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[RGRE] Preunification Anon

By Spooples
Created: 19th August 2021 03:21:18 AM
21st October 2022 06:30:05 AM

  1. ~ I - The Hyoo-men in the Tavern ~
  3. ”Here? Are you quite certain?”
  4. >From first glance, the beams of orange protruding from the tavern’s windows seem like welcoming beacons from the rain and cold.
  5. >And second glance, and third glance, in fact. From every angle, the tavern looks like the cozy respite you’ve been hoping for. The only things of any disconcert are the pair of guardsmares – one a Swordsmare, the other a Caster – standing just beside the entrance, and the crooked, magically-infused text on the wall glowing, “No horn, no hilt, no entry!”
  6. >But it isn’t the sights that make your hooves freeze on the wet cobblestone below. It’s the smell, the sounds – All-Mother above, it may very well be the /taste/ as well.
  7. >The pleasant petrichor of the city of Plumsteed is replaced with the stench of rancid vomit and, even worse, alcohol. Turner of gentlemares into ruffians.
  8. >Beneath the muffled laughter and clacking of mugs whose volumes seem to be in competition – things you’ve had to grow accustomed to while in the lowercastes – you catch odd tidbits of what sounds like squawking.
  9. >As you close your mouth, peering over to the red unicorn standing by your side, faint traces of something you can’t put your hoof on touches down on your tongue. Iron, it seems?
  10. >Red Letter gives a sage chuckle, squelching the glob of Ergot between her teeth as she chews. “Too mud horse-y for you, white hooves?”
  11. >You huff indignantly at the nickname and habitually glance down to make sure your hooves aren’t /too/ unpresentable. Of course, your hooves are covered with the fabric waves of your cloak. It’s a futile effort anyways. The last few weeks you’ve spent trudging through swamps, forests, and manure-soaked cobblestone have ensured your hooves may never reach the same level of pristine whiteness again.
  12. “I’ll have you know I’ve never before met an earth pony, Red Letter.”
  13. >”Your olfactory senses are grateful,” she hums. You’re tempted to mention that you have indeed met sky rats before, and your olfactory senses are still recovering. “As I’m sure you are as well, Lucky Favor?”
  14. “Of course,” you titter as you shuffle your supplies bag off your withers before setting it down with a /splash!/ After untying and sifting around your precious cargo, you pull out a decently-sized gold pouch. “For an honest day’s work, and a might extra for helping an unpresentable vagabond like myself.”
  15. >You give your most ladylike smile to Red Letter before hoofing her the gold pouch—
  17. >Your entire body flinches as your head whips to the source of the commotion. The guardsmares outside the tavern seem just as surprised as you as the unconscious body of a mare flies from the flung-open entrance to the tavern and tumbles to a soaked heap.
  18. >There, standing at least four cubits tall, is the bipedal form of the much gossiped-about “hyoo-men.” The housecarla for whom you’ve spent the last week scrounging.
  19. >Or, would it be house/carl/?
  20. >…Housecarl.
  21. >He sounded like a male.
  22. >It takes a moment for your brain to register this fact. As it does, you faintly hear the muffled sound of the tavern door being slammed shut, and the hyoo-men is gone. You’ve missed your chance to call out to her.
  23. >--/Him,/ you mean.
  24. >Dear Ancients above, he’s a male.
  25. >”…clever…” you barely catch Red Letter mumble under her breath while your own goes ragged and wobbly.
  26. >You quickly turn back to your guide, whose eyes seem latched onto where the hyoo-men once was.
  27. >The /male/ hyoo-men.
  28. “Your payment, dear,” you almost whisper, hoping desperately she snatches the pouch away and fades into the rainy night.
  29. >”Actually,” Red Letter drawls, rolling the Ergot in her mouth, in no particular hurry. “Payment won’t be necessary.”
  30. “You can’t just do something nice for me and expect not to get paid!” you argue. “In the uppercastes, we’re taught to—”
  31. >”We’re not in the uppercastes. Come, let’s not keep him waiting.” Red Letter starts towards the tavern before you can react.
  32. >There’s that word again. /Him./
  33. >You feel like you could drown in this rain.
  34. >Your hoof tries and fails before succeeding in putting the gold pouch back into the bag, and almost gives out as you sling it over your shoulder.
  35. You scramble towards Red Letter, still bouncing along, her eyes glued to the tavern door. “P-pardon me, Red Letter?”
  36. >You curse yourself for the unladylike stutter, but even the most regal uppercastemare would be having a hard time speaking eloquently through a mouth of cotton.
  37. >”If it’s anything to do with the payment, you can get hilted. In fact—” Your guide stops momentarily to dig into the pouch on her hip before procuring something dark and pungent. “—Chewing Ergot? I’m feeling generous tonight.”
  38. “I appreciate it, but I’m not a chewer. Anyways, I was wondering—"
  39. >As you speak, Red Letter fluidly lifts your hoof and plops the chewing fungus on top. “For your confidence,” she susurrates, but you’re too numb to refuse it.
  40. “I-I-I was wondering if I could have a m-moment of privacy, Red Letter?”
  41. >Red Letter seems nonplussed for the longest half-second of your life before giving a curt nod. “Alright, but let’s not keep him waiting.”
  42. >You give a relieved smile that you’re absolutely, positively, 100% sure doesn’t come off as suspicious before you virtually teleport to the alleyway beside the tavern. Of course, you don’t literally teleport, even if you desperately wanted to.
  43. >Finally alone, you take deep heaves of air as you collapse. Your heart pounds like a rabid parasprite as four words bounce around in your head like a wrecking ball.
  44. >The hyoo-men is male.
  45. >The much gossiped-about housecarla, who you’ve finally been able to get a pin on after his switch to freelance bounty hunting, whom you are about to ask to do something that most hardened adventurers would balk at, is male. And there’s no backing out of this.
  46. >There’s no backing out of this.
  47. >There’s no backing out.
  48. >Between the sounds of each of your deep breaths, the pitter-patter of the rain on your cloak, and the muffled celebrations from inside the tavern, you slowly replace the words in your mind, one by one.
  49. >There’s no backing out, Lucky Favor.
  50. >One more deep breath, and you feel your heartbeat easing. You need to do something structured to calm down.
  51. >With a grunt, your bag is set gently onto the cobblestone ground. You recite the same checkup you’ve been perfecting these last few weeks. Making sure the ornate crossbow attached to your bag is still in mint condition. Making sure the magically intraflated bags of food, doits, and supplies are still intact. Making sure the magically stabilized locker of notebooks, quills, and ink bottles is still undisturbed. Making sure the ambient invisibility spell is still engaged on your precious cargo. Giving your strained horn a momentary break from the ambient spell before once again engaging it.
  52. >Everything secure, both in the bag and in your mind, you give yourself a determined nod. There’s no reason to have a panic attack here and now. You’re at the location, you’re not alone, and there’s nothing in the lowercastes that can cut through the Paardian armor under your cloak. You’re safe. All that’s left is to have a little chat with the hyoo-men. Tartarus, you might even have an easier time convincing him if you put on the Lucky Favor charm.
  53. >Plus, male or not, that certainly doesn’t change his reputation as a renowned housecarla. But that begs the question, why did he switch to bounty hunting…?
  54. >After hoisting the bag back onto your withers, you set off back to the tavern entrance. You hope Red Letter isn’t the type to question every little thing.
  55. >Despite yourself, you feel a smile tugging at your lips.
  56. >These past few weeks have felt like years. Every day felt like an impossible bounty, and only the Ancients know how it would’ve gone if you accepted it alone. You haven’t stopped thanking Them that the first lowercastemare you ran into was Red Letter.
  57. >Well, Red Letter wasn’t the /first/ unicorn you met down here. It was a few of her “co-workers,” as she keeps reiterating. They weren’t so nice when they knocked you out and brought you to Red Letter bound in rope, but the moment you eloquently and dignifiedly revealed you were from the uppercastes, and most definitely did not yell out, “Unhoof me you lowercaste hoodlums!” things took a turn in your favor.
  58. >Before you knew it, you had a companion who knew the city of Plumsteed like the back of her hoof, who knew just how to treat ponies who gave her, or you, any trouble, and who would never leave you alone in an unfamiliar part of town with no guide.
  59. >Hey, where’s Red Letter?
  60. >Back in front of the tavern lays only an empty stone yard, no red unicorn in sight. Even the guardsmares are gone now, leaving the rain and clamor from inside your only companions.
  61. >You spend an embarrassing amount of time feeling like a lost filly before you shake your head and trot towards the tavern entrance. Red Letter probably went in before you to preemptively catch the hyoo-men. But where are the guardsmares…?
  62. >You have to remind yourself about the importance of your mission before the temptation to not enter uninvited keeps you outside.
  63. >You swing the tavern door open and quickly bounce in.
  64. >The first thing you notice is how much… warmer everything is. Not just the temperature, but the sights, the smells, and even the sounds as well. The tavern’s innards are a comely orange, washing away the cold, gray reality of the Plumsteed night with its quaint pub layout.
  65. >The second thing you register?
  66. >Unicorns.
  67. >Lots and lots of unicorns.
  68. >The temperature immediately raises from the increase of warm bodies all around you, sitting at tables, laughing raucously at some dirty joke or crude remark, drinking seemingly unlimited mugs of cider and ale. There’s a large circular amalgamation of mares at the center of the tavern, their attention drawn to something you can’t see.
  69. >The sound of squawking and the taste of iron are now unmistakable.
  70. >You scan around the tavern for either Red Letter or the hyoo-men, but the crowd makes it an impossible task. Without any other option, you trot towards the crowd. With how tall the hyoo-men is, if he’s in there, you’ll be able to spot him immediately. You have to weave between the tables of otherwise occupied unicorns, habitually leaning your bag in the opposite direction of anypony you pass.
  71. >You grimace as you shake the sticky ale from your hoof before you find yourself at the edge of the commotion. You find your opening, and slip through.
  72. >”/Rip her Ancients-damn beak off, Muddie!/”
  73. >”/I have twenty doits on you, Rat!/”
  75. >You shrink away from the particularly bloodthirsty mare by your side before continuing onwards. You finally reach the cusp of the crowd’s attention and lift your hooves onto the wooden railing, staring at the commotion down below.
  76. >You curse your curiosity.
  77. >Now, the squawking is unmistakable as the two griffons below tear into each other.
  78. >One of them – the more muscular one – is wingless, two magically burnt stubs hanging limply on its sides. The other’s wings have been left in relative peace, although a Pulchramatic spell has been cast on them. The feathers are now much brighter and colorful, sending flamboyant, sardonic sparkles of glitter into the air with each vicious swipe.
  79. >The combatants roll through the sand as they bite and puncture each other. Maroon blood, spilt alcohol, and the golden glint of discarded doits are kicked up in the sand as if caught in the web of the fight.
  80. >At the disgusting sound of something being ripped from one of the griffons’ face – you don’t care to look closer to find out just what specifically – you turn away to keep from gagging.
  81. >The bitter taste in your mouth isn’t iron. It’s blood.
  82. >”Ahem.”
  83. >You squeak as the baritone grunt penetrates through the hooting and hollering of the crowd around you. You have to crane your neck to realize just who you bumped into. In front of you towers the housecarla—er, house/carl/ -- of the hour, the hyoo-men.
  84. >His condition leaves you in shock.
  85. >The hyoo-men’s eyes are sunken and tired, and whether it's the shadows from his thick eyebrows, the dark bags under his eyes, or the subtle way his beard and bush of a mane frame his face, the glare he’s giving you sends a cold chill up your spine. His imposing height is lopsided, and you notice he's putting most of his weight on his left leg.
  86. >The only thing that even suggests he wouldn’t be an easy target for a mugging, or worse, is his armor. And even then, you doubt the leather and fabric ensemble he’s wearing would be effective against half the weapons you’ve seen mares carry just on your trot here!
  87. >Speaking of weapons, you don’t see a single one on the hyoo-men. No axe, mace, sword, wand… Not even a dagger strapped to his boot. The only things which could pass as dangerous are the stone bracers on his forearms you can immediately tell are homemade.
  88. >Then again, Lucky Favor, if even a quarter of what you’ve heard about him from the ladies, civilians, and would-be attackers he’s dealt with is true, neither his lack of immediate defense nor his armor should be much of a problem.
  89. >…Plus you’d be hard-pressed to say the armor isn’t flattering to his figure. He kind of looks like the felines out West you’ve read about, but more muscular and broader.
  90. >It’s then you notice that the jostling from the surrounding mares has subsided. Sure enough, each of the onlookers of the griffon fight are now giving you a wide radius. Or, rather, they’re giving the hyoo-men a wide radius.
  91. >Most of the mares are avoiding the hyoo-men like the edge of a precipice they’re unfortunate enough to be stuck beside. A few glance in his direction. Most are nervous; the only expected lecherous mare in the crowd is quickly taken back into the crowd by somepony you assume is her friend.
  92. >”They’re wild,” the hyoo-men’s deep voice effortlessly booms over the commotion of the crowd.
  93. You blink out of your stupor. “Pardon me?”
  94. >”The griffons,” he responds, giving a brief nod to the fight that you most definitely will not be looking back at. It’s only a minor comfort that the lowercastemares here aren’t cheering for the death of a sentient griffon like those out East. ”So, why were you following me, /mare/?”
  95. >His small eyes bore into you, resembling a growling timberwolf more than an adorable foal.
  96. Nevertheless, you’ve spent too many nights sleeping in gutters and praying to the Ancients above for this moment to go perfectly to let this set you back. You draw your left hind leg and right foreleg back and give the hyoo-men a courteous bow. “I was hoping to proposition you with a bounty, my lord.”
  97. >A few of the snickers and murmurs from the crowd around you put a dent in your confidence, but you still hold firm as you sweep back up to a standing posture. The bemused scowl the hyoo-men is sending your way, though, puts more than a dent in it. For a long time the hyoo-men only studies you. His piercing eyes flick this way and that, dancing between your face, your cloak, and the sack on your back.
  98. >If he were to suddenly reach forward and grab your bag, what could you do to stop him?
  99. >”Let’s grab a table,” the hyoo-men finally murmurs.
  100. >Heart fluttering, you give a quick nod and eagerly lift your head to search for a table for the gentlecolt, but to your surprise the hyoo-men simply turns around and walks off!
  101. “Wait!” you call out, cantering after him.
  102. With each bound of his long legs, the hyoo-men easily slices through the crowd, leaving you to hastily keep up. “Mister hyoo-men, my lord!” you call out as you bound to his side. “Excuse me! Where are we going?”
  103. >”To grab a table.”
  104. >Your cheeks burn with embarrassment. You know nothing about the hyoo-men’s customs, but you had assumed he would at the very least let you mare up and take the lead.
  105. >You hope the looks of astounded horror the unicorns are giving you and the hyoo-men have something to do with that.
  106. >”Move.”
  107. >You immediately comply, shuffling a few hooflengths to the left, until you realize the hyoo-men wasn’t talking to you. He’s talking to the two unicorns sitting at an alcohol-slathered table. More specifically, he’s talking to the bigger one.
  108. >The only reason you can distinguish the unicorn’s coat color is because of her uncovered face. Besides that, all you can see on her body is chainmail, leather, and metal. The giant war axe by the mare’s side, the business end at /least/ as big as your whole body, sits menacingly beside her chair like a drooling guard dog. Five runes seem to be etched into the weapon’s blade, although you’re not close enough to decipher them. They look much more sinister than the paralysis runes dancing across your crossbow.
  109. >Well-fed and well armed; an epitome of Housecarlatel. Her lady must be the wealthy-looking unicorn sitting beside her, thoroughly shrunken and meek in comparison.
  110. >The housecarla gives a start; a symphony of chainmail and metal rubbing against each other. Though, her distress is short-lived. The smaller mare follows the bigger one’s lead as her face deforms into a salacious, satisfied smirk.
  111. >Her teeth are stained an Ergot-colored brownish green.
  112. >”Good to see you too, /Anon,/” the unicorn grins as she lowers her chin onto a metal-plated hoof. “I see our boss’s attempts to domesticate you have gotten us nowhere, as expected.”
  113. >The sultry way she slathers the word “domesticate” in innuendo just about makes you gag.
  114. >”This is the ‘hyoo-men’ you’ve been talking about, Storm?” The smaller mare’s voice sounds like a young filly’s when compared to her housecarla. As her eyes snap to you, they gleam with an immature mischief. “I didn’t know he was back in business so soon. Last I heard--”
  115. >Without warning, one of Anon’s arms shoots out at the bigger mare. His monstrous hand grabs her by the horn before her face is whiplashed to his own.
  116. >The lady is too stunned to move. You’re not doing much better.
  117. >”/Move./”
  118. >Without waiting for confirmation, Anon drives the mare out of her chair and to the ground with a shove and a resounding /thump!/ The unicorn’s cohort can only stare at Anon, frozen.
  119. >”Storm” is back on her hooves before you can even register how much it’d hurt for your horn to be marehandled like that. The glare she gives Anon could cut through glass.
  120. >”You're lucky you're her favorite,” Storm spits before her horn glows. You feel a jolt of outrage as the handle of Storm’s axe is enveloped in the same glow, but it only drags along with the mare as she and her lady trot away. “That’s what I was talking about, Vivi. Colt hasn’t had a job in--...”
  121. >”Sit.”
  122. >You don’t catch that last part as Anon’s voice reverberates through your skull. He’s made himself comfortable on the mare’s chair, although there is still a subtle slump to his posture. His knee bounces up and down as he gives you an expectant gaze.
  123. >You let out a breath you didn’t know you were holding in. Freakishly fast, undeniably competent, weirdly attractive hyoo-men or not, Anon is still a colt. Does he not care about what could’ve happened? She was a fully-equipped housecarla!
  124. >You hope this won’t become a common occurrence.
  125. >You shakily shuffle your bag onto the floor beside your chair before sitting across from your potential future partner.
  126. >Don’t screw this up, Lucky Favor. It’s time to turn on that uppercaste charm.
  127. >So, how should you start? Some small talk, perhaps? Cater to his male ego?
  128. >Although, that might not work with Anon. He’s not shown any colty acclimations since you’ve met him. Tartarus, are you even sure he’s a male to begin with? You’ve heard hyoo-mens are exceedingly rare; Anon the first one you’ve ever heard of.
  129. >Could he be the /only/ hyoo-men?
  130. >No, no, Lucky. If you were about to ask the only /male/ member of a species onto a dangerous mission such as this, you might as well just throw yourself off a bridge to rid Equus of its most selfish evil yet.
  131. >Hm, could he just be a she with a deep voice? Female minotaurs also have the ability to grow beards, you've read. After all, how would a colt build up such a résumé as a housecarla in just a few months--?
  132. >Lucky Favor, your genius knows no bounds.
  133. “I’d like to start off with an apology, my lord,” you start, earning a quirked eyebrow from the hyoo-men. “Since our encounter, I’ve so ruefully given you a most unladylike impression. I’ve been nervous about meeting you, truth be told.”
  134. >You just slipped into your uppercaste dialect. Don’t overstep, Lucky. You’ve got him on his heels.
  135. >You reach a hoof into your hip pouch to retrieve the glob of Ergot Red Letter gave you. You’re no chewer, but you could really use some extra confidence right about now.
  136. “After all, what mare wouldn’t be, when faced with such an accomplished housecarla? I must say I’m a little confused as to why you’ve chosen to switch to the bounty hunting business, though.”
  137. >Anon gives you a look that screams, “First strike, Lucky. Change the subject.”
  138. “So who were those mares, if it’s not too personal? I’m sure your reputation precedes you, but they talked as if they knew you personally.”
  139. >Anon’s lips curl as if he’s mulling over rotten food. ”Former coworkers,” he opts to say in a manner that suggests you do not want to press that matter.
  140. “Ahh,” you breathe, gripping the Ergot in your pouch. Second strike. “…Well, enough /small/ talk, it’s time for some /business/ talk.”
  141. >You squee at your clever wordplay. Anon gives the spilt alcohol on the table a look as if wondering whether he could get drunk from it. You’d bet he could, but you obviously don’t tell him that.
  142. “My name is Lucky Favor,” you start. “Well, my lowercaste moniker is Lucky Favor. And yours is Anon, if I heard correctly?”
  143. >”Anonymous.”
  144. “Right! Well, Anon, let’s begi—”
  145. >”/Anonymous./”
  146. “…/Anonymous/,” you concede, before taking a deep breath. “I’m offering you a job as my housecarla.”
  147. >Anonymous seemingly gives no reaction.
  148. >/Seemingly./ To most ponies, Anonymous may as well hadn’t even heard what you said. But you’re able to catch the subtle widening of his eyelids and upward twitch of his cheeks.
  149. “Now, I understand that this might be an… unconventional offer, meeting like this so suddenly. And I know you’ve forgone your former occupation for freelance bounty hunting, but I guarantee it’ll be worth your time. Six hundred doits per day, to be exact.”
  150. >Anonymous’ knee stops bouncing.
  151. >You can’t help but smirk as you bring the Ergot up to your muzzle and plop it in your mouth.
  152. “First time working for an uppercastemare?” you say as you chew, your tuft puffing up from under your cloak. Anonymous’ eyes don’t leave the Ergot in your mouth. “I can assure you the steep pay isn’t indicative of the danger we’ll be encountering, as well. It’s merely proportionated to your experience and, no doubt, the competition for your services! There'll be no stipulations for what you can spend your pay on either. Weapons, armor, clothes, shoes, whatever else befitting of a gentlecolt. And I assure you I can afford— where are you going, my lord?”
  153. >Instead of answering, Anonymous gives you an unreadable glare before standing to his full height and walking past you.
  154. >It takes a moment for it to register. He’s leaving.
  155. “/WAIT!/”
  156. >All uppercaste convenances leave your system as you virtually lunge towards the hyoo-men.
  157. >They leave your system almost as quickly as your sense of reality when what feels like an earth pony’s buck lands right on your cheek. Your world turns into a hazy mess of pain and iron, and when your vision finally clears, the world is lopsided. You’re lying on the wooden floor now. Anonymous struck you.
  158. >Of course he struck you.
  159. >In your desperation, you touched—no, /grabbed/-- a stallion without his consent and made him uncomfortable.
  160. >…Uncomfortable isn’t the right word. You made him enraged. You saw it in his eyes the split second before your vision was rendered useless. It’s ironic, how only after your brain has been thoroughly rattled can you realize how wrongly you must have acted towards him.
  161. >You clench your eyes shut as the ringing subsides, replaced with the ongoing celebrations of the tavern, sans the hyoo-men’s footsteps. He’s gone.
  162. >You make no move to get up.
  163. “I’m sorry,” you whisper, whether to Anonymous, to yourself, or to your precious cargo, you don’t know.
  164. >”You really are new around here, aren’t you?”
  165. >You flinch, cursing the Ancients above that They’d torture you with auditory illusions, until you feel two warm appendages wrap around your barrel.
  166. “Ah!” you gasp, eyes immediately open and staring as you’re lifted off the floor. Unlike the cold, hazy feeling of telekinesis, Anonymous’ arms are warm and solid.
  167. >You can't be sure if it's the lingering ringing in your ears from that punch, or if the fiery heat under your face is affecting your hearing, but the racket of the tavern seems to dwindle ever so slightly. You chance a glance around to find a few unicorns’ faces snap away from your direction.
  168. >As Anonymous sets you down on the chair, his warm, comfortable feelers leaving your fur bereaved, you suppress a sigh of disappointment.
  169. >Disappointment soon turns to realization as the hyoo-men makes his way back to his own chair and sits back down, giving you a look that, if you squint your eyes, you might be able to identify as guilt.
  170. >…Accountability? Is Anonymous really a stallion?
  171. >”Tell me the essentials,” Anonymous finally mutters.
  172. You blink. “…A-about the job?” You don’t make any effort to hide the hope in your voice.
  173. >Anonymous flashes an impatient glare before he quickly recomposes himself. Your eyes study one of his feelers as it lifts to his face before pinching the bridge of his nose. “Let’s start with why you need a housecarla. And be direct this time.”
  174. >He’s willing to hear you out.
  175. >Despite everything, he’s willing to hear your proposition, Lucky Favor.
  176. >The clash of your blossoming hope and the cold fear of absolute honesty is not one you’re familiar with. You try to bite down on the Ergot, only to realize it’s probably somewhere on the other side of Equus with how hard he hit you.
  177. “I’m being hunted,” you whisper.
  178. >”By whom?”
  179. Your breath hitches. His response was too quick – too sudden. You miss the fiery, embarrassing blush on your face. Anything to replace this cold, hopeless feeling in your throat. “I can’t tell.”
  180. >The looks Anon gives you reminds you that you can indeed tell, and you will indeed tell.
  181. “E-everypony,” you say as you stare into the wooden, ale-riddled table. “I’m being hunted by everypony.”
  182. >The jovial celebrations and cheering from everypony around you, all painfully unacknowledging of your existence, remind you how crazy you just sounded.
  183. “Listen,” you elaborate, glancing at your bag. “I’m carrying… /something/ to somewhere far from here. If anypony here sees it, they won’t hesitate to destroy it, a-and kill me. It’s not that I’ve wronged them, or they’re bad ponies! It’s just...” Your eyes sting as you try to find the right words to explain your situation, but you come up empty. All you can do is tell him why you’re having this conversation right now. “I’ve been led to believe you might be different, my lord.”
  184. >You expect a volley of questions. What are you carrying? Why are you risking so much for this? How crazy do you have to be, to give up everything you know, to spend weeks on the run, for the off-chance of meeting somepony you’ve never met for help in making the trek to a place you've never been?
  185. >Why would he ever accept this offer?
  186. >All questions for which you have no answers.
  187. >Instead of any of these questions though, Anonymous instead leans over the table and asks something else. Something which almost makes you feel physical whiplash.
  188. >”Lucky Favor,” he almost whispers, his eyes scarily genuine. “/How/ far away?"
  189. >You don’t know if you can answer that.
  190. >“Ah, white hooves!”
  191. “G’AH!” Your entire body whirls around to be met with a certain red unicorn. Red Letter gives you a raise of her eyebrows as she makes her way towards your table with a smile you never knew she was capable of. “Oh, hello!" You breathe deeply, until you notice the mares following behind Red Letter.
  192. >The guardsmares from the tavern door, and the two unicorns Anonymous accosted.
  193. As Red Letter nears you, you lean towards her and hastily whisper, "Are we in trouble?”
  194. >“Oh, there’s no need to worry about them," Red practically tosses over her withers at you as she continues to the other side of the table.
  195. >At the sound of wet chewing, you turn back to see that one of the guardsmares – the Swordsmare, with two wicked-looking Marabian blades on her hip – has a piece of Ergot in her mouth.
  196. You make a similar motion of your lips before turning back to see your guide approaching Anonymous. “Well, Red Letter, this is—”
  197. >“The human," she purrs. "Yes, I figured. I’m so glad you found him.”
  198. >/Human?/ What an odd way to pronounce it.
  199. Odd as well is the fact that you can feel your hackles instinctually raising under your cloak. “I-it wouldn’t have been possible without your help,” you opt for, neutrally. “Thank you.”
  200. >You feel sorry for Red Letter, hoping she leaves so soon. Ancients above, you wouldn’t even be having this conversation with Anonymous if it wasn’t for her. And you get a newcomer’s curiosity, but you really need to talk with your potential partner. And how, exactly, does Anonymous feel about all this?
  201. >You turn to gauge the hyoo-men’s reaction, but you gaze is stolen by Red Letter’s hoof as it nears his arm.
  202. “Oh, I wouldn’t—!” you start, but you’re not quick enough to stop the /clink!/ of her hoof connecting with the stone bracer on his wrist. An alarmed squeak escapes your mouth as you hope the guardsmares do their job quickly, but neither of them move from their perch, less than a cubit away from your side.
  203. >Anonymous makes no attempt to hit Red Letter as she says to him, “It’s so good to see you again, Anon.”
  204. >So why is that sigh of relief stuck so firmly in your throat?
  205. "Anonymous?" you start, but when you look into the hyoo-men's eyes you know you won't get a response.
  206. >His green orbs are simultaneously corpse-like and crazed. Glossed over as they witness events passed, glued to the table and straining as if trying to levitate it from the floor. His lips and cheeks twitch without direction. His knee is no longer bouncing, rather pushing his body back and forth in a subtle rocking motion.
  207. >He's having an attack. By the Ancients, he’s having an attack.
  208. >The cold feeling in your chest spreads throughout your entire body as Red Letter's hoof draws slow, lackadaisical circles on the hyoo-men's arm. "You all know how he gets," she says without even a glance to her partners' direction. "Would you do me a favor and clear the place?"
  209. >It's Storm who speaks first from her post to Anonymous' right. "But the main attraction is still going on, Boss. How are we--..."
  210. >Whatever complaint leaving Storm's mouth is muffled, your mind replacing it with her earlier words:
  211. >>"I see our boss's attempts to domesticate you have gotten us nowhere, as expected."
  212. >"Then end it," Red Letter says somewhere far off.
  213. >>"You all know how he gets," you hear her recant in your mind, among other things.
  214. >>"So, why were you following me, /mare/?"
  215. >>"You're lucky you're her favorite."
  216. >>"/How/ far away?"
  217. >You bucked up.
  218. >From behind, you can hear the sharp, thunderous cannon shots of lethal spells booming over the crowd. The squawking of the griffons cease, replaced with a renewed tumult of outrage and fear from the onlookers. "EVERYPONY OUT!" an augmented voice shouts. "TASKMASTER RED LETTER'S ORDERS!"
  219. >"The sight of blood never agreed with me," Red Letter continues to an unresponsive Anonymous. "That's why you came here of all places, isn't it, Anon? Under my own muzzle, the one night of the month I wouldn’t visit. You really are too troublesome for your own good, colt. Lucky Favor, why are you still here?"
  220. >And just like that, you would’ve rather been called your uppercaste name by the lowest scum of Equus than hear Red Letter call you Lucky Favor again.
  221. >The guardsmares return to your sides, although you feel no warmth from the proximity. Everything feels cold as the clamor from the tavern decreases with every agonizing second. The waves of hoofsteps from behind, the drunken grumbling of mares being hauled away, and the occasional uppity unicorn being quickly shut up with a spell and sent outside.
  222. Regardless of all this, or maybe because of it, you ask a stupid question you're too numb to stop. "Pardon me, Red Letter, but what’s happening?”
  223. >“You made this yourself, Anon?" Red Letter muses, leaving your halfhearted question to wither away. She lifts Anonymous’ arm into the air with her hoof, inspecting the stone bracer. They hyoo-men’s eyes snap to her hooves in the same fashion as when he hit you, yet his body refuses to act out. "Your equipment was so much less… homemade when you worked for me. Well, that'll be the first thing we fix."
  224. “Miss Letter!” you shout before your mind catches up with your body, and you realize you’re standing on your hind legs with your upper hooves digging into the table.
  225. >You’ve never been in a fight before. You’re an educated Caster and have many combat books and classes under your belt, sure, but you’ve never before felt this sickening, consuming tension. You’ve never before fully reached magical exhaustion. You’ve never had to use the crossbow on your bag; just the sight alone would scare off most attackers.
  226. >So why is the cold feeling in your chest slowly being overcome with anger?
  227. >"I gave you every chance to slink away without making a scene, Lucky," Red Letter mutters as she sends you a glare unlike anything you've ever seen from her. "You need housecarlas? I can give you housecarlas. So now you have no reason to be here. Wait outside, and I’ll tend to you shortly. I’ll be out in about...--"
  228. >Red Letter's lecherous sneer she gives Anon, coupled with what she says next, causes the prickles of anger to explode.
  229. >"--Twenty? Thirty minutes?”
  230. "/Stop this!/"
  231. >You lunge forward, but something pulls you back from behind. You don’t have time to react before your back slams against the wooden floor. A cold haze envelopes your limbs before you can whip them away. A somber blue – the same color of Vivi’s eyes – hold them in place. You try to scream out for help before cold steel touches down on your neck.
  232. >”Should’ve trotted away when he hit you, uppercastemare,” Storm sneers from behind her axe.
  233. >”Don’t you /dare/ get blood on my floor!” Red Letter shouts over the cacophony of your thumping heart and hyperventilation. The axe recedes, although the magical binds on your limbs tighten. “Take her outside, already. And find out what’s in that bag of hers. I never could get a good chance at it.”
  234. “/NO!!/”
  235. Your horn glows a fiery cyan, but it’s quickly snuffed out by Storm’s axe tapping it. “/RED LETTER!/” you shout, biting through the pain to crane your head towards your bag as the guardsmares lift it into the air. “/STOP! ANONYMOUS, PLEASE!/”
  236. >The vitriolic hate in Anonymous’ eyes – the animalistic desire to spring forward and fight – is snuffed out the moment Red Letter speaks again. “That crossbow looks expensive. Oh, paralyzing bolts. Nice. The bag’s intraflated, of course. Uppercastemares love to intraflate their purses, don’t they? You gotta disengage—”
  237. >When the contents of your bag spill onto the floor, though, she stops speaking.
  238. >In an instant, the tavern is dead silent.
  239. >Every head in the room snaps to your precious cargo as it drops to the ground.
  240. >As it lets out a squeak of pain at its rough awakening.
  241. >As it grumpily stumbles onto all fours before shaking its coat from some spilt ale, its snow white wings unfurling in the effort.
  242. >And as its horn glows a pale magenta to fully dispel the remnants of your sleep spell from its mind, its eyelids unbolt as it scans the room sleepily.
  243. >”…/Twubboh’?/” the alicorn filly gurgles to you with a tilt of her head.
  244. >”/MONSTER!/” Red Letter’s otherworldly scream blasts through the silence like an explosion. “/DESTROY IT! DESTROY IT AND KILL THE UPPERCASTEMARE!/”
  245. >A few things happen too quickly for your brain to register all at once.
  246. >In the ensuing rush of fur and magic, your captor slackens her magical hold on your limbs enough for you to scramble to your hooves.
  247. >A resounding /THWACK!/ explodes above the commotion of the unicorns.
  248. >You immediately ready a teleportation spell aimed at your precious cargo, but your connection with her has been severed. It’s as if her magical signature has become a hole in the void.
  249. >You can hardly breathe as you assume the worst, but when you see your precious cargo in the arms of a full-height Anonymous, you feel a rush of relief.
  250. >The guardsmare who had gone for the attack on the filly hisses in pain as she spits out a crimson glob.
  251. >The hyoo-men’s gaze swivels from you to the filly in his arms, as if even he was unsure of what just happened. Your precious cargo, in the meanwhile, kicks her bottom hooves in the air as she squeals in delight.
  252. >”Nonny…”
  253. >Red Letter’s voice is sickeningly smooth as she approaches the hyoo-men. As if a switch had been flicked, Anonymous is immediately hunched over and making his way to you. You almost experience whiplash from how quickly the tall hyoo-men is between you and the unicorns. Almost without thinking, you telekinetically grab your bag and slide it to your hooves. Nopony in the room even glances at you, even after you curse under your breath from the absence of your crossbow.
  254. >”You’re not from around here,” the red unicorn continues as you hear the door to the tavern slam shut. You send a glance that way to see the other guardsmare returning from locking you all in. “/And/ you’re a colt, so I’m going to give you just one chance to step away from Lucky Favor and that… /thing./ I’ll even give you a head start.”
  255. >Instead of responding, Anonymous slowly lowers the filly to the ground by his side. You’re shocked to feel the influx of magical connection be repaired once she’s out of his grip, and immediately pull her to your hooves.
  256. >Anonymous is turned away from you, so you can’t see his reaction to Red Letter’s words. Still, the looks of shock and fear that blink across her cohorts’ faces show you everything you need to see. The hyoo-men lowers himself, drawing his right leg behind him and his left leg forward, raising his fists. He’s not going anywhere.
  257. >You have your precious cargo.
  258. >You have your bag, and you have your life.
  259. >Nopony is paying attention to you right now. You could teleport to that alley and be out of the kingdom before morning. You could find another kingdom, another housecarla – Tartarus, you’ll just spend a week or so studying invisibility magic and make the whole damn trip transparent!
  260. >But no matter how hard your instincts scream at you to ignite that teleportation spell, you’re too engrossed by the sight of Anonymous, between yourself and the ponies who want you dead.
  261. >He’s not going anywhere, and neither are you.
  262. >”Kill them both.”
  263. >At Red Letter’s command, the room explodes in a symphony of lethal spells being blasted your way.
  264. >Reflexes take over as you ignite a protective sphere around your precious cargo and leap into Anonymous’ side.
  265. “LOOK OUT, MY LORD!” you screech as you careen into the hyoo-men. Anonymous yelps as he’s driven to the ground, the thunderous booms of lethal spells zipping above you both.
  266. >One by one, each lethal spell zooms across your heads, implanting into the far wall.
  267. >”/I’m immune to magic, you dumbass!/” Anonymous yells as he scrambles out of your grip. “/Stop fucking touching me!/”
  268. >You don’t have time to chastise the colt for his marely language before the cacophonous lethal magic is quickly replaced with the sizzling of an explosion spell building up.
  269. >Anonymous is already bolting from its target, so you quickly respond in kind, grabbing your precious cargo and teleporting away from the smoldering crash site, burnt wood sent flying in all directions. Your head snaps to Red Letter, and at first you think it’s the dizzying effects of magical exertion messing with your head that you see her all alone.
  270. >Then you see the smirk on her face, and you realize your mistake.
  271. >”Keep him distracted, ladies! The white one is easier prey!”
  272. >You don’t have time to check how Anonymous is faring before another boom racks the tavern.
  273. >You let out a scream as you rear back from a lethal spell implanting itself into the table just by your head. The healthy mahogany sizzles into an ugly greenish-brown before your eyes.
  274. >Not even a moment passes before you feel something buck into your stomach. Sparks fly from where Storm’s axe slashed into your underside’s armor. Your breath is knocked out of you as you fall onto your back, but the attacks keep coming.
  275. >Your focus is on Vivi as she launches booming lethal spells and howling paralysis spells your way. Your horn glows in quick spurts as you deflect each spell to the ceiling, across the room, anywhere away from yourself and the squealing filly in your forelegs as you scramble away from the onslaught.
  276. >At the sizzling of Vivi’s horn, you quickly ignite your own during the brief buildup--
  277. >Storm’s axe destroys the planks of the floor at your side, less than a hooflength from your cheek. Sharp splinters shower the side of your face as she effortlessly pulls the axe back.
  278. >You quickly snag a clump of wooden debris and hurl it at Vivi’s horn. She lets out a shriek as a splinter bounces off, and her current spell is immediately disengaged. Finally with some room to breathe, you quickly engage a protective sphere, but the moment Storm’s axe makes contact, it squeals out in a way almost pony-like.
  279. >A sharp pain rips through your horn as the sphere explodes like glass. You shout out before immediately trying for another, but when Storm raises her war axe above her head once again, you know it’s futile. The runes on the weapon’s head are glowing a foreboding purple in a pattern you immediately recognize.
  280. >Inrithaumatic runes. You can kiss your defensive sphere goodbye.
  281. “Th-those runes are illegal!” you sputter out.
  282. >Storm gives you an uncaring, unimpressed look. “It’s a miracle you survived down here for so long, white hooves,” she gibes. “/White hooves/… is that your uppercaste name, I wonder?” With a flick of her horn Storm’s axe descends onto you.
  283. >It never connects with you, though, as pure light suddenly engulfs your vision.
  284. /FSHH-OOOOM!/
  285. >A haze as hot as the sun above licks your fur as the light recedes as quickly as it came. When your vision returns, Storm is nowhere to be found.
  286. >”…Twubboh’ gawn…”
  287. >Your head snaps to the filly in your arms as her head goes slack. Were it not for the smoldering magical residue of her horn and her deep breathing, you would’ve assume she had died right there.
  288. /THUMP!/
  289. >Storm’s smoking body falls from the ceiling to an unconscious heap on the ground. Her axe follows instantly afterwards, embedding itself into the tavern’s ground. You’re met with the shocked reflection of your face, and further beyond is Anonymous fighting for his life against the two guardsmares.
  290. >ANONYMOUS!
  291. >You quickly, and rather unceremoniously, shove the filly into your intraflated bag and prepare to teleport to the gentlecolt’s aide, but the sight of the fight stops you.
  292. >Even while his attackers hold nothing back – the Swordsmare slashing at him with dual blades, Red Letter letting loose the odd crossbow bolt when there was an opening, the Caster using tables, chairs, and even her own hooves as weapons – Anonymous holds firm.
  293. >Holding firm or not, though, the sight of a stallion bleeding lines your stomach with lead. Anonymous fights unlike any colt you’ve seen – or, how you’d imagine a colt would fight. He’s brutish and direct as he sends one-legged bucks to any unicorn he can, but the guardsmares outmatch him in both mobility and weaponry. They keep out of his range, whittling him down from a distance. Crimson streaks down one of his arms as the bracer had missed another swipe from the Swordsmare. He grunts out in pain as he clumsily puts his weight on his right leg while blocking a broken bottle being thrown at him by the Caster. Immune to direct magic or not, there are plenty of corporeal objects around to be thrown at him.
  294. >He needs help.
  295. >”You’re wide open, white hooves!”
  296. >You barely have time to jump away from a lethal spell as it zips past your head, but in your haste you don’t have a solid landing plan.
  297. >Spell after spell is redirected from yourself, setting the tavern ablaze with a cyan and blue display of life and death. But this time, you don’t have the distraction of a war axe as big as yourself aimed at your head.
  298. >You start noticing the patterns of an amateur in Vivi’s casting. Her hooves remain close together even while moving, ready to spring away from any offensive spell you might send her way. Her eyes are glued to your horn, leaving every other part of your body out of focus. She tilts her head too far downwards when she aims her horn at you.
  299. >Don’t mess this up, Lucky!
  300. >Making sure to establish eye contact with Vivi, you intercept another navy explosion before you whip your head to the left. Vivi’s entire body follows as she expects a spell from that direction, and when your horn lets loose a simple wind spell, she believes she’s caught you.
  301. >Wind spells, as you know, are much easier to redirect than any other kinetic spell, but even then they are too quick to reliably maneuver. There’s no chance to curve your spell around to the right without losing control, so you instead opt to bend it in a straight line, aimed at Vivi’s hooves. They’re too close together to stand a chance.
  302. >Vivi looses her hoofing as the gust crashes into her lower body, and you immediately spring forward. Landing in front of her (/not/ on her; you don’t want to hurt anypony!) you cast a dream spell on her horn to seal the deal. The Caster slouches to the floor limply.
  303. >You hear the sharp zip of the bolt from your crossbow before you see it, but even then it’s too late.
  304. >A piercing pain shoots out from your shoulder as the bolt lodges into you, but it’s only momentary. All of the muscles, tendons – Tartarus, even the /bones/ -- in your body go numb as you tumble to the ground. The tavern around you swims as it flips upside down and right side up before settling with Anonymous in clear sight.
  305. Without any other option, you shout out, “/ANONYMOUS!/” as your magic grabs the bag and pushes it across the floor with all your might. It easily slides over the polished wood, between chairs and tables, until Anonymous’ hands sweep it up on the far side.
  306. >The change in Anonymous is almost instant.
  307. >The moment the bag is in his hands, the hyoo-men cradles it in the crook of his arm, away from his attackers. His movements are no longer brutish or clumsy; they are equal parts fluid and exact as he deflects one of the mares’ swords with a bracer, grabbing another aimed his way before hooking it in his armpit. With a graceful twist of his body, not only is the unicorn’s magical grip on the sword relinquished, but a crossbow bolt is sent whizzing just by his long torso and the bag is secured into the crook of his other arm tightly. Anonymous makes no deadly use of the sword he snatched, instead using it to crash through a table sent his way. The Caster who had thrown it at him is uncomfortably close to the hyoo-men and gives him a parting buck to the leg before teleporting away. You don’t catch which one she caught. From Anonymous’ unphased expression as he eyes the two guardsmares in front of him, you can only guess it was his good leg.
  308. >You /hope/ it was his good leg.
  309. >The second of the Swordsmare’s blades swipes at Anonymous, but he’s quicker, smacking it away with a bracer, showering the floor with sparks. In the same wave of motion, he also flings his confiscated sword toward the Swordsmare. She has no time to react before it collides with her horn. The guardsmare screams out as a few pathetic sparks spurt from her horn; this gives Anonymous ample opportunity to land the most bone-crushing punch you’ve ever seen on her cheek.
  310. >The Swordsmare falls, and the Caster is most undoubtedly next as she scrambles back towards Red Letter, hurling anything hard or sharp around her at the hyoo-men. Anonymous either bats away, dodges, or tanks whatever she throws at him until there’s the /zzzZWIP!/ of a bolt aimed not at himself, but at the bag in his arm.
  311. >Now, as stated before, you have never been in a fight. The classes you’ve taken and the books you’ve read never prepared you for all the little nuances.
  312. >The pumping adrenaline, the shaking down to your bones, the cotton in your mouth; all of these are things you had never experienced before today. Really, the only thing you had gullibly expected in no small part due to the copious amounts of romance novels you’ve read had been the one thing you haven’t experienced in this fight.
  313. >Until now.
  314. >As sparks fly from the crossbow’s collision with Anonymous’ stone bracer, showering his handsome features in a dangerous, life-threatening glow, his body twists in a way that makes your heart skip a beat. The bag is nowhere near danger, tucked away in a place more secure than the most guarded castle in the highest caste of unicorn society.
  315. >The heat of the sun above attacks your face with half of the fury you see in Anonymous’ face.
  316. >The moment ends as quickly as it began. Whatever insurmountable spell the hyoo-men had casted on you, it seems to have afflicted the Caster as well, as all she can do is stare at Anonymous.
  317. >She doesn’t make the slightest move, even when Anonymous rears one leg back and swings it into her cheek. The guardsmare’s entire body follows her head as she’s sent airborne, crashing into the bar before slumping to the floor.
  318. >Glass shatters as somepony dives through a window.
  319. >Anonymous’ head snaps to the broken window just before the white flash of teleportation magic illuminates the outside wall. For the second time of the night, Red Letter is replaced with the rain and fog of the Plumsteed night.
  320. >You can only stare at the hyoo-men as his eyes turn to meet your own. For some time you two only stare at each other, the only noise in the tavern the deafening thumping of your heart.
  321. >For some reason, you feel your cheeks heat up as he approaches.
  322. >He’s limping badly now, his right leg dragging lifelessly behind him. Still, his expression remains resolute as he nears.
  323. >…No, not resolute. In a daze.
  324. “…Q-quite the interview/wwblrrrgh/,” you gurgle before your throat goes numb and you convulse, vomiting onto the ground just beside your face.
  325. >Was it from the adrenaline? Was it nervousness from Anonymous approaching you in such a helpless state?
  326. >Either way, you might as pull the plug on your comatose dignity and say its farewells to its loving family and friends. Because it’s never recovering from that.
  327. >Anonymous doesn’t react to your half-digested lunch as he merely leans down and pulls the bolt from your shoulder. You gasp as feeling returns to your dead limbs, and groan when it reaches the many wounds you were too busy avoiding death to notice beforehoof.
  328. “A-Anonymous, dear?” you whisper hoarsely, before you realize Anonymous has walked past you. You turn to find him grabbing a wooden chair, your precious cargo still in the crux of his arm.
  329. >”More’ll come,” Anonymous mutters. He continues towards the tavern entrance, tracking blood and disjointed footprints across the floor as he does.
  330. “Anonymous, dear, it’s already locked from the inside, remember?”
  331. >Anonymous jams the chair’s top rail underneath the tavern entrance’s doorknob, not paying you any heed. Of course he ignores you, why wouldn’t he?
  332. >This is all your fault.
  333. >You put this gentlecolt in danger. You wanted to put him in danger from the start, coming here and even asking him to accept your job. You’re the reason Red Letter found him.
  334. >Even thinking her name scoops out your insides and replaces them with cold stones.
  335. >Tartarus, you’re so stupid.
