• 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 19

Cally, dearest.

Soon, the amber passes on to you. I can not be the Guide forever, and it is you who next will stake out the course for our people. There has not been a summer-born child in our family for a long, long while, and I think it is a sign.

I know you will do great things. You must do great things. I, your mother, and your mother’s mother, we have all done what we can, but if someone is to do something truly wonderful for our people, then I think it must be you.

I believe that during your Guidance, our people will be happier than ever. You will uncover the path for us to follow. Under your light, we will see clearer than ever. Your summer’s warmth will illuminate us all.

Quiet finally settled upon the hall. Only when all the ghostly stuff had gone did Rainbow Dash manage to make up her mind: the apparitions had in fact made sound. Not a sound, but a low persistent susurrus noticeable only by its absence when it died along with the disappearance of the last of the spectral peryton.

“So,” said Rainbow Dash, a single syllable to shatter the deafening silence. This far inside the large fortress chamber, the storm outside existed only as a faint roar.

“Yes,” said Rarity. The three ponies stood in a half-circle facing the spot where their unwitting peryton guide had disappeared, clustered uselessly next to one of the great pillars whose letters were arcane to them.

“I’m still going to go with ‘it was a spell’”, said Fluttershy, rubbing a foreleg against the other and clearing her throat. “And I’ll be very happy if you don’t try to convince me I’m wrong, thank you.”

“I’m honestly sure of that, as well,” said Rarity, nodding slowly. “And I’m not just trying to comfort you. Let’s all agree we’ve seen Twilight do… stranger things with magic.”

“Well duh,” said Dash, rolling her eyes. “There’s no such thing as—”

Rarity scoffed. “Oh you do not get to pretend you didn’t think they were ghosts for a while.”

Rainbow Dash tried to keep a straight face, but laughter spilled forth anyway, brushing away the last of her lingering uneasiness. She made for the stairs. “Okay, who cares, I’m starving. Let’s go get some cold berries, flowers and water. Yum.” Dash made a face, though in truth both the berries and the petals were tastier than they had any right to be.

“So, what happened here is a little bit like Hearth’s Warming Eve in reverse,” said Rarity, her brow furrowed in thought as she followed after Rainbow Dash.

“I guess so,” said Fluttershy, a little more quietly. Her head hung low and her eyes darted between the pillars as if she expected the shadows to jump at them any moment now. Rainbow Dash slowed down a little to let her and Rarity catch up.

“What, you think they all lived together here?” Rainbow Dash glanced back at her. “Like… Ortosians, Ephydoerans, Stagrumites and everything?”

“You heard what the gh—ah, what the… magical construct said,” Rarity said, quickly correcting herself with a self-conscious frown. “Peryton tribes looking for new opportunities? ‘Many paths’? They looked very diverse down in the chamber below. Maybe they all came from here, or places like here?”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “If they all lived together, why’d they want to split up? That’s stupid and backwards!”

“I believe that is part of the point I was making, though without quite as much vitriol,” Rarity tersely replied.

Fluttershy shuffled her wings on her back. “I don’t think that they have to be stupid to do that. We don’t know—”

“What, you think that’s a good idea? Pegasi, earth ponies and unicorns packing up and splitting off?” Dash asked while she thought. If anything, the peryton should do the opposite. They would be much better off it they weren’t so far away from each other, right?

“That’s not at all what I said,” Fluttershy replied, narrowing her eyes. “I’m saying that we don’t really know what they were thinking.”

“They don’t seem to know what they were thinking, either,” Rarity murmured.

“Yeah, what’s up with that? I probably know more than Phoreni about their history right now!” Dash laughed when she realised it. “I could go teach in the Grove! Miss Dash, history teacher.”

Rarity chuckled. “That’s one peryton. She said one of her ‘loved ones’ was a historian of sorts. Surely it’s not quite so dire.”

“Yeah, I guess,” said Rainbow Dash, scrunching up her snout. “Besides, I don’t think I wanna be a history teacher anyway. I feel like a more boring pony just for having said it.”

They were nearly across the great hall, approaching the stairs. The constant backdrop of the drumming rain got louder.

“I don’t see why that’s so wrong, anyway,” said Fluttershy, her eyes on the floor as they went. “If they don’t worry too much about their past, I mean. If that’s their decision.”

“Well, of course,” said Dash shrugging.

“And besides,” Fluttershy went on. “The only reason we really remember the story of the pony tribes is because of the Hearth’s Warming play—”

“Sure, but—” Dash tried, but Fluttershy didn’t stop.

“—because I don’t know anypony who cares about really old Equestrian history except Twilight. If it wasn’t for the play, I don’t think we’d know how Equestria was formed either, and the play is tradition, not history.”

Rarity nodded as though Fluttershy had said something profound. Rainbow Dash wasn’t so sure. She paused with her front legs on the first step of the stairs down, waiting for Fluttershy to pass her. “I have no idea what you’re getting at,” she admitted.

Fluttershy stopped as well and gave Rainbow Dash a long look. “I’m just saying that maybe they had good reasons to want to be a little apart, just like we had good reasons for coming together, but we don’t know.” She took a deep breath and let it out while turning away. “I just don’t think we should jump to conclusions.”

“Alright. That’s cool,” said Dash, tapping a hoof on the hard stone of the stairs. It still didn’t sit well with her. “Actually, I’m still gonna go with ‘that’s stupid’, but okay.”

Fluttershy sighed and closed her eyes, shaking her head before she moved down the stairs, Rarity and Rainbow Dash following close by.

“What’s the difference between Hearth’s Warming traditions and history anyway?” asked Rainbow Dash. “Can’t it be both, and about all about hanging out with friends and the spirit of Hearth’s Warming and everything?”

“If you ask me, it can be both—or neither,” said Rarity with a wry smirk. “And ‘the spirit of Hearth’s Warming’? Really? This from a pony whose appreciation for the holiday mostly stems from tearing through any wrapped gift in sight.”

“Hey, somepony has to appreciate the presents, too,” said Dash, grinning back at her.

Rarity shook with a soundless laughter. “Of course, dear. You just want to make sure the presents are cared for, too. I forgot how deeply you care.”

Rainbow Dash would’ve laughed if she wasn’t still mulling Fluttershy’s words over. She didn’t have a return quip ready anyway—not that she’d have time to make one. Fluttershy turned at the bottom of the stairs.

“Rarity, that’s not nice at all,” said Fluttershy, her eyes narrowed.

Rarity breathed out through her nose, putting on a languid smile. “Darling, I—”

Fluttershy cut her off, her frown deepening and her voice raised a touch. “You know Rainbow Dash cares a lot about all her friends even if she doesn’t always show it!”

“Fluttershy! It was a joke!” Dash said, giving her a quizzical look. “Jeez, relax.”

Rarity blinked, looking between the two pegasi, to Fluttershy, then to Rainbow Dash, and then back to Fluttershy again with confusion plain on her face. “I’m sorry, but Rainbow is right. We were joking, I promise—are you alright, dear? I didn’t mean to upset either of you.”

Fluttershy’s mouth hung open for a second, a faint blush visible under the glow of Rarity’s horn.

“I’m sorry,” Fluttershy finally squeezed out, her ears splayed. “I guess I misunderstood—I, um, the sound in here is a little strange, it’s a hard to hear everything right. Sorry.”

“Of course, think nothing about it,” said Rarity, smiling brightly. “It was probably in poor taste given the gravity of what we just witnessed. Again, I apologise. Shall we see about that meal? We still need to decide where we’ll bed down, too.”

Rainbow Dash said nothing, following in their wake. Even if Fluttershy had missed the laughter and the tone of her and Rarity’s voices, Rainbow Dash didn’t know what to think about Fluttershy leaping to her defense like this. Fluttershy wasn’t really one for overreacting—well, not these kinds of overreactions, at least. Of course it was just a joke, and of course Rainbow Dash cared about her friends. Who was Fluttershy trying to convince?

They made their bed in the innermost chamber of the first floor. Past all the once-again-empty bedrooms they found what must have been a common area of sorts. A large room with stone furniture: Benches, tables, and a rudimentary stoveless kitchen. Washrooms and storage rooms branched off it, but that was about it. Everything they found was in well-worn stone, and all else was gone, the room unadorned and undecorated except for simple engravings along the walls. They reminded Rainbow Dash of peryton antlers in gold.

