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Night Riding? [ENDED]

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It was a dark and quiet night - the cloudy skies kept the moon from shining its normal brilliance over the desert. A lone yellow earth pony with a long, messy, yellow-orange two toned mane kept under wraps by a large Stetson walked up onto the train station platform, the lantern in his mouth was his only source of light. There was no one else about at this time of course - Appleoosa was a small settlement and everyone was already retired for the night after a long day in the orchards and the fields. Looking towards his right, Braeburn eyeballed the dark silhouette of the train, which wouldn't be moving again until morning.

It was the train that brought him out here, at least a story of a train. Braeburn had been telling Willowisp, a black filly unicorn with shining blue hair, about why the train didn't make evening runs anymore - because of the "haunted pass", Appleoosa's own ghost story, complete with a disappearing train, haunted cave, and a headless horse. Of course it was all a yarn, right? Ponies these days didn't believe in ghost stories, right? Except ... Braeburn had seen the train leave one day, and not come back. Knew the ponies who'd run from the haunted cave.

Now he found himself here, ready to visit that very same haunted pass, because instead of having her curiosity satisfied, or being frightened by the prospect, that same unicorn filly had actually seemed excited, and asked him to take her there ... at night, in the cold desert. Braeburn, y'all must be crazy, letting her sweet-talk y'all into this. Why can't y'all ever say no to a cute face? He kicked a small stone off the platform. Maybe she won't show, maybe she overslept after getting a room at the inn. He hoped she did at least manage that, although she turned down his offer to pay with the bits after it looked like she was going to take them from him ... Then it dawned on Braeburn why she didn't take the bits, he was holding them in his mouth, figuring she just take them via unicorn magic, but instead she reached for them with her own mouth agape as in reaching for a kiss before turning and running off. Braeburn blushed fiercely and suddenly felt very awkward both at the situation he put her in, and that it hadn't dawned on him until now.

Now his thoughts wandered, the cowpony smiling goofily to himself as his thoughts were suddenly seized by the image of kissing WillowWisp ... or that lovely blue molly with the cute accent, BlueBelle. She was supposed to be showing up for this expedition, too. Those thoughts made him blush even more - even with his entire flirty, outgoing attitude, he had never really followed through very much. Good thing his cousin Big Mac wasn't around to see his red, embarrassed face right now. Good thing no one was around ... and it was dark.

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'Thanks again, you've been so kind. And don't worry, we'll be careful,' Wisp called over her shoulder as she stood in the door way of the inn.

The older couple running it had been more than generous. When she first showed and told them her story, they offered her a room no charge, feeling bad for the misplaced Unicorn. But she insisted they let her do something, and eventually the older mare let her help hang the laundry before telling her to go get some rest. And as she was readying herself for the night's adventure they gave her a saddle bag with a couple supplies for safety's sake. Going out in the desert unprepared just wasn't smart.

As soon as she stepped into the darkness, a strange glow surrounded her. It was something even she didn't really know how to explain, always just chalking it up to her magic. However unlike most magic abilities, she had no control of it; it just happened. A few hue covered her legs, while the faint glow surrounded her completely and her red eyes seemed to take on a glow as well. If one didn't know any better, they might thing she herself was a ghost. And that accusation had come up before.

She made her way toward the train station, fully excited about what they might find. Plus it was rare she had company on her explorations. It would be fun to have Bluebelle and Braeburn along. Though as soon as she thought of the stallion she blushed, thinking bad to the awkward situation from earlier. Hopefully he didn't think she was odd for running off like she did. Wisp just didn't know how to react to those kinds of situations; especially when she felt like she was making a dumb mistake.

As the train station came into view she could see the light from the lantern and she picked up her pace a little. Of course from anypony standing on the platform it would look strange. A glowing blue hue, red glowing eyes like headlights cutting through the darkness... something right out of ghost story. And that's just what started the whole set up in the first place.

'Oh I hope I'm not late and they've both been waiting on me.'

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Ohdear.

Ohdearohdearohdear.

She was late.

She KNEW she'd be late. She was so busy arranging her seeds that mentally her head went ticking on and on and forgot one little detail of tonight.

The arrangement. The meeting. The 'ghost hunting'. Oh hayfeathers and other such unladylike expletives! She KNEW she'd be a disapointment!

What if they were waiting and thought she'd lied? What if they wouldn't like her anymore???

Already out of breath, Bluebelle found hyperventilating probably wasn't the best of options at the current time, but she just couldn't help herself and her body knew this and used it to toy with her CRUELLY! It knew how flightly she was and how panicky she was in making sure people liked her or making sure people were happy with her.

It was an instinct she'd grown with for a very, very long time.

So running down the mooncast streets of Appleloosa with a scarf with her gangly legs was sure to add some sort of pressure to her.

Soon she skidded to find the corner into the train station. And her eyes fell on the two figures, well, one figure there. One just approaching.

Huzzah! She wasn't late! She was just in time!

Now she just had to come to a graceful stop....stop...?

Please stop?

Please legs...

...

Oh dear.

Gulping and eyes wide she called out slightly as she dug her hooves into the ground and skidded past the unicorn.

"SORRYIFF'NAHBUMPEDY'ALLAHCAN'STOP!!!" CRASH.

She met with the wall, or more, some crates. Shaking her head as she hobbled out, scarf slightly disheveled, along with her mane and once she found her legs steadied again she offered her best cheery....if slightly embarassed...smile to the pair of them.

"Ahehe...uhm...tha' was uhm...a little embarassin' o' me..."

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Braeburn began to slowly pace back and forth on the platform, but not because he was impatient. In fact, he was just fine if no one showed and he could find himself back at home curled under his warm blankets this cold desert night. And certainly he wasn't scared of a few little ghost stories! Well, maybe just a little. But what he couldn't put his hoof on was how jumpy he'd felt with the two ladies earlier. He was *never* jumpy around anyone, and he certainly hadn't been jumpy around Willow earlier, when he'd met her in Ponyville. What was wrong with him?

That train of thought was broken when Braeburn noticed something approaching out of the corner of his eye. A faint blue glow - at first he'd though that perhaps it was an odd sort of a lantern - but with a blue flame? It didn't flicker, either - this was no lantern, it was more of a phosphorescence, like one of those big glowing mushrooms - but it was moving. It was his imagination, Braeburn told himself. He had himself all worked up with those ghost stories, and was imagining things. The blue glow was a trick of the light, and it wasn't like it was going to suddenly turn to him with two red-glowing eyes to - OH PONY FEATHERS!

