• 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 28

This may be the most creatively bankrupt idea I have ever had. Every sketch burns my eyes and poisons my very soul!

Well, it’s not very engaging, fun, or interesting, is what I mean. This is not an act of creativity, but an act of… adaptation. Focus on the results, Rarity. At the very least, this will get their attention.

I am feeling better, at any rate. I’m keenly aware that I’ve neglected writing much about Perytonia in this journal, but there will be time for this later, I am sure.


Some were flat and stacked, topped with salt. Others were displayed in rows, one loaf cut open to show juicy, colourful fillings. Rainbow Dash blinked heavily and covered a yawn, trying to stretch her wings out before realising her saddlebags were still in the way. She tried moving them a little, but forgot why she would do that in the process, and gave up. She closed her eyes and leaned against something, closing her eyes.

“Maybe three or four of those?” Rainbow Dash heard Fluttershy ask.

“You’ll want the shessa, mostly,” said Ohrinna, letting out an unabashed yawn of her own.

“Yes, phela will spoil within days—children, please,” Neisos snapped. Dash started fully awake again. Neisos put a hoof down to stop Berissa and Teilos from running in circles around him, holding them fast with a stern look. “A moment of Eakus’ grace is all I ask.”

“Okay,” said Fluttershy. “Four of the… shessa? I guess maybe we’ll want something to eat just for now, too.”

Rainbow Dash gave the arrayed breads another glance. They all smelled great. Usually, she’d just suggest they grab something and go. Usually she had time for breakfast. Now, she was too sleepy and hungry both, and couldn’t be bothered to complain about either. Fluttershy had a handle on it. Dash closed her eyes again, but this time, whatever she tried to lean on resisted her weight, pushing back.

“Darling, do try to remain upright,” said Rarity, propping her back up. Dash heard the others talking about something or other. For how long could ponies and peryton busy themselves with pointing at bread?

“I am trying,” Dash groaned. It was impossible to actually sleep, of course, but just past mid-day, the market was a quiet and muted affair compared to any- and everything yesterday. The baker’s stall was one of only a few set up at the plaza, and there weren’t many peryton about, most of whom looked as tired as the ponies and Neisos and Ohrinna’s family. The midday heat the day after the Alluvium had to be the single laziest thing in the world.

“Grape?” Dash heard someone say.

“Grape and pear,” said someone else.

“One for the fawns?” A new voice. Maybe the baker. Dash turned to Rarity and stretched her neck to each side, trying to do something besides yawning.

“Why are you so … I don’t know, awake and everything?” she asked.

“I’ve been up for a while. Deimesa and I’ve been shopping earlier,” said Rarity, cocking a brow. “As I told you when you woke up. Honestly, dear, I’m a little worried. Did you not sleep at all tonight?”

“I slept,” said Dash, waving a wing dismissively. “The problem isn’t for how long, it’s how many times I went to sleep.”

Rarity tilted her head in question. Rainbow Dash shrugged. Her eyes began to slip shut again when she heard the unicorn make an appreciative noise. A second later, something bumped against her snout. Dash opened her eyes to find a small loaf of bread hovering in front of her face. Rarity held it in the grip of her magic, and over by the baker’s stall, Fluttershy dug out bits from her saddlebags—no, bronze slivers or gems, of course.

“Thanks,” said Dash, catching a brief smile from Fluttershy while Ohrinna distributed the bread among the others. Breakfast for all, then. Dash grabbed the bread and took a bite of the spongy, fruit-filled bread. Food. She felt more alive by the second—and a little more confused when Deimesa returned from another stall, throwing something around Rainbow Dash’s neck.

“What?” was all Dash managed, peering down at the straps around the side of her neck, supporting a single saddlebag-like container near her chest. She had seen peryton wear the neck-bags all over the cities.

“I had them shortened to fit you,” said Deimesa, who wore a neck-bag of her own. “They are ohron. You said you might be short on space carrying all this food and your other supplies. I have one for you each. If your side-bags are already full, you will need somewhere to carry water.”

“Oh. That’s very kind of you,” said Rarity, accepting one for herself and securing it around her neck. She pursed her lips, giving hers a scrutinizing look. “I wonder if these will catch on back home.”

“Thank you,” said Fluttershy, smiling and nodding. “We still have our water-bags. We can fill those, but I think it’s better to put the water in our saddlebags and carry something lighter around the neck.”

“I still marvel at how much such small creatures as you can carry on your backs,” said Ohrinna, shaking her head.

“Or perhaps it is our necks that are strong to theirs,” Neisos retorted with a smile. He lowered his head to rub at his bleary eyes, balancing on two legs for a moment. He pointed to the fountain not far away. “Let us see about water, then,” he suggested, setting the procession of ponies and peryton all moving.

Rainbow Dash munched away as they walked, bread tucked away in the nook of a wing. They were easily the largest group on the plaza, and she couldn’t help but smile at that. That they’d woken up late was a given: the sun had crawled over the windowsill before Dash finally fell asleep. What she hadn’t counted on was the entire family insisting on coming along to see them off.

Dash grabbed a sip from the fountain, her body rocking when someone placed a full and dripping bag of water in one of her saddlebags. She grunted and widened her stance when another joined it.

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, or like I doubt your words,” said Rarity, while Fluttershy helped her pack more water. “But are you certain we need all of this water?”

When neither Neisos nor Ohrinna immediately replied, Deimesa nodded. “Yes,” she said. “If there is one thing I can say under the weight of all of Khylari’s stories, it is that you will want all the water you can carry. I only know Vauhorn’s demesne well, but there is no reason there should be streams or rivers to our near west. It will be mostly groundwater. Underground reservoirs and subsurface rivers. Since you cannot drink from an aquifer, you will want to bring water.” Deimesa furrowed her brow ever so slightly. “I have heard there may be wells at some of the Selyrian statues, but I cannot say this for sure.”

Neisos shook his head. “You know well enough by now that to go a day even in shadow without access to water is unwise in second summer’s height.”

“It’s not that bad. This is it?” Dash asked, testing the weight. All around the fountain, saddlebags were being strapped shut and paper-wrapped bread put into neck-bags. Or ohron, if one were to be fancy about it, and Dash didn’t feel like being fancy about it.

“I think that’s everything,” said Fluttershy, nodding. Three fully loaded ponies and a family of five peryton all stood in a vague circle, exchanging looks.

“I suppose we make for the western side of the town, then?” asked Rarity.

“I just thought it’d be… heavier,” Dash admitted. When Ohrinna pointed west and the group began moving across the plaza, Dash spread her wings and checked the load the only way she knew how to: by taking off. Flying with all the food, water and the other junk she carried was tough going, but it was fine once she got her wings free from the saddlebags. At least, more fine than she’d expected. Maybe she was just getting used to the extra weight. Rainbow Dash landed and fell in step with Rarity.

“I should expect so,” said Rarity. “I took out some of my fabrics and my failed creations from Ephydoera.”

“Do you even have any bolts of fabric left?” Dash asked, frowning.

Rarity shook her head with a bemused smile. “Barely. Only what I think I’ll need. Deimesa mentioned that they do not have sheep in Vauhorn, so wool is precious to them,” she said. “Most of what I had left was wool, so I left it for Deimesa to give to some charitable causes. I won’t need it.”

“If you say so,” said Rainbow Dash, swallowing the last of her bread. She hadn’t eaten it so much as she inhaled it. Whatever berry filling the phela packed, she barely tasted it.

“If you’d packed smart, you’d carry less weight,” Rarity added, giving her a look. “You still insist on carrying around that statue. A stone statue.”

“It’s really small, it’s fine,” Dash said, chuckling. “I dunno, it looks cool. Besides, if we’re talking about bringing weird stuff—” she began, but she didn’t finish the sentence. She knew Fluttershy still carried the antlers around, making packing her bags especially awkward, but she didn’t feel like going on about that. Fluttershy turned around as though she’d heard and knew—or not. She looked worried, not annoyed or defensive.

