Fluttershy and her friends stepped out of Princesses’ tower just as the last of Flamewithers’ shops closed for the night. With Twilight’s cloud-walking spell active on the non-pegasi of the group, Pinkie Pie wasted no time testing the springiness of the cloud beneath her hooves.
“Hey, Rainbow Dash!” she squeaked, flailing her hooves. “Look at me! I’m flying just as high as you are!”
The pegasus cackled. “Oh, yeah? How high can you go?” With three potent flaps of her wings, she ascended to a height halfway up the Princesses’ tower.
While the others watched Rainbow and Pinkie play catch-me-if-you-can, Fluttershy found herself at the forefront of the group. The cloud beneath her hooves rumbled with the sound of distant explosions, and a persistent breeze warmed her wings as it blew in from the east.
She turned to the others. “Um, girls?”
A wild bounce sent Pinkie Pie tumbling end over end, releasing a shower of party props and musical instruments from her saddlebags. Only a quick sweep of Twilight’s magic kept them from crashing onto the cloud.
She had not been able to do the same for Pinkie. Always one to find the bright side to things, however, the earth pony seized the opportunity to show everypony her best impression of an ostrich upon landing.
Fluttershy had to admit it was a good impression. But her heart could not shore up the same easy laughter rippling from the rest of her friends.
She turned away, setting off along a route as familiar to her as a bedtime story. It took her past the weather factories and their spiraling cloudstacks, the lantern shop on the corner, past the old kitemaker’s store, past a row of east-facing benches. After a while, it brought her to a gated, two-story house. Columns rose along its front in geometric intervals, and statues of armored pegasi lined the path to the front door. When she looked back, her friends were still talking amongst themselves, but they were following in her hoofsteps.
Their chatter ceased as Fluttershy unlatched the gate to the house. She heard something rustle behind her soon afterward—Rainbow Dash was poking a well-groomed topiary.
“This place is weird,” she said, gawking around the front yard. “Whose house is this?”
Fluttershy squeaked as if struck. “M-my parents’,” she said. After seeing Rainbow’s ears peak, she continued. “We moved in here a few years after I was born.”
Applejack whistled as she glanced up at the house. “Hoo-ee, girl. I know you like visiting the spa with Rarity an all, but I never took you for growin’ up fancy.” The farmpony hitched a hoof at one of the statues.
“Come now, Applejack,” Rarity protested, looking up from an inscription on one of the statues. “It’s usually not all that expensive as you make it out to be. You should join us sometime; you are truly missing out on some world-class service.”
“I ain’t never steppin’ hoof in a place that calls mud a beauty product. Honestly, Rarity, I still don’t see the difference between my mud and yours.”
Fluttershy paused before the front doors, which were situated between a pair of unlit windows. She had not put much thought into where her friends were going to stay the night. Now that she had brought them along, though, she began to see little tells pass between her friends. The sidelong glances, the arching eyebrows, the underslung pointing of hooves--they were impressed.
She was not a pony used to impressing others.
“We could stay the night somewhere else,” she blurted. “My parents aren’t home right now, so we could go to the Fairfeather Inn instead. It’s a very nice place.” She tapped a hoof on the porch. “Has... beds.”
“What?” Pinkie Pie planted her hoof on Fluttershy’s scalp, and started rubbing at it as if it were a stubborn patch of dried frosting. “He-llo-o-o! Don’t be silly, you filly! Why do we need to stay at an inn when you have this super-ginormous house all to yourself? With your parents out, it’ll be just like a sleepover, you see!”
“Ouch. Ow.” Fluttershy ducked her head, but the hoof continued its violent crusade undeterred. “Pinkie, please stop that—Pinkie, that hurts—”
Twilight peeled the earth pony away before the latter turned Fluttershy’s head soft. The unicorn’s brows furrowed with concern. “Is something the matter, Fluttershy? I mean--yes, this is your house, and you have every right to ask us to go someplace else if you’re not comfortable with us staying here. Right, girls?”
