The wind was strong in Ponyville, the air much cooler than it had been in some time. Starlight stood on top of a tall ladder using her magic to scrub a window, she sighed. It felt like she had been cleaning up the town for a week but she had to admit she brought it on herself and “never sneak away from punishment” sure made for a simple friendship lesson.
Climbing down the ladder she threw the sponge into a bucket. Stretching out her legs she looked over the many rows of houses reach with many windows. Only a few of the hundreds she had cleaned but now at long last she was done. Packing up the cleaning supplies she trotted off to report back to Twilight. On the way she passed by an alleyway cloaked in shadow and standing at the end of it was a robed pony digging a hole. Nothing odd so she moved on but slowly came to a stop some strides down the street. Maybe it was not as normal she passed it off to be, at the very least there was something about it that bugged her. Heading back Starlight crouched around the corner to the alleyway and peered down into the shadows. The pony was in fact not a pony but a zebra. They were just standing scraping a hoof into the dirt to make a small hole. The zebra stopped and began to mutter some strange rhyming verses before covering up the hole.
“What the…” Starlight muttered as she watched the odd zebra adjust his cloak and leave down the other end of the ally. Placing down the window cleaning equipment she followed quietly. Starlight did realize that this was not the first zebra she had seen as the rest were also wearing cloaks. “What are they hiding?” She whispered to herself.
The zebra led her around a good quarter of the town. Walking down dark alleyways and along the backside of markets as if trying to hide away from the rest of the world. The more Starlight followed the more she became suspicious. Finally the zebra left the town altogether and headed casually into the Everfree. Not wanting to follow him Starlight instead sat watching for quite some time before realizing that he was not coming back anytime soon. Now convinced something was not quite right she swore to find out what is up! As soon as she returns Twilight’s cleaning supplies.
“There is nothing odd about them Starlight.” Twilight explained as she sat at her desk. “A few months ago a group of them came to visit and were just about to go home when I managed to win the town over. They have been locals ever since.”
“But what do they do? And why do they always wear cloaks and the digging?!” Starlight blurted out as she paced around the room in thought.
“They come from a different culture to us.” Twilight sighed but also smiled. “Go to the south east of the Everfree and take a look yourself. A day in their world will solve all your questions.”
“Maybe you are right.” Starlight replied as she calmed down. “Does that mean I am done with all the apology chores?”
“For now, at least my office does not smell like cheese anymore…” Twilight replied with a sharp look. Not wanting to anger her Starlight left quickly.
Deciding to follow Twilight’s advice she headed down and out of town towards the Everfree without any hesitation. In truth she wanted to find out if they were innocent or not and going to where they live was a good first step in finding out any hidden secrets.
Outside of town she headed down the rough path to the south side of the Everfree and from there she entered into the dark woods. While subtle and small there was a path cut through the thick foliage. It wound deeper and deeper into the Everfree, around trees and past seemingly innocent clearings, but Starlight refused to step away from the path for even a second. She could not trust anything she saw. No matter how sparkling or glowing a flower looked or how peaceful a glade might appear to be she knew deep down that it had to be a trap. Her fuzzy ears twitched as she heard a faint noise on the wind and with it came an odd scent. Drawn in closer Starlight poked her head through some bushes to see that the zebra encampment was strange, even otherworldly, as each home was made out of a tall gnarled tree around a huge bonfire. She sat wide eyed as she watched several zebras dancing around a fire all painted in green with large wooden masks. They chanted and threw spicy smelling powders that caused the fire to crackle and flash with various colors.
As the ritual grew Starlight found herself transfixed. She sat for who knows how long just watching dumbly until she noticed a zebra call out of something and suddenly walk towards the bush. Starlight slowly backed away and ran for it. Freaked out she forgot the path and simply ran through anything in her path be it strange glades or across flower fields. She just managed to make it back to town before she had to sit and catch her breath.
