So. I guess this is my first journal entry.

I'm starting my training today. Now that James has gotten better, he seems more focused, and much more willing to tell me everything that's went on in his life here. I figure that this little 'boot-camp' he has in store for me will be a gruelling, intense matter, but for now James has decided to start slow; by teaching me about survival and what to look out for in the wilderness. He's telling me about the native monsters right now, and when he's done with that, so he says, our next subject will be identifying plants and using medicine.

I'm already feeling more comfortable around him.

"Alright," James said, tossing a small, ring-binder notebook onto Colin's lap from across the claustrophobically-small hut. He had decided they lie low in this particular safehouse for now, to throw the authorities off their scent. "This book contains drawings and descriptions of herbs that will come in handy later on. It has everything from poison ivy to the more fantastical plants found around these parts."

Colin flipped to a random page, upon which was a picture of a vibrant blue flower growing on a vine. "What's Poison Joke?" he asked in reference to the image.

James examined the page for a moment. "Ah, right. Poison Joke is one of the more magical herbs, grows around the Everfree. Its pollen and extract have adverse effects on anyone that comes into contact with it."

"Like what?"

"It varies, depending on the target. A strong flyer may find their wings grafted to their belly after the extract takes effect. A big, strong guy could shrink to the size of an ant, or a magic-user may find their abilities… impotent. Evidently, the plant seems to have a sick sense of humor, but aside from that, it's harmless."

"So what's it useful for?"

"Toxins," James explained. "It's non-lethal, but the effect it has on people tends to incapacitate them in some way, shape or form. Typically, I dip arrows in it and burn the shafts black to set them apart, but there are other ways to have people exposed to it. Like slipping it into someone's drink, for example. Word of advice, Colin; do not get exposed to Poison Joke. The ingredients needed for the antidote are difficult to come by in the wild."

Colin smirked. "So what do you think would happen to me if I was affected by it?"

"Can't say for certain," James replied. "But I can tell you this; I've got thieves' hands, and the last time I got hit by the stuff, my palms were facing upward for three days."

The two shared a laugh, and continued with their studies.

Day 14

The talk on flora and fauna is, as of a couple days ago, for the most part done. All that's really left is for me to commit the image of all the plants in this book James gave me to memory, which should be easy.

We've taken to going on short 'nature walks' as James calls them, wherein he teaches me how to move around properly, or what sounds identify which creature. He says that, when winter is over and spring comes, he'll teach me how to fish and locate fresh water.

The snow is falling more often, and the ground is becoming heavier with it. In our downtime, when it gets too much for us to go out, we pass the time by playing games, just simple card or dice games where the players gamble with pennies. Sometimes he tells me about his travels, or teaches me about where the railways go and the best times to catch a train. I've asked him if he's going to teach me how to fight or hunt; he responded by telling me all in good time, as 'sometimes you have to walk before you can run'.

Colin sidestepped as the blunt staff thrust past, planting in the snow only for a split second before jerking back.

"You've got two arms, Colin," James said as he circled the boy, staff in hand. "Use them."

The next attack came, and Colin responded by bringing his own weapon – a two-foot baton meant to mimic a sword – up to bat the weapon away. The two had found a clear patch of dirt in the forest; Colin hesitated to call it a clearing, as it was still claustrophobically small, but it was enough to act as a sort of dueling ground so James could teach him how to fight.

"Typically," James explained as he and Colin sparred, "your opponent will wield some kind of polearm – generally this will come in the form of a spear or javelin, but I've observed halberds, glaives, partisans, even a trident, once. Pegasi make up the bulk of the Equestrian Royal Army, and they're not all that good at using anything but a polearm."

Colin blocked another thrust, but James shifted his 'spear' so as to rotate Colin's arms and send the tip of his weapon into the snow. James then leaned into another thrust, planting a soft blow on Colin's chest.

"Try not to favour a specific guard," he mentioned.

The two positioned themselves at either side of the clearing and readied themselves again.

"And what about the other pony types?" Colin asked.

"Well," James continued as the sparring began again, "Earth ponies are more or less similar, but they'll rely on their brute strength, much like pegasi rely on their wings. As for unicorns, well, they're the wild cards. Generally, a unicorn's magical abilities are tied to their talent; a unicorn seamstress can do other things, but the thing they do best is weave. However, the ones that are, say, soldiers would naturally be best at fighting, and so know how to use combat spells best. They're arguably the deadliest the army has to offer, being able to fight at range, bring up neigh-impregnable forcefields and use any weapon they so desire thanks to their telekinetic abilities."

