A Bluebird's Song

by Ardensfax

Dancing In The Fire

A Bluebird’s Song

You never want to run away again
But you looked into the eye of hell
And it left you comatose
You found your fears and you gave them names
Found them carved into a silent stone
And you left each one a rose

Dancing In The Fire

Rainbow Dash threw herself to the right, a moment before the knife’s blade pierced her chest. The edge snagged on the primaries of her left wing, ripping out a few vivid feathers with a burning sting as it hissed past. Dash saw Quintus’s eyes narrowed in focus, caught the sun-kissed glint of the blade, taking in the scene on the mountainside steps as her reflexes took over and the world seemed to slow to a shifting tableau.

The moment passed.

Then she was falling, the wind tugging impatiently at her, the helpless sensation of freefall weightlessness deadening her mind and turning her stomach. With no other options left, she had hurled herself from off the steps, out into the open air and the deadly plummet. The cliff-face rushed past, the jagged rocks at the foot of the mountain blurring in their approach, still hundreds of feet below her. Forcing herself to concentrate through the shock, and the stinging pain in her wing, she pulled herself up from her uncontrolled descent. She had seen the confidence in Quintus’s face; he was skillful and he knew it. If she tried to flee, he would pick her out of the sky with a well-aimed throw of his blade. Her only option was to fight, and now was the best time; now that she had the advantage of surprise on her side.

Looping around in a wide arc, she shot back towards the meandering staircase cut into the near-vertical mountainside. Quintus’s golden armour worked against him, marking him out as a shining target, looking around wildly to see where she had gone. He noticed her at the last second. His eyes widened, and his horn flared, drawing back the dagger in mid-air for a second strike.

He was too late. Dash barreled into him from the side, breaking his magical hold on his blade and sending it flipping up into the air. The momentum of the charging pegasus sent them both tumbling backwards up the stone steps, and it was a minor miracle that neither of them slid off the edge. The knife clattered down onto the stairs some way below them. Dash shook her head to clear it of the starburst patterns that popped in her vision. Crashing into a fully-armoured stallion had left her dazed, and she realized too late that Quintus had been thrown clear of her grip by the impact, and was even now getting to his hooves, wincing as he felt the bruises along his side where he had been hit.

Before she could stand up, Quintus had reached her, and aimed a vicious forward kick at her chest. She tried to roll with the strike, but her co-ordination had failed her and she was tossed back down three more steps. Fighting the sudden, breathless pain burning in her side, she opened her eyes to see the armoured form walking down towards her. The sun was behind him, silhouetting him and crowning him in an undeserved halo.

Dash’s mind was swimming, and her eyes screwed up against the blinding light.

Please, not like this.

Quintus methodically raised an iron-shod hoof, aiming for her throat as she lay prone on the ground, preparing to stamp down. Dash’s eyes widened. For a moment, she imagined that she heard Twilight’s voice. To her, it was the sound of all that she stood to lose. All that she could not bear to lose.

Not like this.

Fuelled more by desperation than intention, she drew back her hind legs and launched an explosive upward kick. She had directed the blow at his chest, but her aim was wild, and her left leg missed. However, her right hoof did its work well enough. It smashed home with a jarring crunch just below the base of her assailant’s un-armoured neck. She felt his collarbone snap beneath the blow, and Quintus let out a yell of pain.

Knowing that she had only seconds while her opponent was distracted, Dash pulled herself to her hooves and kicked out again, striking Quintus with both hooves in his armour-clad shoulder. It did no lasting damage, but the impact forced him down onto his knees.

“You are not going to take me away from her!” Dash yelled furiously, the words rising like bile in her throat, forming of their own accord.

“I don’t want to have to do this,” Quintus grunted, suppressing the pain in his voice with obvious difficulty. “You don’t understand. I've got to.” He glared at her, but the anger in his eyes was mixed with sadness, and his horn began to glow sharply and fitfully.

