Hoof Camp [By MuffinMantis]

Fluffy crept along the dirt path, head swiveling frequently as he searched, hoping to catch a glimpse of his pursuers before they saw him, while also hoping against hope that they’d given up their chase. He’d been on the run for hours, and now the sun was beginning to set. Soon, he’d have to find some place to spend the night, some safe hiding place. Not even the most deranged of feral cannibal herds would hunt him at night.

He was about to abandon the path to try to find a place to sleep when he noticed the buildings in the distance. To his eyes, they were merely a semi-uniform blur, but the jagged, angular design stood out against the trees. He wavered, considering his options, before a particularly cold gust of wind made up his mind. If he couldn’t find a place to sleep that was sheltered from the wind, he was going to freeze in his sleep. Better to take a risk that the buildings were abandoned or inhabited by sympathetic humans than to search in the growing darkness for shelter that may not even exist.

He picked up his pace, gambling the last of his stamina on this chance. If the humans in the building were friendly, it wouldn’t matter how tired he was. If not, well, it still wouldn’t matter; it made little difference if he died rested or died tired, after all. He was already making a huge gamble, might as well just bet everything and let fate decide.

His progress was arrested by a tall, chain-link fence, running around some kind of compound. There was a running track, several low, daunting-looking concrete buildings, a large pond, and some kind of machinery he couldn’t hope to identify. Following the fence, he searched for a way in, but couldn’t find any. He began to slow, fatigue taking its toll and cold settling into his bones. But he didn’t give up.

There! A hole in the fence, from what he couldn’t begin to guess, but it was an opportunity. He struggled to squeeze through, exhaling as much as he could, but couldn’t quite fit through. He pushed and pushed, but soon his legs buckled under him, leaving him hanging partway through the fence. Thankfully, whatever had made the hole had left the edges smoothed and blunted, or he might have been punctured in a dozen places by the wire as his weight settled onto it.

He breathed heavily, icy air burning his nose and throat, trying to muster the energy to make it the rest of the way through the fence, when he heard a sound that made him involuntarily hold his breath. Loud, snarling barks, coming from deeper into the unknown compound. He flinched, closing his eyes and pushing back the way he came as hard as he could as the sound grew nearer, but it was no use. He was stuck.

He kept his eyes closed, preferring to not see the jaws that would end his life. Better for it to be a surprise, rather than spend those final few moments of absolute horror, than see the teeth closing around his head and throat. Closer and closer the barking approached, until it seemed like it should be on top of him, until he could feel the hot breath on his face, smell the scent that was synonymous with terror for so many feral fluffies. But he never felt the jaws closing on him, never felt his body being ripped through the hole in the fence.

He finally dared to open his eyes, only to let out a shrill whimper of terror. A huge dog stood a mere few inches away, barking and snarling. Was it doing this intentionally? Was it reveling in his terror, dragging things out for its own sick amusement? Why? Was a quick death too much to ask for?

“Dummeh,” Fluffy spat, sudden anger overwhelming the terror. “Jus’ num Fwuffy awweady!”

But the dog simply stopped barking and sat down, teeth still bared, and stared at him. Then he noticed another sound, one obscured by the sound of the barks. A loud crashing through the semi-cleared underbrush. It sounded big, far bigger and less graceful than the dog. What kind of munstah was it? Had something else been able to strike such fear into the heart of a barky-munstah that it would leave him for it to kill?

“Good girl, Bella!” a voice came, and Fluffy felt his already-limp body somehow relax. “Another escapee, huh? I thought you all would have figured this out by now. I guess that’d be too much to ask of fluffies, though. Which ones will I have to…huh.”

The voice came to a stop and Fluffy looked up in the bright moonlight to see a tall, well-muscled woman, maybe in her mid-thirties, with short-cropped brown hair. She was wearing gray clothing, with a random pattern that might’ve been camouflage or might’ve just been random stains from long and heavy use. She held a heavy hand lantern, but had clearly opted not to use it on such a moon-lit night.

“You aren’t one of mine,” she stated flatly. “What do you want?”

Fluffy perked up at the words. One of hers? Did this nice lady have fluffies of her own? Maybe she was nice to fluffies. Maybe she’d let him stay, at least for a little while. Just until he could be certain that the cannibal herd wasn’t chasing him anymore.

“Pwease,” he began, partially-compressed chest making speaking difficult. “Fwuffy nee’ safe pwace tu stay. Onwy fow few bwite-times. Wiww be gud fwuffy.”

The nice lady raised an eyebrow, the beginnings of either a smile or a smirk on her face. “Well, that’s new,” she said. “First time I’ve had a fluffy trying to get in that way.”

Fluffy was too exhausted and too drunk on relief to catch the emphasis on her words. In his mind, that she hadn’t kicked him already was more than enough evidence that she was a kind person. Maybe…maybe a new mummah?

