• Published 26th Aug 2017
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To Perytonia - Cloudy Skies

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

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Chapter 16

Yesterday’s ‘joust’ was quite the thing to behold, absolutely, but now, without the claps and hoof-strikes of thousands of peryton to drown out my thoughts, I can’t help but think. I woke up early and I feel awful, just plain awful.

It is bad enough that I haven’t made any progress on creating something to woo these Ephydoerans. If that were all, I would manage, but add to it the rigors of travel (I am only now feeling rested, this very morning) and my continuing failure to keep up—

I feel I must mention here, I am ever so glad we are staying in Ephydoera for a week. If we were to return to the road today, I would be crushed. Even if we are spending this time doing sports, it is infinitely preferable to traveling. Our last few days on the road were a little better than the first, but still.

My point: The failure to create anything of worth is far from the full extent of my woes, nor are these concerns of my hindering our travels. In addition, I wonder if Twilight would have grasped Khyrast’s spell by now. I cannot for the life of me bring this spell to life, and I know it has nothing to do with horns and antlers.

At least Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash are engaging each other in a romantic something like a romance. I wish I could say I was only happy for them—because I am, of course I am!—it just makes one feel a little more… alone about these problems.

Mine is a four-fold failure, then! I am doomed to forever find no respite from my fashion disaster, no refuge from the weakness of my body, no solace from the tendrils of jealousy, and no shelter in the wonders of magic, thus—

Ah. No, I think I have an idea, actually.

Yes, if these Ephydoeran peryton are so enamoured with their symbols, and if they enjoy my stylised variants on their known patterns, I have some time before I open the doors this morning. I can utilise their own designs, and create an entirely new line… yes. This will work.

It will work, simply because it has to work. I need success right now, more than ever.


Rainbow Dash woke late. She knew she woke late because her first impulse wasn’t sleeping in. She rubbed her eyes and threw off the clammy blanket. Somepony had thrown open the windows before they left the bedroom.

Dash yawned. No Princess Luna tonight either, and this time she found herself thinking it was a bit of a shame. Princessly visitations were alright, if a little weird. She also remembered that there had been something else missing in her dreams, but she couldn’t tell exactly what. Had she had that thought before? Something about these past two nights was missing, and it didn’t really bother her, she just felt aware of it.

Now she really wished Luna was about so she could ask her. It sounded like a question for a dream-expert. Dash trotted over to the lip of the second-floor gallery, testing her wings. They spread almost fully today, but if there was one area of her life where it paid to think first and act second, it was her wings. She hopped down, landing neatly next to the table with a loud thud, some nearby pottery clattering in response.

“Good morning, dear,” came Rarity’s sing-song voice. Dash yawned again and waved at Rarity’s back. The unicorn busily worked away on a peryton stag’s flank, shaving elaborate patterns into his coat with a magic glow shaped into a wedge, chased by short hairs falling onto the ground as a result. The door stood wide open, and a couple of peryton loitered outside.

Rainbow Dash glanced about for something breakfast-like, but found nothing edible unless she wanted to start licking kelp-cake crumbs off the table. She grabbed a drink of luke-warm water from a bowl on the same table and meandered over to Rarity.

“Would you say that Helesseia’s simple variant symbol needs to be just so? I think it would look better if the bottom was a little flared,” said Rarity.

“Is it changeable? What you have already done is admirable,” said the stag. “I will leave satisfied as it is, with thanks for your labour, and honouring the gift of allowing you to perform it.” He slipped off the thin bench and nodded to Rarity, and the unicorn herself curtsied and smiled.

“My pleasure, truly. Tell the next cust—well, the next one to wait just a moment, if you please, would you?”

Rainbow Dash watched the peryton go. Rarity smiled at the next peryton in line and closed the door with an excuse me. All around the bench, white, brown, grey and cream-coloured fur lay in small piles—and by a small shelf, some folded cloth that hadn’t been there yesterday. Rainbow Dash recognised Rarity’s fabrics mostly because the peryton weren’t big on silks and whatever. One piece hung off the shelf with a vaguely familiar symbol—something that she’d seen on some peryton flanks.

“That yours?” Dash asked, pointing.

Rarity’s eyes followed Dash’s hoof. She winced almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” she said, the word stiff as nothing else. “Did you sleep well, dear?”

“Yeah, sure, thanks,” said Dash, frowning. “What are they?”

“An attempt at fashion. Some flank-covering shawl items that did not go over well,” Rarity said. She didn’t sound sad. She didn’t give the requisite sigh. In fact, she didn’t look at them any more, bent over to clean her workspace area of coat-hairs.

“Okay?” Dash asked, but Rarity said no more. “Right. Anyway, why didn’t you wake me?” Rainbow Dash asked, instead. She was still unsure whether she was supposed to be annoyed or grateful, so she decided not to decide.

“Mm, that was Fluttershy’s suggestion,” Rarity explained, finding her smile again. “We’re both very sorry about your wings, and she thought a little rest might do you good. There’s not much for us to do until Phoreni comes by to pick us up anyway.”

“I guess,” Dash said, leaning against the wall. “Okay, thanks,” she added, smiling. “Where’s she at?”

“Your girlfriend—” said Rarity, pausing on that word for a half-second. Dash grinned. It sounded good to her ears, but did Rarity expect her to blush like a school filly or something? “—is out on an errand. While most dining places are down on the ground, my clientele informed me that if there’s anything to help your wings, their ‘healers’ will be the ones to know. I asked her to get food, and she insisted on asking around a little while she was at it. We’ll have breakfast soon, I imagine.”

Fluttershy flying around a strange city all on her own just to see if she could find something to help Dash’s wings? Rainbow Dash didn’t usually care to do maths, but she was pretty sure this clocked in at somewhere around seventy percent awesome, twenty-five percent nice, and fifteen percent something else. Fluttershy might be the nicest pony ever, but this was above and beyond, even for her. Even for girlfriends, right? Fifteen percent weird.

“That’s cool,” said Dash, summing it all up.

