• Published 31st Dec 2011
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The Wind Thief - Cold in Gardez

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Part One: The Bait

The Wind Thief
Part 1: The Bait

“Ohh, that’s so much better,” Sly said. She shook herself from head to feet, feeling her armor settle on her body like a second skin. “You never miss these things until they’re gone, know what I mean?” She was back in the jail, though as a guest rather than a prisoner. The guards had even been polite to her on the way back from the palace.

Twilight Sparkle started the trip walking beside Sly, though she slowly gravitated back to the guards as they passed through the more downtrodden parts of Canterlot. As a brightly colored unicorn wearing expensive robes, she looked decidedly out of place amongst the laborers and less savory elements of society. She actually seemed relieved to be entering the safety of the jail.

“Not really, no,” Twilight said. She gave Sly’s armor a look, then peeked into the chest where the rest of the powder blue unicorn’s belongings waited. “Do you really need all these things? You have two bows.”

“Never hurts to have a spare!” Sly said. She levitated the bows and fastened them onto her saddlebags next to a quiver full of arrows. The damper on her horn was still in place, but true to Celestia’s word she could still use her magic as long as Twilight was near. “After all, you need to be prepared when you’re out in the wilderness.”

“Right. And the rest of this stuff?” Twilight asked. Even after the stolen goods had been removed, the chest still nearly overflowed with supplies seized from Sly after her arrest.

“All necessary equipment,” Sly said. She stuffed a leather purse filled with lockpicking gear into a saddlebag, then started rummaging through a pile of potions, picking out a few for their trip. “Trust me, there’s nothing worse than discovering you need a rope or something, then remembering you left it behind to save space.”

“Rope, sure, but do you need a sword very often?” Twilight sniffed at the scabbard, then flinched as Sly snatched it up with her magic.

“Like I said, better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” she answered, tying the scabbard across her back next to the bow. “Speaking of, where’s yours?”

“My what?”

“Your sword! Everypony needs a sword!”

“Everypony most certainly does not need a sword.” Twilight said “sword” slowly, as though it tasted bad in her mouth. “Most unicorns have more refined methods of defending themselves,” she added, tilting her snout up.

“Pfft, magic,” Sly scoffed. “Do you know how many pansy mages get themselves killed every year, thinking some little warding spell is going to save them from a horde of undead? Or worse, a dragon? Those things laugh at spells.”

“Well, then it’s fortunate I have the ‘Dragonborn’ along to protect me,” Twilight said. If sarcasm were a weapon, she would have felled Sly on the spot. “Now, are you done packing?”

Sly frowned. This trip was off to a wonderful start.

Sly wanted to leave immediately. Twilight Sparkle insisted on waiting until the next morning. They voted; Sly somehow lost.

At least, Sly pondered outside the Canterlot gates the next morning, the weather was decent for travelling. A brilliant blue winter sky looked down from the heavens, crisp with cold. The roads were free of snow and ice, but she suspected that wouldn’t be the case further from the city. In retrospect, waiting until morning was probably a good idea after all. Not that she would ever say so to Twilight.

“So, where is this tomb, anyway?” she asked. With any luck, it would be somewhere near a town she could disappear into after ditching her overbearing escort.

“It’s in a fairly remote spot,” Twilight said. “A place called the Everfree Forest. It used to be the capital of Curalmil’s empire, but after his death and the subsequent civil war it fell into ruins.”

Sly scowled. “Lovely. Have you ever been in the Everfree? It’s not exactly the safest place to be wandering.”

“No, but I’ve read about it!” Twilight’s horn glowed, and a thick book floated out of her saddlebags, hovering in front of them as they walked. “It was one of the last wild places left in Equestria. Before the dragons returned, I mean.” She trailed off, eyes lowering to the ground for a moment.

Sly mumbled something in agreement, thinking back to her travels before arriving in Canterlot. There were plenty of wild places now. Dozens of ghost towns, charred beyond recognition or simply abandoned, flashed in her mind. Some of the more remote villages had already been swallowed by the wilderness. Each year the circle of civilization grew smaller as ponies fled their homes for the larger cities.

They were silent for a while as they followed the road south from the city. Sly kept her eyes on the countryside around them, more out of habit than any real concern this close to Canterlot. Twilight read from her book, occasionally stumbling on a loose stone or stick. Sly supposed she could have warned her about the obstacles, but that would have taken much of the fun out of the trip.

