• 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 21

By raven for all cities and all kin,

After deliberation, the council concurs with Ephydoera and their letter earlier this same spring. This task falls to Orto, who will best take their measure. We find in our stories that Orto served this purpose upon our meeting with Cotilla, and we will ask that they do so again.

By raven, Orto will tell what comes of this meeting, and what concords are struck—and otherwise, Orto picks what path best aids all kin in meeting these Equestrians.

-By the Quills of the Council of Cotronna

“Seeya around,” said Rainbow Dash.

“And thank you ever so much for the tea. Are you sure you don’t want your blanket back?” asked Rarity.

“If you have not noticed, it is not the season for blankets.” Tholmoss cawed with laughter as he strapped himself to one of the wagons. “And you have repaid us with stories and a fine gem.” All around the roadside, peryton did the same as he: A pair pulling each of the three wagons, with another three pairs trailing.

“Your generosity is appreciated all the same,” said Rarity, glancing at her back to where the blanket lay tightly folded.

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Yeah, thanks and all, but hey, if you stop by the Autumn Hymn in Stagrum, tell them we said hi!”

“I do not know of it, I am sorry,” said Tholmoss, the stag’s head tilted quizzically.

“But I do,” Thalereia said, craning her neck in a small head-only bow. “I will tell the proprietess that ponies of Equestria send their greetings. Helesseia’s mercy and Selyria’s cloak on your back.”

“Good luck,” said Fluttershy. She waved, as did they all. Three great peryton wagons rolled onto the road and moved southwards, a small cloud of dust in their wake on roads that had long since forgotten all about the storm and its rains—even if the grass had not. Even if the air had not. Already Dash felt clammy again, and they hadn’t even begun moving.

“On the road again,” said Rarity, rubbing at her eyes. “This sun is awful. I really wish I had thought to bring something with which I could make a hat for each of us. Ah well. At least this time our goal is in sight. Figuratively and literally speaking.”

“Yeah. It’s right down there,” said Rainbow Dash, inspecting her straps to make sure her wings were okay. The saddlebags were still entirely too full to let her flap her wings properly—unless she pushed them way back, maybe. Dash gave them a nudge, then shielded her face from the sun with a wing.

“I guess we should get there sometime today if we start moving now,” Fluttershy added. “Are you feeling better? Did the tea help any?”

“Well, I’m not feeling worse,” said Rarity, but Rainbow Dash didn’t buy it. The unicorn looked tired. Still, she was the one who took the first step, and soon they were all moving.

“I wonder what they were trading,” said Rainbow Dash, glancing over her shoulder. The peryton wagons were hidden from view now. The towering hilltop with the Selyrian statue stood at the absolute highest point in sight, and now they began their descent on the other side, down a long and straight slope.

Fluttershy tilted her head. “Why didn’t you ask?”

“Because that’s rude, duh,” said Dash. “Remember I told you about the other traders between Orto and Stagrum? They don’t like talking about what they’re trading.”

“We touched upon it last night,” said Rarity, stifling a cough. “They mentioned they carried a full load of cargo for Vauhorn to Ephydoera, but it wasn’t trade as such. They called it tribute. We heard someone say something like that before, and I still think it’s a strange word to use.”

“They said they liked to forage,” said Fluttershy. “But they didn’t have any farms. Maybe it’s food.”

“Probably something like that,” said Dash, though she’d already lost interest in the topic. Far more interesting was the way the road sloped. “Hey, this is a really steep climb going the other way, huh?”

Fluttershy looked down at the dusty path they walked as though seeing it for the first time, and three sets of pony eyes ran its length. The road ran from the rise they left behind and all the way down to an indistinct grey blob partially hidden by hills near the coast. Green grasses lined the road’s flanks, and part of Rainbow Dash fervently wished for winter. This would be the biggest, most awesome sleigh ride ever.

A few trees dotted the western side, and there were some rocks further to the east where the slope curved like a leg shielding the distant city, but most of the landscape ahead was a broad and immense downwards slope, perhaps steep enough—

“It makes sense, really,” said Fluttershy, glancing to their right. “The Spokes to the east are supposed to be very tall cliffs, and I guess this is the beginning of the northern coastline.”

“I’m still pleased we don’t have to make this climb in the heat,” said Rarity with a backwards look. Already the road behind them looked daunting. Rainbow Dash felt thirsty, and they’d barely started moving. Of course, she didn’t really care about what the slope felt like to walk.

“Sure,” said Dash. She stopped, making the others do the same. “Kinda not what I’m talking about. Fluttershy, can you carry both our bags?”

“I—um,” Fluttershy hesitated. “I guess. Why, though? If you’re tired, maybe we can take a break instead? I—”

“Could you fly with both our saddlebags?” Dash asked. “Push yours further back, put mine on top but leave your wings free? What if we dump most of our water?” It wasn’t impossible. Ignoring the stupid water-bags, Dash had seen Fluttershy carry more before.

Rarity tapped a hoof on the ground. “Darling, what are you on about? Can you just tell us?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “We can get there in no-time if we hit the air.”

“This has been true every day,” said Rarity, her frustrations stymied by obvious curiosity. She glanced down the road. “You two have told me it’s not really an option. Why now?”

