The driving rain had turned the fields surrounding Ponyville into miniature swamps and was well on the way into turning those swamps into fetid pools of mud and muck. Every step Adagio took through the brown and green soup was a labor. It pulled and sucked at her fetlocks, soaking the hem of her simple traveling dress and accompanying rain cloak. Adagio snorted.
Under the torrential alicorn summoned storm, even the finest all weather cloak money could buy strained to keep away the damp. The water soaking the fields just added to the misery. The Great Western Road would have been dryer, if only slightly. But Lightning Dust had pointed out that said road would walk them straight past her old lodge and- even if there weren’t enough rangers to man the walls- Chroma had more than enough stormcrow things to do the job. So the plan had become to cut across the Ponyville farmland, enter the Everfree from there, then cut back the other direction to find the road and then the Canterhorn Aqueduct again. They’d be able to follow that straight to Roam, no matter how much the forest changed around it. Or so Starlight Glimmer said at least.
Adagio had her doubts. Doubts that were being exacerbated by the continued lances of pain from her lightning burns. In a moment of bitterness she wondered if her coat would ever grow back in those spots.
Pushing those dark thoughts aside for the moment she looked around at the rest of her merry little band of ponies. Starlight Glimmer was in the lead, her forked staff floating loosely at her side, presumably ready to blast any stray minions of Chroma they encountered. She was flanked by Lightning on her right and Sonata on her left, while Suri brought up the rear. All in all, they made quite the motley looking band of would be heros.
Well, we’ll probably go down in history, whether we succeed or not, Adagio morbidly mused to herself.
They marched in relative silence, save for Sonata. The chef kept looking around at the increasingly sodden fields and muttering to herself.
“Oh, this is bad! Really bad!” she whined.
“Quiet!” Adagio hissed.
“But Dagi, if the rain keeps up like this all the food is going to die!”
“It’s m’lady or Baroness for one,” Adagio growled her temper already growing short with Sonata’s mangling of her name. “For two, we won't be able to stop the rain if we get caught because of your yammering!”
“Oh,” Sonata pouted. But she fell silent all the same.
For about a minute at least.
“How long is it going to take us to get there?”
That...was a fair question. “Starlight, how long will it take us to get there?”
Starlight looked up at the cloud shrouded sky. “Well, I interviewed everypony that’s gone into the Everfree to find Roam...and managed to come back out. Using their stories and some old maps and accounts from the era, I know roughly how far Roam should be from Ponyville.”
Adagio blinked, waiting for Starlight to provide a number or a distance. When she wasn’t immediately forthcoming, she rolled her eyes and forced the issue. “Well? How far is that?”
Starlight winced. “Considering that we’ll be traveling through the undergrowth of the Everfree Forest and our weather situation….a few days?”
She looked to Lightning Dust for confirmation, who nodded in agreement. “I know a few tricks for fast traveling through the Everfree. But having only one flier...well unless Starlight knows a way to make me a massive mare, I can’t carry everypony.”
“It wouldn’t help,” Starlight said, her head drooping. “Going giant never helps. Especially in a forest with trees. Very big trees.”
Lightning cocked her head, wide grin suddenly splitting her muzzle. “Oh wait...I remember this now. You turned yourself giant once! Accidentally too, if I remember.”
“You’re kidding,” Suri said with just the slightest of snickers.
“Nope! I was in Berry Punch’s place- great tavern by the way- when a bunch of ponies go galloping past, yelling about a weird pony shaped dragon!” Lightning grinned. “Of course, once I got there it was just Starlight, half wedged through the door to her tower-”
Starlight suddenly stopped in her tracks, slowly turning her head to regard Lightning Dust with a strained smile.
“Lightning, do I have to turn you into a frog?”
While she should have chided the pair for their noise, Adagio couldn't help but enjoy seeing Starlight squirm. Apparently she wasn't completely little miss perfect.
Lightning Dust considered the threat, then smiled back. “Isn't a newt more classic in this situation?”
“It’s also horribly cliche!”
“Enough,” Adagio said, deciding that Starlight had been battered enough for now. “We can’t stay in this field and bicker all night. Not with the distance we have to travel and Chroma already on the way there.”
As nopony could argue that, they fell into silence again and set back to marching. Eventually the fields gave way to trees, but not the towering ones of the Everfree. Judging by the growing apples that stubbornly hung from the branches, even battered by the rain, they were in an orchard. Adagio frowned. Had she and Suri passed an orchard on the way to the lodge? Were they even going the right direction? As it turned out, that question was answered by Lightning Dust.
“We’re getting close. Sweet Apple Acres is the last farm between us and the Everfree.”
“Ah...so this is where we get our hard cider,” Suri mused, observing the trees as they passed.
“Hard cider from a hard family,” Lightning chuckled, before nervously peering at the shadows that closed in around them. “...Seriously though, you don’t want to make Apple Bloom angry. Trees shouldn’t bend like that.”
“Unless we’re planning to bring her along, we should really-,” Adagio began.
She was suddenly tackled to the ground, a hoof clapping over her mouth. For a horrible moment, Adagio thought that some of the rangers had caught up with them. But then she realized that the hoof in question belonged to Suri. Furious, Adagio struggled against her servant gone mad.
“Stop!” Suri hissed, pressing muzzle to ear. Even slightly muffled by the cloth of her hood, Adagio could hear the panic in her voice. “They'll hear you!”
