59w, 2dHuman in Equestria
65w, 3dWriting Gold
42w, 2dThe Writer's Group
56w, 1dAussie Bronies
47w, 3dMy Second Life Fan Club
- Show All Groups
51w, 6dMLS' Creme de la Creme
50w, 6dUnique Transformation
49w, 6dThe Usual
49w, 5dChess Game of the Gods
42w, 3dbronys united
24w, 6dStories I've read
17w, 5dVillains of Equestria
17w, 15hCompleted Story Compendium
9w, 4dThe Pack
6w, 15hThe Good HiE List
2w, 20hStraight Shipping
2d, 5hHumans turned ???
A SCRATCH BEHIND THE EARS
The sun was setting.
I tried to tune out the sounds of discussion coming from the next room. It wasn't that hard; all I had to do was flatten my ears to my head. The drone from the airships finished off the rest.
The Benevolent Mercy, the reinforcements' massive silver flagship, had been moored to the belltower atop the barracks. The setting sun tinged its closed gun ports a golden bronze. It was now joined by two smaller ships, which served as almost everything from destroyers to cargo carriers, sometimes multiple roles at once. If the Mercy was a graceful whale, then these two ships, the Mercy II and the Mercy III, were like sharks. Sleek and trim, with smaller, shorter ships hanging underneath the balloons.
Both were currently tethered together, resting on the ground as villagers began boarding. They would be serving as a safe haven for the civilians of Wethoof while the battle was fought. The precaution was necessary. Should the hydras somehow get inside the walls, the town would be effectively become a deathtrap.
The villagers would have a skeleton crew operating the Mercy II to make sure the ship didn't break loose and drift away. Aside from that, all the military personnel would be fighting. Nopony from Wethoof knew how to fly them, and less than half had ever seen one (bless their hearts, the backwoods country bumpkins.) The Mercy III would simply be used like a side car, as it was tethered to the former. Extra space for the entire village, several hundred of them, to reside in safety.
They'd arrived only an hour ago. I'd watched them fly in from over the top of the storm front that circled the devastated area around Wethoof. Already, ponies were beginning to prepare for the long night ahead.
The townsfolk were packing small bags full of belongings and food for the stay. The weather team would be remaining behind until the last possible second, keeping the clouds away to ensure that the battlefield would be bone-dry for the flames to take. I could see ponies moving from the town to the airships, sometimes in little clusters, sometimes alone. All, however, were as mute as I was. No words were said. The worry for their homes and friends in the Wethoof Guard poured off them in waves.
They weren't the only ones: the boisterous tent-city had fallen silent as well. The soldiers and officers alike had retreated to their own little places, performing last minute repairs, sitting with friends, or simply reflecting. I had asked Ginger about this. "Taking a life is something nopony would do lightly," she'd said morosely, any trace of her usual venom or crankiness gone. "And tonight, we will be doing a lot of that. Too much, I think. But there's no other way. So we have to prepare, to ask forgiveness for what we are about to do. To steel ourselves for death, both inflicted and received." With that, she'd lapsed into silence. I could respect that. All life is sacred to a pony. Taking it away is something that must be given extreme consideration. And they weren't violent naturally. Equestria's standing army was small. Very, very small. Less than twenty-thousand troops were active at any given time, excluding the Royal Guard and city forces like the Wethoof Guard.
The word "War" was not even in their dictionary.
I would know. I read the damn thing.
And so, Wethoof had become like a ghost town, except the ghosts were still alive. It was a lot different from my own experience in the military, I'll say that much. No psych-ups, parades, or crowds to wish you off to fight. Only quiet things and contemplation, from the highest officer to the lowest grunt.
At least...for everypony else. Where I am is a whole other story.
"Augh! The buck is that thing!" I heard Coconut cry from the next room.
"That thing prefers to be known as a draconequus. And a very sexy one at that," Disarray could be heard wryly stating. Ah, he must have shown them his other form.
