"Come on, Pilate!" Belle sing-songed as she galloped uphill. Pine trees and clusters of shrubbery flew by her. "Keep up, you silly Zebra! Heeheehee!"
"Belle! Wait!" The learned stallion huffed and puffed, struggling to match her ascending gallop. He stumbled multiple times as his hooves pulled him achingly forward. His floating manasphere weaved wildly left and right before him, pulsating with white strobes of light through the pine trees. "O.A.S.I.S. can't compensate for everything in the forest! I'm as blind as a bat here!"
"Then follow the sound of my voice!" Belle called back as she reached a clearing of even grass beyond the treeline. "You do know the sound of my voice, don't you?! Haha!"
"Well, of c-course, but..." He stumbled again, his legs wobbling. "Nnnngh—Belle?! Belle, where'd you go?!"
Out in the open, she was running at full speed. Her brown mane billowed behind her and her golden coat glistened in the sunlight over Blue Shelf. She worked her lungs to the breaking point, but was too energized to register pain. Through the strain of the endurance run, she smirked devilishly, and thrust her legs against the earth. She jumped high, gliding through the air, feeling the wind hitting against her face. She landed, kicking up grass, but jumped again just as instantly.
She flew higher this time, her ears whistling from the wind. She landed in a slide, stopping just on the rocky edge of a hill's peak. She reveled in the drop that loomed immediately below: a good thirty foot plummet before the ground sloped once more towards the eastern edge of Blue Shelf.
Feeling her heart racing, she lifted her head and inhaled the fresh air of the mountain morning. She exhaled and opened her teary eyes, chuckling loosely towards the sky. Once more, her shoulder and back tingled, and her hooves scooted closer and closer to the edge of the rock cropping.
"Careful, dear! You've already damaged one horn!"
At the sound of the voice, Belle literally spin-jumped around.
A pair of anteloupes on a picnic blanket recoiled from her gesture.
"Eeep!" Kenna exclaimed.
"Whoah there!" Baxter chuckled, murmuring through half a mouthful of celery. He swallowed and spoke with a smile, "Somepony's got a runner's high!"
"You're looking alive as ever this morning, Bellesmith!" Kenna remarked. "What's the occasion?"
"I'm alive! And it's an awesome day!" Belle shouted back through a wide grin. "Can't you feel it?"
Kenna blinked, then glanced down at the wind-swept lengths of the hill. "Uhm..."
"Dang straight it's a good day!" Baxter exclaimed. "You won't believe the lengths I went through to talk bookworm here into a picnic in the sun!"
Kenna rolled her eyes and shoved her beloved in the shoulder. "I said I was fine with it—I just wanted to be sure it was cleared by the facility!"
"Darling, if you let the Enforcers tell you what to do all the time, you won't have any room left for living—"
"Exactly!" Belle shouted, suddenly in their faces. Both anteloupes leaned back and gawked at her felicitious exclamation: "You gotta pick a direction and keep galloping and not let anypony tell you when or what to stop for cuz—" Her eyes rolled back, and she spun about, inhaling the mountain air once again. "Mmmmm-Spark! If I could just take off again!"
Kenna raised an eyebrow. "Take off?"
"Hey..." Baxter stood up. "Where's Pilate on a day like this?"
"Belle!" a zebra called forth from the treeline to the west.
The anteloupes turned and watched him limp tiredly up the hill.
"Why, hello there, Pilate," Kenna said. "Are you..." She paused to glance between the two equines. "Are you going on a jog with Belle?"
"I've been jogging alone," he grumbled. O.A.S.I.S. flew over and locked in place on his choker. "Where's Belle? Has she been by here—"
"Boo!" Belle said, gripping him from behind.
"Daaah!" Pilate shouted, his ears drooping. His face grimaced as he glanced aside. "Belle?! What in Queen Ledo's name—?!"
"I swear, your black and white stripes switch places everytime you're startled!" She said, she giggled, she spun. "Hmmmm—This should be the highest spot in Blue Shelf! Screw the zeppelin towers! Screw the snowy peaks! This is it! This alone is as high as it needs to be!"
Baxter snickered. "You got that right." He glanced over at the zebra. "Pilate, have you been letting Belle sniff the mana that floaty ball of yours runs on lately?"
