• 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 18

It has to happen in Cotronna.

If there is a way for me to redeem myself in my own eyes, it is by creating something that is more than just good. It must be perfect, and what better audience, what better moment to present an ultimate creation than at the culmination of the efforts of our journey? All that goes before the ceremony—Phoreni did mention the Cotronnans stand on ceremony—may as well not have happened. What is the use in showing dresses to the Perytonian equivalents of Ponyville and Hoofington when we are destined for Canterlot, for Cotronna?

I will create a dress to steal their breaths away, and it will be my crowning moment.


The last thing Rainbow Dash remembered before she fell asleep under the open sky was that the moon had been very bright, but she was almost positive she’d dreamt nothing out of the ordinary, and still there was no storm.

Rarity’s makeshift little shelter consisted of their tarp tied between a tree and their cart with numerous scarves, but as ramshackle as it was, it held up fine against the lame wind. When they woke up, the air pressure was lower yet, but barely any rain fell at all. Now, as they continued their trek along the gorge, the few clouds on approach from the west were insulting to her and Fluttershy’s predictions.

“You’re sure this rain wasn’t the weather you felt coming?” asked Rarity. She’d offered to take an extra morning round with the cart to let the pegasi fly up and check every now and then, obviously nervous about the storm—but this wasn’t it. The “rain” was barely enough to get Rainbow Dash’s mane properly wet and Rarity hadn’t so much as mentioned a want for an umbrella.

“There’s a storm coming. This isn’t a storm. This—” said Rainbow Dash, gesturing at the sky and its pitiful offering of water, “—isn’t even a drizzle.”

The best that could be said of the weather was that the cooler temperature allowed for a comfortable trot, the cart rattling along over the low roots as the three ponies searched for cover.

“She’s right. I’m actually starting to get a little worried,” said Fluttershy, her ears splayed as she looked west. The woods were sparse enough here that with the aid of a small rise, Dash could see almost all the way to the horizon without taking wing. The tops of the mountains in the west were visible, but there were no storm clouds in sight. “I don’t really know what this means,” Fluttershy said. “But I really hope we find these ruins or some other cover soon. There is going to be a storm.”

“And a doozy, too”, agreed Dash. “You didn’t see Fluttershy’s little bird take off. She was outta here.”

“I hope she finds a safe place, too,” Fluttershy said, sighing. “She wanted to get back to her own forest, and that might be for the best.”

Rarity nodded. “Well, if you are worried, then so am I. I’d feel a lot better if I knew exactly what I am supposed to worry about, that’s all. Or rather, when.” She made a hissing noise when the cart bounced off a particularly large root, keeping her head down and her eyes on the ground again.

“Their storms are probably just a bit weird,” said Rainbow Dash. She extended a wing and wrapped it around Fluttershy’s middle, tugging her a little closer. “Don’t worry about it.”

Fluttershy smiled at Rainbow Dash and nuzzled her cheek as they trotted on, and Rarity smiled at the pair. Rainbow Dash let the wing rest there for a moment longer and ground her cheek against Fluttershy’s neck in retaliation. This girlfriend stuff was more than just alright if she could grab a touch here and there without having to make a big deal out of cuddling. She gave Fluttershy another little tug with her wing before she let go, making their coats brush together. Fluttershy hadn’t said anything more about last night.

Under the feather-light rainfall, refreshed by the few drops that made it down to the ground, they quickly ate up distance in the woods, switching the cart-pulling duty as often as they could. They passed colourful little flower-clusters and trees on their left, and to their right, the canyon was barely visible, its edges overgrown. The clouds got a little thicker, but no more rain came, and later, when Rainbow Dash glanced to the side, she couldn’t see any trace of the gorge.

“Hey, I think the gorge turned,” said Dash, though she kept moving.

“We’re still heading north,” said Fluttershy, her brow knit in concern. “We haven’t gotten turned around or anything.”

“I thought you were just taking us a little further away from the eyesore like Rainbow Dash did,” said Rarity. The unicorn was the first one to veer off to the right, and both Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash followed.

“Well, I understand why we can’t see the canyon any more,” called Rarity, stopping no more than ten paces ahead. Rainbow Dash raised a brow when the pegasi caught up, Fluttershy picking her way between the trees with the cart in tow.

“What?” asked Dash, giving her a quizzical look.

“Look about you, dear,” said Rarity, pointing south to where the canyon ceased to be.

There was no better word for it; the canyon ceased, became not-a-canyon by degrees, the perfect inverse to the abrupt start to the gorge they’d followed for half a day’s travel. A small grassy ditch pointed straight south from where they were standing, slowly widening and sinking. Further along, it looked like a dried-out riverbed that kept growing larger until it became an open-topped tunnel in the earth, and finally, the vast and gaping maw of the first of what the peryton called the Morillyn Gorges.

And it was only the first. Not long after they resumed their journey north, they found the second gorge. Maybe it was a tiny bit smaller than the last one, but it was still huge by any measure. Dash idly wondered if emptying the whole of Whitetail Lake into it would fill it up. Probably not. Whatever the case, the southern end of the second gorge was another cliff, this one partially collapsed.

At least the weather didn’t change. What had begun as a stressful search for cover—for anywhere to stay out of the promised storm—lost its edge of panic. Though they’d found nothing like cover by the end of the day, they spent another night in the shelter of a tree that provided nothing of the sort. Before noon the next day, just as a light drizzle let up, they stood at the northern end of the third gorge, and Fluttershy halted the cart to ask Rarity for the map and their notes.

“How many of these did you say there were?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“I don’t think I said, because I don’t know,” replied Fluttershy, adjusting the harness with a wince while she waited for Rarity to unfold the map in front of them. “Phoreni said we were supposed to follow the first three, and there’s at least one more we’re supposed to cross over later. I worried that it would be hard to follow her directions, but I guess not.”

“Alright,” said Dash, unable to keep from giving the strange south-facing cone-shape a distrustful look. Fluttershy must’ve caught it, because she did the same, and went on.

“It… I—well, like I said, I don’t remember what I read in the book, but I’m pretty sure that gorges or canyons aren’t something that just happens in the middle of a forest like this.”

Rarity hummed and finally had the map out, sheathing it in her magic to hold it in front of the three ponies. “You two seem rather obsessed with these canyons—or gorges? We really should decide on one of the two, but regardless, is something the matter? Am I the only one who does not mind them terribly much, as long as we’re not down there?”

Fluttershy shook her head, leaning in to study her notes. “Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, but I find them… strange, I guess,” she said, her voice trailing off into distractedness. “We’re on an entirely different continent anyway.”

Rainbow Dash didn’t say much. It wasn’t like she was afraid of the gorges, but maybe she just sensed what Fluttershy had put into words. Different continent nothing, they didn’t belong. The rest of the forest made sense—though the Splitwood bothered her for a very different reason. Rainbow Dash looked up, catching a flock of large birds flying south by south-east.

“While we’re on that topic, any of you feel like this place is really, uh,” Dash hesitated. She tried to find another word for it, one that didn’t sound like such a stupid whine, but she couldn’t think of one, so she spat it out anyway. “Ugh, lonely?”

“There are animals here, just like in the Khosta,” said Fluttershy, stretching her wings briefly. “Not just birds, but there are mammals both big and small, and I’m sure there are reptiles down in the canyons.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning. Desolate. There was a better word, but Fluttershy hadn’t really answered her question. Maybe the animals would have helped it feel less desolate if they actually hung out together. Rainbow Dash had asked if Fluttershy wanted to go say hi to some of the local critters earlier in the morning, but Fluttershy didn’t seem to feel like it. There was a first.

“Maybe it’s the lack of roads,” suggested Rarity. “Even without anyone else travelling them, they’re a sign of civilisation, such as it is.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. There was probably some truth to that. Besides, they’d always known the Khosta was populated, and after meeting the Ephydoerans, the knowledge that they inhabited the forest filled it with life. Then again, the first time they’d travelled through that forest, they hadn’t known about the peryton allegedly hiding in every bush.

Maybe it was just the want for a road to follow, then. “So, not just me?” Dash asked. She’d lost track of her own thoughts, but she was pretty sure neither Fluttershy nor Rarity had given her a clear answer.

“I believe I just agreed with you, darling,” said Rarity, one brow quirked.

“I don’t think I could ever feel lonely when there is so much life around,” said Fluttershy, helping Rarity fold the map. “But it’d be nice knowing that there are people around, even if they don’t want to talk to us. Now, we’re following a short trail next. Maybe that helps a little?” she asked, turning the cart slightly left before she set them moving deeper into the Splitwood, away from the gorge and the single tree that sprouted from the very end of a furrow that grew into a vast canyon.

