• 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 14


I hope this letter reaches you well. Your message was forwarded by Princess Celestia this morning, and along with the message came your quite exotic friend. Since this forces me to write (pft, she’s dictating. Hi, I’m Maven) this letter in all haste so your friend can take this reply back to read to you—and she is being quite insistent about this—please forgive any mistakes in spelling or fact. (ha, I never make amny spelling mistakes, and she never proofreads anyway)

Unfortunately, I don’t have good news. In fact, I am very confused by your request. All this talk about ambassadors and city to city relationships is very much beyond what I can do as a mayor. As Mayor of Ponyville, I am indeed charged with a great many very important tasks (such as underpaying my secretary who does everything actually important), but all the things you ask about are really national matters, and need to be brought before the Princesses themselves. I am not quite sure why the Princess forwarded this to me, no, wait, don’t write that, I can’t be seen second-guessing a princess in an official letter

Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding, but I really can’t help you at all. I did hear that some of the ponies living in our wonderful town have recently gone abroad, and if this is related, I wish to state for the record that Rainbow Dash is not on the City Hall payroll. (yeah she is)

-For Ponyville City Hall, Mayor Mare

“Are the stairs like this for every level?” asked Rarity. “I’m very glad there are stairs at all, of course, but they are a little—”

“Trip-and-you-fall-off-the-platform-and-it’s-really-high-up, high-up-enough-that-it-makes-me-a-little-scared-and-I-have-wings-y?” supplied Fluttershy breathlessly, peering over the edge.

“Yes. That,” said Rarity, keeping close to the inner side of the steps.

The narrow stairs were built onto the outer edge of the platform, leading down to the slightly smaller ring below. Rainbow Dash idly wondered if her wings would carry her in a glide right now. Probably not. She couldn’t make herself worry much, though. After all, Fluttershy’s wings were in working order. At some point in the past, she would’ve laughed at the notion that it could make her feel safer. She’d happily kick that past self.

“Not every one of the Promise’s levels are built like this, but Pelessa has made room for you,” said Phoreni.

“And… that’s not a person, but an Aspect, right?” Dash asked.

“I believe someone mentioned it when I was doing the shaving work, so yes,” Rarity suggested.

“All the exalted places have access from tunnels below, or by bridges above,” Phoreni added, either not answering, or not having heard. She waited at the bottom of the stairs, and Dash hopped down the last four steps. This lower level wasn’t quite as busy. Wooden tables ran all along the outer circle of the platform, and there were various little alcoves cut or dug into the center of the tree, like market stalls, most of which were serviced by unpainted peryton. Some sort of café? It certainly smelled like food, and peryton were eating at many of the tables.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what is an ‘exalted’ place?” said Fluttershy.

“That which is high up and… important?” Phoreni said, her brow knit for a second. “That which is important enough to warrant the young ones seeing it before they fly—but that thinking is circular. Not good enough. The central parts of the Grove, central to our being, not central in space. Is this an answer?”

Fluttershy nodded quickly and smiled. “I think I understand, thank you.”

“Good. As I have told you, what is important is that the Sunwise Run can be reached without wings. Would we let our young miss the games? It is unthinkable. These games happen only once every cycle of seasons, and last only until the storm. Last year, the storm happened upon the first sun, so there were no games.” Phoreni glanced to the side, squinting against what sunrays pierced the canopy. “This year, we have our games for a day at least, and patrols say there will likely be no storm tomorrow either.”

Rainbow Dash sniffed the air and turned her side to the wind without spreading her wings, just enough to taste the breeze on her feathers.

“Yeah, I don’t—” she began to say.

“Probably not—” Fluttershy said at the same time.

Phoreni looked between Dash and Fluttershy, and the two pegasi looked at each other. Fluttershy shook her head and gestured at Rainbow Dash. “Sorry, you go ahead.”

“There’s probably not gonna be a storm the day after, either, that’s what we’re saying,” Dash explained.

The peryton nodded slowly. “Do I believe your words? I may, though I do not understand how you can say this.”

“Big storms let you know they’re coming if you don’t make’em yourself,” said Dash, shrugging.

“I trust you are convinced. I can do little with these words regardless.” Phoreni gestured to a nearby table. “Sit, and I will bring food. You will eat plants?”

“Of course,” said Fluttershy, Dash and Rarity nodding their assent. They made for the free table, Rarity pointedly sitting down opposite of the platform’s edge. Fluttershy sat down next to her, and Rainbow Dash decided against being the odd one out. She sat down as close to Fluttershy as she could get, bumping into her. It was worth it for the look upon Fluttershy’s face, especially as it transformed into a faint blush.

“Remind me never to bring you two to a fancy restaurant as a couple,” said Rarity with a roll of her eyes and a faint smile. “People are staring.”

“No they’re not,” said Dash with a laugh. The only peryton seated next to them was a lone stag who’d sat down at an adjacent table right after they did, and he wasn’t looking. She did have a point in that it looked a little weird with all three of them clustered together, but so what?

“They’ll probably just think it’s a pony thing,” said Fluttershy with a smile of her own. She didn’t actually move away from Rainbow Dash, evidently content with sitting flank to flank.

“Rarity? Can I ask you a question?” asked Fluttershy, quickly glancing over her shoulder to where Phoreni stood by one of the stalls. At least Rainbow Dash assumed that one was Phoreni. It was still hard to tell.

“Of course, dear,” said Rarity, cocking her head. “Something the matter?”

“Oh, no. I just wondered, when we were talking to the High Warden, you didn’t mention what we were doing here exactly. You didn’t say anything that wasn’t true, but you didn’t tell her what you told the Dockmistress in Stagrum, either.” Fluttershy tilted her head. “Was that on purpose?”

“Oh. That,” said Rarity, letting out a sigh of relief. “I thought that going into detail about the sigil and such was a little pointless and irrelevant. All it has done so far is to confuse the people they have in place of mayors. Do you think we should explain? I honestly don’t think it makes a difference. As I understand it, if we’re here at Khaird’s behest, it is to learn about the Ephydoerans. Also, they didn’t react at all when we mentioned the Princesses.”

“We could tell them if they ask, but you’re right,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head. “I just wanted to ask to make sure we agreed. This whole journey is a little bit like a friendship lesson, isn’t it?”

“It’s almost exactly like a friendship lesson”, said Rainbow Dash. “Princess Luna said that she expected a full report and everything.”

Fluttershy furrowed her brow in thought. “I don’t think she ever said that, at least not that I heard, but that would make sense. The Princesses will probably want a long letter when we get home.”

“I don’t expect they’ll need you to take notes. I have the journal, at least—” Rarity said, interrupted when Phoreni rejoined them. She slid a very large bowl off her back with the aid of her wings. The wooden bowl was easily the match for Pinkie’s largest punch bowls, filled to the brim with turquoise leaves.

“I will go collect the water as well,” said Phoreni. “Would you be offended if I asked another to join us?”

“Just leaves?” asked Dash, sniffing at the bowl. It smelled a lot like mint, but there was nothing else below the top layer; just a bowl full of leaves. She did catch a look from Rarity for her inspection efforts, though.

“Leaves,” repeated Phoreni. “And good ones. Foraging is one of the finest arts known to us. The best days begin with food not grown and unpacked, but found. Are foragers not celebrated in your city?”

“We mostly grow our food on farms, but I sometime go look for mushrooms in the Whitetail Woods, and I grow my own herbs,” said Fluttershy. “I don’t think anypony ever celebrated that,” she added, stifling a giggle.

“You do this, but it is not your calling?” Phoreni quirked a brow. “This is curious. Is the bounty of your ‘Whitetail’ such that everyone can freely forage?”

“I don’t think a lot of other ponies like to go looking for their own food anyway,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head. “The only other pony I ever meet there is Cheerilee.”

Phoreni nodded. “Your land must be open, and allow for a great many farms, then.”

Fluttershy looked at Rainbow Dash and Rarity each in turn, but Rainbow Dash didn’t know what to say. Sure they had a lot of farms, but they had a lot of forests, too. Fluttershy was on a roll with answers anyway.

“Well, um, enough to feed us, at least? The heartlands are both plains and woods,” said Fluttershy after a moment, nodding her agreement with herself.

