• 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 36

I have a good feeling about today’s climb. We’re attempting to cross the mountains of the Bow, or the Cauldron, or whatever else one wishes to call them. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy both seem to be in a good mood, and it’s hard not to be infected.

I told Fluttershy that if this mountain pass doesn’t have the horrid winds that plagued our previous attempt, I don’t see what could possibly go wrong.


“What I wish to know,” said Rarity, frowning as she levitated something out of her saddlebags. A bent piece of metal glinted in the magical light of her horn. “Is how a crash can leave a jar of candy—a glass jar—intact, not hurt any of us, yet somehow destroy my finest steel scissors.”

“I don’t know about not hurt,” said Fluttershy, her ears splayed as she smeared some more of the green gunk on Rainbow Dash’s snout. It smelled alright, as far as herbs went. The bandage Fluttershy put around her snout afterwards probably looked pretty cool, too, so Dash didn’t mind. She touched a hoof to Fluttershy’s chest as thanks. Fluttershy returned a sympathetic smile, cradling Dash’s head with a wing and touching their foreheads together, and Dash let her hold her like that for a bit, suppressing a smile.

There was a time when mushy stuff was okay, and right now would do. The three ponies sat at the base of a large tree in the pre-dawn seeking cover from the light rain, and for the second time so far in this journey, they took stock of their losses.

“Darling, Rainbow Dash herself is about as bothered by crash-related injuries as Applejack is by mud on her hooves,” said Rarity, levitating up the other side of her saddlebags, shaking her head at a large hole. “There’s a difference between hurt and injured, I feel.”

Fluttershy didn’t say anything to that, still holding Rainbow Dash, eyes closed and breathing slowly.

“Are you still blaming yourself?” Rarity asked, one brow cocked. “Also, give me your ohron, please.”

Fluttershy complied. The neck-bag changed hooves, and Rarity unpacked under the cover of the tarp while Fluttershy sat back down, sighing.

“You’re being ridiculous,” Rarity said. “It would be one thing if you blamed yourself for our crash—”

Fluttershy’s eyes widened ever so slightly.

“Don’t. Don’t even start, please,” said Dash, groaning and headbutting Fluttershy lightly. She winced when the motion sent a jolt of pain through her muzzle. “Ow.

“—but to blame yourself for Rainbow Dash’s injury is patently ludicrous!” Rarity finished. “When she’s following you, and you crash into something, of course she’ll crash into you! What did you expect? And besides, if she hadn’t crashed into your behind, she might have crashed into the tree head-first, and that could have gone even worse!”

“I don’t know,” said Dash, smirking. She touched Fluttershy’s flank with a hoof, resting it there for a second. “That might not have been as hard as Fluttershy’s flank, if I have to be honest.”

Fluttershy huffed and blushed a deep crimson.

“I’m sorry about your scissors, anyway,” Fluttershy murmured. “What else did we lose?”

“One of our water bags is punctured and useless. I can’t sew that shut so it won’t drip, but I can fix all the holes in our saddlebags. Yours in particular, Fluttershy, are ruined because of those antlers you insist on dragging around. Much of our paper is soggy and in tatters.” Rarity paused, holding up a mass of paper ruined by having touched the wet ground. “Thankfully, the map and Fluttershy’s book survived, after a fashion, as did my journal. The silks will need washing, my glasses are ruined, and… no, I believe that’s about it. Everything else is there, unless either of you noticed anything missing.”

“Eh, big whoop. Most of that paper is Twilight’s reports, and you—uh, I mean, we’ve already read those. What else were you going to do with your scissors anyway?” Dash asked. “You’ve already cut all the hair here. Like, all the hair on the continent, probably.” She snickered at her own joke.

“If we had to lose one thing between Rainbow Dash or your scissors, I don’t think it’s a very hard choice to make anyway,” Fluttershy added, her short tail brushing against Dash’s flank as she smiled.

“I don’t know if it’s that easy a choice,” Rarity said, scratching at her own snout. “I’d need a minute. You haven’t seen how bad my backup scissors are.”

Rarity!” Fluttershy exclaimed, even while Rainbow Dash laughed.

“Oh come now, it’s a joke,” said Rarity, her eyes seeking the back of her head while she waved a foreleg. “I’m over it, dear. I will survive without a pair of scissors, and we’ve spent entirely too much time talking about it. I’m glad Rainbow Dash isn’t bent like my poor, poor imported Marelìn-grade steel scissors.”

“Okay, good,” said Fluttershy, letting out her breath in a drawn-out sigh. One of her wings snaked around Dash’s neck again, holding her even closer and tighter this time, resting her head atop of Dash’s. Again Dash didn’t protest. If she felt guilty for the dumbest, funniest reason ever, Fluttershy could cuddle all she wanted.

It felt good, too. Dash wrapped a wing around Fluttershy’s back in turn and rubbed a hoof up and down Fluttershy’s chest, relishing in the feel of her coat against Dash’s hooves. Never mind the fact that her hooves were dirty with soil. They were all a mess after the crash-landing.

They deserved a break, anyway. Those were the worst feelings Dash could dredge up if she really tried; that she was tired and wanted a break, and they were simmering down for a nap anyway, so she was covered on that front. She still felt good, and idly she wondered if that was a return to normal, if she was supposed to feel this good. She didn’t remember exactly how she felt on a normal Ponyville summer’s day. Certainly she didn’t sit around thinking about how she was feeling. She chuckled at herself, making Fluttershy give her an odd look.

“Is everything okay?” Fluttershy asked.

“Yeah,” said Dash. “My snout itches when I talk, actually, heh,” she admitted, shaking her head. “I don’t know—hey, Rarity. Remember when you asked me what I was thinking about the first time we didn’t get past the mountain?”

Rarity threaded a thick needle with some thread, not looking up. “I don’t know, there wasn’t much time for speaking or thinking, honestly. I don’t recall what I may have said. I became very light-headed up high.”

“Not today. First climb, a few days back. I don’t remember what you said exactly,” said Dash, shaking her head.

“Oh. Yes, I worried you were disappointed,” said Rarity, pausing with her needle half poking through Fluttershy’s saddlebags. She looked over at Dash and tilted her head. “How come? I expect you aren’t too pleased we’ve failed twice now.”

Dash shrugged. “Dunno. Did we?”

“Well, um, we’re still trapped here,” Fluttershy said. She pulled away from Dash a little, giving her a worried look, then reached out to touch her forehead gently. “Are you sure you are feeling okay?”

Rainbow Dash laughed and pushed Fluttershy’s hoof away. “What I’m saying is, I don’t think we really failed. Yeah, sure, we didn’t get through the mountains, but so what? I bet we’re the first ponies, maybe the first anythings to fly that high, and I don’t see anypony else flying over the mountains. Who cares if we didn’t do it? And hey, we can come back anytime we want. Mountains don’t go anywhere.”

Rarity chuckled at that, returning to her needlework. “I expect you’ll want to come back without all this baggage, and perhaps without a passenger, next time.”

“What, and fly without your magic?” Dash asked. “Pft. No chance.”

“Or I could cast my spell on you before you fly.”

“Who cares, this is teamwork!” said Dash, rolling her eyes. “I’m not saying I’m gonna try to get ponynapped a second time so I get another shot at this next year or whatever, but if I did, we’d all go together. We did something awesome, even if we didn’t—” she paused, frowning at herself. She wasn’t gonna say the word. Not ever. It wasn’t that they hadn’t won, but…

“No, we did win,” said Dash. “We won, because we did something amazing.”

Rarity stared at her unmoving needle for a second. “I… hm. Well. I am glad to hear you say that, darling, I really am.” She smiled, a small, faint thing, genuine as nothing else. “And I think perhaps I agree. I’m mostly just glad we are all safe and sound, though.”