“Lead on, dear,” said Rarity, following in Fluttershy’s wake. “For all that these canyons did not bother me much, I think just about anything will look better than those eyesores.”

“Bet you five bits you’re wrong!” said Rainbow Dash, grinning.

“Because I am nothing if not benevolent: If you don’t have the bits, I also accept payment in the form of modelling services,” Rarity called.

Rainbow Dash barely heard her. She wasn’t annoyed in the slightest with having lost this particular bet. If Phoreni’s secretive paths—paranoid, Dash recalled Rarity calling it—took them through more locations like this, being stealthy and sneaky was fine with her.

It had taken them a few moments of rooting around before they found the three painted trees that marked the beginning of the faint path. Not half an hour later, it led them to gentle hills that a mindless traveller would have yielded to and veered slightly further east. Instead, crossing over the hills, the three ponies now walked in a small secluded valley that had flowers as a beach had grains of sand.

Yellow, blue, red and purple petals on tall stalks tickled Dash’s belly as she ran—and she couldn’t not run. It was as impossible to simply walk as it was not to laugh. Rainbow Dash galloped over to the others, coming to a screeching halt by the cart. Fluttershy and Rarity had parked it by a small brook that passed through the valley.

“Come on, cut loose a little,” said Rainbow Dash, grinning wide.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself, dear,” said Rarity, chuckling as she filled their water-bags to the brim, “but I think I’ll be busy a while. Tulips aren’t just beautiful, their petals are delicious as well. They’ll be a perfect accompaniment to those wonderful berries you found.”

“Tulips?” asked Rainbow Dash, squinting. The flowers did look familiar. “Don’t we have those back home? These are tulips?”

“Rainbow Dash, you’ve seen tulips before,” said Rarity with a deadpan stare. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

“Of course I’m joking, jeez,” lied Dash, rolling her eyes for effect. Maybe she had, maybe she hadn’t. Flowers were flowers. What she knew for sure was that she hadn’t seen an entire valley filled with nothing but these particular flowers, and if they were tasty, that was a double win. She wasn’t particularly hungry at the moment, though. She felt like moving.

“Hey, Fluttershy!” Dash called.

Fluttershy looked up from her efforts on the cart, tossing a few empty bags Rarity’s way. “There you go, Rarity. Those are the bags from Naressa’s box. Maybe you can fill those with petals.”

“Wonderful, thank you,” said Rarity, smiling back at her.

“You’re welcome,” said Fluttershy, turning her attention to Rainbow Dash. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“I didn’t, but I was gonna,” said Rainbow Dash, spreading her wings and stretching her neck. “Come on, let’s go for a run!”

Fluttershy winced as she rubbed at her own sides. “I guess that could be okay, but, um, maybe not too fast? I’m still a little sore from all the cart-pulling.”

“Sure, whatever you want,” said Dash, turning on the spot, but she hadn’t even begun moving when her eyes were pulled skywards by an unseen force.

“Did you feel that? Do you think—” was about as far as Fluttershy got. Rainbow Dash was already in the air.

“Let’s go!” Dash called, soaring straight up, but she knew what she would find even before she cleared the height of the valley, even before she flew higher than the trees that surrounded it. Clouds blocked the horizon to the west, and some of them had even snuck overhead, unnoticed because they carried no rain and were so light, they barely hampered the sunlight.

Dash kept climbing, and soon she heard Fluttershy trailing her, steady and familiar wingbeats that moved the other pegasus a lot faster than Dash had expected. She had a tendency to surprise ponies whenever she was excited—or frightened. Rainbow Dash punched through the cloud layer seconds later, and a soft whuff of displaced cloud-matter signalled Fluttershy’s arrival right afterwards.

For a second, the two pegasi simply hovered in place. Rainbow Dash was vaguely aware of Rarity calling after them, but though it made no sound, nothing was half as loud as the storm brewing over the mountains in the west. The roiling dark clouds speared on the peaks of the Bow lit up with flashes of lightning providing a stark contrast.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it,” whispered Fluttershy.

“It’s probably not gonna be half as bad when it hits ground level,” said Rainbow Dash, her eyes affixed to the absurd size of the cloudmass. Her every feather itched. Half of that storm would still be worse than anything she herself had broken—or made. She looked over at Fluttershy and found her ears pinned to her head and her eyes large. “We’ll be fine,” Dash added, forcing a smile.

“It’s moving really fast,” said Fluttershy.


“So, um, we should probably get moving.”

“Yeah,” said Dash, again. It was hard to force her eyes away from the sight.

“Rainbow Dash!”

“Right!” Dash snapped, shaking her head quickly and preparing to dive. “Okay, yeah, let’s go tell Rarity, let’s go. Let’s go!”

Rainbow Dash touched hooves to the ground within the same breath she told Fluttershy to hurry up, neatly squashing a few of the tulips Rarity was gathering petals from. The unicorn shot her a half-hearted glare.

“I take it that your weather senses are tingling?” she asked, closing off a bag and depositing it on their cart. “Do tell, what are the news?”

“Storm,” said Dash, her head turning west despite herself. She couldn’t see anything from down here except some unthreatening and dull grey clouds, but still her snout was guided stormwards by an unseen force.

“I can’t believe we didn’t notice sooner,” said Fluttershy, landing right next to Rainbow Dash. “Rarity, we should probably start moving.”

“Sooner? The two of you’ve been talking about this for days now,” said Rarity. She moved towards the cart, but Rainbow Dash slipped past her and strapped herself in as quickly as she could. There was a time for being polite, and there was a time for speed.

“Yeah, well it still snuck up on us,” said Rainbow Dash. “Fluttershy, which way out of the valley?” It was a pointless question. The hills that surrounded them were low, and the path only pointed one way.

Rarity’s gaze darted between the two pegasi, and she bit her lip. “I have to be honest, you’re starting to worry me a little bit now. How dire is it?”

“Let’s drink up, eat a flower or two and get moving,” suggested Rainbow Dash.

Hours?” asked Rarity, her voice bordering on hysterical.

“Probably,” said Dash. At most. She tried not to break into a full gallop. She’d rather not leave Rarity and Fluttershy behind. They crested the valley, the cart-wheels rattling as they ran. “Fluttershy, where to next?”

“I don’t think—” Fluttershy said between breaths. “—it matters!”

“How can it not matter?” asked Dash, shooting Fluttershy a confused look.

“Because we don’t know where we’re going!” Fluttershy replied. She slowed down, and Rainbow Dash brought the cart to a halt. The leaves on the bushes around them rustled in a wind that hadn’t been there moments before. If there was such a thing as an ominous rustle, this was it.

“After this path, we’re supposed to keep heading north until we find another stream,” Fluttershy explained, hanging her head as she caught her breath. “And we’re supposed to follow it north by north-east until we find another path through a thicket, but none of those will shelter us from the storm, and we don’t know details. We could be following the stream in the open for hours, maybe even days!”

“There has to be somewhere for us to seek refuge,” said Rarity, turning on the spot as though there was the slightest chance they’d missed a sturdy cottage nearby. “We can’t be caught out in the middle of a storm! Where are these ruins? Where is this shelter Phoreni spoke of?”

Rainbow Dash turned to glance at the cart—where was the map? “Okay, so the stuff Phoreni told us is useless, but maybe there’s a cave or something on the map? Can you have a look?”

Fluttershy shook her head, sighing. “It doesn’t have anything like that.”

Dash groaned. “What’s the point of the map if it doesn’t have anything useful on it? No caves? No ruins? We’ve been looking for days!”

“Maybe,” Rarity cut in, her voice a few octaves too high. “Maybe we can have discussions on maps some other time, and focus on trying to avoid getting swept into the sea by the coming storm?”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Come on, that’s never gonna happen,” she said. “You’ll get smacked in the face by a flying branch, or maybe blown into a tree or a rock. That’s what you gotta worry about.”

“Not helping,” hissed Rarity. “And we’re not moving!”

“Because Fluttershy’s right!” snapped Dash, gesturing to the other pegasus. “There’s nowhere to hide in this forest, and we’re running blind! The only thing we have is a map that’s so bad, it doesn’t even show a bunch of canyons that could swallow Ponyville five times over and have room for lunch!”

“That’s because it’s not that kind of map,” said Fluttershy, puffing out her cheeks before she continued. “If you’d looked at it, you’d realise that Perytonia is really huge. We haven’t seen a fraction of even the Khosta. It only shows the outline of the Splitwood, nothing more, but maybe if you have a look you’ll see something I don’t?"

“I—guh, no,” Dash waved a hoof. “Forget it. Maps don’t make sense to me. If you say there’s nothing on it, there’s nothing on it.” She stuck out her tongue. “Can’t keep me from thinking it’s a dumb map if it doesn’t have the canyons and the ruins on it though. I bet you can’t find a map of Equestria without the Ghastly Gorge on it.”