“That is not natural.” Starlight spoke out loud. Raising her head up she swore to find out what those freaky folkpones were doing… After some lunch and once she caught up on her studies. Her promise did not go too far as all the chores Twilight had given her had left Starlight needing to catch up on more than she realized. By the time she had finished everything it was late and sleep was more important than chasing zebras.
Come the morning Starlight found her head to be ringing. Pulling herself out of bed she found herself barely able to walk. Stumbling across the room she fell into the bathroom and threw some ice water over her bloodshot eyes. It soothed them somewhat and cleared her head but the rest of her body did not feel quite right. With her eyes now cleared she stepped over to the full body mirror and then let out a scream.
“What did they do!? This is disgusting!” She shouted as she tried to keep herself from throwing up. Pulling herself away from the mirror she ran to the closet and picked out a longer dress to throw over herself, before then doing the same with a long rain cloak for good measure. “I have to stop them before they do this to any others!”
Even with the layers of clothing Starlight felt ugly, small and quite smelly. Sneaking from shadow to shadow she slowly made her way across the town and towards the Cherry Pie. While it was true she hated everything about that naughty and degenerate building she did recall that two zebras worked there. A good enough start as any.
Sneaking away from the main entrance she headed around the sides of the building and down the back routes to where the resupply carts would drop off any supplies. Flaring up her horn she focused and in a flash of light her entire being was turned not invisible but transparent. Heading inside she held her breath and trotted as quiet as she could manage. Thinking back Starlight knew that the zebras normally worked in that odd theater area so she just had to cross the building to find them.
The back halls of the Cherry Pie were quite different to the front as there was much less decoration and the halls were made wide and tall for supplies to be moved about. Heading down some stairs she heard a faint noise. Following it she went further down into the basement. It was dark and the many rattling pipes let her know that this was where the building got all the heat. Peeking through an older looking door that had a small window on it she caught sight of Pinkie Pie struggling with a squirming bag. Squinting Starlight noticed that something escaped. A small thing, like an odd colored ball with tiny wings, but Pinkie snatched it up and stuffed it back into the large bag without pause. Tying the opening tightly Starlight watched as Pinkie swung open the raging furnace and tossed the entire sack inside before slamming the door shut. The noise returned. A sound like a hundred balloons being slowly deflated. Fur standing on end Starlight made herself a promise to forget whatever she just witnessed.
Going back up some levels and heading down some supply tunnels Starlight found herself on the other end of the building. The halls were quiet, so much that she felt it was unnatural, but worse was a thick and intoxicating fog that hung around the many hotel like rooms. It was worse than the incense they burned and her head was already starting to spin. She tripped and froze incase anypony heard. Getting back up Starlight shifted from leg to another.
“The curse is getting worse the further I go into here…” Starlight muttered.
Past the dozens of rooms. Down the long and gilded halls. Past the all natural gardens where she dared not even glance. Starlight eventually arrived unseen at the backstage of the theatre. Her legs ached and her body dripped with sweat but even so she was determined to not give up. While the transparency spell let her stand unseen it was far from perfect and movement could easily give her away. She had to be careful. Opening a dressing room door a crack she peered in but found nopony around. Heading to a second door she repeated her searching but again there were nopony.
Looking at the doors she sighed as she only now realized each one had a name or job wrote on it. Dancers or actors of every description were written across the dozens of rooms but finally she found one that matched. Ebony and Ivory, the exotic zebra dancers from the far east. Cracking the door open a thick purple mist rolled out and flooded the hallways. The lights were dark and voices rang out rhythmically.
“Give into us…” They spoke slowly and with a hiss.
“Let yourself go.” Another chanted.
“Yes… My mistresses…” A third replied sounding drunk and hazy.
“Twilight?” Starlight whispered to herself. Looking past the fog and lit candles she found Twilight to be kneeling with odd painted symbols drawn all over her. Her eyes were unfocused and dream like. Around her the pair of zebra twins slowly circled and ran their hooves over her. Down her back. Along her eyes. Twilight seemed to be completely out of it. “No, not her!” Starlight said silently. “They have taken her mind like some kind of evil entrantress… Enchantresses!” She added as she began to run for it. While the staff got a glimpse of something she moved too quick for them to really pin down what.
