• Published 10th Aug 2011
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Off The Edge Of The Map - Daetrin



Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy journey through unknown lands.

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Hc Svnt Dracones

Off The Edge Of The Map
Part 2: Hc Svnt Dracones

The cavern’s illumination was provided by the sun filtered through an unimaginable distance of ice above, tiny cracks casting a soft glow. At one end the ice was slicked by a small river, tumbling through a hole in the smooth dome of the cave ceiling and foaming along the thoroughfares of the underground dock.

And a dock it was. Ancient stone pillars rose from the water surface, and buildings half-swallowed by the encroaching ice defined a broad marina now rimed with frozen spray. The architecture was of the same style as the ruined buildings on the island, half decrepit and half preserved, crumbling where it wasn’t held under an icy shell.

Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash stood on the deck of the ship, looking around at the blue-tinted rock, their breath curling from mouth and nostrils. The entire spectacle felt old, the press of ages writ deep into the bones of the rock and ice. The splash and burble of the river was the only thing that disturbed the quiet.

“So where do we go from here?” Fluttershy said at length, her voice even quieter than usual, as if she would disturb the hush of the sleeping buildings.

“I’m sure there’s some way out,” Dash said. “They wouldn’t just build a city in the middle of nowhere, right?”

“I hope so. It’s cold here.” The yellow pegasus shivered. It was near freezing, and the water splashing over the ice made it look even colder.

“Yeah, it’d be a lot nicer if it would just let us out by the cliff.” Dash glanced down at the deck expectantly, but nothing happened. After a moment, she looked back up at Fluttershy and sighed. “Okay, I guess we’re stuck finding our own way out.”

Fluttershy looked around again and nodded glumly, trotting down to the hold to get the remainder of their food. Rainbow Dash looked after her thoughtfully, and then went into the cabin. When Fluttershy returned to the deck, burdened with a dozen leaf-wrapped packages, the blue pegasus was busy with blankets she’d taken from their beds.

Fluttershy dropped the food in shock, sending dried fruit scattering across the silver hull. “Rainbow Dash! Those aren’t ours!”

Dash looked up from where she was tearing strips off the silvery cloth and sighed. “I know, Fluttershy, but we’re going to freeze to death here if we don’t have something to keep us warm. Besides, I asked the ship and it didn’t say no.”

Fluttershy hesitated, shivering and visibly torn between comfort and propriety. “We need to, Fluttershy,” Dash said in a softer tone, and Fluttershy finally sighed and nodded.

“…all right. But let me help.” Fluttershy dropped her load on the deck and stepped over to where Dash was. She nudged the other pegasus aside and braced her hooves on the cloth, tearing another strip off with her teeth. In the absence of any real tools, the resultant outfits were crude and ragged, but far warmer than going without.

While Fluttershy didn’t have any sewing equipment, Dash had to admit they turned out better than she would have managed herself. They wrapped the free strips of cloth around their legs, the remainder of the of the blankets draped sarong-style around their bodies with a rough hood completing the outfit. Fluttershy used the few scraps of cloth left to tie back her tail, so she wouldn’t have to worry about getting it wet and frozen.

The two of them looked at each other, swathed in their improvised clothing, and Dash grinned. “Imagine what Rarity would say if she could see us in these things.”

Fluttershy surprised herself with a giggle. “She’d drag us off to the boutique by our tails.” They stood there for a moment, smiling, but then the mood soured as they were reminded yet again just how far from their friends they were. At length Dash sighed and started gathering up the scattered food. Fluttershy followed suit as they packed up as much of their supply as they could carry.

Dash took wing, skimming over the dock and inspecting the buildings that weren’t entombed by ice. Fluttershy took a moment to look down at the ship’s hull before she followed. “Thank you so much for bringing us here,” she told it. “And for giving us the blankets. Say hello to the spirit for us.” She dipped her head to the upper deck and flew after Dash.

The blue pegasus was only intermittently visible as she flew over the half-flooded streets of the ruined port. Fluttershy flapped her wings hard, the wind tugging at the edges of her hood. “Wait for me, Rainbow Dash!” Her voice floated softly through the ancient stones structures, reflecting oddly off the ice.

Dash’s voice returned from somewhere ahead, garbled and incomprehensible by the hundreds of echoes. Fluttershy glanced around nervously and paused in her flight as the silver ship floating in the middle of the harbor vanished back beneath the water, heading out again into the trackless ocean. She shivered and flew forward again, nearly colliding with Dash as she turned around the corner of a ragged-edged stone wall.

“There you are, Fluttershy.” Dash’s voice had an edge of relief. “We don’t want to lose each other here. This place is a maze.”

It was an overstatement, but not much of one. The ice splintered sound in all directions and threw off odd, distorted reflections. The ceiling was too low to fly above most of the buildings, forcing them to flit through ice- and rubble-choked streets and alleys. One look at the crumbling brickwork was enough to deter them from trying to actually enter any of the ruins.

In fact, as Fluttershy briefly alit on a projecting platform, the rock gave way under her hooves. She gasped and shot back up into the air, a third of the balcony crumbling to gravel and bouncing down to splash in the flooded streets below. Dash glanced back at the low rumble, flying over beside Fluttershy and looking at broken stone.

“Yeah, I think we’d better find a way out of here before the whole thing falls apart on us.” Dash waved a hoof at the far end of the cavern. “I think there’s an exit over there, come on!” She darted away again and Fluttershy labored to catch up.

Even the remains of the port city were larger than Ponyville, and possibly even larger than Canterlot, even without knowing how much of it mouldered unseen, entombed forever behind the frozen wall of ice. It took longer than either of them would have liked to reach their destination, winging carefully between the city’s bones.

Dash was right. There was an archway cut into solid rock, and an ancient ramp stretching up into darkness. While the base was slicked with rime, it became dry and solid stone before it vanished upward into the gloom. The blue pegasus darted inside to take a closer look, but Fluttershy hung back. “It – it’s so dark. Do you think it’s safe?”

Dash’s voice floated out from the cave. “Well, it looks like our way out, so we have to take it. Come on, Fluttershy, the darkness can’t hurt you.” After a moment, she came back out of the passageway. “And besides, you’ll be with me. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Fluttershy looked down at the ground for a moment and took a breath, visibly steeling herself.

“Of course, Rainbow Dash. You just lead the way.” Dash gave her a grin and darted back into the passageway.

They were forced to touch down before they’d gone very deeply, the light fading quickly the further they went up the tunnel. When they could see nothing more than the vague grey silhouettes of each other, Dash stopped. “We’re should tie ourselves together so we don’t get separated,” she said. “You can’t take chances when you’re spelunking.”

“Y-you’ve done this before?” Fluttershy asked, watching Dash’s silhouette as the pony unwrapped part of her outfit.

“Yeah!” The blue pegasus replied enthusiastically. “Last time we actually had lanterns, but you still need to do things right.” Dash took a strip from Fluttershy’s parka and bent to tie them together. “Well, it’s not rope, but it’ll do.” She took a step forward, then another, the tie pulling on Fluttershy midstep. She stumbled into Dash with a squeak.

“Hey, don’t be nervous. Just walk with me.”

“Okay…” Fluttershy was glad the other mare couldn’t see her flush in the darkness. She took a few quick steps forward, rubbing shoulders with Dash. Their hooves tapped out a syncopated rhythm as they climbed the ramp, the dim glow from behind fading to an utter black. Now that they were no longer flying, it seemed even colder, and Dash bent her head back to tug one of the folds over to cover her wings.

“This is…really dark.” Fluttershy said after a while. In fact, she couldn’t tell the difference between her eyes being open or closed.

“Yeah, it gets like that.” Dash’s voice came from beside her. “Some of the spelunker ponies I went with swear it’s a mystical experience, but I don’t get it. It just makes it hard to see. I wish I had a stick or something. You never know when you’re going to run into a blind outcrop or a pit or something…”

Fluttershy stopped dead with a squeak. The improvised rope pulled taught and both of them stumbled, falling into each other. They took a moment to disentangle themselves, a task made surprisingly difficult by the darkness. “Don’t worry about it, Fluttershy,” Dash said again. “This part is obviously cut out, and I’m keeping the wall close by so we don’t get lost. As long as we keep going up we’ll be fine.”