“Speaking of gorges,” said Rarity, her brow knit in that very unique way that bespoke an idea. “There was an almost unbroken chain of those. As much as I had hoped we were done with that particular part of our journey, do you suppose there is another one nearby to our east?”

“Well, this is… rather more dramatic than I had imagined,” said Rarity. “Looking at it with the prospect of actually going down there, I mean.”

“Are we really going to do this?” asked Fluttershy, grinding the edge of a hoof into the ground.

“If we stand around thinking about it for long enough, the wind’s gonna make the choice for us,” replied Dash. Every now and then, a powerful gust pushed at them, whipping rain against their backs and sending tails and manes flapping over the canyon’s edge. Either they’d lucked out, or, as Dash was more inclined to believe, there was in fact always a canyon to their east.

Whatever the case, the weather still picked up, and it was getting harder to see clearly. The canyon loomed large ahead, and Rainbow Dash didn’t fancy her chances crossing it with a heavy load in this wind anyway. If they’d ever had a chance to outfly the storm, the moment had well and truly passed—and besides, past experience showed what a bad idea flying the cart around was. Whatever Rarity and Fluttershy talked about now was lost to Dash, so she made the choice for them all and leapt off the ledge.

Rainbow Dash zig-zagged and banked as she shed the height of the drop, but to her relief, the wind lessened the second she dove into the canyon. Funneling a little air under the ungainly cart to keep it right was easier going down. She looked up and around as she descended, spotting the familiar outline of Fluttershy’s wings attached to a larger shape pulling great circles above her. It wasn’t like giving Rarity a ride down was a huge deal, but Dash grinned all the same—a grin that disappeared bit by bit as the world was eaten up by rock.

Every time she made a turn, the grey sky above shrunk. The walls of the gorge weren’t merely sheer, but angled away from the edges. When she landed, it felt for a moment as though there was no air left in the world. The darkening cloud-cover was just a small strip far above. Everything else was red rock and spindly growths poking out of dirt rapidly turning to mud as the rain grew.

The wind whistled and howled madly, and despite the rain-carrying gusts that snuck their way down to the valley floor, Dash’s mouth felt dry just from the sight. She heard Fluttershy touch down next to her, but didn’t really pay much attention. Rainbow Dash didn’t know how long she stood there, feeling the cart’s harness dig into her side until she caught one word that carried meaning, sticking out. Ruins.

“What?” asked Dash, blinking.

“I said, this explains why we hadn’t found the ruins,” said Rarity in a tone that suggested repetition. “Did you not notice coming down?” Rainbow Dash had no clue what she was on about until the unicorn gestured ahead, further south along the canyon.

“Right,” said Rainbow Dash. “No, I was busy trying to get the cart down safe.”

Whether or not they were the ruins Phoreni had mentioned, Rainbow Dash had no idea, but someone had clearly lived here, once. Not too far away, a low wall ran the full width of the canyon. Beyond, built on the canyon floor, hewed and sculpted into the cliffs and connected by bridges arcing from one wall to the other, were buildings and homes that, if they weren’t ruins, were clearly ruined. Dash followed Fluttershy and Rarity, the three moving along the canyon by unspoken agreement.

All was stone in every shade of red imaginable—and a couple more. Curved domes of fitted stone slabs with collapsed roofs, once-tall spires long since toppled and low towers with missing walls. If there was anything that was not rock, Dash figured it must’ve rotted or washed away long since—and no wonder. The rocks themselves looked like they’d tried their best at rotting away, too. A sudden gust of wind from behind spread one of Dash’s wings against her best efforts, hurrying the ponies along.

“I meant to say,” said Rarity, looking to Fluttershy as they approached the ruins’ outskirts. “As much as I appreciate borrowing your wings, will getting out of here be a problem?”

“We could always just walk out on the north side if it comes to that,” said Fluttershy, glancing up.

“There’s plenty of space to gain height, we’re good for getting out unless Fluttershy and I both mess up our wings,” said Dash. She took a deep breath and tried to focus on the truth of those words. Plenty of space, technically, but not nearly enough for her tastes. She, too, looked up again, and every time she did, she wished she hadn’t.

“Well, that’s a relief at least. Now to find somewhere to wait this terrible storm out,” Rarity muttered, stepping over a fallen stone as they mounted the chest-high wall. Rainbow Dash spread her wings to fly the cart over, but another sudden gust made her reconsider. She grunted with effort as she pulled the cart over a particularly low and ruined section instead.

“Anywhere down here is better than anywhere up there right now, at least,” said Fluttershy. The three paused just inside the wall, next to what must’ve been some sort of forum or marketplace, an open space with a lot of large, square slabs too simple to be bothered by time.

“Sure, but I don’t think ‘anywhere’ is good enough,” said Rainbow Dash, twisting around to look every which way. It was hard to get a full view of the place from the ground. Everything down here was partially collapsed and ruined, and much of what had been built into the cliff-side had fallen down, leaving small holes and ledges like pockmarks high up in the stone.

“You don’t think we could just rest against a wall on the other side of this wind?” asked Rarity, frowning slightly. “Not that I wish to settle for being uncomfortable if we’re going to be here all night, mind you.”

Fluttershy shook her head briskly. “The canyon’s going to flood from all the rain-water. We need to get higher up.”

“Ah. Wonderful,” said Rarity.

“And there’s—” Dash began.

“There’s a cross—oh, sorry,” said Fluttershy.

Dash shrugged. “Yeah, that. There’s a crossing wind, too. Didn’t you feel it just now? The wind’s picking up down the canyon too, and when the storm hits in full, there’s gonna be rain coming from every direction, and hard. Trust me. There’s gonna be no place safe from the wind.” She grinned. “I don’t second-guess you when it comes to fashion and stuff looking good, and you can trust us with weather. We want something better than a crummy wall. Best thing would just be hiding out on top of the clouds, really.”

“Yes,” said Rarity, her voice tight. “But as we’ve discovered many times so far, I am not a pegasus, so that’s not an option. And besides, I don’t know that my fashion sense is to be trusted lately, either.”

“Rarity…” said Fluttershy, walking a little closer to Rarity and resting her head against hers.

“Jeez, okay, that joke crashed,” said Dash. “Sorry?”

“No, no. There is nothing to apologise for, and this is not the time for dramatics, I realise that,” said Rarity with a brief sigh, nuzzling Fluttershy. “As for cover, how about there?” she asked, pointing ahead to a building Rainbow Dash hadn’t noticed before. The large, circular structure was built into the canyon wall on ground level, and stood almost untouched in defiance of the word “ruin”.

“It looks like some kind of fortress,” suggested Fluttershy, that last word spoken with an audible frown.

“Guess it’s built to last. Makes sense that it’s still in one piece,” said Dash with a shrug. “Let’s go?”

“It’s just… I thought Phoreni said these were Ephydoeran ruins,” said Fluttershy, hurrying to catch up when Rainbow Dash trotted along.


“Well, they didn’t really build anything out of stone, did they,” Fluttershy half stated, half asked, wincing as another strong wind blew past them, sending manes askew.

“I don’t recall her saying they were Ephydoeran ruins in particular, actually,” said Rarity, straightening her soaked mane and scowling at the result. “All the other peryton must’ve had master stonecrafters among them, though. They built their cities out of stone. Consider all the statues and the stele we’ve seen, too.”

“Speaking of, uh—” Dash cuffed the bangs of her mane when they got in her face again. “Okay, yeah, no, I don’t care about that, but before I forget, our manes are getting seriously long. Rarity, can you give me a haircut sometime soon? Because it’s starting to drive me crazy.”

Rarity gave Rainbow Dash’s mane a long look, and soon, she turned her scrutinising gaze unto Fluttershy as well, finally nodding. “I’m no stylist, but you two are getting rather scruffy. Remind me later, will you? I don’t know that now is the time.”

“Got it,” said Dash with a chuckle, her step slowing as they came to a halt in front of the fortress. “Pretty sure we found a good place to stay, though.”

Rainbow Dash couldn’t imagine the storm capable of touching the building in front of them. It didn’t inspire awe in the same way Castle Canterlot’s tall spires did, and it was certainly a lot smaller, but the chunk of red stone looked solid.

It also looked a lot like someone had cut a multi-layered wedding cake in two straight down the middle and shoved one half against a wall. Rainbow Dash was pretty sure she had Pinkie Pie to blame for the way cake imagery kept invading her head, but however she thought of the fortress, they’d come as close as they could by ground with the cart.

“Why would they… I almost want to say they’ve planted all these rocks here?” asked Rarity, frowning at the field in front of the fortress.