Fluttershy already had her saddlebags off and started draining the water. “Because she’s not talking about flying, exactly. We can glide all the way,” she said, catching on. “If you’re thirsty, you might want to take a drink now.”

Rarity cocked a brow, but it was Rainbow Dash who spoke, and she couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “Wow, uh, okay, I guess that means you’re in?”

Fluttershy nodded quickly. “I’d like to get Rarity to a bed as soon as possible. Could you maybe start getting rid of the water you’re carrying, too?”

Rainbow Dash gave Fluttershy a wing-salute, grinning wide. “Yes ma’am.”

“You’re overreacting,” said Rarity, somewhat undermining her words with a hoarse-sounding cough. “Besides, I don’t relish the idea of hanging onto your back for hours—”

“Try minutes,” said Rainbow Dash, cackling. “And that’s just because I don’t want to mess up my mane.”

“If we’re gliding, I think it’ll be closer to an hour,” Fluttershy interjected, shaking out her wings.

“Well duh,” said Dash, pushing the empty water-bag back into her saddlebags before giving the whole thing over to Fluttershy. “And hours are made of what?”

“Please don’t,” was all Rarity said, shaking her head and bringing out her handkerchief for a sneeze.

“That’s right. Minutes,” said Rainbow Dash.

Vauhorn rushed to meet them. Where the other cities had patiently waited in the distance as though they didn’t care whether or not the ponies came to visit—or snuck up on them, in the case of the Grove—the city by the sea quickly grew. The the last few minutes, it had gained detail faster than Rainbow Dash could really process it.

The air pulled at Dash’s mane, Rarity’s grip tightened around her neck, and the road was a blur right below legs tucked in for speed. The occasional tree, shrub or rock whisked past them, as did a number of stele surrounded by miniature gardens. Already the great sprawl ahead was too wide to take in all at once. She flapped her wings once. Fluttershy did the same to keep up, but it was awkward going. Best just to keep wings spread and glide.

The city stretched out under the morning sun, greedier for the shoreline than the other coastal cities. The majority of Vauhorn rose as a thick band of stone buildings, stouter and of a grey stone a few shades darker than the memory of Orto’s—reminiscent of Stagrum’s square architecture, but without wood in sight, and familiar in its tendency to sneak in curves and domes atop, wherever they would fit. A few farms dotted the surrounding hillside, and some large buildings crowded around the rocks to the right, hugging rising cliffs that took shape further east.

“I think we need to land!” Fluttershy called. She let herself fall a little bit lower. She’d touch the ground if she set her hooves down.

“Why? This beats walking!” Dash shouted back, grinning. “We’ll hit the city in a minute!”

In a sense, they’d already reached the city. The first few farms were at their side—now at their back as they sailed along. Large plots of land growing rye and less-familiar grains, bowl-shaped houses uniquely placed outside the city in small clusters deep in the sloping fields. Lacking anything like walls or a river to form a natural boundary, the road itself served as a marker separating large two- or even three-story buildings from smaller buildings and the inland farms. Already, Rainbow Dash could make out the first of the Vauhornite peryton and more detail still.

Two peryton stood close together at the top of one of the few flat roofs in view. Large, coloured banners hung from horizontal flag-poles. A group of young peryton raced down a street next to a wall painted with the outline of an antlered head, and at the crossroads ahead stood a cluster of peryton with bright red sashes, all facing their way. Looking straight at them, in fact.

“Right, because of the greeting party,” Dash said, mostly to herself. Did they think they could block their path? They stood in the middle of the road, like Rainbow Dash couldn’t sail over them with a single stroke of her wings.

She didn’t. Instead, she broke her speed, and both she and Fluttershy landed in synch a small distance down the road from the peryton group. Rarity slid off Rainbow Dash’s back with a groan, stretching her legs out one by one. For a long moment, she stood still with her eyes closed, simply breathing. Dash frowned while she put on the saddlebags Fluttershy returned to her.

“You gonna be okay, Rarity? You don’t look so good.”

“Even if I were okay when we took off,” said Rarity, leaning back as far as her neck would let her, “I wouldn’t be now. I think I’m sea-sick from air. Air-sick. Is that a thing? I never had that during those rare few chariot rides home from Canterlot, but it’s definitely a thing now.”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Yeah, well, if you got complaints about my flying, you can ask Fluttershy to carry you next time,” she said. “Not that it was flying. We glided. Big difference.”

“I… don’t think she asked at all, you’re the one who—” Fluttershy tried.

“Next time,” said Rarity, glaring at Rainbow Dash. “The next time I consent to clinging to your back for an hour while I’m under the weather? I don’t see that happening. My underside hurts like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Aha! So you admit you’ve been getting sick all along?” said Dash, grinning in triumph.

Rarity rolled her eyes and let out a dramatic sigh. “Was there ever any doubt about that, dear?” She coughed as if on cue, accepting a drink of water from Fluttershy, downing what little water the pegasus had refused to pour out. When she’d drained the water-bag, she let out a breath and wobbled slightly. Dash reached out with a hoof to steady her. While they waited for Rarity to collect herself, she took in the city beyond the peryton arrayed just ahead.

