Arduously, they began their trek back towards the distant treeline. Incendia led the way, Jigsaw floating gently behind her in an orange halo. Tiptoe stumbled after them both. Her hip felt stiff and awkward, and her condition was exacerbated by the frozen river’s slippery surface. She was lightheaded and dizzy, too, and her stomach was growling loudly.
Incendia wasn’t doing much better. She was making very slow progress along the river; the effort of keeping Jigsaw’s unconscious body aloft was straining her already spent energy. Her horn felt uncomfortably hot, a sensation which was almost entirely unfamiliar to her. She had used too much magic, and she knew it, but they were so close...
Finally, after many more determined hoofsteps, they found themselves on the cold dirt of the river bank. The rubble from the castle extended all the way out to the timberline, though only the tips of the highest spires actually touched the stunted forest.
They made their way into the woods, and the moon’s gray, lonely light was quickly lost in the branches and needles of the canopy. Incendia’s red-orange glow flared brightly in response to the growing shadows. The crack of foliage and twigs under her hooves heartened her, and before long, they had found an area sufficient to make camp.
Incendia gingerly lowered Jigsaw to the underbrush and collapsed onto her haunches, breathing heavily.
“Are you alright?” Tiptoe asked, trotting over to Incendia’s side and looking down at her with concern.
“I’m fine,” Incendia replied. “I just need some rest. And some food,” she added, her gut twisting uncomfortably.
“Oh, Goddesses, me too,” Tiptoe sighed, her head drooping. “I don’t suppose we can eat these.” She prodded absently at the pine needle carpet.
Incendia shrugged and leaned her head down, snatching the greenest needle she could find with her mouth and began to chew. Her face contorted in disgust and she spat the needle back out.
“Ugh, I’m not that hungry.”
Tiptoe turned her head away from the green patches on the ground in disappointment. She felt even hungrier now that food had been denied.
To distract herself, she set about to gathering firewood, because Incendia looked as though she was about to collapse. Jigsaw lay, breathing shallowly but steadily, at her side.
Before long, Tiptoe had collected a stack of twigs and dried branches into the center of the clearing. Incendia watched bemused as Tiptoe attempted to set up a fire pit with little success. The feeble pile of kindling and branches kept collapsing no matter how the pegasus arranged them. Tiptoe swung herself around to attack the pile from a different angle, her backside facing Incendia.
Incendia’s eyes initially widened in surprise at the new view, accompanied by a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She couldn’t help but notice the curvature of Tiptoe’s body. She found herself leaning forward, brightening the light from her horn ever so slightly to get a clearer view.
With a twitch, Jigsaw stirred. Incendia tore her eyes away from the creamy yellow pegasus, who had now taken to attempting to club the tinder into place, and refocused on Jigsaw.
Suddenly, she felt a stab of guilt and shame. She squirmed and padded at the ground. The words of the thing that was guarding the fragment of Luna came back to her. “You’ll never be happy, you know.” She swallowed hard. What if there really wasn’t anypony out there for her? Her gaze turned back to Jigsaw. This wasn’t fair to him, either. Tiptoe wasn’t hers to ogle. What right did she have? If he hadn’t been there, she felt sure she would have been doomed to a life of wandering aimlessly through the desolate wastes, assuming she could even have survived her injuries without his healing magic. And this was how she was repaying him?
But, in spite of herself, she found her gaze wandering back to Tiptoe...
She shook her head and looked away.
She sat there, her eyes trained resolutely on a spot to her left where she could see neither Jigsaw nor Tiptoe, her fluttering heart at odds with the horrible clenching and knotting of her stomach, until a thump from her right brought her head whipping around. It took her several seconds to process that the sound came from Tiptoe. She had sat herself down next to Incendia and was staring at her expectantly.
“Fire!” Incendia blurted out after several seconds of silence. She blushed intensely. “You want me to light the fire!”
“Yeah, that was kind of what I expected,” Tiptoe said, giggling.
Incendia bolted up and made her way over to the pile of tinder and branches in the center of the clearing, her ears flat against her head, silently thanking Celestia that Tiptoe couldn’t read minds. She gathered up her strength- what remained of it- and a feeble ember sparked to life at the tip of her horn, leaping from it to smolder in the pile of twigs and branches. Incendia blew on it gently, and in moments, orange flames were blazing in the heart of the fire pit. It wasn’t as warm or as bright as Incendia’s magical flares had been, but it was all she could do.
