A young bat pony must prove herself worthy of being a guard by surviving three days and nights in the deadly Everfree Forest.
Noctis is a bat pony and the youngest of the Royal Lunar Guard trainees, and tonight is her final test to become a full-fledged guard. She must survive by her wits alone in a place full of dangers, the deadly Everfree Forest. Will she succeed and make her dream of being a royal guard come true, or will she die?
(I eventually plan to expand upon this story and make it part of my AviaVerse Origins series).
This is another AviaVerse story, and it takes place around the time of the Kingdom of Avia chapters "Trouble's Waking " and "Alliances", but this is a standalone story, so no need to read Avia to understand what's going on.
Rated 'teen' and tagged 'dark' for general violence. Also: Discord appears in one chapter- not sure if he has enough effect on things to be tagged though.
AMAZING coverart by Mongoosegoose and used with permission!
In the Lunar Guard barracks, a large, all-black bat pony mare with a nightshade flower cutie mark is talking to a much smaller, blank-flanked, gray bat pony filly with a short black mane and tail.
"Tonight is the night, little Noctis," says the adult mare, the current captain of the Lunar Guard and named Nightshade. "Her Royal Highness Princess Luna has decided you are ready for your final test, my apprentice. If you survive, you will be a full member of our noble guard."
"This is so exciting- wait, what do you mean if I survive?!"
"The Chaos Demon has been freed. With him loose, Equestria is far more dangerous than it has ever been. If he catches you, he will kill you. And his dark actions have reawakened what the Princesses tried so hard to prevent. Beware, little filly, beware."
"That is not reassuring!"
"My dear little Noctis, I am oath-bound to tell the truth, no matter how cruel it may be. You are strong for your age, and clever, but if you are not cautious, you will not survive."
"Shall we leave, little one? I will guide you to the Everfree, but then you are on your own. Your mission is to simply survive the next three nights and three days alone in the wild without any extra supplies."
"If you manage to live through that forest, with all its monsters, bandits, poisonous plants, and predators, you can survive anything."
As she speaks, Nightshade takes a small knife out of her saddlebag and gives it to Noctis.
"This blade," continues the captain, "as well as one first aid kit, one canteen, and one saddlebag, are all you can have on your journey."
"Thank you for your faith in me," replies Noctis, taking the blade.
"You are welcome. Now come, we've much to do."
"As you wish."
Nightshade leads the way out.
"See where the moon is now, Noctis?"
"Yes- it's just starting to rise."
"To make your way home, you must follow the moon when the time comes. As you know, the moon rises in the direction of Equestria compared to the Wildlands."
"Also, you can tell time by the moon, yes?"
"Good. Remember, most large predators are active at night, and the later it is, the more there are. And at dusk and dawn, there are still other kinds of predators loose. Make sure your shelter is strong."
The two continue their journey in silence, until they get to the Everfree.
"Are you ready, Noctis?"
"I think so."
"Then go into the woods. We will be awaiting your return."
"One more thing," says Nightshade, grabbing Noctis's tail.
Noctis turns to face her.
The older bat pony doesn't answer right away, instead she bows her head a moment, then nuzzles Noctis on top of the head. Then she holds Noctis still and grooms her for several minutes.
"Shh, consider this a final farewell, in case you don't return." The older mare is trying to hold back tears.
"You are welcome. Good luck, my little one, and may Luna protect you."
Nightshade heads back to the barracks, not daring to look back, and Noctis heads into the dark woods.
I'm alone. And scared! But I have to ignore the fear- I need to find shelter before something tries to kill me!
Noctis pricks up her ears and sniffs the air, on peak alert for any form of danger.
Nothing so far, but I smell dead wood nearby- maybe a hollow log or tree? If it's big enough I can take shelter there...
She follows the scent, and it leads her to a huge half-hollow tree.
I hear the river somewhat nearby- far enough to be safe from flooding, but near enough to get water when I'm thirsty. Yes, this will be my shelter.
She uses her knife to carve a certain rune for protection in the tree, marking it as hers and hopefully keeping her somewhat safe.
But the Everfree is wild, unpredictable... will rune magic work here? Or any magic other than pure wild magic? Oh well, no time to worry about that now. I need to find food.
