What?”
  1579. >Aisling lifted her muzzle out of your feathery chest, carefully threaded her horn away from your face and laid her jaw askance, upon the left side of your neck instead.
  1580. >A crooked, comforted smile was on her lips.
  1581. >Her gleaming turquoise gem of an eye was peering mischievously up into yours when she repeated,
  1582. >”You’re so soft.”
  1583. >You didn’t know what to say, so you just shut your beak and stayed still, with your talons awkwardly lifted behind her back like you were going to pull her away.
  1584. >She was perfectly content to stay there, between your arms, against your chest.
  1585. >Whether this was to calm you down or for her own little joy you weren’t really sure anymore.
  1586. >After a minute or two, when you finally felt ‘in control’, you started reaching for some excuse to break it up.
  1587. >Anonymous, of course.
  1588. “I should check up on her. We need to get out of the cold.”
  1589. >Aisling stood up immediately, nodding.
  1590. >”Yes.”
  1591. >There was still that slight smile on her face.
  1592. >You padded over to where your friend lay sleeping, and got an actual feel for how it was to walk in your chimeric body for the first time.
  1593. >One step flowed into another just fine, but with how dexterous your claws were, you couldn’t help feeling like you were walking on your hands.
  1594. >Anonymous was exactly where you’d seen her last.
  1595. >Curled up in a little pile in the snow, her new ebony horn jutting out awkwardly from underneath her mane.
  1596. >She lay on her left wing, and her right wing was curved around and above her body, like half the shell of a cracked egg.
  1597. >The sight carved a tremendous loneliness in your heart.
  1598. >But you also felt a sincere relief.
  1599. >As vulnerable as she was right now, nothing dangerous crossed your mind.
  1600. >You ran your talons through the feathers on your head and breathed.
  1601. >It was high time you took some responsibility for this.
  1602. >You turned purposefully to Aisling and spoke authoritatively.
  1603. “We have to re-group, figure out what actually happened here, and then decide what we’ll do next.”
  1604. >Aisling nodded, and casted her warming spell on the three of you as you spoke.
  1605. >She looked at you meaningfully, and contributed,
  1606. >”That gnome you stabbed first isn’t going anywhere soon, so I think we’re pretty safe just going back to my place for now.”
  1607. >Her assessment was fine by you of course, since it also meant you could keep him well within talon’s reach.
  1608. >But it also drew your lips tight, and made you click your beak to relieve the sudden tension you felt.
  1609. >That was a dangerous line of thought right now.
  1610.  
  1611. >You spoke some lighter words to clear your mind of anything involving violence.
  1612. “Yeah, let’s get this geek awake and in front of a book where she belongs.”
  1613. >Aisling laughed, a little breathlessly, and trotted up to see if she could help you.
  1614. >Your thinking was that you’d carry Anonymous in your arms, and have Aisling cling to your back as you flew.
  1615. >But now that it had actually come time to do it, you realized that flying was not something you could just ‘do’ on the spot.
  1616. >You frowned, weighing the risks in your head...
  1617. >It seemed safer to try flying, you didn’t want to stay here much longer, and walking back through the forest only amplified the chances of getting attacked again.
  1618. >Aisling started casting her magic to help lift Anonymous onto your back, but you stuck out a claw and shook your head.
  1619. “We’ll fly. I just have to practice first.”
  1620. >Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, but she acquiesced, and gave you some room.
  1621. >This was yet another risk you were running, leaving the both of them alone for a moment, but it still seemed to weigh less on your mind than making the whole trek back on hoof and paw.
  1622. >An unexpected thrill of excitement came welling from your heart, as you spread your wings wide.
  1623. >Your spirits were lightened, feeling how powerful the muscles that controlled your wings were, as you pushed them down for their first full beat.
  1624. >It was a whole new source of strength, something you’d barely scraped the surface of until now.
  1625. >You beat your wings once again, casting ice crystals all around.
  1626. >Aisling watched with growing awe, her silver mane and tail blowing in the air you’d stirred.
  1627. >For the moment you were wonderfully ignorant of how to even proceed, you didn’t have the slightest idea what you were supposed to do to really get airborne.
  1628. >Something like a grin tugged up the sides of your mouth, beside your beak.
  1629. >You threw in another wingbeat, and this time you got on your hindlegs for it.
  1630. >For a precious moment, your paws left the earth, before you stomped back down again.
  1631. >More thrust.
  1632. >The way you’d been flapping was inefficient, you weren’t really pushing the air how you should.
  1633. >At least you thought, maybe.
  1634. >Focusing harder on each individual motion, you flapped again, rose a moment, then dropped back.
  1635. >You recalled the wingbeat from earlier, when you flew into Aisling’s attackers, and tried to replicate it on the ground, just a bit slower so you got the full range of motion down correctly.
  1636. >There was a way of ‘scooping’ the air, and catching it under your wings to generate lift, it reminded you of freestyle swimming...
  1637. >With that in mind you flapped your wings this way in earnest effort, once, twice, thrice.
  1638. >Your paws left the ice, and you flapped faster to keep from falling back.
  1639. >Gradually you ascended, till you were nearly in the branches.
  1640. >You laughed heartily, and tumbled back to the earth for doing it.
  1641.  
  1642. >With a loud thump, your side piled into a drift, sending up a spray of snow as you bounced and rolled a couple feet in a mess of paws and claws.
  1643. >Aisling’s giggling was just audible over your pained chuckling.
  1644. >Steadily, you got back on all fours and beat the snow out of your fur, using your tail like a feather duster.
  1645. >Then you opened your wings and started over again.
  1646. >The liftoff felt more natural this time, in just two wingbeats you’d attained the same height as before.
  1647. >Now it was just about maintaining that hover, with some concentration you timed your flaps against your weight.
  1648. >The motion quickly become automatic, and your wings simply moved as you needed them to.
  1649. >You could hardly believe it.
  1650. >This really was flying, this was it, you were airborne, floating solely by your own power.
  1651. >You dipped a wing just so, and like that you were gliding left, passing gently between the trunks.
  1652. >You thrust both wings thusly, and like that you were up, up, up, beyond the clinging maples.
  1653. >The whole forest expanded out beneath you, in every shade of twilight and white.
  1654. >Your concern about leaving Aisling and Anonymous alone for a moment completely disintegrated.
  1655. >Up here you were the king, there was nothing that escaped your view, even in this dark.
  1656. >You weren’t an owl or anything, but you were now utterly confident in your sight.
  1657. >From this height, you could count the little feathers in the crook of Anonymous’ wing, and watch Aisling’s funny gaping mouth as she trotted around with her head up, trying to get a better look at you.
  1658. >With ever increasing exhilaration, you rose higher still, and your tail trailed behind you like a streamer.
  1659. >The novelty was supreme, for the first time in years you truly felt a childlike wonder and an irresistible desire to explore.
  1660. >You had ridden in planes before and it just didn’t compare.
