• Published 26th Aug 2017
  • 4,863 Views, 778 Comments

To Perytonia - Cloudy Skies

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

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Chapter 1

Find attached a path by air and a path by sea. The calculations are my own, using Cape Absolute as my point of reference, and any capable captain should be able to follow them with ease. I was told we may expect an exact map via an independent party. This is not as strange as it may sound: In my recent travels, I have met more than one such party of what I can only describe as cross-border mail service. Please see separate report.

Finally, I wish to add a personal note, and I ask that these words are omitted from my official report as these are simply the fanciful musings of a mare who would rather be working than waiting.

I have described these peryton as tending towards stern and unreadable. Combine this with the precision of their instructions for a proper meeting, and it is easy to think their severe demeanor contradicts their inviting words. I do not think this is the case. I firmly believe that the peryton are fundamentally amenable to the prospect of engaging in diplomatic relations with Equestria—these are all things I have stated in my report.

However, and with respect and deference to the Princesses’ discretions, I am an explorer, and no diplomat. I suspect your Royal Highnesses will wish to involve their most capable agents for this land. This place requires ponies with experience and ability, better equipped to understand what I can not.

I leave this letter in the care of the Royal Equestrian Mail and depart for the south-west, allowing for a week ashore in case there are countermanding orders. My next scheduled report may be as late as next spring, given the distances involved.

-Red Sun Runner, The Perytonia Report. Section 4, subsections c-d. (Not Published)

“And remember, for the duration of our travels, we’re officially Equestrian diplomats,” Twilight said. “That means we all need to be at our best!” She drew herself up to her full height, and Rainbow Dash imagined it would look and sound pretty impressive if she hadn’t said words similar to those all morning long.

From the moment they woke up—or, from Dash’s perspective, from the moment they dragged her out from under the blanket and forced her to eat breakfast—Twilight had gone on and on about responsibilities and all those other boring things. From the hotel to the skydock, she’d been unrelenting in telling all her friends about the importance of their respective journeys, as if they didn’t know that.

Dash shifted uncomfortably with a creak and a rustle from her saddlebags, her attention already drifting again. This far up, the wind tugged at her mane as though she were mid-flight.

The Las Pegasus skydock looked impressive enough as part of the skyline. They had seen the huge, skeletal structure on approach by train, but up close, it was something else entirely. The multiple station buildings and flat boarding platforms were the tallest buildings in all of Las Pegasus. It was no Cloudsdale, sure—her city of birth was the authority on all things winged—but what the platforms lacked in puffy, cloud-filled awesome, they made up for with airships.

The large wooden hulls tethered to the side of the platform were held aloft by great balloons or magical pontoons, all sporting one or more colourful sails. The only thing tempering her excitement was the fact that they were boarding the smallest one around, and that was an objection on principle alone.

The Vantage, as the green letters on white wood declared it, was barely as big as Sugarcube Corner, a squat ship with a balloon many times its size. She shook her head to clear it. Apparently, ponies were saying their goodbyes. Pinkie crossed necks with Fluttershy and hugged her close with a foreleg, grinning hugely.

“—don’t party if you don’t know where the balloons came from, be sure to eat lots of sugar, and you come back all safe and nice!” she said, pulling back to touch her snout to Fluttershy’s. The pegasus smiled back and gave a confused nod.

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll be fine. I hope.”

Rainbow Dash grinned. “Hey, that goes double for you guys. I bet we’ll get back to Ponyville first. Losers have to throw a welcome back party for the others!”

“Wouldn’t it make more sense if the ponies who got back first set up a reception, dear?” asked Rarity, adjusting the straps of her saddlebags with a glimmer of magic.

“There is no telling when either of us get back. It could be days or even weeks apart,” Twilight added, hugging Rarity, then Rainbow Dash. Dash was happy to return the hug, wrapping her forelegs around Applejack, too, parting hugs shared all around.

“We all know Pinkie’s going to be the one throwing the party anyway,” Dash said, laughing.

“Parties,” Pinkie Pie retorted, hugging Applejack tight. “Not one party, but a bunch of them. There’s going to be so many parties. Aw, I’m going to miss you, Applejack!”