The young bat pony leaves her chosen shelter and travels toward the sound of water.
They say good-tasting plants grow by rivers. Maybe I can find some. But I better stay on guard...
She pricks her ears higher and flattens her wings close to her sides, making herself smaller and thus a more difficult target.
Noctis makes it to a marshy area along the river and studies the plants.
Let's see, those blue-leaved plants are poison joke- not lethal in of themselves, but the things they might do if I touch them or eat them could make it harder for me to survive out here. Those hood-looking plants are skunk cabbage- not good to eat. And is that hemlock?! I don't dare even touch that! The cattails are okay for me, but I better be careful. It's blackbird breeding season, and they don't like anything near their nest. And I know some of the reeds and sedges are okay for food. And the water in the river is clean, so I have something to drink.
The bat pony moves closer to the water and bends down to take a drink. But she sees a slight movement out of the corner of her eye and jumps back, just as an enormous scaly beast leaps from the water, its sharp teeth snapping right where her head was.
Sweet Luna, a giant crocodile! I thought those only lived in Zebrica! If I'd been just a few seconds slower...
She shudders at the thought.
The huge crocodile charges at the little filly, and she tries to take to the air. Unfortunately, the tree branches are so low, flying away is out of the question.
Desperate to escape, she grabs on to a branch with her wing claws and hauls herself up, then hangs on for dear life. The crocodile snaps its jaws shut just beneath her, but she's too high to be reached. After a few more tries, the beast gives up and leaves, but Noctis remains cowering on the branch for what seems like hours.
Eventually, hunger and thirst drive her back down. Again, Noctis approaches the water, much more cautious this time.
She sniffs the air and listens for any unusual sounds, but there's nothing. It's strangely quiet, especially for such a warm evening.
Noctis bends down and takes a long drink of the cool river water, then fills her canteen once her thirst is satisfied. This done, she grazes on the shore grasses and sedges for a bit, then gathers some of the edible plants for her saddlebag.
She doesn't notice the forest has suddenly gone dead silent. Not even the insects are calling.
Something, some kind of tendril wraps around her hind leg, getting her immediate attention.
The strange tendril wraps tighter, and an enormous serpentine shape appears in the water.
Noctis's rational mind shuts down, overtaken by an instinctive desire to flee. But her leg is caught tight- she cannot run.
The serpentine creature surfaces, a long neck topped by a snake-like head with razor-sharp fangs- a sea serpent. And it looks hungry.
The creature's coils continue to wrap around Noctis, first trapping her legs, then wrapping around her body. She's frozen with fear.
A forked tongue flicks out of the serpent's mouth, and it moves its wicked fangs nearer to the filly's body.
Noctis snaps out of it and bites the serpent as hard as she can with her sharp bat pony teeth.
An angry hiss, and the grip on her loosens. She does not hesitate one second, but bolts in terror for the second time that night.
Once far from the river, she dives into some thick brush and hides.
After a few minutes to catch her breath, she tries to focus on getting her bearings, only to be distracted by a low growl behind.
A glance back reveals a very large manticore. The beast licks its muzzle and reaches its scorpion stinger toward the filly. A drop of poison falls from the tip, hitting Noctis.
It's all Noctis can do to keep from screaming as the poison literally burns her. Again, she is forced into panicked flight, running without looking out for where she's going, the huge feline beast close behind.
Soon, she's running out of breath and growing weak. The manticore reaches a huge paw toward her, as if to stun her with a blow to the head and then kill her, but it hesitates, seeming to focus on something in the shadows.
Then things get even stranger: the manticore actually flees in terror! At first, Noctis is perplexed, but then she hears wild howling nearby. The fur on the back of her neck stands up at the chilling sound.
Timberwolves! And I'm a lone filly... Oh Celestia and Luna, I'm doomed!
As if on cue, a huge pack of timberwolves surround her, and again, she is paralyzed with fear.
One of the beasts pins her down, its gleaming fangs reaching for her throat. The fear subsides, replaced by desperation to be free. She bites the wolf's forepaw as hard as she can, forcing it to let her go. She tries to bolt, but the wolves surround her.
