Chapter 2: Slender Mane
"Slender Mane was once like you or I," Zecora began, "A simple being, who lived a simple life. He was a wise zebra. A monk, who lived secluded in the mountains, and spent his days meditating in order to expand his mind. One day a visitor arrived from seemingly out of nowhere. The monk showed him hospitality. He gave him a place to sleep, and in the morning the visitor went on his way. It wasn't until days later that the monk noticed that the visitor had left a small box behind.
"It was not the monk's place to pry, so he left the box alone. As he meditated, the image of the box kept returning to his mind, however. No matter how hard he tried, the monk could not find any peace. Many years passed away. The monk grew old, and the visitor never returned. The monk's soul was in a state of distress as visions of the box filled his every waking hour, and haunted his dreams. One day he could tolerate it no more. He took the box, which he had carefully wrapped in silk, and his few belongings, and set out on a pilgrimage to find its owner and return it.
"For years the monk wandered across the land restlessly. No one he talked to had ever seen or heard of the visitor. One day as he was traveling down a long road the monk contracted a strange illness. He became pale and weak. Terrible visions followed him wherever he went, and he knew that he was soon to die. In his last moments, the monk's will broke. He tore open his bag and retrieved the box, desperately needing to know what was inside. As he opened the lid, his eyes fell upon a small key. He picked it up and examined it closely, trying to find its purpose. Trying to find any meaning in this thing that had haunted him for so long. As he examined the key, a door suddenly appeared before him. Hysteria had affected him, for he never questioned it. He quickly inserted the key, and it fit. The door swung open, and he stepped through without hesitation.
"Three years later his body was found in a small town miles away, horribly mutilated. His eyes scratched out, his mouth sewn shut, his limbs stretched and torn, and his heart burned black. The villagers buried him in a deep grave on the edge of the forest and never spoke of the strange incident again. It was said that inside the monk's blackened heart was placed a seed which contained his memories from that place he had been, because some time later a tree sprouted from his grave. It was said that he lived on in this tree. He no longer searches for the lost visitor, though. Now he wanders the land trying to make others see what he has seen, and feel what he has felt. The scari berry is what calls him, and if even a drop of its juice touches your skin, it is said that he will find you, and he will make you know."
"...and?" asked Twilight, throwing out the last of her salt and stamping it down.
"That is the myth," Zecora replied.
"But who was the visitor? Where did the door lead?"
"Some say the visitor was a being not of this world, and that the door lead to his home. Questions like those you should not ask. It's just a myth from ages past. I thank you for your help. Now grab your saddlebag and we shall return to my home."
As Twilight picked up the now significantly heavier bag with a bit of apprehension, more questions started entering her mind. What was the sickness that the monk had caught while on the road? What happened to the box and the key? He was already old when he had started searching for the visitor. How many years had passed since then? How old was he in the end? Twilight was so engrossed in her own thoughts that she didn't notice the large root sticking up out of the path ahead of her.
"Woah!" Twilight cried as her front hooves collided with it. She attempted to regain her footing, but the heavy saddlebags threw her off balance and she started stumbling toward a steep drop off to one side of the trail. Zecora spun around, but it was too late. She only caught a glimpse of Twilight's tail as she haphazardly tumbled down the slope.
As Twilight fell, a sharp branch caught the side of her head. There was a sudden flash of light and a stinging pain as it left a deep gash over her left eye. Injured and disoriented, Twilight still tried to regain control, but the slope was too steep, and the weight of the saddlebags continued to pull her down. She would have continued to roll helplessly to the bottom of the hill had in not been for a sturdy tree that she collided with.
"Augh!" she was forced to scream as the wind was knocked out of her. She had hit the tree so hard that for a moment she blacked out. When she came back around she heard Zecora's voice calling to her from what seemed like a long ways off.
"Twilight!" it said, "Twilight! Can you hear me? Are you badly hurt?"