“You didn’t leave behind the dresses you’ve already finished, right?” asked Fluttershy.

“You better not have,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning. “They were cool.”

“No, dears, I did not leave the dresses behind,” said Rarity, rolling her eyes. “Excepting the newest ones, they’re all mostly silk and weigh next to nothing at all.”

“And they’re awesome,” said Dash, squinting at Rarity, looking for any trace of doubt.

“I’m glad you liked them, at least,” said Rarity, her eyes ahead. She sped up a tiny bit, even though they were stuck following Ohrinna and Neisos’ lead through the quiet, sun-baked streets at a comfortable pace for the three-legged stag. The peryton family chatted amongst themselves, Neisos and Ohrinna magically holding the filled bread while the two younger children ate.

Dash shrugged and didn’t press the issue. Rarity was clearly eager to get moving again, and if she had been up since early morning, she must feel better.

“Oh!” said Fluttershy with a gasp. “I forgot to tell you, Rarity, I’m sorry.”

“Hm?” asked Rarity, one brow raised in question.

“I know you said not to worry too much about it, but you did ask us to see what the peryton thought of the dresses,” said Fluttershy. She shook her head, walking on the opposite side of Rarity. “I meant to tell you yesterday, and I’m very sorry,” she said, her ears splayed. “I didn’t think they noticed or cared at all, so I asked Vulenos—a stag who helped me a little—and he said that most peryton probably wouldn’t be able to decide what the clothes meant at all—”

“Ah, don’t—” Rarity said, trying to interrupt her, but Fluttershy went on.

“—so I asked him what he thought when he saw the dress, even if I had to ask him to think about it, and he said that he didn’t really think it meant anything, and he needed to be told about its ‘context’, so I think you’d almost have to explain fashion to them,” Fluttershy finished, her tail drooping. “It’s just like what Deimesa said. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for forgetting to tell you, too.”

“It’s not a problem at all, dear,” said Rarity, shaking her head. “I don’t think it matters any more, and besides, I surmised much of the same from how Rainbow Dash didn’t get any unsolicited comments, either. I thought you knew that.”

“Oh,” said Fluttershy, her mouth hanging open for a second.

“Or, at the very least, I expect you’d both had the same experience if you attended this event together,” said Rarity, tilting her head.

Fluttershy said nothing. Rainbow Dash wished she had more bread to eat.

“Did one of you not like your dress?” Rarity asked, frowning now.

“The dresses were fine,” Fluttershy rushed to say.

“They were awesome!” said Dash at the exact same time. She liked her own vest and skirt just fine, and despite its crime of hiding Fluttershy away, Dash still remembered the way Fluttershy looked in hers, her figure just barely hid, her form backlit by a bonfire.

Silence followed. Rarity didn’t say anything, instead asking questions with her eyes. Dash didn’t answer. She looked at Fluttershy instead, and for the first time since yesterday, their eyes met in more than a passing glance.

Rarity didn’t know they’d split up yesterday. Rarity didn’t know why Rainbow Dash had to leave Fluttershy alone, but then again, it hardly mattered. She’d tried to talk to Rarity time and again. She’d even gone to Luna—though that was a while ago, now—and look where that got her: nowhere. Rainbow Dash knew she could do better. Stop pushing. She swallowed. Stop losing.

“So, anyway,” said Rainbow Dash, finally tearing her eyes away from Fluttershy. She didn’t know what to read into the searching look her girlfriend gave her. “Rarity, what’d you get?”

“Pardon?” Rarity replied.

“You said you’d been shopping this morning,” Dash said, watching the peryton children as she spoke. Done with their breakfast, and done running circles around the entire group afterwards, the two children with berry-stained muzzles now fell in with the ponies, trotting at their side and staring. “Hey there, kids,” Dash said, grinning at them before she turned her attention back to Rarity. “If you didn’t get stuff for our trip, what’d you get? Anything fun?”

“Hardly,” said Rarity with a wan smile. “A few odds and ends, but mainly I wanted to get a pair of those masks you said the council-peryton wore.”

“The white, blank masks?” Fluttershy asked. She slowed down a little to stop from walking into Berissa, who walked right next to, and partially in front of her, the tiny peryton’s head pointing almost straight up, staring wide-eyed at her. “Um, hello there,” she said, giggling.

“Yes, I know what you’re thinking,” said Rarity with a dismissive wave. “They do have some rather fetching sashes and even things that might be called clothing on a generous day, but these masks symbolize openness to all Aspects and to all stories. If anything encapsulates all of Vauhorn, it is those masks.”

“Sure,” said Dash with a shrug. She tilted her head at Teilos, who stared at her forehooves. “What’s up, squirt? Did I step in something?” She hopped into a short hover to check under her hooves, but they were clean enough.

“You will have to forgive,” said Neisos from the group ahead, clearly fighting back laughter. “Deimesa shared some tales of ‘pegasus magic’ you showed her.” Dash caught a low chuckle from Ohrinna as well, and Deimesa looked back over her shoulder with an apologetic smile.

“I did not mean to send Esorys’ zephyrs upon you,” said Deimesa. “Teilos, Berissa, come!”

“Can’t you ask them to show us how to make rain? Mom, please?” Teilos asked. Rainbow Dash glanced over at Fluttershy and grinned.

“They can make thunder and lightning! I want to see it!” Berissa added. Dash winced and felt her smile crack.

“If you want them to do this, you ask them yourselves, as is polite!” said Neisos.

Rainbow Dash did not feel up to making a thundercloud at all, and in the brief pause while the children rounded on them again, she couldn’t not look at Fluttershy and the singe-mark across her left hock.

Fluttershy, for her part, smiled. She looked up at the sky much in the same way Rainbow Dash would have done, a quick scan, left, right and above.

“I’m sorry,” said Fluttershy, leaning down to bring herself level with the two peryton children. “To make rain, or any other kind of weather, we need clouds, and there aren’t any clouds nearby at all today. We showed your big sister how to do it, but—”

“Deimesa!” Berissa shouted, turning to the older doe and running over to her in a heartbeat. “Will you teach me tomorrow?”

“Me too!” Teilos yelled, running after her. Deimesa clearly had practice walking with two younger siblings underhoof, because she did not miss a step.

“—but… um, I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant,” Fluttershy said, her voice trailing off, drowned out by Neisos and Ohrinna’s caws of laughter.

“If you can leave Daros to rest and act with grace today, your sister will teach you,” said Neisos.

“I don’t think—” Fluttershy tried again, but she didn’t even finish her sentence, clearly knowing she’d go ignored.

“We will try,” came Deimesa’s reply, accompanied by a sharp-toothed smile.

“Oh dear,” muttered Fluttershy. The two children fell in line and marched at their parents’ side almost perfectly in step with each other, clearly intent on their prize. Rainbow Dash completely failed at containing her laughter, still giggling when they came upon the end of the tiled streets.

A wide and well kept dirt road continued on, cutting straight through farms that became more and more scattered further away from town. Unlike the north side of the city, the western expanse was flat enough that it was impossible to see much beyond the rows of grape vines and other fruits and vegetables.

The three older peryton stopped at the last proper street corner of Vauhorn, the final tiled road encircling the larger stone buildings. With no gate or city limit marker, it was as good a place as any to stop. If someone had made a “Welcome to Vauhorn City” sign, Dash imagined it’d feel right at home here.

“Before we say our goodbyes,” said Neisos, glancing up at the sky where the sun had passed its zenith. He smiled at the group. “While you were taking care of your essentials, we spoke together, and decided we wanted to gift you something.”

“What?” asked Dash. “Oh c’mon, you didn’t have to do that.”

“You’ve given us far too much already,” said Rarity, shaking her head.

