• Published 5th Aug 2013
  • 7,744 Views, 361 Comments

Them - Ether Echoes



[Now EQD Featured!] Rainbow Dash was not always Rainbow Dash. Her life was shaped against her will by shadowy, mysterious figures, and They will only be stopped if she can get her act together and find Them.

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Chapter 6

“You'd better let me handle this, ma'am!” Rainbow Dash hovered over towards a pair of unicorns sitting on a blanket out in the park. The older blue mare ceased in her struggles to pop open a jar of peanut butter with her magic to look up at her. “For your own safety, I must ask you to stand back!”

The older mare rolled her eyes. “Oh, brother.”

Landing nearby, Rainbow dramatically cracked her neck before snatching the jar out of the air and twisting it with her teeth. Though she strained mightily, she made little headway.

The older mare gave her a sour look. She then popped the jar out of Rainbow’s mouth and tapped it against the base of the fountain nearby before passing it back to Rainbow.

Blushing, Rainbow reached over and popped the cap. “Ta dah!” She beamed.

“Uh…” The mare began to spread the peanut butter for her filly companion. “Thanks.”

Rainbow hovered overhead. “How would you describe what I just did? Would you say I was amazing?

The mare quirked a brow up at her. “Aren't you milking this a bit?”

Rainbow waved a hoof. “Please, just answer the question! Was I, or was I not, amazing?”

“Oh, you're amazing all right. An amazingly—”

“Oh, look!” Rainbow pointed and zipped off. She grabbed an unattended lawnmower and scoured the entire park.

“Another great feat of heroism!” Rainbow planted her hooves on her hips and stared triumphantly into the distance. “I have just saved that grass!”

A stallion walked up. He gave her a narrow look. “From what?”

Rainbow Dash dove down to the freshly mown grass and rubbed a hoof in it. “From weeds! Weeds that were attempting to eat this lawn!”

The other ponies gathered around wandered away from her, trying their best not to make eye contact. Rainbow glanced around, her triumphant look turning to wide-eyed shock and then drooping with disappointment.

Firefly waved a hoof and the image froze. Rainbow's own face hovered there, locked in its present downcast state. Rainbow Dash rather suspected that Firefly had left it on one of the most embarrassing expressions possible deliberately.

Rainbow flicked her tail a few times. She glanced over at her friend, whose face twitched a few times as she tried to avoid smiling. “I'm not that insecure.”

“I never said you were.” Firefly's mouth twitched again.

“What were you saying, then?” Rainbow narrowed her eyes.

“Oh, nothing.” Firefly waved her hooves. “After all, this is just what They put together. It shouldn't reflect on you at all... should it? Big, strong stallion like you were. I'm sure there was nothing embarrassing or humiliating like this in your past.”

“Darned right,” Rainbow grumbled. Her ear twitched. “I'm not sure I like how you said that.”

“Oh?” The look of studied innocence on Firefly's face was about as believable as Scootaloo's when she'd raided the sweets. “I mean, it's not like I would have, say, dug through your memories in our first meeting and found something like...”

Rainbow whipped her head towards Firefly. “Hey, wait—!”

Firefly waved her hoof and the image hovering before them started to move again.

A navy blue pegasus stallion bucked behind him, striking the edge of an enormous storm cloud. A ripple shuddered through the cloud once, and then the entire mass exploded into fragments.

“I think we can call that cloud…” He paused to glance over at a gaggle of mares hovering nearby. “Busted.

As one, they all buried their faces into their hooves. “Will he ever get tired of that pun?” “Somepony put a sock in him…”

Rainbow frowned. She tilted her head, studying the stallion’s features. “Who is that?” The simulation continued, with the strange stallion posing and flexing his muscles.

Firefly blinked at her. “Don’t you recognize your own…” Her ears lowered. “Oh.”

“No, really,” Rainbow said as she watched the stallion try and cozy up to Blossomforth, “I feel like I should know him.”

The image froze as Firefly waved her hoof again. Her sad frown tugged at Rainbow somehow. Firefly walked over to Rainbow and slid her foreleg around the other’s neck, pulling her close.

“Firefly, you’re kind of freakin’ me out here…”

“I’m sorry, Rainbow.” Firefly sighed. “That’s you. Or it was you, at any rate.”

Dash turned her head to stare at the unfamiliar face. No matter how she searched it, the stallion remained unknown. She felt suddenly dizzy and leaned into Firefly’s embrace. It was as if the cloud had dropped out from under her.

“Let’s go back to reviewing the Rainbow Dash footage,” Rainbow murmured.

“Are you sure? I mean…” Firefly frowned at her. “You don’t want to try to remember more about yourself?”

“I can’t take it with me.” Dash shook her head. “If we get through this whole mess, well, I’ll see about finding it myself.”

“All right.” Firefly waved her hoof.

Rainbow Dash caught Scootaloo as she tumbled off the waterfall.

Firefly lifted her hoof to change it again with a stricken look, but Rainbow caught her leg and held it. She watched with her eyes watering as the Rainbow on the screen promised to become the honorary sister Scootaloo believed her to be.

“Rainbow…” Firefly rubbed Dash’s back. “We can do this another time, it’s okay.”

“No. Not so long as you’re stuck here.”

Firefly gave an unwilling chuckle. “Yeah, They did pick well with you. Not to mention, that mane is really appropriate for the sonic rainboom.”

“Yeah, yeah, rub it in. I thought this was a dye job at first.” Rainbow ran a hoof through her mane self-consciously. “You know how… wait… sonic… wait, a sonic rainboom? When did that happen?”

“Got you.” Firefly grinned. “Now you’re distracted from feeling depressed.”

“Firefly! Come on!”

