The papers had been talking about it for weeks. At first, it had been little more than a narrow column in the Ponyville Express, top left of page eight. But in a small town like Ponyville, such a promising spectacle could only stay off the front page for so long, and pretty soon, everypony had marked their calendars.
“This is gonna be so awesome! A hundred year meteor shower! Ohh, I’m so pumped!”
A voice piped up from over her shoulder, making her left ear twitch. Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t help but give the ground down below an amused smirk. Patience was not something she’d ever had in abundance, but in the past year, all of her times spent with the filly on her back had given her a good deal of resilience.
“Oh yeah, Scootaloo. I know. You’ve only said it, like, five times since this morning.” Rainbow chuckled. “And yeah, it’s gonna be pretty sweet.”
Of course, there had also been the matter of having a clear night to see everything. She and the weather team had done two full passes of the sky to make sure there would be nothing blocking the spectacle. Heck, she’d even gone over it a third time by herself to make absolutely sure. Nothing was going to get in their way if she could help it.
A loud slap echoed around the spa like a gunshot. Rarity glared down at the tile floor beside her spa bed, where an opened newspaper lay face up.
"Dreadful. Simply dreadful." She pointed down at the page and addressed the pony on the bed beside her. "Did you read what happened last week, Applejack? In Baltimare?"
Applejack peeled the frilly mask off of her eyes and leaned over the side. She took a glance at the page where her friend had indicated, and as soon as she'd done so, her lips creased downward into a deep frown. She nodded.
"Yeah, Ah did." She lay her head back onto the pillow. "Poor mare's still recovering from the whole thing. It's horrible..."
"Wait, what's the problem?" Another voice sounded from Applejack's other side. Twilight walked around the foot of the mattress, a towel wrapped around her head. She looked down at the discarded newspaper. "What are you girls talking about?"
Rarity jabbed her hoof down at one of the columns, framed by a large, boldtext title. "You didn't hear? Another mare was attacked, this time in Baltimare. They suspect that it's the same gang linked with all of the other incidents of..." She swallowed, looking ready to throw up. "... this nature."
Twilight's eyes widened considerably. She gasped, placing a hoof over her mouth.
"Oh my goodness..." She didn't seem to know what else to say. Applejack's brow furrowed, forming a sharp V in the space between her eyes.
"Y'know, back in Granny Smith's day, you never would've heard anything like this happening anywhere." She shook her head. "Seems like the whole world's goin' crazy, lately..."
She trailed off. The other two mares nodded faintly in agreement, not saying anything in response. Then, they heard someone else speak up from behind Twilight, their voice shrill with disbelief.
"So they still haven't caught them, yet?" Pinkie Pie called over to them from the hot tub at the other end of the room. She waved her forelegs akimbo, splashing water onto the floor and groaning with frustration. "I thought they said they were on the trail!"
Twilight grimaced. "Well, that's what they thought the last time, but they lost it, again." She hung her head. "They keep on jumping from city to city. They've got them on the run, but nopony knows for sure where they are, right now..."
"Good heavens," Rarity exclaimed. Her mouth gaped open with fear. "I dearly hope they don't ever end up here in Ponyville!"
Just the suggestion brought a stoic silence to the entire room. Only the rumbling of the jacuzzi bubbles were audible, like the ominous roar of thunder on the distant horizon. Then, in a near whisper, another voice gasped out just loudly enough to be heard.
"Oh my..." Fluttershy sank deeper into the tub, until just her head was poking out over the surface of the water. "I-I think I'd better keep my doors locked..."
Once again, all of the others nodded in agreement. Rarity's lips curled downward into a pained grimace, and she reached down to the newspaper, flipping it back closed. The brazen title on the front page stared up at them, as did the picture of meteors streaking across a starry sky.
"And I suppose we should be careful tomorrow night, too." She placed the tip of her hoof onto the paper. "Go in big groups if we want to watch the meteor shower. Stay in sight of town. Just in case..."
"Oh, come on, guys."
Everyone else's heads turned around to the direction they had heard the voice. Its tone carried with it a calm reassurance, almost like a mother's coo to a colt who was scared of the monsters under his bed. Rainbow Dash got to her hooves and trotted over to them, eyes narrowed skeptically.
"I wouldn't really worry about those sickos coming to Ponyville," she said. She waved her hoof dismissively. "They wouldn't come to a podunk little town like this, anyway..."
Applejack tilted her head, matching Rainbow's doubtful expression tit for tat. The farm mare scoffed.
"Well there's a surprise. Rainbow Dash ain't worried." She blew a raspberry. "And what makes you say that?"
The question was directed at her like the point of a spear. Everyone else in the room fixed their eyes on Rainbow Dash, who wilted slightly under their collective stares. But, being as stubborn as she was, she didn't stay intimidated for long. She gave her wings a flap and rose high above them all.
"Because," she said, exaggerating the second syllable a bit as if to suggest that the answer was obvious. "the only places they've ever gone to are big cities. Manehattan, Fillydelphia, Baltimare. When have you ever heard anything like... well, like this, happening in a place like Ponyville? Criminals like that don't ever come to small towns like this..."
"That doesn't mean they still can't!" Twilight interrupted. She stamped her hoof on the tiles. "An even if that's true, that still doesn't mean that things can't change, Rainbow."
Rainbow Dash crossed her forelegs over her chest. "It is true. And besides," she added in, "they'd be stupid to come here, anyway. All the streets are wide open, and they wouldn't even have anyplace to hide. We'd catch 'em in ten seconds flat..."
"Oh, really?" Applejack retorted defensively. "And what about me? Ah live in a farm on the edge o' town. And Fluttershy? She lives right next to the Everfree--"
"Yeah. With, like, a million animals. And a bear." Rainbow cut her off. Despite this observation, Fluttershy still whimpered. "I mean, don't get me wrong, but jeez, don't you guys think you're freaking out just a little too much about this whole thing?"
This time, it was Rarity who replied. She sat up in her bed.
"Not in the slightest, Rainbow Dash. And there is quite a difference between 'freaking out' and simply being careful, you know." Her voice did not have the same bite as Applejack's, instead opting for a more gentle approach. "And I would advise that you be careful, too. It's not worth the risk..."
Despite Rarity's best efforts, Rainbow Dash still did not appear wholly convinced. She landed back on the floor.
"I am careful," she snapped, taking her turn to go on the defensive. "And you wanna know what's really not worth it? Getting so worried about something that you can't even have fun watching one of the coolest things you'll ever see. Ever." She rolled her eyes. "Think about it! What are the odds that they'll ever come here? Baltimare is miles and miles away. And staying close to Ponyville? Not a good idea. Even a little bit of light will make it harder to see. There aren't any good places to watch unless you go way further out!"
Her words radiated confidence and displeasure simultaneously. She scanned from left to right, meeting her friend's gazes without much waver. Twilight's head cocked to the side.
"Okay, Rainbow, okay..." The alicorn held up a hoof in a gesture of surrender. "You don't have to get so worked up over this. I get what you're saying, I do. It's just that... these guys are on the run, wherever they are. And all I... we think is that ponies should treat this seriously and be a little extra careful. I'm sure that everypony else in Ponyville would agree, too."
Twilight made a little flourish with her hoof, gesturing to the entirety of her surroundings to punctuate her point. Everyone else nodded their heads to show that they were also on the same page. Rainbow Dash squinted, but did not say a word in reply for a short time. Her wings, formerly erect at her sides, gradually folded onto her back once more. She sighed.
"Well... yeah." Rainbow Dash gave a lackadaisical nod of her head, conceding to a certain degree. "I know, it's just... this is gonna be a once in a lifetime thing. Nopony's ever gonna get a chance to see something like this ever again, and..." She paused, clenching her teeth together as she struggled to find the right words. "...I just feel like getting all scared, being too afraid to go out and see it 'cause of a bunch of sick freaks... we're kinda letting them win, you know? If that makes any sense... I mean, I'd understand if we were living in Baltimare or something. I definitely wouldn't be stupid enough to just wander out all by themselves at night then--"
"Oh, so it's their faults? Is that what you're trying to say?" Unexpectedly, Pinkie Pie interrupted her in a raised voice. Her pupils narrowed into pinheads, sharp as they pierced Rainbow Dash with a needle-like glare. "Because they were stupid?"
No sooner had the question left Pinkie's lips that the implications of what she'd just said began to dawn on her. Rainbow Dash's face turned pale. She blanched, eyes widening with realization as she took a step back, retreating away from Pinkie's fiery gaze.
"Oh, n-no, that's not wh--" she stammered. Her head shook adamantly, teeth rattling in her skull. "I mean, I don't think, I didn't mean..."
“Hey, Rainbow Dash,” Scootaloo spoke again, “I know this is probably a dumb question, but... what exactly is a ‘hundred year’ meteor shower, anyway?”
The sound of her young charge's voice jerked Rainbow Dash out of her reminiscence. She gave her head a little shake before looking up and to her left at the sky; it had nearly gone dark. After spending a moment to get her bearings back, she answered.
"Oh, uhh... It just means that it's gonna be the biggest one we've had in a hundred years. Basically." She flapped her wings a couple of times before returning to a glide. "And that's gonna be pretty big."
Rainbow Dash didn't need to look behind her to know that Scootaloo's face was probably beaming with he news. Sure enough, she could faintly hear the filly's wings begin to buzz in anticipation. She smiled.
"Whoa, really? So I'm never going to see another one this big ever again? " Her wings buzzed a little harder, lifting her ever so slightly off the older mare's back. Fortunately, Rainbow felt it right away, and she gave her wings a powerful flap to make Scootaloo sink back into her.
"Hey hey, take it easy there, Squirt," Rainbow chided her lightly. "Don't wanna have to make a flying catch."
She heard the buzzing stop almost right away. Behind her, Scootaloo laughed nervously.
"Heheh, yeah... sorry." She set her head down on the back of Rainbow Dash's neck and lay as flat as she could. "Just got a little too excited... again..."
Rainbow shrugged, but not enough to jostle the filly from her back. "Nah, don't worry about it too much. You'd be easy to catch, anyway." She laughed. "I got you."
The two of them flew in relative silence for the next few minutes. Behind them, Ponyville's lights were still easily visible, but growing more and more distant with every flap of Rainbow's wings. In front of them, a wide expanse of rolling hills opened up like a vast sea, and down below, the occasional group of ponies could be seen walking to the some of the nearest hillcrests. They formed small congregations around quilted picnic blankets, lying out under the newly visible stars. Scootaloo stretched out her neck a bit to get a better look at the ground.
"Huh..." She turned her head back to Rainbow Dash's ear so she could be heard over the whistling of the passing air. "Doesn't seem like there's that many ponies coming out to watch. You sure this one's gonna be big?"
At first, Rainbow Dash did not seem to hear her. She continued flapping in an easy rhythm, banking slightly to the left as they glided over the field. Scootaloo's brow furrowed downward, but as she prepared to ask again, Rainbow finally answered.
"Well, that's what all those bigwig astronomers from Canterlot have been predicting." She straightened herself out, continuing her course due east. "All the papers said so..."
"Then why aren't there more ponies going out to see it?"
Another pause. Just the whistling of the humid, summer air. Despite the clear sky, Scootaloo's inquiry loomed over them like a brooding raincloud. Rainbow Dash grimaced, but kept her face hidden from her passenger.
"I..." She swallowed, a sizable lump traveling down her throat. "I dunno, Squirt. I dunno."
To Rainbow's great relief, Rarity had come to her aid just as Pinkie looked ready to bring the water of the hot tub to a boil. The white unicorn addressed Pinkie in a level tone of voice.
"No no, I do not think Rainbow Dash meant it that way, Pinkie Pie." She looked over to the pegasus, whose formerly confident demeanor had gone by the wayside. "She knows that it wasn't those poor mares' faults they were attacked. Right, Rainbow Dash?"
Rarity's could not disguise the edginess in her voice. With a single, resolute nod of her head, Rainbow Dash agreed without even the slightest hesitation.
"Right! Definitely." She projected her voice to the other end of the room, where Pinkie Pie was still leaning aggressively over the edge of the hot tub. But to her luck, Rarity's reassurance seemed to quell the flames of righteous fury in Pinkie's eyes, and with her lips still creased together, she sank back into the water.
"Okaay..." Pinkie appeared willing, if not a little hesitant, to believe her. Seeing her friend calm down, Rainbow let out a breath of air she'd been holding in her lungs.
