Dauntless: Chapter One
The swelter of the flames licked across my body as I moved past the next blast of fire. I leapt into the air as another came my way, the heat rising and warming my underside as I flew over it before landing gently back on my hooves. Smoke rose from the burning grass, choking me and filling my nostrils with its stench. I circled my opponent; waiting for an opportunity. More flares were sent my way, the glaring orange flashing past me and dying out as quickly as it appeared. We strafed, locked in a fatal dance until finally I saw my opportunity. My opponent became eager and impatient and propped himself up on his hind legs. He prepared to send a barrage of flames my way. His first volley was sent before he stumbled, the recoil of his own volley knocking him off balance due to his faulty, awkward stance. I charged forward. The clumsy fireballs all veered off course and missed but one of them by mere inches. The searing heat stung my body and curled my fur, but I pressed through. Throwing myself into my opponent, I pushed my front hoof into his chest and swept behind his legs with my own. With my opponent on the ground I landed above him with a clear advantage. I threw my hoof towards his body and exhaled, just like they taught us at the Academy. But… no. Nothing. No fire. No lightning. For the hundredth, thousandth, probably millionth time I tried and there was nothing. My recovering opponent saw that I was helpless and regained his composure. In one skillful movement he was righted and I’d been knocked to the ground. Chaotic feelings of horror and helplessness swept over me as the tide of battle completely turned. He pointed a hoof at me and inhaled, and I knew that this fight was over.
“Poof,” he said, flicking me right on the nose. “You’d be dead in an instant.” Fenix moved forward and sat square on my chest, making it hard to breathe.
“Get off!” I shoved him off of me. “You just caught me off guard.” He stood up and raised his hooves, then lowered them once again and choked out the flames that circled where we had been sparring. The smoke faded from the air and the stuffy fumes cleared, once again making room for the clean winter air.
“That’s what you said last time. And the time before that. And the one before that…” he trailed off.
“That’s because it’s always true!” I tried to defend myself, but there was still a childish twinge to my voice. Fenix flipped his rust-colored mane out of his eyes, keeping his bangs parted with his horn.
“I’m sure. Hey Nocturne, it looks like you’re... uh... missing a spot there.” A sharp pain and the odor of burning hair alerted me to what it was he was talking about. I turned my head to see a gaping hole in the dark blue fur of my right flank, revealing pale skin splotched with red. Another burst of pain radiated from the injury.
“Oh my… Look what you did!”
“Oh don’t worry lil’ sis. It was blank even before I did that,” he replied, sticking his tongue out at me.
“The nerve! I have half a mind to blast the hair off of your backside! See if that precious phoenix of yours really does come back from the ashes!” We both exchanged intense glares but couldn’t keep the charade going. My lip quivered and the corners of Fenix’s mouth curved up a bit, sending us both into a fit of laughter. Once we both calmed down there was an awkward silence. I got the sense that he was mulling over the same thing I was: that what I had said was currently impossible. I couldn’t firebend and I might never be able to. No matter how long father kept me in the Academy, or how many of these training sessions I had with Fenix, I might never be able to do it.
Lily’s shrill caw of a voice pulled us both back into reality. “Get your flanks in here! Mother has sent a messenger hawk. She won’t be back for another day or two so we need to go to the market!”
Fenix and I looked at each other cautiously. A day at the market with Lily? That was suicide. But we obeyed, reluctantly dragging ourselves into the house to ready up. My reflection in the turtle-duck pond trudged along with me. The deep midnight blue, nearly black, of my coat had such a presence in the beautiful pond. The streaks of purple in my mane stood out and provided a sense of contrast. I turned away and trotted into the house, packed my saddlebags, and headed out the door on the tails of my brother and sister.
We descended from the higher levels of the terraced village where we lived down into the lower levels of the town, where all the artisans and farmers lived and worked. The pompous surplus of the upper levels was gradually replaced by the rustic world of the working class. The rattling of carriages along cobblestone streets gave way to the rhythmic beating of a hammer on an anvil. The air was gradually intermixed with the scents and flavors of a hundred different frying foods that never wafted up to where we lived. The hoity toity ponies that walked the streets of the upper districts with their chins in the air were replaced by a more down-to-earth populous that knew what it meant to work for a living.
Despite all of this Lily acted like the market was the epicenter of some sort of plague, as she always did. Everypony was addressed as “peasant” and less-than-cordially instructed to never touch her. Just because our family was wealthy, Lily felt that she was above the average citizens. Fenix on the other hoof, was very kind to every pony he met. He shared stories with the regulars at the local tavern, roughed around with some of the kids, and even helped the elderly set up and tear down their market stalls. He was a real joy for the ponies who made their living behind these stalls. They were always hoping that Fenix’s golden eyes, always happy and dazzling, fell upon their stall before those of Lily, ever-locked in an endless, judgmental scowl.
After we had done our shopping, and Lily had nearly scared a few shopkeepers into an early retirement, we stopped by one of the large stages where the bending shows are held. We trudged our way through the noisy din straight up to the front of the crowd. Talented benders were onstage performing amazing feats, lighting up the whole town with huge blasts of flame. Or at least that’s how I saw it. Despite my awestruck gazes at the performers carefully balancing balls of flame or taming dragons made completely out of fire, the most Fenix could manage was a half-hearted smile in my direction. I could tell that he wasn’t impressed. Lily was positively brooding. Her smug indifference was laced into every word of her only remark, like verbal poison. “You call that bending?” She undoubtedly would have gone up and tried to “teach that stallion a thing or two” if the show hadn’t ended at that moment in a rain of fire and sparks. The heat blew across the applauding crowd like a summer wind, providing welcome contrast to the frigid, wintry air. The stallion had just taken his leave when Fenix spoke up.
“You know Lily, I bet you wouldn’t act so high and mighty if there was an earthbender up there.” Fenix enjoyed bucking Lily off of her pedestal every now and then.
Lily rolled her eyes and gave a small, spiteful chuckle. “Who would want to watch one of those hornless savages stomp around and throw some pebbles this way and that?”
I wanted to interject, but I knew too little about earthbending to form a solid rebuttle.To the best of my knowledge, and to that of anypony who was taught at a Fire Nation school, Lily’s description of earthbending was as accurate as they get. Fenix, meanwhile, had stopped trying to bring her down to size and instead had some fun pushing her buttons.
“You’re probably right Lily, but you know what would be something to see? An airbender putting on one of these shows.”
Lily’s eyes widened at the thought. Her nostrils flared and she bared down on Fenix with a gaze that could petrify a cockatrice.
“Those good for nothing, pathetic excuses for ponies don’t know a thing about the true power of bending!”
Lily harbored a deep, unbridled hatred for airbenders. Actually, she loathed all of the pegasi. I never truly understood why; it’s not like they’d ever hurt anypony. I’d learned in school that the pegasi lived up in the clouds, in temples specially constructed of the spongy yet solid material. There was an old mares’ tale that they flew around up there, moving huge banks of clouds and controlling the weather. My father and I always believed that this was true, but my mother always tried to convince us otherwise.
“Nopony can control the clouds,” she would claim.
All my father ever came back with was, “Somepony has to.”
Every now and then a pegasus would come down from the clouds to buy goods or to meet with the leader of a nation to discuss where to launch fireworks for celebrations. They didn’t want some poor sleeping pegasus to be hit. Whenever one came down they were immediately surrounded by other ponies. They all wanted autographs and hoofprints and commented on how strong the pony’s wings looked. They were treated like celebrities down here, like royalty even. This was probably why Lily absolutely despised them.
“What do they do other than fly around in their little cloud villages and sleep all day? I’ve never seen one end a war. I’ve never seen one rule a nation. They’re useless wastes of space that need to be put to good use.”
This notion of Lily’s really set me off. The pegasi lived peaceful, happy lives away from the attachment to earthly matters that plagued us grounded ponies. They spent days in deep meditation, thinking about their place in the world. They read endlessly; gaining knowledge that would drive a lesser pony insane. They served their own purpose, not the purpose that anypony told them they must serve. And for that, I envied them.
Felix shook me back into reality. I had gotten lost so deep in my contemplation that I didn’t even realize what was happening. Apparently, two more performers had finished their acts and the market was closing down. The buzz of the crowd thinned out and moved away from the stage as everypony left the square and returned home.
“Come on little dreamer,” Felix said with an affectionate nudge. “We’ve gotta go home.”
Dauntless: Chapter Two
“So remind me again why both mother and father have to stay in the Earth Kingdom?” Fenix and I were preparing dinner. It was our only real chance to converse. “I understand that an Earth Kingdom ambassador like mother has to be there for the new Earth King’s coronation, but why father?” Fenix was about to answer my question when Lily spoke up. I heard her lean back in her chair and prop her hooves up on the table.
“The coronation of the Earth King is a very grand and important event. Ambassadors from both nations will be there. Even a pegasus emissary is expected to arrive! They will all wish the new Earth King years of peace and prosperity within his kingdom and present their letters of acceptance of the new King.”
Fenix and I looked at each other, surprised at Lily’s respect of foreign affairs, only to turn and see her reading verbatim from mother’s formal invitation to the event.
“What a load of manure.” Lily sneered, setting the letter ablaze and tossing it to the ground. “Those filthy Earth Kingdom peasants pick a new buffoon to lead the rest of them, and they see that as an event? This nation’s resources, as well as the time of its fine dignitaries, that are poured into that haphazard coronation could be spent on much more important things. But of course not. A new one-eyed stallion is chosen to lead the blind and we’re all expected to be joyous and proud of our brother nation.” The fuming mare got up and walked out of the dining room, muttering to herself about “wasted resources.”
“While that was all very... educational... it still doesn’t answer my question,” I said, turning to Fenix, who was busy trying to stamp out the smoldering letter and sending ashes wafting about the room. “Why does father have to go?”
“Well as Lily was saying, this event is simply massive! Any event big enough to draw the attention of the pegasi isn’t one that you want to head off to alone. Isn’t that right, Panda Bear?” Fenix shouted down the hall, his words met with a wall of flame. Panda Bear was Fenix’s pet name, poking fun at Lily’s full name, Panda Lily. The Panda Lily was a flower with black and white stripes on its petals, much like Lily’s mane. Our parents started calling her just “Lily” when she didn’t epitomize the bravery and honor associated with the famed flower, and instead displayed the savage aggression of a full grown moose-lion.