“It is not much,” said Ohrinna, simply. “We thought at first to give you a great urn inscribed with Daros’ tales for how well it fits your undertaking.”

Fluttershy blinked and looked at Rarity and Rainbow Dash both. She licked her lips. “That’s…”

“That is a joke,” said Neisos, raising a brow slightly. “It would not be very practical, and you cannot read it.”

“Ah. Of course, aha,” said Rarity, clearing her throat.

“Sorry, I just thought, um, since you make pottery,” Fluttershy said, her ears flat against her head. “I didn’t want to offend.”

Rainbow Dash elected to say nothing at all. She smiled a little. Maybe that way, they thought she got the joke. Two long seconds later, Deimesa levitated out a small glass jar from the bag around her neck.

“Here,” she said, letting Rarity take it. The unicorn turned it around, and Dash saw it was filled with white, green-speckled balls of some sort. “It is orassh—which, yes, I understand we must explain.”

“Candy?” Dash asked, leaning close enough that her snout touched the jar. Rarity frowned and moved it away, polishing it with a foreleg.

“It tastes sweet,” said Neisos. “To many, too sweet, but it is also said to cure any problem one might have.”

“Oh, it’s medicine?” asked Fluttershy, cocking her head. “That’s very useful, thank you.”

“No,” said Ohrinna shaking her head briskly. “The herbs we picked up earlier is medicine enough, I should think. These are said to cure all problems.”

“They are cure for nothing,” said Neisos. “They are sugars and sweet, sharp-tasting things that you eat with the acceptance that the strength of their cure is in the intent of the gift.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. This time, her smile-and-wait strategy failed her, because she felt her face warping into the shape of a question mark. The only consolation was the fact that Fluttershy looked equally clueless, but Rarity stared at the jar and finally nodded to herself.

“They are sugar pills,” said the unicorn.

“Sugar, mint, cocoa powder—” Deimesa began, the third peryton to make an attempt at explaining, but Rarity shook her head, interrupting her.

“No, I mean, sugar pills. In Equestria—though it’s certainly not common—sometimes you give somepony a sugar pill, a cure-for-nothing, but if you tell them it’s a cure,” Rarity chuckled, “sometimes they get better because they believe it helps.”

Neisos smiled. “That… is amusing, but likely the domain of Kholarys’ stories, for us. It is not deceit. Orassh is a common gift for special occasions. They are not easy to make, and as such, not cheap. Consider Phostos, then: In his eyes, the fair trade for the expense is the hope that they will help, and that hope, along with the intent behind the gift, takes the place of the deceit of your ‘sugar pills’.”

“If it tastes like candy, just having some candy helps by itself too,” said Dash with a shrug.

“Especially if you are Pinkie Pie,” Rarity muttered. “Still, that is a wonderful custom, even if it… took a little explaining,” she said, stowing the jar away in her bags and dipping her head. “Thank you ever so much.”

“I agree,” said Fluttershy, smiling. “That’s very nice of you. Thank you.”

“Thanks,” said Dash, nodding as well. “I wish we had something to give back to you. Sure you don’t want the little statue or something?”

Neisos shook his head. “This makes for a story of Phostos satisfied with your visit even had we placed much more on our side of the scales. This is nothing, and we should not keep you for much longer. However—”

“If you leave now, you may not make it to the first Selyrian shrine to the west,” Ohrinna said, continuing where Neisos left off. She reached out to pull one of her children a little closer, resting a forehoof lightly on Berissa’s head. “I have a friend with a sister in trade, and he tells me that these shrines are a day’s travel apart.”

“Yeah, I guess we travel a little faster than you guys do, though,” said Dash, trying not to be too obvious about gloating. “We’ve made up for lost time before.”

“With such short legs, I do not know how you do this if they were made for traders who are kin to us,” said Deimesa, shaking her head.

“Can’t help that we’re awesome, sorry,” said Dash, now permitting herself a smirk.

“I don’t know that we’ve made up for this much lost time, though,” said Fluttershy, eyeing the sun where it still crept across the sky.

“That is my point, and my concern,” said Ohrinna, nodding. “You may instead find rest at the western shrine to Helesseia instead, inside our demesne—if you still insist on travelling today.” She let Berissa go, and the little doe immediately ran off, charging into Teilos, the two children going down in a heap of play-fighting. Ohrinna sighed, and Fluttershy giggled.

“I feel much better,” said Rarity, smiling at Ohrinna. “I think it’s best if we leave as soon as we can, if only because it gives us a better chance to catch this relative of yours in Cotronna. A boat ride back would be a very welcome option.”

“What’s the difference between a shrine to Helesseia and Selyria, anyway?” asked Dash. A month ago, she’d maybe worry about whether or not they had a roof over their heads, but right now, she honestly didn’t think the bar for eligible sleeping spots could get lower. “I don’t think we’ve seen any Helesseia shrines.”

“Helesseia finds her home in house and hearth, not by the roads. I barely remember the western shrine from my own journey,” said Ohrinna, frowning. “It was long ago. Little gem?” She looked to Deimesa, who perked up.

“I visited it during my weeks in the western demesne this winter. It is the oldest Helesseian statue known to us,” said Deimesa, her tone reverent. “The only older Helesseian remnants are simple stele—but you do not ask for insights on the Aspects. If you look for shelter, you will not suffer. It is as covered as the Selyrian stele at Northern Crown.”

“That’s nice to know,” said Fluttershy, nodding in thanks. “I guess we’ll just stop there for the night unless we’re ahead of… well, we don’t really have a schedule.”

“Yeah, I’m not up for running after breakfast anyway,” said Dash, shrugging and grinning. “I’d need at least ten minutes before I’m down for kicking it up.” She scuffed the ground with a hindleg, rolling her shoulders. “Everypony ready?”

“One more thing, actually,” said Neisos. Rainbow Dash exhaled, her momentum blunted.

“Is something wrong?” Fluttershy asked.

“Wrong? No,” said Neisos, though Dash understood why Fluttershy asked. He looked everything but pleased. “But there is one final thing. I have thought on what little you told me of this strange bird you met in the Splitwood, and I now wonder—why do you not think it might be a heron?”

“Why don’t we… not,” Rarity repeated, blinking rapidly. “I beg your pardon? I’m not sure I follow.”

“Do you think it could have been one?” Neisos repeated.

“A what? What’s a heron?” Dash asked.

“Is that what they’re called?” Fluttershy asked. “The one we saw had a crooked neck, did we mention that? I think we told you everything we remember.”

Neisos and Ohrinna exchanged a long look. Long and silent, and the way Deimesa looked at the ponies honestly made Rainbow Dash a little antsy.

“What?” Dash asked, raising her voice a tad to break the spell. “What’s a ‘heron’?”

“I must be excused for this,” said Neisos, shaking his head. “Imagine that I described to you a strange creature I had seen—a yellow, four-legged creature, with stout legs and neck, feathery wings, and long pink hairs.”

“...Stout?” Fluttershy asked in a whisper, blinking and tilting her head forward to look at her own neck, looking for a moment like she performed one of those strange head-only bows that the peryton did.

“That’s not a strange creature, that’s Fluttershy,” said Dash, deadpan.

“And what you described to me is a heron, except you did not name it, so I assumed you were familiar with them and that it was not a heron. Perhaps you would not make the same mistake,” said Neisos. “But now I am sure.”

“I do apologise for cutting in, but you still haven’t said what they are,” said Rarity, frowning. “We all saw this creature, but we barely traded words. Surely you have a point in bringing this up beyond to tell us their name.”

“You know by now we do not travel as much as you,” said Ohrinna. “But that does not mean we hear nothing, and much is contained in our stories, which you also know—Berissa, do not hurt your brother.” She glared at the two children.

“Yes?” Dash said, tapping her hoof on the ground. These were things they did know.

