• Published 26th Aug 2017
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To Perytonia - Cloudy Skies

Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Rarity are tasked with establishing ties between Equestria and the strange people of Perytonia. Understanding and connecting with your own friends may yet be the bigger challenge. Updates every Tuesday and Saturday!

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Chapter 9

These peryton clearly do not mind sleeping in the cold, and if there is any form of heating in the Autumn Hymn, it does not extend to our room. I do not want to be uncharitable, however. I simply need to make a brief note for myself: I will need to pick up more white thread before we leave tomorrow, as I have just used the last of it.

Who knows if tonight’s efforts will be recognised? It is always better when one’s work is appreciated, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that two unmitigated fashion disasters in two separate cities has rattled me.

Now to see if I can get abed. Rainbow Dash’s sleeping acrobatics are quite something else, and Fluttershy’s response is apparently to lie so close Rainbow Dash can’t kick her. They meant to leave a spot for me, but I think I may have to wake Fluttershy and ask her to make room.


“You did not get to see the ring-markets,” said Mirossa. “You would have enjoyed it. They trade for the most curious and expensive things.”

“We’re sorry,” said Fluttershy, smiling at her. “I’m sure it’s very nice, but we really do have to leave today if we don’t want to get caught outside in this storm.”

“This really weird storm that’s supposed to happen at some point in a week,” Dash added. “What gives? Anyway, sorry kiddo.”

Mirossa shrugged and sped up, walking a short distance ahead of the ponies. “The loss is yours, not mine. Stagrum has many more secrets, and it is impossible to see all it has to offer in two suns.”

“Even what we were able to see was all very impressive,” said Rarity. “You have every reason to be proud, dear. It was a lovely little island of culture.”

Clusters of houses passed them by to the left and right as they walked the road that led west out of Stagrum, and never mind that Stagrum itself technically stood upon many small islands: Dash already knew that before the end of the day, all traces of Stagrum would be gone from sight.

Sure, there were long, empty stretches of road between all of Equestria’s cities too, but when you left Ponyville for any other city, you didn’t feel like you left it all behind, like an island passing into the distance. They hadn’t seen anything reminding them of Orto since they left its valley, either. Stagrum absolutely was an island itself.

Rainbow Dash flicked her ears. Rarity had a way with words. Sometimes she found the exact right word to describe a thing. Other times, she could say something, and three days later you would hear something unrelated and suddenly be made to think about how you were some kind of bossy jerk making your friends do things they didn’t really want to do.

Mirossa unfurled her wings and left them half spread, walking backwards in front of the three ponies. “You say it, but you do not know it. You have not seen the trade fleet coming home for the last time in late fall, sails decked with Ilyra’s colours, or the lights that run from roof to roof at Wintersdepth to ward off the gloom—you even missed the Wandering.”

“Maybe we’ll come visit again,” said Dash with a shrug and a grin. She glanced back at the cart she pulled, wherein lay all their packed food. Naressa said she’d added extra sauce to the sour grass-balls. That was more than good enough reason to come back.

“You must,” said Mirossa, nodding. “I love my city and all within it, but I have already seen it myself. I would want more to come visit.”

Rainbow Dash frowned. All the while, despite her words, Mirossa hadn’t sounded half as excited as her words made her sound, and Dash liked to think she’d met enough peryton to tell by now. Only at the prospect of the ponies visiting again did the doe perk up at all. Mirossa turned to walk at their side, and for a while, there was only the steady roll of wooden cartwheels on packed dirt.

“Maybe you’ll come visit us instead,” Dash said, casting her a sidelong glance. The doe had already made clear what she really wanted. To travel.

“I may,” said Mirossa, her eyes lighting up, her wings spreading a little more. “May I? Do you really think I could visit your city? It must be very far, but would it be possible?”

“Why wouldn’t it?” asked Fluttershy, smiling bright. “It would be wonderful to have you visit Ponyville sometime. You could sleep on my couch if you don’t mind Angel.”

Mirossa nodded, glowing now. “I think I would like this. Meeting you has been strange. I did not know what to think, but now I do. Most other travellers do not care to say much more than hello, but if I were to travel, if there was a way, I would be different from them.” She hopped along the road more than she walked. “I would want to greet people and learn more about them, too! I have not asked you many questions about your city, but I would like to see it. Seeing is better than speaking.”

“If Equestria and Perytonia establish friendly relations, maybe there’ll be passenger boats,” said Rarity, smiling at the exuberant peryton. “Granted, that may take a while, but I’m sure there are other ways. Us being here is proof of that.”

Mirossa slowed down a little, looking around. Her energy evaporated in an instant. “You are, and yes, some day, but… not soon, and it is not certain,” she said, slumping. “I wish you could have stayed longer and shared more stories. These are idle dreams, I think. I have no way to go beyond our demesne. I should turn around and go back now.”

Rainbow Dash slowed down as well, bringing the cart and the group to a complete stop. The buildings around them had become increasingly sparse along the riverlets.