Colin saw an opportunity – or at least, he hoped it was an opportunity – and raised his staff in an overhead swing. When James moved his own staff to parry, Colin barged forward with all of his might, shouldering his opponent and sending the both of them into the snow. The two crunched around, slipping and falling more than once as they tried to regain their footing, but soon the activity slowed down and the two were facing one another once more.

"Very good," James said. "Now try and knock me down again."

Colin readied himself, brandishing the baton in his right hand.

"No," James grinned. "This time, in your off-hand."

"What?" Colin exclaimed. "That isn't fair!"

The grin on James's face turned into a cruel smile. "Who ever said it was going to be fair?"

And the training continued.

Day 28

We're in the dead of winter, now; James says it will be like this for the next two months. Naturally, the next thing we're going to practice is hunting; I've been told I'll have to polish up on my fighting skills, but that it can wait until the weather starts to get warmer. We started off today by James teaching me the basics of how to use a bow, and he informed me we'll have to share for now until he can make another.

I'm nervous. Sure, it's been fun training with James – almost like being in the military or the scouts – and it gets harder for me to keep up every day, but that's something I was expecting. I guess I was expecting this, too, but I've never really – never been comfortable with… I don't like taking a living thing's life.

I asked James this morning if he's affected by it. He tells me that it's a natural part of life that some things must die so that others may live; animals kill each other all the time for food, or in defense of their lives, and we aren't any different. The sort of 'circle-of-life' mantra that is integral to survival. I get curious after a while, and then out comes that question – one I've been subconsciously wanting to ask for quite some time.

'Have you ever killed anyone? Equestrians, I mean?'

I expect him to be silent, like when I asked him about Tall Tale. Instead, he gives me an answer that almost makes me regret asking in the first place.

'I have. And I'll own up to it for the rest of my life. But I'll tell you this, Colin; if ever there comes a time where an assailant is trying to kill you – to utterly, intentionally take your life – don't ever hesitate, and do not hold back, because they won't give you any chances.'

He gives no further explanation, instead leaving me to wonder.

The winter marched on. Before long, the days began to grow shorter, and with each passing week the snow piled on until there was no green left on the tress or ground, and the wind became chill as death. This, of course, took new and relevant meaning in Colin's mind as he and James trained onwards throughout the season.

Colin lost count of how many times he had a brush with his own mortality. As the weeks progressed, James had continued to challenge him in new ways, steadily progressing how dangerous their lessons became. Some days, James would have Colin race him across plains of waist-deep snow or over the boulder-strewn, uneven ground of the forests, or stalk deer or other animals for hours in the cold, tracking them through the terrain, sometimes even their scent. Other times their practices were downright deadly; scaling cliffs slick with ice using rudimentary tools, sparring on log-bridges over rushing, freezing waters, or intentionally going after Timberwolf packs to fight them hand-to-hand. James made quite sure Colin was in as little danger as possible at first, but as time went on and the two honed their skills further, he started to hold Colin's hand less and less. Colin found himself getting hurt where he once had James watching his back, and James would heal him with stitches and bandages, rubbing alcohol and medicine herbs. Soon, even this practice started to dwindle, as Colin was expected to heal himself the more he learned how to do so.

Colin resented the absence of James sometimes, as he would find himself getting hurt pretty bad on occasion. But every time he pulled through, it became more apparent that he was growing stronger. It also became apparent that, despite his seemingly cold demeanor, James really did care about his wellbeing. One night, as the two were stalking a buck during their slow, meandering course further north towards the harsh borders of the Frozen North, a mountain lion attacked Colin when he least expected it. James was there almost immediately, and soon the two were fending the creature off, together, with Colin feeling much more useful than that fight with the Timberwolf which seemed so long ago. And so, soon enough, Colin stopped worrying about his safety, confident in his training and James's companionship, and continued to learn from him…

…And while Colin trained, Twilight searched.

