The Steadfast Sky : Chapter 15
The Grey Potter
Contrary to what you may have heard, trees are not comfortable places to sleep. Bark is just as jagged as it looks, and leaves can actually get fairly scratchy, especially since they never sit still. Branches are always exactly where you don’t want them, and that can never be fixed, because it’s a different tree every night. Not to mention the ants, and the need to find a perfect place to balance, or whoops! Off you tumble in your half-awake stupor, probably to break a wing, or something.
Yet, I always love staying up in the trees. Taking a wild stab in the dark, I can guess it’s because sleeping in a tree is something so different. It’s difficult, but that made it fun to try, to get used to. I don’t think I could call any rest there a good’s night sleep, but somepony around here needed to be more aware anyway. You know, in case some… bear or something decided to sneak up on us.
It was hours after my conversation with Celestia, or, Tia. Still night out, though I couldn’t even attempt to guess the time. I wasn’t very aware of those things. I was in a weird state. That place between a dream and reality, where you realize you’re asleep in a tree, but dreamy thoughts dominate your mind. I had become convinced that rain was made out of cottage cheese, because the water of the sun baked the hayseed clouds to the boiling point. It made absolute and perfect sense, because it was absolute and perfect nonsense.
Of course, I was fuzzy on the details, because, what does cottage cheese taste like? Like oatmeal? Or… blue? Or…
A scream shattered my mind, whiplash to the waking world, light blasting by my eyes. I stood, tipped, unaware of my limbs as the bark scraped off some of my skin, claws nearly yanked away from me. My legs pinwheeled, leaves invading my face, jabbing and scraping at my gut.
“What’s going on?!” I demanded, trying to force away the leaves with my chin, spitting at the green that snuck in my mouth. I heaved myself up and swatted the branch with my paw as Tia screamed again, mixed with loud and foreign whinnies and snorts. Finally stable, shaking with the hyper awareness only brought with being startled awake, I dropped my vision down, trying to get a grasp of the scene.
Tia had slammed herself against my tree, eyes screwed shut, horn glowing brightly as she screamed, trying to get away and failing miserably. I looked in front of her, and saw a second pony, one I had never seen before.
It was scraggly and thin, blue fur lumpy and uneven, violet mane hanging to one side, in a damp and uncombed tangle. The pony was stumbling away from Tia, twisted its forelegs around his face, whinnying and bucking, making a grimy satchel around his neck bounce. With each buck he left the earth, furiously beating wings holding him aloft, inches from the ground. Clipped to both wings was an iron ring with a feather bangle, that released a puff of dark smoke every time it moved.
“Stop yelling! It’s a Pegasus!” I yelled down to my friend, easing my head over a few more branches.
“Big sis…? Pegasus…?” Luna? I scanned the glade for my other friend. She was barely visible, obscured by a patch of grass. But she was trying to get to her feet, rubbing at her eyes.
“What?! Oh!” Tia gasped, “It is a Pegasus!” she said, almost in awe. I flipped myself around to look back at Celestia, who had begun peering out from under her own hoof. Then, her body tensed, and she stomped forward, shaking an accusatory hoof, “Who are you?! What were you thinking?! Dare to sneak around us like—!”
She stopped at the sound of my voice, jaw clicking shut. I eased myself off the branch, then dropped to the ground beside her, landing heavily on all fours. I looked over the stranger once more, and turned to Tia. “Look at her flank,” I said, “Look at her cutie mark. That’s an escaped slave.”
Tia’s eyes flicked away from me. Briefly obscured by the occasional flap of the Pegasus’ wings, one could still make out the mix of different shapes. Only one part seemed like it was a natural cutie mark, a pale pair of outstretched wings. Big black letters, STR, were imposed over them, covering the left far more than the right. A black outline of a cloud was overlaid on the letters, tilting slightly upward and overlapping with the top of the ‘R’, leaving a larger blank space in front of the ‘S’.
“A slave?” Tia asked, “There’s slavery out here?!”
“Slavery’s not out here, far as we’ve seen. It’s up there.” I pointed up at the black sky, completely featureless with the onset of night. “How do you think the Stallion perpetuates the cloud cover?” Tia gaped upward, face blank.
“I ain’t a slave! Not no more!” The Pegasus shouted, hoof still over her eyes. Her voice was girlish, but gurgling, as if she had a sore throat. “I bust outta there two days ago, and not no griffon or pony gonna take me back!”
Tia gave me a strange look, eyes stuttering back at the Pegasus.
“You know about this? This situation? How…?” she asked, wavering on one forehoof.