“It’s the thing that brought us all together. I—and now you—performed a sonic rainboom that was seen from one end of Equestria to the other. It’s the thing that brought the Elements of Harmony to Ponyville.” Firefly leaned back. “You got me beat, though. You’ve performed it, on command, at least three times now.”

“I’m fast enough to break the speed of sound on command?” Rainbow blinked. Her head lifted up to look at the twilight sky. “Huh. I am awesome.”

“Now you’re getting the hang of being Rainbow Dash. Just keep that attitude all day long and you’ll be just fine.”

* * *

“So, like I was saying,” Rainbow Dash slapped her hoof on the table between her and Vinyl Scratch, “I took that dragon and shook him until the gems in his belly rattled! He was still putting up a fight, though, so I smacked him again!”

“You don’t say.” Vinyl sucked on her milkshake.

“Yeah!” Rainbow grinned. “He’ll never come back this way, let me tell you.”

Vinyl could have rolled her eyes, but it was hard to tell with her sunglasses on. “Okay, Rainbow, I know you want to show off what you’ve learned, but you know we’re alone at the table.”

“There’s ponies who can hear me.” Rainbow waved her hoof around, nodding to the open window. “I’ve gotta put on a show—let them think I’m getting over my funk.”

“You’re doing that all right. I remember how that dragon thing went, and as I recall, you squealed like a little filly at the mere mention of that dragon.”

“Hey!” Rainbow pointed a hoof at her. “That’s a wild exaggeration which may have no basis in fact, and I’d like to see you prove it!”

“It would probably be more productive than anything else we’ve done today,” Vinyl muttered. She sucked at her straw, laying one elbow on the table to test her head against her hoof. “Or the last two days.”

“Don’t let it get you down, Scratch.” Rainbow teetered her empty milkshake cup back and forth on the table to make it clink. “We’ve searched all of Ponyville, so we’re narrowing it down.”

“To what?” Vinyl growled. “All of Equestria? The whole planet?” She sat up a bit. “Also, ‘Scratch’?

“Hey, people call me ‘Dash’ all the time.”

“It’s not the same thing. Your name is—” Vinyl’s mouth stood open as she tried to think of an appropriate response. “You know what, never mind. Point still stands.” She went back to sucking on her milkshake.

“Yeah, I know.” Rainbow winced. “I haven’t come up this empty-hooved since, uh… engaging and interesting metaphor.”

“Rainbow Dash, I swear—”

“Hey, hey.” Rainbow lifted her hooves defensively. “I’ll knock it off, okay? I just want to keep in practice for when I really need to pretend to be Rainbow Dash. Anyway, come on—you can still see the changes really well, right?”

“What milkshake did you order?” Vinyl asked.

Dash frowned down at her drink. All that was left was a red smear. “Strawberry. I always get strawberry.”

“Yeah? So why are there bits of banana stuck in it?”

“I didn’t order bana… na…” Rainbow blinked down at little yellow globules plastered on the side of the milkshake. She reached in with her tongue and licked—sure enough, it tasted like a strawberry and banana shake. “Those vile fiends!”

“I’m not sure I’d blame Them for that, not directly.” Vinyl shook her head. “Like I said, knock-on effects. They made a change while we were in here and it echoed.”

Rainbow tapped the glass a few times. “You know, I was kind of wondering about that. I mean… I know a thing or two about weather.”

“Couldn’t tell, you’ve been slacking on the job a lot, lately.”

“That is also a thing Rainbow Dash is known for. It’s very convenient in that I get to take a lot of naps.” Rainbow smirked, but then shook her head and leaned forward intently. “No, seriously, though. I’ve been doing weather most of my life, and I know how that sort of thing works. You make changes, and then other things nearby change, too.”

“We talked about this last time.” Vinyl shrugged.

“No—I mean, yes, but that’s not all.” Rainbow waved her hoof around. “You get around that by knowing how the land works, learning where all the spots of instability are and either fixing them or incorporating them. The thing is, when there’s a big source of instability that you can’t do anything about, the whole thing becomes unpredictable.”

Vinyl groaned. “Laypony terms, please.”

“Ugh.” Rainbow folded her hooves on the table. “Okay, so, you know how we can’t do anything about the Everfree Forest in terms of weather? It’s too big for any two teams to handle and it makes its own weather.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, ever since I took my first weather classes in Cloudsdale, the Everfree was the big thorn in everypony’s side. It being here means that we can’t possibly set the weather for more than a few weeks at a time, a couple months if we’re lucky.”

“How does that have anything to do with Them, though?” Vinyl asked in an impatient tone.

Think about it. The Door we’re looking for, that’s a big point of instability, isn’t it? They can’t control it.”

“Wait.” Vinyl flipped her glasses up to look at Rainbow more closely. “So there’s the Door, which They can’t affect, and then there’s ponies like you and me who break out…”

“How can They make the Plan work at all?” Dash smacked the table. “They aren’t perfect. They keep messing up. They can’t possibly account for all of the variables that go in.”

“They would have to sit on it all the time, constantly making corrections, but that could never be—” Vinyl snapped her mouth shut when Pinkie Pie bounced over.

Pinkie Pie slid a tray on to the table. “Hey girls! Thought I’d bring you over some of the cookies we just baked. What’s up? I thought I heard you talking about dragons and weather. Did you discover some sort of cool weather dragon?”

“Ah.” Rainbow sniffed the air. She snatched a few gooey cookies off the tray and shoveled them in. “Nah,” she said after she had managed to swallow a couple down, “I was just explaining to Vinyl here how the Everfree messes everything up for the weather service.”

“Oh! Were you going to help with that, Vinyl?” Pinkie Pie beamed at Vinyl. “Maybe you can blast it with some sort of giant sonic cannon!”

