At night the west went cold, the scorching sand cooled as rapidly as it heated. Once Celestia's sun dipped behind the horizon taking with it the hot orange light that set the sky on fire, the desert turned as cold as the harsh north. Yet despite the contrast between the two extreme temperatures, life prevailed, life found a way. Rattle snakes hid in deceptive holes in the earth as they waited for prey to wander by, Coyotes and Hyenas slept in caves or huge hollowed out dens and great desert lions lay with their prides among the desert trees, confident that they were on top of the food chain.
To many the desert was a place of death but if one looked closely you could see past that dusty cracked earth, you would see the miracles of the oasis. An underground spring full of fresh water pushed to the surface and wetted the dry sandy land, life sprouted from the oasis. Trees, flowers, and bushes, some bearing fruit that attracted animals, like Ponies.
The oasis did in fact have a town surrounding it. It was small, a collection of dusty wood and straw houses and farms all thriving off of the bounty that the earth had given them. Currently the town and the desert that surrounded it was encompassed in darkness, the whole landscape an inky black void of nothingness with only a small village as a port in the storm. Suddenly the horizon was set ablaze with a glorious orange light. The sun burst free and cut through the night like a well edged blade as the moon shifted to allow its sister to take its place in the heavens. The waters of the oasis sparkled and shined like a star, the sand of the desert was on fire as the warmth of Sol embraced the earth. Wildlife awoke from their slumber, ready to play the part of predator or prey if they were less fortunate.
As the light embraced the town it set alight the small sight just outside the town that read 'Reverence.' Slowly the sunlight kissed a small farm on the northern end of the town of Reverence, it lit up the fields of corn, cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables. The light moved up the small farmhouse and streamed through the windows, it entered the master bedroom and warmed the faces of the couple that slumbered there.
Farmers woke early so Tree Breeze's body was already beginning to wake itself up. The sunlight on his eyelids just sped up the process, Tree woke and smiled as he was greeted by the comfortable embrace and beautiful sight of his wife Summer Breeze. Twelve years they had been married, met back when Tree Breeze had been a Lawbringer. Coyotes had been terrorizing the very farm Tree and Summer now lived on, back when Summer's father had owned it. He had been very thankful when Tree ridded the area of the infestation. So he introduced his daughter to the young Lawbringer and the rest was history.
Tree Breeze reluctantly untangled himself from Summer, he gave her a soft peck on the brow and moved to go to the door but not before his wife's sleepy voice reached him.
"Don't be out too long now or I'll drag you in for breakfast myself," she said and Tree grinned to himself.
Tree entered the washroom and looked himself over in the mirror. His dirt-brown fur was hardly brushed but it was clean, his darker mane was short and practical and his forest-green eyes were awake and alert. As per usual Tree Breeze mentally debated the merits of shaving the scruffy beard that was beginning to form on his chin, he decided that for now he would leave it be. He stepped back into his room and dressed himself in a simple white collared shirt and a vest before exiting once again.
Quietly as he could Tree moved downstairs, he grabbed his brown stetson and long duster off a hook by the door and went outside. The crisp morning air greeted him as he stepped out of his house, taking a refreshing breath of desert air he trotted over to the nearest crop which was corn. The stalks were tall and a healthy green, the buds on top almost bursting from the large cobs inside, they would have to be harvested soon. One by one Tree Breeze walked among his crops, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, all healthy as can be and ready to be picked. Tree's vegetables were some of the most coveted in Reverence and even in other towns like Appaloosa or Dodge Junction, Tree Breeze just had a natural talent for growing things.
As he he moved among the plants, with life bursting around him he felt energized. His breathing was steady but his heart fluttered a tad, like it did in the early days of dating Summer, he saw differently too. The colours were more intense, the greens glowed, the browns seemed to have a hundred shades, even the sand and dirt seemed to come alive. Tree Breeze could almost feel the life underneath his hooves, the roots of the plants ran deep into the ground, where the earth blessed it's children with life and bounty. It was almost overwhelming, Tree Breeze was no bard but the intensity of life sometimes got to him and made him want to sing, however a different beauty called him back to his house.
