==by Present Perfect
Gouts of flame shot over Twilight's head, singeing her mane, as she led her friends in a mad charge towards the clearing. All around them, trees caught fire -- the very thing they'd been trying to prevent -- as errant flames scorched through the Everfree Forest. Ahead, where the closeness of the forest eased, was the place she'd chosen to spring their trap.
"Almost there, almost there..."
"Look out, Twilight!" Applejack rammed into her from the side, nearly bowling her into Rarity, then ducked back the way she had come a breath before a flame jet shot between them.
Twilight checked their position. The lizard, three times the size of a pony but no less nimble, was nearing the drop point and readying more flame. Its fire wasn't nearly as grandiose as what a full-grown dragon could produce, but it could still burn a pony to a crisp. What they lacked in power, salamanders more than made up for with deadly accuracy.
"Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, NOW!"
There was a great splashing from above as the two pegasi pulled the ropes that held the contraption Pinkie Pie had rigged up. The beast hissed in agony as the water fell steaming onto it, its red and black mottled skin boiling and the flames that adorned its crest and tail extinguishing beneath the torrent.
Twilight had a sudden flashback to her school days: a colt pouring salt onto a slug, to watch it writhe and bubble. She'd gotten a detention for giving him a black eye, but she'd felt justified; he'd deserved it for his cruelty. Against the salamander, such cruelty seemed warranted; slugs weren't known for burning down forests, after all. Besides, the water wouldn't kill the beast, just paralyze it so they could send it packing.
The two unicorns combined their magic, directing it at the water. Together, they formed it into a sphere, with the salamander held immobile at the center.
"Hurray, it worked!" Pinkie Pie cheered. "Now use the rope, Applejack!"
"Already on it!" The farm pony twirled her best lasso, looping it deftly around the salamander despite the added resistance the water provided. She tossed the end upward, where Rainbow Dash caught it. Fluttershy moved into position across from her and caught a second lasso, after nearly fumbling it. The two pegasi twisted back and forth, knotting their ropes around one another, until the beast was properly trussed up within the bubble.
"Now it's up to you gals to get him into the river! We'll be supportin' y'all from here."
Applejack took over directing the plan, so that Twilight could keep up her concentration on the spell, and all six galloped for the Poninoco River, which flowed through the Everfree Forest. As their target grew closer, Rarity began panting heavily.
"It's no use, Twilight... I'm not as strong as you... I can't hold it any longer!" The water sphere rippled and swayed ominously.
"Just a little more, Rarity, we're almost there!"
"Twilight, I can't...!"
Rarity's hold on the spell broke, though Twilight was able to make up the slack. But with every ounce of mystical might in her body spent maintaining the spell, at the expense of all else, she was unable to watch where she was going. A rock caught her, tripping her up, and she sprawled on her face in the dirt. The bubble broke and the salamander began to struggle against the ropes holding it, dragging the two pegasi along through the air.
"Rainbow Dash, help!"
"Fluttershy, let go!"
"I can't! I'm stuck!"
They had only just made it to the river, and there was enough inertia to actually send the salamander into it, but the rope had somehow snagged on Fluttershy's leg. Try as they might, neither she nor Rainbow Dash could do anything to set her free as the salamander was swallowed by the churning waters, dragging Fluttershy along with it.
"Help!" She flailed and sputtered, barely able to keep her head above water.
"I'm comin', Fluttershy!"
The other four looked on in horror as the swift current drew their friend and the lizard towards an enormous thundering waterfall. Rainbow Dash could never be outmatched in speed by a simple river, but despite her best efforts, the two were still tied together, and the weight of both the pegasus and the giant reptile was too much for her to carry out of the water. Twilight summoned up her magic, but her horn only shot sparks; the effort of getting the salamander there had drained her strength completely. Groaning with effort, Rainbow Dash watched helplessly as Fluttershy's hoof slipped out of her grasp, and she plunged screaming into the mist.
The other four galloped to the edge, looking down into an enormous, yawning chasm. There was no bottom in sight. The waterfall roared against their ears as it crashed over the myriad of jagged rocks which sprouted from it. Rainbow Dash, her eyes brimming with tears, settled next to them, and gazed after her friend.
"I couldn't... She didn't..."
"Shh, Rainbow," said Applejack quietly. She took off her hat and placed it solemnly over her chest.
"She can't be gone," said Rarity. "She just can't!"
"We can go get her, right?" asked Pinkie Pie. "Maybe... maybe she survived."
Rarity shook her head. "Pinkie Pie, look..." She pointed to a rock with an unmistakable red smear on it; in the center was a single yellow feather. Rainbow Dash swooped down and grabbed it. Unable to contain herself anymore, she sobbed freely as she brought it back to her friends.
Twilight scanned back along the riverbank. If she had washed up anywhere, surely they would see her. Over the falls, there was nothing but infinitely gaping void. Even if there were a bottom... She began to dry sob, her breath catching in her chest as she tried to blink away tears.
Heads lowered, they gazed at the feather, disbelieving. Then, as one, they turned, and made their way solemnly out of the Everfree Forest.
Fluttershy rose slowly up from behind the waterfall. The last thing she remembered was being in the water, though the way she had managed to escape eluded her. Those thoughts were replaced by confusion, which quickly gave way to panic as she saw her friends walk slowly out of the forest.
"Wait!" She held up a hoof, drifting forward, but so much more slowly than they were leaving her. "Wait, everypony! Where are you going? I'm right here! Twilight? Rainbow Dash! Pinkie Pie... Don't leave me..."
Try as she might, her voice did not seem to reach her friends. Was she being too quiet again? Her heart leapt into her throat as they slowly abandoned her; how could they have forgotten about her so quickly? It was then that her surroundings caught her attention.
"Why is everything so dark?"
Where before, weak daylight had filtered through the forbiddingly ominous trees, the forest had now plunged into darkness. An eerie, oppressive mass of leaves and trunks blended together into one solid, uniform blackness. No light shone from above, yet there was an odd reddish glow in the distance. There was no sound of birds or animals; she couldn't even hear the rushing river. Like everything else around her, it had stopped, not to mention, it looked to be made of tar, and bubbled viscously beneath her. She shivered.
"I'm so cold..." A thousand thoughts raced through her head. Her friends couldn't hear her. The forest was not dark, but black, a state no nighttime had ever brought about. Nothing seemed to be moving, or living, or...
"Am I... dead?"
