• Published 11th Nov 2013
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Gladiator - Not_A_Hat



Human in Equestria? Check. Trying to find his way home? Check. Surrounded by clueless candy-colored equines? Check. Magically soul-bonded to Twilight Sparkle using dread necromantic magic and an evil artifact? Check.

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2 - Regroup

Free.

The first thing I did was curl into a ball and weep.

I wept for Splinter. I wept for Leaves. I wept for the time I'd wasted. But I also wept for the warm night breeze drying tears on my cheek. I wept for crickets, for fireflies. I wept my heart out.

After, I felt a little better. The idea of 'free' might take getting used to, but I couldn’t wait around. Splinter had promised to send me far away, so I wouldn't have to deal with guards. Was I safe for now? I slowly stood, looking around. No obvious signs of pursuit. No buzz of alarms. The forest was silent. At the very least, I was out past the patrol perimeter.

Satisfied I wouldn't have to deal with pursuit immediately, I stretched and started a once-over. At first, everything seemed normal. My wounds were healed and my organs seemed fine. I froze in surprise though, when I realized my shirt was still torn. I fingered the frayed edge for a second. My gem always repaired my clothes along with my body. Curious, I bared my chest to check the gem itself. Its yellow fire , normally a bright glow, was barely flickering. I smiled. Splinter really had pulled through for me. If I was far enough away from the Nexus that my gem was malfunctioning, I was well and truly away from the Hive.

I drew my dagger and carefully scratched my arm. The gem flickered fitfully and a drop of ice oozed into my veins. The blood stopped and the scratch scabbed, but that was the extent of it. I nodded in satisfaction. Although the gem might seem a useful tool, I abhorred the thing; it was a symbol of ultimate degradation to me. My body wasn't even my own, simply a 'thing' to be used for the food of my insectoid masters. It had held me in thrall to them for who-knows how long. Although functional immortality wasn't something to be sneezed at, I loathed this piece of rock and for a moment, seriously considered prying it out of my breastbone. I slowly dismissed the thought. I knew very little about magic, and had no idea what the backlash from that might be.

I examined my surroundings, trying to pick a direction. I settled on what seemed 'downhill' in the bright moonlight. I paused when something caught my eye. I gasped, dropping to the ground for a better look. Tears filled my eyes at what I saw. Fingers shaking, I carefully picked it up, turning it this way and that.

It was Splinter's horn.

That cracking sound I heard must have been him breaking it off. He'd disconnected it from his body, before the flare burned him up. He made me hold it for the teleport, and he'd mutilated himself so that his corpse wouldn't be dragged along with me.

"One day we leave," I said, caressing the piece of yellow ivory. <"One day, you said. You came through for me. I'm free.">

I reverently slid it into my sheath next to my dagger and promised myself to give him a proper funeral when I could.

It was about then that I was jumped by a manticore.

The first thing I noticed was the roar. Honestly, it spooked me. However, I didn't freeze up. Months of life-or-death combat had taught me better than that. I sprang into action, whipping out my dagger and diving away from the sound. I felt trails of heat down my back and winced as I rolled, the underbrush cruelly raking the wounds. I was back on my feet in an instant, assessing the situation. My opponent was big, bigger than most anything I'd fought one-on-one. Its body was a tawny yellow, dim in the bright moonlight, its mane a charcoal black. It had a wrinkled scar on its muzzle that twisted its lip into a permanent snarl. I felt blood dripping down my back. My gem was struggling to heal me, but it was mostly exhausted. I nodded grimly. A feral feline opponent, several times out of my weight class. Me armed with nothing but a dagger. First blood to the enemy. And both my gem and I running on our last drops.

But a smile crawled across my face.

"I am free.” I stepped forward, showing my aggression. “I have a life to lead!” I brought my dagger up, threatening. “You, you will NOT KEEP ME FROM IT!" I roared my challenge to the beast, the same roar from the arena, a roar filled with the blood of friends and enemies. The manticore blinked, maybe confused by the audacity of its food.

I sprang.

No frontal attacks for this one. That was simply suicide. No way to attack at a distance, either. I was slower, and had less reach. No, I needed to play a waiting game here. I needed the perfect chance to strike, because I would only get one. And I needed to make it count.

I danced sideways, my footing sure in the dark. The manticore lunged after me, swiping with its huge paws, claws outstretched like talons. I slipped around the swipes, not even cat-quickness enough to catch me. It was an animal after all, and it had no finesse. Its eyes, the way it shifted its body-weight, the muscles of its arms; every single thing it did showed me where it would strike next. It telegraphed broadly. So I ducked, dipped, and dove, evading by a hairsbreadth each time, looking for my chance to strike back.

Finally, it came. I stepped backwards, letting a paw whoosh past. This time, it over committed. I stepped into its range and smoothly plunged my dagger into its eye. It roared, whipping its head away. I yanked my dagger out and sprang backwards, almost fast enough to avoid its counter, but inattention caught me. Manticores have scorpion tails. I tried to lean back, throwing up my arm to brush it aside, but I grimaced as the barb buried itself in the muscle. Pain blossomed, along with a boiling numbness. Suddenly scared, I staggered but kept my stance together, putting every ounce of energy into projecting calm confidence. That was key. I didn't need to kill this beast, I just needed to be enough trouble it didn't want to fight.