All the streets were spaciously wide, the path turning from hard-packed dirt to proper roads. If proper roads were supposed to be paved with large stone tiles, anyway. Starting with the wide street that separated the outskirts from the city proper, most of it was stone, but any pretense that the larger buildings past the paved road formed anything like a wall was ruined by the sheer amount of variety.

No two facades looked alike. Paintings of peryton and of other creatures, scenes and vistas, banners, signs and scraps of cloth with peryton script hanging from metal poles or the lip of a flower-pot, subtle variations in the stone used, cracked, mended or haphazardly turned into a work of art—it all made every single building distinct and unique, bonded only by the general architecture and stonework.

"I still think this was a better idea than walking,” said Fluttershy. “Walking for hours and hours could have been even worse for you.” She shielded herself with a wing when Rarity coughed again and shook her head. “You poor thing, we need to get you some rest right away!”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” said Rainbow Dash. She meant to complain that an hour of gliding with a passenger hadn’t exactly been comfortable for her, either, but Rarity sagged and looked far more tired than she had when she got on her back. Dash pushed away a tiny twinge of concern and flexed her wings one by one, her eyes on the very ineffective but demonstrative roadblock ahead. Less worrying, more progress. “If they’ll let us in, anyway,” she added. “Let’s see what’s up.”

Even as they approached their little sash-wearing welcome committee, the sounds and scents of the city outskirts came to meet them halfway, muted and quiet in the morning hours. Vauhorn rubbed sleep out of its eyes. Dash sniffed. It smelled like sea salt, unfamiliar spices and a host of other stuff she couldn’t name.

“Now, I can tell this is one of those situations where a good first impression is important,” said Rarity, clearing her throat and fluffing her mane. “Let’s be our best and try to act with some restraint.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged when she noticed Rarity looking at her in particular. “I have no idea what you mean. I’m the most restrainful pony ever.”

“If you’re tired, you don’t have to do all the talking,” suggested Fluttershy with a sideways glance. “Not that I don’t think you’ll do a great job, but…” She trailed off as they made their approach.

They were almost at the crossroads, the seven or eight bulky peryton staring at them, flanked by tall houses. The street was easily wide enough to let them pass, but somehow Rainbow Dash doubted it would be that simple. At the same time, it wasn’t like they were staring down a group of Canterlot Castle Guard after accidentally ruining a window or twelve.

Quite the opposite, really. The peryton were as varied as any seven peryton—she’d counted now—could possibly be. One wore a mask that covered his face. No, her face, probably. Short tail-feathers. Two of them had jewellery in their antlers, reminiscent of, but different from the Stagrumites, and a large stag had a length of coarse rope tied around his barrel, his wings tied to his body. Their red sashes looked the same, though.

“What the hay,” Dash muttered. “Is this some sort of circus?”

“To your question, Fluttershy, dear: I’m sure I am capable of stringing a few words together,” said Rarity, switching gears and raising her voice a moment later, addressing the peryton. “Hello there! Is there a problem?” It came out a little hoarse, but accompanied by a radiant yet expectant smile the likes of which only Rarity could pull off.

“We observe and tell again,” said a tall brown-white peryton doe with an eyepatch, her tone conversational, “the story of when Morrashon stood upon the sunlit shore and faced the two-stalked companions who left not a mark in the sand. They bore no flag, they revealed no intent, and Morrashon would not let them pass.” She turned her head to the side and tilted it ever so slightly, peering down on the ponies with her one free eye.

“Morrashon was wise beyond time,” said a stag with blue-tipped wings, shifting the sash on his body with a shrug. “Though he was born forever the year after tomorrow, his wisdom is ageless.”

Rainbow Dash narrowed her eyes, her gaze blankly ahead. She knew there had been words, but she very much struggled to attach them to anything inside her head. She was halfway to a “what” when Rarity beat her to it.

“Pardon?” asked Rarity, fluttering her lashes. “We’re here on a peaceful visit—a diplomatic visit, in fact. May we enter the city?”

“Well, um,” said Fluttershy, raising a foreleg as if to protest, but she apparently thought better of it when some of the peryton turned to look at her, shrinking back.

“You would enter Vauhorn. On what pretense?” asked the doe.

“Pretense?” echoed Rainbow Dash, frowning. “What, d’you have to have a pass or something?”

“We promise we won’t cause any trouble,” added Fluttershy.

“There is no ‘pretense’ to be made,” said Rarity smiling still. “We’re simply here to visit, and then we’re passing through. If we may see your mayor or whomever is in charge of your city, that would be wonderful, too. I believe they have been notified of our coming.”

The doe who had first spoken narrowed the one eye slightly, clearly not impressed. “Heard has been the tale of the the Unclawed, of Eakus of All Graces, who watched strangers soar with shadowed hearts and warded us from their anger.”

“No, seriously, what?” said Dash.

“Ah,” said Rarity, nodding quickly as though anything they had said made sense. “Well, I assure you, our hearts have no anger in them, and if our… arrival was a little unorthodox, then I apologise. We were in a bit of a hurry.”

“What? You have a problem with us flying?” asked Rainbow Dash, snorting. “Why?” She turned to Rarity. “And when did they say that?”