With their tarp as a noisy cushion to make the hard stone floor a little more bearable, the three lay down to sleep after their meal. It couldn’t be terribly late, but no one, Rainbow Dash least of all, seemed inclined to pretend they weren’t tired.

Rainbow Dash yawned. Rarity’s hooves were cold. She locked eyes with Fluttershy, the two staring at each other for a moment. Dash didn’t have much to say, so she smiled a weary smile. Fluttershy smiled back and turned around, probably to lend Rarity more of her warmth. The light from Rarity’s horn dimmed with a whispered good-night, and sleep claimed Rainbow Dash almost instantly.

“Cocoa,” said Rainbow Dash, “or, hot chocolate. What’s the difference? Isn’t chocolate cocoa? Same thing, right?”

“Pardon?” asked Rarity, one brow quirked.

“Hot chocolate is chocolate and milk,” said Fluttershy, smiling at her. “Cocoa is cocoa powder, and you use that to make chocolate. You like hot chocolate. That’s what I usually make for you, at least.”

“Alright, hot chocolate then,” said Rainbow Dash. She tilted her head a little more, grinding lightly against Fluttershy’s neck, and she felt Fluttershy nuzzle her other cheek in return, leaning over her, breath warm against Dash’s coat.

“Hot chocolate what?” asked Rarity, still looking confused.

“I could go for hot chocolate right now,” said Rainbow Dash, shrugging.

They’d let Rarity have the blanket. The two of them had a good pair of wings each, and both blankets and wings were just for show anyway: it wasn’t all that cold. The daytime heat warred with the chill of the raging tempest, and it was almost cozy watching it all from their spot near the stair room, a good distance from the open doorway to the roof with its occasional rain spatter.

Rainbow Dash didn’t know exactly what time it was, but Rarity insisted it should be mid-day. Despite the dark clouds, they could see all the way to the canyon wall opposite of the fortress sometimes, light ever changing, rain never falling the same way two minutes in a row. Lightning strikes sharply outlined the abandoned city beyond.

“Personally, I’d ‘go’ for a window between myself and the storm,” said Rarity, pulling the blanket tight around herself with a glow of magic as though she was actually cold. “They didn’t say for how long this storm would go on, did they?”

Fluttershy shook her head. “They didn’t, but it can’t last much longer. It’s moving so fast, it has to pass soon.”

Rainbow Dash scratched at her snout and nodded absent-mindedly. Fluttershy was right. It should pass soon, but she felt compelled to watch it nevertheless. Keep an eye on it just to make sure the storm obeyed the rules that she’d so rigorously been taught—the rules she’d learned by herself, tasted and felt through years of weatherwork.

That was definitely the reason she suggested they move their lunch out to the first floor chamber. It had nothing to do with preferring to be out from under the tons upon tons of rock overhead in their bedroom-cave.

“I just hope the scary magical peryton don’t come back,” said Fluttershy, stifling a yawn. “Even if it was just a spell, I’m glad it’s just us here, now.”

“You didn’t get much sleep at all yesterday, did you?” asked Rarity, frowning with concern even as she yawned as well. “Well, I’d say I’m sure we’ve seen the last of that whole mess, but I don’t know. We don’t even know what caused it in the first place.”

“The echo-creature said something about that,” said Fluttershy. “A spell ‘not of the five tribes’, I think.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Yeah, and it happened right after Rarity tried casting the peryton body magic spell. It makes sense. For magic, anyway.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t,” said Rarity, shaking her head ever so slightly. “There are five cities, and they mentioned five tribes with five leaders following this ‘Ever Soaring’. Don’t you think they correspond? If the Ephydoerans are one of these, the body magic spell I cast was definitely of the five tribes.”

Rainbow Dash blinked, flicking one ear. “Uh. Okay, maybe, I hadn’t thought of that. I just figured, hey, you tried to cast some peryton spell, but you’re not a peryton.”

Rarity appeared to consider that for a moment. “That… well, it may be that simple. I don’t know, dear, but I will say I won’t be trying that particular spell again until we’re well clear of this place.” She crinkled her snout as she looked around, distaste slowly transforming into amusement.

“And, speaking of things being simple?” Rarity continued. “Yesterday we were discussing why they would split up—if that is indeed what they were doing—but I think we may have missed the simple fact that you’d be mad to wish to keep living in a horrid canyon like this. Maybe they woke up one day and realised that anywhere else would be better.”

Fluttershy giggled, and Rainbow Dash just grinned in response.

Rarity tired of staring at the storm at one point. She brought her dressmaking supplies from their provisional bedroom, and as the unicorn whiled away at her sketches and plans for some outfit or other, Fluttershy spent time with their roomies.

At times, there was precious little of the other pegasus visible beneath the long weasel-like antler-beasts that played with her at the other end of the room. Rainbow Dash’s attention was thus divided between keeping an eye on the storm, and stealing glances of Fluttershy playing with her animal friends. Because she only kept half an eye on the outside, it took her a while before she saw it.

At first, she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. Next, she thought it must be a branch or a bush she’d missed before, but she already knew this was no branch, bush or tree. The open portal that led to the landing didn’t afford her a good view of the approach to the fortress, but finally her eyes caught sight of a tall shape disappearing behind a corner. It was unmistakably some sort of creature.

Rainbow Dash looked over to Rarity and Fluttershy, both of them busy in their own way. She opened her mouth to speak, but she didn’t even know what to say. She’d had nothing more than a brief glimpse, and the only thing that stuck in her mind was how strange it was that whomever it was hadn’t been blown away by the wind.

“So, uh,” she said.

Rarity didn’t look up, busy with paper and sketching tools. Fluttershy made a soft, inquisitive noise, looking over at her—and a half-dozen ferralopes stared with her, their game instantly halted and their bodies frozen.

“I think there’s someone outside,” said Rainbow Dash. She’d barely finished her sentence when she heard noise from below, splashing in the water pooled on the ground floor barely louder than the lapping against the walls and stairs.

“Or inside,” Dash corrected herself. She rose, stretched out every muscle in her body, tested her wings, and looked to the staircase, wondering what sort of creature would brave this kind of weather, and for what.

Rainbow Dash could hardly imagine a less threatening sight. She couldn’t help staring, and somehow she knew that behind her, Rarity and Fluttershy did the same. No doubt their eyes were as wide as Rainbow Dash’s when the strange creature took the last step up the stairs. The scratch of quill against sketching paper ceased, and the ferralopes scurried back to their den.

The large bird’s two legs were fully half of its height, and their steps made less sound than the steady drip of water from the feathers of great sky-blue wings wrapped about its body. Its white neck curved forward, back, then forward again, an S-shape ending in a long beak and two unblinking eyes that regarded them in relative silence. A string dangled around its body, a necklace of pouches in place of pearls.

“Food. You have it, but you do not offer it.”

It took Rainbow Dash a second to realise that the harsh croak had carried words, and that they had been spoken to her as the closest of the three. She glanced over her shoulder at Fluttershy and Rarity for help, but they looked just as confused at the bird who now paused in front of them as if on an afterthought.

“Egocentrism. Covetousness,” the creature said, loud despite its beak barely moving. “The arrogance of four-legged species, to think only they have the capacity for speech.”

“I—uh, hey?” said Rainbow Dash. She didn’t catch all of it, but she was pretty sure that had been rude. “What’s that supposed—”

“Oh, no, this is hardly the first time we’ve met civilised two-legged species,” said Rarity, stepping past Rainbow Dash with an affable smile. “But that doesn’t mean much either way, does it? We’re far from our home, and I imagine we’re just as strange to you as you are to us. I am Rarity, and I am pleased to meet you,” she said, gesturing to the two pegasi in turn. “This is Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. Might we know your name? Oh, and would you like some berries?”

Rainbow Dash was grateful for the unicorn’s poise, shaking her head and taking a deep breath. It wouldn’t do to blow up within ten seconds of meeting someone new.

“Berries? No. If all you eat are berries, you are useless and your offer is an insult to me,” the bird declared, brushing right past Rarity and Rainbow Dash with long strides, making for the stairs that led up to the pillar room.

Rarity went from a polite smile to nonplussed to a dangerous frown in half a second. “I see that courtesy is lost on your kind. Among ponies, it is considered polite to say thank you, even if that’s a no thank you.”

The creature, easily half again as tall as any of the ponies, paused at the entrance to the stair room. Its long neck twisted around, expressionless with unblinking eyes staring right at Rarity, then Rainbow Dash, and finally looking over at Fluttershy. The other pegasus had sat silent by the entrance to the ferralopes’ den-room, saying nothing, but now she quailed under the brief look it afforded her.