“Ah--!” Fluttershy wiped a wing beneath her eyes. “No, it’s--I--oh, nevermind. I’m sorry. Please, come in.” She fished a key from her saddlebags and slotted it in the lock; the doors swung inward.
The ponies had entered into a spacious atrium. Fluttershy nudged the chandelier hanging high above the center of the room, where crystals flared to life with soft white light. Wild Everfree blossoms reached for the air from a glass vase on a table toward the rear of the foyer. A pair of wide staircases ascended in arcs around the table to a mezzanine that wrapped around the foyer’s circumference. Open thresholds on the first floor split off to a sitting room to the left, and a kitchen and dining room to the right. The rooms of the second floor remained behind closed doors.
Along the walls hung portraits of various pegasi with groomed manes and lustrous coats. Rarity trotted over to a large painting of a stallion with dark eyes hidden behind thin-rimmed glasses and purred. “Oh my. You wouldn’t be my type normally, but...” The socialite clapped her hooves against her chest. “Say, Fluttershy. Do your parents entertain guests often?”
“Not really,” said the pegasus as she made for the kitchen. “It’s what you said earlier: they work very hard.”
“Are they on the fire patrols?” asked Rainbow Dash. “That’d probably explain why they aren’t here right now.”
“I dunno.” Twilight followed Fluttershy up the stairs. “This place looks a little expensive for a calling like that. I’ll bet they’re in administration.”
Fluttershy nodded. “You’re both kind of right.”
“Oh, yes.” Fluttershy gave the first two doors a pass. “As it turns out, Mother is a high-ranking officer with the patrols here, and Father is a senior doctor at the hospital.”
“Augh!” Rainbow Dash stamped her hoof on the floor as an open-mouthed smile stretched between her ears. “I remember you telling me about your dad at flight camp, but you never said anything about your mom! I had no idea that kind of awesome ran in your family! What about your relatives? Got any aunts or uncles out there fighting the fires?” She tapped a hoof on her chin. “Would any of them happen to know any of the Wonderbolts, by any chance?”
Fluttershy chuckled. “Sorry, Rainbow Dash. It’s only Mother, Father, and me.” She stopped before a door at the corner and pushed it open.. “Here we are. We have a couple of guest bedrooms on this side of the house, so everypony make yourselves at home.”
“Whoo-hoo!” A pink blur shot past the pegasus into the first bedroom. Before anypony could stop her, Pinkie Pie was improvising an acrobatic routine on the bed closest to the door. As the bed was little more than a block of cloud given some framework, it bowed in the middle like an overacting thespian with every bounce.
“Pegasus beds are the best!” cheered the pink party pony in the middle of a double backflip. “I’m totally getting one of these when we get back to Ponyville.”
“What’s in this room?” Twilight Sparkle had continued past the bedrooms, stopping in front of a pair of double doors. A pair of pegasi sculptures about to take flight rested on pedestals on either side.
“Oh.” Fluttershy left the other girls to settle in while she joined the unicorn. “This is Father’s library.”
Twilight’s eyes swelled until they were round as moons. “Can-- can we go in?”
No sooner did Fluttershy push the doors in did a lavender blur shoot past her. What was getting into everypony? It was only a house...
“For a private collection, your father’s doing really well!” Lighting her way with her horn, Twilight trotted back and forth in a lowered section of floor in the center of the room. A pair of high-backed chairs rested on either side of the reading table in the center of the floor, facing out toward a large, curtained window on the far side of the room. A glass and iron lantern sat on the table unlit.
Twilight skimmed row after row of low shelves, talking to herself in hushed excitement. Suddenly, she stopped, backtracked a little, and squealed. “Oh my gosh--Principia Arcana: A Brief History of Magic?” She levitated a well-worn tome from its shelf for Fluttershy to see--the book was easily half the unicorn’s height.
“My dad would always read this to me when I was a filly. Well, I made him read it to me.” A guilty smile seeped across her face as she flipped through the pages. “Even though Neighton focused on unicorn magic, he also looked into pegasus and earth pony magic, too. You can see his observations in the appendices here.” She turned the book around for Fluttershy to read. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Um...” The pegasus’ eyes scanned the text in front of her. The way the unicorn philosopher described terms like “drag coefficient” and “meteorological potential” made it all sound like it was written in Canternese. “Well, it was very nice of him to think about the other ponies.”
