The thick, gnarled branches of the Everfree Forest towered over the two Pegasii. Dash soared above the thick grass which her yellow companion's pasterns sunk into. The ground felt soggy, moist from millenia's worth of rainfall. The collected leaves of ten-thousand autumns were strewn all about them. The sun was choked by the high tree limbs which meshed together like skeleton's interlocking their fingers. Manticore's growled and cockatrice's screeched along with other unnatural beasts.
Fluttershy shivered. Even Dash felt some chills, hairs raising on the back of her neck at the cries of the beasts. The sun, going upon its journey to the West, was half past its zenith. The heat mixed with recent storms and a fine layer of mist swirled all around them. Fluttershy paused suddenly and then jumped into the air, her wings carrying her. A black-and-red snake slithered past her and stuck out its tongue as a salutation to the Kind One and her companion. The snake went about its business, taking shelter in a low lying bush. Blue and magenta flowers burst from the ground, emanating a sweet smell that was so strong it made the Ponies' head swim. A grey bunny rabbit hopped past, flashed its fangs. Dash instinctively puffed out her chest in a threat display. The rabbit hissed.
Dash pointed to it. "Um, Fluttershy? What the hell is that thing?"
They flew over it and Fluttershy fixed it with a look. It whimpered and scurried off. "That was a Vampbunny."
"Very dangerous, hostile and territorial."
They continued their flight, drifting over a patch of blue flowers. Dash giggled and Fluttershy joined in at the memories the Poison Joke conjured up. Beyond the blue flowers was a small hut. The sounds of chanting reached them as did the savory scents of herbs and spices. That, however, was not their destination.
They flew past the hut and into a place where the trees thinned. High, mutated oaks gave way to smaller arboreal abominations, green tendrils curling up birches and crepe myrtles whose pink blossoms were choked by vines. The vines grew into each other, intertwining and running over themselves in endless clumps.
Fluttershy gulped and then she steeled herself. Dash paused as she did, glancing over at her. "Want to have lunch?"
Fluttershy shook her head. "Not yet."
They flew over the vines, their keen eyes picking up rainbow colored berries. Neither Pony swooped down to investigate further. Black trees rose up before them. Dash didn't stop, only flying forward. Fluttershy used her as an example, powering after her into the shadows. Her wings locked up and she nearly tumbled out of the air as the darkness closed in. Dash grabbed her, helping her back into the air. The smell of rot greeted them and little mushrooms popped up in a circle around a lake. Shafts of sunlight cut between the canopy, danced on the waters.
Dash flapped as they crossed the lake. "Fluttershy?"
Fluttershy rode on an air current. "Yes?"
Dash looked around her. "Why did you want me to come into the Everfree Forest with you?"
Fluttershy adjusted the pack strapped to her back with a flick of her wing. "I didn't want to do this alone."
Dash gave her wings a break as they sailed out of the grove of black trees and into a grove of trees so tall that they dwarfed all the other trees that they had seen so far. Conifers, their green needles scraped the high dome of Heaven, their trunk about as thick as minotaurs. Rocs, huge black birds, nested there.
"You didn't want to do what alone?"
Fluttershy stared at a tree straight ahead.
A roc spread its wings, casting a shadow that enshrouded both Fluttershy and Dash. It crowed and they hurried away. Fluttershy took off a few feet away from Dash. Dash quickly caught up. "Seriously Fluttershy! You're freaking me out! You come to my cloudhouse, interupt my training and tell me you want me to follow you into the Everfree Forest and you won't tell me why?"
Fluttershy narrowed her eyes as she turned to Dash. "You didn't have to come."
Dash rolled her eyes. "I am NOT letting one of my friends wander into the Everfree Forest by themselves. Why me though? Twilight has a ton of cool spells and Applejack is stronger than me with that whole Earth Pony power she's got going on."
"Because you're brave, Dash. You...you make me feel safe. Always have."
Dash didn't say anything for a while. They drifted for a few minutes. Dash sidestepped a purple bird with three eyes and shuddered. "You still haven't told me where we're going or why we're here!"
Fluttershy continued to stare at some point in the distance. "I'll know when I get there."
