• 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 17

Warden Phoreni,

The High Warden calls you to the Lodge. You will appear before next sun, or you will give up the rights of the paint.

This relates to the events of the Equestrians recently departed from the Grove.

-High Warden

“This is a load of hay,” said Dash. The cart-wheels rolled against the bridge and the river made river-like noises. Three sets of hooves reluctantly attacked the bridge, and hard steps clopped against wood, threatening to drown out her words.

Dash raised her voice a little. “I said—”

“Yes!” said Rarity, even louder, capping herself off with a sigh. “We get it, Rainbow, dear. You are angry, and we are all upset. This is not how I imagined our visit to Ephydoera ending, either.”

“I’m not angry!” snapped Dash. “I’m annoyed. There’s a big difference!”

“Maybe frustrated?” suggested Fluttershy with a smile. “I’m a little bit frustrated, but I’m ever so relieved Phoreni believed me. I don’t know what I’d do if she hadn’t.”

“I know what I’d do,” snarled Dash.

“Rainbow Dash!” said Fluttershy, frowning at her.

“What?” said Dash, but it was pointless. She dipped her head. “I get that she was trying to help, and yeah, she’s stuck her neck out plenty for us.” Rainbow Dash felt her snout crinkling. “But she could have told us—”

“Girls, please,” groaned Rarity.

“Whatever,” said Dash, taking the cart off the far end of the bridge, putting them back on the dirt road. She glanced along the river. The Meronna ran straight enough that they were afforded a rare and clear look west. They were closer now than they’d been even on that night on the hilltop: Behind the closest mountains that loomed large were more peaks, mountain upon mountain with a touch of dark green at their base that Rainbow Dash hadn’t noticed in the dark of night.

“I think this is the first path,” said Fluttershy. Dash looked up, and saw Rarity and Fluttershy standing by the side of the road, pointing to a partially obscured path that led off the road—and more bushes hungry for cart-wheels. Dash grunted and nodded, forcing the cart through. Once again, the canopy above grew more dense. Though the forest wasn’t quite as bad as it had been closer to the Grove, it was thicker than the eastern edges of the Khosta by far.

“I still feel this is a touch paranoid,” commented Rarity.

“Better safe than sorry, right?” Fluttershy replied. “And speaking of safety, maybe we should look at all the things we have on our cart. We didn’t have time to pick up food—”

“Oh dear,” breathed Rarity, freezing.

“—so we’ll just have to graze or forage. I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Fluttershy finished. She smiled with obvious optimism that Rainbow Dash tried to join in on. The memory of the dry grasses she’d tried on the southern Perytonian plains weren’t pleasant, but they were in a forest now. Something had to be edible here.

Rarity, who now looked around with a critical eye, must’ve come to the same conclusion. She no longer wore the look she’d had a moment earlier, not unlike that one time Dash told her Pinkie Pie had made breakfast in her kitchen.

“I—well. Alright, I hope you are right,” said Rarity. “Let us take stock of all we have, shall we? Help me clear some space.”

Rainbow Dash wasted no time in ditching the cart and enlisting Fluttershy’s help in bending away some nosey ferns and plants while Rarity rooted around the cart. A shadow passed over Rainbow Dash’s head, and she ducked as Rarity’s supply chest sailed past.

“One chest containing assorted fabrics and tools of the trade,” said Rarity with a sour look. “Including a few failed projects, Stagrumite jewellery, three Ortosian scarves, three winter scarves, and four complete—if dusty—dresses that will fit pegasi, and are of no interest to peryton.”

“Maybe the peryton in Vauhorn or Cotronna will like them,” said Fluttershy.

“Perhaps you’re right,” said Rarity, chewing her bottom lip before she turned back to the cart. “I understood what Phoreni said as the Cotronnans maybe being more open to fashion, but forget the dresses for a moment—she also said that they were partial to ‘ceremony’? I don’t know what to make of that.”

“Maybe like the Summer Sun celebration,” Dash said. “That’s a ceremony.” Fluttershy shrugged and eeped as three pairs of saddlebags zipped past her and came to a gentle halt atop the chest.

“Saddlebags!” Rarity announced. “Mostly personal belongings. Mine contain toiletries, basic makeup, my sketching tools and paper, the box with the royal seal, as well as the magical parchment specifically made for use with the dragonfire. Also, my journal.”

“I just have the book on wildlife, the reports from Red Sun Runner we all have, and the traveller’s kit Twilight suggested we bring. Oh, and the two pairs of antlers,” Fluttershy added when she saw the large wooden prongs poking out from the bags, her smile fading for a second.

“Your saddlebags don’t seem to close fully,” Rarity pointed out, frowning at them. Her magic surrounded the butterfly-adorned saddlebags. “Let me fix—oh. My apologies.”

Fluttershy tilted her head and blinked as a small canvas bag fell out of her saddlebags at Rarity’s touch. “Um, that’s not mine,” she said before Rarity could tuck it away. The unicorn frowned and levitated the bag closer to her.

“Indeed? I don’t recognise this either. Rainbow Dash?”

Dash shrugged. “Beats me. I’ve never seen it.”

Rarity looked to Fluttershy again, who shrugged helplessly.

“Well, then… I suppose we’ll have a look?” Rarity asked nopony at all, shaking her head. She opened the bag and peered inside, one brow quirked impossibly high. “It’s… leaves and some roots. They smell quite good—look.”

Rainbow Dash peered inside the bag when Rarity pushed it a little closer, and Fluttershy did the same, though Dash at least was no closer to an answer.

“I guess someone… dropped it?” Dash said.

“Dropped it inside Fluttershy’s saddlebags. Really,” said Rarity with a flat look.

“I think those are the same leaves and roots we ate yesterday, actually,” Fluttershy said. “And the only one who’s been with our things except us—”

“Is Phoreni,” Rarity finished for her.

Dash frowned. “You think she snuck it onto our cart when she ‘helped’ us pack? She said she was just trying to get us out of there quicker.”

“Mm, but we now know she didn’t… well, we know she was just putting on a play, almost,” Fluttershy said. “I guess she was worried we’d go hungry.”

Rarity sighed. “Well, it’s not much, but it’s something. That’s very kind of her.”

Fluttershy nodded. “But we shouldn’t eat it tonight. We should save it. The roots won’t spoil.”

“If you say so,” Rarity allowed, packing the bag away. “But, we were taking inventory. That’s my saddlebags done, as well as Fluttershy’s. What about you, Rainbow Dash?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Like I said way back, nothing important.”

“Darling,” said Rarity, fixing her with a look. “This is not the time to be coy. If you have anything that might make our journey easier, do tell us. Any ointment for sore hooves? I’ve been thinking about how silly it was for me not to bring any.”

Rainbow Dash very carefully avoided looking at Rarity, or Fluttershy, or anything else for that matter. She cleared her throat. “Yeah, uh. I doubt I have that.”

“You… doubt it?” asked Fluttershy, tilting her head.

Rarity stared at the saddlebags emblazoned with her cutie mark, and for a second, Dash wondered if the unicorn would make a grab for it and open them without asking. It didn’t matter. Dash would probably have to fess up at some point.

“Right, so I have no idea what’s in my bags,” said Dash, kicking at the grass with a hoof. “You got me.”

Rarity stared and blinked rapidly. Fluttershy looked at Dash like she thought she was exactly as crazy as she was. Or, well, crazy might not be the right word, but it certainly rhymed with “crazy”.

“I may have been a little lazy about it. I put off packing until the last moment,” said Dash, flicking her itching ears. “When Twilight told me—uh, yelled at me that we would be late for the train, I tossed everything in my top bedroom drawer into the saddlebags and ran so it wouldn’t look like I hadn’t packed.”