Somehow, Dash knew. This was the endgame. This fight would be over in the next few moments, one way or the other. Only one of them was going to walk away.

Her intuition was needling at her brain. Something was about to happen. Last time the warning had come too late. This time, however, it guided her well.

Quintus was concentrating hard on a spot some way behind her, his horn sparking and flaring. Dash spun around, just in time to see the sun glint off the magically-gripped dagger that had fallen on the stairs behind them, as it was flung towards her head. Instinctually, Dash let her knees crumple, falling onto the hard stone steps a split-second before it reached her. She felt the hiss of air against the top of her head as the dagger sliced through the open space where she had been standing a moment earlier.

Her head whipped around to track the knife’s path. Having missed its target, the deadly projectile was continuing on its path, heading directly for where Quintus was shakily rising from his knees. His eyes widened in horror as the blade flew towards him, propelled at his neck by the strength his own magic. In hindsight, he could have brought it to a halt had he thought to use his horn, but his actions were driven by animalistic fear and immediate self-preservation, rather than rational thought. He tried to dodge wildly out of the path of the blade, but his unsteady hoof slipped on the smooth stone step.

The blade clattered harmlessly against the steps once again, released as the light from Quintus’s horn died. Dash gasped as she realized what was about to happen, and caught a glimpse of her would-be murderer’s face, his expression wide-eyed and disbelieving as he fell sideways into the empty air.

Acting without thinking, she dived forwards to try and grab him before he could fall. She did not know why she was trying to save him, but in that moment it mattered to her that she tried. Her forehooves closed around his waist, but his armoured bulk was too heavy for her, the polished golden metal proving too slippery to keep a hold on. As he slid from Dash’s grip, her hoof snagged on a thin metal chain around his neck, which snapped when she tugged on it in a last-ditch attempt to pull Quintus to safety.

At the last second, he looked her in the eye. His gaze was full of fear and remorse. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

Then it was too late. Gravity claimed him, as he tumbled over the edge of the stone cliff-face. Dash stumbled backwards when the chain around his neck suddenly broke, and collided hard with the mountainside at her back, her heart hammering, the terrified yells of the falling stallion pounding at her ears.

She sank to the cold stone, breathing hard and shaking uncontrollably. She heard as the screaming grew fainter and fainter, until suddenly, jarringly, it stopped. The echoes faded, leaving a ringing, horrible silence in their wake.

At this height, no sound of the inevitable impact reached Dash’s ears. She did not move for several long minutes, as the shock set in. She did not have the stomach to look over the edge of the steps, fearing the sight that would await her even at this height.

Dash’s chest throbbed painfully, a stinging red welt obvious on the surface even through her cyan fur. She looked almost carelessly down at the metal chain still wrapped around her hoof, and saw that Sergeant Quintus’s dog tag hung from the end, a simple metal rectangle, functionally embossed with his name and rank. To her left, Dash caught sight of her assailant’s golden blade, lying with the tip buckled by its collision with the stone, two steps up from where she sat.

Still shaking a little, stunned at how close a brush she had just had with death, Dash pulled herself to her hooves, and risked a glance over the edge. She did not want to, but she was driven by the need for closure, and a slight but insistent morbid curiosity. The eternal mist that swirled around the stony foot of the mountain obscured the scene below, and it was too high to pick out any detail. She thought she caught sight a crumpled shape among the stony crags, but at this height it could just as easily have been a boulder.

Shaking her head, she turned away from the edge, stowing the chain with Quintus’s identification beneath her wing.

I can’t believe I killed somepony.

The harder part of her, however, was stubborn and felt little or no remorse.

Don’t waste your guilt on him. He was prepared to kill you on the off-chance that you might be dangerous. He already killed one pony, maybe more. He swore an oath to protect ponies when he joined the guard, and tossed those promises away for money. Besides, you didn’t kill him. He wasn’t thinking clearly. His own stupidity killed him.