“You’re asking a lot of questions,” said Rainbow Dash, tilting her head as far as it would go.

“I don’t mind,” said Fluttershy.

“I don’t, either!” Dash hurried to say at Rarity’s quizzical look. “You just haven’t cared a lot about—or, uh, well, haven’t asked a lot about Equestria before, but now you’re suddenly curious? Hey, it’s cool and all, I’m just asking, too!”

If there was protest budding in Rarity’s eyes before, now she nodded and looked over at Phoreni at that as though Dash had a point, and Fluttershy looked curious as well. The unflappable peryton took it all in stride with the barest of nods.

“Do I think your observation is fair?” she asked, tilting her head. “It has merit. I am a forest warden. I ward. It is what I do; all I do. I rarely have the time to think of what happens outside our borders. Sometimes not even outside the Khosta, much less Perytonia.” She gestured off the platform with a wing. “When you arrived, I knew I did not have the time to sate my every question on Equestria, and I do not believe in half measures. Do one thing fully.” She looked down at the ground, lost in thought for a second.

“And?” asked Dash.

“And I have lost my battle with curiosity,” finished Phoreni with the tentative beginnings of a smile. “Now I repeat my question. Will you object if I collect someone to join us?”

“Why would we mind, dear?” asked Rarity. “I’m certain there’s room for one more at the table.”

“I ask because I wish to give you the option to refuse,” said Phoreni. “In case the more timid of you do not wish for more company.” Rarity raised a brow, Fluttershy said nothing, and Rainbow Dash blinked.

“Okay, I’m cool with it,” said Dash, looking at Fluttershy, her voice deadpan. “Fluttershy. Would you mind one more?”

“It’s fine?” Fluttershy said, her voice making it a question.

“Then I will return in a moment with the water, and with company, but before I do so, I will say one more thing. The High Warden. She—” Phoreni paused, letting out her breath before starting anew. “One thing is, she commands. It is what she does. If she did not place the safety of the Grove above all, she would not be the High Warden.”

“We understand—” Rarity said, only to be cut off when Phoreni went on.

“Another thing is, your misstep under last moon was my mistake. That you believed it was safe to leave and re-enter the Grove thus? That is not your failing, but mine. I still try to understand what you must be told, and what you do not need to be told.” She let out a soft grunt. “This is my charge, not that of the High Warden, so do not carry dark thoughts of her. If you do, you must tell me.”

“You don’t have to apologise for her,” said Fluttershy, though Dash noticed that she did not meet Phoreni’s eyes, her gaze on the wooden table instead. “It’s okay.”

“We’re fine. You’re not gonna be in trouble just because we decided to take a little walk, right?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Feel free to eat. I will return in moments,” said Phoreni. She didn’t even acknowledge their words, walking off without comment.

Did she apologise for the High Warden?” asked Rainbow Dash the second the peryton was out of earshot. “That was a really lame apology, and she wasn’t the one who was being rude. The High Warden was. I think?” Dash groaned. “I can’t even decide if I’m sorry or not, it was all just a stupid misunderstanding, who cares!”

“Well, they seem to take that particular misunderstanding seriously,” said Rarity. She hummed as she thought. “Regardless, Phoreni is certainly making an effort to explain, and I don’t think that’s easy for her.”

“Heh. She’s trying, at least,” said Dash, leaning forwards to sniff the leaves again. “I don’t know how much it’s helping.” There was something beyond the minty smell. Spices? Whatever this was, eating presented an obvious challenge.

“No plates? Do you think we’re just supposed to dig in?” asked Dash. The stag sat on the nearby table hadn’t even gotten his food. Clearly this place wasn’t big on service. On a table further away, two does ate straight out of the same bowl.

“I think she’s doing more than just ‘trying’. She’s doing really well,” said Fluttershy, frowning. “There’s no way for us to tell that she understands what we say about Equestria any better than we understand what she says about Ephydoera.”

“You’re still on that? Sure. I’m not saying I could’ve done any better,” said Dash. She grabbed a mouthful leaves, chewing noisily. They didn’t taste like the mint they smelled of, but like limes and peaches mashed together. “I would’ve made a horrible tour guide or whatever,” Dash said.

Fluttershy smiled at that, but only for a brief moment. “Am I the only one who thinks it sounded like she’s actually going to be in trouble because of what we did?”

Dash swallowed the chewy leaves and sighed. “Yeah, she didn’t say she wasn’t getting in trouble. She’s taking a chance on us, I guess, but come on, the High Warden didn’t sound like a complete grump.”

“She seemed perfectly reasonable,” Rarity agreed. “But I still feel a little bad about it.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re the only one who didn’t do anything wrong, so you shouldn’t,” Dash grumped. “Can we just eat?”

“Mm. How is the food?” asked Rarity, glancing about with some concern. “Are we to eat from the same bowl?”

“It’s good,” said Dash, planting her muzzle in the bowl to grab another mouthful. “Mh, tastier than any other leaves I’ve ever had. What’s the matter with sharing food?”

“Hygiene, for one,” said Rarity with a sniff. Her horn glowed softly, and a few leaves paraded out from the far side of the bowl, as far away as possible from where Dash had chowed down and Fluttershy presently went for a nibble. She levitated up a few of the leaves and chewed them one by one, both Fluttershy and Rarity nodding appreciatively.

“Maybe we could return the favour, since Phoreni is being so nice to us,” said Fluttershy, wiping her muzzle with the nook of a leg. “Perhaps we could be a little more accommodating in return?”

“How?” asked Rainbow Dash. “Like, try to be like her? Try really hard not to smile or to laugh, ever? Stare creepily at her and repeat everything she says as a question? I can do that!” She could see Phoreni and another unpainted peryton on their way back.

“Rainbow Dash, no,” hissed Rarity, also seeing the peryton on approach. Fluttershy was caught halfway between a giggle and imploring Dash not to do it, but didn’t matter. Rainbow Dash utterly failed to school her features, bursting out laughing at the panicked face Rarity made. The two peryton did not offer comment at first, placing water bowls on the table. Dash was glad they had brought drinks. Shade or no shade, it was getting hotter. She missed the rain already.

“These are Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash and Rarity,” said Phoreni, gesturing to the three ponies with quick nods of her head, then to the peryton at her side. “This is Khyrast.”

Khyrast was a little smaller than Phoreni, and Rainbow Dash had them pegged as a doe from the shorter tail-feathers and the colours—light brown dappled with a white that also graced their wing-tips, and a flank unadorned by any symbols.

“Khyrast is a steady companion,” said Phoreni, smiling ever so faintly. “He and I are close. These three, as I have explained under last night’s moon, are ponies from afar, if you recall the missive from Orto. They are under my charge.”

And just when Rainbow Dash thought she had the peryton down pat, she was proven wrong again. Stag, not doe. She wasn’t even frustrated any more. She just went with it.

“They are no threat to you or us?” asked Khyrast, but it barely sounded like a question, the sentence was tossed out into the air like somepony might say nice weather we’re having or Rainbow Dash might say nice weather I made.

“We’re very pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Rarity.

“Hello,” said Fluttershy.

“Do you really think we’re that scary?” asked Rainbow Dash. “Oh, and hey.”

Khyrast blinked. Phoreni tilted her head slightly.

“The whole ‘threat’ thing. You just asked if we’re a threat,” Dash said, pointing to Khyrast, but evidently this didn’t clear things up for him. He looked to Phoreni.

Phoreni shook her head slightly. “It is… common. Not greeting, but habit? The assessment, to understand you as friend or not,” she said.

“Huh, alright. If you’re super worried about ‘threats’, you sure don’t seem to mind letting strangers snoop around your secret fort, that’s all,” said Dash, slurping the water noisily. They shared the two bowls of water without much problem, but it was odd having to wait for others to eat before it was your turn to lean forward for a bite. Rarity’s face as she ran out of places to collect untainted leaves was good sport, though.

“Neither hydra nor glare beast are able to read or understand a map,” said Phoreni, not missing a beat. “And few will make allies of such beasts. Would we let the Heron in there? We would not.”

“This is a very strange topic,” said Khyrast, pushing the perytons’ water bowl towards Phoreni. “Drink, please. You have not had a single draught.”