Dash nodded noncommittally. They were more than just safe. They were awesome, that was what she meant, but maybe Rarity had a point, too. “‘Course we’re safe. But, uh, sorry I almost got us in trouble today. Again.” She reached up to scratch at her snout, but thought the better of it what with the bandages and all.

Rarity just shook her head and smiled.

“You just wanted to make sure we tried our hardest,” Fluttershy said. “And we did. We really tried, and we’ll all keep trying.” She sounded happy about that fact, just like Rainbow Dash.

“Hay yeah we will. And speaking of trying, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone try as hard as you today. You were up that ridge before me,” said Dash, grinning at her. Fluttershy rubbed the side of her cheek against Dash’s, suffusing her with warmth. No buts or ifs or complaints, no reply at all, and Dash didn’t really have a follow-up. She just enjoyed the surge of affection for and from her girlfriend.

“If you two want some time alone,” said Rarity, “while I repair our saddlebags and stop our tarp from leaking onto our bed, you could go fetch water and fruits from the place mentioned by… well, whatever the creatures that tried to steal our things when we crash-landed were.”

“They’re lemurs,” said Fluttershy with a giggle, “and they didn’t try to steal, they just wanted to have a look. They’ve never seen ponies before, and it was very nice of them to tell us where there are fruit trees.”

Rainbow Dash let go of Fluttershy, smiling and stretching before stifling a yawn. “Whatever, those things were cute,” she admitted, glancing up at the sky. If there was any light beyond the clouds far above, she couldn’t see it. The rain showed no signs of letting up. “But hey, let’s go get some fruits. I’d love to eat something other than soggy bread.”

And then straight to bed, Dash thought, pushing her rain-slickened mane out of her face. She could sleep for a week.

Rainbow Dash didn’t get to sleep much at all. She felt as though she’d just lain down, barely closed her eyes after a quick snack of fruits and bread when she felt a hoof poking her in the side. She’d been having so much fun flying and… well, just flying, really. Neither Princess Luna nor changelings invaded her pleasantly simple dreams that night, but Fluttershy’s insistent hoof did what neither monsters nor princesses-​or-​goddesses-​what-​was-​the-​difference-​and-​who-​cared could do, waking her up.

“What is it?” Dash grumped. She reached up with the nook of foreleg to rub at her face, instantly regretting it when she touched her bruised snout. “Augh! Ow! Ow ow ow that stings,” she said, hissing in pain, but she couldn’t hear her own sharp intake of breath. The roar she’d thought was a holdover from her dream didn’t let up. The rush of air from her dream-flight continued, except it wasn’t air. It was the sound of rain.

“I’m sorry!” said Fluttershy, whimpering in pain as though it was her own snout that had been bruised. “I’m really sorry, but you have to get up, please!”

Dash popped her eyes open. Why was she wet? Their blanket was soaked and warm, and so was she. She staggered up on all fours, still disoriented, but very much awake.

“What the hay is going on?” she asked. The blanket was wet all the way through, as was was pretty much everything around them. The great leaves of the jungle bowed under the weight of a torrential downpour. Their tarp still hung overhead, secure between the nearest two branches, but the entire jungle floor flooded.

“I woke up to something wet on my legs,” said Rarity, pointing to where the rain poured down the side of the tree, around the tarp, and to tendrils of water that became miniature rivers on the ground around the tree, joining, pooling. “This all happened while Fluttershy tried to wake you, and it’s getting worse, quickly!”

While she spoke, the unicorn busily repacked all their bags, the various little items they’d put around their camp stowed away with ruthless efficiency. Every single saddlebag and ohron levitated in her grip at once, shut tightly one by one.

“Right, right,” said Dash, taking a deep breath. “Okay. I guess that’s bad. Uh, so, what do non-pegasi do when this happens?” She looked straight up. The cloud cover was high and absolute, and only the heat told her that it must be day, a hot and cloying rainstorm rather than a cold and refreshing shower.

“I already flew up to check,” said Fluttershy, guessing her thoughts. “It’s morning, and the clouds cover the entire northeastern part of the cauldron. We can’t clear this.”

“Fine, yeah. Because there’s water everywhere, making a hole doesn’t help anything except stop us from getting rained on right here, I get it,” said Dash. She stepped aside as Rarity drug the blanket away from under her. Their trusty blanket was soaked and dirty with dark-soiled mud all the way through, and Rarity strained with the effort of moving it. She tried to wring it with a loud groan, water pouring from it before she even twisted the bundle of cloth.

“Maybe we can head up the slope?” Dash asked.

“There could be a mud- or rock-slide, and that’d be even more dangerous,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head briskly. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“And we can’t just hide out on top this time either,” said Dash, sighing. “What’s the plan?”

Fluttershy bit her lower lip, glancing between Rarity and Rainbow Dash.

“That’s why I’m glad you’re awake. I don’t know. We don’t know.”

“Uh… how long was I asleep?”

“Oh. Um. A minute longer than I was, but that’s plenty of time to panic, really,” Fluttershy admitted, folding her ears.

Rainbow clutched the side of her head. This was bad. More than bad, really. Out-of-control weather could be dangerous, even if this wasn’t a storm of the same magnitude as the one they’d seen earlier this summer. In fact, there was a curious lack of wind, but she didn’t have time to contemplate minor weirdness. If they couldn’t control the rain, couldn’t hide out on top, and they didn’t have somewhere to seek shelter—Rainbow Dash’s three go-to solutions—then they had nothing.

“Alright, I guess we’re moving,” said Rainbow Dash.

“Where?” asked Fluttershy.

“Do you have a plan in mind?” Rarity asked. She stepped up to Rainbow Dash and strapped the pegasus’s saddlebags on, and then helped Fluttershy into hers, all in short order.

“Nope, but we’re moving,” said Dash, shrugging. “You can give me the blanket, if you want. Just put it on top or whatever.”

“Just ‘moving’?” Rarity repeated.

“We don’t have a choice, do we? That’s why you’re packing up,” said Dash, grunting under the weight of the sodden burden placed on her back a second later. She grinned. “I don’t want to be a wet blanket—”

“Puns? Now? For heaven’s sake, Rainbow Dash,” said Rarity, rolling her eyes, but she caught a giggle out of Fluttershy.

“—but yeah, sorry, I don’t have any magical plan either. Huh, actually, speaking of magic, d’you have anything that can help?”

“I can’t keep the water on the ground away. I could keep the rain out with a magical umbrella, but it’d be for myself only, and it’s complicated,” said Rarity. “It’s that, or we get magical light, not both of them, and it’s dark enough with the trees and the clouds that I think we’ll want the light. Now, I’m going to take the tarp down, just so you’re aware.”

“Cool, just checking,” said Dash. “Let’s—”

She was violently cut off when Rarity pulled the tarp away, great big rain-drops suddenly hammering against her head. She winced in pain and tilted her head forward to keep her poor, poor snout hidden.

“Let’s get walking!” said Dash, louder, to be heard over the rain.

Walking three-legged was beyond awkward, but none of them had figured out a solution for Dash’s muzzle-problem. For the first time in her life, Rainbow Dash wanted a hat, but as Rarity had bemoaned at regular intervals during their journey, her supplies were not for hat-making, and so, Dash had to shield her bruised and bandaged snout with a foreleg as she walked.

It wasn’t as though they could possibly move any slower, anyway. Her feathers told her they moved northish, gaining ground one step at a time and keeping away from the worst of the flood, dodging and soaring across riverlets that probably hadn’t been there an hour ago.

“Please don’t take this as critique, you two,” said Rarity in that particular voice that heralded her doing exactly what she said she wasn’t going to do. “But how in the world did we—did you not see this coming?” she asked, checking over her shoulder as she’d done with every step since they left their camp, fussing over the saddlebags and worrying about water getting in. “If we were headed for a flood, a little warning would’ve been wonderful. An hour ago, I was sound asleep, and now I feel like I’m swimming more than walking!”

“We didn’t see it coming because it wasn’t coming,” Dash said with a snort of hot air that sent a lance of pain through her snout.