Despite the truth of these words, Dash picked up his dagger and took to the air, hovering just below the stone steps. She found a jutting crack in the mountainside, just below where he had fallen, and she wedged his blade in place there. It was hidden from general view, but marked the spot where her enemy had fallen. It was a mark of respect that she did not think he deserved.

Then, however, she realized that she needed to think. Soon, Quintus would be discovered to be missing, and hooves would be swiftly pointed in Dash’s direction. After all, he had been last seen walking down to the dungeons with her. With the other guards unaware of Quintus’s betrayal, she would be arrested. She knew that Celestia would believe her explanation, but she would certainly be detained in a prison cell and might even miss the record attempt. Twilight would be frantic. She had, perhaps, fifteen minutes before the rest of the guards came looking for her.

She knew what she had to do. The dungeon guards were expecting her, and her best chance was to speak to Cloudshine, learn what she needed if she could, and leave before the alarm was raised. With luck, Twilight could settle matters with the Princess before the guards came knocking on the door of the Hotel Zephyr. Neither Quintus nor the guard whom she had first met had known her name, and that made things easier. It was fortunate that neither of them had recognized her. Had one been a pegasus, she might well not have been so lucky.

It’s time to go. Time’s running out, Rainbow. She briefly inspected herself, not wanting to walk up to the dungeon guards having obviously just been in a fight. There was nothing she could do about the angry red welt on her side, or the multitude of other bruises that would doubtless flare up the next day. She had a nasty feeling that the kicked to her chest might have cracked a rib. She noticed with a slight drop of her stomach that there was a spray of dried blood, not her own, dotted up the lower part of her right rear leg, from where she had broken her opponent’s collarbone. There was also a deep cut along her right cheek, from where she had caught herself on a sharp edge of Quintus’s armour when she had crashed into him.

She snorted, angrily. She had no saddlebags, nothing around her but stone, and no way to clean herself up. She realized that she would simply have to rely on the authority of the Princess that came with her visit, to prevent the guards from asking too many questions.

Steeling herself, still in a cocoon of slight unreality due to the shock, she walked down the remaining steps to the dungeon door. It was a thick, burnished brass slab. Apparently its thickness was what had prevented the guards within from hearing the commotion on the steps outside. The heavy door swung open easily at her touch, perfectly balanced on its hinges. She walked through, trying to focus, and trying not to think about the sound of Quintus as he fell.

Before her was a small entrance hall, the walls clad in plain marble, bare of decoration. A few seats stood around the walls, for visitors to wait. The light from the torches was dim and wavering, which acted to Dash’s advantage, obscuring her injuries and bloodstained leg.

Two guards stood at the door to the cell-block, both of them pegasi. They snapped to attention as she approached.

“Miss Rainbow Dash?” One asked, his voice a gruff bark.

Dash nodded. “Yeah.”

“The Princess told us to expect you. Normally we would accompany you, but she left instructions that you were to be allowed to visit Cloudshine alone.”

A pang of guilt struck across Dash’s thoughts. Celestia’s done this for you, and this is how you repay her? One dead guard and no explanation?

Twilight can fix this, but it needs to be fixed later. Right now, I’ve got a job to do.

“I won’t be long,” she muttered. She had intended her words to sound determined, but all she managed was a tone of sadness.

The guards probably caught onto her mood, but discipline prevented them from mentioning it. “Second door at the bottom of the stairs. She’s in the third cell on the right.” The guard on the right took a heavy ring of keys from a hook on his armour, and deftly unlocked the heavy door behind them.

Heart pounding in apprehension, trying to ignore the burning in her side, Dash began to descend the marble staircase. She pushed the second door she came to at the base of the stairs, and it opened with a low creak.

Immediately, there was a gasp from within the dark block of cells, a sharp, clear intake of breath that cut the cold silence like a knife-edge. Dash looked around as her eyes adjusted to the light. The cells were arranged on either side of a central aisle, barred at the front, and separated from one another by marble walls.

