GREEN   64    78718   425.28 KB

Pizzaportal

By Gnisha
Created: 18th December 2020 01:43:31 PM

  1. >"Aaand that's that", you think to yourself as you set down the sixpack of beer next to your couch.
  2. >It was your birthday again, and this time you were prepared.
  3. >You had gotten beer, ordered some pizza and put some movies aside which, according to /tv/, "were absolute Kino".
  4. >"The anvil hoarder", you think to yourself. "Who would even watch something like this without being told to by someone on the internet?"
  5. >It should be good for some laughs with your friends at least, and sometimes the film recommendations you got off the internet had positively surprised you, so you were still optimistic.
  6. >Thinking of your friends, they should arrive at your apartment any minute now.
  7. >You turn on some music and try to relax some more minutes before a hard night of partying.
  8. >You havn't seen most of your friends in quite time, due to you all going to different universities, so there was some catching up to do.
  9. >A smile forms on your face as you think to yourself of all the antics your oldest friend Roger and you had gotten up to when you were young.
  10. >It would be good to see him and the others again.
  11. >You come to alone in the dark.
  12. >For a moment, panic sets in as you wonder why it's gotten so dark outside in the short timespan you had napped, after all your friends havn't even arrived yet.
  13. >As you turn on your cellphone to light your way to your lightswitch, you notice the time: 12:32. Well, that explains it.
  14. >A pop-up on your screen informs you that you, in fact, have some unread messages.
  15. >You flick on the lightswitch and flop back down on your couch while starting to scroll trough your unread mail.
  16. >The first is from Roger. "Hey, Anon", you read to yourself, "I am really sorry, but I won't be able to make it today. Lena needs me to drive her to a concert and take her back home afterwards, and coming over in the time inbetween would leave me with just about an hour to actually hang out. I will make it up to you, bro. Have fun without me, will you?"
  17. >You start to get a bad feeling about the other messages.
  18. >Roger wanted to pick your other friends on the way over, and if he couldn't make it...
  19. >Sure enough, the other messages mostly consist of people telling you that they won't be coming because Roger couldn't pick them up, wishing you a Happy Birthday without them, and other well-meant, but empty sounding phrases.
  20. >Dana's message is the only one sticking out of the pile of excuses, because the believability of her claim to a stomachproblem preventing her from coming is greatly enhanced by Photo evidence.
  21. >"Shit, Dana" you mumble to yourself, while trying to banish the picture of soiled ceramics from your mind.
  22. >Dana was always a bit blunt, but that was a new level of straightforwardness even for her.
  23. >Still, disappointment kicks in.
  24. >You had looked forward to this for quite some time, after all, you all hadn't seen each other in almost a year.
  25. >You toss your phone to the end of the couch and look over to your food preparations.
  26. >Now it had all fallen flat, thanks to Roger.
  27. >Your oldest friend left you to sit home alone on your birthday, and on such a short notice that all the preparations were made.
  28. >You can't help but feel like a joke has been made at your expense:
  29. >You guess you just couldn't compete with Lena's feminine wiles.
  30. >After all, what's someone who you have known since kindergarten next your fiance?
  31. >"Fuck", you shout, feeling yourself getting angrier.
  32. >Couldn't your other friends at least have come by some other means?
  33. >You knew for a fact that some of them had cars, and trains would have been an option as well.
  34. >Except for Dana. Dana was better off right were she was.
  35. >You briefly consider calling someone on your contacts list to chew them out but decide against it.
  36. >The evening was ruined how it was, and you didn't want them to come over anymore anyway.
  37. >Your good mood was ruined as it was, no need to come off as a bitter cunt.
  38. >Grabbing one of your pizzas, you take another look at the movie.
  39. >It looked like bleak arthouse cinema, and while you had looked forward to watching and making fun of it with your friends just a few hours ago, now you didn't see the appeal anymore.
  40. >"At least you won't leave me, right?", you ask the pizzabox while cracking open a beer.
  41. >No point in letting the food you paid for go to waste.
  42. >You take a swig from the bottle and open the box.
  43. >Something dark in the middle of the pizza reflects the light of your lamps back at you.
  44. >"Oh man, what's that now?" you complain to yourself, sticking out a finger to touch the weird little black speck.
  45. >You had specifically told them that you didn't want any olives on your pizza, with or without the offer of the day.
  46. >As your finger touches the black spot, you feel a pull towards the center of the pie.
  47. >"What did they put on this? Some kind of skin magnet?"
  48. >While you are still wondering what might be causing the weird pulling phenomenon, the speck starts to grow and widen, as do your eyes when the light pull becomes overwhelming, pulling your hand over the spot.
  49. >Trying to draw your hand away from the pizza yields no result, in fact, your hand starts to get drawn INTO the pizza.
  50. >You start shouting in panic as your hand gets drawn into the dough into some kind of invisible space.
  51. >The former speck on your pizza grows in to a veritable vortex, causing the pizza and its box to fold into itself and into the portal, while more of your arm follows.
  52. >You grab onto your couch and try to pull back, but to no avail.
  53. >It feels as if your arm is trapped up to your shoulder in a whirlwind, and as you gather the courage to open your eyes and look over your shoulder, you gaze in horror at the...whatever it is that has opened up in your living room.
  54. >The anomaly is directly in front of your face now, your left arm having disappeared into it completely.
  55. >It feels as if you are trapped in a windtunnel that is blowing you towards the dimensional hole.
  56. >You grab onto your couch harder, your knuckles turning white from the strain, but you are unable to resist the pull for long.
  57. >As you lose your grip and are sucked  screaming into the vortex, you feel the vague sense of betrayal towards your friends grow to include a very focused sense of betrayal towards the pizza.
  58.  
  59. >You come to on what feels like a hard and cold surface and with an intense throbbing pain in your head.
  60. >The prospect of opening your eyes to the light of the day seems migraine-inducingly painful to you, so you decide to take it slow and give yourself a mental check-up first.
  61. >Did you fall off the couch? The last thing you remember is that your friends didn't come over and you had decided to skip watching that European arthouse flick in favor of eating pizza and spending the rest of the night getting hammered.
  62. >That explains your Headache; you are probably just hungover after getting blackout drunk the night before and hit your head while falling off your couch.
  63. >Satisfied with this explanation, you decide to stay right were you are for just a little while longer.
  64. >Washing the bitter taste out of your mouth and going to lay back down in your bed were nice thoughts, but you felt just so drained that the stone floor had to do for the moment.
  65. >Then a realization hits you...
  66. >You had linoleum in your living room.
  67. >Instantly wide awake, you bolt upright, your eyes now wide open.
  68. >"That's not my home..."
  69. >In fact, you had never seen a room such as the one you found yourself in before.
  70. >It was big and round, and completely made of brightly coloured stone.
  71. >The Walls were covered in high bookshelves, the books themselves thick tomes, seemingly stacked into the shelves without any particular order.
  72. >Beside you, there was an ornate table with what appeared to be an old-fashioned chemist's laboratory equipment.
  73. >On a chair by the table, you see your pizza box.
  74. >"I am sure this is a lot to take in", you hear a gentle voice from behind you say.  
  75. >You turn around as quickly as you can, instinctively backing away from the direction you heard the voice coming from, glancing around for a possible escape.
  76. >Your nervous fidgeting comes to a complete stop as you see the source of the voice.
  77. >In front of you stands some kind of small, dark blue horse in front of what appears to be fancy desk, illuminated by the sunlight coming from a window behind it.
  78. >In addition to its dark blue fur, the horse sports a green vest as well as a horn and appearantly  wearing a fake grey beard.
  79. >You can't make it out properly, but it looks like it has some sort of branding on its flank.
  80. >It looks at you with what you interpret as worried interest.
  81. >You feel about ready to break out into hysterics.
  82. >Your breath quickens and start you pinching the back of your hand.
  83. >This couldn't be happening.
  84. >The pinch grows ever stronger, but you just won't wake up.
  85. >But if you just kept going, you had to wake up eventually right?
  86. >A crazy thought hits you: Perhaps you shouldn't just ignore the nightmare creature in front of you.
  87. >It could take offense and maybe do ... something to you.
  88. >You were pretty sure that if you died in a dream you died in real life.
  89. >You look up from your tortured hand and shoot the horse your best nervous smile.
  90. >It is still looking at you with a clear worry in its eyes, but seems to wait for you to make the first step.
  91. >What do you even tell a hallucination?
  92. >You finally settle for a simple "Hi, I am Anon".
  93. >You had intended for it to come off as suave and charming, but as you say it, you don'tt need to be an outside observer to tell that your nervousness made it more akin to a squeak.
  94. >"Good to meet you, Anon", the horse answers, clearly relieved by your attempt at communication, even taking a few slow steps towards you. "I am Quick Diner, Professor of Applied Food Sciences at Canterlot University"
  95. >He takes another step towards. "Now, Anon, I know that this is a very unusual situation for you, but I want you to understand your situation."
  96. >He gesticulates towards the pizza box with his front hoof.
  97. >"If you would follow me over here, Anon."
  98. >As you step over to the box with him, you realize that you are still pinching yourself and reluctantly stop.
  99. >It seems as if this dream horse is harmless, and you can't pinch yourself any harder anyway.
  100. >A big bruise has already begun forming on the back of your right hand.
  101. >A blue glow engulfs the pizza box and it opens seemingly on its own.
  102. >You don't even question it.
  103. >This is, after all, far from the weirdest thing that has happened to you in the past hour.
  104. >"As much as it pains me to admit it, Anon, you being here was anforeseen accident on my part. What I really was after, was this." >Quick Diner nods towards the contents of the Box.
  105. >You take a long look at the contents of the box, but don't notice anything unusual.
  106. >Was this some kind of joke on the parts of this so-called professor?
  107. >"So let me get this right, Professor", you say, turning towards Diner, who looks exspectantly, "I am here because of a Tuna Speciale?"
  108. >Quick Diners face shows palpable relief, and he nods eagerly.
  109. >"Exactly right, Anon. I am glad y-"
  110. >He is cut off by you breaking out laughing like a madman.
  111. >You had wanted to spend an evening with your friends, who were a no-show, decided to get drunk, and now you were in what seemed looked like some kind of laboratory in castle Neuschwanstein.
  112. >You dimly realized that you were doubled over the table next to the chair with the box, frantically hammering the tabletop with your fist.
  113. >In this moment you were sure that as soon as your laughing fit subsided you would wake up in a nice padded cell with a cozy straightjacket to keep you warm.
  114. >But when you finally start calming down and wipe the tears from your eyes, trying to regain your composure, you are still in the laboratory.
  115. >Professor Diner has backed up, but still seems more interested then fearful, despite your outburst.
  116. >"Are you OK, Anon? Do you need some more time?," He asks, while throwing a quick glance over from you to his table you had just mistreated.
  117. >You actually feel somewhat bad now.
  118. >From the start, you had assumed that he had malicious intent, but he had shown you nothing but understanding.
  119. > He doesn't even seem mad about the documents you crumpled while beating around on his table.
  120. >"I think I am doing as fine as I can right now, Professor," you answer, kneeing down to come closer to eye level with your host, "But I think I am going to need a whole lot of explanations before I can believe that this is not just some crazy dream."
  121. >Quick Diner sits down across from you.
  122. >You can't help but notice that his beard is in fact not a fake one but actually growing from his chin.
  123. >"I understand, Anon. It can't be easy going through your situation. So let me explain as much as I can as to what happened, why you are here, and what we are going to do about this unfortuate situation."
  124.  
  125. >"You see, as Professor of Applied Food Sciences I am always on the lookout for new delicacies to sample. This is not limited to food from the remote regions of my home country of Equestria, or even this World. When I am not actively pursuing a specific delicacy, I mostly spend my time researching the records you see in this room."
  126. >Diner makes sweeping gesture along the walls of the room, pointing out the sheer volume of books contained within.
  127. >"The books you see here include some of the rarest reports our most magically talented unicorns created after travelling between Worlds. While I am sadly not powerful enough to cross over myself, I still can bring in objects from other Worlds. So when I read of a meal that catches my interest, I usually use my magic to bring over a sample to test wether it could be introduced into Equestria."
  128. >"Usually I take the utmost care in making sure that only the meal in question makes the passage over to our World, but I have to admit that this evening I was distracted by re-reading the description of your World Space Jumper the Explorer provided in his travel report."
  129. >Diner sounds genuinely remorseful. "You have to understand, Anon, that the description of a World completely without magic is an utterly alien concept to me. Magic is an itegral part of Equestrian life, and even the other Worlds from which I brought food over always had SOME magical presence."
  130. >"I was so focused on the book, that I only noticed that I was bringing over more than intended when it was already too late."
  131. >The Professor clears his throat, clearly nervous. "Now, I know that this is all a lot to take in for you, but I assure you that we will find a way to send you back to your World. I will consult with my colleagues on the faculty and I am certain that we will find a way. You have to understand that taking something from its World is easy, but putting it back is a whole lot harder, because Worlds change their position in the nether, similar to how planets move around."
  132. >"However, while the planets stay on their course, or, in case of the sun and moon are moved in always the same way by our Princess Celestia, the Worlds move completely unpredictable. Attempting to send a living being back to the location its World used to be when you got it might have catastrophic consequences."
  133. >A glass on the table is encased in the same blue glow as the pizza box previously.
  134. >It floats over to Diner, who takes a quick swig, before it floats back to its place.
  135. >You notice that the same glow is emanating from his horn.
  136. >It seems as if all his talk about magic might have some substance to it.
  137. >"Not to worry", the Professor mutters, "We have the brightest unicorns in Equestria at Canterlot University. We will find a solution to this."
  138. >It sounds more like he is trying to convince himself than anything else.
  139. >You ruffle through your hair with your hands, the feeling of dread you felt immediately upon your arrival mostly replaced by confusion and a sense of wonder.
  140. >This doesn't feel like a drunk dream anymore, those were usually far from as fleshed out as this.
  141. >Also, usually your ex had made her entrance by this point to apologize for the way your relationship ended, using all her "assets".
  142. >No such luck today.
  143. >You pick your words carefully, after all you don't want to upset your unwilling host.
  144. >Even if this turned out to be a dream after all, it couldn't hurt to stay on the good side of the one person who might be able to send you back.
  145. >"Professor, I am really thankful for that explanation, even though I don't think I understand more than half of it. It really is a lot to take in, as you said, so if you wouldn't mind, I still have some questions."
  146. >The Professor lets out a breath you hadn't even realized he held, clearly relieved by your cooperative answer.
  147. >He even gives you a genuine smile.
  148. >"That's just fine, Anon, and please just call me Quick. I think there's hardly a need for formality given the peculiar nature of our meeting."
  149. >The Professor, or Quick to you, as you remind yourself, levitates two chairs over to the pair of you and makes an inviting gesture towards the one that comes to a stop next to you while sitting down on the other.
  150. >"Please sit down, Anon. I must admit, I have a few questions of my own. It's not every day that I get to meet someone from another World, especially from one such as yours."
  151. >The two of you spent the next hours chatting away surprisingly amicable, exchanging information about each others Worlds.
  152. >At some point, Quick levitates over a tablet with biscuits and tea, in which you eagerly partake.
  153. >Dimensional travel appearantly works up quite the appetite.
  154. >Quick tells you about the different races of ponies and the other species on his World, Princess Celestia, who ruled supreme since,  according to legend, she banished her evil sister to the moon nearly a thousand years ago.
  155. >Supposedly she was the one in charge of night and day.
  156. >He also tells you about life in the capital of Canterlot and the different faculties of its famed university.
  157. >He even explains the "branding" on his flank as a magical symbol for a Ponies' special talent.
  158. >His looks like a gleaming plate of salad and supposedly symbolizes "all things culinary except cooking itself", as he puts it.
  159. >In turn, you tell him of your world; its countries and people, and of how mechanisation took the place that was occupied by magic in his.
  160. >While you tell your tales, Quick is visibly fascinated, often muttering "fantastic" or "incredible" under his breath while making some hasty notices on a scroll.
  161. >Finally, when the both of you are mentally exhausted from so many fascinating stories, you remember something.
  162. >Reaching for your pocket, you pull out your smartphone and, with a smile, hand it to Quick, who picks it up with his magic.
  163. >"This", you tell him, "is one of the phones I told you about."
  164. >Quick's jaw almost hits the ground.
  165. >His face has such an expression of giddy joy, that you can't help but smile with him.
  166. >"Here, let me show you how it works."
  167. >You take a step over to him and turn the phone on.
  168. >As exspected, you have no reception, but you still managed to keep Quick excited by showing and explaining to him some pictures from your World, mentally relieved that you kept your folders full of obscure memes and reaction images hidden by default.
  169. >No one needed to know about those, least of all an Academic.
  170. >You didn't want to tear down the positive impression you had made so far just that quickly.
  171. >However, while your appetite is momentarily sated by the tea and biscuits, you are still pretty tired, and the light coming from the window has gotten significantly less bright over the course of your conversation.
  172. >It seems as if it was getting dark outside, and you need your sleep.
  173. >Biting down a yawn forcing its way out of your throat, you ask Quick wether he has a place for you to sleep.
  174. >"Of course, Anon."
  175. >Quick reluctantly levitates your phone back over to you, and you stow it in your pocket.
  176. >"Follow me, please."
  177. >Quick leads you out of his office and up a spiraling flight of stairs.
  178. >Through the windows you can see that you are currently in a tower high over a sprawling city.
  179. >Besides the windows, there are paintings of several respactable looking Ponies.
  180. >Quick had explained to you during your pow-wow that you were currently in Canterlot Universities science wing, so you guess that the Portraits depict various reputable scientists.
  181. >You resolve to take a good look at them tomorrow, that is, if you even still wake up here.
  182. >The stairs end rather abruptly and you come to a hallway, similarily decorated with paintings and busts, with several doors on either side.
  183. >A door to your side is opened and the two of you step in.
  184. >"You can have this guest room for as long as you stay", Quick explains. "My quarters are one door up he hallway, and the bathroom is right across the hallway. If you need anything or want to know somehing, don't hesitate to knock. But if you could just do me one favor..."
  185. >"Please don't go exploring on your own just yet. Some of the things here in the science wing can be very dangerous if handled by someone who is not an expert. And, well if someone saw yor, it would give us quite a lot of explaining to do, and that is something that I would rather prefer to do on our terms."
  186. >"That's fair enough", you answer. "I am far too tired to go on any big adventures today anyway. I just want to get some shut-eye."
  187. >Quick nods, satisfied by your answer.
  188. >"Alright, Anon, I will see you tomorrow then. I will knock at your door when breakfasts ready. Should you need anything this evening, I will be in my office for some time longer, after all," He grins again, "you gave me quite some things to write down. Have a good night."
  189. >He levitates a key into your waiting hand. "That's for your door. It is proabably better for all of us if you get some privacy. After all, there are some students who come trough here on their way to lectures."
  190. >You wish him a good night as well and shut the door.
  191. >The room is somewhat small for a human, but very comfortable: you have a bed, a nice colourful carpet that looks like it has been hand- or hoofwoven and even your own fireplace that burns seemingly wihout wood as well as a set of table and chairs.
  192. >As far as guestrooms go, you have seen far worse.
  193. >You flop down on your bed without even bothering to get out of your clothes and close your eyes. You resolved to treat everything as if it was real that if you were still in this place when you woke up tomorrow.
  194. >But that would be crazy, right?
  195. >You had a hard day, and sleep overtakes you quickly.
  196.  
  197. >Heavy knocking at your doors makes you jerk wide awake.
  198. >Were your friends coming after all?
  199. >That thought is quickly brushed aside after you get a first look at your surrondings, appearantly you are still in magic-land.
  200. >"Hey, open up", you hear an unknown voice outside your door.
  201. >You freeze up, unsure of what to do.
  202. >Was that the Equestrian border guard, come to deport you as an illegal immigrant?
  203. >The knocking on you door grows ever more louder, and you start to consider wether you should hide under your bed.
  204. >"Please wake up and come out, Anon, was it? I am a friend of Quick. He sent me to get you."
  205. >The voice sounds genuinely urging and worried, so you grit your teeth and open the door, disregarding your paranoia.
  206. >In front of your door, there stands another male unicorn, but this one has a red coat and no beard.
  207. >However, you notice that he wears glasses that remind you of your old school teacher.
  208. >"Thank Celestia, you are finally up", he goes off immediately.
  209. >"Quickly, we need you in Quicks office."
  210. >With that, he runs off towards the stairs, without giving you even a chance to question his motives for getting you out of bed in the middle of the night.
  211. >"Hey, wait up", you shout while running after him, causing him to slow down a bit, but he still doesn't stop.
  212. >Still, you manage to catch up to him.
  213. >"What's happening? What do you need me for? And who are you?" you manage to ask, before you surprising visitor rounds a bend in the stairs.
  214. >A shouted "You'll see in the office" is your answer.
  215. >Frustrated by the continuing vagueness, you start to pick up even more speed.
  216. >The office is basically down the stairs, so the quicker you got there, the quicker you would get your answers and maybe some more much needed sleep.
  217. >As you round the last bend in the stairs, you are greeted by the sight of the open doors of Quicks office.
  218. >With your visitor not in sight, you enter the room.
  219. >Quick is lying on the floor, covered haphazardly in a blanket.
  220. >Even through his blue coat, he looks sickly pale.
  221. >Your red-coated visitor is standing next  to him, whispering something to the Professor, while indicating you with a forehoof.
  222. >"Ah, Anon. Please come over", Quick calls out to you.
  223. >His voice sounds dry and raspy, as if he had thrown up.
  224. >In fact, if the smell coming from a bucket you pass on your way over is any indication, he had done just that.
  225. >"Quick, what happened? Your ...", you look over at the red unicorn, wondering what to call him, "...Friend here just woke me up, but he didn't tell me anything more. Are you alright?"
  226. >The question sounds stupid to you even as you ask it, Quick was quite clearly not alright.
  227. >A thin smile shows on Quicks muzzle as he slowly pushes himself into a sitting position, and vanishes just as fast as it came to make way for a painful expression.
  228. >"Sharpy asked me pretty much the same things when I dragged myself to his door. But not to worry, I'll live."
  229. >"Don't take it so lightly",The red unicorn, who appearantly is named Sharpy butts in, "This has all the hallmarks of a bad case of magical poisoning."
  230. >Sharpy turns towards you.
  231. >"I am sorry about my hastiness, but I have been head of the first aid station of this wing of the university for over ten years and rarely seen such a case, even with all the uncommon elements we get."
  232. >He pushes out a hoof towards you, and you awkwardly shake it. "Sharp Intellect," he says.
  233. >"Y-you too", you blurt out, before realizing that Sharpy just introduced himself to you.
  234. >"Uhm, I mean, I am Anon Neemus, but you seemed to know this already, so..." you trail off, mentally beating yourself over the head for the bad first impression you must certainly be making.
  235. >Sharpy looks at you like an Electrician might look at an apprentice who tries to tell him that stuffing a fork in an electrical outlet will boost eco-effectiveness, but is polite enough not to comment.
  236. >"Right, Anon, I need you to show me the magic device Quick told me about. It might contain some toxic magical leakage be the cause of his poisoning and potentially endanger us still. Also, could you please let go of my hoof?"
  237. >You drop the hoof you were unconsciously still holding in your hand and use it to pull out your phone instead.
  238. >"Here you go, but there is nothing magical about this. It's just electronics."
  239. >"It could be that people on your World think that, but such a thing as a World without even the slightest hint of background magic is unheard of."
  240. >While Sharpy takes the phone up in his magic and makes his way over to the alchemy corner of the office to make his analysis, you sit down next to Quick.
  241. >"You know, on my World a lot of people think that phones can make you sick. Could it really be that we don't know about about some sort of magical properties in the materials that might be unhealthy?"
  242. >"We better let Sharpy figure this one out. He is the expert on magic and its influence on health. I am just a glorifed transdimensional food critc."
  243. >Quick smiles again.
  244. >"But I am pretty good, if I dare say so myself."
  245. >A rumbling noise erupts from Quick's stomach, and he lays back down with a painful groan.
  246. >"If there is anything I can do, just give the word," You offer.
  247. >Quick had been nothing but good to you since you came here, so you could at least start giving something back.
  248. >"I think I might need the bucket again" Quick presses out between heavy breaths and dry swallowing.
  249. >You make your way over to the bucket again and try to ignore the splashing noises coming from it as you carry it back your host.
  250. >As soon as you have put it down, Quick hangs himself over it, heaving.
  251. >Sharpy comes back over, looking as if he has seen a ghost.
  252. >He levitates the phone back to you and shakes his head.
  253. >"Impossible. I have never seen a device as complex as this before, and completely magic free at that. Not only in its function, but also composition. Every material or living being in Equestrian is basically soaked in residual magic, and so far the the material from other Worlds was always at least somewhat magical in nature."
  254. >Suddenly, Sharpy's eyes grow wide and he quickly takes a few steps back.
  255. >"Anon, I need you to hold still for a moment", he quickly blurts out, and you find yourself engulfed in the red glow of his magic.
  256. >The glow subsides almost as soon as it came, and Sharpy is almost panting with stress.
  257. >"Of course, if the materials are not magical, the creatures aren't either..." He mutters to himself.
  258. >"Anon, I need you to keep a distance between us. You might be a major health risk."
  259. >"So you think I did this?", you ask, feeling offended and very much hurt in your pride.
  260. >"You think that after all Quick has done for me, I would poison him? What would I even do that for?"
  261. >"I am not implying intent", Sharpy retorts, getting angry himself, "But we have never seen how organic material reacts with non-magical organic material. It could be very much be the explanation for our case here."
  262. >He looks down at the hoof you shook, then levitates a bottle from the alchemy lab over and soaks the hoof liberally in its contents.
  263. >"Just a desinfectant."
  264. >You give him an annoyed glare. You don't like being treated like a quarantine case, but you can't deny that what Sharpy says makes sense.
  265. >Quick, finally done with his retching, looks up from the bucket.
  266. >"Sharpy, I don't think Anon is to blame. Afterall, he was just an unexspected hitchhiker on my teleportation spell."
  267. >Your eyes zone in on the pizza box. Sure enough, there is a missing slice.
  268. >Sharpy looks at you, then over at the box and back to Quick.
  269. >"Don't tell me you actually ate outerdimensional food again before running it by me before."
  270. >This is the first time he sounds genuinely furious.
  271. >"Sharpy, what were the odds? NO World had given me something dangerous so far."
  272. >"Yeah, well, then I guess this is the exception to the rule? There is always a risk, Quick. I am still Doctor Intellect, thank you very much. And now shut up, you are doing a lot of things to my blood pressure tonight, and i like precisely none of them."
  273. >He turns to face you. "Anon, I will take him to the infirmary. I need you to go back to your room until I come by tomorrow. I will bring breakfast, but I need you to stay there."
  274. >"That's bullshit," You protest, "I won't let him alone. I will come with you. I will do what I can to help."
  275. >"And you help me, and him, best by staying in your room, and not coming out until I get you."
  276. >Sharpy mellows out a bit. "Anon, I know that you don't mean harm, and you seem like a good guy, but please think of what the guard will think if I bring a very sick Professor as well as an Extradimensional with me. They WILL take you in, no matter what we say, and noone can say what they will do. Perhaps the princess might send you to give her sister some company ,and no one here wants that."
  277. >He uses his magic to painlessly rip a few hairs from your head. "I will take those with me and analyse them discretely. This should help us get clarity about your situation. I promise I will be back tomorrow."
  278. >Quick makes his way over to you, clearly uncomfortable back on his legs.
  279. >"Do as he says, Anon. I will be fine. I will be back soon."
  280. >You look the two of them over.
  281. >While you don't like the thought of hiding in your room until one of the only two persons in the world you know comes to get you, you have to admit that you don't want to have to explain your presence to the local monarchy, especially given the circumstances.
  282. >With a sigh, you give in.
  283. >"Alright, I promise I won't come out before you get me, Sharpy."
  284. >The red unicorn is visibly relieved by this outcome.
  285. >"Quick, thanks for everything. I will make it up to you when you come back. Get well soon."
  286. >"I will do my best," comes the raspy answer, "and I am sure that Sharpy and the doctors will do the same."
  287. >"I certainly will. See you tomorrow Anon."
  288. >Sharpy picks Quick up with his magic and lays him over his back.
  289. >He gives you a nod, then he takes the left turn out of the office and makes his way further down the stairs.
  290. >You look after them  until they are out of sight, then you head back to bed.
  291. >This time you lie wide awake tossing and turning for a long while, thinking about what might happen to Quick and to you, the potentially poisonous Alien.
  292. >After what feels like hours you finally manage to go back to sleep.
  293.  
  294. >You awake to the light from your window shining onto your face, feeling surprisingly refreshed.
  295. >It appears to be late in the morning, and you find yourself wondering why Sharpy hasn't come back yet.
  296. >You really hope that there are no complications in the infirmary.
  297. >To distract yourself from your musings, you decide to take a closer look at your room.
  298. >Woven into the carpet there are what appear to be scenes of Equestrian mythology, with a depiction of who you guess is the Princess banishing her sister to the moon, as well as turning some chimera-looking monster to stone.
  299. >On your table, you notice a book: "Equestrian customs: a guide to the Tourist."
  300. >You drag one of the chairs over to your window to make yourself comfortable in the warm sun and flick trough the pages.
  301. >It seems as if Equestrian norms aren't far off from what is exspected on Earth, however, and you soon bore of reading a guide that fails to tell you new information.
  302. >Also, you feel like you really need to go to the bathroom.
  303. >You start pacing around the room, thinking of what to do.
  304. >On the one hand, you HAD promised Sharpy not to go out, and the prospect of being dragged in front of an angry monarch if the wrong Pony found you was not appealing at all.
  305. >But on the other hand, your last visit to your toilet was more than half a day ago, even without taking transdimensional jetlag into account.
  306. >You were pretty sure that your guide to Equestrian behavior had not told you that it was acceptable to relieve yourself into fireplaces or onto historical carpets, so you decide to bite the bullet and risk a quick dash across the hallway.
  307. >You open your door very slowly, trying to get as much of the hallway into your field of view without being seen as possible.
  308. >The coast to your left seems clear.
  309. >You slip out, using the door to protect yourself from prying eyes from the right, then take a quick look around it.
  310. >Nothing there either.
  311. >You leave your door unlocked to make the way back a faster affair and hurry across the hallway.
  312. >To your relief, the bathroom is empty, and you quickly make your way into one of the stalls.
  313. >Just as you have managed to find a halfway comfortable position on a toilet that had obviously not been designed with human anatomy in mind, you hear the door to the bathroom open up and the sound of hooves on the stone floor.
  314. >"What do you mean, Professor Diner is not here today," you hear a female voice ask in an annoyed tone, "I made an appointment with him to talk to him about my homework, and now he just bails?"
  315. >"No, it's not like that," another voice answers, trying to calm down her companion, "I came by his office earlier in the morning and talked to his secretary. The Professor has some kind of exotic food poisoning and probably won't be in all week."
  316. >You hear water splashing as the owners of the voices appearantly wash their hooves in the sinks opposite the stalls.
  317. >You carefully lift your feet, so as not to be seen if one of them decides to take a glance behind themselves.
  318. >"I had no Idea. But I guess that is a risk that comes with the profession."
  319. >Voice number one sounds still annoyed, but has calmed down somewhat.
  320. >"Still, I guess I will walk by later to make a new appointment then."
  321. >The splashing water stops, and the clopping of hooves as their owners chat about other university related topics nears the door.
  322. >You hear the door open and close again, and breath a sigh of relief as you are once again alone.
  323. >Just a bit worse timing, and you might have been found out by two students.
  324. >It was good to know that Quick and Sharpy had managed to appearantly keep the details of the "food poisoning" under wraps.
  325. >The rest of your bathroom break goes by without further incidents, and you soon find yourself back in your room.
  326.  
  327. >To pass the time, you browse some of the pictures on your phone.
  328. >Your family and friends, your home...
  329. >The idea that you were now somewhere completely different still feels strange, but by now you were sure that it was no dream after all.
  330. >This World is so different from your own, yet so much seems familiar.
  331. >The architecture of the university and the parts of the city you can see from your window have a distinctly medieval bend, which seemed to line up with royalty being in charge and magic being an integral part of everyday live.
  332. >Yet there was evidently plumbing, and other aspects of society seem pretty modern to you.
  333. >You hope you can see more of this place once Quick was back on his hooves.
  334. >Maybe you could sort out this whole "Not being dragged into a dungeon for being a literal illegal Alien" part and start going out into the public and explore Canterlot.
  335. >Afterall, it would be far more interesting if you could spend your time here some other way than being locked up in an university guest room, however nice it was furnished.
  336. >You turn off your phone and pocket it again.
  337. >You don't know how long you would be here, and as long as you don't know if there was a way to charge the battery you resolve to use it sparingly.
  338. >Who knew what sights you might want to take pictures of later.
  339. >If you didn't bring back proof of your misadventure, who would ever believe you?
  340. >"Sure Anon, we haven't heard from you for weeks because your party food sucked you into magical horse land. Are you sure you don't need a Psychiatrist?"
  341. >You cringe at the thought.
  342. >You don't want to go back home just to get institutionalized or without being able to tell anyone of what happened.
  343. >A thought crosses your mind: What if things like this happened far more often than you thought and the people experiencing them were simply afraid to talk about it or locked up if they did?
  344. >What other Worlds had people been visiting over the years?
  345. >The sound of heavy knocks at your door snaps you out of your daydreams.
  346. >"Anon, open up! We're back!," you hear Sharpy from the other side of the door.
  347. >"We?" That was finally a pleasant surprise.
  348. >You open the door and are greeted by the sight of Sharpy, wearing what looks like saddle bags, and a still groggy looking Quick, who is now sporting a necklace with a big, magically glowing pearl.
  349. >You let them in, and the three of you sit down.
  350. >"It's really good to see you back on your feet, I mean Hooves, Quick. Are you doing ok?"
  351. >"I am alright. They gave me this transfusion," He indicates the necklace, "To refill my magical storage. Appearantly, I am very lucky that I had only eaten one slice of the pizza. Sharpy, would you explain it again? After all, you are Doctor Intellect, as you reminded us last night."
  352. >Sharpy gives a look as if he doesn't know wether he should be bemused or angry, then just shrugs and starts to explain.
  353. >"After some thorough analysis we found that the food Quick ingested, appearantly due to having no inherent magic, in fact not only failed to provide nourishment, but in fact actively drained his reserves, and rather fast at that. We managed to extract and destroy the slice, but he will still need to wear the transfusion pearl for at least a few days to help him recuperate. Had he eaten more of it before the symptoms started to manifest themselves, he probably wouldn't be with us right now."
  354. >You are shocked.
  355. >Who would have thought that something as simple as an earth-pizza could kill an Equestrian in a few hours?
  356. >"Holy shit, Quick, I am sorry, I didn't kn..." You start, feeling responsible for the whole affair, but Quick stops you.
  357. >"It is not your fault, Anon. I only have myself to blame for not having the food checked before eating it. Sharpy was right yesterday. I acted like an amateur."
  358. >"And I won't let you hear the end of it for a good long wile", Sharpy grins while giving him a friendly punch on the shoulder, before suddenly turning businesslike.
  359. >"I am afraid I have to come to the bad news now. You might have noticed that we didn't bring breakfast..."
  360. >"Oh, that's no problem at all", you interrupt him, "I am just glad that Quick's okay. We can always eat later..."
  361. >You trail off as you realize that both of them are still looking dead serious.
  362. >"That's the problem, Anon," Quick starts. "I am afraid we can not."
  363. >"You remember those hairs I took from you for testing?" Sharpy asks.
  364. >Your throat suddenly feels very dry, so you nervously nod an affirmation.
  365. >"Well, I had some rather unsettling discoveries. You see, while ingesting food from your world is harmful to us Equestrians, it seems that, in fact the cells of your body have the same effect, just a lot slower acting."
  366. >He gives you a short pause to take in the implications, then continues.
  367. >"Also, I found that the absorption of magic leads to rapid deterioation in the cells. Allow me to demonstrate"
  368. >He uses his magic to produce a pouch from his bags and opens it on the floor between the three of you.
  369. >It contains a few remaining bushels of your hair.
  370. >You lean in to get a better look as Sharpy focuses a stream of magic on the bushels, and before your eyes they start to shrivel up, turn grey at first and then crumble to dust.
  371. >"This was about the dose of magic you would ingest by a weeks worth of food," Sharpy explains. "Quick told me that you had only eaten a few biscuits and drunk some tea while you were with him, so while the damage should be very light so far, sooner or later you will have to eat or drink. And that's without taking the background magic into account."
  372. >You feel as if you just got a cancer diagnosis.
  373. >All your plans of exploring the city are blown away as you are forced to face the very real possibility of impending death.
  374. >You feel Quick and Shary taking new places next to you.
  375. >"Anon, look at me", you hear Quick's voice.
  376. >You look up, tears in your eyes.
  377. >"We will find a way to send me back before that, right?" you ask, not believing it yourself. "I don't want to die. Not so far from home."
  378. >The tears keep coming, and you let them out.
  379. >There's no false sense of pride in this situation.
  380. >"I am afraid we won't be able to find a way in such a short amount of time, Anon." Quick says.
  381. >"But we have a proposal for you", adds Sharpy. "On our way back, we visited Witching Hour, a good friend of us who happens to be a librarian in the Experimental Spells section of the university library and let her in on our predicament, and she suggested a solution."
  382. >You feel a flicker of hope rise. "So no deportation for me?" you ask, trying and failing to cheer yourself up.
  383. >Still, it seems to work on Quick, who lightens up a bit.
  384. >"No worries, Anon, you can absolutely trust her. After all, what does a librarian love more than silence?"
  385. >"So, what is her suggestion?"
  386. >"Now, you need to bear with us for a moment, but she suggested to turn you into one of us for the rest of your stay."
  387. >"Turn me...into a pony?"
  388. >You are incredulous.
  389. >As if going to another World wasn't enough, now you were to change species?
  390. >On the other hand, you would really like to keep breathing.
  391. >"But wouldn't the energy of the spell kill me?"
  392. >Your friends shift uncomfortably.
  393. >"We asked her the same thing, but she was certain that there was a way. This would allow you to not only stay healthy, but also see more of our World during your stay. You could go out and no one would be any wiser."
  394. >"Of course you would be transformed back into your original form once we found a way to send you back", Sharpy adds.
  395. >"She made it sound like not only the most practical, but also the only realistic way for you, to well..." He swallows nervously, "survive your stay."
  396. >You wipe your eyes with the back of your hand and try to regain some composure.
  397. >As much as you hate to admit it, what they said made sense, in an absolutely weird way.
  398. >It would only be temporary, right?
  399. >"Alright, I will hear her out."
  400.  
  401. >"Anon, I am deeply sorry for having brought you into this situation."
  402. >"I already told you, Quick, it is alright"
  403. >Since Sharpy had gone to fetch the Librarian, Quick had repeatedly apologized to you in ever changing ways.
  404. >Of course, it wasn't REALLY alright, but you harbored no grudge towards him, and were to drained by the emotional roller coaster that had been the last days to lead a likely long and complicated conversation about your situation.
  405. >At the moment, you mostly wanted to think over your situation and pity yourself.
  406. >You don't feel comfortable with the idea of becoming a pony, temporary or not, but you feel even more uncomfortable with the idea of super radiation sickness.
  407. >The thought that you were practically soaked in magic every minute made your skin crawl.
  408. >"Just like fucking Chernobyl" you curse, jerking upright.
  409. >It was impossible to get some rest with all the dark thoughts your subconscious threw at you.
  410. >"What's a Chernobyl?" Quick asks.
  411. >You know what he is doing.
  412. >He is trying to get you talking, to distract you.
  413. >Still, it is an opportunity to think about something else for a while, and so you decide to indulge him.
  414. >"Remember how I told you that on my World we use different types of power instead of magic? Well, nuclear power is somewhat similar to magic, I guess. It can be used as a source for energy as well as a weapon, and has a whole lot of negative effects on our life forms."
  415. >"And Chernobyl is the place where that energy is found?"
  416. >"Well, not exclusively, there is also that place called Fukushima..."
  417. >You let Quick in on the history of nuclear accidents on Earth, telling him anything you know.
  418. >He is clearly fascinated, but one part of the Chernobyl story clearly disturbs him.
  419. >"And those Liquidators, they all died?"
  420. >"Well, not all of them, but as far as I know most of them are dead by now. To be honest, I don't know what else the Soviets could have done to contain the generator leak and clean up the zone as much as they did."
  421. >"Still, so many people dying in such horrible ways..."
  422. >"Yes, it's a depressing story, I guess."
  423. >Luckily, the dark turn of your conversation can't bring you down for long, because not long after you both have gone back to your own thoughts, the door is magically opened, and Sharpy enters, followed by an older white mare with an orange mane done up in a tight bun.
  424. >"So where is he? Oh, that must be him. Are you Anon? I am Witching Hour, nice to meet you. Has anyone ever told you that you look a bit like an equatorial ape? Oh, it is SOO nice to finally meet someone from another World, but let's come to the business at hoof, why won't we?"
  425. >Still chatting on, she pulls a thick book out of Sharpys saddle bags and sets it down on the table without waiting for any answers or indeed reactions from you.
  426. >"I thought librarians love silence," you whisper to Quick.
  427. >"Oh, she doesn't talk to anyone. But once she starts talking to you, she doesn't stop so easily," Quick whispers back.
  428. >"Ohh, Mister Anon? Over here please. How typical of the Professor and his, for lack of a better word, subject, only focusing on each other. Not to judge you prematurely of course, I am just SURE you are a fine specimen..."
  429. >You step over to the still talking librarian.
  430. >"Quick and Sharpy already gave me the quick rundown of your plan, Mrs Hour, but if you could please fill in the details for me? I would like to know what I might be getting myself into," you say.
  431. >She turns around and flashes you a big smile.
  432. >"But of course. You see, I intend to use Starswirls Universal Transformation to turn you into a Pony for the rest of your stay. Now, I exspect you wonder how we go about that without the magic killing you? Well, you see, there will be some cell damage, which is while we will use a lower energy variant of the spell, to keep undesireable side effecrs to a minimum. We will try to spread the damage over your new body, so as to not completely destroy any cells. You are still following me? Great!"
  433. >You aren't sure if you are in fact still following, but Witching Hour isn't waiting for your answer.
  434. >"You see, the cell damage will be regenerated once you are one of us and you body is able to properly handle magic. Now, if we would be using the full-powered variant, the damage would completely destroy parts of your body, and that would make turning you back very difficult. But what about the undamaged parts we CAN'T turn with the low powered version? Well, so glad you asked. I will simply isolate them as much as I can from magic and store them in athe very same  pocket dimension were I keep my rarest books."
  435. >You feel like you are going crazy after listening to this rambling. You don't like all the talk about cell damage and storing parts, but you also don't really see any other way.
  436. >"So you don't need to worry about any body parts going missing. Not even the other librarians know about my SPECIAL storage."
  437. >Witching Hour again gives you a wide smile. "Any questions?"
  438. >"Just a moment please", you say, surprised that you actually managed to get an answer out before she continued her rambling.
  439. >You lean down towards your friends and ask "And she really has your full confidence?"
  440. >They nod.
  441. >You stand back up and take a deep breath.
  442. >"When do we start? I'd like to get this over with before I have fully comprehended everything you just said."
  443.  
  444. >As it turned out, you could start immediately.
  445. >Watching the three Ponies prepare the spell, drawing magic circles and symbols, you started feeling uneasy again.
  446. >Sure, you had said that you wanted to get it over with, and this was still true.
  447. >However, the thought of actually going through with it was still something else entirely.
  448. >"Anon, we are ready. Just step into the circle, would you?" Witching Hour calls out to you.
  449. >This was it.
  450. >You made your way into the circle, the nervosity almost overwhelming you.
  451. >"Remember, we will be with you all the way," Quick encourages you, and you give him a nervous, thin smile.
  452. >"See you on the other side," you say as you step into the circle.
  453. >It is a cheesy, cliche'd line, but it is the first thing that comes to your mind that is both applicable and short enough.
  454. >"Everyone acoounted for? Excellent. Anon, just stay where you are. You two, let's help your friend."
  455. >Witching Hour directs a stream of magic at you, chanting passages from her book in a language you don't understand.
  456. >You slowly turn your head to protect your eyes, only to see Quick and Sharpy standing to both sides of a pot full of some kind of incense they lit earlier following her lead.
  457. >The brightness of the magical energy hurts your eyes and you shut them as hard as you can.
  458. >It is of little use, the light is so bright that it easily shines through your eyelids.
  459. >Still, this isn't half bad.
  460. >So far, you havn't felt a thing.
  461. >However, this quickly changes.
  462. >You almost fall over as your legs begin shifting and rearranging themselves.
  463. >As you clumsily sit down, you can hear snapping noises coming from your legs, and you instinctively start pulling down your pants.
  464. >Having relieved yourself of your pants, you start feeling up and down your legs.
  465. >It feels as if your flesh and bones are liquid, flowing around inside sacks of skin.
  466. >Your legs start bending into a distinctly equine shape, and despite feeling no pain, you want to scream as you feel your toenails growing together and hair pushing out of your skin.
  467. >Yet no sounds escape your throat as you feel neck lenghten and your hair grow down your the back of your head.
  468. >The noises you heard coming from your legs now seem to be coming from your entire body, and you convulse as all your muscles seem to work against you.
  469. >You hear the pat-pat of your twitching hand against the stone floor turn to the distinct clop-clop of a hoof and become dimly aware of an entirely new appendage making its entrance at your rear end.
  470. >Suddenly, there is silence.
  471. >This doesn't mean a stop to the changes, however, as you feel your skull start to change and in your feverish mind you make the connection that you are probably not hearing anything because your ears are in the process of migrating around your head.
  472. >As your face pushes out into a muzzle, the bright light stinging your eyes grows even more intense, until it seems to fill out the entirety of your mind.
  473. >When it comes, you welcome unconsciousness as a relief.
  474.  
  475. >You awake with the fight or flight reflex already kicked in.
  476. >There is an intense need to get away from wherever you are, but your body doesn't do what you need it to and you just get entangled in some stuff that seems to be all around you.
  477. >You start kicking and biting the stuff to free yourself, but it doesn't let up.
  478. >Suddenly, you are pushed back, and your darting eyes catch two creatures standing over you, one of them keeping you down, both gnashing their teeth.
  479. >"ANON!"
  480. >You freeze.
  481. >Your eyes focus for the first time since waking up, and you see that the two creatures are in fact Quick and Sharpy, and the stuff you are entangled in is in fact your blanket.
  482. >"Calm down, Anon. It's just us. You hear? Just Sharpy and me."
  483. >Your heart is still hammering like crazy, and you still haven't gotten your bearings, but you calm down a bit when you realise that you are in your bed in your guestroom.
  484. >"Where is Mrs Hour?" you ask.
  485. >Your voice sounds weird to your own ears.
  486. >It is much lighter than before, and talking feels as if you had a throat full of slime.
  487. >You try coughing it out, but to no avail.
  488. >"She is waiting in Quick's office for you to wake up." Sharpy levitates a glas of water over to you, and you thankfully reach out from under the blanket to grab it.
  489. >When you see your former arm, the memory of what exactly happened comes back in full force.
  490. >You stare at what is very clearly a foreleg, complete with a hoof and covered in orchid fur.
  491. >Your breath quickens, and you feel as if you are on the brink of breaking down again, but Quick gently pushes your face away from the offending appendage with his hoof.
  492. >"It's alright, Anon. We know that you will have a lot to adjust to, but you should know that we will be there for you every step of the way."
  493. >Sharpy puts the glass back down. "Quick is right. We will do what we can."
  494. >He clears his throat. "Now, since I guess I am currently your doctor, I think you should know that you are perfectly healthy. I checked up on you while you were out of it, and can assure you that Witching Hour was right. The cell damage you incurred during the spell has already begun healing."
  495. >You feel deeply relieved.
  496. >You might still be in an entirely strange situation, but at least you have friends who know what they are doing, and you are no longer slowly dieing.
  497. >Well, at least not  more than anyone else
  498. >"Finally some good news," You croak. "Thank you for being there for me. If I woke up alone, I would have probably gone mad."
  499. >"Think nothing of it, Anon. Here, let me help you take a drink." Sharpy once again levitates the glas over and leaves it hanging in front of your face.
  500. >You very carefully move into a somewhat dog-like sitting position and grab the glass in your forehooves.
  501. >You lead it toward your new muzzle and take a sip.
  502. >Some of the water flows out on the sides, but all in all you think you did a good job for the first time drinking with a whole new body.
  503. >You try to place the glass on your nightstand using your hoofs, but keeping a cylindrical, fragile object inbetween them without dropping or crushing it is quite a challenge.
