• 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 4

The Equestrian delegation departed Orto this morning. One more prone to insult or fear would be concerned with visitors who leave as though their tail feathers caught fire, suspecting that we have given offence or cause for enmity.

I do not believe this is the issue, and will say no such thing to the council. I would stick my head in the shade rather than spend all day under Helesseia’s glare, cursing the sunlight in vain. If an issue exists, it is one of understanding. If the Equestrians must move or wither, and if I cannot perform the task given to me, then I have hopefully shown them the path to a common goal for us all.

Perhaps one day I will visit the home city of these ponies in return. Should the Bent Feathers ever want for more claws, they would convince many more to wander by telling stories of wondrous meetings in preference to those of open sky and empty road.

I will need a quicker way to certain answers, however. It must be words and letters. If I read the calendars right, Siban is to visit town soon.

Regardless, and for this journal’s satisfaction: I have provided the Equestrians with food and water for their journey to Stagrum. In return, they have given me much to think about.

-The Journal of Consul Khaird of the Swaying Stalks, Visitor Liaison

“I tried to lower my expectations, but somehow, I’m still disappointed,” Rarity said, sidestepping a rock stuck in the packed dirt. She indicated it with a hoof in passing, and Fluttershy gave it wide berth, leading the cart around.

“Duh. Khaird said the roads would be bad,” Dash said, flying backwards at a sedate pace. The sun still had a ways to go before it completed its journey from the mountains in the far west. For the moment, the morning still lingered and had not given way to noon, and it was merely hot. Behind them, Orto still shrank away.

Just as the road stopped branching off to the final, outlying orchards and clustered houses, they began their climb out of the valley in earnest. If she squinted, Dash could see the huge plaza that dominated the centre of the city, all the colours and movement blending together. She imagined she could still hear distant music from the second day of the festival.

“Yes, we were amply warned,” Rarity said at length. “I just didn’t expect their largest roads to be decayed to this point, and in their own front yard, no less. Fluttershy, dear, do you need help?”

Fluttershy shook her head mutely, not slowing down in the least. Now the path turned left, then right, and left again, snaking its way up the steeper climb.

“Decay?” Dash asked, touching down to walk next to the cart. She pushed it along with the edge of a wing, but it didn’t help much. “Like, let the road get ruined? D’you think it was ever any better than this? He said that the only ones really using these roads were the traders who didn’t use boats, so maybe they don’t even care.”

“Mm, he did say that,” Rarity agreed with a backwards glance. “Not a single person working on their farms this morning. I suppose they’re all in the city.”

Rainbow Dash followed Rarity’s gaze to the farms they had passed—or were they orchards? What was the difference anyway? “Yeah. I know I’d be at the party if it was between that or making, uh, I don’t know what half of this stuff is. Grasses and herbs and beans? The only things I recognised were some pumpkins down by the city.”

“I believe I saw tomatoes,” said Rarity, frowning slightly, as though she wish she hadn’t.

“Pumpkins with ketchup. Yum,” said Rainbow Dash, chuckling. “I wish we could have stayed.” A low bugle sounded from the city, the sound carrying all the way up the valley.

“I myself wouldn’t have minded another few days of socialising, myself,” said Rarity. Just like Rainbow Dash, she kept glancing back at the city every step.

“We got stuff to do, though,” said Dash, shrugging. “Hey, Fluttershy, you sure you don’t need a hoof with that?”

Again Fluttershy shook her head. “No, it’s—it’s okay,” she said. Her voice was strained and her muzzle nearly scraped the ground. “And I guess staying another day or two would’ve been okay,” she said between breaths. “Maybe I could have borrowed your dress to cover up my flank?”

“I understand the farmer’s market was quite a bit larger than any pony could see in a day,” Rarity said, smiling at her, and Fluttershy nodded at that.

Rainbow Dash took off, hovering over their cart as she inspected the supplies they’d picked up before they left the city. The compass Rarity had insisted on was useless: Any pegasus worth their salt could tell which way was south. Still, it didn’t weigh a lot, nor did the food they’d bought. Beyond that, Dash didn’t have a lot in her own saddlebags, and Rarity’s chest had less stuff in it now. All pointed to one thing as the source of Fluttershy’s present struggle.

“So, these clay jugs of water are pretty heavy, huh?” Dash asked.

“Yes,” Fluttershy said, a drop of sweat working its way down her forehead as she put one hoof in front of another. “A little bit, at least going uphill.”

Not for the first time, Dash looked up and snorted privately at the clouds of Perytonia. Or rather, at the lack of clouds. Far, far to the west, she could see a huge bank of white drifting over the mountains, shielding them from the worst of the sunlight, but judging by the distance, it would take even her hours or days to reach it.

“I’m not gonna get used to not being able to just fly up and squeeze a cloud for rain-water,” Dash grumped.

“Carrying water is still better than risking dried up rivers or brooks,” said Rarity repeating Ligilia’s parting advice. She waited for Fluttershy to pass by her before she took up position behind the cart and helped push it along with a hoof.

“It would have been easier if they had their big boat ready to go and just let us borrow it,” Dash said. She spread her wings and tasted the wind. “I don’t know about these summer storms they’re talking about anyway. I get nothing. Worst we’ll get is a tiny bit of rain, and that’s a maybe.”

“You think a boat would have been easier? It would have been easier to wait a hundred years for them to build proper roads,” Rarity replied, huffing as one of the cartwheels snagged on something. “Or for us to use the bottle of dragonfire to send the Princesses a letter, asking them to collect us at once so we can go around. Did you see? Cotronna is on the coast as well! Now that we know, we could have taken a ship all the way there.”

“That wouldn’t—” Fluttershy said, pausing for breath. “Wouldn’t be very nice to Khaird.”

“Nah, and I think this is just a liiittle bit faster than waiting around,” Dash giggled. “And what do you think Princess Celestia and Princess Luna would have said to that?”

