Chapter 1: The Billowing Gray of Ash Plumes
I was angry. Okay, angry and a bit scared. Someone I trusted ended up being my biggest threat. Granted, he did say he was mentally unstable. And he did advocate underhanded techniques to win a fight. And he lied. Like, a lot. And--
Holy crap, how did I not see all of those red flags?
I should have seen the signs. I should have been more careful. But did I really have a choice? I mean, he understood what I was going through. He knew what to do to get me on track. However bad his intentions, he did help me. I grimaced.
Why can’t things be easy?
I stormed inside the cottage and gathered my stuff. So my staff, my money--
“Oh, bits, like what you put in a horse’s mouth.” I shook my head. “Punny.”
--and nothing else. I looked over to my bed--His bed. That he gave to me.--and sighed. I couldn’t stay. Some lines had been crossed, by the both of us, which time wouldn’t heal. I collapsed on the bed one last time.
“What am I going to do now? What the fuck do I do?” I rolled over, and a little voice in my head gave me an answer.
Whatever I want to do.
It was a simple answer. I had no place to go, no place to be, no taxes to pay, nobody to care for, nobody to care for me. I had lost my home, again, but oddly enough, I was free. Free to follow my dreams. I could do whatever I wanted to; I had money, and the land was rich and plentiful. Hell, I once went on a walk through the forest and managed to get myself a lunch in fruits.
“I’m in a whole new world,” I finally realized. “A new world unseen by humanity, unpainted, yet to be marveled. And even here, I’ve already seen what would make some beautiful masterpieces. I can’t exactly lug around an easel and canvas around the world, but seeing more of what this world has to offer will be enough.” I got off the bed and dusted myself off.
I knew what I wanted to do. But traveling the world wasn’t a cakewalk. Which meant I had to go into… Ponyville. Which I just couldn’t say dramatically. I picked up the set of wooden horns Windell had carved for me and put them on my head before pulling up my cowl.
“I really hope this works,” I muttered before heading to Ponyville.
The walk was tense. The chirping of birds and the crunching of leaves underfoot were drowned out by the sound of my thundering heartbeat. Terrible scenarios kept rushing through my head. What if they throw stones? Oh my God, what if they form a mob? What if they send me to prison? Or if they banish me? Well, the second one wouldn’t be so bad, considering I want to explore the world…OH NO! What if they banish me, and imprison me in the place they banished me to? That’d be terrible! I stopped and took a few deep breaths. I remembered what I’d learned for the past few weeks. Act like you’re supposed to be there. Don’t be nervous.
I managed to walk into the small town without any trouble. There were a few skittish looks, and eye-shifting, but the ponies generally acted normally. Of course I had no clue where I could buy some supplies, so I walked over to a stall. The lady, or mare, whatever, slunk down as I approached, but she didn’t run away.
“Um, hi.” I waved. The mare seemed to ease up at that and sat up a bit straighter. “I’m sorry, I’m new here and I don’t know where to buy some supplies. I was wondering where I could get a flask, a flashlight, and a sleeping bag.”
“O-oh,” The earth pony stammered. “Y-you might want to check Outdoors’ Outdoor Outdoor Emporium.” She pointed towards a green stallion down the road selling camping equipment outside. “I-it might be a bit rude to ask, b-but what are you?”
“I’m a minotaur.” I pointed to the fake horns on my head.
“Why are you dressed like that?”
“It’s a custom among my people.” Cover story, save me now! “We cover our bodies to hide our appearance, because too many judge on nothing more than first impressions. We only reveal ourselves to our closest friends and lovers.”
“Wow, that’s…” I’msoscrewedI’msoscrewed. “Romantic! A bit strange, but romantic.”
“Thank you.” I bowed my head. “Have a nice day.” That wasn’t so bad.
As it turns out, Outdoors was a pretty reasonable pony. Maybe a bit rough around the edges, but he knew exactly what I needed. When I told him I just wanted to see the world, he lit up like the Big Apple at night. Of course, when I nearly collapsed under the piles of stuff he suggested I take, he decided that packing light was the way to go. The stallion gave me what I liked to call ‘the utility belt’, with a magical firestarter, a few spare battery gems, a (really sweet) pop-up tent, a thermos inlaid with a ‘purifying rune’, and the pony equivalent of the Swiss Army knife. The whole deal was a bundle, plus with an explorer’s discount, so I had about a hundred bits left. When I shook his hoof, he looked at me curiously and smiled.