“Furthermore, I believe we just revealed our intent,” added Rarity, ignoring Rainbow Dash. “We’re here on a diplomatic mission. Now, if that is a problem, I am sure we can come to an agreement if you would tell us exactly what the issue is.”

“Like Rarity said,” Fluttershy added, stepping up until she stood in line with Rainbow Dash and Rarity. “I think there’s been a letter. Maybe you could ask your mayor?”

Most of the peryton exchanged glances, the sash-wearing stags and does muttering among themselves and nodding. A few of them even took a step or two to the side, but the doe to first have spoken simply stretched her neck out, glancing at Rainbow Dash’s sides—to where her wings poked out, only half-hidden by the saddlebags. After a moment, she turned a baleful gaze on her companions.

“Remember also the stories not as often told,” said the doe, her tone dire. “Remember well the gift of the Ever Soaring, who turned covetous in his quarrel with Phostos. Remember one who sought to gain his gift of colour and was cast down.”

Now all eyes turned to Rainbow Dash, and the peryton crowded around their leader again, staring. She could feel her discoloured wings burning under all the attention.

“Wait, you’re talking about us? What the hay does any of that have to do with us? Who is the ‘Ever Soaring’, and what does that have to do with me and my wings?” asked Dash, her voice cracking on that final word. “Can we please talk normal?”

“Their heart was found false and foul,” said the doe with an air of finality. “They were asked to leave, and never return. Consider this.”

Who was asked to leave?” Dash asked. She was nearly yelling at the incomprehensible doe, now.

“I… I don’t think—” Fluttershy stammered.

“Listen, if you’ll just—” Rarity began, covering her muzzle to cough. “If you’ll give us a moment to explain—or rather tell us what it is that we need to explain, I am sure we will come to an understanding,” she said, but even as she spoke, the peryton shook their heads and muttered among themselves again. Rarity drew a hissing breath. Rainbow Dash ground her teeth. What were they on about?

Do explain the perfidy you suspect these poor people present.”

The loud and clear voice silenced the whispering peryton and forestalled whatever icy comment Rarity had been about to make, the unicorn’s mouth shutting without a word uttered.

Even before he came into view, Rainbow Dash knew that he was hurt. She heard his steps, a curious clop clop-clack, clop clop-clack, which made sense when the sash-wearing peryton parted to reveal a stag, slight of build and with a missing hindleg. His left rear knee ended in a stump, and otherwise he was unremarkable enough with green and purple tail-feathers and wingtips both.

“If you would take the time to consider the strangers’ unwrapped words,” said the stag, “You would know their truth. They are indeed expected, and even were they not, I always thought most of Morrashon’s stories were of overzealousness.” He smiled even as he approached—or wore what Dash had come to think of as a broad peryton smile anyway—hobbling his way through the peryton ranks to stand steady on three legs between the two parties.

“And the Quarrel of the Secret?” asked the doe, looking rather unimpressed. “What is it that you make of it?”

The stag nodded slowly, appearing lost in thought for a moment. Rainbow Dash was about to ask someone to explain what was going on when she caught Fluttershy giving her a look, as though she read her mind. Fluttershy shook her head ever so slightly and Dash sighed internally, keeping her silence in this standoff or whatever it was.

When the stag spoke up, he didn’t sound like he partook in a conversation any more. His voice took on a sonorous timbre, as though he recited a poem or spoke a song without music.

Came the claw-bearing beasts gleaming beaks bringing words,

Shed no blood on the sand, not a tail-feather fell,

Came the two-legged un-horned beast without teeth

Ask the one who did open the gate what he’d sell.

“I ask you,” he added, barely pausing for breath and staring at the doe not unkindly. “How you understand it. Does it not temper Morrashon’s wisdom? I do not question your authority—”

The doe shook her head quickly, and with a faint glow of magic shifted her eyepatch onto the other eye. “There is no authority to be questioned. You are correct. Their measure is not possessed by me, and our—no, mine was action out of concern this morning when I saw their approach from afar and no others thought to consider Morrashon’s stories.”

Rainbow Dash leaned a little closer to Fluttershy. “Do you think they remember we’re here?” she asked. Fluttershy made no reply, but Rarity hushed her very quietly, making Dash sigh yet again.

“Travellers, I have done you injustice,” said the doe, facing them and tilting her head forwards in a deep bow. “Consider Morrashon’s story my defence, but I lay my errors in your shadow.”

“Right,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning as the other peryton stepped to the side of the road in groups. Only the doe and the three-legged stag remained in their way. “Okay. So, we’re cool?” she asked.

The doe blinked. “Your… your words, they carry no meaning for me to grasp, but if you ask if you may enter the city, I am not, have not been a barrier, only a watcher. Are my errors passed by in your shadow?”

“Are your... “ Dash mouthed.

“All is forgiven, dear,” said Rarity, smiling at her. “Thank you for your consideration.”

The doe nodded at that and moved towards one of the groups by the road-side, smiling at the stag as she passed by. “Your insight is welcome, and your actions credit tales of Helesseia’s golden tongue.”

“We all have our passions,” the stag replied, smiling back and returning a slight bow.

Rainbow Dash puffed out her cheeks. “Yeah. We’re cool, apparently,” she declared. “I don’t even know what’s going on.”

