"Huh?" Inquired Bone Marrow, "What's a bounty?"
The zebra and unicorn had been taking stock of what rations and other travelling supplies they had left when the question suddenly arose. The two looked to each other with surprise before their attention shifted to the emaciated foal nearby. A moment of indecision took over as they moved away from Bone Marrow to whisper in discussion.
"What do we tell 'em?" The unicorn nervously asked in a conspiratorial hush. "He is a necromancer after all; don't want him to get the idea that we're going to be a threat or he might turn us into skeletons!"
The bejeweled zebra glanced at the unmoving foal in the dirt of the tunnel nearby before covering the side of his mouth to reply, "We must lie, for today is not the day to die."
The unicorn scoffed quietly, "Can you stop it with that rhyming? This is serious!"
Blinking twice in realization, the zebra grumbled, "It is the way of speaking where I am from, I have told you this several times."
The two bounty hunters continued bickering between themselves for several more minutes before coming to an agreed upon answer to the foal's simple question.
"Ya see," began the nervous unicorn, "A bounty is like a... a 'Lost and Found' advertisement for ponies. We're bounty hunters, and that means we go out and find missing ponies to bring 'em to whoever put up the paper."
Bone's eyes squinted with suspicion. "Who would look for me?" He pointed nearby to the hole filled with ash, "Everypony I know died over there in that pit."
The unicorn's lips scrunched back into his mouth in a vain attempt to metaphorically eat his words before they could be spoken. Looking rapidly between the foal and his zebra counterpart, he jabbed his head towards the small necromancer as if to beckon a reply in his stead lest he say something else that would get them both killed from the expected threat Bone Marrow represented.
"A... distant relative of yours posted the request." The zebra carefully replied, his face a mask of calm while he looked expectantly at the foal hoping he would accept the lie as is. "If we do not move now, I fear she may have gone looking elsewhere."
Attempting to stand on his hooves proved more difficult than Bone Marrow had been expecting, the effort causing his legs to buckle as he fell to the floor in a small puff of dust. The foal's raspy grumbling announced his frustration. Lifting his shaky head, the foal looked slowly between the two bounty hunters.
"Could..." he began with a pout, "Could one of you put me on your back or something? My legs aren't working right."
The two hunters gave a sigh of relief, the Zebra moving closer to set down his saddlebags. "You should be small enough to fit inside of this, though if you feel ill or hungry you should let us know."
"Yeah, we get you able to move, the sooner we can be out of this creepy cave. How's that sound, uh... friend?" The unicorn added with an overly eager smile.
The bag was indeed large, as his now thin and nearly skeletal body was dwarfed by the cotton satchel. Attempting to climb into the bag quickly proved futile as his limbs no longer had the strength to pull himself into it, leading the zebra to stand on his hind legs in order to pick up the frail necromancer and place him in the bags. An unbuttoned flap that normally secured the contents of the bag was draped over Bone's head, allowing him some cover from the rain that poured outside as well as any questioning ponies they may come across; the concealment giving some additional relief to the bounty hunters' need for secrecy and security, as well as the embarrassed Bone Marrow's sense of self respect.
More thankful to be finally leaving the cave than curious about what a bounty hunter actually did, seeing as if somepony lost a cat they wouldn't hire a cat hunter, Bone Marrow was delighted to feel the first drops of rain land on his muzzle that peeked from the satchel on the zebra's side. This elation was dimmed somewhat by the charred remains of his home town of Scoria as well as the signs that condemned the mine by order of the Royal Guard, barring entry for those not authorized by Princess Celestia herself.
The group made their way through the ghost town that once bustled with friendly ponies going about their daily lives, slipping down muddy inclines and leaping over puddles with a questionable depth. Passing buildings, Bone Marrow gave a bitter-sweet nostalgic commentary on the places he remembered.
"That store over on the left!" He pointed eagerly with a small hoof poking from the side of the zebra's bag, "That was the one Sour Dough used to run! All kinds of different breads, mostly local, but they were nice to let me sit around and enjoy the smells."