“Well, I was hardly serious,” Rarity retorted, though Dash honestly wasn’t quite sure about that.

At their rear, Orto had barely moved since last she checked, so she tried to stop staring at the city, keeping her eyes on the road until they finally came to the top of the slope. Dash flapped her wings and launched herself ahead of her friends, planting her legs like a flagpole on top of the hill finally conquered.

Well. It was the top of a hill, at least. Dash winced and glanced back at Fluttershy who still looked ahead with a hopeful smile. The northern side of Orto was very much like the opposite side where they had landed. Large, gentle and dry hills. Slopes up and slopes down everywhere, and the winding road’s efforts to sneak around and between the hills could only do so much to keep the going flat. Not that she could see far from down here. Rainbow Dash kicked off again and pulled a tight corkscrew as she gained height.

Once up a little higher, past where the clouds would be were this Equestria, she could see more green further north-west, but otherwise, it was all hills, some steeper than others, and one nearby hilltop crowned with a ring of large stones. More of those weird stele, possibly. She thought she could see a river far in the distance, too, but whatever the line was, the road didn’t cross it, unless it was way down by whatever that smudge of colour was.

Dash squinted. It was impossible to make out detail. She let herself glide back down, joining her friends just as they crested the lip of the valley. Fluttershy stared ahead with wilted ears, taking in the bumpy terrain.

“I think the road goes around a bunch of hills, and then it gets, uh, better, I guess?” Dash suggested, leaning over to loosen Fluttershy’s harness. The other pegasus made a noise of protest, which Dash ignored. “But unless there’s more than one road, this one heads over to the sea up ahead by some cliffs—hey!” She frowned as Rarity slipped past her and ducked into the harness in a single motion made smoother by the unicorn’s grace, and more awkward by lack of practice.

“My turn, I believe,” Rarity declared.

“Fine,” Dash said. Fluttershy hovered unsteadily nearby while she stretched and shook her legs. She didn’t stay airborne for more than a few seconds, landing quickly with a backwards glance at her own left wing. Dash groaned.

“It’s because you keep doing that thing,” Dash said when Rarity started moving. “You keep pressing your feathers together when you squeeze your wings, it gets them all out of alignment.”

“It’s fine,” Fluttershy said, nosing in under her wing as they moved along, but after a few steps of awkwardly trying to get at her wings while walking, she caught a foreleg on a rock and nearly tripped. She spread and re-furled her wing, letting it be.

“I’ll fix it later if you don’t,” Dash said with a huff. “Okay, I still gotta know. Their roads are awful, so they use boats, but Khaird only talked about traders. Don’t they travel between their cities at all? Besides that?”

“That is a good question,” Rarity said. “I wish we’d thought to ask.”

“It’s probably a very strange question to get,” Fluttershy suggested. “Maybe they just don’t think they travel little. Maybe they think they travel just enough. After all, we travel a lot more than most ponies.”

Rainbow Dash frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. We don’t travel that much.”

“Darling, of course we do,” Rarity said. “Just in the past years, we’ve been to Las Pegasus, Canterlot, Appaloosa—why, you in particular fly between Ponyville and Cloudsdale at the drop of a hat. You just don’t feel it’s a lot because it’s normal to you.”

Rainbow Dash grinned. “If they kept an official speed record for the Ponyville-Cloudsdale route, I’d have the top five spots. Okay, so we travel a bit. These people are still weird.”

“Their land is a little strange, at least,” said Fluttershy, her eyes to their left. The hill that’d followed the road to their north-west finally dropped away, bringing into view a small valley of dry, sand-like soil dotted with innumerable little yellow-green bushes. It looked to Dash like somepony had used a salt shaker with shrubs.

“Okay, new game: Name something that isn’t weird,” Dash countered.

Whenever Rainbow Dash travelled with friends, she would keep to the others’ pace. Running forwards meant running back afterwards, and flying ahead didn’t make them go faster in the end. Dash had made her peace with that long ago, but travelling along the Perytonian roads was a completely different brand of slow.

Every time they crested a hilltop, it felt like forever ago since they had mounted the last one, and the previous hill would usually be in view behind them as if to say you’ve barely moved at all. Around the next hill they went, and then another. The ocean came into view for a short while around the northern face of a plateau, and a moment later disappeared when the road dropped down and away to run along a small ravine.

They ended up moving at a gentle trot without even discussing it. Dash didn’t notice the shift in their gait until there was a lull in Fluttershy’s rapturous little rant about some birds she’d spotted overhead. Every time the cart bounced off a rock, Rarity cast a worried backwards glance, wincing, and when the sun had passed its zenith, the unicorn gave up her turn with the cart, declaring that she had to take a break, or else she would faint.

Rainbow Dash didn’t mind too much. She felt tired despite having done nothing at all, the sun overhead mercilessly bearing down on them.

“I thought you said this would be a coastal road,” Rarity said, pouring water into one of the simple wooden bowls they had been given to go with their jugs. She drank deeply before she passed it over to Fluttershy.

“Yeah, the sea’s right over the next hill,” Dash said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

“That’s what you said an hour ago,” Rarity retorted. She leaned forward and rubbed her forehead against the nook of a leg. “Ew, I’m still sweating! This is awful!”

“I can check again, but seriously, it’s right over there,” Dash said, waving a hoof somewhere north-eastish. She didn’t really want to fly up and check. The heat sapped her desire to do just about anything that wasn’t nap on a cloud, really. The clouds in the distance were closer now, so that was something. She grabbed the bowl from Fluttershy with a muttered thanks and placed it on the ground, drinking her fill.

“No, no,” Rarity sighed. “It’s fine. Are either of you two hungry? I don’t think I could eat with this headache.”

“I’m fine,” Fluttershy said, shaking her head. She glanced at the yellowed grass by the side of the road, a look Dash didn’t miss.

“Speaking of food, you said that this should be fine to eat?” Dash asked.

