• Published 10th Jul 2014
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Sleipnir's Big Adventure - BlackRoseRaven



A hero makes an unlikely alliance with a stubborn prince, and they adventure across Equestria together.

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All His Skill Points Are In Charm And Strength

Chapter Twenty Four: All His Skill Points Are In Charm And Strength
~BlackRoseRaven

It wasn't until after most of the ponies had gone to try and rest for the night that Invidia returned, with a small cadre of minor demons. They smashed through both the wraiths and the ghosts like wrecking balls, destroying the spirits they made contact with and driving the entire congregation quickly into retreat.

Invidia herself quickly touched down in the courtyard, smiling calmly over her shoulder as the rest of the demons gave chase greedily after the phantasms: she was confident that not a single ghost would escape her brethren.

She began to turn... and then Sleipnir called to her evenly: “Thou art a little late, my friend. We could have sorely used thy help earlier.”

“I was given one distinct job, Sleipnir, and I have done it.” Invidia replied calmly, a flash of irritation passing over her face, but her features were almost-serene by the time she turned her eyes to the earth pony, adding quietly: “Besides, you and the prince have both survived... and I see you have taken quite a few undead prisoner.”

“They are not prisoners. They have agreed to help us. The battle is over, Invidia, and the tyrant was destroyed... by Blue, no less.” Sleipnir said, and although there was pride in his voice, there was also that same equability that sounded almost... hostile to her.

Her ears twitched as she strode towards him... and then she suddenly halted and froze, her eyes widening before she slowly looked down. She breathed slowly in and out, and then she ground her teeth together loudly, her golden irises glowing with rage as she hissed: “Sleipnir...”

Sleipnir smiled kindly, stepping up to the edge of the circle of vines he had laid out, the enormous earth pony reaching up to absently brush back his green mane. “'Tis a fortune that my mane and tail have always grown back quickly, my friend, elsewise I would have been much more hesitant to lay this out. I apologize for taking this step, Invidia, but... but I have a worry, and I must have thee answer me honestly.”

“Demons can't lie! Now let me out of this snare!” Invidia snarled, leaping forwards... but her hooves struck an invisible wall as her whole body shook with fury, her hide rippling unnaturally as bones creaked and growled beneath her skin. “You let me out right now, Sleipnir, or I swear that I will skin you alive and devour your innards!”

Sleipnir only shook his head slowly, then replied quietly, pointedly ignoring the mare's threats: “Demons also do not have to tell the full truth, and demons oft cloak their motives. And I have noticed a growing trend: we are endangered, and thou art mysteriously absent. Thou promises to aid us, and that aid always comes at the last moment, or too late. And I know thou art far, far stronger than thou acts... and while I believe that thou would never endanger either myself nor Blue, I truly do, I also am starting to worry that thou hast some more sinister endgame in mind than mere physical harm.”

“You don't want to do this.” Invidia twitched, and then she glared balefully at the earth pony before leaning forwards and spitting: “You are a coward, who knows full well he could never have earned this strength he was blessed with, born with! You are a weakling and pathetic, hiding behind your smile so you don't have to deal with the pain in your heart. You old worthless drunk. You stupid whoremongering cuckold. You crybaby, you maggot.”

Sleipnir only smiled, spreading his forelegs and saying softly: “Thy provocations shan't work on me, Invidia. Speak to me as ill as thou likes, but know that I take far worse venom from my phoenix every day. And while she only grows the prettier for it, I fear that thou art becoming more and more... unwelcome to mine eyes.”

Invidia hissed, her own golden irises glowing with hellish light before she suddenly dropped her head forwards, closing her eyes... and then she took a slow breath, raising her head and asking in a cold but calm voice: “What do you want?”

“Art thou the source of Blueblood's nightmares?” asked Sleipnir, suddenly as cold as the demon, and Invidia's eyes widened in shock as she leaned back, staring at him with disbelief.

She trembled for a moment, then shook her head and answered sharply: “The Harbinger is the source! You know that as well as I do!”

“And for how long hast thou known this?” And Invidia flinched at the question, hissing through her teeth again: she'd fallen for his bait hook, line and sinker. It was so hard to remember that behind that stupid, smiling face was a sharp mind...

Invidia tried to deflect, tried to make some flattering comment, and instead she flinched when there was a sudden sharp pain in her mind, like a railspike being driven into her skull. She breathed for a moment, trembling and looking down at the vines... vines made from his own mane, layered with runes. Vines... that's why. He's an angel, and he has a blood pact with me. There are three layers of enchantment... he's... “Cunning bastard.”

Then Invidia hissed again as energy crackled over her body, punishing her again for trying to deflect from the question Sleipnir had asked. And if she continued to try and resist, to do anything but answer what he'd asked, the agony would only worsen... “You... you win. I... I have known about the Harbinger since Blueblood was born. He... he is important to the Harbinger.”

“Who is the Harbinger?” questioned Sleipnir, and Invidia smiled thinly, but the earth pony only shook his head sharply before he said quietly: “Invidia, there is still time to mend thy mistakes, to fix what thou hast done wrong. Now tell me, who is the Harbinger?”

“I can't tell you. I'm bound to the Harbinger.” Invidia replied calmly, before she half-flinched, as if she expected a bolt of pain... but when nothing happened, she sighed in relief and muttered: “There, see? That's enough of an answer even for your stupid devil's snare.”

Sleipnir was only frowning darkly at this, however, asking curtly: “How long hast thou been his servant, Invidia?”

Invidia looked down silently, then she closed her eyes, trying to count the years before she murmured: “Too many... not long after I was born, the Harbinger... corrupted me. I became the demon that stands before you now... a reflection of the Harbinger's own malice.” Invidia smiled thinly, looking down and whispering: “The Harbinger... it isn't male or female, pony or demon... it... it is an evil given physical form. I don't know why it touched me...”

Sleipnir was quiet, and then he asked softly: “Art thou going to allow the Harbinger to take Blueblood? Has all of this only been some intricate plan to worsen his pain and strife, to make him a better meal for the Harbinger's feast?”

