SAN PALOMINO DESERT
“Hmm… Thought you’d be dead.”
Wanderlust opened his eyes slowly, the sun beating down from directly above was nearly blinding. His mouth was encrusted with sand and blisters from exposure, as dry and cracked as the long-ago extinct sea floor that cradled the wasteland. A breath trapped in his lungs finally escaped, a plume of dust particles shooting into the air and carried off by a passing breeze.
“Reckon I passed you by a week ago. Same spot. Same buzzards squawkin’ overhead.”
The unknown voice was gruff, a mix of sour disposition and experienced coldness, with a good amount of southern Equestrian drawl.
“Woulda pegged you for a mess’a bleached bones by now.”
Wanderlust was able to make out the shape of the stallion looming over him by the outline between the sun and he. The details were obscured, but he could tell it was an Earth Pony, with a thinning mane, and a Stetson hat.
“Ya certainly smell enough like death.”
Weakly, and with agonizing effort, Wanderlust turned over onto his stomach and tried to hoist himself from the ground, but instead found his legs lacked their usual robust power. Insufficient as they were, he collapsed back down to the dirt.
He felt a helping hoof slip under his foreleg, one that was not lacking in strength, and pulled him to his full verticality. Wanderlust tried to form words, give the good Samaritan a proper thanks. His throat however, was parched beyond use, and naught else was raised but a wheezing cough.
A water skin was thrust into his mouth, and the tantalizing prospect of fresh water on his tongue provided enough of a motivation to urge his own hoof to come up and press the old and beaten container, ushering the liquid life upwards. The moment he felt the water splash into his mouth, he began to drink greedily, sucking it in to quell the cry of thirst from every cell in his body.
Suddenly it was pulled away from him, a few precious drops falling to dot the sand.
“Can’t drink too much too fast, it’ll make ya sick.” The voice paused before continuing. “Though I don’t rightly reckon what difference it’d make in yer case.”
“Thank you…” Wanderlust whispered, his own vocal chords returning to him, coughing and clearing his throat. “Thank you.”
Bringing is head up, he finally got a good look at his savior. What he saw might have put any other pony right back down in the dirt. The stallion was of average height, a brown mane atop a much lighter brown fur coat. Seated upon his head was the grey Stetson, with gold cord around the base that ended in a pair of crossed tassels.
But the face, the face was something to send a chill up the spine. While the left side was normal, worn by weather and exposure into a toughened, grim countenance, the right side was starkly different. Disfigured and misshapen, part of the flesh covering the mouth was missing. The mutilation continued up the face, making his right eye seem enlarged in the cavity. In place of normal skin was scar tissue, the evidence of some encounter with fire. A string of muscle reached down from his cheek to the lower jaw, separating gaps that left his teeth bare to the naked eye.
The stranger’s eyes were grey, and peered into him with all the meanness of a rattlesnake and scrutiny of an eagle.
“I suppose I ain’t the prettiest thing you ever woke up to.” he said.
“You’d be surprised.” Wanderlust returned with a feeble jest. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Hex, and ponies I find in the desert ain’t usually go so much life in ‘em. What’s yer handle stranger?”
“Wanderlust. I uh, I suppose that I am in your debt friend.”
Hex spat a wad of something dark to the side, then proceeded to mull something lodged in behind his good lip.
“Ain’t no need for all that. You just make sure to pay it forward. Now come on, there’s a homestead about a day’s walk from here, good folk, get you looked after proper.”
“Aye, I could go for some of that.” As Hex turned towards the eastern horizon, Wanderlust followed, finding some reservoir of vigor in his body to give his legs enough power to operate. Stooping down to briefly collect his saddle bags and throw them over his barrel, he craned his head upwards to where the vultures swung in their long circles, giving them a small snicker.
It must have been late afternoon when Hex woke me, for night was upon us before long. The desert is a curious place. It’s oppressive heat during the day has of course long been the citation of folklore and idioms. But as the more learned will tell you, it is the nights that sneak upon you with a surprising chill. Since there is no moisture in the air to retain the warmth of the day, the twilight brings forth a paradoxical nip in the arid landscape. The effect is a drastic drop in temperature, which takes the unacclimated pony quite unawares if he is not prepared with a blanket or something warm to see him through to daybreak.
