The next few days passed swiftly for Diana. For the first time since fillyhood she greeted each day knowing that there was almost nothing she was required to do. Consequently, she rose each day determined to fit in as many different enjoyable activities as possible. The forest boasted such great variety that becoming bored was practically impossible and, should that prospect rear its ugly head, Watchwing was always more than willing to reveal another hidden wonder that the pink pony would never have found on her own.
It wasn’t all exploring the ancient forest, of course. Her daily exercise quickly became a chore. Watchwing was adept at suggesting forms of exercise that pushed her body to the limits while not injuring her further, but Diana was unused to movement for the sake of movement rather than towards some end and found the exercises soon began to irritate her in their pointlessness. She far preferred their trips into the forest to gather supplies, though those were not without their dangers.
One particular trip, that Diana was trying her hardest to forget, had included an apparently benign blue flower and ended with Watchwing drawing her up a bubble bath and doing his absolute best to hide his extreme amusement. However, for the most part the trips were a chance to explore an amazing ancient forest. Each time, after they had gathered the plants they sought, Watchwing would take a detour to some wonder of the forest. Once he took her to the parasprite nesting grounds where their humming harmonized and their bodies covered the trees in a broad spectrum of kaleidoscopic color. Another trip was to a bizarre tree garden where the trees curved and loop-de-looped, forming intricate and breathtaking natural designs.
Diana relished her free time and felt a twinge of regret when her first test flight succeeded and Watchwing declared her healed. Still, curiosity drove her forward and she couldn’t help but be excited by the prospect of the extended journey before her. Dinner that evening was a subdued affair, each lost in thoughts they didn’t feel like sharing. They packed in silence, Diana in her saddlebags and Watchwing in his satchel, and turned in early.
The next day dawned bright and clear. It was a crisp day with just a hint of a chill in the still morning air. Diana woke first and roused Watchwing. They had a cold breakfast from the food stuffs they were leaving behind and were on the road, such as it was, within an hour.
They traveled single file, in silence, each concentrating on keeping their footing amidst the treacherous roots and uneven ground. Diana had learned over the preceding week that Watchwing was not a morning pony and preferred to be left to his thoughts for quite a while after waking up. She left him to it and instead dedicated her attention to enjoying the tranquil morning.
Noon came and went in this fashion and the sun rose high into the sky. The early morning chill had given way to an uncomfortably warm and windless day. Between the heat and the effort of carrying her heavy saddle bags Diana was beginning to feel quite parched. Unfortunately, neither of them had possessed any means of transporting water, but the wood was home to frequent streams and pools that made such preparation unnecessary.
In fact, Diana thought as she peered forward, there appears to be one right up ahead. Perfect timing. She pushed past Watchwing and trotted towards the pool, intent on slaking her thirst.
“Wait!” The note of sheer panic in Watchwing’s voice immediately brought her to a halt. She cast about for the cause of his alarm. They were in a clearing which formed a concentric ring about the pool at its center. At first glance nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. However, as Diana looked closer the fur on the back of her neck began to prickle. The trees all stopped at a fixed point and past that there was no trace of anything living. No plants, no insects, not even any fallen leaves.
“What is this place?” she asked, a hint of fear coloring her voice as well.
In answer Watchwing picked up a small stone and, with a flick of his head, tossed it into the pool. There was no splash, and no ripples. It looked as if the stone had simply merged with its reflection in the water and disappeared into another world. The two ponies shared a look and then backed out of the clearing as slowly and carefully as they could. Once safely back under the canopy they detoured around the too-still clearing and continued on.
“What did that circular area in the center of the clearing look like to you?” Watchwing’s question broke through her own musing on a very similar subject.
“It looked to be a pool of water, but it didn’t even move when you threw the stone.”
Watchwing nodded. “I figured as much when you pushed past me to get to it. To me it seemed to be a gaping emptiness. That whole clearing was unnaturally still but the pool absorbed everything that touched it, down to minute vibrations in the air.”
Diana hesitated, unsure if she really wanted to know but gathered her resolve and asked. “What do you think that was? Have you ever seen anything like it?”
“I don’t know what it was” he responded “but I can guarantee that trying to drink from it was a bad idea. Though, if you’re still thirsty I think this stream should be safe.”
While speaking they had reached a new clearing, this one was not so perfectly shaped and contained plenty of insect and plant life. A collection of light green vines snaked around some of the trees on the far side, a couple of birds’ nests were visible dotting the branches around the clearing and a small stream flowed through it, zigzagging from one end of the clearing to the other before disappearing into the forest beyond.
“This looks like a good spot for lunch” Watchwing suggested “what do you think?” Diana nodded her assent and the two trotted across the clearing, hopped over the stream, and broke out the dandelion and burdock root sandwiches.
They chatted as they ate, clearing the last remnants of the morning’s silence and striving to banish the fear produced by the odd clearing. Between the sunshine, the babbling broke, and the pleasure of good conversation any trace of fear withered away and they settled into a more positive frame of mind.
