The arrowed sign was taunting her with the northward pointing directions. Las Pegasus. The sign proudly messaged to all travelers that the city full of entertainment was less than two day’s walk, but neglected to tell of what lie on the other path westward.
So Trixie demolished it.
Her horn’s aura faded and she glowered at the partly broken wood that still gave clear directions. Days away and that city still mocks me, she brooded. Her foul mood led her to kicking the sign with her good leg. And she missed. The ground quickly greeted the falling unicorn’s recent bruise and elicited a muffled whimper.
Trixie lay there with the sign fragment a few hooves away from her muzzle. She groaned and flicked the wood away with magic, claiming her small victory.
A zephyr stirred the mare back onto her hooves. After she brushed herself off best she could, Trixie initially stomped down the path like an elephant but was instantly reminded about her injuries. She continued away from the sign and city with a hobbling, but still angry, gait.
The brisk morning made way for the cloudy afternoon, and Trixie determined that a small snack and nap were in order. Her small nap quickly turned into a full afternoon of slumber. Though the moon shone brightly, a lanky and almond colored colt was the one to wake her.
Trixie’s eyes snapped open. She let out a whinny and scrambled onto her hooves, and then let out another when her bruises tried to advise her to lay back down. She glared like a cocatrice at the colt who had the audacity to wake her; his shaggy, brown mane and goofy grin was not what she wished to wake to.
She ground her teeth. “What do you want?” Her pulse started to settle and the throb in her shoulder lessened.
“Oh, well, the camp and everypony else is up ahead and it’s almost night. Didn’t want to leave you behind and miss out on the eats.” The mirth in his voice betrayed him of his innocent nature. The scraggy earth pony had an armament of satchels fixed to his midsection and a broad leather pouch hanging from his neck. His eyes shifted from hers to her back, where she slept, then finally to her injury.
His grin vanished as he made his conclusion and let anxiety momentarily crack his speech. “What happened?! Oh my, did you get robbed? Are you okay? Did somepony attack you? Should I go get-”
She snapped, “Sweet Celestia, will you shut it? Who goes around waking sleeping ponies to play twenty questions?”
He could only will himself to occasionally return her glare and attempted to fix his gaze on the oddly enchanting rock at his hooves. He muttered something incoherent and barely nudged the rock, as if to start building a wall to protect him from the unicorn’s wrath.
Trixie looked at her shoulder and soon found the conclusion that he had made. She managed to dilute some of the venom in her tone. “Care to explain why you woke me?” She shifted her stance to be less menacing
“Uhh. . .” His words chose to latch onto his tongue rather than escape his lips. The earth pony managed to grunt out: “Huh?”
Trixie asked, “Well?”
His throat rasped but quickly settled into mostly audible muttering. “I just thought that, uhh-”
She finished for him. “-I got robbed? Mauled?” She sighed and kicked aside the rock that her conversation companion constantly fiddled with. She sat down. “No, I wasn’t vandalized or robbed.” Her mind came full circle to his first statement, absolutely bewildered by the statement. “And what do mean by everypony else?”
The colt instantly replaced his angst with confidence and stopped stumbling on his words; mirth filled his voice once again. “Yeah. The others are up head, and it’s almost dinner.” Trixie followed his eyes to the sky and saw that evening twilight would soon be upon them. “I just didn’t think you’d want to miss dinner.” He stuck his hoof out. “I’m Featherfoot. And, uhh, sorry ‘bout earlier.”
Trixie returned his shake and said, “I’m Trixie. And it’s fine that you woke me.” The air about him seemed lighter the moment he was pardoned. He almost floated on the winds of forgiveness, earning a glower from Trixie.
“Great! Let’s head to camp.” He trotted a few paces before realizing he was not being accompanied by the mare. “Hey, Trixie, you coming?”
She groaned as she calmly rose. Her joints clicked like clockwork and her mind ticked in less and less anger at the perpetrator of her rest. “So, you plan on telling me who ‘everypony else’ is?” They both set down the path. “And why are you camping?”
Her momentum carried a few feet further than the perplexed clot. He asked, “Wait, you’re not part of the Adventurers Alliance, are you?”
“The what?” He expected her to bore into his soul with a glare that could put out a star, but instead he received a genuine look of confusion.
“Oh! One sec.” He buried his head into his front pouch and pulled out a golden neckerchief embroidered with a white circular shield that was pierced by Celestia’s solar sigil in the middle. He offered her the craftsmareship. “See, it’s what new members get. You didn’t have one or any bags with you, so I kind of, well, thought you were mugged.” He let out a short and nervous titter.