Daring's place at the tavern had more than enough room to accommodate us all. It was sparsely furnished, but then again, it wasn't something anyone actually lived in. A simple kitchen, a living room, a bath/bedroom. More or less a standard small apartment, except that the landlord had decided to decorate as they do in the jungle. Oh, and there was a hole in the roof, patched over with plywood. When Coconut, Ginger and I had asked about it, Disarray had awkwardly coughed and muttered something about "Star Command," and "Space Rangers."
I had promptly doubled over in laughter, while the ponies were left in the dust.
Then, of course, Disarray had begun to explain himself. Who he was. What he was. When he was from. Why he was here.
I'd heard it before, so I'd excused myself to get some time to think and prepare.
And still, the sun kept setting.
I was in the bedroom, sitting on the bed and looking out the window. All of my gear, including my armor, lay out on the bed behind me. We had made a stop at the barracks (after Daring had thoroughly beaten some sense into our resident draconequus) and retrieved all our possessions needed for tonight. We made sure we weren't seen.
It's somewhat sobering when everything you own can be laid out in front of you, and not even cover half of a bed. Not that I place much standing on the amount of stuff one owns relating to happiness, but still. It makes one feel, how do I put this, lighter. I wasn't sure if I enjoyed the sensation or not.
I picked up my backpack and emptied it onto the bedspread. Strips of cloth from my long-destroyed pants and shirt tumbled out, along with my switchblade, my binder, and...oh. My wallet.
It was a regular wallet. Leather. A few places for cards, a clear slot for one's ID, and two pockets for cash and other items too big for the card slots. I didn't keep much in it. A debit card, my driver's licence, no more than twenty-five dollars in cash, and a "Get Out of Jail Free" card from Monopoly. I looked at the licence. A familiar visage stared back at me, a neutral smile on its face. My face. My old face, at least. I repressed a sobering surge of nostalgia that crept up unbidden.
I smacked the wallet closed and put it back in my pack.
My psychology binder came next. The first half was filled with diagrams, charts, and detailed notes relating to a great many aspects of the human mind. In my spare time, I had translated the language to Equestrian. Standard English now stood side by side with the beautiful flowing characters. It was with a snort of disbelief that I realized that I vastly preferred writing in the latter. Thinking, as well. Beyond the psychology papers were my own notes on the Equestrian language, vastly expanded from my time at the treehouse and my experiences around Wethoof.
I found a few sketches of Daring Do in the very back. I'd almost forgotten I drew these. I gently traced a claw along the curvature of her face. The mare was drawn in detail, sitting on her haunches on the treehouse deck, staring off into the jungle with that look in her eye, the one that said "Look out, world, here I come!" I sort of missed the time it was just me and her.
Wait...did I just say that?
Whoa! Possessive, much? Come on, man. Get a hold of yourself! You've got a job to do. Time to concentrate on what's important. What's important. I mean, it's not like you've got the hots for her, right?
I realized I couldn't answer that question. It was undeniable that I thought of her differently than the other ponies I've met. Why shouldn't I? She was the first one. Within an hour of meeting her, we saved eachother's lives. Daring more so mine than I hers. I heavily respected her for who she was and what she did.
She is...special to me.
I could say that much, at least. Plus, she's quite a looker!
Regardless, I was determined not jump into anything. If there's anything being in Equestria has taught me, it's that I should be using my head more. I had a brain, and a damn powerful one at that! The last time I ignored it, I ended up forcibly conscripted to fight a horde of ravenous, mutated, four-headed, scaly monstrosities. And I was going to be facing them tonight, whether I liked it or not (I really didn't like it.) No. I needed to think things over carefully, here. I knew very, very little about hybrid couples. Aside from Captain Tythus' long-ago fling with Zecora, I couldn't think of any others. And even then, at least both of them were remotely similar species. Daring Do was a pegasus.
And I was about as far from a pony as the Titanic was from daylight.
Actually...Disarray was proof of one such relationship. But look and see how that turned out...