Rational thinking falls by the wayside as the bat pony's desperation takes over yet again. She ducks low, flattening her wings against her body, and literally runs underneath the nearest wolf's body.
Her attackers seem momentarily confused by the unexpected flight, giving Noctis a chance to lose the wolves in the thick briars and brambles. However, she doesn't bother checking exactly what plants she is running through...
Now I need to get back to my tree... rest for a while... thinks Noctis. An unusual weariness spreads throughout her body. Hopefully nothing else comes for me...
Wild howls echo around the area again, lending a renewed sense of urgency. Noctis speeds up, ignoring the thorns and branches that are tearing into her wings and body. Her only thought is escape.
She does not stop until she's back by the river and by her tree. Ignoring the pain from all her injuries, she lays down on the hard ground, shuts her eyes, and immediately falls into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Noctis is fast asleep in her tree shelter, exhausted from the night before. She doesn't hear the ominous thunder rumbling above, or see the lightning flashing through the clouds.
A lightning bolt arcs down from the sky, striking the trees below. A spark, vibrant light- and fire!
"Mama, it's too hot..." mutters Noctis, still deeply asleep. "And it's getting hotter-"
She wakes up with a jolt, and is greeted by searing flames and thick smoke near her door.
"Oh Luna, a wildfire!"
Noctis bolts, running as fast as she can away from the flames and deeper into the forest.
But why didn't the thunder wake me up? The last thing I remember is running through brambles...
Now safe from the flames, she looks at her reflection in a puddle.
All those cuts- why do they look so strange? Not like injuries from normal thornbushes...
She experimentally licks one of her injuries and retches at the horrid taste filling her mouth.
Those were poison-thorn bushes! Oh sweet Luna, I need to find the antidote fast! I know what plant to use, but will I get there in time?
She races down a deer trail that leads deep into a valley with a lake in the center.
This is the only place that herb grows...
Noctis heads to a certain hidden spot between the rocks and finds the plant she needs. Most of the patch she leaves alone, but she takes enough of the herb to get rid of the poison in her cuts.
Her wounds now treated and the poison countered, she turns back to the trail she came from.
Hm, my tree burned down so I'll need to find another place to take shelter. Shouldn't be very hard- a forest this big surely has lots of hollow trees. And if worse comes to worse, there should be a few caves nearer to the cliffs. Just need to watch out for eagles there.
As usual, she's on alert, though her main focus is finding shelter from the pouring rain.
One good thing about this storm- I don't smell smoke as strongly any more. Guess it put out the fire. And even better, the rain will wash away my scent and my tracks- makes it harder for predators to find me! Maybe I will live long enough to go back home!
Quiet, menacing voices from the brush and trees distract her from her thoughts. Though she cannot hear all that is said, what she does manage to hear is enough to send her running.
"...Pretty-filly from Equestria..."
Noctis walks quicker, then breaks into a run.
"Catch her!" says a voice very nearby. "
"Aye, and break her little legs if you have to!"
"Don't let her escape!"
Oh Luna, thinks Noctis, What have I gotten myself into?!
Almost as if in answer, a pack of several very large griffins come out of the shadows.
"Awful long way from home, aren't you, chickie?" taunts a battle-scarred dark brown griffin.
"W-what do you w-want f-from a little filly like me..?"
"Money and jewels, if you have any," says a second griffin, this one a dull gray.
"W-what if I don't..?"
"Then your life," replies a third griffin, this one a sandy brown color.
"My... life..?" squeaks Noctis. "But w-why..?"
"Fresh meat," says a fourth griffin, this one brown and white. "You may be a pretty small foal, but you're still edible. And since we're pretty sick of always having to eat fish and rabbits..."
Noctis turns tail and bolts.
There's a clearer area between the trees ahead- gaps are too big for them to get me, but I'm small enough to fly between the branches. Gotta get away!
Taking a zigzag path, she runs to what will hopefully enable her escape, then leaps into the air, spreading her small wings and taking flight.
However, she does not get very far. A small but lithe black griffin leaps unbelievably high, sinking its sharp claws into Noctis's shoulders and dragging her down.
The griffin holds her still and reaches its deadly beak toward her wings. She struggles to get free, only to feel a sudden jolt of pain at the same time as a sickening crack.