  504. >You soon find yourself looking at Sharpy, who is trying and failing to hide a bemused grin.
  505. > "Sharpy, could you give me a hand here? Or hoof, I guess."
  506. >Now that you wet your throat you doesn't feel like you had a major cold anymore, but your voice is still way off from the way it had been.
  507. >You decide to pay it no mind at the moment.
  508. >A changed voice is by far the smallest of your problems.
  509. >"Sure can do." The glass leaves your hooves and sets itself down.
  510. >"I have got to say, that was good drinking for a first timer."
  511. >"I think I am still the expert on all matters culinary here, Sharpy," Quick butts in, "But I have to admit, that was some fine drinking." He chuckles.
  512. >"And don't you worry, you will get the hang of how you do things with your hoofs or...otherwise."
  513. >"Otherwise? What do you mean?"
  514. >Quick and Sharpy now both sport wide grins.
  515. >Quick is gesturing towards his head, while Sharpy turns his eyes as if to see directly above them.
  516. >"Come on, guys what is it? I mean, I just woke up after a traumatic event and you are standing there, pulling grimaces and..."
  517. >Then it hits you.
  518. >"No way." You slowly push one hoof up towards your face.
  519. >"You better not be joking."
  520. >The hoof is now on eye level and still rising.
  521. >Seeing it up close still sends little shivers down your spine.
  522. >The Hoof hits something. You pull it along the object on your forehead.
  523. >It is a strange feeling to have something that seems so much like bone grow out of your forehead, but if this is what ou think it is...
  524. >"I am an Unicorn?" you ask, incredulous.
  525. >Their grins grow even wider. "Jackpot," Quick exclaims.
  526. >Not to be the one to sit this out, Sharpy adds a "Welcome to the club."
  527. >"So does this mean I will be able to use magic like you guys?"
  528. > Maybe this won't be so bad after all.
  529. >It seems like when it comes to becoming a Pony, you were lucky for once.
  530. >"I don't want to curb your enthusiasm, but perhaps we should start with something easier. Witching Hour said you would probably need to learn to walk again, but yes, once we are done with the basics, Sharpy and I will teach you just what that horn can be used for."
  531. >"That's awesome. Well, not the relearning to walk stuff, but learning magic is just... Really, thank you guys for being here for me."
  532. >You have a hard time finding words to express the way you are feeling, but your friends seem to get the message.
  533. >"I have got to start  making the whole ordeal up to you somehow, right?"
  534. >There's a knock at your door.
  535. >"Hello?" The voice of Witching Hour reaches you even through the thick wood.
  536. >"Is everything alright in there? May I come in now?"
  537. >"What do you think, Anon? Do you feel up for it?" Sharpy asks you, giving the door a glance as if he exspects it to burst open any second.
  538. >As you give him a nod, your mane falls over your eyes and you curse to yourself as you shake your head to get it out of your eyes.
  539. >This will take a lot getting used to.
  540. >While you are still fumbling around with your mane, trying to get the dark rose hair out of your eyes, you hear the door open and Witching Hour's shrill voice nearing your bed.
  541. >"So has Anon finally woken up? I heard you guys talking in here, you know. Not that I wouldn't understand that you wanted some time for yourselves after the whole affair. Anon, THERE you are."
  542. >You look up, still not quite done with getting the mane out of your eyes and are met with the somewhat unsettling sight of a smiling Witching Hour looming over you.
  543. >"Let me be among the first to congratulate you, Anon. You are a perfectly healthy unicorn filly."
  544.  
  545. >In the silence that follows, you could have heard a pin drop.
  546. >Quick and Sharpy look at Witching Hour as if she just set fire to your bed, she herself seemingly unaware of the implications of what she just said.
  547. >The silence doesn't last long, however as both Quick and Sharpy start talking insistently to her.
  548. >In your mind, you start adding things up.
  549. >Your weird new voice, your seemingly small size that you chalked up to being a matter of your new perspective...
  550. >You are interrupted in your frantic mental re-assesment by Witching Hours shouted exclamation:"What do you mean, you didn't tell her yet?"
  551. >You wince at the use of the female pronoun, but still look over at the argument.
  552. >"Yeah, why didn't you tell me?" you ask, your voice cracking again and tears welling up in your eyes.
  553. >Quick walks over, his previous good mood gone.
  554. >You can see that he knows that they fucked up, but that doesn't negate the sense of betrayal you feel.
  555. >"Anon, It's just that we didn't want to overwhelm you so soon after waking up. I mean, it must already be traumatic enough, and we didn't know wether you knew, and we just didn't know whether this was the right moment, and" He stops his rambling, looking down, then straight into your eyes.
  556. >You can see that tears are starting to well up in them, as well.
  557. >"We made fools out of ourselves, Anon, and I am deeply sorry." He finishes.
  558. >Behind him, you see Sharpy open his mouth, but before he manages to say a single word, Witching Hour maneuvers herself between them and you.
  559. >"Alright, gentlecolts, I think that's enough. What Anon needs right now are explanations, not excuses, so please leave the two of us alone for a moment before you start digging your graves even deeper. Why don't you wait outside for a while and think about what you did wrong."
  560. >Quick still looks at you with sad eyes, but then turns and walks out.
  561. >Sharpy looks as if he wants to protest, but he gets engulfed in magic and pushed out of the door, which closes behind him.
  562. >Witching Hour sits down next to your bed, looking at you exspectantly, but uncharacteristically waiting for you to take the first step.
  563. >You don't want to.
  564. >Since you came here, whenever you talked to someone and got some reassurance, the situation worsened shortly thereafter.
  565. >You turn to your other side and try to ignore her, but Witching Hour just keeps sitting there, waiting.
  566. >It drives you crazy.
  567. >Then it bursts out of ou.
  568. >"Why? Why does this shit happen to me? I just wanted to celebrate my birthday and since then my life has become a travesty. And now literally so! Why am I a filly? Why am I even a kid now? I never asked for this!"
  569. >You scream out your frustration some more.
  570. >By the time you are done you have  raspy a feeling in the throat and are almst panting, but letting out your anger actually felt good.
  571. >"Are you done?" Witching Hour asks.
  572. >She doesn't sound annoyed or patronizing, but rather concerned.
  573. >"For now, I guess." You mumble.
  574. >You are still angry and disappointed in your friends, but after your screamtherapy it is on the backburner at the moment.
  575. >"But I still want some answers."
  576. >"And I will try to provide them. Do you remember how I told you that we would need to use a lower-powered version of the spell?"
  577. >It takes you a moment to realize that this wasn't one of Witching Hour's usual rethorical questions and that she is in fact waiting for an answer.
  578. >"Yeah, you said that too much magical energy could cause irrepairable damage."
  579. >"Exactly. This meant that we couldn't use our magic to specifically design your body. Therefore, wether you became a stallion or a mare, what colours your mane and coat got and even wether you became an Earth Pony, Pegasus or Unicorn was up in the air, dependant on chance."
  580. >"Is this why I became a child again?"
  581. >"Yes and no. While it was a result of the spells reduced power, it was not caused by the random nature of your transformation. As I told you before, we had to put parts of your old body into what amounts to cold storage during the process. Due to this, the spell didn't have enough to work with to make you a full-sized Pony."
  582. >"Why didn't you tell me about all this before?"
  583. >If you had known then what you knew now, you would have thought about the proposition a whole lot longer.
  584. >"Would it have changed things?"
  585. >"What? Of course! I mean, if I had known that it was basically a big game of chance, I never would've agreed to this!"
  586. >"And died?"
  587. >The question cuts deep.
  588. >"I didn't want to die yesterday, and I don't want to die now! If it came down to it, I would agree to it again. But at least I would have had the opportunity to prepare myself. I could have thought things over, instead of just blindly stepping inot that stupid circle. You took that from me. No, you know what? You never even gave me the chance! Maybe there could have been another way! "
  589. >You are shouting again, but Witching Hour doesn't seem fazed by your outburst.
  590. >"And how long would you have liked to think things over? One day? perhaps some more? Anon, even without eating anything for that time, the background magic and your fluid intake would have deterioated your body, making the transformation, and even more importantly, your eventual reconstruction harder for us and far more dangerous for you. You yourself said that you wanted to get it over with as fast as possible."
  591. >That was true.
  592. >You remember stepping into that circle, just wanting to get this whole magic business done with.
  593. >"Would one additional day really have been so bad?" you ask, grasping at straws to justify your rage.
  594. >"I want to be completely honest with you, Anon. Sharpy told me that based on his Analysis the cell damage would not have been fatal, but it would probably have disqualified a good chunk of your body mass from being used. It might even be possible that there would not have been enough left to give you a functioning new body. So when you said you wanted to get this affair out of the way, we weren't exactly keen on discouraging you and putting you at risk."
  595. >Most of your anger dissipates for the moment.
  596. >If what she told you was the truth, this mare and your friends had saved you from death or potentially something worse, and you had gone off on them like a badly wired tripmine.
  597. >"I am sorry, Mrs Hour. I must come off like an ungrateful asshole, but the last few days have mostly been bad news after bad news to me. Believe me, I am thankful for your help, it's just not quite how I imagined things would turn out."
  598. >Witching Hour smiles a bit. "Apology accepted, Anon. And just call me Hour, everyone does. I admit that we didn't handle the situation perfectly, especially after you woke up. We should have eased you more into it. So I would like to apologize to you as well."
  599. >Now you can feel yourself growing a small smile as well. "Apology accepted, Hour."
  600. >You push out your hoof towards her, and she shakes it with hers.
  601. >"Good to know that we are on good terms again, Anon. Now, I think there are two stallions outside who had some time to think. Shall I let them back in?"
  602. >She gives you an impish grin. "Or should we let them fester some more?"
  603. >You shake your head, again getting some of your mane in your face.
  604. >"No, let them in. I think I owe them an apology as well."
  605. >"Alright then." Hour flings the door open.
  606. >"To the to stallions sulking in the hallway, the patient will see you now. What are you waiting for? Get to it, hut-hut!"
  607. >Seeing Witching Hour go back to her non-stop talking persona after just sharing a genuine moment with you makes you smile again.
  608. >You would have to ask her what was up with that one of these days.
  609. >But first, it is time to face your other friends.
  610. >"I will be getting some food while you work out your differences. After all, it seems we will be here for some time today. Are sandwiches fine with everybody? Yes? Great! See you later."
  611. >Hour steps outside and closes the door behind her.
  612. >Quick and Sharpy stand in the middle of your room, unsure on how to handle the situation.
  613. >Witching Hour ushering them out like that earlier must have really confused these academics.
  614. >"I want to apologize." You proclaim.
  615. >That gets their attention.
  616. >"You want to apologize? For what?"
  617. >Quick looks at you as if you just told him you invented a better mousetrap.
  618. >"For how I reacted. Hour told me why you did things the way you did, and it makes sense. I am still not what I would call happy with the situation, but you did what you could for me."
  619. >A look of relief takes hold on both their faces.
  620. >"Did she tell you why we wanted to keep you from reconsidering? You know, I consider myself your doctor and keeping facts from a patient doesn't sit right with me, but preventing further damage was our top priority."
  621. >"She did. And I understand where you are coming from, Sharpy. Still, the next time you guys have any big reveals for me, please get them out of the way first before coming to the positives. All these endorphines suddenly dying off in my system can't be good, right?"
  622. >"I promise it. But let's hope there are no such reveals coming for some time. The last few days are enough to last a lifetime."
  623. >Quick chuckles a bit. "I promise it too. And you are right, Sharpy, we had some stressful days. But now it can only get better, right?"
  624. >"Let's hope so".
  625. >The three of you turn towards the voice coming from the door.
  626. >Witching Hour stands in the frame, levitating a bundle of packages in front of her.
  627. >"I am back from the kitchen. And if you are done now, I would suggest we get something into our stomachs. Anon must be starving by now, and the two of you can't have eaten much more."
  628. >She sets the packages down on your table, and pulls back the seats.
  629. >"You wouldn't believe how the kitchen staff looked at me when I teleported in. But desperate times, desperate measures, right? Don't just stand there watching, help me set the table."
  630. >While your friends get to work setting up the table, Hour turns towards you once more.
  631. >"Do you think you can make it over here or do you want breakfast in bed, Anon?"
  632. >"No, I will come over," You reply.
  633. >Best to get the hang of this body as soon as possible, right?
  634. >You crawl up to the edge of your bed and look down.
  635. >It looks significantly higher than you remember it, so you very carefully slide down until your forehooves touch the ground, then move them forwards one after another until your rump and hindlegs follow.
  636. >That was easy enough.
  637. >Now for the hard part.
  638. >You manage to stand up on your hindlegs and uneasily maneuver into a stable position.
  639. >"So far so good..." You mumble to yourself.
  640. >Now to figure out that walking stuff.
  641. >You take your first step and manage to just catch yourself before falling.
  642. >"Good first step, Anon," Quick encourages you.
  643. >Sharpy walks over to you.
  644. >"You have a good general idea, Anon. Look at me and try to emulate my steps as good as you can."
  645. >He takes some slow, exaggerated steps, and you follow suit while he watches.
  646. >"Good, Anon, but try to move your knees more like this..."
  647. >With the encouragement of your friends and Sharpy's coaching you actually reach the table uninjured, but feeling as if you just sprinted a few hundred meters.
  648. >"That was pretty good already. I will train with you for a bit after eating, and you will be running like a pro in no time, you will see."
  649. >"I hope so. But right now, I feel as if I ran half a marathon," You complain while clumsily climbing onto a chair.
  650. >"That's just your body getting used to its muscles. But once you use them for a bit, you'll see that it all comes back to you. Once, when I had a broken leg..."
  651. >"Isn't a broken leg pretty much fatal to Ponies?" you ask.
  652. >You remember that your uncle's horse once broke its leg and had to be put down.
  653. >"As long as the artery isn't hurt and proper medical procedure is followed, no, it isn't. Why do you ask? Is the leg an especially vulnerable point to humans?"
  654. >"No, actually it is not so different from Ponies. It's just that were I am from, we had animals that were pretty similar to ponies, and according to everything I heard, a broken leg was often at the very least crippling for them."
  655. >"Well, that's pretty interesting, Anon," Witching Hour interrupts, "But I happen to have a weak stomach, so I would be VERY thankful if you could continue your medical discussion after dinner."
  656. >"She's right. All of us haven't had much to eat yet, so without futher ado, bon appetit."
  657. >The packages are unwrapped and reveal an assortment of sandwiches.
  658. >They look pretty similar to the ones back on earth, but the condiments vary a fair bit.
  659. >"Are those daffodils?" You ask, examining your sandwich.
  660. >"That's right. Our kitchen master makes the best daffodil sandwiches in all of Canterlot." Hour explains between two bites.
  661. >Still skeptical, you  awkwardly take the sandwich between your hoofs and take a small bite.
  662. >It's actually pretty good.
  663. >You are aware that had you eaten something like this on Earth you probably wouldn't have liked it, but it seems like your tastebuds are wired up differently now.
  664. >After the three of you are done eating, Witching hour excuses herself to start her evening shift in the library, but not before promising to visit you tomorrow and bring some books for you.
  665. >While Quick reclines on one of your chairs to catch up on his sleep schedule, you train your legs with Sharpy, telling him about horses from your world to distract yourself from your aching legs.
  666. >It is tiring trainig, but you really start feeling better on your four new legs.
  667. >At last, Sharpy seems satisfied.
  668. >"Good job so far, Anon. We will pick up tomorrow when my shift in the infirmary is done. You will get the hang of being a Pony soon enough."
  669. >You know that he meant it as a compliment, but you shudder a bit.
  670. >After all, this wasn't supposed to be a permanent affair.
  671. >You escort him to the door and say your goodbyes.
  672. >As you turn around, your eyes fall on Quick, already fast asleep in his chair.
  673. >Not that you can't understand him.
  674. >You all had a hard day.
  675. >Looking at your sleeping friend, you decide not to wake him.
  676. >He is on sick leave and needs his sleep, after all.
  677. >You blow out the candles in the room, and hop into your bed, smiling to yourself as you realize how natural the movement came.
  678. >Sharpy's training had already left some marks.
  679.  
  680. >After a dreamless sleep, you wake up in what appears to be the late morning.
  681. >At first the panic is back, but it subsides almost immediately after you realize where you are and what happened.
  682. >A look into the corner that serves as your dining room reveals that Quick is still asleep in you chair.
  683. >You climb out of bed, groaning at the aching muscles in your legs.
  684. >A tangy taste in your mouth and crusty eyes lead you to the bathroom across the hallway to wash your face.
  685. >Who was gonna stop you now that you were a Pony?
  686. >Appearantly, the faucets in the Bathroom are opened by pushing in the top and not a fancy turning mechanism, and you are thankful for being spared the ordeal of trying operate something like your water tap back home with your new hooves.
  687. >You splash the cold water into your face with your front hooves and rub the sleep from your eyes.
  688. >As you look up, you are greeted by the face of filly staring at you as if she had just woken up.
  689. >Shocked by her sudden appearance, you recoil, and so does she.
  690. >Wait a minute, that is no filly
  691. >It is the mirror over the sink.
  692. >Seeing your new body for the first time is a strange experience.
  693. >It feels as if someone completely different is looking back from the mirror.
  694. >You guess this is what dysphoria feels like.
  695. >Carefully looking yourself over, you try to take it all in.
  696. >Your skin is completely covered in the same orchid fur that shocked you when you discovered it on your former arm after waking up.
  697. >Instead of your former short, scraggly hair, your new dark rose mane now sat upon your head, even more shaggy than it felt yesterday.
  698. >At least you had been able to keep your pale blue eye colour.
  699. >The horn on your forehead catches your attention again.
  700. >As you think about what you will be able to do with it, a small smile once again settles on your face.
  701. >You are actually pretty cute, if you say so yourself.
  702. >Judging by your size and facial features, you guess that you are probably in your early teens at most.
  703. >While it sucks that you would probably be dependant on your friends for a lot of things, you might be able to get away with commiting a few missteps if you blamed them on childish ignorance.
  704. >You finish cleaning up and try to get your mane in a somewhat presentable shape with your forehooves.
  705. >The results are questionable, but seeing in a third person perspective how you move about actually helps you a fair bit getting a feeling for your hoof-eye-coordination.
  706. >Still, you would need to find a solution to the mane question.
  707. >Refreshed, you return to your room.
  708. >Quick is still lieing on the chair, in a position that makes it look as if he should have fallen out of the chair by now.
  709. >Was this another form of uniform magic?
  710. >"Quick? Are you really still asleep?"
  711. >No answer.
  712. >You move closer towards him.
  713. >Placing your fronthooves on the chair, you pull yourself up to his ear.
  714. >"Hey Quick," you hiss into his ear.
  715. >Quick's eyes open wide and he almost jumps out of the chair.
  716. > "Anon? What? Where?" Quick stammers while looking around the room wildly.
  717. >The sight of the stereotypical startled sleeper in pony form has something comical to it, but your amusement quickly fades as you remember how you woke up yesterday.
  718. >You step in front of him.
  719. >"Calm down, Quick. I am right here. You fell asleep in my room yeterday, remember?"
  720. >Your sight calms Quick down, and he breathes a sigh of relief.
  721. >"Oh thank Celestia. Please never wake me like this again. I just had the most bizarre dream when I heard your voice."
  722. >"I for one didn't dream a thing despite everything yesterday. What was it about?"
  723. >Quick shudders. "It was about all the ways the spell might have misfired. Please don't make me go into the details, I want to forget it as fast as possible."
  724. >You decide not to press him any further.
  725. > You don't want to know the nitty gritty of what could have happened to you, the basics about cell damage and non-functuonal bodies had been enough to inspire your fantasy.
  726. >Instead you say: "You know, I would have offered you breakfast, but sadly there's nothing here."
  727. >Visibly relieved at the change of topic, Quick gives you a grin.
  728. >"Say no more. let me just make me presentable and we will get something."
  729. >While Quick is in the bathroom, you excitedly pace your room to pass the time and get your legs warmed up.
  730. >You feel much more confident walking around on all fours already.
  731. >You tentatively make a small jump and are giddy with joy as you manage to catch yourself on all fours again.
  732. >It seems as if Sharpy really knows how to get someone, or somepony rather, into shape.
  733. >"Anon, are you coming?" You hear from the hallway.
  734. >"Coming!"
  735. >Quick is waiting outside your door, his mane and beard nicely styled.
  736. >Together you make your way down the tower, and across campus.
  737. >The university seems more like a palace than a place of higher education, with walls of white marble and stained glass windows that show scenes of Equestrian history and scientific discoveries.
  738. >Pictures of prominent scientists are commonplace, and Quick tells you what he knows about some of them.
  739. >Eventually, you leave the science wing and walk across the campus square.
  740. >Quick is still talking about the achievements of High Nest, the Ornithologist, and you feel yourself zoning out.
  741. >"Pretty long way to the cafeteria, isn't it?"
  742. >You don't really want to know, after all, you would see it soon enough.
  743. >You just want to stop Quicks rambling.
  744. >"Actually, we passed the way to the cafeteria already. But since I am not working today, and you are not an enrolled student, I thought we would head out and eat something in town."
  745. >"That's great. I wanted to see more of the City since I looked outside my window for the first time."
  746. >You need to figure out a way to carry your phone around with you for those photographs you had been planning to take.
  747. >A few of the students you pass give the two of you you weird looks and you start to feel as if they have figured out your secret as one of them approaches Quick and you.
  748. >"Good Morning, Professor Diner," she greets, and you recognize the voice of the Pony that you heard complain about her appointment with Quick.
  749. >"It's good to see you back on your feet already."
  750. >"Thank you, Breeze. Though I am afraid I won't be in office for at least the rest of the week. How is your project going? I am sure we can make a new appointment if you still have problems with the enquiry."
  751. >"That would be great. I actually already swung by your office the other day and they wanted to give me an appointment as soon as possible."
  752. >"See you soon, then. And don't stress yourself out so much, Breeze. You are one of my most competent students, test anxiety really isn't necessary."
  753. >Breeze looks uncomfortable, yet flattered.
  754. >"Thank you, Professor. Have a nice day with..."
  755. >She looks at you questioningly.
  756. >"Oh, my niece came to visit so I had some company while I recovered. We are just going to grab some breakfast."
  757. >"Then don't let me stop the two of you any longer. Have a nice day!"
  758. >"You too, Breeze."
  759. >"Yeah, you too.", you add.
  760. >As Breeze turns to go back to her friends, you notice what irked you about her the whole time she was talking to Quick: She doesn't have a horn.
  761. >Instead, there is a pair of wings neatly folded at her sides.
  762. >Once she's far enough away and the two of you continue your walk, you give Quick a nudge into the side with your elbow. "So I am your niece? Does that mean I should call you "uncle" Quick now?"
  763. >"Oh, shu tup Anon. Breeze is brilliant, but also my nosiest student. What she knows now, my whole class will know in one hour. And what better way to explain why I am walking around campus with a twelve-year old?"
  764. >"I am just pulling your leg. So I really have the body of a kid now?"
  765. >"Anon, not so loud!" Quick whispers to you, nervously looking around.
  766. >"But yes, you have. That was the most we could do."
  767. >The thought of your new body about being half as old as your human one was another weird thing, but you are starting to get good at banishing the hard questions to the back of your mind.
  768. >So you try to change the topic again.
  769. >"And Breeze studies here despite not being an Unicorn?"
  770. >"Of course. Most of my courses don't require magic, and we have entire fields of study at Canterlot University that don't require magic. We even have a few Pegasus exclusive courses, even thought Cloudsdale University complained the first years that we were intruding into their area of responsibility"
  771. >Quick shrugs. "In the end, we all arranged ourselves. After all, there are enough Pegasi living around Canterlot for whom goig to Cloudsdale is simply not a possibility. But for now, welcome to Canterlot, Anon."
  772.  
  773. >The two of you step off campus onto a busy square.
  774. >All around you, Ponies of all varieties and in all colours are going about their business, selling food and little souvenirs out of wooden stalls, drawing carts and running errands.
  775. >You see a pair of white stallions in golden armor patrol around, Pegasi flying overhead and even a finely dressed mare appearantly walking a poodle.
  776. >The hustle and bustle is just as bad as in any big human city.
  777. >You feel your ears turning instinctively to take in as much of the sounds as possible before flattening against your head, and after the last few days you spent with atmost three other ponies around you, you feel as if you must suffer sensory overload.
  778. >"Quite a lot to take in, isn't it?"
  779. >"Absolutely. Somehow I didn't exspect the city to be so busy." you answer, still looking around.
  780. >It seems as if most of the city is built from the same white marble as the University.
  781. >Everything appears to be made from the same casting.
  782. >Quick gives an amused snort. "I know what you mean. The first week after I came here from Trottington was one of the most confusing times in my life."
  783. >You move on, trying your best to evade oncoming traffic and shake stubborn salesponies looking for someone to peddle their souvenirs to.
  784. >You promise yourself to come back here and buy something once your stay nears its end.
  785. >Eventually, you manage to get off the square and make your way down a smaller street branching from the main road.
  786. >While the square in front of the university had more in common with the squares in front of a busy trainstation back on Earth, this road reminds you of the pedestrian areas of smaller towns, or perhaps the old town of the city you grew up in.
  787. >The individual houses are smaller, and it feels as if they lean over the you as you walk by.
  788. >The roofs are thatched, and if you didn't know you were in the capital, with the bustling masses just a few dozen metres behind you, you could think you were in a rural village.
  789. >Looking around, you find that the ground floors of alot of the houses actually hold small businesses or restaurants.
  790. >One of these restaurants appears to be your destination.
  791. >"Here we are", Quick exclaims, "Bistro Old Town. You will be hard pressed to find better food anywhere in town. Trust me, I have a degree afterall."
  792. >As you enter, you are reminded of an Austrian restaurant you used to frequent.
  793. >The Bistro looks like a cozy mountain cabin, complete with paintings of what you assume to be Canterlot in its early days, a small village nestled at the side of a mountain.
  794. >While a waiter leads you to a table, you try to take in as much of the decor as possible.
  795. >The seats are rustic benches made from tree trunks that have been sawed in half, and despite a roaring fireplace in the corner as well as several pelts on the wall you don't feel hot.
  796. >Magic at work, you guess.
  797. >On Quick's recommendation, you order an "Authentic Old Town salad" and some water.
  798. >Appearantly, meat is not part of the Equestrian food pyramid.
  799. >"I take it you like the decor?" Quick has obviously noted your interest.
  800. >"It reminds me of home, actually. Everything here seems pretty similar to a place I used to go to sometimes that was inspired by another country."
  801. >While you wait for your food to arrive, you tell Quick about Austria and how its style is pretty similar to the way the Bistro is decorated.
  802. >Quick listens intently, nodding from time to time.
  803. >"Interesting. You know, during my research on food from other Worlds I sometimes got glimpses of the place I was taking it from, and let me tell you, after you have seen a few dozen Worlds you start to notice the similarities."
  804. >He leans closer. "It appears as if certain cultural archetypes appear in different dimensions, all using the same blueprint if you will. Appearantly, intelligent life always adapts in similar ways to similar conditions."
  805. >That's actually a bit scary to you. "I guess it makes sense if these species adapt to the same circumstances. But you have seen how my people look. The thought that cultural traits could be so far removed from the biological aspects is pretty strange."
  806. >"It is definitely a field that hasn't been explored much. But our faculty plans to change that."
  807. >Quick's eyes shine with fascination.
  808. >"We are currently in the process of setting up a science team to further research this phenomenon. We are planning to start as soon next year. And I have to say Anon, as our guest from another World, you would be a welcome addition."
  809. >Quick is positively beaming at you now.
  810. >"What do you think, Anon?"
  811. >You try to choose your worlds carefully.
  812. >This project obviously means a lot to your friend.
  813. >"I would be honored to help if I can. But I don't want to make any promises, after all we don't even know if I will still be here in a year, or if the whole "Alien that has to keep hidden situation" will be resolved by then. After all, who would believe me now?"
  814. >Quick seems to deflate a bit as his enthusiasm is met with the facts of your stay.
  815. >"I am sorry Anon, I forgot for a moment. If I am passionate for a topic I can get carried away a bit. Of course no one will force you to stay longer than you want to once we find a way to get you home."
  816. >"No need to be sorry, Quick. Maybe we could even figure out a way for cross-World cooperation?"
  817. >Quicks mood seems to better immediately upon hearing that you are not out entirely.
  818. >"Of course, Anon. I am certain there would be ways an established contact in another World could be a boon for our research."
  819. >You continue to chat about the project until the waiter returns with your food.
  820. >The salad looks great, but you bet it would look even better if you had already been familiar with eating flowers.
  821. >You awkwardly lower your head to take a bite, while Quick is using his magic to cut up his quiche with a knife and levitate a fork to his mouth.
  822. >"Once we get back to the university, we probably should get you started on the basics of magic. Sharpy wanted you to wait with that until he was done with his physio, but if we start with some simple levitation you shouldn't be too tired when he comes over in the afternoon."
  823. >"Really? Teach me magic already?"
  824. >It seems as if your excitement had caused you to be a bit loud, since you see the heads of the Ponies at the next table turn towards you, and you hear what sounds like a whispered "Late bloomer".
  825. >"I mean, Sure UNCLE Quick, I will gladly show you what magic school teached me." you "correct" yourself, loudly and clearly to make sure the neighbouring table hears you.
  826. >Quick catches on and plays along with a grin. "I am happy to hear that. And it's TAUGHT young lady, you should know that by now."
  827. >"But really," you say "That would be great. I am dragging my mane through my food every time I try to take a bite."
  828. >"Believe me, Anon, I have noticed. Do you want me to cut it shorter so it doesn't get in the way as much?"
  829. >"No offense, Quick, but the last time I had my hair cut by a friend I ended up bald. I guess I will either go to a professional or find another solution."
  830. >Quick shrugs, than grins. "You should have seen me when I tried to cut my own mane to save time while writing my Thesis. I looked as if I had been attacked by a mob of angry griffons."
  831. >You continue to make some more more or less empty but relaxing conversation while finishing your meal.
  832. >It turned out that Quick's beard was actually grey because of a magical mishap when he was a student, and he had kept it because he thought it made him appear more dignified.
  833.  
  834. >As you make your way back to the university, he points out a small store to you.
  835. >"If you want to do something about your mane, that's your best guess."
  836. >It's a small barbershop.
  837. >A sign over the door poudly proclaims it to be "Hairy Hoof's Barbershop and coat-care."
  838. >"I absolutely still want to do something about it. I am pretty sure I got half of my salad's dressing in my mane."
  839. >As you peek through the window, you see at least half a dozen Ponies on several barber chairs, getting their manes taken care of, as well as almost a dozen more sitting in a waiting area in varying states of boredom.
  840. >Getting your mane cut seems to come with a long wait today, but that's alright with you.
  841. >The whole talk about cells and body mass the last days has made you skeptical of the prospect of separating yourself of any of your bodyparts, even if it's just hair.
  842. >However, you also make out several aisles with what appear to be different hair care supplies.
  843. >"Can't hurt to take a look," you say.
  844. >"Then pick out something. I'll pay, as long as you don't push me into debt."
  845. >"I take it that academics think themselves underpaid in every World."
  846. >For a moment you think your banter went too far, but Quick just laughs.
  847. >"Someone has to do the thinking for you unwashed masses, right? Let's get inside before I start thinking about how I could save some money."
  848. >As you enter the store, a small bell over the door announces the arrival of new customers. "
  849. >I am terribly sorry, Quick" an overworked looking mare behind the counter tells you as you walk up, "but I am afraid we have no more spots open. Do you want to come in tomorrow? I could squeeze you in after the lunch break."
  850. >"No worries Cleanly, we are just here to browse the wares," Quick tells her, and you can clearly see the relief on her face.
  851. >You make your way over to the aisles and start to look over the products while Quick hangs back and chats with the receptionist.
  852. >There are dozens of different shampoos, soaps and other hair care items, and you hope you won't need to take on any complex regimen. >As a human, you always thought you were doing fine with just some budget shampoo for dry skin.
  853. >"Dr. Hokey's Mane and Skincare: For great results" seems like the Pony equivalent, and after figuring out no way to carry it around in your hooves, you pick it up in your mouth like you saw some Ponies in town carry things.
  854. >To your surprise, the taste isn't terrible.
  855. >You guess in a society where about two thirds of the population use their mouths for transporting things, it was an important aspect of marketing to make things taste decent.
  856. >You try not to think too much about germs as you continue browsing for something to keep your mane in check.
  857. >Scissors? Out of the question, you aren't taking any risks yet. Hair bands? While the idea of being a Pony with a ponytail has a certain appeal, you probably won't be able to use them with your hooves, and you have no idea how long it would take to learn it.
  858. > A hoop? An inexplicable disgust overcomes you, and you quickly move on.
  859. >Manegel? This might work.
  860. >With some difficulty you manage to take both tubes into your mouth without squeezing anything out of them and make your way back to Quick.
  861. >He is still talking to the receptionist, probably trying to connect on the basis of both of them having some stressfull days.
  862. >They seem pretty absorbed by their conversation; Quick is grinning like an idiot, and she has a bad case of the bedroom eyes.
  863. >He better not be telling her too much.
  864. >"You are back already?  Have you found something you want?"
  865. >Quick uses his magic to take the tubes out of your mouth, and you retch a litte as the gag reflex belatedly kicks in.
  866. >Already?
  867. >You had spent what felt like a good twenty minutes going through the aisles.
  868. >Quick pays up and says his goodbyes to the receptionist, who seems sad to see him go.
  869. >With your haul stowed safely in his saddlebags, the two of you step back outside.
  870. >"I hope I didn't interrupt anything back there," you say, not really trying to conceal the shit-eating grin on your face.
  871. >"That? That was nothing. We were just talking about work because I am a regular customer."
  872. >Quick is clearly flustered and you feel as if his answer came a bit too fast.
  873. >"If you say so. All I am saying is where I am from, people usually don't lead engaging conversations with their hairdresser unless they have no option to escape from their chair."
  874. >"You are pulling my leg again, aren't you?"
  875. >"You know, I actually might be."
  876. >"That's what I thought."
  877. >You continue walking in silence for a while.
  878. >"Alright, I admit it. You are right."
  879. >Quick looks at you as if he exspects another joke, but you let him talk.
  880. >"Cleanly Cut is the reason I always go there instead of the barber we have on campus. Ever since I came there the first time, I have been all about her."
  881. >"Sounds like the two of you have known each other for quite a while."
  882. >"About two years now, actually. I am always looking forward to seeing her when I get my manecut."
  883. >"So you only meet her when you get your hair cut? You two don't go out?"
  884. >A pained expression flashes over Quicks face.
  885. >"Actually, no. I always want to ask her out, but I really don't know how to make the first step. I get as nervous as if I had to explain my master's thesis to the test committee again."
  886. >He shudders.
  887. >"You know, I probably wouldn't tell you that if you were still, well, YOU. I haven't even told Sharpy, and he's my best friend."
  888. >You didn't exspect that much honesty when you started the conversation.
  889. >"But you got your master's degree, right?" is the best you can come up with.
  890. >"And maybe you should talk to Sharpy. He can probably help you more than I can."
  891. >"Maybe I will. And you are right about that degree. Sometimes I still wonder how I passed. You know, Anon, your body makes it easy to forget that you went to University yourself a few days ago."
  892. >"Oh please, I told you it was just community college."
  893.  
  894. >Back in your room, you find two books on your nightstand, as well as a note from Witching Hour.
  895. >"Dear Anon, let me first dispose of your feeling that I let myself in. In fact, I am so busy in the library, that I probably won't make it over today. Still, I wanted to try a translocation spell I read about the other day and tried it on the books you should see in front of you now. If you are NOT Anon, I implore you to return these books to the Canterlot University library and tell me, so I can practice more. Best Wishes, Witching Hour, Chief Librarian of Section F-G" you read out loud.
  896. >"Good old Witching Hour, always trying what she reads and no concept of personal space except that she considers the library hers." >Quick sets your haul down on your table.
  897. >"Which books did she send you?"
  898. >You look over the covers.
  899. >"'Equestrian History and Myths' is the first one, 'A traveller's guide to Equestria and beyond' the other."
  900. >Quick takes a look over your shoulder.
  901. >"I read 'History and Myths' back in school. It's pretty good basic knowledge. Seems like you've got something to do for the afternoon. That is, after we are done practicing."
  902. >You put the books down.
  903. >You can feel your excitement return as you imagine casting magic for the first time.
  904. >"Alright, show me how it's done."
  905. >"So, I thought we would start with some basic levitation to get you started. It's generally thought of as the easiest form of magic and will help you a great deal in your daily life."
  906. >"Sounds great. I can't wait to eat with cutlery again."
  907. >You are pretty sure there's still some dressing in your mane from your breakfast salad.
  908. >"I want you to concentrate on one of the books in front of you and lift it up. Just concentrate on the books as if you wanted to pick them up, but without using your forelegs or mouth."
  909. >You do as you are told and try to imagine yourself lifting the books.
  910. >You almost go cross-eyed staring at the books, but your only result is a throbbing in your forehead.
  911. >Finally, you let go a breath you didn't even realize you held in, and your concentration breaks.
  912. >"Did they even budge at all? I think all I achieved is a headache."
  913. >Quick shakes his head.
  914. >"No, they didn't. But don't be discouraged. Think of your magic like another muscle. You need to train it to get any meaningful reasult. Your headache is more than likely the equivalent to sore muscles."
  915. >That sounds like pseudoscience to you, but over the last few days you have learned to accept the seemingly absurd.
  916. >You focus again, this time making sure you breath in and out properly.
  917. >The ache in your forehead continues to grow, but you ignore it as best as you can.
  918. >It continues to spread into your horn.
  919. >In front of you, the traveller's guide starts rumbling.
  920. >You close your eyes to minimize distraction and continue.
  921. >Suddenly, the throbbing pain returns with a vengeance, and your concentration breaks again.
  922. >There is a thud as the book hits the floor.
  923. >You rub your forehead with your hooves to make the pain stop and drive off the stars dancing in front of your eyes.
  924. >"Are you alright?"
  925. >Quick nudges you in the ribs.
  926. >You look up and see his concerned face in front of you.
  927. >"I think so. It's probably the magical equivalent of a strained muscle or something."
  928. >The pain is already starting to subside again and the stars have vanished.
  929. >"So, how did I do this time?"
  930. >"You did pretty good for your second attempt. You actually managed to get the book off the floor for a second or two."
  931. >Quick gives you an encouraging smile.
  932. >"Don't worry about the headaches. It will get easier with the time. Just relax for a while, we while continue when you are ready."
  933. >You continue practicing levitation until noon. By now your horn and forehead feel like your muscles after an intense workout, and you are glad when Quick finally deems it enough for a day and goes to fetch lunch.
  934. >Still, you feel yourself getting more comfortable with using your horn already.
  935. >On your last try, you managed to levitate the book over to your table and back to your nightstand before having to let it go.
  936.  
  937. >After you finish lunch, Quick leaves for a medical check up.
  938. >You think about taking your shampoo for a spin, but decide against it.
  939. >It would probably be better to take a shower after your physical training with Sharpy.
  940. >To pass the time until he comes over, you jump up on your bead and, with some strain, levitate 'History and Myths' up to you.
  941. >Might as well learn some more about the country you will be in for the foreseeable future.
  942. >You start in the beginning, reading up on some of the stories Quick already told you about on your first day.
  943. >He had told you about Princess Celestia and how she banished her evil sister after her attempted coup, but the parts about the time before the conflict of the monarchs are new to you.
  944. >Appearantly, there had been a time when unpredictable Chaos ruled, until the Princesses brought order to the land.
  945. >Probably the Equestrian variation of a creation myth,
  946. >The thought that what amounted to a god-queen ruled the country for thousands of years doesn't seem unbelieveable after all you've seen so far, yet you find yourself wondering wether this Celestia was just a role that was in fact played by a more traditional line of rulers.
  947. >You become so engrossed in your reading that, after finishing the first few chapters, you start looking up the places you read about in your travelling guide.
  948. >Maybe you would be able to take a look or two at some historical sites during your stay in Canterlot.
  949. >Sadly, most of the maps of Equestria and the world beyond the city of Canterlot seem to be held in medieval style, with distances and locations not represented to scale.
  950. >From the context of the texts, you can infer the approximate location of some towns and cities across the country, but the details are mostly left up to imagination.
  951. >You are still poring over the maps when there's a knock at the door.
  952. >"Come on in!"
  953. >You levitate the books back on your nightstand as Sharpy enters and puts down his saddlebags.
  954. >"Seems like you're a natural, Anon."
  955. >You grin at him and jump off your bed.
  956. >"And not only in magic. In fact, I have been walking around all morning. Barely even broke a sweat."
  957. >Sharpy returns the grin.
  958. >"Well, I'll just have to drill you a bit harder then. You'll get that cutiemark in walking in no time."
  959. >You chuckle a bit.
  960. >"I would prefer not to have pictures of legs on my legs, thank you very much. Besides, would it even be possible for me to get a cutiemark as non-natural?"
  961. >"I honestly don't know, Anon. I would imagine you can, for all intents and purposes you are currently one of us. The more important question, I think, is wether you would get to keep it once you go back to being a human."
  962. >The smile he says it with is practically infectious.
  963. >"Damn, my friends would probably think I went on the worst frustrated drunken bender in recent history if I first went missing for days and then came back with pony legs tattoed on my butt. Do you guys have laser treatment to get rid off marks you don't want anymore?"
  964. >"What is laser treatment supposed to be? Whatever it is, I never heard of somepony who wanted to get rid off their cutiemark, so I don't think there would be much demand."
  965. >"Laser treatment is basically just..." You start off, but Sharpy cuts you off.
  966. >"I think we have stalled for time long enough, Anon. You can tell me about this Laser-business while we train..."
  967. >He opens his saddlebags and levitates out what looks a lot like weights connected with rope.
  968. >"...If you find the breath for it."
  969. >As it turns out, the things from the bags are in fact weights.
  970. >Sharpy has you bite down on the rope connecting them and carry them with a straight neck "to improve your posture", as he calls it.
  971. >After you are done with that exercise, he pulls out some larger weights wrapped in what seems to be fur as well as a longer rope and has you drag them behind you to build strength.
  972. >Other parts of your regimen include pushups and other familiar seeming variants of body-weight training.
  973. >By the end of your regimen, you are panting and sweating all over.
  974. >You didn't know furred creatures could sweat that much from their skin, but you file it under "Things that are different in different Worlds".
  975. >"I have got to say, Anon, I am impressed. I didn't think you would be able to push yourself that much already. Seems like I will have to think off something more challenging for you."
  976. >You try to reply, but you are so worn out that all you manage to get out are some undifferentiated vowels inbetween your panting.
  977. >"Good to know that you agree with me, Anon. Underestimating yourself is a serious character flaw."
  978. >That isn't what you meant at all.
  979. >"N-no, I mean..."
  980. >Sharpy turns around, the grin from earlier back on his muzzle.
  981. >"Relax, Anon, I am just messing with you. But, seriously, good work today. If we continue like this, you should be as fit as you can be in a few weeks."
  982. >The thought of weeks more of this torture makes you groan, but you don't complain.
  983. >You know that this is for your best, after all.
  984. >Also, you are still out of breath.
  985. >Sharpy does some stretching exercises with you, to slowly cool off and prevent cramping, and you manage to regain most of your composure.
  986. >"So, Anon. Any complaints? Does anything hurt?"
  987. >You shake your head.
  988. >"Everything's alright, except that my trainer is a slave driver."
  989. >"Well, I did want to join the Royal Guards when I was younger. This is my first chanche of living out my fantasy of being a drill sergeant in quite some time."
  990. >"Well, I am happy to have indulged you. But don't you think I am a bit young for military training?"
  991. >Sharpy just laughs.
  992. >"Please, do you think that I have forgotten how old you really are? Besides, you are big for your age."
  993. >That was news to you.
  994. >To be fair, you hadn't seen any other Ponies in your age group to compare yourself to.
  995. >"So, I am afraid I have to leave you now, Anon. The patients don't take care of themselves."
  996. >"Pulling nightshift always sucks. Make the best of it."
  997. >"I will try. Folk are relying on me, after all. See you tomorrow, Anon."
  998. >The thought of further straining your aching body tomorrow  only serves to make you more aware of the strain you put on it this evening.
  999. >For the moment, you simply resolve to lie down for a bit, but the smell of your sweat and the leaf from the salad you had in the morning that falls from your mane as you climb onto your bed make you reconsider.
  1000. >You pick up your haircare products with your magic and make your way onto the hallway.
  1001. >The showers are found right next to the bathroom on your hallway.
  1002. >You try to turn on one of the showers with your magic, but are unable to keep your shampoo and gel in the air at the same time.
  1003. >Would have been too nice if the most trivial things wouldn't be beyond you.
  1004. >You pick the tubes back up and walk into the stream of warm water.
  1005. >Taking a shower after working out still feels as great as it did on Earth, but the sensation of your wet coat is something new entirely.
  1006. >Your sodden mane hangs over your face and obscures your vision once more, but for the moment you are okay with that.
  1007. >You will take care of that soon enough.
  1008. >You spread your shampoo over your mane (and a thinner layer over the rest of your body) and enjoy the water rinsing you off.
  1009. >After a while, you feel yourself getting sleepy and decide it's time to finish up and get to bed.
  1010. >You step out of the shower and return to your room to dry yourself off by your still magically burning fireplace.
  1011. >To avoid falling asleep before you are dried off, you read in your books.
  1012. >You try to localise the old castle of the Royal Sisters, but if your sources are to be believed, it has been totally overtaken by the Everfree forest.
  1013. >That forest  was a whole lot of bad news in itself, if even half the myths in your book were to be believed.
  1014. >Seems like you would have to stick to some more accessible tourist traps.
  1015. >When you are properly dried off, you return the the bathroom with your manegel.
  1016. >Time to take care of your mane.
  1017. >You position yourself in front of one of the mirrors and spread some of the gel in your mane.
  1018. >Seeing yourself in the mirror was still weird, to say the least.
  1019. >Were you really big for your age?
  1020. >Your only point of reference were grown-ups, and you were definitely a fair bit smaller than them.
  1021. >Staring at yourself in the mirror won't answer that question though, and your tiredness is catching up to you.
  1022. >You slather the gel in your dark rose mane around to spread it out eavenly, then use your magic and hooves to sculpt.
  1023. >The idea had come to you earlier.
  1024. >It was simple, really.
  1025. >Your mane wouldn't get into your eyes or food anymore if it didn't hang into and next to your face anymore.
  1026. >You take a satisfied look at the smug looking, mohawk-sporting young Unicorn looking back at you from the mirror.
  1027. >"Perfect."
  1028.  
  1029. >Over the next two weeks you continue your training regimen as well as reading up on Equestrian lore.
  1030. >As you are in pretty good shape by now, you continue your training to stay in shape instead learning the basics.
  1031. >Your control over your magic has improved as well: Levitating multiple items at once  is no longer a problem for you, and on more than one occasion you have used your horn as an impromptu flashlight.
  1032. >You actually have managed to figure out how to use your magic to take pictures with your phone and since than have been taking pictures of yourself, your friends and several sights around town.
  1033. >Now people back home will have to believe you.
  1034. >The battery had run dry in time, of course, but you could always reload it when you came back home.
  1035. >If somebody asked you, you would have to admit that going home wasn't at the forefront of your mind as often as it used to be.
  1036. >Currently, you are sitting in Quick's office and passing time by flipping through his notes on some of his culinary experiments.
  1037. >Appearantly, the denizens of a World designated as 316/C favour a sort of fruit that looks like a peach but tastes like grapes.
  1038. >Reading about different Worlds only serves to remind you that you were away from home for some time now.
  1039. >Surely your friends back on Earth had started looking for you by now.
  1040. >A nagging voice in the back of your mind reminds you that they couldn't even be bothered to turn up for your birthday, so why would they care now?
  1041. >You shake those dark thoughts off.
  1042. >You had always been somewhat prone to carry grudges.
  1043. >The sounds of hooves on the hallway announce Quick's return, and you jump from his chair as he enters.
  1044. >"Ah, Anon. My apologies for letting you wait, but my students had quite a few questions regarding our long term studies."
  1045. >Quick drops his saddlebags and slumps down into a chair.
  1046. >"You really have to wonder how they come up with some of the stuff they ask. Seriously, who even considers the the implications that taking objects from one Dimension to another has on the space-time-continuum?"
  1047. >You pull a chair over for yourself and sit down as well.
  1048. >"Sounds reasonable to me. Did you really never care about such things when conducting your experiments? I imagined teleportation to be pretty risky business."
