by Fernin

First published

A misnamed colt and a misplaced human Soldier find friendship despite the barriers between them.

Skydancer is getting pretty tired of being a young earth pony with a name better suited for a pegasus. Lieutenant Green would love to finish his deployment safely, but first he has to figure out where he is and, just as importantly, why all the Afghans look like colorful little horses. How can a misnamed colt and a misplaced Soldier help each other when they don't even speak the same language?

Contains minor violence. Not really GORE per se, but some violence.

(Image by Skaleal)

Chapter 1: Ambushed

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Forward Operating Base Viper hadn’t made for too bad of a tour. Nestled in a strategic valley, it had seen its share of action, but for another year the Red, White, and Blue had fluttered side-by-side with Afghanistan’s Black, Red, and Green. Taking a deep breath of the cool morning air, Lieutenant Green glanced down the valley in the direction he’d soon be heading—to Bagram Airfield and, ultimately, home.

Gravel crunched underfoot as Captain O’Neil joined his subordinate in looking down the winding road. He took a long final draw on his cigarette and eyed the lieutenant for a moment before breaking the silence. “Regrets, Lieutenant?”

Lieutenant Green paused for a moment, mulling his response. “Eh. Not really, sir…”

“What, you wanted more action? You’ll have plenty more tours for that, I’m sure.” The captain chuckled knowingly, lighting another cigarette.

Lieutenant Green picked up a decent sized rock from the gravel and let fly. It sailed over the perimeter HESCO barriers and clattered down the slope. “No. More of… I don’t know. Everybody back home is probably going to say things like, ‘oh thank you for defending our freedom’ and all that. But...”

“Heh. You’re acting like we haven’t made a difference here.”

“Yes, sir. I just think... Hell, I don’t know. I—” Both officers looked up at a sudden astonished shout from up the hill.

Sergeant First Class Aldo Rodriguez jogged towards the pair. He pointed at the lieutenant in mock astonishment as he approached, his dark ballistic glasses and fire-retardant hood doing nothing to hide the massive grin on his face. “Holy crap sir, look out! It’s a day-walker!”

Grinning, Lieutenant Green struck back with a traditional counter-attack. “That’s ‘Lieutenant Day-walker, sir’ to you, Sergeant Rodriguez.”

“Sorry sir,” the non-commissioned officer laughed. “It’s just that we thought you’d gone home already! I was just here to tell Captain O’Neil that the convoy brief was in ten minutes, when what did I see but the ghoooooost of night battle captains paaaaasssstt! OooOOOoooohhhh!”

“Ten minutes, eh? All right. See you there, Aldo.” Captain O’Neil nodded to the sergeant, who waved cheerily and returned to the rumbling line of vehicles near the perimeter gate.

The captain turned back to his lieutenant. “All right, Mike. Anything else? Seems like we’re on a tight timeline for that five-hour convoy.”

“’Hurry up and wait, sir,’ like usual. See you at the briefing.” With a smile and nod, Lieutenant Green made one last pit stop at the latrine and arrived at the briefing with more than enough time to make sure his gear had been secured on his assigned truck.

A third of the way through the briefing, the butterflies started. They always did, every time Lieutenant Green rolled ‘outside the wire.’ Mike wondered vaguely if his stomach would be settled if he’d done more than a handful of patrols, but somehow he doubted that the ‘pucker factor’ ever truly went away.

When the briefing finished, Lieutenant Green did a final pass over his gear. He checked his rifle for the umpteenth time and tightened the straps on his ballistic armor. Did he still have his snacks for the trip..? Yup. Ammo? Enough water? Check and check. All right, he was ready. Opening the heavy door of the big M-ATV, he climbed up and into the crew compartment. The door swung ponderously shut, almost crushing Mike’s fingers as he fumbled with the seat belt and restraints.

Lieutenant Green tried to smile when the vehicle commander peered over his shoulder and through his gunner’s legs to give his passenger a toothy grin and a thumbs-up. The gesturing soldier gabbled something to his driver that the lieutenant didn’t catch, but it didn’t matter… the entire crew save for Green were Macedonians, so it was all moon language anyway.

Even if they had been in English, the Macedonian’s words would have been hard to catch over the bone-shaking thrum of the M-ATV’s engine. The basso vibrations rose and fell with the rhythmic idling of the truck’s diesel engine, deadening all sounds in the crew compartment. Listening to the vehicle’s ‘heartbeat,’ it was hard not to think of the big metallic beast as a living thing—but the increasingly nervous Mike tried not to dwell on that for the sake of his roiling stomach.

The tone of the idling engine changed as the vehicle commander patted his driver on the shoulder and the truck lurched into gear. If anything, it actually got louder. Hopefully the five-hour trip to Bagram would be as uneventful as the other convoys he’d taken.

Just like previous experiences with the cramped confines of the Army’s latest anti-mine technology, sitting inside the M-ATV felt a bit like being crammed into a massively over-engineered clown car. Even with only three seated passengers and the lower half of the gunner’s body in the cab, Lieutenant Green felt like he was the tenth pound of sausage in a five-pound bag. He focused on the fleeting view out the inches-thick ballistic glass of the window, relying on the tiny, distorted window to the sky to hold any latent claustrophobia at bay.

Settling in for the long wait, Mike let the hours pass. The slowly moving gray wall of rock gave way to blue sky as they passed out of the narrow valley and into a wider area, but was quickly replaced by more rock as they entered another narrow pass. The convoy was well out of FOB Viper’s battle space now. It wouldn’t be too much longer—another hour or two—and he would be in Bagram. The lieutenant sighed, imagining the heavenly aroma of Green Bean coffee. He made a mental note to get some the first chance he had. No wait, maybe a cigar from the Post Exchange. Or some pizza. Was the pizza place still open there? Hmm…

A sudden, ear-splitting roar and a staccato burst of gunfire jerked Lieutenant Green back to the present. The radio crackled to life and the crew of the M-ATV surged into action. The lieutenant cringed as bullets bounced off the metal hull of the crew compartment, making his door ring dully. The feet of the gunner nearly stomped on Mike’s hand as he struggled to turn with the whirring turret. The acrid smell of cordite filled the vehicle and burning hot brass casings rained down as the truck’s machine gun chattered.

The convoy was being hit by a complex ambush. Mike had never felt so useless and helpless in his life. His breath came fast and he felt even sicker than before. This wasn’t his first taste of combat, but here he was a helpless bystander. As a passenger without even a firing port to his name, he could do nothing but hug his rifle close and listen to the animated jabber of the Macedonian crew as they responded to the ambush. He could barely even see anything out the windows except for—

A massive, invisible fist slammed into the M-ATV from below, lifting the sixteen-ton vehicle off its axles. It landed again almost instantaneously as though scrambling for purchase on the narrow mountain road—but now the road was a cratered ruin of its former self. The vehicle lurched sickeningly to one side, affording Lieutenant Green an excellent view of the thundering river some hundred feet below. Then the roadway finally gave out and the truck tumbled, plummeting into the icy grip of the water below. Lieutenant Green had only moments to brace for impact. He didn’t even remember to shout “rollover!” as he grabbed desperately for the gunner’s legs to haul him into the cab—not that it would have helped.

* * *

“Hey, Mud-dancer!”

Skydancer ground his teeth and tried to ignore the voice behind him. He poked again at the surface of the Hippocrene River, watching the little fish dash away from the sky blue of his hoof. With the slow-moving water at the riverbank, the glassy surface was almost like a mirror.

The reflections let Skydancer stare down at the mirror image of the sky and clouds, pretending he was up there instead of down here in the depths of the Hippocrene River Valley. He wondered what it would be like, being able to sail across the sky as freely as the little fish zoomed around in the water. He wondered why it was that Cirrus felt the need to bother him when she was only a year older than he was. Most of all, he wondered why his mother had thought it was a good idea to name an earth pony ‘Skydancer’ even if she did like the sound of it.

Having failed to elicit the desired response, Cirrus trotted a bit closer to her sky blue target. The grayish-white pegasus filly cleared her throat. Skydancer remained stooped over the bank of the rushing river, his back to her and his blue-white tail swishing as he continued peering into the water’s depths. The pegasus felt the bile rise in her throat. Ignore her, would he? “I said, ‘hey, Mud-dancer!’ You got mud in your ears too, dirt pony?”

It was tempting to think that if Skydancer kept ignoring Cirrus, she’d go away… but of course, he knew better. Keeping his back to the filly, he spoke as though talking to the Hippocrene River instead of the annoying pegasus behind him. “I don’t have mud in my ears, Clouds-for-Brains.”

What did you just call me?” Cirrus’ hackles rose, her wings fluttering angrily.

“Nothing.” The temptation to look was just too great. Skydancer turned, grinning cheekily as he saw his would-be bully fuming in rage. Hah, that ‘cloud-for-brains’ comment had gotten Cirrus good.

“I’m a pegasus pony!” Cirrus snarled. “That means I’m better! I can do everything you can, and fly!”

“With those little chicken wings? Since when?” Skydancer waved a hoof mockingly at the underdeveloped wings on the filly’s back.

“Take that back!” Cirrus charged down the slope at Skydancer with a cry of rage. Without warning she jumped into the air, making a short, gliding leap. Her wings buzzed rapidly, giving her even more speed as she bore down on her prey. The two young ponies tumbled into the water in a splashing, snarling ball of blue and gray.

“Make me!” Skydancer gasped as his head came back out of the frigid waters. Despite the chill he could already feel a hoof-shaped welt rising on his sensitive nose. Cirrus had flown. She’d flown! She’d never done that before. It wasn’t fair!

“Dirt pony!” Cirrus dunked the blue pony’s head under the river’s surface once again. After a short struggle a hoof shot up with a spray of water, knocking the surprised filly’s head back as her teeth clicked together.

Chicken wings! ” Skydancer retorted as he surfaced from the water, spray coursing off his heaving sides. He squared up for a counter-attack, but none was forthcoming. The gray pegasus was already gone, galloping down the rocky path as fast as her legs could carry her.

Wading back to the riverbank, Skydancer hauled himself out onto the rocks and panted, gasping for breath. He was going to get into so much trouble for this…

Chapter 2: Survive and Evade

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Lieutenant Green moaned as he woke up. What the hell had just happened? He felt like a bus had hit him. Or maybe a semi. Everything ached, and this bed felt terrible. It was like he’d gone to sleep on a pile of rocks. He rolled over—and pushed himself up, coughing, as he nearly inhaled a lungful of near-freezing water. Mike wiped his eyes to clear them and moaned again as the cheery sunlight jabbed red-hot needles directly into his brain. He swore and collapsed back into the shallow water, covering his eyes.

The disoriented lieutenant’s head throbbed. He felt like his skull had been stuffed full of cotton—assuming that cotton could also swell and fill one’s brainpan with ridiculous amounts of pain. Mike started swearing, quickly exhausted his woefully inadequate vocabulary of obscenities, and began repeating himself. After a few minutes, he felt better as the pain ebbed to a dull, repetitive throb centered.. well, nowhere in particular. And then he remembered where he was, and suddenly he didn’t feel better at all.

Oh. Oh, @$*%! The convoy! The attack! Forcing down a rising wave of nausea, Lieutenant Green wrenched his eyelids open with a force of will and glanced around. Same river. Same high, imposing mountain ridges rising a thousand feet on either side of him. He was in a river valley in the middle of Afghanistan, miles from the nearest friendly base. He found himself trying to invent entirely new swear words as a surge of adrenaline kicked his body into overdrive.

Lieutenant Green tried to keep his breathing slow and regular, but it was a struggle. He was so screwed. Where the hell was the convoy? More to the point, where the hell was his M-ATV? Where was its crew? Had he been thrown free of it somehow as it fell? Maybe gotten out when it landed and been washed down-stream? It was impossible to tell. He couldn’t even see the road from this vantage point. He’d have to get to somewhere higher and try to figure out if he could… could what?

The important thing now was not to panic. Mike could remember that from that online SERE training that they’d made him take as part of pre-deployment training. All right. What had the class said… It was in the name, right? SERE: Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract.

Okay… so first, Lieutenant Green had to survive. Check… So far. Assuming he didn’t die of hypothermia first. Scrambling out of the water, he did a quick equipment check. Helmet. Check. Body armor… wet and heavy as hell, but check. Camelbak… Check? It felt full enough, but he’d have to look at it later to see if it’d been punctured. Multitool? Check. Most importantly, rifle and ammunition? Check and check. Water dripped from the barrel and it probably wouldn’t be useable until he cleaned it out, but at least it was still in his hand. Mike thanked his lucky stars that he’d followed that advice and secured the weapon to his vest with a karabiner. Best purchase he’d made in the past year.

Unfortunately, Mike’s cursory equipment check had some rather glaring omissions. For instance, he’d already passed his Dari-to-English smart card on to his replacement. He didn’t have a global positioning system receiver. He didn’t have a map. He didn’t even have a compass, although the lieutenant’s still-foggy memory helpfully offered up a few suggestions from his days in college Reserve Officer Training Corps on how to make a solar compass. Maybe later. Okay, what was next after ‘Survive?’

After that, evade… evade. Right. Lieutenant Green could do that. The important thing was to go where people wouldn’t normally go, right? The bank of a river definitely didn’t fit that description. Steeling himself for the ordeal that would be coming, the dripping wet Soldier beat his shaky legs into action. He ignored his still-aching muscles and headed toward the narrow crease of a rocky draw in the imposing gray wall of the nearest ridgeline. That looked about right.

Mike shuddered as he climbed, contemplating the immediate future as water continued to drip off his sopping uniform. This wasn’t going to be a very warm night. He’d been dreading it before, but now a cot next to the flight line at Bagram Airfield was sounding pretty good. Heh. Well, there was no time for that now. He had to climb.

* * *

The sun was barely above the mountain peaks by the time Skydancer made his way back to the small hamlet of Bucephalus’ Ford. Blocky, mud-brick buildings clung to the steep gray walls of the towering mountain ridges as though trying desperately to take up as little space as possible.

In fact, that was precisely the intent. Even here at its widest spot, the narrow Hippocrene River Valley afforded very little flat ground for farming. The ponies did what they could with what flat land was there, but it was woefully insufficient. And so, the ponies had farmed and built in the only direction available to them: up.

Built with the greatest of care, a complex network stone retaining walls ran along the sides of the mountain to create row upon row of terraced fields. One of the earth ponies working the stairway-like terraced fields waved down to Skydancer, calling out a greeting. The blue pony waved back halfheartedly and kept moving, trotting down the rocky path to his home. By this point, Cirrus had probably been home for hours, telling her side of the story.