“It does look a little bit like a garden, doesn’t it?” said Fluttershy, and Dash could see the resemblance. A full semicircle field of tall, thin rocks separated the building from the hollowed-out houses of the rest of the ruined city. The ones that hadn’t broken off were as tall as a pony. Rainbow Dash slipped out from the harness and flew just off the ground to get a better view, but there was nothing much to see, and the wind kept tugging at her. She had to work her wings to stay steady in the confusing mess of currents that whirled around just above the canyon floor.

“Yeah, it keeps going all the way to the fortress entrance, but we can walk between them just fine. I don’t get it,” she said.

“Very well. Where is the entrance?” asked Rarity. “Can you see?”

“Uh, there’s one straight ahead, but it’s really narrow. I don’t think the cart fits there either,” said Rainbow Dash. The entire ground floor, the first circle—layer of the cake, whatever—didn’t have a lot of entrances or windows, only a few narrow gaps, but the layered design meant the second level had wide landings clearly intended for fliers. “There are some wider doors higher up,” she said, coming to an awkward landing. “Jeez, this wind—anyway, yeah, I guess the people who built this could fly, so maybe it’s a peryton fortress after all.”

“We still don’t have a real solution,” said Rarity, nibbling on her lower lip.

“Huh? Sure we do. We just walk up to it. If we can’t get inside down here, we’ll just hop onto the landing. I’m sure we can get you up there.” Dash shrugged.

“And the cart?” asked Rarity. She ducked when a sudden burst of wind slapped them with a blast of rainwater, dirt and dust, wet and dry at the same time. “Ack! It’s getting worse!”

“Oh. Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. “Carrying all the stuff inside is gonna be a pain.”

Fluttershy nodded quickly, raising her voice against the storm that started to find some purchase even down in the canyon. “We can’t just leave the cart out here in the storm, either! If the wind picks up much more, it could get damaged. Maybe we can find a safe place to hide it?”

“You couldn’t just fly it up to there?” asked Rarity, pointing to the landing beyond the field of stone pillars. “It would be much easier if we could just pull it inside.”

“Uh, so,” said Dash. “The wind that’s coming through the canyon is a mess.” It wasn’t even close. Flying the stupid cart in wind or rain? Annoying by itself. Wind and rain at the same time? That’s how stuff fell off the cart last time. With unpredictable explosions of wind coming from every which way? It was one of the rare kinds of reckless that even Rainbow Dash didn’t find tempting. Maybe if there was some fun to be had in failing, or if there was a real reason to do it. Hay, maybe on a really good dare, but not—

“I’m going to try,” said Fluttershy.

Rainbow Dash wondered if she’d heard wrong. Her mind went blank for a moment while Rarity hurried to double-check the straps that secured their tarp to the cart. Before Dash knew what was going on, Fluttershy had the harness secured, and Rarity stepped aside to give Fluttershy a clear run.

“I—uh, okay,” was all Dash managed. Fluttershy locked eyes with her, and though the wind blew her mane in her face, Rainbow Dash caught a smile amidst the mess of pink hair.

“I think I can do it,” said Fluttershy, simple as that.

Except it wasn’t simple at all. Everything about this was confusing to Rainbow Dash, and the wind was only a small part of it. Fluttershy took off at a gallop and launched into the air with the cart steady behind her. She lowered her head, and when the first sideways gust hit her, she banked and compensated, handing it perfectly. Fluttershy looked over her shoulder, and it wasn’t to check the cart—she sought Rainbow Dash, and Dash stared back.

She couldn’t not. She couldn’t help staring. Fluttershy had leapt at doing something even Dash herself wasn’t keen on, and Rainbow Dash felt her own wings spread in wordless support. A blast of wind lifted the cart, threatening to toss it over Fluttershy’s back, and Fluttershy hurried to follow it up. She was halfway across the stone garden already, and Rainbow Dash’s face hurt from the grin she wore. If there was a part of her that wanted to feel jealous—a part of Dash that wished she’d jumped at the opportunity to do this herself—it was trampled by the urge to cheer.

Fluttershy flew straight, again, all her usual grace transformed into power. She kept looking back at Rainbow Dash, and briefly, Dash wondered why. Did Fluttershy think that she had to do this? She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. But then, Fluttershy also wouldn’t usually leap at something this dangerous. Rainbow Dash’s wings swayed with the wind, and she furled them to stop them flapping about. When the next sideways gust hit, Fluttershy struggled to right the cart again before she had to bank the other way.

Did she think she had to do this because Rainbow Dash wouldn’t? That didn’t make sense. That couldn’t be it, but maybe Rainbow Dash pushed her to do it, even if she hadn’t meant to. Had she said something without thinking? Fluttershy couldn’t actually want to try this. If she did, Rainbow Dash didn’t know what to do with the way her heart hammered in her chest. She was excited in the same way she got excited any time she’d bullied Fluttershy into doing something she didn’t want to. How was that okay? What if Fluttershy did this despite not wanting to, somehow still because of Rainbow Dash?

Was that wrong? Why did that matter? Had these things mattered before? And what if she lost control of the cart and failed?

Rainbow Dash swallowed bile. “What if” were the two stupidest words she knew. They had no place in her vocabuwhatever. In her head. She loathed those words now more than ever, but suddenly, she couldn’t watch. She caught Fluttershy cast another quick glance over her shoulder, and this time, Rainbow Dash looked away, gritting her teeth.

“Oh dear—look out, darling!” cried Rarity a moment later, and Rainbow Dash caught a flicker of green light in the corner of her eye.

Rainbow Dash tossed the harness onto the floor, panting and wiping her dripping mane out of her face. “I don’t know if we need that any more, but there’s nothing more out there,” she said, shaking wet off her wings and planting herself on the ground with a sigh. “The rest’s just… pieces of cart, and I don’t think we can fix it. I’m not Applejack, but I can tell it’s gonna need more than just glue and nails or whatever.”

Rarity nodded and smiled her thanks, depositing the loose cart-harness over by the rest of their supplies, everything neatly sorted and drying where relevant. Thankfully, there was an excess of dry to go about for once. Where the ground floor of the fortress was dark, cold and utterly empty except for water trickling in through the slim door-like portals, they occupied the next floor up, which was a little more pleasant—if you liked dry rock.

Thick walls of carved stone created an antechamber that might’ve once been used for mustering. Or song practice. Or lunch. Rainbow Dash didn’t have a clue about military stuff, but whatever they did here couldn’t have required a lot of props. Stubborn stone furniture still survived, stone cider-racks resting along weathered walls. Or maybe they were scroll-case holders. Who knew.

Beyond that, a single stone table stood by the stairs they’d come up, and three of the walls had dark and doorless portals they’d left alone so far, more concerned with getting everything inside. It hadn’t taken very long. Rarity took stock, Rainbow Dash carried their stuff inside, and Fluttershy… well. The soaked pegasus sat leaning back against the stone guardrail of the stairs, pointedly looking everywhere but at Rainbow Dash whenever she came in with a new load of stuff.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Rainbow Dash asked, not for the first time.

“I’m fine,” replied Fluttershy, the exact same answer as last time, but Rainbow Dash didn’t know what those words were supposed to mean. She walked up to her girlfriend and reached out to gently run a hoof along her body, putting a little pressure here and there. Ribs, side and front. Wings. All the parts she tended to bust when she herself crashed.

“Any of this hurt?” she asked.

“No, I’m fine,” said Fluttershy again, sighing softly, her eyes on the air between her eyes and the ground.

Rainbow Dash believed her easily enough. It hadn’t been a particularly dramatic crash—the wind smacked the cart against the fortress wall, and Fluttershy didn’t fall very far. Besides, Fluttershy was made of tougher stuff than that. She poked Fluttershy’s wings again and checked for any indication that Fluttershy was in pain, but she got even less of a reaction than she expected. Fluttershy’s face was utterly blank.

“Darling, you need to collect yourself,” said Rarity, getting up and walking over to stand in front of the dejected pegasus. “No pony’s perfect. Please don’t beat yourself up over this any more.”

Fluttershy looked up, offering Rarity a smile so brief it might as well not have existed.

“What’s the problem? We didn’t lose anything important,” said Dash, leaving Fluttershy’s wings alone for now. She let her hoof rest on her side for a second longer before she withdrew. Fluttershy had no cause to be mopey about this. If it was anypony’s mistake, it was Dash’s own for not stopping her. For being too awestruck to do so. For enjoying it until right before the crash.

“Some of the berries are berry paste now,” Dash continued, shrugging. “We’re down a bag of water in the middle of a rainstorm. Big deal!”

“And the dragonfire,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head. “The bottle of dragonfire broke, too.”

“Okay, yeah, that’s a problem, but eh,” said Dash, shrugging. She’d almost forgotten they had it, and they could probably just buy a boat or something when they wanted to go home, right?

