Which Way is Witch
The main room in Zecora's hollowed out tree home was filled with the sounds of a slow bubbling coming from the large cauldron in the center of the room. The thick brown liquid gave off a spicy smell of ginger and cinnamon strong enough to tickle Twilight's nose. It was a warm, inviting scent that helped her relax. Twilight sat on the floor next to the fire. It felt nice to have dry clothes again. In fact for the first time all evening she felt warm on the outside and calm on the inside. It didn't even matter that the room was cramped from the number of bodies laying around.
Again Applejack stood vigilant by the window, looking to see if anything in the woods made a move towards the house. Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie leaned against each other in a pile on the other side of the fire pit from where Twilight sat. Braeburn leaned against the far wall with Big Mac, they were speaking in hushed tones, both of their faces were serious.
After Twilight finished telling Zecora about everything that happened. Zecora had very little to say on the matter of Discord's involvement. She and the fiend had only met a few times before, but that was enough for each of them to learn that they needed to grant one another a wide berth.
Zecora didn't respond at all about everything that had been discussed, instead she quietly focused on caring for Rainbow Dash and Maude, who were both laying together in her bed. Zecora sat at their bedside administering some chewed herbs into each of their wounds. In no way was it a cure, but it would help fight the infection and keep the fever down. Rainbow Dash grimaced and swore under her breath as Zecora secured the bandage around her arm, but she didn't bother opening her eyes. This had been the first noise she'd made since Big Mac lay her in the bed. Her fever was already up causing her to drift in and out of consciousness and that worried Twilight. Scootaloo periodically dribbled water into her mentor's mouth, but instead of swallowing, it just dribbled down her cheeks soaking her tank top. However Maude managed to stay awake. She kept to herself mostly, only talking to Pinkie Pie and her pet rock.
There was no way of telling why one's infection would grow faster than the other without proper tests which there was no time for that now. With the speed of her deterioration the way it was, it was hard to tell how long Rainbow Dash would stay in her right mind. Shining Armor's transformation hadn't taken that long, while Spike had taken most of the night. There were just too many variables to venture any kind of an accurate guess.
Twilight sat looking at her locket for a long time, the metal was warm under her caressing fingers. When she opened it and gazed upon Shining Armor's face there was a twinge of sadness, but also happiness. She could see him in her mind as a young stallion working so hard to be a cadet. Twilight stayed up so late working on a gift for him that she fell asleep at her desk. When she woke up the next morning, she was in her bed laying under his coat. A brown velvet box rested on the pillow next to her head. The note had been sappy as they always were when they wrote to one another, but this one made her cry for some reason. Even now she felt the tears welling up in her eyes.
“Darling, whatever is the matter?” Rarity's melodious voice brought about Twilight's gaze.
“Oh I was just thinking about Shining Armor.” Twilight angled the locket towards Rarity, so she could see the pictures.
Rarity lowered herself in the most graceful of fashion so she could sit next to Twlight “Oh that is just precious.”
“It was the first gift he every really bought for me with his own money. I felt so honored that I cried.” Twilight blushed at revealing such a private memory with her friend.
Rarity pressed a soft kiss to her warm cheek and whispered in her ear. “Keep that memory fresh in your mind, darling. Because that's what you, what we are all fighting for.” Twilight couldn't help but smile back, a whole new warmth coursed through her.
The moment was interrupted when Twilight heard Zecora moving. She stood from her seat beside he bed and stretched. They could all hear joints popping as she did so. Her hooves made a hollow sound as she wound her way around the bodies stretched out all over her floor to stand next to the cauldron. She reached into her mouth pulling a wad of chewed herbs she had tucked in her cheek, dropping it into the brown liquid.
Zecora's smokey voice washed over Twilight like a warm bath. “Your friends are ill, that much you know, I have no remedies that will stop the virus's flow. The blue one for sure, doesn't have long, the other however seems to be more strong.” Zecora kept her voice low as she spoke to Twilight. “So what will you do now? Face off a against Discord, but how?”
“All we have to do is find his home and then I have to play some stupid riddle game with him. After that he'll lift the curse.” Everything always seemed to fall in place when it's Twilight's mind, but when she spoke it aloud, it all sounded crazy.
“And if he wins?” She cocked her head, looking deep into the Alicorn's eyes. “Are you willing to yield?”
“He can't...I can't let him win. If I do, then I'll be letting down everypony in all of Equestria.” Sweat prickled every inch of her body at the thought that Discord could actually win. “Determination is all well and fine, but I suggest a back up plan this time.” Zecora pulled her cloak tight across her bare chest like a curtain over a window.
“There isn't any time to be coming up with a back up plan, I'm afraid.” Applejack finally spoke, obviously eavesdropping on the conversation from her post by the window. “Listen Zecora, I know you're trying to help and all, and believe me it's appreciated, but we really need to know how to get to Discord's place so we can finish this thing. That's the whole reason we came here.” Her voice carried an angry tone, despite the tired look on her face.
Zecora seemed unmoved by Applejack's forceful words, instead she stared at the filly for a long time before clearing her throat. “Fine, if my council you do not seek, then none will be given from me.”
The zebra walked across the room gracefully stepping around everyone. She paced along her bookshelf which took up the entire wall. Zecora rubbed her chin thoughtfully, until she found an old hand stitched leather bound book. Upon closer inspection Twilight could see the old weathered zebra strips along the leather binding. It took a moment for her to realize that the book was bound with the skin of another one of her kind.