As the conversation lapsed into a comfortable silence Diana allowed her eyes to wander across the clearing, idly lingering on the vines swaying in the breeze. Swaying in the nonexistent breeze.
Moving with instincts she hadn’t known she possessed, Diana dove forward and pulled Watchwing down just as the ‘vines’ shot overhead. She yanked him to his feet and they turned to watch the horror show unfolding before them.
After having missed their initial opening the vines, or tentacles as Diana realized they were, retreated and began coiling around lower branches to provide support for the body that lowered itself into view. It was bulbous ovaloid structure, the same sickly green as the tentacles which protruded from its lower half. As it neared the ground two beady little eyes became visible on either side of what was, apparently, its head as well as its body. To complete its hideous appearance it possessed a sharply pointed beak on its underside. Finally dropping to the forest floor it raised itself up and stood on its eight tentacles.
A piercing screech issued from its beak and it charged toward them, pushing itself along on two tentacles and trying to grab them with the rest.
Watchwing pushed Diana back and shouted to her over the creature’s shrill cries, “I’ll distract it; you circle around and take it down!”
She stumbled at his sudden push but recovered her balance and dashed into the woods behind them. Turning back she gasped in horror. Instead of running off to allow her access to its blind spot, as she had expected, Watchwing was standing stock-still, facing the incoming monster with apparent unconcern. A tentacle shot straight toward his face and missed by the slightest of margins as he leaned sideways. Others quickly followed, each trying to grab, strike, or otherwise incapacitate him. He ducked under one and spun to the side to avoid a second coming directly at his back. A third snaked under him and sought to trip him up but after a quick leap forward it caught empty air.
The blind pegasus’ motions were smooth as he wove amid the thrashing limbs. Nothing was wasted and nothing was hurried as he kept moving forward, trying to get into striking range.
Diana kept an eye on Watchwing’s efforts as she stealthily worked her way around the clearing, sticking to the shadows of the trees. It took her longer than she would have liked but she soon arrived at the other side of the clearing.
Alright, I made it. Now how am I going to take it down? Hit it with my horn? Yeah, that’s a good plan, frontal assault it is.
As she prepared to charge, the captain’s voice rose unbidden to her mind. “Lesson one: never underestimate your opponents.” She paused and took another moment to assess the creature.
Wait a minute; those tentacles keeping it up are thicker than the rest, almost like legs. They must have to be stronger than the rest to keep it up, so if I can just sever those we can make a run for it. Is that a better plan?
“Anytime now would be great Diana!” Watchwing’s suddenly shouted. He was breathing hard and his motions were slowing, he clearly couldn’t keep dodging for too much longer.
Well this’ll have to do. Here I go!
Diana flapped her wings hard and flew as fast as she could toward the creature. It must have heard her for it turned slightly and three of its tentacles left Watchwing and reached for her. She aimed for the legs and strove to put on more speed.
“Lesson two: never act predictably.” It was the captain’s voice again and this time she didn’t have time to think it through. Praying she wasn’t making a mistake Diana feinted toward the left leg and rolled right at the last second. The tentacles missed her by inches and the creatures screamed again, first in frustration and then in pain as she severed its right leg with her horn.
She curved her flight as she sought to come around for another pass, but she needn’t have bothered. With only three tentacles blocking his way, Watchwing easily slipped inside its guard and bucked it right in its remaining leg.
The creature toppled to the forest floor with a crash as Watchwing retreated beyond the range of its still working tentacles. Giddy with their success, Diana landed next to the panting pegasus. “That was incredible! I was so worried when you just stood there but you made it look like that thing wasn’t even trying to get you! How did you manage to dodge all those tentacles?”
Watchwing struggled to gain enough breath to respond. “Told you…see air currents…motion produces current…faster it is the better I see it.”
She frowned at his response. “Then how come you couldn’t see them when they attacked us at the start?”
His breathing had slowed by this point and his response was, thankfully, more coherent. “I could see the vines were moving but I couldn’t tell that it was against the wind. It’s as if…hmm… imagine your eyes produced their own light. It would be impossible to tell when things were lit up on their own because your eyes would be lighting them up already. The end result being I can’t tell the difference between a vine moving in the breeze and a creature waving a tentacle. However, once I know it’s being moved by some creature’s intent I can dodge it, no problem.”
Something was niggling at the back of Diana’s mind but she ignored it and tried to understand what Watchwing had just said. “So if you were just focusing on a rock, say, and I was to move it, that wouldn’t look any different if from the rock starting to roll on its own?
He nodded. “Exactly, it’s one of the limitations of this way of seeing.”
Diana smiled in understanding and Watchwing smiled back. They were both relieved to be safe but the pink pony couldn’t help but feel she had forgotten something.
“Lesson three: never turn your back on a living enemy.” The captain’s third lesson came to mind just in time. She spun and saw that the creature had thrust all of its working limbs deeply into the soil.
“JUMP!” Diana screamed at Watchwing, as she suited her actions to her words. He pushed hard off the ground as the tentacles exploded out of the ground beneath them. Her relief at the sight of his escape was short lived as gravity caught hold of him and began to pull him back to the waiting tentacles.