“How many books did you bring?” Sly asked, sneaking a look into Twilight’s saddlebags. They appeared to be entirely stuffed with literature.

“Oh, lots!” Twilight exclaimed. She seemed genuinely happy to be asked. As she spoke dozens of scrolls, tomes, pamphlets and notebooks floated out of her saddlebags and into the air around her like a cloud. “Histories of the local area, bestiaries, spell books, field guides to flora and fauna in the Everfree. Everything we need!”

“Uh huh. Did you bring anything besides books?”

Twilight stared at her blankly.

Sly sighed. “Nevermind. What about fighting? You’re, like, a battlemage or something, right?”

Twilight giggled. “Oh no, nothing like that. I’m a librarian! But I do know lots of spells.”

Terrific. Sly wondered if it was too late to go back to Canterlot and just wait out her sentence in jail. On the other hoof, there was still the matter of the jewel and its wish. Surely that was worth putting up with a helpless companion for a few weeks.

“Spells are good,” she finally said, adopting an agreeable expression. “If we ever get in trouble, just try to stay low while I take care of things.”

“Take care of things?” Twilight raised an eyebrow.

“Right, and I should tell you now that I prefer to handle things quietly. Sneakily.”

“Ah, yes. I knew from the moment we met what a subtle pony you were.”

Sly preened. Perhaps Twilight was more perceptive than she gave her credit for. That was, however, troubling for entirely different reasons. It wouldn’t do for Twilight to guess Sly’s plans before she could escape with the jewel. She mused on that thought for a few moments, until Twilight spoke.

“Minus the shouting, general mayhem and arrests, that is,” she said.

“That was an unusual circumstance,” Sly said. “Normally I’m quiet as a mouse. Invisible as the wind.” She stopped and crouched low to the ground, her belly brushing against the road. “Sly the Unseen. The shadow that stalks in the night! All across Equestria, they speak in hushed tones about the mysterious mare who—”

Twilight laughed, interrupting her. Sly scowled. This was at least the third time she’d done that.

“Sly the Unseen?” She chuckled. “The shadow that stalks in the night? How long did you work on that line? Wait, wait.” She stopped suddenly, and looked around, her eyes wide with comic wonder. “Oh my goodness, where did she go! She was right here, and then she vanished!”

Sly glared at her. Twilight feigned ignorance, waving her hooves in the air as though feeling around in the dark.

“Sly! Sly! Where are you?”

“Okay, that’s enough—”

“I can hear your voice, but I can’t see you! Are you... are you a ghost?!”

Sly rose back to her hooves, a small frown on her face. She wondered what the penalty was for assaulting the princess’s student.

“Oh, there you are!” Twilight said with a giggle. “I was so... so worried for a moment!”

“It’s hard to hide in the middle of a road,” Sly mumbled. She picked up the pace, forcing Twilight to trot to catch up.

They made camp in the ruins of a small town on the outskirts of the forest. It had been a farming community once; an overgrown apple orchard still bore shrivelled fruit next to the skeletal remains of a barn, which had long since collapsed under the weight of years and neglect. Most of the other houses were nothing but bare timbers and fallen roofs.

A huge hollow tree in the center of the town provided them with a decent shelter against the cold night. Aside from an owl that stared down at them solemnly from its perch high above, the town seemed deserted. Sly had never been attacked by an owl, or any other kind of bird, so she gave it a pass.

The tree was unusual, to say the least. It was huge, nearly 30 feet wide at its base, and some enterprising pony had hollowed it out and turned it into a house, complete with a door, windows, multiple floors and a balcony. It even had a fireplace, Sly noted with some amusement.

Twilight Sparkle settled down by their fire with her books, while Sly set rattle traps around the tree. Nothing harmful, just enough to provide some warning if anything unfriendly tried to approach while they slept. Just because the town looked deserted didn’t mean it was deserted. Once she was satisfied she joined Twilight inside.

“Well, this is... interesting,” Twilight said. She had put her books away and was prodding the fire with a stick, sending showers of sparks floating upwards into the heights of the tree-home. “I’ve never been camping before.”

Camping? Sly glanced around the tree house, its warm hearth and comfortable floor. “Yes, I... got that impression. You don’t cook much either, do you?”

“No, it’s never something I had time for back in the palace.” She paused and ducked her head. “I’m sorry about the food. I didn’t realize you could burn soup.”

