The wagon rocked from the addition of my weight, not exactly the best footing that I could have jumped for, but hey, not exactly the best time to be picky. My back was burning like nothing else... well... probably not as bad as whatever the hell Moon decided would be good to put on my brand, but that is not the point. The war cries of the hunting party resounded around the clearing as four shapes lunged toward the two stallions by the fire.
Moon and Hunter were both shaken out of their reverie by the sharp cries around them, with a practiced ease they slipped into combat ready stances, though it was just a moment too late, they both were tackled by the large shapes, and pinned to the ground. Struggling against their aggressors to no avail.
This is not right... Hunting packs always travel in fives, where is the last one?
My thought train was interrupted by the unseen member of the hunting party grabbing me from behind and dragging me off of the wagon. I scrambled for a hold on the attacker, slipping my arms around his shoulders, one of my paws securely clamped on his muzzle to prevent him from calling for help. He wormed around in my grip, managing to make it impossible to get a good hold around his neck while allowing him to elbow me in my ribs several times, reigniting the pain that I had previously forgotten. Biting back my agony, I strained against him, trying to find a way to end our struggle without alerting the rest of the party. My only chance at surviving this encounter was stealth, and the ponies only chance of avoiding a slow and agonizing death at the paws of the hunters.
We fought for what seemed like hours, punctuated only with the screams of a pony on the other side of the wagon. Straining against each other, each with our own goal. His to at least call out. Mine to kill him silently. The struggle continued, almost unchanged, when suddenly he managed to break the grip of the paw not on his muzzle. Using his newfound leverage he spun around, swiping one of his sharpened claws at me. moving toward him, his paw caught the side of my head with the pads, shaking me, but not hurting as bad as it could have. That move also placed me in an interesting position, his exposed neck was within inches of my carnivorous fangs. An easy kill, but one that I was hesitant to make. You just don't rip out another dog's throat like prey, if he is attacking you or not. Doing so made you little more than a cannibal, if you were willing to taste another's blood, where would you stop? Needless to say, it was a bit taboo.
Another scream sounded from the other side of the wagon. He hesitated, ears perking up at the sound. No more time to think of ramifications. I lunged forward. I closed my eyes as my teeth embedded themselves into his flesh, sliding in up to my gums. Warm blood spurted forth from the bite, filling my mouth with its metallic taste with such force that it caused me to swallow a mouthful. I was unable to contain my retching, but managed to keep my teeth in the attacker. He was not long for this world, but in the last moments of life, one can find a surprising amount of strength, what one does with that surge speaks volumes about the character of the being in question. Unfortunately, the hunter decided to fight back with his last breath, swinging his paw at me again. I couldn't dodge it this time, I was a bit stuck in his neck, so the claw found its target.
The claw that dug into the base of my ear hurt. The one that gouged into my muzzle hurt even more. But what really took the cake was the claw that somehow found its way across my eye ridge and into the socket itself. I felt a burning pain tear through the socket. A sickening pulling sensation later, and half of my world went dark. Honestly, I didn't notice that fact immediately as I was a bit preoccupied with the pain associated with losing an eye. Not something I would suggest trying. It hurts... A TON.
That pain broke though my wall of self-imposed silence, causing me to cry out in pain. Luckily having a mouthful of neck tends to act as a somewhat effective muffle. Though, even if I was heard, the screams of that unfortunate soul on the other side of the wagon would probably have drown out my own cries. As it was, the dog that I had taken a bit of was now limp in my jaws.
Spitting out the corpse, I silently retched, trying with all of my might not to make too much noise, my original plan for distraction nothing more than a fond memory, it had, as with most plans, fallen apart upon first contact. Bracing myself against the wheel of the wagon, I hauled myself off of the ground, swaying about on unsteady legs.