  336. >You miserably drag your hooves below your barrel before slowly raising yourself to catch the hyoo-men as he makes his way back to you.
  337. “I’ll… just take her back now,” you say cautiously.
  338. >Anonymous’ eyes are unfocused, up until the moment you reach for the bag in his arms. Then they’re immediately on you, reflecting the same ferocity as when Red Letter had almost shot your cargo.
  339. >Thankfully, this moment goes on for much shorter than last time. Anonymous blinks out of his stupor, and you /swear/ you can see the life returning to his tired eyes.
  340. >”…Grghhhh…” comes from the bag in his arms.
  341. >Oh, thank the All-Mother!
  342. >Anonymous quickly kneels down and hands the bag off to you. The moment it’s in your hooves it’s opened and you pull out your cargo from within. You rotate the filly this way and that, but nothing sticks out too much. The worst is a bruise on her forehead.
  343. >”Careful with her,” Anonymous says so quietly it could’ve been a whisper.
  344. >When you turn to him, you see his eyes snap away from the filly. His expression is back to an unreadable scowl. He grunts as he hobbles to his full height. Without saying another word, Anonymous simply crosses his arms, peering down at you.
  345. >You feel so small under his eyes. Like a criminal, caught, shrunk, and placed in a glass prison to rot for the rest of your days.
  346. >Yet… it isn’t terribly uncomfortable, this prison.
  347. “S-some, interview, huh?” you chuckle, barely registering both the stutter and the voice crack. “Kind of a shame, too. I really liked that crossbow.”
  348. Anonymous’ eyes are unblinking as they bore into your own. The prison shrinks, and all you can do is lower your head and hold back the tears threatening you. “I’ll just… I’m sorry. I’ll just go. Tartarus, I’m so stupid…”
  349. >“Yeah, you are pretty stupid.”
  350. >You squeak at his voice. You had hoped he would’ve just quietly left, but you suppose you deserve his taunting.
  351. >“That doesn’t change my mind, though.”
  352. >Here it comes, Lucky. Don’t cry. You suppose you can grab Storm’s axe and use the money from that to buy a thome on invisibility. Even if you’ve never stolen before, and have no idea where to even /go/ to both sell it and buy a thome, you’re sure you can make it work. Somehow…
  353. >”Jesus Christ, I accept. Quit blubbering.”
  354. >Of course you’re crying. You never were a tough mare. Neither emotionally nor mentally, it appear—
  355. >…
  356. >…Eh?
  357. >You slowly, agonizingly, excitedly crane your head up to gauge Anonymous’ expression. He’s looking away from you, his eyebrows furrowed. The look of rejection. Yet, why did he just say he accepted your offer—
  359. >For what has to be a solid ten seconds you’re just staring at Anonymous; the hyoo-men, the capable and strong, the stalwart protector, the housecarla, the most incredible and indescribably attractive angel that the Ancients must have sent down to you in a feat of great love and mercy.
  360. >One word blurts out of your mouth.
  361. “Equestria!”
  362. >Anonymous tilts his head in a beautiful, clumsy display of confusion. Like a relatable, naive Adonis.
  363. “I’m sorry,” you almost trip over yourself saying as your magic envelopes the filly in your arms, carefully placing her back in your bag. You sling it over your withers as you trot to the broken window, Anonymous following close behind. “You asked me how far we’re headed. We’re going to Equestria. Is that far enough?”
  364. >”Is across the ocean far enough from Plumsteed?” the hyoo-men muses sarcastically as he easily keeps up with your stride, despite his injuries.
  365. >His injuries!
  366. >Stupid, /stupid/ Lucky Favor!
  367. >Stop being inconsiderate to the janefilly rogue of your dreams!
  368. “My sincerest apologies, my lord. First we must mend your wounds.”
  369. >“Stop calling me ‘lord.’ And let’s just worry about getting out of here first.”
  370. “I will worry about both getting out of here /and/ your well being, mister!”
  371. >For the first time since you’ve met him, you see the ghost of a smile threaten his lips.
  372. >You’re going to see that smile in all its magnificence one day.
  373. >The only pony--
  374. >...Well. /Hyoo-men/ to accept Tia. The first one to not atack you, or throw you out, or try to kill or steal from you.
  375. >/Ancients above, please don't let you mess this up./
  376. >You decide to push forward, turning to the hyoo-men and giving him a full-fledged grin. With an unmuffled gurgle from just behind your neck, you know your precious cargo is also giving the hyoo-men a look.
  377. “And, um, Lucky Favor is just my lowercaste name. My true name is Faust, and this is Tia! It’s a pleasure to have you aboard, Anonymous!”
  380. ~ II - Outside Stimulus ~
  382. >”Pardon me, lord Anonymous, but would it be too rash to ask you a favor?”
  383. >Your vacant gaze shifts to the white unicorn sitting across from you. Lucky Favor’s own eyes immediately snap down to the campfire, as if she hadn’t been the one who just interrupted your thoughts and dragged you back into Equus. Her ears are glued forward, but after a few seconds of some human-specialized scrutiny they start flicking this way and that, playing it off like she was just listening to the symphony of nocturnal life the whole time.
  384. >You give an affirming grunt as your gaze returns to the campfire.
  385. >A few stutters and verbal missteps later, and you’re on the verge of giving her a less polite grunt until Lucky Favor finally speaks. “Would the gentlecolt allow me to illustrate him?”
  386. You blink, unsure of how to respond, before saying the first words that come to mind. “Why're you talking like that?"
  387. >”Oh!” Lucky titters, suddenly finding her mane very strokable right now. “My apologies. I mean-- I’m sorry, Anonymous. I tend to do that when I’m nervous. Which I’m not. I’m very comfortable with you around. So… good job. Oh, drat, I just combed my mane!”
  388. >You hum in amusement before your attention turns back to the campfire. Its crackling embers, coupled with the nocturnal buzz of the night start to send you back into the nothingness of waiting for the two ponies to fall asleep.
  389. >Tia’s sudden explosion of giggles from the other side of camp, snapping you out of your progress, is a good encapsulation of your success.
  390. >”Tia, that’s not food!” Lucky Favor yawps as she launches from her sitting log.
  391. >You jolt from the quick movement. Your fingers snap to fists. However, as Tia’s giggling turns into squealing laughter, your body relaxes. You sigh at the familiar hum of a certain filly being telekinetically lifted and turn your head to the stars above.
  392. >There was a time you’d spend hours lost in the wondrous, flawless night sky of Equus. You’d wonder, if you were pulled into that sky, how far up would you go? You’d try to put what you saw into words – stars, galaxies, comets, technicolor dust, a whole slew of ethereal bodies you didn’t even know the names of – you’d run out of words, you’d just lose yourself in its beauty, and you’d start all over again. Now, though, your mind can only think of one word: stars.
  393. >It’s a starry sky, is all it is. It’s gonna be a long night.
  394. >”…So can I?”
  395. >Damn. You were hoping she would be too embarrassed to bring it up again, or would at least keep it to herself for the night. It looks like she's not letting this go. Besides, this might just mellow the mood enough for her to grow tired.
  396. You raise your hands in surrender. “Sure.”
  397. >”Oh, thank you so much!” Lucky Favor glows as her horn follows suit, washing the site in a cyan-and-orange luminance. Her bag floats to her side before being plundered by her hooves. “Did I ever tell you I drew, Anonymous? You never got around to asking me about my interests, and I’ve been dying to draw something I’ve had in mind since last night.”
  398. >A less encumbered you wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to embarrass the mare with her easily pervertible statement -- a brisk, almost instinctual /"That's what she said."/
  399. >The current you only scowls as the gashes and bruises on your body ache even brighter at the memory of last night.
  400. >Or it could be that the stitches in your arm ripped again. You’re not a doctor.
  401. >You’re also not letting Lucky Favor ever touch you with a needle, no matter how much education she says she has in medical sewing.
  402. >Something warm and furry touches your arm.
  403. >Your vision snaps to the collision site but is suddenly engulfed by a pink mane. The babbling and giggling confirm it as the filly in your arms explores the bibs and bobs of your armor.
  404. “I don’t like kids,” you sigh as your hands cradle Tia carefully and gently. She responds by staring at your fingers, letting out a quiet, “/oowaaaahhhh…/” You have to resist letting loose a smile at the cute display.
  405. >Lucky Favor’s eyes go wide over her cyan-enveloped notebook. “Y-you don’t?” she questions. The sincerity in her voice mellows whatever sudden defensiveness possessed you. “But how you fought over her last night…”
  406. >You glare at nothing in particular. You still don’t exactly know what happened in that tavern once you had a hold of Tia. At first you were enraged at Lucky for even thinking you were an adequate choice to protect the filly; she was trying to get in your mind, you were sure of it in that moment. So why did you not only still fight, but fought… frankly better than you ever had, both on Equus and on Earth?
  407. >You would’ve rather died in that fight than had to have worked for Red Letter again. It really was that extra push you needed.
  408. >/…Fuck. You owe Lucky Favor your life, don’t you?/
  409. “Whatever,” you mumble, wrapping your arms around the filly in your lap. Tia’s horn glows and you feel the familiar tingling of magic failing to affect your body. She tilts her head in confusion as she tries to envelope your finger once again.
  410. >”Whatever…?” Lucky leans forward questioningly, and you bite down the urge to snap at her.
  411. “Whatever. Fine." You extend your index finger in front of Tia's face and give her a stern wagging. Of course, she doesn't understand the gesture, and reaches with her forelegs to grab at it. "Draw me and the tyke already.”
  412. >That weird squeaky toy noise comes from Lucky again as she hastily gets to work. Unfortunately, the silence doesn’t last long, as she soon pipes up from behind her notebook, “It’s quite nice having a male influence around. For Tia, of course."
  413. You slowly raise an eyebrow. Of course, it does nothing useful until Lucky eventually peaks from her drawing once again to see your confusion. Meanwhile, Tia has successfully taken your index finger hostage and is inspecting it as if it were a wonder of the world. You make no move to pull away. “You just met me,” you remind before Lucky returns to her drawing.
  414. >”Well, yes, but you’ve been nothing short of a proper gentlecolt since then!”
  415. >/You might have hit her harder than you’d meant to last night./
  416. >You inwardly cringe at the memory, and shame burns at the back of your neck and face. You simply sigh and retreat back into yourself, paying no mind to anything as the minutes tick by.
  417. However, God has a mean sense of humor, with an emphasis on dramatic irony. Soon the curiosity of her statement takes root, then the questioning with no clear answers begin, and then the nagging feeling gnaws at your brain, before finally it’s yourself who breaks the silence. “Why are males treated so differently around here?”
  418. >”/maaaaaawez,/” Tia giggles, her voice slurred with exhaustion.
  419. >”Hm?” Lucky Favor hums, her snow white ears tilting in confusion from behind the notebook.
  420. “I don’t think I’ve seen a stallion not surrounded by mares since I got here,” you explain, careful not to jostle Tia as she begins to doze off. “Back at the tavern, there was this sign; ‘no horn, no hilt no service.’ I’m assuming by ‘hilt’ they mean dick.—”
  421. >”Language, mister!”
  422. “I’ll talk however the fuck I want.”
  423. >The scribbling of Lucky’s feather slows to a crawl. Her hindlegs draw ever so slightly closer to each other as she almost shrinks behind her notebook. Her voice is a quiet whimper. “Of course. Um, my apologies, my lord. It's only that Tia is... okay..."
  424. Your eyes study the mare for any sign of dishonesty, but you find none. You sigh loudly enough to get her attention as the prickles of hostility leave your system. “That was rude of me,” you mumble. “You didn’t deserve that.”
  425. The scribbling of Lucky’s feather resumes, although this time it’s slower, more cautious. You snort, hoping to change the subject. You think back to the place the two of you had just visited earlier today. “Even at Free Valley,” you recall, earning an attentive ear from over the book. “They changed their entire demeanor when I started talking. They started treating me like royalty, or something.”
  426. >”Well, all stallions /should/ be treated like royalty,” Lucky Favor muses.
  427. >>/Am I a fucking charity case?/
  428. >You find yourself at a loss for words at her statement. Never thought you'd hear something like that before. Especially on Earth.
  429. >As you tune back in, the scribbling of Lucky's feather has stopped dead.
  430. >In fact, her entire body seems to tense up before she slowly lowers the notebook. When her cyan eyes finally met yours, she whispers, “…Y-you deserve to be treated like royalty, Anonymous.”
  431. >And there you two are, staring at each other over the campfire. Lucky Favor’s eyes brim with a determination that you can almost find respectable, if she hadn’t just prefaced it with the clumsiest attempt at flirting you’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing.
  432. >…/Flirting?/ No, she couldn’t have been. You just met. Probably just some uppercaste cultural difference, right…?
  433. >/Please don’t be flirting./
  434. >The two of you continue the impromptu staring match for… an amount of time you’d rather not discern. Long enough for Tia’s snoring to snap Lucky out of her stupor.
  435. “You’re weird,” you say neutrally.
  436. >The blush on Lucky’s cheeks burns so bright you’re worried she might set her notebook ablaze as she buries her face in it.
  437. >Your knee bounces slowly as Lucky Favor goes to town on that notebook. You’d be lying to yourself if you said you weren’t the tiniest bit curious how her drawing will turn out. You remember back to Free Valley Carpentry, when she had gotten flustered trying to explain the minutiae of the wagon she wants for the journey to the dockyard. After a few technical words she didn’t know the meaning of were sent her way by the carpenters, she took out her notebook and started drawing the wagon of her dreams as a blueprint. It was accurate and detailed enough to draw a crowd of both carpenters and customers.
  438. >As your thoughts play with Free Valley Carpentry, you’re tempted to ask Lucky Favor about another occurrence that you had been wondering about. She had told you—no, /insisted/ that you did not, under any circumstances, call her “Faust” when there were other ponies around. “Ponies of these… /acclimations,/” were the words she used. Was it some kind of… /nomencultural faux pas/?
  439. >When you turn back to Lucky, though, the question fades from the tip of your tongue to the back of your mind. She’s sticking her tongue out in concentration, her eyes inches from her canvas as she tries to get the exact measurement of something perfectly. You can't deny that you're the tiniest bit curious how well the drawing will come out.
  440. >The fire crackles peacefully and the filly in your arms lets out a faint giggle in her sleep as she digs deeper into your chest, and the nocturnal life seems to blossom once again within the silence.
  441. >A sudden movement from above catches your attention, but you don’t flinch this time. It’s a comet, trailing across the ethereal canvas of the night sky. It blinks past the uncountable asterisms of stars, seems to cut through the limbs of a galaxy you can only guess is your own, and disappears into a nebula’s whirlwind of colors.
  442. >You feel an unfamiliar twitching at the corners of your lips; a hesitant smile, asking for your permission to blossom.
  443. >And then, when you feel as if your eyelids are getting heavier, Tia mumbles a word that makes it all stop.
  444. >It's a word that suddenly snatches around your throat and pulls you back to Earth. For a brief moment you swear you can hear what you did back then: the cold, metallic footsteps of someone passing you in the hospital corridor, and the quiet sniffles you swore to yourself you wouldn't let show.
  445. >”Dadda," Tia mumbles in her sleep.
  446. “We’re done, Faust," you growl lowly, staring into the fire.
  447. >Lucky finishes whatever line she had painstakingly been making before her eyes peek out from over her notebook. “Pardon me?”
  448. >Your heartbeat booms over Lucky’s voice. The crickets’ and bats’ calls morph and settle into a high-pitched ringing from far away. And for a split second, you swear Lucky Favor’s face morphs into that of a woman you once knew
  449. “I said we’re done,” you say as the world turns from your standing. “Stop drawing. You don't have my permission anymore."
  450. >Lucky Favor’s eyes snap to something at your feet, return to you, and repeat while her mouth opens and closes like a dying fish. You limp around the campfire to arrive by her side. As the words finally come to her, she sets the notebook down on the log. “B-but I wasn’t done yet, Anonymous!" she squeaks as she hurries to the other side of the fire. "And why would you drop--?!”
  451. >Instead of responding, you snatch the notebook from its perch. You don't look at whatever Lucky Favor drew as you rip the sheet out of the book. You don’t even feel the paper cut as it draws a red line on your finger. You don’t feel the crisp night air, the comely warmth of the fire. You feel a pounding in your head, a pain in your chest, and the pressure of something around your neck.
  452. >”/Anonymous, please stop!/” Lucky yells somewhere far off.
  453. >You toss the notebook back at Lucky, crumple the drawing into a tight ball, and drop it into the campfire.
  454. >”/ANON!/” she screeches, and your entire body twitches at the name.
  455. >>/"You deserve this, Anon," she said. "Let me make you feel good."/
  456. “Don’t you /FUCKING/ call me that!” you yell into Lucky's face, backing the unicorn up.
  457. >”W-WHY DID YOU DO THAT?!” Lucky stammers as she leaps towards the burning paper before immediately reeling back from the heat. She glares back up at you, panic and confusion clear in her face. “I thought I had your permission! And why did you drop Tia?!"
  458. >The filly's name is enough to snap you back.
  459. >For a brief, painful moment, you are fully aware of what you just did. Of what you're doing.
  460. >Your breath becomes shaky as you turn to see Tia on the floor just beside the log, staring at you in fear. Dirt covers her tuft, sullying the once picturesque white.
  461. >Lucky Favor is hyperventilating. You caused this.
  462. >/Of course you caused this. They don't have the right./
  463. >”I’m sorry about what happened to you!” Lucky says, through everything you had just put her through.
  464. >She’s apologizing.
  465. >She’s putting you in the spotlight.
  466. >She’s making this about Red Letter.
  467. >“A-a-and I want to help!" she almost begs, looking back to Tia. The filly seems to be brought out of her fear by Lucky's words, looking you in the eyes, giving a look that almost tears your heart out of your chest. "Please, just tell me what I did wrong, and I-I'll fix it!"
  468. >She did nothing wrong.
  469. >She doesn’t know better.
  470. >She doesn’t deserve this.
  471. >Somewhere, in the back of your enraged mind, you know that she means well.
  472. >/You could tell her./
  473. >You could tell her everything. You could tell her how your last days on Earth broke you. You could tell her how just how "good" a family's word was back on Earth, how good a mare's word here on Equus is. You could tell her about how you still feel the crushing sensation of the noose around your neck before you go to sleep. You could tell her all of this, and she would comfort you, and you would finally feel safe in this new, unfamiliar world.
  474. >But then, she’d be just like Red Letter.
  475. >/You can't tell her, Anon. Don't let anything slip. Don't ever give her an opening -- not pain, not guilt./
  476. >/Not like Red Letter./
  477. >/Another look at Tia, though, and you're overcome with an emotion you'll never show to a mare again./
  478. >>/"If you don’t punish yourself, Anon," she said. "I will."/
  479. >Heat explodes in your brain, and with no clear outlet, your mind acts by itself.
  480. >You turn to the hardest surface in the vicinity, rear back your leg, and use every muscle in your body to drive your leg into it.
  481. /KK-RACK!/
  482. >The sound of your bad leg slamming into the log echoes throughout the campsite like a gunshot. You buckle over onto the log and try everything. You tense every muscle in your body. You clench your teeth and ball your hands into fists so tight they’re practically glowing in the dark. You bask in the boiling rage and shut yourself out from outside stimulus.
  483. >But regardless of how hard you try, the pain always comes.
  484. >You can feel a warm liquid trailing down from your shin to your ankle. You’re not sure if the crack came from the log or your knee, but it sure feels like it came from the hollow hole in the middle of your leg. You stumble as you stand to your full height; you’ve lost all feeling in your toes.
  485. >From the sound of hoofsteps, you know Lucky Favor would help you if you fell.
  486. >/But then, what else would she feel was acceptable to “help” you? What else would she do to make you “comfortable,” to “open up” to her, to “let it all out?” What else would she be bold enough to do for the sake of “making you feel good?”/
  487. >You don’t give the mare at your side an opening. Not this time. Never again.
  488. “I--,” is all you can get out, but your voice betrays you, and breaks under the pain. You immediately clamp your mouth shut, taking a deep, susurrating breath through gritted teeth.
  489. >/You're going to break from the pain./
  490. >/Don't let them see it./
  491. >You start walking.
  492. >Before you can be consumed by the forest, Lucky Favor's aggravated voice pipes up from your side, ”And just where, pray tell, is the lord off to?”
  493. “For a walk," is all you can bring yourself to say. "I'll be back later."
  494. >The hoofsteps by your side cease. Before you’re free to limp to your heart’s content, Lucky Favor parts with one final whisper. “Come back soon, okay? And don’t dawdle near the precipice!”
  495. >When you’re finally alone in the woods, you feel as if your lungs have been opened for the first time.
  496. >There’s still the residual shaking from your outburst, in your fingers and on your face. But the pain in your leg helps to distract yourself, somewhat. It isn’t until you’re not only out of eyeshot, but also earshot, of the camp that your body forces you to lean up against a tree, unable to stand.
  497. >You barely last a second before you buckle under your own weight, shaking like a dying leaf. You let out a low, animalistic groan as you simply sit there, squeezing your head between your hands, trying to will the tears to not fall.
  498. >But, fall they do.
  499. >You feel a jolt as the first tear hits the ground.
  500. >>/"Why are you crying, Anon?" she had asked you. "You're safe now. I'll listen to you. I'll protect you."/
  501. >It becomes harder to breathe as you scan your surroundings, looking for any trace of red fur, or a pink mane or tail, or those piercing, paralyzing, /fucking/ yellow eyes. Before long, though, the world becomes too blurry. You simply hang your head in defeat, as the back of your throat stings and you hear the faintest /plip… plip…/ of drops landing on the leaves below.
  502. >/Don’t give her an opening, Anon. Not to any mare. Never again./
  503. >You use this moment of stillness to breathe. In and out, you tell yourself, in and out.
  504. >/In and out.../
  505. >You're able to steadily remind yourself that you're finally alone with each slow breath. With some effort, you're even able to push what Tia called you out of your mind.
  506. >She's not here. She's in Plumsteed. Probably scrambling to put out bounties of you two, but that'll take more than just two days./
  507. >/You liked the look on her face when you deflected her bolt in that tavern. She looked so scared./
  508. >/Like she was about to die. Like you were about to kill her./
  509. >/In... and out.../
  510. >You're not sure how much times passes with you slowly releasing the death grip you have on your own head, taking deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. It's long enough, though, that when you finally open your eyes again, you're reminded you have two ladies you're being paid a handsome sum to protect.
  511. "Just until we reach Equestria," you mutter under your breath. "Just until then."
  512. >You stubbornly wipe at your cheeks and eyes, swiping the tears until your face is red and dry. With an extra few minutes, your eyes will return to their normal color, and Lucky won't have known you were crying. You put one hand beneath you and begin to push yourself up.
  513. >/FUCK!/
  514. >You hiss as your body immediately collapses back to the ground. You reach down and pull up your pant leg to study your leg for the first time. Not an inch of peach skin shines back to you in the darkness. Everything is either purple or red.
  515. >/In...
  516. >...and out./
  517. >You slowly suck it up and get to work, clawing your way up to your left foot.
  518. >You start limping through the forest in your search for a branch of optimal size. You’re tempted to just settle for a walking stick, as a splint would work as a makeshift cast, but it’d be hard to take off. After all, you won’t be much of a housecarla if you can’t even /intimidate/ your lady’s attackers, would you?
  519. >Not only that, but Lucky Favor would have a persistent reminder that you’re injured.
  520. >Vulnerable.
  521. >A walking stick would be much easier to hide from not only your potential opponents, but your lady as well. She’s proven herself to not be able to keep her hooves to herself when it comes to your injuries, fretting over your gashes and going on and on about how she's been educated on the subject of first aid.
  522. >/Jesus, and /you’re/ supposed to be /her/ bodyguard./
  523. >That thought is what triggers the question that replays in your mind as your body switches to auto-pilot to work on your knee.
  524. >/Why did you take this job?/
  525. >You wander through the forest, intent on gathering the branches, twigs, and leaves needed.
  526. >Was it for the money? Any bounty hunter or housecarla looking in would obviously guess that it was for the money, but for some reason, the thought of six hundred doits a night just doesn't excite you.
  527. >Ah, fuck. That reminds you: you didn't get paid for the day before you stormed off like that.
  528. >...Whatever. You don't deserve it, anyway.
  529. >You have to awkwardly sit on the ground to gather some twigs from the base of a large, grey tree.
  530. >If the money wasn't it, it surely must have been the excitement. You've never been to Equestria. You've only heard stories of it from the more well traveled bounty hunters - lawlessness, dangerous wildlife, and unfathomable potential.
  531. >But that's not it, either. Maybe...
  532. >You grunt as you cut yourself pulling loose a low hanging branch from its sappy abode.
  533. >Maybe it's the distance from Red Letter.
  534. >Yes, that's it. That was the only question you asked Lucky after that awful display of a pitch. The distance away from Red Letter, and Plumsteed, and all the filth that comes with them.
  535. >It has to be the distance.
  536. >You mutter this mantra under your breath, trying to convince yourself of it, no matter how empty and angering it feels. After all, what other options are there?
  537. >/You're getting away from Red Letter. Even if she deserves much worse./
  538. >You wrap your collection of leaves into a thin string. This takes the longest to complete, at least you think. You're not keeping track of time.
  539. >Your Eagle Scout leader sure as Hell didn’t follow you to Equus, so you’re free to make your ungodly hybrid of a splint and walking stick sans God-fearing scrutiny. It’d be easy to slip off and hide when the time calls for appearing big and scary, and would be your best bet for a safe recovery. You’ve had these kinds of injuries before, back on Earth. You estimate your leg would be in walking shape by the time you reach Equestria.
  540. >Provided there are no delays.
  541. >You take a quick few minutes to situate yourself. You can see the absence of trees caused by the cliff’s precipice that way… so camp should be the opposite direction.
  542. >The trek back to the camp site isn’t quite enough to completely break in your weird, logs-and-leaves splint, but it does prove its maneuverability. The orange glow of the still-burning campfire momentarily freezes you, and you're stuck between the hope your ladies are already asleep and the determination to cough up an apology. But when you hear the loud, most unladylike snoring coming from the far side of the camp, you get your answer.
  543. >You limp into the camp, aimed squarely at your makeshift cot, only to find that it is… no longer makeshift.
  544. >The pile of leaves on grass has been changed –no, /renovated into/– what had to be a floral replica of a king’s sized bed. The two logs by the campfire had been used to create the frame, and it looks like the many barren tree branches around you had donated their leaves to make the rest. You half expect it to collapse when you poke it with a finger, as if it was just a hollow replica, but the bed holds firm.
  545. >Firm’s the wrong word. It is… /scarily/ soft. You expected it to be dry, or crinkle under your touch, but the leaves of the blanket are sown together so tightly it may as well be a fabric quilt.
  546. >Your eyes are tracing the boreal work of art when you notice a neatly folded piece of paper lying in the center of the bed. You lean over the bed to pick it up, setting a hand down on its soft sheets for support – holy fuck, you wouldn’t mind collapsing right now – and realize it’s a note. Two guesses who it’s from.
  547. >…Nevermind, one guess. The text is written in a cursive so decorative you have to remind yourself it’s Ponish in the first place.
  548. >”This fine structure has been thaumaturgically produced by the most generous donors of the forest and the skill only an uppercastemare may possess, putting even the most educated earth ponies to shame. Be not timid, for despite its magical roots, your bed remains sans ambient magic. Therefore, it shan’t collapse under your weight. Natch, not to say that the lord is in any way abdominous; his figure is as muscular a----”
  549. >That’s all you can make out before Lucky had vigorously etched out whatever else she had written. On the bottom of the note, however, lies two simple sentences, devoid of cursive.
  550. >”I’m sorry. Can we talk tomorrow?”
  551. >She’s the one apologizing to you.
  552. >You sigh, dropping the note back onto the bed. You’re already tired enough. You can just sleep on the dirt. You don’t deserve the bed, anyways.
  553. >Maybe this’ll give Lucky the clue she needs to figure out just where you two stand.
  554. >You snatch a pillow off before finding a particularly soft patch of grass. After that, you lie down, propping your leg onto the pillow before your gaze drifts up into the night sky once again. You’re almost about to feel the tiniest bit tired, too, until you hear a noise.
  555. >”/naw-naw-naw…/”
  556. >You sigh, resigned to another hour of staring up into the night sky. Today has been full of surprises. Why not add the revelation that Tia is a late sleeper to the pile.
  557. >Tia’s babbling continues, interrupted with spontaneous giggling at what you can only assume to be the smallest of things. Your gaze is glued to the night sky. Maybe if she thinks everyone else is asleep, she’ll follow suit.
  558. >That’s your thought process, until you hear her utter something that makes your blood run cold.
  559. >”/widdle sun…/”
  560. >You bolt upwards to see Tia standing dangerously close to the campfire, smiling as she reaches a hoof into the flames.
  561. “/Tia!/” you shout, making Tia jump. Her magenta orbs snap to yours. They’re devoid of tears and she’s putting equal weight on all her legs. Good, she didn’t burn herself. Still, you slowly raise one finger to the mischievous filly. “/No./”
  562. >Tia takes a few steps away from the campfire, but her eyes remain glued to you. You keep up the intensity of your glare in response.
  563. >Mission failed. Tia suddenly bursts into giggles before bouncing in your direction. “A-nawn!” she squeals happily.
  564. >You're too engrossed to realize that, in that moment, you don’t feel an ounce of panic at the nickname.
  565. “/Hey,/” you warn, accentuating your raised finger. Tia skids to a halt, well away from the fire, but dangerously close to the play zone. She seems to only look at you for a few seconds, her magenta eyes glowing in the dark as she studies your finger, then your face, then your leg. You hold onto those last, fleeting hopes that she’d just fall asleep if you don’t encourage her.
  566. >But then, she smiles.
  567. >It’s a slow, mischievous smile; the kind your racist cousin would wear at family reunions, moments before all Hell breaks loose at the dinner table.
  568. >”Naw, naw naw…” she snickers, lowering herself to a predatory crouch, wiggling her rump in the air.
  569. Your finger steadily shifts targets from the sky to the filly in front of you. “/Tiaaaa,/” you growl, narrowing your eyes into what you hoped would trigger her prey instincts. “No play. Sleep.”
  570. >Tia doesn’t respond as her tail lashes left to right. You don’t know if it’s your mind playing tricks in the dark, but you swear you see her eyebrows give a prankish wiggle.
  571. “You oppose /me,/ little filly?” you jeer lowly, raising to a sitting position to raise both hands. “They call me the Kung Fu Monkey. You wouldn’t dare—”
  572. >Tia attacks.
  573. >Actually, Tia stumbles at you and cries a war cry that wouldn’t intimidate a chipmunk.
  574. >You respond to her dastardly stumbling in kind, reaching out and grabbing the filly. She squeals as you hoist her above your head, flailing her hooves as her wings flap in the air. You’re surprised to feel the deceptively powerful gusts of wind those tiny wings produce.
  575. >”Dadda!”
  576. >You snap out of it immediately at Tia's exclamation.
  577. Tia stays suspended in your hands, giggling madly for a while, until she notices that you’re no longer smiling. A few seconds go by as she only tilts her head at you, before her expression suddenly turns grave, probably realizing what she just said. You slowly lower the filly to the ground.
  578. “I don’t like kids,” you tell yourself more than to her. What you say next, though, is directed solely at her. “And I’m not your dad.”
  579. >The moment Tia’s on the ground she’s staring at you once again. She blinks owlishly at your words. Of course she doesn’t understand you. Why would she?
  580. >”naw-naw!” she suddenly beams, before jumping once again. She lands in your lap, but is only there for a moment before you hoist her up again.
  581. “I’m serious,” you say sternly, this time to her face as you hold her still. “I’m your housecarla until we reach Equestria. Then you’ll never see me again.”
  582. >/For both your sakes./
  583. >You’re not sure if it’s the tone in your voice, or if she really can understand your words, or if it’s some Astrological, spiritual bullshit that enlightens her, but Tia seems to finally get the message. Her wide eyes turn away from your own as she scrunches.
  584. >You quickly reposition Tia on the ground. She slumps on the grass with a soft pomf!, her head hanging low.
  585. >Your expression softens at Tia's dejected state. Of course you don't want to hurt her, but...
  586. >/When did that stop you before?/
  587. >You just frown, your shoulders slumping from your collars like heavy weights. It doesn't look like Tia's suffered any bruises from when you dropped her -- her tuft has been freshly cleaned and combed from, you assume, Lucky Favor, and she doesn't seem injured.
  588. >For some time Tia doesn’t respond. She doesn’t even cry or sniffle, which is what you’ve been preparing yourself for. Instead, she suddenly stamps a hoof on the ground before giving you a glare.
  589. >”naw-nee, aaaaaah!” she yells at you.
  590. >And with that, she flares her wings before taking off like a bullet. Your brain is too shocked to register just how fast that filly was that it takes a moment to realize a bigger problem. She didn’t take off into you, or towards Faust.
  591. >She took off into the forest.
  592. “/TIA!/” you shout. You’re immediately on your feet -- /foot/ -- and limping after the impossibly quick filly. Two steps and you realize that won’t do, so you’re hopping on one leg, using your arms to launch yourself off whatever trees you pass.
  593. >The thought of calling out for Faust doesn’t even cross your mind as you’re speeding through the forest. Tia is nowhere in sight now, so you have to rely on the needle of carnage through the forest she made. Jesus fuck that filly can fly fast. Are all weird, unicorn-pegasi ponies this quick?
  594. >As you run, though, you start to notice a few things.
  595. >You pass a large, grey tree, devoid of twigs at its base. There’s that stain of blood from where you cut yourself. A few leftover leaves are scattered across a barren piece of grass. And, as you continue forward, you start to notice a distinct lack of trees in the distance.
  596. >That little shit /better not have./
  597. >You continue to tear through the forest until you see Tia’s unmistakable white coat between the trees.
  598. “/TIA, YOU LITTLE SHIT, YOU BETTER NOT HAVE--!/” you bellow as you finally approach the filly.
  599. >The filly squeaks as you come barreling through the trees. Now without any more means of velocity, and the fact that the cliff’s precipice is right there, you skid to a halt before lopsidedly falling to one knee.
  600. >Tia, though, is immediately back in bitch mode.
  601. >”naw-nee, aaaaaah!” she repeats as she jabs a hoof in your direction.
  602. “I don’t know what the /fuck/ you’re talking about,” you pant, pulling a stray twig out of the hairy bush on top of your head. “But you can shove it. We’re headed back to camp, /right now./”
  603. >”naw-nee, aaaaah!”
  604. “Yeah, yeah, naw-nee-that bullshit, chief,” you spit, using your hands to push yourself towards Tia. When she takes a step back towards the precipice, though, you immediately freeze.
  605. >Tia’s eyes aren’t scared. In fact, they’re also not angry, or even sad.
  606. >”naw-nee, aaaaah?” she questions earnestly. You don’t respond, prompting Tia to sit on her rump. Her front hooves raise to cover her eyes. “naw-nee…” she says again, before her hindlegs start wiggling in mock-terror. “/aaaaaah?/”
  607. >When her questioning gaze returns from behind her hooves, it clicks.
  608. “Am I scared?” you ask, propping an arm on the ground to settle into a sitting position. Tia responds with a rapid nod of her head.
  609. >“scawed!" she announces, bobbing her head up and down, her puffball of a mane trailing just behind. "naw-nee, scawed? naw-nee go, aaaaaah!”
  610. >You stay silent. She’s a filly. A nature-defyingly fast, weird horn-and-wings, and unusually clever filly. But a filly nonetheless; you don’t even know if she fully understands you. You don’t even know if she understands the world, or… how she’s expected to act.
  611. >As a mare.
  612. >/…You could tell her./
  613. Your voice is barely a whisper, but the recognition in Tia’s eyes, and the way her ears stand at attention, tells you it’s loud enough. “Yeah. I am scared.”
  614. >Tia doesn’t miss a beat, trotting over to you and plopping onto her rump. She puffs her chest tuft out before bellowing, “pwotect!”
  615. >>/”Protect.”
  616. >>”Make comfortable.”
  617. >>”Make you feel good.”/
  618. “It’s the night," you suddenly blurt out.
  619. >Tia tilts her head, giving a questioning hum.
  620. “It’s the night,” you lie again, giving the filly a small smile. “Sorry, Tia. I’ve been acting bad because I’m scared of the night. I don’t like the dark.” Tia’s eyes widen with realization. You fight through the sick feeling in your stomach to give her a pat on the head. “So, it’s fine. I’m just acting like a colt. You don’t need to worry about me, okay?”
  621. >But then, she smiles.
  622. >It’s a slow smile to be sure, but it isn’t mischievous. In fact, you can’t spot an ounce of malintent in it. It seems to beam through the darkness as her eyes light up with pure joy.
  623. >You don’t have time to react before Tia hops away from you, towards the edge of the precipice.
  624. “/Wait!/” you shout, but it’s too late.
  625. >Tia stands in front of the sprawling lands below the precipice and points her horn towards the horizon.
  626. >Without warning, a blinding light explodes from Tia’s horn. You instinctively cower behind your arms, but no blistering heat follows. There is no deafening explosion; just the quiet, lolling hum of a unicorn working their magic.
  627. >You slowly lower your arms, and when the white light fades to a manageable orange, you creak open your eyes. Tia stands on the edge of the precipice, proudly looking over the wildlands of the Plumsteed outskirts. Her horn glows a magnificent color; an ethereal, nebula-like ocean of yellows, whites, and purples you can’t even begin to describe.
  628. >The Sun, peering just over the horizon, glows with the same beauty. The Sun, which wasn’t due for at least another few hours, slowly ascends over the far-off mountain tops. As it climbs into the sky, the dark shadows casted by the hills, trees, and rivers of the wilderness stretch across the green canvas of the forest before slowly shrinking in accordance with the light. The familiar buzzing of the nocturnal life fades into nothingness, to be replaced by the harmonic chittering of morning animals; as if they, too, are a part of the times changing.
  629. >But the times aren’t changing by themselves.
  630. >You can only stare as the otherworldly glow of Tia’s horn slowly wanes to oblivion. The Sun floats victoriously over the far-off mountains now, framing the filly in a picturesque moment of unadulterated wonder. A wonder more deep, more powerful, and more paralyzing than any night spent under the Equus stars. Tia giddily turns towards you, her magenta locks set ablaze into a colorful inferno from the Sun’s reflection. She can barely contain herself as she giggles, “naw-naw, pwotected!”
  631. “…ahhh…” you respond.
  632. >Tia tilts her head like an innocent schoolfilly. “naw-naw stiww scawed?”
  635. ~~~
  637. >”Is there something on my face, dear? You don’t have to dance around it, for Ancients’ sake, just tell me where it is!”
  638. >She caught you staring again.
  639. >You immediately crank your head away from the unicorn by your side, instead focusing on the dirt path ahead. The sun-lit dirt path, surrounded by the green-yellow glow of the forest Sun, permeated with the tweets and calls of daytime life. You know, the things that should be happening hours from now, but aren’t because the filly in Lucky’s bag holds the power of an angry god.
  640. >The filly that Lucky Favor has been lying to you about.
  641. >”Oh come now, Anonymous. Your staring has become much less… flattering, and is starting to become borderline creepy. Not that I would ever call you creepy! It’s just that you look so… Anonymous, dear, did you get any rest last night?”
  642. >Either she’s talking about the dark bags under your eyes or the fact that you’re not so much staring at her, more so flashing her death glares.
  643. >You were right to not open up to her.
  644. >”Oh! We’re here, my lord!”
  645. >You grit your teeth as, for the dozenth time too many, Lucky calls you her lord. Thankfully, the sight of Free Valley Carpentry coming into the distance saves you from snapping at her.
  646. >It’s a quaint little cottage, and if it isn’t for the large thatch-and-wood workshop attached to its side, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for somepony’s home. The place is festooned with the branches and vines of the forest engulfing it from all sides, however you know they don’t provide any threat to the building’s integrity. Technicolor ropes of ambient magic sprawl across the surrounding foliage’s surfaces, between bark and under stones, preventing anything from causing harm to the structure.
  647. >It’s apparently a “rather disreputable establishment” for Lucky’s tastes. Translated from pretentious bitch, that means “sketchy.” Regardless, it’s the only workshop out of Plumsteed, and by proxy, out of Red Letter’s reach. Plus, it looked honest enough to you; enough for you to be wearing your splint with no worries of hiding it.
  648. >As the two of you near Free Valley, the sounds of the workshop overtake the wildlife of the outdoors; horns humming, hammers nailing, and unicorns shouting indistinctly.
  649. >”I hope they have it ready by now,” Lucky Favor says quietly. “I’d like to be rid of this place as quick as possible. And, once we’re on the road… if it’s not too much trouble, talk.”
  650. >You can feel Lucky’s eyes on you, as if she’s waiting for confirmation. But your attention is on the mare approaching the two of you. The tan overalls and various bandages on her face and forelegs verify her workplace.
  651. “Heads up.”
  652. >Lucky gives a little squeak before she turns to see the unicorn as well.
  653. >”Miss Lucky Favor?!” she calls out, and you can instantly tell what brand of ale she prefers. Gravel.
  654. >”O-oh!” Lucky responds eloquently, speeding to a canter to meet up with the unicorn just ahead. “Yes, that’s me. Excuse me, but you weren’t the one we met before—"
  655. >”Yeah, there’s more than one worker here. Makes the place run smoother. I'm Smooth Roads. A thousand and five hundred big ones for the finishing costs, Lucky-loo.”
  656. >You take a little pleasure in watching Faust squirm before her horn glows, drawing the doits from her bag. “One hundred, two hundred…” she whispers to herself as she counts. You, meanwhile, wander past her towards the workshop.
  657. >The racket of the unicorns raises tenfold as you cross the corner of Free Valley to be greeted by the open wall of the workshop. Unicorns trot this way and that between tasks as their horns glow. You have to bow to avoid smacking your head on their cargo, virtually making up a low ceiling of boards, planks, and an assortment of other wood-based paraphernalia. Most of the unicorns – especially the ones who heard you speak yesterday – raise their cargo as it nears your head, but you still allow a good foot of leeway.
  658. >You weave through the busy crowd of miniature horses before you arrive at a very familiar-looking house-on-wheels. You whistle at the accuracy of the whole thing; the unicorns got everything right. From the windows, to the empty supply barrels and bags hanging off the side, to even the miniature watch tower at the back which you had insisted would be a contrivance at best.
  659. >Well, that makes /one/ of Lucky Favor’s drawings coming to fruition.
  660. “God damnit,” you mumble, suddenly feeling very small.
  661. >”Hey!”
  662. >At the resounding /thwack!/ of a blow gun's impact, your eyes snap to the new smoking hole in the ground just between your feet.
  663. >“You!” the feminine voice continues, drawing your attention to…
  664. >…What the Hell?
  665. >”Yeah, you! The crippled, hairless cat! What’re you doing around our wagon?!”
  666. >You hadn’t noticed it before. You blame your lack of sleep for thinking the band of unicorns occupying your wagon were workers. Now that you pay closer attention you surmise that the band of unicorns occupying the wagon aren’t wearing overalls, or wielding hammers. They’re wearing an assortment of mixed and matched-together armor, wielding everything from swords to blow guns. You know this because each of the weapons are pointed at you.
  667. >You cross your arms, giving each of the wagon raiders a glare. The one with the blow gun pointed at you is standing on the seat of the wagon, just beside her a pony… that’s blind?
  668. >Sure enough, the unicorn on the seat’s eyes are a muted gray, staring into emptiness. She nervously paws at the one with the blow gun, obviously perturbed by the tension.
  669. >Before you can open your mouth, you hear a familiar voice pipe up from just beside you.
  670. >“Pardon me, dears,” Lucky Favor questions with a genuineness you hope she doesn’t mistake for intimidation. “But why’re you dirtying your hooves on our wagon?”
  671. >”/YOUR/ cart?!” the blow gun one explodes, staring daggers at Faust. “You little bitch, we—”
  672. >”/NO FIGHTIN’ IN MAH BUCKIN’ WORKSHOP!/” Smooth Roads explodes as she… materializes beside Lucky. The effect of her voice is instant, clapping each of the unicorns’ ears to their skulls. The blind one whimpers as she bats the air around her ears.
  673. >/Thank you, inferior human hearing./
  674. >As Smooth Roads continues laying into the wagon fetishists, you hear a faint “A-ahem…” by your side. You’re not exaggerating. Lucky just stuttered while she didn’t clear her throat, but said the English word, “Ahem.” You turn to your lady to find her peering up at you nervously. “Anonymous… I want you to know that I say this not to sound misandrist, but to protect your identity as a male of an unknown species. Please don’t speak, and reveal your gender. I don’t trust these ponies.”
  675. >Your eyes narrow at your lady, but you decide to remain silent.
  676. >Lucky blinks at your reaction, and it looks like she's about to say something else, until she simply frowns and turns back to the commotion at the wagon.
  677. >”What crawled up your snatch, Roads?” one of the wagon raiders snaps back.
  678. >”A couple’a no-good, illiterate rats who were too late on the draw!” Roads responds, her accent now much more prominent from her anger. “Beat it! This one’s paid for.”
  679. >”That didn’t matter last--”
  680. >”This wagon was assembled to the paid order of lady Lucky Favor, and her housecarla who wishes to be named anonymously!”
  681. >Teehee.
  682. >Smooth Roads’ horn glows an earthly brown before the bell by the wagon’s front seat is enveloped by her hue. The unicorn doesn’t have time to react before the bell smacks her upside the head.
  683. >She snarls, but her aggression never boils into attacking. With a simultaneous grumble from each of the wagon raiders, they step down from the structure, their wagon raiding fantasies crushed. They don’t disperse, however, instead trotting up to Smooth Roads, engaging in a hushed argument.
  684. >”Y’all can go on and take yer’ wagon,” the craftsmare says before she’s pulled into a bout of angry whispers.
  685. >As you and Lucky pass the huddle, you can faintly make out three words:
  686. >“…three thousand total…”
  687. >Roads' words, for some reason, unnerve you as you pass the unicorns. You can't get out of here soon enough.
  688. >You step up and onto the front seat of the wagon, and are surprised to not even hear a creak as you settle down; not even when Lucky Favor hops up the hoofsteps to join you on the soft cushion.
  689. >The space in front of the wagon is cleared of unicorns, and you’re about to catch up on some much-needed rest until a voice snaps you awake.
  690. >”Hold on now, hold on now!”
  691. >You jolt at the sensation of the wagon’s weight shifting once again. One of the wagon raiders doesn’t mind the owners’ glares sent her way as she ascends the hoofsteps to be level with you and Lucky.
  692. >/…Well, fuck you too, inferior human smelling. You aren’t helping one bit with this walking ball of sweaty fur and dirt./
  693. >“I’d hate for us to part on terms such as these,” the unicorn says with a stained smile, before holding a hoof out to you. “The name’s Lily. And yours, ma’am?”
  694. >You keep your glare level at Lily, even if it’s becoming increasingly hard to resist the urge to back away from her. There’s something in her eyes that makes you uneasy.
  695. >They remind you of another set of pale yellow eyes.
  696. >“Lucky Favor, as you know," the aforementioned unicorn says at your side. You lean back to give Lily a proper view of her conversation partner. The unicorn responds with a disappointed “hmph,” but otherwise turns to Lucky gracefully. “The rightful owner of this wagon, as my friend Smooth Roads told you.”
  697. >”/’Rightful owner,’/ she says,” Lily giggles softly, shutting Lucky Favor up. There’s a moment in which Lily’s soft titter reigns above the clamor and ruckus of the workshop, dominating whatever Lucky’s retort would’ve been into submission. Lily suddenly smiles to Lucky with a less-than-appropriate gaze. ”Ten thousand.”
  698. >You blink.
  699. >”Pardon?” Lucky Favor almost whispers, staring at Lily like she had grown a second head.