“Pinkie? Neither of us are getting on that airship,” Applejack said with a roll of her eyes, but she resigned herself to the sideways hug regardless. Behind the six ponies, the airship crew carried the rest of their cargo on board, a mare struggling under the weight of a large chest. The platform was deserted aside from sailors and staff, and most of those had already boarded the Vantage. Evidently, none of the bigger airships were leaving anytime soon.

“I suppose that’s our cue,” Rarity said with a wan smile, casting a glance towards the uniformed pony who had just stepped up to the railing of their ship. Rainbow Dash felt a twinge of trepidation course through her body. She’d played it cool when the others talked about it, but now, they were leaving Equestria. It wasn’t nothing. From the way Fluttershy’s tail drooped as she turned to the airship, she could tell the other pegasus shared her thoughts.

“Y’all stay safe. Going to miss you an awful lot,” Applejack said, doffing her hat.

“Heh, yeah,” Dash said. She took a deep breath and gave her most confident grin. “Seriously though. Race you back. You guys have fun, too!”

Final goodbyes were shared, and in Pinkie’s case, a last round of lightning-speed hugs. Rainbow Dash led the departing trio up the gentle slope of the gangplank, all three with scarves for warmth and saddlebags to carry their personal effects—but mostly to make their wings uncomfortable, Dash figured.

If Rainbow Dash made a few backwards glances, it was only to make sure that Rarity and Fluttershy followed. Definitely. It had nothing to do with being a teensy bit nervous. Just excited. Yep. She hopped onto the deck of the ship and stretched her entire body.

“Cold hooves?”

“Hah! No way!” Dash replied, whirling around to come face to face with their captain. The older, gravel-voiced mare wore a decorated sailor’s hat, and didn’t look half as smug as the words suggested. Instead, the blue earth pony mare gave them a relaxed salute, and Dash had no idea if she was supposed to return it. Also, the sailor’s eyes were on Fluttershy, who leaned over the railing to wave at their friends still.

“Oh. You mean her,” Dash muttered, flicking her ears.

“Rarity.” The unicorn said, stepping past Rainbow Dash to give the captain a nod and a bright smile. “A pleasure.”

“Calm Seas is my name,” the captain replied, giving Dash’s mane a pointed look. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re Rainbow Dash, which makes you Fluttershy.”

Fluttershy quailed a little under the stern look, but managed a nod. Perhaps she had come to the same conclusion that Dash had: it didn’t look like their captain was capable of anything but a stern look.

Calm Seas indicated the only door set in the front of the ship. “Forecastle door, down the stairs, first on the right. Those’re the only passenger quarters, and you’re the only passengers. I haven’t been told not to ask too many questions, but I’m still not gonna ask. Don’t like questions on principle. Don’t get in my crew’s way, and you have free run of the ship otherwise.” She broke into a grin somewhat hampered by a scar on her muzzle.

“If that sounds alright with you ladies, let’s be off. Sooner we leave, sooner I’m back doing my regular runs. Royal business isn’t my favourite business, and this makes for two more cross-sea flights than I bargained for.”

The ship creaked. Rainbow Dash added it to the long and growing list of why wings were better than wooden airships for travel. She also added “speed” between every other entry in her head.

“I hope Twilight is going to be okay,” Fluttershy said, peering out through the small window set in their quarters’ outer wall. There was barely enough space for the three ponies and their saddlebags. No room to fly around a little just for the sake of it, much to Dash’s dismay.

“Twilight? Why her?” Dash asked, hopping onto the bed to sit next to Fluttershy. Outside, Las Pegasus drifted away as the Vantage performed a large turn and set course south and west. If there was anypony she worried about, Twilight was near the bottom of the list. Twilight could handle anything.

“Oh, come now,” Rarity said, rummaging around in her saddlebags with hoof and magic both. “Fluttershy is absolutely right. The poor dear was practically out of her mind with worry, rambling on and on even more than usual. I suppose she’s afraid either we or they will disappoint the Princess. Or, Princesses, as it were.”

Dash leaned against the wall, scratching the back of her head against the coarse woodwork. “Yeah, okay, but if the Princesses cared so much, why didn’t they come say goodbye?”

Fluttershy looked like she wanted to protest. She got so far as opening her mouth before Rarity cut in.

“They did say that there was a lot to do right now, and that’s why we are going to Perytonia in their stead. We said our goodbyes at the midsummer banquet last week. Honestly, Rainbow, I didn’t think you would be sore about that.”

“Hey, I’m not sore! I’m just asking. They didn’t tell us a whole lot about this mission.”