"Not yet, missy," said an oily voice behind her. She turned to see a black, formless blob oozing up out of the muck of the river.
"But soon shalt thou be..."
A bell tolled low in the distance ten times as a cloud of multicolored butterflies floated up above Ponyville, in memory of the fallen. The citizens of Ponyville had gathered in the town square to hear the words of remembrance, and that was what Twilight found moving above all else. Fluttershy hadn't been a gregarious pony -- she hadn't had any real friends besides Twilight and the other four -- but a loss of one of their own meant a loss for everypony in town, and the closeness of their small community touched Twilight like nothing before.
"Fluttershy was my bestest friend in the whole wide world! There's never gonna be anypony who could ever replace her."
"She was the darn kindest pony I ever did know. If I coulda traded places her, I woulda done it in a heartbeat."
"She was the most gentle of souls... We are all of us poorer for her passing. Life without her will never be the same."
"All I know is that I'll never be as brave as she was. She was really the truest friend a pony could ask for."
Twilight found she couldn't say anything, and just let the tears run down her cheeks until Applejack mercifully nudged her off the platform. The Mayor said a few words about Fluttershy's noble sacrifice to save Ponyville and the Everfree Forest, and then everypony bowed their heads in a moment of silence. Like all things, it passed, and they all returned to their storefronts and houses, sadder for the moment, but ready to return to their lives.
Twilight and her friends trudged to Fluttershy's cottage, bereft of that luxury. The emptiness of the grand tree house pervaded the little wooded knoll it stood upon. An interminable loneliness hung in the air despite the multitudes of birds, squirrels, rabbits and even deer gathered there, wondering where their caretaker had gone to at the hour when she ought to be feeding them. They scattered before the approach of the strange ponies, and watched from afar, frightened yet unwilling to abandon the area, as the five planted a small apple tree sapling in front of the cottage.
Applejack had picked out it herself. Fluttershy had always liked trees, after all, and the apples would provide something for the animals to eat. Rarity had found a large topaz, of the finest quality she could manage and as close to the hue of Fluttershy's coat as possible, to place as a marker at the roots of the tree. She and Twilight had magically etched Fluttershy's name into the largest facet. It would grow into the tree as time passed.
Their work done, they stood around the memorial in the cool evening air, numb and motionless, until Pinkie Pie broke the silence at long last, her eyes downcast.
"Everypony, I think we should all get together at Sugarcube Corner and have something to eat. I'd call it a party, but parties are supposed to be for happy times..."
Twilight found her voice at long last. "It's a wake, Pinkie. And I think it's a great idea."
Silent once more, they shuffled through the still town to Pinkie's room above the sweet shop, where they settled in with some drinks and snacks. Then, without any prompting, they began telling stories about Fluttershy, one by one. As the night wore on, their spirits lifted, even if their eyes couldn't stay dry. The wake turned into an impromptu sleepover, and in each other's company they found solace.
Fluttershy watched all this from the twilit world. Aside from her friends, everything in the room, the shop, and in all of Ponyville was completely black. No lights shone anywhere in the town and the buildings twisted into hideous spirals, their jagged roofs reaching up towards the night-blue sky like skeletal hands, grasping. Even her colorful friends appeared washed-out to her, as though she were viewing the scene through thick smoked glass.
"I had no idea they felt that way about me," she said, feeling her voice catch. "I just wish I could let them know that I'm still with them."
The dark shape beside her responded not so much by speaking as by filling the surrounding air with its voice. "Nae, missy, too late for thou 'tis. Thy friends shall move on from this point. Without thee now must they live, and carry onward as they wilt. Thou canst be no more with them. Dost thou understand?"
Fluttershy swallowed. There was an aching inside of her that felt like it could never be filled. "Acheron, why did you bring me here? I feel so sad now... I don't want to think about my friends living without me."
"Forgive me, missy, but 'tis mine duty. To pluck thee from th'ether, as it were; to show thee thine own funereal arrangements; to show thee how thy loved ones fare without thee. Dost thou grasp the depths of the hole which in thy passing is left in their lives?"
"...Yes." She looked up at the black thing that had been leading her about this land of midnight since she had arrived. It had scared her at first, but she was almost beginning to think of it as a friend. It was certainly the only creature that could hear her anymore, and it hadn't done anything bad to her. "At least I know they'll be happy without me. That was very nice of you to do, I suppose. Thank you, Acheron."
"'Twas but mine own pleasure, missy."
For the first time since she had met it, the black shape moved. Two red eyes and a long, thin mouth, filled with sharp white teeth opened along its front.
"And now that thy spirit be filled with memories and regrets, sorrows and wishes, the most delicious bouquet which truly doth exist, 'tis mine duty to feed."
The aching became a throbbing. Acheron's mouth opened, and the throbbing became a pull, leading into its gaping, abyssal maw.
"Rainbow Dash... Rainbow!"
Applejack was once again standing beneath Rainbow Dash's cloud house, calling out her name for the third morning in a row since the funeral. She wasn't really expecting there to be any response this time, either.
"Rainbow Dash, at least come out so I can see your face! So I know you're all right...?" she added, more gently.
"Go away." The admonishment was barely audible. There was otherwise no movement or acknowledgement from the cloud house. Applejack stomped her hoof and spoke up.
"Now you listen here, Rainbow Dash! Sweet Apple Acres ain't had rain for near a week now, and I can't get through to the weather patrol because somepony ain't come outta her house for days on end!"
"Go ask Cloud Kicker, or Lightning Bolt, or somepony else, I don't care. Just leave me alone!"
Applejack stomped again. "I will not! It's high time you stopped mopin' and came down here to join the rest of us! Yer friends are plumb worried about you!"
"How can I?" The door slammed open; despite being made of clouds, it was rather noisy. Rainbow Dash stepped out, her eyes puffy and red. "How can I even think about pushing clouds around when I let her down?" She punctuated each word with a thump against her chest. "I'm the reason she's gone, and I can't... I just..." She sank down on the edge of her cloud, her legs unwilling to support her anymore.
The anger faded from Applejack's face as her friend spoke. She made sure to keep her tone soft. "Rainbow Dash, d'you think she would wanna see you cryin' your eyes out all day and shirkin' your work? Y'ain't alone, Rainbow, we're all hurtin' still..."
The pegasus said nothing for a few moments, before taking in a deep breath and floating down off the cloud, drooping.
