• Published 26th Aug 2017
  • 4,913 Views, 778 Comments

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 11

Nothing I can think of quite lives up to my hopes. I toyed with the idea of trying to design some form of headdress, but in all honesty, I simply haven’t the materials. I came here to create dresses, not hats.

I have had my share of failures so far, and I am more glad now than ever that I did not ask Mirossa for her opinion on the dress I made for her. For all that it was a joy to create—and what a challenge, a dress for another species on measurements by eyesight alone? If it fits her, I think—

On second thought, I should like to know if it fit her, at least.

No matter. One simple success, that is all I need. Still I have no ideas on what might impress these Ephydoerans—and how could I? We have no idea what to expect.


Thinking wasn’t easy, as it turned out. Rainbow Dash always had a better time wrangling thoughts when something happened, when she was doing something, and this morning was light on everything except mud. They all woke up rested and in good spirits that somehow survived both dragging the cart through the dense undergrowth to the road, and the continued, if light, rainfall. They couldn’t really afford to wait for the weather to get better than this, so under a gentler shower and a brighter sky, they’d packed up.

Fluttershy pulled the cart along at a sedate pace, and the three ponies worked together to push the cart free when it got stuck in the muddy road. The climb up the cliffside path to the plateau was hardly exciting, and as much as Dash was happy with Rarity’s delight over the view from the top, she’d seen it herself every time she took flight. From the cliffside as from the sky, the scale of the Khosta became clearly known, an endless forest—and then they stepped under the canopy again and the leaves closed off the sky, greedier this time.

The most thrilling thing to happen since then was Rarity sharing some funny story or other. At least, that’s what Rainbow Dash assumed had just happened; Fluttershy laughed, but Dash didn’t really catch the beginning of the story. Or the end of it. Rainbow Dash stayed quiet, but she wasn’t thinking about the confusion with Fluttershy at all. She was thinking about how she should be thinking, and nothing came to her. Dull inactivity was great for nap time, terrible for trying to think about best friends acting weird, so instead, she idly noted the slowly shifting colours in the leaves of the forest around them.

More blue, less yellow. Colder colours, denser growth, and roots everywhere. She spotted a colourful glade of flowers just off the road. There was a distant, blood-curdling roar. At least the temperature was pleasant today.

Fluttershy still hadn’t said anything about yesterday. Left to her own devices, Fluttershy probably wouldn’t say anything on that topic, ever. Maybe that was alright, and maybe it wasn’t. Rainbow Dash even couldn’t decide on that. Thinking. Trying to think.

“Rainbow Dash?” Rarity asked, her voice distant.

Dash turned around. Fluttershy and Rarity had stopped in the middle of the road a small ways behind her. “Yeah? What’s up?” Dash asked. She retraced her steps. “Why’d you stop? Stuck again?” Rainbow Dash leaned around, but from what she could see, the cart’s wheels were free.

“Did you hear that?” asked Fluttershy.

“Hear what?” Rainbow Dash replied.

From the forest came a chorus of unintelligible cries of rage that echoed with themselves, all sharp and piercing. A small distance to the north, a particularly tall tree-top disappeared from view with a loud crunch and a puff of rain-mist. Rainbow Dash’s wings spread with a rustle and a whip-like snap that sent water spraying, the pain from her still-sore wings forgotten. Fluttershy backed up against the cart, and Rarity moved closer to her, the three ponies clustering together in the middle of the road.

“Wh—what is that?” asked Fluttershy, wings jammed to her side. Scarlett darted out from the cover of her mane and into the cover of the forest, chirping wildly.

“I think it’s coming this way,” Rarity answered, frowning. “Something tells me this is not an Ephydoeran delegation come to greet us.”

Rainbow Dash darted around and tore the harness’ bindings loose, freeing Fluttershy from the cart in case they had to run, and then stepped in front of her friends. Each and every one of her heartbeats were punctuated with a thud and a shake of the ground from heavy steps that got louder every moment. She could only barely make out something moving in their general direction, a shadow cutting a line through tall trees that only halfway concealed the huge thrashing shape.

“You’re kidding me,” said Dash, breathless.

The hydra burst out from the forest and onto the road. Eight heads roared in unison, and the creature was halfway across the road heading for the trees on the other side when it spotted them. One head turned, then another, and soon all its maws were bared before them, the hulking reptilian dragging itself towards them along the muddy road on two powerful legs.

“Oh my goodness, oh no, oh my goodness—” chanted Fluttershy.

“Of course they have ridiculously huge monsters here as well.” Rarity sighed and glared through half-lidded eyes. “Why ever not.”

“Finally!” Rainbow Dash cheered, louder than the hydra itself. She hopped into a hover and grinned hugely. “Let’s get it on.”

Rainbow Dash cackled with glee and flew around the hydra’s neck. Its nearest neck, anyway. A second later, one of the beast’s ugly faces impacted against its own body with a dull smack. She laughed and turned skywards, gaining height. “Come on, you can do better than that,” she taunted.

“This is awful!” screamed Fluttershy, joining in the fun. She ran between the beast’s legs, trapping one of the twisting hydra-heads beneath its own bulk.

“Awesome going, Fluttershy!” Dash called. “Keep it up!”