“No!” Invidia roared, and her eyes flared with golden light as she leaned forwards, baring her fangs and shoving herself against the shield as she growled: “No one will harm the prince! Not the Harbinger, not me, not even you, angel! I will kill you, kill the Harbinger, kill myself before I allow anyone to take the prince away from me, to harm a single hair of his mane!”

The earth pony reared back slightly in surprise at the forcefulness of the demon as the world around him seemed to vibrate, and then Invidia trembled before she stepped back, tears rolling down her cheeks before she whispered: “But you are right, all the same. The Harbinger always wanted him for more than his nightmares: the nightmares were only a means to an end. Because there are two things that are invaluable to demons: broken souls, who can easily be manipulated and provide an endless feast of pain... and powerful vessels. The stronger the vessel, the more of a demon's power can be exerted through it...”

“And Blueblood has gone from crying princeling to a strong stallion who is well on his way to being worthy of the title of jarl. To being a leader of Equestria...” Sleipnir muttered, looking down and scowling before he closed his eyes as he realized... “And Celestia and Luna. If the Harbinger could act through Blueblood...”

“Then yes, the Harbinger could hope to hurt them as well. To hurt the whole world... to bring the pain it feels to Equestria and beyond. To stop this miserable cycle of rebirth...” Invidia said bitterly, shaking her head slowly, and Sleipnir frowned at her before she looked up and whispered: “And now the Harbinger will punish me. Please, Sleipnir... show mercy. I... you must understand now why I have done as I did... why I must play the role that I do...”

Sleipnir shifted uneasily, looking at the mare for a few moments in silence before he finally leaned forwards and said quietly: “I have one last question for thee, Invidia. If thou answers this, then I shall set thee loose, and we shall not speak of this again. I shall tell Blueblood of what I have learned, but I shall not tell him of the measures I took: only that thou told me, and willingly. For thou wants to protect him, does thou not?”

Invidia nodded violently, wiping convulsively at her face before she suddenly smiled brilliantly. “I... I did, I always did, I j-just couldn't! I never could, but... but maybe this is a blessing. You forced the information out of me... there was nothing I could do against you. You... ruled me, took me over. Dominated me and controlled me, oh mighty and glorious angel...”

Invidia shivered a little, leaning forwards and saying almost eagerly as she pushed her hooves into the invisible wall: “And you could do more, couldn't you? Force a collar and leash upon me... then... then I would no longer have to serve the Harbinger. Break my spirit and bind me to you... better yet, to our young, handsome, glorious prince. Wouldn't that be wonderful? I am already bound by our pact... it would be a simple feat...”

“I am no slaver, I fear, Invidia.” Sleipnir said gently, shaking his head slowly, and the demon almost scowled at him for a moment before she simply dropped her head politely.

The earth pony studied her uncomfortably for a few moments, and then he finally shook his head before asking quietly: “When will the Harbinger make his move against Blueblood?”

Invidia licked her lips slowly, and then she replied hesitantly: “When... when the prince is at his strongest, but also when he is vulnerable. In that precious window after you finish your quest, and before you return to Canterlot. That is when the Harbinger is most likely to attack.”

Sleipnir nodded slowly, looking down for a few moments before he reached out and simply yanked a vine out of place. Immediately, Invidia relaxed with a sigh as an invisible pressure vanished from around her body, and then she smiled radiantly at the earth pony, saying tenderly: “Thank you... my friend. My handsome, wonderful friend.”

The earth pony only looked back at her... and then he reached up with a grimace when the demon lunged at him suddenly, a snarl of fury ripping across her muzzle and shattering her tranquil smile. But he caught her by the wrist before she could sink a cloven hoof into his neck, the two looking at each other as she trembled in his iron grip and he held her back at a distance with a look of disappointment on his features.

And then Invidia suddenly yanked backwards, pulling herself free and stumbling away before she composed herself, calmly brushing her chest off. She looked up after a moment at Sleipnir, but her golden eyes were watchful even as she smiled again, saying softly: “I had to try, didn't I? If not for the sake of my own pride, then at least to tell the Harbinger that I made some effort to... redeem myself.”

“Aye.” Sleipnir said softly, and the two studied each other for the longest time before the earth pony asked: “Art thou going now?”

“No... no. I will delay my meeting with the Harbinger for as long as possible... although it is very possible that it has already seen. It... it is everywhere. Its eyes are always watching...” Invidia shivered a little, lowering her head and licking her lips slowly. “We'll never be free from it.”

“We will. One way or another.” Sleipnir murmured, shaking his head slowly before he leaned forwards, adding finally: “I am sorry it had to come to this, Invidia. I shan't beg thy forgiveness, but I do ask that thou does not allow this to affect where we stand. Now or in the future. We are still friends, we are still bound by pact and promise, and we still must trust in one-another.”

“Yes, Sleipnir. I see the depth of your trust well... although I suppose that as your suspicions were rewarded, it makes it more difficult for me to cast such silly dispersions.” the demon replied, her voice cold and biting. The earth pony only looked at her pointedly, however, and after a moment the mare lowered her head and muttered: “Fine. I will... do my best to forgive and forget.”

“Thou said thyself 'twas a blessing in disguise.” Sleipnir said after a moment, and Invidia simply glared at him until the earth pony shrugged and sighed wryly. “Oh, mares. Even when thou art right, I cannot be right if I agree with thee. 'Tis wonderful and awful in the same breath.”

The demon only shook her head in distaste, then strode moodily off towards the outbuilding, muttering under her breath. Sleipnir admittedly felt some reserve about letting her go find Blueblood... but considering how obsessive she was over him, their pact, and that demons had to tell the truth...

All the same, though, he shifted a bit on his hooves before turning his eyes to the snare he 'd created. He busied himself with cleaning up the remains of the trap, glad that it had worked and been powerful enough to contain Invidia... then again, she hadn't tried all that hard to break loose. Maybe part of her hadn't even wanted to break free...