"I, uh..." Rainbow Dash took another step back, setting her sights on the exit. "Yeah... I got some, uh, stuff I gotta do, soo... I guess I'll see you guys later."
With that said, she took to the air, shooting her puzzled friends a hasty wave goodbye and flying out the door. Rarity reached a hoof out to the fast retreating pegasus, calling after her with apparent urgency.
"Wait, Rainbow Dash! You can't leave yet, you haven't even had your..."' The door slammed shut. Rarity sulked. "...massage."
She turned around, exchanging worried glances with the everypony else. Obviously taken aback, her mouth gaped open, and her hoof fell back onto her recliner with a soft thump.
Oddly enough, it was Fluttershy who made the first comment after everyone else had gone silent. Her eyes remained riveted to the door.
"Is it just me, or..." She spoke, ears folded back timidly. "...or was Rainbow Dash acting... funny?"
Applejack raised an eyebrow. She fiddled with her stetson hat, readjusting it on her head."Yeah... Ah dunno. She seemed like she was really... what's the word Ah'm looking for..."
"Yeah." She licked her lips. "Sorta just came outta the blue, too..."
The five remaining friends pondered this in silence, over the dull roar of the jacuzzi bubbles.
Five more minutes crawled by. Any red tint remaining in the sky was stained black by the night, freckled with stars. Scootaloo shuffled forward on Rainbow Dash's back.
"So where exactly is this 'special place,' again? I've don't think I've ever been out here, before," said Scootaloo. Rainbow, meanwhile, was setting her sights on a set of tall hills on the near horizon. It was easier to navigate in the daylight than when the sun was down, and she did not know precisely where she was, so she had to give a more vague answer to her young friend.
"It's somewhere in that range over there. The ones right in front of us." She gestured to the forested hills that were looming larger as they drew nearer. "Shouldn't be more than a couple of minutes. I gotta see where I'm at, first..."
Rainbow banked right, taking care not to turn as sharply as she was used to doing. Scootaloo held on tight, one eye aimed at the sky. She looked for any signs of shooting stars, but so far, there wasn't any indication.
"When is it supposed to start?"
Rainbow Dash shrugged. "I don't know. Probably soon."
The vague answer did nothing to assuage her anxiety. If anything, it only made it worse. She turned her head all the way around, twisting her neck uncomfortably as she stared straight up at the sky, searching more actively than ever before. In her imagination, every twinkle she saw magnified into some kind of a spectacular streak, the sure beginnings of the coolest thing she'd ever see. Her heart felt like it was floating in her ribs, like a helium balloon bobbing in a gentle breeze.
After scanning the hills for a third time, Rainbow Dash's eyes honed in on one spot in particular. Due to the darkness, she had trouble recognizing the place from a distance, but as she drew closer, it was unmistakable. She smiled, pointing to it with her hoof.
"Hey, Squirt? I think I found it."
"Oh. Cool..." Scootaloo was hardly paying attention; all she was aware of was the sound of Rainbow's voice, somewhere in the background. She maintained her vigil of the stars, scrutinizing every inch of the vast sky like a grid. To her frustration, it seemed like every time she focused her attention on one spot, something would zip by in her peripheral vision, but just before she could turn her head to have a look, it would immediately disappear. She did not give up, though, determined and excited all the same.
Rainbow Dash dipped down in the air, approaching the ground at a shallow angle. Scootaloo sensed their descent and found herself looking back down at the ground, giving her uncomfortably twisted neck a much needed break. Rainbow only flapped once every five or so seconds, instead letting the air do all the work to carry them to the hillcrest.
"See that spot? That one that looks like a big bunch of rocks at the top of the hill?" Rainbow reached one hoof around to tap Scootaloo on the shoulder, letting her other one indicate the place. Scootaloo stretched out her neck to take a peek.
"Yeah... I think so," she replied. Rainbow Dash grinned.
"You can see everything from right there. Everything." She readjusted her flight path mid-sentence. "We'll be able to see every single one of those meteors when it starts. Just me, and you." She smiled warmly.
This was good news for Scootaloo, who was practically squirming on top of her with anxiety. Her hooves pressed into Rainbow's shoulders as she gripped the older pegasus harder, not wanting to fall off when they were so much closer to the ground.
Save for their destination, all else was obscured by the darkness. The branches of the surrounding trees were silhouetted against the rocks, whose surfaces were stained sepia by the moonlight. They flew toward it like a moth to a beacon; two pairs of eyes, set on the prize, oblivious to all else...
Oblivious to the four pairs of eyes, hidden in the trees. Aimed toward the skies...
He was grateful for the darkness; they all were. In fact, they welcomed it. An umbra to hide them from sight, to keep them obscure. Unnoticed. It was why he wore the veil and cloak in the first place.
Unfortunately, the sun had a long way to go before it relinquished its place in the sky.
His breathing heated the thin cloth pressed over his mouth, causing a damp spot to form on the fabric from sweat. It stuck to his chin and nose like an adhesive film, making every breath he expelled a slightly unpleasant affair. But he did not dare take it off, nor would he think of shedding his heavy, mottled gray cloak; he would not sacrifice the sense of protection they brought for the sake of mere comfort.
He could not say the same for his three companions.
"I told you we jumped too early, Hutch," said a voice from his left. "Place looks like the middle of nowhere."
And there it was again. The same stallion, never too shy to voice his opinion. Hutch rolled his eyes, making a dent in the veil with a deep breath.
"Yes, I am aware, " he hissed. "We can all see that for ourselves."
It was the first time he'd uttered a reply. The silent treatment hadn't worked the last three times, and his patience was quickly wearing thin. Unfortunately, he was not the only one.
"Hooves are killing me," he heard the stallion groan again. He scratched under his chin, where a blue veil, similar to the one Hutch wore on his chest, lay crumpled up and not in use. "Nothing but hills and fields for miles..."
Perhaps the worst part was knowing that his disgruntled companion, regardless of how annoying he may have been, was right. They had jumped from the train too early, and now, it looked like they were set to trek over a vast plain of tall grass as far as the eye could see. Even so, he wasn't quite ready to admit it. It would look... weak.
"And I suppose you would have rather stayed on until we were spotted?" he fired back, making no effort to disguise his agitation. "There were guards stationed all over that train. It was only a matter of time before we would have been seen..."
"Even so," a different voice spoke up. They turned their heads toward a third, much smaller unicorn stallion, walking to his right. He gestured to the expanse of field. "We don't even know where we are, right now. And I think it would be a good idea to find out."
He was pointing up ahead. A good ways away, an especially tall line of hills jutted out of the landscape like a set of spines, lush green with foliage. Hutch let a breath escape from between clenched teeth, and nodded.
"Thank you ever so much for keeping us on task," he said. His eyes widened, glinting dangerously over to his left, where his more disgruntled companion still sulked. "We'll get a better idea of where we are when we reach the top."
To his relief, the proposition did actually appear to satisfy the blue veiled stallion, who said nothing in the contrary. Hutch took it as a good sign, sighing inwardly with relief. He set his hooves to a trot, starting forward at a renewed pace...
"Ah, damn it... where's the water at? We still got some with us, don't we?"
More grievances from the left. Hutch rolled his eyes, but wisely bit back a sharp remark before it could escape. After all, it didn't seem like much of anything would stop his complaining. Nothing short of murder, anyhow.
"Of course," he replied, all too politely. "We've got some in the pack."
He spun around. However, his pupils dilated with slight surprise as what he saw was not what he expected. He groaned with exasperation.
"Anvil!" He called out to a fourth stallion, who was lagging behind them considerably. "What are you doing way back there? Our friend here is thirsty!"
His special emphasis on the word 'friend' made said partner's jaw clench. Hutch didn't care. The fourth member of their troop, a lumbering, clumsy fellow, redoubled his efforts, lugging a rather large saddlebag on his back.
"Sorry!" he hollered back. Heavy breathing made his speech difficult to decipher. "Gimme just... a minute..."
"Doesn't matter. Just try to keep up." Hutch waved off his apology, not paying it much attention. He waited until Anvil was side by side before he reached into one of the saddlebag's pouches, removing a canteen. He tossed it to the blue-veiled stallion, who managed to catch it with his mouth before unplugging the top. Hutch continued forward again.
"We need to get to the top before the sun goes down," he stated. "Let's go."
The idea had seemed much simpler in theory. But as they all soon came to discover, long stretches of land, monochrome in color and blurred together by the sun's lowness in the sky, had a way of making long distances seem shorter than they actually were. Hutch did not have to guess who would be the first to point this fact out, either.
"Seems like the more we walk, the farther away it gets," whined the familiar voice. Hutch exhaled forcefully, but faced forward.
"We're getting much closer," he assured. "Give it another half hour, maybe..."
"Sun's already going down," came the disparaging reply, almost immediately. Hutch bit his lip to prevent himself from retorting; however, as he took notice of his own shadow lengthening in front of them, stretching out to three times his size, he had to admit that his companion did have a point. At least, he admitted it internally. He sped up to a slow trot, aching hooves thumping rhythmically over the clay-like soil.
"We'll just have to speed up, then," he said in response. Predictably, he heard a low groan from his left, but he blocked it out. Double checking behind him, he saw that Anvil, laden with the burden of their supplies, was lagging behind again. But since it was obvious that he was putting forth enough an effort to keep up with the rest of them, Hutch decided wisely not to push the issue any further, leaving Anvil be.
Truth be told, Hutch would have gladly griped about the burning ache in his legs by the time they reached the hillcrest, but he knew that the rest of his group wouldn't do well with the encouragement. Near half of the sky had gone dark by the time he could see the foliage clearing over his head, and in front of them all, a smattering of boulders made themselves evident through the trees. Beyond, there was nothing but open sky. Hutch grinned; they had almost arrived.
"Right up there," he spoke over his shoulder, where the other three members of his group were barely keeping up. Anvil was not even visible. "There's an overlook!"
Gasps of air were all that greeted him in reply. Hutch smiled a little wider. His hooves transitioned from soil to solid rock, and his face was met with the gust of a high-altitude breeze. He skidded to a halt...
Even with the sun lowered precariously at the edge of the horizon, the view was breathtaking. A soft breeze gave the amber rolls of meadow grass the appearance of tumbling waves, reflecting the light's reddish hue like a sheet of frosted glass. Framing it on either side was what appeared to be the beginnings of an expansive forest to the left, and even farther away, a lone mountain, standing proudly with its promontory peak wrapped in a firmament of clouds.
But it was not the view that Hutch was interested in. Instead, his eyes focused in on a smattering of dots on the far away landscape, and with every millimeter the sun fell below the horizon, the faint glow they emitted became easier and easier to see. The grin on his face widened until it stretched from ear to ear, and he gave a breathless laugh of victory as the rest of his companions joined him on the peak.
"See?" He flourished his arm like a showpony at the sight before them. "Look at that!"
The other three stallions had to squint to find where he was pointing, but it did not take long for them to see what he was talking about. Even the blue-veiled stallion appeared to smile with relief at the sight of civilization within reach. Hutch sat down on the rocks, puffing out a large breath of air.
"What did I tell you?" He beamed with confidence. "That's Ponyville over there, maybe four hours away, at most. And you know what that means?"
The question may as well have been rhetorical, but the only unicorn stallion in the group answered it anyway. "The next freight train out..."
"...and supplies," huffed Anvil. Hutch nodded, holding his head a little higher.
"Means we're back in business." The corners of his lips twitched upwards into a creased smile. "Who ever said I'd lead you all astray?"
Another rhetorical question. Or at least, it should have been. But when one stallion in particular spoke up, the triumphant smirk that had been plastered onto Hutch's face instantly disappeared.
"Back in business?" The blue veiled stallion shot him a disapproving glare. "Whaddya mean, 'back in business?' Business is what we did in Manehattan. Business was Fillydelphia. But now? We've been doing nothin' but running for the past week. We ain't had any action since we caught that one mare outta Eastside goin' for a stroll, an' we almost got caught comin' outta Baltimare three days ago 'cause the cops were on our tails," he recalled. "And now you're talkin' about traveling all the way to the west coast! Last I checked, unless we're planning on seeing some more action, that don't sound like 'back in business' just yet..."
"We will be." Hutch refuted him, maintaining an impressive air of calmness on the outside. Though, on the inside, his blood was beginning to bubble up in his veins. "I can promise you that. This town's too small for us, but where we're going won't be."
If his wrinkled brow or narrowed eyes were anything to go by, his partner was not reassured. He stabbed his hoof back in the direction they had come, pointing through the trees.