“Do you eat tulip petals? Do you want some clean water? Are you cold from the storm?” asked Rarity, softening a tad. She cleared her throat. “Let us start again, shall we? You have our names, what is yours?”

The bird stood silent and still while Rarity’s smile became more and more strained. Upon closer inspection, one question bubbled to the surface in Dash’s mind. The thing was all feathers, fluff and twig-like legs. A strong gust would blow it over.

“And how’d you get through the storm?” Dash asked. Obviously it wasn’t going to answer Rarity.

“Ankle-guards of lead,” the bird replied immediately, almost before Dash had asked. “Glue on my feet, and ten strong others to hold me down.”

Rainbow Dash squinted. There was nothing on its feet, and she’d couldn’t see anyone else ‘holding it down’. “You don’t have any of those things,” she said, scrunching her snout.

“Then you see only what is before you. There can be no storm,” said the bird with a tone of utter dismissal. “Or there is a storm that does not wish to touch me.” It turned around and disappeared upstairs without a backwards glance, leaving the ponies alone once more.

There was definitely a storm, and it finally abated. The wind still howled and the rain fell in great drops adding to the flooded valley floor, but Rainbow Dash could tell it would soon pass. She stuck her head outside and looked up, getting her first taste of sky in a full day. The clouds weren’t quite as dark. If it was up to her, they’d already be moving.

“Okay, last item,” said Fluttershy, pointing to a small bolt of fabric. “I think this one fell out of the chest when I crashed. There’s a little bit of mud on it. Should we leave it?”

“Oh, no! No, I need that one,” said Rarity, a note of panic in her voice as she opened her saddlebags. “Are we quite sure we need all this water?”

Rainbow Dash chuckled as she walked back to the site of their packing efforts. “You’ve said that about everything.”

“I have not,” said Rarity with a huff. “This particular orange will go well with peryton who have a lot of brown in their coats. I left the navy blue, did I not?”

“No, that one’s in Rainbow Dash’s saddlebags,” said Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash took her word for it. She hadn’t really paid attention to what they gave her to stuff her saddlebags with. The only things they left behind were the majority of their gems, the wooden bowls, and the supplies Rarity didn’t need—which wasn’t a lot, all stashed in their chest. Fluttershy refused to leave behind their antlers for whatever reason, and Dash didn’t protest. They were cool. Rarity managed to pack their old dresses away without wasting too much space, too. When Dash shook her body, her saddlebags clattered with tools and supplies.

Rarity sighed. “Alright. Rainbow, be a dear and take this water-bag instead of the navy blue. I’ll carry this bolt.“ She meticulously unpacked and began swiftly repacking her saddlebags again. “I don’t know which is the bigger miracle: That the dragonsfire didn’t burn up everything in my saddlebags, or that I’ve managed to get all the glass shards out. I’ll count us all lucky that I packed it in the paper the Princesses sent with us and that nothing else burned up—now, if you don’t mind, I’ll just tie our blanket and our tarp on top of one of our saddlebags. They’re much too large to fit inside.”

“I’ll carry those,” said Fluttershy, nodding. “I think that’s everything. I’m sorry we have to leave the chest behind. It’ll be hard enough for all of us to carry full saddlebags and all our water. You’re sure you can’t leave any more of your fabrics behind?”

Rarity shook her head resolutely. “I’ll carry them all myself if I have to. I don’t know what I’ll need for my future designs exactly, but I know now what I must do.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” said Fluttershy, smiling bright for a moment. “But, wait, um. Phoreni didn’t say a lot about Vauhorn and Cotronna and their fashion, how will you know what to make?”

Rarity flashed an ingenious grin. “Darling, you’ll just have to wait and see. In fact, I will have to wait and see myself, but I know that I’ll have to make something for when we meet their leader in Cotronna.”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “You’re gonna surprise yourself, too? Have you been taking lessons from Pinkie Pie?”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Very funny, dear. I don’t know the specifics yet, but it feels good to finally have a direction. A plan!”

“Well, I’m happy for you,” said Fluttershy, leaning over to nuzzle Rarity.

“Oh, it’s not just for me,” said Rarity, resting against Fluttershy for a second. “It will be a moment to remember. Imagine it, the Equestrian delegation meeting the Perytonian ruler for the first time. All eyes will be on us, and they will be blown away by the wonders I’ve created, a display that will be a revelation to all!”

Rainbow Dash raised a brow. Rarity coughed.

“Well, aim for the stars, at least,” said the unicorn. Her ears lay flat. “And besides, hyperbole is among the many tools in the fashionista’s toolbox. You don’t woo the crowd by saying you’re going to be ‘acceptable’.”

“Now you’re talking my language,” said Dash, grinning, stretching out her legs. “You guys wanna get moving?”

“It’s still a little stormy outside,” said Fluttershy, but Rainbow Dash didn’t miss the glance she’d tossed towards the stairs down. Neither had Rarity, it seemed, the unicorn openly staring at the staircase leading to the flooded ground floor.

“Make no mistake, I’m eager to leave as well,” said Rarity, chewing her bottom lip. There was no “but”, no further protest. They were obviously all thinking about the same thing.

The strange bird had returned from upstairs not long ago, pausing by the entrance to the dormitories where the ponies had their beds. It had stared at them wordlessly for a full minute before apparently deciding against entering the dark tunnel. Instead, it disappeared downstairs, the occasional slosh of water echoing with its passing. Rainbow Dash had no idea what it was doing—unless it was trying to creep them out. It managed that part spectacularly.

“What is it?” Dash asked nopony in particular, barely bothering to lower her voice. “Have any of you ever seen, or even heard of anyone like that?”

“Not ever in my life, and between Canterlot High Society soirées and the hubbub of Ponyville, I like to think I’ve seen a lot,” Rarity murmured in reply.

“It’s not like any bird I’ve ever seen,” Fluttershy added in a whisper. “It looks like some birds I’ve met but… it’s not. What do you think it’s doing here?” whispered Fluttershy.

“Aside from being rude beyond belief?” asked Rarity, her muzzle crinkled with obvious distaste. “I haven’t a clue. I’m surprised that neither Phoreni nor any of the other peryton mentioned sharing this land with others.”

“I dunno, do you think it lives here?” Dash said, tapping a hoof on the ground, eager to get moving instead of standing around talking about it forever. “It’s probably just passing by or whatever, just like us. Let’s go?”

“I suppose, but then, this is hardly a likely place to run into other people by chance,” said Rarity, not budging. “You should ask your animal friends if this place is always this busy,” she added with a half-hearted grin at Fluttershy.

“Oh, it isn’t,” said Fluttershy, smiling back at her.

Rarity blinked. “That was a joke, but now I have to ask. How do you know that?”

Fluttershy tilted her head. “Hm? Oh, I already asked them. I usually ask any animals I meet about anything scary going on. For both our sakes. They said it’s been a long time since the last time anyone came here, years ago. Rover was just a pup back then!”

“Someone came here a few years ago? You think that was Phoreni?” Rainbow Dash asked. She adjusted her saddlebags and scratched her side before taking a demonstrative step forward.

“I don’t know, maybe,” said Fluttershy, shrugging. She took a few steps towards the stairs down and stretched her neck to look down below. “Maybe we can just go now?” she suggested in a whisper. “It’s probably a little rude of me to say, but I think I’d rather get rained on than stay here.”

Rarity looked lost in thought for a second before she replied. “No, I—” she began, lowering her voice further. “It is more than just annoyance. It, he, she, they—whatever it is, it feels wrong.”

“Hey, I wouldn’t want to invite them to my birthday party either,” said Rainbow Dash with a shrug. “Come on, let’s go.”

The murky water was more a full hoof’s breadth deep, exactly the most annoying depth it could be. Trying to wade without lifting her hooves looked stupid and was slow going besides. It was too shallow to wade, but too deep to make it easy lifting her hooves out of the water with each step. That, and the water was heavy with mud.

They passed through the ground floor of the fortress in silence. Rainbow Dash thought she saw the creature’s shadow moving about in a room adjacent to the front chamber, but she decided to put it out of her mind. Soon they were out, squeezing through the narrow openings, picking their way through the flooded stone garden and the waterlogged city beyond. She spotted a cluster of dark beetles on a large rock, moving about to stay always downwind and above water. Had they been doing that all night and day?

