She felt like she wandered for hours. It was dark enough to easily stumble yet light enough to recognize some semblance of the forest. Sassy felt relieved even though only little rays of light shined through the thick canvass of trees above. As calm as she tried to be she knew it was only a matter of time until the light faded away and drowned her with more darkness.
Despite circumstances Sassy admired what beauty she was able to comprehend during her journey. It seemed like nature yearned for an audience as some rays meticulously shone across a small, humble group of dazzling flowers that revolted against the dark, dank and grim surroundings. Was she hallucinating? Gorgeous, almost glowing pink roses hanged amidst a bush ragged with sharp edges and course leaves. For a moment her surroundings left her and she took a moment to savor the scent of the roses.
She knew not of the Everfree Forest’s predatory instincts. While hidden beauty certainly thrived underneath the gloomy, thick carapace of the forest, such small wonders of nature did nothing to guide the lost to safety. Only when the light began disappearing from her sight did she realize too late that the day was lost. More darkness encompassed her surroundings but the moon’s light prevailed. Sassy focused her mind on escape but not before giving the moon a solemn thank you for another chance of hope.
As she frustratingly maneuvered the forest a biting sensation of paranoia stalked her mind. She tried to fling it away but an errant shuffle from nearby bushes stoked the anxiety growing within her heart. A shadow leapt over the moonlight for a split second before disappearing as soundless as it arrived. Sassy’s head pounded with such suffocating adrenaline that she felt like puking her heart out. The nearby bushes shook again and, with a deep cry of pure shock Sassy flailed her hooves to deter whatever force set out to murder her.
“Hey!” The grey colt shouted as he defended his head. “Watch the mutton chops! I just trimmed them.”
Sassy fell on her haunches with a grunt. The mare scooted herself away from the colt, and once the shock sifted from her mind she took a moment to assess him. He looked a lot older than her and had the trimmed, black muttonchops to prove it. His jade eyes treated her like some otherworldly figure, and his saddlebags carried a variety of mail ranging from simple envelopes to parcels. With the moon’s light she saw his attire, a dark red vest with golden buttons and a hood covering his head. He cantered closer to her and she jerked away.
“You alright,” he asked with a quirked brow. “What’s a mare like you doing wandering around here?”
“The hay?” Sassy objected with irritated shock. “Forget that, who do you think you are stalkin’ poor defenseless ponies like that?” She quickly got up and scoffed, walking away as she spoke. “You just mind yer own business, hear? The nerve….”
“Hang on there!” he shouted as he trotted to Sassy’s side. “Do you really wanna head deeper into the forest?” He stopped moving when Sassy did. She looked to him and scoffed again, then turned towards another direction and continued.
“So you’re from Manehattan?” the colt said with a tilted head and a grin.
“Beat it, saddlebags! ” Sassy yelled in protest. “Just leave me alone and do whatever it is you do!” she accelerated her pace like trying to escape a plague. The colt simply continued following her , showing no signs of fatigue or stress.
“Well, it’s not really my job but I do rescue lost ponies from time to time.” He softly chuckled to himself, a gesture that stung Sassy’s ears like bees. “And from the looks of it you seem lost.”
“I ain’t lost!” she pressed. Her stubborn nature strained against her reasoning. She felt flustered, finding difficulty keeping her focus on where she headed rather than on the annoying colt following close to her hooves.
“Yeah you are.” The colt’s smirk expanded as he anticipated Sassy’s reaction. She finally got fed up. An angry cry of frustration bellowed from her mouth and she began trotting through the forest. The impromptu marathon resembled an obstacle course of fallen logs and dangling vines, many of which Sassy failed to maneuver. At certain points she swore she lost the colt, but then the course would snag her and he’d be standing right there. After one final trip over a rotting log she gave up, and the colt only smiled and chuckled without an invasive hint of weariness.
“Name’s Wind Waker, or Windy, in case you’re wondering.” Waker extended a hoof towards her but she vehemently declined it, lifting herself up on her own.
“Fine,” she barked with restrained pride. The forest succeeded in wearing her out, and it took much more strength than she thought just to get herself back up. “You win, alright? Just take me the hay home and go away!”
“Alright,” Wind said with feigned cowardice. “Easy there, lady. No need for harsh words, yeah?” He smirked and stifled a snicker. Sassy’s blatantly displeased face showed the colt enough to shut him up, and the two began their journey without an idea of how long it would take.
Sassy felt like hours passed. The moon lit their way through sections of the forest but it all looked the same to her. For some reason Wind seemed completely pleased with the walk, and he even started humming a song to relieve the drudgery of the surrounding wildlife. She voiced no objections, and she even recognized the song from her childhood. As she listened her eye wandered to Waker’s Cutie Mark and an old thought dug its way out of her mind.