Even then, this wasn't factoring her opinions into the mix - which were unknown to me. I had never pressed her on the matter. Such was her business, until she decided to reveal them, for better or worse. I do know that she cares for me, though. As friends, at the very least. After all, without her, I'd be a rotting corpse in the bottom of that river, with my head half-torn off. She patched my throat up. I placed a paw on the familiar scar, running my finger across the line of skin that circled the front of my neck like a necklace. Speaking of necklaces...
Her compass sat next to my folded toga. It was still tied to the bootlace that had once been so critical to my survival. Funny, how something so mundane as a bootlace could be such a pivotal thing. I dangled the compass by a claw, watching it spin. With a flick of my finger, I opened it up. The needle was spinning crazily.
It didn't stop.
Neither did the sun.
I heard the door to the bedroom click open. Daring Do's signature husky voice registered somewhere in my thoughts. "Hey, you alright in here? Disarray's still going through his shapeshifting routine. Thought you might want to get a look at Ginger's face. It's priceless!"
With a sharp creak, the binder quickly closed, hiding the sketches from my view as she entered through the doorway. I stuffed it into the pack with more force than I should have.
"Yeah. I'm fine." I dangled her compass before me. "This is yours. Found it in my pack." I tossed it to her. She easily dipped her head and caught the string in her mouth, before sending it flying back.
"Keep it," she said warmly. "I have one on me already." Turning a little she patted her flank with a wing. The compass rose stood proudly emblazoned there, a testament to her legendary prowess of exploration. I realized at that moment that she wasn't wearing anything. Ponies usually go around in the buff, but I'd grown used to her in clothes...
I swallowed, slipped the compass around my neck, and suddenly become completely absorbed in shuffling my gear around the bed.
Daring trotted over to the other side and pulled out her saddlebags from underneath, tossing them onto the empty side of the bed. Medicine, matches, spikes, rope, if it had to do with adventure, it spilled out of them.
Eager to distract myself from the fact that both of us were naked (damn it, why is this bothering me all of a sudden?) I took a closer look at her things. "How do you keep that much stuff in there?" I asked her. "Your bags should be bursting from so much."
"Ah, you noticed?" she said with a hint of pride. "I had these enchanted awhile back. You can throw as much as you want into them, and they'll never be overfilled. The unicorn that performed the spell kept going on about dimensional compression, or whatever that is."
"Really? May I see them?"
She shrugged, "Knock yourself out!" and began to organize her things as well.
I gingerly picked up the saddlebags and looked inside them. It seemed normal...until I decided to put a paw inside. I realized with a start that I couldn't feel the bottom! I reached in further. And further. When I had reached into the saddlebags up to my shoulder, Daring's laughter broke me out of my amazement. "Hay, Echo, careful you don't fall into that thing!" she joked. It was a good suggestion. From the outside perspective, it seemed as though my arm had been severed somewhere above the elbow. But I could feel everything, intact, inside the bag. I withdrew it and wiggled my fingers, staring at the bag in amazement.
"As long as you can handle all the weight of whatever you put inside, you can pretty much carry anything you can fit into the opening. Neat, huh?" I nodded in agreement, still slightly stunned, and gave it back. "How do you think I'm so prepared all the time?" she patted the saddlebags fondly. "Always pays to expect the unexpected."
I held up my own tattered pack with one paw. "Think I could get that for mine? I can carry a lot more than a pony, and it would help to not have a huge bundle strapped to me."
"Eh...probably. Not here, though. There aren't any unicorns who know the spells." She removed a rumpled, pocketed shirt from her pile of things and put it on. Her pith helmet quickly resumed it's usual position atop her charcoal, gray-streaked mane. "Most cities have tailors that'll do it. For a fee, of course. Do you have any bits?"
I shook my head. My entire personal wealth was amassed in space big enough to lay a small child.
"Aw, don't worry, I can spot you some."
My ears pricked up. "Really?"
