When Rainbow Dash found Ember Speak, it was upon a promontory overlooking a large cavern filled with rows of finely irrigated channels, between which several crops were being tended to by dutiful Silvadelian farmers. Along the ceiling of this part of Sanctuary, Rainbow Dash saw what could only be described as glowing powder affixed to the rock structure above. She imagined that it was some form of bioluminescence providing an alternative to sunlight for the fragile plants below. The smelled crisp and clean, forming a stark contrast to the sour taste of the moment.
Rainbow stopped a few paces behind Ember, gazing at her for a while. After a minute or two had passed, she eventually muttered, “Look, I'm... I'm really sorry for what happened back there. I mean, I know that apologizing doesn't mean anything at this point. But, like...” She fidgeted and gazed down at the farms of Sanctuary beyond the cliff. “I should have been faster. I should have been like Sam Rose. I should have done harsher things to the dragon and maybe—just maybe—he wouldn't have dragged Stu away like that.”
Ember Speak sighed, her flank to Rainbow Dash.
“I screwed things up pretty big just by coming here,” Rainbow continued. “If you guys hadn't been playing babysitter with me, then—who knows? You'd have gotten home sooner or something and Stu would—”
“Stu would have found his end one way or another,” Ember muttered. Slowly, she turned around, her moist eyes gazing towards the floor. “That's the kind of lives we've subscribed to, after all. We're part of the few entrusted with the surfacing.”
She gulped and faced Rainbow Dash as she said, “Long ago, when we were little foals, we agreed that we would commit our lives to scavenging the surfaces of the world for resources, tools, and surviving seedlings to make life more agreeable down here. We've also pledged all our energy and finesse into ending the lives of the Matriarch's broodlings. Stu knew what he was getting into. Ponies like us... We rarely live past age twenty-five.”
Rainbow Dash's face contorted in disgust. “That's... That's crazy! You decide upon this as a foal? How much of that is your decision and how much of it is the Council's?”
“We are heroes of our kind,” Ember said solidly. “Monuments are raised in our honor. When I die, I know that whatever posessions of mine remain shall be buried in the same chamber as Sam Rose's himself. To be honored in the same light as royalty means more to me than I can put into words.”
“But... But there's gotta be more to it than that! Poor Swirls... She.... She...”
“They both knew the risks.” Ember said. She sniffed and another tear rolled down her cheek. “It is her families that I feel bad for.”
“And what of yours?” Rainbow Dash said. It took every muscle in her body not to wince at having done so. Even when her life was an uneventful thing in Ponyville, she was never all that good at testing the waters.
Thankfully, Ember Speak was a great deal tougher than Rainbow had anticipated. “All of Sanctuary is my family. Both my mother and father committed their lives to the surfacing. It is by a slim miracle that I was even born.” She managed a gentle, warm smile amidst her tears. “I was raised by the representatives of the Council. I am more than happy to be pledging my lives to the descendants of our great empire.”
“Even if it means not living past the next five years or so?!”
“Wouldn't you agree, Rainbow Dash, that there is a certain nobility to pushing yourself into pure and indescribable danger, even at the cost of your own existence?”
Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to respond to that, but lingered. She sat down on her haunches, running a hoof lonesomely over her pendant.
Ember Speak squinted curiously at that.
“All my life, I've relished danger,” Rainbow Dash murmured, her ruby eyes trailing the dead rock walls and glowing fungus along the ceiling. “Death was just something to win in the face of. It's always excited me, thrilled me, and on occasion bored me. But... y'know, I'm not a Silvadelian. I was not born in a place like... like...” She furrowed her brow. “Just how could a pony have been raised here? No Sun? No Moon? No trees?”
“We've had each other,” Ember Speak said. “And we have a future free of dragons to fight for.”
“But you had to grow up scrimping on nothing!”
“We always had an abundance of hope,” she said, sniffling with a smile.
Rainbow Dash stared at her for a few seconds. “The worst thing that ever happened to Ponyville, my home town, was a bunch of nasty bugs flying around and eating the wood off of buildings.”
“Then why did you leave home?”
Rainbow Dash opened her mouth, lingered, and said, “Because something happened and... and I changed. And from then on, because of how I changed, I realized that the world could be as fantastic as it wanted to be, but my life would... would only become worse.”
“Heh... Fitting that you showed up here.”
“No. This place is different.” Rainbow Dash sighed and ran a hoof through her mane as she thought aloud, “This place has always known 'worse,' I think. I've only known you guys for two days, and already I realize how horribly out of place I am.”
“We've just arrived, Rainbow Dash,” Ember said calmly. “Though I can't remember a time when we ever had a visitor, I'm sure we can help you along with your journey.”
“Wait...” Rainbow Dash stood up, squinting at her as she spoke incredulously, “You ponies know a way out of this place?”
Ember nodded quietly. “How else would we have sent messengers to the far distant lands?”