  700. >”I’ll even magic up a contract that prohibits myself and my cohorts from touching your wagon until the money is in your hooves,” Lily continues, accentuating her point with a tap-tap-tap on the wood. “Ten thousand doits, Lucky Favor. That’s a might more than what you paid, wouldn’t you say? Now I’m no accountant, but slap me silly and call me a househusband if that’s not a steal! Not only that, but you could just draft up another, better one with the extra money. And let’s not forget your /cat friend’s/ need of proper medical attention over here.” You subconsciously drag your injured leg away from Lily. Another tap-tap-tap as she leans over to Lucky with a hungry glint in her eyes. “What do you say?”
  701. >You can hear Lucky Favor’s heartbeat through her chest. “Wh-why do you want it so much?!”
  702. >”I’m an artist at heart. I can appreciate a fellow craftsmare.”
  703. >Lucky Favor’s wild expression turns from Lily to you in an instant. Your own expression isn’t faring much better. You’re at a loss. The trade makes perfect sense to you. Ten thousand bits for a wagon that costed /three/ thousand to make. Lily’s promise of honesty means nothing to you, but that doesn’t change the fact you’re in the middle of the Free Valley workshop. There are too many particularly burly, rough-and-tumble witnesses.
  704. >Just… /why/ does she want it so much?
  705. >…
  706. “I think we should take her up,” you whisper to Lucky Favor. “Then get out of here as quick as possible.”
  707. >From the wagon’s weight shifting and the preserved humming, you can tell that Lily is leaning away from your conversation and giving you both some privacy.
  708. >“It’s not about the money!” Lucky nearly yelps. “I have more than enough doits as is! We don't need it!"
  709. >You swear you hear Lily's humming falter as Lucky mentions her doits. Your heartbeat quickens, and you glare at your lady for letting that slip, but Lucky Favor either doesn't notice or is too preoccupied with her rant to care.
  710. >"This is my wagon!" she says. "And we’d be in the woods for another night before we got a new one!”
  711. “Why does one more night camping matter?" you murmur.
  712. >”Because every minute we spend here is a minute we spend risking Red Letter finding you!”
  713. >You feel a stone drop in your stomach. Another dishonest mare, acting like she cares about you.
  714. “/Stop.../" you growl lowly, "/worrying about me/."
  715. >Lucky Favor’s eyes widen at your tone. She’s silent for a while, until her entire body droops. “Right. What was I thinking..."
  716. >You would feel bad about ruining your lady's mood, but at the moment, there's a filly in a bag she's been lying to you about, so you suppress it. You turn away from Lucky's eyes ever so slightly before you notice something about said filly in a bag.
  717. >Tia is no longer beside her.
  718. >The bag is floating across the front of the wagon to the group of unicorns.
  719. >Your eyes snap to the trajectory of the bag to see that, among the wagon raiders still surrounding Smooth Roads, the blind one has her eyes clenched shut in concentration. The one with the blowgun strapped to her withers whispers something into her ear, her eyes glued on the bag.
  720. >The blind one’s magical aura is transparent and silent. They’re trying to steal Tia.
  721. >Your body moves of its own accord before your mind can catch up. Without even a warning to Lucky Favor, you launch yourself from the helm of the wagon and barrel towards the airborne bag. Lily gives a sharp yelp of surprise, and the blind unicorn's eyes widen in confusion before the bag speeds up.
  722. >"/Hey!/" is all the blowgun unicorn can get out before you nearly throw yourself with your fist as you punch the blind unicorn's snout in. There's a red explosion of liquid from her nostrils as she collapses to the ground.
  723. >Your breath matches your thumping heartbeat as you quickly scoop up the bag and attempt to back up to the wagon, but something furry stops you from retreating any further.
  724. >”/What in the All-Mother's chest tuft are you doing?!/” Smooth Roads yells from behind, giving you a surprisingly strong push back towards the wagon raiders.
  725. >All eyes in the workshop are on you.
  726. >”[i]The bitch is crazy![/i]” the blowgun unicorn yells out as her weapon is leveled at you. "She just knocked out a blind pony!"
  727. >You glare daggers at the lying cunt, once again limping away from her, before you feel something warm and furry snatch around your hand.
  728. >/Pale yellow eyes above red hooves, pulling your hand--/
  729. “/Don't touch me!/” you scream, whipping your hand away from the mare who had made contact.
  730. >It’s one of the wagon raiders, whose enraged expression turns to awe the moment you open your mouth. Each of the would-be raiders are quiet amongst the racket of the workshop. Even Smooth Roads is silent, just lowering her eyes to the ground and shaking her head.
  731. >The room spins as you stumble away from the group, clutching the bag close to your chest. As you near the side of the wagon, Lily is already on the floor beside it, giving you enough distance to climb up.
  732. >You don’t miss the hard glance she gives your injured leg before she says, “My apologies to the… /gentlecolt/ and his lady.” You ignore her as you grab the front seat and hoist yourself up the steps. “It seems we’re all in a bit of a foul mood this morning.” You finally settle down onto the seat, squeezing the bag to your chest. “None of us got a good rest last night.”
  733. “Go,” you grit out to Lucky.
  734. >Lucky Favor snaps to attention and her horn glows. Immediately, the front reigns are pulled taut and the wagon lurches forward. Each of the unicorns give your wagon a wide radius to leave Free Valley Carpentry.
  735. >Smooth Roads hides her face from you as you pass by. The wagon raiders now wear a range of unsettling expressions on their faces, from awe, to anger, to lascivious smirks.
  736. >/Lily has the same pale yellow eyes as Red Letter./
  737. “Can this thing go any faster?" you snap to Lucky, cradling the bag closer to your chest.
  738. >”We’re not even out of the shop yet!” Lucky chastises, her face pulled into a glare of barely-restrained panic.
  739. >Every instinct in your body is screaming at you to get out of there before it’s too late. All you can feel is a burning sensation, and a pressure around your neck.
  740. >”naw-naw?” Tia says hesitantly from the bag. Or was it just your imagination?
  741. >“Why would they try to steal my bag?!" Lucky Favor asks shakily, her breath becoming ragged and uneven. "Oh Ancients, they could know about Tia..."
  742. "They don't know about her!" you snap. "They're just thieves. We need to get out of here before they can catch up."
  743. >[i]They can't catch up, surely. They don't even have a wagon. And you're beginning to actually get some speed going.[/i]
  744. >"W-w-was it about the doits?" Lucky begins to hyperventilate. "Did Lily overhear me talking about the doits?! Ancients, I'm so stupid!"
  745. "She couldn't have told them about your slip-up. Unless they're telepathic."
  746. >"No! Telepathy is high-level magic. Th-they wouldn't--..." Lucky's breath becomes too deep and quick for her to continue to speak. You reach to give her a pat on the back, but after a glance to her glowing horn and the reigns of the wagon, decide against it.
  747. >You’re shaking too much to look back at Free Valley Carpentry to see how much of a head start you have. A part of you doesn't want to risk even looking back -- you recognize the predatory glint in those mares' eyes from anywhere.
  748. >The forest isn’t a green blur yet. The sweat on your forehead isn’t getting whipped off. You aren’t careening down the path at breakneck speeds.
  749. >It isn’t fast enough. You don’t even see the bolt coming.
  750. >You feel a blistering pain in your shoulder. Your hand shoots up to grab at it but falls limp halfway there. You can only turn your head ever so slightly to catch the blow dart embedding in your shoulder, its red feathers dancing in the wind.
  751. >The last thing your blurry vision can make out is the insignia of a red lily on the dart’s body.
  752. >The last thing your muffled hearing can perceive is Lucky Favor’s horrified yelp, and victorious whooping from somebody you can't see.
  753. >Your touch is the last to go. Before you drift into darkness, you can feel one tiny hoof pressing against your chest.
  754. >And then, nothing.
  757. ~ III - Rats and Mud ~
  760. >This isn’t how it was supposed to go.
  761. >Your first time in the wagon’s interior was supposed to be the rest you had craved for the last three weeks. You would have driven to the nearest settlement, bought a map of the coast, and casted an ambient direction spell on the wagon before finally collapsing onto a soft bed. You would have maybe even picked up a few books from the settlement – if the lowercaste mares there were literate – to read during the journey. Feel a little piece of the life you had given up.
  762. >Who knows? Maybe you could have even read to Anonymous, or just talk with him. Give him the moment of peace he deserved, bond with the hyoo-men.
  763. >It wasn’t supposed to go like this.
  764. >Your body tingles as the regrettably familiar sensation of a paralysis spell renders it numb. The interior of the wagon is dark. The decorative lantern on the ceiling is unlit, leaving the only source of light in the wagon the orange glow of the raider keeping you still. The light from the outdoors sun is nothing but a fond memory now. All you can see outside is a crushing, gray mist, interrupted only by the gliding treetops.
  765. >The interior of the wagon is dead silent, your only companion bound in rope and lying unconsciously against your back. Anonymous’ breathing is scarily quiet, and if it wasn’t for the odd shudder or quiet mewl, you would’ve thought him dead long ago. Muffled hoofsteps and jeering can be heard from outside. They’re all thick with that ugly accent you want to make disappear in a poof of noxious gas. The workers at Free Valley were also cursed with that disgusting lilt. You should’ve left the moment they opened their dirty, lowercaste, lying mouths.
  766. >/...You shouldn't be having these thoughts, Faust. Stop thinking like that./
  767. >Another rattle from the outside world sends quakes throughout the wagon much like the many occasions before it. This time, though, you almost skid across the floor from the sudden stop. The furniture shifts and swings precariously. You can hear indiscernible babbling from the cretins outside, followed by hurried shuffling. These raiders wouldn’t know how to drive a wagon if they were born with the reigns in their hooves!
  768. >The unicorn watching over you and Anonymous lets out an exasperated snarl of a sigh before slinging her blowgun over her withers and stomping to the window. Your Paardian armor jingles cruelly as it hugs her figure, sparkling in the dark like a treasure you could never reach. The unicorn peels back one of the curtains, throws open the glass, and shouts, “Would you flea-ridden idjits learn to drive, for Ancients’ sake?!”
  769. >You suppress a whimper at the new crack that adorns the window you had designed.
  770. >”Shut your crusty snatch, Sparrow!” comes an equally irked voice from outside. “We’re here anyways! Be grateful Sapphire Lily let you stink up the inside first.”
  771. >”That’s ‘cuz I’m the one who put the weird, hairless cat to sleep,” Sparrow snickers, closing the window in a manner no more gentle than her first encounter. As the sounds and vibrations of ponies unlatching the door echo throughout the wagon, the unicorn trots in your direction.
  772. >She knows you’re awake. She knows you can’t defend yourself.
  773. >You can’t even manage a whimper as Sparrow’s hooves get closer and closer… until she hops over you. She lands behind you with an almost dainty set of clicks before she whispers, “Here’s hoping you’ll be keeping me awake all night, kitty cat.”
  774. ”/Waste of an Ancients-given horn./”
  775. >It slips out before you can stop it.
  776. >Sparrow lays a hoof on your cheek before she effectively punches your face towards her own. All you can see are her wicked irises as she whispers lowly, “Say that again, Lucky.”
  777. >The muffled shambling from outside is suddenly denuded as the door to the wagon is swung open. An oppressive gray light fills the room, but before it lands on Sparrow, she roughly shoves your head back to the ground.
  778. >You’re met with the yellow grin of Lily leaning into the door frame. Other unicorns wait patiently behind her. “Sorry for the bumpy ride,” she says before she steps up and into the wagon.
  779. >You instinctively try to kick with your hooves when the unicorns pull you across the floor and into the outside world, but it’s useless in more ways than one. Raiders surround you, both Casters and Swordsmares, even if their attention is turned away from you as if you’re an afterthought.
  780. >You don’t recognize the part of the forest you’ve landed in, and you can’t tilt your head to attempt to start. The unicorns are gathered around a circular clearing of dirt; besides that, and the discarded fake bushes beside the brown patch, your surroundings are indistinguishable from being lost in a misty forest. You can hear the calls of water birds through the mist, and the rhythmic waves of a lake somewhere close by.
  781. >”Careful with his head, you stupid cunt!” a raider whispers hoarsely from behind. “Lily’ll have your cutie mark on her wall!”
  782. >”Then you should’a told me telekinesis wouldn’t work first, /whorse,/” another responds.
  783. “Anonymous?” you call out, but the unicorns behind you don’t respond as they descend from the wagon with a quartet of grunts. Their hoofsteps are heavy as they struggle under the weight of your housecarla.
  784. >”This colt’s heavy.”
  785. >”It’s all muscle, filly. /Allll muscle./”
  786. “/Don’t touch him!/” you shout, even if there’s nothing you can do. “Please! Please, I’ll pay you!”
  787. >There’s a cruel pause before you hear a cacophony of rough guffaws and laughter surrounding you.
  788. >”Is this your first time getting robbed, little filly?” one of the voices chuckles.
  789. “I can pay you!” you plead. “I-I can pay with something I guarantee you’ll never find! Something of which only I know the location! Thousands of doits!”
  790. >”You wouldn’t happen to be talking about this bag your coltfriend is so in love with, would you?”
  791. >You freeze as your bag levitates in front of your eyes, dangling in the air like you would a toy over a baby. You were sure you hid the bag in a place they would never find. You casted an ambient invisibility spell on it. You casted a /sleep/ spell on Tia. You casted a /physical transparency/ spell on the bag! They would have /never/ found it!
  792. >/HOW DID THEY FIND IT?!/
  793. >”I wonder just how much she /can/ pay us to stop touching the cat.”
  794. “/STOP!/”
  795. >Your bag is upended. Down falls all your belongings from the intraflated interior; the dozens of painstakingly counted 600-doit bags, the sealed box which contains your drawing utensils, your many supplies and food bags, your cosmetic items…
  796. >But no filly.
  797. >You can’t decide between feeling overjoyed or mortified as a voice booms over the cackling raiders.
  799. >You recognize the gravel in that voice.
  800. >The raiders around you grumble their complaints as they scoop your belongings aside. The crowd of unicorns have turned towards the troublemakers surrounding you, giving you a clearer view at the only pony who could fit that voice. Smooth Roads stands further in the clearing beside another pony, giving your purse purloiners a colty stink eye.
  801. >/You never should've trusted her./
  802. >The unicorn’s earthy brown eyes flick to your own. Why hadn’t you seen it sooner? No… why hadn’t you /heard/ it sooner? It was in the accent.
  803. >Scratch that. It was everything about her. She’s lowercaste scum.
  804. >/…Why did you just think that, Lucky?/
  805. >You swear you can see the fire in Smooth Roads’ face extinguish once she looks to you. Her body slumps slightly as she hurriedly turns back around. Roads whispers something to the pony besides her before the other one raises her head.
  806. >…No, /his/ head.
  807. >There’s a stallion standing beside Smooth Roads. You had initially thought he was a mare because of how skinny he is, but now there’s no mistaking it. You can see each of the pony’s ribs striate and push against his wide, rustic orange frame as he settles down to his flanks. A few flecks of dirt fall from his disheveled mane as he sends a quick glance your way. That’s when you see it.
  808. >He’s hornless.
  809. >The glance lasts less than a second before the earth pony turns back to the clearing. He lowers himself to the ground. Smooth Roads follows suit slowly, a soft smile on her hard features as she whispers something to the stallion.
  810. >”Stop bucking teasing us…” you can hear Sparrow mutter under her breath as the colt turns away.
  811. >”Save it ‘til we’re under,” Lily murmurs in response.
  812. >You underestimated these ponies. Maybe it’s a testament to your naivety that you’re thinking that just now, with how they treated Anonymous. Or perhaps it’s the fact that you’re seeing their cruelty on a stallion first hoof; a /pony/ stallion, who obviously can’t defend himself.
  813. >The soft smile on Roads’ face is suddenly gone as she snaps back to the raiders. “/NOW YOU DECORATIVE CACTUS-BUCKERS HAVE GONE AND DONE IT!/” Her voice booms across the clearing as if augmented. A few of the raiders closest to her and the stallion take a step back. Sparrow does as well, even if she’s nowhere near the two. “/HE’S LOST HIS FOCUS! WHERE IN THE ETERNAL GRAZE IS OUR CLOUDPUSHER?!/”
  814. >…/Cloudpusher?/
  815. >”Just finishing up, /wagon wrangler!/” a voice chirrups from above, and your ears plaster against your skull.
  816. >Oh no.
  817. >Oh, Ancients above, no.
  818. >Please, by the fleas which gnaw at the All-Father's rotting tuft, tell yourself you didn’t just hear the unmistakable chirp at the end of that sentence.
  819. >Please tell yourself you’re just imagining the sound of wings flapping from above.
  820. >Unfortunately, even your imagination isn’t strong enough to conjure up the sight of a pony descending from above. She wears a conceited smirk as she turns her head this way and that, inspecting the thick mist she’s most undoubtedly responsible for. You’d be surprised if the white cloud in her hooves wasn’t swooped in on and stolen by the sky rat’s dirty, thieving hooves.
  821. >The sky rat bobs in a slow, annoying descent before touching down on terra firma. As she does, you notice a set of magical bands around her limbs and neck; an extra pair adorns her wings. You wish more pegasi had this one’s sense of fashion, if those bands are what you think they are.
  822. >”Isn’t that a tad bigger than needed, Max Gusto?” Smooth Roads drawls, sticking a hoof to the cloud in the sky rat’s vomit-inducing, lime green hooves.
  823. >Max gives a noncommittal shrug, shuffling the saddle on her back, before responding, “Guess it’s going in storage, then.”
  824. >”Whatever,” Roads sighs. “Just talk some sense into this colt.”
  825. >--Wait.
  826. >Hold your ancestors.
  827. >Max is wearing a /saddle?/
  828. >And /nothing underneath?!/
  829. >In /PUBLIC?!/
  830. >”She was slower today,” you hear Sparrow mutter to Lily. “I almost missed my shot on the colt. We might need to replace her soon.”
  831. >”We will,” Lily responds nonchalantly as Max and Roads continue chatting. “But later. If Essence hadn’t ‘gotten distracted’ and crashed our last wagon, maybe we’d have time to catch another sky wanderer. Real shame we had to burn it. I liked that wagon.”
  832. >“’/I swear it on my father’s grave!/’” Sparrow mocks in a sotto giggle. “’/I saw it with my own eyes! The bucking Sun was pulled up by magic!’/”
  833. >The two ponies chuckle with each other before the clearing once again goes silent. You can’t help but feel tears threatening you from the back of your throat. Of course your wagon was never special to these ruffians.
  834. >/How are you going to get out of this, Lucky Favor?/
  835. >”Hey,” Sparrow whispers to Lily gravely. “Is it just me, or is the lake shallower than yesterday?”
  836. >Lily’s response is cut off by a slew of noises from the front of the raiders. The command of silence from Smooth Roads is ignored, or perhaps nonverbally revoked, as a din of sighs, cheers, and hollering echo around the misty clearing. You can also hear the earthly rumble and swelling of a landslide, but that wouldn’t make sense. You’re on flat land.
  837. > The sight of a moving forest is the only indication the unicorns have gripped your hindlegs and started to pull you forward. Your numb body can’t feel the dewy grass and moist dirt as they begin to slide through your fur. The silence of the clearing is replaced with a stampede of raiders’ hooves as they trot forward. You can also hear a few commanding shouts near your wagon before its wheels begin to crunch over the grass in pursuit.
  838. >”The earthpusher might also need a replacement,” Sparrow mutters.
  839. >”Sky wanderers are manageable enough,” Lily grunts as the smell of fresh soil tickles your nostrils. “But catching another mud horse? Between you and me, we got lucky with this one.”
  840. >”Lucky? The stallion is downright braindead! He doesn’t even struggle anymore when the gals and I have our fun. He spends all his free time with his head against the wall. Only ever opens his yap to Max.”
  841. >You can feel your throat going numb as bile threatens your tongue. These ponies /are/ lowercaste scum.
  842. >”He gets the job done,” Lily says. “Even if he relies on the sky rat.” You notice a faint echo of her voice, getting closer with each passing second of dragging. Not the distant call of the forest, but something much more tunnel-like.
  843. >As the vision of the forest slants, you get your confirmation.
  844. >You /know/ there wasn’t a tunnel here before, yet here it is.
  845. >”Max!” Smooth Roads’ shout echoes from somewhere you can’t see. “It’s as dusty as the All-Father’s rotten coffin in here! Do your bucking job!”
  846. >”Sure thing, cotton tuft,” the sky rat responds. You can’t /feel/ the pressure of the pegasus flapping her wings forward, but you can /hear/ it. You can also hear the sound of a thin sheet of rain peppering the dirt below following her.
  847. >Moist, brown walls rise to cover the open air of the forest as you’re dragged deeper into the earth. Every sound of the raiders around you – the clinking of their weapons, the rustling of your wagon, the low conversations you try and blot out – now echo and bounce in the dirt tunnel that’s materialized around you. The gray light of the outdoors is replaced with a crushing darkness.
  848. >Just as you begin to think Equus itself has consumed you, the orange glow of lanterns begin to paint the dirt and ponies surrounding you. More sounds join the fray, but they’re less brutish than your company. The volume and multiplicity of chatter and hoofsteps increases. The pulsating clanking of somepony hammering a disobedient weapon into shape slices through the crowd. The crackling of a far-off fire is concerning, but when you’re dragged into a large, dome-like dirt cave, you don’t see a puff of smoke above. All you see is a large amalgamation of fluffy, white clouds – as big as your wagon, in fact.
  849. >The voices turn to passing ponies as you’re dragged into the bizarre, underground hamlet, and you immediately discern they’re not friendly either. If their coat isn’t festooned with scars, home-made weapons trail above them in a magical grip, or mixed-and-matched armor hang from their bodies. None of the unicorns pay you any heed, but a few of them send a confused glance Anonymous’ way.
  850. >The tent in the center of the circular village suddenly bursts open in a flurry of fabric. The two raiders standing beside the entrance flinch as its occupant comes marching out. The moment the exiting unicorn’s eyes land on you, you’re glad you’re too numb to feel the beatdown that you know is inevitable. Fortunately, the mare’s glare nearly instantaneously shifts to Smooth Roads before she starts to trot over.
  851. >”I’ll do the damage control,” Lily sighs as she steps over your limp body and makes her way to Smooth Roads’ side. “Probably asshurt about the price…”
  852. >”H-hello, Alpha,” Smooth Roads nearly whispers, her voice almost indistinguishable from under the ruckus of the village. “Ya’ might be wondering why I brought two outsiders--…”
  853. >Whatever argument the trio of unicorns devolve into, you can’t catch before you’re dragged deeper into the underground settlement. Between the tents, ponies, and the bonfire in the middle of the site (you’re /still/ unsure of how it hasn’t already turned the place into a smoke sauna), you catch a glimpse of a dirty orange pony. True to Sparrow’s word, the earth pony stallion sits far away from the gathering of the hamlet. You can clearly discern his spine through his coat as he slouches away from you, his forehead pressed against the dirt wall.
  854. >Before the view of the stallion is obscured by orange-tinted fabric of a tent, you catch a technicolor trio of mares approaching him.
  855. ”/NO!/” you shout as you’re dragged across the first iron bar the cage.
  856. >You lose sight of the stallion. You urge your body to stand up, to flail, to teleport out of the metal cage to his side – to do /anything/ -- but Sparrow’s magic still holds you tight.
  857. “/Scum,/” you snarl between gritted teeth uselessly. “Scum…”
  858. >”At least I’m not rotting in a cell,” Sparrow coos before the orange glow disappears and feeling returns to your body.
  859. >You scramble to your hooves and lurch towards the gate to the cage, but the bruises and aches of your trip catch up to you before you can. Sparrow giggles at your tumble before you’re locked in. She opens the flap to your tent to make her exit.
  860. >Through those folds, you see the unconscious body of Anonymous being dragged through the dirt, in no way aimed at your own cell.
  861. “/Wait!/” you scream. “/Wait, wait, please wait! Sparrow, relocate my housecarla to my cell! I’ll do anything!/”
  862. >”Don’t worry,” Sparrow throws over her withers as she trots through the folds of the tent. “We’ll make the gentlecolt comfortable.”
  863. “/STOP!/” you yell out, but the mare is gone.
  864. >Your horn strains painfully from the effort of attempting magic against the ring. You push and pull against the gate with all the strength in your body. You turn and send buck after buck to the iron bars, hoping beyond hope they overlooked something. They /had/ to have overlooked something. There /has/ to be a way out of here.
  865. >With each metallic clang of your hooves connecting with the bars, strings of ambient magic snake around the metal in an oppositional glow.
  866. >You need to find Tia.
  867. >You can’t let Anonymous be hurt again.
  868. >This can’t be it. There /HAS/ to be some way out of here.
  869. >The edges of your vision begin to blacken. It’s getting harder to breathe. The force from your next buck sends you tumbling into the mud. You try to scramble to your hooves to get back at it, but they’re shaking too hard to control, slipping through the pasty ground as your barrel falls once again. Your mind and heart beat you from the inside out as you begin to hyperventilate.
  870. “There has to be a way,” you can barely hear yourself whisper above the ringing. “…Please, Ancients… Please show me the way… /Tia…/”
  871. >”Wow,” a voice chirps from behind, snapping you out of your turmoil. “Tear-jerking performance. Bravo.”
  872. >When you’re sent into the great beyond, you are going to buck the Ancient Lady of Serendipity right in her stupid muzzle.
  873. >Your head creaks to the direction of the voice to see the sky rat from earlier. Immediately, three things stand out to you. One, she’s slouching her back against the far wall of the cage with a shit-eating grin. Two, there’s a plate of half-eaten dead fish in front of the pegasus. Three, she’s in the cage.
  874. >With you. Not /out/ of the cage, but in.
  875. >…And she’s also naked. You can only hope her Y-7 gland is engaged, but you somehow doubt it.
  876. “Was your cloud pushing so poor your friends had to throw you in here, sky rat?” you scoff as you shakily get to your hooves. Once you’re on all fours, you make your way to the gate of the cage once again, inspecting for any weakness. “Why aren’t you out there with the other thieves?”
  877. >The cage is overcome with silence as the sky rat keeps her muzzle shut. The raiders probably threw her in here to taunt you. That’s the one thing sky rats excel at.
  878. >”Uppercastemare!” Max suddenly pipes up.
  879. You turn towards the sky rat to see that she’s up on all fours and making her way to you. Your hackles start to raise as you add a little more volume to your tuft. “What are you talking about?”
  880. >”You’re an uppercastemare!” the pegasus repeats with a wondrous twinkle in her eyes. “You have to either be an ignorant uppercastemare, or a sniveling chick who’s never taken a step out of her village. Do you really not know what a cloudpusher is, little chick?”
  881. “I have the nagging suspicion it has something to do with pushing clouds,” you harumph, standing your ground. “And at the end of the day, when you’re not needed, you’re reduced to nothing but another prisoner. Probably to keep your dirty, thieving rat hooves locked up.”
  882. >Max is in your face now, but for a moment she just stares at you. You smirk in victory, even if you desperately hope for the naked pony to take two large steps back.
  883. >Suddenly, the sky rat rears her head back and lets out an ear-splitting cacaw of laughter. “You really don’t know a thing!” she whoops. You keep your hard gaze on the sky rat, not looking away even as you feel a small strand of spittle land on your muzzle.
  884. “Pardon me,” you growl, turning back to the cage. “But I don’t have time to waste on you.” Could you dig through the mud underneath? No, a few swipes in and you see another set of bars just below.
  885. >“They don’t take ‘prisoners’ here if they’re not integral!” Max continues, oblivious to your too polite sendoff.
  886. “Hmph,” you murmur as your eyes trace the bars of the cage. “Then why, pray tell, did they not leave me on the side of the road, if I'm so special?”
  887. >Max calms down enough to lower her hindquarters to the ground, tilting her head. “Huh,” she mulls over. “No idea! Considering there’s no way for you to clear the smoke when it gets too thick, or cover their trail with some nasty weather.—” You feel a soft tingle on your tuft, and look down to see that Max is stroking it with a wing. “—Or keep the place nice and moist for the express purpose of ruining your white coat, I can’t think of a single reason you’d be useful to them.”
  888. >You yip as you bat the unnatural appendage away from your chest and give the sky rat a glare. Dirt would’ve at least come off easy with a quick shake of your coat, but /mud/? Mud dries and cakes; mud needs to be scrubbed off in water, and even then you can’t do a lot of scrubbing with this ring on your horn.
  889. >/Bucking sky rats…/
  890. “So you’re just a coward who does her captors’ bidding?” you deride, using a hoof to adjust the fur Max dirtied. Well, a small portion of the fur Max dirtied. “Whatever happened to that ‘freedom’ you pegasi won’t shut up about?”
  891. >”Whatever happened to that housecarla you wouldn’t shut up about?”
  892. >Your blood boils and /screams/ at you to break through the ring on your horn and rip this bird-bucking mutant apart.
  893. >Max tilts her head at you, her soft coo dripping with sarcastic concern, “Aww, is the conehead mad she can’t magic away her problems anymore?”
  894. >Everything about her drives you insane. The musky smell that cruelly tickles your nose whenever you inhale, the unnatural, mutant wings that hang from her sides; the unbelonging, masculine muscles striating through her body as she moves.
  895. >You want to hurt her. You want to hurt /something./ You want to show these lowercastemares just what separates the two of you.
  896. >That’s the thought that mellows you.
  897. >Instead of responding to the sky rat’s mockery, you simply close your eyes, turn away from the pungent pony, and take a deep breath. For all you know she could be lying about her occupation. She could be lying about everything. She could just be taunting you.
  898. >You can’t waste time on her. You need to find a way out of here.
  899. >/Find Tia. Save Anonymous./
  900. >Whether your mind gets better at blotting the sky rat out or Max doesn’t open her yap again, you spend the next few hours in relative peace from the pegasus. You can’t see much of the underground hamlet you’ve found yourself in; you can only hear the commotion from outside. The large tent which surrounds your cage covers your surroundings behind an orange curtain.
  901. >At some point, a raider comes into your tent. You almost instinctively bolt when she opens the cage, but calm down enough to realize how pointless that’d be. You’re stuck underground, surrounded by a gang who’s keeping you alive for unknown reasons, and without any idea of where Tia or Anonymous are. It doesn’t stop you from asking the raider questions, however, but of course you get no real answers. The raider simply commands Max outside to clear out the built-up smoke and dust, leaves with the pegasus, and leaves you in a locked cage.
  902. >It’s only when you’re sure you’re alone that you can no longer hold back the tears.
  904. ~~~
  906. >You don’t know if the tent’s flaps being flung open wake you from sleep or a sleepless stupor, but you do know that you’re still on all fours. You blearily glare at the familiar unicorn as she enters the tent.
  907. >You flinch at the glow of Sapphire Lily’s horn, but the cold tingling of a paralysis spell doesn't follow. Instead, she pulls something out from behind her back that makes your breath catch. Without a word, Lily tosses your notebook between the bars of the cage. You habitually try to catch it with your magic, resulting in the book landing in the mud with a soft squelch. You curse yourself as you bend down to wrap it in your hooves.
  908. >”You’re literate, Lucky Favor?” Lily asks with the decorum of a father asking his child if she was the one responsible for destroying that expensive vase when he wasn’t looking.
  909. >Without saying a word, you gently graze the mud from the cover of your notebook. You give a nod.
  910. >”Well, that’s /mighty/ fortunate,” Lily says with a chuckle and a mock ‘phew!’ gesture. “Looks like Smooth Roads /did/ know what she was doing when she brought you and your coltfriend in.”
  911. Your concern for Anonymous trumps your fresh hatred for Smooth Roads. “Please don’t hurt him,” you can only whisper, prompting Lily to give an evasive shrug.
  912. >”I give him to my mares,” she drawls, painfully slow, as if fully aware that each second she speaks is a second Anonymous spends away from you. “And my mares get him situated. Believe me, I’d like a little more time with the colt, but that’s the extent of my responsibilities. Now, back to business.” Lily goes quiet for a moment, either to organize her thoughts or torture you. “I’ll save you the complicated explanation and just say that we’ve landed in a tough spot. You’re going to be reading something to a few ponies.”
  913. Your only reaction is a slow blink. Did you hear that right, or was your muddled brain playing tricks on you? “Pardon?” you say.
  914. >”The innerworkings of the Red Garden are boring and frankly not for your ears anyway,” Lily sighs. “You’ll just be reading a speech of sorts that’s going to be delivered to some of the honest ponies upstairs. We just gotta double-check its integrity through a neutral third-party.”
  915. >You’re on the verge of telling Lily to shove it until the grating laughter of Max cuts through the air from behind. Lily’s reaction is instantaneous. Gone is her confident, impenetrable wall, to be replaced with an exasperated glare.
  916. >”I thought you coneheads were supposed to be the smartest!” she guffaws. “Yet you need an outsider to /read your own documents!/”
  917. >”You interrupt our conversation again,” Lily grits, her eyes never leaving your own. “Your fish will be soaked in piss next time, /mule./”
  918. >They need you to read something for them because they’re illiterate lowercastemares. For the first time since you’ve met Lily, you finally have the upper hoof.
  919. >…No. There must be a catch. They’re baiting you. This is too random. What if you’re reading a magical contract? Why would they ever consider you a /neutral/ third-party? If they’re so willing to have /you/ read it, how could it be so important? There must be at least /one/ literate mare in this gang.
  920. Choosing one of the many questions bouncing in your head, you hesitantly ask Lily, “What will I be reading?”
  921. >”Huh,” Lily says with a tilt of her head. “That’s strange, I could’ve sworn I was the one making demands, and you were the one in a cage. You’ll be reading your friend Smooth Roads’ work. Besides that, it’s better you find out on the fly.”
  922. >You wipe the exhaustion from your eyes. She’s acting rather defensive for somepony making demands. Could they really need you…?
  923. No need to poke holes in your own thoughts, Lucky. She’s asking you for a favor. You might be able to turn this around. “I’ll do it on one condition,” you affirm, your eyes unwavering from Lily’s.
  924. >Without even the slightest movement, Sapphire Lily’s eyes glower into a predatory glare. “Or I can have my cohorts have their way with your housecarla if you don’t cooperate.”
  925. >The shock of her statement pales to the sudden warmth in your gut. This is the mare who lied to your face, stole your wagon, and hurt Anonymous. The mare who would /use/ Anonymous as some kind of… object. You want to scream. You want to cast a spell. You want to wake up in your bed in the uppercastes and forget this ever happened.
  926. >You don’t register your notebook as it slides from your hooves and falls into the mud once again.
  927. >/You want to kill Lily. For the first time in your life, you want to kill somepony./
  928. >”Well, that’s a shame,” Max Gusto sighs, and just like that, she’s joined Lily on your List. “All this /threatening/ of yours has really spooked me to the core. I’m all choked up. I don’t think I can speak to our dear, braindead earthpusher after that display.”
  929. >Sapphire Lily’s threatening gaze snaps to Max for the first time since she’s entered the tent. “Max…” she growls lowly, but the pegasus isn’t perturbed in the least.
  930. >”Seems to me like you’ll have a /completely/ braindead earthpusher on your hooves,” Max shrugs, giving you a sideways glance before her gaze returns to Lily. “You know, the one who can’t take an order from anypony but /moi./ I won’t be able to get to the outside, and the smoke’ll fill up this hole until we suffocate. All because you can’t listen to one little condition from a skinny, defenseless unicorn.”
  931. >Sapphire Lily glares at Max like a rabid animal stuck in its enclosure. Max only raises her eyebrows and throws her hooves behind her head. “/Lahk ah’ sehd,/” she drawls in a… rather humorous caricature of Lily’s accent. “/Real shame, thayt. Mmm-hmm./”
  932. >”The moment we catch another pegasus,” Lily snarls between her teeth. “We’ll hang you by your sockets, Max Gusto.”
  933. >Lily’s eyes shift back to you. Within an instant, she’s back to her confident self, tilting her muzzle upwards so she’s looking down at you. “If your oh-so important condition isn’t /too/ outlandish… fine.”
  934. >Maybe you were wrong about Max Gusto.
  935. “I want my housecarla to be repositioned immediately to my cell,” you proclaim. “/And/ the earth pony stallion.”
  936. >Sapphire Lily is unmoving for a few seconds before she rolls her eyes. “How noble,” she mutters as she gets to her hooves. “If the earthpusher is needed, though, we’ll take him. Roads will come get you when you’re needed, Lucky Favor.”
  937. >With another flourish of orange fabric, Lily is out of your tent, leaving you in relative solidarity once again. The world spins as you fall to your haunches.
  938. “Th-thank you,” you gasp lowly to Max.
  939. >”If you wanna thank me, explain what you were going for with this one,” Max responds.
  940. >You turn to find your notebook, open and still muddy, in the green hooves of the sky rat. She turns your notebook towards you, pointing a hoof at an unfinished drawing. It’s the night scene whose subject you hadn’t yet decided.
  941. “/…G--…/” you stutter as your insides are set ablaze. “/…GIVE IT BACK, YOU THIEVING SKY RAT!/”
  942. >You charge at the sky rat, but before you can grab hold, she zips across the cage with a gust of her wings. All the while, her chirruping laughter grates against your ears.
  943. “You are a delinquent and a coward!” you spit, giving chase. “The entirety of bird-bucker kind follows suit! You enshroud yourselves in the clouds, preclude the progression of ponykind, and swoop in to purloin whatever your cold, black hearts desire!”
  944. >”You have a serious thesaurus fetish, uppercastemare!” Max only laughs harder as she floats above each of your jumps after her, somersaulting through the air. “But I can’t lie! I have swooped in and stolen my fair share of stallions back in the day.”
  945. “/Back in the day?!/ You’re speaking like a barren grandmother! Have you been trapped here for so long your mind has rotted, /sky wanderer?!/”
  946. >You had never heard the words “sky wanderer” before today. You had never even read about them in in the uppercastes. You didn’t know how strong the effect they would have on the pegasus would be. It just slipped out, like all the other names you called her.
  947. >Max’s reaction to the word is swift. Her wings stop dead in the air, leaving her to descend back onto her haunches.
  948. >”Hey,” she warns, her voice strangely level as she glares at you. “I was just kidding around.”
  949. “My notebook is no kidding matter,” you bark as you grab the book from her hooves. Max doesn’t put up a fight. “And if you can’t handle some simple name calling, maybe /you’re/ the chick here.”
  950. >Max makes no move to respond. It wouldn’t matter anyway; a commotion from beyond the tent steals your attention.
  951. >”I’m warning you, we’re not afraid to hit a colt!” a raider yaps between the grunting and pulling. “If you behave we might even-- /OW!/”
  952. >Your entire body snaps to the entrance of the tent. Its flaps fling open moments later to reveal a struggling quartet of raiders as they lead your hyoo-men inside. The earthpusher is just behind, although he follows quietly with a bowed head.
  953. “Ancients above!” you stagger before collapsing to the wet ground in relief.
  954. >”Back off or we’ll paralyze you again,” one of the raiders snarls at you and Max as she flings open the gate. Anonymous is pushed in unceremoniously, yelling out swears against the fabric in his mouth. The earthpusher merely stalks inside, not even flinching when one of the unicorns gives him a parting spank before slamming the cage shut. “Bucking blue beaners…” she mutters as the raiders leave the tent.
  955. >You notice an extra shadow on each side of the tent entrance. It looks like your cage is now in need of some guards.
  956. Tears of joy rim your vision as you approach Anonymous. “Oh, thank the Ancients above!” you cry before immediately getting to work on his bindings. “Anonymous, are you okay? Did they hurt you?! D-did they touch you?!”
  957. >There doesn’t seem to be any new wounds on the hyoo-men’s body, but you do notice that he’s even more haggard than before. His body shakes from exhaustion, even though every part of him screams in an animalistic rage. His peach skin seems to be paler, and his beard is wet with a liquid you desperately hope is his own.
  958. >The moment the ropes on Anonymous’ arms are undone, he snaps away from you with a muffled yelp. His hands claw away the fabric from his mouth before he’s immediately back on his feet. “/I’ll fucking kill them,/” he growls as he limps away from you.
  959. “Anonymous, dear?” you try, but the hyoo-men ignores you as he paces this way and that. You try to stand in front of his course, but he simply turns away from you, snarling obscenities all the while. “Anonymous, did anything happen? Please, talk to me!”
  960. >Your ears flick towards Max as you hear her mutter, “I know. I’m sorry.” The pegasus is wrapping an arm around the earth pony, who seems to be in his own world as he glares at the ground. He mutters something too quiet for you to hear. Max responds with a solemn, “I know you were busy. We just had to be sure you were safe.”
  961. >Anonymous doesn’t acknowledge you as he continues to pace around the cage, staring daggers at anything that crosses his path. His eyes have a bloodthirsty craze to them. You can only imagine what’s racing through the hyoo-men’s mind.
  962. “Anonymous, are you alright?” you try again, reaching a hoof to stop his advance.
  963. >Anonymous backhands your hoof away hard enough to make you yip and back off.
  964. >”Wait, so I’m confused,” Max says, her voice devoid of whatever sympathy she had shown the earthpusher, once again filled with that enraging, misplaced confidence. “Is his name Tia or Anonymous? ‘Cuz you were crying about a Tia earlier, but now you’re calling him Anonymous.”
  965. >Anonymous stop pacing. He slowly turns to you. You’re made painfully aware of the height difference between the two of you as he approaches. “How does she know about Tia?” he speaks in a low whisper.
  966. “She doesn’t!” you plead. “I never brought her up! She must’ve—” Oh. Right. “…She heard me talking to myself earlier. Pegasus hearing. She only knows her name, though.”
  967. >You can’t tell if your answer satisfies Anonymous. His expression doesn’t change as he leans dangerously close. Despite yourself, you can feel your cheeks slowly warming from the closeness. “Do they have her, Lucky?” he whispers.
  968. “No,” you assure, glancing at the way his lips part as he speaks. “I’m sure they don’t. There would’ve been chaos if they had found her. I don’t know where she is, Anonymous. I don’t--...”
  969. >You can’t speak anymore. The world blurs as tears flood your vision. You bite your tongue to keep from sobbing and glare at the ground. There’s no way in Tartarus you’re letting a sky rat see you cry.
  970. >You feel warmth envelope your hoof. You try to snatch it away, but Anonymous merely grunts and his grip tightens. You cringe as he inspects your bruised limb. He doesn’t speak, merely inspects your hoof. You should’ve known better, expecting an apology.
  971. >…Expecting an apology for anything. Yet your heart still thumps against your chest warmly.
  972. >You’re so pathetic, blushing like a schoolfilly in these circumstances. You need to mare up, Lucky, or your journey may very well be over before it even starts.
  973. >”I’m confused,” Max says. “Are you two in a herd or something? Or are you mono?”
  974. >”Fuck off, wing-horse,” Anonymous responds curtly.
  975. >”Meh. You’ll be thanking me on your knees soon enough,” Max mutters, but Anonymous doesn’t catch that.
  976. But after whatever Anonymous went through, you’re not letting it go. “What do you mean by /that,/ sky rat?” you shoot, removing your hoof from Anonymous before trotting in Max’s direction.
  977. >Max’s figure puffs up when you near the earthpusher. “I’d take a few steps back right about now, Lucky.”
  978. “You’re welcome for saving your coltfriend, by the way” you snap, not slowing your approach in any way.
  979. >”Not my coltfriend. Back off, Lucky. Seriously.”
  980. “Tell me what you meant about my fair lord Anonymous on his knees,” you snarl. “Tell me or I’ll—” You’re not good at threatening, so think of something quick! “—I’ll hurt you!”
  981. >”I can tell just by looking at your coltfriend that he’s been in more scuffles than you.”
  982. >”Stop it,” a masculine voice says quietly.
  983. >You do a double-take to confirm just what you had heard. The voice had come from the earthpusher, now giving you a neutral gaze. You slow to a halt. Instead of elaborating further, the earthpusher’s ear flicks at Max. The pegasus gives you one more glare before turning away with the stallion. When they begin to whisper to each other, that’s when you first feel a low, hungry anger.
  984. “/I am so sick,/” you breathe lowly, lowering your head towards the sky rat. “/Of ponies talking behind my back…/”
  985. >”Lucky Favor?”
  986. >Anonymous’ grumbling ceases at the almost tentative voice behind you. Max Gusto and the earthpusher both give a glance before returning to their private conversation. When you turn to the owner of the voice, you swear you can feel something snap inside.
  987. “Well, if it isn’t /Smooth Roads!/” you almost cackle as you can feel a few strands of your mane go loose. The unicorn’s brown eyes are downturned as she stands just outside arm’s reach of the cage. “The second unicorn who threw me to criminals this past week! How can I be of service to you, my dear fiend?”
  988. >”Lucky, I need you to listen to me.” Roads’ voice virtually scrapes across pavement with how low it is.
  989. “Oh, a new batch of lies and deceit? Do tell!” You smile as you approach the bars of the cage between yourself and Roads. “I’m just a naive uppercastemare, after all. Manipulate away.”
  990. >”I know ya’ don’t have the faintest reason to trust me,” she almost whispers, her head turning so she could glance at the guards outside the tent. “And I can’t explain everything proper right now, but just know I’m on your side.”
  991. “Oh, Roadie-Roo, /darling./ I can think of at least one other unicorn who claimed to be ‘on my side’ for seven days before she ordered me killed. And I’ve only known you for /one/, so you’re gonna—”
  992. >”Fine, if you wanna act so uptight,” Smooth Roads grunts. She approaches the bars to the cell, keeping firm eye contact with you. “They’re waiting for you to read that draft. If I were you, I’d pay /very/ close attention to—”
  993. >Smooth Roads doesn’t get to finish her sentence before a hyoo-men arm shoots out of the cage and grabs her horn. She yells out in pain, and the two shadows outside the tent react instantly. The guards aren’t quick enough to stop Anonymous before he bashes Roads’ face against the bars of the cage.
  994. >”I bucking told you to keep your distance!” one of the guards yells to Smooth Roads before a dagger is embedded into Anonymous’ hand. It doesn’t get far since the guard’s magical hold is extinguished once the steel makes contact, but it’s enough to make Anonymous release Roads’ horn.
  995. >Smooth Roads rears back from the cage. Her blue muzzle is stained a bright red as blood starts to pour.
  996. >”/Snap his leg!/” one of guards yells out.
  997. >”No!” Roads interjects, causing the guards to pause. She pulls her hoof away from her muzzle, inspecting the warm red liquid as it slithers down her arm. Her next words are slow; much slower than her initial outburst. “Lily won’t take too kindly to any more injuries on him.”
  998. >Anonymous is back to pacing deeper in the cage, not bothered in the least by his bloody hand. His eyes narrow dangerously at one of the guards as she opens the cage gate. “Come on then,” she gestures to you as the other guard points her horn at the rest of the occupants.
  999. >Without much else of a choice, you “hmph!” and jut your chin up before making your way through the gate. You don’t give Smooth Roads a sideways glance before she turns and leads the way out of the tent and into the little hamlet. She gives a rough sniffle before spitting a red glob to the ground.
  1000. >An amalgamation of sounds once again echo throughout your surroundings, but you don’t let your focus drift to the camp of scoundrels. That warm feeling in your gut hasn’t gone away yet. Anger still pounds inside your skull, but you bite it down to keep from doing something profoundly stupid. Even if you could break through the ring on your horn, free Anonymous, and somehow even find Tia, you’d still be trapped in an underground dome, surrounded by hostile unicorns.
  1001. >Then again, going out in a blaze of glory doesn’t sound that bad.
  1002. >Your trot slows, prompting a cold metal weapon to tap against your flank impatiently.
  1003. >You didn’t seriously just think that, did you? What’s gotten into you, Lucky Favor?
  1004. >…Ancients above, why didn’t you at least say goodbye to Anonymous?
  1005. >Why do you simultaneously want to take a deep, dark nap and strangle each and every one of these unicorns you pass?
  1006. >You need to focus, Lucky Favor. Even if you have no idea what you’re about to read, or why they need your help when Smooth Roads is apparently just as literate, or /where in the darkest depths of Tartarus Tia is/, or a multitude of other questions bouncing around in your head, you need to focus.