"Looks like you're caught now, pretty-filly," taunts the black griffin, "with your wing busted, you're helpless."
Again, she struggles to get free, only to have a sharp claw pressed against her throat.
"Give it up, chickie. Hand over your money and jewels!"
"But I don't have any!"
The black griffin turns to the rest of the bandits with a smirk.
"Shall we take her to the hideout and start a fire, boys?" asks the dark brown griffin from before, apparently the leader.
"Yes, definitely," replies the black griffin. "Tonight we can have a real meal for a change!"
"Better tie her up good then, before she tries to get away."
Before Noctis has a chance to protest, the griffins tie her wings and legs up tight with strong ropes.
"Get her muzzle too. She has sharp teeth and we can't have her breaking free."
Another griffin ties the bat pony's muzzle shut, then picks her up and carries her as the band goes still deeper into the forest, so deep that it makes it almost impossible to find the way back.
After what seems like hours of travel, they reach a cave, and Noctis is thrown roughly to the ground.
"Don't damage her too much yet," says the lead griffin, "I want her to be aware of what we do to her."
The bandits leave her where she is and go to the center of the cave, where the leader is trying to start a fire.
I need to get away from here! thinks Noctis. If I could just get my wing-claws free, maybe I could cut the rope. But it's awful tight...
Carefully, she tests her uninjured wing, seeing if there's any damage. Luckily for her, there is none, so she starts trying to move that wing into position to catch the rope.
Please let them stay away for a while, please let the fire take a while to start, please let me have time to get away...
Unfortunately, the black griffin from before seems to notice her movement and comes over, even as the other bandits get the fire started.
"Kill her when you get over there," says the lead griffin.
The black griffin comes over and, noticing Noctis's struggling, narrows his eyes.
"Might as well just give it up, pretty-filly. You'll never get free."
As he speaks, he flicks out his extremely sharp claws.
"Just stay still and close your eyes, pretty-filly, and I'll make it quick."
Noctis doesn't pay much attention to what is being said.
My wing-claws are almost free, just a little more!
The griffin raises his claws to tear her open, but at that moment, she gets her claws free and slashes through the rope binding her wings and legs, then darts out of reach.
Before any of the griffins can grab her again, she runs out of the cave, wanting to get as far away as she can as fast as she can. But her attackers give chase.
"Didn't order this meal to go!" snaps the lead griffin. "Better get her back quick, or it's on your heads!"
The leader stays behind, probably to make sure the fire stays under control, and the others race after Noctis. Though she is faster than they are, she's tired and injured, and not sure how long she can run before her legs give out.
Eventually, the griffins corner her against a sheer rock wall.
"Better bring her back crippled, if not dead, this time. This little pony-bucker is trickier than the boss thought."
"NO! I'm not prey! You won't take me!"
"You're a helpless little foal alone in the wild. If we don't get you, something else will."
The griffin who spoke reaches his claws toward her, and it seems like she's caught. Desperate, the bat pony looks around for any escape route, and notices a tiny hole in the rocks, too small for the griffins to fit inside.
But can I fit in there? Or is it too small even for me? Of course, if I don't try, they'll tear me apart...
Ultimately, Noctis decides to try it, and actually manages to fit inside the minuscule hole, and as she looks ahead, she notices the hole leads into what appears to be a long tunnel and decides to follow it.
Sharp claws sink into her sides as one of the griffins tries to pull her out, and adrenaline takes over.
A sudden surge of strength, and she manages to tear herself free and race deeper inside the rock. Outside, there is loud snarling and swearing, but the griffins cannot reach her.
Now safe, the adrenaline wears off and exhaustion takes over.
Noctis curls up into a small ball to keep warm, tucks her head under her uninjured wing, and falls into a deep sleep.
Memories flood back, thoughts of being stalked, hunted, and savagely attacked.
Oh yeah, everything tried to kill me. But since it's the last night, I can make my way home. Home... such a wonderful thought! I can't wait to tell Nightshade all that happened to me, can't wait to finally wear the royal armor!
But when she makes her way out, she notices a problem.
