Cast from his own pack, Stonemaker must flee from his own kin, and hope that he doesn't bring their fury upon those along his way...
Far to the south of Equestria, trouble stirs. The newly founded "Diamond Nation" has started to absorb smaller dens and is quickly becoming a power to be reckoned with. A small den on the southern edge of the Everfree is just another pack to take over, and the deposed alpha is just another body in their militant crusade... At least that it what they thought. This follows Stonemaker, recently usurped alpha of the silent valley clan, as he flees from the hunters of the Diamond Nation, and seeks to warn Equestria of the impending invasion, and hopefully save them from the armies marching to destroy their ways of life.
More tags will be added/changed as the story goes on, let me know what you think. Pre-read/edited by: Snlag
Peace reigned in a small valley nestled in the foothills of the dog's head mountains. The evergreens towered over the rocky slopes, guarding against the harsh winds and rains that plagued the lands south of Equestria. It was late fall, almost winter. the underbrush of the great foothills forrest already being covered by light dustings of snow and frozen dew, sparkling in the evening twilight like so many winking torches, reflecting the deep orange and red of the setting sun. All was quiet save for the quite chirping and whirring of the insects native to these woods.
"Oi! Watch ya head mutt!"
"I would, but I am one with sack, so shove it up yer a-"
"ENOUGH! Dustear, Rockpaw, both you be quiet now. Alpha no like it when we late. we just need to drop traitor off cliff and go back, maybe alpha leave us some gems when he done with feasting."
Four figures shambled out of the underbrush, twigs snagging on their tough canvas vests and pants, adding to the already large number of tears. Two of the silhouettes were shorter than the others, a good deal stockier as well. One of these smaller figures was lugging what appeared to be an industrial sized sack of rocks.
"Easy for your to say, you beta, you get to eat anyway!" said Dustear
"And as beta I says SHUT UP! Be like Gemdust, he quiet entire time!"
The second of the two taller shadows looked up as his name was called. Having not payed any attention to the scene playing out behind him, he shrugged and continued trudging along the winding path toward their destination. As he crested the eastern ridge of the valley, the falling sun cast its meagre light onto the shadowy party. They were all canine in appearance, the smaller two looking half way between Bull-terriers and Pugs, both with a dull grey coat. Of the other two, one looked to be a kind of Wolf-hound, the other a Doberman.
"We are near, silence would be the best course of action from here on out." rumbled the wolfish Gemdust, glaring pointedly at the others, "We do not know if the predators are out in force tonight, and I for one would rather not find out."
"You start to sound like yer bastard of a father, you ain't a traitor too are ya?" said Rockpaw, who was swiftly silenced by a glare from Gemdust that would curdle milk from a mile away.
"He have point," growled the beta, "maybe we need two bags?"
"Law a paw on me, Bloodtooth, and you will lose it. The actions of my father were his own. Now leave me be!"
"You call me beta, because that what I am. You beta no more! Not since your father was beat by the new alpha. You remember that!" said Bloodtooth, growling.
Gemdust's ice blue eyes hardened to diamonds as he met the gaze of the beta. Neither party willing to flinch, neither wanting to look away.
They both turned their glares to Rockpaw, who had broken another branch while trying to get around the immobile betas, past and current.
"heh... Sorry?" he whimpered under the full force of the two towering figures.
Snorting, Gemdust turned and continued leading the way up along the ridge.
About twenty minutes later, they arrived at their destination. A ravine that split the earth as if it had been tilled by the giants of old
"You two, get 'im out of the bag before you toss 'im over, no good to waste it."
The two grunts nodded their agreement. They quickly undid the twine around the opening of the sack. As they shook it open, a large shape rolled out, unfolding to become a large, unconscious, wolf-hound, even larger than the two betas. He had a white and black pattern on his fur, looking like he had a cloak on, black on his head and back, leaving his muzzle, the tips of his ears, the end of his tail, and his underbelly a shocking white. At least that is what he would have looked like, if he weren't covered in soot and blood.
"Well, lets get 'im off den, I'm 'ungry!"
"Yous always hungry Rockpaw, just start pushin' him."
"No, Gemdust does it, he push the traitor off the cliff!" said Bloodtooth.
Gemdust sat there, head down, looking anywhere but the broken form laying before him. When he heard this, his ears laid back and his eyes harded yet again, as he glared toward the new beta. Softly growling, he stood and walked toward the body, which was now laying at the edge of the ravine, on of his fore-paws hanging off the straight drop. Getting down on his knees, Gemdust laid his paws on his father's chest. Feeling the faint heartbeat of the unconscious dog, he made a show of straightening his vest, quickly slipping a small stone box into his paws, and into the paws of the fallen.
"Give me that twine," siad Gemdust, "If you are going to make me do this, then I will do it right."
Dust ear tossed the bundle of string to the wolf-hound. Gemdust deftly tied the unconscious dog's paws together, hiding the box between his large limbs.
"You're lucky this time dad, at least you'll survive tonight,"mumbled Gemdust, "I can only hope that mother has the same luck, probably not though." raising his voice he said, "Alright, off ya go."
He pushed the large dog off the edge of the cliff, listening as it bounced down the side. Closing his eyes he waited. The wait was not long, or drawn out. In a matter of seconds Gemdust had gone from silently kneeling at the edge of the ravine to laying on his side about a head shorter.
"HA, he never saw it coming, boss is gonna like dis!" cheered Dustear, "We be eatin' tonight for sure!"
"You might have, if you had done anything!" snapped Bloodtooth as he jogged back into the forrest, wiping the blade of his now uncovered sword as he went, "Now get moving, we need to be back at den before sun down."
The two remaining dogs whimpered and quickly followed the beta back into the depths of the tall trees.
Back at the den
"WHERE IS IT?"
"We not know alpha, maybe the traitor took it?"
"THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE, He had no time to get it! I challenged him BEFORE he got back to his burrow."-the alpha sighed and rubbed his eyes-"Calm yourself Firestone. YOU THERE, what is your name?" he barked to one of the sentries.
"Grinder, alpha!" he said back
"Bring me the traitor's bitch," Firestone ordered. as he watched the sentry leave he muttered to himself, "maybe that whore knows, and maybe she will talk when she learns that her mangy mate, and their shit of a pup are both rotting in the woods. Even if she doesn't I never swore that she needed to die quickly. I might even have some fun with her."
Maybe this was a complete failure of a night. Ah, well... Nothing goes completely to plan anyways, this just means that I will have to hurry the invasion preparations. Those ponies won't know what happened
Firestone slowly grinned at the thought. That grin kept growing, developing into a cackle, and from there, a full laugh, born from malice and hatred.
"Yes,"he said between the booms of laughter, "Even if that weakling survives and manages to warn them, I will have the full force of the Diamond Nation behind me. Maybe the High King will even let me keep a fief in the pony-lands."
That does remind me though, I should send a scout to the bottom of that ravine. I should know if the chase begins, isn't that right brother?
