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The Empire of Flowers (Bellosh & Zeig)


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The great Flower Fields directly outside Garden Gait’s east wall is said to be one of Equestria’s best-kept natural secrets. Flowering plants of all colors and sizes covered most of the land between the village wall and the point the East Road began its ascent up the valley cliffs. Outside of the most prestigious botanical gardens, a traveler could not hope to find a more diverse smattering of blossoms.

The impact of laying one’s eyes upon the Flower Fields was magnified ten-fold if by dumb chance, that being went through most of their life without seeing many flowers. Lími was one such freak occurrence; an adolescent caribou of Whitescar who until now, had only been accustomed to snow-covered forests and frigid tundras. Yet on an epic sightseeing voyage of Equestria, travelling in the company of Jarl Sigrun of Clan Askr, the youthful Lími encountered this natural treasure on the journey from Whitetail Woods to Canterlot, and his mind was, for lack of a better word, blown. Never had the young buck thought that so much color existed in the world.

Lími’s guardian lacked his sense of wonder however, for Sigrun suffered from an extreme flower allergy. It took herculean effort for her to get past the Fields and make it into the village. While the Jarl recuperated from her ordeal, Lími and his canine companion Hammer were left to explore the area on their own. Back in cold unforgiving Whitescar, the youth would have never dared venture far from Sigrun or her clan’s settlement, where potential threats lurked within each shadow and behind every tree trunk. Garden Gait was something completely different altogether; serenity reigned here. Disregarding the protests in Lími’s mind to remain true to his viking warrior heritage, the lad’s heart felt more content than at any point in his life. The caribou even forgot how final preparations for the dreadful Will Test awaited him upon return to his homeland.

While not yet fully grown according to the physical standards of his own species, Lími recognized how in Equestria, he more-or-less passed for an adult deer on account of standing as tall as the average pony (even though his developing antlers were not yet at full-height). A tattoo he bore on his right hindleg; the white outline of a viking helmet embedded into the trunk of a black tree with lengthy roots. Oddly enough, it had been a stallion in Manehattan who marked Lími, pleasantly surprised that a pony could perfectly emulate the tribal art styles of his people. Despite Lími’s tattoo though, most ponies (or the lad himself for that matter) wouldn’t ever picture the mild-mannered adolescent as someone capable of maturing into a mighty fighter.

Laying down on a large, smooth boulder one hundred yards away from the Road, Lími did something he almost never did in public view; writing on parchment. The beauty of these strange but beautiful blossoms led the adolescent to return to his source of inspiration to write the rough-draft for a tale based on his recent experiences. Beside the rock, Hammer of the Northern Inuit breed lazed about, the dog on alert for something to grab her interest.....

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She didn't miss her home village at all.

What did that say about her, she wondered.

But then stopped wondering, because the day was too beautiful to wallow away with thoughts of far off lands that were clearly out of reach of her hooves. And really, as much as she sometimes missed the Qilin of her home village far off to the East, the village itself was more of an after thought, a scenic location from her foalhood. What she remembered, and treasured, was the peace, the tranquility. The cool afternoon breezes and the water from the paddy fields cool around her legs.

And all that, she had right here. For the most part.

And even more than that, Lián Mei could admit as she flexed her hind hoof on the lever, water slowly gushing into her watering can with every push. As lovely as her home village was, the diversity of plant life was...well, not very. The rice paddies had taken up almost all the flat land, and the surrounding forests were hilly and staggered, great for finding clusters of wildflowers but poor for almost everything else. It hadn't been much of an issue in her younger years...except when playdates with her friends had come around.

How was a Qilin suppose to play 'Empress' without seasonal flower crowns? Peach blossoms were only available during the spring!

"She doesn't, that's how," Mei grumped, tail swishing in remembered agitation over the natural slight, but that was really all the time she had to reminisce as the sloshing of water against her hind leg caught her attention. Memories quickly falling to the wayside, the young Qilin picked up her now full watering can, only a slight grunt leaving her lips at the added weight, before she flipped about and began cantering down the road.

Even after living in the town for a few years, Garden Gait still managed to take her breath away. Its simplistic and rustic charm reminded her of her foalhood home, yet the myriad waterfalls cascading around the village never failed to remind her of her luck, stumbling across this place. Well, Aunt Doe had led her here, so she hadn't exactly stumbled across it, but it almost felt like she had. It was a veritable paradise, a place where one made lived off the hard work of their hooves for a daily meal, traded supplies and crops with one another...

And the perfect place to learn her trade.

Eventually, Mei knew, she would need to move her greenhouse elsewhere if she ever wished to expand her aromatherapy practices into a business. It would be nice not to have to constantly grow the food she'd be eating at her dinner table each night...but at the same time, she was quite content where she was now. Plenty of time to expand later - right now, she was still young and eager, still had much to learn, and there was no better place in Equestria to do it, for one very simple reason.

That was reason was already within sight, past the ancient walls, and Mei felt her smile slip up a notch as she waved a greeting to a passing elderly couple, slipping into the village even as she made her way out of it. Before, back when she had first arrived, it had almost been painful to set her eyes upon the meadow of flowers covering a vast expanse in front of the Gate. So many colors, so many shapes...but she had been quick to adjust, and to learn how exceedingly lucky she was. The flowers planted here varied so wildly that it was impossible to tell how they all intermingled, only that they did, and she could be waltzing through a familiar patch of bluebells one day only to accidentally stumble across a fresh patch of chamomile the next.

It was like having her very own palace garden, filled with every type of flower an Empress could ever wish for.

...Or so she believed. She hadn't, exactly, counted all the different types of flowers planted throughout the meadows...but she had started keeping a journal! An ongoing journal of the best patches of herbs and flowers flowing through the garden.

Which was actually why she was here today. Mei had, thanks to a rather embarrassing tactical error, run out of lavender in her greenhouse, prompting her to pluck some from the garden. The new seeds she'd planted in return required care and attention however, lest they be strangled by the nearby clover patch, and thus the Qilin had been making her way to the barely sprung lavender patch for days now. Soon they would be large enough to grow on their own, but for the moment, Mei was being careful.

So careful, in fact, that when she finally looked up from the wading she'd been doing to avoid tromping through large clusters of flowers, Mei abruptly realized that she'd been unintentionally sneaking up on...a deer? He was sitting on a boulder in the garden, nearby the lavender patch she was attempting to water, but he seemed as preoccupied as she, looking down at something in his lap. Barely visible through the sea of colors, a dog was also near the boulder, presumably belonging to the deer - but as Mei continued to move forward, it suddenly perked up, ears swiveling in her direction as its tail gave a cute little wag.

Very curious. Garden Gait was a small community - she knew everyone that lived there. So this young deer was more than likely a traveler. But she hadn't heard of any travelers staying at Garden Gait, which was the only reason she could think that a visitor would feel comfortable enough wasting time to sit in a field of flowers, however beautiful it might be. The proper thing to do would, no doubt, leave the stranger be - to let him relax from his no doubt tiresome journey and enjoy the garden while she took care of her business. Her own curiosity was only a small byproduct, not nearly as important as giving a tired traveler his space.

"What are you doing?" the young Qilin questioned, tone demanding but friendly as she leaned in over the deer's shoulder, water can settled at her hooves. He was a very odd looking deer...thicker and bulkier than the white-tailed deer she knew from Whitetail Woods, yet he still looked young.

Either he was simply a very fluffy whitetail deer, or...something else.
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Over on his rock, Lími battled a foe which beleaguered many a wordsmith since the dawn of civilization; writer’s block. Nothing he wrote sounded right to the caribou’s ears, letting frustration gnaw at him. Lími’s parchment was nothing more than scribbles and crossed-out passages. No matter how hard the lad tried, he didn’t feel like he was doing his unique subject justice. The fact that few viking caribou ever wrote on flowers left Lími without much of a past body of work to reference from. If only he had a-

On 2/6/2016 at 5:13 PM, Zeig said:

"What are you doing?"

Lími froze instantly, a deer too stricken with anxiety to dodge the incoming blast of dragonfire. Though only words did the young buck hear, the effect might as well been the same. Ever was it a habit of Lími’s to hide his writing impulses from the world. Though Jarl Sigrun claimed otherwise, Lími sensed that other caribou looked down on him for his inadequacy in learning combat skills. No matter how a caribou spent their life, to be unable or unwilling to fight was seen as tantamount to betraying one’s clan. Or so that was what Lími’s half-brother taught. To think what could happen if the adolescent was caught dabbling in poetry and sagas instead of practicing with a sword until he finally wielded it to perfection!

How ironic it was that after years of skillful deception in Whitescar, Lími was finally caught when he ventured to a foreign land. It mattered not that it wasn’t a fellow caribou who snuck onto Lími’s boulder. “I-i-it... it’s nothing,” the young buck stammered, barely mustering the courage to slowly turn his head around; “I was-wasn’t doing any-thin-” By this point, Lími could now see the face of the infiltrator; it belonged to a pony mare with youthful pink eyes, a blue mane, and antlers.