Adagio rolled her eyes skyward. The rain and dark clouds had mixed with the night sky to form an oppressive opaque blanket that threatened to smother the countryside. That is, unless the rain washed it away first. But against that pitch black backdrop, lights were skittering back and forth in a zigzag pattern, dropping lower and lower with each pass. It was as the lights began skim just above the treeline that the crackling forms of some of Chroma’s stormcrows came into view. There were four of them, their heads sweeping back and forth as they searched the trees.
Suri dragged Adagio closer to the trunk of one of the many apple trees, the others scrambling to take cover as well. For the moment, the branches were giving them cover from the roaming eyes of the stormcrows, but it didn’t take a genius to realize that wouldn’t last. They needed to move. But they also couldn’t move while the four birds were in their perches. She...might have an angle. But she’d need just a little more time to implement it. Her eyes flicked towards Starlight, who met her gaze. Adagio pointed to the stormcrows, then herself, then placed a hoof over her eyes.
Starlight nodded, beginning to slowly channel. Adagio watched as she wove the arcane threads, forming them into an umbrella shaped curtain over their heads. A slowly shifting pattern of different shades of green moved along the underside of the magic. Not exactly what Adagio had been expecting, but it would work. A quick and light poke made Suri release her grip while Adagio stood, tall and proud.
She closed her eyes. The sound of the rain had disrupted her casting before, but she knew she could beat it. She had to beat it, if there was even a chance of defeating Chroma. The pitter-patter of each raindrop, the roaring crash of thunder above her head, the squawking of the stormcrows, the shimmering of Starlight’s magic and even the creak of the bowstring on Lightning Dust’s weapon all echoed in her ears. It was all sound. And sound was how she had earned her cutie-mark. Brute force casting over it was out of the question. There was far too many conflicting tones and the volume was too loud to directly overcome. But there was another angle to take.
Breathing in and out she let the cacophony of discordant sound fade away. Channeling, she wove the strands of a spell, softly humming a nameless tune. All the while she pictured her companion's’ voices, tone, pitch and even manner of speaking, projecting it all into the enchantment. Then she pushed it out, letting the little bubble of sound bob and swerve back the way they had come. Silent as it traveled, Adagio held it for as long as she was able. Only when the enchantment was at the very edge of her magical reach did she push just a little more into the spell weave and let the whole package burst.
Another burst followed, this one a chorus of arguments and yelling in all their voices. The screech of the crows and the ruffle of their wings told her that she was successful.
“Go!” she hissed.
And they galloped into the night once more.
- - -
The sensation of water hitting her face.
That’s how Aria knew she wasn’t dead. Though the pain in her wing, leg, head and back almost made her wish she was. The rough bark of a tree pressed against her back. Presumably the one that Chroma had slammed her into. Her eyes fluttered open and she hissed through her teeth at another round of agony. She very pointedly did not look down at her leg. Her very broken leg. Instead she looked up, squinting at what what bits of the sky she could see through the treeline. Aside from the occasional flashes of lightning, there wasn’t much to see.
How long had she been out? Was it night? Was that just the storm?
Feathers tickled the side of her neck and her unbroken leg came up automatically to gently pet her hawk's head. Faithful old Deathclaw. No matter what, she could always count on her hawk to stay by her side.
“Alright, alright. I’m not dead,” she croaked out. “Now stop fussing over me. We need to get out of here.”
Deathclaw stared up at her, cocking his head. But he hopped away with a relieved cry as Aria worked her way back into a standing position. Keeping the weight off her broken leg- it was her right front one- she moved it a few times to feel where the break actually was. She still didn’t look, of course. She could still move her knee, so it had to be somewhere in the cannon or fetlock. Her left wing hung limply against her side and like her leg she didn’t dare look at it. Broken wings were bad. The healers and barber-surgeons always seemed to have difficulty setting them.
“Can’t worry about that right now,” Aria muttered under her breath. “Can’t.”
She had to get out of the Everfree. With all the monsters and beasts that lived in the forest, it was a miracle that she hadn’t been eaten while she was passed out. As Deathclaw settled onto his leather perch again, Aria looked at “her” tree.
“Let’s see...I was flying west when she attacked me,” she mused, limping around the massive trunk to examine the opposite side. “Moss is over here...so that means Ponyville is back that way.”
With that established, Aria began to limp back towards home. Of course the question of what to do once she got there kept fluttering back to the front of her mind like annoying moths. Chroma must have made it to Ponyville by now and if she was powerful enough to make a giant super storm...thing, then she probably took over the town easily enough. ...Unless the queen was able to stop her?
“Damned stupid legendary alicorn, damned Everfree forest, damned….everything!”
Deathclaw screeched back.
“Okay, fine, you’re not damned. But this situation is. You have to agree to that.”
“Yeah...she really is the worst.”
Onwards Aria limped, slowly pushing her way through the underbrush and picking her way past massive trees. Her ears flicked towards every sound and she flinched at every thundercrash that shook the trees above her head. The shadows were oppressive, every one of them could be hiding a monster and the ongoing roar of the storm would made it hard to hear anything lurking its way towards her. At least she had Deathclaw as an extra set of eyes. Her hawk always kept watch...at least when he wasn’t sneaking off to hunt rats, voles and other such threats to Ponyville’s crops. Or when Aria was sending him to do that for some extra bits. Or… Sun and moon above, her limbs hurt. She was also cold, so very, very cold. Even her pegasi weather resistance was faltering, most of its strength having been stripped away by lying in a thunderstorm all day.