Come to think of it, our parents weren’t exactly original when it came to names. As I watched Fenix rush around the kitchen attempting to extinguish the fire started by the burning letter, it was very clear where his name came from. His bright orange coat and rust colored mane matched the magnificence of the fabled bird perfectly. I stamped out a nearby ember and caught notice of my midnight blue coat. My mother always took pride in my colors but my father always seemed upset by them. Offended, even. He acted as if, because they didn’t meet the Fire Nation stereotypes of black, orange, or some other warm color, they were an insult. He saw the colors of my coat, mane, and eyes as a disgrace to our heritage, whereas I saw it as something all my own.
Finally, after realizing he could just snuff out the flame with bending, Fenix and I finished the preparations. We summoned our still irate sister from her lair and the three of us sat down at the table for the usual uncomfortable, tension-filled dinner. My father was always the one who made the conversation. With him gone, dinner consisted of Lily attempting to make awkward small talk (“So, that weather... isn’t it dreadful?”) while Fenix and I scarfed everything down as fast as we could with the sole purpose of leaving the table as soon as possible.
“You two eat like slobs.” Lily graciously informed us as we quickly cleaned our plates and set out into the garden for our nightly “training session,” the name given to the times when Fenix tried his best to get an ounce of firebending out of me.
“Louder!” Fenix yelled at me. I screamed as loud as I could, forcing out every last bit of volume. “You’re not trying hard enough, Nocturne. I wanna hear you roar!” I turned, facing that tree by the pond that had been taunting me for years. I rose, took my stance, threw my hoof forward, and roared. My own eardrums rattled from the noise. Time seemed to slow and for the longest time I felt that it would work. I would finally firebend. My foreleg reached its full extension and my roar died down. Nothing had happened. I threw my other hoof forward and roared again. Still nothing. I tried again... and again... and again.
The more I tried, the more desperate I felt. My thoughts became hurried and frantic. Fenix’s pained expression told me that I wasn’t hiding it too well. I was getting tired, and my head was throbbing, but I wouldn’t give up. It became hard to breathe and my vision blurred. The world spun around me. I started sweating and tears began to gather in my eyes. I had to do this. Fenix walked up and put a hoof on my shoulder.
“Nocturne...” I ignored him and kept going. Fenix stepped in front of me, making me stop. “Nocturne... maybe... maybe we should stop for the night.” I knew what he had wanted to say. Maybe you’re not a firebender. I ignored the thought and went to sit by the pond. I stared into the water, past my reflection this time. I just stared into the deep azure of the pool. The moonlight reflected off of the ripples of the water and danced along the bottom of the pond. I adjusted my vision, looking at the reflection now, and noticed that the heavenly silver glow of the moon was hanging right above me when Fenix came and joined me by the pond. We both stared into the blue of the water for a long while. Finally, Fenix broke the deafening silence.
“You know, Nocturne, you’re one of the best tacticians I’ve ever seen and you throw a hell of a punch.” He closed his eyes for a while, then opened them and looked at me. Not in the reflection, but straight at me. “Maybe...”
“No, Fenix.” My head began pounding again. I could hear my heartbeat booming in my ears.
“Maybe you’re not-”
“No!” I threw myself into him and clamped a hoof over his mouth. Tears welled up in my eyes as I stared back into his. “Fenix, I can’t bear to hear those words. Never, ever say that to me. Do you understand?” The tears were flowing freely now as Fenix sat, astounded. His eyebrows fell from surprised to sullen as he realized the real pain that I was in. My hooves dropped down to his shoulders and I shook him. “Please... please understand that from you of all ponies I do not ever want to hear those words! You know what would happen, Fenix. You know what would happen...” My voice gave out as the knot in my throat grew and halted any sound escaping.
He nodded and I fell, sobbing, onto his shoulders. His warm embrace wrapped around me and pulled me closer as it began to rain. I felt the tiny drops dancing across my skin grow into large, beating thuds. The bright flowers lining the pond were pounded flat by the downpour. Fenix’s usually glowing orange coat was stained and muted, turning a dusty, tired color. Fenix brushed his mane out of his eyes, again setting it parted by his horn.
“Nocturne, we’d better go inside.”
Dauntless: Chapter Three
“Wake up you useless dolts. It’s time to get to the Academy!” Lily’s piercing whine echoed through the halls of the estate, rousing me from my restless sleep. I stomped my hooves down off my bed and dragged myself out into the hall where I met Fenix. Together we lazily fought our way down the hall and into the kitchen for the grand prize: the first bowl of cereal. As usual, Lily was already up and ready by the time we had finished eating. After a hot shower and the usual rude comments from Lily, the three of us headed out the door and made for the Academy.
The Firebending Academy was the pris- I mean school that firebenders showing promise were sent to. There they would hone their skills and become even greater than they already were. Of course, the Academy taught other things besides firebending, such as the history of the Fire Nation and a few trade skills. However, it undoubtedly focused on teaching benders how to obliterate their opponents more than anything; and “obliterate” is not an overstatement. To graduate you had to destroy an entire mock house, complete with dummy ponies, in a single fire blast. I had only a year until I took the exam and I hadn’t even made a spark. Each passing month only added to my sense of frustration.
My only friend was Scoria Rain, an earth pony. She was born in the Earth Kingdom, but she immigrated here and enrolled in the Firebending Academy. Her parents paid big money to get her into it. They had heard that it had stricter discipline than public schools, and I’d be damned if that wasn’t true. Apparently she used to get into a lot of trouble back in the Earth Kingdom schools, which was hard to believe. She was extremely timid and probably wouldn’t even hurt a fly. She only stood up to you when you hurt her or someone close to her, but even then she wouldn’t get all that riled up. She’d just throw some harsh words around.
Because neither of us could bend, we became friends instantly. We started talking one day when we both had to sit out of sports. The games they played required bending, so neither of us could exactly participate. We sat together on the sidelines and just started... talking. She really was my only friend other than Fenix. At the Academy we were inseparable, but my father made sure that I didn’t get to see her very often outside of school. Today I looked around for her before class began but didn’t see her, and took my seat in the dusty old classroom. The blinds were shut today, adding an extra layer of stuffy entrapment to the already condemning feel of the room. The tsungi horn sounded to signal the beginning of class and I prepared myself for another day of “education.”
The Professor entered the classroom, her commanding presence filling every corner of the room with an air of rigid conformity. She was an old mare, no younger than forty-five, yet she had aged well. She still had her stern, rigid features and commanding voice that probably earned her the job of Professor in the first place. She stood behind her desk, facing the class, and gave us all her usual judgemental once-over before issuing her first command.
“Class, recite the Fire Nation Oath.” We obeyed, reciting the same words we had said every morning of our lives in the same uninterested drone as always. “Good. Now, today we will be covering... international affairs.” Her nauseated pause and mocking tone of voice gave the impression that this wasn’t a topic she was particularly interested in. The groans that issued from my classmates around me expressed our equal enthusiasm. We were all taught this exact same lesson every year, no matter which year of study we were in. She pressed on.
“As you all know, the three nations are all centered on the specific element that was controlled by their respective founders. The earth ponies have the Earth Kingdom, as their founder was an earthbender. The pegasi have their Air Temples as their founder was an airbender. Now we unicorns have the Fire Nation. The founder of our land was a great and powerful firebender.” She said this with a fanatical sense of nationalism and pride, staring off into the distance as if she could remember the founding of our country like it was yesterday. “Pony societies are very centered around whichever of the three bendable elements their benders are able to manipulate. We...”
The Professor’s lecture faded into the background as a simple thought started in the back of my mind and grew until it occupied all available space, leaving no room for the knowledge which I was supposed to be absorbing. There were only three bendable elements. But there were four total. There were no “waterbenders”. There was no “Water Nation” at all. Why not? What if there could be, but nobody had ever tried? I had to know. I wasn’t sure why.. but something drove me towards this knowledge. Why aren’t there any waterbenders? I attempted to listen to the rest of the lecture, but the question ate at me and tore at the barriers of my mind, howling to escape. Without stopping to contemplate the professor’s possible reactions, my hoof was raised in the air and I was ready to speak.
The Professor looked at me with a mix of annoyance and surprise. I had always been the quiet mare who sat in the back and took notes; never one to ask questions. What could it be? She called on me and I mustered up all of the courage I had to ask what was - to me - a very important question.
I took a deep breath in hopes of calming my nerves. I brought my gaze level to hers and asked, “Why can’t ponies bend water?”
Everypony looked at me as I stood with my front hooves on my desk, a kind of courage shining through that nopony had seen from me before. The Professor blinked, her eyes wide. She was struck silent by my question. She began to pace along the front of the classroom, turning several times with the intention to speak, but then returning to her stride. Finally, after what seemed like hours, she spoke.
“Well... Nocturne, is it? That’s right. You’re the wealthy little girl from uptown. Well, Nocturne,” she said, speaking my name with unwarranted, agonizing malice, “Water - unlike other elements - is pure. Air, Earth, Fire; they all have their flaws. They are all too basic and pure to be affected by unicorn magic, but Water is the purest of all. Fire is difficult to restrain and can cause great destruction. Earth is tenacious, and at times, unmanageable. Air is more easily controlled, but can lack raw power. But water... water is a perfect balance between stability, control, and force. Water can be stable as ice, manageable as steam, and destructive in its base form. Because of its balance, and its purity, Water would require an unbelievably open and pure mind to bend. And...” she brought her pacing to a halt, turned to face me, and said harshly, “Not a pony exists on this planet that has a mind pure enough to control Water. There are no waterbenders.”
I sat back down to digest what I had heard. Not a pony exists that is pure enough, huh? My mind whirled with ideas and I paid no attention to the rest of class. I sat in deep thought until the tsungi horn played to denote the end of class. One by one we filed out into the hallways. I was the last one out, but Fenix was by the door waiting for me.
“What was that all about!? Why would you ask something like that?” Fenix was furious. “The number one thing not to ask about in a Fire Nation school is water, Nocturne.”
“I had to know.”
“Well now you know. And you heard what she said. There’s not a pony on the planet pure enough to bend water, so don’t go around getting ideas.”
“One more time Fenix! Please!?” I pleaded with my brother to try again.
“I’m telling you Nocturne, I’m not as pure as you think I am. This isn’t gonna work.”
“Oh come on! You’re the most innocent person I know!”
“Oh, really? Remember that marefriend I had a while back?”
I was too exasperated to let that image settle in my head. I shook it out and tried to focus.
“Fenix, just try one more time!” He gave it a go. He took his stance and gave it his all, focusing the entirety of his will on moving even a drop of water from the stagnant turtle-duck pond.