“I forgot minotaurs do that,” he said. “Just remember, some ponies haven’t seen as much of the world as I have, so you’ll want to give them a ‘fist-bump’ as you ‘taurs call it. Some ponies get weirded out by shaking hands.”
“Thanks, Outdoors. I’ll be sure to remember that.”
“No problem, miss. Good luck on your journey! And don’t hesitate to tell me all about it next time you’re in town.”
I nodded and waved as I headed towards the road leading out of town. Unfortunately, I wasn’t looking where I was going, and I found myself on the ground, shaking stars out of my vision. Apparently I’d tripped over this skinny little colt. I picked myself up onto my knees and helped the little guy get to his hooves. Okay, maybe I picked him up and put him on his hooves. The way he stumbled around, eyes rolling around, was probably one of the cutest things I’d ever seen.
“You okay, little guy?”
The pegasus shook his head and looked at me, taking a step back.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, sir--”
“Miss,” I corrected. His ears must still be ringing.
The kid’s eyes shrunk to pinpricks as I struggled not to giggle. The poor dear.
“What’s a cute little colt doing out in the middle of the street?”
The pegasus blushed and looked away, rubbing the back of his head with a hoof.
“I… I was just testing out my new camera. My camera!” He looked left and right as he started hyperventilating. “Oh no! I can’t believe I-”
“Relax, kid.” I reached over him to pick up the weird camera behind him. It was just a box with a really big lens, a flash, and a red button. I guess they really are a bit behind technologically. “No need to ruffle your feathers over it.”
“I’m not a goat!” He frowned. “I’m a pony. See?” He flapped his wings a bit.
“Sorry, little guy. It’s just a term I forget doesn’t apply to you guys.” I looked at the camera once more, an idea forming. “Say, where did you get your nifty little thing anyways?”
“Oh, my camera?” He beamed. “My pa got it for me in Vanhoover. It was worth a lot of bits, but it was the best birthday present I’ve ever had!”
I smiled and gave him a pat on the head, got up, and dusted myself off.
“Keep doing what you love, little guy. Just be careful where you put yourself for the ‘perfect shot’.” The little colt smiled and blushed as I turned around and headed towards the train station.
“How much for a ticket to ‘Vanhoover’?” I asked the till lady, the pun feeling strange as it left my mouth.
“Five bits, ma’m. The train will arrive in five minutes.” I passed the mare five of the golden coins and waited on one of the benches.
The lush countryside greeted me from the other side of the rails, hills rising up in soft blues and violets in the distance, looming gently over golden fields. Wind made waves on the ocean of wheat, crashing against the foot of the mountainside, sending flecks of grain into the air like the spray of a tempestuous ocean on a cliff face. And there I sat, on my own little island, far away from the storm, the storm I should have seen coming. But no, I ignored it. I remembered a day when the waves grew flat during my first year in New York. When you could see the horizon like a perfect brushstroke. I stared out into the ocean, ignorant of the storm clouds that brewed overhead. I heard people say that the Greeks thought it was Boreas calling his winds for the storm. Silence…and a rushing of wind as the train arrived at the station.
I got on it. I sat down. I leaned my head against the window. I saw the closest thing I’ve had to a home pull away.
“Why is it so hard?” I sighed. “He needs help. But it can’t be me.” Ponyville disappeared as we rode around a hill. “A volcano, a hurricane, a force of nature. That’s what Windell is. He buries it all deep inside, so you can’t see. I couldn’t see. His lack of emotion…is just another way of hiding. And when it wells up…he erupts.” I brought up a sleeve to wipe my wet face. “I hope you find peace someday, Windell. I hope, not just for your sake, but for the sake of anyone that wants to get closer to you.”
Chapter 2: The Cobalt Blue of a Northern Night
The beat of the train on the rails became my second heartbeat over the next two days. The steady ‘duk duk duk’ provided the beat to my lethargy. Ponies came by and left me space, some more skittish than others. Some stayed, some left, and some came on. The constant intermingling colors of the countryside was complimented by the various hued ponies in the train.