“Indeed,” said Rarity. “Well, would you be a dear and tell the next peryton in line to come in?”

“Why’re you working on all this shaving stuff, anyway?” asked Dash, tilting her head. “If you want us to model some stuff, just let us know. I could probably pull off all these games in a vest and a saddle, just hold the skirts.”

Rarity shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t see the point. They clearly don’t use clothes here, and even if by some miracle a traditional dress goes over well here, who’s to say they will be popular in Cotronna or Vauhorn?”

Dash squinted. “But you love making dresses and stuff. Who cares what the peryton over in Cotronna think? If they love your stuff here, that’s awesome. You’ve gotta try, right?”

Rarity’s snout crinkled. “One, I’ve already tried,” she said, gesturing to the folded fabric on the shelf. “Two, Cotronna is our destination.”

Dash shrugged. “Sure. For the invitation and stuff. So what? You saw the games masters wear those leg scarves yesterday, right? You could make way cooler sashes to go with your dresses, and—oh my gosh, I can’t believe this lameness, you actually made me talk about fashion!” Rainbow Dash grimaced.

“I can probably create a better scarf than the crude things the games masters wore, yes, yes,” said Rarity, waving a hoof. “There is not much point to that, though. No, I must create something perfect.”

Dash snorted. “That doesn’t sound like fun.”

Rarity said nothing more, a painted smile on her face as she gestured to the door, so Dash left it at that. She opened the door just in time to see Fluttershy gliding down to the ground a small ways off. Dash didn’t say anything to the peryton who stared at her, waving the first stag or doe in with a foreleg. Dash was busy.

Rainbow Dash leaned against the doorframe, watching her girlfriend land with fully laden saddlebags. Fluttershy glanced over her back, tucked her newly preened wings tight to her body and leaned low to the ground as she breathed deep. Clearly the little shopping trip had taken something out of her, but when Fluttershy turned and made for the tree-house she held her head high.

Until she realised Dash had been watching her all the while, at least. Now, Fluttershy nearly tripped over her own legs, blushing furiously as she walked past the line in front of their door. None of the peryton seemed to pay them much attention, but when Dash darted in to nuzzle her neck in passing, Fluttershy squeaked and sped up, and Dash couldn’t hold back the laughter any more. She kicked the door shut and stepped back inside.

“Rainbow Dash, if you’re going to bother Fluttershy, at least try not to scare my clients away as you do so,” Rarity said without looking up from her work.

“Bother the Ephydoerans? I don’t even know how to do that,” Dash said, still giggling, but her mood dampened a little when Fluttershy didn’t join in the laughter. Rainbow Dash made her way over to the table where Fluttershy unpacked the food she carried, including a bag of leaves, some roots, and something that was either a cluster of large berries or some very small fruits. What was the difference, anyway? She leaned in for a sniff. They didn’t smell all that bad. It also let her get a good look at Fluttershy to make sure she hadn’t gone too far and upset her girlfriend with a little bit of teasing.

Fluttershy barely seemed to notice her, swiftly setting the table. She didn’t look upset at all. She smiled, in fact, and if anything, she seemed excited.

“Equestria to Fluttershy,” Dash said, frowning. “Well, or, Perytonia to Fluttershy, whatever. You in there?”

Fluttershy finished putting all the food on the table, and fished out one last item from her saddlebags: A low, flat jar closed with fabric and string. She beamed. “I’m sorry, hi Rainbow Dash,” said Fluttershy, leaning over to nuzzle her, catching Dash by surprise. “Are you hungry?”

“Somepony’s feeling good,” said Dash, giggling. “I could eat, but what’s in the jar?”

“That’s a secret,” said Fluttershy, grinning at her. It was almost unsettling to see Fluttershy this happy, but only almost. Dash was helpless not to grin back.

“Alright? Okay, awesome. Uh, is it for me? What is it?” Dash tried.

“You’ll see after breakfast,” Fluttershy said, flexing her wings.

“Oh come on,” said Dash, leaning close to the jar. She sniffed it experimentally, but it didn’t smell at all. “Give me a hint!”

“Breakfast first, surprise later,” said Fluttershy, giggling.

“They accepted gems, then?” asked Rarity from the other side of the room, leaning in to blow away some loose coat-hairs from her customer.

“Yes, but they didn’t really seem to know how much to take, and I didn’t know either, so I just told them what we got for the gems in Stagrum,” Fluttershy replied, sweeping the jar away before Rainbow Dash could “borrow” it for further inspection. She held it up and out of reach from the grounded pegasus. Dash scowled. “They said it was okay since they barter with Stagrum a lot, but I think they’re more used to trading favours,” Fluttershy added.

Rarity hummed. “Excuse me, do you use these Stagrumite bronze slivers at all?”

The peryton stag she worked on nodded softly. “Will we take them? None will turn them away, but if a trade can be made without them, all the better. They are mostly for caravans, are they not? Phostos smiles upon all even trades regardless.”

“That’s the most interesting thing I have heard in my entire life,” said Dash, deadpan. “Rarity! Hurry up and finish, I’m really hungry. Let’s eat!”

“Mhm, I bet,” said Rarity, the soft blue glow of her magic steadily carving patterns into the peryton’s side. “And I assume this hunger has nothing to do with Fluttershy’s little surprise.”

“No,” lied Dash, glaring at Fluttershy’s eye-rolling. “Are you done yet?”

“Now, I don’t want you to get too excited,” said Fluttershy. She cleared some space, moving away the remains of their breakfast to put the jar back on the table.

“Nope, too late for that,” said Dash. Her wings itched until she let them hang a little more loosely on her body. She leaned over the table and squinted.

Rarity wiped her mouth and pushed the water-bowl away. “If it’s dessert, I don’t think I can take another bite,” she said. “Rainbow Dash, you’ve hardly eaten at all.”

“Eating a big breakfast before a full day of games is an amateur mistake,” Dash said, cocking a brow. She cleared her throat and made her voice as flat and stern as she could, mimicking Phoreni’s pitch to the best of her abilities. “Do I look like an amateur? I do not think I do. I look like the pony who’s gonna win big today. Now, what’s in the jar?” She hadn’t stopped wondering, agonising every moment while she waited for Rarity to finish her “carving” and all through the breakfast, too.