But her emotions had gone wild again: there was no control, just her leaping sporadically from one mood to the next. He wasn't even sure if she had really ever gotten herself under control now, though... maybe she had just been doing a good job of cloaking her feelings, of making herself play a role while she was with them.

No, that couldn't be true: he was suspicious of her, but in a strange way, he couldn't help but trust her all the same. Furthermore, he knew that he had to talk to Blue about things first: if Blue was uncomfortable with her, then he might think about asking Invidia to leave, but otherwise... she was valuable. And like it or not, she never failed to fulfill her obligations to them. Even if from time-to-time she tended to twist their words more to her liking.

He looked towards the outbuilding for a moment, then simply shrugged before turning and heading towards the cleared, open gates. The drawbridge creaked under his hooves, and Sleipnir glanced down and smiled a little: something else to repair. But then again, he'd expected they would need a lot of repairs after the battle. If anything, he was only glad that it had ended up being so short... even if the cost had also ended up being much higher than he'd liked.

Sleipnir strode fearlessly over to the encampment the undead had set up, the various living dead greeting him awkwardly and watching curiously as he tossed the vines into the massive bonfire. Then he smiled, turning towards them, making gentle conversation for a little while before he turned to head back to the fortress, and this time let himself into the keep.

It was dark, and in that middling witching hour between deep night and deep morning, and yet Sleipnir was all the same unsurprised to see a few ponies were wandering listlessly, going about chores and little tasks and other things. He spoke to a few of them, offering kindness and support no matter how they reacted, and reactions did indeed vary from gratitude and to anger and blame.

It was all alright, though: he knew that not everypony was going to feel the same way about what they'd done, and he didn't expect them to. And it felt good to spend the night awake, helping where he could, listening to them and letting them either vent or giving them the little reassurance he could share that everything was going to be okay.

At sunrise, Sleipnir left the keep and strode into the courtyard to find Blueblood seated in front of the coffins, studying them silently. The earth pony smiled faintly as he strode over to the unicorn, then he sat beside him and asked quietly: “Nightmares?”

“Yeah. Not... not the usual nightmares, just... just regrets, I suppose.” Blue murmured, shaking his head briefly before he sighed quietly and reached up to rub at the scarred side of his face. He studied the coffins silently for a few moments, and then said honestly: “It's funny, Sleipnir. I feel very sore today, but... physically, much better than yesterday. But I am also very tired and... I promised Auros I would try harder, but there is so much... darkness...”

“Darkness is not always bad. Nor is sadness always a symptom of despair, my friend.” Sleipnir said gently, and Blueblood frowned curiously as he looked up at the earth pony. “There must be a little rain in every life, Blue. Rain is what feeds the soil and the rivers; without it, the land would become dry and arid. And oftentimes, sadness is the first step upon the road to happiness, is what allows us to feel and understand great joys and their value.”

Sleipnir paused for a moment, and then he smiled a little and shook his head, saying softly: “Aye. Sadness can excise the poisons, as when we cry, our tears help purify our spirit, wash away our pains. 'Tis only when we pour that sadness into our hearts instead of letting it flow outwards that it becomes despair. And despair is a terrible thing.”

Blueblood nodded hesitantly after a moment, looking down as he pulled his cloak a little tighter around his body, and then he asked hesitantly: “What happened between you and Invidia last night? She's been furious with you, and it's rare that she stays angry for very long... but she refused to talk about it at all, too.”

Sleipnir smiled briefly, and then he shook his head before saying softly: “I fear that Invidia and I had a rather... difficult argument last night, I used what was not the kindest of methods to ensure she could not run away... but she spoke willingly enough to me, at least, once she began to talk.”

He stopped, looking down and murmuring softly: “Invidia is a pawn of the Harbinger, Blue. She loathes this creature, but at the same time, she is bound to it.” He stopped, letting the prince process this as the unicorn looked up at him with shock, and then the earth pony continued in a gentle voice: “I do not wish to put thee in danger, but I still believe that it is best that we... continue to travel with her. Perhaps it will confuse the Harbinger, or stop him from attacking us prematurely.”

Blueblood shifted slowly, and then he said finally: “I trust you. And... I've done my best to trust Invidia, too, but... this makes me uncomfortable, Sleipnir. I dislike thinking that perhaps I was more in the right when I distrusted her than now...”

“And what does thy instincts say?” Sleipnir asked gently, and Blueblood sighed after a moment, dropping his head before he shivered a little, the earth pony frowning in surprise. “Truly?”

“I... I don't know.” Blueblood said honestly, looking up and smiling a little. “I really don't. I don't know how to put it into words, Sleipnir, but... even though I do trust her to some extent, even though I can honestly believe she wouldn't hurt us or betray us... at the same time she... she scares me. There's something... I can't put my hoof on that's always been wrong about her. And I think she's capable of awful things. That's... that's always been in her eyes.”

Sleipnir nodded slowly after a moment, looking down before he said softly: “Aye. I see, Blue. 'Tis not perhaps entirely fair to Invidia, but all the same, I cannot say 'tis unfair, either... that there is not perhaps a bit of wisdom in thy worries, and thy instincts have proven sharper than I had first thought.”

Blueblood smiled awkwardly, only shrugging a little before the enormous earth pony lowered his head and said gently: “This decision affects thou more than I, Blue. If thou desires to send Invidia away, I shall honor it. If thou would prefer her company to stay with us, I shall honor that as well.”

The unicorn looked awkwardly up at Sleipnir, and then he nodded almost hesitantly, mumbling: “I... I trust your judgment much more than mine. And Invidia is...”

Blueblood didn't know how to phrase it as he shifted quietly, and then he smiled a bit and asked hesitantly: “Is it stupid of me to think of her as a friend, even if...”

“Not at all. Not at all, Blue.” Sleipnir said kindly, reaching up and gently squeezing the young stallion's shoulder. They looked at each other for a few moments, and then the earth pony turned his gaze towards the coffins and murmured: “Any more than 'tis foolish to think that just because they have passed on, they are any less our friends now than they were before. Friendships do not have to end because of time and distance: they end only when we cease to pour our energy and compassion into them.”