“Don’t you remember what Phoreni said?” Fluttershy whispered. “She said they talk of—or maybe in stories.”

“Well, duh, I remember that,” said Dash, who had in fact not remembered. “I just don’t get why—and is nopony else bothered by how this is the second time in a row we get stopped trying to just get into a town? What the hay?”

“We all speak in stories in one manner or another, do we not?” asked the stag. While the red-sashed peryton slowly dispersed in amicably chatting groups of twos or threes, he remained with them, standing at their sides facing the city as though he, too, sought entry.

“No?” asked Dash, though she could already tell her protest would be ignored.

“And besides, Eirissia made clear that she never meant to bar your passage,” the stag went on, watching the last of the peryton disappear around the corner. “Rather, she merely meant to learn your purpose. Was this not clear?”

“I am afraid this was neither clear nor obvious to any of us,” said Rarity, shaking her head slightly. “I got the impression she would not let us enter.”

Fluttershy shuffled her wings. “We, um… we were warned, sort of. You just use a lot more anecdotes than we do, among other things. It’s a little hard to understand. We’re not really from around here—but I guess you can see that.”

“But why?” asked Rainbow Dash, squinting at the weird stag. “You’re talking just fine now,” Dash added.

The stag let out a small warble, as short and sharp as Rarity’s coughs. “Why do you ask questions? Why this obsession with clarity and simple words? How does one ignore that even these strings of common words are not unstoried and each of them come with their own history?” He glanced at Dash for a second, but nothing more.

“Because—” Dash tried, sighing when she couldn’t think of an answer right away. “Well, those are different questions, you can’t just answer my question with a question! I think.” She looked over at Fluttershy, desperate for any kind of support.

Rarity levitated out her handkerchief and wiped her muzzle. “Rainbow Dash, dear, could we please focus for a moment?”

“If it helps,” said Fluttershy, frowning ever so slightly as she thought. “Maybe you can just always think that they’re talking about us when they tell a story. I think that might make it a little easier to understand, but yes, we should probably, um, well—” she paused when the stag turned awkwardly on the spot with two hooves and a single hind-claw, coming about to face them.

“Maybe we could introduce ourselves and try again,” suggested Fluttershy, smiling up at him. “Hello, I’m Fluttershy.”

“Rainbow Dash,” said Dash, stretching her neck from side to side. “Hi.”

“And I am Rarity, a pleasure,” said Rarity, nodding.

“And so began the longest of journeys with the spreading of wings,” said the stag, inclining his head very slightly. “And the longest of discussions, the heartiest of debates with a single syllable—hello. Ah, no. That’s two syllables.” He frowned. “That’s embarrassing. Hi, then. I am Neisos, and you must be the ponies from Equestria.”

“You’ve heard of us?” asked Dash. “That helps.”

“That’s a relief,” said Rarity, sighing. “And something of a first.”

“Well, second,” said Fluttershy, tilting her head. “Someone told you about us? Was that… Khaird? Do you know him?”

“Hm? No, that name is not familiar to me,” said Neisos. “I only remember reading some missives seasons ago, that is all. It was a guess, but a very strong one.”

Fluttershy nodded and lay her ears flat. “Oh. Okay. I just thought I would ask.”

“Red Sun Runner was a name on the letter, a visitor of your kind who heralded your coming, I understand. Red Sun Runner, Rainbow. Your names are very curious,” added the stag, tilting his head to one side.

“You’re the guys who have names that don’t mean anything,” said Dash, snorting. “What is a ‘Neisos’, huh?”

Neisos arched his brows and nodded very, very slowly. “What is a Neisos? Now, you ask very impressive questions.”

“Well, be that as it may,” said Rarity, raising her voice a smidge. “You seem very well informed compared to some, and that is an absolute delight. Do you know this city as well? May we ask you for directions to an inn or a hotel—one of the places you call resting houses?”

“It would be my delight to help. My day is not taken or planned as of yet,” said Neisos, and no sooner had he spoken than he led the way into the city in his hobbling gait, left foreleg first, then his two right-side legs. “And if I am well informed, it is because I have perhaps a greater interest in the stories of yesterday than many. I am as Orsshur when she dusted off the stories of yester-season with the reverence of the primal stories that echo but are never told.”

This time, Dash took some solace in the fact that Fluttershy and Rarity looked as lost as she did.

“Could you… try that again?” asked Rarity. “Do you mean… no, I am sorry, could you rephrase?”

“Orsshur, the Aspect of greater understanding sought through new angles of that which is not yet set, she who molds the clay in the oven?” The stag cast a curious glance over his back as they walked. Every building around them was two or three stories tall, grey stone tiles made unoppressive by the width of the streets and the generous alleys, and the monotony shattered by an infinite display of… was it right to call it all art, all the cloth and paint that ran rampant everywhere? It was almost impossible to spot unpainted stone on the building walls.

“My head hurts,” said Rainbow Dash. “No, that doesn’t make any sense, how is that an answer? I don’t even remember the question now!” The visual chaos of the city didn’t help with trying to focus on understanding the cryptic peryton.