“I-if you say so, Rainbow Dash.” Fluttershy took a breath and stepped up to take her place next to Dash again. The other pegasus patted her on the shoulder.

“As long as we stick together, there’s nothing to worry about.” Dash told her, and Fluttershy nodded. It wasn’t until a few seconds later that she remembered the other pegasus couldn’t see her, and she flushed in the darkness.

“If you say so, Rainbow Dash,” Fluttershy repeated, pressing closer to the blue pegasus. They started off again, the ramp slowly rising. It was hard for her not to flinch with each step, which her imagination now supplied with jagged rocks and deep holes. But if Rainbow Dash could do it, so could she.

The sounds of their hooves echoed far up ahead and behind, fading into the vast, unseen emptiness around them. It was impossible to tell how much time was passing, no way to tell one minute from the next or discern that they were making any sort of progress. In that place, it seemed easy to imagine being lost forever. To Fluttershy, the blackness seemed to expand with every step, the two of them isolated specks in the middle of nothingness.

Dash wasn’t completely immune to the thought, but she pressed onward anyway. She didn’t call a halt until her legs were just starting to ache from the climb. “Wait. Do you feel that?”

“What?” Fluttershy’s voice floated from just behind Dash’s left ear, low and tense, and the pegasus turned her head to reply.

“There’s a breeze. A small one, but that means there’s an opening somewhere around here.” Rainbow Dash grinned into the black. “Maybe we’re near the end of this ramp.”

“Oh, I hope so!” Fluttershy sounded relieved, and Dash started off again, kicking against the wall next to her every few paces to make sure they were still on track. It wasn’t until her hoof encountered nothing at all that she stopped again, the yellow pegasus trailing to a halt a moment later.

Dash felt around until she found the wall, and a smooth corner. “Okay,” she told Fluttershy. “We’re at an intersection, I think.” She lifted her head, her ears flicking as she felt the breeze, still faint, but definitely there. “To the right, into the breeze.”

It took some clumsy jostling, but they got turned in the correct direction and started into the breath of wind. Dash trotted forward, pulling their connection tight, and she strained to see any hint of light filtering down from above. Intent on that, she wasn’t ready for something under her hooves to slip the moment she put her weight on it, tipping her forward.

The sarong jerked tight, pinning her wings and keeping her from recovering her balance. Her flailing legs encountered only a void as she toppled and something cracked her across the head. The blackness seemed to blur for a moment as she flailed wildly, her hooves encountering rock walls and scraping along them as she slid to a halt, braced between them. Far below came a series of hollow thumps as the water gourds spun down into the abyss, trailing off into silence without ever hitting bottom.

“Rainbow Dash? Are you okay?” Fluttershy’s anxious voice sounded as if it were underwater, and Dash shook her head to try and clear it, her hooves scraping down a tiny fraction of an inch. Cold talons crawled up her spine. Rainbow Dash was far from afraid of heights, but this was different.

“I…I think so. How far did I fall?”

“N-not far. We’re still attached.” Dash felt something soft brush across her muzzle; Fluttershy’s mane.

“All right.” Dash tried to work her wings free, wriggling as much as she dared without any support, straining against the sides to keep from slipping any further downward. After she managed to free her wings from under the wrap, she realized there wasn’t enough room for her to spread them. She carefully tried to work her forelegs up, and froze as she slipped down another tiny fraction. “…can you pull me out?”

“I’ll try,” Fluttershy said doubtfully. The sarong pulled even tighter as the other pegasus backed away, bracing herself against the rock and flapping her wings. Abruptly the cloth gave way and Fluttershy tumbled back into the darkness.

“Fluttershy?” Dash called. She was beginning to understand the panic the other pegasus felt at times, with no way to move and her legs already beginning to hurt from bracing sideways against the rock. The breeze she had felt came from below, tugging intermittently at the edges of her hood, the cool air smelling of water and cold stone.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Rainbow Dash!” There was a slithering sound as Fluttershy crept back, feeling carefully up to the edge of the gap, her hoof finding Dash’s head and coming back wet. “Dash! You’re bleeding.”

“I hit my head, I’m sure it’s just as scratch.” The blue pegasus took a deep breath and tried to think. The gap was far too narrow for Fluttershy to get any purchase to lift her out, assuming she could in the first place. “All right, Fluttershy, I need you to not panic.” Her own voice came out shaky, belying her instructions. “Can you do that for me?”

“All right,” Fluttershy said in a very small tone.

“Okay. This pit isn’t that wide. Can you stretch across it, right by my head?”

“I’ll…try.” Fluttershy groped across the gap, shrinking back from the emptiness below twice before finally gritting her teeth and stretching as far as she could, her wings waving as she supported herself, her hooves finally reaching the other side. “All right, Rainbow Dash.”

The blue pegasus rested her muzzle on Fluttershy’s forelegs, and used them to lever herself up a little bit, hooves scrabbling against the stone as she lifted herself up a fraction. “Okay, slide closer to me,” she encouraged the other pegasus.

Fluttershy nodded softly and obeyed, mane whispering across the stone in the darkness, and Dash repeated the process, using Fluttershy as a living piton and inching herself upward, bit by tiny bit. The walls seemed to become slippery, even though she knew that was her imagination, and she nearly did fall as one of her forehooves encountered air instead of rock.

“All right, Fluttershy. Nearly there. You can get back on your side now.” Dash waited until she heard Fluttershy’s hooves on the rock to her left, then braced herself on the lip of the rock and heaved herself upward. As soon as her wings cleared the enclosing stone, she beat them once, lifting herself out and colliding with Fluttershy, sending them both sprawling away from the unseen edge.

***

Dash lay on the floor, her heart pounding, gasping as if she’d just flown ten races without rest. Beside her, the other pegasus spoke from floor level. “Are you okay, Dash?” Fluttershy’s hoof touched the side of her face and Dash found herself clinging to the other mare and trembling. After a long pause Fluttershy gave Dash a gentle nuzzle, heedless of the blood matting the rainbow mane. “It’s all right,” she said soothingly. “You’re okay now.”

Slowly, Dash relaxed her grip, feeling tremendously embarrassed but by the same measure reassured. Eventually she wobbled to her feet and coughed uncomfortably. “…thanks, Fluttershy.”

“You’ve done the same for me,” the mare returned warmly.

“A-heh…still.” Rainbow Dash rubbed at her head with a hoof, which stung but seemed to be still intact, the blood drying into a tacky mess. “…I don’t think we’ll be going that way.”

“Yes.” Fluttershy agreed, the one word as emphatic as her soft voice could get. “Er…if there is another way.”

“I’m sure there is.” Dash turned to face Fluttershy’s voice and something crunched softly underhoof. A package of food, dropped at some point during their misfortune. “But, um, let’s take a lunch break first.”

Dash first fixed the broken tie between them, not daring to get even the slightest bit separated in the endless black. They scavenged slowly and carefully, rounding up most of the scattered fruit, but the water gourds were lost forever. Dash ate ravenously, the sweet fruit washing the bitter tang of spent adrenaline away from her mouth.

Fluttershy listened to her friend eat, nibbling at the crisp tang of some dried tropical delicacy. The taste was completely at odds with their surroundings, which was suited more to moss and twigs. The strangeness seemed appropriate though, after the past few minutes. She’d never heard that tone from Dash before, even during the Young Flier’s Competition.

She’d comforted many, many panicked animals in her life, but never a panicked Dash. She hoped that the other pegasus was up to leading them, because she was utterly lost. After swallowing her last bite and wishing vainly after the lost water, she got to her feet, feeling the reassuring tug of the tie that kept her near Dash. “So…which way do we go?”

