The search for a suitable gift is torn from my thoughts by a forest-shattering roar.
My bundle of carefully-picked lilies drops from my mouth as I swivel and break into a mad gallop, nearly barreling into a towering fir in my haste to escape the monster. Ears, pinned flat against my head, flick backward at the dry crunching of sticks, the crashing of bushes, the claws pounding against the moist earth. Suddenly the world is far too large, yet simultaneously suffocating. All I know is that I must flee or fall.
As I run, thoughts circle through my head; facts and identity try to reassert themselves despite the sheer primal fear surging fast and thick through my veins. I hear them, though I can't quite listen: My name is Roseluck. I am twelve years old. My favorite color is pink. My mother wishes me dead. My name is Roseluck …
Twisted roots surface out of the ground ahead of me, as if anxious to trip my rapidly moving hooves. I barely notice them, grazing just past their edges in a few quick seconds. Blackberry bushes reach, pull at my fur, leave long thin scratches as I rush past. Warm blood trickles down my legs, forming tiny red rivers across a white landscape. It stains the leaves of a few broad ferns as I pass them by, but I keep running. Beauty is my last concern.
The trees and bushes grow thinner ahead, quickly melting into a plateau of earth and stone that rises gently before vanishing from sight. Memory provides a single word in warning. Cliff.
Suddenly I'm skidding, hooves pushing hopelessly against momentum. Pebbles clatter as I push against them, desperate for traction. The edge nears, beckoning. I don't slow.
My body goes flying and flailing, searching for something, anything, to stop my fall through the whistling wind — and a tree looms up out of nowhere, receiving me with a spiky-armed embrace. I cling to the first branch I crash into with all the strength I can muster, trying to pretend its bark isn't digging into my flesh as I slide uncontrollably down its length. The trunk slams into me and my vision explodes in a cascade of colors and stars. I only hold on tighter though, wrapping both pairs of legs around the branch. My limbs tremble but hold.
As I remain there, gasping for breath, an almighty crunch pulls my attention to the direction from which I came. Still shaking, I turn my head to see the monster crashing down the cliffside, all horns and hide and snorting rage. Stones crumble beneath its claws as it skids, growling, to the cliff's base. It looks none the worse for the wear, despite the impressive drop.
Something tall and lanky clambers up to the edge, peering down at the monster. My breath catches. That being's form brings to mind warnings of things worse than monsters could ever be. Simple gray clothing conceals most of its body, but I can see enough of its flat face to tell that a mocking interest is apparent even from this distance. Human. I shrink against the branch, praying for invisibility.
The being laughs and shouts in its guttural language. Seething in fury, the monster charges, kicking up dust before slamming hard into the cliffside. The earth trembles, and I can't repress a whimper as the tree too shakes slightly. Laughing again as it balances itself, the being takes something from its belt, which expands and opens with a flick of its wrist. My mouth falls open as I realize that small, innocuous red and white sphere must be one of those portable prisons that the beings insist on traveling with. If the being notices I'm here ...
I can't stay, I have to get away. Escape! Trying to move is useless though, as my limbs are frozen in terror and pain. I can only watch in morbid fascination as the scene over my shoulder unfolds.
The monster rams into the stone again, and this time the being can't reassert its balance fast enough. It shrieks as it topples down the cliff, chokes with every wet slam against the jagged rocks, and collapses in a pile of broken red and gray limbs at the bottom. It moans loudly as the monster shambles forward in slight confusion, sniffing at the suddenly broken body curiously. It grumbles and turns away in what I imagine to be disgust.
Bile rises in my throat when I notice shards of white protruding from the blood-soaked mass, and with a whimper my head snaps away from the sight. I squeeze my eyes shut, but the awful image remains burned into my retinas, looming larger with every second of memory. How is the being not dead? How can those cries of agony come from the throat of any living creature? Why was I, and not it, fortunate enough to escape that unimaginable torture?
I imagine our positions reversed, with my small body lying useless and crushed in the being's place, and an inadvertent whinny escapes through my lips. My eyes flood with tears, and I press my cheek against the rough bark of the branch. It presses uncomfortably into my fur, but it's vastly preferable to the horrible thing groaning behind me.
I don't know how long I lay there like that. The cloud-strewn sky's light dims gradually, and the being's noises die down to pitiful whimpers. I must be there for hours, though it feels like only minutes have passed when I finally lift my head and dry my tears. I have to get out of here.
Looking downwards, I can tell by the fading light that there's a lot of branches between me and the far-off grassy ground. Carefully prying my forehooves out of their deathly embrace, I reach towards the closest limb and slowly shift my weight on it. Once I've successfully transferred my body onto it, it creaks slightly but holds firm.
