The Village Called Respite

There is a hidden village deep within the untamed forest surrounding Neighagara Falls. Should one ever journey to this village, those who live there will welcome them for a simple price: love.
When the village accepts a new family from Cloudsdale, a not-quite-altruistic pair of changeling siblings offer a young filly friendship and a chance to find her place in the strange village she hopes to call home.
http://www.fimfiction.net/story/291019/the-village-called-respite

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10. Of Nymph and Foal

Esalen circled around a rather large maple tree, her nose low to the ground as she tried to make heads or tails of where that wily filly had gotten to. Toola had been ahead of her, giggling and darting through the bushes, always just out of reach so Esalen could catch a flash of magenta coat or a glimpse of her pretty, tricolor tail.

And then, without warning, she was gone, leaving Esalen to scratch her head and search the clearing.

Bubbling giggles seemed to echo around her, tickling her ears. A frown marred her muzzle. It’s supposed to be the changeling who plays trickster, you naughty little thing! 

Flicking her tail, Esalen idly considered whether or not she could get away with sneaking a little taste, just enough to help her get an idea of what Toola was feeling so she could figure out what her giggly friend might be up to. Once she’d gleaned that tricky, little filly’s plan, Esalen could formulate her counterattack; then Toola be helpless to fend off the tickling and teasing she so rightly deserved!

She shook her head. I’m going to find her without cheating. Lowering her head to ground once more, she sniffed, taking in a deep whiff of Toola’s perfume. She’s around here somewhere. Probably waiting for me to stick my head in some bushes, or take off so she can go running off toward base.

Another bout of giggles seemed to come from everywhere around her. Esalen stood up straight, perking her ears up. No matter what she did, it seemed like Toola simply wasn’t there. Like she was a ghost.

Esalen grit her teeth, letting her lips peel back to bare her fangs. This is why looking for Toola is such a pain in my chitin! There was a rustling of leaves to her left, she whipped around toward a patch of bushes, ready to pounce on the little filly!

There was no flash of magenta coat or tricolored tail, just the wind blowing lazily through the leaves.

Sighing, she relaxed and stood up straight again, letting her scowl fade away. Although, Toola giggling at her eagerness made her grind her teeth together.

Vengeance will be mine, my sweet little friend! Esalen fought the urge to lick her lips, lest she be accused of tasting for Toola’s emotions. If we didn’t have lessons, I’d be sure to demand a nice, long drink.

Toola just so happened to be one of her favorite snacks; the filly’s love tasted like chocolate eclair, and the way she bounced around, giggling and teasing, only made her all the more tempting to the changelings in class.

The fact that she was also rather pretty helped quite a bit.

Still, finding and catching Toola would be no easy task. Even if she knew for fact how close she was.

Unless… 

Her lips tugged into a sly smirk. Esalen lowered her head, prowling forward like a hungry timberwolf. “Tooooooolaaaaaaaa!” she called, almost singing her name. “I know you’re here, silly filly! I can smell your perfume!”

More giggling, along with the rustling of leaves from her left drew her attention back to the tree she’d been circling. Close by, there was a downed branch, perfect for a little filly to hide in.

The key was checking without sticking her head in, lest Toola have a quick escape route to slip through and get a head start. Of course, given how well she knew Toola, Esalen had several advantages.

Most prevalent among them was her giggling.

“Where’s Toola?” Esalen called in a tone she might use to play with a hatchling. “Where, oh where, is my giggly Toola Roola?”

Another bout of giggles, punctuated with a little squeak of laughter, made her ears waggle. Close by.

She stalked toward the downed branch, narrowing her eyes to peer through the foliage. “Is she hiding in the bushes?” she called, casually flicking a hoof through the bushes as if searching for her friend.

“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaybe!” Toola’s voice called back between giggles.

Oh, you cheeky thing. Esalen feigned a sigh and pout. “Nope! No Toola Roola here!” She edged toward the branch, ready to pounce. “Is she hiding under the fallen branch?”

