• Published 6th Aug 2011
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One Last Quest - Vanner

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Detour on the Long Road Home

Chapter Seven: Detour on the Long Road Home
Sometimes you decide to continue along the path others have chosen for you
*Author’s note: A Gyp is the term for a female coyote. It sounds much nicer than bitch, which is an accurate term with unpleasant connotations.

Pokey awoke the next morning to the rhythmic churning of a waterwheel providing power to the city of Bridleburg. He was above the powerhouse in a small, damp apartment covered in outdated and peeling floral wallpaper. Pokey looked around for War Jenny, only to find Blueprint sleeping it off on the couch. He quietly left the sleeping unicorn, and walked back towards the city.

After buying coffee from a surly, chocolate colored pegasus, Pokey found his way back into town along the cobblestone roads. He wasn’t really sure what to do next. The visit from Luna left him feeling better than he had in years, but what about Medley? Was his prayer really answered? He opened the hospital’s back door and wandered inside.

Pokey approached Medley’s room, ready for just about anything. The curtains were thrown wide, and morning sunlight poured in through the panes of glass. There was no Medley. There was only an empty room. His face fell. Luna hadn’t answered his prayers after all.

“Pokey?” asked a quiet voice behind him. He turned around to see Medley standing there with a tear in her eye. She rushed to embrace the unicorn. Pokey stood stunned to the spot.

‘“You’re alive!” he said at last. He looked her over, and ran a hoof through her mane. “Luna be praised, you’re alive.”

“She came to me last night,” said Medley. She stared into his soulful yellow eyes. “She said that you prayed for me. You saved me, Pokey. I’m here because of you.” She kissed his cheek. “Thank you.” Pokey found himself speechless.

...

“Absolutely we’re done,” said Pokey. “When your quest requires divine intervention, it’s a sign that you’ve reached failure on an epic scale.” He levitated a muffin from the table, and took a bite. Crumbs fell to the napkin laid beneath it. “What’s more, you weren’t even supposed to be on this quest. I seem to remember you were leading the charge to not do this.”

“But we have to finish!” protested Medley. “I feel... better. Smarter. Move clever. I don’t know.” The frustration gathered in her face as she grasped for words. “It’s like I’m supposed to be here now. Whatever She did, it made me realize that I can do this too. I was supposed to do this at some point, I still can. We have to keep going.”

“Sweetie, we almost sent you home in a box,” said Redheart. “You’re not going anywhere but back to your family. You’ve got other things to worry about now.” Medley huffed, and turned to Pokey.

“What about you?” asked Medley. “You’re just going to give up? That doesn't seem like the Pokey I've come to know.”

“I don’t know about the other two,” said Pokey. “But I’m still in rough shape. If there’s any more fighting on the road ahead, I’m afraid I’m just not in the condition to do it.” Dr. Castor had fixed him up well enough but the injuries from his past weren’t playing well with his fresh ones, and the painkillers dulled his lightening reaction time. His flank itched.

“Pokey’s right,” chimed in Cheerilee. “We’re in no shape to go back after the emerald.”

“Well then what about the buffalo of Appleloosa?” asked Medley. “Surely you can talk them out of their sapphire. Or the Ruby in Canterlot! We can go there, and come back with an army and...” Pokey sighed wearily as he tried to find the right words.

"I don't know why you're so concerned about all this," said Redheart. "The only thing you have to worry about getting home."

"But I want to help!" protested Medley. "I've done nothing but complain this entire trip, and I've been out of the loop for almost two days." She turned to Cheerilee. "You told me the first night we were out that a party has to count on each other. I've counted on you three to keep me going, and I going to return the favor." The rest of the table sat in silence. Redheart and Pokey exchanged an uneasy look.

"The buffalo are a proud people," said Cheerilee, breaking the silence. "They don’t really value pony artifacts, so it’s possible we may be able to get the sapphire from them with no problem.” She glanced around the table. “I don’t know as much about them as I should, but I know that Redheart has been out there plenty of times." Redheart stared out the window, lost in thought. “Right, Redheart?”

“Oh, yes, buffalo,” Redheart snapped back to the conversation at hoof. “I just love the buffalo. Such gentle giants,” she mused. “Strong, handsome, quiet. So much respect for the land. Kind hearts, gentle hooves...” Her voice trailed off wistfully, followed by a jealous sigh from Pokey.

“Sounds like someone has a type,” giggled Cheerilee. Redheart glared at her.

“I... do not!” she protested. “They’re just... good looking... and earthy... and...” She flustered to halt. Most of the table erupted in laughter as the white earth pony blushed as red as her cutie mark. Pokey only sat quietly.