Sly hadn’t either, before Twilight’s adventure preparing their meal. Thankfully, part of being prepared meant bringing travel bread, a dull but filling and palatable substitute for a real meal. She put on her best smile.

“It’s fine, I burn soup all the time,” she said. It wasn’t strictly true, or even true at all, but it felt like the right thing to say. “What matters is that we’re fed and have a safe place to spend the night. I’ll take the first watch, if you want.”

Twilight blinked. “Watch? You mean... oh, right. Of course. That’s fine.” She glanced around the tree again, as if seeing it in a new light. She scooted a bit closer to the fire, and for a while they were silent.

“Hey, Sly?” Twilight said. She had turned away from the fire and was staring out the door into the bleak night beyond. “What do you think happened to this town?”

Sly shrugged. “Same as every other town around here. Dragon shows up one day, carries off a few ponies. Maybe a foal or two.” She paused, staring into the fire. “The town rallies at first, promising to fight the dragons and make them pay. They swear they’ll never give up their homes. Maybe they form a militia and put up some defenses.

“When the dragon comes back they try to fight, but it doesn’t go well. They’re just farmers. It kills even more ponies this time. The town gets together again and pledges to keep fighting, but a few families decide it’s time to move in with relatives in a bigger town, or even a city like Canterlot. Months and years pass, always under the shadow of the next dragon attack. Eventually, there’s only a few families left, the ones too stubborn or prideful to leave.” She spat the word “prideful” as if it were an insult.

“And then one day the dragon came back, but it didn’t just grab a pony or two. It killed every mare, stallion and foal who was left, except the one who played dead in the ashes of her home.” She finished quietly, her gaze still fixed on the fire. When she looked up Twilight was staring at her over the wide hearth, her face half in shadows.

Sly cleared her throat. An uncomfortable silence, heavy and tense, stretched between them.

“So yeah, just like every other town,” Sly said.

Twilight nodded slowly. “Well, I think I’ll try to get some sleep, then. Wake me when it’s my... turn? Watch? Wake me when it’s my watch.” She lay down on her bedroll and pulled a blanket up over her shoulders, then turned her face away from the fire.

Sly watched her until the rise and fall of her chest slowed to a steady pace. Then she watched some more, until the first quiet snore sounded over the crackle of the fire. Satisfied, she silently rose to her hooves and stretched.

Twilight seemed like a good pony. A little sarcastic, maybe, but that wasn’t a crime. Not a real crime like murder. She gave the sleeping form a quick glance. No, definitely not a murderer.

She slipped out the door without a sound, crouching on the far side of the threshold until her eyes adapted to the darkness. The town was as still and empty as when they had first arrived in the evening’s fading light. A cold wind blew through the deserted streets, carrying the scent of snow with it.

She said she knew lots of spells. Some of those must be good for fighting. She slipped through the town, pausing occasionally to check her traps to make sure they were undisturbed. They were. I mean, what else is magic for?

She spent some time daydreaming about magic and its uses while sneaking through the town. Sadly, nothing of any value was left in the collapsed houses. Although the town was deserted, looters had apparently been through sometime in the past, stealing anything of value and trashing the rest. Everything that wasn’t nailed down had already been hauled off.

If nothing else, she can wait outside the tomb while I get the jewel. She discovered a small locked chest hidden beneath the floorboards of a fanciful multi-story home that apparently housed a boutique, before time, neglect and dragons reduced it to colorful rubble. The box was beautiful; even under a layer of grim its polished teak cover glowed. The kind of box that should have been on display somewhere everypony could admire it, not hidden under the floor. Sometimes Sly didn’t understand other ponies at all.

The lock itself was rather intricate, wonderful to play with, and she almost felt bad when it finally clicked open. She put her lockpick away and lifted the lid, filled with the rush of anticipation that always accompanied such discoveries. Inside the chest rested a few gold coins, a lock of hair, and what looked like a porcelain comb of some sort, missing most of its teeth. She pulled the coins out and put the box back beneath the floor for the next treasure hunter to find.

Despite wandering through most of the town, the damper on her horn never restricted her magic. It apparently had some significant range. She crossed her eyes, attempting to look at the iron band around her horn. It was harmless, unless she tried to remove it, which she had learned would cause it to send a jolt of pain down her horn and into her skull. Twilight would probably know how it worked. On the other hoof, asking her too many questions might cause trouble. Twilight was naive, not stupid.