“Wonderful,” said Rarity, rubbing her forehead. “I expect a stale sunflower sandwich and some mold. Moving on!”

“Hey, it fooled you!” said Dash, grinning triumphantly. Neither Rarity nor Fluttershy looked particularly impressed, though. Fluttershy even did that little shake-of-the-head that was full of her own special brand of pity, and Dash decided to drop it.

“Bottle of dragonfire, carefully wrapped in our sleeping blanket,” Rarity went on. She separated the two, folding the blanket atop of the saddlebags, and turned the bottle around in her magical grip before she put it on top. “I think we’d best keep this one as safe as possible. They said it only works once, so we’ll have to save it for when we need to ask for transport back home.”

“What else’ve we got?” asked Dash. “Any of the grass balls left?”

“You ate the last of those days ago, dear,” said Rarity, hovering over the last of the items on their cart in short order. “One sack of gems, one map, a tarp as un-fabulous as they come, the wooden bowls, and those strange water-bags Naressa gave us that I forgot about.”

“I guess we’ll need those now since we left those huge jars behind,” said Dash, not mourning the heavy things in the least.

“Yes, that is a bit of a shame,” agreed Rarity. “I suppose we better fill those bags in the river now while we have a chance.”

“Especially since we’ll be travelling north and leaving the river behind,” said Fluttershy with a quick nod. “Even if it’s a little less hot now, we’ll need plenty of water. There might not be a lot of rivers and streams for us to drink from, so we have to be careful.”

Rainbow Dash stuck a hoof in one of her ears and rooted around for the source of an itch. “Eh, I dunno. If we run out, I can probably grab a cloud somewhere and wring some water from it. We’ll be fine.”

“While that is a good backup plan, I don’t know that I like relying on that,” said Rarity, sounding a little less convinced. “It will have to do. I suppose when this storm hits, water will be the least of our worries.”

Rainbow Dash spread her wings as much as they would let her, sniffing the air. “Yeah, well, it’s not today or tomorrow,” she said. It was hard to tell with all the weird forest-smells about, and there was barely any movement in the wind at all. “Besides, it’s just a storm, how bad—”

“Could we, um, maybe not finish that sentence?” asked Fluttershy.

“How bad can it be?” said Dash, grinning.

As Phoreni suggested, the Khostan paths that the wardens used often stayed close to the roads, and this particular one ran mostly straight—except to dip close to, and run parallel to the road once in awhile. It was perfect for keeping an eye on anyone else travelling on the road proper, and just wide enough for their little cart. Wide enough, and clear enough of overgrowth that Dash happily let Fluttershy and Rarity take their own turns with the cart.

Had the lone peryton Dash saw at their rest stop by the waterfall used these paths? She still couldn’t fully believe it hadn’t been one of the Ephydoerans who supposedly spied on them.

It didn’t matter too much. If there was one thing that worried Rainbow Dash a teensy tiny bit—and nothing did, of course—it was how none of the three ponies had further pushed the idea of not following Phoreni’s advice. Keeping off the road meant that they thought there was even the smallest chance there was something to worry about. If Dash didn’t say anything, did that mean she thought that was possible, too?

“Here’s the first branch,” said Fluttershy before Rarity had even unfolded the map with its instructions. “We’re supposed to keep right until we exit the Khosta, which shouldn’t take long. That’s easy to remember.”

Rarity put the map back down with a quick nod. “Not much room for us to fail, I don’t think.”

Rainbow Dash squinted at the so-called path. She wouldn’t have noticed the off-shoot going left if Fluttershy and Rarity hadn’t pointed it out to her.

“How’re we gonna know when we’re really out of the forest?” asked Dash while Fluttershy tugged the cart to get it moving again. “When we left Stagrum, there were trees everywhere before it really became a forest. It’s not like there’s a border.”

“This path is supposed to hit the main road before it splits in two,” said Fluttershy. “I’m sure it’ll make sense.”

“Alright,” said Dash with a shrug and her eyes fastened upon Fluttershy—on her girlfriend. That word would probably never get old. Also decidedly new, Fluttershy didn’t seem half as bothered by the cart as Dash remembered. Maybe it was the cooler evening air. Or maybe Fluttershy had gotten used to it. Stronger. Dash was more than okay with the realisation.

“Phoreni said we’d have to follow the main road for a short while, if I recall, but right now, I’m more concerned with finding somewhere to sleep,” called Rarity from the front.

The point was well made: Without statues a day’s journey apart, they were forced to keep moving without the promise that they’d eventually find a statue to serve as a natural stop. It had been past noon when they left town, and sunlight faded by degrees. Innumerable bushes, ferns and freakishly large flowers passed by, and suddenly, Fluttershy’s turn with the cart was over. Rarity took over without a word, they moved on, and sundown came all too fast. Rainbow Dash grabbed the cart again a little earlier than her turn, to no protest. Now she brought up the rear of their little procession, trailing in the wake of Rarity’s magical light.

Bit by bit, what Dash considered a comfortable travelling temperature became a pleasant chill. More than once, Fluttershy broached the idea of bedding down in the cover of trees for the shivering unicorn’s benefit, but Rarity wrapped herself in their heavy blanket as they walked and resolutely trudged on. At first, Dash thought Rarity’s walking blanket act was funny, but that only lasted until she felt the nip of the cold herself.

Rainbow Dash was minutes away from stopping their single-file walk dead in its track, planning on enforcing Fluttershy’s suggestion, when Rarity grinned in triumph. The shuffling mound of blanket brightened the light of her horn and pointed ahead.

“I believe I am vindicated, my dears,” said Rarity, indicating a shadow looming too wide to be a tree. Dash squinted as they drew near. The statue—and it was indeed a stone statue—stood a small ways off the path, once again testament to Rarity’s keen eyes. The shape wasn’t entirely familiar, though.

“What the hay,” said Dash, breathless only in part from the strain of pulling their cart through the brush.

“This doesn’t look like the others,” said Fluttershy, halting a half-step behind Rainbow Dash, rubbing one foreleg against the other. The two pegasi stopped by the edge of what could only be called a clearing by the most generous of minds. Not a hoof’s breadth of the area was free of roots, low-hanging branches or other greenery. Well, greenery, green-bluery and brownery. It was a miracle Rarity had spotted the statue itself.

The cracked and worn grey stone hugged lower to the ground than the normal Selyrian statues, and had only two wings rather than two full sets, both thrust forward forward in an arc to provide shelter with thick stone anchored in the ground. The figure of Selyria herself—or itself, Dash wondered?—looked even more monstrous than the others.

For all its lack of detail, and as overgrown as the statue was, Dash got chills from the mad look in the creature’s eyes, a beaked face frozen in a ferocious scream directed at the sky. It didn’t help that the ground around the statue was lined with glowing moss, casting a ghostly purple light that mingled with Rarity’s own blue-white glow for eerie effect.

Rarity let out a derisive snort. “For all I care, it could be a statue of myself wearing one of Short Sleeve’s ghastly spring line of crinoline dresses, so long as it lets me lie down and get my hooves under a blanket before they freeze and fall off. Fluttershy, if I give you light, can you see if any of these leaves look like the ones Phoreni packed for us? And Rainbow Dash, would you be a dear and bring our things inside?”

“Those are definitely not the same leaves,” said Rainbow Dash, grabbing one last mouthful of berries before she put the food and drink away. The large red berries tasted not entirely unlike… was it grapefruit? It was not her favourite, but it chased away the awful taste of the leaves Fluttershy and Rarity had found.

“I’m sorry,” said Fluttershy, eyeing the leaf-bearing branches critically. “I think they look the same, and they didn’t taste that bad, but something must’ve been wrong.”