“Mission,” Rarity repeated, arching a brow. “I think I prefer ‘diplomatic journey’, myself.”

Dash grinned. “Nope. When the captain gave us that package, this became a mission.” She gestured to the open box at Rarity’s side, next to which lay its contents: a thick sheet of paper had been identified by Fluttershy as a large-scale map showing the location and environs of a city, with a blue circle around a hill near the city outskirts. Next to the map lay three neatly folded multi-coloured strips of silk longer than Rarity’s biggest winter scarves. The gauzy things had been the source of some debate.

“I don’t think it really matters what we call it,” Fluttershy chimed. “They know we’re coming, and that’s the important thing. Red Sun Runner met with one of the peryton to make sure.” She cleared her throat, raising her voice a little more. “And Rarity, if you’re looking for the box from the Princesses, it’s in my saddlebags.”

“Oh. Thank you, dear,” Rarity said, putting hers down while she quested under her bed for the butterfly-embroidered pair instead. Once she opened them, she fished out a box no bigger than a hoof to each side, revealing what Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but think of as a Hearth’s Warming ornament. Rarity insisted the metal star was a “sigil”, though, whatever the difference.

“Besides,” Rarity continued, fixing Dash with a smile. “Perhaps if you’d paid a little more attention when the Princesses told us about all their efforts this year, or even to Twilight today, you’d have learned a little more.”

“I was all ears when Princess Celestia and Luna talked about this!” Dash protested, her eartips heating up. “I know what they said. Take that thing to who or whatever’s in charge over there now and invite them to come have cake or something. Tell me one new thing Twilight said that the Princesses didn’t tell us.”

Fluttershy brightened. “She told us she’d found some very old books in the Canterlot library that suggested the Perytonians are probably vegetarians, just like us, and I was ever so happy she did. That’s a very nice way to break the ice.” She let out a little gasp. “Oh! And she also said they have have tail-feathers rather than tails like ours, just like birds! And that it wasn’t just the people Red Sun Runner talked to who have wings—they’re all winged creatures, just like the two of us—or at least she thought so.”

“Okay, that was not one thing,” Dash said, her momentum crashed. She deflated a tad, pouting. After a small pause, Rarity gave a very un-ladylike chortle, and Fluttershy couldn’t keep from giggling. It was infectious, and Dash failed to muster indignancy. She laughed as well.

“Fine, I kinda zoned out a lot,” she admitted. “I don’t sweat the small stuff anyway. ‘Give them the thing’. Done. I guess if the Princesses knew exactly how we were supposed to do this, anypony could have done it.” She puffed out her chest and tossed her mane. “No wonder they wanted us for this!”

“We’ll certainly need that energy of yours,” Rarity said, smiling. “And I’m sure our friend in, ah…”

“Orto, I think it was called,” Fluttershy said. “That should be the place on the map, but I can’t read their letters. Someone there should know we’re coming.”

“Yes. Our friend in Orto is supposedly waiting to meet us, and I’m sure they will be more than happy to lend a hoof. Or... claw? Beak? Whatever they have.” She looked askance at Fluttershy, but received nothing but a tiny shrug in reply.

“Sure, can’t wait to meet them,” Dash said. Bit by bit, the mirth petered out into a pensive silence. Rarity turned the sigil-or-ornament thing around in the grip of her magic, and Fluttershy looked out the window again. Dash followed her gaze. Nothing but air now, but if she craned her neck, she could see the ground far below. There was nothing unusual about that to the seasoned pegasus, but Dash could see the seashore far off in the distance, too. That part was decidedly new.

“So… Did you, ah, have fun, yesterday?” Rarity asked with a sideways glance.

“Hay yeah!” Dash said, bouncing to stand on all fours. Fluttershy tumbled off the side of the bed with a muffled eep.

“It was nice,” Fluttershy offered, accepting Dash’s hoof to help her back up.

“Nice? It was awesome!” Dash corrected her, grinning at the memory of all the games they had played and won during their little trip up and down Las Pegasus’ main thoroughfares that evening. Well, strictly speaking, she herself had been doing all the winning, but that seemed like something of a detail. Maybe even a small annoyance, on afterthought. Maybe she should’ve tried again to ask Fluttershy to try some of those games.