In all honesty, Twilight would be surprised if she and her party hadn't trekked from one end of Equestria to the other looking for that criminal James and the wayward Colin. Despite the encroaching winter, she had refused to give up, and her friends – bless their understanding and loyalty – had stuck with her through it all. Following the roads and railways at first, the Element Bearers would spread out into two-mare teams, trying to find some sign of them to follow. They had picked the worst season to do so; the snow and high winds of winter made it impossible to track through the wilds. Rainbow Dash and sometimes even Fluttershy would take to the skies when the weather was clear, but it was like trying to find a marble on a pebble beach. Still, Twilight wasn't about to quit, not anytime soon, at least. But, as the dead middle of winter approached, Twilight would look upon her friends when they were catching their breath and realize the weariness that was taking their toll on them. They did their best to hide it, of course, to show that they would give in just as soon as Twilight would, but it was evident that they were getting nowhere, and Twilight wasn't about to sacrifice her friend's comfort and their holidays just to look for Colin, even if it meant leaving him with James.

Not twice. Not again.

And so, feeling defeated at not finding Colin and guilty for running her friends ragged, Twilight eventually decided that she would stop looking, at least until spring came. None of the others tried to dissuade her, which was knowledge enough of how tired they were. The group surveyed a map and, finding themselves closer to the Crystal Empire than Canterlot or Ponyville, decided to go there, knowing that Princess Cadence would welcome them. Twilight felt a swell of glee at this; they would arrive just in time to celebrate Hearth's Warming Eve, and an opportunity to visit her brother and babysitter-turned-sister-in-law was always a welcome one.

As the six approached the castle there, however, it became obvious that the situation was not as well as it seemed, with guards in the familiar gold-and-blue Canterlot garb patrolling around being a much more common sight than before. Something had happened, and whatever it was, the mere presence of the soldiers made it clear that it wasn't anything good.

As expected, however, Twilight and company were given a warm, albeit unexpected, welcome by Cadance and Shining Armour once they arrived at the palace proper. The day, from there, was the most fun that the six Element Bearers had had all winter; they wandered around the city as its people celebrated the anniversary of Equestria's founding, and how far they had come from the warring, bickering tribes that struggled for food and survival under the looming threat of the hate-eating Windigos. It was, perhaps, the event that laid the foundation of Equestria's entire philosophy; Friendship is Magic.

The afternoon saw the performance of the tale, the re-enactment of that day. Twilight, and no doubt the others as well, reminisced about the time they performed the play themselves. It was nice to be together in that endeavor; Spike, with his narration and constant asides, nearly caused her to break character with how over-the-top it was, and seeing Fluttershy come out of her shell and fight her stage fright to play a part made Twilight happy. Even the slight argument after the play was over – something Twilight had forgotten the details about – was laughed off, in the end. Twilight couldn't help but think that the Crystal Empire's version was lacking, but she also knew it was because of her personal connection to that day, not the performance itself.

After the play, the group headed back inside as the festival came to its end. After accommodations were made for the Six – Cadence reassured them that the palace was more than big enough – they all sat down to have dinner. It was as lovely as anypony would expect; Pinkie would crack jokes and break out into song, Dash and Applejack would swap kind-hearted teasing, Cadence and Shining had a chance to catch up with Twilight. The presence of the guards was never brought up, but then again, Twilight didn't want it brought up, instead delighting in being able to forget her duties and her stress over Colin. For one day she wasn't the big Alicorn Princess of Magic, but the simple Unicorn student hanging out with her friends. And nothing – not the guards, not her concerns, and most certainly not James Alistair – was going to ruin that.

All the same, when everything was said and done, after night had fallen and the girls had busied themselves with a board game, Twilight noticed Shining standing off to the side of their room by the window, and decided to approach him while the others cycled their turns.

"Something wrong, big brother?" she asked, grinning pleasantly at him.

Shining took his eyes off the window and made a half-hearted smile back. "Nothing that you need to worry about," he replied.

Twilight peered out the window to the street below, where two guards were making their rounds.

"It's him, isn't it?" she asked. "He's out there somewhere, and that's why the Canterlot guards are here."

Shining glanced back to check if anyone heard them, but the others were preoccupied with the game. "We aren't exactly sure," he said in a hushed tone. "But if I had to wager on it…"

"Why would he come here? The only time he showed up around these parts was last winter."

"He must be looking for one of those metal shards," Shining guessed.

"You mean…" Twilight froze up. "The one that you've got here? That shard?"

"No," Shining replied, which did nothing to put Twilight at ease. "That's what's bugging me. There was an attack up in Yakyakistan – way up in the mountains. A mining operation, nothing important taken. It happened about a month ago, but Cadence was concerned, so she requisitioned some reinforcements until spring comes again."