“Uh—” Vinyl coughed. “Well, you know, I was just trying to think of some ideas. To help. Dash, to help Dash find out how to deal with it.”

“You try asking Twilight? She knows all sorts of cool stuff.” Pinkie tilted her head, staring off into the distance. “I bet she has all sorts of awesome princess-y secrets.”

Vinyl Scratch and Rainbow Dash shared a glance. The princesses never change!

“Is she busy today?” Vinyl asked as she looked back up at Pinkie Pie.

Rainbow stood up. “I’ve got this. I crash in on Twilight all the time, after all. I’ll just fly on over and say ‘hi.’”

“Oh, hey.” Pinkie Pie giggled. “I state what I’m going to be doing all the time, too. Right now I’m wacky and self-referential.”

“You sure are, Pinkie. Catch you girls later!” Rainbow started out towards the door.

“So, Vinyl, you and Mosh Pit…”

Rainbow tuned the conversation out. She launched into the air as soon as she left Sugarcube Corner, winging her way towards the library. It was a place she had been avoiding since the aborted attempt to fix her love life with magic. At least it was just Twilight being Twilight. I don’t think even They can do something that boneheaded. Well, then again…

She shuddered as she contemplated about what had been done to Lyra and Thunderlane. Her gaze turned to the left, towards a small house on the edge of the town, where she could just make out the window that led into Scootaloo’s room. Sneaking a glimpse in the middle of the night hardly sated her desire to see her sister again. She would need to see her laughing and smiling. She would need to see the love in her eyes again.

Yanking her head back around, she dove and swooped, heading for the large tree in the center of town that served as the local library.

* * *

Rainbow flashed out of the sky and barreled through through an open window. With a flap of her wings, she landed in Twilight’s bedroom.

Twilight rustled her wings and looked up from the book she had been reading. She stretched on her cushion. “Oh, hey Dash. What’s up?”

Man, I wish I could have gotten more than just a shrug from a cute mare after barging into her house as boldly as I pleased. Rainbow turned towards her and flicked her tail. “Hey, Twi. Just thought I’d drop in. What’re you reading?”

“Oh!” She brightened at once. “It’s a psychology book I just got from the Canterlot library. It discusses how ponies can be divided into certain personality types based on statistical analysis.” She clapped her hooves together. “I was thinking that everypony in Ponyville could have a test so we could collect some data!”

“Yeah, that sounds awful.”

Twilight’s ears drooped. “But… I thought it might help ponies come to grips with who they are, if they better understand their own state of mind.”

“No offense, Twi, but I don’t think bringing back school test anxiety is going to do anypony’s state of mind any good.” Rainbow grimaced. “I’m already feeling the shakes.”

“Fair enough.” Twilight sighed and chucked the book into a pile without another glance. “So, my plans today are officially ruined.”

“Oh? Great!” Rainbow grinned. “I was hoping you might be able to help me with a project, then.”

Twilight sprang to all fours. “A project? Really? One I can help with?”

“Whoa, simmer down there, Princess.” Rainbow grinned, walking down the stairs. “It’s not that exciting.”

Together, they stepped into the main room of the library. Spike was in the process of dusting shelves when they saw him, and Rainbow Dash waved at him. “Hey, Spike. How’s it hangin’? Not still sore over that dragon debt thing are you?” Rainbow, of course, could remember no such incident, but she had seen enough of it in Firefly’s picture show to get the general idea.

“What?” Spike glowered at her, shaking a little fist. “Do you need to rub that in every time? I told you I’m over that stupid thing!”

“Just keeping you on your toes.” Rainbow grinned. Considering that I knew absolutely nothing about you from before, that’s a sight better than I could have hoped without Firefly’s help. Fluttershy didn’t talk much about you, Spike—well, to be fair, she didn’t talk much at all.

“Yeah, yeah.” He grumbled and hopped off his stepladder, before taking it into one of the back rooms.

“So what kind of project can I help you with, Dash?” Twilight asked as she went around, peering at bookbindings. Kind of a cute, nerdy thing. Might have gotten on with her pretty well if we’d given it a chance.

“Well, you know, me and some of the weathermares were talking and I was going on about how I’ve flown to every corner of Equestria. Which I totally had.” And I totally have—as Rainbow Dash. Los Pegasus is a lot smaller than I thought it might be. “They asked me about the sorts of things I saw, and I mostly talked about, you know, the towns and mountains and other cool things like that.” Rainbow fluttered over to the center table, where Twilight was stacking books from the return bin. “Oh, hey, someone finished the new Daring Dan—I mean, Daring Do novel, The Talisman of Light!

“Rai-inbow.” Twilight swatted her hoof. “There’s a hold on that.”

“Come on, please? I’ve been dying for this one.” Rainbow dropped to the ground, opening her eyes as wide as they could go. “Dying. Please?”

“Ugh. Okay, just return it fast.” Twilight concentrated, lifting the books over the shiny new hardback so Rainbow could snatch it off the stack. “You were saying?”

Rainbow glanced up from contemplating the cover, which showed Daring Do back-to-back with a stallion she didn’t recognize. “Huh?”

“About your project, with which I’m going to help you.” Twilight stamped a hoof.

“Oh, right!” She balanced the book on her back. A relaxing read would have to wait. Rainbow had been encouraged by the Daring Do books she had re-read, very little had been changed aside from the gender of the title character. The parallels to her life were blessedly absent.

“So.” Dash trotted back around to Twilight. “As I was saying, I realized I didn’t really get a chance to sightsee while I was out there. Kind of just went—whoosh!—there and back again.”

Twilight gave Rainbow a steady look. “You want me to research tourist spots.”