Remember that ponies don’t have antlers, Lími’s eyes did a double-take. All but forgetting his reason for trepidation, the adolescent caribou swiftly (if clumsily) shot up standing onto his four legs; unknowingly spilling his ink bottle, and stomping on his quill and parchment in the process. At least the young mare didn’t find herself thrown off the rock on account of Lími’s intense curiosity. His fear melting away, the caribou focused his gaze on the trespasser's face, despite occupying so little standing space that he’d fall off if the new arrival came any closer; “...Either my eyes are cheated by a spell... or you are an antlered pony, the likes of which are unknown to me!” It didn’t occur to the lad to move his eyes around to identify what else was different about this unexpected mare.....

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For a moment Mei wondered if the deer was injured.

Mentally, not physically. The Qilin had heard stories from her Aunt, how sometimes, if a deer clashed skulls too harshly against another's, or suffered some sort of head injury, they could become...different, in how they acted. Some became more outgoing, others withdrawn - some so anxious about life that they froze up at the slightest provocation, even something as slight as a friendly greeting. They were only comfortable about those they knew, and strangers could end up unintentionally hurting them, simply by being present.

'Oh sweet sun I broke him.'

That moment of pained guilt, however, was thankfully bypassed as the deer began to speak, causing Mei to release a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, even as she continued to lean further over the deer to get a better look. It looked as if he'd been writing something on parchment, though the Qilin couldn't make out the words as of yet - and that was mostly because of the myriad of crosses and words etched out by ink.

A parchment filled with crossed out words...hmm. He was probably writing some poetry.

"Mm," Mei hummed thoughtfully in between his stammered answer to her inquiry, a little bit put-out when the deer didn't seem inclined to turn around and view her - oh wait no, he was turning around, just doing it very, very slowly. The young mare waited, rather patiently she thought, as the deer met her eyes - and almost in the same moment shot upwards, upsetting his ink bottle.

"Aiya!" she exclaimed as she hastily backpedaled away from the spreading ink, or at least as far as she could before her hind leg slipped off the side. The look of consternation on her face was evident as she rapidly inspected her flowing fetlocks for any wayward splashes of ink, before turning back to the deer with a huff. He seemed oblivious to the mess, however - even to his carefully inked poem! - and in fact seemed more concerned gaping at her, which was an alarm in and of itself. "What," she mumbled to herself, attempting to pat down her mane as casually as possible as the deer continued to speak, and -

...Oh. Oh.

Oh, of course that was why he was gaping, how silly of her! Mei let out a breathless giggle upon the realization, giving her mane a bit of a toss as she displayed her antlers some more. She'd been living amongst the tight-knit community of Garden Gait for so long, she'd almost forgotten the reaction she induced from many a pony because of her unique looks.

Well, that had been worth the wait.

"Your eyes have not been cheated," Mei assured the deer, bells chiming merrily as she shook her head slightly, "I'm a Qilin! My species is part pony and...part dragon." The last was said carelessly and casually, as if such a combination of species was entirely common in these parts. As gracefully as she could on the narrow spacing of the boulder, Mei shuffled towards the higher end of the boulder, away from the spilled ink, and if the movement showed off more of her body to the deer, well, there was that. "I'm not from here, you see," she continued to extrapolate as she sat down, tail curling around her body so she could fluff up the hairs a bit, "I mean, not from Equestria. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I was the only Qilin in this country!"

Mmm...that she knew of, at any rate. If there had been other Qilin nearby, her mother would have undoubtedly tried to set up some connections for her.

Explanation thoroughly given, Mei continued to brush out her fetlocks and tail a bit, even as her desire to boast turned into a natural inquisitiveness. "And you?" she demanded, head tilting curiously as she looked the deer up and down, "You don't look like any deer I've ever met...and I've met a lot of them!"
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If Lími hadn’t been so busy marveling at the unique nature of the mare’s head, he would have started wishing he was sulking in a dark hole after noticing her first unfavorable reactions. As it were, the caribou avoided another episode of panic out of dumb luck, at least for the moment. Instead, Lími was rewarded with a mane toss and a silent but warm laugh from the mare. For reasons he couldn’t explain, the young buck thought things were off to a very good start.

It did not take long before the mare revealed herself as a Qilin; a species Lími knew of from his readings. Part-pony, part-deer, and part-dragon, Qilin showed up frequently in the sagas as fire-breathing foes of the viking caribou. From slightly more historically accurate chronicles of times past, the adolescent lad also knew of the frequent caribou raids on Qilin lands, and the resulting strife that usually ensured. Such was no longer the case under the rule of Havardr Dragonsong, High King of Whitescar... and Lími’s kin.

Based off his dubious sources, Lími had understood the Qilin to have been little more than equine dragons; entirely covered in grotesque scales and possessing the baleful temperament of those winged reptilian terrors. Before his eyes however was a far more awesome reality, as the young mare’s movements thankfully allowed the lad to witness the true wonder of the Qilin’s slender form. As the Qilin gracefully readjusted her position, it appeared as if sacred flames burned from her hair, ankles and tail. The tinging of tiny bells only added to the otherworldly effect. As far as Lími was concerned, it was as stupendously marvelous of a sight as Ylva replicating the visual effects of the Northern Lights with her pigments, which was extremely high praise coming from the adolescent.

Subconsciously, Lími stepped sideways and backwards to give the Qilin as much space as he could give her, only realizing what he was doing when one of his hind legs slipped over the edge of the boulder they shared. As he restored his footing on the rock, the caribou swiftly turned his head to see an unknown tool on the ground behind him. Wouldn’t have that been the catastrophe if Lími had fell and somehow broke that which was not his? Glancing back at the Qilin, the caribou mirrored her actions by sitting down as close to the boulder’s edge as he could, puffing up his fluffy chest in the process.

On 2/8/2016 at 10:22 AM, Zeig said:

"I'm not from here, you see. I mean, not from Equestria. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I was the only Qilin in this country!"

Even though no sadness presented itself in the Qilin’s voice, Lími felt melancholy come upon him. For the caribou who lived his entire life in a warrior culture, the only logical explanation for the Qilin’s solitude was banishment from her homeland for any number of reasons. In fact, the caribou lad often dreamed of forced exile from Whitescar during sleepless nights, ever so worried of being shunned by his clan. Though his eyes drifted downwards in condolence, Lími spoke not a word, least he brought insult upon the Qilin for asking her about what must have been a tragic past.

On 2/8/2016 at 10:22 AM, Zeig said:

"And you? You don't look like any deer I've ever met...and I've met a lot of them!"

Lími swiftly turned his gaze back to the Qilin with a slight palpitation. Having traveled through the Crystal Empire and Manehattan, the caribou remembered all those times when a pony looked at his towering companion, Jarl Sigrun, and trembled in fear. Like it or not, caribou didn’t have the best of reputations in Equestria; something Lími was quite aware of. As he wasn’t fully grown however, the adolescent bull’s appearance and youthfully noble voice failed to elicit the same terror as an adult caribou, but he still felt it unwise to reveal too much about his origins.

Fortunately, Lími could have his cake and eat it too through the use of a silver tongue. “.....I am a reindeer of the Far North,” he answered after a deliberative pause. The young buck did not lie, for “reindeer” was but one of many names a caribou went by. Of course, every self-respecting viking of Whitescar referred to themself as a caribou, giving that term more of a negative connotation than “reindeer”.

Sensing that the Qilin would want more information, Lími elaborated as vaguely as he could, although it mainly amounted to improvising a description of his travels on the spot. “I have trodden over snow and passed over water. I’ve walked in the shadows of great crystal and metal spires, and I’ve voyaged through the serene woodlands of this realm. That is how I have come to be here-”

Lími’s dog interpreted the moment by sniffing the spilled ink, which obviously meant the caribou finally noticed his unfortunate accident. “Odír...” he mumbled the name of the caribou mercy god in vain; a name that to uninitiated ears sounded just like “oh dear”. “Shoo Hammer, shoo!” Noticing Lími’s sweeping foreleg gesture, the canine took the hint by scampering off. The caribou bent his antlered head down to inspect the overturned bottle, not paying regard to the Qilin’s close proximity; “This... bodes ill.” Out of the corner of his eye, Lími also spotted his ruined parchment, and he brought a hoof to his forehead as he also inspected what his hooves had done. He grimaced; a headache was coming on now.....

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A...a reindeer?

Mei didn't recognize the name, although it sounded vaguely familiar in the same, nagging way a certain color combination on a flower sparked her memory. She could only assume she'd heard of reindeer in passing from one of the whitetail deer in the Woods, because it only made sense - after all, she had never traveled north past Canterlot, so the only place she could have possibly heard of different species of deer was, well. Surrounded by more deer.

But it was a little embarrassing that she had mistaken the other for a whitetail deer, because now that the truth was out, it was entirely apparent that he was anything but. His legs, for example, were thicker and more stout than the slender and almost fragile-looking legs of a whitetail, and he sported a very impressive floof! on his chest, the kind that made her inner foal want to bury her snout in just to feel the pillowy-looking hair against her cheeks. The most puzzling part of the Reindeer, however, had to be his antlers - they were entirely smaller, smaller than her own, and rather blunt on both ends, indicating their continued growth.

He was a handsome youth to be sure, but his being was a conundrum of mixed facts, a large body blended with short antlers. How old was this Reindeer?