"No... I'm fine. It's fine," she said, not sure how loud she was talking. As her vision began to clear she noticed her surroundings. She was facing away from the path, and had gotten wedged at an odd angle between the ground and a tree about half way down the incline. It was lucky that she had been stopped when she did, because the slope turned into a sheer drop not too much farther along. She also noticed the trickle of blood running down the side of her head. She felt for an injury, and twitched as her hoof found the cut.
"Zecora?" she called, "Something cut me on the way down, but it's not too bad! If we get it looked at soon I should be fine!"
"Alright Twilight! Remain calm! I will return before too long!"
Twilight heard the sound of Zecora galloping away, then it was silent.
As Twilight lay there, she started feeling light headed. The bleeding had slowed, but hadn't stopped, and she attributed it to that at first, but then the nausea started. It felt like her stomach was twisting around inside her body. Being so compacted probably wasn't helping. She had tried to readjust herself, but when she did she started slipping and had to quickly grab onto the tree trunk to stop herself. Since then she hadn't moved.
Soon the nausea became too much, and she couldn't resist it any more. She retched loudly as her stomach spasmed. She was grateful that she hadn't bothered to have anything other than Zecora's tea that morning. A few minutes later she was grateful again.
As time passed the situation worsened. Twilight was exhausted from her body's constant attempts to vomit, and she had broken out in a cold sweat. An unpleasant pressure had started building in the back of her head that pulsed along with the beat of her heart. It had spread since then to include her left temple and an intolerable spot just above her right eye. The moon had already started rising before she heard a sound from behind her.
"Zecora..." she called weakly, craning her head back, "what took you so long?" in the awkward position, Twilight could only see the path out of the corner of her eye. She thought she saw Zecora's pale white stripes in the moonlight, but a moment later they moved out of view, "Zecora? Where are you going? I feel sick. Really sick. I think something's wrong," there was no response.
"Zecora!" Twilight shouted, frustration momentarily overpowering her malaise. Her head began pounding at the exertion, which in turn caused her nausea to intensify. She curled around the tree as she retched yet again. It was a full ten minutes before Zecora said something.
"Twilight!" she called, as she reappeared on the edge of the path, holding a length of rope in her mouth.
"Where did you go?" asked Twilight, no longer feeling strong enough to be angry.
"I returned to my home to retrieve this rope. Do you not remember the words I spoke?"
"No, I mean just now. Why did you just walk off like that?"
"Are you feeling well?" Zecora asked suspiciously, "I have only just returned."
"But... I thought I saw-" Twilight swallowed hard as she felt her stomach lurch. This was horrible, "No. I don't feel well. Please pull me up," she quickly said, giving up on trying to explain herself. A few seconds later a rope landed next to her. She grabbed on to it with her teeth, and after some difficulty on her part, once again found herself on the trail.
"Twilight, what is wrong?" Zecora asked in alarm upon seeing her close up. She was horribly pale, not to mention the fact that half of her head was caked in a mixture of blood and dirt.
"I don't know," she replied, "I started feeling sick a little while after you left and... it's only gotten worse since then. I need to get home."
"No no, I will not allow you to travel through the forest in this condition. Not by yourself," Zecora said, quickly reaching over and allowing Twilight to lean on her front leg, "you may stay at my home tonight. I may have medicine that will help," Twilight nodded and accepted Zecora's leg without a word. She just wanted to get away from this place as quickly as possible.
A short while later the door to Zecora's tree swung open. Twilight hobbled in and quickly started undoing the straps on her saddlebags. She needed to lie down. Zecora came over and helped her.
"It is miraculous that the straps did not break during your fall," she said, lifting the heave bags of Twilight's back, "It would have been disastrous if-"
Suddenly Zecora jumped back, quickly dropping the saddlebags on the floor, "Jua na mwezi kulinda mimi!" she yelled, "Pepo wabaya fujo si hii nyumbani!"