“Um, well, it’s just grass. I asked a peryton at the festival, and she said that they don’t graze much, but they can.” Fluttershy didn’t sound very sure of herself, which was about as sure as she ever got.

“Good enough,” Dash said, stepping onto the hillside and leaning down for a munch. It didn’t smell all that different—or anything at all. It smelled of dry dirt. She pulled up some of the grasses. Rarity gave her a blank look.

“You’ll excuse me if I stick with our proper food,” said Rarity.

Rainbow Dash chewed.

“Did it taste alright?” Fluttershy asked, tilting her head. Rainbow Dash leaned down for some more.

“And the verdict?” Rarity asked. Complaints about the heat were forgotten, two sets of eyes peering with open curiosity as Dash swallowed and stood back up.

“It’s grass. Except it tastes dry.”

“Of course,” Rarity replied, just as dryly.

The second half of the day’s journey passed at a slow walk again. Rainbow Dash elected to take a turn at pulling the cart, but her intent to keep them moving at a brisk trot only lasted until she had to climb the first hill. More than a few passing comments were made about the cruelty of of the sun, their pace down to a crawl despite Dash’s best efforts. The thought stuck around even after the clouds pulled overhead and the sun began its descent, dissipating the sweltering heat. Soon the sun would set, and the day come to an end. Never soon enough, Dash thought.

“Why can’t she just make the sun shine a little less,” Dash muttered. Her eyes were on the path ahead and the cart’s wheels ground endlessly against the dirt. Rarity had trotted atop the next hill ahead, and hadn’t moved since, the unicorn a beacon one annoying climb away.

Fluttershy looked up at the throw-away question, but Dash waved a hoof in dismissal. “Nothing. I said nothing. You find anything?”

Fluttershy shook her head, moving away from the side of the road to walk a little closer to Rainbow Dash. “No,” she said. “I don’t think it’s all that surprising. If there aren’t a lot of travellers on these roads, the sounds of our cart is probably enough to scare away all the animals.”

“Right. That’s not cool,” Dash offered. Fluttershy shrugged and smiled, leading into a brief silence.

“I’m just starting to wonder if Celestia knows that there are places this hot,” Dash added, a final complaint to go with the last of the sunlight. “You’d think she could just… not.”

Fluttershy looked hesitant, but she said nothing, and Rainbow Dash was afraid she’d said something very philosophical that warranted some long discussion. Her brain was fried and she had no desire for that. When they caught up to Rarity, she was glad to see the unicorn smiling and happy to pierce the pensive silence for them.

“Absolutely worth the wait, don’t you think?” Rarity asked.

They had all seen the sea from the train’s approach to Las Pegasus and again from the skydock and the Vantage. Since landfall, the vast blue expanse had always lurked over the next hill, but the unblemished coastline that greeted them was something else. The sun set on the Perytonian shoreline, the orb a deep orange droplet sinking into the sea, bleeding colour wide across the horizon.

Their path made a turn to follow the coast, balancing on the edge between the inland hills and the cliffs that dropped sharply into a sandy beach bordering the water. The three ponies stood shoulder to shoulder for a moment. Dash had no idea what went through the others’ minds, but for her, seeing the sun set from the shores of a foreign land was weird. Probably a lot of other things too, but “weird” was all she had room for right now, through the exhaustion and the heat.

“I guess it was worth the wait, sure,” Rainbow Dash finally said.

“You guess,” Rarity repeated, deadpan. “Aren’t you a romantic.”

“Uh-huh,” Dash said, casting a glance up at the sky. The clouds drifting in from the west were nearly overhead. “It’s gonna rain.”

Fluttershy followed Dash’s gaze, backing Dash up with a nod.

“They don’t look very dark, those clouds,” Rarity commented. “Are you sure? Those are rain clouds?”

“Yeah. Trust me.” Dash began moving, the sound of the cart breaking whatever spell bound Fluttershy to silence.

“It’s really hot, so I guess it won’t rain much,” Fluttershy offered. “Most of it’s going to evaporate before it hits the ground, but maybe we should find a nice place to stop for the evening?”

“Yeah, about that,” Dash said. They stood upon a vantage point on the coast, afforded a good view, and the road promised straight going for a long while. With nothing blocking their sight of the cliffside path, what they saw matched Dash’s expectations from her last scouting flight. “Still no villages or anything.”

“Not even a cottage,” Fluttershy added, staring ahead.

The sprawl of farms and houses in the valley of Orto had been immense, but the moment they left Orto behind, it well and truly stayed behind. The only sign of life they’d seen since was an abandoned house on a hill far in the distance, and that was hours ago. The few by-roads that branched off the one they followed were barely dirt paths.

“It’s a missed opportunity, if you ask me,” said Rarity. “This place would be wonderful for beach houses. If not that, it’s not unreasonable to expect some sort of roadside establishment, surely.”

“What, like a hotel?” Dash asked. “Here?”

Like a hotel, yes, dear,” Rarity replied. “I wouldn’t look for the Canterlot Royal, along a dirt road, but why wouldn’t they take advantage of the merchants’ need for a comfortable place to sleep?”

Fluttershy hummed. “If we haven’t met anyone on the road yet, that means they probably wouldn’t get many guests. That sounds very lonely.”

Rainbow Dash made a noncommittal noise. For her, it wasn’t so much the need for cover as it was wanting to see evidence that they weren’t completely alone out here. A little rain never bothered her much, but then, she hadn’t really dealt with needing to sleep outside during a downpour either.

“We can just head up when the clouds let loose. Sleep atop—” Dash began. “Oh. Right. Sorry, Rarity.”

“Yes, that’s not really an option,” the flightless unicorn retorted. “But the peryton must do something for shelter. Do you suppose they sleep atop the clouds, too?”

“Maybe?” said Fluttershy, frowning slightly. “We could try walking for a little longer to see if we find anything else.”

“Let us,” said Rarity, nodding at that.