“Well, I want you to know that I’m very glad,” Rarity said, smiling. She looked as though she wanted to say something else. Maybe she wanted to know what games they had played, but she didn’t ask, depositing the sigil back in the box in favour of inspecting the Perytonian silk.

“Do you think they are for us?” Fluttershy asked. She stepped off the bed to run her hoof along the length of the silk Rarity handled. “They are very soft, and very pretty.”

“Three of them, three of us,” Dash said with a shrug. “They don’t look like they’re very warm if they’re scarves. Can’t be half as good as Rarity’s scarves for altitude flying.”

Rarity glowed, giving Dash a wide smile and their other, thicker scarves a fond look where they lay in the corner of one of their beds. “That’s very nice of you to say, Rainbow Dash, but unless we’re going mountain climbing, Perytonia is supposedly very warm, especially now in summer. Still, it’s nice to be appreciated for—”

“Oh, hey, who has the bottle?” Dash asked.

Rarity sighed for some reason. “Never mind. The dragonfire? I believe I do.” She levitated a small bottle out of her saddlebags. Emerald-green fire swirled behind thick glass. “I have the parchment for use with it as well, but I don’t enjoy the thought of having to use this.”

“Yeah,” Dash agreed. “If we can get a ride back home without sending a letter, I wanna save it to see if I can prank Twilight with it when we get back.” She snickered and made for the door. “Anyway, I’m gonna get some air. I’ll be back in a minute.”

The Vantage’s corridor was cramped enough to make a pegasus cry. Dash squeezed past a stallion in the narrow hallway, mounting the stairs three steps at a time until she was out the door. She flared her wings and stretched her neck out, exulting in—the lack of wind against her feathers?

Rainbow Dash frowned. The forecastle was in the way. Kicking off, it took her all of two seconds to fly up to stand at the front of the ship, finally getting herself some wind. The air smelled different from what she was used to. What had been a whiff of salty sea air at the Las Pegasus train station was now almost overwhelming.

Dash popped an eye open, peering over the rim of the airship to find only an endless expanse of deep blue. To the right, behind and below, the green fields of Equestria were slowly fading from view. Dash let out a low whistle. Views from on high? Old news. Watching Equestria slide away? New news.

“First time at sea?”

Dash yelped. For a big old pony, their captain was deceptively stealthy. The earth mare stood right next to her, looking ahead, the few locks of her mane not constrained by her hat flapping in the wind.

“Uh, I guess. I mean, we’re not really at sea anyway,” Dash said, though she couldn’t help making it sound like a question.

“I’m no philosopher, but we got the sea below us. Counts plenty for me,” said Calm Seas. “If you’re gonna throw up, do it off the starboard.”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “Oh, come on, I’m a pegasus. If flying made me sea—uh, air sick, I’d know. In fact, I bet I could outrace your ship easy.”

“Miss, my grandmother could outrace this ship running backwards, and no, there’s no pegasus blood in my family,” the captain retorted with a half-grin that stole Dash’s thunder. “And besides, I’d like to see you fly across the Gorget Sea alone.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her jaw. She felt the urge to fight that statement, to take the challenge, but she had no idea how big it was. Looking ahead, it went on forever. She’d have to risk finding a wild cloud for resting every so often, and even then she might get blown off course. She flexed her wings mutely, but if she didn’t acknowledge what had been said, it didn’t technically count as a loss.

“Anyway, I’m gonna go for a flight.” Rainbow Dash hopped onto the railing, leaning forward to balance against the wind.

“Right, but a word to the wise? Don’t go too far. That’d be on my head. Also, I’d suggest you to keep needless flying to a minimum when we get close to Perytonia.”

“What? Why?” Dash asked, her voice cracking on that last word.

“Because I’ve been asked not to cause an incident, and flying over their land might make them nervous.” The captain shrugged, tugging at her hat. “Those are the rules I keep to once past the border. Past any border. Once you’re off my ship, you do what you want, but right now, no incidents means stay close, and stay shipbound after land is spotted, which should be in three or four days.”

Rainbow Dash stared at the captain’s back as she wended her way down the outer forecastle stairs. The idea of flying less hurt more than it would in practice, but she knew there was no way anypony could keep her on the ground if she felt like a flight. She kicked off the side of the airship and let herself fall for a second before she spread her wings, letting out a loud whoop.