I have no idea where I am, and the trees are too thick to see the moon... oh Luna, just when everything seemed to be going my way, I'm lost! And for some reason, this place feels... bad. Not the same bad as the rest of the woods, but a different kind. But why..?
Eerie laughter rings out nearby, answering the question.
That laugh... why's it seem almost familiar..?
A few more steps, staying to the shadows, then the one cackling appears: a huge serpentine dragon creature that looks like a patchwork of different species all together. Sharp teeth and claws gleam in the moonlight, and another eerie laugh...
That monster... Oh Luna, it's Discord!! I can't let him find me!
Sliding herself into the shadows, Noctis ducks low, keeping to the brush and praying to avoid detection. Unfortunately, she steps on and snaps a twig.
Discord turns and fixes his glowing eyes on the little bat pony.
"Why, what have we here? Are you lost, little pony?"
"Please go away Discord!"
"Now, now, I just want to 'help'. Perhaps I can put an end to your troubles." He licks his muzzle and flicks out his claws.
"No thank you!"
Discord snaps his claws and enormous spikes appear out of the ground, completely trapping Noctis.
"AAH! W-what do you want?!"
"To kill you, of course."
"No! Please! Let me go!"
"Where would the fun be in that?"
"Begging won't help."
"W-will you at least make it quick..?"
"Oh come now, that would ruin it. The best part of this is making my prey suffer before I kill it."
That proves to be just too much for Noctis to handle. She runs blindly away, somehow managing to fit through a tiny space between two spikes, and hides inside a hollow log.
"Really, must you make this more difficult? Suppose I'll just have to set the log on fire with you in it."
Noctis races out of the log and flees in terror, only to get caught by vines wrapping around her.
"Any last words?" taunts Discord, hovering above the vines.
Instead of answering, Noctis shuts her eyes and cowers on the ground, whimpering and waiting for her fate. Sharp claws press against her neck, but then...
The claw is abruptly withdrawn, followed by a half-snarling female voice:
"You done scarin' the bunnies, beastie?"
"Agh! Curse you, she-devil!"
"Flattery will get you nowhere. Wanna fight?"
"Why do you attack me so much? And why did you bite my tail?!"
"You do realize there's a pretty high price on your head, right? Lotta folk want you dead, and they are paying an awful lot to get the job done. As for the biting you, how else was I supposed to get your attention?"
"I know about the price on me, but you are the only one insane enough to try to get the bounty on me. By Tirek, with that level of madness, why aren't you dead yet?!"
"Hah, look who's talking! Anyway, we both know I'm no easy mark. Now then, I intend to collect that bounty. You gonna give up now, or you want to fight me?"
"It would be undignified to surrender to a pony-"
"I'm a horse, pony-bucker!"
Noctis finally peeks out from the vines, which loosened while Discord was distracted, and finds herself looking at a battle-scarred black and white pinto unicorn on the attack.
Wow, she's really pretty! And so big! She looks like a deer, but with a lion tail and curved horn! Is she one of the wild horses? But if she is, why would she be helping me? The ponies all say the wild horses sacrifice foals, that they kidnap you and force you to join their harem slaves, but this one, she isn't like that. Was it all a lie..? Never mind that now though! Look at her fight! Those taunts! Oh sweet Luna, she's the bravest equine I've ever seen!
A diving strike at Discord's leg from the pinto's hooves actually trips the demon up, and he roars in unbridled rage.
Forgetting about the bat pony completely, Discord leaps up and aims savage claws at the pinto mare's throat.
No! Is she going to die?! Oh Luna, I wish I was braver and stronger- I'd help her!
It turns out Noctis needn't have worried. The pinto expertly dodges Discord's claws, then slashes his underside with her horn, making him fall. And she doesn't stop there. While he's in pain, the wild horse slams her hooves into the back of his neck.
"Blasted dragon, that blow was supposed to snap your neck!" growls the pinto as she leaps out of range.
"One, I am not a dragon. Two, my bones are not easy to break."
"Suppose I'll have to try harder then!"
"You've said that before! And I'm sick of it!"
"Yeah? Well I'm sick of you always attacking me! Why can't you just surrender and make both our lives easier?"
"If I surrender, you claim you'll 'rip the flesh from my bones', beastie."
"Pretty good reason not to give, wouldn't you say?"