He spoke little, and I was just as sparse. Not that I could have sustained long conversations even if I willed it. The long exposure to the harsh elements had left me quite famished, tired, and sore. Every so often Hex would spare me a little more water, which I was happy to receive in measured doses, so as not to bring on an unease which would only worsen my condition, and squander my companion’s good will efforts.
Aside from the shocking disfigurement of his face, he was relatively an unremarkable fellow. I was a few inches taller, more stout than he, but he carried himself with a leanness of both build and wits. I had no doubt that he was possessed of great survival skills, honed over many years of a hard life. Though I was curious to ask as to the nature of his scarring, I felt it might intrude upon some deep-seated nerve that I dare not offend.
I was well familiar with navigating by the elements, I could traverse Equestria to Mooscow to Griffinstone by the stars. The Sun however, due to its raising and lowering at the whim of Celestia, was a less dependable reference point. By whatever means, Hex’s path remained true as best I could discern, the eastern horizon rolled out before us on an endless carpet. We passed the great mesas that jutted out from the earth like ancient trees of stone, what were once carved out by ocean currents now scavenged by hot winds of erosion. It had been an idea of mine for some time to attempt to reintroduce the floodwaters of the South Luna Ocean to the plain, possibly by means of a canal or aqueduct conveyance.
Entering a canyon, we began the process of bedding down for the night. He supplied his own bedroll from the pack he bore across his croup, and I of course pulled from my saddlebags a suitable mat roll and blanket. I obliged him the effort, and started a fire with my magic to keep us warm using some firewood we collected from our surroundings. In return for more sips of water, I gave him some dried fruits to chew on from my pack, which he stoically enjoyed. A number of thorny bushed sprouted around us, adding some bellicose looking flora to our scenery.
I laid down, taking care to avoid the side I had been laying on for the duration of my unconscious stupor, as a great sore across my hips had made itself known in the past few hours. As darkness fell, and the specter of the Mare in the Moon took her nightly perch, I lay awake, wondering if she were not gazing back down at us.
“Where ya from?” Hex asked, the first words from him since we stopped to make camp. I rolled over to speak to him, but found that he was staring off into the distance, the type of disconnected, contemplative stare I’d seen on many a warrior and soldier. His unprotected eye gleamed with the light of the fire under the brim of his hat, a fascinating image that I would never forget. “Yer not from around these parts. Don’t see many unicorns this far from a big city.”
“Up north, originally.” I told him, omitting a few avoidable details. “but I’ve been on the road for many years now. This dry basin is as much my home as anywhere else I suppose.”
“Hmm.” He snorted, spitting another gob of his chewing leaf spit. “Now that name ah’yers makes a bit more sense. What exactly were you doing in the middle of the desert anyhow?”
While the question itself was a perfectly logical one to ask, the tone with which he spoke it gave hint that he was doing more than making idle conversation. He was investigating me. Not that I took offense.
“I’m searching for something.” I admitted, seeing no harm. “A very special amulet that could do a lot of damage if it falls into the wrong hooves. My latest lead told me of a treasure horde in the Arimaspi Territory, the product of generations of plundered trade ships, where a dragon had been rumored to be nesting among the ruins of the crude civilization left behind by the cycloptic beasts.”
“Was there a real treasure?” Hex seemed genuinely interested.
“Oh there was… And the dragon was also quite real. The amulet however, was not to be found. In my haste to escape the wrath of the monster, I was pursued onto the plains, where I managed to find a hiding spot in the belly of an overhang that was luckily, well recessed. The dragon, I suppose became more concerned for the safety of his unguarded horde than spending his time trying to ferret me out, and left me to the elements. I was hoping to make my way to the coast when I’m afraid I must’ve succumbed to a delirium, chasing after one illusory oasis after another in my hunt for water. It appears my map is a bit out of date, as I expected the coast to be much closer than what it must be.”
Hex curled a lip, glancing away from me. “Them folk we’re headed to can getcha on to the train station what runs just north of the Macintosh Hills. Get ya to the coast or wherever.”