Twilight was still asleep when Sly returned to the tree. She hadn’t budged from her spot by the fire. Probably worn out. She certainly wasn’t used to walking all day. Poor thing. Well, it was her own fault for hauling all those books with her.

Sly gave the pile of books next to Twilight a quick glance, just enough to confirm that they weren’t of any value. “The Fieldpony’s Guide to Monstrous Carnivores” was on top, and had several dog-ears and bookmarks interspersed throughout its length. She made a mental note to ask Twilight if it had a chapter on dragons.

There were even more books in Twilight’s saddlebags, possibly more than Sly had read in her entire life. She nosed them aside quietly, avoiding the use of her horn so as not to bother Twilight with its glow. There was a small pouch at the bottom of the saddlebag, filled with coins and various other sundries. She dropped them in her own saddlebag without a second thought. Twilight had enough to carry with all those books.

The other saddlebag held more books, along with a surprise: a partially concealed panel, sewn like a pocket into the canvas siding. A tiny wire, almost invisible unless you knew where to look for it, would break if the panel was opened improperly. Sly shook her head sadly as she disconnected the wire and pulled open the hidden pouch. It was unfortunate, having a travelling partner who didn’t trust you.

What secrets are you hiding, Twilight Sparkle?

Just letters, it turned out. Love letters, though they bore no names and Sly had difficulty reading the flowing cursive writing. Nothing steamy, in any case. She sighed silently and placed them back in the hidden pocket, then carefully sealed it and reset the wire.

Love letters were okay, Sly decided. She wouldn’t want anyone reading her love letters. Not that she had ever written any, of course, but it held a certain romantic appeal. She gave the sleeping mare a smile and decided to let her sleep an extra hour before waking her for her shift.

The first light of dawn was a distant promise beneath the horizon when Sly woke. The fire had died down to glowing embers, still warm enough to chase away the early morning chill. Twilight Sparkle hadn’t moved, though she was awake and reading from one of her books by the light of her horn. At some point in the night, the owl had flown down from the rafters and perched on one of Twilight’s saddlebags. It watched Sly with its wide, perfectly round eyes.

“Good morning!” Twilight said. “This is Owloysius. He decided to come down last night and has been keeping me company ever since. Isn’t he cute?”

Sly stared at the owl. The owl stared back.

“Yeah, that’s... cute,” she said. And not creepy in the slightest. She suppressed a shiver.

They packed quickly, not wanting to waste any of the short winter day. The town seemed somehow less foreboding in the morning light, less like a graveyard than a simple ruin. Wisps of snow drifted down the roads, pushed along by a chill wind that bit through their coats. There was no color in the dawn to their east -- a thick layer of clouds shrouded the sky, their lowest reaches brushing the tips of the trees.

The Everfree Forest had grown over the years. Slender trees dozens of feet high encroached nearly to the edge of the town. Some had even taken root in the rubble, though how such large trees could have grown in such a short time frame was baffling to Sly. The town couldn’t have been abandoned for more than a few years, judging by the state of its buildings.

“Do you think there’s a path?” Twilight asked. They stopped at the edge of the town, where the roadway vanished beneath a layer of dead leaves. She glanced up at the bare branches clawing at the sky above them.

“I don’t think it’s that kind of forest,” Sly said. “But we should be able to get through the underbrush without much trouble. Do you know the route to the tomb?”

“Sort of. It should be near the center of the forest,” A sheet of parchment, covered with lines and symbols, floated out of her saddlebags. Twilight stared at it for a few minutes, turning it this way and that and occasionally looked up at the forest before them. Eventually she blushed, and turned to Sly.

“It’s, ah, it’s a bit different than I expected,” Twilight said.

Sly chuckled and leaned closer for a better view. Twilight stiffened as their shoulders bumped, but she held the map steady nevertheless.

It was a decent enough map. Some past explorer with a eye for cartography had drawn almost every major topographic feature in the forest. Some, like the paths, were undoubtedly long gone, but the mountains and rivers wouldn’t have shifted much over time.

A major river appeared to cut through to the center of the forest. Somepony had drawn a bright red circle on the map around a question mark about halfway up the river. The question mark was frankly troubling, but Sly ignored it for the moment. If they traveled due east from the town, they would hit the river, and then it would be a simple matter of following it to the ruins. Not the most direct route, but the simplest and therefore the best.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Sly said. “The river’s our route in. We’ll avoid the mountains.”