"I promise it'll be quick. You won't feel a thing."
"Two problems with that. One, I trust you as far as I can throw you by the tail- I know how much you want to hurt me. Two, I'd really rather not die, thank you very much!"
"By Tirek, I hate you!"
"Grah, if you would just get in range of my claws, we could settle this!"
"Are you scared?"
"Your trickery might work on those simple-minded pretty-fillies of Equestria, but not on me."
"Claiming I'm a coward. Those Equestria ponies would, if they have half the brains of a gnat, run off. And if not, they'd get all insulted and come close to prove you wrong, making them easy marks. Doesn't work well on wild horses though!"
Discord snarls and struggles to his feet.
"Time to end this, pinto."
"Oh come now, you're pretty beat up. Do you really want more punishment?"
"Who says I'll be the one punished?"
"You don't think you can win, do you? At best, we'll reach a stalemate."
As he speaks, Discord lashes out impossibly fast with his sharp claws, aiming at the pinto's neck. She just barely dodges a death blow, and falls to the ground.
"Well, buck," is all she says.
Discord moves in for the kill, only to have the wounded mare grab a knife out of her saddlebag and stab him in the chest.
He instinctively runs away, presumably to hide somewhere.
Once sure the danger is gone, Noctis comes out of the shadows, hesitantly approaching the injured mare.
"Who are you, and what's a little filly doing out here?"
"My name is Noctis. I'm here to prove my worth as a guard so I'm not an apprentice any more."
"So does your master hate you or something?"
"Of course not! I'm like a daughter to her."
"Then why in Tartarus did she send you to a horrible death?"
"What do you mean?"
"If you are an equine and out here, you're dead meat."
"But you're equine too..."
"Yeah, but I don't have anywhere else to go. But enough about me. You better run, little filly."
"Run? But why?"
"I'm bleeding, and you know blood brings in all kinds of predators. They'd be even happier with two meals instead of one."
"But if I leave you, won't you, you know..."
"Die? Yeah, probably. Kinda comes with the territory though."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm a bounty hunter. A lot of folk don't like me. I was bound to get killed sooner or later."
"But not this time!"
Instead of answering, the filly takes out her first aid kit.
"Hold still. Nightshade left me some healing herbs and bandages in here. I can help!"
"Are you crazy? There won't be enough time!"
"I'll make time. Let me help you!"
"Not sure if I like the idea of a foal courting death..."
"Shh. It won't take long, I swear by the moon!"
The pinto mare holds still as the tiny filly binds her wounds.
"So what's your name, if I may be so bold?" asks Noctis as she finishes up.
"I go by Storm. Forget my original name."
"Ah, it's not important. We better leave before-"
Storm is cut off by a savage roaring, and a manticore comes out of the bushes, doubtless attracted to the pinto's blood.
"Not this time," replies Noctis. "I'm through running!"
"You hit your head or something? A filly doesn't stand much chance against a manticore. By Tirek, even a full grown wild horse or wild stag doesn't stand much chance!"
"Maybe not, but I'm not about to let you get killed!"
"Hm, brave girl I see. Do you know where to aim to chase that critter off?"
"Err, Nightshade never told me. She thought I'd be smart enough to run and hide."
"Then I better tell you. You have wing-claws I see, and you're small. I'd advise running under the critter and slashing its belly, then if you can get to its tail without getting stung, bite off the stinger."
"How do you know this?"
"Let's just say I have my ways. But you better be fast, before that critter gets its claws or stinger on you."
Noctis partly opens her uninjured wing so the claws are exposed and slides under the beast's swiping claws.
Need to be fast- have to hurt it before it stings me!
She races beneath the huge manticore, wing claws extended, and slashes into its underside. She's not strong enough to cut very deep, but at least the monster is distracted, giving her a chance to strike.
According to Miss Storm, I need to break off the stinger, so...
A quick, hard bite at the base of the manticore's stinger, a snap, and a cry of pain.
"I...I did it..?" asks Noctis as the manticore flees, whimpering, into the inky shadows.
"Apparently," replies Storm.
She looks at Noctis oddly, then speaks again.
"Why in the name of the Great Hawk are your flanks glowing?!"