Blueblood smiled faintly, shifting a little before Sleipnir asked in a gentle voice: “Does thou still blame thyself for what happened?”

The unicorn glanced down, rubbing silently at his head before he finally gave a short nod and admitted: “I can't think of it any other way, Sleipnir. I... it was my fault. This was my mistake.”

“Blue, this is no pony's fault. Not theirs, not thine, not mine... blame is a foolish soil to plant the seeds of memory and promise in.” Sleipnir said quietly, and the unicorn glanced quietly up at the stallion before Sleipnir smiled faintly and said gently: “The day is bright and kind, and our friends wish to lay the fallen to rest beneath the warmth of the sun. If thou feels up to it, would thou like to accompany me on a short march into the mountains this morning? We will return by afternoon, in time enough to say our own goodbyes.”

Blue looked up uncomfortably, shifting a little before he asked hesitantly: “Is... why do you want to go on a day trip into the mountains? It just doesn't sound like the best use of our time right now, considering... what we just went through.”

But Sleipnir only chuckled quietly, shaking his head slowly and replying softly: “Nay, worry not, Blue. Rather, I think 'tis the best that we can do right now. We are not going to take any short, silly hike, after all: instead, we shall do what I promised these ponies from the start: we will find the dragon, and make peace with it for them. 'Tis the best thing that we can do.”

Blueblood smiled briefly after a moment at this, and then he shook his head slowly before murmuring: “It's hard to remember sometimes that you actually are a rather intelligent pony, Sleipnir. I think I understand what you mean...” He hesitated for a moment, then asked impulsively: “And just the two of us?”

“Aye, just the two of us, unless thou would prefer to bring Invidia along. But I would like to use this opportunity to also discuss things with thee better left between us stallions, and I think that this is a fine chance for a lesson I wish for thee to study as well.” Sleipnir replied warmly, and Blueblood nodded a few times, raising his head a little and feeling that damned endless positivity that the earth pony always seemed to bring with him, no matter what was going on.

Blue hesitated, and then he smiled a little as he picked himself up. “Let me go and get my armor and sword, then, and-”

“Nay, nonsense.” Sleipnir smiled back, reaching up to pat his own bare chest, and the unicorn blinked in surprise before the earth pony said kindly: “We shan't need armor or weapons for this. If anything, 'twill get in the way and make us look like more appetizing playthings to the great beast.”

Blueblood looked dubious at this, shifting nervously on his hooves: sure, he'd seen Sleipnir do some amazing things, but... “And... what if the dragon decides that we're just two tasty little morsels that happened to have wandered into his lair?”

“Oh, fear not. I highly doubt that the dragon will be all that interested in attempting to make meals of us. I think 'tis probably young and arrogant, but I do not believe it must mean any real harm, even to these ponies here.” Sleipnir said reasonably, gesturing towards the keep, and Blueblood grimaced as he looked at the keep that still looked like it was half in ruin, in spite of all the repairs they had done to it during the course of their stay here.

“And... if the dragon is interested in making a quick meal of us after all?” Blue asked moodily, and then he narrowed his eyes as the stallion only grinned at him. “You can't simply punch everything, Sleipnir. I'm not underestimating your strength, I'm simply saying that-”

“Oh, fie on thee.” Sleipnir smiled amusedly, reaching up and ruffling Blueblood's shaggy mane, and the prince grimaced and pulled his head away before the earth pony said cheerfully: “I shall have thee know that I have bent many a dragon over mine knee in my time!”

Blueblood only grunted and looked unconvinced, and Sleipnir huffed before gesturing at him, saying mildly: “Thou art making it very tempting to show thee just how strong I am. How would thou like me to throw thee all the way to the mountains? Then we shall see who is stronger, the dragon or the mighty Sleipnir!”

The unicorn only shook his head, then fell into step with the enormous earth pony as they headed towards the broken gates. Blueblood bit his lip for a moment, feeling almost a surge of guilt as he looked over his shoulder towards the room where Invidia was staying...

But the stallion shook this off after a moment, smiling briefly at Sleipnir when the earth pony cocked his head towards him curiously. “Nothing, it's... nothing. I suppose I'm just worried about what Invidia might think, with her... with her current mood.”

“She will be fine. And 'tis good to see thou art concerned for her, as well. I suppose that points towards thou trusting her, in spite of everything. And that is good.” Sleipnir said kindly, and Blueblood frowned a bit, looking thoughtfully over at the enormous earth pony before he nodded hesitantly. He hadn't really thought about that...

The stallion's eyes roved towards the encampment of undead, and before he even realized what he was saying, he asked: “And Auros will be coming with us, right?”

Sleipnir looked inquisitively at Blue, and the unicorn cleared his throat before looking away, saying awkwardly: “Not that I care either way, I just... it's going to be strange. You're... you, and Invidia is a demon and Auros is a Lich... and here I'd thought that adventurers were supposed to be brave ponies who fought things like... that.”

“Like that? Like what? Good ponies, who are trying their hardest to help others?” Sleipnir asked with mock insult, and Blueblood simply gave him a dry look as they headed into the forest, the unicorn automatically falling behind the earth pony... and amazed as always at how a path seemed to carve itself through the forest for the enormous stallion, who always seemed to walk through nature with far more ease than he traveled through any pony city. “Thou forgets-”

“Yes, yes, I know. All of us are only people.” Blueblood interrupted, and Sleipnir smiled at him warmly and nodded quickly. The unicorn shook his head, giving the slightest of smiles himself before he said softly: “If there's one lesson that I've learned from you, my friend, it's that one.”

“I hope so, Blue. And I hope thou hast learned it better than I have, too: it may come as a surprise to thee, but 'tis a lesson that I sometimes find difficult to remember mine own self.” Sleipnir said softly, shaking his head as he gazed ahead through the snowy forest.