“Or missing. They must have had some sort of spices or sauce in the Grove,” Rarity suggested, worming her way further in amidst the two pegasi. She lay in between Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash under the blanket, both of them drafted to act as unicorn-warmers while they ate. Dash shuffled a little closer. Once Fluttershy convinced the largest of the spiders to let them borrow their home for the night, and with the moss as a cushion underneath, the stone shelter became downright cozy.

If you ignored the creepy glow from outside, that was. And the many small spiders lurking about. And the creepy bird-beaked face of the statue. And the particularly cold night tonight that made even Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash huddle under the blanket—and their water painfully cold to drink. And most of all, if you forgot the fact that they should be taking part in some awesome games right now instead of camping out in a creepy grove.

Everyone was still thinking about it, and Dash could tell. The second it got quiet, Fluttershy had her eyes downcast, and Rarity stared blankly ahead. For Dash’s part, the recent memories were a roiling frustration in her chest made even stronger when she saw the look on the others’ faces.

“It’s dumb,” said Dash, unable to keep her mouth shut any longer.

“I think it would be easier if Phoreni hadn’t been quite so honest,” sighed Rarity. Dash had been right. They didn’t need to ask to know they were thinking the same thing. “I would have left twice as happy if I did not know we had truly hurt her,” Rarity added.

“I just can’t get all their faces out of my head,” said Fluttershy, pulling a snippet of blanket up to cover her snout and lowering her voice. “All those peryton looking at us like we’d done something terrible, staring at us. Do you think they… hated us?”

“For all that they are so very different from us, surely you can’t think there was hatred, dear,” murmured Rarity. “Disappointment and confusion, perhaps? Anger? I just don’t know.”

Dash shifted under the blanket to make sure she had her rear hooves on a fold of the blanket rather than the moss. There were probably spiders in the moss too. She craned her neck back to look at the stone hanging over them. With no real central pillar like the other stele, the entire inside arcs of both wings were covered in inscrutable writing, chipped and faded to the point where she doubted she could read it even if she understood it.

“I can’t imagine ponies hating anyone over something like this,” said Dash. Hate. Who bothered with that sort of stuff? Who had time for it? The walk out of the Grove had stung anyway. She’d been ridiculed in front of crowds before, mucked up stunts or made herself look bad, but today had gotten to her, too. “Heh, I can’t even imagine other peryton this angry,” she said. “We’ve made stupid mistakes all along, right? Can you guys picture Khaird telling us to leave Orto?”

Rarity shook her head ever so slightly. “No, but then, I couldn’t imagine Phoreni doing it either, up until today.”

“She was a little intimidating,” said Fluttershy, hesitating for a second. “Um, but… no, I don’t know. I don’t like thinking about it, really. She said it would be okay if we just give it time. Maybe we can talk about something else?”

“Yeah. I know,” said Dash, puffing out her cheeks. Rarity dimmed the light from her horn until they lay in the faint glow from the outside only. Fluttershy became a red-tinted outline of two ears, and Rarity only existed as light reflected on her horn-tip.

“I just can’t wait to meet the leader who can speak for all of these crazy peryton,” Dash added.

“Me neither,” Rarity muttered. “The knowledge that they must have someone who can make sense of this is all that keeps me sane.”

All the energy Rainbow Dash had meant to spend on the games today had to go somewhere, and with no jousts, no circles, no other kinds of physical exertion aside from a bit of cart-pulling, Dash lay awake for a while thinking about nothing in particular. There were a bunch of things she could think about, sure, but nothing she wanted to think about.

When she heard the rustle of someone turning around, when she caught the soft intake of breath, she instantly knew what was coming. Fluttershy lay awake as well, staring at her over Rarity’s sleeping form, and testament to how long they’d known each other, Rainbow Dash could’ve spoken in chorus with Fluttershy when she opened her mouth.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Fluttershy. “I—”

“Don’t,” said Rainbow Dash, trying hard not to sound too exasperated.

“I know you were really looking forward to the rest of the Brush Games,” Fluttershy continued, infinitely gentle and soft, but relentless all the same. “I didn’t mean to get us kicked out. I was just trying to help.”

“I know, it’s fine,” said Dash. “And it isn’t your fault.” What more could she say?

“Okay,” was all Fluttershy said.

As quietly as she could, Rainbow Dash slipped out from under the blanket and tucked the side in so Rarity wouldn’t be cold. Taking care not to step on anything or anyone, she moved over to the other side. “Scoot,” she whispered, grateful for the size of their blanket as she lay down close to Fluttershy.

She reached out to touch Fluttershy’s side. She didn’t really have anything reassuring to say, and if Fluttershy really needed somepony to hold her or whatever, she’d ask. The feeling of coat-hairs against Dash’s hoof was nice, though. She ran her hoof slowly up and down her side. The way she could feel Fluttershy’s body relax under her touch was twice as awesome as the warmth.

“I just don’t get why Khaird asked us to come this way,” muttered Dash.

“It’s not his fault, either,” said Fluttershy. Dash felt a light touch as Fluttershy’s feathers hooked around the base of her own wing. Rainbow Dash closed her eyes and made a noncommittal noise.

“Sometimes, things are no one’s fault, that’s all,” added Fluttershy in a whisper.

“Sure,” Dash said with a quiet snort through her nose. “I just don’t want to muck up this whole mission.”

Rainbow Dash could feel Fluttershy’s sigh more than she heard it, a puff of warm breath against her face. “The Princesses seem to think we’ll find a way,” said Fluttershy. “They trust us, and once we get to Cotronna and give the sigil over, everything will be alright, and we’ll have made new friends. I’m sure.”

Dash nodded. She meant to say something back. To agree and admit that yeah, knowing all that helped a little, and Fluttershy was probably right. To disagree, to say that Perytonia was impossible to understand and that being tossed out on their butts still hurt. She meant to complain about how annoying it was to think both of those things at the same time, but instead, she fell asleep with her hoof slowly and awkwardly rubbing up and down Fluttershy’s side and chest, soaking in the shared warmth.

It was a dream. Of course it was a dream. Dash knew it was a dream, but while it was obvious to her now, she also knew that she wasn’t always as aware of that as she was in the present moment. Rainbow Dash woke up asleep in the middle of a flight through an endless gorge, green bolts of lightning zapping between sharp crystals embedded in the canyon walls.

She hurtled through the air, dodging her way down the crazy obstacle course faster than her wings should let her—faster than a regular, less awesome pony’s wings would, anyway. She zigged and zagged, but now that she was aware of what she was doing, she lost her focus. She was out of the zone.

A bolt of energy struck the stone wall right next to her, sending rockspray everywhere, and once she slowed down even the slightest bit, another green arc struck her straight in the chest. Rainbow Dash screamed as the force of a hundred lightning bolts hammered into her.

The scream petered out in a confused “AAaaaa… ah?” Dash bit the tip of her tongue lightly and squinted, touching her chest with a hoof as she hovered in place. It didn’t hurt at all, and she was completely fine. Because it was a dream. Rainbow Dash sighed, the tension blunted and her mood crashed. What was the point of flying some daring run without any danger at all?

With a dejected frown, she flew up to land on the flat ground over the lip of the gorge. Wherever she was, there was enough rock to go about: The sky itself seemed to be made of pure stone painted in the colours of night, a mass of purple stars and constellations dominating the dome. As Dash had expected, a bunch of changelings and a particularly large hydra waited for her up top, but she really wasn’t feeling it. Why couldn’t she dream up a game of circles where she beat the high score?