"What?" said Twilight in concern, turning to look at what had caused Zecora such panic. Covering her side was a large yellow stain that had previously been hidden.
"It is the scari berry! Quickly Twilight, lay down on the floor. Do not move. I shall bring you something to drink." Zecora carefully picked up Twilight's saddle bag and threw it into the fire pit, where it began to smolder.
"What? Why? What's going on?" asked Twilight.
"No questions!" Ordered Zecora, pointing to the spot she told Twilight to lay down. Twilight had never seen her like this before. As she sat down she started to feel anxious.
"So... what exactly do the berries do? Other than what the story says?"
"It is a poison," Zecora said, grabbing a jar of something off the shelf and pouring it into a cup. She walked over to Twilight and held it out to her, "drink this."
"Poison?" Twilight whimpered as she took the cup and looked inside. It was full of a thick black liquid, "Is this an antidote?" she asked.
"It will slow the poison, now drink!"
Twilight raised the cup and squeezed her eyes shut as she poured the substance into her mouth. It was surprisingly tasteless, but it burned and had a horrible texture, like liquid chalk. She was barely able to swallow one mouthful of it before gagging. As she coughed and sputtered, Zecora raised the cup to her mouth again and gave her a stern look. Twilight cringed as she forced herself finish off the glass. Zecora stood up, taking the cup from her, and walked away, coming back a moment later with the cup refilled.
"Oh no, please," Twilight pleaded, "no more."
"Lay on your side," said Zecora. Twilight obeyed, confusion and fear causing tears to come to her eyes. Holding the glass out in front of her, Zecora overturned it, pouring its contents over the large yellow stain on Twilights fur, "Now, how are you feeling?" she asked, feeling Twilight's forehead and neck.
"I don't know," Twilight responded, "My stomach hurts less, but I'm cold, and my head..." A feeling of doom suddenly weighed down on Twilight. She grabbed her head as tears started flowing down her blood stained face, "Am I going to die Zecora?" she asked desperately.
Zecora's expression suddenly changed from that of stern efficiency to one of compassion, "Calm yourself Twilight," she said softly. She stood up once again. She didn't return for several minutes, but when she did she was carrying a new cup filled with what Twilght recognized as her favorite tea, "One last drink," she said, discreetly pouring a strange powder into the glass before handing it to Twilight, "to ease the pain."
"Thank you," sobbed Twilight, accepting the tea. She drank it quickly, then rested her head on the floor. Soon she started feeling numb, and her vision began to darken. The last thing she saw were the flickering flames of the fire pit.
Twilight woke up late the next day. She looked around confusedly, trying to figure out where she was. To her right was a small window that was open to the outside. It was bright, and a soft wind was blowing. She looked to her left, and realized that something was blocking her view. Reaching up with a hoof, Twilight discovered a soft patch of cloth had been fastened over her eye. She rolled to her side, and saw that she was still in Zecora's tree, in Zecora's bed. Zecora was asleep on the floor next to the fire pit.
Twilight pushed herself up. As the blanket fell off of her she saw that a large bandage was wrapped around her torso as well. The events of last night seemed like a dream. As quietly as she could, she slid out of bed. As she tried to take a step forward her legs suddenly collapsed underneath her however. She tried to grab a shelf to stabilize herself, but her hoof caught on a flower vase, pulling it the the ground along with her with a crash. Zecora's head shot up at the noise.
"Twilight! You should be resting!" she exclaimed as Twilight shakily attempted to get to her feet.
"I'm sorry," said Twilight. For some reason her legs wouldn't work right, "What happened last night? Why can't I walk?"
"You've been sedated. You were under a great deal of stress, so I gave you something to help you rest."
"The...the poison," said Twilight, the memories slowly coming back to her, "what happened? Am I going to be alright?"
Zecora looked at Twilight's side. Her expression became quite grim, "You're bandage is in need of changing. Please, sit down. We must talk."