Whatever the case, the storm was releasing its grip. Every time the wind shifted, the next gust was weaker. It was worse above, outside the canyon, but the rain poured down at a steady slant. Thunder rolling in from above reverberated endlessly between the rocky walls, but she knew it came from the far east. The storm would pass towards the coast, and then beyond.

Maybe it would hit Equestria? She’d never heard of storms that hit any Equestrian shore like clockwork every year, and besides, the airship had taken them not just west, but south for days. It would hit some other foreign land. A desert? A tropical forest? An icy waste populated by some other people even weirder than the peryton? Hard to imagine.

Maybe the storm headed for the home of the bird who’d intruded upon their little sanctuary of probably-not-ghosts. Had the Princesses sent ponies there, too? She’d forgotten which way the rest of their friends were headed. Maybe Twilight, Pinkie and Applejack were there. She hoped they had somewhere better to shack up than a crummy canyon.

“I’m glad we’re all here together,” said Fluttershy. It took Rainbow Dash a second to realise they were Fluttershy’s words and not her own thoughts. In fact, she still wasn’t sure. Fluttershy’s tail dragged along the dirty water, and her eyes were ahead.

“Yeah, me too,” said Rainbow Dash. She wanted to say something more, but she didn’t know what. She settled on a smile for Fluttershy and Rarity before she looked up, not for the first time. It didn’t matter that it still rained and that the weather was still a little rough. The further along they went, the more the canyon opened up. Less rock, more dark-grey clouds.

“I—ack!” Rarity stumbled, nearly slipping on a rock beneath the water. Fluttershy hurried over to steady her, and Dash herself walked closer to Rarity in case she slipped again. The unicorn glared at the muddy water and the dripping tail-end she’d failed to keep dry. “Right, as I was trying to say: I agree. I can’t imagine what it must be, doing something like this alone.”

Finally they passed the outskirts of the drowning city. Rarity called for a halt to make sure their saddlebags were properly shut so the rain wouldn’t ruin any of their belongings, and when she was satisfied, the three paused to look behind them, past the city’s outer walls poking up through the lake that was the canyon floor and to the fortress that had sheltered them through the storm.

“Speaking of alone and other dreadful things, when I said this bird made me uneasy,” said Rarity, tilting her head slightly to one side. “I didn’t want to say anything in there because there’s rude, and then there’s just plain—well,” she sighed, tapping one hoof in the water to no sound at all, making little waves lost in the splash of rain.

“What?” asked Rainbow Dash, frowning. “I thought we all agreed the bird was creepy and rude.”

“I don’t know,” said Rarity, briskly shaking her head. “It’s not just that. I don’t wish to go on about this forever, but did you not feel something more? I felt… uneasy.”

Fluttershy lay her ears flat. “I feel uneasy around a lot of people.”

Rarity sighed. “Never mind. I am probably over-thinking it. Our last interactions with other people have not exactly been the best, have they?”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Yeah, no. Let’s keep moving. The sooner we’re outta here, the better. I’ll eat grass and sleep under creepy statues for a week if we don’t have to come back here.”

Grass underhoof. Rainbow Dash couldn’t remember the last time she was this happy for something so simple. Even more than nestling up in the bed of her cloud-home at the end of a long day, stepping onto the grass felt like a well-earned reward.

It had taken hours to clear the canyon. In their hurry to leave the fortress behind, they had consigned themselves to slogging through murky water, burdened with saddlebags too full to comfortably fly with and heavy enough to press against her wings when she furled them. They could probably have flown topside earlier somehow, but back then, the wind was still too harsh for flying around with a passenger.

Now the rain let up, and the wind could do no worse than tug at their manes and sodden tails. The walls to their sides shrunk, and they made their way out of of the waterlogged canyon, up a slippery overgrown slope to flat ground. Rainbow Dash spotted the dark blue sky in a gap between clouds that did not last. It was already late, but it hadn’t yet gotten properly cold.

Rainbow Dash had expected destruction, a forest flattened with toppled trees and uprooted bushes everywhere, but there was nothing of the sort. Outside of the multitude of leaves plastered to the ground everywhere, there was no sign that there’d been anything but very heavy rain.

“Everything’s fine,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning at a nearby tree, a thin trunk with light grey bark. She frowned at the entire forest, really. At the oddness of it.

“I think your last spring storm caused more damage, honestly,” said Rarity, humming appreciatively as she looked around. The trees were a little bare, and many of the colourful flowers had been stripped of petals, the smaller plants and their berries washed away. Hardly ravaged, the forest had been cleaned.

“It wasn’t my spring storm,” said Rainbow Dash.

“It was your scheduled rain that accidentally got upgraded,” Rarity retorted.

“Yeah, well—” Dash paused and grunted. “Then call it my upgraded rain,” she finished, letting out a snort of laughter. “If I wanted to make a storm, I could do better than that drizzle.”

“Regardless, the ground is still uncomfortably squishy,” said Rarity, huffing as she inspected a dripping hoof. “My hooves are pruny.”

Dash cocked an eyebrow. “Did you really expect it to be dry up here? This is where the storm was at its worst! Or, well, that’s what I thought, anyway.” She gave the nearby forest another good look. She saw the occasional torn branch upon closer inspection, but nothing like what she’d expected.

“I think the plants here have adapted,” said Fluttershy, a small smile on her lips. “Their roots are deep, and the trees are flexible. Maybe the soil is different, too?”

Rainbow Dash blinked twice. “Different how? Dirt’s just… dirt, right?”

“It’s not really that simple,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head.

“Okay, Applejack,” said Dash.

Fluttershy giggled. “I’m just thinking. Maybe the earth here takes to the water in a different way. If it didn’t, the roots wouldn’t help the trees much. Some flowers are still okay, even if their petals are gone. Their stalks should have broken. I don’t know exactly what this means. I’m not an expert on this, after all.”

“Relatively speaking, you are exactly that,” said Rarity with a lopsided smile. “The premiére botanist of this forest. I don’t suppose you have any thoughts on our chances of finding somewhere dry to rest tonight?”

“It’s not a tree, is it?” asked Rarity.

Rainbow Dash shook her head and laughed. “No, Rarity. It’s not a tree, jeez. Give me some credit. You already asked that.”

“Is it… thorns?” Fluttershy asked, pointing at a spiky bush as they passed it. “Or tubers?”


“Very well, unless you’re cheating and making something up, I give up,” said Rarity, shrugging. “What is it?”

“Thunderberries,” said Rainbow Dash, grinning as wide as she could. “That’s a point for me!”

Fluttershy blinked. “Thunderberries? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of those.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Dash admitted, pointing to the side of the path. “But it’s a good name for those blue berries that keep popping up on every tuft of heather we see.”

Rarity sighed. “Darling, that’s a perfect example of cheating. You can’t just invent new names for things in a game of ‘I spy’. In fact, that is the exact thing I told you not to do, not twenty seconds ago!”

Rainbow Dash was not so easily cowed. She simply smirked at Rarity and cocked a brow. “Really? I’m inventing stuff? Okay, so what are they ‘really’ called?”

Rarity opened her mouth, but closed it again with no word spoken. The only thing Rainbow Dash got in return was a low-effort glare.

“Exactly. Thunderberries,” Dash declared, giggling.

She could do this for days, and not just because Rarity refused to play by Dash’s more fun and creative rules. After the storm, they were unlikely to ever run out new things to put names to.

Yesternight’s soggy nap had threatened to put them all in a foul mood. After a short walk, cold and wet, the freezing wind forced them to bed down early. Still raining and with the ground wet, they had huddled together wrapped in their blanket, again packed in their tarp, falling asleep in a group hug to keep Rarity warm.

All thoughts of complaint were washed away when they woke up in a different place entirely. The sun shone down on their faces, and on a forest in full bloom. Trees and bushes budded with green nubs, berries and flowers they’d never seen before poked their heads up, and mushrooms had seemingly sprung up overnight—and they were still springing. Last time they’d taken a break, Dash watched leaves and petals unfolding before her eyes while she had a drink. Every hour, the forest grew greener.

“Are these the trees you collected those delicious citrus berries from?” asked Rarity, looking almost straight up as they passed beneath a particularly large tree.

Rainbow Dash tilted her head to look at the spiny tree. It had fewer thorny bits now after the storm, but it certainly looked similar—except that the tiny berries that grew under the protection of the spikes were deep red, and budded in rows rather than clusters. “I think so?” Rainbow Dash hazarded.