“Let’s try the other direction,” Dash’s voice came from somewhere nearby. “If the breeze is coming from that…hole, it’s still got to be going somewhere. The tie pulled her off to the side, and she stumbled as she fell in beside Dash, the two of them following the wall back toward the intersection.

They were both more hesitant about where they put their hooves now, but the ponies still gamely shuffled along until the ground began to rise again. “See? This has got to be the right way.” Rainbow Dash’s voice sounded normal now, but neither of them had covered their wings again. No matter how cold it was, it wasn’t worth taking the chances, and their feathers occasionally brushed as they climbed.

She had no idea how long they ascended, but eventually her legs ached so much that she had to stop. “Rainbow Dash, I’m not sure how much longer I can go on.”

“That’s all right, Fluttershy. We can stop here for the night.” Dash replied. “This passage can’t be that long, we’ll probably be out tomorrow.”

“I hope so,” Fluttershy said quietly. “I’m beginning to think we’ll never find out way out.”

“Don’t talk like that, Fluttershy. Of course we will!” Dash’s hoof found her side, and slid around to give her a hug. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”

They bedded down together on one of their blanket-coats, putting a layer between them and the frigid stone, and the other one on top as they huddled together to conserve warmth. The slight, inconstant breeze didn’t help, as the chill air seemed to go right past their coats and into their bones. It was far from a comfortable cloud, or grass, or bed, but eventually they slept.

When Fluttershy woke, there was something subtly different about the passageway. She looked around, blinking, and realized that uphill there was an ever so slight shade of grey rather than black. “Rainbow Dash!” Her voice, hoarse from her parched throat, cracked slightly as she prodded the snoring pegasus next to her. “There’s light!”

“Huzza-wha?” Dash sputtered next to her, the blanket shifting as the other mare twisted around. “What’s that?”

“Light!” Fluttershy repeated. “It’s lighter over there.”

“It is!” Dash sounded as delighted as Fluttershy felt. “We’ll be out of here in no time.”

The cloth slid away as Dash stood up, bringing a wash of cold air that made Fluttershy shiver.

“Let’s get going,” Dash said, her voice muffled by a mouthful of blanket, and Fluttershy bent to pull the other one back over her. She couldn’t wrap it properly in the dark, but it was better than nothing. The still-tied blanket was almost pulled off her as Dash started forward, and Fluttershy hurried to follow.

Step by step, the grey grew more pronounced. The tunnel walls became visible as darker shadows, then lighter ones, and eventually they could finally see each other. The two pegasi shared a broad grin, running forward toward the source of the light.

They nearly ran off a cliff. The tunnel opened out onto a sheared-away section of rock, dropping down far below to more a slab of grey-speckled granite. The view above was bounded by another immense dome of ice above, and water flowed across the rock, trickling toward tunnels on the far side. They were even brighter, promising sunlight and a way out.

Dash didn’t wait. She launched herself off the cliff and into the airy cavern, stretching her wings and flying high over the cavern floor. “Aww, yeah.” The twined blankets drifted down the cavern floor, and Fluttershy dived after them, recapturing them before they fell into the water. Then she joined Dash in stretching her wings, the two pegasi enjoying the light and freedom. Fluttershy wasn’t much for aerobatics, but being released from the unknown darkness was enough to make her want to fly.

The two of them circled and wheeled around each other for a while, grinning madly, but eventually Fluttershy decended to a land on a dry outcrop of stone. She bent to drink from the glacier-melt, feeling even more thirsty once she’d started. Dash landed next to her and followed suit, plunging her muzzle thirstily into the pure water.

“Now, let me see your head, Rainbow Dash,” Fluttershy said, after they’d drunk enough to make their bellies slosh. “I need to make sure you’re all right.”

“Oh, I’m fine, it’s just sore.” Dash waved a hoof dismissively, but on seeing Fluttershy’s expression dropped her head down. “…fine.”

She grimaced as Fluttershy poked expertly at her head. The blue pegasus had a large, ugly-looking scab running along her right ear, the skin next to it already starting to discolor with bruising. “Does this hurt? How about this?”

“No, no, it’s okay, Fluttershy, ouch!” Dash winced and Fluttershy nodded.

“It looks like it’s just a cut.” The yellow pegasus sighed. “I don’t have any of my medical supplies here, but you should still wash it properly.”

“I think that can wait for us to get out of here.” Dash looked around at the open cavern. “I don’t know about you but I want to see daylight.”

Fluttershy flushed momentarily and nodded, bending to help Dash re-wrap the sarong. They were both shivering from the cold air and colder water, so in her haste to get the blanket properly situated, Fluttershy took one too many steps backward. She squeaked as one hoof splashed into the stream then shook it out and looked around nervously. “Um…is the water getting higher?”

Dash frowned at the water thoughtfully. “I don’t know.” She flicked her wings, flying over to the face of the ice where the water was coming from, and peered at the stream’s source. It seemed to be flowing in sheets down the ice from above, and when she pressed her hoof against it to check, she went right through a thin crust of ice.

The ice groaned, a deep shudder that went across the immense face. “Um…” Dash said, winging backward from the new hole and looking around nervously. Sharp pops came from above, and Dash abandoned all pretense of caution, flying directly at Fluttershy.

The roof fell in. Dash’s hooves went around the other pegasus, pulling her off her feet as Dash sped for the far exit. There was a vast, booming roar as the entire cavern came apart. An unfathomable amount of water from the glacial lake that had fed their drink pushed along splinters larger than a building in an unstoppable tidal wave.

Fluttershy clung to Dash, unable to utter a single sound as behind them the water foamed angrily, immense chunks of the ice being tossed about like leaves in a stream. The noise became only louder as Dash flew into the tunnel, the stone resounding with the thunder of the water’s fury.

The blue pegasus held onto Fluttershy in return, her eyes narrowed as she flew as fast as she could, twisting and turning as the tunnel bent unexpectedly, ducking pony-sized icicles, the air behind her howling as the water pushed it ahead. The light grew brighter and brighter until they suddenly burst out into another immense cavern.

Far below, chunks of ice bobbed on a deep blue lake, and the water fountained forth from the tunnels, tearing off pieces of rock as it spumed into the depths below. Visible through a large opening above them was a broad swath of blue with a few puffs of white. The sky.

Dash hauled the near-comatose Fluttershy upward, crossing finally into open air and touching down, both of them panting softly. “Hey,” Dash puffed. “We made it. Told you we would.”

Fluttershy summoned a smile for her, but it immediately vanished as a new voice spoke, in a low growl not so far from the glacier’s voice.

“Well, what do we have here?”

***

The two pegasi turned around to the source of the voice. Sprawled above the cave entrance was a dragon. They had encountered dragons before, of course, or at least a dragon. But this one was larger, its scales a mottled grey and white, and it was regarding them with one silver eye.

Fluttershy was staring, petrified, at the beast. Dash took a breath and stepped forward and looked defiantly up at the dragon. “I’m Rainbow Dash, and this is Fluttershy. We’re pegasi.”

“Indeed?” The eye blinked lazily. “And what would Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy pegasi be doing in the depths of my mountain caves?”

“We’re…lost,” Dash admitted reluctantly.

“Two ponies, emerging from the rotted galleries of a long-dead civilization in the frozen north, with no supplies, no food or water, and wearing tattered blankets for clothing; lost? I never would have guessed.” The dragon’s tone was desert-dry, and Dash bristled, half-spreading her wings and glaring.

“Hey, we’ve gotten this far. I’m sure getting home won’t be any problem at all.”

“Oh really?” The dragon finally stirred, turning around to face them directly, and Dash flinched back. Its other eye was boiled-white and blind, the hide around it ridged and twisted and scarred in a swath that ran from the tip of the muzzle across the left side of its face and trailing off down the long neck. “And what makes you so sure of that?” The dragon gave them a slight hint of a smile, exposing razor teeth.