Between the cart and the hydra, Rarity stared down two more of the toothy heads, brandishing the largest of their wooden bowls. “Back, you beast,” she snarled. “Those herb-and-jelly treats are what gets me up in the morning, and you are not touching my fabrics with those dirty, dirty claws!”

When one of the heads lunged for her, she expertly deflected it with a swat on its snout, but the other forced her into a feigned retreat. The screaming-at-the-top-of-her-lungs was a nice touch that gave the impression of real fleeing, and Dash was amazed at Fluttershy and Rarity’s teamwork. The hydra tried to give chase, but with a head wedged underneath it, it tripped, the huge monster’s fall like an earthquake that sent mud flying everywhere.

“Alright, that was awesome,” Dash declared. “Great work, guys! Rar—oh feathers. You want more?”

The hydra got back up, covered in mud but not looking very defeated at all. One of its heads launched towards Rainbow Dash, mouth open. She shot up at the last second, kicking off its muzzle for speed, laughing as she went along. Below, Rarity bombarded the hydra with some of their food. “Whoa, are those the grass balls, or is that the rutabaga? At least throw the kelp cakes instead!” Dash yelled, dodging another snapping maw.

Rarity didn’t acknowledge her, but the unicorn’s assault worked. Some of the hydra’s heads were squabbling over the food and smashed into each other. Below, Fluttershy ran in circles around the hydra, chased by no less than three of its heads, the monster slowly spinning in place trying to catch her. Dash cheered and zipped after the leading head, kicking it in passing.

Rainbow Dash didn’t have a plan. If anything like it formed in her head, she just blurted it out and hoped for the best. Fluttershy, try stepping on its tail—er, or slip and trip over it, sure! It worked fine enough, if you ignored the mortal peril. Thinking was pointless, it was all in the fighting. In the doing. She gave one head a kick, then another, waiting until they both lunged for her. Neatly dodging out of the way, Dash let the two heads collide with a loud thwack, two of the necks limp and flopping to the ground.

Acting. Doing. The hydra shrieked loudly and redoubled its efforts.

It was impossible to do anything unless you knew what you had to work with. A hydra trying to nibble on her was something she could touch—and kick. Yesterday night hadn’t been a thing. It was an un-thing. She’d spent the morning fumbling around trying to think about what Fluttershy had or hadn’t said when she should be acting, but she couldn’t act because there was nothing to act on. All she knew for sure was that Fluttershy had dropped a bomb and bolted.

Rainbow Dash had wasted enough time believing she could think answers into existence like she was a unicorn able to wave her horn and make things happen.

She couldn’t. She could charge head-first into the problem like she ought to. Dash flew tight circles around one of the monster’s necks, starting a minor twister that sent it to the ground with a wet and muddy smack.

“Hey, Fluttershy?” Rainbow Dash called.

Fluttershy didn’t respond. She hopped over the beast’s tail and kept running in circles.

Rainbow Dash dodged a flying pastry, letting it hit a hydra-head on approach instead. “Fluttershy!” Dash tried again.

“What?” Fluttershy yelled back. The hydra wised up to Fluttershy’s clever running-away tactic and came at her from both sides, forcing her to take wing.

“When did you figure out that you were in love with me or whatever?” Dash asked. She snapped her wings back, then shot them forward, sending a blast of air at the next contestant that wanted her feathers.

“What!?” Fluttershy said again, even louder this time. She narrowly dodged a lunge, ending up clinging to the top of one of the hydra’s heads, riding it rodeo-style.

“If you’re in love with me,” Dash repeated. “When did you—”

“I heard you! You want to talk about this now?!” Fluttershy screamed, clinging on for dear life.

“Rainbow Dash!” Rarity called. “A little help, dear?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. No time like the present. Besides, none of the hydra’s heads were interested in her right now. The hydra slowly crept up on the cart and the retreating Rarity, though, no longer fazed by the one-pony food fight. “Sure, why not? I really wanna know!” she said.

“Fine!” yelled Fluttershy. She kicked off the head she’d been riding. She didn’t look scared or angry. She looked scared and angry. It was an interesting combination. “Probably a very long time ago, happy?!”

“Pft, nah,” said Dash. She flew around the hydra and hopped up and down on its tail to turn it around, away from Rarity. It worked. The hydra gave chase, and Rainbow Dash set off down the road at a decent pace, leading the Hydra along. “I’m serious,” she yelled over her shoulder “You’re gonna have to give me more detail than that! And what the hay does ‘probably’ mean? Either you’re in love with me or you’re not, right?”

Fluttershy zipped around the hydra in a wide arc, faster than Dash had thought her capable of. She hovered right in front of Rainbow Dash, stopping Dash dead in her tracks. Fluttershy glared at her, and Dash shrank back a little.

“Ever since we were young!” she spat in Dash’s face, breathing hard, but whatever anger she’d mustered evaporated bit by bit as she spoke. “Or this summer. I don’t know. I’ve never felt this way about anypony else, so how can I tell?” she asked, sighing and slumping. “I don’t think it’s something that’s a yes or no question.”

“Are you girls serious,” came Rarity’s voice, far behind them. In the corners of her eyes, Dash noted that the hydra turned and made for the cart again, dragging its three unconscious heads along the road.