“You are the first strangers I have seen,” Ohrinna said. ”That does not mean you are the first strangers, the first non-peryton I have known. Our stories contain much, and after kin—after peryton—there is nothing that features in our stories as often as the heron, who are named even in the First Stories. You are eager to leave, and to tell you every story with heron is the work of days, not moments, but they all end the same. The heron come to visit, and are turned away. The heron try to peddle their strange wares, and are turned away.”

“Turned away? Why?” asked Fluttershy. She curled her singed tail about one of her legs

“Heron are bad luck,” said Deimesa with a snort. She walked around her parents to nudge Berissa and Teilos apart with a gentle application of her antlers, standing diplomatically in between them.

Neisos gave Deimesa a lopsided smile. “This is true, but not very helpful. In the stories, the heron will have a plan, inscrutable and unknown perhaps even to the heron itself, but also thwarted only by the Aspect—meaning the person—who had the foresight to remember to turn them away as Helesseia once did, for the first mention of the heron comes from the First Stories. It is bad luck to paraphrase the First Stories, and I am no Claw-Priest, but I think I will risk it,” he said, furrowing his brow as he thought.

“I will take the children away,” said Ohrinna, nodding. Dash blinked, watching as the doe herded Teilos and Berissa a short distance away without delay, sitting down on the street-side with them.

“Why—” Dash began to ask.

“The words must be exact every time,” said Neisos, perfectly pre-empting the question. “They are the oldest words, and to so recklessly tear the words from each other into one simple meaning is callous, but I will do this for your benefit. We do not have the hours needed to find and ask of a Claw-Priest an exact telling. Listen, now.

“Helesseia wandered the land without shores—this already frustrates me to try to make simple—and she came upon the heron, watching their work. She showed admiration for their patience, if not for their work.” He shook his head sadly. “She likened them to the overflow of a river on the flat plains. After a great disaster, she saw that their work was not good. Forever after, when the heron sought to act, Helesseia denied them, but for every wall, they flowed around, for every dike, they filled it. The heron showed no anger, but simply kept moving. Their plan could be slowed, perhaps even set back so far it would never happen, but it could not be stopped, and so she told them to leave, denying them.”

“The western shrine has a very old story of Helesseia’s denial like it, which is not of the First Stories, and it is like this, too,” said Deimesa, nodding quickly. She waved at Ohrinna, who rejoined them.

“I wish you did not have to do this,” said Ohrinna, frowning. “It weakens the First Stories.”

“I shall attend the next telling with our children,” Neisos replied with a soft chuckle. ”Regardless, perhaps we are over-cautious, but our stories tell that they are best banished, stayed away from, avoided and ignored. These are not your stories, and I will not burden you with their weight beyond to say that I believe you did indeed meet a heron.” He smiled, but Rainbow Dash didn’t buy it. There was concern in his eyes still. “I am still surprised you did not know. Our stories tell us the zebra speak of meeting them wherever they travel, too, that these two species travel more than any other.”

“Never even heard of them,” Dash admitted.

“And we know a zebra,” Fluttershy added, looking pensive. “I guess we should ask Zecora when we get back.”

“Our list of things to do when we get back is getting very long, but yes, let us,” said Rarity with a small smile. “I do hope we’ll speak again. It’s been ever so nice to meet you.”

“If our meeting in Cotronna goes well, I’m sure people will start sending mail over the ocean,” Fluttershy added, smiling brightly as well.

“Come visit, or we’ll have to come back,” said Dash, grinning.

“Neither of these sound like such terrible fates,” said Neisos. He leaned forward with his muzzle pointing to the ground in a bow, Deimesa, Ohrinna, and a slightly dusty and scuffed Berissa and Teilos, too. Dash glanced left, then right, and joined in when Rarity and Fluttershy bowed as well.

“Okay, that’s great and all,” said Dash. “But don’t any of you ever hug?”

“They won’t ‘catch on’, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be because it’s you, dear,” said Rarity. “I just doubt a round of hugs is enough to start a—a revolution of physical affection. Besides, they probably think tapping antlers or whatever they usually do is more affectionate. Since when did you become such a champion of hugging, at any rate?”

“I’m not! I mean, I’m probably the best at it, because I’m the best at most things, but I’m not trying to start some hug craze!” Dash said. “But come on. Bowing? Bowing is for musty ceremonies and royal stuff, and it seems pretty stupid if antler-touching is the only other option. In case you missed it, I don’t have antlers.”

“Deimesa seemed a little uncomfortable with hugging,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head.

“Yeah, well, they were happy about all the other new ‘experiences’ we brought, right? How’s a hug any different?” asked Dash. Now she felt a frown coming on as well, her little rant stopped dead in its tracks. “Uh, you don’t think she actually mind—”

“She was fine, Rainbow Dash,” said Rarity. “Just a little… how would you put it? ‘Weirded out’?”

“Alright, cool,” said Dash. “Sure, whatever.” She worked a wing free from under the saddlebags just to wave it in dismissal, brushing the entire topic away. Behind them, the stone edifices of Vauhorn had been reduced to a black line barely taller than the pear trees of the orchards to either side, and the sun at their backs made their shadows impossibly long. “Jeez, they have a lot of farms on this side of town. That, or the sun’s moving fast today. Wanna canter for a bit?” she asked.

“I doubt we’ll make it to the Selyrian statue, dear,” said Rarity, shaking her head. “I meant it when I said I feel better, but if we can put the running and all that nonsense off until the morning, I’d be glad of it.”

“Meh, fine,” said Dash. They passed by the pear-tree orchards, the landscape opening up a bit. A little bit of clear land, then a farm that grew some vegetables Dash didn’t recognise. She could just barely spot the sparkle of blue water between the plants. No cliffs here, just beaches, be they sand or rock, and to their south lay farms, farms, and more farms, all crowding in the shadow of the distant hills.

Metaphorical—or was that ‘figurative’ shadow? Real shadow, not so much, anyway. Rainbow Dash kicked off and, with some effort, managed to grab a quick sip of water from her saddlebags while flying so she wouldn’t have to stop.

“I still feel a little bad for the way we treated that heron,” said Fluttershy when Rainbow Dash landed, though she didn’t appear to be speaking to Dash specifically.

“How we treated them?” asked Dash with a bark of laughter. “They were a complete butt. Besides, Neisos said they’re all bad news.”

“That doesn’t mean they deserve it!” said Fluttershy, frowning at the road as though the dirt path itself had insulted her. “Maybe they just had a really bad day. They can’t all be that bad.”

“Mm, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that it’s wrong of the peryton to condemn someone just because their stories tell them they’ve done so in the past. At least, that bit did not sit well with me,” said Rarity. She levitated out a bag of water for herself, grabbing a sip and then offering it to Fluttershy, holding it while she drank.

“Okay, when you put it like that, I guess that is a bit crummy,” said Dash, scratching her muzzle. “But they didn’t have stories telling them not to talk to ponies, and they sound like they get along with zebras, right? We know zebras are cool. Or, uh, speaking of zebras and first impressions, we kinda—”

“Yes, you don’t need to remind us,” Rarity huffed, her ears flat to her head. “We were wrong about Zecora, we were probably all thinking it just now—”

“I wasn’t. Now I feel bad about that, too,” said Fluttershy, sighing.

“—but I don’t see how that matters,” Rarity finished.

“Yeah I’ve no idea, I’m just saying,” said Dash with a shrug.

Rarity nodded. “Regardless, you’re right. The peryton have been wonderful to us—mostly—and I can’t speak for you two, but I simply cannot imagine the Ortosians disliking anyone. Maybe it’s just the Vauhornites?”

“No, don’t you remember Phydra telling us about heron visiting Stagrum? It sounded similar,” said Fluttershy, shuffling her wings. “And besides, I get the impression that they share their stories.”