When Skydancer saw the pink pegasus mare leaving the door of his house, he knew he’d been right. Sure enough, here came his mom. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he knew it, the white-furred, white-maned mare had grabbed his ear in her teeth and was pulling him bodily towards the house.

Skydancer, I’ve just been talking to Mrs. Cloud and I am very disappointed in you!” Quartz hissed through gritted teeth as she dragged her squirming, protesting son through the doorway and into the privacy of their home.

“But Mom—” Skydancer whined. He stared pleadingly up into his mother’s eyes, only to meet a hard and unyielding wall of motherly disapproval.

Quartz shook her head, frowning in irritation at her agitated son. “No ‘buts,’ Sky. Shame on you. You shouldn’t hit fillies.”

Skydancer stomped his hoof in frustration, deepening his mother’s frown. He knew it was a mistake, but it wasn’t fair! “But Cirrus hit me first! And she called me a dirt pony!”

Oh she had, had she? The Cloud family had always thrown their weight around in the valley; that was sure. The white-furred mare would die before she admitted it to her son, but it was nice to hear that at least one of those stuck up ponies had gotten her comeuppance. Still. Quartz held back a smile and set her mouth in determination. “That’s no excuse, Skydancer. I’m still very disappointed in you. I expect better from you. Now, go to your room and think about what you’ve done. Your father and I will talk about this more when he gets home from the mine.”


“No, Sky! Go to your room!” Quartz shouted, a bit more forcefully than she intended. She watched Skydancer’s eyes fill up with tears. He hesitated for but a moment more. Before the mare could move herself to speak, her young colt was gone. The only evidence of his hurried passage was the fading sound of choked back sniffles and the gentle rippling of the brown curtain hanging across the door.

Quartz sighed and returned to her housework. If only Skydancer were better at making friends, this sort of thing probably wouldn’t keep happening. Unfortunately, he’d inherited that loner attitude from his father, big lug that he was. “Oh, Diorite… Hurry home and talk some sense into your poor son.”

Skydancer buried his face in his bedding, feeling hot tears running down his muzzle and soaking the woolen cover of his pillow. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair! He could just see it now—that stupid gray pegasus filly getting comforted and stroked and hugged by her loving parents. And what did he get for defending himself? He got shouted at! What good were parents if they never took your side, even when you were right?

“I… I hate you, Cirrus!” the young colt wailed into his pillow. He pushed himself up, batting at the pillow with one forehoof. It sailed across the room, bouncing off the mud-brick wall and landing with an unsatisfying thump on the floor. Skydancer looked at it, then at his hoof. It was dirty, covered with caked-on dust after his trek back to Bucephalus’ Ford from the river

Maybe Cirrus was right. Skydancer was a dirt pony. He was covered in the dust of the ground. What could he do that she couldn’t? Nothing. But what could Cirrus do that he couldn’t? Turn his parents to her side, for one… but no. She could fly. And that made all the difference. She was special.

Gallingly, Skydancer realized that the annoying pegasus had him beat in every respect. Cirrus’ father was a big, important messenger pony, carrying orders from the main office to the emerald miners—miners like Skydancer’s dad. She had her big house high on the cliffs… His was just a few rooms and so near to the river that even now he could hear the roar of the Hippocrene as it flowed by. The earth pony could still remember the miserable first summer when they’d moved in during the river’s flood stage, with water nearly at the door for months.

More importantly, Cirrus had the affection—or at least loyalty—of half the colts and fillies in Bucephalus’ Ford. She wasn’t really cool enough to have scores of friends, but with her big, important dad, she had them anyway. Meanwhile Skydancer had… himself.

“I… I hate being an earth pony! I hate it!” The dirty brown splotches on Skydancer’s blue hoof seemed to blur as his eyes filled with tears again. He buried his face in his blankets and moaned in anguish. What did he even have to look forward to in life? If only he’d been born special. He could have been a unicorn like Professor Pyrite, the mine’s quality control gemologist. He could have been a pegasus like Mr. Cloud and been able to run messages. Instead he was… he was… An anguished sob escaped Skydancer’s lips as he buried his muzzle even deeper into his blankets.

After a few minutes Skydancer’s wails had diminished to sniffles. He lifted his head, his blue-white mane matted and mussed into something resembling a bramble bush. His eyes felt puffy, and streams of clear mucous dripped from his nose until he wiped across his muzzle with one still-dusty hoof. He looked around his room. For the first time, he saw the mining equipment posters for what they really were—foalishness.

All the grinning earth ponies, dust goggles on their eyes and yellow mining helmets on their heads, were stupid. ‘Strong’ and ‘connected to nature,’ his blank left flank. They grubbed in the muck while the pegasuses… pegasi… whatever! While the winged and horned ponies got to have all the fun. Well, that wasn’t going to be Skydancer. No. Skydancer’s glance turned to the dramatically posed pegasus ponies on his Wonderbolts poster. That was the kind of thing he wanted. Fame. Recognition. Coolness. And the blue-furred colt was going to get it. Somehow.

Getting shakily to all four hooves, Skydancer started gathering up his things. He grabbed his lucky hat, his lucky pencils, and his lucky rock. After hesitating for a moment, he pushed his chair over to the Wonderbolts poster and hopped up to undo the tacks holding the poster in place. He rolled it up lovingly and wrapped it with the rest of the bundle. He nodded happily to himself. There!

Feeling satisfied now that his mind was made up, Skydancer glanced at the doorway to his room. He couldn’t go back that way… His mother might see him. Instead, he climbed back onto his bed and put both hooves onto the sill of his narrow window. If he had been a full-grown pony, the aperture would have been too small by half. Fortunately, Skydancer could just fit. Kicking his hind legs and flailing a bit, he managed to ease himself through the opening. He tumbled and rolled when he hit the ground, grunting in pain as he slid across the ground and collided with a rocky outcropping near the back of the house.

“Ow-mmph!” Skydancer bit off the cry before he could alert his mother to his escape. Righting himself, the young pony picked up his bundle. Casting a longing glance back at his soon-to-be-former home, the colt trotted out into the darkness. He was already feeling homesick, but there was no time for that now. He had to climb.

* * *

Lieutenant Green shivered and eyed his body armor. If it was dry, he could probably put it on and warm himself up a bit. It had been sitting out in the sun all afternoon; surely it was dry by now? Mike reached out a hopeful hand and grasped it. It squished. “…Guess not.”

In contrast to the apparently hydrophilic ballistic armor, the lieutenant’s uniform had dried quickly. Unfortunately, the same thin fabric that made it easy to dry also made it nearly useless for retaining heat. And now the sun was going down. As Mike looked, it dipped below the opposite ridgeline and night fell. Even after a year’s worth of seeing the rapid approach of night it was amazing how fast that had happened. In the Midwest, the sun always seemed to hang around forever, reluctant finally to dip below the horizon. Here, it seemed more businesslike, wasting no time in diving below the mountains and plunging the valley into chilly darkness.

Resigning himself to a night of near-frostbite, Lieutenant Green huddled back in his rocky alcove. He still counted himself lucky to have found it. It was far out of the way, but offered an excellent vantage point while simultaneously giving him good concealment. At least it did as long as he huddled in the half-cave under the shadow of the overhanging rocks and stayed very still. He hoped.

The lieutenant was painfully aware that the only way to truly test such beliefs was to take a look at one’s position from the enemy’s point of view… and there was no way he felt comfortable climbing all the way back down now. He’d just have to risk it.

Lieutenant Green rubbed his gloved hands together, trying to keep himself warm as he went over his plans for what felt like the thousandth time. All right. He’d weather the night here. A bit before first light he could climb up to the nearest peak and try to see if he could spot a road. He could follow the road as best he could and head back down to the Shomali Plain. From there, back to Bagram, or to the nearest friendly troops he could find. Hopefully. If he made it, he was golden—no, make that when he made it. Mike clapped his hands together. He had to keep a positive attitude; it was the only way through this.

The sound of the clap, as abrupt as a gunshot, echoed off the bare rock of the valley. The lieutenant winced. Okay, new rule… no more clapping. Hopefully, nobody had heard that. Curling up as best he could, Mike huddled up next to his body armor, clutched his rifle close, and shut his eyes, praying only that he didn’t get discovered in the night… and as a hasty afterthought that he didn’t roll down the side of the mountain in the dark.

Skydancer’s ears twitched as the sharp sound echoed off the rocks around him. Was there someone there? He glanced around hurriedly, trying to make out any shapes he could in the gloom. The exhausted earth pony was already regretting his decision to run away at night. He should have picked the morning… maybe after breakfast. His stomach grumbled at him, but the little colt continued to climb.

Against the yawning velvet darkness of the night sky, Skydancer could see the black outlines of a rock outcropping. Picking his footing carefully, he scrambled up the slope. That would be good enough for tonight. Tomorrow morning, he could figure out what to do next. He could do it now, but… he was just so tired. He yawned again as he finally reached the shelter and scrambled inside.

If Skydancer had had any doubts about his quest, they were quickly banished. The rocky shelter smelled a bit odd but already felt a bit warm. Smiling to himself, the colt set down his bundle and lay down in the shadows, settling in for the night. He closed his eyes and dreamed of flight.

Chapter 3: Discovered

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Lieutenant Green cracked open one bleary eye and smacked his lips. His mouth tasted like some mountain creature had used it as an outhouse. His throat felt scratchy and dry—he’d used up the last of the water in his camelbak the night before. He glanced out over the morning vista of the river valley below him through the rocky mouth of the half-cave. He’d overslept. That was going to make things a bit more difficult.

Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t all bad news. Mike didn’t feel as cold as he’d expected to do. In fact, he felt downright toasty. He still remembered—not particularly fondly—the cold, early mornings out at Fort Lewis when he’d only had a poncho liner to keep him warm. Here, he didn’t even have that, so how..?

The lieutenant stared down at his unexpected guest. His heart sank. Why hadn’t he thought of this earlier? A place like this—out of the way, well sheltered—would be the perfect lair for some kind of animal. And here it was. Using him as a pillow. Oh, crap.

Mike found himself almost at a loss to describe the thing. It looked a bit like a horse… if horses could be the size of a German Shepherd. And have blue fur with an unruly blue-white mane. And if they had legs that thickened as they neared the hooves instead of remaining thin except near the joints. And if they had short muzzles that—oh good lord it was waking up.

The horse creature shifted, nestling itself a bit more comfortably against Lieutenant Green’s side. Its eyelids flickered. With achingly slow and deliberate smoothness, Mike moved to get a better grip on his rifle. He wondered vaguely if the mutant horse thing could smell fear and slid the pistol grip of his rifle comfortably into his grasp.

Yawning, the little animal pushed itself up a bit and opened two large, expressive eyes. It blinked a few times and finally focused on Lieutenant Green. Its mouth dropped open, the very picture of astonished shock. Then it screamed and started flailing madly.

Mike grunted as one waving hoof clipped the muzzle of his weapon, sending it flying up to smack him in the face. He yelped in pain and straightened, yelping again as the movement smashed his head into the overhanging rocks.

For its part, the blue animal skittered backward and out of the shelter, bleating and bawling as if the groaning lieutenant had branded it. The fearful cries and sounds of hooves sliding on rocks quickly faded, leaving Mike to nurse his new injuries in peace. Oh, his aching nose… And scalp. And jaw.

What the hell had that been all about? Lieutenant Green had seen some inventively colored animals, especially when the Kuchi nomads had led their herds past the FOB in late Spring… but he was pretty sure he would have remembered “tiny blue horses” if he’d seen them before. He stared down at his hands and rubbed his throbbing skull. Was he dreaming still? The insistent pain in his head suggested otherwise. Was he nuts, then? Was he hallucinating? Mike wasn’t sure whether that would be better, or worse.

Picking himself up off the gravel of the little alcove, Lieutenant Green checked his gear. It was all still there and finally his body armor had dried. He pulled it on and had started to climb out when something new caught his eye.

There was a small bundle lying forgotten next to where the body armor had rested. That hadn’t been there the night before. After a moment the puzzled Soldier picked it up. When it failed to explode in his hand, he opened it. A random assortment of trinkets fell from the little cloth. There was a small boy’s baseball cap. Next to it was a river rock, polished smooth by ton after ton of fast moving water flowing past it for who knew how long. There was a thick wooden pencil as well. Most puzzling of all was a sort of art deco style poster featuring… Mike scratched his head, unable to make it out. He couldn’t place the language, but it didn’t resemble the tight, looping scribbles of the Arabic alphabet that he’d been expecting. Weird.

With a shrug, Lieutenant Green gathered up the items again, putting them back in the bundle, and started to put the little collection back where he had found it. As he knelt he saw a flash of blue as the animal from earlier ducked out of sight. Hmm.

All right Mike, he told himself, you’re an officer. Thinking is supposed to be your ‘thing.’ Maybe start doing some of it for a change… Right. Clearly, there was no such thing as little blue horses. No animal he’d ever heard of would have acted like the horse-creature had. As he mulled over his situation, the lieutenant could see it peek its head around the rock again. It looked nervously at the bundle and quickly ducked out of sight as soon as it saw he was watching it.

Okay. The obvious solution here was that he, Mike, had gone a bit nuts. There were no such things as little blue horses, but there was such a thing as head trauma. Now, why he would start seeing the local nationals as little animals beat the hell out of him but hey, ineffable are the ways of the brain, right?

Finally, Lieutenant Green had a way forward. It was not a good way forward, but it was the best he was going to get. He knelt down and, moving as non-threateningly as possible, backed away from the bundle. He took a seat at the back of the alcove formed by the rock, set his weapon aside, and took off his helmet. When the little blue horse—no, the little Afghan, he corrected himself—showed himself, Mike grinned and smiled coaxingly and marshaled what little conversational Dari he knew. “Hi there little guy. Uh… A salaam aleyukum. Chi gap ast? Do you speak English?”

Oh no, oh no, oh no… Skydancer shifted nervously from hoof to hoof as he stared at the strange, mottle-skinned creature. It waved one of its weird, floppy forehooves again, pointing at the bundle that the little colt had so foalishly left in its lair.

Skydancer’s heart still pounded from the shocking revelation that he’d slept within the creature’s grasp all night. It could have eaten him at any time! He was just lucky that it hadn’t woken up and decided to have a pony-sized late night snack! The colt shivered at the morbid image of the creature feasting happily on his remains.

For its part, the creature just sat there with its limbs bent in ways that looked eye-wateringly painful. It bared its teeth, nodding and making encouraging gibberish sounds as it waved one forehoof towards Skydancer’s most treasured possessions. A strange idea struck the young pony. It wasn’t baring its teeth. It was smiling! Could it be that the creature was… intelligent?

