• Published 23rd Dec 2011
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A Bluebird's Song - Ardensfax



Rainbow Dash is struggling against her own past. Is it time for her rising star to fall?

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Blood

A Bluebird’s Song

~~~
They said to lose my life
Or lose my love
That’s the nightmare
I’ve been running from
~~~

Blood

The dark forest was glimmering.

Dash was cushioned on a pillow of magic, suspended a few feet above the ground. Around her, slowly and methodically, Twilight was weaving. A glowing blue ribbon was slipping smoothly from the tip of the unicorn’s horn, encapsulating the injured pegasus in a protective cocoon that wound around her body again and again, from her head to her hooves.

Clearly Dash was in no fit state to move herself even one step further, but Twilight knew that they needed to get away from the clearing before the allure of fresh meat presented by the dead wolves brought more predators sniffing around the place. Her love kept breaking into coughing fits, occasionally bringing up more blood. Each fleck was like an icy dagger through Twilight’s chest. She knew that magically carrying Dash was her only option, but was determined to offer her at least cursory protection.

She had no way of splinting the pegasus’s wings, and instead used her magic to prevent them from moving and causing Dash further pain. Perhaps this was not the best way, but her blood chilled at the memory of the way Dash had screamed when Twilight had tentatively tried to straighten her left wing.

With luck, they could reach the border of the Everfree before nightfall. Twilight had considered building a beacon of some kind of attract the squad of guards that would shortly be roving in a search pattern over the forest, but a nagging intuition warned her against doing so. She could build a fire, but it would waste time, and would likely attract other, more dangerous attention. No, it was better to get moving as fast as possible, and trust herself with Dash’s defence.

“There!” The last glowing strand fell into place, and the protective shell around the floating pegasus was complete. It was a shimmering purple-blue aura, transparent and comprised of an almost gossamer texture which belied its strength. “Can you hear me?”

“S… sure,” came the reply, faint and muffled through the magical field, but audible. The fatigue and the extent of her injuries were beginning to take their toll on Dash, and her voice was weak. It made Twilight’s heart accelerate with barely-suppressed fear, and she knew not to congratulate herself just yet. She wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. Holding the pegasus up was easy enough now, but after a few hours of walking the strain from such prolonged use of magic would without a doubt take its toll.

Maybe we should wait. The guards might find us here.

Twilight banished the nagging indecisive thought. They might be searching for hours, and this place smells of fresh meat. They won’t be the first ones to find us.

The forest around them was chattering and shrieking, a million glowing eyes peering curiously at the tableau. Twilight’s mind was made up; she knew that they were beginning to attract attention.

It was time to move.

*

The squad of guards descended in tight formation towards the forest canopy, armour shining in the early afternoon sun, scanning the misty green mass with professional, practiced eyes. The trail left by Dash’s descent had long-since faded, so it seemed that a traditional search was the only option.

“Fan out, check the area,” commanded Sergeant Ignis, the grey-flecked stallion who was in overall charge of the operation. “I don’t want anypony going below the treeline until we know we’ve located her.”

“That might not be possible, sir,” noted the corporal to his right. “The canopy’s thick; visibility to the ground is basically zero. The princess said we shouldn’t waste time. I say we should get hooves on the ground as soon as possible.”

“We’re not going down there without knowing that we’re going to find, and that’s final.”

The group of stallions were coasting to a halt above what was their best guess of Dash’s location, and the corporal turned to reply when an angry voice sounded to their left.

“Where in Equestria have you been?”

In surprised unison, the squad of guards turned their heads at the angry voice, to see a wiry white pegasus making his painful way through the sky towards them. His frizzy, golden hair was matted with dirt, and he seemed in a bad way; blood dripped freely from his wounded leg, and each beat of his wings made him wince.

“Useless!” he exclaimed, as he got closer. Apparently he was making his way to Ponyville hospital in order to get his leg seen to. “Bucking useless, the lot of you!”