“I know what thoughts you must be thinking, was a gift from one of my ancient kin.” She set the book down on a small table near the bookshelf, opening it to reveal a hallowed out section in the pages. Inside was a polished ivory pipe and a small burlap pouch.
Twilight studied the pipe, at one time the ivory had been white, now it had yellowed with age. Small etchings ran the entire length of the shaft. Designs and shapes that she couldn't quite make out, even if she could they were written in a language she never learned how to read. Her thoughts were disrupted by the questioning tone of the youngest Apple. “I hardly think now is a time for a smoke, Zecora.” Zecora let loose a breathy giggle, reaching out to ruffle the filly's curly hair.
“No, little one, this tobacco is magic, to find Discord's location is our tactic.” Zecora took a pinch of the green herbs from the pouch, packing it into smooth bowl of the pipe.
“Wait, you still have the use of magic, but how?” Twilight exclaimed stepping closer to the zebra, who was fishing a gold plated lighter from the pouch at her hip.
“Not exactly, as you can see. That's why only ancient magic is key.” Zecora placed the stem between her plump lips, igniting the lighter in one fluid motion. The embers caught instantly, a few drags filled the room with a thick green smoke. It carried the pungent smell of weeds, dirt, and sandalwood. It was strong enough to force Twilight to cover her nose with her shirt. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see the other ponies doing the same.
Zecora closed the lighter with a hollow click echoing in the recesses of Twilight's mind, the embers glowed a bright green, shining like a beacon that burned her eyes. It was the same green glow as the moon and the mist covering the ground. The room started shimmying as if Twilight just surfaced from a deep dive. A cloud of smoke embracing her, pulling her back down into the waters of her consciousness. Two glowing green eyes cut through the thick smoke, a voice whispered unto her in a tone that was as thick and smoky as the cloud that surrounded her.
The tone waxed and waned with a haunting melody. “Through the woods you travel, over the brush to a mystery, you must unravel.” Twilight was sped through the trees, the brush, and bushes. “To the edge of where the earth splits free, across a gap that only ancient eyes can see.” Twilight stopped sudden as the earth crumbled away under her feet, invisible hands pulled her down into the blackness below. “Atop a hill a house sits, where an ancient riddle fits.” Something halted her so quickly that her stomach churned. She hovered, held aloft so she could see a rickety shack, twisted and broke just like the being who lived there. “Not a goat, a deer, or lion whole, a creature lost to the lust for a soul.” The figure that held her in the air materialized. Discord coiled around her, squeezing the air from her lungs. “Older than ground he strode, before tales of good and evil told.” Discord leaned closer to Twilight, she was too weak to fight his advances. A crooked smile tracing his lip, his breath smelt pungent of weeds and sandalwood. “To face the wielder of this curse, you must learn of friendship first, or folly will be this discourse, you will lose to the one called Discord.” Discord unhinged his jaw and bit down onto Twilight's head, blackness engulfing her.
“NO!” Twilight screamed, flailing against the tight coils of Discord's body. When she opened her eyes, she stared deeply into the green wells of Applejack's eyes, who gripped Twilight's forearms so tightly they were sure to bruise, yet she could feel no pain. The only thing she could feel was a sharp throbbing in her horn, so painful it churned her stomach making her feel like throwing up.
“Take a drink, Sugar Cube.” Applejack held a cup of water to her lips, tipping it back.
The water wasn't cold, but at least it helped ease the nauseous feeling. Twilight swallowed, looking around the room. “What was that?” She asked in pained voice. Zecora didn't say anything, instead she just collapsed into her chair, her cloak falling open to reveal dull glowing runes that covered her entire body. She clutched the side of her head trying to squash the ache throbbing in her head.
Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were comforting Sweetie Belle, who was clutching her horn with a cool rag. Rarity clung to Braeburn and Fluttershy, her eyes were closed tightly as if she were battling a migraine. They were holding her so close, while Fluttershy rubbed her shoulders.
“Ancient magic...” Zecora began, grimacing as if the words she spoke hurt too much to get out. “...is nothing to play.” Her smoky voice came out in weak pants. “Only those born of magic..and strong of will, can survive it's pain.” She rested her head in her hands exhaling heavily.
Applejack looked around the room pursing her lips. She didn't need to say anything, Twilight knew that she hated magic, most earth ponies did, but since they'd met and spent so much time together, Applejack had come to accept it's necessity and even respect it. It was times like this that did little to stifle her inborn prejudices. “Are you alright, Sugar Cube?” Applejack's pet name cut through the pain in her head, bringing their gazes to meet.
“Yes...I just need to rest a little. My horn is killing me.” As Twilight spoke, she could see Applejack's impatiences getting the better of her, but managed to play it off with a cool smile.
“Take as much time as you need, sweetie. We need you in top form to help get us through this.” Applejack set the cup of water down on floor, before flopping next to her. She slipped her jacket off, laying it across Twilight as a make-shift blanket.
“Thank you so much.” Twilight yawned closing her eyes.
Once Applejack got cozy, she wrapped her arm across Twilight's shoulders. “C'mere you, rest your head on me” Twilight rested her head on Applejack's sturdy shoulder. The velvety fur there felt good against her cheek. Twilight could smell Applejack's sweat mixed with her natural scent and neither of them were offensive. If anything it helped lull her into a deep sleep, where she roamed the darkness of her weary mind.