The tiny muzzle shifted along with the soaked top that rested on it, and a hoof soon pointed to another building. "That one was Matron Saint's orphanage. We never really had any orphaned foals, now that I think about it, but she was a nice pony anyways."
Shifting in the bag continued and another building was spotted, this time with far less excitement. "That... used to be my house." Bone paused for a moment, his hoof slowly retracting back into the bag. A muffled sigh came from within, "I liked living there."
The two bounty hunters shared a pained look of sympathy for the foal's plight before willing themselves to press onward. They had a bounty to collect, and they'd certainly heard more than one sad story from a pony before. It had never been a foal before of course, but the money they got from their work was usually enough to drown any sad feelings in alcohol later on.
Bone Marrow looked from the rear of the saddlebag as the town slowly shrank into the horizon. Burned out buildings that had once been colorful and full of cheer were now piles of soggy dust, melted nails, and wet charcoal for scavengers. The young foal gave one last look before hiding from the world; a look that ended with a whisper of, "Goodbye, Mom and Dad."
A few hours had passed since Bone Marrow stirred from his place within the saddlebag, the sun having shifted to a mid-day position of welcoming warmth to the soaked group. They now traveled through a forest that accompanied the sounds of singing birds, rustling leaves and pine needles, chittering squirrels and the occasional Deer-folk that had skittishly apologized for intruding on their pleasant walk before leaping away into the forest to leave the group alone once more.
"What are you going do with your share of the bounty?" The zebra asked with a raised eyebrow of interest, "Spend in all on alcohol and salt as you usually do?"
"Hey, I get some sandwiches in along with those other things too ya know," The unicorn quipped with a sly grin. "Nah, this one's gonna pay so much I might just retire. Ten thousand gold pieces for my share, ten thousand for yours? That's a whole load of gold and it doesn't look like I have the lifetime left to spend it all. Gotta settle down, spend it wisely, maybe start up a family." The unicorn looked to the ground ahead in contemplation for a moment before asking, "What are you gonna do with yours, buy a new village for your tribe?"
"My tribe is doing well, though I thank you for the consideration," The zebra replied with a sincere smile of his own. "I think that I should instead use the money I will earn to open a school for my kind, a place of deeper learning and understanding between ponies and zebra; If such a thing is even possible."
Bone Marrow had been awoken by the two hunter's conversation and was now listening in as well as the cotton bag's insulation would allow.
"Open up a university with ten thousand gold pieces?" The unicorn asked with some skepticism, "That seems like you're going to need more than that to get it started. Would your school have any income?"
"I had considered the price of admission to be a limiting factor, but I suppose students could pay in different ways, like discovering artifacts that would allow for a museum to open as well," The zebra mused. "I am certain there are adventurous ponies without the nerves to visit the jungles themselves that would love to admire the treasures of far away lands kept in a place of safety, away from the dangers of actual exploration."
"What, a place where you just come to look at things?" The unicorn's eye twitched, "Sounds like a waste of time. Why not charge ponies to come have a look? That way you get the fancy nobles paying for the bragging rights to announce 'Lo, I hath seen the glory of this piece of fabric from yonder empire of the sand!" He added with an overly posh accent accompanied by grandiose hoof gestures and smug expressions.
A tiny white muzzle poked from the zebra's bag, "Does that mean we're going to Canterlot?" He asked with some excitement, "I've always wanted to visit there!"
The zebra replied with a disheartened sigh, "No, we are taking you to your relative in a nearby town. Last we were there, there had been some sort of commotion as we left." Turning his head to speak towards Bone Marrow, he added, "It shouldn't be much longer, actually. We've been travelling a few hours now so we should see them on the horizon at any moment."
"Are you really going to start a school, Mister Zebra?" Bone inquired, his muzzle moving along the lip of the saddlebag to face the bounty hunter. "Can I go?"