"No! She hasn't been anywhere near my ball! Er... I mean..." Pilate shook his head, frowned, and pivoted in Belle's direction. "Beloved, we need to talk—"
Only, she was on the other side of him. "Oh hey! You know what would be fun?! A race!"
"A race?!" Pilate stammered, twirling blindly.
"A race!" Baxter jumped off the picnic blanket and grinned wide. "Where to?"
"Depends," Belle said, smirking his way. "How far are you willing to run before you lose?"
"Oh ho ho ho hoooo!" Baxter cracked the joints in his neck and shoulders. "So that's how it's gonna be! How about to the bottom of the hill!"
"I can do better than that," Belle said. With thin eyes, she leaned in and uttered in a raspy voice, "How about to the manafences?"
Baxter's eyes twitched. "The... manafences?"
"The m-mana fences?!" Kenna gasped.
"ThreeTwoOne—GO!" And Belle blurred downhill. "You're already way behind, Baxter!" She shouted in mid gallop. "Are those legs of yours only good for pulling weeds?!"
"Oh, it is on!" He spat and sped after her with a chuckle. "Gonna... Make... You... Eat... Those... Words!' the anteloupe shouted in between bounding jumps.
"Baxter! Wait! What are you doing?!" Kenna exclaimed, waving her cloven-hoof wildly. She sighed, then tilted her head in Pilate's direction. "Any chance you might be willing to switch beloveds?"
"Kenna, please, can you help me down after Belle?"
"Absolutely, Pilate," she said, reaching out to him.
Far downhill, Baxter was making progress. He reached neck and neck with Belle as the two blurred towards a line of glowing blue light.
"Wow... Belle..." Baxter breathily managed. "I... didn't... know... you... had... it... in... you...!"
"Well of course I know how to gallop!" she somehow managed to exclaim in one outburst. "How else can I get the lazy trees' leaves to fall?!"
In mid-bound, Baxter went cross-eyed. "Huh?"
"See you at the finish line!" her voice cracked. "Tomorrow! Hahahaha—"
"Uh... Bellesmith?" Baxter mumured as she saw her bolt ahead at impossible speeds. "Belle?!"
"What's the matter?!" she huffed and puffed, surging forward with all her might. "Those horns of yours acting as windbreakers—?" Her voice was promptly cut off by a bright field of blue energy repelling her back. "Gaaaah!" she landed hard on her flank, jolting from mane to tail with mana. Her eyes flickered red then back to brown, and she looked up with a frown. "Hey! Who zapped me?"
"Belle, it wasn't anypony!" Baxter skidded to a stop behind her and collapsed, panting heavily. He gulped, pointed, and said, "It was the fence, ya nutcase! Congratulations..."
Belle stood up. She peered—as if for the first time—at a tall wall of fluctuating blue light projected between tall stalks of enchanted metal placed evenly along the border of Blue Shelf. Her chestnut eyes squinted at the translucent energy, then at the forest beyond.
"Hmmmm... talk about lamesauce," she muttered. Regardless, she turned and smirked at the gazelle. "Oh well! I win!"
"If you call that a victory," Baxter said. "Heh..."
"Belle!" Pilate's voice called through the air.
Belle groaned, rolling her eyes. "Is that egghead upset with me again?"
"'Egghead?'" Baxter made a face.
"Belle, what's gotten into you?!" Pilate exclaimed as he slid down the hill with Kenna's guidance. "Don't get too close to the energy field! Even a unicorn can't withstand that kind of a charge!"
"Actually, I'd say she withstood it just fine!" Baxter said with a smirk. "She took a full jolt better than even Grinder could!"
Pilate groaned and bucked Baxter to the grass.
"Ooof!" Baxter landed before a jittery Kenna.
Pilate stomped towards the sound of Belle's panting voice. "Belle... Beloved... Talk to me." He gazed towards her with a soft expression. "What's going on? Was it a dream? Was it something you remembered about Austraeoh?"
"Ugggggh," Belle groaned, batting his hoof away. "Austraeoh this! Eljunbyro that! Is all you ever wanna do is study?"
"I wanted to help you understand about your sequencing! About the connection you have to Rai—"
"And I just wanna do something cool for once!" she barked, backtrotting towards the fluctuating energy field. "And that sure as hay ain't happening back in that stuffy little cabin!"