“Well uh…” I looked away, flustered. A lesson from Ruin, a clear cut answer, but one I didn’t want to admit to. That I hoped to never admit to. C’mon, Discord, there’s a simple way to reply. I shrugged away my fears. “You think the Stallion only captured unicorns off the streets of Canterbury? Other ponies were brought through the castle, often enough.”
Tia seemed to accept the answer, and turned away from the conversation, hesitantly approaching the emaciated Pegasus. I looked as well, as she squinted back at me, out from one bloodshot eye, half hidden under a foreleg.
“Hey, it’s okay…” Tia said, approaching slowly, “You just startled us. We’re not going to hurt you.” I kept by Tia’s side, and Luna crawled between her sister’s feet, yawning.
“What are you?!” the Pegasus cried.
“We’re ponies, just like you.”
“Though, not me,” I chuckled. “I’m a Draconequus.”
“Liar!” the Pegasus spat, “If you were, I’d be dead.”
“Eh, I’ll give that. It’s true if you met most Draconequus. On the other hand, I’m special.”
“Sheyeah right you are!” the pony snorted. She blinked both her eyes, hesitantly squinting over a scrawny and patchy leg. “Whadcha you hit me with?”
“Sorry…” Tia apologized, “Reflexive unicorn magic…”
“Unicorn? Shyeah right, there aint no unicorn down here!”
“Fine. Don’t believe anything we have to say.”
“Done and done!” She dropped down to all four hooves, wings falling still, squinting over us through the greasy strands of her mane. And so the group was overcome by silence, Luna nodding off, and Tia was too caught up in her own flabbergasted staring to say a word. I’d surprised the Pegasus didn’t leave right then, but she seemed busy eyeing Celestia’s horn, still glowing softly. I stepped forward.
“So,” I started. “Why were you sneaking around our camp?”
“That weren’t sneaking,” she snapped.
“Yes it was, you walked right up to me!” Tia asserted. “You snorted right in my face!” The Pegasus flicked her tail and shook her head.
“Can’t see nothing out here after dark. And there’s junk everywhere, jus lying around to trip me up! I run into lots more than ponies, I can tell you that much. Didn’t mean to surprise you none.”
“Ah…” Once more, Tia fell to silence, but the thin pony had something to say this time. She turned in place and spread her frayed wing, pointing at the iron band.
“Hey. If you’re really unicorn, can you unicorn magic these darn things offa me?” She waved her wing at us, making the black-spotted feather jingle. “I could fly right outta your mane if you could.”
“Um…” Tia looked it over, refusing to edge closer or further away. “I don’t think I have a spell that can help...”
“Shoot… Then do you bunch have something to eat?”
“I’m… sorry?” Tia stammered.
“Said I’m hungry, and I’m willing to pay for any kind a food.”
Tia looked at me, confused as Luna snoozed beneath her. I glanced at the road, double checking that there was at least a few patches of grass around it.
“You don’t need to waste the bits, there’s grass here you can eat…” Tia said.
“No I can’t, that’d kill me. I got the bits, I’m hungry.”
“Um…” Tia looked to me for advice, and I was more than willing to walk over to her saddlebags and pull out two of our apples. If the starving pony was hungry, then heck if I was going to let that continue.
From her ragged satchel, the Pegasus withdrew a copper bit, clenched between yellow teeth. With a flick of her snout, she tossed the coin at Celestia, who nearly tripped over her own sister trying to dodge away. The apples were snatched out of my hands before I even offered them, snapped between her jaws. She began chewing through the whole apple, struggling to bite through as chunks were spewed out from her breath, juice edging out the sides of her mouth. Celestia looked absolutely horrified, but still refused to move anywhere. It was actually funny to watch Tia struggle internally like that, caught between two conflicting sets of manners. Sympathize with the downtrodden? Be frightened by poor manners? I chuckled quietly to myself.
Suddenly, a thought occurred. A question I should have asked ages ago.
“What’d your name, miss?”
“Clou’estier, number… uh…” She swallowed a mouthful of apple, smacking up the leftovers from her lips. “Flea’s the name.”
“Um…” Tia struggled with a question of her own, “What’s with your cutie mark?”
Flea grinned, then posed, flashing us her jumbled cutie mark.
“Pretty, innit? I got triple shifted once that beaut’ appeared, but I never been prouder! First in the family since grandpappy Rainbow Wing! Pity the brand covers it, wish I coulda seen it otherwise.”
“That’s a brand?”
“Yep. Camp I was born to, and the job I was made to do. Cloudstirring.”
By chance, or maybe reminded by her job, I looked up. Somehow… the sky wasn’t quite as featureless anymore. I climbed a tree, trying to get even a little bit higher for a better look.
Through the branches and leaves, high above us, I saw four little orange orbs, light bouncing off cloud cover and illuminating shadows of what looked like four heavyset ponies.