“I’ve never heard of anything like it—like this,” said Fluttershy, bumping into Rainbow Dash when she, too, looked up. “It’s an entirely new season. I guess this is why the peryton kept talking about early summer and late summer like they are two different things altogether. They even called them ‘first’ and ‘second’ summer.”

Rarity nodded her agreement. “I just hope those particular new berries are half as good as the old ones were. I appreciate the variety of new fruits and mushrooms—if they are safe to eat—but anything light and refreshing is sorely needed right now.”

“At least we’ve still got water left,” said Rainbow Dash. “I wouldn’t like being stuck drinking out of puddles or trying to gather cloud-water or whatever.” She strained her wings against her saddlebags out of habit. She could work them free if she wanted to, but the fact that there was pressure on her wings annoyed her.

Carrying water was heavy work, and decidedly un-fun. Despite this, they’d all become keenly aware of how precious water was during these first few hours on the morning after the storm: The heat had changed character entirely, becoming humid and cloying. Breaks were called for early and often. Almost as often as Rarity had suggested she’d love a bath to wash off this ‘ickiness’.

Six times since this morning, if Dash’s count was correct. Despite being used to the long walks by now, the unicorn did not deal well with sweat. Matters weren’t helped by her bringing out her fabrics and her sketches every time they stopped, never truly resting.

Rainbow Dash was vaguely aware that there had been a time when they’d actually argued about taking breaks. She didn’t remember exactly what had been said, but pushing ahead under the merciless sun didn’t just feel like the past, it felt like a different reality entirely. A reality where Dash thought she could beat the heat by running faster.

She paused and reached up to scratch an itch on her snout. Another difference was that in this alternate reality that may have been the past, she cared how fast they were moving because they had some sense of progress.

Sure, Fluttershy had found the overgrown trail they were looking for and gotten them back on track. The forest trail climbed and fell, twisted, turned and ran straight for an hour, but what came next? How many more days? At some point, they would hit Vauhorn and hopefully meet some friendly new faces, but then what? They’d get to Cotronna and give them the sigil, invite peryton to party, yadda yadda, but what then?

Dash snorted to herself. This was why she didn’t usually think ahead. You either ran out of space, or you hit a wall. You eventually hit nothingness, or, in this case, the lack of a ticket home.

“So, about getting back to Equestria when we’re done with all this,” said Rainbow Dash as they finished the trail’s latest punishing climb. Cresting the peak of its ascent, the path led down into a small flooded valley and disappeared into the water.

“I had forgotten about that,” said Rarity, frowning deeply. “I suppose we’ll need a plan of sorts.” She braced herself, carefully picking her way down the hill, obviously afraid of slipping on the wet grass.

“I’m sorry I ruined the bottle,” said Fluttershy, digging her hooves into the earth with each step to keep from falling. “I really am.”

Rainbow Dash pushed the saddlebags further back on her body. The blanket on top was still a little moist, refusing to dry completely—and thus heavy. Still she managed to spread her wings to glide even if it was awkward. She sailed past Fluttershy and Rarity, landing at the edge of the little lake. Even beneath the shallow and still water’s surface everything looked vibrant and green, like a very cheerful foal’s caricature of a swamp.

“In the absolute worst of cases—” said Rarity, sticking her tongue out as she navigated the final few steps, halting next to Rainbow Dash on a thin strip of flat grass around the rim of the tiny lake, “—I imagine the Princesses will send someone to look for us and bring us home if they don’t hear from us for much longer.”

Fluttershy leapt the last little bit of the slope, gliding down to join the others. She squinted as she looked across the lake, pointing ahead. “I see the trail on the other side. Let’s go around, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

“I don’t like that scenario, I must admit,” Rarity continued, following Rainbow Dash, who in turn followed Fluttershy, the trio walking single file on the narrow edge of the lake. “I suppose I take some comfort in knowing we likely still have enough gems to purchase passage if we can find a captain willing to take us across the sea. It can’t be that far from Cotronna to … hm.”

“Las Pegasus should still be closest,” said Fluttershy, her wings spread for balance. “If we could ask someone to take us east, I think it’s maybe a week by boat.”

“Yeah, ‘hello, captain. Here’s a sack of gems, can you sail straight east for a week please?’” said Dash, cackling.

Rarity raised a brow in question, silent for a moment. “Do you think that’s unreasonable?”

Rainbow Dash’s laughter petered out. Now she, too, was given pause. “I—er. I… I have no idea, actually. Is it?”

“I don’t know either,” admitted Rarity, shaking her head. “That’s why I ask. I have never hired a boat in my life, but it looks like we have no choice in the matter.”

That was where this conversation was always going to end up. The wall of them not knowing, of “we just have to see”. Except, it wasn’t really true. Dash had an ace hidden in her mane.

“I could ask Princess Luna.”

Fluttershy glanced over her shoulder at Rainbow Dash, one brow raised, and Rarity tilted her head in question.

“And how would you do that?” asked Rarity. “We lost the dragonfire. That’s the entire reason we’re in this situation—and Fluttershy, I can hear you waiting for me to finish my sentence so you can apologise again,” she went on, raising her voice slightly. “I will not have it.”

“I wasn’t going to, promise,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head without looking back. “But I do feel bad about it, sorry.”

“Yeah yeah,” said Rainbow Dash, cutting through what threatened to be a very uninteresting aside. “Anyway, I’ve been talking to her in my dreams. That’s what she does, right? Dreams and stuff.”

“Twilight said she’s supposed to be the guardian of the dream-world or some-such,” Rarity mused, curiosity plain in her voice. “Do you suppose that if one of us tried, we might reach her that way?”

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” said Fluttershy, angling her wings about to keep balance. Rainbow Dash tried to get a good look at how her feathers were doing until she realised she was getting distracted. She shook her head to clear it.

“Uh, yeah it is. It’s totally that simple,” Dash said. “At least if you’re as awesome as I am.” She hopped up to walk on the slope so she could see Rarity and Fluttershy both at once.

Now, Fluttershy’s ears perked up. “Well… It sounds like something Luna might be able to do, maybe. I think I had a dream like that, once, where she helped me, but—”

“You’re not listening. I’ve done it!” Rainbow Dash said. “I’ve talked to Princess Luna!”

Rarity blinked. “You’ve talked to Princess Luna about getting us back home?”

“Well—no,” Dash admitted, deflating a little. “About other stuff. I bet I could, though. They’re not dreams—or, they are, but they’re not just dreams.”

“I really hope you’re right,” said Fluttershy, biting her lower lip. “But some dreams feel very real, sometimes. I’ve had a few dreams like that.”

“If you’re right, could you ask her tonight? Or, couldn’t you have done so yesterday night?” asked Rarity, frowning slightly. “I suspect it will take them a while to prepare an airship, especially if we want them to land in a different city.”

It was an effective one-two punch to whisk the wind from under Dash’s wings. Support that allowed for doubt, and a very good question. Rainbow Dash sighed, letting out a long breath until she was empty.

As clearly as she tended to remember her dreams when she woke up, as sure she was of everything she had said just now, her memory wasn’t perfect. The last dream in particular was a bit hazy. Was it just forgetfulness? Whatever the case, she vaguely remembered Luna being reluctant to help the last time they’d talked, and one extra detail bothered her.

“I haven’t seen her for a while, actually,” Dash admitted, her wings sagging for a moment. “I don’t know what’s up with that. Last time, stuff got weird with all these… uh, she was talking about memories and how I dragged her into a dream and stuff.”

Rarity and Fluttershy exchanged glances, and now Dash received a set of worried looks. “I… okay,” said Fluttershy, her voice soft as could be. “I don’t know either, but I believe you, at least. It sounds different from any dream I’ve ever had, but I trust you.”

Rarity smiled and nodded her assent. “I don’t think I understand it myself, but you’ll let me know if there is anything I can do, won’t you?”

“Yeah, sure, thanks,” said Rainbow Dash, having little more to add. They finally circled around the lake that resembled an overgrown puddle more than anything else, and as Fluttershy had suggested, the trail continued on the other side.

If Fluttershy and Rarity believed her, that helped, but Rainbow Dash wasn’t looking for support. She’d hoped to be able to reassure them that they had a way back home. Now, all she could think was that she had no idea where Princess Luna had disappeared off to. How many days had passed since the last time Dash saw trace of her? Weren’t Rarity and Fluttershy worried about being trapped here? Rainbow Dash wasn’t worried, either, of course. She never worried.

She was just aware of it.