At the thought, Skydancer found his interest piqued. He took one hesitant step forward, then another. The creature made no move, but simply smiled and bobbed its head up and down in what seemed like a gesture of encouragement. It made more of its strange half-slurred growling sounds and then very pointedly leaned backward, taking its eyes off the blue pony. Go on, its movements seemed to say, there’s no way I can get over there and eat you from way over here.

Quick as a flash, Skydancer lunged forward and grabbed his bundle. He scooted backwards until he was out from under the outcropping once again. The green- and gray- and pink-hided creature hadn’t moved an inch. Maybe it was intelligent after all… Skydancer dropped his bundle from his mouth and cleared his throat nervously. “Uh… Thank you. Do you speak Equestrian?”

Any doubts that Lieutenant Green had about his self-diagnosed brain injuries were swept aside when the little horse bowed slightly and gabbled something in what sounded like a respectful tone of voice. It smiled awkwardly, as if waiting for a response.

What concerned Mike most about this situation was that whatever language his totally-not-a-horse-at-all visitor was speaking, it didn’t sound like Dari, or Pashto, or any other language he might have expected. Probably an effect of the brain injury. Lovely. Well, gestures and tone of voice would have to do for now. The lieutenant smiled, then shrugged and shook his head while pointing at his ears. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

The little creature—even knowing that he was hallucinating it, Lieutenant Green had a hard time thinking of the little horse as the Afghan boy that it probably was—looked irritated for a moment and sighed. It babbled at him again and waited for a response. Mike repeated his gestures of incomprehension. “Sorry, I still don’t understand you.”

Sitting down on its hindquarters like a dog, the little horse looked thoughtful for a moment, scratching its chin with one forehoof. After a beat or two it beamed and exclaimed… something… enthusiastically. Mike tried to look pleased, even though he had no idea what was going on.

“That’s it! You must be deaf, right? That’s why you can’t talk properly! Here, come on, come with me…” Skydancer motioned to the creature, trying to get him to come forward. He waved a hoof in the thing’s direction and took a few steps out from under the outcropping, then repeated the gesture.

The mountain beast seemed to get Skydancer’s meaning. It nodded and gathered up several items that had been jumbled around the cave, sliding them on and buckling them in place. The whole maneuver reminded the little blue colt strongly of when his father, Diorite, was putting on his protective vest and helmet before going into the mine. His father… Shaking off the temporary homesickness, Skydancer urged the creature forward. It crawled forward out of the cave. Then it did something entirely unexpected.

Skydancer had been wondering how the creature’s strange forehooves would fare on such rough, rocky ground as the mountain slope. Its forelegs seemed too short and its back legs too long for all but the most awkward movements. But to his surprise, it didn’t continue forward on all fours. Joints creaking, the creature yawned, stretched… and reared up, standing on its hind legs. It had seemed big before but now it looked even taller than his dad!

Frightened despite himself, the pony took a few steps back and waited to see what his new companion would do. Rather than attack, or fall over, or whatever else might be expected, the creature simply balanced on its hind legs, shifting from hoof to hoof as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Skydancer found himself grinning. “Weird… but cool!”

With continuous urgings, Skydancer managed to coax the creature down the slope of the mountain and to the riverbank. It kept glancing nervously back at the mountain, obviously unwilling to get too far away. The pony was careful always to stay within the creature’s view. Poor thing, it probably couldn’t hear him to know where he was if it couldn’t see him. “Come on, not much further!”

Finally the two reached their goal at edge of the Hippocrene River. In this area, the river was much more active, roaring over rocks and through an impressive rapids. But here on the banks, soft, sandy soil had been deposited by the previous season’s flood. Grasping a twig, Skydancer carefully wrote out his question. “W…h…o… a…r… u…?”

The little colt paused. After an embarrassed silence, he corrected his spelling to, ‘Who are you?’ and waited, looking up expectantly at the puzzled, flat face of the mountain creature.

Bending down, the creature got to its knees and reached out with one of its forehooves and a look of concentration on its face. Skydancer felt a little ill. He hadn’t gotten a very good look at the creature’s front hooves before. Now he wished he hadn’t as, without ceremony, it pulled off its gray-green outermost layer of hide. The bared hooves beneath were soft, fleshy things divided into strips that vaguely reminded Skydancer of some of the sea creatures he’d seen in the school’s book on the ocean. Ew.

Very carefully, the creature drew out a meaningless series of interlocking lines. Looking up at it, Skydancer could see similar markings on the creature’s vest. It must be some kind of decoration. The pony sighed in disappointment. Well, maybe the creature wasn’t deaf after all. “Oh… Well maybe they don’t teach reading and writing in mountain monster school…”

Lieutenant Green couldn’t help but chuckle as he saw the little creature’s bright excitement change to dejection. “Sorry little guy, I can’t read your writing, either. Let’s start with something more basic, I guess. Uh…”

The lieutenant wiped out both sets of writing and made sure he had his little companion’s attention. When he did, he pointed at himself. “Green. Mike Green. Green.”

Looking at Mike oddly, the creature pointed one hoof at him and said something that sounded approximately like, “Greyn… Grein? Green.”

Beaming, Lieutenant Green nodded happily. “Yes. Green.”

“And for my next trick… You are?” Gesturing to the small blue horse, Mike let his voice trail off interrogatively.

There was a short pause as the creature processed this new information. Mike was just about to repeat himself when the little one seemed to get it. He pointed a hoof at himself and said—

“Skydancer. I’m Skydancer. Got it? Sky… Dancer.”

‘Green’ seemed to consider it for a moment. Finally, it—he? The voice was kind of deep, so Sky decided maybe it was a he—tried to gargle out a response. “Sk… Skydarmbh…. Skadigrcesz? Sky?”

Taking pity on the poor creature, Skydancer smiled. Who would have though ‘Green’ would have such a hard time with a simple name like ‘Skydancer?’ He seemed like such a smart mountain monster. The blue pony shook his head and pointed his hoof at himself again. “Er… Try just ‘Sky.’ Call me Sky. Sky.”


“You’ve got it!” Skydancer nodded vigorously, grinning. The mountain monster grinned too—then knelt down and started trying to write again.

Working carefully, ‘Green’ steadily created a large collection of squiggly lines on the sandy patch of soil. Skydancer looked on, trying to make sense of it all. There were sharp, pointy zigzagged lines, and a small set of wavy lines passing through that. Near one side of all the lines, the mountain monster drew a little two-legged stick figure with another, smaller one beside it. As an afterthought, the creature scratched out a little circle with wavy lines coming off it. He sat back to admire his handiwork for a moment while Skydancer cocked his head and tried to reason it all out.

‘Green’ pointed at his artwork meaningfully—first at the larger stick figure, then at the smaller one. “Green. ‘Sky.’”

Realization dawned. “Ooooh! Is this a map? You’re showing me where we are?”

Skydancer waited for confirmation, but none was forthcoming. Oh, right. The mountain monster couldn’t understand Equestrian. Ugh, this was frustrating. Thinking for a moment, Skydancer pointed his forehoof at the wavy lines next to the two stick figures. That must be the river. Making sure that ‘Green’ was watching, Skydancer pointed at the Hippocrene River, alternating between the scribbled map and the actual watercourse several times. “This is the river?”

“R… Rivr. River…?” Unfortunately, Skydancer was unable to catch any more of the words as ‘Green’ trailed off into more babbling, nodding enthusiastically.

Now the mountain monster applied his disturbingly flexible forehooves to drawing something new. A few paces away from the detailed part of the map, ‘Green’ sketched out a large circle. He indicated it meaningfully. “Bagram. Bah-gram.”

Still puzzled, Skydancer continued to watch as the monster drew a long arrow from his stick figure to the important circle. ‘Green’ looked up and made an exaggerated gesture of puzzlement, looking concerned and shrugging his shoulders while waving his forelegs wide.

“Uh…” So… ‘Green’ was lost? And he wanted to get to a place that Skydancer had never heard of. The little blue earth pony had never paid much attention in during geography lessons. He thought hard, trying to figure out a way to act out the bad news. Thankfully, as it chanced, he didn’t have to.

Skydancer looked up and nearly leaped out of his skin as the gray-green blur that was ‘Green’ dove over the edge of the riverbank. A muted splash followed, and Skydancer winced. It wasn’t very deep there; that had to hurt. But why had he—

The started earth pony whirled as he caught the sound of approaching hooves—just in time to see a sweating, panting Professor Pyrite gallop into view. That was strange. What was the hurry? As one of the valley’s most senior and esteemed professionals, the mine’s gemologist usually didn’t go anywhere faster than a trot.

What if the professor had seen ‘Green?’ Skydancer cringed, trying to act casual as he moved in front of the map before the gold-yellow unicorn could see it. He grinned and waved nervously as the older pony galloped past. “H-hey Professor Pyrite! Why the rush?”

At the sound of Skydancer’s voice, Professor Pyrite’s head whipped around and all four hooves planted into the soil. Stopping dead in his tracks as he slid to a halt, the unicorn seemed almost to vibrate. He stared disbelievingly at the blue colt over sweat-fogged glasses. “Sk- Skydancer?!”

“Uh… yes? Uh, yes sir?” Skydancer took a worried step backward as the professor practically charged up to him, staring at the earth pony in apparent shock.

“You’re… all right!” Fatigue was catching up to the venerable unicorn. He was shaking in relief. At least, Skydancer hoped it was relief. That, or the gemologist was about to have a heart attack.

“I am? I… Um…” Had there been some kind of doubt? Skydancer knew he had left suddenly, but…

There was an awkward silence as Professor Pyrite tried to get his wind back. When he’d recovered enough, he gasped out, “Come with me right now, young colt! Your parents have been worried sick about you!”

Skydancer hesitated, casting furtive glances to his new friend’s hiding place. If he stayed here too long, there was no telling what Professor Pyrite might spot. The last thing the professor needed was something to push him further towards heart failure. Plus… his parents were worried about him? The little blue pony’s ears drooped. “S-sorry Professor.”

Professor Pyrite nodded, absentmindedly using his necktie to clean the sweat off his glasses as he led the contrite young earth pony back up the path toward the village. “Honestly, I don’t know about colts these days… In my day, a young pony wouldn’t just wander off in the middle of the night like that. What happened, Skydancer?”

Clearing his throat uneasily, Skydancer stalled for time as he tried to come up with a response. He found himself looking back down the road to where he’d been forced to abandon ‘Green.’ Despite his abrupt and frightening introduction to the strange mountain monster, the colt couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to ‘Green’ without his help. What was the creature, anyway? “Professor… Does anybody live in these mountains? Other than ponies, I mean.”

“Other than a few species of birds, some sheep, a cockatrice or two, and the fish in the river, you mean?” chuckled the professor. Seeing the resentful look he got from Skydancer, Professor Pyrite could see he’d taken the wrong approach. He coughed nervously. Augh. He’d never been good with young ponies. Why did he have to be the one to find Skydancer? Still, at least Diorite and Quartz would be pleased that their prodigal son had returned.

* * *

Lieutenant Green winced again as he trod incautiously on another loose stone, but the two horse-creatures he was shadowing seemed not to notice. He had to keep reminding himself that this wasn’t as stupid as it looked. It wasn’t, right? Couldn’t be.

Okay, at first it might have been dumb. So sue Mike for not wanting all his hard work building rapport with ‘Sky’ to go down the drain. He’d spent several tense moments in the frigid, knee-deep water as ‘Sky’ and the newcomer babbled at each other in whatever language it was that they were using here.

The conversation had seemed friendly enough, but who could really tell? Mike had cursed himself as he crawled back onto the bank and began to follow the two horses at a distance, but things were calm enough now as the two creatures trotted along in silence towards, presumably, a village.

If Lieutenant Green was lucky, said village would have a nearby Afghan National Police checkpoint. His sojourn in Injun territory could be over tonight. Still… there were lingering doubts. Would ANP really be friendly to an isolated American in an area where the insurgents obviously felt secure enough to set up a complex ambush against a large, well-armed convoy.

Thankfully, the lieutenant didn’t have long to wait as he stole stealthily along the trail, just in visual range of ‘Sky’ and his older companion. Mike shaded his eyes as he peered around a bend in the trail and saw it.

Hugging the steep slopes of the nearest mountains, the village was like any other that Lieutenant Green had seen during his tour in Afghanistan… and yet also startlingly different. Low, blocky houses slathered in mud were stuck almost barnacle-like to the rocky side of the mountain, using any nearly flat space as an excuse for building a multi-story home. The construction was just as expected… which was what made the colors so weird. Instead of the usual uniform mud-brown, the houses were painted a surprising array of cheery pastel shades—pink, blue, yellow, and green. “…The hell?”

Equally jarring were the village’s residents. Lieutenant Green had been able to accept the idea that a blow to the head was making him see things; the brain worked in funny ways. However, accepting that one little blue horse was actually a young Afghan boy was one thing. He’d even been willing to hand-wave the boy’s guardian or father or whoever having the unlikely addition of a horn. It was probably his brain’s way of telling him that that guy actually had a rifle, or something. But, seeing an entire Afghan village populated by creatures out of a children’s cartoon was something else entirely. That strained credulity. And come to think of it, shouldn’t Mike have some kind of headache or something if he had brain damage?

Hearing movement above him, Lieutenant Green looked up—and swore. Where the hell was he? This was impossible! Not more than a hundred meters above him, another horse swooped down—borne aloft on two tiny wings that shouldn’t have kept a pigeon aloft, let alone a little pink pony. No way was that something his brain would have come up with.

That—that was it. Heck with the Afghan Police Station. Heck with this village. Mike was getting out of here before someone—before something—saw him. Turning on his heels, the confused Soldier hurried away from the bizarre village and its impossible inhabitants. Figuring this out was not as important as survival. He was heading to Bagram. As long as Mike was going downhill, he had to be heading in the right direction, surely? If not, he was sunk.

Chapter 4: The Road Ahead

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Skydancer worked his neck awkwardly as his mother, Quartz, led him to the schoolhouse. It still hurt a bit where his father had hugged him. His blue fur was still a bit wet, too. The colt couldn’t even remember the last time he’d seen his father cry, even as the big stallion reprimanded Skydancer for making his mother worry. From the look of it, the white-furred mare hadn’t been the only worried one.

The entire experience had left Skydancer feeling more than a little guilty. His ears drooped as his mother made unnecessary adjustments to his saddlebags, straightening his school books and closing the flap again. Much to his embarrassment, she nuzzled him too, right in front of everypony. The blood rushed to his face as he blushed hotly. “M-mom!”

