I ushered Onyx towards the shipping office, where we wound up stuck in a line that seemed to snake around a portion of the docking bay, waiting for what felt like an eternity, though in reality it was much closer to a few hours. Lines like this were incredibly frustrating to say the least, though given the circumstances for our visit, I would have to just bite the bullet and deal with it. Onyx, ever the cheerful optimist kept himself entertained while I plotted out my options for if we were unable to find the Captain. A strange metallic melody cut through my thoughts, drawing my attention over towards a pair of dock workers, a green thestral and blue unicorn who were excitedly chatting away in between moving crates. As they moved about, I couldn’t help but notice a strange metallic device sitting off to the side that seemed to be the source of the equally strange melody.
The music was definitely stranger than anything I had ever heard, but the longer we were near it, which was at least more than half of an hour mind you, the more it began to slowly grow on me. In short time I quickly found myself getting lost in my thoughts and plans once again, but this time they were backed by that oddly enjoyable beat. It was obvious that it was some unicorn creation and therefore would be tricky to find out in the wild, but I was determined to get my hooves on one someday nonetheless.
Contingencies and alternate plans began to form in my mind as we slowly moved forward, getting a group of mercenaries on our side wouldn’t be easy, what with me being an alien and Onyx being a humble scrapper, but maybe we could try and fake it? I mean I’m sure that our clothing looked ragged enough to pass as a couple of would be pirates.
Thinking back to what Xen had told me the previous day, it was clear that it wasn’t uncommon for thestrals to form tight knit crews of pirates or bandits. As strange as the thought of Onyx and I forming our own little crew was, it might have been one of our only viable backup options. It wouldn’t have been easy at all, quite the opposite really, but if the Acadian forest was really as dangerous as Xen had implied it to be, it was obvious that the two of us wouldn’t stand any actual chance there on our own.
Working through tasks like this and sorting them all out was something I was able to do with relative ease, and more often than not it helped make time fly by. Perhaps it was a part of my own special talent? I had never put much thought into it, but as I glanced down to the mark that sat on my flank, I thought back to the day spent repairing my father’s old telescope in my youth. It was something I had taken to as if it was some strange instinctual ability, and as I thought back to that day I began to realize that I had always worked through problems this way.
This thought process continued for some time, even as we passed the dock workers and their wonderfully odd music. I was on autopilot now, not even giving a passing thought to the world around us. Before long the sound of the office clerk calling out to us faded into my senses, drawing my thoughts back to the present. I glanced towards Onyx who returned a confused look. Realizing that he probably didn’t know how to proceed, I walked towards her and nodded, shifting into a warm and friendly tone.
With a cheerful grin I began. “Hello, my companion and I were wondering if you’d be able to direct us towards a… Captain Axion?”
She paused for a moment, glancing between us, her gaze lingering on me as if she was hesitant to reply. With an uncertain tone carrying in her voice, she finally replied, “May I ask what your business is?”
I nodded, “We’re with the Cloud City Caravan Company, we’ve got a special delivery that he’s been expecting and we were told to inquire here for his whereabouts,” I lied as I gestured towards the saddlebags that I wore.
She hesitated for another moment, glancing back between us again, “Right… give me a moment…” she said as she hopped out of her chair and turned towards the large ledger behind the desk.”
I smiled, “Thanks miss…”
“Monsoon, Midnight Monsoon,” she replied while flipping through a few pages. After a few moments she turned back towards us, “Alright, well I’m afraid that the pony you’re inquiring about hasn’t had any deliveries made to him in about two years. She continued to scrutinize the ledger, “It seems that his last registered address was vacated six months ago though his ship, the Leviathan is still registered to the Crystal Landing port, though there’s been no noted departures from him for at least five years.”
I was unsure of how to respond, and my thoughts began to drift back towards the contingencies I had formulated to bide my time with. After a few moments and an increasingly annoyed glare from Midnight, I replied, “So should we try there?”
She shook her head, “The port’s locked down unless you’ve got a ship registered to it.” She paused for a moment, shifting her eyes away from me, “I don’t mean to imply anything, but we’ve had issues with thestrals attempting to commandeer some of the registered ships. You could try asking around the city for him, but If I were you, I’d try the local tavern, he’s been known to frequent there more than anywhere else… kind of has a reputation around the city.”
I wasn’t sure how to take her comment, but remembering what Xen had shared with me, and my own less than legal contingency, I could understand it. “Alright, well thanks Midnight, I appreciate the help.” As we began to walk away I paused again, much to the ire of the other ponies in line. Loud sighs could be heard amongst the queue as I trotted back towards the desk, “I’m sorry, but how do we get there Midnight? It’s been a while since we’ve made deliveries out this far, we usually stick to the southern points between the spire and the Hollows if that makes sense.”