  1049. >On the other hand, you hadn't found yourself in a 'The Fly'-type situation after being teleported alongside your pizza, so perhaps pop culture had cultivated some false prejudices.
  1050. >Quick makes a dismissive gesture.
  1051. >"I am quite sure that if there were any long-term effects on the fabric of reality, my old Professor would have told me about it when I studied under her. She was all about the dangers of the world and others."
  1052. >He clears his throat.
  1053. >"Which brings us to why I invited you over. You see, I have been in contact with her to discuss ways to bring you back to your World. We think that there might be several possibilities, but have found communicating via letter to be a tiresome affair. To make a long story short, Professor Porter has invited me over to her place in Ponyville to do further research and I wanted to ask wether you wanted to come along, you know, see more of the world."
  1054. >As Quick tells you the news, your can feel your ears rise up more and more.
  1055. >The possibility of going home soon was something you hadn't counted on over the course of the last weeks, and while you could still imagine to extend your stay for a while, it would be nice to have the option.
  1056. >At times, you had even forgotten about going home for stretches of time.
  1057. >"Yeah, of course I will come along. And your Professor really thinks you can work something out?"
  1058. >Quick flinches a bit at your enthusiasm.
  1059. >"At the moment it looks like we have a solid lead. But there's something I have to ask of you, Anon."
  1060. >Of course there was a catch.
  1061. >The tone of his voice and the uncomfortable look on Quick's face serve to make you a bit more nervous in turn and your ears flatten against your head again.
  1062. >"Alright, I am listening."
  1063. >"Well, as I said, she is quite a bit paranoid about dimensional travel. This extends to beings from other Worlds. When we were corresponding about your situation, I told her you were under constant quarantine. If she knew that you are not only walking about freely, but how much time we spent together, she surely wouldn't have invited me."
  1064. >"So you asked me wether I wanted to come along only to tell me I couldn't?"
  1065. >"Of course not. All I am asking is that during our stay at the Professor's home, you don't reveal who you are."
  1066. >Over the course of your stay, you had kept you identity hidden from everyone except your three friends in the faculty, so you don't think that Quick's request will be terribly hard to fulfill.
  1067. >"Can do. Do you want to roll with the niece-narrative again?"
  1068. >"That would be optimal. In fact, I already mentioned to the Professor that my niece is currently staying with me, and she had no problem with me bringing her along. However, there is one more thing."
  1069. >You roll your eyes.
  1070. >Quick is a good guy, but he often takes a while to get to the point.
  1071. >"Spit it out already."
  1072. >"Well, during our correspondence, I mentioned your name to the Professor. When we go to visit her, I need another name to call you by, or she will see through the whole charade as soon as we step through the door."
  1073. >"Great job. Really, Quick."
  1074. >A deep anger is rising within you, bringing supressed fears to the surface.
  1075. >Your tail swishes with annoyance and you get up to give it some room.
  1076. >"I mean, I understand getting carried away in a conversation and all, but didn't you proofread your letters or anything?"
  1077. >You gesticulate towards your body.
  1078. >"I mean, all this? Fine, I have arranged myself with it, I don't like it, but most of these days I don't even notice it anymore. But now I have to give up my NAME?"
  1079. >By now you are almost shouting, pacing around the room as Quick looks on uncomfortably.
  1080. >"Do you understand what I am getting at here? I have gotten so used to this body, most days I don't think about it as strange at all anymore, and when I realize that it's not my natural body, and that I am from somewhere completely different, I always feel as if I might one day forget completely. The people I know home wouldn't even recognise me anymore. What if I were to forget my NAME? What if I lost my connection completely?"
  1081. >You glare at Quick with tears in the corners of your eyes.
  1082. >"I am scared of losing myself."
  1083. >Saying it out loud and admitting it to yourself felt good.
  1084. >Denying that you had thought less and less about your situation and just rolled with things during your stay was no good.
  1085. >It was actually scary just how easy it had been to go along with things.
  1086. >Quick is visibly shocked by your outburst and tries to gather his composure.
  1087. >"Anon, why didn't you tell me earlier that you felt that way?"
  1088. >"I-I don't know. There are so many distractions, and I feel I shouldn't be able to be distracted from coming from another World, but it's really EASY."
  1089. >You are sobbing now, and through your tears you see Quick come over to you.
  1090. >He sits down beside you and pulls you into a hug.
  1091. >You return it, and for a while the two of you just sit there hugging each other while you sniffle into his fur.
  1092. >As you slowly calm down and your sniffling subsides, Quick nudges you.
  1093. >"Anon, I want you to know that I am here for you. And not only me, but Sharpy and Witching Hour as well. We will never let you forget about who you are."
  1094. >You pull your muzzle up from Quick's shoulder to look up to him.
  1095. >You don't think you have ever seen him look so genuinely worried, but being reminded that he and your other friends are there for you is comforting.
  1096. >"So, if you don't want to use another name because it's too much for you, I understand. We will find a workaround."
  1097. >You wipe away some tears that avoided being soaked into his fur with a fetlock.
  1098. >"No, you are right. I will manage. Seeing some more of the world might do me some good. I am sorry for going off like this at you."
  1099. >"Consider it forgiven. Sometimes you push things to the back of your mind for so long that when they break loose, they do so all the harder. I know it sounds cheesy, but just be honest with yourself about your feelings."
  1100. >"I already thought I did."
  1101. >You sit for a while longer, you burying your muzzle back into Quick's shoulder.
  1102. >You finally break the silence.
  1103. >"I know it's a lot to ask, especially after shouting at you like this, but could you pick a name for me?"
  1104. >"Are you sure about that? Don't you want to choose one for yourself?"
  1105. >You give Quick a weak smile.
  1106. >"Yeah. I couldn't think of a better Pony to pick one. Also, I don't think that I would be good with picking a Pony name. No offense, but most seem like "adjective-subject" to me."
  1107. >"I am honored. So honored, that I will ignore your frankly culturally insensitive comment."
  1108. >He gives you a little nudge in the shoulder with his hoof.
  1109. >"So, what do you think about going out for lunch?"
  1110. >You have to admit, you are somewhat reluctant to let go of Quick.
  1111. >"I would like that a lot."
  1112. >As you follow Quick through the Campus, you feel like a huge weight you didn't even know was there has been lifted from your shoulders.
  1113. >Talking about (or rather, shouting out) your previously subconscious grievances has left you pretty calm for the moment.
  1114. >It's good to have a friend as caring as Quick.
  1115. >He put up with all your shit since your arrival.
  1116. >You would have to find a way to make it up to him someday.
  1117. >Now he was even going to give you a cover name.
  1118. >Despite it being only temporary, the thought of answering to another name still makes you uneasy.
  1119. >You try to shake the feeling.
  1120. >After all, you are confident that Quick will pick something fitting.
  1121.  
  1122. >"Fizzlepop Berrytwist? How did you even come up with this?"
  1123. >You hadn't exspected Quick to come up with such a frankly ridicolous name.
  1124. >"The color of your coat and mane, mainly. I have to admit, the first name was harder, but then I remembered how the magic fizzeled out after the, well, transformation spell was finished. I thought that might help you remember."
  1125. >You guess you didn't have any right to complain.
  1126. >Seems like he actually put some thought into the whole naming affair.
  1127. >Also, you probably would have come up with an even worse name for yourself.
  1128. >"Fine, guess I'll just go by Fizz then."
  1129. >It has been a week since your decision to join Quick on his visit to Professor Porter, and the two of you are currently sitting aboard the Equestrian Express, which was about to start its weekly tour from Canterlot through the realm.
  1130. >"That's fine by me. We just have to be careful not to slip up around the Professor. If she were to find out who you are, she would probably call the guards on us and have us locked in quarantine."
  1131. >"What a lovely idea."
  1132. >You recline on your bench and open up the book on Equestrian History you brought along.
  1133. >"So, how long is getting to Ponyville going to take anyway?"
  1134. >You had tried to find out at the train station, but the lack of the constantly updating screens with information you knew from the stations back home had given you significant problems.
  1135. >"We will probably get there by midday tomorrow. The conductor was confident that the problems they have been having with the furnace have been sorted out."
  1136. >"You know, I think this is the first time I am actually riding a coal-powered train. Back home, almost all trains have been using electricity for quite a while."
  1137. >Quick nods.
  1138. >"It really is astonishing what your people have been doing with electricity. I know that some Pegasi and Unicorns at the University try to find a way to harness it in similar ways, but they are still far from reaching the level of sophistication your World has."
  1139. >"Well, I hope your colleagues get there soon. I never realized how much I took having a power outlet nearby for granted until my mobile ran dry."
  1140. >With a jerk, the train starts moving and you put your conversation on halt to watch the city pass by your window.
  1141. >The close packed marble buildings of the inner city gradually give way to the somewhat more spacious suburbs, and soon you find yourself passing the side of the mountain Canterlot is built on.
  1142. >As the train follows a curve in the tracks, you get a good look at the surrounding landscape.
  1143. >Of course you had seen parts from windows in the university, but as you take your first look at the open country you can't help but feel surprised.
  1144. >So far, despite what you read in the books Witching Hour had given you, Canterlot had sometimes felt more like a themepark than a real city with a surrounding countryside.
  1145. >Now, looking at a wide plain, complete with a river running through it, dotted with several woods and what seems like farms and villages scattered around it, you realize for the first time how big Equestria must really be.
  1146. >You spend a good chunk of your trainride looking at the landscape outside your window, at times asking Quick about the landmarks and settlements you pass.
  1147. >"So this is still the same Everfree forest? Must be really big if I could see it at basically all times since we left Canterlot."
  1148. >"Oh, it is big, alright. Some say too big."
  1149. >Quick leans in conspiratorially.
  1150. >"You see, there are quite a few stories about the forest. Few are nice ones."
  1151. >This catches your attention.
  1152. >You had always been a bit of a conspiracy nut.
  1153. >"Come on, Quick. Don't just leave me hanging with the basics here."
  1154. >Quick looks like somepony who is greatly amused by his own joke as he continues.
  1155. >"I don't know, Anon, or should I say Fizz. I wouldn't want to give you nightmares. After all, we will be riding along the edge of the forest for a while this night."
  1156. >"Oh, come on. You know you don't have to treat me like a child yet. We aren't even near your old Professor."
  1157. >You try to find some leverage.
  1158. >"Tell you what. You give me some stories on this forest, and I will tell you about some spooky stuff from back home."
  1159. >Just as you exspected, that gets him interested.
  1160. >"Deal. You know, I would have told you anyway. But you better not back out now."
  1161. >You give him a shrug and the most neutral expression your muzzle can muster.
  1162. >"Why would I? We needed a new topic to talk about anyways."
  1163. >"Alright. I don't know wether you read about it in one of the books Witching Hour gave you, but the old seat of the Princesses actually was located within the Forest. Now, after Nightmare Moon's rebellion, the castle was abandoned and the seat of government was relocated to Canterlot. Ever since then, things haven't been quite right in the forest."
  1164. >Quick looks out of the window as if he is afraid of someone out there listening in.
  1165. >You hope he is just trying to give you a good show and not actually that paranoid about the damn thing.
  1166. >"You see, folk say that despite Nightmare Moon's defeat and banishment to the moon, her evil left a shadow behind that tainted the forest. Over the years, it has become a harbour for all kinds of monsters. Timber Wolves, for example have become a very real threat to the settlements on the outskirts, and there is talk of far more dangerous creatures lurking deeper in the woods. There are Ponies who claim to have heard or even seen apparitions in the Everfree, and rumor says that on some nights, when the moon is high in the sky, the shadow of Nightmare Moon herself holds court in the ruins of the old castle."
  1167. >Quick finally tears his eyes away from the window.
  1168. >"Of course, these are just legends. Still, the Everfree can be a very dangerous place due to the creatures that find a natural habitat in it. In the end, it boils down to: If you go into the forest, don't go alone and use common sense."
  1169. >"I think it's my turn, then. You know, we actually have quite a few scary woods of our own on Earth..."
  1170. >Over the course of the next few hours, the two of you pass the time by sharing scary stories and conspiracy theories from your respective Worlds.
  1171. >You wouldn't have guessed that Equestria would have had an equivalent to Waco if Quick hadn't told you the story.
  1172. >If you hadn't heard the opposit from him, you would have guessed that the guards you saw walking around Canterlot were mainly for ceremonial and simple police purposes.
  1173. >Once again you find yourself hoping that your stay in her country would not draw Celestia's ire.
  1174. >Exterminating a doomsday cult actively working towards their apocalypse seems easier to justify than sending someone stranded here to the moon or god knows where else, but you aren't keen to find out wether Equestria's monarch shares this sentiment.
  1175.  
  1176. >Later in the night, you find yourself unable to sleep.
  1177. >You kick around under your blanket, trying to find a more comfortable position, but to no avail.
  1178. >Despite the blanket, you feel cold and as if you are watched.
  1179. >"Quick?"
  1180. >You reluctantly open your eyes.
  1181. >Sure enough, Quick is fast asleep on his bench.
  1182. >You try to go back to sleep, but the odd feeling doesn't subside.
  1183. >Who would've thought that the horror stories from earlier would affect you that much?
  1184. >Must have something to do with the chemistry of your underage body.
  1185. >With a groan, you sit up.
  1186. >Just a quick look outside to prove to yourself that there is nothing to be scared of before you lay back down.
  1187. >You pull open the curtains and immediately recoil.
  1188. >A full moon is hanging in the sky ofer the Everfree forest.
  1189. >The craters on the moons surface clearly form the profile of an Unicorn's head.
  1190. >It's the first full moon you have seen since your arrival in Equestria, and the sight is enough to do some heavy damage to your scepsis towards the myths of the country.
  1191. >As you are still staring at the moon, something else catches your attention.
  1192. >It looks as if something is flying down towards the forest.
  1193. >You squint your eyes to get a clearer picture.
  1194. >It looks like a pretty big bird.
  1195. >No, wait.
  1196. >It's actually a very big Pegasus.
  1197. >But what is a Pegasus, however big, doing alone in the middle of the Everfree at night?
  1198. >As the figure makes a turn on its way downwards, you see it.
  1199. >A long horn, protruding from the "Pegasus's" flowing mane.
  1200. >As you close the curtains as fast as you can, you feel as if the creature is looking straight at you.
  1201. >You pull your blanket over your head, filled with an inexplicable feeling of dread.
  1202. >You don't even dare to wake up Quick, until finally, you fall into a restless sleep.
  1203.  
  1204. >"Hey, Ano- I mean Fizz. Time to get up."
  1205. >You groan and turn under your blanket, trying to block your ears with your hooves.
  1206. >"Come on. I know that you are awake."
  1207. >A hoof nudges your side, and you reluctantly open your eyes.
  1208. >Quick is standing over you, looking somewhat amused.
  1209. >"Finally. You slept all morning. We are almost in Ponyville."
  1210. >He walks back to his bench and levitates a sandwich over to you.
  1211. >"Here, I got you some breakfast. I have to admit, I thought you would have been up earlier with how you've been tossing and turning."
  1212. >You try to recall the night, but all you manage to remember is that it was full moon and you had difficulties sleeping.
  1213. >"Must have been the full moon. I always had trouble sleeping if it's too bright."
  1214. >You take a bite out of the sandwich.
  1215. >It's far better than you thought a sandwich served by a railway line had any right to be.
  1216. >"Or maybe I just don't sleep well in a moving train."
  1217. >You are still munching on your sandwich when the train starts slowing down.
  1218. >"There we are."
  1219. >Quick packs your travel blankets into his saddlebags and you follow him towards the exit while finishing your meal.
  1220. >With a huff, the train comes to a stop, and the doors open.
  1221. >As you step out of the cart, you take a look around.
  1222. >From the small train station, a cobblestone road leads into town.
  1223. >The houses remind you of the Canterlot Old Town, having thatched roofs and being built from wood and stone instead of being carved out of marble.
  1224. >Ahead of you, you can make out what you guess is the town square, with a big tree in the middle.
  1225. >The two of you make your way further into town, and you notice that the tree appears to be hollowed out, even having a balcony and windows.
  1226. >"What's up with the tree? Is that the city hall or something?"
  1227. >"Not quite. It's the town library. Last I heard, the old librarian wanted to retire but was still waiting for a suitable replacement."
  1228. >Along the road and on the edges of the square, there are several chairs and tables set up.
  1229. >You deduce that they belong to a nearby restaurant, and some of them are occupied by chatting locals enjoying their breakfast, but no one appears to pay you any mind.
  1230. >Coming closer to your destination, you feel a certain nervousness return.
  1231. >You soon reach a big house on the other side of the square.
  1232. >"Prof. Tel. Porter, Expert on theoretical Translocation" a sign next to the door proclaims.
  1233. >Quick knocks, and you swallow uneasily.
  1234. >If that Professor Porter was as paranoid as Quick told you, who's to say she won't use some kind of magical scan to ruin your attempt at going undercover?
  1235. >There are hoofsteps on the other side of the door.
  1236. >The curtains on the small window set in the door move, then you hear a key being turned and the door opens.
  1237. >In the doorway stands an old Unicorn mare.
  1238. >Her orange fur lacks the shinyness you have grown used to seeing on younger Ponies, and her brown mane has several grey stripes.
  1239. >You are relieved when she doesn't make any attempt to "scan" you, but greets the two of you with a smile.
  1240. >"My favourite former student. Welcome. And you must be the niece I heard about."
  1241. >"I am Fizz. Thanks for extending your invitation to me, Professor."
  1242. >"Oh, it's nothing. When Quick told me that you were currently staying with him due to your difficult home situation, I just had to invite you. Can't have you being bored around the University, right? Come right in."
  1243. >You shoot Quick a confused look.
  1244. >What kind of crazy story had he made up about you?
  1245. >He does his best to pretend he didn't see you, but the Professor appearantly caught on.
  1246. >"Don't worry, dear. Quick was quite insistent in keeping the details private."
  1247. >Oh, that's good to hear. It IS quite the... embarassing situation, really."
  1248. >You follow the professor into her home.
  1249. >The house appears to be decorated in the signature style of older ladies everywhere.
  1250. >You spot kitschy figures and plaits on seemingly every surface.
  1251. >Even the smell reminds you of passing an old woman on the street.
  1252. >The three of you gather in Professor Porter's living room, which appears to also serve as an office of sorts.
  1253. >There is the same tasteless decor as before, but spread over the coffe table are documents, graphs and drawings.
  1254. >You try to make sense of the things you see, but most of it might as well be rocket science to you.
  1255. >However, the repeated mentions of "translocation" and "teleportation" give you a solid idea of what's in front of you.
  1256. >You are quickly proven correct in your assumption when Professor Porter adresses your "uncle".
  1257. >"Welcome to my humble study. Quick, as you can see I have gone over our correspondence again, as well as started working myself into the case. Now, once you have brought your bags into the guestroom, we can get started."
  1258. >"Alright. I will get right to it."
  1259. >He pulls your bags off with his magic and drapes them across his back.
  1260. >"What about Fizz? I told her more than a few things about the case, and she is eager to help."
  1261. >Professor Porter takes an interested look at you.
  1262. >"Is that so? Well, Fizz, your uncle and I will probably be looking over a lot of our correspondence for hints as to the creature's predicament. Nothing he didn't tell you, I am sure. So if you want to stay with us, you are welcome to do so as long as you aren't disrupting us."
  1263. >That's more than you exspected.
  1264. >"Thank you, Professor. I basically had a front row seat for the whole affair so far, and I wouldn't want to miss a thing."
  1265.  
  1266. >It turns out missing a thing or two never hurt anyone.
  1267. >The Professor held her word, so you got to witness her and Quick go over what seemed to be hundreds of pages of letters, rectifying assumptions here and correting mistakes in their reasoning there.
  1268. >Their conversation had been interesting at first, but you soon figured out that they were just talking about things you already knew, just with a lot more expert lingo thrown in.
  1269. >When Quick comes to talk about a "theoretical" transformation of the "creature" (a term you still took a vague offense to) into a native species, you can't take it anymore.
  1270. >You knew everything there was to know about the subject, right?
  1271. >"Professor? Uncle Quick? Is it okay if I go outside for a while and catch some fresh air?"
  1272. >They look at you as if they had totally forgotten about your presence.
  1273. >Given how absorbed into their conversation they were, that's a real possibility.
  1274. >Quick is first to answer.
  1275. >"Of course, A- Fizz. Just take care and don't be gone for too long."
  1276. >"When your uncle says it's alright, I won't disagree with him. But please don't go into the forest. It's not safe there for a filly."
  1277. >The mention of the forest vaguely reminds you of your...nightmare on the train.
  1278. >You have no intention of going there today.
  1279. >"I know. Quick told me about it on the ride. See you later."
  1280. >You exit the house as fast as you can and take a deep breath of relief as soon as the door is closed behind you.
  1281. >Finally free from the old-lady-smell and boring conversation.
  1282. >Time to take a closer look at the town.
  1283.  
  1284. >You walk across the square, taking in your surroundings.
  1285. >You guess this where the market stalls would be standing on market day, but right now it's pretty empty.
  1286. >By far the most interesting thing around is the library in its hollow tree.
  1287. >To your disappointment, the door is locked.
  1288. >However, nothing is stopping you from taking a peek through the window.
  1289. >In the dim light of a candle, you see who you presume to be the librarian snoring at a desk.
  1290. >The inner walls of the tree are lined with rows of books, much like Quick's study at the university.
  1291. >You press your face closer to the window in the hopes of making out more details, when you hear a voice call out behind you.
  1292. >"Hey, what are you doing there?"
  1293. >Surprised, you spin around and find yourself confronted by two unicorn kids, a filly and a colt, probably one or two years younger than you.
  1294. >They look at you as if you are a criminal.
  1295. >The colt raises an accusing hoof.
  1296. >"Do you want to break into the library?"
  1297. >"What? Of course not. I was just taking a look to see what it looks like in there."
  1298. >The foals move up on either side of you, doing their best and failing to look intimidating.
  1299. >"That's exactly what a burglar would say, isn't it, Summer?"
  1300. >The filly nods eagerly.
  1301. >"Exactly. Now, you better give us the truth, scoundrel, or we will alert the authorities."
  1302. >This is getting ridicolous.
  1303. >The two had their fun, now it's your turn to take back the initiative.
  1304. >"You can do that, if you want," you calmly state while walking straight past them.
  1305. >"But isn't it INTERESTING that you turned up here, claiming to know EXACTLY what a burglar would say and accusing strangers of crimes that may have already been comitted? Now, I will be waiting for the guards over at Professor Porter's. Don't leave me hanging, will you?"
  1306. >As you slowly walk back across the square, you start counting the seconds in your head.
  1307. >Before you reach 5, you hear the two of them call out in unison.
  1308. >"Please wait!"
  1309. >A wicked grin spreads over your muzzle.
  1310. >Kids are so easy to manipulate.
  1311. >You try to look as serious as you can as you turn to face them.
  1312. >"Yes? What is it now?"
  1313. >The two of them are already running up to you, clearly distressed.
  1314. >"Please don't go to the Professor. We were just playing detective!"
  1315. >"We didn't want to break into the library, really!"
  1316. >"We got too swept up in our game, we are sorry!"
  1317. >They are talking so fast and at the same time that you are hard pressed to make out any more, but you get the gist.
  1318. >"Alright, alright, calm down, you two."
  1319. >They shut up instantly, giving you the puppy eyes.
  1320. >Seems like kids are the same everywhere.
  1321. >"Apologies accepted."
  1322. >You can see the proverbial weight lift from their shoulders as they realize they won't be in trouble.
  1323. >"See, Summer? I told you she would be nice," the colt eagerly exclaims.
  1324. >"Shut up, she's right there," Summer hisses and gives him a sock against the shoulder with her hoof, before turning back to you with a smile that's just a bit too wide.
  1325. >"Ehehe, Sorry about that again. Now, if there is a way we can make it up to you..."
  1326. >The question hangs in the air awkwardly, both foals fidgeting a bit again.
  1327. >"Actually, there is something you two might be able to do for me."
  1328. >The awkward smile on Summer's face is replaced with a flash of horror for just one moment.
  1329. >You wonder what these kids imagine you might be asking of them that terrifies them so much.
  1330. >Then again, weren't kids always afraid of getting in trouble?
  1331. >"Can you guys show me around the town? I just arrived today and would like to get my bearings."
  1332.  
  1333. >"...And that over there is the Gilded Hoof cafe. Our parents sometimes go there for coffee, but it's just sooo boring with all the uppity staff and they don't even serve any real food, just those reallyyy small portions, you know, and you are still hungry when you leave, so we usually don't come along anymore. Hey, you are staying with the Professor, right?"
  1334. >You nod.
  1335. >Since you set out with Summer and her brother Glow they had been talking almost non-stop.
  1336. >Even the most trivial places appearantly warranted an in-depth explanation, often peppered with personal anecdotes.
  1337. >"How come? Are you family? I didn't know the Professor had family."
  1338. >Glow looks at you in what seems to be unjustified awe.
  1339. >"Is her house really one big laboratory? Filled with chemicals, and vials, and gasses that go BOOM when you touch them? Is that why your mane looks like that?"
  1340. >Sighing, you turn to your other side, but Summer is staring at you with pretty much the same expression.
  1341. >When she catches you looking at you, she quickly tries to put on a serious face.
  1342. >"Alright you two, listen up. I just came here today and haven't seen her whole house yet, but what I have seen was decidedly more old-folks-home than laboratory. No, we are not family. I am visiting with my uncle who used to be her student. No, my mane doesn't look the way it does because of any sort of freak accident, but because I wanted it out of my face."
  1343. >You look from Summer to Glow and back.
  1344. >"So, any more questions?"
  1345. >"Why are you and your uncle visiting his old teacher?"
  1346. >"Yeah, once I am done with school, I won't EVER come back! It's so boring. Why come back if they taught you everything already?"
  1347. >"Hey, we didn't come here for fun. My uncle needs help with one of his ... experiments, and I came along to see more of the country."
  1348. >"Does that mean you have never been outside of Canterlot?"
  1349. >You are taken aback.
  1350. >If you aren't careful with what you say, you might end up giving away more than you want to.
  1351. >"Of course I have been outside of the city before. But my side of the family lives way up north, and I have never been so far in the south before."
  1352. >It's a pretty bad lie, but the best you can come up with right now.
  1353. >"Take this forest for example. I have never seen so many trees in one place before. Where I am from, we mostly have tundra and mountains."
  1354. >If you were listening to yourself, you wouldn't believe a word of what you said.
  1355. >Summer and Glow however don't seem to question your story.
  1356. >"Isn't that awfully boring? What do you even do in your freetime? We explore the Everfree whenever we get away from our parents."
  1357. >Glow nods in agreement.
  1358. >"Yeah, it's great. As long as they don't find us we can do whatever we want. How do you even manage to get out of their sight when there's just snow all around?"
  1359. >You blink, taken aback by what you are hearing.
  1360. >"Wait a second. So you guys go into the forest? Everyone's been telling me that it's far too dangerous."
  1361. >Glow makes a dismissive gesture.
  1362. >"Pff. It's really not that bad if you know what you are doing. Summer and me go there all the time with our friends."
  1363. >"We haven't been going as often as we used to, though," Summer adds.
  1364. >"It hasn't been the same without Applejack. She really knew her way around the Everfree."
  1365. >You feel a shudder run down your spine as you imagine what could have happened to a filly exploring the forest.
  1366. >"Did anything happen to her? I mean, if she went into the forest often..."
  1367. >For a moment the kids don't seem to understand what you are hinting at, but then Summer's eyes light up with understanding.
  1368. >"No, no. Nothing happened to her. Except that she went to live with relatives in Manehattan."
  1369. >She spits the name of the city out as if it left a bad taste in her mouth.
  1370. >Glow comes closer, looking around for possible listeners.
  1371. >After assuring himself that the adults in the square are paying the three of you no mind, he leans in and whispers conspiratorially
  1372. >"Would you want to come along next time? Summer and I have been wanting to go in again sometime soon."
  1373. >Would you?
  1374. >Quick had talked at length about how dangerous the forest was supposed to be, but appearantly the local youth went there often enough and were none the worse to wear for it.
  1375. >You had wanted to see as much of Equestria as possible, and now you have a chance to maybe even see the historic ruins of the royal castle.
  1376. >Something in your subconscious tries to remind you of your nightmare on your way here, but you shake it off.
  1377. >"Alright, I am in."
  1378.  
  1379. >"A- Fizz, were have you been? Dinner has been ready for a while now."
  1380. >"Just looking around the town, getting to know the locals. You know, usual new-arrival-stuff."
  1381. >You have decided that Quick doesn't need to know that the kids and you had resolved to meet tomorrow afternoon to explore the Everfree.
  1382. >He has enough on his mind as is with the whole research the Professor and he are going through.
  1383. >"Well, come on in. We have been waiting for you."
  1384. >As you walk past Quick into the house, he gives you a look as if he doesn't quite blieve your story, but he doesn't say anything.
  1385. >That's just fine by you.
  1386. >The Professor is already sitting at the dining table and currently busying herself with serving up what looks like a carrot salad.
  1387. >In times like this you catch yourself wondering wether you could still digest meat.
  1388. >However, your etiquette guide had told you that eating meat was a big taboo in Equestrian society, so it is unlikely that you will get any for the time being.
  1389. >"Ah, Fizz. Finally back from your tour of the town, I see."
  1390. >You pull back a chair to get seated and give the Professor your best innocent smile.
  1391. >"I am sorry for being late Professor, but I just had to see everything. I always enjoy seeing new places and meeting new pe- Ponies."
  1392. >"Well, I am glad that you have such an exploratory spirit, dear. Don't worry about having been gone for a bit too long, I understand that I can't ask of a filly to be interested in the intricacies of the science of teleportation."
  1393. >Inwardly you are retching at the Professor's patronizing way of talking to you, but you swallow your pride.
  1394. >As long as she found a way to take you back home, she could be as much as an arrogant twit as she wanted to.
  1395. >After dinner, you retire to the guest room to read in bed and go to sleep early, while Quick and the Professor continue their studies.
  1396. >You especially read up on the Everfree forest and the legends associated with it.
  1397. >Even if the local kids had no trouble with it, you still intend go at least somewhat prepared
  1398. >As you are reading about Timberwolves and the threat these allegedly wooden predators pose to lone wanderers, the door to your room opens and Quick enters.
  1399. >He looks tired, but still regards you with a smile.
  1400. >"Hey, Anon. Still awake, I see."
  1401. >"Yeah, I have just been reading up on local history. What about you though? You look as if you could fall asleep any second."
  1402. >"That's the way I feel, too. We went over our correspondence all day and just started preparing a small teleportation experiment before I retired for today."
  1403. >Quick sits down next to you and lays his head down on your bed.
  1404. >"It's pretty tiresome, to be honest with you. The Professor is brilliant, don't you worry, but on a personal level, she can be rather..."
  1405. >"Taxing?" you suggest.
  1406. >"I guess you could say that. How was your day? Have you found anything interesting to do in town?"
  1407. >You don't want to lie to Quick, so you decide to just leave out some details instead.
  1408. >It might still be morally wrong, but you will probably feel less guilty that way.
  1409. >"Well, the library was closed, and I was about ready to come back, but then I met some kids and they started showing me the town. We will probably head out again tomorrow, if you don't need me here.
  1410. >Yawning, Quick shakes his head.
  1411. >"By all means, go out with your friends. The Professor and I will be busy studying the results of tonights experiment for most of the day."
  1412. >Quick trots over to his bed and lays down.
  1413. >"I get even more tired just thinking about it. Say, would you mind blowing out the light?"
  1414. >You don't, and soon you hear Quick snoring in his corner of your guest room.
  1415. >As you slowly fall asleep, you can't help but toss and turn, thinking about your expedition  the next day.
  1416.  
  1417. >You spend most of the next morning watching Quick and the Professor analyse their experiment.
  1418. >Appearantly, they tried to create a space that was as magicless as possible in a world that runs on magic, and tried to teleport things into it.
  1419. >It sounded simple enough when Quick explained it to you, but seeing the actual setup in the Professor's living room put things into perspective.
  1420. >Almost every available surface is covered in scientific equipment that puts the laboratory in Quick's study at the University to shame.
  1421. >If Glow asked you now wether the Professor's house was one big laboratory, you certainly wouldn't deny it.
  1422. >Looking at the experiment had been interesting for a while, but now that the initial fascination has passed, you find yourself bored.
  1423. >Quick and the Professor are absorbed in their studies, barely paying you any attention, and you don't want to interrupt them.
  1424. >In fact, you doubt wether you could manage to get their attention if you wanted to to.
  1425. >However, watching people do things you understand nothing about without getting bored is something you were never good at.
  1426. >While you watch the two academics carefully trot around the room, looking at roiling liquids in inter connected pitchers, loading coils with magic and doing other things the purpose of which you can't even guess, you find yourself wondering where they got all the materials from after you went to your room the other evening.
  1427. >The Professor must have a big storage room somewhere.
  1428. >For a moment, you consider looking for it.
  1429. >It's still time until Summer and Glow come to get you, and while Quick and the Professor didn't ask you to leave, you know that you are mostly just in the way.
  1430. >You decide against it.
  1431. >The Professor might be uppity, but you don't want to squander her goodwill by snooping around her house.
  1432. >"Oh, Fizz, dear. Could you do me a favor?"
  1433. >Think of the devil...
  1434. >You make your way over to the Professor, careful not to bump into any of the flasks and bunsen burners on the way.
  1435. >"Of course, Professor. What is it?"
  1436. >The Professor looks up from the liquid-filled vial she was examining.
  1437. >"There you are. If you would be so kind to empty out some of these old vials?"
  1438. >She indicates a collection of different-sized vials filled with fluids that remind you of lavalamps.
  1439. >You skeptically eye the bubbling fluids.
  1440. >"Is there anything I need to be aware of when handling these?"
  1441. >You really don't need anymore magical mishaps in you life.
  1442. >"Oh no, they are completely harmless. Any dangerous residue should have dissipated several times over by now. You can just empty them into the kitchen sink."
  1443. >The Professor isn't even looking at you anymore, instead making her way over to a sparking coil.
  1444. >"If you say so..."
  1445. >You pick the vials up, making sure to keep them as far away from you as possible.
  1446. >The Professor might be the expert here, but you are not going to take any risks with anything teleportation-related.
  1447. >"Wait a second, Fizz," you hear Quick call out after you.
  1448. >You stop just short of the main hallway and turn around to face him.
  1449. >"If you are going to the kitchen anyway, why don't you take a few bits from my bags and get yourself a decent breakfast in town?"
  1450. >You know that he is just trying to give you an excuse escape your boredom, but it's a good one.
  1451. >Breakfast had been a short and tasteless affair, with the three of you only chowing down a few pieces of haytoast before the "adults" went back to their science project.
  1452. >"Alright, thank you, Quick. I will see you two later, then."
  1453. >As you make your to the kitchen, you  can hear the Professor question Quick's "parenting"-skills, but you pay it no mind.
  1454. >After all, you won't get fat from just a snack.
  1455. >In the kitchen, you empty the vials as instructed.
  1456. >You never were an environmentalist, but flushing magical residue down the sink doesn't feel right to you.
  1457. >You suppress your disgust as you watch the thick liquids make their way down the drain, some remnants coagulating into a brown mass in the sink.
  1458. >Luckily, the remnants are easily flushed down with some water from the faucet.
  1459. >Despite never having physically touched the vials, you catch yourself instinctively washing you hooves.
  1460. >Leaving the now empty vials to dry in the sink, you make your way over to the corner were Quick left his saddlebags and open them up.
  1461. >As you forage for his purse, a folded piece of paper catches your attention
  1462. >You vaguely remember Quick writing something while you were sitting in the train.
  1463. >A swift look over the shoulder tells you that you are still without observers, so you open the paper up.
  1464. >"Well look at that," you murmur to yourself.
  1465. >The piece of paper is nothing less than letter to Cleanly Cut, the hairdresser Quick is pining after.
  1466. >You fold it back up and put it back were you found it.
  1467. >It must have been hard on Quick to finally make an attempt to tell her about his feelings, and you don't want to accidentally discourage him by having him find out you read it.
  1468. >Further searching reveals, in order, beard oil, a cheap novel about a mad scientist Quick read on the train, and finally the purse.
  1469. >You help yourself to some money before once again making your way out of the Professor's house.
  1470. >Hopefully you can at least go eat somewhere without being accused of being a thief.
  1471.  
  1472. >You make your way over to "The Gilded Hoof."
  1473. >It had been the first restaurant you had seen on your way into town from the train station, and you vaguely recall the twins rambling about it on your tour through town, so you decide that it should be the first you try.
  1474. >With a name like "The Gilded Hoof", you have the suspicion that you are dealing with a  high-class etablissement, but a quick look-over of  the guests sitting outside makes it seem as if there is no dresscode.
  1475. >Would such a place even serve teenagers turning up alone?
  1476. >Only one way to find out.
  1477. >You take a seat outside to enjoy the sun while eating and look over the menu.
  1478. >To your disappointment, but not surprise, it mostly lists the usual assortment of salads and sandwiches.
  1479. >After looking the whole thing over, you settle for a spinach soup.
  1480. >While you wait for your order to arrive, you check out the other patrons.
  1481. >It seems that despite being a small town, Ponyville has a population that's just as diverse as Canterlot's.
  1482. >You spot several other Unicorns alongside Pegasi and Earth Ponies.
  1483. >Not the Earth Pony heavy population you had unconsciously exspected from a rural community.
  1484. >"Your soup, miss."
  1485. >A waiter's voice abruptly pulls you back to the present.
  1486. >Clad in the Pony version of a waiter's suit, a stallion levitating a bowl had made his way over to your table without you noticing him.
  1487. >You have no idea he long he has been standing there while you were zoned out.
  1488. >"Oh, Thank you. Sorry for daydreaming like that, I hope I didn't make you wait or something."
  1489. >You awkwardly run a hoof over your mohawk, but the waiter just puts down the soup without voicing any disapproval.
  1490. >"Oh don't worry, it is perfectly fine. Enjoy your meal, and if you need anything, don't be afraid to ask me or one of my colleagues."
  1491. >With a last "Bon appetite", the waiter retreats back towards the kitchen.
  1492. >Still feeling faintly as if you have committed some kind of faux pas, you take up your (disappointingly non-gilded) spoon and inspect your meal.
  1493. >The steaming soup is adorned with croutons and seeds, and the smell is better than any of the admittedly few spinach soups you have eaten before.
  1494. >You take a spoonfull of soup with a crouton and make the taste-test.
  1495. >The taste fullfills the promise the smell made, and you eagerly scoop up more.
  1496. >As you eat your meal, you at times feel the need to remind yourself that this isn't the university canteen or one of the foodstalls and smaller restaurants you had visited with Quick and Sharpy during your stay in Canterlot.
  1497. >You try to be on your best behaviour and to recall as much of the behavioural guide you had read a few weeks ago as you can.
  1498. >Straightening your back, you try to look dignified while eating, doing your best not to slurp or spill.
  1499. >Glancing around, you try to gauge the reactions of the staff and other patrons, but you can't really make out a lot.
  1500. >Hopefully you are not embarassing yourself too much.
  1501. >Despite this, your appetite drives you to quickly finish your meal.
  1502. >Dropping your spoon, you recline in your chair and do your best to surpress a burp.
  1503. >"Did you find everything to your liking?"
  1504. >The voice of the reappeared waiter nearly makes you jump out of your seat.
  1505. >You are almost about to tell him off, but can stop yourself in time.
  1506. >It wouldn't hurt to be able to enjoy some decent cooking in this town.
  1507. >"Absolutely. The best soup I've had in town."
  1508. >You politely decide against mentioning that it was so far the only you've had.
  1509. >"I'll be happy to tell the cook."
  1510. >The waiter picks up your dishes and leans in towards you.
  1511. >"If you don't mind me asking, is everything alright? Your back seemed to be cramping up quite a bit."
  1512. >You almost feel yourself turning beet red under your fur.
  1513. >After brushing the waiter off with a story about how your back is just strained from exercise, you make it your top priority to pay and leave as quickly as possible.
  1514. >You probably come off as a bit neurotic, but you want to get off the scene of your embarassment as quickly as possible.
  1515. >Also, teenagers are exspected to be neurotic, you think.
  1516.  
  1517. >With your visit to the Gilded Hoof concluded, you make your way back to the Professor's home.
  1518. >You are not really looking forward to going back to the chaos of the impromptu laboratory, but there's still some time until the others come over, and the library still seems to be closed.
  1519. >Despite walking deliberately slow, you sooner than you like find yourself back at the Professor's door.
  1520. >You turn around one last time, hoping to find any sort of distraction or excuse not to knock, but see nothing that catches your interest.
  1521. >One of the downsides of smalltown life is that nothing interesting ever happens when you want it to.
  1522. >With a sigh, you lift your hoof and knock.
  1523. >No reaction.
  1524. >You press your ear up to the door, trying to hear wether someone is coming, but can't make out anything.
  1525. >For all you know, there is silence in the house.
  1526. >Somewhat uneasy, you enter the garden and start making your way to the backdoor.
  1527. >That way you will be able to directly enter the living romm turned lab.
  1528. >As you walk past the Professor's flower patches and assorted pieces of garden furniture, you wonder why nobody opened.
  1529. >Had there been an accident?
  1530. >Maybe the two of them had accidentally teleported themselves to another dimension.
  1531. >No, that was stupid.
  1532. >Two trained experts would never make a mistake that could lead to such a result.
  1533. >A nagging voice in the back of your mind tries to remind you of what happened the last time Quick got distracted during a teleportation experiment, but you do your best to shut it out.
  1534. >He certainly had learned his lesson over the past few weeks.
  1535. >At least, you hope so.
  1536. >Arriving at the back door, you once again try to listen in.
  1537. >This time, you are greeted by the same bubbling noises and "Zap"s of the coils you were familiar with.
  1538. >It seems like the laboratory is still intact.
  1539. >Definitely a good sign.
  1540. >You knock once more and, following a sudden intuition, make a few steps back.
  1541. >Who knows what kind of (al)chemical residue might be coming floating towards you once the door was opened?
  1542. >Even with your ear no longer at the door, you hear new noises coming from the other side.
  1543. >You try to categorize the sounds, but it mostly just sounds like crashing and clanking glasses.
  1544. >While you are still trying to identify the noises, the door flies open, and you are greeted by the sight of an angry Professor.
  1545. >She is wearing a sort of labcoat and goggles, looking very much like a stereotypical mad scientist.
  1546. >It would be funny, if she wasn't so angry.
  1547. >"Fizz? What do you think you are doing, startling me like this? I almost dropped my only remaining sample of e41. Do you know how hard it is to get your hoofs on those kind of elements when you are no longer a member of faculty?"
  1548. >You are taken aback by the way she goes off at you, but try your best to explain yourself.
  1549. >"I didn't mean to startle you or anything, Professor. I knocked at the main door first, but when no one came and I didn't hear anything, I decided to come round back."
  1550. >The Professor scoffs.
  1551. >"Oh, I am sure you had the best reasons. Listen, I am not in the mood for excuses. Now, I will unlock the front door for you. I want you to go back through the garden and enter through there. No need to mess up the set-up any more by having you walk through here."
  1552. >With that, the Professor closes the door into your face.
  1553. >For a moment, you just stand there, stunned.
  1554. >You had known that she had a superiority complex and took her research very seriously, but this was a whole new level.
  1555. >"What a bitch," you mumble to yourself while you make your way back towards the front door.
  1556. >Walking by a garden chair, you give it a frustrated kick, but only succeed in hurting your hoof on the metal frame.
  1557. >"Fuck!"
  1558. >When you reach the now opened front door, your mood has reached a low point.
  1559. >You enter the house and close the door behind you.
  1560. >You don't feel like interacting with the Professor any more, so you make your way to the guest room to sulk there.
  1561. >The Professor probably won't mind being left alone with her experiments anyway.
  1562. >A note on your pillow catches your attention.
  1563. >Levitating it over, you start to read.
  1564. >"Hey, Fizz. I had to take a train back to Canterlot to get some more chemical supplies. I will be back late this evening, so feel free to buy yourself dinner, if you haven't already blown all my money on brunch. See you soon."
  1565. >You scrunch the note up and throw it into the corner.
  1566. >That's just great.
  1567. >Left alone with the obsessed Professor, who saw every disturbance of her work as a personal attack.
  1568. >You throw yourself onto your bed and do your best to ignore the throbbing pain in your hoof you kicked the chair with.
  1569. >Your afternoon expedition can't come soon enough.
  1570.  
  1571. >After what feels like hours, you hear a faint knocking coming from the door downstairs.
  1572. >Finally the excuse to get out of here you waited for.
  1573. >You make your way downstairs as quickly and silently as you can.
  1574. >No need to upset the Professor with more "disturbances."
  1575. >As you enter the hallway, you notice that the thick, old living room door is closed.
  1576. >No wonder the Professor didn't hear your earlier knocking, with that slab of wood between her and the entryway.
  1577. >You don't even hear her weird machinery and chemistry she set up in there.
  1578. >There is more knocking on the main door, louder and more insistent this time.
  1579. >Without further ado, you use your magic to swing the door open, while at the same time giving a "shh" gesture with your hoof raised to your muzzle towards the door.
  1580. >Summer and Glow basically fall over each other into the hallway as soon as the door opens.
  1581. >Probably listened at the door or peeked through the keyhole.
  1582. >You do your best to help them back up and usher them back out of the house.
  1583. >Once the door closes behind you, you breath a sigh of relief.
  1584. >Summer and Glow still seem curious, in fact you can't help but notice that Glow is trying to sneak in a look past you and through the window in the door.
  1585. >His sister has herself at least outwardly better under control.
  1586. >"Hey Fizz. What's with the secrecy?"
  1587. >Glow finally manages to tear his eyes off the door and gives you an exspectant look.
  1588. >"Yeah, is everything alright?"
  1589. >"It's nothing, guys. The Professor is in a bad mood and I didn't want to run into her."
  1590. >Before you can think of further details you could add to your barebones story, the siblings once again take charge of the conversation.
  1591. >"Why is the Professor upset? Did one of her experiments fail?"
  1592. >"Or did she spill some chemicals? Maybe she burnt a hole in the floor with some acid?"
  1593. >"Oh, or perhaps she lost some of her books. Did she send you when we met you at the library?"
  1594. >As before, the two of the, barely wait for your answers, asking question after question while the three of you make your way to the outskirts of town, Glow bouncing a big ball in front of him.
  1595. >Their incessant talking reminds you of Witching Hour, and you resolve to ask her wether she has relatives in Ponyville once you are back in Canterlot.
  1596. >"Fizz? Are you still with us?"
  1597. >Summer's question pulls you out of your thoughts.
  1598. >"Yeah, still with you. I was just thinking about something."
  1599. >You silently curse yourself for your phrasing.
  1600. >Now you won't have a quiet moment until they have bombarded you with questions about what you were thinking about.
  1601. >"Well, you best start thinking about where you are, because you wanted to see the forest, remember?"
  1602. >"If you are just thinking about other things so hard all the time, you won't even notice the Everfree," Glow adds.
  1603. >You chuckle at this ridiculous claim.
  1604. >"Oh, please. Just because I am thinking about something else for a while doesn't mean I lose track of my surroundings."
  1605. >"Does too," Summer states matter-of-fact.
  1606. >"Yeah, right. If you are upset because you think I don't listen to you while thinking, just say so..."
  1607. >You trail off as Glow gently, but firmly turns your head with a hoof.
  1608. >To your right, just over an apple orchard, you see the Everfree forest loom.
  1609. >You feel Glow's hoof gently close your hanging jaw.
  1610. >As you turn back towards your companions, not knowing what to say, you look into the two smuggest faces you have seen since your arrival in  Equestria.
  1611. >"See? We told you you zoned out."
  1612. >"Now that you are back with us, are you ready to go?"
  1613.  
  1614. >Of course you are.
  1615. >As your little group makes their way into the forest, you can't stop craning and turning your neck to take in as much as possible.
  1616. >While the outskirts of the forest are still relatively lightly overgrown, and there is plenty of light shining in, you quickly find yourselves between tall, old trees overgrown with vines that barely let the sunlight through.
  1617. >Most of the vegetation has nothing in common with the trees you know from home, reminding you more of prehistoric plants you remember having seen once in a tv documentary.
  1618. >Still, your mood is good.
  1619. >The siblings told you that your destination for today was an old mine, and while that didn't sound as interesting as the old castle you still hoped to see some other day, it would probably make for a fun afternoon expedition.
  1620. >"Hey Fizz! Catch!" Glows shouts and throws his ball over to you.
  1621. >You catch it on your magic and throw it over to his sister.
