• Published 20th Nov 2023
  • 98 Views, 35 Comments

The River Rising (Iota Force Issue #7) - The Iguana Man



Icy Flight must overcome her deepest phobia to save her town and friends from a seemingly-omniscient enemy, while deep in the Everfree Forest, cut off from Ponyville and alone with only two of her team. No pressure, kid!

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Chapter One: And the Rain Came Tumbling Down

You can always tell that it's going to be an interesting day when the thing that wakes you up is a thunderclap.

As Icy rose to consciousness, squeezing her closed eyes tighter in an ill-considered attempt to recapture sleep by expending more energy and feeling more pressure, she considered why this was. After all, most ponies lived in houses that either weren't at risk from a lightning strike or had lightning rods, so hearing thunder wasn't all that dangerous unless you were camping or didn't have a lightning rod on your house. Or possibly if you did, but your house was made of metal, which would mean your house was a lightning rod.

It could have been a racial-memory thing, she thought as she grudgingly opened her eyes, but that seemed a bit of a stretch. Particularly since it wasn't hard at all to sleep through a thunderstorm – if it was, there wouldn't be so many scheduled at night. Although that did bring up the fact that not all thunder served as an unwanted alarm clock. In fact, it usually didn't, as most were part of larger storms, meaning there was also pouring rain and howling winds to add to the cacophony. In theory, this may have made it even harder to sleep, but in reality it would invariably all blend into a largely amorphous soundscape and quickly fade to the background.

If anything, Icy had always found the pouring rain outside helped her sleep a little, since the fact that she could see it coming down but knew she was totally safe from it lent her a great sense of security. This hadn't even changed after her little... incident at the beginning of the year – a memory that made her shudder herself to consciousness even now. She was mostly fine with water coming down in reasonable amounts, she just didn't like seeing it when it pooled too deep.

Still, she refocused on her previous tangent – lightning didn't wake you up if it was part of a storm. Which, in turn, meant that any lightning that did wake you up must have happened when the weather was otherwise mild. This quite neatly answered the question of why being woken by thunder was such a mark of an interesting day – because a lightning strike on a clear day was an unusual event in and of itself.

Icy's eyes shot open as she realized that there had been a lightning strike on a clear day and that said day was going to be interesting. Interesting was not necessarily bad, but it was a possibility. Still, the thunder hadn't been loud enough to shock her upright immediately, so the strike must have been either moderate or far away. The sound of a massive bolt of lightning nearby would be a sign of a very bad day. Or, if it was close enough, a very short one.

Still, she trotted over to the window and stuck her head through, looking to the side to see what, if anything, she could see.

It seemed she was far from the only one concerned, as there were many other heads poking out of windows along her street and, in the cracks between the houses, she could see even more on other streets. Furthermore, everyone who had been walking down the road had turned to Icy's right. She could never remember what compass point that aligned to, but she knew that it was in the direction of the nearest edge of the town, where the Everfree began.

Turning to look in that direction, she couldn't see much – understandable considering that lightning was, by definition, as fast as lightning and the sound would have reached her long after the strike. Still, straining her eyes to see in the distance, she did see the top of a faint cloud of... something hovering above an area she knew was in the forest.

Squinting in confusion, she pulled her head back into her room and turned to the door. “Mom?” She called out, trotting into the corridor. “Mom, did you hear that?”

“Up here, Sweetie!” Icy heard her mother's voice from the other end of the corridor, where an open door showed the steep, spiral staircase that led to the attic.

Sighing a little, Icy walked over and began climbing the tall stairs one at a time. “Do you know what that was?”

“Afraid not,” Sunny Flight replied as Icy rose through the house. “Obviously a lightning strike – and a big one too, if we could hear it that loud from all the way in the Everfree – but I wasn't at a window when it happened. Didn't see the bolt... but I can sure see the result.

“Result?” Icy asked as she pulled herself up to the top of the stairs, silently wondering why her mother had been so insistent that their house have such a high attic.

Still, her stringent specifications had their advantage, as she had also insisted that the attic needed windows pointing in every direction, which was what was now allowing Sunny to look out in the direction the thunder had come from with a pair of binoculars.

“Uh huh.” She said, not taking the lenses away from her eyes. “See, the sound isn't the only reason I know it was big. You know Mount Foalja?”

“Um...” Icy thought – she knew she had heard the name, but couldn't place it.

“It was a small mountain in the Everfree.” Sunny looked away from the binoculars for a moment to give Icy a smiling, knowing glance before returning to looking out of the open window. “Key word: was. Looks like it's now the Foalja Plateau.”

Icy blinked for a moment, unsure how to parse that sentence. “Wait, what?” She trotted up to her mother and held a hoof out, silently asking for the binoculars.

Sunny nodded and passed them over, though she kept a hoof on them and, as Icy put them to her eyes, she guided their trajectory to point where she had been looking. “Looks like that strike completely blew off the top of the mountain.”

Icy's eyes widened as she saw that, indeed, the massive, slanted stone column she was looking at came to a head a little before it could reach its peak and instead stopped at a somewhat flat surface. Even now, minutes after the strike, there was a faint hint of stone dust in the air around where the summit used to be.

Icy took her eyes away from the binoculars, her mouth hanging open slightly. “Can... That can happen?”

Sunny looked out at the shortened mountain. “No. No, it can't, not even in the Everfree.”

There was a short silence between them as they contemplated the implications behind that.

Then, without warning, Sunny turned and began marching towards the stairs. “Honey, will you be okay on your own for a while? I'm heading to Town Hall for a bit... and maybe making another stop afterwards.”

Icy hurried to catch up to her mother. “You're going into the Everfree?” she asked, catching her mother's implication. “I thought you were retired.”

“Oh, I am and I don't know that I will,” Sunny replied as she began descending the stairs. “I'll decide that once I've talked it over with the relevant authorities – after something like that, you can bet that everyone with any authority or knowledge'll be there as well. I'm not looking to go out there, but we'll have to see.”

Icy nodded to herself as she bumped her way down the stairs behind her mother. “Okay, but if you do, be careful. I know you've got a lot of experience, but still, the Everfree's a dangerous place. Although,” she looked to her mother's rear half as it went out into the corridor below and focused on the stylized wing Marked on her flank, “I guess you wouldn't be walking through it anyway, huh?”

Sunny looked over her shoulder at her daughter, lighting her horn to begin gathering her things in the hallway below. “No, but not all threats come from my eye level. Would have thought you of all ponies would know that.”

Icy smiled as the two made their way down the main stairway of the house. “I guess.”

Sunny nodded. “Still, it may not be quite the most dangerous place on the planet, but it's certainly no pleasure walk.” As she came down to the ground floor, she began levitating over her various bags and accoutrements. “I'm not looking forward to going in there and if I do, I'll be careful, I promise.”

Icy giggled at how much her mother was sounding like the daughter in their relationship. “Okay, well then, have fun and be sure to be back by seven,” she said with mock worry.

“I will!” Sunny assured her as she opened the door. “See you later!”

As the door closed, Icy's eyes remained resting on it, her mind a curious combination of happy for her mother, amused at pretending to be the one who should worry and actually worrying a tiny amount.

Still, she soon dismissed the whole thing with a shake of her head and went to make breakfast.