“Oh, you poor thing!” Fluttershy ran past Dash, who watched, disbelieving, as the yellow pegasus walked right up to the dragon’s muzzle. She put a gentle hoof on the scabrous hide. “What happened to you?”

While Dash might have been taken aback by Fluttershy’s behavior, the dragon was unruffled. It rolled the blind eye in its socket, the smile widening. “Well,” it said. “If you must know, I had a slight disagreement with a friend of mine.”

“Did you win?” Dash blurted it out before she could stop herself.

It reared its head back and laughed, the noise booming and echoing around them, and sending Fluttershy back behind Dash with a squeak. The two pegasi watched the dragon bellow its amusement, nonplussed, sharing a glance of mutual incomprehension. Then, abruptly as it had started, the dragon stopped laughing, his silver eye narrowed as it looked down at them. “No.”

It slipped off its perch with a lithe grace, stretching vast wings and then mantling them against its back. The dragon began to prowl slowly around them in a circle, keeping its good eye facing them. “So, I am confronted with an interesting enigma. Two ponies, who have no business being in Draconia, let alone in those ancient, decrepit, and otherwise unused tunnels beneath my lair. Pegasi who, unless I am very badly mistaken, belong in the air, and not underground. ” It arched one mocking eyeridge at them. “Exactly how did you manage to get this far from where you belong?”

“Why should we tell you anything?” Dash narrowed her eyes at the dragon, keeping herself between it and Fluttershy as it stalked them.

“Because, no doubt, you wish to implore my help. What chance have two ponies to traverse this dragon-haunted land alone and directionless? How well will you survive if you can’t find shelter ere night falls?” It waved a claw in the direction of the sun, which the pegasi realized was setting, not rising. The lightless caverns had destroyed any sense of time. “As, of course, I have nothing better to do than take in lost travelers who turn up at the roof of the world.”

“…so you won’t help us?” Fluttershy asked quietly, peeking out from behind Dash’s wings.

The dragon whipped around quickly, its muzzle stretched into a broad grin. “I didn’t say that, did I? Do you want help?”

Fluttershy cringed back from the dragon, but managed to squeak out a word. “Yes!”

Dash lowered her voice. “I don’t know, Fluttershy. How can we trust it?”

“Because ‘it’ is not a ravening monster.” The dragon interjected. “Well, most of the time. I will help you, but there will be a price.”

“What did you have in mind?” Dash said warily, watching the silver eye suspiciously. They both jumped back as the dragon thrust its muzzle toward them, good eye twinkling and blind eye watching them sightlessly.

“I must know your story.”

***

After the first dragon they’d met, neither of the pegasi were expecting architecture in a lair. Instead of a cave, though, their host’s abode was carved from the living rock. Pillars framed a door cast from iron, with a dragons-head sigil worked on the front in gold.

Fluttershy pressed in against Dash as they entered the heart of the dragon’s territory. Dash wasn’t enthusiastic about it herself, but the massive shape in front of them seemed their best chance to make it across Draconia. There was no guarantee any other dragons they met would be anywhere near as friendly.

As they stepped over the threshold, the first thing they noticed was it was warm. After the endless cold of the north, they found themselves shivering anew as their skin was reminded of what heat felt like. It was also bright. Skylight shafts cut in the rock and glowing crystals served to drive back the shadows, revealing thick rugs and towering bookcases, holding tomes as large as a pony.

Even more striking was the glen visible through a far opening. The splash of green trees and grasses was shocking given the stark rock and bleak ice of the rest of the land. The dragon held the door as they walked through and let it swing back on silent hinges once they were inside.

It was no pauper’s home. Dash glanced behind her as the thick metal door slid closed, sealing them off from the outside world, and then looked at their host. “So…who exactly are you?”

“You really should have asked that before you requested my help,” the dragon chided them. “Not that my name would mean anything to you.” He rumbled a series of liquid syllables that no pony throat could hope to duplicate. “If you want, though, you can call me Scar.” He tapped the ruined side of his face with a claw. “I am many things, but you can think of me as a scholar for the moment.”

“…right,” Dash said doubtfully, putting a wing over the trembling mare next to her. Fluttershy seemed to have gotten smaller somehow, her deep-seated fears growing now that she was confronted with the fact of dragons rather than the idea. Her earlier concern for the dragon no longer buoyed her, which left very little in the way of reassurance.

Scar noticed. “Oh dear,” he said. “While a little fear is healthy, even flattering, surely I am not that terrifying.” It was impossible to tell whether he was being sincere. “I’ve only threatened you a little.” He held two claws close together, and Dash glared at him.

“She’s afraid of dragons, for your information.” Dash turned her attention to Fluttershy. “It’s all right, Fluttershy,” she told the yellow pegasus. “He’s going to help us.”

“I know,” she replied softly. “It’s just…dragons.” The yellow pegasus took a deep breath and stood up a little straighter. “I-I think I’ll be okay. As long as I’m not alone.”

“Hey, with me here?” Dash grinned at her, and then looked back at Scar. “So how are you going to help us?”

“Payment first. I absolutely must know how a dracophobe has ended up with an entire continent full of dragons between her and anything else worth mention.”

“Ugh, fine.” Dash wasn’t feeling particularly charitable to this particular dragon, but it was at least being relatively reasonable. She would have flown to the grassy glade, but with Fluttershy still watching Scar with wide, nervous eyes, she had to settle for walking there.

With a small waterfall babbling in from one side of the glade, the tall green trees, and the setting sun staining the leaves orange, it could almost have been something from Equestria. The carved arches framing it on each side, and the roof of rock and glass that cast straight-edged shadows on the grass ruined that illusion, though. The two pegasi dropped onto the grass, the warmth and the sun making them both a little more cheerful.

Even Scar appeared less threatening as he brought a large book and a pot of ink to the edge of the glade, stretching out and tilting his head to look at them. “Well?” He invited.

It took some time for Rainbow Dash to tell. In fact, the more Dash spoke, the further it seemed they had come. She hadn’t considered their journey in its entirety before, and now that she was talking it out she realized they had been gone for nearly two weeks with no real end in sight.

Near the end, Fluttershy had relaxed enough to add in a few soft words. Scar wrote with a clawtip as they talked, dipping it in ink and scratching it across the thick vellum. The dragon didn’t interrupt them except for a very few questions, content to hear it as they told it, no matter that it was jumbled and not entirely coherent.

Luna’s moon was riding high in the sky by the time they finished, silvering the grass around them. Dash rubbed a hoof against her throat as she trailed off, feeling hoarse from so much talking, and stepped over to the stream for a drink as Scar finished his writing.

“You two are either more lucky or more skilled than you know. You should hope that remains the case,” the dragon said. “Tomorrow I’m taking you to our capital, Eyrie Dracones, the city of ice and fire.”

Rainbow Dash spluttered into the stream. Fluttershy cringed down further against the ground. Both of them stared at Scar. “Why?” Dash asked, finally.

“I certainly don’t control every tract of land between here and the sea. Unless you can get every one of, oh, two dozen dragons to agree to leave you unbothered, you’ll need a more general easement. I’m sure you can find some way to convince our ruler to grant you unfettered travel.”

Dash walked back over to Fluttershy, the two of them exchanging a look of disbelief as Scar rose. “And with that, I have some work to do. Have a good night!” The dragon ghosted back out of the glen, leaving them alone.

There was a long, long stretch of silence before Fluttershy spoke. “H-how are we supposed to convince dragons of anything?”

“You could always use your stare on ‘em!” Dash said encouragingly, but the other pegasus shook her head.

“You know I can’t control it, and with so many dragons I don’t think – I don’t…” Fluttershy trailed off miserably.

“Hey, don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll think of something.” Dash put her foreleg over Fluttershy’s shoulders. “Long as we’re together, we’re fine, remember?”

“Yeah…” Fluttershy gave her a small smile. It faded quickly though. “I really miss Ponyville.”

“Me too.” Neither of them had been particularly homesick before; they’d been too busy staying alive and on track. But between the tree-filled glade and actually telling their own story, they were both thoroughly ready to be home.

