A cold, endless wind blew through the vast expanses of the Equestrian north. A thousand hectares of chilly, seemingly lifeless land populated by a few brave creatures, a few seemingly lost trees, and tons upon tons of beautiful white snow. The wind always billowed here, and the sun rarely ever managed to reach the ground through the endless cloud cover.
It was a land that was governed within Equestria's borders, but it too was a land where not a single pony lived. Truly, no creatures lived here besides a small population of white-furred hares and foxes, and such others well-equipped enough to survive the endless harsh winters that permeated this land. Stretching from the city of Stalliongrad all the way up to the borders of the Griffon Kingdom, the Equestrian north was a land often forgotten about and hardly spoken of.
Alpine Wind trudged on through the thick snow, bracing himself against the painfully icy wind. His coat was covered in a layer of frost and his breath could be seen as thick, ghostly puffs from his mouth. He moved rather slowly, the snow and the cold slowing him down considerably, but still he moved.
The pegasus had no idea where he was. All he knew was that it was cold and there wasn't a single sign of life anywhere. He couldn't see much more than white besides the occasional large stone. He had been walking for much longer than two hours by this point, and still he had not come across a single thing.
His entire body was in pain from the stinging, biting cold. It was well below freezing, and the harsh wind only made things worse. His wings were clasped tight against his torso, lest they freeze within seconds and fall off. It hurt to breathe, and his eyes burned from the irritation of the snow and the wind. Still, he had to press on.
There had to be something somewhere out here. A small village of tundra-dwellers, or even just a cave to hide out in. He had been walking along for hours in the hopes that he would be able to find his way out of this icy prison, but it was as if he hadn't moved at all. Everything out here looked the same.
He closed his eyes and grit his teeth against the pain, but continued to trudge forward. He had not rested once since he had shown up here. He couldn't rest. He knew that he couldn't rest.
It had all happened so fast. Even now, Alpine was not entirely sure of what had happened to him. He had been at home in Stalliongrad, the northernmost city in Equestria. There it was cold, but not nearly as cold as it was out here. The snow there was a lot more picturesque and welcome to look at. Now he found himself entirely engulfed in it, unable to escape.
Alpine had been trotting down the street when there had suddenly been some commotion. He had heard somepony say something about an event going on today, but he hadn't paid much attention to such a thing. Ponies began running past him in the opposite direction, eyes wide with panic. He turned to look after them, yelling out to ask them what was wrong. They all told him to simply run.
Confused, he had turned back around. All he saw was a bright white flash, expanding outward like an explosion, but not damaging anything in its path. He'd been given a brief moment to gasp in astonishment, and then he had blacked out.
It was here, in the middle of the Equestrian north that he had awoken. Incredibly far from where he had just been, and surrounded by the harsh wilderness. He remembered the mind-numbing confusion he had felt upon waking up. The only explanation he could give, and a feeble one at that, was that some unicorns had done something magic. It had certainly seemed magical, given how far he had traveled.
But Alpine cared not for the answer any more. All he could think about was getting somewhere warm and safe. All around him was the roar of the wind, strong enough to make it difficult to hear his own thoughts. His eyes were open now, but they might as well have been closed. The constantly swirling snow made it impossible to see a single thing. He could barely see his own hooves hitting the ground in front of him.
His entire body ached as he advanced, and his muscles screamed in protest every time he forced them to move. He constantly felt out of breath and needed to breathe deeply, but the ice-cold air was like frozen fire rushing down his windpipe. His entire being begged for him to stop.
Alpine shook his head and took another couple of painful steps forward. This wasteland couldn't go on forever. Eventually, he knew that he had to find something. Cocoa Bean was waiting for him back home. She was probably wondering where he was, unaware of the peril he currently faced.
Never in his wildest dreams had he ever expected something like this to happen to him. He was a simple factory worker at the Stalliongrad Steel Mill. Not once had his job, or even his very lifestyle, ever forced him to do anything except work for hours and hours within the walls of the factory. He was no explorer or researcher or some other crazy pony who risked their life out in the untamed wilderness. It was frustrating enough for him when he had to take the train to leave town.