"You're right, Applejack," she mumbled. "I shouldn't act like I'm the only one who's affected..."
"Come spend some time with your friends, sugarcube. We all miss you, and it's better'n bein' alone. All right?" She nuzzled Rainbow Dash affectionately. "Now about that rain..."
Neither had a chance to say anything as Twilight galloped up to them, completely out of breath.
"Twi, what's goin' on?"
"I need to get everyone together in a hurry!" A scroll levitated out of her saddlebag and waved enigmatically around her head. "I just got this; it's about Fluttershy!"
Applejack and Rainbow Dash exchanged a look.
"I'll get Pinkie Pie!"
"Meet you at Rarity's!"
They gathered together at the boutique, all eyes on Twilight as she smoothed out the scroll and read it aloud.
"There is something wrong with your friend Fluttershy: I contacted her spirit; I do not know why. This you must see with your very own eyes. Hurry now to my hut, you're in for a surprise!"
"I like surprises," Pinkie Pie said without much enthusiasm. "I wonder what it could be."
"Yeah, what in tarnation's all that double-talkin' mean?"
"Zecora contacted Fluttershy's spirit from beyond the grave," Twilight said. "I guess there's something strange going on, and she wants us to meet at her hut."
"What's strange about that?" Rainbow Dash prodded the letter with her hoof. "She's dead!" At the sudden tension in the air, Rainbow lowered her voice. "Of course a weirdo like Zecora could contact her spirit..."
"We ought to go," Rarity interrupted. "Perhaps we could hold a séance and... find some closure."
"Rarity's right," Twilight said. "If I could just talk to Fluttershy one more time..."
Her friends nodded sullenly.
"Let's not waste any time!"
Galloping back into the Everfree Forest, Twilight couldn't help but think about the last time they had been there. It should have been such a simple task. It should have been a reason for them to celebrate their hard work. They should have been laughing at just how close they came to... If only things had been different; if only she'd had a better plan, or a contingency plan; if the execution had just been a little better, if she'd been stronger, if, if...
Pull yourself together, Twilight; this is no time for self-recrimination. She still couldn't keep her eyes dry as they took the long path to Zecora's cottage, meeting her at the door and filing in.
"Thank you all, for so quickly getting here. Our time is running short, I fear."
Twilight nodded. "Tell us, Zecora, what's going on?"
"First, there is something that you must tell: Fluttershy, is she no longer well?"
None of them could meet her gaze for a silent moment. Rarity spoke first.
"We... lost her, just a few days ago. In the river, trying to stop a salamander."
The zebra shivered, closed her eyes, and mumbled something in her native language. "Now at last, this all becomes clear... But she is not dead, my friends; she is near."
There was a collective gasp. "Not dead?"
"Zecora, you mean she's still alive?"
The zebra made a gesture none of them understood. "There is a world, neither living nor dead, where errant souls become lost, it is said. Something has parted her body and soul; unless brought together, she cannot be whole. The realm of the shadows is filled with dark beasts; such a spirit as hers would make quite a feast."
"So she's not really dead? She's just trapped in some shadow world?" Rainbow Dash jumped into the air. "Let's go there and get her back!"
Twilight held up a hoof. "Something tells me it won't be that easy, Rainbow Dash. Zecora, what can we do?"
"First, we join hooves, gather 'round, and sit. Then we commune with the spirits a bit."
They did so, snuffing out all the candles in the room save the one in the center of Zecora's large wooden table. Joining hooves, they formed a circle around it and closed their eyes. Zecora began chanting rhythmically in her own language. They could all feel the room growing steadily darker and colder as the candle flame flickered and shrank. Then, as Zecora's chanting grew in intensity, the flame suddenly shot upward and vanished. In its wake was left a filmy, transparent image of Fluttershy's head.
Rainbow Dash was the first to open her eyes. "It's Fluttershy!"
Twilight glanced at the zebra. "I can't make out what she's saying... Zecora?"
Zecora squeezed her eyes shut, chanting louder, and after a few moments, the image solidified.
"Twilight? Rainbow Dash?"
"Fluttershy, you're all right!"
"Twilight, I'm so scared. What's going on?"
"We're contacting you in the spirit realm, or... something like it."
Fluttershy considered that for a moment. "Is that what this place is? All I know is, I woke up here and none of you could see me or hear me. I'm surrounded by shadows and strange creatures that are trying to eat me!" Tears formed in the corners of her eyes.
Twilight leaned forward. "Fluttershy, we're going to do everything we can to get you back home safely, okay?"
Rarity smiled, blinking back tears. "Yes, Fluttershy, we've all missed you terribly!"
Pinkie bounced in her seat. "We thought we were never gonna see you again!"
Applejack swallowed. "Uh, gals? We may wanna hurry things up a bit..."
The image jerked and they could see Fluttershy's entire body. Clawed hands swung at her from out of the darkness and she screamed.
"They've found me again! Help!"
Twilight gave the zebra a panicked look. "Zecora?!"
"Lend me your powers, you unicorns! I'll channel the magic that flows from your horns!"
Twilight glanced at Rarity, who nodded, a determined look on her face. They linked hooves directly with Zecora, then closed their eyes, concentrating. She felt the magic being pulled from her horn by an outside force; it was unnerving, almost parasitic, but she kept up her concentration on providing a steady flow of magical energy. Fluttershy was screaming, her voice becoming less distinct by the second. Twilight tensed; she was sweating with exertion. Suddenly Zecora cried out, and the room went dark.
The image of her friends faded from view as Fluttershy ran from the shapes chasing her, and with it any hope that had sprung into her heart. She was just so tired. She'd been eluding them for the last... how many days had it been? Three? Five? More? Each time she'd managed to escape, it gave her the drive to continue running; so far that had been the only thing keeping her going. With her friends so close now, she was unwilling to give up. It was just getting harder and harder to run for long stretches of time, even if she hadn't had to stop to eat or sleep at all.
The clearing she was in dead-ended in darkness and she swung back around, narrowly avoiding an inky tendril as it swiped scythe-like past her. She couldn't tell just how many things comprised the blob that had been so relentlessly pursuing her. Acheron was part of it, that much she knew; but there were definitely more creatures like him within the mass, all of them hungry.
As she doubled back towards the spot where her friends had first contacted her, their image reappeared: flat and hovering in midair. Zecora was shouting something. The arms were getting closer. She felt a tug coming from the image, and suddenly Zecora's words rang out clearly inside her head, though she couldn't understand them. She looked back at the black blob; it had nearly caught up to her. Breathing hard, she did the only thing she could think of and followed the pull into the image.