“Why’s that?” Twilight asked. She rolled the parchment up and slid it back into her saddlebags. “Not that I want to go climbing.”

Sly took a few steps into the forest. The leaves beneath her hooves were sodden, but not yet frozen. Not bad. They wouldn’t crunch or crackle as she moved. She ducked under and through the naked branches, sliding the twigs aside with hooves and magic with unnatural ease. Behind her, Twilight crashed through the woods with the grace and elegance of a troll.

She waited for Twilight to catch up. “The higher you go, the harsher things get. The monsters that live there are... hardier.”

Twilight nodded. “Right, the monsters... do you think we’ll see any?” Her voice was a mixture of hope and fear.

“Depends how lucky we get.” She slipped ahead while Twilight puzzled over her response. The sky to the east slowly grew brighter.

Their luck ran out a few hours into the forest.

Sly was a hundred feet ahead of Twilight Sparkle, just close enough to keep the other mare in sight behind her through the light snowfall. She paused occasionally, whenever Twilight got her robes stuck in the branches or had to figure some way to go around a boggy patch without getting her hooves dirty, but for the most part she ranged freely. The forest in winter was quiet and dead; the only color was the occasional green flash of holly. It was enough to make her careless.

She almost walked right past the cockatrice. Its white head was the only part of its body above the snow-covered leaves, barely a dozen feet away. A forked tongue flicked in and out of its beak, tasting the air for prey.

She crouched as low to the ground as possible, turning her face away from the monster. It hadn’t seen her yet, or she would already be a lonely statue counting away the centuries. Thank Celestia for small favors. She silently levitated the bow off her back, holding it near the ground at her side.

There was a rustle from the cockatrice’s direction. She froze, waiting for the hiss that would announce it had found her, but there was only the sound of leaves blowing in the wind. Risk a glance? No choice, she decided. She slowly turned her head back toward the monster.

It was gone.

A faint well of panic began building in her stomach. There were few things more frightening than a missing cockatrice. She fitted an arrow on the bowstring and waited for the monster to make a sound. Minutes passed; a faint dusting of snow began to collect in the creases of her armor.

“Sly! Sly! Can you hear me?” Twilight’s voice, loud and urgent, carried easily in the cold air. A patch of leaves nearby exploded in a rustle of motion.

Crap! Sly jumped to her hooves, sighting down the arrow’s shaft in Twilight’s direction. She was less than fifty yards away, looking for a way around a particularly dense section of underbrush. The cockatrice was already halfway toward her, its bat-like wings flapping furiously as it half-ran, half flew over the leaves. Twilight started to turn toward the commotion, her eyes widening in surprise.

Don’tlookdon’tlookdon’tlook. Sly released her magical grip on the bowstring, sending the arrow on its way. It flew through the air in a blur, guided as much by hope as by aim.

The steel arrowhead punched through the back of the cockatrice’s neck, just below where the feathers became scales. The monster tumbled through the air, pushed forward by the force of the arrow’s impact. It landed a few feet in front of Twilight and skidded through the leaves to her hooves. The leathery wings clawed at the air weakly, then folded to the ground.

The two ponies stared at the fallen beast, as still as the statues they might have become. Sly recovered first. She picked her way slowly across the forest floor, another arrow already set in her bow.

Twilight was shaking when Sly finally reached her. She still hadn’t looked away from the cockatrice. A tiny splatter of blood, red and shockingly bright, slowly melted the snow where it had splashed. More ran down the arrow’s shaft and dripped from the metal tip onto the leaves.

“Twilight?” Sly asked. She managed to keep all but a slight tremor out of her voice.

Twilight didn’t answer. Her eyes were still fixed on the cockatrice.

“It’s dead, Twilight. It can’t hurt you.” Sly edged around the dead beast, staying as far from it as possible. She grabbed the collar of Twilight’s robe in her mouth, and gently tugged the unicorn away from the monster.

“That’s... that’s a cockatrice,” Twilight said weakly. She was noticeably paler beneath her coat.

Sly spat out the robe. “Yeah. We need to keep moving,” she said. “It will attract others.”

“It was so fast. How did you—”

“Just got lucky,” Sly interrupted. She scanned the woods around them for any hint of motion. It seemed quiet. “Come on.”

Twilight took a stumbling step away from the cockatrice. She gave it a final, anguished look, then turned and trotted quickly over to Sly. Her loud, rapid breathing filled the silence of the forest.