“Yeah, well, how the hay would I know how you know? I don’t know either,” Dash said, returning the question. In a flash, she rocketed towards the hydra with her hindlegs outstretched, landing a solid hit on its butt. It roared and turned around, and Dash was back with Fluttershy a moment later. She flicked her ears in annoyance and frowned. Was Fluttershy messing with her? “You sounded sure about it yesterday, even if you didn’t say it! What gives?”

“Well, yes, I am sure now,” said Fluttershy, no longer meeting her eyes. “We’ve been friends for so long, and I’ve always loved you as a friend, but I guess it turned into something else. I didn’t think about it until… until maybe this summer? It felt natural, and I haven’t thought a lot about it, but I didn’t want to lie when you asked.”

“Then why haven’t you told me? You should’ve asked me out or something!” Dash said. “That’s what I would have done!” Probably. Rainbow Dash hadn’t really been in that situation, but it was the only thing that made sense to do when you felt something, right? The hydra closed in on them, rearing up for a strike.

Fluttershy puffed out her cheeks. “Because I’m not you, Rainbow Dash.” Her voice was low and quiet, soft as the falling rain. ”I’m fine with the way things are, and besides, you’ve never shown any interest in me. Like you said, if you had, you would have told me.” Now she locked eyes with Rainbow Dash, and for once, Dash couldn’t read her.

“Rainbow Dash! Fluttershy!” Rarity sounded very far away. “For Celestia’s sake, watch out—”

“You’re fine?” Dash asked. Several of the hydra’s heads shot forward with their fangs bared, but between the hydra and Fluttershy being ‘fine’, the hydra barely registered as a threat. She hovered in place, staring at Fluttershy. Fluttershy shouldn’t be ‘fine’, she should be great.

“Yes, I’m fine!” Fluttershy replied. She glanced to the side, her eyes widening at the impending doom on fast approach. Fluttershy rammed into Rainbow Dash, pushing them both out of the way at the last second, the pegasi going down in a heap. “What are you doing?!” Fluttershy demanded, standing over her.

“Do you wanna go out then?” Dash asked, clambering back up on all fours. She brushed some imaginary dust off herself, and a fair amount of non-imaginary mud, too.

What?” Fluttershy asked.

“If you wanna be the one to ask me first, that’s fine, but if you’re not gonna ask—” Dash said. Two of the hydra’s heads were on the return. She grabbed Fluttershy and kicked out behind her with all her might, smacking one of the charging hydra’s heads into another. The heads bounced off each other, and Dash launched the two pegasi up high, out of harm’s way. “If you’re not gonna ask, I’m asking now!” Dash finished.

Fluttershy didn’t reply immediately, the other pegasus hanging in the air, entirely blank-faced.

“One sec,” said Dash. Spotting an opening, she soared down and away at an arc, thundering into the jaw of another hydra-head with one of her forehooves. The monster’s remaining heads looked at each other and apparently reached consensus. It took off down the road, brushing past Rarity and the cart. Vaguely, Dash noted some shapes flying towards them from the opposite side, but she was busy.

“So, do you? Wanna go out at some point?” Dash asked again. “It could be fun!”

Fluttershy pushed her mane out of her face while watching the hydra flee. It didn’t help a lot. While none of them came out of the fight looking good, Fluttershy in particular was caked with mud from her earlier fall. The only clear colour visible on her was a touch of red provided by Scarlett, who flew in to perch on top of her head at that moment.

“I don’t think you understand what I meant,” said Fluttershy. “Or… maybe you don’t understand what you are saying.”

Two dozen shapes gained definition, closing in fast behind Fluttershy, but Dash didn’t pay attention to that. Fluttershy’s words stung. She felt her ears wilt and opened her mouth to say something, anything, her face flush with anger, but Fluttershy beat her to the punch.

“I’m sorry,” Fluttershy added, sighing. “I didn’t mean it like that, but if you do understand, then this is a very cruel joke, Rainbow Dash. This isn’t funny.”

“It’s not a joke!” Dash scowled. “Let’s grab something to eat and be together or whatever it is ponies do. Why not? Why do you think I’m joking?” She tilted her head sideways, waiting for the other mare to say something meaningful. She didn’t know which annoyed her more: That Fluttershy didn’t think she was serious, or that Fluttershy was okay with being “fine” rather than great, like she ought to be.

Fluttershy looked behind her, only now noticing the peryton who were almost upon them. “Oh,” she said.

“Come on, focus,” said Dash. “It’s simple. If you wanted to ask me out, you can just say yes now.” She shrugged. “Or you can say no, I guess—or anything in between, I just don’t understand why it’s so hard.”

“We really need to talk about this, Rainbow Dash,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head briskly. “I mean, I’d like to. To go out, I mean, but—”

“Good enough,” Dash declared, grinning. Talking sounded like a threat more than anything, but Fluttershy smiled ever so faintly, even if that smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Sure, let’s talk or whatever, but let’s say hi first. It looks like we’re getting a real welcome this time.”

“Eireaus, Drakoss, your flights will circle it, chase it back, go!” One of the approaching peryton had a voice that rang loud and clear even at a distance. Over half of the group broke off and sped up, more than a dozen great wings carrying them in the general direction of the fleeing hydra. The large fliers cut through the rain, their bodies blending with the cloud-cover above leaving faint streaks from antlers lit with magic, though for what purpose, Dash couldn’t tell. Did their bodies glow as well?