Everything went black.
"Fluttershy? Zecora! Is everypony all right?" Twilight stumbled to her hooves, banging into a chair as she did so. "Ow!"
"T-Twilight?" It was Fluttershy's voice, now clear and in the room.
"Fluttershy, oh my gosh, is that you?"
There was a cry from both Rainbow Dash and Applejack. "Agh! Would somepony turn on a light? I cain't see a danged thing!"
Rarity produced a soft glow from her horn. "Is that better? Where's Fluttershy?"
"She's inside Zecora!"
Twilight looked at Pinkie Pie, who was pointing at Zecora and gasping. The zebra lay in a heap on the opposite side of the table from her, looking at her hooves with a bewildered expression.
"What's going on?" Though it was Zecora's mouth moving, the voice was unmistakably Fluttershy's.
Twilight swallowed. "Spiritual possession... I've only ever read about it before, never seen it..."
Rainbow Dash swooped in and hugged the zebra tightly. "Fluttershy! We got you out, all right!" She wiped at her eyes. "I'm so happy to see you again!"
Twilight shook her head. "I wouldn't celebrate just yet, Rainbow Dash. She's here with us, but not in her own body. What do we do now?"
They all looked at each other for a minute.
"We need Zecora to help us," Applejack said.
"Ooh, ooh, I know!" Pinkie Pie suddenly sprang to life. "Since Fluttershy needs a body, and right now she's inside Zecora's body, then she can use my body instead and that way we can have Zecora back!"
"Your body, Pinkie Pie?"
"Yeah, silly!" Her exuberance waned a fraction, and she looked down at her hooves. "When Fluttershy died, I got so sad, I just didn't know what to do with myself. But now that she's back..." She perked up slightly. "Well, mostly back anyway, that means it's time for a party! And so she can possess my body, and I'll throw her an imaginary party in my head!"
"Umm, Pinkie Pie," said Fluttershy, "I'm not sure how to do that."
"It's easy!" The pink pony trotted over, bent down, and headbutted her. Zecora's eyes spun and they both keeled over.
Pinkie staggered to her hooves, blinked a few times, looked around at them, and then lowered her head bashfully.
"Okay, I'm freakin' out now," Rainbow Dash said, swallowing. "Somepony tell me how Pinkie knew to do that."
"I think it's best if we don't ask," Twilight said quickly. "Let's get Zecora back on her hooves."
The six ponies moved into the forest, and Fluttershy said she felt a "tug" from the direction of the river and, they assumed, her body. As they followed her lead, they could hear the denizens of the Everfree Forest closing in around them through darkness deep enough to kept the sun at bay. Eyes watched them; feet followed them. While these unknown creatures kept their distance, they never left the immediate vicinity. Zecora and Applejack guarded Fluttershy while Twilight and Rarity provided light and Rainbow Dash kept an eye out overhead. As the sound of the rushing river grew closer, Fluttershy became visibly agitated.
"This is so strange... I feel like I want to go by the river, but I remember what happened the last time I was there, and..."
Twilight put a reassuring hoof on her shoulder. "Don't worry, Fluttershy, it's okay. Rainbow Dash, why don't you and I scout ahead? The rest of you stay here and stand guard."
Zecora called after them, "When you go to rescue her, take care! You would not wish to be trapped down there!"
Twilight and Rainbow forged ahead, emerging from the tree line somewhat farther upriver from the waterfall than before. Though the trees didn't obscure as much of the sky above the river, the light from the afternoon sun was still murky and provided no warmth at all. Out here, they were free of the sensation of eyes watching their every move, but they also had to raise their voices over the sound of the rushing water.
"Where do you think we should look?"
"Over the falls; I guess you'll have to do the searching alone, I'm sorry. Take this."
Twilight created a little fairy light, attaching it to Rainbow Dash's mane so that she could see, and also to mark her location. She watched over the edge as Rainbow descended slowly, scanning the rocks for where Fluttershy's body might have fallen. She was gone quite some time; Twilight had trouble seeing the light after a while. Then she thought she could just hear Rainbow Dash's voice above the roaring falls.
"I found her! Down here!"
Twilight shouted as loud as she could. "Can you land on a rock?"
The light bobbed slightly, moved to one side, and stopped. Twilight swallowed.
"It's now or never, Twilight Sparkle..." Focusing, she did her best to imagine Rainbow Dash sitting on an outcropping next to the falls. Teleportation to an unknown location this way was so unbelievably risky, she could barely even conceive of it working, but she pushed her fears down and released the spell once it had formed.
"Whoa, Twilight, careful!"
The rock she had teleported to was just barely large enough for the two of them, not to mention slippery and ice-cold. She took control of the fairy light as Rainbow Dash flew out and up a few feet to the left, motioning towards the waterfall.
"She's in there. I can just barely see her with the light."
Twilight intensified the light and moved it into the falls. Behind the rushing water, it illuminated the still form of Fluttershy. Her wings were frozen outstretched, her eyes were closed and her mouth was hanging open; all of this was made stranger by the fact that she was oriented upside-down.
"What do we do? The water's too strong to go in after her."
"I'll have to try and pull her out with magic, then we can haul her up together. Rainbow, stay beneath her, you'll have to catch her once she's freed." She sighed. "I'm really pushing myself; I just hope this works."
Maintaining the intensified light made levitation almost as difficult to work as teleportation, but it worked nonetheless, taking hold of Fluttershy's time-frozen body. Slowly, she emerged from the rushing waterfall and began to float towards them. Rainbow Dash rose up and grabbed one of her hooves.
"I've got her, Twilight!"
Twilight had been leaning forward without realizing it while guiding the spell, and suddenly lost her footing on the slippery moss coating the rock. She tumbled downward, screaming, legs flailing helplessly, until stopped abruptly, upside-down.
"Argh! Twilight, you really gotta lay off the donuts!"
Twilight's heart leapt in her throat; given the way she was facing at the moment, she was afraid it would tumble right out of her mouth. "Rainbow Dash, you saved me!" She swallowed; black void gaped before her, for an immeasurable distance. A thought hit her.
"Oh my gosh! What about Fluttershy?"
"I set her on the rock so I could grab you. You're both safe."
"Thank you, Rainbow Dash. That was far too close."