Phoreni nodded at her friend and did as asked before continuing, her attention on Khyrast. “They use many odd words and have strange manners. You see now what I told you. Two have wings, one has a single antler, a horn, but they are all very different from the others. Three very different people.”

“And the horned one—my mistake, you have a name, of course,” said Khyrast, frowning. “This must be rude to any who can speak. Rarity?”

“That is my name,” said Rarity, smiling.

“I have met one who spoke of the way you used your magic to grace him with your skill, shaved into his side.”

“Oh. He was pleased with my work, I hope?” Rarity asked, clearing her throat. “I did my best in every case, I assure you.”

“Was he pleased? He would not cease talking of it,” said Khyrast, a slight note of laughter in his voice, rare in the usually almost toneless Ephydoerans.

“You speak of Aleisos,” said Phoreni. She glanced over at the ponies. “He does not know how to be silent,” she added, to a giggle from Rarity and Fluttershy both. Peryton gossip. Really, thought Dash, going for the rapidly emptying food bowl to conceal her own grin.

Khyrast nodded, the small peryton eyes crinkling as he smiled. “It is a treat to see someone whose use of magic is skilled and unrestrained, is what I wished to say. It is such moments that makes one wonder if we are too set in our ways.”

Rarity blinked, stunned for a split-second. “Oh. Oh, well, I—I am flattered, of course, I just thought you only used your magic for—that is, if you wish, I could of course try to teach you how I do it? I am sure—”

The stag shook his head slowly, interrupting Rarity’s stammering. “Is your offer kind? I suspect it comes from a bright place, but I, too, am set.”

The unicorn nodded at that. “I see. Well, if you change your mind, the offer stands.” She chuckled. “A common friend of ours would lose her mind at the notion of someone not wishing to learn a spell, but we are all different, I suppose.”

Phoreni tapped the ground with one of her small forehooves. “We may be set and stubborn, but you are not. Khyrast, these are travellers to shame the Bent Feathers, and as you hear, greedy for learning. Perhaps you can gift Rarity instead? Teach her some of our magic? The games are not yet set up, our food is eaten, and none could teach better than you. It would pass time.”

Rarity touched her own chest with a hoof. “Teach me?”

Rainbow Dash stared. “Teach Rarity wing-magic?”

“Will I teach?” asked Khyrast, looking at Phoreni for a long moment, finally tilting his head forwards in a peryton neck-bow. His expression softened. “Because it is you who ask, I will offer.”

“Focus the sum of your magic, all your prongs—”

“I don’t have prongs,” said Rarity, grimacing. Her eyes were closed, and her horn glowed with a faint aura of magic, but that was the sum of all that happened. Next to her sat Khyrast, his entire body glowing with a faint sheen.

Rainbow Dash passed ‘bored’ three stages of boredom ago. At least the platform slowly fell into shadow as the sun moved up overhead. If this was as hot as it was going to get today, Dash was alright with it.

“You’re not very protective of your magic,” said Fluttershy. “That’s a good thing, of course, just, um. I’m sorry, I don’t know what else to say.” She sat by Rainbow Dash’s side, the pegasi and Phoreni watching Rarity and Khyrast over by another table. The two had begged relative privacy closer to the center of the platform, still within earshot. “Not that I ever thought you wouldn’t want to share, either,” she rushed to add.

“Is your magic secret?” asked Phoreni, the simple question accompanied by a slight head-tilt and a blank look.

“I don’t think so,” said Fluttershy, looking askance at Rainbow Dash.

Dash shrugged helplessly. “Beats me? I don’t think pegasus magic can be taught, but I bet if Twilight met someone else who could use like… horn-magic or antler-magic or something, she’d probably be all over trying to teach them everything she knows, and learn everything they knew.”

Fluttershy giggled. “She would. I guess we’re lucky if unicorn magic and peryton magic translates at all, anyway.”

“Yeah,” said Dash. “Heh, Rarity’s really going at it, though. Wonder what’s gotten into her. She really wants to learn this wing-magic.”

Fluttershy bit her lower lip and nodded. She looked a little less pleased with this. “I hope she doesn’t hurt herself. I haven’t seen her this intense in a long while.”

Phoreni stared at the two pegasi while she drank deeply from the one remaining water bowl, then shook the wet from her muzzle. “To correct your words just now,” she said. “It is not wing-magic, it is body-magic. The wings are only one part of the body, and your friend does not have wings. She may learn to strengthen her other assets—if the magic ‘translates’, as you say. Or she may learn nothing. If it can be taught, Khyrast will teach it. He is uniquely suited to it.”

Four pony ears perked at that, and two heads tilted to various degrees. That gesture “translated”, at least. Phoreni fixed her eyes on her peryton friend, and again she smiled, something she’d done a lot more since he joined them.

“Among many other things, Khyrast is a teacher of this magic, of our only magic.”

“Oh. Okay, cool,” said Dash, trying to sound like this fact interested her a lot more than it did.

“I’m sure Rarity has said so already, but even if it doesn’t work, thank you for trying to share it,” said Fluttershy.

Phoreni’s eyes were still on Khyrast. “Few things are so sacred or secret as not to be shared. This I should have told you when we met, before I accepted the charge. Do not ask for the secret of our paints, do not pluck any bright yellow flowers with red leaves—it will ruin the foragers’ bounty next year—and do not do violence to us.”

“And stay away from trying to get you to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’,” added Dash with a short-lived chuckle.

Phoreni shrugged. “If you wish for the list of what is considered rude, we will be here all day, but you cannot give such insult as to make me wrathful without trying, I am sure.”

“Speaking of all day,” said Rainbow Dash, shifting her weight a little. “What about these games?” She’d been wanting to ask for a while now. Ever since they had been told about the games, truth be told, but people kept talking about other stuff.

“The Brush Games,” said Phoreni. “What of them?”

“I dunno, tell us about them!” Dash said. Her blood was up in an instant at the thought of a proper contest. “How do we compete? Do we have to sign up? What’s the prize? Last pony—or peryton—standing when the storm hits, how’s that work? Lay it on me!”

“It would be nice to know a little more about them, at least, if you don’t mind telling us,” said Fluttershy by way of support.

“I can explain,” said Phoreni, finally turning her attention to the two ponies in full. “You already understand we are heading to the Sunwise Run, where many of the games are held.”

“We don’t know what that is, but yeah,” said Dash.

“It is where all the games that do not require swimming or stalking happen, where most will wait to watch, where those who do not compete will encourage those who do.” Phoreni pointed off into the trees towards the large platform Rainbow Dash had seen earlier, wedged between three trees.

“That is the Sunwise Run,” she said, those last two words spoken with weight now. “All games are open to all who wish to compete, though our young may not join the stalking, for fear of losing them in the forest. I suspect stalking will not be of interest to you, either. It involves knowing the lay of the land, and skill at not being found. You would be at a disadvantage not having the former—and perhaps for your more vivid colours.”

“So, it’s a little bit like hide and seek? I can be very quiet,” said Fluttershy, smiling.

“Hiding? Evading pursuit by the hunters. If you stay still, you will be found, and you will enter the chasing,” said Phoreni. “It takes a toll on the body.”

“Oh. Chasing,” said Fluttershy, her ears flat against her head in a second. “I think I’ll pass. Chasing is bad. I don’t like chasing. And being chased is even worse.”

Rainbow Dash snerked and extended a wing the tiniest bit, just to poke Fluttershy with a single feather. “You can just pretend that they want to invite you to watch the dragon migration and you’d never be found or caught.”

Fluttershy exhaled through her nose and gave Rainbow Dash the mildest of glares. “So, what other games do you have? Are there any that aren’t as, well, scary?” asked Fluttershy.

“And that don’t require you to fly?” asked Rainbow Dash. She grimaced and managed to just barely get one wing lifted away from her body without spreading it. “I busted my wings a bit. Hydra fighting and flying hard and all that.”

Phoreni made a sympathetic noise and nodded. “This does not surprise me. You have spoken much of flying, but I have not seen you take flight since our meeting. Will you be well?”

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be fine, I just need to stay out of the air for a few days.” She closed her eyes and sighed deeply as she felt Fluttershy’s hooves both under and over her wing-joint, the other pegasus gently feeling her way around. Though Rainbow Dash didn’t hesitate in calling herself an expert on wings and feathers, Fluttershy knew her way around muscles better than Dash did. Fluttershy stopped all too soon.