If nothing else, he could at least thank his line of work for making him so physically fit. Without that gift, he probably would have collapsed an hour ago and never have been heard from again. Still, despite everything they granted him, his stamina could only take him so far.
For what seemed like an eternity, Alpine continued to trudge through the thick snow. However, for all of his efforts, it seemed as if he were walking in place. Nothing about his environment ever changed. Instead, the elements simply continued to beat and torture him.
The endless, droning wind in his ears began to make him feel woozy. Amidst everything else, even sound itself was conspiring against him. Every single part of his body hurt, inside and out.
Alpine let out an animalistic cry as he pushed his hooves forward some more. He took two steps, and then prepared to make a third. The third step did not come. For a moment, he simply stood there, staring out at the endlessly swirling snow. Time seemed to move at a strange pace in this moment. He soon found himself wondering how long he had been standing there.
The pegasus was beginning to realize that he couldn't quite feel his own hooves. He knew they were still there, but the feeling in them had gone numb. It was as if they had fallen asleep, but without the painful pins and needles. Instead, all he could feel was an overwhelming sensation of cold.
Slowly, painfully, he took another step forward in the snow. Cocoa was waiting. Silver Wind was waiting. He wouldn't be able to get to sleep if his daddy wasn't there to tuck him in.
Alpine began to wish that he had never gotten up and gone to work that morning. He wished that he had never gotten this job in the first place. He wished he had just stayed in Fillydelphia with Cocoa.
He suddenly realized that he was out of breath and quickly inhaled. He grunted in pain and held a hoof up to his stinging throat. Everything hurt. He had never known such numbing pain as this in his whole life. Alpine was quickly losing feeling in all four of his hooves as well as his wings, and he was shivering rather violently. It hurt to keep his eyes open.
Yet, he received no respite from the weather. The snow swirled just as chaotically as it had been this whole time.
He had to keep going. He couldn't stop, not even for a couple minutes. There had to be a village or the end of the tundra, or even the Griffon border just up ahead. Something. Anything.
Alpine suddenly began to feel incredibly dizzy. His next step was unsteady. Was his vision getting blurry? He honestly couldn't tell. The pegasus tried to grit his teeth and steady himself against the harsh wind and the freezing cold, but no improvement came. He simply stood there, feeling worse with every passing second.
His mind was spinning, and for a moment he wasn't sure which way was up. He placed a hoof in front of himself to identify the ground, but his whole body began to shift along with it. Alpine growled against the pain and the disorientation and silently willed himself to keep moving forward. He took a few more unsteady steps. No, he told himself, I won't…be defeated…
Alpine's front hooves buckled beneath him and his front half tumbled to the snow, landing face-first. The icy snow against his unprotected face was a painful jolt to the system, but he barely registered it. He merely groaned into the snow.
He could barely feel his front legs any more, and his hind legs weren't much better. Alpine's entire body had been reduced to a shivering mess. He closed his eyes for a moment and focused, forcing all of his remaining energy into his front hooves. He just needed to pick himself up off the ground and keep on trotting. There was no other choice.
With agonizing waves of pain throughout his entire body, he shifted his front hooves into a better position in the snow and slowly pushed himself back up off the ground. It was an excruciatingly slow process, but eventually the pegasus was standing again. He tried to open his eyes, but the bright, dizzying whiteness made his head hurt. Reduced to squinting, he lifted his hoof to take another step.
The next thing he knew, Alpine was lying on his side in the snow.
Was it freezing cold? He couldn't really tell any more. Everything had gotten hazy and unfocused. His head lay on a slant in the banks of snow, offering him a tilted perspective of what little there was to see. He had been going for hours, and he knew that he had to simply keep going, but he just felt so tired.
Alpine's eyes began to feel heavy. He barely had a single ounce of strength left, but he poured it all into keeping his eyes open and alert. Everything felt heavy and sluggish, and his worn out body was just begging for him to go to sleep.
The pegasus tried to move a single hoof, even just to move it an inch, but he couldn't. His body felt like lead. Frozen.