The sergeant recognized the irascible newcomer as Lightning Flare, and he realized what must have happened. His soldier’s brain clicked through the situation, and arrived at the logical conclusion. Twilight was on the ground, but for some reason Lightning had left her behind. His heart sank at the sight of the battered stallion’s injuries. “What happened to your leg?”

“Wolf,” grunted Lightning. “We dealt with them fine, but one of them got me.” He paused for a moment to catch his breath, and them confirmed Ignis’s deduction:

“Sparkle’s fine. So’s Rainbow Dash, but I had to bunk. I’d just slow them down.”

Ignis breathed a sigh of relief that their charges were, for the moment, safe. Lightning’s bitten leg, however, was quite a concern. As a general rule, if the wolf did not finish its target off, the bacteria in its fangs would likely do the job if not treated. He motioned to the squad’s medic, a skinny recruit with a heavy supply pack. “Dockleaf, get a bandage and some antiseptic.” He turned back to Lightning. “We can patch you up in mid-air, hopefully that’ll be enough for you to get yourself to hospital.”

Lightning nodded. “Bastard split my hoof, too,” he said to Dockleaf as the medic approached with an antiseptic spray bottle. His eyes watered as the fine, stinging mist peppered his injuries, but no sound escaped him. Perhaps it was a matter of pride. “Those wolves are tenacious,” he added, his teeth gritted.

Ignis turned to the injured pegasus. “By the way, what makes you say we’re so useless?” he asked, one eyebrow raised, his voice coolly unconcerned.

“Because you’re miles off!” exclaimed Lightning, as Dockleaf wrapped a bandage around his leg. This was not a particularly precise operation when conducted in mid-air, but the results were surprisingly neat. Canterlot guards were well-trained, and it seemed as if the hours of practice had paid off.. “I’ve been flying for about ten minutes now,” Lightning pointed left with his good hoof. “They’re a couple of miles that way, or at least they were.”

“Did you tell them to wait for us?”

Lightning shook his head. “I didn’t expect to run into you. It would’ve taken you hours to find them, and who knows what would’ve found them first?” He shrugged. “Best I can tell, Sparkle’s gonna be heading for the forest border. Dash looked in a bad way though, she needed serious medical attention. Maybe

they’re still patching her up in the clearing. You might still catch them.”

Ignis’s brow knotted thoughtfully, as he came to a decision. “Okay, we’ll start there. Which clearing do you mean?”

Lightning gestured leftwards once again, visibly less pained now that his hoof was at least slightly protected from disease and the elements. “About two miles that way. It’s a pretty small clearing, a couple of dead wolves lying around. Can’t miss it.” He snorted. “Actually, having seen your sense of direction so far…”

“We’re not all racing flycolts,” snapped the burly corporal, his temper flaring up at the stallion’s arrogant attitude. “We came as fast as we could, but we didn’t have any trail to go by.”

Lightning raised his hooves with a wince, his expression reconciliatory. “Okay, okay, sorry. Thanks for patching me up, you guys.”

“It’s stuff like this that we normally have the Wonderbolts for,” noted the corporal, still glowering at the gold-maned pegasus. “We could use them right now.”

Ignis nodded, calmly. “Now you should get to a hospital, before that leg goes septic.”

“Sure.” Lightning turned and began to flap his slightly steadier course towards Ponyville. He glanced back over his shoulder at the guards, his expression almost pleading. “Just… try to get there on time. Twilight saved me back there. I’d like to be able to think I bought her some protection.”

“We’ll do our best,” promised Ignis, before turning back to his squad. He had never seen Twilight Sparkle personally, but he still cared what happened today. Lightning’s appearance had therefore been heaven-sent. It would not have reflected well on him or his career if the princess’s long-term protégé got herself lost in the Everfree on his watch. Of course, that may well already have happened, in which case they still had a search on their hooves.

Motioning left, the unit of guards rapidly re-organized themselves into tight formation, and sped off in the direction of the clearing.