“I wonder if they’re still looking for us.” Fluttershy looked up at the moon, which somewhere else was shining down on their homes.

“You know our friends wouldn’t give up on us, Fluttershy!” Dash gave the other pegasus a gentle tap with her hoof. But she wondered just as Fluttershy did how long it could be before everyone in Ponyville and Cloudsdale assumed the worst.

“I suppose not.” The yellow pegasus didn’t sound convinced, and she leaned in against Dash. “I just hope we do get home.”

“We will, Fluttershy,” Dash reassured her, following her gaze to the sky. “We will.”

***

Their first real bath since they’d gotten lost came courtesy of a hot spring secreted away in one of the innumerable rooms of Scar’s home. “If you’re going to go to court, you need to look the part,” the dragon said as he ushered them into tall, marble-fronted room. “At the moment you have the distinct air of the vagabond.”

It was true. Fluttershy’s mane was plastered against her neck, and Rainbow Dash’s was still clotted and matted with blood. Their tails weren’t in much better shape, and both of them were covered in dust and grime from their cave ascent. The blankets were tattered and torn from chance encounters on the rocks, giving the pegasi a thoroughly ragged air.

They both could have used a day at the spa, but hot water would have to do. “Do you think you’re up for this?” Dash asked Fluttershy as dirtied water drifted away from where they were scrubbing themselves.

“…no,” Fluttershy sighed. “I don’t like it at all, but I don’t think we have a choice. What if all the other dragons are worse than Scar?”

“Yeah…” Rainbow Dash nodded and ducked under the water, rinsing out the last of her mane before climbing out onto the marble tile. “But once we’re done with this we’ll be almost home.” She shook herself, water spattering over the tile. “Just keep that in mind.”

“You really think it’ll turn out okay?”

“Hey, we’ve gotten through everything so far.” She gave Fluttershy a smile as the other pegasus climbed out of the hot spring and began the laborious business of drying herself off. “I don’t see why this is any different.”

Fluttershy gave her a small smile back, but neither of them were particularly confident about the upcoming visit. They had to leave the blankets, the torn and stained fabric beyond easy repair, and trust that it wouldn’t be too chill a flight. Scar seemed immune to heat or cold, going from the comfortable interior of his lair to the icy day outside without a shiver.

The sun was bright, even if it gave out little warmth, and the snow of Draconia sparkled a brilliant white. The smoking peaks of three volcanoes loomed in the distance, and green bloomed around steaming hot springs and glacier runoff. The landscape held a stark sort of beauty that would have been far more enjoyable if it weren’t for the scaled and winged figures dotted about the horizon.

“Now, do keep close,” Scar told them. “We wouldn’t want any of my fellow dragons thinking you’re wandering about unaccompanied, do we?”

Fluttershy shook her head silently, and Dash merely rolled her eyes. “Let’s just get going.”

The yellow pegasus kept close to Dash as they trailed behind Scar. The dragon’s vast wings cast a large shadow on the ground as he swept down the valley that cut into the land below his lair. The air was just as cold as they might have feared, but exertion warmed them some as they flew toward the heart of Draconia.

It soon became clear they were headed to one of the volcanoes, puffs of ash stretching lazily into the sky from the tip of its cone. Most of the mountain’s base was green, stands of evergreens stretching down to ribbon of blue sparkling in a narrow valley, and the winged silhouettes of dragons flocked about it. While no other dragons had come near on their journey, as they drew closer to their destination it became inevitable.

Fluttershy squeaked and lost altitude as two other dragons fell into formation with Scar, bracketing the two of them in a narrow formation. Dash dived and helped Fluttershy back up, the yellow pegasus working her wings gamely despite her wide and frightened eyes. The two outriders spoke in the draconic language, a low rumbling and a bark of laughter.

“You should know better,” Scar replied. “Our guests do not speak our language and you can certainly speak theirs. It is polite to all stay in the same tongue.” His voice shifted from pleasantly conversational to something with more of an edge. “Or you can continue being rude.”

The pair glanced at each other past the pegasi. “Where did you find these two?” One asked. “Are ponies even allowed in Draconia?”

“And does the king know you’re coming?” The other one added.

“The first question is my story, bought and paid for. As for the other two – no, and no.” Scar turned his head to favor all of them with a wide grin. “Won’t this be fun?”

The two dragons glanced at each other again and dived downward. Scar watched them go and chuckled; Dash was far less amused. “There’s not supposed to be ponies in Draconia? Are you trying to get us killed?”

“Well, that would be telling.” Scar winked at them and Dash growled in disgust.

“Look, let’s just get this over with, okay?”

“Indeed.” Scar flicked his tail and headed downward.

The city of Eyrie Dracones did not so much come into view as resolve itself slowly from the icy flanks of the volcano. It was cut from the living rock, a vertical city composed of a series of plateaus, each with a broad spread of buildings and an open square. A stripe of blue and a stripe of orange cut through each plateau, cascading downward from one level to the next; water and lava flowing through the heart of the city. The base of the city was bracketed on one side by the water, forming an ice-dotted lake, while magma simmered in an identical parenthesis on the other side.

Snow dusted the roofs of the buildings, while sunlight glinted off gold and silver, copper and steel. Metal defined the doors and windows, streets and alleys, fountains and pools. It resembled Canterlot in many ways, though the scale was enormous and the looming bulk of the volcano kept it from looking too familiar.

There were even more dragons here, as was to be expected, and Fluttershy made small noises under her breath as she tried to talk herself out of mindless panic. Dash put a reassuring hoof on her shoulder as they followed Scar down. “We’re almost there. Just one stop and then we can leave.”

It wasn’t until they dropped down into the city proper that the scale became apparent. Everything was constructed for dragons; even the smallest window was large enough to fit Fluttershy’s cottage through it. They alit on a layer of the mostly-vertical city between two channels; one carried lava and the other water. Even across what was to the pegasi a vast courtyard, the heat of the molten rock was palpable.

Fluttershy immediately collapsed to the ground, covering her head with her hooves and trying to pretend there weren’t a half-dozen scaled figures watching them curiously. Dash trotted over to her and bent down to nuzzle her reassuringly. “It’s okay, Fluttershy. They’re not going to hurt us, all we have to do is explain what’s going on. Now, where do we go from here, Scar?”

There was no response. Dash turned around to see that their guide had vanished. She gawked for a moment, surveying their surroundings wildly, but she couldn’t see any sign of the grey-and white scales. The two pegasi were alone in a city full of dragons.

“That…he…” Dash was speechless. “…okay Dash, finding a palace shouldn’t be too hard. Just look for the biggest building around.” She started pacing around, staring at the various buildings and trying to ignore the small crowd of scaled and winged figures stopping to watch. “Why are they all big?”

“Dash, what are – “ Fluttershy squeaked, unable to finish the sentence as she saw the predicament they were in. She scuttled backward from the watching crowd, and it wasn’t until her rear hooves splashed into the aqueduct that she stopped. Dash followed after her with a few beats of her wings.

“Yeah, it looks like Scar left us behind,” Dash said breezily, as if it weren’t an issue at all. “We can just head to the palace though, shouldn’t be too hard. A-heh.”

“But…the dragons…” Fluttershy pointed behind Dash.

“Oh they don’t seem to be…” Dash turned to look at the watchers, and was greeted by the sight of an armored and gimlet-eyed dragon pushing through the crowd. “…oh boy.”

The dragon stopped, its steely blue against the dark grey and gold armor, and lowered its head to stare at them. It rumbled something in draconic, making Fluttershy cower back against the water’s edge, and Dash smiled nervously at it. “I don’t speak the language, pal. Maybe you speak mine?”

The dragon looked back and forth between them, and then reached a paw out to pick up the cowering Fluttershy – only to jerk back as Rainbow Dash planted her hooves against the back of the paw at full speed. “Don’t you even dare!” Dash shouted at it.