The temptation to lay down and rest again was great. As Aria continued to limp along, her head hung low and her shoulder’s sagged. Her mane, blown out of their usual pigtail style, hung limp with water. It would have been so easy to just curl up under one of these other trees and go to sleep again. But she didn’t dare. For she probably wouldn’t get up again if she did.
“Focus, Blaze, focus,” she chided herself. “Can’t get distracted in a place like this. There could be a caprataur hiding behind any one of these bushes for all I know.”
There was another flash of lightning, followed by a truly massive thunder crack at this point. But in that flash, Aria saw something that made her heart swell with a bit of hope. Vine choked stone arches loomed out of the forest ahead. The old aqueduct! It might not have been Ponyville but at least now she had something to follow and take shelter from the storm under. Buoyed by this break of good fortune, Aria limped a bit faster towards the aqueduct. Reaching its edge she reared up slightly to rest a hoof against its sturdy side.
“Thank Chrysalis,” she breathed. “Now just-”
On the wind, for the barest of moments in between the thunder crashes, Aria thought she had heard a cry. It was faint and hard to pin down among the other sources of sound around her, but had that distinct wavy, bleating quality that pointed to only one of two sources. A goat or a caprataur. With the fear of the latter pushing her onwards Aria began to limp even faster now, even using her one good wing to half flutter along in little bursts of movement. She panted and puffed as she moved now, struggling to fight through the toll that wounds and exposure had taken on her body. But, despite her panic, at first she didn’t see or hear any other signs of the dreaded caprataurs. It was all shadows and the sounds of the storm.
“Stay calm… Stay calm!”
There! A bleating call, then another. They were louder this time and clearly closer.
“Damn!” Aria cursed. A quick glance was spared at the aqueduct. The lowest level was probably four pony heights above her head and the stone of the supporting legs was wet and slippery. Of all the Tartarian luck-
There was another burst of cries. This time they came in a chorus, mixed with the echoing blast of a horn and were quite close indeed. Panic gripped Aria’s chest now. She had attended the safety meetings at the town hall. She knew the warnings provided by the Everfree Rangers. That flurry of braying cries meant that a caprataur warband was on the hunt. What were they even doing, hunting in the middle of a storm like this?
Spooked, Aria took off at a gallop without thinking and almost immediately toppled forward with a cry of pain. Suppressing the desire to curse her stupid broken leg again, Aria flopped her way back onto three hooves and returned to her panicked wobble run. But she had barely made it another pony length when the brush came alive with movement. A good dozen caprataurs thundered out of their hiding places, bellowing their war cries and swinging crude clubs and nets above their heads.
Aria had never seen caprataurs in the flesh before, only having heard stories told at the local watering hole. They truly didn’t do the beasts justice. She could see the resemblance to the baroness’ bodyguard in their features. Bipedal, their towering frames rippled with muscle that came from a life of living in one of The Heartland’s most deadly wildernesses. Their fur was matted, splattered with mud, sweat, pine tar and other unidentifiable substances. Their manes were just as disgusting to look at. Just as matted as their fur, bones, sticks and other bits of detritus were woven into those bedraggled deadlocks. They bedecked their gnarled and twisted horns in much the same fashion, tieing their chosen fetishes in place with bits of vine. Add in some disgusting looking loincloths and you had beasts that were the complete opposite of pony-kind.
But the brute at the back was the most terrifying of the lot. Sporting four horns instead of the usual two- two growing from the side of the head and curling around like that of a ram and two growing from the top like a goat- he closed on Aria with a calm and measured stride compared to his kin. He alone carried a sword, a slab of brutal black iron for hacking and cutting, while in the other hand was a coiled whip fashioned from a thorny vine. Aria shivered as his strange, flat pupiled eyes fell on her and he uncoiled that whip of his with a flick of his wrist.
“Wisha, pnah,” he snarled, jabbing his sword at Aria. “Tzak hak fvra Ga’Eiifvee!”
Aria fell back, pumping her one good wing in a desperate attempt to get skyward and dislodging Deathwing from his perch. If she could get her hoof on the edge of the aqueduct, maybe she could haul herself up to safety. But it was no use. She just couldn’t get high enough with one broken wing and the stones were just too slick and well put together.
“Damned ancient Equestrian masons!”
The caprataurs were almost upon her, their powerful strides having closed the distance with frightening speed. With no other options, Aria grabbed a heavy looking branch from the ground, grit her teeth around the wood and resolved to take as many of them with her as possible.
The caprataurs responded by throwing their nets over her.
Aria yelped, flailing against the twisted knots. Despite being woven together from scavenged vines, they were quite strong, holding firm against her wild half bucks and swings. The warband bounded across the remaining distance, took a firm hold of the nets and hauled Aria up like a fish in a net. At least until Deathclaw swooped around with an angry shriek and began to claw at the eyes of her captors. They bellowed back, furiously swiping their arms at the enraged hawk. Despite the seriousness of the situation Aria couldn’t help but chuckle darkly at how Deathclaw dove under and around their clumsy strikes. While they were distracted, she began to crawl away. Maybe she could hide under a bush or something?
A heavy hoof landed on her back, driving her into the mud with a squelch and fresh cry. Aria looked up and growled at the calm, leader of this little band of pain. He glared right back down, lips twisted in a mocking snarl. But then he shook his head and glared back at his fellows.