*

The afternoon was beginning to wear on, and the heat was sticky and oppressive beneath the crushing forest canopy. Twilight trudged onwards through the pathless undergrowth, the shining cocoon suspended in mid-air by her side, her horn wreathed in glowing, flowing sparks. The creatures that dwelt this deep in the Everfree had, so far, left them alone. Twilight was thankful for this; her sides were shining with sweat, her breaths coming hard and fast from the trek, and the mental exertion of supporting Dash’s prone form. The thought of having to defend them once again was nigh-intolerable.

Every few minutes, she would flick her horn skywards, reiterating a simple compass spell that she had learned as a filly. Her horn would tug her head to the north, and she knew that as long as the spell pulled her head to the left, they were progressing eastward as planned. East, she knew, meant Ponyville. East meant the forest’s edge. But how far away was that edge? When she had flown over the green expanse with Lightning, it had seemed as nothing; a carpet of matchsticks that could be easily crossed in mere moments.

From the ground, it was a very different matter; potentially a deadly one. Her heart leapt in fear and sympathy every time she heard Dash cough, or groan at the pain in her wings. The pegasus drifted in and out of conversation, occasionally talking to Twilight about home, or one of Pinkie’s parties. The mundane. The reassuring self-distraction. Then she would lapse back into silence, and Twilight could tell that, for Dash, every second was a fight for consciousness.

At some point, the subject turned to their time together. It was a topic that Dash clung to, her voice growing a little stronger as they picked their way together through these recent, beautiful memories. Their first kiss… their first night. Twilight was surprised and bashfully pleased at the vividness of Dash’s recollections, and both ponies found themselves a little lost for a few minutes in this pleasant escapism, as the unicorn trekked their path onwards between the gloomy trees.

“It… it was Discord. Did I ever tell ya that?”

Dash’s voice drifted through the magical shield by Twilight’s side, and she turned to look at the pegasus, her hooves crunching gently through the undergrowth. Her words seemed to make no sense, and for a moment Twilight feared that Dash was delirious due to the blood loss or trauma. The mare was certainly worryingly pale, her coat still matted with dried blood.

“Discord?”

“Yeah…” Dash turned her head a couple of inches to look at the unicorn by her side, and her teeth gritted in discomfort.

“Don’t try to move!” exclaimed Twilight, fearing that the pegasus would do herself further injury.

Dash chuckled, the sound interrupted by a sharp, painful cough. “Worth it,” she croaked, the corners of her mouth twitching. “Anyway… Discord… That was the first time I ever really saw you in… in that way.” It might have been Twilight’s imagination, but Dash’s breathing now seemed slightly easier. Or perhaps simply fainter. She had no way of making the distinction, and the sense of helplessness and uselessness filled her with fear. She forced herself to concentrate on Dash’s words. At that moment, there was nothing further that she could do for the pegasus.

“You cast that memory spell on me…” Dash continued. “But… it wasn’t just my memories you gave back to me. It worked both ways. I saw ya, Twi’. So brave and so afraid… beautiful and so, so lonely. You’re powerful; you could become a goddess if you wanted, but you’re afraid it’d set you apart. You… you can’t see how far you’re already set apart.” She sighed; a low, contented sound. Twilight realized that her eyes were brimming. “Ever since then, I guess I was falling in love with you. Bit by bit. Day by day.” Dash laughed, weakly. “For months, I told myself it was just a crush. That was how it felt. Then… that article. That crash. You helped me, you didn’t laugh at me… you… cared. I guess that was what it took for me to realize just how much I cared, too.”

By the last few words, Dash’s voice was painfully weak. Were it not for the force field and the pegasus’s injuries, Twilight felt that she would have embraced the cyan mare and simply not let go. “It was that article that made things different for me, too,” she murmured. “The way it changed you back to the way you used to be. I guess you could say I saw the real you as well, only it took me longer.” Her smile was tinged with sadness, her teeth a little clenched with the continued effort of holding the mare aloft. The area of her forehead around her horn was beginning to burn with the stinging pain of magical exertion. “I just wish I’d taken the time to really get to know you before. I wish I could have broken down your barriers the way Fluttershy did years ago. I... I think I’d have fallen for you such a long time ago if only I’d made the effort to dig beneath the surface.”