Despite the captain’s words, the airship wasn’t half as slow as Dash expected. It moved at a good pace, though keeping up was foal’s play for her, of course. Dash let herself fall behind and trailed the ship for a few seconds, coasting in its drag before she flew up on the Vantage’s left side. She grinned wide, running a hoof along the chipped paint as she sped up, an idea seizing her.

It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for. Soon she flew level with the front-most of the ship’s little windows. Inside their quarters, Rarity sorted through her bags and Fluttershy sat with her eyes closed. She knocked on the window, cackling with glee when Rarity stiffened in fright and glared at her. Rainbow Dash waved, then dipped a wing to veer away from the airship and pulled a simple loop as she plunged into the open air.

It was vast. A different kind of vast. Sailing away from Cloudsdale, springing off any cloud, or simply flying up for any amount of time could always buy Rainbow Dash as much space as she wanted, but with the flat and featureless sea below, and with few clouds about, everything was air—and everything was water.

She pulled an idle half-corkscrew, flying upside down for a second. The sky or the sea below, the sea or the sky above, she could fly forever in any direction she wanted. The airship drifted not far above—well, below, now—and she had half a mind to do exactly that, but she’d need to return at some point.

She’d simply have to make the most of it then. Make the most of a lot of air and a lot of energy, without the freedom to simply fly in a random direction and land wherever her wings took her. A flock of seagulls would be her only audience this time, flying together above or below her, outlined against sea or sky. She let herself fall into a sharp, short dive. Two, three, four neat little loops without a single flap of her wings. Another two loops, these with corkscrews—she exited the last one heading the other way.

Incidents. The word echoed in her mind. Twilight had used that word a lot too. Celestia may have mentioned it once in a rare sentence about caution and other snooze-worthy things. She whooped and laughed as she let herself drop again. Her wings protested when she broke her momentum, launching off in another direction. Any direction.

Dash gave her wings their all, flapping as fast and as hard she could before she curled herself into a ball and furled her wings. She spun around and around. Tears formed in her eyes and her tail blocked her view. She had no idea which direction she was going, already planning the next sets of spins and twirls when she spread her wings again and righted herself.

Except, she couldn’t. When she unfurled her wings, the world still spun. That wouldn’t be a problem by itself. A little dizziness was nothing, but when she looked ahead—what she thought was ahead—nothing made sense. For a fraction of a moment, all was an endless, identical blue. What she saw didn’t match the way she moved, and she tipped forward into a sharp dive.

All that signalled Rainbow Dash’s fall was a sharp yelp as the air rushed past her, but experience and training kicked in both at once. She shut her eyes tight, and in the darkness, orientated herself by gravity alone. Half a second. One second. Two seconds passed in free fall before she worked her wings to stop the spin. A moment later, she pulled up into a stable hover.

When she opened her eyes again, she focused on a wisp of a cloudstuff in the distance until she clearly saw the line separating the two shades of blue on the horizon. The airship was a fair distance ahead and above, while the sea below didn’t seem any closer than it had been a while ago. Equestria was still a broad strip of greens and browns far behind. Dash swallowed and gave chase to the airship.

The little mishap wasn’t all that scary. She was already over it, she told herself. The thought that the captain or anypony else on the ship might’ve seen it, however remote the chance, now that was embarrassing. Part of her brain was already trying to come up with some explanation that a non-pegasus wouldn’t know enough to call for the load of hay it was. That was her real concern, not the fright.

Probably. Definitely. Dash shook her head hard enough to fling all those pointless thoughts out through her ears. Steadying her breath, she upped her pace and made for the Vantage’s deck.

Rainbow Dash tapped a forehoof on the ground impatiently, but like her friends, she was unable to take her eyes off the spectacle above. All three of them watched The Vantage’s efforts to lower their stuff to the ground.

A swivelling arm with pulleys and ropes poked out over the side of the ship, gently lowering the small cargo elevator which swayed precariously in the breeze. Rainbow Dash pushed their small two-wheeled cart off the wooden platform, and only when the rickety elevator was on the ascent again did Rarity breathe. Dash slipped her saddlebags onto the cart.

“I swear, I think my heart may never recover,” Rarity muttered, one foreleg on the cart as she and Fluttershy put their saddlebags on top as well. The unicorn stared at the assorted bags and the chest that held her precious materials as though a little air-time could ruin them.