"Bellesmith..." Pilate began.
There was a shriek behind him. Kenna pointed with wide eyes. "Look out! Behind you!"
"Daaah!" Baxter hopped up to his hooves.
Even Pilate was backing up, his ears twitching to a horrendous, thunderous approach of noise.
"Huh?" Belle's face scrunched up. "What's the big deal—?" She turned around and got a face full of manticore.
The creature shrieked and swung it's paw.
Belle stood absolutely still. Her eyes twitched once, but only because of the bright rivulets of energy surging outward from the beast's contact with the mana shield. Roaring, the monster swung and slammed its limbs at the fence yet again. It wasn't alone. At least three more lion-headed monstrocities joined their brother, exchanging flung paws and lashing scorpion tails. No matter how much they punished the fence, they could not penetrate their way to the tender morsel of a unicorn on the other side.
However, that didn't stop three of the Ledomaritans from backing up from the tempetuous confrontation between the beasts and the mana fence.
"I've never seen so many!"
"They'll burst through! I just know it!"
"Belle!" Pilate shouted. "Are you crazy?! Get away from the fence! There's no telling how much damage it can take!"
Belle stood still, staring with a soft expression of awe. Her mouth hung open as her eyes took in the enormity of the creature just a thin field of energy away.
"It's like... it's like I am already inside its mouth," she murmured. She gulped, but her heart beats increased all the more. "I can smell the bile form its stomach. Blessed Spark, I'm so close..."
"Belle! Get up here, now!"
The manticore squatted down, its mane bristling as it hissed directly at Belle.
Belle stared back. Baring her teeth, she raised her front hooves and shouted long and hard back at the creature. It was an enormous yell, using the full extent of her lungs.
The manticores froze. They didn't flinch and they didn't jerk back; they simply stood still, blinking curiously at the little yelling equine.
After her exhale was finally over with, Belle stared at them... then began chuckling incessantly. "Heheheheheh... hah hah hah hah!" she fell back on her haunches, pounded the ground a few times, and pointed. "Look at them! I freaked them out! I totally did!" She frowned devilishly. "I wonder how many of them I could take out before they ripped me to pieces...?"
Belle's heart was beating faster than she could possibly register. Her limbs shook and her tail flicked. She stood up and grinded her hooves as if to charge horn first into the fluctuating blue field.
"Belle..." Pilate's voice said, and this time it had a wavering tone to it.
Belle gasped, her eyes flashing red one last time. She turned around and looked up the hill. Slowly, in a limping fashion, she trotted towards the shivering group. Kenna and Baxter stepped away as she approached Pilate. She had to squint to see for sure, but her breath escaped her as soon as she realized—
"Pilate... Beloved, are you cr-crying?"
Pilate sniffed. The stallion gulped bravely and said, "Let's g-go home now, Belle."
"I want to go home. I-I want us both to be somewhere familiar, somewhere safe," he murmured, his head falling towards the windblown grass. "This... This isn't you. I know you're going through a lot, but you're better than this! Please... please concentrate and try to find yourself..."
"But I am myself!" she said, giggling. She looked at her hooves. "I'm just..." She stopped, suddenly shivering. There were
...flecks of dirt on her forelimbs. She looked to her right and saw rows and rows of apple orchards. She looked to her left and saw a grand emerald plain under starlight, with two orbs of pearl blue hovering. At the sound of a choking breath, she glanced straight forward...
...and Pilate's tear-stained face was imploring.
"Come back to me. I don't want to lose you."
Belle's lip quivered. She sniffled, and a tear ran down her cheek. "I'm r-right here, beloved." She caressed his muzzle. "I would never leave you..." Her face broke into a grimace. "Oh goddess... oh goddess, forgive me, I would never abandon any of you... never..." She hunched over, shuddering, clenching her eyes shut. "I miss you all so much. S-so much..."
"Shhh!" Kenna exclaimed. "Do you hear that?"
"What?!" Baxter spun around, gasping. "Did one of the manticores jump the fence?"
"No, worse," Kenna remarked. Gulping, she pointed up at a dark shape in the sky. "Enforcers."
And the four fell under the shadow of a looming zeppelin.