Dash gave a small snort. “I didn’t make it look like there was anything to dig for, did I? I must’ve seemed so… shallow.”

“You were guarded,” replied Twilight, gently. She was pleased with the flow of conversation. If she could keep Dash distracted and aware, there was hopefully little chance of her falling unconscious. If she could keep herself distracted, she did not have to dwell on what might well happen next if Dash did fall unconscious. “Lots of ponies guard themselves with bravado, but you were hiding for so long that even you couldn’t tell the difference between your face and your mask.”

Dash laughed again, the sound coming out bitingly rough and pained. “That’s… that’s why I can’t live without you, Twi’. You made me better. You made me believe I was better than all that. I can never repay you for what you did. I’m just… I’m sorry I dragged you down here with me.”

Twilight shook her head. “Don’t apologize, Rainbow. And for what it’s worth… you’ve already repaid me. You’ve done that a thousand times just by being with me. I couldn’t imagine life without you now.” Cold claws seemed to rake across her chest at the ill-chosen words. “Just hold on,” she choked, barely able to get the words out. “We’ll be out of the forest soon.”

You don’t know that. It might be another full day’s journey yet, maybe more.

I don’t care. I’m not going to stop walking until we’re back at Ponyville, or until I keel over.

“I know we will,” from the faint tone of Dash’s voice, she was about to lapse back into one of her periods of silence. “I… I trust you, Twi’.”

Twilight continued for a few more wearisome minutes, the magical cocoon bobbing along in her wake. Suddenly, however, she halted. A flash of sudden colour caught her eye.

A small bird had alighted on the branch of a tree a few feet from them, and was regarding them with quick, intelligent eyes. Its wings were a vivid sapphire-blue, its chest banded russet and white. Something about its gaze made Twilight stop half-apprehensively in her tracks.

Suddenly, it began to sing; a rapid, staccato chattering that cracked like a whip above the other sounds of the forest. Twilight stood, near-fixated, listening. The sound was not a pleasant one as such, but it seemed somehow significant. As if attracted by the call, a second bird, a robin this time, landed beside the first. It scrutinized Twilight and her charge for a few moments, and it too began to sing.

A third voice broke out among the bushes, then a fourth. The forest above them was criss-crossed with darting wing-tracks.

Suddenly, the air around them was alive as other birds flocked from all around to the sudden clarion-call, acting with a unity that Twilight had never thought possible of wild creatures.

At least, not possible without help. Twilight watched the mass of whirling wings, breaking into a sudden smile. She knew who was behind this; she knew only one pony who could instruct wild creatures with such skill and finesse. They were not alone down here.

“Wh… what’s going on?” For Dash, the world was hazy and indistinct through the magical shield, but she could make out the small forms filling the air and trees around them.

“Fluttershy,” replied Twilight, a new determination in her voice.

With renewed energy, she pushed on through the forest. As long as the birds could find them, Fluttershy could too. It was only a matter of time now before help arrived.

The birds moved with them, hopping or fluttering from branch to branch. As if they had realized the need to keep a low profile in the treacherous forest, they had more or less fallen silent, barring the occasional chirp or rustle of wings.

Suddenly, their chattering noise ceased altogether. Twilight stopped again, looking around at the suddenly-deserted trees. There was no sign of a single wing nor glinting eye among the leaves.

No, wait, one remained. The quick-eyed little creature which had been the first to spot them remained. A bluebird, Twilight now realized. Its eyes bored into her, and it let out a series of low, warning notes, so quiet as to be almost inaudible. It seemed to be trying to tell her something; something its heightened senses had caught before her.

Twilight eyed it in apprehension.

Why’s it being so quiet? It didn’t exactly hold back earlier, did it?

