• 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 34

I’m glad I went to see Rainbow Dash today. Even if her house is a little high up, it’s always such a wonderful time. We just talked for a little bit, really. She had to go take care of some weather jobs on the other side of town, and I couldn’t join her because I had to feed Glitterbean. She’s come down with a cold.

I made Rainbow Dash a little present. I didn’t really say it was a thank you, but I wanted to do something for her because I’m so happy everything worked out so well last week. She doesn’t like talking about what she calls ‘mushy stuff’, so I don’t think she’d accept a gift if I told her why. I just said I felt like giving her something.

It’s just a tailband, and she’ll probably just throw it away, but that’s okay. I really wanted to do something. You see, I thought for sure last week would all end in a disaster, but of course it didn’t!

At first, I was so very worried Applejack would be mad at Rainbow Dash after they had that quarrel outside of town hall, or worse, that they wouldn’t ever be friends! I got ever so scared that maybe Applejack wouldn’t understand how Rainbow Dash and I… work, but after talking to Applejack, I knew it would be okay. I had to send her a few letters before I worked up the courage to go visit, but in the end I went over for dinner and now everything is fine.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because that was all later. I went back to town hall the next morning, actually, on the day after Rainbow Dash and Applejack had their fight, when I had calmed down a little. I did it just like Rainbow Dash wanted. Just like I wanted. It was very hard to walk up to the desk and volunteer all by myself, but I managed!

I’d really like to have Rainbow Dash with me if I ever have to do that again, but I signed up Bluebell, Beaky, Dusty and Glimmerflap—and myself!—to perform at the unveiling ceremony. They asked if we could sing a little tune to introduce Princess Celestia, and we’re going to try our best. Rainbow Dash thinks we can do it, and I think so too.

So everything worked out wonderfully. Or, well... I wrote about Nightmare Moon and everything else last weekend, so it was more “terrifying” and “horrible”, but now it’s wonderful. We’re all getting to know each other better after Rainbow Dash and I met Twilight Sparkle.

We even had a little… I wouldn’t call it a fight exactly, but when Twilight (can I write that? I should ask her if it’s okay to just call her Twilight instead of Twilight Sparkle) said she had tickets to the Grand Galloping Gala, everypony got a little too excited, myself included. Luckily that all worked out, too, and we’re great friends now.

I hope we’ll always be friends, just like Rainbow Dash and I will. Like we have to be. I don’t think I could ever say or do anything if it meant there was even the slightest chance that Rainbow Dash wouldn’t want to be my friend any more.

Good night, Diary, and sleep tight.


Rainbow Dash only vaguely remembered drifting to sleep the day before, sandwiched between their blankets and the tarp Rarity insisted on putting underneath to keep the blankets from getting dirty. For all that the jungle beyond the Bow was nothing like Perytonia, the nights were still cold enough to warrant a blanket, at least.

Dash hadn’t been all that bothered by the noise. Whistles echoed far in the distance and some insect, animal—or a plant, for all she knew—made ridiculously loud screeching sounds, but she could deal with that. She’d woken up the way she’d gone to sleep, lying next to her friends, comfortable and almost cozy, stretching and yawning while the scents of fertile soil and sweet plants assailed her nose. It hadn’t even been all that hot when Dash woke up, but now the sunlight made the river shine, as though somepony had held a leg in front to block it up until now, a long and tenuous sunrise suddenly let loose in full.

Again, Rainbow Dash didn’t mind. She felt good. Twice as good when Fluttershy finished her drink by the river and walked up to her, nuzzling her between the ears and smiling warmly. Dash smiled back and buried her snout in Fluttershy’s chest-fluff in return, staying seated.

“I think we have four days of food, perhaps five,” said Rarity, her glasses perched on her snout as she carefully took stock of their belongings. “We can carry water for a week, I think, but honestly, it’s heavy work if we’re to walk like… like this.” She waved a hoof in the general direction of the jungle—that being every direction. Though there was precious little grass and the ground was relatively bare with soil right here, the first step outside their bedroom-sized clearing demanded a duck under a branch, and the next required a hop over a high root.

“We can probably carry half that, three or four days’ worth of water without much trouble. I don’t think food is a problem, either,” said Fluttershy, sitting down at Dash’s side. Rainbow Dash idly ran a feather along her side, delighting in the way Fluttershy’s cheeks heated up visibly even as she went on. “We’ve seen some of the fruits the peryton ate, and we know that we can eat them safely, too. Let’s try to think a little before we put something in our mouths here this time, though.”

She gave Rainbow Dash a look at that, and Dash froze her little game of make-the-girlfriend-blush. “Hey, if you mean back in Splitwood, it worked out.”

“It worked out,” said Fluttershy, nodding, her eyes narrowing a touch. “But you couldn’t know that. You could’ve poisoned yourself.”

“Jeez, that was weeks ago,” said Dash. “Who remembers that sort of stuff?”

“Somepony who cares a lot about you, and doesn’t want to see you hurt,” Rarity added with a faint smile, rolling up one of their empty water-bags. “And I happen to agree.”

“I get it, fine, no eating stuff without asking Fluttershy,” Dash muttered, her ears wilting a touch. “You guys ready to move?”

Rarity yawned, then nodded. “I think I am, at least. Fluttershy, are you feeling better, dear? We all woke early, and it’s barely morning, so if you wish to rest a little longer, I feel like we owe you that.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I’m good, really. I’ve slept all through the night. What about you?”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “I could nap, but I’m alright.” She frowned at that. “Okay, and now that I think about it, that either means I’ve slept as much as I usually want to sleep, or I’m getting worse at sleeping.”

“Getting worse at sleeping,” Rarity repeated, voice perfectly flat.

“Hey, I’m basically Equestria’s best napper, if I’ve lost my touch, that is not okay at all!” Dash said.

Fluttershy giggled and got up. “I wouldn’t worry about that. We can probably get going if you want to, but we don’t really know where to go, do we?”

“Right, yeah,” said Dash, scratching her own snout. “Plans and stuff.” She watched Rarity grab her notes, the jewellery, the masks and all that remained of her dressmaking supplies that she had fretted so much over. All the unicorn did now was shuffle around and re-pack everything without any deeper interest.

“Well, we know we’re not going back to the stupid peryton,” said Dash after a moment. “So I guess that’s something. We know what we’re not doing. Second best thing.” She chuckled at her own joke and Rarity gave her one of her wan smiles, but Fluttershy didn’t seem to think it all that funny. She just stared at the grassless soil in front of her hooves.

“What?” Dash asked, tilting her head. “You’re not seriously thinking of going back there?”

Fluttershy shook her head. “Of course not, I just… while we were escaping, I saw them fighting amongst themselves. Did you notice?”

“I did,” said Rarity, nodding while she lay out all their saddlebags, strapping on her own.

“Yeah,” said Dash, scowling despite herself. She could already tell where this was going. She didn’t want to care.

“I wonder… it just feels like that’s our fault,” said Fluttershy.

“No. No it’s not,” Dash replied with a huff as loud as she could make it. “We didn’t do anything. The only thing we did that’s wrong was getting caught in the first place. What, do you think we should have stayed? Do you think it was wrong to escape?”

“No!” said Fluttershy, incredulous. “I just… it’s not about what we should have done, or shouldn’t have done, and it’s—okay, maybe ‘fault’ isn’t the right word, but it’s still because of us, somehow.”

“Right,” said Dash, deflating a little. She furled her wings tight. “It’s still not our responsibility. If they’re so different they even fight themselves, that’s on them.”

“Perhaps,” said Rarity, staring at nothing at all, her gaze distant. “I don’t know about you, Rainbow Dash, but I feel bad about it even if it’s not our fault directly. I’m still concerned.”

Rainbow Dash felt her snout turn up in a sneer, but it didn’t last. She wanted to say she didn’t care, that they were stupid and that there was nothing they could do if a bunch of peryton decided the ponies were evil and that the three of them were responsible for everything bad that ever happened.

“Of course I care too,” Dash instead admitted, sighing. “I just don’t know what we can do.” She felt one of Fluttershy’s feathers touch her side.