What had been obvious on their approach was even more apparent now: Stagrum’s river delta was no valley. Whatever lay further north, Dash couldn’t tell from ground level, but up ahead, the road crossed over the last of the river branches near where they all met until it joined the southern side of the full width of the river Meronna, heading west inland over flat and forested terrain.

“We can still see the city,” said Dash with a smirk. It was obvious to her that the peryton wanted to go on. “Come on, where’s your sense of adventure? There’s a forest’s right up ahead.”

“I’ve been to the forest’s edge before,” Mirossa said with indignant snort. “I dragged Rohast by his tail all the way.” Even so, the young peryton made herself as tall as she could, her head raised as though she could see beyond the forest when she stood on the tips of her hooves. “To the forest, just not beyond it, never south of the crest or north of the mines.”

“Why not?” Dash asked, grinning still. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Mirossa huffed. “I do not know how to stay safe or to travel alone. Even you travel together as three.”

“Rainbow Dash, please stop trying to filly-nap our new friends,” Rarity said, though she smiled even as she rolled her eyes.

“Yeah yeah,” said Dash, but she couldn’t quite laugh. “It’s the whole Bent Feathers thing again, isn’t it? It comes back to that. They could help you, teach you or take you along or whatever.”

Mirossa nodded her assent. “And it would make mama feel better. If I am rash enough to fill an ohron with kelp and run into the forest, she will worry. If I join the Bent Feathers, I am not alone. I suppose she may still wish I had joined a House—but, these are words we have already said.” Mirossa smiled with the corners of her mouth only. “We should say our goodbyes if you are in a hurry.”

“I really hope that they change their minds and let you join them some other time,” said Fluttershy, dipping her head and smiling back at Mirossa. “Maybe you can find a House or something else to do that makes you happy until then.”

“It is not time,” said Mirossa, giving Fluttershy an odd look. “Time does not open any door.”

“Then what do they want?” asked Dash, scowling. “You said something about that yesterday, didn’t you? Showing what, ‘desire and ability’?”

Mirossa shrugged. “If you wish to join a House, you must show your sincerity. Part of this, you show in the caps and jewels in your antlers, part you show with a suitable gift. The Bent Feathers are no House, they do not ask for tribute, but still they wish for me to prove that I am sincere.”

“I guess that means giving you a bunch of gems is right out, huh?” Dash asked, snorting.

Fluttershy frowned. “You were the one who got angry that the Wonderbolts were thinking of selling honorary memberships.”

“Exactly!” said Dash.

“And besides, I don’t imagine Mirossa would accept a lavish gift such as that,” said Rarity, stepping over to the cart and rooting around in it. Dash cocked a brow, but the unicorn offered no explanation.

Mirossa nodded at that, looking to Dash. “I do not think this is a problem solved by gemstones, and Rarity is right. I will let you pay for our dinner, but I will not take a fortune. I have told you, I do not ignore Phostos’ stories.”

Dash groaned. “Ugh, I get it, but they’re asking you to show that you want to travel, right? They want you to ‘prove’ that you really want to travel, or that you’re cut out for this, but how? You can’t prove something to them if they don’t give you a chance!”

The doe looked away at that, letting out a soft snort. “I have thought of this, too. It is the beach and the tide.”

“The—wait, the what?” Dash asked.

“The beach and the tide,” Mirossa repeated, shrugging. “Is the beach the harvest of the tide’s efforts, or is the tide the result of the beach.”

“The chicken and the egg,” Fluttershy said, nodding quickly. Dash blinked.

“Okay? Uh. I don’t—that’s fine okay, whatever, I just think it’s stupid,” said Dash. She tapped the ground with a hoof.

“I’m sorry, Mirossa,” said Fluttershy, her ears splayed. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to help, but—”

“Oh no, there is absolutely something we can do,” said Rarity, placing her saddlebags on top of the cart. The unicorn smiled wide. “You say they ask for sincerity. Darling, they want ability or desire, so you hardly have to travel across the world for that. Certainly, maybe you could travel across the world to pluck some rare flower that only grows who-knows-where or some equally fanciful drivel, but you’ve already met us.”

“She’s what-now?” Dash asked.

“It’s a matter of convincing these Bent Feathers,” said Rarity. “Consider that in a city of thousands of peryton, you’re the one who made friends with ponies travelling from very far away. That has to count for something. You have our friendship, and you people always go on about stories—well, now you have one. That isn’t nothing.”

“I… had not thought of it like this,” said Mirossa, her brows knit.

“How do you prove that?” Dash asked, frowning.

“Maybe it’s the thought that counts?” said Fluttershy. “I don’t know why they would think she’s lying, though, but I’m sure we could give her something.”

“Oh of course, if they want something more tangible, I am sure that could be arranged.” Rarity’s voice turned soft, almost breezy. “I imagine just about anything would do, really. Anything sufficiently strange and outlandish would do, something beyond the capacity for peryton to really understand.” She raised a brow, feigning surprise as her own magic levitated out a bundle of grey, white and green cloth from her saddlebags. Dash squinted.