An unpleasant thought struck her.

If something’s here, it’ll already have heard us. The bird’s trying not to provoke it.

She heard Dash’s breath catch in shock behind her, and her eyes roved around the trees. They were hemmed in on all sides by towering, gnarled trunks, and Twilight could pick out no glint of a hostile eye among them.

“Twi’…” Dash whispered, horrified.

Then she heard it. A soft, sibilant hiss. Twilight’s heart seemed to freeze at the proximity of the sound, and with great trepidation looked downwards.

It was all she could do not to scream aloud.

A tiger snake. Easily six feet long, its thick black body coiled over itself, partially buried by the shifting leaves that carpeted the ground.

It lay inches in front of her hooves, regarding her with lazy, glittering eyes; one more step and she would have trodden on it. One more step and she would have been dead, along with Dash.

Snakes. To say that Twilight was phobic of the things was practically an understatement. She could not breathe. Every nerve in her body was willing her to shriek and bolt; to put as much distance as possible between herself and those pitiless black eyes. But she could not. Right then, Dash was her priority, and they needed to get past this new obstacle.

She looked up for a moment, her eyes seeking the bluebird whose warning had saved their lives, but the branch it had occupied was bare. She realized that, were it not for Fluttershy, they would both be dead.

Of course, they may yet be. She could tell that the snake was weighing them up, trying to decide whether or not she was a threat. Certainly the glowing, hovering magical cocoon had unnerved it to some degree. Twilight considered attempting to immobilize it somehow, but unicorns were not the only magical creatures in Equestria, and the sight of a flaring horn would get a predator’s guard up in seconds. Indeed, the low glow emitted by her horn to keep Dash’s cocoon in the air had already cast a narrow-eyed suspicion into the snake’s gaze. She had no idea if she could strike faster than the creature, and had no intention of betting their lives on it.

They needed to find a way around.

She began to step backwards, painfully slowly, hoof by hoof across the crackling ground. The tiger snake’s head swayed, its eyes illegible, its balance a knife-edge.

Dash’s breathing was suddenly ragged and catching in the back of her throat. Twilight felt a wave of cold panic sweep across her; she knew what came next. The prone, hovering pegasus did everything she possibly could to prevent it, but the spasms were already wracking through her body, and she could not stop them from escaping.

She broke into a coughing fit that echoed off the trees, horribly loudly. Her broken wings shook, and Twilight knew that the involuntary motion must be terribly painful for the pegasus, and the familiar, awful feeling of helplessness washed over her.

Immediately, though, it was replaced with terror. The noise had roused the snake; it reared up into the air, its eyes fixed on the unicorn who had dared to disturb its rest.

It hissed furiously, drops of venom spitting from its open mouth. Then it struck at Twilight’s neck.

She had only had the time to take three steps back before Dash began coughing, but those few feet saved her life. Her mind was blank and screaming in horror, unable to conceive of even the simplest of spells or defences. She was suddenly clouded, consumed with the base fighting instinct common to every horned creature, blessed with magic or otherwise.

Her head snapped down, bringing her horn to bear in a sweeping parry, the motion ugly, ill-coordinated, and not even slightly magical. It was enough. The lunging snake’s fangs snapped down hard on the solid alicorn surface with a sharp, jarring crack. The serpent’s tail thrashed as it tried vainly to break through the surface and deliver its venom.

Somehow though, the impact had disrupted the horn’s magical field. Perhaps it was sheer distraction, or perhaps the current of magical energy had simply been interrupted. Either way, Twilight felt every bit of crackling energy drain out of the air around her, and the burning of magical fatigue in her forehead began to recede.

She realized what had happened, and cried out in horror.

Behind her, the mare she loved crashed to the ground. Twilight could do nothing, but she heard the pegasus scream. Clenching her teeth, she shook her head violently. The tiger snake’s grip slipped a little, its fangs gouging scores into the surface of her horn. It broke away with a hiss, and prepared to strike again, this time at Twilight’s face.