Slowly I moved around the edge of the wagon, trying to remain as silent as I could, my whimpers of pain, and unsteady gate non-withstanding. I peered around the corner of the wagon with my remaining eye. I saw my target. A solitary dog, standing with one leg on the body of a pegasus, looking intently toward something that I could not see, and judging by the screams still echoing around the forest, nothing that I would want to see. As I guided my paw around the wagon I felt an oddly familiar shape, bringing my head back around the corner, I brought the shape back down. It was the rod that I had used during my treatment. I brought it with me as I limped behind the unsuspecting dog and his captive, one paw glued to the right side of my face, stemming the flow of blood, and trying to ease the pain.
I fumbled my way behind my quarry, yet again thankful for the screams of the pony that I had now identified as Moon. A bit coldhearted, but there was nothing that could be done for him. The most that I could salvage from this was Hunter and a bit of a head start. I put an end to my musings as I came up behind the still relaxed dog. With a single smooth motion, I brought my arm around his neck, stopping him from calling out, and dragging him down to the ground in the shadows just outside of the light provided by the now dwindling fire. With a swift pull and an audible snap, the stunned dog became limp in my grasp... Not quite as satisfying as ripping out his throa-
WHOA... Yeah NO. Not going to think like that. I don't need 'blood thirsty cannibal' added to my description. Though I am kinda surprised I haven't passed out from the pain, or from the fight that lasted for however long. Whatever, not the time to think about this.
Glancing back toward the fire, I noticed the remaining three hunters. All of them were preoccupied with something on the ground, being held down by two of them. I could probably guess what they were doing, though the thoughts made me gag almost as much as ripping out a throat had. I deftly picked up the less then conscious pegasus and scooped up the rod from where I had dropped it attacking the second dog. I plodded out of the clearing, maintaining silence for longer then what was probably necessary. I needed to be careful though, a hunting party was bad enough, but now that two of them were dead... well, lets just say I had made things a bit more personal.
Hunting packs like that tended to form a large sense of camaraderie, almost a familial relationship. Killing a member was like killing a sibling. I had just killed two. From the same pack. Yeah. Not the best move.
I kept up my long legged gate for about an hour until I started to slow down, confident that I had at least put a bit of space between us and the hunters. I stretched out my back, reveling in the freeing sensation, at least until my brand decided that I had forgotten about it.
Wiping some completely not tears from my eye, I turned back to my cargo, checking him over. No blood, except from a gash on the head. Nothing bent at a weird angle, except maybe the wings, but I have no idea how those are supposed to go. He was breathing steadily, heart rate was strong. He would live, but after seeing what happened to Moon? I think that he might just want to have died back there.
Moon died because I was there. There was no rectifying that. I could have lead them away, let that first dog make some noise, jumped into the firelight, something. But I did nothing. I took care of myself, and that was it... "acceptable losses"... I think thats what this was called... nothing felt acceptable about it. People have died for me before, sure, and I had personally put my fair share of dogs in a six foot pit. But that was the issue. It had been dogs loyal to me, who knew that they could die for me, who were willing to do so. Moon was just a pony in the wrong spot at the wrong time. They probably didn't even bother questioning him before they started to torture him.
Thats in the past. Moon is dead, and I could have stopped it. I didn't. There is nothing that can be done. Except repress the emotional response until it practically makes me explode, along with a good deal of other problems. That always seemed to be the most convenient idea.
Hunter stirred, eyes flickering open.
Yeah, I can be a bit out of it first thing in the mornin'. Who wouldn't? Funny thing is though, I don't remember going to sleep, or really much of anything last night. Moon makes a damn good tallie, so waking up dumb is not new. The headache is off though. Moon's good stuff left a good sized headache that you feel like a currently being used punchin' bag. This though, this felt more like a scrap leftover. That wouldn't fit though, we weren't on a barwalk, we were out in the field. Moon never lets me go three sheets on an assignment. What happened? I remember that bushman walkin' in on our camp, poor sod was all banged up, Moon said somethin' about a brand. Then we got to shit shootin', his name was... something... Rock? No... Stone, Stonemaker... yeah. Then Moon brought out his Zebrican mojo, good stuff that, probably lethal in some doses, and burns enough to put Tartarus to shame, but damn if it doesn't work. Konked the big guy out too. Me an' Moon hauled him up into the wagon, left that rod in his mouth too, mostly because we couldn't pry his jaw open to get it out, we also put that box he came in with next to him. Then we hunkered down for the night...