“I’m sure they’re fine. The captain said she’d done this before,” Fluttershy said, casting one last glance up at the airship. She waved, but Dash couldn’t see anypony from this angle. From below, The Vantage was a featureless wooden blob in the shadow of its balloon.

Being off the cramped airship after four full days of mind-numbing boringness felt great, but that joy shrank a little as the the airship began drifting away. The Vantage turned in a large arc to head back home, northeast, with three passengers less. Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash and Rarity stood alone on a small hill, twelve hooves making landfall in Perytonia.

Rather than the varying greens of the endless plains and forests of the Equestrian heartlands, here were drier, yellow grasses and patches of bare ground. The air itself was hot and dry, and though there were copses of trees and even a small forest in the distance, they were as unfamiliar to her as the fields of boulders that mirrored the untended clouds dotting the sky.

Rainbow Dash wanted to say it didn’t look that different. She opened her mouth to speak, perhaps only to agree with Fluttershy—whatever she’d said a moment ago—but her eyes always found something new to latch on to.

To their east, past jagged cliffs and a sheer drop, the ocean stretched on into infinity, and far to the west were mountains whose size and distance were impossible to judge. Behind them, to the south, the boulders, hills, dry grasses and strange trees all looked almost familiar, and somehow that made it feel all the more strange.

Finally, to their immediate north waited what was surely their destination, and in the end, all three of them faced due north. They stood on a small hill, their view just barely letting them see over the lip of a valley. Far below waited a huge and sprawling cityscape that dominated the valley floor, the distance rendering it a mass of mostly light greys. Sure, there were some coloured roofs here and there, but it provided a stark contrast to the colours of any given Equestrian street.

As Dash watched, a flock of distant shapes descended from the air to disappear amidst the buildings. Had they watched them leave the airship? For all she knew they were just birds. She didn’t have to look to know that Fluttershy had sidled up to stand at her side. The other pegasus stood close enough that she could feel her warmth, even in the dry heat of the wind. A moment ago, Dash had been stunned, her head too busy to be confident. Now, she found a grin.

“Alright, let’s do this!” she said, rearing up, and when she turned around on her hindlegs and hopped back, she saw Fluttershy wearing the beginnings of a smile. Rarity tore her gaze off the city and took a deep breath, nodding her assent.

“Yes, let’s,” she said, pointing to the cart. “Rainbow Dash, would you be so kind as to take the first turn moving our effects?”

“What? Why me?” Dash asked. She gave the offending vehicle a mighty frown.

“I’m sure I could try,” Fluttershy rushed to say, “but, um, I don’t see any roads on this side of the city. I’m sure the cart that Applejack made for us is strong enough to handle the terrain and all, but I’m not sure I am.”

Rainbow Dash sighed. As much as she didn’t like to admit it, they had a point. They’d been dropped off on gently rolling hills, and the bushes and rocks might present a challenge for a less athletic pony than her. With a shrug, she walked up to the cart and slipped in between the guiding bars. When she noticed that the simple harness didn’t obstruct her wings, she gave silent thanks to Applejack, wherever she was right now.

“I think we’re here,” Fluttershy said, leaning over the cart to point at the map Rarity had unfolded. “Which means that the hill circled on the map is right over that way. I guess they want to meet us—” Fluttershy yelped, startled into a hover as Rainbow Dash started moving, forcing her way through the dry grass.

“We’re in no rush, dear,” Rarity said, hurrying to catch up, folding the map with a glimmer from her horn.

“Breakfast at the ship was awful,” Dash protested. “I wanna see what these perytonians eat. Perytonilings? Perry-tons?” She upped her speed a tiny bit more, angling herself in the general direction Fluttershy indicated. The cart held up better than Rarity’s nerves, going by the unicorn’s continued worried glances at their cargo.

“Hopefully, they eat something that we can eat, too,” said Fluttershy, picking her way around a bush. “If not, we'll probably have to eat grass.”

Rarity scowled. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“S’gotta be some fruits or veggies around here.” Rainbow Dash pulled the cart straight through some scraggly growth, the thin branches tickling her legs. She grunted with effort, climbing a natural ditch.

“Careful,” said Rarity, her horn lighting up to steady the stuff on the cart.

“I am care—oh hey, look!” said Dash, finally getting the cart up top to a flat strip of cleared ground. “I guess we found the road? A road?”