“Fine, I’ll let you stay, but under one condition: you leave when I say you leave. Do you understand?”

“Fwuffy undastan’!” he responded eagerly.

“Alright then, let’s get you unstuck and maybe get you some food and a place to sleep.”

Fluffy looked around the strange structure. On the concrete floor were dozens of fluffy beds, lined up against each wall in an orderly fashion, except on the far wall, where dozens of bowls were set up in a similar manner. None of the beds were occupied, but he could smell the scent of fluffies in the air. He looked around in confusion, wondering why the inhabitants weren’t in their beds, given how dark it already was.

“Come on, let’s get you fed. You’re going to have to have a bath sooner or later, but it can wait until tomorrow,” the nice lady said, grabbing a large bag of food from a shelf on the wall above the beds and putting a generous scoop in one of the bowls. Fluffy ate ravenously, realizing how hungry he’d been under the sickening terror. The food wasn’t anything special, but it was better than the bitter grass and rancid fallen fruit he was accustomed to eating.

“Tank 'ou, nice wady,” he said, once he’d finished. “Fwuffy hab wowstest tummeh-owwies.”

“You done? Okay, time for bed,” the nice lady said, turning and walking towards the door.

“Nice wady?” Fluffy asked plaintively.


“Wewe am odda fwuffies?”

“Oh, you’ll meet them tomorrow. Good night.”

“Gud dawk-time, mummah,” he responded, then flinched. She didn’t seem to care that he’d called her mummah, which made him hopeful. He curled up in one of the beds and exhaustion, relief, and the first full stomach he’d had in a long, long time sent him to sleep the moment his eyes closed.

He woke up in a panic at a loud ringing sound, jumping to his feet and looking around the still-empty room. A few moments later the nice lady strode in and glanced over in his direction. “Good,” was all she said, as she put another scoop of food into his bowl.

Fluffy tried to ask a few questions, but was ignored, so he just ate. He couldn’t understand the nice lady, but she’d given him food and a safe place to sleep in the warm, so he could forgive her oddities. The strangeness of the situation made him more than a little anxious, though.

“Follow me,” she said, and walked off at a brisk pace that he had to run to keep up with. They traveled along a paved path between the different buildings before reaching one of the smaller structures. As he walked in, the door closed behind him, and he was plunged into darkness.

Before he could panic, a light was switched on and he realized he was in a room with lots of small tubs set in the floor. Another type of panic set in as he realized what this room was. “Nu wan baff!” he protested. “Wawa am bad fow fwuffies!”

“Get in the bath,” the lady said. “I’m not having a reeking, mud-encrusted fluffy like you hanging around. Either you take a bath or you leave.”

Fluffy considered his options, but it only took a moment to decide. Between facing his fear of water and being dropped back outside the safety of the compound, he’d choose the water any day. He picked the closest tub, and flinched as warm water poured onto him and the lady scrubbed him roughly, until the soapy water turned from brown to white. Then came the toweling down, which was rather unpleasantly rough.

“Good, now you don’t stink,” the lady said, as he stood and shivered in the cool air. “Come on, it’s time for you to meet the others.”

He followed her once more, this time shaking violently as the cold air sucked the warmth from his still-damp fluff. The walk was much longer this time, and he was quite dry and unpleasantly warm by the time they reached the last building in the compound, one far bigger than the others.

The nice lady opened the door, and a concentrated scent of fluffies wafted out. Inside, there were dozens of fluffies, far more than Fluffy could hope to count. Why were they in here instead of the other building? It didn’t make any sense to him.

But what made far less sense was the uproar when the fluffies saw him, a mix of cries and threats and what sounded suspiciously like sobs. He could tell that only the nice lady’s presence stopped the group from attacking him, and he began to shake. Why did they hate him? He hadn’t done anything to any of them!

“QUIET!” the lady roared, and the sound died out instantly. “A24, half rations for the day.” This was met by a very quiet murmur of displeasure, but when the lady’s scowl deepened the murmuring was choked into silence.

“Wut fwuffy…” a voice quavered, before the speaker was skewered by the lady’s gaze and fell silent.

“This is C26, he’s a late arrival.”

At those words, he felt the hostility in the room melt away as if by magic, and the posture of many of the fluffies went from on-edge to semi-relaxed, but still standing tall and rigid, eyes locked on the lady. His confusion grew deeper, the situation far beyond his comprehension.

“Nice wady,” he asked, voice shaking a little in spite of his best efforts. “See-tuu-sicks nu undastan’.” He instinctively used the new name he’d been given.

“Well, I don’t have time to explain. A24, you know the drill.” With that, she turned and left, the door slamming closed behind her.