They fell into quiet for a little while, the unicorn not knowing what to say... hell, right now, he didn't even know what to think. So much had happened; ponies had died, enemies had become allies, and now they were walking off to fight a dragon. A dragon; how on Equestria were they supposed to fight a dragon, especially without any of their equipment? What was Sleipnir going to do, just talk to it and reason with it? Make it feel bad for attacking the ponies?

As the forest around them began to turn to scrub, and they started to gently rise up along a dirty slope towards a wide mountain pass, Blueblood couldn't help but finally ask: “If this dragon has been amusing himself by attacking these ponies, what makes you think that it's not going amuse itself by attacking us? And... Sleipnir, you come from a strange world where demons and undead and all sorts of other unbelievable things-”

“If they are unbelievable, than 'tis funny to hear thee speaking so readily to Invidia and Auros. Why, unbelief requires thou not to believe in such creatures, aye?” Sleipnir remarked easily, and Blueblood gave the earth pony a cranky look before the stallion added positively: “And oh, thou would be surprised. For dragons are known mainly in the Midgard I hail from as foul-tempered and wicked. But nay, trust in me. Mother Nature tells me these dragons are of a much kinder, gentler nature.”

“Oh. That's encouraging.” Blueblood said moodily, and then he shook his head before adding dryly: “I think you might find yourself surprised. Or perhaps 'mother nature' is playing a little joke on you, Sleipnir.”

Sleipnir only huffed, replying mildly: “Thou could offer up a bit more respect, young Blue. I do not expect thou to think of her with the love and affection that I do, but all the same... I know thou hast heard her voice. I know thou hast been graced by her wisdom, protection, and even felt her love.”

Blueblood frowned at this as they entered the pass, and then he almost ran into Sleipnir when the earth pony stopped suddenly. The unicorn's eyes widened as he assumed the worst, looking hurriedly upwards before gazing back and forth as he asked: “Where, where is it?”

“I do not know.” Sleipnir said cheerfully, and Blueblood blinked and stared wordlessly at the stallion's back before the enormous earth pony turned around with a benevolent smile. “I could certainly ask, and I know the earth would tell me readily... why, these gossipy mountains already are trying to tell me all about the nice young dragon who lives here! He is but a hundred years old if he is a day, and... nay, nay, tell me no more!”

Sleipnir laughed loudly, and Blueblood scowled up at the earth pony, one eye twitching as he grumbled: “Well, can the mountains tell me where the highest cliff happens to be? Because I would dearly like to push you off it.”

“Well, they can if thou asks them thyself. I wish for thee to speak to them, anyway.” Sleipnir said easily, and Blueblood looked at the enormous earth pony with disbelief before the huge stallion added thoughtfully: “In the past, Celestia used to often throw me from high places, I shall have thee know. Buildings, castles, mountains. Why, once she struck me from the highest mountains around Canterlot, and I bounced all the way down into Hollow Valley. The bottom of Hollow Valley, I should say, for as its name was, 'twas quite hollow. And quite deep. Hast thou ever been there?”

“I don't even know what you're talking about anymore.” Blueblood muttered, dropping his face in a hoof and rubbing slowly at it before he sighed and said tiredly: “I cannot speak to the mountains, Sleipnir. I... I will admit that maybe once or twice I've... heard and felt things I never expected to, yes. But that... I don't think I heard 'nature' like you do.”

Sleipnir smiled slightly, then he gestured at the stallion's cutie mark, asking curiously: “What does thine emblem mean?”

Blueblood looked dumbly over his shoulder, brushing back his cloak and opening his mouth... and then he bit his cheek nervously before shaking his head and muttering: “I... I don't remember. It was so long ago and... well... there are doors that I would rather not open. Allow the past lie where it is, you can respect that, can't you?”

The prince stopped, then moodily looked up into the sky, adding grouchily: “Although I suppose we are on our way to kick a sleeping dragon, so perhaps on the other hoof...”

“Thou cannot allow the past to rule thee either, though.” Sleipnir said gently, and the unicorn grimaced a little before he looked hesitantly up, meeting the earth pony's eyes as the enormous stallion smiled down at him a little. “It is difficult, but thou must not block out thy past. Thou must learn to accept it, and acknowledge it, and recognize that it is where thou hast come from. That thy past is part of what hast formed thee, and made thee who thou art today.”

Sleipnir reached up and gently tapped Blueblood's chest twice, and the unicorn looked down silently, opening his mouth... but then he closed it slowly as he realized how stupid his arguments were going to sound. After all, he could say that the past had no bearing on the present or future, but... he was a pony who couldn't even remember what his special talent was really supposed to be, in spite of the giant symbol stamped on his hip.

He reached up and silently rubbed at this, then sighed a little before looking uncomfortably towards Sleipnir, saying quietly: “This... still doesn't feel like the time or place. We're near a dragon roost. I would rather not go trudging into my sordid past while hunting a dragon.”

“We are not hunting the dragon, we are... inquiring.” Sleipnir replied after a moment, giving a slight smile, and the unicorn focused a dry look on the enormous earth pony before Sleipnir firmly planted a hoof in the ground, instructing: “Now, do as I do.”

Blueblood glowered, but then he finally sighed and relented, realizing it was utterly useless: Sleipnir clearly wanted him to make an idiot out of himself, and there obviously wasn't any way he was going to make the stallion consider otherwise.

So the unicorn grudgingly pushed his own hoof forwards and down into the soft, gravelly earth, looking grumpily up at Sleipnir. But the earth pony only smiled warmly before he bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Now, all thou must do is listen. Listen, with thine own mind and open heart: listen for the pulse of the world, feel it in thy body, and then hear.”

“Oh. Yes. That sounds very easy. Your instructions are very helpful.” the unicorn muttered, even as he lowered his head. He scowled a little as he closed his eyes, then mumbled: “This is idiotic. Mountains don't speak.”

“They do far more than speak, Blue, and I would prefer thou did not anger them. Now shush and concentrate: thou can mock my madness only if thou honestly tries in the first place, and I am proven wrong.” Sleipnir replied pointedly, and Blueblood grumbled under his breath, but then he sighed tiredly and mumbled in grouchy agreement.