"Of course! I've got more bits than I know what to do with! How do you think I paid for the treehouse?"
That was admittedly something I had been wondering.
She continued, "A lot of the treasures I find I send back to museums and the like. They're usually the ones who sponsor me. Of course, I am entitled to a finder's fee for every haul. And several of the places I've cracked open have been...quite lucrative," she admitted somewhat bashfully. "And nopony misses a few relics out of a cache of hundreds. If you know the right ponies, you can make a lot off of them."
I snorted with amusement. That's Daring Do, for you. She's chock full of surprises.
I glanced out the window. The glory of the sunset triggered a kaleidoscopic array of reds, pinks, oranges, and purples. It was mostly red, though. It won't be long now. This mess has all finally come to a head...
Her voice snapped me out of it. "Alright. Seriously, what's bothering you?" At my immediate denial, she put a hoof down. "Uh-uh. I can read you like a book, Echo, and you've got something big on your mind."
I lowered the chainmail hauberk across my shoulders. It bit and pinched around the edges, but it was something. However, it did not wear at me as much as the sinking feeling that had been present in my stomach for a while now. "I'm scared." I confided to her. "But not for myself. Actually, scratch that - I am scared for myself, but more so for the others."
I strapped on the shinguards and the pawguards next. "If I had stopped to think for just a moment, none of us would be here right now. We'd be..." I pointed out the window. "Out there, somewhere." The bicep covering went on as I paused to work. "Or at least, you, Disarray, and I. This whole situation is because of my presence here. I can't help but feel afraid for the others, and responsible for them. Coconut, and Ginger, as much of a grump as she is, are good ponies. So is everypony else here. They don't deserve what is about to happen."
"Even the mayor? The stallion who's been trying to kill you?" she asked skeptically.
"Even him. Or at least, he was a good pony." I wiggled my bulging forearms into the bracers and flexed them, half-savoring, half-hating the feeling of the metal pushing back against muscle. "I just didn't think I'd find this kind of thing here in Equestria."
Unbelievably, she began to laugh.
"Echo! Celestia's mane, dog! You are such a softie!" she said through a fit of giggling. "What did you think Equestria would be like when you imagined all of it? Some kind of wonderful utopia where ponies live and play all day and night, without a care in the world?"
Well...something like that.
Daring shook her head. "Firstly, Wethoof has been having hydra troubles for years, now. Even if you didn't show up, it was bound to come to this sometime. Secondly, this is not revolving around you. Everypony you see out there tonight is a volunteer, both from Wethoof and beyond. And they stand a good enough chance now that the reinforcements finally joined up. They might be able to pull this off without you. Hay, there's probably some unicorn that would have come here anyway that could fit in your hoofprints...er, pawprints...just fine! Granted, it'd be extremely hard, seeing as apparently you and Ginger are the only ones capable of really going all...fwoosh!"
I had to switch to using phonetics, here. "Fwoosh?"
She waved a hoof dismissively. "Fire. Heat. You know what I mean. Look. Maybe I'm not wording this right." She jumped up onto the bed and moved onto my side, standing straight and facing me with a serious expression. From her elevated position, she met my gaze evenly.
Through the reflection of her stunning magenta eyes, I could see the sun kiss the horizon.
"The only thing that you're truly responsible for is in here." She planted a hoof on my chest. "Nothing else matters but that. Following me, big guy?" I hesitantly nodded, frowning. "Things are going to happen that you wont have control over. Things that won't be your fault, but you'll get swept up in them, regardless of that. You need to make sure that you don't blame yourself for them. This is one of those times."
That...went against a great deal of what I had come to follow. I was a strict follower of the gentleman's code of honor. That code dictated it was my responsibility to see this through and take the blame for any consequences. It was my greatest strength, and my greatest weakness, both saving and damning me on many an occasion. (Old School: that's just how I roll.)
And I was just supposed to...let go of that?
"This is Equestria, Echo. Things have a way of happening, here." She chuckled a little bit. "Take it from a mare with experience. Promise me you won't try to take all that on your shoulders."