The land rose up, tree-covered hills rolling through the heart of the wilderness. Ruins of a city were scattered, moss growing on monuments to a forgotten ruler and a forgotten people. Dash thought it was the kind of place that a Daring Do novel could take place in. "Fluttershy? I don't think I've ever gone this far in the Everfree Forest."
"I have, a few times."
"Okay. Where are we?"
Fluttershy looked around. "This is a manticore's territory. He's old, no pack. Used to have one, but his son took over. He has a mate. They're sleeping in that cave."
The jagged, stone mouth of the cave opened, leading deep into the earth. The land flattened and leveled out into a field of sunflowers, their petals incongruously bright and happy in the gloom surrounding them.
It was still wrong, just a different kind of wrong.
Dash was a brave pony. She would never admit to fear, never allow fear to rule her. But she felt a shudder go through her body at the deep black center of what appeared to be sunflowers. She would go to court and testify that they were staring at her. Fluttershy grabbed her shoulder, nearly dragged her along. "Don't look at the center, Dash. That's how they get their prey."
"Th-those aren't sunflowers are they?"
"No, they're not."
"Seriously, Fluttershy. What are we doing?"
Fluttershy set her face to the west. "I'll know when I get there."
Dash growled. "Why won't you just tell me?"
Fluttershy shook her head. "It's...um...so, how was the Dragon Migration?"
The change in subject temporarily confused Dash. "It was good."
"See a lot of dragons?"
Fluttershy turned away. "It was fun, wasn't it?"
Dash glanced at her. "It was."
A wind stirred the branches. A grove of juniper trees leaned towards the ground as the wind picked up speed. Fluttershy forced her wings to move through the sudden gusts, struggling to hold onto the basket atop her back. The wind whistled and roared. The juniper branches snapped and crackled, some branches blown away.
Dash dodged a branch and shot into the air. Fluttershy struggled to follow her and Dash grabbed her hooves to pull her up. The wild winds ripped the limbs off the trees, tossing them for miles. Dash and Fluttershy stared down at the devastation as the trees bowed to the power of the wind, continuing to sway and bend.
Fluttershy adjusted her wing, making sure the pack was secure. Dash's ears splayed as a sudden rush of wind crashed into them. A scream escaped Fluttershy's lips and she was sent sprawling. Dash tried to reorient herself, tried to see through the blur of needles kicked up by the storm, but all she could see was green. She dodged one branch, but a second one slammed against her skull.
Fluttershy charged and grabbed hold of her friend. Dash held onto her and they interlocked their wings in an attempt to shield themselves from the storm. The gale lashed and whirled around them, whipping up dirt and grass, knocking around the limbs of the trees. Dash had no time to shake off the feeling of vertigo coursing through her as she half-dragged Fluttershy to the shelter of the cave.
Fluttershy shouted as the wind knocked the pack from her back. The flap opened and two daisy sandwiches flew off. The yellow Pegasus frantically grabbed for them, but Dash jerked her away. "We'll worry about that later!"
They landed on the rock of the cave and were blinded by the darkness. Outside, the storm raged on, howling like an angry animal. The whole forests shook as the trees swayed.
Dash turned to Fluttershy, not that they could see each other in the pitch blackness. A snore rumbled through the cavern. "Alright, Fluttershy. Now I want answers."
She heard a sniffle. Her ears wilted and she reached for her. "Hey, Flutters...don't cry."
Fluttershy wrapped her wings around Dash and Dash returned the embrace. "I-I'm so sorry, Dash! I'm so sorry!" She took great, shuddering breaths interspersed by sobs. "N-now we're lost in the Everfree and it's all my fault!"
Dash rubbed her back. "Fluttershy, calm down. It's not so bad. We'll get out of this. I know we will."
Fluttershy wiped at her eyes. "H-how can you be sure?"
Dash stared out at forest which remained in a state of uproar. "The storm will calm down. We can fly above the treeline and figure out where we are."
Fluttershy fell silent for a long time. The temperature had dropped by several degrees. Rain pelted the outside of the cave, joining the cacophony of the wind. It was a constant, hard tapping, a rhythmic beat against water and stone. Grey clouds had marched in, covering the woods in a deep darkness.