  1661. >With three strong flaps, you burst upward and spread your wings and arms at the zenith like you were reaching for the dome of stars above.
  1662. >Even from here, some hundred feet up, your telescopic vision picked out Aisling’s silver horn in an instant, and you could tell she’d given up on trying to pick you out of the sky by now.
  1663. >She’d lit her horn again, and the light from it was enough for you to make out your own pawprints from the mess of prints in the snow around her.
  1664. >You briefly scanned your eyes elsewhere in the woods, to see if you could possibly catch a trace of the gnomes, but nothing caught your gaze.
  1665. >It seemed more and more likely they wouldn’t risk coming out, at least for now.
  1666. >Aisling’s house looked safe enough too, there was nothing out of the ordinary that you could see.
  1667. >You breathed deep and finally felt relaxed again.
  1668. >There was something to be said about what Aisling had mentioned earlier, about physical changes influencing thinking.
  1669.  
  1670. ##Coming to Terms
  1671.  
  1672. >It was increasingly obvious that the act of flying itself was calming you down, the sensation reminded you of how cooking helped you push past your obsessive thinking patterns.
  1673. >Being frantic and worrying about every little thing wasn’t going to keep your friends safe anyway, especially if you were too busy being worried about going wild and hurting them yourself when there was a gang of little un-men out there that were actually intent on it.
  1674. >No... that wasn’t right...
  1675. >That was just you trying to duck out of taking responsibility for your actions.
  1676. >You killed those gnomes, it wasn’t your transformation that made you do it, you hadn’t lost any of your agency.
  1677. >So, if you ever hurt Aisling or Anonymous it would be of your own volition.
  1678. “Fuck...”
  1679. >Aisling had cut through your bullshit so cleanly, you hadn’t even felt the blow until now.
  1680. >With a growing sense of failure, paired with reluctant relief, you clenched your talons and echoed,
  1681. “You’re always responsible for what you do.”
  1682. >Then added,
  1683. “...I’m such a moron.”
  1684. >Using all the force you could muster, you beat your wings and rocketed straight up.
  1685. >Your eyes were locked on the stars, as you beat your wings faster and faster.
  1686. >The screaming wind was like a dulcet tone to your ears.
  1687. >Gradually you began to feel the chill creeping through your fur, and ice crystals nagging at the corners of your eyes as you soared ever higher.
  1688. >Eventually, when you felt like the clinging dregs of your failure had burnt off, you stopped.
  1689. >You must have been thousands of feet up at this point, you just didn’t have the frame of reference to know for sure.
  1690. >At the very least, you were above the wispy clouds, and you could see the moon again, tucked between two mountains.
  1691. >Your breath came fast up here, condensing so thickly that little flakes of ice were dropping out of it.
  1692. >The feathered half of your body was coated in a thin layer of frost, but your furry half was radiating enough heat that it had just melted away.
  1693. >The view was much lonelier than before.
  1694. >It wasn’t a matter of the forest stretching out as far as you could see anymore, now it had become just another polygonal patch of black and white, bordered to the south by the solid black line that was the highway, in a tapestry of patches.
  1695. >Aisling’s house was barely a speck, although if you focused your eyes you could see the corner of the couch through one of the windows.
  1696. >You looked straight down and caught Aisling pacing around Anonymous’ sleeping body.
  1697. >It was a top down view, so you couldn’t really make out the expression on her face, but her pacing didn’t look comfortable.
  1698. >The thought made you feel a bit like a voyeur, but you wondered if she was worried about you, or the gnomes coming back.
  1699. >...It seemed easy to form terrible habits when you could do something like this.
  1700.  
  1701. >There was a dreamlike quality about it too, being able to literally fly above everything and just look at it all without being bothered was something you’d often had sojourns in the night about.
  1702. >You raised a claw to your beak and grew pensive.
  1703. >What if you spied on politicians and other people parasites this way?
  1704. >It seemed naive, there’s no way they would just-
  1705. “Bbrrbrrbrbb...”
  1706. >You shivered as a current of viciously cold air brought you back to reality.
  1707. >It was time to go regroup, there was no telling what Anon’s spell really did.
  1708. >There might be a clock ticking that you didn’t even know about yet.
  1709. >So, you sucked down air, and clapped your wings tight to your body.
  1710. >Immediately you began to plummet, just north of Aisling’s position.
  1711. >The instant breakneck speed made you grin as wide as your beak would allow.
  1712. >You plunged through a passing cloud, blowing it to strands, before you started to extend your wings again.
  1713. >The wind was blowing east to west up here, so you caught it with one wing and sent yourself into a controlled spin due south of where you meant to land.
  1714. >Then with just the right timing, exactly the moment your body levelled out with the ground nearly a hundred feet from the treetops, you spread your wings to their full length and started a wheeling glide back around.
  1715. >There was a great upward pull on your back, a bit harsher than you’d expected, but it was nothing your body couldn’t handle.
  1716. >The drastic tone shift from plunging to gliding along made you chuckle.
  1717. >This was the nicest feeling of flying for you, the gliding.
  1718. >It was satisfying to feel your wings so full of air, like a boat at full sail.
  1719. >Each pinion cupped the flowing ether, keeping you suspended as if in time, while you honed in on Aisling.
  1720. >Finally you started to pass through the forest ceiling.
  1721. >Being careful not to break too many limbs, you reached out with your claws and shoved the branches aside as you went, to create a path.
  1722. >Aisling wasn’t built like you after all, she might get hurt or pulled off your back on the trip out.
  1723. >Bit by bit, that recognizable horn light grew closer and closer, until you were practically on top of it.
  1724. >You swooped around the last couple of limbs, since they were too big to move, and you were confident you could go around them on the way up anyway.
  1725. >Once you finally spotted her, Aisling looked tremendously occupied in her thoughts, sitting there and waiting for your return.
  1726. “I can relate.”
  1727. >You murmured.
  1728. >So as not to startle her too much, you whistled a low tone as you came in for the landing.
  1729.  
  1730.  
  1731. ////
  1732.  
  1733. >The truth was, Chad had scared the hell out of you.
  1734. >You paced around Anonymous in the snow as you ran over the facts in your head yet again.
  1735. >He was like nothing you’d ever seen or thought of before.
  1736. >You shivered, and not from the cold, but from remembering that look on his face as he’d cut through those gnomes.
  1737. >Like a mannequin, pulling apart mannequins.
  1738. >The thought made you shiver again, and it also made you terribly aware that you could be covered in blood like him.
  1739. >Quickly, you spun on yourself to check.
  1740. >...
  1741. >Thank goodness your black fur didn’t show anything, and thank God you didn’t get any of it in your mane or your tail or your scarf.
  1742. >You sighed and sat down to collect yourself properly.
  1743. >If Chad were to do something like that again, there was no telling if he’d come out of it still valuing other people’s lives.
  1744. >Your own transformation had thrown you off badly enough, with the bouts of euphoria and silly behaviour.