“Oh. Phydra said that? I must have forgotten,” said Rarity, arching a brow. “That seems so long ago now, doesn’t it?”

Dash rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t matter. Neisos mentioned something about peddling, didn’t he? Isn’t that just selling stuff? Maybe this heron rolled into town with a cart full of rotten apples!” she said. “They didn’t say they disliked the heron. Where the hay do you get ‘condemning’ from? They just said that they were turned away, and that they were bad luck.”

For a moment, nopony spoke, but Rarity’s frown deepened bit by bit until Dash wondered if her eyebrows and her mouth would meet.

“I think you’re right,” said Rarity, finally, sounding exceptionally sour. “I still can’t shake this awful feeling I had the first time we met that heron, and I’m being unfair as a result. I probably missed your entire point, Fluttershy.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I didn’t have a point. I know that the heron was a little… um, rude, I just think it’s sad to hear that the heron and the peryton don’t get along well. I know I said I didn’t feel anything wrong like you did when we left the fortress, but I still don’t like thinking about that meeting. I don’t know what that means.”

Rainbow Dash worked her wings free from the trappings of her saddlebags again and shook them out, as though she could shake away the memory herself, and she couldn’t tell why she felt compelled to do so. She didn’t remember feeling especially bad back then, either.

“Whatever,” said Dash, happy to talk about anything else. “Don’t judge a book by its cover. We know that. I just… won’t mind if we don’t meet any more books. Heron. Whatever.”

“And why haven’t we seen any of them before?” asked Rarity, humming. “Goodness, I can’t count on hooves and ears the different species I’ve seen in Ponyville over the past years, so if these heron are travellers, you’d think we’d have heard of them.”

Anyway,” said Dash.

“We haven’t seen any zebra outside of Zecora, though,” said Fluttershy.

“True enough,” said Rarity. “Another question for the pile, hm?”

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to try to protest, to suggest they talk about something else, but the topic was spent anyway, and she didn’t have anything else to say in its place, so she simply pointed her snout west along the road and kept moving. They passed by a pasture of sorts, and Dash saw a few cows grazing—had she seen cows before in Perytonia? She couldn’t recall.

They left the last of Vauhorn’s western farms behind soon after, the last of them marked by a large packed-dirt circle of stele. The road kept close enough to the sea that Dash could taste the salt, a pleasant wind keeping the worst of the heat at bay while the sun sought the horizon. For a second, Rainbow Dash thought they couldn’t see the mountains of the Bow, but the grey tops were still there, slightly to her left.

Dash had no idea how the Bow managed to tower and positively loom despite being little grey nubs in the distance today. Probably just because in Equestria, mountains were usually solitary things, like a giant, clumsy unicorn’s horn poking out of nowhere, rather than rows of jagged teeth.

“Seriously, not being able to read these things is driving me crazy,” said Rainbow Dash, turning her head to keep eyes on a solitary stele by the roadside as they passed it by. “How long does it take to learn—no, actually, scratch that. Learning a language can’t be any fun. I just wish I knew how to read Perytonian.”

“I think the real problem would be finding someone to teach you,” said Fluttershy, her attention also caught by the stone monolith.

“Books, I guess,” Dash said.

Fluttershy nodded slowly. “But you’d need an Equestrian-to-Perytonian book. I don’t think you’d have an easy time learning it otherwise.”

“Right,” said Dash. Daylight still lingered, but only just. At their backs, the sunset was a vivid orange, the colour warmer than the wind. It’d been a short enough day, but she was more than ready for bed despite.

“I think I see it,” said Rarity, squinting off into the distance, towards the edge of the coast.

“Want me to go have a look?” asked Dash. She spread her wings with a snap. It wouldn’t be the first false alarm of a stele circle masquerading as their stop for the night. Nothing they’d seen so far had offered much cover from the wind, and Dash caught herself wondering if maybe they had missed this shrine-statue. Rarity had already wrapped herself in the thinner of their two blankets. “They said that this ‘demesne’ of Vauhorn is a day’s travel, right? We can’t actually have gone too far, can we?”

“No, I’m fairly sure this is it. Just look, dear,” said Rarity.

Rainbow Dash turned her head approximately two and a half smidges to the right, following the indication of Rarity’s horn.

“I think that’s the shrine we’re looking for, yes,” said Fluttershy, smiling.

“Alright,” Rainbow Dash admitted upon seeing the huge wings casting long shadows over a tiny peninsula that thrust out past the beach. “That’s probably it,” she agreed, following when Rarity headed them off the road and through the grass. The tall stalks brushed against Dash’s belly, and for a moment she wondered if she could just dart off to the side and lie down, pretending she’d disappeared. That’d get a good scare out of Fluttershy and Rarity, but the idea barely formed before she threw it away. She wasn’t in the mood for anything like it. She doubted either of her friends were, either.

The three soon moved onto a small path along the peninsula. It couldn’t be more than a hundred strides long, rock and earth defiantly ferrying grass over the waves of the sea to an overgrown statue’s little sanctuary. The plants around the little would-be island were gnarled and strange, but the statue itself stood completely untouched by the growth. Roots and bushes circled the peninsula’s edges, forming a low wall together with rocks, some of them sprouting colourful flowers.

“Do you know, when we found that statue of Selyria in the Khosta—the monstrous one—I told myself I did not think I could be surprised any more,” said Rarity.

“Or terrified,” said Fluttershy, her eyes on the top of the statue as it towered over them.

“Eh, it beats all these statues being the exact same, day after day, like back between Orto and Stagrum,” said Dash, though she honestly wasn’t entirely sure of that. The statue was far larger than any of the others they’d seen so far, and in some respects, it reminded Dash of the last statue they’d seen in the Splitwood.

The Helesseian statue reared up, kicking out with powerful forelegs that did not belong on a peryton, and her huge hind-claws gripped onto a tall, round platform rather than the ground. Her massive stone wings were spread in full, arching back instead of forwards, granting none of the cover Selyrian statues did. Her eyes were wide open, and her muzzle pointed straight up towards the sky.

Something about the sight chilled Rainbow Dash, but it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, either. To the east—exactly behind the statue—the sun set, and Dash’s coat felt almost electric, like she flew through a thundercloud charging up for a strike. The little peninsula and its dominating statue drank the last rays of the sunlight, casting the rest of the world into shadow by comparison.

Vaguely, Dash knew that neither Fluttershy nor Rarity moved either. All of them stood a few paces away from the statue, staring. When the sun finally sank into the ocean and disappeared, the statue glowed for a moment longer. Dash’s primaries quivered, the charge in the air disappearing without explanation. She spread her wings and shook them violently, frustrated. There had been no release. Where had it gone?

Rainbow Dash looked to the others, shuffling her wings to try to make them lie right, but she still felt antsy. Fluttershy stared at her own wings, clearly having felt it too, and Rarity’s horn glowed, which caught Dash’s attention mostly because Rarity went cross-eyed glaring at it.

“Stop that,” Rarity hissed, tapping her horn with a hoof.

“Is that… not you?” asked Fluttershy, tilting her head.

“No,” said Rarity, frowning, but even as she spoke, the light faded away, and Rarity huffed. “There.”

“What the hay was that?” asked Rainbow Dash. She stared at the statue, but there was nothing to see. Helesseia reared up, untouched by plants, all smooth stone unchipped and unblemished, not so much as a chip of her antlers missing.

“I don’t know,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head. She walked a little closer, slowly circling the statue. If there had been fear or apprehension in her voice on the approach, it had gone, now. She still fidgeted with her wings like Dash did, but that was all, and Dash followed in her wake. As large as the statue was, it wasn’t half as imposing as it had been a moment ago. The tension leaked from Rainbow Dash uncomfortably slowly, dripping off her like the midday sweat.

“It’s obviously magic,” said Dash, glancing back at Rarity, who followed in her steps as well, the three ponies moving in a line. “What kind of magic? You’re the one—”

“It wasn’t,” said Rarity, looking as confused as Dash felt.