“Very true.” Twilight closed the book. “Do you think your dad would mind if I borrowed it for the night? I always sleep better after some light reading.”
Light reading? The book had to be as heavy as a two-year-old filly. What did Twilight do when she got down and studied?
“I think he would be okay with that,” said the pegasus. “Father tries to keep his collection open to everypony. I bet he’d even be okay with letting you take a couple books on the road, as well.”
“You really think so?” Twilight’s lip twitched at the corner.
Fluttershy’s wings sprang free from her sides, but they had no chance to carry her away before Twilight’s hooves swept her up in a huge embrace.
“Thank you thank you thank you thank you!” Twilight repeated. “Oh, this is so exciting! Where should I even begin? Ponyville’s a little lacking in pegasus material, and there’s so much of it here!” She scurried off to pick more titles off the shelves. “A Narrative Overview of Weather Control? Guess I’ll take that one—ooh! Flora of the Everfree Forest, yes, yes!” Books thumped on the floor by Twilight’s hooves. “And oh my—eleven volumes of The Complete Compendium of Pegasi Lore—wow!” By the time Fluttershy left the library, Twilight’s reading list had piled up past her cutie mark.
The pegasus took a few moments to turn off the chandelier before checking up on the rest of her friends. She bid goodnight to Rarity, who had claimed a bedroom for herself, just as the unicorn inserted one last roller into her mane. Rainbow Dash was also alone in the next room, fast asleep. One of her hooves draped over the side of her bed. Applejack had decided to room with Pinkie, and when Fluttershy came by, the two earth ponies were sharing horror stories of catering gigs gone wrong.
“So the mayor wasn’t as happy as I thought she’d be when Gummy burst out of the cake.”
“Well, I reckon she expected somethin’ a lil’ more classy for her party than ‘Happy Birthday on the Bayou’. But that’s just ol’ Applejack speakin’. That was a good party in my eyes.”
“She didn’t even stick around to watch Gummy play the banjo for her! I mean, it’s okay to be a little mad, but to walk out on your own party like that?”
“I hear you, sugarcube. That was awkward for everypony.”
Fluttershy crossed over to the other side of the house. Her eyelids grew heavier with each step, it seemed--was this really the same day she had started by tending to the animals back in Ponyville? The library, the letter, the tower and the princesses--they all felt so long ago.
She laid a hoof on her bedroom door. Her eyes floated through her house, taking in familiar details one by one--the smooth hoofrail running along the edge of the mezzanine, the chandelier and its crystals turning slightly on their threads, filigree sprouting from the bases of the unlit sconces along the walls.
Nothing had changed.
Twilight emerged from the library trailing a cloud of books large enough to fill a good-sized wagon. Even at this distance, her voice telegraphed her concern quite clearly. “Is everything all right?”
The pegasus snapped out of her trance, shaking her head. “Everything’s fine,” she said, letting her hoof fall from the door. Yawning, she made her way over to her friend in the guest wing. “Pinkie’s right,” she continued upon arriving. “This is a sleepover, and it wouldn’t be very thoughtful of me if I didn’t join you all over here. Right?”
Twilight smiled. “Glad to have you on board, Fluttershy.”
Bidding the unicorn good night, Fluttershy tiptoed past Rainbow Dash to the other bed in the room. As she nestled beneath the covers in the darkness, she listened to the other pegasus’ breath come and go in gentle waves.
Bits of leaf and dirt clung to her fetlocks as she galloped, and the gnarled trees surrounding her creaked in the stiff wind. Roiling clouds obscured what little sky peeked through the vine-choked canopy. Every time the path turned, a thorny tendril raked her legs, or a spider’s thread fell across her eyes.
Her lungs burned. Every time she heard something scamper through the undergrowth around her, she lost what little wind she still had to screaming. The Everfree Forest was ominous enough living on its fringes. How did she ever get herself this far inside?