  1745.  
  1746. >With a touch of quiet despair, you thought about how you’d actually managed to hug Chad so quickly after everything you’d seen him do.
  1747. >That was an act strictly reserved for children’s cartoons, yet it was still what you felt was right at the time.
  1748. >You eyed the sleeping white mare beside you.
  1749. >Anonymous’ behaviour worried you too.
  1750. >It was nice that she was suddenly so...
  1751. >Bouncy, for lack of a better word, but it was also terrible in its portent.
  1752. >Becoming the opposite sex had obviously dulled Anonymous’ edge.
  1753. >Her indecision earlier was simply uncharacteristic.
  1754. >...Not that you were any better.
  1755. >You had your guard up the whole time and you still took that terrible deal to serve as Chad’s shackles.
  1756. >It made you want to... Well.
  1757. >You could only pray that your comforting, and that your words had their desired effect; to bring Chad back to some level of normalcy and to patch up his sense of self.
  1758. >If Chad knew he was responsible for what he did, then hopefully he would also feel responsible for what he did.
  1759. >A low whistle cut through your thoughts.
  1760. >You gazed upward and saw Chad come swooping down between the branches, before he skidded to a halt a few feet away, kicking up bloody snow.
  1761. >It was frustratingly ambiguous whether he’d really calmed down.
  1762. >That black beak hardly betrayed a thing, and combined with Chad’s prior habit of making light of serious trouble to cope, the problem was compounded.
  1763. >His face and his expressions could be downright deceptive, even if he didn’t want them to be.
  1764. >The griffon was three heads taller than you and nearly twice as long, practically the same size as when he was human, but densely packed.
  1765. >Chad’s paws crunched through the snow, and his talons stabbed it dead as he walked up to you.
  1766. >Your horn light glinted off his beak, and illuminated the evil black stain across his face as he locked eyes with you.
  1767. >That was a smile? Right?
  1768. >It barely differed from the permanent smug smirk he had imprinted on his features now.
  1769. >You smiled back anyway, and it wasn’t a total lie.
  1770.  
  1771. >Chad may have an exhaustive list of every Freemason in office, but you had a comparably exhaustive one of the times Anonymous told you she owed him.
  1772. >Gently, Chad punched you in the shoulder.
  1773. >”I think I’ve got the hang of it, just give me a sec here, wanna get this before we go...”
  1774. >He said, with that queer new intonation of his, as he reached for his chest.
  1775. >His talons closed over nothing.
  1776. >Expression unchanging, he reached around his shoulder, and once again shut his claws on air.
  1777. >You couldn’t help but laugh when you realized what was going on, you were so relieved.
  1778. >Chad squawked in shock, then his head and tail drooped as low as they could go.
  1779. >”Ffffucckkkk... That fairy ring ate my cigs...”
  1780. >Stifling your giggles, you started to pat his rusty speckled dome with a hoof.
  1781. >His feathers were smooth to the touch, and a little wet.
  1782. “What about your phone and your wallet? Isn’t that worse?”
  1783. >Chad seemed to accept the petting, and simply grumbled back.
  1784. >”Burner phone, fake IDs and no cash on me. I’ll just grab some replacements from my bug-out bag in the car.”
  1785. >You pressed your hoof to your forehead, and struggled in vain to understand Chad’s ever nebulous priorities.
  1786. >But you smiled anyway.
  1787. >He really seemed himself right now.
  1788. >The bird brain lifted his head up suddenly, and slapped the snow with the end of his tail before stepping up to Anonymous to say,
  1789. >”Let’s get going.”
  1790. >With obvious care and consideration, Chad threaded his claws beneath Anon’s side and scooped her slowly up into the crooks of his elbows.
  1791. >You weren’t really sure how he wanted to go about this until he spread his wings and lowered his front half a little more.
  1792. >Nodding, you sidled up next to Chad, and slid over his back, between his wings.
  1793. >A flutter passed through your chest as you wrapped your forelegs around his neck.
  1794. >You felt like a mouse climbing onto a cat.
  1795. >All you’d touched in that hug earlier was Chad’s soft down, but now you were laying right on top of his strongest muscles.
  1796. >You spoke a warning against Chad’s neck, towards where you figured his ear was.
  1797. “I don’t have much of a grip on you. I’d try casting some spell but I can’t really imagine a good way of holding one thing to another yet.”
  1798. >He nodded back, one cool eye locked to yours, and responded,
  1799. >”Yeah, I’ll go slow.”
  1800. >Then Chad lifted his wings as high as they would go.
  1801. >Finally the first beat came, and the rushing air that sent your silvery mane and your scarf twirling behind your head.
  1802. >In three such flaps, you were all in the air.
  1803. >You braced yourself as Chad approached the tree cover, but not a single branch touched you.
  1804. >Out of the corner of your eye, you spotted several that were obviously bent back, before Chad soared past them all.
  1805. >For a little while, he was mostly gathering height, rising well above the forest.
  1806. >The wind was blowing your ears flat against your head, and producing this annoying scream.
  1807. >There was a brutal chill up here that cut right through your warming spell.
  1808.  
  1809. ##Escaping
  1810.  
  1811. >Chad’s wings kept squishing your barrel every time they came up for a rhythmic flap, and at any moment you felt like they would unhook your hind legs from his sides and send you tumbling to your death.
  1812. “This sucks!!”
  1813. >You hollered over the wind.
  1814. >Chad’s head rocked back and forth in a squawking laugh, and the motion almost uncrossed your forelegs from his thick neck.
  1815. >”Almost there!”
  1816. >He shot back.
  1817. >With your eyes squinted to guard against the wind, you peered around all the white feathers to look at the ground below.
  1818. >You couldn’t make heads or tails of most of it, everything was just a black and grey smudge.
  1819. >But you did manage to spot the light from your house at least.
  1820. >Chad was flying west of it, which struck you as odd at first, but then you realized he must be subject to the wind.
  1821. >You didn’t know if it was really amazing that he understood air currents so quickly, or if it was more intuitive than you would expect.
  1822. >Just as you tucked your head back in, Chad finally stopped ascending and levelled out.
  1823. >The ride instantly became tolerable as a result, with him only flapping maybe a quarter of the time compared to earlier.
  1824. >You sighed in relief, and let your body relax a little.
  1825. >Wispy clouds floated by just over your head, and the starry sky rose and fell as a dome, out to the horizon.
  1826. >The wind quieted down to a soft whistle that toyed with your fur and mane, instead of cutting through it like cold darts.
  1827. >Now that you could appreciate the flight, it made you regret that it had come so late, while the moon wasn’t up and you could barely see anything.
  1828. >Besides the stars, it was just black above and black below, with some indistinct shapes marked out by the snow.
  1829. >Your home was still ahead and to the right, a little patch of warm yellow light in a black and white photograph.
  1830. >How did it look to Chad?
  1831. >You pondered.
  1832. >I mean he wasn’t an owl right, how good was his night vision really?