“No, no!” Rainbow beamed. “You’ll like this, actually. I was wondering what sorts of cool ruins and really ancient stuff was out there. Just like in the novels.”

Twilight opened her mouth again.

Yes, I know there aren’t any real traps or treasures waiting to be found out there.” Rainbow rolled her eyes.

“Uh, well, actually…” Twilight glanced over at one of the shelves past Rainbow’s shoulders. “There’s all sorts of unexplored places, like the Cloud Fortress of the Pegasi. They could reasonably be loaded with monsters and unclaimed riches.”

“Wait, seriously?” Rainbow blinked, then shook her head. “Nevermind. Anyway, yeah, things like that. Really old places that no pony ever goes to anymore. You know, like the Palace of the Royal Pony Sisters.” Actually, Vinyl and I should probably check that place out, too, come to think of it.

“Treasures aside, that sounds like a great project!” Twilight beamed. “Say, if you’re going to be visiting places like that, would you mind taking a camera, and maybe a notepad? I would love to see them.” Her ears perked up, and she flexed her wings. “Oh! Maybe I can get some real use out of these wings and we can go exploring together.”

“Sure, we could do that.” Rainbow nodded. “I’d like to check a few out on my own, though—you know, something I can do while I’m out anyway.” Because the last thing I need is a tourist on my heels while I’m searching for a magical mystery door of doom, thank you.

“Great! Let’s get started, then.” Twilight attacked the bookshelves, snatching titles from across the room and piling them on the floor.

Staring, Rainbow cautiously nosed one of the thick tomes open. Dense academic writing met her and moated her almost immediately as she tried to read. It was the literary equivalent of a jar of molasses. “Uh.”

Twilight stepped over, glancing down. “Archaeology Monthly, Volume XIV.

“Is there anything like the nice, easy-to-digest stuff Daring Do gets in her office?”

Glancing over the pile, Twilight pursed her lips. “Well, uh, hmm… you know what, Rainbow? Why don’t you go polish that book off. I’ll compile a list here.”

“Oh, thank Celestia—I mean, uh, right! Sure. I’ll get out from under your hooves.” Rainbow patted the book on her back. “Thanks a bunch, Twilight. You’re a great friend.”

The genuine warmth in Twilight’s smile nearly turned Rainbow’s stomach. It was a poignant reminder of the fact that their friendship was, at present, extremely one-sided.

Well… maybe we could fix that. Rainbow thought back to the images she had seen of her and Twilight hanging out and having adventures in their shared false history. She’s friends with Fluttershy and Firefly, after all. For now, though, time to unwind.

Opening a window, Rainbow flew out. Normally, she would have used a door, but the Rainbow everypony knew seemed to have an almost pathological distaste for using the front door. Winging out over the town and watching it vanish beneath her, Rainbow could well understand that feeling. Faster and more agile than she had ever been in her life, it seemed a crime to inhibit athleticism of this caliber.

Finding a nice, fluffy cloud, she snagged it in her teeth and allowed herself to fall back down towards the earth. Pushing the cloud down by the river, she settled back on it and propped the book on her belly to read.

It started off promisingly enough. The last couple books had been building towards a climax, with Daring Danger—and his distaff counterpart—uncovering the connections between a series of seemingly unrelated plots. The hippogriff with one eye, the stallion in the white hat, the curse of the Abyssinian Falcon, everything was building up to a dramatic final confrontation.

It began not in the university where Daring Do taught—however infrequently that seemed to be—but in Daring Do’s own mother’s house. That gave Rainbow a little pause, at first. It seemed a little late to be introducing that sort of depth to the character, but, then, the author had made a big deal of establishing her mentor in the first few books and that had panned out fairly well. She was not disappointed when she discovered just how deeply her mother figured into the plot—everything from helping to guide Daring’s steps as a young mare to being behind several major setting events.

Of particular interest was the young stallion who had clued Daring Do in, warning her before henchponies descended on the Do home and forced them into a daring chase scene across Cloudsdale. Throughout the middle part of the novel the stallion—Ace Venture—revealed his prior relationship with Daring’s mother and her colleagues, and helped her to solve vital clues, each saving the other’s life at least twice before bear-pits or razor-sharp blade traps could claim them.

Ace was proving to be infuriatingly smarmy and overconfident. Naturally, they squabbled every inch of the way, two bold personalities butting heads at every given opportunity. He claimed he was in it for the money, but it seemed that he was passing up more than a few opportunities for good treasure to keep after Daring and the quest. Rainbow frowned. It seemed as though the author was implying something about the way the two embraced one another in relief after surviving a tumble from the flaming wreckage of Ahuizotl’s airship. Still, it was clear that they had only scratched the surface of the plot, and so she read on.

The plot then meandered a bit, taking them on a slow investigation in a distant unicorn city—Prance. Rainbow found herself rereading a few of the scenes where they found themselves getting distracted along the way, wondering if she was missing something vital to the plot. The point where they seemingly abandoned their quest entirely to attend a local festival together had her carefully reading every line. Even so, when Daring Do’s sidekick found them and warned them about an attack, Rainbow stopped reading.

Turning over on her cloud, Rainbow stared down at the river, where a number of foals were splashing around. She saw neither them nor it, however, her mind wandering. Something about that last chapter… so, okay, Daring and Ace went to the festival. They were talking for a long time. I mean, most of it was about the plot, but it’s like they weren’t really paying attention. And then they were kind of looking up together at the fireworks…

Feeling increasingly agitated, Rainbow squirmed onto her belly and held the book under her. Her eyes flew across the pages. Each flip reminded her that she was getting distressingly near the end of the book, the part remaining thinner and thinner.