“The wind was going west when we went to bed, and these clouds can’t have come from over the moun—ick, over the mountain,” Fluttershy added, sputtering as she drank more rainwater against her will. They may as well have been underwater. “The serpent said that they made these storms together with the other one, with Yelgadar, so it’s got to come from the Cauldron itself.”

“Yeah, but the rain-clouds from yesterday shouldn’t hold this much water!” Dash protested. “But hey, this place is crazy, what else is new?”

“I’ll take your word for it it,” said Rarity, shaking her head. “This is still absurd.”

“No kidding,” Rainbow Dash retorted, stepping around a tiny little waterfall pouring from a large tree. “And hey, we’re not the only ones caught by surprise.”

A small flock of lemurs ran through the jungle not far away, parallel to their course, muddy and wet. Not a moment later, two jaguars ran full-pace past the ponies, kicking up mud and making Rarity yelp in surprise.

Manners!” the unicorn shouted, to no reply.

“At least we’re going in the right direction?” Dash chuckled. “All the animals we’ve seen are going in the same direction we are.”

“Well, that’s probably just because it’s up, it’s not very strange… at all,” said Fluttershy, her words trailing off as she watched a huge snake make its way past them. The thing was nearly as wide across as any of the ponies, and many, many times their length. Dash wasn’t really afraid of snakes, but the massive grey-brown coils made her a little uneasy. Fluttershy? Not so much.

“Hi,” said Fluttershy, smiling at it. She trotted a little closer, her every step splashing dark mud. “Excuse me, where are you going? I was just wondering if maybe you know someplace safe nearby—we’re looking for shelter, you see.”

If the snake made a reply, Rainbow Dash couldn’t hear it. The thing made large S-shapes in the soft and soaked ground coming up on their side, and then it passed them, circling around the trees ahead.

“Anywhere at all? Please? Anything with a roof?” Fluttershy said, finally sighing as the snake disappeared ahead of them, painfully slow to fade out of view of the even slower ponies.

“I’m supposing you didn’t get an answer,” said Rarity, pausing for a second to stare at her legs, each and every one brown with wet dirt all the way up to her body.

“No,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head sadly. “All the animals are really very busy trying to get to higher ground, so it’s a little hard to get a word in.”

Rainbow Dash shoved her own mane out of her face and nodded, peering north through the jungle. “That’s fine. We’re on our own this time. Could be worse,” she said, squinting. “Let’s just keep going. Even if all we find is someplace a little higher up, that’s fine. At least it’s just rain this time.”

Rain was never just rain, of course. The issue wasn’t the water from above, but the water below. The ground swelled, saturated, and every step became more treacherous than the last. Dash got the distinct feeling that they were the last ponies in the race to safety. No more animals rushed past them. After a brief, short climb up an earthen bank that fell apart under their hooves, the other side showed a rush of water. Though they had no issues flying across, the scene repeated itself. Steady ground became more and more precious.

“So, about the flying up thing!” Dash said.

“We can’t fly forever!” Fluttershy replied.

“Maybe we can just… sit up top?” Dash said. “Rarity can lie on top of us or something, I don’t know!”

“As half-baked as that plan is,” said Rarity, “I don’t know that we have much choice!”

“It’s not a plan,” said Fluttershy. “That only works with stable clouds, and even if these clouds aren’t moving, they’re rainclouds, they’re unstable! We’d sink through!”

“Well, I don’t know what else we can do, dea—ah!” Rarity shrieked as one of her legs sank deep into the earth, sending the side of a bank tumbling into a small rainwater river. Fluttershy grabbed her with a wing and Rainbow Dash stuck out a leg, the two of them hauling the unicorn back to the relative safety of the little ridge they followed.

“Up the mountain then!” Rarity said, stopping in her tracks to clutch her chest. “This is going to be the end of us!”

“The clouds followed the slope all the way up last time I checked,” said Rainbow Dash. She kept a wing about Rarity to make sure she didn’t fall again. “It’s not—”

“We need to do something!” Rarity shouted.

“I think I’ve got something!” said Fluttershy, pointing ahead. Dark shadows thicker than any tree lined the crown of a hill.

“What is this?” Dash asked.

“I don’t know,” said Fluttershy.

“It’s not where the animals went, that’s for sure,” said Rarity. The stone circle covered the entire flat area of the hill that rose up over the rest of the jungle. “It’s dry, at least,” Rarity added, shrugging noncommittally.

“Yeah. But it shouldn’t be,” said Rainbow Dash, frowning.

Large slabs of grey stone lay fitted in concentric circles around a central statue both like and unlike the stele they’d seen so many of before. The idea of a single slab of stone given shape wasn’t new, but Dash had never seen a complex spiral shape like it. It looked to Dash like an exaggerated and stylized unicorn’s horn—or a tall ice cream swirl. The twelve other stones studding the outer circle were a lot simpler, square stones with no features.

Even stranger than all this, not a single drop of rain fell on the hill. Far above, a wide hole pierced the sky, the grey cloud-mass missing above the hill and letting indirect daylight in.

“You said yourselves that the clouds didn’t move,” said Rarity, a touch of magic wringing wet from her mane, short as though it was. “And even I can tell there’s no wind, so if someone punched a hole in the clouds, it would stay, wouldn’t it?”

“Sure, but who did that? We’re the only ones with cloud magic here,” said Rainbow Dash.

“The clouds moved tonight, and there’s always a little wind higher up,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head. “Even now, they’re moving a little, and this place should at the very least be a little wet from earlier.” She poked at the soil underhoof, which made an almost audible puff at her touch. The slopes of the hill leading up to the stone circle were completely dry.

Now that Dash looked to the eastern side, she could swear that something about the way the little flood-rivers flowed around the hill looked wrong, like the water itself turned a little too quickly, the rivers forming to avoid the hill rather than as a result of hitting the almost perfectly circular rise in the terrain.

“I’m sure it’s safe,” said Rarity after a moment, a little more quietly. She sounded like she wanted to convince herself. “We can’t really afford to pass up a safe haven.”

“Mm. It’s just a circle of stones,” said Fluttershy. “Nothing scary about that, really.”

Neither of them moved. All three stood at the very edge of the circle. Fluttershy scuffed the ground. “But… we could probably just wait here,” she added. “Outside the circle. That’d be okay, too.”

Rainbow Dash cast a sidelong glance at the two. She took a deep, covert breath, trying to will herself to stop thinking about this …was it superstitious nonsense? Where did the line between superstition and hunches go, anyway?

Dash didn’t know why she hesitated, but she felt it too, the pervading sense of wrongness about the hill—she simply saw nothing to explain it. Some missing clouds and a bit of dry land that wouldn’t be swept away by the flood? This was exactly what they needed, and because of that, Rainbow Dash simply decided to ignore the rest. She put one leg forward and strode onto the stone tiles, the first touch of her hoof against unyielding stone echoing strangely—

And that was it. Dash exhaled silently and stepped fully onto the circle. The second and third hoof-falls sounded completely normal to her ears. Her fears were playing tricks on her. The nearby rainfall was still loud, after all. Dash turned to Fluttershy and Rarity and rolled her eyes.

“C’mon, slowpokes, what’re you worrying about? It’s like Fluttershy said. It’s just stone.” She forced a smile and took a few more steps, but though she was still a fair distance away from the spiral in the center, every second she moved closer made her feel uneasy, like Pinkie Pie had given her a jack-in-the-box and she was spinning the handle. Rarity and Fluttershy still looked unconvinced. Rainbow Dash still felt unconvinced, a part of her still tugging her in the opposite direction.

“If you say so, dear,” said Rarity, taking a ginger step forward. Fluttershy cast a nervous glance over her shoulder and hurried to follow when she saw she was about to be left behind, but Rainbow Dash didn’t much feel like going any further.

“You know, here’s good,” said Dash, clearing her throat. “I just wanted to get off the slope so we didn’t roll down into the water while we slept, that’s all.”