There was a pause as the two pegasi and the guard dragon took stock of what had just happened. Then the dragon made a swipe for Rainbow Dash. “Fluttershy! Run!” The pegasus called as she dodged the claw, rising higher into the air.

“W-where?” Fluttershy stared around, panicked, and Dash followed her gaze. With the vast scale the city was built on, there weren’t many pony-appropriate hiding spots. On the other hand, what was merely a narrow crack for a dragon was more than large enough for a pony to pass through.

“There!” Dash pointed at the aqueduct where it passed among buildings, flowing out of a pipe that ran somewhere deep into the city. It was only half-full of water, but that meant there was more than enough space to fly. Fluttershy needed no further urging; she darted into the pipe and vanished from sight.

Before Dash could follow the guard lunged in front of pipe, glaring. It raised its head and bellowed, then growled at some of the watchers in its own language. There was an outburst of laughter, but one of them stepped forward to grab haphazardly at Rainbow Dash. The pegasus winged away easily, but saw three more of the guards flying toward her in a tight wing.

“This isn’t good…” Dash shot upward toward the next city level, trusting that Fluttershy would stay hidden. The trio altered course to intercept her, the lead one opening its mouth and letting out a long blast of concentrated fire. Dash veered wildly, the flame following her as the dragon tracked her movement. The heat roiled the air, jostling her flight and leaving her flank feeling half-scorched.

Then the dragons were nearly on top of her. Dash dodged upward, away from claws and teeth, and their flying wing split apart, the three dragons moving off away from each other to try and corral her. The pegasus hung for a moment, watching them, and allowed herself a small glimmer of hope. None of the dragons were as fast as her, or as agile. She wouldn’t have bet herself against Scar, but she was almost sure she could outfly these guards. Almost.

Dash darted from between the larger, clumsier dragons and out into the open, rolling to the side to avoid another blast of flame and reversing course, slamming as hard as she could into the nearest wing. The dragon grunted, and she veered away from another swipe, her eyes narrowed as she passed between the other two. The three guards nearly collided, but recovered and turned after her again.

She laughed and sped ahead of them, giddy from adrenaline. “Hah! Losers!” The pegasus grinned maniacally as she outdistanced her pursuers, but the grin slid away as she spotted two more sets of guards approaching from above. “Okay, this is getting a little crazy.” She paused for a moment, hovering and trying to figure out where to go.

Far, far below was a speck of yellow and pink against dark blue. Dash squinted and saw it was Fluttershy, peering out of one of the pipe exits and staring up at her. And coming up from behind her was the original guard, prowling across the stone.

“Fluttershy!” Rainbow Dash dove. The wind whistled past her as she arrowed down toward the pair, leaving the nine hunting guards behind. The dragon didn’t see or hear her coming, and it was just reaching for Fluttershy as she cannoned into its head with all four hooves.

The momentum smashed its head into the pavement with sickening thud, and the dragon shuddered and collapsed. Dash herself bounced off the dragon’s skull and skidded along the pavement before recovering. She stared at the felled dragon for a moment. “Whoah.”

“Rainbow Dash…” Fluttershy peered over the top of the pipe. “Did you…is it…”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Dash lied, flexing her wings and flying over to where Fluttershy hovered. “But we need to get going. Now,” she added, looking up at the incoming figures of additional guards and bystanders.

Fluttershy bobbed a nod and they ducked into the pipe again, flying along the narrow gap between roof and water. Narrow grating let in pools of light, keeping it from becoming too dark, but only giving a view of building walls.

“Now what do we do?” Dash sighed. “I guess we’ll have to try and go overland by ourselves after all.”

“…yeah.” Fluttershy agreed. “But at least we don’t have to talk to the king of dragons now.”

“Heh. True.” Dash looked around. “Do you know where we’re going?” There were dozens of intersections, and it seemed impossible to avoid getting lost.

“Upstream,” Fluttershy told her. “There’s a pool and a waterfall that feeds this so if we just follow the water, we’ll get to it eventually.”

Dash blinked. Sometimes Fluttershy surprised her with what she noticed and how much she could draw from it. “Heh, I guess it’s your turn to lead.”

Fluttershy gave her a shy smile and they flew on, tracking the water to its source. By the time they reached the pool, the pipe’s ceiling had lowered enough that they couldn’t help but get their hooves wet, the water numbingly cold. So it was with great relief that they emerged into the light, far away from all the dragons.

All the dragons but one. A grey-and-white scaled specimen stood watching them with a single silver eye. “You’re later than I’d thought,” Scar said mildly. “You must have taken some wrong turns in there.”

Fluttershy stared, jaw gaping, and Dash stormed toward the dragon. “You! What are you thinking? You said you would help us but you almost got us killed back there! What is your problem?”

“You are alive, are you not? And whole? No bruises or scrapes?”

“Yeah, no thanks to you!” Dash’s ears lay flat, her eyes narrowed at their erstwhile helper.

“I have done more than you know.” Scar cocked his head at the swarm of dragons flying around the city. “Well, it seems it is time. If you would follow me, there is a final act.”

“Follow you?” Dash spat. “Yeah, right. I don’t think so, chump.”

Scar leaned down, and the amused, indifferent façade slipped away. “I swear by my good eye,” he said seriously. “That if you come with me you will come to no harm. And you may get what you’re asking. If you leave now, you will surely be hunted every league of your journey.”

Dash gritted her teeth to bite back an instant rejection, breathed, and turned to look at Fluttershy. “…what do you think?”

“…I don’t know,” Fluttershy said miserably. “I…would we have to talk to any other dragons?”

“No,” Scar said quietly. “I’ll do the talking.”

“All right, but the first sign of anything funny, we’re out of here,” Dash warned him.

“I would expect nothing less.” A smile flickered over Scar’s muzzle. “This way.”

It was a short flight upward, and the pegasi expected to be stopped at any moment, but there was a strange lack of dragons as Scar let them in a door on the side of a gold-fronted building. They winged quietly through richly tapestried hallways as Scar padded ahead of them, and the sound of draconic voices washed over them as Scar opened another iron-bound doorway.

The hall beyond had a dozen guard dragons in iron pectorals, and a dozen more dragons of various hues in gold and silver accouterment. Conversation stopped as Scar swept in, and the two pegasi paused on the threshold. The one-eyed dragon looked back at them and winked, gesturing them forward as he turned to face the individual who occupied the far end of the room.

That dragon was as large as Scar was, perched on a silver dais with a heavy golden chain around his neck. His patterning was similar to Scar’s as well, though blue and green with steel grey eyes, and he growled something incomprehensible as the three of them entered the room.

“Now, now, you should know better than to be rude to guests in your own court.” Scar said, sitting down insouciantly in the middle of the room. “But I suppose you haven’t worried about that for some time.” He gestured back at the two pegasi. “You should know who our guests are. They’re the two ponies half the city is looking for right now.”

“…he is absolutely insane,” Dash whispered to Fluttershy. “What does he think he’s doing?”

Fluttershy crouched behind the blue pegasus, watching the scene over Dash’s shoulder. “I don’t know!” She squeaked, trying to be as invisible as possible.

“You’ve sent all your guards to find them – and yes, I say your guards. These that are left belong to me.” The tone in the room changed as the dragons in question stepped forward a pace, grim-faced.

Scar stood again and paced forward, turning to look at the assembled dragons. “So, we have two ponies. Ponies,” he said again, with heavy emphasis. “Who have evaded capture even when everyone was looking for them. One of whom engaged four of our royal guard and not only escaped unscathed but defeated one of them.” He gestured at the pegasi again.

Dash grinned nervously at all the pairs of eyes that fixated on the two of them. “A-heh…hi?” She waved a hoof.

“And still came here on the strength of their will to go home, rather than simply turn and run.” Scar paused, looking around at his audience, and turned to the king. “Too long have you kept us isolated from the rest of the world. If two ponies can make us all look like fools, how much has the world changed? How much have we missed, keeping to ourselves?”