Fluttershy undid the jar’s cover, putting the cloth to the side, and a sharp, acrid scent filled the room immediately, let off by the white stuff inside. Fluttershy covered her snout. “Oh my. He said it was strong, but I never imagined—oh goodness, I hope this works.”

“In danger of repeating Rainbow Dash’s words, dear, what is it?” asked Rarity.

“It’s for Rainbow Dash,” said Fluttershy, sticking a hoof into the jar, bringing it back up with a layer of sticky goop. “Could you come over here, please? I need your wings.”

Dash did as asked, frowning at the white stuff and the smell both. “Okay, it’s like… medicine?”

Fluttershy nodded and smiled. “I visited the wardens and asked if they had something that might help you get back on your wings a little faster, like chamomile tea for bed rest, or flushflower for headaches, but they didn’t have anything like that. They said that they like to just get plenty of rest. I think their wings may be a little more fragile than ours.”

Dash shrugged. This was all common knowledge. You couldn’t do much for overexerted wings. Rest up, pack it with ice if the joints swelled, the usual stuff. She hissed and let out an involuntary giggle as Fluttershy started spreading the sticky stuff on her wings. It was cold. Very cold.

“But I did find something. Or, someone,” Fluttershy continued as she slathered Dash’s feathers. “When I was out buying food, a peryton told me that he’d seen me visiting the wardens’ healers. He wasn’t a warden himself, but he asked if I was hurt and needed help. He was ever so nice, and said he used to buy some ointment from travellers from Vauhorn who used it to treat their wings.”

The room lit up as Rarity caught some of Fluttershy’s spill in her magic, putting it back in the jar. “Well, that’s a stroke of luck,” Rarity said. “No offence, dear, but if you’re grounded for one more day, I might go crazy.”

“Nah, that’s fair enough,” said Dash. “There’s a reason I stay in bed when I hurt my wings. Or, you know, crash at Fluttershy’s place.”

“At least you’re aware of how frustrating you can be,” said Rarity, nodding.

“You mean how frustrating it can be,” Fluttershy suggested, grabbing another scoop and applying it to Dash’s wings At some point, the stuff stopped being icy cold—now it felt warm.

“No, dear, I really don’t,” said Rarity.

“Like I said, fair enough,” said Dash, grinning.

Fluttershy rubbed the last of the ointment around the base of Dash’s wings, and Dash closed her eyes, leaning into the touch. It felt nice, really, even when Fluttershy wiped her hooves off on Dash’s side. It was a shame she was finished already. She’d have to bother Fluttershy about a massage again sometime soon—maybe she should try to give Fluttershy a massage instead?

“How are you feeling?” asked Fluttershy. “Any better?”

“It doesn’t feel all that different,” Rainbow Dash admitted. “Hey, can I put these babies back in place yet?”

“Oh, of course!” said Fluttershy. “Sorry. You’re just supposed to keep out of sunlight for at least ten minutes after applying it. You probably won’t notice it helping right away, but maybe you’ll feel better in a day instead of two or three? It’s not magic, but it’s supposed to be very good.”

“Alright. Neat,” said Dash, furling her wings and sitting back down. It might not be magic, but even if it wasn’t even proper medicinal ointment, it was something. She tapped her head against the side of Fluttershy’s neck. “I owe you one.”

Fluttershy bit her lip and smiled. “I’m glad to be able to help,” she said.

With breakfast over, there really wasn’t much else to do. Rarity went over to clean her work-area more thoroughly, and Fluttershy brought the dishes over to the water-pump, giving them a rinse. They agreed that they’d have to leave Uncle Mennau a thank-you note for the use of his place, and luckily, they also agreed Rainbow Dash should probably sit and rest her wings for a little while. It beat doing dishes or cleaning, so Dash did as told.

“Hey, Fluttershy. D’you wanna go see if we can actually find some animals after the joust tonight?” Dash asked on a whim. Fluttershy would probably love that, especially if they didn’t get sidetracked again. Not that Dash’d mind either way.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Fluttershy after a moment, rinsing the dishes with her back turned. “It gets very late.”

“If you do decide to go, please don’t forget to let Phoreni know ahead of time,” said Rarity, leaning in close to scrub the floor with her magic. “I don’t think any of us want to cause another incident. For Phoreni’s sake and our own.”

“We could ask her about animals here,” said Dash, perking up. “She’s a warden, they run around the forest a bunch. If they don’t know where to go do some, uh, animal-watching, then no one does!”

“It’s okay,” said Fluttershy. “I really think we should really just focus on the games, if you don’t mind too much.”

“Alright?” said Dash. She frowned. Sure, it did get a bit late—and that was about as far as her thoughts got before there was a knock on the door. Rarity opened it without looking up, still scrubbing the same spot on the floor.

“If you wish for an appointment—oh, hello, dear,” said Rarity, smiling up at Phoreni.

The peryton warden took one step inside and sniffed the air. Immediately she furrowed her brow and looked about the room until her eyes fell upon Rainbow Dash. Now her mouth hung open. “What have you done?” she asked, her voice hoarse.

“I don’t understand,” said Fluttershy, her breaths quickened and her voice bordering on panic.

“Nor I. The ointment did this?” asked Rarity, frowning deeply. “Is it a side effect?”

Rainbow Dash carefully stretched her wings, just a little. They felt just like before, achy and stiff but otherwise fine. The ointment hadn’t helped, but it hadn’t hurt either. That’s something, she thought, but they were still undeniably green. Both of her wings and part of her back—plus the occasional splotch on her side—were coloured the very same forest green as Phoreni’s top half, the green of the wardens.

While the ponies gathered around Rainbow Dash and tried to figure this out, their peryton friend said nothing, watching them in silence. The door still stood open, and outside, the peryton who’d stood in a loose line before now crowded around it, staring and occasionally talking in low tones amongst themselves.