She smiled as she hopped up onto the counter, reaching up to open the cereal cupboard. Her mother wouldn't be around this morning, so she took down the box of Wheatyblox.

Not that this was exclusive to times she was eating alone – while not the most flavorful of cereals, it was perfectly palatable and she had it sometimes even when her mother was there. What was different was that she then trotted over to another cupboard and pulled down a big bag of sugar.

On some level, Icy was sure her mother knew when she drowned her breakfast in sugar – her career had drilled into her to keep a close eye on one's supplies after all and it couldn’t have escaped her notice that the bag became somewhat emptier every time Icy made breakfast unsupervised. Presumably, she simply didn't begrudge Icy the extra energy, even if it did invariably only serve to fuel her frequent flights of fantasy. However, that didn't change that little feeling of naughtiness and secrecy Icy felt every time she poured a thick stream of sweetness onto the solid blocks in her bowl.

This morning, however, the feeling was interrupted by another boom coming from the window. It wasn't nearly as loud as the previous thunderstrike, but it was still enough to make Icy start and nearly upend the entire sugar packet over the countertop.

Shaking her head, she put the bag aside and went to get the milk. She looked out of the window as she passed it, but the sound had come from an angle where she doubted she could see anything and, indeed, the scene outside seemed fine.

She returned to her bowl and began pouring the milk. However, a moment after she did, she pulled it back, hearing droplets splashing everywhere.

She blinked in confusion as the flow of milk stopped but the sound remained. Looking up, she tilted her head when she saw what was making the sound – it had started to rain outside. This was a little odd; Icy didn't always keep up with the weather schedule, but she did know it was supposed to be sunny today – Winter Wrap-Up had only happened a week-and-a-half ago, so it wasn't nearly time for the real spring showers to start.

Still, she shrugged as she resumed pouring. It wasn't unknown for the schedule to change at short notice, even discounting the possibility of wild weather from the Everfree.

She frowned a little as she began to eat her breakfast. While she wasn't a suspicious pony by nature, a sudden weather change immediately after an impossibly big thunderbolt seemed like a bit of a coincidence. It didn't help that, as she ate, the sounds of the rain outside began to increase rapidly, soon becoming a full-on downpour.

Still, Icy's mind soon wandered off, thinking about the strike that had seemingly precipitated this precipitation. She'd heard of some incredible weather events, both real and fictional, but the idea of a lightning bolt big enough to blow the top off a mountain was something else entirely. What must it have been like? Was it thicker than normal, a wide guillotine of electricity slamming down on the mountain's head? Was it brighter than normal, carrying more volts or amps or whatever it was that made electricity more powerful, filling the rock with so much energy that it burst like a balloon? Was it simply faster than normal, smashing into the rock like a bullet and impacting hard enough to turn the summit into a crater?

By the time she was finished and washed up, she had an image of all three in her head and was hurrying up the stairs before she registered that she was, heading straight for her desk and the drawing supplies laid out on it.

She hopped into her chair and swooped one wing over the work surface, picking up her pencil as the other straightened the paper and held it down for her hoof to take the pencil to start drawing on it.

First, she made a rough sketch of a mountain – she didn't know Mount Foalja nearly well enough to specifically represent it and didn't feel like going up to the attic again to look at it, so a generic mountain would have to do – then covered the top with an explosion, drawing a few stray bolts of lightning around it to make clear what kind of explosion it was. Then, she drew her pencil down sharply to outline a bolt as thick as the mountaintop would have been, slamming down into the summit. She drew a few rough shapes around the explosion to represent where the rocks that had been sent flying would be. That completed the rough layout of the picture, meaning she had only to draw the thing in detail now.

Although, she did take a moment to sketch out the form of a pony floating above the bolt as well, giving the rough form the distinctive bucket-esque helmet of Magnetron and resolving to do the armour and cape later. Admittedly, she had no idea whether being the Master of Magnetism also extended to controlling and creating electricity, but then neither did most of the ponies writing him, so she wasn't that bothered by it. Besides, he was one of her favourite villains, so she figured there was nothing wrong with giving him a cameo.

Not wasting a moment more, she began to draw the mountain in earnest, as that was by far the most labour-intensive part of the picture. Time began to blur as she filled in the huge space with big boulders, jutting outcroppings and angular spines of rock. She even took the time to carefully rub her pencil over a few areas at differing pressures, creating depictions of gravel that were... passable, at least.

Still, she didn't pause to appreciate it as she began filling in the details of the explosion next, diligently embellishing every curve of smoke, fork of lighting and flying stone. Next came the bolt itself – a much simpler task, though she did take the time to shade it somewhat, making the fill thickest in the centre of the bolt before fading it out as it widened, giving a rather nice effect to it. Finally, she gave the hovering figure a few more details, small as he was, before putting down her pencils.

She took a moment to look over the picture, nodding in satisfaction. She was no Check Curvy or Steam Ditty, but she was decently proud of her efforts.

However, that same moment also brought her out of her state of focus just a little – enough to hear the constant sound that had been filling the backdrop throughout her entire drawing session. Looking up, she saw that the rain had increased even more in the – she checked her bedside clock and started slightly at the time given – hour and a half since her mother had left. It was now heavy enough that she was having difficulty seeing through it, resembling a monsoon more than the ordinary rainfall of a small town like Ponyville.

The sight sent a slight wave of nausea through her for a moment before she jerked her head to the side, looking away from it and squeezing her eyes shut. Since her near-drowning a couple of months ago, she had made some great strides in dealing with her aquaphobia... or so her mother and her therapist had said – she had a hard time feeling like she was any better off. Still, she knew on an intellectual level that she was doing better – she could stay in the bath for a short while, it just felt bad to.

Normal rain, of course, didn't bother her – it was only solid bodies of water that set off her anxieties. However, the sheer volume of the rain was just peeking over the edge of her phobia, ready to send her fleeing or collapsing in terror as soon as the multitudinous droplets were thick enough to merge. And that wasn't considering the flow of water down the street – something she was rather eager to not consider. She knew she wouldn't like to be out in that kind of weather... and then she remembered that her mother was or, at least, would most likely have to go out into it sooner or later. And she didn't have her wet weather gear.

Icy gulped as she realized what the right thing to do would be – gather said gear and bring it to her mother at the Town Hall. She took a deep breath, centring herself for a moment as she weighed her options.

She certainly didn't want to go out into the deluge if she could at all help it, as she was sure most ponies wouldn't. On the other hoof, that also applied to her mother, who couldn't even prepare for it. But then again, Icy did have more reason than most to stay inside and out of the water... she could certainly justify staying where she was. She was sure no one would judge her for it... except, that is, herself.

When she had first realized her little problem, she had sworn to herself that she wouldn't give in to it – she would find a way to overcome it and push through it. She wouldn't allow it to destroy her life in any way. Refusing to go out simply because something almost set her off would be both selfish and self-sabotaging at the same time. Half a year ago, she would have gone out there without a second thought. Well, she wouldn't have rushed out there, she'd have put on her own protective clothing first...

A thought flashed through her as she realized that she had something that might help. Rushing over to her wardrobe, she threw it open and pulled down her costume – a thick, heatproof, hooded bodysuit that, she had no doubt, was entirely waterproof among the many other protective enchantments layered onto it by Iota Force's resident costumier, À La Mode.