What she did know was that being reminded of today’s events in her dreams was really, really lousy, though. “Thanks, brain,” she grumbled. The Princesses trusted them to find a way to befriend Perytonia, and so far, all they’d found was a way to get kicked out of town. Good going, us. Hopefully their mayor didn’t send an angry letter to the capital or anything.

“Hey, Luna! You around?” Dash called, looking up at the night sky. Maybe the Princess had some tips. Maybe she knew the recipe for a sauce to make the leaves in this forest taste better. Mostly, Dash was bored. “Princess Luna?” she called again. It was pointless, of course. So far, the Princess had shown up at random, but it was worth a shot.

Or maybe it wasn’t pointless. The strange night sky warped and bent, and as it did, so did everything else. Rainbow Dash’s stomach lurched and her eyes widened as a very real and un-dreamlike feeling of sick passed through her. The entire world shifted, yanked away like a carpet pulled from underneath, above, around and inside her. A darkness darker than black slid in to replace it, changing so quickly Rainbow Dash struggled to remember what had come before it.

Rainbow Dash stood on an inky darkness that bled shadow onto her hooves, and above sparkled the most colourful night Rainbow Dash had ever seen. Stars were dotted thick in the sky, but more than just clusters and constellations, there was a constant riot of northern lights and other star-clouds and bits of colour that Dash couldn’t name or explain. Shooting stars gleamed in the sky without end, the spectacle so mesmerising she barely noticed when Luna stepped onto the ground next to her.

“Curious,” said Princess Luna.

Rainbow Dash offered the Princess a quick bow, and when she opened her eyes again after what was no more than a long blink, she saw the glass. All around them were infinite panes of nearly invisible glass, huge frameless windows hovering in the air right above the dark ground. The Princess barely seemed to notice Rainbow Dash, slowly turning on the spot.

“Where are we?” asked Rainbow Dash, her voice hollow and empty, lost in the endless expanse of shadow and glass lit by the multitude of colours in the sky. She rubbed at her own eyes. Did Luna look larger than usual? Larger, and darker? “And what’s going on?”

“We are in your dreams, Rainbow Dash,” said Princess Luna, though Dash could hear a note of doubt in her voice. “I would say ‘do not be alarmed, you are dreaming’, but I suspect you know this still. You called me.” She frowned ever so slightly, the large Princess staring down at Dash. “And I did not sense that I was needed, yet still, here I am. That is not supposed to happen. I am not to be dragged into dreams like this. How has this happened?”

Rainbow Dash’s mouth hung open. “I have dreaming superpowers? Ohmygosh!”

Luna rolled her eyes. “No, Rainbow Dash, you do not have ‘dreaming superpowers’, and for all the love I have for you and your friends? If this was your power, you will find that an annoyed Princess is no ally.”

“Right,” said Dash, nodding her head. “Okay, but I didn’t mean to do it, sorry about that—and I don’t even know what I did, but if nopony has been able to do this before, then that still counts as a power, right? Because I’ll take it—”

Luna’s deadpan stare shut Rainbow Dash up. When the Princess’ horn started glowing, Dash took a step back, but Luna’s magic faded away again without having done anything Dash could see.

“No. It is not you. It is something else,” Luna declared, her horn flaring again while she walked past Rainbow Dash, in amidst the floating glass panes. “Our link as ponies, Equestrians, you as my saviours, as… friends, that is only part of it. If that was the case, then why not the others Elements,” the Princess’ words trailed off into a mutter, and Rainbow Dash could only follow, forced into a slow trot to keep up with the taller pony.

“Okay, can you do the explaining thing?” asked Dash, looking up at her. “Because I have no idea what any of this stuff is. My dream was way different. This happened when you came in here.”

Luna stopped just short of the nearest glass window with an undisguised frown. “You are of course correct. You would not know how to create Halls of Silver, as these are called, and that… makes this mine, not yours, because I see none other.”

Rainbow Dash didn’t bother to ask. She just stared at Princess Luna and willed her to make sense.

“This is a construct of dreams. A place to store memories,” said Luna. “I used these to… store my memories and emotions, long ago.”

“Okay. Why are we here?” asked Dash.

“I do not know,” Luna admitted with a shrug. “I will find out. I refuse to believe there are secrets pertaining to dreams that can remain hidden from me for long. This is my domain, after all.”

“Cool,” said Dash, scuffing at the ground. The inky blackness was hard as steel, but still shifted under her hooves. The combination made her dizzy. “So, uh. What’s in the windows?”

“Those were the memories and emotions I mentioned,” said Luna, her gaze distant.

“Yeah. I figured. Can I have a look? Anything fun?” asked Dash, leaning to the side to get a better angle at the nearby window-thing, but it was transparent and empty. “Any embarrassing filly pictures?”

“No,” Luna replied. She arched a brow. “Perhaps you do not understand the gravity. I used to bottle up my hatred, my sorrow, my joy and… my jealousy. I stored all of it. This place—these places—contained centuries, millennia, but there is nothing left now. I have reclaimed it all.” The Princess let her eyes roam the endless expanse of glass. “This is an empty place, as it should be. Hoarding these emotions led to my becoming Nightmare Moon. In a sense, this is where she—where that part of me—was born.”

“Oh,” said Dash. Her tail and her ears drooped, and she felt very, very small and cold all of a sudden. She was pretty sure that Luna hadn’t moved, but now the Princess stood right at her side, all but touching, large and warm. It helped a little. Twice as much when Luna again spoke, her voice thick with emotion.

“I abandoned this long ago, Rainbow Dash. I speak with my sister and with my friends, and this night, I have shared the memory of a memory with you. It is safer, healthier, and less painful.” The Princess smiled at her, no less bright than Princess Celestia in that one moment. “I learned that you should always face your fears and your frustrations, that you must share your anger and your concerns. I will find out what brought us here, but before I leave—you called me for a reason, unwittingly or no. Is something amiss? Are you in peril?”

Dash managed a weak laugh. “Heh, nah. We’re fine. Wish we had some better food, but that’s about it. My snout’s cold.”

Luna tilted her head. “You do not seem to have any issues remembering this.”

“Huh. I guess not. I’m supposed to have a hard time remembering the real stuff, right? Well, I don’t.” Dash shrugged. She even remembered what Fluttershy had said right before she fell asleep, even if she couldn’t tell exactly when that had been.

“It may be this place,” said Luna, humming. “Regardless, if you are safe, rest assured that Sister and I believe in you. You are our best chance of fostering a good relationship with Perytonia.”

“We’re trying. We kinda messed up a little, actually, but I think we got a handle on it,” said Dash, swallowing a frown. “Don’t worry about it. How’s Twi, AJ and Pinkie doing?”

Luna shook her head. “I do not have details, but I know they are safe and well because the sun still rises. I believe they have matters well in hoof, just like I believe you will come through.”

Rainbow Dash groaned. “If you’re not gonna tell me, forget I asked. I’ve had enough of stupid rules for one day. I don’t care.”

“It is not a rule,” said Luna, affecting a small shrug that became a big shrug on her large frame. “I do not know. Even if I had made efforts to learn of their journeys, the most I could glean without being invasive and betraying trust would be to say just that. I cannot change this, but I might be able to offer relief. What little time off I take every night is coming up. Would you care to fight by my side once again?”

Dash felt a grin budding. “Actually, do you think you can create a track, some hoops, and a discus?”

When Rainbow Dash awoke, it was to a chirping sing-song that she wished wasn’t quite so familiar. She cracked open an eye, groaned, yawned, and kicked the blanket away. It was too early for this, no matter what it was.

“Scarlett says good morning,” drifted Fluttershy’s voice from outside the shelter. That explains it.