“Hello?” she cried. “Hello? Anypony there? Can you hear me? Helllp!”
Suddenly, the trees pulled back from Fluttershy, and she skittered to a halt at the edge of a large clearing.
“Hello?” The pegasus crept around the open space, her ears flitting this way and that. “Where am I?” she asked of nopony. She looked over her shoulder on a hunch, expecting one of her friends to trot into view. But then her hoof collided with a rock, and she tumbled over it like an apple cart.
No, it was not a rock. It was too soft to be one, and it shifted beneath her barrel.
Fluttershy scrambled back on her hooves--she’d stumbled over a mare. A red mane spilled over her neck like filamentary flame, and her cream-colored coat showed no signs of dirt or distress. Both of her wings rested along her flanks, rising and falling with her breath. Fluttershy wanted to say she was napping, but she could not understand why anypony would want to do so in the middle of the Everfree Forest.
She fidgeted in place as a gust of wind rustled the leaves around her. What did she want to do? The greater part of her, including the part governing common sense, told her she did not want to wake the sleeping mare before her. The issue went beyond something rude—something about this pegasus nagged at her. Had they met sometime in the past? Those colors reminded her of something from long ago, for sure, but she was almost sure they had never met in person. And waking up a stranger was a dangerous business, indeed.
On the other hoof, so was staying in the middle of the Everfree Forest alone, in the middle of the night.
“Um. Excuse me?” she mumbled, poking the mare’s wing. Much as she hated to disturb the resting pegasus, she wanted to have some company, at least until she could figure out how to return to Ponyville. “Miss? Hello?”
The other pegasus stirred, and uneasy regret crashed into Fluttershy’s gut the next instant. There was something familiar about the mare, suddenly--and when things happened suddenly, those things rarely turned out for the better.
She took a step back as the pegasus rose to her hooves. The other mare was not quite as tall as Princess Celestia, but she was certainly taller than Princess Luna, and with her wings unfurled, she looked to be twice as large again. Despite returning to wakefulness, the red-maned pegasus kept her eyes closed, and her mouth traced a flat line across her face.
“I, uh...” Her ears flattened against her head as she took another step back, and another. Her heart was beating like the wings of a hummingbird. Yes, she was now certain she knew this mare from somewhere, but she could not remember where they met. “I--I’m sorry to bother you,” she stuttered. “Y-you can go back to sleep. Don’t even worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
The mare took a step forward, her face impassive.
“No! No, no.” A twig snapped beneath Fluttershy’s hoof. “Eeyahh! I mean, you don’t have to go anywhere. Please, feel free to stay where you are.”
The mare took another step forward. Her head came down to Fluttershy’s level.
“Ah!” The butter-yellow pegasus screamed as she backed into a tree trunk. Still the other mare approached.
Fluttershy sank to the ground and covered her face. “Um, okay. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry for waking you. I’ll go back into the forest, and it’ll be like we’ve never even met.” A cream-colored hoof stepped into the space between her hooves. “How does that sound?”
The other pegasus halted just as the wind picked up. She looked toward the sky--no, how could she look with her eyes closed? She raised her head, prompting Fluttershy to do the same.
A hole spiraled into being among the clouds as they churned overhead, exposing the silhouette of a pegasus town against the starry sky. A dull orange glow tinted the town’s underbelly, while trails of light streaked behind some of its taller buildings. The tallest one caught Fluttershy’s eye in particular--even from several miles out, she thought she spotted something flapping at its apex. A flag, perhaps?
Her mind sprang back to when she first arrived outside the Princesses’ tower in Flamewithers. The flag flying from its spire had to be at least two or three stories tall.
A knot formed in the yellow pegasus’ throat as her pulse calmed a little. “That’s where I live.” She turned to the other mare. “So, you just wanted to show me how to get back? That’s what you wanted to do for me all along, right?”
The red-maned pegasus kept her head pointed toward Flamewithers. This was not the response Fluttershy expected--but what could she expect in the first place? She tapped her front hooves together and looked away.