“You stayed up all night and made another dress,” said Fluttershy, her tone a mixture of awe and concern. Mirossa stared unblinking as the bundle hovered in front of her.

“I do not… I—” she tried.

“Hush, and take it,” said Rarity, waving a hoof. “In fact, better if you do not tell me what you think of it. You’re the first peryton I’ve met who has even attempted to understand or appreciate anything I’ve made, and I wish to pretend that you like it. Just take it. Maybe Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy would like to give you something as well?”

“What?” asked Dash. She loosened the harness with two quick tugs with her teeth and rounded on their cart. “All we have is a bunch of travel junk. I didn’t pack friendship bracelet making stuff or anything lame like that. You made her a whole dress.”

Mirossa held up a hoof. “Please, I—wait, do not trouble yourselves—”

Rarity shook her head slowly at Dash. “I may have gone a little overboard, but I think just about anything that is strange to them will work—if I am right in my suspicions. Initially I meant to give her one of my measuring tapes, since they don’t use hooves and quarter-hooves here as their small units of measurement. You don’t, do you?”

Mirossa’s face was exquisitely blank.

“The point is, you have the story to go with it. You’ve met ponies travelling all the way from Equestria. Not everyone can claim that,” Rarity concluded.

“I suppose not,” said Mirossa. Finally, she took the dress, levitating the bundle of cloth in front of her, unfolding it a little bit. “But—”

“Hey, Fluttershy,” said Dash. “Pluck one of my feathers.”

“Oh. Oh no, I—I couldn’t,” said Fluttershy, aghast. “You already lost some yesterday, and I just couldn’t—”

“Oh. Yeah, okay. Let’s give her one of yours!”

Fluttershy shrank back, her eyes wide for a second. “What? That’s not what I meant!”

“Come on, it’s a great idea! If you have a pegasus feather, everyone knows you’ve met a pegasus!” said Dash.

Fluttershy sighed, but she found her steel a second later. “Okay, I guess it is a nice gesture,” she said, pouting. She craned her neck around and plucked one of her feathers with a little ow, and Rarity graciously accepted the feather from her, putting it in a little bag she’d procured.

“And a piece of my mane!” said Dash, grinning. “If all the colours confuse them so much, it’ll be great. They don’t even have manes. Don’t take the front bangs, just grab some from the back.”

“Perfect,” said Rarity, smiling. She levitated her scissors out and snipped a lock of Dash’s mane, making sure to get as many colours as possible, and as an afterthought, she snapped up a measuring tape from her own supply chest with a grin. The bag with the collected items hovered in front of a stunned Mirossa.

“There you are, dear,” Rarity declared. “I would loathe to repay your mother’s kindness by taking you away from her, but this way, perhaps you stand a better chance at convincing these peryton you are meant to ‘spread your wings’, as it were, if that is truly what you wish to do. If they don’t believe you’d make a wonderful traveller, explorer or whatever it is they are, then that is their loss, but you’ve certainly made three friends of us.”

“And it’s something to remember us by, too,” said Fluttershy, smiling.

“Actually,” said Dash, grinning. “I want that piece of my mane back when you’re done with it, so you better come by Ponyville.”

Mirossa put the dress on top of her back and accepted the cloth bag too, holding it to her chest. She looked at each of the ponies in turn, tilted her head forward to lay her muzzle flat along her neck and closed her eyes.

“You are very strange people, and I hope you find success with your journey.” She opened her eyes again and grinned wide showing all her teeth. “And if the world has more creatures half as strange as you, maybe I will have stories of my own to share when I come visit.”

“They called it what, Khosta Woods?” asked Dash. Their slightly late start this morning, plus the time it took to cross the delta plains lengthwise, all meant that the sun neared its peak when they finally entered the forest proper. Many of the tall, thin trees had multiple trunks weaving about each other in clusters, and their leaves were too small and too tightly clustered. It looked like somepony had stuck a bunch of warped brooms in the ground. Brooms in strange new shades of yellow, green and even blues, and though the leaves were bushy, the canopy wasn’t nearly dense enough to fully shield them from the sun.

At least the road stayed normal and maintained its roadyness: the grass and the other undergrowth flanking them went up to their bellies in places. Walking without a road would be tough.

“I believe they just called it the Khosta,” said Rarity with a backwards glance. “And this Ephydoera place should be inside it, isn’t that right, Fluttershy?”

“That is what the map said, yes,” said Fluttershy. “The forest is very big, and this is as close as it ever gets to the coast. We’ll be in the forest-marked area until we get there, wherever it is. Khaird said we would find Ephydoera here, but the map doesn’t actually show a city.” She looked around, her eyes low to the ground rather than up at the trees, smiling as she added. “This place is a lot more fertile than the south was. It’s nice.”

“What’s nice,” said Rainbow Dash, adjusting the harness as she walked. “Is that we don’t have to keep these dumb water jugs full as we move.” She cast a glance at the river that ran parallel to the road at their right. The Meronna was huge, a proper river rather than a brook or any other kind of pretend-river, though its waters didn’t flow very fast. “I guess we can probably bathe in it, too,” said Dash.