“That, would be ideal.” After a bit more, I finally fell asleep, the steady crackle of the fire and various chatter of the wildlife a familiar lullaby.
I was awoken with a start in the middle of the night, Hex jostling my hooves until I roused to find him standing over our doused fire, the shape of his body in the moonlight told me he was poised to lash out at any moment.
“What is it?” I whispered, my own experience with nocturnal dangers training me to make as little commotion as possible. I stirred not from my blanket, moving only my head as it allowed me to survey our area for threats. Nothing visual was apparent, but there was a curious, very slight tremor in the ground.
“Diamond Dogs.” He muttered in a low growl that bespoke a practiced antipathy.
My own understanding of the canid breed was limited, coming from books, academic works, and anecdotes passed along a dozen or more mouths. Unlike their domestic cousins, Diamond Dogs were a curious specie; sapient and largely bipedal. They did however, remain a somewhat primitive nation, wearing tattered clothing that their own paws could not possibly fabricate, and their vocabulary was comparable to a school-aged filly.
Their culture was known as centering around the procurement of precious stones, which gave them their common name as they primarily secured them by excavating them from the earth. Living their lives either in the subterranean burrows or in huts constructed from earth and roughhewn timber, they lived day-to-day among their immediate family and close related kin. The peak of their achievement, was a relatively small city-state, built mostly of clay and serving as the great hub for all the various packs and clans.
They were also not averse to scavenging and thievery, ambushing and robbing ponies for their valuables. It was even accused that they would capture ponies, and enslave them to work the ever-growing network of tunnels and lairs in their feverish desire for more jewels. As such their encounters with ponies were rarely pleasant, and often violent. The most formidable weapon in their arsenal, were diamond-tipped spears, simple but very effective.
I was my sincere hope to avoid any meeting of any kind with them, not least because I was in poor condition to defend myself.
“Are they close?” Lacking the experience, I was wholly dependant on Hex’s assessment of the situation.
“Depends.” Shifting his weight to his left side, Hex spoke through his gritted teeth. “You wouldn’t happen to be luggin’ around any gems in that pack ah’yers, would ya?”
“I… may have a number of precious stones in my possession.” Considering the nature of the stones and how I obtained them, letting them fall into the Dogs paws was not an option.
“Well them mutts get closer they’re gonna sniff ‘em out. Stay here.” Hex stepped off into the darkness beyond my sight, scouting for any sign that the notorious mongrels had caught notice of us. I lay there in my bedroll, putting my own considerable detection skills to use, in case they designed to steal upon me from concealment. The queer trembling in the ground remained as before, getting neither closer nor farther.
Minutes passed as I listened to the night, the wing beats of an owl, the slither of a snake through the sand, the patter of a jack rabbit thumping along through the bush. Hex likewise was nowhere to be found, I imagined him coiled like a viper in his own hiding spot to strike out against intruders.
Suddenly the vibrations ceased. They did not fade away as one might expect of activity moving away from you, instead it stopped quite abruptly, as if interfered with or catching wind of something interesting. I did not like the implications.
Faster than I could have expected, the ground around me exploded, showering me with dirt and rocks. I covered my face and drew in my saddle bags with my hind legs for protection. The quiet of the night was now filled with the excited grunts and growls of no less than three salivating upright canines.
“Where is it!” They cried in feral, ravenous barks. “Give it! Give it! Give us the shinies stupid pony!” Their paws were on me, scratching and groping, trying to wrench my saddle bags away from me. I lashed out with a hoof and felt the muzzle of one crumple, the sharp yelp of its owner like an audible knife through the air. While I may be weakened, I still probably had more fight left in me than they had a tolerance for. The scent of my jewels however must have overcome their better judgment, and they continued to pull and grasp.
My horn erupted, a sphere of light stretching out until a bubble formed around me, a hard light construct that had served me well more times than I can count. While the potency of unicorn magic can vary with the strength of the caster at any given time, I have found that willpower offers a much more stable and pure source for spells. It is no mere boast of mine to say that these assailants stood no chance of breaking through a barrier of my conjuration.