“It would’ve been a great morning if she hadn’t woken me up,” Dash called back, rummaging around in the relative darkness for a second, finding only moss and leaves. Before she could ask where all their stuff was, Rarity stuck her head inside and whisked the blanket away with a burst of magic, leaving Rainbow Dash with absolutely nothing.

“Breakfast, such as it is, is served outside, away from all the spiders,” said Rarity with a small shudder, disappearing again.

Dash grunted and slipped outside to where Fluttershy and Rarity waited with a well-organised and packed cart. Rarity bemoaned the state of their blanket, shaking and folding it atop, and Fluttershy offered Dash some of the berries they’d had yesterday whilst snacking on the horrid leaves herself. The red little rooster-wannabe of a bird sat on Fluttershy’s head singing away, and Dash didn’t mind it quite as much now. She felt a little more alive after a quick drink of water. It was already uncomfortably hot.

“You let me sleep in again,” said Dash, not complaining at all. Maybe she could convince one of them to pull the cart while she took a nap, too.

“I think we all slept in a little, really,” said Fluttershy. She held out a foreleg, letting Scarlett hop down to sit there instead. “Scarlett found us by chance and woke us up. Well, she woke me up, and I accidentally woke Rarity up. If not, we’d probably sleep half the day away.”

“Doesn’t sound all that bad to me,” said Dash with a snort and a grin.

“I think I’ve given up on the concept of beauty sleep at this point,” said Rarity, covering a yawn.

“We have a long way to go, you know,” said Fluttershy. She smiled and rose to stand, making for the cart and its harness. “If we’re going to take a day off, maybe we shouldn’t do it in this forest. We should probably leave.”

“Probably,” Dash agreed. She stretched her entire body, forelegs and hindlegs, twisting her neck left, then right. Finally, she spread her wings, noting that they worked just fine. She probably shouldn’t fly just yet, but despite looking weird and green, they didn’t hurt, either. Finally. It did wonders for her mood. “Alright. Let’s do this!” she said.

The forest of Khosta had taken its sweet time in transitioning from a light and sparse woodland in the east to become the tangled mess of moss and dense undergrowth surrounding the Grove. Now, in the space of half a day heading north, it changed its mind again. The path they followed veered further and further away from the main road trying to remain out of sight in a landscape that exchanged thick trees for slim ones, hid ferns and bushes to replace them with grasses, and climbed steadily upwards.

It began subtle enough. Dash pulled the cart right after a short mid-day rest, relishing the hard climb until it didn’t give her a downhill run on the other side. Instead, she got another another long and slow climb as her reward. Sure, every now and then she got a slightly more fun—but hardly thrilling—down slope, but bit by bit, they ascended as the forest grew thinner.

The path they followed had mostly just been a walkable strip cutting between the trees, and now it got harder to make out. After a particularly steep climb that had Fluttershy walking behind her to make sure nothing fell off the cart, Dash could look over her shoulder to see treetops.

“Almost looks like the view from the hill we found the night we got to the Grove,” said Dash, her head turned to look behind her as she slowed down. To the south, the Khosta looked endless. In daylight, it was no chaotic sprawl with a myriad of colours, but rather, an unbroken expanse of the forest’s unique blue-tinted-green treetops. If there was anything to the south of the forest, she could not see it, and unless she imagined it, the mountains curved away from them ever so slightly in the west. The tall peaks like rows of sharp teeth grew slightly less oppressive, fading.

“Can’t see any of those weird flashes we saw, though,” Dash added, coming to a stop. “Remember—”

Fluttershy and Rarity couldn’t have heard her. They stood still further ahead, waiting at what must be the top of the hill, climb, slope or whatever they were supposed to call it. There were entirely too many of the things anyway. One was too many when you couldn’t just fly over and ignore them, really.

“I’m sorry, did you say something?” asked Fluttershy when Rainbow Dash drew near. She tilted her head, and Scarlett tweeted in shrill protest, wings flapping as she tried to keep her grip.

“Nah, nothing big,” said Dash, shaking her head. “Just trying to see those lights in the mountains.”

“Oh,” said Fluttershy with a backwards glance. Her mouth hung open for a second, slowly becoming a smile. “It looks like it did from the hill outside the Grove. Goodness.”

“That’s what I said,” grinned Dash, moving to stand level with the others. “Oh, hey.”

“You asked for a border to this forest,” said Rarity, her brow knit as she stared ahead. “I suppose this is as close as one can get.”

There was no trace of the path any more. In all honesty, Rainbow Dash hadn’t seen anything she herself would trust or follow for a while now, and if Fluttershy and Rarity had insisted they were on some sort of track before, there was no point in even pretending any more.

The last hour had seen smaller trees and sparser growth, but no forest lay over the hill. Ahead and to the left rose a steep, grass-covered mound that climbed until it obscured the distant mountains. To the right, flat and verdant plains that stretched on and on, in one particular place until Rainbow Dash imagined she could see the ocean, or Equestria itself. In other places, the horizon hid behind hills. Small copses of trees or large bushes nestled in dips, in pits and near a tiny lake in the distance, but what truly caught Dash’s eye was the swaying of endless, knee-length grass moving with the gentle wind. Everything was coated in green or yellowing grass.

“I suppose,” said Rarity, her voice quiet as though not to disturb the nothingness ahead, “we should join with the road unless we want to get lost.”

“I think that sounds like a good idea,” agreed Fluttershy in a whisper, staring unblinking ahead. “It should be to our east—our right, I mean.”

“We’ll be fine,” declared Dash, rolling her eyes and pushing past them. She could even see the road ahead, a darker strip that dipped out of sight after climbing a small hill just barely in view. When Rarity and Fluttershy moved to follow, Rarity’s head didn’t turn with her body, still pointing north like the arrow of a compass, or like she was a pegasus herself.

“These are the highlands, then. I wish I could preserve these images,” said Rarity with a wistful sigh. “How silly of me not to pack my colouring tools. I may not be a painter, but I am sure I could do something with this sight.”

“Heh, you’ll probably get sick of it soon,” said Dash. It was just a huge bunch of nothing.

Only, so much nothing looked very different from down on the ground. Even when she flew as high as she could go, past Cloudsdale, past the highest natural clouds at the top—when farms and cities could fit under her hoof—there was always something to hold on to. Something Equestrian in sight.

“Maybe we’d get tired of it if we were taking the road, but we’re not following the highlands, remember?” said Fluttershy, tearing her eyes off the expanse of grass. “We’re going right off the road again.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Dash with a grunt, suddenly feeling a little more fondly towards the plains or highlands ahead. The endless open skies were a welcome sight compared to the oppressive forest they’d left behind.

She gave her wings a slow flap, and the worst she could say was that they felt a little sore, like she’d just landed after a particularly tough workout. Now all that was left was to hope Phoreni’s instructions didn’t take them through nothing but deep forests and caves.

“Y’know, I kinda expected more,” Dash admitted.

“Perytonia’s infrastructure is nothing if not consistent in its disappointments,” said Rarity.

“I didn’t really think there would be a lemonade stand or anything like that, but… maybe a sign would be nice?” said Fluttershy.

They found the crossroads with daylight to spare. The past few hours had passed in silence that was in part pleasant, and in part the inevitable result of baking sunlight with neither trees nor wind to take the edge off. They’d taken many a small break with the cart parked squarely in the middle of the road, catching their breath and drinking water in the shadow of their tarp. Not even Scarlett seemed inclined to say much, the red fluffball’s constant song silenced. During one of these breaks, they spotted some animals in the far distance, but Fluttershy couldn’t tell what they were.