“Su nudhr! Gudh khuiqu!”
Once again, Aria found herself hauled up and bound in nets. She squinted through the rain at the vague shape of her faithful bird. Deathclaw couldn’t fight his way out of this. There was only one chance for her now.
“Deathclaw! Get help!”
The shadow hesitated for a moment, then turned and flew off. Aria sighed and slumped in her net. Now all she could do was hope.
- - - -
“Anypony have an idea how long we’ve been walking?”
Suri had asked the question both because she was curious and also because the silence between the group was becoming oppressive. Lightning Dust and Starlight had switched places once they had entered the Everfree proper. The ranger’s attitude was a bit chipper for their surroundings, at least as far as Suri was concerned. Despite the danger of the forest, there was an actual spring in her step and she’d occasionally fiddle with the crossbow borrowed from Adagio. They had been following the Canterhorn Aqueduct for a bit now, that much she knew for sure.
“We’ve walked about a quarter of a training run so far,” she answered, glancing back over her shoulder. “You’re not getting tired, are you? I thought earth ponies were supposed to be tough.”
Suri raised an eyebrow, slowly looking over at Sonata with her whole regiment’s worth of...stuff...she was hauling along without complaint. It felt unfair to be compared to somepony who, despite being a chef, seemed to be on the upper end of the earth pony spectrum. But Lightning seemed to be aware of that fact as she chuckled to herself.
“Just kidding Stitches. Admittedly...it’s a little hard to tell with the storm and everything, but if I had to hazard a guess, we’ve been walking for three, maybe four hours so far. We’re definitely on the other side of the mid night. We should be able to squeeze another few hours of travel before needing to rest at this pace.”
“Oh goodie!” Sonata grinned. “Then I can make dinner! I’ve had a few traveling recipes I’ve wanted to try for a while now!”
Suri was about to ask how she was planning to cook in this storm when a large blobby shape came rushing out of the darkness and settled upon Sonata’s bulging backpack. The shape shrieked angrily, eliciting a cry from Sonata.
“Claw! What are you doing here?”
“You...know this hawk?” Adagio asked.
“Uh huh! He’s Aria’s! This little guy loves begging for fish scraps whenever she swings by my place to eat.”
The hawk ruffled his wings, cocking his head in a rather pony like gesture of indignation. Sonata, who had been grinning at Claw’s sudden arrival, quickly lost her cheer as she looked around their little clearing.
The hawk jumped off Sonata’s backpack, did a lazy spiral around the group, flew back the way he came...and then came back again, re-aligning himself on the pack again. Sonata gasped.
“She’s in trouble!”
“...How did you get ‘trouble’ from that display?” Adagio asked.
Sonata ignored that question, instead choosing to charge head, following after Claw as he took wing again.
“Hold on!” Lightning shouted. “Don’t just go running off on your own!”
The group galloped after Sonata and hawk alike. At least until they came to another portion of the aqueduct. Here the ground was disturbed. More so than one would expect, even taking the weather into account. Lightning Dust knelt down at the edge of the disturbed ground, examining it with a deep frown on her muzzle.
“The rain is starting to wash them away, but there are caprataur tracks here.”
“Caprataur’s have Aria?” Sonata gasped. “We have to save her!”
Starlight frowned. “Are you serious? All of the Heartlands is at risk right now! We don’t have time to go chasing after a single pony!”
“...Starlight...I’m not comfortable leaving somepony in the hands of those beasts,” Lightning Dust muttered, peering out from under her hood. “You know as well as I that they sacrifice ponies.”
Hesitation flickered across Starlight’s face and Suri could see the conflict in her eyes. Her own stomach was twisting at the implications of the choice they were staring down. Both sides had their points but Suri wasn’t sure that she’d be able to forgive herself if they left Aria. ...Even if it ended up being the right decision in the long run.
Starlight’s hesitation was still there when she spoke again. “I’m sorry about that...but I can’t put one pony ahead of a whole country. We...have to think bigger.”
Sonata’s lower lip began to quiver, while tears leaked from the corner of her eyes. “P-please Starlight! I know...I know she’s grumpy and hard to get along with, but she’s actually nice underneath it all. We...we can’t…" She hiccuped, clearly on the verge of losing complete control.
“Sonata, I’m sorry-”
“Enough, Starlight,” Adagio interrupted.
Suri looked to her master. Her expression was...strange. She was looking right at Sonata with a frown and furrowed brow, but it wasn’t angry like so many of the furious glares that Adagio had unleashed on so many ponies that had angered her in the past. It was much more- in a word- sad.
“I understand your concerns Starlight. In fact, I share some of them myself. But Aria is one of our citizens. It wouldn’t be right to leave her to whatever horrible plans the caprataurs have for her.” She shook her head with a sigh. “Besides, we most like will have to face Chroma and her allies and that will require all of us to be focused and not dwelling on what fate we might have left Aria to.”
Starlight sighed and rubbed her brow. “Is that an order m’lady?”
“I’d prefer that it not be,” Adagio frowned back.
That phrase hung in the air for several long moments, with neither pony backing down from the intense glares they were giving each other. With two strong wills behind the argument, the only question in Suri’s mind was who would blink first. At length, it turned out that the answer to that question was Starlight Glimmer, as she looked away from Adagio and towards the ground.
“Very well baroness. If that is what you wish.”
Sonata squealed with glee, throwing her legs around Adagio in a hug.
“Thank you Dagi! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!”