Duk duk duk.
I saw other creatures as well. Gryphons became more common whenever we stopped in a mountainous region; a few buffalo spared cautious glances around them. A minotaur even came on, giving a nod in my direction. I returned it and continued staring at the blending countryside.
Duk duk duk.
The steady rhythm followed me from when I spent an entire day staring outside, wondering ‘what if’s’ and ‘could have’s’, letting my worries fester and rot. But always, when panic would threaten to bring me out of my comfortable monotony, the voice I had tried to escape from rang out in the back of my mind.
“Don’t fear. Fear is the killer, the one that weakens your knees, that hastens your hands,” he said. “Fear is necessary, but if it consumes you, you will lose yourself. Fear is the thought-killer; and thoughts are what separates us from all other animals.”
Duk duk duk.
In a way, we were related. It was us against the world, but the world didn’t know it. We were strangers only in name, friends only in paranoia. As much as I wanted to hate him, I could only feel one thing towards him. Pity. He couldn’t accept it. For some reason, he chose to stay in that weird limbo of his. Maybe he knew something. Maybe he didn’t want to know that something. It didn’t matter. I am a master of my own fate.
Duk. Duk. Duk. Duk.
I looked away from the window, noticing a falter in the heartbeat. A few of the other riders began to stir, and a voice spoke over the old-looking speakers.
“Final stop, everypony! Vanhoover! We hope you’ve enjoyed the Northwestern Express. Enjoy your stay!”
I was one of the first people out the door, having nothing more to carry than my good old staff and everything on my belt. Speaking of which…
“Note to self,” I grumbled. “Buy a hairbrush and dental hygiene supplies. And see if I can find some make-up. And tissues. I’m tired of using Bui-Bui leaves I stole from Steel’s bed.”
“Did you say shopping?” a small voice squeaked.
I had to look further down to find one of the smallest mares I’ve ever seen. The small earth pony mare had a poofy black mane and green eyes that complimented oddly well with her very light-blue coat. Her buttoo cutie mark seemed to be a slip of paper with a few bits on top.
“Um…no, I actually said buy ̶ ”
“Same thing!” The small pony trilled, jumping about. “I’ve never shopped with a minotaur before! Especially not one that came to Vanhoover especially to buy!”
“Well, I do like to travel…” I tried to put in a word edgewise, but the tiny pony continued.
“My name’s Bargain Coupon! What’s yours?”
“Val, and ̶ ”
“Well, new best buddy Val, let’s go shopping!” And with that, she grabbed my cloak with her teeth and dragged me to town square.
She was a lot stronger than she looked, and I would soon come to realize that she could be a lot more merciless than I could have ever guessed. When she first dragged me into the town square, the first thing I saw on the salesponies’ faces was fear. At first I was worried, but then I realized where that fear was directed towards. Bargain. This was the point where terror started to grip my heart.
Once we approached the first stall, Bargain’s demeanor did a one-eighty, and I began to regret ever unleashing the monster onto the livelihood of others. Every flaw was pointed to, every infraction, a chance to lower the price of the product. That isn’t to say the shopkeeper was innocent either. He tried to feed me a bunch of bull (no pun intended) about how his hairbrush was passed down from generation to generation, leading back to his baron of a many-greats-grandfather who made it from the bones of a dragon he slayed and the thistles of a giant boar. Maybe the fact his name was Tall Tales put me against the idea his story was true, but I think I should give myself more credit.
By the time the sun began to set, I had filled my pockets with everything I needed, and a few things I wanted. Nothing much compared to the literal wagon full of stuff Bargain pulled behind her. I guess I know how she got so strong. In the end, I got about two hundred bits worth of stuff, and I only spent twenty five bits. But I still needed one thing.
“Say, Bargain. I still need one more thing. A camera.”
“On it!” She turned her head down the street, pointing directly to a stall at the end.
The stallion manning the stall was the biggest I’d ever seen. Not my height, but definitely taller than Windell. A red coat rippling with muscles and a pitch-black mane combed back, framing his muzzle quite nicely. His onyx eyes bore into mine when he saw Bargain pointing at him, and he sat up a bit straighter.
The other shopkeepers knew something was going down. They hastily packed up their wares and made their way inside. In just a minute, the road was deserted. Bargain reached back into her cart and pulled out a bright pink cowboy hat as she steadily made her way down.