The valley led to another. The trail met a small cliff-like wall of rock and climbed it in narrow zig-zags, one particular zag nearly warranting an aerial rescue operation when Rarity stumbled. Rainbow Dash didn’t really pay attention to all the climbing, to all the up between their frequent breaks, with a lack of down. She blamed Rarity for their inattentiveness anyway. The unicorn started a debate on their evening meal plans that lasted a good while.

That discussion ground to a halt when the shrubs and ferns that had formed the left side of their path—an opposite to the cliff on their right—disappeared, a lapse in vegetation affording them a clear view, a green window-frame to the west. Again the mountains of the Bow came into view.

Rainbow Dash was tired of them, now. They were far in the distance, curving away, ever smaller whenever they saw them, but still they dominated the inland view. Part of Dash wanted to tell the others to wait, to fly over there as quick as she could—whether it took hours, days or weeks—just to see them up close. To get it over with and stop wondering what they were about.

“I wonder what it’s like, living in the shadow of those mountains with all the monsters Phoreni mentioned,” said Rarity, levitating one of the water bags over for a sip. She rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck side to side.

“Are you kidding me?” asked Dash. “Like… living next to the Everfree Forest? You can ask Fluttershy, here,” she said, reaching out to rub her girlfriend’s side. “Or literally anypony in Ponyville. You live way closer to the Everfree than they do to the mountains.”

“The Everfree isn’t that bad,” said Fluttershy, her ears splayed. She leaned against Rainbow Dash and sighed. “Applejack’s farm is just as close, anyway.”

“I don’t know that the two can be compared,” Rarity said.

“Yeah, because we’re not chasing monsters back in there nearly every week,” Rainbow Dash said, laughing.

“Maybe every month…” Fluttershy added, her voice nearly lost.

“Even so,” Rarity said, raising her voice a little, glaring at Rainbow Dash. “I’m not trying to claim which one has it worse, what I mean is that it’s clearly affected the peryton more than the Everfree has affected us, and I wonder if it’s due to the shadow of those awful mountains.”

“It hasn’t, really, though,” said Fluttershy her lips pressed together in a thin line as she stared at the mountain chain in question. “It’s only really affected the Ephydoerans. The Stagrumites and the Ortosian peryton barely even mentioned the Bow.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Dash, quirking a brow. “Because they’re too busy making coins and trading or, uh, having parties or whatever they do in Orto—”

“Farming, wasn’t it?” Rarity interjected.

“—to help out. That’s unfair, if you ask me.” Rainbow Dash snorted and shook her mane out, nuzzling Fluttershy on the flank to prompt her to move.

Rarity shrugged and followed, lifting a low-hanging branch out of her way. They walked in silence for a few minutes, the tall hill quickly shedding its height.

“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” said Rarity, glancing to the side as though she could still see the mountains through the forest that eagerly swallowed them up again. “We’re heading for Vauhorn, and they’re likely unaffected by this all.”

“Yeah. We’re heading for Vauhorn,” Rainbow Dash repeated, stepping over a muddy puddle that hadn’t yet dried completely. It was hard to picture what civilisation looked like anymore. They’d just walked for a single day since the storm, but it felt like forever owing to all the breaks in the sweltering heat, all the shifts in terrain. The bangs of her mane were slick against her face. “Heading to Vauhorn, whatever it’s like, some day.

“We’ll get there,” said Fluttershy. “When this trail ends, we should be close to a small river running north by north-east.” She exhaled noisily. “But I’m a little frustrated, too. I really, really wish I had a proper map for this forest instead of looking for landmarks blind like this.”

“While I sympathise and agree, I hope you realise that you’re doing a wonderful job at navigating,” said Rarity. “Thank you, dear.”

“I’m just trying to do my best,” said Fluttershy dipping her head. “It’s not much.”

“Not much,” Rarity echoed, raising a brow with a wry smile. “Little miss ‘one week to Las Pegasus by boat’. You have a talent for working with maps and distances.”

“Yeah, what she said,” Dash added, grinning at Fluttershy’s smile, and at the faint blush that warmed not just Fluttershy’s cheeks, but Rainbow Dash herself, too. “I couldn’t do that at all. It’s basically magic.” With every word spoken, Fluttershy glowed a little brighter, an earnest smile on her face that made Dash feel fuzzy and good.

They reached the bottom of the hill a little later, and the ground gave them all of a single step of flat ground before it climbed again. The heat relented a tiny bit, but the wind died to compensate, keeping it unpleasantly hot even while they kept an eye out for a place to bed down for the night, right up until it suddenly turned freezing.

“We’ll get there,” Fluttershy said again, her voice a mere whisper barely caught by Rainbow Dash who now walked at her side. Fluttershy looked at her while she spoke, the glow in her cheeks long since faded and the smile faint as she repeated herself. No more words had been spoken since they’d descended the hill.

The terrain ever shifted. The peryton had called the Khosta just by that single name, but it had been an endless expanse of forest. The Splitwood, despite having wood in its name, contained a lot less wood and a lot more everything else. Peryton names were weird.

Sure, the Splitwood was mostly an endless variety of trees and plants that bloomed in this strange second summer, but they’d seen deep and dramatic dells, large lakes, great glades, flower-filled verdant valleys and the occasional—and ever smaller—canyons.

Fluttershy’s frustrations with Phoreni’s loose directions slowly morphed into appreciation. They crossed streams or rivers frequently, finding fresh and clear water every day. They’d even taken to lightening their load a little, one water-bag empty—now that they followed a river, they didn’t need to carry water at all. It put them all in a better mood. It put Rainbow Dash in a better mood at least. She’d let herself fall to the rear of the pack for the moment, staring at her friends’ backs.

Staring at her girlfriend. She still liked the word. Thinking it. Saying it and watching Fluttershy’s reaction—which wasn’t much, these days, actually. It set Rainbow Dash thinking. Had nothing really changed? The only thing that was notably different was that cuddles were on the table, so to speak.

Rainbow Dash watched Fluttershy’s tail swaying from side to side, the end dancing about. She saw her stretch out her wings and neck as they all moved along at a steady walk, as slow in the heat as the river that flowed rather than rushed at their side.

No, if that was all that had changed, Dash would be happy with it. Rainbow Dash didn’t know if this was what she herself had hoped for when she convinced Fluttershy to give the girlfriends thing a shot, but she liked the sound of it. Snuggling, to be around Fluttershy even more, and an exciting feeling of not knowing what else might happen later. An open sky ahead ready to be filled with just about anything.

Dash scrunched her snout in disgust at her own dramatics. They still had that. As much as planning was a chore, as much as the future was never half as exciting as what one could make of the present, the present was the problem. Fluttershy acted weird. That was what Dash meant to think about, not some idle day-dream.

Ever since the last night in Ephydoera, and even more so after they’d taken up in the fortress to hide from the storm, Fluttershy had been stiff compared to her usual self. Wooden. No longer could Dash make her blush just by looking at her. She’d never wanted Fluttershy to be some quivering puddle of a fan-mare, but this felt just as wrong.

What could she say, though? That Fluttershy wasn’t her usual self? Fluttershy was never peppy in the same way Pinkie Pie or any of her other friends were, and she’d asked her if she was alright. If something was wrong, Fluttershy would tell her.

“There’s another one. Oh, no, there’s more than one this time, actually,” said Fluttershy, slowing down a little, indicating their left.

On their side of the river, the woods were comparatively sparse, but the trees that grew here were the largest they had seen in the Splitwood. They didn’t hold a candle to the giants in the Khosta, or even Equestrian oak, but they were still appreciably thicker than the wispy trunks common in these woods—and thick enough for someone to build their homes in them.

“I think this is the biggest tree-house ruin we’ve seen yet, it’s almost like a small village,” said Rarity, sidling up to Fluttershy’s side. The closest of the houses didn’t look entirely unlike the houses Rainbow Dash had spotted among the tallest reaches of the Grove. Perhaps ‘house’ was the wrong word for some of them. Nests, maybe.

“I wonder why they haven’t fallen apart,” said Fluttershy. She pointed to a particularly large building that straddled a cluster of trees, almost like the Sunwise Run—except barely larger than the ground floor of a Ponyville home.