“I just wanted to see if you were still tense,” said Fluttershy, letting go. “Sorry.”

“Sure. Thanks,” said Dash, blinking heavily and shaking her head. “Uh, we were talking about what? The games! Yeah, so, any cool non-flying things?” she asked, desperate hope creeping into her voice. Just when she’d found peryton who liked flying, she was grounded. What if Phoreni didn’t think she was any good at flying at all?

“That is what we were talking about,” said Phoreni, nodding. “There are no flying games, and wings are not allowed in any of the contests. That is why they are the Brush Games. The Cloud Games are held in the cold season, the Brush Games at the bridge between summers.”

“Oh,” said Rainbow Dash. She couldn’t decide if that was lame or awesome, but it was convenient at least.

“The stalking I have mentioned, and it happens outside the Grove. Swimming is held at the Glittering Pools to the west, and the rest are held at the Sunwise Run. There are games of circles, of speed, of agility, of wingless jumping—”

“Wait, hold on, circles? As in, toss the flat frisbee thingy?” asked Dash to a questioning look from Fluttershy. “I played that in Orto!”

“Toss the flat ‘thingy’.” Phoreni repeated the words slowly. “That… I suppose that may speak of the same game. Some games are not unlike other games played in other cities. I know that Stagrum holds swimming competitions every summer as well. It was told to me by a trader who took an interest, but the games are not the same every year. That is why I cannot tell you exactly what the contests are; they change and we improvise when we must or wish. The tests of agility change, the run changes,” she tapped her hoof on the wooden floor as she rattled the items off. “Swimming can not change much, the stalking is the same, circles may have the rings changed—”

“How can you tell who’s the best if you change stuff all the time?” asked Rainbow Dash, frowning. This made no sense at all. “You don’t have records?”

“Records? Written ones?” Phoreni asked.

“Kinda! Like, an all-time champion at circles? The fastest run ever?”

Phoreni shrugged. “We do not. That would scatter the focus of the contest in the now. What matters is the champion of any of the games this season, and anyone may compete. Child or adult, warden or forager, everyone is welcome, and when we change the terms, some who would not otherwise compete may be tempted into trying.”

“I think that sounds wonderful, really,” said Fluttershy, smiling at Rainbow Dash. “Isn’t it good if more people try their hoof at something?”

Rainbow Dash gave a grudging nod. “Okay, yeah, I suppose that’s cool. But there’s still a winner, right?”

“Of course. There must be a champion for each game, and they get the honours, but if renown is your concern, there is always the joust. The joust never changes,” said Phoreni, glancing off the edge of the platform. “But sunlight is changing. I will explain it on the way. Khyrast!”

Rainbow Dash hadn’t looked over at, or even thought about Rarity and the other peryton for a good while. The unicorn hadn’t moved at all, focused like she only ever was when working on her designs, horn still softly glowing. Khyrast muttered a few words under his breath and sauntered over to their table.

“I am needed?” Khyrast asked.

“The midday horn will sound soon, and we have flightless among our number. We must move if we wish to be at the Sunwise Run in time for the opening,” said Phoreni.

Now that she mentioned it, Dash noticed the café-or-whatever platform they were on had become increasingly empty over the past hour. The lone stag at the neighbouring table left without having eaten anything, and even as she watched, some of the peryton managing the stalls put food away and leapt off the platform to soar—most towards the Sunwise Run.

“I did not think of the flightless,” said Khyrast, nodding. “You have foresight. I will take Rarity along the ground-paths. Will we all go together?”

Phoreni looked to the pegasi, frowning. “It will take longer by ground. I had thought to ask these two if they would like to see the other high places, to show them some things that may be new to them—places I would like to see if I had not seen them. I have now learned that Rainbow Dash has been reckless and can not fly today.”

“Hey, I busted that wing fighting your hydra,” said Dash with a snort, but it didn’t get much of a reaction. She’d be angry about it if that was the full truth. Dash deflated a bit. “Meh, I’ll go with Rarity then.”

“Oh, um, maybe we should all go together, really,” said Fluttershy.

“What, you don’t want to see the city?” asked Dash. The idea annoyed her. For a split second she thought it was envy—and sure, that too—but there was no point in them all missing out. “Just go with Phoreni. You get along fine, right?”

“Will I mind? I am willing, but it is your decision to make,” said Phoreni, shrugging.

Fluttershy hesitated only for a second, then nodded. “Okay. If you’re sure you’re alright with it,” she said, shuffling her wings. “Um, both of you.”

Rainbow Dash gave Fluttershy a lopsided smile and ground the top of her head against the other pegasus’ neck, giving her a little push. “Why would I mind? That’s stupid. You go on, we’ll catch up.” She stuck out her tongue. “Catch up. Ugh, I don’t think I’ve ever said that before.”

Fluttershy giggled and spread her wings in full, nuzzling Rainbow Dash. Now it was Dash’s turn to fight a blush, her cheeks tingling ever so slightly. She hadn’t expected Fluttershy to be affectionate in public. This was all backwards. Her wings itched. Backwards and awesome.

“Hey, uh, want me to take your saddlebags?” asked Dash to distract herself.

“I think I can handle it,” said Fluttershy with a smile, walking with Phoreni to the edge of the platform.

“Right, have a good time and stuff,” said Dash, waving.

“Fly straight ahead until I turn, you do not want to ascend or descend for a little while when you leave the Promise,” said Phoreni, fixing Fluttershy with a stern look. “Else, you may collide those who leave other platforms.” Fluttershy nodded her understanding, and they were off, just like that. Rainbow Dash scratched at her cheeks with the nook of a leg and turned to Rarity and Khyrast who wrapped up their lesson, talking in low tones by their table.

The tunnel inside Helesseia’s Promise was every bit as cramped and awkward going down, even with just the three of them. Rainbow Dash had to walk a cramped and creepy tunnel because she couldn’t fly. Just like how the stairs back up to the middle platform had been awkwardly narrow without any other—or a very specific—pegasus around as backup: because she couldn’t fly. It had been less than a full day, and already she had to work hard to force herself to think of other things.

“So, magic stuff going well?” asked Dash, breaking the silence.

“Well,” said Rarity, exchanging a brief glance with Khyrast. “It is a little hard to gauge my progress because I’m an adult learner, and while Khyrast’s teaching is very pedagogical, it’s hardly intuitive.”

“Is it because it’s not unicorn magic? Twilight’s taught you a lot of spells, right?” Dash asked, ducking under a thin, low-hanging branch that somehow stuck out from the inside of the tunnel wall.

“And I’ve taught her a few in turn,” said Rarity, nodding. “But yes, that may be it. We even tried to see if Khyrast could grasp one of my spells, and, well. It’s not quite that easy.”

Khyrast nodded as well, the gesture larger on his bigger frame. “I know the location of every locus in the peryton antler. I suspect unicorns have fewer, but the way I understand Rarity’s instructions, she asks me to do many things I cannot, so they are stronger or different.”

“Uh, hang on, I thought you didn’t want to learn spells,” said Dash, trying to think back.

“Were those my words? I do not recall them exactly,” said Khyrast. “I felt it would be a wasted effort as I would never use them, but I am a teacher, and I have a love for knowing,” he added with a shrug. “I did not want to impose, but when it became relevant to my task of teaching? It was not a waste.”

Rarity nodded and smiled appreciatively. “And if you someday change your mind, what I told you might help you figure out grooming magic and such.”

“That is not impossible. I simply have no desire to do this, not now,” said Khyrast, sounding almost cheerful. “And you have made progress on our magic, too.”

“Did you figure it out? Show me!” said Dash, grinning. “C’mon. Flaunt it!”

Rarity chuckled. “I made progress, that doesn’t mean I have it figured out.”

Khyrast tilted his head, one eye on Rarity. “You are a fast learner. Your aptitude for detail and finesse is unlike anything I have ever seen,” he said. “You can apply the magic, but you are perhaps too restrained. I cannot teach you to lose restraint.” He clucked his tongue.

“We still talking about magic, right?” asked Dash.

“I should think so,” replied Rarity, pursing her lips.