  1007. >You’re led to a large tent in the center of the hamlet; the same one you saw that unicorn who accosted Smooth Roads come from. The “alpha.” The unicorn who didn’t take prisoners unless they were useful.
  1008. >Your heart skips a beat as a stray thought enters your mind. You aren’t the only literate unicorn here; Smooth Roads is trotting just in front of you. Could this be where they take useless prisoners to be executed?
  1009. >You approach the tent. Smooth Roads teeters off to the side before pulling the flap open, confirming that you’ll be the only one entering. You start to shake as you duck into the tent.
  1010. >You wish Anonymous was here.
  1011. >”Lucky Favor!” Sapphire Lily exclaims from a table in the center of the tent. She sits between two ponies; the alpha, and, to your surprise, the blind mare Anonymous had hit. “So glad to see you made it okay. With all the ruckus from your tent, I’m willing to bet your hairless cat friend had another episode.”
  1012. >Your eyes stare at the heavy war hammer in the corner of the tent as you slow to a stop. Would that be what they use to kill you? You can feel the pair of eyes from the alpha and the discerning silence from the blind unicorn bore into your fur.
  1013. >Lily taps on the opposite side of the table, a rolled up scroll bouncing subtly from the impact. “Let’s hear those reading skills. And remember, lying might just cost you a housecarla.”
  1014. >You trot to the table and sit. The unicorns beside Sapphire Lily still haven’t said a word, only gazing at you neutrally while you unfold the scroll. Without knowing what to expect, you begin reading.
  1015. >As you read, you begin to realize just why they didn’t want Smooth Roads to be the one to peruse the scroll. Even without written context, you’re able to glean that the raiders of the Red Garden don’t particularly trust Smooth Roads, working with the honest ponies upstairs half the time. This just confirms it; it’s a letter to be read to the workers at Free Valley Carpentry in relation with the noticeable drop in their wages, and you’re here to confirm she doesn’t slip any sensitive information in. She must have already signed a magical contract which forbade her from saying anything not on the scroll.
  1016. >You give a glance to Sapphire Lily to see an attentive smile on her features. The Red Garden didn’t just steal your wagon. As is custom, they also stole a percentage of the overall cost you paid for the wagon; the cost that would’ve gone to the workers. This has only been a minor problem in the past. Easily looked-over when your workers are too uneducated or lazy to count their money, but due to the large sum of three-thousand doits, the lower wages have become impossible to ignore.
  1017. “…guarantee that this unFortunate accident will be handled swiFtly, and at the same standards Free Valley Carpentry strives for every day.”
  1018. >You do a double take as you read. Three capital F’s in the same sentence; two of which not even making grammatical sense. The blind unicorn’s ear flicks, and you hastily delve back into the scroll. There’s horse crap about how their employees will be recompensated and then some. The cynical part of you is certain that your 600-doit bags will be donated to this cause.
  1019. ”…I know this may come at a pressing time for some, but I swear on my honor as a carpenter It will be met with…”
  1020. >Your heart quickens. Three I’s in the same sentence. One of them grammatically incorrect.
  1021. >>/“I’m on your side,” you hear Smooth Roads’ voice echo in your head. “If I were you, I’d pay /very/ close attention to--…”/
  1022. >Were you wrong about Smoot Roads? Is she really on your side?
  1023. >The blind unicorn’s ear flicks again.
  1024. >You suppress a smile as you continue to read. This has to be a hidden message. You aren’t saying a dishonest word about what’s on the scroll, yet it still flies over these three illiterates’ heads.
  1025. >Another combination: G.
  1026. >You begin to read quicker, hungrily scanning the page. Your speech begins to slur, but you instantly put a stop to that after Sapphire Lily clears her throat.
  1027. >H…
  1028. >Wait.
  1029. >Your head tilts as you read the second to last combination.
  1030. >T.
  1031. >F-I-G-H-T.
  1032. >The last sentence of the scroll makes your blood cool.
  1033. ”…our productivity will return to MAXimum levels.”
  1034. >F-I-G-H-T MAX.
  1035. >”Thank you for your time, Lucky,” Sapphire Lily says with a sickeningly sweet smile before she turns to her cohorts. “What do you think? Amber Gaze? Alpha?”
  1036. >/Fight Max./
  1037. >”Her heart was beating like a rabbit,” the blind unicorn susurrates. The giant war hammer in the corner of the tent lifts off the ground in a silent, invisible aura of magic.
  1038. >”Yet she was still honest,” the alpha says as you shakily get to your hooves. The war hammer returns to the ground. “Much easier to read than Smooth Roads as well.”
  1039. >Fight. Max.
  1040. >Smooth Roads isn’t on your side. She’s taunting you.
  1041. >You don’t feel any different when the paralysis spell hits you after you’ve left the tent and you’re dragged back to your cage.
  1042. >You’re sick of this… /hopelessness./
  1043. >The tall dirt ceiling above you transforms into a shallow orange when you’re pulled into your tent.
  1044. >You’re so Ancients-damned sick of it.
  1045. >The clang of the cage gate shutting echoes in your mind as your vision begins to blacken.
  1046. >You’re…
  1047. >”Lucky?” Anonymous whispers.
  1048. >You’re tired…
  1049. >You collapse into something warm before succumbing to your exhaustion.
  1051. ~~~
  1053. >”…Non… …ere…”
  1054. >Muffled voices tickle your ears.
  1055. >You don’t even have the energy to groan. Flattening your ears against your skull feels like pulling two wagons by your lobes. You creakily roll over on your stomach. The mud feels so soft against your face…
  1056. >…
  1057. >…It’s getting hard to breathe.
  1058. >Every bone in your body aches as you slowly push yourself up. Your surroundings are darker than when you had gone to sleep, but they’re still washed in the orange glow of various lanterns placed outside the tent. You can no longer hear the crackling of the bonfire.
  1059. >You can’t bring yourself to care as the mud falls from your face to the ground below. Your coat is unfamiliar to yourself, a white canvas splotched in dark brown splashes. Like a cow.
  1060. >You look like a cow, Lucky Favor.
  1061. >”…sure that they…”
  1062. >More voices. You’re bleary, but awake enough to distinguish that they’re spoken in hushed whispers through the gate of your cage. While your head is arduously rotating towards the commotion, though, you see the state of the area.
  1063. >Mud cakes the tent walls just outside the cage. One of the bars are bent, despite being magically enhanced to withstand the hardest of bucks. Through the reflection of orange light off the mud, you swear you can see the unique consistency and color of blood.
  1064. >Anonymous is nowhere to be seen. Neither is the earth pony.
  1065. >“…I told them where to look. They’ll be here tomorrow, I’m sure of it.”
  1066. >You feel a burning anger in your stomach as you turn to see Max Gusto and Smooth Roads whispering to each other through the gate of the cage.
  1067. >“Then we have everything we need,” Roads whispers. “You ready for this, Max?”
  1068. >Max takes a deep breath, ruffling her feathers. “No, honestly. We were supposed to have more time. We just met them, Roads.”
  1069. >“They’ve provided us with an opportunity out of here. It’s the least we can do. And now we don’t have much of a choice. We’re running out of time.”
  1070. >“What if it fails?”
  1071. >“Then we go to Plan B.” Smooth Roads glances behind her, through the flaps of the tent. “He’s been preparing that one for months.”
  1072. >”I’ll keep it as a backup… but I want to see that look on her face, just this once.” Max shakes her head, stomping a hoof. “Damnit… We wouldn’t be on short notice if Anonymous didn’t put up such a fight!”
  1073. >You start seeing red.
  1074. >Smooth Roads isn’t on your side. Max Gusto isn’t on your side. Nopony is on your side.
  1075. >Nopony but Anonymous.
  1076. >You’re alone. Underground. Surrounded by cowards and traitors. Anonymous is gone. Tia is gone. Your journey hadn’t even started yet.
  1077. >The low, hungry anger boils throughout your entire system before your body rushes forward.
  1078. “/SKY RAT!/” you howl moments before Max turns to meet you head-on.
  1079. >You tackle Max to the ground, and the two of you are transformed into a single flurry of fur and wings. You’ve never fought somepony before. Max is stronger than you. Even now, she doesn’t even think you’re worth defending against. This all only makes the blood in your skull pound even harder.
  1080. >You let out a wordless scream as you punch her across the jaw, as your hindlegs slash against her underbelly, as you bite at her wings. You swing your head like a spiked wrecking ball as you try to gouge out her eyes. All the while, Max doesn’t match your ferocity in any way.
  1081. >”/Paralyze them!/” somepony shouts from somewhere.
  1082. >The bands on Max’s limbs and wings suddenly glow a deathly gray. She gasps before slumping into the mud, limp. You cackle as you go for her throat, only for the cold numbness of a paralysis spell to render yourself useless.
  1083. “/NO!/” you scream as you try to tear from the spell, but it’s useless.
  1084. >”Ancients-damnit, that bar’s bent!” another piece of scum barks.
  1085. >”Bring them outside!” the third pile of dung yells from somewhere far away. “And fix that bucking cage!”
  1086. “I’ll gouge your throat out, sky rat,” you snarl at the green fur your face is smushed in before you’re both dragged through the mud. “If you hurt Anonymous, I’ll gouge your throat out. I swear it on all the Ancients watching over us, every follicle on the All-Mother’s coat, and every offering placed on the All-Father’s grave, I will /gouge your throat out,/ sky rat /scum./”
  1087. >”Ohhhhh,” Max coos as your body is flipped so you can only see the far ceiling of the dome, the white blend of fluffy clouds hanging overhead. “I was wondering why you were acting so weird. You fancy him, don’t you?”
  1088. >You don’t have an answer to her taunting. That’s all it is, anyways. All she’s good for. Taunting.
  1089. >Your heart pumps so fast it’s painful. Your head hurts. Your everything hurts, despite the paralysis spell. You’re on the verge of just screaming at the top of your lungs until you hear Sapphire Lily’s voice punch through your anger.
  1090. >”So close…” she sighs forlornly. “But duty calls, I guess.”
  1091. >Your breath accelerates like a runaway wagon as you’re sat up against a rock. Lily sits on her haunches, giving you an unimpressed glare. She’s stripped of her armor, leaving her blue coat naked and in the open.
  1092. >”Free the cloudpusher,” Lily says. Her goons get to work. “But keep the unicorn paralyzed.”
  1093. “/WHERE’S ANONYMOUS?!/” you shout between your heaving.
  1094. >Lily simply raises a hoof and daintily swipes off some undetectable imperfection from her tuft. “In my tent,” she says. “Waiting for me to give him the rutting of his life. Sparrow’s keeping him company until then.”
  1095. >Your heartbeat is the only thing you can hear as your jaw shoots open to scream, but a ball of fabric is shoved into your mouth. You scream into the gag anyways, your death glare never leaving Lily.
  1096. >“Usually, we’d just up and kill you for attacking our only cloudpusher,” Lily continues, giving said cloudpusher a raised eyebrow. “But since sky wanderers are so hard to come by, and you, Lucky Favor…”
  1097. >This is it. She doesn’t have a use for you. Not anymore, anyways. You’re definitely not worth keeping around until they rob the next literate pony.
  1098. >”…are equally as valuable,” she finishes.
  1099. >BULLSHIT!
  1102. >”I dunno, Lils,” Max says as she inspects you, her voice somehow reigning over the pounding of your blood. “Literate ponies are a lot more common than pegasi. Why /are/ you keeping her alive, I wonder?”
  1103. >Sapphire Lily gives Max an unreadable gaze. “Pegasi?” she asks with a tilt of her head. “We don’t keep any pegasi around here. All I see in front of me is a lonely, vagabond sky wanderer.”
  1104. >There’s a pause from Max, as if she genuinely has no response, until she snorts. “Sky wanderer,” she chuckles lowly. “/Sky wanderer/… okay. Alright.”
  1105. >Max raises her head to meet Lily’s gaze directly. The pegasus and unicorn don’t say a word for an agonizingly long time before Max speaks. “You know, it amazes me to this day, the integrity and chivalry of the ponies of the Free Valley Carpentry.”
  1106. >Lily blinks.
  1107. >“When they see a colt and his lady accosted by a group of raiders in their own shop,” Max continues with a glance to you. “I’d bet they would put down everything to come and make sure they made off all right. And when they come across the crash site, I doubt they’d be able to sleep at night without finding out just what caused it.”
  1108. >Lily’s lips twitch into a smirk. “The wagon didn’t crash,” she says. “We stopped it. With your help, might I add.”
  1109. >”Maybe so,” Max shrugs. “But you certainly crashed your last wagon. And I doubt those unicorns could tell the difference when it’s been burnt to a crisp.” The smile on Lily’s face seems to teleport onto Max’s. “A little birdie might’ve pointed them in the right direction this morning. Along with the location of a few fake bushes.”
  1110. >Your heart begins to slow at this news. Even as the rest of the Red Garden takes a step back, or whinnies, or looks to Lily uncertainly, your eyes are glued to the lime green pegasus between you and Lily.
  1111. >After a dramatic pause you’re now /sure/ was intentional, Max continues, ”And that same birdie might be able to point them in a different direction, granted you meet her demands.”
  1112. >Sapphire Lily’s face hardens into a scowl. Her eyes flick to the rest of the gang as uncertain mumbling echoes throughout the dome. They then settle on Max Gusto, inspecting the pegasus for any signs of dishonesty, but finding none.
  1113. >Then, Lily’s eyes land on you, and her scowl disappears.
  1114. >”Tell me,” she questions, her gaze returning to Max. “What were the carpenters wearing?”
  1115. >Max’s booming cackle echoes throughout the dome, and for the first time, you’re happy to hear it. “/W-what were the carpenters wearing!/” She doubles over in laughter, planting a hoof on her forehead for stability. “/You’re asking – SNRK SNRK – a nudist pegasus what – AHAHAHA! – What the mob of angry ponies coming to kill you and your pathetic gang – HAHAHA! – are WEARING!/”
  1116. >”Were they wearing overalls or armor?”
  1117. >Max takes a moment to calm herself down to a few errant giggles. ”I’m a sky rat, Lily,” Max chuckles as she wipes a tear from her eye. “A naked, nudist sky rat! I don’t know what the bucking difference is! But even then, I’m not stupid! They were a ‘group of workers’ heading in this direction from the Free Valley Carpentry. I flew down and had a quick chat with their leader, and that’s what they told me.” Max gives a shit-eating grin as she leans towards Lily. “/I win, Lils./”
  1118. >”So they were wearing armor, I take it?” Lily quizzes with an innocent tilt of her head.
  1119. >…No…
  1120. >”Yeah, whatever,” Max chuckles, waving her hoof at the gang. “Armor, schmarmor. Same stuff any of you landlubbers wear around here.”
  1121. >”And this ‘leader’ you talked to, what was her name?”
  1122. >”Listen, are you gonna keep asking questions? Because from where I’m standing, I’m the one making demands. And you’re the one trapped in a cage.”
  1123. >Max’s eyes widen hungrily as they inspect Lily’s reaction, but she gives none.
  1124. >”What,” Lily enunciates calmly. “Was. Her. Name. /Sky wanderer./”
  1125. >Max gives Lily a long, hard glare before she speaks. “I think my demands just got steeper. Fine, since you’re so set on delaying my victory. Her name was Red Letter.”
  1126. >Sapphire Lily leans away from Max with a satisfied smile on her face. Max tilts her head at her display. “Is this bitch crazy or what?” the pegasus asks as she turns to you.
  1127. >The look on your face makes Max blanche.
  1128. >“/This/ is the sky rat you were working with to escape?” Lily giggles. Max glares at Lily before turning back to you.
  1129. >”Lucky?” she asks quietly.
  1130. >You can’t respond. You can’t even breathe.
  1131. >“You’re right, Lucky,” Lily says with a venomous smile. “Literate ponies are easy to come by. What’s not easy to come by, though, is a pony and her bodyguard who are wanted by the entirety of the Plumsteed housecarlatel.”
  1132. >Whatever rage had infected every cell of your system is nothing but a sick numbness now.
  1133. >”…L-Lucky?” Max asks again, her voice wavering. “What’s she talking about? I did good, right?”
  1134. >Lily’s cold smile freezes your blood as she says, “After I’m done with your human friend, he will be sedated until Red Letter’s arrival and brought up to her in chains. The reason you are not rotting in the dirt somewhere upstairs, Lucky Favor, is because you will be joining him. Dead or alive, though, depends on your answer to the following question.”
  1135. >Sapphire Lily walks slowly towards you, leaving Max a pale, whispering mess. Lily gives a quick flap of her ear, and the glow around your body dissipates. Feeling returns, what little is left, but even then you can only stare as the unicorn in front of you transforms. Her face contorts from her satisfied smirk to a neutral, calculating stare. Her eyes gleam like a timberwolf cornering its prey as she sits on her haunches just in front of you. Her face is completely level with your own now, but the thought of pulling back and striking her never enters your mind, as if even thinking about it would reap consequences.
  1136. >Lily exhales slowly before she speaks. “What else was in your bag, uppercastemare? And where have you hidden it?”
  1138. ~~~
  1140. >”Stupid colt, using your hands like that on Smooth Roads…”
  1141. >You are stupid.
  1142. >You caused this.
  1143. >It’s happening all over again because of you.
  1144. >It’s your fault.
  1145. >You can’t move.
  1146. >You can’t blink.
  1147. >You need to get away.
  1148. >You can’t get away.
  1149. >”You’re lucky. If I had known you were male back at Free Valley, I wouldn’t have been able to help myself. You deserve this for hurting my herdsister, Nonny.”
  1150. >>”You’re lucky you ran into me,” she said sympathetically.
  1151. >>”If I had known you were male,” she said as she hugged you. “I would’ve given you a home sooner.”
  1152. >>”You deserve this, Nonny,” she said as her pale yellow eyes sank below view. “You /need/ this. Let me make you feel good.”
  1153. >It’s Red Letter all over again.
  1154. >”It’s been so long since Blitz passed on to the Eternal Graze. You have no idea how… /frustrating/ it all is. But don’t worry, Sapphire Lily likes to take her time with the unscrupulous prisoners. Are you ready for your punishment?”
  1155. >Punishment.
  1156. >Punishment for letting it happen again.
  1157. >Punishment for not fighting harder.
  1158. >Punishment for trusting a mare.
  1159. >Punishment for being Anonymous.
  1160. >Sparrow’s orange eyes descend from view, and there’s nothing you can do stop it.
  1161. >Your lips tremble in an ugly, indiscernible curl. Your shallow breaths drown away the screams at the back of your throat. Your eyes stare vacantly to the far side of the tent; the furthest place away from it all. Your hands shake in their binds. Your left foot flexes and strains against its rope in a pulsating bounce. Your right leg hurts so much. You don’t know where they took your splint.
  1162. >It all hurts so much.
  1163. >”Oh! Hey there, dirthead. You promise not to tell Lily, don’t yo-- /GHK/!?”
  1164. >Sparrow’s voice is interrupted by a wet choke, and you yelp from the familiar noise.
  1165. >What follows next, though, is not familiar. Sparrow continues to choke and gasp for air as her horn vibrates and sparks in a desperate buzz. You hear a masculine grunt among her struggling.
  1166. >You peer your head over your chest to see Sparrow clawing desperately at the rustic orange arms strangling her neck. The earth pony stallion plants his hindquarters firmly on the ground as his deceptively strong body keeps the panicking unicorn in place. Dirt and musk shower his surroundings as he counteracts every quick movement from his victim. Before long, the terror in Sparrow’s eyes fade to aloofness. When she’s finally limp, the earthpusher lets her body haphazardly fall into the mud.
  1167. >The earthpusher wastes no time as he trots to your place on the bed. He gnaws loose each of your bindings, and the moment you’re free, you flinch to the other side of the bed and cower from the pony.
  1168. >If he was the least bit put off by your display, the stallion doesn’t show it. He gently holds a hoof out to you. You stare at the stained hoof suspiciously, but…
  1169. >The stallion’s blue eyes are condoling, and the smile he wears is warm and empathetic. His ribs rise and fall slowly through his orange fur. He makes no move to grab you. He only waits.
  1170. >Maybe it’s the broader, boxier way the stallion’s muzzle is shaped from the mares, or maybe it’s because you remember how the raiders assaulted him while you watched. But you can’t find a hint of malintent in that smile.
  1171. >You don’t make a move to reach for the stallion’s hoof, but you do give him a slow, appreciative nod. He seems to understand as his hoof retreats, but the smile on his face never falters. “Follow,” the stallion says in a smooth, honeyed whisper. “We will leave this place, brother.”
  1172. >The look on your face is all the reaction he needs.
  1173. >”Our plan has already begun,” he insists. “Right now, Max Gusto is talking with Raider Sapphire Lily. We are almost free.”
  1174. >You turn to the sliver of an opening of the tent and hear voices. One of them, though, makes your heart quicken. A sudden, enraged scream from Lucky Favor is cut off as a ball of fabric is shoved in her mouth.
  1175. >You hobble off the bed and make your way to the tent’s exit, but the stallion’s voice stops you.
  1176. >”Patience,” he says. “You cannot fight them. Let Max Gusto have her closure. Your friend will not be harmed.”
  1177. >Friend?
  1178. >You don’t know if you would call Lucky Favor a friend. She’s your lady; your responsibility as a housecarla. She’s the one who stands behind you when there’s trouble and fills your pockets with doits.
  1179. >But for some reason, you can’t get the image of last night out of your head. Tia in your arms, Lucky Favor humming as she draws quietly, the night sky illuminating your camp in a cool, blue glow.
  1180. >/…Right before you fucked everything up for no good reason at all./
  1181. “You can’t know they won’t hurt her,” you say neutrally. Lucky Favor’s limp body glows with paralysis magic as she stares daggers at Sapphire Lily. She’s heaving for breath through the clot in her mouth like a muzzled animal. Her eyes have a bloodthirsty craze to them.
  1182. >This isn’t the same mare who sat across from you last night. This is the mare Lucky had kept suppressed last night, after you hurt her.
  1183. >No, that’s not right. Lucky didn’t need to suppress anything with you. Even when you deserved nothing more than to be abandoned in that forest and have your mind slip completely, she only wanted to help you.
  1184. >You burnt her drawing. You dropped Tia. She magicked up a bed for you, and offered to talk things out. And you /burnt her drawing./
  1185. >…The mare you hurt.
  1186. >”She is a good friend,” the stallion speaks lowly. “She cares for you.”
  1187. “They all /‘care for you,’/” you mutter almost automatically.
  1188. >”You are not very intelligent, are you?”
  1189. >You glare back at the stallion behind you. He sits on his haunches as he gazes at you, his emerald eyes bored and unassuming. As if he hadn’t just insulted you, he reaches forward and taps the mud in front of him.
  1190. >”Come and sit,” he says. “We must get ready. If Max Gusto can’t convince Raider Sapphire Lily, we must be ready to move. Carpenter Smooth Roads is waiting for us at our exit.”
  1191. You study the pony but are unable to find any reason to distrust him. Plus, the prospect of meeting Roads without iron bars between the two of you tickles you something fierce. Still, you ask, “What do you mean, ‘come and sit?’”
  1192. >”I mean exactly what I said,” the stallion says, once again patting the space in front of him. “I speak much more directly than the average unicorn or pegasus. How could you possibly misunderstand?”
  1193. >You snort before giving the meeting of unicorns and pegasus one last glance. Max is talking to Sapphire Lily now, puffing out her tuft and looking all kinds of confident. Without much else of a choice, you slink back to the stallion and sit.
  1194. >”Keep your bad leg straight,” he says. “And cover it with mud.”
  1195. “You’re fucking with me.”
  1196. >”I would never /fuck/ with another male. That is degenerate and ineffective. Copulation is a sacred practice, meant for procreation and expressing one's love to their foalbearer. Now hurry.”
  1197. >You feel the overwhelming urge to punt this little horse. You shake your head as you begin scooping mud onto your leg. From behind, you can hear the booming laughter of what had to be the pegasus’, judging by the chirping mixed in.
  1198. “What’s your name?” you idly ask as you pat the mud onto your leg.
  1199. >The stallion gently rests his forehooves on your mound, careful not to apply force. Although, despite his best efforts, you start to feel an odd pressure building. Not painful just yet, but also not able to be ignored.
  1200. >”Apple Seed,” he replies softly. “Be silent, brother. I am working.”
  1201. >He’s most definitely fucking with you.
  1202. >You grit your teeth as your fingers ball into fists. You’re about to rear back and sucker punch the mental defective until he bows his head closer to your leg, revealing something that gives you pause. There’s a part of his mane that’s burnt away, and the fur underneath is blackened in the familiar pattern of a lily insignia.
  1203. >/He’s a victim, Anonymous. Are you once again going to let your paranoia hurt somepony who’s trying to help?/
  1204. >You turn to glare at the unconscious form of Sparrow and spit. A glob of saliva lands on her cheek, trailing down her fur to the mud below.
  1205. >The pressure around your leg is still building.
  1206. “What the fuck—” you start, but when you look down at your leg you fall silent.
  1207. >The mud around your appendage is no longer mud, but a peach-colored clay. It rumbles and squelches lowly as it seems to condense and draw around your leg. It stings as the interior hardens and nicks your knee, but as if it senses your discomfort, it shifts and pulsates so as not to touch the sensitive spot. The clay slowly hardens, its slimy peach coloration desaturating to a stone gray.
  1208. >Your leg is now entombed in a stone cast.
  1209. >”I am no body mender like the ones from my village,” the stallion murmurs. “But I can still help.”
  1210. Your time on Equus has long desensitized you to sights that you would’ve only thought possible in fairy tales. This succeeds in preventing you from crying out in surprise, but it doesn’t stop the wonder in your eyes, if Apple Seed’s understanding smile is anything to go by. “I’m immune to magic,” is the only thing you can croak out.
  1211. >”This isn’t magic, brother,” the stallion hums. “It’s a mutual understanding and exchange between denizen and provider. Magic is artificial.” You can detect a hint of a growl under Apple Seed’s voice as he speaks. “Magic is… disgusting. It is the manipulation of nature and particles. Magic is easily detectable and read by an earth pony.”
  1212. >The stallion’s eyes hold your own as he takes a step back to let you remove your cast from the residual mud. “Like an ambient spell, casted on a peculiar filly in an invisible bag.”
  1213. Your eyes narrow dangerously as you hobble onto your feet. Making sure that he’s reminded just how much bigger you are than him, you ask Apple Seed, “Where is she?”
  1214. >”Waiting at our exit as well,” Apple Seed blinks, unmoved. “I would never hurt a child. Even if a unicorn would.”
  1215. “Yeah?” you growl. “What makes you different? Especially if that child’s just dripping with that magic you hate so much?”
  1216. >The sound of something blunt slamming into someone's snout snaps your attention back to the scene outside the tent. Lucky Favor is being swarmed by raiders holding her down as Max Gusto's laughing attitude is dead and buried. Sapphire Lily just giggles to herself, trotting in a short roundabout as she holds her muzzle in one hoof.
  1217. >"Suppose I owe you at least that," she says jocularly, peering down at the red smear on her frog.
  1218. >”Max Gusto has failed, it seems,” Apple Seed says as he approaches the two folds of the tent. “We are out of time. I cannot explain everything just yet. Do you see Smooth Roads over there?”
  1219. You turn to see a particularly punchable unicorn standing at the far end of the dirt dome. She has a familiar sac attached to her hip. Tia isn’t anywhere near her, and you somehow doubt she’s being held in the bag attached to the unicorn who’d kill her at first sight. You growl in helplessness before giving a low, “Yeah.”
  1220. >”Find your way to her after you’ve retrieved Lucky Favor and Max. They will no doubt be paralyzed by the time you reach them. Do not worry, the filly is nearby, but I couldn’t risk Smooth Roads seeing her and overreacting. Are you ready?”
  1221. >Max’s face turns to Apple Seed across the clearing. The stallion gives her a nod.
  1222. “I don’t trust you one bit, Apple Seed,” you murmur brusquely.
  1223. >”I don't care,” he responds. “Meet us at Smooth Roads’ location as quick as you can.”
  1224. >As quick as a bullet, Max Gusto suddenly bolts upwards. The raiders bellow out orders to paralyze her, but you lose sight of the pegasus as she disappears into the white cloud above.
  1225. >The collection of clouds suddenly rumbles before exploding throughout the entirety of the Red Garden. You flinch and cover yourself as the impenetrable mist wraps around you in a moist, gray embrace. The rustic orange of Apple Seed gallops forward into the overwhelming fog and you lose sight of him before he takes his second step.
  1226. >”/Ancients-damnit!/” a stentorian voice yells. “/Paralyze them and quick! Don’t lose sight of them!/”
  1227. >You see two glows shine through the mass of gray and panicking raiders. One of them falls from the top of the dome and plummets to the mud. The other lies limply against her rock, unmoving.
  1228. >Lucky and Max. You limp forward into the grayness, avoiding every dark splotch of a distant pony you pass. As you near your first target, you can hear sniveling.
  1229. >”…A-Amber!” you hear from behind. You curse under your breath. Sparrow is already awake and calling into the mist. “Amber Gaze! Sapphire Lily! Anonymous is gone!”
  1230. >”/Find them!/” Lily’s voice echoes. “/Cast a luminescence spell and find them, for Ancients’ sake!/”
  1231. >Dozens of glows illuminate throughout the hamlet one by one as the unicorns inspect their surroundings. None of them are in your way now, but they’re something to avoid.
  1232. >The moment you’re within range of the first glow, you reach out your hand and grab Lucky’s arm. She squeaks and pulls away. That’s when she realizes she can move.
  1234. >Lucky is nearly catatonic. She doesn’t even react as you grip her horn to slide the anti-magic ring off. The only sound that escapes her is a single, choked sob as you pull her along to the limp body of Max Gusto.
  1235. >Suddenly, the gray around you is set ablaze in a violet glow. Lucky gasps out in a choked pant. You react immediately, wrapping your arm around the surprised raider’s neck and choking. The glow once again gives way to the mist.
  1236. >”/…H-HE’S… he--…/” is all she can croak before she collapses into the mud.
  1237. >Lucky is still panting. You turn to see that she has a hoof on her chest as she tries to steady herself, but the hyperventilating is almost inevitable at this point.
  1238. You hobble down to one knee so you’re head-level with Lucky Favor and you hold her face still. Her eyes are wild as they stare at the unconscious raider, then any number of the increasing glows from the luminescence spells, until finally, they land on your face. “/You’re okay, Faust,/” you whisper, and Lucky’s eyes glue to your own. “/Tia’s okay. We’re getting out of here. I’ll protect you the whole way./”
  1239. >Lucky Favor’s panting slowly subsides as you hold firm in your gaze. You’d call yourself a left-wing extremist before you’d call yourself a good pep talker, but you said everything you needed to say. Lucky eventually regains control of her breathing and gives you a shaky nod. You give her a firm pat on the withers before you’re both moving through the fog once again.
  1240. >/You’re going to protect this mare, Anonymous. Don’t fuck it up./
  1241. >Once you reach Max, you press your palm to her withers. The moment the magic is cut off, she gasps in fresh air as her muzzle darts up from the mud.
  1242. >”Holy shit,” she pants as you remove the deadened bands. “I almost drowned in ankle-height mud. That’s bucking wild.”
  1243. >Once she’s free of the bands, she’s up on her hooves and shaking herself vigorously. “Follow me,” Max whispers as she stalks away. She glances back to make sure you’re following her snow white tail before she slinks through the gray mist.
  1244. >”W-where’s Tia?” Lucky Favor whispers so quietly you might have imagined it.
  1245. >Before you can respond, Sapphire Lily’s booming voice echoes throughout the dome.
  1247. >”Pretentious cunt…” Max grumbles. “Don’t listen to her, guys. Look, we’re here.”
  1248. >You take a few more steps forward before reaching out with a hand. Your palm lands on the dirt of the far wall of the Red Garden. You hear the rumbling of a roaring river just beyond the wall.
  1249. >”Looks like it all paid off!” Max whispers happily to Apple Seed. You can barely make him out through the mist, sitting with his head against the dirt wall. “You didn’t just make a river, you made a rapid!”
  1250. >”Focusing,” he responds monotonously.
  1251. >You’re willing every fiber in your being to not launch yourself at Smooth Roads before you feel a stronger rumbling from the wall. You whip your hand back as the dirt begins to cave in and fall over a small pocket. When the last of the dust finally settles, you stare.
  1252. >”There was no other place to hide her,” Apple Seed mumbles half-mindedly. “She is still asleep, so I didn’t think she’d mind.”
  1253. >”/TIA!/” Lucky cries out. The dirty filly is lifted out of the hole in the wall and into Lucky’s embrace in a cyan glow. She squeezes the unconscious filly so hard you’re afraid she’ll break her, not caring one bit about the dirt ruining the last remnants of her white coat.
  1254. >The small smile that tugs at your lips is snuffed out when you notice that the dome has gone oddly quiet. No raiders are yelling out commands or panicking anymore.
  1255. >”Lucky Favor?”
  1256. “Shh,” you say habitually before you realize who was talking.
  1257. >Lucky’s entire body flinches before her horn glows. Tia is transparent within the moment. Lucky slowly levels a glare at Smooth Roads. You can’t blame her. You have to take a few steps away to keep from punching the unicorn’s snout into her skull. Roads’ head is bowed, her usually commanding nature wilted and meek. With a glow of her horn, Lucky’s bag floats in front of her.
  1258. >”I was able to retrieve your belonging,” Roads whispers. “…Well, most of them. There’s only a little money--”
  1259. >Lucky snatches the bag out of the air. “Anonymous said to be quiet,” she breathes.
  1260. >Apple Seed lets out a low breath before a few splashes of stones falling into the river can be heard from the other side of the wall. Equus itself seems to groan as dirt, roots, and rocks begin to tumble from the earthy dike. The mist around you breathes and wisps away into the new opening of the wall, revealing the roaring river in all its ferocity. It flows down a steep tunnel, reflecting the surrounding stone and mud in a frothy, blue glow.
  1261. >Max turns to excitedly say something to you, but another noise makes you react. Despite the silent aura of Amber Gaze’s magic, you can still hear the way her weapon whistles through the misty air, aimed squarely at Lucky Favor’s head.
  1262. >Without thinking, you shoot the closest part of your body out between your lady and the hammer.
  1263. /SNAP!/
  1264. >Lucky Favor yells something to you, but you can’t hear her over the sound of your screaming. You fall to ground, clawing at the cracked, hyperextended cocoon that holds your leg in an agonizing angle. More yells echo throughout the mist, and luminescence spells are pointed your way.
  1265. >Somebody grabs you from behind. The last thing you can make out before Lucky tackles you into the dark, freezing depths of the rapids is the Red Garden’s enraged residents as they gallop towards you.
  1266. >A stone falls to seal off the hole, and you’re left in a jumble of pain, water, and yelling.
  1269. ~ IV - A Moment of Peace ~
  1271. >It takes a moment for your body to wrest control of itself from the freezing depths of the rapids. When it does, though, you’re immediately kicking your hind hooves where you hope is upwards. Anonymous’ weight is nullified by the ever-changing gravity of the underground river, but the stone cast on his leg fights you for control. That, coupled with the beating and pulling of the river, burns your muscles after just a few strokes.
  1272. >When your head penetrates the surface, your ears are assaulted with a bombardment of sounds. The muffled rush of the river behind the wall now consumes every facet of the rock and mud tunnel. The usually pleasant hum of a luminescence spell being casted is barely perceivable. Smooth Roads is yelling something over it all -- directions or something of that order -- but you’re not listening.
  1273. >Anonymous has stopped screaming. He lays limply in your arms. You hug his torso close to keep his face above water. His dark mane and beard seem to be glossed over his pale, corpse-like face.
  1274. >”/Wucky!/”
  1275. >Somehow, beneath the booming of the river and pounding in your head, you’re able to hear Tia’s cry some ways behind you, a hostage of the river's dangerous current. You will your horn to envelope her in a telekinetic grip, but it doesn’t respond.
  1276. >You’re still holding onto Anonymous.
  1277. >Your legs burn with exhaustion. Anonymous’ weight threatens to pull you into the freezing blue and roaring white. Tia struggles to keep her head above the quicksilver current. There are three other able-bodied ponies in this cave, but you aren’t going to let them lay their hooves on Anonymous.
  1278. >The earthpusher stallion is the next pony in front of you, though. You thank the Ancients above.
  1279. “Anonymous?” you plead shakily. “Anonymous, if you can hear me, know that I’m doing this with good reason!”
  1280. >The moment you release the hyoo-men to the river’s mercy, you can feel your magical tether to the filly regain tautness. You pull, sending Tia through the air and into a splash near the stallion. He reacts instantly, scooping in the filly in his arms. His emerald eyes gleam back at you before he gives a nod, and you know Tia is safe.
  1281. >You don’t notice the sudden lack of Smooth Road’s voice, nor look of utter shock as she stares at the stallion.
  1282. >The stone in Anonymous’ leg drags him down far faster than you anticipated. You cast a luminescence spell of your own before diving into the muffled chaos of the river once again. Your heart threatens to pop out of your chest from its beating. Your eyes sting from the current of water pushing them into their sockets. Your muscles are starting to go numb and your kicking is starting to slow, but you don’t care.
  1283. >When you wrap your hooves around Anonymous’ mid-section, your horn gives out. You were prepared for this – what you weren’t prepared for was for the algal glow of the cave to suddenly blot out to a pitch black. Gravity flings you into an unknown direction. You had barely started to believe the Ancients had reached down and pulled you into the Eternal Graze when you feel your body roll to a slow stop.
  1284. >Upwards soon becomes upwards again and you waste no time kicking your hindlegs as hard as they can possibly go. It could’ve been adrenaline or divine intervention, but eventually your head penetrates the surface of the water once again. This time, the sounds around you are much less dizzying. The crashing of a waterfall cascading into the shallow lake you’ve found yourself in is accented with the soft buzz of the dawn's forest life. Max Gusto is already shaking herself dry on land some ways away and Smooth Roads is slowly making her way up the grassy shoreline of the impromptu lake. The stallion watches you and Anonymous attentively, just a few strokes ahead.
  1285. >Your vision blurs as you try to paddle your way to the shoreline, but whatever had blessed you with the energy to resurface has wilted. You give a wordless, strangled call before the numbness of your muscles infects the rest of your body. You catch a glimpse of the stallion charging through the water towards you before you go under, and you use the last of your strength to rotate your body so Anonymous’ face can have that last breath of oxygen.
  1286. >Warm forelegs wrap around your barrel before you can succumb to unconsciousness. You heave in oxygen as your head penetrates the surface. It might just be your blurry mind, but you can’t decide if it’s the earth pony’s raw strength or the water itself pulling you towards land. Maybe a mix of both.
  1287. “Please—…” you sputter, but even that one syllable makes you short of breath. “…Please--… help Anon--… ymous… first."
  1288. >You’re dragged onto the wet, grassy shoreline. Your breaths are quick and shallow even if your lungs scream for deep gulps.
  1289. >”Ancients above,” Max says somewhere far off. “Ancients above, we did it… I can’t believe--… /Apple Seed! Smooth Roads! I love you! I love you both so much!/”
  1290. >Your vision eventually clears from your exhaustion, even if it feels like the rest of your body will never stand again. Max’s cries of joy barely register as you tilt your head to a blur of rustic orange dragging something from the lake.
  1291. >”Forgive me, brother,” you swear you can hear the earthpusher murmur as he lowers Anonymous to the mud below. He sits on his haunches as his hooves settles down on Anonymous’ cast. It immediately starts to alleviate into a soft mud. Anonymous gives no reaction.
  1292. >”All-Father’s grave, we did it!” Max cheers. “It was a little rough around the edges, but we did it! Apple Seed, you might just be my favorite pony on Equus, mud horse or not! And Smooth Roads-- Hey, what’s with that look?”
  1293. >”/naw-nee?/”
  1294. >Tia’s voice is barely a whisper, but it’s all that’s needed to plunge the shoreline into silence. Anonymous’ body lays beside you, taking shallow, quick breaths. Tia is beside him, prodding his side with both hooves as if to rock him from his state. “/Naw-nee?/” she pleads again, her voice softer than the sough of the forest around you.
  1295. >You’re too exhausted to engage an invisibility spell. It’s too late, anyways. Max and Roads’ eyes are on the alicorn filly. The earthpusher silently stands over Anonymous’ torso and starts pushing palpitations into the hyoo-men’s chest. All you can do is sprawl yourself between the others and your two friends; a last-ditch defense line against two easily capable enemies.
  1296. >The shoreline is illuminated with a brown glow as Smooth Roads’ horn ignites. Your own eyes lock onto hers with deadly precision. “Lucky Favor,” she whispers. Her gravely voice could file the fearsome gates of Tartarus itself to harmless nubs. “What is that thing?”
  1297. >/What is that thing?/
  1298. >…It’s Smooth Roads’ fault.
  1299. >/Everything/ is Smooth Roads’ fault. Your wagon being in the hooves of the lowest scum of the lowercaste is her fault. The way every part of your body shakes in a way you’ve never shaken before is her fault. Anonymous’ half-alive state is her fault.
  1300. >And she has the gall to ask that question. /What is that thing?/
  1301. >She’s just as bad as Red Letter… Sapphire Lily, too.
  1302. >Or maybe she's just as bad as everypony in this Ancients-forsaken place.
  1303. >/How many other lowercaste mares will you trust, Lucky Favor?/
  1304. >Your voice is too ragged to speak. All you can do is stare into Roads’ eyes. You’re not sure what spell you will yourself to engage, but you know its target.
  1305. >The sound of somepony abruptly upchucking snaps your attention to Anonymous. Water squirts and cascades from his mouth as he coughs. It lasts only a moment before he slumps back into limpness. Tia doubles her efforts when she sees the glint of Anonymous’ eyes opening, even if they're unfocused. “/Naw-naw!/” she cries, her wings flapping in newfound fervor.
  1306. >”That /’thing,’/” the earthpusher commands lowly, stepping over Anonymous and between you and Roads. “Is a child, Smooth Roads.”
  1307. >Roads’ horn disengages as she gives the earthpusher an incredulous look. The shock of the mere implication that he could speak seems to wrestle with the shock of just what he said. Your eyes never leave Roads’, even when you shakily pull your hooves underneath your barrel and attempt to push up. Your only reward is a heat in your muscles so intense you have to keep from crying out in pain.
  1308. >/This is all her fault./
  1309. >Roads attempts to aim her thin irises once again at Tia, but the earthpusher gives a low snort, snapping her attention back to him. The flabbergasted expression on her face changes to apprehension. “No, it isn’t,” she says quietly. “It’s an affront to the Ancient Lady of Life herself.”
  1310. “…scum…” you whisper so quietly only you can hear it.
  1311. >“Stand back, earthpusher,” Roads commands in a voice that causes the stallion to lower his head defensively. “You don’t know what it—”
  1312. >”I am your earthpusher no longer,” the stallion hisses. Even if his voice isn’t nearly as threatening as Roads’, the look on her face begs to differ. “/You/ do not have control over me anymore.”
  1313. >Smooth Roads flinches as if struck. “/Me?/ I was never one of them, Apple Seed! I did everything I could to help you!”
  1314. >”You did not even know my name until Max Gusto shouted it out."
  1315. >Smooth Roads’ eyes widen. She almost looks panicked as her eyes dart to Max Gusto, but the pegasus only unknowingly stares at Tia. Of course the sky rat wouldn’t contribute anything of use.
  1316. >“I was your friend on the inside,” Roads says. “I--… I /am/ your friend, ain’t I?”
  1317. >”You consider me a friend? Yet you would ruin what we have to turn your magic against an innocent child?”
  1318. >Roads’ forlorn eyes can no longer hold contact with the stallion’s. Without saying another word, she simply lowers her gaze to the ground.
  1319. >”Would you, Max Gusto?” the stallion turns to Max, snapping her out of her stupor.
  1320. >Her eyes seem to be undecisive on what to focus on. Before long, though, they lock onto Tia. The filly rubs her head against Anonymous’ limp arm, nickering quietly. “Why are you even protecting her, Apple Seed?” Max asks, her voice barely above a whisper.
  1321. >/’Why?’/
  1322. With a snarl, you’re finally able to croak something that will reach everypony’s ears. “Lowercaste scum.”
  1323. >Max’s eyes snap to you and fill with that inappropriate arrogance you want to strangle out of her. “You’re welcome for saving your ungrateful plot, /uppercaste mare,/” she enunciates slowly. “Despite us having to act so quickly, to /save your coltfriend./”
  1324. “Don't act to noble,” you rasp. “Let’s not forget /I/ was the one who got /your/ 'friend' into our cell and away from those mares.”
  1325. >Max Gusto’s eyes fill with a bestial rage that just feels so good. Surprisingly, it’s Apple Seed himself who puts one of his legs between the two of you, sealing her off.
  1326. “What was your plan, exactly, Max?” you sneer. “Sell the next stallion they capture to the Plumsteed housecarlatel? Or am I expected to believe you’re just that stupid, to not be able to tell the difference between aprons and armor?”
  1327. >Max’s glare turns to the ground. Her wings unfurl and tremble with emotion. “I’m not stupid,” she growls. “I’m not… I just wanted to see the look on Lily’s face when /she/ knew everything was about to be taken from her. Just once.”
  1328. “From how she described you, it seems to me like Lily had a lot more to lose than you did, /sky wanderer./”
  1329. >“Lucky Favor,” the stallion commands. You crane your head to meet the mud horse’s eyes. Your glare remains.
  1330. >Liars, backstabbers, lowercaste scum. Unwanted stains on the bottom of the uppercaste, festering in their own subterfuge and dishonor… This is all their fault.
  1331. >”/dadda?/”
  1332. >Tia’s soft voice cuts through your hostility.
  1333. >You once again position your hooves below your barrel and push. This time, you’re able to shakily raise yourself onto your haunches. Tia is on top of the scarily still chest of Anonymous. Her magenta eyes are reddened by the tears threatening their corners.
  1334. >“You asked me why I’m protecting the innocent child, Max Gusto.” The stallion makes sure that the word “innocent” is spoken in a slow drawl, squeezing its meaning for all its worth. Max’s head lowers in shame. Smooth Roads’ face is frozen in a lost expression. “I cannot give you a direct answer. After all, I am an uneducated mud horse who knows nothing about the other tribes or their prejudices. I am willing to admit this may be influencing me; perhaps this filly is clearly a bloodthirsty raider, and I am too ignorant to discern this. But it is not the only reason.”
  1335. >The stallion turns to Tia. You will your horn to ready a defensive spell, but it only sputters and sparks in exhaustion. Apple Seed gives you an unreadable look before he continues. “I find magic a vile, disgusting manipulation of an already-accommodating natural world. But what I see around this filly’s horn...--" Apple Seed gazes at the filly, tilting his head. "--...No, around her entire body – does not disgust me. It is the opposite, in truth. It is not the manipulation of nature, rather… an extension of it.”
  1336. >A small smile appears on the stallion’s tired face. That smile is the same a worn, exhausted widower would wear while reminiscing. “I have never heard of another pony like this filly. I do not know how rare or plentiful the others of her tribe are, or the reason for your hatred for her. But if this is the magic that this new tribe possesses, I would be committing an unforgivable crime by snuffing it out.” The stallion’s eyes turn to you. You scrunch your muzzle, unwilling to show an ounce of weakness. “I am unfamiliar with you, Lucky Favor. I do not know why you had commissioned a wagon for cross-country traveling. I don’t know your goals or reasons, but I do know that you are one I can trust; for protecting and loving this filly. Even if you may take out your frustrations on others.”
  1337. >Your eyes don’t falter from the stallion, but some errant expression you may have made must have revealed your shame to him. His voice softens as he says, “You and your housecarla are quite alike.”
  1338. >Apple Seed doesn’t smile, but his cheeks do raise ever-so slightly in a kind offering. You turn away from the display, glaring at nothing. He’s wrong. He has to be wrong. You'd be doing Anonymous a disservice, comparing him to yourself.