“Then we’re going to Appleloosa?” beamed Medley.

“Well it sounds like it,” said Cheerilee. “Redheart is definitely interested in getting her hooves on them.” Redheart’s flustered protest came only as an incomprehensible babel, while Pokey just stared daggers at the Cheerilee. “You, however, are getting on the next train to Ponyville.”

...

Medley found herself staring out the window of a passenger car, just watching as the Diamond Dog lands sped past. The train chugged along. The ponies in front were galloping along at a steady pace towards Ponyville. The tracks ran along the edge of the Everfree Forest, then cut to the east along Dame River. Soon, the Diamond Dog territory would be out of sight, and Medley would be left with a spectacular view of the Forest.

She rested her muzzle on her chin, and thought about what she would tell Snow Catcher and her foals. The truth? That she had failed the princess’s request, and nearly died? That she met Luna? That the others sent her home in disgrace? Her thoughts were interrupted by the squeal of metal on metal; the train slowed to a stop. She looked out the window. The train ponies unhitched themselves from the engine, and climbed into the cabin. With the steep hill ahead, it was just too much for them to pull. They’d be on steam power for the next leg of the journey.

Far in the distance, she saw the cavern where she it all nearly ended. She felt as if it were calling to her, taunting her for being just out of reach. In that cavern there was a gem with her name on it. And there were other gems there as well, ones she could take without repercussions. With the Diamond Dogs routed, she should be able to get in and out of the cave without a problem, right? The emerald was bound to be in there somewhere, and with all the commotion, who’d have thought to take it? She made up her mind.

Medley walked with a nonchalant air toward the rear of the train as other ponies shifted around the cars. She slid open the door to the caboose, and stepped inside. Stacks of luggage were piled behind brass rails. A dark shape emerged from behind the luggage as Medley made for the rear door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” asked War Jenny. Medley nearly jumped out of her turquoise coat.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded. “My goddess, can’t any of you Kin act normal?”

“I’m here to see that you make it home safely,” said War Jenny. “That means not getting off this train.”

“I’m just stretching my wings,” lied the pegasus.

“I’ve been following you four since you left the clinic,” said War Jenny. “I saw that spark of greed practically turn your pretty blue eyes green. There’s no mistaking it.” She stood from the pile of suitcases, and walked to the fluttering pegasus. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble when you get home.”

“You don’t know anything about my home,” huffed Medley.

“I know that you hate your job,” said War Jenny. “I also know that you love your children. Those three came out here because they wanted a break from reality. No matter how much they complained, it was a nice distraction from the hum drum life they've grown accustomed too. You, on the other hoof, are out here for the money.” Medley's eyebrows sank into a glare.

“I... you... how...” she stammered.

“Why else would you be trying to go out there again and risk your life?” asked War Jenny. “I know you think those stones are valuable. I think that you have no idea just how valuable they are."

"Wait, they actually do something?" asked Medley. War Jenny facehoofed.

"Did your goddess tell you nothing?" she sighed, staring at the ceiling. "Look, Luna always instructed my people to find wealth, but to always give it away. We were always to look for these stones, and give them back to her."

"What did she need with them?" asked Medley. "Are they some sort of key? What do they do?"

"They're the key to undoing a great blight," said War Jenny. "My people have been forced across the river for the past few hundred years and we haven't been able to get into Equestria to look for the stones. Now your goddess has sent you after them, meaning the time for their use is nearly at hand." War Jenny glared at Medley. "It also means I can't let you steal them."

“It’s not about the stones,” protested Medley. “I’m would never try to steal an artifact like that. Do you really think I’d want to bring the down wrath of Celestia and wind up on the moon? It’s just...” she shifted nervously. “Celestia promised us a reward for our services. I really need the bits. I’ve got two fillies, and they keep cutting back Snow Catcher’s hours, and...”

“There are better ways to finance a life than adventuring,” chastised War Jenny. “Especially in your condition.” Medley softened her glare into confusion. War Jenny sighed in weary frustration. “You’re telling me you don’t know? You city ponies never pay any attention, do you?”

“Know what?” asked Medley. “What are you even talking about?”

“It’s not my place to tell you,” said War Jenny. The train started to roll again as the boilers reached temperature. “And I managed to distract you long enough to prevent you from getting off the train.”