“What?” asked Dash, blinking.

“This wasn’t magic. Not anything that feels like magic to me, at least.” Rarity scrunched up her snout. “I don’t suppose this was some sort of weather phenomenon? You two did your… your wing things, flapping and all.”

“Nah,” said Rainbow Dash. “There was a charge of some sort, sure, but it wasn’t actually anything—I dunno, weather-related? I would’ve smelled it if something lightning-y was about to happen.” She glanced up at the statue. They were right underneath it, now. The cylindrical base the statue perched on was every bit as polished as the statue itself. “Where’re we gonna sleep, anyway?” Dash asked.

Rarity adjusted the blanket around her body a little, pulling it up so it didn’t drag along the grass. “Deimesa said there would be shelter. As noticeable as this place is, are we sure this is the right one? I don’t see any inscriptions, either—”

“Oh, it’s here,” said Fluttershy, waving them over to the western face of the statue’s base. “I think I found it.”

Carved into the western side of the cylinder, a narrow, doorless portal led into the darkness of its hollow base. Rarity wasted no time in lighting her horn and poking her head through, disappearing inside a second later.

“Well, that explains it,” murmured Dash, following after. It wasn’t particularly large, but there was easily enough space for the three of them with room to spare for a peryton or two. In the middle of the circular chamber, a thick column supported the ceiling, engraved with peryton script.

“The letters haven’t faded with age at all,” said Rarity, circling the central pillar of the room. The light shifted weirdly when Rarity moved to the back of the chamber.

“The entire statue is like this, it’s almost too perfect,” said Fluttershy, the pegasus in shadow nodding.

“Yeah, I noticed that too,” said Rainbow Dash, slipping her saddlebags off her back, then the bag around her neck, casually putting them by the pillar. “Maybe it’s new?”

Rarity came back around, putting her bags by Dash’s. “I doubt it. They said this was the oldest known statue of Helesseia—but I suppose that can mean any number of things, really.”

“The grass by the statue is a little different from everything else here, too,” said Fluttershy while she worked herself free from her own bags. “The plants are different. Either someone’s put a lot of gardening effort into this, or—well, um. That’s all I can think of, actually, but I doubt this was done in a day.”

“Y’know, ‘no, Rainbow Dash, the statue isn’t new, you’re dead wrong’ works too,” said Dash with a snort. Fluttershy smiled faintly and shook her head.

“We don’t know, dear,” said Rarity. “But I don’t know what to do if not wonder,” the unicorn added with a shrug.

“If this is the story Deimesa mentioned, we know what the script says this time at least,” said Rainbow Dash, moving to the back of the room. There was little to see. Just a round room smaller than her bedroom. She poked at the pillar. “Something something, Helesseia, heron, rivers, flat plains, bad luck. Who needs to learn to read Perytonian?”

“You’re a natural, dear,” said Rarity, yawning while she unfurled their heavier blanket and unwrapped the other one from around her body. “Would the two of you grab the water and the last of the filled bread?”

Rainbow Dash shifted around a little, pushing the blanket back with her wings. She stared at the central column and all its little letters, if that was what they were. There were no spaces. To her, it still looked like pretend writing, the work of a foal with too much time on their hooves, like when Fluttershy had made a secret language for them to pass notes in flight class.

Rainbow Dash’d never learned that language, either, but she liked to think she did a good job of faking it. This particular pretend language presented a different challenge.

“If they find a way to send letters to us, how the hay’re we gonna read them?” Dash asked, frowning.

“What’s that, dear?” asked Rarity. She had her saddlebags out, rooting around while sat under the other end of the blanket.

“Letters. If anyone we’ve met writes to us in Perytonian, we won’t be able to read them,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Oh,” said Rarity, pausing her quest for whatever, staring blankly ahead for a second. “I didn’t think about that at all. You’re right.”

“That stinks,” said Dash. She poked her cheek with her tongue as she thought. “Maybe Twilight’s translation spell can fix that.”

“Perhaps,” said Rarity, finally fishing out a plain white thing that Rainbow Dash instantly recognised as one of the Vauhornite council masks. “But then,” Rarity went on, “I think she once said that one of the few things magic cannot do, is to make you understand something.” She tilted her head. “To be honest, I just remember her telling me that in isolation. I don’t recall how her translation spell for Old Equestrian factors into it. It’s not some sort of magic rule I learned in a magic class, at least.”

“If it doesn’t work, that’s really dumb,” said Dash. “We’ve met so many cool people, I wanna stay in touch!”

Rarity lowered the mask and smiled at Rainbow Dash. “Darling, don’t fret. I’m sure we’ll find a way—oh, welcome back. Everything went okay?”

Fluttershy shook her head briskly and ran a hoof through her mane to make it lie right, furling her wings as she stepped inside. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I, um, went to the beach. It didn’t feel right to go anywhere near the statue. It’s a little windy, too. You’ll tell me if you want company if you have to go, too?”

“Of course, dear,” said Rarity. She flicked open the saddlebags again and put the mask on top, levitating the bags over to the pillar.

“Oh, is that the mask you bought at market?” Fluttershy asked, smiling. “I think the council masks will make wonderful little keepsakes, really.” Her smile faded a touch. “Especially if you weren’t crowded by a lot of peryton wearing those, all closing in on you at once. I wouldn’t want to put it on my shelf, personally.”

“Keepsake?” Rarity asked, raising a brow. “It’s nothing sentimental, really. It’s for the ceremony.”

“The ceremony?” Fluttershy asked.

“For the dress I am making,” Rarity said. “Or rather, the costume I am making for the Cotronnan ceremony, or whatever it is we’ll have when we give them the sigil.” She didn’t sound very excited at the prospect, Dash noticed, mentioning it with all the passion of discussing chores.

“They have a receiving-a-sigil-from-ponies ceremony?” Dash asked. “How do you know that?”

“They must,” said Rarity, some of her fire returning. “They supposedly favour ceremonies, so they simply must, and if they don’t—well, surely they can appreciate if we make one.”

“Maybe?” said Fluttershy, her brow furrowed.

“Dunno, we’re really just there to throw them an invite, but whatever you wanna do—” Dash began.

“Whether it is an actual ceremony like anything we recognise as such or not is immaterial. It will be an event, and besides, it’s not about want,” said Rarity, her eyes narrowing. “Surely you understand that. I’ve met with failure after fashion-related failure here. I understand that putting all one’s eggs in a single basket is unwise, but Cotronna is my last chance at presenting something that the peryton will appreciate, at success, and this time, I really think I’m onto something.”

“I’m glad if you have an idea you like,” said Fluttershy, nodding slowly and biting her lip. “Of course I am.”

“I don’t even know that I like it,” said Rarity, letting out a snort. She pulled her blanket closer to her body. “But this has to work. It is not a question, just a simple fact. This must go over well.” She looked back and forth between Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, sighing. “Maybe it’s easy for you to dismiss this. The cold was just the final straw: you both have wings and fit in here as well as anypony can be expected to. You’re not failing and stumbling your way through every place we visit.”

Rainbow Dash crinkled her snout. She opened her mouth to protest. That wasn’t fair at all, and besides, Rarity had done plenty of awesome stuff too. To the moon with the dresses, she wanted to say, but when she looked at Fluttershy and saw the other pegasus looking at her, Dash hesitated.

Did Fluttershy want to say something? Should Dash say something else instead? Usually she’d kick the problem in the flank and yell at how stupid something was. Dash would tell Rarity she was being stupid and wrong, that she was really awesome, and then Fluttershy would say something nice. All throughout this journey, they’d provided a one-two kick, but now Dash’s words scattered like cloudstuff under a hoof-strike while Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash looked at each other.

They didn’t have to do it that way. They didn’t have to be as different as two peryton from different cities, but what else would Dash do or say?

