• Published 15th Dec 2011
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Wild Sky Yonder - Mysecsha

Basic training turns into a harrowing adventure for Spitfire and Soarin'.

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Chapter 04: Downstream

Chapter 4: Downstream

Sunday afternoon found Spitfire alone in a crowd at Aurora’s home in Glimmervale. As the captain had “strongly recommended,” she’d spent much of her day off with T-Bone discussing the training she’d missed. That had segued into dinner with the family, an intimidating prospect for a pony so used to quiet and solitude.

In one corner a blue unicorn filly hopped up and down excitedly and told her father about her latest magic trick. The elder unicorn was Aurora’s husband, Bastion. The filly... Spitfire didn’t remember her name, but this was the little sister whom Stargazer had described as “quite the little magician.” Across the room, Red regaled T-Bone with the tale of Friday’s excitement in the mess. Red kept beckoning Spitfire to join them, but Spitfire wanted none of that conversation.

The smell of roasting squash and toasted nuts filled the house: Stargazer was in the kitchen making dinner, his mother assisting. When Red had found out that Stargazer enjoyed cooking, she’d marched right over to Aurora and demanded permission to marry her son.

Aurora had cast a discriminating eye at the red mare, then said, “Ask again after you graduate.”

Soarin’ flopped around like a fish in the middle of the floor, pretending that his little niece had wrestled him to the ground with her magic. T-Bone’s daughter was a darling little periwinkle unicorn foal, just old enough to talk. The family called her “Little Dee,” and she had each of the family’s stallions wrapped around her little horn.

Spitfire turned to study the pictures on the walls. They confirmed a suspicion she’d had since meeting the captain seven days ago: Captain Aurora was indeed the Aurora Borealis, longtime lead soloist for the Wonderbolts. Spitfire had begged and cajoled and pleaded every time they’d come to Cloudsdale, “Please can we see the show? Please? If we don’t I’ll die!” She’d seen Aurora perform half a dozen times. She wondered how many other Bolt-heads could claim that they’d been chewed out by a legend.

Yesterday Spitfire had been called into the captain’s office. It seemed that her uncle had finally reported her missing, along with the thirty or so bits she’d absconded with and a “valuable family heirloom.”

Spitfire laughed bitterly at that. The ‘heirloom’ was her canteen: a silly keepsake, not much resale value, not even much good as either a compass or a water bottle. Its very inefficacy was what endeared it to her; it reminded her of her goofy dad, not quite knowing how to be a part of her world but trying anyway. The bits were no more than a fraction of her meager inheritance, which her uncle had spent behind her back. When she’d explained this to Aurora -- after Aurora had shouted her ears off about runaways being bad for the Corps, and the Corps being none-too-kind to runaways -- the captain had relaxed slightly. Ultimately Spitfire had been able to persuade her that she had enlisted for the right reasons.

In addition to the standard family portraits and wedding pictures an entire wall seemed to be dedicated to two other Wonderbolts, a cream-colored stallion and a deep blue mare: the two of them on a double date with Aurora and Bastion, the two of them flying together, their wedding, the two of them holding a newborn navy-blue foal, each kissing one of his cheeks. If they were Aurora’s teammates then Spitfire had probably seen them, too. She contemplated asking after them, but worried that it would be impolite. The pictures were all in black frames, some ponies used that to signify lost loved ones.

Spitfire turned back to the center of the room and watched Soarin’ turn the tables, flipping over and planting a raspberry on Little Dee’s back. She smiled.

“He’s very good with foals. They all are.”

Spitfire jumped. If she had a bit for every time somepony had snuck up on her this week... she turned. This time the sneaky speaker was T-Bone’s wife. “Big Dee” was a gray pegasus mare with a sweet disposition, and according to Soarin’ and Stargazer a pretty sharp wit if you gave her cause to unsheathe it.

Spitfire nodded and turned back to her big, sweet oaf of a wingmate. “T-Bone was right about one thing, he certainly is a sweetheart.”

My husband said that?”

“Don’t worry, he was in the process of playing a nasty trick on me at the time.”

Dee drew a hoof across her brow. “Oh, thank Harmony. Don’t you worry me like that!”

“Your daughter is beautiful. Were you two surprised to have a unicorn?”

“Oh, both of her grandfathers are unicorns. It wasn’t terribly surprising.” She looked over at Thunderhead. “ I think Stormy was a little disappointed when the doctor told us. I know in his head the thing he looked forward to most was teaching his sons to fly. But that was all before she was born. Since then he’s just the proudest papa, and she’s daddy’s little girl.”

Soarin’ trotted over to them, Little Dee clinging to his neck.

“Seven! Help! this little sorceress has me in a DEATH CHOKE!”

Spitfire hunkered down, as if preparing to pounce. “Unhoof him, you nasty sorceress!”