  1833. >You tapped Chad on the chest with the flat face of your hoof, and asked,
  1834. “Can you see my place from here?”
  1835. >Chad turned his head to look at you sidelong, and this time you recognized the smile on his beak for certain.
  1836. >It was several times more smug than his baseline.
  1837. >”So, the Nightmare doubts I can find her lair?”
  1838. >Clearly, he was amused.
  1839. >With a testy expression, you whipped your tail against his haunches a couple times to express your reciprocal ‘amusement’.
  1840. >Chad looked away from you, and down at your home instead.
  1841. >As simply as plucking a tea-bag from a cup, he immediately quoted a passage with a princely affect in his voice,
  1842. >”This is the syege of the noble Knyght Sir Trystramys.”
  1843. >Then he shot you another smug, almost haughty look.
  1844. >You were bewildered for a moment, but in the next, you remembered the book you’d left on your coffee table.
  1845. >There was no way Chad would have memorized that, and Anonymous...
  1846. >Was still asleep, her mane just blowing haphazardly in the wind past his arm.
  1847.  
  1848. >Your eyes went wide, and you couldn’t help but go,
  1849. “Huh.”
  1850. >As you pressed a hoof to your chin.
  1851. >From up here, from God only knows how far away, he really had picked out a passage in your book.
  1852. >Could real hawks even see that far?
  1853. >The more you thought about it, Clapperleg might have had a point calling it ‘devil’s luck’.
  1854. >Your lips stretched thin, and your brow furrowed up.
  1855. >It was impressive, obviously, but Chad’s expression made you want to throw it back in his face.
  1856. >So, like a child you jokingly retorted,
  1857. “I have magic.”
  1858. >And turned your head to emphasize the handsome length of your fine platinum horn.
  1859. >Chad’s smirk only lengthened.
  1860. >He lifted his arms, and Anon rolled in them, her limp wings all a scatter between his elbows.
  1861. >She was snoring loud enough that you could hear it from here.
  1862. >With his right hand up for you to see, Chad flexed his right most claw around in a circle, then he suddenly reached for your face.
  1863. “Hey!-”
  1864. >Before you could pull away, he squeezed the end of your nose between his claws and laughed,
  1865. >”I have thumbs.”
  1866. >Fuming, but smiling, snorting and laughing too, you shook your head furiously to get Chad off.
  1867. >He relented, and slowly lowered the snoozing Anonymous again.
  1868. >You giggled along as he squawked to his heart’s content.
  1869. >Eventually he stopped, and your snout un-scrunched itself.
  1870. >After a span of silence, you thought of just the thing to get the last word in.
  1871. “...I can summon thumbs.”
  1872. >Chad chuckled, and shook his head as he responded,
  1873. >”I’ll still have these eyes after you lose the horn.”
  1874. >He was looking at you from the side of his face again.
  1875. >The expression on his beak still conveyed a jocular attitude, but Chad’s eye was striking.
  1876. >It was like he was staring into the years beyond you, the look was too serious for his usual levity to cover for.
  1877. >Your breath caught in your throat.
  1878. >He wasn’t including the possibility of returning to normal in his future, not at all.
  1879. >With a deep breath, and a moment’s thought, you levelled yourself out.
  1880. >The best thing to do was speak realistically, reel him in, and at least bring him back to the current issue.
  1881. >With your shoulders slumped, but your voice resolute, you responded,
  1882. “We don’t know that yet, that spell might mean I’ll be stuck like this too.”
  1883. >”No.”
  1884. >Chad answered immediately.
  1885. >He wasn’t looking at you, all you saw was the back of his head as he continued in a stolid tone,
  1886. >”I’m going to kill that gnome.”
  1887. >The thought crossed your mind that as much as Anon had been mollified by her transformation, Chad had been hardened.
  1888. >For a man, such a hardening could be ideal, but Chad had already been a hard man before this.
  1889. >Now he was only looking after you and Anonymous, not himself.
  1890. >Being so unbending could break him.
  1891. >You bit your lip, and wrapped your forelegs around his neck again, momentarily frustrated that you couldn’t think of anything more to say, while Chad wordlessly began his gradual descent.
  1892.  
  1893. >He kept a steady pitch, dipping his right wing a few degrees to come gliding around in an arc back to your home.
  1894. >Chad’s speed picked up some more as he came out of the turn and aimed his beak straight at your front yard.
  1895. >At first slowly, and then quite quickly, the earth below came into greater and greater detail.
  1896. >Your nearest neighbour’s place slung by, a shadowy ensemble of familiar features.
  1897. >The stand of pine in your neighbour’s field raced away just below Chad’s paws, then the long driveway, then you flew past the property line, over your driveway-
  1898. >At maybe 30 meters from your front door, you realized Chad hadn’t slowed down at all.
  1899. >”Hold tight.”
  1900. >With a great gasp, you pressed your forelegs as deeply into Chad’s fluffy chest as you could, and hooked them together.
  1901. >Your hind legs were squeezing his midsection as much as possible, and your face was buried in the base of his neck.
  1902. >For one nerve wrenching moment, as the wind screamed in your ears, you laid there so utterly tensed up and blind, waiting for the impact.
  1903. >Then it came, and all the air you’d sucked down was blown out of your chest.
  1904. >You heard Chad beat his mighty wings once before touching the ground, and the inertia smooshed you so much flatter into his back than you would have believed was possible.
  1905. >Your eyes flew open and darted around to take everything in.
  1906. >He’d gone into a horrifically fast controlled slide on his paws through the snow, still holding Anonymous up and away.
  1907. >Ice was blasted everywhere.
  1908. >Chad’s two legged upright stance forced you to cling as best you could, while his wings buffeted you with more decelerating flaps, and his tail whipped around worryingly close to your back.
  1909. >It was the second scariest damned thing that had happened to you today.
  1910. >At any moment you thought you’d lose your grip and be sent flying into a wall, or lose your grip and be trampled beneath Chad’s paws, or get lashed with his tail and then have either of the former conclusions play out.
  1911. >But mercifully, oh so mercifully, he managed to slow down.
  1912. >With one last careful flap of his wings, Chad stopped just so, with his arms and Anonymous resting at the foot of your deck.
  1913. >He smiled wistfully at her as he laid her out on the step and stood apart, on all fours, calm as could be.
  1914. >Anonymous just snored on, a blonde white tumbleweed with piano wings sticking out of it.
  1915. >Meanwhile, you were desperately clinging to Chad’s neck with every last ounce of your failing strength, shivering and rocking with adrenaline.
  1916. >It was hard to think straight with how fast your heart was beating, but you managed just to blow your mane out of your eyes and breathlessly ask,
  1917. “H-h-h-how ffff-fff-ffassst dafiids didfjd did did did you r-r-really??”
  1918. >Chad eyed you apologetically as he reached over his shoulder to pluck you off.
  1919. >His scaly hand palmed you right at your withers, with his talons looping beneath your elbows.