He stumbled closer to her a bit and tied the cloth around her neck. “There, you can be an honorary member for today.” Trixie’s face weakly flushed, but she was thankful it wasn’t enough to glow through her coat. He laughed and said, “Now, you look like an adventurer. Well, you don’t have any bags.” He fiddled with the belt holding his neck pouch, but surrendered his attempt to give her one of his bags and shrugged. “Close enough. Now we make for camp!” He proudly marched down the path as Trixie strolled along, still disarmed by the confounding colt.
The quiet hike led up to a tall and wide mound in the earth with faint glow and shapes of tents that masked the harvest moon. The colt felt the need to break the silence. “So, I guess you ought to know a few things to be weary of. Some of the ponies are … a little bit out there. The oldest ones usually have been to farthest reaches beyond Equestria.” He gave a glimpse behind him then dropped his volume as low as possible. “One of them even has even been into Changeling hive! They say he still has the bite marks from fighting with some. And he always wears a black scarf to hide them.”
His treading lessened as he calmed and returned to the lulled pace set by Trixie. “So, have you, you know, been on any cool adventures? It’s awful far the cities out here, and well,” he hesitated, fearing the wrath that could become him, but blurted out, “you kind of got an city girl accent.”
To his good health, Trixie continued walking. “Yes, I might have a ‘city accent’, but that’s because I’m composed. I am a traveling showmare.” Her body straightened up and her smile curved while she gave a pulsing glimmer from her horn. “Trixie has expectations. She cannot afford to sound like some unintelligible ruffian or hick.”
He chuckled at her theatrics. “You did seem to sleep too soundly under that tree. No real city girl would be like that. Some would probably think getting dirt in your mane is,” he took his turn at theatrics, sounding feminine as he could and gasping on every word, “the worst possible thing!”
Trixie riposted, “Well, I might not always look ay my best, but when I am, it’s magnificent.” She smirked at him and stretched the neckerchief out some. “Also, at last I look like I have some experience on the road. For an explorer, you look too well kept … city boy.”
The phrase snapped him to attention, the rustling his burden of belongings ceased and this time the unicorn left him a few paces behind. “City boy? I’m not a … I am a … I-” He resigned his head in defeat.
Trixie stopped and called back, “What was that? I couldn’t quite hear you.”
He sighed. “Fine. I’m from Canterlot. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to hike.” He trotted to her side and beckoned her to continue their small trudge to the top. “So, how can you tell? Should I scruff up my mane or maybe try to make a fake scar or two? Scars are pretty cool.”
She interjected, “No, a scar wouldn’t make you cool. Also, you’re hair is already a mess.” She snickered as he stopped to viciously roughen his mane but failed to make any progress. She teased, “Hmm, you might have made it better.”
He made a second effort more ferocious than the first, but only earned more giggling form Trixie. He groaned and brooded as he stomped to close the distance. “Dang, how do you do it? You seem like you’ve been out on the road for ages!” He noticed his last comment led to her laughter dissolving and a small drooping in her stature; guilt bound his tongue from apologizing.
She almost felt pity to see the easily excited and carefree colt pin his ears and drag his hooves. “It’s fine on the road.” She shortened her stride. “I’m happiest when traveling.”
He matched her steps and her reserve, which she dropped first. “So, why’d you do it? Join the club, I mean. Canterlot is a nice city.”
He spouted out his response as if he had recited it for a school foal’s play. “Because my big sis already made a name for herself!”
He blushed at how silly he sounded. “My family has been full of writers, scholars, athletes, everything.” He flicked a rock off the road. “I don’t have wings like my sister or magic like dad. And I didn’t want to join the Guard like grandpa Heavyfoot. So I decided to try a lot of stuff.”
He looked at his flank, peering at the spot of burlap that covered his cutie mark. “When I got a cutie mark of two horse shoes, I felt so generic.” He looked up to admire the motley shapes of the stars be dwarfed by the luminosity of the moon. “My sister is the one that pushed me to try hiking and whatnot. She’d tell me, ‘You don’t need wings or a horn to move the stars.’”
That won him a stifled laugh from Trixie. “Yeah, it’s really corny. I even told her that! But one day she just tossed me a sack, booted me out, and said, ‘Go find a another mountain and climb it you loaf.’” He couldn’t resist reminiscing, occasionally needing to hasten to a trot to keep with Trixie. “So I walked to the bottom of the mountain out of anger (I had never left Canterlot before), it started to pour. Luckily, the big beautiful moon eventually led me home. I didn’t even notice I earned my mark! Sis was so proud.”