As Adagio reached up to pat Sonata on the back, Suri allowed herself a small smile.
- - - -
It had taken all of Lightning Dust’s skill to sort out caprataur tracks from the churned mud and trampled grass that came from Chroma’s thunderstorm, even with Starlight Glimmer providing ample illumination from her staff. A few times she had even managed to lose the trail in the storm before seeing a snapped tree limb or bit of crushed shrubbery that indicated they were still going the right direction.
Adagio’s earlier confidence in this plan waned the farther away from the aqueduct they traveled. At first it had seemed to be running the same direction Aria had been taken. But the more they followed the trail, the harder it had become to see. The trees around them were becoming truly massive now, in some cases so thick around that Adagio doubted she and Suri could wrap their forelegs around the trunk, working together. These were trees that had never seen the bite of a pony’s axe, growing for centuries until they became mighty sentinels of the wilds. They were walking through ground that would have been shrouded in darkness, even in the middle of a bright, sunny day. For the first time since she had heard the volumes of rumors about the Everfree Forest, Adagio found herself seriously considering their plausibility. Their surroundings had an unmistakable sense of menace that permuted the very air.
Suri looked around as she walked, her ears pulled flat in unease. “...Anypony else feel like we’re being watched?”
“That’s because we probably are,” Lightning answered. She pushed aside a withered looking bush to peer around the moss choked trunk of another tree. Suri’s eyes flicked around at the shadows even faster now.
“...By the caprataurs?” she asked, taking a closer step to Adagio.
“Maybe,” Lightning shrugged. “They’re always out here, you know? Every time a charcoal burner or forester is foolish enough to operate in the Everfree, they’re probably within a league of a caprataur camp without ever realizing it. At least until they’re taken like Aria was.”
Suri shivered. “But...that’s what the Rangers are for. You save them right?”
“...I can guarantee that we save one hundred percent more ponies than would have been saved without us!”
Lightning’s voice had been cheerful, but Adagio hadn’t missed the twitch that ran through her wings. It was a little gesture but one that signaled to Adagio that Lightning had been smiling through the pain, as it were. Suri wasn’t prepared to take that response unchallenged through.
“What does that even mean?” she shot back, breaking into a canter to catch up to Lightning. “Dealing with the Everfree is your whole job-”
“It’s a job we’re supposed to have help with!” Lightning responded tersely, almost biting back the bile. “There aren’t a lot of us in the whole order and we’re scattered across a half dozen chapter houses. We’re supposed to be supported by the levies of other Heartland nobles in times of crisis. What actually happens is that the ones whose lands don’t border the Everfree don’t care! Sure, sometimes the caprataurs march out of the Everfree in one big mass and take a village, but it's not one of theirs.”
Her wings flared open now and quivered with barely contained frustration. “And no matter how much our Grandmaster back in Canterlot petitions Sombra and Chrysalis for support, we never get it! They’re too afraid to put their hooves down and become ‘tyrants’ like their fallen friends! So we Rangers suffer for the rest of Equestria! And Blackwing Lodge was worse off than most! That one,” she jabbed a hoof at Adagio, “didn’t even know what a caprataur was! ”
Adagio bristled, but bit back her immediate desire to unleash a torrent of venom upon Lightning Dust. The situation called for more tact than that. “My apologies Lightning Dust. But I was fighting to keep my house solvent while being actively sabotaged. I sincerely doubt you’d have been any better off with my tormentor in charge.”
Lighting peered back at Adagio from under her hood, muzzle scrunched up in a furious glower. “...You might be right. But with how things are…,” she shook her head. “I wondered why Spitfire joined with Chroma at the time. Now it seems a lot more obvious.”
The rumble of thunder and patter of rain became the only sound as they lapsed into silence again. At least until Starlight decided to ask a question.
“...If you’re so broke, why didn’t you take my offer to pay off Suri’s debt?”
“You did what?” Suri gasped.
“Shhh!” Lightning hissed, holding up a hoof. “The tracks are thicker here. I think we’re getting close to the camp.”
“Can you be more sure?” Adagio frowned.
“Just a moment and I will be.”
With a light flitter of her wings, Lightning shot into the air, quickly disappearing into the darkness of the treetops. Adagio carefully watched the shadows beyond Starlight’s bubble of light and, opting on discretion, lightly coiled the tendrils of her magic around the hilt of her rapier. If any caprataurs showed their snouts, she’d certainly give them something to think about. A quick glance over at Starlight told Adagio she was just as determined in case trouble reared its ugly head. She had moved her light spell over to her horn and had her staff trained on the darkness. Even Sonata had her stupid frying pan out. Only Suri remained without a weapon, so she stooped and plucked a stone from the ground, almost cradling it between her forehooves.
The rain and storm ground on, the occasional flashes of lightning providing its own discordant illumination to the area. Adagio could feel her tension ratcheting up with each lightning strike, her muscles tightening, ready to strike the moment a monster came wandering out of the brush. ...How long would they have to wait here anyway? Lightning had flown off without a light source of her own, so would she even be able to find what she was looking for?
A sudden horrible thought settled over her. What if Lightning Dust herself had managed to get captured? How would they be able to rescue her and Aria-
There was another boom of thunder and Adagio felt a light tap on her back. Out came the rapier in a flash of silver, its tip coming to a quivering stop an inch away from Lightning Dust’s nose. Lightning Dust returned a raised eyebrow and a bemused smirk before slowly reaching up and pushing the sword away.