Neisos stopped, turning with some difficulty to look upon the ponies with obvious concern. “I sought to explain that Eirissia meant no harm. She and the others took on the sashes today to keep watch on Vauhorn, but they doubtless have other work, too. They do not have the luxury to mind the affairs of yesterday.” He shrugged. “They were doubtless told of your coming in a communal meeting, but it may have slipped their minds. I also sought to tell you that I myself have kept an eye on the roads due to having taken an interest ever since the missive arrived.”

“Then why couldn’t you just say that?” asked Dash. She didn’t know how many ways she could ask that question, and how many more times she could stand not getting an answer.

“Are there such challenges in my words?” asked Neisos. He looked between the three of them, and neither Rarity nor Fluttershy denied it, at least.

“It’s, well...” was about as much as Fluttershy said.

“Yes!” said Dash.

“We obviously use the same words,” said Rarity. “Nearly, anyway, but all these stories are new to us.”

“Oho,” said Neisos. “Only this? Most peryton will relate to the stories, but then, I suppose these are not stories you have been taught.” He twisted his head around to scratch his lower neck with an antler. “Much better. Now, these are Peryton aspects. You will have other functions in place, Aspects or tools of your own—”

“If I may interrupt,” said Rarity, smiling affably. “Even without that, I think your use of similes is a touch excessive compared to what we are used to, and that is the real challenge. But please, we respect your customs, of course—”

“Not customs! Tools and habits,” said Neisos, shaking his head briskly. “Tools I may put down if I wish. I will trade in unstoried words as much as I can. I understand that those who deal with trade caravans and visitors face similar… if I call them complaints, do not take offense.” He grinned at that, moving along again, gesturing down the street with his head. They were coming up on a plaza nearly empty in the morning hours. In the center stood a fountain whose waters glittered in the morning sun.

“For now? Come. Fountain. Drink. These words must be universal, and after you have had your fill, you must explain one word that I overheard in the rudeness of my eavesdropping. To which story does the word ‘mayor’ belong?”

The plaza was more of the same in that little was the same. In a corner, a group of peryton erected makeshift stalls for some kind of market, but opposite of them, young peryton played with a ball. Dozens of houses and a couple of sign-marked shops faced the open space, but the vast majority of them were so lavishly decorated—and no two of them in the same manner—that the signs almost disappeared in the visual noise. Rainbow Dash tried to imagine Ponyville if every house celebrated a different holiday. Hearth’s Warming wreaths on one house, Summer Sun stuff on the next.

At least the water didn’t taste any different. Fluttershy filled one of their water-bags for Rarity to drink from, and the others drank right from the sparkling waters. Two other peryton had a drink, and children rushed past them, a few pausing to stare unabashedly. Dash gave it a five out of ten on the curious-peryton scale, which ran from something to Orto. Stagrum to Orto, probably?

“Do you all get your water from the fountains, or do you have some other way to get it?” asked Fluttershy. “Should we fill up here, or do the resting houses here have their own water?”

“Yes,” said the stag, tapping a hoof on the ground, his gaze distant for a moment. “A need for a place to stay was mentioned. The resting houses will be filling up with the first caravans from Cotronna soon, and while it is certain that you will find a bed somewhere, I have a better idea.” He brightened in an instant, gesturing wide with a foreleg while he leaned against the fountain, smiling. ”Come stay at my house!”

“I dunno, sure?” Rainbow Dash said, more a question for the others than it was an answer. She looked at Fluttershy, who looked to Rarity, who in turn shrugged and looked at Rainbow Dash.

“It’s very nice of you to offer,” said Fluttershy, dipping her head in thanks.

“If you have the room, it would make things simpler,” said Rarity, covering her mouth with her handkerchief to cough. “We would be grateful if it is no imposition.”

“Imposition? Not at all. Room for you and more besides is had at my house,” he said, shaking his head. “My dearest and our children are all away for some days. It is just around the corner, and then two more corners. Come.”

Neisos took off at a quick walk, faster than Dash expected. Every now and then, he shifted his weight with his wings as he walked to keep his balance on three legs, and the ponies followed. They’d barely caught up to him when he spoke up again without looking back.

“It is you who do me a favour, to tell you the truth. An empty house tells a poor tale, and to fill it with life is auspicious. Twice as much when the life is strange and new.” He laughed a sharp trill. “It reminds me of the earliest stories of Pelessa. A blinding omen faced with open eyes—”

Rainbow Dash hadn’t meant to groan quite so loud, but Neisos stopped mid-sentence all the same. Before Rainbow Dash could consider whether she’d been a little too rude, wondering if she should apologise, the stag laughed again, twice as loud.

“Or!” he said, “To use other words for you: A pinch of sense is enough to tell that anyone who travels across half of Perytonia—and perhaps half the world—braving storm and strangeness to come to Vauhorn bearing green wings and curious questions, they are capable heroes, and I would not give up the chance to meet you were my wings in a vice.”

“Right. Sorry, I just… stories are gonna get old, and fast,” Dash muttered. “And please don’t ask me how my wings got like this,” she added, making Fluttershy wince.

Neisos nodded. “I will respect that wish, but I am still confused by your refusal of stories. There is nothing that does not have a story—my home is just around here,” he said, turning down a spacious alley, taking them out of the baking sun and into cooler shadow.