Hiding around a tree some distance from the Cherry Pie she cried softly and tried to calm herself but her body was getting worse. She stank and the smell kept getting worse. It burned her nose and made her head sort of spin like the hallways had… Oh no, it was transforming her into something… Not wanting to find out what she threw herself into the nearest pond to douse the scent and started to run for the Everfree. She refused to let this be how her adventure ended. If she did not stop the zebras here and now they would take over the town or worse they would come for her dearest teacher Celestia! It would not stand.
She needed to be ready and if that meant raiding most of her alchemy supplies then it was a small price to pay. Placing several magical artifacts over her ears and neck she filled her bag with ingredients and quickly made head way for the forest. Stepping into the woods her magic flared and she teleported some strides at a time. Bouncing along the tops of the forest Starlight breathed deep and steadied her shuddering cursed body. This would be the hardest day of her life but no, she was ready to do whatever it took to end those striped menaces before they got too far.
Landing on the verge of the grove she magically took hold of a huge bag of chalk dust and began to run around the edge of the clearing. Thanks to the invisibility spell and a few speed enhancers she made the entire huge lap in only a few moments. Throwing the bag to the side she stood up on top of a small hill and dug her hooves deep into the ground. Gritting her teeth her horn flared up in a pale blue energy. It grew bigger and bigger, brighter and brighter. Sparks flew and the glow grew to a hot white before finally the chalk sparkled and a massive spherical barrier formed around the entire encampment. It hurt her head but Starlight just forced the pain down and continued until the entire ritual was finished. There was no way out now unless she and only she removed the force field.
“Zebra demons! Hear me, I am the greatest pupil of Celestia and she who defeated Nightmare Moon. Your traitorous ways stop here and now and you WILL turn me back to normal!” Starlight screamed. The zebras stopped whatever dance they were doing while others came out of the gnarled tree. One by one they all met together on the edge of the barrier to look up at Starlight. Those wooden masks all painted with unblinking eyes, it was terrifying. “I said now! You hear me!?” She shouted again.
Pinkie meanwhile was sorting out the strange ‘ghost’ that had been seen running about in the Cherry Pie. She had seen a glimpse herself and while there was something very familiar about its scent Pinkie also found it to be quite wrong, altered somehow. Just to be sure she was asking any other witnesses about the strange appearance. Following the trail back she ended up at the loading docks for the carts and sure enough one of them let know they had seen a purple unicorn in a heavy cloak doing something odd with magic but then she disappeared.
“Starlight…” Pinkie sighed. “What are you up to now.”
Pinkie continued to reverse the steps that Starlight had taken for as sneaky as the purple mare thought she was being, it turns out a heavily cloaked figure doing rolls and leaps is not exactly a normal sight. Her search led her all the way back to Starlight’s home. Looking around she knocked on the door but did not get an answer. Trying the handle Pinkie found it to be unlocked.
“You here?” Pinkie called out as she headed inside the large house. Taking a look at how the place had been trashed, with loose boxes and paperwork scattered about, a table knocked over, and even several cupboards left ajar Pinkie began to worry. Heading upstairs she also found the bed to be a mess. Running a hoof along the covers she sniffed around the air and her hoof. Her eyes narrowed. Pinkie’s nose was one of the sharpest in Equestria and that let her know right away that something was wrong here. Fearing the worst Pinkie fled the house and continued her search.
Everybody had a different story to tell and while there were consistencies there also many conflicts. The one fact she could put together was that Starlight had been seen running towards the Everfree and that a rough looking pony in a long cloak had been seen heading that way as well. Not wanting to get into a fight or dangerous situation on her own Pinkie made a tactical retreat back to her Cherry Pie for some help.