“Am I? For peryton, magic is tied to the body and the mind. I expect it is the same for you. So, I may or may not be,” concluded Khyrast.

Dash nodded. “Okay. Cool. So, topic change, tell me about the joust!”

Rarity blinked. “The joust?”

Khyrast let out a low sound that might’ve been a chuckle, echoing and soon lost in the wooden tunnel. “You are eager for the games. I see energy in you like I do in some of my students. I will tell you of the joust.”

“It’s one of the games,” Dash told Rarity, moving a little closer to walk right behind and between the two. “Sounds like it’s the most important one.”

“The joust is the most central game to the Brush Games, and it is the game to end each day, held when all other games are done,” said Khyrast, his eyes ahead. They exited the tunnel, filing out onto the ground in the shadow of the great tree. He didn’t pause to look around like Phoreni had, immediately turning around the great root that housed the tunnel entrance to walk them up the side of the crater whilst he spoke.

“I do not know what Phoreni has told you of the Brush Games, so in simple terms? Each game will have a winner for the day, though all who participate are celebrated. When the games end, the winner for the last day becomes champion—and remember, the games end when the storm hits, so all must try their hardest every day.”

Khyrast turned them left, following the trunk of another great tree. For a while they walked in its deeper shadows, the air a little cooler. He stepped over a rent in the earth made by a root just barely poking up from the ground.

“Mind your step,” he said, smiling. “Now, the joust alone is different. Most joust only once, and so, the champion is the one who performed the best on any one day. There is no winner for the one night.”

“Sure, but what is it?” asked Dash, moving around to walk abreast the others, pinning the peryton with a stare. These weren’t simple terms. This was everything she didn’t need to know. “What do you do?”

“We enter the arena with the intent—”

Dash suppressed a groan. “Okay, let me try again before you say a bunch of wishy-washy stuff. Imagine you’re jousting right now. What do you do. What’s the challenge? What does your body do?”

Khyrast shrugged. “We charge at each other, lock antlers, and try to wrestle each other to the ground.”

Dash’s elation at finally getting a clear answer was short-lived. She hopped over a rock rather than go around it. They’d stopped climbing, and circled around the center of the Grove now, making for three huge trunks in the distance.

“We don’t have antlers, though,” Dash said, her excitement solidly blunted. She glanced over at Rarity, assessing her horn, and the unicorn must’ve seen her intent.

“Darling, if you think I’m going to run at someone and risk receiving an antler in my eyes, you must be mad,” said Rarity. “I don’t think I even want to watch that from the stands.”

This time, Khyrast did laugh. It was a short burst, a caw so quickly ended that it almost sounded like a cough, but it was obvious he worked to keep his face straight. “Injuries do not—well,” he corrected himself. “Do they happen? It is very, very rare, and usually a sprained muscle in the neck at worst. The object is not to harm.”

They finally neared one of the three great trees of the Sunwise Run, and they weren’t alone on the ground. Scattered groups of peryton were on the same heading as they, moving towards the three trees, all of them with one or more children escorted by adults or adolescent peryton. The excitement in the peryton was palpable even if they didn’t jump for joy: the stoic and reserved Ephydoerans were noticeably more animated.

“You’ll forgive me if I remain unconvinced,” said Rarity after a moment.

Khyrast nodded slowly. “Will I accept that? I must, but let me try to explain again before you think we are brutes who fight for sport. The winner is not the one who wrestles the opponent to the ground. The winners are they who provide the most delight. The ones who surprise and elate. In most bouts, there will be a winner, but the ones who fight are not always opponents, and no one truly ‘loses’. These are ancient games, but they have long since lost their purpose of proving strength. We have other games for that.”

“Then how do you tell who wins?” asked Rainbow Dash. “Do you... vote?”

“In a sense, you are right. The High Warden, the First Nurse, the head of teachers—that is myself—and others will discuss it, but we listen to the drums of hooves on wood, the applause that appreciates the best story told on the Sunwise Run.”

“You make it sound like theater, like a play being put on,” said Rarity.

“Is it a play? It is that, as well. In many ways, it is an expression of what it is to be Ephydoeran,” Khyrast said with a nod. He pointed to one of the many busy tunnels set in the tree before them. “Let us ascend.”

The Sunwise Run wasn’t as big as the Ortosian plaza, but that didn’t save Dash from the shock of exiting the tunnel and stepping onto the large, flat area high in the tree-tops. Standing on the Sunwise Run felt more than a little surreal.

The three neighbouring trees interwove as though they were trying to hug each other close, but the branches that touched were all nearly perfectly level. Any gaps were filled with expertly fitted and smoothed woodwork—or at least Dash assumed that was the case all over. She could only see a bit of patched wood nearby; once they were over the threshold of the tunnel’s exit, she could see very little else at all. Peryton were still a fair bit bigger than the ponies, and it only took a small crowd to block their view.

That left her with looking up. If she had doubts that the platform would hold the entire Grove, even with it being a lot smaller than the cities of Orto and Stagrum, the solution lay in the trees. Hollows had been carved into the trunks above, with galleries and small viewing platforms both jutting out from the main trunks and resting on the higher branches. Many of them were empty for the moment, and a team of three unpainted peryton does busily worked on another spectating spot right overhead, using hoof- and mouth-wielded tools and some sap-like fluid on pieces of wood.

“Those are certainly not without… artistic merit, but I don’t know that I recognise them,” said Rarity.

Rainbow Dash followed Rarity’s eyes along the trees higher up still, to right above the uppermost galleries before the trees became a mass of branches and leaves to block out the sun. Each of the three great trees had a figure sculpted into it, far larger than any stone stele or other carving they’d seen so far.

“These three watch over the Brush Games and all other games held here at the Run,” said Khyrast, and Rainbow Dash got the distinct impression he wasn’t explaining, but reciting what he must’ve told hundreds of young peryton through the years. “From the tree to our left, Helesseia presides over those who gather, bringing strength and the fires within and the fires without,” he said, gesturing to a regal peryton with its snout pointed skywards and massive wings wrapped about itself, obscuring its body.

“To our right, Selyria protects those who come here to compete, warding our journeys and dreams, ensuring all our safe returns.” Dash frowned at the imposing sculpture of a peryton with a sharp beak rather than a muzzle, many-winged and rearing up, powerful body in full view making it look very different from the abstract sculptures of Selyria that they’d used for cover during so many nights so far.

“Finally, above us, Glandros encourages us to seek to exceed our own limitations. Though these three watch over us, most relevant of all the Aspects, there are smaller carvings to give each of the Aspects their place at the Run.”

Rainbow Dash craned her neck to look up, but it was impossible to get a good look at the sculpture right above them excepting a large hindleg and a closed talon kicking out. She shrugged. “They don’t look like the stuff we’ve seen before.”

Khyrast nodded at that. “I once guested one from Vauhorn who said the same. That they were curious. These are very old. If that makes them wrong to some, then those are words to which I have no response.”

“I think I rather like these less abstract, more… personable depictions, myself,” said Rarity, still looking at the Helesseian statue far above. When she finally managed to tear her eyes off it, it was to look around them, bringing her face to face with what Rainbow Dash had already gotten frustrated with: the crowd. “Hm. Unless we wish to spend our time watching peryton flanks, this isn’t a very good spot. Where should we go? Rainbow Dash, dear, do you see Fluttershy anywhere?”

Rainbow Dash gave Rarity a blank look that the unicorn didn’t notice. Without her wings and the ability to fly up and look, Dash didn’t have much to offer in that regard.

“We will have to push forward for a good spot, but there is time still,” said Khyrast, stepping aside to let a pack of younger peryton past. He ushered the ponies away from the tunnel entrance, to a quiet spot in the shadow of the tree they’d ascended, right under some empty galleries. “If you will wait here, I will find my love, and your friend. Phoreni explained that you have difficulty telling us apart, and the yellow one will no doubt be lost in the crowd for her smaller size, hard to spot by herself.”

“Your love?” Rarity asked with a gasp. “I did not know you were—do you marry? Oh my, I never realised that I never thought to ask, how do your relationships function?”

“Rarity, come on, we’ll never get to the games if we keep talking!” Dash groaned.

“Dear, that is not how time works,” Rarity retorted.