“Noooooooooooo!” Toola sang. “No Toola Roola’s here!”

“Are you suuuuuuuuuuure?” Esalen called back, just as she came within hoof’s reach of the branch’s leaves. “Maybe I should check. After all, Toola Roola’s are rather silly things; they like to hide in small places and tease innocent little nymphs like me with their giggling!”

Toola let out a laugh. “Says the tricky nymph who wants to tickle a poor little Toola Roola!” There was a pause, punctuated by a little nyeh. Even though she couldn’t see her, Esalen was quite certain Toola had stuck her tongue out. “Too bad, Essy! Looks like us foals are gonna have some of Sweet Treat’s cake, and on your bits!”

Snorting, Esalen quipped, “This Toola seems a bit snippy. I think it deserves extra tickles, we can’t have a snippy Toola Roola walking about. Only happy, giggly Toola’s.”

“Toooooo bad!” she chirped. “I’m a snippy Toola, but just as cute as a happy Toola!”

She was close, but it didn’t feel like it. Esalen frowned, halting in her approach. She flicked her ears to the side, trying to pinpoint where Toola’s voice was coming from.

Wherever she was, she most certainly wasn’t under the branch. It sounded like she was just behind Esalen, and yet, she wasn’t.

She’s having me on, Esalen thought, narrowing her eyes as Toola let out another giggle and taunt. She stepped closer to the branch, even though she was sure her friend wasn’t hiding beneath it, doing her best to keep up appearances. Craning her neck low, she made it seem as though she were about to duck her head in to search.

“I think not, silly filly!” she called, keeping up her act. “I think Toola Roola’s like to hide beneath branches, just waiting for a pretty little nymph to catch and tease and tickle her all day long!”

Just as the end of her muzzle brushed against the leaves, she heard it: the shuffling sound of a pony’s hoof rubbing against bark, and the sharp crack of a twig snapping.

It hadn’t come from beneath the branch. Slowly, Esalen’s smile returned. If Toola was close, but not under the branch, she didn’t have a spot to lure Esalen into before slipping away.

Nice try, Toola. “Ready or not, time to get caught!” she called, feinting forward just enough to make it look like she was about to dive in after “Toola”. But then, quick as a cat, she dug her forehooves into the dirt and pivoted, her eyes darted around in search of the tricky little filly.

“Haha!” Toola crowed. “Tricked you again, Es—Whoa!

Hooves scraped against bark, as though a pony had slipped after being silly enough to try climbing a—

A tree.

Esalen’s eyes went wide. “Oh, don’t tell me!” Slowly, she let her gaze wander up. A gasp escaped her lips as she caught sight of Toola Roola dangling from a high branch, her hind legs kicked wildly at the air as her forehooves desperately clutched at the branch. “Toola, you dummy!” she scolded, her wings already sliding out of their pink casing, ready to lift her into the air. “Hold on!”

“H-Hurry, Essy!” Toola squeaked, a panicked look crossing her muzzle. All semblance of teasing and play left the pair. “I’m slipping!”

Esalen bounded over so she was beneath Toola. Buzzing her wings, she hovered off the ground with hooves outstretched. “Just hold on a little longer! I’m right here!” she said as she drew near her friend, flying so she’d be able to grab her from the front. The biting taste of panic, a mix of adrenaline and the foul, almost rotten taste of fear, made her stomach heave, but she ignored it. Her friend was far more important than her stomach!

She could see the little filly’s chest expanding and contracting with each gasping breath. The tricolor tail curled, trying to tuck between her legs despite the pull of gravity weighing down on it.

When she came level with Toola’s waist, Esalen slipped her hooves around her barrel. “You’re doing great, Toola,” she said soothingly. “I’m here! I’m here, okay?” Giving a squeeze, both a hug and a show that she had a strong grip, she nosed against Toola’s cheek. “I’ve got you, now! You’re okay! I’m gonna get you down, okay?”