“Shh… Now, Skydancer, don’t go anywhere after school, okay? Your father had to go work some things out at the Mine Foremare’s office, but he’ll be back here to pick you up when your classes are done. Okay?” Quartz’s voice may have been quiet and loving, but it obviously wasn’t a request. She smiled as Skydancer nodded and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before taking ‘embarrassing mother mode’ up a notch by smoothing down his unruly mane.

Glad to escape his mother’s loving clutches, Skydancer hurried into the school just as recess was ending. He sighed in relief and unloaded his saddlebags at his desk, glad to have avoided further embarrassment. Or perhaps not. A familiar and annoying voice set the blue colt’s teeth on edge. “Wow, Skydancer, you found your desk! We thought you might have gotten lost... again.”

Skydancer took his time, taking a seat at his desk before he turned around to see Cirrus Cloud sneering at him. A few of the other ponies giggled at her remarks, even if none were brazen enough to join in. Skydancer rolled his eyes. He knew how to shut her up. “Oh hey, chicken wings.”

“You little clod of—!”

“All right, class. All right. I hope you had a good recess.” Miss Periwinkle, the schoolteacher, shut the door with a thud of finality, bringing recess to an end and interrupting a fight before it began all in one sweeping movement. The blue and yellow earth pony trotted to the front of the room, surveying her class for any further disturbance. Finding none, she smiled and opened her lesson book.

Cirrus leaned forward, bringing her light gray muzzle almost even with Skydancer’s ear. Her voice was a quiet, resentful hiss. “Earth pony.

“Uh, yeah. Duh…” Skydancer whispered back. The stupid pegasus must be running out of ideas if that was the best she could come up with.

Cirrus Cloud seemed to read the blue colt’s thoughts. “Yeah. That’s insult enough.”

“Yeah? Well—” Skydancer struggled to find the right retort. Somehow ‘yeah and I think you might be right’ didn’t have the right ring to it.

Fortunately, Miss Periwinkle rescued Skydancer from his dilemma. “Skydancer. Since you’re just joining us today and seem so eager to talk, why don’t you come up here and start the class on its lesson?”

“But I-- Yes, Miss Periwinkle.” Skydancer sighed and climbed out of his desk, knowing that Cirrus was probably sticking her tongue out at his back. He walked slowly to the front of the class, clambering up to the lectern to the book. It was open to a page that was, unfortunately, almost devoid of pictures. Wow, that was a lot of words…

The teacher nodded encouragingly. “Go ahead, Skydancer. Top of the page. Class, follow along on page 207.”

“Ahem. Er… ‘Under the banner of the Royal Pony Sisters, the ar- the army of Buce… Buceff… Bucephalus the Great continued marching along the Hippocrene River...’” Haltingly at first, Skydancer read aloud from the history book. At first he kept glancing up at the class, but that just made him trip over his words as Cirrus made faces at him. Scowling in concentration, he focused on the book to the exclusion of all else.

Despite the lack of pictures to go with the words, by the end of the page Skydancer felt his interest growing. He continued, his voice gaining strength as he read out some of the exploits of the brilliant general. The little blue colt could almost see Bucephalus in his bronzed armor, feathered wings fluttering in the wind as he led the charge against the onrushing hordes of tribal pegasi… or maybe with magic glowing brightly from his horn as searing bolts of magical fire slammed into the enemy lines. Come to think of it, what kind of pony was Bucephalus? The book hadn’t said.

Miss Periwinkle nodded appreciatively. It was nice to see Skydancer take an interest in something besides the usual back-and-forth with Cirrus. He’d finished the page and then some, and showed no signs of slowing down. “All right. Thank you, Skydancer. If you’d turn the page for me… Now, class, who can explain to me why Bucephalus the Great is important to our own little town?”

Following the teacher’s instruction, Skydancer nosed over the page. He was about to head back to his desk when his eye caught sight of a large illustration his movement had revealed. It was a painting of a battle from Bucephalus the Great’s campaign across the Bactrian Plains. Ponies of all colors and types skirmished and fought with the strange, hump-backed camels. Many wore simple war dress. Others had ornate bronze armor that seemed able to shrug off any attack.

But the thing that caught Skydancer’s interest and held it in its electrifying grip was the depiction of the tall, muscular pony in the center of the image. He was reared up on his hind legs, forehooves pawing at the air as he urged his troops onward. It was Bucephalus the Great… and his back was completely bare of any wings. And his forehead was utterly innocent of any horn. Bucephalus the Great, one of the most famous conquerors in Equestrian history, had been an earth pony!

Skydancer listened with rapt attention to the lesson as Miss Periwinkle led the class through the tale of Bucephalus the Great’s triumph over the Bactrian camels and their tribal pegasus allies. He could hardly believe it. With all the amazing victories that the history book had described he’d been certain that the extraordinary Bucephalus the Great had been… well… just as extraordinary.

While Skydancer may have been sitting quietly at his desk for the rest of the school day, his mind was elsewhere. Fizzing with fascinating new ideas, it hovered leagues away over ancient battlefields. Despite being faced time and again by seemingly impossible odds, the long-dead general’s bravery, strength, and intelligence had guided him to victory after victory. Picture after picture of Bucephalus the Great’s battlefield and diplomatic successes sparked the young colt’s imagination. It was incredible!

Skydancer looked up in surprise when Miss Periwinkle shut the last textbook with a resounding thump. Was the school day over already? Apparently it was. The blue and yellow mare nodded to the class. “All right, my little ponies… That’s all for now. Don’t forget to read the rest of chapter four. I’ll see you all bright and early tomorrow!”

The subdued colts and fillies leaped into action, grabbing up their things and racing for the sweet air of freedom as Miss Periwinkle opened the classroom door and waved them out. Quickly donning his saddlebags, Skydancer followed the rushing current of young ponies out into the bright afternoon sun. He was still mulling the history lesson and, distracted, nearly bumped into a towering mountain of horseflesh that blocked his path.

“Oof! I—” Skydancer looked up and grinned. “Oh. Hay there, Dad!”

Diorite raised one large, dark gray hoof and mussed his son’s blue-white mane. “Hay there, Sport. How was school? Did you learn a lot?”

“Yeah, it was neat! We learned about Bucephalus the Great! And he was an earth pony! I mean…” Skydancer was practically living up to his name as he tried to find the words to describe how excited he was.

The enthusiastic colt’s father smiled affectionately. It was good to see Skydancer so happy. Diorite hoped that whatever had made his son disappear in the night like that was just a passing whim… but it probably couldn’t hurt to spend a bit more time with him. Quartz could only do so much… Which, of course, was why Diorite had talked with the Mine Foremare, Mrs. Craft, to approve this little trip. “Great! Why don’t you tell me about it as we walk?”

“Sure, Dad! Uh… where are we going?”

Diorite looked sidelong at his son and feigned nonchalance. “Oh, nowhere… just thought I’d take you down the valley a bit, maybe show you the mine.”

“Yeah!” Skydancer still had fond memories of the last visit he’d taken to his father’s workplace. They’d been blasting for a new shaft that day. He could still remember the voluminous cloud of smoke and the earth-shattering roar as the explosive spells had released their energy into the mountain’s unyielding rock.

Father and son trotted side by side through the village and down the narrow, rocky path that followed the meandering Hippocrene River as Skydancer described his (somewhat shortened) day at school and all the interesting things he’d learned about the history of the region.

Diorite chuckled at his son’s antics when the young pony tried to act out some of the famous battle scenes all by himself. Still… perhaps it was time to turn to more serious subjects. “Sounds like you had quite a time, Sport, but you’ve only told me about the afternoon. What about the morning?”

Skydancer looked up at the mountains. He glanced at the rushing, frothing course of the Hippocrene River. He examined at the clear blue sky, empty of any and all clouds. He focused on anything but the concerned face of his father. He could still remember the tears in the big gray pony’s eyes when Professor Pyrite had brought him home earlier that day. He should say something, but what? ‘Guess what, Dad, I found this big mountain monster who stands on two legs and I think he’s friendly and smart but it’s hard to tell since he can’t talk?’ That wouldn’t end well. Finally, though, he could avoid his father’s question no longer. “Well… I just…”

To the discomfited colt’s surprise, his father backed off. Diorite shrugged. “Eh, I’m sure you were just getting a bit antsy; you wanted to explore the valley and got carried away, right?”

“Yeah…” Skydancer sighed in relief.

Diorite mentally berated himself. Shame on him. He was being a terrible father. First he’d practically abandoned his son by taking double shifts at the mine for months to cover for other ponies who had been too ill or injured to work. And now that he was actually spending his time with his son, he was going to interrogate him? No. “Well, just try to let us know where you’re going next time, and don’t stay out so late. All right?”

“Sure, Dad… Uh, sorry for making you and Mom worry.”

“And don’t do anything too silly, all right? Your mother would have my hide.” Chuckling, Diorite nudged the colt playfully.

Skydancer glanced up at the ridges to his right. If he concentrated, he could just make out the edge of ‘Green’s hiding place. “Yeah…”

“Right then. Hey, Skydancer?”

“Yeah, Dad?” They were nearly at the mine now. One of the towering spoil piles peeked over the nearest granite spur.

“Race ya.” The dark gray stallion burst into motion, sprinting down the path. In a heartbeat Skydancer was in hot pursuit as the two galloped down the valley, laughing as each strove to be the first to reach the emerald mine.

* * *

Lieutenant Green leaned tiredly against a boulder, staring down the constricted, sloping trail at his feet. From his earlier vantage point it had looked like it would let him get all the way around the bustling excavation site without detection... but the terrain here was even more rugged than the rest of the valley. It was already late in the day; Mike didn’t even want to think about what might happen if he was still on the narrow path when it got dark. If he somehow managed to turn his ankle or, worse, break his leg trying to traverse the unfamiliar ground... No, this wasn’t a good way to go for now. It would be better to wait until he had more light and more time.

Glancing back up the valley, the lieutenant thought hard and tried to plan his next move. If he got down here a little after daybreak, he could probably climb way round the mine… but that would rely on no one coming back this way. He’d better spend the rest of his evening watching the miners and try to get a feel for their normal movement patterns.

Sore and nutrient-starved muscles protested as Lieutenant Green scrambled back up to the top of the ridge and went into the prone. His stomach grumbled again. Ugh… Mike hugged his stomach, praying once again that the river water hadn’t given him anything unpleasant.

Forcing himself to ignore the hunger pangs, the famished Soldier edged forward on the rocks until he could peer down into the river valley below. Without realizing it, he let his mind wander back over the events of the past few hours. He’d made good speed retracing his steps down the valley, but now he was on unfamiliar ground. Every instinct had been screaming at him to wait until it was dark out, but he’d been eager to make up for lost time… and to put as much space as possible between him and the jarringly alien village.

The walk next to the river had restored some of Lieutenant Green’s jangled confidence. Now that he wasn’t being slapped in the face with the cheerful little colony of horse-people, old certainties were able to reassert themselves once again. Of course Mike was still in Afghanistan. He hadn’t stepped into some kind of Disney version of the twilight zone; he was just having some sort of a nervous breakdown or trauma-caused hallucinations... which somehow didn’t impede his ability to see everything else as normal. Yeah.

Unfortunately for the increasingly mystified Soldier, he’d been forced to slow his pace had to slow considerably as the wide, spacious valley narrowed and near encounters with the valley’s inhabitants became more frequent… and then came the obstacle that he was currently facing: the mine.

Colorful locals of varied shapes and colors busied themselves under the shadow of great spoil heaps—piles of rock and dirt cleared out of the many dark shafts that spotted the cliff face. Even this late in the day, with the sun dipping inexorably towards the high and snow-shrouded peaks to the southwest, workers covered the near hillside and the river valley beyond. Lieutenant Green wondered vaguely just what they were mining for, but the little mine carts emerging like clockwork every few minutes were far too distant to see clearly.

Mike frowned in discomfort as his stomach muscles clenched once again. It hadn’t seemed too bad while he was moving around. But now with nothing else to occupy his thoughts, his body had taken a renewed interest in food and comfort. Just now it was reminding him that he’d missed both breakfast and lunch, and was coming up on missing dinner.

Shifting slightly, Lieutenant Green brought his hand to the grenade pouch on his ballistic armor. Instead of a grenade, it carried the last of the snacks he’d brought for the convoy. It was tempting to open it and feast on the contents now; he’d nearly done so when he’d first discovered that the beef jerky, the peanut M&Ms, and the Hershey’s bar had all survived his recent adventures. He hadn’t eaten any of them yet… he didn’t know when his next meal was coming and gorging himself now didn’t seem like the best—

Argh… to heck with it. Giving in to his hunger at last, Lieutenant Green unclipped the grenade pouch and pulled out his crumpled bag of beef jerky. It was as leathery and unappetizing as always, but it was true what they said—hunger is the best spice. The famished lieutenant sipped some river water from his camelbak and gnawed peered over the ridge again, hunting for any new and interesting movement to take his mind off his hunger. He didn’t have to look for long. Was that..? It was! The distinctive light blue fur on the little colt was unmistakable even from this distance. But what was ‘Sky’ doing here, and who was that larger one with him?

Lieutenant Green shielded his eyes and watched as the two horses approached. ‘Sky’s larger companion was dark gray with a slightly lighter mane, and obviously much older. The two seemed to know each other. A relative, perhaps? Maybe it was just his imagination, but Mike was sure he could see hints of resemblance in the two creatures’ build and stance, even if ‘Sky’ was much younger. Then again, maybe it was just something in the body language and behavior… although why body language filtered through the sparking remnants of Mike’s trauma-addled brain should be any indicator, he didn’t know.

Whatever was going on, ‘Sky’ certainly seemed happy to be with the big gray horse. He stuck close by the big one’s side as the two meandered their way through the bustling activity. Lieutenant Green smiled and watched the activity down the slope. At least someone was having a good day right now…

Skydancer looked up and squinted. That was odd. For a minute, he’d sure he had seen… Wait, there it was again! ‘Green’—or another mountain monster very much like him—was up on that low ridge above the mine. What was he doing there? The colt was about to give his strange new friend a quick wave when he noticed his father looking at him in puzzlement.

“What are you looking at, Sport?” Diorite asked, following his son’s gaze and seeing only the jagged outline of the ridge against the sky.

Phew, the mountain monster had ducked out of the way in time. That had been close. Skydancer shrugged with what he hoped was nonchalance. “Oh, just looking around, Dad.”