They continued east, sticking closer together.

The next few hours passed without incident. Trees crowded around them, but the forest was easy to pass through without the thick underbrush of summer. Certainly easier than slipping through a crowded market without being noticed. Dead, dry brambles brushed against Sly’s armor with a quiet rustle as she slipped around the trees.

The branches made no noise when they caught in Twilight’s robes, though she made up for the silence by cursing under her breath. Some of the more colorful curses were entertaining. Celestia would have been shocked at her student.

The faint sound of running water gradually grew in the distance, likely from the river they were looking for. Every other stream they had crossed was already frozen over for the winter, though the ice on one had been shallow enough that Sly’s hoof broke through, soaking her leg up to the knee. The cold had hurt, but not as much as Twilight’s laughter.

Behind her, Twilight cursed again at some branch or other. Sly smiled and picked up her pace.

The river was even larger than Sly had expected. Easily a hundred feet across, it had carved a deep gorge through the forest, leaving a pair of high bluffs on either side. Trees grew precariously close to the edges, as though they were being pushed over by the trees behind them. She crept up to the lip, almost on her belly, and chanced a look down. It was a long drop. She slowly edged away.

“Do you think this is it?” Twilight asked. She trotted nonchalantly to the edge and stared at the river below. “There can’t be many rivers this large in the forest.”

“Yeah, this is it. And don’t stand there like that. The cliff could collapse, or something.” It sounded weak, even to her ears.

Twilight glanced at Sly’s crouching form, down at the river, then back at Sly. A small smile grew on her face.

“Are you afraid of heights?” she asked.

“No! It’s just, you know, high. High and... high,” Sly said lamely.

“Right, high.” Twilight grinned. “Remind me to show you my hot air balloon someday.”

That sounded like trouble. She suppressed visions of tumbling to her death from a balloon’s basket while Twilight read a book, unnoticing. “I’ll pass.”

Twilight giggled, then turned back to the dropoff. Her horn glowed, and the map lifted out of her saddlebags. “The tomb should be on the other side of the river, closer to its source. Hopefully it will be easier to cross upstream.”

Sly certainly had no intention of trying to cross here. “I was just about to suggest that,” she said.

The slow rise in elevation as they walked upstream was gentle and almost unnoticeable. Sly kept away from the edge even as the bluffs grew smaller. Short falls were just as dangerous as long falls, after all. The mountains, previously a shadow on the horizon, loomed closer to either side. Ahead of them, hills rose above the forest, some high enough to disappear into the low-hanging clouds.

Sly gave the snow-covered foothills a worried glance. Hardier monsters, she had told Twilight. Ice trolls, snow bears, manticores, all waiting for them on the frozen, rocky slopes. Just once, she wanted a quest to retrieve a magical treasure from a resort town on a tropical island. Maybe some sort of mystical jewel that only worked when you lay in the sun for hours at a time. Alcohol might be involved. And stallions.

A frigid blast of wind kicked snow into her face, snapping her out of her daydream and back to the present. No alcohol or stallions, just Twilight and the cold forest. She sighed. Life wasn’t fair.

Sly had expected a stream of complaints from Twilight once they reached the true wilderness, but the other mare was tougher than she thought. Sly was impressed; even the shock of the cockatrice and a brush with death hadn’t deterred her. She was careful not to say so out loud.

Eventually, Twilight broke the lull. “Have you been here before?” she asked. “The Everfree, I mean.”

Sly shook her head. “No, but I’ve been places like it. The Fillydelphia ruins are pretty bad, especially near the center. Ran into some trouble there. And the Pastel Desert? It’s worse than you’ve heard.” She hopped over a fallen tree, landing on all fours without a sound.

Twilight gave her a skeptical glance as she climbed over the trunk. “I don’t see how that’s possible,” she said. “Some of the stories are unbelievable.”

Sly took her time answering. The middle of the Everfree Forest was not the place to be telling horror stories. Especially not with dusk on the horizon. Best to stick with the blander tales.

“They’re true,” she finally said. “Entire towns full of ponies vanish overnight, leaving only empty buildings. Plagues of sickness that drive their victims insane. Trust me, there’s a reason nopony lives there anymore.”