As Rainbow hauled her back upwards, Twilight noticed a strange shimmer in the air beneath her. She prodded at it, and it shimmered again, sending a chill through her that made the icy spray from the falls seem warm.
"Get us out of here, now!" She couldn't keep the panic from creeping into her voice. Her friend lifted her back up to the rock, Fluttershy's body gaping at them from its side.
Rainbow hovered nearby, looking worried. "Twilight, you don't look so good."
"I... think I'll take a little rest before I try teleporting her body back. We're not in any hurry, right? Why don't you go let the rest know we found her?"
"If you're sure you're okay, Twi..."
She forced herself to smile. "I'll be fine. I know where the clearing is, I'll be back up there in a minute."
"All right. But I'm gonna come back and keep an eye on you."
All she could do was nod, and Rainbow Dash zipped up the waterfall, leaving a rainbow contrail behind her. Twilight looked down at where she had fallen to and shuddered, the memory of that eerie chill creeping back. A loose stone shifted off the outcropping and disappeared somewhere around the point she'd fallen to, leaving ripples in the air. So that's what Zecora meant. She had a feeling that if not for her friend's speed, she'd be the one frozen inside that waterfall now.
She started as Rainbow Dash tapped her on the shoulder. "Twilight, everyone's waiting."
She swallowed. "Okay." Twilight forced herself to her hooves. She focused on the teleportation spell again, finding it easier than her last attempt, and arrived in the clearing with Fluttershy. The others gathered around her as she appeared, panting.
"Oh, we were really starting to worry, dear. You two were down there an awfully long time!" Rarity gave her a gentle hug, eying Fluttershy's body warily.
Applejack pulled a face. "It feels like this durn forest is closin' in around us. I'm ready to get the hay outta here!"
"You found my body!" Fluttershy wavered from behind Zecora. "Oh goodness, I feel so strange..."
"Fluttershy, are you okay?"
Pinkie Pie's body took a few tentative steps towards the limp form. Suddenly, she fell over. A cloud of yellow mist flew up from her and into Fluttershy, who stirred.
"Fluttershy! Pinkie Pie!"
Pinkie Pie awoke first and groaned. "Nnnn, that was a good party..."
"Remember well this before your eyes: we are seeing the dead arise!"
Fluttershy twitched, and did indeed begin to arise. But something was very wrong.
Pinkie Pie's eyes grew wide. She scooted backwards on her rump as quickly as she could, until she ran into Twilight's legs, and then scooted around to hide behind her. Zecora stood rooted in place, staring open-mouthed, Rarity fainted, and Applejack and Rainbow Dash clung together, trembling.
"WHAT'S WRONG, TWILIGHT?" Fluttershy's voice seemed to be emerging from a thousand points at once. "WHAT'S EVERYPONY STARING AT?"
Rainbow Dash pointed a shaky hoof to a still pool at the side of the river. "S-s-see for yourself, Fluttershy."
They watched silently as Fluttershy dragged herself towards the river.
"I FEEL SO STRANGE. WHY ARE MY FEET HEAVY? WHAT'S GOING..." There was an otherworldly gasp as she saw herself in the river.
Her eyes burned red. The blackness that composed her entire form seemed to drip into a puddle on the ground, which was what impeded her walking. Her wings were serrated and twice as long as before. Worst of all was the mouth full of sharp teeth that opened and closed like some horrible instrument of torture.
"NO!" She splashed angrily at the water, and it steamed and bubbled as it touched her. "I'M HIDEOUS!"
"Ancestors, preserve me!" cried Zecora, tracing a pattern in the air. "Preserve us all! I'd never have thought we'd see Fluttershy fall!"
She whirled on them, weeping and growling. Dark shapes writhed through her silhouette, eyeless faces with mouths screaming in pain. "HELP MEEEE!"
"N-now, Fluttershy..." Twilight swallowed. What could she possibly say? "Everything's... going to be all right. Just... calm down, and we'll figure out a way to fix this..."
Panic had set in. "NO, I'M A MONSTER! STAY AWAY FROM ME!" She spread her wings and launched into the air with unnatural alacrity, trailing drops of black ichor behind her.
"No, Fluttershy, come back!" Rainbow Dash vaulted into the sky behind her, but after a few moments, Fluttershy simply disappeared. Rainbow Dash floated to the ground, tears welling up once more.
"Where did she go?"
"I don't know!" She sniffed. "I was right behind her!"
"We've gotta find her, now. There's no telling what she'll do in this state."
Applejack moved over to Rainbow Dash and put a hoof around her shoulders. "But Twilight, after we find her... Whatta we do then?"
That gave her pause. "I... don't know. I don't even know what's happened to her!"
Zecora moved to her side, a distant look in her eyes. "When Fluttershy's body and soul reunited, it brought back a being that was most uninvited!"
"You mean one of the dark beasts of the Shadow Realm followed her back and now it's in her body? The way she was in yours?"
Applejack snorted. "Well, that's just great! How in the hay are we supposed ta get the demon outta her?"
Pinkie immediately recovered from her fright. "Ooh! Ooh! I know! We can go up to her and say, 'Hi there, Mister Meanie-Pants Demon Thing, why don't you be a nice shadow creature and get out of Fluttershy's body so we can have our friend back?' And then we can throw it a party for being so nice!"
Twilight gave her a look. "Pinkie, I don't think that's going to work."
Zecora shook her head. "Back to the shadows this beast must be sent! I suggest you use your Elements."
Twilight slapped herself with a hoof. "The Elements of Harmony! Why didn't I think of that? If they could seal away Nightmare Moon, surely they could get rid of a demon!"
"But Twilight... will it work with only five Elements?"
"We have to hope it does, Rarity. Otherwise, who knows what will become of Fluttershy?" Twilight gazed over the trees in the direction Fluttershy had disappeared.
Zecora closed her eyes. "Before nightfall must she be set free, or else be a demon eternally!"
The five friends looked at each other, as the meaning of the zebra's words slowly sank in. The sun was low in the sky, still above the treetops.
Applejack's voice came out as a whisper. "Twilight... we ain't got a whole lotta time, then."
"We have to find her, and fast! But if we split up, we'll never be able to get back together in time to help her!" Twilight held her head in her hooves. "Ugh, I don't know what to do!"
Pinkie Pie tilted her head to the side. "Well... if Fluttershy thought she looked hideous, and she ran away from us, then maybe she wants to be alone. So where's the best place to be alone?"