“I don’t know either,” Fluttershy said, shaking her head softly, but now she smiled a touch. “They must be asking a lot of questions about what happened with the sun and the moon and everything, and maybe something good will come of it. We don’t know, but if we all feel the same way, that helps me a little, at least.” She looked across the river as she continued. “We probably shouldn’t go back there anyways. We’ll need to go around their village.”

“Mm, it would be best if we could avoid it altogether,” Rarity said, nodding. “It all comes down to finding a way out of here anyway.”

Rainbow Dash got up slowly, ducking her head under the straps of her saddlebags to toss them onto her back. “Yeah. We need to get back to Perytonia. We’re not gonna get any more help from Princess Luna in here.”

“No word from her this night, then?” Rarity asked.

“Nah, like I said, she told me she couldn’t reach me, and we don’t have the statue any more,” Dash said, tugging the straps tight, securing her saddlebags before she helped Fluttershy with hers and slung her ohron about her neck.

“I wonder why that is,” said Fluttershy, sucking in breath when Dash tugged the belly strap tight. Dash winced in sympathy and redid it a little looser.

“Yeah, I dunno. She said there was something weird about this place,” Dash said, shrugging. “Let’s just get out of here. We know we came from the north-east on the other side of the mountains, and we ran west, so we just need to get over the mountains to the east. Or north-east. Whatever. Something with north or east in it. And we can’t go back straight east, because that’s where the village is, right over by the mountains.”

Fluttershy nodded her agreement. “We flew nearly straight west.”

Dash frowned at her own saddlebags, loosening the straps again. “Ugh, I shouldn’t have geared up. We need to go have a look, I guess. Fluttershy, you’re with me, okay? Rarity, can you wait here for a minute?”

Rarity nodded. “Of course. I’ll re-fill the water in your saddlebags. I think some of our bags are still full of stale water from Vauhorn. We may as well grab fresh water from here, instead.”

Fluttershy’s saddlebags hit the ground, nods were exchanged, and Dash spread her wings, punching through the dark and verdant canopy seconds later, Fluttershy hot on her hocks. Of course Fluttershy should come along. Two sets of eyes were better than one any day of the week.

The sun blinded her almost immediately. Sharp and reddish sunlight cut through the sky like it aimed for her eyes in particular, and Dash had to shield herself for a long moment before she could even squint without pain. Judging by the sudden intake of breath, Fluttershy met the same problem. The two pegasi hovered side by side in silence for a while, and Dash realised why the daylight had seemed to go through two stages this morning.

The mountains, seeming taller than ever, took the place of the horizon. It was easy to imagine she’d been shrunk to the size of an ant and placed in a coffee mug. Though it must be well past sunrise anywhere else, the sun had barely managed to crest the tall peaks of the mountains, the blazing orb lathering them with waves of heat.

“If we can’t go east,” said Fluttershy, looking to the jagged peaks from where they had come, “I guess the closest way to the mountains is to the north-east. North by north-east if we want to be safe. I think there’s a pass there, or something like it.” Rainbow Dash couldn’t tell how far it was. Staring at the mountains, they covered so much of her vision she thought for a second she could reach out and touch them, but she could see the foot of the mountains far in the distance, too.

Below them, the jungle, ever dark and sprawling, spread out forever, lumpy and chaotic with hills and green little peaks of its own. Where the mountains proper and the jungle met, the trees and plants were reduced to a dark green smudge that crept up the mountainside until it faded to a long stretch of grey. Grey, grey, more grey, and finally—Dash had to tilt her head up again—white. The very sight of snow seemed absurd in this heat. Only behind her, far to the southwest, did she see anything different. The jungle didn’t touch the slopes of the mountains there, the rocky grey turning brown as it flattened out, though she couldn’t tell why at this distance.

“Yeah,” said Dash, wiping her face. Hovering in the onslaught of the heat was probably worse on her than it was on Fluttershy owing to her girlfriend’s slower wingbeats, but Fluttershy herself flagged, sinking a little lower. “Yeah, northeast is probably our best bet,” Dash repeated, looking over to the east. The mountains there were even closer, and notably smaller—probably still dwarfing Canterlot. “Unless we wanna go back east. And we don’t, like you said,” she concluded, letting herself drop as well. “Let’s get back to Rarity and get going.”

“It can’t be much more than a day, surely,” said Rarity, ducking under a low-hanging, moss-covered branch.

“I don’t know about that,” said Fluttershy, turning her head to smile at a green and brown-striped snake coiled around a branch as she passed by. “Oh, hello,” she added, smiling before she turned to the others again. “I don’t remember exactly how long we were in the air yesterday, and it was hard to get a good feel for the distances just now.”

“Eh, I was getting tired when we landed,” Dash said, though she didn’t like to admit it. “But my wings have been stuck for days, too, so I’m probably just out of practice. We’re moving really slow right now, anyway.”

Fluttershy nodded, lifting a low branch for Rarity. “It’s hard to tell. Maybe it’ll be easier going later. All we know is we’re going in the right direction.”

“That’s something, at least,” Rarity said, wiping her brow. The unicorn, like the two pegasi, practically dripped with every step, the heat and the humidity doing its work and the soil as soft as sand in places. Sometimes, Dash swore they took breaks within sight of their previous rest stop, but she knew that couldn’t be true.

“I don’t expect either of you are keen on repeating the flying stunt from yesterday regardless,” Rarity added as an afterthought. “I know I am not, certainly not just in the interest of speed. For all that I appreciate your flying prowess, Fluttershy, there were times I was sure you would run my head into a tree.”

“I think not doing that ever again would be great,” Fluttershy said, her ears flat to her head.

“It’s stupidly hot down here, and stupidly hot up there,” Dash grumped. “I guess maybe it was a little colder yesterday because the sun was, uh... weird. If we get to a cliff or something, I’ll take you up, but I don’t think flying around a lot is a good idea—ugh, I don’t like even saying that.”

“It must be frustrating to have your wings back, only to not be able to use them much,” said Rarity, frowning with sympathy.

“Nah, I can use them for what’s really important,” said Dash, shaking her head. She spread her left wing and touched a feather to Fluttershy’s side, making the other mare jump.

“Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy said, glaring at her, cheeks bright crimson.

“What?” asked Dash, who’d long since folded her wing again. She couldn’t hide her grin, though. “You afraid somepony’s gonna see?”

That melted Fluttershy’s glare. At length, she shook her head and batted at Rainbow Dash with a wing, making Dash giggle in return.

“What?” asked Rarity, looking over at them, at Fluttershy’s still burning cheeks and Rainbow Dash’s probably-permanent smirk. “Ah. Right. Rampant horseplay, of course.” She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Well, speaking of wings, is that our plan for when we reach the mountains? Flying?”

“I guess so,” said Fluttershy, shrugging.

“Yeah. I mean, duh?” said Dash. “If we need to get over something, that’s what wings are for. Maybe we’ll have to wait until it gets dark and a bit colder, and then we just go up.” She slipped between two trees, grunting to push her saddlebags through, but on the other side, the jungle thinned out a little. Maybe they were catching a lucky break and could speed up.

“We’ll have to find the lowest pass,” Fluttershy said. “I don’t know if we can fly over the tallest points.”

“Pff, not with that attitude,” said Dash, grinning, but Fluttershy just let out a little giggle and shook her head. Dash knew she was right anyway. Especially with a passenger. Rainbow Dash would probably have to carry Rarity. No way were they using that freaky spell again if Dash had a say in it, but they’d work something out.

“There’s always the chance that these Morrowsworn are watching the passes,” said Rarity.

“Yeah, well, they’re welcome to try to stop us,” Rainbow Dash said, laughing. She leapt off a fallen log and sailed down, turning to trot backwards for a few steps, smiling at her friends while they caught up, and both Fluttershy and Rarity smiled back at her. “Besides, there’s gotta be a hundred passes here, at least.” She sped up a little, ducking under some huge leaves and stepping over another fallen log soon after.