Tiptoe watched Incendia curiously. She had never seen her blush like that. Had she done something to embarrass the unicorn? What thoughts could she have interrupted?
Then, with a weak cough and a groan, Jigsaw drove all thoughts of Incendia from her mind. His eyes fluttered open. He was exhausted, but alert.
“Jigsaw!” Tiptoe shouted in delight. Incendia hobbled over to them as fast as her tired legs would allow her.
Jigsaw blinked several times, then made to sit on his haunches, but Tiptoe pushed him back down. He didn’t try to get up again. Instead he opened his mouth and croaked, in a barely audible whisper, “What happened?”
“We could be asking you the same thing,” Tiptoe said, with a glance at Incendia. “The last thing I remember, I was pinned under Tantalus’ talon. Then, next thing I know, Tantalus is gone, I can barely move my leg, and everypony but me is unconscious!”
The words tumbled out of her mouth, and her eyes were wide and bright with relief. Jigsaw’s breathing was slow and steady now, and when he spoke, his voice was noticeably louder and stronger.
“It was Incendia. She lifted the alicorn statue and dropped it right onto Tantalus’ head.”
Tiptoe gaped at Incendia. “You lifted that?”
Incendia blushed yet again, staring into Tiptoe’s wide, green eyes. “I had to. Tantalus was going to kill you if I didn’t do something, and that was the only thing I could think of doing.”
Tiptoe didn’t look any less impressed, however, and she didn’t look away until a cough from Jigsaw forced her to.
“How are you feeling?” asked Incendia.
“Like I got stung by a cave-manticore,” groaned Jigsaw.
“Oh!” Tiptoe exclaimed with a start, as though the thought had only just occurred to her. “Why aren’t I hurt?”
“I was wondering about that, too,” Incendia said. “I thought Tiptoe was... I didn’t think she would make it.”
“You didn’t?” Tiptoe asked, her previous glee giving way to fear. “How bad was it?”
Jigsaw tried once more to sit up, and this time, Tiptoe let him. He swayed a little, but after several deep breaths, he sat up.
He then began to tell the side of the story that only he was awake to see. The gaping hole in Tiptoe’s side, the healing magic, Tantalus’ vanishing in green flames.
When he was done, Tiptoe looked at her flank, amazed, stretching out the restored foreleg in appreciation.
“It feels just fine, though it is a bit stiff. How did you do it? I thought you weren’t good with ponies.”
“I’m not,” Jigsaw replied. “Or, at least I wasn’t. There was always a barrier there. Like the feeling you get when you try to do magic that falls outside your specialization.” He glanced to Incendia as he spoke, and she nodded in understanding.
“I’m not familiar with that feeling,” Tiptoe interjected, a noticeable edge of irritation in her voice.
Incendia tilted her head in thought. “It’s... difficult to describe,” she said thoughtfully, “but I suppose the best metaphor would be a wall of glass. It’s solid, you can’t go through it, but you can see that there’s a whole world outside it. Only, everything outside is fuzzy and out-of-focus, and...”
She stomped her hoof on the forest floor. “I’m not explaining it right!” she snapped. “It’s really hard to put into words. It’s more of a feeling.”
“It’s okay, Incendia,” Jigsaw said. “I don’t think it’s something non-unicorns can understand.”
Tiptoe bristled, and was about to make an indignant remark until Jigsaw continued coolly, “Just like I don’t think we could ever understand what flying is like.”
Tiptoe deflated, the tension leaving her muscles. She was being petty, she knew. She couldn’t help her inability to do magic any more than the others could help that they couldn’t fly.
The silence stretched out after that. All three of them turned towards the fire, attempting to soak in as much warmth as they could from the dancing light.
“I’m really tired,” Jigsaw eventually said. “I think we should turn in for the night. Unconsciousness doesn’t count as sleep. Tomorrow our agenda is food.”
Incendia and Tiptoe both chuckled at this and agreed. Incendia got up and trudged over to the other side of the fire, leaving Jigsaw and Tiptoe essentially in private.
Tiptoe nuzzled against Jigsaw. “I’m really glad you’re okay,” she said softly, over the sound of the crackling fire. “I was afraid I would lose you.”
Jigsaw returned the nuzzle before rolling over onto his back to look up at the sky.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it either,” he said, his blue eyes alight with the reflection of the stars. “When I saw you lying there... there was so much blood. I couldn’t let it happen. I dug deeper into myself than I ever had before. I knew right away that I had gone too far, but I didn’t care. So long as you were alright, I didn’t really care what happened to me.”