“Of course,” said Rarity, nodding quickly. “No sense in walking any further than we have to.” She wasted no time in shedding her saddlebags on the spot, and Fluttershy did the same with her own hastily repaired bags, her eyes on the center sculpture all the while.

Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but look, either. Now she wondered if it was right to think of it as a stele. That word had been foreign to her not long ago, but the stone shape a couple dozen paces away bothered her. Peryton stele didn’t. Not anymore. She turned her back on the thing to force herself to think of something else, of anything else. She shook her body from side to side, and each droplet of water shed caused a splash and made a tiny pool of murk, and when the wet blanket fell of her back with a loud, wet slap, dust whirled about.

“That won’t dry in a hurry,” said Rarity with a sigh. “Let’s see about… finding something else to lay on, I think. Even the tarp will be softer than the stone itself. I hope you brought back enough fruit yesterday night to tide us over.”

“Yeah, we got a bunch. Fluttershy’s ohron is full of peaches and stuff,” said Rainbow Dash, yawning loudly. Now that the immediate danger was gone, her body wasted no time in reminding her that she hadn’t slept properly in a long while. She hadn’t caught real shut-eye since before they started their last climb up the mountain. “Let’s just go back to bed, yeah? I’m beat.”

“Peaches,” Rarity repeated, cocking a brow. “We didn’t have peaches yesterday. You just brought back the same kinds of fruits we’d eaten while we guested with the Morrowsworn.”

Fluttershy nodded and smiled tiredly, running a hoof through her mane. “It was going to be a surprise for tomorrow—or, today, I guess. We hid them from you yesterday.”

“Well, that’s a lovely thought,” said Rarity, smiling back at her. She shooed Rainbow Dash away, folded the tarp under her, and put it down for bedding in between all their stuff. “I suppose that makes the state of affairs a little bit better.”

Rainbow Dash wasted no time laying back down. The waterproof tarp and the stone wasn’t exactly the height of comfort, and it made noise when she moved.

“Yeah, we have food and water and stuff, but this is probably the worst napping spot we’ve had so far,” Dash said, chuckling. She shifted about, but there was no way to really get comfortable. Adding to that their chaotic sleeping schedule, the weird hole in the sky, the heat, and the strange statue, everything pointed to sleep being a real challenge. And Rainbow Dash loved a good challenge. She spread her wings and tugged at both Fluttershy’s and Rarity’s legs. Both of them still stood around staring at stuff. “Can we think about stuff tomorrow? Or later?”

“I think that sounds like a good idea,” said Fluttershy, blinking heavily. Finally she lay down next to Rainbow Dash, folding her legs under her.

“Mm, we are due some sleep, I believe,” Rarity agreed covering her muzzle to hide a yawn of her own while she lay down as well. “At the very least it is warm enough that we won’t need the blanket right now.” She glanced over at the heap of soggy wool, a glimmer of magic spreading it out across the stone to help it dry faster.

“The… um, blanket-dress thing, that’s still dry, isn’t it?” Fluttershy asked.

“I think so,” Rarity replied.

“That’s good. That’s nice,” said Fluttershy, nibbling on her lower lip with another glance cast over their backs towards the center statue. “I don’t like that thing at all.”

Rarity pursed her lips, staring at the stone thing as she might a particularly distasteful hat. “I don’t think I do, either.”

Rainbow Dash shifted her wings a little, draping them over each of her friends’ backs to rest there. Dash didn’t like the weird hill or anything on it herself either. She just decided that as long as she had Fluttershy and Rarity with her, as long as she exchanged patterns of breath with her girlfriend, she could sure as hay make a good effort of not caring about it.

Rainbow Dash blinked and rubbed at her bleary eyes, careful to avoid touching her bandaged snout. Even before she looked, she could tell that she’d woken last, as was often the case. She lay on the tarp alone with her wings folded, pools of cold runoff water around her legs and her mane still damp. Damp and cold. It was the middle of the night, and straight above, the huge hole in the clouds showed stars, though she couldn’t see the moon from here. All around them, the rain still poured down. Perhaps it didn’t rain quite as much as before. Rainbow Dash rose up and stretched.

“Good evening, dear,” said Rarity. The unicorn sat right off the edge of the tarp, working on repairing her own saddlebags while wearing her very unflattering cotton blanket-dress for warmth. Dash chuckled at the sight.

“Yeah, hey, morning,” said Dash, yawning. “Jeez, how long was I out?”

“Not much longer than the rest of us,” said Rarity, smiling at her. She gestured to the jungle around them with a needle. “As you can see, it’s still raining, so if you’re still tired, you could just go back to bed.”

“Nah. Not tired anymore,” said Dash, shrugging. All their stuff lay spread out around the little area they’d marked as their camp, closer to the edge. She felt her eyes pulled towards the center of the stone circle, but refused to look at the statue. “What’s Fluttershy up to?” she instead asked, gesturing to the pegasus in question. She sat by the very edge of the stone circle, leaning down towards the ground just outside of it, her muzzle nearly touching the dirt.

“She’s… investigating, I suppose?” Rarity said, pausing her work for a second. “I told her that if she was bored, we could talk or play a game or something, but she said she was really curious about this place. Now that you’re awake, though, perhaps the two of you could see what the weather’s like?”

“We can see the weather fine from here, it’s raining,” said Dash, snorting. She clutched her snout, wincing in pain. “Ugh, I have got to stop that. That hurts.”

“I mean for the rest of this place, if it’s letting up, dear,” said Rarity, deadpan.

“I figured,” said Dash, shaking her head, walking towards Fluttershy. “I’ll see what we can do. Hey, Fluttershy!”

“Oh, good morning,” said Fluttershy, looking up. She smiled brightly. “I guess I should really say good evening, or good night.”

“What’re you doing?” Dash asked, frowning at her. “Digging for worms?”

Fluttershy shook her head slowly. “No, but… good guess? I was hoping to find something. To find anything except dust. I checked down by the foot of the hill, and everything seems fine there.”

“Okay? And here?” Dash asked. She stopped right beside Fluttershy, who’d dug a little hole in the ground right outside the stone circle. A pit of dust. Dash poked at the ground herself. The jungle floor didn’t have the dense carpet of grass that the Khosta and the Splitwood did, so Rainbow Dash hadn’t really noticed before now how different the hill was. It wasn’t just bare, it was completely free of grass and moss, but also moisture and any other growth. The only irregularities were stones, twigs and dead leaves.

“Nothing?” Dash said, hazarding a guess.

“Nothing,” said Fluttershy with a shrug, standing up straight and shaking her head to get some dust out of her short mane.

“Which means?”

“I don’t know. That this place is… scary?” Fluttershy suggested, bending one ear.

“Uh-huh, tell me something I don’t know,” Dash replied with a dry chuckle. “Hey, wanna head up and check on things? Rarity wanted to know if the rain’s gonna stop soon, I guess.”

Fluttershy smiled at that and nodded, flexing her wings. “I’ve just been waiting for you to wake up, really.”

“Then let’s go,” said Dash, grinning back. She launched herself into the air with a small whirl of dust and dry dirt, and Fluttershy pulled alongside her even as she ascended, so Dash added a little flair to it, twisting to fly upside-down underneath her, then above her, circling her while they flew, and Fluttershy giggled, watching her go. Within minutes they hit the high cloud-layer, first drawing level with, then pushing through the hole in the sky. Fluttershy broke their ascent and hovered, and Dash pulled a quick loop to rest alongside her.

The rainstorm still covered the north-eastern part of the cauldron, but the clouds moved. Dash felt the east-going wind the second they got above ground level, and the grey mass of rain-clouds shifted towards the dark and distant mountains—but the hole below them persisted. Given a better view from above, Dash watched the clouds flow slowly around the hill, the grey stone circle as dull and dark as any of the moonlit rain-clouds.