“I was wrong about you. For a moment there, I was, well--I didn’t know what was going to happen. I got scared. So, I’m sorry.” She unfurled her wings and ascended above the canopy. “Thank you,” she called down, “whoever you are. My friends are waiting for me there, and I don’t want to keep them waiting.”
The other pegasus took a step toward her.
“Oh. Did you want to come with me? I wouldn't mind flying with someone else for n—”
A blast of air swatted her upward before she knew what was happening. The earth and sky convolved, a dizzy mess of green and gray—she stopped and reversed direction. The sky retreated behind a canopy of leaves as several branches broke beneath her back. One refused her; she tumbled.
Her left wing became trapped beneath her flank, and it drilled into the ground.
Fluttershy rolled over, her lungs unable to catch the breath surging through them. Her wing lay bent at freakish angles along the ground, like a marionette with severed strings. She screamed not because she was in pain—on the contrary, she felt no pain at all—but because she expected it would come at any moment.
"Please," she pleaded, turning to the other pegasus. "Help."
The other pegasus towered over her in silence. Deliberately, she lifted one of her hooves into the air. It touched the ground on Fluttershy's other side, and the pegasus stepped over her as one would step over a small puddle.
"Wait," Fluttershy called. "Where are you going?"
Little by little, the pegasus glided into the shadows of the Everfree Forest. There were no other words to describe the smoothness of her gait.
"Are you going to get someone?" A crawling feeling seeped into Fluttershy's heart. "That's a good idea. More help's always a good idea."
The last inches of the pegasus' tail melded with the darkness.
"That's right, Fluttershy. She's just going to get help. She's getting help." She forced her gaze skyward as her wing let off a dull throb. "Everything will be okay. She'll be right back with help."
She craned her neck to get a better view of Flamewithers through the hole in the clouds and gasped. Had it grown closer? It was bigger than before. She could make out the little houses on the terraces. They traded shadows with one another as the streaking lights from before descended upon the town, where little plumes of cloud jumped into the air from where they landed. One collided into the pillars holding up the roof of a market pavillion, and the roof tumbled amid a burst of glowing sparks.
Fluttershy fell silent. The ground quivered beneath her back with every new light descending upon Flamewithers.
What about her parents’ house? Her eyes darted over the town, and she found her parents' house standing alone and exposed on the third terrace—intact.
Before she could sigh in relief, however, she caught a glimpse of another light coming in from the corner of the hole in the clouds, and she was just in time to watch it drift closer and closer to the house...
The detonation hurled her from her bed against the wall in a tangle of legs and mane, but the twins of terror and adrenaline dragged her up on her hooves in the span of a cough. The two beds had scattered to the corners of the room in the blast, and sticking out from beneath one of the mattresses was a rainbow-streaked tail.
"Rainbow Dash!" Fluttershy rushed over to her friend and hurled the mattress against the wall. Then she knelt and ran a hoof over the blue pegasus’s coat for injuries. To her relief, Rainbow was unhurt and woke quickly, but not without a little disorientation.
"Ugh... Fluttershy?" Rainbow rubbed her head and winced. Her rose eyes swept through the room. "Did somepony just drive a train through your house?"
"I have no idea.” Fluttershy looked over her shoulder. "I'll go check on Pinkie and Applejack. Can you go see Twilight and—"
Both pegasi jumped to their hooves. “Rarity!"
If ever anything existed to launch a pony from dreaming to flying in nothing flat, Rarity's brain-piercing scream would do just that. Rainbow Dash rushed through the doorway fast enough to suck the other bed straight from the room. “Hang in there, Rarity!” she cried.
While Rainbow Dash took care of the fashionista, Fluttershy scrambled over to the earth ponies' room. She caught flashes of little fires sprouting on the first floor--dancing on the paintings, creeping over the flower vase... “Pinkie! Applejack! You’ve got to wake up--”
Only an exceptionally athletic pegasus could hope to contest an earth pony in territorial disputes. Against two earth ponies, even the strongest pegasus would have more success rolling a boulder along a tightline. Because the scattered fires held her attention, Fluttershy had no chance of seeing her two friends in the doorway until she crashed into them, where they dismissed her into the far railing.