The zebra and unicorn both made an uneasy face as they considered the request as well as its likelihood of actually coming true. "Um... certainly. I will save a spot for you as soon as it opens."
"I've never been to a big school before!" Bone Marrow replied with excitement, "Will it have lots of ponies in it? My class only had one other pony in it aside from me, and she never talked much."
"Yes, many ponies will attend." The zebra replied with care, doing his best to keep the necromancer that was now attached to him via saddlebag as amicable as possible with his unwitting capture. "I think even Princess Celestia may visit, if she has the time."
"Oh! you could make it a cutie-mark school! Like, you only get in if you have a super cool cutie mark!" Bone exclaimed, "It'll be like a super fancy school where all the nice ponies hang out to learn about stuff, and there won't be any bullies allowed!"
This line of eager conversation between the emaciated necromancer and two bounty hunters continued, each hunter doing their best to keep the foal entertained until they reached their destination. Bone Marrow talked at length about a school of magic where young ponies could go to learn all the fancy stuff about magic and how it worked with their cutiemarks, if he could still become a royal guard despite that one time that they killed him, and if he could meet Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, as she was his favorite.
The group passed through forested areas thick with underbrush and fallen pine needles or leaves, dirty trails that were laced with gravel, and one particularly sneaky tree branch that caused the unicorn to trip and fall on his face, gaining a laugh from Bone Marrow and a chuckle from the zebra. Their trail continued over hills, across rivers and through a short cave, all ending with a final crest of a hill that stood in their way.
"You ready to meet that relative of yours?" The unicorn asked with a smile. "She should be just over this ridge here."
As they walked with anticipation, the bounty hunters for their fortune and Bone Marrow for his supposed 'relative', they were greeted by sounds none too pleasant. Clashing blades, whistling bolts and the unintelligible shouting of orders. The town below was in the beginning of a battle; ponies clad in purple armor squaring off against the Royal Guard, spears pointed toward each other as small skirmishes broke out in houses near their front line. A stool was even thrown through the window of a thatched roof cottage, crashing along with broken glass against the shield of the Royal Guard.
"Uh oh..." Bone Marrow commented meekly, "This doesn't look good."
"You see any torches?" The unicorn asked, scanning both sides of the battle. "Looks to me like they got a bunch of spears up front, poking at each other. Swordsponies are in the back, and they have some magic users away from the fighting wrapping up wounds."
"It seems as though our finder's fee may have to wait." The zebra grumbled. "We should not get involved; this is not our fight."
"But all those ponies are gonna get hurt!" Bone Marrow protested, doing his best to pull himself from the saddlebag. "We have to help them!"
This caused both hunters to look with confusion at the small necromancer in their group. "What are you gonna do," Asked the unicorn, "raise the dead and hurt even more ponies?"
Bone Marrow paused for a moment, his small hoof scratching his fuzzy chin. "Well... they're already dead, right?"
"You are not going to start another army of the undead, small necromancer." The zebra mandated.
"But ponies really don't like skeletons, even though I think they're kind of goofy. If we can get all of them scared enough and they run away, won't that save everypony?" Bone Marrow countered with a small stomp inside of the saddlebag, causing him to momentarily lose balance from the shifting sides of the bag.
"They're hardened warriors," the unicorn replied, "A few skeletons wont make them turn tail and run, especially not when they're guarding a town."
"Okay..." Bone Marrow replied, his voice trailing into thought. "But what if we help out the Royal Guard; what if I raise the dead... um... the purple ponies?"
"What is wrong with you?" The unicorn asked with incredulity in his voice, "You were all sad a moment ago about your town and parents, now you're wanting to raise an army to fight an army to help the ponies that killed you?"
"I'm not a bad pony!" Bone announced, "If I can show the Royal Guard that I'm not a bad pony, then they won't want to hurt me anymore, right? They only hurt me because they thought I killed everypony, at least I think that's why the killed me, so if I help them, then they'll help us find my relative!"