“I guess you did,” said Medley, innocently. “I’ll tell Pokey you did a great job when I catch up to him.” She dashed out the back door. The donkey grabbed at the handle only to find Medley had barred it from the outside. She rushed to the other door to find it barred as well. War Jenny was trapped inside the Caboose. Medley waved to War Jenny through the window as she took to the sky. Jenny stared out at window at the pegasus as she dashed towards the Diamond Dog cavern.

“Son of a nag,” cursed War Jenny.

Medley’s heart raced as she streaked into the sky. She’d never pulled a trick like that before. Where was this sudden inspiration coming from? She felt free and young, ready to take on anything. She felt like a Wonderbolt. She found herself cheering as she soared through the air. She spun around in the sky with not another creature daring to occupy her air space. For the first time since she was a filly, she felt truly free.

Medley looked down at the Diamond Dog’s territory. Such an ugly scrubland! And that horrid red moss! She’d just have to deal with it if she wanted to find that stone. She flew toward the cave, tucking in her wings and diving faster, much faster than she had ever before. She never wanted to come back down. She buzzed the cave entrance a few times, finding unexplainable joy in her flight. By the time she actually landed, her wings were tingling with elation. She wanted nothing more than to adventure now. She could see why her companions had spent their youths doing it. She boldly fluttered past the excavated cave-in into the massive cavern.

The remains of the Diamond Dog that had nearly killed her sat unmoving in the center of the room. Medley had been woefully unprepared for the sight. Pokey hadn’t just killed the beast; he’d taken off its head. Medley found herself trying to keep down her breakfast. She saw another, smaller patch of blood on the ground near a crushed boulder. It had long since dried, mixed with the dirt and moss of the Diamond Dog’s lair. She stared at the spot, remembering what had happened.

That boulder had come from nowhere. She remembered looking over to see it hurling toward her. She didn’t have time to react. Just... lights out. She remembered Pokey’s horn filling the room with that dangerous light. She remembered him yelling. She remembered walking along the clouds, following a pure white pegasus towards a bright light. She remembered Luna came to her and said that she had reasons to keep going. Then she woke up in a hospital. If it weren’t for Luna, she wouldn’t be here now.

A wave of panic swept over here as the realization sank in. She shouldn’t be here. Here she was, so elated by freedom that she’d forgotten that it took a miracle to save her. Had she escaped death only to throw off her old life? She fluttered backwards out of the cavern when a familiar sound struck her ears. Whimpering.

The whimpering was definitely that of a child. Medley’s heart thumped. Had they left a filly behind? Had they missed an entire row of cages? The herd had galloped out of here so fast, they hadn’t stopped to look for other captives. And with the thundering of a hundred hooves, who would have heard the cry of a child? Anyone still trapped in there would have been two days without food or water. Medley began to follow the whimpering,

Her wings silently flapped through the tunnels as she listened for the direction of the child. With the way sounds echoed, Medley found herself lost. The tunnels became maze around her. She landed, and tried to make a plan.

What would Redheart do? Knowing her, she’d probably have a search pattern organized, and split the party in two. She hoofed at the stone, as she tried to come up with something similarly clever. Planning had never really been her strong suit, but Luna’s touch meant she was more than she used to be, right? The hoof marks on stone gave her an idea.

She fluttered her way back to the entrance, and scratched numbers into the stone. She began systematically searching the tunnels, flying down the full length before turning around and returning. Along the way, she picked up the Diamond Dog’s discarded treasure, and hid them in the deepest pockets of her saddle bags.

The whimpering was moving in response to her rock marks. Whoever was in here didn’t want to be found. She turned a corner into a branch tunnel when she spotted the child. A Diamond Dog, no bigger than a foal, cowered from the turquoise pegasus.

“Please don’t hurt me,” begged the child. He covered his face with his paws as he tried to hide from Medley. She bent down and picked up the child. She held him to her chest. She patted his fuzzy head, and rocked him gently.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” she said. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. No one’s going to hurt you.” She looked around the tunnels. There had to be a clue as to where his parents got off too. She found only rotten timbers, half collapsed tunnels, and more of the red moss. “Where are your parents?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he whimpered. “There was all this noise, and the ground was shaking, and daddy got buried in that pile of rocks over there, and won’t wake up and...” The child buried his face in Medley’s chest. “I’m sacred! I want my mommy!”

“Shhh,” comforted Medley. “I’m sure we can find your mommy. What’s your name?”

“My name is Pupp,” he sniffed. “Can we find mommy now?” Medley looked at the collapses. It was a grim sight, and she prayed that the child’s parents weren't among them.

“Why don’t we go outside so we can see if your mommy left for another cave?” She and the child fluttered back towards the cavern entrance. Medley covered the Diamond Dog’s eyes from the horror of the eviscerated beast. No child needed to see that.