“I know you’re happy to see me again, but swordplay will have to wait...I found their camp.”
- - - -
That wasn’t the only thing Lightning Dust had managed to find. She had also managed to root out a hidden place in a hollow under a massive tree...root. The tree itself had grown on the edge of a rocky ledge, situated at the back of small depression that the caprataurs had chosen for their home. At first glance, it had seemed sheer madness to maintain living space in what amounted to a large hole in the ground during the middle of the tempest that raged around them.
But there was a crude ingenuity to the camps construction. Flickering magical torches- for only magic fueled fire could have kept its spark in this weather- illuminated the whole area. The depression itself wasn’t completely level and sloped slightly upwards from the rocky wall to wide open gap between two vine clogged hills that Adagio assumed served as their main means of egress. The lowest point- be it through a natural quirk of the land or deliberate efforts- gathered water. A few caprataurs, were gathering water from their reservoir in clay jugs. They were all emaciated and hornless, some seeming to lack them naturally- due either being female or too young for them to have grown in yet- others still showing the jagged remains where they had been broken off.
One by one, they filled their jugs and began to march back up the incline. On their way they passed a pen of sorts. Lashed together from crudely hewn logs, beasts stalked within. Sleek like wolves, they were made from sticks, branches and other bits of plant life with eyes that glowed with a sickly green light.
“Timberwolves,” Lightning Dust snorted. “Of course.”
From there was an unwashed mass of caprataur’s crouching half in the rain, half in crude shelter woven from vines and branches. There they picked and gnawed at a collection of refuse that would barely qualify as food. For a moment, Adagio thought the water bearers were bringing the refreshment to the pitiful masses, but they strode past without so much as a second glance. Their destination was a pavilion built against the right wall of depression. It was of finer construction...relatively speaking. While still crafted by crude hands, it at least seemed to have no gaps in its woven roof.
That was where the true biggest and strongest looking caprataurs reigned over their herd. There were probably two dozen beasts there. They laughed and cavorted in their rough sounding tongue feasting on food that was probably much better than the swill their lessers were sorting through. To Adagio it was like she was watching some peasant's badly scrawled rantings of how noble courts functioned made manifest.
A roaring bonfire, also most likely magical in nature, burned away in an open space before the pavilion. Another caprataur tended to the fire. For whatever reason, this one seemed to have a set of wings growing out of his back. Or was it some kind of ritual costume? That would explain the chanting.
On the other side of the bonfire was a large...Adagio guessed it was a statue, made from branches and sticks. It had been fashioned into a roughly tauric shape, the inside left hollow, though what it was supposed to be beyond that was lost on her. But trapped within the cage like stomach of the statue and illuminated in the flickering light of the bonfire was a pony shaped figure.
Lightning ducked back behind the massive root motioning for everypony to follow. Her expression was grim as she looked Adagio in the eye.
“It doesn’t look good. There’s a lot of them between us and Aria and that cage...thing looks sturdy.” She glanced past Adagio, lips pursed. “I’d need some kind of distraction while I broke her loose. Starlight, do you think-”
“If I could crystal trap the whole camp? No. Even with my staff, I can’t split my magic to that many targets at once. At least…” Starlight trailed off for a moment. “I do know a few fireball spells. The Bouncing Betty, the Sidewinder, the….”
“Forgetting for a moment how you know all these different fire charms, wouldn’t that make things easy for us?” Suri asked. “Just blast everything.”
“The warriors are right next to the cage! I mean, I like a little to be flashy with magic as much as the next mage but Fireballs are indiscriminate. I could hurt Aria if I’m not careful!”
“I suggest you figure out how to be careful and quickly,” Adagio snapped. “We can’t sit here and debate all night! Did everypony just forget about Chroma? She almost killed some of us, remember? Myself, Sonata-”
“...Wait,” Lightning frowned, looking around their circle. “Where did Sonata go?”
Equal parts dread and anger twisted in Adagio’s stomach at that question. With a curse of “ascarids” under her breath, she popped back out of their hiding place and glared down at the camp.
“Sonata, don’t do something stupid!” she hissed under her breath.
A pony of bright blue was easy to pick out amongst the muddy earth tones of the caprataurs and their camp and to Adagio’s sheer horror, Sonata was sitting at the edge of the reservoir, had rolled one of her massive packs off her back and was beginning to unpack food by the basket full. How Sonata had managed to scramble down the steep incline of stone and loose scree wearing those overstuffed saddlebags was beyond Adagio, but there was one thing she knew for sure.
“Lightning!” she hissed again, her fellow would be heros now squeezing into place along side her. “Go stop her before she does something else stupid!”
Lightning nodded, crouching as she started to throw herself off the edge of the rock face. But then-
“Come and get it!” Sonata called.
With the kind of luck that could only strike the very foolish or very suicidal, Sonata had yelled during a lull in the storm’s noise. Every caprataur eye in the camp snapped towards her and the two loaves of bread she was waving like banners in the breeze. In that moment, Adagio was absolutely sure that Sonata was dead. The barbarians were about to descend on her in an unstoppable horde of violence and rage and that would be that.
As predicted, a great cry did rise up from the caprataurs and the horde surged forward. But they didn’t rush forward as one. Those not allowed to partake in the main festivities raced ahead of the others, their cries almost frenzied. The warriors seemed slower to act, more than a few fumbling to grab axes and clubs before half walking, half stumbling down the slope towards Sonata. They looked...drunk?