The little girl giggled and scampered up onto Soarin’s head. He smiled, wincing just a bit each time she hopped up and down on his cranium. “Unca Soarin! Who’s your friend?”

“Little Dee, this is Spitfire. She’s my wingmate at the SAR camp.”

Little Dee gasped. “Daddy was Mommy’s wingmake at camp!”

“That’s right. He was.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Little Dee.”

“Why do your wings look funny?”

Big Dee began to scold her daughter for asking such an impolite question. Spitfire waved her concern away. “I ran into a tree and hurt my wings, your Unca Soarin’ saved me.”

The little filly’s eyes went wide. “Daddy saved Mommy at camp too!”

Her mother sighed. “That’s right, he did.”

“Are you gonna get married, too?”

All three of the adults flushed beet red.

“Muffin, that’s not an appropriate question to...”

“Gosh, that’s... I mean... we’re not...”

“Maybe someday...”

Spitfire’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. This last comment had come from Soarin’, who looked profoundly embarrassed that it had slipped out. Thankfully Stargazer saved both of them from the conversation by announcing that dinner was ready.

Over dinner -- acorn squash stuffed with mushrooms and pine nuts, with a salad and pine bark fries right out of the survival manual -- Red renewed her campaign to secure Stargazer’s cooking services permanently.

“Captain, permission to marry your son, right now. Vigorously.

The rest of the table burst into laughter. In that moment Spitfire once again envied Stargazer’s dark coat: his cheeks were too dark to tell if he was embarrassed.

That night, lying in her bed, Spitfire thought about her wingmate. He hadn’t said a word to her from Friday night until he’d come to introduce his niece. He was distant. He seemed to be... sulking. Then, just as quickly, he’d changed. She wondered what was different.

“Your niece is adorable.”

“Isn’t she? Hard to believe something so cute came from T-Bone.

They both chuckled. “I know, right? Where does he hide that side of him?”

“Which side?”

“You know, the side that’s sweet, and kind, and generous, and just generally... like... you...” She trailed off, mentally kicking herself for having said it that way.

Soarin’ sighed. “Yeah, I know. Sweet, harmless, dumb ol’ Soarin’: that’s me.” The room stayed quiet for a long time.

“I didn’t mean it that way. I would never... and whatever I did that made you mad, I’m sorry.”

“What? No! Don’t say that, you didn’t do anything.” He flipped over, grumbling to himself.

Spitfire stared into the darkness, wondering what in Harmony was going on with him. She wished friendship wasn’t so complicated. She wished she was more like Red, who always seemed to know how to handle social things. She wished she knew what was wrong.

“Hurry up Seven, we’re wasting moonlight!”

Spitfire moaned and opened her eyes. Her room door was open and Stargazer stood silhouetted by the hall light. She rolled out of bed and stretched, groaning at the stiffness she felt all over.

“Five? What time is it?”

“Time to get out and go navigating. Come on.”

She pulled on a uniform and stumbled out the door. When they stepped out on the parade ground it was still pitch black outside.

“You maniac, there isn’t even any moonlight to be wasting.”

“First lesson then: what does that mean?”

“It means you lied to me.”

“What else?”

“I dunno, it’s cloudy?”

“Or foggy. And we’d see a glow unless the cloud cover was really thick. Or it could just be a new moon.”

“Which means you’re an even bigger liar.”

“There’s something better. You’ll see. I know you can’t dive and loop and roll and all that, but do you think you’re up for a short flight up to the clouds?”

She stretched her wings experimentally. They still ached a bit but they moved just fine.

“I think so. Assuming I don’t fall back asleep in midair.”

“Don’t be such a grump, Seven. This is the very best time of day! C’mon!”

He launched himself into the air.

Moments later Spitfire landed beside him on a cloud, sore and winded. She decided she’d better take as many short flights as she could the next seven days to get her strength back.

“Isn’t this great?” Stargazer spread his hooves out wide and fell backwards into the cloud, glorying in the field of stars above.

She chuckled. “Your name certainly fits.”

Spitfire turned around and looked up. She was quiet for a long moment, drinking in the view. In a soft voice she said, “I’d never seen so many stars before I came up here.”

“That’s why I woke you up. I know how bad the city lights are in Canterlot, I imagine they’re almost as bad in Cloudsdale. I bet you’ve never really seen the night sky.”

Spitfire snorted. “Except every night on my whole flight up here, you mean?”

By his silence, he hadn’t thought of that. He recovered quickly, snatching her rear hoof and spilling her onto the clouds next to him. “Well yeah, but this time you’re not picking a fight with seven different monsters so you actually have time to enjoy it.”

Spitfire was about to protest when a third Pegasus announced his presence with an exaggerated yawn. “It’s too early for this shit, Wedge.”