No, not just fallen, burnt. Many of the trees here seemed to grow sideways, alive, green and covered in life, but this thing was dark and sooty. She turned to look ahead again, but before she could even open her mouth to ask if the others had noticed, she had her answer. Pushing past the fronds and the ferns a few steps further, the jungle ended.

A broad path of scorched earth cut straight through the dense plant life, like a river of ash and burnt soil, broken husks of trees dead and dark. On the other side of the destruction, the jungle continued after the brief interruption, but looking down to the left and the right, the trail went on for as far as Dash could see. She couldn’t remember seeing it the last time she hit the air to scout, but then, she hadn’t flown very high up. Still she had to wonder how the jungle could swallow something like this.

“Goodness, what could have done such a thing?” Fluttershy asked, perched at the very edge of the jungle. Here and there, single plants poked up from the ashes, but by and large all was burnt. One step further, and she’d tread on the blackened furrow splitting the jungle apart.

“It goes without saying that I don’t know,” said Rarity, frowning slightly. “But I don’t imagine it was very recent. It’s not very… on fire, is it?”

Dash hopped onto the path. The soil and the ash was soft, staining her hooves. Though the heat of the sun without the protection of the jungle canopy made her a little uncertain at first, she eventually decided that she was not on fire. It was just a straight line of ruin no hotter than anything else.

“You know that cart they run down market street if we make too much ice?” Dash asked. “Two Spades and Curly Swizzle spreading gravel around so ponies don’t slip and fall?”

“...Yes?” asked Rarity.

“It’s like someone ran a cart down here, except instead of spreading tiny rocks, it’s spreading fire,” said Dash, chuckling.

Rarity scoffed. “How would they pull such a cart through the jungle?”

“Fire in the front and the back? One push-cart and one regular cart?” Dash asked, scratching her snout. It left a soot-stain.

“Then they’d be on fire themselves,” said Rarity, raising a foreleg as though to step onto the burnt path, hesitant.

“Wow. That is so not the point, and you are killing my joke,” said Dash, rolling her eyes.

“I do try,” said Rarity with a smirk. “Now, what do I have to say to get you to fly me across? The soot will ruin my coat.”

Dash laughed and took to the air, the blast of wind scattering ashes everywhere around her. “It’s okay, I’ll take you,” she said, while Rarity backed off a step.

“Um, before you do that,” said Fluttershy. She hadn’t said anything for a while, staring to the right, to where the mountains loomed over the path. “We need to make sure we’re still going in the right direction. We’ve almost gotten turned around.”

Dash looked over her back, at where they’d come from. “Wait… ugh, you’re right. We’re gonna have to check our course every ten seconds, aren’t we? This place is impossible. Let’s go up and have a look.”

It took less than a half-minute before the two pegasi were out of their saddlebags and in the air, and they didn’t have to go high up to get a good look around. They were no closer than they’d been this morning.

“I don’t get it,” said Dash, shaking her head when they landed. “Fluttershy, give me north.”

Fluttershy pointed north. “That way.”

“Yeah, I’ve got the same,” said Dash, frowning. “Okay. So there’s nothing crazy going on, we’ve just gotten turned around a bit, that’s all. Think the map can help us?”

“The map doesn’t have the Bow on it at all, it’s just a grey area,” Fluttershy said, shrugging helplessly.

“Does this mean you don’t know where… where we are? Or where we are going?” Rarity asked when they landed. “I thought you pegasi could always tell north?”

“We can,” said Fluttershy. “We’ll just have to check our direction a little more often. Even if it is a little hot for flying.”

Dash nodded. “Yeah. Could be worse. I want you up with me every time though.”

Fluttershy smiled wide at that, nodding. “Of course.”

Rarity nodded as well. “That sounds good and all, but honestly, the real question is whether we cross this river of soot or not, and if we do, which one of you can best carry me without getting it on my coat.”

“What’s the verdict?” said Rarity, ready with their water.

“Yeah, we’re moving in the right direction, but it’s slow. I think we’re a little closer,” said Rainbow Dash, landing alongside Fluttershy. She wiped her brow with the nook of a leg and took a deep breath.

“I don’t know, maybe,” Fluttershy said, shaking her wings out and accepting a drink from Rarity. “We need to go that way now—just turn a little more to the left, but it’s getting later in the afternoon. When the sun passes behind the mountains, that’ll make the going a little easier.”

“That’s a relief,” said Rarity. She let out a chuckle all of a sudden, shaking her head. “Do you know, there was a time I’d be dismayed at that, at travelling a little faster or longer.”

Dash shrugged and grinned, settling her saddlebags on her back. “You’re in good shape. Both of you.” She ground the top of her head against the side of Fluttershy’s neck, exulting in the touch. Fluttershy didn’t shy away. Rather, she stepped a little closer, bracing against her and smiling. Dash snuck a wing against Rarity and pulled her in as well, and the unicorn chuckled and gave her an affectionate nuzzle.

“I suppose I can simply have more chocolate when I get back to Equestria if I need to make up for all this exercise,” said Rarity, working her way free of Dash’s grip. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash both laughed.

“I think we all deserve a little chocolate when we get back,” said Fluttershy.

“I bet Pinkie Pie’s already back home making welcome-home cakes and stuff,” Dash added, grinning. “C’mon. Let’s kick it up a notch and get home, already.”

Kicking anything up a notch while trying to press through a jungle was more of an attitude thing than it helped their speed. The jungle would not be denied, throwing out-of-control roots and looping branches in their way while soft soil hugged their hooves. Flying up to check their progress every so often got easier, at least, and Dash was glad she had Fluttershy with her for company—and to discuss whether they were actually getting any closer, even if they never could really conclusively say that, yes, they were.

Hours later, the sun touched the mountains, and the heat disappeared along with half of the light. The found the second burnt path soon after, the ash-strip itself much like the first, but with one notable exception.

“I don’t think we’re alone, do you see that?” asked Dash. She could tell they were coming up on another one of these dividing lines—now that she knew what to look for, there were scorch marks all around—but something glowed ahead. She brought the group to a stop, blackened ground visible here and there through the final layer of undergrowth between them and the path. Even through the plantlife, past ferns and other foliage, Dash caught glimpses of sharp light dancing about.

“What is that?” Fluttershy whispered.

Rarity stepped a little closer, ducking her head under a leaf and disappearing through. She waved the others closer with a leg, and Dash followed suit.

The path itself looked much like the last, but in the middle of the line paved with ash and charred trees, three painfully bright specks of light danced about. Even so much as looking at them hurt Dash as though she stared straight at the naked sun, but she thought she could make out shapes through the light: two-legged, squat and beaked things swallowed by the glow that radiated from them. One of them rolled in the ash, another watched, and the third one nipped at a branch hanging over the ashen path. At its touch, the branch charred and smoldered, but the fire only lasted until the little creature let go.

“Are those… chickens?” Dash asked, blinking.

“Phoenixes, surely,” said Rarity, shaking her head. “We’ve seen phoenixes before—but they weren’t quite so bright.”

“No,” said Fluttershy, leaning a little closer, pushing aside another branch. “They… they’re not phoenixes. Phoenixes don’t actually burn all the time. They’re not made of fire. I don’t know what these are.” She shielded her eyes with a foreleg. “It’s hard to tell with all the light, the glare is really sharp. I almost wish I had sunglasses.”

“Glare,” Dash repeated, scratching her head. “D’you think these are ‘glare beasts’ the Ephydoerans talked about?”

“Maybe they are?” Fluttershy said. “Goodness, I didn’t think of that, but maybe?”

“I think the Morrowsworn may have mentioned them as well,” Rarity added. “I don’t see anyone around we could ask, mind you. They’re supposed to come from the Bow, and we’re reasonably sure that’s where we are.”

“Do you think they’re friendly?” Fluttershy asked, nibbling on her lower lip. “I’d love to go say hello.”

“The Ephydoerans didn’t seem very… thrilled about them,” Rarity said, frowning. “Now, I don’t know if that means much, what with their prejudice towards the heron and all.”

“Uh, yeah, okay, but you guys saw the heron in the Morrowsworn village, right?” Dash asked. “Because I’m starting to think the Perytonians were right about them.”