It wasn’t long before the sun disappeared from view entirely. Though they were all getting tired, Dash felt a little more eager to move when the first chilly gust of wind ruffled her mane, and she could tell Fluttershy felt a little better. The other pegasus’ ears perked up, while Rarity put on one of her winter scarves and lit her horn to add to the moonlight.

They made good speed again. The stretch of road disappeared beneath their hooves, and just as Rarity warned that she wouldn’t be able to keep up the light for much longer, they crested another hill. One last hill, one final climb, Dash promised her aching hooves, the harness chafing on the pull—and then they were up top and found out exactly what the peryton travellers used for shelter—or so Dash assumed.

“How did they even make this? Magic?” Rainbow Dash asked. She reached out to touch the huge sculpture. It was solid alright.

“It’s… nice?” Fluttershy lied from a safe distance.

“I quite honestly can’t decide if this is grotesque or sublime,” said Rarity. “But I am fairly sure there’s nothing magical about it.”

How the peryton—or whoever made it—had moved a rock of this size, Rainbow Dash had no idea. The thing was bigger than any boulder they had seen in the hills and the fields so far, and though Dash knew as much about sculptures as she did about bookbinding, the statue would’ve impressed her even if it was made of clay, or butter, much less stone.

What might have started its life as a single enormous rock, had been carved into four huge stone wings spreading out from a thick central pillar not unlike the stele in Orto. The wings spread out at an arc towards the ground, creating a vaguely dome-shaped stone hut.

Where Dash stared at the immensely detailed featherwork, Fluttershy’s eyes fastened upon the monstrous beaked face springing from the top of the pillar, emerging from where the wing-joints met. Dash shook her head. It didn’t make sense to her, but she could appreciate having a slightly comfier place to sleep. The creepy shelter stood empty, and would easily fit a dozen ponies or more. The firepit outside looked well used, and everything rested in a small dell, protected from the windy seaside.

Rainbow Dash walked through one of the corner entrances, between where the stone feathers plunged into the ground, but she had to back up. The cart barely wouldn’t fit through. The first raindrop hit her snout.

“Okay, so, uh. Do we take our stuff inside?” she asked.

“We probably should,” Fluttershy said, stepping up to the cart without taking her eyes off the face carved into the top of the pillar. “Either that, or we need to put something waterproof over the cart.”

“I’ll need my supplies, at least. I have a—ugh, a tarp somewhere in my chest,” said Rarity, grimacing. “Applejack forced me to pack one, and it looks positively ghastly. But yes, we may as well move everything inside.”

Rarity strained her horn to move the chest, and Rainbow Dash rushed to steady the rest of the cart’s contents. It was the work of minutes to move everything inside the cover, but there was already a light drizzle outside by the time they finished, tiny little drops that barely lived to hit the ground.

Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash both shook the moisture from their wings when they were all seated, and Rarity lowered the light from her horn to a dim glow. Under the unicorn’s light, Dash saw that the inner pillar of the statue held rows upon rows of weird little marks, but they meant nothing to her. Rarity’s magic reminded her of something, though.

“Okay, idea: Maybe we should light a fire outside?” Dash suggested. “Some of the food might taste better roasted.”

“That would be nice,” Fluttershy said, smiling. “It would be nice to let others know we’re here if they’re following the same road. There’s room for more.” She looked to Rarity, who nodded absent-mindedly and muttered her agreement. Nopony spoke for a few seconds, and the unicorn blinked.

“Oh. You mean for me to do it?” Rarity asked, touching a hoof to her chest. “I don’t see why, but alright. Which one of you brought firewood and… matches, I suppose? I don’t know if one can start a fire in the rain.”

“No, with your magic, duh,” Dash said, giggling. “You’re the one with a horn.”

“Darling, my magic doesn’t do that,” Rarity scoffed. “I assume there’s a spell for that—in fact, I know there is one, but unlike certain younger members of my family, my magical talent does not run to setting things afire!”

“Oh. Um, sorry,” Fluttershy said, rubbing one foreleg against the other.

“Twilight can do it,” Dash said. She reached over and bit onto her saddlebags, dragging them closer, but she gave up before she even opened them. She probably had nothing that could help. “Couldn’t you just learn the spell?”

“Twilight Sparkle,” Rarity said, her voice a tad crisp, “is to magic what I am to all things fabulous, or Fluttershy to animal friendship.” She took a breath and sighed. “Doubtless, she would have taught me had I asked, but it was hardly at the top of my list of things to do for this journey, and we have a blanket for warmth. Unicorn magic is personal, unique—”

“Whoa, hey,” Dash said, holding up a hoof. “I was just asking. I didn’t mean anything by it. Didn’t ask for a speech, jeez, I’m sorry.”

“Yes. Well. Apology accepted,” Rarity said, returning to her efforts unpacking her travel chest with a huff. She must’ve had all that remained of her silks out by now.

“Anyway. I didn’t bring anything, uh, fire-y, anyway,” Dash said.

“I think I have some flint and tinder or matches in my little traveler’s kit, but no firewood,” Fluttershy said. “If there’s any firewood outside, it would be getting wet by now.”

Resigning herself to a cold meal, Dash opened one of the simple canvas wraps containing their food. The first one was full of the kelp cakes Rarity didn’t like. She rummaged around until she found the grass-balls instead.

“What are you making, Rarity?” Fluttershy asked.

“The first dresses were obviously not eye-catching enough, so I’m going to have to try something else,” Rarity said, the light in the shelter disappearing for a second as she ducked into her chest. She surfaced with a pair of thin scissors in her magical grip. “If I make dresses in the full range of colours they use for their scarves, that might cause a splash.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” said Fluttershy smiling at her. “Maybe you could add some ruffles this time, too?”

“I think I might just have to,” said Rarity, nodding and returning the smile. “I’ll make your dress a little longer, and try for something lighter for Rainbow Dash. If you don’t mind me saying, I think a multi-coloured dress for you may just be too much.”