The walls of the ravine slowly shift from the yellow orange of the setting sun, to the dark blues and black of the night. The river responsible for the ravine still flowed strongly across its floor, darting between boulders and scree from the walls, swiftly bearing eroded sediment down the river, continuing its eternal war with the earth.
The river itself quickly changed depths, going from only a meter to ten with almost no warning. It was a mountain river as well, forming from a combination of snowmelt and rain from the peaks of mountain ranges, in other words, it was pretty damn cold.
As the light dwindled, receding back into the sky like a fisherman's line, the landscape slowly degraded into nothing more than shapes and blots in the inky darkness. All but the river was still, nothing making sound in the lonely crevasse. All but one shape.
The shape slowly unfolded, spreading out on the small pile of gravel and rock that served as a landing pad for its tumble from the heights. Groaning in pain, it crawled its way back into the world of consciousness.
Damnit, I feel like I just fell down a mountain.
Groaning, I took a deep breath. I noted, with a healthy dose of swearing and aggravation, the sharp pains in my sides and back.
Thats a set of broken ribs if I've ever had any.
Ignoring the pain momentarily, I rolled onto my side, coughing.
At least my back is fine, just sore, and probably scraped into oblivion. I wonder if I am alone out here.
"Anyone out there who didn't just try to kill me?" I called out in a strained voice.
Predictably, my only response was the soft sounds of the river. Sighing, I rolled onto my stomach and tried pushing myself into a kneeling position. Only to fall back onto my face, driving daggers of agony through my ribs and head.
Just what I needed from today, a headache. Wonderful.
Not content to lay on my face, and probably get eaten by some form of grue, I started to move myself into some semblance of an upright position. Finally, with much pain and more than a few false starts, I managed to get myself onto my paws.
Okay, standing is good. Now to find some shelter, hopefully before I have to fight off anything. I probably should get some fire going, if I knew where I was I could find a forest, but no, I had to wake up in the middle of a damn ravine with no visible landmarks, beside the giant ass mountain... meh.
Taking a breath I shakily shifted myself to the wall of the ravine. I followed the wall hoping to find some kind of cave to spend the night in as I followed the stream away from the mountain range.
After two hours of seemingly endless hobbling, and more than my fair share of stumbling, I finally found an entrance into the walls of my gauntlet.
Perfect, a tiny crack in the wall. Just what I need.
Easing my rather large form into the crack, I let out a relieved groan. Partly out of the pain of compressing my questionable ribs to get into the cave, and partly out of the joyous relief that the cave itself was larger that the entrance let on. Much larger actually. The cave was roughly circular with about a five meter diameter and a two meter ceiling, so I had to hunch over a bit, but it was better that expected.
Well, no fire tonight, but I'm not too worried, nothing big enough to worry about will be able to get inside. Damn I am tired, at least its a sand floor, and not solid rock.
I curled myself into a ball, both to help keep warm, and to help prevent me from tossing and turning onto my hurt ribs. Tired as I was, I found myself lingering on the edge of restful sleep, just barely easing into the darkness or blissful rest. After what felt like an eternity, my weary body dove into unconsciousness.
Torches flickered along the rough hewn hall way, barely casting enough light to make out an ornate stone door. Lights danced from around the cracks of the doorway, and the muffled sounds of revelry made eire by the echos.
In the Great Hall just behind the doorway, a feast was being held. Hundreds of dogs singing and dancing, eating and drinking, casting aside all worries and throwing themselves into the joys of the night with abandon.
At the end of the great hall, upon a small raised dais, three simple thrones sat with their occupants, set apart from the debauchery, but close enough to be able to participate in the music and laughter.
The centre throne was a masterwork of ornate simplicity. Carved of obsidian, with golden accenting and inlays. Its occupant a rather large specimen of dog, muscled and tall, with a black and white coat. He emitted an aura of collected calm and command, booking no argument to who was the leader of this den.
To his right sat a sandstone throne, inlaid with rubies of all shapes and sizes. The dog occupying this throne looked every bit as regal as the former. While he didn't exude authority, he did have an air of confidence and self mastery about him that spoke of his ability to do anything you can, but better.
The remaining throne was more ornate than either of its comrades, made of silver and ordained with athemyst set in rings of gold. The owner of this throne didn't have an intimidating presence like the other two, but instead had the smile of a mother, and the eyes of a sister... the one who'd punch you in the shoulder and tell you to stop being an asshat, then set you up with her best friend, not like the one who would scream if she even so much as saw any kind of insect.
The figure at the centre sat calmly listening to the bards sing their tales, reminiscing on his time before becoming the alpha. His quiet thoughts were interrupted by the slamming of the door from the outside, sounding like a rockslide followed by the cracking of a boulder, which could quite possible have been the wall behind the door from the force of the entry.
The gathering of dogs was silenced almost immediately, as a column of heavily armed figures marched through the hall, knocking aside obstruction and reveler alike, making a line directly towards the thrones, forming an alley of arms and armor. As the honor guard finished their entrance, a cloaked figure emerged from the shadows of the now ruined door.
"Ah, Firestone, it has been too long brother," said the alpha, "tell me, have you forgotten that moronic little dream you had of uniting the clans?"
"Ha, you are still set in your ways," said Firestone striding towards the dais, "but not even the right ones Stonemaker, what is this I hear of you doing away with the old traditions?"
"Those archaic practices did nothing but hold us back, slaves made us belligerent, which lead us to our devotion to combat and the like. Without slaves we have managed three years of plenty, along with peace with the pony settlements. They even are discussing trade rights as we speak," explained Stonemaker.
"Surely you jest, brother. The weaklings are meant to serve us, it has been our way since the dawn of our proud race," growled Firestone, "To even think of coexistence is an insult to our fathers, and their fathers before them. This is the reason why you should align wi-"
"Are you still on about that fool that calls himself The High King?" snapped Stonemaker, "I have told his envoys that I am not going to sell my pack to anyone, nonetheless a mongrel like him. You speak of honoring our ancestors, and yet you follow the bastard who dances on their graves!"
"YOU WILL NOT SPEAK OF THE KING THIS WAY!"
"I WILL SPEAK OF HIM AS I PLEASE, I am alpha of this pack, you would do well to remember that brother!" spat Stonemaker.
"very well," said Firestone breaking out into a predatory grin. Turning toward the assembled dogs he shouted, "AS IS MY RIGHT BY BIRTH, I CHALLENGE STONEMAKER FOR LEADERSHIP OF THIS PACK!"
"I refuse, you gave up your claim long ago you bastard," growled Stonemaker, eyes narrowing to a, sadly ineffectual, lethal glare, "you have no business here any longer, remove yourself from my sight cur."
"It is birthright, I can't lose that claim," purred Firestone, "so what will it be brother? Fight or forfeit?"
"Your master must be more of an imbecile than I thought, I will not become a kinslayer, nor will I give up my pack, not to his foolish crusade!"