Twilight gave her a look like she wanted to respond, but held her tongue. Instead, she looked up at the sky. “It’s starting to get dark,” she said. “Do you think we should—”

A deafening roar, louder than anything they had ever heard, could ever imagine hearing, split the silence of the forest. The ground beneath them quaked, knocking them both to their knees. Trees shook and toppled around them, sending a blast of powdery snow and leaves into the air.

The sky above them dimmed as a massive shadow passed over the clouds.

Oh Celestia no. She pulled the bow off her back. It was a pathetically incapable weapon, a hopeless gesture. The arrows in her quiver rattled as her body shook. Ice trolls and manticores no longer seemed like such a bad deal.

Sly rose unsteadily to her hooves. A loud ringing noise filled her ears, and the forest seemed to spin as she stood. Twilight looked up at her in shock.

“What... what was...” Twilight stared up at the sky, her pupils tiny dots in her panic-filled eyes. The shadow overhead turned in a large, slow arc, and began moving back toward them.

Not good. Not good at all. Sly broke into a gallop toward the river, sparing only a brief moment to yell back at Twilight, “Run!”

Branches grasped at her armor like claws. She ignored them, crashing heedlessly through the underbrush. The river was only a few dozen yards ahead, if she could just make it to the water she might be able to hide there until dark with Twilight. Hypothermia would be a concern, but that was something she could spend hours worrying about later.

Worry about with Twilight. There was no sound of pursuit behind her. A chill, like ice water running down her back, seized her as she turned. Twilight was still kneeling, her gaze still locked on the shadow gliding toward her above the clouds.

“Twilight! TWILIGHT!” she screamed.

The dragon broke through the low clouds like some ancient god descending upon the wicked. Its bronze wings stretched hundreds of feet across the sky, blotting out the clouds and sun both. A head larger than a wagon trailed smoke from between its jaws, which yawned wide to reveal a hellish light within. The world shook again as it roared, and a river of fire erupted from its mouth, bathing the forest below. Twilight’s horn barely started to glow before a wash of flames engulfed her. She vanished before Sly’s eyes.

The ringing in her ears faded, replaced by a faint buzz. Her vision began to go gray around the edges. So fast. The dragon flapped its massive wings and began to wheel around for another pass.

Another roar broke through her paralysis, and she stumbled forward. Movemovemovemove! She tumbled forward, dodging past trees and deadfalls. All that mattered was to keep moving. Behind her, she felt a rush of heat as the dragon passed near. The snow around her evaporated instantly. The trees steamed.

“Twilight!” she cried. The flames from the dragon’s first pass had already begun to die down, their fuel consumed in seconds by the magical fires. She stumbled toward the stretch of smoldering ash, looking for any sign of the unicorn. “Twilight!”

“Sly!” a voice called through the smoke. Her heart leapt. “Over here!”

Sly wheeled toward the sound, barreling through the haze. She ignored the still-burning ashes beneath her hooves. “Twilight! Where are—” She stumbled to a halt.

Twilight’s horn still glowed a faint purple, matched by a shimmering sphere that completely surrounded her. A perfect circle of unmelted snow sat, impossibly, in the middle of the ruin. She rose to her hooves as Sly stared at her.

“Are you okay?” Twilight asked. Her voice was remarkably calm.

“Am I okay?” She stared at the unicorn and her magic shield, until the dragon roared again, shaking them both. The sphere popped as Sly reached through it to grab Twilight by her robes and started dragging her toward the river.

“That’s a dragon!” Twilight yelled. She managed to keep up with Sly as they crashed through the undergrowth.

Librarians! The urge to say something bitingly sarcastic rose above her panic briefly. Maybe another time; the dragon was already coming around for another pass. “Get to the river!” she shouted. “Get to the water and hide!”

“But what about—”

“Just do it!” She gave Twilight a shove with her shoulder, then pivoted in place like a cat, running along the edge of the river. The bow floated in front of her as she searched for the dragon. It wasn’t hard to find. It was the sky.

She jumped onto a fallen log, then up onto a huge granite boulder that rose above the trees. Hooves planted, she raised the bow, aimed along the arrow, and let fly.

The arrow shot through the air toward the dragon in a perfect arc, hitting with enough force to kill a pony instantly. The dragon barely noticed as the missile shattered against its scales.

But it did notice, and turned its head toward her. For the first time it met her gaze, its burning eyes boring straight into her soul. She suddenly felt very, very small.