“Fly, you foal! Fly!” she shouted, panic rising as his wings stayed stubbornly stationary. The tentacles below writhed eagerly as their prey glided in circles, coming nearer and nearer. Time seemed to slow as Diana sought desperately for some way to save Watchwing.
He’s too heavy, there’s no way I can fly with both of us or lift him with telekinesis and any other spell would take too long to cast. If I try to cut any of the tentacles the others will grab me. Wait…if the tentacles are over here then the body’s undefended. That’s it, now GO!
She dove, wings folded, straining for every bit of speed she could muster. Anger rose within her as the wind whipped through her mane.
How dare this creature try to harm us! I’ll stab out its eyes, tear its tentacles and burn it from this world!
Bloodlust sang in her veins as she hurtled forward like an arrow from on high. Diana struck its left eye horn first. Her momentum drove her horn in all the up to her face and a sticky green substance she knew had to be blood spurted forth. It screamed for a third time and an answering cry from behind told her that Watchwing was still at in its grasp. Her horn rose and fell as she put out its other eye and its scream grew still louder, met with a similar increase in volume from Watchwing.
Diana’s horn rose and fell once more as she stabbed it directly between the eyes. She added her own war-cry to the screams that pervaded the clearing.
Magic flooded from her. Not a spell, just pure magical energy, guided solely by her desire for this creature’s death. True to her will it burned away the creature’s very brain, leaving it a decimated husk.
Silence at last. Diana stood over her fallen foe, panting and feeling weak from the sudden expenditure of magic. A groan reminded her of Watchwing’s plight. She turned and trotted over to where he was lying, wrapped in the creature’s tentacles. A couple of quick snips with her horn and they fell away.
“Come on, Watchwing. Don’t die on me here.” Concern filled her voice as she tried to determine if he was conscious or not, a task made surprisingly difficult by his lack of eyes.
He took a deep breath and sat up, wincing as he did so. “I’m going to be hurting for a while but I think I’ll live.”
“Well if you’re going to live…what the hay was that about?” Concern assuaged, anger made a sudden reappearance. “Why the buck didn’t you keep flying? You’re a pegasus after all!”
“On second thought I feel as though I just might die after all. You wouldn’t want my last memory to be you shouting at me, would you?” Watchwing gave her such a pathetic expression, helped along by his blatant injuries, that she was forced to modulate her tone somewhat.
“Fine, no shouting. But you better have a darn good reason for gliding blithely to your doom.”
“It was hardly blithely.” He objected. “It’s just…well…I’m afraid of flying. I can’t flap my wings without covering the nerve centers that let me see. It would be like trying to fly while blinking very fast. Plus up in the sky there’s barely anything for the air currents to bounce off of so even when my ‘eyes’ are open almost everything is blank anyway. I haven’t flown since my injury. I haven’t dared.”
Diana’s anger lessened as he spoke. “I’m sorry for shouting at you. It was just so frightening, watching you fall like that. I was so scared that creature would kill you and then I got so angry and I…” she trailed off, eyes widening as the memory of the past few moments caught up with her. Bile rose in her throat as she remembered the sickening squelch that had accompanied driving her horn into the creature’s eye. With a start she realized she was still covered in its viscous lime-green blood.
It was too much; Diana turned and was violently sick on the grass. Watchwing wrapped one wing around her and held her mane back out of the way. He held her close as the heaves ended and she started trembling.
“I…I killed it…I don’t want to be a killer but…but I…I wanted to kill it…I used magic to burn it away.”
Watchwing spoke slowly and calmly. “You defended yourself and you saved our lives. If you hadn’t I would be dead.” He gently turned her head so they were face to face. “Thank you, Diana. You saved my life. Thank you.”
She flinched away. “Don’t thank me, not for this. So much for not wanting to kill anything. So much for not becoming a monster.”
“You. Are. Not. A. Monster.” His voice was firm, absolute in its certainty. Diana couldn’t help but listen, wanting to believe he spoke the truth. “A monster is somepony who goes out and kills things for fun, a monster is somepony who sits back and lets their friends be killed because they don’t want to dirty their hooves with bloodshed. You didn’t seek this creature out and I can’t imagine you could have sat by and watched it kill me, could you?”
She rubbed the tears from her eyes and shook her head. “Of course not. I wouldn’t abandon a friend.”
“Exactly. You did what the situation called for to save somepony else, no more no less.”
“But I lost control again” she protested. “At the end there I wanted it to die so badly. It even activated my magic, without a spell just by pure intent. That shouldn’t even have been possible!”
Watchwing shrugged. “It’s a good thing you did. Nothing short of death would have made it let go of me and octocumbers are notoriously difficult to kill.”
“Well then, I guess losing control was necessary in this case, but it still scares me…wait. Did you say octocumber? Is that what this thing’s called?”
“Yep, it has eight tentacles, each with the texture of a cucumber. I think its edible too, want to try a bite?”
Diana stared at him incredulously. “That’s the stupidest name I’ve ever heard and, no, I don’t want to try a bite. You’re just messing with me now aren’t you?”