“Too much colour? Is that a thing?” Dash asked, tilting her head, but Rarity didn’t reply, her sketching papers already out.

“Fluttershy, when do you think we’ll reach the next city?” Rarity asked, fixing her glasses on her snout. “I believe ‘five days’ was mentioned, but surely it can’t be that far.”

“Oh, goodness, that’s very hard to say,” Fluttershy replied, nudging her saddlebags aside and unrolling the map. “Could you give me some more light, please? The road is—or, I think this is the road, because we haven’t seen any others. Anyway, I don’t know, but Khaird did say that it took their traders five days, yes. We don’t know if that’s how long it’ll take us. Some animals can migrate across Equestria in days, and others can take months.”

“Even if it’s five days, I’m bored already,” Dash said, rolling onto her back while her friends peered at the map.

Rarity shook her head slowly, dividing some of her fabric into reams. “Didn’t you bring anything to keep yourself busy, dear? Nothing in your luggage? Fluttershy brought a book, and I have my dressmaking supplies—and I need to remember to write in the journal, as well.”

“No,” said Dash with a snort. Now she wished she’d taken Twilight up on the offer of a new book series to tide her over until Daring Do and the Moonless Night released. She had no plans on admitting that, though. Dash lay still on her back, legs pointed straight up and wings splayed along the floor for balance.

In the upside-down world, Fluttershy moved to the far side of the hut, and Rainbow Dash could see a small shape poking its head inside their refuge. Something with a pointed snout. She smiled despite herself. It took Fluttershy five minutes of sitting still before she found the local animals—or rather, before they found her. Rarity didn’t seem to notice.

If Rainbow Dash had wanted to take a flight in the rain before, she now decided against it. She’d just scare off whatever critters Fluttershy talked to, and it wasn’t worth it. Fluttershy made some soft noises and stuck her head outside. Dash blinked, slowly, and when she opened her eyes, it got cold enough to be a little annoying. Rarity’s light had dimmed a little more, and the unicorn shivered, pulling the scarf tighter around her neck. Dash rolled over and lay down more comfortably on her belly, legs tucked underneath her. She blinked again.

Everything was dark. Fluttershy sat just outside, her mane slick with rain. Through the nearest opening, Rainbow Dash could see that the clouds were really high up. It was still barely worth being called a rain-shower. Somepony had meticulously tucked Dash in. Probably Rarity. She lay next a little bit away from Rainbow Dash, with space for Fluttershy in the middle. Far off in the distance, some creature gave an ululating cry. Dash yawned and closed her eyes again.

Thwack. Another direct hit, and an earth-shaking roar in reply as she narrowly dodged the sweeping tail. Rainbow Dash hovered out of the manticore’s reach, crossing her forelegs and taunting it. “What’s the matter, huh? Too slow?”

The manticore unfolded its wings.

“Oh. Yeah. You can fly,” Dash said. The beast took off and lunged after her, but she zipped above it, hovering lazily out of reach again before it had even lost the momentum of its swipe.

“Come on, you’re not even trying,” Rainbow Dash giggled. A chorus of roars echoed in the distance, as if in reply to her disdain. From the formless terrain with no concept of distance, three more manticores were on fast approach, barrelling through the air with claws stretched out towards her.

Rainbow Dash laughed loud and clear and kicked the air with glee. “Alright, that’s more … more like it?”

The three approaching manticores slowed down, as did the one she’d been fighting. Their movements stretched, slowed, and finally halted until they were all frozen mid-air. Only now did Rainbow Dash realise she had been fighting above some kind of forest. Details were still hard to make out, but with her focus on the monsters broken, there was nothing to do but look around.

A mass of large, dark trees carpeted the world below, hiding the ground from view. Hadn’t she been in the forest? It reminded her of somewhere—and it was night. Had that always been the case? Rainbow Dash shrugged. These things happened. Stranger by far was the spectacle above: There were so many stars, impossibly many, and the moon hung freakishly huge in a night sky that felt close enough to touch, yet heavy as stone.

Rainbow Dash flew up to the closest manticore and poked it. Nothing happened. An absurd amount of nothing, in fact: She couldn’t feel the touch of her hoof.

“Okay, what the hay is going on?” Dash asked nopony in particular.

“I did not mean to interrupt,” came the answer from somepony in particular.

Rainbow Dash glanced around, twisting her body every which way to see who had spoken. She had looked everywhere twice when she found her. Princess Luna stood close by, as if she’d always been there. For a moment, the larger princess pony had all four legs planted in the air like one would stand on the ground. Rainbow Dash had barely caught on to the wrongness of this when Luna spread her wings as if on an afterthought. She flapped her wings lazily to hover, as was only proper when she was in the air.

“Uh,” said Dash. She hurried to dip her head low, the best she could do by way of bowing while flying. “Princess Luna. What are you doing here? Uh, wait. Are you here?”

“You are dreaming,” said Luna.

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Well, duh.” Was that a trick question? It wasn’t even a question to begin with. She knew she was dreaming. This particular dream didn’t behave like most of her dreams, that was all.

Luna scanned the ground below them, then cast her eyes to the sky, finally sparing a moment to stare at the manticores arrested mid-flight. Rainbow Dash didn’t know what she saw that amused her, because when she went on, she smiled. “Most appreciate being told, because they do not know. I am here because I am curious, and I can be here because there are no nightmares that require my attention. May I stay a moment?”

“Don’t you have your own dreams?” Dash asked.

The smile waned just a tad. “In a sense, but I would be a poor guardian if I became so absorbed with my own visions I neglected to aid others, would I not?”

That was a question, at least. Luna raised an eyebrow as if she expected Rainbow Dash to say something to that, but she had nothing. Aid who with what? The forest below shifted again. Hadn’t Twilight told her about this before? Luna spending her nights helping ponies who had bad dreams? What was the question?

“Maybe?” Dash asked. In every multiple choice test she’d ever taken, B tended to be the right answer, or whatever else was in the middle. Luna didn’t look very annoyed with her. Success.