With a roll of her eyes and an irritated sigh she opened a drawer on her desk and pulled out a map, quickly marking down the main tavern and pushing it towards me, “It’s right by the Crystal Palace, at the junction between Sapphire and Emerald street. If you can’t find it after that then I’m afraid I don’t know how else to help.”
I nodded a little dismissively, though I suppose I could understand her reasons for the sudden dry attitude, we did just annoy half of the waiting line after all. “Thanks again,” I glanced back towards the irritated ponies in line, offering a weak exchange, “I do apologize again for the delay.”
Onyx and I quickly made our exit before any further grievance could be raised, heading out of the docking bay and into the sprawling Crystal City beyond.
Onyx and I wandered through the city, marvelling at the strange crystalline buildings like a couple of lost foals. Onyx evidently didn’t visit the outlying settlements as often, though I wasn’t exactly one to talk. I shook my head to clear my thoughts, as if I was snapping myself out of some alluring trance and glanced over towards the palace, “So Onyx, you ever make your way around the different settlements?”
He turned away from the prismatic buildings, “Ya know, I can’t really say I do. The furthest I ever go is Cloud City, but that’s about it.” He paused for a moment, “And yourself?”
I shook my head, “You know, not really. Like I said, the furthest I ever went was usually Canterlot, which was pretty far from Moondust’s Hollow. It was far but familiar enough I suppose. I’ve never visited anything like this place though. I guess it’s hard to really explain it all, but this is kind of a new experience for me.”
Onyx nodded, “Aye, I understand. Xenith’s always talked about the adventures he used to go on, made me want to start doing something like that on my own someday, but well, it’s kind of hard to find a reason to jump between settlements unless you’re a courier or in a crew.”
That brought another thought to my head, again my thoughts drifted towards that strange bit of information that Xen had passed on and the tidbit of information that the clerk had given me about the Crystal Landing. I paused in my stride, turning to face him, “Onyx, why do so many thestrals resort to forming pirate crews? I’ve thought about this and it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
He shrugged, “To tell ya the truth, I don’t quite know myself. Xenith ran with one well before I met him, but he never got into the details,” he paused as if he was considering the question himself, “Personally, I think it’s because they’ve been nomadic longer than any of the other tribes have. Each tribe has their own sort of governance, but the thestrals roam free.”
“So you think that it’s maybe just a way for them to make do with what they have?”
Onyx hesitated for a moment, “In a sense, yes. Without truly knowing I’m afraid I can’t answer that, but I think that it’s a kind of strength in numbers thing. I imagine that they feel like they’re stronger together because they’re not like the other tribes, there’s no single pony calling the shots.”
“Are they… well, integrated with everyone else? It’s weird asking that, but I couldn’t help but notice the way that Midnight hesitated when talking to me earlier. The weird looks I got in Cloud City didn’t really help either… I guess I just kind of feel even more alien around here if that makes sense…”
He nodded in understanding, “It’s not the most common thing, especially when there’s so much bad blood between them and the rest of the tribes. Ya get the occasional drifter like Xen who retires and tries to integrate with the other tribes, but there’s always that latent hesitation for them.”
“So I guess things are kind of dire then eh?” I mused.
He somberly nodded his head, “Aye. I hate to say that you’re going to get ponies that won’t give you the time of day just because you’re a thestral, but it’s the reality, as harsh as it might be. Most ponies are nice enough if ya keep to yourself, but not all of them.”
I rolled my eyes, “Lovely, so we better make sure we give good first impressions.”
“Aye, that might be a wise choice.”
I gave a quick nod, leading him forward again, “Right, well whatever happens, we need to give this our all. If Axion’s not there, or not willing to help then we might need to do some… questionably legal things to get to Acadia and back.”
“You mean start a crew right?”
I nodded, “Yeah. It’s kind of a radical idea, but it might be our only option unless we want to just give up and call it a day… which I don’t really want to do.”
Onyx paused in hesitation for a fair amount of time, finally nodding and looking off towards the palace, “Aye… as much as I’d like to avoid that, it might be our best bet…”
“Look, I know you’re obviously not onboard with it. If it makes you feel better I’m only considering it as a last resort, if I can sway some mercenary’s help in any way I’m going to try.”
“Well we’re not going to get any further if we just hang about here, let’s go see what that Tavern’s about and whether the captain’ll make an appearance or not.”
I nodded my head in silent confirmation, “Right, lead on.”