And hard on the heels of that question, Mei couldn't help but be just a little bit impressed at the words this Reindeer had spoken, of great crystal and metal spires, of serene woodlands. Well, she had the woodlands - but great crystal spires! The imagery was enough to prompt a gusty sigh from the young mare, only half paying attention to the dog her newfound companion was shooing away.

Garden Gait had been nothing but a blessing to her growing aromatherapy practice, but...well, the young Qilin still wondered what was out there, from time to time. What sort of wondrous sights were laying in wait around Equestria, that she simply wasn't aware of.

Like Reindeer. And Ohdeers.

So caught up in her imaginations as she was, it took Mei a moment to understand why the Reindeer was suddenly clasping a hoof to his forehead, as if under great duress. The spilled ink was continuing to ooze its smarmy way down the boulder face, thankfully away from her raised elevation, but that didn't stop a tiny jolt of guilt as the Reindeer's forlorn expression. It wasn't her fault, she hadn't meant to startle him!...but oh, his poem was ruined as well, that was probably what had him so upset. Those took a long to make. Why, her village even had an old folk tale about a poetic who'd spent twenty years secluded in a mountain cave to write the famous haiku, Of Love and Its Song.

And then her parents had ruined it by telling her it was just a story meant to instruct young foals to always give their everything into a given task, but no way was she living out her prime in a musty old cave.

"Sorry I startled you," Mei eventually said, genuine regret coating her voice as she scoot as close as she could towards the Reindeer, heedless of their close proximity as she squished against his side to observe the ruined parchment better. "Was it very hard?" she questioned sympathetically, with a jab of her snout towards said parchment, "your poem, I mean? Was it very hard to write? Maybe I can help you transcribe it again? I have some parchment at home..."

Or she thought she did. Had she used it all to doodle her dream empress' gown? She couldn't remember.
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  • 2 weeks later...



Just as quickly as the proto-headache manifested itself, it was overshadowed as soon as the Qilin moved in close enough that her side pressed against Lími’s. While the mare might not have acted all that mindful of their close proximity, the adolescent buck keenly noted every sensation. For the most part, the Qilin’s coat felt soft as Lími expected from a pony, but the caribou was hypersensitive to those areas on the mare’s upper legs coated with hard scales, like those of a dragon. And it might have been his over-stimulated imagination playing tricks, but Lími swore that he could feel the faint rumbling of a fire smouldering within the Qilin’s stomach. Well, she was supposed to be part-dragon...

Lími wasn’t granted much time to dwell on the eyebrow-raising situation, for the Qilin did not take long with her apologizing to remind the caribou lad of his ruined poem. As he inspected the pages in his parchment stack, the young buck’s heart couldn’t assign any blame for his work’s ruination on the trespassing mare. With the initial horror of the accident scene wearing off, Lími now found the Qilin’s guilt to be a more worrisome concern. The more he thought about it, the more Lími understood his fleeting misfortune to be well worth the cost of meeting the chimeric mare. There was just... something special about her that the adolescent couldn’t put his cloven hoof on.

First things first however; the Qilin’s overture. “.....Your offer is gracious,” Lími articulated after several seconds, during which time he found a blank scroll and used it to start wiping the spilled ink off their boulder; “...But I cannot accept it. You needn't part with something so valuable on my account.” The caribou buck knew full well his people's’ laws of hospitality; to not abuse the generosity of one’s host and otherwise be a burden. In a land as harsh as Whitescar, allowing a traveler to overstay their welcome by even the slightest margin could prove a costly oversight to a household. No matter what, Lími dared not let this magnificent Qilin view him as burdensome.

The caribou’s ink-deprived dog now focused her attention on the stranger, pawing at the rock in an attempt to smell the mare. Meanwhile, Lími stole glances at the compelling Qilin every so often as he cleaned up the inky mess. The buck mentally debated for several moments whether he should open up to the mare about his tribulations, having been so long accustomed to keeping his gifts a secret. However, after rationalizing that an Equestrian with their battle-avoiding ways was not likely to chastise him over the matter, Lími realized that at long last, perhaps he had a potential confidante right before his very eyes!

“I confess to experiencing much toil with this poem,” the lad mustered the courage to speak up; “Where I hail from, flowers are a scarce sight. We have precious few words with which to describe such landscapes as this... Garden Gait. I had hoped to convey what I’ve seen here, but success,” Lími’s expression turned sour; “Has proven elusive.”

It did not naturally occur to Lími to ask the Qilin for help in his poetic endeavors. As far as the caribou knew, individuals like himself, with the ability to masterfully transform thoughts and speech into written words, were extremely few and far between. Never did it cross his mind that there were cultures beyond Whitescar that valued the art of writing far more than the ability to defeat foes in combat.

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So, that was a bit strange, wasn't it?


At least she thought so. But then, what did she know of Reindeers and Ohdeers? 


It was that lack of knowledge that prompted the blue Qilin to keep her snout shut as she watched, a bit bemusedly, as the Reindeer mopped up his spilled ink with another roll of parchment. Her first thought had simply been a differing of financial status, the fact that a spare piece of parchment could be deemed valuable enough not to separate it from its owner - namely herself, in this instance - but the young Reindeer thought nothing of wasting an entire roll simply to clean up his mess. Clearly, then, the materialistic value of parchment wasn't at issue here...perhaps it was a cultural thing? Did Reindeers simply place high value on any proffered gift, from a single piece of parchment to the richest gems, and as such simply deigned to accept them? 


To refuse any and all gifts...what a wretched thought. Poor Reindeer!


Horrible thoughts on never accepting surprise packages of honeycomb or jasmine rice from the village elders were, thankfully, pushed out of the Qilin's mind, as the dog that had been loitering around the base of the rock suddenly began expressing more interest in her presence. It was quite a beautiful creature, not that Mei had any real experience with canines. She'd heard they made good companions, however, a fact made evident by the dog's relatively calm and respectful demeanor. The young Qilin indulged the creature by lowering her tufted tail over the edge of the boulder, just low enough for the dog to sniff and catch her scent if he - she? - so chose,  before once again returning her attention onto the young Reindeer against her side.


Who was in the middle of confessing yet another horrible Reindeer secret.

"No flowers?" Mei gaped intelligibly, never minding the exact words the Reindeer had spoken in favor of the fact that Reindeer, apparently, did not even have the words to describe a scene such as the one before them, flowers were so scarce. But - ah, of course, he'd mentioned his origins in the Far North, and what Mei knew of the Far North was cold, and ice. And stinking Caribou. It was no wonder the poor Reindeer had been at a loss, no doubt trapped in those conditions for most of his life!


At least the parts not spent traveling to great spires and serene woodlands, of course. 


"How horrible," the young Qilin bemoaned, eyes flitting downwards towards the smudges of ink stubborning clinging onto the rock face. "To not even have words to express..." Mei gestured vaguely around the area as a whole, her mind still galloping a league a minute. True, poets often had difficulties expressing their feelings in a manner that was beautiful and flowing, and not...well, a random mishmash of words that made little sense together. Mei would know - she'd had to grow out of an artistic phase in her foalhood years, where she had been determined to become a performer of the dramatic arts in the Royal Palace - but it was as entirely different matter to simply...not have the words. 


That was simply no good. 


In the span of a second, Mei's face changed - the sorrowful look fled in favor of staunch determination, and without any warning the blue Qilin was headbutting the Reindeer, mindful to keep her horns out of the way but using as much force as her awkward positioning would allow anyways. Despite said awkwardness, it was enough force to knock the Reindeer off of the boulder and onto the soft grass, and Mei wasted no time hopping down after him. "You need something a little closer to home, is all," the Qilin determined, and with a toss of her head Mei was off, a slow but steady trot as she headed back onto the side path that led around and up the cliffside. "Come on, this way!" she called over her shoulder, fully confident that the Reindeer would follow her, "before the sun starts setting!" 


Well...it would be a while before that happened, but still. No dawdling! 


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It was a strange thing to see someone express so much remorse over another lacking the words to describe flowers. In Lími’s case, even with all his awe over the colorful petaled plants of Garden Gait, the lad’s inability to compose a poem in their honor brought about little else but annoyance. For this Qilin though, she might as well been a grieving daughter or widow still reeling from losing a loved one. While Lími thought it odd at first, it made him think that perhaps the mare had a-

“Owww- waaaagh!!!!!”

With an unexpected headbutt from the Qilin, Lími lost the Battle of the Rock. As the defeated caribou laid on the grass, all four legs helplessly dangling in the air, Hammer dashed to her fallen master’s side. “No Hammer, that’s not-” Disregarding his protests, the young buck’s canine friend stopped at nothing to lick his face until he was up and well again; “No girl, don’t- hehehehehe, that’s enou- hehe- hehe-”

It took the call of the Qilin to divert the attention of Hammer, who perked up, gave a quick excited bark, and proceeded to chase after Lími’s apparent new friend. Relieved from the ravaging of a dog’s tongue, the adolescent caribou scrambled to get back up on all fours, crying out; “Wait!!!” Lími panicked as he saw the mare walk off without a care in the world, even though she had bidden him to follow. Lími however couldn’t leave without first hurrying to stuff all his belongings under his green cloak. The lingering remnants of the spilled ink would be free to remain until the rains came to wash it away for good.