Braeburn beat his hooves against the wood briefly, before realizing the noise would just draw whatever-it-was towards him. Part of him wanted to bolt and hide far away, that instinct all ponies had when encountering the dangerous unknown ... but the other part of him, that proud frontier cowpony, was more than curious. He was determined. This was not the haunted pass, this was his HOME. His darling Appleoosa! If there was something weird happening, he needed to know about it, and needed to protect his fellow ponies! But no sense charging headlong into the unknown. Braeburn looked around quickly and saw a few crates waiting for the morning to be loaded onto the train. At least he wasn't by the lantern, maybe whatever-it-was hadn't seen him yet. He ducked quickly behind the crates, and peeked out around the side, his heart pounding in his chest as he tried to see what it was haunting his town.

His observations of what was looking more and more like a shape of another pony was suddenly interrupted by a loud female voice in what sounded like panic coming from the same direction. What in tarnation!? He stretched his neck to look out even more only to find the crates he was behind, along with himself crashed into with some incredible force. The world turned upside down and sideways as he tumbled over under the force of whatever it was that glowing thing had thrown at him. What was going on? What was happening to him!? As the world stopped spinning, he focused his eyes to something a bare inch away from his own muzzle - finding BlueBelle sprawled on top of him, her own muzzle only an inch from his own. Braeburn's heart skipped a beat and his face warmed up in a fierce blush. "H-Howdy, Miss BlueBelle. Ah ... umm ... are y'all alright?" What was *that*?! Since when did he stammer like that?!

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She heard the shout, she heard the crashing crates and she knew something odd was going down. Wisp hurried toward the station platform at that point and over to the knocked over cargo. She peered down at the tangled mess of Bluebelle, Braeburn and a few boxes with and arched brow, her eyes still aglow.

'You two okay?' From the looks of it it had been a nasty tumble and she just overlooked the awkward way the two of them ended up in the chaos of it all. 'Need a hoof? Don't need either of my fellow explorers getting hurt before we even head out of town.'

It was clear now that the strange creature the stallion though was haunting his town, was none other than Willow Wisp. The ghostly glow that surrounded her, her red eyes shining in the dark, and the blue that had taken to tinting her legs. It was nothing out of the ordinary to her, so she often forgot that others didn't expect it.

Offering her right hoof to whichever one took it, if either she smiled. 'Appleloosa could use a few street lanterns... or at least a couple on the buildings. Might help prevent little accidents like that. I mean I was surprised when I stepped out of the inn to see how dark it was. I don't mind though, these calm nights are the best for my research.'

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...Braeburn?

Blinking at the pony she went a notable shade of vibrant pink in the cheek, oh goodness had she landed on him? She must have! Fidgeting she let out a nervous chuckle before her attention was brought to the o-SAKESALIVE!

A loud bray of shock escaped her as she looked to Willow all a'glow and with the most terrifying looking set of eyes, was that part of her unicorn magic? Goodness it gave her such a fright, raising a hoof to her chest she let out a soft, losing lap to her hyperventilation as it settled and smiled thankfully to see the other filly.

"Gracious, Willow, y'all but scared the fur offa me, but Ahm fine all the same." Came a soft titter as she used the outstretched hoof to steady herself. Straightening her scarf quietly as she tried to make herself look as unclumsy as possible after that...little crash fiasco.

Oh heavens, Braeburn!

Reeling in realisation she turned back to the colt and her ears drooped guiltily.

"Oh Braeburn, Ahm sorry for landin' on y'like that...are y'alright? Wouldn' wan' our ghost tour guide all busted up 'cause of mah clumsiness."

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For a brief moment that, in the Earth Pony's mind, seemed to last for several minutes, all Braeburn could focus on was Bluebelle's face. Her muzzle being so close to his own, with that fierce blush on her cheeks, looking so adorable ... In a moment of oblivious fantasy he just wanted to reach forward and ...

There was a sudden, loud bray from the molly's lips, and Braeburn quickly snapped back to reality to see Bluebelle's reaction of shock. Thankfully, it was not directed at him. He shook his head and followed her gaze, remembering the strange phantom that had so spooked him. That mysterious blue glowing figure was right next to them. Still on his hind quarters, he instinctively shuffled backwards a couple feet, his wide eyes almost like dinner plates in both awe and surprise. It took a second or two before he realized what ... or more specifically, who he was looking at. The mysterious glowing creature clearly was Willowisp, but that was no normal unicorn's glow she possessed. Instead of originating from her horn in a bright light, it was a soft, eerie luminescence more related to ghost stories than the good, sturdy scientific magic one could depend on. As if that wasn't enough, those red-glowing eyes seemed to bore right into him. Braeburn wasn't sure what to make of it at all.

Braeburn, despite his initial shock, wasn't one to turn down a neighborly hoof. He took a hold of Willowisp's glowing hoof with both of his own as he worked his way back onto all fours. He didn't really need the assistance, but it was always nice to be neighborly - especially now that he began to worry that he may have insulted her with his gasping and staring. "Oh, umm, yeah ... We all tend to put out our lamps at night, seein' as how nopony is usually up an about at this hour. Not t' mention, candles are hard t' come by round about these parts. Ah did bring a lantern, though!" Braeburn trotted proudly over to the lantern he left on the platform and picked it up in his teeth, holding it towards Willowisp proudly but also perhaps to reassure himself that it was indeed her ... "I guess y'all brought yer own light, Miss. Willow. Unicorns never cease to amaze me!"

Looking over at Bluebelle, he winked with his usual confidence, as if everything was going according to plan. At least those strange butterflies were gone. Wherever had those come from? "No worries, Miss Bluebelle. Neither of us are hurt, an' Ah am certainly happy to have softened yer landin', an t'have y'all along on this adventure!" With that he placed the lantern down, grabbed his hat with his teeth, flipped it perfectly on his head and smiled. "Ladies, ah reckon we'd best be off." He gave a roguish grin before picking up the lantern once more and trotting towards the open desert. Oddly enough, it seemed easier to ignore those nervous twinges when he was acting brave in front of these two.

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It was probably a bit hard to tell with her glow about her, but there was a light blush on her cheeks. Willow Wisp was a bit embarrassed she had startled them. It wasn't anything new, it happened almost every time somepony saw her like that. But she did always feel bad when she scared others when she wasn't trying to.