“All right. You know, Skydancer… You’re not going to explore the hills behind the mine, are you?” Diorite kept his tone light, but his expression was deadly serious as he followed his son’s gaze.

‘Green’ seemed to be gone now, but that had been close. Skydancer turned back to his father, eager to turn the big stallion’s gaze to somewhere besides the nearest ridge. “Why’s that, Dad?”

“The Mine Foremare just put the word out today… Some of the guard ponies have been seeing strange things around the back of the mine. We think some kind of monster might have moved into the area. I don’t want you going back there until we can send some bigger ponies to check it out.”

Skydancer cringed a bit inside, hoping it didn’t show. ‘Some kind of monster might have moved into the area.’ Was that ‘Green?’ Surely his dad and the other mine workers wouldn’t do something to the big, friendly creature, would they? “He—er, it can’t be that dangerous, can it?”

“Just promise me you won’t go behind the mines. Okay, Sport?

“Sure, Dad. N-no problem. I promise I won’t go behind the mine.” Now, trying to warn ‘Green’ that the miners were on to him, that was something else entirely…

Diorite beamed. All right, that was taken care of. He could be sure his son wouldn’t do anything foalish, and a promise was a promise. “Now, come on, let’s go see shaft two—they’ve just uncovered the most amazing fossil down there. We think it’s an ancient dragon. Want to see?”

Skydancer matched his father grin for grin. “Awesome!”

Lieutenant Green chanced one last peek over the ridge. Hmm, ‘Sky’ and his relative were gone. All right, he’d seen enough. From his furtive reconnaissance, he could tell that the path through the hills above the mine was infrequently visited at best—and no wonder with all those crevices and boulders. All he had to do was get some shelter for the night, and tomorrow he could be out of here and on his way to safety.

Things were looking up! With his heart reasonably light and his belly full—for a given value of full, at least—Lieutenant Green clambered down the slope and stealthily made his way back to his ‘hide.’ He could try again tomorrow. Soon, he would be enjoying the dining facility food at Bagram. He could almost taste it… unless that was just the aftertaste from the beef jerky, of course.

Chapter 5: Flight and Fight

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“All right, class, that’s enough. Take your seats, please.” Miss Periwinkle clicked her front hooves together, and with a muted babble of voices the milling mass of fillies and colts returned to their desks. The schoolteacher waited for the little ones to focus on her and favored them with her usual happy smile. Time to give them some good news.

“As I’m sure all of you know, it’s near the end of the school term.” This met with the expected level of enthusiasm. If there was one thing that being a teacher had taught Periwinkle, it was that students love to hear about when they don’t have to be students for a while. She couldn’t see it, herself. What was life for if not for learning?

Now it was time for the bad news. “…And so that means it’s time to remind you about your end-of-semester project!”

Miss Periwinkle kept her cheery expression despite the sudden anguish on the face of everypony else in the room. A project? Why hadn’t they been told? Well yes, it was on the school calendar, but no one had said the calendar had meant it… “Yes, yes, I know. But even if you haven’t started it yet you’ll have the entire weekend to finish it!”

This good news did not meet with much approval among an audience that had been planning all sorts of exciting adventures for the next two days of freedom from academia. “Oh, come on. It’ll be fun! Plus, you’ll get to show everypony how much you learned! Remember, you can do your project on anything we’ve covered this past month, and your parents are allowed to help. You can use any of the supplies I have here at the front of the room, and of course anything you can come up with at home.”

Unpleasant memories of a previous year’s project suddenly surfaced in Miss Periwinkle’s mind. Ooh, right. She’d promised the principal that wouldn’t happen again. She made haste to add, “Uh, that does not include your siblings, by the way. And ask your parents first.”

Massed ranks of students stared nervously up at the blue and yellow mare. The end of term project was being as hard a sell as usual. While the thought of a diorama on how the Princesses raised the sun and moon might have brought a glow to Miss Periwinkle’s face, it was patently obvious that she was in the minority. She sighed. “...You could do a diorama, or a science project, or… All right, all right. You’ve talked me into it. And as an added bonus, to make sure you have plenty of time, the school board has allowed me to give you the rest of the day off!”

Periwinkle dove behind her desk just in time as the student body made a dash for the boxes at the front of the room. She waited for the clattering of little hooves to die away and counted to ten. One couldn’t be too cautious. Orange Glaze over in Hoovesbaden, a dear friend from teaching college, had been in traction for a month when she came out from behind a desk too soon. All right… it should be safe now.

Much to the teacher’s surprise, one student remained in the room. In fact, the little colt quite obviously hadn’t even left his desk until the rest of his classmates had rushed out to embrace the beginning of their slightly extended weekend. Now he was quietly nosing through what remained of the nearly disintegrated boxes. “…Skydancer? What are you still doing here?”

“Just… trying to think of what to do for my project,” Skydancer replied. Maybe if he’d been a little faster, he could have gotten some of the good stuff. Unfortunately he’d been thinking of other things—how did one tell a mountain monster that a bunch of big, strong ponies might be looking for him?

Periwinkle’s heart nearly broke as she saw what her student had managed to salvage. It wasn’t much—just some tissue paper, a few light wooden dowels that had seen better days, some glue, and a ball of string. Even the ever-positive teacher couldn’t imagine what could be done with all that. “I’m sorry, Skydancer… your friends didn’t leave you with much, did they?”

The colt shrugged distractedly and started loading the assorted items into his saddlebags. Skydancer knew he should concentrate on picking out the materials for his project, but warning ‘Green’ seemed kind of important. Maybe he could draw out a warning to ‘Green’ on some paper. What about picture of an unhappy-looking bipedal stick figure surrounded by angry pony stick figures in miner helmets? And what—oh! There was an idea.

Thinking of drawings had sparked a memory; suddenly Skydancer recalled ‘Green’s map in the sand and the mysterious ‘Bag-ram.’ “Uh, Miss Periwinkle? Have you ever heard of a place called ‘Bag-ram?’”

“‘Bag-ram?’ Hmm. Not that I can think of, but… Why, are you planning on doing a project on that?” Geography had never been Miss Periwinkle’s strong suit. She struggled with the age-old dilemma of teachers everywhere: admit ignorance, or assign extra homework?

Hah, not exactly. Skydancer shook his head. “No, ma’am… I just heard the name. Somewhere southwest of here?”

Extra homework it was, then. “Tell you what, Skydancer. Check chapter eleven. We weren’t going to cover that section until next semester, but it has maps of all of Equestria in it. If you can find it on the map you can let me know all about it!”

That… actually sounded useful. Skydancer nodded happily. Maybe maps could help ‘Green’ figure out where he was going. “Sure!”

Much to Skydancer’s annoyance, Cirrus was lying in wait for him as he exited the schoolhouse. “Hey, earth pony. Getting some extra help from the teacher? What kind of project could you do, anyway? Mud pies?”

Why wouldn’t the stupid pegasus just leave Skydancer alone? He rolled his eyes and trotted resolutely towards his home. “It’ll be cooler than yours, chicken wings.”

Cirrus made a rude noise and rolled her eyes. She was getting better at flying now and obviously enjoying showing it off as she made another short, fluttering hop to land in front of her intended victim. “Is that the only insult you’ve got, dirt clod?”

“Only ‘cos it’s true!” Shouldering the gray pegasus aside, Skydancer left Cirrus spluttering in impotent rage as he stepped quickly into his house. All right, new objective. Whatever it was going to be, his project was going to beat the heck out of whatever Cirrus was planning.

Quartz was putting the finishing touches on some daisy sandwiches. She smiled and spit out the knife onto the counter. “Hello, Skydancer. You’re home early!”

“Hi there, Mom.” Giving his mother an affectionate nuzzle, Skydancer sidled up to the counter and started to nibble on one of the sandwiches.

Ever the watchful mom, Quartz swatted her son’s questing muzzle away. “No! You’ll spoil your appetite; those are for lunch.”

Time to execute ‘Operation Warn the Mountain Monster.’ “Uh, actually Mom could you pack me a few sandwiches? I want to go work on this project for school. I’ll be down the valley for the rest of the day. For the project.”

“Well, all right… Are you sure you don’t need some help?” Quartz fretted as she wrapped up a few sandwiches in the waxed paper and, as an afterthought, a bag of hay fries. Skydancer always liked those… and at least he was telling her where he was going this time.

Smelling delicious even through their wrappings, the daisy sandwiches went into Skydancer’s bags. He favored his mother with an innocent smile. “No thanks, Mom. Don’t worry; I’ll be back before dinner!”

Thankfully, Cirrus didn’t seem to be around when Skydancer peeked his head out the door and started his trek down the valley. He was still mulling over the problem of communicating with ‘Green,’ but he could hardly call himself a colt if the problem of the annoying pegasus didn’t intrude on his thoughts now and again. Which was to say, constantly.

How best to beat Cirrus? Could Skydancer make some wings out of the meager materials he’d managed to salvage? He giggled a bit at the mental image of himself flapping two enormous tissue paper and wooden wings, swooping in lazy, triumphant circles over her white-maned head. Hah! …But no, even if it would work he couldn’t imagine that his saddlebags held that much material. What else, then?

Faced with a seemingly impossible problem, Skydancer found himself drifting back to one central question. What would Bucephalus do? Well, he’d probably just order his pegasus cavalry to swat the offending filly out of the sky. But… Something sparked in Skydancer’s memory… a particular painting in the textbook.

Skydancer halted and the path and pulled out his schoolbook, flipping eagerly through page after dog-eared page until he found the one he wanted. No… No… No—Ah! There. Planting a hoof to keep the page from turning in the slight breeze, the little blue pony grinned down at his find.

The painting was a smaller one than some of the others, but it had one important feature—something that had led Skydancer to mark the page in the first place despite Miss Periwinkle’s dim view of what she called ‘book abuse.’ In the small reproduction of the painting, some of Bucephalus’ earth pony engineers were busily engaged in a fight to the death with some pegasus tribe’s militia. In the wide valley with nowhere for anypony to hide, the flying attackers should have had it all their own way. But they had lost—all thanks to the clever new weapon devised by one of the great general’s weapon smiths.

One of the strange weapons was in action in the very middle of the image. Near the top of the painting a pegasus struggled, caught in the grip of an entangling rope and some sort of flimsy construction. The text barely mentioned it, but here was a way that an earth pony could beat a pegasus, hooves down. Skydancer leered down at the image. “Gotcha, chicken wings.”

* * *

“Ugh… is it stand-to already?” Lieutenant Green rolled over and pushed himself up as his roommate nudged him insistently once again. His eyes snapped open. The confused officer sat up abruptly as his mind reoriented himself. This wasn’t his cot on FOB Viper! More to the point, that wasn’t his roommate!

The muzzle of the little blue horse was mere inches from the end of Lieutenant Green’s nose. Human and hallucination stared at each other in surprise for a moment before the lieutenant edged backwards and coughed apologetically. “Oh, it’s you. Sorry, ‘Sky.’”

Still groaning and trying to work some stiffness out of his joints, Lieutenant Green started gathering his things. He’d overslept. How the heck could a Soldier in mortal danger in the middle of Afghanistan manage to oversleep, Mike didn’t know, but somehow he’d managed it. It wasn’t too late, though. It was about 1100 hours. He had plenty of time to get through the pass before… urgh.

Apparently the beef jerky from yesterday had not had much staying power. Lieutenant Green’s stomach growled loud enough to make ‘Sky’ jump. The lieutenant was quick to assuage the local’s fears. He rubbed his stomach and frowned. “Sorry little guy, just hungry.”

‘Sky’ titled his head inquisitively. After a moment he nosed into the little packs hanging at his sides. Heh, that was cute, it was like someone had made him little saddlebags or something. Lieutenant Green was about to comment when the blue colt fished out some sandwiches neatly wrapped in waxed paper. The creature babbled something—a little less intelligible than usual since it was coming out around the edge of a sandwich—and offered it to his surprised companion.

“It’s a sandwich,” Skydancer explained to the puzzled mountain monster. “Sand… wich. Actually I don’t know why they call it that; it doesn’t have any sand in it. But anyway, here you go. I had Mom pack a few. Ooh! I have some hay fries too but they’re cold so they may not be very good.”

‘Green’ regarded the sandwich with a sort of mute befuddlement, staring at it as though it was about to explode in his face or grow wings and fly away. Maybe he didn’t realize it was food? Clearing his throat to catch the creature’s attention, Skydancer unwrapped the second sandwich and bit off a mouthful, chewing with a happy expression. “Mmmm… Daisy. Yum.”

Yeah, yeah. The little guy acted like Lieutenant Green had never seen a sandwich before. Well truth to be told, he hadn’t—in Afghanistan. This was… well ‘unexpected’ didn’t really seem to go far enough. Oh well; don’t look a gift horse in—whatever. Bad choice of words. With a shrug, the lieutenant unwrapped the sandwich and picked up a half. It was cut diagonally and, he noticed with amusement, all the crust was gone.

Mike’s stomach growled again, reminding him that he was delaying in eating the first real food he’d seen in over a day. Welp. Here went nothing. The bread was about what one would expect… a little dense, perhaps, and with some extra grit that really shouldn’t be there. The lieutenant had had worse, but at least it was definitely bread. The sandwich’s filling, on the other hand was unexpectedly tangy and certainly more fibrous than a sandwich filling should be. Cautiously, the puzzled Soldier raised the corner of the bread and peered inside. “…Is this grass? And a daisy?”

Despite the unusual choice in sandwich stuffers, Lieutenant Green wasn’t going to turn down free and mostly edible food—not at this juncture. ‘Sky’ smiled happily and offered some sort of browned mass of something, but a quick experiment with one told Mike to stick with his sandwich. As he polished it off, he bowed slightly and tried to convey his thanks to the little blue horse. “Thank you, ‘Sky.’ I wish I had something to give you in return.”

Aha! With a flash of inspiration the lieutenant realized that he did! He held up one finger in a ‘wait-and-see’ gesture that ‘Sky’ may or may not have understood. Crawling to his body armor, Lieutenant Green opened his ammunition pouch and pulled out the Hershey’s bar. Mike opened the wrapper carefully and broke off half of the bar, then put the rest away for safe keeping. He could have that for dinner, he decided. But for the rest…

Skydancer watched with interest as the mountain monster took the dark brown rectangle and broke it in half. The creature reached out, holding it carefully in one of his floppy not-hooves as he offered the object to Skydancer. What was it?