“So… I guess this is bad?” Dash hazarded. She stretched her wing as far forward as she could, sniffing it. The wings didn’t smell half as strongly now, and a poke revealed nothing. It didn’t leave any of the stuff on her snout. It must have dried already. “It’ll come off, right?”

“It will not come off easily, or soon,” Phoreni finally said, staring at Dash’s wings through narrowed eyes.

“I still don’t understand,” Fluttershy repeated helplessly, her eyes darting back and forth between Dash’s wings and the empty jar. What little ointment was left in the glass container had turned a light shade of green.

“Now, if I recall, this paint is very important to you,” said Rarity, shaking her head slowly. “We’re very sorry if this is a bit of a social misstep, but I assure you—”

Phoreni cut her off with a raised hoof and a glare. She turned her head to glance over her shoulder, looking at the peryton who waited by the door before she answered.

“Is it a misstep?” Phoreni asked, her voice sharp. “I believe it would be good for you to begin packing your things. You cannot stay.”

“What?” snapped Dash. “Are you serious? It’s just some paint!”

Rarity gasped. “You’re throwing us out? Surely you can see that this was just an accident!”

“It was my fault,” said Fluttershy, taking a step forward. “But I didn’t mean to! If you’re going to punish somepony, it should be me.”

“No. Nuh-uh,” said Dash, up in a flash. She pushed Fluttershy aside and stepped in front.

Phoreni let out a long, drawn-out sigh and held up a hoof for silence again. She glared at Dash. “It is not ‘just some paint’, however much you say this. I have told you this and more. Did I ask much of you? I did not think I had asked too much. First, explain to me the circumstances of this shame. It is your turn to help me understand.” She turned to Fluttershy. “Speak.”

Fluttershy nodded rapidly and swallowed, glancing past Phoreni to the crowd.

“For goodness’ sake, can we at least close the door?” Rarity asked in a hissed whisper.

“May we speak in private? You will speak now, and the door stays open,” said Phoreni.

“I—okay, um, so, I visited the big tree—the Promise—and the health station there, the hospital, I don’t know what they called it—”

Rarity stepped up to stand side to side with Fluttershy, opposite of Rainbow Dash. “Darling, please. Breathe,” she said.

Fluttershy paused and took a deep breath as asked, though Dash could see she still trembled. Rainbow Dash leaned a little closer as well.

“I asked for something to help Rainbow Dash’s wings heal, but they didn’t have anything like that,” said Fluttershy. “When I went to buy some food where we ate breakfast yesterday, a very nice peryton said he’d heard me ask for help for hurting wings. He had a jar in his saddle—well, in his bags. He said he had a spare and sold it to me for a gem. It was supposed to be ointment, I was just trying to help!” Fluttershy bit her lower lip.

“This is not ointment,” said Phoreni, pointedly staring at the empty jar. “This is paint for the wardens only.”

“Yeah, we figured that out by now,” said Dash dryly.

“And this paint would not be ‘sold’ by anyone,” Phoreni added, her expression darkening.

“M—maybe the peryton who sold it to me made a mistake? Maybe he thought it was something else?” Fluttershy stammered. “He said he got it from someone else, please don’t be angry with us just because—”

None would sell it to another to be sold, either,” Phoreni snapped. “You cannot tell the truth, you—”

Back. Off!” Dash snarled, taking a step forward. She felt a stab of pain as she flared her wings as wide as she could, shielding Fluttershy and Rarity. “Are you calling Fluttershy a liar? Because if you do, we’re gonna have a big, big problem.” She bared her teeth and pinned her ears flat.

Phoreni took one step backwards, turning her head to one side. Dash had no idea what went into that gesture, but she didn’t care and didn’t move. No one got to talk like that to Fluttershy or any of her friends.

“Please be reasonable,” said Rarity, lowering one of Dash’s wings with a hoof. “Surely you don’t believe we would be so insensitive. We’ve all had a wonderful time together, here. You can’t just throw that away!”

“I was only trying to help,” came Fluttershy’s faint voice from behind Dash.

Phoreni looked over her back to the peryton watching. She shook her head slowly. “Perhaps this is one of the things that do not translate, either. You do not understand the hurt. This is not only offensive to us as a people, but to me.” The painted doe did not even look at them any more. She turned away from them, facing the door. “I will try to look past the hurt in time, but I blame myself. I have not made it clear enough how important the paint is to us.”

“So you don’t believe Fluttershy, then. You believe we did this on purpose,” said Rarity with an unladylike snort. “Why would we?” Dash felt her hackles rise again.

“It does not matter what I believe. It will not come off easily,” said Phoreni. “You are here at my sufferance. At the wardens’ sufferance. Ephydoera will see how callous we are with our tasks and our tools, and we will all be weakened for it.” She walked away, lingering in the doorway where the other peryton now moved aside.

“I ask that you do not harm me further by saying these things do not matter—do you not have things that matter to yourselves? Can those things not be threatened? Are you all so rootless and impossible to harm that you do not see it?” Her voice became impassioned by degrees, but when she finished, Phoreni slumped, slinking out the door with her head low. “I will return soon to escort you north. I will put you on the trade road to Vauhorn, and ask you not to return.”

“Okay, hear me out,” said Rainbow Dash. “If you can find the guy who sold us the stuff—”

“Cease,” said Phoreni.

“Fluttershy, do you remember what he looked like? What was he called?” asked Dash.

“I didn’t get a name,” Fluttershy mumbled into her mane.

“His feather-colours? Anything? There’s gotta be a way to find—”

“Cease!” Phoreni hissed. “Do I care about the details? They are nothing to me, not at this moment.” She gave Dash an intense look. “We will take you to the main trade paths and show you the one that leads to Vauhorn. Do not convince us to do even less.”

“If you would just listen—”

“I will not listen, it is you who must listen,” Phoreni retorted. “You must cease speaking.”

Rainbow Dash exhaled through her nose, making sure to glare at Phoreni, returning her stare. She didn’t look angry right now, but her actions spoke loud enough. It wasn’t the first time Dash had tried to reason with the peryton, and she only kept at it because Rarity seemed to have given up. None of the other five wardens who escorted them spoke at all. They’d been on the narrow forest paths for a while now, and Dash was getting really tired of all the stares her painted wings still earned.