'I'm sorry,' Wisp looked down a little. 'I didn't mean to scare you two. This um... this is normal for me. I guess it's part of my magic but I've been like this ever since I was just a newborn foal. When it's dark, I start glowing. That's how I got my name because I was born in the evening... My father thought I looked like Spirit Fire... also known as Will-o-Wisps.' She finally glanced up again. 'But I've never been able to figure it out... let alone turn it off.'

At least they didn't seem too put off by it. She'd had ponies just take off running. Or as a foal she got teased. 'Weirdo' Wisp was a name she got use to, more than her actual name more often than not. Though she doubted adult ponies, and in this case, mules, would stoop to name calling.

She didn't mope though, especially with Braeburn turning to start their adventure. There was no time to be uncomfortable about herself when there were mysteries to look into.

'Alright,' she smiled. 'Let's see what we could find!' That excited whinny she gave when she first heard of the story surfaced again. 'Oh I hope we run into some creature or...or... Something! That would be fantastic!'

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If she'd noticed how close Braeburn had been to...well...how close he'd been, she might've died from embarassment. But she was just to be happy to ponies anyway. Smiling as they suggested setting off, Bluebelle nodded with a bright eagerness and followed along with the pair on their little adventure.

As the chill of the night air ran through she couldn't help but be a bit, well, a mighty bit honored to be with such a pair of special ponies. One that could glow like a firefly and such a gentlecolt. How lucky had she been the past few days? To meet such kind souls, not at all like the ones her mother told her about, not at ALL like the ones her mother told her about at all.

No rudeness. No ruffians. No ear pullers or tail tuggers. No anything.

Infact the outside wasn't like a lot of things she was told about.

Shaking her head slightly she smiled at Willow's eager attitude whilst making her way beside the pair, tugging the scarf closer to her neck as her ears flopped leisurely by the sides of her head.

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Braeburn smiled when he heard the excitement in Willow Wisp's voice. He still had a great deal of trepidation in regards to this journey to the haunted pass, in the middle of the dessert and night, but she seemed genuinely excited. In fact, it was the first time he seen her truly excited at all, and there was something extra cute when a girl was absolutely delighted about something, the extra spring in her voice. It didn't even seem to matter that she hoped to find something supernatural, or that she was glowing in the strange fashion that she did, just the idea of hearing a filly be so happy just made the whole trip easier.

"I don' mind the glow, Miss Willow," he drawled pleasantly, one hoof coming up briefly to tip his hat forward. "Now we have two lanterns instead of one, and one of them won't run out of oil." He smiled tentatively, trying to make the best of the situation, but not sure if his attempt at humor about Willow Wisp's night time phosphorescence would go over well with the filly or not.

As they went along the empty railroad tracks, Braeburn could slowly see the black silhouette of the pass rising over the horizon. No turnin' tail an shyin' off now, he thought, as if that had ever been an option. Still, with all the potential danger such a place had, it still was not foremost in the colt's mind. That role went to his two companions. He hoped that Willow Wisp found everything she was hoping for, but at the same time he hoped that there was nothing more in the pass but sand and tumbleweeds. It was very confusing. Bluebelle, on the other hand, kept snugging her scarf tighter - the poor molly seemed uncomfortable in the rapidly cooling night air of the desert.

Well, Braeburn couldn't let that go. That would be ungentlecoltly of him! He stopped for a moment and put his lantern down in the sand. "You both look like y'all could somethin' warmin' in this cold, and Ah have just th' thing!" The yellow colt nuzzled into one of his saddlebags and produced a colorful red-and-blue homemade horse blanket with a flourish, the blanket billowing out next to him for a moment before he gently spread it across Willow Wisp's back. "There you go, Miss Willow," he smiled, then turned to Bluebelle. "An' one for you, as well, lil' molly." With that he nuzzled into his other saddlebag and pulled out a similar blanket, this one tan and decorated with red squares. He flourished that one as well, draping it over Bluebelle's back with his teeth before reaching up with his hooves to fix a fold where it fell wrong. "There you go Miss Bluebelle, all nice and warm I hope," he smiled, his forehooves gentle on her shoulders, giving an inadvertent, gentle little rub. He blushed suddenly and pulled away, dropping to all fours. "Heh. Ah reckon it's always good t'be prepared," he drawled, giving his flanks a shake to show off his saddlebags before he picked up the lamp and started trotting off once again.

Helping his two companions added a slight spring to his step, and perhaps the confidence he needed to take the looming pass head on. Not only were they depending on him; he got to play his natural, but all too rare in these parts, role of the flirtatious gentlecolt. Distracted by his thoughts of the pass, by the filly and the molly, by the darkness in which he was usually asleep, the cowpony tripped over a rock and nearly faceplanted into the sand. He hopped forward a few uncertain steps and got all four hooves firmly back on the ground. Feeling a bit silly, a laugh rising for his own clumsiness, he was about to make a wry comment on the accident when he realized that they had finally arrived .... the entrance to the haunted pass.

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It made her smile to hear that her strange glow was being accepted. Part of her feared they would be put off by it, like so many other ponies had been in her time. But both Bluebelle and Braeburn just seemed to accept it as if it were nothing unusual at all. Braeburn was even willing to make a rather playful joke about it and how she would be a great back up lantern. All and all she couldn't help feeling relieved and rather touched by the remark.

'Yeah, I'm pretty good at lighting even the darkest places,' Willow Wisp laughed. 'When I use to foal sit my cousin when he was a lot younger, if he got scared, he'd come sleep in my room while I studied... I was his night light.'

While they walked along the tracks, she kept her eyes peeled for anything strange. A missing train was a main component of the local ghost story, so keeping a close eye on the track was a good place to start. However she was brought out of her thoughts when the stallion tossed a nice blanket over her back, offering one to their mule companion as well. The coolness wasn't bothering her much, but it was still a very generous thing to do.

'Oh, thank you, Braeburn. This is very nice of you,' she looked off to the side a bit shyly. After all she wasn't use to anypony being so outright friendly, let alone a stallion, other than Big Macintosh, the other member of the Apple Family she'd met. It must have run in all of them to be helpful and kind.

Wisp noticed the little stumble, a giggled quietly to herself but didn't say anything about it. No, she was too busy looking down the dark path leading into the pass. They were there, the place that held it's own local legend. It was perfectly spooky to boot!