“There is nothing to tell. Ours is a love like but unlike many others. I like to think perhaps it is stronger than most,” said Khyrast, his neck stretched to look over the forest of antlers. “I think I see her pride. I will be back.”

“Quite the romantic,” remarked Rarity dryly when Khyrast disappeared into the crowd. She glanced about, then sat down against the wall of the trunk behind them, curling her tail around her.

Rainbow Dash didn’t comment, still trying to get a good look at the center of the Run. Every now and then she got a clear view of what she thought was some sort of stairs going down closeby. Maybe it wasn’t all flat after all. A trio of painted peryton looked as though they would walk past, but at the last moment, one of them pointed to the ponies.

“—the ones who left the Grove under last moon,” one of them said, words partially drowned out by the crowd. “Why are they still here?”

The smallest of the three peryton nudged the speaker in the side and pointed ahead. “They are Phoreni’s charge, do not—”

Whatever else they said, Dash couldn’t hear. The short peryton nodded at them, entirely expressionless, and they moved on. Rainbow Dash felt the back of her neck tingle unpleasantly.

“Did you hear that?” Rarity asked.

“Yeah,” Dash said. “I guess we were right. Phoreni’s stuck her neck out for us. Ugh.”

“Quite the turn-around for someone who didn’t seem very keen on the responsibility at first,” the unicorn remarked. “Let’s be grateful rather than dwell on the past, hm?”

“I know,” Dash grunted.

“But, we were speaking of romantics,” Rarity said, and Dash could hear the smile in Rarity’s voice alone. Rainbow Dash felt her entire body tense up, ready to run. She looked up without thinking, finding no clouds to hide behind. That particular reflex that had served her well when Rarity wanted an unmoving model, or Applejack wanted to talk about—she didn’t know what, something uninteresting. Apple farming?

“I trust that things are well between you and Fluttershy so far?”

Dash sighed, exhaling the tension away. She didn’t know what she expected, but that question was harmless enough. She turned around on the spot and wandered over to sit next to Rarity in their little nook.

“Yeah, things are pretty good,” Dash said, smiling lazily.

Pretty good?” Rarity asked, one brow arched. “You seemed very close just now, at breakfast.”

Dash grinned at that. “Heh, yeah, we were, weren’t we? Nah, things are great. I just don’t want to mess this up—ugh,” she crinkled her snout in disgust. “Which I’m not gonna, obviously. Jeez, when did I get to be this lame?”

Rarity chuckled. “I think I would be more worried if you weren’t at least a little bit nervous—even you, Rainbow, dear.”

“Whatever,” Dash grumped.

Rarity shook her head and smiled, inspecting one of her forehooves. “Well. I hope you understand that if I’m here for you. For both of you. But I am glad if things are going well. I doubt either you or Fluttershy are going to do anything to hurt each other, anyway.”

“Of course not,” said Dash, frowning. If there was anything even more unthinkable than Dash messing something up, it was Fluttershy doing the same. She leaned back against the tree. “Stuff’s just different, you know? Talking. Touching.” She felt her ears warm up a little bit, but as long as she ignored it, it didn’t count.

“I should think so,” said Rarity, smiling at her.

“A lot of stuff’s been very different,“ Dash added, her eyes on the mess of peryton bustling in front of them. Stuck waiting here, she got tired just from watching it, so she closed her eyes.

“I won’t argue with that,” said Rarity. “At any rate, perhaps it’s a little early for me to even ask how things are. You’ve barely been together for a day, but you sound like you have a handle on it, so to say,” she added, like it was the simplest thing in the world. “I know you’ve been friends for longer than I’ve known either of you, but I like to think I know each of you, too. In fact, I probably know things about either of you that you don’t know about the other, which is—”

“Like what?” asked Dash, popping one eye open to stare at her. “What’d she say?”

Rarity let out an exasperated sigh. “She has said nothing, I am saying that I like to think I know you two. I’m trying to… lend a little authority to what I was about to say before you so rudely interrupted me.”

Dash perked her ears as subtly as she could. “Which is?”

“Which is,” said Rarity, her voice prim, “That because I know you two, I can safely say that as long as you trust and love each other, you will be wonderful together.”

Part of Dash wanted to laugh because it sounded too corny. Another part of her wanted to laugh because it was obvious. Instead, she just nodded dumbly, so maybe there was a third part to it all.

“Yeah, we will,” said Dash. Sure, they were different, but she wasn’t going to let that stop them. Silence settled over the two ponies once more as Dash again watched the Ephydoerans. Stern-faced wardens patrolled here and there, and though they gathered and talked in groups, none of them were half as animated as any of the Ortosians or Stagrumites ever were, and the green and blue-painted peryton would look almost as out of place in Stagrum as the ponies did.

It wasn’t like Dash and Fluttershy had to be all that different, anyway. All the touching and nuzzling promised to be more fun than she’d expected, too.

If her wings weren’t acting up, Dash might’ve insisted they go flying in the treetops yesterday, and who knows how that would’ve worked out? If Dash got some crazy idea into her mind that she wanted Fluttershy to try, Fluttershy probably wouldn’t have been half as happy with how the evening had turned out. Rainbow Dash would’ve had to watch Fluttershy’s smile fade, hesitant and pained until she relented—or didn’t.

Instead of doing something Rainbow Dash would’ve liked to do, they met in the middle. Or, they did something Fluttershy liked, really, but making Fluttershy happy made Rainbow Dash feel good, too, so that was a win.

“Hey, thanks,” Dash added, a little more quietly. She felt a hoof on her side, but Rarity didn’t say anything else. Dash was thankful for that, too, content to wait in silence.

“There you are!” said Rainbow Dash, jumping up to stand when she spotted three familiar faces emerging from the ever-growing crowd. “Did you get lost or something?”

“We’re sorry we’re late,” said Fluttershy, trotting over to grab both Rarity and Rainbow Dash in a tight hug around their necks. “We spent a little too much time elsewhere, so when we got to the Sunwise Run, there were too many people here. We weren’t allowed to land. We had to use the tunnels. Poor Khyrast has been looking for us forever, and we weren’t even here!”

“Yet, when we did arrive, his memory played tricks. He said he left you under the protection of Selyria, but here you are, in Glandros’ charge,” added Phoreni with a quick glance up at the tree that gave them shadow.

“Let us save a portion of blame for later. You were late. Maybe we should meet in the joust and settle it,” said Khyrast, but it didn’t sound like a challenge or even an argument. Rather, the two looked at each other and smiled. Phoreni even shifted her wings on her back a little, though Dash didn’t know if that meant anything to peryton. Was she excited?

“The treetops of the Grove were a little scary,” said Fluttershy, low so only Rarity and Rainbow Dash could hear. “But it was a lot of fun, too. I wish you could have seen it. I’m sorry.” She squeezed them tight before she let go.

Dash leaned forwards to push up under Fluttershy’s jaw with her snout, grinning. “Come on, if you hadn’t gone, none of us would get to look around.” She stared at Fluttershy’s saddlebags. They bulged. “Did you get find anything cool? What took you so long?”

“I’ll show you later,” said Fluttershy, smiling, her cheeks still glowing from the nuzzle. “Phoreni told me all about the joust. Did you see the other games yet?”

“What you see here,” said Rarity, gesturing to their little corner, “is the extent of our exploration.”

“Yeah,” said Dash, moving a little closer to their two peryton friends, who talked in low tones by themselves. At least, she’d decided to think of them as friends, despite their weirdness. “Hey, wanna go do whatever it is you do? Find some games?”

“That is what we are here to do,” said Phoreni, pointing towards the middle of the platform with her antlers. Where peryton had been milling about in every direction before, chatting and whatever else, now there was a general movement inwards. “Let us get a drink from a water carrier and make for the center.”

The ‘center’ was in fact the vast majority of the Sunwise Run. Rainbow Dash didn’t often wish she was taller—and she’d have to be an awful lot taller to see over the crowd anyway—but it was stupid to think how long they’d spent waiting on what was just the outer ring, especially when a quick hop and a hover would’ve shown her everything if she had the use of her wings. She’d guessed right anyway: There were in fact stairs, and while those stairs ran the entire length of the imperfect triangle of the platform, it was only a few steps making vast and broad concentric depressions. It let them get an overview, though, and probably served as seating.