Rainbow Dash cast a backwards glance. Rarity lagged behind a little, and Fluttershy walked at her side. She waited for them to catch up while Neisos walked up to a nearby two-story building with a curved roof, a wooden door painted in children’s hoof-paintings flanked by windows with open shutters, multicoloured curtains drawn inside. He leaned against the wall for balance while pushing the door open. Normal doors. One point for Vauhorn.

“I don’t suppose you have hot water?” asked Rarity, pausing before the door. “And perhaps… I realise we ask much, but do you have more than one room? I believe I’m coming down with something, and I’d rather not pass it on—or keep my friends up all night.”

“I am not blind, and I did think you may have fallen ill. I simply did not want to make assumptions.” Neisos preceded the ponies inside, lost in the relative darkness for a moment while he talked. “Do your people also get colds, then? My sympathies, and apologies for not expressing them sooner. Everything about your appearances is strange to me, and I have so very many questions—”

“I’m a girl, a she, not a ‘stag’,” said Dash as she entered, waving the others inside as well. “Not a guy, okay? Cool? All of us: girls.”

“And now, though it matters little in the greater context, I have one less question,” said Neisos, smiling toothily.

Neisos’ house—or his family’s house, Dash supposed—was every bit as spaciously designed as the city outside. One part of the large chamber she stepped into was clearly some sort of living room area with a low table that would seat ponies comfortably, and another area was cordoned off by thin wooden screens painted with scenes that meant nothing to her. Beyond stood some contraptions Dash didn’t know, a small oven, and a bunch of paints, while the rest looked living-roomy enough. Shelves and cupboards all over, stacked with scrolls, books, statues and knick-knacks.

“Rooms for you will be found upstairs,” said Neisos, gesturing to stairs set along the far wall. “You may take my children’s rooms. Or, if you are not comfortable sharing beds and want for three bedrooms rather than two, I will find elsewhere to sleep, and you may take my bed also. While you get settled, I will heat some water and find an oil that may prove soothing for you—Rarity, is it?”

“Yes. Rarity the unicorn—” said Rarity, splaying her ears and letting out a wracking sneeze followed by a groan. “—who right now is rather annoyed that she is not Rarity the pegasus, since pegasi apparently can’t get colds.”

“Hey, we can still get the feather flu. That’s like, ten times worse,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning.

“Um, I don’t know about that,” said Fluttershy, glancing over at Rarity. “Colds look pretty bad. But you’re right. We can’t get colds, so we can probably share a bedroom, you know.”

Rarity looked to the two pegasi in turn, her snout covered with her handkerchief. At length, she shook her head. “No, I think we’d all rather have some privacy for our parts in my being sick, really.”

“Either way, let’s get you to bed,” said Fluttershy, nosing Rarity on the flank to herd her towards the stairs. “Thank you again,” Fluttershy added, smiling at Neisos. Rarity already had her saddlebags hovering at her side in her magical grip.

“A little extra cleaning around the house is no price at all. I will have my reward in plenty through your—”

“Stories,” Dash finished in silent chorus with the peryton, mouthing the word as he spoke it. She saw Rarity and Fluttershy’s tails disappear up the stairs, instead following Neisos towards the open portal that presumably led to a kitchen of sorts, pausing only to put her saddlebags away by the large table when they passed it by.

Despite the sheer amount of space in the few but large rooms, it was full of life even in the absence of Neisos’ family—some of the signs familiar, some of them confusing. Wooden shelves overflowed with scrolls and a few books, a stack piled at its base. Paintings crowded the walls, the table bore half-eaten food, and the corner with the oven Dash pegged as a potter’s workshop was a mess.

“You still have not explained this word,” said Neisos when Dash stepped into the kitchen which consisted mostly of stone counters and a small stove, strange smells drifting in from a half-open door to a pantry. Someone had either discarded an attempt at baking, or simply not put the flour, butter and all other things away. That, at least, was some relatable chaos, an understandable mess less foreign than all the tapestries and paintings.

“What?” asked Rainbow Dash, shaking her head quickly. “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention, what word?”

“The missive,” said Neisos, tossing some wood into the stove and hovering over a long match and a rock, lighting a small fire. “As I said, all I know is that Equestrian diplomats would visit Orto, and to see you here so soon is surprising unless I missed another letter. Regardless, you come here speaking of wanting to see a ‘mayor’. What is this?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “I don’t know, the person in charge here. The leader of the city, you know? Like, uh, we have Mayor Mare, and I guess she handles anything that’s boring? She was the one who told me I couldn’t move my house to right over Ponyville. That sorta stuff.”

Neisos nodded thoughtfully, levitating over a kettle and filling it with water from a small pump by a faucet. “Now I have more words I do not understand, and I do not know we have someone like that.”

Dash raised a brow. “Okay? Who got the letter, then?”

“The Raven-Tenders attached it to the Ravenwall. None and everyone received it, but I imagine the council read it as they do all things, no matter how inane.” He paused and let out a little cackling caw. “Protect those poor peryton from their burden. And to your example, they would decide in a case such as you describe. They certainly handled Ohrinna’s takeover of this house.”

“Alright, so you have a ‘council’. That works, I guess,” said Dash, shrugging. She’d questioned their decision to visit all these peryton who worked like mayors ever since Stagrum anyway, but it helped to know if they had a city council. “Can we meet them? I think we really just wanna say hi; introduce ourselves and everything before we head over to Cotronna.”