"We've almost been caught twice, now," he said in a raised voice. "They're onto us. Even you gotta admit that we just got lucky last time. Hay, the way things've been going lately, it's only a matter of time before you take us right into a trap!"
His declaration was punctuated by a short period of silence. Hutch's blood felt thinner, and under the layer of his cloak, he began to sweat. He could feel the droplets trickling down his forelegs and onto the rock as the pair of challenging eyes burned into him.
For a time, he had to take a series of deep breaths to calm himself down, aiming his eyes toward the rock beneath his hooves. It was in this moment that he was beginning to truly regret even inviting this stallion to participate. But that was the past. This was the present, and with his leadership threatened and the other two members of his group looking to him for a response, he had to do something.
Hutch stepped toward his new opponent, lifting his head up higher than ever before.
"First you complain about jumping the train too early," he began. "Then, you complain about not getting enough action. Now, you're scared of getting caught." He pursed his lips with frustration. "Which is it?"
This time, Hutch made sure the question was rhetorical. He didn't give any opportunity to reply, answering it himself.
"In case you haven't realized, close calls come with the territory. So does being on the run. And when we need to run, then that's what we're going to do. It's not always safe, and it's not always easy, but sometimes, you gotta take some risks if you want to have a little fun."
For once, there was no hasty reply from his blue-veiled friend. It seemed that, perhaps, he was actually listening. A fiendish smile flashed onto Hutch's features for the briefest moments before his voice lowered to a dangerous level, sounding almost like a growl.
"This isn't always gonna be a cakewalk. We had it easy for a while there, sure, but now we gotta relocate again. Only this time, we just gotta go further. That's the way it is, and that's how it's going to go."
He stepped forward again, gaining ground as well as confidence. "You and I, and every single one of us here knew what we were getting into." He pointed to himself, and to every other member of their group for emphasis, ending on the one he was addressing. "We knew the risks. And if you've decided that you want out..."
He darted forward, catching the other stallion unawares. Eyes riveted together, their snouts were almost touching as Hutch whispered.
"Then we would all be happy to sign off on your retirement."
And with this, he had said all he that he needed to say. Now, with his eyes never wavering from his wayward companion, he waited. Like a predatory cat, crouched and waiting to pounce; all Hutch needed was for his prey to make the first move.
It looked ready to come to blows. Neither pony was giving ground. The tension was almost tangible in the air, floating around their heads like a electrified cloud...
Then, something that neither of them expected: a harsh whisper, raised in warning.
And just like that, the cloud dissipated. At the sound of the alarm, they both whipped their heads around. The unicorn stallion was already in the process of retreating back to the woods, pointing into the sky with his hoof.
"Right there!" He hissed again. Despite the darkness, they could still see his pupils widened with fright.
Without even having to confirm, the look on his face was enough to convince them. Hutch turned back around and bolted, heading for the trees like he was being pursued.
Within moments, all four of them had made it back to the forest, not even looking back in their haste. Hutch cursed under his breath as he took shelter behind a tall cedar, daring only to poke his head out. He and his other cohorts formed a semi-circle around the clearing, peering out from behind tree trunks and staring up at the open sky, searching...
Sure enough, Hutch saw it. Still a good ways away: a small dot, silhouetted against the sky. The longer he stared, the more pronounced its size and shape became; the wings of a bird, unfurled at its sides, making the occasional flap as it came straight for them. A pair of eyes materialized onto its darkened features, and with this, Hutch breathed another swear.
It was a pegasus. There was no mistaking it. And the way it was coming straight for them, his heart lurched forward in his ribs. He had no idea who this pony was, but if they had been discovered, then there was nothing they could do...
But then, just as thoughts of doom and despair began to worm their way into his psyche, his eyes fund themselves drawn to another detail. One that was most unusual: some sort of deformity, like a pronounced hump that which made itself evident on the pony's back. His furrowed his brow, ducking down lower while keeping his gaze fixed on the approaching figure...
Wait. No... it couldn't be...
Rainbow Dash bent her knees as she approached the hard rock, flapping two or three times to slow herself down. She could feel Scootaloo's forelegs tightening around the back of her neck.
"Don't worry! I'm not gonna drop you," she said with a chuckle. "We're basically already here, Scoot."
Her young charge didn't say anything back, but she did feel her grip loosen a bit. With one last flap, she allowed herself to fall the last couple of meters, landing nimbly on her hooves. Scootaloo grunted from the unexpectedness of the impact, but she didn't seem the worst for wear. Rainbow smiled and got onto her knees.
"Hop on down, Squirt." She nudged her head at the ground. At her cue, Scootaloo slid off her back, hooves clopping onto the rock. No sooner had she landed that Scootaloo was almost airborn once again, wings buzzing like a dragonfly's as she directed her gaze back toward home.
"Whoa!" she exclaimed, "You weren't kidding! You really can see everything from up here!" She gazed skyward. "Almost like being on a cloud!"
Rainbow Dash reached over and pulled Scootaloo in, using her other hoof to give the filly an affectionate noogie. The girl gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, but a soft giggle let Rainbow know it was alright. "Told ya. Squirt. No lights, no nothin' to block the sky way out here. Although, it's not quite like a cloud..." She let Scoot go and rapped her hoof against the hard stone beneath their feet. "Clouds are a lot softer..."
Scootaloo laughed. Although, this time around, Rainbow Dash could detect a hint of mischief mixed in with the mirth. She raised an eyebrow, which made Scootaloo back away.
"Yeah," the filly said, trying to contain her laughter, "Guess it's a good thing we're not gonna be on one of those. You'd probably just fall asleep and miss everything."
Rainbow Dash's eyes widened considerably as Scootaloo spread her front legs wide, going low to the ground and adopting a fighting stance. A big, cheeky grin plastered itself onto the little pegasi's face.
It took some time for Rainbow to gather her thoughts, her lips parted into a 'O' shape from surprise. But when she finally did, she approached her surrogate sister with a slow, methodical step. Scootaloo stood her ground.
"Scoots..." She tried her best to sound grave, but she failed miserably. "...You just earned yourself one heck of a noogie."
Scootaloo matched her gaze without waver. Determination and mirth shone in her eyes.
...there were two. Two of them. One small, one big.
From the trees, Hutch could only pick up on bits and pieces of what was being said. He flinched as the sounds of whooping and hollering reached his ears, along with the unmistakable ringing of laughter. Ever cautious, Hutch peered closer to see what was going on, hooves clasped around the tree he was standing behind.
The two pegasi were running circles around one another, with the smaller of the two, a filly who couldn't be more than ten, dodging and hopping away from the other, an older mare whose multi-hued mane was illuminated by the moonlight. She crouched low to the ground, making a playful pounce at the younger filly, who skipped off to the side and ran just out of reach. They repeated this routine several times, and each time they did, the younger appeared to get more and more brazen. She hopped just within hoof's reach, only to leap back just before the other mare's hoof could snatch her up.
For Hutch, intrigue surrounded the sight like a shallow fog, forcing him to peer more closely. However, as the seconds ticked on, he found that there was only one part of the scene that really demanded any of his attention. The merriment, the essence of the scene he currently beheld, was soon lost on him... that is, if he had ever had it to begin with.
The rest of the rock face blurred as his pupils narrowed in on one sight in particular; one pony. It was as though he were rendered temporarily immobile, the palpitations of his heart drumming against his inner ears being the only thing he heard.
Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth in a playful growl, lowering herself down to Scootaloo's level. If she had to admit, Rainbow was slightly impressed with Scootaloo's ability to escape; at first she'd only been joking around, but as she had planned on wrapping things up, she'd been taken by surprise by just how challenging the prospect of catching her had shaped up to be. Scootaloo's smile mocked her, and her tiny wings twitched and buzzed at her sides, ready to dodge her again.
Rainbow Dash smirked. Looked like it was time to show her who was boss.
"Alright, Squirt," Rainbow Dash said with a spread of her wings, giving them a hard flap and taking to the air. "That's it!"
As quick as she was, Scootaloo was no match for Rainbow's air superiority. Her eyes expanded to the size of dinner plates as she found her self enveloped in a cyan blur, and before her wings could so much as flutter, Rainbow had her in her clutches. She clenched her jaw as Rainbow's hoof burrowed into her scalp while the other pinned her to her captor. She struggled to get free, but Rainbow's arm was like a bar of steel, and it wouldn't budge no matter how much she tried.
"Heyy, no fair!" she hollered out with a breathless laugh, eyes clasped shut. "I can't fly yet! No fair!"
"Yeah yeah, you did this to yourself, Squirt!" Rainbow Dash dismissed with a grin, making sure not to leave any place unscathed. Still, she didn't want to get carried away and leave a bald spot behind, so with one last pass over, she set her captive free.
As soon as she felt Rainbow's hooves let her go, Scootaloo twisted herself away, rolling onto the rock and jumping nimbly to her hooves. Strands of her mane poked out in crazy angles like the head of a cactus, and she brought a hoof up to her mildly aching scalp.
The two of them were back to where they had started. However, as Rainbow continued to chuckle, she noticed that Scoot's eyes had thinned into slits. Also notable was that her smile had disappeared, replaced with a shallow frown. Rainbow tilted her head.
"Uhhh... something wrong, Scoot?" she asked, furrowing her brow. Her smile, too, vanished into thin air. A moment or two passed before Scootaloo at last responded, shrugging her shoulders.
"Yeaah..." She turned her head away, still rubbing the spot on her head where Rainbow's hoof had dug in the hardest. "Just... I dunno. It's nothing."
Despite her attempts to blow it off, Rainbow Dash was not so sure. She leaned her head forward.
"Y'sure? It doesn't... I mean, I, uh..." she stumbled over her words. "... Hey, I, uh... I'm sorry if I maybe took it a little too far. Wasn't trying to hurt you or anything, I promise..."
Scootaloo's ear perked up at her apology. For a moment, however brief, her facial features lifted, but it was all gone in an instant. Making an apparent effort not to show any emotion, she dismissed her worries again with a shrug, facing the edge of the rock face.
"Pfft, hurt me?" She smiled. A thin, shaky smile. "Nahh. I'm fine, Rainbow. We were just messing around, I know..."
"B--But..." Rainbow raised a hoof up to make a hasty reply, but hesitated. Scootaloo did not turn to face her. Before she could get the words out, Rainbow let her mouth slide back shut. She conceded with a sigh, hanging her head. "Alright."
The silence that followed was nothing like what they had experienced that night. Nothing like earlier; the air of anticipation was absent from it. It was still, dying if not already dead. But then, just before the darkness felt like it had enclosed upon them...
A long, thin, streak of light. It started above their heads, curving parallel to the atmosphere before it took a steep dive, evaporating on the horizon. Scootaloo's and Rainbow Dash's head jerked up simultaneously, following the tendril of light until it disappeared.
And just like that, the air was abuzz once again. Scootaloo gave a sharp intake of breath, turning to Rainbow Dash with a smile slowly spreading on her lips. Rainbow found herself beaming right back at her, taking a deep breath to replace the stale air she had held in her lungs.
"Was that...?" Scootaloo didn't really have to ask. Rainbow Dash affirmed with a nod.
"Oh yeah, Scoot. That was."
Hutch didn't see the streak.
Actually, Hutch no longer saw anything in front of him. And what he did see... only the manifestations of his own imagination running amok. His jaw lay slack, and a ribbon of drool trickled out from the corner of his lip and dampening the fabric pressed against his mouth.
But they weren't fantasies.
I can't fly yet!
The vocal protestation bounced around the inside of his skull. He'd nearly lost himself to some sort of catatonic state the moment he had heard it. But even in the midst of his own ravenous schemes, he managed to bring himself back to reality.
Yes, reality. That was what this was. Presented to him on a silver platter like a novelty dish, like some dreamed up scenario so ideal that it couldn't possibly be real, but was.
And it was exciting.
Hutch's head turned like a gear to face his other companions, also lurking in the trees. All three of them stared straight at him.
Their veils were donned.
No words were spoken, not even in a whisper. None were needed. He turned his head back toward the rocks.
The moonlight glowed brightly over the pegasus mare's blue coat. Hutch couldn't tear his eyes away.
It was the only the beginning of many to come. The second streak came soon after the first, bright enough to split the sky in two before fizzling into oblivion on the horizon. Scootaloo's wings whirred at her sides, almost taking her into the air.
"Oh my gosh!" she exclaimed. "It's starting! It's actually starting! Whoa!" Another meteor zoomed over her upraised head. 'There's another one!"