“It certainly is a boon for hygiene,” Rarity said, though she sounded unconvinced. She cast another look behind them, but Stagrum upon the delta had already been lost behind the trees as the road made tiny adjustments to follow the river. “It’s almost a shame to leave, I have to say. For all the confusion and the disappointing lack of ships for hire, Stagrum turned out quite well.”

“It was alright,” Rainbow Dash said. “I hope stuff works out for Mirossa.”

Fluttershy nodded her agreement while Rarity moved to walk right next to the cart. “I’m sure she’ll be fine, and all the others, too. It was a nice place.”

“Absolutely,” said Rarity with a sigh as she turned her eyes ahead. “Now, to the road.”

The theatrical sigh, Dash had expected. She wasn’t keen on a week on the road, either: Even ignoring the extra burden of the cart, the heat felt even worse right now somehow. Regardless, there was a note of frustration in Rarity’s voice making her sound weary beyond the annoyance of walking.

“You alright, Rarity?” asked Dash. They’d taken a break before they reached the forest’s edge, but she could go for another break to have a drink from the river, herself.

“Oh, I will be,” said Rarity. With a small burst of magic, she opened the chest on the cart while she walked alongside, levitating out some of the sketches she’d worked on during breakfast this morning. “I will find a design that appeals to the peryton, I am sure of it.”

“Yeah, no, I didn’t mean the fashion stuff,” Dash said, rolling her eyes and laughing.

Rarity frowned. “You mean the walking. Yes, well, there’s nothing to be done about that, I suppose, but I don’t think it’s too early to start thinking about an approach for this next place.” She squinted at the sun and packed her things away again, shaking her head at her sketches and shutting the chest with a bang. “I’m floundering, directionless. If they all have their own local non-fashions, their own way of expressing themselves that have nothing to do with clothes as I know them, what am I to do? That is my problem.”

“I understand that it’s important to you,” said Fluttershy, offering her a smile. “But you haven’t had a lot of time to work on your dresses. The ones you’ve made have been lovely, but hopefully we’ll have a little more time to sit down and think about this in Ephydoera. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”

“I haven’t had time? But I have, dear,” said Rarity. “Every day spent on the road, I could have been working on ideas while we walked, and before we bed down, why, that’s the perfect time to try out some concepts! Clearly I need to step up my efforts.”

“Before we go to bed?” Dash laughed. “Rarity, you’re barely awake before bed most days. On our way to Stagrum, you fell asleep while we walked at least two times!”

“I am well aware that I’ve lagged behind a little during our last stretch,” said Rarity. She flushed faintly through a scowl. Dash had expected some scathing but funny reply to her little stab, but Rarity said nothing, facing ahead.

“Come on, if it matters that much to you, I’m sure you’ll sweep the peryton off their hooves somehow,” Dash said, smiling at her, but Rarity said nothing more. Dash flicked her ears in annoyance.

“Maybe we should take a little break, though,” said Fluttershy, clearing her throat. She gestured at the river. “I’m very thirsty, actually, and it’s getting really hot.”

Finally someone who wasn’t Rainbow Dash suggested it. Dash didn’t even bother answering. She turned the cart a sharp right and cut in front of her friends, creating a furrow through the grass heading for the river.

The grass must be very happy with the trees, Rainbow Dash thought. The grass grew thick not only near the river’s edge, but all around. Fluttershy had suggested that the lack of a dense canopy let the forest floor’s flora flourish, and that bit was easy to appreciate. Colourful flowers clustered around the base of the trees. Every time Dash looked, there was a new type of tree or flower.

Fluttershy was probably right, but while it was cool of the trees to share the sun the grass and the flowers, Dash really could have done without the extra sunlight. Every time she wanted to ask one of her friends to take a turn with the cart—a cart that became heavier by the moment despite the fact that Dash knew it was wrong—she noticed her friends were flagging and decided against it.

Fluttershy’s head drooped, and Dash held her own head high in defiance simply because somepony had to. They had taken an extra break—or maybe two? It was getting harder and harder to think, but she knew she would’ve liked two breaks. Better to keep moving than think, Dash figured.

Well, she figured it, or she said it. She probably said it out loud, actually, before or after she’d nearly tripped over a rock. She couldn’t quite tell how long ago that had been. There were a lot of rocks, and the sun kept climbing higher and higher, rising out of the soup of mundane yet confusing events Dash honestly had a hard time keeping track of. She put her left forefoot forward two times in a row forgetting the right, stumbling a little, blinking heavily.

If she just kept moving, Dash imagined that she could outpace the bright orb, but despite her best efforts, the sun stuck around, making all the greens too green. There was a word for it, a word for the sun hitting the top of the sky, but she couldn’t remember. Dash knew that if she stopped, the sun would probably never go away. She walked into something again. Someone, actually. Somepony. Fluttershy, it took her all too long to realise.