"Your flanks are glowing. Better get your tail over here before the light brings in more hungry predators."
Noctis obeys, still confused, and Storm gently grabs the bat pony and pulls her close, then wraps her lion-like tail around her, effectively blocking the glow from showing.
"Glowing..? I think that means..."
The glow fades and Storm moves her tail.
"SWEET LUNA, I GOT MY CUTIE MARK!!!" yells Noctis, noticing the crescent moon now on her flanks.
Storm gently raps her on the head.
"You also need to quiet down. I really would rather not go deaf today."
"Oh, sorry about that. It's just, cutie marks are so important-did fighting that manticore do it?"
"How can you not know- wait, how come you don't have a cutie mark?"
"I'm a wild horse, little foal, not a pony. We wild critters don't get such things."
"Oh... Anyway, changing the subject, do you think the manticore is gone for good?"
"Critter will be out of our fur for a while, that I know. Hopefully long enough to get you back to civilization."
"But I like it here..." With you...
"Pardon my bluntness, but you will flippin' die out here. You're lucky to have survived this long. Maybe you can come back to the wild when you are older and stronger, but right now, we need to get you home."
"Maybe just one more day..?"
"Fine, but we better get to a safe shelter."
"Are you strong enough to travel? Discord tore you up pretty bad..."
"Eh, I've had much worse."
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe I can explain it if we ever meet again. But for now, there's a hidden cave over in those cliffs. No predators, and shelter from weather. Follow me."
After a surprisingly short walk, the mare and filly stop by a large stone.
"Uhh, there's no cave here..."
"Wait and watch."
Storm raps on the stone, and it sounds hollow.
"Password?" comes a voice from within.
"Below, in dark and night. Above, in sun and light. Within, power. Without, danger."
"You may enter."
The rock creaks aside, revealing a tunnel and a large golden she-griffin.
"What have you brought home, milady?" asks the griffin, looking at Noctis.
"Little lost filly. I'm going to take her back to Equestria tomorrow night, but can we stay here?"
"Of course. Any friend of my lady is a friend of mine," replies the griffin, again glancing down at the bat pony.
"Your lady?" asks Noctis curiously.
"Mhm. If we ever get peace for more than five minutes, we plan to marry up."
"Ooh can I come to the wedding?"
"Depends on if we live long enough to get hitched. Anyway, you both look tired, so you better get some rest."
Storm lays down in a pile of straw and signals Noctis to come close.
As soon as she does, the pinto mare nudges the smaller filly between her forelegs.
"It's safe here, Noctis. We'll protect you."
Noctis lays her head across the unicorn's foreleg, and as she drifts off to sleep, she feels Storm's chin resting against her.
Noctis wakes up still leaning against the pinto mare, who is wide awake.
"Did you sleep well, little filly?"
"Ready to go home?"
"I... don't know. I kind of like it here with you..."
"That's sweet of you. But a little foal like you isn't ready to live wild. You're too young, too small. I don't want to let you stay and get hurt."
"Tell you what, how about you come back here when you've grown up some and are stronger? We could definitely use the help."
"Good girl. Now hold still while I get you cleaned up. You'll want to look nice on your return."
Noctis stays still as Storm grooms her fur.
"Ready to go?" asks Storm once Noctis is cleaned up.
"Okay... I still wish I could stay though..."
"Shh, don't worry. We'll meet again sometime. But for now, let's get you someplace where you probably won't die."
"Will you need me along?" asks Goldfeather.
"Probably not," replies Storm. "After all, we don't have a very long journey."
"Very well. I'll stay here then. Kind of glad you won't need my help-got a meeting soon."
"Sounds like it all worked out!"
Storm quickly nuzzles Goldfeather, then signals Noctis to come with her.
Travel through the Everfree is uneventful for once, perhaps due to Storm's size. But when the two near the borders of Equestria, Storm halts and turns to go back.
"Why are you leaving?"
"Let's just say I'm not well liked in Equestria."
"But why? You're so nice and so brave..."
"But I'm a wild horse. Most ponies can't see past that."
"Why don't they like wild horses?"
"Because of our different way of life."
"But why would they not like that?"
"Surely you've heard the stories they tell their foals to keep them away from us? The lies about us killing foals and having harem slaves?"