Dash thought she could hear the rush of waters leading deep into the back of the caverns. Occasionally, lightning would flash and reveal the brownish-red rock. The cave seemed to almost lead on into infinity, an endless maw driving deep into the heart of the planet. White fish leapt up from two streams on either side of them, their eyes glowing with the flash of lightning.
Fluttershy and Dash leaned into each other, seeking warmth. "I should tell you why I came here."
Dash shrugged. "If you don't want to that's alright."
"I'm tired of being a coward."
The whispered words had all the impact of a gunshot. "So, you decided to prove you're not a coward by going off into the Everfree? I must be rubbing off on you."
Fluttershy chuckled. "Maybe so. Maybe that's not such a bad thing."
"You're not a coward. You know that, right? You get nervous, but you're not a coward. You yelled at a dragon until he cried and stared down a cockatrice."
"And then, I couldn't even go on the Dragon Migration." She laid down on the floor, the stone comfortably cool against her stomach.
Dash laid down beside her. "Did you really want to go?"
"Maybe a little bit. I'm an animal expert, I'm fascinated by patterns of migration. I read an article in Animal Caretaker's Magazine about it. They had pictures. It was beautiful."
"You'd have been scared."
"I know. I would have been. I don't want to be. I went to the Animal Caretaker's Convention last week. It's all everypony was talking about. I lied and said I went. It was...it was humiliating."
Dash nuzzled her, waited for her to continue.
"So, I thought if I could just cross the Everfree-even if it was with a friend-that would mean I wasn't a coward."
"You wanted to cross the whole Everfree?"
"It's not that big. I've heard you can cross it in six hours and I packed a lunch."
At the mention of lunch, Dash's stomach growled. The winds were tapering off and the rain had cleared up. "Is there any fruit trees around here?"
Fluttershy pursed her lips. "Um, I don't know."
Dash peaked her head out of the cave, Fluttershy following her. Dash looked around and they lifted into the air, floating past the rows of trees, all of them blending together into a blur of green as they rose above the tree tops. The forest stretched out in all directions, with not even the slightest hint of civilization.
Dash dipped down, Fluttershy following her as they noticed a flash of red. They both landed in a grove of apple trees, the red fruit hanging from a cloud of emerald leaves, swinging in a light breeze.
Dash floated up, reaching for an apple. Fluttershy noticed the coiled hive hanging from a branch, but it was too late. Dash's hoof slowly wrapped around the apple, her wing fluttering in excitement, the feather knocking against the hive.
The buzzing started slowly, increasing in intensity. Fluttershy grabbed Dash and pulled her. Dash screamed as the mist of bees darted forward and both Ponies shot off, rocketing away from the grove so fast that the branches rocked.
They fled, the angry, buzzing mist always a few inches behind them. Fluttershy dragged Dash by her hoof, Dash rushing ahead.
"A lake! There's a lake over there!" Fluttershy shouted.
Together, they crashed into the deep, blue waters. The bees hovered over them for one second and then dispersed. Dash panted, washing away the sweat on her face with water. Fluttershy floated, her wings spread out.
Dash lifted onto her back, floating beside her. They stared up at the canopy above them. "So, after this, nopony gets to call you a coward ever again."
Fluttershy grinned. "Yay."
The laugh began in her belly, moved up and soon spilled out in a stream of giggles. Fluttershy joined in, doubling over, droplets of water sliding off of her wings. The giggle fit lasted several minutes before it subsided.
For a while, they lazily let the current move them.
Dash groaned. "I'm still hungry."
"The bees have probably calmed down by now."
"So, you couldn't use the Stare on them?"
"No. Insect minds are different. Doesn't really work."
Dash let herself sink into the water, splashing it around herself. "Ah, I love a nice dip." She turned around and began to doggy paddle towards the shore, propelling herself with long strokes of her forelegs. Fluttershy shook the water from her wings and lifted up, sailing on a breeze and landing on the grass just as Dash pulled herself up.
They both looked around. A circle of elm trees ringed the lake. They hadn't been paying attention to where they had been going as they'd ran from the bees.
Dash took to her wing as did Fluttershy a few moments later. They journeyed through the rows of trees, dodging high bushes and intertwined tree trunks. In their haste, they had instinctively gone around them during the chase. With their panic cooled and instinct subsided, they found themselves at a loss.