"Just fight him father, he has already cast his lot," said the dog on the sandstone throne
"No, I can not," said Stonemaker, "even in a trial like this, it would be no better than if I killed you Gemdust, my son"
Outraged Gemdust cried,"But you can't let him get away with this! He will undo all of your work within a week!"
"So what is it going to be brother dearest? Your family, or your den?" gloated Firestone, well aware that he was in a position of power.
"My den is my family, but you would destroy both in your lust for power," growled Stonemaker, "very well, I will yield my pack to you, may your reign be short and painful, wretch."
"Now now, no need to be sore about it brother," leered the newly appointed alpha
Stonemaker turned to his son, speaking softly so only he could hear, "Gem, take your mother and leave, do not come back, we will not survive this night."
"NO, take River and begone, quickly. Take the gift with you too, we can not let Firestone get his mangy paws on it."
"Now, if you are finished with you little secret sharing session over there brother, I would like you to hear my first proclamation as alpha," said Firestone, turning to the crowd he said, "My first act as alpha is to punish the traitorous Stonemaker in accordance with the old laws. Which, incase you have forgotten, includes flogging to my pleasure, and banishment from pack territory, along with a traitor's branding. Now, since you have softened your own guard with delusions of peace, I will gladly deal the flogging and branding myself."
"So be it," said Stonemaker, with a pointed glance at his son, who quickly grabbed his mother and started down a side path.
"Now now, you little runt," barked Firestone, "old law dictates that the family must be present at the flogging, and the branding for that matter. So just march your little tail right back to you seat, and take that bitch to hers as well."
With a glare guided by a rage to melt steel from Gem, and one of cold fury to freeze it again from River. Wordlessly they stood back to their seats.
The now grinning Firestone strolled to one of his guards holding back the crowd and relieved him of his mace, a nasty affair of iron and oak. With a grin still plastered on his face, Firestone whispered to the former alpha, "Be glad brother, the beatings will be quick, and the branding will be when you are unconscious. I am a dog of mercy, I know. But I just feel sorry for you, knowing that you will lie broken until a predator comes to end your suffering... Oh, I almost forgot, you should also know that your bitch and runt are both slated for death.. Just thought I would pass that along."
Before Stonemaker could react, the mace was slammed into his body, just below the ribcage, knocking him down to the ground. Two of Firestone's guards came forward and held down the fallen dog's arms as blow upon blow fell upon him. As the beating continued, a crack sounded through the hall.
"So, thats what it takes to break three ribs at once, I've always wondered that," mused Firestone, "well, I think that should be enough, and you are still awake too. That is just unfortunate, well, I tried at least."
As he was speaking he turned to another of his guards, and pulled a metal brand in the shape of a viper entwined around a kriss.
"Now, this here is nasty. Pretty simple really, it is completely cool, at least until it is placed on the one receiving the brand. That is when it starts to heat up, not instantly, no not at all, it heats up nice and slow. leave quite the mark, or so I have heard."
The guards flipped Stone maker onto his stomach. Firestone placed the twisted iron on his back, the tip of the design resting on his lower back, with the hilt of the dagger starting half way up the back of his neck. He turned to the crowd and chuckled, "You may want to cover your ears for a bit."
Sure enough the iron started to glow bright red, but it wasn't quite hot yet. As the seconds dragged by like hours, the brand heated up, after about thirty seconds, the smell of burnt hair permeated the air. Shortly after, the groaning started. At first just a low groan that could only be heard by those on the dais. Within minuets the groans turned to agonized cries, and into screams shortly after, the red hot iron slowly burning and melting the flesh it rested on, slowly sinking into its host, searing shut the would before it could bleed, the smell of cooked meat wafting through the room, intermingling with the scents of the feast, and of the burnt hair, creating a noxious odor nauseating any unfortunate enough to smell it.
After what seemed to be an eternity, Firestone bent down and grabbed the iron, as if it were still cool to the touch. Smirking he said, "And this is what really hurts."
His grip tightened on the brand, and slowly started to pull, once again starting the cries of the victim.
"Oh alright, quit crying," sneered Firestone as he gripped the iron tighter, and then with a single heave, ripped it from Stonemakers back, bits of charred flesh still hanging from the edges. A single cry pierced the ears of those in the room. A feral scream of unmentionable pain.
Still screaming, Stonemaker awoke. Cold sweat dripped from his muzzle onto the ground as the events of the past day flooded into his mind, repressed, along with the pain, by the adrenaline of the moment. As the barriers fell down around his mind, one fact remained in his mind
The gift... WHERE. IS. THE. GIFT.
Ignoring the now almost unbearable pain in his back and ribs, Stonemaker sprinted back out into the late night toward the pile of gravel he had risen from.
Where is It? It couldn't have fallen that far, right? Was Gem even able to get it?... DAMMIT, there is way too much going on right now.
I kept running, sometimes on two legs, occasionally on three, depending on the terrain. As I sped toward my impact site, I couldn’t help but think of all the possible scenarios in which the gift was either in the hands of Firestone, or somehow lost in the wilderness. The latter being far preferable.
There! That is the pile that I landed on now I just have to search around a bit right?
Hurrying over to the mound of gravel, I begin to sift through the countless stones, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
Its probably not in the original case. An ornate gold box would have been easy to spot. No, its probably in something else. It obviously wouldn’t have been large, it needed to be small if… no, when Gem had smuggled it out of the hold.
I spent hours digging through the scree. The passage of time marked by the decidedly brighter sky, and the line of sunlight slowly draping down one side of the ravine. As time ticked away, so did my patience, and with my patience any semblance of calm I had left, either being leached by the panic threatening to overwhelm my already stressed mind, or the mind-numbingly painful waves coursing through my ribs and back.
As the day drug on, I slowly began to lose hope.
He wasn’t able to get it. There is no way that he could have. I was a fool for thinking that he could. I was too selfish to see that all I was doing was risking the life of my own son. I know that he tried, he was always too much like me for his own good. And you don’t just fail at robbing an alpha’s personal vault, even if that alpha is your father.
I collapsed against the wall of the ravine as the exhaustion of the dig began to be felt. Tears began to flow, the weight of Gem’s probable death lay heavily on my shoulders. As I buried my face in my paws, my mind began to shut down, the combination of physical and emotional pain proving too much to handle at once. Falling into a state of almost complete emotional repression.
The time to mourn is not now, I need to get the gift before my bastard of a brother can get his filthy paws on it. I will not let Gemdust die in vain.
I stood up, freed from my emotional prison, and immediately regretted that decision, as a new wave of pain screamed through my body, even worse than before. Holding back a pained whimper, I clutched an foreleg to my chest, and began the long walk back to my hole.
As I started to move, a sound caught my ear. Steps. Paws on gravel. Straining my ears, I began to make out the sounds of conversation. Or, at least the grumbles and complaints that were reverberating around the ravine.