  1339. >“His leg is snapped in half,” the stallion says with a wayward glance to Anonymous. Your jaw clenches and you take a deep, sputtering breath to steady yourself. “He is not dead. He is in shock. Tell me, Lucky Favor, what weaponry does your housecarla use? I did not see them confiscate anything from him.”
  1340. >What does that have to do with anything?
  1341. Still, if only because you have no other option, you turn back to Anonymous. The sight of him laying there, struggling to breathe as Tia whimpers softly, breaks something inside you. “I—” you start, but once the first voice break hits you stamp a hoof on the grass and shake your head clear. “I don’t believe he uses any, besides the stone bracers on his forelegs. I believe the lord might be some variety of martial artist.”
  1342. >“So he uses his leg often,” Apple Seed muses quietly. As he thinks, his posture slumps, as if recounting shameful memories. “I cannot help him myself. But if you would be willing to take lowercaste scum at his word, I believe I can find somepony who can.”
  1343. >You glower, but know you have no room to defend yourself. Apple Seed grabs the other mares’ attention as you do, perhaps so they don't see you in this state.
  1344. >“My home village is a day’s journey to the West,” he says, pointing a hoof in the direction. You glance up at his destination to see mountains sprawling across the pink horizon.
  1345. >Smooth Roads jolts at the news. ”Your village was that close all this time?” she urges, taking a step forward. “Free Valley Carpentry is on the way there! I could’ve gotten help!”
  1346. >“My view on unicorn magic is considered generous within my village. At best, you would have been shunned. If you were allowed to speak to anypony in the first place.” Smooth Roads snorts, stamping a hoof in frustration. “But I am sure they won’t turn any of you away when we arrive. I will make sure they know you are the reason I am free.”
  1347. >Smooth Roads is silent under Apple Seed’s soft gaze. “No words can adequately convey my thanks to you,” he says evenly. You’re almost jealous of his mare-like ability to keep his emotions in check. “So, I will instead use actions. Your time in Marestricht will be a long-needed haven.” Apple Seed turns to you, his emerald orbs two tranquil pools in the darkness. “No earth pony will hurt Tia. It will be a rest for her as well. I swear it on my life."
  1348. >Despite the news, you can’t stop the nagging voice in the back of your mind, wondering how a group of mud horses would overpower you and take Anonymous for themselves.
  1349. >”Do you have enough energy to make the trek, Lucky Favor?” Apple Seed asks.
  1350. “Don’t worry about me,” you scowl, your eyes once again magnetized to Anonymous. Tia is silent now, but you can see her mouth moving softly as she murmurs something too quiet to discern.
  1351. >”Max Gusto,” Apple Seed says. “Do you have enough energy to carry Anonymous?”
  1352. >Before she can answer, you snort and plant your forehooves firmly into the grass. With a heave, you’re back on all fours. You lower your head defensively at the sky rat.
  1353. >”Lucky Favor,” the stallion says patiently, giving you a sidelong, pondering look. “She is the best suited to carry him.”
  1354. “I’ll carry him,” you say. You half expect Max to fill the air with her annoying, boastful laughter, but the pegasus is oddly silent.
  1355. >”Lucky Favor…” is all Apple Seed needs to say to draw attention to your trembling limbs.
  1356. “Fine, then,” you mutter. “Then why don’t /you/ carry him, Apple Seed?”
  1357. >You’d rather your vulnerable lord be on the back of another male during this trek. Ancients know you’re not letting another mare touch him when he's helpless. Not again.
  1358. >“I would not be able to support somepony of his weight,” Apple Seed says, his voice never wavering from a dull monotone. “I would be more of a burden than I already am. His leg would drag against the floor, exacerbating the problem.”
  1359. >”Apple Seed, you’re not--” Max coos, but she gets no room to finish.
  1360. >”Max Gusto would be able to use her flight to keep him stable,” Apple Seed says definitively.
  1361. “He’s immune to magic!” you plead. “She wouldn’t be able to get off the ground once she touches him!”
  1362. >”He’s immune to /unicorn/ magic.” Max’s voice grates against your ears like a dull knife. You glare at her, but she doesn’t return your hostility. "Besides, the ambient magic in my bones can't be more related to yours than that weird, stone-earth pony magic that worked on him."
  1363. >”It is not magic,” said earth pony corrects. “It is a—"
  1364. >”Mutual understanding, something exchange, I know,” Max slurs. “But the point is, we won’t know until we try it, right? And even if I can’t fly with him, I’m still the most used to balancing somepony on my back. I can handle it, Lucky.”
  1365. She’s making sense, but you don’t relent. You can’t. What’s stopping her from running off with him the first chance she gets? From groping him while he sleeps? “Why would you care about Anonymous anyways?” you glower.
  1366. >Max’s only reaction is a shameful slump of her shoulders.
  1367. >”Lucky Favor,” Apple Seed says once again. “The more we argue, the more time we waste. Do you want to help Anonymous or continue bickering with your friends until the Red Garden find us?”
  1368. >Max is /not/ your friend. None of these ponies are. The only ones here you can trust is your unconcious housecarla and an unresponsive filly.
  1369. >/But will Anonymous continue to be your housecarla when he finds out your money was stolen?/
  1370. >The stray thought plunges your body into a freezing cold the river before you could never replicate.
  1371. >Max slowly stands to all fours before she walks towards you. Not towards Anonymous, but towards you. You frown, pushing into the grass with your hindlegs to meet her head-on. When she’s near enough so nopony else can hear, she whispers, “Please just let me do something right.”
  1372. >You don’t answer, but you also don’t fight her as she passes you. She bends down to Anonymous’ side and shifts her forelegs underneath him, until the sight of Tia once again enraptures her. As if it were the first time she’s seen the alicorn filly, Max shies away.
  1373. “Tia.”
  1374. >Tia’s head rises from Anonymous’ chest. The snow white fur on her face is matted and stained with tears. She silently pleads with you to stay just a bit longer.
  1375. >”I’d like to make sure Free Valley is safe, if that’s alright.”
  1376. >The sound of Smooth Roads’ voice directed at Apple Seed makes you frown. Your eyes narrow and you swing your head in a gesture for Tia to come. She sniffles before falling from Anonymous’ side and making her way to you.
  1377. >”It is on the way, yes?” Apple Seed asks. “How far away?”
  1378. >You levitate Tia onto your withers and double check to make sure your bag is secure. There’s no reason to stuff the filly in there now. You initially felt as if a sleep spell might be in order for the upset filly, but Tia doesn’t fight you in the slightest. She simply sits on your withers, not making a sound.
  1379. >“A few dozen furlongs to the West,” Smooth Roads answers. “I just want to make sure my workers are safe, is all.”
  1380. >You scrutinize every muscle that twitches through Max Gusto’s body as she hoists the hyoo-men’s upper body into her arms. Anonymous flinches from the contact and his eyes widen with shock. Your horn hums with a push spell, but Max gives you an apologetic look. It’s only when Anonymous settles that your horn disengages.
  1381. >”We will use it as a landmark to stop and rest,” Apple Seed confirms. “I will also collect what I can for a meal on the way. That, and something for Anonymous.”
  1382. >As if under a magical contract, nopony says another word as you all start walking. The only sounds around you are the shuffling of clothing and fur, dragging hoofsteps, and the buzzing of forest life.
  1383. >The residual aches of your muscles soon fade to the back of your mind. A quick-moving animal over there or a new, diurnal call of another send jolts throughout your system. After a while, though, you become desensitized to it and stop snapping to attention at every peculiarity. What you, and the rest of the group, don’t become desensitized to, however, is the proximity to the Red Garden.
  1384. >Your group is careful to avoid dirt paths of any kind. Between Apple Seed’s momentary breaks to pluck something useful from the forest or scan his surroundings, he also bows over and touches his forehead to the ground for minutes at a time. You assume he’s “feeling” for unwanted hoofsteps. Max Gusto also periodically sets Anonymous against something soft before she takes off into the air. The first few times you didn’t expect the pegasus to come back, but every time she’d return with news of how close we were to Free Valley or that nopony was on our tails. Max tries to start a conversation once or twice with Apple Seed, but the stallion never engages with her, only giving noncommittal grunts or one-word answers. Smooth Roads doesn’t open her yap once, thank the Ancients.
  1385. >Enough time passes in this cycle of walking and waiting for the earth pony or pegasus to scout around that the sky soon becomes a bright cyan. All this time, Tia has been silent. She doesn’t once collapse onto your withers in an exhausted sleep, or even shuffles around to get more comfortable. One time, you peer back to make sure that the filly is even there in the first place. Sure enough, Tia is sitting on her haunches, slumped as her eyes never leave Anonymous.
  1386. >You had expected there to be more cheering, especially from Max Gusto. Tartarus, /all/ of these ponies should be ecstatic right now. They were finally free. Uninjured…
  1387. >…
  1388. >/…It’s your fault, isn’t it?/
  1389. >The first time Smooth Roads talks is what brings you back to Equus.
  1390. >”We’re here,” she suddenly whispers. “Thank you for the chance, Apple Seed. I won’t be long.”
  1391. >Apple Seed doesn’t respond. He only turns to splay all his collected ingredients onto the grass in front of him as Roads canters off to the hill’s precipice, overlooking Free Valley Carpentry. After his collection of plants and roots are put in neat order, he plants his forehooves into the grass and closes his eyes.
  1392. >”Phew!” Max chuckles. “He’s a lot heavier than those coneheads at the Red Garden.”
  1393. “/Don’t you dare drop him./”
  1394. >Whatever misplaced levity Max had let infect her mind, it’s gone now. She returns your glare with a tired frown. “I know,” she deadpans before gently settling Anonymous onto the grass.
  1395. >The moment he’s stable, you’re by the hyoo-men’s side. Tia makes the first sound of the trip—a surprised squeak—before she hops down and joins you. Anonymous is still pale, but the shaking has subsided. His breaths are stable, but still quiet.
  1396. >When will he wake up? Is he cold? He’s long dry now, but he could still be cold. Clamminess is a side effect of shock. Should you provide warmth? Lie down on him?
  1397. >No. That won’t end well. Why’d you even think that, Lucky?
  1398. >”He has canines, so he’s omnivorous,” Max says from behind, reminding you she’s still there. “I’ll, uh… I can hear a stream a ways away. I can go get him some fish. Some water as well, to help Apple Seed. And Anonymous, if he wants any! I’ll… be right back.”
  1399. >Finally. You’ll be sky rat-free and able to care for Anonymous in peace.
  1400. >Unfortunately, Max doesn’t immediately take off. Her fur rustles against itself as she shuffles in place, her wings fluttering. “Lucky?” she asks quietly.
  1401. >You give an impatient flick of your ear, but otherwise don’t respond.
  1402. >Max’s voice once again falls silent. For a moment, the only sounds in the clearing are Tia’s sniffling and Apple Seed crushing a root between his hooves. You dare to entertain the notion that Max has already left. It’s only a moment, though, and it ends with the pegasus uttering, “I’m sorry, alright?"
  1403. >Tia’s sniffling builds before culminating into a single, choked sob. Even if you were about to give Max a response, now your attention is on the white filly by your side. Her pink mane swishes in the gust of wind Max’s departure produces.
  1404. >You bow low and give Tia a soft nuzzle. As you do, you can finally discern the words susurrating between her lips. “/bad mare… bad mare…/”
  1405. Your horn glows. You gently lift the filly from the ground into your forelegs and begin to bob her gently against your chest. “It’s going to be alright, dear,” you coo. “We’ll get Anonymous the help he needs, you and me.”
  1406. >”/bad mare,/” Tia mumbles before her body convulses with another sob. “/can’t pwotect… bad mare./”
  1407. >/You’re a bad mare, Lucky Favor./
  1408. Your bobbing slows. All you can hope for is that Tia isn’t talking about herself. “Are you hungry, dear?” you opt for, trying to change the subject. “I know I am.”
  1409. >”/no,/” Tia sulks, shaking her head in your tuft. “/no earn./”
  1410. “I think Anonymous would want you to have a full belly. Doesn’t that sound good, Tiny-Tia? A full belly to help you grow into a big, strong mare? What do you want right now?”
  1411. >Tia’s sniffling subsides, but her face never leaves your tuft. “…Cake,” she mumbles.
  1412. “Cake? Cake isn’t big, strong mare food. It's snooty noble food.” You give Tia a playful flick of her ear with your hoof. She bats it away. “Oh come now, dear. Doesn’t some…”
  1413. >You look back to see Apple Seed sprinkling the last of his green-and-brown ingredients into a stone bowl.
  1414. “…I’m not actually sure what that is, but I’m sure it’s nutritious. Doesn’t that sound good?”
  1415. >Tia pouts up at you.
  1416. “Anonymous won’t go anywhere,” you assure, giving her a warm smile. Tia’s eyes widen as she makes a realization. “I won't let anypony hurt him. I promise.”
  1417. >”Dadda,” Tia says with an owlish blink, her gaze somewhere far off.
  1418. You pout. “Now, Tia, what did I say about you calling him that? You know he doesn’t like it.”
  1419. >Tia’s eyes shift to you before she vigorously shakes her head. “Dadda!” she affirms, pointing a small hoof Anonymous’ way. Her hoof shifts from the hyoo-men to poke your chest. “Mamma?”
  1420. “Tia,” you say with a patient smile. “I’m not your momma. Remember?”
  1421. >Tia frowns before she shakes her head again. “/Daaad-daaaa!/” she enunciates, poking her hoof towards Anonymous. Once again, her hoof makes its way back to your chest, but it does so slower. More… methodical. More methodical than this filly has any right to be. When her hoof makes contact with you, she gives you a smile that you /swear/ is dripping with mischief. “/Maaam-maaaa~?/”
  1422. >…This little--…
  1423. >She didn’t just say that.
  1424. >She’s a child, Lucky Favor, she doesn’t know these things! She can’t!
  1425. >Regardless, you scrunch and turn away to hide your blush. Tia only giggles innocently in your arms. Whoever Tia’s mother is must be quite the rapscallion.
  1426. >Wherever she is.
  1427. >Tia’s giggling comes to an abrupt end when something catches her eye. You’re just about to dispel the last remnants of the heat around your face when you hear a quiet, short groan from Anonymous. Your eyes are immediately on the hyoo-men. His eyes are straining against the light as his lips twitch from under his beard.
  1428. >Should you stay still? Or do you want to be the first thing he sees when he comes back? To know he’s safe and away from the Red Garden?
  1429. >/If he sees you, would he be reminded this is all your fault?/
  1430. >The thought jabs a dagger into your heart. What are you thinking, the entire reason he was injured being the first thing he sees? If you wanted him to feel safe, you’d just go to the other end of the clearing and let him open his eyes to the open sky and looming mountain above.
  1431. >”…Lucky?”
  1432. >Too late.
  1433. >You steel yourself in preparation for the look of disgust or betrayal he must have aimed at you. When you will yourself to look down to him, though, he only looks exhausted and barely conscious.
  1434. >Tia puts one hoof in front of her body, as if under a spell. She then puts another, and another, before tumbling forward and throwing her forelegs around Anonymous’ arm. She bawls as she nuzzles her face against his skin. Anonymous’ eyes glide down to her. He’s too drained to even pat the filly on her head. You’re not much further away than Tia from bawling your eyes out.
  1435. >He’s here. He’s awake. He isn’t dead.
  1436. >You can’t lose him ever again.
  1437. >You’re worried about Anonymous harming himself with a kneejerk punch to your face if you give into your emotions and hug him with all your might. Instead, you slowly raise a hoof in front of his face. You don’t descend it until he looks at it and is aware of it. You gently lower it to the middle of his chest with a soft /tap./
  1438. >Anonymous gives you a confused, almost pitiful look. “The Hell are you doing, Lucky?” he asks.
  1439. >Curses.
  1440. >You withdraw your hoof.
  1441. “H-how do you feel, my lord?” you say meekly, once again scrunching and staring at your hooves.
  1442. >Anonymous’ breath hitches as he raises his forearm of the arm that Tia has a hold of. He quietly sighs as he descends his hand onto Tia’s mane and gently runs his fingers through it. Tia’s sobs turn to simpering sniffles. You know you don’t deserve to have your mane pet by Anonymous, even if you wanted it.
  1443. >”Are we out of the Red Garden?” Anonymous exhales. “Were you two hurt?”
  1444. “Anonymous, we are /furlongs/ away from the Red Garden, /none/ of us are hurt, you were out for a few hours, we are resting a spell before we continue on to Apple Seed’s native village /where you will get treatment/, and I was at your side the whole time. Now answer my question, /how do you feel?!/” The words spill out of your mouth like a topsized ink bottle. You’re not letting Anonymous dodge this. The last time he dodged this question was in Plumsteed.
  1445. >Anonymous’ expression doesn’t change as he blinks at you. “What do you mean, you were at my side?”
  1446. “/ANSWER THE QUESTION, MISTER!/” you yell out. Anonymous narrows his eyes. You curse yourself and turn away, trembling with anger or grief, you can’t tell. “Please just tell me how you are,” you whisper. “Please, just--… tell me what happened.”
  1447. >/Tell me if those mares touched you./
  1448. >You hope he just comes out and says it. You hope he lays into you; rages at you for failing as a mare. You hope he realizes it’s all your fault before you can find it in yourself to stop being a coward and tell him yourself, and he just /gets it over with./ Instead of any of that, though, Anonymous just lays the back of his head on the grass and closes his eyes. “I feel like my leg is on fire,” he sighs. “It’ll be worse tomorrow, though.”
  1449. >The two of you sit still for some time, smoldering in a heavy silence. The sharp sound of Apple Seed striking the keratin of his hoof against rock sends a jolt through your system. The sight of Anonymous, though, calms you down as quickly as the feeling came. The gust of wind from Max’s return ruffles Anonymous’ hair and beard in a way that entrances you.
  1450. >It's unfair, how even when he's unable to stand, and even as guilt and shame flood your system like a disease, your cheeks still flush with warmth at Anonymous' handsome face. You wish more than anything that it wasn’t so twisted in pain and exhaustion. Just once, you’d love to see him genuinely smile.
  1451. >Hopefully because of you.
  1452. >”Hey, Faust?”
  1453. >Anonymous’ voice is a whisper. Even then, you’re about to chide him for saying your true name in front of two lowercaste ponies. It’s the look on his face that makes you stop. His eyes are avoiding your own. They waver as he does an adorable hyoo-men rendition of a scrunch. His lips open to say something you know he isn’t used to saying.
  1454. >Whatever he might’ve said, though, disappears in a blink. His focus snaps onto something behind you, and his voice rumbles with a low anger as he growls, “What the Hell’s /she/ doing here?”
  1455. >You turn to find that Smooth Roads has returned from her perch. She’s also heard Anonymous’ comment, from the looks of the uncomfortable glance she sends his way.
  1456. >Good.
  1457. “My fair lord Anonymous,” you snort, getting Roads’ attention. “I can’t truthfully say that I know.”
  1458. >”/Lucky!/” Max cries out. You give the pegasus a glare, but it’s short lived. She doesn’t look the least bit interested in a confrontation. Her wings are slumped to the ground, and she teeters forward as if moments from toppling over. “Just… /stop./ Okay? Please, just stop.”
  1459. >”Don’t you worry, Max,” Smooth Roads assures, approaching you. “This won’t turn ugly, just two mares having a civil discussion. I’m just gonna make sure Lucky knows what she has to know. Then we'll be two strangers for the rest of the trip. Ain’t that right?”
  1460. >Your glare only hardens.
  1461. >Smooth Roads’ face remains neutral. Her posture doesn’t reflect the slightest hint of hostility. But you know a pony doesn’t have to act hostile to stab you in the back. “Lucky Favor,” she says slowly, keeping an expressionless gaze leveled at you. “It was either let the Red Garden steal the occasional wagon or have them burn Free Valley to the ground.”
  1462. You don’t fall for it for a second. “If you’re so loyal to Free Valley, why don’t you just go down there now and never show your face to us again?”
  1463. >”Please…” Max whispers. Her voice is no louder than Tia’s during the trek.
  1464. >Smooth Roads looks at the pegasus with a look you would’ve believed to be apologetic, if you were a few days younger and a few mental scars lesser. “The Red Garden knows I betrayed them,” she says before her eyes meet yours once again. “For /your/ sake. And the moment I step hoof in that place, the first words out of my mouth are magically contracted to be that draft they have at the Red Garden. As I’m sure you well know, being the educated uppercastemare you are, it’s enchanted to glow as I recite it. They’d know I was at Free Valley. I wouldn’t just be endangering myself, but my fellow workers as well.”
  1465. >If you were as uncouth as the mare before you, you’d spit in frustration. She did have a point, but there are so many ways around it. Just off the top of your head, why couldn’t she call her workers to outside of the workshop and explain then? That would work, wouldn’t it? She /has/ to be planning something!
  1466. >Roads’ hard look softens. Her ears lower to her skull as her eyes falter from your own. “I’m sorry about your wagon, Lucky Favor. I’m sorry about what happened to your housecarla. I’m sorry the Red Garden chose you. I really am.” Roads stamps a hoof in frustration and snorts. “Consarnit, every second since we crawled out of that river, I’ve just been thinking of how many things I could’ve done better… But now, I have nowhere else to go. And there’s nopony else I can rely on besides the ponies right here.”
  1467. >You keep your glare on Smooth Roads even as she turns away and walks to Apple Seed’s side. She lowers herself to her haunches as she looks blankly into the stew the earth pony is cooking up. She doesn’t open her mouth again, effectively becoming a turquoise blur in the rest of the forest background.
  1468. >Max Gusto drags her hooves through the grass as she nears the two of you. You keep your eyes on the pegasus as she passes you. She leans over Anonymous and drops the dead fish from her mouth onto his chest.
  1469. >”Just take it, alright?” she murmurs.
  1470. >Max gives you plenty of space on her return trip. You glare after her as she ambles to Apple Seed’s side, but you don’t feel the matching tension of your hackles. Shrugging it off, you turn your attention back to Anonymous.
  1471. >Anonymous’ hand releases Tia’s mane to poke the dead fish on his chest. Rubbing the slimy consistency between his fingers, he gives you a perplexed frown. “Well, that’s disgusting.”
  1473. ~~~
  1475. >It isn’t Apple Seed that lets his excitement get the best of him and cheer out, but Max Gusto, when you first round the earthly corner and Marestricht comes into view.
  1476. >An impatient scowl deforms Anonymous’ sleeping face as he grips Max’s withers a little tighter. “Stop. /Moving./”
  1477. >Max gives an apologetic chuckle to the hyoo-men on her back, but you’re not focused on her right now. Strange, considering the last few hours of her balancing a barely conscious hyoo-men on her back had every fiber of your attention focused on it, especially when she managed to lift him off the ground. Without the luxury of the ambient magic in her wings, the pegasus has had to rely on her physical strength, which you must begrudgingly respect. The ride for Anonymous has been smooth sailing thanks to her.
  1478. >No, you’re not focused on Max Gusto. The earth pony village of Marestricht now lays before you all, a large stone gate some ways down the path all that separates it from you. Well, Apple Seed calls it a village, but to you it looks more like a stone-and-grass city attached to the mountainside of a thin valley. In the center of the valley, the setting sun reflects brilliantly off the stream of an abundant orchard. A pegasus net is attached from one half of the village to the other, splaying over the expanse of the valuable produce. You can recognize about half of the structures you see; brown and gray cabins and huts, against all odds not looking crudely built in the slightest, expand up and down the mountainside. There are even some fully realized buildings at higher altitudes, fit for the uppercaste itself if they weren’t made of that conformist shade of gray. Vapor plumes of steam rise intermittently throughout the village, through open roofs or small huts, from what had to be hot springs of some kind. At first, you thought the various bumps and holes littering the bottoms of the mountainside were an advanced web of animal furrows, but the far-off blobs of ponies entering and exiting them have you realizing they’re an integral storage system for the orchard.
  1479. >/Lots of places for somepony to set an ambush./
  1480. >The architecture is splendidly foreign, but you can’t forget how you got here, Lucky Favor.
  1481. >You bump into something warm and furry. You start, until you see the unmoving coat of Apple Seed in front of you. The stallion has stopped dead now, looking over the village of Marestricht silently. His eyes move slowly down the mountainside, across the fields of wheat, bushels, and trees; to settle on one spot. It’s a patch of grass just out of reach from the orchard’s stream, a large apple tree standing alone in the green.
  1482. >”Alright, bud,” Max says as she touches down on ground. You can see every muscle in Anonymous relax as he breathes a sigh of relief. “What’s the deal? And be honest with me. Don’t act like nothing’s wrong, ‘cuz you’ve been quiet like a sky thief this whole time.”
  1483. >Apple Seed blinks before his head turns to Max in a slow, reticent swivel. His eyes avoid contact with the pegasus for some while. A glint of an emotion you can’t place, and it’s gone not even a moment later. Apple Seed’s eyes harden as he not only looks to Max Gusto, but also you, and Smooth Roads behind you. “It is imperative that you all keep behind me and make no sudden movements,” he says. “And especially, no magic whatsoever.” Max frowns at his avoidance of her question, but otherwise listens attentively.
  1484. >Apple Seed’s eyes turn to you and soften. “Lucky Favor, I will make sure that Anonymous is given to the best body mender in the village.”
  1485. >Anonymous mumbles something about not needing help, earning him four deadpans. You’re pretty sure Tia is also giving her best rendition of one.
  1486. >”Her name is Bountiful Riverside,” Apple Seed continues. “I am positive they will get along well.”
  1487. >You doubt it, but there’s something in Apple Seed’s voice that urges you to agree. This stallion is no stranger to Anonymous, and certainly no stranger to his village. He may be right. Still, the thought of a mare alone with Anonymous turns you on edge.
  1488. >”Also,” Apple Seed says as he starts walking to the stone gate. “None of you should feel ashamed about what happened in the Red Garden. You may share it with the ponies here. They will treat you as family and provide comfort if you reach out. But I’d like to request that what happened--…” Apple Seed pauses suddenly, his head drooping low. You’re worried he’ll once again succumb to an all-consuming silence before he continues, “…I would rather the Red Garden’s treatment of me remain untold.”
  1489. >Anonymous tilts his face from Max’s fur to look at Apple Seed with one bemused eye. Max herself, though, isn’t nearly as subtle.
  1490. >”/Bullshit!/” she spits, marching up to Apple Seed’s side. “What, are they gonna /punish/ you for what happened? That’s bucking /bullshit,/ Apple Seed!"
  1491. >”They would not punish me for what happened,” Apple Seed affirms. “I just don’t want them to know for now. It is my choice, Max Gusto, and if you tell anypony what happened I will consider it a betrayal.”
  1492. >Max’s astonished face, surprisingly, whips to you.
  1493. >Is she asking for help? You don’t really have a reaction to what Apple Seed said… Besides, you barely know her. Why would she think you’d be her support?
  1494. >Why do you feel guilty for looking away from her?
  1495. >”Max Gusto,” Apple Seed says with a woefully out of place smile. “I am sure you will enjoy our mineral springs.”
  1496. >Max doesn’t say another word as her hoofsteps slow to beside you. You are almost given the chance to enjoy more quiet until Smooth Roads’ irritating voice asks from behind, “Apple Seed, I was wondering how good your village’s woodsmiths are.”
  1497. >You’re confused. Not curious, just confused. …No, you’re not even confused. You don’t care about what she’s yapping about.
  1498. >”Not good,” Apple Seed admits. “We are more accustomed to stone and earth.”
  1499. >”That makes sense,” Smooth Roads says quietly.
  1500. >”Lucky,” Max warns lowly.
  1501. >You turn to the pegasus to see that she’s slowly shaking her head at you. You guess you were glaring.
  1502. >Well, she has nothing to worry about. You’re not starting another confrontation with Roads. With any luck, you’ll never have to share the same air as her again.
  1503. >The sun’s warmth leaves you once the shadow of the stone gate consumes you. A chill crawls up your spine. The gate is a perfect vantage point to catch a group of ponies off-guard.
  1504. >Apple Seed turns to you all. “One more thing, if I may. There will be a young mare by the name of Apricot Ammil. I would like to ask that you all give her space.”
  1505. >Max is the one to ask the obvious question. ”Who the buck’s Apricot Ammil?”
  1506. >”My blood relative. And consider my request doubled for you, Max.”
  1507. >Before Max can respond, the stone wall in front of you shakes in a deep, penetrating grumble. Apple Seed quickly turns back to the gate, muttering something under his breath, but you can’t make it out. The stone gate seems to separate in two and be pulled apart, a brown miasma of dust rising from its base. As it opens, sunlight peeks through, illuminating the dusty silhouette of a pony behind the gate. As the gate settles to a stop, two other ponies emerge from behind each of the stone doors. None of them have horns on their heads or wings on their sides.
  1508. >Apple Seed gives you all a look that reiterates the importance of his instructions before he turns back to the three ponies. So far, the mares haven’t moved a frog, still shrouded by the dust and reflective sunlight.
  1509. >Your horn slowly ignites with a cyan glow. Max lays a wing on your side. You turn to her and see that she’s silently pleading for you to stay calm. You disengage the defensive spell, but you still tilt your head upwards so it slightly obscures the mares’ view of Tia, what little help that’d do.
  1510. >”You were supposed to wait until I petrevoked you,” Apple Seed says simply.
  1511. >The mares flinch. As the dust settles below them and their faces are revealed, the looks of utter shock remind you that they’re ponies, not three silhouettes in dust.
  1512. >”Brother Apple Seed?” one of them whispers.
  1513. >Apple Seed turns to her, his voice absent of emotion. “Yes, it is me. I need you to petrevoke Sachemare Sagebrush as soon as—”
  1514. >”/Apple Seed?/” another repeats, this time softer. Her voice wavers; all it would take would be a slight breeze for it to break.
  1515. >Tears come to the third one’s eyes. She shakily takes a step back before turning tail. “I’ll beckon the others!” she cries as she gallops off.
  1516. >The last two remaining slowly approach Apple Seed as if he were an illusion that’d disappear if they were too reckless. Apple Seed opens his mouth again, but something stops him from speaking. He simply closes his mouth and smiles warmly.
  1517. >”Hello, Herdwatcher Wheat Graze,” he says. “Herdwatcher Thistlehoof.”
  1518. >”Brother!” the brown mare who responded to Wheat Graze cries out before throwing her forelegs around Apple Seed. The stallion reciprocates the hug, but you can’t help but notice how sluggish he moves, how his eyes never reflect the same joy as the mare crying into his shoulder. “Brother! Brother, you’ve returned to me!” Tears stream down Wheat Graze’s cheeks as she collapses onto the stallion in sobbing convulsions.
  1519. >Thistlehoof keeps her eyes on your group. They narrow dangerously as they target Max’s wings, then your horn, until they land on the filly on your withers. You slowly start to channel defensive magic into your horn. You can barely feel the shift of your fur as Max lays a wing on your back yet again.
  1520. >It’s Anonymous laying a hand on you that keeps you still. The contact is softer than the pegasus’ wings, against all odds, and sends a comforting warmth throughout your body. Especially your cheeks.
  1521. >You know Anonymous is probably just keeping you from making a mess out of things, but… you are a cloak and armor set short at the moment. Don’t get the wrong idea, you are very comfortable in your fur and are /very much/ in control of your Y-7 gland, but still, the touch of the hyoo-men’s hand on your bare body feels… intimate.
  1522. >You can’t say you’re jealous of the armored mares in front of you, dressed as they are. You can’t fathom how strong they must be to be wearing that stone armor all day.
  1523. >As Thistlehoof’s eyes study Tia, they shift to an almost filly-like wonder. “Brother Apple Seed,” she says, glancing to his direction. When Apple Seed returns her gaze, Thistlehoof remains stock still for a moment. This is likely the first time she’s had a response to calling out Apple Seed’s name in a while. Eventually, she regains her composure and finishes, “Who are these… /individuals/?”
  1524. >”Four individuals to whom I owe my life,” Apple Seed answers as Wheat Graze’s sobs subside to choked sniffling. “And who are in desperate need of hospitality.” Apple Seed’s head is pushed up as Wheat Graze nuzzles her herdbrother. “Wheat Graze, is this any way for a brave Herdwatcher to act? Look, you are dirtying your armor. Overseer Landslide will not be pleased.”
  1525. >”I do not care,” Wheat Graze smiles through tears. “My herdbrother is here in my arms once again.”
  1526. >”/Brother Apple Seed?/”
  1527. >”/What?! Where is that unscrupulous stallion?!/”
  1528. >”/bwuther appuw seed!/”
  1529. >The excited voices from within Marestricht begin with a trickle, but soon wash over you in a symphony of earth ponies. Hornless, wingless ponies of all colors flood the gates as they attempt to catch sight of their returned herdbrother. Unlike the Herdwatchers, the denizens of Marestricht’s cloth and leather attire is much less stone-oriented, thank the Ancients. When Wheat Graze tries to lead Apple Seed back into the crowd, he pulls against her.
  1530. >”I would not be here if it weren’t for these ponies,” he says as he leads her gaze to your direction. “They follow me or I do not enter at all.”
  1531. >Wheat Graze’s eyes are uncertain for a single moment before she gives a nod. “I swear on my honor as a Herdwatcher, nopony will raise their hoof against the ones who brought my herdbrother back to me.”
  1532. >”Get a room,” Max sneers under her breath. “Actually, nevermind. She hugged and cried like a colt in front of a bunch of strangers. Not much more she can do to top that, eh?”
  1533. >…Oh, she’s talking to you?
  1534. >”Be polite, Max,” Smooth Roads warns, suddenly very close. As you follow Apple Seed between the stone gates, you take a few steps away from the unicorn. “These ponies might very well be the Ancients finally smiling upon us.”
  1535. >”Walking incestuous stereotypes are what these ponies are.”
  1536. >”/Herdson Apple Seed?/” somepony effectively commands your attention. Even over all the clamor and rejoicing of the Marestrichtians, the mare’s voice remains crystal clear. A tall pony approaches uncontested through the joyous faces of the crowd to meet Apple Seed. You almost lose count of the beads on her many necklaces as quickly as you do the scars which travel up and down her exposed fur, what little thereof.
  1537. >”Sachemare Sagebrush,” Apple Seed greets. Wheat Graze immediately recognizes whom he’s talking to and stands rigid beside Apple Seed, jutting her chin out. She’d look like the exemplary soldier, if it weren’t for the tears and snot staining her face.
  1538. >Sagebrush’s eyes shimmer with an uncountable flurry of emotions before she simply focuses on the stallion. “Marestricht was left bereaved without you, my herdson,” she says with a radiant smile.
  1539. >Apple Seed once again falls silent, his gaze falling to the ground. You can finally recognize the emotion in those eyes before it blinks out of existence. Shame.
  1540. >”Sachemare Sagebrush,” Apple Seed starts quietly, before gaining traction. “Behind me are four ponies to whom I owe my life. Carpenter Smooth Roads, Cloudpusher Max Gusto, Scholar Lucky Favor, and Brother Anonymous. I humbly request that they are given lodging and mending for as long as they choose to stay.”
  1541. >…Scholar?
  1542. >”You seem to be forgetting one, Brother Apple Seed,” Sagebrush says as her eyes land on Tia. The filly shrinks under her gaze, pulling a strand of your mane to hide behind.
  1543. >Apple Seed blinks, unknowing of how to react. You’re not doing much better. You want nothing more than to make the filly on your back transparent with a flick of your horn. Still, you know that it’d only garner more suspicion to keep Tia invisible if the earth ponies could see through your magic.
  1544. >Sagebrush seems to know she hit a sensitive spot. Her eyes venture away from Tia as she inspects the rest of your group, the beads hanging from her powerful neck rattling in the wind. “Carpenter and Scholar, I recognize,” she muses. “But I am unfamiliar with the title of Cloudpusher. And Brother, Apple Seed? Is this… hairless minotaur a stallion?”
  1545. >”You’d think the beard would be a dead giveaway,” Anonymous mutters through Max’s fur.
  1546. >Sagebrush nearly reels from the depth of Anonymous’ guttural voice as it rumbles through the crowd of mares. “Ancients above,” she whispers, bowing her head so low her muzzle nearly touches the ground. “I apologize for the confusion, Brother Anonymous. I am not familiar with your tribe. Nevertheless, a son of the All-Father is a herdson of mine.”
  1547. >As Anonymous avoids eye contact with the display, Apple Seed inspects the crowd around him. He mutters something as his eyes turn bemused, and the only word you catch is “Apricot.” His expression changes to urgency as he turns to the bowing mare. “Sachemare Sagebrush, I am sure you have many questions, but I would like to make haste.”
  1548. >Sagebrush gives Anonymous one more apologetic nod before she turns to Apple Seed. “For what is your reason? There is much rejoicing to be had.”
  1549. >”News hasn’t reached Maretinet Apricot Ammil yet.”
  1550. >”Oh.” Understanding dawns on Sagebrush’s face as she gives your group another discerning glance. The Sachemare then turns and gives the crowd of earth ponies a look you can’t decipher. Almost immediately, the Marestrichtians submit to her nonverbal order and make their way back into the village. A few foals linger, vying for Apple Seeds attention, before their fathers pull them away. “We will talk with Brother Apple Seed at the Rejoicement,” one whispers loud enough for you to hear, prompting Apple Seed’s posture to slump. “Come, little sprout. The orchard needs tending to.”
  1551. >Apple Seed turns his attention back to the decorated mare. She waits patiently, a reserved smile you can recognize is threatening to burst into a tearful grin on her muzzle. “Sachemare Sagebrush,” Apple Seed says neutrally. “Brother Anonymous’ leg has been shattered at the knee.”
  1552. >Sagebrush’s eyes widen ever so slightly. You swear you can see an extra vein pop out in her neck. ”Who--…” she snarls lowly before having to contain herself. “…What /vile filth/ is responsible for harming him?”
  1553. >The split-second Sagebrush’s glare turns to you is all the reason you’d ever need to never want to face her in battle, magical advantage or not.
  1554. >”These mares are Brother Anonymous’ friends, Sachemare,” Apple Seed says. Anonymous seems to blend even more into Max’s back. “They are not responsible. I am sure you have many questions, and I will answer them to the best of my ability. But it is imperative that these ponies are lodged and Anonymous is mended.”
  1555. >”…fucking overbearing…” Anonymous murmurs, but whatever follows is lost in Max’s fur.
  1556. >Sagebrush gives Anonymous a look that would no doubt illicit a cute pout from the hyoo-men if he saw. She turns back to the orange stallion before saying, “Of course, Herdson Apple Seed.”
  1557. >”If I may be so bold…” As he speaks, you catch him make a quick glance in your direction. “I would like the mares to be situated in the Aldenn.”
  1558. >Sagebrush turns her head to the destination as if expressly pointing it out to you. You feel your heartrate quicken as she peers up to one of the more luxurious stone cabins, near the mountaintop. Steam rises from its open ceiling, and you feel the pangs of going without a hot bath for weeks. “They will not spend a doit on their stay,” Sagebrush says firmly. “They need only walk into the room of their choice. I will see to it everything else is taken care of.”
  1559. >Good. You’re not sure how much the Red Garden stole from you, but you need to save all you can to continue to pay Anonymous.
  1560. >…
  1561. >/Wait./
  1562. >Your blood runs cold. You sit on your haunches and hurriedly shuffle your bag to the ground. Tia slides down to your side with a squeak. Sagebrush glances your way in concern, until Apple Seed draws her back in with something you’re not focused on. You’re too busy rummaging through your belonging in a desperate search for your doits.
  1563. >You double check your bag. Triple check it. /Quadruple check it,/ but the results are the same. You only have enough bags to pay Anonymous for two more days.
  1564. >You hear fur shuffling from just above. You turn to see that Anonymous is still slouched over Max’s back, his face turned away from you. He shuffles as if trying to get comfortable.
  1565. >You’ve read about the earth ponies’ body mending skills. You’ve read how they can use the natural essence of life itself to heal wounds in a fraction of their normal recovery time. Still, even if it took only a day for Anonymous to recover – even if he agreed to not be paid /for/ that day – the dockyard is at least a week’s travel to the West from Free Valley Carpentry.
  1566. >/You’re going to lose him soon, Lucky Favor, and he’ll only ever remember you as a business contract./
  1567. >”If it is not too much trouble,” Apple Seed continues. “I would also like to see that Mender Bountiful Riverside is Anonymous’ mender.”
  1568. >“You want Mender Riverside to aid him?” Sagebrush puts equal emphasis on the words ‘Riverside’ and ‘him,’ as if Apple Seed had just suggested combining to explosively reactive spells.
  1569. >“Yes. She is a skilled body mender, well deserving of her position. Much more deserving than I was.” Apple Seed’s calm gaze meets your own, aghast one. “And she will not overstep her boundaries.”
  1570. >You don’t know if you trust Apple Seed. You don’t think you want to trust Apple Seed, yet… that’s better than nothing, you suppose.
  1571. >”Understood, Herdson Apple Seed,” Sagebrush utters. The Sachemare then turns her body fully to your group. Wheat Graze sits a little straighter; Max and Smooth Roads can’t help but follow suit. Your head is still reeling from the revelation of your lack of doits. The earth pony’s mighty hooves seem to push Equus itself down as she approaches, her tribal yet exquisite attire swinging in the motion.
  1572. >Sagebrush stands tall before your group and directly in front of you. “Noble and kind daughters of the All-Mother,” she sets forth, giving each of you a respectful nod before turning to Anonymous. “Horribly mistreated, yet courageous and stalwart son of the All-Father.”
  1573. >Anonymous grumbles into Max’s coat.
  1574. >”You have brought a herdson of Marestricht back to his home village,” Sagebrush says as an affectionate smile dawns on her features. “Despite our differences in tribes, you have done us a kindness we could never hope to fully repay. Be that as it may, I humbly lay before you our village’s hospitality as remittance. You may stay at your lodging for as long as you wish, at no cost. Your herdstallion Anonymous will be well looked after and provided both the physical and mental therapy of which he is in need.—” More hyoo-men grumbling. “—And, if I may be so bold, you are all welcome to attend the Rejoicement.”
  1575. >Apple Seed’s face takes on that of a young filly whose father just volunteered to be her date for a magic-milestone celebration. “/Sachemare Sagebrush,/” he whispers, almost slurring her name.
  1576. >Max takes one look at Apple Seed’s face before she’s in full tease mode. “We’d be happy to share in the sacred festivities of Apple Seed’s return.”
  1577. >Sagebrush’s smile deepens in such genuineness it makes you feel guilty for entertaining the thought of not attending. “Thank you,” she says tenderly. “I will be sure to slacken the pegasus nets in three days’ time, when the Rejoicement will be held. That way, you may traverse as free as you’d like, Cloudpusher Max Gusto.”
  1578. >Max frowns, probably at the implication the pegasus net would be needed until then, but doesn’t say anything.
  1579. >”Herdwatcher Wheat Graze,” Sagebrush commands. Wheat Graze’s ear flicks near instantaneously at her mention. “Please transport Brother Anonymous to the mending burrows.”
  1580. >Wheat Graze nods dutifully. “I vow to surrender my next three meals to the orchard if Brother Anonymous’ leg is harmed further on our promenade.”
  1581. >The Herdwatcher marches to Anonymous’ side, effortlessly towering over Max Gusto. Anonymous puts on a bit of a show as he’s placed on Wheat Graze’s back, and it’s far from seamless, but eventually the hyoo-men is positioned atop the earth pony in a way that seems almost natural. He hadn’t been able to comfortably sit on Max’s back due to her wings; lying on his belly would cause his bad foot to occasionally scrape against the ground, and lying on his back made keeping a grip on Max’s withers difficult. Really, the only comfortable position Max Gusto offered had been while she was flying, but the pegasus couldn’t heft the hyoo-men in the air for more than ten or so minutes at a time. Wheat Graze, however, is in stark contrast. Anonymous fits snugly in the small of the mare’s back, sitting in an upright position while his legs dangle off her sides; nowhere near the ground.
  1582. >You try to call out to Anonymous as Wheat Graze begins trotting away – to say goodbye, or stay safe, or really anything. But the thought of those two meager doit bags in your sack infects your mind, keeping your mouth shut until Anonymous disappears into Marestricht. Not once does the hyoo-men look back at you.
  1583. >When you turn back to the Sachemare, you find her eyes focusing expressly on your own. You expect her to keep shifting between the members of your group, but after a few seconds of staying stationary, you know she’s commanding your attention. “You are all free to leave,” she says. “Except you, Scholar Lucky Favor.”
  1584. >You suppress a whimper. Max gives you a sympathetic glance before she trots off, giddily talking to herself about how the mineral springs will feel on her fur. Smooth Roads also makes her exit, her eyes glued onto the tree line of the mountain top. Apple Seed takes a slow step forward from behind Sagebrush.
  1585. >”You have a very curious little filly in tow,” Sagebrush says, peering down at the alicorn by your side. You wrap a foreleg around her, drawing her closer. The Sachemare studies your reaction before her eyes meet with yours once again. “I was not aware of this pony tribe until today. I was also unaware of Anonymous’ tribe. All Marestrichtians share this ignorance. Has this caused you turmoil?”
  1586. >You really need to be less easy to read, Lucky Favor.
  1587. You frown, looking away. “I suppose I’m uncomfortable with strangers showing interest in my friends,” you say, the words coming to you as you speak.
  1588. >Instead of responding verbally, Sagebrush once again shifts her gaze down to Tia, but this time she does so slowly and cautiously. Tia flinches between your hooves, but doesn’t turn away.
  1589. >That same, warm smile that she seems to have mastered appears on Sagebrush’s face once again. She slowly lowers her head to the same level as Tia. The filly is still shaking, but she doesn’t hide away from the bigger mare this time. She puffs her furball of a tuft out, flaring her wings at the fully grown mare.
  1590. >You were expecting Sagebrush to not be easily threatened. What you weren’t expecting was for Sagebrush to reach forward with a foreleg and press her hoof to Tia’s snout.
  1591. >”Boop,” she says with a smile.
  1592. >Tia scrunches, flapping her wings to keep her balance. “/nnnno!/” she chirps out before burying her face in your chest.
  1593. >You don’t know how to react, so you just keep looking dumbly between Sagebrush and Tia.
  1594. >Sagebrush once again meets you at eye level. Her smile dissipates into a deathly serious thin line. “Scholar Lucky Favor,” she says lowly, commanding your attention. “No harm will come to either your filly or your stallion while they are in these walls. I swear it on my place in the Eternal Graze.”
  1595. >You don’t know what causes it.
  1596. >It might’ve been the way Tia nuzzles deeper into your tuft; unobstructed by any magical depressant or fabric from your sac. It might’ve been the smile that adorns Apple Seed’s face, almost son-like in its resemblance of Sagebrush’s. Or it could’ve been that Sachemare Sagebrush’s words are the first ones since you can remember to make you feel safe.
  1597. >Whatever the cause, your vision blurs with tears too quick to stop before they glide down your cheeks.
  1598. “Sachemare,” you sputter, quickly attaching your bag back to your hip and scooping Tia into your arms. “Thank you so… so much.”
  1599. >You settle Tia on your withers and, without waiting for Apple Seed’s or Sagebrush’s reaction, start galloping up the cobblestone path to the Aldenn.
  1600. >You’re exhausted.
  1601. >You’re more exhausted than you’ve ever been in your life. It’s deep in your bones, it clouds your mind, and it threatens to send you to the ground with each step. Still, you can’t hope to collapse into the soft bed that’s no doubt waiting for you. You’re aimed squarely at the steam rising above the Aldenn, a soft orange from the sunset’s reflection.
  1602. >You have a sky rat you need to apologize to, Lucky Favor.
  1605. ~ V - The Integrity and Chivalry of the Earth Ponies of Marestricht ~
  1607. >You wonder how any of these earth ponies or unicorns could truthfully say they “enjoyed the mineral springs.”
