A small patch of smoke shifted gently at Macintosh terrified shout. An end of the cloud rose, coalescing into a rounded shape. Two triangular wisps rose from the side of the shape and solidified into ears. The shape stretched forwards into a muzzle and diamond-like fangs appeared as the head completed itself. The rest of the cloud rose and lengthened, becoming the creature's body even as the remaining vapors flowed away, becoming four lean legs and a tail. Finally, a pair of amethyst eyes formed, completing the transformation.
The wolf-like creature let out a yawn and stretched. This was a cheocú, a creature of the fey, and in his panic Macintosh had awoken it. It sniffed the air tentatively. It smelled meat, unlike any creature it had hunted. But on top of that it smelled something else.
It smelled fear.
Regardless of where it had come, one thing was for certain - the new creature was afraid. The smell was unmistakable. The cheocú was an experienced hunter, and knew frightened prey meant a potential meal, for in their fear they often made mistakes. Mistakes often led to a full belly. The mist that surrounded the cheocú would help as well, it made it hard for most creatures to focus upon it properly.
It would track the new prey’s scent, and if it led to something it could take down with little risk to itself...
Well, it was impossible to have too much to eat.
The cheocú's eyes shone through the thin fog that constantly roiled around the creature and they narrowed as it searched for the new prey...
With a supreme effort, Macintosh managed to calm himself and silence the gibbering voice within his head. What had happened had happened; screaming his head off wouldn't help matters. As he clumsily got back onto his hooves, the saddlebags - now much looser on his body due to his being smaller and thinner - slipped off as well, partly due to his change in size and partly due to his collapsing. He took that surprising well, only whining slightly as they hit the ground.
He'd felt some weight in his legs as he'd gone to the pool, and looked at a forehoof. For some unknown reason, whatever had done this to him had also shrunk his horseshoes. He snorted in annoyance. Oh goody. That'll help, he thought disgustedly. The only thing I get to keep is something that'll make things a tiny bit more difficult for me.
Seems to be an ongoing theme for me today...
The source of the new smell was soon located. It wasn't much to look at - it was primarily red with orange hair atop the head and as a tail. It was an awkward gangly thing, its legs appearing to be mostly made of knees. The rest of it wasn't all that impressive, either. The thing looked half-starved, even sickly. The cheocú almost considered letting the thing go, but it looked as though it would be too easy a kill to just abandon, and it might be tastier than it appeared. It moved closer and let out a loud anticipatory growl...
The colt considered his options. He obviously couldn't go back as he was - at the very least there would be questions as to where he'd really been. And then there was no knowing if this....whatever was temporary or permanent. He shook his head and sighed.
Well...I'm already a good way into the forest, he thought to himself, I may as well keep going. l have to, really; this is obviously some sort of magic or hex and since Miss Zecora lives here, she'll likely know what happened and how to fix it.
Anyway, if I go home like this...
Macintosh didn’t dare think any further on the subject – he might be breaking a spit-shake promise, but there was a huge difference between ‘turning back if things get a bit hairy’ and...this.
On top of everything else, Granny’d tan his hide like there was no tomorrow.
He thought that was probably the scariest part.
Then he heard the growl.
Macintosh rolled his eyes.
And the troubles, they just keep on a-coming... The growling got closer and Macintosh clumsily bolted for the closest bush. He wasn't used to hiding from trouble, but he also wasn’t used to being half his age or less; whatever that growl had come from would probably make short work of him, especially in the state he was in - both physical and mental.
The cheocú gave a short bark of annoyance - it had made too much noise before emerging and Macintosh had enough wits about him to hide in a bush instead of panicking. It would have to make do with the fruit the colt had been carrying. It wasn't as fulfilling as meat, but it would do.
While Macintosh hid, he heard a tearing sound and wet chewing. He peeked out of the bush, but could see nothing but his saddlebag being mauled, the bag hiding the identity of the creature lunching on his apples. He backed himself deeper into the bush.
Well, there go the apples, he thought sadly. Could have been worse though; could have been me. I suppose that’s at least one bright point – Celestia knows I could certainly use one...
The sounds of chewing and tearing broke off and there was a gentle padding as the creature loped away. After a minute, Macintosh emerged. Just as he’d feared, the saddlebag had been torn apart and all of the apples were gone. All that remained were some of the apple blooms.