They were the only travellers on the road, Dash felt quite sure about that at least: After the first time they switched cart-pulling duties around, the road and the surrounding area became flat enough that she could see forever. Nothing moved except the swaying grass that now reached all the way up to their bellies, and when they sat still for more than a minute, Dash had to wonder if maybe the grass was actually still, and they were the ones moving from side to side.

That was why she was so glad when they got to the crossroads. That was why she was so infinitely disappointed in the dirt road when all it did was unceremoniously split and carry on. Everything looked the same still. Now to their west and behind them, hills. To the east, nothing. Ahead, straight or to either side, absolutely nothing, made worse by the fact that—

“We’re supposed to just leave the road?” asked Dash. She imagined that the second they stepped into the grass, they’d disappear and never be seen again. A year from now, three rugged and shaggy ponies would part the grass and find themselves in Ponyville.

Rarity already had the map out, levitating it in front of Fluttershy. The unicorn was probably grateful for a break since it was her turn with the cart. “Yes,” said Fluttershy in response to Dash. “At first, we just need to keep heading north—”

“Which I am given to believe we don’t need a compass for, if the two of you can tell where that is,” said Rarity, earning a nod from Fluttershy, who pointed due north without looking up.

“It’s that way. We should just barely pass into the woods before we reach the Morillyn Gorges,” said Fluttershy, holding a hoof to the map when Rarity made to pack it together. She frowned, then squinted, stretching her neck out to look past it.

“Whatcha got?” asked Dash, cocking her head.

“Oh, well, I was just looking at the directions again. The map doesn’t have a lot of detail, but it’s been very accurate with its distances,” said Fluttershy, nodding to Rarity and smiling. “I don’t think I need the map any more, thank you. Um, but, yes, we really should be able to see something by now. Ahead, I mean. Unless Phoreni thinks we can head through the forest for days without any point of reference, these gorges have to be nearby. I don’t understand why we don’t see them.”

“Alright, I’ll fly up and have a look,” said Dash, taking a deep breath. “I’ll be back in a second.”

“Darling, your wings need rest,” said Rarity. “I’m sure Fluttershy—”

“I got it,” said Dash, blowing her mane out of her face. She tested her wings for the umpteenth time today, and they felt better yet. A testing stroke, then another. As much as she didn’t like the green paint for reminding her of their exile—and twice as much for reminding Fluttershy of it—she was almost tempted to believe it did help her wings heal faster.

“Rainbow Dash? I can fly up, it’s no problem,” said Fluttershy frowning at her. “I was just thinking out loud, and it could just be the grass that’s in the way. The gorges aren’t even on the actual map, it’s just—”

“I got it,” repeated Dash, grinning as she put her wings to use. Enough joking around, they were ready for some real wing power. With enough care and a post-recovery, pre-flight routine to make her old flight instructors proud—done in a tenth of the usual time—Dash was ready to go. Wings forward, back, up, down, fold, unfold, test, test again and go. Rainbow Dash launched into the air, her heart soaring twice as high as her body. She carved a few simple loops into the sky as she shot up and up, slow only by her own standards.

The air stood still, there were next to no currents, and already she felt the heat sapping her strength. She didn’t care. Dash herself moved, and so she forced the wind to touch her face and tousle her mane. She built a roar of air rushing in her ears with the effort of her own wings. When she’d gained enough speed, she shut her eyes and let herself drift for a second, basking in the results. It wouldn’t do to get injured right off the bat again. Rainbow Dash glided for a moment or two before she realised she was supposed to be doing something.

Right. Use eyes. Scouting stuff. She looked north, and immediately saw what Fluttershy had been talking about. They were close to a forest that filled the gap between the two roads that split off and disappeared in the grass. North of the fork lay a gorge that looked like a brownish red pit, like somepony had poked their hoof in a freshly baked cake or something.

Or, not like that at all, but now Rainbow Dash was keenly aware of how long it’d been since she’d had cake.

The mountains looked the same as ever. Was there anywhere in Perytonia where one couldn’t see them? She couldn’t make out the coast, anyway, and there was entirely too much grass to see up here. Rainbow Dash dipped her head and sailed towards her friends, spotting Fluttershy coming in to land as well. The other pegasus circled from a spot a little lower down, Scarlett a red speck orbiting her in turn. Fluttershy had probably taken flight to check for herself.

Dash felt a twinge of annoyance. Didn’t Fluttershy think she’d do a good job? No, that wasn’t it. That wasn’t it at all. She was annoyed because she hadn’t asked Fluttershy to come along with her. She forgot. Next time, then. Dash landed and furled her wings, only now realising she was short of breath.

“It’s there,” said Dash between breaths. “Saw the gorge and everything.”

“Yes, dear, Fluttershy just told me,” said Rarity with a bemused smile.

“I’m sorry, you were taking a while,” said Fluttershy, looking halfway to an apology herself, though she didn’t give it voice. “Did you have fun?”

“It sounds a lot like you’re asking me if I’m glad to be able to fly again,” said Dash with a raised brow. “Are you serious?”

Fluttershy giggled and did not press the issue, shaking her head. Rainbow Dash moved over to bump her flank against Fluttershy’s side, and Rarity didn’t say much, her eyes straight north and the cart unmoving.

“Want me to take the cart for a sec?” asked Dash. She tossed her head back and wiped her brow. “I can take it. You wanna run for a bit, too? We could at least trot.” She rustled her wings and leaned against Fluttershy again, the other pegasus giggling and shaking her head at Dash. Dash grinned. She couldn’t be blamed. She had her wings back, and she felt good.

“Hm? Oh, no, I am sure I can handle it,” said Rarity, though she still stayed put, still had hesitance plain on her face. She licked her lips and tapped the ground with a hoof. “This is a thing we are going to do, then, is it?”

“Do what?” Dash asked, reaching up to push her mane out of her face.

“You mean not following the road?” Fluttershy chanced, and Rarity nodded.

“Phoreni said it would be safer, but as I recall, it’s hardly a shortcut,” said Rarity.

Fluttershy nodded in agreement, glancing at the cart where the map poked out, wedged between the supply chest and the cart’s side. “You’re right. The road is nearly straight. Going through the forest won’t be faster, or even as fast, and besides, some of these instructions… um, I didn’t really get a chance to ask her for details, but it doesn’t sound like it’s the easiest path. It’s going to be slower.”

Rarity nodded again, slowly this time. “I feared as much. And we’re doing this because we trust her advice?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Why would she lie?”

“Darling, it’s not about lies,” said Rarity with a weak smile. “I think we can all agree that Phoreni has our best interest in mind. It’s about trusting her judgment. Do we think she’s right? Do we believe we are in danger?”

Dash blew hot air through her nose and turned around in a quick circle. “I’m not afraid of grass, and there’s nothing here but grass. So, no, we’re not in danger of anything but going crazy because there’s too much of it.”

“And those wagons that went missing, that was a long while ago, really,” said Fluttershy, scuffing the ground. To Dash’s ears, it sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than anypony else, her voice trailing off.

“But we’re still going to take this… off-road route?” asked Rarity, relentless with her questions. “We still have the option of the direct road to Vauhorn or Cotronna, or even doubling back to Stagrum to wait for a boat.”

Fluttershy bit her lower lip. “I wouldn’t mind heading back, normally, but even if the Ephydoerans didn’t mind us travelling through the forest again, I don’t know how safe I feel there, either. You know. Because… hydras.”

Dash frowned. “What’s up with this interrogation? Phoreni knows her stuff, and she gave us directions. Why are you making this difficult? What do you think? You think we should turn back now?”

“I think Fluttershy is right in that going back is a poor idea. Also, if there is even the smallest chance of monsters or ruffians along the roads,” said Rarity, “then we definitely ought to take Phoreni’s advice. I just wanted to know we’re all on the same page.”