He smiled at her. “Maybe…but you’re not as upset anymore, right?”
It’s true, she realized, somehow the idea that I was locked in pitched combat with a creature as idiotically named as an octocumber makes the whole thing seem less serious and more surreal. Perhaps…perhaps if I only lose control like that when I’m protecting somepony then it’s okay. I mean, the two times it’s happened so far it’s saved my life one time and Watchwing’s the other time. Alright, come on, this freak out is officially over. No need to let him know that he helped though.
Diana huffed. “That’s pretty roundabout way of cheering somepony up.”
“It worked didn’t it?”
She rolled her eyes and turned, hiding a fond smile. “Maybe a little. Now come on, we’ve wasted enough time as it is.” Diana walked to the stream. She took a long drink and washed the blood from her body while Watchwing gathered the remains of their interrupted lunch. They shouldered their respective bags and set off once more into the wood.
The pair camped out that night in small depression in the forest floor. It wasn’t much but it provided a bit of shelter from the elements and hid them from immediate sight. A fire might have attracted unwanted attention so they were forced to make do with a cold dinner similar in content to their lunch. After the day’s events they were both tired, so they turned in early.
A cold wet splash across her muzzle woke Diana the next morning. Similar splashes followed across the rest of her body and she sat up to find that it was raining. The morning chill added a cold dimension to the already unpleasant wet and clammy nature of the new day.
Diana groaned as she felt the water seeping into her feathers. Nothing’s worse than wet wings. They’re heavy and they get that slimy feeling from the oil on the feathers. Disgusting. Not to mention it’s impossible to get off the ground once they get wet.
She trotted over to Watchwing and unceremoniously prodded him awake. “Let’s get moving. Hopefully the canopy will block some of this rain.”
As always, Watchwing’s return to consciousness was utterly impossible to detect. He stood up and shook himself off. “Diana, it’s raining.”
“I just said that, now can we get moving please?”
He stood still for a moment, apparently lost in thought, before speaking again. “We should get moving Diana.”
“Honestly, I know you’re a zombie early in the day but if you’re just going to repeat what I say you really don’t need to talk at all.” She began packing her saddle bags, eager for them to be on their way.
Another slow moment passed as Watchwing considered her words. “If I’m just going to repeat you’re words I don’t need to talk at all.”
“Of for the love of… Yes! You don’t need to talk, just grab your bag.” Diana stopped packing as she noticed the grin Watchwing was struggling to hide. “Oh I see, very clever. Are you actually not a morning pony or have you just been planning for this pathetic excuse for a joke from day one?”
Watchwing stopped trying to hide his smile as he and Diana both finished readying their packs. “I really am not a morning pony but you set me up so perfectly it would have been criminal to miss that cue.”
Diana growled. “Even if you’ve become accustomed to waking up in the rain some of us are used to nicer sleeping arrangements.”
He gave her a playful shove. “Oh lighten up. At least the ground isn’t muddy yet; think how much worse it would be if we were slogging through a swamp or something.”
They spent most of the day slogging through a swamp.
Watchwing noticed the slight downward slope of the ground and its attendant softening first and realized what they were heading into. Unfortunately, he didn’t know the way to their destination precisely enough to take a detour so plowing straight through it was the only option. Diana realized what they were heading into shortly afterward, when her hooves started sticking to the ground. The pink alicorn’s glare drilled into the back of Watchwing’s head but she didn’t voice complaints.
The earth beneath their hooves gave way to marshy and stagnant water that came up to their chests in places. They walked directly forward, not bothering to try and find the driest path since the rain would have found any dry spots that the marsh had missed. Besides, without landmarks if they started turning they would have no way to regain their bearings. Flying was unfortunately out of the question because of both Watchwing’s phobia and their already wet wings.
Grey water reflected grey sky and the grey mist provided a seamless link between the two. As they trundled along Diana found herself entering a trancelike state. She could almost feel her memories growing fainter, drifting to the back of her mind. It became difficult to recall anything other than the present. It seemed to her that she had never been anywhere else or done anything other than follow the pony in front of her. The pony whose name she simply could not remember.
It concerned her, but only in an abstract way. Idly, she considered the situation. Why am I following this pony if I don’t know his name? Should I know his name? I think so, but what could it have been? Still, the alternative to following him was to simply stand there in that unpleasant place and Diana found that option even less attractive than proceeding blindly behind a pony she could not remember.
Her musings were interrupted by a sudden voice from the mist. “Diana, where are you?” At the sound of her name she and the pony ahead of her turned and watched as the owner of the voice grew closer. The owner was bipedal, female, wore a black uniform with a red stripe across the top, and had a sword on her left hip. A flicker of unease ran through Diana at the sight of this strange creature, as if she should know and fear it, but nothing concrete came to mind. So she stayed next to the nameless blue pegasus and waited for the creature to catch up.
The creature quickly caught up to the two waiting ponies. “Hello, I’m looking for someone named Diana, have you seen her?” it asked.
“I am Diana, why were you looking for me?” she replied.