“Who’s there?” The voice was a mare’s. Younger, but sharper and less scratchy than Dash’s. “You’re not a guard.”

“No.” Dash’s voice was quiet, but it carried easily through the echoing space. “No, I’m not.”

Dash heard the sound of Cloudshine getting to her feet. “I know why you’re here,” her words were surprisingly calm and measured. “Who sent you? Is it the League of pegasi? Or one of the Cloudsdale triads?”

Dash laughed, bitterly. “You think I’m here to kill you.” She decided to test the water, see how much her half-sister knew about her. She began to walk along the aisle, approaching the third cell on the right. “My name’s Rainbow Dash.”

“Ah, the pegasus comes back to roost.” Cloudshine sounded almost pensive. “I can understand that. We tried to kidnap your friend, we threatened you and your precious little librarian. I figured if anypony wanted to hold the knife, it’d be you.”

“I told you. I’m not here to kill you.” She stepped in front of Cloudshine’s cell, deliberately keeping herself half-hidden within the shadows. Her eyes widened as, for the first time in her life, she set eyes upon her younger sister. Cloudshine was a light olive-green unicorn, her cutie-mark depicting a crossed sword and horn, set over a backdrop of a jet-black cloud. Her horn was encased in a black, wooden magic-dampening cone. However, it was her mane that proved surprising. Like Dash, she had inherited the vivid prismatic shades that had run in her mother’s mane. It was a shorter, more functional mane than Dash’s, but the colouration was unmistakably identical. Cloudshine’s eyes were defiant as she looked across at Dash’s silhouette.

“Why are you here then, if it’s not about revenge?”

“This isn’t about Sunset. It’s not about unicorns or pegasi.” Dash stepped into the light, and Cloudshine gasped as she saw Dash’s mane. “This is about us.”

Cloudshine shook her head in bewilderment. “Who are you? I guessed from your name that you must be… But I never… What’s going on?” She suddenly looked fearful as she noticed the fresh wound on Dash’s cheek, as a fresh thought apparently occurred to her. “You shouldn’t even have gotten in here. How’d you get past…?” She stopped herself before she let slip the name.

“Sergeant Quintus, you mean?” Dash shook her head, sadly. She felt no triumph over what she had done. If it was indeed a victory, then it was a hollow one. “He tried to stop me from reaching you. He’s gone.”

“You’re lying!” exclaimed Cloudshine, taking solace in anger and taking out her frustration on the pegasus before her, one of the ponies who had thwarted them at every turn.

“I’m not,” Dash replied, simply. Unfurling her wing, she took the sergeant’s identification tag in her hoof, and tossed it through the bars to Cloudshine. She caught it on the end of her hoof, and looked down at it, obviously recognizing it for what it was.

She snorted in frustration, and looked back up at Dash, her eyes angry. “I’m not playing these games. Who the buck are you?”

This was not a time to be delicate. Dash was acutely aware that any moment now the door could come bursting open, with a squad of guards behind it ready to track her down. “Cloudshine, I’m your half-sister. I’m looking for our mother, and you’re the only pony who might know where she is.”

The unicorn’s mouth fell open, and she hurriedly closed it again. Whatever she had expected Dash’s motives to be, this evidently did not fit the bill. “You’re… you’re my half-sister?”

Dash nodded. “I dunno how much Mom told ya about her history.”

Cloudshine shrugged, still a little suspicious. “She told me she shacked up with a pegasus in Cloudsdale for a good few years. She told me he used to smack her around, but she never mentioned a kid. She hated pegasi after she left that guy. So did my Dad, he used to take me out on pro-unicorn marches and things when I was a kid.”

“Big surprise,” Dash remarked, sarcastically. “No wonder she never mentioned me. I’m her guilty little secret. I’m the reason she never looked back, because she was scared of what she might see.”