“I care,” Tiptoe said. She rolled over onto her back too and nestled herself against Jigsaw. He was warm- warmer than he should have been- but she didn’t mind. It helped take the edge of the cold.
They stared up into the star-mottled sky together, the moon hidden behind dense tree limbs.
“Did you ever think you would see it in person?” Jigsaw asked. “The sky, I mean. The stars.”
Tiptoe stared up at them, twinkling down on the two ponies. Great swaths of color painted the sky, much more intense with the light of the moon blocked.
“No,” Tiptoe began, “I didn’t. I...”
She paused, hesitating for a moment, then continued on.
“I used to dream about the sky. The bulkhead would swing open, and outside, it would be just like the pictures in the old books. The sky would stretch out as far as I could see, and I would take off, and I would fly higher and higher, never having to go back again. I wouldn’t be just another useless pegasus up there. There would be others, and they would... I would have a purpose.”
She stopped, swallowing hard. Her throat seemed to have swollen shut.
“You have a purpose, Tiptoe,” Jigsaw said quietly. “You saved my life. I wouldn’t be here without you.”
He turned and kissed Tiptoe on the top of her head. “And you’re probably the only thing that’s kept me from going insane.”
“What do you mean?” Tiptoe asked, face still slightly red.
“I mean that you’ve been the one thing that’s kept me from cracking. This whole thing... it’s crazy. Last month, my biggest worry was making the trek to recast the spell on the purifier battery. And now...”
He raised a hoof and hovered it near his horn. “I can feel them. It’s like a pressure, pushing against the edges of my horn, trying to get out. It wasn’t very bad when all it was was the first fragment of Celestia, but now... Tiptoe, I’m carrying pieces of the goddesses. That’s enough to drive anypony insane. You’ve been my lifeline, my one tie to my old life that I’ve had to cling to. I don’t know what I would have done without you. I suppose it’s a moot point, because I would have drowned a long time ago.”
His hoof was shaking now with the effort of holding it aloft, and beads of sweat were forming on his brow. Tiptoe reached up and moved it down, and Jigsaw let out a breath.
“It’s just...” he sighed. “I don’t show it, but I’m scared. I don’t know why I’m the one that got saddled with this. I don’t know anything about the world out here! Surely there were more capable ponies than me. Incendia! She could do this so much better than I could. She knows how to fight! I just don’t know if I can do this!”
He rolled over and wrapped his hooves tightly around Tiptoe’s neck and squeezed. Tiptoe felt the warmth of Jigsaw against her again. The feeling seemed to travel through her entire body, leeching the chill out of her bones. The cold night air felt artificial in comparison.
“So, that’s your purpose,” he whispered into her ear. “You give me something to fight for.”
Incendia lay on the other side of the fire, curled into a tight ball in a futile attempt to conserve heat. The light breeze that was blowing through the trees occasionally wafted the heat from the fire towards her, but that also came with snippets of Jigsaw and Tiptoe’s conversation. Every word was like a spike being driven into her heart. She tried to focus on the crackling of the fire. Eventually, she managed to fall asleep.
She awoke to find something resting on her neck. She froze. Her instincts told her to catch fire and burn whatever was holding her down- her time in the resistance had taught her that waking up with something placed against her neck was not good. Then, it moved back and forth, and she realized what it was. It was a pony, and it was nuzzling her. She let out her tension with a breath.
“Are you awake?” came Jigsaw’s voice, strangely loud in the silence of the forest.
Incendia sat up to look at him. “What are you doing?”
Jigsaw was barely visible in the fading light from the dying fire. Clearly, nopony had bothered to get up and add new twigs. Incendia was just able to make out half his face in the light from the embers. It was for this reason that it took her several moments to indentify the expression on his face- shame.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I said when you went to get the statue during the fight with Tantalus. You’ve proven yourself to be one of the kindest, most loyal ponies I have ever known, and you deserve better.”
He bowed his head low to the ground.
“Jigsaw, I...” she wasn’t sure how to respond. She had forgotten about his words, written them off as exactly what they were- meaningless words shouted in the heat of an emotional moment, while she was doing something that looked mightily suspicious. She had no idea he felt so strongly about them.
“I forgive you. It’s fine, honestly, I understand,” she stammered. Jigsaw raised his head slowly. Even this small action seemed to have exhausted him.
“Thank you. I needed to hear that.”
With that he turned and made his way back around the dying fire pit and carefully laid himself down next to the still-sleeping pegasus.
Incendia turned away from the fire, her mind racing. In his state, it must have cost Jigsaw an immense amount of willpower to do that.