Stargazer groaned. “T-Bone, don’t call me that.”

The older stallion snorted. “I’m your big brother and your superior officer. Plus, I’m tired and grumpy. I’ll call you whatever I damn well please.”

Stargazer made a frustrated noise. The sergeant turned his attention to Spitfire. “Mornin’ Seven.”

“Good morning, sir... whatcha doin’ here?”

“Foalsitting you two. Can’t just let you two go off-base unsupervised: that’s how cadets wind up injured, dead, or foaling. Alright, I’m done bellyaching. Get on with the plan, Wedge.”

“There’s not much to the plan. We’ll drift away from camp for an hour or so, the sun’ll come up, we’ll go to ground, then Seven will lead us back, without getting an aerial view of the valley.”

Spitfire frowned. “That’s it? Get lost, get un-lost? Wander off then wander back? No pressure, just get us back or we’ll be lost for days.”

Stargazer chuckled. “We’ll be fine. If I get a good look at the sky before we start I’ll know exactly where we are, and If you get us hopelessly lost, we’ll just head up and fly back. If we run into any wyverns, you’ll protect us with that vicious left hook.”

She rolled her eyes. “What about the next hour?”

Stargazer fumbled over his answer, “Well, ah... any questions about maps and stuff before we get started?”

“Just one. What gives you the right to be so infuriatingly cheerful this early?”

“What do you mean? This is the best time to be awake! Besides, all of this? This is who I am. My mark is the constellation sextans, the sextant. I don’t just know about navigation: I am a navigator. I look at the stars, and I know where I am.” He took a deep breath, savoring the cool night air. “This time of day, I can just bask in the satisfaction of living my vocation. I’m sure you know that feeling, too.”

She knew that feeling, all right. She knew it all too well: she called it ‘the beast.’ The satisfaction it brought was wild and terrifying.

Must be nice to have a harmless, serene talent.

Spitfire let the silence drag on, moment after moment.

Presently, Stargazer said, “So... if you have no other questions I guess we just relax and enjoy the view.”

She snorted. “I’m going to enjoy the view on the insides of my eyelids. Wake me up if you need anything.”

As she bedded down on the cloud, she heard T-Bone echo her sentiment. She tucked her head under her wing and fell asleep, leaving Stargazer to enjoy his birthright.

Spitfire loped and bounded amidst a forest of fire-scarred spikes. Around her feet flowed a sea of delicate pink flowers. Here and there shoulder-high pine saplings poked up through the blanket of fireweed, striving to replace their burned ancestors. She darted up and down the rolling hills with alacrity as her athletic grace slowly returned after days of pain, stiffness, and inaction. Three days of navigation training, any number of embarrassing blunders, and finally she was about to win Stargazer’s little game.

Her first attempts had been... less than impressive. On Monday she hadn’t even thought to consult a map, they’d started by a cloudy little stream and she made a snap judgment to follow it downstream, figuring it would lead to the lake. If not for Stargazer’s Harmony-gifted sense of direction, they might still be lost. Yesterday she’d remembered to use the map and compass... but she had incorrectly assumed that they’d started in the same valley they’d departed from. A map’s no help when you’re looking at the wrong part of it.

Today, though? Today was different.

Just over the next hill. Camp is just over the next hill.

She looked back: the boys were more than a hundred yards behind her. She stopped for a breather while they caught up. She relaxed a moment, basking in the anticipated victory, and allowed herself to appreciate the scenery. When the boys arrived she nodded a greeting then inspected a scaly black tree trunk.

“What the hell happened here, anyway?”

“Six years ago, this was the heart of the worst wildfire the Vale has ever seen,” T-Bone said. “It started just about the time my training class was supposed to run the gauntlet -- they cancelled our SAAR and had us frantically building firebreaks and calling rains to try and save the town.”

Stargazer playfully shoved his brother into a tree trunk as he came to a stop. “Try and save the town? Since when are you modest, big brother? T-Bone here called the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever seen, then darted under it and above the fire, corralling lightning bolts so they wouldn’t ignite new fires, flying through smoke so thick it’d choke a griffon, and somehow found time to rescue Auntie Dee in the middle of it. You should see the medal they gave him.”

His older brother scowled. “So I stirred up a big raincloud, big deal. It was the firebreaks that saved the town. Couple of cadets died digging those. They were the heroes, not me.”

“Still, hell of a way to graduate. I promise you Little Dee’s going to love that story as she gets older; I’ll make sure of it.” T-Bone rolled his eyes. Stargazer unfolded a map. “Care to show me where we are, Seven?”

Spitfire took the map from him, uncapped her canteen and got to work. As she sat down to read the map a loud, high-pitched roar split the air. Spitfire jumped, spilling water all over the map.