Deciding that it was time, I slowly opened one of my eyes.
No tent... No sound of fire... No smell of alcohol... No clearing... Something was wrong here.
I sat up, shaking my head to clear the fog of sleep from my vision. I looked around and spotted Stonemaker sitting on a log, looking out into the darkness or the forest.
He looked at me, a paw covering part of his face, the intense blue eye visible shone out from his brow, almost seeming to glow. He looked me in the eye, but quickly looked away.
"You alright mate? I know that mojo Moon gave ya was a bit of a furphy move, but come on now, no need to be such a cut snake about it. Where is the bastard anyways?"
He sighed, looking even more down. Well, thats a good sign.
"H-he..." He shook his head, growling lightly to himself, "He died. Hunters got him. They were looking for me, and the found you. They knocked you out and started cutting him up. I-it was all I could do to get you out of there, I would have at least put him out of his misery, but they were still going at him when I came around. Took two of the bitches out getting to you, but that will only make them angry... I... I failed, didn't I? I told myself that you wouldn't get involved in this, you weren't going to die for me, no one was, not anymore. Too many have... and I failed... Moon died, and now... now they are going to be looking for you..."
I blinked. "Well... That kinks the travel plans a bit, we can always circle back to the clearing once those whackas move out. Grab all our guff. Since Moon got deep sixed we have enough for both of us to take a walk across the bush. Come on now, not time to be a layabout. Need to get somethin' for that eye of yours. Or lack there of. HA."
That seems a might callous, I know that, but me and Moon had a bit of a heart to heart one of our first assignments together. Mourn at home, tears tend to get you lopped off in the field.
Sweet tartarus, I was going to need a stiff after this.
I just looked at the pony in front of me. Not a single care given about the loss of his comrade. At least on the outside. I saw the look in his eyes, he was only staying upright through sheer force of will.
The next few days were a blur of unfounded paranoia, pain from various sources, new and old, and guilt.
We did come back around to the camp. Scavenged a decent amount of supplies. We were even able to fully bandage my eye, along with Hunter's head using the last of Moon's medical stash.
We both avoided the red stain on the ground. There was no body, or anything other than blood really, but there didn't need to be.
Few words were spared between me and Hunter. Not many were needed, or wanted for that matter. He didn't blame me for Moon's death, but that was beside the point. He didn't want to talk about it, neither did I.
A reworked harness later, and I was hitched to the front of the wagon. Trudging along at a reasonable pace, slow enough to keep up for a long time, but quick enough to actually get some milage. I pulled the first day, Hunter the second, and so forth.
Every night we sat around a campfire, looking into the flames, thoughts of the universe flowing through our minds, only interrupted by the sounds of wolves howling in the night, setting us both on edge.
Every night, when I wasn't on watch, I slept in Moon's tent. A red stain adorned the side. I don't know if it was recent, or if it had been there. It didn't really matter though. It was a reminder all the same.
Before long we reached it. The Barrens. The Wastes. The Deadlands. It went by many names, but for all of the titles, it remained the same.
Miles of unending desert and sun baked grasslands. No water to be found anywhere within. I stood there, on a small hillock overlooking our path. Sun setting slowly to the west, mixing reds and oranges like paint across the canvas of the sky.
I have to do this. I need to reach the pony capital. I have to call in my favor. I cannot let anymore fall to the new Diamond Nation. Innocents were lost, and countless are going to be lost if I fail. I cannot let myself falter.
I looked over to Hunter, who had stepped up beside me during my inner monologue, a steady expression, betrayed by the sorrow in his eyes. This isn't his burden. It never should have been.
I cast my gaze back to the Horizon.
I had a duty. I had a motivation. I can not let anything stop me. This needs to end, and I will end it, either with my success, or my death.