But that wasn’t all. A fragment of short-term memory resurfaced; Lími had forgotten about the strange metal object he almost fell on earlier. It was not his property, so that meant it belonged to the Qilin... who even now wandered further away! “WAIT!!!!!” Lími again shouted helplessly; faced with no other choice, he slid a foreleg through what appeared to be a handle, grunting as he felt it was full with liquid contents. No matter the burden of this extra item, the floofy reindeer wished not to inconvenience the fascinating Qilin further by being responsible for her being parted from important belongings.

Huffing relentlessly, Lími galloped heroically to catch up with Hammer and the Qilin, carrying the juggling container with him; “STOP!!! ..Stop! I beg you..... go no further!!!” Eventually with a mighty effort, the young buck finally reached his companions just as they were about to ascend a jagged path heading up the cliffside, a more narrower and steeper trail than the East Road the caribou traveled in the morning. Sweating and panting, Lími presented the container to the Qilin; “I... believe... this is yours.....” In spite of his heavy labors and the turmoil suffered by his lungs, the caribou's eyes sparkled with pride.

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Was...was it the path with the roses bordering its beginning? Or was it the one with the slight twisty-loop at the edge of the first cliff?


Bah, she could never remember, no matter how many seasons came and went. Her hometown had been small, rural, one road in and one road out. And utterly flat as well, what with the rice paddies to take care of. Garden Gait was exceedingly similar in most regards...sans flats. Less flats and more cliffs. And while the East Road marked the major pathway into and out of the village, several generations of hooves scaling and discovering safe passage up and down the cliffside made for a few smaller, less optimized pathways for the wayward traveler to travel down.


Of course, that was ignoring the fact that the East Road did, in fact, scale up the cliffside and made for a much easier climb up to the top. But there was no fun in taking the Road up to the top, none at all, for the large road lacked the natural beauty of a smaller, less traveled path. 

And it also lacked one of her favorite spots in Garden Gait, and - ah-hah, here it was!


But before the Qilin could began tromping up the crooked and less trodden path in front of her, the wheezing voice of her companion caught her ears, prompting an inquisitive "Hm?" as she turned towards him, a familiar watering can dangling on his foreleg. Oh! She'd completely forgotten about it in the field, too excited in sharing the special landscaping of her home with the strange traveler. "Just leave it," Mei ordered, with a wave of one hoof towards the ground at the start of the trail, "and come on!" 


The path was just wide enough for two ponies to stand side by side, but for sake of ease, Mei chose to take the lead, tail swishing merrily behind her. Garden Gait was so reclusive and out of the way, that it often served as nothing more than a brief resting point for travelers on their way to Canterlot. Rarely did anyone stay long enough to partake in the sights of the rural village, a fact that Mei was going to capitalize on even if she had to give up her entire day to do it. And she was certain her newfound companion would be awe-struck by the sight she would show him, undoubtedly inspiring a well of poetic words from the young Reindeer. The young Reindeer, who was...


...Who, was he?


"Hey, what's your name?" the blue Qilin abruptly demanded, not stoping in her walk even though she threw an inquisitive look over her shoulder towards the Reindeer, as if paying attention to the somewhat precarious hoofing was of little to no consequence to her. "I am Lián Mei, but you may call me Mei," she added, ears perking slightly.


The sound of a roaring waterfall was growing louder in her ears, causing a bright smile to steal over her face. They could rest in her second favorite spot within Garden Gait, for the young Reindeer to catch his breath. 

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After all the scrambling and the running and the yelling, Lími’s effort to bring back the liquid container proved to be a big waste of time. Well, he didn’t know for certain; the only thoughts occurring to him were those of anxiety as the adolescent realized he’d have to swiftly dispose of the object. One could never just place something on the side of the road and expect it to still be there when they came back; not in Whitescar, certainly. Whatever Lími needed to do to conceal the Qilin’s property, he’d have to do it soon because his companion did not seem to be the waiting sort.

Unaccustomed to thinking on his feet, Lími settled on a thick bush by the edge of the path. It may not have been ideal, but unwary eyes probably wouldn’t expect to find a container behind an average ordinary plant. Once that business was taken care of, Lími followed the Qilin as she began the ascent up the cliff. Hammer trailed behind the others, keeping her eyes and ears out for anything of interest.

The East Road down into the valley had been a very tolerable one, for it had been built with transporting cart-carried goods in mind. This path up the northern slope was very different; they hadn’t even travelled that far up yet, and Lími already felt the beginnings of vertigo coming over him out of fear of misstepping and taking a tumble off the cliff. Trepidation filled the young buck’s heart, causing him to breathe even more deeply as he struggled up the path’s steep gradient.

It was thus profoundly amazing and heart-stopping for Lími to witness the Qilin - Lián Mei her name was - trot forward on the treacherous path without bothering to look forward. Lími wanted so badly to warn the mare that she was at risk of stepping over the edge; it then occurred to the caribou that as a local villager, Mei would undoubtedly know everything about the lay of the land. An outsider telling the Qilin to show more caution in her own backyard would have been cause for great offense!

After several seconds of deliberation, Lími decided it was best to simply answer her question without expressing further concern. “Lími!” the caribou spoke up loudly, the roar of a nearby waterfall turning more overpowering with each passing step; “A-at your service!” He paused for a brief moment to place a hoof over his chest, nodding his head as a gesture of greeting. Then it was back to following Mei.

With Lími granted a moment to forget about the heights, another question came to the forefront of his mind; one that had nagged the adolescent for some time. “If..... if I may ask,” the caribou lad asked with hesitation; “Where are you leading me!?” Mei expressed her intention earlier of helping Lími with his poem on flowers, yet Lími couldn’t perceive how this trek through nature was supposed to help.

The caribou also couldn’t stop worrying about that liquid container he left behind; or rather, what important purpose Mei had with it before she was sidetracked by Lími’s presence on that boulder. The young buck desperately wished that his poetic struggles wouldn’t end up massively interfering with whatever important errand the Qilin was running. No viking caribou would ever approve of neglecting one’s duties in the service of unessential pursuits; survival in hostile Whitescar depended on it. Lími therefore couldn’t grasp why Mei thought his poem on flowers so utterly important that at the blink of an eye, she chose to ignore everything else she obviously set out to do in order to aid a complete stranger. Nothing made sense.....

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Ooh, how formal! Mei was momentarily blindsided with an image of herself fully regaled in an Empress' vestments, walking down the steps of the Palace while the captain of her royal guard crossed hooves in front of his chest as a sign of his undying allegiance to her. Her robe would be blood-red, of course, trimmed with gold, while her royal guard would be dressed in shining silver. Or - or black obsidian, dark and threatening to any who would harm her! Yes...she could even imagine one like Lími at the forefront, herself guarded by a species both like and unlike the Qilin. 


Except larger than Lími. And bulkier. And taller. And with antler racks of behemoth proportions. 


A sweet smile stole over Mei's face at the Reindeer's answer, tail flopping to and fro even more vigorously as the young Qilin resumed her path up the side of the cliff. His name seemed fitting for him - now that she actually new it. Maybe it was the cute vowel sound at the end of it, similarly to how her parents had called her Mei-Mei, or how a young foal substituted 'doggy' for 'dog'. It was both utterly adorable and entirely fitting.


If she'd had any second guesses about her decision to bring him to her second favorite spot in Garden Gait, they were rapidly disappearing by wont of a simple name. Limi was turning out to be a fine companion, made even more so apparent by his appreciation for the natural world around him, and Mei didn't think the young Reindeer could ever change that - even if he did something completely crazy, like magically transforming into a Caribou right before her eyes! 


The roar of the waterfall was growing ever louder however, causing Mei to break out of her thoughts in favor of sending another dazzling grin towards her newfound companion. "Watch your hooves!" the blue Qilin cautioned, bellowing at the top of her lungs as she rounded the bend in the pathway - and with good reason, as the waterfall made it almost impossible to hear anything other than the sound of churning water. It was one of the smaller and thinner ones, true, but their close proximity to it made the waterfall sound three times as loud as it did from the base. With the pathway leading directly under the waterfall, it was an unfeasible feat to pass by without some of the spray getting her a bit wet, but it was a mere mist compared to the veritable shower one got by passing underneath the larger waterfalls to the north.


And almost as soon as the path ducked underneath the waterfall, the way opened up into an alcove, naturally formed deep to the pouring water. It looked almost like a wide-open cave, except for the fact that it only went about ten feet deep into the cliffside. Perhaps even stranger were the small, purple flowers growing atop of moss-imbued rocks within the area. Still, it provided ample room for a small group of ponies to simply sit on top of the moist rock - which is exactly what Mei did.


"A quick stop, before we continue our way,"  the blue Qilin explained, not having to yell quite as loud but still needing to raise her voice to be heard over the waterfall. "Quite beautiful, don't you think?" she questioned, though she was certain she already knew his answer as she gestured out at the waterfall. With the sun refracting against the falling water and the village below both distorted yet visible from within the alcove, this little spot was high up on Mei's favorite places in Garden Gait. "I always stop in here for a bit, on my way up or down the cliffs. Most of the others don't bother because they want to reach the top...but, I don't mind it. More space for me!"