  1622. >"So, is it everything you hoped for? The forest, I mean. Isn't it weird to have so many trees in the same place when you aren't used to it? " Glow asks.
  1623. >"Nah, I am fine. Actually, it's great to finally see something new."
  1624. >Technically, that isn't even a lie.
  1625. >The ball gets passed back to you, and you throw it back to Glow again.
  1626. >"So, this mine we are headed to. Did you go there before?"
  1627. >Glow shakes his head.
  1628. >"No, we never went there before. You know, Applejack used to pick the places we would go since her family owns the orchard we passed through and she knows her way around the forest. When she left for that stupid MANEHATTAN we didn't get any new places to go anymore."
  1629. >You have never seen glow look this dejected before.
  1630. >"I am sorry your friend left. You know, sometimes friends can disappoint you, but it gets better after a while."
  1631. >At least you hope this is true.
  1632. >You will have to call up your friends once you are back in your own World and see if your claim holds any truth.
  1633. >"It's alright. She already wrote us that she will be back soon. Appearantly, city life doesn't suit her."
  1634. >You hadn't heard Summer close the gap between the two of you.
  1635. >"But what about the mine, you ask?" She makes a theatralic gesture to accentuate her rethorical question.
  1636. >"Our father is a jeweller, so sometimes he has some local bigwigs over for dinner. Last weekend, this sleazy guy Filthy Rich came over and told him he planned on buying the old mine in the forest."
  1637. >Summer gives you a wide grin.
  1638. >"So Glow and me didn't sneak out into town as usual but put on our best behaviour and listened."
  1639. >"Yeah, we did. It became pretty boring after a while, but we got a basic description of the way."
  1640. >"Exactly. So now, we finally have a good new destination. I can't wait to rub it into AJ's face when she's back."
  1641. >"So did you ever find anything interesting in the Everfree?" you ask.
  1642. >Summer gives you a look as if you had asked her wether the sky was blue.
  1643. "Of course! One time, AJ found a stick that looked just like a Timberwolf's paw. Oh, and another time we found a reeeaaally big tooth. Hey, I still have it back home. If you want to, you can come over later and take a look at it."
  1644. >That isn't really the answer you were hoping for, so you get a bit more specific.
  1645. >"Did you ever go to the old castle? I read about it, and I thought that maybe I would get to see it during my stay in Ponyville."
  1646. >"The old castle? We never went there. Even if we knew where it is, I don't think we would."
  1647. >Glow decides to take this opportunity to rejoin the conversation.
  1648. >"You can bet I wouldn't. There are so many stories about the castle, at least SOME of them have to be true, you know? Our Grandmother always said if we would go to the castle, Nightmare Moon would find us and eat us IN OUR DREAMS!"
  1649. >He almost shouts the last part with an urgency that takes you aback.
  1650. >"Do you really believe that? I mean, the whole thing is ancient history, right? And isn't Nightmare Moon supposed to be on the moon, anyway?"
  1651. >Glow shakes his head in disbelief at your ignorance.
  1652. >"There's gotta be a reason why no one ever went there for almost a thousand years, and I don't want to be the one to find out what it is, is all. Do you really take Nightmare Moon that lightly up north?"
  1653. >You are about to put the claim of no one having been to the castle in question by mentioning the winged unicorn you saw flying down to the forest during your trainride, but decide against it.
  1654. >It's weird, at first you had forgotten the whole affair, and now that you remembered it, you had almost forgotten that that had been just a dream.
  1655. >After all, Celestia is the only Alicorn in Equestria, as far as your books told you.
  1656. >"So why do you go into the forest at all if you believe all those stories? From what you told me, you used to be here all the time."
  1657. >"Well, duh. You can avoid Timberwolves and Poison Joke. But Nightmare Moon is a whole other story."
  1658. >"Glow is right, Fizz. We have lived here all our lives, we know how to avoid the dangerous animals and plants. And a big part of that is to know where to go and where to stay away from. For example, besides the old castle you should stay away from..."
  1659. >Summer goes off on one of her ramblings again, and you feel a bit frustrated by the sibling's doublethink.
  1660. >You consider telling them that "all our lives" doesn't amount to much when you aren't all that old, but decide against it.
  1661. >In your current state, that would probably seem hypocritical, and you don't want to antagonize your guides.
  1662. >Luckily, they don't seem offended by your disbelief.
  1663. >Once Glow has calmed down, he even insists on apologizing for "going off on you" because you "couldn't know any better" and asks you about what there is to explore up north.
  1664. >At first, you just repeat the few stories you read about back to him, but after a while, you start making things up as you go.
  1665. >It's actually quite fun to just let your imagination do the work, and so your tales get increasingly wilder and the ball passed increasingly faster between the three of you as you are all getting carried away by your excitement.
  1666. >"...so then it turned out that the Yeti was actually right behind the fallen tree trunk the whole time," You finish a particularily wild story about your fictional father's expirience in "one of the few lumber camps".
  1667. >"So what did he do then? You can't just leave us hanging like this."
  1668. >The twins are soaking your stories up like sponges, eyes sparkling with fascination.
  1669. >"Well, after they found that out, the camp had to be closed for a while, until they managed to lure the Yeti back up into the mountains with some ... cauliflower, I think it was."
  1670. >"Cauliflower? Why would a Yeti want cauliflower?"
  1671. >The twins break out in laughter at the absurdity of the situation you made up, and you join in.
  1672. >"Appearantly it's a delicacy for them. Anyway, the ranger actually had a kind of catapult especially for such cases, and they shot the cauliflower up the slopes, somewhat like this..."
  1673. >You give the ball a good, hard toss up the path ahead to illustrate your story.
  1674. >Your laughter is interrupted by a metallic clanging noise.
  1675. >"What was that noise?"
  1676. >"Perhaps Timberwolves?"
  1677. >"No, those are made from wood, remember?"
  1678. >Your companions react in their typical way; talking hurriedly among each other.
  1679. >"Guys, I am pretty sure not even in here animals make sounds like you kicked over a stack of cans," you throw in.
  1680. >Not waiting for an answer, you trot ahead.
  1681. >As you step through a curtain of leaf-bearing branches, you see it.
  1682. >Your little group has arrived at the mine.
  1683. >In front of you, you see the first instance of environmental pollution since you arrived in Equestria.
  1684. >The trees around the entrance are dead, their leaf- and needleless trunks either dry and dead or rotting and falling apart.
  1685. >The entrance of the mine itself has several boards nailed across it, adorned with several signs that warn the rare passer-by of bears.
  1686. >A skid mark leading into the entrance makes it a safe bet that you threw the ball into the mine.
  1687. >Behind you, there's a rustling of leaves as Summer and Glow make their way onto the clearing.
  1688. >"Woah, I imagined it less...rundown," Summer exclaims, looking around wide eyed.
  1689. >"What's with all the signs?"
  1690. >Glow walks up to the entrance to take a closer look, careful not to come to close to the haphazardly closed maw in the hill.
  1691. >"Appearantly there are or used to be bears around," you explain.
  1692. >Now your companions start to get visibly unsettled.
  1693. >"Maybe we should leave, Fizz. I mean, I don't want to disappoint you, but if there are really predators around, we shouldn't take any risks."
  1694. >You nod, but still take a closer look at the entrance.
  1695. >What Summer said makes sense, but so far you haven't seen any claw marks on the tree trunks surrounding the mine, and the trail of the rolling ball in the loose ground in front of the entrance is the only disturbance in the landscape.
  1696. >"I'll be with you right away, just gonna get Glow's ball back."
  1697. >It's a spontaneous decision, but from what you have seen you don't think there are still bears around, and this is an ideal excuse to atleast take a small peak into the mine.
  1698. >You hate the thought of going back to Canterlot without having seen even one interesting sight in the countryside.
  1699. >"You don't need to go in there for a ball," Glow starts, but you are already ducking under the lowest plank and stepping into the tunnel.
  1700. >To your side, you see a few empty barrels and old mining equipment.
  1701. >An old jerry can lies across your way, probably thrown over by the ball.
  1702. >As you slowly move further into the rapidly darkening mine, you light up your horn as a source of light.
  1703.  
  1704. >Looking around for souvenirs, you quickly realize that Pony mines probably differ not too much from Human ones.
  1705. >You couldn't say what you exspected, but you find yourself feeling underwhelmed and a bit disappointed by the lack of interesting items
  1706. >Sure, there's a bit of old trash strewn around, but nothing that stands out as especially interesting.
  1707. >You wouldn't admit it, but as you go deeper into the mine, you actually start to get a bit nervous.
  1708. >A yellow reflection up ahead raises your spirit, and you quicken your pace until you reach Glow's ball.
  1709. >A small smile of relief makes it's way onto your muzzle as you pick the ball up in your magic.
  1710. >Time to get out of tis m...
  1711. >A deafening roar echoing through the tunnels interrupts your thoughts, and as you drop the ball and turn your head, you realize that the tunnel you were following has led you into a cavern.
  1712. >And in front of you, barely five metres away, the cavern is filled with the biggest, meanest looking bear you have ever seen.
  1713. >It rears up on it's hindlegs, head scraping along the ceiling, and roars again, revealing yellowed teeth.
  1714. >It's "fur", for lack of a better term, is dark blue and semi-transparent, dotted with what seem like stars.
  1715. >The creature is completely unlike anything you have ever seen, and you decide to make your exit rather than getting to know it better.
  1716. >As you maneouver yourself towards the tunnel, not once leaving the bear made of night sky out of your eyes, the stories about remnants of Nightmare Moon's influence in the forest suddenly seem very real.
  1717. >You force yourself to move slowly, as you backstep your way towards the mine's entrance, trying not to upset the creature any more.
  1718. >Despite your slow movements, the bear raises a paw that seems as big as your whole body and takes a swipe that comes at you with the speed and force of a semi-truck.
  1719. >Abandoning your effort, you try to focus your magic on the enourmos limb coming towards you.
  1720. >Perhaps you can slow it down far enough to...
  1721. >The paw impacts your body, sending you flying up the tunnel stopping all conscious thought.
  1722. >Everything goes dark in front of your eyes, but you are vaguely aware of cracking noises, the "swoosh" of moving air and a scream.
  1723. >You dimly realize that the scream came from your own throat, and as the initial shock subsides, there is a pain like nothing you have ever felt before emanating from your head and wracking your body.
  1724. >You start screaming again, cramping up, twitching and sputtering.
  1725. >Then everything is dark again.
  1726.  
  1727. >You find yourself lying somewhere warm and soft.
  1728. >A warm light penetrates your eyelids, and your body feels stiff as you try to turn away to resume your peaceful sleep.
  1729. >Still, if this is what being dead feels like, it's not so bad.
  1730. >Where did that thought come from?
  1731. >You vaguely recall something bad happening to you, but at the moment feel unable to remember more.
  1732. >An odd feeling of complacency and tiredness does it's part of keeping you unwilling to further rack your mind.
  1733. >While you are doing your best to find a comfortable position, you hear voices somewhere close to you, accompained the sound of hooves quickly growing more distant.
  1734. >You can't understand what's being talked about because your ears feel as if they have been filled with cotton, and in your current, oddly complacent state you are perfectly fine with that.
  1735. >Someone will certainly tell you when something concerns you.
  1736. >With a small sigh, you finally manage to settle into a halfway comfortable position and are on the brink of fading back out when you hear some steps returning towards you.
  1737. >There are voices talking to each other and growing louder, and you can make out more and more as they seem to get closer to your position.
  1738. >"And you are sure that she is waking up?"
  1739. >At the sound of the familiar voice, a jolt goes through your mind.
  1740. >You get the feeling that you really should to get out of your stupor, however comfortable it is, and meet your visitor.
  1741. >"As I told you already, she is coming to. It's a wonder, really, that she is waking up already, considering the severity of her injuries."
  1742. >This voice you don't recognise, but the talk of injuries upsets you deeply, and despite still not quite understanding what's happening, cements your feel that you need to get up.
  1743. >"Doctor, no offense, but would you mind leaving for a moment? I think it would be best if she would wake up around people she knows."
  1744. >You are still trying to pry open your eyes as the three voices talk silently amongst each other, followed by a set of hoofsteps making their way back from your position.
  1745. >Opening your eyes never seemed so hard.
  1746. >All the fluffy feelings in your head make it hard to concentrate, and your eyelids feel as heavy as rocks.
  1747. >It takes all your efforts to open them even a bit, and you close them immediately when a bright light hits you.
  1748. >"Anon? Can you hear me?," the concerned voice that spoke first asks.
  1749. >Is it actually talking to you?
  1750. >It has to, right?
  1751. >You try pry your eyes open as far as you can again and turn to face the voice.
  1752. >However, you only manage to open one, as your right eye is obscured by something soft.
  1753. >It seems you are currently lying in a bed in a seemingly clean, yet mostly empty except for some simple metal furniture, room.
  1754. >Most of the surfaces are almost sparkling white, and there is a smell in the air that reminds you of the flasks the Professor had you empty.
  1755. >All in all, everthing around you is evocative of a hospital.
  1756. >Next to the bed you are lying in stand your uncle Quick and Sharpy, looking at you exspectantly yet with clear concern.
  1757. >Seeing them here next to you instills a bit more confidence in you that this weird situation you are currently finding yourself in can and will be resolved in due time.
  1758. >As you try to greet them, all you manage to get out is dry croak, followed by a coughing fit.
  1759. >Your throat feels dry and encrusted with something that you are coughing out in red flakes.
  1760. >Is that dried blood?
  1761. >"Are you alright? Take it slow, you hear?"
  1762. >Quick moves in to comfort you, and Sharpy levitates a glass of water over to you, which you eagerly empty.
  1763. >Swallowing hurts a bit, but by the time you realize this, you have already drunk the whole glass and start retching again.
  1764. >As you slowly start composing yourself again, you also start to become aware of a dim pain across your body, but mostly in your facial region around your still closed right eye as well as your forehead.
  1765. >Your feeling of unease at the current situation is greatly increased by the realization that you can't quite recall what brought you here.
  1766. >After some more croaking and coughing to clear your throat, ou finally manage to mutter "What happened? Where am I?"
  1767. >You are shocked at how weak your voice sounds.
  1768. >Quick moves in further to comfort you, and you eagerly return his affections.
  1769. >As you move to lean into his offered hug, your covers slide down, and you register with surprise a bandage covering the orchid fur of your abdomen, and you look up to Quick in shock.
  1770. >You see tears well up in his eyes as well, but he still manages a weak smile.
  1771. >"It's going to be all right. You are in the Ponyville General Hospital, and the doctors here have been taking good care of you so far. And now that your "family doctor" is here," he indicates Sharpy, who does his best to look reassuring and professional, "we will hopefully have you back on your hooves soon."
  1772. >"The Hospital? But ... why?"
  1773. >The news don't help you to calm down at all, and you try to remember what happened to bring you here, doing your best to force the memories to the surface, but your mind is still muddied and as you try to make sense of the fragments you manage to recall, the pain in your skull sharply increases and brings your attempt to remember to an abrupt stop.
  1774. >You groan in pain as you bring your hooves up to your temples.
  1775. >Confusion, fear and pain combine into a cocktail of misery that makes tears well up in your eyes, and before you even put your hooves down again, you feel Quick and Sharpy both carefully put a leg around your shoulders to comfort you.
  1776. >"You were ...," Quick searches for the right word, "hurt badly in an animal attack. If your friends hadn't managed to get you back towards the town as fast as they did..."
  1777. >Quick's trailing off, but the tears you are now feeling falling onto your head tell you what you need to know.
  1778. >A polite cough by Sharpy manages to get your attention.
  1779. >"Now, Anon,  I know that you are probably still dizzy from the painkillers and your injuries, but if you feel up for it I would like to perform a quick check up on you, alongside Dr. Barnyard, of course. Your injuries have been very...traumatic, and we need to know the extent of the damage."
  1780. >You actually don't really "feel up for it", but you really want to know what might be wrong with you.
  1781. >A sideways glance to Quick nets you an ecouraging, yet still teary eyed nod of encouragement.
  1782. >"I think I can manage," is your raspy response.
  1783.  
  1784. >"Yes, yes, I know. You'd like to know how long. I'm afraid it's been nine days."
  1785. >You stare in confusion at the doctor, who is currently making a dramatic pause and looking at you exspectantly.
  1786. >You are unsure wether it's a side effect of the painkillers or from appearantly being in a coma for over a week, but it seems you are just not as shocked or excited about that information as he exspects you to be.
  1787. >While you are still increasingly worried trying to decide for yourself what's wrong, Sharpy moves up towards the doctor and whispers in his ear.
  1788. >"What? Oh, yes, you are right. Seems like I got carried away a bit. When the patient's ready, we can continue."
  1789. >"Are you ready, Fizz?," Sharpy asks.
  1790. >You nod an affirmation, and he levitates over a sort of flipchart from the corner of the room.
  1791. >On it, there is an x-ray picture of a ponies' skull.
  1792. >It seems like an earth pony with some sort of growth on it's forehead.
  1793. >The poor owner of the skull is probably pretty bad off, but you wonder of the relevance to you.
  1794. >"This x-ray is of your head," The doctor explains.
  1795. >His tone is professional, yet there is a sense of compassion there.
  1796. >"You'd better look now," Sharpy adds, levitating a small standing mirror onto your nightstand, "Best to understand your situation."
  1797. >While concern is evident from his tone and expression, there his insistence and detached way of talking to you frightens you.
  1798. >"I- I don't understand. What's-What's wrong?," you sputter, almost subconsciously following the instructions of the medical professionals.
  1799. >Your muttering abruptly stops as you catch sight of yourself in the mirror.
  1800. >Staring back at you with an utterly shocked expression, your mirror image is terrible to behold.
  1801. >The fur you can make out is matted in places and seems to have dried blood stuck in it, especially on your chin.
  1802. >Your face is swollen, clear evidence of heavy bruising.
  1803. >Your right eye is covered by a bandage that keeps a soft pad in place, but you can still make out the ridge of a stitched scar leading downwards under the bandage.
  1804. >But most shocking of all is your horn, or rather, your lack of horn.
  1805. >Where it used to sit, there now appears to be only a ragged stump left, covered in bandages.
  1806. >"N-NO!," you shout in panic, thrashing around.
  1807. >This can't be true.
  1808. >It has to be some kind of terrible nightmare, and if you only manage to wake yourself up, things will go back to being the way they were.
  1809. >You are still weak, and moving hurts, but that's good right?
  1810. >Pain wakes you up, after all.
  1811. >You hear Sharpy, the doctor and Quick all shout wildly, and then you feel your limbs resist your orders and everything fades back to black.
  1812.  
  1813. >After you awake from the sleeping spell the doctor used to put you under, you at first feel as if you awake from a nightmare into another.
  1814. >The room is the same, the ponies staring at you are the same, even your injuries are the same.
  1815. >When you are sufficiently calmed down, a second attempt is made to get you to cooperate.
  1816. >"Believe me, I know that this whole situation is very scary to you, Fizz, but we will do our best to help you recover. But to do this, I need you to answer my questions truthfully. I know you don't like when we sugarcoat things, so I will tell you directly: Any injuries to an unicorn's horn carry a significant risk of neurological damage. That you awoke so quickly and became coherent as fast as you did is a good sign, especially in light of the severity of your injuries, but I need you to answer my questions to the best of your ability."
  1817. >Sharpy had taken over most of talking from the doctor, and having him here helps you calm down.
  1818. >Still, what he's telling you is more than alarming.
  1819. >You offer a weak "I'll try," and Sharpy gives the doctor a nod, who readies himself to take notes.
  1820. >"Are you in pain? If so, where?"
  1821. >"N-not really. There's some aching in my head and this throbbing from my eye, but from this," you motion towards the bandage around your body, "I feel almost nothing."
  1822. >Sharpy waits for the doctor to make his notes before continuing.
  1823. >"Sounds like the painkillers have just the right dosage then. If anything about that changes, please inform the hospital staff immediately. Now, can you move everything? Do you have trouble breathing or speaking?"
  1824. >You move around in your bed, trying to get a feeling for your body before giving an answer.
  1825. >"I think I can. But it feels as if my throat and nose canals are encrusted with something."
  1826. >Sharpy nods.
  1827. >"That's perfectly normal after being out of it for multiple days. Still, if it persists please inform somepony. Can you tell me what's the last thing you remember?"
  1828. >Mentally going back to what happened hurts in a quite literal sense as your headache grows stronger.
  1829. >"I-I was in the forest with Summer and Glow, the ones who showed me the town. We were at an old ... mine, I think, and I went inside for some reason, and then..."
  1830. >You trail off as you try to remember more of that afternoon, barely listening when Sharpy speaks next.
  1831. >"It's alright, Fizz. I think that about wraps it up. Is there anything you want to add?"
  1832. >His question barely registers, because as you lie in your bed, trying to recall the day of your maiming, you come to a terrible realization.
  1833. >"I can't remember my parents anymore!"
  1834.  
  1835. >Your anguished cry has everyone in the room visibly shook.
  1836. >While Quick rushes back towards the bed to comfort you, the doctor is furiously scribbling on his notepad.
  1837. >"H-hey, it's going to be alright," Sharpy tries and fails to calm you down.
  1838. >You are openly sobbing now, leaning into Quick's embrace as he carefully nuzzles your head.
  1839. >"You are going to be just fine," he whisper into your ear, his tone of voice betraying his own doubts, "We will get you back on your hooves and find a way to get you back home, don't you worry."
  1840. >"I don't even know where my home is anymore," you wail, "I can't remember anyone of my family except you!"
  1841. >You feel the weight of his head shift on yours as Quick shoots Sharpy a fearful gaze.
  1842. >Your friend and "family doctor" moves in closer, joining Quick at your bedside.
  1843. >He lays a leg around you, and for a while the three of you just sit there, both of them doing your best to calm you through your panic attack.
  1844. >When your eyes feel dried out from crying and your fear and confusion give way to a strong sense of tiredness, Sharpy asks you one last question.
  1845. >"Can you tell me what's the first thing you remember?"
  1846. >You do, telling him about how your current memories start with your arrival in Canterlot to stay with your uncle Quick for an undefined amount of time because of a "family situation" you can't remember anymore.
  1847. >You tell him about how you don't remember anything from before, except that you came from somewhere up north and that your father worked with lumber.
  1848. >You rattle off about your stay; how scared you where when Quick caught food poisoning, how glad you were when Witching Hour brought you books and Sharpy helped you train when you were sick, and how glad you had been when Quick offered you to join him on a visit to Ponyville to see more of Equestria.
  1849. >As you tell them more and more, Quick seems on the verge of tears while Sharpy's expression grows increasingly worried.
  1850. >"Did I say something wrong? Is it that bad?"
  1851. >The fear is coming back now.
  1852. >"Listen, Fizz," Sharpy starts, but Quick interrupts him.
  1853. >"What does the name Anon mean to you?," he asks, his voice uncharacteristically tense.
  1854. >The question hits you hard.
  1855. >You *think* you know the answer, but the way Quick asked, as if he expected a certain reply you aren't sure you will be able to give...
  1856. >"It's a pet name my parents used to call me."
  1857. >You wish you could give this answer confidently, but you simply aren't sure of the things you remember anymore.
  1858. >Your urge to ask "right?" is barely suppressed.
  1859. >The look on Quick's face is answer enough.
  1860. >His previous sad expression darkens even more, and even Sharpy seems disturbed as he turns back towards you.
  1861. >"Hey, Fizz. Why don't you try to relax for a while? You just woke up and we already bombarded you with questions, you must be dead tired. Quick and I need to talk for a moment, but we will be right back."
  1862. >Doctor Barnyard stows his noteblock in a pocket of his coat and gives you an encouraging smile.
  1863. >"If you need anything, just press the button besides the bed. I or one of the nurses will be right with you."
  1864. >He seems the least perturbed of the three "guests" you have had since waking up, and you uneasily ask yourself wether the other two know something he does not.
  1865. >Still, Sharpy is right.
  1866. >You are pretty tired already again, and the throbbing in your head, while not particularily painful, is doing it's part in making concentrating hard.
  1867. >"It's alright. I'll be alright."
  1868. >As you watch Quick and Sharpy leave, you wish that you felt as confident as your answer was intended to sound.
  1869. >You almost cry out after them to come back, to not leave you alone, but before you have made a decision they are already gone.
  1870. >Your mind must still be sluggish from the doctor's narcosis spell, and so you settle on waiting.
  1871. >The doctor takes some more notes before promising to come back later with some more painkillers, and soon you find yourself alone with your thoughts and damaged memories in an empty room.
  1872.  
  1873. >You are Quick Diner, Professor of Applied Food Sciences at Canterlot University, currently on paid leave, and you are worried like you have never been before.
  1874. >Even your anxiety as you wrote your master's thesis is nothing compared to this.
  1875. >You are currently pacing around a break room for the hospital's staff, while Sharpy is seated at a table, looking through a medical handbook and Anon's medical file.
  1876. >You stop in your tracks as Sharpy slams the books shut and shakes his head.
  1877. >"What did you find? Is there anything we can do to help Anon recuperate?"
  1878. >"I am afraid not. Look, you know that a Unicorn's horn is highly sensitive and full of nerves. Now, with Anon we've seen extensive damage to the horn and the connecting nerve tissue, with most of the horn itself completely gone and beyond repair. No offense, but you can basically equate it with severe brain damage. It seems like Anon not only has great difficulties to recall what happened before he came to Equestria, but also has started to believe at least parts of the cover story the two of you made up for him."
  1879. >Sharpy gives a deep sigh as he looks over the x-rays of Anon's skull.
  1880. >"I want to be honest with you, I think the only thing we can do at the moment is to be as supportive as we can. You've seen how confused Anon is. He needs people he can rely on more than before. At the moment, I can't guarantee wether Anon will ever regain his memory completely, if at all."
  1881. >You had feared an answer like this, but hearing it so bluntly from your best friend of ten years still comes as a shock.
  1882. >"I don't know wether I can just play along with Anon's delusions. I mean, I will try, if it's the best chanche we've got, but it goes against everything I promised to Anon. Before we came here, he asked me to not let him forget about himself, and now this..."
  1883. >Thinking about your failure to protect your guest hurts you deeply, and the feeling of guilt you have been feeling since Anon's friends brought his unconscious body back from the forest flares up again.
  1884. >If only you had been there the afternoon they set out, perhaps you could have done something...
  1885. >The feeling of Sharpy's foreleg around your shoulders you back to the present.
  1886. >"Quick, I know how you feel. Anon is a friend of mine too, but you can't keep beating yourself up over this affair. This might sound harsh, but Anon brought himself into this situation. I appreciate that you don't want to lie to him, but put yourself into his position. You are hurt, and you don't remember much except that you are visiting your "uncle". Now this uncle tries to tell you that  you are actually not only much older than you appear, but also another species and sex, in fact not even from this dimension. Would you believe the person who told you that? Or would it only further your insecurities?"
  1887. >What Sharpy is saying makes sense, but you still can't stand the thought of lying to your friend for weeks or however long it is going to take for Anon to even begin recovering memories.
  1888. >"All I am saying is, give Anon time to recover. He is the first documented case of a horn-amputated unicorn we've had in a long while, and the extent of his injuries is greater than I've ever seen. There is no telling how his recovery is going to go."
  1889. >You are about to give in to Sharpy's argumentation, when an idea gives you some new hope.
  1890. >"What if we found a way to send Anon back home? Would getting his original body back help him recover?"
  1891. >Sharpy shrugs, but his face tells you all you need to know about his thoughts on the matter.
  1892. >"That's not really my field of expertise, Quick. You better talk about this theory with your old professor or Witching Hour."
  1893. >He swallows, betraying his nervousness.
  1894. >"Truth be told, I question wether, with such extensive damage to Anon's current body, a reconstruction is even possible at this point."
  1895.  
  1896.  
  1897. >You are Fizzlepop Berrytwist, or Fizz to most ponies you know.
  1898. >At least, that's what you remember.
  1899. >As you lie in your hospital bed, tossing and turning in a state of half-sleep induced by your tiredness and the painkillers, you experience fragments of dreams.
  1900. >You find yourself on a street, but it's not any kind of street you remember seeing in Ponyville or Canterlot.
  1901. >Is this perhaps a street back North?
  1902. >You dismiss that thought as more details manifest out of the mist of your mind.
  1903. >While the street itself is made from asphalt, like you recall seeing on pictures of Manehattan, the buildings you now see manifesting (or have they perhaps been there all along?) have nothing in common with the fancy buildings you know from Canterlot or the rural yet comforting architecture present in Ponyville.
  1904. >You would certainly remember seeing such utterly strange buildings before.
  1905. >If you had to describe the buildings, the term that comes to mind is utilitarian, though you can't guess what purpose they might serve.
  1906. >They are like big slabs of featureless rock, dotted with black, empty windows and abandoned balconies.
  1907. >As your field of view wanders up the side of one of the buildings, as if attached to a bird flying up to the roof, you make out several weird objects, which appear to be made from different metal sticks and saucers near some balconies and looming over the side of the roof.
  1908. >The buildings fill you with a sense of unspeakable dread as you realize that they are not only utterly strange in their architecture, but also that everything in them in a state of decay and damage and far too big to be made for ponies.
  1909. >You strongly feel that you have to get away from them before something terrible happens.
  1910. >You tear your gaze away from the building you were examining and carefully sneak down along the road.
  1911. >There is a sickly looking small hedgerow at the side of the road, and you use it to the best of your ability to shield yourself from the prying eyes you fear behind the windows.
  1912. >Slowly moving down the road, more and more details materialize.
  1913. >It is as if the environment is rapidly decaying further all around you
  1914. >The road becomes cracked, overgrown with weeds, grass and even trees.
  1915. >The buildings don't fare better, increasingly falling victim to disrepair and overgrowth themselves.
  1916. >As the sky turns gray with quickly moving clouds, you can't help but feel that the Everfree forest itself is invading this place.
  1917. >The thought makes you shudder, but as you turn around to consider finding another way in a better state, you see with shock that now the area you are coming from is just as ruined as everything else around you.
  1918. >And over the forest looms a gigantic building, like a several giant squares carved out of stone arrayed alongside a giant tower.
  1919. >It doesn't look like a fortress or castle, instead evoking a sense of purely pragmatic design, as if custom built for a completely alien cause.
  1920. >It is this sight that stokes your fear more than the forest in front of you could ever hope to.
  1921. >Some unknown association deep in your mind tells you to RUN, to get out of here if you want to live, to just get away from this block, the empty buildings, this whole...necropolis.
  1922. >You heed the voice of your subconscious.
  1923. >Running along the sheer endless streets, you pass building after building, bush after tree, but this cursed place seems to have no end.
  1924. >You run and run, until your hoof catches on a hole in the road and you fall muzzle first into a small bush.
  1925. >A pained groan on your lips, you pull yourself back upright.
  1926. >You freeze up when you see what's standing in front of you.
  1927. >In front of an abandoned ferris wheel that stands rotting amidst the ruins and vegetation like a mockery to the very concept of fun stands a creature unlike any you have ever seen before.
  1928. >It is covered in heavy clothing that can only be of protective nature.
  1929. >Its mouth and face are covered, as if not only to protect it's identity but the whole wearer from an unknown threat.
  1930. >However, the clothing is nothing compared to the stature of the creature.
  1931. >You don't remember ever seeing a biped before, and the context of your meeting makes you wish it had stayed this way.
  1932. >The creature is just standing there, its forelegs (arms, a voice in your head helpfully offers) hanging by its side.
  1933. >It's like the creature doesn't even realize you are there, staring straight through you.
  1934. >After what seems like an eternity of the two of you standing in front of each other, the creature seemingly unaware of you, you yourself ready to flee on a moment's notice, the creature raises one of its arms to its face and removes the mask covering its mouth.
  1935. >Under it, you can make out furless skin, only dotted by some stubble.
  1936. >The creature opens its mouth and as it speaks in a language you don't understand, the landscape around you begins to darken and warp, a series of beeping noises quickly growing louder and folloing in quicker succesion in your ears.
  1937. >The noise grows deafening.
  1938. >You try to run from the noise, feeling that it's a herald of worse things to come, disregarding the strange creature in your panic, but however far you run, the noise grows more intense as the surrounding landscape seems to break in on itself in physics-defying ways.
  1939. >It feels as if the noise will tear your eardrums apart, and you stop running and collapse to the ground again, pressing your hooves onto your ears to drown out the incessant beeping.
  1940. >Your attempt to get rid of the noise is unsuccessful, however, as the sound doesn't appear to come from anywhere around you.
  1941. >It is as if it is originating from within your skull.
  1942. >You feel as if you are going mad, clawing at your head, crying out for someone, anyone to help you, to make the noise and the nightmarish landscape go away.
  1943. >Something touches your shoulder.
  1944. >You try to run away again, but you are held into place.
  1945. >When you turn your panicked gaze around to see what you are stuck on, you see the creature from before.
  1946. >Its paw is holding your shoulder, and its mouth is visible again, forming words.
  1947. >You try to fight against it, kicking at it and putting all the weight of your body into trying to pull away from it, but its grip is iron, and it keeps talking at you.
  1948. >"Let me go! What do you want from me?," you shout as you struggle further, tears of panic flowing from your eyes.
  1949. >The creature's other paw nears your face, and desite your struggling and craning your neck, you can't stop it from putting it over your mouth.
  1950. >Now firmly held in place, all you can do is watch with wide eyed horror as the creature's face nears yours.
  1951. >It stops with just a few inches between the two of you, its goggle-protected eyes staring into your own.
  1952. >"I am right here with you," it says, every word carrying the heavy finality of a closing coffin.
  1953.  
  1954. >"Calm down, Fizz, calm down. I am right here with you," Sharpy tells your tossing body as he does his best to keep you from throwing yourself out of your bed.
  1955. >You do your best to struggle against the silhoutte you can make out against the bright backdrop of light falling into your one uncovered, half-open eye.
  1956. >The bright lights of the room once again blind you as you open your one good eye, and for a moment you think the creature has dragged you to some new place of terror.
  1957. >You have to get away from this creature, from this bright place it dragged you off to...
  1958. >Suddenly, you are free.
  1959. >Having slipped the creature's grasp, you rapidly scoot backwards, as fast as the thing covering your body and impairing your movement allows.
  1960. >Seemingly out of nowhere, the back of your head hits a wall and a pain as if someone dumped searing oil straight into your skull rushes through you.
  1961. >Any attempt at evading the silhouette is forgotten as you scream in pain, no words leaving your throat, just an animal exclamation of suffering, as stars shoot up in your vision.
  1962. >Then, a barely felt sting in your foreleg, and the pain subsides almost as fast as it came.
  1963. >You can't help but look.
  1964. >A confused look towards the stung limb reveals a syringe, levitating in magic, currently being pulled away, and as you turn your head to find the one who used it on you, your eyes slowly fall back on the "silhouette".
  1965. >If the pain stopped, perhaps the creature doesn't mean you harm after all?
  1966. >As your headache grows faint and your view wanders from the affected limb towards "the other" in the room, you realize where you are.
  1967. >You are still in your hospital room, your bed in a state of disorder, the covers full of sweat.
  1968. >What seemed like a nightmarish creature that followed you from the dreamworld just seconds earlier is now revealed to you to be none other than your "family doctor".
  1969. >He gives you a faint smile, one of his eyes bearing the swelling of a bruise.
  1970. >"Sharpy? I thought you and Quick were still gone," you mumble as the realization kicks in.
  1971. >"Well, we can only talk for so long, right?"
  1972. >He levitates the syringe over to a cabinet, making sure to dispose of the used needle in the proper bin.
  1973. >"Quick went to get some food from the cafeteria, and when I came in to check on you, you were kicking and turning all over the place."
  1974. >He sits down and gives you a sympathetic look.
  1975. >"Nightmares, I imagine?"
  1976. >You give a weak nod.
  1977. >"Y-yeah, it was pretty wild. But what happened to your face? You didn't have that black eye earlier...did you?"
  1978. >Sharpy gives a small chuckle as he points towards the hurt organ.
  1979. >"Oh, this little thing here? Let's just say I almost regret giving you all that training when... you were recovering from your illness."
  1980. >"I did this?"
  1981. >You are a bit shocked.
  1982. >Sure, you don't control what you do in your sleep, but the thought that the nightmare had upset you so much that you appearantly kicked as if your life depended on it...
  1983. >The last words of the creature in your dream still ring in your ears, and you shudder.
  1984. >"Hey, it's nothing, really."
  1985. >Sharpy does his best to give a reassuring smile.
  1986. >"You on the other hoof, well, I gave you another dose of painkillers. It seems like you are still very sensitive, no wonder with the nerve damage you suffered. Try not to hit your head so much, alright?"
  1987. >You know that he is trying to make a joke, but you aren't really in a laughing mood, so you just give a flat nod.
  1988. >"Do you know how long I will have to stay here?"
  1989. >By the way Sharpy's outwardly upbeat demeanor changes you can tell that he doesn't like being confronted with such a question.
  1990. >The smile vanishes, and you could swear that he is holding back a sigh.
  1991. >"I honestly can't tell, Fizz. Our first goal will have to be to get you back on your hooves. Several of your ribs are cracked, and while the healing is progressing well so far, doctor Barnyard was pretty insistent in keeping you here for observation to prevent possible internal damage."
  1992. >This time, the sigh isn't held back.
  1993. >"Listen, I don't want to beat around the bush. We can't tell yet what kind of long-term health problems may arise from your ... your amputation. With the way you reacted to hitting your head, well,  we'll have to wait and see if this hypersensitivity sticks around."
  1994. >Your meager hopes are crushed, replaced by bitterness and disappointment.
  1995. >"So I might be unable to ever lead a normal live? Just lying here, trying not to hurt myself? A cripple for live?"
  1996. >You are almost shouting now, full of resentment for your situation.
  1997. >Where had it all gone so wrong?
  1998. >Was it when you decided to accompany Quick to Ponyville?
  1999. >Or even back before you came to visit your uncle?
  2000. >If only you could remember anything more from before Canterlot than only the vaguest of snippets.
  2001. >Even the memories of your stay in Ponyville leading up to your fateful excursion are all still muddied up.
  2002. >"Hey, calm down. No one said anything about you having to stay here. Remember how I helped you to recover when you were sick in Canterlot? As soon as you are able to, we will start our programm again. I just don't want you to hurt yourself any further. I promise you that you won't just sulk in hospital for the next years, alright?"
  2003. >Sharpy's reassuring words help you calm down, somewhat at least, but they also bring up another question in your mind.
  2004. >It seems trivial, but you can't help but feel that it somehow ties into your situation.
  2005. >So you give him a nod to the affirmative, but not without following it up with your question.
  2006. >"I remember. Say, what was it even I had back then?"
  2007.  
  2008. >You think you can see a flash of panic on Sharpy's face but it's gone as soon it came, if it even was there in the first place.
  2009. >He opens his mouth for an answer the moment the door to your room opens and Quick enters, carrying his seemingly well filled saddle bags.
  2010. >"Hey, Fizz," he greets as he enters, levitating three packages out of his bags.
  2011. >Two of them he places on the table next to your bed, your own on a fold-out in front of you to allow patients to eat in bed.
  2012. >"It's really good to see you awake again. I am sorry for being gone so long, but there was a pretty long queue at the cafeteria. How do you feel?"
  2013. >"Better, now that you two are back," you respond, "I just hope I don't have to stay here all that long."
  2014. >"Fizz had some pretty bad nightmares and I had to give her another dose of painkillers," Sharpy explains, "But I think we are on a good path here. She's a fighter."
  2015. >The smile returns to his face with the last words as he indicates his black eye to Quick who looks from Sharpy to you and back with bewilderment.
  2016. >"It's alright, just some kicking in her sleep," Sharpy adds before Quick's confusion grows too much.
  2017. >It seems like your uncle is almost as affected as you.
  2018. >"Sharpy's right, it is nothing," you offer.
  2019. >"If you say so..."
  2020. >Quick doesn't sound like he quite believes you, but you can tell that he wants to.
  2021. >Despite Quick's remaining scepticism, the three of you resolve to eat first and talk later.
  2022. >Fine by you, after all you appearantly had your last meal nine days ago.
  2023. >The thought that it came close to be your very last meal makes you shudder.
  2024. >Quick and Sharpy move their table over to your bed, and vague memories of comfortable afternoons spent in Quick's study instill a certain feeling of comfyness in you.
  2025. >Just the three of you sitting together, eating and talking...
  2026. >Seems like it has been months since you last came together like this.
  2027. >You carefully open the wrapping of the package Quick put on your fold-out table.
  2028. >The opening paper reveals a simple daffodil sandwich with a side of hayfries, but to your empty stomach it might as well be a banquet.
  2029. >Eager to dig in, you try to pick the sandwich up in your magic grip.
  2030. >A sharp pain in the stump of your horn, not unlike having a tooth pulled from your forehead flares up, as sparks of energy spring up from the bread as if it was a small firework.
  2031. >You abort your attempt to lift the food to your muzzle, and for a moment you just sit there, dumbstruck, as Quick and Sharpy drop their own food to comfort you.
  2032. >They are talking to you, but it barely registers.
  2033. >Your magic, what defined you as an unicorn and your most often used multitool in everyday affairs, taken from you.
  2034. >The shock is severe.
  2035. >To be honest, you feel stupid.
  2036. >Unable to face the reality of your situation, you hadn't even thought about how the loss of your horn might impact you besides your damaged memory and hypersensitive head.
  2037. >Stupid, stupid, stupid.
  2038. >You had just pushed it to the back of your mind, ignoring it just like you had ignored...something before.
  2039. >Being reminded of something, but not being able to recall what it is only adds to the mix of negative emotions that are wreaking havoc in your mind.
  2040. >You want to scream in anger, cry out of fear and frustration, beat your useless head into the wall all at the same time.
  2041. >In the end, you just slump over in your bed, sniffles gradually turning into open bawling, as Quick and Sharpy do their best to comfort you once more.
  2042. >They don't leave again this evening.
  2043. >Any questions you asked earlier are forgotten.
  2044.  
  2045. >"Alright, you can look now."
  2046. >You don't really want to.
  2047. >The hellish first day after your coma is a week behind you now, a week in which you tried and mostly failed to deal with the frustration and disappointments of that horrible first day.
  2048. >In the days, you carefully started to test out how much you could move your body while your ribs healed (the answer: not all that much), and in the nights you faced bizarre nightmares the memories of which luckily mostly vanished after waking up.
  2049. >Still, the two legged creatures often made appearances, the one constant in the ever shifting dreamscapes.
  2050. >Out of boredom, you had even started to try out your magic capabilities when no one was around, desperate to see any kind of improvement, despite the pain that plagued you every time.
  2051. >Still, the only result had been further small firework shows and a throbbing skull, leaving you reasonably pessimistic in your outlook on your future.
  2052. >Now that Sharpy and doctor Barnyard have removed the bandage covering your eye, you make yourself ready to face further disappointment.
  2053. >You had avoided looking into mirrors the last week, making it a point to always turn your head away from them when you used the bathroom.
  2054. >No need to constantly be reminded of your disability.
  2055. >But there's no need to delay the inevitable.
  2056. >Sooner or later, you have to face yourself.
  2057. >Might as well get this over with now.
  2058. >You turn towards the mirror and take a look with your good eye.
  2059. >It is the first time since before the coma that you see your right eye uncovered.
  2060. >Still shut by remnants of dried blood and medicinal concoctions, you examine the closed eye.
  2061. >The scar you already felt underneath the bandage starts almost on the height of your horn, leading down most of your cheek, but the eyelid itself seems nearly undamaged.
  2062. >Bracing yourself for all kinds of horrible sights, you pry open the stuck eyelid.
  2063. >Finally, your right eye opens.
  2064. >"How can you see?," Doctor Barnyard asks.
  2065. >You close your left eye, half exspecting to go blind, and slowly turn your head from side to side.
  2066. >"P-pretty good. It's a bit dry, but other than that..."
  2067. >You are astonished.
  2068. >You had exspected some kind of horrible maiming, an eye reduced to mush or white with blindness, you hadn't exspected...this.
  2069. >Sure, it's a bit bloodshot from not being used in a while, but other than that your eye looks just like the other.
  2070. >Still the same icy blue, taking in your surroundings.
  2071. >You almost can't believe it.
  2072. >"It seems like the Ursa's claw slipped off your skull as it came down," the doctor starts to explain, but you don't pay him any mind.
  2073. >This is the first real good news you have had in a while, and you are going to enjoy it.
  2074. >You look at your face, not just to take in the damage, but just for the act of looking itself.
  2075. >You close your left eye, using only the freshly revealed right one, and tak in what you can.
  2076. >Sure, you are still in a hospital, surrounded by the smell of antiseptics and the sight of a boring, sterile room, but that's enough.
  2077. >At the moment, this room might as well be the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.
  2078.  
  2079. >The euphoria doesn't last long, however.
  2080. >Two days later, you already find yourself in the same boring routine.
  2081. >Waking up, eating breakfast, reading for a while, talking to Sharpy, eating lunch, waiting for Quick to come over, spending some time with him, eating dinner, some more reading, followed by an uneasy sleep filled with half-remembered dreams and nightmares.
  2082. >You had considered talking to a psychiatrist about the nightmares, but ultimately decided against it.
  2083. >Afterall, you wouldn't be getting out of here any faster if they decided that the monster's paw had knocked a few screws loose and sent you to a nuthouse.
  2084. >That's not the kind of different environment you want.
  2085. >In the end, you had settled on analysing your dreams yourself.
  2086. >You had been reading through the books you had gotten from Witching Hour in Canterlot, as well as those Sharpy and Quick brought you during their visits, in the hopes of finding out what these creatures haunting you were.
  2087. >So far, without success.
  2088. >You scoff as you flip another book shut, using your mouth to toss it back onto your nightstand.
  2089. >Bah, you hate the taste of dusty old paper.
  2090. >Perhaps Quick would get you another one from the library when he comes to visit you in the evening.
  2091. >That is, IF he comes at all.
  2092. >Your uncle's visits had become somewhat irregular, and while he was always deeply apologetic when he came over, citing the difficult and important work he was doing with his old Professor, you can't help but suspect that he is avoiding you.
  2093. >"Believe me, Fizz, if the Professor and I are succesfull, we will be able to greatly increase your quality of life," he had insisted the last time he visited you, "of all of us. I am really sorry for the time it takes up, but you have to believe me that I am acting in your best interest."
  2094. >Of course he had claimed that he couldn't tell you what it was he was working on, insisting that you get your rest so you could leave the hospital soon.
  2095. >The bitter voice of resentment in the back of your mind is quite insistent that he just can't stand to be around you, and you somewhat agree.
  2096. >Ever since you came to, he had been somewhat apprehensive about you, sometimes shooting you weird glances that he seemingly thought you didn't catch.
  2097. >You can't even really blame him.
  2098. >A Unicorn without a horn...what a travesty.
  2099. >Who would want to spend time with such a failure?
  2100. >You turn your angry stare over to the book you just finished.
  2101. >"Come on, get over here," you groan through your teeth as you once again try to lift it towards you using magic.
  2102. >Just like the times before, there is no movement on the book.
  2103. >You keep focusing, ignoring the pain that is now emanating from your horn again as best as you can, directing as much energy as possible at it.
  2104. >The telltale sparks of your previous attempts are once again lighting up around the book as the pain grows.
  2105. >At this point, you usually stopped, the pain too much for to less a result, but this time your frustration drives you onwards.
  2106. >What's the worst that could happen to you?
  2107. >You are already in the hospital, and you already feel like you have lost everything.
  2108. >As you keep the flow of energy up, the stump of your horn feeling as it was burning, black fields encroach on your vision.
  2109. >You are about to stop, to let the energy dissipate, when suddenly a ring of bright light emanates from the book, flowing outward in a perfect spherical form.
  2110. >The sight breaks your concentration, and in the same moment your focus stops, the light disappears.
  2111. >A headache as if somepony had beaten you with a pipe rages in your skull, but you ignore it.
  2112. >Your fascinated gaze is still fixed on the book by the time Sharpy comes in to tell you that Quick won't make it today.
  2113.  
  2114. >With your discovery comes a new sense of purpose.
  2115. >While the result of your exertions had still been a glorified lightshow, it had also been a step up from the small flying sparks you had produced earlier.
  2116. >Every chanche you get you train, powering through the headaches and tiredness that come with your training.
  2117. >There are a few close calls with nurses and the doctor himself, but you manage to avoid detection of your experimenting.
  2118. >You are unsure of whether it would be used as a pretense to keep you for longer observation, but at the very least you would probably recieve a stern talking to.
  2119. >And that wouldn't be good for your mood at all.
  2120. >So you did your best to train in secrecy, mostly in the evenings after the day's physiotherapy sessions had run their surprisingly succesfull course.