Stargazer hunkered down. “What was it? Timberwolf? Hydra?”

Spitfire set aside the ruined map. Beast tracking was her best subject, she was finally in her element. “Not a chance, only one voice. Plus, hydra? This far north? Don’t be ridiculous.”

The scream rent the air again, this time joined by others. T-Bone barked a grim laugh. “Only one? Ha. We should be so lucky.”

Spitfire lowered her head and strained her ears. She could just here the rumbling, shuffling, snapping sound of many feet running across the forest floor. “We need to get out of here.” She looked around. The burn zone offered very little cover, and the nearest patch of healthy forest lie in the direction of the noisy, angry pack.

Stargazer took to the air, pointing out a boulder about a hundred yards away. The three pegasi alighted atop it, eyes locked on the edge of the forest. Minutes dragged by, nothing happened. Spitfire closed her eyes, straining to hear if the pack was moving away.

The piercing scream sounded a third time, this time right behind them. The two younger ponies yelped and leaped off of the boulder. T-Bone started laughing.

“Comet, you old rascal! I though that was you.”

Stargazer and Spitfire turned to see an enormous winged deer, smiling mischeviously and shaking hooves with T-Bone. Four or five other reindeer bucks hovered behind him.

“Storm-bringer! I am relieved that you are well.”

“It’s been too long, old friend. What brings you through? Is it that time of year already?”

The buck gave a sly smile in reply and nodded at Stargazer. “The sun rises in the Young Buck’s Wedge. The time of the Rut approaches.”

“I still scarcely believe that you only see your wives once a year.”

Comet and the other bucks gave a loud, braying laugh. “Our harems keep us too busy to eat! If we spent all our days with them we would surely starve!”

Comet turned to greet the two younger pegasi, his eyes twinking with mirth. “My sincerest apologies for having our fun at your expense. I trust we did not startle the stripling soldiers too badly?”

Spitfire floated up to look him in the eye, wearing a playful grin of her own. “Not at all. Though you should be glad I didn’t choose to attack at the first sign of trouble.”

“Oho! A spirited young lady! Young Wedge, have you finally come of age? Or is it you, Storm-bringer, who have finally seen reason and taken a second?”

T-Bone doubled over laughing. “This one doesn’t ‘belong’ to either of us, Comet. She’s Soarin’s wingmate. We’re just out practicing a little map-work.”

“Hmph. The other brother. Young miss, I entreat you to choose one of these two. The other is the least of three. He’ll not fight for you.”

Spitfire flew up into his face, her grin replaced with a scowl. “Listen, bucko. First, who I choose -- if and when I choose anyone -- is none of your business. Second, watch who you’re calling ‘least.’ He’s my wingmate and for your information he’s already faced down certain death for me.”

Comet’s eyes narrowed. “He has done what?”

Spitfire shrugged, turning away slightly. “I was falling. He caught me. We hit the trees pretty hard.” She waggled her sewn-up ear towards him to emphasize the point.

The buck’s eyes flared in an unspoken challenge. “Then he has fairly won you. You dishonor him by denying him his prize. Were you a doe and he a buck I would strike you and drag you to him myself.”

The beast pleaded with Spitfire, begging her to let it out so she could beat the stupid out of him. It was a tempting proposal. Luckily for Comet, T-Bone interposed himself.

“Whoa there, Comet. You know we don’t do things that way. Let’s just... let’s just change the subject away from comparative sexual politics.”

Comet lowered his gaze. “We have seen things in the valley. Ominous things. We worried that your mother’s camp was no more.”

Thunderhead stiffened. “What do you mean? Why would anything be wrong at the camp?”

“The valley hides many who should not be here. We have not seen them, but we see the signs of their passing. Ashes. Blood. Carrion. I had feared that their presence meant your absence: your mother would not suffer them willingly.”

The sergeant cursed. “Apparently she suffers them unwittingly. You’re sure about this?”

“I have seen it in the colors for which you have no name”

“Bucking hell. Thanks for telling me, I’ll pass it along.”

The buck nodded. “We will be at the mouth of the valley until winter sets in. Call upon us if you need us.” He turned to Spitfire. “Our ways are not yours. I apologize for... forgetting myself.”


“I am prepared to make amends. Is there anything you require of me?”

Spitfire though about that for a moment. “Just one thing: Why do you call him ‘Wedge?’ And why does it bother him so much?”

The assembled bucks lapsed into their braying laugh. “The stars upon his haunch, which he calls a sextant, that constellation we call the Buck’s Wedge. It is a potent symbol of virility, for when the sun occults it, the Rut begins. As for why he wishes to be known for his sense of direction rather than his masculinity... this I cannot fathom.”

Spitfire’s eyes lit up. She shot Wedge a smile that said, just wait ‘til Red hears about this.