I looked down at the map and then back up to the simple wooden sign, “The Crystal Dragon Inn and Tavern... I guess this is the place.”
“Well, it’s got a nice ring to it, can’t be that bad eh?” Onyx added, as cheerful as always.
“Well there’s one way to find out,” I took the lead and trotted through the door, my senses immediately being bombarded with the smell of burning incense. A small bell rang out, drawing the attention of the crystal pony innkeeper.
He trotted over to greet us, offering a quick bow of his head as he broke into a warm greeting, “Greetings and a warm welcome to the Crystal Dragon Inn and Tavern, I am Skipper, the humble innkeeper of this fine establishment. How may I serve you today?”
I quickly glanced around the cozy tavern, noting the thick curtains that covered the windows. The greeting caught me off guard for a moment, despite what Onyx had said to me earlier, the crystal pony was still greeting me as if I was an equal, making me feel a little more comfortable. With a smile I cheerfully replied back, “Hello! I’m Stardust and this is my companion, Onyx Haze. We’re just passing through the city right now, but felt like we needed a place to just unwind for a little while.”
Onyx gave a quick nod as Skipper smiled and replied back, “Well you’ve certainly come to the right place, can I offer you anything to drink? Perhaps a meal?”
I looked over to Onyx, who returned a confused look, “Do you have a menu we can look at? I’m afraid we’re not from around here and we’re unfamiliar with the local food.”
“Indeed I do, please take a seat and make yourselves comfortable, I’ll fetch a couple menus for you.”
The incense and Skipper’s hospitality definitely eased my uncertainty. Onyx and I trotted over to one of the cozy booths on the far side of the room and took a seat, we had both resolved that that was the best place to scope out the tavern without looking shady, especially given the reputation that most thestrals has according to him. After a few moments Skipper returned with the requested menus.
“Here you are, our specials are on the front, the drinks are on the back. Shall I fetch you a glass of water while you browse the menu?”
Onyx and I nodded in unison, “Yes please, that would be wonderful.”
Skipper nodded and trotted away, leaving us a few moments to discuss the plan. I glanced around at the empty tavern, and then back to Onyx, “So Midnight said that Axion has a reputation around here right?”
Onyx nodded, “Aye.”
“So presumably that’ll narrow it down real quick. We just need to keep an eye out on the patrons and see how Skipper responds to them, if he’s greeting strangers like friends I can only imagine how he’ll greet a regular.”
“Sounds like a sound plan to me. So what’re you gonna get?”
I shrugged, “To be honest, I haven’t thought about that…” my stomach grumbled loudly as if to emphasize the fact that I had hardly eaten since arriving here, “do thestrals eat fish here?”
“Aye, and pegasi too. Worried that you’ll look out of place?”
I nodded, “Yeah… glad to hear that it isn't that weird. I think I’m going to go with the Crystal Trout, is that any good?”
Onyx nodded excitedly, “Oh absolutely, it’s something of a delicacy, very delicious. I haven’t had a chance to have this in a while, I think I’m going to grab one too.”
Skipper cheerfully trotted back over to us, “Have we made our decision?”
Onyx nodded, “Yes, two orders of the Crystal Trout and a couple glasses of lightning spring water please.”
Skipper nodded and collected the menus, trotting away into the kitchen, and leaving us alone once more.
“So what’s lightning spring water?”
“Oh that’s one of the best beverages you can get. It’s spring water that’s been condensed and filtered through the best pegasi storm clouds. It’s the most pure water you can get, and it paired with the Crystal Trout is one of the pegasi’s signature dishes. I don’t get the opportunity to dine like this often so I couldn’t resist.”
I furrowed my brow in confusion, “That all sounds kind of expensive…”
“Aye, it is, but I’m treating you.”
My eyes shot open in surprise, “Onyx you don’t need to do that, really it’s fine.”
He shook his head and chuckled, “Well you don’t exactly have a whole lot of bits yourself, did you think about that before sitting down?”
“Well I have enough to cover at least my meal right?”
“Maybe, I don’t know how much Xen left you in that pack, but I insist.”
“Alright Onyx, I won’t be one to turn a pony’s hospitality, but I owe you one. And before you say no, I insist.”
He chuckled, “Alright. I’ll concede to that.”
Onyx was absolutely wrong, this wasn’t just a very delicious meal, no, it was easily one of the best meals I had ever eaten. Like a foal trying their favorite dessert, I savored every single bite, not wanting this meal to end. Each bite was a burst of flavor, I would definitely miss this when I returned home. He looked up from his own meal with a big grin, laughing when he noticed me.