This time she was ready. Magic did not even occur to her as she acted with a deftness of instinctual motion she had never thought possible.

In a single, graceful motion, her neck arced to the left, evading the serpent’s lunge. Planting her hooves, and acting entirely on impulse, Twilight twisted her head smoothly back to the right, and slammed her horn home.

When she looked back on the incident, Twilight could never tell if it had been some untapped skill, or simply desperation. Either way, the blow was perfectly aimed. It pierced the underside of the snake’s head, emerging from the back of its neck with a truly horrible sound. Twilight screwed up her eyes to protect them as hot liquid ran in rivulets down her forehead and face, and she jerked her horn free. The twitching snake collapsed to the ground, its thrashing tail growing progressively weaker and slower, until eventually it lay motionless at Twilight’s hooves.

This would be another bad memory later. Another guilt, another recollection to spend solitary early-morning hours over, wondering if it could have been done differently. But not yet. Right then she felt nothing.

Unaware of her stained horn and face, moving almost in a dream-state, Twilight rushed to Dash’s side. The cocoon was still intact, and had absorbed the worst of the damage, but they had a problem nonetheless. She semiconscious pegasus gazed blearily up at Twilight, her face suddenly horribly pale. Twilight saw with a freezing rush of horror that the impact had re-opened the wounds on Dash’s side and leg. Blood was pooling in the bottom of the magical field, soaking into Dash’s fur.

With a hasty wave of her horn, Twilight dispelled the cocoon without a moment’s thought. There was no way that she could rebuild it now, not in such a magically and physically weakened state. It did not matter, though. All that mattered was the rapidity of Dash’s ragged breathing, her heart-rate skyrocketing as it struggled with what limited supplies it had. Her eyes fluttered closed, and it seemed as if the pegasus had finally succumbed to unconsciousness.

You let her fall for a second time. You failed her again.

Desperately, Twilight attempted the clotting spell once again. She ran her glowing horn across the open wounds again and again, but to no avail. The flow continued, spreading out in a pool, staining the unicorn’s shaking hooves.

Blood on your hooves, and don’t you know it? This is your fault.

Twilight’s brain had jammed. She had no time.

She’s not going to make it. Not like this.

Yes she will. There’s an obvious answer to everything. There’s no puzzle without a solution.

Blood. What was that about blood? In Cloudsdale?

Twilight’s memories flowed like water, or perhaps blood. The important parts seemed to glow, forming their steady way to solutions.

The preparation room, back at the Cloudiseum.

They had done everything to Dash, for the sake of preparing her. They had styled her mane and tail, checked her flight suit, checked her for drugs…

Taken a blood sample. Twilight’s mind homed in on this memory; the rapid analysis of the sample, the cloud-walking unicorn doctor with his impressive range of identification spells, splitting the sample up into its components in mid-air in front of him, before scratching his chin and coming to a conclusion.

The four words that Twilight had heard him speak echoed in her head:

“O Positive. She’s clean.”

O Positive. Dash’s blood type; thankfully common. Indeed, a perfect match for Twilight’s own.

There was only one thing to do, of course.

Well then, she thought to herself, once again raising the near-unconscious pegasus into mid-air, her heart hammering as if it knew what hardships were coming for it next. Now we’re really against the clock.

It was simple, really; a precise fluid teleport link. Maintaining a constant flow would be tricky, but she reminded herself that it was nothing she had not attempted before. She began by pulling some moss up from the forest floor, and pressing it green-side down against the injured area of the pegasus. Even in her hazy state, Dash inhaled sharply at this sudden pressure. Two hurried flicks of her horn pulled down sturdy strands of the ever-present vine that seemed to creep its way up every tree in the Everfree. A little clumsily, she knotted the moss tightly into place with her horn and teeth. It would do little to stem the blood flow, but would at least prevent the wound from being exposed to the forest air, now that its protective cocoon had been stripped away.