She sighed. She had expected to find a hardened criminal in this cell, a murderer and kidnapper. Instead she had found a mare barely beyond her teens, one who had been brought up to make the wrong choices, but was cursed with sufficient intelligence to rationalize those choices to herself. Over the years, this filly’s family had convinced her that she was in the right, that she was justified. “Why’d you get involved in this game?” Dash asked, sadly. “You’re too young to spend the rest of your life in a cell.”

“Because I’ve seen what you pegasi do to the rest of us!” Cloudshine flared up. “I saw what a pegasus did to my Mom! You’re warlike enough without additional power, if it wasn’t for you and your territory squabbles, the second Griffin war would never have even happened. Do you know how many unicorns died defending Cloudsdale because you pegasi are too stubborn to sit down and talk?”

“That was like two hundred years ago! You’re living in the past, Cloudshine. You and your friends need to open your eyes and see that the world’s moved on. It doesn’t matter if you’re a unicorn or a pegasus or an earth pony, nopony cares about that stuff anymore!”

“History only ever repeats itself, your kind are just as power-hungry as ever. I’ve read about the way you ponies profiteer off weather protection!”

Dash burst out into a loud, humourless laugh. “Profiteer? I’m on the local weather team, we get funding from the mayor and the council. We don’t even get enough for decent cloud vacuums, we-” She cut herself short, and shook her head, intensely irritated with herself. This was not the time to get dragged into a pointless debate about politics. “Look, none of this matters right now. I don’t care about you, and I don’t care about Sunset. Do you know where our mother is?”

She confidently expected Cloudshine to refuse to tell her, and so was surprised when the unicorn nodded. “Sure.” There was something unpleasant about her sudden smile that Dash could not quite place, although she did not have time to think too hard about it. “If you really wanna know, she’s in Manehattan. The address is Seventeen, Palm Avenue.”

Dash eyed her, suspiciously. “You’re trying to trick me.”

Cloudshine shook her head. “You came here to ask me a question, and I’m giving you an answer. Like you said, this isn’t about Sunset, this is about you and me, as sisters. I promise you’ll find her there, but I can’t promise you’ll like what you find.”

“I can live with that,” replied Dash, shortly. “I just want closure.”

You’ve got what you wanted, provided she’s telling the truth. It’s time to go.

She turned to leave, turning away from the pony in the cell. The presence of Cloudshine made her uncomfortable. She was a stranger. An enemy, even. Despite this, Dash felt as if she had known the unicorn all her life. Their similarities were too pronounced to be ignored, their shared stubbornness driving them in such radically different directions. She realized with a shudder of horror that she could easily have turned out similar to her sister. Just like Cloudshine, an untrue idea had rooted itself in her mind, and dominated her life. At least for her it had not been destructive to others, and she had known Twilight, who had been able to help her through thick and thin.

Her sister had not been so lucky. The hatred of pegasi her parents had spoon-fed her from birth had seized onto her brain like a cancer. She had joined a group of terrorists, she had mooted the kidnapping of Spike, the threats leveled against Twilight and Dash, and the murder of Dusk tempest. Dash’s past had hurt her and brought her down, but Cloudshine’s past had turned her into a monster.

“Dash.” Cloudshine’s voice rang out behind her, but she kept walking. “Just before you go, I want you to know I don’t like what we do.”

Dash halted, despite herself, not turning around. “You don’t have any right to say that,” she spat. “You were one of the leaders, you could have stopped it. You could at least have tried.”

“We’re keeping the balance. I feel like I’ve got a duty. I know what pegasi have done in the past, and I know you’d do it again if you get the power.” She sighed. “I guess we failed. Sparkle will have released her findings by now, won’t she?”

“Probably,” Dash nodded. “It won’t make much difference. So what? Pegasi have magic, what difference does it make?”

“Unicorns have always had magic, and pegasi have had flight,” Cloudshine replied. “That’s how it’s always worked. It’s not the discovery so much as what will come after it. Ponies always think the world’s moved on, but it never does. We need the pegasi for the weather, the earth ponies provide food, and the Princesses control the sun and moon. Tell me, Dash. What does anypony need the unicorns for?”