I glanced away, suddenly unwilling to meet her gaze.
A gentle, tannish-gold hoof on my cheek pushed my face back.
"Promise?" The sun burrowed into the ground in her eyes.
I slowly nodded.
And I was going to have to abide by it from now on. It's considered good manners to keep those, after all.
She smiled, and leaned forward, nuzzling the top of my head. I held absolutely still, and breathed in her scent: leaves, air, and the aroma of forgotten places. Intoxicating...
"You're a good dog, Echo, but you don't have to be a hero," she said softly.
"Now come on. I'll help you put on the rest of your armor. Don't want to be late."
"So, let me run through this, piece by piece. Yer the son of Princess Celestia. The Princess Celestia."
"Brilliant observation, Watson! Maybe it was the whole 'alicorn' thing that tipped you off, or maybe the mustache, or even - oh, I don't know - the fact that I've got the damned Royal Seal on my cloak." Disarray flashed the pin on his tye-dye garment. The image of two alicorns, Luna and Celestia, chasing each other around a globe, flashed in the last glimmers of sunlight.
I stepped out of the bedroom, now fully suited up, hood down. The others were sitting around the living room. Ginger was hunched over the kitchen table, brooding into a cup of ice water. Coconut and Disarray sat on a couch and a chair, respectively. Coconut had put on his own gear earlier.
The brown stallion continued, shaking off the taunt. "Yer also the son of Discord, the spirit of chaos and disharmony."
Disarray shapeshifted into a draconequus and blew two small jets of smoke from his nostrils. "I wonder how long it took that one to sink in," he said moodily.
Coconut leaned back into the couch. "It's not that it's hard to believe, mate. The proof is right in front of me. Its...how the buck did they...ye know...buck?"
Ginger abruptly sprayed a cloud of liquid (now steaming hot) out of her mouth, while I tried to repress my imagination from running wild. It didn't work. Gods damn it, I didn't want to picture that!
Disarray cocked an eyebrow. "Well, when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much..." he sarcastically began.
"Ye know what I mean!"
"Well, I imagine they did it without much difficulty, considering I exist to tell you so." He wickedly grinned. "Rule thirty-four. No exceptions."
"If you elaborate on that, I'm going to seal you in a lamp," I warned him, sitting down next to Coconut.
"Well now I'm curious, mate. I don't think I can go without knowin' what that is," said the cook, cautiously eyeing the draconequus.
"Trust me on this one. There are terrible and wretched things that exist out there that you'd be better off without knowing about."
"Bwa-hahaa! There's probably already fan art of you bucking the hay out of one of the mares here," Disarray cackled, then suddenly grew somber. "Or me. Or Echo. Ugh..."
Rule thirty-four. No exceptions.
"What?" Coconut said in confusion.
Daring emerged from the room, ready for her stay in the airship. Although not technically a citizen of Wethoof, she was considered a civilian, and would be spending the battle in safety, with a very small contingent of guards watching the airship. She began setting her things down at the door, next to our own supplies.
"Anyway, can I ask ye something, mate?" Coconut said.
"Well, considering you've been doing nothing but that, you might as well keep going."
"Why are ye here?"
Disarray twiddled the thumbs on his bear paws. "Beg pardon?"
"Like, why are ye runnin' around with Echo. Why are ye here in Wethoof?"
The now-alicorn Disarray smiled. "Because, my little pony, it's not like I've anything better to do. Our good friend the diamond dog anticipates seeing the entirety of Equestria. Wouldn't you agree that that's something worth tagging along with? And besides," he mused. "Equestria has turned into a giant chessboard in my absence. Traveling around helps me...observe the game. And besides, I'm still trying to figure out whether or not I'm one of the players, or a piece. I advise all of you to do the same, before somepony decides to send you into play." he said cryptically.