Zecora helped Twilight back to the bed, then began to unwrap the bandage. A thick cloth was held in place underneath it, soaked in the same black substance Twilight remembered from the previous night. Zecora carefully peeled it away from Twilight's side and threw it into the fire.
"Is that really necessary?" Twilight asked.
"I will take no chances," Zecora replied. She sighed as she walked over to a drawer and pulled out an old blanket. She tore a large section of it off and dipped it into a tub in her sink. It came out black. After ringing it out she walked back over to twilight and carefully placed it on her side.
"What's wrong Zecora?" asked Twilight, feeling as concerned about her downcast friend as she was for herself.
"Although it's progress I can slow, for the juice of the scari berry, there is no cure I know," she finally answered, securing the bandage around Twilight's torso again.
"Oh..." said Twilight, not sure what to think. Suddenly she caught some movement out of the corner of her eye again. She spun around just in time to see something disappear past the edge of the window, "What was that?" she yelled, suddenly feeling scared. She looked back at Zecora, who was simply standing there, looking sad, "Didn't you see it?" she asked nervously, "There's... something out there!"
"Listen to me Twilight. The poison of the scari berry is not like a normal poison. It doesn't affect one's body, so much as it affects their mind."
"It causes them to become paranoid. They begin to mistrust their friends, feel like they are being watched and see things that aren't there. Nothing passed by my window Twilight Sparkle."
"But I saw it! Something big and white. It can't have been my imagination."
"Look again," Twilight turned toward the window. Nothing was there this time, but that didn't mean something wasn't before. She had seen the same thing the other day before any of this had even happened after all! As Twilight continued to rationalize to herself, a light breeze blew by. The branches of the trees outside moved slightly, and a thin beam of white light appeared, then vanished just as quickly as the branches moved back into place. Twilight blushed with embarrassment as she turned back toward Zecora.
"Well... anypony could have mistaken that out of the corner of their eye," she said, but Zecora only shook her head.
"I am sorry Twilight. I do not know what hold the scari berry has on you, but I know that it will only get worse from here."
Twilight couldn't believe what she was hearing. There must be some answer. Something she could do! "Well, if it's a poison then I'll be able to work it out of my system eventually right? It can't last forever can it?"
"I suppose what you say could be true, but nopony has made it more than a day or two."
"Well, I'm not just anypony!" Twilight said, refusing to accept her fate, "I've read more books about psychology than any other pony I know. I'm sure I'll last longer than that. I'm sure I'll be fine. I'm... sure of it."
"If you say you can... then I shall not doubt you," Zecora finally replied, "but please take my advice. Let those you care for know what has occurred as soon as you can. If anything is to happen, they may be the only ones who can help you."
"Don't worry Zecora. I will. I know the strength that comes from friends."
"Good," Zecora nodded, "Now please, lay down. I have some work to attend to, and you need rest." Twilight happily complied. As Zecora exited the tree and closed the door behind her, she softly said, "Sleep well Twilight Sparkle," but Twilight didn't hear. She was already asleep.
It was the last restful sleep she would have for a long time.
It wasn't until that evening Twilight woke up again. The sun was beginning to set, and rays of orange light were streaming through the forest. Zecora was on the far side of the room, watering a small potted plant. She turned around when she heard Twilight getting out of bed.
"Did you sleep well, Twilight Sparkle?"
"Yes," she replied, "Thank you for taking such good care of me."
"It was no trouble Twilight, honestly. Now, I have something for you, please come with me."
Twilight followed Zecora out of the front door of her house. As she exited the tree, she saw her attaching a harness to the totem pole she had been carving in her back yard. Since then she had smoothed out some of the carvings and applied a layer of varnish to it, causing the orange light to hit the black surface in a way that made it look like it was burning. The strange upside-down pony was still as rough as ever though.
"What's this?" asked Twilight, walking around the totem.