“Yes,” said Rarity with a huff. “We lost the dragonfire, and that may be a bit of an issue, but we’ll cross that bridge when we reach it. Fluttershy, darling dearest, you must understand that we don’t blame you.”

“I know that,” said Fluttershy, reaching over to wring a few drops of water from her mane.

“Please don’t think—wait, you… do?” asked Rarity, blinking.

“Then what’s the problem?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Of course I know. I don’t think either of you would be that mean to me on purpose, but I am very sorry,” said Fluttershy, clambering to stand on all fours and puffing out her cheeks. She glanced over at Rainbow Dash, inscrutable for a second. “And there’s no problem.”

“Well, ah, then… I suppose all is well? And your apology is both accepted and unneeded,” said Rarity, walking back towards their belongings in the middle of the room. “We will have to figure something out with regards to all my supplies. The chest will hardly fit in my saddlebags, and I want to bring as much as possible with me—and, if you are feeling better, let us find somewhere less drafty to sleep.”

“I don’t think you have to worry about packing your saddlebags for a while, at least,” said Rainbow Dash. Along the far wall, a wide portal led to the landing on the roof outside, rain whisking past it in huge drops blown almost perfectly horizontal. If not for the light of Rarity’s horn, it would be pitch black now, and the wind howled, whistled and roared, multiple voices in concert with each other.

“Fluttershy! Your services are required!” called Rarity. The unicorn stood by one of the room’s many exits, nervously tapping a hoof on the floor, and Fluttershy hurried over. Rainbow Dash made her way towards them as well, finally starting to feel a little tired after all the running, flying and thinking. It had been a long day. Another day of almosts. She was almost sure that Fluttershy was fine. Fluttershy wouldn’t let something as silly as a little accident break her, and if she felt bad about the crash, Dash was sure Fluttershy would feel better once they found something to do that the other mare really wanted to do.

“These are ferralopes?” asked Rainbow Dash. “I thought you said they lived in the forest.” She squinted at the slim, pointy-snouted, six-legged and antlered creatures as they ran in little circles around Fluttershy’s legs, sniffing and touching with unabashed curiosity. More than a dozen of them inhabited the first chamber they’d explored, and where Rainbow Dash stood as close as they’d let her, Rarity stood half-way outside the room.

“Usually, but they’re very adaptive,” said Fluttershy with a faint smile, ducking her head a little as one particularly inquisitive ferralope climbed up her mane to sit on her head, peering at her upside-down. It made a chittering noise, and Fluttershy shook her head in reply.

“Whatever they are, I hope they don’t mind sharing this place with us,” said Rarity with a barely-suppressed frown. “And that they don’t like the taste of my fabrics.”

Fluttershy shook her head again and bent low to the ground, letting the creature hop off her head. It rushed over to Rainbow Dash in the blink of an eye, rising to stand in front of her. It barely reached her knees when it stood on the hindmost set of legs. Dash leaned close to it, tilting her head. It tilted its head to match, sniffed her, and ran back to the others.

“I’m sure they won’t bother us or try to eat our things,” said Fluttershy, giggling at the resulting chorus of chatters from the ferralopes. “They mostly eat roots and dead beetles.”

“Ah. Dead beetles,” said Rarity with a strained smile. “Charming. If you say they are no problem—”

“And that they don’t see us as a problem,” Fluttershy interrupted.

“—then I am sure we will be the best of friends,” Rarity finished, smiling faintly. “Let us move our belongings into one of the other chambers.”

Rainbow Dash cocked a brow. “What, you just wanna grab the first empty room we find? I’m as tired as the next pony, but we have an entire fortress to explore!”

The three ponies filed out of the room, and Rainbow Dash could already see that the neighbouring chamber was much like the one the ferralopes inhabited: a narrow room with some stone shelves and nothing much else. Rarity and Fluttershy paused at the entrance, Rarity tapping a hoof on the ground.

“I think Rainbow Dash has a point,” said Fluttershy, glancing at Rarity. “Maybe we’ll find something better if we keep looking. Aren’t you cold?”

“Freezing, in fact,” said Rarity, frowning with clear annoyance. “I’ve become entirely too used to that, but no, perhaps you are right. There are stairs up in one of these chambers, and one of these openings has to lead to something other than a glorified supply closet full of animals, surely.”

“Okay, but before we get mad at me, I’m not saying I think we’re gonna find a bedroom with fluffy pillows,” said Rainbow Dash, gesturing to the other doorless portals that led away into shadow. “Just that this place looked a lot larger from the outside.”

“Of course,” said Rarity with a small sigh. “I would like to complain that I feel done with walking for the day, but frankly, my body is not the only weary part of me this moment. Let’s go see what we can find, at any rate. You’ll forgive my complaints.”

Rainbow Dash wasted no time picking a room at random, moving towards it with Fluttershy and Rarity in tow, the blueish white light from the unicorn’s horn blending oddly with the red stone.

“I don’t think you’re complaining,” said Fluttershy while Rainbow Dash squinted. The leftmost portal led to a hallway—more like a tunnel, really—with tons more openings in each wall. Boring. She headed back out and checked the next one over instead.

“You don’t have to try to make me feel better, dear,” said Rarity.

“That’s not what I meant,” Fluttershy replied. “I just mean, well, we’re all a little tired after running all day, but that’s normal. If you don’t mind me saying, I think you’re doing a lot better now.”

The next room showed a lot more promise, a small chamber containing a broad set of stairs in good repair.

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t relish the idea of ruining my figure.” Rarity let out a half-hearted snort and shook her head. “I’m sorry. You may be right. I don’t mean to be rude.”

Rainbow Dash paused her ascent, already on her way up the stairs. She was half-way to tuning their conversation out, but no way could she let that slide. She snorted with laughter as she stuck her head up to the next floor. “Ruin your figure? Rarity, you look great!”

“Not if one is trying to maintain a certain look, dear. We’ve been over this,” replied Rarity from below, the other two mounting the stairs and the light following. Rainbow Dash couldn’t see anything much without Rarity, so she hopped up and waited on the landing.

Whatever “look” Rarity was going for, she was certainly more toned now than she’d been when they boarded the airship weeks and weeks ago. She’d always kept in shape, sure, but a long gallop through a building storm hadn’t knocked her out like Dash had expected. At worst, the unicorn was a little crankier for it.

The journey had even kept Rainbow Dash in shape despite missing her usual training sessions, and Fluttershy? Rainbow Dash couldn’t keep from grinning to herself. The outdoorsy pegasus had never looked better, and Dash nuzzled her in passing just because she had to. Fluttershy smelled of rain and—Dash scrunched her snout. Of rain and of the apparently rather strong-scented ferralopes.

“Did you notice these symbols outside, too?” asked Fluttershy. Apparently she’d not noticed Dash’s little gesture, staring at a nearby support column. Now that Rarity brought the light, the room revealed itself. Two rows of large parallel pillars cut the room in three, and on each of the stone pillars were two symbols repeated amidst row upon row of peryton script, one a triangle with a jagged halo, the other four wedges in two rows.

“One of them is Helesseia, I’d recognise that one anywhere,” said Rarity, moving closer to inspect one of the stone pillars. “The other one I don’t know, and if I’m not mistaken, the letters are different.”

“Different?” asked Rainbow Dash. She peered at the unintelligible letters, but they looked like a flock of crows had gotten into the apple cider and danced around in wet mud, just like all the other peryton writing. “What do you mean? How can you tell?”

Rarity cocked a brow. “The many hours I spent helping Ephydoerans with their markings, for a start.”

“If you’re right, I guess it’s not all that surprising that their writing changed,” said Fluttershy moving to the next nearest column. “Old Equestrian is so different from how we write now that Twilight has to use magic to translate old books.”

“I recall her saying that, yes,” said Rarity, pursing her lips. “What confuses me is that I should at least remember seeing this other symbol, given that I am fairly sure I shaved most, if not every one of the forty-nine Aspects onto someone’s flank during those two days. It must be related to one of the Aspects that allow for virtually unlimited artistic freedom—though then I wouldn’t expect to see the same symbol twice.”

“Does it matter?” asked Rainbow Dash, shrugging and moving towards the only door leading further into the fortress. The room only had the one exit—not even a single way out to the landings outside—but it was also the first actual door they’d seen, the rows of pillars terminating in a stout double door.

“I don’t suppose it really does, no,” said Rarity, returning the shrug and following.

“Aren’t you at least a little bit curious?” asked Fluttershy, her eyes lingering on each of the columns as they moved past them, endless reams of unreadable script.

“Sure I am,” said Dash. “But if we can’t read it, we can’t read it. Wait, Rarity, do you know Twilight’s translation spell?” she asked.