His rambling led her eyes to reflect the moon; it had risen and was no longer blotted by the camp ahead nor the portrait of a mare she had grown fond of; she missed the kindred spirit that traveled the skies as she traveled the roads. Now it had a clear shine like the eyes of the colt she traveled with.
Her mind grounded itself. “... so that’s why I signed up. I was told that same day a some blue unicorn with a star on her rump was a magical prodigy who wanted to be part of the group.”
Trixie snorted. “I’m not blue, you dolt. I’m azure.” Her heart swelled and stride lengthened. “But I am well versed in magic and have a magnificent cutie mark. Don’t you agree?” She saw his eyes shift to her cutie mark, so she teased him into a trap with a playful stroke of her tail across his lower leg.
He stuttered and stumbled, almost meeting the ground on a personal level. She relieved him from her playful ploy. “Oh look, we’re almost there. Stop letting the pebbles tangle your hooves.”
As they rounded the top of the hill, Trixie smelt the drifting ashes of burnt pinewood and heard the whistling of sapwood, both born from the crackling bonfire. They entered the ring of tents. There was jovial laughter shared between two old friends, one was a tall and elegant zebra and the other was an alabaster mare with piercing green eyes; grand stories were told by a magnificently bearded pegasus coated in purple and guffawed at every terrified squeal sang by the chorus of fillies; a tent was partially opened unveiling a mare, tinted the softest of pinks, singing an aria that the most melodic birds would be envious over. Trixie was taken aback by the sudden swell of life, such a contrast to the desolate road; the shift almost suffocated her temporary traveling companion.
Then she spoke; her tone was steady and emotional as the dance steps of the yearly gala. “You’re late. Oh well, it was expected.” The midnight blue mare rose from her seat, donning a matching neckerchief to the one on Trixie, which was noticed immediately. “You are not Featherfoot. He is not a unicorn.” Her utterances were nothing more than the obvious and had no force behind them, but somehow they were insulting to Trixie.
Featherfoot spoke before Trixie could; his ever jubilant nature ignored the contention Trixie felt. “Haha, she’s a friend of mine. Told her she could be an honorary member for today.” He offered his hoof. “So you’re Solaris, right?”
She merely nodded. “Yes, I am.”
Featherfoot gingerly set his hoof down and began to debate with himself whether or not Solaris would want to become his friend. That debate was soon interrupted.
The bearded stallion slammed his hoof onto the large cauldron and shouted, “Soup’s on young’uns.” Solaris noiselessly departed and left a sore Trixie and conflicted Featherfoot behind.
They joined and mingled amongst the crowd of hardened adventurers, occasional campers, and sobered elders. The bearded pony greeted them with a saucer of searing soup and a frightening hug for Trixie: ”The more the merrier, and guests are more than welcome,” which she was not prepared to receive. The pair found a vacant, felled log and waited for the soup to become a non hazard for their tongues.
After Trixie took her spot, the gleam of her horn pulled the neckerchief off and tossed it onto his back. “Here, I’m not you. I don’t need this.” Her glower was aimed at the nonchalant, monotone unicorn who accepted the attention of a high pitched mare in a stupor of salt and nostalgia. To her right was a stone coated stallion, his eyes were faded diamonds and his neck was enveloped by a tattered and aged, black scarf. Those eyes seemed to be looking everywhere at once, but were rather intent on burning themselves out by glaring into the fire.
The drained cauldron droned its call. The campers halted conversations and heeded the clangor, giving their attention to vermillion earth pony. He brushed his bristles as the ever popular storyteller took his spot next to him, both resting on the only mahogany timber.
The younger of the two introduced himself and his fellow. “Welcome everypony, I am Red Stone and my friend is Sky Swirl. It’s heartening to see a full turnout for the fifth meet in a row along with our two newest, official members joining us.” His fierce eyes scanned past the flames in the center of the encampment, not judging but knowing who was capable. “I will make this simple. We will set out as a group tomorrow, but we will reach a point where some of you will turn back.”
He eyed the showmare and colt. “There will be a point where I cannot promise to protect you, so you will stop before then and return to here with Sir Swirl.” He had pointed to his second in command, and now at the prodigy. “Miss Solaris is currently the only one who will continue past the edge of Equestria that hasn’t done so before.” He cleared his throat. “The rest of you should not feel upset; even the princesses occasionally worry about what lies past that borders. Fret not, your acceptance into the Alliance means, in time, you too will join us.”
He looked for a nod confirmation form his old friend, and concluded, “That is all for tonight. Please, acquaint yourselves with everypony else best you can and make certain to sleep well.” He chuckled heartily. “Now, my new friends, relax your hooves and enjoy this wonderful autumn evening.”
