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Can't See the Forest

by FanOfMostEverything

The Everfree had always been a harsh environment, the dense canopy leaving deep shadows both physically and in the harmony of the world as most ponies understood it. In truth, it enforced a deeper, more fundamental balance, but ponies only saw the differences from how they preferred things. They sadly feared those differences, and that fear echoed back to them through the Everfree’s inhabitants.

Then Chrysalis’s invasion had swept out from Canterlot, consuming the nation, and suddenly the forest didn’t seem so bad anymore.

Tree Hugger examined her surroundings with all her senses, from the taste of the air to the wind against her bare fur to the deeper mysteries only her magic could touch. The natural vibe of the forest had been disrupted, but not as much as she thought it might. Trees wanted to grow, after all. To spread out and drink in the light. Encouraging them to spread over more land had happened simply and easily. The trees themselves didn’t know or care why the ponies had gone from cutting them back to encouraging them. They just vibed.

Tree wished more creatures could be so carefree. Like the agitated birds who’d made a ruckus a bit ago. Or the ponies who were brandishing spears at her.

Hang on.

The spearponies glared at her. She blinked back, thinking over the last minute or so when she’d been thinking on a level closer to that of her namesake. “Hey,” she said. It seemed like a promising way to start.

The pink spearmare narrowed her eyes. The yellow one seemed ready to visit terrible harm on Tree, and thus to herself. Both auras were terribly snarled, and it all but broke Tree’s heart to see such beauty in knots. Times were hard on many creatures, but these brilliant souls were so far from being their best selves that—

“Hey!” Tree blinked again as the pink mare scowled and brandished her spear. “I said ‘What’s your business?’”

“Oh.” Tree shook her head, encouraging herself to get back on the pony wavelength. “Sorry. Thinking heavy thoughts, you know?”

The pink mare leaned over to her partner. The way she held up her hoof, she may have thought she was whispering. “She doesn’t seem like a changeling. More like a pony that wandered out of a feeding pod.”

Yellow still looked like she was one wrong move from seriously disrupting Tree’s equilibrium. “Anyone who approaches the sanctum is still suspect.”

A zebra strode into the clearing through a hole in the foliage that, even after watching her move through it, Tree couldn’t spot. The mare looked at her, eyes narrowed in thought rather than hatred through her war mask. “So, my guards, what have you found that such alarms you had to sound?”

The squawks and caws from earlier came to mind. Tree looked over the yellow mare’s aura again and gave a lazy smile. “Oh, that was you! Righteous. Nice to see somepony so in touch with the natural.”

The mare was still holding tight to her negativity. “Quiet, you.” She turned to the zebra. “Zecora, she approached us like she was drunk or drained. Eyes glazed, practically stumbling on her hooves. I can’t tell if she’s a captive who forgot why she broke free or an infiltrator trying something new.”

Zecora dug into her saddlebags. “Fear not, my friend. I’ve brought the salve. The answer’s one we soon shall have.”

“Rhythmic. But I already got some.” Tree blinked as Zecora uncapped the jar of salve. A thought struck her. She turned to consider her coat. “Uh. Kinda blends in, doesn’t it?”

The pink mare leaned in close to peer at Tree’s coat. Real close. She eventually stopped leaning on Tree’s ribs and looked at the green staining her hooves instead. “I guess it does…”

“Pinkie Pie you’ve reassured, but I can’t take you at your word,” said Zecora. “Alchemy’s no common trade. Where’d you get that lotion made?”

“Oh! Personal recipe.” Tree pulled out a reclaimed Goops for Stuff container from her own bags. “Been a hobby since before the bad times.”

“You don’t look like a zebra to me,” Yellow said with a sneer. She edged closer, spear pointed at Tree.

Zecora stopped her with a raised hoof. “No stripes are needed for the brew. Her story could in fact be true.” She gave Tree’s jar a cautious sniff. Her eyebrows rose, and just a bit of tension left the energy in the clearing. “The right components and amounts I can detect, and that’s what counts. You’re what you claim, strange as it seems. Perhaps a member of our team?”

Tree’s head kept bobbing for a few beats even after Zecora stopped. Once she processed the question, she shrugged “Dude, I just got here. I don’t even know what game we’re playing.”

“Game!?” Pinkie Pie shrieked. “You think this is all some kind of joke?” Her aura visibly curdled with that shout, and Tree’s heart went out to her.

“Most dangerous, the game we play,” Zecora said solemnly. “Survival for another day.”

“Oh.” Tree nodded. Yeah, sure, I’m in.”

The sanctum would’ve been amazing under other circumstances. Ponies not struggling against nature, but living with and within it. Tree could feel the living wood of the buildings, the currents of karma flowing between community and environment in a self-reinforcing web of togetherness and care.

She could also feel that web tighten as she walked through the clearing that was main square, paranoia darkening auras and closing hearts.


Tree blinked and realized a unicorn was standing right in front of her, scowling and tapping a hoof. “Oh.” She noted the free-wheeling whorls of energy looping out of the mare’s aura. “Hey, fellow traveler.”