The unicorn let his mind clear, taking a slow breath as his body relaxed even as his focus sharpened. He felt his mind stretching out and a strange sense of... of being embraced. Like the air itself was trying to soothe him, to help guide him, as he felt that pulse in his mind that was becoming all too familiar; felt it growing, spreading through his body, his heart thudding in time with it as he dug his hooves into the ground and tilted his head to the side...

And then he felt it: a thrum that seemed to roll up his legs out of the earth itself, that seemed to flow into the pulse already running through his mind and mix with it in strange chorus. But this one was deeper, richer; it was like a rumbling drumbeat, and Blueblood's eyes opened in disbelief before he looked up into the distance, whispering: “It's... I can almost understand it...”

“Nay, thou can understand it, thou art simply not listening well enough!” Sleipnir urged, and Blue glared at him... or tried to, at least. He was too amazed by what he was feeling, and how quickly he had caught onto this... this life. This second pulse that was the same and yet so different from the thrum he already felt in his bones and heard in his mind...

He felt the paired pulses drawing his attention, heard the way they interplayed, saw their colors in his mind with every thrum of their powers: one was made of earthen browns and greens, and the other was vibrant, like the sky and sunlight and bright flowers. And even though they said no words, even though they felt so strange and alien and powerful, all the same the stallion found himself doing his best to listen, to hear, to... to understand what the world was trying to tell him.

He forced himself to focus, gritting his teeth, clenching his eyes shut... then frowned a little as Sleipnir chastised gently: “Nay, Blue. 'Twill not do to try and force thyself to understand, thou must breathe. Breathe, in and out, and feel it grow. Thou art supposed to listen, not block up thy ears.”

Blueblood shifted on his hooves a little, and then he exhaled loudly before slowly allowing his body to relax, even as part of him worried that the pulse would weaken, that he would lose this tenuous grip on it... but as he relaxed, he felt it clearer in his body, and his thoughts quieted as that sound flowed through his mind. And he realized...

Blue breathed slowly in and out, and then rose his head slightly as he hesitantly opened his eyes. Yet still, he could almost see the colors of the waves running through his mind, and their sound seemed to become even clearer as he looked across at Sleipnir, who smiled warmly at him before the enormous earth pony asked: “Now, tell me: what do the mountains tell thee?”

“That... you're an idiot. An insane idiot.” Blueblood mumbled, looking awkwardly away, and Sleipnir laughed loudly before the unicorn closed his eyes as a question ran unbidden through his mind, and there was a flash of... of red, and a sound like wings, and even a smell that teased his nostrils before he blurted: “Not far. He stays near the edge of the mountains. Where it's warm, where the mountain's blood is...”

The ivory stallion blinked in surprise, and then he looked stupidly down at his own hooves, and Sleipnir smiled proudly again. “Mountain... blood? Wait, that doesn't make sense. What am I doing, what am I even saying, I... Sleipnir, what kind of game are you playing?”

Sleipnir only looked at the stallion with amusement as Blueblood shook himself hurriedly, throwing off the strange, almost siren call of those paired pulses in his mind. Then he looked awkwardly up as the enormous stallion said gently: “I have done nothing, as thou knows well. Thou art hearing nature, Blueblood, that is all. Nature, and the mountains. And thou hast done very well to hear them speak at all.

“Come. I may not have asked the mountains, but there are other ways to locate a dragon.” Sleipnir said cheerfully, reaching up and tapping his own nose pointedly. “Let us head onwards. I shall give thee the directions but thou shall find us a path... I am sure the mountains will tell thee the right road if thou only remembers to ask.”

Blueblood looked uncertainly at Sleipnir, licking his lips slowly before he said finally, not even sure why the hell he was almost afraid: “Mountains... the mountains aren't alive.”

“Every stone, every blade of grass, every tree has a life of its own, my friend. Every piece of this world has a voice... thou must merely learn to listen for it.” Sleipnir replied gently, and Blueblood shifted slowly before the earth pony added in a more positive voice: “And the mountains seem quite taken with thee. Thou art very roguish, very fetching, apparently. And I must admit, whilst thy mane is all a great tangle, thy scars have only lent further handsomeness and character to thee.”

Blueblood gave a dry laugh at this, reaching up and rubbing self-consciously at his cheek. He began to open his mouth... then scowled when Sleipnir only turned away and trotted cheerfully up the powder-speckled pass into the mountains, the unicorn grumbling under his breath as he followed after a moment, muttering: “You worry me, Sleipnir.”

The enormous earth pony only gave him a smile and a wink over his shoulder, and Blue sighed tiredly as he fell in behind the stallion. For a little while, they walked onwards in quiet, Blueblood looking uneasily back and forth... then stared as the earth pony asked cheerfully: “So, which way?”

“I... you mean...” Blueblood halted, looking back and forth as he realized they had come out onto a sort of plateau, and it looked like there were at least four different ways leading up further into the mountain. Two natural trails, a section of slope that looked easy enough to climb, a rocky incline that looked almost like stone steps...

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” Blueblood asked incredulously, and when Sleipnir simply looked at him, the unicorn sighed tiredly and dropped his head, muttering: “Oh, yes, right. Speak to nature, yes, yes. Because really, that makes perfect sense...”

Blueblood continued to grumble away under his breath as he looked back and forth between the paths, thinking there must be some hint... and then Sleipnir reached up and gently touched his shoulder, saying softly: “Thou hast done it several times already. Why art thou so hesitant to attune thyself to Mother Nature and her many kin, when she seems to love thee especially amongst her subjects?”

Blue shifted a little, looking uncomfortably away as that strange pulse in his mind continued to thrum, and then he reached up and nervously rubbed at his face before mumbling: “It's... because... I don't want to talk about it, okay? I... I don't want to think about it.”

Sleipnir studied the stallion for a few moments as Blueblood shivered: he didn't entirely know why himself. After all, that pulse had saved his life more than once already, hadn't it? And it felt so natural, but at the same time... it made him feel like...