Luna flew lazy circles around Rainbow Dash, but her wings and the way she moved didn’t make sense. It would almost add up if there was an updraft, if the wind was different, but the air didn’t move. You couldn’t fly like that, and yet she did.

“Tell me, how goes your journey?” asked Luna.

Rainbow Dash frowned and tried to understand what she had asked. It was hard to focus on the the words Luna had spoken. If she concentrated, she could just barely pin them down, and finding an answer was harder still.

“Good, I think,” Dash managed. Memories of the past days didn’t flood in so much as they trickled. It was like trying to drink water from a rainstorm. Rain. It rained, didn’t it? “Uh, they’re weird, the peryton,” she said with relative certainty. “But they’re nice, too. It’s not at all like Equestria.”

“This surprises you?” Luna asked. She pulled a loop. No, she drifted in a vertical circle, impossibly slow.

“I guess?” Dash hazarded. “Maybe not.”

“But you are safe,” Luna said. She looked at Rainbow Dash, and only now did Dash realise that Luna hadn’t truly looked at her before. Her gaze pierced Dash for a tiny instant, blue-green eyes brighter with reflected moonlight than they should have been.

That hadn’t been a question, either. Luna looked satisfied without an answer. “As I said, I did not mean to interrupt, and it can be hard to find a clear path to the waking world in your dreams. I will ask no more, and you will not remember this when you wake up. Have a wonderful dream, Rainbow Dash, and thank you.”

The manticore thundered into Rainbow Dash, and she fell halfway to the ground with her breath knocked out of her before she recovered. Dash swished her tail and grinned. She put Luna and the night sky out of mind. In the corner of her eye, she could see the other three monsters spreading out to surround her. This was going to be good.

She remembered everything, of course. Rainbow Dash had no idea why Princess Luna said she wouldn’t—not that it mattered. Fact was, she remembered the dream better than she remembered what she did yesterday. Besides, what was the real difference between Luna really being in her dream, and her dreaming of Luna being in her dream? Princess Luna was weird.

What Rainbow Dash didn’t remember was going to bed with Rarity’s supply chest half-way on top of her, pinning her down.

“Good morning, dear. You were kicking. Again,” Rarity said somewhere behind her.

“Of course I was. How am I gonna beat four manticores without my legs?” Dash asked, freeing her hooves and rubbing them together. The sun shone in through the gaps in the stone wings, and clearly she was the last one to wake up. Rarity dragged the chest outside while Dash got up.

“Good morning,” said Fluttershy, smiling at her from over by the cart. An awkwardly large kelp cake and some brown vegetable mush waited for her next to a water bowl, but other than that, they were all packed.

“Yeah. Morning,” said Dash with a half-hearted hoof pump, squinting against the sharp light and stretching. Her sides still hurt a little from the harness yesterday. It was a good harness. A great one, probably, but nothing could make pulling a cart uphill comfortable. While she downed the water and food, she caught Fluttershy rubbing her sides as well, the pegasus having pulled the cart for more than her share of time the day before.

“We let you sleep in,” said Fluttershy, accepting the empty bowl from Rainbow Dash and putting it on top of the cart. “We finished breakfast a little while ago. Are you ready to move?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Dash, yawning. “Give me a second. Getting out of bed and into action is—uh, okay, so that’s normal I guess, but usually the first thing I do when I wake up is nap.”

“Trust me when I say I sympathise,” said Rarity from the other side of the cart, rearranging some of their stuff.

The rain must have stopped during the night. Judging by the barely-moist soil around the camp, it could’ve never amounted to more than a feather-light drizzle. Dash yawned and stretched again, stepping onto the road. She let Rarity take the first shift with the cart, and Rarity didn’t protest, setting them moving along the road while Fluttershy trotted over to say goodbye to some weird mottled badgers or whatever, a group of critters lurking by the edge of the little dell.

For a while, they moved along the coastal cliffs in silence. Rarity set a slow pace, and Dash walked behind the cart, happy for it. She was sore all over, and it would take a while to walk it off. Moving all day was one thing, and sleeping on hard dirt another. Combining the two with the second day of physical activity—the second day was always the worst—made for a painful combo.

At least the morning was still cool enough, and the wind still blew in from the sea. Cold at night, it’d be an unpleasantly warm wind by mid-day.

“We forgot to ask about the ‘Aspects’ or whatever,” Dash said on a whim. They weren’t the words she’d meant to say. She was just thinking about asking Fluttershy what the animals here were like, but the memory of the winged statue they had left behind was pervasive. Princess Luna had asked her if Dash hadn’t expected things to be different here, and the strange stones and their names stuck out more than bland kelp-cakes and fancy feather-dye.

“I’m sorry?” asked Fluttershy, walking over by the other side of the road, her eyes on the sea.

“Khaird said he’d explain what all those stones they care so much about meant,” Dash said. She cast a look over her back as though she could still see the strange head at the top of the stone they had rested under, and Fluttershy followed her gaze as though she could see it too. The top of the hill hid the dell in which the statue stood.

“Oh. I guess we did forget. We can always ask the peryton in Stagrum instead, once we get there. I’m sure they’ll know,” Fluttershy said.

“Probably. I just don’t get it,” Dash admitted. “He said they were stories, but they’re stones, and he also talked about them like they were, I don’t know, people. Except they’re not real, apparently?”

“One of the stags I talked to at the festival talked about them like they were friends,” Fluttershy said. “It sounded real to him. Maybe that’s what matters the most?”

Rainbow Dash nodded without thinking and grinned. “Okay, but that sounds like the worst pickup line ever. Were all the people who hit on you that smooth? ‘Hi, wanna meet my friends? They’re a bunch of rocks, by the way’.” Rainbow Dash giggled, breaking into a hover and laughing twice as hard when Fluttershy blushed. Even Fluttershy couldn’t keep from giggling, even as she reprimanded her.