  1920. >They nearly met each other below your chest as he tugged.
  1921.  
  1922. >But your legs had unconsciously locked in place, so that even if you wanted off, you couldn’t acquiesce.
  1923. >The shivering just wouldn’t stop either.
  1924. >”Ah, shit. That was too fast.”
  1925. >Chad noted, as he carefully peeled your limbs from his body.
  1926. >With each leg that was unstuck, you felt just that much calmer.
  1927. >Once your heart was back to a healthy pace and you were fully un-clung, he picked you up how he’d meant to in the first place.
  1928. >You had the sense to frown at least, before you were carried up and over Chad’s head like a toy in a crane game.
  1929. >Your frown only grew deeper, and your hind legs dangled ponderously when Chad finally held you up to his face.
  1930. >He helped himself to a chuckle first, but then he apologized,
  1931. >”Sorry, I should have just hovered down, but I got too excited about the gliding.”
  1932. >You glared at that boyish smiling beak, those yellow eyes, and the blood stain across them with stern disapproval.
  1933. >There was still a lingering thrill in Chad’s whole demeanour.
  1934. >He was just a bit breathless, just a bit brutish.
  1935. >It was the kind of look a boy coated in mud would give his mother after he finally caught her in a bear hug.
  1936. >You sighed, and ultimately, you relented,
  1937. “I accept your apology.”
  1938. >”Sorry.”
  1939. >Chad repeated, a little more sincerely, as he set you down.
  1940. “It’s fine.”
  1941. >It wasn’t like you weren’t at least a little thrilled yourself.
  1942. >You happily tossed your mane, and fixed your scarf.
  1943. >Then you poked Chad’s bloody chest with a hoof, and pointed at his equally marred face as you advised,
  1944. “Just go and clean yourself up, I’ll carry Anon in. These stains would scare the wings off her if she woke up and saw them now.”
  1945. >For his part, Chad bemusedly patted at the affected areas, obviously not seeing the same thing you were.
  1946. >”These?”
  1947. >You nodded, and answered,
  1948. “You look like you’re the one who was stabbed. The shower is free, and straight ahead when you go through the front door.”
  1949. >Chad made his way inside while you spun up a spell to pick Anonymous up.
  1950. >You thought of that ‘crane game’ feeling from before, and imagined a similar shape.
  1951. >The horn atop your head glowed with a turquoise hue, summoning up a hardlight facsimile of the claw from those games.
  1952. >With your mind trained, you lowered the claw and carefully picked up Anon with it, in much the same way Chad had done with you.
  1953. >Chad had left the door open for you, so you just passed the sleeping pony through first, and trotted after her.
  1954. >In the doorway, you turned your head, moving Anonymous to your left through the air, and set her lightly down on the couch.
  1955. >She already looked like she’d been sleeping there all night.
  1956. >While you took in the state of your home, you shut the door with a hind leg, and magically unravelled the scarf from your neck.
  1957. >The bathroom door across from you was shut, and you could already hear the sound of Chad turning the water on.
  1958.  
  1959. ##Back Home
  1960.  
  1961. >Le Morte d’Arthur was conspicuously open on your coffee table, and you scoffed, seeing that it really was on the page Chad had read from.
  1962. “Must have been Anon reading it, I hope she saved my bookmark...”
  1963. >You murmured, as you scanned the living room.
  1964. >Everything else was how you’d left it...
  1965. >...Minus the wool throw that had been gobbled out of existence by the fairy ring earlier.
  1966. >That stung, it had been a gift from your mother.
  1967. >You sighed, and walked over to your smouldering fireplace.
  1968. >The funk from losing your throw vanished almost instantly with those first few steps.
  1969. >After wandering around in the snow all night getting harangued by deceptive little not-men, and being worried half to death your friends were going to be hurt; trotting on warm wood flooring in your own home, with the sweet sound of Anonymous gently breathing in her sleep on your couch filled your heart with gratitude for the Lord.
  1970. >With a merry smile on your face, you conjured up a shimmering sea-foam blue hand to open the stove, pick a stick of kindling out of the pile, and stir the embers before piling more kindling inside.
  1971. >The fire was already crackling as you laid on a hunk of wood, shut the door and opened the draft.
  1972. >Next, you walked back over to Anonymous, nabbed up your fleece blanket with your teeth, and covered her with it.
  1973. >Her mouth gaped for a second, and you thought you had woken her up, but instead she gave a great yawn and a shiver.
  1974. >Anonymous’ wings stretched out, tenting the blanket above her, before gradually pulling in more comfortably to her sides.
  1975. >Suppressing your laughter, you tucked the blanket around her and turned around for the kitchen.
  1976. >Automatically, your sound system started as you went through the motions to brew tea, randomly picking something you recognized from your morning playlist.
  1977. >At your command,
  1978. “Quiet.”
  1979. >The volume dimmed.
  1980. >You hopped up on the wooden step stool, so you could reach your head over the counter and see what you were doing.
  1981. >The clock on the wall read 1:01 am.
  1982. >Just thinking about it made you sleepy, but it would have to wait.
  1983. >You flicked the kettle on with the end of your nose, and the lights off with a touch of magic.
  1984. >While the water boiled and a glowing hand you’d just summoned grabbed two bags of peppermint tea from the cupboard, you thought back some.
  1985. >You’d taken that PONE-E at 8:37 pm last night, almost exactly.
  1986. >Which meant you should be returning to normal at 8:37 pm tonight.
  1987. >Should, but Anonymous’ spell to ‘reverse the effects of PON-E’ could mean a number of different things, when you thought about it semantically.
  1988. >First, the most likely outcome, your transformation was now permanent.
  1989. >Second, still possible if unlikely, after 24 hours your transformation would be made permanent, unless you took a second pill.
  1990.  
  1991. >Third and least likely, if you assumed the effect of ‘taking 1 pill will transform the user for 24 hours’ was not one of the effects reversed, you would turn back to normal.
  1992. >Your kettle belched steam as you delved further and further into the possibilities.
  1993. >The gnome had promised Anonymous she would be human again, so the one effect you knew was reversed was ‘overdosing will transform the user permanently’.
  1994. >And seeing as Anon was still a pony, you had to assume the way the reversal had gone was, ‘overdosing will make the transformation permanent’, to ‘overdosing will make the transformation temporary’.
  1995. >So she should be turning back sometime tomorrow.
  1996. >In which case, how would the gnomes benefit best?
  1997. >You let your magical hand pour the boiling water into the mugs you’d prepared, while you pieced together the worst scenario you could think of, keeping in mind the rule of overdosing being reversed.
  1998. >Anyone who took one pill was permanently transformed, people who overdosed were turned back.
  1999. >You frowned at your quietly steeping cups of tea.
  2000. “That... really isn’t all that big...”
  2001. >Why had the gnomes gone through all that trouble just to make it so that people would effectively overdose on PON-E immediately?