Before the biped could answer the other pony sighed with relief. “So that’s your name!” he exclaimed. “I knew I should have known what it was but I simply couldn’t recall it.”
“In that case I hope you won’t think it rude if I ask for your name? I can’t seem to recall yours either.” Diana said abashedly.
Diana’s unease grew stronger when she heard his name. It didn’t ring any bells but somewhere deeper down she felt a certainty that this was a very important name to her, one she would never have forgotten by mere chance. Heart full of trepidation she turned back to the biped. “Now that you know our names, would you mind telling us your name as well?”
The creature shook its head sadly. “My kind does not receive names, just titles. I’m the captain of the wall; call me Captain.”
Watchwing and Diana exchanged a skeptical look. The instinctual and casual nature of the look confirmed for both that they were well acquainted even if the how or why of it escaped them. Watchwing spoke their mutual question. “You clearly aren’t a pony, would you mind telling us what you are and why you were looking for Diana?”
“I am a homunculus,” Captain said proudly. “A being of great honor and power. As for why I was looking for Diana…I don’t really know.” The pride in its voice had vanished, replaced with confusion. “All I can remember is that I was seeking somepony named Diana. But…I don’t even know what to do now that I’ve found you.”
Captain’s situation sounded eerily similar to Diana’s own memory loss. Twice is a coincidence, three times and something’s going on. She turned to Watchwing and inquired “What about you? Can you remember where you were going?”
“I was looking for a tree of some kind but…” He trailed off and shook his head. “I don’t know why.”
A healthy dose of panic was settling in Diana’s stomach but she forced her voice to remain calm. “In other words, none of us have any personal memories other than our name and the immediate task we were just engaged in. Is that correct?” They nodded.
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the gentle plinking sound the rain made as it hit the water, while the three of them considered their situation. Watchwing was the first to speak. “It seems to me” he said carefully “that the old adage ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there’ applies rather well in this situation. Regardless of our unknown long term goals we would still be well served by finding shelter.”
Diana smiled. “Well, hay, the only goal I recall was following you anyway, so lead on.”
“Might I come along as well?” Captain asked diffidently. Diana’s instincts were screaming at her to refuse, to get as a far away from Captain as possible. However, before she could figure out a way to do so, Watchwing had already answered in the affirmative and without a concrete reason Diana didn’t feel she could gainsay him.
So they set off, with Watchwing in the lead, Captain in the middle, and Diana bringing up the rear. With only two ponies it had been quiet walk but having a third member livened things up. Conversation flowed easily as they questioned one another to see what memories could be brought to the surface. While not terribly productive, it certainly made an otherwise dreary walk much more interesting. Still Diana worried. Her instinctual rapport with Watchwing suggested that he was trustworthy but Captain, on the other hoof, made her exceedingly nervous and for no good reason.
Diana allowed the conversation to pass her by as she turned her mind to the cause of their current state. Hmm, the way I see it the odds of three unrelated cases of natural amnesia so close together are infinitesimally low. Therefore there is probably an external source that caused the memory loss for all three of us. Now I don’t remember where Watchwing or I was before this but, since Captain approached from a different direction, it seems likely that she didn’t come from the same place that we did. So whatever caused us to lose our memory is probably present in this swamp. Diana glanced around hopefully. Alas, nothing in the immediate vicinity bore a sign saying ‘amnesiac’.
Okay, I didn’t really expect it to be that easy. Let’s think what’s in the swamp. All I can think of is water and the occasional underwater plant. The plants can probably be ruled out since there are so few and Captain probably hasn’t encountered the same plants that we have anyway. The water then?
Reaching for her magic, Diana tried to scan it to detect any abnormal effects it might have, a task complicated by the fact that she had no idea what she was doing. An idea suggested itself to her, inspired by Watchwing’s method of sight, which she remembered for some unknown reason. She concentrated for a moment and emitted a pulse designed to bounce off, and by so doing light up, any other magic it encountered. Nothing happened but there was no way to know if that was because the spell was flawed or if it was because there was nothing to discover. Either way, her magic had made her thirsty. The amateur magician lowered her head and took a small sip of the water, swirling it around in her mouth to see if she could detect any abnormalities that way. She couldn’t. But then, there was no reason to think the water would taste different even if it had caused the memory loss. Shrugging, she swallowed the water and glanced around again.
It would be a hay of a lot easier to find possible causes if the mist weren’t obscuring everything. Wait…the mist! Her excitement grew as she prepared to cast her improvised magic detection spell again, this time aiming it at the mist that surrounded the three travelers. Immediately, the mist began to glow, dimly at first, then brighter and brighter. A golden shell of light, caused by her spell spread outward in all directions, its light refracted into thousands of brilliant rays by the falling drops of rain. It was a scintillating display of radiance but unfortunately proved to be of little use illuminating their environs as the mist rapidly returned to its previous opaque state. Only after it was finished did Diana realize that Captain was staring at her questioningly.
“Looks like my magic still works, good to know.” she said as nonchalantly as she could.
The Captain nodded in agreement. “It’s always good to know what tools you have at your disposal. Still that was a rather flashy way to go about it, no?”