“It just reminds me of the past.” Blueblood said before he could stop himself, and he looked down for a moment, frowning at the ground before he shook his head quickly and gave a brief smile to Sleipnir, as the earth pony looked at him curiously. “I... I remember what you said, though, I... I do. I can't be afraid of the past. But... well... it's hard, Sleipnir.”

“Aye, I know, my friend. But the more thou speaks with nature, the easier it shall become.” Sleipnir said encouragingly, reaching up to squeeze the smaller pony's shoulder gently. “And I do not simply mean that thou shall be able to communicate all the easier with her. I mean that thy fears and memories will have much less power over thee.”

Blueblood looked for a few moments at Sleipnir, and then he sighed a little, shifting uneasily before mumbling: “Let's just... keep going for now.”

Sleipnir smiled, then cocked his head curiously, and Blue looked down awkwardly before he cleared his throat and closed his eyes. He forced himself to concentrate on that strange pulse, shifting a little before he nodded once to himself and murmured: “It's... well... that way.”

Blueblood pointed awkwardly towards the paths to the right, and he hesitated a moment, feeling strangely certain that if he tried, he could figure out which was the faster road to the dragon. Then again, he thought that might be obvious, too: one was a gentle slope and the other was all jagged rocks that probably would be a pain in the flank to scramble up, so...

Yet all the same, the ivory unicorn was hesitant as he took the lead, and Sleipnir watched him appraisingly, letting his companion figure this out on his own. It was important for Blueblood to learn, after all... and well, they had room for a few mistakes.

Forty minutes later, Blueblood stared disbelievingly around as they came to yet another dead end: the gentle slope had just led them into cliff faces, every path leading only to another nook or ledge or apparently nowhere at all. He blushed as he looked over his shoulder, shame greatly outweighing his pride by now as he mumbled: “I'm... I'm sorry.”

“Now, now, fear not, Blue. 'Tis perfectly alright.” Sleipnir said soothingly, shaking his head and chuckling quietly. “Thou hast not led us... entirely wrong. We are fairly close, but we have climbed higher into the mountains than 'twas at all necessary, that is all. Can thou not smell it?”

Blueblood hesitated for a moment, and then he grimaced a bit as he realized that... yes. There was the faint but distinct, pungent smell of smoke in the air. Blue frowned uneasily as his eyes roved up along the cliffside, and then he bit his lip for a moment as he asked nervously: “Are you sure you want to go... down, Sleipnir? It doesn't look like like much could even fit down there...”

“Well, methinks thou shall be surprised, then.” Sleipnir said cheerfully, and Blueblood simply looked sourly at the enormous earth pony before the huge stallion winked and reached out to suddenly pick Blueblood up in one powerful forelimb, the unicorn flailing, then yelling in horror when Sleipnir turned and leapt easily down into the narrow chasm between the mountains.

He hit the jagged slope halfway down with an easy laugh, skidding back and forth before leaping forwards, jumping off an outcropping, then hopping down to a ledge and gracefully kicking off it without losing his footing as it shattered under his weight.

Sleipnir hit a flat patch of stone, his hooves sparking as he skidded down it before he grinned and threw himself down towards the bottom of the gorge, and Blueblood covered his face and curled up as tightly as he could in the stallion's limb as he saw the floor was nothing but jagged, biting spikes of rock waiting eagerly for them-

And then there was no more movement, and the only sound was the tumbling of small stones down the slope behind them before Blueblood hesitantly opened his eyes... and looked stupidly down to see that Sleipnir was standing on three limbs, balanced neatly between several large spires of rock. He looked back and forth thoughtfully, then brightened before leaping forwards and away from the uneven spike-trap that made up most of the trench floor, saying cheerfully: “There it is!”

Blueblood only continued to stare with disbelief at the earth pony, but then he shook himself hurriedly out as the earth pony gingerly set him down, hurriedly brushing himself off before he snapped: “What have I told you about doing things like that?”

“I forget!” Sleipnir cheerfully confessed, and Blueblood groaned and dropped his head moodily before the earth pony trotted happily off towards what looked like a pitfall in the middle of the trench. But Blueblood frowned after a moment as something about it struck him as odd.

He approached... then stared in disbelief as he reached the edge of what wasn't a pit, but a narrow ledge that gazed down into a large box canyon. It was grassy and dusty, barely a speckling of snow visible in this secret little sanctuary.

Blueblood looked at the stone walls on either side of him and realized that he was actually standing in a fissure that had formed in the mountain, and that this side of the cliff actually curled forwards over the canyon, meaning it would have been all-but-invisible from the direction they'd come. He whistled quietly to himself, then gazed back down to the bottom of this hidden valley, noting the steaming pools of water here and there... “Hot springs.”

“Aye, and 'tis not because of the dragon's presence. A volcano sleeps beneath our hooves.” Sleipnir said, and Blueblood looked with surprise at the enormous earth pony, who only shrugged easily before he gestured over the ledge. “'Tis a long drop, even for I. Give me a moment to anchor a rope and then we shall be on our way.”

Blueblood let Sleipnir reach back and grab at thin air for a few moments, before the unicorn pointed out as Sleipnir looked dumbly over his shoulder: “You were the one who didn't want to bring any equipment with us, remember?”

“Oh damnation. Caught without my purse.” Sleipnir grumbled, and Blueblood couldn't help but give a wry smile at this before the enormous earth pony huffed. “Very well. Well, 'tis always more polite to announce thyself first, in any event.”

Sleipnir took a deep breath, and then Blueblood winced and reached up, covering his muzzle as he hissed: “You'll cause an avalanche if you do that! Please, Sleipnir, why don't we...”

Blueblood hesitated, and then he sighed tiredly before closing his eyes and lowering his head, not knowing what else to do. And Sleipnir smiled slightly behind Blueblood's hooves, patiently waiting for the unicorn to attune himself, before the unicorn said finally: “There... there's a lower ledge we should be able to reach. We can climb down from there.”