Rarity shook her head and sighed. “No, and quite honestly, it doesn’t even make the list of things I regret not picking up before we left. Or, well, it didn’t before now. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said Fluttershy, leaning against the unicorn as they walked. “Rainbow Dash and I couldn’t cast the spell in the first place anyway.”

“Don’t even worry about it, I was just asking,” said Dash, more concerned with how the door ahead kept growing. She had to count the columns to make sure they were actually still moving towards the set of wood and metal doors.

Rarity let out a shivering breath. “Translation spells or no, I would still give up half the dresses in my boutique for a spell that created warmth right now. Or for Twilight to be here.”

“Me too,” said Fluttershy. “Or, well, I mean… I think I’d really like to see something familiar now. This really isn’t the coziest of places. I miss my couch. Snuggling up with Angel in my cottage would be wonderful.”

Rainbow Dash decided that the great hall they were in must’ve taken up the majority of this floor. In fact, it was larger than it should be. Were they inside the cliff wall, now? Underneath the earth? Dash shuffled her wings when they came to a stop in front of the two massive doors, ancient wood with bands of metal. She gave one of them a cursory shove, but it didn’t move.

“Alright, so we’re not going through here. I guess we gotta try the tunnel below,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning at the thought. She started moving towards the stairs again. “Weird that there are no stairs up. Unless I forgot how to count, there’s what, three or four more floors?”

“I know what you mean,” said Rarity with a sigh, and Rainbow Dash was confused until she realised she wasn’t talking to her, but to Fluttershy still. At least they followed while they talked. “I could go for a glass of warm vintage cider and a moment to myself in my workroom. Work would be relaxing compared to this, I feel,” Rarity added.

Rainbow Dash hopped down the last few steps of the stairs. There were more doors—or portals, really—another floor down, but even from here she could see a thin layer of water covering the ground floor already. Tunnel it is, then.

“I’d also like to see Twilight, Applejack and Pinkie Pie again soon—and Spike and all the others, of course,” Fluttershy went on.

“Oh, definitely. I’d want a moment to myself first, to collect my thoughts, but right now, nothing sounds better than a quiet evening with just us girls,” Rarity replied. “And then—heavens, re-socialising after this journey will be quite the task, I hadn’t even thought of that. What if I forgot to tell someone of my leaving, and they don’t see the notice on the Boutique’s door?”

The tunnel loomed before Dash. It pierced straight into the raw stone of the canyon wall, and when Rarity finally brought her light close, infinite shadows played with the rows of doorless opening. Metal hooks carried rusty, empty lanterns and miniature alcoves lined the walls containing stone statues much more delicate than anything else in the fortress—and thus, each and every one of them were broken.

“Rainbow Dash?”

“What?” asked Dash. She stopped by the first set of rooms, glancing left and right. Identical chambers with low stone frames and alcoves—no, shelves—carved into the walls. Bedrooms?

“I asked you what you miss the most,” Rarity said, studying one of the rooms intently as she spoke. “Parties at Sugarcube Corner? A good nap?”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Dunno. Don’t think about it much,” she said. “Okay, I guess these are all bedrooms.”

“The hallway turns up ahead. Maybe there’s something else around the corner,” said Fluttershy pointing down the hall, though she waited for Rainbow Dash and Rarity to start moving before she followed.

Their hoof-steps sounded entirely too loud without the backdrop of Rarity and Fluttershy’s conversation. Hooves on solid stone shouldn’t make this much noise, but their passage echoed, muted only partially by a layer of dust. Every time Rarity took a step, the light bobbed and the shadows shifted to match. The ever-present roar of rain and wind from outside receded slowly.

The hallway wasn’t that long, but it felt like it went on forever. Rainbow Dash wished Rarity and Fluttershy would keep talking. She was stuck actually trying to answer Rarity’s question, deciding if there was anything she missed. Their friends would be fine. Ponyville would be there when they got back, and Tank would be happy to see her. What did she actually miss? No particular place. Nopony she wouldn’t get to see again soon, relatively speaking.

If she missed anything, it would be Fluttershy. Not Fluttershy herself—that very pegasus trod on her tail and whispered an apology even as Rainbow Dash finished that thought, the three ponies clustering together as they walked down the eerie hallway. No, she missed doing stupid fun stuff with Fluttershy, which was a big part of what they did. Or, used to do, before Rainbow Dash realised how much her bullying had hurt her.

“Hey, so, Rarity. Can’t you use magic to keep your body warm?” asked Rainbow Dash. It’d be something to talk about. Anything was better than thinking about things she’d thought about before, problems she’d already solved by deciding to be a better girlfriend, problems that thus weren’t problems at all.

“I told you, dear. I can’t,” said Rarity, her words a little more crisp than usual. Clearly she was touchy about that.

Dash rolled her eyes. “Well duh. Not a heat spell or anything, but the magic Khyrast taught you. Wasn’t that supposed to make your entire body stronger?”

“Stronger, not warmer,” said Fluttershy, stepping over the shattered remains of a lantern.

“Sure, but we don’t know exactly how it works.” Rainbow Dash scratched her snout. “Maybe it’s like getting a good workout, or like when you’re ready to go and the adrenaline’s flowing. Being tired makes you cold, so being not tired’s gotta help keep you warm, right?”

Rarity gave Dash one of those smiles that weren’t a smile at all. “Ah yes. Perfect logic,” she said, immediately shaking her head at her own words. “No, that is unfair of me. I will admit I don’t know how it works, so maybe it would be worth a try if I knew how to do it.”

“I’m not a unicorn, and I don’t know how magic works, but I haven’t even seen you try,” said Dash. Finally they reached the corner, and she bit back a groan. More of the evenly spaced doorways. It ended in a larger room ahead, though.

“Maybe you’ll have better luck now that there isn’t quite as much pressure?” suggested Fluttershy, offering Rarity a smile. “If you think you can do it, that is. I don’t know if keeping the light on wears you out and you’re tired from that. Your light spell is very helpful.”

Rainbow Dash briefly imagined how the evening would look without Rarity’s light. Specifically, how it wouldn’t ‘look’ at all. She turned over her shoulder to lock eyes with the unicorn. “What she said,” said Dash. “If we only get one of the two, keep the light on. I don’t want to have to feel my way out of here.”

Rarity let out a soundless snort through her nose. “Any unicorn foal can create a light, it’s hardly impressive. But, very well. If it will please you, give me a moment to try the spell Khyrast taught me.”

The three ponies halted in the middle of the hallway while Rarity closed her eyes and focused. The light from her horn dimmed a little, then flickered, and Rainbow Dash swore she could see a faint glow around Rarity’s hooves.

“Focusing on the lower prongs. Prongs my hoof,” muttered Rarity. The light dimmed further, her horn now barely more than a tremulous candlelight. Fluttershy took a single step towards Rarity and glanced over her shoulder. Again there was a soft glow around Rarity’s hooves, but it was gone before Dash could think of something encouraging to say. Rarity opened her eyes again, and the light brightened until Dash had to shield her eyes.

“If there’s warmth to be had from that, it is from frustration,” said Rarity, her ears flat and her voice nearly dropping to a growl. “I am sorry. Let us continue this little exploration effort and find our way back to our blanket. Curiosity is not worth catching a cold over.”

Rainbow Dash nodded and gave Rarity’s side a poke. “Hey, you’ll get it next time.”

“You did better than last time, too,” said Fluttershy, nodding enthusiastically.

“Hey, can you turn the light back to… uh, ‘normal’ I guess?” asked Rainbow Dash as she headed the group further down the hallway. She looked inside each room they passed, but the most interesting thing she’d seen so far was a room that had two bed-frames rather than one. “Does your horn-light have settings?”

Rarity chuckled. “My horn does not, in fact, have settings. Surely you’ve noticed that I can control the light however I like.”

Fluttershy giggled as well and shook her head. “Maybe you can turn it back to the way you had it a minute ago?”

“Hm? This is the exact same spell, and the exact same amount of magic I put through my horn most of the time, dear,” said Rarity, giving Fluttershy an odd look. “What do you mean?”

“Quit messing around, there’s definitely something… odd.” Dash’s voice trailed off, and her step faltered.

At first, she thought Rarity was showing off because she didn’t manage to do the body magic spell—that maybe she just kept her light as bright as she could to prove a point or something. Slowly, Rainbow Dash realised that was not the case. The walls were not brighter because of Rarity’s unicorn magic, and the stone was the same red stone as it had always been. Except for the small matter of the way it gave off a glow of its own.

“Um, is it just me—”

“No,” answered Rainbow Dash, stopping in the middle of the hallway for the second time, Rarity and Fluttershy each bumping into her flank.