Seeing little in the way of cover, I opted for the only reasonable place to hide, the pile. I quickly dug my way into the back of the loose rock and began to cover myself in. Hearing the voices come ever closer, I recognized the voices as dogs, which was obvious from the sound of their steps, but what wasn’t obvious was the fact that they were not of my den. I did not recognize either of those voices.
“Oi, me think this where he fell,” spoke the first voice.
“Prolly, but there no body here,” that was the second.
“Yeh, but alpha say we don’t come back until we find body. I no want to die, we find him or we run.”
“Speak for yourself, I not running. Only place to go is the Ponylands, and we not make it through the Badlands. I rather get killed quick by alpha then die slow out there.”
“You just a litt-GAH!!”
“What you do now?”
“STUPID ROCK HURTS.”
My ears perked up at this.
“Ha, you step on sharp rock, moron,” said the second voice, “it does look bit off though.”
“Yeah, it look bit like box… LOOK LOOK, IT OPENS!”
“Well, what in it?”
Realizing what was happening, I decided to cut my losses. Bursting forth from the pile or gravel I charged at the two dogs. Whatever happened, however they found it, they could not be allowed to bring that box back to whoever they worked for. At my outburst the two looked up in surprise, and in their surprise dropped the box. As I ran toward them, they scrambled at their belts for what I could only assume were weapons. Realizing just how quickly this could end, and not in my favor, I opted for a hyper aggressive tactic… more commonly known as beating the shit out of them. When I was close enough, I planted one of my paws into the ground, slipping a bit due to the water and the loose rock, but sticking firm enough, I pivoted around, bringing my other leg around and slamming it into the side of the nearest dog’s head.
As the first dog went crashing into the ground, the second succeeded in drawing a long dagger from a sheath on the side of its belt and brandishing it defensively in his right forepaw. With my momentum spent on the first attack, and surprise no longer aiding me, I began to circle the second dog, and he began circling me. His eyes were riveted on my forepaws, I smiled inwardly, this was his mistake. I lunged diagonally towards his left, drawing back as if to punch him in the stomach. He reacted quickly with a stab toward where my throat would have been, if not for stopping myself short, leaving me now behind his right foreleg, and subsequently, behind him in general. His eyes widened as he realized his mistake, and made to pull back, though he was not quick enough. I darted forward and grabbed his wrist while slamming my other forepaw into the back of his elbow. It gave with a resounding crack, and a pained howl from its owner. Grabbing the now shattered joint, I twisted it forward, forcing the dog down onto his knees. Replacing my forepaw with a back, I switched my grip to the neck of the dog, wrapping my forelegs around him and pulling back. The dog gurgled and grasped at the bundles of fur and muscle that now resided around his windpipe, but regardless of his struggles I continued to pull, and with a mighty heave, a loud crack emitted from the bones in his neck. The struggling ceased.
Breathing heavily, I looked back to where I had incapacitated the first dog, only to find nothing but a faint trail of blood drops, which were quickly washed away by the spray from the river.
Well, that could prove to be an issue. Ah-h-h well, it was going to happen anyways, one does not simply survive an executionary banishment and fade into anonymity.
I grunted as the pain resurfaced again, wracking my body, and nearly sending me sprawling on the ground. I fought through the pain, and looked around for the object which had caused the conflict, tears blurring my vision.
“Now where is it… where… hmmm… ah, there it is,” I muttered.
Stooping down, I retrieved the box from the bank of the river, where it had been discarded. I opened the box to check on the contents. Everything was fine. I started to close the box, but something caught my eye. A note was tucked away in the corner. I pulled it out and read the first line. Blinking hard, I stuffed it back into the box.
No time for that, I need to leave before I am found.
I began to stumble down stream. keeping the river to my right.
At least I have the courtesy of knowing I am hunted.
I walked for hours. My surroundings melding from ravine, to mountainside, to foothills forest land. It is in this forest that I decided to settle down for the night.
Alright. First order of business, some form of food, second would be shelter, and maybe something for the pain. I grimaced as a new wave of pain washed through me. There is no way this is a normal branding, it should at least of hurt a bit less by now.
I continued walking, looking for someplace to hide for the night. My nose twitched, there was something in the air. Something… there was fire… and food… Someone had a fire nearby, and was already cooking. Playing it safe, I slowed myself, and lowered into a crouch, quietly moving toward the source of the smell.
I came across a small clearing. I crept along the edge, looking at the scene in the centre. A small wagon stood in the clearing, forming a circle with two small tents, a fire burned in the middle of the circle. Something was wrong though, there was no one in the camp.
But the pot is still over the fire, no one smart would leave something cooking like that, both a fire hazard, and an attraction for predators. Like me I suppose. I am rather hungry, and they won’t miss it much.
Thunder sounded in a cloudless sky. I looked around confused. The thunder sounded again, but this time resonating from somewhere close, my stomach, apparently it agreed with my intentions. Shaking my head, I started forward into the clearing. I had not taken two steps when a deep gravelly voice sounded from right behind me.
“I wouldn’t go much farther there, dog, if you know what’s good fer ya.”
"Now now... Easy there big fella, just stand up real slow like, and get them paws where ah ken see 'em" said the voice, an obvious gruff frontier's accent drawing out the words. "Keep it slow there, nice an' easy."
I slowly eased into a full standing position, sensing that it would be wise to comply, probably because he has some kind of weapon, and getting killed would not be productive. Raising my paws and placing them behind my head I said, "I am not here to cause trouble."
"Well, you ain't now, thats fer sure. Now, you best get to walking toward that fire over there," said the captor, "Turn around in the light so I can get a look atcha'. I'm wonderin' what a big ol' dog like you is doin' down around here."
It would probably be for the best if I didn't divulge my exact reason for leaving. I had dealt with ponies before, and they don't particularly like traitors of any kind. Considering that I had recently been branded as such, this was probably going to get awkward, quickly. "Traveling," I replied, "just passing through. And if you don't mind, I will continue passing through." I started to walk away from both the fire and the voice, but was quickly stopped by another shape rising out of the underbrush a few paces in front of me.
The figure spoke with an accent I hadn't heard before, "I'd suggest turnin' 'round, mate. The boss theah doesn't like it when you just walk away. Now, do as he says."
Sighing, I turned back to the fire, and began to walk over to it. As the firelight illuminated my back, I listened and waited. Waited for the rasp of a blade coming out of it's sheath, for the cry of anger as they jumped at me, for the pain of a blade in my back... Nothing happened, no accusations, not anger, not pain... well the brand still felt like I had decided to get a back rub from a manticore, but that was beside the point. I slowly turned around, squinting as the light from the fire glared against the black of the forest, obscuring everything beyond it. I heard the sounds of two ponies approaching the fire pit.
They were both stallions, that much I could tell by the voices, but now I had faces and bodies besides for identification.