When the colt hesitated, ‘Green’ shrugged. Waving it under his flat, nearly non-existent pink muzzle, the creature grinned and took a bite from one half, mimicking the same gestures Skydancer had made a few minutes earlier. So it was food, then? Taking it from the mountain monster’s grasp, Skydancer took a cautious bite and broke out into a delighted grin. Chocolate! The happy colt quickly finished his portion of the treat and nodded his thanks. “Thanks, ‘Green!’ Wow, where did you get chocolate out here? My dad only ever…”

‘Green’ returned the nod and started gearing up. Skydancer sat quietly, licking missed bits of chocolate bar off his muzzle. He watched ‘Green’ tighten straps and sling the long, black stick over his back. What was that thing, anyway..? But that wasn’t important at the moment. The colt bit his lip in thought. He’d come up here to warn ‘Green,’ yes… but if he did that successfully, the fascinating creature would probably leave, never to be seen again.

Skydancer… didn’t have to tell ‘Green’ just yet, right? He hesitated. His saddlebags felt heavy with the drawing he’d prepared especially for the warning—no need to hike all the way down to the riverbank this time. And surely the miners wouldn’t search all the way up here for the mountain monster, right? He was safe for the afternoon at least, right? But…

Lieutenant Green tightened his helmet onto his head. It was nearly 1230; time to get going if he wanted to make his sun-imposed deadline and be past that mine by dusk. How to tell his little blue friend goodbye? He looked down to see a guilty looking ‘Sky’ emptying his bags on the rocky floor of the shelter. The colt picked up a book and opened it awkwardly, flipping page after page with his hoof. Finally he looked up. “‘Bag-ram?’”

It took the lieutenant a minute to realize what he was seeing. The pages depicted a large, circular splotch of green with various browns patches and blue lines, and… it was a map! He turned the page. Another map. He turned the page. Another. ‘Sky’ had understood his drawings at the river after all!

Lieutenant Green flipped urgently through the pages before returning to the page that the little blue horse had showed him. He scrutinized it. He turned it carefully, trying to line up the terrain and the path of the sun with the ornate compass on the map. He couldn’t read any of the writing, obviously, but it seemed to be about what he’d been looking for. “I don’t know how to thank you… but, thank you.”

Pausing in his scrutiny of the map, Mike looked around the cramped shelter. There must be something he could do for ‘Sky.’ His gaze alighted on the little pile of dowels, strings, and tissue paper. Hey, kids in Afghanistan loved kites, didn’t they? Yeah… Setting the book down, he crouch-walked over to the little pile. “Mind if I use this? I think you’ll like it.”

Skydancer could hear the question in ‘Green’s voice as the latter indicated his project supplies. What did the mountain monster want? Whatever it was, it probably couldn’t hurt. The colt found himself nodding to whatever it was ‘Green’ had said. “Just… careful with that stuff; I need to figure out how to make some sort of string… flying… thingy out of it.”

Gathering up the supplies—hey neat, there was even some fast-drying glue here!—Lieutenant Green climbed out from under the rocks and into the fresh air. He stretched luxuriously and scaled the slope to a relatively flat spot. Ah, that was so much better. Now, how to begin…

By the time Skydancer reached ‘Green’ again, the creature was on his knees, working carefully. Pulling out some kind of metal tool from his seemingly endless supply of pockets, the mountain monster sliced off a bit of string and tied two of the thin wooden dowels together, adding a few drops of glue. More string joined the points of the dowels. The blue colt took a seat and watched, still wondering where this was going.

Next, ‘Green’ laid out some of the colorful paper. He squeezed it a bit between his little… what were those things called, anyway? Hooflets? Claws? Obviously satisfied, the mountain creature started to glue it to the wood-and-string construction. In a matter of minutes what had been a disorganized pile was a large and colorful diamond shape.

Hah, and that was the main body. Now it just needed a tail. Lieutenant Green/ glanced down at his foul-smelling clothing. Well… it wasn’t like he needed all of his undershirt… Some undressing— and a few deft cuts of the multitool and he was done. He knotted the somewhat unsightly tail onto the kite and tied on the remaining string. Thankfully, the glue seemed to be of a fast-drying kind. “And there you go.”

Skydancer stared at the strange green contraption. What… was this exactly? He looked at ‘Green’ with the question in his eyes and shrugged. “It looks nice, but… what is it?”

There was an awkward pause as ‘Sky’ gazed confusedly at Lieutenant Green’s improvised gift. Surely he hadn’t encountered the one kind in Afghanistan who didn’t know how to fly a kite. Maybe he just didn’t like kites? No… he didn’t seem annoyed or disgusted, just… puzzled, somehow. “Huh, you’ve been deprived, ‘Sky.’ This is perfect weather for it too.”

“‘Kite..?’” So it was a… ‘kite?’ Skydancer nodded. Great, but what did it do?

Raising a finger to the heavens, Lieutenant Green tested the air. There was a nice up-valley wind. He wouldn’t even have to get a run up. Holding the kite aloft, he adjusted its angle until the breeze took it and started letting it fly. When Mike heard an astonished cry behind him, he grinned. Oh, good. ‘Sky’ liked it after all.

Skydancer practically leaped into the air after the ‘kite.’ He finally recognized the strange shape from the book, and this was it! How had ‘Green’ known? How could the big mountain monster possibly have known about this? The young earth pony’s eyes followed the colorful paper as it rose higher, flitting to and fro in the wind as ably as any bird—or pegasus. Gaping excitedly upward, Skydancer nudged his friend’s leg. “Can… can you teach me?”

Lieutenant Green retrieved the kite, chuckling at the little blue creature’s excited grin. He didn’t need the local language to tell what that question had been. “Sure, ‘Sky,’ I’ll let you fly this one. But first you’re going to make one of your own.”

The kid’s efforts at making the kite were a bit clumsy, to be sure. Still, with a bit of guidance and several failed attempts, there was soon a second kite to challenge the skies. Lieutenant Green looked on in satisfaction as the new kite took to the air—and quickly took a nosedive into the mountain. Mike winced. “Ooh. Not like that. Here… Try it this way.”

Several more tries and a few rebuilds later, the second kite was aloft. Skydancer giggled excitedly and let out a bit more line through his teeth and shifting the bright green kite’s path to the right. It responded to his commands, soaring higher and swinging out further into the up-valley breeze. He grinned and swung the kite left, letting it dive and pick up speed until it buzzed under ‘Green’s placidly-flying kite and stole its wind. The mountain creature’s kite dropped like a rock.

“Oho, so it’s like that, huh?” Lieutenant Green had never done any kite fighting himself, but he’d seen the Afghan linguists do it a few times on days like this. Heh… time to see if he’d picked up any tricks.

The twin kites danced across the sky, ducking and weaving past each other. Lieutenant Green was the more experienced of the two fliers, but ‘Sky’ was holding his own with a mixture of enthusiasm and near-maniacal aggressiveness. On balance, they were evenly matched.

Mike squinted into the sun and let the kite string slip through his fingers in a moment of realization. The sun had dipped low, hanging only a few hands above the mountains. Shoot, was it really that late? He checked his watch. It was. There was no way he’d be able to make it through the path behind the mine before nightfall now. Crap.

Reeling his kite in, Lieutenant Green shrugged helplessly to ‘Sky’ and pointed meaningfully at the sun. “Well, I think it’s time for me to get to bed. You too, probably.”

Skydancer was looking at the sun too. And he’d promised his mom he’d be home for dinner. “I… I guess this is goodbye for today? Will I see you tomorrow?”

Lieutenant Green took a knee and patted the little colt on the head, mussing ‘Sky’s mane. Hair. Whatever. The two of them looked out over the valley in silence for a few moments. “Well, I suppose this is goodbye, kid. Thanks for all your help. And the sandwiches. You take care of yourself.”

The mismatched pair wordlessly collected up Skydancer’s things and slid the saddlebag back on his back. ‘Green’ offered up both ‘kites’ and the textbook, but Skydancer shook his head. “I only need mine, and I can get the book back tomorrow. Thanks though! See you later!”

Holding the kite carefully between his teeth, Skydancer began his long trek home. He glanced back to see ‘Green’ waving and returned the cheerful gesture. This was going to be great! If he could just practice ‘kite’ flying with the mountain monster a few more times this weekend, he’d be more than ready! He couldn’t wait to see the look on everypony’s face. The happy colt looked back again to wave a final goodbye, but ‘Green’ was already gone.

Chapter 6: Reunited

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Cirrus fluttered her wings, circling in the early-morning updraft as she looked down at the valley below. She’d been fuming all of yesterday from the stupid earth pony’s ‘chicken wings’ remark. ‘True,’ was it? Well, she’d show him.

The orbiting pegasus filly felt her wings waver slightly in the breeze as she caught sight of the light blue spot that was Skydancer. All the practice was paying off; this was as high as Cirrus had ever gotten. Her parents were going to be so proud! And better yet, after today the little annoyance below her was going to regret ever messing with her.

What was Skydancer doing, anyway? He was leaving the village pretty early today… probably off to do something with his school project. Well, little dirt clod better have a backup plan, because Cirrus had a few ideas about what she was going to do to his plan A, whatever it might be. Giggling maliciously, she glided down to a high ridge to rest her tired wings. And the little foal was going out into the middle of nowhere, too. This would be perfect.

The up-valley wind was really strong today. Skydancer was tempted to fly his ‘kite’ for a bit of extra practice as he trotted down the path towards the mountain monster’s hiding place, but he resisted the urge. He’d have plenty of time once he got there.

Skydancer had spent his evening regaling his parents with excited, fragmentary ideas about ‘kite’ flying and all the wonderful things it could do for earth ponies. Okay, he had to admit that using them as a mail delivery system in place of the pegasus pony express was stretching it a bit, but he’d had some good ideas!

Now, the blue colt felt his heart rising as he scaled the steep slope to ‘Green’s rock alcove. He had another reason to hurry today. Skydancer had probed his father carefully about the search for the monster behind the mine, and his dad had been sure that the guard ponies were closing in. How could he have forgotten to give the warning yesterday? Oh, right. The amazing ‘kites.’ And… to be honest, not wanting ‘Green’ to leave.

“‘Green?’ Hey, ‘Green,’ it’s me!” Skydancer called as he neared the entrance. The little shelter remained silent. Well, that was normal. Mountain monsters obviously slept a lot.

“‘…Green?’ Are you there?” Something seemed different about the dank little half-cave. For one, it stank slightly less than usual… And for another, it was entirely empty.

No, the shelter wasn’t entirely empty. Sitting under a few small rocks near the opening of the shelter was a small bundle. At the bottom was ‘Green’s expertly crafted ‘kite.’ On top of that was the remaining half of the chocolate bar that the mountain monster had shared at lunch the day prior. And on top of that, under a small rock, was…

Skydancer’s vision blurred with tears. ‘Green’ hadn’t waited after all. And now he was gone. The dejected young pony moved mechanically, removing the rocks and sliding the chocolate bar into his saddlebags. He looked closer at the little picture drawn on an extra scrap of paper. A slightly better drawn stick figure of ‘Green’ waved up from the page, smiling. More of the strange angular scribbles surrounded the drawing.

With a short sniff—he certainly wasn’t going to cry—Skydancer put the drawing in his saddlebags and picked up the second ‘kite.’ He climbed back out of the hole, blinking in the brightness of the day, and climbed back to the top of the ridge. Well… well… at least he could get in some practice on his new skills.

‘Kite’ practice could burn up some time while Skydancer waited. ‘Green’ would be back soon. Of course he would. He wouldn’t just have left without saying goodbye… unless he had done so yesterday? The colorful paper diamond of Skydancer’s ‘kite’ rose into the sky, but his spirits had never felt lower.

* * *

Lieutenant Green waited for the hoof beats on the path to fade and stepped out again onto the path. He was making good time. At this rate, he’d be down to that trail and past the busy bustle of the mine in no time. And if ‘Sky’s map book was right, there were no more towns after this, all the way to the plains below. He was practically home free. All he had to do was put one foot in front of the other…

* * *

What was that twerp doing? Cirrus could see him sitting dejectedly on a ridge overlooking the river valley. As she circled, a light-colored scrap of something rose into the air until it was almost at her level. “What the hay is that, dirt pony?!”

Skydancer groaned. Cirrus. As if things couldn’t get any worse. He waved an angry hoof in her direction. “Go away, Cirrus!”

Cirrus rolled her eyes. “And here I thought you might be doing something cool. Guess you’re just playing with stupid… diamond… thing?”

“It’s a— it’s a ‘kite.’ Don’t you know anything, chicken wings?” Skydancer snarled through gritted teeth as he tugged on the kite’s strings and sent it hissing past the startled pegasus’ head.

Surprised for a moment, Cirrus lost altitude and nearly crashed into the hillside. The heat of an embarrassed blush rose to her cheeks as she struggled to regain altitude. “Watch it!”

You watch it! Go away, Cirrus!” The angry blue colt started to reel in his ‘kite.’ He was tempted to try out some of his new ‘kite’-fighting skills, but he just wasn’t in the mood. Besides, it might hurt the ‘kite.’

“Sure, I’ll go away. With this!” Unfortunately, Cirrus was in the mood. With an unpleasant smile she snatched the wood-and-paper diamond as it swooped lower and jerked it out of Skydancer’s grasp.

“Come back here! COME BACK HERE WITH THAT, CIRRUS!” But it was too late. The string was well beyond Skydancer’s reach now, and gaining speed as the annoying gray pegasus circled mockingly.

After several fruitless attempts to regain his hold on the ‘kite’s string, the furious colt watched his tormentor sail serenely down the valley. Cirrus wasn’t moving as fast as she could… she didn’t want to lose him, obviously. Well if it was a chase she wanted… Skydancer took a deep, ragged breath, shucked his saddlebags, and galloped down the slope.

The race was taking a toll on both young ponies as they galloped further down the valley. Several times, Skydancer almost lost Cirrus entirely. Once or twice, he nearly grabbed the string in his teeth and wrestled his kite from her grip. But now they were nearly at the mine.

Cirrus gasped for breath. How the hay was the little dirt clod still running? She was nearing her limit. Time to end this. She saw a narrow valley behind the emerald mine and angled down, letting gravity do the work as she transitioned into a gentle glide. This was going to be great. She couldn’t wait to see the look on Skydancer’s face.

Panting heavily, Skydancer raced past some of the miners of the morning shift and made a right to follow Cirrus’ glide path. She was heading for the hills behind the mine. The pegasus filly was obviously tired. If he timed it right, he might be able to get there when she did. Putting his all into it, the light blue earth pony picked up speed.