It wasn’t like Rainbow Dash had never been kicked out of a place before. She knew Pinkie Pie, after all, but it was one thing to be banned from Snowmelt’s ice cream parlour for a week. It was something else entirely to be exiled from a city—or a forest? The walk from Mennau’s tree-house to the edge of the Grove was something Rainbow Dash would not soon forget, and Fluttershy had barely spoken since. All those hostile looks from painted and unpainted peryton alike had taken a toll even on Dash, and she was used to a bit of stink-eye in the pursuit of winning.

Dash sighed and tried to get Fluttershy to look at her, but the other pegasus had her eyes squarely on the road, putting one hoof in front of the other. When Dash reached out to touch a wing to her side, Fluttershy didn’t react at all. What was Phoreni’s big idea anyway? She’d made a show of stopping every now and then, announcing what had happened to the curious onlookers. These trespassers have humiliated the wardens. They are being escorted to the Vauhorn trade road without delay. She had flipped from friend to stone-faced warden in an instant.

“Do you want me to take a turn with the cart, dear?” asked Rarity.

Rainbow Dash barely registered the question at first. She glanced over her back at the cart while she thought about it. She’d forgotten she was harnessed to the thing, really, already used to pulling the extra weight and trudging down the endless road.

“I’m fine,” said Dash, shaking her head. “I can’t believe this.”

Rarity said nothing, staring ahead.

“You ever been kicked out of a place before?” Dash asked.

“Unless you count that disaster at the gala, of course n—oh, no, that’s not quite true.” A smile tugged on one of Rarity’s cheeks. “Pinkie Pie and I were… asked to leave once.”


“The very same.”


“Mhm. It’s a wonder Pinkie Pie gets any ice cream from Snowmelt, ever,” said Fluttershy. She didn’t look up, but she wore a wan half-smile herself.

“I don’t know. I think the mystery is how she keeps that place running. Snowmelt’s just a grump,” said Dash, snorting. “And some things aren’t worth kicking ponies out over, if you ask me.” She hadn’t planned that little stab at Phoreni, but Twilight would be proud of her snark.

Twilight probably would’ve also had a plan that got them not kicked out. Or un-kicked-out. Whatever the case, Phoreni didn’t so much as blink. Dash got a stern look from one of their escorts, though. None of them ran, jumped and ducked in the forest nearby like they had on the way to the Grove. If the peryton walked any closer, they’d be force-marching the ponies shoulder to shoulder.

They were well past the hottest part of the day when the narrow, annoying, branches-grabbing-at-the-cart-wheels-y path spat them out onto a wider dirt road. While it would be a stretch to say that the exact place was familiar, the brown dirt road and the distant clucking sounds of the river Meronna definitely registered.

“Lelyrros, take the flight back on the path two short runs east,” said Phoreni. “We will go on patrol before we make our way back to the Grove. The High Warden will think ill enough of me for letting these travellers roost with us, so let us wander until moonrise. We will discuss the route when we are alone.”

One of the painted stags nodded, tilting his head east. The remaining peryton darted through the brush, disappearing in an instant. The stag alone lingered for a moment.

“I will find you,” Phoreni added. “First, I will give the ponies one final favour in setting them on the trade road to Vauhorn. I was given charge. I will see this to its end.”

The warden-stag nodded again, vanishing into the dense undergrowth without a word. Phoreni stared off into the direction the rest of her patrol had gone, silent for a while.

“I do hope we haven’t caused trouble for you, dear,” said Rarity, her ears splayed. “I feel just terrible about this.”

“It’s okay if we have to leave, but please don’t be angry with us,” said Fluttershy, her voice as thin as Dash had ever heard it.

“You’re not actually in trouble this time, are you?” asked Rainbow Dash. She tried very hard to shut up the part of her that wanted to yell at Phoreni for being so stupid about all of this. The hurt on Fluttershy and Rarity’s faces didn’t make it easy, but she also knew that Phoreni had done a lot for them already.

“Be quiet, be still,” said Phoreni, perking her small ears. Did her horns glow ever so faintly just then? Whatever she was doing, Dash’s sympathy rapidly waned. If she was going to keep being a jerk over an accident, fine. See if she cared.

“Now, follow,” said Phoreni, hopping onto the dirt road and waving them on. She didn’t look half as rigid as she had a moment ago, and not until that moment did Dash realise the difference between the Phoreni they’d met on the road days ago, and Phoreni as she’d been when they hung out at the joust—not that it mattered. Dash pulled the cart between the last of the intrusive bushes and frowned.

“Yeah, we’re not really in a rush right now, thanks.” Dash said, letting out a great snort. ”Just tell us which way to go.”

“Rainbow Dash, there’s no need to be rude,” said Rarity, her heart clearly not in it.

“Oh, I’m the one being rude—”

“The paint is important,” interrupted Phoreni. “It is no joking matter.”

“I get that,” said Dash, glaring at her. “We all get it. We got it when you walked us out of town.”

“As important as the paint is to us, our safety matters more, always,” Phoreni continued. They were getting another lecture? Now? Dash stared in disbelief. “Ours is the task of protecting against the Bow. Ours is the guardianship of not just Khosta Forest, but all of Perytonia.”

“You’ve told us all this before. So what?” asked Dash, her voice steadily rising. ”We said we’re sorry, and Fluttershy didn’t mean to do it, but if you don’t believe us? If you’re so mad at us right now? Just tell us which way to go and leave us alone!” The words hurt coming out of her mouth. She’d really pegged Phoreni as cooler than this.

Phoreni slowed her step a little, letting her fall in with the ponies who walked close together. “Fluttershy, ask me a question,” she said, as quiet as Dash had been loud. “Ask me if I believe you had ill intent. Ask me, do I believe your story?”

Fluttershy shrank back against Rainbow Dash ever so slightly, glancing nervously at the peryton when Phoreni leaned in a little closer. “I don’t understand, why?” asked Fluttershy.