He stepped through the open front door and put his hat and coat back on the hook, he stepped into the kitchen to see Summer frying some hay patties on the wood stove along with the kettle boiling along with it. At the table was a miniature version of Summer that was digging into a pile of hay patties of her own, she stopped though when her father walked in.
"Morning daddy," Spring Breeze said with a smile. She was a tiny thing with her mothers cream fur and orange mane that was twisted into two pigtails, her wide green eyes looked up at her father.
"Morning sweet pea," Tree Breeze said, moving over and kissing his daughter a top her head, he then moved to kiss his wife of the cheek while swiping the hay patties that she had just plated.
"Nuisance," Summer Breeze said with a grin, kissing her husband on the lips. Tree smiled back and sat down to the table, quickly joined by his wife. The three of them ate their breakfast in happy silence until Summer broke it.
"How are they coming along?" She asked, meaning the crops.
"Perfectly, we'll have to go looking for some hooves to hire soon so we can get along with the next batch," Tree said.
"You know sweetie, last couple harvests had some good profit, we could hire more help this time so you can take this one off."
"I enjoy the harvest though," Tree said.
"More than your family?" Summer countered. "Besides, your going to have to stop eventually, your almost forty."
"Hush, thirty," Tree said with a smile and Summer smiled back, she was about to say something when Spring spoke up.
"Daddy there's some strangers running towards the house," she said, Tree looked up and through the kitchen window and saw that his daughter was right. Ten or so stallions in stetson and dusters were galloping rapidly towards the homestead, kicking up a cloud of dust behind them as they went. As they approached Tree could spot the glint of weapons at their hips and the sparkle of gold badges that were pinned to their shirts.
"What in Celestia's name do they want?" Tree Breeze said almost to himself, he told his family to stay put before grabbing his hat and coat and moving outside.
The strangers ran up and stopped just short of Tree's house steps, the dust cloud caught up to them and encompassed the strangers in shadow, when the dust settle Tree recognized the leader of the group.
"Sheriff Dusty, you son of a bitch," Tree Breeze said as his old friend stepped forward. Sheriff Dusty Trail was an older stallion in his late fifties, with a big bristling grey moustache that covered his mouth.
"Tree Breeze," the Sheriff acknowledged looking Tree over. "You got old."
"Yer one to talk," Tree quipped. "What brings ya' here?"
"A couple young fellas been missing for a couple days now, they got drunk and wandered into the desert, plus there's been sightings of lions nearby so me and the boys are going to bring them back."
"Well good luck to ya' I hope you find those boys safe," Tree said.
"Well it's just that Tree, we need your help in this one," Dusty said. "Ya' know I can't track worth shit and neither can any of these idiots, ya'll were the best tracker the Lawbringer's ever had."
"Dusty... I'm retired," Tree said slowly. "I ain't gunna go galloping off into the sunset just to get myself hurt, and then what? Crops will go wanting that's what."
"I know ya'll gave this up and I respect it but..." The Sheriff lowered his voice. "Hear me out, one of these young'un's is my nephew, he's a good kid but thick and I'll be damned if he dies out in the desert."
This gave Tree pause, he thought of his own daughter, he imagined the horror of her being lost somewhere in the desert and how far he would be willing to go to bring her back. He heard a sound behind him and saw that Summer was standing in the doorway with Spring poking her head out from her legs, Summer had small slightly sad smile on her lips.
"Go on now, but be back for dinner or I'll come for you with the whole Royal Guard," Summer said, Tree gave her a smile and kissed his family goodbye before descending the steps where Dusty threw him a bundle that turned out to be Tree's old blade and belt, the former Lawbringer clipped the weapon to his side and gave his home a backwards glance before they rode forth into the desert.
"Ya' said they wandered off two days ago?" Tree yelled over the sound of thundering hooves.
"That's right! We went looking for 'em the day of and tracked'em to Redscale Pass but we lost the trail there!" Dusty yelled back.