"It is a gift. A charm that is said to ward off evil spirits. I do not know if it will help, but I would like you to have it nonetheless."
Twilight wasn't one to believe in evil spirits, but she knew better than to refuse such a considerate gift, "Thank you" she said as she hefted it onto her back. It was surprisingly heavy.
"Place it by your door as soon as you arrive home. I wish you a safe trip Twilight, and good fortune over the next few days."
Twilight smiled appreciatively and waved as she began walking back to Ponyville. She was feeling a bit rushed. It was a long trip after all, and she was already feeling a little nervous. It would probably be best if she was able to get out of the forest before dark. Zecora waved back before silently walking inside and closing the door.
As soon as Zecora was out of sight, Twilight shivered. The familiar feeling of being secretly watched started to creep up on her. She tried to ignore it. Soon I'll be home, she thought to herself, then everything will be fine, she quickly walked along the path, shifting the weight of the totem pole as she did so. It wasn't very comfortable.
As the sun became no more than a red sliver in the distance, she started worrying. It felt like she should have been out of the forest by now, but the gnarled trees of Everfree still loomed all around her. Everything was fine though. The fact that she had slept the entire day was probably just throwing off her sense of time. As she looked around to try and find a landmark in order to orient herself, she saw something dart between two trees. She immediately snapped her head forward, not wanting to know what it was. There was another movement out of the corner of her eye, but she bit her lip and continued to look straight ahead, increasing her pace by a small amount.
A short while later Twilight let out a whimper as the sun finally disappeared from view and darkness started filling the forest. She was sure that she should have been out of the forest by now. She stopped for a moment, shifting the weight of the totem pole again as she looked around. The path had split a few times, but she had always turned the right way... hadn't she? Of course she had. She would just keep going the way she was going, and eventually she would exit the forest near Fluttershy's house, safe and sound, just as planned.
Suddenly a twig snapped and Twilight jumped. She had to keep moving. A few seconds later a bush rustled and she jumped again, Stop it Twilight!, she told herself, There's nothing there. You're being ridiculous! Despite her efforts she jumped again as she heard another noise. Her heart started to beat harder. She wanted to go home. With this thought in mind she increased her speed to a canter. Even though moving faster caused the Totem pole to rub against her even more uncomfortably, it wasn't until she came to another fork in the road that she finally slowed down. It was at this moment while pausing and trying to remember where to go that she heard the unmistakable sound of hooves on the trail behind her.
Twilight froze, her ears immediately flipping up and rotating back. She was hoping that if she stopped to listen then the sound would fade away, but it didn't. The subtle scratching of keratin on the hard dirt was unmistakable as it moved ever closer.
"It's not real," Twilight whispered, "It's just my imagination," mustering up her courage, Twilight loudly cleared her throat, "Can I help you?" she called authoritatively. There was no response. The soft scratching sound continued. Twilight's pupils dilated as her body reflexively injected a dose of adrenalin into her system. She slowly began to turn around; one last desperate attempt to prove to herself that there was nothing there. That it was all just a cruel trick her mind was playing on her.
As Twilight turned she saw it. It was too dark to tell what it was. Black on black, just the outline of something looming over her, but it was enough. Twilight lost it. She screamed in genuine terror as she bolted down the path. She didn't know which way she had turned. She only knew that she was scared, and had to get away. As she ran the shadows seemed to reach toward her. Every stray branch was a twisted arm attempting to pull her into the dark. Every star peeking through the trees an eye tracking her. In her panic Twilight almost didn't notice the flickering of a fire off in the distance, but when she did it was all that mattered. A fire meant that somepony was there. That somepony could help her.