“I did,” said Rarity. “Do you think it was one of the heron making those awful noises that night while we were imprisoned? The interpreter certainly was a heron, I’m convinced.” The unicorn looked over at Fluttershy, and Dash did the same, but the other pegasus offered no comment, still staring at the creatures frolicking about in the ashes.

“Fluttershy? What’cha got?” Dash asked.

“I’m gonna go say hi,” said Fluttershy, simple as that. “They look really nice.”

Rarity looked at Dash, who looked back at her and shrugged.

“I think I’ll spare my poor, poor coat the indignity of rolling through the ashes, if you don’t mind,” said Rarity. “I’ll look out for… anything else in the meanwhile.”

“Alright. Mind if I come with you?” Dash asked.

“Of course not,” said Fluttershy, smiling and nodding. She pushed through the undergrowth, curling her tail lightly around one of Dash’s forelegs to give her a feather-light tug before the tail slipped away, and Dash followed as Fluttershy hopped down onto the ashen path towards three chicken-sized little suns playing in the blackened dust.

The glare beasts—Dash decided to think of them thus, whether they were or weren’t actual ‘glare beasts’—didn’t seem to see them at first. Two of them play-fought, hopping around and pecking at each other. Their radiances intermingled for a split-second, every time with a hiss and a flare of brighter light still. The third one busied itself torching small plants by the path-side, chirping with glee every time a nascent fern caught fire for a moment.

“Hello,” said Fluttershy, waving.

That got their attention. The two who fought split up, hopping away from each other to peer over at the ponies on approach, and the third one rushed over to join them.

“Please, please don’t try to pet them,” Rainbow Dash muttered under her breath. “You know, ‘cause they’re on fire. Or they are fire.”

“I know,” Fluttershy said with a giggle. “I just want to say hi—and hello there, little cuties. My name is Fluttershy. What is yours?” she asked, tilting her head.

One of the things hopped a little closer, halting a few strides away from the ponies, but whether out of fear or respect of the flammability of ponies, Dash couldn’t tell. She could feel the heat radiating off the thing in waves even from here. It let out a wark. The other two started fighting and playing again.

“What’d he say?” Dash asked, taking half a step back. She still felt like she stood too close to a roaring fireplace.

“Oh, hi, probably,” said Fluttershy.

“Probably?” Dash asked, cocking a brow.

Fluttershy nodded. “I don’t understand him exactly. It’s a little hard to tell since they’re not animals, exactly—hi, little guy. Do you understand me? I don’t think you do, but maybe we can be friends anyway?”


Rainbow Dash shook her head and chuckled. “Okay, see, he said that last time. That’s another probably-hi.”

Fluttershy laughed and sat down with a little puff and whirl of soot. Dash could practically feel Rarity’s wince. The unicorn herself sat on jungle-bank a small distance away, watching while she sipped water.

“I wonder where they come from,” Fluttershy said. She leaned a little closer, reaching out with a hoof, and Dash winced. She knew for a fact that Fluttershy wasn’t fireproof. The little glare beast didn’t move any closer though. Rather, it circled halfway around Fluttershy, peering at the ponies with curious eyes. Or so Dash assumed. If there were eyes in there, she couldn’t see them. Just a general head-shape.

“They’re just babies, right? Little chicks?” Dash asked.

“Goodness, I don’t even know about that,” said Fluttershy, a brief look of worry crossing her face. “I’d be very worried if they are. Maybe they’ve been abandoned by their parents?”

“I’m more worried by the idea of an angry parent returning, myself,” Rarity opined from the safety of the jungle.

“We’re not hurting them at all, I’m sure it will be okay,” said Fluttershy, giggling when one of the two fighting glare beasts toppled the other one over on its side, their glows merging. Dash looked away, but she still had spots in her vision, and the ground shook ever so slightly. Why’d the ground shake, anyway? It’d stopped before she could even decide if she’d felt anything. Probably nothing, then.

“Do you think they can stop being on fire?” Rarity called. “I don’t imagine they can walk through the jungle without ruining it.”

“Maybe they’re the ones who made this… this,” said Dash, gesturing to the mess she and Fluttershy sat in. Their bellies and legs were covered in black—and she was now sure she felt a vague rumble.

“I don’t know if they could do all this even if they tried,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head.

“Hey, guys?” said Dash.

“Them burning all this is a little bit like trying to sew a tent with a single beading needle, I imagine,” Rarity said in a voice suggesting agreement.

“Yeah, great,” said Dash. “Do you guys feel that?”

Even if Fluttershy and Rarity didn’t, the glare beasts clearly did. All at once, the three perked up, stock still for an instant. A split second later, they took off running down the middle of the ashen path, absurdly fast for the tiny leg-shapes contained within their glows. Fluttershy stood up, and so did Dash, the two glancing at each other.

Where before she’d felt it as a gentle rumble against her belly, now Rainbow Dash could feel it in her hooves, too. Without thinking, she put a wing to Fluttershy’s hindquarters, giving her a slight push, but she hadn’t needed to. Fluttershy already moved, the two pegasi trotting to meet Rarity, the unicorn running towards them through the ash until the three ponies stood together for support.

The sound grew steadily, but the shaking never amounted to more than a faint tremor.

“What in the name of all things good is going on?” asked Rarity, slowly turning around on the spot, and Dash didn’t know where to look, either. Whatever this was, she couldn’t tell where it was coming from.

“I don’t—” Fluttershy replied, but she was cut off by a fit of coughing as a blast of humid air washed against them, whirling up ash that fell to the ground a split-second later as drops of black. The dampness in the air was palpable. Dash spread her wings to shield her friends and held up a leg to protect herself, but it had already happened—Rarity said something about her poor, poor coat and Dash barely heard her. She spotted something large moving over the jungle, only to disappear again.

“Did you guys see that?” Dash asked. She pointed, all too late.

“See what?” Rarity asked. “Is it a bath? Because I could use… a…” her voice trailed off. Dash looked up. Since when were there clouds? When had it started raining? Sure, it was just a drizzle, and the clouds were light and fluffy, but they came out of nowhere.

“I didn’t see anything. What did you see?” Fluttershy asked, huddling a little closer.

The answer came from the jungle on the other side, a little further down the ashen path. A huge, blue-green reptilian head, larger than that of any dragon Dash had seen, slipped out from between the trees—and that was definitely the right word for it. Though it was close to the size of a dragon in and of itself, it didn’t burst forth or crash through the jungle. Silent but for the low rumble in the air, the long, thin head slipped out of the jungle, weaving and bobbing through the air with gentle motions like an eel through water.

The creature disappeared into the jungle on the opposite side, followed by a body that didn’t disappear. A long, legless and snake-like body followed with the same sinuous movements, great big scales of the same sea-coloured hues glittering in what indirect afternoon sunlight that punched through the light layer of rain-clouds. Streaks of lighter colour formed mesmerizing patterns, but the body didn’t stop. Still more of the creature followed where its head had gone, and now the ash turned to fertile soil and plants sprung up even while the ponies watched.

Neither Rarity not Fluttershy said anything, but at a tap on her shoulder from a wide-eyed and mute Fluttershy, Dash turned just in time to see the creature leave the jungle behind them and cut through the ashen path going the other way. This time, she was keenly aware that the serpent-creature looked at them with its great big eyes, dark orbs of black and purple trained on the ponies before it disappeared again. Now its body moved endlessly past them on both sides, like they were caught in one of Applejack’s lassos spinning about them.

::And who do we have here, then?::

The words echoed inside Dash’s head, as though they were thoughts and not a voice, but they weren’t her thoughts. Dash gave a start, bumping into Rarity’s flank, and Fluttershy yelped as well.

“D—did you hear that?” Fluttershy stammered.

“I heard it too,” said Rarity, nodding quickly.

Finally, the tail made its appearance where the serpent-like creature had first gone, a split tail waving in the air as it passed—immediately followed by the same head again, the hornless draconic visage circling around.