Redscale Pass was seven kilometres away, it was a popular route for smugglers who wanted to get something into Equestria from Saddle Arabia for some other eastern country. It was dangerous though, rockslides were common, rattlesnakes and coyotes often made the pass home and now apparently sand lions had moved in. Tree's silent prayer went out to the boys who had wondered into that place, he hoped they were still alive.
It took them an hour or so to make it to the pass, a rugged split between two red mountains like and angry giant had jabbed a dagger in between them. It was the only way by hoof into the eastern half of the San Palomino Desert and also a very dangerous place to be. The Lawbringer's stopped at the entrance of the pass where Sheriff Dusty called Tree forward.
"Come on then ya' old donkey, work yer magic," he said.
Tree stepped forward and looked around before kneeling down close to the earth and putting his ear to the ground. He began to have that feeling again, the energy that filled him up and made him excited but also very focused, it happened when he tracked, when he listed to the earth. When something passes over the land they leave marks, physical of course like footprints or droppings but what happens after those signs had washed away? The surface may not have the signs but deep in the earth the echoes of their presence remained and Tree could hear them.
Tree inhaled a breath of desert air through his mouth and out through his nose, the boys had passed through here. Tree could almost hear their hoofbeats on the sand, it had been only a day since they were there and were sober but disorientated from their hangover's. They went into the pass, probably looking for shelter from the sun when... There was something, something else too. Not hooves no, but it had a heavy impact on the ground, not so much as to alert anyone but defiantly big and there was multiple of them."
"They were here alright," Tree said, standing up. "A day at the most, they came through here but..."
"But what?" Dusty asked anxiously.
"Something else passed through here too," Tree said solemnly.
"Coyotes?" Of the younger Lawbringer's asked.
"Maybe," Tree answered uncertainly.
"Well whatever the damn thing is we gotta go in there and find my nephews," Sheriff Dusty said. "Blades out boys we're goin' in."
There was a collective ringing of steel as the Lawbringer's drew their swords, except Tree who stood rooted to the spot.
"You sure about this Dust? You might not like what you find," he said.
"If there's even a piece left," Dusty said through gritted teeth. "I will find it and bring it back to bury."
Tree Breeze sighed and drew his blade.
They inched their way into the pass, one step at a time. Checking every shadow and looking all around them, some of them jumped at the slightest shift in the rocks. Tree was on edge too but for a different reason, this place was a buzz for him, there was life everywhere, every crevice there was a snake hiding, all the caves held some predator. It was like Tree Breeze could hear them, they gave off echoes through the earth and Tree could hear them. It was deafening, maddening even and it bothered Tree to no end, his ear kept flicking and he kept looking over his shoulder as the noise got louder and louder.
"Somethin' wrong Tree?" Dusty asked.
"No, no, let's just keep movin'" Tree Breeze said. The noise was only getting louder but Tree did everything he could to ignore it but the noise drowned out all his other senses, so he almost didn't notice when one of the Lawbringer's yelled out in surprise.
The rest of them turned to see one of the younger deputies backing away from several boulders tumbling down the mountain. Before anyone could move the rocks started shaking and they shifted by themselves, the sand moved as well it flowed up with the rocks and formed around them. As they watched in horror as the mound formed arms, legs to stand on, and a round hill-like head with small curious yellow eyes.
"What in the name of sweet Celestia's teat's is that?!"
The creatures eyes gazed passively at them all, moving from one to another until eventually they rested on Tree Breeze. The creature seemed to study him for a moment and Tree stared back, the creature practically glowed, the noise of life came off him like waves in the ocean. The creature took one lumbering step towards him but that was all it took.
The nearest Lawbringer screamed in terror and swung his sword haphazardly at the creature, the blade sunk deep into the sandy flesh. Those yellow eyes shifted to the young stallion as he struggled to pull his sword out of the creatures earthy leg, a club-like arm swung down and slammed right into the stallion. Tree could hear the poor colt's bones crack from where he was, the Lawbringer screamed as he went flying into the rocky side of the canyon, his head smashed against the rocks, the screaming stopped there.