“Just like the rivers and the flood-water below,” Dash muttered, shaking her head.

“I’m sorry?” Fluttershy asked.

“The clouds. They’re just… ignoring the hill. It’s like they don’t want to even touch it. What the hay is going on?”

Fluttershy looked thoughtful for a second, and then her eyes widened a touch, her mouth hanging open.

“What?” Dash asked. “What’d I say?”

“No, I—it’s nothing,” Fluttershy said, shaking her head. “I just… I thought those words sounded familiar. Um, do you remember what the heron we met at the fortress ruins said?”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “No! Who remembers stuff like that? I remember creepy, not the words.”

“It said something like… the storm didn’t want to touch it.”

“Okay?” said Dash, frowning. “What does that—oh. Uh. Huh. That’s probably not the same thing, it’s like… like a coincidence. What the hay does this have to do with the birds?”

Fluttershy shook her head again. “You’re probably right, maybe it’s a coincidence. I just remembered.” She smiled faintly.

“Yeah,” said Dash, who had no idea what that’d mean even if it wasn’t. She looked to the west, to where the clouds thinned out. “I guess the rain’s not gonna last much longer anyway. That’s cool.”

Fluttershy nodded. “I’m glad. That means the animals can come back, and that everything’s back to normal soon. I hope they found someplace safe to stay while it rains.”

“If this place is all stormy and rainy often, they probably know what they’re doing,” said Dash, shrugging. “Let’s head back down.”

Fluttershy ducked and dove at a leisurely pace, pulling large circles at the edge of the cloud-hole, and Dash joined her. She could pull some crazy dives some other time. For now, she just glided alongside Fluttershy.

“They know to avoid this place, at least,” Fluttershy said after a while, her eyes on the stones below. “I don’t know what it is, but this place doesn’t feel natural.”

“They probably just want someplace with a… roof? I dunno,” Dash said, shrugging.

“It’s dry and it’s high up. If animals live around here, and it’s a safe place, you’d really think some animals would come here when the water level rose, even if it’s just a lonely jaguar who scares off any other animals.”

“Maybe we scared a jaguar off,” Dash said.

“I don’t think so,” said Fluttershy, clopping her hooves together. “We were really late and slow. There was no one here when we got here. This place—”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “It’s stone. Stone can’t be evil or scary!”

Fluttershy didn’t say anything more, sailing down in silence. Rainbow Dash let out a helpless burst of laughter. “Fluttershy, a few days ago, you and I climbed what’s probably one of the tallest mountains in the world, and now we’re gonna be scared of an ice cream cone made of rock?”

“I’m not afraid,” said Fluttershy, frowning at her. “I’m just… worried.”

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Yeah, and I get it, this place stinks, I feel it too, but we can’t do anything about that. Come on!”

Without waiting for a reply, Rainbow Dash angled her descent towards the center of the stone circle, and, just like she’d guessed, or hoped at any rate, nothing happened. She landed next to the spiral sculpture, hooves touching down without any explosions or crazy monsters bursting out from nowhere. She felt a little queasy, but that was probably just because she hadn’t eaten in a long time. Fluttershy landed at her side a moment later, folding her wings, and at the edge of the stone circle, Rarity packed away her tools and walked towards them with one brow raised in question.

“See? Nothing to it,” said Rainbow Dash. On a whim, she reached out to touch the statue, leaning against it. Fluttershy, for her part, leaned in a little closer without doing so.

“They’re letters, or signs,” she said.

“The what?” Dash asked. She let go of the statue. She’d thought the stonework was just detailed, smooth lines following the curves of the spiral to give it texture or something, but Fluttershy was right. Inside every carved line were tiny little symbols, unbroken reams of what might be words. “That’s not Peryton, is it?” Dash asked. Trying to focus on the dots and lines hurt her eyes, and she had a vague feeling that it wasn’t just from trying to read tiny letters in the dark of night.

“I don’t think so. I can’t read Peryton, but it doesn’t look like their letters,” Fluttershy said. She leaned down closer to the base of the statue. “And these are images.”

Rainbow Dash put her head next to Fluttershy’s. A thin band circled the base of the statue, one single unbroken piece of metal. Etched into it were colourless, simple line designs of tall, two-legged birds in various poses.

“Heron,” Dash said, gaping. “You were right. Seriously? Heron, here? Who are they?”

“I don’t know,” Fluttershy breathed. “It just repeats itself. I don’t think there’s anything else. Just the heron doing some sort of dance, and all the strange letters on the statue.” She slowly circled around the statue as she followed the metal band.

“Did you find anything? And why are you inspecting this ghastly thing?” Rarity asked, finally catching up to the pegasi. She glared at the spiral statue.

“I dunno, I just wanted to show the ice cream cone who’s boss,” said Dash, shrugging. “Hey, so we got good news—”

Dash was cut off by thunder. At least, she first thought it was thunder, and that’d make a lot of sense. A rainstorm developing into a thunderstorm? Sure, why not. Thunder wouldn’t make the ground shake, though. She looked to Fluttershy, who was notoriously un-fond of thunder, and found the other pegasus frozen with her hoof on the metal band around the statue, while around the ponies, one of the middle bands of stone tiles halfway between them and their stuff sunk away.

One by one, with a loud rumble, large and flat stone tiles showed that they weren’t tiles at all. Tall stone columns lowered down into the ground with painstaking slowness. A few of them didn’t move at all, one stopped after moving only just a little bit, and the next one sank a little lower. One step at a time, a staircase formed by sinking into the stone.

“What did you do, dear?!” Rarity yelled over the continuous scraping and grinding of stone against stone.

“I didn’t—I don’t know! I just touched the circle and it moved, it’s like a dial, but I didn’t know!” Fluttershy replied, her pupils shrinking to pinpricks. “I didn’t mean to!”

No sooner had Fluttershy spoken than there was a crack, and then a loud crash that shook the ground so hard it shook up dust all around. Rainbow Dash wobbled, and with a last, echoing thrum, the cacophony ceased. The pitter-patter of distant rain returned.

“Okay. This place isn’t getting any less weird,” Dash finally said. She tapped a hoof on the ground, then pointed towards the first step in the staircase that hadn’t been there a minute ago. “Wanna go check it out?”

Fluttershy trotted over to join Rainbow Dash and Rarity, her ears pinned back. “Um, normally, I’d say yes—”

Rainbow Dash raised a brow.

Fluttershy sighed. “Normally, I’d say no, but this time, I really want to say no,” she said.

“I suppose you’ll need me for light,” Rarity said, frowning slightly. “It’s better than not knowing what we’re sitting on top of.”

“Yeah. I need you, and I’ll need to know Fluttershy’s not up here by herself, because hey, this place is freaky enough as it is,” said Rainbow Dash. “Only reason I was fine with flying up to scope out the weather is because we could see you all the time.”

A little white lie, of course. Who needed who was never simple.

Fluttershy sighed. “Okay. I guess we can go have a look.”

But white little lies that worked didn’t count. Dash grinned and trotted towards the staircase. “Cool, let’s go. Whatever’s down there can’t be half as strange as the stuff up here.”

“You’re doing that on purpose,” said Fluttershy, grimacing.

“Okay. Yep, I take it back,” said Rainbow Dash.

Twenty seconds had passed, at most. They were six steps down. The three ponies hugged the left side, which was an unbroken and smooth stone wall. To their right, the stone floor of the circle above ground became both the ceiling and the open space of a great chamber into which they descended. Rarity’s horn-light barely touched the far wall.

“This room must be the size of the entire hill,” Rarity muttered.

“I think this room is the hill,” Fluttershy replied. “Or this hill is the room—whatever.”

“Careful. Missing step,” said Dash. She hopped across a gap that looked like a missing tooth and stepped up to the edge of the staircase on the next plateau, peering down. Rock-dust still whirled in the air around the fallen pillar broken on the tiled floor below.

“And you say you think the heron did this? Made this place?” Rarity asked.