Dash couldn’t tell how fast they were going, but watching peryton in flight, she thought back to Captain Calm Seas’ words. Exactly how much of an “incident” would it be if she ignored her wings’ protests and gave chase, just to see how fast they were? Were there degrees of incident-ness?

Fluttershy made an executive decision, guiding them both down to the ground, and the second Dash landed, she was glad of it. With the adrenaline spent, her wings were going numb, and she struggled to even pack them away.

“I hope they’re friendly,” Fluttershy said under her breath, moving over to stand by Rainbow Dash. Scarlett let out a single, loud peep.

Ten of the peryton stayed on course towards the ponies, rapidly descending. They barely caused a splash in the mud when they touched down in a perfect wedge, the peryton on the sides walking quickly to catch up until they all stepped through the rain in a perfect line, walking abreast and blocking the road. Nine of the ten peryton halted, with the last taking one more great stride before stopping close enough to touch.

The ponies probably didn’t impress quite as much. Their little cart was mired in mud, they were all muddy and drenched in ways that the maneless peryton didn’t have to deal with, and Rarity still had an array of food items arranged around her in a magical halo. She left the cart behind and approached, but the unicorn looked like all she wanted was an excuse to pelt someone with kelp.

“You trespass in the deeps of Khosta Forest, the demesne of Ephydoera,” said the peryton who had yelled orders earlier, the voice a dark and threatening rumble. His head—if it was a stag—was tilted down to look straight at Rainbow Dash. One more step forward and he’d be chest to chest with her. Or chest to face, as it were.

“Yeah, we kinda figured that’s where we are,” said Rainbow Dash, grinning. “Name’s Rainbow Dash.”

The Ephydoeran peryton were easily the weirdest ones yet. All their chests and undersides were a light blue, while the tops of their bodies—heads, backs and the top-side of their wings, were the mossy green-blue hues of the forest about them. Without wearing anything at all, they were all uniform, set apart only by shaving different parts of their flank-coats down to the skin.

“I am Agaus, warden to the paths.” He did not move. In fact, he barely seemed to breathe.

“Cool,” said Dash. “So, we’re not really trespassing. Maybe you’ve heard that we’re coming to visit? Or, more like passing through, actually.”

The peryton warden said nothing. Water dripped off his muzzle perfectly regularly like clockwork, and a small rivulet poured down his chest, rain-water pooling beneath his forelegs.

Rarity cleared her throat and stepped up to Dash’s side, tossing the food to the roadside. “Hello. I am Rarity—”

“You interfere with our guardianship and you trespass,” the stag said, ignoring the unicorn entirely. His eyes never left Rainbow Dash, and she was really getting annoyed with the way he made her look up at him. To cap it off, he snorted hot air in Dash’s face, washing the pegasus’ smile away like so much smoke.

“Hey, you could say thanks! If we’re in your lands, you’re welcome for the help with the hydra, you know?” Dash said. She took a half-step closer, looking almost straight up at the stoic stag.

“Rainbow Dash,” Fluttershy whispered, and Dash felt a tug on her tail.

“If you want us to go get the hydra back so you can have a go when it’s feeling better, you let me know, Dash suggested. The tug on her tail repeated, a little more insistent, and Scarlett’s sharp tweets pierced the momentary silence. She let Fluttershy walk her back a few steps, but she kept staring at the stag through a mighty frown. Rarity stepped neatly into the vacuum Dash left.

“Like I was saying,” said Rarity. “I am Rarity, and the lovely mare who is currently helping avoid a confrontation here is Fluttershy. Introduce yourself, dear!”

“Hello,” said Fluttershy around a mouthful of Dash’s tail, waving without looking at the peryton. She let go of the tail and moved to stand in front of Rainbow Dash, smiling apologetically at her, and Dash felt her ears heat up with the indignancy of what amounted to being put in time-out. Fluttershy rested a hoof on her withers. It helped a little.

“We’re ponies on a diplomatic mission from Equestria, and I assure you, we don’t want trouble,” Rarity continued. She paused for a moment, but Agaus kept his silence still. “So, ah, well. You should have been informed. We are travelling by land—obviously—and we are heading towards Cotronna. We were told that we could reach it by going through Ephydoera, and you’ll forgive me if I mix some of these names up, but there is a path through the highlands, I believe?”

Rarity smiled radiantly. It had all the effect of smiling at a mountain, but the unicorn did not falter in the least. She dipped her head in a nod as though Agaus had spoken in reply. She still had the lead peryton’s attention, and the other nine stood silent like ghosts in the rain.

“Ahem. We’ve just come from Orto by way of Stagrum, having had peaceful dealings with everyone of your species that we’ve met, and let me say, they had only good things to say about the wonderful peryton of Ephydoera. They suggested we may find some assistance from you. Were we misled?” Rarity tilted her head ever so slightly. “After all, there is this storm coming, and it would be terrible to be caught outside.”

Still silence. Dash tilted her head to look past Fluttershy to confirm that, yes, this Agaus person was still completely passive. Dash felt her hackles rise. No one got to be this rude to Rarity. She heard Fluttershy whisper her name again, but the urge to tell this rude stag off was growing.