“Rainbow Dash! They were all very nice, and no, they didn’t all talk about that,” she said, shaking her head, cheeks burning still. “He just told me a story about something Myrtella had done, I don’t remember exactly.”

Dash waved a hoof in dismissal and landed again, wincing at the impact. She couldn’t help but notice Fluttershy’s gait was even stiffer than her own. Her eyes were a tiny bit bloodshot, too. “Fine, I’m just goofing around, but hey, did you get any sleep last night?”

Fluttershy puffed out her cheeks. “I should probably have gone to bed sooner, but there were ever so many animals to meet, and no matter how much I pleaded, they just wouldn’t come in and take shelter from the rain. I feel just awful that we took their home away.”

“Uh, we… took their home away?” Dash asked. “Did we steal their den or something?”

“Well, um, probably not,” Fluttershy said with a sigh. “They just use it to hide from the weather on the coast, but they said that it’s not always free, so it’s probably okay. I just wish we could have all shared it, but they were very skittish.”

“Hey, you’ll figure it out. Those animals will come around,” Dash said, bumping against her, earning a small smile. “Hey, Rarity! Do you have another blanket or something we can sleep on tonight? It wasn’t exactly cloud-level soft, if you get what I mean,” Dash asked. The unicorn moved even slower now, and slowed down further when Dash and Fluttershy moved to walk abreast of her.

“I’m certain we’ll figure something out, dear,” Rarity said, but her smile was strained. She finally came to a complete stop.

“Rarity, are you alright?” Fluttershy asked, voice full of concern.

“Do I not look my best?” Rarity asked, looking about as though she could will a mirror into existence. Dash cocked a brow.

“You look fine,” Dash said, but sure, she looked a little messier than usual. Dishevelled. That’s the word Rarity would’ve used. Said dishevelled unicorn shook her head slowly.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to say anything because we all knew we would be, well, travelling today, but I feel just awful, all my legs hurt, and I quite frankly just want to go to bed, in my own bed.”

Rainbow Dash re-settled her wings on her back while Fluttershy leaned in close to hug Rarity. She could tell Rarity had it worse than Fluttershy did, and far worse than herself. Rarity looked twice as miserable as she’d sounded, but even so, she didn’t get out from the harness.

“You’re doing fine, Rarity,” Rainbow Dash said, and she meant it.

“Yes, well, as to that, I don’t know that I agree.” Rarity closed her eyes and leaned back into Fluttershy’s embrace. Dash imagined she saw the misery weaken its grip on her muzzle a tiny bit, but it wasn’t enough.

“Oh, come on, you’re not an athlete.” Rainbow Dash moved a little closer to give Rarity a poke in the side. That garnered a frown instead. Progress. “Anypony who’s worked out knows that it’s really bad at first. You just gotta keep going. You don’t start working out and give up when the second day’s hard.”

“Maybe we could take a little break?” Fluttershy suggested, leaning past Rarity to lock eyes with Dash.

“We’ve barely moved,” Dash said with a groan, but she could tell she was outnumbered. Fluttershy offered a hopeful smile, still holding Rarity, and Rarity herself nodded as swiftly as her no doubt stiff neck allowed.

“Ugh, fine,” Dash said, rolling her eyes. She glanced at the cart and briefly considered a snack to speed time along, but she wasn’t really hungry. Not for cold food, anyway. “Hey, we should have a campfire tonight if it doesn’t rain,” she added.

“Darling, we still lack firewood,” said Rarity, leaving the cart behind. She moved over to the relative softness of the grass by the roadside, sitting down with exaggerated care at the edge of the seaside cliffs.

“Oh. Yeah,” Dash said. With a minor effort, she launched herself into the air. Her wings were fine, at least. Those were used to some serious effort. “I think there’s a forest north of us,” she called down to her friends. “More north-west, really.”

“Inland?” asked Rarity.

“Yeah. Nevermind,” Dash replied, touching down again. “It’s probably not worth it. It’s far away. Can you burn bushes? Is that a thing?”

“We could always use driftwood,” Fluttershy said. She trotted past Rarity, leaning over the cliff’s edge.

Rainbow Dash followed, squinting. “Uh, I don’t see anything but sand and rock,” she said.

“There should be some wood that’s come in with the tide,” Fluttershy said. “I read it in a book. I’ll go look to see if any of it is dry enough.”

It was rare that Fluttershy beat Dash to the punch, but there it was. In the space of a few seconds, she had grabbed an empty bag, spread her wings, and sailed down from the cliff edge. Dash had half expected her to glide in slow circles all the way down, but she soon let herself drop a bit faster, landing at the beach in no time at all.

“I could’ve done it,” Dash said under her breath.

“Of course you could have,” said Rarity. “But she was the one who so kindly let me have this little break, so I suppose she feels responsible.” She slowly rose up to all fours, walking over to stand next to Dash. “I appreciate your little pep-talk, too, just to be clear. You and Fluttershy make a marvellous team for cheering one up, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Sure, no problem,” said Dash, who had in fact not really thought about that much. She flashed Rarity a grin and went back to watching Fluttershy.

“Or maybe I’m reading too much into Fluttershy’s motivations,” Rarity continued. “I appreciate it regardless. It’s not like it’s what you would call a big deal.”

Rainbow Dash didn’t say much to that. It really wasn’t a big deal. It was cool to see Fluttershy take the initiative though. That thought stuck around, pervasive and, well, sticky. She noticed Rarity staring at her for a moment, following Dash’s gaze to Fluttershy below.

“Fluttershy, dear, take your time! We’ll keep watch!” Rarity called. Keep watch for what exactly, Rainbow Dash had no idea. Fluttershy waved and continued picking her way around the beach, pausing every now and then to retrieve something from the sand.

“So, Rainbow Dash.”

“That’s my name,” Dash said. When she squinted and really looked, she could see that Fluttershy had been right. She wasn’t just picking up sand. There were definitely branches and other bits down there, they were just hard to pick out from a distance due to the bright sand and brighter sunlight.