Daring Do hopped onto the couch next to me. We lapsed into silence, then. As I watched, the sun slowly bled into the ground, the stars began twinkling into existence. Somewhere far away, Princess Luna was sending up the moon, giving the day a glorious sendoff. I felt like I was disgracing her in some way, by participating in this during her special time.
If there's one perk that I truly love the most about this land, it's not the ponies, or the magic, or the thrill of discovery. It's the dammed night sky. Every time you see it, the most you can do is simply sit back, gawp, and say: "Holy fucking tater-tots, that's beautiful." Not simply because it is, but because any attempt to describe it would never even come close, not in a million years. There would be no point, it would be wasted breath. I don't know what Luna got all uppity about back when she tried to overthrow her sister - I'd pick the night over the day every time.
For a while, there was peace, each of us thinking different thoughts. Five beings, each vastly different, and yet bound together by a joining (if obscure) cause.
As I sat and brooded about this, the sun finally set.
Ginger stood from the table and adjusted her barding. "It's time," she grunted.
Coconut went over to the door, grabbing his own spear and helmet. I followed, attaching my own weapon across my back. With luck, I wouldn't have to use it. I was terrible with the thing, after all.
Disarray gave us all a wink, stomped a hoof to the ground, and vanished in the blink of an eye. If he was playing a part in this, he'd show up when he was needed, and not a second sooner.
We filed out of the doorway and made our way into the streets. A trickle of townsponies were walking towards the grounded airships. We followed them as the last shreds of twilight faded into the west.
Approaching the ships, I could see how big they were. I'd never seen an airship close up, Equestrian or human, for that matter. The Mercy II and Mercy III, although considered small by the others, were each the size of the tavern, and that was just the ship part. The hollow envelopes containing whatever it was that made them float were enormous as well. Ponies would be packing the holds tight. I hoped they could get off the ground.
This was where we parted. "Good luck! Take care of yourselves!" Daring cried as she boarded the bound skycraft.
"We're going to need it..." Ginger whispered to herself, but my sensitive ears picked it up.
We continued past the airships to the gates. There, the army was assembled by the doors, which had been opened. With some pride and some embarrassment, I remembered the role I had in both destroying and rebuilding them.
A path opened up in the ranks. "I'll be on the northern earthworks with the captain," Coconut said. "Best of luck to the both of ya. We'll be waitin' to give 'em all kinds of hell once you bring them back." He gave us a wink and split off, melting into the sea of assembled soldiers.
Ginger and I strode through the aisle of steel and pony. As I padded beside her, I couldn't help but notice she was still wearing those goggles. At the very end of the way, we could see Captain Tythus, standing next to a chariot. Popper and Blueback, my two pegasi shadows, were harnessed to it. They would be our ride. Despite myself, I grinned beneath my hood. I'd never really traveled like this.
Tythus put out a hoof once we had reached him. "Hold here until I've finished," he instructed quietly. "You know what to do. I have faith in you, Ginger Snap and Echo the diamond dog. Do not let us down."
"Ponies!" he called out, striding forward as his horn began to softly glow, amplifying his voice.
Tythus uses the Royal Caps Lock? Ha! Wait till Disarray hears about this!
"Tonight we are gathered to perform our duty to the realm." he began. "There are many definitions of duty. Duty to one's family. Duty to one's leader. Duty to oneself. Tonight, we do none of those three. Tonight, we serve those innocents unable to serve themselves. Unable to save what they love from a force that no bribe of gold and no offer of friendship will halt. If we do not do our duty to these ponies, they, and everything they love, will be lost. And so, we are here to protect. To shield." Tythus began to slowly walk down the row as he spoke, occasionally pausing to gently look a pony in the eye. There was absolutely no other noise save his voice. "But we are also here for sacrifice. There is no denying what we are about to face makes me feel like a colt that just wet the bed." A low chuckling spread through the ranks. There were a few genuine smiles. "Ponies will die tonight. That, I can assure you.