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Lími never did get an answer to his question, but he did earn a vibrant smile from Lián Mei for telling her his name. Although the caribou still agonized over how he led his qilin companion away from her important business, that mental image of Mei’s smile and her colorful tail flopping about also couldn’t be dislodged. Perhaps there was hope at the end of all this; hope that Mei would not suffer a terrible consequence by leading Lími this far out of the way.

One bend of the road later, and the two trekkers found themselves beholding a raging waterfall. It had been one thing for Lími to see them from the valley floor, but up here, he felt as if trodding on forbidden territory. Unexpectedly, the lad’s thoughts turned to one of his Sagas, about a wandering warrior who travelled the mysterious lands at the eastern end of the Sea. In one tale, the warrior encountered a serpentine dragon whose lair resided in a cave behind a waterfall. The dragon-snake waited for unwary travelers to get close enough before lunging its head outside, snatching its victim, and then dragging it back behind the waterfall.

Per the usual tradition of Sagas, the viking caribou vanquished the monstrous dragon-snake after a fierce battle.

Reminiscing on the story made Lími pause in place, half-wondering whether such a serpent would ambush him and Mei. It took several seconds to realize that no such breed of dragon had ever been reported in Equestria, plus the young buck witnessed Mei trotting onwards without hesitation. Not desiring to be left behind again, Lími followed the qilin under the falls and let himself be sprayed with water.

As if Lími’s will was transforming his thoughts to power, Mei had led the two to a waterfall-carved cave. It was hardly big enough to fit a dragon inside, but the inside resembled his mental imagery close enough, save for the purple flowers growing on top of the moss. This sight puzzled the caribou, as he was led to believe that all flowers required sunlight to thrive. Behind him, Lími heard his dog shaking herself dry of the waterfall’s spray.

What struck Lími the most was how cool the air was inside the cave; it almost felt like he was back home in Whitescar. Undoubtedly, the caribou’s still-wet fur was adding to the chill, although being adapted to snowy environments ensured his discomfort was minor. Sitting down next to Mei, Lími nodded as an affirmative to her question. Yet truth be told, it wasn’t the transformative experience that seeing the great flower field was. Regardless, Lími perceived an air of magic to this cave; it wasn’t everyday that he saw a ceaseless torrent of water distort the view to the outside.

And certainly not with a companion as enchanting as Lián Mei.

No longer dwelling on his anxieties, Lími found the freedom again to steal glances at the mare. With only a little bit of extra imagination required, the caribou envisioned himself and Mei trapped by a blizzard in a cave just like this one. Lími pictured himself as larger and taller than his current self, because why not fantasize an idealized, viking-worthy image of one’s self? To get warm, Mei would bury her form in Lími’s ample fur, nuzzling the caribou’s neck in contentment. All the while, the sound of a panting dog filled the-

Hammer’s breath brought Lími back to reality; exhausted from the journey, the caribou’s dog sat in front of her master to illicit affectionate petting. Lími quietly gasped as he realized how embarrassing his daydream was, but the lad came to and begun to rub Hammer’s back. Despite the awkwardness of it all, Lími then reasoned that the qilin might potentially be feeling more chilly because she lacked his winter-made fur. Out of courtesy, the adolescent caribou stammered; “A-a... are you warm, M-Mei?”

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Yes, her companion was clearly pleased with his experience, of that there was no doubt.


And why wouldn't he be? Small little alcoves like this were numerous amongst the towering cliffs of Garden Gait, true, but a rare view boasted such an interesting and unique view of the valley. Though there was something to be said about sitting at the back of a cave and having a clear, unfiltered view of the night sky just beyond, a sense of cloying blackness on all walls of the cave except the one with pinpointed specks of starlight dotting its canvas...but that was another cave, one that, maybe, Mei would be generous enough to share with the Reindeer at her side. 


Speaking of, the blue Qilin couldn't help but notice how at ease Lími seemed inside the alcove. Despite the wonderful weather outside, the waterfall formed a natural blockade against the sunlight and trapped the cool air from the natural formation inside, all in all creating a rather chilled atmosphere that the few others she'd insisted on bringing inside found a bit uncomfortable. Not to mention the liberal misting any venturers needed to undertake to move into the alcove. Ponies especially seemed ill-at-ease to stay for extended amounts of time, and even -

- ah, ah-hah! Of course, that would explain it. Lími wasn't a pony - er, not that she'd forgotten that fact or anything. She was just so used to visitors reacting a certain way that it was sometimes startling to see them...not. 


Hmm. It was probably all that far...ponies didn't have excessive amounts of fur, and neither did Qilin. Except on their ankles. Deer did not boast thick amounts of fur either...but then again, Lími was no ordinary deer. He did say he was from the North...it only made sense for his kind to have lots of fur, she supposed. Lots of thick, warm fur, that begged a Qilin to stick her snout in them just to feel like she was laying her head on a fluffy pillow of clouds...


Those thoughts were abruptly stymied, however, when her companion suddenly spoke up, prompting an inquisitive look from the blue Qilin. "Oh," she exclaimed after a brief pause, "oh, no, not at all. I don't get too much cold from anything, really." Of course, she'd never been tested against a bitter, frozen blizzard or anything of the sort - but the Reindeer didn't need to know that.


...Although, he would probably want to know of some other things, prompting another sly smile to steal over the Qilin's face. "See?" she said unhelpfully, before rearing her head back, sucking in a deep breath - and exhaling it from her mouth. The fire burned pale yellow in color, hardly visible and more in line with the heat waves a pony saw in a dry and arid desert, and dissipated harmlessly into the churning waterfall.


Almost immediately however, the temperature in the alcove rose, the chilly air turning into a more pleasantly in the warmer direction. The dampness of the alcove inhibited the effect of her breath somewhat, making the alcove seem more akin to a lukewarm sauna, but a few more breaths would be no trouble at all. 


If he asked for another demonstration, that was. 


Feeling pleased with herself, Mei shot the Reindeer a smile full of teeth. "It's on account of our magic, I think," the Qilin extrapolated, though with some hesitance in her voice given that she had never invested too much into magical training, "and the way it forms inside us...or something. See?" Mei sought to prove her point by pressing her body up against Lími, and most specifically her belly, forelegs held out to each side in order to make room for the contact of her stomach and the Reindeer's side. There was an unquestionable warmth along the underside of her body, enough heat to be differentiable from the natural warmth that nearly all ponies exhibited. "Honestly, I don't know much about it, but, I know it starts in my belly because I can feel it there. And then it just - FWOOSH!" 


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Lími had not even finished asking his question to Mei first before questioning the wisdom of his actions. Just by looking at his companion with a stare longer than two seconds, the caribou could tell than Mei wasn’t really all that cold either. No signs of shivering were apparent on the qilin’s part, nor any other sign of temperature-related discomfort. Unlike Lími, Mei didn’t require a thick, furry coat to stay warm inside the cool and damp alcove.

So it was that Lími was not surprised when Mei answered that she felt no coldness at all. Perhaps the young buck wouldn’t have been so quick to ask his inquiry had he remembered their time earlier on the boulder, when the caribou perceived something akin to a furnace rumbling in Mei’s inwards. Well, he was about to get a reminder on what gets blasted out of a qilin’s stomach!

Virtually every caribou has been told stories of ferocious dragons with potent blasts of fire, but not all have had the “honor” of encountering one face-to-face. Lími was one such sheltered lad; lacking the frame of reference of an actual witnessing of dragonfire, the caribou audibly gawked at Mei’s paltry fire haze as if it one of the most wondrous things in the world. Yet another thing to add to Lími’s list on what made Lián Mei such a mystical mare.

Once the qilin tried explaining the nature of her inner magic, the situation took a turn toward the awkward real fast. Lími’s cheeks burned with the scalding heat that only a flush could accomplish; he imagined that he’d run for the hills if anyone (particularly Jarl Sigrun) saw how this unknown dragon mare pressed her scaled belly against his fluffy side. At least now Lími knew for certain his imagination hadn’t been playing tricks on him earlier.

Aside from Mei’s undeniable warmth, there was also the strange sensation of her belly scales, which was unlike any other thing Lími ever felt on a living creature before. Gone was cozy softness; replaced with firm hardness. The young buck was rather reminded of a warrior’s protective armor, although Mei’s stomach was far warmer. So it did not appear that a qilin’s stomach was all that comfortable; nonetheless, Lími became hard-pressed to think of anyone else he’d want to be snowbound with other than the colorful fire-breathing mare next to him.

Thinking about the magical qualities of his qilin companion wetted Lími’s appetite for additional knowledge. Calling back to what he learned of the species through his readings, the still-blushing adolescent - who couldn’t decide whether he was supposed to enjoy Mei’s extreme proximity or not - asked her; “I..... I have also heard that the qilin are capable of feats of spellbinding sorcery with your flames. Some tales even describe your kind as the Unicorns of the East. A-are... are the legends true?”