Even the small exertion of pulling down the climbing plants had made Twilight’s forehead burn horribly with magical exhaustion. She raised a hoof instinctually to rest on her burning horn, and it came away red and sticky with the snake’s blood. She must look like a monster.

Focus. Fluid teleportation. A transfusion’s the only thing that’ll save her at this point.

Gritting her teeth, her horn began to spark. She held out her hoof, sending a probe along her foreleg, searching for the artery, homing in on the warm, pulsing heat. When she was sure she had located it, she planted the pinpoint entry gate of the teleport link, and felt the magical tingle beneath her skin. Then, she did the same to Dash, scanning her horn across the pegasus’s leg. These detection spells were elementary to her, but she had never imagined that she would be using them for something such as this.

Taking a deep breath, she positioned the exit of the teleport link carefully into Dash’s bloodstream.

The strain of holding up the pegasus and maintaining the teleport link was immediate and debilitating. Soon the light-headedness of blood loss would creep up on her too, another enemy trying to bring her down.

She had to move.

As quickly as she felt was possible, Twilight struck on through the dense forest, staggering every few steps. She could not tell if Dash was regaining conscious or not, and she did not dare look back to check. Certainly the pegasus was not talking. On the brighter side, whilst it might have been her imagination, she fancied that the trees were thinning a little, and this knowledge spurred her on.

After a few minutes, she was conscious of her heart-rate rising, battling the incessant loss of blood. She could almost feel the fluid draining from her system.

What would Rainbow think if she knew I was doing this?

She'd tell you to stop, of course.

The silence was strangely intimate.

After fifteen minutes, she was panting from the exertion of simply trudging on. Her sides were once more drenched in perspiration. She felt numb and light-headed, she treeline seeming to melt a little before her eyes. She was more than prepared to bleed herself dry for Dash, she just prayed that it would not be in vain. Dash hovered by her side, her crude bandages of moss stained a dark red. She was still losing blood nearly as fast as Twilight could provide it. She had had no idea that the lacerations from Dash’s fall had cut her so deeply.

Time lost all meaning.

Still she pushed on.

Ten more minutes passed, or it may have been an hour or a few seconds. By this time, Twilight was running more on willpower than ability. Every root snared at her hooves, trying to trip her. Every tree was a predator. Fluttershy’s birds had never reappeared, nor had any semblance of assistance.

One hoof in front of the other.

She was keeping herself awake second by second. Her chest was heaving, the empty-lung sensation of enormous altitude gripped her mind, fogging it with near-asphyxiation.

One hoof in front of the other.

It’s just a hop, a skip, and a jump.

A clearing. A cave’s mouth looming, black and cavernous.

A narrow path, lined with blurring, melting trees.

One hoof in front of the other

Another clearing. Sun-kissed grass and wild flowers. Her delirium-addled mind was painting the sunbeams into watercolour swirls and cascades.

There are worse places to rest.

The pain in her forehead was blinding, as if a glowing-hot brand had been pressed to her skin. Magic was impossible. Taking one more step was impossible.

Forgive me, Rainbow…

Twilight was not aware of her knees giving out, or her magic dying. All she knew in her blood-starved mind was that the world was suddenly sideways. The coolness of grass and fallen leaves was caressing her cheek. Somehow, Dash lay beside her, blue and red clashing on her coat. Her face was motionless. Her chest was quivering. Her eyes were closed, their deep, magenta secrets guarded.

I wanted to see them one more time.

At least we’re together. Maybe they’ll never find us. Maybe we’ll be together like this forever.

I’d like that.

Somewhere in her throat, she mustered a whisper, letting her breath caress the face of this joyful, impossible, incredible mare, one last time.

“I… I love…”

Dash’s smile filled her imagination, a smile that laid no blame on her, a smile that told her that her love had been treasured and reciprocated, right to the end. In a strange way, she was content.

Whiteness tinted her vision, growing in strength. Her ears were full of hissing nonsense noise.

The nothingness rose up in a roaring tide, and swallowed her.

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