“Oh, I thought you saw,” said Fluttershy. “There were images of them near the statue, or least I thought they were heron, but I could have been wrong. We don’t know that they’ve made this, though—can you make it a little brighter, please?” Their voices echoed loudly as they spoke. Please. Please. Please.

Rarity’s horn brightened a touch as they neared the end of their descent, the room gaining detail. By the very bottom of the staircase, an opening led into the central pillar. Dash thought it was an opening at first glance, at least, but when she stepped close she realised it was something dark and transparent, not open space. A wedge of stone poked out from the center of something solid, and when Rarity rounded the corner and joined Dash at the bottom of the stairs, the light from her horn played across a cracked mass of multicoloured glass, shifting and dancing every time the unicorn so much as breathed.

“Whatever that is, I like it,” said Dash, leaning a little closer. She tried to see how far the glass went, but the cracks made it impossible to tell. For all she knew, the entire central pillar was made of glass except for a layer of stone on the outside—or maybe she had just found a thick window of sorts. Whatever the case, this didn’t look like the sort of damage caused by the passage of time. Someone had gone out of their way to crack and destroy it.

“What happened here?” Fluttershy asked, her voice barely a whisper.

Dash turned away from the strange glass. Fluttershy faced the other way, looking towards the outer circle of the chamber. At the edge of Rarity’s light lay bookcases, tables and other sundry furniture that would’ve been right at home in Twilight’s library, all of it so shattered and splintered Dash thought it was wood at first, but she quickly realised it was dark stone. The monotony of the stone-colour was broken up by pieces that didn’t fit and by splotches of dull and faint colour, like someone had run rampant with a very big but ineffectual paintbrush.

Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash followed Rarity, who set off at a slow walk around the central column, but there was no way out of the chamber that they could see, and after a quarter-turn, they encountered the fallen pillar. Rarity turned around and started walking the other way, a little further towards the edge, closer to the chaos of broken furniture.

“I don’t know what to say except to repeat Fluttershy’s question, honestly,” Rarity said, shaking her head. “It’s like a library, a lounge, and a laboratory, and someone took serious offense to the furniture and everything else.”

“It’s not just… I don’t think all of this is furniture,” said Fluttershy, her eyes still on the far wall. She tilted her head ever so slightly, and her mane flopped over on the other side, changing the way the shadows fell on the wall. “Those look like the stones on top of the hill outside.”

She pointed to a tall, simple and almost offensively rectangular slab of stone against the wall, next to a fallen book-case. Unlike all the other stone in the room, this one stood untouched except for some splotches of colour, and Dash saw more like it along the wall. She could see four—no, five more, just from where she was standing.

“Okay… so, there was what, twelve of them up there? Wanna bet there’s twelve of them down here?” Dash asked.

“Why?” Fluttershy asked.

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “I dunno, if we’re right below them and there’s twelve down here, twelve up there, that adds up to… two times twelve? You’re the one who said they looked like the ones up there!”

“Oh, no, I understood that,” said Fluttershy, smiling at her. “I meant, why do you think that is? But I didn’t think you’d know.”

“Right. So a rhetorical thing,” said Dash. “That’s what they’re called, right?”

Fluttershy giggled. “Was that a rhetorical question?”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “Wow, okay, you gotta remember that one for when we get back home, Twilight’s gonna love that joke. Hey, Rari… uh, Rarity?”

Rarity had stopped a small ways behind the two pegasi, staring at the slab of stone they just passed, the unicorn’s face set in a deep frown. “I remember this one, I think,” said Rarity.

“The what?” said Dash.

“The symbol.” Rarity moved a little closer to the slab, and now Dash saw it too. Etched into the stone was a simple spiral with a line bisecting it. It was shallow enough that she’d missed it the first time around, but now that she was aware, Rainbow Dash saw a different symbol carved into the surface of the next stone.

“Where have you seen it before?” Fluttershy asked, her tone soft, hesitant.

“The stones the Morrowsworn used to… de-charge my magic,” said Rarity, with a scowl of distaste. “I remember this one because the flash of light gave me afterimages of it for hours afterwards—except it was the other way around.”

“Like, upside-down?” Dash asked. She stepped up to the stone and reached out to touch it. Just stone.

“No. Inverted,” said Rarity, shaking her head.

“Isn’t that the same thing? You can’t always tell.” Dash shrugged and left it alone, hopping over a broken piece of shelf to rejoin the other two.

“Not quite the same, no, but before you ask, I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, either,” said Rarity. “There were no symbols like this on the stones outside, at least.”

“I’m glad, really,” Fluttershy replied. “I don’t like looking at those.”

“You’ve noticed too? I thought it was just me,” Rarity muttered. “Not just related to unicorn magic, then.”

Rainbow Dash hopped over an upturned stone table and trotted ahead of the others a little.

“No. But, um, it could just be a me thing,” Fluttershy said, stifling a laugh. “I’m scared of a lot of things.”

“Darling, really,” Rarity said, laughing as well. “If anyone questions your bravery after this trip, they’re clearly not worth listening to.”

Rainbow Dash trotted a little further, following the curve of the central pillar. Pretty soon, they’d come upon the other side of the stair-column thing that fell over, and that’d be it. Nothing more to see here. Broken furniture and a giant mess.

“I just wish something here explained… anything,” Fluttershy said at length, clearly done with the other topic.

“I have to agree,” said Rarity, her voice almost lost around the turn of the curve, echoing strangely. “We have insinuations, suggestions, but no idea what to make of them.”

Rainbow Dash stopped, reached up to touch her still-tender snout, and frowned, staring at the far wall.

“Uh, yeah, we have more than that, actually,” Dash called over her shoulder. “Come on, guys!”

Etched into the stone of the outer wall—or maybe painted, actually, Dash couldn’t tell—were simple images. Crude lines that were neither letters nor arcane symbols, but images that Rainbow Dash had no trouble recognising, even if she couldn’t make sense of their meaning right away.

“Is that… graffiti?” Rarity asked with a vague note of disgust plain in her voice even as she approached. “I suppose it goes well with the rest of the décor.”

“It doesn’t look like that to me. It looks like… a story?” Fluttershy suggested while the three ponies moved close to the wall, together.

Carved, not painted, Dash now decided. Someone had taken a tool to the wall and cut shallow lines into the otherwise smooth stonework, the first picture a simplistic foal’s drawing of mountains to the left, mountains to the right, and flat stretch of land with some bowls on it. Outside stood crude four-legged stick-figures Dash would’ve thought pegasus ponies if not for the V-shapes atop their heads. Antlers, probably.

“Wait, are those supposed to be houses?” Dash asked, squinting.

“The peryton do make many of their houses dome-shaped,” said Rarity. “Why not?”

“Sure, but if those are the mountains—” Rainbow Dash said, pointing to the sides of the scene. “Why are there peryton here?”

Rarity paused with her mouth open.

“They said they came from the Morillyn gorges,” said Rainbow Dash. As much as she liked detective stories and mystery novels, this just made her head spin.

“They probably came from somewhere before they came from the gorges,” said Fluttershy, shuffling her wings on her back. “Maybe that’s here?”

“Well, the next picture certainly doesn’t clear it up,” Rarity opined. A large, simple arrow pointed to the next image on the other side of a fallen book-case.

“Heron,” said Rainbow Dash. “They’ve gotta be.”

The same scene repeated, drawn again, hastily and even shoddier than the last time, but with the addition of tall, two-legged shapes with crooked necks, reminiscent of the heron images on the metal mechanism that admitted them to this place.

“No argument there,” Rarity muttered. Already Fluttershy moved on to the next image, following another arrow to heron and peryton stood facing each other. Above the two peoples were a bunch simple squares, some of them bearing symbols.