Rainbow Dash grinned broadly. "Yep! Told you this was the best view around. Here," she said, tapping Scootaloo on the shoulder while the girl was riveted to the sky. "Lemme show you the best part. Right up here..."
Scootaloo reluctantly took her eyes away from the spectacle, following Rainbow Dash over to where a flat-topped boulder was jutting up from the rest of the rock face like an observation deck. Scootaloo grabbed Rainbow's offered hoof, allowing herself to be flown up to the top.
"Be careful up here," said Rainbow. She landed lightly beside Scootaloo, taking a place with her on the rock. "It's the best place to watch, but it's a straight down drop off to the right, so stay back here, 'kay?"
"Okay!" Scootaloo chirped, too enamored with what was going on up above to pay any attention to what she was being told. Rainbow Dash took a light hold of Scootaloo's shoulder to pull her back to reality. Fortunately, this seemed to get Scootaloo's undivided attention, which Rainbow used to her best ability.
"I mean it, Squirt," she chided. "I know you're excited, but I don't want you to get too worked up and end up falling off because you weren't paying attention. I don't know if I could catch you in time. Stay right back here, okay?"
Rainbow Dash kept her voice level as possible, trying not to sound too much like a nagging mother. She didn't want to ruin the fun, after all. She was rewarded with a slow nod of Scootaloo's head.
Much better. Rainbow smiled, and gave Scootaloo a light pat on the back.
"Good. Now..." She sat back against the rock as if she were on a lounge chair. "Time to enjoy the show!"
As if on cue, another meteor blazed across the sky. It's phosphorescent trail appeared like a water droplet over glass. Scootaloo's mouth opened almost as widely as her eyes.
"Wow! That's gotta be the biggest one yet!" She tracked it all the way to where it disappeared. "You can see everything both ways from up here!"
It was true. This rock seemed to be the perfect vantage point, just high enough above the trees to reveal the horizon to both the east and the west. And with so much of the sky at their observation, it soon became impossible to follow them all. Three, sometimes four meteors at a time, zipped like bullets from one side to the other, like a group of aerial acrobats putting on a spectacular show just for them.
And this, she knew, was only the beginning.
Scootaloo was giving herself whiplash from trying to see them all. She kept her hooves rooted to the ground while her head snapped from side to side, up and down, and all around. Rainbow Dash was getting a kick out of watching Scootaloo so much that she nearly forgot to enjoy the real spectacle. Still, she remembered to take a look up every once in a while, and whenever she got the chance, the sight was never disappointing.
Between her glances over at Scootaloo and her gazing at the sky, she never looked down.
Neither did they.
For Hutch, the meteors weren't the spectacle. She was. He watched her with keen eyes from behind a mossy rock at the forest's edge, breathing lightly through his veil.
The little pegasus was the only one he had to watch out for. She was unpredictable, head swinging this way and that, sometimes in his direction, and sometimes not. Fortunately, the trees concealed them quite well.
He communicated silently to his companions at a distance with a series of hoof gestures, something which they had all become rather adept at reading. Anvil, who had been bringing up the rear, shed the hulking bag from his back and set it onto the forest floor as quietly as possible, concealing it behind a tree. Hutch then pointed to him again, drew a little circle on the spot beside him, and jabbed his hoof down. Anvil gave him a curt nod and crept over the leafy forest floor as well as his large frame allowed, taking great care not to step on any twigs or trip over any protruding roots while keeping low to the ground. Keeping his face forward, Hutch drew Anvil in and wrapped a foreleg around his withers, pressing his face against his partner's neck.
"Right up there," Hutch whispered, pointing to the edge of the boulder that was furthest away from them, where a piece of the cliffside appeared to protrude outward, acting as a sort of step. "That's the only way we can get up to the top. We have to take them by surprise. This is what I want you to..."
"Ehh... this might be too risky, Hutch."
Even with a whisper, Hutch still recognized the voice. He looked over his shoulder, where the blue-veiled stallion and his unicorn companion crouched beside him, side by side. They had advanced without his order, but he did not make it an issue.
"What if they get away? They'll tell everypony for sure..."
If silence had not been of the essence, Hutch would have snapped. However, with the ultimate goal in sight as well as in mind, he kept calm.
"They won't. I promise you that." Unconsciously, the tip of Hutch's tongue flicked out from between his lips. "We just have to wait for the right moment. She won't get away..."
"But she's a pegasus," said the unicorn. "What if she flies off after the fact?"
A valid point. But even so, Hutch was not worried. He smiled, yellowed teeth showing from between his lips.
"Who says she'll still be able to?" He turned back to Anvil. "Now, as I was saying before..."
It took a while, but at last, Scootaloo began to realize the futility of trying to see everything. Instead, she rotating slowly in place. Clusters of bright, curved streaks adorned the sky like strands of tinsel all around her. Her head lolled off to the side, looking as though she were stuck in a trance.
"Wow, Rainbow Dash..." She sighed in awe. "This is awesome. I've... I've never seen anything this cool before. Not like this."
Rainbow Dash smiled through drooping eyelids, readjusting her position where she lay. The mossy rock was no cloud, but when it came to kicking back, she wasn't too picky where she chose. "Yeah, Squirt. Me neither."
Scootaloo sidled over and parked herself a few steps away from Rainbow's hind hooves. "Thanks for flying me all the way up here..."
Rainbow crossed her back legs, bending them slightly at the knees. "Jeez, Scoot! That's like the fifth time you've thanked me tonight. It's no biggie, really."
Her words brought a reddish tinge to Scootaloo's cheeks, which the filly turned away to hide. She resumed her observation of the stars, though, as Rainbow Dash took note, with notably less enthusiasm. The shower was intensifying rapidly in front of them, not having even reached its peak, but Scootaloo's head remained in place, almost as though she were only pretending to look.
Frown lines formed on Rainbow's brow.
Scootaloo jumped at the sound of her voice. Her head jerked around to Rainbow Dash, and then back up to the sky.
"Oh! Um, yeah, why?" she said, a little too quickly. Rainbow Dash uncrossed her legs and sat up a bit, tilting her head.
"Nothin'. It's just that..." Rainbow stopped herself short. In a search for words, she finally came up with the right ones. "... you seem down."
Scootaloo's eyebrows formed a shallow V. She shrugged. "What do you mean? I'm fine."
To the casual observer, her voice sounded unperturbed. Her body said differently. Half-turned away, head angled downwards, staring at nothing despite all that was going on around her. Somber. Rainbow Dash bit her lip, thinking back to the last ten minutes or so.
"Did I... Did I say something?" she finally asked. Rainbow's question seemed to fall on deaf ears, the only semblance of an answer she received being a half-hearted grunt and a shrug of Scootaloo's shoulders, followed by a single, lonely word.
To Rainbow, she may as well have said yes. She leaned a little further forward, propping herself up on one foreleg. Scootaloo didn't even budge an inch.
"Are y'sure, Squirt? If I did, I'm sorry..."
Scootaloo's snappy response took Rainbow Dash by surprise. She flinched, falling back onto her side with a muffled thump. The young pegasus wilted immediately afterward, apparently regretting her outburst. Stammering apologetically, she made a hasty effort to make amends.
She hesitated. Then, she gave her head a rough shake, clenched the tip of her tongue in her teeth, and concluded, "I'll tell you later. Later."
Her repetition of the last word finalized her demand, leaving no more room for questions. Rainbow, siding with her better judgment, respected her young charge's request in spite of the flames of curiosity stirring in her gut. Sighing through her nose, she nodded her head.
Amidst the surge of passion that had covered his brain in a misty cloud, there had not been proper time for risk assessment. But now that the time for planning had passed and the time for execution was nigh, Hutch was given a lot more time to think.
He only wished his more sensible side had decided to show up before he'd found them all pinned up against the rock, right beneath the platform where their targets sat. Where, if either pegasi were to even look down in their direction, they would be seen. Otherwise, he may never have spared this idea a second's thought.
And now, with his heart swimming in his ribs, Hutch realized the stakes at hoof. There was no denying it; if they were to spot he and his group and escape, it was over. The authorities would have a definitive trail to follow, and there would be no coming back. And while this had been true of all their previous excursions, this time was already shaping up to be a far greater challenge.
A dry chuckle from the top, to the right of where he crouched. Hutch pressed himself up against the wall, pinpointing where his targets were with one ear angled toward the sky. The sound of their chatter was subdued, at least more than it had been when he had made his stealthy approach. The relative quiet unnerved him, daring him or anyone else in his entourage to make a mistake.
To his left, Anvil lay flat. A much smaller crag of rock, one that stuck out at an odd angle from the rest of the cliff, was at his side. It was a stepping stone made by nature, one that rose up almost as highly as Anvil did when standing straight. For non-fliers, it was the only feasible way to climb up onto the main platform up above. He stared at Hutch's right hoof, which was raised up in he manner of somepony swearing an oath of honesty. Beads of sweat trickled down his face and the tip of his tongue stuck out with concentration. He would not move until he'd been given his cue.
Hutch tried his best to pinpoint the location of his targets, listening and focusing all of his attention on the task at hand. Specifically, he listened for the more youthful of the two voices, and determined that she was closer to the center of the rock. Separated from her older counterpart.
He smiled, but did not drop his upraised hoof just yet. He had to be absolutely sure...
"Hey, hey Scoot?" Rainbow broke the silence at last. Scootaloo's ear twitched. "You wanna sit back here with me?"
Rainbow cocked her head toward the empty space at her side, keeping her hooves behind her head like a pillow. Scootaloo gave the suggestion some thought, head frozen as she stared at the spot Rainbow Dash had indicated. But alas, after some consideration, Scootaloo shook her head.
"Nah... maybe later. I can see a whole lot more from right h--"
Scootaloo was cut short as a whole cluster of pale white streaks blazed across the sky, starting from the furthest horizon to the east and shooting westward. They crossed right over the top of where they stood, six or seven of them all at once. She let her mouth hang open, doing a little hop skip backwards in surprise. Rainbow Dash sat up, catching the display just before it dissipated into nothing amidst the stars.
After a few seconds of stunned silence, both of them made eye contact. For the time being, however brief it was, the tension between them fizzled away into the night air, carried into the cosmos.
Rainbow Dash grinned. Scootaloo pointed a hoof up at the sky, eyebrows raised in incredulous awe.
"Did you see that?"
Hutch saw it, too. They all did. But, more importantly, he heard.
Not the meteors, of course. But as he trained his ears to listen to every word, he'd heard had been exactly what he wanted to hear.
The rainbow mare had asked her young friend to join her. To be next to her, within hoof's reach.
Her offer was declined.
Hutch and Anvil looked at one another in silent understanding. To his right, the other two stallions watched with a blend of anxiety and concern, ready to jump into action at a moment's notice. Satisfied that everything was in place, Hutch made sure Anvil could see his right hoof.
He let it fall.
It was not a cool night. The breeze was not especially great, and even at the high altitude, Rainbow would have considered herself comfortably warm.
Which is why the sudden chill, starting from the back of her neck and traveling all the way to the tips of her hooves, made no sense.
Her half-lidded eyes snapped open. She sat her head up, craning her neck forward. The first thing her focus came to rest on gravitated towards was Scootaloo, who sat a few meters away from her hind hooves. Her head was still pointed longingly at the sky, breathing silent ooh's and ah's at every meteor that whizzed past.
Goosebumps spread over her neck and shoulders, accompanied by the sensation of a ice cube being traced over her cyan coat. She propped herself up on her elbows, taking a closer look at her immediate surroundings. Her head stayed frozen in place while her two ears angled themselves in either direction.
She heard nothing, but the chill only intensified.
"Yeah?" the younger voice answered.
Hutch felt his abdomen spasm underneath him, and the blood drained away from his features. Even with his mouth covered by the veil, he did not dare breathe.
"Did you hear something?"
Hutch's head whirled around. Anvil was already on top of the makeshift stone step, perched uncomfortably on all fours and crouched down below the platform's edge. He sent the other stallion a glare that could have curdled milk, and Anvil grimaced.
"Uhh... no. I don't think so..."
Hutch made sure Anvil was looking right at him as he raised his hoof up again. Anvil gave him a curt nod. All of the veins in his foreleg bulged, and the muscles in his shoulder spasmed. He let a breath out through his nostrils, exhaling slowly...
The pegasus mare's voice was agitated and alert.
"Something... something isn't right."
Hutch's hoof shook like a leaf. His other groupmates stood right beside him, tense as coiled springs.
"I-I... Sorry, I think..."