“Well I can tell you’re definitely enjoying it.”
I nodded my head quickly, not even pausing to give a proper response. This meal was simply too good to waste time wording any kind of verbal confirmation.
We continued to eat our meal in relative silence, keeping an eye on the various patrons that entered the tavern. Onyx finished far sooner than I did, which gave him more time to focus on the task at hand. Before long I had finished the wonderful meal, much to my own dismay.
Taking a few gulps of the refreshing spring water, I turned my attention back to our mission, “So Onyx, I can't help but notice that we’re seeing mostly pegasi and crystal ponies, are thestrals really that rare?”
He nodded, not taking his eyes off of the patrons, “Aye, it’s a little unfortunate, and I kind of suspect that that’s another reason why they’re so nomadic.”
“So the good captain shouldn’t be too hard to find then.”
“Aye, seems like it.”
I nodded, turning back to the patrons, “Right, well hopefully this won’t take too long.”
Many hours had passed and with it so had the patrons. Skipper had opened the curtains, providing us with a view of the sun starting its descent below the horizon, shining an orange light through the many crystal buildings that made up the city.
I had jinxed us it seemed, something that Onyx pointed out with a chuckle. I was a little less than amused, seeing as how we didn’t have any sort of plan for our lodging, and I didn’t exactly feel like sleeping out on the streets. It wasn’t long until the hospitable Crystal Innkeeper returned to our table.
“Crystal’s Light, I couldn’t help but notice that you two have been resting here for a fair part of the day, was there anything you needed? Perhaps some more water?—“
“— We’re fine,” I quickly cut him off, feeling a moment of embarrassment as I realized that this could come off as rather rude, “I apologize, I didn’t mean to insult your hospitality, we’re just waiting for someone and they’re running a little… late it seems.”
“Do not worry, am I correct in assuming that you’re a little weary from your journey?”
I nodded, “Yes, just a little tired and frustrated that the pony we’re waiting for isn’t here yet.”
He nodded and continued, “That is quite understandable, if you don’t mind me asking, who was it that you were waiting for? If they’re a local I might be able to offer assistance on locating them.”
“Does a Captain Axion ring a bell? We had an important message for him but couldn’t find his location.”
The crystal pony’s eyes lit up in a knowing recognition, “Why yes, I believe I do. Though I’m afraid that no pony seems to know where he resides, keeps to himself a lot. He does spend a fair amount of time here, though unfortunately his habit has no semblance of order to it.”
“So we’re out of luck then? That’s just great,” I said, letting out a long sigh.
“I am afraid so, however if you have no permanent lodging planned out you could always rent a room here, I do not know when the Captain will return, however there is an open vacancy.”
I sighed, knowing that our predicament wasn’t really setting us up for success, keeping to our lie, I responded as cheerfully and genuinely as I could, “I appreciate the offer Skipper, I really do, but we just don’t have the funding for that. Our contract was going to be paid out once the message was handed over, not before.”
He nodded, “I understand, however I would be willing to take work in lieu of pay if you’d prefer. If you have to wait for the Captain and don’t have lodging then surely you have some free time to pick up a little side work while you’re here no?”
I looked towards Onyx, who returned a simple nod to me, giving enough confirmation that he was onboard with this plan, “Alright, well you raise a good point. We’ll help out wherever needed until Axion shows up.”
The crystal pony lit up, both physically and emotionally, a large grin spreading across his face, “Splendid! You can settle in and deposit your personal effects in room five, we can meet up for supper and I’ll show you the ropes after.”
“Thanks Skipper, well be down shortly.”
With a cheerful nod, he handed me the key and we headed upstairs to the designated room.
And so for a week we became masters of the innkeeping trade… or at least were given enough training to help run the place. Tending to the tavern was something I had picked up quickly and definitely enjoyed, I had never been much of a conversationalist but the ponies that visited here were genuinely enjoyable to talk with.
Onyx had picked up cooking as if it were second nature, quickly learning the ins and outs of the small kitchen. What would normally be considered monotonous and rather boring work was made fun by Skipper’s upbeat and cheerful demeanor. I had thought that he was simply being hospitable for the sake of bringing patrons in, but it was clear that he was a genuinely cheerful pony.
We bided our time with work until one day when Skipper cheerfully trotted into our shared lodging, greeting us with one of his warm smiles.
“Well as much as I’ve enjoyed your help this last day, it appears that the good Captain has finally made his appearance!”
I quickly jumped down from the bunk, “That’s great! Is he just down in the tavern?”
Skipper nodded, “You’d better get a move on, I don’t know how long he’ll be here.”