"I am not certain that is how this works, young necromancer." The zebra replied with calm. "I do know that charging into battle as you are will get yourself killed, and then everyone else in the town will die to bring you back to life."
"I don't have to fight, though!" Bone countered once more. "I just have to get near some of the dead and scare the purple ponies away."
"We are not going to help you raise an army of the dead." The zebra stated flatly. "You cannot convince us that it is a good idea."
"I'm going to agree on that," The unicorn added, "A bunch of skeletons is never a good idea."
"But-!" Bone Marrow protested before being cut off.
"There are no arguments you could present us that would be acceptable, small one." The zebra sternly replied. "We are going to wait for this conflict to conclude, and we will continue from that point onward."
"But ponies are going to die!" Bone continued, his small muzzle loudly announcing his displeasure with the idea of sitting around.
"You need to stay quiet." The zebra shushed with a hoof to Bone Marrow's mouth, "There may be scouts nearby that will hear us."
Grumbling and very upset, Bone Marrow retreated to the 'darkness' of the inner saddlebag, his eyes glowing enough to illuminate his seating arrangement.
The skirmishing and fighting continued between the two groups of soldiers, neither giving an inch in their siege of the town. A few small groups had been seen skirting around the walls of the settlement, only to be pelted with spells and crossbow bolts before retreating into the woods below. The town itself had been built on a hill overlooking a forest clearing. The nearby trees had been cut down in hasty preparations for the impending assault. With citizens to chop and the mages of the Royal Guard to assist, it was completed just in time for the assault. Gaps in the walls were blocked by small groups of guards holding spears, guarded by a dome shield of a mage to prevent projectiles or enemy spells from hitting the exposed royals as their spears poked out from the protective barrier, jabbing at enemies too bold or stupid to be cautious around such barricades.
"Why don't they just send some flyers in," the unicorn inquired, "They could shoot down on the purple ones and win this easy."
"Perhaps they have been injured by the purple force's substantial number of crossbows already." The zebra replied, watching the battle with interest. "We can only see what is not hidden by the walls, and all we have seen is a stalemate."
"Can I help now?" Bone Marrow asked hopefully.
"No." The bounty hunters replied seriously.
The battle continued well into the night, both sides fighting by the illumination of their group's spells and barriers. The bounty hunters and Bone Marrow had remained where they were, laying in wait for the fighting to eventually end. They had discussed outcomes for what they would do if either side won, both hinging on the ability to remain hidden.
The nearby bushes of the forest had rustled from time to time, only for a chipmunk or other creature to hop out, nibble on something and then scurry off. Birds had stopped singing as night fell, and crickets refused to give themselves away amidst all the fighting. Winds kept the three colder than they would've liked, but they had remained safe all this time in their spot. Making themselves comfortable, and offering a spot for Bone Marrow to lay down on the grass next to them, the three continued observing the conflict.
What they were unaware of soon came to make itself known, however. When the darkness had fallen, new soldiers had arrived on their purple force's side. Dark as the night and silent as the air they flew through, the group had long ago been spotted by spies of the purple ponies, also known as The Bright Moon. Slit pupils of yellow coloration had been stalking the group as they watched, the two hunters clueless to the threat around them.
The pair of eyes watched from the treetops, stalking the group beneath and waiting for them to wander off or fall asleep. As the battle beyond withdrew into another stalemate of conflict and soldiers fell back to their camp or town, the group grew weary of watching.
"Think we should find someplace to sleep?" The unicorn below had asked with a yawn. "Kinda loses its edge when you're just watching the fighting, you know?"
"We have remained hidden." The zebra replied, moving carefully to check his surroundings with slow and methodical pace. "We should be alert however, and I will remain awake for the first half of the night."
The emaciated white foal, the object of the yellow eyed spy's attention for most of the night, was already fast asleep. A symbol of death sat on his flank in the form of a cutiemark. A raven's skull to be precise. This had not gone unnoticed to the spy, as she had been waiting all this time for the moment to strike. Judging if the foal was thin enough to carry away with a quick swoop and then escape from the zebra and unicorn, or if she should wait for later.