"Take it down!" Dusty yelled and the remaining Lawbringer's rushed the hulking beast.
"No! Wait!" Tree yelled but it was too late, the Lawbringer's didn't put a dent in the living rock mound, with three big sweeping blows of its arms the stallions went flying. Most of them landed fatally and died instantly, the rest, including Dusty, lay suffering under the pain of broken limbs.
"Tree... Run..." Dusty moaned before passing out. Tree Breeze watched in horror as the creature slowly lumbered towards him, it was so bright, so loud. Too bright, too loud, Tree couldn't focus he just froze in place, let his blade drop to the ground. The creature loomed over him, looking down with those glowing yellow eyes. It reached down with those long arms and grasped Tree by the sides more gently then he ever thought possible, it then picked I'm up like a parent might do its child. It placed Tree Breeze on its wide flat shoulder and then began to walk with slow heavy steps down the pass towards the east.
Tree Breeze was in so much shock he didn't resist any of this, all the could register was the hum of life under his hooves. The giant took him deep into the mountains, turning off the main pass and into lesser used goat paths that he navigated easily. Eventually the rock giant brought Tree to a large cave that was cut deep into the mountain side, the creature reached up and gently grabbed Tree Breeze once more before placing him down facing the cave,
The fear was gone, Tree didn't know why. He should be terrified but strangely he felt at peace, welcome, like he had come home. The cave was dark but it glowed with life, the hum and noise of living creatures filled Tree's ears but it didn't bother him at all. The earth called to its children, welcomed them home.
Slowly Tree Breeze stepped into the cave, deeper and deeper into the darkness to the point where he couldn't see two centimetres in front of his face. But somehow he knew where to go, he never tripped or stumbled he just followed the humming energy deeper into the cave. A light bloomed not far in front of him and he followed it, the noise became louder as he approached the light, more and more until Tree Breeze took a shaking step through the white light.
He was blinded, only for a moment but when his vision cleared he saw beauty incarnate. A wide circular garden stretched before him, the ground coated with healthy green grass, bright flowers and in the centre was a tall ghost-white tree with long winding limbs that were coated with blood-red leaves. The noise was coming from the tree, so Tree Breeze approached it and as he did so he noticed how the bark formed and the placement of the knots, it looked like some sort of face.
It was the Tree felt it again, that energy building inside of him, but this time it was much stronger. Before he could react it arced up his spine and hit his brain, the noise stopped, it was peacefully quiet until that silence was broken by a voice.
"Greetings my child," the voice said, it was female and smooth, like falling down a smooth rock.
"W-what?" Tree Breeze choked, looking all around. No one was there. "Who are you? Where are you?!"
"I am everywhere," the voice said. "I am the grass, the flowers, this tree, I am the rocks, the sand, the mountains, I am the shaking beneath the land, the energy within you and every other living creature that lives upon me. I am the Earth, I am Gaia."
"G-Gaia?" Tree Breeze. "W-what... I don't understand, what do you want with me?"
"My poor child, tell me, what do remember of your parents?"
"My parents? I... Don't know, I grew up in an orphanage."
"Exactly my child, I'm afraid you have no true parents, your birth was unique."
"Unique?" Tree Breeze asked nervously, speaking to the tree for it had a face. "There must be some mistake miss, I ain't no different from any other stallion."
"Ah but that is where you are wrong."
Before Tree could speak the energy sparked again and the tree was replaced by a long stretch of desert. The sand shifted and suddenly a tree sprouted forth and grew to full size within a matter of seconds, the bark shifted and churned as if liquid before a form sprung forth from it, it had legs, a head, and a tail. The colt Tree Breeze collapsed on the ground, his little chest rising and falling regularly as he slept, not far from him the sand moved again and from is burst an all too familiar figure. The rock giant lumbered over and picked up the colt gently and began carrying him off westward into the desert. Gaia was speaking when Tree's vision returned.