They stopped at a solid wall of vegetation which both were sure hadn't been there before. Dash jumped over it. Fluttershy followed her. The grove of apple trees was nowhere to be found. Dash gave a dissatisfied growl as she regarded the row of hedges that jutted up before them.
Fluttershy looked behind her. Somehow, the landscape of the forest had changed from lines of trees to a clearing. The grass came up to their hooves. A serpent crawled past. She lowered herself and asked it in its own tongue where the apples were. It answered her and slithered forward, vanishing into the weeds.
Dash hopped impatiently. "What'd it say?"
"Mr. Snake says the apples are in the other direction. We went the wrong way."
Dash nodded and they crossed the meadow and back into the forest, looking for the lake. When they reached it, they spread their wings and crossed over it, the movements of their wings creating ripples. They landed on the other side and Dash hurried ahead, Fluttershy struggling to keep up with the more athletic Pony.
Fluttershy scanned the woodlands and they flew over a cluster of maple trees until once more they found themselves where the grove of wild apple trees lay. This time Dash was much more careful as she grabbed hold of a piece of fruit, tossing one over to Fluttershy as well. They sat beneath the shade and began munching. Dash gobbled up her apple and went up to grab a second one. The fur around her mouth was completely stained with juice. She settled down with a second apple, biting into it with a loud crunch.
Fluttershy took dainty little bites of her apple, finishing it shortly after Dash had finished her second one.
Dash swallowed the last chunk and tossed the core. "Y'know Fluttershy? This has been kind of fun. I'm glad I came along."
Fluttershy gave her a flat look. "Getting caught in a storm and chased by bees is fun?"
"Gets the blood pumping."
Fluttershy chomped at the apple, the juice spraying her chin. "I suppose."
"Do you still want to cross the Everfree? I'm game if you are."
"Sure, if that's okay with you."
Dash hopped up. "It totally is."
Both deciding their wings could use a break, they trooped through the high grass. Dead leaves were crushed beneath their hooves as they traveled. Fluttershy hopped ahead. The trees were beginning to thin out, alternating between open fields and sand pits that dropped several hundred feet. They stood at one such pit. The sand glistened in shades of beige and pink, the sunlight nearly blinding them as it shone down in its full glory from the clear sky.
Thin pines waved their arms, verdant hair spilling down brown bark. The pines led to the pit and continued to grow on the other side. Fluttershy heard a stick snap behind her. Dash spun around, alerted by the same sound. No one was behind them
Fluttershy flared her wings, preparing to fly over the sea of sand. Dash went to join her and then stopped. Clawsteps were coming closer.
Dash had no time to react as Fluttershy slammed into her. A manticore jumped from behind the pines. It's mouth was filled with rows of fangs, its claws fully extended in preparation to tear into Pony flesh.
Fluttershy stood between Dash and the hybrid. The manticore growled low. I am old, Kind One. I need to feed.
Fluttershy stamped the ground. "You have no right to hunt sapient creatures. You will not hunt my friend or myself."
The manticore advanced. Fluttershy stood her ground, staring into his eyes. It continued its march. Fluttershy didn't budge. Dash's eyes went from him to Fluttershy. A bead of sweat broke out on her forehead.
The manticore stopped as he came face to face with the Kind One. If it were anyone but you...I know of the favor you did my son. If I struck you down, I would never be forgiven.
He turned his tail, slumping away into the forest. A deer crossed his path and Fluttershy turned around as he pounced. "Are you alright, Dash?"
"That's twice you saved me. Once from the bees and one from a manticore. Thank you."
Fluttershy pawed at the forest floor. "It was nothing. You've saved me plenty of times."
"Don't ever let anypony say you're not brave ever again, alright?"
Once more, both of them snapped their wings open and they sailed over the pit. Past that was a wide meadow. They had crossed the Everfree. Turning around, Dash and Fluttershy gazed at the dark forest behind them.
A wide smile broke out on Fluttershy's face. "I did it. I really did."
Dash covered her back with a wing. Seeing the expression of pure joy on her feather sister's face was enough to make this whole trip worthwhile.