C26 looked around at the fluffies, unsure whether he was going to be greeted or kicked to death. They’d all relaxed, some laying down in their beds and some simply sitting, when the nice lady had left the room. One, though, a large orange unicorn with a missing eye and ear on his left side, approached C26.

“Hewwo, See-tuu-sicks,” he said. “Aye-tuu-fouw am Aye-tuu-fouw. Am obahsee-ah ob bwock tuu.”

C26 simply gawked in confusion.

“Wewe am See-tuu-sicks?”

“Dis am hoof camp.”

One bewildering explanation later, C26 was more or less caught up on what was going on. Apparently Janice, as the nice lady was called, took in fluffies nobody else wanted for…reasons. A24 hadn’t been to clear on that, and had skirted around the issue when asked. All C26 needed to know, he said, was to do what Janice said and not cause trouble. And never try to leave without permission, even if the hole in the fence wasn’t being watched.

C26 felt there was a lot he wasn’t being told, but before he could start asking questions to try to get to the bottom of the matter, Janice walked into the room once again, causing the fluffies to lurch to their feet and stand once more. C26 did the same, although he didn’t know why they all did it. He felt like it was a good idea to go along with it for the time being.

“Resting,” Janice snapped, and the fluffies sat or laid down once again. “A24, is our new arrival up to speed?”

“Yus, ma’am!”

“Good. Since we have a new arrival, we’re going to take an easy day today. Meal, laps, then free time.”

This was met with a cheer from the assembled fluffies, with the exception of C26 who was still confused. With a surge, they rushed towards the back wall, where bowls were lined up under strange chutes. A24 pushed a button on the wall, and the chutes deposited food into the bowls. Not nearly as generous a portal as C26 had received earlier that day, but still far more than he was used to seeing in one place as a feral.

His stomach was still full from earlier, so he didn’t try to find a bowl to eat from, which seemed to be for the best, since there seemed to only be one bowl for each fluffy there, not counting himself; or rather, only that number of bowls got any food in them. He stood around, a short ways away from the bowl so as not to seem like a threat to any of the others’ food, and waited for them to finish eating.

It didn’t take long, perhaps a minute or two, before the others finished eating. Janice stood, perfectly still, then pointed to three fluffies seemingly at random. Suddenly the air reeked of fear, but the three selected followed her out of the room all the same. C26 became more uncomfortable.

He looked around, spotting a smaller mare that seemed to be standing apart from the group like he was, and approached her. “Hewwo,” he said, in as friendly a tone as he could manage. “See-tuu-sicks am See-tuu-sicks. Whut am mawe’s namesies?”

The mare jolted a little, then turned away from him and walked off a short ways, looking at him with distrustful eyes. C26 was taken aback. He knew a lot of herds weren’t very friendly to newcomers at first, but that felt a lot more like fear than hostility. Was there something wrong with him, or had someone hurt the mare?

“Nu tawk tu odda fwuffies!” A24 snapped at him.

“Wai nu?”

See-tuu-sicks nu am awwowed tu tawk tu odda fwuffies! Nu fwat-er-nice-a-shun! Bee-wun-seben! Thwee waps!”

The mare, B17, shot a look of utter hatred at C26 and took off at a brisk run, faster than he’d ever seen a fluffy run outside of a life-or-death chase, around the interior of the room, jumping over beds. Several times she tripped and fell with a thud and a whimper, but she kept running.

“Wai make Bee-wun-seben wun? Am Aye-tuu-fouw smawty?” C26 asked, and a gasp sounded from the assembled fluffies.

See-tuu-sicks, Aye-tuu-fouw nyo am nyu, su wiww teww ‘ou wuwes wun mowe time! Nu tawk tu odda fwuffies besides Aye-tuu-fouw! Du whut towd! Nu twy to weabe! Undastan’?”

“Nu! Nu undastan’! See-tuu-sicks nu nyo wut am goin’ on! Wai nu tawk tu odda fwuffies? Wai nu weabe wen wan weabe?”

A24 sighed. “Aye-tuu-fouw nu make wuwes, bu’ wuwes nee’ be fowwowed. See-tuu-sicks, fouw an’ fouw an’ tuu washes.”

There was a sudden hush in the room, and C26 instantly felt sick with dread. What had he done? Was he in trouble? Why? All he’d done was ask questions! He hadn’t done anything wrong!

He found himself in a widening ring as the others avoided him, including B17 when she finished running and collapsed in a wheezing heap on the floor, bleeding slightly from her mouth where she’d tripped and run headfirst into a wall. Nothing made sense to him. What kind of place was this? What kind of mummah was Janice?

He stewed in confusion and fear and more than a little anger until the door slammed open once more and Janice walked in with her long stride, followed by the three fluffies she’d selected, all of whom moved with unsteady steps, looking sick and with faces still obviously soaked in tears. They all made their way to their beds and fell down with soft chirps, seemingly passing out on the spot.