“They are the strongest possible proof you have been wrong. You -” Scar was interrupted as the dragon king launched himself out of the dais directly at Scar. But the one-eyed dragon simply grabbed the other dragon’s muzzle and slammed him to the floor. “You haven’t learned,” Scar said, pinning the other dragon down and pulling the chain off his neck. “You may have beaten me once, long ago, but this is not long ago.”

The king said something muffled from between his clamped-together jaws, and Scar smiled. “Oh, I’m sure some will object. But I have more support than you, these days.” He nodded to the guards and stood up, the other dragons bracketing the now deposed ruler as Scar ascended the dais.

“Now,” he said to the pegasi, and all the watching eyes swung back to them. “I suddenly find myself in control of every tract of land between here and the sea. I believe I can help you.”

***

“So this is pretty cool.” Dash tapped the pendant hanging from her neck, the metal ringing under her hoof.

“I guess…” Fluttershy looked down at her own medallion as she walked. They each had one, a disc of steel suspended from a fine chain, with a dragon’s-head insignia worked in gold on the face. They were gifts from Scar and, if the dragon were to be believed, would keep anyone from bothering them on their journey south. Wearing it made it Fluttershy uncomfortable, to be associated with something so closely tied with dragons, and the strange warmth it radiated didn’t help.

“I’ll just glad to be out of here.” The yellow pegasus shivered. “Too many dragons.” She had to admit, though, that the favor of the new dragon king was helpful. They had been provided with a map, supplies, and new coats to go with their pendants. Fluttershy wasn’t entirely certain what the coats were made out of; the fabric was thin, but like the pendant generated its own warmth.

Wondrous though the suits might have been, the stark white outfits would never have met with Rarity’s approval. It gave Fluttershy an obscure sense of cheer to know that no matter how powerful and mysterious the draconic arts might have been, they couldn’t produce something to match the talents of her friend. That thought made accepting the dragon’s gifts somehow more palatable.

What Scar didn’t offer was an escort to the edge of draconic territory. Fluttershy was relieved; her nerves were frayed enough from her time in the city. She didn’t know if she’d be able to handle the days of flight south with one right there. Fortunately Dash didn’t seem to be any more eager for an additional companion than Fluttershy.

In fact, after a day and a half ensconced in a private and almost pony-sized room at the back of the castle, she was even more eager to leave than Fluttershy. Now, with the last-minute gift of the pendants, they were finally ready to depart. There was just one last encounter.

Scar was waiting as they emerged from the interior of the palace. The thick gold chain around his neck bore a dented and scratched ouroboros in iron, faint remnants of delicately worked scales hinting at detail lost to time. He was flanked by a pair of guards, and Dash scowled at him, her ears laid back against her head.

“C’mon, Fluttershy, let’s just go.”

“Wait, Rainbow Dash.” She would have liked nothing more than to simply leave. But she summoned up her courage and took three steps toward Scar, bobbing her head to him nervously. “Um, thank you for your help, Mister Scar. We’re really grateful that you…”

She trailed off as Scar shook his head. “I merely fulfilled a bargain, and used you to my own ends. Less than honorable perhaps, but I can’t say I’m sorry for it.” The dragon chuckled softly. “Do have a good journey. Our land might not hold much for ponies, but enjoy what you can.”

Fluttershy gave a small nod and backed away, then extended her wings and rose into the air next to Dash.

“One more thing before you leave,” Scar called from behind them, and Dash rolled her eyes.

“Now what?” She muttered, refusing to turn around and give the dragon the courtesy of her attention.

“Oh, Rainbow Dash, you could at least be polite,” Fluttershy whispered, before turning to look apprehensively at the dragon.

“Do remember me to your friends when you get home.” His grin was full and toothy now, silver eye gleaming. “I think I shall be visiting soon. I’m looking forward to renewing an old acquaintance.”

“Um…all right.” Fluttershy quailed back from the smile, but the dragon just winked and turned to go back inside. She watched him for a moment, before Dash tapped her on the shoulder.

“We need to go, Fluttershy, it’s a long flight south.”

The yellow pegasus nodded and followed after Dash. They flitted around the bulk of the volcano, making their way toward warmer and greener climes. According to the map, they’d ended up very near the top of Draconia, and much of it was even less hospitable than glaciers and snowy mountain peaks.

The best route they had found cut across a small isthmus of active lava flow, avoiding sulfuric swamps on one side and storm-swept mountain peaks on the other. From there, a river supplied a small ribbon of green as it cut through toxic scrub and skirted the edge of a vast desert. At the southernmost tip there was a symbol for a bridge. Even if it were no longer intact, it would lead them at last into Equestria.

The bitter wind smelled of ash as they made their way through the sky. In the distance, a tall mountain belched black clouds into the sky, and the occasional rumble, as of thunder, could be heard echoing through the air. Far below, steam and smoke rippled away from the front of a black-crusted spill of lava, the thermal buoying their flight. “I don’t see how the dragons can live in this,” Dash muttered.

“I don’t either,” Fluttershy agreed. “But I’m glad they’re here and not in Equestria. I don’t think they would make good neighbors…”

Rainbow Dash laughed. “You can say that again!” Then she chuckled, talking to herself. “Bad neighbors. Heh.”

Fluttershy looked askance at the other pegasus, but Dash just seemed happy to be on the move again. That was something she certainly understood; without the dragons it was like a heavy weight was lifted from her back. So she smiled back as they made their way over the charred and blackened land.

The small isthmus turned out to be a vast lake of churning rock, dotted here and there by a blackened spire rising from the maelstrom. It would have been almost impossible to find somewhere to land, so it was just as well the hot air rising from below made gliding effortless.

But as day turned into night and they left the orange glow of blasted lands behind them, Dash began to flag, dipping lower toward marshy banks of the winding river unrolling beneath them. Fluttershy followed her down, concerned. “Rainbow Dash, are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Dash waved her hoof dismissively. “Just kinda tired. Probably from kicking dragon butt!” She grinned and looked around. “So where are we crashing for tonight?”

Fluttershy looked doubtfully at Dash, then gave a resigned toss of her head and looked around. The river bubbled down out of the foothills, falling in dozens of small waterfalls as it poured toward the sea. While there were no nearby trees, and the unstable weather made clouds an unlikely proposition, with the hilly terrain it didn’t take long to find a cave to shelter in for the night.

“Hello, is anyone in here?” Fluttershy called into the cave, but it seemed to be vacant. The white coats kept them warm on the rock floor, and the draconic supplies consisted mostly of a strange, sweet-spicy berry that neither of them had ever seen before. Dash ate ravenously and stretched out to sleep, and Fluttershy followed suit, though with a vague worry lingering at the back of her mind over the way Dash was acting.

That worry was given life when, in the glimmering predawn, Rainbow Dash staggered outside the cave and was noisily sick. Fluttershy sat up, blinking muzzily, and tried to focus on Dash in the faint light of the eastern sky. “Wha-what’s wrong?”

“I dunno,” Dash mumbled, shivering as she ducked back into the cave. “Don’t feel good.” She was flushed and shivering, wobbling a bit as she stood.

“Oh my goodness. Sit down, Dash” Fluttershy pointed a hoof at the cave floor and the blue pegasus obeyed. Fluttershy peered closely as Dash’s face, putting her hoof on the sick pony’s forehead. It was hot to the touch, and she winced as she pushed back Dash’s mane to reveal the scabbed-over cut on her head.

The bruising was an ugly purple and green, and the skin around it was tight. The wound itself was streaked with angry red and splotched with white. “Oh my goodness. Fluttershy, you should have insisted on making sure it was clean.”

“What?” Dash blinked at her and Fluttershy shook her head.

“Dash, your cut is infected and I don’t have any medical supplies and oh my goodness.” Fluttershy’s wings quivered nervously. “You stay here.”