“We’re not asking much,” said Rarity, her tone slightly less chipper. “We were hoping to visit on amicable terms, but we will of course pay for services, and we only need directions and some information on how to safely travel north. Now, I am led to believe that your mayor—or whomever is in charge of your city—should have been told of our coming. Are we mistaken? Equestria? Princess Celestia and Princess Luna? Does this ring any bells, dear? Word should have been sent by raven from Orto months ago.”

“Solast, Phoreni!” barked Agaus. “I would turn these away. They are not warriors, but they have routed a great beast with less than half a flight’s wings. I do not trust this power, I do not remember hearing of them, and they stole from us our task. Your thoughts.”

Two more of the peryton stepped forward, but there was no drill-like precision to this maneuver. Where Dash was fairly confident that Agaus was a stag because of his voice, she couldn’t decide whether these two were stags or does right away since all the peryton had the same general colours, one looking like another.

“Do I think they are warriors?” asked one. “One of them has the heart of a warrior, but I do not think they are a threat. The insult and the theft I do not care about. I do not care for fighting in the rain—and,” they continued. “I do recall this missive from the Lodge. They are expected.”

“Would I turn them away?” asked the other, this one with less complicated antlers and shorter tail feathers. Maybe this was a doe and the other one a stag. “I stand with Solast. You see insult, I see favour, and favour is tribute. Raise your pride and let them pass if they have business with the High Warden. I, too, have seen this report.”

Neither of the two peryton had betrayed any emotion in speaking. Agaus nodded, and the two speakers stepped back in line without another word.

“I would send you away, but I have been given counsel. You will have safe passage if—” he said, lingering on that word. “—any of my council will suffer you enough to take ownership of the visit.”

The first speaker, the one Dash had pegged as a stag, looked down at the ground for a moment, then stared blankly ahead. The doe with the short tail-feathers took one step forward again with her head raised high, and this seemed to satisfy Agaus.

“Done, then. Phoreni, the strangers belong to you. Name three to go with you and show them to the Grove. The rest of us continue patrol. Eireaus and Drakoss will find their own way back.”

“What? Agaus—” the one who’d stepped forth protested.

“We go by ground, bodies low!” Agaus barked. “Phoreni, pick your three, but leave Solast with me.”

The doe nodded briskly, and the assembled peryton broke formation. She called out three names to stern nods and no reply, three near-identical peryton clustering around her, while the remaining five formed up on their leader. Without further words, explanations, or so much as a backwards glance, the one called Agaus stalked off into the wet woods. It only took seconds before they were gone; the peryton walked with heads low and wings tight, the colours of the tops of their bodies merging with the undergrowth to swiftly disappear the six who went off the path.

Rainbow Dash and her friends were left with four peryton who looked the same, none of whom spoke aside from some muttered whispers between two in the back.

“If I understand it correctly, you volunteered to show us to your hometown?” Rarity asked. She smiled at Phoreni as though the ponies hadn’t just been ignored. Dash frowned. Did Rarity actually understand what had happened, or was she guessing, too?

“Volunteer? I did no such thing,” said Phoreni. ”I was given ownership and charge of your presence. Can you fly?”

Rarity looked back at her friends. “I, ah—”

“We can fly,” said Rainbow Dash. She indicated Fluttershy with a nod of her head, the other pegasus now stood at her side. “Rarity can’t. She’s a unicorn. No wings.”

“Yes. Like I said, we’re ponies from—” Rarity began.

“By ground then. We can still make it by sundown following the shortest way. Take charge of your cargo and move,” Phoreni declared, waving a hoof in a circle before pointing down the road to the west. “We follow the trade-path until my say.”

“Rainbow Dash? I think maybe you should take the cart, if that’s okay,” Fluttershy whispered.

It was probably for the best if these peryton were in a hurry. Rainbow Dash didn’t know how she felt about an escort, but one look at Fluttershy—at the pegasus who had been quiet for so long—told her how she needed to feel about it: Fluttershy’s ears were splayed and her tail dragged, wings tight to her sides.

Rainbow Dash decided she was neither intimidated nor impressed. These peryton weren’t scary at all, and her friends didn’t need to worry either. Dash strapped herself into the cart with practiced ease and grunted with effort as she dragged it loose from the mud.

Intimidated? No, but definitely bothered.

“What do you mean by ‘given ownership’?” asked Dash the second they began moving. She looked at the one she thought was Phoreni. The four peryton moved around a lot, and now they took up position two to each side of the ponies.

“I meant what I said,” replied Phoreni. Now that she walked at their side, Dash could see her markings better. She had a lot of symbols carved or shaved into the coat of her flank, down her leg, and on even on her side, like many large, colourless cutie marks. Dash couldn’t make out exactly what they were meant to be, especially on the move: A half-circle here, a crow’s foot there.

“Yeah, well, I heard what you said, but you don’t own us,” said Dash, scowling.

“Do I own you?” said the peryton. “I own the burden and the risk of your visit.”

“So what you mean is that you are liable for any trouble we cause,” Rarity suggested.

“I meant what I said,” repeated Phoreni.

“And that’s a yes?” asked Dash. “I thought you weren’t helping us.”