They found her mother at last, but could not rescue her. Daring’s perfect plan to break into White Hat’s lair was foiled and both she and Ace were captured at once. When Daring Do was being hoisted up over the sacrificial pit, though, Rainbow felt her heart drop along with Daring’s when Ace came walking out with the villain, the two as chummy as anything!

“I’m sorry, darling. The money was just too good.” Ace Venture chuckled. In one hoof he held the Talisman of Light, its facets gleaming in the light of the sacrificial fires.

“You—! Ace, I can’t believe you!” Daring Do squirmed against her impossible bonds, the chains rattling as she was lowered slowly towards the orange flames. The dress they had forced on her flapped in the hot, intense wind wafting up.

He stepped gingerly around the minions who lay prostrate before the altar. His handsome face wore the same cocksure grin from the first day they had met. If she could have, she would have kicked herself for allowing herself to trust him, for allowing herself to…

No! Daring Do jerked her face away as her eyes began to water. I won’t give him the satisfaction. He won’t get to see how he hurt me. “You monster. I hope you rot, you and your stupid prize.”

Rainbow whined.

Ace Venture flapped up and reached out with his other hoof to turn her face back towards his. “And what would you have done with it, my dear? Let it gather dust in a museum? No, I think my employers can put this to excellent use.” He smirked. “It’s a shame we have to dispose of you, though… I might have liked to keep you.”

Then he winked. Something hard and metal pressed itself into the folds of her dress.

“Yes!” Rainbow squealed, kicking her heels. “I knew you couldn’t betray her, Ace!”

The breakout was just as daring as she had come to expect from her hero. Together, they toppled the evil cursed falcon into the sacrificial altar, beat off hordes of henchponies, and then faced White Hat in a final confrontation in a storm aboard his warship. She practically skimmed the part where a betrayed and infuriated Ahuizotl tore a hole in the boat to doom them all, for Ace Venture had taken a grievous wound. He ignored all help, of course, feigning health as they battled White Hat for possession of the Talisman. At last, Daring Do and Ace hammered him with a coordinated dive bomb and knocked him into the flaming bowels of the ship.

Rainbow rubbed her chin. Ships have bowels? Precisely what do those look like? Nevermind! Back to the story.

As Dash feared, Ace couldn’t hide his injuries any longer. He fell limp, barely able to move as Daring Do desperately tried to drag him to the lifeboat where her sidekick and mother waited. Finally, Ace pushed her off, throwing the Talisman around her neck.

“No!” Daring screamed, holding his head in her legs. “I can’t… I can’t—!”

“Hey… somepony’s gotta put that thing in a museum.” Ace coughed, wetly, but kept his smug grin. “Might as well be you, beautiful. ”

Jerking her head back to the boat, then to the flaming wreckage, then down to the limp form, Daring sobbed. She took a few tottering steps towards the lifeboat, then ran back. Grabbing him, she kissed him soundly on the mouth.

“I can’t. We’ve got to do this together. Last night—”

Last night, we said a great many things. You said I was supposed to do a lot of thinking. Well, I've done a lot of it since then and it all adds up to one thing. You're getting on that boat with your mother where you belong.”

“But, Ace, no, I’ve—”

“If that lifeboat leaves the ship and you're not with it, you'll regret it. No pony can survive this storm.”

“But what about us?”

“We’ll always have Prance.”

Rainbow could hardly bear to finish. It took her every ounce of effort she had left to finish reading. Every page turned reminded her that very few remained until the end. Daring Do’s desperate flight through the ship into the lifeboat, the storm tossing the survivors about until they crash on the shores of Equestria. The hollowness of her victory made the customary celebrations, which had become a tepid ending to each prior book, a torture to sit through.

Finally, just as Daring was returning to her office to retrieve the Talisman, she found the window shattered. Throwing the door open, she picked up a note left on her desk where the Talisman had been and read, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Rainbow snapped the back cover closed and leapt into the air, kicking her heels. “He’s alive! Woo!” Giggling, she danced a grotesque little jig on her cloud, heedless of the stares from below. She fell back against the cloud and hugged the book to her chest. “Oh they are so cute together!”

She paused for a moment, letting what she had said sink in. Her eyes popped open and shrank.

“Oh, no.

* * *

Twilight Sparkle looked up as Rainbow Dash burst into the library. “Hey, Dash!” Twilight rose from her cushion, only to recoil at the haggard look she was presented with. “Uh. Are you okay?”

“No, no, it’s okay.” Rainbow said, slinking in. “I’ve just abandoned all hope of ever taking myself seriously as a tomboy ever again.”

“The, uh…” Twilight glanced at the book she had lent Rainbow. “Wow, you plowed through that in like three hours. It didn’t upset you, did it? I mean, the author took a really different direction with this one I know…”

“Kind of the opposite of upset. I… well, I… really kinda liked it.” Rainbow slotted it into the return bin.

“That’s not exactly the greatest literature in my library, you know,” Twilight muttered. “Still! I’m glad to see you taking more steps into a different world. Getting really touched by a book is a great—and I’m losing you.”

“Huh?” Rainbow glanced back at her, having been staring down at the book slot. “Sorry, Twilight. Had a lot on my mind lately.”

Twilight frowned, laying a hoof on Rainbow’s shoulder. “You’re still thinking of Big Mac…?”

Rainbow winced, looking away. “A little. So, ah… how is the project coming along?”

Offering her a sympathetic smile, Twilight turned and levitated a great stack of papers to the table. Rainbow looked down at them, her already sour mood deepening.

“Uh.”

“Every ruined castle, ghost town, abandoned mine, and mysterious relic inside Equestria or out,” Twilight said as she smirked and posed with one hoof lifted in triumph. “At least, as far as my books can tell me.”