Neisos leaned over the kettle, then dipped a hoof in the water, sighing. He opened the stove and lit another match. Clearly the fire had gone out. “Yes?” he said, making it a question, leaning halfway into the stove and surfacing with a muzzle tipped with soot. “Yes, you may, of course. This kind of situation, I believe it is what the council should do. Decide on things.” He coughed and closed the door to the stove, smiling now. “They do many other, more important things. When it comes to these things you say your ‘mayor’ does, I am perhaps no more informed about my council than you are about yours.”

Dash nodded and grinned. The smile was infectious, and when he spoke plain, he seemed cool enough. “Hey, that’s fine,” she said. “I guess we got that in common. Thanks again for the assist earlier, really.”

He shook his head briskly, turning to sweep some flour off a counter, absent-mindedly cleaning as he spoke. “No, your thanks are misplaced. As I have said, they never meant to bar your way, only to question, as is their right. Questions must always be asked.”

“Pft, you didn’t like my questions earlier,” said Dash, leaning against the counter.

“I did not reject your questions about why we accept the storied nature of the world,” countered he. “I questioned your questions, and you gave up.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Uh. Okay, right. No really though, I don’t care if you don’t think it was a big deal, we appreciate the help. Are you some kind of guard captain or something?”

He laughed again, a sharp rattling laughter that he quickly stifled. He shook his head and made a show of wiping the toothy grin off his face. “I am sorry, no. I did not mean to laugh—”

“It’s fine,” said Dash with a shrug.

“—but no. I am captain of no one and nothing, and in case it is still not clear, they were not ‘guards’. They were concerned citizens who take on the sashes to act as patrollers some days of the week,” he continued, his mirth mellowing by degrees. “And my authority over them was only the authority of reason. All peryton will listen to reason, and the doe to whom I spoke is exceptionally reasonable, if protective.”

“Yeah, I’ll say,” muttered Rainbow Dash.

“Of course,” he added, “you must ask yourself, were you slighted because of her conduct, or was your pride too far extended? I will say it was both, but let me apologise for her all the same.”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “You still haven’t answered. If you’re not a guard, do you go around town looking for ponies to talk to every day?”

He shook his head as though that had been a fair suggestion. “I mind my family’s children and teach them our stories for now. If anything, I have designs on becoming a teller of stories, but I suspect I may join my love in some craft when all our young are of age.”

Dash nodded at that. Her eyes wandered about the room, but next to the visual noise of the main chamber, the kitchen was plain and familiar-looking, excepting its size allowing for the larger peryton. Neisos made a hobbling turn, putting some stacked bowl and utensils away.

“You stare at my leg,” said Neisos, stretching his neck to put something on top of a tall shelf. “Or rather, at my lack of one.”

Rainbow Dash splayed her ears. She hadn’t thought he would notice, but clearly he had, even when he didn’t look at her. “Sorry about that,” she said, looking away.

“Why? I am not offended,” he said, giving the kitchen a quick once-over. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he smiled a touch. “However, the room is pregnant with your desire to ask me why I only have one leg—and you just asked me if I have something like a profession, to which my answer was not clear. Maybe you understand there is a connection. Maybe you wonder why.”

Rainbow Dash nodded. The last bits only hit her as an afterthought, but now that Neisos had suggested it, it was hard not to wonder. “Right, okay, I’m curious, but it’s rude to stare. At least for ponies. I didn’t mean to do it.”

Neisos inclined his head. “Then ask me, how did I lose my leg?”

Dash squinted. “Okay, you’re being weird about it. Are you gonna explain it by telling me some story with a bunch of people or Aspects I’ve never heard about? I’ll pass.”

The peryton clucked his tongue. “You are astute. I would in fact share it through a story, but I understand this somehow frustrates you. You have expressed this more than once by now.”

Rainbow Dash grunted. She hadn’t really thought about it that much, and now she kind of had to. “Frustrated? I don’t know about that. I like stories just fine, I just—ugh, you’re talking about one thing, and then suddenly you’re talking about something else.” She frowned. How else could she explain it? It made her feel stupid.

Neisos nodded, simple as that. “Then I will instead say that I lost my leg in an accident at the amberstone quarry where I worked. As a result, I discovered a new purpose.” His antlers glimmered as he scratched his nose with a touch of magic. “To me, these events, these summaries are insufficient. By telling it through the story of Daros’ rebirth through his simple duties, I can better explain the transformation that took place, the sense of renewed purpose.”

“You were… transformed?” Rainbow Dash asked, raising a brow.

“See?” asked Neisos. “Now you are interested. Yes, transformed, but in a way that resists such simple explanation. Drawing upon other stories lets me embellish and flavour the events, of course, but they also allow me to share the depth of an experience.”

He poured the boiling water from the kettle and into a large bowl, mixing in a little water from the pump and levitating it by Dash’s side. “Moving is a little more troubling now, as you may understand, so I turned hedge-storyteller, and my life has become richer for it. It is a good story, Daros’. Mine? Not by itself. Take this water to your friend. I will be along with towels and an oil in a moment.”