She silently thanked the tiny mare as she slipped the suit on. Not that it would matter – even if Mode could hear her, she was apparently still banging her head against a wall trying to figure out how to insert a deployable set of ice skates into the suit. The crash course Pinkie had given Icy up in the Crystal Empire meant that keeping a set of skates ready to be deployed was a worthwhile enterprise, but inserting a whole pair of ice skates into a suit was... a little tricky, to say the least. As such, for the moment, the suit simply had a tiny pack attached to its back containing a set.

Fortunately, that same pack had enough room for Icy to put her mother's waterproofs, as she gathered them all up from the garage and shoved them into the backpack. It took her a few minutes to find and stow everything, but soon enough she was at the door, stepping into her rain boots, taking a deep breath and opening the door.

To her slightly pleasant surprise, the rain had lessened somewhat in the minutes since she'd resolved to go out in it. Icy assumed that was the work of the weather team and, while that would seem to confirm that this rain wasn't their doing, it did help her peace of mind somewhat to know that there were professionals on the job.

Still, Icy took the tassels around the suit's neck and pulled them tightly, constricting the hood around her muzzle and reducing her field of view massively – she still wanted to see as little of what was going on as she could, so a little self-induced tunnel vision would definitely help.

She trudged out into the torrent, bracing herself for the unpleasant quivering that went through her limbs once the water started hitting her back. Fortunately, while she still definitely felt the impact of each drop, she felt neither the wetness nor the temperature drop, so it was only slightly different from being in a rain of sand or sleet. Which, admittedly, weren't things she was eager to go out in either, but it did help.

She moved slowly – while being unable to see much of the ground helped deal with her fears, it did mean she had to move carefully if she wanted to avoid tripping or slipping, either of which would send her plummeting into the very flow that she was trying to avoid looking at. This did mean that she would be out in the rain for longer, but she was still sure that the total anxiety she'd be feeling would be far less in the long run.

Of course, she couldn't be sure. Even if “feeling bad” was something that could be measured and quantified, Icy had never had the best sense of time and had absolutely no clue how long it would take her to get to Town Hall from her house. Still, she knew she'd get there sooner or later and, as she strode forcefully through the deluge, she thanked whoever was listening that there was no rush.

However, it seemed that whoever was listening resented not being thanked by name, as a loud sound made itself known through the continuous thumps of the rain – the loud, low, long ringing of a bell.

Icy started, looking up through the pouring water – even though she couldn't see the bell that had made that noise, the tone and direction told her that it was coming from her very destination. And that was a problem – when the town hall bell rang, it was the signal for an emergency.

Now, this was a problem on its own – by definition, every emergency is a problem, even if not every problem was an emergency. However, it also meant that the townsfolk were to gather at Town Hall, both for their protection and so they could be given whatever tasks would be needed to help. And while Icy was going in that direction anyway, the bell also implied that ponies should come as quickly as possible, something Icy wasn't planning on doing.

As she heard ponies hurrying out of their homes, fumbling and rustling with raincoats and boots, she also realized that she'd need to have a better view of things to avoid getting caught unawares by the rush. Which in turn meant loosening her hood and getting a fuller view of the rainstorm.

Icy snorted and stomped a quivering hoof in frustration. She stood stock still, not wanting to risk tripping over her own hooves when the sight hit her eyes. She reached a hoof up to her hood, ready to pull it back.

However, just before she touched the fur lining with her muddy hoof, a voice called down from above her:

“Icy! Would you like a lift?”

Icy raised her head as she heard Dinky's voice. Admittedly, it didn't help much considering her limited field of view, but it helped bring her back into the moment a little quicker. “Er, sure?” She said, a little confused about how Dinky could give her “a lift”. The little filly was skilled at manipulating time, sure, but she wasn't nearly strong enough to lift another pony, physically or magically. Then again, she did hear the voice coming from above her, so presumably...

Her thoughts were cut off as she felt an adult hoof wrap around her and pull her off the ground. Looking to the side, she saw Dinky held in a grey hoof, her tiny legs held out to the side as, even in the pouring rain, she was clearly enjoying the feeling of flight.

Icy couldn't exactly blame her for that, of course. However, it didn't take a genius to figure out who was carrying them, which made flight seem like a slightly less appealing prospect.

“Er, Dinky?” Icy asked, raising her voice slightly to be heard over the movement and the weather, even if she wasn't sure she wanted their carrier to hear her. “Are you sure it's safe for your mom to be carrying us? I mean, with this weather and everything...” she trailed off, hoping she didn't sound too derogatory.

Dinky, however, just giggled. “Oh, don't worry – Mommy flies me around all the time and I've never gotten hurt. That's kind of her thing – in her hooves is pretty much the safest place we could ever be!”

Icy frowned a little in confusion, having been in Ponyville long enough to know about Ditzy Doo's well-deserved reputation for destruction.

“I know, I kinda break things a lot,” Ditzy said from above them, surprising Icy a little since she couldn't see the older mare's face through her hood. Still, her tone suggested a slightly melancholy, but genuine smile. “But only the things I'm not protecting.

“That's her Special Talent,” Dinky added, giving her mother a proud look. “If she's trying to keep something safe, then she will. She could carry a bubble across Equestria and it wouldn’t pop..”

Icy's eyes widened a little at this new information about the infamously clumsy mailmare. Though this would explain how she'd kept her job for so long.

Her eyes then immediately slammed shut as she saw a hanging wooden sign rushing to meet her. She braced herself for the impact, only to hear Ditzy's hoof smash through the sign, but not feel a thing other than a few splinters brushing past her.

She opened her eyes again and looked down at the hoof and herself. Neither seemed in any way changed from a moment ago.

“Huh,” she said simply as the three of them came down for a landing next to Town Hall.

As they skidded to a halt outside the doors, Icy saw a pair of pegasus ponies hovering next to the building and heard them talking, raising their voices slightly to be heard.

“...sure you'll be okay?” the yellow pony Icy could see asked, pushing her bright blue mane out of her eyes. Icy recognized her as Raindrops, the deputy weather manager for the town, currently in charge while Rainbow Dash was away.

“Relax, chief, we'll be fine,” the other mare said, though Icy couldn't recall her name. “I mean, this ain't exactly a picnic, but we can keep things in hoof around here for a while. You go in and help set things up.”

Raindrops sighed. “It's not things around here I'm worried about, it's things in the Everfree. That's what we need to do something about.”

“And since we can't get there right now, the best way you can help with that is to get in there and figure out how, right?” the other mare pointed out.

A large part of Icy wanted to stay put and listen further – if nothing else, it confirmed that whatever was causing this weather was in the Everfree – but she'd finished picking herself up by then and couldn't justify staying around without it transitioning fully into eavesdropping.

Shaking her head, she trotted into the building, swallowing a little nervously as she saw just how many ponies were gathered in the space that had previously seemed so massive.

It seemed that the call for everypony in town to gather wasn't just taken extremely seriously by the townsfolk, but was either critical enough that everyone had dropped everything to come or common enough that they'd gotten efficient at gathering there when there was an emergency. For that matter, both might have been true. Either way, it seemed that almost everypony in town had packed themselves into the space and the few who had yet to do so were just trickling in.