His teeth gritted together audibly. He heard his quarry get up, the tiniest step magnified by the tense silence. Anvil prepared to leap.
"I think we need to go."
Hutch whipped his hoof down.
A blur of movement in front of her. A dark figure, clothed like an angel of death, reared its head over the edge of the rock.
The very air around her fell to earth.
The figure landed on all fours. Scootaloo whirled her head around, and screamed.
Rainbow Dash was automatic. She launched herself into the air, flapping her wings and reaching out to snatch Scootaloo up into safety. The cloaked figure lunged toward them, extending a hoof out toward Scoot, whom was stumbling backward in retreat, tripping over her own hind legs from shock.
Her hooves made contact with Scootaloo's shoulders, and she immediately yanked her body up from the rock. Giving her wings another frantic flap, she aimed herself skyward. From below, a gruff voice hollered.
Suddenly, all of her forward momentum came to a sudden stop. Her tail stretched taught, and she suddenly felt herself falling backwards. Instinctively, she clutched Scootaloo as tightly to her chest as she could, a cry of shock escaping her throat as her back slammed into the hard stone.
The force of the blow took the air right out of her lungs. Colored stars joined the passing meteors on the canvas of sky above her head, and Scootaloo's cries sounded distant. Mouth gaping open, she attempted to roll herself onto her side. But before she could correct her mistake, she found herself falling again, rolling over once in midair before crashing down hard on her side... and onto her left wing.
Rainbow Dash heard the snap. It was followed closely by a searing, stabbing pain which lanced through her back, like a spear being driven through her ribs. Her mouth opened wide to scream, but it came out as little more than a gurgle. Scootaloo popped out from her loosened hold, tumbling out onto the stone with a terrified cry and landing several hoofsteps away.
Then, through the murky haze of pain, she saw something above her, looming like a stormcloud. In a panic, she lashed out blindly with her right hoof, feeling it connect with something. She heard a loud howl, and whatever it was tumbled off of her. Rainbow quickly rolled onto her belly, shoving the pain in her wing aside and pushing herself up from the ground, making a beeline for Scootaloo.
Something took hold of her back leg. With a yell of dismay, Rainbow jerked backward. Her belly slammed into the ground, and in a struggle to get away, she twisted onto her back.
Another figure, a hooded stallion masked in black, stood over her, both forelegs grabbing tightly onto her back hoof. Frantically, she kicked out with her free leg, slamming it into the face of her assailant as hard as she could. She was rewarded with a roar of pain, but he did not let go of her. Rainbow stomped down again and again, fighting with all she had to get loose, but it took several hits until her leg slipped away. She wasted no time, scrambling onto her hooves.
"Scoot!" She coughed out. Meters away, Scootaloo was stumbling backward in an apparent daze. Blood trickled down her chin from a missing tooth. "Sc--"
The name never left her lips. Something crashed into her side, the force of the blow knocking her into the air. Her battered frame tumbled over the ground, but she was too stunned to cry out. Peering through a haze of colors that weren't even there, Rainbow staggered, trying but failing to stand up.
She saw it this time. The blue veil flashed in her blurred vision before she was bulled into head on. Using both front legs, he lifted her bodily up from the rocky ground, only to slam her back down with crushing force.
The colors exploded like fireworks in her vision. More on instinct than anything else, Rainbow's front legs shot up to wrap around the back of her attacker's neck, locking into a death grip. Pinned to the ground, it was the last defense she had, but she gave it every vestige of her strength.
Her back scraped along the rock as the stallion twisted his head, driving her a meter forward. With his mouth and snout crushed against her body, guttural sounds began to rattle from his throat with every failed attempt to get a breath. He tried lifting her up again, but Rainbow Dash jerked his head back down, wrapping all fours around his torso and squeezing tighter. She stifled a cry as she felt his hoof swing wildly into her exposed ribs again and again, trying to pry her off.
Rainbow didn't let go. She couldn't see much from the ground, but what she did see was tinted red. Adrenaline mingled with a kindled flame of fury, a product of survival instincts and rage. She could feel his struggles lessening in her grasp, the flailing of his hooves and the strength of his punches waning.
The veins formed ridges on her neck and forelegs, bulging at the seams as she squeezed tighter and tighter. He tried again to lift her, but the attempt was even feebler than the last. He tried to pull away, to get even a gasp of air, but she remained on his face like a leech. A growl rumbled in her throat, morphing into a bestial roar as it left her mouth. Her would-be hunter's chest heaved as his lungs spasmed in his ribs, desperate for oxygen...
The muted cry for help penetrated through the blood mist. Through the carnal rage of a desperate, cornered beast. Rainbow Dash looked up.
From within the hooves of her captor, Scootaloo stared right back. One foreleg encircled the top of her head, while the other pressed against her jaw in the other direction, stretching the corners of her mouth to an unnatural position. Both her hooves clasped uselessly onto the stallion's right foreleg while her hind legs bent at ninety degrees, whole body tensed with pure terror. Two other stallions stood on either side of her, all of them looking right at Rainbow.
"Let him go," said the one on the right. He pointed to Scootaloo. "Or we snap her neck!"
Scootaloo inhaled sharply as her captor's hoof gave a painful tug on her jaw. Tears streamed down her cheeks and into her gaping mouth. She couldn't speak a word, but her eyes begged Rainbow Dash louder than any cry for help.
Rainbow looked down at the pony in her hold. Then back up to Scootaloo. The red tint in her eyes receded like an ocean's tide.
And then, she let go.
No sooner had she done so that the blue veiled assailant launched himself backward, gasping for air like he'd just emerged from a body of water. He stumbled over, flopping onto his back with one hoof clutching at the veil on his face. His abdomen heaved in a violent coughing fit, and he grit his teeth together in between each bout.
Rainbow Dash stood up, but nearly fell back down as her knees quaked like a baby fawn's. Blood pounded against her eardrums and through every extremity. But it was the pain in her wing she could feel the most, a searing burn that shot up her spine with every pulse of her heart.
Scootaloo inhaled sharply as the hold on her jaw loosened. She sucked in air greedily, resting her chin on her kidnapper's leg. The same pony, the one on her left, spoke.
"Wow." He stepped forward. The other, a unicorn, walked alongside him and over to heir fallen counterpart. "I gotta say, after... is it five, now? Six?" He turned his head to look at the unicorn, who nodded in affirmation. "Anyway, after six mares... you've gotta be the feistiest we've ever had. I'd show you my bloody snout, but I can't have you getting a good look at my face."
He spoke in a casual manner. It was as though he'd met her a few days prior and was just catching up on the names again.
The pounding in Rainbow's ears stopped. So did the throbbing from her limp wing, replaced with a steady, localized burn. It was the only warmth she felt as a chill descended upon her, freezing her limbs in place. The hairs on her mane stood out like spines.
The one with the blue veil still clutched at his throat. One of his cohorts made a motion to help him up, but he batted the hoof away. Rainbow Dash flinched as he instead directed his eyes at her.
“You…” He stepped toward her, closing the gap. “You tried to kill me. You…”
Two pairs of hooves grabbed hold of him before he could rush forward. He fought them near to the point of blows, all the while snarling at her like a wild beast.
“Come here! You think you can get at me? I’ll make you beg, I’ll make you wish you were dead! Come here! Come h—”
He was hoisted bodily by his two partners, practically tossed behind them while he continued to yell. The apparent leader of the group attempted to calm him down, wrapping a foreleg around the front of the other stallion’s chest to hold him back.
“Slow down there, sailor,” he chided. “Don’t want to mess her up too badly. Not yet, anyway.” He looked up to the sky, which was still being readily illuminated by the passing meteors. “Wouldn’t want to spoil such a romantic atmosphere, anyhow.”
They conversed as though Rainbow weren’t even there. Or, perhaps as though she were on display behind a shop window, a novelty item at a rare sale price. Her stomach churned, working the bile up to the bottom of her throat.
Across the rock, she locked eyes with Scootaloo. The filly’s eyes were filled with tears, and the rest of her body was stock still, paralyzed with shock and fear. She stared almost apologetically back at her, crying softly.
Rainbow Dash asked a question. She tried to sound in charge, but the wavering in her voice was unmistakable.
“What do you want?”
She already knew the answer.
Hutch almost hadn’t heard the question. He had still been busy making sure his favorite partner wouldn’t be able to get to their prize just yet. Once he had succeeded in keeping the blue-veiled stallion calm, he turned around, letting his other companion keep things in order while he looked away.
The rainbow mare stood completely parallel to him, showing only her front side. One wing, however, protruded from her back in a haphazard mess of feathers, crooked and bent at an odd angle. And while her question may have indicated her innocence to their intentions, Hutch could already see the despair dimming her countenance. It was as though she were simply waiting for a suspicion to be confirmed, bracing herself for an inevitable fate.
Hutch rolled his eyes.
“Do you really have to ask?”
Like smoke in the air the question lingered, floating in the space between him and his prey. He spotted a lump traveling down the young mare’s throat, followed by what sounded like a strained hiccup.
She shook her head. Hutch smirked.
“Didn’t think so.” He leaned his head to the side, looking over her shoulder. She rotated her body a few degrees in response, keeping her lower half hidden. Hutch chuckled.
“We’re going to see you one way or another.” His hooves padded over the rock like a cat’s. “Don’t be so shy.”
He walked in a circular pattern. On the other side, the unicorn had left his place and begun his approach from the right. Unfortunately, she wasn’t appearing to cooperate, backing up and turning nonetheless out of fear. Hutch’s lips immediately curled down into a snarl.
“Hey!” He called over his shoulder. “If she doesn’t comply in ten seconds, I want you to snap the filly’s neck.”
Rainbow froze mid-step.
Her gaze shifted to Scootaloo, leaving the two approaching stallions in her periphery. Fear wrung out her insides like a wet rag, a dull throb working its way up to the base of her skull.
But it was nothing compared to the terror she could see on Scootaloo’s face. She was too scared to speak, no sound coming from her gaping mouth other than a single, soft croak.
Her name. Almost whispered, but she heard it clearly. Begging her, her only chance for salvation. Her only chance to continue breathing.
The rapid pulsing of her heart made the time drag slowly by.
“Nine,” said the stallion on her left. Scootaloo’s pupils dilated, and she started to sob. Rainbow Dash shot up to attention, turning her head so that she and the hateful stallion were eye to eye. Her lips trembled as she spoke.
“Wait,” she said. “Wait, just... I need to—”
“Eight,” he said. Rainbow Dash felt the hairs on her mane stand up like spines.
“I need to tell her something! I promise I’ll cooperate, I just…”
“Seven,” he said. Rainbow Dash cringed, shaking her head as panic swelled in her chest.
“Please! I don’t care what you do to me, I’ll do it!” Her voice rose to a fever pitch. “Let me say one thing, just one—”
“Please! Please, one thing!” It morphed into a scream. “I’ll do it, I don’t care! Just one thing. That’s all. That’s all…”
Rainbow Dash had lowered her head, bracing herself for the next number to be called out with teeth clenched. She prepared to give up, to turn around and comply without another word. But when the count did not immediately come, her head shot back up.
His glass eyes looked her over. Like he was seeking a reason to approve her request. He glanced over to Scootaloo, and then back to her. Rainbow Dash’s pulse pounded in her throat.
Perhaps he was still counting. No, he must be. Silently, the numbers still ticking down to zero…
He sighed, and spoke.
“Well, then. Go on.” He jerked his head in Scootaloo’s direction. “If you must.”
For a single, sweet moment, Rainbow felt relief. It fleeted away in in an instant like the streaking of the meteor over her head. Wasting no time, her eyes locked with Scootaloo’s.
She was so tense that her hind legs were extended out below her, rigid as staves. The hoof of her captor still rested threateningly on her jaw, ready to yank on it and end her life. Rainbow inhaled deeply through her nose, held in the air, and slowly let it out.
“Scoots…” She leaned her head in. In her mind, she created a tunnel between them, closed off and shutting out everything else around her. Her voice was gentle. “Close your eyes, okay? Close your eyes and don’t open them.”
Rainbow Dash scanned her face to see if what she had said had been heard. Scootaloo’s eyebrows formed a V in between her eyes, looking confused. But only a second later, she did what she was told, eyelids falling shut and forcing two more tears onto her cheeks.
“Don’t open them,” Rainbow cut her off. “No matter what you hear, no matter what… Don’t open your eyes, Scoot. Okay? Do you promise?”