My hooves tremble after the long lack of movement, but it's the distance that really makes me shake. I only manage to repeat the process a couple more times before I have to pause. lest I fall right out of the tree. I stand there for a moment, staring down at the distant ground as dizziness begins to creep over me.I imagine myself falling, falling, falling, scraping past twigs and leaves rapidly before —
A scent draws my attention. I pause, sniffing. On the air there's a hint of citrus … whether lemon, lime or orange, I can't say for sure. I remember the last time I had lemonade; it was years ago, yet the memory of that taste rings true with this occasion. I can't tell where it comes from, or how, or why, but its existence is enough. The tanginess encourages me somehow, coaxing me onward. There's more than the stench of death and dying, it says. There is beauty too, and simplicity.
Taking a deep breath, I move down to the next branch, then the next, then the next. I move slowly and carefully, weaving my way down in a jagged zigzag formation. My limbs begin to ache, but I ignore them. One faltering step and I'll fall. The leaves grow denser as I descend, and they rustle gently as I push past them. Otherwise there is silence.
The lowest branch is several feet off the ground. I pause there, considering my next move. Should I jump and risk breaking a leg? Is there any other possibility? I might wait here until morning, hoping that somepony will try to search for me upon noticing I haven't returned. But what could they do? Buck the tree down?
Staring at the ground in thought, I notice a shape gradually taking form out of the growing darkness below me. Dark, spongy moss is bunched together below. What it's doing there I don't know, but I'm not about to look a gift pony in the mouth. Sucking the air in through my teeth, I say a prayer and take a leap.
Landing is an unpleasant jolt, but the moss has absorbed most of the impact. After making sure nothing is broken, I shakily stand. Realization of my success creeps over me, and a grin stretches my mouth. I giggle in triumph, stick my tongue out at the tree and bounce in place. Strange how much I took being alive for granted.
A snort snaps me out of my celebration.
The monster stands before me. The tree's vast form conceals most of it in shadow, but I can still see its spiky body. It steps out into the rising moonlight, and detail fills in the outline in a swath of silver: resembling a rhinoceros, its body is entirely covered in rocky gray plate armor, with a jagged ridge running along its back. Its head is triangular; the horn on its nose is sharp. Pairs of claws, fangs and eyes gleam at me as it snorts again, head lowering.
I want to scream. I want to repeat the chase through the forest, never slowing despite a searing pain in my chest and hooves burning in exhaustion. But I know that I will tire first, and it will catch me, skewering me with its horn and devouring my organs messily with those sharp fangs and ...
But rhinoceroses are herbivores like us, aren't they? This isn't a normal rhinoceros, of course; it's a bizarrely similar replica, a monster. But it's a rhinoceros all the same. Why would it want to hunt me down like a common animal? For sport? It's not as if I've threatened it in any way.
Rather than charging, the monster's eyes flick downward to my forehooves. Following its gaze, I notice a particularly green patch of grass beneath them, somewhat flattened in my joyous trampling. Hunger, it seems. Not for meat and blood, but simple plant matter. Have I interrupted its meal?
An odd thought occurs to me. The tall beings capture these monsters, enslaving them for their own gain. I don't wish to enslave them, but perhaps this creature can be useful to me. It has an astonishing amount of strength, and it doesn't seem particularly bright. It might be able to help me. Perhaps, given time, it can even be my friend. There's an idea.
Carefully, not entirely certain of what I'm doing, I pluck the grass out of the ground and extend it to the monster. My hoof shakes, but I resist the urge to bolt. I've made my move.
The monster sniffs at the grass, nostrils flaring. Its warm breath splashes against my fur as its prehensile lips come forward and nibble at it, pulling in a few blades at a time with slow, thoughtful deliberation. There's a soft wet crunching as it chews. Occasionally its fangs scrape lightly against my skin and I wince, but I don't dare budge from my spot. I simply stand there, hoof outstretched, while the monster feasts. Fear drains from my body as I watch it eat.
When the last of the grass has disappeared into its maw, it nudges at my hoof for more. I let it sniff searchingly, and when it nudges me again I pull up another hoofful.
"There you go." My voice cracks; the stress of the day hasn't been kind to me. "That's pretty tasty, isn't it? I'll feed you all you want."
I can't tell if it understands me, but it doesn't startle at the sound, so I suppose that's something. We stand there like that for a while. My stomach rumbles, but I tough it out. Now that I've calmed down sufficiently, I can see that the monster isn't actually that much taller than me. It's broader and heavier, certainly, but only a couple of inches separate our heights.
It soon finishes its meal again, and I cautiously pat its head. It grumbles in satisfaction.
"I have to go," I say. "Will you come with me?"
The monster blinks, eyes blank. I sigh and turn away.