"Gaius brought you to the town of Reverence where you lived you life until this point."
"Gaius?" Tree Breeze asked, there was a rumbling sound of rocks shifting and Gaius' head burst free from the ground, his glowing yellow eyes looking at Tree.
"He is your guardian," Gaia explained. "He has been watching you, making sure you were safe at all times, and he brought you here."
"Brought me? He murdered half a dozen innocent stallions and crippled the rest!"
"They attacked him, he defended himself."
"That still doesn't explain what in Celestia's name is goin' on here or what you want with me!"
"Patience my child," Gaia said. "Let me explain, you know my name but not what it truly means. I am the Alicorn Goddess of the Earth, one of the four goddesses who control the world as a whole. You, my dearest child, are my instrument."
"Yes child, you are an Embodiment of the Land, Keeper of the Spirit of Gaia, You're a Child of the Earth. Your purpose is to be my champion upon the mortal plane, to use the power I give you to fight against evil in my stead, my child you have a great destiny ahead of you..."
"Uh, no offence miss," Tree Breeze interrupted. "But ah have no intention on bein' no... Whatever you think I am, I'd rather just go back to my wife and daughter."
"I am afraid that is not an option, would you really toss away so many lives for your own sake? Darkness looms at the edges of the world, things stir that have been asleep far too long, children of the beast move from their resting places. My child, the world needs you."
"...And how am I supposed to believe you?" Tree Breeze asked, in answer the cave rumbled and Tree felt that power arc along his spine again. What he saw was a lot less clear, like in a dream, he was deep beneath the ocean and he saw a gigantic form moving through the water, it was like a mountain with glowing red eyes. The ocean was replaced by a vast desert where something stood up from under the sand, it too was massive, it blocked out the sun and cast a shadow for kilometres. Tree then saw nothing but fire, liquid fire shifting beneath the earth and in it sat something, it burned and Tree could almost hear it's pain. His vision returned to normal.
"Those are only the ones we know of, there are more, much more who will stop at nothing to break free and take their anger out on everything and everyone they find."
"B-but why?" Tree Breeze asked.
"...I cannot say but my child... You must stop these things, you must save lives."
"But I'm only one stallion," Tree Breeze said, the weight of what this goddess was telling him settling in his stomach. "How am I supposed to stop anything?"
"Do not fret my child, you are not alone."
"Are there others like me?" Tree Breeze asked.
"Yes and no," Gaia said. "You will meet them all in time, the sky awaits in a village beyond the forest that is forever free."
"And what about my family?" Tree Breeze asked. "Am I supposed to just leave them behind?"
"You must, for a time but when all of this is done you may return to them and live out your life you have my word."
"Not really a choice is it? I can't just let whatever those things hurt anybody."
"The choice it ultimately yours my child"
Tree Breeze took a deep breath, the choice was clear but it broke his heart to make it.
When Tree Breeze climbed back out of the cave it was already late afternoon, the sun was beginning its dive towards the horizon. As Tree gazed across the desert to where he could see Reverence in the distance, Gaius climbed out behind him and stood patiently behind the old farmer, just staring at him.
Tree could see his farm from where he was, Summer would be worried sick about him he knew but he didn't need Gaia's weird magic to show him what he knew would happen to them should he walk away from his duty. As much as he didn't like it he had a job to do. Tree turned away from his home, tears running down his cheeks but he ignored them. He noticed the young Lawbringer's blade still stuck in Gaius' leg, he yanked it out and sheathed it.
"The forest that is forever free," Tree recited. "Beyond that a village, that's where I'll find the sky." He sighed, looking at the Everfree Forest in the distance.
"Come on you big oaf," Tree Breeze said to Gaius, as he began to trot towards the forest. "It's nearly fourteen leagues to the edge of that forest and twice as much through the darn thing, it's gunna be a long walk 'specially 'cause I don't think your in much way of conversation are ya'?"
As Gaius lumbered behind him he gave a moan that was like the echo of rocks falling in a very deep cave, it was his way of speaking.
"Yeah that's what I thought."