The manticore snarled and paced for a second, glaring at me with its good eye before giving one last roar, turning and bounding into the forest.

I deflated with a sigh. I'd done it. I'd driven it off. I looked down at my arm. Now, hopefully I could survive to appreciate it.

Moving slowly, I pulled off my shirt and tied it as tightly as I could around the sting. The wound itself, although not small, wouldn't give me too much trouble, but the poison was already working its way into my body. I hoped to contain it with the wrapping, so it wouldn't get to me all at once. When I was finished I was already feeling woozy and feverish. Hoping I'd done enough, I staggered through the brush until I found a hollow log and crawled in. No fortress, but maybe it would keep me safe.

Then I surrendered to the blackness.

Blood. Pain. Fire. Screams.

I woke to firelight.

I sprang upright, my instincts calling for me to assess the situation and seize the initiative. My body however, refused my orders. The blankets I was wrapped in tangled my feet, and my hands searched futilely for my belt. My clothes were gone, leaving me in my underwear. I wobbled for a second, perched precariously on the edge of the bed, and then crashed to the floor.

"My, my." A warm, cheerful voice greeted me. "Be calm and rest, my guest and patient. You were wounded sore, in a fight most flagrant."

I calmed a little as my brain decided that I wasn't immediately at risk. I slowly untangled myself and rose to my feet, fighting dizziness. I was definitely still feeling the effects of the poison but not being dead was a small miracle in and of itself. I rubbed my head, trying to ease the headache I felt starting as I inspected my surroundings.

I was inside a tree.

A large tree, which had been hollowed out. The interior was contoured to fit the natural curves of the bark. The floor was rings of wood, the natural pattern of the trunk. A plank door was cracked open on one wall, letting in a cool breeze. In the center of the hut a stone fire ring supported a bubbling cauldron. A cheery blaze licked up the sides of the small pot.

I stepped backwards, falling and landing on the bed. It was surprisingly soft. My arm had been bandaged. My back was treated as well, the bandages wrapping all the way around my chest, hiding the crystal there.

Every wall was lined with shelves. Every shelf was filled with...stuff. Bits of dried plants. Clay pots. Stoppered glass bottles. Cuttings of fresh plants. Vials of powder. Piles of rocks. Small bags, stuffed with who-knows what. A dream-catcher hung from the door and ornately painted masks stared back at me.

Sitting on the floor before the fire, across the room from me, a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, sat a zebra. She was gray and black, or maybe black and gray? She had gold hoops in her ears and gold rings on her neck. I stared at her, too tired and muddled with poison and meeting a new person for the first time in months to think up a coherent response.

"Rest, rest will stop you feeling sickly!" she said, pointing to the bed behind me. "The poison will not be cured that quickly!"

I seemed safe.

I was out of the woods. I was warm. She hadn't killed me yet. I wasn't restrained. I'd been treated.

Sleep sounded good. I lay back down, wrapped the blanket around myself, and closed my eyes.

Blood. Pain. Fire. Screams.

I woke to sunlight.

The fireplace was cold. The zebra was gone, the door open, letting in the sights and sounds of a beautiful summer day. I awoke slowly, drifting out of the haunted dark of my dreams. Rubbing my eyes, I sat up. I was feeling better. The nausea and chills from the poison had subsided. I felt...rested. For the first time in months, I felt like the exhaustion I'd been living with might have started to ebb slightly. Slowly, a smile worked its way onto my face. The exuberance of freedom I'd felt the other day was returning, if slightly more dimly. I stood and stretched, looking around for my clothes. I spotted them, folded neatly and placed on a shelf. I dressed quickly and chewed my lip pensively, trying to decided what to do.

Should I leave? I wanted to be moving. I wanted to head into the forest and see something new, feel the sun on my face, dip my toes in a stream, chase a butterfly. But should I? Last night, the zebra had seemed adamant about me staying in bed. Was that last night? How long had I been out?

I checked the scratch on my arm. It was still a scab. I hadn't been asleep for weeks, or this would be gone. I paced around the fire once or twice, and stuck my head out the door. A small patch of grass was framed by the tall trees of the forest I'd landed in. Stepping outside, I paced around the yard.

The tree hut was just as impressive outside as in. It was obviously still alive, evidenced by green leaves and even some blossoms. The forest was much the same as I remembered, which meant gloriously unlike my cell in every way. I spent a minute taking in the freedom flowing around me, considering the fact that I could go anywhere I wanted, do anything.

I did my stretches.

Splinter had introduced me to the idea of martial arts. Being a pony, he hadn't been able to teach me much, but he gave me a few basic ideas and I'd tried to develop what I could. I stretched my muscles and started to practice moving.