“They look like the ones on the stones around here,” said Fluttershy. “But not exactly like them.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged, flapping her wings once to sail onto the next. “Details, whatever,” she called over her back. On the next picture over, the peryton surrounded the same stones, now bearing yet other symbols—Dash thought maybe one or two looked like the ones from the previous picture, but whoever had drawn these clearly wasn’t too concerned with specifics.

“Okay, so, they got some symbols or stones and whatever,” Dash declared, trotting onwards, driven by the arrows. “Then what.”

Do wait for us, dear,” said Rarity from behind her, glancing at the previous image in passing.

Dash stopped in front of the next one, staring. “Yeah. Uh. Yeah okay. I’m gonna need a second opinion on this one.”

“What is i—oh. Um. I don’t like that. At all,” said Fluttershy when she arrived. She shifted a step closer to Rainbow Dash, swallowing audibly.

The stones were re-drawn yet again, hastier, even sloppier this time, as were the peryton, but Dash hardly noticed. Her attention was on the creature above the scene. A huge and long snake-like monster with two sets of wings. The foal or the cider-loving artist who had created this particular masterpiece gave a lot of detail to its mouth, a huge gaping maw pointing straight up to the sun and the moon.

“Perfectly ghastly. Are we sure this isn’t a foal’s tale?” Rarity remarked.

“I don’t… I don’t know why you would carve that into the stone wall of a scary underground whatever-this-is,” Fluttershy said, her tail-tuft drooping as much as it could.

“Why’s there no sun?” Dash asked, glancing behind them, to the other pictures.

“Darling. It’s night.”

“No, on the other pictures!” said Dash. “There’s no sun or moon in any of the other pictures, but there’s a sun and a moon on this one. Why?”

“Ah. Well, they probably don’t draw anything that isn’t important. These images are hardly very detailed,” said Rarity. “That means the sun and the moon are important in this scene.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Alright, I guess that makes sense.” She hopped off the ground and broke into an easy hover, flying over to the next while Rarity and Fluttershy picked their way around the broken furniture. There weren’t many pictures left at all.

“What the hay?” Dash mouthed. “So… I guess they kicked the monster’s butt? I think that’s the monster.”

Rarity frowned. “I imagine drawing a monster lying down on the ground with whatever simple tools this ‘artist’ used was a challenge.”

The winged snake-thing lay in a heap, and over it, two creatures flew in the air between the sun and the moon and the fallen monster.

“I don’t think those are peryton,” said Fluttershy. She pointed to the two flying stick-figures. “They don’t have antlers. Just one.”

“A horn,” said Rainbow Dash, completing her thought.

“Surely you don’t think—”

“Who else could it be?” Dash asked, her heart racing. She pointed to the shapes bearing simple wings and a single, long horn. “Those are the Princesses! That’s Princess Celestia and Princess Luna!”

“But—” Was about as much as Fluttershy managed before Rainbow Dash zipped over to the next picture. Presumably-Celestia and Probably-Luna still hovered above the broken mess of the monster, except the monster had been cracked in half, and below the Princesses were two new shapes. A long snake and a bird emerged from the defeated monster.

“I’m having a hard time keeping track,” said Rarity with a huff. “Princesses, a monster, and now two more beasts?”

“Beasts, monsters,” Dash repeated, frowning. “I don’t know what’s what, but we’ve met a snake here.”

“You think that’s Odasthan?” Fluttershy asked, pointing to the snake-thing.

“Why not?” said Dash, shrugging. “And I guess the bird’s that other thing. Yelgadar or whatever, the one who’s ruining all the stuff Odasthan has to fix.”

“What do the Princesses have to do with any of that?” Rarity asked, staring at the image.

“Beats me!” said Dash, already following the arrow to the last image, right next to a huge piece of the fallen pillar dividing the chamber. The Princesses hovered over the peryton and the heron this time, and a jagged line was drawn around each of the heron figures. Underneath them all were hatched letters, and below those again, the mountains now contained trees rather than houses.

“Those definitely look like peryton letters,” Fluttershy remarked.

“For all the good that does us,” Rarity muttered. She stared at the chunk of rock pinned up against the wall, masonry cracked and ruined. “Do you suppose there were more, and that the pillar fell on top of it?”

Rainbow Dash trotted closer to the fallen pillar. “I can’t see any arrows or anything.”

“It would be quite the thing if we’re missing the last page of the book, so to say,” Rarity, covering her snout as she sneezed. “Ack, all this rock dust is horrible.”

“Bless you,” said Fluttershy, smiling at her. Rainbow Dash hopped up and flew over the fallen pillar to check the other side, but either the fallen rock covered the rest of the story perfectly, or, as she was more inclined to believe—

“Nah, that’s it!” Dash declared. She landed on top of the fallen pillar and glanced towards the central column. Fluttershy and Rarity still inspected the closest few pictures, graffiti, or whatever it was. A story, definitely. History? A warning? “So… d’you wanna get out of here now? I’m good to get out of here. More than good.”

Rainbow Dash paused only for a second by the strange glass-filled opening before the stair, wondering at the riot of colours whenever Rarity’s light touched it.

“That’s what some of the Perytonian First Stories are about, isn’t it?” Fluttershy asked. “What the pictures told, I mean.” Rainbow Dash looked up, but Fluttershy was talking to Rarity, the two of them ascending the staircase. Rainbow Dash hurried after them, catching some air to land in front and lead the group.

“They said some of those vaunted First Stories were about the Princesses warning the peryton to stay away from the heron, casting them out,” Rarity said, nodding. “And the graffiti suggested something of the same, yes. I don’t know how else to understand it. What I don’t understand is how these monsters play into it.”

“Eh, maybe they’re not important, who knows,” said Rainbow Dash. She paused by the missing step. “You wanna jump this or do you want me to fly you across?”

“Oh please. I can jump a puddle to save a dress during rain season in Ponyville. I can handle a missing step in a staircase,” said Rarity. She hopped across the gap, landing on the other side with a smile. “But thank you, darling. It is very sweet of you.”

“What do you mean?” Fluttershy asked.

“Hm?” said Rarity.

“Rainbow Dash,” said Fluttershy, pointing to Dash. She flew across the missing step to join the other two. “You said you don’t think the monsters are important?”

“No, I said they don’t have to be,” said Dash, shrugging. “Hey, I don’t believe in this stuff, but Twilight got all angry because she thinks that Daring Do and the Emerald Fan is about friendship and not about fighting the Terrible Worm just because there’s nothing cool about kicking butt in the last three chapters. Something about how all the fighting parts are a ‘metaphor’ for something.”

“Oh,” said Fluttershy. “I don’t know about that, then. We met the serpent in the pictures, if that’s Odasthan. I also don’t know if graffiti is really the best place to do metaphor.”

“Yeah! And the Emerald Fan is about kicking butt!”

“Um. Maybe, but probably not? Twilight really knows her literature,” Fluttershy said with an apologetic smile. “On the other hoof, I don’t think anyone really gets to tell another pony what a book is ‘really’ about.”

“Whatever,” Dash grumped.

“In either case,” said Rarity, lowering the light from her horn a touch as they finally stepped out into the open air again. “The very last picture down there certainly seemed to emphasise the heron, the peryton and the Princesses.”

“I guess, yeah,” said Rainbow Dash. She stepped off the staircase and took a deep breath. The statue in the center of the stone still bothered her. “If we really have to camp out somewhere creepy, I still think I prefer the old fortress. Even if there had been real ghosts in the gorge, I’d like the fortress better. Sure, there was a lot of stuff that didn’t make sense, but at least that was stuff that just… didn’t really matter.”

“Well, um, that’s what we thought,” said Fluttershy with a pained smile. “But that piece of peryton history got us imprisoned and lost in the cauldron, so…”

“Right. Okay. Point,” Dash admitted, flicking her ears. “I just don’t get this mess, and now it’s got the Princesses in it? Let me see if I get this straight—”

“Do you mind if I close the stairs again?” Fluttershy asked. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“Please, do,” Rarity said.