With her eyes screwed shut, Toola gave a jerky nod of her head. Her body shook in Esalen’s grasp, her ears laid flat against her scalp. “Don’t let me fall!” she whimpered. “Please don’t let me fall!”

“I won’t, I’ve got you!” Her hooves slid up Toola’s side to the crook of her armpits, locking in place and holding the panicked filly tight against the smooth carapace of her chest. “Okay! You’re okay, Toola! Just let go of the branch, and we’ll hover down together.”

Toola didn’t move, fear had taken hold, locking her into a desperate need to cling to something—a branch, in this case.

An idea leapt to the forefront of Esalen’s mind. “Toola,” she said, her voice low, “I want you to let go of the branch, one hoof at a time, okay? Wrap your hooves around my neck, and let me carry you down.” Lightly nudging Toola’s legs with her hooves, she offered a smile. “I’ve got you. I promise. You’re not gonna fall.”

Another shaky nod. Toola let her left hoof slide off the tree bark, the loss of support dropped all of her weight on Esalen.

Esalen grunted, buzzing her wings as fast as she could under the force of Toola’s weight. The pair dipped in the air, Toola shrieked and wrapped her hooves tight around Esalen’s neck.

Ack! Toola, relax!” she yelped, struggling for breath. Her wings buzzed furiously, faltering for a beat or two as she tried to wrest her neck free. “I can’t—would you—Toola, just freeze!”

Toola’s body stiffened. She ducked her head, burying her muzzle in the crook of Esalen’s neck. “’m sorry,” she mumbled, her voice muffled by Esalen’s carapace. “Won’t do it again.”

Sighing in relief, Esalen squeezed the filly to her chest, and lowered herself to ground level. She brought her muzzle close to Toola’s ear and began whispering words of comfort, barely audible, even to herself, until she felt her hooves touch down on the soft, green grass.

She eased Toola onto the ground, frowning at the way her shaking knees buckled at first. Still coming down off it, she noted.

Not a problem, just a small change in plan.

Esalen let herself fall back on her haunches, and pulled Toola into her lap, laying her chin atop the quivering filly’s head. “There we go. See? Safe and sound, just like I promised,” she whispered. With a tiny smile, she nosed into Toola’s tricolored mane, the warmth and the soothing scent of vanilla and lilac did wonders to calm her racing heart.

Taking in a deep breath, she sighed in relief. “How about next time, we don’t hide so high up?”

Toola sniffled, then drew back, cheeks puffy and eyes shone with tears. She nodded, then buried her face in Esalen’s shoulder again. “I thought I could be clever,” she mumbled, her hooves squeezed tight around Esalen’s midriff.

“Well, from now on, be clever closer to the ground,” Esalen scolded, leaning up to nip at Toola’s ear. “You’re far less likely to fall while you’re bouncing about, don’t you think?”

“I’m sorry, Essy.”

With a mirthless chuckle, Esalen patted her mane and rocked her back and forth, singing an old Caretaker lullaby to sooth her frightened friend.

Deep in the land of snow and ice, far, far away!

They Who Glimmer full of love,

Shining brighter than a star,

They took us in and showed us our new way…

                                                                                                   

A twig snapped beneath her hooves.

Sure Stroke bit back a curse and ducked low, folding her wings tight against her sides to make herself smaller. Her eyes darted about, scanning for any sign of fluffy blue mane or light glinting off well-polished chitin.

Nothing. Just the rustling of leaves, the creak of tree branches as the wind pushed them along, and the sound of her own heartbeat pounding in her ears.

A sigh of relief escaped her lips, the ancestors had smiled upon her. Sure Stroke let her wings relax and gave a little fluff of her feathers to work out the kink in her muscles. Hiding from changelings in the forest was no easy task; even when they were friends.