For Scootaloo, the tears were already starting to flow from the corners of her eyes. Her eyelids twitched, but she held them shut. She nodded.
“I-I promise…” she coughed out. “Wh-What are they… Rainbow…”
Rainbow Dash could see the hysteria beginning to rise. She silenced it with a quick shush and a worthless smile.
“It’ll be alright, Scoot. Don’t worry. We’ll both be okay,” she said. “I promise.”
The words themselves made her wince. She thanked Scootaloo’s inability to see. The filly nodded again.
“O—Okay,” she finally managed to say. Her eyes stayed obediently shut, but her ears stayed on high alert. Every joint in her body remained tense as a coiled spring.
Rainbow Dash blinked away the water welling up in her eyes. And then, with every bit of her resolve, she willed the tunnel away.
Everything swam back into her vision at once. All four of her assailants, their eyes scanning over her like merchandise. They’d gotten closer, and their gazes… hungrier. Predator and prey, with no chance of the latter’s escape. A reality with optimism.
The same stallion spoke.
“Touching,” said Hutch. “Although, that was quite a bit more than ‘just one thing...’ But no matter.” He continued in his semicircular pattern while the two across from him did likewise. To his approval, she did not move an inch, barely daring even to breathe. “So… ‘Rainbow Dash,’ is it? That’s what your little friend over there said.”
At the mention of her name, the mare shivered. However, she said nothing, neither confirming nor denying it. Hutch rolled his eyes.
“A simple yes or no would have done,” he complained. “But no matter. Quite a fitting name, I suppose. If you hadn’t been slowed down so much, then there’s no way we would have caught you…”
His musing trailed off as he resumed his inspection of her. Rainbow Dash’s knees quivered, and a bead of sweat ran down the length of her neck. Hutch raised his eyebrows as he came across the mangled wing on her back. He pointed to it, drawing a circle around the injury.
“That looks painful,” he said. His words dripped with phony concern. Once again, Rainbow Dash said nothing back, holding her head up higher in response. Staring straight forward, at attention. Hutch rolled his eyes. Not the type for friendly conversation, he surmised.
The vast canopy of sky stretched endlessly above their heads, accented by glittering meteor streaks. Hutch took notice, and spoke to the rest of his group in a raised voice.
“They really set the mood, don’t they?” He gestured to the sky’s entirety. “Like nature’s own tiny, scented candles. Perfect!”
The rest of them agreed. Or, at least, they didn’t disagree. Hutch took it as a good sign, and then turned to her.
“Wouldn’t you agree?” he asked. Her eyes appeared to light up, presumably with the realization that he was talking to her, but once again, she said nothing. Hutch frowned, clearing his throat.
“I said, wouldn’t you agree?” he repeated. His menacing glower demanded an answer. Again, there was hesitation, and Rainbow Dash swallowed a lump in her throat. But eventually, his insistence was rewarded with a reply.
“Y-Yeah.” She nodded her head. Her lip twitched down in a grimace of disgust, but it quickly went away. Hutch wrinkled his brow and gave a short scoff. Apparently, he was not impressed.
“‘Yeah?’ That’s it?” His voice raised in volume and pitch. “I’m trying to have a civil conversation with you, but all I get is one word?”
His question lingered on empty air. Rainbow Dash’s lips moved slightly, looking like she was trying to find something to say, but she was unsuccessful. Hutch’s scowl deepened.
“Hm. Stubborn. It would be a shame if it got your friend into trouble…”
Hutch watched for the pegasus mare’s reaction. But to his surprise, the thinly veiled threat seemed to spark something inside of her, a tiny flame which grew exponentially in size in only a second’s span.
“If you hurt her…” Fire ignited in her eyes. “I-If you hurt her, I’ll…”
She made it no further.
His sudden roar chilled the air. Even his companions fell silent. Rainbow Dash froze mid-sentence, and her mouth hung open with unsaid words. It was as though a puff of wind had blown the flame of defiance right out of her eyes.
The icy coldness of her predicament had finally sunk in. Hutch smiled inwardly, but it didn’t show. His lip curled upward into a derisive sneer.
“Right answer. Nothing.” His hooves clopped over the rock as he walked toward her. “Absolutely nothing.”
He closed the distance between them to only a couple of steps. She shot a glance over her shoulder, but faced forward again.
From up close, Hutch could see her cyan coat vibrating, her whole body starting to shiver as he neared. He exhaled deeply through his nose.
And then, with a jumping start, he drove his hoof into her ribs as hard as he could.
Rainbow Dash would have screamed, but all of the air whooshed out of her lungs. Her eyes gaped open in tandem with her mouth as she tumbled over onto her side, fighting for a breath of air.
She’d hardly even registered the first one before a second strike knocked her onto her back. The injured wing was squashed against the stone, bringing a strangled cry to her hoarse throat. Her stomach heaved, allowing the slightest wisp of air back into her lungs, but before she could roll back, a heavy weight landed onto her chest. Her body attempted to curl up out of reflex, but no sooner had she done so that something grabbed a hold of her mane, cruelly yanking her head upright.
Rainbow found herself face to face with her attacker. His snout touched against hers, separated only by the veil he wore. But even through the fabric, she could smell his acrid breath hot against her nose and cheeks. A hoof clasped like a vice around the back of her head made it impossible to turn away, and another had been stomped down in the middle of her chest. A reflexive flap of her uninjured wing was rewarded with an even harder pressure on her gut, pinning it down.
His words made every hair on her body stand up.
“You listen to me.” His eyes bore into hers like a dental drill. “No more concessions, no more exceptions. You? You don’t tell us anything. You don’t make any demands, you don’t set any of the rules. You do what we want, when we want.”
He punctuated the sentence with a vicious rattle of her head, causing Rainbow to cry out and squeeze her eyes shut. When she opened them again, her view had not changed. The upper part of his snout, the part that was visible, wrinkled like corrugated cardboard as he snarled.
“You’re nothing,” he spat. “Do you hear me? Nothing. Same goes for her. We can do away with her in an instant if you try anything. Anything.”
The last word, repeated for emphasis, halted any semblance of movement from her. At a distance, his ears honed in on the other girl’s shallow breathing, a series of breathy gasps that registered nothing but the purest terror. His heart swelled in self-approval.
“You can keep trying to fight, to be brave… but it won’t last. You hear me? Because by the time we’re done with you…”
He lifted her head an inch higher, touching his forehead against hers.
“There won’t be any of you left.”
She stared wordlessly up at him. What he was saying barely seemed like reality; she blinked once, as if expecting him to disappear and for her to wake up in a cold sweat, gasping for air as the real world materialized from the ashes of her despair.
It didn’t happen. The cold shock was all too real, and so was the pain. They would only get worse. Rainbow Dash felt a sob rising in her throat, and her eyes blurred with tears.
He gave a dry chuckle. And then, at last, he pulled his face away from her.
“That’s it.” A nod of approval. He stepped off her, setting his hoof back onto the rock. “Progress.”
Rainbow didn’t see his head flying toward her until it collided with her snout. A cry died in her throat, and both hooves shot up to her nose. Blood dribbled over her forelegs and down onto her chest and neck, as well as into her open mouth. The taste of metal coated her tongue, and feebly, she rolled over and spat it out, both hooves still pressed against her bent snout. Her head swam, but she could hear the hateful voice of her abuser echoing through the water.
“Now we’re even,” he said. “Get up.”
The first of many insensitive demands. Rainbow’s heart would have sunk, but it had nowhere deeper to go. Her spirit was a bygone memory. Letting go of her battered face, she rolled onto her belly.
With quaking knees and a hung head, she stood. The whole cliff felt like it was tilting from side to side, and everything ached.
His voice. She was only vaguely aware of where it was coming from…
A step in her direction. It was followed by many more in front of her, and she could see the shadows of the other two stallions in her peripheral vision. They were boxing her in.
“I promise you will all get a turn. You too,” he added in a much louder voice. “One of us can take her off your hands…”
He was closer. Rainbow Dash’s ear angled itself to the left, tracking his approach. But at the mention of ‘her,’ something clicked in Rainbow’s brain. Her head lifted back up.
She saw Scootaloo. She was meters away, and they felt like miles. Far out of reach, still squeezed tightly in her captor’s hooves. Scarlet streaks stained the sides of her face, both ears were folded back, and her head was turned away as far as it could go.
Her eyes were still closed. Rainbow began to cry.
“…but since she busted my snout…”
His hoof came down on her shoulders, shoving her head into the ground and forcing her to bend her knees. She did not resist. The same acrid, unwashed odor from before assaulted her nose, and she felt him climb onto her back.
He spoke right into her ear.
“…I think I deserve to go first.”
He pushed his hips forward.
Hutch would have normally covered her mouth. But they were on a mountaintop, and night had fallen, so he could let her scream.
Some may have tuned it out. But to Hutch, it was a fine reward, one which made the arduous journey to get here all the more fulfilling. Far beyond a simple thrill; every cry she made was validation. A definitive statement from the universe that it was on his side.
Hutch felt her turn to solid rock beneath him. Every muscle, inside and out, tightened up in her body’s reflex to resist. He’d seen it before; it was something else to break. He drove himself in harder, straight down to the ground.
The mare’s sobs pealed out in a sharp intake of air, only to come back out as a louder wail of anguish. He pulled back and rammed himself forward again, and again, each time strong enough to bend her back legs at the knees. Hutch had to smile a bit on the inside; hardly the beginning and the waterworks had already started.
Tears increased in tandem with her shaky cries. Hutch saw her bring her forelegs up to cover her bloodied face, burying it in her hooves. It formed a desperate barrier, like some last ditch effort to shield her dignity from those who had ripped it away.
Hutch would have none of it. Growling, he slid the veil down his face, and like a deranged beast, clamped his teeth down onto her mane and yanked it at the roots, setting her head and pent up screams free. He did not let go. The bitter taste of her mane was a small price to pay to hear her shatter.
As he sped up his movements, he managed to glance upward. His other companions had closed in on the scene, riveted to the young mare crouched beneath him. From the looks of their faces… and elsewhere… they were more than ready. Eager, and impatient.
They would have to wait. This case was a little more unique than the others, and he wanted to relish a little. There was no hurry to get in and out quickly or any worry of discovery. No emphasis needed on efficiency.
Regardless, old habits die hard. He didn’t have to think as the peak of his pleasure came rather suddenly upon him, causing him to bite down even harder on her mane. He rode the many waves and, for once, did not spare a moment’s calculation or care. Like a child shielding its toy from another, he dragged her in closer and held nothing back, pushing and pulling forward and back in an erratic pattern.
Unfortunately, the bliss was temporary. But as Hutch came down from the crest of the wave and stepped onto shore, the sense of achievement lingered on for much longer. All memories of the past miserable week seemed far off, almost irrelevant, and all thoughts of the future, what daunting tasks he and his group would face… they were doable. This journey had been worth it, so why would the next be any different?
Optimism flowed back like an approaching tide, and it was only at her expense.
Rainbow Dash’s head fell to the ground as he let her mane, which had been partly torn at the scalp, go. Her back legs joined the rest of her as he peeled himself away, and she collapsed onto the rock.
The coolness of the nighttime breeze chilled the sweat on her back. Rainbow bunched up her front legs beneath her and hunched her back into a tight ball, shivering uncontrollably. But it wasn’t from the cold alone; she’d been shivering long before that.
She felt nothing and everything at once. An agonizing fire that blazed with relentless fury, mingling impossibly with a numbness that blocked out all feeling and any sense of connection with her limbs. It wormed its way inside her gut, and every shuddering breath she took only made the fire worse. The cycle continued on and on without respite, and like a corpse, she lay as motionless as she could. It was the only thing that stopped the flames from spreading.
And this, she knew, was only the beginning.
She heard laughter. Chortling, as if with mild amusement.
“…not a necrophiliac.”
The conversation trickled into her realm of awareness. A voice from right in front of her sounded, gruffer and more agitated.
“Damn it! If ‘e gets to go first ‘cause of a crooked nose, then… she almost choked the… bah, fine! But you better not wear her out before I get there! Got it?”
They were still talking about her. Rainbow didn’t move or make a sound, even going as far as to hold her breath in spite of the pain in her lower abdomen. Maybe they would think she was dead…
“And what about Anv—”
“Shut up!” A third voice interrupted. The voice she knew best, the one that would never leave her memory. “Don’t say names, you idiot!”
“What?” the other voice replied. “It’s not like it’ll… ah, whatever. But do I have to wait for him to go, too?”