Now, while Icy wasn't overly enamoured with crowds, she wasn't repulsed by them. The crowd being mostly adults certainly didn't help, as it meant it would be difficult to see anything that was going on, but it didn't make the situation too intimidating. The problem was that that difficulty seeing anything would make it nearly impossible to find her mother. She needed a vantage point if she was going to join her.

Fortunately, her eyes soon alighted on one of the many balconies dotted around the walls of the room. Unfortunately, they were just as packed as the ground floor, meaning it would take a long time to get up to the railing of them from the stairs, if it were possible at all.

She turned back behind her, hoping to ask Ditzy to give her a lift, but found that she and Dinky had already wandered off into the crowd.

Icy grunted in annoyance. Dang it! She pulled her hood down with a wing before covering her face with the other. Where am I gonna find another pegasus willing to...

Her thoughts trailed off as her eyes opened, staring at the wing over her face that she otherwise would have forgotten about. Oh. Right.

Blushing furiously despite no one else being privy to her thought process, she sidled out to the edges of the crowd, just about finding the space to spread out her wings and give a single flap. The force she was putting behind them made her wings ache slightly, but it was enough to allow her to leap up and into a glide.

Fortunately, there weren't too many other pegasi in the air – most were presumably either on the ground or out helping fight the rain – so she was able to reach the nearest balcony without incident.

As she approached, she angled her wings up sharply, both to slow her down and to tilt her body back so she could grab the railing's posts with all four hooves.

As she clambered roughly up onto the top of the railing, she caught a faint movement in one of the nearby faces and turned to see Lance looking at her, an eyebrow raised.

“Oh, hi there!” Icy chirped as she clambered over the railing onto the ground behind. “Sorry about that, just need to get up high to look for someone.” Her eyes flicked down to the fencing mask and large hat held under the mute colt's hoof and the suit covering his body. “Oh, did you bring your suit cause it's waterproof too?”

Lance's mouth went to the side before nodding slightly, though his head also tilted somewhat as he did.

“Oh, so what was the main reason?” Icy asked before the thought occurred to her that, if he was already at the front of the balcony, then either he'd forced his way into a vantage position or he was one of the first to get here when the emergency meeting was called. Or possibly even before. Furthermore, the rapier resting in the scabbard at his hip gave a fairly clear idea of why he'd be in costume.

Before Lance could give her a silent explanation, Icy shook her head. “Okay, silly question. Sorry.” She turned and looked over the crowd, scanning for her mother's coat and mane. “Less silly question: have you seen my mom anywhere?”

She looked to the side at Lance, only to see him looking back with a slightly confused expression. He waved a hoof in the direction of the front of the room.

“Huh? On stage?” Icy asked as she turned to look. “You sure? She... huh...”

She blinked as she saw, among the gathered ponies on the stage, Sunny Flight was indeed standing there, talking to Time Turner about something. Even more curiously, the group included Princess Twilight, Alula and Pinkie Pie. This was in addition to the mayor, who was currently stepping up to the microphone.

“Stallions and gentlemares, may I have your attention please?” Her clear, authoritative voice rang out over the hall, making all movement and conversation peter out.

The mayor smiled out at the assembled ponies, though Icy didn't know her well enough to know whether she was more pleased because the ponies of her town were so attentive or because she was able to wield such authority. And that was assuming both wasn't an option.

However, after a moment to make sure everyone was paying attention, the mayor continued.

“Now, the extreme weather we are currently experiencing is, as I'm sure you've guessed, not something the weather team had any hoof in creating. However, it pains me to inform you all that it is not a natural or chance event, but is, as far as we can tell, an active attack against our town.”

That got the ponies' attention, sending a ripple of commotion through the crowd before the mayor cleared her throat, signalling there was more to say and bringing the focus back onto her.

“It seems that somepony – we do not know exactly who currently – stole a large supply of weather rockets from a recent shipment to the Crystal Empire and is using them to create this extreme rainfall. And, unfortunately, there is an even worse aspect: as bad as the rainfall is in town, it is even worse in the surrounding Everfree Forest and our weather team cannot ameliorate it there.” She paused for a moment, letting that sink in before continuing. “We do not know who this pony is, why they are doing this or what their ultimate intentions are, but we do know what the result would be:

“If we do not act quickly and capably, the entire town will be devastated by a flash flood.

However,” the mayor said immediately, before anyone could begin to panic, “that is an impossible if. Because I've been mayor of this town for a long time – I understand how we work, I've seen how we respond to crises and I know, for an absolute fact, that we will act quickly and capably.”

Icy blinked, a little surprised at how inspired she felt, even though she didn't know the mayor well. Through a combination of authority and seeming sincerity, she was skillfully keeping a lid on the populace's panic and steeling their resolve. It helped that she now understood why her mother was on the stage and how much she could help.

“Now, myself and my team,” she indicated the ponies behind her, her hoof lingering on Princess Twilight for a moment longer than the others to emphasize her help, “have made a duty roster for everyone in town. Each of you has been assigned a role suited to your talents and experiences. Most of you will be contributing to building a flood barrier along the river, but many others will be assigned more support-oriented roles. The lists are-”

“Hold on just one moment!” a voice called out from the crowd. Nearly the entire town sneered and rolled their eyes as they recognized the voice of Spoiled Rich – no doubt she had some pointless objection just to be contrary or to give her a chance to listen to her own voice.

“If this dreadful weather is being caused by some filthy ruffian,” she asked, “then may I ask why we are not sending ponies to stop them?”

The crowd, including Icy, paused in their eye roll as they considered the question.

Icy blinked. Huh, she may be more of a pile of things to hate than a pony, but she's got a point.

Fortunately, the mayor didn't miss a beat. “That has been considered, Mrs Rich, and I assure you we are working on it. Unfortunately, a direct route to the attacker is impossible. In addition to creating this rainfall, it seems our enemy has used more rockets to create a wind wall one hundred metres thick between us and her, along the entirety of the Everfree border.”

Raindrops stepped up to the microphone, the mayor stepping aside to allow her to speak. “We have no idea how they're doing it – that kind of precision shouldn't normally be possible. Either they're using some other kind of magic to help them or they've got some incredible ability.”

“Regardless,” the mayor spoke up again, giving Raindrops a nod of thanks as she stepped back to the microphone, “the wind and magical disruption means it's impossible to fly or teleport through the wall and the ground is far too treacherous to go by hoof. Now, as I said, we do have a couple of other solutions to get ponies on the other side – that is what the carpentry team will be working on. However a large force is presently unfeasible, so we are dedicating our resources to defending the town from this side.”

“Hmph,” Spoiled said loudly, refusing to let a little thing like a reasonable counter-argument interfere with her indignation. “I hardly see why a half-competent pegasus should let a little wind stop them.”

At this, everypony completed their eye roll. There was the Spoiled Rich they all knew and, as far as she was concerned, loved.