“Nothing. Nocturne, we’ve been at this for an hour. Nothing is going to happen.”
I ignored his discouraged words. “You’re being too... firebender. What if you tried it like-” I widened my stance, bent my knees more, and loosened up my joints. “Try standing like this.”
He mimicked my stance and tried again. “No no no! You’re still doing it wrong!” I was alarmed to find myself sounding like a little filly teaching her daddy how to dance. The notion, and the bad memories that came with it, flashed through my mind and again retreated into the depths of my memories. “You... you have to be more flowy and less forceful. Not too different from your usual form but still different enough.”
“That makes absolutely no sense, Nocturne.” Fenix sounded annoyed, but there was still a hint of hope in his tone. Almost like he truly wanted to see this work. “How about a demonstration?”
My stance was set so I exhaled deeply, brought my front hooves down, and rose them up in a wide arcing motion.
“Like that!” Fenix tried it again but he just couldn’t get it the way I wanted him to.
“I can’t do it Nocturne. I’m not a waterbender.” The word sounded new; unused. To me, it seemed as if it had so much potential. “I’m going back inside. It’s freezing out here.” Fenix shuffled back into the house while I stayed behind and stared into the pond’s enchanting reflection as I often did. Only, this time it was different. This time I felt connected to the pond. And the moon! The moon had never been so bright! So.. alive! That was the word. Everything felt as if it was alive.
I dipped my hoof into the water which, despite having been frozen over only this morning, felt warm to the touch. Not hot, but comfortably warm. Like the incandescent embers of a hearth in a log cabin, waiting to relax a weary traveler. It felt familiar. Almost like a home. Not a pony exists on this planet that has a mind pure enough to bend water.
“Why not?” I took my stance, loosened my joints, and exhaled, rising my hooves slowly in unison. Nothing happened at first, but as I repeated the motion a small ripple began to move back and forth in time with the motions of my body. It felt as if I were holding the water by a string, simply pulling it back and letting it go. As I continued, I began taking steps along with the water as well, shifting my weight back and forth on my legs. The ripple soon became a wave, which grew and grew until finally I was shifting water back and forth like a tide on the ocean. The moonlight shimmered and danced as if it were cheering me on. The full moon shone just as brightly as the sun, encompassing me in an energy ten times as strong. The water and I shifted in graceful symbiosis until I suddenly fell out of the rhythmic trance and snapped back into reality. The gravity of my actions struck me like a bolt of lightning and I fell back, astounded at what I was doing. The water gradually balanced out and returned to its restful state. I looked at my hooves in disbelief.
I am a waterbender.
Dauntless: Chapter Four
Three years ago when I was just twelve, the academy held a dance. They called it a “Formal Socializing Event,” but we all knew what it really was. Rumor had it that the Dean had heard that they held these “dances” at Earth Kingdom schools, and that they increased student productivity. If there was one thing the Dean was interested in, it was increasing student productivity.
So they arranged it and changed the title to try to extinguish expectations that anypony could carry of having fun. The whole thing sounded pointless – I figured it would just be an excuse for all of the popular ponies to prance around, paired with whoever they were dating at the time – but a handsome Earth Kingdom colt asked me to go. His parents knew my mother back in the Earth Kingdom, so he wasn’t exactly a stranger. In fact, I had always harbored quite the crush for him despite going to different schools, so of course I said yes. I don’t quite remember his name now. I think it was Evergreen.
I wasn’t exactly the best when it came to social situations. For the week leading to the night of the dance I rehearsed every part of the night countless times over in my mind. Despite this, I still wasn’t prepared when the night of the dance came around. After a huge debate on what to wear (and at least a billion “you look fine”s from Fenix) I set out in a formal, streamlined dress; the deep azure of which complemented my coat and mane perfectly. I met the colt outside of the event center of the Academy, and, after a bit of acting to get past the security, - The colt was my servant. Wealth does have its perks. - we were in.
I looked around the building to see an incredible venue! The entire event center was decorated with streamers and banners and tinsel that brightly reflected the various colors of the torches. The walls were lined with table after table of great smelling sweets of all shapes and sizes. There was a band up on stage banging drums and sending waves of sound reverberating through the building to find their way deep into my chest. Ponies were dancing and laughing and singing. Even the most strict and uptight students - brought only by promise of extra credit - couldn’t help but tap a hoof to the music.
Despite the amazing setting, I was nervous. I had never been to such an event before, and especially not with a colt. But, as the night wore on, I loosened up and even started dancing with the charming pony. We drank punch, told jokes, and laughed when the – now former – Professor arrived drunk from her special cider. It was a blast, and I was having the time of my life. But there was one thing that I hadn’t counted on to mess everything up. My father.
My father is a blacksmith, and the day before the dance he had received a special request from the Fire Lord himself. The Fire Lord wanted a new dagger with a serrated blade, a bloodstone pommel, and a jade inscription laid into the shining steel that read, “Your Last Request of Death Shall be Swiftly Approved.” The Fire Lord of the time was a very systematic, yet sadistic stallion. My father knew that the steel of his blade would taste the blood of more than a few ponies, so he needed to build it to last.
He decided to try a new tempering technique he had invented himself.
“They don’t call me Tempered Steel for nothing!” he would boast. “I’ve got the mark of the anvil for a reason.” He always referred to his cutie mark as such. He thought “cutie mark” sounded too… cute.
His tempering technique was “guaranteed to create the strongest steel imaginable.” The only downside to this technique was that it required a pony to tend to the steel for a full, uninterrupted day, taking it between the forge, anvil, and cold water. Because of this I expected my father to be occupied at his forge for the entire day. I wouldn’t have to worry about him finding out about my “rebellious conduct.” It was the ideal situation. Unfortunately, plans almost never work out.
At the party, we were getting a little tired. The event was almost over and the music was beginning to wind down. I sat next to the colt who had taken me and looked into his eyes. His light green coat and clay-brown mane shone in the torchlight. His eyes shone with the brilliant gleam of emeralds. With each passing second his gaze became ever more entrancing, and the irresistible pull of adolescent passion brought us closer. He pulled my body into his, the warm support of his heavy figure making me feel safer than I ever had. We sat, just staring, neither of us wanting to make the first move. Finally I could take the anticipation no longer and moved in. His lips met mine and all time stopped. My heart rate sped up and my breathing slowed down. Endorphins raced through my body as I relished in the moment that I never wanted to end.
We sat there for a long time, simply sharing each other’s heartbeats. It seemed as if the rest of the dance had faded out of existence and the only reality was he and I in that very moment. I could feel every rise and fall of his chest, every quickened beat of his heart, every slight shift of muscle that drew me ever closer to the colt whose name I’d hardly remember. We sat for minutes, then hours, simply letting the world go by. Yet, despite my lack of attention to it, my ears still perked when the heavy pounding of the drums and high pitched trilling of the horns came to a sudden halt.
I opened my eyes and broke away, only to see that my father had blown through the door and knocked all security aside. The enraged stallion surveyed the crowd until his searing glare finally fell upon me.
“How did you think I wouldn’t find out about this!?” my father roared with anger. He had let the tension build until we got home, and then decided to let me have it. “You snuck off to an event without telling me or your mother.” That was a lie, I had told my mother. “I had to find out through Fenix when I got home!” Father’s request from the Fire Lord had been canceled. Apparently the Fire Lord had found someone whose steel was just a bit stronger. This set my dad in the perfect mood to come and berate me for going to the dance. “Then I catch you macking with some colt! But, even then, you didn’t think that would piss me off just enough, so you made it one of those Earth Kingdom swine! What’s next? You gonna introduce me to a new marefriend of yours?” His voice rocked the entire house. I was shocked. I thought that my father held a higher regard for the ponies from our brother nation.
“He’s not swine,” I said quietly. I was shocked to hear my own voice in a situation like this. I was mildly timid around my father normally but when he was angry, I tried my hardest to fade into the woodwork. Even then, I had never seen him this angry. Whatever drove me to stand up for Evergreen was beyond my conscious thought.
“I know I try to play lovey dovey to our Earth Kingdom friends,” he practically spat the word at me, “but I have your mother’s political career to think about. Do you think I like any of these ponies?” His voice escalated even further. “Do you think I care for them!? The Fire Nation is all that there is. It’s that simple. The earth ponies are just a rabble of lowlife thieves who know nothing of legitimacy! And the pegasi? Well, they’re simply… “ he shook with anger, “Useless!”
I could see the red of his face, even through his coal-black coat. He stomped a hoof down to emphasize his point. As if that was necessary. “No more. No more of this colt. No more of this… what’s her name… Shorica?”
“Scoria.” I corrected him.
“Don’t speak while I’m speaking! You’re done. You’re going to associate with Fire Nation unicorns only. You’re going to marry a Fire Nation stall- no, a firebender, and the only ties this family will have with the Earth Kingdom are through your mother. Are we clear?”
Speaking of mother, she had been dead silent this whole time. She didn’t stand up for me as I had always hoped she would in a situation like this. She stared down at the ground, scraping her front hoof against the dirt every now and then. Fenix and Lily had been sent away to their rooms, although there was no doubt that they could hear what was going on. My father placed his hoof firmly under my chin and forced my eyes to meet his.
“Are. We. Clear!?”
“We’ll discuss this more in the morning. Go to your room and get to bed. Oh, and you’d better not lie tomorrow. Fenix already told me everything.”
Fenix? He had told? Before I even had time to let that settle, my father pushed me, hard, towards the hallway leading to my room. I stumbled, but caught myself and kept walking. I kept my composure until I had calmly walked into my room and shut the door, but I could stay calm no longer and burst out into tears.
I bit my lip and let tears pour into my pillow. I couldn’t cry loudly. I couldn’t let him know that I was weak. After a few minutes, I raised my head and looked into the pillow. There were wet spots, along with a stain of crimson red. I lifted a hoof to my mouth and pulled away. My lip was bleeding. I simply flipped the pillow and laid down. I had too much on my mind to be able to sleep anyway. My father really hated the Earth Kingdom. And Fenix… Fenix had talked? Did he really, or was father just saying that to cut my options; to make me feel like I didn’t have allies?
I laid in the dark for a while, periods of crying coming over me and washing away again. The bleeding in my lip stopped, but not before staining my muzzle a threatening shade of red. The tinny, metallic taste still lingered. I stood up and walked over to my mirror, unsurprised to see the uncouth ruffian which stared back at me. My disheveled mane and tired eyes only added to the look of insanity brought by my bloodstained mouth. I must have looked almost this awful the dance, just without the blood. Any other night the realization may have been embarrassing, but I didn’t care. I had only one thing on my mind.