It took Rainbow a moment to figure out who they were talking about. She also figured out who was speaking. Her heart leapt into her throat.
“Well, if you’re doing what you’re saying you are going to do, then… yes.”
A loud groan in reply, and the conversation continued. But over the loud murmur of bickering, she suddenly became aware of another set of hoofsteps moving toward her. They started from the front and moved around, nearing her from behind…
No. Not this soon. It hadn't been a minute. She could hardly breathe right, her gut still felt like she had been stabbed with a pike, she didn’t even think she could…
The command was delivered by a different voice. But it was just as callous and cruel, nonetheless. Rainbow Dash’s diaphragm spasmed in a dry sob.
“Come on, get up!” She felt his hoof grab hold of her shoulder. The unexpected touch shocked her out of playing dead, causing her to flinch away out of reflex. Her movement drew a sharp punch to her ribs, knocking her over onto her other side. She lay directly on her injured wing, but the horror of what was coming outweighed the pain the position brought.
“She giving you trouble?” the leader asked.
The question made Rainbow’s pupils widen beneath her closed lids. In the midst of the agony that had caused her to forget, the question was all it took to make her remember. The stallion lording over her responded.
“A little bit. Won’t get u—”
“No!” she cried. Her hooves shuffled frantically. “No, w-wait…”
Her hind legs screamed out their disapproval as she rolled onto her belly. Ignoring her body’s protests, and with all her willpower, she pushed herself up. Both back hooves shook so violently that they rattled against the hard stone, and the pain was omnipresent.
But she stood anyway.
Across from her, the stallion in the blue veil stared at her. His front hooves drummed lightly with barely contained anticipation. She couldn't look for long, though, as her next abuser took full advantage of her position and climbed onto her back, shoving her head and shoulders down in the process.
His heavy breathing felt lukewarm on the back of her neck. The sensation brought more bile to the bottom of her throat and made her gag. Her body swayed from side to side as he adjusted himself, wrapping a thick set of hooves around her waist. Giving up all pretense of breathing softly, Rainbow squeezed her eyes shut.
It began again.
Hutch observed from the front. Now that he was no longer looking down on his victim, he had the privilege of seeing her face. It proved to be quite the spectacle; her head rolled from one side to the other, teeth bared and eyes shut. Hutch could see the stallion’s motions in his peripheral vision, and matched them up with every contorted grimace Rainbow Dash made. Light crimson tear trails showed through the dried film of blood which was still oozing from her snout.
To his chagrin, a flurry of movement to his right shifted his focus away. A flash of bright blue in the corner of his eye told him exactly what it was.
“That’s it. I can’t take it. I gotta do something…” Before Hutch could stop him, he blew past and walked up to her front side. Hutch’s jaw tightened.
“What’re you d—”
“Relax,” the other stallion said. He adjusted the veil over his mouth. “I just need somepony to keep me warmed up…”
His statement made Rainbow Dash lift her head. When she looked up, the color drained from her features. Relaxing a bit, Hutch suppressed a laugh.
“You know, you could always just use your hoof…”
The suggestion was met with indifference. With a shrug, his cohort faced away.
“I can do that anytime.” He turned all his attention to Rainbow Dash. In response, she craned her head all the way around, bending her neck until her chin was almost resting on her shoulder. He sat on the stone and scooted himself forward. Amusement twinkled in his eyes from her reaction.
“Want your friend to die? Keep your mouth where it is,” he spat.
His words hung in the space between them. Fortunately for him, they appeared to have the desired effect. A desperate, woeful sob escaped her throat, but at last, she turned her head.
Nodding with satisfaction, he and the unicorn stallion exchanged knowing smirks. Then, he refocused himself on her battered face. She didn’t look up. He slid himself forward until he was right next to her, and whispered in a manner not unlike a mother’s caring coo to her baby foal.
Confined to darkness, Scootaloo came to one realization; imagination was a more vivid and horrifying spectacle than anything she could ever see.
Scootaloo had heard every single strike. She’d heard every muffled cry, every strangled sob, and every dull thud. She heard every single word uttered; the low way the stallions spoke, the bestial growl and cold laughs that accompanied their every word. She wanted desperately to cover her ears, to block it all out.
But she couldn’t. She had no choice. In the clutches of her captor, eyes glued shut and too scared to speak… to not hear would be the final act of abandonment. To leave Rainbow Dash completely alone, to suffer… to suffer…
The air crystallized into ice in her lungs. In that instant, every threat she’d heard, all of them directed at her surrogate sister, came rushing back to her like a string of accusations. Her mind came to rest on one in particular, which replayed itself over and over.
If you hadn’t been slowed down…
From close by, Scootaloo heard a raspy, strangled sob. The sound finished the sentence for her.
She cringed in her captor’s hooves. Like a pony condemned, she let her head hang limp. Her chest heaved.
Rainbow Dash barely processed what was happening to her as lights danced in her closed eyes. It was hard to breathe through her crooked snout, nostrils blocked with congealed blood, but she found the will to keep herself conscious and fight the battle for air while the rest of her remained subdued.
But as the minutes dragged by, as the lights sparked in her darkened vision and her head swam, Rainbow Dash found herself wishing for the battle to end. It didn’t matter if she won or lost, so long as the world could finally fade into black. The metallic scent of blood from her own battered face, the pain that tore through her inside and out, the heaves of her oxygen-deprived lungs… all of it could simply drift away like a leaf flowing downstream. She would have liked that…
The stallion behind Rainbow pulled away sharply, and her back legs collapsed in a crumpled heap. Her throat spasmed with the sudden, tearing pain which lanced through her body like the tip of a spear.
As soon as this happened, the other stallion, with an effortful puff of air through his blue veil, pulled away from her as well. Rainbow Dash gasped through her open mouth, heaving and coughing for air. One hoof drifted down to her ribs and clutched around her belly while she lie down on her side, breathing desperately. Sobs fought against her efforts and choked the air right back out of her, but she couldn’t help it.
A hoofstep beside her head startled her. She opened her bloodshot eyes, and saw the hoof of the same stallion right in front of her face. Rainbow cringed and brought her chin into her chest, wishing for nothing more than to be left alone, if only for a moment. Just one rest from the cruelty…
“Go on, go on. That’s it. Catch your breath.”
The cooing gentleness of his voice made Rainbow Dash’s blood run cold. Both revelry and seething hatred lurked behind every word. But most terrifying of all… anticipation.
She snorted and coughed, spitting blood onto the rock. Exhaustion was the only thing that kept the panic at bay as the realization hit her that something else was in store. Rainbow closed her eyes and cried, and any fantasy of hope was beginning to ebb away.
The stallion’s voice, again. “Oh, come on, now. Crying won’t help you catch your breath. Believe me, you’ll need to in a bit…”
Scootaloo promised. Her eyes stayed closed.
The sobs of her adoptive big sister made her short of breath. She held onto the thick foreleg of her captor with a death grip, and as the one stallion’s voice reached her ears, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up straight.
They weren’t done hurting her. He wasn’t done hurting her, the stallion with the soft voice that made her whole body turn cold. He taunted her like all the others, promising Rainbow only pain.
Scootaloo tasted the salt of her own tears, which trickled into her open mouth. She moved her lips silently, deathly afraid that any audible pleas would only make Rainbow’s suffering worse.
“Stop,” her lips spelled out. She begged the shooting stars overhead. “Stop, please, stop. Please…”
For a few moments, an ominous silence fell over the ledge. Scootaloo never stopped begging in her own mind, wanting nothing more than for Rainbow Dash to be safe, for them to stop hurting her.
But just as the tiniest glimmer of hope shone in the darkness, the next thing Scootaloo heard snuffed it out like a candle. First, the stallion’s voice.
“Good. That’s better. Now, let’s see…”
Then, something which burned itself into Scootaloo’s memory like a hot iron: the horrifying, bone-chilling sound of wings flapping frantically, followed by a high-pitched shriek of Rainbow Dash before no sound came out at all.
“…let’s see how you like not having air.”
The sounds that followed next made Scootaloo’s heart burst in her chest. Her lower jaw quivered, and with terrified anguish, she let out a wavering wail.
They were killing her. Scootaloo shook her head like a pony possessed, unable to drown out the gags and chokes from her surrogate sister, the pounding of hooves against rock and the hisses of air through clenched teeth drew a picture in her mind that shook her to the core.
Scootaloo wept, forgetting herself entirely. She stammered out pleas from under the noise of her sobs, barely able to articulate. “Pl—please, please, stop it! S-stop it!”
"Hey, you shut up over there!”
For the first time in a long while, Scootaloo heard the voice of the first stallion, the one who had started it all, bark the order at her. In the backdrop, Rainbow’s strangled gags stirred Scootaloo’s stomach like stew in a pot, and she felt like throwing up.
“Don’t kill her… don’t…” Scootaloo didn’t seem to pay the stallion’s order any heed. She shook her head so rapidly it rattled her teeth. “Don’t!”
“Shut her up!”
Scootaloo heard him bark out the next order, and in an instant the thought crossed her mind that they might be the last words she would ever hear. She gasped, clenched her teeth, and braced herself for the hoof on her jaw to snap her neck.
But instead, her captor’s hoof just slid over her mouth, leaving her nose free. It didn’t press on her snout, didn’t even squeeze it, but it kept her from being able to speak at all. Her ear pricked up when the stallion whispered in her ear.
“Just… don’t talk. Don’t talk…”
The command… request, carried a tone of apprehension behind it that felt so out of place from the rest of what was going on that it made Scootaloo stop breathing.
It sounded almost like pleading of his own. Like the request of a fellow victim-in-waiting, telling her to just lay back and just make it easier for them both.
But there was not much time for her to dwell on it. Scootaloo could still hear everything that was going on, and there was nothing she could do.
Hutch could always appreciate it when a stallion could show his devious streak. It was something that he could identify with. But hanging back, watching what his reluctant companion in the blue veil was doing, he nearly gave a low whistle. He had to admit that he was a little taken aback at the ferocity of what he was seeing.
By now, he knew the steps. It wasn’t until Rainbow Dash was nearly limp until he released her neck from his grasp, and then, he waited. While he stood over her, Rainbow coughed and gagged, clawing at her own throat and curling herself up to shield herself from his attacks. He leered over her, snarling under his veil.
“That’s it. Catch your breath,” he spat.
Rainbow Dash retched, holding up her other hoof while she lay down on her side. She cringed and coughed twice more, tears cascading downward.
“N-N…no, no more, I…” Rainbow brought her back legs in toward her chest. “I’m s-ssorry...”
He stepped toward her, shaking his head. “No you aren’t. Not yet. And if you can talk now, then…”
Rainbow Dash felt a scream gurgle in her throat, and in a panic, she tried to swipe his incoming hoof away, but his strength was fueled by unfiltered hatred. He beat her foreleg away, and before she could stammer anything more, he pinned her down to the rock by her neck with both hooves.
Hutch watched the resistance start once again, but unlike his first time, it was far weaker from the onset. The blue-veiled stallion huffed through the cloth mask around his face like he was doing a sprint, the hairs on his mane prickling with the electric thrill.
Hardly a meteor passed overhead before he was forced to let go once more. He stepped back and watched Rainbow go through the same process again, gasping and coughing for air.
Hutch watched in appreciative silence. Her whole face was flushed a darker shade of violet than the light cyan blue of her skin. The other stallion walked in circles around her, observing her intently.
“Alright. But I’m still not done with you,” he growled with an iciness to his voice that chilled the night air. “Just one more thing…”
Maybe this time, Rainbow had thought hopefully, she wouldn’t wake up.
But she did. And just like every other time, he was there.
He stepped forward, toward her. Only, this time, it provoked no resistance from her. Rainbow’s protective hoof over her neck, the one futile attempt to protect herself, slid away and fell to the ground, inviting in the darkness.
But this time, his hooves did not go to her throat. This time, she felt his grab her around her abdomen, and with a rough kick, he flipped her onto her heaving stomach.
Her spirit gone, the pain that followed dulled away into numbness.
Tears trickled in streams over her captor’s hoof. Scootaloo’s uncontrolled sobs and her brief, shallow breathing were muffled, but they had become the loudest thing on the rock.
Rainbow Dash was hurting, dying, and all for her. Because of her.
Scootaloo wished she would have told Rainbow to fly away while she still could. To just leave her here. She wasn’t worth this. She wasn’t worth this…
Raspy breaths was all Scootaloo could here from Rainbow, now. She heard a snarl, and a light thud, and an expulsion of air from somepony’s mouth. It was not unlike the kind of puff that somepony would take if they had just done a heavy lift.