Nodding as the statement was silently dismissed, the mayor continued. “Now, your assignments have all been posted around the walls of the hall, separated alphabetically. Some of you may notice that you have not been assigned to a specific duty. This means you will remain here for the time being. However, this does not mean you will not be helping out, nor does it mean you won't be expected to. It simply means that you don't have a specific task you will be immediately assigned, but rather you will form a pool from which all the other teams can draw should they find themselves short-hoofed. Otherwise, the bulletins will tell you what team you have been assigned, who your team leader is and where you will be meeting them. If you have any questions, pleas-”

“We're being led by Pinkie Pie?!” A shocked voice cried out from next to one of the bulletins.

The mayor sighed. “Like that, for instance, please ask us. Yes, Pinkie Pie is in charge of the carpentry team, as she both had the idea and made the calculations they will be using.”

Clearing her throat a little awkwardly, Princess Twilight stepped up behind the mayor, prompting her to step aside and allow the alicorn up to the microphone.

“Please don't worry,” she said, giving an understanding smile in the direction the voice had come from. “I looked over her plans myself and while her idea is certainly... unorthodox, the principle is sound and the calculations are correct. It may seem like a strange plan, but barring any unforeseen issues, it should work.”

A short silence fell over the crowd, the beginnings of terror at having to rely on Pinkie for sound judgement being assuaged by the assurances – while the town was all fully aware of the Princess's own irrational tendencies, there wasn't anyone who doubted her abilities when it can to calculations and analytics.

The mayor stepped back up to the front of the stage. “Indeed. If there are no other questions, then please, in an orderly fashion, check the bulletins for your assignments and go to your meeting places.” She took off her glasses, giving the crowd a serious look. “I'm not going to lie to you, my little ponies – this is going to be tough, and we're going to have to put everything we've got into this if we're going to get through this. But I know that we will put everything we've got into it and more besides and I know we can get through this. So,” she put her glasses back on and gave the smile that won her her position, “let's do this.”

The murmuring beginnings of a cheer spread through the crowd before they started moving, looking for the bulletin that would hold their name.

Icy shook her head as she looked around, the mayor no longer clasping her attention like a magnet, allowing her to fully appreciate how everyone was rallying around her command. Crowds were simultaneously forming and dispersing around each of the massive posters, with each pony getting close enough to read their names before heading off to their duties without complaint.

Icy couldn't help but feel her heart surge at the sight – ponies may have been a sometimes skittish bunch when things came out of nowhere and their herd instincts spread the panic, but that same herding impulse meant that, when they were in the right mindset and put their collective minds to it, they could work together to achieve incredible things. Icy chuckled – there was no way this town would lose to a little... flood...

The smile melted off her face as her pupils shrank and the full weight of what had been said in the speech slammed down on her, without the encouraging words or calm, comforting command of the mayor to soften it or keep Icy from being lost in terror.

She tried her hardest not to imagine the water rushing over the town, sweeping away ponies, trees and small buildings alike, smashing through doors and walls and crushing anything within under tons of water, pummelling the largest structures over and over with crashing waves until they crumbled, tumbled into the depth where they...

She yelped when she felt a hoof on her shoulder, the sudden influx of air from her gasp letting her know just how hard she'd been hyperventilating. Looking up, she saw Lance giving her a firm look – not disapproving, but rigid; a look that said you can trust us – we'll protect you firmly enough to cling to.

Icy swallowed, nodding nervously. Having another pony there in and of itself was a little comforting, as was the conviction on his face, but it wasn't enough to banish the fear by a long shot. Still, it did allow her to move her legs enough to follow him downstairs, through the rapidly thinning crowds to the bulletins containing everyone's duties.

As they approached the 'I, J and K' board, Lance gave a questioning look.

Icy nodded. “Yeah, I'll... I'll be alright,” she assured him. It wasn't a lie exactly – she'd be alright enough to look at the board, she'd be more alright than she might otherwise have been and, though she couldn't quite convince her instincts of it, she intellectually knew she'd probably be alright in the long run. Still, it felt very weird and a little disingenuous to use the word ‘alright’ about her current state without adding the words ‘not’, ‘no’ or ‘are you kidding?!’.

Still, as Lance trotted off to the nearby 'L' board, Icy walked up to her own and looked for her name. It didn't take long – the 'Ic...' beginning meant it was right at the top of the list, allowing her to appreciate the two empty columns under 'team leader' and 'meeting place' and the big 'Unassigned' in the second column without comparing it to both the rows above and below it. On some level, she was thankful for that, but the fact it was the first thing the board listed still made it feel like it was specifically calling her out for her uselessness as a top priority.

Of course, she couldn't exactly argue with that. Her aquaphobia would probably make her less than useless – an active hindrance the moment the water level started rising. She gave a shamed, self-pitying groan as she trotted away from the poster, lamenting how her stupid mind wouldn't let her help save the town she was supposed to be protecting. She was part of Iota Force, the town's young crime-fighting team, and if what the mayor said was right, this was one heck of a crime that needed fighting.

Still, she doubted the perpetrator was as young as they were, meaning it wasn't really in their jurisdiction. Plus, she had seen that Key Lime, another filly her age, was also unassigned, so she knew it was more likely that the town's colts and fillies were unassigned to keep them out of danger.

Unfortunately, no sooner had she thought that than she saw Lance marching towards the stage. This theoretically could have meant he was going to ask why he was unassigned, but she doubted it – he didn't look as if he objected to what he had been assigned, but was in fact doing what the board had told him to. A glance at the top of the “L” board confirmed her suspicion – it told him he was on “special duty” and that he needed to report to the stage to be told about it.

She shook her head, her shame at being unassigned only increasing, even though it was still likely that he was a special case. Still, she trotted in the direction of the stage as well, curious what his duties would entail.

Fortunately, she turned her head forward a moment later, preventing her from walking right into Truffle Shuffle as he walked in front of her. Still, she stumbled a little as she stopped, shaking her head before mumbling an apology.

Truffle barely seemed to notice, however, as he gave her a confident smile. “Ah, Icy! Where are you going off to?”

Icy sighed. “Er, nowhere, I'm... I'm unassigned.”

Truffle nodded, his smile not diminishing. “Ah, right. Well, remember what the mayor said – that doesn't mean you're useless, it just means you'll be best used to fill whatever role's needed.”

Icy nodded, not wanting to tell him she was unlikely to volunteer for anything but still wincing at the fact. “Were, um... were you also unassigned?” She asked, hoping but not expecting him to say yes – he had said ‘you'll be best used’ after all.

Indeed, he shook his head as Scootaloo came up behind him. “Nope, I'm on sandbagging duty. Team 7. Shame,” he gave a slightly theatrical sigh, “I was hoping I'd be helping Mom and Dad keep everyone fed. Still, least this way I might be able to get some of Twist's caramel.” He turned away and continued on with a dreamy hum.

Sighing, Icy turned to Scootaloo. “How about you?”

“Messaging duty,” the filly replied, pulling her scooter off her back. “Makes sense – keeping everyone in contact's gonna be important, so of course you'd want the second fastest pony in town on communications.”

Icy nodded, though a thought occurred to her. “Hey, isn't Rainbow Dash away right now? Doesn't that mean you're the fastes-”

Second fastest!” Scootaloo snapped with a brief frown before sighing into a chuckle at her own impulse to insist on that. Still, she didn't feel the need to correct herself.