One was an earth pony with a tan coat, and a short black mane. His mark was of two crossed knives, which was odd, but they both weren't a type of knife I was familiar with. They were bent at almost a forty-five degree angle. The blade was also out of the ordinary tapering toward the apex of the bend, but flaring out on the second straight before coming to a tip. My eyes were drawn to a sheath strapped across the stallion's back with the same shape. He also wore a hat which, surprise surprise, I had never seen before, it looked like a sort of stetson, but with the sides of the brim turned up.
The second was a pegasus. He had a short messy gray mane and a dark green coat. A full moon with a brown jug transposed over it adorned his flank. He walked with an awkward gait, dispelling my initial thought that he was unarmed. Closer inspection revealed that he wore solid iron shoes with what appeared to be spikes on the bottoms from how he tore the ground when he walked.
They sat opposite me, across the fire, examining me like I had done them.
Probably sizing me up, debating on how much of a threat I am. If I get ridiculously lucky, I may be able to talk my way out of this.
The earth pony sighed and looked at his companion. A soundless conversation passed between them. He sighed deeply and turned to me.
"Listen mate, the only reason you aren't breathin' 'round my knife is because you don't look like the usual scum wearin' that mark on yah back. And even then you would be dead if it weren't still bleedin'. So, start with the explanations, else I get the wrong idea, and trust me, you don't want that to happen."
I looked at him for a second, then nodded. There was not going to be a way out of this, none that I wanted to take anyway. "Well, you probably aren't going to believe me but I'll tell you what I can."
"Try us, we can handle a might more than you'd think," said the pegasus, "and none o' that 'If'n Ah can' business, you best tell us what we need to know, ya hear?"
I shifted to get myself more comfortable, and began to weave my tale.
"...and thats what happened, nothing left out. And now they probably are hunting me down," I finished. I had been talking for the better part of an hour. I looked back at my audience. They looked at me with a combination of cynicism, disbelief, and pity.
"Well... Ah did say we could handle it, but that there is a bit of a pill to swallow," said the pegasus.
"Nothing but the truth," I replied, aware of the looks they were giving me, and each other, "I did say you would not believe me."
There was another moment of silence before the earth pony spoke up.
"So lemme get this right... You are, or were rather, an alpha from up that mountain theah," I nodded, "Theah is some bloke that fancies himself king o' the dogs, and the bushranger's stringin' togetha all the dens... clans... whatever to make some nation out o' them," another nod, "Yah brother is workin' for 'im, and came to kick you out on yah sorry ass, and was able to do that 'cause you would not kill 'im, on top o' that he branded you a traitor baiscally sent you to yah death," again I nod, "Well mate, you are either the best damn liar I know, or yah got the worst damn luck I've ever seen, fair dinkum."
"uhh... Well it is true, if that is what you are asking," I said casting a curious glance at the green stallion who just shrugged.
"Well then mate, looks like yah going to need a cobber or two," he turned to his comrade,"What you say, want to take this bastard on a walkabout?"
"Well, ah reckon its that or leave this un' to die, and that don't feel right to me," said the green stallion.
"Ace! Been wantin' a good walk in the park, don't get me wrong. Runnin' this route is a rippah, but its been far too long since the last crossin'."
"Crossing? You don't mean the badlands do you?" I asked. Crossing the badlands, ludicrous. You would need an entire caravan just to survive, between the predators, and the absolute lack of water.
"Too right mate! Though you should probably get yourself patched up, that bleedin' yah doin' is just gonna kill you out in the bush. Oh! right, names Huntah by the by, and this seppo here is Moon Shine. Makes the best batch of grog this side of Manehatten."
"Well, my name is Stonemaker. I probably should go by something else though, no sense in making my trail that easy to follow." I thought for a moment, "Anyway, I thank you, Hunter and Moon Shine. I will gladly accept your help in the crossing. I was wondering how I would make it myself."
"Think nothin' of it mate, we were headin' back anyways. Now, I don't know about you, but I feel stuffed, so heres what we are going to do, Moony here is gonna put some slaprags on your back there, and we are all gonna read our lids."
Moon Shine, who had been rummaging around in the wagon, came back with a roll of bandages and a bottle of clear liquid.
"Alright then, yer gonna have ta get down on yer stomach for this, I'm a bit on the short side compared to ya."
I nodded and got down onto the ground, my weary muscles melting into the rock beneath me, the ground felt like a down mattress covered in the finest of silk linens. Suffice to say, I almost fell asleep right there.
Moon Shine looked up and said, "Hey, Hunter, make yerself useful and get him a bitestick. And make it a good 'un. Maker 'ere bites through diamond on the daily, so a spit o' wood ain't gonna do jack."
"No worries, its a piece o' piss, he can use that rod of black metal, right?"
"Ah ain't so sure 'bout that. Ah can't tell what it is, might do more harm then good."
"I might now what it is, if you would let me take a look at it," I said, propping myself up on my forelegs, "There are very few things that come from the ground that I do not know."
"Great, I'll just grab it quick," Hunter said trotting toward the back of the wagon.
"You sure 'bout this?" asked Moon Shine, "We can just bind yer muzzle er somthin', that thing ain't natural. Nothin' I seen can cut that thing, er even scratch it."
"I am sure it will be fine," I replied nonchalantly.
Soon enough Hunter cantered back toward the fire. In his mouth he was dragging a long rod. The black metal was just that, black and metal, nothing else really stood out about it. Hunter brought the rod over in front of me, where I could get a better look at it. I ran my paws across it's surface, feeling the grain of the metal, how the metal curved into its current cylindrical shape, the rougher surface along the cut edges. When all was said and done it was about four meters long, and about six centimeters thick.
Well... Nothing like what I have seen... Iron maybe? Some sort of offshoot?... Should work though, if what Moon said is true
I took the shaft into my mouth in a completely non-sexual way, and bit down onto it to test the strength. It didn't give at all. I gave a stiff nod to Moon, and began preparing myself for what was to come.
Okay, this isn't going to be bad, not any worse than when I got the brand. Its going to be fine, my body is rea-GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
Pain. Searing pain, burning and freezing at the same time. Mind numbing, thought killing pain. The world was lit up in a spectrum of colors. Every muscle fiber strained against each other, threatening to tear apart. My jaw clamped down harder than I had ever done so before. If I weren't biting into the metal, I would probably have cracked more than a few teeth, if not broken them.
The pain only lasted for a minute, but it felt like an eon of agony. Too slowly for my liking, the bliss of unconsciousness enveloped me. The last thing I heard were the muffled voices of the two stallions standing at my side.
I relaxed on my newly acquired throne, sprawling over the regal seat. The doors at the end of the hall swung open, and two of my guards dragged a limp dog between them. Sighing I leaned back into the seat, this was most likely not going to improve my mood.
"Alpha, this dog has news of the traitor," one of the guards barked. "We thought it good to bring him to you."
"Very well," I yawned, "What news do you bring me?"