No longer caring about getting out of the forest, so much as simply getting away, Twilight jumped off the path, charging directly through the thick trees in an attempt to reach the light. She tripped over a fallen limb, twisting her ankle. She briefly cried out as a jolt of pain shot up her leg, but she didn't slow down. She was almost there. As she got closer to the light, Twilight saw that the trees opened up. Through them she could see a small wooden fence. The fence around Fluttershy's house. Tears of joy began filling her eyes at the sight. She dove between two trees, and was finally out. The relief of escaping the Everfree Forest had barely begun to form however, when something grabbed her mid-jump. She was disoriented as she came to a dead stop in the air, spinning around and falling to the ground on top of the totem.
"No!" she exclaimed, breathing heavily. Her unbandaged eye seemed to bounce around in her skull as she looked every which way for the attacker, but none could be found. She awkwardly scrambled to her feet, and for a moment she just stood there, shaking. Nothing happened. As she finally started calming down, she noticed that one of the trees on the edge of the forest was missing a chuck of its bark.
A thought occurred to her, and she quickly took off the harness holding the totem pole. Near the bottom of the pole, overlapping the front half of the strange pony was a large splintered area. Nothing had grabbed her when she jumped out of the forest. Her eye patch had just prevented her from seeing how close to the tree she actually was. When she had jumped the totem pole must have hit it.
As Twilight stood there, looking at the damaged gift, she started wondering if she had really seen anything following her in the forest. She had felt as certain about something grabbing her as she had about being followed. As she thought back on it she just... didn't know. Twilight wasn't sure why, perhaps it was just the adrenalin wearing off and her finally realizing how much pain she was in (not only had she twisted her ankle badly, but falling on the totem pole had left a large bruise on her back), or if it was simply the insecurity she felt from not knowing if she could trust what she saw, but suddenly she felt very tired. Twilight quietly fell to her knees and began to cry.
Between gasping sobs and desperately trying to catch her breath, Twilight didn't hear the pony approaching from behind. It wasn't until she felt a hoof touch her shoulder lightly that she realized somepony was there.
"Stay away!" she yelled, spinning around, the pony yelped and jumped back before Twilight realized who it was. As she turned a wave of pain spread through her back, and she wasn't able to hold herself up. She stumbled slightly, cringing as she waited for the soreness to subside, "I'm... sorry Fluttershy," she muttered between gritted teeth, "I didn't know it was you."
"Who did you think it was?" responded Fluttershy in an alarmed tone, her eyes stopping momentarily on Twilight's various visible injuries. Twilight was scared, exhausted, and in pain. She didn't want to explain the whole situation to Fluttershy. She just wanted to go home.
"Will you help me to the library?" she asked. Fluttershy was still wide-eyed and confused, but she nodded slightly and walked over to help.
"Thank you," Twilight said in relief as they walked toward Flutershy's cottage, "if you could grab that totem pole for me, I think I should be fine."
"What totem pole?" Fluttershy began to ask, and then suddenly stopped as she turned to face it. As soon as she saw it she took a step back.
"What's wrong?" asked Twilight.
"On second thought... Maybe I should stay here. I'm sure you can make it on your own. It's not... too far after all."
"Wait, what?" demanded Twilight as Fluttershy quickly began heading toward her door, "Fluttershy! I'm hurt! I need your help! Come back!"
"I'm sorry!" she squeaked as she entered her cottage, "I'm sorry! Just, please take that thing away from here."
"Fluttershy... please...." Twilight heard several more sorries from her friend as she closed the door. A few seconds later the lights inside went out. How could she just leave her out in the dark like this? That wasn't like Fluttershy at all. Or, perhaps it was....
As Twilight looked back at the forest and remembered what had just happened, a thought occurred to her. Maybe whatever the scari berry was doing to her had made this whole event seem worse than it was. Maybe she was letting the paranoia get to her. That was probably it. Twilight waited a few more minutes, hoping that the lights inside would come back on, but they didn't. Eventually she limped over to the totem pole, feeling slightly betrayed, but trying to ignore it, and grabbed one of the harness ropes in her mouth. She dragged it along behind her as she slowly made her way through the dark streets of Ponyville, alone.
To be continued...