Diana let her head hang slightly. “It was flashier than I expected. And considering the difficulty I had casting it I don’t think I was ever very good at magic to being with.” Good, this way she won’t ask what spell I was casting. I don’t think I want her to know about the mist quite yet. Besides, neither of them can use magic and I have no idea what kind of spell might reverse this. So the optimal solution is to leave the mist as soon as possible, which we’re trying to do anyway.
“Are you guys coming or what?” Watchwing called back over his shoulder. His ‘sight’ couldn’t pick up light so all he had seen was his two companions stopping for no apparent reason.
“Coming!” Diana called. She and Captain trotted to catch up and Captain resumed her previous conversation with Watchwing. Meanwhile, Diana’s thoughts had returned to the mist. Surreptitiously, she telekinetically lifted a small rag from her saddle bags. It floated in the mist, imbibing the strange gas. When the rag grew damp with water vapor Diana wrapped it in a magical cocoon to prevent the substance from leaking out, all the while lamenting her inability to do so more efficiently. It left her feeling faint but by the end she had a sample of the mist carefully preserved inside the cloth.
If I’m right about Captain then this might come in handy
Pleased with her preparations Diana shook off the spell induced lethargy and joined the others in their conversation.
Hours passed as they walked, talking of nothing, asking questions, receiving answers. It was pleasant really, and for a time Diana forgot the nagging worry at the back of her mind. Though the rain was just as wet, the mist was just as obscuring and, as Diana now knew, amnesia-causing as ever the engaging conversation made it all seem less important.
All around them the water gained a slight current, flowing from left to right. It wasn’t terribly strong but Diana and Watchwing were forced to fold their wings to prevent the water from catching on them. Watchwing also had to rely on water currents to see. A more difficult and inaccurate process somewhat similar to the vision an ordinary pony would have underwater. Despite their difficulties the low center of gravity and four legs each pony possessed allowed them to keep their balance with relative ease. Not so with Captain; her greater height and two legs made even the middle current somewhat dangerous.
They came at last to a river within the swamp. There was simply no other way to describe it. The water on either side flowed slowly and calmly but in the middle it rushed past. Whitecaps rose and fell as the impossible river splashed and frothed before the travelers.
Watchwing wing bent his legs, immersing the nerve centers under his wings to the current to take a look through the water ahead of them. After a moment he straightened up with a warning. “Careful, there’s a sharp drop off where the water begins to flow swiftly. I can’t tell exactly how far down it goes but it seems pretty deep.”
Diana was dismayed. “How the hay are we going to cross this? Wings would be ideal but,” she lifted her sodden wings slightly “that isn’t exactly an option.” She caught sight of the Captains grin. “What are you smirking about?” she asked.
In answer Captain turned around, revealing a pair of black bat-like wings folded tightly against her back, kept dry by her waterproof clothing. “Wings like mine deal with water much better than pegasus wings; it’s the lack of feathers see? I can fly across, no problem.”
“Ok that works for you, then how are we going to get across?” There was a moment of silence as the three considered Watchwing’s question.
“Oh! I’ve got it!” Diana turned and began rooting through her pack. “This should be all we’ll need” she said, pulling out a long coil of rope.
The other two exchanged a look. “Care to enlighten us, Diana?” Watchwing asked. “A rope might work if we had something to tie it to but as it is I don’t see how that helps us.”
“Simple. Captain flies over with one end of the rope. You both pull from either side to keep it tight. I wrap one wing around it to keep myself steady against the current and swim across. Then I hold the other end with telekinesis and Watchwing swims across. Nice and easy.”
Watchwing was understandably hesitant. “From what I heard earlier today you probably aren’t very good with spells. Are you sure you can hold it tight enough with just your magic?”
“Absolutely, telekinesis is hardly even a spell. It’s the first thing any magic user learns.” Diana refused to allow even a trace of uncertainty color her confident response. “Trust me, I can hold it tight. Besides, unless you want to turn back we have to cross and I can’t think of any other way to do so.”
“What if the rope breaks?” Watchwing asked, still unconvinced.
“Then a transparent frog that’s really a prince in disguise will jump out of the river and hold the rope together until you cross and you’ll have to marry it in exchange.” Diana deadpanned. “It’d be a shame to get married that way but at least you’ll survive.”
Captain nodded sagely. “Ah yes, the transparent frog princes, I hear they’re common around these parts.”
“Fine!” He glared at them but their smirks held firm against its withering effect. “You win, we’ll try it. Just don’t complain to me when we all get washed away and drown.”
“Noted, there will be no postmortem complaints. I’ll just take that.” Captain grabbed one end of the rope. “See ya on the other side.” Her wings spread through special flaps in her clothing and she leapt upward, taking to the air.
The rope was only marginally longer than the embedded river was wide, so Captain was forced to fly low over the water. Unfortunately, this put her too low to escape when an especially large wave came rushing downriver. Diana and Watchwing could only watch helplessly as the wave swatted Captain into the roiling waters below.