“Bwaah, bwah bwah bwaaah.”
“Bwah. Bwah Bwaah Bwaaah!”
I thought I imagined the western theme, but Bargain glared and pointed at a hoof at some sort of bipedal dog holding a duck with a tissue resting on its beak.
“Hey! Stop ruining the atmosphere with your howling and get you and your congested duck outta here!”
“Sorry.” The creature smiled sheepishly before jogging off, holding the duck under his arm.
“Leave this to me, Val,” Bargain said, glowering as she approached the big stallion. “I’ve got this.”
Bargain stood in front of the stall, her glare meeting the red stallion’s.
“How much for the camera?”
“One hundred bits, Bargain.” I had to bite my lip to keep myself from gasping.
“Doesn’t seem like it’s worth one hundred bits. Looks a bit small.”
“You look a bit small to pull that cart. One hundred bits.”
“It’s probably been used already.”
“Nope. Newest model, one of a kind.”
“How do I know you didn’t scoop out the insides?”
“This state of the art camera is perfect, inside and out.” He opened a panel, revealing what a very organized series of wires, lenses, gems, and what seemed to be runes.
“I don’t know. It looks fragile.”
“Fragile?” he huffed. “Ludicrous. Waterproof, shatterproof, iceproof, and even fireproof.”
“But who could even trust a camera with wood paneling?”
“Wood? This is no mere wood. This is mahogany.”
“That doesn’t sound any better.”
“And not just any mahogany! But mahogany from the trees of the seventh forest of Melchior, where the trees are three hundred feet tall and breathe FIRE! From these trees, this camera was forged two thousand years ago, using ancient thaumaturgy rituals of the Melchior ponies. Not only does this make the camera nigh-indestructible, but it could bend the fabric of the universe itself!”
The two ponies stared at each other.
“Also it’s a very fine material. Very expensive.”
“Hey, wait a tic, even if you weren’t pulling my leg so hard that I’d need prosthetics,” I barged in, “Doesn’t two thousand years make it a little technologically obsolete?”
“Yeah, Val’s right!”
“Okay, okay, most of that spiel was stolen from what I heard Tall Tale say once about a desk.” The stallion moved his hooves in a calming manner. “But it’s still one hundred bits.”
“Why you--” Bargain jumped over the stall and tackled the stallion, sending the two down in a mess of limbs.
“Oh my Go--” I almost exclaimed before seeing what they were doing. “Are you two…making out? What?”
Bargain got off the stallion and smiled.
“Val, I’d like you to meet my husband, Barterfast. He sells, I buy.”
“You two…” I shook my head. “I’m not going to question it. I’ve seen weirder things.”
“You can have the camera as a gift, lass,” Barterfast said as he got back up. “Consider it payment for distracting my wife while I made us a living.” He chuckled before Bargain gave him a good natured hoof to the gut.
“Oh, hush, you. The poor dear seemed so out of place and uncomfortable, I just had to help her.”
“Well, thanks, I guess. I don’t think I would have had enough to buy a train ticket, even without all the extra stuff. And I can’t believe unscented tissues cost so much!”
“It was no problem at all, Val. Those salesponies would have tried to mil--erm. Pull every bit you had.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Ponies are so nice. Maybe I am paranoid?
“I can’t thank you two enough. But I have to get going, maybe find a hotel somewhere.” I looked up the darkening skies, twinkling stars appearing as the last beams of the rosy sunset fell asleep. “I hope we meet again, when I’ve seen more of the world.”
I waved to the couple as I walked across the empty cobblestone street, making my way towards the center of Vanhoover. The stars watched me as I walked in between buildings. They weren’t nearly as tall as New York’s, but they still towered over me, framing the skyline like a portrait. A few scant yellow lights in the buildings provided a contrast to the stars above. Yellow rectangles framing cyan circles, a cobalt canvas encompassing my view.
“Well, this is quite a lovely night. And it doesn’t feel threaten--OOF!”
I was sent into an alleyway, an earth pony slumped on top of me. I couldn’t exactly see their features in the darkness of the alleyway, but from the glint around their neck, I knew they had a circular amulet.