  2002. >All the weirdos who wanted to be ponies forever had probably gone through with it already so this wasn’t going to cover for many of them.
  2003. >You supposed it meant that now normal people would have to acquire more PON-E to turn themselves back at least-
  2004. >You shook your head, and changed your line of thinking.
  2005. >None of this added up in the first place.
  2006. >This scenario was bad for the gnomes, it would make it practically impossible for people to be permanently ponified.
  2007. >Your tail batted from side to side as you dipped your teabag in and out of your mug, deep in thought.
  2008. >The whole point was to make industrial society capsize right?
  2009. >So there was no good reason to give humans a way back to humanity.
  2010. >Your frown grew deeper.
  2011. >...Was Clapperleg actually being honest when he said they’d made a mistake?
  2012. >You shook your head, and clopped a hoof to the counter.
  2013. >This was the second time you’d entertained the idea of having some kind of sympathy for the creature.
  2014. >That thing wasn’t even human, not one statement it had made was true.
  2015. >Even the things that were factually verifiable, would prove to be so only for the purpose of concealing an even uglier lie.
  2016. >Hatred, meaningful, true hatred wrinkled your snout as you snarled under your breath,
  2017. “It was just a thing that talked.”
  2018. >For a few moments you stewed like that, staring at your tea, still harbouring regrets for the part you’d played in that sick show.
  2019. >But as with most regrets, you disposed of them judiciously, and focused instead on solutions.
  2020. >The impression you got was that you were forgetting something, the scenario you had in mind right now definitely wasn’t right.
  2021. >Convening with Chad about it was probably best, he may remember everything that was said back then better than you.
  2022.  
  2023. >So you becalmed yourself for now and stepped off the stool, while floating both mugs along behind you with magic saucers.
  2024. >They glowed softly, their turquoise pleasantly contrasting the orange flickering light from the hearth.
  2025. >With a little hop, you rolled yourself out on the sofa.
  2026. >Then you wiggled your backside under the fleece blanket you’d covered up Anonymous with, till it slid over your neck.
  2027. >It was dangerously warm.
  2028. >If you weren’t careful, this is exactly where you would be spending the rest of the morning and tomorrow afternoon.
  2029. >Your eyes narrowed at the risk you were taking, but your body was already being treacherous as it shuffled closer to your sleeping friend and gently laid your hind legs against hers.
  2030. >And then for the killing blow, you conjured a hand to bring your cup up to your lips for the first sip.
  2031. >If there was ever a reason you may understand, for why someone wanted to be like this permanently, it would be the capability of drinking tea under a blanket without poking your hands out.
  2032. >Appreciating the soothing flavour, and sighing with perfect contentedness, you laid your head flat on the sofa to glance at the waiting mug you’d prepared for the bird brain.
  2033. “How long does it take to get blood out of feathers anyway?”
  2034. >”Ten minutes. Had to make do with cold water and vinegar.”
  2035. >Chad’s voice stabbed through the air.
  2036. >Your ears flicked to the bathroom door, and your head was up off the couch before you could think about it.
  2037. >Chad stood there, still towelling off his neck and looking at you curiously.
  2038. >He cut a sharp figure in the warm light of the fireplace.
  2039. >It was so sharp you couldn’t help but think of how much he looked like a fox in a hen house.
  2040. >He was so undeniably shaped like a predator that even when he affected a casual posture there was no veiling the threat of his body.
  2041. >There wasn’t a trace of blood left in his feathers, so that his chest was a great white plume struck through with lines of rust, and his face an august white head of feathers gilded on either side with more rust.
  2042. >The fire glinted in little orange embers off his beak and talons and danced in his eyes, while his dusky lion half loomed in the darkness behind him.
  2043. >A lounging lion is still a lion.
  2044. >You laughed inside at the comparison and tapped your hoof against the empty spot next to you.
  2045. >For all that, Chad was also; still Chad.
  2046. >So you tilted your head towards his cup and warmly invited him.
  2047. “Come sit down, it’s peppermint.”
  2048. >Chad nodded his head and replied,
  2049. >”Cool.”
  2050. >Before he tossed his towel onto a hook in the bathroom and made his way over.
  2051. >Then, standing right in front of you, Chad stretched his wings wide and yawned for a perilously long time.
  2052. >The tips of the lead feathers on his left wing brushed against the wall and flicked at your scarf hanging there.
  2053. >With a great shiver along his whole body, Chad pulled his wings back in to fold comfortably at his sides again.
  2054.  
  2055. >It had looked so much like a blown up version of what Anonymous had done earlier, that you rolled over giggling, and nearly tore your cushions up with the end of your horn.
  2056. “Chad, the biirrddd brainnn.”
  2057. >You teased, grinning up at his face.
  2058. >Chad ruffled his wings a little, looking unphased, before he swiftly squeezed your nose between his claws.
  2059. >You snuffled and struggled on your back, trying in vain to reach him with your fore hooves, while he smiled down at you and taunted back,
  2060. >”Aisling, the long face.”
  2061. >Your reply started out all stuffed and funny sounding,
  2062. “Noo woondur Anoun bweats yu swo muache. Blah-”
  2063. >Then finally he let you go, and you continued to berate him in plainer English as he climbed onto the cushions,
  2064. “You really aim for the soft spots of being a pony, you’re just an old fashioned bully.”
  2065. >You chided, but your smile betrayed your amusement.
  2066. >Chad laughed as he wrapped his tail around his body and laid on his side, with his scaly forearms on the arm rest.
  2067. >He plucked his cup of tea off the coffee table and retorted,
  2068. >”It is my biological imperative to remind pill poppers of their lot in life.”
  2069. >The joke burst your gut laughing, and just when you’d recovered, seeing Chad’s puzzled expression at his tea sent you reeling again.
  2070. >The remark about ‘pill poppers’ had swung round to bite him so fast it made your head spin.
  2071. >He’d tilted his whole head, so much like a bird pecking at some speck on the ground, it was perfect.
  2072. >”How do...”
  2073. >Chad uttered, then he went through every motion he could think of to try and get the tea down his throat without making a mess of it.
  2074. >Leaning his head to and fro, he tried sticking his tongue out, opening his beak wide, keeping his beak nearly shut and clasping the edge of the cup with his beak.
  2075. >All the while you laughed more and more, so much so that the couch shook and he nearly spilled his tea anyway.
  2076. >Chad locked an eye on you, and it gave you the sense to be quiet for just a second.
  2077. >You breathed deep and sealed your lips shut with a knowing smile.
  2078. >It would be funnier when he dumped it all over himself by his own power anyway.
  2079. >Like he knew what you were thinking, Chad gave you one last glare before he finally dipped the end of his beak in the cup and tried sucking his tea up.
  2080. >”Fuck! Hot-”
  2081. >He withdrew too quickly, tipping the cup back to dribble all down his downy chest, while you laughed and tapped your fore hooves against his flank in double time.