A24, get everyone out to the track for laps.”

“Yus, ma’am! Ma’am, See-tuu-sicks tawk tu odda fwuffy, tawk back tu Aye-tuu-fouw!”

Janice glowered at C26, then shrugged. “It’s his first day, so I’ll let him off with a warning. Everyone, MOVE!”

C26 hadn’t realized just how long the track was, when he’d seen it from the outside. He quickly learned just how long it was, about one and a half laps into his run. By then, several of the other fluffies had overtaken him twice, and his vision was spotty as he drew painful, ragged gasps of air.

He didn’t know why they were running, or why the others seemed to care so much and put so much effort in. However, something told him that it would be best not to find out what happened if he didn’t do the five laps he was assigned, so he pushed himself as hard as he could.

Three laps in, however, he collapsed, unable to move any further. One, two, three minutes passed, then he heard the sharp tone of a whistle, and the fluffies trundling past him slowed to a stop. He looked up from the puddle of vomit and spittle he’d left on the dust of the track to see Janice striding towards him. Somehow, he knew he had to get to his hooves, but he didn’t have the energy.

C26! On your hooves!” Janice snapped, but he just lay there, exhausted.

“Last chance…” she said, her tone growing dangerous, but C26 couldn’t find it in himself to care. He’d only had a single night to rest, after being pursued for so long! He was still emaciated and undernourished! It wasn’t fair for him to have to run!

“Fine. Everyone, back to the barracks!” Janice roared, and the other fluffies took off at a brisk walk, some cheering while others jeered at him. A24, however, stayed behind, along with Janice.

C26, you will complete your five laps, and now another three! NOW!”

“Nu! Am tuu tiwed! Nu wan wun!” he snapped back, growing petulant.

“Fine. A24, you’ll see he completes the laps. If he stops, do whatever you want. But first…” Janice said, lifting C26 but his scruff and ignoring his cry of “Bad upsies!”. He felt something wrap around his hooves, one at a time, clicking closed. They were tight, uncomfortably so, bordering on painful. Then he was dropped a short distance onto his side with a thud and a gasp as the air was knocked from his lungs. Either through luck or design, however, none of his fragile ribs cracked.

A24, I have work to do. Once C26 finishes, you can go back to the barracks. I don’t think he’s going to try to leave like that.”

“Undastood, ma’am!” A24 responded crisply, then kicked C26 none-too-gently in the ribs. “WUN, WOWM!”

In the end it took three more kicks before C26 decided it was easier to run that to keep getting beaten. “Nu undastan’ wai hab tu SCREEEEEEEE!” his words cut off as he placed weight on one of his hooves and felt the bottom of the strange shoe dig into it, almost but not quite puncturing the skin and causing him tremendous pain.

He fell over to his side again, deciding that no number of kicks would be enough to make him run with these on. Then he felt a breath on his ears, saw the look in A24’s eyes, and realized that maybe running wasn’t so bad after all.

It was dark again already by the time he managed to finish his final lap. A24 left him laying there in a pitiful, sobbing heap. “Bettah gu to bawwacks ow wiww gu fowebah-sweepies fwom cowdie-owwies,” the unicorn warned before leaving C26 to his fate. His tone had been more sadistically delighted at the prospect than worried, in C26’s opinion.

C26 couldn’t bear to take another step. His hooves ached more than he would have believed possible, more than his tummeh after many bright-times with no nummies. He dragged himself along the ground, the freezing dirt leaching warmth from him as he shivered, the tears frozen to his face.

He dragged himself towards the nearest light, hoping it was the barracks where he could rest and hopefully eat. Maybe Janice would take pity on him and remove the dreadful shoes so he could sleep, too. Inch by inch he dragged himself through the dust, fits of coughing wracking his body when he inhaled the fine particles.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, he reached the light. It was low to the ground, practically level with his face as he approached it. A window, small and barred, looking into some kind of basement. He pressed his face against it, feeling it chill his mostly-numb skin, looking down into the basement.

Then he forgot his fatigue, and the pain of the shoes, and half-sprinted, half-limped in the direction of the hole in the fence. Synthetic psuedo-adrenaline flooded his system, washing away the pain and the exhaustion as his body and mind unified in the purpose of getting the fluff away from this place. The cold wind made him blink, and each time his eyes closed for the briefest of moments he redoubled his efforts, as what he’d just seen played across the inside of his eyelids.

He’d almost made it when Bella’s massive form bore him to the ground and he felt powerful jaws close around his scruff. Realizing it was too late, that he couldn’t escape, he felt the frantic burst of energy evaporate. Pain and terror and exhaustion overwhelmed him, and his eyes flickered shut.

Part Two