Skydancer and Cirrus reached the edge of the rocky, narrow path at about the same time. Cirrus circled once and dropped the ‘kite’—then landed on it with all her weight. The wooden dowels snapped. Despite her wheezing breaths, she still managed to gasp out a few pre-planned lines. “Ooops. Sorry. I feel like such an earth pony…

For Skydancer, a crimson veil dropped down and covered the world in angry shades of red. That had been his ‘kite.’ From his friend. And now that stupid chicken-winged filly had broken it. “I’m…”

“What’s that, Skydancer?” Cirrus moved her weight from hoof to hoof, grinding the brittle dowels and tearing the rent paper of the ‘kite’ just that little bit more.

I’m going to buck your stupid face into next week!

“Hah! You have to get to me first!” Cirrus spread her wings—and winced. Ouch! Of all the times to get a cramp… But the enraged blue earth pony was barreling down on her fast. Didn’t he ever tire out? Desperately flexing her wings, the pegasus filly turned tail and ran down the twisting path as fast as her hooves could take her.

Skydancer didn’t let the fleeing pegasus get far. The two went down in a heap and tumbled, finally smacking into a larger-than-average rock lying across the trail. Skydancer was up in a flash and planted his hooves over Cirrus, tears streaming from his eyes. “Why did you do that? It was ‘Green’s ‘kite!’ He left it for me and now he’s gone, and you BROKE IT!

Cirrus struggled to climb out from under her pursuer and got shakily to all fours. “Geeze, what is wrong with you, Skydancer? I just broke your stupid thing, you don’t have to crash into me like that! Look, I’m sorry, I…”

The gray pegasus’ eyes widened. She stared at Skydancer, but didn’t seem to see him. “Ch-ch-chicken…”

Blinking back tears, Skydancer wiped one dirtied fetlock across his eyes. He wasn’t going to cry now. Not in front of her, anyway. “What? You did that because I called you ‘chicken wings?’”

Cirrus raised one shaking hoof and pointed. “Ch-ch-ch-chicken head…”

A strange half-hissing, half-clucking sound made the fur rise all down Skydancer’s back. He turned his head slowly and looked behind him. There, out of the corner of his eye, he could see it slithering slowly out of a small, dark burrow. His blood froze.

The cockatrice clucked again, blinking its red, beady eyes. It spread its dark, leathery wings and flapped them experimentally, yawning a bit thanks to its abrupt awakening. What had disturbed its morning nap? Oooh… breakfast.

Skydancer shuddered. So the mine’s guard ponies hadn’t been looking for ‘Green’ after all. And he’d promised his dad and everything… but now it was too late. He bit his lip and exchanged a terrified glance with Cirrus as she watched the cockatrice finish its post-nap stretch. What would a brave pony do right now? What would Bucephalus the Great do? “Cirrus? When I say run, run as fast as you can and get the guard ponies. All right?”

“S-skydancer, what are you--?”

“Run! Now!” Fortunately for Skydancer’s plan, Cirrus didn’t need any urging. She was off like a shot, stumbling past the cockatrice and out of sight before it could react. Okay, time for step two.

“For SKYDANCER THE GREAT!” Somehow it had sounded better in Skydancer’s head, but he had no time for that now. He kicked out with both rear hooves, catching the cockatrice full on the beak. It squawked angrily, but its annoying prey was already galloping down the rugged, torturous path as fast as his hooves could take him.

Unfortunately, thanks to the direction he’d been facing, Skydancer had a long and dangerous flight ahead of him. There was no way to double back; the earth pony had to keep running. He dodged around a boulder and tried to accelerate, trying desperately to fill his lungs to do the only thing that could save him now. “Help! Help! Dad! ‘Green!’ Anypony! Heeeellllp!”

Lieutenant Green looked at his watch and leaned tiredly against a rock. It had been at least thirty minutes since he’d entered the hills behind the mine. He was making good time… he hoped. If only the trail wasn’t so rugged, and he didn’t have to move so slowly for fear of making noises which would betray him. His stomach grumbled and he found himself wishing for any food—even another one of ‘Sky’s bizarre sandwiches—to take the edge off. Well, maybe he could delve into his M&M’s…

A terrified shout sent a jolt of adrenaline through Mike’s tired muscles as it echoed through the hills. Someone was nearby! That someone had a voice that sounded a lot like ‘Sky.’ And from the sound of it, the kid was in trouble.

The lieutenant was on his feet again in an instant. Should he..? No. No time for thinking now. It was a good thing he’d had time to clean his rifle again… Lieutenant Green unshouldered his weapon and checked the chamber. He slapped the magazine out of habit to make sure it was seated properly, then turned his back on his path and raced back the way he had come.

Skydancer yelped in pain as he trod on an unexpectedly loose rock. He stumbled and fell, going head over tail and scrambling to regain stable ground for his hooves. He had to keep going, or he was dead—worse than dead. “Help! Help!”

The cockatrice was gaining on Skydancer. He could hear the measured beat of its wings. It was toying with him. Why had he been so stupid?! How could he ever think that a little colt like him could be as brave—and as victorious—as Bucephalus? He looked up—and saw a familiar mottled green shape lumbering up the path. “‘Green!’”

“Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, what the &$#*ing $#@$ is that?!” ‘Sky’ was being chased by… a thing. Lieutenant Green lacked even the vocabulary to describe it properly. What kind of crazy hallucination would replace some normal, every day thing with a chicken-headed… lizard… snake… bat… whatever the heck it was?

The safety clicked off as the lieutenant raised his rifle and squeezed off a few shots in the creature’s direction. Whatever it was, it didn’t look friendly and ‘Sky’ was running from it. That was good enough for him. The shots whizzed by the beast, a lucky bullet clipping the edge of one wing. The monstrosity squawked for all the world like a surprised and angry chicken and dropped, bleeding, to the ground.

Both Skydancer and his rescuer were out of breath as the pony reached ‘Green’ and leaned tiredly against him. The colt’s ears were still ringing from the explosive sound of the mountain monster’s weapon. Skydancer wondered dully if perhaps he should have been more worried about the guard ponies than ‘Green’ if the group had found him.

No worrying about that now, though. Skydancer waved his hooves tiredly, trying to come up with the gestures to tell the mountain monster what needed to be said. “‘Green!’ It’s a cockatrice! Don’t let it look at you!

Lieutenant Green looked down at the blue horse and patted his head in what he hope was a comforting way. “Don’t worry, ‘Sky,’ you’re safe now. You don’t need to cover your eyes; it was just a rifle. There, there… But man, what the heck was that thing?”

Holding his weapon at the ready, Lieutenant Green moved forward to get a closer look at what he’d shot. He mentally cursed his persistent hallucinations. It would be nice to know if he’d just shot a mountain lion, or a mujahedeen, or what. He stared at the creature in trepidation. Honestly, who was he kidding, really? There was no possible way that he’d still be hallucinating this long even after getting his bell rung by a roadside bomb, right? The brain was weird, but not that weird… was it?

The cockatrice hissed angrily and struggled upright against a wave of horrendous pain. The big gray-green creature had… hurt it somehow. And now it was coming closer to finish the job. The cockatrice hadn’t woken up this morning with plans to be on anyone’s menu, and it definitely wasn’t going to change those plans now. Staring up with revenge in its small red eyes, it lashed out in the only way that was left to it.

Lieutenant Green stumbled a bit as he took another step towards the creature. It was… looking at him now, in a way that was hard to describe. He squinted his eyes. What was wrong with him? He felt so tired…

Skydancer moaned. Already the dark gray stone was creeping up ‘Green’s legs. The mountain monster had come to the rescue, but now he was the one in danger! The blue earth pony gritted his teeth and tried to will some life back into his shaking limbs. He couldn’t just sit by and let this happen. Small rocks scraped underhoof as the light blue colt forced his body into what would probably be its final sprint. “‘Green!’ Look out!”

At the shout, both cockatrice and Soldier looked at the charging earth pony. The cockatrice cackled and shifted its petrifying gaze. The big one wouldn’t take much longer anyway, and the small blue pony…the blue pony had hurt it first.

Lieutenant Green gaped in horror as ‘Sky’s body suddenly seized up and turned gray. The little horse halted mid-stride and tipped over, scraping the ground with a terrible grating hiss of rock-on-rock. The small body lay still, frozen as if he was still galloping along. He… was he dead? No living thing could lie that still. It was impossible. It couldn’t just have happened. It…

A cold feeling washed over Mike. He let his breath out slowly and raised his rifle, aiming carefully through the sight. His finger slid onto the trigger.

The cockatrice hissed in satisfaction. Now, to finish off the big one. It looked up—and met a controlled pair of 5.56mm rounds coming the other direction. The white-feathered head exploded in a shower of gore. A few more shots slammed into the creature’s body, but it was already dead.

Echoes of the last few gunshots and the quiet click of the safety going back on were the only sounds as Lieutenant Green slid the rifle back onto his back. He stumbled over to the prone form of his little blue friend. His feet still felt strangely numb and leaden as he went to his knees beside the body. It was cold and gray, and strangely hard. Stone? How the heck was ‘Sky’ made of stone, now?

“&$#* this place… &$#* that stupid monster thing… and &$#* this… this… THIS.” Grunting with the effort, Lieutenant Green picked up ‘Sky’s still form and surged to his feet. Barely knowing what he was even doing, the snarling, swearing officer stumbled back the way he had come. The locals at the mine would be able to help. They had to. There was no other choice.

Everything that followed stretched out into one long, exhaustion-fogged moment as Lieutenant Green struggled up the path. He tripped, nearly falling, but managing to slam his shoulder into the steep hillside before he dropped to the ground. Couldn’t do that. Might hurt ‘Sky.’ With his shoulder throbbing, he continued on.

Mike tripped again. What was wrong with his feet? Didn’t matter. Had to keep going.

After a bit the panting, exhausted lieutenant could hear voices and movement ahead. He was close, now. Taking a ragged breath, Mike raised his voice. “Hey! Over here! Help!”

Diorite’s hooves pounded on the rocky ground as he galloped up the path. He’d heard the news—all the miners had—when the bruised and crying Cirrus had come stumbling into the mining camp. It had taken precious minutes to get the story out of her—and after that, Diorite wouldn’t have wasted another second if Princess Celestia herself had ordered it. If only he’d been there… if only he’d been more forceful! If only Skydancer had listened!

The large gray stallion screeched to a halt as he rounded the next bend in the twisting trail. A strange, hulking figure, taller than anypony Diorite had ever seen, was stumbling up the path on its hind legs. Several guard ponies from the rescue party slammed into Diorite with confused shouting, but they were of secondary importance to what lay before the horrified father. There, in the creature’s forelegs, was Skydancer. And he was gray instead of light blue. And he wasn’t moving.

Lieutenant Green blinked dully at the suddenly appearing horses. Where had they come from? They hadn’t been there a moment before. His limbs felt so heavy. He could just lie down… and… No! Not yet. Feeling his legs buckling under him, Mike turned his body so that he’d land face up. He managed to gasp a final plea as he fell. “Help…”

The strange creature topped before Diorite reached him, landing heavily on the ground. The gray stallion cringed—but somehow the monster had fallen oddly, landing so that it almost cradled Skydancer’s cold, petrified body. There was still hope, then. Diorite was almost crying in relief.

“Wow, what happened to this thing…” One of the guards prodded the prone form of the green-gray creature with a curious hoof. It had obviously had a run-in with the cockatrice as well—gray stone encased its rear legs almost all the way to the knee.

Diorite stared down at the thing that had brought him his son. “I don’t know… but I think we need to bring it to the Foremare.”

Chapter 7: Loose Ends

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“Aaaaaannndd… that should do it!”

Skydancer’s legs flailed in the air for a minute as he cried out in fear—and fell out of the hospital bed. “Oooh… ouch.”

A dark gray hoof helped the disoriented colt to his feet. He looked up. “Dad!—Urk…”

Though it had only been returned to him seconds ago, Skydancer found the life nearly crushed out of him a second time as Diorite pulled his son into the tightest hug he’d ever given. “Don’t ever do anything like that again, young colt. Do I make myself clear?!

Diorite’s voice was angry, but there were happy tears in his eyes. Skydancer returned the hug. “Yes, Dad… Sorry Dad...”

The unicorn doctor nodded happily and made a few notes on his clipboard, which he handed to a pink-maned orderly. “All right, he seems to be recovering properly… I’ll just excuse myself for a moment to attend to the other patient…”

Skydancer found his hooves again as his father released him with the greatest of reluctance. He shifted awkwardly, trying to work the kinks out of his body from what felt like a very long nap. It took a moment for the unicorn’s comment to catch in his mind. “Dad… what happened to ‘Green?’ Is he okay?”

Cocking his head in puzzlement, Diorite tried to make sense of his son’s question and the foreign sounds rolling off the colt’s tongue. “‘Greyn?’ What’s a… ‘Grein,’ did you say? Are you feeling okay, Sport?”

Dad! I mean the big, tall green-and-gray thing! Is he okay?” Skydancer stomped a hoof in frustration at his father’s bemused expression.

“You mean you know that monster? How? We can’t get a word out of him! Everypony’s tried…”

“Where is he?!”

Finally yielding to his son’s insistence, Diorite led the way to the other end of the mine’s aid station. He nodded to the two guard ponies at the door and father and son went inside.

‘Green’ was sprawled over several beds. The gurneys had been placed one next to the other just to provide enough space for the mountain monster to lie down. He mumbled to himself, shifting fitfully from position to position. The medical ponies had removed what clothing they could. It was almost shocking to see how much thinner and slimmer and even pinker ‘Green’ looked without it. At least thanks to a few baths he no longer smelled so bad… But to Skydancer’s surprise, the wavering line of petrified flesh was still there, although it had receded to the big creature’s rear hooves.

“Don’t disturb him. He’s been like this since we brought him in,” Diorite said softly.

Skydancer stared from his own hooves to the wavering line of rock on the mountain monster’s body. “Wha… why isn’t he healed yet?! I’m fine…”

“I don’t know. Doctor?” The big stallion shrugged helplessly and appealed to expert authority.

Nodding to another orderly, Doctor Trocar approached the two earth ponies. “Here to see our mystery creature? I explicitly told the guards no unnecessary visitors!”

“I’m not unnecessary, I’m ‘Green’s friend!” Skydancer retorted. It was practically a shout. On his makeshift bed, the moaning patient stirred.

The unicorn made desperate shushing noises. “Shhh! He’s still at a very delicate state!”

“Why isn’t he better yet?!” Skydancer’s gaze flitted to the creature on the beds again. ‘Green’s eyelids were fluttering, and his breathing came in ragged gasps.