“But... But...” Rainbow Dash shook in confusion. “Why in the heck are you guys staying?! This place must be like a prison, what with all those nasty, pony-torturing dragons overhead!”
“So long as they're here, it's our job to get them out.”
“You saw what happened to Stu! What if the dragons got to his family?! Or Swirls'?! Or your Council or the beloved prince?!”
“This place is our home, Rainbow Dash. We cannot leave it.”
“Ember Speak, no offense, but your 'home' died generations ago when the entire earth beneath it went to Tartarus. The dragons are too much for a bunch of surviving ponies, much less an army, much less a hoofful of alicorns! Why not just get a party going and send yourself and your neighbors on an exodus out of this place?”
“Because as soon as I step into another country, I cease being Silvadelian,” Ember Speak calmly defended. “And I will have given up on all that my parents and their forbearers fought for. The dragons have ravaged this land. They do not deserve it. They will eventually lose it, even if I'm not the pony to take it back from them, or the ponies after me, or the ponies after them.”
Rainbow Dash gaped at her. Slowly, she gulped and said, “I wish yours was a loyalty I could understand...” She bit her lip after saying that.
Ember Speak noticed it. She glanced at Rainbow's neck and said, “You never take that off, do you?”
“Your pendant. With the jagged ruby symbol?”
“No. I keep this on at all times.”
“I think you're a great deal more loyal than you give yourself credit for,” Ember said. She managed a brief smile. “Even if I can't really understand it.”
Rainbow Dash gazed towards the floor. Her nostrils flared and she muttered, “I only wish it was all loyalty.”
Ember Speak cocked her head curiously to the side.
When Rainbow Dash looked back at her, she said, “If there's anything that... that I could for you after all that's—”
“No. I'm...” Ember inhaled sharply and gazed once more over the cliff. “I'm fine, Rainbow. You and Sam Rose and the other ponies and discuss what help your wings could lend to Sanctuary if you feel like—”
“No...” Rainbow Dash trotted towards her. “I don't mean that. I mean... right now, with what you're going through.”
Ember Speak's features hardened. “I don't need anything! I'm stronger than this! I'm committed to the surfacing and—”
“Hey, listen...” Rainbow Dash hesitantly placed a gentle hoof on her shoulder. “Part of being loyal means feeling it.” She gulped. “I... I only wished I didn't r-realize that it until it was too late...”
Ember Speak clenched her eyes shut. She buckled and planted a hoof over her eyes as her breath came out in tiny, gasping sobs. She felt Rainbow's hoof sliding up to her neck, and she leaned herself weakly against the pegasus, sobbing into the blue coat of her shoulder.
Rainbow said nothing, and her face was righteously deadpan. She held Ember as tightly as she could afford to, allowing the mare a chance to experience her bittersweet release. For several minutes the two hovered there, with Ember's hyperventilation calming down, until the hushed silence was punctuated by several equine forms—young and old—gathering around the adjoining tunnels beyond the cliff.
Rainbow Dash looked up to see several Silvadelians staring at her, at her mane, at her wings. She took a deep breath and spoke over Ember's shoulder, “Look, I know you ponies have a bunch of questions. But now's not a good time.”
They still stood there, silently gawking at her, their eyes full of awe and wonder.
Rainbow frowned a bit. “Hey! I mean it! Buzz off!” She gestured towards Ember. “Can't you see that she's—?”
“No, Rainbow...” Ember whispered in a shuddering breath. She leaned back, wiped her eyes dry, and smiled. “You should speak to them. I'm sure that there're many things you and the ponies of Sanctuary can learn from each other.”
“Thank you for everything,” Ember said and patted Rainbow's shoulder. “I mean it. You're... You're a blessing...”
“I... I'm not sure of that yet...”
“Trust me,” Ember said. “You have so much to give, just by being here. You're like... a piece of the sky that none of us have ever seen.”
Rainbow Dash blinked curiously at that.
“Go on...” Ember said, nuzzling her towards the group. “I'll be here. I'll always be here,” she said with a gentle expression.
Rainbow Dash nodded as she hesitantly trotted towards the curious lot. “Of that, I have no doubt...”
The ponies backed up, forming a crescent shape of curiosity around Rainbow Dash as she trotted into the adjoining corridor.
“Hey... Is it true that you can fly?”
“What are those on your sides?”
“I've never seen a bat with those on their wings!”
“Is... Is your mane real?”
“What's that on your neck? Are you a princess?”
“Ugh,” Rainbow Dash finally grunted. “Not that again.”
“She can talk!”
“Of course she can talk! She's a pony, isn't she?”
“If so, then she's from someplace far away.”
“Are there dragons where you come from?”
“Are all ponies as colorful as you?”
“Hey! One at a time, ponies!” Rainbow Dash exlaimed, suddenly drowning in the thick group of equines. “One at a time! I'm only one mare, no matter how many colors are in my hair!”
From afar, Ember Speak watched the scene. Exhaling peacefully, she hugged herself and smiled.