“So, the peryton lived here, and there wasn’t a jungle—”

“We don’t know that,” Rarity said.

“We do! No trees in the first picture!”

The unicorn nodded. “Which might’ve been because it wasn’t important. There will have been omissions. You can’t expect too much from graffiti.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay, they lived here, in what was or wasn’t a jungle,” Dash said, rolling her eyes. “The heron give them a bunch of rocks with swirly bits on them, and they… I don’t get it. This monster comes out of nowhere?”

“I thought maybe they called it. Or they made it,” Fluttershy said from over by the statue. She leaned down and touched the metal band circling the center, dragging it to the side. At once, the rumble of stone started up again, just like before.

“Get swirly stones, get monster. Somehow,” Dash agreed. “And then the Princesses save the day, which is weird.”

“How come?” Rarity called over the grating stone. More and more tiles rose back into place.

“Because when stuff gets weird, they call for help and get their friends to do it, right?” Dash shouted over the loud rumbling. “These days, that’s us, and I bet they had friends back then, too! The only time Princess Celestia ever took matters into her own hooves was when Twilight messed up that spell!” Dash paused. “Okay, more than once, but that’s usually the reason!”

“And the wedding!” Fluttershy said.

“That doesn’t count! That happened in Canterlot,” Rainbow Dash said. “Whatever! Point is, Princesses save the day, and then they tell the peryton to stay away from the heron, probably, because that’s something they tell stories about even today, which is weird because they don’t even remember living here!”

The last of the stone columns pushed up into place, neatly slotting into the stonework, making the floor of the stone circle even once more—except for one missing square where the fallen column would be.

“That part is admittedly a little odd,” Rarity said, lowering her voice to a normal speaking volume again. She started them off back towards their stuff. “But they said they were the first, the oldest stories. I suppose they’ve somehow carried those stories with them all the while, but they don’t contain everything.”

“That’s a little ironic,” Fluttershy said.

“What is?” Dash asked.

“The Princesses told the peryton that the heron are, well, bad news,” said Fluttershy, frowning.

“We’ve just established as much, yes, dear,” said Rarity, poking at their blanket where it lay spread out on the ground. It still made a squish under her hoof.

“And the Morrowsworn left the other peryton because they felt like the others didn’t take the Princesses seriously, or at least that they didn’t think of the Princesses in the same way they did,” Fluttershy continued, waiting for confirmation this time.

“Right,” said Rainbow Dash. “They blame Princess Luna for everything, but they also don’t think the Perytonians like Princess Celestia enough or whatever.”

Fluttershy nodded again, slowly. “And they’re cooperating with the heron. Who the Princesses—Princess Celestia, at least—warned them against.”

Rainbow Dash guffawed with a burst of sudden laughter. “Oh wow. You’re right. They’re doing the exact thing Princess Celestia warned them not to do.”

Rarity snorted. “Surely they… no, they don’t at all realise.”

Fluttershy shook her head quickly. “They don’t, because they think the Aspects are wrong, which means they also don’t like the stories that the other peryton tell.”

“And the whole warning against the heron is something they tell through those stories! Oh my gosh,” said Dash, slapping her own forehead. “This is the biggest bunch of lameness I have ever heard. We’ve got to tell them!”

Rarity raised a brow at that, staring at Rainbow Dash, frozen in the process of retrieving a bag of water. “Really, dear? Really? You think they’re going to be amenable, that they’ll listen to us?”

“They didn’t want to hear anything we had to say before,” Fluttershy said with a sigh. “We offered them to send letters to the Princesses and everything. If we suddenly run in there telling them… well, ponies don’t like being told they’re wrong by somepony they don’t like, and I think the same is true for peryton. Caldesseia got really angry, remember?.”

“Great,” Rainbow Dash said, deflating. “Well, that stinks.”

“You had good news, though?” Rarity asked.

“I did?” Dash asked.

“You said something to that effect when the two of you landed,” said Rarity, nodding. “You never said what it was.” She held out the water, and Fluttershy grabbed a quick drink.

“Oh. Yeah, rain’s passing,” said Rainbow Dash, smiling at that. “We’ll probably be good to go first thing in the morning.”

Rarity smiled back. “That is good news. It would be great news if we knew where we are going. Did you see any other good places to cross the mountains while you were up there?”

“I’m sorry, no. The clouds made it hard to see much, really,” Fluttershy said, shaking her head. She trotted over to where her saddlebags and ohron lay, nosing the latter open. “Peach?”

“I would love a peach, thank you,” said Rarity, smiling at her. Fluttershy bit very gently onto one of the fruits and tossed it her way, the unicorn seizing it in her magic and brushing it against the impromptu dress she wore before she took a bite. Dash shook her head when Fluttershy gave her a questioning look.

“I’m good, thanks,” she said, looking past her girlfriend to the jungle surrounding them. How did anyone get out of this place? There had to be some way to leave the cauldron that didn’t involve the tunnel the Morrowsworn peryton used.

In fact, she knew there had to be a way.

“Wait up. The Ephydoerans complained about the glare beasts, but the other cities didn’t, right?” Dash asked, frowning. “Okay, we don’t know about Cotronna, but…”

“That’s right, dear,” said Rarity, nodding and wiping her muzzle with a damp handkerchief.

“We didn’t really ask, but the other cities didn’t mention glare beasts at least,” Fluttershy supplied.

“Yeah, and we know the glare beasts come from here,” Dash said. “They told us they come from the Bow.”

“Actually, we could be wrong about that. This might not be the Bow, and the creatures we saw might not be glare beasts,” Fluttershy said, but after a moment, she shook her head. “But no, you’re right, probably.”

“Yeah. So, how do the glare beasts get over the mountains? Or through them? Do you think the Morrowsworn give them boats?” Dash asked, grinning at the thought. “No, they have to get through somehow, so there is a way out. Over. Through. Under. Whatever. I don’t know if I believe those flaming little chickens fly over the mountains, really.”

“I’d say… that sounds perfectly sound, yes,” said Rarity.

“I don’t think finding the pass or tunnel they’re using is going to be any easier than finding a way ourselves, though,” Fluttershy said, puffing out her cheeks. “I don’t know it helps, but it’s nice to know.”

Rainbow Dash grunted. “Right. Okay, that’s true,” she said, walking over to sit by her two friends. Rarity stared at her half-eaten peach, turning it around in the grip of her magic with a pensive look.

“We are racking up an awful lot of questions,” Rarity said. “Again. Or still.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Dash said with a chuckle. “When we get out of here, I wanna have a long chat with Princess Luna. There are a lot of things I wanna know.” Her laughter ended abruptly, and her ears lay flat when she realised that was exactly the kind of thing Twilight would say. She was becoming Twilight Sparkle.

“Uh, or not,” Dash hastily added. “I don’t really care. I just mean that she needs to tell us what the hay she and Princess Celestia were up to or something. If they want. Whatever.”

Rarity shook her head. “I was thinking of the serpent. Odasthan seemed perfectly willing to answer questions, even if he likely won’t know about anything outside of the Cauldron.”

“Most of our questions are about this place, really,” said Fluttershy, nodding softly. “They were ever so nice, but I don’t know how we’re going to find them again.”

“Quite sneaky for such a big person,” Rarity agreed. “He did say that we could find him again if we ‘followed the rain’ or some such, but in hindsight, that sounds like a riddle. It doesn’t get much rainier than this, and we have seen neither scale nor snout of him.”

Neither scale nor snout?” Dash repeated, squinting.

“I’m rather pleased with that one,” Rarity retorted with a sniff and a smile.

“Whatever you say,” Rainbow Dash said with a laugh, wrapping a wing around Rarity and Fluttershy both. “We’ll figure it out tomorrow. Do you guys want to grab a short nap and start early? Sleep on it? Our sleep’s gotten weird.”

“I think that sounds like a good idea,” said Fluttershy, nodding swiftly. “Leaving this hill as soon as the rain stops sounds wonderful.”