'This is just perfect! This is the type of setting the occult crave!' She couldn't contain herself as she hurried a bit past their guide to peer into the darkness. 'Okay, I need to keep a look out... anything that seems out of place could be clue to this whole thing. One little bend in the train track, a rock or cactus that seems oddly out of place in it's surroundings... even the slightest sound could be a hint!' She looked over her shoulder to her companions with a wide smile. 'Are you both excited too!?'

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Diomedes Ironwing awoke with a start, banging his head against something hard with a resounding THUNK. He cursed under his breath as he rubbed the bump that was sure to be forming with a hoof. 'Who put that tree here—TREE???'

He found himself gripped by panic as he realized that it was dark and he hadn't a clue where 'here' was. Where was he? What happened? Was he late to work? The Pegasus gripped his head with both front hooves as he memory came rushing back on a wave of pain.

Flight. He was flying, flying back to Ponyville. There was something loud, something that howled. Wind; that must have been it. He remembered clouds, lots of clouds. He must have hit one of the rotor wind pockets during one of the storms that often rolled through the mountains. There was more pain, pain all over his body. A crash; there must have been a crash, that's why he hurt all over.

The headache slowly subsided into a dull throbbing, which gradually coalesced into coherent thoughts. He would worry about being late to work later. Right now it was more important to stay alive. First order of business: triage.

He was functional. As he gingerly moved his limbs and wings, he was able to determine that nothing was broken, though there were quite a few cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Entire sections of his coat were missing from where he had skidded in the dirt and rock. Flesh wounds would heal in time, but mangled limbs wouldn't. He breathed a sigh of relief. There was hope after all.

But it was still night, the blackest night he'd ever seen. There were no lights for miles around; only the feeble glow of ambient starlight allowed him to make out the shapes of trees and rocks around him. The only sound was the gentle baying of the wind between the rocks above him. Dio shivered, partly from the cold and partly from the bleak reality of being blown off course, stuck on a mountain, in the dark, with no obvious way out. He put a hoof to his head.

'C'mon, Dio, get a hold of yourself!'

Diomedes fumbled for his saddlebags with his hooves. Good, they were still serviceable. The Griffon synthetic material had scuffs and was dirty and dingy, but showed no signs of tearing. The big Pegasus couldn't help but chuckle. He'd been incredibly lucky to get away with only scuffs and bruises with his equipment none too worse for wear; almost too lucky.

Now he wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to extricate himself from his rather precarious position. Dio had no idea where he actually was and even if he did, the mountains would be impossible to navigate in the dark. To get anywhere he'd have to wait until morning—if something didn't get him before then. He'd have to take shelter soon to ensure a mountain lion didn't decide to pounce while he dozed off.

Diomedes stood up slowly and prepared to work his way around the little hollow when he caught something out of the corner of his eye. His ears perked up as he heard voices to go along with the shifting shadows and intermittent flashes of lantern light on the far side of the hollow. Dio strained to make out the sounds wafting his way. While he couldn't discern individual words, he heard enough rhythm from it to determine that it wasn't a feral creature. Ponies? This far out? At night?

As unlikely as it seemed, whoever was coming was probably Diomedes' best hope of surviving the night. He reached into one of his saddlebags and withdrew a chemical light stick, cracking it with his teeth and tossing the lanyard around his neck. The sickly yellow light of the glow stick provided enough illumination to navigate short distances and would highlight him to any would be rescuers. Hopefully he could reach them before a wild animal reached him.

'Helllllllllllllloooooooooooo?' Dio called to the night, his voice echoing throughout the hollow.

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So far it seemed their little trip was going rather well.

With Willow to light the way with her interesting and at the same time, peculiar luminating skills, the night didn't seem quite as harsh anymore despite the biting cold that was slowly drawing itself in with the growing darkness of the night.

But even that didn't seem too much of a hassel as soon her back was graced with a blanket, blinking in faint suprise she looked to Braeburn who'd also offered one to Willow before hand. Such a gentlecolt he was. The molly smiled thankfully to the other and watched him trot forward with a spring in his step.

Leaning slightly to the unicorn, she whispered faintly.

"He certainly is well prepared.."

As he tripped up however the blue mule couldn't help but wince, even as he pulled himself to his feet and tried to brush off the instance with as much non-chalance as possible when you embarass yourself. She could sympathise.

"...Alteas' fo' most eventualities." Finishing her sentance with a soft giggle before she rose her head.

"Y'alright Brae-....burn..."

They were here. Goodness it looked just as she imagined, so creepy and...strange...but there couldn't be any ghosts. This was just an exploration. There weren't any ghosts, not really, they existed in books and stories to scare bad little foals into staying at home and behaving incase the bad black stallion of the shadows would come and gobble up their tails.

For a moment, the molly could just stare at the entrance before glancing to the unicorn and her enthusiasm, smiling slightly at the sight whilst she herself felt just the tiniest bit nervous.

"Well heavens t' betsy, don' it jus' look scary? This 's gonna be fu-"

Heeeeellllloooooooooooooooooo?

...What was that? She stiffened a little bit at that and glanced to the others questioningly.

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A skittering noise arose on the chill wind that whipped across the desert, and a sound like a murmuring, half-heard voice. Echoing hoofsteps seemed to resonate from the walls of the pass, footsteps that matched no hoof-falls that any of the ponies laid - even if their hooves falling in the soft sand could make that kind of noise. Then silence, except for the slithering sand in the wind ... and perhaps that half-heard voice still talking, just out of earshot.

For Dio, having left that lonely cluster of trees on the oasis on the hillside, one of the few sparse clusters he could see in this rocky, sandy waste, in the pitch black of this cloudy night, far behind him ... the voice sounded closer, ever closer... the pony, all alone, heard the drifting, skittering sounds, and then the voice stopped, but the shifting of sands and pebbles increased. But from where?

A pony crested one of the hills before Dio's eyes, a tan pony with a slicked back brown mane, mostly hidden by his overly large stetson. Doctor Whooves scrambled and tumbled down the pebbled hill, flipping head over tails, but managing the bottom with his hat only half-covering his face. He got quickly to his feet, tipping his hat back to a good position, and stared at Dio in shock. "What are you doing in a place like this, calling out like that, for?!" he cried in exasperation! "You're bringing them right to us!" With barely a pause, he ran past, lifting his voice over his shoulder to tell Dio, "Hurry! They're right behind me, but I can see my cart up ahead!"