Caught in the fearsome flow, Captain repeatedly strove to surface and was repeatedly pulled under. Meanwhile, she was being rapidly ferried along by the current and the rope was unwinding behind her. Moving quickly, Diana just managed to bite down on the end of the rope and dig in her heels, bracing for the impact. It struck without warning. Suddenly, the line grew taught and Diana felt herself being dragged forward, towards the dangerous river. Watchwing caught her tail and braced her from behind but pegasi tend to be light and his weight was insufficient to halt her forward slide.
Desperate, Diana reached out with telekinesis and sought to pull Captain toward her. She’d never tried to move anything that heavy before and the constant disappearances interrupted her spell. For a moment it seemed her power was insufficient and they would all be dragged to their deaths. To the ponies’ credit, even when it seemed they would be dragged to their deaths along with the captain neither considered releasing the rope. Fortunately, a lull in the river’s ferocity allowed Captain to stay surfaced for several seconds, allowing Diana to establish a firm telekinetic grip on her. Between the efforts of might and magic Captain was slowly dragged back into the safety of the swamp.
The group collapsed, panting, into the slower moving water. The sudden effort had taken a lot out of them. Diana was the first to recover. She turned to Watchwing with a hint of her previous smile on her face. “Oh ye of little faith, I told you the rope would hold.”
Captain burst out laughing. Watchwing and Diana exchanged looks; they didn’t remember that laughter was Discord’s Prayer, but the unfamiliar action still unsettled them. However, Captain’s moment of levity quickly passed and she spoke seriously to the ponies. “I owe you, both of you. You saved my life. This might be the memory loss talking but I don’t believe anyone else I’ve met would have risked themselves to save me as you did. Truly, I won’t forget that. Thanks.”
She shook the water off her wings and smiled. “Ah, the advantages of not having feathers. Give me a moment more and I’ll be ready to try again. This time I’ll fly over first and you send the rope over afterward with your magic, sound good Diana?”
Diana nodded. “Sounds like a better plan. Sorry, I should have considered this more carefully.”
“We all should have. Still, as long as Captain’s careful there’s no reason it won’t work.”
Captain nodded her agreement at Watchwing’s words. “Now let’s give this another try.” No ill-timed waves interrupted the Captain’s flight this time around and the ponies’ crossings were similarly uneventful. The three of them continued on; glad to be past the strange swamp dwelling river.
Eventually, the ground began to slope upwards. The mist began to thin and trees began to reappear. The waters receded and the ground firmed underhoof until at last they left the marsh behind and reentered the forest proper. It was late by then and the last vestiges of orange light were rapidly receding beyond the western skyline. Still the travelers continued, wanting to put as much ground as possible between themselves and the odd marsh.
At last Watchwing called for a halt. Diana didn’t say anything but she was glad to be stopping for the night. Her earlier spells had taken a lot out of her and there had been nowhere to rest in the swamp. She did wonder, though, why he had called a halt at that particular point.
As if reading her mind Watchwing gestured toward the nearest tree. “I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the tree I was originally looking for but I’m very glad to see one of its kind nonetheless. It’s called Traveler’s Pine. See the downward diagonal angle to the branches and the thickness of the needles? It keeps the area around its trunk dry and causes any fallen branches to fall inside. Furthermore, the sap’s consistency and composition makes it very fire resistant. So, between the free kindling, shelter, and fire resistance, it makes an ideal resting place for weary travelers such as the three of us.” He pulled aside a low hanging branch and they filed inside.
It was dark inside, the branches proved as adept at blocking the remaining sunlight as they were at blocking the rain. Captain and Diana hesitated near the entrance, waiting for their eyes to adjust. Watchwing was rummaging through his pack. He withdrew a small object and gave it a sharp rap with his hoof. Immediately, a warm glow emanated from the rock he held, illuminating the space beneath the tree.
“It’s called a solar geode.” He said in answer to their questioning glances. “It absorbs sunlight and emits it when you tap it. This way we can all start warming up and drying off while we get the fire going.”
“So that’s what it’s called. I’ve been wondering about the light source from the first night in your cave.” Diana gasped. “Wait! I remember your cave!”
Captain smiled. “I was wondering when you’d notice. Our memories have been coming back in bits and pieces since we left the marsh. For instance, I remember that I was a soldier, though that was sort of obvious given the title my name comes from. What about you, Watchwing?”
“Let’s see…I think I grew up in a village outside this forest. I still don’t remember how I came to live here but I do remember finding Diana and most of what followed. Unfortunately, I still don’t recall any more details about the purpose of this little adventure.”
“I’m the same way, vague details are starting to fill in but I don’t remember why I was looking for Diana.” Captain said glumly.
Diana looked from one morose face to the other. “Cheer up. at least we know our memories are coming back. I’m sure everything will be back in place soon. Let’s get a fire going now; you’ll both feel better when you’re not soaking wet. Captain please cut some of the lower branches, Watchwing you start preparing some food and I’ll gather kindling and get the fire started.”
Watchwing and Captain shook off their melancholy and set to the tasks Diana had assigned.