::It is not often anyone ventures this deep.::

The long, slim muzzle was closed, but despite no evidence of speech, Dash heard the thought-voice in her head again. Dash flicked her ears. The initial shock of hearing the words inside her mind had passed, and her fear had long since gone. The creature didn’t seem to be doing anything, circling them in the light rainfall. Its passing had made two little land-bridges of jungle across the ashen path, growing fastest right underneath its shadow.

“Who are you?” Dash yelled. She turned towards the jungle where the creature’s head had disappeared again.

::Not so loud, please. I hear you fine,:: came the reply, and now Dash knew that voices in her head could whisper. When the head again appeared, it preceded its tail, circling a little closer.

::I am Odasthan, and I am curious about what manner of new folk wander the Cauldron of Storms without contest, so unbothered by the Gadar-spawn.::

Fluttershy blinked. Dash met her eyes and shrugged.

“I am afraid those words mean nothing to us,” Rarity said. “Do you mean the burning poultry? Those ‘glare beasts’ or whatever they are?” She frowned and looked to the pegasi, lowering her voice a touch. “And I thought we were sure we were in the Bow.”

“I thought so too. I’ve never heard of this place,” said Fluttershy. The three ponies turned, all together, and a moment later, the creature passed through on the opposite side yet again, turning to face them for a second as it slid through the open ground. It ducked into the jungle closer to the ponies than ever before, and Dash had to rub at her eyes to make sure they weren’t playing tricks on her. The creature was huge, but it wound its way between the trees without disturbing so much as a leaf.

::Perhaps it is now called the Bow by some, but the Cauldron is the Cauldron to my mind. Its first name that I know. I am nothing if not a creature of habit.:: A soft laugh ran through Dash’s mind, the sound pleasant and genuine, even if the delivery was weird. ::But if you wish to talk, you must come with. I have much to do.::

“Come with?” Dash asked, squinting. Rarity fussed over her coat, rubbing at the rain-moistened soot, and Fluttershy shuffled her wings, ashes falling from her feathers.

No sooner had she spoken than the serpent came out of the jungle one more time, this time almost right in front of the ponies. It turned its head sideways and leaned down, the body still following, flowing, coiling and twisting behind the serpent as though it could not be stopped while the head and its flat muzzle waited just above the ashes that even now sprouted life.

::Come, if you wish,:: the creature repeated, sounding almost cheery to Dash. A quick glance at Fluttershy and Rarity gave her no answer, so she made the call. Dash shrugged and grinned. Why not. Everything’s else in this place has gone wrong or weird or whatever. She spread her wings and hopped on.

“Come on,” said Dash. “Let’s go!”

Fluttershy hesitated only for a moment before she nodded and helped Rarity get on as well. The moment the three ponies stood perched on the creature’s large, ridged muzzle, the serpent moved again, gentle movements carrying the ponies aloft and into the jungle. The wind tugged at their manes, but otherwise it was as easy as sitting on any chariot or boat. Odasthan held its head aloft now, just above the jungle, perhaps for the ponies’ benefit. The body trailed after, impossibly long and lost in the dark trees just below with no trace of its passing except the rainclouds that Dash now saw were right overhead wherever they went. Did the jungle seem a little greener in their wake?

::I see now, I think,:: said the voice. ::You are not new. You look much like them, and then, I understand why you are not burned.::

“If you really did mean the three little creatures we met before you arrived, they were no bother at all,” said Fluttershy, turning around to sit backwards, facing the creature’s large eyes. Dash didn’t. The two huge dark orbs were unsettlingly close, and almost as big as she was. She wasn’t one for close talkers.

::And that is the curious thing,:: Odasthan replied. Dash could feel it nod and smile while it did no such thing. They forded the jungle and all smelled of rain, but the head upon which they sat didn’t move at all.

“We look like whom, though?” asked Rarity, looking over the rim of their transport to where the trees rolled by below. “In preference, I don’t even think that is my first, second, or twentieth question, though. We’ve all asked a lot of things and none of us have really answered. Maybe we can begin anew? Perhaps introductions? My name is Rarity, and this is Rainbow Dash—” she pointed and smiled, “and Fluttershy. I’m sorry, it’s a little difficult to be so cavalier about meeting a dragon-serpent-person in the middle of nowhere, even if you are being awfully polite.”

“He’s not a dragon,” Fluttershy said, her wings tight to her body. “You’re not a dragon, are you?”

Rainbow Dash laughed and poked Fluttershy. “You can’t just decide to be afraid after you’ve met someone just because they’re a dragon. Or, if they are a dragon.”

Fluttershy’s silence and folded ears suggested staunch disagreement with this statement.

Dash shook her head, enjoying the light rain on her face and the slight chill in the air. A colourful bird sat in a tree that whisked by, completely unbothered. “D’you guys get any answer?” she asked after a moment in a low murmur. “I got nothing.”

“I haven’t heard anything. Did we say something wrong?” Fluttershy asked, licking her lips.

“I’m sorry,” said Rarity, smiling at Odasthan. “You went very quiet, there. Did we cause offense?”

::You ask many things, more than I have been asked in a very long time,:: the mind-voice replied. ::I simply wonder where to begin. Introductions? I have not introduced myself since The Curinion came here, I think. I have given you the name to which I was affixed. Odasthan. That is all, and no, I am not a dragon.:: Dash thought she could hear a faint chuckle at that. ::No dragons have roosted in the Cauldron for a very long time. As to you, the grey one—I am glad I have not forgotten my manners. It is nice to know this.::

::Finally, as to… whom?:: Odasthan said. ::I spoke of resemblance, and I mean Celestia and Luna, of course. You are their spitting image, and I never thought I would ever see any of their children. Are you not pony-kin?::

Rainbow Dash looked at her own body. Soot-streaked blue coat, discoloured green wings, no horn, and her mane and tail very much made of hairs instead of freaky see-through whatever-stuff. The lower third of her half was nearly entirely black right now, rivulets of dark rainwater dripping from it.

“I guess we are, but, uh, no offense, but I don’t see it,” said Dash with a snort of laughter. “Princess Celestia and Princess Luna look nothing like us.”

“Relatively speaking, I suppose?” Rarity asked with a cocked brow.

::It is Princess Celestia now, is it?:: the voice asked. ::Good for her.::

“Oh, you know her?” Fluttershy asked, tilting her head. “I don’t think she’s mentioned you. Oh. Um, I’m sorry. Maybe that’s not a very polite thing to say—”

Odasthan laughed again. They hit another ashen path, and this time he turned to follow it, his long body trailing after them, and in their wake, the jungle regrew. Dash still couldn’t see the end of Odasthan’s tail, the natural colours of the jungle blending with his scales as far as she could see.

::She would not. They would not. I have met them both, together and separate, but when one does as much as those two, one will not remember details such as myself and Yelgadar, and I do not imagine you have asked, either. They would have to be very specific questions.::

Rainbow Dash clambered a little further forward, past the creature’s nostril-slits. They were definitely not going north-east towards their goal right now. He turned seemingly at random, now going north-west. Now north.

“Who is Yelgadar?” asked Fluttershy. “Didn’t you call those lovely little creatures ‘Gadar’-spawn? Is that the same thing?”

::The spawn are the motes of Yelgadar herself,:: Odasthan replied. ::I hear in your voice affection for them, and that is not wrong of you, but you must understand that they have no thoughts. They are pieces of her with no mind of their own. They scatter in her wake and will disappear like any fire without fuel.::

“Oh no,” said Fluttershy, gasping. “That’s awful!”

Rarity held a hoof to her muzzle. “They’re going to die without anything to burn? Her children will die without ‘fuel’?”

Dash spread her wings to taste the wind. Hard to get a read while they moved about like this, but she managed. Now they moved north again, and the mountains they’d picked as their target were a little closer, but soon enough, the closest mountains and the lowest pass they could see around here would be straight to their east, and they’d be moving away from it rather than meandering towards it.