It didn’t matter. The moment to speak had passed, and Fluttershy looked just as confused as Dash felt.

“Never mind,” said Rarity, shaking her head slowly. “That’s not right of me to say, I’m sure. Do forget about it.” Her magic surrounded a snippet of white that poked out from her saddlebags, whisking over a handkerchief. She cleaned her snout and sighed.

“Oh,” said Fluttershy. “That’s the handkerchief we bought for you at the market.”

“It’s wonderful,” said Rarity with a small smile. “Thank you so much.”

“I don’t remember giving it to you. I thought we’d forgotten.” Fluttershy tilted her head a smidge. “I’m sorry, I guess I’m wrong. I’m glad you like it, though.”

“Mm, I’m quite sure you did, and I do,” said Rarity, packing it away. A moment later, Fluttershy slipped onto their makeshift bed, and Rainbow Dash pulled the blanket up over their backs without a word.

“We really do need to make sure we have a way back home soon,” said Rarity. Rainbow Dash didn’t bother opening her eyes. She could tell from the murmur of Rarity’s voice that the unicorn was well on her way to sleep as well.

“Yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. Rarity hadn’t said the words, but Dash knew that the others wondered why she hadn’t talked to Luna about it yet. The problem was, Rainbow Dash wondered about that herself.

“Hopefully we’ll meet Neisos’ brother in Cotronna,” said Fluttershy. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time for that.”

“Mm. Perhaps that means we’ll visit some of the other cities again on our way back home.” Rarity yawned. “Rainbow Dash and I talked about it while you were outside. We don’t read their language, so we may have to find some other way to communicate with them, outside of letters.”

“We’ll find a way to stay in touch,” said Fluttershy, even more quiet than usual. “Somehow.”

Rainbow Dash reached out on a whim. She met one of Fluttershy’s forelegs questing towards her as well. She was warm to the touch. Dash kept her eyes resolutely shut, trying her best to sleep.

Rarity had been wrong about one thing, at least: Rainbow Dash knew what it felt like to fail. That she couldn’t get in touch with Luna now that they needed her was almost an afterthought. She’d also failed to be her best around her girlfriend.

Part of her wondered if things would be easier if she just told Fluttershy they should go back to being friends instead. She missed Fluttershy now more than ever, and the other mare acted even more distant, but she didn’t want to admit defeat. Rainbow Dash never backed down from a fight, never took a step back when she could instead fly twenty wingbeats forward.

Rainbow Dash snuck a wing around Fluttershy and clenched her own eyes shut even harder, as if she could will herself to sleep and dream—to dream anything but these vague nightmares. Her dreams had run away from her recently. She needed a blank dream of nothingness, and a chance of talking to Princess Luna.

Nothing. Rainbow Dash touched a primary to the corner of one of her eyes, trying to use the large feather to get rid of a particularly stubborn bit of eye sugar.

“You’re sure this isn’t spoilt?” asked Rarity. “They said it spoils quickly.”

“It’s fine to eat until you see discoloured spots,” Fluttershy answered, smiling. “Their bread is still made with grains, so it’s safe.”

“I’ll trust you, dear,” said Rarity, letting out a soft snort. “I’m tempted to just go for the hard bread anyway, whatever it’s called. At least that’s meant to be hard.”

“It tastes bleh,” said Dash, waving a hoof. She swallowed the last bit of her own filled phela. “I tried it.”

“When did you ever?” asked Rarity, tilting her head and flopping one ear in a very un-Rarity-like fashion.

“Last night,” said Dash with a shrug. She’d woken up twice in the night, but at least she wasn’t tired this morning, already back in travel-shape. She looked up at the statue again while she had a drink. Even from the shadow side where they had their breakfast, the outline glowed painfully bright. Another gust of wind tugged at her mane, a hot wind by any other measure, but pleasantly cold for a Perytonian summer morning. She grabbed her saddlebags and pulled the straps tight, Fluttershy and Rarity doing the same soon after, bags slipping around necks and blankets bundled on top.

Nopony said much as they left the statue behind, but Dash caught the others glancing over their backs, just like she did. Fluttershy mentioned she’d felt something electric like last night when she woke up at sunrise, but Dash hadn’t been awake. All Rainbow Dash knew was that she felt a vague sense of loss leaving the statue behind. She trained her eyes along the coast to the west instead.

“Yeah, I’m not in the mood for seven days of this,” said Rainbow Dash in a mutter. All of yesterday had been a single beach of rocks giving way to sand, becoming rocks, becoming sand again, while the hills inland flattened out. She could just barely make out a forest to the far south. The Splitwood, probably. “It all looks the same,” she added, but just as she complained, she swore she could make out something other than just endless flat coast in the distance.

“I think there are cliffs, or rocks at the very least,” said Fluttershy, looking in the same direction.

“I’ll have a look,” said Dash, in the air before the others could offer comment. Aided by the cool wind, and her bags feeling lighter still than yesterday, she cut almost straight up, sparing her saddlebags a quick glance to make sure they were closed tight.

She let herself be carried a little further inland, let the southwestern wind help her skywards and then kept going. It felt too good to work her wings to stop, she didn’t want to stop, still ascending when she felt her joints ache. Below, the peninsula shrank and Rarity and Fluttershy became tiny dots visible amongst the grasses only because of their colours. Finally, Dash levelled out.

Rainbow Dash wasn’t any higher up than she’d been during any of her scouting trips way back when they left Orto. The realisation made her want to keep going, but she’d already found an easy hover. If she needed an excuse for her slow speed, she could always blame all the stuff she carried, but it didn’t matter any more. Her momentum had fled.

She could still see Vauhorn and its farms to the east. Compared to the cliffs on the far side of the city, the lands to the west were flat. Some hills to the southwest cut all the way to the shore, and at some point not too far off, the road disappeared between some rocks, but the shore was still sandy as far as the eye could see. Which was far. The entire coast curved north to a point. At least there was some grey to break up the monotony of grass, sand and water. Something that wasn’t the forest to the south.

If she’d ever had any doubt that they walked near the Splitwood, they were now well and truly squashed. The verdant green woods stretched on forever, and knowing that it was far smaller than the Khosta, Dash’s mind spun trying to belatedly take in the other forest that they had barely seen. She folded her wings for a split-second and picked up a little speed, but decided against a dive. Rainbow Dash spread her wings again, descending in great circles instead.

“This is what you were eager for?” Rarity asked, arching a brow. On their left, a rocky ridge bullied the usually straight road, pushing it closer to the coast. In turn, the road disappeared behind strewn boulders, only to reappear a moment later.

“You make it sound like I’m some sort of rock-crazed mare,” said Dash, snorting hot air. “I just wanted something different to look at.”

“I kind of agree, really,” said Fluttershy. “It was almost too big, before. This is snug and nice. It’s even beautiful in places.”

“I guess,” said Dash, staring at some flowers that poked out from between some rocks. Every now and then, the road wended its way between the stoney hills, and plants hid in the unlikeliest places. “Honestly, I’m already bored of this, too,” she admitted. The landscape was hardly dramatic, and the last time she’d taken wing confirmed it. Low hills and mounds, a dry rock-scape presenting to the distant mountains. The beach was as white as ever.

“Maybe you’re just tired of walking,” said Rarity with a chuckle. “I think we’re all within our rights to be, really.” Her laughter petered out as she stared down at her hooves. “I’m going to need the longest hooficure in Equestrian history when we get back.”

“We’ll probably find the Selyrian shrine soon. It’s close to mid-day after all,” said Fluttershy. “Maybe we can take a break there while we discuss what to do.”

“Yeah. We either need to push hard or just take half a day off,” said Dash. She stretched her neck to each side, limbering up in pointless anticipation. She didn’t need to say which of those two options she preferred. Fluttershy and Rarity kept walking at their regular pace. Whatever. She’d convinced them to come along for a canter a little while ago, when the road was even flatter than now.