The guards dropped the still form, causing a whimper to emerge. His forepaws clutched at his jaw, he looked up. His face was covered in dried blood, the culprit a gash on his head.
"The traitor survived," he spoke through his clenched jaw, "Broke my jaw, threw me into rock. He kill other scout, I run away before he kill me too."
I stood up and strode over to the injured dog, who was still on the floor where he had been dumped. I stood in front of him and crouched down to look him in the eye. My forepaw shot forward and grabbed the unfortunate mutt by the neck, just under his broken jaw. He howled in pain as I lifted him up onto his paws, I lifted him just a bit higher so that he just barely stood on his own, his weight settling on his jaw, where I held him upright. I gazed into his eyes as he looked at me, tears of fear and pain leaking from them. I leaned in close.
"So you bring me news that I already knew, proved your incompetence by being bested by an injured outcast, and showed your cowardice by turning your tail and running with it between your legs, leaving your partner to die. You came back thinking that there wouldn't be any repercussions for that?" I whispered, words dripping with calm, unadulterated malice.
Fresh tears fell from his eyes and a gurgle came from his constricted throat. Snorting, I threw him back to the floor, earning another pained whimper from the useless dog.
"I will make a lesson out of you, failure is not an option. Come back successful, or don't come back at all. Guards, take this quivering waste of mass to the “entertainment room,” I will be around later to see to his punishment.
The guards bowed, grabbing the now weeping dog's paws, dragging him out a door to the side.
I knew you would find a way to survive, you ornery bastard you. Well, it wouldn't be as fun otherwise.
"Bring my beta," I ordered the wall of servants behind my throne, without even glancing back to them. They'll figure out who is going among themselves.
Only about a minute later, the door at the end of the hall swung open again, this time a large dog strode into my sight. He confidently approached, stopping about a meter from my dais. He swept into a bow and spoke.
"What does my alpha require?"
"My suspicions were just confirmed, my little problem decided to survive. I have already sorted out the only one who knew about it, so no one will be the wiser. What you need to do though, is make good on your word. Send out your best hunters, and bring me back his head."
"My best? Alpha, I not want to lose them, they would need to be dealt with when the mission was over."
"Yes, your best, unless you want to join them."
"Yes alpha. I will send them at once." He stood and walked back out of the hall.
I stood from my throne, "Prepare the 'entertainment room,' and fetch some of those new healing potions, this will provide a great opportunity for testing the extent of their effectiveness."
And with luck, it will drag it out nicely. I wanted to try out some of the newer techniques, and now, I might only need the one dog.
Chuckling, I headed to the side door. The same door that was used by the failure. As the door was pushed open, a wail sounded from the depths hidden behind the door frame. The cry was cut short as the door clicked back into place.
Silent the night. Silent the moon as it watched over the world. Silent the stars, keeping vigil with the moon, casting their uncertain light. Silent the birds of prey, favoring the cover of dark, as they fall upon unwitting prey. Silent the mountains, standing against the sands of time, stoic until the end times. Silent the trees, guarding all those who seek shelter among them. Silent stood the ruler of this all. Silent stood Luna, princess of the eventide, matriarch of the moon, and friend of the castaways.
Deep in thought she stood on her balcony, watching over the twinkling lights, both above, and within the city she called home. Canterlot itself was calm, the only things breaking this period of stillness were those who loved the night as much as its maker, but those were few and far between. She did not particularly mind this, no matter how few her admirers, she still wove a tapestry of her own being, of her very soul, and hung it in the skies for all to see. To look into the night was to look within Luna herself. Though, she was not nearly as peaceful as her domain this night. Her outward calm opposed by a turbulent worry within her.
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and reflected upon her day, upon what the cause of her worries were. It wasn't difficult to figure out. Her disturbance was easily tracked to her vision. Her foretelling was not infallible, though it was always right. The matter was there, the interpretation was varied though. She had gained her visions on the moon, during her banishment. So distraught was she, that her mind looked down upon those who had scorned her, those who through their love, had cast her from their presence. She saw all that her moon saw, traveling the world for a millennia. The more she saw, the more the could truly see, though her vision was distant and partial at best.
The refinement of her vision was gained through her dream-walking. As her sister looked after Equestria as a nation, as a people, as a way of life, Luna looked after the ponies themselves, their minds, their well being, their hopes, and most importantly, their dreams. Every night Luna had taken it upon herself to guard the dreams of those finding rest in her night. Just as Celestia held court, Luna stood guard. Her only company during these times were the dreamers and their dreams, and often, their nightmares. It saddened her to enter a nightmare to calm the dreamer, only to see herself as the terror blighting their mind. This sadness cast her mind back to the moon, and her visions.
As she continued to stand against the horrors of the night, watching over the sleeping nation, she began to develop a sense, an awareness of her vision. Not a control, but an acknowledgment. The visions were, for a time, contained to her times thinking upon her own imprisonment. But the more that she saw, the more frequent they came, not only in dreams, but in her waking hours as well, though they became more and more indistinct. Where she once could tell when and where, now she could only guess. Where she once could tell who, she only saw silhouettes. Where she once saw what many would call the future, now she could only see a likeness, or a symbol of what is to come.
It was this vagueness that caused her troubles, this inability to discern, without a doubt, what was happening within her own head. A vision had come to her, and it had left her unsure and worried.
The vision was of a bald hill, no grass or trees, just blackened dirt. A crimson sky slowly turning into a black, starless, night. Only the moon, red as spilt blood, showed over the scene. As she crested the hill, the moon brightened, shining is auburn light before her. In the light before her, a mass of shadow flowed and turned. An army of shades stood at attention, staring ever forward. The ground between her and the army cracked, clods of dirt and stone violently thrown from the epicenter of the break. Out of the crack rose the head of a wolf, fur grey as ash, eyes red as fire, teeth black as the abyss of space, projecting an aura of control and hostility. From the smaller cracks around the wolf's head rose twelve bipedal figures, tall and proud, shifting through many colors as she looked at them. One by one they approached the wolf, kneeling before it. As they knelt, their colors drained, leaving only the darkest of reds. This continued until eleven of the figures knelt around the wolf.
The twelfth had stayed where it had risen. It turned away from the wolf and approached her. As it climbed the hill on which she was observing all of this, the wolf's eyes focused upon it. A beam of shadow lanced through the air, striking the figure in its back, and forcing it to the ground. The shadow separated from the figure, tearing away a large portion of its essence, and returned to the wolf, kneeling before it like the others. The now injured figure struggled to regain its footing. Slowly, it limped its way over to her. As it came before her, it stopped. After a moment it straightened, and bowed to her.