Phoreni upped her pace a little, forcing the ponies to do the same. Dash happily accepted the challenge, the cartwheels creating furrows in the mud as they kicked into a trot. Rather than stay on the path, their escorts stuck to the side of the road where their colours blended them with the terrain. Whenever Dash didn’t look straight at them, they were a blur in the corners of her eyes.

“Did I say I am not helping you?” asked Phoreni after a moment. She leapt a fallen log, showing no problems keeping her attention on Dash and talking while she ran. Her antlers glowed faintly without doing anything, well, magic, outside of making her wings and hooves glow very faintly in the same manner.

Rainbow Dash blinked. “What? Yeah you did! Rarity asked if you were helping us!”

“The white one asked if I volunteered. I did not,” the doe said, utterly impassive. “I am helping you because I do not believe anyone should be miserable alone in the coming storm, even in the generous shelter of the Khosta.”

“That’s very nice of you,” said Fluttershy. “Thank you?” She sounded almost as confused as Dash felt.

The peryton pulled ahead again until they were at a brisk canter. Finally Phoreni seemed satisfied and ran at their side rather than ahead of them. The cart sprayed mud behind them now, and Fluttershy took to the air to keep from slipping while Rarity ran between the road and the forest for better grip.

“Yeah, sure, thanks,” agreed Dash, but Phoreni said nothing to that. “Anyway, you look different from the other peryton. Like, really weird all over.”

“Words from a blue creature with hair of rainbow, travelling with a yellow one and a white one without wings,” retorted Phoreni.

Dash snorted. “That’s not an answer. Ponies have all sorts of different colours, but we haven’t seen any blue or green peryton anywhere else.” She shot Rarity a glance, half expecting the unicorn to beg her to stop bothering their guide, escort, or whatever she was, but Rarity had enough trouble keeping her footing as she ran. At least she kept pace well enough.

“You have not been to the deeps of the Khosta, against the Bow,” said Phoreni, ducking under a branch. She switched position with the other peryton on her side of the road. “You have not seen Ephydoeran warders before.”

“Obviously.” Dash rolled her eyes. “We haven’t met. We’re from Equestria, but seriously, what’s your deal? Why’s your coat like that?”

That got a reaction. At least, Rainbow Dash thought she spotted a toothy peryton smile on Phoreni’s face, but it was gone when she blinked. “We have met you, but you have not met us. We had eyes on you the day before, to see that you did not stray from the path.”

“You’ve been—you’ve been stalking us?” asked Rarity between breaths.

“We have seen you from afar,” said Phoreni with an unapologetic shrug. “Stalking? We ward. You have come this far at our sufferance. Today, the leading warden felt you had come far enough, and so you were challenged.”

As creepy as the thought was, Rainbow Dash smirked. “Heh, some stalkers you guys are. I saw one of you yesterday.”

“Do I believe we were spotted? I do not think you have seen any of us,” Phoreni said.

“Totally did! Saw one of you in the forest,” Dash said. She meant to spread her wings and jump into the air, but her wings refused to listen, giving her a jolt of pain that shot down her back instead. Rainbow Dash drew breath through clenched teeth.

“When was this?” asked Rarity, glancing at Dash.

Fluttershy frowned ever so slightly, looking at Dash’s wings for a second before she met her eyes. “You didn’t say anything to us. Rainbow Dash, are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure!” said Rainbow Dash, glaring at Fluttershy. “I just forgot to mention it. I saw a lone peryton somewhere in the forest when I was up messing around with the clouds yesterday.”

“We never run alone. It was not one of us,” said Phoreni. She looked away, and Dash felt like all her feathers had been crossed, utterly dismissed. Before she could protest, Phoreni slowed them down, step by step, until they halted completely.

“This path, now. Will your cargo survive? If not, is it precious to you?”

“Oh, I think the cart will be fine,” Fluttershy suggested, landing next to Rainbow Dash. The peryton moved to one side of the road, pushing apart some shrubbery to reveal a narrow path. With the forest getting ever denser, Dash would’ve never spotted it if she didn’t know about it. In fact, she doubted she would find the path again if she looked away for a second. These peryton knew the forest as well as Applejack did her farm.

“But our cargo is, in fact, precious to us,” Rarity added. “Rainbow Dash, do you want me to take the cart?”

“I’m good,” said Dash. She pushed ahead, leading the group off the road and onto the slightly less slippery, less muddy path that cut through the forest. Better to use her legs than think about her wings right now. The peryton still kept a little distance between the ponies and themselves, and they still moved with their heads and bodies low to the ground and the rain-wet flora in a weird, stalking walk.

“Why do they do that?” asked Dash, her voice low. The ponies moved close together on the narrow path, slower now. Every now and then, some bush grasped at their cart.

“Why do they do what?” asked Rarity. She kicked some mud off one of her hooves on a tree as they passed it.

“The weird walk, the way they talk, the way she refuses to answer my question about why they look different, I don’t know—everything!” Dash said.

“I think it’s camouflage,” said Fluttershy. She craned her neck to look ahead. The leading peryton had almost disappeared, and a second later, Dash realised Phoreni walked at their side, not more than a few hoofbreadths away.

“Well, duh, but—”

“The colours? It is to hide our movement,” she said, nodding to Fluttershy. “Like your yellow friend, who has covered herself in mud to blend in, though I do not understand the purpose of the bird.”