The outcroppings to their sides relented again, releasing them from the miniature valley. A wide, grassy rent cut through the landscape from coast to far inland. Just ahead, more hills. Were they hills if they were barely the size of a big house? More like piles of rock, really. Hundreds of them, like someone had salted the coast with boulders, none of which looked like the perfectly round boulders described in the Daring Do novels.

“I wonder what the shrine here looks like,” said Fluttershy.

“Probably much like the others along the roads,” suggested Rarity when nopony else spoke up, though she sounded distracted. “Did either of you see that?”

“See what?” Dash asked.

“Hm, no, never mind,” said Rarity, shaking her head. “I thought I saw something by… well, by the rocks,” she finished with a bemused smile.

“The statue here might be like the others,” Fluttershy continued with a nod, “but I don’t know. We’ve only seen a single one by the road here in the northern part of Perytonia. The waterfall statue in the Khosta was very different, even if it wasn’t as old as the ones we’ve found off the roads. Maybe this one is carved into the rock, too.”

“Is ‘Guess the Statue’ a game now?” asked Dash. “I guess it beats ‘I spy’. Barely.” She let out a raspy chuckle. “Whatever, I—oh, hey. We got company. Traders?”

“Traders without a wagon, in that case,” said Rarity, the three ponies’ heads turning as they walked. A group of peryton came into view, hidden behind a rocky outcrop until now. They were already easily within earshot, standing on a grassy knoll. “Not Stagrumites, at least. Nothing in their antlers. Maybe they’re Cotronnan?” she suggested, her smile brightening a touch.

“Travellers!” one of them called, dipping his head. All of the peryton, five of them in number, looked their way. “We ask your assistance!”

“Something wrong?” replied Dash, cocking her head. They didn’t appear to be in any distress at all. They just needed a checkered blanket and they’d be ready for a picnic. She glanced at Rarity and Fluttershy, who shrugged and turned right, moving off the road towards the little group. Dash got no reply except for a second beckoning wave.

“Can we help you with anything?” asked Rarity when they drew near. A few of the peryton stepped back to give them space, bowing low. The brown-white doe who had called them over nodded quickly.

“I, my sisters and my brothers—we have all lost the use of our antlers,” said the doe, her eyes downcast. Dash saw she stood over a bag, but she couldn’t see much more due to the grass. “We have all overexerted ourselves trying to fill our ohron with stones, but we cannot leave without these last two.”

“That is… a very strange problem to have,” said Rarity, raising a brow. “I don’t understand—are you traders? You trade… small quantities of—” she squinted at the ground, at something out of sight to Rainbow Dash. “Non-precious stones? What are these?”

“I think perhaps our magic is weak today. We must have eaten something foul, and these stones are very heavy, beyond our ability to lift. Can you aid us?” she asked. The doe motioned to the bag laying in the grass between her and Rarity.

“Tiny stones too heavy to lift?” Dash asked. “That sounds like, uh, what’s her name… a trick Khylari would pull, huh?” She grinned, but none of the peryton reacted at all. She’d expected some credit for using one of the Aspects, but instead, she swore one of the peryton glared at her, gone when she turned her head. Whatever, then. She probably got it wrong. “You want me to give it a crack?” Dash asked instead, taking a step forward.

The doe raised a hoof and opened her mouth, but whatever she was about to say, Rarity beat her to it.

“Rainbow, dear, I think I can handle lifting two small stones,” said Rarity, still looking dubious. “Just these two here?” she asked. “You want them put in your bag—or, your ohron, if you prefer?”

“Yes. That would be of great help to me and my kin.” The doe smiled wide without showing any teeth at all.

“Are you all… um, rock traders, then?” Fluttershy asked, shuffling her wings. “Oh, hello,” she added when one of the peryton moved a little closer, bowing to her again, his head low to the ground.

If they were rock traders, Dash was impressed with the way they moved the bags full of stone. Every one of them had an ohron at their side that hadn’t been there a moment ago, levitating them up and opening the bags while Rarity lit her horn.

“Not that I’m not happy to help, but you really could just have done this with your mouth, surely,” said Rarity, her horn brightening a tad. “Though, if you think it’s unsanitary, believe me, I sympathise—”

“Wait, I thought you couldn’t use your magic—” Dash began to say, as one of the peryton unfurled a length of rope from his bag. They weren’t full of stones at all.

“Um, what are you—” Dash heard Fluttershy say.

They were all cut off by soft sound like a massive intake of breath and a growing brightness. Dash yelped and covered her eyes, but it was too late. A blinding light washed over her in a loud whoosh.

“What the hay?” Dash yelled, her voice cracking. She blinked furiously to try to clear away the afterimage of Rarity falling backwards, of five peryton looking away from the blast. She jumped off the ground, startled into a hover on pure reflex just as there was a muffled crash below her.

Finally she could see again. Rarity lay on the ground, groaning, and a peryton tumbled over in a heap, tangled in a rope beneath Rainbow Dash. Fluttershy hovered in place a little ways off, and between and below them stood a peryton glaring at the other pegasus.

“What’s going on?” asked Rainbow Dash, frowning.

“Did something go wrong?” Fluttershy asked at the same time. ”Is Rarity okay?!” She began flying towards the fallen unicorn, but arrested her flight a split-second later when the doe in the center stepped in the way, looking almost as shocked as Fluttershy herself.

“They still do not believe what is happening,” said the doe, gaping. She gestured wildly at the pegasi. “Why do you hesitate? Go now! This our one chance!”

Four of the peryton spread their great wings, and ropes left their bags, sheathed in magic. Gone were their placid expressions, replaced with determined stares, but whatever they said, whatever they yelled at each other and at the pegasi as they took running starts and launched into the air, Dash heard none of it.

Rainbow Dash had reflexes honed by years of split-second decisions. She could realise the need for, decide to perform, and execute a ninety-degree turn all faster than Pinkie Pie could eat a tray of muffins—which was to say in no time at all. She could safely exit freefall from terminal velocity in the space between the lowest branch of an apple tree and ground level, something she’d done more than once.

During that single free moment afforded to her by training and experience, Rainbow Dash hesitated. She looked to Fluttershy as though she didn’t know where she was, as though she didn’t know the other pegasus hovered, frozen mid-air just as she.

Part of Rainbow Dash knew that they could do this. They needed to get out of here. No big deal. Rainbow Dash would distract the peryton by throwing a twister their way or swooping at them while Fluttershy grabbed Rarity and scooted.

Fluttershy would be terrified. Fluttershy wouldn’t think she could do it, but she would do it anyway and they would win the day. Heck—Fluttershy could outmaneuver the clumsy peryton while Dash picked up Rarity, instead. There were any number of ways this could go well, but for a half a second, Rainbow Dash did nothing but stare at Fluttershy, who stared back at her with wide eyes.

Did she always look at Rainbow Dash like that when something bad happened? Did Fluttershy rely upon Rainbow Dash to say something? Did Fluttershy need her to tell her to do this? What was to prevent it all from going wrong?

She knew she didn’t have to explain the plan. Fluttershy, we have to go, she would say, and Fluttershy would be at Rarity’s side in an instant because she’d know Rainbow Dash had her back. All she had to do was say the word. Or Fluttershy had to say the word. Somepony had to say the word, any word.

Rainbow Dash saw a peryton flying straight at her, slow enough to let her consider the colours of his smallest feathers glinting in the sun. She wondered for an instant if there was another way out of this, if maybe she could kick his stupid face and swoop under him—grab Rarity and yell at Fluttershy to get out of here. Maybe she could do it all by herself. Maybe that was the solution?

Half a wingbeat later, Fluttershy let out a yell. She got as far as “Rainbow—” before something crashed into Dash from the back. Everything went black.