“Rainbow Dash, we really have to stop,” said Fluttershy.

Dash took a step back and rubbed at her snout. “Yeah, sure, just, uh.” She looked up at the taller pegasus, squinting. “No, we can’t stop, it’s just mid-day, are you crazy? We can go faster, probably!” Her throat was dry, raw.

Fluttershy didn’t move. Dash considered just going around her, but Fluttershy stood very close—almost chest to chest with her, as though she had expected it. Had Fluttershy stepped even closer, all in the space of what Rainbow Dash thought was just a long blink? The touch was uncomfortably hot.

Thinking about it, Dash was pretty sure Fluttershy didn’t just expect Rainbow Dash to walk past her. She vaguely recalled she had stepped around her before, some time ago. Behind her, Dash saw Rarity sat at the cart’s side, her eyes closed even though it had been less than ten minutes since the last time they’d stopped. Or maybe an hour. Hard to tell with time being soupy.

“Exactly,” said Fluttershy, bringing Dash back to the present. “It’s the middle of the day, and it’s really, really hot,” she said. Now that they were standing still, Dash found it was a little easier to pay attention. And to breathe. That was nice. Sweat trickled down Fluttershy’s face, while Dash herself noticed that she barely sweated at all. Idly she wondered if that might mean something.

“This is stupid,” said Dash, but it came out a mutter, a croak. “We walked all day on the way to Stagrum.”

“Yes, but it was windier at the coast,” said Fluttershy. She leaned forwards a tiny bit, resting her muzzle on top of Rainbow Dash’s head, imploring. “It was a little bit colder, and I don’t know about you, but I thought it was very, very hard. If we’re going to travel for even longer this time, and it’s even warmer, I don’t know that we can take it. This is dangerous.”

Rainbow Dash sighed. “Yeah I guess.”

“And do you remember?” Fluttershy went on. “We walked past a few peryton resting by the wayside on the way from Orto, too. Maybe they always rest during mid day? We should probably do the same. We can just walk a little faster in the morning and evening if we really have to.”

Dash nodded again. Fluttershy made a lot of sense, and she didn’t really have any counterarguments. She knew she had protested this the last time Fluttershy had argued with her about it, but she didn’t know what she had said. Waiting was her least favourite thing, though. At least in her top five.

“Maybe we can just walk really slow, instead,” said Dash. “I—”

“No,” said Fluttershy, taking a step back and away from Dash. She locked Rainbow Dash with a firm look. “We need to stop. Please.”

There was no actual pleading in that ‘please’. Fluttershy’s gaze was unyielding, and Dash held up a hoof in surrender. “Right, sure,” said Dash. “Okay. We’re stopping. Fine.”

She’d no sooner agreed than Fluttershy started working the straps to get Dash out of the harness. Fluttershy moved the cart to the side of the road by a large multi-trunked tree, roused Rarity to move her to the shade, and was on her way to fetch water from the river before Dash really knew what was going on. Dash sat down by Rarity’s side, keeping as much of her body as she could in what shade they had.

There was a difference between telling her no, and saying no, Dash thought. Fluttershy used to tell her no. She didn’t often say no. There had been no ambiguity in what Fluttershy had just said just now.

Well, that wasn’t the full truth of it. Fluttershy could say no just like anypony else, but the way she had blocked Dash’s way a minute ago was—what was it? Cool? Probably the coolest thing Dash had seen in a good while. Fluttershy being cool, though—Dash shrugged. That wasn’t really news, actually. This particular expression of coolness was new, that was all. She stretched her wings to stop them from itching.

“In her defence, not that I wish to take anything away from her coolness,” said Rarity. “She has been pleading with you to stop no less than four times since the last time we had a proper break—and do keep your wings out my face, thank you.”

Dash blinked. “What?”

“Fluttershy,” said Rarity, pushing her wing away.

“Oh. Yeah, was I talking just now?”

“You were.”

“It’s really hot.”

“Yes it is, dear. This is no joke. For all we know we might be heading for heat stroke.”

Fluttershy returned with a bowl between her wings filled with water. She meticulously placed it on the ground in front of Rainbow Dash, grabbed it in her mouth instead, and in one swift motion, splashed it in Dash’s face. Dash sat still for a long while, not even shocked. She said nothing, still contemplating the way the water turned warm even as it dripped from her muzzle when Fluttershy returned with a full bowl again, placing this one in front of Rarity and Rainbow Dash before taking a seat and closing her eyes.

“Why didn’t you tell me to stop sooner?” asked Dash. She leaned forwards for a drink at the same time as Rarity levitated up the bowl for herself, and pulled back to let the unicorn have the first go. Rarity smiled and took a few small sips.

“Thank you, dear. And, that’s what I’ve been telling you. Fluttershy has been trying, but you’ve been insisting we keep moving.”

“I don’t remember that,” Dash admitted. She looked at Fluttershy, but the other pegasus sat unmoving, breathing slowly with her head against the cart.