  1608. >How could they? You mean, how could they /really?/ Sure, they can sit in the soothing waters for fifteen minutes before getting too hot and calling it quits, but there’s so much they’re missing out on.
  1609. >They can’t know how it feels to lazily float across the surface of the springs, letting the bubbles tickle your underbelly and the mist ooze into your feathers. They can’t open their ears and let the crisp sounds of their village truly settle in; the distant buzzing of nightlife, the clopping of hooves on cobblestone, the trickling of the stream in the far-below orchard. They can’t even know how it feels to sculpt the mist around you, making a disc to lay on when you get too hot, mustaches and swords to enact your wildest fantasies, or /other/ things to enact your… /other/ fantasies.
  1610. >If the springs weren’t public, of course. You’re not a complete degenerate, you swear. Still doesn’t stop the last few earth pony visitors to enter the springs, see that a lime green pegasus would be their only other company, and walk right back out.
  1611. >You would like to think that the news of your brave and heroic actions probably haven’t reached those over-preeners yet, but if that were the case you’re pretty sure they’d have killed you for intruding by now, like all the other sky rat thieves.
  1612. >Sky /wanderer/ thieves.
  1613. >You stop sculpting your latest project, the subject already forgotten and the motivation already lost. Why’d you just think that? You’ve been desensitized to that word for months now. Sapphire Lily had taken every opportunity to remind you of just what you are.
  1614. >>/”From how she described you, it seems to me like Lily had a lot more to lose than you did, sky wanderer./
  1615. >Oh, that’s why that word stings so much now. It sounded so… /fresh/ coming from Lucky Favor’s mouth. Fresh and well-deserved. You really pushed that mare. You didn’t defend Tia when Apple Seed did.
  1616. >/Alright, brain, I know you like to go off on a tangent sometimes, but now you’re just being a cunt./
  1617. >You frown as your mist sculpture slowly releases tension, saturating into the orange fog around you. You’ve known Apple Seed long enough to differentiate his usual, grumpy-but-straightforward stoicism from his unusual, grumpy-and-evasive stoicism. The plan went off with a few hiccups and somepony was injured, but now it’s okay because Anonymous was getting treatment, right? Apple Seed is in his home village now, surrounded by family and friends. So why did he just… tune out?
  1618. >Whatever. Probably some stallion thing. You know colts can have a hard time with their emotions.
  1619. >/Speaking of having a hard time with one’s emotions…/
  1620. >The thatch door to the springs opens. You know who’s on the other side based on a) just how slowly the door opens, almost like a guilty foal was on the other side, and b) that Lucky Favor spends a concerning amount of time inspecting the craftsmareship and artistry of the surprisingly sturdy door.
  1621. >When the white unicorn’s baggy eyes finally meet your own, she freezes in place. You continue to gaze in her direction until giving a shrug and turning away. She’ll probably just mosey on over to the next open spring anyways, like the unsure earth ponies. You give your hind hooves a kick to glide to the far end of the mineral spring.
  1622. >The Aldenn’s roof is open, and you can lean your forelegs on the edge of the stone precipice to overlook the village of Marestricht in all its glory. Even with the sunset’s pink light dissipating into a cool blue, you can still see the village’s many nooks and crannies.
  1623. >Gotta give it to these mud horses, they sure can sculpt some mud.
  1624. >”I didn’t know pegasi were buoyant,” Lucky Favor almost whispers, although you have no trouble hearing it.
  1625. >You also have no trouble hearing her hoofsteps clop against stone as she slowly walks to the edge of the mineral spring. You turn back to her, tilting your head. Her gait is slow, but not leisurely. She’s really leaning into that guilty foal approach.
  1626. “It wasn’t in your uppercaste books?” you ask. Of course, you’re not one to talk, being a pegasus who lives several thousand cubits above the rest of ponyfolk.
  1627. >/Lived./
  1628. >Lucky’s cyan eyes flick to your own before returning to the edge of the spring as she hesitantly dips a front hoof in. “I’ll have you know that unicorn uppercaste education is Equus’ academic nonpareil,” she half-says, half-mumbles as she struggles to touch the first step under the bubbling water.
  1629. >You snort. You’ve noticed she tends to talk like that sometimes, but you can’t find out just what triggers it.
  1630. >Lucky’s hoof makes contact with the stone under the water. She sighs under her breath before she retracts it and plops her haunches onto the edge of the stone. Lucky’s back hooves are slowly deposited into the springs, then her hindlegs, then her belly, before she daintily lowers the rest of her body in with a splash.
  1631. >Well, there’s room for two, you guess. It’s not like you’re taking up any of the space under the surface anyways.
  1632. >But, Lucky Favor does as Lucky Favors do, and misreads the atmosphere. She starts to trudge through the water in your direction, before the first step ends and she abruptly plunges into the bubbling depths with a cut-off squeak.
  1633. >You hold back a giggle. The unicorn should probably keep in mind the raw height difference between her and the average visitor of the earth pony springs.
  1634. >Lucky’s head is almost instantly back above the surface, her maroon mane splayed across the top half of her face. She half-blindly doggy paddles the rest of the way to your end of the spring, a pout the only recognizable feature on her face; embarrassed or determined, the two are indistinguishable with this mare.
  1635. “C’mon, filly,” you can’t resist to purr, clapping your hooves together like a proud parent. “You can do it. Come to momma.”
  1636. >Lucky Favor hmph!’s before she finally makes it to your side. You smirk at the tinge of red in her cheeks too early and too noticeable to be from the heat of the springs. Lucky wipes her mane from her eyes with her hooves before she settles her haunches on the circular stone step.
  1637. >Her scowl deepens before she seems to resign herself to a sad fate. Her eyes flick to you once again before flicking away. All the while, you say nothing as you turn back to Marestricht and hum a nonchalant tune.
  1638. >”I apologize for attacking you, Max Gusto,” Lucky Favor finally says.
  1639. >You turn back to the unicorn with a raised eyebrow. As far as apologies go, that kind of sucked ass. She said it too clearly and directly, like somepony reciting a magical contract. Besides, it isn’t so much that she attacked you you’re miffed about. You kind of had to get her to that point. If you hadn’t pushed her that hard, Sapphire Lily wouldn’t have revealed why she was still being kept alive, and you wouldn’t have been able to…
  1640. >…buck up so spectacularly.
  1641. You sigh and look away. “Meh. You lasted longer than I would’ve. Then again, I’m lowercaste scum, so far be it from me to compare our bullshit-tolerances.”
  1642. >You can practically see the uppercaste demeanor melt off Lucky’s face. Her eyes lower guiltily at your words. She turns away, ears splayed flat. She draws into herself, bringing her forehooves to her chest. “I—” Lucky starts, her voice once again that in irritatingly direct tone, before she stops. The unicorn says nothing for a while until she looks at her haggard reflection miserably. “Apple Seed was right,” she mutters. “I do take out my frustrations on others. I’m just…” Lucky trails off in thought before she turns her whole body away from you.
  1643. >Lucky’s voice is quiet, as if she doesn’t even intend for you to hear her at all, as she murmurs, “I’m just… tired, I suppose. Tired of everything.”
  1644. >You’re tempted to reach a hoof forward to comfort her, but what good would that do? You were never good at this comforting business to begin with, and now the words don’t even start to form in your mind. You’re both /elated/ at the fact that it’s your first night free from the Red Garden, and… well, tired, as well.
  1645. >”Though, Apple Seed was wrong to compare me to Anonymous,” Lucky Favor mumbles. “I’ve never met somepony like him.”
  1646. >Ah, there’s your opening.
  1647. “Hmmmm,” you hum, laying your chin on the edge of the hot spring. The cool mountain air of Marestricht and the humid mist of the hot springs battle for dominance. “I dunno. You and your coltfriend are a pretty good match.”
  1648. >From the sound of that quick splash and almost imperceptible squeak, Lucky Favor flinches at your question. “Oh, we’re not a couple,” she says. You don’t have to be a pegasus to hear that disappointed lilt in her voice. “He’s just my housecarla until--… Well, I guess he won’t be my housecarla for much longer…”
  1649. >You could just leave it as is. You don’t even really know – or, truth be told, /like/ -- Lucky Favor all that much. And you have no idea about just what’s between that colt and Lucky. The way she transformed into a wistful maiden at the end of her sentence there also set off some needy virgin alarms.
  1650. >Still, no matter how much you want to continue to sit in silence, you can’t shake off the lingering familiarity of the sadness in her voice.
  1651. >…
  1652. >/You hope you don’t regret this./
  1653. "How long?" you ask. You turn towards Lucky and lean a foreleg on the precipice.
  1654. >The unicorn’s eyes turn to you, and yep, you can definitely recognize that sadness. “Pardon?” Lucky asks.
  1655. You reach forward and poke her chest with each syllable as you say, “How long have you known him?”
  1656. >”What’s gotten into you?” Lucky yelps as she bats away your hoof. She pouts at you, but when she sees the serious look on your face, she sobers up real quick. "Um… A few days. Why does it matter?"
  1657. >Oh, she’s got it /bad./
  1658. >There’s no going back now, Max Gusto. You’re feeling all kinds of pity for this filly. You’re going to steer her in the right direction, hopefully well away from the burning crash site of your own romantic life.
  1659. >You hum, making sure to twist your muzzle as you inspect the mare in front of you. Said mare is becoming more nervous by the second, as if you had a tragic secret you were going to tell her… just after this dramatic pause.
  1660. >Actually, that’s exactly what’s happening right now.
  1661. "Did they ever teach you what a sky wanderer is in those fancy uppercaste schools?” you ask.
  1662. >Lucky Favor retreats, once again looking off in shame. "No,” she says, her ears lowering slowly. “I just knew you didn’t like to be called it.”
  1663. >Hmm… Stressed-Out Bitchy Lucky Favor, or Depressed Self-Pitying Lucky Favor? Which one would you save from a burning building?
  1664. “Well, methinks it’s time you learn,” you start, pushing off the stone precipice to send yourself floating across the springs. “Now, fair warning, the meaning of the word ‘sky wanderer’ is a little hard to understand for landlubbers. I don’t want to confuse you with all the complex fractions or cultural idiot-secrecies.”
  1665. >“Idiosyncrasies,” Lucky says without thinking.
  1666. >Well, if she wants to be a smartass…
  1667. >Hm. You think you can catch two fish with one dive.
  1668. “Alright, miss smarty pants,” you say as you grab a glob of mist and begin to roll it into a thin cylinder. “I’ll tell you a story so you can /really/ understand what a sky wanderer is. Take notes, because there’ll be a pop quiz afterwards.”
  1669. >Lucky Favor tilts her head at your display, but otherwise doesn’t interrupt.
  1670. “Let’s say, there are two young sky dogies living in a village. A filly and a colt, inseparable buddies. You can probably guess where this is going-- What’s with that look, miss poutysnatch?”
  1671. >Lucky Favor is back in mopey pony mode as she says, “You don’t have to keep using slurs. I get it. I acted up in the Red Garden.”
  1672. “Huh?” you ask, before it clicks. “Oh! No, sky /dogie/ is a pegasus term, it’s not a slur, at least to my vast and unicorn-esque knowledge.” That gets an upwards twitch of Lucky’s lips. “I guess the landlubber word would be… Cloudborn? Guanlow?” You tap your chin thoughtfully, but your inner reflection comes up thoughtless. “Huh. I dunno. What do you ponies call a foal without a guardian herd or parents?”
  1673. >Lucky’s eyes lower in reminiscence. You hope she isn’t thinking about a certain white filly. “Orphan,” she answers.
  1674. You nod. “Yep, that’s the one. Now pay attention! And start writing in that notebook of yours.”
  1675. >You circle back to Lucky and hold her hoof out before plopping your gaseous iteration of a writing quill in her frog. It doesn’t stick to the unicorn’s hoof, obviously, and dissipates into the surrounding mist once it makes contact, but Lucky Favor’s mouth twitches into an amused smile.
  1676. >Good. There’s no room for petty depression on Max Gusto’s Wild Ride.
  1677. “So, the filly, right?” you continue. “Her name is…” You glance at your roguishly beautiful reflection. “…Limey. And the colt’s name is Horizon Swift.”
  1678. >Lucky’s moodiness has taken a one-way trip to the deep end of the springs, but her cynicism seems to still be intact as she interrupts, “Horizon Swift sounds a lot more authentic than—”
  1679. “Yeah, yeah, write a novel, why don’t ‘cha?” Lucky responds much better to your chiding than last time. There’s that satisfied, somewhat pretentious smile you can’t bring yourself to hate. “Anyways, so Limey and Horizon Swift, right? They’re both, uh… /ore-fans,/ living alone in a big village in the sky. They only got each other, and it’s looking to be that way for a long while. Neither of them has any particular skills -- not even a cutie mark between them – besides snooping on herds when they’re reading bedtime stories to their foals, or pretending to know how to read the discarded stories in the trash. But there’s one big difference between the two.” Your tail flicks, sending a few droplets of water at Lucky’s snout. She scrunches. “Here’s a hint: their Y-7 glands hide it.”
  1680. >”Needlessly uncouth,” Lucky breathes, but hold on! You’re not done yet!
  1681. “Limey’s a warm-blooded filly, so you can guess how she really feels about him.” You mercilessly wriggle your eyebrows at Lucky.
  1682. >”You are a dreadful storyteller,” she says. “Mayhaps some uppercaste education would do you good.”
  1683. “Never in a million years,” you say as you begin to circle atop the water. “Anyways, sooner or later Limey starts to have enough of being trapped in those clouds, surrounded by over-sympathetic herds and listening in on fairy tales. So one night, she asks Horizon if he wanted to become ‘sky wanderers.’ Pegasi unfeathered—”
  1684. >”Unfettered.”
  1685. “Unfeathered is better. Pegasi un/feathered/ by the chains of civilization, who could roam the skies freely and either earn or take everything they had. Like the heroes in those fairy tales Limey and Horizon listened to, of dashing sky wanderers swooping down and saving the handsome /damoiseaux/ from monsters and raiders.”
  1686. >Lucky Favor blinks, either in interest or in confusion at how you were able to pronounce damoiseaux, let alone know what it means. What can you say? Your pegasus hearing really helped during those nights of peering into happy homes.
  1687. “Unfortunately, Horizon Swift didn’t feel the same,” you say. “He tells Limey that he’d rather stay because he wanted to learn how to read. And Limey’s no flaming misandrist, so she figures she can stay a while longer.” You fight for that sad smile on your face to be turned into a smug one. “A while longer turns to weeks, then months, then years. It’s crazy, what a lovestruck filly would do for a colt, huh?”
  1688. >Lucky stays silent. Her ears are pointed forward, her eyes never leaving your own as she listens attentively.
  1689. “During this time, Limey does the single stupidest thing she’s ever done,” you chuckle. “You see, Limey thought that no other mare would want some mangy Guanlow colt. She thought Horizon Swift was all hers, so she /waited./”
  1690. Your gait atop the water slows. Despite your best efforts, that smirk on your face becomes loose, your eyes lowering to the bubbling water below. “Horizon Swift never did learn how to read. He only got so far teaching himself until another mare swooped in and nabbed him.”
  1691. >Lucky Favor tilts her head slowly, waiting for you to continue.
  1692. “Naturally, instead of saying… well, anything, really, Limey joins his herd as a betamare. In pegasus culture, betamares are seen less as lovers to the stallion, and more as supporters to the main couple. Limey thought there were worse fates, you know? She was still with the stallion she loved, and now she even had a roof over her head and other mares whom she could confide in.”
  1693. >Distant, muted scenes begin to play around your mind, like the mist of the springs embracing your head. Horizon Swift hugging Limey home after her third failed attempt at honest fishing that week, telling her “Next time, surely.” Horizon Swift being occupied by the alpha, unable to comfort Limey when she had just been injured in a wild griffon attack. Limey pulling back Horizon Swift’s mane as he slept to discover those rough kiss marks on his fur.
  1694. “Limey became jealous,” you mutter. “Limey started to cause problems for the rest of the herd because she was still that immature filly at heart, who couldn’t talk things out and bottled everything up. Well, turns out Limey could only bottle everything up for so long. One night, when she thought they were finally alone, Limey lunged at Horizon Swift.”
  1695. You look away, guilt and shame clawing at your chest, drawing you deeper into the springs as if your bones were suddenly full of mud. “She thought she was entitled to his feelings. She kissed him when he didn’t want to be kissed. Told him she loved him even though he already had an alpha. Begged him to fly away with her and become sky wanderers, like they always planned to when they were little.”
  1696. >Among all the scenes playing out in your head, one sticks out like a storm cloud on a clear Summer day.
  1697. “The thing is, /they/ didn’t plan to be sky wanderers. Just /Limey./ And when the alpha walked in and saw what was happening, Limey got her wish. She was banished from the sky village and became a sole sky wanderer. She kept tabs on the sky village for a few days, willing up the determination to fly back up there and apologize, but soon the other pegasi saw her. One night, they pushed the village’s cloud foundation to somewhere far away while Limey slept, leaving her to wake up completely alone and lost. And even now, after all these years of fishing, stealing, and… cloudpushing, Limey never saw Horizon Swift again.”
  1698. >You bite the inside of your lip to keep from letting out anything else. You know that if you do, Lucky Favor would know exactly—
  1699. >Suddenly, something furry grabs your backside and pulls your haunches under. Lucky’s yelp is cut off just before her head is underwater. You give a squawk of your own as you flap your wings to stay afloat. Your barrel is dragged underneath by the time Lucky resurfaces, coughing profusely.
  1700. “What the buck?!” you shriek. Between you pushing her and Lucky kicking her hindlegs you’re both able to resettle the unicorn back onto the shallower end of the springs.
  1701. >”I’m sorry!” she sputters between coughs. “I was trying to hug you and I forgot how deep it is!”
  1702. “Y--…” you start before doing a double take. “Why were you trying to hug me?”
  1703. >”I thought we were bonding! You were opening up to me, weren’t you?”
  1704. >It takes a moment for it to click, but when it does, you… don’t really know how to feel. On one hoof, Lucky Favor just pulled a Lucky Favor and you feel obliged to laugh in her face. Maybe that’d also help alleviate some of the unwanted tension you just vomited onto your nice evening.
  1705. >But on the other hoof, underneath the fiery blush on her soaked features and haughty grumbling, in front of you is the first mare to genuinely want to comfort you since you can remember.
  1706. >These two points battle with each other for an embarrassing amount of time before you decide it’s fruitless. You ultimately decide on heckling Lucky with an extra-grating snicker before paddling over to her. She turns her head away from you. You’d say she /looks/ away from you, but it’s hard to tell just where she’s looking with that wet mane glued over her eyes.
  1707. >You extend a wing to tap on the top of her head a few times, being careful to avoid her horn. Lucky wipes her mane from her eyes before turning to half-heartedly glare at you.
  1708. “You look like a cherry,” you can’t help but giggle. Lucky rolls her eyes, but otherwise doesn’t turn away. You let the last few snickers out of your system before you smile warmly, patting her head once again with your wing.
  1709. >She might be a pretentious, clumsy uppercastemare who can be a real bitch when she’s stressed out, but you’re no epitome of valor either.
  1710. >She’s alright.
  1711. "Alright, Lucky Favor,” you sneer, snapping yourself awake. “The smart, educated… /eager to please/ uppercastemare you are, what did you learn from this little story?"
  1712. >Lucky’s eyes widen, the snow white fur on her face staining a cherry red. “The story?” she whimpers. “Th-that was just a story?”
  1713. “You’re not seriously gonna make me come out and say it, right?” you moan. “Fine. Yeah, we were bonding, the story might’ve happened or might not have, now answer the question!”
  1714. >”Oh!” Lucky says with a nervous tap of her front hooves. “Oh, I see… Well, um… I supposed I learned just what the word ‘sky wanderer’ entails. And, um…”
  1715. >Lucky’s voice trails off, but she doesn’t retreat into herself again. She scrunches, lowering her front hooves back into the water, before her eyes soften. The scrunch disappears as her cyan orbs turn to your direction.
  1716. >”I apologize, Max Gusto,” she nearly whispers. She clears her throat before continuing, but her voice never loses that shameful reticence. “I didn’t know what that word meant to you. It won’t happen again.”
  1717. >Ah, there’s that apology.
  1718. You turn to hide those pesky tears as they threaten the corners of your eyes. “Th-that’s—” you stutter. Ancients-damnit, don’t let your voice break, Max Gusto. “…Hmph. I accept your apology, my young student. But that’s not all the story was for.”
  1719. Lucky is tilting her head at you when you turn back to her. “You see, little filly,” you sneer. “I have /bamboozled/ you. There are /two/ lessons to be learned from my little anecdote. And the second one is…?” You slowly paddle to Lucky and lower your face so you’re almost muzzle-to-muzzle.
  1720. >Lucky Favor blinks. “…Pegasi have strange herding rituals?”
  1721. You shake your head, tsk tsk tsk’ing in disappointment. “Today, we learned that when it comes to stallions you fancy, you can’t afford to wait.”
  1722. >Lucky Favor’s eyes widen, but just to drive the point home, you prod your hoof into her chest. She doesn’t bat it away.
  1723. “The Rejoicement is coming up in three days,” you say, making sure she’s picking up just what you’re putting down. “I expect results, fancy filly.”
  1724. >”I—” Lucky Favor wavers, turning from a cherry to a tomato real quick. “I-I haven’t the faintest intimation of what you are rattling on about.”
  1725. >You think you might be getting closer to finding out what makes Lucky talk like that.
  1726. “Lucky Favor,” you deadpan. “Even the illiterate cunts at the Red Garden would be able to read you like a book.”
  1727. >Something in Lucky Favor’s eyes changes. Her blush dissipates almost too quickly as she turns away. “I’d rather not joke about the Red Garden,” she says shakily. You notice how her scrawny shoulders tick in one, uncontrolled spasm before they’re stock still.
  1728. >/Ancients-damnit, Max./
  1729. >You lift a hoof to place on Lucky’s shoulder, but the unicorn speaks before you can make contact. “Besides,” she mumbles, making you freeze. “It’d be pointless. Anonymous and I will be splitting up once we reach Equestria. And… I don’t think me telling him how I feel would be good for him.”
  1730. >You’ve stepped your hoof into someplace it doesn’t belong, Max. You have no idea what’s going on between these two, let alone what’s going on in either of their heads. You didn’t even know she was headed to /Equestria/ of all places until just now. It could’ve been a slip of the tongue, and now she’s chastising herself for revealing that to somepony she just met.
  1731. But Ancients-damnit, you can’t stand the thought of Lucky Favor feeling that gut-wrenching, sleep-depriving pain of regret. “I’ll admit it,” you sigh, leaning one foreleg on the wall by Lucky’s side. “I don’t know a thing about you two. But if he’s your housecarla, and he’s willing to not only travel to the countryside, but /across the ocean/ with you, that’s worth something, right?” You shrug. Saying it out loud like that, it does feel like something a certain sky wanderer would do if she had nopony else to turn to. “You might be the only pony he has. I’m sure you could convince him to stay if you try.”
  1732. >Lucky’s ears flick upwards. Her posture regains tautness. You swear you can see the glint of a smile on the unicorn’s face in the water’s reflection, but it’s short-lived. Another thought enters her mind, and she’s back to being her mopey self.
  1733. >”I can’t even afford to pay him anymore,” she sniffles. “We won’t even make it to the dockyard.”
  1734. >You’re stumped. Stumped, but persistent.
  1735. >So persistent, in fact, that the stray thought of joining Lucky and Anonymous on their travels takes root.
  1736. >You don’t exactly have anywhere else to go now. And All-Mother knows that if you decide to stay with Apple Seed, you’ll probably fall in love and mess things up again. He’s back in his home village, and he’ll always remember you as a friend, which is the best possible outcome. So why /don’t/ you join Lucky…?
  1737. You shake the thought from your mind. You just met her, Max. Don’t let your loneliness push you into a situation you haven’t thought through. "All I'm saying is you never know when somepony else might swoop in and nab him,” you clarify. “Might as well bite the bolt at the Rejoicement. Everypony’s in high spirits, there’ll be drinks and a beautiful view, Anonymous’ leg would be healed by then. Take a few shots of liquid courage beforehoof—” You extend a foreleg above your head and lean back in a dramatic flair. “--/Bare your noble heart before the fair lord./"
  1738. >Lucky’s mood improves enough for her to turn and face you, but not enough to wipe that glare off her face. "I don't drink,” she affirms. “Nor will I start."
  1739. "Your loss, filly. They don’t write about earth pony ale in your uppercaste books.”
  1740. >The secluded pegasi in the sky aren’t much more knowledgeable, yourself notwithstanding, but Lucky doesn’t need to know about that night you stole some ale from a traveling merchant.
  1741. >Or how you spent the next few hours wondering where the buck the sky was.
  1742. >For a while, the two of you sit in a pleasant silence. The sun has set now, leaving you and Lucky in one of many beacons of light in the mountainside. It’s the first time since you can remember where you’ve felt this… peaceful. You might be able to doze off if you let yourself.
  1743. >But you don’t want to. You want to talk with Lucky Favor some more.
  1744. >Heh, isn’t that weird?
  1745. "So,” you cut through the silence. The cadence in your voice makes you realize you’re grinning. You wipe it off your face before Lucky turns back to you. “Does this mean you've finally gotten your head out of your plot and you’re apologizing to the ponies who deserve it?"
  1746. >Lucky smiles; the first smile you’ve seen on the mare in a long time. It’s tired, but genuine. "I suppose so,” she says.
  1747. "Smooth Roads would be next in line, since Apple Seed won't be available until the Rejoicement."
  1748. >The smile disappears. She doesn’t glare at you, though. Her face doesn’t hold an ounce of anger it. She just looks sad and defeated. "I’d rather my wagon had been destroyed than be left in Sapphire Lily’s hooves,” she murmurs.
  1749. You’ll come back to Smooth Roads. For now, you just lay a hoof on her shoulder. "Yep,” you chuckle. “You're an artist, alright."
  1750. >Lucky doesn’t respond verbally. She only gives a barely perceptible nod.
  1751. >Your hoof still hasn’t left her shoulder. You’re halfway to convincing yourself to pull the unicorn into a hug when the thatch door to the spring bursts open.
  1752. >One glance at the charcoal brown earth pony, and you’re expecting her to take two steps forward, see the spring’s occupants, and go right on back through that door like all the others. Instead of retreating, though, the earth pony’s apricot eyes pierce through the fog and latch onto your own.
  1753. >The tall mare steps into the stone room and walks toward the springs. You sigh. You were hoping to spend some more quality time with Lucky, but you guess sitting in awkward silence with a stranger is better than nothing.
  1754. >Instead of stepping into the spring, though, the mare takes a seat on the edge of the water. She makes no move to undo that white ponytail in her mane, only inspecting you and Lucky, until she opens her mouth. “Scholar Lucky Favor and Cloudpusher Max Gusto?” she asks neutrally.
  1755. >You recognize that neutral, almost bored tone anywhere. You rub your eyes to make sure the mare in front of you isn’t Apple Seed.
  1756. “Mmmmmaybe,” you drawl. “What’s your name, tall, dark, and more tall?”
  1757. >”A returned stallion’s blood sister, come to thank his rescuers,” she responds.
  1758. >You blink.
  1759. >Well, shit. Apple Seed /did/ tell you to give this mare some room. But you’re both kind of cornered here, and Apricot doesn’t seem to be malicious. Well, as non-malicious as a barely emotive earth pony can be.
  1760. You share an uneasy look with Lucky Favor before chuckling. “Yeah,” you shrug. “Pretty good for a conehead and a sky rat, huh?”
  1761. >”Why would you refer to yourself as such?” Apricot asks, tilting her head. “Do you insult yourselves often?”
  1762. This time, the look you share with Lucky Favor is less uneasy and more shit-eating. “Lucky Favor,” you announce. “You’ve just been topped for the Most Socially Clueless Pony I’ve Ever Met Award.”
  1763. >Lucky Favor harumphs. Apricot Ammil exclaims, “If I am too direct, inform me and I will adjust my behavior.”
  1764. “I’m just messing with you,” you say.
  1765. >”Very well. Thank you, sky rat Max Gusto and conehead Lucky Favor.”
  1766. >You give a shrug that you hope conveys you’d rather not continue the conversation. You turn your head to peer into the darkness of Marestricht once again.
  1767. >"I am unfamiliar with your customs,” Apricot says suddenly. “How are your pegasus and unicorn stallions treated?"
  1768. >It’s Lucky that responds now, likely after gaining some confidence from your lack of concern. You hope you have a positive effect on her. "All lords are cared for and protected to the same degree as the highest of royalties,” she proclaims proudly.
  1769. You snicker. "You sound like such a virgin."
  1770. >”There is nothing wrong with remaining pure!” Lucky snaps in an adorable whisper-shout.
  1771. >"So,” Apricot gains your attention once again. “If I were to peruse unicorn stallions, I would be hard-pressed to find one who has been forced to turn to housecarlatel to survive?"
  1772. >Lucky’s face transforms at those words. You feel like you’ve just lost every bit of progress you’ve made when she lowers her head, unwilling to make eye contact with anypony.
  1773. You place a wing on Lucky’s back and send Apricot a glare. You don’t know if this is some kind of cultural misunderstanding, but the sight of Lucky being put down like that riles you up something fierce. "What are you implying?" you ask, careful to not come off as vindictive, but direct enough to let Apricot know you didn’t appreciate her words one bit.
  1774. >Apricot Ammil doesn’t get your tone, obviously, as she answers, "That it would be impossible to find an earth pony stallion have to stoop to similar depths, and that the two of you have failed as mares.”
  1775. >Your glare hardens. So she is just being a bitch.
  1776. >“Was I too direct?" Apricot asks with a twinkle in her eyes.
  1777. >Don’t let her get to you, Max. You don’t know her. Apple Seed told you to give her some space. This is probably just her way of acting out.
  1778. "Tartarus of a way to thank your brother's rescuers,” you say, making sure to put extra emphasis on that last word. “If you’re done, you have a brother who probably needs comforting.”
  1779. >Apricot isn’t reminded of just whom she’s talking to in the slightest. Apricot doesn’t glance away guiltily as you bring up Apple Seed. She just blinks before saying, "I am going to ask you a question, Scholar Lucky Favor and Cloudpusher Max Gusto, and I want you to answer with absolute honesty. What happened in the Red Garden?"
  1780. >Lucky Favor’s voice is quiet as she whimpers, "Can we please not talk about this?"
  1781. >"My concern for the well-being of my blood brother trumps your self-pity, Scholar Lucky Favor,” Apricot says. “Tell me what happened to Apple Seed in the Red Garden. He wouldn’t tell me.”
  1782. You really want this pony to take a tour of the highest sky village without cloudwalking magic. Still, you bite back your hostility and think of Apple Seed. "Look,” you try to deescalate. “We were taken by some bandits. They weren’t any of the scary, organized raiders from Equestria, just a couple of no-lives. They had us do some work. I pushed some clouds, Apple Seed pushed some earth—”
  1783. >”/Brother/ Apple Seed,” Apricot corrects. For the first time since you’ve met her, she shows emotion in the form of a twitch of her left eye.
  1784. “Yeah, sure,” you rescind. “Brother Apple Seed pushed some earth. Lucky Favor read them a bedtime story. We escaped before anything happened.”
  1785. >Part of that is true. You did escape before anything happened to Anonymous.
  1786. >You were too late for Apple Seed.
  1787. >"How did they treat my blood brother?” Apricot Ammil asks, leaning forward. “Any worse than the crippled cat?"
  1788. >Lucky Favor’s breathing begins to escalate. She’s turned away from you, her back rising and falling as she begins to shake.
  1789. "Okay, one: Anonymous isn't a cat,” you say. “Two: stop saying /blood/ brother. It’s creepy. Three: no. Did you see any wounds on Apple Seed? Now back off. Seriously.”
  1790. >"I saw how skinny he was,” Apricot says lowly. “I saw how haunted his eyes were. I saw how he no longer reacts when a mare touches him from behind. I saw the insignia behind his ear, burnt into his flesh.”
  1791. "Brother Apple Seed was valuable to them. Helped them with pushing the earth, made them a nice little home. They gave him a tattoo because it made them feel special. They couldn't hurt him or they would lose a valuable asset. I looked after him in there, so stop worrying. Now would you /back off?/”
  1792. >You turn from the larger earth pony to the suffocating unicorn by your side. You reach a hoof forward and peel away the warm mist of the springs from around her muzzle. You reach out with your other to scoop in some fresh, cool air from outside and you bring it to her.
  1793. “Lucky?” you whisper. “Lucky, are you okay?”
  1794. >Why’s this happening? Everything was normal just a few minutes ago. Tartarus, everything was /better/ than normal. For the first time, you were finally able to not worry about how you’d get your next meal, or how hard the Red Garden would push you the next day, or if you’d be woken up in the middle of the night for some degenerate task.
  1795. >You were just here, sitting in silence with the first mare you’d dare to call a friend in… forever.
  1796. >"Are you hiding something, Cloudpusher Max Gusto?” Apricot interrupts. “Are /you/ responsible for his desensitization? Do you think you're worthy of my brother's affection? A thieving pegasus?”
  1797. >/Oh, buck right off./
  1798. "You talk pretty high and mighty for somepony who let her brother get raped,” you snap.
  1799. >The difference in the Apricot Ammil now and the Apricot Ammil ten seconds ago is almost palpable. She transforms into a completely different pony at what you said. Her eyes widen and her apricot irises shrink to thin slits. Her ears lay flat against her skull as her brown tail twitches against the stone floor.
  1800. >”Cloudpusher Max Gusto,” she says, her voice trembling dangerously. “Did those ponies deflower my blood brother?”
  1801. >You deny Apricot her answer. You only turn to Lucky and pull her face towards your own. Her eyes are glazed over as she relives events passed.
  1802. >A flurry of hoofsteps on stone tells you that Apricot gallops out of the springs and disappears behind the thatch doorframe. You don’t pay attention to that, though.
  1803. “Lucky,” you whisper, pulling the white unicorn against your chest. You wrap your hooves around her and hold her close. Lucky tenses at the hug but doesn’t pull away.
  1804. >Slowly, you feel two soaking arms wrap around your midsection as Lucky Favor hugs you back. You’re sure to bring more and more cool air to her face as you unfurl your wings to add to the squeeze. Eventually, Lucky’s panting subsides into calm breaths.
  1805. >She lets out a faint, content hum of peace; that of a sky dogie who’s been wholeheartedly embraced for the first time.
  1806. >/When was the last time you’ve been hugged, Max?/
  1807. >Lucky Favor lets out a small chuckle. “I’m traveling across the globe,” she susurrates into your chest. “A handsome and capable housecarla at my side, embarking on an adventure I only thought possible through novels… and I can’t go a day without having a mental breakdown.”
  1808. >/She needs somepony who knows how to handle adventure. Both her and Anonymous./
  1809. >You tuck that thought away for later considering.
  1810. “You wanna know how much of a wreck I was when I got banished?” you giggle.
  1811. >Lucky chortles gleefully, splashing the water with her body’s convulsions and warming your fur with her hot breath. You also can’t help but laugh as you gently lean away from the hug. Lucky Favor, though, keeps her grip tight.
  1812. >You don’t fight against it.
  1813. >”I don’t like Anonymous being alone with somepony I don’t know,” Lucky Favor says, her voice unrecognizable from her previous laughter. “Tia doesn’t either. I almost had to cast a sleep spell on her before I could come up here.”
  1814. You run your hooves up and down her back. “Apple Seed told you Riverside wouldn’t overstep her boundaries, didn’t he?” you ask. Lucky’s horn slowly bobs up and down as she nods. “Lucky, there isn’t a pony on Equus more trustworthy than that stallion.”
  1815. >Lucky doesn’t respond, only holding onto you tightly, her face just above the water level. You’re not sure what else to do, so you find yourself humming as the two of you stay like that. Your songs would sooner be confused with a rabid timberwolf in heat than actual chirping, but humming? Anypony can hum.
  1816. >You’ve had a lot of practice, all those nights spent alone in the wilderness.
  1817. When Lucky’s grip begins to slacken, her face dangerously close to the water, you decide to part ways. You gently push away from the unicorn, jolting her awake. “Get some rest, Lucky Favor,” you say. “I’ll pay Anonymous a visit and tell you how he’s doing. And try not to have another breakdown on your way to the room.”
  1818. >”What about Apricot Ammil?” she asks, either too tired or too exasperated to care about your playful jab.
  1819. “Don’t worry about her. Or Apple Seed, for that matter. As far as I’m concerned, you may as well not have even been here.”
  1820. >”But if I hadn’t had that attack—"
  1822. >Lucky blinks owlishly before she simply nods. As she trudges back to the entrance of the springs, careful to stick to the edges so as not to be submerged again, the unicorn gives a yawn /most/ unladylike, mm, quite quite. She pulls herself onto solid ground, and suddenly, you feel like the mineral springs are a lot lonelier than ten seconds ago.
  1823. “Hey, Lucky?” you ask without thinking. Lucky turns to you, blinking sluggishly. You bite the inside of your cheek in thought before you say, “You know I’d never hurt Tia, right?”
  1824. >Lucky Favor’s tired smile tells you all you need to know before she turns around and starts walking away. Before long, her white coat disappears into the thick mist.
  1826. ~~~
  1828. >The sound of hoofsteps echoing in a dirt tunnel snaps you awake.
  1829. >You try to move your body, but something heavy holds it down.
  1830. >You don’t know where you are. You’re in a dirt burrow.
  1831. >The Red Garden?
  1832. >No, you’re well away from them now. Unless they caught up to you.
  1833. >But that wouldn’t make sense, they’d have to get through Marestricht’s—
  1834. >Oh. Right.
  1835. >Your pounding heart begins to simmer to its normal levels. The only part of your body you can move is your head and neck. You use just those to inspect what’s keeping you in place.
  1836. >In front of you is a mound of moist soil where your body should be. Your bleary mind almost entertains the thought of the earth ponies transforming you into a pile of dirt until you see the rhythmic rising and falling of your chest under the soil. A few green sprouting plants pierce through the dirt, perhaps side products from the soil and the still water in the shallow, barely arms-thickness moat around your body.
  1837. >The hoofsteps are coming closer. You’re awake enough to know whoever is approaching will be your appointed mender, but even still you slowly raise your right arm through the dirt. You won’t be completely helpless, at the very least.
  1838. >When your arm raises from the moist soil, though, you’re perplexed at its state. The soil slowly drips from the arm as if it had been entombed for centuries, and underneath is clear, peach skin. The gash on your shoulder has been replaced with white scar tissue. The cool air of the burrow prickling your arm makes you realize it’s much more sensitive than before.
  1839. >”Mph!” a muffled voice yelps from the tunnel entrance. You turn to see an earth pony at the entrance of the burrow, a stone tray holding various seeds, roots, and the like in her mouth. Her sea blue eyes are wide with concern as she trots to your side. Her purple and white mane bounces in the bun on top of her head.
  1840. >The mare kneels down to set her tray to the ground. Once that’s done, her eyes hastily inspect the space of broken soil your right arm used to be under. “My apologies, Brother Anonymous,” she says. “It seems the lutobice has been punctured. I shall repair it.”
  1841. >/Lutobice?/ Please just be a cultural way of saying ‘dirt.’
  1842. >The mender skips to your right side with a grace you’d never expect from an earth pony. Your eyes never leave her as she does. The muscles in your shoulder twitches in preparation when she reaches her destination and sits onto her haunches. Instead of reaching forward, though, the mender looks to you and smiles warmly.
  1843. >”May I reposition your arm, Brother Anonymous?” she asks.
  1844. >A small part of you wants to feel insulted that she’d need to ask, but it’s immediately snuffed out. You know she’s your mender. You know you’re in a mending burrow underneath the highly defended, highly secluded mountainside village of Marestricht. Even still, you can’t promise you would’ve remained calm had she suddenly grabbed you.
  1845. >You give a neutral nod. The mender doesn’t so much as grab your arm as she does guide it back into its original place. She gently pats the displaced soil back into place atop your arm.
  1846. “My right leg was the problem,” you say as the mare finishes her job. “Why’s… well, my whole body covered with dirt? Apple Seed didn’t need to do this.”
  1847. >The mare’s gentle hooves freeze at the mention of Apple Seed. Something unrecognizable flashes across her eyes, but it’s only for a split second. As quick as it came, the pleasant smile once again returns to her features.
  1848. >You curl your hands into fists. You’re not liking this more and more.
  1849. >”I suppose that is true,” the mare says, inspecting her handiwork. “Your right leg was in the most dire need of attention. But after I examined your body, I wished to perform a full-body mend—”
  1850. “Define ‘examine.’”
  1851. >The mare tilts her head at you. She’s about to answer, probably with the verbal equivalent of her tilted head, before she suddenly blinks in realization. “I laid you atop the lubotice and petrevoked the Ancient Lady of Life.”
  1852. “I understood about half of that.”
  1853. >The mare gives a patient nod before reciting, “The lubotice is the platform you find yourself upon and within; the soil has been kept rich and its ethereal route with the Ancients intact. It is the perfect place for a mending. To petrevoke another is to use vibrations in the natural environment to communicate over long distances; however, in this case the word is used more symbolically. I have petrevoked the Ancient Lady of Life through this patch of soil’s route to the Ancients and she has informed me of your injuries.”
  1854. >You understood about a quarter of that.
  1855. >The mare’s pleasant expression disappears as she sees the look on your face. It’s replaced with a sympathetic frown. “I would never disrobe a stallion without the faculties to give his consent,” she says with a bow of her head. “Though… I am afraid it has come at the cost of your armor being ruined during the mending process. I apologize.”
  1856. >Your armor would need a wash, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near destroyed because of some dirt… You’re almost tempted to voice your confusion, but you decide against it. She knows much more about this than you do. That, and she continues to speak, giving you no room to ask.
  1857. >”I will ask our sculptors to outfit you with a new set,” the mare suggests as she makes her way back to her discarded tray. “Once again, I apologize. When you were brought to me, you were delirious, and… made it /explicitly/ known that you did not like to be touched.”
  1858. >You sigh. For some reason, guilt claws at your chest at the news of how a barely-conscious, in-pain you must have treated this mare.
  1859. >…That might be a bad thing. You just met her, Anonymous. Don’t let your guard down so easily.
  1860. >”I am Mender Bountiful Riverside,” the mare says with a filly-like politeness before she grabs the tray with her teeth. She’s silent as she walks back to your side and settles it back onto the ground. “Sachemare Sagebrush has assigned me to mend you, Brother Anonymous, and I intend to do so to the highest standards of Marestricht body mending. However, I believe it is worth saying that our time together would be better spent in quiet.”
  1861. >You tilt your head. Riverside picks up a brown root from her tray with her mouth and leans over you to plant it in the dirt above your right leg. She uses a hoof to slowly drive it further into the soil. The moment you feel a soft pressure on your leg, Riverside eases off and returns to her tray.
  1862. >”When the mending process starts, we will both be strung along in our connection with the Ancient Lady of Life,” Riverside says. “It will feel as if somepony else is in your mind. That is how most describe it. I’m afraid it can be rather unsettling for some.” Riverside speaks between her placement of each of the various roots, seeds, and leaves from the tray to the dirt mound. If you hadn’t seen what Apple Seed could do for your leg, you’d think you found yourself in a cult den. Unfortunately, you have one stony, earthpushing reason to not be suspicious. “You will start to feel exhausted once it begins, Brother Anonymous. You are more than welcome to slumber. Your unconsciousness will circumvent the awkward feeling and, in fact, will make the process much quicker. You will be able to attend the Rejoicement if you do so.”
  1863. >As Riverside speaks, you hear another set of hooves coming down the dirt tunnel.
  1864. >You’re not sure if you want this mare to “string you along with her connection to the Ancient Lady of Life” unsupervised. You’re willing to miss some party if it means not giving the chance--
  1865. >“Blast!”
  1866. >Riverside stomps a hoof, glaring down at her now empty tray. Her eyes scan around the room; where the tray had first been set down and the path she had used to get to you, but she doesn’t find what she’s looking for. “Apologies, Brother Anonymous,” she says. “I seem to have forgotten an ingredient. I will return post-haste.”
  1867. >As the mauve mare turns to leave, though, another earth pony meets her at the tunnel entrance. She holds a necklace between her teeth, fashioned with blades of grass interwoven so tightly and expertly they appear as a solid green string. On the end of the necklace hangs what appears to be a glass bottle no bigger than your pinkie finger. A blue liquid from within illuminates the carrier’s chest as she approaches Riverside.
  1868. >”Ah, I thank you, Mender Beniglade,” Riverside says pleasantly.
  1869. >Instead of responding, Beniglade leans forward and offers the necklace to Riverside. Riverside hastily takes it in her own mouth.
  1870. >”Do not forget it next time, Mender Riverside,” the earth pony grumbles before turning tail. As she leaves, she mumbles something that you can’t help but feel mildly terrified about. “Why Sachemare Sagebrush chose a novice, I’ll never understand…”
  1871. >Bountiful Riverside’s ears lower at Beniglade’s jab, but that’s the only sign of her dejection. She turns around and makes her way back to you, a pleasant raise of her cheeks on her face.
  1872. “Can’t help but notice she called you a novice,” you grouse.
  1873. >Riverside’s posture slumps ever so slightly, but it’s barely perceptible as she sits down to her haunches and places the necklace on the tray. “It is true this is my first full-body mend,” she says before gripping the bottle in her hooves. It almost looks like a seed between her large hooves. “However, I assure you that I am well capable. I have had much practice with smaller injuries; those which I have been relegated to by the other menders.”
  1874. >You can’t help but notice how her voice teeters off to a breathy sigh at the end. Riverside doesn’t say another word as she bites off the cork of the bottle before hanging the glowing liquid over the water of the moat. She slowly pours the liquid in.
  1875. >Slowly, the moat around you illuminates the dirt grotto in a fluctuating, blue glow.
  1876. >”Do you plan on going to the Rejoicement, Brother Anonymous?” Riverside asks as she slowly lowers her front hooves into the glowing water to settle on the bottom of the moat.
  1877. >Doesn’t she need quiet to focus, like Apple Seed did? She’s a novice as well, so you’d expect her to need absolute quiet. If you knew the first thing about any of this shit.
  1878. That’s the thought that relegates the back of your head back to the soil, and your cynical thoughts to the back of your mind. “Probably not,” you answer neutrally.
  1879. >”That is a shame,” Riverside says, her voice showing no sign of preoccupation. “I always enjoy Rejoicements. Ponies all around Marestricht coming into one gathering. They are always in good spirits and do not brush me off when I try to converse.”
  1880. >/Don’t feel bad for her, Anonymous./
  1881. >”It is also encouraging to see the new foals,” Riverside continues, before she pauses. You expect her to drift off to silence as she focuses on the mending. You can feel a prickling feeling in the back of your head now. “I have never seen somepony from your tribe before, Brother Anonymous. If it is not rude, what, exactly, are you? Nopony else in Marestricht seems to know definitively.”
  1882. The prickly feeling increases, but as it does, you start to feel a warm… glow from within your body. That’s the only way to describe it, a glow. It seems to seep in from the soil hugging your skin, permeating your body with an otherworldly hum of natural warmth. “Human,” you susurrate. Surely, now, she’d have to shut up and focus on her job?
  1883. >/…confusion./
  1884. >You blink. You wouldn't call yourself confused, just mildly concerned. Where did that come from?
  1885. >”Do humans not have many children?” Riverside asks in the same tone of voice as when you had just awoken.
  1886. >/Curiosity. Not seen many. Reason?/
  1887. “Is this the part where it feels like somebody else is in my mind?” you can’t help but ask.
  1888. >”Yes, it is,” Riverside confirms. “Do you like foals, Brother Anonymous?”
  1889. >The question comes out of nowhere. You already have your knee-jerk answer pre-loaded and at the ready, but you don’t know if that will do any good now. Just how… /connected/ are the two of you right now?
  1890. “Hey, don’t you have to keep quiet to focus?” you ask blearily. /Oh./ There’s the exhaustion. “When Apple Seed was… mending, he needed silence.”