Dauntless: Chapter Five
The gravity of my actions struck me like a bolt of lightning and I fell back, astounded at what I was doing. The water gradually balanced out and returned to its restful state. I looked at my hooves in disbelief.
I am a waterbender...
I stood for a long while, quivering from a mix of emotions that I struggled to bring together into some form of coherent thought. Excitement. Joy. Fear. They all fought to control my mind; to steer my thinking in one direction or another. The world around me faded as my mind fought to accept the fact that I was the only waterbender in history. The only waterbender in history! No. No no no this is too much. Even that single thought whirled around in my head so fast that it hurt.
I was pulled back into reality by a bizarre tingling sensation running up my sides like a million ants. No. Not now. A flash of light confirmed the worst of my fears. I turned to face the source, eyes wide with disbelief. There, on my flank, sat a lustrous full moon hanging behind a single cloud. Even in the absence of the silver moonlight it would shine brilliantly, just like the real thing. It was beautiful. If it had been anything else, anything, this would have been one of the best days of my life. No more “blank flank.” No more hushed laughter in the hallways as I walked by. I’d finally be recognised as an equal. But there on my flank was that brilliant, shining, ghastly moon that displayed itself ever so pretentiously. No other amount of ridicule could match what I’d face walking around with this. I slammed the ground with a hoof and glared up at the heavenly orb I had once so adored. Now it hogged the sky like a migraine-inducing eyesore.
Why the moon? My rage quickly fell to despair. This is supposed to be a good thing! A happy thing! Tears began to well up. My eyes settled on the ground and droplets began to fall, turned a glinting silver by the moonlight. I didn’t have any options anymore. Sure, I stood out before. How could the only mare in school with a blue coat manage not to? But now... now I couldn’t hope to have any normal kind of life. Now I’m even more of a freak.
I took one more look at the final nail in the coffin. The thing that branded me, undeniably, as an outcast. There was no way around it. I trotted into the house through the back door and stepped into the kitchen. Fenix heard me come in and called to me from his room.
“Nocturne! How are you feeling?”
I ignored him and headed straight for my room, slamming the door and hoping that the world outside would stay away for just a few minutes.
Knock knock knock. I winced as the noise sent painful reverberations through my already aching head. “Nocturne? Are you okay?” I didn’t respond, hoping he would just go away. “Look, I’m sorry that it didn’t work. I know how badly you wanted it to.” Oh, could you be any more wrong? “Just remember that even though it might not have worked, you’re still special, Nocturne. You still stand out.” I know, and that’s the problem! The words clawed at my throat, only to be trapped by the knot that had formed there. The most I could muster was a timid squeak, barely audible even to me. Wait! Fenix would understand! He’d help me! But by the time my throat cleared, the sound of Fenix’s echoing hoofbeats began fading down the hall. I had to talk to him right then and there.
My door flew open in a flare of azure magic and I chased Fenix the few steps down the hall, grabbing his mane firmly between my teeth and hauling him back into my room through a rain of disapproving swears. Another flash of magic slammed the door shut again.
“Nocturne, what on earth are you-”
“Shh!” I listened through the door for Lily’s curious hoofbeats. If she heard any of that, she would undoubtedly wonder what all the racket was about. The echoes of a light trot barely whispered through the halls, almost going unnoticed until they came to a stop just in front of the door. The beating of my heart sped up and beads of sweat formed on my brow. She’d better not come in. The hallway remained silent for a bit before the sound of Lily’s trot began again and faded back into the distance. I turned to confront my brother who was sprawled across the floor with an annoyed look on his face, rubbing his head.
“Nocturne... what are we going to do with you?”
“Fenix, you are not going to believe this.” My eyes started welling with tears again.
“Sis’? What’s wrong?” Fenix asked as he picked himself up. At the last moment I almost decided against it, but there was no going back. I turned my body so that Fenix could get a clear view of the new mark displaying itself so proudly on my flank. All it took was two words.
“It worked.” I turned my head away, not wanting to see his reaction. He remained completely silent. When I finally turned back he was staring, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging wide open. “What do I do? Fenix.. you remember what he did to you. What would he do to me?”
Horrible images of the morning following the dance flashed through my head. My father standing over the collapsed orange stallion who laid bloody and broken on the floor. The same stallion looking to me and smiling through the pain. He mouthed the words, I took the blame, before another hoof smashed its way into his ribs. That day I learned how much of a monster my father was when faced with disconformity. At only fourteen years old, Fenix was lucky that he wasn’t blasted into oblivion by the skilled bender. Who knows what would happen to me, a living symbol of everything that my father hated? A more important question would be:
“What do I do?” A lengthy silence followed. Fenix looked to me, then to my cutie mark, and finally left his gaze on the ground for a long while. When he looked up tears were flowing from his eyes. My heart skipped a beat as I realized that I’d never actually seen Fenix cry before. He always had such a confident air about him. Seeing him like this, so broken down and helpless... it was almost unbearable.
“Nocturne, you need to leave. You need to get out of here before he does something to you. You need to run and never look back.” Each word carried the impact of a brick, only adding to the throbbing in my head. Leave?
“Fenix, I can’t just up and out. He’d come after me.”
“Not if I held him off. Or if I said it was my fault.”
“No! Fenix, after what happened last time, I am never letting you do that again.”
“But nothing!” I raised my voice a little higher than I meant to and recoiled at the volume of my own words. I sighed. “You’re right. I need to leave. I wouldn’t make it another day here.” Hearing the words spoken in my own voice scared me even more. It made the possibility into a reality. “But I’m doing it on my own. I’m going to face him. You’re not going to suffer any more because of my actions and that’s final.” I stomped a hoof against the ground to emphasize my point; again, not a very good idea. Lily’s hoofbeats were soon echoing back up the hall. “Now get out of here and leave it to me.” My voice wavered and Fenix flinched, his face flush with concern. I leaned close and wrapped a foreleg around him. “I’ll be okay Fenix, I promise. She’s coming.” Fenix nodded and opened the door. He turned back and looked at me, his beloved little sister. Something in that look broke my heart. It was the kind of look you give to somepony you won’t see for a very, very long time.
I awoke the next morning feeling great. The previous night’s sleep had been surprisingly restful. The day ahead looked rather beautiful as well. Warm, cheerful sunlight shone in through the windows and gently roused me from my slumber. Songbirds twittered happily about, calling to each other with bubbly melodies over the rustling of the leaves in the gentle breeze. The sweet scent of mother’s homemade pastries filled the air, the tempting aroma teasing me out of bed. I had almost reached the door when I realized: mother’s pastries. Mother!
My parents had returned. The whistle of a teapot and the clanging of silverware rang down the hallway as they hurried about the kitchen, preparing breakfast for my siblings and me. The warmth and comfort of the morning dissolved as last night’s events rushed back to me. I knew what I had to do; and the longer I waited, the harder it would be. I paced for a bit, then took a deep breath to still my racing heart. Once I had steeled my nerves I stepped out to face my parents.
I followed the mouth-watering fragrance into the kitchen where the two ponies were bustling around, giving orders to each other.
“Don’t burn that.”
“That’s ready, take it out of the oven.”
“Put that back in.”
Neither of them looked particularly cheery. The bags under their eyes and the slight drawl in their speech told me that they had traveled all night to come back home. Great, I thought. That just added another catalyst to the impending Tempered Steel meltdown. I called over the counter to the two busy ponies.
“Welcome home you guys!”
“Morning,” My father issued. I wondered if he even heard me, or just noticed a shape in the kitchen that wasn’t there before. My mother was a bit more jovial, even if she remained busy.
“Good morning, Nocturne! It’s so good to see you!” The petite, bronze-coated unicorn trotted around the counter and gave me a shaky hug. She smelled of perfume and alcohol. Apparently the coronation had turned into a bit of a party. The frantic mare broke away and rambled on as she hurried back into the fray of the kitchen. “The Earth Kingdom was great! It was so good to be back home. I saw my parents, you know! My father has gathered quite the library and is making great progress in his studies of magic. Why, while we were there he turned your father’s hat into a rock!” She chuckled. My father didn’t look as amused. He rubbed his head with an anguished look.
“That’s great, mom.” My grandfather was a very eccentric stallion. He devoted his life to studying magic, often practicing on whatever he could get his hooves on. He traveled the world and researched different applications for magic, finally settling down when he met an earth pony who shared his devotion.
“Where are Fenix and Lily?”
“Oh, they went off to the market. We needed a bit more milk. They’ll be back soon.” I walked into the dining room and sat down on one of the mats laid around the low table. A tray carrying a steaming pot of tea and several cups floated into the room, enveloped in an olive-colored aura of magic. The strongly scented herbal tea was almost spilled when it dropped onto the table. The pony who sent it must have been distracted by something in the kitchen.
I looked into the pot. The tea was a dark, cloudy green as opposed to the lighter translucent color it should have been. It had been steeped for far too long, but I poured myself a cup anyway. Two cubes of sugar and- that’s right. No milk. I drank it anyway and found I almost preferred it without milk. The tea calmed my mind and I nearly forgot what the purpose of today was. I was going to confront my father for the first time in my life over the biggest event of my life. A chill ran down my spine and the cup wavered midair.
My mother walked in carrying a plate full of pastries of all different shapes and sizes. Close behind her followed my father, who took his seat and immediately started eating. He hadn’t looked at me since he got home. An awkward silence hung in the air, the only sounds being those of ponies chewing and the occasional bird chirping outside. Both of my parents sat with their eyes moving only between the tray and the food levitating its way to their mouths. I almost wished they would notice my cutie mark before I had to tell them.
I cleared my throat to attract a bit of attention. Nopony looked up. I coughed several times with a similar lack of response. Finally I broke into an all out coughing fit in the hopes that somepony would think I was choking and at least turn and watch as I die by means of a blueberry scone. My father responded by apathetically levitating a cup of tea my way without a word. He didn’t even look up from his breakfast. I couldn’t take it anymore. I finally stood up and cleared my throat once more, turning to better display my flank to my parents.
At first neither of them looked. But finally my mother turned to see what the interruption was about. She looked up at me, her eyes widening and her mouth hanging open. A bit of donut fell out onto the floor. After a moment, she decided that this was something her husband should see. Through her disbelief she shakily called to him.
“S-S.. Steel!” My father stopped eating and his eyes narrowed in disapproval of the continued interruption.