As it bowed, a myriad of colors erupted within it, swirling together in a haze of blues, golds, and white. But the earth began to rumble yet again. Without warning, a stone spike burst from the ground and impaled the figure before Luna, lifting the now unresisting corpse into the air. The colors within the fallen figure whirled faster and faster within their host, shining brighter and brighter. The light began to rival the sun in intensity, and finally burst forth from its shell. A wave of the purest white enveloped everything, casting away the shadows, and bringing life back to the hilltop. Blinking to recover from the light, she saw everything as it should be. The hill green with life, the army cast back into whatever pit it had arisen from, the wolf and its followers removed from the land. All was calm and as it should be, everything except a black stone spear and its victim still hanging from its point.
This was what came to her, this is what caused her worry. Though she thought about bringing it up with her sister, she thought it best to find some sort of interpretation first.
There was no need to cause a stir over what could possibly be nothing.
"Ah still don't trust 'im. Ah mean, ah heard 'is story and all, and ah believe it, somthin' just don't sit rightly with me."
"I know what ya mean mate. Seems a bit off if ya ask me."
They looked back to the figure laying unconscious in the back of their wagon. The steady rise and fall of the blanket the only betrayal of life.
"Well, both of us are hidin' thin's from the other. Ah can't rightly tell what's eatin' 'im, but somthin' tells me that he wouldn't quite like us bein' night guards an' all. Luna ain't gonna like it neither."
"Yeah? Way I see it, we're gettin' info, we just need to nut it out with this one, and if that means crossin' the bush, good on us. It's not like we're chucking a sickie, we're gettin' what we need on that whole "Diamond Nation" racket."
Moon just sighed. He disliked Hunter's nonchalant attitude for this kind of work, they had worked together often, and he would be hard pressed to find someone he trusted more, but the way he dealt with protocol was annoying to say the least. Moon wasn't much better, but still, at least he tried.
The two stallions turned back to the fire, watching the reds and oranges dance to an eternal song that only they could hear, consuming all and leaving only ash in their wake. Wood, leaves, grass, anything within the reach of the fire was reduced to nothing. It continued its dance, roaming around its stone prison, drawing the eyes of the two into a sense of security and calm.
Sharpeye hated cloudy nights. They caused the shadows to waver too much. It was great for prey and hunter alike, though when one hunts dangerous game, you want to see it, preferably before it sees you. He stood in the uncertain light of the moon, looking at the line of trees that marked the borders of their territory, and the start of their hunt. Bloodtooth had been very specific in their instructions, track and kill the traitorous ex-alpha. Not their first assignment like this, and probably won't be the last.
A scent wafted through the air around him. He grinned, teeth glinting in the light of the moon.
Too easy. He thought. With a series of hand signal the four other hunters gathered around him, all sniffing the air, no doubt smelling what he did. Dumb bastard has a fire, and if its not him, well... they might know something, no one expects the diamond inquisition.
A nod passed between the group, and as one they jogged toward the source of the scent. After a few minutes Sharpeye spotted the tell-tale glint of orange between the branches. A quick signal to his companions. They began to fan out, circling around the clearing that held two ponies, gazing into their fire. Another predatory grin formed across his muzzle. He raised his paw, the hunters he could see doing the same, telegraphing the command to any who could see.
A silence ruled the clearing, that only the crackling of the fire at the center dared oppose.
The paws dropped, and they lunged toward the fire.
I slowly opened my eyes. The last thing that I remembered was a flash of pain and then blissful unconsciousness. I shifted around. A slight tug on the fur on my back suggested that I had been bandaged. The slight weight around my body told me there was a blanket over me. The wood underneath me said that I was in the wagon from earlier. The fact that I still saw nothing said that it was still night. The warmth spreading along the lines of the scar sugge-... well thats new.
There was no pain, just a flowing warm, like water, trickling down the channels of the brand. It flowed, yet remained within the confines of the mark.
And it was getting warmer.
Interesting... Weird and concerning, but interesting.
I silently slid out from under the rough blanket, and onto the ground. My paws making no noise as I stood, balancing against the wagon, trying to regain my senses. My eyes focused to show I was in the shadow behind the wagon, my ears stopped ringing to hear the crackling of the fire and the murmuring of the two travelers. I idly sniffed the air, inhaling the scents of the forest, the smell of wood smoke, and something else. I couldn't quite name the smell, yet it was there, just on the edge of recognition.
My eyes widened in realization.
They have found me, and they have found the ponies. The innocent will not die for my own sake, I need to lead the hunters away.
In a symphony of motion, I leaped onto the wagon, and five shadows bolted toward the fire.
Torches flickered in sconces along the great stairway, fighting back the all consuming darkness that pervaded the den. The stair was the central route throughout the entire den, the best way to get from floor to floor, but what was once a bustling intersection, was now only populated by rats and the few souls brave enough to face their new “leadership.”
Guards were stationed along every landing, not the usual guards though, these were brutes and thugs, the ruthless legion of enforcers that the Diamond Nation sends to newly “liberated” dens to keep the peace, and the inhabitants oppressed. A few patrolled the lower floors, where the dormitories were located, whispers were silenced as they walked, fearful gazes cast their way. There was no resistance to the regime, they had made sure of that. The few who dared to rebel were quickly weeded out, brutally tortured publicly, and either executed, or set out in the foothills to be hunted down by the new alpha’s personal guard. Most of the huddled forms were men, the women being sent to the kitchens on the floor above, and the children being sent to the dungeons on the lowest floor.
Above the kitchens were the barracks, once the home of the local hunters and guards. Now the bunks were given to the “Peace Keepers”, most of the old military having been executed with the change of alphas. This was also the limit of where the populace was free to go, anyone found on or above this level was assumed to have been trying to escape, and made an example of. There were many examples made in the first few days.
The next floor was the Council’s chambers, where the elders of the pack were housed, and the elders convened on matters of significance and advised the alpha. Now the elders were cast into the dorms with the rest of the pack, and the officers and elite of the “Peace Keepers” took over their abodes, putting a stop to any rival power in the pack’s hierarchy.
The top floor was the Great Hall. Pillars reached far to the ceiling, which was left dark, giving a sense of endlessness and mystery to the actual height of the hall. At one end was the dais, on which rested a singular obsidian throne. In place of the flanking thrones, now rested a pillar on one side, and a gallows on the other. The stone around both was dyed red with blood.
The new alpha reclined in the throne, looking absolutely bored. This was a very worrying prospect for any of the guards. When he was bored pain was sure to follow, and until now, he had a “dissenter” to entertain himself, but now? No one was left in the dungeons, beside the children, who were needed to keep the remaining dogs in line. No one was there to sate the sadistic tendencies of the alpha, and the guards could almost see the violence building up in him.
At the other end of the hall, a oaken door was set into the stone. Intricate carvings arched over the rounded door, spreading out into murals that covered the entire back wall, stretching up into the indeterminate darkness of the ceiling.
The silence of the hall was shattered by the creaking of un-oiled iron hinges, shrieking their protests of use to all. A tall cloaked shape entered the hall, wind blowing in around their feet. It strode forward, silent save for the whisperings of the cloak, and the small metallic ringings of the armor hidden underneath it.