“Stop speaking in tongues and undo the foul magic!” Starlight shouted from the hilltop. She was getting impatient and nothing the zebras said made any sense to her. They were trying to trick her or curse her even more she was sure but no she would persist even if it cost her everything. “If you will not listen then I will make you do it!” She called out. Her horn glowed hot once more and the barrier began to slowly shrink inwards, from the edge of the clearing it pushed all the way to the houses. The zebras started to split up and many run back to their homes, a reaction at least but not the answer Starlight wanted.
“Is everypony ready?” Pinkie asked the group she had managed to pull together, they nodded and agreed and with that they left the Cherry Pie. Together they had worked out that Starlight must have gone to the zebra encampment but why exactly or what had happened was still a mystery to them all. Making good pace they were out of the town within minutes and into the Everfree in moments. It was dark and the sun was setting soon so they had to keep moving.
Along the way they came upon a piece of long dress that had been caught on a thorn bush. Taking the scrap Pinkie looked it over and realized it was belonged to Starlight, only she would wear such a boring looking dress after all. Once more it smelled wrong and once more it made Pinkie worry. Tossing it away they continued the trot along the winding path ahead.
Suddenly several beams of light shot up from under the fallen leaves and two of the group got caught inside. The rest moved away and scrambled which in turn only caused barrier traps between trees or other glowing marks to go off. Pinkie pranced and dodge what she could but found herself watching as so many others got stuck. Thankfully one of them had good advice, a barrier spell like these could only remain working as long as the original rune, circle or symbol was complete. Snapping a branch off a tree Pinkie used it like a broom to sweep away the leaves and mess up the symbols. One by one she would free those caught and knock down the simple barriers between the trees. Still, while no harm had been done she could only wonder to what terrible thing had been chasing Starlight.
They marched on and took a few short cuts through some glades but made sure to go around others. It was not wise to go running through strange fields after all, who knows what it might do. Reaching the end of the pathway they ran into another issue, another barrier. This one was simple but bigger than the traps before and it only blocked the way forward like a ring of sorts. The group huddled and talked it out, just ahead was supposed to be the zebra encampment so maybe an enemy from the old country had found its way to Ponyville? Surely not. Hopefully not. Whatever it was they had to get past the wall of light and unlike the other simple symbol based traps this one was protected on both sides. The unicorns did not have the magic to cross it and nobody else was strong enough to break it. They continued to discuss until one smaller pony had a suggestion. Why not just dig under it? Looking between each other the group realized how blind they had been and began to dig.
Starlight sweat and her heart pounded. She had pushed the inner barrier all the way down to the firepit and pushing it any further… She stood strong. It was not her fault that they refused to listen. That they talked in strange words and had cursed her. It was all their fault. The words repeated and buzzed around in her head like flies. She would find a cure even if she had to…
“Starlight?” A voice called out.
“Twilight?” She replied. Turning around Starlight found a group made up of Pinkie, Sunset, Twilight, the two zebra twins and a few others. “No, you will not stop me. I am doing this for your sake as well.” She called out as her horn flared and she traced a wall of fire across the hill.
“Darling, I need you to take this 10 down to about a 3.” Pinkie shouted but Starlight just gave her a look of complete paranoid madness. “Ok she has legit lost it.” Pinkie mentioned to Twilight quietly.
“You just need to talk to us Starlight. What is wrong?” Twilight asked as she walked closer.
“Stay back, you are one of them now. You all are!” Starlight shouted causing Twilight to stop and look towards the others. They had no idea either.
“I am Twilight, you remember me right. Just normal Twilight.”
“No not old Twilight, new Twilight. Sneaky zebra Twilight!”
“I can assure you I am not… Look, do I have stripes?”
“No… but, but they took over your mind. I saw that ritual at the theatre place.”
“That… That was not a ritual. I go every week to relieve myself of sexual tensions.” Twilight explained without any shame but Starlight lit up in red and groaned.
“That was not s-s… Not normal. It was weird and, and, well, two mares can not even do that sort of stuff!” Starlight shouted back causing Pinkie to snicker hard.