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Lími seemed appropriately astonished by her demonstration, a fact that had the vibrantly colored Qilin need preening as she pressed her belly against the Reindeer's side for inspection. Ah yes, it never got old, seeing the looks of amazement and awe on the faces of ponies as she breathed fire and set all their hearts ablaze! 


...Of course, her Fire element left a little something to be desired...not that is particularly difficult for her, in and of itself, but it definitely wasn't an element she had tried cultivating while she'd still been in her learning phase. She hadn't thought she'd really need it, after all - what use was fire in the business of flowers and plants?! That had seemed so contrary to her efforts. But as it turned out, a careful fire was sometimes a boon to flora, destroying infections or replenishing old soil with fresh nutrients and a better environment to grow in. Oh sure, the same could be accomplished with flint and tinder, she supposed, but breath magic was just so much more...elegant. 


That, and she could never make the spark without singing her tufts. 


Mei's inner thoughts on misbehaving tinder boxes were, however, thrown off track as her companion spoke again, this time contributing what amounted to his own knowledge on her species. "Oh, well," the young Qilin sniffed, dropping her forelegs but not bothering to remove herself from Lími's side, "I wouldn't call us the 'Unicorns of the East', so much - in fact, one could argue that Unicorns are the 'Qilins of the West!'" Mei countered, flipping her mane over her shoulder as her bells jingled merrily. 


...Alright yes, so, she wasn't quite sure on that count, seeing as she had never paid too much attention to history. But she did know that some Qilin elders insisted on ponykind's existence stemming from their eastern cousins, rather than the other way 'round, citing the age and wisdom of the Serpent Dragons and the specification of different Qilin traits into ponies, deers, and dragons. In the end, she supposed it mattered little.


"But yes," Mei added after a moment, a pleased little grin finding its way onto her face again, "those that dedicate themselves to the study of Breath Magic are capable of the most amazing feats! We Qilin can breathe the Five Elements as no others can!" Well...except dragons of course, but as youths they were bound to only one Element, utilizing it to great effect, but still only the singular. 


...Well, except Elder dragons of course - but that was neither then nor now!


At this point, the young Qilin was almost sorry that she had not spent more of her youth studying and cultivating her breath magic. Oh, so many summers spent frolicking through the rice paddies and the forest behind her home...though, she still had a trick or four up her tufts. Those, she would save for later, perhaps at the top of the cliff when Lími would be sore and aching from the climb, and she would gracefully spin on her hooves and WHOOSH! 


Ah - but, only when the Reindeer was safely away from the brink. Stiff muscles suddenly relaxing against the edge of a cliffside, would...not be optimal. 


"And you?" Mei questioned, keen on turning the conversation away from herself so she could save the surprise of her other Breaths for later, "what of Reindeer? I'd never heard of Reindeers before today," the Qilin admitted, unabashedly. "Do you have any magic? Warfare? What is your home country?" 

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Despite Lími realizing he probably caused offense by implicitly framing qilin as a mere sub-branch of the unicorn species, he found it within himself to laugh at Mei’s assertive retort. Clearly, the qilin was endowed with a fiery spirit that matched her fiery hair and tufts. Assuming Mei wouldn’t be frightened off by the sight of a fully-grown caribou cow, Lími suspected that Jarl Sigrun would very much approve of Mei. Admittedly, there was also something charming about how the dragon mare flipped her mane; maybe it was how the soft ringing of her bells amplified the presence of Mei’s more-than-ordinary mane.

Concentrating his mind on such matters, Lími’s smile lingered longer than it otherwise would have. But that smile all but vanished once Mei started another barrage of questions. The young buck knew that sooner or later, the qilin would become inquisitive about his own origins; where he came from, what his people were like, and so forth. Right up until this moment, Lími got along just fine by hiding his identity as a caribou; even by using an alternate name for his species. However, the adolescent needed to be even more clever now if he didn’t want to blow things by scaring Mei off. Lími wanted to be perceived in these lands as just a budding warrior who’d terrorize the realms once he came of age.

Needing to clear his mind of distractions, Lími stopped petting Hammer, got up, and walked a few steps forward so that he no longer felt Mei on his side. As he trotted closer toward the waterfall’s uncaring spray, he incidentally gave the mare her first unobstructed view of his flank tattoo without realizing it. After Lími took a few deep breaths, the maturing caribou turned sideways in trepidation, hoping what he was about to say would satisfy Mei’s thirst of knowledge for good.

“I...” the lad gulped; “I am of Clan Askr. We are but one clan of the Vikingr.” Lími once again obscured the truth by employing the name for his people in the Old Tongue, which sounded to other ears as ‘veek-in-gear’. With any luck, Mei wouldn’t put two-and-two together by figuring out that Vikingr was the root word for Viking.

“The land we call home is not a hospitable place,” Lími further elaborated, daring not to utter the name Whitescar; “In certain places, the blizzards blow so fiercely that they can rip off the thickest fur in a matter of seconds. Malevolent dragons prowl as they please, burning and destroying anything that is left undefended. And there are dark terrors too; clinging to this mortal world so fiercely that not even Death itself can stop them.” The caribou paused for a moment, pondering an eloquent euphemism to summarize the warrior mindset of his species; “.....We do what we must to survive.”

With the more frightful stuff out of the way, Lími visibly relaxed; “No, reindeer cannot wield magic in the way unicorns or perytons can. The only real difference between our kind and the rest of the Antler-Folk are our thick furs.” That and their imposing size, but the caribou wouldn’t dream of mentioning it. “There’s naught that our fur can do other than keep us warm... or make ourselves useful pillows for others, eh, heh heh, heh heh.....” Lími forced a chuckle for his self-depreciating joke, hoping it’d encourage Mei to laugh and dissuade her from asking further deep inquiries.....

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The young Qilin was a bit nonplussed when her very floofy companion suddenly extracted himself in order to stand nearer to the spray of the waterfall. In fact, he looked to be thinking very deeply of something - or, perhaps, reflecting on how best to answer her inquiries, which caused Mei's eyes to narrow a bit as she intently studied the Reindeer's face for any indication of what he could be feeling. She didn't know why anyone would need to stop and think about their own species, simple questions that were probably answered by their foals on a day to day basis. Uncertainty and lack of knowledge, sure, but Lími looked as if whatever he was thinking of was very intuitive, or profound, or deeply personal -




Had she?...


Had she perhaps stumbled upon - quite accidentally, thank you! - some deep seated pains that the young Reindeer housed? Perhaps...perhaps Lími knew as much about Reindeers as she herself did, through unfortunate circumstances that had left him banished from his own kind - no, wait! Abandoned, perhaps accidentally...or on purpose, because he was heir to the Reindeer throne and he had been taken from the royal palace after siege and waste in order to protect the royal bloodline! And with him traveled only his most trusted guardian and sworn protector, until he could march back into the Imperial City and reclaim his long lost birthright!


Yes, that certainly made the most sense. 


Or would have, if Lími hadn't suddenly begun talking again. Nothing about his first memories being of fire and brimstone, no - but his words may has well have made about as much sense, causing Mei to tilt her head from side to side, as if viewing Lími from different angles might make his words more understandable. So, Reindeer lived among Clans, did they?...but what on Equestria was a Veeking Gear? She'd never heard of such a thing.


The Qilin's confusion, however, was quickly swept under the figurative rug as the young Reindeer continued to speak, her eyes growing a bit wide as he explained the dangers of his home. "How utterly brave," Mei said faintly, more to herself as Lími's words painted a vivid image in her mind's eye. Fierce blizzards sounded bad enough, but...but malevolent dragons? The idea of an Elder Dragon harboring ill-intent on Qilin-kind was a terrifying enough thought as it was without it actually being true.


Poor Lími! Poor Reindeers! 


Mei was so caught up in the horrifying image of a rampant Elder ravaging the Imperial City, that she almost missed the Reindeer's next words. As it was, it took her a while to realize Lími was simply joking, and the traces of consternation vanished in the wake of accompanying laughter. "Pillows are a magic of their own, my friend," Mei chortled, thinking of her modest little home with its bamboo mat and rather lumpy pillow, "I could never underestimate their power!"  


Speaking of power...Mei still had a mission, to power her companion's poem with a once-in-a-lifetime view from Garden Gait. There was still time before the sun set, but with visions of rampaging dragons and bleak winters and dark terrors running through her head, the Qilin was more determined than ever to give Lími something to write about that wasn't so very horrible. "C'mon," Mei ordered, picking herself up and carefully brushing off the tufts on her ankles and tail, "we best keep moving. Not too much further, now!" And assuming the Reindeer and his dog would follow, she ducked herself back under the mist of the waterfall, opposite of where they had entered to continue on the trail.


Said trail, most likely condensed thanks to ponies passing underneath the waterfall, was now wider spread on the other side, safely large for three bodies to walk side by side. This, Mei did, waiting for Lími to catch up before continuing onwards. This was one of the more direct routes up the cliffside - it would reach the summit of one of the lower cliffs, leaving wide open space for them to traverse to the very highest ridge with the best view - but still, Mei realized she had failed to inquire about the Reindeer's plans for the day. She didn't remember him mentioning a traveling companion, or anything of the sort, but that didn't mean he hadn't already made preparations for...well. Something else. 