Macintosh grumbled for a moment at the loss and then returned his attention to the job at hoof - right now he needed to see Zecora for something quite a bit more important than just courting her. That sort of thing could wait until after. As he went deeper into the forest, a pair of eyes shone from a bush and vanished.
Macintosh kept as close to the trees as possible; whatever it was that ate his saddlebag sounded big and mean, and he wanted to stay as hidden as possible. Fortunately, his legs seemed to be getting stronger; it wasn't so hard to move around anymore. The weight of the horseshoes actually seemed to be a help, not a hindrance. And of course not having the saddlebag and collar on helped immensely. At least now he’d be able to go through the forest on legs he didn't have to worry would collapse beneath him.
As Macintosh carefully moved his way through the forest, it seemed to him that every plant in this forest had sharp thorns and all the insects were biters or blood-drinkers. He began to itch badly, and all over. He rubbed against a tree in order to find some relief and let out a contented sigh.
The eyes in the bush followed his progress and the cheocú slipped from one bush to another as it followed its prey and waited for a second chance. A slight wisp of smoke followed in its wake as it skulked...
Macintosh kept going forward. Was the smell of smoke getting stronger? Given how the day has been so far, he chose be optimistic; he figured it was stronger. As he stopped momentarily to get a fix on the smell, there was a rustling sound and the forest sounds suddenly cut off like a candle had been blown out, replaced by a growl, like the one he'd heard upon losing his saddlebag, though this one was quieter. And closer.
Oh horseapples... he thought, looking behind him.
It looked vaguely like a wolf, if you could make a wolf from drifting smoke.
It looked hungry. That wasn't difficult to see, even given its unique appearance.
And he appeared to be on the menu.
Macintosh bolted away and the cheocú followed with a ferocious bark. With his gangly legs and lack of his usual fortitude, Macintosh wasn’t exactly breaking any speed records and the uneven forest floor was slowing his mad dash further. The cheocú, however, was in its element and had no problem following him.
Now what’d Miss Twilight say about being in a situation where confrontation wasn’t an option? “Use your brain, not your muscles – if you can’t run and you can’t fight, use trickery. Sometimes where you are can work to your advantage.”
The distance between predator and prey quickly began to lessen. As Macintosh ran for all he was worth, something ahead of him caught his eye. He smiled despite the situation.
And I think I see just the advantage I need...
Macintosh’s desperate flight brought him close to a large tree. He did a quick ninety degree turn and slowed enough to give the tree a hearty kick with his hind legs before racing off in the new direction.
The kick loosened a large branch from high up which landed on the cheocú's back with an impressive thud. The creature let out a loud yelp and broke off pursuit – the impact hadn't harmed it, but it had been a hearty one, stunning it and bringing it to its knees.
Macintosh kept running until he realized he was no longer being chased. He stopped to catch his breath, which took longer than he expected. He really hated this forest now and wanted to leave, curse or no curse, but he’d already gone this far and had reached the point where accepting the possibility of failure just wasn't going to happen - he’d get to Zecora’s hut if it killed him.
He refused to dwell on the fact that it just might – pessimism would get him nowhere, especially now.
He was becoming more than a bit hungry at this point - being as young as he now was, he didn't have the fortitude he once had and even though he'd eaten only a couple of hours before, his belly was rumbling. He wished he still had his saddlebags. Even one or two apples would have been enough.
He began salivating and his stomach growled louder. I just had to think that, didn't I? Well, Zecora spends pretty much all of her time here - there must be stuff for her to eat. After a short search, he found what appeared to be a blueberry bush. They looked like blueberries, they smelled like blueberries and, taking a careful bite, found they tasted like blueberries, so he tucked in.
They weren't blueberries.
He was violently sick.
Fortunately - if you could call it that - after the last piece of berry spewed out of him, he found his stomach felt more full, or at least had stopped growling. The berries tasted okay; I guess some of them had just gone bad, he thought. At least I'm not hungry any more, though how that’s possible given how sick I was, that’s surprising. Not gonna complain though; I seem okay otherwise...
He took a gargle of water from a small pool nearby to clean the taste of vomit from his mouth and spat it out. He continued onward, unaware that the berries he’d just eaten were deadly poisonous. The berry’s toxin made his belly feel full, but from that point on he was slowly dying and - due to the poison’s insidious nature - was completely unaware of it.