“Starlight, honey, I would love to explain to you how homosexual relashonships work all you want if you can just calm down and put out the fires ok?” Twilight tried to reason with a forced smile.
“How can I trust you?!” Starlight screamed as she began to tear up. “My body aches so much, my head Twilight it hurts. I can not… I won’t let them win.”
Backing down Twilight returned to the others and whispered something to them. The zebra twins were taken aside and Starlight watched as they tied the pair up tightly. Once they were then tied to a tree for good measure Twilight returned with a soft smile. Starlight relaxed and let the fires lower for just Twilight to cross them safely.
“Now what is wrong?” Twilight asked as Starlight hid herself in her cloak.
“I can not say…” Starlight replied with a red face.
“Must be pretty huge for you to go this far, you can trust me alright.”
“I cannot, it is not… normal.”
“Just give me a hint, a clue? You don’t have to face me when you say it.”
“I was taught to be polite, I was taught things that make sense. This does not do either of those.”
“Well, fuck, we are all a bit rude sometimes Starlight and we can not help you if you don’t let us.” Twilight tried to get closer but Starlight backed up to the edge of the hill. The drop was not large but it would not be pleasant if she fell. Starlight swallowed the lump in her throat and let the fire down completely.
“Do you know what is happening?” Pinkie asked.
“Something is wrong with her but she refuses to let me see or hear what it is.” Twilight explained. Pinkie looked over to Starlight and narrowed her eyes. Sniffing the air she began to chuckle, then laugh. The both of them were surprised and then confused as Pinkie laughed herself into a fit.
“What?” Starlight asked.
“You have a dick!” Pinkie replied in an uproar. “Like holy fuck I thought you was running off with a handsome stallion for how ruined your bed was but no here you are with this big old floppy slab of love meat just waving in the wind!” Pinkie laughed herself to the point of coughing before pulling herself off the ground and staring straight into Starlight’s soul. “God I want to cram that thing inside me so hard you will be calling me the next princess.” Starlight’s entire face went pure red, her nose began to bleed, and then she fainted forward onto the grass. “I guess that was too much for her.” Pinkie added as she tried to stop the crazed laughing.
When Starlight came to she found herself sitting somewhere awfully hot and wet and yet it felt quite nice. As her eyes opened she found herself face to face with Pinkie. She flinched and yelped which caused her to fall backwards into a bath. Pulling herself to the surface Starlight found herself to be sitting in a huge spa bath, in the town spa in fact. All the aches and pain had gone and after blushing intensely she found that her other problem had also gone.
“What happened?” Starlight asked.
“Well as far as I can tell, you somehow convinced yourself zebras were evil based on seeing them do a native autumn dance and having a threesome with Twilight. Speaking of which, did those two finally make you break that serious mask you wear to bed?” Pinkie spoke.
“Maybe.” Twilight replied from a nearby massage bed. Pinkie could not see her face but she could tell she was blushing at least slightly.
“Anyway. As you were running away from the autumn ritual you went straight through a lot of… What did you call it?” Pinkie asked to a zebra sitting across the room.
“Poison Joke. It can be ironic, or karmatic, but the effects are often more playful than malicious. Seeing such a strong reaction you must have touched half of the Everfree!” Ebony explained.
“So there is no curse… I am so sorry.” Starlight spoke out as she swam across the huge bath to the zebra. “I almost did something terrible, I am so so sorry!” She repeated.
“Mistakes happen young pony, lessons to learn. But surely some bonds have formed and you will one day return?” Ebony spoke happily. Starlight nodded and leaned over the huge tub.
“And I will make sure I am with you this time. Just in case you get cold hooves along the way.” Twilight added as she lifted her head up off the bed.
“That sounds good Twilight, thank you and sorry. Oh but at least now I have another friendship lesson or two to write to the princess, does anyone have any paper or ink?” Starlight happily asked causing Pinkie to start snickering again.
“Oh Starlight.” Twilight sighed with a shake of her head.