In slow motions, I mimicked kicks, punches, and blocks. I had no formal training to draw on, so I'd tried to use what the bugs had beaten into me. I visualized the movements of my enemies and felt the slow shift of my body. Splinter had explained some of the philosophy behind what he practiced and I had tried applying it, but eventually gave up. I was doing this to make myself better at killing. Specifically, I was trying to make myself better at killing my captors. I mimed punching through a crystalline eyeball, imagining the crunch. I'd felt that a few times, and it had always given me a sliver of joy. I pretended to block a strike, my arm flowing up and brushing it to the side. That motion had saved my skin countless times.

As I moved through the familiar motions, I fell slowly into a state of quiet contemplation. My mind slowly churned over what had happened, extracting the important things and shuffling the rest away for later. Finally when I was sweating and tired I collapsed on the ground, laying in the prickly grass and looking up at the sky.

"Well, my patient, enjoying the weather? A bit of sun helps anyone feel better."

I lifted my head, and found the zebra approaching along the path.

"Sorry." I replied, slowly pushing myself to my feet. "I don't speak Equestrian well."

"Oh, you are a traveler from afar? Together we make a pair, although slightly bizarre."

"Um. If it's not rude to ask...why are you rhyming at me?"

"I speak as I do to fence my tongue. It needs forethought; I can choose my words with care. This is what I was taught." She paused for a second, and regarded me carefully. "You know, you're the first person to ask me that?" I was surprised to hear her drop the rhyme for the question. I shook my head numbly in reply.

"I meant no offense..."

"No, no, don't worry about it. I will forbear, since your language skills are still growing. But, if you don't mind, could I have your name? You can call me Zecora. Some call me Shaman of the Everfree."

"I'm Wesley Kilmer. If you like, you can call me Wes."

"Well, Wes, are you feeling better? Most of the poison should be purged from your system. How did you manage to end up in the Everfree? If I didn't know better, I'd say you fell from the sky."

"Uh..." I opened my mouth, and stopped. "Funny story, actually-"

"Zecora! Zecora!" An unexpected voice startled me, and my mind kicked into overdrive as something red and tan bounced out of the forest, headed right for the zebra. I dove backwards, hurtling into the hut and slamming the door behind me. I put my back to it and held it tight.

"Apple Bloom..." I heard Zecora sigh. "What have I told you about jumping out at people?"

"To not do it and that ponies don't like it." A singsong voice replied to the zebra. Turning around, I cracked the door and looked out. In front of the zebra was the cutest thing I had ever seen. I'd seen ponies before. Even mares. Fallen Leaves had been cute. But this was a baby! Her huge eyes and tiny legs, combined with the round head and big red ribbon, made me want to pick her up and squeeze her.

"Yes, Apple Bloom. You scared my guest. Wesley? Could you please come out, and meet my friend Apple Bloom?"

I slowly swung the door open and edged out. Although I'd simply been startled, my heart was still racing. I cautiously approached.

"Hi! Mah name is Apple Bloom! Ah live on the farm! Nice to meet'cha! Sorry to startle you, Ah just..."

I spaced out a little, letting the inane chatter wash over me. Truthfully, I was feeling a little overwhelmed. This was the second new person I'd met. I'd barely adjusted to knowing Zecora and my acquaintances had already doubled.

"Apple Bloom." Zecoras voice was stern, and quelled the filly quickly. "Wes needs his rest. He was stung by a manticore, so please don't pester him. Now, what did you want to ask me?" I gave her a grateful glance, and retired into the hut, thinking to lay back down for a bit.

A little later, Apple Bloom and Zecora followed me. But they pretty much ignored me. Although Apple Bloom kept shooting me curious looks, she kept her distance, something I was grateful for. From what little I could gather from their conversation, Zecora was giving her a lesson on some sort of medicinal herb.


Apple Bloom left as the shadows started to lengthen. Zecora stewed some of the forage from her expedition and served me a plate of soup. I accepted gratefully and sat cross legged near the fire, facing her.

"Wes, if you don't mind, I have a few questions for you."

I swallowed my mouthful of soup, and shrugged.

"Go for it. I'll tell you whatever I can."

"Well then, where are you from?"

I hesitated for a second before answering.

"I don't know if you'll believe this, but...I'm pretty sure I'm from another world."

Slowly over excellent soup and later over glasses of some sort of beer that the zebra brewed herself, the story came out. I gave her a rough outline of Earth and how I'd fit into it. How one day, I'd gone camping and woken up somewhere else. How I'd been wandering alone and helpless through the forest, searching for GPS signal, when I'd stumbled across the Hive. I skipped what I felt I could of my imprisonment, merely highlighting the horrors I'd faced and culminating in the death of Splinter and my escape. I showed her the gem embedded in my chest and she nodded pensively.

"Your story is quite strange, Wes. But it rings with truth." She sipped from her mug, and refilled mine. "You are welcome to stay with me for a while, if you like. It's quiet here and I can heal your body. Your mind is scarred too, however, and I cannot do much for that. Nothing except provide a haven."

"Thanks, Zecora. Splinter promised me the people of this world were good. He made me swear not to judge everyone harshly because of the changelings. It looks like he was right. I would like to stay for a bit, I think."

She raised her glass and I clicked it to mine.

"To your stay. May it be dull and uneventful."

I smiled. I could drink to that.

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