“Yes, Obby?” He didn’t look up and expected a verbal response. Frustrated when there wasn’t one, he urged her on, “Obsidian Scroll, what’s wrong?” Finally, he turned his head towards her and followed her gaze to me. I met his eyes with mine and watched them drift back towards my new mark: the brilliant full moon behind a single, thin, silver cloud.
“Nocturne.. What is this?” I was scared. My father’s temper was already building, as it did when something happened that he didn’t understand. I could go the scared little filly route and tell him that I didn’t know, and that I hoped he could help me. I could chicken out and act like it was all a joke. No. I have to finally confront him. I turned to directly face my parents and spoke very slowly and calmly.
“Mother. Father.” I allowed a suspenseful pause, “I am a waterbender.” My mother’s expression became almost comic in its display of disbelief. Her mouth dropped open even wider and her eyes looked as though they would pop out of her head.
My father, on the other hoof, carried an indifferent expression. Anypony else could look at his stony features and see no emotion at all, but I knew his subtle tells. A mixture of rage and confusion was building beneath the solid exterior of his motionless features. His ear twitched and his eyes narrowed. He wasn’t just mad. He was furious.
“Nocturne.. This isn’t funny. Go into the bathroom and wash that out this instant.”
“It won’t wash out, father. It’s a cutie mark.” He winced a bit at the use of the term. My mother remained silent, her clumsy expression more serious now.
“I said go wash it out.” No use. I had to prove it to him. I walked out into the kitchen and returned with a clear glass. It would show better than the opaque porcelain cups that surrounded the teapot. I poured some of the still steaming tea into the wide glass and stood back. Mimicking my motions from the night before, I focused all of my will and energy into the tea.
I almost felt that it wouldn’t work. I felt weakened, as if some force that had helped me along wasn’t there anymore. But after a moment, the tea began to shift back and forth inside the glass ever so slowly. As tenacious as he was in his refusal to believe me, my father couldn’t ignore the motion that was now rocking the glass back and forth, threatening to tip it.
He sat and stared. Even long after I had stopped bending he continued to eye the glass like a child contemplating a magic trick. Finally, it clicked. He pieced together the thought that I had been trying to get through his thick skull. His face fell from a stoic facade to a genuine lack of expression as the words came together in his mind. My daughter is a waterbender. He didn’t speak. This was bad.
In a burst of glaring, orange light and searing heat my father obliterated the table in front of him. Bits of mahogany shrapnel scattered about the room as my mother ducked and put her hooves over her head. My father turned towards me, his eyes large and bloodshot. His voice boomed through the house like the roar of a lion and shook the very foundation of the home.
“How!? How could this happen!? You are a disgrace! You are the absolute opposite of everything that I have worked so hard to build this family on!” I imagined he meant patriotism, but the only thing that came to my mind was oppression.
He stopped roaring long enough for me to hear the pounding of my heart in my ears. My knees buckled for a moment. I felt totally and utterly helpless. My father’s face became void of expression once again and I knew that the worst had yet to come. He turned around, facing away from me now. His black body convulsed grotesquely with each heavy breath. He didn’t even appear to be a pony anymore. He had become some kind of monster.
He turned again, facing me. His head hung low, his eyes closed. After another deep breath that seemed to last a lifetime, he opened them and screamed, thrusting a hoof towards my face. Time slowed as I watched the flame enveloped hoof surge straight at me. There was no way that I could act in time. I accepted fate. What else was I expecting? Why would it go any other way? I imagined the headlines: “World’s First Waterbender Murdered by Own Father.” He’d get his comeuppance, even if I didn’t live to see it.
With a sharp crack and a burst of heat, one hoof connected with another. A radiant orange unicorn stood in front of me holding the hoof of my father towards the floor. A large portion of the hardwood was now on fire, churning smoke into the room. My brother stood between me and my father, his abandoned grocery bags strewn about the floor. He’d returned early.
Fenix turned back to me and shouted a single desperate plea.
I didn’t need to be told twice. I bolted for the open doorway as Fenix held back my raging father. A sickening crack rang out as hoof met bone. Whose hoof met whom, I didn’t know. But I had a more urgent problem. Lily was still standing in the doorway, watching the entire scene unfold. Her saddlebags hung from her sides, still full of groceries. As I got closer to the door I lowered my head and prepared to shove her out of the way, but something strange happened.
She stepped aside.
I kept running; no time to consider why she would let me get away. Roaring, grunting, and flashes of light signaled that the fight behind me was still going on. I didn’t turn back.
I ran and ran, not stopping for anything. I dashed out of the upper levels of the city into the lower ones. I tore through the market, knocking ponies aside and crashing into a market stall, the wares of which scattered everywhere. The shouts from the unfortunate ponies who had gotten in my way fell on deaf ears. My lungs ached and my heart struggled to keep up with the rest of my body. Replaying the entire scene in my head gave me a second wind, and I accelerated down main street and through the arch at the end of the road. Before I knew it, I had made my way out of town and onto the dirt trail that cut through the wooded wilderness surrounding the village. I kept galloping deeper into the forest, the sting of the wind in my eyes amplified by the headwind I was working against.
After what seemed like an eternity of running I only stopped when I came to a fork in the road. One way led off to the west. It was the trade route back into town. This road was well paved, welcoming me down it, saying I should be back home where I belong. The other path was a dirt trail cutting straight through the forest to the east. Travelers and hikers coming from the towns to the east used this road. It was worn down and overgrown with flora of all different shapes and size. This road was far less traveled.
My mind spun. Even after I had made the decision to run, I was again faced with a choice. Home was safe. Home was comfortable. Home was guaranteed. Or at least it used to be. If I went east, I had no idea what I would face, or if I would even make it to the next town. If I went west, I’d be back on the doorstep of a berserk Tempered Steel. I sat in the middle of the fork and pondered the two road signs, wondering which one pointed home.
Dauntless: Chapter Six
The dirt path wound endlessly through the murky, ominous woods. Every inch of the shadowy forest around me was alive and bursting with the noise of insects and birds that detested my intrusion into their territory. Every new sound brought images of the horrors that I was sure awaited me behind the trees that bordered the path. The occasional snap of a twig or crunch of a leaf underhoof would send me reeling, dying to escape something that wasn’t there. The musk of nature clogged my nose and made my eyes water. I was sick of it within minutes of entering the forest. Having lived in naive splendor my entire life, the unpleasantry of the wilderness was foreign to me.
Also foreign was the fatigue that overwhelmed me. I felt as though my entire body was made of lead. My hooves ached and my knees threatened to buckle with every step. I thought that the training sessions with Fenix had built me up, and that I would be somewhat prepared for this. I was wrong. Those sessions had built my power, not my endurance. The best I could do was to ignore the pain as best as possible and push on.
It was at this point that I realized that I did not have a solid plan. I was tired and cold and lonely, and what for? I had no destination. I decided to take a break and stopped to sit on a nearby log. Looking up at the sun, I could tell that it was about three in the afternoon. I attempted to tune out the drone of the wildlife and formulate some sort of plan.
Well, I thought to myself, I know I can get to the next town within four hours. I can get food there. My stomach growled, reminding me that food was a priority. But what about the long run? Where could I go where a waterbending unicorn would be accepted? A thought came to me that I almost dismissed as absurd. I could go to the Earth Kingdom. I’m not too far from the border. In truth it wasn’t such a bad idea. The Earth Kingdom was much more open and diverse compared to the elitist Fire Nation. I was doubtful though. Even if I made it there, where would I go? I’d think of it eventually. I needed to make it to the next town before it got dark. I had heard stories of strange creatures that roamed this forest at night.
With the Earth Kingdom in my sights I kept heading east, not entirely sure where to go.
I trotted at a more brisk pace for the rest of the way, only rarely stopping to rest my hooves. I felt that I was holding up rather well, though I could certainly be doing better. By the time I reached the top of a hill that overlooked the next town I was a mess. My hooves and knees screamed with pain. My legs were battered and bloody. Thorns stuck in them, jutting this way and that. My mane was flattened down with sweat, clinging uncomfortably to my neck. Breathing was beginning to become a chore and no amount of air could soothe my burning lungs. The waning sunlight was barely enough to illuminate my surroundings, and most of the lights down in the town were burning bright.
The village was small; much smaller than the one I had grown up in. It was all settled on a flat piece of land of about a half square mile. A large road cut straight through the large plot of land. The town itself was simply a bunch of small wooden shacks huddled around the road. The quality of life here was definitely below that of what I was used to, but it was the only shelter for miles. Just to the north of the tiny community was a river that flowed down from the hill where I was standing. I looked down at the dinky little village with apprehension. It’ll have to do.
The snap of a twig off to my right startled me. In a second I was up on my back legs, ready to strike. I scanned the treeline for any sign of what made the noise, but there was nothing there. Just the river flowing through the woods about ten feet in. Another twig snapped behind me on the other side of the forest, much closer than the first one had been. The thought of being ambushed sent me into a panic. I dropped to all fours and surged through the forest, stopping just short of the river. I turned, putting it to my back, and prepared myself for whatever attackers would chase after me.
Having realized they had lost the element of surprise, the two rugged ponies stepped into view. One was a tall, lanky unicorn whose coat was a strange yellow. He wore a tattered merchant’s hat on his head, although I doubted he was one for legitimate business. The other pony was a squat, sickly green earth pony with a garish orange mane cut short above his eyes. In his mouth he held a long, twisted knife with a serrated edge. Their cutie marks displayed their talents quite accurately, I imagined. The unicorn’s cutie mark showed a burning pony. The earth pony’s was a bloody knife.
“What’re you doing here all alone, little filly?” asked the unicorn. His voice was a raspy croak, barely audible over the rushing of the river. He narrowed his eyes to slits. His left eye was solid black while the other was milky white with a scar running through it. He was extremely intimidating. I suppose the earth pony with the knife thought he should try to act the same.
“Yeah? What are you doing all alone?” he spat. With the word “are” he dropped his knife into the mud. “Whoops.” He stooped his head and picked it up. I got the sense this pony wasn’t the brains of this operation. The unicorn shot him an annoyed glance, as if telling him to shut up. The earth pony took the hint and shrunk back a bit. Despite the earth pony’s apprehension, I didn’t think I could take them both in a fight. He was armed. From the unicorn’s cutie mark, there was no doubt that he was a firebender. I’d have to talk my way out of this one.
“Oh just what fillies do, you know? Looking at the sunset and the... birds. Wh-what are you two doing up here all alone?” Smooth.