“Good.” Sleipnir muffled out, and then he reached up and gently pulled the unicorn's hooves away before he strode over to the edge of the cliff, poking his head out and peering down thoughtfully. “Aye, come here, Blue. I shall lower thee down.”

Blueblood grimaced at this thought, but then he nodded hesitantly before approaching and poking his own head moodily out into the box canyon. He couldn't see the ledge, but he figured that... well, it was this, or let Sleipnir cause an earthquake or an avalanche or... any number of other disasters his ridiculous strength could cause.

The unicorn grumbled, then turned around and let Sleipnir take his front hooves before closing his eyes as he carefully stepped backwards into nothingness. He slipped down off the ledge, clutching Sleipnir's front hooves for dear life as the earth pony lowered him down a few feet, and Blueblood did his best to swallow back his childish desire to scream and crawl back to the safety of the clifftop, as he instead wheezed: “Okay, I'm... just... don't let go.”

Sleipnir only smiled reassuringly... and right now, that was all Blueblood really wanted, since he didn't think he'd be able to hear anything the earth pony might say over the thudding of his own heart. But all the same, he forced himself to carefully look over the cliffside before he shivered, and said something he direly did not want to: “Okay. Let go of one of my hooves.”

Sleipnir did so, very carefully, as Blueblood braced his lower hooves against the cliff wall. Yes, there was some narrow ledge here, and when he brought his hoof carefully down, he was able to grasp into a sort of natural banister. But was it a way down?

He looked around, and answered his own question a moment later: yes, there was a larger ledge to the left, almost a natural platform, and from there he thought he could see a few large outcrops that would be easy enough to hop between... assuming nothing horrible happened, that was. But Blueblood shoved those thoughts violently away before he took a slow breath, then whispered: “Okay. Let... let go. And hope I don't fall.”

Sleipnir nodded, and he very gently, carefully allowed Blue to slip his hoof free of the earth pony's, the unicorn hurriedly snagging the natural rail of stone before he shivered once. He licked his lips nervously, then carefully slid himself sideways.

He managed to get a rear hoof onto the wider platform, trembling hard before he threw himself forwards, landing in a little ball on the ledge with a wheeze and barely able to believe that he'd actually done that. Then he shook himself briefly out before shakily picking himself up and mumbling: “Never again. I don't care what's at stake, I am never doing that again.”

“Oh, thou would be surprised what thou will do, given the right incentives.” Sleipnir said wryly, and Blueblood squeaked and looked over his shoulder in shock to see the earth pony was calmly slipping himself off the narrow ledge to join him on the small plateau.

“D-Don't scare me like that! I... asshole!” Blueblood snapped, and then he grasped his chest and dropped his head, breathing hard in and out before he muttered: “I swear that you're trying to get me killed, Sleipnir. Maybe you're the Harbinger.”

“That is a joke in poorer taste than my lovely little sister would have made.” Sleipnir said, and even though his tone was anything but scolding, Blueblood dropped his head in embarrassment. “Oh, stop, I am simply... well, I suppose I did not realize how taxing this has been on thee. Fear not, though, the way down the mountains shall be much easier and faster.”

“Down right now? Or when we go back to the fort? Because I'm still not even sure we're going to get back there.” Blueblood mumbled... and then he winced when Sleipnir picked him up, the unicorn beginning hurriedly: “Wait wait no I'll-”

Sleipnir only grinned as he leapt forwards, landing on an outcropping before kicking off and hopping smoothly down between the large juts of stone, until he was able to land on a much-gentler slope in one corner of the canyon. Blue wheezed as the earth pony set him down, and then the unicorn groaned when Sleipnir ruffled his mane cheerfully. “See? There is no need for fear. I have thee, and I shan't let anything bad happen to thee.”

Blueblood only mumbled under his breath... then stiffened and looked up in fear as a loud roar echoed out of the gaping maw of an enormous cavern. Blueblood and Sleipnir both looked towards this, and the ivory unicorn trembled as he heard the thud of huge claws, saw a flash of fire before glowing eyes pushed out of the shadows, a voice growling: “And who dares to set foot in my home?”

“We do not have feet. We have hooves.” Sleipnir called cheerfully, and Blueblood stared in something like horror as the enormous stallion calmly strode down the slope to the canyon floor. He turned towards the cave, looking up with a fearless smile even as a massive dragon slowly emerged, red scales gleaming across its body, emerald eyes filling with surprise as it looked down at the earth pony who stood fearlessly in front of the gargantuan dragon.

They looked at each other, and then Blueblood winced when Sleipnir gestured towards him impatiently. Thankfully, the dragon seemed too incredulous to do anything but stare as it turned its eyes to Blueblood, and the prince flinched before hurriedly scuttling over to Sleipnir's side as the earth pony announced: “We are here as envoys, on behalf of the ponies of the fortress at the bottom of the mountain. Thou art familiar with it, aye? I believe thou hast been making sport of it... and we are here to ask thee politely if thou will stop.”

The dragon blinked slowly at this, then leaned down, poking at Sleipnir with one claw as if he didn't believe the stallion was real before he asked in an amazed tone: “You strange little ponies ventured all this way through the mountains yourselves to my lair... to ask me politely to stop amusing myself with your little sandcastle?”

Sleipnir nodded and smiled benevolently, and the dragon looked down at him as the earth pony gazed back, completely unafraid, before the huge dragon threw his head back and laughed. He clapped a claw over his face, roaring with merriment as Blueblood swallowed thickly and Sleipnir only cocked his head curiously, watching as the dragon rocked back and forth with his entertainment.

And then the enormous reptile suddenly stopped, grinning and leaning forwards as he challenged: “Give me one good reason why I should, pony.”

“I shall be more than happy to.” Sleipnir replied pleasantly, unfettered and unafraid even with the dragon only inches away. And Blueblood only hoped desperately that Sleipnir had some trick under his saddle... because otherwise, the only way they were getting out of here was after the dragon digested them.