“Whoa, nelly!” Applejack ran over and helped the pegasus back upright. “You okay, hon?”
“I--I’ll be fine,” said Fluttershy.
“Where’re the others?”
Applejack winced. “Hoo-ee. I guess that answers that for Rarity. Get along, now, girls!” The farmpony galloped off in the direction of the unicorn’s screaming.
Fluttershy tried to suppress the chill rising up her spine, but she may well have tried . “You don’t think she’s hurt, do you?”
“I sure hope not.”
Pinkie Pie lurched ahead of the other two ponies with a tremendous bound. The door to Rarity’s room was closed, but not for long--Pinkie seized the edge of the door in her jaw and yanked. “Never fear, Rarity! Auntie Pinkie Pie’s here!”
On the other side of the door, the only description Fluttershy could come up with was that somepony had blown up a beauty supply store. Curlers and mane products littered the floor, while a set of scissors embedded in the wall described the curve of a fan. Bathrobes and towels were scattered everywhere. Rarity sat upright in bed with her mane in wavy distress, flailing her hooves and wailing—but the unicorn lacked any sort of mark or wound on her body whatsoever.
“Hey!” Pinkie bounced over by the unicorn’s side. “What’s with the saddy-waddy? We thought something serious had happened to you.”
“Oh, I’ll be all right,” the unicorn gasped, falling back into her pillow. “You should be worrying about Twilight instead!”
Pinkie furrowed her brow. “Twilight?”
“Yes!” Rarity sat back up and clamped her hooves on the earth pony’s cheeks. “She came in here with books just before I fell asleep, but she told me she would be going back to the library for more!”
Applejack shook her head sighed. “That’s Twilight for you,” she said. “Girl can’t stop studyin’ even when she’s about to go savin’ Equestria.”
“You don’t understand, Applejack,” said Rarity, rounding on the farmpony.
“Why do you reckon?”
If the unicorn flapped her forelegs any harder, she would have floated off of her bed. “Whatever caused that huge explosion just now passed through the library first!” she roared. “That’s why!”
“Hellllp! Somepony, come quick!”
Fluttershy’s legs reacted faster than her brain, and she found herself back out on the mezzanine just as Rainbow Dash finished yelling. The chromatic pegasus pressed her back up against the wall just to the side of what used to be the library. In its place was a jagged, roaring hole, behind which lay the glowing maw of some infernal beast.
“Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy grabbed her friend by the shoulders and snatched her further away from the library. “Are you okay? Where’s Twilight? Is she all right?”
“She’s in there, and she’s knocked out,” her friend snarled, throwing her friend’s hooves off. “I can’t get to her alone, but now that you’re here, we might have a chance to get her outta there.”
Fluttershy shook her head. “What are you talking about? We can’t go in there!”
“Hello-o-o?” Dash flared her wings as wide as they would spread. Fluttershy could not ignore the soot tipping her friend’s primaries. “Pegasi? If we treat the fire like a really big updraft, we might be able to drive off the heat long enough to get to Twilight.” She scrambled back to the mouth of the beast. Come on!”
Fluttershy’s hooves dug into the floor. “B-but—”
“I said come on—aaagh!” A gout of scorching air showered Rainbow with embers. She shook them off and threw a hoof in front of her face. “I need you here now, Fluttershy!”
The yellow pegasus skittered back. “I-I can’t.”
“Come on, ‘Shy!” Applejack’s muzzle pushed into her back. “Rainbow’ll never let anypony get hurt while she’s around. You know that’s the truth, so help her!”
“Raaah!” Rainbow Dash slammed her hooves on the floor, rowing forward with one long, powerful stroke of her wings. Fluttershy’s jaw dropped—in a single motion, her friend had kicked the blaze half a wingspan back into the library.
A sharp impact from behind jolted the pegasus to her friend’s side, and only adrenaline-spiked reflexes kept her on her hooves. She pulled a hoof to her face as purple swaths burned across her vision--she could not look into the library for more than a moment at a time.
“Do it, filly!” Pinkie Pie screamed. “Don’t be scared, now! You can do this!”