Everyone worked quickly, shouting out to the others every now and then as a specific memory returned. Before long a fire was burning cheerfully and the evening meal was ready. They were famished and swiftly devoured the food, enjoying it more for the temperature than the taste. Diana was hoping that they could talk after dinner, share more of their returning memories. However, she found a full belly and warm fire too soporific to resist and was soon fast asleep.
Diana awoke staring down the business end of a sword. She blinked and raised her eyes to the sword’s owner. A moment of confusion followed as she strove to reconcile the friendly smiling Captain she remembered from the previous evening with the grim faced warrior standing over her now. Then the memory of their previous confrontation filled her mind. Her eyes widened in fear and she tried to push herself back, away from the sword.
Captain laughed a cruel mocking sound that was a far cry from the easy laughter of yesterday. She stepped closer, moving the sword to Diana’s neck, and knelt down so that they were at eye level. “Oh good, you remember me. I remember you, Diana Piecus. I’ve been sent to kill you and indeed nothing would make me happier.”
She was about to strike a fatal blow when she hesitated a moment and then lowered her blade. “You saved my life though, back at the river, and I owe you something for that. So here’s what’s going to happen. After we conclude our business I’m going to fly away. I’ll make my excuses to my superiors and hold off the search for you for three days. When those three days are up my debt for saving my life will be paid and I will devote every erg of my not inconsiderable skills to finding and ending you. Sound good?”
“Just what makes you think we’ll let you leave here alive?” Diana had regained her courage while the captain was speaking but fear lent her voice a stronger edge that she would have chosen given her vulnerable situation. “The two of us should be able to handle you and I’m sure you’d agree its best not to leave enemies alive.”
“Hello? I’m holding a sword to your throat. That means I decide how this is going to go down. So either it happens as I said or you die right here, you and Watchwing both. Make your choice.”
“Diana’s mouth curled with distaste at accepting Captain’s charity but she really didn’t have a choice. “Fine, leave and we’ll take your three days”
Captain nodded and stood up. She walked to the exit and was about to leave when she stopped and called over her shoulder. “Oh, Diana?” Faster than the eye could follow she lunged across the intervening space and drove her sword clean through Diana’s right front hoof. “I pay all my debts.” She whispered menacingly.
Pain exploded from Diana’s leg and coursed through her body. She wanted nothing more than to scream but a perverse sense of pride kept her from it. She didn’t scream when I stabbed her, I won’t scream now. I won’t give her the satisfaction she thought angrily. Blood bubbled from the wound and flowed down her leg as Captain withdrew the blade. She whipped her arm sideways, splattering the blade’s blood on the wall of branches, then sheathed the newly clean weapon and left.
Upon her exit Watchwing immediately jumped up and began pulling supplies from his bag. He was muttering to himself. “Let’s see, crushed Eucalyptus, Aloe, and something to hold it closed…there.” Having found the supplies he was looking for he dashed over to Diana. Using a paste, presumably made from the materials he had mentioned, he cleaned out the wound and placed a liberal helping of the gel over top of it then wrapped it in a tight tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Only when that was finished did he turn his attention to Diana’s eyes and the anger contained therein.
“Thank you for the first aid.” Her voice was tightened with strain, as if she was trying very hard to not lash out at Watchwing. “May I just ask why you didn’t help earlier, before the first aid was necessary?”
He flinched at the harsh accusation in her tone and hurriedly explained himself. “I only woke up after she had the sword out. From your description of her I figured that she wouldn’t have any compunction about killing you in your sleep; since she didn’t kill you while you were still asleep it seemed logical that she wasn’t planning on killing you at all. I didn’t expect her to hurt you at the end there though, I’m sorry.”
Diana’s expression softened. “No, you’re right. If you’d suddenly attacked her she probably would have just killed me outright. I’m not mad at you, I just…I hate being powerless. Having to lie there hoping Captain would let me live on a whim…it was awful. I wonder if bloodlust isn’t preferable…” She trailed off and shook her head. “Well in any case let’s not do that again hmm?”
“Agreed” Watchwing said with a small smile. She smiled back through the pain in her limb and started struggling to her feet. “What do you think you’re doing?” Watchwing scolded. “You shouldn’t stand on that leg for at least another three days. Now like back down.”
“I can handle it. I deferred to you about my wing since they’re more complicated but limbs are simple enough that I can get away with ignoring it. I’m part earth pony remember? We’re tougher and recover faster than other ponies. Between that and using my wings for extra support I shouldn’t even slow us down. Besides, considering what we’ve been through so far I want to get to where we’re going before anything else goes wrong.”
Watchwing frowned but he admitted to himself that he’d rather not stay in an unfamiliar part of the forest with an injured pony any longer than he had to anyway. “Fine, we can get going. If it starts to hurt-” he paused, then rephrased what he’d been about to say. “I know it’s going to hurt. If the pain gets significantly worse or starts to feel odd in any way let me know. I’ll not have you losing a leg on my watch.”
Diana just nodded absently, listening with half an ear as she repacked her saddlebags and lifted them onto her back. Watchwing sighed at her lack of attention. He packed his own bag and together they set off on the last leg of their journey into the depths of the wood.