Twice, she’d been forced to duck behind a patch of bushes as his sniffing came closer. The strange sound of chitinous hooves against the dirt made her ears flick this way and that, trying to pinpoint exactly where her pursuer was looking.

Was this what it was like to be hunted? Flinching at every sound the forest around her made, trying to cover her mouth with her hooves to muffle her breath, begging her heart not to beat so loud—did the ponies who came across changelings in the old tales of the shapeshifting tricksters find themselves fleeing from sharp fangs and strange, chittering laughter?

Sure Stroke scrunched up her snout. Their laughter seemed so alien, like a cross between the odd clicking of spiders and a foal’s laugh. It tickled her ears whenever her classmates were teasing one another—or her, for that matter—and the nymphs were able to get one over on each other. Or play a joke on her fellow foals.

They’re like bugs, she thought. Bugs crossed with ponies in one body.

The rustling of leaves and scrambling of hooves made her ear flick to the east, toward the direction Vector had headed.

She heard a pair of voices cry out in alarm, the buzzing of changeling wings filled the air along with the sound of steady wingbeats and whistling wind whipping through the trees as a pegasus zipped through. Then, a twin sounds of rushing magic, punctuated by a pair of pops. The buzzing ceased, instead replaced by the addition of two more ‘pegasi’ to the chase.

Had Vector just taken his chance to fly for base?

Sure Stroke stayed still, listening out for the one remaining nymph. Aspire’s wicked grin, his tiny, glinting fangs rose unbidden to the forefront of her mind.

The way he looked at her promised no shortage of teasing should he be the one to catch her, a silent promise Vector had all but confirmed.

He has to catch me first she reminded herself, drawing in a deep breath and fluffing her feathers.

If Aspire thought she was just going to stay still and plead for mercy as he loomed over her, giving his chittering laugh before pouncing and claiming his vengeance for the little teasing she’d given, he was in for a big surprise.

Sure Stroke took another breath and closed her eyes. Be quick and nimble, like mom always taught. Don’t lean to hard into a turn, keep your eyes on the trees ahead so you don’t go splat. All it would take was a quick acceleration to her top speed, then gliding with easy shifts of her weight for steering through the forest. I won’t be able to really move until I hit a clearing, or get out into the open field.

Every little trick her mother taught about maneuvering would have to come into play. Aspire might know the forest, but she had the advantage as long as she made her top speed before he could get a start.

A twig snapped behind her. Sure Stroke turned, leaping to her hooves and flaring her wings, ready to take flight.

But there was nothing. Just herself, the bushes, and a shiver running down her spine.

Sure Stroke!” Vector’s voice hissed from just behind her.

She shrieked, whipping around to face him, but found herself staring into the empty forest again.

Blinking, she cocked her head, searching this way and that for her fellow pegasus. “Vector?” she called.

“Yeah, sorry I scared you,” he replied, his tone tinged with poorly restrained amusement. His voice seemed to come from right beside her, but when Sure Stroke checked, she came face-to-face with the bark of one of the forest’s many maple trees. “Ready to move?”

“Yes, I was just about to—hang on…” Sure Stroke trailed off, her ears perked up to their full height. “You were supposed to go east and lead off Nimble and Zephyr.”

“So?”

Frowning, she stomped a hoof, turning around in hopes of catching sight of the mischievous pegasus. “So why are you back here scaring the feathers off of me? Aspire probably heard us!”

“Hmm, that’s a very good question. Full marks, Sure Stroke! But lemme answer that question, with another,” Vector said, laughing to himself. But with something else mixed in, something that hadn’t been there earlier.

Sure Stroke felt her heart stop, her ears twitched at the odd, almost alien chitter mixed with his voice. Her tail dropped low and tucked between her legs. “V-Vector?” she whimpered. “You’re really scaring me! This isn’t funny!”