::They are not children. They are like clippings of her claws. To mourn them is to mourn a raincloud that has run out of water. Which one may do, of course,:: Odasthan said, wry amusement in his voice. ::Life is precious, but they are not life. You should be thankful they do not seem to wish to bother you—as for Yelgadar, she is in the night what I am in the day. She is fire where I am water in this Cauldron of Storms. You asked what I am. To say I am not a dragon is no more of an answer than to say I am not a bird. I am Odasthan. She is Yelgadar. That is I, and that is she. Together we make this place the Cauldron of Storms. In that sense, we are the Cauldron.::

That got Dash’s attention.

“Wait. Can the fancy stuff for a second. You make the storms?” Dash asked, whirling around. Odasthan hadn’t said exactly those words, but it made sense all at once. The way the rain came with the serpent, the change in air pressure and the humidity—it was as though a flock of invisible pegasi flew alongside the serpent.

::We make all the storms in this land, and once every turn of the year, my water meets her fire, and thus is made the greatest storm,:: said Odasthan, and Dash thought she heard a note of pride in his voice.

“Ha!” said Dash, grinning so wide her face hurt. “I knew it! Of course weather doesn’t make itself. That’d be crazy. You guys, you and this Yelgadar, whoever she is, you’re the ones doing it!”

Rarity didn’t look similarly overjoyed. “You do realise those storms are creating difficulties for the peryton living on the other side of the mountains?”

“They need those storms, too, though,” said Fluttershy, clopping her forehooves together.

::We do not do it for them, or to harm them,:: said Odasthan. ::We do it because we must, and I think you understand this. Yelgadar burns, and I soothe. I chill and she warms. Forever, we undo each other’s work, but it is not pointless, not futile.::

“So the hot and the cold temperature changes create the storms,” Fluttershy said.

::That is part of it.::

“Heh, finally something on this stupid continent makes sense,” said Dash. “But hey, can you stop over there?” she asked, pointing to their right. “Your cauldron is nice and all, but we’re kinda trying to get out of here, and you’re going the wrong way. If you can drop us off at the mountains, that’d be great.”

“Oh, I hadn’t noticed,” said Fluttershy, turning to look. “I think we were right, there’s a mountain pass there. That’s a good place to try to cross.”

Odasthan laughed. ::If I did not already think you remind me of Celestia and Luna, now I know for sure you are of their kind. All this hurrying, this doing. I will help you a little closer if only to thank you for giving me someone to speak to. It has been too long.::

The great serpent-ship turned effortlessly, putting them on a course for the mountains. They weren’t moving that fast, but without getting misdirected, without the jungle getting in the way and having to fight the heat, they made good speed. Ahead of them, the mountains hid the sun, betraying daylight only with a soft glow, and it’d been a long while since the last time they saw any of the burnt lines.

“Well, it’s a delight to talk with you, too,” said Rarity, smiling at that. “Is there anything else you would like to talk about? Care for the latest gossip from Canterlot? It’s well out of date, mind you.”

::We could speak for a thousand seasons and still there would be things to say,:: spoke the voice in Dash’s mind. ::Unless you have questions, I will offer you advice, for I feel fondly towards you; mind the weather, as it can be harsh to smaller creatures; mind the wind if you fly; and keep to the eastern and northern half of the cauldron. That is what I told my last visitor, but perhaps the last need not apply. I do not think Yelgadar can burn you any more than the sun.::

“What the hay does that mean?” Dash asked, tilting her head.

::It means that she would burn others, but you are Celestia and Luna’s children,:: said Odasthan, tilting his muzzle up ever so slightly. Dash held back a yelp of surprise—the movement was slight, barely moving the ponies at all, but it was the only time the serpent’s head had moved since they got on. He looked up at the mountains, his eyes trained on the wall that loomed ahead. Now it seemed to Dash that it looked twice as tall for every second as they drew closer. The jungle crept up its side, but gave up less than a quarter of the way even towards the pass Fluttershy and Dash had marked.

::You mean to fly out of the Cauldron on your wings?:: asked Odasthan, his voice tinged with open curiosity.

“That’s the plan!” said Dash, flexing her wings. She walked over to Rarity and Fluttershy and draped them in her feathers. “We’ll find a way.”

“We’re going to try, at least,” said Fluttershy, smiling and nodding.

“I don’t suppose you could take us?” Rarity asked, arching a brow. “You seem to fly very well yourself, if you don’t mind me saying.”

::Taking you this far has already created an imbalance I must fix,:: came the reply. ::I cannot leave, but I wish you well all the same. I will leave you here.::

“Oh. You don’t have to leave right away, do you?” Fluttershy asked. “I’m sure there are lots of other things we’d like to ask.”

::My work cannot wait. I will speak for as long as you will travel, but I cannot stop and cannot cease,:: Odasthan replied. The great serpent lowered its head, its great body coiling about it again as it halted in a clearing, the jungle a little more sparse here. The trees themselves seemed to bend out of its way as Odasthan leaned down. Dash hopped off and helped Rarity down as well. Odasthan’s head plunged into the jungle again, and the ponies stood facing his long body and tail as it moved past them, the fading light playing off his scales.

::If you do not meet with success, or if your knowledge fails you, you will find me by chasing the rain,:: Odasthan’s voice said. ::I wish you luck in all your hurried tasks, little ponies.::

“We’ll be fine, but thanks for the chat!” said Dash. She couldn’t keep from raising her voice a little. It felt weird to talk to a long snake-like tail.

“It’s been lovely,” said Rarity.

“Take care,” said Fluttershy. She walked up closer to Odasthan, reaching out with a hoof to gently touch his scales in passing. A few moments later, the tail finally came by, and he was gone. Another minute, and the faint rumble passed. The rain stopped, already drying up in the cloying heat that returned.

“It’s good to know that one can find a perfect gentleman even here,” said Rarity, ducking under a low-hanging branch and shuddering when she saw the larvae nibbling away at the great leaves. “He was a lovely little touch of civilised nature, if not of civilisation,” she added.

“Do you think it was a he?” Fluttershy asked, smiling at the same sight. “They were ever so nice anyway. I wish we could have talked more, really.”

“Sure,” said Dash, deciding to duck under the branch as well rather than fly over. It was still oppressively hot. “The whole brain-talking was super creepy, though.”

“‘Creepy’ is a strong word,” said Rarity, letting the pegasi catch up again. Most of the time, they could walk abreast rather than single-file. The jungle was still a mess, but the mess of bare soil and spidery roots of this part of the jungle was a lot easier to manage than wading through the ferns of the forest of Khosta. The comparison was pointless anyway. This place smelled sweet and rich, the bird-song was sharper and louder, and insects and life was everywhere.

“But?” Dash asked when no further explanation came.

“There is no ‘but’,” Rarity retorted.

“So, kinda creepy, just not very creepy, is what you’re saying,” Dash said, chuckling. Rarity didn’t reply to that, proving Dash had been right.

“And the serpent knew Princess Celestia and Princess Luna,” Fluttershy said, wiping her brow, pausing at the foot of another little hill. Every so often the jungle said up, and up they went. “I think that’s a little exciting. Twilight would probably love to ask about that.”

“Mm, I imagine she would,” Rarity agreed, slowing down. “Quite frankly, I would have, given a little more time.” She opened the ohron about her neck, levitating out the half-empty bag of water there. She held it up for Fluttershy, and nopony even commented on her initiative. Dash waited for her turn. She felt a frown coming on, though.

“Hey, so, you don’t think we should’ve just gone with him to wherever, right?” Dash asked while Fluttershy drank. Now she felt bad all of a sudden, unsure. Or she wondered if she should. Sometimes the line between the two was indistinct. “I just figured we should hop off while we were close to where we wanted to go, but if you guys wanna go back and talk to him, I guess we could.”

Fluttershy wiped her muzzle and shook her head, glancing at Rarity. “I don’t think so, and I didn’t mind.”

Rarity held up the water-bag for Rainbow Dash, shaking her head as well. “Me neither. If I thought we should better stay, I would’ve said so, dear. Who knows how long it would’ve taken us to make it here if we had to slog through the jungle.”

“Alright. Cool,” said Dash, feeling better already. She grabbed a long drink of water before she let Rarity have it back. She licked a few drops of water from her muzzle before she continued, leaning against Fluttershy just because. “I dunno, I don’t really care either way, myself. We gotta get out of here so we can get in touch with Princess L—oh, come on!”