The cliff is definitely something I want to avoid — I'm not sure the broken being at its base is entirely dead yet, and its prisons are already too close for comfort. I begin the long trek around it, keeping my eye on the rocky shape. I'm only about an hour away from home, but that doesn't make getting lost an impossibility.
Behind me, the ground trembles slightly. The monster follows.
I smile slightly. Perhaps we are friends.
The walk is long and rather difficult. I've never been out so late before. I yawn and squint into the darkness ahead as the land slopes upward, searching. The babbling of a brook catches my ears. Perfect. Follow that, and I should be home in no time.
We stalk through the shadows, silent and serene.
The Mare in the Moon watches as we finally stumble upon our home. Nestled in the side of a great mountain, the entrance yawns before us, but only when we approach it from the correct angle. Snow still settles on the peak at this time of year, but the cool night air is far from wintery. The grass grows short here — not lush enough to attract the attention of plant-eating monsters, or, by extension, their carnivorous counterparts; but neither is it thin enough to reveal the light hoofprints left behind in the firm ground.
Brownish lichens perched on the sheer rock face greet me as I approach. I find myself grinning at the familiar sight, but the grin fades as a growling shout echoes from within. Suddenly I wonder what I'm doing. Why did I think the monster would be a suitable replacement for those flowers? More importantly, how will they react at the sight of it? We live here because we are in hiding, not for fun. Realizing my mistake, I turn from the entrance and lead the monster further, towards the side of the mountain.
The shouting fades into nothing as we walk. Passing over jagged slopes in the earth, we soon arrive at the edge of a large field, where the grass is slightly greener. Large sections of missing grass form uneven circles in the crop, but there's still more than enough for my family to harvest. They never noticed if anything was missing before.
"Stay here," I tell the monster. It dips its head and begins to munch on the grass, but I pretend it's listening. "I don't know what'll happen if my family sees you. Panic, probably. You can stay in this area, but don't be seen, okay?"
The monster grumbles in satisfaction. I take that as a yes.
I'm on my way back to my home when a steady stomping noise approaches from ahead. Mouth suddenly dry, I scamper as quietly as I can around a boulder, pricking my ears. Crickets ring as loud as roars while I listen attentively, but from what I can tell the sound isn't coming any closer. Seconds pass as the sound fades gradually, oh so gradually. Curiosity overwhelms me, and when I peek around the giant rock I can see a red silhouette dappled silver in the moonlight. The figure marches with purpose into the forest I have only left a few minutes ago, disappearing into the shadows of trees long after the sound of hoofsteps has vanished.
My sigh of relief is swallowed when I consider the implications of this. She's looking for me. I've taken too long to return, trapped as I was in the boughs of that tree. She must be very disappointed. That thought makes me shudder. Never make her disappointed, Dad always says. It's a fact of life I've taken to heart.
I might be able to stave off the worst of the fury by taking off now, so I do. Stones clatter beneath my hooves as I gallop across lichens and grass, zigzagging through trails of boulders as I hastily retrace my steps. I can't understand why this is happening. She's never gone outside before. Her entire life has been spent skulking in the shadows behind our hard work. For her to emerge is unthinkable; it's as if the Mare in the Moon herself has stepped forth from her prison. A law of nature, broken over the course of a single minute. Not once did her anger ever drive her into the open, yet there she was vanishing off into the forest before me. I understand that finding a suitable gift was important to her, but I suppose I underestimated the levels she would stoop to when trying to get her way.
Not that I could bring the monster back with me. That would be stupidity beyond imagination. At least without its presence I can be assured of some defense from the others. With the monster, I would be cast out into the wild to fend for myself, or worse. Betraying the trust of my race is an ugly crime, and revealing our home to the monster might be interpreted as such. I'm not sure what I was thinking. Was I trying to impress somepony with that great beast lumbering after me like an eager pet? Was I trying to convince myself I possessed that elusive self-worth, the unique niche in Equestria that I had yet to fill? My earlier naïveté, in hindsight, appears to be just like the hunched vermin of stupidity, and I mentally squash it into paste with flushed anger.
Suddenly I find myself charging through the entrance of our hideaway, and soon I'm swallowed up in the tall stone passage. I twist to and fro around practiced corners until light flickers suddenly at the sixth turn and I arrive at the entry cavern. Dad's forest-green form is sitting in defeat on the floor of the round room, his golden mane gently glowing in the light of the trio of torches jutting from the walls. But his ears and eyes flit upwards at my appearance, and he reaches out and sweeps me into a crushing hug as soon as I'm within reach.
"She's gone," he explains, stroking my mane as the events of the day suddenly crash down upon me and I whimper in his embrace. "Your mother's not coming back, Lucky. You're safe now." He smiles and cradles me as if I were a foal, nuzzling me affectionately as I sob in relief and my limbs sag in exhaustion. "You're safe."