“Right,” said Dash. “That’s fine. I’m cool with whatever, but I vote we head north. Off the road. I don’t wanna look at all this grass any more than I have to.”

“I think that’s the best option,” said Fluttershy, nodding quickly. “Especially if there’s a storm coming. We can’t be out in the open in the middle of a storm, so I vote we go north, too—unless you mind, Rarity?”

“Not at all,” said Rarity, smiling. “Let us, then.”

Rarity set the cart moving straight ahead in defiance of the crossroads, fording the tall grasses as one would a river, bent stalks springing up again in her wake.

Finally, they were making progress. Dash whooped and took wing. She flew for all of five seconds before she decided against it, landing again with wings sagging and a curse for the dumb heat.

“Anyway,” said Dash, grinning as she fell in step with the others. “If there are gonna be any monsters on this side of the forest, where are they going to be, huh? On the road, or in a hidden gorge?”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Darling, the wagons disappeared from one of these roads, Phoreni said she’s travelled this way before, and,” she said, raising her voice when Dash opened her mouth to protest, ”the one monster we’ve had the misfortune of meeting ambushed us in the middle of a road.”

“Rarity, I’m kidding,” said Dash, rolling her eyes. She looked over at Fluttershy who had her wings tightly jammed to her side, but otherwise hadn’t said anything. Dash reached out to brush against her side with a feather-tip, relishing in having full wing control again. “We’ll be fine,” said Rainbow Dash, just in case Fluttershy was actually worried because of some dumb joke.

“I’m sure we will,” said Fluttershy with the beginnings of a smile, and Scarlett chirped noisily in agreement.

“I mean, what are the odds of running into any more monsters?” Dash added. “Practically zero!”

“I also really, really, really wish you’d stop saying those things,” said Fluttershy, sighing.

If Rainbow Dash had any doubts about the decision to leave the road behind—and she didn’t—they’d be squashed when the monotony of the grasslands gave way to sparse woods with thin trunks and small-leaved trees, bringing blessed relief from the unending fields. As much as forests weren’t great for flying, it wouldn’t be a problem unless it got as thick as the deepest woods of the Khosta.

Those lingering doubts about leaving the road, which she absolutely did not in any way have, would have returned a moment later when the sun crept towards the horizon, and the ground fell away.

If she’d had any doubts.

Which she didn’t.

“So, let’s talk about gorges,” said Rainbow Dash. “I thought I knew what that word meant, and I guess I don’t. Fluttershy? Rarity? What’s a gorge?”

“This is just a really big canyon. Canyons and gorges are the same thing, I think. It’s not not a gorge,” said Fluttershy, taking half a step forward and clenching her teeth when she accidentally knocked a small rock over the edge of the drop. The rock fell, and fell, and fell, the echo of its final impact against the hard ground far beneath completely lost—no, just very delayed, Dash corrected herself. There was a faint clatter in the end, but Rainbow Dash couldn’t see the rock any more.

The height wasn’t the problem for Dash, obviously. It was the suddenness of it all. The rent cut into the forest, a long pit of red rock and brownish earth bared before them in an otherwise green countryside that grew greener and forest-ier by the moment. It wasn’t like Rainbow Dash had never seen a canyon or gorge or whatever before, but the way the ground just disappeared in front of them was unsettling. They stood above a wide cliff-face of a drop hundreds of strides deep, the otherwise jagged and irregular canyon given a sudden start like a trench dug with a spade. Dash squinted. Was it the distance, or did the gorge get narrower and shallower the further it went? She couldn’t tell.

“And the map says we’re supposed to head down there?” asked Dash.

Fluttershy still stared. “Not the map, but Phoreni said we should run the length of the gorges that run north and north-east. The first one was supposed to be just past the crossroads, and this must be it.”

“Walking down there would probably hide us from any prying eyes,” said Rarity, leaning over the edge. “But we’ve hardly been hiding thus far. Do either of you feel it makes a big difference whether or not we actually follow the canyon floor?”

Rainbow Dash looked ahead to the sparsely wooded terrain that surrounded the canyon. Grass under their hooves or rock and dust. Open sky or creepy canyon.

“Show of hooves, everypony in favour of moving along the gorge?” asked Dash, thrusting a leg in the air before she’d finished the sentence, and neither Rarity nor Fluttershy hesitated in joining her. Rainbow Dash set off in a trot before anyone had a moment to change their minds.

“Just as well,” said Rarity. “I don’t see any path or stairs leading down there.”

Rainbow Dash laughed and flexed her wings. “Like that’s the problem.”

“It doesn’t look natural,” said Fluttershy, her eyes still on the sheer drop even as they rounded the corner created by the canyon’s sudden termination and headed north again. She eyed the cliff-face critically. “I don’t know for sure.”

“I don’t think any of us here claim geology as our special talent,” chuckled Rarity.

“Well, that’s the thing,” said Fluttershy, blushing faintly. “I read a book about natural terrain and everything once, I just don’t remember much about it. I wish I did.”

Dash snorted with laughter. “Okay, I know you read some pretty weird stuff sometimes, but a book about gorges? That’s gotta be the sort of book Twilight keeps in the library just because she wants one copy of everything ever written. I don’t think even she would read something like that!”

“Natural terrain,” repeated Fluttershy with an indignant frown, resettling her wings on her back. “Not just gorges and canyons.”

“Okay, okay, natural terrain, you got it,” Dash allowed, giggling still. “As long as this thing is pointing in the right direction, let’s just go,” she said. It was nice to know Fluttershy agreed that the place was creepy anyway.

Without further comment, Dash moved the group a bit further away from the edge. It wasn’t like they had a real path to follow any more, and the coming darkness didn’t help. They trekked across low grasses, small bushes and colourful flowers that poked out from the dry ground, past tall, thin trees with annoying, shallow roots that seemed to pop up under the cart-wheels on purpose.

“Perhaps we could stop here?” asked Rarity before long, pausing to lean against a tree while rubbing at her eyes. “I’m getting used to us pushing onwards in a mad dash for these statues, but I understand we won’t find one here.”

“What, you want to sleep here?” asked Rainbow Dash, halting the cart. She spread her wings a bit and tasted the wind, scowling. There was no cover in sight. “There’s a wind coming from the north-west. It’s gonna get cold for you.”

“Yes, well, that is certainly going to be a bit of an issue,” said Rarity, her brow knit in a transient frown before she smiled brightly back at Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy both. “Luckily, I travel with two warm friends and a blanket. I’ll prepare our bedding if one of you could be a dear and see about finding us something edible that isn’t dry grass.”

“I can go have a look around,” said Fluttershy, emptying her saddlebags and strapping them on. “I’ll be right back. I’m sure this forest has something delicious hiding somewhere.”

“Hey, I’ll come with you,” said Dash, freeing herself from the cart.

Fluttershy tilted her head. “Are you sure? I know a little bit about plants, so it’s no problem at all.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “I eat. I’m pretty sure that’s all I need to be able to tell if something’s food.”

Fluttershy giggled. “Well, that’s part of it, but I can handle it. I’ll find us something to eat.”

Rainbow Dash set off into the forest, such as it was, grinning at her. Fluttershy could probably handle a few berries by herself, but she could handle it way better with Rainbow Dash. “Let’s go!” she said.

The southern parts of the Splitwood was less a forest, and more plains upon which somepony had sneezed a helping of trees. A lot of trees, sure, but they rarely touched, so the blue skies above were always in view, and Dash was glad of it. She spotted a small owl sitting on a far-off branch, and more than once she saw something darting away through the undergrowth. Where the Khosta’s animals had rarely been more than faint sounds, here they at least let the ponies get close before they ran away.

They still ran, though.