“What is it?” asked Fluttershy, her eyes wide with worry. Rarity arched a brow while drinking her fill.

“We should’ve asked the serpent if he knows why the Princesses can’t see this place. If he knows the Princesses, and if he knows this place so well, he’s gotta know, I just forgot!” said Dash, groaning.

Fluttershy giggled. “Well, they said that we could talk forever, so there are probably a lot of other things we forgot to ask, too. Maybe we’ll meet again, and if we don’t, I’m sure we’ll be okay. You can always ask Princess Luna when we get out of here instead, but we don’t have to worry about that right now.” She spread a wing and lightly touched Dash on the flank.

Rainbow Dash was two steps on, Rarity falling in step while packing away their water, before the she stopped. “Wait, hang on,” said Dash.

Fluttershy tilted her head. “Mm?”

“Did you just go all ‘let’s move’ and poke me?” Dash asked.

Fluttershy blinked, staring. “I… I guess? I’m sorry? Is that wrong?”

Rainbow Dash laughed and trotted along. “No, that’s my move, and that’s awesome.” Fluttershy giggled, while Rarity smiled to herself and shook her head.

“I think I’ve given up on hurrying anyway,” Dash went on while Rarity lit her horn. It wasn’t getting dark exactly, but the reddish light cast over the cauldron from behind the mountains ahead of them was faint, and not all of it found its way between the trees. “Whatever Neisos’ brother’s name was, he’s probably not in Cotronna any more, so no boat back to Orto for us.”

“While that’s true enough, we don’t know that that’s what we want to do,” said Rarity. “If you’re confident you can contact Princess Luna once we leave this place, we might not need to go to Orto.”

“We don’t even know where we will be once we cross the mountains,” Fluttershy added, looking up at the bits of grey that could occasionally be glimpsed through the canopy. “I’m a little disorientated, and the map is useless here.”

“Yeah. That doesn’t help either,” Dash admitted with a chuckle. “We don’t know where we are, and I don’t even know when we are.”

“That part’s a little easier,” said Rarity. “It’s late summer, or early fall, depending on how you look at it. Hoity Toity’s fall line of clothes will be well past the design phase, now that I think about it. They may even be in stores.” She smiled almost fondly at that rather than sigh or groan like Dash had expected. That made Dash herself smile—until she realised she had no idea what Rarity meant.

“Hang on, wait, so, when is that, exactly?” Dash asked, cocking her head.

“The first rains of fall should be scheduled in a week maybe,” said Fluttershy, pushing her mane out of her face.

“Oh. Oh jeez,” said Dash. “That’s all on Flitter now I guess.” She laughed. “Fine, whatever, not my problem.” She stared ahead, imagining Flitter trying to bring all the other pegasi to heel and whip them into actually helping out with all the clouds.

Eh. They’d be fine, and Dash herself had a good time right here. A throaty noise interrupted her reverie, and Dash turned to find a colourful slimy blot perched on Fluttershy’s head that hadn’t been there half a minute ago.

“Fluttershy? You’ve got a little something on your head.”

“Croaky’s just heading over to a pond right over here,” said Fluttershy, pointing ahead, smiling bright at the vividly coloured frog sat on her head. “He got chased away and is afraid to go back alone. You don’t mind a little detour, do you?”

“Right,” said Dash, chuckling. “Sure, let’s go find your frog a home.”

“By all means,” said Rarity with a wry smile.

Past the pond where they deposited Fluttershy’s brief companion, and over a stream so small it was hard to even fill their water-bags properly, the jungle thinned out noticeably during the last hours of false sunlight. When Rarity’s horn-light cast long and deep shadows, the darkening sky was plainly visible amidst the network of vines and wide leaves of the canopy, while the ground remained bare. They made great speed, and even trotted for the last half hour or so, uphill or no.

Even Dash herself noticed that it was tough going, though. The slight incline got steeper and steeper, to the point where Rainbow Dash wondered what the difference between walking and climbing really was. The terrain tricked them into doing the latter, and it showed no signs of stopping. Maybe the wall that loomed ahead—the mountains and the V-shaped pass that was their goal—perhaps the rock-face would keep going, the world tilting slowly until they found themselves walking right up the sheer wall or upside-down.

The evening hours were hot. So very, very hot, and as humid as it had never been before. Fluttershy’s long mane was soaked, and Rarity’s curls were long since gone, her hairs a mess matted against her face. This was definitely the hardest walk they’d had so far, but despite it, they managed to keep going. With breaks as frequent and as long as they had to be, they moved on, easy banter on their lips rather than concerns. When they decided to stop, it wasn’t the result of a debate so much as them all coming to the same decision, together, tired but uncomplaining, weary but smiling. Rarity set up a shelter using their tarp as a roof and the smaller blanket as bedding on ground drier than the soil of yesterday’s rest stop by the river.

Presently, Rarity sat at the edge of the blanket fussing over her coat—”did you hear? The serpent called me ‘grey’. This ash is awful. It was such a normal and very Rarity concern, complaining over what little ash survived Odasthan’s drizzle, the moisture and the sweat, so much better than the unicorn staring at some arcane plans for a dress-and-ceremony Dash didn’t know would ever happen. It felt good to see, and Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but smile, though she kept her laughter to herself.

On the other side of the blanket, Fluttershy leaned against Rainbow Dash, conversing with a pudgy mammal that looked like an overgrown hamster. In front of her lay the increasingly battered and damp book about animals, open on a page that showed the creature’s likeness.

“Mm, no, we’re going the other way, I’m ever so sorry,” said Fluttershy, smiling at the creature. “I’d love to meet your family. Maybe some other day. You’ll make sure to tell them we all said ‘hello’ though, won’t you?”

The creature responded with a stuttering squeak that switched pitch over and over, tiny forelegs waving about.

“What the hay is that sound?” Dash asked, giggling. The squat creature leaned past Fluttershy, and Dash could have sworn the thing glared at her.

“He was just saying goodbye,” said Fluttershy, tilting her head. “The capybara make lots of different sounds, and I think it’s lovely.”

Another little squeak. The thing turned and waddled off. Rainbow Dash held a hoof to her muzzle to curb her laughter. “Wow, it even walks funny.”

“Rainbow Dash, that’s not a nice thing to say about anyone,” Fluttershy chided.

“Hey, I’m sorry,” Dash, waving a hoof. “I bet she—”


“—thinks we look weird, whatever,” Dash finished, grinning. She turned to face her girlfriend in full, and breaking the contact between their sides made a sound not unlike lifting a wet towel off a floor. She ran a hoof through Fluttershy’s mane, and it came away dripping. Dash grimaced and shook it. “Jeez, Fluttershy, it’s like you just came out of a bath.”

“It’s certainly taking its time getting cold tonight,” Rarity said, dribbling a little water on a foreleg, scrubbing away at her coat with her magic and a rag. She frowned at Fluttershy, full of sympathy. “It must be worse on you than any of us with that mane, Fluttershy, you poor dear.”

“It’s okay,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head, wiping at her forehead with the nook of a leg. “We’re all hot. The sun should go down behind the mountains soon, and it’ll get a little colder still once the valley has time to cool off.”

“Guess there’s a reason this place is called the Cauldron, huh,” said Dash, spreading her wings to fan herself. Every time she folded her wings, her sides felt warm. Fluttershy didn’t seem entirely satisfied with her own conclusion, though, the other pegasus mare’s face set in a pensive frown. Dash tilted her head and leaned forward to nuzzle her inquisitively instead of ask.

Fluttershy shook her head and smiled. “Sorry, I was just thinking—” she turned to Rarity. “Rarity? Would you cut my mane?”

Rarity arched a brow. “Truly? I know I offered to help maintain your style while we travelled, and I’ve been a little neglectful, I’m sorry,” she said, “but if your mane is a little shaggy, we should probably wait with trimming it until it’s dry.”

“No, I mean, cut it short,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head.