That realisation was really unpleasant. Scary, almost, but she decided against being scared. Tried to, at least. She took a deep draught and let Rarity have the water bowl again. The first swallow of water hurt a bit.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Dash asked.

Rarity breathed out slowly through her nose. “Would two voices yelling at a wall helped?”

“That’s not what I asked,” said Dash, frowning, but Rarity didn’t say anything more. The unicorn stared resolutely at the water bowl, her face blank. It was too hot to get into an argument, anyway. Rainbow Dash folded her ears and leaned back. “Fine. Never mind. I’m sorry. I said I don’t even remember it.”

Rarity covered her face with the nook of a foreleg and sighed deeply. “You did say that, yes, and I believe you. I’m sorry, Rainbow, dear. That was unfair of me, too.”

"It’s fine,” Dash muttered. She reached out to touch a wing to Rarity’s side. “Just yell at me really loud if I tell you I think we should keep going when it’s this hot ever again. This stinks.”

Keeping with Fluttershy’s suggestion helped. The three ponies moved as soon as the sun relented a little, and they reminded each other to drink often, leading to as many breaks for drinks as they took steps forward, Dash felt, but there was no helping it. Closer to the evening, when it got pleasantly cool by comparison, Dash managed to convince her friends to trot for a little while. Rarity looked like she wanted to protest, and Dash had expected as much—except Rarity didn’t say a word. She simply nodded and went along with it.

When the unicorn finally started flagging, Dash gave the cart over to Fluttershy, and they slowed down again. Dash had to admit she was tired, too. Soon after, the sun fully set, and Rarity lit her horn against a dark more absolute in the forest than it had ever been on the coastal road.

With the darkness, the sounds of the forest grew. Rainbow Dash hadn’t given much thought to how quiet the forest had been before, not until the occasional tweets and chirps of birds flying overhead grew and grew, new voices added every moment. When they spotted the familiar stone visage and sheltering wings of a Selyrian statue, they walked under the sparse canopy accompanied by constant song.

“Where’s it all coming from?” Dash asked, parking the cart by the statue. "I can’t see a single bird.” She looked over at Fluttershy to find the other pegasus already under assault from a tiny red bird.

“The birds here are a little wary, that’s all,” said Fluttershy, giggling when the little bird pecked at one of her ears and chirped. “That’s what little Scarlett says, anyway. Most of the peryton who travel here don’t want to share their food and shoo them away—at least the Red Wibblers like her. Maybe we could offer them some of the bread Naressa gave us?”

“If we keep up the pace and make it to Ephydoera when we’re supposed to, I think we have some extra food,” said Dash with a shrug. “And we have a lot of tastier stuff than just the boring chunks of bread, so I don’t mind. What do you think, Rarity?” she asked, shedding the harness. The fire pit and the wheel- hoof- and claw-marks all suggested this statue was a busy one, but clearly they were alone for tonight. She ducked her head inside the statue just to make sure.

“Yeah, nobody here,” she said to herself, then a little louder, “Rarity? D’you hear what I said? Do you think—”

“I think I’m trying my best to keep up,” replied Rarity, her voice tight. She sat very still on the ground next to the cart, eyes shut. “I’m sure we’ll make it in time.”

“I’m not worried about the time or whatever,” said Dash, tilting her head. “I asked about the food. Fluttershy’s wondering if we can give the birds some bread or something.”

“Oh. That,” said Rarity, breathing out slowly through her nose. “My mistake. Yes, by all means. She gave us more food than we could possibly eat, I don’t see the harm.”

“Alright. Cool,” said Dash. She rooted around their cart until she found one of the small loaves of coarse bread they’d been given. Grabbing it in her mouth, she tossed it over to Fluttershy who yelped and hopped back a step from the leavened missile. The little bird took off and flew in circles around Fluttershy, chirping loudly in protest.

“I guess… dinner is served?” Fluttershy said. She’d barely finished the sentence before two, five, fifteen—more birds than Rainbow Dash could count came flying down from wherever they had been hiding. Some of them were the tiny balls of fluff Fluttershy had called Red Wibblers, but there were entirely too many other kinds to make out. Rainbow Dash laughed, and Rarity smiled, watching Fluttershy’s delight as the pegasus lay down next to the besieged loaf to watch and listen.

“I thought you were taking issue with my pace,” said Rarity. It took Dash a moment to realise she’d been talking to her. She moved a little closer to better hear her over all the bird noises.

“What?” asked Dash.

“Just now. I thought you were worried we wouldn’t make it to Ephydoera in time. I’m aware I’m slowing us down,” said Rarity. She didn’t look up at Dash.

“Okay? Well, I wasn’t,” Dash replied, because she really wasn’t worried. If Rarity was slowing them down, it wasn’t by much. Fluttershy didn’t do much better, and and as much as she didn’t want to admit it, the heat did a number on her too. Rarity went through a lot more water than they did, though, and she’d barely taken a turn with the cart today at all.