“It’s not much of a road, really, but I guess it’s better than nothing.” Rarity eyed the path with obvious skepticism.

Fluttershy smiled. “It’s going in the right direction.”

“I’ll take it,” said Dash with a grin, setting the cart along the path that had just as many rocks and bumps as the rest of the hillscape. At least it was somewhat even, and there were no bushes growing in the middle of it. She briefly considered getting someone else to pull the cart, but they’d probably be even slower about it.

Rarity’s steady pace silently refused Dash’s attempts to really get them moving, the unicorn moving a diplomatic five steps behind her. Not that Dash minded terribly much. The heat had Dash sweating already, and now the city hid behind a long incline.

“Okay,” said Dash, taking a deep breath and wiping her forehead. “Just for the record, this better be a hot day for Perytonia.”

“We certainly won’t need the winter scarves,” Rarity muttered in agreement.

“We don’t know that,” said Fluttershy, frowning for a moment with sympathy. “Maybe we’ll find ourselves someplace colder, like a mountain, and we’ll be ever so glad you brought them.”

“The problem with that,” Rarity retorted with a bemused smile, “is that it requires me to hope we somehow end up on top of a mountain.”

Fluttershy giggled and shook her head, trotting alongside the cart opposite of Rarity. “Well, anyway, the place on the map should be outside the city, on top of this hill. I wonder what the Perytonians are like.” Her voice didn’t quite hold the same kind of wonder it did when she talked about the prospect of meeting some new kind of bird. Rather, she sounded concerned, like she did when she was trying to figure out what Pinkie had planned for her birthday.

“I’m sure they’re all reasonable if the Princesses expect we’ll manage,” Rarity said, smiling, but when Rainbow Dash glanced over her own shoulder, she saw that Fluttershy’s nod was one of those little nods that didn’t say “yes” at all.

“And besides,” Rarity added. “I am very glad you came with us, Fluttershy. If I am to try to show the best of Equestrian fashion to their prince or princess or whatever their leader’s title is, it’s a treat to have two wonderful winged models with me.”

“Uh-huh,” said Dash, snickering. “That’s definitely why they asked us to come to Perytonia. To model.”

“Of course not,” said Rarity with a huff, “but if they have wings and you have wings, that creates familiarity. That can only work to our advantage, even if it’s just a happy coincidence. None of us had to go, dear.”

Rainbow Dash held her tongue at that. She didn’t like the idea of any of them staying home. She didn’t like the thought of Fluttershy not coming along.

“Well, I’m very glad the Princesses approved your idea to show the peryton your fashion designs,” Fluttershy replied, “and I’m glad to help with that, too. I just… um, wish it wasn’t quite so far away. I hoped that they’d want us to visit somewhere closer to Ponyville. Do you really think they’re nice?”

“Come on, Fluttershy,” Dash said, grinning. “Stop worrying so much. We’ll do great.” She knew they would, and she knew Fluttershy would try to sell herself short every step of the way.

Fluttershy took a deep breath and nodded once more, smiling back at her two friends in earnest now. “If you say so.”

“I do say so. Just did,” Dash said, slowing down as she finally crested the height they had been mounting for a while now. On the other side of the lip of the valley, they were afforded a closer look of the nearby city. The far side of the valley landscape was dominated by farms, the gentle slope dotted with orchards Rainbow Dash couldn’t identify, and straight ahead, at the bottom of a long stretch downhill, the city of Orto awaited.

The buildings were definitely some kind of stone, Dash decided, and those that didn’t look like some variant of of upturned bowls were elaborate masses of open-aired arches and curves. There was probably a fancy word for it. Everything was very… architecture?

Orto’s streets were wide, and it looked every bit as busy as any Equestrian city, blobs of people and tiny shapes milling about. From their vantage point they could see more farms and other buildings stretching all the way east until the city hid behind the curvature of the valley, creeping towards the nearby sea. Maybe it wasn’t a valley after all. If there was a word for a valley that ran into the sea, Dash didn’t know it. The relative lack of tall towers and spires made the whole thing feel more like an outsize Ponyville than Canterlot, but it was a single drop of familiarity from a raincloud of strange.

“Oh my,” was all Fluttershy said.

“Indeed,” Rarity agreed.

“Yeah,” Dash said, scratching at her belly with a wing. “Okay, uh. Where do we begin? What do we do?”