“Wasn’t planning on leaving,” Dash said blearily. Fluttershy ducked a nod and stepped out of the cave. It was true she didn’t have any medicinal tools with her, and she didn’t know any if the local plants would help, but she could still improvise some things.

By the time she returned, saddlebags full, Dash was asleep again, curled up and looking miserable. Fluttershy gave her a worried look and dumped out the contents of the bags just outside the cave, kicking stones into a rough circle around the leaf litter and twigs. She pulled off her amulet and sorted through the flint she’d acquired until she found a proper piece, biting her lip as she focused on getting a fire started.

It wasn’t a practiced skill, so it took her some time, but eventually the tinder blazed to life. Fluttershy fed the fire with dried limbs from the bushes nearby, which burned with a green and smokeless flame. She used makeshift leafy bowls set around the periphery of the fire to boil water. While the leaves crisped down to the water level, as long as there was liquid in them they wouldn’t actually burn.

A larger piece of flint had a sharp enough edge to serve as a knife, and she grimaced as she laboriously sawed a piece of fabric off the back of her coat. That went into one of the heating containers of water while she held the knife blade in the flame itself. Once she was certain everything was ready, she stepped into the cave and nudged Dash awake.

“All right, Rainbow Dash, we need to get that cut cleaned out. Come on.” She escorted the blue pegasus out to the fire, the green light casting ruddy shadows in the early morning light. Dash’s fever-blurred eyes widened and she stumbled to a sudden halt as she saw the crude knife and leaf-jugs of water.

“Wait wait, what are you going to do?”

“We need to clean out your cut. You’ll have to trust me, Dash.”

Rainbow Dash looked at Fluttershy for a moment, her eyes wide, then gave her a nod. The yellow pegasus pulled the other mare up next to the fire, bracing Dash’s head against her foreleg as she brushed back the rainbow-streaked mane. The infection looked even worse in the greenish light, and Fluttershy winced as she picked up the knife with her teeth and cut away the scab as cleanly as she could.

Dash snorted softly, her teeth clenched, and Fluttershy stifled a cough as the smell of the discharge from the wound reached her nostrils. She set the knife aside and picked up one of the containers of sterilized water, pouring it over Dash’s head. The bloody water spattered over the ground, and Fluttershy picked up the knife again, letting the blade edge sizzle in the fire briefly before quenching it and using it to remove the last clinging bits of debris and dead skin.

After a final rinse, she tied the strip of boiled cloth tight over the wound. It wasn’t as good as a real bandage, but it would have to do. “All right, Dash, I’m all finished.”

“…ow.” The pegasus said after a moment. She was somewhat muffled by the cloth having to loop under her jaw. Dash reached up to touch the bandage and Fluttershy gently pushed her hoof away.

“Just leave it alone for now, Dash,” Fluttershy said gently. “You should just go back to sleep, and try to get rid of the fever.”

“Sleep…sounds good,” Dash agreed. She nearly fell over from the simple act of standing up, and Fluttershy rushed to help her back into their cave. The yellow pegasus made sure Dash was as comfortable as possible before going out to clean up.

As the sun rose, so did Dash’s fever, and Fluttershy made several trips to the river for cold water to wash the sick pony’s forehead. The blue pegasus tossed and turned restlessly, but she didn’t wake until midday, hoarse and delirious. “Dragons, Fluttershy!”

The yellow pegasus flinched back from the shout, crouching down beside Dash as the other mare raved on. “Gotta fly away…coming after you.” Dash’s wings flapped arrythmically as she tried to get up.

“It’s all right, Rainbow Dash.” Fluttershy put a hoof on Dash’s brow. “You kept me safe.”

Dash looked at Fluttershy, eyes wide and searching, and her expression eased somewhat. “…Oh. Gotta…gotta keep going.”

“Dash.” Fluttershy said firmly. “Rest now. We’re safe.”

“I…” The blue pegasus struggled to articulate something past the fevered haze on her mind. “If you’re sure…”

“Trust me,” Fluttershy smiled at Rainbow Dash, and the blue pegasus finally nodded. Her rainbow mane flopped limply as she dropped her head down onto her forelegs, short panting breaths stirring the hairs of her coat.

“Right…gotta…gotta trust Fluttershy. S’okay.”

The pink-maned pegasus watched Dash worriedly, trotting out to get another container of water. “Here, drink this.” Fluttershy urged. She held the water up to Dash, who gulped it down unquestioningly.

“Thanks…” Dash mumbled as her eyes slid closed again. Fluttershy stayed by her side, watching the sun arc through the narrow view afforded by the cave entrance and occasionally nudging Dash awake to give her more water.

It was a long, interminable wait. Fluttershy didn’t get much sleep through the passing hours of day and night, making Dash eat and drink as much as possible and fretting over the mare’s condition. The supplies of berries and leaves provided by the dragons began to look sparse as they dropped behind their intended schedule by one day, and then two.

On the morning of the third day, the fever broke. Dash woke, gasping and sweat-soaked, but coherent. “I feel like I’ve been pushing thunderheads for three weeks straight,” she groaned, looking up at Fluttershy. “What happened to me?”

“Oh, Rainbow Dash, thank goodness.” Fluttershy said, giving the blue pegasus a tight hug regardless of her sweaty coat. “I was so worried. Your head got infected and I didn’t have anything to treat it and I just had to hope you’d be okay on your own.”

“So that’s where this bandage came from.” Dash reached up to gingerly touch it and winced. “…I wasn’t really on my own. I don’t remember much, but I do remember you were here. Thanks, Fluttershy.”

“I couldn’t leave you by yourself, Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy chided her. “You know that.”

“Heh. Yeah, I guess.” Dash wobbled to her feet, flapping her wings experimentally. “We should probably get going, but…” The blue pegasus sighed. “I don’t know how far I can make it today.”

“Oh, Dash,” Fluttershy said fondly. “I don’t expect us to go anywhere today. You can just - ” A yawn interrupted her and she shook her head. “Just relax right now, eat and try to get your strength back.”

“Right.” Dash took an immediate interest in the nearest saddlebag, and Fluttershy stretched out to sleep for the first time in days.

***

They ventured southward in short jaunts, occasionally seeing a winged shape in the far distance but remaining unbothered. With the delay, their gifted food supply ran out far before they reached the isthmus, and they had to resort to eating the too-shiny grass growing along the riverbanks. It was only barely palatable, leaving a copper tang in the back of their mouths.

As Dash’s strength returned, their flights became longer, and the bare rock and ice faded into a more familiar scape of greenery. The river dropped below them to carve a deep canyon, winding slowly to the sea beneath steep walls of banded rock. They took one break on an outcropping poised above the spectacle, looking out at the multihued rock cliffs.

“I’d still like to be home, but there is some really amazing scenery where we’ve been,” Fluttershy said. “You’d never see anything like this in Ponyville.”

“Yeah, we’re going to have a totally awesome story to tell when we get back,” Dash agreed. “They’re going to be so jealous.”

“They really shouldn’t be,” Fluttershy said softly. “You almost died. More than once.”

“…still an awesome story.” The blue pegasus grinned broadly, and Fluttershy couldn’t help but smile back.

The sun was just touching the horizon when the bluffs dropped away to the sea. The river fell downward in cascading rapids, creating a narrow patch of green where dwarf trees and moss clung to the rocky face. More commanding a sight than that though, was an ancient bridge stretching on massive pillars out from the bluffs.

It was worn smooth with age, any trace of decoration or gilding eroded away, leaving only an uneven slab of rock reaching out into the sea. The water frothed around the base of the pillars as they stretched in a straight line away from the shore; those that were whole. The first three were intact, but the fourth and fifth had been toppled, leaving only jagged stumps peeking over the tops of the waves.

The bridge appeared to have been smashed at some point in ancient history, an enormous break leaving the two halves dangling in the air. Past the break, on the far side, the stone continued to a distant smudge of land. Equestria.

***

Concluded in Part 3 - Terra Firma

Epic thanks to Mixup and Melionos for their critiquing/editing and idea-inspiring.