I see you. She heard its booming voice echo in her mind. She trembled beneath the force of its terrible will; the bow shook as she raised it again, and her second arrow veered wildly off course, sailing into the distance. The dragon’s laughter resounded in her brain.

So little. Sly dove off the rock, landing in a jumble of hooves and armor a bare moment before the boulder erupted in flames as the dragon passed overhead. The stone melted.

Her bow was lodged under a smoldering tree. She wrenched it free and rolled to her hooves, then took off toward the river again. Now that she had the dragon’s attention, she needed to lose it. A detached part of her mind calmly noted that she really needed to plan more than one step ahead in situations like this.

The river was ten feet below the edge of the bluff. Her fear of heights only had a chance to register a quiet peep of protest before she flung herself off and into the freezing water. The river was just deep enough to cushion her fall against the large boulders in its bed. She splashed her way to shallower water, already shivering with cold.

So weak. Sly spun around, ignoring a sharp pain in her left foreleg. Plenty of time to worry about that later. Finding Twilight and then a place to hide was the number one priority, and not necessarily in that order.

Too late. The dragon blasted through the plume of smoke that shrouded the sky. Nearly half the forest around the river was in flames. Its mouth opened again, revealing the furnace that burned within its breast.

It was moments from exhaling on her when a large river stone, nearly a boulder, flew through the air and slammed into the dragon’s side with a crunch that sounded for miles. The beast bellowed in pain and flipped in the air, tilting its wings to change course and face the new threat. Sly lowered the bow, and turned to see where the boulder had come from.

Twilight stood in the middle of the river. A constellation of stones, glowing with a faint purple light, swung in a slow orbit around her. As Sly watched, a stone the size of a melon glowed brighter and shot through the air with a loud crack toward the dragon.

Her breath caught in her throat. She can hurt it! She can hurt it!

Just as quickly, her hopes were dashed. The dragon reached out with a scaled arm, intercepting the stone with a casual backhand. The rock shattered against its hardened scales; fragments rained down on the river in a stinging hail that drew tiny lines of blood on Sly’s coat. Apparently deciding Twilight was the greater threat, the dragon inhaled deeply, and sent another blast of fire down the river. Twilight vanished as the river around her exploded into a cloud of steam.

Twilight had survived that once; hopefully she would survive it twice. Sly raised the bow and sent a volley of arrows flying toward the dragon. They bounced or broke against its hide. The dragon’s laughter shook the river.

Is that all? The earth quaked as it landed on the river’s edge. The bank collapsed beneath its weight, sending a slough of dirt and stone into the water. The monster towered over Sly, and looked down with what might have passed for amusement.

Mortals. A mistake. A joke played upon the world. Sly sent another hopeless arrow flying toward the beast’s eye. It turned its head to the side, and the arrow burst into steel and wood shards against its scales. You must learn. Nothing lives. Everything burns. It opened its jaws again, and a wave of heat poured forth. The river around her began to steam.

The dragon inhaled. Her mind screamed at her to run, but her hooves refused to budge. She stared at the doom above her, approaching as swiftly as one of her arrows.

This is it. This is how it ends. She levitated her last arrow from its quiver. The bow shook as her magic gripped it, pulling it with more force than she had ever used before. The thick wood creaked and would have shattered if her magic wasn’t holding it together. She could feel its grain, its tortured stress as it bent far beyond its design. The arrowhead slipped off its shelf and began to topple. She closed her eyes, said a quiet prayer, and released the string.

The bow snapped in half as she fired. Splinters of wood flew dozens of yards as the two halves, still connected by the bowstring, tumbled through the air.

The arrow itself cracked along its length, but nevertheless flew straight. The dragon never saw it coming. It passed between the dragon’s jaws, through its throat and spine, and erupted out the back of its neck in a spray of blood and scales that fountained high into the air. The dragon’s head snapped back, flames dripping from its mouth even as the light in its eyes went out. For a long moment the dragon was frozen; a giant, burning statue misplaced in the wilderness. Then it fell.

Sly dove to the side, barely avoiding being crushed by its head. The river exploded in steam as its jaws, filled with fires hot enough to melt rock, touched the water just inches away. The river rushed away, and a blast of steam slammed into her like a solid wall.

The last thing she felt before the dark waters closed over her head again was a curious sensation of warmth and completion, as though a tiny bit of her soul was coming home at last.

Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Overdraw -- You do 20% more damage with bows.

Dragon Soul absorbed! You may use this to unlock a Dragon Shout.