“We don’t know! He should be better by now, but my spells are barely making a dent! It’s like the magic is just passing right through him with no effect! It’s like he’s not even there.” Doctor Trocar whined. “I’m supposed to be the specialist, but I’ve had to call for specialists just to—”

“‘Sky?’ Is that you?” Lieutenant Green pushed himself up on the beds and groaned. He felt terrible. His vision was blurry, but a few rapid blinks soon cleared it. He was in… some kind of hospital? It smelled like a hospital.

The little blue horse was at the lieutenant’s bedside, looking worried. Lieutenant Green gave him a feeble grin. So he was all right. Thank God. “Don’t worry, ‘Sky,’ I’m sure Doctor Horn over there will fix me right up… Any idea what’s wrong with my feet? They still feel all… funny.”

It was heartbreaking to watch as ‘Green’ pushed himself up slowly, prodding in confusion at his still-petrified feet. He shrugged and flopped back down on the mattresses in a cacophony of creaking springs. Skydancer sighed. “Oh, ‘Green…’”

Skydancer turned to the doctor, eyeing the unicorn’s horn. “Doctor, can’t you... cast a translation spell or something? I want to talk to him.”

“Don’t know any; sorry. I just heal ponies. And apparently monsters now too. You’re welcome, by the way,” Doctor Trocar commented defensively.

“Besides,” the unicorn continued. “Aren’t you his friend? You two seemed to be talking just fine there, even if he was spouting mostly nonsense. Delirious, no doubt.”

How could the doctor be so smart yet so stupid? Skydancer ground his teeth. “No, that’s just how he talks! He doesn’t speak Equestrian!”

“All right Sport, I think we’ve bothered your friend and the good doctor enough. Let’s go see your mother while there’s still some daylight.” Diorite practically had to drag his son out of the room. ‘Green’ waved from his bed and collapsed back with a sigh.

There was a surprise visitor for Skydancer when he left the aid station. He blinked a few times, trying to figure out whether the sudden brightness of daylight was making him see things. But there was Cirrus, wings drooping in shame. She flashed him an awkward grin. “H-hay there, Skydancer.”

“Cirrus! What are you doing here?” Skydancer was caught more off-guard than if ‘Green’ had suddenly leaped off his sickbed and started singing in Equestrian.

“I…” Cirrus trailed off. A pink pegasus mare—Mrs. Cloud—nudged her daughter in the ribs.

Shooting her mother an annoyed look, Cirrus tried again. She dug distractedly in the ground with one hoof as she talked, avoiding Skydancer’s gaze. “I’m here to apologize. I’m sorry about your ‘kite’ thing… Uh… I asked some of the unicorns in our class to fix it…”

“Oh… Thanks.” This was incredibly awkward. Skydancer looked at the ground, waiting for the conversation to end.

“And, er… I wanted to thank you too. For saving me like that. From the, uh, from the cockatrice. That was brave. Really, brave. You’re… not as dumb as I thought-- Ow!” That comment had earned Cirrus another poke in the ribs.

Cirrus exchanged a mutual glare with her mother before continuing. “…It was actually… kind of cool.”

“You’re welcome, I guess.” Part of Skydancer wanted to rub it in the gray pegasus face. That’s right! There was something he could do better than her, so there! But the majority of him just wanted to get away from her as quickly as possible. With the conversation apparently over, the two respective parents nodded to each other and led their charges their separate ways.

“Is… anypony going to be able to help ‘Green,’ Dad?” Skydancer asked plaintively when they’d been walking up the river path for several minutes.

Diorite chuckled. “Oh, Doctor Trocar called in the best help available. The very best.”

“When will he be here?”

The gray stallion looked up. The sun was still high in the sky. “Well she’s a little busy right now, but I think she’ll be here around nightfall. In the meantime, why don’t we get you some of your mother’s best daisy sandwiches?”

Skydancer grinned. “Sure, Dad! Er… can we bring back one for ‘Green’ too? I think he likes them…”

* * *

Lieutenant Green passed in and out of consciousness. It was nice that the doctors were so worried about the numbness in his feet, but maybe they should do something about his head? By this point of his adventures he was used to seeing things, but this was a new one. He squinted up as the waving, multicolored mass of light entered the room. There was a general change in the background hum of his surroundings, as though the entire place was holding its breath. He pushed himself up awkwardly. “Whu..?”

There was a short exchange of the local language. Mike listened attentively, although he didn’t know why he bothered. Hmm… he really should have come up with a name for it. How did ‘horse-ese’ sound? Heh… Horsies. He chuckled weakly. Now the lieutenant knew he was cracking up, that joke had been almost as bad as the ones Sergeant First Class Rodriguez liked to make.

Whatever bright lights had been brought into the room, they seemed to be dimming somewhat. Lieutenant Green looked into the calm, warm eyes of the biggest horse-thing he’d seen yet. She seemed pretty important, what with the golden crown and wings and horn and all. He straightened and gave a half-hearted salute, struggling to stay upright as his vision darkened. “Sorry ma’am… I know we’re indoors and all, but you seem like the closest thing to authority that I’ve seen in the last…”

The lieutenant trailed off as strength left him. The impact of his head on several pillows woke him again and he lurched back upright, continuing where he’d left off. “…Week, maybe? Lieutenant Michael Green, United States Army. And you are?”

There was another short exchange as Lieutenant Green found himself lying down unexpectedly. He must have passed out again. The big white creature was nodding to one of her bodyguards—Mike recognized the type—as the room’s door slid open. The guard left, and the lieutenant grinned and waved at the new arrivals. Finally, some familiar faces. He gestured questioningly to the crowned white horse. “Hey! Hey ‘Sky…’ Good to see you. Any idea who this is?”

Skydancer stumbled as he found himself fighting between his forward momentum and the sudden and pressing need to bow. It was her! Somehow, his father didn’t seem surprised. Had he known? “Y-your majesty! Wow! Are you here to help ‘Green?’”

The solar monarch smiled down at her young subject. “Of course, my little pony… So you’re the one who befriended this poor lost soul?”

“Oh no, your Majesty. I don’t think he’s lost… I gave him a map! Er… once he’s back on his feet he’ll be able to get to ‘Bag-ram’ in no time!”

Diorite made a strangled sound and moved to silence his son before Skydancer got them all banished. Fortunately, the princess simply laughed. “I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that, Skydancer. Your ‘Green’ is a long, long way from home…”

“Can… can you help him get back, then? Er, your Majesty.” Seeing the looks on his parents’ faces, Skydancer could feel he was going to pay for this later. But he had to know.

The princess nodded. “I can. And so can you.”

Skydancer looked nervously at the prone form of the mountain monster. He looked worse than ever. “…How can I help?”

Lieutenant Green looked up feebly in time to see the guard return pushing a cart. Piled high were the various parts of his gear, ballistic armor and all. He smiled and nodded to the white-furred guard. “Hey there… thanks for getting my stuff, guy.”

The guard snorted and returned to his post, staring impassively into space. Lieutenant Green chuckled. “Well, sorr-ree.”

The big white one approached, and suddenly Mike could smell a tang of burning tin in the air. The hairs rose on his body as though he were standing in a big electric field. He yelped in pain as burning, tingling sensation returned to his lower extremities. The lieutenant wiggled his toes gingerly and slumped back in his bed as a wave of nausea nearly overtook him. “Whoo… that packed a punch.”

“’Green!’ Are you okay?” Sky asked anxiously.

Lieutenant Green smiled and waved one arm awkwardly. “Sure, kid… just fine… Oooh… Thanks for everything, but I think I need to lie down for a bit…”

The blue colt was staring at him. A slow grin spread across his muzzle. “You can talk!

Blinking, Mike stared blearily at ‘Sky.’ “Wuzzat?”

The tall white horse stepped forward. “Lieutenant Green… You should not be here.”

Some harmonic in the creature’s voice sent a strange buzzing feeling through Lieutenant Green’s skull. It was like standing on the road when an Abrams rolled by… you could feel it through your very bones. “Yeah..?”

“Skydancer is safe, and better for your visit, but it is time to go. Do you want to go home? Then say your goodbyes.” The creature’s voice seemed to be growing softer as she spoke. Mike struggled to keep his eyelids from drooping, but realized they were fully open. The room was simply getting dark.

“Good… Glad to hear it. And yes I do. Goodbye, Sky… Skydancer..?” Lieutenant Green struggled to hear over the growing ringing in his ears. He reached out convulsively and he felt for the small blue hoof that met his hand.

“All right Lieutenant… I need you to wake up.” The ringing was louder than ever now. It had merged into one continuous, ear-destroying tone. If he had had the energy, Lieutenant Green would have screamed.

The lights flared and flickered. When Skydancer’s eyes cleared, the warm grasp of his friend’s not-hoof was gone. The makeshift bed was empty. So was the cart that had been laden with ‘Green’s possessions. He looked up to the princess with tears in his eyes. “Will… will he be okay?”

Princess Celestia sighed. “I can’t say that he’s in a better place than here… but yes. He should be fine.”

Skydancer hesitated, but asked his final question. He could tell that he’d pressed his luck enough. “Will I ever see him again?”

“I think that rather depends on him. And now, my little pony, I hear you’ve got a special enthusiasm for one of my old friends, Bucephalus…”

The colt nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, your Majesty! I… Oh, noooo, Miss Periwinkle is going to be so upset!”

For once, the princess seemed to be caught off-guard. “Miss Periwinkle? Why..?”

Skydancer planted one hoof firmly on his embarrassed face. “…I forgot to get my textbook back from ‘Green!’”

Chapter 8: Homeward Bound

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Lieutenant Green sat up and winced. Did anybody get the number off that truck? He found himself looking at his hand, expecting it to be holding something... blue? It was empty. Okay. Where was he? The groggy lieutenant looked around. Hmm. Small room. One door, one window. Bed. Comfy bed.

The familiar lilting phrases of Dari filtered through the door. After a moment, someone rapped at the portal. A heavily accented voice called, “Hello? Awake, yes?”

Heart sinking, the lieutenant replied. “Yes. Bali.

“Aaah, you know some Dari! A salaam aleykum! Manda nabashen. Hob hasti?” A big—which is to say wide—Afghan burst through the door, wearing the uniform of the Afghan National Police. He clapped the shocked American’s hand in both of his own and shook it warmly, barely drawing a breath as he continued to bombard the confused lieutenant with a usual Afghan greeting salvo.

“Uh… Waleykum a salaam. You’re Afghan National Police?” Finally Lieutenant Green managed to extricate his hand. He shifted on the cot, wincing as he pulled sore muscles. What had he been doing? He hadn’t really been where his sleep-fogged memory was telling him he’d been, right..?

Bali, bali. Yes. Please get dressed! Your American friends will be here for you shortly! We call… We call OCC-P, and they call Americans, and Americans come here!” The policeman beamed.

Lieutenant Green nodded and stood unsteadily, trying to pull on his uniform. They’d left him his rifle and all his gear… probably not insurgents? And this one said that they’d called the provincial operation coordination center… “Uh… where did you find me?”

The policeman shrugged. “Very strange! Very strange. You in river, right on our patrol route! We fish you out! We call—”

“—The OCC-P, the OCC-P called the Americans, and the Americans are coming here. Right. Do you know when?” Lieutenant Green tightened the straps on his body armor and hooked in his rifle’s sling.

“Very soon! Very—Ah, there.” Afghan and American alike looked out the window as the rumble of big diesel engines filled the air. Lieutenant Green smiled and slid on his helmet. Here came the cavalry, and just in time. Much longer and this policeman would probably talk him to death.

* * *

Lieutenant Green had never thought he’d be so happy to hear the ever-present roar of jets from the Bagram Air Field runways. They sounded even louder here, in the passenger terminal. He looked up as the last four of his social security number were called. He echoed the numbers and called out, “Here! Green!”

Taking his place in the line, the lieutenant followed his fellow Soldiers out on to the hard runway of the airfield. The wide maw of the C-17’s cargo bay gaped invitingly as he scaled the ramp and took his seat in the cramped palletized seating at the center of the aircraft. Drat, he’d been hoping for a wall seat this time. Some guys had all the luck.

Mike looked to his left at the Air Force lieutenant colonel who took the seat next to him. Of course, the air crew was ever solicitous in the treatment of their fellow Airmen; the planeless pilot was already sipping on a cold Pepsi and digging through his boxed lunch. Boy, had Lieutenant Green joined the wrong service.

Lieutenant Green grinned at his fellow passenger. “Flying the friendly skies in someone else’s bird today, eh sir?”

The lieutenant colonel chuckled. “Yep… just glad to be getting home for some R&R. These six month rotations are a killer.”

Thanks for twisting the knife, sir. Lieutenant Green groped for more banalities, but what does an Army lieutenant say to someone twenty years and several ranks his senior? He looked down to comment on the flyer’s unit patch—and felt his jaw drop. It couldn’t be. He found his hand groping for the cargo pocket of his uniform and pulled out the strange book.

The book and, for some reason, a daisy-and-grass sandwich were all that remained of an adventure that was still hazy in Lieutenant Green’s mind. At least, it was hazy according to the story the debriefers had gotten. Mike had no intention of getting booted less than two years into his tour of service for being nutty as a fruitcake, thank you very much, and strange adventures with little horse people definitely qualified.

Skydancer’s little book was just where Lieutenant Green had left it. The writing was, sadly, still as unintelligible as before, but the pictures… Mike flipped to a few pages that the little blue colt had dog-eared and scrutinized the pictures, then stared at the colonel’s patch again. The body shapes were the same. He felt his throat tightening a bit. “Uh, sir… What unit patch is that? I don’t recognize it.”

The lieutenant colonel shrugged and looked down at the patch with its cheery blue pegasus lobbing an oversized bomb at the ground. “Oh, this? It’s not a real patch, just a little something we made up. Rainbow Dash. ‘Death from above! In ten. Seconds. Flat.’ Plus, my kids get a kick out of it, so there’s that. Why? Fan of the show?”

“N-no reason sir… Think we’ll lift off soon?” There were some things, Mike was sure, that he was better off not knowing. Or thinking about. Suddenly deeply, deeply regretting not sitting somewhere else, Lieutenant Green craned his neck to look out the back of the aircraft. He squinted. Was that..?

In the distance, off the end of the runway and outside the perimeter, specks of colored paper weaved and danced in the evening breeze. Lieutenant Green found a smile ghosting across his face as he watched the Afghan kites flutter in the wind. He turned around and buckled in, settling back in his seat and closing his eyes as he waited for the big troop transport to get airborne. “See you around, Skydancer.”