Not wanting to take the risk of dropping the frail pony, the spy of The Bright Moon had waited patiently. She would land, incapacitate or slay the zebra, and then flee into the night towards the camp with her prize in tow. She would be able to easily carry him, the problem had been the others nearby possibly damaging her wings afterwards. With a hypothetical zebra out of the way and a sleeping unicorn as her only opponent, the foal would be easy to capture.
"Luna's light, guide my blade." The spy whispered in prayer to the obscured moon above, the symbol of the mare looking down upon her in return through holes in the cloudy cover above.
A sharpened and blackened dagger held in her mouth, the batpony extended her wings for flight. A silent glide down to the group, a quick stab and sheathing of her weapon, then she could carry off the foal before the unicorn would be able to retaliate. Fast, messy, and somewhat complicated. She preferred it that way.
As she launched from the branch the only sound was a rustling of pine as she descended on her leathery wings, twitching and correcting her course as the wind threatened to knock her off target. She would have one chance for a surprise attack to work, or she would have to flee in failure. She aimed for the spine of the zebra, just below the skull.
As the blade was about to strike, the Zebra rested his head on the grass beneath him, the dagger narrowly missing with a gust of wind following the batpony's annoyed hissing.
"What the...?" The zebra wondered aloud, now alerted and standing on his hooves. He drew a blade from his side, ready to attack anypony that might come from the darkness of the night to make an attempt on his life.
A glint of yellow in the darkness and another gust of wind. The zebra flinched, touching his hoof to his right cheek and witnessing the moon in his blood's reflection. The zebra thought fast. Speaking would be muffled, and his partner was a heavy sleeper. Dropping his blade was out of the question.
A heavy hoof fell on the unicorn, causing him to shout in surprise and pain. "What was that for!?" The unicorn blurted loudly, rubbing his flank. Seeing the zebra with a sword in his mouth and blood trickling down his face, he soon took hold of the situation. His horn lit a solid yellow as the magic from his horn grew, blinding those around him in a brilliant burst of light.
The bat pony shrieked loudly, shielding her eyes from the light with her hooves as she flew vertically into the air away from the two bounty hunters.
"Alright, I'm awake!" The unicorn stated loudly, his voice slightly shaking from the abruptness of the encounter and the confusion from what he had just witnessed. "What was that thing?"
"Tah-k lay-er." The zebra replied with muffled annoyance. "Ish bad time."
Bone Marrow rose from his slumber, rubbing his sleepy eyes with a free hoof. "What's going on," he mumbled, "did I miss it?"
"Some thing came out of nowhere and attacked us." The unicorn explained, his horn still lit brightly. "Think they flew off by now?"
The zebra then realized with wide eyes that such a bright light in the middle of the night was not alright. Spitting out his sword onto the ground, he shouted in fright, "Get rid of that light!"
The unicorn complied, and they were soon plunged into the all encompassing darkness of night blindness. The two bounty hunters stood still, not wanting to bump into each other as their eyes adjusted. Bone Marrow, however, hadn't even noticed a change. He did notice that there were a great many pairs of eyes staring at them from all around. Before he had a chance to open his mouth, a fuzzy hoof wrapped around his head and lifted him from the ground.
A sense of falling soon overwhelmed Bone Marrow as he was taken into the sky; whatever was holding him had tightened their grip considerably to not risk dropping him. Bone could see the two bounty hunters vanish amongst a pile of leather wings and hissing, the sounds of fighting soon being lost on the breeze of the wind.
He felt a pang of loss for the two he had known for barely a day, especially after hearing their plans for what they would attempt to forge with their 'earnings' as they had mentioned. He hoped they would make it out alright. Wondering If they had told him the truth or lied to him about what a bounty meant was no longer a concern for Bone Marrow. Now he was far more worried about falling to his death... and then waking up from it.