Fluttershy smiled at that, shaking her head. “She’s a friend, she’s not camouflage.”

Scarlett noisily agreed, and Rarity winced at the sharp sound, clearing her throat.

“So, this camouflage, it is dye? Like the powders they use in Orto, perhaps?” Rarity asked.

“The recipe and its secrets are not for me to share. The colours above hide our bodies when we prowl on the ground. The colours below hide our shapes when we fly high against the clear sky.”

“What are you hiding from?” asked Rainbow Dash.

Phoreni kept her muzzle pointing forward, her eyes darting around as she navigated the forest by the pathside. “As you may have guessed, hydras. Among many other things.”

Fluttershy looked around as though the forest had suddenly grown sharp teeth, sinking down a little until she walked almost as low to the ground as the peryton. “Are there… a lot of hydras here?”

Phoreni raised a brow at that. “The Bow sends many creatures our way. Hydras in particular are not common, not like the glare beasts. You have many questions, like young-feathers who have yet to win their first charge. They are too simple for me to understand. How can I explain what everyone should know?”

“We’re not from here, dear,” said Rarity, frowning. “How would we know these things? We would be happy to tell you of Equestria, but I will be surprised if you know any more of our Everfree Forest than we do of this Khosta of yours.”

For a time, the group moved at a comfortable trot in an uncomfortable silence. Despite how narrow the path was, it still made for easier going than the muddy road. Every now and then, a great big raindrop would work its way down the trees, but at last the canopy swallowed the grey sky entirely. Normally, Rainbow Dash wouldn’t have noticed all the new berries and flowers if Fluttershy hadn’t pointed them out to her, but they were rather hard to miss: she could swear some of the berry clusters glowed. Now that she was aware, she noticed some of the trees were decked in moss or vines that also glowed ever so slightly.

“Weird,” Dash muttered, ducking under some vines that definitely gave off light.

“We have some of those in Equestria too, but I’ve never seen them glow that bright,” Fluttershy replied, smiling at the curious plantlife.

“Huh. I’ve never seen them. They’re in the Everfree, I guess?” Dash asked.

“Oh goodness, no—or, maybe they’re there, too, but I don’t really go into the Everfree to look for plants, you know. There’s a little grove in the Whitetail where ponies usually don’t go.”

“Oh. Cool,” said Dash. “Hey, you said you wanted to talk about stuff? About going out and all that?” Better to get the talk out of the way sooner rather than later.

Fluttershy splayed her ears, looking over at Phoreni who still walked at their side. Rarity cocked a brow.

“Maybe later? When we’re not so, um, right here with a lot of people?” Fluttershy suggested.

“Sure,” said Dash, smiling back at her and looking around instead. The three other peryton who shadowed them were visible only now and then. Whenever Rainbow Dash thought they had gone on ahead, one of them would come stalking out of the brush at their side. Though Phoreni always stayed near, Dash figured that her conversation with Rarity had been well and truly dropped. She herself didn’t care to try for answers again, more concerned with the dull and throbbing pain on her back. She was just about to say something to Fluttershy—ask her about some berries or whatever—when Phoreni spoke up again.

“Though your questions are like those of our children, you are not they. It was not an insult in spirit either way. Understand, we see few who visit, and I am not used to speaking with them.”

Rainbow Dash didn’t know what to make of that. She looked to Rarity who walked at the opposite side of her, and the unicorn smiled faintly.

“I think that is something of an apology,” Rarity murmured under her breath before the peryton went on.

“Those not of Ephydoera who walk the deeps of the Khosta are usually peryton who come bearing gifts, or the beasts of the Bow. The Bow is the mountain range to our west, the mountains against which the Khosta is the ward. Against which Ephydoera spends most of its efforts warding.” Phoreni did not look at them. She trotted at their side with eyes ever ahead, wending around trees, over logs and below branches seemingly without conscious effort.

“In case you did not know, I will explain. We were told you might come. It is a poor warden who does not read every missive to understand what to expect,” she continued. “Agaus pretended not to know because he does not want this responsibility. This, I understand from his decisions. He sent the greater part of our flight against an already beaten hydra, and the smaller part of the flight to those who had beaten it and still stood strong. He understood you were no threat and meant to allow you to enter, but did not want to do this himself.”

Rainbow Dash frowned at that. “Okay, that’s lame.”

“It is his choice to make, and I have made mine,” Phoreni replied. “And so, we are here, and I must explain things. ‘Visitors’ is... new, but I have been far enough to know there are those who trade with our sister-cities. I hear of, but have not seen Zebra and Cotilla in the other cities. In Orto, Stagrum, Cotilla and Vauhorn, yes, but not here, and never before this missive have I heard of ‘ponies’. Equestria is a word I may have read, but neither heard nor understood. Where is this city? Will you show me where it is?”

“We would be delighted to,” Rarity said.

“We don’t have a map, so I guess it would be telling, not showing, but of course,” Fluttershy agreed.

“Sure,” said Rainbow Dash, smiling. “Trade you for telling us where we’re headed?”