"The back orchards in Sweet Apple Acres, I go there whenever I need to get away..."
Pinkie tapped at the side of her head. "No no, it needs to be somewhere that means something to her, I'm pretty totally almost sure of it!"
Rarity cleared her throat. "If what Pinkie is saying is correct, then I can think of but one suitable location..." She pointed off in the distance, where a mountain spire peeked up through the top of the trees.
"The mountain where she defeated the dragon... That cave's been empty ever since!" Twilight's eyes lit up. "Rarity, Pinkie, that's brilliant!"
Rarity could not resist giving her mane a toss. "Why thank you, dear! Of course, we'll never know until we get there, but I recommend we do so immediately!"
Twilight pumped a hoof in the air. "All right, that sounds like a plan. Zecora...?"
"To my home first, and quickly; run! There are preparations which must be done!"
They galloped at full speed back to Zecora's hut, doing their best to keep their minds on the task at hand, rather than what might happen should they fail. How they might have to deal with a demonic presence in Equestria...
Twilight shook that thought out of her head as they reached the hut once more. "Zecora, how are we going to make it to the mountain in time?"
The zebra just smiled enigmatically and shook her head. "There is no time now for introductions; I will search for components while you read the instructions." Leaping to a large bookshelf, she brought down a huge tome, bound in black, and opened it on the table before dashing to the backroom to search through her stores.
Twilight and her friends gathered around the book. The script was in heavy ink, with numerous smudges near the edges. It was also completely foreign.
"Zecora, I can't re... Read...?" She trailed off, her eyes wide, as the words on the page began to shift, crawling over each other like writhing worms. When they settled, they were entirely readable.
"I hope y'all don't think less o' me fer sayin' so," Applejack said, her voice tense, "but all this magicky, spirity mumbo-jumbo is really startin' to give me the heebie-jeebies!"
"I hear ya, AJ," Rainbow Dash said with a gulp. The two of them looked at each other and silently agreed that helping Zecora would be a much better task.
Twilight fought the urge to run. "Z-Z-Zecora? Just what kind of book is this, anyway?"
"Kitu wa Ibon, in the language of my home," the zebra said, popping her head around the corner nonchalantly. "It is a dark and mystical, spiritual tome."
As Rainbow Dash and Applejack assisted the zebra with gathering them, Twilight steeled herself and began reading off the list of ingredients necessary for what she soon realized was an exorcism ritual. A very bad feeling began to gnaw at her stomach.
"What's the matter, Twilight?" Rarity murmured. "You look tense."
"I don't want to worry you, Rarity, but... From everything I'm reading in the description of this ritual, if one tiny thing goes wrong... Fluttershy could die."
Rarity nodded gravely. "We've lost her once; if I have any say in it, we won't lose her again."
"Remember," chimed Pinkie, "we'll be using the Elements of Harmony!"
Twilight let out a sigh of relief. "You're right. I'm ready for this, then. With the Elements, I'm sure we'll pull ahead."
"Let us go then; we are done!" Zecora said, approaching with filled saddlebags. Applejack was carrying a number of larger items in another set of saddlebags, while Rainbow Dash clutched a mahogany staff carved with runes similar to those in the black book.
"Hurry along now, everyone!" The zebra nabbed one of the large masks off her wall and turned it around. She murmured to it in her language, and it began glowing. A window appeared in the hollow backside, displaying the top of the very mountain they'd been planning to go to. Without another word, she stepped through. Applejack and Rainbow Dash looked at each other, shrugged, then followed. As Pinkie bounded through behind them, Twilight found herself mesmerized by the portal.
"I can't believe it," she said, staring at it wide-eyed.
"No time for studying, Twilight!" Rarity said, and poked her flank with her horn, pushing her through.
The air atop the barren mountain was cold and damp. The last time they'd been there, the dragon's smoky breath had dried it out, making the atmosphere pleasantly warm, if oppressively smog-filled. Now, the dampness crept in from all sides and made the stark rocks of the mountain seem even more unfriendly. The sun was beginning to set, the darkness eagerly awaiting its departure.
Rainbow Dash was flitting back and forth, impatiently watching Zecora construct a circle out of salt.
"So what do we do now?"
"You all must lure her out of there, so I may catch her unaware."
Applejack nudged Twilight. "Ya got a plan, Twi?"
"No. But I suggest, whatever we do, we all do it together." She looked at each of her four friends in turn, and they each nodded back to her. "Okay! Let's give Zecora time to finish preparing."
Entering the cave, the five found that the light ended abruptly inside its mouth, despite the sun's waning presence outside. Twilight and Rarity lit their horns, but still they could barely see anything beyond the cast light. They could distinctly hear someone, though; or something, from further back in the cavern.
"I think it's Fluttershy," Twilight whispered. The voice became more distinct, the darkness deeper, and the chilling cold more pervasive as they made their way to the back of the cave.
"...why yes, Mister Boneykins, you can certainly have more tea. Oh, manners, Miss Skully! You should share the cookies with everyone else..."
As they rounded the corner, Twilight's blood ran cold. The room stretching before them was filled with tooth-like rock formations and lit by a sourceless, infernal red glow. A dark form flapped slowly around a stone dais. Seated on large rocks around it were four animal skeletons, numerous smaller rocks strewn out in front of them. Twilight felt some happy part inside of her wither away as realized the scene was a tea party, as much a parody of a real one as Fluttershy was now a twisted parody of herself. She turned towards them, her mouth parting in a ghastly, too-wide grin.
"LOOK EVERYONE, WE HAVE GUESTS."
"What do we do?" Rainbow Dash hissed. Twilight couldn't think; panic rooted her to the spot.
"Leave it to me, girls!" cried Pinkie Pie, bouncing forward.
Applejack was too late to stop her. She bounced right into the middle of the 'party' and took a seat between the remains of a fox and what had most likely been an eagle. There was still some desiccated meat on its skull.
"This looks like a swell party, Fluttershy! Mind if I join?"
Fluttershy paused in midair, considering the request. Her head tilted to the side, then completely upside down, and she gave another toothy grin.
"WHY YES, PINKIE PIE, THAT WOULD BE LOVELY."
Pinkie shoved a hoof-full of rocks into her mouth and chewed. "Mmm, these are good! Didja make 'em yourself?"
"THAT'S RIGHT, PINKIE. I'M SO GLAD YOU LIKE THEM." She turned back to the other four, expectant.