Alpine growled and squinted at the endless vortex that was this snowstorm. There was only a single part of his body that wasn't yet cold, and that was the burning anger he felt deep in his heart. After a long and difficult day at work, coming at the end of a long and difficult week in a long and difficult month, this was his reward. This was how his day was going to end. This was how…it was all going to end.
No normal pony could survive this many hours in the frozen wilderness without supplies, and he did not consider himself much stronger than a normal pony. He honestly couldn't deny that it was a miracle he had made it this far.
His face twisted up in agony and he felt like punching the snow-covered ground, but he couldn't muster the strength to do so. A single tear rolled down his cheek. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. This wasn't how it was supposed to end. How could it end now?!
What kind of a pathetic life was this, anyway? All those long, tedious hours spent in the factory, nearly losing his mind from the sheer repetitiveness and boredom. No promotions, new prospects, or any sign of a better life to be seen.
His mind was beginning to feel really fuzzy, and even the sound of the roaring wind seemed to die down a bit. Everything, both inside him and around, felt like it was slowing to a crawl. He couldn't feel the painful cold any more. All in all, he just felt tired.
It wasn't…supposed to end like this… His mind repeated this thought to him over and over again as a few more tears rolled down his cheeks. Years of rough, painful work…
…and this is it…
Finally, Alpine's eyes fell closed. He didn't yet fall asleep, merely laying there for a few minutes while the snow collected on top of him and slowly began to bury him. He didn't even have the strength left to shiver.
"It's…not fair…" His words were almost completely inaudible.
Alpine's mind was in tatters. He wanted so desperately to push on and keep going, despite all of the pain it would cause…despite all the struggles he would just end up going back to. Sure, it was a life of hardship, but it was still a life. Some part of him refused to accept that there wasn't something more.
It didn't seem that way, however. The pegasus was dying. The cold, frozen tundra was slowly consuming him.
Alpine's ears twitched just slightly. Through his grogginess and disorientation, he struggled to latch onto the real world once again. He couldn't just let go this easily, even if it were to be an ultimately futile attempt.
His ears twitched again. Was he…hearing something? He couldn't tell; he could hardly hear anything at all. He let out a soft, painful groan as he tried to open his eyes once more.
At first he was blinded by the painfully bright whiteness, but soon enough everything dissolved into a hazy, blurry mess observed through a half-lidded gaze. Just as before, he could see nothing but endless snow.
So what was that sound? Alpine's ears perked straight up. There was a sound that did not belong to the endless wind. Had the bitter cold made him completely lose his mind?
With bleary eyes that were painful to keep open, he searched around. All he could see in any direction was a whitish-greyish blur of nothingness. He doubted that he would be able to see something even if it were right next to him.
He closed his eyes to try to clear his vision and opened them again. Still a blurry mess. He closed them again, clenching them tight and shaking his head slightly. Every time his eyes were closed, he felt a dizzying wave of sleepiness wash over his whole body and it was a struggle to get them open again. He pushed through, however, and blinked his eyes a few more times.
Something. He could see something. There was something in front of him! In his groggy state, it still looked like a fuzzy blur, but he closed his eyes one last time, opened them, and tried to focus. As he did, he heard the snow crunching and saw whatever it was move towards him.
"Bluhh…?" he moaned, trying and failing to form words.
It stopped right before him, standing over his fallen form. He was putting all of his energy into trying to focus, and he began to notice that there was colour to this creature. It was a bright, warm colour that stood out against the snow. Seeing it stirred feelings within him that he couldn't quite identify. Finally, his vision seemed to clear, and he found himself staring at a set of bright pink hooves.
Slowly, he craned his neck and looked upwards. He found the face of a young pink earth pony mare with a fluffy mane in a deeper pink. She was alone, without clothing or equipment, nearly half his age and barely covered in any snow. Alpine reasoned that he had definitely lost his mind.
He stared at her, wordlessly, and she stared right back at him. The merciless wind whipped the curly tip of her mane around, but she otherwise did not move. A moment of pure silence passed between the two, and it could have been for one minute or one hour for all he knew.