“Flap those wings!” Rainbow pushed her wings forward again. “They were built for this kind of thing!”
The explosion, the yelling, Twilight in peril, more yelling, fire, fire, fire--it was all too much. She fled somewhere deep beneath her thoughts where she was not about to go walking into an inferno--she was not about to be anywhere, really. Nowhere was better than anywhere, and she retreated as far down as she could go.
An agitated prod in her side opened her wings. Another prod got them flapping, though the wind they put forth would not have upset a house of cards, much less push away a fire. Still she advanced at Rainbow Dash’s side, the latter contributing the most to their progress.
Something crunched into flakes beneath her hoof, and a strange tingle chased up her fetlock shortly after.
“Hey, space cadet! You’re stepping on a flaming book!”
She lifted her hoof. A few slaps from her friend’s wing smothered any embers that may have stuck to it.
“Don’t go numb on me just yet—Hey! Hey!” The cyan pegasus poked Fluttershy’s head. “Look, Twilight’s right there. Could you stay with me a little longer?”
Fluttershy followed her friend’s pointed hoof. Either Twilight had extremely quick reflexes when the explosion happened, or else was very, very lucky. An armchair lay upended over her, forming an emergency shelter from burning debris. The only obstacles between the rescue party and the victim were the remnants of the other chair and table—the reading lantern lay shattered in the bottom shelf of a distant bookcase.
Rainbow Dash punched her friend in the leg. “Come on, Fluttershy! We’re here! Let’s grab Twilight and get the hay outta he—“
A sound like the popping of a cracked glass bottle from within sent a violet aura tearing through the room. The shock dragged trails of sparks over both the pegasi, and Fluttershy suddenly found herself back in the front of her head once more—her wings in pain, the air burning her nostrils.
“W-w-what was that?” she stammered.
“It sounded like it came from over there!” Rainbow Dash pointed to the broken lantern--or, rather, where the broken lantern had been. In its place was a circlet of violet-studded char, having blown through two of the bookshelves above it. With its lower supports gutted, the bookcase and its flaming contents began to tip into the center of the room.
Rainbow Dash’s wings shot up. “No!”
Fluttershy seized Rainbow’s tail in her mouth without thinking--one requirement of being friends with the Wonderbolt-wannabe was that one had to not only anticipate disaster, but what role Rainbow Dash would play in it. Had she not held her friend back at the last instant, a shower of flaming shelves and literature would have descended on her with remarkable force. When the collection crashed to the floor, no pegasus lay pinned beneath it.
The same could not be said for Twilight Sparkle. The flaming books piled all around the openings the armchair provided, and the fragments of the bookcase made the seal perfect.
“Twilight!” Her fire discipline forgotten, Rainbow Dash pulled herself free from Fluttershy’s jaws and thrust her hooves into the burning pile--only to draw them out just as quickly. “Hot! Hot! Hot!” She whirled on the pink-maned pegasus. “Don’t just stand there, Fluttershy! Do something!”
But all Fluttershy could do was stand there, her mind hazy—a million voices cried out at once with no consensus; another million demanded retreat. Meanwhile, Rainbow tried to fling more of the debris aside, ignoring the smoke rising from the tips of her wings.
“Hang on, Twilight Sparkle! We’re coming for you!” The cyan pegasus blew on her hooves and rubbed them over her coat, but her pace did not improve. “Fluttershy! Come on!”
She looks better. Did she put up any fights this time?
Twilight’s words from earlier that evening leaped into Fluttershy’s mind. She remembered, not hours before, how she had been relatively safe in her own home--free of fire and pain, surrounded by all of her best friends.
Pegasi can manipulate fire? But... fire’s nothing but a product of an oxidation reaction.
She had not thought much of it back then, the way Twilight listened to her words. She thought the unicorn was scratching an intellectual itch from the way she listened so politely. However, they had talked with each other plenty of times before that—she had even confided in her during her short time as a fashion model. No—when they talked, they talked about much more than just the academic.
To Flamewithers, then! Let’s go!