So where would the mother have escaped to? Medley looked down at the dusty earth around the entrance. Hoof prints of all shapes and sizes covered the main entrance, but an overlapping series of newer paw prints led south from the cave entrance. She’d been too busy buzzing the entrance to even notice. The Diamond pup sniffed the air.

“I smell her!” he said and hopped out of Medley’s arms. He put his face to the ground and sniffed. After a minute of snorting in the dirt, he finally pointed south along the paw prints. “She went this way!” Pupp dashed off, following the tracks. Medley easily caught up with the loping pup, and she fluttered alongside him.

“Take it easy,” said Medley. “You don’t want to tire yourself out.” The pup stopped in his tracks, and stared at the ground.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Medley heard the child’s stomach growled. “Mommy always has food. I don’t know where she is, but I can smell her.” Medley dug around in her pack for a moment. Where was all of her food? She finally produced a few muffins she had saved for the voyage home. She passed it to the child.

“Here you go, sweetie,” she said. “I don’t know if you like carrot cake, but it’s all I have.”

Medley looked in her pack with disappointment. Of course Redheart would have redistributed their supplies; she was the queen of preparation. She snapped the flaps closed and looked up. Pupp was chasing the trail again. Medley rolled her eyes and chastised herself for forgetting the cardinal rule of parenting: Don’t take your eyes off the kid. She flew beside Pupp; his tiny legs could hardly carry him faster than a trot.

For a half an hour, Pupp scampered along the sandy soil of the Diamond Dog territories as he followed the scent of his mother. He avoided huge swaths of red moss that crept along the ground, as they moved toward the river. It wasn’t long before they arrived on the banks. Pupp sniffed the air. He looked up at Medley.

“I can’t smell her anymore,” he said. “All I can smell is this gross stuff.” He pointed to the large patches of vermilion moss that came nowhere near the river. Medley looked at Pupp, then out at the river. They Diamond Dogs had probably crossed near here, which meant they weren’t far behind. She looked up at the sky.

“How do you feel about flying?” she asked. A minute later, Pupp was whooping and barking in joy from Medley’s back.

Medley flew high into the air as she looked out on the lands for any signs of tell tale Diamond Dog holes. After a few minutes of searching, Medley had begun her decent near a cave. She landed near a fire ring with Pupp still riding her back. He hopped off and sniffed the air with vigor.

“Mommy!” he yelled and dashed into the cavern.

“Sweetie, wait!” called Medley as she rushed in after him.

It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the dim light beyond. She saw spread on floor of the cavern a dozen different blankets, beaded in fine gems and semi precious stones. Lying on those blankets were several Diamond Dogs gyps about the same size as Medley. Instead of the fuzzy slate grey of the males, the gyps were ginger colored and sported luxurious silky coats. They looked much like large versions Applejack’s dog, Wynona. Most had beautifully jeweled necklaces, and several wore fine silk sashes. One of the gyps came running as Pupp dashed for her. The gyp picked up the child in her paws and wept.

“My baby!” she sobbed “Oh my dear, sweet Pupp! You’ve come home to me! I thought you were gone forever!” She smothered Pupp with hugs and rocked the child in her arms. Tears ran down her muzzle as the rest of the Dogs came to lavish attention on the returned child. Pupp’s mother noticed Medley. “Who are you?” she demanded. The scene turned from heartwarming to icy in a split second. The gyps turned, and with hackles raised, bared their teeth at the pegasus.

“Uh... I’m... Medley...” she said as she backed away from the cave. “I...”

“Mommy, she helped me here!” interrupted Pupp. “She found me in the cave, and then I sniffed you out and I flew on her back across the river!” The gyp looked at her, and handed Pupp off to another mother. She stepped towards Medley. The pegasus froze; her wings suddenly refused to obey her commands to fly away. The gyp reached for Medley, and pulled her into a heartfelt embrace.

“Thank you,” she whispered through her tears of joy. “My son has returned to me.” She wiped her eyes. “I cannot offer you enough thanks, pegasus.” Medley breathed a sigh of relief.

“Any mother would have done the same,” she said. “I don’t think we’re that different, really.” The mother nodded, and released Medley from her embrace. The rest of the pack surrounded Medley to offer thanks for returning their prodigal child.

They escorted her deeper into the cavern into what appeared to be a nursery. Dozens of Diamond Dog pups played happily together. The boys, still fuzzy and adorable youths, roughhoused and jumped on each other, while the girls played with dolls and toys. The canine offered her water and a mat to sit.