As his sluggish mind struggled to catch up and process what he was seeing, he noticed that she was only standing on three legs. Her fourth leg was held up off the ground and was grasping something. His eyes trailed further upward to see that she was holding onto a deep red balloon.
"Wh…" he murmured, barely able to find his voice, "Who're…you…?"
Instead of responding, the mare began to smile. A soft, gentle smile graced her lips as she looked down at him. It was a sad sort of smile, filled with a hint of sorrow. Her deep blue eyes seemed to shimmer just a little bit, even in the pale, blinding light of the tundra. After a few seconds had passed, she leaned forward a little and held her hoof out, bringing the string of the balloon down closer to him.
He looked at her hoof, grasping the string, then up at the balloon once more, and then back to her. His head hurt. Alpine was in the middle of nowhere, lost and hours away from civilization. He had been hoping desperately that he would come across another living being, and here she was, but there was something incredibly mysterious about her. A sense of expected joy and relief did not wash over to him. All he could bring himself to do was stare at this mare and her balloon in tired confusion.
"…What…?" he managed to whisper.
"It's a balloon."
He was startled when she finally spoke. The mare's voice was rather unusual to his ears. On the surface, it seemed like a bright and cheerful voice that could bring a smile to anypony's face, but the tone of her voice conveyed something else entirely. There was a definite, undeniable sadness in her voice, and hearing it sent a tiny shiver up his spine.
He stared up at her wordlessly, still wondering if he was awake or not. She gently leaned forward a little more, bringing the hoof holding the balloon down towards his own hoof as if she were offering it to him. He looked at her grasping hoof, and then up into her eyes again.
Her eyes matched her voice in every way. They were a bright, cheerful shade of blue, and they were vibrant and full of life. But the way they seemed now was rather upsetting, like the kind of eyes one might find paired with a heavy frown. They also seemed imploring, silently asking him to do something that she wanted.
With what little strength remained, if any, he raised his hoof a few inches off of the snowy ground and brought it up to hers. That was enough for her, as she used her own hoof to transfer the balloon's string over and carefully wrap his own hoof firmly around it.
Alpine stared at the string grasped in his hoof, and his eyes followed the string up until they found the balloon floating above him. The mare, meanwhile, had taken a step back and was now standing on all fours.
The pegasus was sure that he was dreaming by this point, and the thought filled him with dread. If he had fallen asleep in the snow, then there was very little chance of survival. If he didn't wake up in a very short manner of time, then he would unquestionably die.
His mind, on the other hoof, felt very lucid about the whole situation. The cold and his lack of energy were making it sluggish. At the moment, the most interesting thing to behold was the mare and her balloon.
He wasn't sure how long he had been staring at the balloon at this point, and so he turned his gaze back down to meet the pink pony's eyes.
"Wh…Why did you…" He paused and took in a shuddering breath. "…give this to me…?"
She gazed down at him, still giving him that forlorn smile. "Because," she spoke softly, her words somehow floating through the torrential winds, "Just like a balloon soaring through the sky…" She the raised her hoof for emphasis, gesturing to the sky above, and gazing up as she continued. "…you're finally free."
He gave her a confused look. "Free…?" he said, "Free from…what?"
The mare returned her hoof to the ground and gave him an interesting look. She wasn't quite smiling any more, but she wasn't frowning either. Yet, in spite of this, Alpine could still see a poignant sadness in the mare's beautiful eyes. He wanted to keep hounding her with questions, such as who she was and where she had come from, but instead he found himself captivated.
"Balloons…" she spoke, calmly and slowly, "spend most of their time tethered to the ground. They are bright, they are cheerful, and they brighten up anypony's day. But…" She glanced away. "You can see, if you look at any balloon such as this one, that they are always trying to fly away. For no matter how long they spend on the ground with ponies like us, every moment is spent trying to…break free."
Alpine found himself glancing up at the balloon as she spoke.
"Until, at long last, their only wish is granted and they soar up into the sky. Unrestrained, unimpeded…and free at last."