"But I can also assure you that they will not meet their end in vain. Any time a shield is used, it takes a notch. Aye, we will lose a few brothers and sisters on this night. But better the loss of a few brave heroes than the countless lives of the innocents their deaths will protect. That's why you're here, why I'm here, why we're here."
He spun, and roared out into the masses, "We are here to turn back the tide of evil, not just from these ponies, but from all of Equestria! You remember your oaths, say them with me!"
The entire mass began to speak as one. I heard Ginger whispering the words next to me, reciting the oath she had taken when she had volunteered. I did not know this oath, as I had not been given a choice in the matter.
I closed my eyes for a moment, letting the words wash over me, thinking. My ear flicked. Ginger had stopped, letting in a sharp gasp of air. I opened an eye to see what was wrong, and started with absolute surprise.
Padding up the aisle beneath the full moon was Mosspaw, the last alpha of the Greenclaws.
He passed through Tythus as he moved, the captain seemingly unaware of the diamond dog's presence. Actually, none of the assembled even looked at him.
"What is this..." Ginger breathed, taking a step backwards.
Mosspaw came before us. He was the same size as me, but thick and well-muscled. Short, dark fur covered his body, a black vest around his shoulders, pockets filed with ghostly gems. The collar around his neck was studded with emeralds. His eyes, with pupils like black slits, were filled with an sharp expression of sadness. His face reminded me of a pit bull, but...vastly more intelligent.
Nopony saw anything. The oath continued, filling the warm night's air with the hum of a thousand voices speaking as one.
Mosspaw slowly extended a green-tinged paw, holding it out to Ginger. The mare flinched back instinctively, before the diamond dog gently laid three fingers on the side of her jaw, where the lines of her scar matched perfectly to his claws. Unlike Tythus, I could see her coat dimple at the pressure. Ginger's eyes were wide open in a bewildering mix of fear, wonder, and confusion.
He could touch us.
After a long moment, he lowered his paw and looked down, seemingly ashamed. Then, he moved to me. I held myself perfectly still, wary of what might happen. Instead of simply facing me, he walked about me in a circle, scrutinizing me with a solemn expression. I watched as he reached up and softly rested a finger on the very tip of the spear strapped to my back. He then moved to face me, as he did to Ginger.
Mosspaw reached up and traced the scar across my neck, much like I had done earlier in that day. Our eyes met. A surge of emotion flooded through me. In that instant, I felt the rush of the hunt, the pride of a leader watching his people thrive, the satisfaction of digging through stone with my packmates beside me.
I also felt the drive for more; more power, more prosperity, more everything. I felt the utter desolation of losing all of my loved ones, and the need to avenge their loss, and to move on and leave bad memories behind.
I understood now. I knew why Mosspaw had done what he did. He had tried to make a deal for a better world for his people, at the cost of something dear to him. He had forsaken a piece of his soul in the name of power, to use for the greater good. He had become a monster. A monster driven by good intentions, but a monster nevertheless.
For without shadow, there can be no light, a voice in my head murmured.
An invisible wind blew then, casing him to flicker and twist away, like nothing more than smoke. Tythus was now standing before us.
"Well?" he asked us impatiently. I had the feeling that we'd missed our cue. Awkward...
"...Oh! Um, right away, sir!" Ginger mumbled, snapping to her senses faster than I, dragging me into the chariot. "Let's go!"
Popper and Blueback extended their wings and pumped hard. The chariot floor lurched beneath me, sending me onto my haunches. We accelerated fast, and up, up into the darkness. The army dropped far beneath us as we were lifted high, high into the night. The two pegasi adusted their course. West, to where the full moon was rising over the distant forest canopy. West, to where the hydras lived.
"What...was that?" Ginger said quietly over the rush of wind. "Was that even real?"
I withdrew my spear and looked at the tip, feeling a cold chill creep over me.
A drop of blood slowly ran down the grooves in the metal from where Mosspaw had pressed his finger to it.
That was very, very real.
Ginger shivered, noticing the speck of crimson. I did the same.
It was going to be one hell of a night.