“I am Bella,” said the Diamond Dog. “I am the first wife of our tribe.”

“First wife?” asked Medley.

“The chief chooses a wife first,” explained Bella. “It is her job to keep the other women in line. It is a job she keeps until she retires, or dies. When Pupp’s father ascended to chief, the old first wife retired to allow me the position.”

“I saw what happened to Pupp’s father at the hill,” said Medley. “I’m sorry it came to that.”

“Yes, I am too,” said Bella with some sadness. “Even if you think him evil, he was an effective leader and a good father. But I cannot bring myself to hate you, as the men folk do. You have brought me my son, and I can tell some pony like you did not come to that hill with malice.” Bella looked around the nursery, as if listening for something in particular. She continued in a whisper. “Our new leader, Scratch is a vile and evil dog. He hates ponies with unmatched passion, especially after what happened on the hill.” Medley didn’t know what to say to that. She thought about apologizing, but she wasn’t in the least bit sorry for what they’d done. She found herself at the edge of her abilities trying to come up with an adequate response. What would Cheerilee do?

Cheerilee would have already known about the all about the tribal practices of the Diamond Dogs, and that their women were beautiful canines. She gazed about the nursery and looked at the children. So much joy from these children, and yet one day, they too would grow to enslave ponies like herself. She couldn’t comprehend it.

“Why do you do it?” asked Medley.

“Do what?” asked Bella.

“I don’t pretend to understand your ways, so forgive me for being rude,” said Medley. “But why do you take others and force them to work for you?” Bella looked sadly at the mat she was sitting on.

“Do you see the fine furs on which we sit?” she asked. “The jewels around our necks? Our husbands and fathers give us these things as an act of love. They want so much for us to be happy." She looked sadly at the children. "They are willing to spread misery to others to dig up these gems, and find these things for us.” She gestured to the Pupp, who had busied himself climbing atop a dog pile of children. “He doesn’t know it yet, but he will do the same. A girl will catch his eye, and his friends will all say ‘give her diamonds, give her furs, give her all the beautiful things of the world.’” She turned back to Medley with a defeated smile. “Our men, as you may have guessed, aren’t exactly clever in matters of the heart.”

"But to enslave others!" said Medley. "Can't they see it's just wrong?"

"They don't let us women work," said Bella. "They just want so much to shower us with gifts, and let us live in luxury." She looked down at the floor. "Most of us don't care for it. Ponies and pigs, they have families too. We try to treat them well, and do what we can, but our husbands insist. Who are we to resist their wills and their gifts?"

“I can see where it’s nice to receive gifts,” said Medley. “I see them so infrequently these days.” Bella gave her a confused look. “Oh, it’s not because Snow Catcher doesn’t love me. Money’s tight even with us both working and...”

“You... work?” asked Bella. “Outside your home? Hunting and digging like the men?”

“No, not at all. I work at the post office,” said Medley. “Or at least I hope I still do. Their policies on deity assigned quests of absence are somewhat fuzzy.”

“You’re on a mission from your god?” gasped Bella.

“Oh, yes, that,” said Medley. “I came here to find a necklace made of a single, brilliant emerald.” She picked up a stone from the cave floor. “It’s about this big and seems to shine even when there’s no light.” Bella nodded.

“The stone you seek is on the collar of Scratch,” she said. “But he will not give it to you. It is the symbol of the chief, and it is won in single combat. The only reason he is chief now is that he stole it off my husband’s body.” Medley cursed under her breathe. Of course they kept it nearby; it wouldn’t be that easy to just abscond with it. At least she had knowledge now, and that was a good enough start. She could come back with Pokey, make the challenge...

And Pokey was still injured. She'd forgotten about that. She paused to gather her thoughts, as she looked back at the children. Medley wanted to free these children of the cycle of slavery and oppression. She could see now that the Diamond Dogs weren't evil, but instead misguided in their ambition and devotion. Perhaps she'd make her way back here someday to help them.

“I’m glad to have shared this time with you Bella,” said Medley at last.

"Thank you again," replied Bella. She stood and escorted Medley to the cave entrance. "Let us get you out of here before Scratch comes home."

“I wish I could have learned more about you and your pack," said Medley as she walked alongside Bella . "I feel like I could teach you so much. It's too bad I have to leave so soon."

“What’s your rush?” scratched a voice. Medley turned in panic. Behind her stood a Diamond Dog, with skin like gravel and teeth like shards of broken pottery. From his neck hung an acorn sized emerald of impossible brilliance. “Why not stay forever?”

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