“I’m trying my best, you know,” Rarity said when the feeding frenzy petered out. Fluttershy rose to stand and whispered a few parting words to some of the birds. A few didn’t seem ready to leave just yet, resting on top of her head or on her back.

“Well, um, we know pegasi handle cold better than other ponies, but I think maybe we do better in the heat too, at least a little bit?” Fluttershy suggested. “I don’t think it’s a problem, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

“If you say so, dear,” said Rarity, sighing. She stood and made for the shelter of the stone wings. “Maybe Twilight has a spell that lets her cool off. I suspect she must. Remind me to learn it when we get back home, will you? For now, I think I will see if I have some ideas for new designs before I sleep.”

Fluttershy’s smile faltered a little, but she nodded, and Dash watched Rarity go until she disappeared into the cover of the Selyrian statue.

“At least it doesn’t seem to get as cold, or cold as quickly,” said Fluttershy. She grabbed the blanket from their cart, her movements as slow as possible, probably so as to not startle her feathered little passengers. Four birds perched between her ears.

It didn’t get quite as cold, but Rainbow Dash decided she’d happily trade the small difference in temperature for a little quiet. Even after Rarity and Dash had convinced Fluttershy to hush the birds that stayed inside the shelter with them, the birdsong outside kept going. Whenever there was a lull, some insects provided a constant, albeit distant song of their own. Rarity fell asleep quickly enough regardless, face down on her sketches, and Fluttershy followed soon after, leaving Rainbow Dash as the last one awake.

Rainbow Dash was moments away from sleep when a sharp snap jolted her awake. For a few seconds, the birdsong halted, but it didn’t last. Whatever it was—some large animal stepping on a branch?—it was a brief interruption before everything carried on as before.

Dash kicked out with her hindlegs, hitting two of the changelings straight in their jaws. They hissed loudly as they fell, long, forked tongues sticking out of their muzzles, flapping in the wind. The fact that Dash had time to observe their tongue-flapping was a little odd. Even more odd was the fact that she had time to think about herself thinking about it. By the time she finished that thought, the changelings’ falls were completely arrested mid-air.

Rainbow Dash turned around on the spot and saw four more of the creatures frozen mid-pounce behind her. She wasn’t quite sure whether she was annoyed or grateful for the assist. She could’ve taken them anyway.

“I was fine,” said Dash out loud. There were changelings everywhere. Hundreds. Thousands. No, infinite changelings, and they had pet beasts, too. Was that a dragon in their back ranks? Surrounding the battle were jagged mountains. She thought they were mountains, at least, but their shape was too regular. They had been cut, not… grown? How were mountains made, anyway? It didn’t matter. These were not her mountains, but she was glad she had them. They were borrowed, and she did not know how she knew.

“I did not mean to interrupt.”

With the familiar voice drifting from nowhere, a section of the sky darkened, from deep blue to black to something darker still, and from it bled a shadow that coalesced into the shape of Princess Luna. One moment, she stepped out of the sky, head raised high and horn glowing bright. No time later, she stood right at Rainbow Dash’s side.

“Yeah, yeah, you said that last time,” said Dash, but she bowed low right after. “Uh, I mean, Princess.”

“Do not be alarmed. You are dreaming,” said Princess Luna. She raised her muzzle a tiny bit, peering over the rim of her snout at the forces arrayed around them, all walking, charging, flying towards them, frozen in time. After she’d done a full sweep, she turned back to Rainbow Dash and gave a start, her brow quirked in very un-princess-like confusion. “Would you repeat that?”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Repeat what? I just said I know it’s a dream. You said the exact same stuff last time.”

“Last time,” Luna echoed. She turned around and took a step back, facing Rainbow Dash in full. “You remember?”

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I?” Dash asked. She frowned, recalling that Luna had told her that she wouldn’t remember their last meeting. “Did you try to make me forget? Are you doing some weird magic right now?”

Luna looked taken aback, her poise broken. “Absolutely not! I would never do such a thing, and the idea offends me. Most ponies simply tend to forget. The bridge between the waking and dreaming worlds is not easily crossed by most, especially not when I try not to take part, but never mind that. I should have understood you would remember. Your dreams are possessed of an—ah, let us say… impressive consistency and repetition. Not that I mean to pry.”

Rainbow Dash got the distinct impression she had been insulted, but she couldn’t pinpoint exactly how. She shrugged. “They’re cool dreams. You don’t change a winning team.”

Luna nodded, her sternly neutral look back in place. She looked past Dash to the wedge-shaped mountains in the difference. “There is some wisdom in that, perhaps. Well, I suppose any attempt at subtlety from my side of things is ruined, then. That is annoying.”

“Why?” asked Dash.

“That is a very big question. Why what, Rainbow Dash?” Luna folded her wings meticulously.

Rainbow Dash thought about that for a second. “Why… I don’t know, why anything? Are you spying on me? What’s going on?”

Luna took a deep breath and let it out through her snout. “Why would I ‘spy’ on you?”