“She doesn’t have to do anything you ask,” Dash said, sneering. “You told her you don’t believe her.”

“I am not sure I appreciate the tone either. If I have to be honest, I think we are past the point of humouring you,” said Rarity with a sniff.

“I do not care what it takes to make you do this,” said Phoreni, blank-faced. “I call upon the sum of gifts I have given you. Housing, guidance and food. I am owed this. Ask me if I believe you.”

Dash shook her head, having no idea what Phoreni was on about, but she sounded urgent, almost desperate. It was starting to unnerve Dash. She reached out with a wing to support Fluttershy, but it didn’t look like Fluttershy needed it. The other pegasus stood a little taller, nodding.

“It’s okay. Well, do you? Do you believe that I didn’t mean it? Do you believe what I told you about the stag selling me the ointment?” Fluttershy asked, raising a brow.

“Yes,” said Phoreni, staring at Fluttershy with unblinking eyes. “Yes, I do believe your story as you tell it. No, I do not believe you would lie, steal or mislead.”

“Then nothing of this makes sense,” said Rarity, shaking her head. It took Dash a moment to register that Phoreni had used the words that they supposedly tried never to use here in Ephydoera. Direct yes's and no’s. Was that meant to be a big deal?

“But you still want us to leave,” Fluttershy said, swallowing audibly.

“I can tell you still do not understand what you did,” said Phoreni, and now she, too, sounded sad. She turned away as she spoke. “Perhaps you never will, but you must believe that the pain I felt is real, and that the insult—the affront to the wardens is real, too, but if you are not to blame, then…” she sighed, still fixed on the trees by the roadside. “Then we will understand and move beyond in time. If you can not understand this because your city is so strange it does not let you see, then I am sorry, too, for I have not been greedy enough in asking and learning of you as you have of us.”

“Fine,” said Dash, stopping on the spot and forcing the others to stop with her. This was getting entirely too confusing, complicated, or stupid for her, and she wasn’t sure which. “Then tell us what to do to fix it. Are we still friends at all? What’s going on?”

Phoreni chewed her cheek, silent for a moment before she replied. “Are you forgiven? There is hurt, but these wounds will heal. If you were believed, one could make your case before the High Warden. There are always exceptions, there are always ways to make right from wrong. We do not wish to wring out apologies, we do not wish to punish. If there is an explanation, who are we to jealously cling to our hurt?”

Fluttershy blinked and stared and Dash tried to wrap her mind around all the stuff Phoreni had said, leaving Rarity to speak up. The unicorn’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“So what you are saying,” said Rarity, her every word crisp and precise, “is that you didn’t have to escort us out. You are are saying that you knew of a way to make this right, or at least that you could take us before the High Warden to let us explain properly?”

Dash felt her heart hammer in her chest. “Kicking us out was your idea? This is your call?”

Fluttershy shook her head from side to side. “But… but you’re the one who walked us through the Grove and told everyone we were being taken away just now. Did you lie? I thought you just said you believed us—that you believed me, but you didn’t believe me at all earlier! I don’t understand!”

Rainbow Dash heard the rush of blood in her ears, her muscles tensing up, her jaw creaking as she clenched her teeth. She hadn’t been a little wrong about Phoreni, she’d been dead wrong, as wrong as she could be. The peryton who stood in front of them was the worst sort imaginable, and Dash was an idiot for thinking—

“I do believe you, and I am helping you, now walk with me—” Phoreni began.

“Helping?!” Dash shouted. She pushed and tugged at the harness to get herself free, never mind the straps. “How about I help you a little? I’ll show you how helpful I can be!”

“Be still,” hissed Phoreni. The peryton doe leaned in until she was snout to snout with Rainbow Dash, and the only thing that calmed Dash a little was the concerned look on her face. Anger, Dash could have understood, because she was plenty angry herself, and she wanted Phoreni to show regret, but instead she got concern. Worry.

“Walk with me, please.” Phoreni said, urgent. She drew back and glanced to each side, scanning the surrounding forest before she walked down the road without looking back.

For lack of any better option, with her anger blunted, Rainbow Dash followed, and the others did the same.

“I need to leave soon if I am to catch up to my patrol,” said Phoreni. “I deserve some of your scorn, and you deserve all of my gratitude. Not just for the peryton who might have gotten hurt by the hydra you chased off, but for helping me.”

“We don’t seem to have done much good at all,” said Rarity with a huff.

“Do I struggle with questions of self-worth?” asked Phoreni. “I never have, but you still have made me see in myself joy in showing Ephydoera to visitors. This you cannot take back. You have made me a bigger person. But first, before all, I ward. When I am surprised, when I am uncomfortable, I become what I always have been. A warden. A protector.”

“If you’re trying to say sorry, you’re doing a terrible job,” muttered Dash.

“I did as I planned,” said Phoreni. “Fluttershy, you must now describe to me in detail the kin who sold you the paint.”

Fluttershy gave Phoreni a dubious look. “I thought you didn’t care. Rainbow Dash suggested that maybe we should try to find him, but you didn’t want to hear it.”

Rarity drew a sharp breath, her eyes widening. “Fluttershy dear, it may be best if you tell her as much as you remember. I think I’m starting to see.”

“If only one of you yet understand, I am doing a poor job of explaining,” suggested Phoreni. “I thought I had made this clear as soon as we left the Grove. Our safety may be at stake.”

“You think what happened was deliberate,” Rarity said, lowering her voice. “That someone did this to us on purpose.”

Phoreni nodded. “I believe it may, and that someone did.”

Fluttershy said nothing, expressionless. Dash blinked. “Hang on,” she said. “You think the guy who sold Fluttershy the paint was trying to get us kicked out?”

Phoreni nodded, moving the group along a little faster. “None would sell it. None should. Two crimes have happened today, and your use of the paint is not one of them. The first is that the paint has made its way outside the wardens’ keeping. The other, that you were turned away and made to leave the Grove.”