“Well Tinder and I were just looking for... supplies,” the unicorn replied. He eyed my sides, which he found to be void of saddlebags. I had left the house in a hurry.
“Well, as you can see,” I tried to keep my fear under control and speak calmly, “I do not have any supplies, so I’ll just be on my way.” I tried to step around them and get back to the road, but the unnamed unicorn leaned into my way.
“Sure, you don’t have anything.” he stepped forward and leaned his face less than an inch from mine, “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have another use.”
That was it. There wasn’t any talking out of this. Fight or flight? Fight. I decided to try the only thing that would catch them off guard. I swept my hooves around and tried to pull some sort of defense out of the river. The water responded with a lethargic shrug. Both the disgusting colts looked on, utterly befuddled. I tried again, getting a bit more of a response, but the river still barely splashed over the bank. Even so, the earth pony caught on to what was happening.
“Flint! She.. she’s movin’ the river!” They both leaned around to get a good look. This was my chance. A rush of energy swept through my body and kicked it into action.
I twirled my body around on one back leg to gain momentum and brought my other hoof into the unicorn’s face, sending him tumbling across the forest floor and into the trunk of a tree. Before the earth pony could react I leapt to face him and knocked him down with a series of quick jabs. The unicorn was just getting back up. He inhaled deeply and breathed an immense wave of flames at me. The dry, dead leaves that covered the ground erupted into cinders and I was suddenly surrounded by fire. I ran away, jumping over the still collapsed earth pony, and took cover behind a tree. Flames roared around me as Flint blasted the tree with flames. The heat was unbelievable. My body stung everywhere, as if the air itself were ablaze. I dove out into the path just as the huge tree came crashing down into the river, stopping its flow altogether.
Out on the path the earth pony charged at me, knife at the ready. I stepped around him, sweeping his legs right out from under him and sending him careening to the floor in a clumsy heap. I circled around to face the firebender who was now on his back legs, ready to defend. I had caught them off guard at first, but now it would be a difficult fight. Behind me, the knife-wielding colt got to his feet. As I stared down my bender opponent, I couldn’t help but feel hopeless. The perfect fighting posture, the cutie mark, the scar across his eye. He looked tough. Fenix’s voice rang through my head. It sounded as if he was right next to me, giving me directions. This guy’s got a blind side, Nocturne. Use it.
With a newfound confidence I charged at my enemy. He responded by dropping to all fours and charging right back, heaving forth another cataclysm of fire. Hoofbeats also followed close behind me. Good.
Just as I met the rapidly approaching wave of fire I changed direction and dove to my left, landing to the right of the unicorn whose already limited vision was further obscured by his own attack. He continued charging blindly, directly towards his partner. I heard a thud as the two collided behind me and landed in a mass of legs and fur in the center of the road.
A bloodcurdling cry of agony echoed through the woods. I looked around just in time to see Tinder flee into the woods. Flint was collapsed in the middle of the road holding his good eye, from which jutted the other colt’s knife. He’d been defeated by his own partner. I tried to avert my eyes from the unhealthy amount of blood that was flowing from the dire wound. He’d die if I didn’t get him help.
But why should I get him help? He tried to kill me! The thought crossed my mind to just leave him in the road and let the buzzard-wasps do with him what they will. But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I walked over to the sorry mess of a pony, putting my head under his stomach and hauling him onto my back. After twelve hours of walking, this was no easy feat. Especially with my cargo squirming about and shouting at me.
“What do you think you’re doing!? Put me down!”
“You’ll die if I leave you out here!”
“I can’t see anything! Where are you taking me!?”
“Shut up and let me help you!”
Finally he passed out from either blood loss or pain and went limp, making the rest of the walk a bit easier.
I have to admit, to the ponies that inhabited that strange little town, I had to be a very strange sight. A mare walks in covered in leaves and grass and nettles, carrying on her back one of the most notorious bandits around with a knife lodged in his eye. Most everypony who was still out on the road gave us a wide berth and I didn’t blame them. I went around trying to ask everypony where I could find a doctor, but they all just gave me horrified looks and ran away. Finally I had had enough of it and shouted to anypony who would listen.
“Is there even a doctor in this wretched little town!?” Somepony tapped me on the shoulder and gave me such a fright it took a conscious effort not to whip around and smash them over the head. I whirled around to see a beige earth pony standing before me. She was a whole head taller than I was and had a very commanding presence despite her soft colors and even softer eyes. Emblazoned on her flank was a large red cross.
“I’m the doctor.” She eyed the maimed pony lying on my back, “You need help with something?” I nodded, holding back a snide remark about sneaking up on ponies. She gave a sigh and pointed her head in the direction of a shack. This one was larger than the others and had the same red cross crudely painted across the front. The paint was cracked and peeling, testifying to the building’s age. She pushed the door open with a loud creak and we stepped into the dimly lit shack.
The shack was deeper than it looked. The doctor stepped around a table that sat in the center of the small room upon which burned a single candle. She pulled back a large curtain, revealing a raised bed and a cart full of medical equipment set further back into the building. The whole place reeked of both soap and mold. It didn’t have the cleanliness or refinement of a Fire Nation clinic, but this mare obviously tried the best she could.
I slid an unconscious Flint up onto the bed, relieved to finally have the dead weight off of my back. Much to my surprise, the doctor completely ignored him despite his horrendous wound. She instead turned to me and began looking me over. She started by looking into my ears with a glass lens that magnified the tiniest objects to observable size. While she did this, I glanced over at her cart, surprised to find that I didn’t recognize any of the strange metal instruments that she had resting there. She returned to the cart and retrieved another device. I was instructed to open my mouth which was thoroughly investigated by the unusual doctor with her unusual tools. As she examined me she went through and pulled out the thorns that had stuck in my legs. After a series of pokes and prods with all of her instruments the doctor finally had a diagnosis.
“You’re exhausted. There’s a bed in the other room that you can use for the night, but I want you gone by the morning.”
“That’s it?” I was dumbfounded. She completely ignored the poor pony lying right there on her hospital bed.
“What else do you want?”
“I don’t want anything! He needs your help though!” She turned to see Flint in his near-catatonic state. He gave a soft moan.
“Oh, him? Why should I help him? He’s been nothing but trouble for this village. I say good riddance.” I could not believe what I was hearing from this so-called doctor. She made a motion for the door.
“Wait! You’re not gonna help him? You’re the doctor of this village and you’re just going to let him die?”
She stopped and pretended to ponder the subject for a bit. I knew she already had her answer. “Eeeyup.”
“Please,” I pleaded with her, “Help him. I’m responsible for this. If he dies then his blood is on my hooves.” She eyed me carefully, finally looking at me as a pony rather than a patient.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” I shook my head. “Well lemme tell you, it’s not uncommon to have another pony’s blood on your hooves. You seem pretty soft. Too soft for these parts. Maybe this’ll toughen you up.”
Toughen me up? I walked over to her and put my hooves on her shoulders.
“Please. I beg of you. Don’t burden me with this.”
Her stern expression momentarily melted into a softer, even sorrowful look. For a brief moment she had dropped her guard and shown a weakness, but she was back to serious almost instantly.
“Alright. Fine. I’ll take the knife out and sew him up. You might not wanna stick around for that part though. Head out, get some food, and I’ll come get you when it’s all said and done.” With that she went back to her medical station and pulled the curtain shut. My stomach roared at me and I decided to heed her advice. Too tired to even use magic, I shoved the door open with two hooves and stumbled out into the street.
The little town turned out not to be as stagnant and boring as I previously thought. As I walked down the main road I saw ponies singing and dancing around lute players who skillfully plucked intricate melodies without the use of magic. There were games set up where ponies could gamble their bits away to their hearts’ content. And the food! Every other shack lining the main road seemed to function as a market stall where all sorts of food was sold. All the local ponies had their favorites. But to play it safe, I just picked the stall with the longest line.
The queue of ponies inched slowly forward until I was finally at the front. Without even asking what I cared for, the mare who worked the stall shoved some sort of roasted corn on a stick into my hooves while exclaiming, “That’ll be four bits!”
Oh, that’s right. Bits. I hadn’t taken any money with me when I left home. I tried my hoof at negotiating once more.
“Well, you see, I don’t really have any money... But-” The mare snatched the tantalizing food away from me.
“Then what good are you to me!? Next!” The next pony in line glared at me and shoved me out of the way, dropping his money on the counter and leaving with the treat which had so tempted me. I tromped away from the stall dissatisfied and hungrier than ever.
I was just considering reporting that mare to the authorities, assuming there were any, when my attention was diverted to a unicorn filly a few houses down the road. She stood on a box, shouting out to the crowd which simply walked past her, ignoring her completely. Drawing closer I heard ponies muttering things like, “Not these three again,” or, “That’s the second time this month!” Finally close enough to make out what the tiny filly was yelling, I couldn’t help but stifle a laugh.
“Come one, come all! Watch the fabulous Bending Bunch blow your mind with extraordinary feats of bending!” I now saw that behind her sat an orange earth pony and a dark green unicorn who looked rather embarrassed to be affiliated with the boisterous filly. “I, Willow Seed, and my two companions shall show you the meaning of bending!”
The unicorn stepped off of her box and slammed a hoof against the ground, sending a rumble through the street. With another hard stomp she rose herself up high on a large obelisk of earth. I nearly jumped out of my skin! The tremendous rumbling of the earth combined with the sudden rise of the pillar scared me. While it appeared commonplace to the rest of the ponies it was quite an experience for me. I didn’t understand how they could all be acting so nonchalant about it.
Willow Seed overlooked the throng of ponies, most of whom were now gathering around and watching. The previously grumbling ponies had been stricken silent by the display. It must have already been the three fillies’ best show yet. The earth pony who Willow Seed had referred to as her companion stepped forward and presented an incredible firebending form. The only other pony I’d ever seen complete it was Lily. It required lightning fast punches and kicks and precise control of both the intensity and size of the flames it cast forth. This filly did the form almost flawlessly, blending all of the movements fluidly while maintaining a substantial amount of power. But she lacked the control it required to control the flames and set the unicorn’s box ablaze. She apologized to both her friend and the crowd, choking out the flames before they could spread and cause any real damage.