  2082. >Groaning, the bird brain set the cup back and stood up to go cleanse his feathers with more water.
  2083. >Your giggling followed him all the way to the bathroom and back, before it finally petered out as he jumped up on the couch beside you again.
  2084. >Not to be beaten, Chad reached for the cup again, and drunk from it with some poise this time around.
  2085. >Then he looked straight at you, clicked his beak and remarked,
  2086. >”Lips must be nice huh?”
  2087. >You nodded, smiling lightly as you took a sip of your own cup.
  2088.  
  2089. ##Falling Asleep
  2090.  
  2091. >It was funny, you thought, that all this teasing about who’s body could do what always came back around to who’s body was more similar to a human one.
  2092. >You watched how Chad moved, and realized there wasn’t so much of a difference from when he was human at all.
  2093. >He used his claws just like he would have used his hands, and brought his paws up just like he would have done with his feet.
  2094. >He even curled the ends of his toes.
  2095. >Anonymous, who had been this the longest, still had some of the most human affectations of the three of you.
  2096. >You’d adopted a more equine stance, but the way she usually held her posture was practically like a human just crawling on their hands and knees sometimes.
  2097. >The drastic bodily changes didn’t seem to kill muscle memories, they just introduced new ones.
  2098. >What was more worrisome to you were the subtle shifts in moods and humours.
  2099. >But your gut told you that the three of you sitting here right now were perfectly human still.
  2100. >There was no change in...
  2101. >You stared up at the ceiling, reaching for a good word, and noted that you could actually look up at your horn the way you’d cross your eyes to look at your nose.
  2102. >Now that you thought about it, how come you didn’t notice your snout all the time even though it was so lo-
  2103. “Character...”
  2104. >You muttered suddenly, causing Chad to double take.
  2105. >Right, ‘character’, you mused, as you brought your gaze back to the fireplace.
  2106. >You hovered over your cup of tea and took another sip to punctuate the thought.
  2107. >After you were transformed, you kept on doing exactly what you would have done anyway and from the way Anonymous was acting, she’d been the same.
  2108. >The both of you had always pressed through everything so industriously.
  2109. >In hindsight, although your history with him was shorter, you could tell Chad was behaving just the way he always did before.
  2110. >You smiled warmly, thinking back to the moments you’d shared with him tonight.
  2111. >Then again, maybe you knew him a lot better now.
  2112. >Obsessively looking out for others, laughing all the while anything bad was happening to him, but snarling as soon as a friend’s back was against the wall.
  2113. >You turned to him almost on a whim and spoke,
  2114. “The situation is what’s different now, not the transformed people in it. You know?”
  2115. >Chad shook his head and laughed.
  2116. >”No, I don’t know. I do know that you think too much, just like Anonymous does.”
  2117. “Sure... Sure...”
  2118. >He had a point.
  2119. >But it also crossed your mind now, that the three of you were not exactly ‘average’.
  2120. >Anonymous in particular was one of the most wilful people you’d ever met, full of a very strange sort of motivation that only she really understood.
  2121. >Always procrastinating, yet overachieving in class.
  2122. >She’d debated a professor once, just to bruise her ego, knowing full well that professor would try and fail her for it.
  2123. >And as for Chad...
  2124. >You shifted in your blanket, and lifted your slender neck up to look at him.
  2125.  
  2126. >He was staring quietly at the fire, with his cup clutched between his claws, and his tail slowly tapping beside him.
  2127. “Hey Chad..?”
  2128. >You started.
  2129. >His gaze flicked to you, and his tail stopped mid tap before settling onto the cushion.
  2130. >”Yeah?”
  2131. >He asked.
  2132. >Your head tilted a few degrees while you thought of how to better frame your question.
  2133. >The tilt was a habit from before you were transformed, but it did feel nice having your mane sway whenever you did it now.
  2134. >You could tell it looked beautiful too, this was the second time Chad’s eyes had followed the motion so raptly before he could catch himself.
  2135. >Smiling, you straightened your head out and finally asked,
  2136. “Is it true you were part of a paramilitary group?”
  2137. >To your surprise, Chad’s beak gaped open.
  2138. >After blinking half a dozen times, he asked,
  2139. >”Anonymous really told you about that?”
  2140. “Yeah, was she not supposed to tell anyone?”
  2141. >Chad looked like he didn’t know how to process that right away.
  2142. >He set his tea down quite quickly and broke eye contact with you, as he mulled it over with one of his hands pressed over his beak.
  2143. >This went on for maybe a minute or two, interrupted only by Chad’s pupils swiftly scanning your face once in a while.
  2144. >You watched carefully, kept your face neutral, and stayed patient.
  2145. >He was a very wary person after all, with some good and some bad reasons to be.
  2146. >After a deep sigh, Chad finally relented, and put on an uneasy looking smile before he spoke.
  2147. >”Well fuck. No, I never told her not to tell anyone, but obviously it’s something that just...”
  2148. >He held his breath, then shook his head, threw his claws up and finished.
  2149. >“It doesn’t matter. If she really trusts you that much then I have to. What did she tell you? What did you want to know about it?”
  2150. >You nodded and answered back,
  2151. “You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to. She just mentioned it in passing, told me that you left the group before going to university and that you were through with that stuff. It almost sounded like a joke at the time. So, I was just curious if it was true... Well really I...”
  2152. >Another pause as you gathered your thoughts from earlier.
  2153. >Chad seemed to relax quite a bit when you said he didn’t have to tell you anything.
  2154. >He rested confidently on his elbows while you continued.
  2155. “I was just thinking about the three of us, and how we’re all still basically the same after transforming. But I’ve noticed some subtle mental changes, so subtle they don’t really effect us in the end but...”
  2156. >Chad picked up the line of conversation right away.
  2157. >”But they’re there. I’ve got a prey drive now. I can still stop myself from pursuing, but...”
  2158. >Suddenly he was animated, and he gestured with his claws, banging a balled up fist of talons into his open hand.
  2159. >”Fucking BAM! It’s like a starter pistol. It’s an actual, physical reaction. Kneejerk reaction. Nothing else but sprinting and pouncing feels like the right thing to do when it happens.”
  2160.  
  2161. >The firelight was blazing red hot in his eyes, and a strange half smile, half grimace played around his beak.
  2162. >You thought Chad’s experience was quite a bit more visceral, but you could still sympathize from how you had felt galloping earlier.
  2163. >So you nodded, and continued.
  2164. “Yes. The effects seem like they can be ignored most of the time. But we’re all-”
  2165. >”Redpilled.”
  2166. >Your mood instantly flipped from concern to reluctantly amused and excessively exasperated.
  2167. >For the first time, you felt the urge to strike Chad with your hoof.
  2168. >Clearly, Anonymous didn’t beat him enough, you thought, as you glared into those squinted yellow eyes and at that smug sneer of his.
  2169. >Once Chad had finished snickering, you started over again.
  2170. “We’re all very wilful people.”