"...Maaybe... But why would they lie about such things?"
"We wild horses do not follow their Harmony culture, and think their way is the only way. So if any culture is different, they lie about it and try to 'convert' those of that culture. Even when those of the other cultures are happy with the way things are."
"That's not right."
"I wish the adults of your culture felt the same way. Unfortunately, they don't. They try to 'convert' us by talking if they can, and if we refuse, they use magic to force us to obey them. And if even that doesn't work, they send us to prisons or, if they are more militant, kill us."
"That's just wrong."
"Yes it is. But now you see why I can't go any closer to Equestria."
"Surely there's another reason than plain speceism..."
"Nope. While I do admit I'm a bounty hunter, and used to have to steal to afford food and shelter, I seldom went to Equestria."
"Why couldn't you afford shelter? And weren't there plants to eat?"
"For your first question: I was banished from my village, and the ponies attacked the wild horses that were raising me- I had to run. As for plants, I wound up out in the arid Badlands- only plants that grow there are covered with thorns."
"Who did you end up having to steal from?"
"Dragons and Diamond Dogs, usually."
"How did you survive..?"
"That's a story for another time, little one. You better get your tail home."
"Good luck, little foal, and may the Great Hawk watch over you," says Storm as she returns to the forest and fades into the shadows.
Noctis runs out of the woods and into the Lunar Guard barracks, full of enthusiasm.
"Noctis, you're alive!" cries Nightshade. "I'm so glad you made it! But why are you so bandaged up? What happened?"
"I met an amazing mare!"
"You did? What was a pony doing in the Everfree?"
"I don't know, but she was amazing! A really pretty pinto, and she was huge- she was almost as tall as Luna! And she saved me- I've never seen anyone so brave or strong! She started a fight with Discord! And-"
Noctis is cut off by Nightshade pressing a hoof against her muzzle.
"How did you get your cutie mark? And how did you survive in the wild?"
Nightshade turns Noctis loose.
"I stayed alive by running and hiding! And I got my cutie mark when I helped my new friend and then beat a manticore!"
"How in Equestria could you beat a manticore?!"
"The pinto I met told me that if you bite off a manticore's stinger, they run away! And she was right!"
"What is the name of the mare you keep mentioning?"
Noctis is about to answer, but then thinks back to what Storm said about the ponies, and decides not to tell all the details.
"Uhh... I never got her name...."
"I see. Well, I better call upon Luna for your guard ceremony."
"You sound disappointed..."
"Oh, it's nothing..."
After a while, Nightshade comes back.
"Luna wishes to see you in the throne room. She has your armor ready."
Noctis gets to her hooves and heads to the throne room.
"You have survived the Everfree," says Luna.
"Yes I have."
"Are you willing to uphold Equestrian Code for as long as you live?"
"Will you do whatever it takes to protect the kingdom, even if it costs you your life?"
"And are you willing to spread Harmony wherever you may go?"
"I'm not sure..."
"What do you mean?"
"Do you mean just being a good pony, or do you mean making everyone follow my path?"
"Why do you ask?"
"It's the former, little Noctis. Just be good. Though I am still curious why you asked such an odd question."
"Uhh, never mind..."
Noctis is getting a little nervous.
"I suppose I'll wait til you want to tell me, if you ever do," says Luna. "But enough on that. Are you ready for the royal armor?"
"Yes! Er, I mean, if you wish it, your Highness..."
Luna levitates some armor onto the young foal.
"This is magicked to grow with you, so you won't need replacement armor unless it breaks. Let us hope that never happens..."
"Because it's expensive, or..."
"Be brave and bold, little Noctis. Do Equestria proud."
The ceremony now over, Noctis returns to the barracks.
"You must be tired," says Nightshade. "Best to get some sleep."
"Maybe just a few more minutes?"
"Very well, but not long."
Noctis looks out the back window at the darkened Everfree.
I've gotten what I wanted- I'm a guard now- but why am I not happy? For some reason, I want to go back out there, back in the wilds and the darkness, and run free. Even though I know I won't live long. Maybe it's just wanderlust... Still, I should probably go see Dr. Bobtail sometime, see if he can help me.