“So that’s it?” Dash asked, contemptuously, still not turning. “Paranoid? Afraid you’ll be redundant?”

There was a pause. “Yes. Yes, I suppose so. The world looks frightening when you don’t have a place in it.”

“Don’t give me that. You enjoy this. You enjoy what you do, I can tell.”

“What’s enjoyment? A moment without fear? The satisfaction of knowing you’re good at what you do? Maybe I do enjoy this life, but it’s fear that drives us. It makes us cling to the status quo harder than ever.”

“Don’t you dare think that excuses what you’ve done,” Dash said, darkly.

“I don’t think we're the 'good guys' for doing what we do, but we have to do it. Just like Sergeant Quintus did.”

Dash snorted, loudly. “Quintus? He didn’t have to do anything, you were paying him. He killed Dusk for you, and he tried to kill me. He could have just walked away, but instead he took your bits to do your dirty work.”

“Bits?” Cloudshine laughed, softly. “We weren’t paying him in bits. There are better ways to ensure a pony’s loyalty. Remember Root Blacksap?”

“The potioneer?”

“That’s the one. Invented the draught of foolishness, and worked on the potion of forgetfulness. Sergeant Quintus was the test subject for a little idea of mine. Two years ago, we sent somepony by the dungeons at night. Quintus was standing guard. He’d just got divorced, he was sleepy, a little inattentive. Life had caught up with him. It was a simple matter to add a large dose of forgetfulness to his drinking water as it was being brought to him.”

Dash turned, her eyes full of horror. “You…”

“We stole his life, yes.” There was a strange, perverse pride in Cloudshine’s voice. “We left him with just enough memories to know who and where he was, but even that took some explaining. We had small stashes of the antidote planted around the city, none powerful enough for total recall, just enough to bring back a few selective months or events. When we needed him to do something, we’d give him the location of one of the stashes. The bigger the job, the more we give him back.”

Tears were forming in Dash’s eyes, which burned furiously. “So he never had any choice?”

“He had a choice, certainly, but he made the right one in the end, after we told him that he had a foal. That was his payment for killing Dusk Tempest; we gave him back the day his son was born, and a few birthdays for doing the job so well. The kid’s alright, by the way. He lives with his mother. She and Quintus never saw each other anymore, but we didn’t tell him that.”

I thought he'd died a coward. It was him or me, they gave me no choice.

“You bastard!” Dash yelled, storming back over to the cage. “You took an innocent stallion and made him kill for you. Made him die for you! You turned him into a murderer, and you’ve done the same to me! If these bars weren’t here I’d break your neck now. I’m leaving. I hope you rot in here, you and your friends.”

I was wrong about her. There’s no chance for reconciliation, she’s too far gone.

She walked away towards the door to the cell block, knowing that she had wasted precious time, and hoping that she was not about to pay for it. “I guess this proves one thing, though,” she spat back over her shoulder. “This isn’t about unicorns or pegasi or politics. Quintus was a unicorn; one of the ponies you’re supposed to be protecting. You don’t care about any of them. You’ve been doing this for fun.” With one last disgusted look back at her sister, she walked through the door and slammed it behind her.

She took the stairs three at a time, wanting nothing more than to leave this place and its inhabitants behind her. She passed the guards at the top of the stairs without speaking or making eye contact, keeping her gaze set straight ahead of her. The moment she was out in the sunlight, she took flight, leaving the cold mountainside behind as fast as her wings could carry her.

She needed to escape, to leave this place behind. She had to see Twilight; only then would she feel safe.

As she sped away from the lights of the twinkling city, she knew one thing with absolute certainty: The past had a lot to answer for.

Seventeen, Palm Avenue, Manehattan.

One day soon, she hoped, she could bring her demons to account. Not just for her sake, but for the sake of the sister she had lost.