Rainbow paged through. The writing was in Twilight’s hoof, of course—very clear instructions on how to reach each monument and what is presently known about them. “But… there’s got to be hundreds of these.”

“One-thousand seven-hundred and forty-five, to be precise.”

Rainbow’s mouth worked up and down without making a sound. Even if Vinyl and I could hit one site a day, that’s years down the line. Twilight narrowed it down, all right—to a golden needle in a haystack.

“What’s wrong?” Twilight’s wings dipped. She came around to Rainbow’s side.

“It’s… nothing, this is great work, Twilight.” Rainbow forced a smile.

Sitting back, Twilight frowned at her. “Rainbow…”

Dash took her hooves. “No, really. I’m just having a bad day. Tell you what, we’ll hit one of these places up when we get the chance. I just need to… go do something right now.”

“Wait.” Twilight didn’t let go when Dash started to move. “Rainbow, I’m worried. I know you’re a very independent mare, but you’ve been under so much stress lately…”

Rainbow sighed and ducked her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother any of you.”

“Why don’t we hang out for a bit? Just us girls.”

Irony. Rainbow chuckled. “I really appreciate that Twilight, but…” But what? Vinyl and I are boned until we can think of another plan, anyway. “Well… all right. I need to tell a friend something first, though.”

“Sure thing!” Twilight smiled, rising to all fours. “Meet you at Berry’s?”

“Since when do you—oh, right, tea place.” Rainbow hid a grimace by turning her head. “Yeah, sure.”

“Great! See you there.”

Rainbow took off the way she had come and leapt into the air, circling back towards Sugar Cube Corner. Spying a green head outside the window, she dove down and buzzed Mosh Pit, forcing him to dive to the ground. “Beat it, pal!” she shouted down at him. “Vinyl said she doesn’t want to see you around!”

He gave her one startled look before racing off, darting past surprised ponies in the street. Rainbow frowned as she watched him go—it could have been her imagination, but she believed she saw a shadow depart from his own and cling in the shade of a nearby cafe umbrella. The pricking sensation of eyes watching her did not go away as she stepped into Sugar Cube Corner.

Part of those, she imagined, were just her own paranoia.

Then again… can I really afford to be too careful?

“Hey, Vinyl,” she called. Glancing around, she saw her pressing her face to the window, with her sunglasses pushed up into her mane. Her eyes were haunted when she looked back at Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah. News is worse than that, though.” Rainbow slid into the seat across from her friend. “Twilight was a dead end.”

“Seriously?”

“Well, not totally,” Rainbow frowned. “But it’s as good as. It would take forever just to scratch the surface of the stuff she gave me.”

Vinyl turned her head to look outside again. “I don’t think we have that kind of time, Rainbow,” she whispered, her voice strained. “I don’t know that we have a month.”

“It’s not as bad as all that.” Rainbow reached across and took Vinyl’s hooves, hauling her back. “We can do this. We just need to keep sane, keep fighting one step at a time.”

“I don’t think platitudes are going to do it.” Vinyl shook her head. “You look me in the eye and tell me that you think we can hold on.”

Rainbow swallowed past a lump in her throat. The episode with the Daring Do book stood out rather starkly in her mind. Still, she forced her gaze up to Vinyl’s. “We can do this. We just need to be strong and not let Them break us.”

Vinyl met her gaze for a moment before she looked down. “All right… thank you.”

“Why don’t we go blow some steam off for a bit? Twilight offered…” Rainbow bit her lip, tilting her head. “Hey, there’s an idea. What about the Princesses? They don’t change, right?”

“Their memories do.” Vinyl waved her hoof in a circle. “How would Twilight and Cadance both have failed to notice something odd about you, unless they’re in on it? And I dunno about you, but I think Twilight values you a little too much to screw with you like that.”

Rainbow chewed on that for a moment. “What about Celestia and Luna? I know they’re supposed to care, but maybe…”

“I’m not buying it. What sense does it make?” Vinyl shook her head. “You can ask, sure, but I don’t think you’ll get very far. Call it a backup plan. Even if they were in on it, we couldn’t just confront them directly without a lot of power behind us. Besides, Firefly’s knowledge isn’t perfect—she admitted to me that she can only guess at things that happened before her time. Just because the Princesses are stable now doesn’t mean they’ve always been.”

Rainbow buried her head in her hooves. “Ugh. This is killing me.”

“I… actually may have an idea.” Vinyl frowned, glancing out the window. “Look, go on ahead of me. If it doesn’t work out, well… I’ll catch up.”

“Uh, Vinyl—”

“Seriously, Rainbow.” Vinyl slid her glasses back down and grinned. It looked a little on the forced side, but her voice was confident. “I can handle this.”

“But…” Rainbow sighed. “All right, be careful.”

“Can do. Save some fun for me.” Vinyl took off outside, galloping into the distance.

“Oh!” Pinkie Pie bounced over. “Are you banking fun, Rainbow? I’d like to make a deposit, if that’s the case.”

Rainbow snorted. She rose to all four feet and gestured towards the door. “Just heading out to make a deposit right now, Pinkie. Care to join me?”

“Would I ever! Let me go sign out, I’ll catch up.”

Stepping outside, Rainbow frowned up at the sky. As if they had heard her earlier discussion about weather patterns, black clouds from the Everfree Forest were moving in. The air felt cold, and the steady drop in pressure against her feathers signalled an oncoming warm front, with a distinct promise of rain in the humid wind.

“I’ll have to get up off my butt to fix that before evening,” she murmured.

“Yeah,” Pinkie Pie said as she hopped out to join her. Her face turned up. “That does look kinda bad, Dashie. You sure you’re going to be able to handle it?”

“I had better.”