Assuming Dio would follow him, Doctor Whooves ran full tilt as the pebbles turned to sand, aiming for the blue glow he could see over a dune up ahead. "That glow, that'll be her! Don't remember leaving the boiler on, but that'll be her, for certain! Then we'll be out of here!" He bounded up the hill excitedly, his hooves scrabbling in the sand, slowing down a bit as he scrambled over the top, and then let out a *whoop* as he tumbled down the far side again, the pony seeming quite uncoordinated even though he made for a very good pace.

He landed with his muzzle buried in the stand, his stetson once again fallen forward over his face to completely blind him. He got up, gave his head a shake, tipped his hat back. "Ah, here we are! My good ol'..." he paused, and stared at the three ponies standing in front of him. No, two ponies and a mule. And one of the ponies was glowing a soft, phosphorescent blue. "You're not my cart!" he accused Willow Wisp with an exasperated exclamation, then swiveled his head with a wide-eyed expression to take in everyone around him. "Who are you, and what are you doing out here of all places?!"

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Looking up at the looming pass which, on such a dark night, was nothing more than an enless black void, Braeburn's stomach was home to an entire swarm of butterflies. Oh holy pony apples, that there'll put shivers in anypony's knees... Whoa now Braeburn, brave face, brave face. Y'all have two fillies ... er, a filly and a molly here to protect. You can do this. His thoughts that his companions may be as overwhelmed as he by the scene of utter blackness before them was quickly dispelled though upon hearing Willow Wisp's markedly increased enthusiasm about arriving.

Listening to the glowing black unicorn's instructions about finding anything out of place, Braeburn looked around, really rather hoping to find nothing but the usual rocks and desert plants sitting quietly in the dark - not he could see very far even with his lantern. So far, so good. Nothing unusual at all. When Willow Wisp asked if they were excited, he knew in his heart that the answer was no, but he didn't really want to say that. "Er ... Ah don' reckon theah's anypony who could be as excited as y'all, Miss Willow. Ah'm quite hopin' y'all will find somethin' that'll be worth writin' home about!" The words came with an awkward, nervous grin he hoped was obscured by the darkness. Her mention of this being the type of place "the occult" loved didn't put his mind any more at ease about this whole endeavor.

Looking over to see how Bluebelle was doing, he saw her face mirroring his own concern, and then that voice rose up out of the sand dunes around them ... "Heeeeellllloooooooooooooooooo?"

Braeburn peered forward when he also picked up the faint sound of hoofs galloping right towards them, and in a moment of bravado, stood firmly on all fours with a rather fierce gaze in his eyes, "Miss Willow! Miss Bluebelle! Get behind me!" Whatever it was, he was going to make sure he would face it head on ... Ah just hope Ah know what Ah'm doin' ... *gulp* He dug in his hooves looking straight forward, struggling to see what was moving so quickly towards them ... Oh lordy, what if it was the headless pony? Would he be able to hold it back long enough for the ladies to get away? Suddenly, there it was, a dark figure rearing up over the dune, and charging down in a rush of sand and flailing hooves, seeming to bring its own sandstorm with it. Braeburn braced himself for the terrible pain ...

But instead, there was just a tan earth pony laying half-buried in front of him, his head not missing, but instead just hidden under a stetson.

Braeburn didn't recognize him; whoever he was, he wasn't from Appleoosa. Braeburn opened his mouth and was about to say something when the newcomer beat him to the punch, demanding to know who they were and why they were there ... "Now wait a gosh darn minute there pardner, we aughtta be asking y'all that! Jumping out at us like that!" he said, half exasperated, half relieved, and half suspicious.

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While the strange call from out of the darkness may have made Braeburn and Bluebelle uneasy, Wisp was delighted. Something was out there and she was determined to find out what it was. Her ears were perked as she listened in, trying to decide if some of her magic was in order, but when she just ended up hearing hoof beats they drooped a little. It was probably just another pony.

Braeburn had taken on the role of standing to protect her and Bluebelle, only to have her feelings confirmed, it was just another pony. Of course his accusation of her being a cart was strange, as well as his demand to know who they were. They weren't the ones nearly dive bomb other explorers.

'Of course I'm not a cart, what in the hay is that suppose to mean?' Willow Wisp pursed her lips a bit. 'And Braeburn is right, nearly crashing into us only to demand to know who we are... you're the one charging out of a pass that not even the local ponies will go into at night.' She kept a gaze on his newcomer, eyebrow quirked.

Suddenly her head snapped up and she looked into the darkness again. 'What is...' mumbling to herself she stepped past the stranger a little, ears once again perked as if she could hear something. Of course at the moment it seemed pretty silent other than the talking taking place. She twitched her ears as she tried to hon in on some sound that only she could hear.

'It can't be...' Wisp spoke as she looked back to their new company. 'You ran into something didn't you? What was it?'

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Ears perking like a pair of rabbit ears, the mule listened out for whatever was coming their way, struck in awe at the bravado Braeburn was showing, but also a touched worried...he'd know when to run right? He wouldn't get himself killed and such...right? The worry flared a little in her chest and suddenly it grew into an outright fear as the dark figure appeared and her eyes widen.

Oh Celestia it was a spirit! It was all true! It was-...rather clumsy for a ghost. Her hyperventilating stopped before it started, turning out as a snort as she stopped herself and blinked at the tan pony in the sand. Still unmoving from her position before he stood up and it startled her just a little.

Then the rudeness began.

Cart?

Willow didn't look like any old cart. Who'd say such a thing about a lady?

But maybe he was dehydrated? Gone a bit doo-lally from the desert and such...

Chewing her bottom lip she looked to Braeburn worriedly before looking to the pony with a slightly curious look as he ears draped back down.

"Us? Why are y'all out here? Y'all coul' die of thirst or somethin' out in this here place, Ah hope y'had water at some point."

She almost sounded like a fretting mother with the soft frown gently placed upon her features that was aimed at the other, then her attention was drawn by Willow. Found something? She could tell that? Blinking at such a thought she looked out over the desert herself.

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Dio whirled around as he heard footsteps and skittering behind him. Someone was behind him? Why hadn't he heard it before? Was it dangerous? Diomedes dropped his head low, his legs set to launch him at a potential assailant and wings half open in case he needed to attempt a hasty escape. As big as Dio was, he wasn't willing to risk a direct confrontation with a nocturnal predator like a mountain lion.