Light emanated from the walls down the hall. Not from the walls themselves, Rainbow Dash noticed, but from the empty lanterns, and in one case, from right below the hook from which a lantern had no doubt once hung. When she blinked, she swore she could see a simple, unpainted wooden door in the corner of her eye, but when she turned to look, there was nothing but an empty portal to an empty room. Rainbow Dash spread her wings in a flash and glared down the hall.

“What the hay is going on?!” Rainbow Dash called. “You guys are seeing this, right?”

“I don’t know what I’m seeing, but I’m definitely seeing it,” said Rarity, her voice quavering.

“G-ghosts,” Fluttershy stammered.

“I don’t know about that,” said Rainbow Dash, turning around to face Fluttershy. She meant to say something reassuring, something confident and cool to reassure her girlfriend—and herself—but Fluttershy looked the other way, staring behind them. When Dash saw past Fluttershy to the shape walking towards them, there was really only one thing to say.

“Okay, that does look like a ghost.”

It was already upon them, and there was no time to scream. The whole thing happened without noise except for a sharp intake of breath from Fluttershy when the translucent peryton passed straight through them. The large ghostly shape flickered, only parts of its body visible from any angle, and continued down the hallway without a care in the world. Fluttershy dropped her tail and curled it around one of her hindlegs and Rarity took a distressingly slow breath in.

Rainbow Dash packed her wings away and finally worked one of the seeds from their morning meal free from between her teeth. The citrus-berry seed had driven her crazy all day.

“Okay, so, let’s follow it,” said Rainbow Dash. She managed two steps before her walk was arrested by something hooked around her hindlegs and a sharp tug on her tail. Rarity grabbed her with her forelegs, and Fluttershy bit down on her tail, both of them staring at her.

“What?” Dash asked.

“Can we maybe not follow the ghost?” suggested Fluttershy, spitting out Dash’s tail-hairs. “I vote we run. Running and maybe screaming sounds really good right now!”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “It didn’t hurt us, and I’m bored. Let’s see what’s going on. Come on, I’ll keep you safe!”

Rarity’s eyes were large as they flitted between the ethereal lights and Rainbow Dash. “Rainbow, you cannot be this crazy. Fear of ghosts is perfectly normal if they are in the room with you.”

Dash nodded. “Sure, but these aren’t really ghosts, because there’s no such thing as ghosts, right?”

“About that,” said Fluttershy, hyperventilating quietly by herself. Rainbow Dash didn’t look. She touched her side with a hoof for comfort instead.

“If you’ve ever listened to Twilight for more than a minute at a time, you’ll know that’s circular logic,” said Rarity, frowning at her. She sounded more annoyed than afraid, now. “You can’t say they’re not ghosts because there are no ghosts.“

“Sure I can,” said Rainbow Dash. “Want more proof? Ghosts are supposed to be scary,” she said, sticking her tongue out as she tested the waters. Further down the hall, she saw a flickering shape pass from one room into another. “Nope. Still not scared,” she said.

“I have no single name. I am every echo.”

“What does—ah,” said Rarity with a sigh. “Yes, that wasn’t your voice, Rainbow Dash,” said Rarity.

“Nope,” said Dash.

“That was another ghost,” whispered Fluttershy.

“Lovely,” said Rarity.

Rainbow Dash turned to face the peryton stood behind them, and though it was hard to make out detail with all the shimmering and see-through-ness, she got the distinct impression it was looking straight at them—or through them. Dash didn’t feel like admitting that she wasn’t not a little uneasy right now, so she didn’t.

When a pulse of light shot from the peryton, washing down the hall and leaving half-unreal doors, lanterns and other peryton shapes in its wake, she was perhaps a little creeped out, too.

One moment they’d stood in a dead and desolate stone hallway playing tricks on them, and now it was filled with transparent life. Peryton walked up and down the hall chatting amicably without words, two peryton lay next to each other on a bed inside an open room right next to them, and all kinds of junk rested along the walls. A peryton tripped over a ceramic vase and it shattered without a sound, the spectre running along quickly with a backwards glance.

“Can we talk about my plan again, please? The one with the running and maybe screaming?” said Fluttershy, pleading, though she sounded decidedly less panicked now.

Rainbow Dash frowned and leaned down to poke her snout against Fluttershy’s feathers. “You’re going to hurt your wings, you know. Let them loose a bit.”

Fluttershy glared at Dash. “Those wings are staying just the way they are, and so are my ears, and my tail.”

“Fine,” said Dash, rolling her eyes. “Be scared.”

“I am!” Fluttershy snapped.

“Okay! Jeez!” said Rainbow Dash. She wrapped a wing around Fluttershy’s back and tugged her close, stroking slowly with her feathers. “Better?”

“A little,” said Fluttershy, deflating a tad and leaning back against her.

“Well. Hello,” said Rarity, who had been staring at, and been stared at by the peryton shape for a while now without a word. The peryton—the ghost, probably, Dash grudgingly admitted to herself—hadn’t done much, but the occasional flicker gave it definition. It carried large saddlebags across its back, and another bag around its neck, right over a scarf that billowed in an unseen wind. Ethereal ribbons hung from its antlers, and its tail-feathers were tightly bound.

“We are not a ‘you’, but I will speak,” replied the peryton in a sharp voice that rang true and clear where all the other ghostly proceedings around them were faint echoes at best.

Rainbow Dash cocked a brow. “What does that mean?”

“I am Rarity, and these are my friends, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. What—ah, with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”

“We do not know what a Direclaw is.”

“Pleased to meet you?” asked Fluttershy. The ghost said nothing. “We… we don’t know what that is, either, I’m sorry.”

Rarity cleared her throat. “Well, since we are speaking, may we call you ‘Echo’, or do you have—”

“I am pleased to meet you,” said the ghost, its tone shifting suddenly, warmer and friendlier by far. “This is Burning Stone Redoubt, the home of hundreds of peryton. Here—.”

“Here what?” asked Dash. The creature stopped mid-sentence, but none of them had spoken to interrupt it.

“Rarity, could you try moving?” asked Fluttershy, chewing her bottom lip. She moved aside, forcing Rainbow Dash to move as well, making space for Rarity.

Rarity did as asked without so much as a questioning look at Fluttershy, taking a few steps sideways. The ghost didn’t turn to follow, its shimmering face still on the spot where Rarity had stood.

“It’s not—” Fluttershy said.

“Those are many questions. I do not know what an Aspect is,” said the ghost.

“It’s not talking to us,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head. “I don’t think it knows we’re here.” Rainbow Dash could feel the other pegasus’s rapid breath against her side, and she couldn’t keep from feeling a swell of pride. Dash herself hadn’t noticed, but her girlfriend, though scared out of her mind, had.

“Then who is it talking to?” asked Rarity. She brightened the light from her horn further, looking all about. “Is there someone else here? I don’t see—”

“I do not know—” the echo interrupted in its monotone voice, this time cutting off when it flickered, disappearing like a snuffed-out candle. The thing—or another one that looked just like it—faded back in a second later, its voice changed again to a higher pitch. “Of course, I am happy to help a visitor. What do you need? Of course. Follow me.”

Rainbow Dash swallowed. “Okay guys, I’m gonna tell you a secret, alright?”

Rarity raised a brow. Fluttershy looked over at her with concern.

“I’m definitely starting to get creeped out.”

“I do not know anyth—” the echo said, once again interrupted by its entire form flickering.

Please say something else,” hissed Rainbow Dash, doggedly trailing the ghost-creature as it retraced their steps, marching out of the hallways.

“We could always… not follow it,” suggested Fluttershy. “Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“I don’t know which is the safer option at this point,” said Rarity, and if anything, Dash agreed that there were a lot of questions. She would’ve preferred that they faced a real ghost who would talk to them even if it scared her mane off her head. Anything would beat the slow pursuit of a bright shape that shed no light, a trek through what had plainly once been the fortress dormitories, rooms filled with peryton rooting around their ethereal belongings, talking and laughing without sound.

“I wonder if the doors are real. Or, well, if we can—” Fluttershy began. Before she’d even completed the sentence, Rainbow Dash stuck a hoof through a door in passing. It went right through the pointless and ineffectual un-door that failed to hide a sleeping peryton beyond. The only real reaction was Fluttershy stiffening in fright.

“Nope. They’re not real,” said Dash.

“Maybe you should be a little more careful,” said Rarity, frowning at her. “What if it had been dangerous?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Wasn’t.”

“And now I guess we know that,” said Fluttershy, sighing. “Please don’t do that again. We don’t know what’s going on.”

Rainbow Dash’s return quip got stuck in her throat. She was going to say that she knew that whatever was going on exactly, it was probably just some spooky ghost-like thingy who was playing tricks on them, and that they were worrying about nothing at all. Well, maybe not nothing, but not worrying was definitely on the agenda.