“Trixie—“ The mare winced and sighed. “I was. Once. Kind of hard to go on tour when your audience is more interested in sucking the love out of you than sleight of hoof.” She looked Tree over, an eyebrow raised. “So what’s your story?”

“I’m just another soul on their journey, you know? Found my way here. Big Z let me in.” Tree looked around with a vague smile. “I’m happy to help unharsh your collective mellow.”

“Uh… huh. And you’ve managed to avoid changeling patrols by just drifting in the breeze?”

Ponies began to gather around them, drawn by the building dissonance between their respective flows. And probably Trixie projecting her voice.

Tree just shrugged. “It’s not hard to know when changelings are coming.”

“The creatures that could be anything?” said Trixie, making the watchers murmur. “Anypony?”

“Their surface changes. Their essence doesn’t. They can’t vibe with the rest of the world. It’s like playing music by slamming your face into a piano. You can try all you want, but you’re just gonna get noise.” Tree tilted her head in thought. “And it’s not good for the piano either. Might even knock it out of tune. Big Z gets that.”

Does she?”

“Oh yeah. It’s how the salve works, drawing out the real you can’t see in a way you can. Most righteous.” After a moment, Tree added, “You know, blind adherence to authority is an issue, but ragging on the boss mare when she knows what’s what isn’t cool.”

Trixie rollled her eyes. “Look, I was a performer. I know my way around a con or two, and I got burned plenty of times after everything went to Tartarus. Seeing a pony waltz in here like she was on a nature hike rubs me the wrong way.”

Going by the growing volume and clouding auras of the crowd, they agreed.

“There’s a lot of negative energy around right now, it’s true. But you can’t let that poison your chakras.”

“What’s that even supposed to mean?” said Trixie.

“The great thing about Equestria, even if it brought the ‘lings, was the positvity.” Tree beamed, thinking back. “Ponies helping ponies, you know?”

Trixie snorted. “I’ve been chased out of too many towns to think much of the kindness of strangers.”

“Your experiences in this life have been harsh. Life itself is harsh if we let every setback cut us deep.”

Nopony said anything for a bit. Likely digesting Tree’s insight. In time, Trixie said, “The fall of equine civilization isn’t exactly a setback.”

“It is if we never get back up,” said Tree.

“You…” Trixie jabbed a hoof into the deeper forest. ‘Chrysalis is out there, commanding dozens of swarms who want nothing more than to get in here and suck us all dry, and you’re saying to look on the bright side of things?”

Tree nodded. “That’s a good way of putting it, yeah.”

“What is wrong with you?”

“Love is a beautiful thing, dude. It’s why changelings want it so bad that they’ll try to get it in all the wrong ways. Letting it die because we’re afraid to feel it…” Tree shook her head. “That’s more than a setback. That’s losing the core of ponykind.”

The crowd traded looks at that. Several gave uneasy smiles. A few hugged. One wept, but tension straining her aura relaxed before Tree’s eyes.

Trixie was unmoved. “That’s why they want it, huh?”

“Why else?”

“So you want to encourage love.” Trixie began to pace around Tree. The crowd had to pull back to give her space. “Keep it coming, nice and happy and shining in the dark?”

Tree tilted her head. “Were you a poet in a past life? You have a real way with words.”

“Flattery won’t save you, changeling!” Trixie shouted, jabbing a hoof into Tree’s chest.

Several ponies gasped. Tree herself just blinked a few times. “Dude, what?”

“I don’t know if you defected from the swarms or if you’re just here to make us lower our guard, but it doesn’t take a genius to see what you’re trying to do. Nopony could say things like that with a straight face!”

The crowd muttered more, and much more angrily.

“Dude, you’re all really bumming me out right now. Do you need to harsh the group mellow like that?”

“Trixie doesn’t know what that means and she doesn’t care!”

Tree held up her hooves in a warding gesture. “Like, I get you’re a ‘ling too, but no need to project the snarls in your aura into mine.”

Everything went very quiet. The silence stretched out long enough that Tree made sure she hadn’t slipped into the timescale of the midges buzzing overhead.

Eventually, one of the ponies gathered around them said, “‘Too’?”

“Yeah. Watch.” Tree booped Trixie and twisted her brow chakra. Heatless, forest green flames consumed both of them, revealing two very different creatures amid the crowd’s gasps. One was twisted, blackened, physically scarred by the karmic debt of forciibly siphoning energy from the auras of others.

The other glittered in the clearing’s sunlight, iridescent, whole, and integrated into the great cycle. “How’d she put it again… Right.” She bowed. “On behalf of Queen Megaloxantha, we come to you to asking for sanity and restraint. For if you continue to ravage this world and its creatures, your evils will revisit you manyfold.”

The other changeling just stared at her, jaw hanging open. Before she could respond, the ponies fell upon her, beating her into submission.

Tree watched placidly as Fluttershy came, spear in hoof and a terrifying rage burning in her eyes. “You know, like that.”

It took a few more seconds for Tree to realize that she probably should have waited to deliver the message directly to Chrysalis. And she shouldn’t have done it front of a bunch of skittish ponies who’d been hiding from the mad queen's hive for almost a year.

As she later told Zecora after the pummeling and alchemical paralyzation from the neck down, “My bad.”