* * *

When it came to storms at least, Rainbow Dash had a team of reasonably competent pegasi to help out. After asking Pinkie Pie to go on ahead and let the others know she would be busy, she took off into the sky. After spending the better part of an hour breaking up the advancing fronts, Rainbow settled back down to earth.

With Cloudchaser and Flitter in tow, she met up with Twilight and Pinkie Pie and spent what little remained of the afternoon at Berry’s place. It was surprisingly relaxing to lean back in a tea shop and listen to the other girls gabbing as if nothing strange at all was going on.

Rainbow turned her gaze down to contemplate the tea as she listened with half an ear. It was rather like the drink symbolized her recent experiences. The first sip is hard, but the rest of it goes down smooth so long as you take it in easy doses.

“A mare could drown happily with the right kind of tea,” Berry Punch’s voice cut into her thoughts.

Rainbow jerked up, staring at the other mare, who stood nearby. Then she laughed nervously. “Did you take a course in mind-reading, too?”

Berry set down a refilled tea kettle in the center of the table. “Nah. I’ve seen that look from time to time is all.” Evidently, her bartending skills had not noticeably degraded. “What is on your mind, Rainbow Dash?”

“I’ve just been trying to put my life back in order.” Rainbow shrugged. “It’s harder than it sounds.”

“Yeah, I’ve been there.” Berry adjusted the kerchief holding her curly hair back from her face. “If you ask me, though, I think you’re going about it all wrong.”

Rainbow frowned at her. “How’s that?”

“Even if you were the kind of mare who could lean back and let things take care of themselves—which you so aren’t—that almost never works out for anypony anyway.” Berry smirked. “No, Rainbow Dash, you’re the kind of mare who needs to hit a problem head on and not let go. The more you lean back and try to let life pass you by, the more tangled up and stupid it’s going to get.”

That took Rainbow back a moment, and she stared towards the door. “You really think so?”

“You’re darned right I do. Tell me, what are you accomplishing here?”

The chair squeaked as Rainbow rocked it back and forth. “I’m relaxing.”

“Are you relaxed?”

“Well, a little—

“Great.” Berry pointed towards the door. “Now get out there and sort this mess out. The only pony you can count on is yourself in times like this, Rainbow Dash.”

Rainbow pushed her chair back and rose. The others stared at her.

“You’re right. Everypony is counting on me, whether they know it or not.” She trotted towards the door, picking up speed as she passed the other ponies in the way.

“That’s… a strange way to refer to getting her problems with Big Macintosh straightened out.” Twilight stared after her.

“You know what? She is acting weird.” Flitter frowned. “Does anypony else thing she’s been lying to us, too?”

Heads nodded. The shadows on the floor writhed.

Cloudchaser pushed back from the table. “Come on, girls. I dunno about the rest of you, but I plan on pinning her to the floor and getting some answers.”

* * *

Racing through the town, Rainbow Dash experienced a distinct sense of déjà vu. Trying to find one pony in a mass of over a thousand was an exercise in futility most of the time, and it had been the last time she’d tried to find Vinyl Scratch on her own. This time, though, she needed very little prompting. As she approached the town square, she could hear ponies talking about something very strange.

Apparently, there was a white unicorn telling ponies all about a conspiracy none of them could see. A conspiracy that was altering their very lives.

Putting on an extra burst of speed, she leapt into the air and cleared the intervening buildings. The sun framed her in the sky as she looked down to see the cobblestoned town square filled with ponies. Vinyl’s wagon was in the very center, next to Town Hall, and it had been opened up to reveal her full speaker system. Vinyl herself was standing on a fold-out stage with a microphone held up in her magic.

“...that’s why everypony needs to be alert. Your children might not really be your children, your friends change by the day, your very identity may not be the same! You, over there!” She pointed a hoof at a stallion in the crowd. “Up until yesterday your mane was blue!” Her hoof found a pegasus mare lifting up disdainfully. “And you! You were an earth pony a week ago, you loved tending to flowers and now you make flower shapes in the clouds without knowing why, don’t you?”

The mare froze in midair, nearly forgetting to beat her wings. She stared up at the sky, where a couple of lonely flowers drifted in the remains of the day’s weather work.

Rainbow stared in horror. No! That’s what Firefly did! Vinyl, you damned stupid—!

“And you, over there!” She pointed at Thunderlane and Lyra, who were pressed together awkwardly. “Since when did either of you give two figs for each other? How unhappy does your marriage have to get before you realize you two aren’t really married? Did either of you seriously think of adopting Scootaloo until a few days ago? Lyra, doesn’t it feel at all strange that you don’t feel jealous when you see Thunderlane checking other mares out?”

Lyra blinked, and then gave a hard stare at Thunderlane, who blushed.

Like many of the other ponies in the , though, a certain amount of uncertainty was beginning to dawn on their faces.

To Rainbow’s eyes, something else was happening, too. As the sky turned towards the red and oranges of twilight, the long shadows in the town square stretched out, inching their way across the stones, even from the other side of the wagon. From above, it looked like inky black fingers stretching out towards the vulnerable white form in the center.

Rainbow cringed at the thought of diving down in the middle of all that, but she tucked her wings against her side and dropped regardless. She landed with a clatter on the stones and ran up to the wagon.

Even as she did, however, Vinyl glared down at the shadows. “They’re here! Right now, at this very moment! They’ve come to silence me, but for once I’m the one calling the shots.”

Rainbow fell back as the shadows surged up all across the town square. At once, the figures were as thin and insubstantial as paper and yet as vast as mountains. Her mind struggled to comprehend what she was seeing—not so much with her eyes, she surmised, but with senses unknown to her. They loomed through the ponies, eyes glazing as their spectral hands swept across them.