A rather confused Alpine narrowed his gaze and looked back at the mare. "Wha're you…talking about?" Just who was this pony, and why was she talking about balloons? He still didn't understand why she had given him one.
She began to reply, but he interrupted her. "Can't you help me…?! What's this balloon s'posed to…do…?"
The pink pony looked back at him and she began to frown. It was not a heartbroken frown, but it was not one filled with pity either. Alpine wasn't sure, but it looked as if the mare were simply concerned.
She opened her mouth and spoke. "Have you had many hardships in your life…?"
He opened his eyes wide, or at least as wide as they could go in his weakened state, and he simply stared at her in bewilderment. 'Hardships in his life'? Of course he had faced hardships! He wanted to respond curtly to her, but he found himself unable to find the right words. His mind began to swirl around this question she had asked him, thoughts coming a mile a minute.
What kind of pony went through life without hardships, he wondered. Hers was a question that need never be asked. Everything in his life had been hard, from as far back as he could remember. Trouble in school, parents who didn't see eye to eye, difficulty finding a steady job which ultimately led to his current, unappealing employment. It had just been a steady stream of challenge after challenge that he had to overcome, many of which had been simply insurmountable.
There was a lot about his life that he didn't like, and a lot about it that made everything so difficult and stressful. It was for this very reason that he had been trudging through the snow so valiantly instead of simply giving up. It simply couldn't be that his life was coming to an end after all of the trials he had been through. Countless miserable days, all leading up to freezing to death in the snow while a pink pony hallucination asked him if he had been through any hardships.
His hooves quivered, and it wasn't from the cold.
Alpine heard the snow crunch and blearily gazed back up. He realized that the mare had been standing there for a while now and he hadn't answered. He stared at her for a moment, no words coming forth, before she began to speak instead.
"It's okay…" she spoke in a soft, soothing tone, "You don't have to cry…"
Cry?! Wait…When had he started crying?
"I know that it's been hard…It's never easy, is it? You think life is going to be all parties and games, but you always end up…dreaming. Something's always holding you back…keeping you down…"
She was gazing at the balloon's string, so he looked at it as well.
"You spent so long trying to be free to do what you've always wanted to do…isn't that right?"
His gaze slowly moved up to the balloon itself. There were crunches in the snow as she stepped a little closer.
"You can be free now, Alpine," she whispered to him in a wonderful, warm and caring voice, "You can finally let go."
Alpine suddenly gasped, his eyes growing wide. He pulled his hooves in and held them close to his chest, clutching the string of the balloon even tighter. A moment passed where he dared not to breathe.
Suddenly, he was frightened. He was terrified. The scariest moments of his entire life could not measure up to what he felt right now. A frighteningly cold shiver passed through his body, and he found it hard to breathe. He began to feel dizzy as his mind went absolutely wild with panic.
He refused to listen. He would not accept and he would not submit. What was going on now? Where was he?? There was snow everywhere, and it was all closing in on him. The snow was trying to kill him! He was going to die!! There was so much that he had never gotten to do and so many dark memories to look back upon!
He shivered and cowered, trying to hide himself from the darkness. He wept and tried to plead with anypony or anything that would listen to him. Throughout all the chaos in his mind, only one thought prevailed. I cannot die. Everything began to hurt, but still he shouted in his mind. I cannot die!! There had to be a solution somewhere! Somehow he had to get back home so that he could quit his job, leave the city with Cocoa, and-
The pegasus' eyes shot open and he found himself weakly gasping for breath, as if he had awoken from a nightmare. He realized that he was now laying on his side. Half of his face he could no longer feel thanks to the snow he was laying upon. He was still clutching the balloon's string close to his heart.
He searched around with his tired eyes, trying to make sense of the swirling blurs. Eventually, his vision managed to refocus for a moment and he saw the mare looking down upon him, giving him that same sad smile. She gazed at him for a moment, and then spoke three simple words.
"The party's over."