  1891. >/Guilt. Shame. Apple Seed./
  1892. >Riverside doesn’t let any of these emotions reflect in her voice. How is she comfortable sharing all of this with you? And what the Hell’s her deal with Apple Seed?
  1893. >There’s nothing you can do about it now. Remember, Anonymous, Apple Seed entrusted this mare with you. But do you trust Apple Seed enough for that thought to comfort you?
  1894. >”I apologize,” Riverside says quietly. “As stated before, I practice often and am well enough capable. It would not be bragging to say I can capably converse and mend simultaneously. I supposed that since you have not yet fallen asleep, you would be open to conversation. Though, I am not as accustomed to social interaction as I am to body mending. Am I making you uncomfortable, Brother Anonymous?”
  1895. >/Stallion uncomfortable. Did this yourself. Lonely./
  1896. “Look, it’s—” you start quickly before you stop yourself with a sigh. “It’s fine. Kids are--...”
  1897. >/Walking reminders of why you’re here?/
  1898. “I’d rather not talk about it. It’s personal.”
  1899. >”I see,” Riverside says, teetering off into silence.
  1900. >/Failure to socialize. Embarrassing yourself again./
  1901. >You're surprised how less than a minute is all it takes for you to feel guilty about the lack of her voice. Instead of talking, you merely focus on the perambulating blue glow on the dirt ceiling.
  1902. >But before you have too much trouble fighting off sleep, you hear a commotion from further within the tunnel.
  1903. >"What the buck do you mean you'd have to 'peetree-vote' Apple Seed? I'm the one who carried him here!"
  1904. >The high pitch of the voice, the subtle chirp at the end of her statement, and the fact that she forgot to mention how bumpy the ride was all confirm it. Max Gusto is further down the tunnel, currently speaking with an earth pony whose voice is too deep and calm to make out.
  1905. >"Yeah, yeah, shove it or I'll steal your wheat during the Rejoicement. You know Sagebrush will let me."
  1906. >The earth pony's complaints fall silent. Max Gusto, meanwhile, educates you on just how a squee can sound shit-eatingly smug before her hoofsteps continue down the tunnel. The earth pony murmurs something angrily, but makes no move to stop Max.
  1907. >/Helped Apple Seed. Helped Anonymous. Still annoying./
  1908. >You think Bountiful Riverside might be in the runs for making the best first impression on you of any mare.
  1909. >/Just like Red Le--/
  1910. >/Fuck off./
  1911. >You glance to Riverside, but she gives no reaction to your mental flinch. Good, this connection might be one-way.
  1912. >"Hey, buddy," Max announces, her voice echoing off the grotto walls.
  1913. >Sure enough, the only pegasus you've had the dubious pleasure of meeting trots into the grotto. She giggles quietly at the dirt mound you're buried in, probably thinking how ridiculous you look, but otherwise stays silent as she waits for a reply.
  1914. "Max," you greet neutrally. "Where's Lucky?"
  1915. >"Ohhhh, I get it," she sighs obnoxiously. “No time for the mule. Gotta worry about your lady first.”
  1916. You give Max a deadpan glare. She uses a hoof to pull back a strand of her white mane so you can see just how broken up she is. Really, she’s barely holding it together. Look at the way she sticks her lips out while pouting; it almost looks like a caricature. “Thanks for your help,” you suspire. You’ve barely met the mare and you can already tell what her response will be.
  1917. >”Ancients above, he can say something nice,” Max says, her eyes wide with mock surprise. It only lasts a moment, though, before she sobers up. Well, as sober as Max Gusto can be. “Lucky’s been getting some much-needed rest. She /and/ her… precious cargo.”
  1918. >You deflate in relief and are almost dragged into unconsciousness. You have to physically fight your eyelids to stay open.
  1919. >”So, uh…” Max says, kicking her hoof in the dirt awkwardly. “Anonymous?”
  1920. >”/Brother/ Anonymous,” Riverside corrects.
  1921. >”Right. /Brother/ Anonymous.” Max turns to Riverside as if noticing her for the first time. “Hey, how’s it going, by the way. Max Gusto, Roguishly Beautiful Savior of Humans, Partner in Crime with Apple Se-- /Brother/ Apple Seed.”
  1922. >/Apple Seed’s friend. There for him. Not you. Shame./
  1923. >Riverside returns her sea blue eyes to her work, bowing her head away from Max and you.
  1924. >“So, Lucky wanted to hear how you were doing,” Max says. “And I kinda wanna know, too, for what it’s worth. ‘Cuz we’re buddies, right?”
  1925. Instead of answering right away, you turn to Riverside and ask, “How long will this take, did you say?”
  1926. >”About four to five days,” Bountiful Riverside responds.
  1927. >”/WHAT?!/” Max explodes. You jolt against the mound of soil before you remember what Riverside told you. Your mender sighs forlornly as a few pebbles and clots of dirt tumble into the moat below. “But you’ll miss the Rejoicement!”
  1928. >”Five days is only an approximation,” Riverside says as she scoops out the pebbles from the water. You’re sure she sees the apologetic expression on your face before she gets back to mending. “Brother Anonymous feels more comfortable to stay awake, it seems. I do not fault him for his preference. I am a stranger, after all.”
  1929. >Max stomps her hooves and flaps her wings. ”/An~noooon!/”
  1930. >/God damnit, Max, don’t--/
  1931. >”Don’t call him that.”
  1932. >You have to do a double take to confirm that the ungodly growl you just heard came from Riverside.
  1933. >The earth pony’s expression softens almost immediately. “Apologies,” she says, giving Max a bow. She turns to you, her eyes apologetic. “Your mind seemed to spasm in pain, Brother Anonymous. I assumed it was because of her disregard of honorifics.”
  1934. >Max Gusto is silent as she tilts her head at Riverside’s words. It pervades the grotto in a silence long enough to give way to the sound of hushed earth pony voices at the entrance. The voices escalate in volume, but only enough for you to make out the question, “The mending process has already begun. Are you sure, Brother Apple Seed?”
  1935. >Apple Seed gives an answer too quick and short-tempered to really be coming from him, but as the familiar sound of hoofsteps coming down that tunnel once again echo through the cavern, sure enough, it’s Apple Seed. As the earth pony enters the grotto, you notice that his coat has been cleaned to a dull shine, not a speck of dirt on his rustic orange fur. Although his bones are still visible from under his fur, he no longer drags his hooves or hangs his head as he moves. Apple Seed’s neck is adorned with a small necklace of the same fashion as the ones you saw on Sachemare Sagebrush.
  1936. >The look on his face drips with barely-contained anger, something that deeply unsettles you, coming from Apple Seed.
  1937. >/Apple Seed. Angry. My fault./
  1938. >”Max Gusto,” Apple Seed says in a voice so gravely it could rival Smooth Roads’. “We need to talk. Privately.”
  1939. >/Apple Seed. Unchanged. Same as before. Still angry./
  1940. >Max gives you a look. “I was just checking up on Bro Anonymous,” she says quizzically. She turns back to Apple Seed with a hint of impatience. “What’s with the—/oh/… right.” Something clicks in her mind, and her eyes flop to her skull in shame.
  1941. >”Oh, right, indeed,” Apple Seed grumbles. “Come, Max Gusto.”
  1942. >/Confusion. Apple Seed didn’t hit her. Like he did me./
  1943. >”Brother Apple Seed?” Riverside asks meekly. Apple Seed’s entire body flinches at her voice. Max comes to the stallion’s side, but his silence stumps her, and she turns to the sudden standoff.
  1944. >”I apologize, Mender Bountiful Riverside,” Apple Seed says, his head not leaving its aim at Max Gusto. His voice is much softer than before. Softer than you’ve ever heard him speak. “Max Gusto and I will be on our way now. But…” Apple Seed suddenly hardens himself before he can finish. He stands up a little straighter, even if he still does not meet Riverside’s eyes. “I understand it is not up to me, Mender Riverside, but I would rather you did not attend the Rejoicement.”
  1945. >/Confusion. Hit me. Defended self. Everything ruined. Why deny closure?/
  1946. >Apple Seed gestures to Max before leading the way out. The pegasus, without much other choice, gives you a quick, “Please make it to the Rejoicement!” look before scuttling off to follow Apple Seed.
  1947. >/Apple Seed hit. Angry. I defended self. Apple Seed ran. Captured. My fault. Everypony knows. Don’t deserve Rejoicement. Foolish to think otherwise./
  1948. >Another sound fills the grotto, but it isn’t hoofsteps down the tunnel or the murmuring of earth ponies. Bountiful Riverside gives a quiet sniffle before clearing her throat. You turn to her to see that she’s turned her face away. Her muzzle is taut with tension, trying to hold back emotion. “I apologize,” Riverside whispers. “Brother Anonymous, I would… very much appreciate it if you did not ask me my connection with Brother Apple Seed. Please only believe that I wish to help you.”
  1949. >/Help. Only help. Do good for once./
  1950. >If you weren’t on the verge of collapsing into unconsciousness, you would be able to appreciate the humor of it taking you to read a mare’s mind for you to finally let your guard down.
  1951. “I believe you, Riverside,” you murmur as your vision goes blurry from exhaustion. The prickling sensation in your mind turns to a warm glow, not so much different from the rest of your body. “But I’d like to get to know you better once I wake up.”
  1952. >The last thing you see before you close your eyes is Riverside’s surprised expression.
  1954. ~~~
  1956. >As you and Apple Seed exit the mending burrows, you are once again bombarded with the sounds and sights of a midday Marestricht.
  1957. “Alright, what’s up?” you ask Apple Seed, trotting up to his side. He regards you with a scowl. “Seriously, what’s up?”
  1958. >”I should be asking you ‘what is up,’” Apple Seed growls, but you’re on that before he can get another word in.
  1959. “Nope, me first.” You and Apple Seed begin your ascent up the stone stairs, leaving the orchards and mending burrows behind. “You’ve been acting like this ever since we got out of the Red Garden.”
  1960. >”/You/ first, Max Gusto?” Apple Seed’s voice is a far cry from his originally neutral tone. In fact, most of what you see beside you is that of an entirely different pony. The only remnant of your friend is his green eyes, still hesitant to meet your own or anypony else’s. They almost remind you of Anonymous’. “You told Apricot Ammil about what happened in that damned place.”
  1961. >Of course he’d want to talk to you about this, but…
  1962. >No. You can’t bring yourself to feel guilty, so you won’t even try.
  1963. With a flap of your wings, you’re in front of Apple Seed. He halts his ascension. You crouch to meet him head-on. “Yeah, I did,” you say firmly. “She was being a cunt. She was giving Lucky a bucking anxiety attack and didn’t even care. So yeah, it slipped out in the heat of the moment, so what? Just why does it matter so much?”
  1964. >”You do not understand a thing, sky rat.”
  1965. >The moment the words leave Apple Seed’s mouth, he seems to regret them. His eyes widen at what he had just said, his ears lowering guiltily. Still, he doesn’t give away too much, turning away from you and deepening his scowl.
  1966. “What the buck’s wrong with you, colt?” you ask, unable to keep the touch of hurt from your voice. “I stick with you in that Tartarus-hole, and you act like this because I told the truth to somepony who cares about you?”
  1967. >Apple Seed’s posture slumps at your words, but he doesn’t respond. He merely puts one hoof in front of the other as he sidesteps you and continues up the stairs. You’re at his side, unrelenting.
  1968. “Seriously,” you ask softly. Apple Seed’s ears flick to your direction. “What’s wrong, Apple Seed?”
  1969. >Apple Seed’s gait slows until he comes to a stop. Another earth pony descending the stairs prompts him to step off the side and settle his haunches onto the dirt hill. You hop off the stairs to follow him. That’s when his eyes – filled with that same shame that hasn’t left them since he first saw Marestricht yesterday – finally meet your own.
  1970. “I was right there with you,” you reassure, almost in a whisper. “They didn’t... do that shit to me, but they did plenty other shit. I didn’t exactly have pleasant dreams last night.” You chuckle, but Apple Seed doesn’t react. “I’m right here, Apple Seed. I’m all ears.”
  1971. >Apple Seed’s eyes linger on your own for a long time until they drift back to the mending burrows. He sighs, “Now that Apricot Ammil knows what happened, Mender Bountiful Riverside might be in danger.”
  1972. >/Please tell me I didn’t buck up again./
  1973. You scoot closer to Apple Seed. A few of the agriculturalists below give the pair of ponies just sitting beside the stairs a sideways glance, but once they recognize the two of you, they hastily get back to work. “How?” you ask softly.
  1974. >Apple Seed seems to have the answer on the tip of his tongue, until something else takes its place. “I never told you how the Red Garden captured me, did I?” he asks as he gets back up to his hooves. He hops back onto the stairs, waiting for you to join him.
  1975. You’re confused, but knowing Apple Seed, he’s probably building up to your answer. You float by his side, and the two of you begin to climb up the stairs once again to upper Marestricht. “I was always curious how they’d get a hold of an earth pony,” you admit. “But you never offered, so I never asked.”
  1976. >”Even if you did, I do not think I would have told you. I was too immature then.” Apple Seed’s head lowers. “I could not even look Mender Bountiful Riverside in the eyes. I suppose I am /still/ immature.”
  1977. “Apple Seed,” you say, making damn sure he sees the look on your face before you continue. “Do you know who you’re talking to?”
  1978. >Apple Seed lips twitch upwards. He exhales in that way ponies do when they’re amused, but don’t want to laugh. “Before I was an earthpusher, I aspired to be a body mender.”
  1979. >Apple Seed stops talking for a moment. You tilt your head. As if your reaction was the answer to a question, he exclaims, “Ah. I suppose it is worth mentioning the separate roles stallions and mares play in Marestricht for you to fully understand.”
  1980. >”Brother Apple Seed,” an earth pony greets as she passes the two of you to the mending burrows.
  1981. >Apple Seed gives a nod to the mare before he continues, “Mares are expected to hold the more demanding positions of Marestricht, such as maretinets, herdwatchers, and bodymenders. There are many more, but those are the ones you must be familiar with by now.”
  1982. >Herdwatcher Wheat Graze and Thistlehoof, you can guess are some kind of guard. Body menders are self-explanatory, but you can’t say you know what a maretinet is. You remember that Apple Seed called his sister “/Maretinet/ Apricot Ammil” to Sagebrush.
  1983. >”Maretinet means fighter,” Apple Seed says at your expression. “They train herdwatchers, punish those who break Marestricht law, and fight off any wild griffons or sky thief raids.” You thank the Ancients above your encounter with Apricot last night didn’t become violent. Apple Seed clears his throat before getting back on topic. “A mare is trained as a, how do you say, Jill of all Trades while young. When mares achieve their cutie mark, that is what determines the role they will follow for the rest of their lives. Since it is their special talent, there have been very few instances in which a mare would disagree with what is assigned to her. A mare’s role is so engrained in their identity that their role’s honorific is to be spoken before their name when being addressed.” As if reading your mind, Apple Seed explains, “Unless if spoken by somepony close to them.”
  1984. “Doesn’t stop anypony from correcting me,” you grumble. “Every time I say your name there’s always some white knightess telling me, ‘/Brother/ Apple Seed.’”
  1985. >Apple Seed nods at your annoyance. “You must have noticed by now that the only honorific stallions go by is ‘Brother,’” he says. “Or ‘Herdson,’ in the Sachemare’s eyes. We are not designated the same roles as mares. Our jobs are to take responsibility for the herd’s foals, mind the fields, shape the earth around our home…”
  1986. >Apple Seed trails off once again, taking a step away from another passing earth pony. The earth pony smiles and greets him, and is reciprocated with a demure nod, but it does nothing to improve Apple Seed’s sudden bout of depression. “Stay pure until we choose our foalbearer,” he mumbles ashamedly.
  1987. “What?” you can’t help but snap. Anger blossoms in your chest. “/That/ can’t by why you’re acting like this. That’s bullshit! You didn’t choose—"
  1988. >”Do not feel pity for me, Max Gusto,” Apple Seed interrupts. “How I was treated in the Red Garden is my punishment for being captured.”
  1989. >Just what can you say to that?
  1990. >“My blood mother was a body mender before she passed,” Apple Seed continues, signaling the end of his interest discussing the subject. “Fatally wounded during a sky thief raid.”
  1991. >Your hooves land back on ground. Instead of the resounding clack of connecting with stone, though, it is only the muffled thumb of grass and dirt. You and Apple Seed have reached the top of the stairs.
  1992. No knowing what else to do, you simply rest a wing on Apple Seed’s withers. “I didn’t know,” you say.
  1993. >”There is no need to share condolences,” he affirms, not shrugging off your wing, but giving you a look that sends the same message. You slowly retract your wing, but still steer closer to your friend’s side. “Summer Harvest lived a life helping others. She gave it by telling her mender to spend more resources on the stallion who was wounded beside her. My blood mother no doubt resides in the highest plains of the Eternal Graze. No need to grieve…”
  1994. >Despite his words, Apple Seed’s gaze hardens. “That is what I told myself after she passed,” he mutters. “I became obsessed with becoming the body mender who took her place. I thought it would be the best way to honor her. The way I threw myself into my studies was that of a mad pony. Apricot Ammil supported me zealously. I will not say she exacerbated the problem because of any kind of malintent, but…” A raise of his cheeks and a sardonic curve of his eyebrows. Apple Seed’s muted version of a dark chuckle. “Well, your run-in with her might have informed you of how passionate she can be.”
  1995. >Apple Seed’s chuckle fades to silence. “Neither of us properly mourned,” he says. “I recognize that now. We still have not.”
  1996. >For some reason, the thought of leaving Marestricht to join Anonymous and Lucky Favor once again enters your mind.
  1997. >You would certainly be doing Apple Seed a favor, leaving him time to mourn with his family and people. And maybe you’d be helping Apricot Ammil as well. Ancients know you can barely stand the sight of another sky thief. You can only imagine how much she’s holding herself back from attacking you.
  1998. >Apple Seed inhales before letting out a long, forlorn sigh. He averts your gaze, but not quick enough that you don’t catch how… shameful he looks. “When the open position was instead taken by Mender Bountiful Riverside, something inside me snapped. I did not care that she was more qualified than I, nor that she offered to take me under her hoof as her student. I hit her.” Apple Seed stops walking. He turns back to the mending burrows below. You’ve never seen this look on his face before. “She defended herself. Earth stallions are much stronger than earth mares, despite our smaller size. Maybe that’s why she had panicked so much and fought back so hard. Afterwards, I had so little presence of mind in that moment that I ran from Marestricht.”
  1999. Apple Seed trails off as he examines the many burrows layering the lower mountainside. You finish his story for him. “And the Red Garden caught you.”
  2000. >”Mender Bountiful Riverside was blamed,” Apple Seed murmurs. You can see how his muzzle becomes tight with emotion. The white of his eyes gain a shade of red as tears threaten their corners. “Nopony here has said it, but I can see it in the way they treat her. I do not know how Apricot Ammil was able to restrain herself from ending Mender Riverside’s life, but I do know that now, she feels as she has more than enough reason to.”
  2001. >He takes a moment to wipe away at his eyes before he turns to you. “Now she knows that her older brother is no longer pure. And in Apricot’s eyes, that is Mender Riverside’s fault.”
  2002. >Your throat goes dry. You have no words. Just the same, suffocating feeling as when you saw Lucky Favor’s reaction to you saying those five words: “Her name was Red Letter.”
  2003. >/These ponies would be better off with you dead, Max Gusto./
  2004. >…
  2005. >You’re beginning to think that Apple Seed might very well be able to read minds.
  2006. >The moment he sees the look on your face, he takes a step forward and wraps his front hooves around you. He pulls you into a hug, but you can’t find it in yourself to return it. Why’s /he/ hugging /you?/ The mangy sky rat who ruins everything? You should be comforting him.
  2007. >”Max Gusto,” Apple Seed whispers. His voice is laced with a tenderness that stabs at your heart. “Before Apricot Ammil accosted you and Lucky Favor, she was begging me to tell her what had happened. She was sobbing, and I know she believed she had failed her only family. Despite what you may think of her, Apricot Ammil is not a bad pony. She will not break Marestricht law and hurt somepony she was sworn to protect. She places her responsibilities as a maretinet above her vengeful feelings.”
  2008. >/Max Gusto./
  2009. >/If you stay with Apple Seed, you will fall for him./
  2010. >/You know this now./
  2011. >”Despite this,” Apple Seed continues through your pounding heartbeat and burning face. “I am afraid that if Apricot sees Riverside at the Rejoicement, she may not be able to contain herself.”
  2012. >Apple Seed pulls away from the hug. You turn so he doesn’t see the fiery blush on your cheeks, using a hoof to wipe and prod at your face in a way you hope he mistakes for pegasus grooming. You know that your lime coat and white mane contrast brilliantly with the red on your cheeks, so he might’ve already gotten a good look at it.
  2013. >/Just worry about un-bucking your buck-up./
  2014. “W-what can I do to help?” you ask. “Anything, Apple Seed, and I’ll do it.”
  2015. >”/Brother/ Apple Seed.”
  2016. >Oh, Ancients-damnit.
  2017. >You give a glare at the passing earth pony. Once she sees the look on your face, she gives a brief nod before scurrying off.
  2018. >…Or she probably saw the blush on your face and turned away to keep from giggling.
  2019. >”Nothing,” Apple Seed answers, his voice deathly serious. “We can only try and convince Mender Riverside to not attend the Rejoicement… as cruel as it is.”
  2020. >It /is/ cruel, and the look on Apple Seed’s voice reflects just how much he knows it.
  2021. “Okay, well, what if she does show up?” you ask. “What can we do?”
  2022. >Apple Seed takes his sweet time responding. He turns back to the mending burrows. A soft smile creases his features, making him look much wiser than the young stallion had any right to look. “Mender Riverside not attending the Rejoicement /is/ the safest option. But if what I sensed from Anonymous’ heartbeat before we left is any indication…”
  2023. >Apple Seed turns to you. Instead of the oppressive shame, blurring his eyes like dark storm clouds, for the first time since you’ve met him you see a glimmer of hope.
  2024. >“We may not have to do anything at all, Max.”
  2026. ~~~
  2028. >”/Shkalor Wucky Favor!/”
  2029. >You yip from the young earth pony snapping you out of your stupor, which causes precisely three problems. One, you’ve just embarrassed yourself in front of the earth pony mare standing ahead, who gives you a tilt of her head. Thankfully, the evening’s energy is alight with joy, and she only smiles in mild amusement and looks away. Two, Max Gusto giggles unabashedly at your side, and even Tia snuffs out a snicker from atop your withers. You’ve been trying to revamp your uppercaste dignity over the past few days in Marestricht, and it seems like Max just got another humiliating memory to hang over your head.
  2030. >Three, it makes you feel utterly defeated. Despite the night terrors, you felt like you were really making progress. This just put a dent in your streak of staying calm.
  2031. >…No, you /were/ making progress, Lucky Favor. Somepony just caught you when you were in a bit of a daze is all.
  2032. You turn to find an earth pony filly standing below you, a hoofmade necklace being held between her teeth. You use the term ‘below’ lightly in this case; the filly’s withers reach the bottom of your barrel easily, and she doesn’t even have to crane her neck to meet your eyes. These earth ponies sure are tall. “Hello, little filly,” you greet pleasantly.
  2033. >“/Little,/” Max snickers from behind a hoof. “/Mm-hmm./”
  2034. >The earth pony filly approaches you and stands on the tips of her hooves, letting out an adorable strain as she tries to reach the necklace atop your head. You give a warm smile before bowing, letting the filly drape one end of the jewelry above your horn, to rest on the back of your neck. Tia babbles quietly, poking the necklace with a hoof.
  2035. >The filly clops back down to the ground, beaming at you with a grin so wide the corners almost touch her ears. The torchlights illuminating the Marestricht night reflect off her red eyes brilliantly.
  2036. “This is beautiful,” you assure, giving the filly an elegant bow. “It is much appreciated… big filly.”
  2037. >”For you, Scholar Lucky Favor!” she laughs. The filly bounds away to meet with the mare who had to be her mother, her hooves clacking on the stone stairs like skipping rocks. The mother gives you a kind smile before she leads her daughter upwards, aimed squarely at the building at the top of the stairs. The stone-and-clay, somewhat short, open-walled building which had been responsible for your sudden daze.
  2038. >Orange torches shine brilliantly from within, no different from the many other structures littering the expanse of Marestricht. The main difference between this particular structure and the many others below is that this one resides at the top of the mountainside, overlooking the rest of the earth pony village. Apple Seed himself will be here, surrounded by the ponies closest to him.
  2039. >The thing is, just a few seconds ago, you saw the tall form of Anonymous briefly peering over the railing before disappearing within. He came to the Rejoicement.
  2040. >”Oooooh,” Max coos from your side as she hops up another stair, giving the filly on your withers a knowing smile. “Stopping mid-stride when a certain colt is in view? Squeaking like a schoolfilly when somepony snaps her out of it? What could this possibly mean, Tia?”
  2041. Tia doesn’t respond verbally, but you’re too humiliated to turn to see how she reacted. You continue your hike up the stairs with a pout on your face. “Purge the thought,” you say definitively. “I am merely appreciating earth pony architecture.”
  2042. >Max only chuckles. The clamor from within the structure is becoming louder with each step you ascend, pulling you closer to the pleasant evening you know you needed after these last… well, this last month, to be honest.
  2043. >The mere thought of stroking Max’s ego puts a scowl on your face. Despite this, you can’t say you’re not a tiny bit hopeful that you’d be able to talk with Anonymous honestly tonight. Max told you he’s complied well with his body mender and is now in perfect condition. Would he be in a good mood? What does Anonymous in a good mood look like? Would tonight finally be the night you see him smile genuinely? You can only imagine how handsome he’d look with a gentlecoltly smile on his features.
  2044. >No, don’t lose focus, Lucky Favor. You will discuss the money situation with Anonymous. You’ve been reciting this in front of a mirror for three days straight. If anything… /flirtatious/ happens, it will be a natural side effect of the flow of the conversation. You will not make a fool of yourself.
  2045. >…Though, it wouldn’t be too much of a disaster to make a bit of innocent flirting your second priority, would it?
  2046. >As you finally ascend the last step, the structure’s interior lays splayed before you. It reminds you of an uppercaste castle’s ballroom, but made of earthly materials and without walls. There is a ceiling above, held up by stone pillars around the edges of the structure and fashioned from an amalgamation of dried mud and soil. Besides that, though, there isn’t much else to the structure. What makes it feel so homey must be the occupants.
  2047. >The gathering is unlike the balls you’ve been to in the uppercastes. Whereas in those, in-grouping being commonplace, the earth ponies here are spread across the stone floor. The only group that’s formed are a few ponies lingering around what looks like a stone tub, scooping the contents from within into gray chalices. It looks like Apple Seed hasn’t arrived yet.
  2048. >…But it looks like a certain somepony else did, in fact, arrive.
  2049. >And how /splendid/ his arrival is.
  2050. >You can feel your heart quicken as you spot Anonymous standing in the corner of the room, leaning against the low railing and holding something small in his hand. His unoccupied arm is at his side, and his gaze is steady as he looks down to something on his left. He isn’t acting defensively at all.
  2051. >He’s putting his weight on both legs equally. You have to bite the inside of your mouth to keep from grinning like a buffoon.
  2052. >Equally enthralling as his way of standing, though, is his attire. Anonymous no longer wears his armor. His shirt is the same style as the earth ponies’ casual wear; short sleeves, a soft peachy color, with brown, decorated cuffs and collar. A few necklaces also hang from the tall hyoo-men’s neck. Did he really trust somepony enough to kneel down for them to put those on him?
  2053. >His previous attire was complimentary to his figure. The clothes underneath hugged his muscles and the leather and stone covered just enough of his figure to leave a modest amount to the imagination. His clothes now, though, hang loose around his body in tasteful modesty. It still doesn’t do much to hide his broad shoulders and the round muscles of his traps and chest. And the way his nearly hairless, muscular arms are just bare for everypony to see—
  2054. >”You’re drooling.”
  2055. You snap your muzzle shut and bring a hoof to inspect it, but it comes up dry. You glare at Max before turning to Tia. “Tia, dear, see this?” you say. “I am most certainly /not/ drooling. A lady /never/ drools. Even if their oafish friend may say otherwise.”
  2056. >”Whatever you say, tomato face,” Max shrugs, making you realize just how hot your face feels at the moment. You huff and let the cool mountain air chill you down. Max cranes her neck to get a better look at Anonymous, but like you, she can’t see over the heads of the earth ponies. “Hey, why’s he looking off to his left like that?”
  2057. >Without waiting for permission, Max unfurls her wings and flaps her head above the crowd of earth ponies. A few of them skitter away from her ascension, others just sending passing glares. One or two, you swear, lower their bodies into a battle stance before realizing who it is and relaxing.
  2058. >Max raises a foreleg above her eyes in an obnoxiously overdone caricature of a pirate. Whatever she sees, though, wipes the smirk off her face. She clops back to the ground and mutters, “Well, shit…”
  2059. You frown. “Such foul language in front of the foal,” you affirm. Max doesn’t react to it, though. Her eyes are wide, and her wings twitch with nervousness. “Max Gusto, dear? What’s wrong?”
  2060. >”Eh?” Max blinks at your words before her eyes trail away from you. “Oh, uh, nothing. In fact, why don’t you go on and talk to Anonymous? I gotta find Apple Seed. /Goodluckanddon’tembarrassyourself/--” Max’s speech is slurred as she gallops past you and back into Marestricht. Before you can call out to her, she’s in the air and gliding away.
  2061. >You’re worried about your friend, but you know you can’t hope to catch up to her now. You’ll just have to ask her about it when she comes back. She’s been obsessed with getting ready for the Rejoicement all day. There’s no way she’d leave so soon. Still, you can’t help but feel nervous without Max supporting you from the sidelines.
  2062. >Your mind spins as you turn back to the gathering. You begin your trek into the sea of taller, stronger ponies, aimed squarely at Anonymous at the far corner. The earth ponies around you immediately take notice of your arrival, taking care not to bump into you or, Ancients forbid, step on you. Most give you passing smiles of gratitude. You also get a few “Greetings, Scholar Lucky Favor!”s and even a “Your foal is quite adorable, Scholar Lucky Favor!”, but you otherwise remain unmolested.
  2063. >As you pass the stone tub, you’re surprised to see that the liquid within is not a dark purple. You had expected it to be wine of some kind. Fermented grapes, or the like. But instead of the recognizable scent of alcoholic beverages, the sweet aroma of a mixture of fruits comes from the auburn liquid, most particularly apples. None of the earth ponies are acting drunk either, but that might be because of the evening’s youth.
  2064. >You hope the drink isn’t alcoholic. You’re rather thirsty, and Ancients know how sick you are of boiled water.
  2065. >As you move past the last furry barriers between yourself and Anonymous, your thirst isn’t helped in the slightest. Your throat goes dry as you see the beautiful mare at his side. You aren’t the jealous type; at least, you don’t think you are -- you’re new to this romance stuff. But there’s something about how Anonymous is talking to her so… carefree that riles you up. You recognize the object in his hand to be a stone cup, thoroughly dwarfed in his monstrous paw.
  2066. >/No, Lucky Favor. Be happy for him. He’s in a good mood and talking to somepony. That’s progress, right?/
  2067. >/…You can’t remember the last time he was in a good mood when he talked to you./
  2068. >”/Naw-nee!/” Tia squeals, hopping off your withers.
  2069. “Tia, dear!” you call out, but she’s a quick little filly and is already halfway to the hyoo-men.
  2070. >Both Anonymous and the mare stop their conversation and turn to the white furball. Your breath hitches as the mare beside Anonymous coos and kneels to greet her, a warm smile on her face. Tia skids to a halt in front of the two. She looks between the mare at your stallion’s side—no, you did not just think that—the mare at /Anonymous’/ side and Anonymous himself.
  2071. >Anonymous’ gaze shifts from Tia to you, and now that you’re close to him you notice something different about… everything, being completely honest. But more specifically his mane and beard. Each are much shorter than the last time you’ve seen him, and are much less scraggly. There’s still a certain wildness to his stubble, some of his whiskers sticking out this way and that, but it’s far more contained than before, like that of an adventurer with a gentlecolt’s heart. Anonymous’ mane has also been cut. It no longer sticks out in all directions or gets in his face. It does a splendid job framing his masculine features, and you’re not sure why, but his emerald eyes also seem to sparkle a little more in the orange light.
  2072. >”Hey, Tia,” Anonymous says with a warmth in his voice you’ve never heard before. His towering height smoothly descends as he leans on his right knee to greet Tia.
  2073. >His /right/ knee!
  2074. >The sight of Anonymous putting his weight on his leg almost brings you to tears. There’s something different about seeing your housecarla healthy up close. When he looks up to you from scritching Tia’s ear and your eyes meet, you feel as if all the tension of the last few days fall from your body.
  2075. >He’s here. He’s okay. He’s in the best mood you’ve ever seen him in.
  2076. >”It’s not that bad, is it?” Anonymous asks. He runs the fingers of his free hand through the dark stubble on his face. You realize you may very well have just shed a tear or three.
  2077. “No!” you affirm, quickly raising a foreleg to wipe away at your cheeks. You chuckle nervously. “No, my lord, I was merely shocked! I did not know you, um…”
  2078. >And then, you say something your younger self swore she’d never, ever say after the fifth romance novel in a row had the exact same quote in it.
  2079. “You changed your hair!”
  2080. >/Darnit, Lucky!/
  2081. >”Yep, unfortunately,” Anonymous sighs. He stands back up to his full height, to the disappointment of a much-disgruntled Tia. He gestures to his vacant side. “Apple Seed isn’t here yet, so we’re just waiting. Come here and be antisocial with us.”
  2082. >/We’re/ just waiting.
  2083. >Not /I’m./
  2084. >You hum to drown the “hmph!” that threatens your mouth. You make your way to Anonymous’ side, leaving Tia to follow you. You turn and sit on your haunches, facing the Rejoicement.
  2085. >You feel so safe at his side. Despite the context, you can’t fight your lips as they slowly curl into a content smile. Anonymous is right here, at your side. Tia is right there, playing with the laces on Anonymous’ footwear, nopony giving her a second glance. The pleasant sound of jovial ponies, clopping on stone, and the sloshing of the liquid in the tub fill your ears. The cool mountain breeze curls around your coat and mane. There isn’t a thing about this scene you would change.
  2086. >…Well, there is /one/ thing. One particular mauve mare, standing on the other side of Anonymous, and oh dear Ancients above SHE’S TRYING TO START HER CONVERSATION WITH HIM UP AGAIN! /SHE DIDN’T EVEN INTRODUCE HERSELF!/
  2087. >You crane your head to get a good look at Anonymous face, unsure of precisely what to say, until you see a thin line of peach skin in his stubble.
  2088. “Anonymous, dear!” you gasp. “Did you cut yourself while shaving?”
  2089. >Anonymous gives a long, drawn-out sigh, scratching the thin scar. How much did it hurt when it happened, you wonder? Though, Anonymous’ pain tolerance is a thing to behold by now…
  2090. >”I offered to help Brother Anonymous with his preparations for the Rejoicement,” the mare says as she leans from behind Anonymous’ leg to meet your eyes. “But he declined.”
  2091. “Even after he cut himself?” you ask suspiciously.
  2092. >”/Especially/ after Brother Anonymous cut himself.”
  2093. >Well, at least she isn’t immune to Anonymous’ stubbornness.
  2094. >”Took me months to grow that beard,” Anonymous mumbles under his breath. “Good thing pony razors are built for furry faces. I got to keep the stubble. A pain to use, though.”
  2095. >Anonymous’ face turns to the mare by his side, who meets his gaze. You’re about to say something before she does – “I never knew you preferred facial hair to being clean shaven, Anonymous, please tell me more!” – but whatever look the two of them share seems to spur her to action.
  2096. >”Oh!” she exclaims. “I apologize. I am not experienced with social interaction. Greetings, Scholar Lucky Favor!”
  2097. >She trots from Anonymous’ side to meet you head-on. Tia tilts her head as her eyes dart from the mare to Anonymous, bemused.
  2098. >”I am Mender Bountiful Riverside,” Riverside says as she extends a hoof. “I am the body mender who was assigned to Brother Anonymous by Sachemare Sagebrush’s order. The Ancient Lady of Comradery smiles upon our meeting.”
  2099. >You meet her hoof with your own, barely eking out a cheerful smile. She’s the one who helped Anonymous. You can at least /try/ to be civil.
  2100. >Ancients above, why is this even difficult for you? She’s done nothing wrong! Get a grip, Lucky Favor.
  2101. “Ah,” you say as you shake hooves. “Yes. Pleasure to meet you as well. And thank you for helping my housecarla.”
  2102. >Your hoof’s momentum suddenly comes to a dead stop. Riverside blinks slowly. “/Brother/ Anonymous is /your/ housecarla?” she asks, her voice low.
  2103. >What?
  2104. >Without knowing what to say, you look to Anonymous with a pleading scrunch.
  2105. >”I didn’t know how much you were comfortable with out in the open,” he shrugs. He grabs Riverside’s attention with a tap of his foot on her side and says, “But yeah, I’m her housecarla.”
  2106. >You’re sure news spread quickly around Marestricht that Anonymous is your housecarla, so why is she acting surprised? Wouldn’t somepony have told her already, like a friend or co-worker?
  2107. >Riverside pouts, retracting her hoof from your own. Her voice is eerily low as she says, “The Ancient Lady of Chivalry frowns upon your decision to put him in danger, Scholar Lucky Favor.”
  2108. >”She gets enough of that from herself,” Anonymous says with a slightly harder nudge to Riverside’s side. She winces, backing off from you. You give Anonymous a grateful smile, only to find that he’s still looking at Riverside. “Hey, why don’t you go do that thing we talked about?”
  2109. >The fire in Riverside’s eyes quell. Her ears fall flat to her skull as she looks off into the crowd. And then, she says, “I feel safer with you, Brother Anonymous.”
  2110. >/WHAT?!/
  2111. >Tia’s jaw drops.
  2112. >Oblivious to the two white ponies’ shock, Anonymous’ face turns into a contemplative frown. “Riverside…” he says in a warning tone. Or was it comforting? It’s so hard to tell with him. Or maybe it isn’t.
  2113. >It’s kind of hard to think of anything else besides what the royal /buck/ is happening between these two.
  2114. >”Aren’t you Apple Seed’s friend?” Riverside whispers dejectedly.
  2115. >”I owe him a lot, true,” Anonymous says, for some reason giving you a glance. “But you weren’t in the wrong, Riverside. And he’s back now, so it’s fine. Now go on.”
  2116. >Riverside seems to take solace in Anonymous’ words. She gives a determined nod before taking one step toward the crowd and /away from you and Anonymous/… before promptly freezing.
  2117. >Come on!
  2118. >Anonymous once again meets your eyes. He gives a sigh, as if you would understand the first thing he was alluding to. Then, he sets his stone cup on the railing behind him, takes a step toward Riverside, and reaches down to pat her on the head.
  2119. >/EXCUSE YOU?!/
  2120. >Riverside’s ears twitch at his touch. Besides that, the expression on her face is a mystery as she’s turned away from you. By the All-Father’s grave, she /better/ not be blushing.
  2121. >Without turning to confirm your suspicions or saying another word, Riverside trots forward and is engulfed by the crowd of ponies. Anonymous makes his way back to your side, careful to step over a nearly comatose Tia, before he settles back into his spot. He grabs his cup from the railing and takes a sip.
  2122. >”Riverside’s more autistic than me, if you can believe it,” Anonymous says with a shrug. “Had to give her a kick in the butt.”
  2123. >Oh no, mister. You’re not just… /doing that/ and not explaining some things! How familiar is he with this Bountiful Riverside? Have the two of them met before?
  2124. >No, he wouldn’t have been able to meet with an earth pony alone. Still, just why… /Why is he closer to her than he is you?/
  2125. >That thought stabs through your heart like a rusted sword.
  2126. >/No, he’s not closer to her! There has to be a reason!/
  2127. “Anonymous, dear,” you ask hesitantly. “Did you… know Riverside before?”
  2128. >Anonymous tilts his head. “What do you mean?” he asks.
  2129. “Before you met me, I mean,” you elaborate. “I, um… suppose we don’t actually know each other very well. We haven’t had much time to talk about much else besides… well.” Anonymous’ eyes are unreadable as he looks away. Hastily, you finish, “Oh, I’m just curious if you’ve met Riverside before we arrived in Marestricht a few days ago! It’s just that the two of you seem rather… /tactile/ for acquaintances. Even more unusual for /you/ to be tactile with anypony.”
  2130. >That doesn’t get a good reaction from Anonymous. You’re helpless to stop him as he retracts just a little bit more into himself. “No,” he answers neutrally. “I just met her a few days ago.”
  2131. >No, don’t lose your progress, Lucky! Ease off!
  2132. >Swallowing your curiosity, you decide against bringing Riverside up again. Even if you know the two of them won’t stop nagging at the back of your mind for the rest of the night, you don’t want Anonymous to feel uncomfortable. Not tonight.
  2133. >Tonight is the Rejoicement. Anonymous is healed. Tia is here. For the first time in a long while, you have a chance to let your guard down. Don’t ruin this, Lucky Favor.
  2134. “It is odd, seeing you out of your usual armor,” you decide on saying. You steal a glance at the horseshoe-shaped muscle on the back of his arm as he leans on the railing.
  2135. >”They’re working on a new set,” Anonymous sighs. “The old armor was destroyed during the weird, earth-voodoo bullshit that fixed my leg. Needed some new gear, anyways.”
  2136. “No, no. I didn’t mean it as your concerned employer, I am merely saying that it is nice, seeing you wear casual clothes.”
  2137. >The fact that Anonymous looks genuinely surprised at your compliment makes you want to lurch forward and give him a hug, but you refrain. “Y-you too,” he murmurs before taking sip of his drink which finishes it off.
  2138. >You can’t help but puff your tuft out in pride. Sure, the casual earth pony garments weren’t uppercaste by any means, but you’d be lying if you said the light colors didn’t accentuate your eyes and mane. They also contrast nicely with the supplies bag hanging off your hip. Why, you’d be forgiven for mistaking yourself for an experienced adventurer!
  2139. >If only you could’ve convinced Max to put on something for the night as well, instead of dawdling about in the nude.
  2140. When Anonymous returns the stone cup to his side, you take a sniff of it. Just like last time, you can only smell the aroma of a sweet fruit orchard, with an emphasis on apples. “Is this alcoholic, Anonymous?” you ask.
  2141. >”Couldn’t tell you,” Anonymous shrugs. “Pony alcohol doesn’t really affect me. It tastes good, though.”
  2142. >You hold back a titter. You didn’t take Anonymous to be the proud type, denying his colty alcohol tolerance to your face. The drinks probably aren’t alcoholic, if he can drink them with a straight face.
  2143. >/…This is nice./
  2144. >A new group of ponies enters the Rejoicement. Among them is Sachemare Sagebrush herself. As if her eyes are gravitated to your and Anonymous’ location, she spots you and gives a smile and a nod. You return the gesture before Sagebrush’s gaze land on Tia.
  2145. >Tia’s wings flutter at the Sachemare’s attention. Sagebrush lowers herself to the ground, her eyes never leaving the filly, before she reaches out with a hoof in a booping motion. Tia squeaks out, “/No boop!/” as she flaps her wings. Sagebrush giggles before entering the sea of ponies, out of sight.
  2146. >You’re surprised to see Apple Seed finally entering the structure, Max Gusto by his side as she says something into his ear. Apricot Ammil is also by him, but you’re not going to let that mare ruin your night. You can easily avoid her. You’re fine just where you are.
  2147. >Anonymous is being himself with you. You’re okay not admitting your budding feelings for him tonight. You just want to hear him talk. Not mumble, or shout, or scream… just talk.
  2148. >Yeah, this /is/ nice.
  2149. >…
  2150. >/Your budding feelings for him? So you admit it, Lucky Favor?/
  2151. >Oh, fine.
  2152. >Yes, you might have a teensy crush on Anonymous. But what do you have to be ashamed about? It’s completely natural for a warm-blooded mare to have not-so-platonic feelings about the handsome male who’s been by her side for the last few days.
  2153. >/Last few days…/
  2154. >Your blood runs cold as you’re reminded of your lack of doits. You need to tell him, Lucky Favor. You’re only making it more painful, procrastinating like this.
  2155. You suck in a large serving of oxygen before you close your eyes and announce, “Anonymous, there is an urgent matter I need to discuss with you.”
  2156. >”Stay here.”
  2157. “Your payment—huh?” You stop talking once Anonymous’ words register. You open your eyes to see Anonymous’ stone cup clatter to the ground. He’s walking forwards, careful to not step on Tia.
  2158. >Somepony is shouting from within the crowd.
  2159. “Anonymous—?” you start, but he interrupts you.
  2160. >”/I mean it./” There’s that coldness that made his voice unrecognizable after Tia first called him Dadda. You freeze where you are, only watching as he pushes mares to the side on his approach to the small gathering of ponies that has formed in the middle of the floor.
  2161. >Apple Seed is between Riverside and Apricot Ammil. The charcoal mare is staring daggers at the body mender, pushing against her older brother’s strength futilely.
  2162. >”For what Ancients-forsaken reason is /she/ here?” Apricot growls venomously, her voice silencing the rest of the guests in an instant. The other earth ponies stay well away from the trio, as if it was a magical bomb prepped to explode.
  2163. >Riverside cowers from Apricot, even if Apple Seed is whispering something harshly to his sister.
  2164. >Anonymous is almost there.
  2165. >”I apologize, Maretinet Apricot Ammil,” Riverside almost whispers. “I did not wish to intrude. I only—"
  2166. >”YOU /ARE/ INTRUDING, MENDER RIVERSIDE!” Apricot explodes. Her voice could cut through solid steel. “Attending the Rejoicement was already selfish of you. But thinking you are allowed on the same floor as Apple Seed?”
  2167. >You see Sachemare Sagebrush push to the front of the onlookers. When she sees what’s happening, though, she makes no move to interfere. She only watches discernibly.
  2168. >”Apricot Ammil!” Apple Seed exclaims—if you could even use the word ‘exclaim’ after what Apricot just did. “Control yourself. Every Marestrichtian is allowed to attend the Rejoicement.”
  2169. >”No, Maretinet Apricot Ammil is correct,” Riverside whimpers. She bows her head before starting for the exit. “I should not be here. I will be going-- /eep!/”
  2170. >Riverside’s path is interrupted by Anonymous’ leg. He stands tall between Riverside and the open air of Marestricht, like a protective guardian. Without saying a word, he gives her a small nod before adding another body between Apricot and Riverside. He crosses his arms, his forearm muscles bulging and striating against his chest, and scowls at the dark mare.
  2171. >/”All I'm saying is you never know when somepony else might swoop in and nab him.”/
  2172. >Apricot returns Anonymous’ scowl. “Your size does not intimidate me, Brother Anonymous,” she says. “Do not get in my way.”
  2173. “Stay, Tia,” you whisper. Tia only gives a shaky nod. You begin to slowly make your way to Anonymous. Magical energy begins to be redirected to your horn.
  2174. >”You would hurt a stallion, Apricot Ammil?” Apple Seed asks.
  2175. >Apricot doesn’t relent in the least, though. She snaps to her brother, “Why not?! Mender Riverside has no quarrel with it!”
  2176. >Your hooves come to a halt. Of course Riverside would be at fault here. Ancients above, you just…
  2177. >/…What? Hate her? For being a friend to Anonymous? Because Apricot Ammil of all ponies insulted her?/
  2178. >”Maretinet Apricot Ammil is right,” Riverside says again, so quietly you can barely hear her. “I would like to leave, please. I do not deserve to socialize. Please let me leave, Brother Anonymous. This was not a good plan…”
  2179. >You scowl at yourself. She’s not a bad pony. You’re just being jealous and looking for every opportunity to blame her. You take your next step aimed at Anonymous’ side.