You did that!” Dash said, groaning with exasperation. “You’re the one who ‘turned us away’. That wouldn’t have been a problem if you’d—”

“If I had let the one who did this know we were on their trail? If I announced that I believed Fluttershy, they would be gone in a moment,” said Phoreni, not missing a beat. “They predicted my reaction to be the reaction of any warden. Who in their right mind would believe strangers—outsiders they have met days before—when they say the unthinkable has happened? We had an audience when I discovered what had happened, and I could not betray that I believed you. Now, because of my subterfuge, the ones who did this believe themselves safe and hidden.” She shook her head. “This only serves a purpose if I am right. If this is malice and not Esorys’ absurd chance.”

Fluttershy looked up at Phoreni, smiling with folded ears. “But you do believe me?”

“I have said this,” said Phoreni, glancing back down at Fluttershy. She took a deep breath before she continued. “Perhaps that makes me unfit to ward. Perhaps I have lost my mind, but I believe you. I have barely met you, but I see an earnestness in your heart that only the greatest of warriors have. I see in all three of you a bond.”

“That doesn’t answer the question of why anyone would do such a thing,” said Rarity, the unicorn’s brow knit in a severe frown. “What could we possibly have done to make someone wish us gone?”

“In looking to solve the mystery of the wayward paint, I hope to find the answer to this as well.” Phoreni sighed. “And now that you perhaps believe me, I may as well say the words: I am sorry for what I had to do. If there is a misguided kin among my people who fears strangers, this is not how one shows it. This wrong will be made right. Perhaps in time I will find someone to carry a letter to tell you what comes of it, but for now, I will show you a clever path to Vauhorn.”

Rarity let the cart catch up to her, rooting around it while they walked until she produced the map Khaird had gifted them. She unfolded it and held it aloft with her magic in front of the ponies. “It’s just the rightmost fork past the river, is it not? Well, the ‘eastern’ fork, I suppose. As much as we appreciate it, I am sure we can find it on our own if you are in a hurry.”

“That is not the path I will recommend,” said Phoreni without looking at the map.

“So you lied—well, misled people about that, too?” asked Fluttershy. “You told everyone you’re taking us to the trade road. Very loudly, too.”

For once, Rainbow Dash understood where this was going. “You think we’re still in danger,” she said. She stared at the trees that surrounded them, but unless they were very afraid of an ambush by bushes, there was precious little terror there.

Phoreni shook her head. “Do I believe you are threatened? I think what happened in the Grove is strange, but I cannot see why anyone would threaten you, unless you have a secret purpose here. If you are diplomats, I see no reason, but safety is my purpose, my calling.” She leaned back to nip at one of her own feathers, frowning when she turned her attention back to the ponies. “I misled everyone, my patrol-flight included, for your benefit, and I will show you a better path just in case. If only for this, you must now believe I care about you.”

“To be quite honest, I don’t know where we stand right now, dear, but I believe you,” said Rarity, sighing.

“I’d like to think we’re still friends,” said Fluttershy with downcast eyes. “Really, I’m very sorry about what happened.”

“I don’t know, sure,” said Dash with a shrug. It was so much easier to believe that Phoreni wasn’t some kind of lying jerk, anyway. “This is still a dumb way to have to leave.”

“Is this the farewell I would have wanted? I lament what has happened, too,” said Phoreni with a full-bodied sigh. “But if we have established trust again, then I now need you to tell me as much as you remember about the stag who sold you the paint. After this, I will give you directions.”

Fluttershy nodded swiftly, Rarity dug around their belongings looking for something, and Rainbow Dash pulled the cart along, keeping an eye out for ambushes from the bushes.

“After… bridge,” Fluttershy said, speaking around the sketching tool she’d borrowed from Rarity. “Marked with red. Straight... ahead. Was that all?” How she managed to write while moving, and on a map Rarity held up for her with her magic, Dash didn’t know, but it was impressive to watch.

“That is as far as my path will take you. You will be out of the Splitwood and close to the coast, close to Vauhorn,” said Phoreni, leaning over to inspect Fluttershy’s writing as though she could read it. “You cannot go astray if you keep to my words. Even should you manage to leave the path or leave the Splitwood entirely, you are trapped between the two trade roads and will know if you have failed to heed my instructions. I am one of few who have walked the Splitwood recently, and my memory is sharp for brush-paths.”

“That was quite a lot of detail,” said Rarity, packing away her writing implements and turning the map around. Rainbow Dash barely looked at it, busy negotiating a particularly bad part of the road. So many rocks.

“If your directions take us all the way to Vauhorn, then this is a very long trip,” said Fluttershy, intently staring at the map.

Rarity chewed her cheek and nodded, lowering the map again to look over at Phoreni. “Exactly how long—or, well, how many statues, I suppose I should ask? They’ve been useful for keeping track of things.”

Phoreni shrugged. “How many guardians of Selyria will you find? It is hard to say. They are not spread evenly throughout these paths as they are on the roads. Do not be shy about bedding early or walking through the night, is my advice. You will be travelling for a week or more.”

“Oh,” said Dash. A week. Or eight days if it’s one of their weeks. Over a week in a forest. “Good. Great.”

“A week,” repeated Fluttershy in a hollow voice. “That means there’s no way we won’t be outside when the storm hits.”

“There is much shelter to be found in the Splitwood,” said Phoreni, squinting as she peered down the road. Dash could see a sharp turn coming up, and the rush of the river was louder now. “Better were you in the Grove and not alone, but you will persevere. Unless it falls early upon next sunrise, you will be in the Splitwood with many places to seek cover. You will find trees, ruins and holds.”

“Ruins?” asked Rarity, her snout creased. “Frankly, one visit to ancient ruins in a pony’s life is one visit too many, and I had mine in the Everfree long ago. Let me guess, some long-lost civilisation, forgotten by time and such?”

“Lost? They are ours,” said Phoreni, her face blank. “Many hundred years old. We roosted in the Splitwood before, but it made sense to move to Khosta from Splitwood. The Splitwood has no strategic importance, no threats. Better to be closer to the Bow and its dangers. I do not know exactly when or how Ephydoera moved from the Morillyn within the Splitwood as a whole. Perhaps I will ask Loriessa now that you have made we wonder.”