Firestone stood, and stepped forward, off of the edge of the dais. He stood still as the form approached him. Quickly, and without hesitation, the figure gave a scroll to Firestone, who looked down at the seal to identify the sender, and looked back up. He gave a sharp intake of breath. The figure had vanished. No trace left behind, no evidence of it ever being there besides the bewilderment of the guards and the scroll now in the hands of the new alpha.
Sighing inwardly, Firestone returned to his throne, and opened the scroll. He had recognized the seal, a paw with a diamond within the center pad. He had also noted the small inscription on one of the raised edges of the seal. “ENCD.”
Of course he would code it. He doesn’t trust me… Not that I blame him of course, but it does get rather annoying.
He ran a claw under the seal, breaking the wax and freeing the message.
It HaS ComE To My AttentioN ThaT TherE Has BeeN SomE TroublE WitH ThE NeW WatcH ToweR DesignS, SpecificallY In ImplementinG TheM In ThE NewlY AcquireD RegioN.
After a few minutes of translating the actual message. Firestone leaned back into his throne and sighed again.
“I am going to rest. No disturbances. Any violation and you will all suffer for it,” he rose from the throne and walked to the wall behind the dais. Pressing his paw against one of the sconces, a door silently swung open from the rock face. He stepped into the room beyond, a finely furnished bedroom lay before him. Lush carpeting silenced his paws as he plodded toward the ornate wooden bed. Small lamps hung on the ceiling casting a steady light across the lavish quarters, glinting off of the myriad of strange knives, forceps, and many other devious devices, all lovingly polished to a gleam, hanging from stained belts.
Firestone reached out and pulled a lever near the bed. A series of clicks reverberated throughout the residence. Slowly, the lanterns that adorned the roof retracted into small crevasses, dimming the light levels within the chamber to something akin to moonlight.
Laying back, he closed his eyes and waited. His breathing deepened, his heartbeat slowed, the tension within his muscles unwound leaving him limp on the soft mattress. His eyes flickered underneath their lids for a minute, but became still. Sleep claimed him, dragging him into its folds, obscuring him from all outside his own head, but leaving him to the mercy of those who knew the secrets of the mind.
Firestone stood on a large stone pillar. Stars shone all around him, both above and below the horizon. He looked around walked to the edge of the hexagonal surface he was on. As he reached the edge, he heard a voice from behind him. “Report, Firestone,” two words. Only two words, yet they carried the strength of an army, the rage of a dragon, and the control of a master.
Firestone turned to address the towering shadow that now occupied the center of the pillar. Falling onto his knees, head bowed, he spoke, “My lord. The valleys are now fully under my-*ahem* your control. It is just as you planned, my fool of a brother refused my challenge, and is now being hunted by the best you gave me. He will not survive the week.”
“Yes, you have not yet failed me. Take care that you keep it that way.”
Firestone’s eyes widened slightly at the thought. “Of course, my lord… ahhh, however, he did… uhhh… retain the box… but he has it on him and it will be retrieved upon his death my lord. I have this entirely under control.”
“One task, you had one task. The box was all that I had asked for, in return I granted you the den and all the riches of the mountains. You have not yet fulfilled your portion of the bargain, and yet you presume to crown yourself?” The figure growled.
“NO, NEVER MY LORD. I was merely ruling in your absence, I would NEVER deem myself worthy to clai-”
“SILENCE,” The figure roared, “I have heard enough groveling from you. Fix your mistake by the time I arrive, or you WILL answer to me, personally.” The figure fades into the starry background, leaving nothing but his words behind.
Firestone shivered involuntarily, the sounds reverberating around his consciousness feeling like a river of oil on his skin. I should probably just get this done quickly then… I do not like the idea of tripping up again, especially when HE decides to make a personal call… Nothing I can do here though…
Firestone’s eyes flickered under their lids before opening to the dim light of his personal chambers. With a sigh he sat up on the edge of the mattress and flipped the lever to lower the lights.
This is not good… the bastard is going to get me killed… he does have the hunters after him though… all should fall into place, I shouldn’t need to worry about this.
Rolling his shoulders, Firestone rose from the bed with a rapport of pops and cracks. With a sigh, he walked back to the door to the great hall. He put his paw on the door itself, and with a light application of pressure, the opening mechanisms triggered, and the door swung itself open. His footsteps echoed within the hall as he reentered. His mind heavy with the implications of his dream, and the worry of failure.
The guards stiffened. Never had they seen Firestone like this, and they had quickly learned to associate new moods with new forms of punishment. Yet this was different. There was no outward rage, no anger or resentment that was the usual. No. What they saw was different, and scared them more than rage could ever hope to.
They saw defeat. Defeat and fear. A presence of dread permeated the air around him, leaving no doubt as to his state of mind, its stench clouding around his person. making all the more obvious his posture as he sat back in his throne. Slumped, shrunken, subdued. Gone was the confidant sprawl that he had before his rest. Now he sat, feeling every edge of the cold stone seat, every indentation in the worn surface. Firestone himself was withdrawn, introspective. Not so much as casting a gloating glance across those that he presided over. No power hungry chuckles, no malicious musings, nothing but a silent vigil of thought.
Fate deemed that this was unoriginal and boring, and thusly shattered his reverie, posthaste.
This shattering was brought via a crashing entrance to the great hall, the doors groaning with the rough treatment. Firestone was roused from his inward thinking by the boom of the door. His pensiveness quickly turning to anger at the interruption. Looking toward the doors he caught sight of the transgressor. A lanky dog sprinting toward him, his bags denoting him as a messenger, looking as if he had been running for a while.
The dog stopped short before the dais, panting heavily. Between his gasps for breath, he said, “Alpha… message… from… hunters… found… traitor…” The dog reached into his satchel and retrieved a small scroll, unmarked and ragged. He passed it to one of the guards, who in turn brought it to Firestone.
He opened the scroll and read through the contents. His earlier rage was quickly overcome with an eerie calm. A smile crept its way onto his face, teeth glinting dangerously in the wavering light of the torches. The messenger trembled, all too aware of the blood stains next to the throne. Firestone rose from the throne, still sporting the smile, and strode toward the dog.
“My my, you must be exhausted from your run. Please make yourself comfortable,” Firestone purred, clapping the dog on the shoulder, and guiding him to a door on the side of the hall, “In fact, I will see to it myself. Allow me to take you to most hospitable of suites, I know that I find them to be some of the best lodgings for one of your stature. All too often those of us with any kind of height must bow to fit that made for the lesser, hmmm?” A nod was all he received. The messenger was unwilling to meet the eye of the Alpha as he was ushered through the doorway into the darkness beyond. If he had looked into Firestones eyes, he would be met with burning embers, seething with malice and anger, fraught with the desire to enact his will upon someone against their will, eager to see blood.
They passed the archway, and the door closed behind them of its own volition. Shutting with all the finality of a headsman’s axe. Sounding the departure of another soul into the depths it guarded.
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.