“I ain’t interested or anythin’,” Sassy confessed first and foremost despite it being an outright lie. “But could you tell be about yer Cutie Mark?”
“Oh,” Wind mused to himself with a snicker. “Well, since you’re not interested or anything I guess I could tell you about it.” He started chuckling despite Sassy’s flustered appearance.
“I’m kidding,” he assured. “I didn’t get my mark until several years after I got out of school. It’s a sad tale of life experiences, love, and some really risky hardships.” He looked through an open hole of the forest and gazed longingly at the moon. “Sometimes you just don’t know what’s gonna happen until you try it, y’know? Ten years after school I started a delivery business, and I gotta say it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“A deliverin’ business?” Sassy felt intrigued but hid her enthusiasm under a scoff. “That what yer mark means? Crates in motion sounds like a weird trait.”
He laughed at the thought. “I know, right? But that’s what happened, and I’m glad it did. I wanted a reason to explore the world but I also wanted to help people, so what better way than one package at a time?”
Hearing him glorify a simple delivery job caused her brain to shift gears. She felt in her heart that she was hopeless, that nothing would ever suit her no matter how hard she tried. But yet, looking at Wind, listening to the facets of his life’s story and realizing how upbeat he seemed casted many doubts over her mind.
“Say,” he started again with a genuine smile. “Why don’t you go travelling with me? From the sounds of it you might find your mark wandering around the world! Heck, it might even do you some good even if you don’t get it.”
“Pardon?” Her? Travelling around? Truth be told she entertained the idea for a few minutes, but there was no way she’d survive out on the road. She bet even the smallest creature in the forest could beat her up. She shook her head before brushing off the thought. “You’re nuts,” she said with an incredulous tone.
“I don’t debate that,” Windy admitted with a grin. “But you took a few minutes to respond, so the idea does appeal to you, doesn’t it?”
He gave a vibrant laugh when he heard her scoff. “How can you be so blasé about invitin’ people? What if I get killed out there? It’s not like I can’t defend myself, but I don’t have any training or anythin’.” Sassy furrowed her brows as she listed off the worries. Was he really being serious? She found it difficult to figure him out since he seemed so cheerful all the time.
“No pony trots alone at the Red Equestrian Delivery Service! That’s the motto and truth of it.” Windy nodded to himself, proud of the words. Sassy still couldn’t believe how enthusiastic he was at extending an invitation to some mare he met a few hours ago. “If you want training we’ll give it to ya, but none of this matters if you aren’t genuinely interested in at least joining.”
“I can’t believe that,” she pessimistically voiced in surprise. “You must lose a lot of bits for all that free trainin’.” Regardless, the offer tempted her in a fashion beyond her expectations. A part of her demanded that she not give in to the optimism rising within her, but she couldn’t help it.
“We’re not all that big,” Windy confessed. “A few hundred members give or take, but I’m one to value quality rather than quantity.” He stopped, turned, and directly smiled at Sassy with such sincerity it completely ambushed her. “And I certainly see a quality mare right before me!”
“Crab apples,” she blurted with more incredulity, looking away as if scolded. “Yer a bad liar.” She felt her heart weighing down with guilt once more.
“The one thing I definitely am not is a liar!” Windy warned playfully with a grin. “Besides, if you don’t give yourself a chance you risk losing eye of any opportunities that you could take.”
“It’s not like anypony wants me around anyways,” she moped. “I can’t do anything fer nopony. Even my parents don’t want me around.”
“That ain’t true!” Windy barked with assurance. “Every time I visit your folks they always talk about you! They keep encouragin’ you to go out but you always sleep in!”
“Wait,” Sassy furrowed her brows suspiciously. “You’ve met my parents?”
“Every weekend at three o’clock in the afternoon – on the dot! – I bring Rooty a special supply of wheat for his bakery while Milly heads out to make sure the root beer shop is tended. Today’s a special case since I bumped into you, but I’m sure they won’t mind.”
“Then how come I’ve never seen you around?” Did she always sleep in on the weekends? This moment seemed too unreal for her to fathom.
“For one thing you always sleep in, like I said.” He grinned when Sassy scoffed and looked away. “Do you still have that wooden chest at the foot of your bed? I delivered that to you when I was your age!”
“But my parents bought me that when I was a filly.” Her mind reeled at the situation. “I can’t believe all this. Is there some kinda joke comin’?” She spun around and surveyed the outlying wilderness. It was all too coincidental, there must be some surprise waiting for her.