Warm breath ghosted over the tips of her ears. “Who says I didn’t hear you?” A familiar voice, one that was most certainly not Vector’s, whispered.

Her body shook, she slowly looked up. Her eyes went wide as they were met with a pair of brilliant blue eyes—the same color she might use to paint the sky on a bright, clear day.

It was Aspire.

Laying almost lazily on an overhanging branch, with the end of his muzzle just a hair’s breadth from hers, he looked down upon her with a playful half-lidded stare and a fanged grin that spoke of mischief yet to come. “Hi!” he chirped, giving a little wave of his hoof. “Thanks for staying in one spot for me instead of running! Makes my job a lot easier!” He stood, balancing on the branch with a rather impressive show of dexterity and grace. “Now, hold still, silly filly! I owe you big for that little joke you made about—”

With a shrill shriek, Sure Stroke shot off through the forest as if Cerberus himself was nipping at her hooves.

Her wings flapped for all they were worth. She could hear Aspire call out to her, but the words were lost on the rush of wind. Every instinct, every fiber of her being screamed for her to fly as fast and as far as she could, to flee from that wicked grin and those gleaming blue eyes.

 

 

“… I owe you big for that little joke you made about—ow!” Aspire winced, his ears rang with the echo of her shriek. With a yelp, he clapped his hooves over his head to muffle the sound and screwed his eyes shut, giving a low whine of complaint.

He rubbed at his ears, cracking open an eye to glare at her. “What in the name of love was that for—huh?” He broke off, blinking in confusion at the distinct lack of purple pegasus staring back at him. “Sure Stroke? I was just teasing…”

The sound of feathers rustling, wings flapping, and wind whipping through the wind drew his attention forward, just in time to see Sure Stroke fleeing in terror.

Oh, wow, she really can fly! His eyebrows furrowed and a tiny frown crossed his muzzle. That definitely wasn’t a shriek like when we catch Toola and she plays scared…

Curious, he flicked his tongue out to taste her. Surely, his friends would understand. He wasn’t looking for her anymore, so there was no harm in sneaking a little taste just to make sure she hadn’t taken his little joke too hard.

The taste of pure terror, slimy and foul, like rotting catfish, nearly made him go crosseyed. Aspire clapped his hooves over his mouth and heaved, bile burned the back of his throat.

He swallowed it down and gasped for breath. “Oh, chitin!” he groaned, wiping the back of a hoof across his lips. “Sure Stroke! Wait!”

Too late! Sure Stroke disappeared into the foliage, her terrified shrieks and panicked breath echoed through the trees.

“Crack my eggshell!” Aspire smacked his face with a hoof.

All the careful planning with his sister, all the work they’d done to convince their friends to help her integrate, he could see it going up in smoke before his eyes. Like a piece of paper in an open flame.

He buzzed his wings and took flight, chasing after as fast as he could.

But with each passing second, Sure Stroke’s panicked cries were getting further and further away.

Not gonna work, she’s got a full head start! I’m gonna have to change! Aspire closed his eyes and focused, concentrating on a form he’d practiced with whenever his family snuck into Manehattan. Albeit with one or two alterations.

Namely, wings instead of a horn.

Orange coat, red-orange mane, he thought as he began to channel his natural magic. Orange coat, red-orange mane, and wings. Lightweight body so I’m faster, not so muscular around the legs.

Green fire washed over his form. The buzzing of his wings faded into the steady rhythm of pegasus wings beating against the air. His polished carapace burned away and the holes in his legs filled, orange hairs sprouted from his legs and body.

He grit his now flattened teeth and flapped his wings. “Sure Stroke!” he called over the rush of wind. “Wait! I didn’t mean it! I was just playing! Come back!”

To his dismay, she flapped her wings harder, picking up speed with each beat.

Oh chitin, for a chubby little filly, she’s fast! He panted for breath, pushing himself as hard as he could to catch up with his frightened friend. I need to stretch my wings a bit more…

 

 

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