A slight smile came onto Icy's face for a moment as she looked down at Scootaloo's transportation before vanishing as a thought occurred to her. “But, are you sure you'll be able to stay that fast? I mean, things are probably gonna get really muddy – will your wheels be able to keep turning?”

Scootaloo smirked, however. “Who said anything about wheels?”

She picked her scooter up again and opened a small panel on its surface, revealing a thin compartment within its body. “Apple Bloom wasn't able to come up with anything I could just press a button and send out, but this'll do pretty well.”

From out of the compartment, she slid what looked like four very short skis. And, as she slapped them over the wheels of the scooter and clicked them into place in the small latches around each wheel, Icy saw that that was exactly what they were – skis held underneath the wheel and, for the front ones, able to turn with them.

Throwing the scooter over her shoulder, she smiled at Icy as she started towards the doors. “Course, they haven't been totally tested yet, but hey, I'd say this is a pretty good time for it. Sink or swim, am I right?”

Icy watched her go for a second, briefly considering trying to argue with her philosophy before shaking it off and scrambling to follow Lance.

As she approached the stage, she saw that the rest of the team, including Pip, was also gathered around, Alula approaching them from further back on the stage. The group was slightly separated from the ponies on either side of them, who were presumably being briefed on their own special duties. Of course, it didn’t quite feel like a team meeting – not only were Scootaloo and Truffle already gone, but Icy and Lance were the only ones in costume, and she always got the impression that Lance would probably suit up if he saw somepony shoot a spitball. Still, Alula's ever-level face, along with her position on the small stage, gave the meeting the same sense of importance.

That said, Alula's eyebrows did raise a little as she saw Icy trot up. “Icy? You weren't assigned anything yet, were you?”

Icy shook her head. “I know, but I was curious what you all were going to be doing. I hope you don't mind me being here.”

Alula pursed her lips dispassionately and shrugged. “Not at all – you are a member of the team, after all. It's not unreasonable for you to know what's going on.”

Icy frowned a little, puzzled. She thought the mayor had already explained what was going on and it didn't seem to have anything to do with the team. “Is... is there something else about what's happening we need to know?”

Alula sighed. “Yes, but before we get to that, there are a couple of special duties that are independent of it that I suggested for you. Dinky,” she turned to the little chronomancer, “your duty is obvious – using your temporal magic to help speed up the flood preparations wherever it's needed.”

Dinky's eyes widened and she flinched back a little at the expectation. “Um, obvious? I... I can't... you know I can do stuff that big. I could maybe speed up one or two at a time and of course I'll do what I can, but I'll get drained pretty quickly, so...”

“Indeed,” Alula interrupted with a placating wave. “I'm aware of your... limitations, but that...”

“That, I suspect, is where I come in.”

The assembled children instinctively went into a bow when they heard the new voice, even as they looked up to see that, indeed, Princess Twilight was standing over them.

The Princess, however, just waved them up with a slightly uncomfortable look on her face. “Please, everypony, this is no time to stand on formality. Now, Dinky?”

Dinky swallowed as she smiled, dipping a little as she stopped herself from bowing again. “Er, yes, your highness?”

Twilight giggled, clearly endeared by Dinky's politeness. “I understand that the problem is that, while you have some considerable skill with time magic, you currently lack the power to apply it on a wide scale, is that right?”

Dinky nodded, her eyes avoiding Twilight's. “Er, yes, that's right. I'm really sorry.”

Twilight shook her head. “No need to be sorry. You shouldn't be anyway, of course, as it's in no way your fault, but as it happens, there is a solution to this problem. You see, while I have some knowledge and experience with time magic, I do lack your flair for it.” One side of her mouth quirked up into a slight smirk. “However, I just so happen to have magical power in abundance.”

Dinky blinked, astonished at the implication. “You mean...”

Princess Twilight nodded. “Exactly – if we link our horns, then together, we could apply your skills on a grand scale.”

Dinky rubbed her hooves together. “Oh... well, I'm honoured, Your Majesty, but I...” she trailed off, understandably uncomfortable with the idea – while two unicorns linking their magic wasn't exactly an intimate gesture, it certainly wasn't the sort of thing generally done between casual acquaintances.

Twilight hopped down from the stage, lowering herself down to Dinky's eye level. “I know, it's kind of a lot to ask, but this could mean the difference between saving the town and losing it. Do you think you'll be able to do it?”

Dinky squeezed her eyes shut for a moment before they opened sharply into a determined glare. “I'll try!”

Twilight beamed at her as she sat down. Slowly and gently, she laid her horn over Dinky's head, crossing it with the tiny nub of a horn nestled in her springy hair. A few tiny sparks started flicking between them, belying the deep, powerful bond they were forming.

Turning away from the spectacle, Alula cleared her throat. “Excellent. Now that that's sorted, we have the other local assignment to deal with. Pip?” There was a pause as Alula looked at the piebald colt. “Pipsqueak!”

“Huh?!” Pip blurted out as he whipped his head around, having been staring intently at Dinky as she let her magic flow. He shook his head a little, as if trying to shake off the massive blush on his face. “You... you have a job for me?”

Alula raised an eyebrow. “That is what the bulletin said, isn't it?”

Pip gulped and rubbed the back of his neck, his blush lightening slightly but not abating. “Well, yeah, but... that can't be right, can it? I don't have the kinds of powers or talents you all do – I'm just...”

“...just our liaison with Canterlot and a very good one,” Alula finished. “That's why you were chosen – to act as a liaison of a different sort. You see, this situation is going to require the efforts of nearly everyone in the Ponyville area. I say “everyone” because it's not just ponies and “the Ponyville area” because it won't just be those in Ponyville who will need to help, but those below it as well.

Pipsqueak let out a small “ah” of breath as he realized what she meant. “You mean Skrik?”

“Indeed. He and his little rat army could be immensely helpful. However, while Miss Syrup has made some inroads with him...”

Icy felt herself nodding along with Alula – since Iota Force's encounter with the feral, sewer-dwelling colt a few months ago, the psychiatric specialist sent from Canterlot had been working with him, getting the team's help every so often as she did. Still, it was clear that, whatever had happened to him to make him as he was – Miss Soothe Syrup still hadn't been able to find out what – it would take a lot longer to fix, in as much as it could be.

Pipsqueak also nodded. “I know, he's still pretty uncomfortable 'round grownups.” He finished the thought.

“Exactly. That's why you'll be working with her to liaise with and coordinate him and his many rat friends.”

Icy briefly considered offering to help him, but soon thought better of it. Her feelings towards Skrik were mixed – their encounter was directly responsible for her aquaphobia, but he had also saved her. If not for him, she would have almost immediately lost her phobia on account of being dead, so her regard for him definitely averaged out as positive. However, that same phobia was what made her reconsider – in a potential flooding situation, the last place she wanted to be was in an underground tunnel already partially filled with water.

Unaware of Icy's deliberations, Pip raised his head, his stance firming. “You can count on me!”

Alula smiled a thin smile, pleasant but without excitement. “I know. And that brings us to you two.” She turned to Lance and Archer.

Archer nodded, a confident smile coming onto her face. “Yeah, sounds to me like you got a mission for us.”

Alula raised an eyebrow. “Well, yes, as does the whole town.”