Seconds later, a cry of shock and pain. Scootaloo seized up in her captor’s grip, knowing it was from her sister, and two more tears fell down her cheeks.
“Alright. I’m done here,” the voice said, with a little laugh.
Unlike before, in the aftermath there was nothing else for Scootaloo to hear. No crying, no gasping for air, just… silence. Rainbow Dash was silent.
But then, she heard somepony else, a stallion with a different voice than the one she had just heard speak. It was said in her direction.
“Alright, your turn, now. We’ll take her off your hooves.”
Scootaloo sucked in air through her nose, gasping. Her hooves gripped onto her captor’s tightly, and she began to shake. This couldn’t be happening. Not again. She couldn’t take it anymore. Rainbow Dash couldn’t take it anymore…
But something happened, then. The pony holding her hostage, in a deep voice, spoke his reply.
“I…I’m actually too tired right now. Lugging all the gear so long... just not up to it tonight.”
Scootaloo’s breathing stopped. His hoof was still over her mouth, but right now, it was pressing down more firmly. For a second, Scootaloo questioned whether or not he hadn’t already snapped her neck, and whether she was now in some sort of different world where ponies weren’t so cruel.
She couldn’t believe what she heard, until a reply from one of the other stallions confirmed it.
“Wha? Too tired to… well, it’s not like she’s gonna put up a fight with you, now! I mean, honestly…”
There was a small laugh, followed by a second of awkward pause. Scootaloo pinpointed the voice; the one who had hurt Rainbow Dash first. She was still nearly breathless, and even though her eyes were closed the filly could feel the new tension rising in the air.
The stallion holding her also gave a little chuckle. It sounded strange… strained.
“Heh, yeah… but still…”
The one stallion, the one who didn’t talk as much, spoke up to Rainbow Dash next. His voice was sharp. “Aw, come on. We’re all tired, here. And plus, she’s right there, the first one we’ve had in weeks, and you’re telling me that you’re gonna pass her up… because you’re tired?”
Scootaloo’s eyebrows raised with sudden realization that maybe, just maybe, Rainbow Dash wouldn’t have to suffer anything more. For even a second, the smallest ray of hope shone in her black vision. As her body was still shivering from fear, the voice above her head responded.
“Hey, you try lugging all that gear for the whole day next time. I’ll bet you won’t feel so ready, then!”
A snort. Scootaloo didn’t know who it was from. “Well, only one way to know if you’re ready or not. Won’t know if you don’t at least try!”
“Well, I still gotta carry these packs tonight after we’re done here. You want me to be too tired to get us out of here? Besides, we’ll still get plenty more chances.” He cleared his throat. “I can wait.”
Scootaloo heard the confused anger in the stallion’s voice. But then, she heard the lead stallion’s voice overpower the conversation, cutting the others off.
“Now, now. The good sir makes a good point, you know. And besides, let’s not spoil this night with more squabbling, eh? If he wants to pass up a chance like this, then that’s his choice. He’s a big boy, he can make his own choices, can’t he?”
The rhetorical question hung in the air. Nopony responded to it. Scootaloo heard two hooves clap together, which made her jump.
“Right, then. Well, if that’s your final decision, then I suppose that means we can continue on our way, hmm? Unless somepony wants another go?”
The small ray of hope was suddenly, just like that, extinguished. Scootaloo shook her head as much as her captor’s hoof would have allowed, and a strangled cry escaped from her covered mouth.
“Ehh… nah. I like ‘em when they still got some fight in ‘em, but her…” He trailed off with a laugh.
Not a sound came from Rainbow Dash. In fact, not a sound had come from her at all. Scootaloo’s heart began to beat furiously.
“Yeah, me too. My vote’s on leaving. She ain’t gonna be much fun, now.”
“And what about her? Should we just chuck her over the edge?”
Another laugh. Scootaloo’s heart seized up, and she felt every hair on her mane stand up straight. She knew they were talking about her. Scootaloo reflexively grabbed the stallion’s big hoof over her mouth and gripped it tight, and her entire body shivered from newfound terror.
“Nahh, no need for that. After all, Rainbow Dash here was a good little mare, did everything we told her to, eh? And, heh, aren’t we all noble stallions here?”
The sickly sweet way the words dripped to the ground as he said them made Scootaloo’s stomach do flips. Except for the pony holding her, the whole group of them laughed. Her hoof momentarily relaxed, but her shaking did not lessen. She heard somepony walk across the rock, and when that same pony’s voice chilled the air, Scootaloo gritted her teeth together.
“Aww, shape up. You did great! I’m sure your little friend over there also appreciates your job well done, too. Hmm… but what about your wings? That one right there looks like it’s seen better days, but… you still think you might be able to fly out of here?”
Silence. Scootaloo’s eyes widened underneath her closed lids, and her mouth went totally dry. Immediate realization struck her, and she tried to say something, but her captor’s hoof stopped her.
Still, Rainbow Dash did not make a sound. The seemingly innocuous question remained unanswered, but the air was so electrified, so tense…
Until, at last, the stallion answered his own question for her. “Well… just in case.”
The next sounds Scootaloo heard would never leave her memory. A hard stomp, a sharp crack, and then, a wavering scream of anguish that tore itself from Rainbow Dash’s mouth. More tears sprang to Scootaloo’s eyes as the gasping, sputtering, and sobbing continued on, the sound of the brutal impact to her wing making Scootaloo nauseous.
“Alright. I think that concludes business, here! We should get on our way.” He stepped in a rhythm the sounded almost like a skip. “Now, don’t you go wandering off tonight, little miss. There’s some pretty dangerous folk around at night. You wouldn’t want to run into trouble!”
Rainbow Dash didn't reply. The stallion walked away from her, and Scootaloo heard his voice project in her direction.
“Bah, she can’t fly. Spindly little wings on her… little legs on her, too. You think she can run?”
Scootaloo’s hairs stood on end. She retched, knowing the implications of the question, and it didn’t matter what he said. She could still hear Rainbow Dash crying, and the sharp snapping sound of her wing reverberated inside of her skull…
“Ah, uhh… I don’t think we need to worry about her.”
“Haha, you took me seriously! Yeah, I know. Wouldn’t want to snap the leg of such a little bundle of joy, anyway.”
Scootaloo’s tears stained the stallion’s hoof around her mouth. Her head felt light with relief, and a shuddering breath escaped her nose. His voice again.
“Alright, let her go.”
Scootaloo suddenly felt the word fall out from underneath her. She fell to the ground, landing on her side with a hard thump on the stone surface. The blow knocked the wind from her lungs, and she opened her mouth in silent gasps for air.
Her eyes fluttered, but she remembered herself and forced them closed again. She didn’t see anything in that time, as the night was no longer illuminated by any meteors overhead. The 100 year shower had already passed on by.
“Be on your best behavior, now.” The sickly sweet voice of mockery made Scootaloo’s skin crawl. She shuddered, curling up and protecting herself from a possible kick or punch to her own body, the cloud of paranoia surrounding her like a mass of crackling static.
She squeezed her eyes shut when pairs of hooves stepped by her head, right beside her body on the stone ground. She tensed up every muscle as they passed by.
Until finally, at long last, they receded into the distance. The little vibrations from their steps faded away into nothing, and within mere moments, Scootaloo felt the air around her settle on her orange coat like a sheet of frost as she realized that, finally, they were gone.
Gone, that is, from sight and sound. But not from her mind. Not ever.
And just like that, the whishing of the air moving through the leaves of the trees was the only sound that remained. After an eternity, time spent at the edge of death’s door, just… silence.
Silence. Deathly, terrifying, a far cry from the peace of before. It surrounded her like a cloud of toxic fumes, and made it almost hard for her to breathe.
Her lips stuck together from dried saliva, and her tongue felt like a ball of cotton. Scootaloo swallowed painfully, and when she opened her mouth, the voice that came out was ragged.
She squeaked the name out. Scootaloo listened intently for some kind of response, for breathing, for a single word, for… anything.
Those few seconds were the tensest ones Scootaloo ever experienced. Each one slid by in slow motion, stretching out like the light of those bygone meteors through the nighttime sky. Every one that passed in silence made Scootaloo’s heart rise another inch in her chest, until she could feel each pulse pounding in her ears and throat.
But then, just barely, she heard something. A faint, almost unnoticeable sound, but she heard it: a gasp, labored and barely audible.
Then, it whispered her name.
“Ssscoot…” The sound of it was almost washed out by the wind, it was so faint.
But to Scootaloo, it resonated like a loud shout. Her eyes, at last, shot open, and she lifted her head.
Light from the moon and even the faintest twinkling stars overhead flooded into her eyes. She saw the dark grey of the rock, right in front of her head… then, a spot of red from the blood on the stone… until her eyes at last focused in on a mass of cyan blue, lying in a heap on the ground.
Rainbow Dash was motionless. Her chest rose and fell with wheezing breaths, and her hoof clutched at her throat. The pale light of the crescent moon overhead glistened off of the surface of Rainbow’s half-lidded eyes, reflecting off the tears. On her back, one wing lay at a terrible angle, feathers splayed over the stone loosely.
She did not even lift her head when the name escaped from her bruised throat. “Sss..Scoot…”
A cool rush of wind whistled over the mountainside. All the hairs on Scootaloo’s body went rigid, and her vision blurred as hot tears formed in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
“Ra…Rainbow Dash!” Scootaloo choked out. Her mind pieced together the sounds she had heard with the injuries she could now see, with the crumpled form of her surrogate sister laying half-dead on the stone. She rushed forward, sobbing. “Rainbow…”
Heart pounding, Scootaloo knelt down next to Rainbow’s head. Rainbow Dash offered no response, other than a slow blink of her eyes as the young filly leaned in to nuzzle the top of her head, running her cheek through Rainbow’s blood and sweat-matted mane. Scootaloo sobbed.
The metallic smell of blood blended with the acrid stench of must rose from Rainbow’s coat, but Scootaloo only hugged her tighter. “I’m staying right here, okay? I’m staying right here, I-I won’t…”
Rainbow Dash's body felt limp in Scootaloo's grasp. It was as if the very will to exist had been cut away from her. Scootaloo ran her head through Rainbow’s mane again, tears pouring down her face.
“I’m sorry, Rainbow Dash! I’m sorry, please…” She sobbed. “Please be okay…”
Rainbow said nothing. Scootaloo leaned her body over Rainbow’s shoulders, and gently rested her hoof on top of Rainbow’s head. Her voice grew louder with desperation.
"Rainbow! Rainbow… are you awake? A-are you…” She trailed off with a sob. Rainbow Dash weakly lifted her head, but it fell back to the rock. Her half-lidded eyes glistened with tears, and she wheezed. Scootaloo felt Rainbow shivering beneath her, and she spread her small wings out to drape them onto Rainbow’s shoulders like a tiny cloak. Rainbow Dash gasped.
“Sss…Scoot…” She barely managed to get her name out. "Ss... stay!"
Scootaloo nodded her head, and leaned right over Rainbow's head. "Yes, Rainbow Dash! I won't leave, I promise, I promise, see? I'm staying right here, I-I'm not going anywhere! See?"
She hopped over Rainbow Dash's battered form, and burrowed into her side. She moved Rainbow's wing, the one that wasn't hanging uselessly on her side in a crumpled heap, and lay underneath it.
The wing over her back, ever so slightly, tightened its grip around her.
Eventually, the whimpering pleads ceased. Clouds floated in to cover the stars, covering them in a dark, cold shroud of shadow.
And still lying draped over her sister’s unmoving form, Scootaloo’s senses slipped away.
After drifting out of space and out of time, Scootaloo’s eyelids fluttered to the sound of wings flapping. Sunlight flooded in through the flickering cracks, forcing them shut again, but the sound only grew louder. Weakly, she lifted her terribly throbbing head.
Her eyes did not manage to open fully before they were once again clouded, a shadow passing over the sun. Then, echoing as if it were far away, she heard someone speak. The words were imperceptible, unclear garble, but still loud nonetheless.
The air caught in Scootaloo’s lungs, and the blood pounded in her already throbbing head. Her mouth opened, and something like a word tumbled out. Then, her head fell right back down to the rock, and her eyes fell shut again.
Before they closed, and she fell unconscious once more, Scootaloo thought she could hear someone shouting, seemingly right beside her, but also so far, far away...
The last thing she felt before her senses abandoned her was the pull of gravity on her limbs as her body left the ground. Cool air washing over her skin…