The interloper crested the ridge, backlit by the faint glimmer of moonlight. Dio relaxed as the silhouette revealed itself not to be feline, but equine. As the other pony came down the hill, the Pegasus breathed a sigh of relief. 'Oh thank goodness. I thought you were a mountain lion or something worse. Do you happen to know—'

'What are you doing in a place like this, calling out like that, for?!' The other pony cried out.

Dio was taken aback. 'Listen, chief, I crashed and—'

'You're bringing them right to us!' He said as he dashed past. 'Hurry! They're right behind me, but I can see my cart up ahead!'

'What?' Dio shouted after him. 'Bringing who to us?'

Is he out of his mind? Seeing his last hope of escaping dashing away from him at full speed, Diomedes did the only thing he could: he gave chase. The other stallion scrambled over the low rise and down the hill, slipping and sliding as he went. Dio's hooves pounded the rocky ground as he pursued his quarry, throwing up plumes of sand and gravel. As he crested the rise, Dio could just make out the tan pony skidding to a halt in the midst of 3 other roughly equine forms, one of which glowed brightly enough to dimly light the depression they were in and render Diomedes' chem light obsolete.

'Now isn't that a neat tr—' Dio was cut short as his hoof slipped, sending him sprawling down the loose gravel and sand the composed the hillside. In an effort to right himself, he flapped his wings madly, which only served to aggravate the situation. Instead of slowing his descent as he'd hoped, his antics kicked up a huge cloud of dust around him and aerated the sand beneath, in the end creating an even slicker sliding surface.

'Ponyfeathers!' Diomedes grunted as he fumbled with his hooves and wings. At the bottom of the hill, the big Pegasus collided handily with Dr. Whooves, sending them both tumbling into Braeburn, the final result being a comically stacked pony pile on the desert floor. Dio groaned as he rolled over, off the good doctor and the certainly less-than-thrilled Braeburn.

'Uh, hi... can anyone tell me where I am?'

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Doctor Whooves hauled himself out of the pile of ponies, blinking rapidly, staggering a few steps as he turned to look behind him. His stance was tottering, as if he wasn't quite used to walking in his own body - seeming always on the verge of falling, and yet staying on his feet out of sheer energy. He lifted his hoof to tilt his stetson back from his face. He wore a stetson now. Stetsons were cool. "Oye," he said, as everyone started talking all at once.

What a sand cloud! The particles all whirling around them, lit by Willow Wisp's luminescence, made the entire area glow with a beautiful blue radiance, cobalt sparks drifting in the air about them. But Doctor Whooves seemed not to notice the blue sparks of sand surrounding them. "Oye!" he said, again, a little louder, trying to cut through the chatter, the indignation, the confusion, the concern.

The blue glow actually seemed to be glowing stronger, and stronger, as time went on, rather than dissipating, and yet Willow Wisp wasn't seeming to glow any brighter. It was as if her ghostly radiance was somehow spreading further... or at least, in the one direction that Doctor Whooves and Dio had come from.

Doctor Whooves took a deep breath. "OYE!" he cried loudly, "I AM TALKING HERE!"

In the (hopeful) silence, he turned and fired off some rapid-fire answers, his tongue nearly tripping over itself to deliver them as fast as possible.

To Braeburn: "I'm running."

To Willow Wisp: "Yes."

To BlueBelle: "I'm fine, thanks."

And to Diomedes: "You're in Trouble." Somehow, the way he said it emphasized that the T was, indeed, capitalized.

He took a deep breath, grinned around at all of them, his voice vibrating with excited energy. "Nice to meet you all, I'm Doctor Whooves. GALLOP for your lives!"

And with that declaration, a cluster of a dozen barrel cacti floated up over the hillside, ablaze with a wispy, ghostly blue flame, and bringing a bit of a headache and a ringing in the ears with them. They lit the little hollow of sand with their light, the entire scene washed out with the spectral blue color.

Doctor Whooves turned and took to his hooves, fleeing away from the cacti as an entire shower of needles suddenly sprouted from the sand in which he'd been standing, the stuttering whisper as the cacti expelled the sharp spines at him seeming loud in the dead silence of the desert. "This way!" Doctor Whooves cried, "I've got a cart!"

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Braeburn was looking suspiciously at the strange brown earth pony with the wild hair when Willow Wisp snapped to attention - her ears erect as if she could hear or sense something he couldn't.  Her rather poignant question to the stranger about running into *something* in this supposedly haunted pass didn't help put the Appleloosian's mind any more at ease. If the occult expert's sudden concern wasn't worrisome enough, Braeburn heard yet more movement upon the hill the strange earth pony just came from.

Tarnation, now what could it be?  The next thing he knew a large amorphous, opaque cloud of dust and debris came rushing down the hill towards them.  Is this what Willow Wisp felt was coming?  Braeburn's hooves stamped rapidly, nervously, on the ground - should he bolt? No, the ladies! It was coming awfully fast!  Before he could his conflicted mind could come up with a decision, the pony in the midst of the cloud of sand collided first with the stranger, and then the next thing he knew ...

Braeburn opened his eyes, it was bright and warm, a beautiful day in his dear sweet home in Appleoosia.  He was laying on his back in the warm grass of his orchard, shadowed by his beloved apple trees, looking upwards at a lovely, feminine silhouette ... For some reason, he felt a little dizzy, and couldn't remember who it was... Willow Wisp?  Bluebelle?  There was no answer, just the lovely sensation of a beautiful smile, the rest of the face obscured in shadow by the bright sun, inching ever closer.  He moved his head forward, wanting to kiss the beautiful shadow before him ...

"OYE! I AM TALKING HERE!"

Suddenly Braeburn came too, jarred back into reality, his head throbbing painfully. He was merely inches from some large red pegasus stallion's face, the face that he almost kissed in his delirium. Braeburn twisted, getting out from under the strange stallion - where'd he come from?! Braeburn's pulled away, face burning with embarrassment, twisting out from underneath the pegasus and getting to his feet, rapidly, looking around quickly as the stranger spoke rapidly.

Some small bit of him hoped the already galloping earth pony was just nuts ... but the sand below him and around him was illuminated. It wasn't the moon, which was obscured by the clouds. It wasn't Willow Wisp, though it was similar - she simply wasn't bright enough.  It was as if the sand itself was aglow with an eerie energy.  "What in tarnation ... Ah don' reckon this is natural, not at all!" He looked over to Willow Wisp, hoping she would know what was going on.