“Nuh uh, they're part of a town that's preparing, they've got assignments and duties,” Archer pointed out. “We're part of Iota Force; we've got a mission.”

Icy nodded, a little confused at how Alula could get the two mixed up.

Alula just sighed. “Well, in any case, you are quite correct – you two have an assi- a mission that takes you out of town.”

Lance jerked his head out in the rough direction of the Everfree Forest, a questioning look on his face.

“Exactly, you'll be charged with trying to stop the pony responsible for this,” Alula explained.

Icy raised a hoof, feeling a little awkward at speaking when she wasn't technically involved in the task being given. “Um, are we sure it's a pony?”

Alula turned to her patiently. “Actually, yes. That was part of this situation that we felt it prudent to leave out of the mayor's speech.”

“O... kay?” Icy tilted her head, trying to think why that might have been decided. “Because it would have made everypony panic?”

“Quite the reverse, actually,” Alula explained. “You see, after the lightning strike on Mount Foalja, a local stallion by the name of Comet Tail was watching the newly shortened mountain and, shortly before the first rain rocket was fired, he saw a pony climb on top of it. And, though it was difficult to tell through a telescope,” she locked eyes with the others, “it seemed to be a very small pony. About our size, in fact.”

“Huh,” Archer seemed more impressed than startled by this information. “You mean it's a kid doing all this?”

“It would seem so.” Alula too didn't seem shocked, though she had presumably found out a while ago.

Icy, on the other hoof, felt her eyes widen and they didn't seem like they'd be narrowing again any time soon. “I guess that explains why the team's being sent to deal with them.”

“Actually, it doesn't,” Alula replied. “This opponent being in our jurisdiction is, at most, a very minor reason you two are being sent. And, in fact, if Pinkie's plan pans out, we hope to be sending you some adult reinforcements. No, the reason children need to be sent is that they're the only ones who can get to the other side of the wind wall.”

Archer hummed for a moment. “Thought you said no one could fly or walk through it.” She didn't sound skeptical at the idea that she'd be able to get through it when nopony else could, just curious about how.

Alula nodded. “Indeed. The wall is far too high to go over and far too powerful to go through. So that leaves us with only one option, doesn't it?”

It took less than a second for Icy to realize what she was implying. “Going under it?”

“Exactly.” Alula looked a little proud at Icy.

“So...” Icy thought for a moment. “So we dig a tunnel? Won't that take ages? Plus, would it be safe with the ground being wet?”

Alula's proud look dimmed a little, though a smidgen of it remained, presumably since Icy saw why her thought wouldn't work. “Indeed, that would be ridiculously impractical. Fortunately, it won't be necessary.”

She turned her head behind her and lit her horn, levitating a rolled-up paper off a nearby table and over to her. Turning back to the others, she laid the paper on the stage in front of her and rolled it open with her hooves, revealing it to be a geological map. “As it happens, the Haynes cave system runs under much of the Everfree Forest, deep enough to be traversable in this weather... and is connected to a small cave in the Ponyville area.”

Looking at the map, Icy saw, indeed, the extensive web of caves stretched out to all sorts of areas in the Everfree. And, at the end of one of these winding corridors, there was a tiny little tunnel stretching out of the Everfree borders.

“Unfortunately,” Alula continued, “said connection is extremely narrow and, while it may be possible for an expert caver to get through with a lot of time and effort, it would be more efficient to send ponies small enough that they could get through with minimal difficulty.”

Archer smirked. “Guess that's why Truffle wasn't assigned this mission.”

Alula nodded. “That is correct.”

Icy giggled, not feeling bad about the joke since she knew for a fact that, if he were here, Truffle would have made it himself.

“Unfortunately,” Alula said after a moment, letting the joke subside, even if Icy was the only one laughing at it – Archer had made it and wasn't so obnoxious as to laugh at her own joke, Alula tended to keep any laughter out of her face and voice and Lance… may have laughed once or twice in his life, probably during foalhood, “this will mean that, once you're past the wind wall, you'll be cut off – first, the walls of the cave, and then the magic in the wind wall are going to interfere with the magical waves with which our badges communicate. Of course, if we can get anypony else past the wind, they will contact you, but otherwise, you'll be on your own.”

“But, hold on,” Icy piped up, frowning a little at the idea of sending the two of them out into the Everfree and then leaving them stranded, “there must be some way of getting somepony else through the caves. Could we get a unicorn to teleport through this crack or... maybe shrink themselves or something?”

Alula sighed, though it didn't seem to be directed at Icy so much as the situation. “Sadly, no. There isn't a straight sightline through the connecting tunnel, meaning they'd be teleporting blind – an exercise that becomes exponentially more dangerous the more solid matter there is in the target area. And since this would be done in a cave, the chances of materializing inside a rock wall would be ridiculously high.”

Icy grimaced at the idea. She had no idea what would happen if someone did that, but she could imagine several possibilities, none of them good.

“As for shrinking spells,” Alula rocked her head a little in consideration, “interesting idea in theory, but impractical – the only pony in town who both might know such spells and would be powerful enough to cast them without being completely drained and useless afterwards is Princess Twilight, and she's needed here. It might be possible for her to shrink somepony else down, but, again, the lack of a sightline through the tunnel would mean she wouldn't be able to see them and unshrink them once they reached the other side. That means they'd have to stay shrunken, in which case we may as well just send somepony who's already that small and used to operating at such a size.”

Icy sighed, filling in the gap where Alula wasn't judging her for her substandard ideas with her own self-reproach. “Guess I should have figured you'd thought of everything, huh?”

Alula frowned slightly. “No, you absolutely shouldn't. If you think of a problem or alternative to a proposed idea, you should always bring it up – even if it isn't valid, there's still the possibility that it could have been and it certainly can't hurt.”

Icy smiled a little, looking up to see Archer also giving her an encouraging look. “Yeah. I mean, if Alula came up with the idea, she's probably thought of everything, but no reason not to make sure.”

Alula shook her head. “The point does stand but, while I'm flattered by your assumption, Archer, this actually wasn't my initial idea.”

Archer tilted her head a little. “Huh? Then whose was it?”

Alula smiled, her eyes briefly flicking to Icy. “Well, actually...”

“Actually,” a new voice spoke up from behind Alula, “it was mine.”

The ponies in front of the stage looked up to see Sunny Flight trotting up to them.

“Miss Flight?!” Archer said, eyes widening at the newcomer.

Alula sighed. “You know, one day, I'm going to be able to explain someone else's contributions to an operation without them interrupting to do it themselves.”

“You came up with this plan?” Archer asked Sunny, entirely ignoring Alula's remark.

Sunny shrugged. “I may not be with the BoCEaGS anymore, but I still know my way around a map.” She looked to Icy with a smile of pride on her face. “I was thinking about ways to magic somepony through the tunnel for a while, too – didn't think about shrinking them. Good thought, even if it didn't pan out.”

“The... bow-keags?” Archer asked, her face screwing up slightly in confusion at the bizarre word.

Alula turned to her. “The Bureau of Cartography, Exploration and Geographical Survey. As I myself only recently learned, Sunny Flight was one of its most experienced and commended members.”

“Cartography, exploration and...” Archer trailed off for a moment before turning to Icy, her usual relaxation edging onto being a little impressed and astonished. “Your mom's an explorer, Icy?”