  2180. >”Nope,” Anonymous says simply, taking another step between Riverside and the exit. When she tries to dodge him, he once again reaches down and places a hand on her mane. Riverside’s ear twitches at his touch, and she stops moving.
  2181. >Anonymous somehow finds your eyes through the crowd. He very slowly raises one authoritative finger. The look on his face says it all. “/I said stay./”
  2182. >Your throat feels like sandpaper. It hurts to gulp nervously at his glare. Still, you comply, slowing your hoofsteps to a stop. The magic building in your horn relents to nothing.
  2183. >”Apricot Ammil, Mender Riverside defended herself,” Apple Seed pleads. “I was young and stupid and attacked her, and she defended herself. /I/ ran. It is /my/ fault the Red Garden captured me.” He turns fully towards his sister. Even if she’s younger than him, her marely size ensures that the two are still about the same height. Apple Seed uses a hoof to redirect her face from Riverside to his own. “I am back now, blood sister. It is over.”
  2184. >”It is not over until she pays,” Apricot snarls. Her glare snaps back to Riverside. “Until all of Marestricht knows just what she is responsible for. Until everypony knows it’s her fault you—"
  2185. >”If you finish that sentence, Apricot Ammil, you will never see me again.”
  2186. >Apricot’s muzzle snaps shut. It takes a moment for what Apple Seed just said to fully register. She seems to be playing it over and over again in her mind as she slowly turns to her older brother. There’s a deep, indescribable panic in her eyes.
  2187. >”I will leave Marestricht when the others do tomorrow,” Apple Seed continues. “When Scholar Lucky Favor and her group departs from Marestricht, I will go with them, and you will never see me again. Unless you purge what you are thinking of saying to Tartarus right now.”
  2188. >Despite the hurricane of emotions that play out on Apricot’s frozen face, you can’t help but focus on Anonymous’ hand as he idly begins to stroke Riverside’s mane, careful not to disturb the white and purple bun atop her head.
  2189. >Max Gusto takes a step forward at Apple Seed’s news, a look of… /terror/ on her face?
  2190. >Apricot finally gets a hold of herself. She scowls deeply, beginning to turn her glare back to Riverside until she stops midway. She merely bows her head, glaring at nothing in particular. “If I had known what was happening in that place,” Apricot whispers hoarsely. “I would not have let Sachemare Sagebrush stop me. I would not have rested until I found the Red Garden by myself and slaughtered every piece of unicorn filth who had hurt you. I would have made sure Mender Bountiful Riverside was punished /tenfold./” Her apricot eyes are tinged red with tears, but she uses every ounce of willpower to not let any fall. Apricot Ammil looks up to her brother with a pleading glare. “Why do you deny yourself justice, blood brother? You will never be whole because of this mare.”
  2191. >Apple Seed doesn’t retract from Apricot’s glare. He rests his forelegs on her shoulders. “I am whole, blood sister,” he says simply.
  2192. >Apricot shakes with barely held-down emotion. Still, she doesn’t say a word as Apple Seed pulls her into a tender embrace, resting his chin on the top of her brown mane.
  2193. >”Mender Bountiful Riverside,” Apple Seed says. Riverside freezes at his voice. “I do not blame you. Neither should anypony else here.”
  2194. >Riverside doesn’t react.
  2195. >Slowly, the atmosphere lightens. Apple Seed begins to pull away from Apricot Ammil, but the mare suddenly reaches forward and pulls him back into a tighter hug, burying her face in his chest. Sachemare Sagebrush remains stoic as she looks on, even as the rest of the onlookers begin to resume their festivities. Some come to join the embrace; you recognize Herdwatchers Wheat Graze and Thistlehoof among the ones who hug Apple Seed.
  2196. >Riverside says something to Anonymous too quiet to make out over all the newfound noise. Anonymous nods at her request and relinquishes his hand from her mane. Sachemare Sagebrush approaches Riverside before she can leave, though, and says in that commanding voice of hers, “If you still wish to leave, I will escort you home, Mender Bountiful Riverside.”
  2197. >Riverside squeaks at Sagebrush’s proximity. She stutters, “S-Sachemare Sagebrush, I would never want to impose—!”
  2198. >”Nonsense, Mender Bountiful Riverside. I will escort you home, and we will talk. At length.”
  2199. >Anonymous steps aside as the two mares leave. As the hyoo-men passes the dissipating crowd of hugging ponies on his way back to you, he scratches his beard, turning head his away from the sight, as if that’d make him any less noticeable.
  2200. >”Thank you, Brother Anonymous!” Apple Seed calls out. Anonymous frowns at the recognition, holding up his hands passively.
  2201. >”I literally just stood around,” he says, but Apple Seed isn’t done embarrassing him yet.
  2202. >”I knew you had a good heart!”
  2203. >”Holy Hell, at least ask my ass to dinner before you start kissing it.”
  2204. >You chortle as you return to your spot by the corner, Tia still waiting for you. She seems to have gotten herself a drink from the juice tub over there.
  2205. >/Wait./
  2206. >/Anonymous just told a joke?/
  2207. >The thought plasters your face with a stupid grin, and you put an extra pip to your step as you approach Tia.
  2208. >Tia doesn’t share you enthusiasm, though. “Momma?!” she asks urgently. Before you can chide her, she points a hoof in Anonymous’ direction. “Momma, Dadda?!”
  2209. You frown. You’re happy Anonymous isn’t here yet to see the scarlet on your cheeks. “No, Tia,” you say. “Where did you even get that idea in the first place?”
  2210. >Tia doesn’t pout, which is what you were expecting. Instead, a mischievous smirk you’d expect on the face of a certain green pegasus lands on her muzzle. “Momma coward,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes.
  2211. >She raises the cup to her lips, but you’re quicker. In a swift movement, you take the stone cup from her and put it to your own lips. You drink it all in one gulp. When you’re done, the pout on Tia’s face makes the burning in your throat all the more worth it.
  2212. >…Huh. That’s weird. You’ve never had apple juice that burnt before.
  2213. >”Jesus Christ, that was awkward,” Anonymous voice reverberates deep through your loins. You squeak, turning to find that the hyoo-men has arrived at your side.
  2214. >You’re not sure what to say, truth be told. With him so close to you right now, all you can think about is how tall he is… How tall he was when he was protecting Riverside.
  2215. >/He should’ve been protecting you…/
  2216. “You look much more imposing with both legs working,” you say, shaking the jealous thoughts from your mind.
  2217. >Anonymous snorts. “Feel much more imposing as well. Though it’s a little harder with these giant-ass earth ponies.” He tilts his head, sticking a hand out over your horn. You don’t shy away from his touch, even if you know all it’d take for him to put you in a whole lot of pain is to suddenly smack down. “Or are the earth ponies just regularly sized, and it’s the unicorns who are short?”
  2218. You huff, stomping a hoof onto the hard stone. Tia giggles, but you won’t satisfy her with a glare. “Earth ponies make up a /third/ of the pony population,” you inform. “And pegasi and unicorns are roughly the same height. Earth ponies are the odd ones out. And I am adequately sized, thank you very much—Oh. Were you teasing me just then, dear?”
  2219. >”I’m gonna do you a favor and not answer that.”
  2220. >Anonymous sure is a lot more… /sassy/ when he’s being himself. Not in the normal, stallion whimsy you’ve heard so much about. But more like a lowercastemare, giving as good as she can take.
  2221. >Without a comeback ready, you simply turn back to the Rejoicement. The crowd around Apple Seed has dispersed enough to let the stallion and his sister intermingle with the rest of the guests. The room almost seems to sway gently as the Rejoicement resumes in full swing. Max Gusto’s stupid, smug face is giving you the stupidest, smuggest smirk from across the room as she wriggles her eyebrows at you.
  2222. >/FINE!/
  2223. “Anonymous, dear?” you ask, gaining the hyoo-men’s attention. “…I, um, am familiar with the most unfortunate reality that you and I are rather unacquainted. And… it is with an uneasy reluctance that I admit our time together has not been particularly pleasant. Not that the unfortunate events passed are of any fault of your own! Needless to say, besides that time you…”
  2224. >/Burnt my drawing./
  2225. The prickles of anger in your chest almost frighten you with their severity. Is it getting hotter in here? “N-nevermind. At any rate, the relevant essence of my verbal meandering is that notwithstanding our miniscule and admittedly unpleasant time together, I…”
  2226. >You clear your throat. Ancients above, your head is fuzzy right now.
  2227. “Let me start over,” you recede. “Anonymous, dear… my lord… I understand this may be a rather unusual request, but…” You take a deep breath, clenching your eyes shut. The world stops spinning enough for you to finally say, “Would you like to dance? I know this isn’t that kind of party, but it reminds me of the uppercastes, and I’d ever so enjoy it! As a celebration of… well, not being dead.”
  2228. >Instead of answering, Anonymous snorts sardonically. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, my lady.”
  2229. >He thinks you’re bashing his jobs as a housecarla?! That not being dead is cause for celebration?!
  2230. “No, I didn’t mean it like that!” you shout, and Ancients above, it hurts to shout. You won’t be doing that again. “You’ve been doing your job splendidly, keeping me from being dead.”
  2231. >”Lucky, I’m teasing you,” Anonymous says with a tantalizing upward twitch of his lips. He turns back to the Rejoicement, letting out a drawn out sigh before he responds sheepishly, “I, uh, can’t really dance.”
  2232. “/What?!/” you squeak. “Don’t be ridiculous! You must know how to dance! You are… good with your body!”
  2233. >”That’s what she said.”
  2234. >The /nerve/ on this colt!
  2235. You stomp your hoof in your second display of uppercaste ladyhood of the night. “You know what I mean! You are skilled with your appendages! You’re a martial artist! You have a good mind-body connection! You must also be good at dancing! How different can the two be?”
  2236. >”Trust me, Lucky, they’re different.”
  2237. >You harumph, turning away. Fine, if the colt wants to be difficult. It was a stupid idea anyways. The two of you would probably look ridiculous, dancing at a party without music. You’d look like a pair of two drunk idiots, waltzing like—
  2238. >All-Mother’s ethereal ponut, that drink /was/ alcoholic, wasn’t it?
  2239. >Your blood runs cold at the realization.
  2240. >Not so much at the fact that you had just drunk alcohol. Not so much at the fact that Tia /almost/ drank it, or even the fact that Anonymous has the alcohol tolerance of an ox.
  2241. >It’s because you’ve just realized you got drunk after just /one cup./
  2242. The sound of necklaces jingling together and clothes rustling catches your ears. You turn back to Anonymous to see him awkwardly bouncing on his feet, giving you a deadpan expression that does not at all fit with his actions. “What are you doing?” you ask.
  2243. >”I’m dancing,” he responds seriously. “Told you I can’t do it.”
  2244. “/This/ is dancing?”
  2245. >”To my people, this the Bounce of the Wallflower.”
  2246. >You laugh.
  2247. >You laugh the hardest you’ve ever laughed since you can remember. Your unladylike guffaws fill the floor, and you’re pretty sure ponies are staring at you right about now – you know for a /fact/ Max is staring at you – but you don’t care. You double over, leaning against Anonymous’ leg for support. He doesn’t pull away.
  2248. >His leg, which was so damaged days ago, holds you firm.
  2249. Your laughter teeters out to a few errant giggles before you smile contently. “Anonymous?” you ask. “You usually don’t like being touched.”
  2250. >Anonymous’ leg stops bouncing.
  2251. “Why did you touch Riverside so much?” you ask. “Petting her mane like that…”
  2252. >You want to be pet like that.
  2253. >Anonymous is silent for a moment before he responds, “Touching and being grabbed are two different things.”
  2254. “Like dancing and fighting?” You’re proud of yourself for making the connection. You’re a smart little pony.
  2255. >”Mm-hmm,” Anonymous agrees quietly.
  2256. “Hey, Anonymous?” you titter. “It’s becoming quite difficult to stand. Can you pick me up to keep me steady?”
  2257. >It isn’t that hard to stand just yet, but you can never be too careful… Oh, who are you kidding, you want to be picked up again. Like that time in Plumsteed. That was nice. Well, before everything went to Tartarus. Hey, why hasn’t Anonymous responded yet?
  2258. >Just as you’re about to get after the hyoo-men, you feel two warm appendages grip you from your sides. Tia’s eyes light up as you’re picked up in Anonymous’ arms. Once he settles you against his chest, you tower over all the earth ponies of the floor. Max Gusto’s jaw drops from the other side of the room. You’re too busy reveling in Anonymous’ warmth to stick your tongue out at her, but you definitely would have.
  2259. >Is it just you, or is Anonymous’ chest shaking somewhat…?
  2260. >Ah, it’s probably just you.
  2261. “The room’s spinning, dear,” you say. The room isn’t actually spinning, but it could start spinning any second now! “Can you hold me closer?”
  2262. >”Faust,” Anonymous whispers. There’s an edge to his voice that gives you pause, but that’s when a stray thought comes into your mind.
  2263. >A plan of action.
  2264. >The ends justify the means, Lucky Favor!
  2265. “Oh, don’t be a prude,” you say as you tap your hoof on his chest. “I feel like I might fall at any second.”
  2266. >Anonymous shifts the back of your head to the crux of his arm as he uses that hand to bat away your hoof. “Faust, stop,” he says sternly. “I’m not that stupid.”
  2267. >No! Don’t let this moment slip!
  2268. >It’s perfect!
  2269. >Riverside might have a head start on you now, but this’ll show her!
  2270. “Now how about you kiss me?” you blurt out before you can stop it.
  2271. >Anonymous’ eyes cringe and glare, as if looking at something revolting. The room actually does spin as he sets you back down onto the ground, not bothering to flip you back to your hooves. Before he turns and starts walking through the crowd toward the exit, you see how his lips and cheeks twitch without direction.
  2272. “Anonymous?” you ask as you scramble to your hooves. “Anon!”
  2273. >”/Dadda?/” Tia calls out.
  2274. >Quick as a whip, Anonymous turns and points a hooked finger at the filly. “/I swear to fucking Christ,/” Anonymous snarls, but he suddenly stops.
  2275. >Anonymous’ dagger-like glare dulls when he realizes it’s Tia he’s talking to. He’s frozen as the alicorn filly slowly reacts to what he had just said. Her wings slump to her side and she turns away. She can’t even say a simple “Sorry” without convulsing with the first sob of many.
  2276. >Anonymous opens his mouth to say something. Nothing comes, and it slowly closes without making a noise. His eyes scream at him to say something to Tia. You hope for nothing more than for him to approach Tia and give her the warmest hug of her life. He might’ve done it, too, if his gaze didn’t suddenly latch onto you.
  2277. >He gives you the same look he gave Red Letter.
  2278. >Without another word, he suddenly turns and pushes through the earth ponies to the exit.
  2279. >/Ancients-damnit, Lucky, get him!/
  2280. >You struggle to crawl your way over to Tia. Once you do get to her, you wrap her into your hooves and search the room for Max. She’s the only one here you can trust to watch over Tia. By the Ancients, Anonymous is almost at the exit! You’ll lose him!
  2281. >”Lucky!” an urgent voice says from behind. You yip and twirl around to come face-to-face with just the pegasus you’ve been looking for, but the look on her face is anything but the cocky smirk of your friend. “I saw the whole thing,” Max says, holding her hooves out. “I’ll watch over Tia. Don’t let him get away.”
  2282. You can barely stop the emotion from showing in your voice as you blurt out, “Thank you! Thank you so much!” You hastily hoof over your precious cargo. “And don’t let her drink the juice!”
  2283. >Tia doesn’t fight it as Max holds her to her chest. She only sniffles, mumbling two recognizable words to herself.
  2284. “You’re /not/ a bad mare, Tia,” you assure before turning tail and bolting.
  2285. >It’s becoming harder to keep your balance, but it helps to keep your eyes glued to the exit of the structure. You bump into a few earth ponies on the way, but they either barely notice or ask you if you need assistance. You give both types the same amount of aloofness.
  2286. >After what feels like the most nauseating walk of your life, you’re in the cool Marestricht air, at the top of the stairs. Below you is Anonymous, easily twenty paces ahead of you and not showing any signs of slowing.
  2287. “/Anonymous!/” you shout. He visibly flinches from your voice. When he turns to see you hastily making your way down to him, he grimaces before resuming his descent. “You better not leave me here, Mister!”
  2288. >”Fuck off!” is the response you get.
  2289. You huff. Your hoof slips on a step and you almost tumble, but you’re able to stop yourself. “Anonymous, it really is getting harder to stand!”
  2290. >Anonymous curses, but your words have a slowing effect on him. His green eyes glare at you through the darkness as he crosses his arms.
  2291. “Why is it—” you begin before stopping yet another nasty fall before it ruins your night further. “—Why is it that every time I think you and I are finally bonding, it ends up like this?!”
  2292. >Anonymous doesn’t respond. He only turns away from you, leaning over the railing overlooking the whole of Marestricht.
  2293. As you clop down the last few steps to be at Anonymous’ side, your filter has completely disappeared. “No, really!” you hound relentlessly. Anonymous doesn’t react, only bowing his head over the railing. “I have spent /so much/ energy trying to befriend you! I got you out of Plumsteed! I have been nothing but kind to you! I’m paying you a small fortune, and what do you do in return?! You burn my drawing! You don’t sleep in the bed I spend an hour making with bucking /LEAVES!/ Do you know how hard leaves are to magically infuse?! They’re so—” Not knowing exactly the gesture you’re supposed to be making, you just throw your hooves in the air and shake them violently. “/BRITTLE!/ And you act so distant! You act more distant to me than you do with that Bountiful Riverside! And how long have you known /her?!/” You’re panting by now, but you’re not hyperventilating. “And you know what, Anonymous? I can /handle/ all of your nasty bitterness! I know you don’t trust me, or /any/ mare, and I know I may very well never overcome that! But what I cannot handle is how you—” You rear up on your hindlegs and give Anonymous’ side a jab with each syllable: “/are! Treating! TIA!/ That filly /ADORES/ you!”
  2294. >Anonymous doesn’t respond to your hoof digging into his side. His posture is slumped over the railing, his head bowed and his hands clasped together so tightly they’re devoid of his peach color. Did he not hear you? Are you seriously going to have to repeat that all again?! Ancients-damnit, why did you hire such a… /COLT/ to be your housecarla?! And how are you developing feelings for this brute?!
  2295. >”She was my friend before she did it,” Anonymous murmurs shakily.
  2296. >What is he even talking about?! You’re on the verge of exploding at the hyoo-men once more, but it’s then that he iterates, “Red Letter.”
  2297. >Your breathing slows. Anonymous still hasn’t looked at you, but he isn’t completely turned away from you. You can still see how the Marestricht lights reflect off his pained eyes like a broken mirror. His body rocks back and forth like a slow, dead seesaw.
  2298. >”You’re right that we don’t know much about each other,” Anonymous says in a low whisper. “You don’t know how I got here.”
  2299. With a grunt and a hop, your forelegs are also draped across the railing just beside Anonymous’ arms. “That can change right here, Anonymous,” you push. “Nopony is stopping you from talking to me.”
  2300. >Anonymous’ eyes drift downward before he shakes his head slowly. “If I told you, it’d be when you’re sober. All you need to know is that it was so bad Red Letter took me off the streets.”
  2301. >Anonymous’ face flexes and twitches as if he were in pain. His voice is eerily soft, not at all reflecting the anger you see in his emerald orbs. “Red Letter acted like my friend before she did it, Lucky Favor. It almost happened again, at the Red Garden. And you just asked me to kiss you while drunk.”
  2302. >For a brief moment, the spinning of the world stops entirely. The buzzing in your head and the sway in your posture no longer cloud your senses. It’s just you and the unbearable feeling of guilt deep in your stomach.
  2303. >You were right about alcohol turning mares into brutes. You’ll never touch it again. But you know you can’t fully blame your actions on what you drank. Bountiful Riverside was the catalyst, and the alcohol just sped things up, but you can’t deny what you did.
  2304. “I’m not Red Letter,” is all you can say. Your voice is barely above a whisper.
  2305. >”Sometimes it feels like everyone’s Red Letter,” Anonymous breathes, stabbing your heart. His voice breaks with emotion as he talks. He reacts to it instantly, giving an aberrant sniff before wiping his nose with a flick of his hand. “That came out wrong. Forget I said that.”
  2306. >Anonymous pushes off the railing and once again turns away from you. A harrowing, nearly paralyzing thought spreads through your mind and infects every follicle on your body. You don’t even know if it’s true, but it’s enough to spur you into action.
  2307. >/If you let Anonymous leave now, he may never let anypony get this close again./
  2308. “Anonymous, stop!” you plead. Anonymous doesn’t bat away your hoof when you reach for him.
  2309. >”Look, we can just pretend that never happened,” Anonymous insists. You can hear a faint glimmer of panic in his voice as he tries to pull away. You’re not doing much better.
  2310. “Please, just for a few minutes!” you cry out. “L-let me draw you!”
  2311. >You have no idea if you can draw in this state. It was a slip of the tongue more than anything. But your notebook is at your hip, so you have no reason to back out now. Your horn glows, enveloping your bag in a cyan light. Yes, this is quite the magnificent backdrop. The moonlight and the torches reflect off Anonymous’ muscular figure perfectly, and his casual wear adds a rustic, yet dignified flare to earth pony culture. You can use this to finish that night scene whose subject you hadn’t yet decided on! Now, if only the world can stop spinning for two seconds.
  2312. >”Faust, you can barely stand,” Anonymous says sternly. “Please just let me—”
  2313. “No!” you yell out, grabbing at your notebook in the air. “No, please just cross your arms, there! It can be just like after we left Plumsteed! We can talk while I draw!”
  2314. >”I just want to be alone.”
  2315. “Please don’t leave me! I know I can’t pay you anymore! I know every time we interact it ends up like this, but I can’t--!”
  2316. >You pause.
  2317. >Can’t what? Can’t survive without him? Can’t bear losing him? Can’t help but feel safer in his arms than anywhere else on Equus?
  2318. >No, none of these are right. You can’t think anymore.
  2319. >And then, in one moment, and for no particular reason, you realize what you just let slip.
  2320. >Anonymous remains silent. Your eyes stay glued to the notebook’s cover. You slowly levitate the book close to your forehead to hide your face from the hyoo-men.
  2321. >You hold back tears as you blearily sit on your haunches. You didn’t tell Anonymous cordially. You didn’t attempt to strike a new deal with Anonymous. You just… let the subject of the doit shortage slip out in a drunken rambling.
  2322. >He has no reason to trust you anymore. No reason to stay. You’re just another needy mare who can’t keep a level head and only needed one measly drink to come onto him and prove his paranoia right.
  2323. >/Don’t cry, Lucky Favor./
  2324. >/Don’t cry. Don’t cry./
  2325. >/All-Mother above, please give you strength to not cry. Please at least be dignified as Anonymous leaves you./
  2326. >You scowl stubbornly. Your horn glows and your bag is opened, and you deposit your notebook back into the intraflated space, but nothing works. Despite all your efforts and distractions, tears fall.
  2327. >Are you just cursed, Lucky Favor? Is this the Ancients’ way of punishing you for some horrible misdeed you must’ve done but can’t remember? Can you not even have /one/ pleasant night?
  2328. >Anonymous’ legs move closer to you. You can’t look up to meet his eyes. You only glower, turning your head away from him. Once he’s by your side, you hear him grunt as he sits beside you. You begin to mumble something uncouth or self-pitying, you’re not sure, before you stop.
  2329. >You feel something warm settle on top of your head.
  2330. >Your heart skips a beat. You turn back to the hyoo-men to see that his right arm is extended, laying a hand on your mane. Anonymous still doesn’t look at you. His eyes are creased and narrowed as he glares at the ground, but the way his hand begins to draw slow, gentle circles in your mane contrast with his aloof demeanor.
  2331. >You’re not sure how much time passes, just the two of you sitting there under the night sky. It becomes harder and harder to fight the smile before it engulfs your features. Anonymous works his fingers into your mane, switching between massaging your fur, scratching your scalp, and even giving your ear scritches.
  2332. >”Ten doits a day,” Anonymous says, piercing through the comfortable silence.
  2333. You sniffle, wiping at your face before you turn to the hyoo-men. “Pardon?” you ask.
  2334. >”I already knew about the doits,” he murmurs. “…and I don’t care. That’ll be enough for us to reach Equestria, right? I’ll be your housecarla for ten doits a day.”
  2335. “Y—” you start, unsure if you want to embrace the hyoo-men or smack him into whatever country he came from before he met Red Letter. “A-absolutely not! That is unacceptable! It’s…” You grapple with an invisible opponent with your hooves. “Well, it’s less than what you’re worth! /FAR/ less! What will I do with all the leftovers?!”
  2336. >”New armor. Supplies. Excess amounts of money isn’t usually something people complain about.”
  2337. “Well, it’s something /I/ complain about!” You stomp your hoof, giving Anonymous your most serious glare. “Well, then, fine! I’ll use /one/ 600 doit bag for supplies and armor! But the other one will be spent on something for /you!/”
  2338. >”Alright, then. Buy something nice for Tia.”
  2339. >You blink out of your aghast arguing. Anonymous’ posture slumps, and his eyes narrow, but not in a suspicious way. It’s in a shameful, pleading manner that tugs at your heart. “Lucky,” he says. “Just consider it my way of apologizing for all the nasty shit I did to you and Tia. Please just accept it.”
  2340. >Anonymous looks away. He opens his mouth to say something, but decides against whatever he had ready. He shakes his head, letting out a sardonic chuckle as he cups his forehead with his left hand. Anonymous draws his knees close to his chest to rest his elbow on them. “Faust,” he whispers, his voice almost breaking from barely-repressed emotion. “I can be… just a /fucking bastard./ I know that. And I’m going to try harder, but…”
  2341. >You can feel Anonymous’ hand shaking against your mane. He recedes it from your head to wrap around his own.
  2342. >And then, reflecting off the pale blue moonlight, you see a tear fall from Anonymous’ face. “It’s hard, Faust,” he whispers, as if this was his first breath from a life of suffocation. “It’s really hard.”
  2343. >This, not too unlike your yipping caused by a certain ear pony filly just an hour beforehoof, causes precisely three realizations.
  2344. >One, that there might be a chance that Anonymous feels just as safe with you as you do him. So much so that you feel guilty for not throwing your forelegs around him and embracing him right this very moment, despite his inevitable protests.
  2345. >Two, that there’s no way in Tartarus you can in good conscience part ways with Anonymous after you reach Equestria. You will definitely be talking to him about this in hopes of striking up a new deal, and you will be doing it /sober./
  2346. >And three, it makes you feel utterly defeated. You can’t help but love Anonymous.
  2347. >You don’t fight the warm smile that pervades your features as you and the hyoo-men sit like that. You don’t care about the heat which engulfs your face and your chest as you look at your housecarla. He sniffles, wiping away at his face before looking away stubbornly.
  2348. >What words did you use to describe Anonymous in the past? A relatable, naïve Adonis? A stalwart, handsome protector? Just pretentious, shy ramblings of a filly with a crush. There’s only one word you need to describe him.
  2349. >/Anonymous./
  2350. >/The hyoo-men stallion you love, and the hyoo-men stallion you’re going to help./
  2351. >You’re sure Max will find out soon, being Max Gusto. But you can’t really bring yourself to care. She can tease and prod all she wants. You’ll be handling your own feelings at your own pace.
  2352. “You don’t have to answer this if you’re even the slightest bit uncomfortable, Anonymous,” you say softly. The hyoo-men is calm enough to turn back to you, his beautiful green eyes shimmering in the cool blues and blacks of the night. You slowly reach a hoof forward and lay it on his shoulder. He doesn’t pull away. “What happened before you met Red Letter? Why did she take you off the streets?”
  2353. >Something unreadable flashes across Anonymous’ eyes. He’s briefly taken far from you, to places and times long passed, before returning. When he comes back, there’s no suspicion in his eyes, no signs he’d push you away again.
  2354. >Just a concealed sadness, and a slight hint of playfulness.
  2355. >The sadness, you swear on your place in the Eternal Graze you will help him overcome.
  2356. >The playfulness…?
  2357. >”That’s for when you’re sober,” Anonymous says, reaching forward and flicking you on the snout.
  2358. >You scrunch, sniffling away at the uncomfortable and most /un/gentlecoltlike breach of your snootle.
  2359. >”If you can handle not touching a drink for one night,” Anonymous smirks as he stands to his full height. “You gotta work on your alcohol dependency, little miss.”
  2360. “Why, I—” you start, but the sight of Anonymous’ attractive smirk gives you enough pause to realize your faulty. He’s just teasing you again. You titter, struggling up to all fours. “You’re one to talk. For all I know, you might be a high-functioning drunk. How could you even drink that without collapsing?!”
  2361. >”Human superpowers,” Anonymous says as he reaches down to keep you steady.
  2362. >So /that’s/ how it’s pronounced!
  2363. >Anonymous leads you back up to the Rejoicement before he leaves for the Aldenn. You spend a little while longer at the celebration, mostly to intentionally leave an overly curious Max Gusto in the dark, but also to retrieve Tia. The filly is in much better condition than how you left her, but you know a good night’s rest will do wonders for her. That, and a gift from a certain human.
  2364. >That night, you sleep better than you have in a long, long time.
  2367. ~ VI - Back on the Wagon ~
  2369. >”Herdwatcher Thistlehoof! Herdwatcher Wheat Graze!”
  2370. >The two mares swing around at the sound of Sagebrush’s voice, immediately sitting straight and jutting their chins out. Four days ago, the sight of the two earth ponies behind the large wall would’ve boggled you. After all, what good could guards do when behind a tall wall with no way to peer over?
  2371. >But your time integrating with the Marestrichtians has left you much more educated. As short as it has been.
  2372. >”Open the petreport for our guests to make their leave!” Sagebrush commands.
  2373. >There’s a slight moment of hesitation – a brief glance at Anonymous from Wheat Graze and a disappointed huff from Thistlehoof – before the herdwatchers get to work. You can’t help but take a small step toward the human.
  2374. >There’s that newfound warmth in your chest when you rub up against Anonymous’ leg. It still takes you aback somewhat, feeling as if your blushes have migrated from your face to your heart. But it isn’t terribly uncomfortable, and you’re already starting to become used to it.
  2375. >Apple Seed mumbles something about petrevoking under his breath at Wheat Graze and Thistlehoofs’ work. This earns him a brief nudge from Max Gusto and a knowing look. The sack on Max’s side swings idly from the impact – the first article of clothing you’ve seen on the pegasus since you’ve met her, and the last you’ll see until you part ways. It briefly bumps into Apple Seed’s own baggage, a grass backpack of sorts, which you’ve seen a few Marestrichtian farmers wear.
  2376. >As the stone walls are dragged further open, Apricot Ammil sends Max a halfhearted glare. Were it the night before, you’d be sure she would’ve done nothing less than launch herself at the pegasus for touching her brother.
  2377. >”Were it the night before.” You’ve been thinking that phrase a lot lately. Were it the night before, you wouldn’t be standing so close to Anonymous, feeling equal parts protected and protective of the human. The two new sets of armor Sagebrush had insisted you part with this morning – one set for you, another for Tia – weigh heavily in your intraflated sack, giving you a newfound respect for the strength of the herdwatchers of Marestricht. It’s no Paardian armor, but it’s enough to comfort you with the knowledge that neither you nor Tia would be completely helpless in a scuffle.
  2378. >The new armor is nothing compared to your newfound resolve, however. Were it the night before, you’d be shaking at the prospect of exiting the first safe haven of your journey. You’d be obsessed with the notion that the only form of currency you have left are those last two bit sacks. But now you remain calm.
  2379. >In fact, you’re not just calm. No matter how hard you try, you can’t wipe away the fat smile currently occupying your face.
  2380. >Anonymous has opened up to you last night. Just a tidbit, but it was enough. You realize your feelings for him now. You’re going to help Anonymous, and you’re going to make a deal with him to continue to be your housecarla once you’ve reached Equestria.
  2381. >As the walls of Marestricht are replaced with a large, dusty gap, you feel your tuft swell with determination.
  2382. >But as you walk forward, this determination collides with a pain in your chest. Goodbyes were never your strong suit. Tartarus, you never even said goodbye to anypony in the uppercastes before you left.
  2383. >Just as you’re building yourself up to turn and speak to the ponies at your side, the dust settles enough for you to make something out just a few cubits ahead. You recognize the unicorn’s silhouette through the dust, her brown eyes gleaming through the gaseous dirt with a sort of reserved pride. Smooth Roads’ arrival isn’t what shocks you, though. It’s the structure behind the unicorn that makes your heart skip a beat.
  2384. >At first, you believe it must be an illusion. A last, cruel vision – the climactic end to a plethora of nightmares and hallucinations you’ve been encountering through this past week.
  2385. >However, as the dirt and dust settle, and you hear the awestruck gasp of Tia and the surprised “Huh!” from Anonymous, you know that it really is your wagon just behind Smooth Roads.
  2386. >It isn’t how you last saw it; the wood is significantly darker in color, reflecting the boreal life of the mountainside. There are fewer windows, it lacks the many decorative patterns and nuances, and it’s also missing that mini watchtower you were so proud of. But even if it’s much more rustic than your perceived rendition, the silhouette and the base confirm it: it is, without a doubt, the wagon you’ve drafted a short eternity ago.
  2387. >”Now, I know what you might be thinking!” Smooth Roads says before you can open your mouth. Now that you get a better look at her, you notice the bags under her eyes and the way her horn fizzles exhaustedly. Her voice seems to drag across the hard ground as she rasps, “And the answer is no. I did not go to the Red Garden to steal it back.”
  2388. >Smooth Roads sits on her rump to pull the satchel off her side. You don’t know if she’s avoiding using magic out of respect for the present Marestrichtians, or if she really is that magically exhausted. Roads settles the satchel down at her hooves before opening it and pulling out a torn, stained blueprint. A very familiar blueprint.
  2389. >She must have made copies of your original drawing! You remember how everypony was so impressed with your sketches at Free Valley Carpentry they had gathered and watched you create it. Ancients above, /you/ were impressed with yourself.
  2390. >Smooth Roads bashfully slides the blueprint back into her bag, still alone in the dirt clearing. You’re on the verge of turning to Anonymous for guidance before you feel four hooves suddenly leap from your back.
  2391. “Tia!” you warn, but the little filly pays you no mind.
  2392. >Tia squeals delightfully as she bounds towards Smooth Roads. Anonymous is immediately in pursuit, but you notice he only walks towards Tia, rather than run. Roads’ eyes widen at the approaching filly, making your heart nervous and your horn tempted to engage. But when the alicorn is mere cubits away from Roads, instead of attacking her or fleeing, Smooth Roads only watches.
  2393. >”Wucky wagon!” Tia giggles excitedly. “Smoof Woads, Wucky wagon!”
  2394. >Smooth Roads’ eyes soften, even if she doesn’t lower her guard completely. “Y-yeah,” she says, her voice breaking like a puberty-ridden filly before she clears her throat. “Yeah. I, uh… built y’all a new wagon. How do you like it, squirt?”
  2395. >Instead of giving a verbal response, Tia approaches Smooth Roads and nuzzles her foreleg, careful not to stab it with her horn. Smooth Roads doesn’t move away from her touch, and you swear you can see the beginning of a smile on her lips, even if her eyes are downturned guiltily.
  2396. >”Tia?” Anonymous says gently as he nears the filly from behind. Well, as gently as Anonymous can say.
  2397. >Tia flinches at his voice. The sight of her skittering away from the tall human stabs your heart. It looks like she still hasn’t gotten over how he had snapped at her last night. Tia’s scared expression turns into a defiant frown as she sticks her tongue out at Anonymous, giving him a wide radius before rushing back to you.
  2398. >Anonymous takes it in stride, only letting out a curt snort. You’re becoming better at reading the human, though.
  2399. >You should make getting Tia that present a priority once you’re back on the road, and you’ll be making /extra/ sure she knows just who it came from.
  2400. >”M-mister Anonymous,” Smooth Roads says, her voice much quieter than when she had addressed you. “Me an’ the Marestrichtians fashioned you a new set of armor as well. Well, they did most the work – that’s not really my area of expertise.” She chuckles, but Anonymous seemingly doesn’t react. “It’s waiting for you in the wagon. I’m hoping it’s to your fancy.”
  2401. >Anonymous turns and starts walking. “Hold on!” Smooth Roads squeaks as she reaches out for him, but her attempt is snuffed out with a glare from Anonymous. The human makes his way to the wagon, not speaking a word to the unicorn. Smooth Roads deflates, her ears lowering to her skull.
  2402. >Max Gusto suddenly nudges you with a wing. You turn to the pegasus to see her peach eyes boring into your own before turning to Smooth Roads, then back to you. Smooth Roads waits, now wordless, her eyes flicking between you and the ground between her hooves.
  2403. >/Ancients give you strength to not regress to the Lucky Favor before Marestricht./
  2404. >You approach Smooth Roads, trying for a smile, but not finding the willpower to make it seem genuine. It was hard to wipe the damn thing from your face mere minutes ago, and now you can’t even find it in yourself to give a smirk. You can feel Max behind you, watching attentively but keeping quiet.
  2405. >”I’m not really one for words,” Smooth Roads begins, tapping her front hooves together. “You’re a lot better with ‘em than I am. I know I’d just have a hard time rightly explaining myself and end up looking like a fool, so… consider this a peace offering.” Roads gestures to the wagon.
  2406. >Your new wagon. Smooth Roads’ apology, as rustic and dowdy as the mare herself, yet stable. It works.
  2407. >”It’s lacking in all the fancy stuff you wrote down,” Smooth Roads sighs. “There just wasn’t enough materials or marepower to make an exact copy. The inside is pretty bare, save for a couch and bookshelf for your reading needs. Y’see, the earth pony armorers wanted to help with it as much as they could, but, um… I didn’t deserve it.” Roads’ lifts her head from the ground to give you a level look. Her tired eyes are downtrodden with exhaustion and shame. “So… there.”
  2408. The smile on your lips now has no trouble being genuine. “I didn’t see you at the Rejoicement,” you say, giving her a tilt of your head. “This is what you’ve been doing instead of resting?”
  2409. >”Why in the darkest pits of Tartarus would I deserve rest, Lucky Favor?” Smooth Roads asks, suddenly hardened. “There was a good pony and human I’d wronged. Buck, there’s an entire workshop of ponies I’d wronged. It would’ve been mighty selfish of me to kick back and do nothing when y’all were a wagon down.”
  2410. You only nod to that, murmuring a soft, “I see…”
  2411. >Before enough time passes to make it awkward, though, you feel the familiar tickle of Max’s wing on your back. What makes this time different is that now her wing seems to move back and forth against your fur in a slow, rocking motion. You and Roads both turn to Max to see the pegasus with a sympathetic look on her face so overdone it’s practically making you gag.
  2412. “Max Gusto, what are you doing?” you deadpan.
  2413. >”Well,” the pegasus answers. “You’re taking so long to say ‘yeah, I’m sorry for being a bitch too,’ I thought it needed to be coaxed out of you.”
  2414. >”Get hilted, Max,” Smooth Roads grunts.
  2415. >You give the pegasus a swat, and she takes to the air, snickering all the while as she glides over to the wagon. Probably to say her goodbyes to Anonymous, you figure.
  2416. >Despite everything, you’re going to miss that pegasus.
  2417. >”You don’t need to say anything,” Roads says quietly, but you stop that with a shake of your head.
  2418. “No, Max is right,” you say. “I’d feel our business would be unfinished if we were to part on these terms.”
  2419. >Smooth Roads mumbles something about fancy words.
  2420. “Fancy as I am, Smooth Roads,” you say as you once again find yourself drawn to your wagon. “I’m afraid no words can describe how grateful I am.”
  2421. >Tia is skipping around the wagon’s exterior in delight, her eyes wondrous and never still. Max Gusto, meanwhile, is opening the door to the wagon. Anonymous and her haven’t interacted much as far as you can tell, but it isn’t unlikely the pegasus has some things she has to say to the human before parting ways. “And…” you chuckle. “Well, I apologize for being such a /Lucky Favor/ after you helped us escape the Red Garden. May the Ancient Lady of Adventure smile upon your travels.”
  2422. >”I’m not so sure that’s an Ancient,” Smooth Roads says with a crooked smile. The look soon sobers up as she sighs. “I’ve already said my farewells to Apple Seed and Max. I’d also like to make my peace with Anonymous, and…” Roads glances back at the wagon, Max now inside and Tia still inspecting every nook and cranny of the structure. “…Tia. That’s her name, right?”
  2423. >You nod, eliciting a smile from Smooth Roads. “Right, Tia,” she says, mulling the name in her mouth before giving you her full-fledged attention. “Well, Lucky Favor, I reckon this is goodbye.”
  2424. Smooth Roads extends a hoof. You take it, giving the unicorn a few shakes before speaking again. “Where will you go?”
  2425. >Roads sighs, retrieving her hoof before looking off into the landscape of the forest. Some ways away, you can still see the silhouette of Plumsteed on the horizon. The perpetual rain clouds put there by thieving pegasi loom in the distance like a far-off storm. “I’ll think of somethin’,” Smooth Roads ultimately says. “I might not be fancy with words like you, but I’m not stupid. I’ll definitely think of somethin’. If not to save Free Valley Carpentry, then to at least get the workers out of the shit I’ve put them in.”
  2426. >”You are always welcome in Marestricht,” Sachemare Sagebrush’s voice commands from behind, reminding you of the three ponies still there.
  2427. >You turn to the trio of earth ponies. Smooth Roads follows suit and is quick to say, “I appreciate it, ma’am, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if the Red Garden hurt any of y’all.”
  2428. >Sagebrush’s face falls, but she only gives an understanding nod. It must’ve struck a chord with Smooth Roads, as the unicorn sighs and rubs the back of her head. “I’ll point any interested workers in this direction,” she mutters, her words immediately putting a grin on Sagebrush’s face. “But I’m not gonna lead the Red Garden here by coming myself, that’s for damn sure.”
  2429. >It’s Apple Seed who speaks up next. Even if he’s the shortest of the ponies, his voice still rings with the calm, wise cadence of the Sachemare herself. “Marestricht will miss you, my friend.”
  2430. >Smooth Roads blinks at Apple Seed’s words. Or, perhaps, just that last word. /Friend./
  2431. >Roads suppresses a squee, turning away from the stallion and towards you. She clears her throat seriously, even if her lips twitch into a smile as she speaks. “Send me a prayer or two, Lucky Favor,” she says. “But don’t you dare worry about me. Just worry about yourself, and your band of misfits.” Smooth Roads’ tone suddenly changes to a much lower, almost warning grumble. “And treat ‘im right, fancy filly. Like I didn’t.”
  2432. >With that, Smooth Roads turns and trots towards the wagon, probably to make her peace with Anonymous. You tilt your head. You call ships /him,/ not wagons…
  2433. >”Lucky Favor?” Apple Seed grabs your attention.
  2434. >As the orange stallion approaches you, his sister stays glued to his side. She doesn’t look at you, either because she knows you’re not a threat or because she’s still acting snooty. Or, now that you get a better look at the way her eyes mirror Apple Seed’s, maybe out of shame. There seems to be a lot of that going around.
  2435. >“It would be a stain on Marestricht’s honor, were we to let you leave emptyhooved,” Apple Seed says, slinging the grass-tied baggage up and off his back. As he sticks a hoof in to grab something, you begin to recede, to tell him that Marestricht has done more than enough, but a well-practiced glare from Sagebrush immediately shuts that down. “I understand you and Brother Anonymous are wanted by the Plumsteed housecarlatel.”
  2436. >You swallow, even if you try to hide your nervousness. As much as you want to dismiss Sapphire Lily’s words as empty threats, you know it’s just the far-fetched hopes of a naïve uppercastemare. And now, there’s no reason that the Red Garden wouldn’t also be after you.
  2437. >Apple Seed sees right through your attempts to hide your nervousness, and he smiles warmly. He pulls something out from his baggage – a small, brown sack.
  2438. >The next sniff you take changes your description. A small, brown, /absolutely pungent/ sack. Curse these earth ponies’ noses! It isn’t fair how they’re so used to this!
  2439. >“As you know,” Apple Seed continues, trying and failing to hide his amusement from your reaction. “The earth ponies of Marestricht have an… inimical stance on magic. Because of this, larua roots are cheap and high in stock, since they do not have much magicless use.”
  2440. “I hope this use outweighs the odor,” you squeak as you put a hoof up to cover your snout.
  2441. >”It does indeed,” Apple Seed confirms. “The Red Garden used this root, along with a certain spell, to disguise themselves on occasion.” Apricot Ammil takes a tiny step closer to her brother at the mention of the Red Garden. “I am not very well-versed in magic, so I could not tell you exactly what the spell was. But I do know that if you and the larua root are both submerged in a body of water and this spell is cast, your fur will change color. To the opposite hue, if my observations were correct.”
  2442. >Apple Seed holds the sack to you. You don’t know if the tears in your eyes are from gratitude or the malodourous smell of the larua roots. Regardless, you wipe your face and retrieve the bag, a grin threatening your features.
  2443. “What did the spell the Red Garden used sound like?” you ask, trying to ignore the fact that the sack is dampening your forelegs.
  2444. >Apple Seed tilts his head, but answers nonetheless. He lets loose a susurrating hiss between pursed lips before retracting them, giving a crude but familiar impersonation of the spell’s magical signature: /’fsuuuuwsssss …’/
  2445. >An inner-spread spell. Not one that was required in your caster lessons, but a low level spell to be sure. You’re sure you can find a thome on ambient mass-magic in the next town or marketstead you come across. You could probably also purchase a map of the coastline in the same trip.
  2446. >”I’m afraid the larua root will not be as useful for Brother Anonymous,” Apple Seed sighs. “A change in color will not do much to disguise the fact he is from such a rare tribe.”
  2447. You smile, sniffling away some errant tears of gratitude. “I am dumbfounded,” you whisper. “I cannot thank you enough. For everything.”
  2448. >”Neither can we.”
  2449. >It’s barely perceptible, but you hear Apricot Ammil’s quiet admission. She notices how you and Apple Seed both turn to her, and suddenly finds the horizon an interesting focal point.
  2450. You giggle but decide to save the earth pony further embarrassment. As you pull the sack towards you, the top of it briefly loosens, giving you a peak – and a full whiff – inside. Whether to continue the conversation with Apple Seed or out of pure curiosity, you ask him, “I apologize for coming off as selfish, dear, but why are there three?”
  2451. >”The larua roots are best used when individualized,” Apple Seed explains. “At least, that is what I assume, judging from the Red Garden misusing them on occasion. The one you use will be tethered to you once the spell is cast, and will reject anypony else who tries to use it. Therefore, I have given you one larua root for each of your party members, minus Anonymous.”
  2452. >You were on the verge of mentioning Anonymous until Apple Seed had said that. When he sees the perplexed look on your face, he tilts his head. “Has Max not told you yet?” he asks.
  2453. >Before you can respond, you hear the sharp cannonshot of your wagon door being flung open. You whip around to see that Max is now skittering out of the wagon; Anonymous’ shouting can briefly be heard from within the wagon – something about how easily he could rip her snowpity off – before she slams the door shut. You’re briefly horrified at what could’ve happened, until she flashes you that bashful grin once again. You recognize the glint of a filly who was on the wrong end of a criminal misunderstanding.
  2454. >”Jeez, and I thought /you/ were uppity about clothes,” Max snickers as she skips over to you. “He’s acting like he doesn’t even have a Y-7 gland!”
  2455. “Max Gusto…” you growl, shaking your head uselessly. “Please tell me you did not do that on purpose.”
  2456. >”What?!” her voice squeaks like a foal’s toy in defiance. “I’m not some Peeping Tamsin! Of course I didn’t mean to do that to my roomie! What kind of an impression would that make?”
  2457. You’re about to reprehend the pegasus again, but you’re taken aback by he