“I know, right?” Windy laughed. “Seems like wandering into the forest was the best thing that happened to you, huh? I bet Cyneward would get a kick out of that!”
She glanced to the colt. “Who?” Before he could respond three timberwolves jumped out of the shrubbery and locked their hungry eyes on the two. Their wooden bodies creaked loudly as their maws snapped like thunder. Sassy’s body went rigid as she gazed into their yellow, moonlit eyes.
“Mud slop!” Windy exclaimed with restraint. “Night already? We gotta get moving!” The two sprang away like crazed rabbits, fleeing further into the forest with reckless abandon. The forest seemed to get thicker and thicker with each leaf swept away from their faces. Sassy’s eyes began stinging as fear bit into them like succulent grapes. Her heart pumped frantically as her throat huffed with the strength of all her muscles.
It felt like they were travelling uphill. Every jump became more difficult as the timberwolves easily leapt and crossed over every obstacle. The forest started resembling a jungle as the two pushed through thick grass and choking vines. Sassy’s breathing became heavier but she forced herself to keep up with Windy, and even though he carried such inhibiting weight in his saddlebags the colt showed no signs of fatigue.
Her thoughts trampled over her. She was nowhere near experienced as he was. Every fiber of her being told her to keep running but she felt her end was coming closer with every breath exhaled. To make matters worse her vision began yielding to exhaustion. Her throat rippled with barbed pain, of a dryness only known to deserts. Before she knew it her legs began revolting against her will.
“Sass!” Windy yelled. The fear-stricken mare slowed as she suffocated from her lethargy. She almost stumbled to the side but her body jerked her upright. Some of her faculties were in the right place save for the important ones. She fought helplessly as her psyche choked her into an unbearable, pessimistic thought. Defeat loomed over every second like the pace of her heart’s beating.
“I can’t!” She wailed with the remaining strength she held. Her cry sparked riots through her throat. The muscles contracted and she began coughing wildly. An intensity as searing as hellfire thrust through her eyes and she snapped her lids shut. Windy’s words couldn’t reach her anymore; her mind had her now.
Her hoof tripped into a thick vine on the ground. As she spun across the air one of her eyes managed to open in hopes that the worst was over. To her horror it only glimpsed at a shadow above her, like some winged pegasus of death waiting patiently for her screams to reach it in bids of a final peace. Her body felt the crunch of the cold ground, her ears catching only blurred shouts of worry as Windy’s undecipherable silhouette leapt over her and faced the timberwolves. She cursed every second of her sentience, knowing that that each second acknowledged the life still coursing through her.
“C’mon you suckers!” Windy taunted as the timberwolves slowly surrounded him. His brow fell and he defiantly gritted his teeth. Blood surged wildly through his body and sharpened his vision and mind. He felt a small, meek wind pass by as the wooden wolves growled, growing tired of the hunt, ready to feast and gorge. An impatient pulse shot through one of them and he lunged at the mailpony with a bloodcurdling shriek. Windy pivoted and struck the wolf in mid-air with a dirt covered hoof to its maw. The canine yelped, caught off by the act of valor as it flew across the dirt and smacked against a tree.
“These legs aren’t just for running!” Windy taunted again as the sound of his hooves danced against the dirt like a battle rhythm. “Go ahead. Bring the mail!”
The two timberwolves silently glanced to each other. The third one limped towards them and, for some reason, nodded to the others. In unison, with all their might, they howled to the moon above an unseen, starlit sky. Waker furrowed his brows, his blood feeling the chill of the cry while the hairs of his coat stood up on their ends. The ferocious beating of his heart failed to offset the sensation of impending doom gathering around his soul.
“Horse feathers.” The whisper felt hoarse and dry. He looked over the timberwolves with a slow, careful motion, for any carelessness endangered his stature with absolute fear. His breath ran fast but he stifled it and swallowed the knot clogging his throat. What began as a small pack of three evolved into a full pack of eight.
They wasted no time charging at the stallion. Their hungry jaws snapped like a boulder obliterating a twig. Windy bobbed and weaved for a moment until a stray claw tore a hunk of flesh from his side. He neighed and reared as the exposed wound greeted the air with searing regards, and a timberwolf lunged at the opportunity only to meet with a front hoof to its face. Waker stood valiantly but winced at the blood trickling down his side. He glared at the beasts with undeterred strength and kept his ground no matter how much his legs shivered.
But the price of such valiance can only be paid with honor, and the pack deceived with numbers and cunning. Windy took in the drooling maws, the sharp teeth underneath the grainy, wooden exteriors but knew nothing of their plotting. One of them attracted Windy’s attention with several barks as another hurled itself towards him. He jerked again at the sight, but realized the miscalculated leap would not reach him; his error existed not with the jump but with the target.