The ponies moseyed back into their cliques, but those on occasion would merge into larger ones, unconsciously obeying the commands of the their leader. The loud banter, cheerful comments, and shared embraces helped found newly burgeoning friendships for all the excited travelers.
The noises, however, were ignored by Trixie as she slunk off to the side and accompanied two stallions, the bearded one and his conversation partner, Featherfoot. They stopped talking. She said, “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt, just wanted to get away from the yelling.”
The younger responded, “Oh, don’t worry Trixie. This is Sir Swirl, he was just telling me this awesome story of his first time across the border.” His excitement was almost contagious, but Trixie remained steadfastly upset over the first pony meet at the camp.
The older stallion’s soothing tone assuaged and swayed Trixie to stay. “Don’t you fret, missy, I was just about to start.”
He started, “Even I took a few meets to be allowed past the border, but the club is right to do so; some things out there are magical, some wonderful.” He settled his weight and darkened his tone. “And kiddos, some things out there are terrifying beyond words.”
“See, when I went my first time, it was but a small hoof-full of us had been before. The previous head of the club was having his second foal, so we went without him.” The chatter surrounding them faded with time as more and more ponies chose early sleep over more jokes and merriment. “We saw a rare Blacktooth dragon on the first day, whose wings,” he said as he spread his wings wide as possible, “blotted the sun for hours because he was so large he could almost grab the sun!”
A soft, motherly chuckle was heard from behind Trixie. His wings returned to his side as he greeted his old friend, a beautiful zebra with a rhythmic accent and hypnotizingly orange eyes. “My old friend who amends his old tales, but our friend always mends my torn sails,” she took her spot and continued in her singsong, “and his heart is big as his beard is long, his heart that is big tells you ‘you belong’.”
Her rhymes baffled Trixie and enchanted Featherfoot, but both were knocked out of their stupors by the bellowing laugh of her oldest friend. “My good friend, Milia, your words are always too kind and beautiful.” He leaned in as if to divulge Celestia’s real name. “I was just telling them about the first dragon I had ever seen.”
His zebra friend asked, “Can you promise not to stretch the story till it’s farfetch?”
He answered, “Hmm, maybe it wasn’t hours, but it was terrifying. That Blacktooth was my first dragon I’ve ever seen. I always missed the migrations.” Milia coughed and gave him a stern look. “Right, right, I digress. So the second day, we saw a crumbling castle abandoned in an open prairie. But when we got there, it just vanished!” His dramatics and hoof waving captivated Featherfoot but were lost on Trixie.
He continued, “The remainder of the week was … disappointingly uneventful.” Laughter from the zebra met his blatantly dramatic pause. “At the start of the second week, a pair of brothers of our group wandered off on a short walk, but somehow when they reached the edge of the forest we camped in, the forest was met by a desert.” He swiped his hooves to the side. “It was as if sun was so close, it had burned off the limbs and leaves facing the desert, like the forest had built a wall to keep the desert at bay.”
His frame grew more rigid, his tonality echoed his more serious mood. “We followed what we had hoped to be their steps. We wished they had never gone there.” He coughed twice. His zebra friend slid next to him and whispered to him inaudible to the listeners, which he waved her off and responded, “No, no, the kids should know now, not later.” He exhaled. “We found ourselves standing in front of a tower that had no right to be there. The top of the tower glistened from the desert sun. We would later learn it was completely glass. And it almost scraped against the clouds. Red was the first to notice a small tear of fabric on the steps that lead up to the stone door, which opened on its own as we entered.”
Trixie started to lose her focus and watched the moon longingly; it shone its greatness down to be powerfully admired by all; ponykind, dragonkin, buffalo tribes, everyone, even Equestria’s enemies admired it. She escaped into a half-sleep, no dreams nor noise entered her mind. She ignored his prattling. “Red Stone was the one to identify the colt encased in glass. It was Cortland; one of our boys. He was frozen there, his face fixed in anger, body pointing ahead to the burnt rubble of what was a shrine and the stairs behind them where loud echoes rang down.”
He gave a polite nod to his friend as she retired for the night. “I had seen a dragon who could eat clouds whole and castles vanish before my eyes, but I wasn’t ready for the next room.” He sighed. “We found our last companion, Apricot, but we only knew that because he still was wearing our emblem around his neck. What was wearing it was a pony enveloped in a white fire, with only a pitch black helmet and haunting purple dragon eyes.”