The first group was on Sonata in a flash though, but to Adagio’s surprise she wasn’t the focus of their attention. Instead they almost pounced upon the repast Sonata had laid out before her, ripping into bread and dried fruit with a mad panic, lest the meal just vanish before they could eat their fill. Soon they were pushing and jostling for position as the crowd formed up around Sonata. She handled it with what could only be called an innkeeper’s grace. She simply dug more food out of her bulging sacks, beginning to pass out pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables now. It was all done with a smile. Sonata even made small talk with the horde of “customers” surrounding her, even if they didn’t seem to understand a word she was saying.
“Hey now! Wait your turn, I have plenty of pickles for everytaur.”
The warriors that had started their journey down the slope stumbled to a stop. They stared at Sonata and her crowd with expressions of pure confusion on their faces. A few even looked back up the hill at a particularly strong looking caprataur- presumably their leader- and gave helpless shrugs. It seemed that as brutal as they supposedly were, they weren’t eager to hack a path through their own to reach Sonata.
Adagio grinned, a horrible idea forming in her mind. “Oh, you brilliant little idiot.”
“M’lady?” Suri blinked.
“Listen closely, I have a plan.”
- - - -
That was the only thought running through Aria’s mind as she bit and chewed at some of the vines securing the side of her prison. Somehow the caprataurs had managed to find the most absolute vile pieces of plant matter to build a cage with in the whole world. Ontop of taste, they were tough vines too. Tough as old, battered leather. Still, she set at it, chewing and gnawing with all her might. Her captors were distracted with drunken partying at the moment, so maybe she could sneak away if she could just get out of this stupid cage!
Spitting a mass of the twisted plant material out of her mouth, Aria winced at another lance of pain surging through her broken appendages. With a groan, she flopped forward, dangling her one good foreleg between a gap in the branches.
Tired. She was growing just so, so tired. Her eyes drifted closed. Maybe it was time to sleep, just a little bit….
“Come and get it!”
Sonata Dusk? No...that was impossible. What would she be doing out here? Clearly, she had to be going mad, her mind wandering back to a pony she saw all the time in the warmth and safety of her home town. But, perhaps out of some desperate desire for her fantasy to be true, Aria opened her eyes. What she saw was without question, a strange sight. One of Ponyville’s top cooks, holding court amongst a bunch of caprataurs.
“...I really am losing my mind.”
A soft screech like call came from above her head. Aria felt her spirits lift as she looked up into the keen eyes of her hawk and the face of a familiar friend.
“Good boy,” she said, smiling at Deathclaw.
“Good boy?” Lightning whispered, somehow keeping mock indignation in her voice. “What am I? Week old oats?”
“You can be whatever you want if you can get me out of here!”
“Wait for it,” Lightning winked.
“Mhahgor ruk karuk!”
The winged shaman had spotted them and was now loping around the edge of the bonfire, brandishing the twisted staff he had used to poke the blaze. Aria recoiled from the raging caprataur recognizing the telltale swirl of magic that was beginning to build around his staff. Worse, the strong and silent leader that had caught her was striding their way as well, uncoiling that thorny whip of his as he went. To Aria’s surprise Lightning paid them no mind, dug a knife out from under her cloak and set to slashing at the vines.
“Lightning Dust! What are you doing?”
Aria’s answer was an explosion. A bright ball of flame erupted over part of the camp, the mass of caprataurs crowding around Sonata throwing themselves to the ground with an all mighty wail of fear. In the next moment, blazing forms came bounding up the hill, fast and low to the ground. At first Aria blinked in confusion but as they rushed into the crowd of drunken warriors, she gave a deep, hearty laugh at the sight.
Timberwolves. Somepony had set fire to the timberwolves and as another gout of flame crackled through the air, turning falling rain to steam, that somepony was herding them right towards gaggle of inebriated warriors.
The flaming monsters careened through the stunned caprataurs in a desperate attempt to escape the source of the horrible fire, knocking them down and aside with ease. Then another woosh and crackling ball of fire shrieked forth. Aria watched it sail over the heads of the warriors, bounce once in the gap between them and the tribal leaders and then smash into the pavilion and feast. There was a mighty secondary explosion as barrels of crude alcohol went up, turning the whole thing into a mighty conflagration.
Complete chaos descended upon the camp now. The leader and the shaman began bellowing orders as the warriors scrambled about, some swinging their weapons at still flaming timberwolves, others bolting back down the incline towards the water storage, still others moaning to the sky at the loss of their food and drink. At least until the beaten mass of other caprataurs- perhaps empowered by energy from Sonata’s cooking- came charging up the hill to throw themselves into a general melee.
The wall of the wooden cage fell away and Aria felt herself picked up by Lightning Dust. As the camp grew more distant beneath her hooves, Aria Blaze came to one powerful conclusion.
Fire was a wonderful thing.
- - - -
Adagio was practically strutting her way through the Everfree forest in the warm afterglow of the rescue. It didn’t even matter how tired she was from what was most likely an all night march at this point. She had orchestrated a daring rescue from a bunch of barbarians and that was something to be proud of, no matter what else happened.
Aria had been transferred to Sonata’s back- and Aria's hawk perched at the top of the stack- while Lightning Dust took the lead as they pressed onward. As tired as the group was by this point, Lightning had insisted they keep going to put as much distance between them and the caprataur camp as they could. She was the only one among the group that was in a cheerful mood, however. Sonata was sulking for some reason and the others were a mix of tired looking, focused or on the verge of nodding off.