Twilight paused. "Hang on. When did this happen?"

Shining looked out into the blowing snow, oblivious to his sister's epiphany. "About a month ago." He turned to her then, and smiled. "But it's nothing worth losing sleep over."

Their conversation was interrupted by Rainbow Dash's voice.

"Hey, Twilight! It's your turn! Make us wait any longer and it'll be morning by the time you go!"

"Just keeping her for a moment, Rainbow, hope you don't mind!" Shining hollered back. He turned to Twilight. "Look, Twi, I have a guess or two of my own as to why you're here. You don't need to worry about us; believe me, Cadence and I are doing just fine. But by all means, you and your friends can stay here as long as you need to; we have no problems with that." He gestured with his head in the direction of the others. "You have some good friends, by the way. Did I ever tell you that?"

"Probably loads of times," Twilight beamed.

"Good. And sis?"


Shining grinned. "It's nice to see you well. Especially now."

The both of them left the window behind, and shortly after the game was over the group had gone to bed. Yet Twilight was up for quite some time afterward, her worry replaced with pondering. Something didn't add up. Shining had said the attack was a month ago; but, Colin had also been abducted that same time. James could do a great many things, a lot of it cruel and death-defying. But he couldn't be in two places at once.

Twilight decided then and there it was time to pay a visit to Celestia.

Colin sat by the fire in the cave, letting its warmth bathe him as the wind howled outside. He and James had steadily made their way north, towards the Crystal Mountains, and now their shelter was much simpler. Luckily, he had better clothes now, warmer ones. James had taken back his cloak, in exchange for Colin wearing a thick wool cap.

The cave was filled with a steady rhythm, as James sharpened a crude, metal knife against a stone from the ground.

Sskrrt. Sskrrt.

The wind howled.

"Whoo," Colin broke the silence. "Wind sure sounds bad out there," he muttered.

"You sure it's the wind?" James asked.

Sskrrt. Sskrrt.

"What do you mean by that?" Colin asked.

The light of the fire reflected darkly off of James's face and casted long, shifting shadows. "Could be the Windigoes."

The very name made Colin shudder. "Who… what are the Windigoes?"

"The Equestrians call this day Hearth's Warming Eve. According to their mythology, the Windigoes turned their original homeland into a barren, frozen wasteland. Drove them to hatred. Made them fight."

Sskrrt. Sskrrt.

James grinned. "Damn near wiped 'em all out."

"What happened to them?" Colin questioned, eyeing the knife now.

James shrugged. "Tradition says they were all destroyed, by magic, friendship, whatever hippy-dippy peace n' love crud helps the kiddies sleep at night. Though some still persist that a few of 'em escaped. So whenever you hear a whinnying on the wind, a howling in the darkness… just hope it ain't the Windigoes, come to freeze you solid and take you to the other side."

Sskrrt. Sskrrt.

"Wouldn't worry though," James continued. "You've got the one thing that might just be meaner even than them."

Colin couldn't take his eyes off that knife. "What's that?"

The way James had smiled at Colin on the night the Timberwolf attacked them, Colin thought was his creepiest smile. He was so, so wrong. In the firelight, James's ear-to-ear smile made him look like the demon Colin had first envisioned him to be. In that light, sharpening that blade, the Sskrrt-Sskrrt of the edge passing over the stone, the wicked, almost psychotic gleam in his eyes. It was no wonder now why the Equestrians were so afraid of him.

"Me," he answered.

Sskrrt. Sskrrt. THUNK.

The knife bit deep into an outlying piece of firewood. James leaned back against a rock, folding his arms behind his back. "'Course, there's also you as well. See, the Equestrians value friendship and tolerance above all things, but us?"

He chuckled darkly.

"Ain't nobody hates like a human can."

Colin sat uncomfortably. For the first time, he began to regret his decision to come along with him.

"Well, I think I'm done scaring you for tonight," James said. Colin almost jumped; all of a sudden, the ominous tone in James's voice had changed to how he normally spoke. It was jarring; like flipping a switch. "Get some sleep, pal, and try to do it with both eyes closed; rest assured, you don't have to worry about me. Tomorrow is another day, and who knows, you might just need that rest."

With that, the conversation ended, and Colin rolled over to take the first rest.

And the cave was silent, but for the crackling of the fire and the howling of the wind.