“Well, that one has,” said Rarity, scratching one leg with another. “But they must have treated the wood with something. Surely there are many ways to make wood resistant to water, wear and tear. I suppose somepony who knows a thing or two—” she paused, leaning over to the side to let out a great sneeze. “Ack, pardon me. As I was saying, somepony who knows architecture might tell us why they haven’t been blown away by the storm. To me, that’s the bigger mystery.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Wind’s a little less here. There could be a hill between us and the mountains, but that’s all I got. I guess you still don’t think it’s a good idea to sleep in any of these?”

Rarity shook her head briskly. “Just because they’re still standing doesn’t mean we should push our luck.”

Fluttershy nodded. “I agree. I wouldn’t even feel safe sleeping underneath them. Not that it makes a lot of difference now without the rain.”

Rarity gave a lopsided smile and snorted. “Listen to us. This is what our standards have come to, hm? ‘Why, no-thank-you, we’d rather sleep under the stars’.”

“Well, under a tree, really,” said Fluttershy, giggling. Her eyes roved between the house-nests, nibbling on her bottom lip. “We could always see if there’s something inside. Maybe they left something behind? We’d have to be very careful, of course, but I—”

“Good call! I’ll be back in a sec,” Dash declared. Her saddlebags were already on the ground, and a second later, her body was in the air, shooting away towards a large tree-house nearby.

What had she been thinking about? Right. She knew she’d caught on to Fluttershy acting “different” before. She also knew she’d come up with some unsatisfying half-answer about time. About newness. Truth was, despite spending all day together, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash didn’t do half as much stuff as they used to do.

Rainbow Dash ducked her head as she hovered in through an open window of sorts. The entire tree-house was simple wood. No door, no shutters, and next to no contents. Piles of wood that had rotted, unlike the walls. Further inside the house, something lay on the floor next to some wooden pulp. She landed and picked up the a stone statue that lay on its side. It was smaller and more delicate than any stonecraft Dash had seen so far, a rearing peryton no larger than the width of her hoof. She tucked it away in her tail for the moment, shifting it around until it snagged on her hairs and lay safe.

Of course, they were travelling in sweltering heat, slowly cooking, half of their time spent drinking water to stay safe and sane. They were in a forest. How much more could they really do together? Rainbow Dash couldn’t exactly ask Fluttershy to dinner.

On second thought, that part would always be true, really. She didn’t want to subject anypony to her own cooking, least of all Fluttershy, but what could one do in a forest? There was nothing to do.

Rainbow Dash tilted her head and perked her ears. What was that sound? The creaking? It sounded almost like—

Dash turned around, watching the world beyond the missing door go from showing the branches of nearby trees to pointing to a tree-trunk, then to grass. The world tilted. It’s almost like the house is collapsing. Great.

Her wings were out in a flash, the green-painted feathers a blur at the edge of her vision as she shot towards the doorway, curving to match the pitching house. A loud snap, then another. Pieces of wood whisked past her, broken off—and then she was out. Rainbow Dash hovered in place at a safe distance, watching the house tumble and collapse to the ground with a loud groan.

“Uh. I—” Rainbow Dash yelled, interrupted by another thunderous crack. The fallen building folded in on itself one final time, punctuated by a desultory snap. “I’m fine!” she called, waving at Fluttershy and Rarity. Fluttershy hovered right next to Rarity, covering her muzzle with a hoof.

Her eyes lingered on Fluttershy for a moment longer. No, there was nothing to do here in the forest except explore dangerous, collapsing ruins, fly up high to check their course or swoop along the occasional gorge to scout out dark stone buildings—and she was very aware that she did these things alone now. Rainbow Dash headed for another likely house nearby.

She remembered Fluttershy with her flight goggles on, flying her heart and wings out inside the wind-walls of a tornado. Her heart soared with the memory, and so many like it. She recalled how she’d felt when Fluttershy seized the initiative and flew their cart across the stone garden, adjusting and accounting for every shift in the wind, like she’d been born in a hurricane.

Rainbow Dash slipped inside another one of the houses. This one was even emptier than the last, but one of the walls were unusually smooth and had symbols vaguely reminiscent of the pillars in the fortress. They meant nothing to Rainbow Dash.

Of course Fluttershy could handle herself. What did it say about Rainbow Dash, though? What did it make her, who was so eager to ignore how much the day before the hurricane effort earlier this summer had cost Fluttershy? What kind of girlfriend brushed past the fact that Fluttershy had crashed the cart in the end? Rainbow Dash made for the next house. She’d check out one or two more, but it wasn’t half as fun by herself.

“Nothing at all?” asked Rarity.

“Nah,” said Rainbow Dash, rejoining the others. She slipped into her saddlebags, grunting and frowning at the extra weight, then reached around to retrieve the tiny stone sculpture hidden in her tail. “Found this, but that’s all. All the houses were empty.”

“I suppose it matches what Phoreni said about a migration. You wouldn’t leave much behind if you didn’t have to,” Rarity mused, starting them off at a walk down the river. “It’s a lovely little sculpture, though.”

“I guess. If the Ephydoerans lived here, shouldn’t the statue thingy be wood instead of stone?” Dash asked. She looked to Fluttershy for her thoughts, but the other pegasus simply shrugged.

“There was no shortage of stone sculptures in Ephydoera, as I recall,” Rarity said after a moment. “Mennau had quite a few, at the very least.”

“Mh,” Dash hummed, curious now, despite herself. “Okay, forget Ephydoera for a second. Do you think Khaird knows about any of this? Or Phydra? Mirossa and her mom?”

Rarity pursed her lips. “I suppose it is possible? I don’t know. Khaird said Orto had a library, and Phydra was some variety of author, but also a guide of sorts? We asked neither of them about the history of their people.”

“Yeah, we didn’t,” Dash agreed.

“Maybe we should have asked, but we didn’t know it’d come up. I still don’t know that it really has come up,” Rarity absent-mindedly added, her eyes on the river. “We’re just speculating, and I don’t suppose we tell new acquaintances our history when we first meet them, either.”

Dash chuckled weakly. “Eh, you’re right. We could have asked boring questions then, or be really curious right now.”

The river had more stamina than they, keeping up with them for the rest of a day cut short by the cold. Every day, the temperature drop was a little more abrupt, so when the sun sought the treeline, the three ponies started looking for somewhere to sleep. This particular evening, the sun bled into a pink and orange blob that partially hid behind clouds in the far distance, lending a reddish tint to the entire forest around them.

They’d found another cluster of three tree-houses, barely spotted across the river and well hidden, but these were all in various states of decay. Again Rainbow Dash seized upon the chance to check them out, and again they found little. Now, as the darkness slowly fell upon them, they hit a particularly thick patch of forest, and Rarity’s horn once again lit the way. The light flickered as Rarity sneezed.

“Bless you,” Fluttershy said, her face fraught with concern. “You’re not coming down with something, are you?”

“I doubt it,” said Rarity, sniffling. “Maybe I’m allergic to something in the air, I couldn’t tell you.”

“As long as it’s just sneezes,” said Dash, frowning. “You feel okay, right?”

“I feel just fine,” said Rarity. “And I’ll feel even better if you don’t mind us stopping for the day.”

“Already?” asked Rainbow Dash, biting back a grimace. Sure, it was getting late, but it wasn’t that cold just yet. She knew why Rarity asked, anyway. Every day she had her fabrics and papers out before they’d even eaten, lost in her work.

“I am sure we can continue for another minute or two,” said Rarity, sighing. “I just have an idea or two I wish to expand upon.”

Rainbow Dash didn’t protest. They walked on in the deepening dusk for a little while longer, and just as Rarity opened her mouth, no doubt to declare that their extra few minutes were up, Dash spotted a faint, purple-red glow deeper inside the forest.

“Hey, turn off the horn for a sec, I see something,” said Dash.

Rarity blinked. “How are you going to see without—”

“Just do it,” said Dash.

Though the sun hadn’t given up on them just yet, not having Rarity’s light shining in her eyes helped. “I see it too,” said Fluttershy, pointing off the path. “Look.”

The coloured glow seemed vaguely familiar, somehow. Fluttershy gently pushed some bushes aside and made her way through the undergrowth, and Rainbow Dash uttered a wordless protest, but Rarity followed after her. It was a group investigation, then. Dash jumped through and trotted after them.

It took no more than twenty steps before Rainbow Dash realised where she’d seen this light, and half a minute later, her suspicions were confirmed when they entered the luminescent glade.

“It’s the moss from the Khosta,” said Dash, frowning at the hanging glow-growth. “What’s it doing here?”

“The moss, and the statue from—oh, no, I take it back,” said Rarity, correcting herself. “Huh.”