“Then you are poor traders, and Phostos shakes his head,” said Phoreni, her own head moving from side to side herself. “You have already helped us rout a great beast. Eireaus and Drakoss will have an easy time chasing it back to the folds of the Bow. You are owed and will collect more than this for your aid.”

“Aid? So now you are happy we helped?” asked Rainbow Dash, staring at her with her jaw hanging open. “Make up your mind already!”

Phoreni didn’t bat an eyelash. “Were we not aware of your help? We were always thankful, and your anger is misplaced and reckless. Now, tell me where you are from, and I will tell you of Ephydoera. We are not far from the Grove.”

“And these princesses who sent you here, are they warriors?” asked Phoreni.

“Oh goodness, I don’t know if I’d say that.” Fluttershy licked her lips and knit her brow in thought.

“You said we weren’t warriors,” Dash said. “What do you even mean by that?”

“If you ask if the Princesses are brutes given to fighting, then no, they most certainly are not,” Rarity added with a huff.

Phoreni nodded once and seemed to think. She’d done that more and more often as they talked, lapsing into long silences.

The path cut through the forest seemingly without touching it, sneaking around and under the ever deeper, ever denser forest. Here and there, Dash caught glimpses of more faintly luminescent growths, brighter in contrast to the darkening sky she couldn’t see. Though all the care Rarity had put into their manes the day before was ruined, they’d gotten most of the mud out of their hair, at least.

“Solast marked one of you as a warrior. Do I agree? I do not know,” said Phoreni, her face as blank as ever. “But if a warrior is to you one who fights, then the question is meaningless.”

Dash hopped over a rock embedded in the path. The bottom of the cart barely cleared it. “What else is a warrior?”

“That is the largest question one can ask,” Phoreni said. “High Wardens have been chosen for their answers to variations of that question. Did these Princesses send you to Ephydoera or to Cotronna? You are unclear.”

“To Perytonia, so both and neither, in a sense,” Rarity said. “We landed near Orto, but we are headed to Cotronna to seal a treaty. We thought we’d visit you on the way by suggestion of a friend. Khaird, one of the consuls in Orto.”

“Very well,” said Phoreni. “Alergos! We make for the grove!” she shouted ahead.

Dash blinked. “Uh, aren’t we already heading there?”

“We have been circling it for a while.”

“What, why?!” snapped Dash. “You tricked us?”

“Trick? I have learned of your intent, and I have done this by asking you questions,” said Phoreni with a short-lived smile. After a short walk along the path, she paused and let the other peryton reveal another, yet smaller path than the one they followed. “I am satisfied that none of you have violent hearts, not even you—” she locked eyes with Rainbow Dash for a split-second, utterly expressionless. “—despite your hot blood. I believe your story, and the tale of your ‘Princesses’. Your kind means us no harm, and I will take ownership of your visit. Now come.”

Dash glared at her back and followed. The cart straddled what was not so much a road or a path as it was a thin strip of wet dirt to fit between the cartwheels. If Fluttershy and Rarity felt similarly betrayed, they said nothing, and Phoreni offered no further explanation. All four peryton rose up and walked at their full height now, and rather than shadow the ponies, they walked single file in front, occasionally trading words too low for Dash to hear.

More and more glowing berries hung from branches above them, luminescent moss on every tree, but the light was faint. More annoying was the fact that nearly every step of the way, some plant or other grabbed at their cart, branches and wet leaves getting tangled with the wheels.

The trees had been getting larger and larger by degrees, too, and some of them were rapidly approaching ridiculous. Dash spotted one in particular that looked like it could pick a fight with Twilight’s library tree and come out on top. Scarlett, who’d been blessedly quiet for a while, started singing.

“She’s excited,” Fluttershy explained, smiling. “She says there’s food nearby.”

“I do hope that’s true,” Rarity replied. “I needn’t tell you we’re all out, now. The only one who’s eaten well today is the hydra.”

Fluttershy nodded at that. Their escorts had insisted on the ponies eating on the move, and aside from one brief stop to drink from a small stream, they’d had little to eat or drink themselves.

“How are you doing?” Fluttershy asked, turning to Rainbow Dash. “Your wings hurt, don’t they?”

“I’m fine,” said Dash. “How about you two? Rarity?”

“My hooves are starting to ache again, but I’m quite frankly starting to get used to it. Thank you for your concern, dear,” said Rarity.

“And I’m okay. A little tired, that’s all,” Fluttershy added.

“I’m more worried about the lack of… anything ahead,” Rarity added. “I was looking forward to some rest, but I don’t see any signs of a city. I’m wondering if we’re about to be tricked again.”

Fluttershy nodded her agreement, but she didn’t look very concerned. She ducked under a low-hanging clump of moss. “I don’t know. You might be right, but you could probably hide a mountain in this forest and we’d walk right by it.”

“Yeah,” said Dash, then, louder, “Hey! You said you’d tell us about this grove or Ephydoera. What is it? Are we close? Where’s the city?”

“The Grove,” said Phoreni without turning or halting, “is the heart of Ephydoera. Those who come bearing tribute visit us by the trade roads. Those who wish to hold counsel with us will be seen to the Grove. Ephydoera is many places, but the Grove is where we roost above all.”

“Okay, you know, I think I liked no real answer better than too many answers,” said Rainbow Dash. “Where is it?”

“We are here,” said Phoreni.