“Thank Celestia!” She, from the voice, got up and looked around. “You’re not with…them are you? I know they don’t like minotaurs.”
“I-uh, I’m not with anybody, really. What’s going on?”
“No time to explain!” She tore off her necklace and handed it over to me. “They’re after me, they know what I look like, who I am, everything! I can’t escape. But you can. Get to my friend. A pegasus, she has a similar talisman. They should fit together. You’ll find her at ̶ ”
One of her ears swiveled backwards.
“Hide!” she whispered as she began running down the alleyway.
Remembering what I had learned with Windell, I leaned face-first against a wall. Hiding in plain sight was pretty easy if nothing else had your body type and you didn’t move, no matter what. Even as I heard the scurry of what seemed to be paws and hooves on the cobblestones, I continued to pretend to be nothing more than a plank with a bedsheet tossed on top. I didn’t think it through completely, because a low, sandpapery voice confirmed my worst fears.
“Well, Ms. Compass. It seems like you’ve found a dead end.”
Probably the most important skill Windell had taught me was to think on my toes. Maybe not intentionally, but it was definitely something I had learned. So I knew it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. Of course, there was a small problem. Okay, less of a small problem, and more of a big, furry, toothy problem. There was one of those bipedal dogs guarding the exit, his back to me. A Diamond Dog, I remembered. I couldn’t sneak past him; the alleyway was too narrow for that. But I could try to neutralize him. Sure, his arms were as thick as my legs. But I was a bit taller. And more willing to punch him where it hurts.
I gently put my hickory staff down and tiptoed towards the dog. I made sure my cloak wouldn’t block my legs, and I pounced. Before he could yell, I put my arm around his throat and applied pressure. He struggled and leaned forwards, probably to run around on all fours. He didn’t seem to be able to reach backwards, so I leaned back more until we toppled over. He was lighter than I thought, but he still managed to knock the breath out of me when we landed. But still, I kept the pressure on his throat. There was a lot of squirming, weak gasping, but finally, far longer than movies lead me to believe, he was KO’d. I quietly got off of him and picked up my staff. They were still talking about something, but I had to skedaddle. I ran out of the alleyway, heading to the train station. I actually passed a guard and pointed behind me.
“Gang! That way! Beating people! Alleyway!” I said quickly before continuing my sprint.
I didn’t turn back. How could I? I was flattered that ponies trusted me. Some were even very nice. But I just…lost myself in the belief that crime just stopped. Normally I wouldn’t be so paranoid, but apparently the gang was after an amulet. And didn’t like minotaurs. Which meant that things wouldn’t be sunshine and rainbows between us.
“One ticket to anywhere. Whatever’s leaving sooner. The road calls.”
The station pony looked at me and raised an eyebrow.
“That would be Canterlot. Leaving in one minute. Ten bits.”
“Fine, here.” I tossed the bits on the counter and grabbed a ticket from the scowling pony. “Sorry and thank you!”
I rushed onto the train and collapsed on an empty seat of a car. And I didn’t seem to be alone.
Somehow, this freak of nature got onto the train. A gray, five-foot-long, four-red-demon-eyes, holy-fucking-shit-that’s-venomous, snake. It stared at me with its red eyes, devoid of pupils. It steadily rose up. It bared its fangs. A hiss unlike anything else came out of its mouth as its fangs unfolded from its mouth.
It was a good thing my hand was still on my hickory staff. With a swing that would make Babe Ruth shed a tear, the snake was sent flying out the open window, soaring through the air before it was picked up by a swooping eagle.
“Ha! That’ll teach you!” I giggled. “I think I see why the staff is so awesome.”
I leaned back in the booth as the rain started. I closed my eyes as it began to pick up the pace.
Duk. Duk. Duk.
I laughed as a funny thought occurred to me, chasing away the rush of facing down a snake. It seemed pretty relevant.
Duk duk. Duk.
“Just a small town girl…” I sang softly. “Livin’ in a lonely world.”
Duk duk duk.
“Took the midnight train, going anywhere…” I had a soft smile on my lips; I could almost hear the piano.
Duk duk duk.
With only my smile and the words of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’, my train continued on in the night.
Duk duk duk. Duk duk duk. Duk duk duk. Duk duk duk. Duk duk duk. Duk duk duk.