It was Willow Seed’s turn now. The bright yellow unicorn brought her stone pedestal crashing down to earth with an immense boom! that rivaled the sound of crashing thunder. She transitioned perfectly into a powerful earthbending form. She sent rocks flying with every solid kick that looked as though they could pierce right through somepony. It was fantastic, the way she moved without ever breaking her stance, always rooted so firmly to the ground. Lily’s words from the marketplace echoed through my mind. Who would want to watch one of those hornless savages stomp around and throw some pebbles this way and that? I would! Despite the relatively small size of the rocks, you could tell she had practiced the form relentlessly. Still, when she stumbled she became embarrassed and stopped midway through her performance. I couldn’t believe the ability these fillies possessed at such a young age. Obviously strength, concentration, and precision were all factors in the art of earthbending. It wasn’t just ‘some hornless savage stomping around.’
That’s when I realized that Willow Seed wasn’t hornless. She was an earthbending unicorn and her friend was a firebending earth pony! I had never known that could happen. I had gotten so lost in my quest for food and shelter that I failed to notice the incredible diversity that this town had to offer. Earth ponies and unicorns both walked the streets without any kind of shame or alienation. Everypony was treated the same here. In the Fire Nation heartlands, earth ponies were looked down upon as lower class; in the Earth Kingdom, unicorns were seen as uptight snobs that didn’t care for anypony else. It was good to see a place where they could coexist.
My attention was called back to the center of the crowd where the third filly, another unicorn, was about to put on a show. She threw out a fist and roared, but nothing happened. Another punch, nothing again. She kept throwing punches and kept roaring until finally she gave up and sulked back behind her two friends. This reminded me so much of myself. I chuckled. You’ll get there, kid.
The earthbender had heard my small chuckle. She whirled around and stared right at me, then charged and got her face as close as possible to mine, which wasn’t very close considering the two hoof height difference. One of the red curls of her mane fell down over her eyes, making her look even less threatening. The crowd gave a collective gasp.
“You got a problem with my friend Crystal Chord over there?” This wouldn’t have been very intimidating if I had not just seen what this particular unicorn could do. Her earth pony friend walked up behind her.
“Willow Seed, you need to calm down. She just coughed.”
“Pumice, she laughed. Nopony laughs at us!”
Crystal Chord trotted up, looking less embarrassed.
“Both of you need to leave her alone!” she yelled at them. She addressed me next, “Sorry that they’re giving you trouble. Willow Seed can be pretty hard headed and Pumice is full of hot air.” She glanced at the two other ponies who turned their heads away. “I hope they didn’t scare you Ms...”
“Nocturne.” I smiled at the friendly filly.
“Well, Ms. Nocturne. I hope we see you around town! And maybe we’ll be a bit nicer next time,” she said, turning back to her friends. They all walked away, arguing even more over how I should be dealt with.
A tap on my shoulder startled me and I whirled around. The doctor had come up to get my attention, almost provoking a tongue lashing again.
“I’m done,” she said, leading me back to her clinic.
When we got there, there was a hot meal of potatoes and salad sitting on the table along with one of those roasted corn cobs which I had failed to acquire in the market. I had to stop myself from diving right into the food. But with the approving nod from the doctor I pounced, savoring every bite. There was no sign of the bandit, or that any procedure had been done here. The curtain to her medical station was open and everything was clean and in order. I meant to ask the doctor about him but she was already on her way out the door.
“There’s the bed. Sleep and be out of here sometime tomorrow. I’ll probably have more patients that will need that bed more than you do.” She stopped just short of the doorframe, calling back to me in a much softer voice than usual. “It’s been nice to meet you Ms...”
“Nocturne,” I said through a faceful of food.
“It’s been nice to meet you Ms. Nocturne.” She stepped forward.
“Wait! I didn’t catch your name.”
“Jewel.” She said it in that same soothing voice that she used when not giving orders.
“Nice to meet you Doctor Jewel.” She nodded and was out the door.
I continued eating in the silence of the clinic, working my way to the roasted corn which was better than I ever imagined it being. After I finished the meal, the entire day’s events finally caught up to me in a single moment and I collapsed into bed. Despite the complete exhaustion, I lie awake thinking about what I had done. About how just that morning I had woken up in a privileged town in the Fire Nation. Now here I lay, in some dinky little town right on the border where earthbending unicorns run rampant and bandits could attack at any second.
What on earth was I thinking?
Dauntless: Chapter Seven
I awoke just before Jewel’s hoof jabbed its way into my ribs. Before I could roll over to grab that precious five extra minutes of sleep she jabbed me again, even harder this time. I shifted to look up at the deceptively soft-colored pony glaring down at me. She looked as if she hadn’t slept in days. Her mouth was forming words but the blissful fog of sleep was still drowning out most of the world around me. She must’ve seen the confusion on my face because she repeated herself much louder.
“Get up! Somepony needs that bed more than you do.”
I looked over to the medical area of her shack and saw a group of burly stallions holding down another pony. He was putting up a vicious fight, refusing to be restrained. A combination of pain and sheer panic was driving him to lash out at those who were trying to help him. A few kicks connected with his would-be saviors, sending them stumbling away. Jewel walked over and grabbed a dropper full of a sickly green liquid. She shoved it down his throat and squeezed hard. Seconds later his limbs went limp and he collapsed unconscious onto the bed.
Jewel finally realized who it was that she had knocked out. It was Flint.
“Oh, great. Not this joker again,” she said disdainfully. I stumbled out of bed and walked up to meet her. The thudding of my hooves against the floorboards echoed painfully through my head, amplified by the grogginess of the morning. Through the pain came a flash of concern.
“You didn’t kill him did you?”
“No, he’ll wake up in a few hours. Or days.” She didn’t seem to care when he woke up. Or if he did at all. I turned to one of the stallions who had brought him in.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked. As if the inflamed, discolored sore of an eye socket didn’t give it away. One of the ponies stepped forward.
“Last night we caught him shambling up and down the street moanin’ and groanin’. We figured he’d just had a bit too much cider,” he told me. “We thought we’d bring him back to my house to try and sober him up but it turns out it was much worse than that. His eye’s infected something awful.”
Jewel stepped up and examined the unfortunate pony. She poked at his infected eye which oozed a bit of pus in response. I had to look away as she pried it open and surveyed the internal damage. After spending a disturbing amount of time looking around inside Flint’s eye, the doctor finally came to the awaiting group of ponies with a conclusion.
“The infection hasn’t spread and it hasn’t done much physical damage to his eye. If he starts on medication now, what’s left of his vision could be saved.” A round of cheers issued from the small crowd around me. Jewel raised her hoof to silence them and continued speaking, “I wouldn’t celebrate, gentlecolts. I didn’t say that I would help him.”
The rowdy group around me yelled and booed and hissed at the doctor, who took their spite in stride. The same colt who had explained the situation to me stepped forward and spoke calmly with the doctor.
“Miss, that pony there is a bandit. He’s the lowest of the low. I can understand right well why you wouldn’t want to treat that vermin. But if we let him die, the reper.. repra.. the consequences could be quite dire. His little varmint friends will see his blood as bein’ on the hooves of this whole town here. Savin’ his life could save our entire village.”
Everypony around him nodded in agreement, myself included. He was right. If Flint died, whatever little gang he was affiliated with could come through and burn this place to the ground. Jewel thought this over for a minute and responded in an irritatingly calm and nonchalant manner.
“Sir, that is a risk that I am willing to take. This colt has done some vile things to the ponies of this village. I think that I did enough harm by sewing him up and letting him live that much longer. I refuse to treat his infection.”
I looked around to see the stunned faces of the band that had brought Flint into the rundown little hospital. This was still my responsibility. I had to do something. I had to step up. I puffed out my chest and spoke in as commanding a voice as I could muster, “Miss Jewel. What harm could befall this village from you healing a single bandit that would be worse than a band of them coming through and tearing it to the ground?” The doctor’s face wrinkled in confusion and disgust.
“I honestly cannot believe that you ponies are standing up for him.”
“We’re not standing up for him,” I argued, “We’re standing up for the village. You have got to heal him.”
“You don’t understand little filly,” she whispered solemnly.
“Please, Jewel. Help him.” My confident approach had failed, so I tried to be as submissive and pleading as possible. Her mouth drooped open a bit and something changed in her eyes. Was that... a tear?
“No. No! I won’t.. I-I can’t!” She quickly stepped around the crowd of ponies begging her to save this criminal and walked out the door. What was that all about?
One by one the stallions followed behind her, heads hanging low with the weight of worry, until I was the last one left in the hospital with the disabled delinquent. Only now in my solitude did I notice the sickening reek of decomposing flesh and soap. I held my breath and trotted lightly to the door. After losing last night’s dinner in the bin on my right I stepped out into the winter morning, making sure to bolt the door from the outside.
An overnight storm had left a fresh layer of glistening snow over the town. I began to hope that the fleeing doctor would have left a trail of hoofprints in the snow, but the powder was still falling and had erased any evidence of her leaving. I wandered about the main road - well, the only road - searching for Jewel until the cold overcame me and I had to return to the hospital to warm my hooves. I unbolted the door with magic and flung myself into the warmth of the small clinic, basking in the glow of the fireplace that sat burning across from the bed.
After a few moments of peace, a pitiful groan reminded me that I wasn’t alone in the building. Flint had awoken but he was still in a drug-fueled stupor brought on by whatever medicine Jewel had given him. Unable to see, he called out into the shack, “Who’s there? Tinder? If you’re messing with me Tinder I’m gonna dump you in the river!” I decided that I had done enough warming up and left the shack as quietly as possible to resume my search.
This time I decided to conduct a more thorough investigation instead of wandering around, hoping to run into Jewel. I asked all the ponies on the street and everypony running a stall if they had seen the vanished mare, but nopony had. I even asked the angry old hag at the corn stall if she’d seen her, but still no luck. After she threatened to put me on a spit and roast me for wasting her time I was ready to give up hope. Then I spotted a filly, flanked by two friends, shouting boastfully from a wooden box in the middle of the street. She might have an idea where the doc ran off to.
Willow Seed had just begun gathering a crowd. Considering the scale of their last performance, I could only assume that they had something massive planned for this one. I definitely wanted to talk to them before things got started. “Willow Seed!” I yelled. With a bit of a wave I caught the filly’s attention.
“Oh, hey! Nocturne!” Her face lit up and she looked genuinely happy to see me. She stepped down and walked through the crowd to my spot in the back, and her friends followed close behind.
“Hey girls. Have you seen Jewel around here?”
Pumice stepped up, “I think I might’ve seen her.”
Crystal Chord finished for her, “Yeah. She was heading towards the river. Why? do you need her?”
“Well, she was acting weird. I asked her a favor but she got really shook up and ran out. What’s up with that?” I was sincerely confused, and the three of them exchanged worried glances. “Do you guys know what that might be about?”