Below, peryton set up all kinds of contests. One large flat area was covered in what was either sugar or brilliant white sand, and peryton ferried in some large, odd-looking saddles. Right ahead, just down the steps, peryton assembled a high jump, and further on, more of them set up large, vertical rings next to a small track that reminded her a lot of the Ortosian game of circles.

Scattered groups of peryton sat on the stairs all around with bowls of food and jugs of water. While it wasn’t as claustrophobic as the streets of Stagrum, it was plenty crowded for collisions. Rainbow Dash yelped as something struck her in the side and whirled around.

“Hey, watch where—” she began, sighing when she came face to face with a wide-eyed peryton half her size. She grinned. “Careful, squirt,” she finished, a little more quietly. She reached out to ruffle the little thing’s lack-of-mane, maybe give her a light noogie or something, but the child darted off.

Dash rubbed at where the short, blunt antlers had poked her in the side, vaguely aware that Fluttershy looked at her, boring a hole with a smile.

“What?” Dash asked, squinting.

“Nothing,” said Fluttershy. Dash felt her cheeks heat up and stepped a little closer so her shoulder touched Fluttershy’s. Rarity and the peryton were talking. If they were gonna stop for a second, she might as well be comfortable. She spotted an obstacle course of some kind in the distance, and at the far edge of the Run, painted peryton flew around the rim of the platform, probably telling others to use the tunnels.

“You’ll be careful, won’t you?” asked Fluttershy, frowning at her. “Some of these games look a little scary.”

“I don’t need to be careful,” said Dash, grinning. “I just have to win. And hey, that goes double for you. The winning and the careful stuff.”

“Oh, I don’t know that I’m going to compete,” said Fluttershy, her tail drooping.

“Seriously?” asked Dash. “Look around! This isn’t some sort of Equestrian Games or whatever, this looks more like, uh,” she paused, thinking. “I don’t know, a hang-out. Look at it, nearly everyone’s working on setting up stuff! It’s like that snowball fight that broke out in the market square last winter!”

Fluttershy chewed her bottom lip and looked down at all the preparations. She nodded slowly. “Maybe? If we go together, I’m sure I could try, but I don’t know.”

“They said it’s all about trying. All their children are competing, too,” Dash pointed out.

Fluttershy nodded slowly, her wings brushing against Dash when she let them hang a little loose. Dash felt a little stab in her gut at that. Was she doing it again? Was she trying to egg Fluttershy on? She looked at Fluttershy, searching for any trace of reluctance—

“I’m sure I could try the game over there,” said Fluttershy, pointing to the far side where they were setting up the variant of circles. “It looks almost like a party game.”

“Sure, that sounds cool,” said Dash, masking her sigh of relief with a smile. She’d already decided she wasn’t going to ask again if Fluttershy said no, but it was obvious that Fluttershy was at least a little excited, too. Her ears were straight and her wings free. “Let’s go see if they want help setting it up? You gotta at least watch me try the thing over there, too—” Dash said, pointing to the sandpit. “—whatever it is, I want in.”

Fluttershy giggled and nodded. “I’ll try my best cheers.”

“Rarity! Wanna come play circles?” asked Dash. “We’re hitting that one, then the sandpit, come on!”

“I still don’t understand why I can’t toss the discus with my magic,” said Rarity with a small frown of distaste as she held the brightly painted wooden hoop to its matching base. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised with the Ephydoeran stance on magic—excuse me! Is this alright? It’s not too close to the other ring?” she asked, receiving a nod from the games master before continuing her diatribe, “—but I still don’t like the idea of biting this discus thing.”

“Seriously, you’re still not over it?” asked Rainbow Dash, giving the hoop Rarity held a whack with a hoof. It settled with a satisfying click. “Biting on to things to grab them isn’t new to anyone who isn’t a unicorn, you know.”

“I’m not trying to insult pegasi or earth ponies, if that’s what you’re implying,” said Rarity, rolling her eyes. “For goodness sake, Rainbow Dash, am I not allowed to have some hygienic standards?”

“Um. I… don’t think it’s not insulting when you put it like that,” said Fluttershy, tilting her head. She pushed the next hoop-stand a little, aligning it with the others. “I don’t mind, really, but…”

Rarity huffed. “Well, I’m sorry if I came across as rude, but I hope they wash it between uses. I can’t be the only one who thinks so. Do you think that’s everything set up?”

Dash looked about and shrugged. A few other peryton groups who’d been helping out now milled about aimlessly or sat down on the ground. “Dunno. The stag with the red scarf thing around his hindleg stopped barking orders at people, so probably?”

It had taken seconds for Phoreni and Khyrast to introduce the ponies and explain that they were here to play, and the peryton in charge accepted it instantly. Perhaps it was because of Phoreni’s paint? The peryton seemed to listen to those who wore the blues and greens of the wardens, and if Khyrast was some sort of super-teacher, that couldn’t hurt either.

Then again, the more she thought about it, the less Dash believed it mattered. The peryton seemed far more concerned with setting up their games and having a good time than they were with pointing out that the ponies were different. Dash just couldn’t decide if that made more sense, or less sense in this place where the peryton had neither the Ortosians’ curiosity nor the Stagrumites’… whatever it was they’d had. Dash accepted a drink from a water carrier who passed by. The barrel-bearing peryton were lifesavers, every one of them.

“Okay, so, how’s this work?” asked Dash of nopony in particular, scrunching her snout.

“I suppose we ask the ‘games master’ person,” suggested Rarity. “I don’t even know the rules.”

“In Orto, you just ran around the track really fast, then tossed the flat thingy onto another flat thingy,” said Dash. “Then someone helped you up, did some math, and told you you’d lost.”

Fluttershy giggled. “That sounds like half of a story.”

Dash snorted. “Nah, that’s the entire story, really. This isn’t exactly the same though.”

“Are these the rules in full? You understand half of it,” came a familiar voice from behind. Dash froze and grimaced. It wasn’t that the peryton were very sneaky, but she wasn’t good at picking Khyrast out of a crowd yet, which meant he appeared as though from thin air all the time.

“You probably throw the discus through as many hoops as possible?” said Fluttershy, gesturing to the wooden targets they had set up. A tunnel of ever-shrinking hoops led away from the circular track. The first hoop was wide enough for Dash to jump through. The last few were barely wider than the discus. To top it off, they’d been asked to set them up in a slight curve.

“That is what remains the same from year to year,” said Khyrast with a nod. A small distance away, the games master had laid down on the ground, legs tucked together as he talked to some particularly young peryton, gesturing to a discus as he talked. Maybe they were being taught the rules for the first time.

“You mentioned some changes,” said Rarity. “You change the distance between the hoops?”

“And the curve. Twelve seasons ago, we changed the scoring. Usually, it is circles ran in thirty beats of the drums multiplied by the rings cleared.” Khyrast paused to look at the children flocking to the games master, and it was hard not to join in his smile. A whole new generation of athletes. Of discus-tossers, at least, Dash corrected herself.

“D’you have a smaller discus-thingy for the children?” Dash asked.

Khyrast shook his head. “A separate discus for the little ones? We have not made one such, but see the pride when they run their first lap and clear the first ring.”

Dash grinned. “Alright, that’s cool. Where does the line start? Do we get more than one try?” she asked, hooking a foreleg around Fluttershy’s neck. “Let’s give it a go!”

Khyrast frowned for a fraction of a second. “I hope you do not misunderstand the spirit of these games. I should have asked how you conduct your contests of skill, but we do not make ‘lines’. You may try as often as you like, but do not be greedy. If you have a bad throw, you may try again, but take a moment to watch and celebrate others’ efforts before you take another turn.”

Rainbow Dash nodded along quickly. “Alright, as many tries as I’d like, and the best one at the end of the day is the champion. Got it!”

Fluttershy made a small noise of protest when Dash made for the games master, a needless clearing of her throat that was almost lost in the low drone of peryton talking all around them. Rainbow Dash wished she’d missed it, but she didn’t, so she stopped as surely as if her tail had been caught in a doorway.

“Rainbow Dash? Maybe we should let the children go first? We can watch for a little while,” said Fluttershy.