When Fluttershy thought about it, Twilight was usually the one encouraging her to go places. From defeating Nightmare Moon at the ruins of Castle Everfree to enjoying brunch with Princess Celestia at Sugarcube Corner--had the Princess’ star pupil not been there to let her in past the guards, she would have never met Philomena.
"Twiiilight!" Rainbow Dash kicked a piece of flaming shelf from the pile. "Wake up! You've got to get out of there! Do the teleporty thing, or whatever it was, just—gah!" With a snort, the pegasus leaped back from the blaze. "Just come out already!"
Something twisted the bottom of Fluttershy’s heart seeing her friend this way—the scalds on her hooves as she rubbed them down, the soot smeared all over her coat, the glare of unbreakable loyalty dismissed by impossibility.
Rainbow Dash did not believe in impossibility. If anything, to use her words, she made the impossible happen.
The haze in Fluttershy’s mind disintegrated, leaving one voice as inevitable as the changing of the tides. It told her, simply, that Rainbow Dash would try again, with her or without.
She concentrated on the fire before her and spread her wings wide, cupping the heat beneath her feathers. She tried to fix Rainbow’s technique in her mind--long rowing motions, Fluttershy, she told herself.
Her friends were depending on her. Knowing that gave her eyes a hard, iron-like sheen, and her brows slanted downwards. She leaned in with her body as she thrust her wings forward in the longest arcs she could manage, as hard as she could manage, ignoring how they wobbled and flexed in transit.
The flames covering Twilight’s shelter wavered, but did not shift.
“Again, Fluttershy!” Rainbow Dash let loose a push of her own, and still the flames remained where they burned.
They did not take long to fall into the same rhythm. Backwinging, Fluttershy imagined her wings scraping the fire away, imagined how she would crawl beneath the arm chair and rescue the unicorn who had done so much for her. She pushed forward together with Rainbow, and the fire conceded a couple of inches.
Still, doubt crawled down the back of her mind like drops of water from a basement drainpipe. Updraft manipulation was one matter, but bending an inferno to her will? No flight school in Equestria taught ponies how to do that. What if, instead of blowing the flames away, she was only fanning them higher? The inches she and Rainbow Dash had pried away shrank before the roaring fire behind them.
“Don’t give up!” Rainbow had risen to her back legs. “Get closer!”
Even where she was, the heat felt like it was trying to scrape off her coat from under her skin. Still, Fluttershy put a hoof forward. The air around her began to shimmer, and a trail of light flickered around her leg.
We’re going to beat this fire, she told herself.
She reared up, spreading her wings until the air slipped between their feathers, and rammed them forward.
We’re going to pull Twilight out and get her to safety, no matter what it takes.
The fire retreated only a couple more inches, still well short of its apex. Fluttershy advanced upon its borders even as its heat turned into a wall—more trails of light spiraled around her barrel. The beating of her wings caught up with the beating of her heart, and their rhythm poured iron into her voice, even as the air seared through her nostrils. “Get— away— from my friend!”
Rainbow cheered at her side. “That’s it, Fluttershy! Don’t let up! You’re on f—”
A loud pop cut through the pegasus’ words. Fluttershy felt the concussion just behind her sternum, as if somepony had burst a balloon inside of her. The chill that followed it snap-froze her heart in a vortex of ice, and drove frigid tendrils down her limbs.
“Rainbow Dash!” she gasped. When she turned on her friend, the other pegasus reared precariously on one hoof, with her pupils collapsed to pinpoints.
“Fluttershy, get offa there! You’re on fire! You’re on fire!”
A wall of adrenaline slammed into her frozen midsection, and instants dilated and became large. Fluttershy became aware of a glow coming off of her hooves as they floated into her vision. When they shifted into focus, bright wisps swirled around them and up her legs like streamers, diaphanous and fluid. More of them danced around her barrel, weaving, flowing, and separating to the slow melody of an unheard air.
The flames magnified about her; she grew colder and colder. The sound of Rainbow yelling her name faded from her ears, the burning contours of her father’s library stretched into the distance, and the world lowered her onto her back.
She saw the sky. It held so many stars.