Fluttershy made a small humming noise. “You mentioned a Loriessa before. Are they some sort of historian?”

Phoreni inclined her head. “That, as well. She is a song-wright, one who takes an interest in the stories particular to Ephydoera, and one of my dear loves.”

“Wait, love? I thought you and Khyrast were, uh, together or something,” said Dash, raising a brow.

“We are. All three of us. Loriessa finds love in Aoras as well, but I keep to her and Khyrast,” said Phoreni with a sidelong glance at Fluttershy. “I understand that two of you are bonded in love, but for a while I wondered if it extended to all three of you.”

Dash felt a laugh bubble up while Rarity chuckled and shook her head. Fluttershy for her part gave a soft giggle and smiled fondly at Rarity. “We’re all very good friends, but yes, it’s not very common in Equestria for more than two ponies to be together like that,” said Fluttershy.

“This is curious to me,” said Phoreni, losing the fight with a smile of her own. “You all express your love for each other so much as to be embarrassing to me. You are twice as loud in your affections as any Ortosian I have met.”

This time Dash couldn’t keep from bursting into a fit of giggles. “You should meet Pinkie Pie. I’d pay to see that!”

“I would pay more to avoid that,” murmured Rarity. “I think we’ve done quite enough to damage our relations here.”

Phoreni elected not to comment, and Rainbow Dash’s laugh ended in a sigh, Rarity’s comment reminding her of what Phoreni’s stoic demeanour had made her temporarily forget. They weren’t just leaving. They were being shown the door. The sooner they left this place behind, the better.

Past the bend in the road, they soon hit a stout wooden bridge crossing the rushing river. The woodwork reminded Dash of all the platforms and buildings in the trees of the Grove, and both of the long bridge’s ends were nearly lost in the dense forest that hung out over the river. Phoreni stopped before their hooves touched wood, halting them at the threshold. Fluttershy cleared her throat just as Phoreni turned around.

“Before you go, um, do you have a moment?”

Phoreni took a deep breath and exhaled through her nose, nodding as she turned her attention to the ponies once more. “Can I spare another minute? I will help if I can, but my subterfuge is made more blatant with every moment I fail to join my flight.”

Fluttershy opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated, looking to Rarity and Rainbow Dash instead. Rarity nodded quickly, understanding passing between them.

“Yes, well, we wanted to ask if there was anything you could tell us of Vauhorn, and perhaps of Cotronna as well,” said Rarity. “Each time we arrive at a new city, we find ourselves a little—what would one say?”

Right. The asking about absolutely everything thing. “Clueless?” supplied Dash.

Phoreni knit her brow for a moment. “I understand your lack of understanding, but we are all Peryton, kin to each other—”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Dash murmured.

“—and trying to think of what is not obvious, is not easy,” Phoreni finished.

“Anything that helps us not offend anyone else,” said Fluttershy, her ears splayed. “That would be nice.”

“Their favoured Aspects would be a start,” said Rarity with a hopeful smile. “Perhaps if you tell us what they mean, that might help.”

“Vauhornites favour all Aspects,” said Phoreni. “This is not obvious. For one who does not know the Aspects—this is not an easy thing for me to imagine—you cannot speak well with them. Their speech is tied to the stories of the Aspects.”

Dash blinked. “Yeah, so, can you… try that again?”

Phoreni tapped a hoof on the ground. “Where a Cotronnan will demand ceremony in speech, the Vauhornite will share freely stories of the Aspects in speaking. To them it can be speech, not only knowledge.”

Rainbow Dash looked to Fluttershy, who looked at Rarity, who glanced at Dash.

“Okay?” said Dash.

Phoreni shook her head slowly. “You are receptive, flexible, and understanding, more than any I have met. You will adapt, but I do not know how to better explain. Both cities stand on ceremony, both are more fond of their stories than their storytellers unlike we, but Vauhornites more than all, as makes sense. From Vauhorn flows more stories than from any other city.”

“So it’s a city full of that old doe outside of Stagrum,” said Dash with a sigh.

“Phydra,” said Fluttershy.

“Yeah, her.”

Phoreni flexed her wings, sending dirt whirling about. “Is this all?”

“I think so,” Fluttershy said.

“Nah,” Dash cut in. “Fluttershy wanted to know what the animal life is like up ahead, and Rarity probably meant to ask you about clothes.”

Fluttershy did not protest, closing her mouth but looking at Phoreni with hope in her eyes. Rarity tried and failed to look uninterested.

“Well. I don’t want to impose,” said Rarity. “But if you have any insight into what they wear, well, I wouldn’t be ungrateful.”

“Animal life in the Splitwood is richer than the Khosta, and the forest is rarely trod,” said Phoreni, impatience clear in her voice. “Clothes? Wear? I do not know. Vauhornite traders walk unpainted like all kin who are not wardens, and Cotronnans will wear whatever fits their ceremony, I understand. For trade, this is nothing. I must be going, or else be missed and forced to explain.”

“Right. Yeah, you do that,” said Dash. She couldn’t be annoyed at Phoreni specifically any more, even if all the sneakiness and secrecy did her head in. She just kept thinking to all the cool stuff they would miss out on. “Heh, have fun with the joust and all.”

“It will be lesser for the lack of you three,” said Phoreni. They were simple words, but she gave Dash a long, unreadable look before she went on. “Make no mistake, I hope to see you again one day and I think us friends, but we need time apart for the hurt to heal. The paint unearned needs to be gone.”

“If it was up to me, it’d be gone yesterday,” grunted Dash, staring at her green wings and the discoloured splotches about her side. “You sure it can’t be washed off?”

“New feathers or time are the only solutions I know.” Phoreni spread her wings fully, the larger mirror of Dash’s own. “Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Rarity, our meeting has been a boon, and your journeys are the journeys of Helesseia, Selyria, Daros and all. Your home city and Ephydoera are one. Joy and luck to you.”