“You and Fluttershy have been very close. I, ah, well. That is hardly news, I suppose. Let me try again,” Rarity said.

“Since we were fillies, yep,” Dash said. Fluttershy quested towards where the rocks went all the way out to sea, the cliffs forming an imperfect wall that sectioned off the beach that Fluttershy searched. When had Fluttershy read about “driftwood”, anyway?

“I understand you had a good time at Proudmane Lane before we left, just the two of you.” Rarity squinted. Or stared. Whatever she was doing, Dash noticed Rarity looking at her in the corner of her eyes, anyway, and it annoyed her a little. If they were supposed to look out for Fluttershy, why wasn’t she doing it too?

“Yeah, we had a great time,” Dash affirmed. She didn’t know if she should be annoyed that she herself hadn’t prepared better. If Fluttershy found the time to read a book about strange wood that grew on beaches, it made Dash look bad by comparison. She had just figured she’d wing it herself, thinking she was clever for packing light.

“And I couldn’t help but notice you, how to put it,” Rarity said, her voice soft as down. “You spent a lot of time together at the festival in Orto, and you wore those wonderful little cloth bands they use to signify... exclusive dedication.”

“Sure did,” Dash said. At least, she should feel bad about Fluttershy preparing so much better. Probably? It didn’t really feel like that, though. It was super cool that Fluttershy knew these things, and it wasn’t like Twilight knowing a bunch of stuff Rainbow Dash didn’t know made Dash feel bad, either.

“I am of course, um, how—I, ah,” Rarity said, her voice speeding up, bit by bit. “I am not blind to the fact that you’ve been showing quite a lot of physical affection for Fluttershy, either. You taking care of her wings and all that. I suppose that’s some form of affectionate cuddling—and yes, that’s hardly news now, I understand, but if the two of you are getting romantically invested, I must admit it comes a little bit out of nowhere, at least to me. Oh, but happy, too! Of course! I am thrilled on your behalf!”

“Sure,” said Dash. Of course, Twilight knowing stuff didn’t make Dash feel good, either. Or, if it did, it made Rainbow Dash feel good for Twilight, but not for herself, not like she felt now. Rainbow Dash snorted hot air, already bored of all this thinking. If there was a difference, it didn’t matter. Down below, Fluttershy took wing and disappeared around the seaward rocks. Rainbow Dash’s wings spread halfway of their own accord with pointless tension.

“Now, knowing you’re such good friends—but we are all good friends, are we not?—I just wanted to make sure you are aware that you can be, hm, a tiny bit domineering at times, particularly with regards to Fluttershy—”

Yep. Definitely bored with thinking. Fluttershy flew back into view, and a moment later, some sea creature or other surfaced from the waves not far away from Fluttershy. The thing looked like a smooth dog without hindlegs and made straight for Fluttershy, who sat down and folded her wings. Now Dash managed to furl her own wings, as well. Fluttershy had made a new friend. Rainbow Dash shook her head slowly from side to side and let out a soundless laugh that shook her body. That was Fluttershy alright. Awesome.

“—well, yes, you’re right, that may be a little unfair of me to say. Like I said, you have known each other for longer than I, and I won’t poke my muzzle where it does not belong, and Rainbow, we all love you both for who you are. I just want to make sure you are both happy! I know as well as anypony that Fluttershy does not strictly need me looking out for her. I’ve always held that letting somepony come out of their shell should be done at their own pace, and Fluttershy has certainly made strides—”

“Wait,” said Rainbow Dash, blinking. “Hold up.”

“Hm?” asked Rarity. “I’m sorry if—”

“What do you mean ‘romantic’?” Dash asked, raising a brow. “We played games all evening in Las Pegasus. I set like, five new records, it was awesome! Fluttershy just came along because she’s awesome like that. And the festival? She just wanted to not have to worry about peryton giving her attention all the time, so I helped her out. What, you think—you thought we were like, getting all… oh, oh jeez, no.” Dash tried for a laugh, she really did, but all she could squeeze forth was a full-body snort from snout to tail.

“Oh. Oh I see,” came Rarity’s reply, her mouth hanging open. They stared at each other. Dash didn’t have much to add. Her mind was blank and she’d said her piece. Rarity popped like a balloon three seconds later anyway.

“I—I’m dreadfully sorry, dear!” Rarity blurted. “I didn’t—I never meant to, I, ah, but—” she stammered, near hyperventilating in her histrionics. “Please, you must forgive me, it’s just—I thought—”

“Rarity? It’s fine,” said Dash. “Why would that be a big deal?”

The unicorn paused and steadied her breath with noticeable effort, swallowing loudly. “I just hope you understand how I got the wrong idea, dear, but please don’t hold it against me. This is all very embarrassing.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it, it hap—wait. What do you mean ‘domineering’? What the hay is that supposed to mean?” She turned to face Rarity, frowning deeply.

Rarity did not so much as blink. “What I mean is that you try to bring out the best in everypony, but your methods can be a little crass. Surely you’re aware of that, just like I can admit that at times, I can paint the reality with... particularly vivid colours.”

“Be dramatic,” Dash said. “You mean that you can be dramatic. But what the hay do you mean by ‘domineering’?”

“We both may exaggerate at times,” Rarity said with a huff. “All I meant to say is that you can be a little pushy with your friends, and that is not an insult to you, Rainbow Dash.”

Dash let the words bounce around in her head for a second. She gave the beach a quick glance. Fluttershy petted the sea-dog thing and spread her wings, starting her ascent back towards them.

“Yeah, sure,” said Dash. “So, what about it?”

Rarity sighed and leaned close, resting her forehead against Rainbow Dash’s, smiling all the while. “Nothing ‘about it’, darling. I misunderstood, and I was rambling in my excitement. Now would you be a dear and pull the cart, please? And while you’re at it, please forget I said a thing, because I am embarrassed enough as it is.”