  2121. >You have to admit, the results had been better than you thought.
  2122. >The cracked ribs had healed in time without further complications, and you took some enjoyment from being able to more or less walk around freely on the hospital grounds.
  2123. >You are uncertain if the movement had somehow done its part in stimulating regeneration in or dislodging damaged nerves, but with your ability to move around returning, the hypersensitivity of your head had diminished in turn.
  2124. >You had found that out when a clumsy nurse accidentally hit your head with the fold-out table while bringing you dinner.
  2125. >A few weeks earlier, you probably would almost have blacked out with pain, and from the look the nurse gave you she exspected the worst, but to the surprise of both of you all that came with the mishap was a short sting of pain, close to what was exspected from such a blow.
  2126. >There was probably a detailed explanation doctor Barnyard could have given you, but you didn't care to ask.
  2127. >All that mattered was that you got closer to getting out of the hospital.
  2128.  
  2129. >"Ah, my dear uncle. To what do I owe this rare pleasure?"
  2130. >Quick's smile freezes for a moment, but Dr. Barnyard nudges him on, and together they step into your room.
  2131. >Your sarcastic greeting seems to have struck a nerve with Quick.
  2132. >Guilt.
  2133. >You, too, feel a pang of guilt for welcoming him like that, but seeing his reaction quickly makes any feelings to that effect subside.
  2134. >If he knows that neglecting you in hospital is wrong, why doesn't he visit more often?
  2135. >In the last few weeks, he had visited you on average just two days, citing important work as the reason for his absence.
  2136. >And while you didn't ask him for the details anymore, it had been hard to feel particularily excited when he came over.
  2137. >In a way, you found yourselves in a vicious circle, in which your disappointment led to you treating him in a way that probably did its part in discouraging from trying to come over more often.
  2138. >However, being aware of this alone hadn't stopped the feelings of being abandoned by your uncle.
  2139. >Even Sharpy, who had no "familial obligation", had managed to get leave from his work in Canterlot to assist in your treatment and keep you company.
  2140. >Why couldn't your only remaining family member get the same from his Professor?
  2141. >Making a good effort to hide his nervousness, Quick moves in, sidestepping your table as he makes his way over.
  2142. >"I am really sorry that things didn't work out exactly how we wanted them to for a while, Fizz, but we have some good news for you."
  2143. >The doctor noods in agreement.
  2144. >"Indeed. With the way your recovery has been going, and with the results of the last few tests, we think that you have reached a condition in which we can allow you to leave the hospital."
  2145. >"That means", Quick adds, "I am here to get you home."
  2146. >You are a bit dumbfounded by these news.
  2147. >Of course the prospect of finally getting out of the hospital is great, but to get the news so sudden is a surprise you aren't sure you like.
  2148. >You are still unsure of how to feel about the whole affair as you step out of the reception area of the hospital into the afternoon sun.
  2149. >The doctor had asked you to come back at least once a week for the next few weeks to keep you checked up and to report any negative changes in your condition immediately, but other than that, you are free.
  2150. >You hadn't really spoken a lot with Quick since he broke the news, and as you look over to him he seems deeply in thought himself, his lips moving as if he was muttering to himself.
  2151. >"Hey, Quick."
  2152. >The sound of your voice snaps him ot of it, and when he looks at you there's a whole range of emotions visible on his face.
  2153. >The one that stays seems to be relief.
  2154. >"I was just wondering, what else's new?"
  2155. >It's just meaningless small talk, as you don't feel ready to talk about your feelings of disappointment, but you feel that you need some distraction on your way through town, something to help you ignore the feeling that everyone is staring at you.
  2156. >"What's new? Well, as far as I know the old librarian is going to retire soon, regardless of wether there will be a successor found in time. When I came over to return some of your books he told me that he couldn't wait to get out of small town life and back to the city."
  2157. >Quick scoffs at that.
  2158. >"Sure, Canterlot is a great place and all, but I can't really see why he would be so adamant about leaving Ponyville. I am certain that if I had the free time, I would enjoy it here tremendously. Sadly, I haven't been able to pick up much more interesting events, nor have I been able to confirm my suspicion that this is a nice place to be. The Professor and I have been hard at work, and everything else fell rather short."
  2159. >Oh, you had noticed that the last few weeks.
  2160. >Either your thoughts are so negative as to be visible on your face, or Quick is actually aware of his shortcomings, because he becomes suddenly serious.
  2161. >"Fizz, I know I haven't been there for you as much as I should have been, and I want to apologize for that. I can guess that not knowing what kind of project kept me from you has been frustrating, but I want you to know that even if I can't tell you now, that in time you will come to understand. Nonetheless, I failed in my duties as your caretaker, and for that I am deeply sorry."
  2162. >You can't help but be impressed.
  2163. >You don't remember Quick ever seeming so genuine, and while that admittedly doesn't mean much nowadays, some hope for your stay in Ponyville returns.
  2164. >Maybe now that you're out of hospital, things will get better.
  2165.  
  2166. >"Quick, a minute of your time, please."
  2167. >You close the heavy door of the Professor's house behind you and turn towards Fi- Anon.
  2168. >"Why don't you go ahead and refamiliarize yourself with our room? I'll be with you in a moment."
  2169. >Anon looks as if she, he, you correct yourself, wants to protest, but then just gives a disappointed nod and starts climbing the stairs.
  2170. >You can't blame Anon.
  2171. >First you make up, only for the Professor to once again separate the two of you.
  2172. >Even if just for a moment, this sends the wrong message at the wrong time.
  2173. >Not to talk of the tone of the Professor's voice.
  2174. >You had gotten to know that streak of barely hidden frustration in university, and you aren't keen on facing it again.
  2175. >Following her voice into the kitchen, you are met with a disapproving stare as you enter.
  2176. >"You are bringing it here?"
  2177. >"It? We are talking about a sentient being here, who also happens to be my friend!"
  2178. >"And I thought that I had told you in clear terms what I thought about bringing beings we don't understand into our domain, not to talk about my house."
  2179. >The Professor's voice is as cold as ice, and if you didn't need her you would probably already be gathering your things and preparing to leave.
  2180. >"Professor, I told you about the whole thing when Anon was in the hospital. I have been in contact with him for months. If contamination is your concern, why haven't you kicked me out already?"
  2181. >"Because..."
  2182. >The Professor seems to be ready to go of on atirade, but then just ends with a sigh.
  2183. >Her whole facade cracks; where there was self-assured superiority just moments ago there is now clear uncertainty.
  2184. >It's amazing to you, you had never guessed that the Professor was anything less than totally self-confident.
  2185. >"Because I don't know how to handle it," she finally admits.
  2186. >"It's evident that you care a whole lot about Fizz, or Anon, or whatever its name is, but it just feels, I don't know, wrong. It's something unlike anything I have ever seen in my academic career, and that scares me."
  2187. >"Professor, I assure you that Anon is no danger to us or anypony else. And I understand that the whole situation makes you uncomfortable, but I think that without your expertise, helping Anon get back home will be a much more difficult affair. If you send us back to Canterlot now, I fear that we might lose a lot of progress we have made here. Not to mention the impact this might make on Anon in his current condition."
  2188. >The Professor doesn't answer, her eyes lowered towards some notes on the kitchen table.
  2189. >Data from your experiments, no doubt.
  2190. >"I guess we'll start packing," you say quietly, "I promise we will be gone by the evening."
  2191. >As you turn to leave, the Professor looks up from the notes.
  2192. >"I don't appreciate being lied to, Quick Diner. I understand why you felt the need to come here with a cover story, but I don't like it. You can stay for the time being, but once we are done with this project, I will think twice before collaborating with you again. Have I made myself clear?"
  2193. >"Perfectly",you reply, before heading upstairs to your waiting friend.
  2194.  
  2195. >The guestroom looks just like you left it, your bags stuffed in a corner next to the closet, books strewn over your nightstand.
  2196. >One could think that no time at all had passed, that you left for your forest expedition just this morning.
  2197. >As you lie down on your bed, you idly wonder how much time Quick actually spent here during your stay at the hospital.
  2198. >His bed is neatly made, and if you didn't know it you would think that you are the only one staying here.
  2199. >Your ears swivel around as you hear voices from downstairs.
  2200. >Sounds like Quick and the Professor are having an argument.
  2201. >You make your way over to the door to listen in.
  2202. >Perhaps you can find out something about that secret project Quick and your host have been working on.
  2203. >The voices are dampened by the wood of the door however, and you only manage to make out a few words.
  2204. >"Wrong"..."No danger"...
  2205. >You slowly open the door, careful not to make too much noise.
  2206. >If only you manage to get a grasp of what they are talking about down there...
  2207. >Quick's voice again, this time so quiet that you have to concentrate to make out what he is saying.
  2208. >"...we'll start packing...gone by the evening."
  2209. >So that's that?
  2210. >The Professor thinks your broken horn makes you a liability?
  2211. >Wants you gone?
  2212. >You have just gotten out of hospital.
  2213. >You aren't ready to go back to some stuffy metropolis where the noise of the streets will certainly make your headaches return with a vengeance.
  2214. >Of ourse t's not the only health concerns that stir your animosity.
  2215. >There is a palpable sense of betrayal.
  2216. >She's going to kick the two of you out, ending her cooperation with Quick, making all the times he couldn't visit you be for naught?
  2217. >And Quick is going along with it.
  2218. >Goes to show how important the project really was, you guess.
  2219. >There are hoofsteps downstairs now, probably Quick coming upstairs to tell you to get packing.
  2220. >Screw that!
  2221. >You can't stand the idea of being around him right now, and you don't want to hear another lame excuse.
  2222. >Before you have even realized what you are doing, you are opening the window and slipping out, making your way into the garden over the Professor's shed.
  2223.  
  2224. >Walking aimlessly through Ponyville, the feeling of everypony around staring at you returns.
  2225. >Probably not without reason, you are quite the sight after all.
  2226. >Still, you are highly self-conscious right now, and the stares aren't helping.
  2227. >"Hey, Fizz!"
  2228. >The voice calling out to you interrupts your bitter fantasizing about how  much you will be stared at in Canterlot with its higher population.
  2229. >Summer and Glow come running at you, Glow carrying his trademark yellow ball.
  2230. >"Hey, guys," you start off, only to be immediatley interrupted by the wildly talking siblings.
  2231. >"Why didn't you tell us you were out of the hospital?"
  2232. >"We wanted to visit you, but your uncle talked to our parents and..."
  2233. >"Are you alright now?"
  2234. >"That's a really cool scar!"
  2235. >You cringe at the last.
  2236. >Time to interrupt this rambling before it gets out of hand.
  2237. >"I am mostly fine. Just needed to get some fresh air. What are you guys up to these days?"
  2238. >"Oh, we were just on our way to play hoofball with some of our classmates," Summer chirps eagerly.
  2239. >"Hey, do you want to come along," Glow offers, "You can carry the ball if you want to!"
  2240. >All kinds of feeling well up in you chest.
  2241. >It would be nice to spend some time with other kids your age, just to forget about everything for a while.
  2242. >But you don't know wether you are fit enough yet, and there is SOMETHING about that ball that just doesn't sit right with you.
  2243. >"Eh," you cough, an awkward chuckle coming from your throat.
  2244. >It's probably best to give your...friends? acquaintances? the truth.
  2245. >"It would be nice to play some hoofball, but I honestly don't know wether my ribs have healed far enough."
  2246. >The siblings give you sympathetic looks, but a smile quickly returns to Summer's face.
  2247. >"Why don't we try it? If you need some more time, I am sure we can find something else to do."
  2248. >"Yeah. Come on, Fizz."
  2249. >You can't help but smile along with them.
  2250. >"Alright, alright. I'll come with. But I am afraid you'll have to carry the ball yourself, Glow. Check it out!"
  2251. >As you unleash the small explosions that seem to be the only thing your horn is capable of nowadays on the surface of the ball, you notice through your almost shut eyelids that something's going wrong.
  2252. >You stop.
  2253. >The siblings look at you in horror, seemingly noticing your broken horn for the first time.
  2254. >Like before, Summer is the first to speak.
  2255. >Had her voice been friendly and enthusiastic before, now it is trembling.
  2256. >"You k-know, Fizz, maybe it would be best if you lied down for a while longer..."
  2257. >She looks for her brother to back her up, who once again picks up his ball.
  2258. >"Y-yeah, you don't seem so fit yet. Wh-what with you magic and all..."
  2259. >They back off, staring at you as if you could incinerate them at any second.
  2260. >You for your part are frozen, incredolous at your friend's reaction.
  2261. >You hadn't meant to frighten them, you had just wanted to be upfront with them.
  2262. >Seems like there is just no way your magical malfunction is acceptable, even if you try to make light of it.
  2263. >"You know, I never got to thank you for bringing back my ball," Glow shouts when he has reached what he eems to be a safe distance, "So, well th-thanks for that again."
  2264. >"See you when you are better", Summer offers, and with that, they take off.
  2265. >You look after them until they round the corner of a house and vanish from your line of sight, and after that you just stand in place for a while longer.
  2266. >"B-but Quick said there's no danger," you finally whisper, far to late and audible only to yourself.
  2267.  
  2268. >You sit under a tree on the edge of town and watch the afternoon sun slowly set.
  2269. >Of course you are aware that running away is no way of handling your problems, but at the moment you just don't care.
  2270. >Your uncle is ashamed of you, your "friends" dropped you the second they realized what had happened to you...
  2271. >With a sigh you sniffle back some more tears.
  2272. >Glow's parting words had at last cleaned some of the fog surrounding the events that fateful afternoon.
  2273. >You had ventured into that mine to get back your friend's ball and stumbled unto some kind of wild animal.
  2274. >And now that very same friend you had gotten maimed to help couldn't wait to get away from you?
  2275. >It's simply not fair.
  2276. >"See you when you are better", yeah, right.
  2277. >Even if they tried to make good on their promise you wouldn't want to see them again.
  2278. >Sooner or later, you would have to go back to town, but right now you are content with just sitting here, watching the life in Ponyville go on without you.
  2279. >From up here, no one could tell that you are missing.
  2280. >Are you even missing? Neither Quick nor you belonged here in the first place.
  2281. >With the good weather, you could even stay out all night.
  2282. >And why wouldn't you?
  2283. >As soon as you get back, the Professor will probably chew you out and push Quick and you onto the next train to Canterlot.
  2284. >You curl up under your tree, eyes still fixed onto the town.
  2285. >You'll need to move if you see someone coming towards you.
  2286. >So far, you haven't seen any activity that hinted towards a search effort, and while you feel in your miserable state of mind that this is just fine, it never hurts to be extra careful.
  2287. >The warm afternoon sun and soft breeze do their part, and soon you find yourself in a comfortably numb state between sleep and awake.
  2288. >In your dream, you once again see the bipedal creatures that haunted your nightmares in the days after waking up in the hospital.
  2289. >They are chasing you through an empty, featureless landscape, a howling laughter echoing after you.
  2290. >You can't make out any details on them, just their weirdly proportioned bodies stumbling behind you, never getting closer, but neither do you manage to lose them.
  2291. >If you don't find a place to hide soon, they will get you.
  2292. >You can't keep running forever.
  2293. >The pain in your cracked ribs makes your breathing come ragged and sharp.
  2294. >"Are you alright?"
  2295. >Your head jerk up, wide awake all of a sudden.
  2296. >Who was that?
  2297. >Somepony sent by Quick to take you back?
  2298. >You don't want to go yet.
  2299. >You aren't ready to face this offensively happy town, its inhabitant's forced smiles, Quick's disappointment.
  2300. >"Hey, don't panic," the voice speaks again as it owner steps into your field of view.
  2301. >It's not a Pony, the creature bears more of a resemblance to a long-furred dog, wearing a brown leather vest and a shawl.
  2302. >"I didn't mean to scare you," it explains, "but I saw you lying there, and you were twitching and all. Say, what happened to you?"
  2303. >The creature looks at you with a weird mixture of confusion and what might be awe.
  2304. >"Bad dreams. And an animal attack a few weeks back."
  2305. >You don't really feel like going into the details right now, nonetheless with a total stranger.
  2306. >There's a telltale sound of ruffling fur as the stranger sits down next to you.
  2307. >"If you don't want to talk, that's fine. But if you need someone to talk to, I am here."
  2308. >You let loose an irritated snort as you turn towards the dog.
  2309. >"Well, excuse me if I don't seem to be especially trusting right now, but the last people I trusted turned out not to deserve it."
  2310. >You turn away again, wiping at your eyes with a fetlock.
  2311. >No need to debase yourself by crying in front of a stranger.
  2312. >The stranger doesn't say anything, but you can tell by his perked up ears that are visible in the edge of your field of view that he is listening intently.
  2313. >"Why are you still here?" you snap, eyes still fixed on the town, "I thought I made myself clear. I don't want to talk."
  2314. >The stranger shrugs.
  2315. >"I am waiting for a friend. And besides, you look like you could need some company. So in case you change your mind, I'll be here for at least another hour."
  2316. >He offers you a paw.
  2317. >"I am Shep."
  2318.  
  2319. >You consider leaving him there, but you don't feel like leaving this place.
  2320. >Where would you go?
  2321. >Back to Ponyville?
  2322. >Not yet.
  2323. >Looking for another hiding spot?
  2324. >Possible, but in your emotionally drained state the prospect of walking who knows how long to find another place to your liking isn't the most comfortable idea either.
  2325. >So you end up staying under the tree, staring at the town and trying to make out details behind the inhabitant's windows.
  2326. >Perhaps somepony had some dirty secrets you might catch a glimpse of?
  2327. >No such luck today.
  2328. >"You are a Diamond Dog, right?" you finally ask.
  2329. >Shep won't go away until his friends get here, and while you still don't want to talk about yourself, you might as well try to get some details about his race that your books had glossed over.
  2330. >"Hey, you can speak after all. You are right, that's what I am."
  2331. >He gives an overexaggerated bow, and despite his little jab at you and your general frustration you feel your mood lighten just a bit.
  2332. >"So, is it true that you eat diamonds?" you ask as nonchalantly as possible.
  2333. >You've had trouble believing the stories you read about how a single Diamond Dog could Wolf down almost a Kilo or two of raw diamonds.
  2334. >How would he even chew?
  2335. >Not to think of the nutritional value.
  2336. >"What, and risk angering the Dragons for eating their favourite food?" Shep guffaws.
  2337. >"No, but seriously. We just like them for what they are. Something about them is just irresistable to us. How they sparkle, the reflections in their surface..."
  2338. >Shep trails off, as if caught in a dream, and for a moment you consider shaking him to wake him from his trance.
  2339. >Just as you start lifting your hoof, however, he snaps back to reality.
  2340. >"Where were we? Right, diamonds and gems. Beautiful things, they are."
  2341. >Shep's eyes still sport a bit of a thousand-yard-stare, but at least he is back in the present.
  2342. >"But enough about me. Why don't you tell me a bit about you?"
  2343. >A pang of anger returns.
  2344. >Did he really forget that you didn't want to tell him any details about your life, or is he just putting on an act with the whole trance-thing in the hopes of getting you to talk?
  2345. >"I already told you, I don't-"
  2346. >You are interrupted by a bellowing voice from behind you.
  2347. >"Didn't I tell you, no fraternisation with the locals!"
  2348. >You freeze, and Shep jumps up so fast that you could swear that he was trying to jump out of his fur.
  2349. >"B-big Rex!"
  2350. >"Why so surprised, Shep," the voice rumbles, "didn't Fido tell you I was coming with him?"
  2351. >You slowly turn around to face the source of the gravelly voice.
  2352. >Coming towards Shep and you are two more Diamond Dogs.
  2353. >One of them is small and scrawny, his dirty off-white fur mangy and full of dust.
  2354. >He is walking behind a monster of a dog.
  2355. >Despite only having seen three of them so far, you are instantly sure that this one is a whole lot bigger than the average of his species.
  2356. >He stands almost double as high as his two underlings, his face dominated by an ugly short muzzle that looks like it has been broken several times full of frighteningly pointy looking teeth.
  2357. >The monster is wearing an eyepatch and a leatherjacket that combines with the teeth to serve as a grim reminder of the Diamond Dogs carnivorous nature.
  2358. >"What are you staring at, Pony," he snarls, "am I not pretty?"
  2359.  
  2360. >You stand up slowly, trying not to agitate the giand Diamond Dog while getting yourself into a position from which you can start running at a moment's notice.
  2361. >"I am not one to point hooves, Rex. Glass houses and all that," you reply.
  2362. >You had intended it to sound confident and self assured, but even while the words leave your mouth you know that a tremble in your voice is undermining your effort.
  2363. >Still, Big Rex roars with laughter, giving his subordinate a slap on the shoulder that sends him to the ground.
  2364. >"Seems like you Ponies at least have managed to get yourselves some spunk while we were gone," he shouts.
  2365. >"Still, I am disappointed in you, Shep. You were supposed to keep an eye on Ponyville, not start diplomatic relations."
  2366. >"Listen, Big Rex," Shep starts, "I just happened upon her by chance, alright? She doesn't know anything about us."
  2367. >"Well, well, well," Rex murmurs as he and his toadie get closer, "That's good. Real good work Shep. I knew I could trust you."
  2368. >He lays his tree trunk of an arm around the quivering Shep and pulls him uncomfortably close in a parody of a brotherly embrace.
  2369. >"But I bet now she's wondering what's there to know about us. Ain't that right, Pony?" he barks.
  2370. >"Actually..." you make an effort to look as if you thinking of an answer, before turning tail and running.
  2371. >If you can make it back to Ponyville those Dogs won't be able to follow you.
  2372. >You will alert the guard, and they can go investigate what's the Diamond Dogs are doing here to their hearts content.
  2373. >"Stop her!" you hear Big Rex shout behind you, followed by the noise of paws slapping on the ground.
  2374. >You gallop like you have never galloped before, constantly looking from the way ahead to the ground to make out possible dangers to your hooves and back.
  2375. >The town is coming nearer, just a bit more and you are within earshot.
  2376. >If only you manage to get close enough to call for help...
  2377. >Your cracked rips send pain coursing through your torso and make breathing difficult, but you don't care.
  2378. >Sharpy can chew you out later, but now the only thing that matters is getting away  from your pursuers.
  2379. >Almost there...
  2380. >You are brought to the ground as something hits your back.
  2381. >The speed you built up makes your crash all the more painful, one of your ribs hitting a stone on the ground.
  2382. >You open your mouth to scream, cry for help, but a dirty paw covers it and presses your muzzle closed.
  2383. >"Now, now," whispers the Fido as the mutt's hyena-like face comes into your field of view, " Can't let you do that now, can I?"
  2384. >His face rushes towards yours and you instinctively close your eyes, ready for the bite, but instead his head rams into yours next to your broken horn and knocks you out cold.
  2385.  
  2386. >You come to with an enormous headache, your muzzle buried in some stinking carpet.
  2387. >Your first guess is that you are on some kind of ship with all the swaying going on, but then you realise that you see grass passing beneath you.
  2388. >Soon, things become clear.
  2389. >You are not on a boat or ship, in fact, you aren't near water at all.
  2390. >What you thought to be some kind of carpet is nothing other than Fido's fur.
  2391. >The Diamond Dog has you thrown over his shoulder and is trotting along at a steady pace.
  2392. >You don't recognize the surrounding area at all, but if you had to guess, you would say that it's probably a few miles from Ponyville, were the hills and woods make way for the mountains.
  2393. >The grass is specked with small rocks, and your captor seems to be working his way up a slope.
  2394. >You try to wriggle yourself free without success.
  2395. >Your legs are bound, and Fido simply grabs them harder.
  2396. >"Are you going to stay still or will I have to help you again?" he snarls.
  2397. >You consider using your fireworks-magic to make him drop you, but decide against it.
  2398. >With the way your head is still pounding, you doubt that you could get any significant magic going.
  2399. >Besides, were would you go?
  2400. >The Diamond Dogs would simply pick you back up, maybe beat you some more for scaring them...
  2401. >Being forced to go along with a carnivorous race you know next to nothing about is disheartening to say the least, but you will need to wait for a better opportunity if you are going to escape.
  2402. >"Seems like our guest is awake."
  2403. >The rumbling voice of Big Rex interrupts your thoughts.
  2404. >Despite his immense size and bulk, you hadn't heard the pack's leader coming.
  2405. >"You know, I think we got off to a bad start," he offers cordially.
  2406. >He looks at you like he exspects an answer, but when none comes, he continues.
  2407. >"Real shame you stumbled on Shep like that. Or he on you, whatever. You know, the boy has always been a bit stupid, but he should have known that this could only go this way."
  2408. >Rex shrugs.
  2409. >"Hope Fido didn't hurt you too bad, but we couldn't let you go after you had seen us."
  2410. >"Why?" your mouth feels as if it's filled with sand, but you want some answers.
  2411. >"Why can't you just let me go? You didn't do anything criminal or stuff like that before you knocked me out and took me."
  2412. >"You're right, we didn't do anything criminal," Rex agrees.
  2413. >There's an anger in his voice that wasn't there before, and an ugly snarl on his already unattractive muzzle.
  2414. >"But that didn't stop your "Royalty" from banishing us to the Wasteland. Said we were hoarding to many Diamonds, damaging the trade with the Dragons. So we had to go. Out of Equestria, one day to the next. Can you imagine? There aren't even any Gems in the desert."
  2415. >You hear an affirming murmur from Fido, but he doesn't seem to want to interrupt his leader.
  2416. >Rex leans in, his voice dangerously low.
  2417. >"Well, I won't take it. So I took the other boys, the ones who couldn't or didn't want to adjust to the Wasteland, and we decided to come back. Built our own society, here in the mountains. From the Diamond Dogs, for the Diamond Dogs. Our new home."
  2418. >He pats you on the head.
  2419. >"Really, too bad about you. You seem like a good Pony, and believe me when I say that most aren't. But I couldn't just let you go back, yapping to the others about the strange creatures you saw in the hills."
  2420. >"So what are you going to do about me?"
  2421. >Once again, your voice betrays your nervousness.
  2422. >Your mind seems to take a sadistic pleasure in showing you flashes of images of all the things a meateater with nothing to lose could do to you.
  2423. >Big Rex likewise seems thoughtful.
  2424. >"I want to be honest with you, Pony. This whole affair hasn't been planned for. For now, Shep will take care of you. It's his fault that we are in this situation, so he might as well bear the brunt of it. What comes later, we'll see."
  2425. >Fido stops walking, and Rex picks you up to turn you around towards the direction you were walking towards.
  2426. >You find yourself facing the side of a mountain that looks like it's several thousand metres high.
  2427. >Shep and Fido are hard at work hauling a seemingly natural rock in front of you to the side, and behind it, a tunnel lined with torches is revealed.
  2428. >Without any further words, Rex lays you over his shoulders and enters, Diamond Dogs carrying spears snapping to attention at the side of the tunnel as he passes them.
  2429. >Behind you, Fido and Shep seal the entrance once more.
  2430.  
  2431. >You try take in as much of your new environment as you can.
  2432. >If you manage to remember the way, you might manage to slip out once you are fully healed and wait for someone else to leave.
  2433. >This hope is quickly dashed, however, as Rex carries you along winding tunnels only illuminated by occasional torches, turning from one tunnel into the next seemingly at random.
  2434. >Several doors are built into the sides of the tunnel, and you see plenty of Diamond Dogs around.
  2435. >When they spot Rex, they all salute him and make way.
  2436. >Seems like he really is the boss around here.
  2437. >Finally, your captors and you arrive in a cave that seems to have been turned into a kind of primitive trainyard.
  2438. >The traincars look more like oversized mine lorries than the modern train you rode from Canterlot.
  2439. >There are workgangs of Diamond Dogs getting off and on trains, pickaxes shouldered and helmets on their heads, foremen shouting, a rush of activity all around.
  2440. >"Impressive, isn't it?" Big Rex's voice grovels.
  2441. >"This is where it all comes together. Dozens of miles of tunnel all come together here. You could say that this is our capital."
  2442. >"Your capital? Than why don't I see any buildings?"
  2443. >"Not all buildings are made from walls and a roof, pony. Look around you. The mountain itself is our roof, and its insides our walls. Instead of building our homes from stone, we carve them inside it."
  2444. >He sounds as if he could go on like this for ever, but to your relief he doesn't.
  2445. >"Shep," he snaps, "take the pony with you and take care of her. If I hear that you don't take godd care of her, or that she got away, you'll wish you never found her. Understood?"
  2446. >"Yes, Big Rex."
  2447. >Shep's voice sounds deflated, and his slouching shoulders and lowered eyes almost make you feel sorry for him.
  2448. >Almost.
  2449. >He grabs you from Big Rex, gives a quick salute and already you are on your way again.
  2450. >Shep carries you past the roving workers, who look at you with a mixture of fascination, spitefulness, and what you think might be a bit of fear, and boards one of the lorry-trains.
  2451. >The cart he chooses is empty except for the two of you, and Shep leans in.
  2452. >"I am really sorry for what happened," he whispers, "Listen, I will undo your bindings and leave only a rope around your foreleg to hold you by, alright? Not that I believe you'd run away or anything," he quickly adds, "more for show than anything else. Is that alright?"
  2453. >Of course it would be good to have some of your freedom of movement back, you won't let Shep ingratiate himself to you that easily.
  2454. >So you just stay silent, not even looking at him, instead peering over the side of the cart.
  2455. >It seems as if there are some Diamond Dogs in the other carts, but all in all this seems to be one of the lesser used trains.
  2456. >"I-I don't think you've told me your name yet," Shep says.
  2457. >His nervousness is obvious and you do your best to keep it that way by only giving him a cold glare before facing the cart's side again.
  2458. >At last Shep seems to have gotten the hint and stops trying to make conversation.
  2459. >Instead, he just quietly undoes the rope binding you, only keeping a kind of leash around your forehoof.
  2460. >You try to stretch your aching limbs as subtly as possible, as not to make him think that you enjoy his actions.
  2461. >Still, the idea of being lead around on a leash like some kind of pet makes you sick to your stomach.
  2462. >The train starts moving, and soon you are on your way along more tunnels that seem to run through the whole mountainrange.
  2463. >At times, the train stops at crossroads to let others pass before continuing on its journey.
  2464. >When the conductor shouts "Next stop, residential area tunnel 83" you are hopelessly lost.
  2465. >Your original plan to sneak out at the first opportunity probably won't work until you get a feeling for your new surroundings and a way to on the train without being seen.
  2466. >"Come on," Shep nudges you, "we are almost there."
  2467. >You reluctantly follow him off the train and step into another seemingly featureless cave.
  2468. >Only careful observation reveals that there are several doors all along the walls of the cave, with staircases chiseled into the rock that lead to higher stories.
  2469. >The Diamond Dogs outside of their homes give you similar glances to the ones the miners gave you at the main station.
  2470. >You glare back at them while you follow Shep up one of the staircases and towards one of the doors.
  2471. >Shep fidgets around with a bundle of keys.
  2472. >It takes him a while to find the right one, but in the end he manages to unlock his door and usher you inside.
  2473.  
  2474. >Shep's "house" turns out to be another glorified cave.
  2475. >There's an old rug lying in what you think might be the living room, and some small furs draped over chairs hammered out of rock.
  2476. >Now that you get a better look, it seems as if most, if not all of the furniture is made from rock.
  2477. >Cupboards are just chiseled into the walls, and what might be a kitchen table is a slab of granite.
  2478. >Shep locks behind you and then shuffles ahead awkwardly.
  2479. >"So, this is my home. Over there," he indicates the granite slab, "is my kitchen. I am afraid I don't really have a lot of ... none meat based food around right now, but I will get some later."
  2480. >You follow him on a short room tour.
  2481. >It turns out that your sleeping place will be an old fur on the ground.
  2482. >It's comfortable enough, but the smell is something else.
  2483. >You hope that you will get used to it quickly.
  2484. >On the other hoof, if you managed to get out of here before you had gotten used to it, you wouldn't complain either.
  2485. >The bathroom, separated from the main room by a fur hung like a curtain contains a hole in the ground covered with a wooden hatch that serves as a toilet and a small well through which you can get water to wash yourself.
  2486. >If you had to describe it, minimalistic would be the friendliest word that comes to mind.
  2487. >But right now, you aren't exactly in a friendly mood, so after the roomtour you lie down and curl up on your fur without exchanging further dialogue with Shep and pretend to go to sleep.
  2488. >Maybe if he thinks that you are sleeping, he will do or say something that could help later escape attempts.
  2489. >As you watch Shep through mostly-closed eyes, he rummages around in cabinet that seems to have been carved into the kitchen slab, murmuring to himself, before leaving the house and audibly locking the door behind him.
  2490. >You wait a moment in case he comes back before standing up.
  2491. >Despite just having heard it get locked, the first thing you try is the door.
  2492. >Somewhat unsurprisingly, it doesn't budge.
  2493. >You decide to check out the kitchen cabinet instead, but your hopes of finding something edible aren't all that high.
  2494. >The cabinet turns out to contain beef jerky and not much else.
  2495. >The smell assailing your nostrils makes you slam the cabinet shut almost as soon as you open it.
  2496. >Isn't there anything interesting in this hole?
  2497. >Turns out, there really isn't.
  2498. >Nothing to do, nothing to read...
  2499. >What does Shep do all day?
  2500. >Keeping watch over and kidnapping ponies, appearantly.
  2501. >You return to your sleeping corner and give the door your most displeased stare.
  2502. >One day, you are going to get out of here.
  2503.  
  2504. >"One day" turned out to be not so soon.
  2505. >By now, you've spent what feels like months with the Diamond Dogs, mostly locked up in Shep's appartment, out "in town" only under supervision.
  2506. >At least the leash had been dropped after a while, as it had become clear to all parties that you wouldn't even know where to go if you were to excape.
  2507. >Needless to say, it's a boring and frustrating affair.
  2508. >Your only other contact is Rex, who comes by sometimes to check wether Shep takes good care of you.
  2509. >Despite your intense dislike for the Diamond Dogs as a whole and Rex in particular, you always find yourself excited at his visits, if only to here some news.
  2510. >He never stayed long, however and you soon found yourself bored again.
  2511. >On your insistence, Shep had gotten you some books, but they were ragged, old affairs with stained paper and missing pages, anything but a joy to read.
  2512. >After the first week, your hope of rescue by outside forces had diminished to nothing, and over the following weeks your hopes of escape on your own followed.
  2513. >No, if you want to get out of here, you need to become proactive.
  2514. >You had thought about what you are about to do for a while, but it still seems like the best way to you.
  2515. >After all, if you want to have any hope of getting out of here, you'll need to learn the lay of the land.
  2516. >Building up some strength after your long recuperation period from your broken ribs wouldn't hurt either.
  2517. >"Hey Shep," you call out at the dog rummaging through his kitchen, "Can I talk to you for a moment."
  2518. >"Sure."
  2519. >He stops searching for whatever it is he was looking for and comes over to your corner where you had been pretending to read a book.
  2520. >"I've been thinking," you start while he is still on the way, doing your best to look as innocent as you can, "wether I could help out in the mines?"
  2521. >Shep is taken aback by your request.
  2522. >His brow furrows and he gives you a look as if you are crazy.
  2523. >"Why would you want that? And how would you go about it? Doesn't your kind use their horns for things like that? Seems like that's not much of an option for you."
  2524. >Hiding your anger at being reminded of your injury as good as you can, you feign surprise at his scepticism.
  2525. >"Because I am dieing of boredom in here, Shep. I've been living with you for a while now, and what do I do all day? Hanging around your place, getting bored when I am alone and getting in your way when you are home. I just want some distraction. And don't worry about my horn, I still have my mouth and hooves."
  2526. >"Using a pickaxe with your mouth?"
  2527. >Shep shakes his head as if to banish the notion from his mind, then sighs.
  2528. >"But I can understand you. Having been cooped in here for months, with nothing to do..." another sigh, "I will talk to Big Rex about it, all right? But I am not making any promises."
  2529. >"That's all I ask. Thank you, Shep."
  2530. >The Diamond Dog gives a dismissive wave and returns to whatever he was doing before you called him over, while you stare at your book some more.
  2531. >Has it really been months already?
  2532.  
  2533. >This evening, Shep returns later than usual.
  2534. >You are awoken by the sound of the door slamming shut behind him, followed by a groan as he sits down on one of the chairs.
  2535. >Still somewhat groggy, you lift your head from your fur-mattress.
  2536. >The stink has long become almost unnoticeable.
  2537. >"Evening, Shep."
  2538. >Your "host" looks over to your corner.
  2539. >"You're still up?"
  2540. >"More or less. I've been sleeping for a while."
  2541. >Shep starts to stand up, then changes his mind and remains sitting.
  2542. >"Well, I've got good news for you."
  2543. >The way he said "good news" makes you pause.
  2544. >In the light of the few candles still burning in the cave, he looks very tired and somewhat frustrated.
  2545. >"Big Rex gave his OK for you to start working. Not in the mines though, but on tunnel duty. He thinks you might try to keep some gems for yourself, to bribe your way out with. Now try to get some rest, you're starting tomorrow."
  2546. >You try unsuccessfully not to show your giddiness, hoping that your smile is not all that visible in the shadowy corner.
  2547. >Tunnel duty is even better suited for your goals than mining.
  2548. >You would not only get a feeling for your environment, but acutally expanding it.
  2549. >You are sure that with such an important job, finding a way out of here is only a matter of time.
  2550. >Still, one thing bothers you.
  2551. >"So why are you so late today? You look and sound like you pulled a twenty-four hour shift.
  2552. >"Because," Shep groans again, "Big Rex is a tough negotiator. The short story is, I am no longer on sentry duty. We'll both be digging tomorrow."
  2553.  
  2554. >Tunnel duty is pretty much what you exspected.
  2555. >It's hard work digging all day, but you try to pull more than just your weight.
  2556. >If you are to stay on this outfit, you need to impress your superiors and, most important of all, Big Rex himself.
  2557. >You hack at the rock with a pickaxe held in your mouth for what feels like hours, then, when your neck muscles clench up and sting, you awkwardly hold the pickaxe between your front hooves.
  2558. >Shep is always close by, and you don't need to be an expert to see that the work is taking his toll on him, too.
  2559. >He isn't big and strong like Big Rex and he doesn't have Fido's endurance, and he's suffering for it.
  2560. >The other Diamond Dogs in your work unit mostly avoid you, talking only when necessary and otherwise keeping a suspicious eye on you.
  2561. >You hadn't exspected to find a way to escape on your first day, or in your first week for that matter, but when once again what feels like months go by your enthusiasm dwindles.
  2562. >The trains that take you to and from work aren't passing any points where you could slip out and try to make a run for it.
  2563. >Your (self-admittedly somewhat childish) hope of one day being ordered to dig an exit and escaping in an unsupervised moment doesn't come to pass either.
  2564. >After another long, particularily hard work day, you find yourself sitting on one of Shep's rock chairs, absentmidedly flicking through the pages of a book.
  2565. >It's just as old and worn as the others he has, but you often find yourself coming back to this one.
  2566. >A guidebook to the martial arts of the ponies of Steppolia, it shows fascinating feats that the warrior caste of the eastern countries majority earth pony population is capable of.
  2567. >Despite all of its missing and specked pages, it offers a certain solace, and when you know that Shep won't be around for a while and you aren't too worn out from work, you find yourself doing the training exercises.
  2568. >Knowing that you aren't completely useless despite your missing horn is nice, and in that sense even digging tunnels does wonders for your self image.
  2569. >Still, at the moment you are just looking the pages over for the who-knows-how-manyth time, wondering where Shep has vanished to.
  2570. >He brought you here after work, then excused himself and left again.
  2571. >That's not his style at all.
  2572. >Usually, he's far too tired after work to do much, falling into his bed or onto one of his chairs within the hour of coming home.
  2573. >The clacking noise of the key in the lock of the door makes you look up.
  2574. >Sure enough, it's Shep.
  2575. >He's carrying something wrapped in brown paper, kicking the door closed behind him.
  2576. >"Hey, Fizz. Sorry for being late, hope you haven't eaten already."
  2577. >"Well, actually I had some of the mushroom salad already."
  2578. >You walk over to Shep who puts the strange package down on his kitchen slab.
  2579. >"What's that?" you ask.
  2580. >"Why don't you find out?" Shep asks back.
  2581. >You give him an inquiring look, but he just nods at you to go ahead.
  2582. >Carefully, you unwrap the paper around the strange object to reveal...
  2583. >"A cake?"
  2584. >Shep shuffles his feet awkwardly.
  2585. >"You never told me your birthday, but since you've been here for a year now, I thought that I owed you at the very least that much."
  2586. >A full year?
  2587. >Spent in captivity, digging tunnels, without even noticing the flow of time...
  2588. >And then, another realization,
  2589. >You don't know your own birthday.
  2590. >It must have been shortly before you came to live with Quick, but you don't remember the date at all.*
  2591. >"Are you alright?"
  2592. >Shep sits down next to you.
  2593. >"If you want to talk..."
  2594. >Oh no.
  2595. >He tried this tactic on the day you were brought here.
  2596. >You won't fall for it again.
  2597. >You aren't going to let him rope you into a conversation.
  2598. >"I am not hungry."
  2599. >That's a lie, of course.
  2600. >The cake looks delicious by Diamond Dog standards and the smell wafting to your nostrils makes your mouth water, but you will be damned if you eat even a single bite.
  2601. >Shep won't be able to buy absolution from his guilt that easily.
  2602. >"And I am tired," you add, trying to conceal your watering eyes in the shadows, "I think I am going to lie down again."
  2603. >"Alright," Shep mumbles, but you can tell that he thinks that this is far from right, "If you change your mind, feel free to indulge yourself."
  2604. >He lets the cake sit on the kitchen counter and moves over into his own sleeping corner.
  2605. >Only when you are certain that he is fast asleep do you permit yourself to cry.
  2606.  
  2607. >You spend the next day letting out your frustration on the walls of the tunnel.
  2608. >The muscles of your neck and forelegs start burning soon, but you power through it.
  2609. >You lift your pickaxe once more, imagining bringing it down on Big Rex's skull.
  2610. >If only you could like you wanted to...
  2611. >The typical "Clang" of the pick hitting rock isn't quite as resounding, and the resistance to your tool just...stops after a few centimeters.
  2612. >"What the-?"
  2613. >You continue picking away at the wall until you have made a hole big enough to peer through.
  2614. >On the other side, you light up the stump of your horn just a bit, making sure that it can't be seen by the other workers in the tunnel.
  2615. >There are some old rusted tracks on the ground and wooden support beams.
  2616. >No mistaking it, you have stumbled upon an old mining tunnel.
  2617. >You are about to sigh in disappointment, but then an idea forms in your mind.
  2618. >The creature that attacked you in that mine in the forest had found a way in there despite the entrance being boarded up for a long time.
  2619. >Is it stupid to assume that this mine might have another exit on the other side?
  2620. >Perhaps, but you have no intention of having a second anniversary celebration.
  2621. >So you quickly check wether the other Diamond Dogs in the tunnel pay you any mind, and when you see that they don't, you quickly shove some of the detritus lying around back into the hole.
  2622. >Not enough to effectively block it, just to conceal it.
  2623. >This is the best oppurtunity for escape that has materialized since you came here, and you will go about this the right way.
  2624.  
  2625. >The next morning, you pack your bags with everything that might aid you in your escape.
  2626. >Whereas you normally at most take something to read during the break or some extra food when you already know that the canteen won't serve anything you like, this time you scour Shep's household properly.
  2627. >You pack as many of the mushrooms that have been a staple of your diet for the last year as you can find, as many bottles filled with water as you think you can get away with, even some dried meat in case your other food runs out.
  2628. >The whole morning goes by in what feels like minutes.
  2629. >You barely register the passing of the time as you dig away, rehearsing your escape over and over.
  2630. >When the foreman rings his bell to signal lunch break, your time has come.
  2631. >While the Diamond Dogs file out of the tunnel, you pretend to keep walking around an especially hard rock.
  2632. >"Fizz, are you coming," Shep calls out to you from the bend in the tunnel beyond which food is being served.
  2633. >Alright, time to play it cool.
  2634. >"I'll be right with you. I just want to get rid of this rock first, damned thing has been bothering me all day."
  2635. >"Just don't take too long. No need to work throughout your break. I'll get you some food."
  2636. >With that, he vanishes behind the bend in the tunnel and you spring into action.
  2637. >Finding the hole in the wall takes longer than you exspected, a testament to your efficient camouflage.
  2638. >You start digging the rocks and debris out of the hole.
  2639. >The sounds of rock on rock make you wince, and you catch yourself checking over your shoulder for other workers.
  2640. >Surely your noise must have been heard beyond the bend?
  2641. >Yet no one comes, and soon you have uncovered the hole.
  2642. >Now or never.
  2643. >You push your bags through the hole, then pull your head out again.
  2644. >Better take the pickaxe too, just in case you meet with any collapsed tunnel segments or hostile creatures.
  2645. >You make your way over to your pickaxe, pick it up in your mouth and return to your hole.
  2646. >So far, everything's going smooth.
  2647. >"Fizz?"
  2648. >You freeze at the sound of Shep's voice.
  2649. >"I got you your meal-" he trails of when he sees just what you are doing.
  2650. >"What has gotten into you?"
  2651. >Shep, please, just let me go!" you plead, loud-whispering.
  2652. >Shep looks absolutely tortured, drawn between his sympathy for you and his fear of Big Rex.
  2653. >You take another step towards the hole, never taking your eyes of him.
  2654. >"I'll be going now, Shep. Thanks for-"
  2655. >Before you can finish, Shep drops your food and jumps back behind the bend.
  2656. >"Alarm," you hear him shout, "Fizz is trying to get away!"
  2657. >Immediately, there's shouting and clamoring coming from behind you.
  2658. >You curse the Diamond Dog as you all but jump through the hole.
  2659. >Why had you ever trusted him?
  2660. >You should have just run the moment he spotted you.
  2661. >You snatch up your bags and run down the tunnel, using the bit of light your horn can produce to light your way.
  2662. >The noise from behind you is getting louder, and when you throw a quick glance over your shoulder, you can make out several silhouttes coming through the hole and giving chase.
  2663. >"Don't run, little pony," your hear the foreman shout, "Don't make things harder for yourself!"
  2664. >The hyena-like laugh that follows his warning only makes you go faster.
  2665. >Still, they are gaining on you.
  2666. >There is no way you can outrun tunnel dwellers whith eyes adapted to the underground while having to watch were you step.
  2667. >They are going to catch you and then...
  2668. >Unless...
  2669. >You throw your shoulder into the next old support beam you pass.
  2670. >There is a bolt of pain, but the old wood splinters and cracks.
  2671. >Like a drunk, you throw yourself from one beam into the next as you pass them.
  2672. >Your pursuers are still hot on your heels, but you get the feeling that they slow down, unsure wether it's safe to continue.
  2673. >It's too late anyway, as the damage to the beams and the vibrations of dozens of feet running down the tunnel come together to give the old structure the rest.
  2674. >As you barrel down the tunnel, suddenly there's a tremendously loud barrage of noises assaulting your ears.
  2675. >The cracking of wood, clacking of rocks falling on rock, shouts of fear and pain.
  2676. >You keep running until the tunnel behind you is silent.
  2677. >Then, panting, you turn around.
  2678. >Where there used to be a tunnel, you are now staring at a gigantic pile of rubble blocking the way back.
  2679. >You try to banish the image of Shep's paw twitching buried under tons of rock that your fantasy  assaults you with as you sit down and unscrew a bottle to take a much needed drink.
  2680. >You try to tell yourself that even if Shep is somewhere under the rubble, he doesn't deserve it any other way.
  2681. >Still, you feel a sort of sadness.
  2682. >Even if you wanted to, there's no going back now, in more than one way.
  2683.  
  2684. >You take another sip from your bottles before stowing it again.
  2685. >By your estimate, the tunnel has collapsed on a lenght of several metres.
  2686. >You haven't heard any digging from the other side yet, and you do not intend to stick around for it.
  2687. >Lighting one of the torches you packed in the morning to reduce the strain on your damaged horn, you start following the tunnel again.
  2688. >At times, there are rustling noises ahead and to your sides but whenever you turn to look, there's nothing there.
  2689. >You decide to tell yourself that this is a good thing, after all if there are animals here, there's possibly an exit too.
  2690. >In any case there has to be something they can eat, and while your provisions will last for a while, it's good to know that you might not starve as soon as they run out.
  2691. >Soon, however, the old rails end amidst a clutter of abandoned mining equipment.
  2692. >Seems loke this is how far they had gotten before they blocked off the tunnel and forgot about it.
  2693. >This begs two questions: Just how old is this tunnel and what made them stop digging?