“Cut the light,” I snapped, pointing up. “There’s something there.”
Flea didn’t even bother to look before rearing in a panic and ducking past Celestia. “Darn! I gotta go! Thank yeh for the apples!”
“No!” I shot down. Flea hesitated, shifting from hoof to hoof nervously. I gave her my grin, my brilliant, brilliant idea grin! “Let’s hide!”
“You dumb or something?” she snorted. “They’ll find us!”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a great plan!” I dropped out of the tree, stumbling in my attempt to land in front of the Pegasus. “We’ve got some pretty good hiding magic! So, if you stay here, they’ll pass over us, then you can go in the opposite direction, or somewhere they wouldn’t think to look!” flea stared at me, quiet for a moment. Her eyes flicked up and she hastily nodded.
“That’s mighty nice of you, lil dragon.”
“Our pleasure!” I nodded, ignoring the dragon comment. “We’re adventurers! The Bringers of Harmony, and we’re here to help every pony in need!”
“Ooh, that’s our adventuring name?” Luna asked sleepily, “I like it. Let’s use it.”
“Now cut the light! Under these ferns!”
Celestia’s light went out as she scootched Luna underneath the thick leaves. I dove into cover, and Flea settled next to me, stumbling and crashing through the underbrush. Flea brushed against me as she sat, and I tried not to recoil. She was cold with sweat, and, finally still beside me, I could smell the stench of it wafting off of her. That, and another smell. It preoccupied my thoughts as I watched two lanterns pass overhead, now clearly held in the beaks of two vague and shadowy griffons. It was that rotten, greasy stink, like oil and bodily wastes, the stink of the overcast cloud cover.
“Luna, can you cast the spell?” Tia asked quietly. Luna was on my other side, resting her head across her sister’s leg, blinking blearily at the question.
“mm… Maybe.” She yawned.
“It’s alright, let me try!” I asserted. “I’ve been wanting to see if my shadow magic’s gotten a boost anyway.” I spread my hands on the ground and closed my eyes, letting the spell flow from my fingertips. With so little light, it was easy to lift the shadows from wherever I wanted, coating our space, obscuring us completely. When the spell finished, I tried to move my claws. The shadows faltered, and I slapped them back in place, frustrated.
“Dang… still a strain. But don’t worry,” I looked over at my friend, her eyes peering at where she thought I was. “I can hold it for a while, if I focus.”
“Hold what?” Flea demanded quietly, “Nothing happened!”
“If someone looked at us straight, we’d look like a shadow.” Tia explained. “We can see through it just fine.”
“Quiet, guys! They’re coming!”
I watched, focused as the lights circled overhead, two, then three, figures obscured by the thick leaves. In the distance, I heard the griffins speak, voices like low chirping, beaks clacking. I couldn’t tell if it was the pony’s language or their own. Did griffins have their own language? I tried to not think too hard about these details.
With a heavy thud, one dropped into our clearing. He took his lantern out of his beak and held it aloft in a taloned hand, illuminating portions of himself in a near-useless light. Its armor was in thick segments, leather that was seemingly stitched together. A metal helmet curled around its face, framing his beak, with a long feather sprouting out the top. It thin, furred tailed curled, then snapped as the griffin released a frustrated huff. He shuffled in place, swinging his lantern around slowly before approaching a bush, pushing it aside. With a swipe of his paw, he tore it apart, green chunks flying, his voice a rolling growl.
I smirked and curled my fingers around the shadows. You trying to scare us? You don’t intimidate me, you big chicken.
From somewhere above, a gruff male voice. “Anything, Demelza?”
“Don’t bother asking,” a different griffin, again from one unseen. “The skarn couldn’t catch a mule with its head smashed in.”
A voice above made a strangled, squawking whinny noise, surrounded by laughter.
“HEY!” The griffin spun around, waving its lantern at the sky, voice gruff, but clearly female. “Stop picking your noses and keep looking! They could have moved by now!” With a whip of her tail she smashed down another bush, then flipped around, peering in our general direction.
“Hey, you little mud ponies! We saw your little light over here!” I stayed in place, solid, unflinching. You don’t scare me, not at all. “We’re just looking for a bit of live cargo, and that’s all we’ll take, if you show your stupid candy-coated selves.” She clucked once, glaring in our direction. “Well?!”
I felt Flea shift beside me, and I snapped my eyes to her. Her face was fearful, backing away slowly, tail falling out of the spell’s effect. I stuck out a hand to stop her, grabbing her thin ankle, trying to keep my focus. The griffin can’t see us, I wanted to assure her. She’s bluffing! We’re safe!