He shoved Sassy away with the top of his head. The timberwolf bit into his succulent flesh as the sweet taste of blood filled its mouth. Windy howled with a mind scarring neigh as the teeth easily ripped through his grey coat and stained it red. His body hit the ground but his hooves remained at his disposal. He slammed one into the wolf’s side and shooed it away while some of his flesh still dangled from its mouth.
Carefully, fatigued and battered, he lifted himself up. A cold, sordid wind stung his open wounds and whispered him to concede. Even with fading vision and trembling legs he ignored the plea and instead unbuckled his saddlebags for what could be his last stand. The mail crashed out of the bags with a rioting shuffle of letters and parcels. Sassy laid lifelessly on the ground, caked in dirt and dead leaves but her vision livened at the sound of the mail. The bloodied air began smelling of wheat as her senses worked to pull her away from her wit’s end.
Kitchen, her mind thought. The smell welcomed her to it. Various breads filled her nostrils of a comfort only those who knew what home was. Wheat and focaccia mingled with black bread as she watched a faded image of her working father. She gazed over his calloused and worn hooves, forming what would become baguettes, and to another bundle of small rolls, croissants. She licked her lips with glazed eyes of hunger and felt her limbs coursing with life-giving blood.
She remembered her dry, arid throat and coughed violently as she forced herself up. A fierce expression offset the wincing of one eye as she glared towards the timberwolves. They felt no threat, not even sensations of surprise or irritation. The canines figured struggling meat worked well as a tenderizer and they only licked their chops with grins of glee.
“Dang it, Sass,” Windy said weakly as he looked towards her. He coughed and shook away the pain coursing through his side but said nothing more. The wolves moved closer and knew they won the battle.
Despite heavy legs and an unreliable vision she scoffed. Her voice trembled while she struggled to speak, an almost overtaxing feeling of pain completely new to her drilling through her body. The wolves growled with sheer delight at her pointless struggles. Sassy growled in anger and shook her head of clouded thoughts, finally proclaiming vigorously what she struggled to say. “At least I get to choose how I’ll die! I’m not gonna let’em take that from me!”
After a snarl one of the wolves prepared to start the feast. He lowered on his front legs as the crackle of his woody exterior strained with unbridled ecstasy. Sassy leered at the beast even though her blurred vision mocked her attempts. The other wolves cheered, barking, howling and snarling as their comrade prepared to pounce upon the poor ponies.
A gust of wind shot down upon them from the sky. A hellish crack of bellowing thunder threatened to collapse the ground around the ponies. A gurgling, deathly yelp screeched from the timberwolf as its rough skin completely gave way to the almost unnatural force from above. Windy grunted as the wind flew past him, his legs trembling uncontrollably as the pool of blood slowly grew beneath him. Letters destined for all around Equestria scattered through the winds and limply hit the thick overgrowth spurting from the surroundings.
Sassy collapsed to her haunches and then quickly recovered herself despite stabbing pains coursing through her body. Her dry eyes felt the sting of the wind but tears swept all around them in slight respite amidst a terrible nightmare. She grunted while forcing her mind to focus. When she opened her eyes she only recognized the pegasus of death she saw before her collapse; but as her vision cleared the figure took on something completely more menacing than the pack of timberwolves before them.
The golden-bodied gryphon flexed his wings in defiance. The thick, black feathers encompassing his head and neck unfurled as his brown eyes shook the wolves to their core. Goopy green sap dripped from his right claw as the other snagged the corpse underneath him and hurled it away like a piece of trash. The wolves inched away from their dead comrade as if a hex possessed it, and for a split second Windy felt that the beasts would run for their lives from the gesture. But the opposite happened. They all growled with an implacable vengeance only a pony could feel from losing her filly.
“Hey,” Windy whispered to Sassy. His vision started darkening as Sassy’s ears perked up. She looked to him from the corner of her eye and waited as the stallion gently swayed. A weak grin appeared over his face and he uttered his last words with the remnants of his strength. “That’s Cyneward.”
Thud. The stallion laid in his own pool of blood, unmoving but breathing. A sharp breath escaped Sassy’s mouth as her eyes went wide in unbridled fear. Her senses heightened for a moment as her ears caught the sound of thick claws crushing packed dirt with ease. Her world slowed to a crawl when she gazed up to the monolithic gryphon, taking in every hair and feather of his towering physique and the air swelling inside his chest.
And then she watched, electrified both with utmost fear and awe, how the forest around them quaked in anger amidst Cyneward’s mind-shaking roar.