  2694. >On second thought, it seems almost as if they didn't dig the tunnel at all, just laid down the rails for the mining lorries.
  2695. >The tunnel itself continues on, as if never touched by any form of civilisation.
  2696. >You continue on, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in your chest.
  2697. >Seems like you underestimated just how dark the tunnels would be without the Diamond Dog's constant torches.
  2698. >From time to time, there are some luminiscent mushrooms or weeds on the walls, but mostly there's just your torch forming a small island of light around you, as whatever lives in thes tunnels scuttles away in the dark.
  2699. >You walk on, slow but steady, until you can't go on anymore.
  2700. >You must have walked for hours, but without any kind of natural light it's hard to tell.
  2701. >You have gone through three torches, interspersed with periods in which you used your horn as a light source, so you guess that perhaps about four to six hours have passed.
  2702. >Might be right on, might be far off.
  2703. >As you pull out your blanket and lay your bags down to serve as a pillow, you debate making a fire.
  2704. >The idea of sleeping in this unfamiliar darkness, full of foreign noise is not particularily appealing, but all you could burn are the rest of your torches, and you don't know how long your journey might go.
  2705. >In the end, you decide to let your last torch burn while you sleep, but not to light any more.
  2706. >Despite your exertions throughout the day, sleep doesn't come easyily.
  2707. >For a good while, you lie wide awake, staring at the torch and imagining all the creatures that might lurk within a few metres of you, just waiting for the strange light to fade.
  2708.  
  2709. >You jerk up when something touches your face in the darkness.
  2710. >Letting out a shriek you would feel embarassed for if there were anypony around you light up your horn, looking around wildly for the intruder into your privacy.
  2711. >Theres a prickling feeling as a dark spot at the hedge of your vision moves around a bit.
  2712. >You brush it away with a hoof and throw it on the floor, jumping backwards at the same time.
  2713. >A small spider tries to get back on its feet, then scuttles away, back into the dark tunnel from whence it came.
  2714. >Relief washes over you when you realise that there aren't any more unknown threats around, at least not in your immediate surroundings, and you let out a small laugh.
  2715. >Still, now that you are awake, the thought of going back to sleep isn't all that appealing.
  2716. >Your torch is burned out, and you have no idea how much time has passed since you went to bed.
  2717. >"Got to keep moving," you mumble to yourself as you pack your belongings and light another torch, "can't stay here forever."
  2718. >You throw your bags back onto your back and continue down the tunnel.
  2719. >You don't see your spider acquaintance again, and you can't say that you miss him.
  2720. >After a good while of marching down the winding tunnel, you come towards a split.
  2721. >One tunnel continues on straight, while another splits off to your right.
  2722. >You had feared something like this.
  2723. >You try walk up to each opening, trying to discover a rush of moving air or something else that might give away the right side to take, without success.
  2724. >Both tunnels are dark and silent, with no indication of what way to take.
  2725. >Somewhere, you once read that if one is lost in a labyrinth, one should always follow one's left wall to arrive at the exit.
  2726. >This situation seems close enough, and so you follow the tunnel that continues onward.
  2727. >You only hope that your provisions will be enough in case you run into a dead end.
  2728.  
  2729. >Luckily enough, you make good progress over your next walk-sleep-cylces.
  2730. >While it is difficult to estimate distances without any real landmarks, you feel good over the distance covered.
  2731. >Not even the skittering of the small animals of the tunnels unsettles you anymore.
  2732. >Which makes it all the more disturbing when you reach a cave without the tell-tale animal noises.
  2733. >With walls covered in faintly glowing moss and luminiscent mushrooms on the floor, the cave seems inviting enough on a first glance, but the silence in addition to the fact that despite the relative brightness you can't make out just how big it is, makes you a bit nervous.
  2734. >Part of you wants to continue on, look for a way out of the cavern, but you have been marching for hours and another part, which is most likely led by your legs, demands rest.
  2735. >As you set up camp, you do your best to shrug of the spooky feeling.
  2736. >If there should indeed be anything in this cave that scared the animals away, at least you'll see it coming.
  2737. >To your surprise, your rest is undisturbed and you awake feeling fresh and a lot less apprehensive about the cave.
  2738. >Perhaps it's just the rank smell in here that drove the animals out.
  2739. >Funny, you hadn't noticed the smell when you went to sleep, but now it faintly seeps into your nostrils.
  2740. >Not entirely unpleasant, but who knows just what kind of poisonous mushroom gives of this odour.
  2741. >You pack up your small campsite, eager to continue your journey.
  2742. >As you explore the cave, looking for an exit, it dawns on you just how big this place really is.
  2743. >You have moved along a flat stretch on the cavern floor, unobscured by the usual rubble you had encountered in other tunnels and caves before, only to realize as you turn around to look behind you, that you can't see the cave wall you camped next to anymore.
  2744. >It is almost as if you aren't standing inside a cavern, but as if you were standing underneath an impossibly dark sky somewhere on the surface, the plants on the walls seeming like off-white clouds reflecting some moonlight.
  2745. >You consider going back and just following the walls of the cave until you find another opening, when you see something in the darkness in front of you.
  2746. >It seems like the wall opposite to the entrance you entered through, but when you come closer, it turns out to be something else entirely.
  2747. >You stare in awe at the ruins of the giant building facing you.
  2748. >Never had you exspected to find something like this here, beneath the mountains.
  2749. >Now, as you come closer, you can make out the outlines of even more buildings behind the one you are examining.
  2750. >It looks like there's a whole subterranean city down here.
  2751. >Yet the buildings look like nothing you recall ever having seen before.
  2752. >Certainly not on the surface, and neither in your Diamond Dog captivity.
  2753. >These buildings aren't hammered into the walls of crudely dug tunnels, instead they stand freely in this giant room, as if grown from the ground like stalagmites.
  2754. >Still, the buildings seem utterly alien in more ways.
  2755. >The proportions seem...off, for the lack of a better word, and as you slowly peek into the first building you reached, you can't help but feel as if it is simultaneously too big and too small on the inside.
  2756. >You quickly withdraw your head, feeling somewhat sick to your stomach.
  2757. >Yet despite their odd architecture, the buildings stillfascinate you.
  2758. >As you slowly walk through the ghost town, you notice more and more details.
  2759. >Reliefs on the walls depicting objects or creatures that seem so far removed from anything you know that it seems best not to dwell on them.
  2760. >Objects of unclear purpose littering the streets, things that seem like works of artists interspersed with vases and odd, big sacks that seem to be the things giving off the smell you had started noticing earlier.
  2761. >Now, in the middle of the ghostly city, the smell seems overwhelming, and for a moment you wonder just how you hadn't noticed earlier, until another relief catches your attention, demands your focus, blows away any other thought.
  2762. >You need to see this one up close.
  2763. >Making your way over, you step on something that makes a dry crunching noise and sends a waft of stinking dust up your muzzle.
  2764. >The return  of the stink breaks your fixation, and you look down towards the source of noise and semll.
  2765. >Staring back at you is a long dead, dried up eyeball, affixed by a stalk to the sack you were just walking past.
  2766. >In the seconds you spend staring at the sack in shock, you take in more details than you would have wanted to.
  2767. >There's a whole bundle of eyestalks, one of which you stepped on, attached to that sack, alongside what seems to be a pair of wings and other organs that seem to be some kind of limbs, far more than anything you have ever seen before on any being.
  2768. >You jump back, the realization that you were walking past dozens of these dead...things and the utter strangeness of the creature filling you with dread again.
  2769. >A small cry of horror frees itself from your mouth, and you bite down on your tongue.
  2770. >From somewhere, deep in the ruins, your cry is answered:
  2771. >"Tekeli-li"
  2772.  
  2773. >The unearthly cry seems to come from everywhere at once, echoing between the buildings.
  2774. >At least you hope that it's the echo you are hearing as you take off running blindly.
  2775. >You don't know where you are going, but you don't care.
  2776. >All that matters is that you get away from here.
  2777. >You stumble through the streets of the necropolis, dodging the bodies of the dead things as good as you can, when you start to hear it.
  2778. >Between the clopping of your hooves and the still echoing sound of the creature within the ruins, there is another sound.
  2779. >Like a slowed down wave, a crashing, splashing, growling sound grows ever louder behind you.
  2780. >You resist the temptation to look behind you, instead trying to go even faster.
  2781. >Finally, you pass what appears to be the outskirts of the things' city.
  2782. >Still, you run on, filled with panic of your unseen pursuer.
  2783. >The ground you run on is flat and mostly clean of rubble.
  2784. >Somewhere in your paniced mind you hope that this is in fact a road.
  2785. >In front of you, the wall of the cave becomes visible once more and for a moment you think that this is your end, that you are trapped here with some monstrosity chasing you and only the dead things as company, but than you register that part of the wall is in fact an old gate, corroded by some unknown compound that scarred it to such an extent that it is almost indifferentiable from the surrounding cave wall and the rocks piled up in front of it.
  2786. >You scramble towards the gate, over what seems like rocks but turn out to be further bodies of the cities erstwhile inhabitants and what appear to be the bones of some kind of enormous bird.
  2787. >You pay no mind to the dried out bodies and bones that seemingly get ground to dust beneath you hooves or the sweet smell of the alien corpses as you clamber over them towards freedom.
  2788. >The gate is almost stuffed shut with them, and in your haste you kick and push and dig until you have managed to open up a hole in the mound that is big enough to squeeze yourself through.
  2789. >Once on the other side, you keep on running.
  2790. >The tunnel here is just as smooth as the stretch of "road" you walked on in the cave, yet the glowing moss is mostly absent.
  2791. >As you stumble through the dim darkness, from far behind you comes a sound as if a wave broke at the wall of the cave, followed by another frustrated cry of "tekeli-li!"
  2792. >You shudder and raise your speed when answering cries shout out somewhere in the cave behind you.
  2793.  
  2794. >Unable to tell for how long you kept running, and walking when your body refused to keep up the pace, you finally collapse into a worn out heap.
  2795. >Your legs hurt and your fur is drenched in sweat.
  2796. >The stump of your horn is sending horrible headaches through your skull from lighting your path.
  2797. >Your lungs feel as if they could burst at any moment.
  2798. >All in all, you can't go on without a rest.
  2799. >You have left the tunnels of the things a while ago, and now find yourself back in what seems to be an old mining area, leaning your back against a solid-enough support beam.
  2800. >Weakly, you pull one of your bottles from the bags and empty it in big gulps.
  2801. >The water tastes horrible, but that's exspected from run-off you collected from cavewalls.
  2802. >You toss the empty bottle back into your bags and grab some of the mushrooms in your hooves.
  2803. >Slowly, but surely your provisions are nearing their end, and without knowledge of the mushrooms growing in the tunnels, soon each meal might become a gamble on life and death.
  2804. >Still, you eat more than you probably need to, just enjoying the taste as a proof that you are still alive.
  2805. >As you sit there chewing, you realize something.
  2806. >The skittering and chirping of the small animals of the dark is back.
  2807. >Hopefully, this means what you think it does, and you are back in a safe (or at least safer) area.
  2808. >You sigh as you lie your head down on your bags and close your eyes.
  2809. >Time to take your chances.
  2810.  
  2811. >To your pleasant surprise, you awake feeling rested and decidedly non-dead.
  2812. >Maybe luck is finally on your side.
  2813. >After all, there's a first time for everything.
  2814. >No, best not to get too optimistic.
  2815. >That will only make you lower your guard.
  2816. >Forcing yourself to concentrate only on the present, you gather your few remaining belongings and continue on your way.
  2817. >Walking through the dark tunnels has become routine at this point, but as your encounter in the ruins demonstrated, you never know just what's waiting around the next corner.
  2818. >The area you are in seems to be at least partially artificially made, the ragged, cracked walls and stalagmites of more natural tunnels changing to smoother surfaces and back without clear rhyme or reason.
  2819. >To say that that doesn't sit quite right with you after your last encounter in ... hoof? claw? -made tunnels is an understatement.
  2820. >You find yourself slowing down significantly, doublechecking each shadow.
  2821. >Berating yourself for your nervousness, you force yourself to quicken your pace.
  2822. >The sooner you are out of this area, the better.
  2823. >At least last time the creatures had the dignity to announce themselves...
  2824. >A shiver runs down your spine as you recall the unnatural call that echoed after you for what seemed far longer than it should.
  2825. >Yeah, that does it.
  2826. >The next tunnel you see spreading off from this hallway is definitely yours to take.
  2827. >You stop dead in your tracks.
  2828. >Did you just imagine that or-?
  2829. >No, it's real.
  2830. >In front of you, there is something shining in the dark, like a creature's eye refleghting your horn's light might.
  2831. >Or like a star glowing in the tunnels beneath the mountain.
  2832. >The unbidden memory of a monstrous creature made of night sky makes your blood run cold.
  2833. >You take a careful step back, extinguishing your horn and readying yourself to run at a moments notice, eyes fixed on the shine that persists even without your horn's slight glow.
  2834. >The light in front of you doesn't move, however.
  2835. >You stand in pitch black darkness for minutes, trying to breathe as quietly as possible.
  2836. >Still, not the slightest movement.
  2837. >Perhaps whatever it is is asleep or otherwise incapacitated?
  2838. >You consider turning around and looking for another way, but quickly decide against it.
  2839. >You hadn't seen any other tunnels on the way here.
  2840. >Sure, you might have overlooked something on the way, especially on your mad run from the ruins, but going back will take time and energy.
  2841. >Energy you can't afford losing with your current state of provisions.
  2842. >Also, you really don't want to go back towards the ruins and their inhabitants.
  2843. >Very carefully, you take a step forward.
  2844. >You cringe at the crunch of small stones under your hoof, but the source of the light doesn't seem to have heard anything.
  2845. >Emboldened, you take another step.
  2846. >And another.
  2847. >You are parallel to the light's source when a gust of cold air hits you.
  2848. >You take off running past the shimmer on your right, down the tunnel.
  2849. >That thing breathed on you.
  2850. >It surely won't want to let a meal as delicious at you get away.
  2851. >Yet the only thing you hear are your own hoofs on the stone floor.
  2852. >You shoot a glance over your shoulder.
  2853. >The light is still hovering in place behind you.
  2854. >Your running slows to a trot and then stops completely.
  2855. >Staring back at the light, you mull over your options.
  2856. >Continuing on seems like the safest, yet whatever is behind you hasn't really been hostile so far.
  2857. >You walk in place, uncertain of what to do.
  2858. >Sure, the rational thing to do would be to continue onwards.
  2859. >But something about the light still doesn't sit right with you.
  2860. >Then it hits you.
  2861. >The air was cold.
  2862. >What creature breathes out cold air?
  2863. >In no time you are back down the tunnel, examining the light more closely.
  2864. >What you see almost makes you pass out.
  2865. >What you thought to be some part of a cave dwelling creature is in fact a shaft of light from outside.
  2866. >And you had almost run away from it like a roach scuttling under a cupboard when somepony turns on the light
  2867. >"Stupid, stupid, stupid."
  2868. >Fighting the urge to hammer your head into the wall for your idiocy, you instead get to work.
  2869. >It seems as if you are on the wrong side of a collapsed mine entrance, but working on rocks for a year has given you the strength and determination to see this through.
  2870. >Using your hooves, you manage to slowly expand the small hole inbetween the rocks.
  2871. >The light falling into your eyes is almost blinding after living underground for as long as you did, but you don't care.
  2872. >Finally, after working for backbreaking hours, you manage to produce a hole that's big enough to press through.
  2873. >You flop down out of your hole on the other side and stay where you fell for a while.
  2874. >The sun is still almost blinding you, even through closed eyelids, an at the moment you are content with just staying where you are and enjoying the fresh mountain air.
  2875. >Once there are no more stars dancing behind your eyelids, you slowly open first one, then the other.
  2876. >In front of you, the mountain range is gently falling off into lushly forested hills.
  2877. >You can make out a road running through the foothills and a river in the distance, but familiar landmarks are completely absent.
  2878. >Still, the area you find yourself in seems like paradise after the endless dusty dark tunnels of the mountains.
  2879. >With a tired sigh, you force yourself to your legs, eager to use the daylight you have left.
  2880. >"Guess I should at least use the opportunity to refill my bottles."
  2881. >As you carefully descend the slopes of the mountains and make your way through the foothills, you often find yourself stopping, just to take it all in.
  2882. >After a year underground, everything seems so vast and bright, yet comforting.
  2883. >Only now do you entirely realize how much you missed the singing of the birds and the warmth of the sun.
  2884. >In the fresh air and warmth your fatigue melts until it is all but vanished, and a smile spreads over your muzzle as you half-consciously start running.
  2885. >You are finally free.
  2886. >The almost forgotten sensations of the wind in your fur and the sun on your back send you into what might very well be an euphoric state as you race yourself towards the river.
  2887. >The river's blue water comes up in front of you, sparkling in the sun, and in a spur of the moment decision you turn your sprint into a jump.
  2888. >It's colder than you would have thought, but you still spend some time swimming before climbing back out and lying down in the sun to dry off.
  2889. >You still have to refill your flasks and bottles, but at the moment it's just too comfortable to just keep lazing in the afternoon sun, watching the dragonflys race along the river, listening to croaking frogs and singing birds.
  2890.  
  2891. >You are close to nodding off in the afternoon sun when noise from the street catches your attention.
  2892. >There is a cart coming down the road, pulled by the biggest stallion you've ever seen.
  2893. >On the cart is what looks like a combination of a house and a market stall.
  2894. >As the stallion and his load come closer, you make out loud voices coming from within the carriage.
  2895. >The sight of travellers reminds you that you should get back on the road yourself, and with a sigh you get back on your hooves.
  2896. >Of course you had to spot others just as you were at your most comfy.
  2897. >You set yourself on your previously postponed task of refilling your water reserves, but make sure to not let the cart out of your eyes for long.
  2898. >Stranger danger and all that.
  2899. >When he spots you, the big stallion turns his head towards the cart and says something you fail to make out over the distance, but you hear the loud talking within stop.
  2900. >Still watching for any sign of danger, you quickly and quietly move to stow your flasks again.
  2901. >The sooner you manage to get your stuff in order and manage to get away from these strangers, the  better.
  2902. >You cringe when another stallion pokes his head out of a window in the cart and looks around.
  2903. >The big guy in the front turns to talk to him again, and his head swivels once more, a grin spreading on his face as his eyes fixate on you.
  2904. >"Oh, excellent!", you hear him shout.
  2905. >The head vanishes back inside the cart, and you hear a flurry of activity and talking, followed by the noise of a door being slammed shut.
  2906. >Sure enough, the stallion who poked his head out at you now steps out behind the cart and starts making his way over to you.
  2907. >He is rather small, you think, with a green coat and a mint-coloured short-cropped mane
  2908. >Just why could he be so happy to see you?
  2909. >Perhaps ponies are still looking for you?
  2910. >Still, the whole thing seems suspicious to you, and you swing your bags onto your back as you make ready to dart off into the lush woods.
  2911. >"Good day," the stallion shouts as he nears you, "please wait a minute. Perhaps you could tell me wether we are on the right way to Hoofston?"
  2912. >"Never heard of it," you shout back, keeping your distance as good as you can.
  2913. >The friendly smile on the stallion's face falters, only to return a moment later.
  2914. >"That's unfortunate. Would you maybe take a look at my map with me, look it over for any errors?"
  2915. >"If you think I am just going to step into a strangers cart in the middle of the street, I'll have to disappoint you."
  2916. >This guy is either the most incompetently obvious kidnapper in the world, or just genuinely naive.
  2917. >Still, you keep your escape route in mind as the stallion speaks again.
  2918. >"Of course. One can't be careful enough. Would it be alright with you if I just got it from the cart and brought it over here? No need for you to get inside or even come any closer."
  2919. >You give the cart another suspicious glance.
  2920. >It seems harmless enough, but Shep had as well.
  2921. >The big stallion is still hitched up to it and currently drinking eagerly from a canteen, paying no mind to the negotiations of his companion.
  2922. >This gives you an idea.
  2923. >You nod over to the stallion who talked to you.
  2924. >"Alright, but your friend over there stays hitched up. He  drops the cart, I drop the talk."
  2925. >The travelers' spokespony seems surprised, but not taken aback.
  2926. >"You have yourself a deal. Just stay there, I'll be right back."
  2927. >While he walks back towards the cart, you think your situation over.
  2928. >You are pretty certain that you could subdue the small spokespony and be back in the forest in case anything goes wrong before his big friend would be able to free himself, and giving chase while drawing the cart would simply not be an option in the woods.
  2929. >All the same, you remain ready to run as you watch the smaller stallion walk up to the cart and talk into one of the windows.
  2930. >If anything other than a map comes out of there, you want to be away before he turns back around.
  2931. >To your relief, what comes floating out of the window looks in fact very much like a rolled-up map.
  2932. >The green stallion snatches it up in his mouth and walks back towards you.
  2933. >As he comes closer, you notice that he is really quite small.
  2934. >He is unquestionably an adult, but you already stand at almost the same height as him, and he seems positively slim.
  2935. >Of course, he is also examining you closer.
  2936. >His eyes widen at the sight of your missing horn and scarred face, but he has enough tact not to pry.
  2937. >Instead, he spreads the map between the two of you and sits down next to it.
  2938. >"Shall we start?"
  2939. >You place yourself next to him, but make it a point to remain standing.
  2940. >What's politeness good for if it gets you caught again?
  2941. >"So what's the matter here? How can you get lost if you follow the roads?"
  2942. >The green stallion nods.
  2943. >"You would think that, but the big oaf over there," he nods towards the big stallion at the cart, who is still pointedly ignoring the two of you, "thought it prudent to save a bit when bought our supplies, and look what it got us."
  2944. >He points at a corner of the map, and you lean in closer to take a look at the scribbling.
  2945. >"788? This map is two hundred years old?"
  2946. >The green stallion gives a grim smile.
  2947. >"Exactly. We only realized when we were already two weeks into our journey and the "mistakes" became more and more. So some roads aren't there anymore, new ones got built, landmarks don't line up anymore, you get the idea. See, we're travelling traders on a new route through Equestria and the border territories, and getting from place to place on time is somewhat important for us."
  2948. >He points his hoof at a point on the map near a river.
  2949. >"If I am correct with my estimations, we should be here, on the shore of the Goose River, about five days from hoofston. The problem is, according to this map, we should have passed a mining outpost near the river about half an hour ago, yet there was no trace of it to be found."
  2950. >"Actually..." you search for the right words, "I passed an old mine on the way here. Looked like it was collapsed or demolitioned after being given up. You could still be on the right track."
  2951. >The stallion lightens up again as he hears the news.
  2952. >"Oh, thank Celestia. Finally something to look forward to. As soon as we are in Hoofston I will try to get my hooves on a newer map. And thank you, of course. Anything I can do for you to repay you?"
  2953. >You shake your head, still unsure wether to trust this pony.
  2954. >"Perhaps I could take another look at your map for a moment?"
  2955. >The stallion give his approval, and you start to look the map over once more.
  2956. >Starting from the point the spokespony gave on the map, you look for Ponyville.
  2957. >Of course it should be roughly parallel to your position, on the other side of the mountain range, but according to the map there is only the Everfree there.
  2958. >Maybe the town hadn't been founded when the map was drawn?`
  2959. >No, that can't be.
  2960. >You clearly recall reading that Ponyville was one of the oldest settlements in Equestria.
  2961. >You had trecked for days, perhaps even weeks through the tunnels, but that shouldn't be enough to get you so far away, should it?
  2962. >But you had taken the train to work that day, and it had driven for quite a while.
  2963. >And before that, when you first arrived, you had taken a train to Shep's house...
  2964. >You expand your search until you find, far, too far even to the north, Canterlot.
  2965. >Nervous sweat starts to collect on your forehead as you use the capital as the startingpoint for a new search.
  2966. >It seems as if Equestria had decent infrastructure back then, the raillines are drawn on the map.
  2967. >You follow one which seems to take a familiar route with your hoof, and sure enough, it leads you right back to Ponyville.
  2968. >There is a jolt of triumph at your success.
  2969. >It doesn't last.
  2970. >According to the map, you are not only on the other side of the mountains, but also several hundred miles too far to the south.
  2971. >It's as if you are operatin on autopilot.
  2972. >You roll the map back up, hand it to the small green stallion.
  2973. >Inside you are screaming, but somehow you manage to appear calm and collected.
  2974. >Is that what it's like to get used to disappointment?
  2975. >"So where are you going?," the green stallion asks.
  2976. >Were are you going indeed.
  2977. >Crossing the mountains is not an option, and your provisions won't last you much longer.
  2978. >"I guess I am headed to Hoofston as well," you reply, unsure of yourself.
  2979. >It seems like the best option at the moment, even if just to get yourself some new food.
  2980. >Once more, your conversation partner looks as if he has questions he doesn't ask.
  2981. >Instead, he offers:"Perhaps you would like to come with us? There's still some room in the cart, you know."
  2982. >You make it a point to decline as polite as possible, telling him that you prefer to travel alone, and good luck on his journey.
  2983. >You watch the cart until it has made its way over the river and is almost out of sight before you make your way across, then slip into the underbrush at the edge of the road and follow them.
  2984.  
  2985.  
  2986. >You catch up to them when it gets dark.
  2987. >From a safe hiding place in the underbrush, you keep an eye on the travelers who are dismounting their cart on a clearing besides the road just a few dozen metres away, oblivious to your presence.
  2988. >Besides the big stallion pulling the cart and his smaller green companion there is a unicorn mare who leaves the cart and uses magic to set up a small cooking fire the three gather around.
  2989. >Soon the smell of cooking food wafts to your nostrils and you do your best to block it out while chewing some of your last reserves of dried mushroom.
  2990. >You had followed the cart in the hopes of getting some more insight into the intentions of its occupants, so you keep a close eye on them while they eat talk and laugh amongst each other.
  2991. >As far as you can tell from their talk they are indeed the traders the green one told you they are.
  2992. >Or they know that you followed them and are just putting on an act.
  2993. >You shake your head to yourself.
  2994. >Not everyone is out to get you.
  2995. >You don't have to try to make friends with everyone or anything, but it's also true that not everyone is completely untrustworthy.
  2996. >At least you hope so.
  2997. >The track record seems to suggest something else though, and so you spend your evening mulling over your life since you came to live with your uncle while keeping an eye on the campfire.
  2998. >It seems since then every major event in your life turned out for the worst.
  2999. >But just what was it that made you come to Canterlot in the first place?
  3000. >No matter how hard you concentrate, you just can't remember.
  3001. >Long after the fire has been extinguished and the objects of your observations have gone to bed, you are still tossing and turning in your hiding spot, trying to make sense of it all.
  3002.  
  3003. >You are immediately aware that you are dreaming.
  3004. >Good thing too, because you think that if you thought you were really back in the tunnels under the mountain you would go crazy.
  3005. >As you make your way along the winding tunnels, you wonder what gave it away.
  3006. >The tunnels are pretty much like those you used to get away from your Diamond Dog captors, just a whole lot brighter.
  3007. >Of course, that's it.
  3008. >The almost day-like brightness is explained by glowing tubes of glass placed on the ceiling in regular intervalls.
  3009. >You squint your eyes as you try to make out the details, but the shining light makes it hard to make out much more than what seems to be glowing wires within the tubes.
  3010. >Never have you seen such magic before.
  3011. >There is a certain similarity with the gaslamps you know, but at the same time they are completely different.
  3012. >And yet they seem oddly familiar.
  3013. >The tunnel leads you into a giant cavern, and as you step into it, it turns into the lushly forested hills by the river you passed earlier in the day.
  3014. >The change is neither gradual nor abrupt, it is simply as if the cave had never been there before.
  3015. >You find yourself without a body, merely a floating presence.
  3016. >Inexplicably you are drawn towards the bank of the river, flying across the landscape like a bird might.
  3017. >And there, at the river, you see two ponies.
  3018. >The green stallion from the cart, talking to a pony in that awkward age between filly and mare.
  3019. >Is that you?
  3020. >Your bodyless dream-self is soars cloaser, hovering in position between the tow ponies frozen in their conversation.
  3021. >It is you.
  3022. >Is that really what you looked like today?
  3023. >Your fur is still matted, despited your earlier bath in the river, and your mane falls wildly all over your neck.
  3024. >Your eyes are tired and you look at the stallion with visible distrust.
  3025. >Now, in your third person perspective, he seems even smaller in comparison to your tall and more muscled frame.
  3026. >You really have to remember to compare him to his female companion tomorrow evening.
  3027. >He really has to be quite small.
  3028. >Afterall, the protein-rich mushrooms of the Diamond Dogs and mining work alone couldn't give you such a growth spurt that you are almost bigger than an adult.
  3029. >"Yeah, I really wonder what's up with that."
  3030. >The green stallion is no longer frozen.
  3031. >Instead he is staring right at the spot were you hover.
  3032. >The voice he speaks in is not his own however.
  3033. >It is deep and drips with sarcasm as you try to move away from him, but find yourself frozen in place just as much as your dream-self.
  3034. >"Please, why even try running? All I want to do is give you a hint."
  3035. >You are unable to tear your eyes away from the green stallion, as he stands up on his hindlegs.
  3036. >"And no closing your eyes."
  3037. >He chuckles to himself as his limbs start to stretch.
  3038. >Soon he towers over you, his distorted body shedding his fur as you can see bones at first moving, then seemingly liquifiying under his skin.
  3039. >Memories shoot through your mind, memories of other nightmares you had told yourself you had forgotten, of empty ugly buildings and of two-legged monsters in foreign attire chasing you.
  3040. >"No..."
  3041. >"Oh yes!"
  3042. >The creature that stands before you gives you a look that despite its disfigured face and previous gloating seems more pitiful than anything else.
  3043. >His voice sounds like the voices of multiple persons all talking at once, and to your horror you one of them seems excessively familiar.
  3044. >"Have you figured it out yet?"
  3045.  
  3046. >By the time you jolt wike awake, fur covered in sweat and eyes darting from side to side, the sun is already hanging high in the sky.
  3047. >The objects of the previous evening's observation are back on their way, leaving behind only an extinguished campfire and tracks leading back towards the road.
  3048. >As you continue on your way yourself, you mull your dream over in your head.
  3049. >The memory of it is already fading, but you can't shake the feeling that there had been something important about it, perhaps even about all the nightmares you'd had since awakening after your mauling.
  3050. >You had thought that you had finally overcome those nightmares over a year ago, but now it seems that they are making their comeback.
  3051. >You would chalk it all up to simple trauma caused by the shattering of your horn, if the nightmares wouldn't always feature some recurring elements.
  3052. >Even if the details of your older dreams are escaping you, you clearly recall the two-legged creatures appearing in all of them.
  3053. >You shudder despite the warm sun as you remember them chasing you through those abandoned buildings...
  3054. >The buildings, those were another recurring element.
  3055. >Big, ugly blocks full of broken windows, other smaller buildings that seemed disturbingly similar to some you might see in Ponyville or any other Equestrian settlement, yet different enough to make it clear that no Pony had anything to do with them.
  3056. >But what could it all mean?
  3057. >Of course dreams could often be surreal, but your nightmares seemed familiar at the same time.
  3058. >Could it be that you had actually seen those bipeds and buildings before?
  3059. >Certainly not during your time at your uncle's.
  3060. >Perhaps before you had come to life with Quick?
  3061. >Maybe the creatures actually made their home somewhere up in the northern reaches of the country.
  3062. >If that really was the answer, they had certainly made an impression on you, if your memories of them leaked into your subconscious, while your home and family remained hidden from you.
  3063. >The implications don't sit right with you at all.
  3064. >What could make these ape-like beings so important?
  3065. >Perhaps they were the reason you had to come live with Quick?
  3066. >You shudder as you imagine what those alien things could have done up north.
  3067. >They certainly seem intimidating enough.
  3068. >But then why had you never read about cretures fitting their description?
  3069. >You would think that with all the books on Equestrian cultures and mythologies you had read in the hospital, you would have noticed if they were mentioned.
  3070. >The day passes without you noticing as you trot along lost in your thoughts.
  3071. >Only the setting sun manages to rouse you from your stupor, and as you take look around your surroundings, taking them in for the first time today, you realise that you still haven't caught up with the carriage again.
  3072. >Perhaps that's okay.
  3073. >At least you won't have to watch them eat their delicious smelling food like this.
  3074.  
  3075. >The next days pass in a similar manner, even if you spend less and less time thinking about the ape-things as your memory of the dream diminishes.
  3076. >Perhaps it had been just that after all, a dream without deeper meaning.
  3077. >Finally, in the afternoon of your fourth day on the carriage's track, you make out smoke rising over the crest of a hill in front of you.
  3078. >This first sign of civilisation gives you a new boost of energy and you eagerly scramble up the hill.
  3079. >On the other side, you make out what has to be Hoofston.
  3080. >The town seems rather small, but still bigger than Ponyville.
  3081. >The smoke you saw is rising from the stacks of the biggest building you make out, an industrial looking block of stone and wood at the edge of town.
  3082. >As you near the town, you manage to make out more details.
  3083. >The buildings are mostly built from rough stones with roofs of wooden planks.
  3084. >They are squat structures, none higher than two stories, and the roads running through Hoofston are a muddy affair.
  3085. >You get the distinct feeling that this town has been left behind by atleast a decades worth of infrastructure.
  3086. >On your way past the first houses, you get a first look at the town's inhabitants.
  3087. >The ponies here look rough and hard-edged, and much like their buildings, they seem rather short and stocky.
  3088. >No fancy clothes or styled manes here.
  3089. >The clothes that are worn are purely functional, and everything looks like it is covered in a thin layer of dusty grime.
  3090. >Still, as the first pony town you see after your captivity, it might as well be paradise to you.
  3091. >You follow the stream of ponies walking through the streets and soon find yourself in what seems to be the town square.
  3092. >It is market day, and despite the lateness of the day there are still stalls open.
  3093. >The smell of roasted nuts wafts through the air and reminds you that it has been a while since you had anything decent to eat.
  3094. >In fact, the last few days of your journey you had been forced to ration the last of your provisions, which are now pretty much non-existant.
  3095. >Just like your money, you realize as you make your way over to a stall selling different fruits.
  3096. >You curse internally as you stop in your tracks.
  3097. >Stranded in an unknown corner of the country, without food or bits to buy it, that's not how you imagined your life after breaking free.
  3098. >Damned if you do, dammned if you don't, but you are not going to starve.
  3099. >You start up again towards the stall, trying to let your mane hang into your face in a way that it covers your more, well, distinctive features.
  3100. >Seems like you are in luck, the salespony is absorbed in an argument with a customer and pays you no mind as you near the stall.
  3101. >Now only a quick swipe of the hoof and you'll eat decently tonight.
  3102. >As you raise your hoof, a weight settles on your shoulder.
  3103. >"Well, who do we have here?"
  3104.  
  3105. >In one motion, you drop your hoof back to the ground and jerk around to glare at the stallion who interrupted you
  3106. >To your surprise, it's none other than the big one who had drawn the salesponies carriages.
  3107. >He doesn't look like he's about to accuse you of attempted theft either, instead, he wears a big smile.
  3108. >"Ha! I knew it was you the moment I saw you make your way to the crowd. We've been looking for you for almost half the day. Can't just let the one we have to thank for our timely arrival pass through without some proper hospitality, can we?"
  3109. >You can't say that you are entirely comfortable with the prospect of spending time with strangers after what happened the last time, but you didn't see them do anything conspicous when watching them earlier.
  3110. >Also, you are really hungry.
  3111. >"I guess you can't. Lead the way."
  3112. >As you follow him through the hustle and bustle of the market, the stallion keeps up a constant stream of small talk.
  3113. >"I am Huge Haul by the way. I know we didn't talk last time we met, so sorry for that, but I was still pretty exhausted from hauling the cart all day. Seriously, I have to thank you for pointing out that we were on the right way, or we would have probably turned around and went back a few miles to look for another split in the road. To think that Mint Breath bought such an out of date map..."
  3114. >Your ears perk up at that.
  3115. >"Mint Breath? Your green friend I talked to?"
  3116. >Huge nods.
  3117. >"Yes, that's him. Nice guy, really, but he can be pretty headstrong."
  3118. >"You know, Mint actually told me that YOU were the one to buy the map," you point out.
  3119. >Huge's ears flatten against his head and there's a nervous chuckle escaping him.
  3120. >"He did? Well, you know how it is. Time passes, you forget things, you mess things up in your mind to fill the blanks..."
  3121. >"No, I have no idea how that is," you snap at him, far more harshly than you intended to.
  3122. >You continue your walk in silence, Huge occasionally giving you worried glances.
  3123. >His ears are still flattened, and he looks like a kicked dog.
  3124. >For such a big, strong guy he seems pretty mellow.
  3125. >Finally, you can't stand it anymore.
  3126. >You stop in your tracks and turn towards him.
  3127. >He still tries to avoid your gaze, like a child who knows that his mother is angry with him.
  3128. >Somehow, this does more to convince you of the harmlessness of him and his companions than your talk with Mint.
  3129. >"Huge, listen. I am sorry for going off at you like that. It's just that I have been on the road for far longer than I care to be, without proper food or good sleep for days. I shouldn't have shouted at you like I did."
  3130. >Huge's miserable expression turns back into a broad smile, and once again you are surprised by just how emotionally childish this older stallion seems to be.
  3131. >"All's forgiven, eh, sorry, but I didn't catch your name earlier..."
  3132. >"I am Fizz," you say, extending a hoof towards him.
  3133. >Huge eagerly shakes it.
  3134. >"And don't you worry about food or a place to sleep, we are almost there."
  3135.  
  3136. >"The Run-off?"
  3137. >The sign in front of the hostel seems fitting giving its location downstream on a small creek from the town's ominous industrial facility seems fitting given the location, but doesn't raise the best exspectations.
  3138. >Huge just shrugs.
  3139. >"It's pretty decent from what I've seen so far. Let's get you something to eat. I am sure Mint and Finy will be glad to see you as well."
  3140. >With that, he swings open the door (which looks like it's made from old wood scavenged from different construction sites) and the two of you enter.
  3141. >The hostel is what you would call rustic if asked to describe it to others, and a health hazard if those people insisted that you be honest.
  3142. >Everything in the dining room, from the walls to the tables and the bar looks like it was cobbled together from the wood of dubious origin as the door, nails sticking out haphazardly.
  3143. >Oil dripping lamps and half melted candle spend light in the windowless room.
  3144. >The air is thick, and everything seems somewhat greasy.
  3145. >Still, there are a lot of customers here.
  3146. >Scruffy Ponies wearing hardhats and overalls sit around the bar, drinking hard cider and arguing loudly, while others eat grease-dripping hayfries or fried sandwiches that make your mouth water.
  3147. >"Workers from the factory spend their time between shift's here, I've been told," Huge explains, as he pushes his considerable frame through the populated room.
  3148. >He acts as your wavebreaker, getting the rowdy factory workers out of the way, and you make it a point to stay as close to him as possible before the gap behind him closes again.
  3149. >"Mint?," you hear him shout, "Mint, buddy, were are you?"
  3150. >Appearantly there's a reply you didn't catch over the general background noise of the bar, because Huge abruptly turns right.
  3151. >Past another table of workers, who seem close to coming to blows over a game of cards, the two of you make your way over to a table in the corner.
  3152. >"There we are," Huge exclaims over his shoulder, before turning back towards the table you are approaching.
  3153. >"Mint, Finey! Good news, I found her!"
  3154.  
  3155. >As he steps aside to take his seat, you get your first good look at his companions.
  3156. >Sure enough, Mint is there, looking just as chipper as the day you first met.
  3157. >The unicorn who you presume to be "Finey" is a middle-aged mare with light blue fur and an elaborately styled mane.
  3158. >You see her eyes widen when she sees your face, but the shock is quickly suppressed, and she joins the others in eagerly gesticulating for you to take a seat.
  3159. >All that friendliness comes across to you as somewhat offputting, but you still take a seat besides Huge on the bench.
  3160. >"There you are again," Mint greets you. "You know, when we arrived here ahead of time, we knew we just had to thank you some way..."
  3161. >Huge leans towards him and murmurs something to the effect of "I already told her," but Mint isn't discouraged from his ramblings, and from the smell of his breath you deduce that he has already had his fill of the local produce.
  3162. >"Is that so? Well, you already met Huge, so let me introduce you to the rest of our little band. This beautiful angel over there is Fine Finesse, my dear wife, and since I am quite certain that I didn't formally introduce me the last time we met, let me make it up to you. Mint Breath, aspiring merchant lord of the Northern Provinces, at your service."
  3163. >He tries to perform some kind of overacted bow while jumping up on his seat, and it's only thanks to his blushing wife and strong friend catching him by the shoulders that he doesn't break his neck then and there.
  3164. >Almost the instant he is seated again, his head slumps on the table and he startssnoring immediately.
  3165. >"Call me Fizz," you tell Finey, who looks about ready to melt from the awkwardness of the situation. "I take it you have been celebrating your timely arrival for some time?"
  3166. >"Oh, if only. No, sadly my husband has simply taken a liking to the local brew."
  3167. >The look she gives Mint could make small animals scuttle back under the closet, but he simply keeps snoring on the table, causing her to turn her attention back towards you.
  3168. >"So, Fizz, was it? What brings you here? You know, you could have ridden in our cart with if you wanted to."
  3169. >"I for one am glad she didn't want to," Huge butts in with a grin. "Nothing personal, but the less weight I've got to pull, the better for my back."
  3170. >"Are you still going on about that sprained muscle from our last tour? I thought you said the doctor told you that you could work again. If the pain is back, why didn't you say so when we could still hire help for you?"
  3171. >Still grinning, Huge gets up from the bench.
  3172. >"Relax, Finey, it was just a joke. Anyway, I am going to get something from the bar. What do you want, Fizz? My treat."
  3173. >"I guess I'll take whatever he had," you say, pointing at Mint, "Just not as much. And whatever passes for the speciality of the House."
  3174. >"Alright," and he is gone, vanished in the mass of guests in the room despite his immense size.
  3175. >For a moment you are content with just sitting in the stinking bar, arching your back and feeling your muscles pop, but the silence at your table doesn't last long.
  3176. >"If you don't mind me asking again, why did you go on alone on hoof if you could have come with us?"
  3177. >"I have trust issues," you reply bluntly.
  3178. >You hadn't even planned on the reply, it just comes to you on the spot and you roll with it.
  3179. >After all, it DOES sum it up quite nicely.
  3180. >"I would rather not go into the details, but the last time I trusted strangers, I didn't see the sun for a year."
  3181. >Finey's eyes widen, and she raises a hoof towards her muzzle in shock.
  3182. >"Oh, Oh dear. I am so sorry. I don't mean to pry, but did those strangers do..."
  3183. >She makes a vague gesture towards her face, evidently too nervous to go on, but you know what she means nonetheless.
  3184. >"You mean broke my horn and scarred my face?"
  3185. >She nods.
  3186. >"No, that actually happened a while earlier."
  3187. >The shocked look on her face almost makes you laugh.
  3188. >This sheltered mare has no idea of how dangerous the world is, does she?
  3189. >Despite your efforts, a small smirk still shows on your muzzle as you take your turn to pose a question.
  3190. >"Have you never seen such things on your travels?"
  3191. >Still trying to compose herself, she shakes her head.
  3192. >"No, but we are fairly new in the business, only on our third yearly tour. I guess you have been on the road a fair bit longer than us..."
  3193. >She trails off as your smirk grows wider, but you can't help yourself.
  3194. >"Actually, you could say that this is my first time travelling on my own," you throw in.
  3195. >"Are you messing with me?"
  3196. >The question isn't meant as an accusation, but a genuine one borne out surprise.
  3197. >Finey leans in towards you, studying your facial features intently.
  3198. >"You really look quite young I will give you that, but that doesn't necesessarily mean a lot. Alright, I will bite. How old are you?"
  3199. >"Fourteen, as far as I know," you reply.
  3200. >"Fourteen!"
  3201. >Finey looks you over again.
  3202. >"And you exspect me to believe that? You are already almost as big as most of the stallions in here and built like an athlete. How do you explain that?"
  3203. >You shrug.
  3204. >"Good nutrition and hard work will do that for you."
  3205. >Right?
  3206.  
  3207. >Before your self-doubt can kick in however, Huge drops a plate of food and a full mug of cider in front of you.
  3208. >"You wouldnt believe how hard it is to get the bartender's attention. I all but had to knock over some bottles on the counter to get him to notice me."
  3209. >With a sigh, he plops back down besides you on the bench.
  3210. >"Can you believe that? What a service. Did I miss anything?"
  3211. >"Oh no, not really, Fizz and I just got to know each other for a bit."
  3212. >Of course you make it a point to agree with Finey, but you can still see her mind racing behind the calm facade.
  3213. >Maybe it was a mistake to reveal so much about yourself?
  3214. >Still, your worries can wait until after dinner.
  3215. >On the plate Huge brought you a big portion of fried potatoes with a side of withered salad is waiting for you.
  3216. >You eagerly wolf down the greasy meal, washing it down with mouthfuls of cider.
  3217. >When you first go for the drink, Finey looks as if she wants to stop you, yet she relents and simply watches you with an expression you can't quite read.
  3218. >The potatoes might be burnt and dripping with grease, and the salad has probably seen better days weeks ago, but after the last few days everything tastes superb.
  3219. >The cider is even genuinely good, and by the time you finish your meal you feel a comfortable buzz.
  3220. >In the warm afterglow you simply sit for a while, staring into the fire of an oil lamp, half listening to the talk going on between Finey and Huge.
  3221. >A bit of civilisation, even if it's just a run down industrial town, goes a long way towards making one feel at peace sometimes.
  3222. >This peace however is broken, however, when Finey stretches her neck and lets out a yawn.
  3223. >"It's getting quite late. I think it might be high time we bring our fearless leader to bed."
  3224. >Huge likewise stretches himself and starts to get up.
  3225. >"I think you are not entirely wrong here. He was the one who insisted we continue on tomorrow after all. Might at least get one last good night's sleep in a proper bed."
  3226. >"Don't let me stop you," you say, sliding off the bench.
  3227. >"And thank you again for your hospitality. Tell Mint I wish you folks the best for the rest of your journey."
  3228. >Huge, currently busying himself with loading Mint on his back, grunts out an answer and a goodbye, but it seems Finey won't let you get off this easily.
  3229. >As she leans over the table to better speak to you, instead of a farewell, you hear: "Fizz, a word, if I may."
  3230. >You nod, and she pulls you towards herself, making sure that Huge doesn't listen in.
  3231. >A pointless endeavour, as he is already making his way towards the staircase behind the bar's counter, Mint slung over his back.
  3232. >"So what's your plan now?," Finey asks you.
  3233. >You shrug.
  3234. >"I guess I will look for a place to sleep, and then continue on my way myself. I have quite a way to go, so staying much longer would be counterproductive anyways."
  3235. >"And where are you going, if you don't mind me asking?"
  3236. >Finey's voice sounds perfectly neutral, but you are certain that there is more to her questioning than she lets on.
  3237. >"To Canterlot."
  3238. >You try to sound just as indifferent as Finey, but a hint of anger still manages to creep into your tone.
  3239. >"Canterlot?"
  3240. >Finey almost laughs in disbelief.
  3241. >"Fizz, you might be many things, but I know that you aren't stupid. How do you want to get to Canterlot, hundreds of miles away, on the other side of the longest mountainrange in the country, with neither a mode of transport other than your hooves, nor a single coin to your name?"
  3242. >You open your mouth to tell her to mind her own business, that you will manage on your own just fine, but before a single tone comes out, Finey continues.
  3243. >"No, don't even try that. Ponies with money don't need to steal food to survive. Don't look at me like that, Huge told me. You would have noticed if you hadn't zoned out after dinner. I won't judge you, it's obvious that you have been through a lot, but you need to face the reality that you can't just bum it halfway through Equestria."
  3244. >"So what am I to do? Tell me! Just give up? Stay here, working a job in this dung heap of a town until I've not only enough bits to keep myself alive, but also travel? Oh yeah, why not? Complete strangers without qualifications always get the job, right?"
  3245. >Your level of volume is rising steadily, until you are all but shouting at Finey, but to your surprise,´she doesn't flinch.
  3246. >"That's not at all what I am saying," she shouts back, "All I am asking is that you swallow your pride and learn to ask for or accept help. You told me that you have problems trusting folk, and I get that, but haven't we shown you that you can trust us? Why can't you just ASK for help?"
  3247. >For a while the two of you just sit there, staring at each other.
  3248. >It is true that Finey and her people have been good to you so far, but still, swallowing your pride hurts.
  3249. >In the end, it is you who gives in first in your staring contest.
  3250. >"Alright. If you could help me, I would glady hear how."