Pumice looked confused. “Well, what was the favor?” she asked.
“I just asked her to take care of somepony for me.”
Willow chimed in, “Asked her to take care of who?”
“Oh, just somepony named Flint. I’m sure you don’t know him.”
All three fillies before me gasped in perfect unison as accusing, judgmental glares began to settle upon their faces. Pumice was the first to react.
“You want her to help Flint!?” she shouted.
“You’re insane!” added Willow. Crystal stayed behind her two friends, looking sullen but far from angry.
“I take it you do all know him. But how?” I asked.
“You wanna know how!?” Pumice screamed, a gust of flames billowing forth from her nostrils. “He’s the one who took everything away from Crystal!”
“What? I don’t... I don’t understand,” I said, looking to the other girls for some sort of clue. Crystal dragged her flaming, fuming friend back by the tail and Willow answered for her through gritted teeth.
“Flint killed Crystal’s parents when she was just a baby.”
“He did what!?” I was shocked. To know that I had tried to defend a pony who had done something so horrible was making me sick to my stomach. “Then.. who’s been taking care of her?” Crystal dropped Pumice’s tail and pointed a hoof at the ground. Pumice, in turn, sat down with a cheeky huff and an impudent pout. Crystal nodded and turned to me.
“Jewel took me in. She was there when... when my parents died. She and my mother were close friends, so she felt that it was the right thing to do. That’s how all of us survived. Willow’s parents died in a boat accident, and Pumice’s were killed in a robbery. Jewel saw them all to their last breaths, and felt that it was all she could do to take care of us all...” Her words got caught on the lump in her throat and she backed into line with her two friends.
I stood, looking at these three fillies who had already seen so much sadness and loss. They’d been through more in their short years than I had in my whole life. Three orphans that had beat the odds and found companionship in the strangest of places.
“You’ve only had each other and Jewel your whole lives, huh?” I asked. All three nodded in unison. Pumice wiped her eyes and Crystal rested her head on Willow Seed’s shoulder. “But I guess that’s all you’ve needed.” All three nodded again. “Well, I’m going to go find Jewel. Thank you very much, girls. You should get back to your show. You’ve got a waiting crowd.”
“Wait,” Crystal said. “Are you still going to make Miss Jewel fix Flint?”
“I’m... going to talk to her about it, okay? We’re going to talk about it.”
With a final nod they took their places again and Willow Seed began shouting out into the mass of gathering ponies once again.
I set off on my hike up the hill with a new perspective. Jewel wasn’t just a nurse. She was a mother who had seen three fillies grow up much too quickly. She was all that they had. But even more than that, they were all that she had. Then I came into her life and literally dumped painful memories in front of her. Now that I understood, I couldn’t blame her for refusing to treat Flint.
As I reached the top of the hill, I saw her. Jewel was sitting next to the riverbed, watching a small trickle of water leak through the accidental dam that resulted from my fight with the bandits. Sunlight was just beginning to shine over the horizon and reflected brilliantly off of the radiant snow, casting an ethereal glow into the forest and bringing it to life. Birds sang. Squirrels pittered about, finishing up the gathering of rations for the harsh winter which had only just begun. It was bright and lively and I imagined that anypony who saw it would become entranced in the wonder of nature, forgetting all of their troubles. But still, surrounded by beauty, there lay Jewel, downtrodden and full of sorrow.
I took a seat next to her and looked with her into the stream. It barely made a sound as it trickled along the rocky bed. We sat in a silence that was calm, not awkward, yet still carrying a tangible weight as we each knew that the other had something to say. The birdsong had died down and the squirrels stood still, watching inquisitively. The entire forest was waiting for one of us to speak, and so I did.
“Were you close?” I asked the woeful mare. The question caught her off guard, but she quickly responded.
“So the girls told you. Yes. Chord’s mother and I were very close.” As she thought back to her distant past her lip began to quiver and her voice shook, but she continued, “Choir and I grew up together. As fillies we were inseparable, and when she passed I...” she bit her lip to stifle her sobs, and spoke again only after a long pause, “I knew it was all I could do to raise Crystal Chord as best I could.” She turned to look at me and smiled, something that I didn’t think I’d seen since I came into town. “You really act so much like her. So scared of the unknown, but still ready to charge in head first if somepony else is in danger. You care for anypony and everypony, just like she did... just like I used to.” She looked back down into the stream. I saw a single tear roll down her cheek, but she sat as still as ever.
“I’m sorry that Choir passed away,” I said, “She sounds like she was an amazing mare.”
Jewel smiled, “She was. She was incredible.”
“I’m also sorry,” I said, “that I bring back all these memories of her.” Jewel’s smile disappeared. “I know that event is probably something you’d rather leave behind you, and it isn’t fair for me to bring it rushing back to you.”
“Nocturne, don’t be silly. It isn’t your fault. It’s much more important that you stood up for what you believed in and remained true of heart. But surely you can see why I can’t treat the despicable bandit you dropped in my lap.”
“I understand. But letting him die isn’t going to bring Choir back. It’s only going to endanger the lives of everypony in this town. I’m sure that when Choir was still alive you were just like me. Just like her. That shouldn’t change because she’s gone. That should only get stronger. Let her kindness be your strength. Let her live on through you, Jewel.” With my final words I wrapped my forelegs around her shoulders, giving her a brief hug. With that, I turned and began my trek down the hill, leaving an utterly befuddled Jewel to think over what I had told her.
As I descended, Jewel’s voice echoed in my mind. So scared of the unknown, but still ready to charge in head first if somepony else is in danger. But that wasn’t true. Who was in danger when I left home? All I had done in that situation is bring danger to other ponies. Fenix undoubtedly got punished for saving me from my father. Who did I help by running away from home? Then it hit me. Me! I finally did something for myself! I was in danger and I took action. This is for me.
I reached the town after a while and headed straight for the clinic. I entered, accidentally stirring the injured colt on the hospital bed from a drug-induced slumber. He yelled for a while, cursing at an unseen Tinder, until he slipped into unconsciousness once again. I laid at the foot of the bed watching the fire in the hearth flicker and dance, its crackling being the only thing staving off the silence. After a while Flint began to snore and the wind began to howl through the cracks in the makeshift walls. Even right in front of the warming blaze I was shivering. She needs to get her flank in here.
As if she had heard my thoughts, the door flew open and in stepped the beige earth pony that I’d been waiting for. The soft, mellow expression that she wore by the river had gone. It had been replaced with the same serious expression that she’d worn when I first met her. She meant business. From the first word she spoke, she was giving orders.
“Now Nocturne, there’s nopony else here so you’re going to have to help me with this. See that syringe over there?” I looked around frantically, unable to locate the syringe. She continued anyway, “I want you to grab that and bring it over to him. Set it on his chest and then hold his forelegs. I’ll pick it up and attempt to administer the medicine directly to the problem area. Be ready to hold fast.” After finally finding the syringe under a pile of bloody scraps of cloth, I digested what she had just told me. What I concluded was that she was going to stab him in the eye with this gigantic needle and I had to hold him down in case he starts flailing about. Great.
I did as she instructed, magically setting the medicine on Flint’s chest for her to pick up. All the commotion brought him back to consciousness, which didn’t help us much.
“Uh, Jewel? Couldn’t we sedate him first?” I asked. She shook her head.
“No. There’s still too much in his system. If I give him more, there’s a chance it could kill him.”
I held his forelegs against the bed with my own while Jewel held down his back legs. Even before she had tried to give him the injection, he began to resist, attempting to pry his limbs from under mine. Jewel put the syringe in her mouth and counted down with it between her teeth, “Free, thoo, one!” She inserted the needle just below his eye and the gates of Tartarus themselves burst open within the poor colt. He thrashed and writhed, screaming at the top of his lungs. I began to hold his head down with my magic, but that took my focus away from his forelegs. His strength became almost too much to bear, but he was weak from illness and the two of us together could manage him. Once the medicine had been pumped in, Jewel had another insane demand.
“Oh, screw it. Nocturne! Grab that dropper from the tray behind you and squeeze it into his mouth!” I turned to see the small tube of green liquid lying on the cart just behind me. With my horn’s magic occupied, only my mouth was free. In a strange contortion act I leaned, stretching my neck to grab the dropper between my teeth while still pressing down on his forelegs. I squeezed a few drops of the solution into his open, screaming mouth. In a matter of seconds his struggling weakened. Several more and he was out cold.
That simple task had taken everything out of me. I was breathing heavily and felt like collapsing into bed. Jewel, on the other hoof, looked as if nothing had happened at all. Her mane was still perfectly styled and not a bead of sweat was on her brow. She smiled at me the same way she might have smiled at Choir. “You did good, kid,” she said, ruffling my mane. “Maybe you could be a nurse someday.”
“Not if I have to deal with stuff like this.” We laughed, both glad to have that ordeal over. Together we ventured out into the street and roamed around the stalls. Jewel bought bits of food from each vendor until we had a feast’s worth. Bags full of delicious smelling goods, we returned to the clinic and had a meal together.
We talked about our lives before coming to this town. Jewel had been a nurse in Ba Sing Se of all places, but couldn’t handle the stress of the big city. She needed a quiet place where nothing much ever happened. Choir felt the same, so they left together and moved here.
“Choir settled down and got married, but that life never appealed to me. I just kept on working. A few months after we moved here, Choir gave birth to little Crystal Chord. Soon after that she was needed back in Ba Sing Se, but never got there. She hardly even made it out of town.” She said that just outside of town, Choir and her husband were ambushed by bandits. A travelling merchant witnessed it, but was powerless to stop it. He found Crystal among the wreckage and brought her back to town.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Yes, well, that’s truly all in the past now.” She turned to me and smiled. “I’d love to hear about you.”
I told her all about my life in the city and how oppressive it always was. I never did mention the exact reason I left, and I was glad that she didn’t ask.
“My father always spoke poorly of Earth Kingdom ponies,” I told her, “but here we are having a nice conversation over dinner.”
Once the meal was finished, Jewel said goodbye and left, presumably to go back to her home and take care of three certain fillies. I fell into bed and thought for a while about what I had done that day. I felt bad for bringing those memories back to Jewel. I knew how much it must have hurt her to remember her friend, but then we had fun, just like she and Choir might have. We took a night on the town and had a big meal, talking and laughing the whole time. She got her friend back for a while. But tomorrow her friend is going to be gone again.
This thought had been bothering me all night. Rather than worry, I decided to cross that bridge when I came to it. For now, I should just get some sleep.