Her mind went back to her time in the resistance- the endless parade of ponies that would come and go, inevitably getting captured or killed in combat operations. None stayed for long, nothing was constant. She had only ever gotten close to one, but she had gone just as quickly as the others.
This was an old pain, though. Hardened by years of fighting and struggle, of issues so much larger than just herself. She hadn’t ever put herself first, why should she start to now, when others still depended on her?
Still, she couldn’t help but feel the warm tingle of joy. Jigsaw obviously cared about her more than she knew. The words of the thing guarding the fragment of Luna came back to her once more. “Don’t be so quick to give up on your own happiness.”
Incendia focused all her energy on the pile of embers and ash, and a small flame flickered to life in the center of the pit. She didn’t even notice the cold as she curled up near it and went back to sleep.
Tiptoe woke first, tiny tongues of flame still burning in the fire pit, in spite of the fact that the fire had long since burned out. The stars were every bit as bright as they had ever been.
In a few minutes, everypony had been awoken. Their goal was immediately apparent- food. Their hunger had grown so severe over the night that they could hardly focus on anything else. They barely even exchanged words of greeting. Instead, with a wave of her horn, Incendia extinguished the few remaining tongues of flame in the fire pit and the group made their way westward- away from the baleful light of the moon and towards the warmth of the sun.
The walk was even more tedious than the climb up the mountainside staircase had been. Their stomachs seemed to protest with every step, screaming for them to eat something, but there was no food in sight. The forest blocked out what pitiful light from the sun that managed to reach this far, and the ground was utterly bare.
Finally, they made it through the copse of trees and out onto the snowy ground beyond. Their hearts sank. There was no green outside the forest. To their left, a hill sloped gently up and curved away out of sight. The light from the sliver of sun peeking over the horizon was reflecting off the snow, causing them to squint, but this was only a mild irritation. They were appreciative for what little warmth it provided. The breeze was also blowing from the west, the warm air causing the snow to become a slushy slurry under their hooves. Jigsaw realized dimly this had to be how the trees got their water.
Suddenly, he paused. “Wait!” he shouted to the others, who had began to walk away from the hill. They paused and turned to face him.
“What is it, Jigsaw?” Tiptoe asked, a note of concern in her voice. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine!” Jigsaw said excitedly. “I think I just figured out where we can find food! Tiptoe, fly around and check the other side of the hill!”
Tiptoe opened her mouth to ask why, but Jigsaw’s eyes were so alight with excitement that she instead flapped her wings and flew into the sky. She saw the Jigsaw was right almost immediately after takeoff.
When she was only a few dozen feet off the ground, green began to peek its way over the crest of the hill.
“Grass!” Tiptoe shouted in delight to the other ponies back on the ground. “There’s grass on the other side of the hill!”
Incendia and Jigsaw didn’t need to hear anything else. They took off towards the hill, galloping as fast as they could towards the promise of food. Tiptoe noticed, with a stab of worry, that Jigsaw was noticeably slower than Incendia and was panting heavily.
With an awful pang of hunger, however, her eyes were drawn back to the sloping green hill.
An hour later, the hill had been almost entirely stripped of grass. Jigsaw, Tiptoe, and Incendia sat at the top of the hill, trying to let their meal settle. They had eaten far more than they were used to. Not because the grass had been particularly tasty- it wasn’t. It was short and chewy, tainted with the unpleasant taste of dirt and- Jigsaw thought- magic. Either way, they were full, and finally were able to think clearly.
“Oh, by Luna’s horn, let’s not ever go that long without food again,” Incendia said.
“Agreed,” Tiptoe added, giggling.
Incendia smiled, then turned her gaze toward Jigsaw. “So, where’s the next fragment?”
Jigsaw looked conflicted, as though he wasn’t sure what to say. He bit his lower lip.
“It’s... far away. But I think there’s something I should show you first.”
The other two ponies watched curiously as Jigsaw pulled the saddlebags off his back and upturned them. The only thing that fell out was the pile of parts for the teleporter.
“I think I can fix it,” Jigsaw began, “but only partially. The problem is the power source is dead, and we don’t exactly have a supply of refined goddess energy to recharge this one. We need to find a new power source.”
“Jigsaw, where are we going to find something capable of outputting that kind of magical energy?” Incendia chimed in incredulously. “They were hard enough to find back in Stalliongrad.”
Jigsaw smiled at this and looked slyly at the two ponies.
“That’s why I’m going to make one.”