His eyes started to water, but he rubbed them dry with his wings and progressed in the tale. “The demon that was once our friend had been smashing his helmet against the wall, but seemed to be fighting itself on where to run and always slammed awkwardly instead. Its gaze eventually fell upon us. It moaning, then shrieking as its tears sizzled on his coat as they were shed. It charged at us, but Red didn’t hesitate and charged back. They both became blurs and rumbled the chamber’s stones as they ran. Then they collided.” He smashed his hooves together for added effect. Featherfoot almost floated in the air from tilting forward. The sound effects knocked Trixie out of her trance and back to Equestria. “The helmet clanged across the floor in two pieces. Red smashed into a wall and the demon collapsed into plumes of smoke.”
“When it cleared, Apricot was prostrate. He had a gash where Red hit him and a few burn marks and lost a lot of fur, but was still breathing afterwards.” He smiled for the first time since the start of his story. “We heard shouting. ‘Apricot! Apricot!’ Somehow Cortland was released from his imprisonment. He ignored everpony and rushed to his brother’s side. I had helped Red recover his wind. We all gathered around Apricot as he woke to his brother who had broken down in tears over him.”
Sky Swirl pulled out his embroided neck wear, and showed it to the two. “This symbol means more than just adventures and fun. It means we are family, no matter what happens, we come home together.” He dried his tears once more. “That my young ponies, is why we don’t always take everypony out there.” He paused. “Ah, I have a gift.” He reached once more into his satchel and said, “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take these.”
He offered Featherfoot a pair of wristbands, both were a white velvet with a small segment of rouge and rough textile. Featherfoot instinctively asked, “Neato. Do they do anything special?” He gasped. “Can they make me shoot fire from my hooves?”
The energy jumped from Featherfoot to Sky Swirl who belly laughed at the immense display of youth. “No sonny, but they are enchanted though. They are called Bonding Bands. The red parts will always point to each other, no matter what. Try it!” And he did. Featherfoot rotated, tossed, and turned them, and the coarser patches of cloth always remained as steadfastly connected as the northern star and the earth.
He bumped Trixie and tossed her an anklet. “See, now we can find each other everywhere! Best friends foreverywhere!”
His exuberance at such an hour agitated Trixie, but she didn’t want to ruin his mood. ‘Yes, it’s wonderful. I’ll wear it.” She checked the moon’s position. “Hmm, we should be asleep by now. Thank you for the story … Sir, umm-”
Her new “best friend” interjected. “Yeah, thanks for the amazing story Sir Swirl.”
His appreciation caused a deep chuckle. “Don’t you call me Sir Swirl, or you’ll make me feel old. Call me Sky, you are my friends now.” He leaned in and whispered. “Only the princess calls me Sir Swirl. Some old gaffer in my family basically invented half the magic in his time, so they knight all of us ‘out of courtesy’. I think it’s just silly.”
Featherfoot rubbed behind his ears and looked down dejectedly. “Well, my sister is a big time,” he gagged on his own words, “Wunderbolt, so I get when ponies think you got to be amazing as he was.” He beamed at the thought of his sister’s love. “She’s the only one who cared about what I wanted and kicked me into shape. Rather than waiting for me to lay a golden egg or something.” He yawned. “Anyways, we shouldn’t keep you up. Thanks again!”
The colt hugged the elder and led Trixie to his bags. “Hey, I’ll set us up a tent.” He blushed as his mind rendered the implications. “Uhh, I can sleep outside, I do like the stars.” He started to dig into his multitude of bags to hide his flushed face.
Trixie stated plainly and tiredly, “We can split the tent. We aren’t foals.” She peered down at him and smirked. “I know you’ll behave.” She started to walk off. “I’m going to stretch my legs a bit before bed.”
Trixie walked a small half around the encampment under the inspiring moonlight before encountering the one pony she truly disliked in the group. Solaris spoke first. “You have a problem with me, it’s obvious as the coming rain. Pegasi don’t control the weather here and the rings of the moon tell me it’s coming.”
Trixie scoffed. “Let me guess, everypony has worshiped you as a prodigy all your life. Well, some of us mares earn our titles and take pride in what we will achieve. No pony can stop me from getting the recognition I’ve earned but been denied.”
Solaris, detached as always, said, “Probably not. You don’t know what real magic is. You probably use pretty lights and nothing more. I’d be amazed if you could even teleport or lift another pony by yourself.” She walked by Trixie onwards to her tent. “Goodnight.”
Trixie struggled to not yell at the pony who dismissed her as a magician. She stomped back into her tent and wordlessly took her sleeping bag. She shunned the world and temporary roomie as the coming storm kicked up leaves and bounced notes of water off the roof of the tent. Sleep didn’t come readily for either pony in the tent. His worry and her anger refused them slumber.