The griffon smashed another bush, just to our right. Her feet, one of a bird and two of a lion, planted themselves in front of our bush, falling still. The lantern hovered above our heads, as a single orange eye peered through the leaves over us.
Flea whinnied, yanked her hoof out of my hand, and bolted, smashing and trampling past the undergrowth.
“Flea, no!” I flipped around, spell breaking around me, and charged after the Pegasus. There was another blast of Celestia’s light behind me, and a shrill shriek, unlike any other I had heard.
Thoughts rang through my mind as I struggled to catch up. I would not let them catch this Pegasus! This is our duty as heroes! I had to see this through! I couldn’t abandon even one pony! Especially not this one, not like this!
Flea struggled vainly through the dark, colliding with trees and bouncing off the ground, leaving behind her a trail of smoke, easy to follow. Too easy. An orange lantern shot overhead, flying past us, circling around, shouting nonsense. I grabbed at her tail, but on contact Flea brayed again and shot upward, crashing through branches, getting entangled, breaking boughs that crashed down atop me. With several strong flaps, she broke through, then zoomed off, a streaking trail of smoke at a speed I thought impossible.
“Get it!” screamed a griffin, “Catch the mule!”
I scrambled up after her, flapping up to a branch and launching myself higher, never able to fly for more than a few feet at a time. Darn it! Darn it! With a burst of energy, I launched myself above the treetops, hovering shakily, resolving to chase after her. Slap some reason into her!
“DRACONEQUUS! DRACONEQUUS IN THE TREES.”
I squealed and let myself drop back down, crashing through brittle twigs before slapping into a thicker bough. Stupid! They were looking for me too! Stupid! I glued my eyes to the skies, as two guards looked down, another flying past, over their heads.
“Grab the darn thing, moron!”
“Forget you, where’d the little skarn go?!”
There was boisterous laughter from one of them, loud and wild.
“Grab the stupid lizard, Rigby! Easy bits!”
Okay… I scrambled atop my branch, another plan, a better plan forming. So I’m the better prize here? Fine! If I can draw the attention of all the griffins… then maybe Flea can escape!
I tossed up my hands and from them bloomed an illusion of myself, flapping and flying in tight circles, blurred features, making it easier to move. Not like the birds could tell the difference with their terrible dayball eyes.
The bigger guard took up a length of looped rope on the end of a stick, started charging after the illusion. It took care with its swings, sometimes missing, often hitting, grunting in frustration when the illusion slipped through. C’mon, you dumb chicken. You can’t deal with this alone! Call the other guards! I buzzed him, not close enough to be caught. The other griffin watched, clucking a chuckle.
“Spry one, innit he?”
The one with the stick grunted through his mouthful of lantern. “Shuh up ‘nd ‘elp me, Kipp!”
“Fuh, no,” the one called Kipp snorted, folding its arms, “I’m surprised the little thing hasn’t bit you yet. It’s just yanking your chain, and you still can’t catch the stupid thing!” Call over the other two, you moron! Do it! Your friend is obviously incompetent, even if you do it sarcastically, call off the other guard!
A jolt down my spine, preceding a scream, a voice I recognized. I whipped my head around, dropped my hands, illusion dissipating in a flash.
“Luna?!” I cried. Luna! No! I just left my friends with that Demelza! No! Aug! I clawed at the branch, scraping myself towards the sound. What am I doing here?! My element burst bright silver, resonating with my guilt, my urge to run and help.
“There, in the trees!” I slammed a hand over my Element, far too late, entire body flushing cold. “Got you, you little!”
I threw myself down as two griffins crashed into the branches above me, cursing. I slammed sideways, body deafened by the thump, suddenly too heavy as my shoulder bloomed into a bruise. I forced myself to run, panicked, worried, lost, and absolutely detesting the feeling, the horrible sinking feeling of fear. Of utter and stupid uselessness. What help can I be if I don’t help my friends first!? I just wanted to scream at myself!
I tripped and tumbled, crashing over an overheated body, smashing my snout into the all-too-hard ground. No time! I whipped around and there she was, Tia, gripping her left ear, gritting her teeth and silent, but alive! I scrambled toward her, relived, ecstatic, and she pushed a hoof over my snout, quickly shaking her head, face flush, serious. On the other side of her, Luna was curled up, repressing sobs with a tightly screwed up face, horn glowing blue, blood flowing down her snout, spreading onto her neck.
I opened my mouth to ask, but Celestia shook her head again, and pulled me low. Once more, I brought the shadows around us, and we all waited quietly as the griffins squawked and shouted, never more than a bobbing orange light in the veil of night.
All of this, an entire crazy night, begun and over in the span of twenty minutes.
Oh, how quickly things can go horribly, horribly wrong…