Was an explorer,” Icy insisted, reciting her mother's statement instinctively. “She's retired.”

“Besides, I don't know if I'd call myself an explorer – I did go to all kinds of places for the Bureau, but I didn't do much of the actual discovery or map-making,” Sunny explained in a tone somewhere between humility and pedantry. “My job was just to get the ponies who did where they needed to go in terms of area and vantage point.”

“And she could get them pretty much anywhere,” Icy continued, enjoying the chance to talk up her mother's abilities. “Deserts, jungles, frozen fields...”

“Which means,” Alula interrupted firmly, not wanting to get off-topic, “that she has immense experience with survival and dealing with inhospitable conditions of both climate and weather. As such, she is helping us plan out how to get through this crisis.”

“Was thinking I'd go out into the forest to take a look at what's going on myself,” Sunny added, picking up the explanation, “but the wind wall put paid to that. Then I saw those caves on the geological map of the area and saw a way through. Like I said, I was trying to think of some way to get myself through a gap that small before I remembered about you and your friends.” She turned to Icy with a smile before looking at Lance and Archer. “Of course, most of your team was needed back here, so I'm hoping you two will be okay to deal with this on your own.”

Archer snorted with a smirk. “Oh, please – it's no problem. Wouldn't be surprised if I could do it solo... not that I'm not grateful for having you along, Lance.”

Lance's eyes flicked to her, but his expression remained unmoving.

However, Icy's mind was only half paying attention, as her mother's wording had sent her down a thought process that she desperately wished she could unthink. It definitely wasn't something she wanted to pursue but, nevertheless, she felt compelled to ask:

“What about me?”

Sunny turned to her, almost, but not quite, managing to hide the worry on her face as she asked. “Er, how do you mean, Sweetie?”

Icy sighed, squeezing her eyes shut. “You... you know what I mean, Mom. Why...?” She took a deep breath and rammed her eyes open, spurting the words out before she had a chance to think about them. “Why didn't you assign me to go as well?”

Sunny flinched back slightly before exhaling, a tiny hint of a growl creeping into her breath. “Is this a trick question?! We're talking about sending ponies into the source of this rain and the place where the flood's going to start. How are you going to be able t-” She stopped herself abruptly, taking a moment to calm herself down before continuing. “I'm not going to put you through that. Not with your phobia. I know you've made some progress on it but I... you're not ready and I... I can't let you experience that.”

Icy took a shaky breath in, blinking away the beginnings of tears. Her mother certainly had a point and the idea of heading towards the source of any oncoming water made her feel like her knees had turned to ice water themselves. And yet even the fear couldn't even begin to eclipse the sharp pain in her emotions, as if her mother's words were the tail of a massive scorpion that had skewered her and filled her blood with the venom of her lack of faith in her daughter.

She looked down at herself and focused, as if pooling her freezing energies to solidify her wobbly legs. She felt her entire body screaming at her to accept it, accept her faults and accept her mother's offer... well, her demand to stay put. She knew that her mother wouldn't judge her for it and neither would her friends. Only one pony would judge her.

She closed her eyes and pushed her thoughts forward against the opposing pressure of fear. She thought about her friends, about Lance and Archer travelling through the maelstrom alone. She flicked her eyes open briefly to look at them and confirm that, yes, she would be thinking about that for almost the entire time she'd be waiting in town. She imagined herself sitting there and tried to think of a way she could spend her time in protection without worrying about what was happening to them and what would happen to her. She wasn't able to come up with anything. The only other thing she could imagine doing was berating herself over her inability to handle her problem.

Gripping the ground with a hoof, she opened her eyes again. “I'm going. I have to go.”

“No, you don't!” Sunny snapped, her own eyes quivering slightly. “You have nothing to prove, to me or anyone! You shouldn't have to go through this and you don't have to!”

“Yes, I do!” Icy insisted. “I know it'll be terrible, I'm not stupid! But... but it'll be worse for me if I stay. If I stay, I won't be able to stop imagining what's happening out there. I'll be just as scared and I'll also be hating myself for being a coward.”

Sunny wiped at her eyes hard. “You're... you're not a coward, Icy! You've just got a... a problem, that doesn't make you broken. And even if you are scared while you're here, at least you'll be safe! You won't be in danger from the flood.”

“But...” Icy paused, trying to marshal her thoughts to make a rational point. “But the whole point of sending anyone is to stop there from being a flood. And, well...” she raised her wings, both to make a point and to stop herself from wrapping them around herself, “it seems like having someone who can make a load of water... stop being water could be really important for that. And I... I just can't put my friends at risk just to keep myself safe!”

Sunny opened her mouth, her face telegraphing a retort before she paused, her eyes moving rapidly as she thought about what Icy had said. She closed her mouth and swallowed hard, her expression not showing any change.

However, it was Alula who stepped in. “Not that I'm necessarily saying you shouldn't go, Icy, but are you sure you'll be able to entirely function? Regardless of how important a task is, fear can cause problems and it may make you more a hindrance than a help.”

Icy jerked back as the solid point landed. She scuffed a hoof on the ground in agitation as she thought about it. It was true that the idea of that much water had pretty much paralyzed her in the past, be it when she first found she had it or when she'd been shown an illusion of it up in the Crystal Empire.

However, that latter memory also brought up the conversation afterwards, when Alula herself had assured her that, given time, she would have broken through the illusion of her fear. As indeed had the oracular Aura Gaze and, just to make it certain, Princess Cadance herself.

She raised her head and locked eyes with Alula, unable to shake the heavy doubt in her mind but just about able to keep her resolve stable through the faith of three ponies who always seemed to know everything. “Yes. Yes, I'm sure.”

Alula thought for a moment before nodding. “In which case, I see no reason not to let you go.”

Sunny's mouth hung open as she stared at Icy. “Are... are you six kinds of crazy?! You...” She stomped, seemingly focusing her frustration into her hoof to release it. She looked at Icy, her eyes pleading. “You don't have to do this.”

Icy held her mother's gaze, even as nearly every muscle in her face seemed to be trying to force her to break eye contact. “I... I know. I don't have to.” She took a deep breath before finishing. “But I should.”

There was a long, tense silence. Neither Sunny nor Icy knew whether, as her mother, Sunny had the power to overrule Icy's decision and, while one of the others probably knew, none of them seemed willing to speak up.

After around fifteen seconds, Sunny sighed, looking away. “Well, I guess that settles it. I... Even if I can stop you, it...” She closed her eyes, a minuscule pinprick of water leaking onto the edge of them. “It'd do a lot more harm than good, I can see that. But...” she took a long breath in before her eyes flew open, staring at Icy with implacable resolve. “But I swear on my life, Icy, that I will find some way to join you, sooner or later. You can... maybe you can do this, maybe you can't. But you won't do it alone.”

Icy nodded. “I... thank you.”

Archer cleared her throat awkwardly. “Well, don’t wanna spoil the moment or anything, but I need to go get my gear if we're gonna do this and I'm not looking to waste any time. You coming, Icy?”

Icy nodded silently and, after one last thin smile at her mother, turned away to join Archer in heading towards the door.

As they walked, Icy prayed that she wasn't making the worst or the last mistake of her life.