"Do you have plans for the evening time," Mei questioned, her tail brushing up against his side as they walked. Unlike the pony cousins of Equestria, her tail decidedly did not fall straight downwards like a particularly sad looking little worm, but instead maintained a somewhat horizontal balance due to the tailbone, and even curled up slightly at the very end. It made for pretty posturing, but did also include a lot of sashaying when she walked. "We should be reaching our destination soon, but ah...I never asked if you had a schedule to comply with. Or, some traveling companion waiting for your return from the garden?"

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To Lími’s relief, Mei found his reindeer-pillow joke rather funny. Not only that, but she seemed to agree on the importance of having something soft and comfortable to lay one’s head on. Which made Lími wonder; do caribou really make exceptional pillows for equines? The boy recalled bone-chilling winter nights back home when he slept with his foster mother Sigrun to stay extra toasty, which in Whitescar spelled the difference survival and oblivion. The Jarl herself served as a very fluffy pillow indeed. Thus did Lími’s mind imagined Mei using the antlered lad in a similar fashion, the qilin’s hair bells softly jingling as gently laid her head onto Lími’s belly-

ARRRGH!!! Not those daydreams again! They’ve been inconveniently popping up in Lími’s mind ever since the pair arrived in this alcove. What was it about the qilin mare that made the adolescent’s thoughts go haywire? No other individual Lími has met has ever made feel this way. If only he could figure out why.....

That would have to wait til later however; Mei advised that they get a move on. This far into the day, Lími was starting to forget why they were even climbing up the cliffside to begin with. Recollections on failed flower poetry were the furthest thing from his mind; as far as the young buck was concerned, he followed Mei for its own pleasant sake, and nothing more. Brushing off his own fur, Lími did as the qilin instructed, sharply whistling to let Hammer know to begin trailing the two travelers again.

The path widened past the waterfall, allowing for Lími and Mei to walk side-by-side if they chose to. With his legs haven’t not been completely rested from the first leg of the climb, Lími ended up slightly lagging behind his qilin companion by a tiny bit; just enough for his side to be repeatedly swatted by Mei’s tail. In a way, Lími was thankful for wearing that cloak of his; without it, he believed he would have been tickled to death by his guide’s colorful tuft. Nonetheless, the lad couldn’t bring himself to either walk faster or slower; for whatever reason, it just felt right.

Additionally, Lími finally his first good look at Mei’s cutie mark. It looked like a pink flower indeed, but unlike any the caribou saw in the Great Garden of Garden Gait. He thought it rather odd, the one flower appearing on Mei’s flank also the one that hasn’t been spotted anywhere near her own village.

Lími was so wrapped up in this enigma that his eyes remained mostly fixed on Mei’s flank when she asked further questions about travel plans. Yanked back again into reality by the sound of Mei’s inquiring voice, Lími gasped as he hurriedly averted his gaze back towards the path. The adolescent buck didn’t want Mei to perceive him as foul-mannered for staring too long at someone in a potentially rude manner!

Further flustering Lími was the fact that until now, he had not once thought about the time he and Hammer were supposed to return to Jarl Sigrun at the local inn. To be precise, they were due back an hour before sundown. Although the caribou supposed that it would be selfish of him to leave his guardian worrying over him, Lími realized that he’d potentially never see Mei again after today. Would it be such a crime then to squeeze as much time in with the eye-pleasing qilin as he possibly could, even if it meant rebelling against his Jarl’s wishes. Considering that Lími never once dared to disobey Sigrun until today, this was quite the momentous milestone in the lad’s life.

Once he thought things through, Lími had his answer prepared. “It is true that I travel in the company of others, but they uhhhh... I won’t be missed if I fail to arrive at the Inn by nightfall.” The caribou scratched the back of his neck as he shot a nervous smile Mei’s way; a telltale sign that Lími outright lied. But upon suddenly remembering the container left behind at the start of the ascending path, he then asked with feelings of reemerged guilt; “W-will you need the evening to complete your errands for the day?”

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Ah, good! Lími was hers for the rest of the evening, and possibly encroaching upon nightfall.


Then they had more than enough time, a fact that made a pleased smile cross over the young Qilin's features. After all, reaching the summit was only a scant portion of this little venture - it would serve as inspiration, yes, but the real work would only be done by the Reindeer's own hooves. It was something all the great poets toiled with, a labor that she could only vaguely sympathize with, having no such spiraling words flowing within herself. Mei could only present him with a sight breathtaking enough to prompt a flow of poetic words onto his parchment. Giving form to those words had to be done by the Reindeer, himself.


"That depends on you, LÍmi," Mei decided in lieu of a direct answer - sounding rather mysterious if she did say so herself, like an Empress prepared to shock her entire court with knowledge and wisdom befitting a wizened old seer rather than a newly enthroned daughter. "We'd best hurry, then!" They were nearing the top of the cliffs anyways, but still, Mei couldn't help but pick up her pace a bit, taking a definitive lead as she pushed the trio further and faster. 


Aiya, sun and moon. She shouldn't have lingered so long in the alcove, should have asked her companion of his time constraints. She hadn't given any thought to the time it would take Lími to write, for words came easiest at the source of inspiration. She hadn't been able to help herself, though - travelers in Garden Gait were common, but visitors? Less so. Ones that took the time to settle themselves amidst the flowers for an afternoon and marvel at their beauty? She could count them on her hooves! Mei was as fascinated by her gentle guest as he probably was of her, even if appreciated being able to show off a little bit. Or a lot. Even for her relatively short time living in the humble town, to Mei it had felt a lifetime of absence from a kindred soul, one who marched to war with parchment and quill instead of sword and shield. 


And served as a remarkably comfortable pillow. That was not a trait one simply, found, on a random pony!


Well. What's done was done, and the only thing Mei could hope for now was a decent amount of time for the young Reindeer to credit images to words. The path was rapidly widening and disappearing as it morphed into a plateau of sorts, the southern cliffside to the East Road. It was not the absolute highest peak - another trail continued to wind upwards, up unforgiving and sheer cliffs that were far more treacherous than the stable and flattened hooving they now stood on - but it was open enough to given an impression of nothing but the sky opening around them. Directly across the large gap that constituted the eastern gate were the northern cliffs, and just barely hidden behind their visage, the gleaming city of Canterlot sparkled on the horizon. To their left, the west, lay her town of Garden Gait, safely nestled in its valley - but it was the east that Mei was concerned with, and with a flick of her head, the Qilin led Lími over to the edge. 


Even before reaching it, the sight Mei had been leading them towards was plain to see. The Garden stretched as far as the eye could see, disappearing along with the East Road into the distance - but from their viewpoint, appeared to continue on for miles. Swaths of colors and shapes bathed the landscape, not a single inch of ground aside from the Road exposed to sky, but instead covered by the flowers Lími had seen close up. So mixed and varied was the flora, that it was impossible to characterize different clumps and patches together. The entire Garden was simply one color - all colors. 


And it was a sight Mei never tired of seeing.


"The Garden is a beautiful sight to see within the field, of course," Mei intoned, voice a bit smug as she seated herself a good distance away from the direct edge of the cliff, "but only a dragon's viewpoint can do it true justice." The Qilin fluffed up her tail a bit before gesturing for the Reindeer to join her, excitement flitting across her features as she eagerly waited to see what flowering words Lími would extract from such a spectacular sight"Is it not inspiring? You will begin your poem anew, yes?" 

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Mei... depended on Lími??? But, how could that be? What did the dragon mare mean by that? Wait, did this mean that... he’d be responsible for forcing Mei to spend her evening doing chores if he didn’t hasten? Why, that’d be awful! Lími would not doom his qilin companion to an evening of toil that needn’t ever happen. Ignoring all the aching of his legs, the young buck picked up his pace to match Mei’s as best he could. Thanks to physical training provided by his Jarl back home (Sigrun had most insisted on it), Lími wouldn’t fall that far behind.

As it were, the pair did not have far to travel until reaching another break in the upward path. This time, it was a cliff top with an extraordinary view of their surroundings. Rather like the vista Lími encountered on the East Road before it descended down to Garden Gait, complete with a Great Garden sprawling for miles and miles. For it was the awe-inspiring vista on the East Road that first opened the caribou’s heart to the Garden’s colorful flowers.

But there was one key difference with this location. Catching Lími’s eye this time around was a shimmering cluster of spires on a mountain off to the north; the first he had ever seen of them. The growing lad read enough on Equestrian lands to make a good guess on what that place was; no other such place existed on this earth. Thus was he transfixed, slowly strolling northward (minding the cliff edge of course) even as the mare maintained her focus on the Garden.

A desire for confirmation rose within Lími, who failed to comprehended how tired his legs really were. “Mei!” He excitedly waved her over, having momentarily paid no attention to what the qilin had been saying. Once Mei came to him, Lími pointed at the distant towers; “Is that the great Equestrian fastness of Canterlot nestled upon yonder mountain?”

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So focused was she on the treasures spread out in the valley below them, that it took Mei an embarrassingly long time to turn her head and realize that Lími was not being appropriately awed by the spectacle splayed out before their eyes. 