Dash slouched, sighed, hung her head, lay her ears flat and dropped her tail for good measure. “Fine.”

Watching the young peryton try their best at this variant of circles wasn’t as bad as Dash had expected. The group of five settled down by the track-side while the youngest of peryton challenged themselves, and most of the awkward, long-legged balls of downy fluff and claws and blunt antlers gave it their all. Even the ones who didn’t want to try were made to at least lift the discus.

While Dash waited for her turn, the others passed the time with aimless chatter about the history of the games. This variant with the larger track and the hoops was apparently really old—Rainbow Dash didn’t really pay much attention. She rested against Fluttershy’s back, lazing in the midday heat. Having a girlfriend meant having a portable pillow. Dash didn’t stir until the last of the children had run three whole laps, the dizzy stag chucking the discus in the completely wrong direction.

“Gotta love the speed on that one at least,” said Dash, rolling over and getting up. She raised a hoof and cheered, her voice lost among the hoof-stomps and laughter. “Nice going, kid!”

Phoreni stretched as she and the others all rose to stand. “Now, perhaps we should all give it a try?”

“About time!” said Dash. “Hey, you never mentioned the prizes. What do we get when we win?”

“It varies. They fit the contestant,” said Phoreni, leading the group towards the games master by the edge of the circle. “Last time we held the Brush Games, the winner of circles was a warden. He got to choose his next patrol. The winner of the high jump was a toolmaker, and I believe she was gifted some very fine pots for her gardens. The closest friends of the contestants usually help find a suitable reward, and to be asked help find the reward is an honour.”

“That sounds like a lovely custom,” said Fluttershy, nodding and smiling brightly. “That way, you know that they’re going to love it.”

“Yeah, but you can’t put pots or whatever on your trophy shelf,” said Dash, though she honestly didn’t care that much. It wasn’t about the prize so much as it was about the winning—but it’d be nice to know what she was going to get.

“Let’s give this a try then,” said Rarity, fluffing her mane. “I will go first, unless you mind terribly much?”

“I don’t mind,” lied Dash, trying very hard to stand still while Rarity approached the games master. The unicorn was given a discus—accepted with a bare minimum of grimacing before she bit on to it—and instructed to take her place in the circle. Dash had expected that people would pay more attention now that the children were done playing around, but the atmosphere didn’t change much. Some of the spectating peryton started up a steady beat of hoof on wood. Where one set of hooves would be a sharp noise, together they made an echoing drum.

“Rarity the unicorn”, said the games master, the words obviously foreign and awkward to him. “Thirty beats when you are ready. Glandros watches.” It wasn’t a loud announcement, and there was no official go signal. It confused Rainbow Dash a little. She thought she’d delivered something of a white lie when she told Fluttershy this was nothing like the Equestria Games, but now she suspected she’d accidentally told the complete truth. It put the other pegasus at ease, at least. When Rarity began running—well, cantering, really—Fluttershy tapped her hooves along with the beat, and Dash did the same.

“She must be very precise, to take such a leisurely pace,” commented Khyrast when Rarity was on the opposite side of the track.

“Do not be rude,” chided Phoreni. “Their legs are shorter.”

“Come on, faster,” Dash called, protesting their comments with a loud cheer. “Move those legs, girl!”

And so Rarity did. She broke into a gallop for the last fifteen beats. When the unicorn came to a stop by the curved line of hoops, she flicked her head and tossed the discus in an elegant arc through two of the hoops before it hit the side of the third. The drumming broke into light applause, and Dash stomped her hooves as loudly as she could to try to kick it up a notch.

“Five rounds and two hoops, it makes for ten points,” called the games master. Rarity bowed left, right and center before she made her way back to her friends through a few polite nods of acknowledgement as the applause scattered.

“You hold the record,” said Khyrast, nodding slowly. “If you wish to try again later, you may want to see if you can give magic to your legs, perhaps.”

“You did very well,” said Fluttershy smiling. She got up and hugged Rarity lightly, and the unicorn beamed. Dash gave her a little hoof-pump when she looked her way.

“I did feel a little dizzy, I have to admit. I don’t have much practice throwing things in that manner,” said Rarity before frowning. “Khyrast, dear. Did you just say magic? I thought magic wasn’t allowed?”

“The rules are to throw it with your body,” said Phoreni.

Khyrast nodded. “That is the game, to throw using your body, but there is no rule against magic. This puts you at a disadvantage without body magic, but you did well.”

“That is an incredibly inconvenient technicality,” said Rarity, huffing.

“You did your best,” said Dash, trying to sound impressed. “Hey, you could’ve run all the way and probably gotten more laps. You should try that next time!”

Rarity chuckled. “And get all sweaty? Please.” She shook her head. “Fluttershy, dear, would you like to try? None of the others seem to be rushing to it.”

“They will be waiting for our group to finish,” explained Phoreni. Sure enough, there were plenty of other groups of peryton around the track who gave the three ponies and their peryton friends the occasional glance.

“Okay, I can try,” said Fluttershy. She resettled the wings on her back as she got up, pressing them tight against her sides, and Dash immediately leaned over to rub her cheek against Fluttershy’s wings, saying nothing at all. Fluttershy rustled her wings and let them hang loose again, smiling at Dash.

Feathers no longer tortured, Fluttershy stepped into the ring and accepted a discus. The drumming started up again, and Fluttershy closed her eyes for a second, her chest heaving with a deep breath. When she opened her eyes again and sought Rainbow Dash, Dash already looked right back at her, grinning wide.

“You got this. Crush it,” said Dash. Fluttershy probably couldn’t hear her, but the sentiment of her grin got through. Fluttershy put her head down and kicked off—straight into a gallop, turning tight around the track.

Rainbow Dash didn’t know it was possible to feel so good doing nothing at all. Her wings quivered as Fluttershy ran as hard as she could, her mane trailing behind her. There she went, her girlfriend giving it her best. Rainbow Dash yelled something—probably something encouraging, but she didn’t remember what. Now Dash was up on all fours, stomping both her forehooves with every beat.

Twenty-seven beats. Twenty-eight. She wouldn’t make another lap. Fluttershy stopped by the hoops, flinging the discus with the momentum of her run. The wooden thing flew straight through the first three hoops before it missed the curve.

“Awesome!” Dash called. Was the applause louder now? Maybe it was just on account of Dash’s thundering hooves alone. When Fluttershy made her way back towards them, Dash met her with a tight hug around the neck.

“Eight rounds, three hoops. Twenty-four points,” announced the games master. Dash could feel Fluttershy’s breath steadying while her heart still hammered away. She held her close for as long as she could without making it weird for their friends. Fluttershy was flushed but smiling, and Dash touched her own snout to hers.

“That was awesome,” Rainbow Dash repeated under her breath. Fluttershy said nothing, reaching out to wrap a wing around Dash’s neck for a second, leaning her head against her.

The mushy stuff came at a price, though. When Dash didn’t seize the initiative, Phoreni instead made her way to the track, and Dash bit back a groan. At this rate, winter would come before she got her turn, but whatever. She joined in the drumming beat once more, tapping her hooves alongside Fluttershy, Rarity and Khyrast.

The disappointment of having to wait a little longer didn’t last. When Phoreni stepped into the ring, the peryton did in fact perk up a little. They were all a tad more alert, and when Phoreni’s antlers pulsed with light that shot down to her hooves and claws, Dash’s impatience transformed to a touch of concern instead. Phoreni shot off around the track fast enough to kick up dust.

The warden’s hooves scrambled for purchase, but she leaned into the curve until she lay nearly flat. Dash could see her hind-claws dig into the wood, could feel the draft with each of the peryton’s laps. Dash stopped drumming, lost in simply staring, watching. She lost count of the laps. Phoreni ground to a halt, her rear touching the ground with the abrupt stop, waiting a few precious seconds to take a deep breath before she flung the disc. It sailed through the first four hoops, curved through the fifth, and though it hit the rim of the sixth target, it bounced through.

“Eleven rounds, six hoops makes for sixty-six points.”

Maybe the peryton hadn’t woken up before now because, from their perspective, the children were still playing up until this very moment.

Dash snorted at her own dramatics and brushed away the cold tendrils of fear—no, of mild concern—that were trying to get at her heart. She could beat that score. Easy.