  2171. >Chad nodded and brought a claw up under his beak, looking thoughtful.
  2172. >Then he reached for his tea and took a sip.
  2173. >”You’re saying we’re the exception to the rule. Anonymous was talking about that earlier, how dead the ‘muggles’ reaction to this has been.”
  2174. >You flashed your eyes at him, feeling quite grave of a sudden.
  2175. “If more and more people really start transforming like this, the changes for them might not be so subtle. Especially down the line, when a lot of people around them have also been changed.”
  2176. >Chad’s smile was grim as he answered you.
  2177. >”Might be a little funnier to watch than wages infinitely approaching zero and GDP endlessly going up, at least.”
  2178. >You scoffed, and drank your tea.
  2179. >Your gaze passed over the fireplace.
  2180. >It had burned down some now, the wood inside was charred through, and red hot embers tumbled from its ends.
  2181. >The sky had clouded over, so that the only light was from the hearth; a strong, primitive and flickering orange glow that lit just the slice of the living room that you, Chad, and Anonymous occupied.
  2182. >You felt comfortably alone with your friends.
  2183. >Between you and Chad it was totally quiet for a time, the two of you just enjoyed the tea and the presence of each other while watching the fire progress.
  2184. >Eventually, you had reached the bottom of your cup.
  2185. >The flames were lapping at nothing but a pile of red hot coals again, and the light had dimmed by half.
  2186. >Chad looked almost like a statue, the faint firelight cast subtle shadows along his face, and glowed in the pits of his eyes.
  2187. >For some reason you felt inclined to press up against him, and he did not protest when you did.
  2188. >You slid into the crook between Chad’s hind end and the back of the couch, laying your head down across his ribs.
  2189. >He was so warm, almost hot even.
  2190. >Your tail batted under the blanket, automatically, and your ears flicked as if to knock away some dust.
  2191. >The two of you sighed in turn, settling deeper into the sofa while pondering the embers.
  2192. >Not thinking much about it, you turned your head, and pressed an ear against Chad’s side.
  2193. >His heartbeat wasn’t as loud as you were expecting.
  2194. >But it was so, so slow.
  2195. >Maybe 30 per minute?
  2196. >”...What are you doing?”
  2197.  
  2198. >You flicked your gaze up at Chad’s puzzled expression, as you tipped your head back upright and blinked.
  2199. >Instead of saying anything, you just smiled and let your weight rest on him some more, enjoying the heat.
  2200. >Chad’s eyes narrowed, and his beak peeked open a little, likely in disgust.
  2201. >In a dark, dramatic and hoarse murmur he cast a set of claws over his face and said,
  2202. >”Women... This is why... I’m incel...”
  2203. >You held it together for a full second before your face cracked and you laughed.
  2204. >Then you dug out a fore hoof from under your chest and pointed it at him while you hissed,
  2205. “Shut up! Shush!”
  2206. >Chad kept his face turned towards the hearth, but there was the dead giveaway of a smile around his beak.
  2207. >You fake scoffed and wedged yourself even tighter between him and the back of the couch.
  2208. >He really was just so warm, like a space heater.
  2209. >A big, fluffy...
  2210. >Space...
  2211. >A tremendous yawn escaped your little muzzle.
  2212. >You were feeling pleased, but also nearly asleep, so you decided to pile another log on the fire to keep from nodding off.
  2213. >The intensity of thought needed to summon a hand from this far away, and pick something up with it accurately was decently high.
  2214. >You wouldn’t say it was exponentially harder or anything, but whatever logically seemed to be a more difficult feat physically, trended to being one magically.
  2215. >Nonetheless, you managed to get together enough focus to conjure a hand and get it done, between a few yawns.
  2216. >The log crackled and spat on the bed of red coals for a few seconds before you shut the door, and the draft, cutting out the sound.
  2217. >As you watched, it flashed into uproarious flame, lighting up the whole room again, and making your eyelids feel plenty lighter.
  2218. >Then you turned to look at Chad, satisfied with your horndiwork.
  2219. >Blank, white, shut lids stared back at you, and for a second you thought he was asleep.
  2220. >But it was just a long spell of resting his eyes, he blinked, and in a moment his crystal clear gaze was pointed at you again.
  2221. >”Sup.”
  2222. “About earlier,”
  2223. >You started.
  2224. “What did that gnome actually promise Anonymous again? I tried to piece together what the spell might have done, but none of it really made sense.”
  2225. >Chad nodded, and peered into the fire.
  2226. >His aspect was particularly soothing to look at just then, and for once you had the real sense that he had come to some reasonable terms with what had happened.
  2227. >He was relaxed, his arms crossed, his neck straight and his beak pointed true.
  2228. >After a while he answered,
  2229. >”Nothing. All he promised basically, was that the spell would ‘reverse the effects of PON-E’.”
  2230. >So that was it, that was what you had forgotten.
  2231. >It felt like a rock had been lifted from the pit of your stomach.
  2232. >You nodded and swept your mane aside, blinking slowly.
  2233. >You must have been subconsciously thinking this all along, because it fell from your mouth so easily,
  2234. “No one is turning back.”
  2235. >”Not until I kill him.”
  2236. >Chad added.
  2237.  
  2238. >The implications slogged through your mind at a tiring crawl, and you were so through with it you actually yawned, before you shared your thoughts with Chad.
  2239. “All the temporary transformations must have been reversed to be permanent.”
  2240. >He nodded and yawned back, before saying his own piece,
  2241. >”Now all the gnomes have to do is keep tainting medicine and food with PON-E until there isn’t even any humans to keep distribution up... Must be Rothschilds involved somehow, but I don’t get their angle...”
  2242. >Chad’s answer petered right out at the end into drowsy muttering, as he laid his head down on the arm rest.
  2243. >You shifted around until you were more comfortable under your blanket, tucking your legs in nicely, then you heaved a sigh and said,
  2244. “At least there isn’t a time limit on fixing things then. We can sleep. We should sleep...”
  2245. >Ahh, getting cozy had been a mistake, you thought.
  2246. >Chad was warm sure, but his ribs weren’t the most comfortable thing to rest your head against.
  2247. “Just... AAAaaaaaaahhhhh....”
  2248. >You yawned.
  2249. >Chad stared dully at you, barely clinging to consciousness.
  2250. “Don’t fall asleep yet.”
  2251. >With that, you struggled onto your fore legs, and stretched your nimble neck out as long as you could to reach the pillows you kept stuck behind the back of the sofa.
  2252. >You yanked one out with your mouth, then tossed it into Chad’s waiting claws, then you yanked another and dropped it beneath you, right over top of him.
  2253. >Most of a sentence made it out of your mouth before you yawned again and resigned yourself to slumber.
  2254. “Tomorrow... we should... gather... infor-maaaaaayyyyshuunnn... aaaa...”
  2255. >Your eyes crashed shut as you careened into the downy cushion below.
  2256.  

Nemetona

by meslam

Anu

by meslam