Twilight swallowed. "Um, F-Fluttershy... Are you feeling all right?"
Fluttershy nodded, though her face did not move as her head did. "OH YES, TWILIGHT. I'M SORRY IF I WORRIED YOU BY RUNNING AWAY EARLIER, BUT I'M JUST FINE NOW. WON'T YOU COME AND JOIN US?" She gave them another terrifyingly large grin. "FOREVER?"
Rarity cleared her throat and stepped forward. "Fluttershy, I for one would love to join your tea party, but you see, there's, err..."
Applejack continued. "Zecora's outside, and..." She was immediately silenced by Twilight's hoof in her mouth.
Rarity gave Applejack a look. "A-and she'd love to come to your party, but..."
"...It's a custom in her land that she needs to be invited directly by the host!" Twilight blurted.
"Uh, yeah! So you hafta go out there and talk to her!" Rainbow Dash continued. "Also, she's helping a sick mountain goat."
"OH!" Fluttershy began to flap softly towards them. She seemed to be moving less by using her wings than by teleporting short distances whenever they blinked. "IN THAT CASE, I SHOULD GO SAY HELLO AND SEE IF I CAN HELP THE POOR DEAR..."
She moved past them, her face oozing around the back of her head to look at them. "DON'T WAIT UP FOR ME, NOW. THERE ARE LOTS OF GOODIES FOR ALL OF YOU."
Twilight held her hoof up until she was out of sight. "Just a few more seconds... Now!"
The five galloped out of the cave, Pinkie spitting out wads of wet sand as she ran.
"I really need to give Fluttershy some decent cookie recipes! Those were terrible! Everypony knows sandstone doesn't go in sweets!"
"You didn't have to actually eat the rocks, Pinkie!" Rainbow Dash groaned.
"But it wouldn't have been convincing!"
As they reached the mouth of the cave, the darkness seemed to have lifted somewhat from when they first entered, yet the sun was just barely peeking over the tops of the trees.
The zebra was chanting and dancing around the salt circle, to which she had added intricate chalk patterns and piles of herbs, arranged as the images in the book had instructed. Fluttershy was in the center of the circle, snarling furiously at Zecora and trying to escape from the circle, though each attempt was blocked by an invisible force.
"YOU TRICKED ME! I'LL KILL YOU ALL AND EAT YOUR SOULS!"
"Your Elements, girls! To your positions, go! We do not have much time, you know!"
Twilight reached within herself, drawing upon her own magic and the memories of spending time with her friends, and manifested her Element. It was like the warmth of a perfect summer's day surrounded her, fading away to leave only the slight weight of the tiara on her head. Her friends did likewise, their necklaces gleaming, and spread out evenly along the outermost edge of the chalk drawing, the bulk of which was a five-pointed star.
Rarity had to shout over the terrible screaming and growling that came from Fluttershy, in some unintelligible demonic tongue. "Twilight! What do we do now?"
Twilight looked at her friends, and then at Fluttershy. The sun had nearly set. She put on a brave face.
"Fluttershy, listen to me! It's your friend, Twilight! We're trying to help you!"
"I DON'T HAVE ANY FRIENDS!"
"That ain't true, Fluttershy! When ya ran away, we was all worried about you!"
"When we thought you were dead, we cried for days! The whole town did!"
"We only want to help you, dear!"
"Please, we just want the old, happy Fluttershy to come back to us!"
A glow suffused the area, emanating from their Elemental jewels, but Twilight could feel it wasn't enough. The power wasn't building up like it had when they'd faced down Nightmare Moon. Time was running out.
"Think, Fluttershy! Remember all the good times you had with us! Think about Angel! He's been trying to help the animals in your place, and he misses you!"
"Think about your last birthday party! I made sure to keep everything low-key, so you wouldn't be too scared!"
"Fluttershy, I haven't even been to the spa since you left. It's just not the same without you!"
"I been keepin' your house trimmed up, and I even fixed it up a little! Angel can't do all the work himself, y'know!"
"Fluttershy, we all love you! We need you! You're the Element of Kindness, come back to us!"
Rainbow Dash's words seemed to hit just the right chord. There was an explosion of light, contained within the circle, and the screaming distinctly separated into two voices: Fluttershy's and that something else. The pegasus's body lifted into the air, bands of darkness streaming off of it, as beams of soft light shone forth from the Elements and wrapped around her. A sixth glow joined them, from within, surrounding her and blocking out all view of what was happening inside the circle.
The sun set, and the moon began to rise.
Fluttershy tumbled out, panting heavily, her butterfly-bejeweled necklace around her throat. She drew herself shakily to her hooves and turned toward the dark entity now entrapped in the combined ritual spell and Elemental magic. Her friends called out to her, but Zecora stopped from them from moving towards her.
"No, stay there, you will break the spell! Fluttershy must send it back to hell!"
"Temperance," said the creature tremulously, its hideous dark face appearing out of the swirling lights, "thou wouldst remember that Acheron was thy friend in times most dark, Miss Fluttershy. 'Tis truth I was!"
Fluttershy shook her head and shivered. "I'm sorry, Acheron, but you've been a very naughty shadow beast."
Twilight felt conflicted as she looked at her friend. "Fluttershy..."
Fluttershy took a tentative step towards the demon, looking upon it with sad eyes. "I know you're not really a bad demon. But I also know that you'll just cause more trouble if I let you out."
Acheron trembled. "And if I swore to inflict nought but good upon this world?"
"I wouldn't believe you." Fluttershy stared into the swirling mass, her eyes growing cold. "I was in your head as much as you were in mine. I know you can't help being the way you are, but you made my friends worry about me, and I know that if I let you go, you'll just cause more mischief."
Acheron's voice filled with panic. "Mercy, Miss! The scent of the living is upon me; I would be torn asunder ere I returned! Upon my oath, I'll do no wrong, I'll swear to anything! Only send me not back into the darkness!" The demon Acheron was frantically twisting every which way it could, clawing helplessly at the magical cage that confined it.
Fluttershy began to glow, and a beam of pink light shone forth into the demon, enveloping it in a sphere, which slowly shrank until it vanished.
"Maybe another time," she said quietly, and then collapsed, as did Zecora a second later.
"Fluttershy! Zecora!" The five mares broke their positions and rushed to the aid of their friends. Pinkie and Rarity lifted the zebra onto Applejack's back, and as Fluttershy came to, Twilight and Rainbow Dash helped her to stand. She burst into tears and Rainbow Dash hugged her tightly.