Without any further delay, Onyx and I trotted down to greet him. As we stepped into the tavern I immediately picked out the lone thestral at the bar, standing out against the crystal ponies and pegasi like a sore thumb.
I quickly approached him, taking a seat on the nearby open cushion, “Captain Axion I presume?”
“Aye, who wants to know?” He asked in curiosity.
“I apologize, you don’t know me, but I’ve heard about you. A friend of mine, Xenith Glow, is helping me get back to my home. Let’s just say that things are really complicated and as a result I need to find some artifact in Acadia known as the Skeleton key, you ever heard of it?”
He turned towards me and nodded, scrutinizing me as I began to talk again.
“Right, well we need to get there and Xenith said you were our best bet in terms of getting a pony with enough firepower and strength behind us. I don’t know what lies in the city but he said it’s dangerous for us to go alone, he thought of no better pony to aid us then you, so how about it?”
The Captain shook his head, “I’m sorry lad, but I’m done with that life. I just want to retire here in peace, live an honest life you know?”
I sat in silence for a good many moments, unsure of what to make of the supposedly great captain’s response. Finally I found the words I was looking for and spoke up, “You’re the great Captain Axion are you not? The captain whose legacy has become something of a living legend?”
He began to retort in a decidedly more stern tone, “Look kid, I said I’ve put that behind me. I don’t know why you’d need the artifact in Acadia but whatever the reason is I wish you the best of luck.”
I sighed in annoyance and in a less than professional move, I broke through my calm and indifferent facade, “Look, you’re supposed to be this great Captain but I’m not seeing any of it. Everything Xenith said to me implied that you’d be all in for this kind of thing, but here you are, sitting drunk at a tavern.”
“Kid…” he slowly began.
I quickly snapped back around to face him, raising my voice and baring my fangs for a moment, “Don’t kid me, I just want to get home and the artifact in Acadia is the only way to do that apparently. If you’re not going to help us then maybe you could at least give us use of your ship, we can get our own crew, but we can’t even hope to afford our own ship without stealing one. So are you going to at least do that for us or not?”
Axion sighed, “You really know Xenith?”
I raised an eyebrow, letting my anger fade for a moment, “Yeah? What about it. Let me guess, he tried to backstab you too, and now you’re going to try and backstab us as vengeance for being wronged by some thestral that apparently has Luna knows how many bounties on his head because I can tell you now that I don’t have any part in it and I don’t care about whatever drama you have with him—“
“—Listen kid,” he sternly said, silencing my own drawn out rant, “Xenith was my old first mate. I don’t have any bad blood with him— quite the opposite really. It fills me with pride knowing that he’s still got a name for himself if what you’ve said is any indication.”
“So are you going to help us then?” I eagerly asked.
Axion sat in consideration for a few minutes, much to my ire. As frustrated as I was after coming all this way and being told that our only real hope was stoutly against the plan, the mention of Xen definitely did seem to resonate with him. I cleared my throat to get his attention, trying not to sound as rude as I had before, “Is that a yes? A no?.. an answer would be very much appreciated.”
Axion nodded, “Aye, It’ll be a yes, but only because Xen was the one who directed you here. I’ll take you to the city, but no further, you’ll have to proceed into the temple on your own. I’ll of course hold onto the artifact as compensation once you’re done with it, and to tell ye the truth, some extra baubles and treasure might make a nice retirement fund.”
“So we’re good then?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Aye, we’re good. Ye can tell Xen that this’ll be the last great adventure of Captain Axion, I’ll strike up the old crew, he’s more than welcome to join us if he wants.”
I nodded my head, my mood a decidedly more cheerful one knowing that I might have a small chance at getting home again. “I’ll ask him, I don’t think he’ll be up for it though. He could have joined Onyx and I on this trip, but he decided to stay back home in the Hollows.”
“Aha so that’s where he’s been hiding out? I’ll have to pay ‘em a little visit sometime, share some stories over a few drinks, catch up and the like.”
“Well I hate to rush you, but we really should get going.”
“Aye, well come along now, we’ll sail with the horizon.”
I nodded and waved Onyx over as Captain Axion led us to the door. I paused on our way out, walking up to Skip, “Hey listen, thanks for letting us pick up some work here, even if it was only for a few days.”
“It was no problem at all, the extra help was sure nice, if ya ever need some extra bits you two’re welcome back here.”
“I definitely appreciate it, hopefully our paths will cross again someday.”
He nodded, “Until the Crystal calls to us.”
I smiled, figuring that this was some traditional Crystal Pony farewell, “Until the Horizon.”