Alpine blinked, his gaze shifting. Cocoa… Suddenly his mind was filled with images of his wife and son. His family… They were still back home, waiting patiently for him to return. He shed even more tears as he thought about them, neither of them knowing that he would never make it back home. A new storm of anguish threatened to overtake him, and he felt himself teetering on the precipice.
But, as he looked up at the mare with her reserved smile, the balloon floating in the corner of his vision, he began to feel much calmer. He began to realize just where he was. He was out in the deadly, frozen tundra…but Cocoa and Silver were not. They were both back home, alive and unfrozen.
They were both safe.
Alpine reflected on the words that the pink pony had just said to him. Suddenly, he could no longer recall much of the hardships in his life. Thinking about his family filled his mind to the brim with so many other memories, and these were quite different than what had been clouding his mind before.
He thought about the first time he had met Cocoa, and all of the wonderful days he had spent with her. He remembered falling in love with her, and buying a home with her. Alpine felt warmth for the first time since he had been out here, spreading from his heart as he remembered the birth of his son.
All of the time that he had spent in the company of his love, and to a greater extent the time spend watching his son grow up, he could not look back on with a frown even if he tried to. Not a sour moment in the company of his loving family could come to his mind. The two of them had made him so happy whenever he had been with them.
Alpine was still shivering as he lay in the snow, and his eyelids began to feel incredibly heavy, but he simply could not stop thinking about his family. It was true that he had worked at a difficult job and he'd had little success making any further financial progress, but he began to realize that it didn't matter. For all of the hardships he had gone through in life, his family had always been there to make things better.
A tear rolled down his cheek. He was going to miss them.
He tried to raise a hoof to wipe it away, but he simply couldn't. His eyes dipped closed for a moment before they fluttered open once more. Everything was growing dim and his whole body felt incredibly relaxed. He shifted his gaze just slightly to see that the mare was still standing there. She had not moved since he had last laid eyes on her, standing still as a statue. He also realized that he was still clutching the balloon, albeit with a very weak grasp.
He looked up at the balloon. Life had been tough, but it really hadn't been as bad as he had made it out to be. School had been troublesome, but he had made lots of friends. His job was a drag, but it paid well enough for him to live a comfortable life with his family, whom he loved so much. Even on his darkest days, Cocoa and Silver would always manage to make him smile, even just a little bit.
Alpine's vision was beginning to grow hazy. It was becoming a struggle to breathe. Ever so slowly, he moved his hoof through the snow so that it was held out before him. He looked up and beheld the balloon. As before, and as always, it was still pulling upwards with never-ending resolve, determined as ever to travel skyward. All that was left holding it back was him.
The pegasus closed his eyes for a moment and let one more tear roll down his cheek. His mind became very clear, and he realized that he only had one regret. He would not be able to say goodbye to them, and there was a pang in his heart.
After a moment, however, he smiled weakly. He inched his eyes open as much as he could, squinting against the bright light. He regarded his hoof, wrapped weakly around the balloon's string, and then looked up to the balloon itself.
Then, he let go.
Alpine watched as the balloon, finally set free, began to soar upwards. The mare followed its path as well, tilting her head upwards to watch it with the same sad smile that she had been wearing. He continued to keep his gaze on the balloon even to the point where his neck was strained from looking up so high.
It was wonderful to watch. The balloon continued its unhindered rise through the sky, flitting back and forth like a child at play. It rose so high into the sky that eventually Alpine couldn't even see the other pony anymore; all he could see was this balloon. Through the wind and the snow and the biting cold, it continued to fly.
Alpine couldn't stop smiling. He felt like he wanted to cry, but all he could do was smile. His head was swaying and his eyes ached from being held open, but he just smiled at the balloon in the sky. He heard the sound of hoofsteps in the snow leading away from him, but he did not avert his gaze.
Things became hazy and blurry, and soon things began to grow dark. It was beginning to hurt too much to look up at the bright sky and stare at the balloon which was barely even visible anymore. He had let go of the string, and only a few minutes later the balloon had soared higher than it ever had before.
It was in the sky now. It was among the stars. Forever free and never to be held down again. Alpine smiled brightly and let his eyes drift closed.