“Well. Um. I think this is the hill on the map,” Fluttershy said, glancing back at the cart where the map lay packed away. “It didn’t show height the way maps usually do, but I think this is it. I could check again, if you want me to.”

“You might not have to. That may be our friend,” Rarity suggested, indicating an approaching figure with a nod ahead. A single creature was halfway between them and the outskirts of the city.

“We could go meet them,” Dash suggested. She squinted. It was hard to tell if the figure even got closer. For all she knew, they were moving away. Impossible to say.

“Maybe?” Fluttershy said, scuffing at the ground. “But also, maybe we should wait here like the map told us to? At least, I think it told us to.”

“I honestly could not tell you which is more polite,” Rarity admitted, clearing her throat. The figure was still too far away to identify beyond that they had four legs and a short mane, or no mane at all.

“Nah, forget it. Fluttershy’s probably right,” Dash said, to Fluttershy’s relief. Still, she wished she could just take to the air and fly over to greet this person, get it over with right away. She quelled that impulse, but the idea of flying brought up another memory from a few days back.

“Oh, hey, did you guys know that we’re not allowed to fly here?” The very memory annoyed her, and all of a sudden, the harness of the cart felt twice as restrictive.

“I had not heard that, no,” Rarity said, frowning. “You’re joking, right? That would be awful for you, darling!”

“Well, actually—” Fluttershy said.

“That’s what the captain said!” Dash said. “Or, something like that. Something about not causing an incident. Do I look like I’m about to cause an incident?” She flexed her wings and snorted loudly at the very idea.

“I think—” Fluttershy tried.

“Well, ah,” Rarity said, intensely studying one of her forehooves, “that is a very different question. But to your first point, I’m surprised that the Princesses hadn’t told us if the two of you would not be able to fly.”

“Exactly!” Dash said, turning to face Rarity. The cart’s wheels groaned and kicked up dust as they slid sideways around the rotating pegasus. “Who does the captain think she is, anyway? I—”

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” Fluttershy said, stepping in front of Rarity and Rainbow Dash. She’d raised her voice to something approaching what Dash would call a normal conversational tone. “The journal that Red Sun Runner wrote explained that the Perytonians she met with said they didn’t want us acting aggressively.”

“I hardly expect that the captain read the original journals,” said Rarity, tilting her head sideways, “but I do recall Twilight’s notes mentioning that. ‘Not acting aggressively’ is obvious, though. We’re hardly intending to cause a fracas.”

“Alright? I mean, sure?” said Dash. “We’re here to make friends.”

“So we should probably be very careful.” Fluttershy shook her head and smiled. “That’s all what Twilight said, anyway, but we don’t know what frightens them. Maybe they don’t like people moving quickly, or airships, or anyone at all flying high overhead if they don’t know who they—or, I mean, we—are or what we are doing,” Fluttershy said. “That could be very frightening and mysterious.”

Rarity poked her cheek with her tongue. “Well, that does make some sense. We are guests here after all, never mind that we don’t quite know where ‘here’ is. Our captain had directions, but we have no proper map, and as I recall, this isn’t even where Red Sun Runner met with the peryton to begin with.”

“Okay,” Dash said, nodding very slowly at her friends. “So… I don’t care about that. Like, at all. Flying, yes or no?”

“I don’t see why not,” a sharp voice suggested. “Unless your intention is to use your wings to scatter every unattended parchment in every home with the force of your wind.”

The three ponies gave a start, Fluttershy taking an involuntary step back from the stranger who just now stopped a respectful few strides away. Dash had forgotten all about the approaching creature, and it seemed that so had her friends.

The peryton stood taller than any pony Rainbow Dash had ever seen, except for maybe the Princesses. They—was it a he or a she?—had delicate, jagged antlers on their head, small eyes and a long muzzle, and for all that they weren’t completely unlike a large and powerfully built pegasus pony, they had small hooves on their forelegs, and large, splayed talons on their hindlegs, a little bit like Gilda’s.

“Forgiveness. I only heard your final few words. I did not eavesdrop. You are the Equestrians? We saw your coming.” The creature waited only long enough to let Rarity give a dumbfounded nod, her poise broken by the surprise. The peryton took one step sideways before spreading a huge wing up and back, as if unveiling the city beyond.

“I am Consul Khaird of the Swaying Stalks. Mine is the pleasure to welcome you to the greater demesne of Orto.”