“Oh,” said Rarity, the other eyebrow joining the first. Her expression spoke volumes on what she thought about that idea. Ponyville’s number one most fashion-conscious pony stared at Fluttershy between the clinging threads of her own mane.

What?” asked Dash, incredulous.

“You’re quite serious?” asked Rarity.

“But...” Dash said. That was all she had. But.

Fluttershy nodded. “I wasn’t really honest when I said I am fine. It’s really heavy and hot. It’ll grow back anyway, and even if we get back to Perytonia soon, it’s been uncomfortable ever since we left Equestria. I guess I hoped it would get better, and I’m a little more used to the heat, but my mane is still in the way a lot, and, well... heavy. I think I already said that. Sorry.”

Rainbow Dash tried to imagine it, but she just couldn’t. Fluttershy’s mane had always been long. In fact, she wondered if she ever cut it beyond a simple trim. She tried to picture her girlfriend with Twilight’s bangs, and she didn’t even manage to laugh. Perhaps panic a bit, but not laugh.

“Okay, okay,” said Dash. “I know we were joking about the whole stuff with us being girlfriends meaning your mane is half mine, too, but can we like… think about that for a second? Like, pretend that’s not a joke?”

Fluttershy nibbled her lower lip. “Is it going to bother you?”

Dash opened her mouth, but she didn’t have a plan. The words just tumbled out, as they often did. At the other side of their blanket, Rarity rooted around her saddlebags. “No! Yes? No, probably not, but I mean—it’s not my decision, I guess, not really—”

Fluttershy frowned at that. “No, it’s not, and I’d be a little worried if you thought it was, but you know I care what you think, too.”

“Yeah, I know, I get it.” Rainbow Dash felt her cheeks heat up a touch, her ears threatening to wilt until she took a deep breath.

What was the big deal, really, though? Why not? Ignoring the part where it wasn’t her call, and that the heat annoyed Fluttershy, why not? New was cool. Usually. Besides, it was awesome that Fluttershy could just up and decide to do something like this. She let out the breath again.

“Okay, if you want my opinion? Go for it,” said Dash, finally finding her easy smile. “Changed my mind. It sounds awesome.”

Fluttershy smiled back, leaning over to touch her forehead to Dash’s snout. “That’s nice to hear.”

“Well, I’m glad you two have cleared that up,” said Rarity. The unicorn stood at their side with a pair of scissors in her magical grip. “I must admit I feel a little pressure right now. Please tell me that your relationship does not hinge upon my performance with a pair of abused and neglected scissors.”

Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash both laughed, and Dash moved aside to give Rarity some space.

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” said Fluttershy. “I’m not looking for a new style or anything, I just want it to be short.”

“Oh, we’ll manage something stylish, make no mistake, and of course I’ll do a marvellous job,” Rarity declared, giving Fluttershy a gentle nudge and flashing her a smile. “Just remember I am not an actual hairdresser—now, off the blanket, please. Let’s not get hair all over our bed.”

With every snip of Rarity’s scissors, swathes of pink mane fell away. It was a weird way to end a day, a strange punctuation to a day where Dash—and by all accounts, Rarity and Fluttershy, too—had been buoyed by a pervasive good mood even as they sweated, thirsted and laboured through the jungle. Dash turned away from the manecut-in-progress. For all the cutting Rarity did, Dash still couldn’t see much changing yet. She looked to the mountains instead while she waited, excited despite herself.

“We probably need to start flying soon,” said Dash, tapping a hoof on the ground as she thought. She couldn’t see much right now, but the last time she flew up to scout, she’d seen the end of the treeline ahead, far above, after endless hill-studded slopes. The trees and the jungle just stopped, a band of mosses and who-knew-whats carrying on a little longer until there was only rock. She tilted her head back. While she couldn’t see the lower slopes, she could see bits of the two peaks up ahead, up, up and up. All the life down here seemed to exist on different level from the snow so far beyond.

“Mm, flying. I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” said Rarity, the snip-snip of her scissors pausing only for a second before she went on again. “How do we go about this?”

“For starters, it will get colder the higher up we get, so that’ll help,” said Fluttershy. “Since the nights are longer here, or the dark is, at least, maybe we should just go to bed soon. We could get up before sunrise.”

“Yeah,” said Dash, shuffling her wings. “If we do that, we can get up high before the heat hits, and then we win.”

“That’s good to know, but I meant whether or not you wish to start flying right away, or if we should carry on walking further up there,” said Rarity. Dash imagined she waved or pointed ahead, but she didn’t look. Now that she’d looked away, Rainbow Dash wanted to be surprised by what she did to Fluttershy’s mane. She’d wait until Rarity had finished.

“I think it’s almost as hard to climb now as it will be to fly,” Fluttershy said. “I think we could fly tomorrow, even if we just land higher up on the slope.”

“Yeah, but come on, no way is it going to take us all day to fly past the trees,” said Dash. At least, she hoped not. Sure, she said she liked to fly all day, and that was her way of life, but she didn’t know if she could pull it off literally.

“I doubt I can even hold on for a full day,” Rarity admitted. Snip. Snip.

“I don’t know how long it will take, really,” Fluttershy said. “We’ll just have to try, won’t we?”

Was there a note of excitement in her voice? Dash’s cheeks hurt from all the smiling. Maybe Fluttershy sounded like she looked forward to it, and maybe she didn’t, but there sure as hay wasn’t any doubt or reluctance to be heard, neither in Fluttershy nor Rarity, and that made it hard to feel any doubt herself. Dash stretched her wings out again. “That’s what we came for,” Dash said. “We’ll be fine. We’ll be great.”

“And, speaking of great, where are my toiletries? One moment, let me find my travel mirror,” said Rarity. “I think that is about the best I can do. No more mane hanging about your neck either. I don’t suppose you’ll want me to do anything with your tail?”

“No thank you, that’s fine,” said Fluttershy.

Rainbow Dash turned around to find Rarity rooting around her saddlebags again, and Fluttershy sat on her haunches, smiling at her expectantly.

Maybe it was that smile more than the mane. Fluttershy sat surrounded by mounds of pink hair, left only with just enough mane to curve like her old style, now barely reaching halfway down the side of her face. On the back of her neck, her mane was even shorter, not even touching her back. Rainbow Dash couldn’t contain the smile and the laugh that welled up inside her as she trotted over.

“That looks awesome,” Dash declared. “You look awesome!”

Fluttershy blushed faintly, smiling despite her ears’ tilt. “You really think so? It’s not too—oh, oh goodness, that’s very short,” she said, looking into the mirror Rarity held up for her, turning her head left, then right.

“Too short?” Rarity asked, biting down on her lower lip with obvious trepidation.

“No, no,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head briskly. “It’s perfect!”

Rainbow Dash had to touch it. She reached out to poke at the hair, shorter, less soft and more rigid now as she ran her hoof along. Fluttershy looked up at Dash, her face an open question, but Dash just grabbed her in a hug and laughed, and Fluttershy giggled too.

“You sure you’re not moonlighting as a hairdresser?” Rainbow Dash asked.

Rarity let out a sigh of relief, a satisfied smile on her face as she shook her head. “No, and I have no desire to, either, but I am truly happy I could help,” she said, leaning over to steal a quick nuzzle from Fluttershy, who still blushed deep crimson. When Rainbow Dash let her go, she had pink hairs stuck to her body all over.

“You may want to dry off to get the loose hairs out before you bed,” Rarity called over her back, ferrying her saddlebags back to the rest of their stuff while grabbing her journal.

“Now you tell me,” Dash muttered.

Fluttershy laughed and reached out to brush at Rainbow Dash’s chest, but it was futile. The wet and the hairs made for a terrible combination. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking not very sorry at all.

“Eh, worth it.” Dash smirked.

When they lay down to bed soon after, the heat had well and truly let up, and the moisture chilled even Rainbow Dash. The three lay closer together under their blankets than ever before, hugging for warmth. It was more than a little uncomfortable with a lot of wiggling, but not a single protest was uttered. Rainbow Dash reached across Rarity’s body, resting a foreleg over her to touch a hoof to Fluttershy’s side. She was exhausted in the best way possible.