She hadn’t thought about what to expect beyond the hallway, though. When they finally passed through the doorway onto the main room of the floor, Rainbow Dash hadn’t expected so much life.

See-through peryton of all shapes and sizes milled about the large chamber, and despite how hard it was to make out details that shifted and shimmered on colourless bodies, she still was struck with the realisation that she’d never seen a more varied group of peryton.

Some wore ribbons in their antlers, some wore sashes and other garments, some walked with their wings half spread. Some clusters of soundlessly conversing peryton resembled each other, some were a mix. In the center, a small queue formed by a large table staffed by five peryton who looked nothing like each other. The stone table looked more real than the rest of the stuff—because it was. The table had been there when they first got here, and was still there.

“I do no—” the echo said yet again, flickering and reappearing, the most solid of any of these ghostly apparitions.

“Oh,” said Fluttershy.

It was a soft “oh”. The sort of noise reserved for details or asides that meant nothing in the greater scheme of things. An “oh” Rainbow Dash would use when someone told her she’d eaten the last cupcake that was meant for Applejack. “Oh. My bad”. The word and the intonation she’d use if Pinkie Pie told her the party had been moved forward half an hour, or Fluttershy mentioned that she was out of green tea.

“Oh” was Fluttershy’s reaction when she glanced past Rainbow Dash and out the portal that led to the roof of the floor below. A ghostly door stood half-way open, and beyond, the city had changed.

“Huh,” Rainbow Dash herself managed to squeeze out, seeing what she had seen.

The storm raged on, the wind roared, the rain hammered down on unyielding stone, and the inhabitants of whatever this town was called paid it no mind. Domes, half-domes, spires and towers that had fallen when they found the gorge now also stood complete with their holes mended by ghostly light. Peryton lived, laughed, and ran down the streets heedless of the weather. Two large peryton hugged each other by a street-corner below, only the top halves of their bodies visible through a very solid and un-ghostly stone block that had toppled over. The darkness of the storm hid most of the town, but as far as Rainbow Dash could see, the city was both alive and in ruins.

“I do not know anything about that,” said their companion-ghost.

“That makes two of us. Or, four,” breathed Rarity. “Where is it going?”

“Upstairs?” Dash chanced, looking away from the madness outside. It hurt her brain to try to keep the two worlds separate. It was far easier to keep her mind on the task ahead, even if it she had no idea what they were doing, following the spectre as it carefully made its way between the other peryton. “Heh, it’s like the world’s creepiest tour guide,” she said with a snort of laughter.

“I don’t think the others can see him, either,” said Fluttershy. “No one’s looking at him.” She walked around the other ghostly shapes, scrambling away when one nearly collided with her. Dash just walked right through them.

“I wish we had some actual answers,” said Rarity with a nervous glance to each side. “No, I wish we had questions, actually—hey! Do mind where you’re stepping!”

Rainbow Dash cocked a brow. Three peryton stood right on top of all of their supplies. The smallest one actually sat down on the floor, right on their food.

“I don’t think they can see, or even touch it, Rarity,” said Fluttershy, smiling at her.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” Rarity retorted with a sniff. “That’s just plain rude. Haven’t these ghosts heard of manners?”

“I do not know anything about that,” said the echo, mounting the stairs.

“And I thank you for that concession,” said Rarity.

“You really need to stop talking to the ghost,” said Rainbow Dash, leading the way after it.

“Oh please.” Rarity rolled her eyes. “I know they can’t hear us. Or, should I say, ‘I don’t know any—’”

“Please don’t,” said Fluttershy, shuddering.

Nothing much had changed on the next floor up. No more ghostly furniture appeared, and there was precious little clutter. The only real addition to the great chamber with all its pillars was a huge number of peryton, many of whom walked in circles around the columns, reading or talking with their mouths moving in unheard speech. Or was that mostly unheard? Was there a whisper at the edge of hearing? Rainbow Dash twitched her ears to try to dispel that notion. She wanted none of that.

“Of course,” said the echo in an amicable tone. “What would you like me to read?”

The three ponies exchanged glances, but none of them said anything. It would have been pointless either way, of course, but the waiting took on a decidedly nervous tone. When the echo started moving towards one of the nearby pillars, Rainbow Dash could swear she heard its hoof-and-claw-steps, the distinctive peryton walk muffled but audible. Had the echo always made sound when it walked?

“This? This is a tale of the creation of the Morillyn Gorges—”

Again it cut itself off, flickering.

“Why does it do that?” asked Rarity. “Why the half-sentences?”

“Why don’t you ask it?” Dash retorted, grinning.

“No, it’s… I actually wonder, too,” said Fluttershy, pre-empting Rarity’s response. Her brow was knit in thought as the three followed their guide. “When it flickers, it doesn’t ever continue where it left off. It’s like it’s being interrupted.”

Rainbow Dash tilted her head. “Well, yeah. It’s being interrupted—”

“No, I mean like someone or something is interrupting it.” Fluttershy held a hoof to her mouth. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like we’re just getting half a conversation. Like there’s someone else telling the poor ghost to be quiet all the time, like they’re asking questions and then telling it to be quiet.”

“There’s obviously another part to this conversation,” said Rarity, nodding.

“Okay? What do you think that means?” asked Dash, scrunching her snout.

Fluttershy shrugged. “Maybe nothing? It means that the other person is asking a lot of questions this poor thing can’t answer, that’s all. And that there are a lot of things they don’t want to hear about. I’m sorry. I’m just thinking. There’s not much to do except think and listen right now, is there?”

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Fair enough. Me, I’m wondering why the door isn’t all ghost-like.”

“This is a tale of the first visit—” Again the echo stopped.

“What do you mean, dear?” asked Rarity.

“The door’s closed, but if the… the other door, the ghost door is closed, why isn’t this door all ghost-y and stuff? I saw a little bit of ghost-stuff on the cider racks and the table down below, and they’re there. Uh, I mean, they’re here, too. Why can’t we see the ghost door like we can see the ghost table?”

“Maybe the door opens inwards, and is open for the ghosts?” Fluttershy suggested. “I don’t see any hinges.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Yeah, I don’t know.”

The echo tilted its head sideways. “The Longing? Of course, follow me,” it said, and so the ponies did, following it across the floor to one of the furthest pillars. “This is a record of the events following The Longing.”

“Did any of the peryton we’ve met so far mention a ‘longing’ so far?” asked Rarity, humming.

“I don’t think so?” said Dash. “Like… a long thing? Or wanting something?”

“Phoreni said that she at least doesn’t know what happened here except that they migrated peacefully,” said Fluttershy, chewing on her cheek.

“I don’t kn—” Another flicker.

“Back to that again, huh?” asked Dash, but the spectre went on right away, quickly popping back into existence.

“In the wake of The Longing, the decision to leave was made together, and all council members are agreed. The pillar was etched tonight, the story was written as it happened. Tonight, The Ever Soaring will lead the peryton people—” another flicker. “—this is the truth as it happened tonight. Aholari Minds the Field, Tender Orybissa, First Cl—” the shape flickered yet again, and this time it seemed that it wouldn’t recover.

The white glowless light that formed its body blinked rapidly and winked out, and Rainbow Dash held her breath for long seconds before the ghost reformed as though it had never been gone.

“—will lead our people away, and we are excited. The five expedition leaders will forge our many paths. Our stories. The Ever Soaring has made his promise, and so have the others. This is a time of opportunity and promise, and the peryton people will leave their homes, will leave the gorges. Few are those who do not see the wisdom of this, and the Tenders have tried to reason with those who disagree.” It paused for a second, head forward and nodding slightly as though listening attentively to something Rainbow Dash couldn’t hear. Now more than ever did it feel like half a conversation.

“If you wish for me to tell you these specific things that are not true, you may wish to employ a different spell. I can not tell you these things. I can not read them from the pillars. I can not make them truth. I can not make this a memory.”

“A spell,” Rarity said, her eyes widening. She repeated the words as though she’d never heard them before. “Maybe this isn’t a ghost after all?”

“I would very much like to believe that. I like that. That is a nice thought. I’m going to believe it,” said Fluttershy, nodding so quickly her mane flew about.

Rainbow Dash scratched one leg with the other. “Wait. But—”

“I am not sentient. I am memories. I am echoes,” said the peryton, as though it spoke in answer, in explanation to the ponies. “If you dissolve this spell and make another spell, you may have greater success.” A short pause. “Yes.” Another pause. “Yes. If you dissolve—” a brief flicker. “I will wait until I am awoken. Yes. I will repeat. I will wait for magic that belongs to peryton sworn to none of the five tribes. I am an echo. I am memories. I am gone.”

The ghost faded. All around them, the peryton circling the pillars began to disappear, fading all together and ever so slowly.