“I’m starting to feel like the only mare at a stallions-only bar,” said Rainbow Dash with a huff. She’d caught a small family of something that looked like long, antlered cats staring at them, but the creatures scurried away before she got a good look.

“They just need to get used to us,” said Fluttershy, smiling in the general direction of the critters.

“You mean get used to me,” Dash countered, giving her a look. “If you were alone, they’d be all over you.”

Fluttershy squinted at a particularly large and green bush. “Maybe,” she allowed. “But I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time for that. We’re looking for food, remember?”

“Right,” said Dash, nodding and glancing around. There wasn’t a whole lot to look at, and the bushes didn’t bear any obvious fruit like they did in the forests of Khosta. “Okay, so, I got nothing,” she admitted. “Do we just start… digging for random roots? I don’t see any mushrooms.”

“I think the leaves of these bushes can be eaten. See how something larger than a caterpillar has been eating from the top?” asked Fluttershy, trotting over to it. “I think—”

Rainbow Dash darted in and grabbed a few, chewing thoughtfully before she spat them on the ground and stuck her tongue out. “Ech, they’re okay, but let’s see if we can’t find something better. I’d rather have grass than those leaves.”

Fluttershy blinked and stared at her. “Um, so, maybe next time, let’s… wait for a second before we try eating it. Leaves can be poisonous, you know.”

“They didn’t taste like poison,” said Dash, shrugging, and she couldn’t help a laugh, holding out a hoof before Fluttershy could protest. “I got it, okay, fine. I just don’t see any berries or anything. Wanna check elsewhere?”

Fluttershy didn’t reply immediately, looking almost straight up. Rainbow Dash followed her eyes, and saw she’d been wrong. There were definitely berries, but they were nestled deep amidst the leaves of some of the trees. The tallest and thinnest trees around bore pale yellow berries. There was just one problem.

“Who makes trees like this?” asked Dash, gaping.

“I think they’re beautiful in their own way,” protested Fluttershy.

The bushy crowns of the grey-trunked trees bristled with sharp spikes amidst the brilliant green leaves, guarding the berries jealously. Trust the mare who thought porcupines were ‘cute’ to appreciate a tree that wanted to stab you.

“So, because the spikes are hollow,” added Fluttershy, “there’s a good chance that they carry some sort of venom, but that also means the berries should be safe to eat.”

“Makes sense. You wouldn’t put traps around something if it wasn’t good stuff,” said Dash, squinting at the treasure trove of no doubt tasty berries.

“Something like that, yes,” said Fluttershy, biting her bottom lip. “I don’t think kicking the tree is a good idea in case we get showered with needles, but I bet if we were careful enough, we could loosen some of the berries. I’m sure one of us could do it.”

“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash heard herself say. Unless they wanted to eat dry grass, one of them would have to fly up. Someone who could control themselves well in the air. Someone who was elegant and careful enough to harvest the berries. Out of the corner of her eye, Rainbow Dash saw Fluttershy test her wings and clear her throat.

“Do you think I—”

“Alright, you catch the berries, hang on,” said Rainbow Dash. She kicked off, hovering close to the top of the tree inside of a second, pausing in front of the spikes.

“Okay, sure,” said Fluttershy, her voice a little more quiet.

Part of Dash wanted nothing more than to ask, poke, prod and goad Fluttershy into doing it instead, of course. To push Fluttershy into showing her how much better she was at flying than she gave herself credit for. In fact, the more Rainbow Dash thought about it, the more she regretted saying she’d do it herself, but it was easier this way. She didn’t have to be the worst pony ever, pushing her girlfriend around, and she didn’t have to risk Fluttershy being sad—or even failing and hurting herself.

“Ready?” asked Dash, looking down below. Fluttershy nodded, the saddlebags open and held in her mouth. Rainbow Dash flew a little closer and poked at a cluster of berries. With the lack of wind, it was easy enough for the seasoned flier to knock the first few bunches of berries loose, and she only nearly stabbed herself once or twice in the process. Poke. Berries. Poke, more berries. Foal’s play. Minutes later, Fluttershy called up to let her know the bags were full.

“You sure? Both of them?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Both of the bags, and most of my mane,” Fluttershy called back, shaking her head violently side to side, sending berries flying and making Scarlett sit on her back instead.

Rainbow Dash sailed down to land next to her, giggling at all the berries still stuck in Fluttershy’s pink tresses. Scarlett leisurely pecked away, making a meal of cleaning her mane.

“I guess that means they’re good?” Dash asked. “What do you say, bird?”


“She seems to think so,” Fluttershy agreed, carefully putting the saddlebags back on, leaning around to secure the straps.

“Move over, fluffball. Let me have a taste,” said Dash, grinning. She leaned in and nabbed a few of the berries stuck in Fluttershy’s mane to an indignant peep from Scarlett. She’d expected a laugh, or maybe a cry of protest when Dash got some of the berry juice into Fluttershy’s hair, but all she got in return from her girlfriend was a faint smile. Fluttershy leaned against her without looking at her, rubbing their cheeks together before she started walking back towards where they’d left Rarity.

“They taste like oranges and pears at the same time,” said Dash after a moment of silence, staring at the back of Fluttershy’s head. “They’re actually really great. Good call.”

“That’s nice,” said Fluttershy, smiling back at her. “I’m sure Rarity will be happy.”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. Fluttershy looked fine again, but Dash wasn’t blind—or deaf—to the fact that Fluttershy had gone quiet. “Hey, you’re not mad that I scared away all the animals, right?”

Fluttershy eyes grew wide. “What? Oh! No, of course not, I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “Not at all. And you didn’t, really.”

Rainbow Dash nodded once. Maybe Fluttershy had really just wanted to go berry hunting alone? She was about to ask when her when her wings loosened against her body on sheer reflex, and she heard the rustle of Fluttershy’s feathers as well. The two pegasi stopped in their tracks without a word, and Rainbow Dash cocked her head. A second later, Scarlett darted out from the cover of Fluttershy’s mane, a red streak peeping madly and zipping straight south, darting left and right between the trees until she was gone.

“The storm’s coming,” said Fluttershy, her voice breathless.

“You felt that pressure drop too, huh?” Dash asked, grinning. She walked past Fluttershy, dragging the feathers of a wing along her body to set her moving again. Fluttershy returned the touch, but she didn’t look nearly as excited as Dash did.

“How could I not?” Fluttershy asked.

“Hey, I don’t take it for granted. I’ve been in the weather patrol for years,” said Dash with a shrug. “Not all pegasi are as, uh—”

“Sensitive to it?” Fluttershy finished for her.

“Yeah, see, that’s a lame word for it, but sure,” Dash said with a snort. “Whatever, never mind. I know you’re good with the weather stuff, I just wasn’t thinking.”

Fluttershy’s cheeks lit with a faint blush. Dash felt good about that. Even if she couldn’t and shouldn’t bully Fluttershy, she sure as hay could tell her she was awesome.

“Bet you could do a better job than Thunderlane at weather duty too,” Dash added.

“Okay, now you’re just teasing me,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head.

“Seriously? You’ve met Thunderlane, right? If I wanted to tease you, I’d say you could replace Cloud Chaser. She’s crazy, you know. She’s good at her job, and she’s not lazy,” said Dash. “I think she’s the only one.”

Fluttershy blinked, staring at Dash nonplussed.

“Yeah. It’d take you hours of training to get that good.” Dash smirked. “Then you could probably do her job.”

Fluttershy rolled her eyes, her only reply a half smile.

“What?” asked Dash, and even though she was serious, she couldn’t keep from laughing. “You—oh, hey, I think I see Rarity. That’s her magic. Let’s eat!”