The poison began to affect him with a slowly growing exhaustion, though given his current situation, it was overlooked as simple exertion - he literally wasn't the stallion he used to be. Soon he gave a short yawn and stopped to stretch. Applejack was right - entering this forest had been a big mistake. He'd have to give her an apology if...when he got home. Fortunately the smell of smoke had become a lot stronger than before the weird-looking wolf had come across him and he'd had those terrible berries. Zecora had to be around here somewhere.
The cheocú had picked up Macintosh's scent again and began tracking him. The colt had tried to harm it - this was becoming personal. This time, though, Macintosh was out in the open; there were no trees around and he was far enough from the bushes that when the cheocú made its appearance it would be too late for Macintosh to do anything but die.The cheocú's eyes gleamed with equal parts hunger and malice. It gone through enough effort for its meal - it decided it may just kill Macintosh out of spite and be done with it.
More time passed and Macintosh’s exhaustion grew and grew as his heart pumped the poison through his body while he searched for the source of the smoke.
Finally, as the poison was reaching the final stage and his consciousness was beginning to slip away entirely, Macintosh saw a dome-like structure in the distance.That had to be Zecora's hut - who else would live here? He stumbled towards it and shouted Zecora’s name. After shouting her name several times - each more desperate and incoherent than the last - she emerged, looking annoyed at the intrusion. Her eyes widened upon seeing the exhausted colt stumbling towards her.
“Macintosh? Is that you? Oh my poor friend. What has happened to you? My help I will lend.”
The cheocú moved up to a tall bush. It began to salivate in anticipation as it crept through and towards Macintosh...
Macintosh smiled. It had taken who knows how long and he'd dealt with more troubles than a single pony deserved to be stricken with, but he’d finally found her. He tottered towards Zecora on legs that hardly worked any more. Her eyes widened further and she stepped back. Macintosh heard the sounds of branches breaking behind him and a growl which grew steadily louder. He slumped his shoulders and sighed. That damned smoke-wolf thing again... Something snapped inside Macintosh’s mind and he heard a roaring sound inside his head as rage flooded through him. Even his exhaustion was pushed aside by its strength.
The cheocú advanced. Macintosh didn't move.
He spoke quietly: “Y’know, all things considered I've been remarkably patient 'bout this whole situation. While I’ve been here in this Celestia-bedamned forest, somethin’ made me into a colt again. Somethin’ - an’ I’m bettin’ it was you - ate the gift I was bringin’ to Miss Zecora. Every damned bug has had its way with me, and I seem to walk through every damned bush with thorns. But I walked it off - sure, I was as scared for my life, but I knew if I just kept on, I'd find Miss Zecora an' everything'd be right with the world.
"But of course I don't get shown a speck of mercy - even after all I've been through, the spirit of bad luck is still riding on my back.
"And as I’m trying my hardest an' doin' my best to get here, despite every single bit of bad news this damned forest has thrown in my path, you show up an’ try to kill me. Twice. Now, I know you’re a critter of the forest and you're jus' doin' what comes natural to you an' I understand that, but to put it simply this has been one of the worst days of my life.
"And I’m sorry to say, but I’ve reached my limit. I'm puttin' my hoof down – I’ve taken enough an’ I ain’t takin’ no more."
Macintosh took a deep breath.
“Now I'm not the violent sort, heck I'm one'a the nicest ponies yer likely to meet - barrin' Miss Fluttershy, of course - but as I said, this has been a really bad day fer me, an' your taking a second shot at me, well, that just sealed the deal.
"So if you want a piece of me, you mange-tailed sonovabitch..."
His voice rose to a shout of pure fury.
"...then COME AN' GET IT!!”
The cheocú let out a roar and charged. Macintosh, using the last of his strength, bucked as hard as he could as it leapt towards him. There was a wet crunch as his iron horseshoes caught it full in the face and the colt's legs went numb from the impact. The fey creature let out an agonized howl as the touch of the iron burned the creature's face horribly and it barreled towards the nearest bush as fast as the crippled creature could, trailing smoking blood and more than a few teeth behind it.
Breathing like someone who had just run a marathon, Macintosh laughed faintly and muttered “That’ll learn ya, ya damn fool...sum...sumbish...”
His heavy breathing suddenly became harsh gasping. With a panicked look on his face he tottered unsteadily, his forelegs crossed and he collapsed onto his side. He moaned what sounded like the zebra’s name, his eyes rolled up into his head and he went still. Zecora advanced upon his still form, concern in her large blue eyes.