"I'm never gonna let you go again, Fluttershy," she said, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"O-o-oh, Rainbow Dash! I was s-so frightened!"
"It's okay, Fluttershy," Twilight said soothingly, joining the embrace. "It's been a long day. Let's get you home."
They brought Fluttershy back to Zecora's hut and made sure she wasn't harmed at all. They spent the night sleeping at Zecora's, huddled together around the pegasus, who wouldn't bear the thought of being separated from any of her friends for even a moment.
They arrived at her cottage early the next day, and she was met by a tearful Angel Bunny. He clung to her neck and didn't let go until she insisted that she needed to sleep. She spent the entirety of the day in her bed, watched over by the overprotective rabbit and at least one of her other friends at all times.
News of her return sent a thrill of excitement through Ponyville. Pinkie organized a "Welcome Back, Fluttershy" party in the town square, though the pegasus was the only one who didn't end up attending, so deep was her slumber.
Her friends began to worry when she hadn't awakened the morning of the second day, but Nurse Tenderheart said there was nothing wrong with her. Immediately after that pronouncement, they heard a soft yawn, followed by Fluttershy sleepily asking Angel if he'd been worried about her.
A massive group hug followed; they'd gotten their Fluttershy back.
Applejack had offered to remove the sapling memorial, but Fluttershy thought it could be used as a place for birds to build nests. The topaz, she said, would make a perfect nameplate for her home. Besides, it reminded her how everypony had missed her, and that filled her with a warm feeling. She'd never realized before just how much her friends had meant to her, or how much she meant to them, until they had almost lost each other forever.
Now, on the third day, Fluttershy was relaxing outside her home, being tended to by Angel Bunny. He and her friends had been taking care of things around the house so she could rest, and she honestly didn't mind taking it easy for the moment, though she was getting anxious about making sure the birds and other animals were fed properly. As much as Fluttershy liked her friends, Rainbow Dash and Applejack just didn't have the sort of gentle touch they expected.
"Fluttershy, are you awake?" Pinkie Pie's voice carried up the hill from in front of her house.
"Yes, Pinkie, hello." She smiled as her irrepressible friend came bouncing around the tree house, carrying a basket in her mouth.
"How are you feeling? I brought you some goodies!"
"Thank you, Pinkie, that's very sweet of you. I'm doing all right, I suppose."
Pinkie gave her a tight hug, which she returned gratefully. Lately, Fluttershy found that she was taking absolutely nothing for granted, and the touch of a caring friend was something she treasured.
"It's good to see you smiling again!" Pinkie grinned. "Everything's back to normal now!"
"Is it really?" she asked after accepting the basket. "Part of me feels like nothing will ever go back to the way things were before I..." She trailed off.
"I think they will!" Pinkie said, smiling wide. "Not having you around, it was like all the fun had been sucked out of my life by a big black, demon-shaped silly straw, and that just wasn't any fun at all!" She made an exaggerated face accompany miming drinking something through a straw. Fluttershy laughed; laughter was one more thing she found herself treasuring.
"Anyway, everypony's getting together at Twilight's for a biiiiig lunch with Zecora, and I came to invite you! If you're feeling up to it, that is."
"Yeah! To thank her for helping to save you! And I think she and Twilight are trying to figure out how to close that portal to the shadow thingy so nopony else falls into it. But, umm..." Pinkie hesitated, seeing her friend become more distressed by the second. "You don't have to do that. Just lunch. So you wanna go?"
Fluttershy composed herself and smiled. "Yes, Pinkie, I think I'd love to go."
"Then c'mon, sister! Last one there's a pickled duck egg!"
Pinkie bounced circles around her as they traveled through town together, stopping only when Fluttershy spoke up.
"Pinkie, I've been wondering something..."
"Ooh, really? I wonder about lots of things all the time! Like, why is the sky blue, and where do chocolate chips come from, and what's up with that pink streak in Twilight's mane? Is that real or a dye job? So what're you wondering?"
She hesitated. "...I'm wondering about Acheron."
Pinkie screeched to a full stop. "Th-the demon?"
"It's kind of silly, I know... But I can't help wondering if he's out there, watching me. Maybe even right now."
Pinkie gave her friend a look. "Fluttershy, you shouldn't be such a creepy McCreepypants."
"Oh!" She ducked her head. "I'm sorry..."
"Hey, it's okay!" Pinkie patted her on the head. "I'd be wondering the same thing too, if I went through what you did! Well, I mean I kinda did, but it wasn't the same, but it was still kinda weird," she pulled on her cheeks and stuck out her tongue before letting both snap back into place, "but either way it just doesn't suit you!"
Pinkie gave her a soft hug, which she returned. "You're not the kind of pony who should be worrying about creepy stuff. So now it is my duty to ask you to Pinkie Pie swear that you'll stop thinking about all that creepity, darkity junk and just let loose and have fun!"
"Umm..." Fluttershy smiled. She couldn't deny Pinkie had an excellent point. "All right. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye. I won't think about it again."
Sharing a laugh, they continued on towards the library.
While in a place of living shadows and eternal twilight, a dark shape howled and threw itself at the wall between worlds, again and again and again.
Fluttershy is my favorite pony. I love Fluttershy. WHY DID I DO THIS TO FLUTTERSHY oh god I'm a bad person. ;_;
This fic was pretty much based around the idea of "Fluttershy possessed by a demon would be really cool," and I tried to turn that into a small exploration of what Fluttershy means to the group as a whole. (Expect more fics on that second theme, for the other mane characters.)
This is also my first foray into both the [Sad] and, especially, [Grimdark] tags. I hope you found this story as emotional and creepy as I did, because let me tell you, I rewrote this thing five times and I still get teary around the funeral scene. ;_;
Oh, Fluttershy. I promise I'll be good from now on.== Many thanks go out to Twilight Snarkle, Qetuo, Axquirix, 182crazyking, MintyRest, Twilight Snarkle again, the inimitable Samurai Anon, kits and tons of Anonymi for their feedback in crafting this story. I really needed all of it.
Oh, and an Internet to you if you get the one reference to something in this story. Thanks for reading!
P.S.: I can't reply to comments on Equestria Daily without jumping through hoops, so if you'd like to actually have a conversation about this or any of my other stories, please e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll still be reading any and all comments!