  3251. >The words taste bitter in your mouth, but they might be your only chance of getting home within a reasonable span of time.
  3252. >Fine gives a faint smile.
  3253. >"You see, Fizz, we are currently on our annual salestrip throughout Equestria and the neighbouring regions. We travel from the Northern Provinces south towards the Borderlands, and then swing back around on the other side of the mountains, were we head back north until we reach Canterlot. There we sell off the last of our stock, before taking the the airship back home. What I can offer you is to travel with us. Of course, we can't just feed and house you for free, you would have to do some work. But all things considered, I think this is the best offer I can make you."
  3254. >"And the work, what would that entail?"
  3255. >Now it is Finey's turn to give a shrug.
  3256. >"Well, for example, you could help Huge draw the carriage if his back starts acting up again. You could help Mint and me gathering provisions on the road, pull a shift as night guard when we reach in the less civilized areas, things like that. Odd jobs, really. You might be young, but if I take a look at you, I don't see you having a problem with any of that."
  3257. >You are inclined to agree.
  3258. >After the months of hard labour in the Diamond Dog's mines, the caravan life sounds like a cakewalk.
  3259. >Not to mention that the fact that you won't be freeloading per se dampens the hit to your pride considerably.
  3260. >"You've got a deal. That is, if you still want me."
  3261.  
  3262. >It turns out that Finey still wants you.
  3263. >Well, wants to help you might better describe it.
  3264. >After you agree on the terms of your "employment", you find yourself standing outside the bar's front door to catch some fresh air.
  3265. >The late afternoon sky is clear and already you can make out some faint stars, ready to spring into action once the sun sets again, while a fresh wind blows the stink of the factory's waste away.
  3266. >For all intents and purposes it is a nice evening, yet you still feel uneasy.
  3267. >Now that you have a clear path back home in front of you, the doubts and frustrations that led you to the foothills where you were captured return.
  3268. >What do you even have to go back to?
  3269. >Sure, there is your uncle Quick, but even he had been awfully distant.
  3270. >Hadn't he planned to send you back to Canterlot so that your damaged horn wouldn't be a danger to the experiments he ran with the Professor?
  3271. >If only you could remember the rest of your family.
  3272. >The clattering of the shoddy door makes you turn around.
  3273. >Just in time to see a drunk stallion stumble out of the bar towards the stream and loudly empty his stomach.
  3274. >Perhaps it's time that you head back inside.
  3275. >The wind is getting awfully cold.
  3276. >And the company isn't all that fulfilling either.
  3277. >You walk past the retching drunk and return inside.
  3278. >Of course, inside it's not much better.
  3279. >Stink, drunks and stale air assault your senses, but it is not like you plan on staying down here any longer.
  3280. >Instead, you retrieve the keys to your room from the bartender and head upstairs.
  3281. >Like Huge had said, going to bed early before starting on the next stretch of your journey might not be the worst idea.
  3282. >To your pleasant surprise, your room is actually quite nice.
  3283. >Well, by the admittedly low standards set by the rest of the tavern.
  3284. >There is no overt dirt, and the sheets look as if they were cleaned not too long ago.
  3285. >You trot over to the window and push it open to let in some fresh air.
  3286. >The town outside smells, you notice, and not much better then the bar downstairs.
  3287. >In the factory itself the smell must be hellish.
  3288. >Perhaps the locals don't even smell it anymore?
  3289. >You put your bags down beside the bed and rummage through them for your toothbrush.
  3290. >Now that you have access to (hopefully) clean water again, there's no excuse to not get cleaned up.
  3291. >Hygiene first and all that.
  3292. >To your frustration, it seems as if you lost it on the last stretch of your journey.
  3293. >Still, there are some other things you had almost forgotten you brought with you.
  3294. >Some small fragments of a metal of some kind you dug out during your time in the mines, and even a book you brought with you.
  3295. >It is the book on martial arts which had kept your boredom at bay with its exercises for the afternoon of your birthday.
  3296. >The reminder of your captivity leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, and you are about to flick the book out of your window when you decide against it.
  3297. >The travels ahead of you will take time, time undoubtedly filled with a fair amount of boredom.
  3298. >Something to keep you busy in your downtime might just come in handy.
  3299. >You throw the book back into you saddlebags and climb into bed.
  3300. >"My belated thanks, Shep," you mumble to yourself, "dumb bastard."
  3301.  
  3302. >You wake up to a knocking on your door.
  3303. >"Yeah, I am coming," you mumble as you flop out of bed.
  3304. >Picking up your bags on the way, you make your way to the door and swing it open.
  3305. >Huge is standing in the hallway, looking at you with a bemused expression.
  3306. >With a nod from him, you start making your way downstairs
  3307. >"Well, that took you a while. I have been knocking for at least ten minutes now"
  3308. >"I think I would have noticed. You know, I am not exactly what you would call a heavy sleeper."
  3309. >"Perhaps you just needed a real bed again," Huge offers and gives you a comradely slap on the shoulders, "I just hope you didn't get used to it. We are leaving in half an hour."
  3310. >"I am fine, really. What about Mint? He was pretty out of it yesterday."
  3311. >The grin returns to Huge's face.
  3312. >"Oh, he's pretty hungover and battling the mother of all headaches. But Finey is doing her best to get him up."
  3313. >The two of you step into barroom you ate in yesterday.
  3314. >What was filled with drunk factory workers is now empty, with tired-looking employees cleaning up scraps of food, spilled drinks and other things you don't want to think too much about.
  3315. >Once again the smell assaults your nostrils, but luckily Huge quickly leads you to a door in the back, nodding to a barmare on the way, and into a courtyard.
  3316. >The area your find yourself is evidently a parking space where travelling guests can store their wagons.
  3317. >You follow Huge to the one belonging to his group.
  3318. >He climbs up the stairs in the back and unlocks the door.
  3319. >"I'll check if there's anything missing in here. Could you do me a favor and check out the wheels and axles for damage?"
  3320. >"Sure."
  3321. >You put down your bags next to the wagon and get to work, slowly walking around it and examining it.
  3322. >To be honest, you are not really sure just what you are looking for, but there are no obvious damages, and since Huge trusts a newcomer like you with this work, you suspect that this is all there is to it.
  3323. >Still, better safe than sorry.
  3324. >"Hey, Huge," you shout out towards the wagon's door, "anything you want me to look for in particular?"
  3325. >Your companion pokes his head out of the window towards you.
  3326. >"Not really. Just look for damages in the wood. Oh, and while you are at it, have alook at the nails and screws down there. Sometimes ponies get a kick out of loosening those."
  3327. >With that, he disappears back into the wagon and you poke your head back under the wagon.
  3328. >Somehow, now that you are aware of the danger, you can just imagine a drunk coming out here and sabotaging some carts for a laugh with his friends.
  3329. >Still, everything seems to be alright with the cart.
  3330. >You stretch your neck and crawl a bit further down to get a last good look at the axle.
  3331. >"Found anything?"
  3332. >The sudden voice behind you makes you jump and almost hit your head on the cart's underside.
  3333. >"Damn it, Huge," you curse as you crawl out from under it, "don't sneak up on me like that."
  3334. >You pull yourself back up on your hooves.
  3335. >"And no, I didn't find anything. As far as I can tell, everything is as it should be down there."
  3336. >"Then that is good enough for me."
  3337. >Huge is grinning again, without a doubt at having made you jump, and you don't like that one bit.
  3338. >Still, your conversation is brought to an end when the noise of the door leading from the bar to the courtyard reaches your ears and makes you turn.
  3339. >It's Finey, propping up Mint and leading him towards the card.
  3340. >As she passes you, she mouthes a "good morning" towards you, and Huge leans in to tell her in a hushed tone that the cart is ready to go.
  3341. >She nods at that, and Mint winces as if even Huge's whispering is enough to make his headache flare up.
  3342. >Finey whispers an instruction back to Huge, who gives an ironic salute, then she helps her husband into the cart.
  3343. >As he passes you, the smell of old alcohol wafts back into your nostrils, almost as bad as it had been in the bar today.
  3344. >Once it is safe to speak without torturing Mint, Huge turns back towards you.
  3345. >"Seems like he is still a bit under the weather. Still, we have to get going. If you could help me get strapped in here, we can get back on the road.
  3346.  
  3347. >Helping Huge is an easy feat, and soon you find yourself on the road again.
  3348. >You are walking besides him in front of the cart and enjoying the good weather and the fresh morning air.
  3349. >When you entered the cart to store your bags, the smell of Mint had been almost unbearable.
  3350. >You had asked Finey wether she was sure that he was alright, but she had been adamant of getting back on their travels, so you had decided to avoid the insides of the cart at least until Mints headaches subsided (and hopefully his smell cleared up).
  3351. >Besides you, Huge is smiling again as if laughing at a joke only he knows the punchline to.
  3352. >"You seem pretty amused by something. Care to let me in on the joke?"
  3353. >"Oh it's nothing, really. Just thinking about how you jumped under the cart this morning."
  3354. >"Still grinning about that? What's so funny about it?"
  3355. >Huge shrugs, but the grin prevails.
  3356. >"Can't really say. I guess you just don't seem like a pony who is easily startled."
  3357. >"Oh, please. Anypony would be startled by you sneaking up like that.
  3358. >"I didn't really sneak at all. I mean, does that happen often?"
  3359. >Huge goes on, and you groan in annoyance.
  3360. >"Leave it be, Huge."
  3361. >"I mean is that how it happened? Did you jump up an knick your hor-"
  3362. >You swivel around.
  3363. >"What did you just say," you growl.
  3364. >Once again, Huge looks like a colt caught with the hoof in the cookie jar.
  3365. >"Fizz, I didn't mean it. It was a joke..."
  3366. >He trails off as he sees your expression.
  3367. >"Don't go there, Huge," you manage to press out from behind gritted teeth, "ever again."
  3368. >He nods, ears flattened against his skull and a shocked expression on his face.
  3369. >You are still fuming.
  3370. >It's as if everything is just some kind of joke to this guy.
  3371. >Your good mood is ruined.
  3372. >"Fizz, I am sorry," comes a voice from your right.
  3373. >"Really, I got carried away. It's just that you seem to manage so well, I thought you would be OK with a joke and"
  3374. >You stop him with a raised hoof.
  3375. >"I don't want to hear it, Huge. I really don't. Just don't mention this," you point at your horn-stump, "in any way if I didn't give you the go ahead, and if I tell you to let a subject go, let it go, and we will be fine. Got it?"
  3376. >He nods again.
  3377. >"Good. Then this never happened, and I don't want to hear any sort of apology or other mention of it again."
  3378.  
  3379. >For a while, you keep trotting along in silence.
  3380. >At times you catch yourself observing Huge from the corner of your eye.
  3381. >The large stallion seems to be lost in thought, an expression of absentminded vacancy on his face.
  3382. >Finally, he speaks up once again.
  3383. >"You know, I don't think I've ever asked you where you are from."
  3384. >The statement is obviously meant as a question, and part of you feels relieved by the end of the awkward silence.
  3385. >You can tolerate small-talk as long as you can engage in it on your terms.
  3386. >In fact, you might be able to get some useful information out of your companion that way.
  3387. >"I come from up north, you know, mountains, snow, all that jazz."
  3388. >You try to make it sound as nochalant and uninterested as possible.
  3389. >Wouldn't want him asking for specifics.
  3390. >"I've never been that far up north," Huge muses, "And I don't think I would want to. Isn't it terribly cold year round?"
  3391. >Just for a moment, you think that he might be testing you, poking for holes in your story.
  3392. >But you can't keep thinking like that.
  3393. >As much as you hate to admit it to yourself, Finey was right about your stubborn distrust.
  3394. >So you just shrug and carry on.
  3395. >"Depends on the year, of course, but in general we have pretty cold winds coming down the mountains."
  3396. >Huge nods, as if you confirmed something you suspected.
  3397. >"I can imagine. But what about other stuff up there? I mean, Yetis and so on?"
  3398. >"Yetis?"
  3399. >Of course you don't remember any Yetis, except for the one you vagueley recall making up in the story you told your "friends" in Ponyville, but you know very well that that doesn't have to mean anything.
  3400. >But perhaps this is your opportunity.
  3401. >"Can't say I have ever seen one. Actually, I think they are not much more than a legend. But," you step a bit closer to him, "We actually have stories about something similar further south. You know, Ape-like creature, walks on two legs, all that stuff, but almost completely hairless. Ever see something like that on your tours?"
  3402. >Once more Huge looks almost lost in thought, before he shakes his head.
  3403. >"No, not something that. But there are several bipedal races in the Borderlands down south. The ones I've seen look more like fish or frogs, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of something like that living down there.
  3404. >You feel an odd mixture of excitement and disappointment.
  3405. >Of course you hadn't exspected Huge to just point you in the direction of the next camp of the apes, but hearing that the travelling stallion had never met one of the creatures still didn't help you in finding out just why you seem so ... traumatized? influenced? by them.
  3406. >But on the other hoof, at least now you have a lead on creatures of similar build.
  3407. >Perhaps the inhabitants of the Borderlands could give you something more substantial.
  3408. >"Will we pass through there on this trip?"
  3409. >"If the winds don't get too bad, we will. We usually stop at the Last Rest, a sort of trader's town not too deep in the desert. It's a rough place, but you and me, we will handle it, right?"
  3410. >"Damn right we will."
  3411. >And then you will see just where you will go from there.
  3412.  
  3413. >But it's still several weeks until you reach the borderlands, and so in the evening you find yourself sitting around the campfire with your companions, eating a stew Finey made from roots and vegetables she gathered near your campsite and talking to your companions.
  3414. >Even Mint had come out, still looking miserable, but at least able to walk on his own again.
  3415. >When he sees you, he seems surprised at first, but soon there is a small smile on his face.
  3416. >"Good to see that you decided to tag along, Fizz."
  3417. >You nod, unsure of what to say.
  3418. >Admitting that it wasn't exactly a decision, but more of a realization that you didn't have another choice might not be that good of an idea.
  3419. >"It's good to be here."
  3420. >Mint opens his Mouth to say something, but instead of words, there comes a slimy coughing fit.
  3421. >As Finey comforts him, he coughs out a wad of slime that lands in the campfire and bursts into flames on the spot.
  3422. >Just how much did that stallion drink last night?
  3423. >"S-Sorry that you have to see this," Mint rasps to the group, still reeling.
  3424. >"I really overdid it this time. I t-think I better head back to bed."
  3425. >As he stands up, he almost stumbles into the fire.
  3426. >Finey manages to catch him just in time and excuses herself as she leads him back into the wagon, leaving you alone with Huge.
  3427. >"Is he always that bad?"
  3428. >Huge shakes his head.
  3429. >"No, that's a first. I've never seen him in such a condition. I just hope that he's over it by tomorrow."
  3430. >"Would be good. I mean, did you see him almost fall down just now? I bet if he fell into the fire he would just have burst into flames with all the alcohol in his system."
  3431. >"And what would we do without our fearless leader, right?"
  3432. >"You tell me, you have been doing this a whole lot longer. What DOES he actually do when he isn't black-out drunk?"
  3433. >"Well, he's the one that has the contacts and plans our route. And he's the founder and face of the company, of course."
  3434. >"So he doesn't actually do anything."
  3435. >"I wouldn't go quite that far..."
  3436. >Huge turns to pick up some of the dishes that have been left standing around the campfire.
  3437. >"... but you might have a point. Help me take these down to the creek?"
  3438.  
  3439. >After washing the dishes, you begin to settle in for the night.
  3440. >A sleeping bag Finey gives you and a blanket make for a comfortable bed near the campfire.
  3441. >The slowly setting sun bathes your small camp by the roadside into an orange glow you can't help but marvel at.
  3442. >You really must've spent too much time underground if a sunset on the surface can inspire such awe, you tell yourself, but still smile at the sight.
  3443. >Maybe you can use the fading light to get some more reading done.
  3444. >You cringe a little at the memories of your captivity and escape as you pull the book on martial arts you took with you.
  3445. >Huge looks at you curiously from his sleeping place on the coachstallions bench as you flick through the pages.
  3446. >"What are you reading?"
  3447. >"Just some book."
  3448. >You hold the open book up so that he can get a look at the pages.
  3449. >"The thing is, there are a lot of illustrations and not all that much text. Reading myself to sleep with this one might be harder than I thought."
  3450. >"Do you mind if take a look?"
  3451. >"Go ahead."
  3452. >Huge carefully takes the book from your outstretched hoof and takes a look at the pages, before closing it and taking a look at the cover.
  3453. >"The fighting styles of the Steppolian monks and their applications? Sounds interesting enough."
  3454. >He opens the book again and you see his eyes dart around as he starts reading.
  3455. >"Have you read the foreword, Fizz? The author claims that if you use the techniques of the steppolian monks, you can, and I quote, overcome any attacker, regardless of built and size. Can you believe that?"
  3456. >"I can't say. I only ever did some of the muscle training and warm up exercises. Never really got around to the "martial" part."
  3457. >"Why don't we try to figure it out for ourselves?"
  3458. >"Excuse me, what?"
  3459. >"You heard me."
  3460. >That stupid grin is back on Huge's face as he tosses you back the book.
  3461. >"You said yourself that reading yourself to sleep won't work with this, but some sport should do the trick. We still have light, and we will be on the road for quite some time more. So why don't we start a training programme?"
  3462. >Huge is making sense, but you are still not convinced entirely.
  3463. >"What's with your injured back? Won't that be a hindrance?"
  3464. >Huge just laughes as he walks off into the middle of the clearing:
  3465. >"In some ways you are just like Finey, you know that? I already told the two of you, it's really not that bad. Now, are you coming or what?"
  3466. >"Alright, alright," you reply as you stand up and take the book. "Just don't overdo it. I would hate to hurt a cripple."
  3467. >"That's rich, coming from you."
  3468. >For just a moment, the rage is back.
  3469. >But then the voice of reason prevails.
  3470. >It might not have been the best joke, but you know that A)Huge didn't mean it and B) you set yourself up perfectly for this one.
  3471. >So why ruin the evening over this.
  3472. >"I guess I deserved that. But I'll show you what a cripple can do, big boy," you jokingly threaten as you join him in the makeshift arena of the roadside meadow.
  3473.  
  3474. >Your training session ends about an hour and a half later, with both Huge and yourself too exhausted to continue your "fight" in any meaningful way.
  3475. >Of course Huge had been right, the techniques you had tried out hadn't enabled you to overpower him.
  3476. >But those had been beginner's techniques, and they had been enough to throw him off balance a few times.
  3477. >Who knows how far you'll come if you keep up your training regime on the road?
  3478. >Speaking of which, for now, you are gettin ready to get back on the road again.
  3479. >Appearantly, this afternoon your little caravan will reach a village Mint wants to supply with metalware he bought at another town.
  3480. >Supply and demand, and all that.
  3481. >As long as he doesn't scare off potential customers with his stink of alcohol, everything should be fine.
  3482. >You are down by the stream, brushing your teeth and washing when Mint joins you.
  3483. >"Morning, Fizz," he mumbles as he walks up next to you.
  3484. >"Morning Mint. Back on your hooves again?"
  3485. >The green stallion takes a mouth full of water and gargles with it.
  3486. >"More or less. I am still ab bit wobbly on my legs. I wouldn't be surprised if some run-off from the factory got into the cider or something like that."
  3487. >"That wouldn't surprise me in that town."
  3488. >Or he was just flat-out drunk and is fishing for excuses.
  3489. >"I don't think I've told you that I am glad to have you aboard yet."
  3490. >"You did, actually. Yesterday evening."
  3491. >Mint seems a bit taken aback by the reply, but continues none the less.
  3492. >"I did, eh? I am sorry, but I am afraid I wasn't all there at the time. Now, Finey told me that she had negotiated for you to come along, but I would still like to get to know you a bit better. Would you be up for a little, well, let's call it employer-employee-talk later today?"
  3493. >"Sure, I don't have anything to hide."
  3494. >"I don't think that you have anything to hide, Fizz. I just want to get to know you a bit better."
  3495. >He takes a last look at his reflexion in the water.
  3496. >"Do you think I look presentable?"
  3497. >"Like a whole new stallion."
  3498. >"You know, I am never quite sure if you're being sarcastic or not."
  3499. >"Well, at least in this case I can tell you that I am being genuine. Seriously, yesterday you looked like a walking corpse. If you compare that to now, you sure cleaned up nicely."
  3500. >"Just why do I feel that this is a backhoofed compliment?"
  3501. >Before you can answer, a smile creeps up on his face.
  3502. >"Hey, relax. I know what you meant."
  3503. >As he walks back towards your camp, he turns around one last time.
  3504. >"Talk to you later."
  3505. >You really could do without that.
  3506.  
  3507. >Your hope that Mint might forget about your "appointment" gets crushed when he calls for you to join him on the coachstallion's seat in the late morning.
  3508. >Huge gives you an encouraging nod as you clamber up the cart to take your seat.
  3509. >Once you are seated, your Boss speaks up.
  3510. >"Everything alright so far?"
  3511. >Did he really call you up here for this kind of small talk?
  3512. >"Sure. Huge and I get along fine, and the stuff he tells me to do isn't all that hard. But that's not really all you wanted to know, is it?"
  3513. >"No, not really. You see, my wife told me about her talk with you. It's clear that you have been through a lot. I just want to make sure that I am not putting my family and best friend in danger by taking you along."
  3514. >The admission takes you aback.
  3515. >"Don't you think that if I were to pull some shady stuff, I would have done so already when you were drunk out of your mind? I mean, no offense, but I think I would have had pretty good c..."
  3516. >"No, no, no."
  3517. >Quick stops you before you can really get started on your rant.
  3518. >"I am not saying that YOU yourself are the danger, but put yourself into my situation here. The first time I come around you, a lone traveller in the middle of nowhere, you act all nervous, even refusing to come with us despite us going into the same direction. The next time we meet, you are half-starved and decide to come along after all, and with all the stuff you told Finey..."
  3519. >He sighs.
  3520. >"I just want to know wether you are on the run from somebody or something I need to know about. Now don't take it as me accusing you of anything, but is there anything I should know about?"
  3521. >Is there?
  3522. >You doubt that the Diamond Dogs are still looking for you.
  3523. >If Quick reported you as missing there might be guards looking for you, but it doesn't seem like the Equestrian government has a lot of influence out here.
  3524. >Would they even still be looking for a missing pony after over a year?
  3525. >"No... no, I don't think there is anything."
  3526. >Mint nods, although he still doens't seem entirely convinced.
  3527. >"That's good to know."
  3528. >You turn to leave, and you are already walking back towards Huge, when Mint calls out once more.
  3529. >"If you ever want to talk about something, we'll all be here for you."
  3530. >Giving a dismissive wave, you  return to your place besides the larger stallion.
  3531. >Seems like Mint is just as nosy as his wife.
  3532. >Huge greets you with a slightly worried look.
  3533. >"Did everything go alright back there?"
  3534. >"I'd like to think so."
  3535. >A glance over your shoulder reveals Mint quickly looking away from you.
  3536. >Not quick enough though.
  3537. >"But I have a feeling that there might be further questions down the road."
  3538.  
  3539. >You reach your destination for the day in the late afternoon.
  3540. >As you come closer to the "town", if it even deserves the moniker, you quickly realize that there isn't a whole lot to it.
  3541. >Seemingly randomly scattered houses and huts on the outskirts of a swamp, a few boats tied to trees at the water's edge.
  3542. >"Mint really thinks that he'll find any buyers here? I am not even convinced they know what a monetary system is out here."
  3543. >Huge snickers.
  3544. >"Really doesn't look like much, does it? But I've learned to trust Mint on such things. He always manages to set up some good deals for us."
  3545. >You are not entirely convinced, and entering the village itself doesn't do a whole lot to change your mind.
  3546. >The wood of the crooked houses looks perpetually wet, and the few ponies you see on the street seem even more hostile than those in the last town.
  3547. >You even see a few spitting on the ground as you pass them.
  3548. >"Doesn't seem to be the most welcoming crowd," you voice your observations.
  3549. >"The marshsettlers are certainly living up to their reputation. We visited another village of theirs on our last trip, but it wasn't as bad."
  3550. >You continue walking in silence until Huge shrugs.
  3551. >"In the end, it doesn't really matter wether they like us or not. If they want their tools, they will have to buy them from us."
  3552. >Or they could decide to get them some other way.
  3553. >Who would even miss a few travelling merchants?
  3554. >You keep those thoughts to yourself as you help setting up the camp.
  3555. >The town turned out to not even have a tavern your little group could stay in, and so you make yourselves as comfortable as possible in a little grove on the outskirsts of the village.
  3556. >A good part of the night is spent awake, eyes straining to make out the houses a few dozen metres away from you.
  3557. >You'll be damned if you let those crazy swampfolk rob you or worse.
  3558. >Finally, you fall asleep in the early hours of the morning.
  3559.  
  3560. >The next day, you become witness to what borders on a miracle.
  3561. >As soon as the stand is open, villagers come swarming.
  3562. >And they don't even seem disgusted with your presence.
  3563. >In fact, quite a lot of them are smiling.
  3564. >Mint is standing behind the stall, serving as an odd, yet effective mixture of salespony and entertainer.
  3565. >He praises his wares, jokes with the customers, listens to their questions and small talk, always a friendly smile on his face and an encouraging comment ready.
  3566. >Sometimes, you can make out what they are talking about even back at the cart, where Huge and you busy yourselves with minor repairs of the wheels.
  3567. >From what you are able to make out, the peat extraction has been going poorly for a while now, and with the new tools, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for this community.
  3568. >"He's good, right?" Huge asks, looking up from his work.
  3569. >"Shockingly so."
  3570. >It's the first time you get to see Mint in business-mode, and it's honestly a bit disturbing to seem him turn the villagers from all but openly hostile to friendly customers.
  3571.  
  3572. >The next stretch of your journey starts blurring together as routine sets in.
  3573. >You spend most of your days helping and talking to Huge, then setting up camp, eating and training until you almost fall asleep standing up.
  3574. >And in whatever town you pass through, you can watch Mint conduct business with the same odd charisma that seems to posses him when it comes to trading.
  3575. >All in all, there is an not unpleasant sense of boredom to your travel.
  3576. >Until one day, you reach the top of a hill and see it.
  3577. >There, in the distance, almost on the edge of the horizon: An almost white expanse, as far as the eye can see.
  3578. >The Desert.
  3579. >The Borderlands.
  3580. >You are finally one step closer to figuring out just what is wrong with you.
  3581. >It isn't until almost three days later that you finally set hoof into the desert.
  3582. >Despite the new climate, you manage to cover a good distance per day.
  3583. >At least that's what you think, after the edge of the desert was no longer in sight, landmarks became kind of scarce.
  3584. >Huge doesn't seem to take to the desert as well as the rest of your group, though.
  3585. >Appearantly the heat causes his old back injury to rear its ugly head, and so you pull the cart alongside him.
  3586. >Of course, he had protested and claimed that it wasn't so bad, but you saw the way he grimaced whenever there was another dune to scale, and how his back twitched from time to time.
  3587. >And since friends don't let friends hurt themselves, it had been no question that you would come to his aid.
  3588. >As you come down from another dune that had made Huge grit his teeth despite your best efforts to relieve him, you see something in the distance.
  3589. >A big, swirly cloud that steadily grows bigger.
  3590. >"Huge, we got a sandstorm headed our way."
  3591. >You are already busy unhitching yourself to get into the cover of the cart, when you hear Huge say it.
  3592. >"That's no sandstorm."
  3593.  
  3594. >While you are still looking at it, the cloud continues to grow visibly bigger.
  3595. >Or it's just closing in really fast.
  3596. >"So what is it?," you ask, but you don't get a response as Huge has already freed himself from his yoke and is on his way to the cart's entrance.
  3597. >"Come on, get in!" he shouts.
  3598. >As if his behavior wasn't motivation enough.
  3599. >You unhitch yourself as quickly as possible and join your compatriots in the wagon.
  3600. >As soon as you step through the door into the cramped interior, Huge slams the door shut behind you.
  3601. >The insides of the cart have always been a weird mixture of living space and storage area, and with all four of you in it, there isn't a whole lot of room for movement.
  3602. >Still, that doesn't stop the others from frantically stumbling around, double checking ever nook and cranny while talking amongst each other.
  3603. >"Have you checked the windows?"
  3604. >"Of course, all closed. What about the floor? Any holes I need to cover?"
  3605. >"Doesn't seem like it. The walls look good as well."
  3606. >Only now, with that final confirmation, a sense of calm returns.
  3607. >Finey and Mint lie down on their bed, nuzzling each other reassuringly, while Huge sits down on a stack of bags.
  3608. >"There's nothing left on the outside, Mint," he tells his employer, "Everthing should be taken care of."
  3609. >"So we should be safe to wait it out. I would really hate to lose business down there again if the winds don't let up. It was bad enough last year."
  3610. >His wife whispers something, and he gives some more reassurances that everything will work out, but you aren't really satisfied with that.
  3611. >"So what are we taking shelter from? Huge said it wasn't a sandstorm, so what is it?"
  3612. >"The locals call them the Wormwinds," Mint explains.
  3613. >"You know how swarms of insects can sometimes ruin whole stretches of land? This is something similar."
  3614. >His wife lifts her head from the nape of his neck to look up at you as she elaborates.
  3615. >"These creatures are called Nestspinnerworms. They are harmless, some say pretty even, but also a plague in this area. You see, they try to repurpose any material they can get their little mouths on to build their nests. Cloth, fur, paper, parchment, even soft leather sometimes. They eat it all and render it down to create the materials to spin their webs."
  3616. >She scoots closer to her husband.
  3617. >"Truth be told, they creep me out a bit."
  3618. >Mint draws her closer to himself as he continues the narration.
  3619. >"These damn things cost us a whole lot of money last year when they swarmed for weeks. Any attempt to get through would have resulted in not only a good chunk of our cargo, but also our fur. And with the sun out here, that would have been as good as a death sentence."
  3620. >He knocks a hoof against the wall of the cart.
  3621. >"So I had a wooden roof installed instead of the old cloth thing. Fool me once, and all that."
  3622. >He seems awfully proud of himself.
  3623. >You realize that the noise you've heard in the background for a while now, a low, rythmic buzzing sound has grown louder.
  3624. >In fact, it barely qualifies as "background" noise anymore.
  3625. >As you step over to the window, you can clearly make out the source.
  3626. >Only a few metres in front of your face and separated from you only by the thin glass thousands of little creatures are flying by.
  3627. >The sound of untold numbers of little wings almost makes the panel vibrate.
  3628. >A few of the creatures seem to have landed on the cart and come walking over the window.
  3629. >They almost look like thick caterpillars, complete with green fuzz, but they are also sporting two sets of moth-like wings, and as they probe the window's taste, you get a good look at the fleshy tube that passes for their mouth unrolling.
  3630. >Yeah, you're with Finey on this one.
  3631. >The sooner these creatures are gone, the better.
  3632. >"So how long does it normally take until a swarm passes? Weeks can't be the norm, right?"
  3633. >"Easily a few hours, and by then it will probably be too late to continue. So make yourself comfortable, I doubt we will continue today."
  3634. >You lie down with your back against a rolled up carpet opposite from Huge.
  3635. >The prospect of spending hours in this confined area with its used-up air filled with the heat of four bodies doesn't excite you at all, but its not like you have a choice.
  3636. >What surprises you the most is that Finey and Mint dont use this opportunity to further question you about your background.
  3637. >You had spent a good part of your free time during your travels coming up with answers that were evasive, but not offensively so, and would hopefully satisfy your employers.
  3638. >But now, with the both of them busying themelves with each other, it doesn't seem like you will be able to test them.
  3639. >Is that a hint of disappointment you feel?
  3640. >At least you have someone here who you can hold a conversation with.
  3641. >But when you turn towards Huge, he has already fallen asleep.
  3642. >Is this stallion serious?
  3643. >Sure, he did tiring work, but you had helped him, and the day was far from over.
  3644. >The rythmic sound of the creatures' wings might have helped, you muse.
  3645. >It's not unlike the sound of rain outside of one's window at night, a calming reassurance that one was sheltered and warm.
  3646. >Actually, it's kind of nice.
  3647. >When Mint finally turns his attention to you to continue his questioning, he finds that you are already asleep.
  3648.  
  3649. >The rythmic noise follows you into your sleep.
  3650. >You are standing on a road again, leading through a dark valley between several of the big, grey buildings you have become accustomed to seeing in your dreams.
  3651. >As you look down, you find that it is as if you are only a pair of eyes floating in the air.
  3652. >Somehow, you are completely disembodied.
  3653. >This is new, at least.
  3654. >There are none of the bipedal creatures around this time either.
  3655. >As far as your nightmares go, this isn't so bad.
  3656. >But the noise continues, growing louder and changing.
  3657. >The rythmic buzzing sounds more and more like a metallic flapping in the sky.
  3658. >This sound means nothing good, you are sure of it.
  3659. >You turn to run, but find that you can't move.
  3660. >It is as if you were frozen in place.
  3661. >This makes sense, a voice in your mind tells you, after all, how could you run without legs?
  3662. >Shut up, voice, how am I seeing things without having a body?
  3663. >Do you even know what your body is supposed to look like anymore?
  3664. >The voice's cruel mocking is now almost drowned out by the terrifying noise, and unable to run, you do the only thing your non-body permits.
  3665. >You turn your gaze towards the sky.
  3666. >And then you see it.
  3667. >Coming over the skyline of the concrete blocks, looking like a prehistoric beast, something appears.
  3668. >At first you think it might be some kind of gigantic dragonfly, but as it gets closer, you manage to make out more details.
  3669. >It's a machine of some kind.
  3670. >There seem to be skids of some kind on the underside, and what you at first thought to be beating wings turns out to be a rotor.
  3671. >Now it seems to hover in place, and as your gaze is drawn towards the "head" of the machine, you realize that its eyes are nothing but windows.
  3672. >And behind them sit more of the hairless apes.
  3673.  
  3674. >You sit up in the dark, wide awake.
  3675. >Panting and eyes and ears darting around wildly, you try to get an overview of the situation.
  3676. >It is dark all around you, and you are lying on some hard, uncomfortable ground.
  3677. >Are you back in the tunnels?
  3678. >You clamber to your feet, ready to run at a moment's notice.
  3679. >Who knows wether the Diamond Dogs or that thing from the ruins are still after you?
  3680. >There is a sound coming from a corner not too far from you.
  3681. >It sounds alomst like breathing, a rythmic, soft sound.
  3682. >You freeze up.
  3683. >Is it getting closer to you?
  3684. >As you are standing there, frozen in place, your eyes start to get used to the darkness.
  3685. >Slowly, what were shadows moments ago become shapes, and shapes turn to objects.
  3686. >A storage locker here, a stack of bags there...
  3687. >The noise you now identify as light snoring turns out to be coming from the small bed in the far end of the cart.
  3688. >Right, you are still in the cart.
  3689. >The tunnels are a thing of the past, there's nothing to be afraid of.
  3690. >But by now you had allowed yourself the hope that those nightmares were a thing of the past as well.
  3691. >At least the terrible noise from outside is gone.
  3692. >How could you ever think that it was comforting in any way?
  3693. >Of course, there's not a whole lot of visibility outside the wagon's window, and so you slowly open the door.
  3694. >Not too fast, of course, and always ready to slam it shut as soon as the buzzing starts again.
  3695. >To your relief, it doesn't.
  3696. >You step outside and sit down in the sand next to the wagon's hindwheels.
  3697. >It's still cold out in the desert at night, but right now the fresh air makes it worth it to you.
  3698. >As you look up in the clear night sky, you are overcome with emotions.
  3699. >You feel your ears flatten and your eyes water.
  3700. >It just isn't fair.
  3701. >Will you never be free of these episodes?
  3702. >Never regain control of your magic and be able to life a normal life?
  3703. >Never remember your immediate family?
  3704. >All just because of some creature that looked like this beautiful sky come to life decided to get all territorial on you?
  3705. >No, that's not entirely true.
  3706. >It had been your own fault, really.
  3707. >You had been the one who ignored warning signs to retrieve a small colt's ball from the mine.
  3708. >Why had you even bothered?
  3709. >Of course you had wanted to see the old mine.
  3710. >It had promised a hint of adventure in your daily routine while Quick and his mentor were pursuing their experiments.
  3711. >But there must have been more to it.
  3712. >Your memories are blurred, but you are pretty sure that you had wanted to make some friends.
  3713. >And what had that brought you?
  3714. >An extensive hospitalization, crippling injuries.
  3715. >And to add insult to injury, the colt and his sister didn't even want to be your friends.
  3716. >These ungrateful little shits.
  3717. >Hell, your own uncle seemed scared of you sometimes, oddly distant at others.
  3718. >All because of your own stupidity.
  3719. >You really ruined your life there, you idiot.
  3720.  
  3721. >"Hey, Fizz," comes a soft voice from behind you, "are you alright?"
  3722. >You half turn, around, startled, and see Huge's large silhoutte standing in the doorway of the cart.
  3723. >You quickly turn away from him as he makes his way down the stairs and wipe your eyes with your fetlocks.
  3724. >No one needs to see you like this.
  3725. >"I am fine," you say without any conviction.
  3726. >Your flat voice does little to reassure your companion.
  3727. >"Are you sure? You know, you were talking in your sleep."
  3728. >Huge comes to a stop a few metres away from you, but you can still make out his worried expression.
  3729. >The poor guy is probably afraid that you will go off at him again if he gets too close to you.
  3730. >"And what was I talking about?"
  3731. >"Well, you were..."
  3732. >"Come here," you cut him off, "I can't talk to you when you are standing all the way over there."
  3733. >Huge's expression turns somewhat sheepish as he walks over to you and sits down besides you.
  3734. >"It's alright," you tell him with fake mirth that is gone as soon as it came, "I won't bite."
  3735. >"Are you sure about that?" he asks, his own attempt at lightening the mood, before continuing.
  3736. >"Anyways, at first you were only tossing and turning, but then you started mumbling. I didn't really understand all that much, but it sounded like you really wanted whatever happened in your dream to stop."
  3737. >"Hah," you scoff, "I wish it was just that."
  3738. >For a moment, the both of you are quiet as you take in the nightsky.
  3739. >"Do you remember how I asked you about the hairless apes further south?"
  3740. >"What about them?"
  3741. >"I wasn't really telling you the whole story back then."
  3742. >You don't really know why yourself, but you can't stop now.
  3743. >This is the first time you are telling anyone about what's going on in your head.
  3744. >But this is also the first time you are alone with someone you, for lack of a better word, trust.
  3745. >Huge opens his mouth, probably to ask a question, but you just keep talking over him.
  3746. >Who knows if you could get yourself to open up again if you stopped now?
  3747. >It just comes rambling out of you, fast and loud.
  3748. >"I never heard about these things anywhere. Not here and certainly not up north. I've never even been there. I have no idea why, but these creatures keep appearing in my dreams, and I just don't know why. They seem so familiar, but they scare me. And the areas I see them in make no sense either. It's all so big and uniform. All that earlier was another nightmare about them. And there was this voice again, you know? It's there most of the times, and it just keeps mocking me, reminding me that I remember almost nothing from before I got all messed up, and I just want it to STOP!"
  3749. >You are out of breath again.
  3750. >Huge is visibly taken aback.
  3751. >Still, he puts a hoof arond your shoulders and pulls you into a hug.
  3752. >A hug you return.
  3753. >It feels as if hours have passed by the time you let go of each other.
  3754. >"So you are not actually from up north?"
  3755. >How typical of him.
  3756. >You open up about your problems, and the thing he gets hung up on is such an uninmportant detail.
  3757. >Still, somehow it makes you smile, if only a little
  3758. >You shake your head.
  3759. >"At least not as far as I know. I only remember a few snippets from before," you point a hoof towards your face, "well, this. I only remember living with my uncle in Canterlot and then accompanying him on a trip to Ponyville, but nothing from before that."
  3760. >That's probably a whole lot to digest for Huge.
  3761. >"I guess while I am airing my dirty laundry, I might just as well tell you how THIS happened," you continue.
  3762. >It's quite odd, but actually talking about your problems with someone you for once feels ... good.
  3763. >There's still hurt pride, as well as a lurking fear of rejection, but you really can't keep it all bottled up anymore.
  3764. >"If you don't mind telling me," Huge says. "I mean, I know I shouldn't have made that joke back then, and I would understand if you wouldn't want to tell me."
  3765. >"No, it's fine," you insist.
  3766. >Better to let all the skeletons out of the closet in one go.
  3767. >"Animal attack. That what it boils down to. I was out in the forest with some "friends" and I was dumb enough to stumble straight into its lair. So I am sorry if that's a bit underwhelming, but that's all there is to it."
  3768. >"All there is to it?"
  3769. >Huge seems actually mad with you know, his usually docile look replaced with uncharacteristic anger.
  3770. >"Have you heard yourself talk? How can you be so flippant about something that might have killed you? Do you honestly think I just wanted some cool story? Well, listen here, Fizz. I am just happy that you made it. You have been a great help on this journey, and a great friend and I don't want to see you hurt, you got that?"
  3771. >You almost respond by questioning wether that is because it would mean that he would have to pull that cart on his own, but something makes you pause.
  3772. >Did he just actually call you a friend?
  3773. >Could somepony really like a cynical, psychologically damaged cripple like yourself?
  3774. >You mean, it's not like you don't like his company or anything.
  3775. >You enjoy your talks and daily training sessions, no questions about it.
  3776. >But as you now realize, you've just never allowed yourself to think of anyone as a friend at least since your time with the Diamond Dogs.
  3777. >The kids in Ponyville who abandoned you, Shep who kidnapped you, even your uncle who grew ever more distant...
  3778. >They had all contributed to souring the concept of friendship for you.
  3779. >"I think I have self-worth issues," you murmur.
  3780. >And once again, Huge's hoof is there to pull you closer.
  3781. >"I am afraid you might be right."
  3782. >For a while, you just sit there and watch the night sky.
  3783. >At the moment, there's nothing more you want to say, and you are thankful that Huge seems to respect that.
  3784. >The cool air and the beautiful sky do their part in helping the two of you calm down.
  3785. >It's actually quite nice being close to Huge like that.
  3786. >For the first time in a long while, you feel like you have somepony you can trust.
  3787. >"You haven't told the others about this."
  3788. >It's not a question.
  3789. >Huge is simply stating the obvious.
  3790. >"No offense to them, but I don't really want to. My drunk of a boss and his charming, yet nosy wife knowing all about me? No thanks."
  3791. >You feel the vibrations in Huge's body as he chuckles.
  3792. >"They're really not that bad, and I think you know that by now. But if you don't want them to know, my lips are sealed. But there is still something I am wondering..."
  3793. >"And that is?"
  3794. >"The ape-creatures. How do they play into all this? Was it perhaps one of them that attacked you?"
  3795. >"No, and that's what drives me crazy. The thing that attacked me was just some animal, but these things seem, you know, smart. As smart as ponies even. They wear clothes and masks, they use machines, they even talk to me. Yeah, it's all vague stuff, and most of the time I am on the run from them, but every time I wake up I feel as if I should know where I know them from."
  3796. >Huge nods sympathetically.
  3797. >"So you think you might've had some business with them in the past, but can't remember because of your injuries?"
  3798. >"Exactly. I had hoped that if I found them, that that would be the end of it. That my memories would just return, my parents, my home, everything. Sounds stupid saying it out loud, but that's what has given me hope."
  3799. >"I think it makes sense. If those things are rooted so deeply into your mind, then they might be linked to your past in some way. Perhaps a confrontation with them would really trigger some repressed memories."
  3800. >There is a surprising conviction in Huge's voice.
  3801. >Now this is a genuine surprise.
  3802. >This might be the most thoughtful conversation you've ever had with Huge.
  3803. >It's not like your usual talks were empty chit-chat, but you had alway taken him for a, well, simpler mind.
  3804. >Your surprise must've shown on your face, because now Huge is turning away from you again.
  3805. >It's hard to tell because of the darkness, but you think he might be blushing.
  3806. >"But what do I know," he says, "I just pull the cart. This is probably a case for the experts."
  3807. >"Screw the experts. They aren't here, and they sure as hell weren't helpful when I was still in their so-called care."
  3808. >"But what if you don't find these creatures?"
  3809. >That's a sore spot you'd rather kept pretending not to think about.
  3810. >Ever since you joined this little caravan, finding these two-legged beasts, or at least discovering more about them, has been your driving motivation.
  3811. >What would you do if you found them, and there were no revelations about your past?
  3812. >What if you didn't even find them?
  3813. >Would you just return to Ponyville, perhaps Canterlot, beg your uncle for forgiveness for your long absence and try to just go on living without memories?
  3814. >The same uncle who had made it clear through his behavior and inaction that you were a burden?
  3815. >Who certainly knew more about your past than he let on?
  3816. >Or would you become a permanent addition to this little business, travelling up and down the continent year after year, always in the same company?
  3817. >Sure, Huge was a good guy and perhaps your first real ... friend in a long while, but you could do without Mint's and Finey's nosiness.
  3818. >Not to mention your still missing memories.
  3819. >Neither of these options seems particularily attractive to you.
  3820. >Honestly, failure isn't really an option you even want to consider.
  3821. >What you say out loud is simply : "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."
  3822.  
  3823. >The next day sees you and Huge returned to your posts in front of the cart.
  3824. >You had spent the rest of the night sleeping outside of the stuffy wagon, and by the gods, you are feeling it.
  3825. >Sore joints, fur and mane full of sand...
  3826. >But at least no more nightmares.
  3827. >Conversation between the two of you is kept to a minimum, for a variety of reasons.
  3828. >There is the lack of sleep, sure.
  3829. >And you don't want Mint, who is sitting on the coachpony's seat to overhear your talk.
  3830. >But mostly, for the moment, all that had to be said, has been said.
  3831. >By the late afternoon, you can finally make out the Last Rest in the distance.
  3832. >The town's sandstone structures loom over the dunes in a way that makes you mistake them for natural rock formations at first.
  3833. >As you get closer, you see a small group of figures leave the town's gate and head towards you.
  3834. >At first, they are nothing but dark shapes.
  3835. >But as your parties near each other, you soon realize that your welcome committee appearantly consists of bipedal creatures.
  3836. >A shudder runs down your spine.
  3837. >Of course you know that these aren't the creatures from your nightmares.
  3838. >The proportions are all wrong.
  3839. >No these, must be the creatures of the borderlands Huge had told you about.
  3840. >Your suspicion is confirmed once they shout for you to stop as they close in.
  3841. >The locals look like something you would find in a pond.
  3842. >Broad, frog-like mouths, huge protruding eyes, scaly, wet-seeming skin and webbed fingers.
  3843. >You almost wonder why creatures like these even survive in this dry climate.
  3844. >But the spears the creatures carry demand most of your attention.
  3845. >"What do you want here?" Their leader croaks at Mint, who climbs down from his seat to speak to the group.
  3846. >The leader is an ugly creature, even by the standards of his group.
  3847. >He looks as if a toad discovered the secret to walking upright, a fat body with a wide, almost neck-less head carried upon long legs with huge feet.
  3848. >When he speaks, it sounds as if his throat is filled with phlegm, and his skin glistens with some kind of natural wetness.
  3849. >But Mint just treats him like any other business partner.
  3850. >You don't manage to overhear what they are talking about as they are walking off for their conversation, but going by Mint's smile he is turning the charme all the way up.
  3851. >You really hope that whatever he is trying to do here succeeds.
  3852. >The prospect of trying your martial arts training in a real combat situation against multiple armed opponents for the first time isn't something you are looking forward to.
  3853.  
  3854. >To your relief, Mint soon turns to return to the cart, while the toad croaks calls his subordinates back.
  3855. >The sense of relief is immediately damaged, however, when you see just how shaken Mint looks.
  3856. >"Follow them to the town," He tells Huge. "We'll stay the night, and then we are out of here."
  3857. >"Is everything alright?" Huge asks, but Mint is already halfway back up on his seat.
  3858. >"I'll tell you there," he tells the two of you over his shoulder, "I need to alter our route."
  3859. >As you follow the armed amphibians towards the town, Huge and you have some time to speculate just what is going on.
  3860. >Huge puts forward the idea that the swarm of worms destroyed the town's stock of goods Mint planned to trade for, but you aren't convinced.
  3861. >Why would they send out armed guards if that was the case?
  3862. >The closer you get to the town, the more you get the feeling that this is about something bigger.
  3863. >There are more locals hanging around the outskirts of town, and as you pass them you notice that they are all armed in one way or another and busying themselves with building barricades.
  3864. >Everyone seems on edge, and more than one suspicious stare turns to downright hostility.
  3865. >The swamp was downright friendly compared to this.
  3866. >Following Mint's directions, the two of you pull the cart into the backyard of a nondescript sandstone building that appearantly holds the local travelling inn.