"GALLOP for your lives!"

There they were. Cacti. Luminescent, burning blue cacti, floating towards them and ... shooting needles?! This was far, far beyond this simple country pony's experience! He wanted to flee, but barely kept his mind enough to put himself between the cacti and Miss Willow and Miss Bluebelle, pressing them forward to follow the stranger's fleeing form, his eyes wide with terror as he gladly followed the instructions as well as he could.

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It wasn't the incoming Pegasus she'd heard, her ears were still perked even after the collision of the three stallions. In fact it was probably in Braeburn's favor that at least she didn't see his kissy face toward the pony on top of him due to being knocked around. No, she was to focused on what was around them. She could hear it, a high pitched whistle that was drawing closer and soon appeared with the form of flying cacti.

'I knew it!' Rather than run while Braeburn did his best to get between the danger and her and Bluebelle, Wisp ran passed him. She was going head first toward the mob of needle spitting, flying succulents.

As she drew close, near colliding with one of the haunting attackers, her horn began to glow. Just like the natural, or perhaps unnatural, hue her body took in the dark, it lit up with a blue shine. The closed incoming cacti suddenly dropped to the ground revealing a wisp of eerie blue fire coming in her direction. But as she stared it down it seems to slow until it was more or less floating around her, as if her horn was some sort of beacon to it.

'Spirit fire. They're the starts of something called Spirit Lanterns. Where you found them, well you woke a whole horde. It's unusual for there to be this many though,' Willow Wisp called back to her fleeing company. 'But I think I know what may have happened to that missing train.'

There was a smile on her face. She stood proud as a few more of the cacti near her dropped as the flames came to encircle her instead. Her eyes seemed alive with the sense of adventure. It was a moment she couldn't pass up. Actual occult activity and she was right in the middle of it.

'Follow me if you want! I'm going to find where these came from. But if you come along stay close, my magic can only draw them from a short distance. So needles are going to be a hazard.' That said she looked off into the distance where the swarm had come from. For a moment the moonlight reflected on the lenses of her glasses, lighting up the smile she wore. And then, without a second notice, she took off, charging through the on coming haunted cacti.

She made it a good ways as well, plowing her way through the swarm of cacti. She was dodging and weaving a bit to avoid the needles being launched from the ones that weren't close enough for her to entrance. But it wasn't to last. Wisp felt a sudden twinge of pain shot through her rear right flank as a good collection of the needles hit her. She stumbled and then fell, leg going limp as she skidded forward a bit in the sand and dirt.

Her leg began to show signs of the threat the entities possessed while using cacti as their hosts. As if she was being drained of the water in her leg, it began to look weak and sickly. Wisp grimaced. She knew that touching Spirit Fire was a bad idea but she'd never heard about what it could do while using another object. And these cacti hosts seemed to give them the ability to suck moister out with their spines.

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Eyeing the strange earth pony and then the pegasi, Bluebelle felt a little at wits end. What in the name of Celestia was going on-

Then the earth pony ran! And suggested they would too, now why in the world would they- A faint sound made one large ear flop up as she turned and looked at the floating cacti that were coming in their direction...wait. What?

Floating cacti?? So did that mean the stories were true? Eyes widening slightly at the sight Bluebelle could do nothing but stare in faint disbelief at just what she was seeing. Floating Cacti. -GHOST- Cacti. She would've run but her legs had locked slightly and she found herself a tad frozen...until Willow suddenly moved towards them.

She blinked herself out of her stupor and gawked at the unicorn.

"Miss Wisp! Be careful!"

Watching on fearfully for the unicorn, she soon watched as some of the cacti fell to reveal tiny little balls of fire that floated around Willow like moths would dance around an open flame and she mentally commended the filly on her bravery. That however was short lived as she ran towards the entrance to the tunnel and began to dodge most of the thorns.

What was she doing!? She was going to get hurt or worse!

Eyes widening she called after the dark pelted filly, concern ringing through that southern trill.

"Miss Wisp! Don' go bein' stupidly brav-!" She was hit! The mule saw it and let out a soft gasp as her hooves danced fretfully in place.

What were those thorns doing to her? Her back leg looked like a watermelon losing its color! Oh what could she do? What could she do? She didn-...wait!

Blinking she suddenly moved to stick her nose into Braeburn's saddle bag, he said he'd prepared! Oh please, please, please let one be there! Soon she took out a waterskin and beamed at her find as she ran as best as her long legs could to the hurt unicorn.

As she did, the cacti tried to catch her off with her thorns, claim another victim, but being as skittish as she was and with those huge ears she heard and ducked the onslaught of sharp pricks till she met skidded to a halt next to the darker filly. Glancing at the floating balls of thorns that floated ever closer she tossed the waterskin to her right, watching it smack one cacti and split open with the thorns as it landed a good seven or eight feet away. Water splashing everywhere over said cacti and the sand as soon it's brethren swarmed to suck up the liquid like pidgeons over breadcrumbs.

Okay. That worked. She was so THANKFUL that worked! Okay, steady your breathing, Belle, steady it. Looking over Willow she soon looked over her shoulder to where the others were.

"Come on! Let's get 'er away from here!"

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'You're in Trouble,' the brown earth pony said.

'Thank you, Captain Obvious,' Diomedes mumbled a response to the Doctor. 'Now— WHOA WHOA, easy there, chief!'

The red Pegasus jerked his head away from Braeburn's pursed lips in surprise. The other stallion's eyes were glazed over and the edges of his mouth were twisted in a sort of delirious smile, indicating his less than coherent mental state. Dio made a face of disgust and rolled away, standing up to face the odd whistling noise that was now emanating from the ridge that he had just cleared.

The sky was aglow. Dio's eyes grew wide as the glowing blue forms crested the ridge. The whistling noise intensified and Dio took a step back as he realized that it was the sound of hundreds of tiny needles embedding themselves in the ground near the group of ponies.

Fire. Needles. Greenery. They were cacti… flying cacti. A spark of recognition flashed in Dio's eyes. Suddenly, he was back at the bar at the Rhinestone Quarry. That same brown earth pony was chatting up a big Griffon over drinks. He normally didn't eavesdrop, but the bits of conversation that wafted over were so unusual that Diomedes couldn't help but catalog it.