“The trees,” was all Fluttershy said. Her contribution was two disconnected words spoken breathlessly, and Dash saw that she was right. It wasn’t just the moss, but the trees, the ferns and the dark grass too—everything in the grove looked transported from the Khosta and straight to here—to whichever part of the Splitwood they were in.

Large, thick-trunked trees sprouted blue-green leaves, glowing moss hung overhead and snaked around great roots, and in the center stood what Rainbow Dash thought was another variant of the Selyrian shelter-statues. Past the first glance, she wasn’t quite sure. This was no monster.

The stone creature reared up on its hind-claws, but compared to most peryton, its forelegs were too large and its wings too slim. Rather than a pair of antlers, it had a single one on its left, with no indication that there was a matching one that had broken off. Moss crawled up its legs and haunches, and there was no peryton script anywhere, no base pillar. Despite this, the stone was rough, pitted in places. If stone aged, then this was old stone.

“I don’t think this was built to be a place to sleep,” said Fluttershy, walking past Rainbow Dash. She craned her neck to look up at the large statue, her mouth open as she stared. “It’s very beautiful, though.”

“Yeah,” said Dash in unplanned, but honest agreement. “I’m not big on statues, but… yeah.” She cast a skywards glance, one of her wings itching. “It’s gonna rain a bit tonight, by the way.”

“Then let’s appreciate this statue, aesthetically and functionally,” said Rarity, levitating her saddlebags off her back with some effort and placing them under the statue. “The wings won’t do much for wind, but they’ll keep the rain off my fabrics. Would one of you be a dear and fetch water from the river?”

Dash reached behind her, fetching the statuette from her tail. Easier to keep the sharp and pokey thingy there than in her saddlebags. She held it up against the larger statue. “Heh, they look a lot alike,” said Dash, putting it back. “Alright, yeah, I’ll get the water.”

“I think the blue berries taste—”

“The thunderberries,” Rainbow Dash interjected.

“Okay, I think the thunderberries taste the best,” Fluttershy allowed, smiling at her and reaching for the water.

“If you like them, you should probably put them in your mouth,” said Rainbow Dash, chuckling. She reached over to poke Fluttershy’s muzzle. “You got some blue on you, there.”

“Oh,” said Fluttershy. She licked the coat of her foreleg and rubbed at her muzzle. “Better?”

“Yep! All clean,” said Dash, still laughing. “You’re a super messy eater.”

Fluttershy giggled. “The juice is the same colour as your coat. You probably have juice all over you, too. Besides, it’s a little hard when we’re just eating them from the ground. I wish we’d kept the bowls.”

“Yeah. Makes it harder for anypony without cheating magic,” Dash said, shooting Rarity a grin.

Rarity didn’t look up, bent over a piece of paper with a sketching coal, one end of the blanket wrapped around her.

“Rarity? Nothing?” Dash asked, again to no answer. The unicorn stuck her tongue out and drew a big cross over her sketch, flipping the paper over to the other side with a sigh.

Fluttershy shook her head, putting a water-bag away after a sip. “She’s busy, I guess.”

“Yeah, what else is new, heh,” Dash said, stretching. The rain she’d predicted finally came down, light as could be, barely enough to make a sound against the leaves and the grass. Still, there was some comfort to watching the drizzle from the umbrella of the strange statue’s wings.

Still, she wouldn’t miss this forest when they got out. In this particular glade, it felt as though they sat in both the Khosta and the Splitwood all at once. They were in every forest, and she couldn’t wait to leave them behind.

“Oh. There’s another one,” said Rainbow Dash, spotting a tiny set of eyes peering at them from the edge of the glade, hiding in a dark spot unlit by any of the luminescent flora.

“Mm, that’s a hare. He’s been watching us for a while now,” said Fluttershy. “He followed us from the open forest.”

“Cool,” said Rainbow Dash. “Wait, since the huge grove of spine-trees, or before we hit the river?”

“Just the last half of today,” Fluttershy said. “I think he’s trying to find a new place to stay.”

Rainbow Dash nodded as though that made sense. As though walking for half a day was a short distance barely worth mentioning. She doubted she’d look at the train to Canterlot the same way ever again. How much ground could she cover if she took wing and flew as fast as she could for as long as they’d walked? How long would it take to fly back to Ponyville from here?

She looked at Rarity, engrossed in her work, impatiently tapping the side of her cheek with a stick of charcoal, not noticing the smudges she made. She looked at Fluttershy sipping water while she watched the grove’s edge, her mane long and shaggy, the muscles of her haunches a touch more defined than they used to be.

Maybe Rainbow Dash could fly across the world if she put her mind to it, but she’d sooner leave her wings behind than her friends.

Dash frowned at the stupid, invasive thought. She’d do neither of those things. What she could do, and apparently did, was cross half the world with two ponies who were very close to her.

“Should we go say hi or something?” asked Rainbow Dash, letting out a nervous chuckle. “You’re kind of getting a lot of attention and it’s freaking me out a bit.” She noticed a grey fox-like creature watching them from behind another tree. Maybe it was an actual fox. Maybe a fox and a hare sat within ten strides of each other. These things happened around Fluttershy.

“It would be a little rude not to,” said Fluttershy, getting up on all fours, slow and unthreatening, her eyes not directly on any of the creatures lurking about.

Rainbow Dash stood up and stretched out her wings. She yawned and put a hoof forward, trying to make it as slow as Fluttershy had once taught her. Tried to teach her, anyway.

“It’s okay,” said Fluttershy, touching a hoof to Dash’s chest. “I think I can handle this.”

“Well, duh,” said Dash, rolling her eyes and pushing forward lightly. Of course Fluttershy could “handle” introducing Rainbow Dash and herself to some local animals. What was gonna happen? A stampede?

Fluttershy’s hoof didn’t yield, gentle but insistent, an apologetic look on her face. “Really. I think it’s best if I go say hello by myself. You don’t have to worry about it, promise.”

Rainbow Dash didn’t sit down again. She watched Fluttershy go, confused by the languid smile she put on, the easy smile that she reserved for these kinds of occasions. She was indistinguishable from the Fluttershy who nurtured birds in her own home while Rainbow Dash sipped her cocoa—or was it hot chocolate? The expression contrasted with the tighter, more strained smiles she gave Dash whenever Rainbow Dash returned from one of her solo flights to check something out.

Maybe it wasn’t all that strange. Fluttershy always acted easier, more relaxed around animals. Fluttershy was so much more, contained more than the way she behaved around animals, but it was a part that Rainbow Dash felt like she understood, or that she should understand. What she didn’t understand was why Fluttershy didn’t want her to join in this time.

Fluttershy disappeared into the bushes. Dash could see her mane and a snippet of her tail, a little movement here and there by pink hair made deeper red by some hanging moss nearby. She caught the occasional word spoken in hushed tones.

“So, what’re you up to?” asked Rainbow Dash, moving over to Rarity’s little makeshift studio—an island of fabrics spread out all around her, barring entry.

“Hm? Planning,” said Rarity, stifling a yawn.

“Need any help?”

“Mm, no, I’m not quite at that stage, but thank you ever so much,” said Rarity without looking up, her tone breezy.

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Alright. Making anything cool?”

Rarity shook her head slowly. “No, dear. I’m making—or rather, planning something… redefining.”

“Meaning what?” Dash squinted, leaning over to try to see what she was drawing, but there was nothing coherent she could see. Rarity didn’t answer.

Rainbow Dash had nearly fallen asleep when she felt something move behind her. Her sleep-addled mind hadn’t heard Fluttershy join Rainbow Dash and Rarity in bed, but there was no mistaking it. She recognised the movement, the grace ruined by an overdone effort to be careful and quiet. She recognised her by touch when she felt cold and rain-moistened hooves against her.

She didn’t move, and she didn’t say anything, too close to falling asleep, too comfortable under the warm blanket to do anything at all. A moment later, Fluttershy’s forelegs wrapped around her lower neck lightly, hooking around her chest and hugging her from behind. One hindleg rested atop her, and a wing awkwardly wrapped around to touch her belly, ensnaring Rainbow Dash in the larger pegasus completely.

Rainbow Dash didn’t know if Fluttershy knew she was awake. What she did know was that it wasn’t cold enough for a pegasus to need her warmth, but nevertheless, when Fluttershy drew her closer and squeezed her tight—when Fluttershy rubbed her muzzle against the top of her head—she heard Fluttershy’s breath shudder.