Vinyl was surrounded now. Her tail flicked nervously as she glared defiance at the hulking shapes.

Their whispers filled the air now, pressing in against Rainbow’s skull.

This one has held.

...roses, petals in the sky, pretty clouds for Daisy the pegasus…

...cherish thy wife, cherish thy husband…

“I’m sick of your games!” Vinyl screamed. “I’m going to live to see you all burn, you scum!”

Faces rotated out of nothing to regard her with studious intent. Empty eyes and mouths.

You are Vinyl Scratch, you are a mare, you are a disk jockey, you love—

“I am myself!” Vinyl stamped her hooves. “I am who I say I am, nothing else! If I want to be Vinyl Scratch or, or Caramel Toffee, or whatever I have the right to decide that!”

What kind of insane plan is this? Rainbow found it difficult to concentrate. She could feel other ponies struggling all around her, see their shapes through the mist. A cold wind blew through the square, its passage seeming to scour the color from the flapping tents. Putting one hoof in front of the other, she advanced slowly on Vinyl’s wagon. For all that there was nothing holding her back physically, it was as if her legs were refusing to work.

…Dash, Rainbow Dash, Big Macintosh, Scootaloo, Wonderbolts…

Rainbow Dash shook her head, trying to clear it.

This one still holds.

She defies the Plan.

She damages the Plan.

“You can take your worthless Plan and shove it up where the sun don’t shine!”

A clawed hand reached out and seized Vinyl’s head. Though she struggled, it seemed as if she could not longer really control her limbs, and they flopped uselessly beneath her as she was held suspended. Their whispering intensified.

You will be Lost.

Erased.

Removed.

Defy us and be cast into outer darkness.

Submit.

Submit.

Submit.

“Lost… ones?” she gasped, her tongue lolling out of her mouth as drool dribbled. Rainbow couldn’t imagine the effort it was taking Vinyl to fight Them enough to talk; it was hard enough for Rainbow just to move.

Cast out of time.

Cast out of space.

Unanchored, diminished.

Forever.

“Forever… like… beyond your touch…?”

Rainbow blinked. She stared at Vinyl. There was something about that line of questioning that tickled at the back of her own mind.

They see and cannot feel.

Firefly and more, Lost for ages.

Erased.

“Like they might have been… around… since the… beginning!” Vinyl was rasping as loudly as she could with a weakened voice box. It was as if she… as if she wanted somepony to hear her, Rainbow thought, understanding dawning. She wants me to hear what They have to say so that I can go to Firefly... “They would… know…”

Empty.

The hand squeezed, and Vinyl screamed. Her scream had two tones, one rising and one falling. Her voice warbled madly as her form twisted—Rainbow saw not one of her, but two of her, fighting for the same space.

“Please! Rainbow!” she wailed. Her eyes fixed down on Rainbow’s, her sunglasses falling as her head jerked.

Seized by a need to free her friend, she set her wings. Just as she was about to leap, though, Cloudchaser, Flitter, and Twilight landed around her. Around each of their heads was a nimbus of darkness, a swallowing of the light that was nearly complete, as if they wore black crowns.

“Rainbow!” Cloudchaser pushed herself forward. “We know you’ve been lying, fess up!”

“Cloudchaser!” Flitter gasped, pushing her friend back. “Be gentle! You know she’s been in for a rough time.”

Twilight looked between Vinyl and Rainbow Dash. The latter could only imagine what she saw there—the horror that Rainbow herself witnessed, certainly not. “Is something wrong? Do you know that mare, Rainbow? She sounds like she’s been, uhm… saying some really weird things.”

Vinyl shrieked again, her form rippling. “Rainbow! They’re… ah, ah!”

Rainbow met Vinyl’s eyes again. They held each other’s gaze for what felt like eternity.

“Not really.” Dash’s voice was cold, empty. “We met a couple times. Don’t have a clue what she’s on about.” Then she turned her back on Vinyl, facing Flitter and Cloudchaser. Her ears flattened, but she couldn’t drown out the sound.

“I’m sorry!” Vinyl shouted. It was like listening to a broken. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’ll play nice, I’ll forget everything! Just make it stop, please!”

Yes.

Just like that, the storm passed. No pony but Rainbow noticed as the market tents stopped flapping, some of them gray and drab where they had been bright and colorful. The shadows had returned to normal. Even the oppressive atmosphere faded after a moment. All around here, Rainbow could see ponies casting uncertain glances at Vinyl’s wagon behind her.

The other mares looked at Rainbow, their own shadows settling down. Cloudchaser scuffed a hoof. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That came out really confrontationally.”

“It’s okay,” Rainbow said in an absent tone. She turned her head and saw Vinyl Scratch on stage, picking her glasses up in her magic and fitting them back on.

“Hey, V!” a stallion called. A green blur shot past them, and Mosh Pit clambered onto the stage. “What, you putting on a performance without telling me?”

“Uh…” Vinyl glanced around. “Apparently! Why don’t you get that cute butt of yours down and set some lights up?”

“At your command!” Mosh Pit grinned and trotted into the wagon.

“It’s late. Do you mind if I stay at your place, Twilight?” Rainbow resolutely turned her head away. “We can talk when we get there.”

“All right. You sure you’re all right? You sound a little…” Twilight made a wavy gesture with her hoof.

The sun had set, but the air was still warm and heavy. Even so, Rainbow found herself tucking her wings tight against herself as goosebumps mottled her skin.

“I’m fine. I’m just fine. Everything is just fine.”

* * * * * * *

Author's Note:

"Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house. Peter followed at a distance and when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, "This man was with him." But he denied it. "Woman, I don't know him," he said."

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Special thanks to Chaotic Dreams for permission and for continuing to consult with me