She might have been a little miffed at that, if not for the vision the young Reindeer was currently indulging in, and her companion's reverent excitement mollified the Qilin as she obligingly walked over to join him on the other ledge, a smug little grin on her face. While she did wish to travel to the sparkling city sometime in the near future, there was still nothing quite like sitting back to take in the whole view. After all, very few lookout points could boast and eye-level view of Canterlot rather than a view from below looking upwards - or so she surmised. The city, at this height on the cliffs, seemed almost reachable as if she might simply reach out and pluck it from the sky.


And probably fall to her doom by overextending herself. An embarrassing and quite dishonorable end for an Empress!


"It is," Mei answered simply, as if such a majestic sight was far too common for her to take much stock in it now, and never mind the slight smug overtone her voice held. "You've heard of it, far into the North?" It wasn't really an honest question, so much as affirming what Lími had himself confirmed. The young Reindeer was a traveler, and had seen many amazing sights, so it was little wonder he knew of the famed city of ponies, the very seat of power in Equestria. 


His question also affirmed that he, himself, had never visited the city, which meant it would be folly to ply him with questions about those far-away and gleaming towers. Ah, well. Another traveler, perhaps.


That would be for later however, and this was here and now, prompting Mei to once again settle herself against the Reindeer's warm and soft side, as naturally as if they'd been friends from birth. "It is nothing like the Imperial Palace," the young Qilin sniffed dismissively, but couldn't stop the slight sigh that escaped her lips as she leant her head against a very comfortable shoulder, pink eyes staring out at the distant and vast structure. The time was still relatively high, but she knew that those glistening buildings would become awash in a sea of reds and oranges and purples the lower the sun set, refracting and reflecting its beauty outwards. "But someday I wish to go, just to see it." See what it's like, see what it's Empress is like - and there were two of them! 


How strange, and still curious.


"Are your spires similar to those?" Mei questioned abruptly, head tilting upwards slightly so she could get a better look at Lími as she threw more questions at him, "the ones you have visited?"

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Lími only needed to nod to affirm that yes, he indeed heard of Canterlot. Meanwhile, Lián Mei showed she was a curious sort of qilin by showing zero regard for the concept of personal space. Unlike back in the alcove or on the rock, Mei had all the space in the world and yet she still had to brush up against the caribou’s side. This all baffled Lími, so used to keeping a respectable distance away from strangers. Did qilin, or Equestrian folk, simply enjoy physical contact with anyone not as dreadfully imposing as an adult caribou?

This explanation became less likely when Mei reenacted a moment from one of Lími’s daydreams, sigh and all. The young buck had no idea whatsoever what he did to deserve such physical displays of affection from the qilin. Mei was by no means a close friend (not yet anyway), and it was simply absurd to think of her as a lover; not when neither of them had aspired to prove themselves as worthy of the other’s physical intimacy as per Whitescar courtship tradition. And so Lími looked upon distant Canterlot with a thousand-league stare as his brain tortured itself pondering these matters... and whether it would be wise to tell the qilin that it would be more appropriate to not stand together with extreme proximity.

Once again, a rain of questions forced Lími to turn his attention... and gaze, back to Mei. Tilting his head slightly downward, the caribou gulped upon glimpsing the dragon mare’s pools of pink. Just like that, Lími lost the heart to tell Mei of her transgressive intimacy. Aside from the typical fears of causing offense, the poorly understood, primal core hidden within Lími desired gazing into such fair eyes, no matter how much rationality screamed in objection. Given Lími’s typical shyness around unfamiliar... well, anything, this was the first time he’d ever been in a position to face a nerve-wracking dilemma like this one.

Valiantly, the blushing Lími tried answering Mei’s questions as if everything was normal. “N-n-no,” the caribou stammered of course; “Th- the spires I saw were... very much different. Expansive towers, with countless windows, these monoliths were; their tops... scraping the very sky. And it was a city with naught much else but these towers. Manehattan, the ponies call this... maze of towers.”

Lími looked back towards Canterlot, feeling more at ease in his heart and yet... disappointed somehow. The less he thought of Mei, the more he noticed the aching of his hooves from the recent steep climb up the cliffside. “My band of travelers intend next to grace Canterlot with our presence, you may be curious to learn. We-” he hesitated; “.....We leave for Celestia's City on the morrow.”

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He seemed...hot. Physically warm, as if with fever. 


If the young Reindeer hadn't been so earnestly sincere, Mei might have suspected him lying about his species not possessing any magic aside from a thick and comfortable coating of fur. As it was, perhaps the high altitude was making him a bit light-headed, which in turn was causing him to feel a bit faint and feverish...though he seemed well adapted to the atmosphere. He was not swaying from side to side, not tilting dangerously forward towards the vast space below them. All in all he looked normal - ah, except for that flush running rampant across his cheeks, and Mei leaned upwards and forwards a bit to make sure she was not mistaken.


...No, definitely flushed. Why in -


...oh. Oh.


Was it her proximity, then? Mei knew that, in general, the ponies of Equestria were more reserved in their physical contact with one another than the Qilins she knew. Perhaps she was being too bold, too familiar? But oh, he was just so comfortable. She really didn't want to pull away, not as the winds scraping over the tops of the cliffs continued to batter her body every so often, not as the temperatures would begin dropping as night fell. 


Luckily for her, however, Lími made no mention of it, instead answering her questions with delicious aplomb, and whether he was simply too polite to say so or she was completely mistaken about his reddened cheeks was of no importance. The young Qilin sighed again as she leaned her head back onto her companion's shoulder, listening as he spoke of a Manehatten that boosted towering monoliths that pierced the very sky with their height and structure...and such a curious name as well, Manehatten. Whose mane? Whose hat? From the way Lími spoke, the Qilin couldn't help but wonder if this city was anything like the bustling metropolis near the water in her homeland, a city of innovation that represented the new and modern and seemed almost a folktale to her untraveled eyes. 


Much like the city splayed out in front of her eyes at this very moment.


A city that her companion, it seemed, would be getting very much acquaintances with, causing Mei's eyes to bulge slightly as he spoke. "Truly?" the bright blue Qilin exclaimed, head whipping back up to the Reindeer even as a spark of jealousy entered her voice. "That sounds wonderful...wait - tomorrow? " she reiterated, eyes widening even further before she forced herself to turn her head back towards the gleaming city with a slight cough. "That is...so soon?..." 


Oh, ancestors. Of course, he was a traveler, he had said as much the first instances they had met. And of course, most travelers only passed by Garden Gait on their way to Canterlot, or out to the east...but for some reason, Mei had completely forgotten that Lími was making a similar trek. His obvious appreciation of the landscaping around him at tricked Mei into thinking of him as a...a, wandering poet, or a drifting spirit in search of inspiration, prone to settling somewhere near said inspiration for a while. He'd yet to even start working on his poem, or continue working, as it were...a single day could not be enough to find the most appropriate words, could it? Poetry, art, it needed time!


And visuals! 


And...and companions to show you the best sights!


"You've yet to finish your poem, though," Mei mumbled, haphazardly flitting a hoof through the tuft of her tail, which was curled around her body. "Surely your traveling companions would not bereft you a few more days in this village to complete your task?..." 


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It did not escape Lími’s notice that Lián Mei’s enthusiasm waned once she grasped that the caribou was not long for Garden Gait. Lími couldn’t withstand the sight of Mei’s widened eyes, which to him expressed a realization of shocking betrayal. The young buck understood all too well, for the pain of leaving the friendly qilin behind crossed his mind as well. In a land like Whitescar where the strongest friendships were those forged by the throes of battle, bookish kind-hearted caribou like Lími made hardly any close friends. And as the lad suspected, standing in the shadow of the intimidating (if honorable) Jarl Sigrun was counterproductive to his friendship prospects in Equestria.

Only now, when free to roam away from Sigrun, when free to be himself without fear of being mocked for not focusing on sword training, had Lími finally found someone other than his guardian (and a charming someone at that) who valued the caribou for who he was. Or at least whom he presented himself as. And all that... would be undone by tomorrow. Lími’s meeting with Mei; fated to be nothing more than a faded memory. The Old Gods could play such cruel tricks.

Left in a state of melancholy, Lími averted his gaze downwards as he pondered his options. Maybe the most sensible thing to do was run away back down the cliffside path and pretend none of this ever happened, but neither the caribou’s heart or his sore hooves agreed with that plan. Asking to stay longer in Garden Gait would be a tough sell; Sigrun was protective of her ward, plus she would be most insistent on pressing on to Canterlot. It was highly doubtful the warrior cow would allow Lími to stay behind in Garden Gait, by himself, for several days.

Tsk tsk tsk... and to think Lími hoped to finish his poem all in one day. Probably rushing things was why he was having so much trouble earlier.

One last option surfaced in Lími’s mind, but it was more of a wishful dream rather than a practical reality. “I... travel in the company of the great Jarl Sigrun,” the caribou remained downcast, curiously being mindful to avoid coming off as someone who required guardianship; “She and I... share a special bond. Sigrun would insist on remaining here while I complete my work. It is with great sorrow then to say that... well, that flowers reduce my Jarl to fits of violent sneezing.”

Lími looked off in the completely opposite direction from Mei; “I will not leave her to suffer while I indulge in my selfish desires.”

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