'You haven't happened to have seen anything... *weird* around here, have you? Like... weird weird? Unbelievable weird? Like, for instance, just pulling some random weird thing out of weird air... flying cactusses?'

'I'm the Doctor, by the way. Doctor Whooves.'

'You!' Dio said, jabbing a hoof at Doctor Whooves. 'You were at the Rhinestone! What—'

'I knew it!' the dark unicorn exclaimed, far more excitedly than Dio had expected from her. She galloped straight past him, making a beeline for the rapidly approaching forms instead of following the Doctor's advice to run.

'Are you crazy, lady?!' Dio shouted after her. The unicorn seemed to ignore him, running straight into the middle of the cactus swarm. Her horn began to glow blue, the same shade as the magical fire that surrounded the floating desert plants. All around her, cacti began dropping, their flames dissipating and reforming in a ghostly halo around Willow's head. Diomedes was struck dumb by the surreal joy with which the unicorn mare seemed to prance through the flames, which floated around her as if bewitched by her magic. Can she really stop them?

Suddenly, Willow crumpled in pain, hit by a spray of needles from other possessed cacti not yet charmed by her abilities. Guess not. Time for plan B!

As if on cue, the third pony he had seen stepped into the glow of fire's light, revealing her to be a mule. She dove into Braeburn's dismounted saddlebags coming back up with waterskin in mouth. She bashed away one of the floating cacti before throwing the waterskin to the ground. The rapidly pooling water attracted the floating forms like a magnet, clearing a hole in the swarm big enough for a pony to get through and thinning the horde of cacti and fire around Willow Wisp.

'Come on! Let's get 'er away from here!' the molly shouted.

'I'm on it!' Diomedes sprang into action, leaping forward and closing the distance with lightning speed. He unfurled his massive wings and covered his head and neck with them, using his flight feathers as a shield against the inevitable rain of needles. Though he was charging into the middle of an inferno, there was a palpable chill that pervaded the air; whether it was a product of the magical flames that now surrounded him or merely the sudden realization of the chill of desert night, Diomedes didn't know; nor did he care. Willow was dead unless he got her out of there!

Finally, the red Pegasus closed the gap, arriving by Willow's side. 'Sorry miss, normally I'm more polite about these things, but we don't exactly have time for chatting over drinks. We've got to get out of here!'

He hooked his front legs under Willow's, using his teeth to grip her mane and repositioning her head so that he could drag her backwards without snapping her neck. He kept his wings extended, using them as a feathered umbrella to shelter both his head and Willow's body against the rain of needles. It had to have been quick, or they would have both been dead, but that walk back to the other ponies was the longest walk Diomedes had ever taken.

Dio could hear needles whistling past him and impacting the ground and getting stuck in his feathers. He could feel the pounding of his pulse inside his veins. He could taste the soapy flavor of adrenaline in his mouth. He barely registered that he had arrived, nearly backing into Braeburn. Dio gingerly laid Willow down on the ground.

'Somepony help put her on my back so we can move her. We need to get out of here.'

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Braeburn didn't understand why nopony was fleeing ... Flying. Burning. Needle-shooting. Cacti. But no sort of Appleoosian gentlecolt would run away while the ladyfolk were in danger, so he followed after Willow Wisp and Bluebelle, staying close to Bluebelle after she pulled the water skin from his saddlebag, trying to keep her covered as well as he could, tensing up as he waited for the needles to hit him.

Much to his surprise, it never happened - the cacti drawn away by Bluebelle's clever distraction, the flights of needles ceasing. He met the clearly injured pegasus coming the other direction, needles in his wings no less, dragging the wounded dark unicorn, still glowing. The pegaus wanted her to be placed on his back, but he looked to be in no condition to do, that no matter how large he might be. "Y'all look pretty beat up yerself, pardner. I can take her from here."

Braeburn's tone carried the urgency of the situation, his eyes flicking towards the cacti, and the big patch of wet sand that was already half the size it had been. His attitude brooked no disagreement as he worked with the pegasus to get Willow Wisp across his back, and then the strong farm pony was off and running in the direction the strange Doctor Whooves had disappeared in.

"Tarnation...They will never believe this back around the Salt Lick... In all my years, never have I seen a herd o' ponies do something so amazin'," he said to himself, impressed by the bravery of those around him. Then, glancing to the side to look to Willow Wisp as he galloped, giving her a reassuring smile, "An' y'all were th' most amazin' of all, callin' out th' fire from those there cacti."

Looking back towards the bluish gray molly with a worrisome expression, he motioned for her to run first towards where the strange earth pony had fled to, "ain't leavin' without you first Miss. Bluebelle!" Looking forward again, he couldn't help but wonder, A cart ... what good would a cart be...

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Doctor Whooves sighed softly to himself. Ponies these days, no manners at all. Ask them their names and they get all chatty. Answer their questions and they get huffy. Try to save their lives and they run right into the face of danger. His hooves pounded over the sand. He knew the cart was near here - he left it right next to a sand dune so he'd remember where he'd parked!

He paused atop a sand dune, glancing around. He glanced back to see the ponies following him - finally! He wasn't going to have to go back for them, after all! He looked around, quickly. Ah, there! That was the sand dune! He charged down the far side of the one he was standing on, and up the side of the next, and smiled happily as he saw his cart. That was the key to remembering where you parked - just pick a recognizable landmark.

The cart was a simple, small wagon, except that it had a big ship's wheel at the front. Small levers and knobs and toggles were scattered in a confusing mess all over a panel to the left of the wheel, and a large metal box squatted in the rear of the cart, right between two barrels of water. Quickly, getting ready, he leapt over the side of the wagon and into place behind the wheel. His hooves moved quickly to pump one of the levers rapidly, priming the contraption, and then he flipped one of the toggles. "Hurry!" he cried to the oncoming ponies! "Just hop in! It holds more ponies than it looks like"!

He grinned and twisted a knob, then triumphantly threw a lever. There was a quiet wheezing, grinding noise that died away. Doctor Whooves frowned, reached out to yet another lever and wiggled it up and down to no obvious effect.

With a deep sigh, he kicked the metal box behind him. There was a deep, resonant boom, like a gong being struck, and then the a soft, flickering blue light started glowing from between the cracks of the metal box's lid, the contraption letting out a wheezing, rhythmic VWORP VWORP VWORP" sound.

The cart started to slowly roll forward - just slightly creeping, as if it were eager to take off, no matter what the good Doctor might want.

"Hurry!"

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