Lightning Dust came to a stop, frowning as she looked around. “....None of this looks familiar.”
Adagio’s smile fell. “What do you mean? Shouldn’t this take us back towards the aqueduct?”
“I...that’s what I thought. But none of this terrain looks familiar. The ground we were walking on before was level! Now we’re in another ravine...thing.”
Adagio blinked before taking another look at their surroundings. They had indeed managed to wander into a ravine of some kind, their path now hemmed in by sheer slabs of grey stone.
“So...we’re lost?” Starlight asked, raising her staff a little higher to cast more light in the area.
“No! I marked the path out of that camp in my head,” Lightning shouted. “The only way this makes sense…”
Creaking groans echoed around them, rising to mix with the ongoing noise of the storm to form a true cacophony of sound. And as that cacophony echoed in their ears the trees began to move. Adagio could only watch as the massive trunks shifted all around them, creeping along the edge of the gully they now stood in. It was like they were being circled by a group of predators that would strike at any moment. But as bone chilling as the experience was, almost as soon as it started, it stopped.
“Soooo…,” Suri breathed. “I don’t suppose any pony knows why the trees in this forest move?”
Starlight Glimmer answered. “Bitterroot,” she shrugged. “She created this forest. So she either left some lingering enchantment behind or has a connection to it even while locked away. Those are my best guesses at least.”
“What if she’s not locked up?”
Everypony looked at Aria, who had half propped herself up with her good legs. She managed to shrug with her one good wing. “Chroma was supposed to be stuffed in a sack thanks to the Elements. What if the whole lot of them are running around?”
Adagio shook her head. “Impossible. She was ranting about freeing the others to Queen Chrysalis.”
A horn sounded, as deep and rumbling as the storm over their heads. It was close too. It had to be in order to carry over Chorma’s thunderstorm.
“Look out!” Suri shouted, pointing back the way they came.
Adagio winced as she turned about, drawing her weapon as she went. At the far end of the gully, perhaps a few hundred feet from them, were caprataurs. The crow winged shaman with his staff raised high and glowing with arcane power and light, the thug of a leader and a half dozen of their warriors, and all were riding timberwolves. Some of the wooden wolves still bore singe marks from Starlight’s fireballs, but others were unmarked and the fresh green of a newly sprouted branch. The leader raised his sword, threw his head back in a bellowing cry and dropped his muscular arm in a command of attack. Caprataur and timberwolf surged forward with a chorus of howls and curses.
“Starlight! Fire!” Adagio shouted.
Starlight stepped forward beginning to cast. The shaman cackled in response and threw his staff forward. A jagged black bolt of magic leapt forth and covered the distance between them in a heartbeat. It struck Starlight right on the tip of her horn. She gave a horrific shriek of pain and collapsed to the ground in a heap. Lightning Dust snarled back, taking to the air and firing back with her borrowed crossbow. Despite her earlier claims of the weapon being badly sighted, her aim was true and a blue fletched bolt sunk deep into the shaman’s shoulder. With his own bellow of pain and shock, he topped off the side of his timberwolf, rolling a few times as his fellows charged onwards without so much as a glance back.
“Run!” Adagio shouted, grabbing Starlight and throwing her onto her back.
They took off at a gallop, save for Lightning Dust. She flew backwards, hooking the stirrup of the crossbow over her hind hoof and reloading as she went. They moved as fast as they could, pumping legs and wings with as much power as they could muster. But Adagio knew that they couldn’t outrun the caprataurs. They were loaded down with gear and injured, while the barbarians were riding light and had fresh mounts. If she didn’t think of something and fast, they’d all be back in that cage, facing a dark fate.
Think Adagio, think! she mentally screamed to herself, wracking her brain for an answer. Her eyes roamed over the sheer stone walls around them, looking for a way up or something...anything that could help them.
It was as she franticly searched that something strange happened. Out of sheer, implausible coincidence, a butterfly happened to choose that minute to flutter across her path. She had no idea why she focused on the white winged insect but as she followed it with her eyes, she watched it disappear through a small gap between the stones. An entrance to a cave. One that looked a little too small for a caprataur to squeeze through.
“This way!” she shouted.
Turning, she almost dove through the open gap. Her hooves hit sleek stone on the other side of the opening and she almost slipped on a sharply downward angled slope. Quickly righting herself, she turned and extended her magic towards Aria, who was being gently fed through the gap by Sonata.
“Hurry Dagi! They’re almost here!”
“Got her!” Adagio said, grabbing Aria and stepping backwards at the same time.
Sonata tried to slip through next, only to find herself suddenly stuck. Her still rather full saddlebags were caught on the edge of the cave entrance. She began to flail, eyes wide with terror.
“Help!” she squealed.
“Stop failing!” Suri shouted. “M’lady! Give me some room!”
Guessing what Suri had in mind, Adagio took yet another step backwards, bracing her hind legs as to not slip on the path. It was a good thing too, as Sonata came tumbling forward with Suri, the pair almost tangled together. Outside the cave, there was another twang of the crossbow, followed by another roar of pain. In the next moment, Lightning Dust tumbled her way through the gap in a half stumble, half roll.
“Don’t stop!” she said. “Keep going!”
Adagio nodded, passing Aria back to Sonata as she lead the way into the darkness, the monsters of the Everfree howling in rage behind them.