“Stupid magic pony! Give us the shinies!” Nonetheless, the Diamond Dogs continued to claw and beat on the translucent shield with their prodigious forepaws, pressing their faces up against it like a window. I could now see the lust in their eyes for their prize, wagging tongues dragging slobber across the surface in smears. They were a motley trio; while all three sported the collars of their particular pack, two of them wore ragged vests, the third a pair of leggings apparently sewn together from multiple sets.
They must not have been very used to dealing with the magic of unicorns, for if they were, they might know how creative we can be. Would that I had the chance to show them, it would have provided me great entertainment to watch them run around frantically with the fur cackling with some of my homespun electric bolts. But I would be denied.
Hex came around their left flank, connecting a hoof to the jaw of the first one, lifting the creature off its feet and crashing into the one next to it, knocking them both over. The third, a trickle of blood still running from the blunted snout, turned in shock to find the most menacing face of a pony he’d evidently ever seen judging by the diameter his eyes expanded to.
Either out of daring or panic, the dog leaped at Hex, claws forward and jaws open. My violent companion met him in a backwards roll, coming to a halt when one of his legs was wrapped around the neck of his opponent. They struggled a bit, the ground-boring digits of the canid tearing at the limb, its feet kicking. In short order the dog surrendered to unconsciousness, the blood flow to the brain cut-off. Not, I suppose, that much damage could be done.
As Hex shoved the burdensome weight off, and quickly sprawled to his hooves, finding himself faced by the remaining dogs as they likewise rose up. He squared his shoulders in preparation for a two on one.
That was when I struck, lighting both of their rear ends with a brief flash of magical flame, which sent them into a frightful alarm.
“Magic pony burns! Magic pony burns!” They screamed, patting the fire out. Without further ceremony, they grabbed hold of their fallen kin before skittering off into the desert, sand flying from their haste.
Hex and I stood side by side, watching as they dived into another of their holes.
“We better get a moving.” He suggested. “They’ll be back with more.”
So we left our comfy little canyon, and sought our next campsite at higher elevation, one with more solid stone under it.
We awoke early, just as Celestia was exchanging the moon for the sun. The remainder of our journey went on without notable event, save for the curious presence of a crow that followed us from above. It never cawed, it merely perched once in a while on the branch of a tree, before resuming its aerial observation.
We at last came to our destination just after midday. The ranch wasn’t much to look at, a two-tier wooden fence surrounding a few dozen acres, centered by a humble home with a few adjacent animal pens. The sign above the entrance way to the property bore the faded icon of a bushel of apples. I took it to mean that these folk were intent on growing their own orchard, though I could not imagine this hostile environment capable of sustaining that kind of crop. Any crop other than tumble weed for that matter.
At our approach, a number of the residents came out from the house to stand on the covered porch. Indeed a whole family of Earth Ponies poured out. The mother, father, half a dozen children, and lastly an elderly patriarch hobbled along with aid of a gnarled cane. Assembled in silence they waited.
At about 20 paces to the porch, Hex halted, he and the father giving each other a knowing stare. They nodded to each other. With this unspoken signal given, Hex turned away, leaving me to stand alone.
“Thank you for your help.” I made sure to tell him once more. “Where are you going now?”
“I ain’t here on vacation.” He said. “Here on a job, hunting a bounty on an outlaw been seen in these parts. He’s got kin somewhere nearby he might make contact with.”
Hex turned his scarred face to me, his unnerving eye fixating on me.
“Should you ever run into a stallion with a curved horn, name’a ‘Jericho’, you jus’ send him my way. Runs a posse called the Silver Spur Gang, so keep yer ears open.”
“Will do.” I promised, trading our parting nods. As my strange new acquaintance returned to his mission, I turned towards the family.
Coming up to the porch, I saw a pair of twins, a filly and colt duck behind their mother’s hindquarters. The grandfather having taken a seat in a rocking chair, regarded me coolly with a sidelong glance.
“Welcome stranger.” The father said, taking a step forward to greet me, extending a hoof for me to shake, which I did.
“This is the Appleachia Family Farm.”