“I dunno, but you asked how we were doing,” said Rainbow Dash. She remembered that part. She didn’t remember exactly what she had said, and trying to think about it, trying to remember how she was doing, was tough. She grit her teeth trying to get at it. Where were they? Where was she sleeping? What had they done today? She felt a hoof on her chest, and her concentration scattered under Luna’s touch. Either Luna did some magic without her horn or, more likely, the distraction was enough to ruin her tenuous grasp on the not-dream.

“We—my sister and I—are the ones who sent you to Perytonia. When you return, we will expect to hear how your efforts went. I cannot spy on you by definition,” said Luna, giving her a blank look. “I am asking because I am curious.”

Rainbow Dash stared at her. If Luna thought Dash was stupid enough to believe she’d visit her dreams or whatever was going on, just to say hi, Dash would need to ask Twilight what she wrote about her friends in all those letters to Celestia.

“I am curious,” Luna continued, as though perhaps she sensed the skepticism. Or maybe she saw Dash’s flat look. “And part of me finds satisfaction in checking up on you and your friends. Will you believe that? Sister would rather we did not, because she—likely correctly—assumes you are capable enough to handle this without our assistance. That is why we asked your help, after all.

“But still I feel compelled. We have sent you afar, and you have been kind enough to accept these charges. My intent was simply to ensure you were doing well without causing undue distress to you, or frustrating Sister. Hence the subterfuge. I will not make a habit of this, and I do not mean to intrude.”

Dash nodded right away. “Alright. That’s cool, then,” she said.

Luna tilted her head ever so slightly. “Indeed? You are satisfied?”

“Yeah, sure. We got this handled, probably. I don’t remember exactly what we’re up to, but I think we’re fine. You don’t have to check up on us. Can you put the dream back on, please? I got a lot of changeling butt to kick!” Dash grinned.

Luna nodded swiftly and took a single step back, spreading her wings, but she neither left nor let the dream continue. She visibly hesitated. The Princess was a lot more animated in Dash’s dreams than she was in the real world—or so Dash thought. She couldn’t bring up any specific memories of having talked to Princess Luna. Again trying to think of the real world resisted her efforts, like trying to chew a sponge.

“Well, actually, I say that is the truth of it, but it is half of it. I alluded to the other half earlier,” said Luna.

“Alright?” asked Dash. She walked up to one of the frozen changelings and poked at it. It felt just as weird as touching the frozen manticore in her earlier dream. Strangely, she remembered this perfectly well, but she had no idea where she slept. Memory was weird.

“You dream the same dreams every night?” Luna asked.

“Pretty much? Not exactly? If you’re the Princess of dreams, you know that, don’t you?” replied Dash.

“Because I do not, in fact, spy,” retorted Luna with a brief, dour smile. “I note that there are similarities, that your dreams move in the same ways most nights, distant but unchanging like a fixed star in a star-pool. I never suspected until now… you are always in battle during the night?”

“Uh, not always,” said Dash. “But usually?” She felt the tips of her ears heat up a little. Was that weird? Her friends sometimes shared their dreams with her, usually silly ones, and sure, she had funny dreams on occasion as well. Sometimes. She just usually preferred having a good fight or a race or something. She’d never have worried that this might be strange before. Amazing what royal scrutiny could do.

“Do you always fight alone? Is the tragedy of a doomed and lonely battle part of the draw, Rainbow Dash?”

Dash drew a blank. “I… what?”

“Is this a battle you must fight alone?” asked Luna again. “Do you live the battles of your past, and do you seek catharsis through annihilation never given?”

The good news was that Dash was no longer even the slightest bit embarrassed. She was just thoroughly confused. “Probably… not?” she tried. “I don’t even know what half of that means, so no? I… I don’t even have any battles of the ‘past’ unless you count—what? I just have fun kicking flank and winning! I have no idea why you’re—”

“Good!” declared Luna. Her horn flashed so bright Dash had to shield her eyes with a wing. A series of metallic clanging noises and a thrum made the ground shake and set Dash’s teeth rattling. When Rainbow Dash peered over the rim of her wing-feathers, Princess Luna stood clad horn to hoof in armour of gleaming silver, and an umbral orb of magic made manifest hovered at her side.

“With your permission, we would join you in battle, Rainbow Dash!” Luna’s voice boomed across the time-frozen field, and the orb of un-light swirled about her, leaving a trail of stars in its wake. “Say you will let us fight with you, child!”

Dash stared, gaping until the visor of Luna’s helmet slid open with a clack, and the Princess’ voice added, a touch less metallic.

“I understand all is well with you and your friends, and you still carry the dragonfire in case of emergency?”

It took Rainbow Dash a moment to decide, thinking hard at the question until she gave a confident nod. “Yeah, we’re fine, and uh, sure, you can… join?”

“Good. We have a half-hour until I must ready to join Sister for a morning meal.” Her horn gave a weak pulse, and the innumerable changelings stirred. The wind picked up in an instant, howling in Dash’s ears. “Steel yourself, pegasus. They come!”

The horde rushed in.