  3867. >While he enters the building alongside Finey to take care of business, Huge and you unhitch yourselves from the cart and check for any damages incurred in the desert.
  3868. >Once you have assured yourselves that everything is alright, you grab your bags and join the rest of your group indoors.
  3869. >To your surprise, the tavern is the nicest looking you have seen in a long while.
  3870. >Carpets hanging from the walls make it a bit too stuffy for your taste, but you can't argue with the sheer cleanliness of it all.
  3871. >The wooden tables and chairs all glisten as if their wood has been freshly polished, and the floor looks like you could eat from it.
  3872. >To be fair, all this might be simply the result of a lack of customers.
  3873. >Because, as you notice as you make your way over to the table already occupied by Mint and Finey, the four of you are the only guests.
  3874. >The bartender, another toad-person, seems just as on edge as the other inhabitants of the town you have seen so far, his eyes constantly darting from your group to the door and back.
  3875. >"So just what is going on here?" you ask as you sit yourself down opposite the already seated couple.
  3876. >Finey looks almost offended by the direct question, but that doesn't stop her husband.
  3877. >"First off, let me tell you guys that I am sorry for having gotten us into that situation, but..."
  3878. >"Mint," Huge cuts him off, "would you mind telling us just what the situation looks like, first?"
  3879. >Now Mint seems almost hurt.
  3880. >He looks from Huge to you, then back again, before visibly slumping down in his seat.
  3881. >"Long story short? Word is The Storm King is on his way here. Appearantly, messagers were sent out to warn travellers and ask for help."
  3882. >"Are you serious? Then why didn't we meet any of them?"
  3883. >Mint looks downright miserable by now.
  3884. >Seriously. if his ears were pressed down any harder, they would probably leave dents in his skull.
  3885. >"I don't know, Huge. My best guess is that they got caught in that damn swarm and either lost their orientation or worse. Anyways, we aren't staying. We leave early tomorrow, and hopefully that will be the end of it for us. I hate losing business like this, but it's simply not worth the risk."  
  3886. >Your group eats dinner in an almost complete grim silence, and it doesn't take long for the four of you to withdraw into your respective rooms.
  3887. >But not for long.
  3888. >It is still far too early to go to bed, and there are still some questions you would've liked answered.
  3889. >You soon find yourself knocking on Huge's door.
  3890. >From the looks of it, he had been busying himself with his luggage when you came over, but he lets you in nonetheless.
  3891. >"I hope I am not interrupting anything," you start off with a glance at his bags, "but there were some things I wanted to ask you."
  3892. >"Yeah? Sure, come in."
  3893. >"So," you ask once the both of you are seated, "just who is this Storm King? It seemed like I should know about him, so I kept quiet back there."
  3894. >"The Storm King is, well, a warlord, really. Appearantly, he has a pretty big area under his control even further down south. There have been rumors of him wanting to expand the last time we passed through here. Word is he haas a bone to pick with Equestria, that's why we are going to get out of here as soon as possible."
  3895. >"In that case, I am surprised we didn't pass any refugees on our way here. I guess it doesn't matter all that much to most of the population here what toad they swear fealty to."
  3896. >"Actually, the Storm King and his people don't belong to the same species as the natives here. There haven't been a whole lot of reports coming out of his territory, at least not the kind that's available to just anypony, but as far as we know they are really more ape-like than anything."
  3897. >You are thunderstruck.
  3898. >A species of ape-creatures at odds with Equestria?
  3899. >This might just be the hint you have been looking for.
  3900. >Still, this just brings you to another question...
  3901. >"Why haven't you been telling me this earlier? When I specifically asked for creatures like the ones you just told me about?"
  3902. >You try to keep your anger suppressed, but you feel it rising within you.
  3903. >Why had he kept information from you?
  3904. >Had you been wrong to trust him?
  3905. >Huge recoils at your almost snarling expression.
  3906. >"Easy there, Fizz. I didn't think of them when you asked me, ok? I simply went over the creatures I had seen for myself. And hadn't you asked about hairless apes? As far as I know, the Storm King and his cronies have fur."
  3907. >He is making sense, you guess.
  3908. >Seems like the Storm King isn't at the forefront of everypony's mind, and impression that is reinforced by the fact that you only heard about him today.
  3909. >And perhaps you had been to specific when you asked Huge about the things from your nightmares.
  3910. >"I am sorry."
  3911. >"Excuse me, what?"
  3912. >"Come on Huge, don't make this any harder than it has to be."
  3913. >You give him a careful smile.
  3914. >"I said that I am sorry. You know, for going off on you again."
  3915. >"So we are good?"
  3916. >For some reason, that question stings a little.
  3917. >"Sure, we are good."
  3918. >You shake hooves for good measure.
  3919. >"So," Huge asks with a small, still somewhat nervous laugh, "do you have any more questions?"
  3920. >You shake your head.
  3921. >"No, not right now. Come on, let's get out of here. I need some fresh air to cool my head."
  3922.  
  3923. >Walking through the town, you get the distinct impression that once the Storm King arrives, the resistance will crumble quickly.
  3924. >Sure, there are armed citizens building barricades and digging trenches, but you catch even these supposed die-hards staring out into the desert inbetween each stacked sandbag.
  3925. >Whoever is organizing this attempt at resistance is certainly no trained military man, and neither are the poorly armed toadpeople you pass on your way.
  3926. >At your insistence, Huge tells you more about the rumors going around about the Storm King: That his army is bigger than most others on the continent, that he has magic powers that allow him to control the weather better than any Pegasus, that his forces are technologically advanced and use flying warmachines...
  3927. >There are other points that follow these, but they are mostly overshadowed by the flying machines.
  3928. >As far as Huge knows, not even the Equestrian Royal Guard uses machines this advanced on such a scale.
  3929. >Could that be what you had seen in your last dream?
  3930. >Perhaps your lie of you being from the North had been an almost ironic inversion, and you are actually from way down South?
  3931. >You notice a poster hanging from a building's wall and take a look.
  3932. >On it, there's a drawing of a giant figure which you assume is supposed to be the Storm King stepping out of the desert into what appear to be the outskirts of an Oasis.
  3933. >He is covered in something that could be either ragged fur or some kind of coat, snarling at the viewer as he holds a helpless toad-lady in one hand, a dangerous-looking jagged scepter in the other.
  3934. >Well, depicting the enemy as some kind of beast is one of the oldest tricks of propaganda.
  3935. >And propaganda this is, the inscription "Stop this crazy thug! Volunteer!" leaves no doubt.
  3936. >Just who printed this, you wonder.
  3937. >And where will they be by the time the Storm King arrives?
  3938. >Besides the half-hearted preparations, the town has little to offer the passer-through.
  3939. >It's not like the threat of imminent invasion is a reason to close down all shops in town, right?
  3940. >You are sure that Mint would scoff at such un-businessminded thinking.
  3941. >With nothing else to do, Huge and you finally find yourselves at the outskirts of town going through your usual training programme.
  3942. >But while your body is doing its best to counter Huge's attacks by itself, your mind is still wandering.
  3943. >Of course it doesn't take too long until he notices your absentmindedness, and so you find yourself brought back to the present when, after an especiall hard throw lays you out on your back, Huge looms over you.
  3944. >"Are you alright, Fizz? Usually I get almost no swings in anymore, but today you are just taking it."
  3945. >"I am fine," you lie as you spit out half a mouthful of sand.
  3946. >But that's not the whole truth.
  3947. >And perhaps, Huge deserves the whole thing.
  3948. >You've been more open with him than anypony else so far.
  3949. >"I've been thinking, Huge. I don't think that I'll be coming with you tomorrow."
  3950. >"What? Why would you not..."
  3951. >A range of emotions passes over Huge's features as he seems to arrive at the conclusion of just why you don't want to come along any further.
  3952. >"You want to stay here and wait for the Storm King?"
  3953. >You nod and attempt to start an explanation, but for once you are the one being talked over.
  3954. >"Are you actually crazy? You want to stay in some desert hole to take a glance at an infamous warlord, who just so happens to hate your country, just on the off chance that it does something for your memories? I can't believe that that's what you've been thinking about, because then you would have probably realized that even if this were to work, you would still be trapped in the desert, in an occupied town, all on your own!"
  3955. >"I can take care of myself!" you snap back. "What do you think I've been doing before I met your little company? I am used to living through stuff like that! There are a few dozen Diamond Dogs under a cave-in in the mountains who can attest to that!"
  3956. >Without even noticing it, you have gone back into your combat stance.
  3957. >"Don't try to force me to come with you, Huge. I never signed a contract with your people. My little stint with you guys is over when I say it's over, and that's now!"
  3958. >"I am not trying to force you to do anything," Huge shouts back, heated as well, "I am trying to appeal to your reason. What you are planning to do is nothing short of suicide, can't you see that?"
  3959. >You are hurt.
  3960. >Deeply so.
  3961. >Is it because he's perhaps...right, and you just don't want to admit that your hopes were a pipe dream?
  3962. >No, that can't be it.
  3963. >It's his betrayal.
  3964. >Of course, that's gotta be it.
  3965. >You came clean with him, opened yourself up to him as much as you were comfortable with and then a bit further.
  3966. >Shouldn't he know just how important this is to you?
  3967. >Shouldn't he support you, try to help you however he can?
  3968. >Stay with you perhaps?
  3969. >And instead he tries to stop you.
  3970. >Stop you from reaching your life's goal.
  3971. >Insults you and calls you crazy.
  3972. >Rain in the desert?
  3973. >Is the Storm King here already?
  3974. >No, the sudden wetness is coming from your own eyes.
  3975. >"I am warning you, Huge, stay were you are."
  3976. >Your voice sounds odd to you, high pitched and somewhat choked.
  3977. >You hate it.
  3978. >But it still fulfills its purpose, Huge stays still as you back away from him, an anguished expression on his face.
  3979. >He really does his best to make this as hard on you as he can.
  3980. >Damn him.
  3981. >"Fizz..."
  3982. >Huge tries to take a step forward, but a warning flash of magic from your horn stops him in his tracks.
  3983. >You haven't used your horn in quite a while, and the flash of pain that shoots through your skull almost makes you double over, but you manage to stay on your hooves.
  3984. >The street you now step back onto has several smaller gutters branching of from it, and you make your way towards one of these without taking your eyes off Huge.
  3985. >With all the fluid in your eyes, he isn't much more than a blurry shape in the distance.
  3986. >"Fizz!" the shape calls out once more, and you can't take it anymore.
  3987. >A few quick steps, and you are in one of the small alleys, running almost blind, following turns here and there.
  3988. >Finally, you come to a stop in a backyard at the end of a backstreet lined with the trash of several small shops.
  3989. >As night falls, you settle into an empty barrel, making sure that no part of your body is visible from the outside.
  3990. >In the darkness, you are all but invisible.
  3991. >The only thing that could give away your position are the odd sobbing sounds coming from the heap of trash.
  3992.  
  3993. >You awake when the first rays of the new day's sun fall into your alley.
  3994. >As you drag yourself out of the barrel, there's a distinct rumble in your stomach
  3995. >Right, you haven't eaten anything since that rather early dinner yesterday.
  3996. >You quickly peek out of your alleyway and look down the main street.
  3997. >It's still all quiet out there.
  3998. >A few members of the local militia are walking along in the distance, probably on a patrol of some kind.
  3999. >Another rumble reminds you of your body's needs, and you set off towards the tavern to get your things and grab something to eat.
  4000. >You hate to admit it, but you take your time getting there.
  4001. >The thought of running into your former group, Huge in particular, isn't all that nice.
  4002. >It's not like you did anything wrong, you tell yourself, but you really wish that you could've split under better circumstances.
  4003. >Guess that last evening really showed you what Huge's "friendship" was truly worth.
  4004. >To your relief, the backyard of the tavern is as empty as you had hoped.
  4005. >Seems like they are already well on their way.
  4006. >Despite it all, there is a sense of disappointment the sight causes you.
  4007. >At least now you'll be able to get your stuff and get out of here without getting sent on a guilt trip for wanting closure.
  4008. >The sound of your hoof knocking at the back door manages to rouse the innkeeper from his sleep.
  4009. >"Whaddaya want?" the amphibian mumbles through the half closed door.
  4010. >"I just came over to pick up my stuff and check out," you explain.
  4011. >The sight of the innkeeper's eye rolling around and his long tongue darting over his lips as he looks you over almost makes you shudder.
  4012. >"Can't say I've seen you before. Would remember your face."
  4013. >With that, he attempts to close the door on you, but you just so manage to get your hoof in the way.
  4014. >Either this guy is really forgetful, or he is trying to rip you off.
  4015. >You are pretty sure that it's the latter.
  4016. >Still, you make one last attempt to solve this peacefully.
  4017. >"Think again. I was here just yesterday, with three others. Ponies, like me. Does that ring a bell? We were your only guests in the afternoon."
  4018. >"I don't know ya, now sod off."
  4019. >Now you are sure that he is trying to screw you.
  4020. >And even if you didn't need your stuff to get through the days ahead, you still wouldn't appreciate that.
  4021. >A strong kick against the door smashes it into his shins and makes him stumble back from behind the door and out of your way.
  4022. >Before he catches himself, you are already inside and halfway to the stairwell to your room.
  4023. >Luckily, your way is shorter than expected:
  4024. >Sitting on the bar are your bags.
  4025. >That slimy toad must've just gotten them from upstairs.
  4026. >You grab a sling in your mouth and turn around to complete your dash back outside.
  4027. >But the innkeeper is back on his feet and blocking your way.
  4028. >"Gimme that, you little thief!" he howls as he swipes at you with a broom, but his strike is clumsy, no match for your training, and you easily manage to duck under it and send him back to the floor with a kick to the back of the knee.
  4029. >You hear him scream in frustration as you all but jump out of the door and run off into the town's backstreets once more.
  4030. >With your rightful belongings still held in your mouth, you return to your barrel.
  4031. >You are just getting to work opening the straps that keep the bags closed, when some huffing behind you catches your attention.
  4032. >Could that fat bastard actually have managed to follow you?
  4033. >To your relief, what you see when you snap around to face your pursuer, is just a pretty small...hedgehog thing?
  4034. >Whatever it is, it's a whole lot smaller than you and doesn't seem like it poses much of a threat.
  4035. >Especially with the way it is panting and covered in sweat.
  4036. >"Did you have to run like that?" it complains inbetween gasps for air, "I barely managed to catch up to you."
  4037. >"Not getting followed was kind of the idea here. Who are you and what do you want?"
  4038. >The last thing you need is some kind of little snitch trying to sic the militia on you.
  4039. >"I am Grubber."
  4040. >The creature stumbles forward on still shaky legs and offers you a paw to shake.
  4041. >A paw you easily sidestep.
  4042. >If the hedgehog is in any way fazed by your dismissal of formalities, he doesn't show it.
  4043. >"Still a bit on edge, eh? No wonder after last night and that run just now, but..."
  4044. >He stops talking when he sees the look on your face.
  4045. >"What did you just say?"
  4046. >"N-nothing? I mean, I saw your fight with your friend, and I thought..."
  4047. >Grubber sputters off as you get closer to him.
  4048. >Up close he seems even smaller, a pudgy, nervous little guy.
  4049. >The thought of him following you around, watching you, makes you almost sick.
  4050. >Just looking at his fat cheeks, you are certain that he never experienced hardship in his life.
  4051. >And he is watching you?
  4052. >Judging you in your moments of weakness?
  4053. >You'll put a stop to this, right here, right now.
  4054. >"Let me make something clear here, buddy," you explain as you put a hoof to his chest and push him into the wall.
  4055. >"I don't appreciate being followed around and listened in on, got it? My life is just that, MY life. That means it's off limits to you, got that?"
  4056. >You underline your statement by flaring up a magic glow around your broken horn, and you can tell by Grubber's already scared expression growing even more terrified and the way he rapidly nods that you have made your point.
  4057. >Satisfied with your work, you return to your bags.
  4058. >"Get out of here, Grubber," you call out over your shoulder without even looking back.
  4059. >"Of course, B-boss."
  4060. >The sound of steps quickly grows distant.
  4061. >Then, one last call.
  4062. >"You know, I just thought that since we are both on our own, that you could need, you know, a friend."
  4063. >If he wasn't so obviously younger than you, you would be sure that he is trying to rile you up.
  4064. >Hell, he doesn't even need to try to succeed.
  4065. >"I said get out of here. I don't need friends."
  4066. >The steps are picking up again, and you listen carefully until you are certain that your "visitor" is gone.
  4067. >Only then you finally open your bags.
  4068. >"Oh, shit..."
  4069. >No wonder you managed to get out of there as quickly as you did.
  4070. >There is almost nothing left of your belongings.
  4071. >Your supplies are gone and so are your sleeping mat and blanket.
  4072. >No trace of your bag of bits either.
  4073. >Your books have been searched for hidden valuables as well, the pages torn and ripped to shreds.
  4074. >That godsdamn Innkeeper.
  4075. >Greedy bastard must have figured he would keep whatever he could manage to get his disgusting webbed paws on.
  4076. >You are halfway out of the alley to pay that thief another visit when you come to your senses.
  4077. >By now he has certainly told the militia about you and how you "stole" from him.
  4078. >And as probably the only Pony left in town you would stick out like a rusty horseshoe even without your rather, well, striking face.
  4079. >A wordless growl of rage tears itself out of your throat as you pace back to your bag.
  4080. >Once more you've been screwed over.
  4081. >It's simply not fair.
  4082. >You take out your frustration on your now pretty much useless saddlebags, kicking them across the ground, stomping on them, even trying desperately to set them on fire using your broken horn, imagening them as the thieving innkeeper's face all the time.
  4083. >After an especially hard kick sends the bags flying, a scrap of paper flutters to the ground in front of you.
  4084. >It's not one of the pages of your books, that much is certain from the size of the paper.
  4085. >Perhaps that pondscum forgot some kind of important document?
  4086. >You would just love to get some dirt on that guy.
  4087. >On a closer look, it is indeed a letter of some kind.
  4088. >Biting back your anger, you carefully unfold the piece of paper.
  4089. >"Fizz, I hope this reaches you safe and sound. After all the months we have travelled together, I know that once you've got your mind on something, there's no stopping you. So let me just say that I wish things had gone differently yesterday. I want you to know that if you ever come to Trottington, you will find an open door on Cobblestone Road. I hope you find what you are looking for. Your friend, Huge."
  4090. >For a long while, you sit there and stare at the frizzy lines of Huge's mouthwriting.
  4091. >"I don't need friends," you repeat to yourself, but it rings hollow even to you.
  4092.  
  4093. >Questioning your choices isn't going to sate your hunger, however, and you soon find yourself back on the streets in search of food.
  4094. >As long as you manage to avoid the patrols, you might just manage to find something you can swipe somewhere.
  4095. >But the longer you slink through the shadows, the more your hope fades.
  4096. >It might just be that most townspeople aren't up yet, but the streets are almost completely deserted and the doors and windows of the houses locked tight.
  4097. >This only leaves the garbage piles, and you aren't going to start eating trash after not even one whole day without food.
  4098. >You went throught far worse on the last stretch of your travels under the mountains, a day or two without food aren't going to hurt you.
  4099. >But no matter how often you tell yourself this, your body still makes it needs know.
  4100. >Finally, you return to your hideout in the alley to wait out the day.
  4101. >Perhaps in the late afternoon or evening you will be able to snatch some leftovers from a restaurant or something.
  4102. >To pass the time, you once again pull out your trusty books.
  4103. >One day, that bartender will pay for what he did to them.
  4104. >Today, not even your reading brings you any joy.
  4105. >It's not only the sorry state of the books; in your current mood they bring up too many bad memories.
  4106. >How you read alone in the hospital, left to rot by your uncle and those you thought "friends."
  4107. >The evenings you had spent training with Huge.
  4108. >You can't handle this stuff right now.
  4109. >Instead, you sneak through the deserted streets and, after a stop at the oasis to get at least some water into your stomach, a good distance out of town.
  4110. >There you sit yourself down and stare into the direction you think is south.
  4111. >Are your eyes playing tricks on you, or are there indeed dark clouds gathering far off in the distance?
  4112. >Perhaps the Storm King will be here sooner than you thought.
  4113. >And perhaps then you will be able to get some clarity.
  4114. >But no matter how long you stare out into the distance, the clouds don't come any nearer.
  4115. >Still, it takes some effort to tear your eyes off the horizon, and when you do, you are surprised by just how dark it has gotten.
  4116. >Perhaps you haven't been looking south after all?
  4117. >Did the Storm King roll in from another direction while you were staring into another direction?
  4118. >But no, it is in fact the evening coming around.
  4119. >Have you really been lying here and staring off into the distance for most of the day?
  4120. >Goes to show just how lacking in energy you are.
  4121. >Perhaps by now there's some stuff you can get in town.
  4122. >Getting back up on your hooves is harder than it used to be, and you can feel your empty stomach contract as you set off back to town.
  4123. >Now that darkness is falling over the desert, the patrols of toadpeople are even easier to avoid.
  4124. >They have lit torches around their little checkpoints, and their watchmen are carrying some as well.
  4125. >If the Storm King is half as powerful as their propaganda makes him out to be, he'll see this place from miles away.
  4126. >Seems like a disadvantage for the defenders for you, but that's fine.
  4127. >After all, you want him here.
  4128. >What frustrates you much more is the supply situation.
  4129. >Either the refugees took as much as they could carry, or the guards have better control over the food storage than anything else in this place, because you don't find even a single halfway fresh morsel of food.
  4130. >When you finally return to your alley, you can't help but take a closer look at the piles of refuse that are stacked against the walls.
  4131. >By now, even a half-eaten cabbage would come in nicely.
  4132. >As you lean in to check, the smell makes you jerk back again.
  4133. >No, you've not fallen that deep already.
  4134. >You can easily go another day without food if you have to.
  4135. >Shouldn't be a problem, really.
  4136. >This isn't your first rodeo.
  4137.  
  4138. >The next morning brings agony.
  4139. >Even at your most desperate in the tunnels, you still had at least some strips of mushroom.
  4140. >Now, it feels as if your completely empty guts are turning against themselves.
  4141. >Dragging yourself out of your barrel is enough to make you almost empty your upset stomach of even the remaining bile.
  4142. >Maybe now you'll take another look at that trash that looked so promising yesterday.
  4143. >Or perhaps not, because in front of you sits a bag, and from that bag come the best smells of the recent past.
  4144. >You don't even question it.
  4145. >For once, destiny favors you, and you aren't going to take the risk of making it second guess itself.
  4146. >You are all but throwing yourself at the bag, when you hear the familiar voice.
  4147. >"G-good morning."
  4148. >Darting around, you come face to face with Grubber.
  4149. >The hedgehog is standing just slightly off to your side, fidgeting nervously.
  4150. >You should have seen him.
  4151. >Hunger has made you sloppy, and you mentally berate yourself for it.
  4152. >"What do you want?"
  4153. >You try to strike an imposing figure, but your knees shake from hunger, and he is sure to have seen the way you almost tore apart the bag to get at the food inside.
  4154. >"I know you said you don't need friends, but I've been thinking. So I thought, hey, what about a partnership? You know, help each other out, all that."
  4155. >"You've brought me breakfast," you remark, making a good effort but failing to take your eyes off the bag and look at your enexpected guest, "what do you want for that?"
  4156. >"Oh, that? A peace offering. You know, you were so mad yesterday, rightfully so, of course, that I thought to myself, Grubber, old lad, I thought, if you want that Pony's good will, you better try to make it up to her. So I got you this, as a start. I hope you like it."
  4157. >"So what do you stand to gain from this partnerhsip?"
  4158. >The smell of food makes it hard to stay focused, but you need to know.
  4159. >"A, eh, companion?"
  4160. >He slinks closer, confidence growing as the angry response he evidently feared fails to materialize.
  4161. >"I mean, a travelling partner. I have no one here, and it seems like your friends ditched you as well. Now, with the Storm King on the way, I really don't want to stick around any longer, and I bet you don't want either. So? What do you say?"
  4162.  
  4163. >"If you want to eat first and think it over, that's fine by me as well. No pressure, right?"
  4164. >His generosity is obviously born from the knowledge that he couldn't stop you from eating his "present" if he wanted to, but however meaningless, his permission rids you of your last restraint.
  4165. >Within the bag, you find some kind of vegetable casserole.
  4166. >It's not what you would describe as fresh, but the smell makes your mouth water.
  4167. >What you would have done for something like this during your time under the mountains...
  4168. >The errant thought sends a series of scenes past your mind's eye.
  4169. >How you met Shep.
  4170. >How he strung you along until his comrades arrived.
  4171. >How they took you prisoner.
  4172. >It takes all your resolve to break off half the casserole and toss it to Grubber, who scrambles to catch it.
  4173. >"You first," you tell him, and you only take your first bite once he is halfway done with his piece.
  4174. >By the time you are done with your breakfast, you feel comfortably full and your mood has risen quite a bit.
  4175. >Still, that doesn't mean that you'll just agree to anything Grubber wants to throw your way.
  4176. >He, for his part, still seems quite hungry.
  4177. >You think you catch him staring at the now empty bag longingly, but he quickly looks away when he notices you observing him.
  4178. >"So why do you want to get out of here? You said you don't have anyone here, but you don't exactly look like someone who has lived a hard life."
  4179. >"Oh, I get by alright."
  4180. >If he is insulted by your jab at his weight, he doesn't show it.
  4181. >"But, you see, word is that the Storm King is running a pretty strict show. And I don't think that he and his cronies would appreciate that foodstuffs tend to disappear around me."
  4182. >"I wonder why," you utter under your breath.
  4183. >"Right? Well, I for one don't like the idea of getting thrown into some kind of dungeon or worse on some trumped up charges of theft or sabotage, so I don't plan on sticking around."
  4184. >"And what would my part in your little escape be?"
  4185. >"Well, I hate to admit it, but I am not in the best shape, so I would really appreciate it if you could carry some stuff. And perhaps you could be my protection, kind of? You know, look mean and menacing, so that everyone thinks twice about messing with us? You are really great at that, you know."
  4186. >The stare you fix him with probably only serves to prove him right to any theoretical onlooker.
  4187. >"I am not going to carry your household through the desert, so you better only pack the necessities and the supplies we need to cover the distance back to civilization."
  4188. >Grubber nods along eagerly.
  4189. >"Of course. It's not like I have all that much anyways. And don't worry about the supplies, I already have an idea were I'll get us what we need."
  4190. >With that he turns around and starts on his way with surprising speed.
  4191. >"Grubber," you shout after him, "I am not done yet."
  4192. >He turns around once more, almost looking annoyed now.
  4193. >"No need to run off on me. Because we are not leaving before the Storm King is here."
  4194. >"W-what? No, you can't be serious."
  4195. >Grubber almost trips over his feet as he returns to your side.
  4196. >"Once they are here, getting out will be much harder. Why do you think that so much ab out the Storm King is still unknown? And," he levels a finger at you, "YOU really don't want to get caught by that guy. Even I have heard that the Storm King has a grudge against Equestria!"
  4197. >"That doesn't change a thing," you growl back, "These are my conditions: You get us the supplies, and we only leave once I have finished my business here. Take it or leave it, I don't care."
  4198. >The ensuing staring match is easily won by you.
  4199. >"Alright, Fine!"
  4200. >The pudgy hedgehog throws his arms up in exasperation.
  4201. >"Just don't say I didn't warn you if the Storm King snatches you. Can you at least tell me what you are waiting for?"
  4202. >You shake your head.
  4203. >"No chance. But it shouldn't take too long. If you manage to get all the stuff in time, we should be able to get out of here on the same day the Storm King arrives."
  4204. >"I'll be ready. I'll get the stuff here and wait for you. You better not leave me hanging."
  4205. >And with that he sets off again, huffing angrily to himself.
  4206. >You wait until you are sure that he's gone, and then you sneak out yourself, evading the patrols on your way back towards your observation spot.
  4207. >Hopefully he wasn't bullshitting you about his ability to get the supplies for your escape.
  4208. >Dying of thirst in the desert is not something you are too keen on.
  4209. >But those are worries for a later date.
  4210. >First, you'll keep waiting.
  4211. >If you are entirely honest with yourself, you don't really know what you are going to do once forces of the Storm King arrive.
  4212. >In an ideal world, you would recognize them as the things from your nightmares, setting of a chain reaction of memories returning to you.
  4213. >Too bad that this world has been far from ideal in recent memory.
  4214. >Best not to follow this train of thought any longer, or you might just end up going to find Grubber and tell him that you are ready to go immediately.
  4215. >Yeah, right.
  4216. >As if that's even an option now.
  4217. >You've gotten too far to turn back now.
  4218. >The dark clouds on the horizon are still there.
  4219. >In fact, you could swear that they've gotten bigger.
  4220. >Scratch that, they've definitely grown.
  4221. >In fact, they continue to do so as you look on.
  4222. >There is an odd feeling welling up in the pit of your stomach.
  4223. >Is it fear?
  4224. >Nervous anticipation?
  4225. >Probably a fair bit of both.
  4226. >In any case, you can't bear to look at the horizon any longer.
  4227. >Now that you know that the Storm King is in fact coming, there's no need to keep staring at the constant reminder of his approach.
  4228. >Estimating distances is hard in an almost featureless landscape, but you've got a feeling that you'll notice when the storm rolls in.
  4229. >It seems that once again you've been staring for longer than you noticed, because by the time you get back to your hideout you immediately notice the stack of bags Grubber must've stashed there during your absence.
  4230. >Atleast you won't starve waiting.
  4231. >As you spend the rest of the afternoon sneaking through town, you realize that you probably weren't the only one who saw the approaching storm.
  4232. >You are pretty sure that there are less members of the militia around, and a column of refugees making its way across the dunes to the north gives you a pretty good idea of where the rest has gone.
  4233. >Grubber really must've antagonized them with his petty thefts if joining them isn't an option for him.
  4234. >The remaining militia at least seems to try to pick up the slack, flowing with rivers of sweat as they fortify whatever buildings they can.
  4235. >Seems like only the die-hards are left now.
  4236. >For just a moment, you think about setting the tavern on fire, if only so that its miserable owner has nothing to return to.
  4237. >It is a nice thought, but not a practical one.
  4238. >The last thing you need is to get strung up as an enemy saboteur.
  4239. >But perhaps a little fire might serve as a nice distraction when you and Grubber make your escape.
  4240. >You smile to yourself and mentally note the idea for later use as you return to your shelter.
  4241.  
  4242. >When you wake up in the morning, it might as well be in another world.
  4243. >The sky is covered in dark clouds that make it seem as if the night never really ended and emptying their contents onto the town in a downpour.
  4244. >The fog hanging around and the lightning that cracks from time to time almost make you forget that this is still a desert.
  4245. >Seems like the Storm King's arrival is at hoof.
  4246. >You haven't been woken by the sounds of combat, so his troops can't have entered the town yet.
  4247. >But when you peak around the corner of your alley to take a look at the main street, you find it deserted.
  4248. >You can tell by the silhouettes you can just make out through the strands of rain that the obstacles the militia worked so hard to erect are still in place.
  4249. >Yet as you slowly work your way towards the guard post, pressed to the walls, you find it deserted.
  4250. >There are even some spears still leaning nearby.
  4251. >Should the storm moving in have been enough to break the defender's morale?
  4252. >You would almost like to think so, but you can't shake the feeling that there is something more sinister at work here.
  4253. >As you continue moving through the town, you find no signs of the defenders, except some weapons here and there and the untouched defensive positions.
  4254. >You shudder, either from the sudden cold brought by the storm or from the surreal situation you find yourself in.
  4255. >Perhaps you should just get back to your hideout, get Grubber's bags and get out of here.
  4256. >Grubber, right.
  4257. >What about him?
  4258. >Could he be gone as well?
  4259. >As you debate with yourself what to do, another outline suddenly becomes visible in the curtains of rain.
  4260. >Down the street, there is something coming in your direction.
  4261. >Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to have seen you yet, and with no intention to change that, you duck between two stacks of unused sandbags.
  4262. >With how dark it still is and the bad weather, the thing will hopefully just pass by you.
  4263. >As the creature gets nearer, you can make out increasingly more details, and what you see almost makes your heart skip a beat.
  4264. >It is bipedal, but its physique is broad-shouldered and radiating a sense of strength and confidence where the frog-people seemed bloated and awkward on two legs.
  4265. >Still, it seems far broader in build than the things from your dream.
  4266. >But with all the armor you make out as it gets closer, as well as what seems to be a collar of fur and topped with a face-concealing helmet, still leaves the question of just what they are open.
  4267. >With all the different kinds of clothes the nightmare-things have worn, you don't want to rule out the possibility of these creatures being related to them just yet.
  4268. >They are definitely the closest match you have seen so far.
  4269. >Now the creature you are watching points its spear, a black metal weapon, a far cry from the wooden utensils used by the militia, down the road and gives a shout in a language you don't understand.
  4270. >Following the order of their leader, two others step on either side of the spear-wielding creature.
  4271. >The trio continue making their way down the street, peering into windows and alleyways.
  4272. >Maybe if your start running in the right moment, you can get out of here and vanish in the backstreets before they have time to react.
  4273. >You ready yourself to start sprinting as soons as a moment presents itself.
  4274. >Then, another bolt of lightning lights up the overcast sky.
  4275. >And the leader of the trio is staring right at you.
  4276. >Damn it.
  4277. >You dart from your hiding place and start sprinting down the road.
  4278. >Behind, you the shouts of your pursuers grow quieter.
  4279. >No wonder, you are in the form of your life and on even ground.
  4280. >No comparison to getting chased over rough terrain by mountain-dwelling diamond dogs while recuperating from an extended stay in the hospital.
  4281. >Just one more shortcut and you are back at your hideout.
  4282. >You take a hard left turn into an alleyway.
  4283. >On the oppsite side, you just need to cross the main street and you are home free.
  4284. >It's almost too easy...
  4285. >As if on cue, the exit on the other side is blocke by another pair of storm creatures stepping in front of the exit.
  4286. >That complicates things.
  4287. >You turn on your heels to get back, but the trio has caught up to you and is advancing towards you.
  4288. >But you hadn't heard them following you, how could they...?
  4289. >They must've remained silent on purpose.
  4290. >You have gotten too used to the bumbling patrols of toadpeople.
  4291. >Seems like now you'll get to try out your martial arts against a group of enemies after all.
  4292. >One of the creatures lunges at you and you throw yourself to the side to evade.
  4293. >You cringe as your ribcage collides with the wall, but at least the creature lands face down in the dirt.
  4294. >You quickly deliver a kick to the back of its head, when an armored fist grazes your jaw.
  4295. >A patch of fur and skin gets shorn off by the plated glove, but the hit doesn't incapacitate you and a kick against your attackers knee rewards you with a snapping noise and a howl of pain.
  4296. >With these two out of the way, your escape route is free once more.
  4297. >Your vision still swimming from the punch to the face, you start running again.
  4298. >The exit to the main street grows wider and wider ín front of you, you are almost out of here.
  4299. >Then, out of nowhere, a black growth bursts from the ground in front of you.
  4300. >Your brain has just enough time to come up with the explanation that one of the creatures must have thrown a spear after you before your head collides with the iron shaft, cracked ruin of your horn first.
  4301. >The burst of pain in your head makes you collapse, but it can't end like this.
  4302. >You continue crawling towards your goal, so close yet so far.
  4303. >Weight on your back.
  4304. >Somethings holding you down, shouting.
  4305. >Flaring your horn up with one last burst of magic makes you scream in pain, but the creature lets go off you as it shields its eyes.
  4306. >Still, its not alone, and with its comrades around and you in the state you are in, you only have seconds before you'll get grabbed again.
  4307. >Might as well use the time you've got.
  4308. >A hard swipe with your front hoof sends the mask-like helmet of the creature that grabbed you flying, revealing a snarling ape-like face.
  4309. >These are not the things from your dreams, not at all.
  4310. >You have just enough time to feel the disappointment set in, before something hard hits you over the back of the head.
  4311. >The last thing you hear before you black out is a vaguely familiar voice calling out for you.
  4312. >It almost sounds like "Don't hurt her!"
  4313.  
  4314. >You are not exactly unconscious.
  4315. >It's just that some part within you decides that not paying attention to your surroundings is the best course of action right now.
  4316. >No wonder, with so many blows to the head in such a short time.
  4317. >Through the dark haze, you are dimly aware that you are being scooped up and carried.
  4318. >You come to completely when your body impacts on a hard floor.
  4319. >Your vision clears up just in time to see a door slam shut in front of you.
  4320. >A wooden door, to be precise.
  4321. >Just as the whole room seems to be made from wood, with slightly sloping walls.
  4322. >If you didn't know that you are in the desert, you would think you were on a ship.
  4323. >So they must've brought you into one of the buildings in town.
  4324. >Now the question is, which one?
  4325. >From the outside they all seemed to be sandstone structures.
  4326. >So perhaps some kind of warehouse or storage area?
  4327. >If your head wasn't still swimming and throbbing with pain, you might be able to figure it out.
  4328. >Not like you have much time to think about it anyways.
  4329. >The door flies open again, and three of the creatures enter, pointing spears at you and grunting in their language.
  4330. >From the way they form a corridor to the door, it's clear that they expect you to leave the room.
  4331. >Faced with the prospect of getting stabbed or at least beaten some more, you oblige.
  4332. >There is a sense of satisfaction you feel from the fact that they sent three armed guards to escort you.
  4333. >If they think that you are worth the trouble, you must have made an impression.
  4334. >Now if only that doesn't get you in deeper trouble.
  4335. >The rest of the building is just as wooden as your room, but you don't get to take in much as the guards keep you staggering along at a brisk pace up a flight of stairs.
  4336. >Guards posted at the top throw open another door, and before you know it you are back outside, standing in the rain.
  4337. >But wait, this isn't right.
  4338. >Why are you still standing on wood?
  4339. >You ARE on a ship after all.
  4340. >Could you really have been out cold long enough for them to bring you to wherever the nearest river or ocean is?
  4341. >And then you notice another thing...
  4342. >There is no sail hanging above the "ship", but some kind of gigantic balloon.
  4343. >You crane your neck in disbelief as the guards keep prodding you along.
  4344. >So this is one of the famed flying warmachines of the Storm King.
  4345. >It is completely different from the metallic dragonfly you saw in your dream, but impressive nonetheless.
  4346. >All over the deck, there are more of the armored creatures, assembled in square formations and standing at attention.
  4347. >And as you look to the side, you make out other balloons, without a doubt belonging to more airships, besides you.
  4348. >It's a veritable airborne army.
  4349. >Could the sight of this fleet looming on the horizon have been what caused the militia to run?
  4350. >As you get led up to the bridge, your steps grow more steady.
  4351. >All a question of making up for the sway of the airship.
  4352. >Two guards besides the door to the bridge stand at attention as your escort files in.
  4353. >The room you find yourself in is even bigger than it looked from the outside.
  4354. >In front of an enormous window overlooking the assembly of soldiers on the deck stands a huge console covered in buttons and levers, complete with an enourmous steering wheel, like one you would imagine to find on any other ship.
  4355. >Still, there is a distinct lack of a bridge crew.
  4356. >In fact, safe for what looks like an enourmous throne standing with its back turned to you, the bridge is empty.
  4357. >"When I heard that there was only one fighter resisting my forces, I knew I just had to meet you."
  4358. >The voice seems to come from everywhere at once.
  4359. >It is deep, but not unpleasantly so and surprising friendly.
  4360. >Besides you, your guards fall to their knees while one of them nudges at your knees with his spear.
  4361. >The message is clear: you are to prostrate yourself.
  4362. >Given your situation, resistance doesn't seem like your best option, so you swallow your pride and kneel.
  4363. >"Now imagine my shock when I was told that this one fighter was a Pony."
  4364. >From behind the throne steps a tall figure and turns his gaze one you.
  4365. >Even if you hadn't seen the posters in town, you would have recognized him.
  4366. >This has to be the Storm King.
  4367. >He towers over even his soldiers, and his simian face displays a mixture of arrogance and a strange mirth.
  4368. >The scepter he carries is even more ornate than the one you saw on the poster, and his horn-like crown gives him an air of danger.
  4369. >He is a warrior-king, no doubt, clad in armor even on his flagship.
  4370. >But when he next speaks, it is not to order your execution or further incarceration, but to tell you: "Get up, I can tell that you don't belong on your knees."
  4371. >You do as you're told.
  4372. >In some ways, this is going better than you expected, but you don't trust the situation.
  4373. >"Tell me, Unicorn, why did you stay when your friends left? Surely you have heard of my distaste for your nation."
  4374. >He knows?
  4375. >Of course he knows.
  4376. >A ruler such as him probably has eyes everywhere, especially his next target of conquest.
  4377. >What can you tell him?
  4378. >Is lieing even an option?
  4379. >"I thought that I might regain my memory here, your Majesty."
  4380. >"Regain your memory?"
  4381. >The Storm King raises an eyebrow.
  4382. >"Oh, don't tell me. It has to do with your horn, doesn't it?"
  4383. >"Yes, your Majesty."
  4384. >"And what a tragedy this is."
  4385. >His tone turns dramatic, and he pretends to faint.
  4386. >"A poor Unicorn, bereft of magic and memories by a tragic injury. That is just so, so sad."
  4387. >From one moment to the other, he turns dead serious.
  4388. >"But I don't believe you are telling me the whole truth here, my young friend. And I intend to find out the. whole. TRUTH!"
  4389. >With the last, shouted word, a light blue glow starts emanating from his scepter and flowing towards you.
  4390. >"Hold still now, my little unicorn, this will only sting a little. If you've been telling the truth, that is."
  4391. >Tendrils of magic rise from the glowing cloud towards your face, stretching, probing, and finally flowing into your eyes and ears.
  4392. >It takes all your willpower to remain standing in place and not break off running.
  4393. >If you ran now, you would squander whatever good will you have left with the King.
  4394. >Not to mention that it would be a doomed endeavour from the start.
  4395. >To your surprise, the magic flowing through you really doesn't hurt.
  4396. >At least at first.
  4397. >Then, there is an odd feeling, as if something was tugging at your innermost self.
  4398. >It's not pain, at least not really, but it is still among the most unpleasant sensations you have ever fealt.
  4399. >You choke back bile as images start flashing in front of your mind's eye-
  4400. >Some of them you recognize, some are clearly from your nightmares, and some you cant't place.
  4401. >The Images flash ever faster, until all that's left is a constantly changing blur of colors that makes your nausea even worse.
  4402. >Suddenly, it stops and you collapse to the floor.
  4403. >Not for long though, because to your surprise, a paw helps you pull yourself upright.
  4404. >In front of you is the Storm King's face, grinning like a cat that just caught a mouse.
  4405. >"Are you satisfied, your Majesty?"
  4406. >The questions comes out with more poison than you intended it to, but the souvereign seems more than happy to overhear that.
  4407. >"Oh, far more than that. In fact, my young friend, I am impressed. Not only were you the only one in this town to actually fight, you also managed to overpower two of my soldiers and faced me without fear."
  4408. >Did you?
  4409. >It didn't feel like that to you.
  4410. >"Let me tell you, my friend, I notice potential when I see it. Let's say I wanted to keep you around, you know, diversify my portfolio, get someone competent onboard, not like these," he leans in closer as if to speak confidentially, "brainless thugs, really. Good at following orders but not much else. What would you say to that? We even got a medical plan, and let me tell you, the thing with your horn? Might not be as unfixable as these Equestrian doctors probably told you."
  4411. >Now he's got you and he knows it.
  4412. >"Do you really think so? Your Majesty, I mean."
  4413. >The Storm King gives an amused laugh.
  4414. >"I not only think so, I am certain. I like to think of myself as an expert on the field of magic, and if there is a way, I'll find it sooner or later. I wouldn't be surprised if there are some regenerative spells that could solve your little problem in my royal library already.
  4415. >"Then I would say yes, I am interested, your Majesty."
  4416. >"That's what I thought," the Storm King laughs and offers you his paw, "let's shake on it."
  4417. >You put your hoof into his outstretched palm and the two of you share a firm shake.
  4418. >"You know," the Storm King says once he lets go of your hoof, "I don't think I know your name."
  4419. >You doubt it, given the way he went rummaging through your mind, but you are just too excited at the way things have turned around to care all that much.
  4420. >"It's Fizz, your Majesty. I mean, Fizzlepop Berrytwist, to be exact."
  4421. >"Blergh!"
  4422. >To your shock, your benefactor mimics someone throwing up.
  4423. >Sure, you'd never liked the name either, which is why you went with the shortened form, but seeing this reaction from the monarch disturbs you.
  4424. >Your name won't ruin everything, will it?
  4425. >Seemingly not, because the Storm King goes right back to smiling somewhat sheepishly, an expression you didn't think he was capable of.
  4426. >"I am sorry, and I don't mean to offend, but that's just something about you Ponies that I never understood. Why does everything have to be sooo sappy?"
  4427. >"Your Majesty, I..."
  4428. >"Ah,ah,ah," he cuts you off, "You see, my friend, where I come from, our names are more like titles. I am the Storm King. That's not only my title as head of government and monarch, but also my name as far as anyone is concerned. The boys that brought you in are..."
  4429. >He looks over the guards who brought you in, then shrugs.
  4430. >"Ah, who cares. The thing is, we need to find something fitting for you if you are going to go up through the ranks. Something that speaks of your accomplishments. You've been sneaking through the shadows, ambushing patrols..."
  4431. >"Your Majesty, it wasn't really lik..."
  4432. >"Tempest Shadow. That's it. What do you say?"
  4433. >"Tempest Shadow..."
  4434. >You think it over.
  4435. >The thought of giving up your old name, however laughable it is, doesn't sit quite right with you.
  4436. >But if temporarily giving up it up is the price you have to pay to regain your memories, then so be it.
  4437. >"I'll take it, your Majesty."
  4438. >"I never doubted you, Tempest. Now, that only leaves us with one last thing."
  4439. >The Storm King claps, and the bridge door behind you is thrown open once more.
  4440. >A bundle of fur is thrown in and lands with a yelp besides you.
  4441. >"My men tell me they picked him up when they captured you. Apparently he was following you. A friend, I take it?"
  4442. >A friend?
  4443. >You look at the wet pile of fur and spikes from the corner of your eye.
  4444. >It's Grubber, no doubt about it.
  4445. >It seems like he has been beaten, and he is bound and gagged.
  4446. >"He's not exactly a friend, but..."
  4447. >"Throw him over board," the Storm King commands.
  4448. >"What? No!"
  4449. >You feel Grubber's eyes, wide with panic, on you as you throw yourself between him and the guard that goes to grab him.
  4450. >"He might not be a friend, but he is a companion. If you want me, you'll also have to take him!"
  4451. >"And what if I'll have you both thrown overboard?"
  4452. >The Storm King eyes you with outward disdain, but there is a spark in his eyes that gives you hope.
  4453. >"Then so be it, but I promise that some your soldiers will join us."
  4454. >For a few seconds, the two of you stare at each other without flinching, but then a smile breaks out on the Storm King's face.
  4455. >"I knew you had guts!" he laughs as he leans on one of his soldier's shoulders, "didn't I tell you guys she would have guts? Come on, untie the fat boy."
  4456. >The Guard does as he is told, and a few seconds later, Grubber is back on his feet and rubbing the ropeburn on his wrists.
  4457. >Despite it all, you are unreasonably angry.
  4458. >Of course you are glad that nothing happened to Grubber, but he wouldn't even be in this situation if he hadn't followed you again.
  4459. >Not only could he have reflected poorly onto you, but he also got himself in unnecessesary danger.
  4460. >Because of what?
  4461. >Some kind of misplaced loyalty to you?
  4462. >You'll have to stamp that out.
  4463. >Teach him that the only one he can truly rely on is himself.
  4464. >Otherwise he'll never make it on his own.
  4465. >"Now show them their quarters," the Storm King orders the guards. "Tempest, I look forward watching your progress. Fat boy, I am sure that we'll find a spot in the kitchen for you."
  4466. >As you are led back outside and past the still assembled formations of troops, Grubber does his best to keep pace with you.
  4467. >"Thanks for standing up for me, Fizz. I won't forget it."
  4468. >"Don't think that makes us friends," you hiss back, "That was a test, and I passed. And don't call me Fizz anymore. My name is Tempest."
[PTFG] [SAFE] [Anon] [OC] [Tempest] [Adventure]

37.2 Trillion Anonfillies

by Gnisha

Post-Aponalypse (WIP)

by Gnisha

Pizzaportal (Prose rewrite, WIP)

by Gnisha

Pizzaportal

by Gnisha

The Pon-E journal (wip)

by Gnisha